Fillmore Among Presidents Who Juggled Balance Between Free and Slave States

This folk art campaign banner for Millard Fillmore’s failed 1856 bid for the presidency sold for $11,950 at a June 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On his final day in office, President James Polk wrote in his diary: “Closed my official term of President of the United States at 6am this morning.”

Later, after one last stroll through the silent White House, he penned a short addendum: “I feel exceedingly relieved that I am now free from all public cares. I am sure that I will be a happier man in my retirement than I have been for 4 years ….” He died 103 days later, the shortest retirement in presidential history and the first president survived by his mother. His wife Sarah (always clad only in black) lived for 42 more lonely years.

Fillmore

The Washington, D.C., that greeted his successor, General Zachary Taylor (“Old Rough and Ready”), still looked “unfinished” – even after 50 years of planning and development. The Mall was merely a grassy field where cows and sheep peacefully grazed. The many plans developed in the 1840s were disparate projects. Importantly, the marshy expanse south of the White House was suspected of emitting unhealthy vapors that were especially notable in the hot summers. Cholera was the most feared disease and it was prevalent until November each year when the first frost appeared.

Taylor

Naturally, the affluent left the Capitol for the entire summer. Since the Polks had insisted on remaining, there was a widespread belief that his death so soon after departing was directly linked to spending the presidential summers in the White House. The theory grew even stronger when Commissioner of Public Buildings Charles Douglas proposed to regrade the sloping fields into handsome terraces under the guise of “ornamental improvement.” Insiders knew the real motive was actually drainage and sanitation to eliminate the foul air that hung ominously around the White House. (It’s not clear if Donald Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp” was another effort or a political metaphor.)

President Taylor was inaugurated with a predictable storm of jubilation since his name was a household word. After a 40-year career in the military (1808-1848), he had the distinction of serving in four difference wars: War of 1812, Black Hawk War (1832), Second Seminole War (1835-1842), and the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). By 1847, Taylormania broke out and his picture was everywhere … on ice carts, tall boards, fish stands, butcher stalls, cigar boxes and so on. After four years under the dour Polk, the public was ready to once again idolize a war hero with impeccable integrity and a promise to staff his Cabinet with the most experienced men in the country.

Alas, a short two years later, on July 9, 1850, President Taylor became the second president to die in office (William Henry Harrison lasted 31 days). On July 4, after too long in the hot sun listening to ponderous orations and too much ice water to cool off, he returned to the White House. It was there that he gorged on copious quantities of cherries, slathered with cream and sugar. After dinner, he developed severe stomach cramps and then the doctors took over and finished him off with calomel opium, quinine and, lastly, raising blisters and drawing blood. He survived this for several days and the official cause of death was cholera morbus, a gastrointestinal illness common in Washington where poor sanitation made it risky to eat raw fruit and fresh dairy products in the summer.

Vice President Millard Fillmore took the oath of office and spent the rest of the summer trying to catch up. Taylor had spent little time with his VP and then the entire Cabinet submitted their resignations over the next few days, which Fillmore cheerfully accepted. He immediately appointed a new Cabinet featuring the great Daniel Webster as Secretary of State. On Sept. 9, 1850, he signed a bill admitting California as the 31st state and as “a free state.” This was the first link in a chain that became the Compromise of 1850.

The Constitutional Congress did not permit the words “slave” or “slavery” since James Madison thought it was wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that men could be considered property. In order to get enough states to approve it, it also prohibited Congress from passing any laws blocking it for 20 years (1808), by which it was assumed slavery would have long been abandoned for economic reasons. However, cotton production flourished after the invention of the cotton gin and on Jan. 1, 1808, President Thomas Jefferson signed into law that “Congress will have the power to exterminate slavery from our borders.”

This explains why controlling Congress was key to controlling slavery, so all the emphasis turned to maintaining a delicate balance whenever a new state was to be admitted … as either “free” or “slave.” Fillmore thus became the first of three presidents – including Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan – who worked hard to maintain harmony. However, with the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, it was clear what would happen … and all the Southern states started moving to the exit signs.

A true Civil War was now the only option to permanently resolving the slavery dilemma and it came with an enormous loss of life, property and a culture that we still struggle with yet today. That dammed cotton gin!

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].

Here’s Why Washington Remains Our Greatest President

A George Washington inaugural button, perhaps the earliest artifact that refers to Washington as the “Father of His Country,” realized $225,000 at a February 2018 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Presidential scholars typically list George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as our finest presidents. I tend to favor Washington since without him, we would probably have a much different country in so many aspects. If there were any doubts about the feats of the “Father of Our Country,” they were certainly dispelled in 2005 when David McCullough’s 1776 hit bookstores, followed five years later by Ron Chernow’s masterful Washington: A Life, which examined the man in exquisite detail. They didn’t leave much ground uncovered, but there are still a few tidbits that haven’t become overused and still interesting for those interested in fresh anecdotes.

For example, Washington wasn’t aware that on Nov. 30, 1782, a preliminary Treaty of Paris was signed that brought American Revolutionary hostilities to an end. The United States was prevented from dealing directly with Great Britain due to an alliance with France that stipulated we would not negotiate with Britain without them. Had he known, Washington would have been highly suspicious since King George III “will push the war as long as the nation will find men or money.” In a way, Washington would have been right since the United States had demanded full recognition as a sovereign nation, in addition to removal of all troops and fishing rights in Newfoundland. The king rejected this since he was still determined to keep the United States as a British colony, with greater autonomy. Ben Franklin naturally opposed this and countered with adding 100 percent of Canada to the United States. And so it went until May 12, 1784, when the documents bringing the Revolutionary War to an end were finally ratified and exchanged by all parties.

It was during these protracted negotiations that Washington was concerned that the army might lose its fighting edge. He kept drilling the troops while issuing a steady stream of instructions: “Nothing contributes so much to the appearance of a soldier, or so plainly indicates discipline, as an erect carriage, firm step and steady countenance.” After all these years of hardships and war, Washington was still a militant committed to end the haughty pride of the British. To help ensure the fighting spirit of his army, Washington introduced a decoration designated as the Badge of Military Merit on Aug. 7, 1782. He personally awarded three and then authorized his subordinate officers to issue them in cases of unusual gallantry or extraordinary fidelity and essential service. Soldiers received a purple heart-shaped cloth, to be worn over the left breast. After a lapse, it was redesigned and is now the Purple Heart medal, awarded to those wounded or killed. The first was awarded on Feb. 22, 1932, the 200th anniversary of Washington’s birthday.

The victorious conclusion of the Revolutionary War left many questions unanswered concerning American governance, prominently the relationship between the government and the military. At the end, army officers had several legitimate grievances. Congress was in arrears with pay and had not settled officer food and clothing accounts or made any provisions for military pensions. In March 1783, an anonymous letter circulated calling on officers to take a more aggressive stance, draw up a list of demands, and even possibly defy the new government! Washington acted quickly, calling for a meeting of all officers and at the last moment delivered one of the most eloquent and important speeches of his life.

After the speech, he drew a letter from a pocket that outlined Congressional actions to be undertaken. He hesitated and then fumbled in his pockets and remarked, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray, but almost blind, in the service of my country.” By all accounts, the officers were brought to tears, and the potentially dangerous conspiracy collapsed immediately.

He gets my vote.

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].

Sea Battle off Coast of France a Crucial Union Victory

The USS Kearsarge’s sinking of the CSS Alabama gave the North a much-needed boost in morale. This image appeared on an 1864 Union ballot.

By Jim O’Neal

On Sunday, June 19, 1864, in the English Channel off Cherbourg, France, one turbulent hour brought to a climax the worldwide struggle for sea power between the North and South. Within sight of the French cliffs, lined with hundreds of people who came to see the announced spectacle of duel, were the USS Kearsarge and the Confederate warship the CSS Alabama.

French spectators munched from food baskets as the drama unfolded.

These ships, so far from home, appeared to be twins as far as the landsman could see. However, major differences in guns, crews, armor and ammunition could not be seen from shore. The Kearsarge’s 11-inch guns outmatched those of her foe. Her sides were sheathed in metal chains – covered with boards. She had been in dock for repairs the past three months, engines carefully tuned and both powder and shot in excellent condition.

By coincidence, the two captains, Raphael Semmes of the Alabama and John Winslow of the Kearsarge, were longtime friends as messmates, roommates and shipmates in the pre-war Navy – and both were Southerners. As they maneuvered their ships into position, a French warship played Confederate music as the Alabama steamed out of harbor.

The Alabama had long been on her way to this historic destiny.

Built in Liverpool, England, under subterfuge, christened anonymously as Erica and variously known as “The 190” and the “Emperor of China’s Yacht,” she had almost literally swept United States merchant shipping from the seas. In 22 months, she had cruised 75,000 miles – equal to three times around the world – overhauled 295 vessels of many flags, taken 29 Union ships as prizes, and burned another 14 valued at over $5 million!

She had been fitted with guns in the Azores to complement her large sails, modern engines and a special propeller that could be raised for greater speed under sail. It was not by chance that she caught virtually every quarry sighted. However, she had not changed her black powder (now foul) and most of her shells were possibly defective. She had arrived in port at Cherbourg to repair and take on coal. In a rare stroke of bad luck, Napoleon III could not be reached to grant the obligatory asylum needed by any belligerent.

Alerted at Flushing, the Kearsarge pounced and was at Cherbourg in two days, patrolling the harbor and visually inspecting the Alabama through glasses. Captain Semmes, basically trapped, announced he would fight rather than sneak away at night. Cherbourg was crowded with sightseers … all had come to see the Americans in action. Semmes wisely sent ashore all the ship’s valuables and had his men compose their wills before engaging to fight.

The gunners went to their posts and Semmes and his officers, in full-dress uniforms, steamed out of the harbor ready for battle. Soon, the Alabama deck was littered with bodies, many badly mutilated, and there were gaping holes at the waterline. The Alabama, with her graceful black hull, which bore no name and marked only by a motto on the stern, Aide Toi, Et Dieu T’Aidera (God Helps Those who Help Themselves), was no more.

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].

Bikes Symbolized Progress for a Nation Ready for Growth

A rare campaign button shows presidential candidate William McKinley riding a bicycle at the height of the bike boom of the 1890s.

By Jim O’Neal

As the bicycle became more popular in the latter part of the 1800s, it was inevitable that millions of new enthusiasts would soon be demanding better roads to accommodate this object of pleasure, so symbolic of progress. It was hailed as a democratizing force for the masses and neatly bridged the gap between the horse and the automobile, which was still a work in progress.

The popularity of this silent, steel steed had exploded with the advent of the “safety bicycle” (1885), which dramatically reduced the hazards of the giant “high wheelers.” The invention of the pneumatic tire in 1889 greatly enhanced the comfort of riding and further expanded the universe of users. However, this explosion in activity also increased the level of animosity as cities tried to cope by restricting hours of use, setting speed limits and passing ordinances that curtailed access to streets.

There were protest demonstrations in all major cities, but it came to a head in 1896 in San Francisco. The city’s old dirt roads were crisscrossed with streetcar tracks, cable slots and abandoned street rail franchises. Designed for a population of 40,000, the nation’s third-wealthiest city was now a metropolis of 350,000 and growing. On July 25, 1896, advocates of good streets and organized cyclists paraded in downtown with 100,000 spectators cheering them on.

The “Bicycle Wars” were soon a relic of the past as attention shifted to a product that was destined to change the United States more than anything in its history: Henry Ford’s Model T. Production by the Ford Motor Company began in August 1908 and the new cars came rolling out of the factory the next month. It was an immediate success since it solved three chronic problems: automobiles were scarce, prohibitively expensive and consistently unreliable.

Voila, the Model T was easy to maintain, highly reliable and priced to fit the budgets of the vast number of Americans with only modest incomes. It didn’t start the Automobile Age, but it did start in the hearts and souls of millions of people eager to join in the excitement that accompanied this new innovation. It accelerated the advent of the automobile directly into American society by at least a decade or more.

By 1918, 50 percent of the cars in the United States were Model Ts.

There were other cars pouring into the market, but Model Ts, arriving by the hundreds of thousands, gave a sharp impetus to the support structure – roads, parking lots, traffic signals, service stations – that made all cars more desirable and inexorably changed our daily lives. Automotive writer John Keats summed it up well in The Insolent Chariots: The automobile changed our dress, our manners, social customs, vacation habits, the shapes of our cities, consumer purchasing patterns and common tasks.

By the 1920s, one in eight American workers was employed in a related automobile industry, be it petroleum refining, rubber making or steel manufacturing. The availability of jobs helped create the beginning of a permanent middle class and, thanks to the Ford Motor Company, most of these laborers made a decent living wage on a modern five-day, 40-hour work week.

Although 8.1 million passenger cars were registered by the 1920s, paved streets were more often the exception than the rule. The dirt roads connecting towns were generally rutted, dusty and often impassable. However, spurred by the rampant popularity of the Model T, road construction quickly became one of the principal activities of government and expenditures zoomed to No. 2 behind education. Highway construction gave birth to other necessities: the first drive-in restaurant in Dallas 1921 (Kirby’s Pig Stand), first “mo-tel” in San Luis Obispo in 1925, and the first public garage in Detroit in 1929.

The surrounding landscape changed with the mushrooming of gas stations from coast to coast, replacing the cumbersome practice of buying gas by the bucket from hardware stores or street vendors. Enclosed curbside pumps became commonplace as did hundreds of brands, including Texaco, Sinclair and Gulf. The intense competition inspired dealers to distinguish with identifiable stations and absurd buildings. Then, in the 1920s, the “City Beautiful” movement resulted in gas stations looking like ancient Greek temples, log cabins or regional Colonial New England and California Spanish mission style fuel stops.

What a glorious time to be an American and be able to drive anywhere you pleased and see anything you wished. This really is a remarkable place to live and to enjoy the bountiful freedoms we sometimes take for granted.

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].

President Ford’s Primary Task was Healing a Nation

A letter by Gerald R. Ford, signed and dated April 16, 1979, sold for $5,078 at an April 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Gerald Rudolph Ford (Leslie Lynch King Jr. at birth) was an uncomplicated man tapped by destiny for one of the most complex jobs in history. The first non-elected president and first vice president confirmed by the Senate, he was tasked with healing the nation’s wounds caused by the Vietnam War and the severe divisions resulting from the Watergate scandal. Atypical from the usual driven personalities in the Oval Office, Ford restored calm and confidence to a nation while ushering in a period of renewal for American society.

A year before his inauguration, it would never have occurred to Ford (1913-2006) that he would be thrust into the presidency. The highest office he ever aspired to was Speaker of the House of Representatives; and that seemed out of reach because the Democratic Party had a stranglehold in the House. As a result, Ford had decided to retire after the November 1974 elections.

President Ford

Suddenly, in October 1973, President Richard Nixon appointed him vice president in the wake of Spiro Agnew’s resignation. “Remember, I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln,” he said modestly when he assumed responsibility on Dec. 6, 1973. He was at peace with himself and provided a sense of restored purpose, blissfully unaware of the collapsing presidency and seemingly endless revelations of misconduct at high levels in the administration.

One bright spot was that even as it approached dissolution, the Nixon administration managed to navigate the Arab-Israeli War of 1973 and diminish the Soviet position in the Middle East by successfully sponsoring a complicated triangular diplomacy with Moscow and Beijing. The disintegration of executive power did not lead to a collapse of our international position. Nixon’s prestige after five years of foreign policy now came close to a policy of bluffing, but the sleight of hand grew more difficult and it was unsustainable.

As impeachment proceedings gathered momentum, Nixon’s personal conduct began to mirror his political decline. He kept abreast of policy issues and made key decisions, but Watergate absorbed more of Nixon’s intellectual and emotional capital. Routine business became more trivialized by the increasingly apparent inevitability of his downfall. His tragedy was largely self-inflicted and the only question was, “How long can this go on?”

Then on July 31, it was revealed that one of the tapes the Supreme Court ordered to be turned over to the Special Prosecutor was the long-sought “smoking gun”— conclusive proof of Nixon’s participation in the cover-up. On the tape, Nixon was clearly heard instructing Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman to use the CIA to thwart an FBI investigation into the Watergate burglary.

With the tape’s release, Ford took the unprecedented step on Aug. 6 of disassociating from the president at a Cabinet meeting. He would no longer defend the president and said he would not have done so earlier had he known. Publically, he maintained silence as a “party in interest” (probably another first).

But it was the morning of Aug. 9, 1974, that witnessed one of the most dramatic moments in American history. At 9:30 in the East Room, Richard Nixon bade farewell to his staff. At 12:03 that same day, in the same room, Gerald R. Ford was sworn in as the 38th president of the United States.

Earlier, General Alexander Haig had handed Nixon’s formal resignation to Henry Kissinger in his role as Secretary of State. All presidential appointments are countersigned by the Secretary of State and, by the same token, resignations of a president and vice president are made to the Secretary of State as well. With the resignation of Spiro Agnew on Oct. 10, 1973, and Richard Nixon as president on Aug. 9, 1974, Kissinger achieved what we must hope will remain the permanent record for receiving high-level resignations … forever!

Our long national nightmare had finally come to an end.

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].

General Lee’s Decision Avoided the ‘Vietnamization of America’

Robert E. Lee declined President Lincoln’s offer to head up the Union Army since it would require him to bear arms against his home state of Virginia.

By Jim O’Neal

In late 1955, the Tappan Zee Bridge – spanning the Hudson River in New York – was opened with seven lanes for motor traffic. Two months ago, it was closed and is systematically being demolished. The deteriorating bridge, known in the governor’s office as the “hold-your-breath bridge,” was featured in the documentary The Crumbling of America, the story of the infrastructure crisis in the United States.

Also in this same category is the Arlington Memorial Bridge, which connects the Lincoln Memorial to Arlington National Cemetery and is metaphorically described as what rejoined the North and South after the Civil War. First proposed in 1886 as a memorial to General Ulysses S. Grant, it was blocked in Congress until President Warren G. Harding got snarled in a three-hour traffic jam in 1921 en route to the dedication of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Congress quickly approved his request for $25,000 to build the bridge and it finally opened in January 1932.

Nearby is Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial. This was the home for the Lee family for 30 years and where R.E.L. made the fateful decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army on April 21, 1861, and join the Confederate States. He had declined President Abraham Lincoln’s offer to head up the Union Army since it would require him to bear arms against his home state of Virginia.

In June 1862, Congress enacted a property tax on all “insurrectionary” land and added an amendment in 1863 requiring the tax to be paid in person. Ill and behind Confederate lines, Mary Lee was unable to comply and the Lees never slept there again. The property was auctioned off on Jan. 11, 1864, and the high bidder ($26,800) was the U.S. government.

Secretary of War William Stanton approved the conversion of the Lee estate to a military cemetery in 1864. On May 13, a Confederate POW was buried there (renamed Arlington National Cemetery) and more than 400,000 have joined him, including President Taft, President JFK and my dear friend Roger Enrico.

For 15 years, I passed a statue of Robert E. Lee driving to my Dallas office. It invariably invoked memories of the wisdom of this soldier who surrendered his army to General Grant at Appomattox in April 1865. Most of his top aides tried to dissuade Lee from surrendering, arguing they could disband into the familiar countryside and hold out indefinitely in a stalemate. Eventually, Northern soldiers would simply return to their homes and then the South could regroup.

Thus did Robert E. Lee, so revered for his leadership in war, make his most historic contribution – to peace! By this one momentous decision, he spared the country the divisive guerilla war that would have followed … a vile and poisonous conflict that would have fractured the country perhaps permanently. Or as newspaper columnist Tom Wicker deftly put it, “The Vietnamization of America.”

Alas, Dallas city leaders recently removed the Lee statue and I sincerely hope they find some relief from the anguish they have suffered from this piece of marble sequestered so long. However, I suspect they will just move on to some other injustice. It reminds me of feeding jellybeans to pacify a ravenous bear. When you (inevitably) run out of jellybeans, he eats you.

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].

Chester Arthur Surprised His Critics, Overcame Negative Reputation

This ribbon with an engraved portrait of Chester Alan Arthur, issued as a souvenir for an Oct. 11, 1882, “Dinner to The President of the United States by The City of Boston,” sold for $437 at a November 2014 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Chester Alan Arthur to the lucrative post of Collector of the Port of New York in 1871. Arthur held the job for seven years, and with an annual gross income of $50,000, was able to accumulate a modest fortune. He was responsible for the collection of about 75 percent of the entire nation’s duties from ships that landed in his jurisdiction, which included the entire coast of New York state, the Hudson River and ports in New Jersey.

In 1872, he raised significant contributions from Custom House employees to support Grant’s successful re-election for a second term. The spoils system was working as designed, despite occasional charges of corruption.

Five years later, the Jay Commission was created to formally investigate corruption in the New York Custom House and (future president) Chester Arthur was the primary witness. The commissioner recommended a thorough housecleaning and President Rutherford B. Hayes fired Arthur and then offered him an appointment as consul general in Paris. Arthur refused and went back to New York law and politics.

At the 1880 Republican National Convention, eventual nominee James Garfield first offered the VP slot to wealthy New York Congressman Levi Morton (later vice president for Benjamin Harrison), who refused. Garfield then turned to Chester Arthur, who, when he accepted, declared, “The office of the vice president is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.” It would be the only election he would ever win, but it was enough to foist him into the presidency.

The Garfield-Arthur ticket prevailed and after being sworn in on March 4, 1881, the 49-year-old Garfield’s first act was to turn and kiss his aged mother. It was the first time a president’s mother had ever been present at an inauguration. She would outlive her son by almost seven years. President James Polk (1845-1849) also died three years before his mother, the first time that had happened.

On the morning of July 2, President Garfield was entering the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C., where he was to board a train to attend the 25th reunion of his class at Williams College. A mentally disturbed office seeker, Charles J. Guiteau, shot him twice. He died 80 days later and for the fourth time in history, a man clearly only meant to be vice president ascended to the presidency.”

“CHET ARTHUR PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES! GOOD GOD!”

Although President Arthur’s greatest achievement may have been the complete renovation of the White House, he surprised even some of his harshest critics. Mark Twain may have summed it up best: “I am but one in 55 million, still in the opinion of this one-fifty-five millionth of the country’s population, it would be hard to better President Arthur’s administration.”

Faint praise, yet probably accurate. (First, do no harm.)

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].

Sanctions Didn’t Stop Germany from Roaring Back After WWI

A 1939 political cartoon by Charles Werner (1909-1997) for Time magazine comments on the worldwide mood 20 years after the Treaty of Versailles. The original art sold for $836 at a February 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

From 1939 to the winter of 1941, the German military won a series of battles rarely equaled in the history of warfare. In rapid succession, Poland, Norway, France, Belgium, Holland, Yugoslavia, Denmark and Greece all fell victim to the armed forces of the Third Reich. In the summer and fall of 1941, the USSR came close to total defeat at the hands of the Wehrmacht, losing millions of soldiers on the battlefield and witnessing the occupation of a large portion of Russia and the Ukraine. The German air force, the Luftwaffe, played a central role in this remarkable string of victories.

It was even more startling to those countries that had participated in WWI and taken draconian anti-war measures when it ended. This was simply something that was NEVER supposed to happen again, much less a mere 20 years later. How was it even possible?

The Allied powers had been so impressed with the combat efficiency of the German Luftwaffe in WWI that they made a concerted effort to eliminate Germany’s capability to wage war in the air. Then they crippled their civilian aviation capability just to be certain. The Allies demanded the immediate surrender of 2,000 aircraft and rapid demobilization of the Luftwaffe. Then in May 1919, the Germans were forced to surrender vast quantities of aviation material, including 17,000 more aircraft and engines. Germany was permanently forbidden from maintaining a military or naval air force.

No aircraft or parts were to be imported, and in a final twist of the knife, Germany was not allowed to control their own airspace. Allied aircraft were granted free passage over Germany and unlimited landing rights. On May 8, 1920, the Luftwaffe was officially disbanded.

Other provisions of the Versailles Treaty dealt with the limits of the army and navy, which were denied tanks, artillery, poison gas, submarines and other modern weapons. Germany was to be effectively disarmed and rendered militarily helpless. An Inter-Allied Control Commission was given broad authority to inspect military and industrial installations throughout Germany to ensure compliance with all restrictions.

However, one critical aspect got overlooked in the zeal to impose such a broad set of sanctions. They left unsupervised one of the most influential military thinkers of the 20th century … former commander-in-chief of the German Army Hans von Seeckt. He was the only one who correctly analyzed the operational lessons of the war, and accurately predicted the direction that future wars would take. Allied generals clung to outdated principles like using overwhelming force to overcome defensive positions, while Von Seeckt saw that maneuvers and mobility would be the primary means for the future. Mass armies would become cannon fodder and trench warfare would not be repeated.

The story of the transformation of the Luftwaffe is a fascinating one. Faced with total aerial disarmament in 1919, it was reborn only 20 years later as the most combat-effective air force in the world. Concepts of future air war along with training and equipment totally trumped the opposition, which was looking backward … always fighting the last war.

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].

Cuban Missile Crisis ‘News’ Gave Us a Preview of the Internet Age

An original October 1962 news photograph of President John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy taken as tensions grew during the Cuban Missile Crisis sold for $527 at an August 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over.”

An unusual statement, especially at an emergency session of the somber United States Security Council, and uncharacteristically bellicose for the speaker, U.N. Ambassador Adlai E. Stevenson. It simply was the most dangerous time in the history of the world … the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stevenson

Ambassador Stevenson was interrogating Soviet U.N. representative Valerian Zorin while accusing them of having installed nuclear missiles in Cuba, a mere 90 miles from the U.S. coastline. Tensions were sky high. The Joint Chiefs had recommended to President John F. Kennedy an airstrike, followed by an immediate invasion of Cuba using U.S. military troops.

Then with the world’s two superpowers eyeball to eyeball, as Dean Rusk commented, the other guy blinked. Cuba-bound Soviet ships stopped, turned back, and the crisis swiftly eased.

Over much of the world, and especially in Washington and New York, there was relief and rejoicing. With crucial backing from the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS), nuclear war was averted. Success in avoiding a war of potential global devastation has gradually clouded the fact that the United States came perilously close to choosing the military option.

The arguments of those who fought for time and political negotiations have been blurred and gradually obscured by widespread euphoria. Even for Ambassador Stevenson, the sweet taste of success soon turned sour. First, there was the death of his dear friend Eleanor Roosevelt, quickly followed by a vicious personal attack on him that he never fully recovered from.

When Mrs. Roosevelt reluctantly entered the hospital, it was thought she was suffering from aplastic anemia. But on Oct. 25, 1962, her condition was diagnosed as rare and incurable bone-marrow tuberculosis. She was prepared and determined to die rather than end up a useless invalid. Her children reluctantly decided Stevenson should be allowed one last visit to his old friend, although daughter Anna warned she might not recognize him.

On Nov. 9, two days after her death, the U.N. General Assembly put aside other business and allowed delegate after delegate to express their personal grief and their country’s sorrow. It was the first time any private citizen had been so honored. Adlai told friends that his speech at the General Assembly and the one he gave at her memorial service were the most difficult and saddest times of his life.

Then a harbinger of a brewing storm started on Nov. 13 when Senator Barry Goldwater issued a sharp attack on Stevenson by implying he had been willing to take national security risks to avoid a showdown with the Soviets. The Saturday Evening Post followed with an article on Cuba that portrayed Stevenson as advocating a “Caribbean Munich.” The headlines at the New York Daily News screamed “ADLAI ON SKIDS OVER PACIFIST STAND ON CUBA.”

For months, Washington was abuzz with rumors that it was all a calculated effort by JFK and Bobby to force Stevenson to resign as U.N. ambassador. It was all innuendo, half-facts and untrue leaks, but it was still reverberating a quarter of a century later when the Sunday New York Times magazine, on Aug. 30, 1987, published a rehash of all the gossip.

In truth, all we were witnessing was a preview of things to come: the internet age of “Breaking News” (thinly veiled opinions parading as facts), 24/7 cable TV loaded with panels of “talking heads,” and a torrent of Twitter gibberish offering a full banquet of tasty goodies for any appetite.

Stevenson, born in Los Angeles in 1900 – the year his grandfather ran for vice president on a losing ticket with William Jennings Bryan – lost his own bid for the presidency twice (1952 and 1956). He died of a heart attack in 1965 in London while walking in Grosvenor Square – finally getting some peace.

The rest of us will have to wait.

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].

Artists Recognized James Monroe as a True American Hero

A charcoal sketch of George Washington aide Lt. Col. Robert Hanson Harrison that artist John Trumbull did for his epic painting The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton sold for $8,962 at a May 2009 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

John Trumbull (1756-1843) deservedly earned the sobriquet as the “Painter of the Revolution.” He actually started out as an aide to General George Washington, but ended up in London, where he developed into a highly respected artist. One of his paintings, which illustrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence, graces the $2 bill that features Thomas Jefferson. The bill was issued in 1976 to observe the bicentennial of that historic event.

Another of his numerous works is the The Capture of the Hessians at Trenton on Dec. 26, 1776. This one naturally features General Washington again, but there is also a depiction of future president, Lieutenant James Monroe, being treated for a near-fatal damaged artery.

An even more famous painting of the times is an 1851 oil on canvas that also features Washington – Washington Crossing the Delaware on Dec. 25-26, 1776. It was painted by Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868), a German-American immigrant. Once again, we find James Monroe holding the American flag – the Stars and Stripes – which critics are always quick to remind was a flag not adopted until the following year, 1777. Some nitpickers also harp that the time of day is wrong, the ship is incorrect, and (sigh) even the chunks of ice in the river aren’t right.

But the role of James Monroe as a true hero is beyond any doubt.

Often called the “Last of the Founding Fathers,” he was the fifth president of the United States and like Washington, Jefferson and Madison, the son of a Virginia planter. It is sometimes overlooked that in the first 36 years of the American presidency, the Oval Office was occupied almost exclusively by men from Virginia. Somehow, John Adams (Massachusetts) managed to squeeze in a quick four years as president (1797-1801) before sneaking out of Washington, D.C., when Thomas Jefferson ousted him.

James Monroe entered politics after his service in the Revolutionary War and systemically worked his way up after serving in the Virginia legislature. He was a U.S. senator, a minister to France, and then governor of Virginia. After helping negotiate the Louisiana Purchase, he served as minister to Britain, followed by another stint as Virginia’s governor. But after only four months, President Madison offered him an appointment as secretary of state to help draft the recommendation to Congress that led to the declaration of war against Great Britain in 1812.

When the war got off to a poor start, Madison wisely appointed him secretary of war and Monroe held both of these critical Cabinet positions until the war ended. After the war, the prosperity of the country improved dramatically and with Madison’s strong support, Monroe easily was elected president in 1816.

Taking office when the country finally had no unusual problems, the 58-year-old Monroe was bold enough to declare during his inaugural address: “Never did a government commence under auspices so favorable, nor ever was success so complete. If we look to the history of other nations, ancient or modern, we find no example of a growth so rapid, so gigantic, of a people so prosperous and happy … the heart of every citizen must expand with joy … how near our government has approached to perfection…”

It was truly the “Era of Good Feelings!”

Things change … and they will again.

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].