100 Years Before Rosa Parks, There was Octavius Catto

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus, sparking the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott.

By Jim O’Neal

Most Americans are familiar with Rosa Parks and recall the heroic story of a weary black woman on her way home after a hard day at work who refused to give up her seat and “move to the back of the bus” to make room for white people. The date was Dec. 1, 1955, and the city was Montgomery, Ala.

Later, she would be arrested during the ensuing Montgomery bus boycott that lasted 381 days. She was fined $10, but ultimately vindicated by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled the segregation law was unconstitutional. After her death, she became the first African-American woman to have her likeness depicted in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol.

Parks (1913-2005) earned her way into the pantheon of civil rights leaders, but few remember a remarkable man who preceded her by a century when streetcars were pulled by horses.

Catto

His name was Octavius Valentine Catto (1839-1871) and history was slow in recognizing his astonishing accomplishments. Even the epitaph on his tombstone shouts in bold letters “THE FORGOTTEN HERO.” One episode in his far-too-short but inspiring life is eerily similar to the events in Montgomery, only dramatically more so. Catto was a fierce enemy of the entire Philadelphia trolley car system, which banned black passengers. On May 18, 1865, The New York Times ran a story about an incident involving Catto that occurred the previous afternoon in Philadelphia, “The City of Brotherly Love” (at least for some).

Paraphrasing the story, it describes how a colored man (Catto) had refused all attempts to get him to leave a strictly segregated trolley car. Frustrated and in fear of being fined if he physically ejected him, the conductor cleverly side railed the car, detached the horses and left the defiant passenger in the now-empty stationary car. Apparently, the stubborn man was still on-board after spending the night. It caused a neighborhood sensation that led to even more people challenging the rules.

The following year, there was an important meeting with the Urban League to protest the forcible ejection of several black women from Philadelphia streetcars. The intrepid Catto presented a number of resolutions that highlighted the inequities in segregation, principles of freedom, civil liberty and a heavily biased judicial system. He also boldly solicited support from fellow citizens in his quest for fairness and justice.

He got specific help from Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a leader of the “Radical Republicans” who had a fiery passion for desegregation and abolition of slavery, and who criticized President Lincoln for lack of more forceful action. Stevens is a major character in Steven Spielberg’s 2013 Oscar-nominated film Lincoln, with Tommy Lee Jones gaining an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Stevens. On Feb. 3, 1870, the 15th Amendment to the Constitution guaranteed suffrage to black men (women of all colors would have to wait another 50 years until 1920 to gain the right to vote in all states). It would also lead to Catto’s death. On Election Day, Oct. 10, 1871, Catto was out encouraging black men to vote for Republicans. He was fatally shot by white Democrats who wanted to suppress the black vote.

Blacks continued to vote heavily for Republicans until the early 20th century and were not even allowed to attend Democratic conventions until 1924. This was primarily due to the fact that Southern states had white governors who mostly discouraged equal rights and supported Jim Crow laws that were unfair to blacks. As comedian Dick Gregory (1932-2017) famously joked, he was at a white lunch counter where he was told, “We don’t serve colored people here,” and Gregory replied, “That’s all right. I don’t eat colored people … just bring me a whole fried chicken!”

Octavius Catto, who broke segregation on trolley cars and was an all-star second basemen long before Jackie Robinson, would have to wait until the 20th century to get the recognition he deserved. I suspect he would be surprised that we are still struggling to “start a national conversation” about race when that’s what he sacrificed his life for.

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].

Muggy Day in 1958 Gave Us One of Coolest Events in Music History

A vintage photograph of jazz vocalist Maxine Sullivan, signed, was offered in an October 2007 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On an otherwise routine day in August 1958 (most claim it was the 12th – a few are not positive), the epicenter of American jazz was at 126th Street, between 5th and Madison, in New York City. Perhaps 57 or 58 of the greatest and near-greatest jazz musicians were assembled to have their picture taken – Willie “The Lion” Smith may have gotten bored and wandered off. They had been invited by Esquire magazine for a cover story, “The Golden Age of Jazz,” published in January 1959.

Jimmy McPartland was definitely not there since his wife, Marian, could not get him out of bed early enough for the scheduled 10 a.m. event. In fact, Marian was one of only three women there, including vocalist Maxine Sullivan and pianist Mary Lou Williams. Three other luminaries – Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong – were not pictured, but many legends like Gene Krupa, Roy Eldridge and Thelonious Monk were there for the 10 a.m. event and right on time.

One cat said (seriously) he was surprised when he found out there were two 10 o’clocks every day!

The idea was Art Kane’s, an ambitious freelance photographer/art director who also volunteered to take the photograph, in spite of his almost total inexperience. Presumably, no one involved was aware they might be making history; primarily what gets recorded as history – like the very best jazz – can be surprising and unpredictable. Kane’s photograph was a way cool picture taken on a typical muggy New York City day.

To really understand the story behind the picture, watch the 1995 Oscar-nominated documentary A Great Day in Harlem. It was directed by first-time documentary filmmaker Jean Bach, who in her late 70s had more gumption, style and resilience than any of today’s self-proclaimed, oh-so-hip filmmakers could ever muster. She knew and loved jazz and the only city where that historic picture could possibly have been taken. She worked on the film with a great producer, Matthew Seig, and a superb editor, Susan Peehl. They all knew what they were doing and that shows, too, from the opening frame to the final credit. Jazz critic Whitney Balliett wrote in The New Yorker that the film is “about the taking of the picture, and it’s also about mortality, loyalty, talent, musical beauty and the fact that jazz musicians tend to be the least pretentious artists on earth.”

Of the 57 jazz musicians/artists in the photograph, only two are still alive. Walter Theodore “Sonny” Rollins (87). He’s a terrific tenor/soprano saxophonist who has lived a remarkable life that includes music (check out his album Saxophone Colossus, recorded in 1956 and preserved in the Library of Congress for artistic significance); a stint in Rikers Island for armed robbery; and being one of the guinea pigs for using methadone to break a heroin habit. There are way too many honorary awards to list.

The other survivor is Benny Golson (89), a tenor saxophonist, composer and arranger who worked with superstars like Lionel Hampton and Dizzy Gillespie. Golson also gained a modicum of fame from the 2004 Steven Spielberg movie The Terminal, which stars Tom Hanks as a traveler trapped in JFK airport over a visa issue. Hanks is on a fictional quest to get Golson’s autograph – the only one his jazz enthusiast father needs to have all 57 autographs of the musicians in the original photograph. Trivia spoiler… he gets it!

Man those cats could play!

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].

Navajo Code Talkers Represented One of the Boldest Gambits of World War II

A gelatin silver print of Raising the Flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, 1945, signed by photographer Joe Rosenthal, sold for $7,500 at an October 2016 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Feb. 23, 1945, was a dramatic day in World War II when six Marines raised the American flag on Mount Suribachi to signal a decisive victory at Iwo Jima. Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal was there and his photo “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima” won him the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1945 – the only one to ever win in the same year it was published.

One of the Marines who hoisted the flag, Ira Hamilton Hayes, portrayed himself in the 1949 movie The Sands of Iwo Jima, which was nominated for four Academy Awards. It starred John Wayne, who received his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. He would have to wait 21 years to actually win one for Best Actor in the movie True Grit. Sadly, Hayes, an American Indian, died in 1955 at the tender age of 32 from alcoholism-related circumstances.

The battle for Iwo Jima was the first U.S. attack on the Japanese Imperial home islands and soldiers defended it tenaciously since it was the first stepping stone to the mainland. Of the 21,000 Japanese troops dug into tunnels and heavily fortified positions, 19,000 were killed as they had made a sacred commitment to fight to their death. There were numerous reports of soldiers committing suicide rather than surrendering, although there was also a curious situation where several actually hid in caves for two years before finally giving up. The battle for the entire island lasted from Feb. 23 until March 26 and it was considered a major strategic victory.

The first word of this momentous news crackled over the radio in odd guttural noises and complex intonations. Throughout the war, the Japanese had been repeatedly baffled and infuriated by these bizarre sounds. They conformed to no linguistic system known to Japanese language experts. The curious sounds were the U.S. military’s one form of communicating that master cryptographers in Tokyo were never able to decipher.

This seemingly perfect code was the language of the American Navajo Indian tribe. Its application in WWII as a clandestine system of communication was one of the 20th century’s best-kept secrets. After a string of cryptographic failures, the military in 1942 was desperate for lines of communication among troops that would not be easily intercepted. In the 1940s, there was no such thing as a “secure line.” All talk had to go out over the public airwaves. Standard codes were an option, but cryptographers in Japan had become adept at quickly cracking them. And there was another problem. The Japanese were also proficient at intercepting short-distance communications – walkie-talkies for example – and then having well-trained English-speaking soldiers either sabotage the message or send out false commands to set up an ambush.

That was the situation in 1942 when the Pentagon authorized one of the boldest gambits of the war by recruiting Navajo code talkers. Because the Navajo lacked technical terms for military artillery, the men coined a number of neologisms specific to their task and their war. Thus, the term for a tank was “turtle,” a battleship was “whale,” a hand grenade was “potato” and plain old bombs were “eggs.”

It didn’t take long for the original 29 recruits to expand to an elite corps of Marines, numbering 425 Navajo code talkers, all from the American Southwest. The talkers were so valuable that they traveled everywhere with personal bodyguards. In the event of capture, they had all agreed to commit suicide rather than allow America’s most valuable tool to fall into the hands of the enemy. If a captured Navajo didn’t follow that grim instruction, the bodyguard was told to shoot and kill the code talker.

Their mission and every detail of their messaging was a secret not even their families knew about. It wasn’t until 1968, when the military felt convinced they would not be needed in the future, that America learned about the incredible contributions a handful of American Indians made to winning history’s biggest war. The Navajo code talkers, sending and receiving as many as 800 error-free messages every day, were widely credited with giving troops the decisive edge at Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Semper fi.

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].

Roosevelt Used Radio to Encourage, Hitler to Fuel Rage

A Franklin D. Roosevelt photograph, signed and inscribed to Eleanor Roosevelt, sold for $10,000 at an October 2016 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Saul Bellow was a Canadian-born writer who became a nationalized U.S. citizen when he discovered he had immigrated to the United States illegally as a child. He hit the big time in 1964 with his novel Herzog. It won the U.S. National Book Award for fiction. Time magazine named it one of the 100 best novels in the English language since “the beginning of Time” (March 3, 1923).

Along the way, Bellow (1915-2005) also managed to squeeze in a Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts. He is the only writer to win the National Book Award for Fiction three times.

Saul Bellow

Bellow loved to describe his personal experience listening to President Roosevelt, an American aristocrat (Groton and Harvard educated), hold the nation together, using only a radio and the power of his personality. “I can recall walking eastward on the Chicago Midway … drivers had pulled over, parking bumper to bumper, and turned on their radios to hear every single word. They had rolled down the windows and opened the car doors. Everywhere the same voice, its odd Eastern accent, which in anyone else would have irritated Midwesterners. You could follow without missing a single word as you strolled by. You felt joined to these unknown drivers, men and women smoking their cigarettes in silence, not so much considering the president’s words as affirming the rightness of his tone and taking assurances from it.”

The nation needed the assurance of those fireside chats, the first of which was delivered on March 12, 1933. Between a quarter and a third of the workforce was unemployed. It was the nadir of the Great Depression.

The “fireside” was figurative; most of the chats emanated from a small, cramped room in the White House basement. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins described the change that would come over the president just before the broadcasts. “His face would smile and light up as though he were actually sitting on the front porch or in the parlor with them. People felt this, and it bound them to him in affection.”

Roosevelt’s fireside chats and, indeed, all of his efforts to communicate contrasted with those of another master of the airwaves, Adolf Hitler, who fueled rage in the German people via radio and encouraged their need to blame, while FDR reasoned with and encouraged America. Hitler’s speeches were pumped through cheap plastic radios manufactured expressly to ensure complete penetration of the German consciousness. The appropriation of this new medium by FDR for reason and common sense was one of the great triumphs of American democracy.

Herr Hitler ended up committing suicide after ordering the building burned to the ground to prevent the Allies from retrieving any of his remains. So ended the grand 1,000-year Reich he had promised … poof … gone with the wind.

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 Lincoln Understood Technology and Adapted

This photograph of Abraham Lincoln was among 348 Civil War albumen images in a collection that sold for $83,650 at a December 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Presidents have always been challenged to communicate their policies and priorities to the public. As the political party system evolved, newspapers became more partisan depending on their level of editorial bias – usually due to strong-willed owners/editors – forcing administrations to devise creative ways to deliver unfiltered messages.

In the 20th century, President Wilson established the first presidential press conference in March 1913. All of his predecessors have continued using this innovation with only minor variants. FDR used “Fireside Chats” to help ease public concerns during the Great Depression, using bromides like, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” or explaining how the banking system works to restore confidence in the financial system.

President Eisenhower preferred off-the-record sessions with reporters and heavily edited film clips.

Then by 1960, with 87 percent of households having televisions, people could tune in twice a month and see the young, telegenic JFK – live and uncut – deliver his aggressive agenda for America. Up until then, press conferences were strictly off the record to provide the opportunity to correct any gaffes or poorly phrased answers to difficult questions. President Truman once told reporters “the greatest asset the Kremlin has is Senator [Joe] McCarthy” … but the quote was reworded before being released!

President Trump has adopted modern technology to bypass the media and communicate directly to anyone interested (which includes his base and the frustrated media). Daily WH briefings have become increasingly adversarial as many in the media are in various stages of open warfare, especially The New York Times and CNN. The 24/7 news cycle allows viewers to choose media that are consistent with their personal opinions and the result is a giant echo-sphere.

In the 19th century, President Lincoln was often confronted with extreme press hostility, especially by the three large newspapers in NYC, which attacked him personally and for his failing Civil War policies, particularly after the Civil War Draft Riots. Lincoln retaliated with dramatic letters in 1862-63 – ostensibly to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, but also strategically to all newspapers to reach a far wider audience. At the very least, he reduced editorial influence and in doing so revolutionized the art of presidential communications.

And then it was suddenly Nov. 19, 1863, at Gettysburg, Pa. What Lincoln said that day has been analyzed, memorized and explained … but never emulated. The only flaw was the prediction that “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here …”

The compactness and concision of the Gettysburg Address have something to do with the mystery of its memorability. It was 271 words. It had 10 sentences, the final one accounting for a third of the entire length; 205 words had a single syllable; 46 had two; 20 had three syllables or more. The pronoun “I” was never uttered. Lincoln had admired and seen at once the future of the telegraph, which required one to get to the point, with clarity. The telegraphic quality can be clearly heard in the speech – “We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” Rhythm, compression, precision … all were emphasized.

Perhaps the most overshadowed speech in history was the one featured as the main event that day: Edward Everett’s oration. He was a Harvard man (later its president), a professor of Greek, governor of Massachusetts, and ambassador to England. Everett’s two-hour speech (13,607 words) was well received. Lincoln congratulated him.

Afterward, in a note to Lincoln, Everett wrote: “I should be glad to flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.” Lincoln’s grateful reply concluded with “I am pleased to know that in your judgment, the little I did say was not a failure.”

Not bad for a man traveling with the fever of a smallpox infection! 

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].

Carnegie Coveted Crown of Richest Man in the World

This Andrew Carnegie photograph – inscribed, signed and dated Dec. 11, 1917 – realized $1,015 at a September 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Jeff Bezos of Amazon is the world’s richest man, with an estimated net worth of more than $100 billion. A hundred years ago (1916), John D. Rockefeller became America’s first billionaire, which in today’s economy would be two to three times greater than Bezos’ fortune. In the late 19th century, Andrew Carnegie coveted this crown and saw steel as his road to stardom.

In the post-Civil War era, America grew rapidly as railroads crisscrossed the country and extended their reach to all four corners. Electricity arrived to light up buildings and homes, oil supplemented kerosene and coal, iron and steel production grew as demand soared to keep up with rapid economic expansion. Occasional booms/busts occurred since the markets were unregulated and coordination was difficult.

Carnegie had led the growth in the American steel industry and his ambition to snatch Rockefeller’s crown became more acute. One of the key industry developments involved the construction of a steel bridge to connect St. Louis and East St. Louis on opposite banks of the mighty Mississippi River. The Eads Bridge, named for its designer, engineer James B. Eads, relied heavily on steel for its revolutionary design. It was set to become the first significant bridge using steel girders and a cantilever form.

A young Carnegie supplied the financing and the steel, despite skepticism over the sturdiness of the structure after it was completed. A man named John Robinson came up with a clever way to dispel any doubts. Elephants were believed to have good instincts about where they stepped, so Robinson borrowed a fully grown one from a traveling circus. On June 14, 1874, he led the beast across the length of the bridge, with crowds on both ends going wild. Later, a convoy of locomotives were driven back and forth as a further (and final) test of soundness.

On July 4, 1874, the bridge officially opened with General William Tecumseh Sherman driving the last spike as 150,000 people looked on. Demand for steel exploded, forcing Carnegie to develop creative ways to boost production. One was a modified vertical production technique that maximized factory output. But that was still not enough. It became obvious that a 12-hour, six-day workweek was needed. The only problem was that workers’ health couldn’t keep up. Carnegie hired tough managers to impose the onerous schedule and he left for Scotland to escape the critics. Later, his guilty conscience led him to an unprecedented binge of philanthropy after he sold the Carnegie Steel Company to J.P. Morgan for $480 million. It became U.S. Steel, the first billion-dollar corporation in the world.

John D. Rockefeller took an even more devious strategy to his domination of the oil-refining industry. In 1872, he formed a shell corporation: the South Improvement Company (SIC). He then struck an agreement with large railroad companies whereby they sharply raised freight rates for all oil refineries, except those in the SIC (notably Standard Oil), which received substantial rebates – up to 50 percent off crude and refined oil shipments. Then came the most deadly innovation – SIC members also received “drawbacks” on shipments made by rival refineries. So when Standard Oil made shipments from Pennsylvania to Cleveland, they received a 40-cent rebate on every barrel, plus another 40 cents for every barrel of oil shipped by every competitor!

It has been called “an instrument of competitive cruelty unparalleled in industry.” In fact, it was collusion on a scale never equaled in American history. And it was only one of several techniques employed. But it did help Mr. Rockefeller and his investors achieve a 90 percent share of the entire U.S. oil business.

All Bezos has is the internet.

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].

Johnson’s Battles with Congress Strengthened Office of the President

This sepia-toned photograph of Andrew Johnson, signed as president, sold for $3,346 at a June 2010 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On the night President Abraham Lincoln was shot, John Wilkes Booth and his little band of assassins had also planned to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Seward. Booth’s fantasy theory was that decapitating the North’s leadership would cause enough chaos to bring the Civil War to an end. Seward survived a brutal stabbing and Johnson’s assigned assassin, George Atzerodt, got cold feet at the last minute. Johnson had gone to bed at the Kirkwood hotel unharmed.

Awakened by a friend, Johnson rushed to Lincoln’s bedside until the president was declared dead. Johnson then returned to the hotel, where he was sworn in as the 17th president by Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase. The members of his Cabinet assembled in the hotel parlor, where he told them: “I feel incompetent to perform duties so important and responsible as those which have been so unexpectedly thrown upon me.”

Despite Johnson’s humble tone, he was actually a fearless, even reckless, fighter for what he believed in. As a result, he became embroiled in the bitterest intra-governmental conflict the nation had ever seen. Like Lincoln, he favored a “mild reconstruction,” in effect turning state governments over to white citizens, with only the main leaders of the Confederacy excluded. However, the Radical Republican leaders demanded “radical reconstruction,” enfranchising former slaves and barring most former Confederates from government.

Initially, Republicans were pleased with Johnson, mistaking him as weak and easier to control than Lincoln. They were confident he would support their plans for severe treatment of the defeated South. “By the Gods! There will be no trouble now in running the government,” declared Senator Benjamin Wade of Ohio. Two years later, this same man, now president pro tempore of the Senate, was so confident the Senate had the votes to evict Johnson from the White House that he had already written an inaugural speech and chosen his Cabinet!

But now, by the time Congress finally met in December 1865, the former states of the Confederacy had elected governors and state legislators. And although they approved the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery, they had also passed “Black Codes” binding ex-slaves to working the land. In his first annual message to Congress, Johnson railed against this situation, warning Congress of the dire consequences. But Northern Republicans had no intention of welcoming back Democrats from states that had seceded. Instead, they passed new legislation to reinstate military governments throughput the South. Then they established the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist the 4 million freed slaves.

Johnson promptly vetoed everything Congress had passed.

Republicans were not strong enough to override a presidential veto until early 1867, when they passed into law even more harsh Reconstruction Acts, with military governments replacing civil governments set up by Southern Democrats. Johnson warned they were fostering hatred and creating a state of permanent unrest. Radical Republicans answered by slashing back at Johnson and passing the Tenure of Office Act. This total rebuke now forbade the president of the United States from removing ANY federal official without the express consent of the U.S. Senate.

This was tantamount to a declaration of war and Johnson answered by firing Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. The House quickly voted to impeach the president on 11 counts. The Senate trial lasted two months and the final tally was 35 guilty and 19 not guilty … one short of conviction. Johnson served out his term, but his political career was over. His fortitude in the face of overwhelming Congressional pressure strengthened the office of the president and helped preserve the separation of powers intended by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Not bad for a former illiterate tailor who never spent a single day in a formal schoolroom.

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].

Truman Well Aware that Presidency was a Most Terribly Responsible Job

A Harry Truman signed and inscribed photograph, dated Jan. 17, 1953, sold for nearly $3,885 at a February 2006 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The news broke shortly before 6 p.m. on April 12, 1945. President Franklin Roosevelt had died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs, Ga. Within minutes, the bulletin had reached every part of the country. It was almost midnight in London, but in Berlin, it was already the next day, where it was (ominously) Friday the 13th. However, Joseph Goebbels interpreted it as a lucky turning point when he telephoned Adolf Hitler. He was already devising ways to turn this to Germany’s advantage, even as enemy troops closed in on the Third Reich.

By 7 p.m., Harry Truman, his Cabinet and Bess and Margaret were assembled in the Cabinet Room along with Chief Justice Harlan Stone to administer the oath of office. Within hours of Roosevelt’s death, the country had a new president.

Then the family and the Cabinet were dismissed. Secretary of War Henry Stimson lingered to brief the new president on a matter of extreme urgency. He explained that a new weapon of almost inconceivable power had been developed, but offered no details. Truman had just learned about the existence of the atomic bomb. He canceled a date to play poker and went to bed. It had been a long day.

It was also a long day for America’s top generals: Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton and Omar Bradley. The shock of losing their trusted commander-in-chief was compounded by genuine concern over Truman’s lack of experience. To make matters worse, they had just seen their first Nazi death camp. All were depressed, but Patton was especially emphatic about his concerns for the future.

The next morning, President Truman arrived at the White House promptly at 9 a.m. It was now April 13, 1945 – 27 years to the day since he had landed at Brest, France (Brittany), as a lowly 1st Lieutenant in the Allied Expeditionary Forces in WWI. Now he was the United States’ commander in chief in the century’s second world war. Everything in the Oval Office was eerily just as FDR had left it. He sat in the chair behind the desk and quietly pondered the challenges he had inherited. Downstairs, the White House staff was frantically coping with the press, the jangle of telephones, and wondering what to do next.

After a routine update on the status of the war, Truman surprised everyone by announcing he was going to the Capitol to “have lunch with some of the boys” … 17 congressmen to be exact. After a few drinks and lunch, he told the group he felt overwhelmed and emphasized he would need their help. Then he stepped out to meet the assembled press and made his now famous remarks: “Boys, if you ever pray, pray for me now. I don’t know whether you fellows ever had a load of hay fall on you, but when they told me yesterday what had happened, I felt like the moon, the stars and all the planets had fallen on me.”

Less than four months later, in August 1945, the man from Independence, Mo., now confident and in control, dropped his own bombshell when he broadcast to the nation:

“Sixteen hours ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima,” the president said, adding, “We are now prepared to obliterate more rapidly and completely every productive and enterprise the Japanese have above ground in any city. We shall destroy Japan’s power to make war. … If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

The buck DID stop here, just as the little sign on his desk promised.

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].

Henry Wirz Among Most Notorious Confederate Prison Officials

This Civil War-period unmounted albumen print of Andersonville Prison by A.J. Biddle went to auction in June 2012.

By Jim O’Neal

Henry Wirz (1823-65) was born in Zurich, Switzerland, the son of a tailor. He grew up with an abiding passion for medicine, however, his family had limited resources and his father insisted on a more pragmatic mercantile career. After migrating to America, he ultimately claimed to be a physician and successfully started assisting doctors, despite most certainly lacking any formal training or medical degrees.

At the start of the Civil War, he was living in Louisiana. He enlisted as a private in the Fourth Louisiana Infantry and became a sergeant. At the important Battle of Seven Pines in Virginia in 1862, Wirz was wounded above his right wrist, which incapacitated him for life. Seven Pines was strategically important since it led to the appointment of Robert E. Lee as Confederate Commander, which had a profound effect on the duration of the war.

In April 1864, (now) Captain Wirz was ordered to Camp Sumter near Anderson in Georgia, where he was given command of the prison that would become known as the infamous Andersonville Prison. It was already crammed with war prisoners and low on critical supplies that would only worsen as the war dragged on. Wirz made a feeble attempt to reorganize, but he lacked the necessary authority and all attempts to gain a promotion were denied. He had the support of superior officers, who called him “major,” but it is not clear if he attained that rank.

Henry Wirz

As the war continued, conditions at Andersonville deteriorated and many prisoners blamed Wirz, describing him as a brutal tyrant. Observers were critical of his accent, excessive use of profanity and outbreaks of rage. By the end of the war, he was among the most notorious Confederate prison officials.

Perhaps because of naïveté or unaware of the North’s anger over prison conditions, he made a tactical blunder and did not join the other prison officials who fled. Instead, he stayed at Andersonville, where he was arrested, taken to Washington and tried on charges of murder and mistreatment of prisoners. A hostile military commission limited his defense against conflicting testimony, found him guilty, and hanged him on Nov. 10, 1865, in the yard of the Old Capitol Prison (near the site where the U.S. Supreme Court stands today).

It was a messy hanging since his neck did not break and he was strangled to death. The trial is controversial yet today. In 1909, the Georgia Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected a memorial to him at Andersonville. It may be a while before monument protestors figure out who he was.

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].