55 Years Ago, Alan Shepard Became the First American to Travel Into Space

The first photo of Earth from deep space, signed by all 29 Apollo astronauts, sold for $38,837.50 at a June 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Space … the final frontier …

● The first U.S. space program was the Vanguard. Out of 11 attempts, only three were successful.

● The initial 1961 flight of Alan Shepard – America’s first astronaut – lasted only 15 minutes and 22 seconds.

● Virgil “Gus” Grissom made the second manned space flight, but his Mercury capsule, Liberty Bell 7, sank on splashdown and Grissom was safely recovered. The Gemini capsule for his second flight was nicknamed “Molly Brown” after “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Sadly, Gus died in the Apollo 1 fire.

● The first Space Shuttle orbiter was scheduled to be named Constitution by NASA. However, after President Ford received 100,000 letters from Star Trek fans, the name was changed to Enterprise.

● There were six Apollo missions that landed men on the moon: 11, 12, 14, 15, 16 and 17. Apollo 13 was aborted when an oxygen tank exploded and the astronauts were forced to return via the lunar module.

● Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left a plaque on the moon: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the Moon. July 1969, A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.”

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

Journalist John Reed Witnessed 10 Days that Shook the World

This original photograph of Tsar Nicholas II, dated May 20, 1910, realized $16,730 at an April 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On Oct. 25, 1917, U.S. journalist John Reed was staying at the Hotel Astoria in Petrograd – the former grand city of the czars, Saint Petersburg. At 10 a.m., he awoke to bells ringing and trucks racing up and down the streets.

The trucks belonged to the Bolsheviks, a small left-wing revolutionary party headed by Vladimir Lenin. They were filled with soldiers who plastered up proclamations stating, “To the Citizens of Russia! The provisional government has been deposed. State power has passed to the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies … Long live the revolution of workers, soldiers and peasants.”

Actually, the provisional government of Alexander Kerensky had not been deposed, but an ever-impatient Lenin was partially right: That morning in Petrograd would change the face of a century – as the revolution “that shook the world” had begun.

The events of the next 10 days set in motion a seismic upheaval of an entire country and resulted in a massive communist empire. It should have been no surprise as the country had been ruled by omnipotent czars and governed by a corrupt and crumbling bureaucracy.

The bloodletting of WWI became the catalyst for the Russian Revolution as Tsar Nicholas II vainly tried to regain the prestige lost in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 and to reunite the people. It backfired and by the winter of 1917, Russia had millions of soldiers as casualties, prisoners of war and deserters.

Deserters returned home and began seizing land from the wealthy. Food shortages were rampant, workers began to riot, and soldiers – instead of shooting them – joined them by tying red ribbons to their bayonets.

Tsar Nicholas was forced to abdicate in March 1917, ending the 300-year rule of the Romanov dynasty. He and his entire family were exiled and then executed. A moderate provisional government was set up with a Constitutional Assembly and led by the 36-year-old Kerensky.

However, Kerensky launched an offensive against Germany with disastrous results. Rebellious troops commandeered trains to return home and began murdering landlords and pillaging the great estates. Factories ground to a halt and food shortages quickly spread everywhere.

Kerensky was unable to regain control and this gave the two men who would end up leading the 1917 revolution, Lenin and Leon Trotsky, the opening they needed. Both had been in exile for years in Siberia and Europe.

Kerensky wisely fled to avoid capture.

John Reed’s book Ten Days That Shook The World describes the events in great detail, but even he was an extraordinarily controversial figure who ended up charged with treason, fleeing the United States back to Russia, where he died of typhus in 1920.

He became one of those rare Americans who is buried in the Kremlin.

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

Nation Has Experienced the Devastation, Challenges of Massive Earthquakes

Original prints of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent inferno often appear at auction. This 9.75- by 7.5-inch silver print, with a copyright notice by A. Blumberg of Alameda, Calif., went to auction in June 2014.

By Jim O’Neal

One hundred and 10 years ago this week – on April 18, 1906, at approximately 5:12 a.m. – world-renown tenor Enrico Caruso was jolted in his bed at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. He and the Metropolitan Opera were in the city performing Carmen when an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 7.8 struck the coast of Northern California. (The Richter scale would not be developed for another 30 years.)

While Caruso safely avoided the resulting fire and general devastation, it is estimated that up to 3,000 people died. Precise numbers are not available since Chinese residents were not tallied in the dead or injured totals. Caruso was so shaken he vowed he would never visit the city again, a pledge he kept until he died in 1921.

San Francisco was hit by a number of inter-related issues, including ruptured gas mains that fueled numerous blazes, wooden houses susceptible to fire, a major break in the city’s main water line, and the ill-advised use of dynamite to create a “fire break” that failed … badly.

Another issue was that much of the surrounding area had been built on landfill and the earthquake produced a phenomenon known as “soil liquefaction” that destroyed building foundations. But clearly, most of the damage was due to the lethal combination of wooden structures, gas-fueled fires and a shortage of water.

On the positive side, the acting officer at the Presidio, General Frederick Funston, called Mayor Eugene Schmitz and offered him federal troops to help police the city. Troops on Angel Island started patrolling the streets to prevent looting, riots and other unsafe acts. They even stopped a cattle stampede and plastered these posters on every street:

PROCLAMATION

By The Mayor

The Federal Troops, the members of the Regular Police Force and all Special Police Officers have been authorized by me to kill any and all persons found engaged in Looting or in the Commission of Any Other Crime.

E.E. SCHMITZ, MAYOR

April 18, 1906

The Post Office was only slightly damaged and there is still pride that workers there resumed mail deliveries the next day!

President Theodore Roosevelt was also quick to act and in a matter of days all military tents east of the Rockies were on trains headed west for temporary housing for citizens left homeless. It’s estimated that up to 300,000 people were displaced by the earthquake and subsequent fires, and some were still living in tents two years later.

At the time, San Francisco was the seventh-largest city in the U.S., with a population of 410,000, and the biggest on the West Coast, with a busy port that was the “Gateway to the Pacific.” However, over time, trade got diverted to Los Angeles, and Southern California became the center of economic development.

Another “big one” is overdue, but where it will occur on the 810-mile San Andreas Fault is only a guess.

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

Despite Portrayal as a Tyrant, Captain Bligh Received Hero’s Welcome

A six sheet poster from 1935’s Mutiny on the Bounty realized $9,560 at a July 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Most movie trivia buffs can generally rattle off the three films about the Mutiny on the Bounty and the co-stars in each:

  • 1935 with Clark Gable (Fletcher Christian) and Charles Laughton (Captain William Bligh),
  • 1962 with Marlon Brandon (Christian) and Trevor Howard (Bligh), and
  • 1984 The Bounty with Mel Gibson and Anthony Hopkins (Bligh).

However, many are not aware of two earlier versions – the silent 1916 version, and 1933’s In the Wake of the Bounty with Errol Flynn in his film debut as Fletcher Christian.

They also may not know that for the 1935 version, Gable, Laughton and Franchot Tone were all nominated for Oscars in the best actor category (they lost to Victor McLaglen in The Informer). The Academy quickly introduced a new category, best supporting actor, to avoid a recurrence of three actors competing in the same film.

In all five movies, Captain Bligh is portrayed as a tyrant who pushes the crew mercilessly and metes out harsh punishment for trivial incidents. In response, Christian leads a mutiny of the crew and sets Captain Bligh and a handful of crew adrift on the sea.

In reality, half of the Bounty’s crew chose to stick with their captain, despite being cast to the sea in an open boat with inadequate rations. Good decision since they made out much better than the mutineers.

In one of the great feats in seafaring history, Bligh navigated the small boat 4,000 miles across the Pacific to the island of Timor. En route, Bligh produced such excellent charts and descriptions of the water that the Royal Navy relied heavily on them for decades.

Bligh received a hero’s welcome when he returned home and eventually retired as Vice Admiral of the Blue. As for the mutineers, some were captured on Tahiti and either died or were hanged when they got back to England. Those who fled to Pitcairn were mostly killed by each other or their uninhibited Polynesian wives.

It is not surprising the screenwriters took some liberties with the real narrative.

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

1932 Election Marked New Relationship Between American Society and Government

This rare 3½-inch Herbert Hoover button from his successful 1928 campaign realized $8,750 at a February 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

It would have taken a bold person to have forecast in the afterglow of President Herbert Hoover’s landslide victory in 1928 that, only four years later, he would be the victim of a comparable landslide victory by his Democratic opponent, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In the aftermath of the 1928 election and the promise of almost endless prosperity, winning the 1932 Democratic nomination was viewed as little more than an empty honor, scarcely worth the effort.

However, in the first months after the stock market crash in 1929, the Great Depression started slowly, then the European repercussions caused a sudden downturn in the American economy in the spring of 1932, and by summer, the Depression was becoming acute. It continued to worsen with each passing day.

A point of desperation had clearly been reached and all attempts by the Hoover administration for relief were futile. By today’s standards they would have been viewed as too little and way too late. A deflationary spiral was under way and Democrats maneuvered Hoover into making statements that seemed to echo Grover Cleveland: “We cannot squander ourselves into prosperity.”

Hoover seemed cold and remote, which contributed to his unpopularity. The extent and degree of suffering in 1931-32 was far worse than the calm appraisals of the situation by the White House.

By election time, one in five workers was unemployed, one in three unemployed in big cities like Chicago. Even those still working were receiving such low wages or working so few hours that they barely survived. Twenty-five percent of the working women in Chicago were making less than 10 cents an hour. Relief payments were typically a starvation-level pittance; in Detroit, payments were 5 cents a day per person.

Amid the suffering and fear, there was surprisingly little violence and only a whisper of radicalism. The Republicans, despite the unpopularity of the party and the overwhelming unpopularity of the president, had no real choice but to re-nominate Hoover.

For their part, Democrats approached the campaign with jubilant anticipation. FDR was unusually well-prepared to be a presidential contender. Since he had left a New York law clerkship in 1910 to run for state senate, he demonstrated increasingly astute political savvy. In a number of campaigns and offices, he had carefully honed his political craftsmanship.

At the Democratic convention, Roosevelt was easily nominated on the fourth ballot and buried in his acceptance speech was the phrase “new deal” and the words were picked up by a political cartoonist. Within a few days, the term was in broad use and remains memorable today.

Roosevelt was elected by a wide margin, carrying 42 of 48 states and a total of 472 electoral votes to 59. In the process, Herbert Hoover’s sterling reputation and brilliant career were relegated to the ash heap of failures and never fully restored.

The 1932 election focused on the responsibility of government for the economic welfare of American citizens. The debates of the campaign were far less momentous than the aftermath of the election … the establishment by President Roosevelt of a new relationship between American society and government.

Thereafter, the federal government took active, vigorous steps to promote and preserve prosperity far beyond the limited, tentative measures of President Hoover and all his predecessors. It’s a role that has continued to expand yet today with actions not even imagined earlier.

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

For Germany, Economic Development Has Trumped Disastrous Wars

Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film about the trial of Nazi war criminals, Judgment at Nuremberg, featured some of the best actors working in Hollywood, including Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, Spencer Tracy and Maximilian Schell.

By Jim O’Neal

The 34th Academy Awards ceremony was held on April 9, 1962, to honor films from 1961. West Side Story dominated the field with 11 nominations and 10 Oscar winners.

Another strong contender was Judgment at Nuremberg with 11 nominations, including two for best actor: Maximilian Schell (winner) and Spencer Tracy for his portrayal of Chief Judge Dan Haywood, a fictionalized character. Many moviegoers (and probably others) naturally assumed this was the extent of post-war judicial actions. In fact, the film only represented the third (“The Judges’ Trial”) of 12 trials for German war crimes.

Even before Germany surrendered, the Allies had planned to establish courts to try Nazi military and political leaders for their actions during the war. On May 2, 1945, President Harry S. Truman selected Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson to organize the proceedings and represent the United States.

Judge Jackson started by developing the London Charter, which established the International Military Tribunal and trial procedures. It was agreed to hold the trials in Nuremberg, where the Nazis held their annual rallies. Much of the city was damaged, but the huge Palace of Justice and a prison remained intact.

On Nov. 20, 1945, the Nuremberg Trials began.

“The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.” – Justice Robert Jackson, November 1945

In the first trial, 22 Nazis faced one or more charges of war crimes, crimes against peace or crimes against humanity. The defendants included Luftwaffe Commander Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess and the Fuhrer’s successor Admiral Karl Donitz. (Martin Bormann was tried in absentia and Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler had committed suicide.)

Over the next 10 months, prosecutors offered evidence of propaganda movies, vivid films of concentration camp liberations and damning testimony from many eyewitnesses. The evidence was so overwhelming, the 250 journalists attending the trial were often heard weeping in the courtroom or sobbing in the hallways.

On Oct. 1, 1946, the court handed down the verdicts.

Twelve high-ranking men, including Goering, were sentenced to death by hanging. Three more were sentenced to life sentences in prison. Four got prison sentences of 10 to 20 years and three minor political figures were acquitted.

The Nazi leaders had been tried in courtroom 600 of the Palace of Justice, where all proceedings were recorded. Some were broadcast in radio reports. Many people still claim it was the first time they learned of Nazi atrocities, the concentration camps or the gas chamber horrors (“The Final Solution”).

What is interesting, at least to me, is just how much more the Germans have accomplished through economic development than they ever did with guns, planes and tanks. Just ask the Greeks.

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

History Tends to Overlook the Man Who Originated Gerrymandering

John Trumbull’s famous painting The Declaration of Independence adorns the reverse of the current $2 bill. Somewhere in the group is Elbridge Gerry.

By Jim O’Neal

“If everyone here was a Gerry, the Liberties of America would be safe against the Gates of Earth and Hell.” – John Adams, July 15, 1776, letter to James Warren, the Second Continental Congress

Adams was praising Elbridge Gerry. Anytime the delegates from the middle colonies started to waver over the issue of independence, Gerry was there to persuade them that such a provocative action was needed to secure the future of America.

Elbridge Thomas Gerry was only 12 years younger than George Washington and was admitted to Harvard College at age 13. He earned B.A. and M.A. degrees. He then divided his time between the family garment business and both state and federal governance.

Gerry served in the U.S. House of Representatives during the first and second Congresses (1789-1793). Earlier, after being elected to the Second Continental Congress, he signed the Articles of Confederation and the Declaration of Independence, but was one of three men – in addition to George Mason and Edmund Randolph – who refused to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Gerry was stubbornly adamant that it should include a Bill of Rights to provide protection to individuals.

History proved him correct and our current Bill of Rights is foundational for many of the freedoms we now take for granted.

Then as governor of Massachusetts (1810-12), he approved a redistricting plan that ensured Democratic-Republican domination of the state. The shape of one of the new districts resembled that of a salamander, prompting Benjamin Russell, editor of the Boston Gazette, to coin the term “gerrymander.” This has entered our political lexicon to signify redistricting for political advantage.

Thomas Jefferson had been elected president in 1800 and again in 1804. Aaron Burr was VP during his first term and George Clinton (the first governor of New York) served as VP in the second term, 1805-09. Clinton was also elected VP in 1808 with James Madison and thus became the first VP to serve two presidents (John Calhoun would later match this feat). However, Clinton died on April 20, 1812, before the election and there was no provision to replace him.

When James Madison was nominated for his second term in 1812, the Democratic-Republican party selected the old reliable Elbridge Gerry to be his running mate (after John Langdon declined). They were both elected, however Gerry died in November 1814 after serving only about 21 months.

Thus James Madison earned the dubious distinction of being the only president to have two vice presidents die in office. No one particularly cared due to the nature of the job and its insignificance.

Elbridge Gerry was buried in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C. He is the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to be buried in the nation’s capital. He had married a much younger woman – Ann Thompson (James Monroe was best man) – and she holds the distinction of being the last surviving widow of any signer of the Declaration.

Today, gerrymandering has become an art form and voting districts are sliced and diced by ZIP code to create discrete groups of like-minded voters. Political junkies are in broad agreement that this results in major advantages to incumbent officeholders and significantly limits challengers from opposing parties.

Despite Mr. Gerry’s name now only remembered as a tactical political activity, a few avid paper-money fans (including moi) know that Elbridge Gerry is included in John Trumbull’s famous painting The Declaration of Independence that adorns the reverse of the current $2 bill (1976-), with Thomas Jefferson on the obverse. There are several earlier $2 bills with both Hamilton and Jefferson, as well as a National Bank note known as a “Lazy Deuce” due to an odd design.

The Trumbull painting is sometimes confused with the signing of the Declaration when in fact it depicts the five-man drafting committee presenting it to Congress on June 28, 1776. Oddly, there are only 42 of the 56 attendees depicted. But Elbridge Gerry is there for sure.

Now you know.

P.S. One theory is that John Trumbull could not get good resemblances of the 14 missing attendees. Good enough for me.

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

‘Miracle on Ice’ was More Than a Hockey Victory for the United States

1980 Mike Eruzione The Miracle on Ice Game Worn USA Olympic Hockey Jersey
Mike Eruzione’s 1980 “The Miracle on Ice” game-worn USA Olympic Hockey jersey realized $657,250 at a February 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“Eleven seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? YES!”

This was broadcaster Al Michaels’ famous verbatim commentary … now as famous as the game … when the USA Olympic Hockey Team skated off the final seconds of a shocking 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union in the semifinal game of the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, N.Y.

One day before the match, Dave Anderson of The New York Times had written: “Unless the ice melts, or unless the U.S. team performs a miracle, the Russians will easily win the Olympic Gold medal for the sixth time in the last seven tournaments.”

In 1981, Anderson won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary on sports … go figure.

Anyway, two days later, Team USA beat Finland 4-2 to win the gold medal!

According to Team Captain Mike Eruzione (Boston College), Coach Herb Brooks (University of Minnesota) said to the team just before the game, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your f—ing graves!”

Al Michaels was named “Sportscaster of the Year” in 1980 for his coverage of the event. (He was only there because he was the only one at ABC who had ever called a game!)

Due to the time-zone difference in Moscow, ABC decided not to broadcast the game live in most of the USA. Instead, the midday game was taped and rebroadcast in prime time. Most people (including moi) thought they were watching in real time.

Sports Illustrated named the game the Greatest Sports Moment of the 20th Century and there have been several movies (one featuring Karl Malden as Coach Brooks) and TV specials about it.

The whole country acted like we had won the Cold War … and maybe we did.

P.S. A little-known fact: In the very first game against Sweden, Team USA scored with only 27 seconds left to tie 2-2 by pulling goalie Jim Craig as an extra attacker. Without this single goal, the Soviets would have won the gold medal due to an obscure rule regarding a higher “goal differential.”

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

American Resolve at the Battle of the Bulge Changed Course of WWII

Illustrator Dan Brereton completed this original cover art for Sgt. Rock Special #2 (DC Comics, 1994) commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Battle of the Bulge. It went to auction in October 2002.

By Jim O’Neal

A monumental military engagement took place on the European western front between December 1944 and January 1945. It was one of the biggest and bloodiest battles of World War II. It involved 500,000 German, 600,000 American and 56,000 British troops. The American casualties of 82,000 made the “Battle of the Bulge” the costliest U.S. engagement of the entire war.

Beginning in early June on D-Day (the invasion of Normandy), the summer of 1944 was long, hot and weary for the German army. Then in July, the Allies broke out of Normandy and two German armies were forced back toward their homeland. On the eastern front, a massive Soviet offensive shattered the Germany army there, while two more German armies were forced up the Italian boot by American forces.

But by September, the Allied offensive came to a grinding halt after moving so fast that they ran out of fuel, ammunition and spare parts. As the Allies paused, the Germans stopped their retreat. On Dec. 16, 1944, much to the American’s surprise, the Germans started counterattacks in France.

The surprise German bombardment involved 600 light, medium and heavy guns, as well as the Nebelwerfer (multiple rocket launchers), followed by the German 6th Panzer Army in the north and the 5th and 7th Panzer divisions in the south. A thousand paratroopers were dropped behind Allied lines to cut off any support.

This massive German counteroffensive against the U.S. Army in the Ardennes was the brainchild of Adolf Hitler. “I have come to a momentous decision. I shall go over to the counterattack.” He had spotted an opportunity to divide the American armies and force them to sue for peace, which would allow the Germans to focus all their forces on the Soviets.

It almost worked.

But the Americans dug in at Bastogne, under the command of a tough, no nonsense officer, General Anthony McAuliffe. Despite little ammunition (10 rounds per day for each soldier) and some troops without guns and winter clothing, they repeatedly repulsed the German attacks.

However, they were gradually surrounded by German armored troops and on Dec. 22, four men carried a note to General McAuliffe asking for his “honorable surrender” or they would totally destroy Bastogne. McAuliffe’s quick reply is now legendary:

To the German Commander,

NUTS!

From the American Commander

The next day, the skies cleared, American reinforcements started pouring in and General George Patton’s tanks forged a narrow corridor to Bastogne. The Germans began to pull back on all fronts, so skillfully, in fact, that the Allies didn’t realize they were gone.

With very few reserves – and the Russians pressing from the east – it was now just a matter of time before the Allies secured the total defeat of Germany!

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

What Can Rome Teach Us About the End of Empires? Plenty

This Roman coin was minted A.D. 477-480 in the name of Emperor Julius Nepos, who ruled near the end of the Western Roman Empire. It realized $12,925 at an April 2014 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The Roman Empire was established around 510 B.C. and by the third century extended across millions of square miles … to the Rhine and Danube rivers in the south, Spain in the west and beyond Constantinople (Istanbul) in the east.

Throughout this vast territory, they paved roads, constructed towns/cities, built aqueducts to water them and, importantly, provided Roman governance.

The city of Rome itself had public baths, sewer systems, glorious buildings, flourishing arts and poetry, and literally was the center of Western civilization. Our Western system of law, cultures and languages derive directly from Ancient Rome.

Yet in A.D. 476, Rome ended up being ruled by a 12-year-old boy – Romulus Augustus – and a downward spiral accelerated. The minting of coins fell dramatically. The famous Roman pottery stopped being made. Local economies declined as did the population of Europe.

The Dark Ages, which would last until A.D. 1,000, had begun.

The 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon wrote a famous masterwork, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that describes in fascinating detail the many events that contributed to this remarkable ending. It includes the Visigoths, the Vandals, the Huns (including Attila) and the Romans themselves. They had become lazy, content, self-satisfied and they made a fatal mistake. They started using mercenaries for protection, forces that were prone to corruption and available to anyone willing to pay more.

Later historians write that the fall of the Romans and their empire was “noiseless” and that the power of Rome was lost due to prolonged strife, and war was too widespread and relentless to control … especially for a series of weak leaders who had grown too inept to govern.

Gibbon’s book is a wonderful read for those with the time and patience to pore through. It contains valuable lessons for current and future leaders of the United States and others who naively believe “it could never happen here.”

All one has to do is contrast the England of 1900 with the Great Britain of today to see the result of slow rot.

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