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Well, we haven’t beaten the US to the party since 1939. Brexit was apalling enough, but we have quite literally been trumped.

After the signal fires of Ohio and North Carolina, Florida’s swing into the red essentially ended the evening. It became sickeningly clear that Hillary absolutely had to win Pennsylvania and at least two of the other battlegrounds forecasted to go to Trump to be in hope of securing the White House, and though they came within 2,500 votes of each other at one point in Pennsylvania, and within 50 in New Hampshire (#BartletForever), around 4am GMT the realisation swept the BBC newsroom that it simply wasn’t going to happen. It was like watching someone choose to down cyanide over stomaching a warm coke.

And yet, last night, Kamala Harris became the first black female Senator since 1999. In Minnesota Ilhan Omar became the first Somali-American lawmaker. Oregon elected Kate Brown, the first openly LGBT governor in US history. And Catherine Cortez Masto was elected as the first ever Latina Senator. That is coolant indeed to drop into the mix as newsfeeds continue to combust all over the world. The fight continues.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing was that out of the 231,556,622 eligible voters, 46.9% didn’t vote at all, 25.6% voted for Hillary, and 25.5% voted for the now President-Elect (bile-inducing, that thought). Not only did Hillary actually win the popular vote, exposing just how broken the American electoral system is, but Trump’s mandate is still only a quarter of the electorate. That’s one in four adults. That’s no majority.

So in short, mount up. This great unfinished symphony has entered a discordant movement but it will not disrupt our melody. Now is the time for insurgency.

I turn to Jonathan Pie for a true swan song. Chew on this.




“I WANT EDGE”: Observations From Inside the ITV Newsroom

BBC

“I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information,” said Christopher Hitchens, probably with a twinkle in his eye and a cigarette in his hand.

One of the most fiercely analytical voices of the last half century and surely its most gifted debater, Hitchens rather encapsulated the sentiment of a generation with this statement. Though one could of course perceive a hidden idealistic streak in his desire to reform the field from within, he nevertheless articulates a widespread disillusionment with journalism that is only now starting to lift. Well, from where I’m standing it certainly is.

I had the opportunity at the beginning of the year to spend a week of work experience in the heart of the ITV newsroom in London. I essentially shadowed the Planning team for a week, the desk of editors who cover all the Home Affairs stories, planning and scheduling the items and reports covered on a daily, weekly, and annual basis. There are separate teams for foreign affairs, the tonight show, and specific editors and reporters for each programme.

To my delight, I discovered the software featured in TV shows and films about journalism is the programme they actually use: iNews. It’s an application utilised by all networks in to which flood the breaking news stories from all over the world. These wire reports are labelled with coloured flags to categorise their importance on a scale from red to yellow. Only the FTSE updates were classed as yellow though, the majority being red or orange. These little parcels of information appear on the screen every few minutes from Reuters with ‘slugs’ indicating the general subject e.g. LIBYA – SECURITY. The one week I spent with this wealth of information at my fingertips was the most up-to-date with the news I’ve ever been.

Most of the Planning team seem to perform admin-driven roles, finding stories and allocating them to reporters and programmes. They have the high-level view on the news-capturing process, also controlling what ultimately goes on the air by tailoring the topics for the executive planning meetings. The schedule and order of items are listed on iNews one day in advance, with ‘slugs’, ‘summaries’, initial ideas and angles, and an assigned reporter. Once locked in, these topics are updated until air, with processes obviously being in place to react to international breaking news. I heard some eye-opening stories about the atmosphere during the Paris attacks last November when the entire newsroom was kicked into action.

The studio itself is in the basement. Forget the sweeping panorama of the BBC newsroom, ITV’s is a green room tucked away at the bottom of the elevator where the anchor sits a few doors down from the control room. This was truly a sight to see, a relatively small room in which the Director and four producers operate an entire wall of about thirty screens from a bank of control boards. All the cues, effects, packages, adverts, and segments are broadcast with the flick of a switch, meticulously timed by the staffer who actually sits with a timer, counting down out loud the last fifteen seconds before each segment goes live. At one point, quite literally everyone was speaking at once, including the Director through his headset into the ear of the anchor.

It was an impressive set-up, but what was perhaps more enlightening were the executive planning meetings in which all the senior editors pitched stories and angles, deciding how to exercise the resources of their reporters spread across the world. The leader of these meetings, who shall remain anonymous, was like a cross between Rita Skeeter and Daffy Duck. From his suggestion to put a reporter inside a ‘vomit comet’ airplane to his proposal to strap a “GoPro on a stretcher” in emergency rooms in the US that treat gun wounds, he exploded like Aunt Marge every few minutes with some wild plan to secure more viewers. This may be the natural effect of living in the shadow of a much larger network that quite literally dominates every area of the field, or a deeper symptom of a certain journalistic stereotype. ‘Daffy Skeeter’, if you will, also referred to “scoops” as “prizes”, slammed the desk with the frustrated proclamation of “I just want something creative” every so often, proclaimed the nuance of every story is that it is “all about the characters”, and rather stuffily pointed out in the discussion of two different angles that “one might win us an award, the other won’t”. Suffice it to say, he seemed quite literally consumed by dry, materialistic statistics: audience retention, audience share, audience ratings. Verklempt, indeed. It wasn’t even a surprise when he stood up near the end and practically bellowed, “I WANT EDGE!”

A fascinating insight this was indeed, especially given this field has existed in its visual incarnation for less than a century, and whose tectonic plates shifted again with the birth of the internet.

NBCWith Murrow and the war correspondents pioneering radio broadcasting in the 1930s, the reign of the broadsheets, and the explosion of television on the scene in the 1940s with the likes of Cronkite, came the first real set of revolutions for journalism. Up to this point the dissemination of information and social commentary had been confined to novels and journals, circulated only among the ‘bourgeoisie’ of political history, the only people who could both read and afford to read.

But it cannot be denied that by the end of the 20th century, disillusionment had rather become the bien pensant attitude: disillusionment with the value and integrity of politicians, with rampant materialism, and with a bloated and biased media. One need only look to the impassioned howls of the Beat Generation for poignant articulation of this desperately disappointed sentiment.

Visions! omens! hallucinations! miracles! ecstasies! gone down the American river! Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit! – Ginsberg, Howl.

So where did it all begin?

Well, for starters, the Columbus and Magellan of broadcast journalism, William Paley (founder of CBS) and David Sarnoff (father of NBC), headed into Washington DC to cut a deal with the US Congress in the 1940s. Congress granted the newborn networks free use of tax-payer owned airwaves in exchange for one public service: one hour of air-time set aside every night for informational broadcasting, or what would become the evening news. An oft-cited grievance today is that Congress, unable to anticipate the enormous capacity television would have to deliver consumers to advertisers, failed to include in its deal the one requirement that would perhaps have changed US national discourse for the better. They didn’t have the foresight to ban paid advertising from their golden hour, a slot that was never supposed to be about profits. Though such a condition would never have survived the subsequent decades of media deregulation, it would rather have set a precedent, the likes of which the BBC only really still retains, despite the fact they of course gain their funding through license fees and are quite literally the Charybdis around which everyone else gravitates.

CameraIt was Sarnoff who perhaps first recognised the potential for television, the combination of motion pictures with electronic transmission to disseminate information. He was put in charge of broadcasting at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in 1928 and soon teamed up with engineer Vladimir Zworykin. Zworykin developed the first photomultiplier before demonstrating to the RCA a working iconoscope camera tube and kinescope receiver display tube in 1936. With these crucial camera components came the birth of electronic television.

Several short years later in April 1939 when the world was balancing on a knife-edge, regularly scheduled, electronic television in America was initiated by the RCA under the name of their broadcasting division at the time, The National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Later that month on April 30th, the opening day ceremonies at The World’s Fair were telecast in the medium’s first major production, featuring a speech by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the first US President ever to appear on television. These telecasts were only seen in NYC and the immediate vicinity, since NBC television had only one station at the time. The broadcast was seen by an estimated 1,000 viewers from roughly 200 televisions sets. Meanwhile, the London-based recording and publishing company Electric and Musical Industries developed a system based on Zworykin’s work and further Russian research which was put into action in Britain by the BBC.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

But it was also Sarnoff whose name soon became associated with a media ‘law’ of sorts. Put simply, this law states that the value of a broadcast network is proportional to the number of viewers. I’ll tell you who would concur with that… Daffy Skeeter. But why should a network be driven solely by ratings and audience share, its initiative diluted by its own bureaucracy and reactionary nature?

I think there’s room to be a lot more quixotic than that.

News reporterTo hell with corporate concerns, competition, consequences, and general cowardice. It may be a crappy business model but it’s a fearsome journalistic one. A truly great newspaper or network is not just a conduit for information, it’s a factory of thought and analysis, a force to fly in the face of vitriol and voyeurism and above all, political duplicity.

The only place I’ve ever seen this idea articulated and expressed with full unfettered enthusiasm is in the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, a newstopia possibly even more barbed in its message than The West Wing that came along a decade before it.

It’s outrageous, it’s arrogant, it’s stubborn, it’s smug, it’s moralising, it’s hopelessly quixotic, and it’s bloody brilliant.

And that’s my idea of news done well. Because we can all be Don Quixote, a fact I thoroughly believe in having lived through the Scottish independence referendum.

I became eligible to vote on the day of the vote itself and it was the most enlightening experience of my life so far. Suddenly everyone was talking about politics, from the supermarket aisles to the school playgrounds to the pubs, it was the most incendiary topic of conversation for over a year and was a subject that quite literally transcended demographics. In a matter of months everyone was informed about oil prices, education policy, EU membership, the budget deficit, trade flows, the energy industry… And the sheer level of political engagement was reflected in the voting turnout, which came in at an average of 84.6%, the highest ever recorded for an election in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage, and indeed a figure which beats every US Presidential election in history.

Moral of the story: the dream of a well-informed electorate who care passionately about the issues of the day is more than possible, and that’s what the news should do, frame that debate.

May 6, 1970 CBS EVENING NEWS WITH WALTER CRONKITE Working Day Layout.  Walter Cronkite at typewriter in his office. Copyright CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Credit: CBS Photo Archive

The Woman Behind the Selma March and Why We Must Continue Her Fight

Selma

Only in the darkness can you see the stars.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

On August 18th 1911 in a tropical corner of the US state of Georgia, a girl named Amelia Platts was born. Her parents were of African American, Cherokee and German descent, and despite having nine siblings to support, she quickly became a fierce advocate for women’s rights. She fought for suffrage when there were women almost ten times her age condemning her as a dangerous radical. After studying at Georgie State College and Tuskegee Institute, and following several years of teaching, she moved to Alabama to work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to educate the rural people of Dallas Country about food production, nutrition, and healthcare, despite America being in the depths of the Great Depression and on the brink of world war.

Her new home? Selma, Alabama.

In just a few years, she had successfully registered to vote – a female African American in 1934 Alabama. Even in 1965, over three decades later, only 1% of Selma’s African Americans would have the vote despite comprising 50% of its population, and Amelia secured herself a vote thirty-one years earlier. Not long after this extraordinary feat, she had written her own play telling a poignant story about spiritual music called Through the Years to raise funds for a community center in Selma alongside her political activism, as well as meeting her first husband, Samuel Boynton, and raising two young sons. But it was then that she happened to attend a congregation at a small Baptist Church in the state capital of Montgomery where she met a charismatic young pastor with a unique oratorical gift. His name was Martin Luther King Jr.

That meeting would lead to the emancipation of a nation.

After her husband died in 1963, Amelia Boynton converted her home into a strategic centre for Selma’s civil rights movement. Organising meetings with Martin Luther King and James Bevel, she planned and organised the logistics for the momentous march from Selma to Montgomery that would go down in history as the catalyst, and indeed one of the most important factors, in securing the landmark Voting Rights Act in 1965.

In the build up to the infamous march, Boynton also found time to run for Congress in 1964 from Alabama, the first female African-American ever to do so and the first female to run for the state’s Democratic Party. Though victory was still an impossibility, she certainly achieved her aim of fuelling thought, debate, activism, and most importantly, vote registration, as well as receiving 10% of them herself.

The Selma-Montgomery march took place on 7th March 1965, and it soon became known internationally as Bloody Sunday.

The physical, moral and social massacre took place on the now notorious Edmund Pettus Bridge, which still stands after 75 years as a permanent spectre of racial prejudice despite calls for its abolishment. Upon this bridge, state police faced off with the marchers and drew their guns. Boynton herself was beaten horrifically, and the photos of her bloodied and unconscious body spread across the world like wildfire, igniting international outrage and bringing the arguments of Martin Luther King to the global stage. He led a second march just two days later, which was again shattered by extreme and inhumane force. On the third attempt, with thousands more behind him and beneath the undivided gaze of the entire world, King entered Montgomery on 24th March 1965 with 25,000 supporters.

Five months later the prohibition of racial discrimination in the voting system was signed into US federal law.

But less than three years after that, Martin Luther King Jr. was dead.

In this lies the most basic, horrific and overlooked point about racial discrimination. This outrageous force of ignorance, fear and cruelty transcends law. A democratic government by definition is supposed to have the power to guarantee and protect the human rights of all its citizens without discrimination, and yet, the very definition of human nature renders this fundamentally impossible. The individual will always and forever hold more power than the state. And so as long as there is even the faintest hint of racial discrimination in the social conscience of the citizen, the subjects of their discrimination cannot be protected by law.

The answer? The antidote to ignorance, fear and cruelty? It will always be education – political, social, and religious; simply, education in every sense of the word. We have to believe in the ultimate benevolence, compassion and mercy of humanity, even if it takes a few generations for a particularly heinous historical period to be processed and reconciled. If we don’t, well, then maybe Socrates was right, death may be the greatest of all human blessings. But he also said the only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.

Why must we continue the fight? Because it’s not over.

Amelia Boynton Robinson was a guest of honour at the signing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by President Lyndon Johnson, and she would later go on to be awarded the Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Medal in 1990. She currently lives near Tuskegee University in Alabama, her home of the last 40 years. Paramount Pictures organised a private screening for her of the 2014 Oscar and Golden Globe-winning historical drama, Selma, that has immortalised her role in the Civil Rights Movement. May her courage, audacity and utter unwillingness to give in to her oppressors forever inspire those who continue her fight.

Robinson repeats the Selma march fifty years on, but this time with the President of the United States at her side

Robinson repeats the Selma march fifty years on, but this time with the President of the United States at her side

 

US Presidential Debates vs UK General Election Debates: When Acting Drives Democracy

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players.

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts…

Debates graphic

The idea of life resembling a performance with actors and sets and costumes is a common theme in literature. So much of life is a performance when one really thinks about it. How often do you truly say what you feel? How often do you let social convention and the opinions and experiences of others govern your own decisions? Our most human moments surely come when the performance of life is discarded.

So the question is, should we let performance be a defining factor in politics?

UK headlines have been dominated over the past few days by the loaded exchanges going back and forth between the political parties and the broadcasters. Bickering and boorish behaviour aside, the key point of disagreement is over the head to head between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, incumbent Conservative Prime Minister and leader of the opposition party Labour. After first advocating such a debate, Cameron is now saying he is only willing to take part in one, a single debate that involves not two, not three, but seven party leaders. And he has been labelled as a coward.

It is undoubtedly a triumph for democracy that we now have the opportunity to see a 7-way debate. Even just a few years ago that would have seemed a great unlikelihood. At most there have only ever been three main parties in this country who have really been taken seriously on the national stage but now seven are being given a level platform to advocate their policies and visions live in front of a projected audience of at least 20 million, almost half the electorate. Surely no one can deny that this is a good thing?

But what about this prospect of a head to head between Miliband and Cameron, which the latter is refusing on the grounds that it would be unfair for the other parties to be excluded?

On one hand, it would fuel political engagement, which was the most extraordinary and invigorating thing about the recent Scottish referendum which saw the highest levels of debate regardless of age and class this country has ever seen. But on the other hand, a debate of this nature will push showmanship and performance to the forefront. Suddenly the success of the arguments become intrinsically linked to the mannerisms and articulation of the candidate. And, as Margaret Thatcher said when approached about the prospect of televised debates, we’re not electing a President. Two decades earlier Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home argued, “You’ll get a sort of Top of the Pops contest. You’ll then get the best actor as leader of the country and the actor will be prompted by a scriptwriter.”

They have a point. The high stakes high profile presidential-style debates that are meticulously planned, performed and polled are a very American idea. Such debates were pioneered back in 1858 with a series of seven head to heads between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas for US Senate but the first general televised presidential debate did not come until 1960 between Kennedy and Nixon and they soon became a regular occurrence.

Perhaps it is important for Americans to see their Presidents on stage like that given that they will also become the head of state, but Ford lost the race in 1976 due to a single foolish statement he made under pressure in the debates that year, and Reagan won a landslide victory in 1980 due to years of acting experience. Should the result rely so heavily on the performance at the expense of the political policies? It is certainly a clearer answer with regards to British Prime Ministers.

What is the difference between the President and the Prime Minister?

Well, the most important factor is that in the UK the people elect the party and that party elects its leader, who in turn must lead and also answer to the legislative body of Parliament, but in the US the people are voting for the President who works in parallel with his or her legislative body, Congress, comprising of the Senate and the House of Representatives, and has the power to veto legislation while also acting as head of state and commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces.

So the argument that US presidential debates are important is perhaps understandable, even though a lot of the time they can be counterproductive and simply turn into acting competitions, but it is a lot harder to see the benefits of UK general election debates between the two people most likely to become the next Prime Minister. And frankly, it is outrageous for Miliband and Clegg to be condemning Cameron as a coward for refusing such a debate and accusing him of arrogance. Notwithstanding the fact that as the more gifted debater with an improved economy to boast of he would probably “win”, it is wildly unprofessional and incendiary to bring such backstabbing and belittling comments into the political arena. This is an arena that should be defined by its civility, respect and integrity.

Margaret Thatcher also said, “I always cheer up immensely if an attack is particularly wounding because I think, well, if they attack one personally, it means they have not a single political argument left”. Why can’t political debate be civilised? Can we not declare politics a malice, spite, voyeurism and gossip-free zone? Why do politicians think there has been such political disillusionment over the last decade when they spend so much time acting like schoolchildren? If only the desire to do some good could forever transcend the desire for a stage and a doting audience.

I’ll say again that the most extraordinary thing about the Scottish referendum was political engagement. When your 13 year-old sister starts debating oil revenues with her friends, when you pass two elderly ladies discussing the different currency options in Tesco, when the most controversial and fight-inducing topic in pubs is about political autonomy, when the voting turnout is 84.6% of the electorate, the highest ever recorded in the UK since the introduction of universal suffrage, then you can truly understand what Abraham Lincoln meant when he said, “I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis. The great point is to bring them the real facts, and beer.”

Political engagement, that’s what we should strive for.

But leave the presidential debates to the Presidents.

Constitution

The Cold War: Was It All About Ideology?

Communism and Capitalism, possibly the two most ferocious and merciless enemies of all time. In 1945, the world was crawling out of a crippling conflict that had decimated millions, but seemingly obliviously fell into an even larger black hole of tension and hatred. And the Cold War was not truly over until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 . . .

But how did it all start? Why did two allies suddenly turn their backs on each other? Well let’s investigate the facts, and suggest yet another answer to the notorious question of what exactly caused the Cold War?

Ideological differences were a key factor in instigating the ‘iron curtain’ in Europe and inducing the Cold War. The entire conflict essentially gravitated around the opposing philosophies of Communism and Capitalism. Problems first became apparent when Japan surrendered to the Allied powers on 15th August 1945, ending the Second World War. The issues that kindled into existence lay with the dispute between the victors over Europe’s future. Germany was subsequently divided into a separate east and west, which quickly became a Communist state versus a Capitalist one, and splitting Europe down the middle. Fundamentally, it was a standoff between the powers of the USSR and the USA. In ‘The Cold War’, John Hughes-Wilson states, ‘the ideological chasm between east and west was gaping wide and was effectively unbridgeable.’ It was becoming increasingly apparent that these two world superpowers could not and would not settle any agreements over Europe’s future. Truman saw Communism as a contagion that could infect much of Europe and Asia, whereas Stalin viewed western interference in the east as direct provocation and as an attempt to taint it with Capitalist beliefs. In this way, the direct catalysts of the Cold War all had foundations entwined in ideological differences. The legacy of the Russian Communist revolution still seared within the Soviet Union. Furthermore, the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan were critical in the development of Stalin’s suspicion and unease and represented the Capitalist west interfering in the east. The Korean War, a conflict of ideologies, led on from these, the first real test of Truman’s policy of ‘containment’. However, Stalin escalated and channelled his goal of Communist domination through the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe. Finally, the legacy of the Second World War dragged the animosity between the two states to breaking point. Therefore, the conflicting ideologies of east and west were utterly integral in causing the Cold War.

The afore-mentioned ideological differences were radically opposed to each other on not just political, but economic and social levels. As a pure antithesis of each other, they are fundamentally incompatible. Communism is a socialist movement centred round the beliefs that a country should be classless, with no income or standard of living inequality, where there are no rich and poor. However, Capitalism believes in the existence of competitive markets, wage labour and capital accumulation through the economic driving of wealth. The two philosophies disagree on every issue; tax rates, ownership of the factors of production, investment, resource allocation, government control, democracy. Therefore, the fact that the two biggest world powers at that period in history followed these two vastly different ideologies created an inevitable rivalry and clash of beliefs, resulting in vigorous tensions, and a highly probable chance of conflict. The potent strength of Communism in Russia stretched back through the annals of history to the Russian revolution in 1917. John Hughes-Wilson also wrote, ‘this elemental struggle against the dark forces of imperialism and Capitalism was their very life.’ This tells us that it was a conflict solely against the enemy ideology. He also states, ‘the allied occupation of Russian territory had sowed fatal, and permanent, seeds of distrust between east and west which blossomed into real enmity.’ They had never forgotten the intrusion from the west and hosted huge amounts of suspicion for the Capitalist countries, unable to agree with their policies. The legacy of the revolution was therefore essential in the tensions between east and west in the wake of the Second World War.

Harry S. Truman was inaugurated as the 33rd president of the USA on 12th April 1945 following Roosevelt’s death. He immediately invoked international controversy on his decision to use nuclear weapons against Japan, killing over 200,000 civilians. This brought a rapid end to the war and left the Allied powers as victors with decisions to make over Europe’s future, most notably the division of Germany into east and west and eventually into the separate countries of the GDR and FRG. Truman then imposed the Truman Doctrine in 1947, the policy that stated that the US would provide military and economic support to Greece and Turkey to prevent the spread of Communism. This was the beginning of Truman’s containment policy. This Doctrine was pivotal in US-Soviet relations post-WW2, as Stalin perceived the interference as a direct provocation. His suspicions were augmented when America introduced the Marshall Plan. Truman injected $12 billion into the war-torn economies of Europe. In a speech in March 1947, he stated, ‘The seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want.’ He believed that without strong economic recovery and development, Germany would be forced to turn to an extremist political party. Truman feared this would be a Communist one. Stalin interpreted this as another attack on Communism, which effectively it was. He watched as US dollars were poured into Western Europe and realised with them, poured Capitalist beliefs. Truman’s Doctrine came into play again when Communist North Korea invaded Capitalist South Korea in June 1950.

The Korean War

The country owed its division to a political decision by the Allied powers proceeding the Second World War. The Soviet Union established a Communist government in the north, while the south became a democracy. America and other UN countries intervened, pushing the Northern forces far into their own territory until the newly Communist China intervened and drove the front line back to the 38th parallel where it would remain. Truman stated in April 1951 that, ‘In the simplest terms, what we are doing in Korea is this: We are trying to prevent a third world war.’ It was a key event as the first real conflict of the Cold War, and was an unambiguous declaration of the policy of containment. Stalin saw his wariness and distrust justified, as it was inevitable that from his perspective the Korean War appeared to be a Capitalist attack on Communism, and it forever established the ‘ideological chasm’ between east and west.

Stalin went back on the agreements that had been effectuated at the Yalta conference in February 1945 and decided Eastern Europe should fall under Soviet control and adopt Communist governments. He extended his reach over Yugoslavia and Albania, while both Poland and Romania experienced socialist revolutions, becoming Soviet satellites. Elections took place in Poland in 1947, with the Communists claiming 394 seats. However, they manipulated their way into the positions of power by bribery and corruption, still very much under Stalin’s control. Czechoslovakia also underwent a post-war social revolution, carried out by an alliance of Communists and Socialists. They were willing to accept aid from the Marshall Plan but Stalin threatened them and they were forced to refuse. In his book ‘Post War’, Tony Judt wrote, ‘The only acceptable outcome for Stalin was the establishment – in those parts of the region not pre-emptively absorbed into the USSR itself – of governments that could be relied upon never to pose a threat to Soviet security.’ Stalin’s expansionist actions propelled tensions to dangerous levels and induced a considerable cloud of anxiety to shroud the west in a cloying discomfort. China’s Communist revolution in 1949 thickened such anxiety as Russia had gained the most populous country in the world as an ally, adding to this looming threat in the east. Their fears were realised when Stalin implemented a blockade of the access route to West Berlin from the Allied sectors in June 1948 to try to force West Berlin to fall under Soviet control, testing Truman’s resolve. However, this backfired when the RAF and the USAF responded with the Berlin airlift, supplying West Berlin with 4700 tons of fuel and food over the next year. The Mayor of West Berlin at the time, Ernst Reuter, said, ‘People of this world, look upon this city and see that you should not and cannot abandon this city and this people.’ Stalin was forced to end the blockade in May 1949, humiliated and enraged at essentially a Capitalist victory, which only emphasized the stark contrast between the standards of living of East and West Berlin. This incident provoked Truman into organising NATO in 1949. Stalin, however, interpreted this as a vast ‘ganging-up’ of the Capitalist western powers to combat Communism and he responded in May 1955 with the creation of the Warsaw Pact between the Soviet Union and seven other Communist states. This represented the utter abolishment of any hope of reconciliation and forged a clear division between Capitalist West and Communist East.

However, tensions had long been building due to the legacy of the Second World War. Stalin still held a grudge against the Allied powers for not creating a second front in the west earlier in the war and relieving the millions of Russian soldiers dying on the Eastern front to the Nazi forces. This slight betrayal in his eyes only reaffirmed his dormant suspicions that the selfish Capitalist westerners were not to be trusted. Tensions intensified with the dropping of the atomic bombs. Stalin was furious that he had been kept in the dark about this vastly destructive weapon that had the power to end WW2 in a week, to him, yet another betrayal. He felt the Soviet Union should have priority in decision making as they had suffered war casualties more than sixty times that of America, seeing WW2 very much as a Russian victory. Stalin also saw Poland as Soviet territory as it was the country they had entered the war to defend, the country they had lost so many soldiers in, and land that they had conquered from the Nazis. Therefore, when Britain informed him that the Polish government, exiled in London, were ready to reclaim their country, it further intensified the tensions. Stalin’s wish to use Eastern Europe as a ‘buffer zone’ of Soviet satellites to absorb any potential western invasions was a blatant breach of the Yalta agreements and another example of Communist expansion, again inducing considerable anxiety in the west. John Lewis Gaddis states, ‘Stalin’s goal was not to restore a balance of power in Europe, but rather to dominate the continent as thoroughly as Hitler had sought to do.’ He had no interest in free, democratic states in Eastern Europe, and potential Capitalist states, he wanted to absorb more countries into the Soviet bloc.

The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961

The rivalry between Communism and Capitalism lay at the heart of the conflict. 1955 finished with the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, the final catalyst to kick-start the Cold War that would consume over four decades. The tensions that had been curdling since 1917 were at breaking point post-WW2 and in many ways a conflict was inevitable, the minimal bloodshed owing to the creation of the atomic bombs. Hugh Thomas states, ‘Stalin, and communism, needed an enemy; capitalism had to be ‘menacing’; imperialism had to be ‘on the march’; a Cold war was in short not so much inevitable as essential.’ This gives us the perspective that the great driving force of Communism in the Soviet east fundamentally required opposition to direct their power at, and Capitalism was the hated philosophy far on the right side of the political spectrum, an easy target after so many decades of building pressure. Such vastly different and conflicting ideologies, hosted by the two biggest powers in the world would inevitably come into conflict with each other. Truman’s containment policy catalysed the accumulating tensions that lay entwined in the legacies of the Russian revolution and the Second World War, and which led to the Korean War. Then the formation of NATO and the Warsaw Pact cut a jagged wound through Europe, officially splitting the east from the west due to their ideological differences and these factors brought into motion what would soon be known as the Cold War . . .

The iron curtain had fallen . . .

Why The USA Lost The Vietnam War

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Ever wondered what actually happened in the war which has gone down in history as an utter failure and humiliation for the US? Cast your mind back to “The one with the cuffs”, one of the funniest Friends episodes, when Joey ends up buying an Encyclopedia from an overly enthusiastic salesman. Joey only has enough money for one letter though so goes for the “V” in an attempt to find out more about “vomit”. He also learns (yes, surprising for Joey) about volcanoes, Van Gogh, Vatican City (which he originally thought was Spock’s birth control), and . . . the Vietnam War. I want to investigate the primary reasons behind the sheer extent of the American failure, and referring to the views of prominent historians, determine exactly why they lost . . .

Vietnam-war-soldierOn 27th January 1973 the Paris Peace Accords were signed, bringing an end to the US involvement in the Vietnam War, one in which they had lost 58,000 soldiers. The war was hailed by many as an utter failure, John McManus described it as “one of the most controversial and traumatic events in American history.” The US lost the war for several key reasons. As historian Norman Stone argues, the American troops had been “well-trained for the wrong war”, and were easily out-manoeuvred by the cunning Vietcong. The North Vietnamese army exploited their vast underground tunnel network and the Ho Chi Minh Trail to devastating effect. This, combined with the unrest stirring on American soil and the growing unpopularity of the war, soon ensured the inevitability of failure. As historian John Lewis Gaddis argued, “by the beginning of the 1960s the South Vietnamese government had become an embarrassment to the Americans – and a target for renewed insurgency from North Vietnam,” and so South Vietnamese corruption was another major issue. And on 30th April 1975, the NVA overran Saigon, unifying the country. US military strategy, the unprecedented strength of the Vietcong, US domestic pressure, and the corruption rife in South Vietnam were all decisive factors in leading to the American failure in the Vietnam War. I will analyse each of these factors to determine which was the most important. Indeed, the strength of the Vietcong and their surety in what they were actually fighting for was the main reason the US lost.

Khe Sanh

Khe Sanh

The Vietcong had a clear motivation in fighting off the Americans, and a distinct objective. They were defending their country from foreign invasion, manoeuvring on a terrain they knew intimately and had all the advantages of a guerrilla force. They also had no shortage of confidence in their own abilities, having fought off both the Japanese and French before, and were unafraid to suffer casualties, making them far more daring and powerful in battle. Even after losing 1.1 million soldiers and half a million civilians, they would not give in, and with the unparalleled efficiency of the Ho Chi Minh trail which also ran through neutral Cambodia, both China and the USSR supplied them with weapons.

The Cu Chi defence system also serves as an overwhelming advantage. The sheer strength and effectiveness of the NVA was simply underestimated. Norman Stone explains the extensive difficulties faced in combat with the Vietcong, “given the patience and ingenuity with which these troops waited in ambush, with Soviet weaponry, the battles were testing for the Americans,” and this further demoralised the US forces, amplified greatly by the fact that the soldiers themselves did not know what or who they were fighting for.

The Cu Chi Defence System

The Cu Chi Defence System

Even with the colossal bombing raids undertaken by the US 2nd Air Division, the Navy, and the VNAF such as Operation Rolling Thunder in which three times the weight of bombs were dropped on North Vietnam than in the entire Second World War, they could not defeat them. As Stone states, “the plan was to bomb North Vietnam in such a way as to show Ho Chi Minh that he must give way”, but it failed in that it devastated the country but did not defeat the Vietcong. The sheer strength and tenacity of the NVA doomed the American efforts from the very start and was undoubtedly the most important factor in leading to their failure. The flaws with US strategy was also key.

The horrifying effects of Agent Orange

The horrifying effects of Agent Orange

The strategy employed by the US army was decisive in ensuring they were unable to fully engage their enemy, and ultimately, unable to defeat them. Because of the constant influx of new soldiers, the US forces were constantly inexperienced and unused to the terrain and climate. Especially when engaging in immoral tactics such as the extensive use of chemical weapons like Napalm and Agent Orange, they lost the support of the Vietnamese citizens, and so the Vietcong became even harder to identify from ordinary villagers and farmers.

Issues like this led to tragedies such as the Mai Lai Massacre in March 1968, when, in utter frustration and despair, a group of US soldiers rampaged through a village, murdering hundreds of men, women, and children. The Americans were demoralised further by the sheer impossibility of locating their enemy. Using the Cu Chi defence system, thousands of Vietcong could be sustained underground at a time, easily hidden from US Search and Destroy missions, and able to spring surprise attacks and ambushes without warning.

The distribution of Napalm

The distribution of Napalm

As John Lewis Gaddis explains, Johnson himself stated, “If we are driven from the field in Vietnam then no nation can ever again have the same confidence in American protection”, and so he committed more and more soldiers to the war. It soon became apparent that the “Quagmire Theory” was being fulfilled and the US were sinking farther and farther into an unwinnable scenario that was becoming more and more unpopular at home. They were doomed to fail from the very beginning, it just took them 58,000 wasted lives to realise it. Domestic pressure would also be crippling to the US efforts in the war.

Protests at Kent State

Protests at Kent State

It soon became apparent just how unpopular the war was and how much support Nixon was losing at home. Incidents such as the Kent State University protests, in which four students were shot dead, induced outrage across the country and further undermined and called into question why the US had become involved in Vietnam in the first place. As Norman Stone writes, “by 1972 the administration was simply held in derision by almost anyone in the United States who could read and write,” and these beliefs bled through into the army where already the soldiers had begun to lose all hope. The pivotal point in the war which decided the alienation of any US domestic support was the Tet Offensive in 1968 in which the Vietcong launched a series of surprise attacks throughout South Vietnam, including the suicide mission on the US embassy in Saigon. Although in essence it was a failure for the NVA, in which they suffered 30,000 casualties, it was a publicity disaster for the US, an utter “humiliation for the Americans”, as Norman Stone states, because it shocked the US public into losing faith in the entire war and demanding why so many lives were being lost to it. This was exacerbated by the Mai Lai Massacre, the bombing of Cambodia, and the student protests at Jackson State College in Mississippi when another two were killed. As the US soldiers felt the pressure building up at home, they realised the war was unwinnable and it became clear that Vietnamisation of the conflict was necessary. But the corruption in South Vietnam meant that this would inevitably lead to victory for the Vietcong.

The evil Diem

The evil Diem

The US support of President Ngo Dinh Diem and his regime in South Vietnam became a contradiction when they welcomed his assassination in 1963. He had become deeply unpopular, especially after the controversy surrounding his banning of the Buddhist flag which led to the murder of eight protestors in May 1963, inducing a mass 48 hour hunger strike organised by the Buddhist patriarch, Thich Tinh Khiet. This escalated on the 11th June when a monk, Thich Quang Durc, burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection, remaining perfectly still as the flames consumed him. The photo of his self-immolation was circulated around the world, inducing utter outrage at Diem and putting the US in an awkward position as they were supposedly defending this corrupt dictator. Furthermore, such corruption meant that it was difficult to expose the issues with Communism because they were so desperately defending such a poor alternative. As historian John Lewis Gaddis explains, “Diem’s regime had become so brutal – but at the same time so ineffective – that the Kennedy administration eventually convinced itself that he had to be removed.”

Even after Diem’s assassination, the South Vietnamese government continued to exercise rampant corruption, at first under Duong Van Minh, Diem’s successor, before he was toppled after just three months by Nguyen Khanh. Gaddis continues by arguing that the US found themselves “left with a deteriorating situation in South Vietnam whose importance their own rhetoric had elevated to one of global significance – but which they had no strategy for resolving.” The final US troops left Vietnam in March 1973, and a mere two years later, the NVA overran Saigon in April 1975. Therefore, because South Vietnam’s government was in no way a strong or democratic one that had the support of its people and had core values and motives to resist Communism, it was easily overthrown, and all that the US had fought for went to waste, marking their failure.

The bravery and audacity of Thich Quang Durc

The bravery and audacity of Thich Quang Durc

The Vietnam War lasted from November 1955 to the fall of Saigon in April 1975, and in that time US involvement peaked at 549,000 soldiers in late 1968. Burdened with a series of unfortunate events that destroyed domestic support for the war, the morale of the soldiers, and any hope of defeating the ever allusive Vietcong, the US eventually withdrew all of its troops, and in doing so effectively admitted they had lost the war. This failure owed itself to several key factors. The strength of the Vietcong themselves made it impossible for the American forces to secure any decisive victories, and this, combined with flawed US strategy, undermined by the effectiveness of the Cu Chi fence system and the Ho Chi Minh trail, doomed the entire campaign from the beginning. The growing unpopularity of the war, and the sheer scale of South Vietnamese corruption were also important reasons for why the US could not possibly win. However, the most important of these factors was undoubtedly the Vietcong and their power and persistence in fighting for a cause that they believed in.

The fall of Saigon

The fall of Saigon

 

How JFK Almost Destroyed The Planet: The Cuban Missile Crisis

 

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Lauded as one of the greatest US presidents ever, Kennedy probably had pretty much the worst presidency anyone could ever ask for. And it only lasted two and a bit years. As soon as he walked in the Oval Office he got dumped with the Bay of Pigs, an Eisenhower plan, then he helped bring the world to the brink of destruction . . . then he got shot . . . But he has gone down in history as one of the most inspiring and heroic leaders of all time.

Let’s analyse the Cuban Missile Crisis further. With views from prominent historians backing us up, let’s find out exactly why JFK almost destroyed planet Earth . . .

imageThe USSR and the US came to the brink of nuclear war in October 1962, when the Cold War was at its coldest, in a thirteen day period that saw President Kennedy making heavily pressured decisions that would change the trajectory of the Cold War itself from that moment on. A U2 spy plane photographed the secret construction of missile launch sites in Cuba, and it was discovered that a number of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles had been smuggled into the country. This was followed by several days of stalemate while an emergency committee named ExComm assessed the US options. A message of negotiation was then received from Khrushchev proposing a compromise on both sides, the US accepted, and the situation diffused.

kennedy_cigar_bay_of_pigsStraight away on assuming office, Kennedy became utterly embroiled in a dangerous climate of political relations that balanced on a tender hook. As historian John Lewis Gaddis explains, the Kennedy administration was completely caught off its guard by the situation, as one of its primary aims had been to “rationalise the conduct of nuclear war”, and it had already been “shocked to discover that the only war plan Eisenhower had left behind would have required the simultaneous use of well over 3000 nuclear weapons against all communist countries.” The crisis was primarily induced by several key factors. Aggressive US foreign policy, the legacy of the 1959 Cuban Revolution, provocative actions by the USSR, and the tensions over Berlin and Germany, all played a crucial role in igniting the situation. As John Lewis Gaddis argues, Kennedy’s foreign policy, such as the Bay of Pigs, “set in motion the series of events that would, within a year and a half, bring the world to the brink of nuclear war.” Indeed, without the Monroe Doctrine, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the blockade of Cuba, and the missiles installed in Turkey and Western Europe, the Cuban Missile Crisis would never have occurred.

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Due to the suffocating time constraints facing Kennedy and the pressure that was being exerted on him by his own people, he undoubtedly employed excessively aggressive foreign policy. The Bay of Pigs invasion had been orchestrated to spark an uprising against Castro and so eliminate the communist threat in the region, and 1400 Cuban exiles carried out the attack in April 1961. Its catastrophic failure was due to several accumulating reasons such as the preemptive imprisonment of thousands of suspects by Castro preceding the event, and Kennedy’s cancellation of the US bombing raids and the landing of the US Marines. The invasion was crushed and Kennedy was left looking not just like a weak leader, but a poor strategist and tactician, lowering him even further in Khrushchev’s eyes. As John Hughes-Wilson explains, Khrushchev “openly mocked the disastrous US-backed Bay of Pigs.” He was well aware of how he was perceived by the Soviet leader, and this only exacerbated the situation because now he felt as though he needed to prove something.

Bay_of_pigsHe was already under pressure to be tough on the Soviets due to the legacy passed down to him by his father, Joseph P Kennedy Senior, an advocate of the policy of appeasement during the Second World War. Furthermore, the continual growth and development of US nuclear stockpiles served as a direct provocation to the USSR, particularly when intermediate-range missiles were placed in Britain, Italy, and Turkey and pointed straight at the Soviet Union in the late 1950s by the Eisenhower administration. This drastically altered the nature of US-Soviet relations from that moment on as the US had a powerful leverage over the USSR that turned negotiations into threats. The major reason for such stringent relations with Cuba was due to the fear of communist expansion from Castro’s government into Latin America, a region within the US sphere of influence under the Monroe Doctrine. And so they justified their exhaustive economic sanctions against Cuba and the blockade of its trading routes, by emphasising this threat and how it would damage the free world. The aggressive stance with regards to the use of nuclear weapons originated from the barbaric policies of Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, who argued that the missiles should be targeted at the densest areas of civilian population “with a view to causing the maximum number of casualties possible” as John Lewis Gaddis states, to guarantee Winston Churchill’s hope of “equality of annihilation” to act as the ultimate deterrent. This became known as the strategy of “Mutual Assured Destruction.” For these reasons, the aggressive foreign policy implemented by the US was the most important cause of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

cuba 1The Cuban revolution in 1959 that saw the ousting of General Batista’s corrupt regime and the establishment of Fidel Castro’s communist government, was the event that created the crisis in the first place. Without it, communist interest in the area would have been non-existent. The USSR was astounded by the independent seed of Marxist thinking that had grown surreptitiously on the very doorstep of their enemy. They immediately saw it as a perfect opportunity to induce revolution in Latin America and overthrow the US government with pure force and power. As John Lewis Gaddis writes, “Khrushchev and his advisors had been surprised, but then excited, and finally exhilarated when a Marxist-Leninist insurgency seized power in Cuba on its own, without all the pushing and prodding the Soviets had had to do to install communist regimes in Eastern Europe,” proving just how oblivious Khrushchev had been to the events there, as there had been virtually no Soviet influence in the region. Fulgencio Batista had been elected into power as President of Cuba in 1942, but became dictator in 1952 following a military coup, promptly stripping citizens of all of their liberties. If Fidel Castro and Che Guevara had not organised the revolt, communism would never have flourished there, and the USSR would have had no reason to target it. Historian Robert Holmes explains how Khrushchev gradually asserted his influence over Cuba, as “Castro’s determination to build an egalitarian utopia” drove him “to rely increasingly upon the help and goodwill of the Soviet Union.” This only served to strengthen the bond between the USSR and Cuba, drastically increasing the tensions with US relations, as the US did not want to lose their lucrative trade and business interests in Cuba. Therefore, the missile crisis owes its origins to this period. However, it cannot be attributed as the most significant cause as it is tied into the foundations of every reason, especially that of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union and their excitement over Cuba.

jfk 4The provocative actions of the USSR leading up to the fateful thirteen days in 1962 were instrumental in amplifying tensions between the two powers. As Nikita Khrushchev himself explains, Soviet interests in Cuba were purely as a result of its communist revolution, “We had to think up some way of confronting America with more than words. We had to establish a tangible and effective deterrent to American interference in the Caribbean. But what exactly? The logical answer was missiles.” In this way, their hand was forced to finally place their own form of leverage over the US in a place that would make it most effective, as they had already been putting up with the Jupiter missiles in Turkey for several years. Khrushchev’s aim was to “put a hedgehog down Kennedy’s pants”, according to John Hughes-Wilson. Khrushchev was adamant about how important it was to support Cuba, as it was an ideal example of Karl Marx’s model of how a communist state could work, free of corruption and manipulation. John Lewis Gaddis identifies the Soviet leader’s enthusiasm as “ideological romanticism” and how Khrushchev “risked his own revolution, his country, and possibly the world as a whole . . . He was like a petulant child playing with a loaded gun.” Khrushchev himself was also facing pressure on the home front, in similar ways that Kennedy was. He had to demonstrate a strong stance against the US to appease those who questioned his resolve and allegiances in the Kremlin, to uphold his image as a ruthless and powerful Soviet leader. He had to stand up to “the hard liners in the Politburo” and assert his authority, as historian John Hughes-Wilson argues. He wanted to alter the strategic balance of the world political climate, in particular the nuclear imbalance and the “Missile Gap”, and assert the USSR’s superiority once more. John Hughes-Wilson also describes his need “to demonstrate his firmness to his fellow Communists against the principal adversary.” And he was ready “to flex his nuclear muscles”. Indeed, though the provocative actions by Khrushchev and the Soviet Union helped cause the missile crisis, the majority of them were merely retaliation to the actions committed under the aggressive US foreign policy. The primary source of Cold War tensions, however, remained around Berlin and Germany.

The continuing contention over Berlin and Germany only served to heighten the animosity between the US and the USSR. As John Hughes-Wilson states, for three years Khrushchev “had been sabre-rattling unsuccessfully over Berlin to try and achieve some solution to what the Kremlin saw as the problem of an ever more powerful West Germany.” And there was an incessant belief that the West simply did not comprehend their fears. Therefore, it was essential for them to have more power and leverage over the US, not only as a retaliation to the Jupiter missiles, and a catalyst for Latin American revolution, but as a deterrent to further US interference in Germany. John Lewis Gaddis concurs with this, stating, Khrushchev “hoped to resolve the increasingly inconvenient problem of having a capitalist enclave in the middle of communist East Germany.” In terms of US motivations surrounding this area, they believed that Cuba was merely a sideshow and decoy to remove the US attention away from Berlin, suspecting Khrushchev of hatching some other scheme to seize the rest of Berlin and Germany. Tensions between the two powers could not have been greater, not only in the military arena were they pitted against each other. As John Lewis Gaddis explains, following the fiasco that was the Bay of Pigs, “the Soviet Union’s success that month in putting the first man into orbit around the Earth” and a “badly handled summit conference at Vienna in June at which Khrushchev renewed his Berlin ultimatem” exacerbated the situation in Germany and heightened the Soviet leader’s low opinion of Kennedy. Both knew that Berlin would be the setting for any combat that could potentially break out and so it was a point of unrelenting animosity and political conflict. The contention over Berlin and Germany as a whole was instrumental in determining just how close the world came to nuclear war in October 1962, but it was not the prime cause of the crisis, as again it was determined by US foreign policy.

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The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was the closest the world has ever come to global annihilation. It was caused by an accumulation of several key events including aggressive US foreign policy, the legacy of the 1959 Cuban revolution, provocative Soviet actions, and the contention over Berlin and Germany. Though the conflict within Cuba and the overthrowal of Batista’s government was essential in creating the climate for which the crisis would take place in. As Robert Holmes states, “Fidel Castro was pleased with the Soviet Union” and fully in favour of the “agreement for the deployment of abundant quantities of weapons and equipment in Cuba, together with the tens of thousands of Soviet troops and advisers to manage them.” He enjoyed full support from Khrushchev, and the further actions of the USSR only served to heighten tensions. The situation in Berlin and Germany was also very important, but would not have been as drastic without the policies of the Soviet Union and the US. The Kennedy administration, demonstrated through the Bay of Pigs invasion, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Jupiter missiles, continually clashed with the interests of the USSR and eventually provoked Khrushchev into coming to Cuba’s defence, creating the crisis.

And as John Lewis Gaddis concludes, “the Cold War could have produced a hot war that might have ended human life on the planet. But because the fear of such a war turned out to be greater than all of the differences that separated the United States, the Soviet Union, and their respective allies, there was now reason for hope that it would never take place.” Therefore, the Cuban Missile Crisis was primarily induced by aggressive US foreign policy.