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Tag: prologue blog

The OSS and the Dalai Lama

OSS spies Brooke Dolan and Ilia Tolstoy traveling to Lhasa (still from "Inside Tibet", Records of the Office of Strategic Services)

OSS spies Brooke Dolan and Ilia Tolstoy traveling to Lhasa (still from "Inside Tibet," Records of the Office of Strategic Services)

In the summer of 1942, the Allies’ war against Japan was in dire straits. China was constantly battling the occupying Japanese forces in its homeland, supplied by India via the Burma Road. Then Japan severed that supply artery. Planes were flown over the Himalayan mountains, but their payloads were too little, and too many pilots crashed in the desolate landscape to continue the flights.

The Allies were desperate to find a land route that would reconnect China and India. The task fell to two OSS men—Ilia Tolstoy, the grandson of Leo Tolstoy, and explorer Capt. Brooke Dolan. To complete the land route would require traversing Tibet, and to traverse the hidden country required the permission of a seven-year-old boy, the Dalai Lama.

When the two men arrived in Lhasa, the remote capital of Tibet, these spies were received as ambassadors. A military brass band played, and they were treated as guests of honor in a city that only a few decades earlier had forbidden Westerners to enter.

They came carrying a message from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. On December 20, at 9:20 in the morning, they were granted an audience with His Holiness. As a further sign of his respect for these two emissaries, the … [ Read all ]

Lincoln to slaves: go somewhere else

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DC Emancipation Act, April 1862 showing money to be set aside for deportation (ARC 299814)

The issue of slavery divided the country under Abraham  Lincoln’s Presidency. The national argument was simple: either keep slavery or abolish it. But Abraham Lincoln, known as the Great Emancipator, may have also been known as the Great Colonizer when he supported a third direction to the slavery debate: move African Americans somewhere else.

Long before the Civil War, in 1854, Lincoln addressed his own solution to slavery at a speech delivered in Peoria, Illinois: “I should not know what to do as to the existing institution [of slavery]. My first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia, to their own native land.” While Lincoln acknowledged this was logistically impossible, by the time he assumed the Presidency and a Civil War was underfoot, the nation was in such duress that he tried it anyway.

By early 1861, Lincoln ordered a secret trip to modern-day Panama to investigate the land of a Philadelphian named Ambrose Thompson. Thompson had volunteered his Chiriqui land as a refuge for freed slaves. The slaves would work in the abundant coal mines on his property, the coal would be sold to the Navy, and the profits would go to the freed slaves to further build up their new land.

Lincoln sought to … [ Read all ]

Thanksgiving, as American as apple pie

Here, in short, are the documents that made Thanksgiving.

George Washington's proclamation to give thanks for the Constitution and the country (ARC Identifier 299956)

George Washington's proclamation to give thanks for the Constitution and the country (ARC Identifier 299956)

On October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789, as an official holiday of “sincere and humble thanks.” The nation then celebrated its first Thanksgiving under its new Constitution.

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Page one of Lincoln's Thanksgiving Procalamation which set the holiday as the fourth Thursday in November (ARC 299960)

On October 3, 1863, President Lincoln made the traditional Thanksgiving celebration a nationwide holiday to be commemorated each year on the fourth Thursday of November. In the midst of a bloody Civil War, President Lincoln issued a Presidential Proclamation in which he enumerated the blessings of the American people and called upon his countrymen to “set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.”

The House Joint Resolution Making the Last Thursday in November a Legal Holiday, Pearl Harbor had occured just over two weeks earlier (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives)

The House Joint Resolution Making the Last Thursday in November a Legal Holiday. FDR would sign this into law on December 26, just two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives)

In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday of November to lengthen the Christmas shopping season and boost the economy which was still recovering from the Depression. This move, which set off a … [ Read all ]

Facial Hair Friday: Civil War Beards on Film

Civil War veterans at the Blue and Grey Reunion. This is a screen from the "Inside the Vaults" video short.

Civil War veterans at the Blue and Gray Reunion. This is a screen from the "Inside the Vaults" video short.

Yesterday was Veterans Day, and many of my friends on Facebook posted tributes to their family and friends, usually mentioning their grandfathers who fought in World War II.

Now, World War II was over 60 years ago, but I personally know WWII vets—my own grandfather and great-uncle. And my father knew family members who were WWI vets.

It is easy to think of historical events as happening in the long-ago past, in a vacuum where wars have a beginning and end rather than as lives that overlap from one event to another. But things run into each other—Theodore Roosevelt saw Lincoln’s funeral, and Roosevelt’s  son Ted served in World War I and later was on the beach in Normandy in WWII, directing the troops as they came ashore.

But still, I was jolted when I saw the film footage of Civil War veterans. After all—the Civil War ended in 1865, before the invention of cars or telephone or airplanes. But there they were in motion, men who had been on the field at Gettysburg, chatting and talking, their long white beards blowing in the wind.

They were filmed in 1938, 20 years after WWI and just a few years before WWII. They had grown up with horses and trains, and they arrived … [ Read all ]

The peculiar story of Wilmer McLean

At left, Wilmer McLean's house where the Civil War began. At right, Wilmer McLean's house where the Civil War ended (111-B-4756, and 111-B-6333)

At left, Wilmer McLean's house where the Civil War 'began.' At right, Wilmer McLean's house where the Civil War ended. (111-B-4756 and 111-B-6333)

Today Part Two of “Discovering the Civil War” opens at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The exhibit is divided into a few sections, the last of which is entitled “Endings and Beginnings,” a reference to the end of the Civil War and the start of Reconstruction. As to the beginning and the end of the Civil War itself, there is only one man who book-ended it so literally. His name was Wilmer McLean.

On July 18, 1861, Confederate General Beauregard had sat down for supper in the home of a Manassas local when a cannonball pierced through the house and landed in the kitchen fireplace. It was something of a surprise, but not so overwhelming as to ruin Beauregard’s sense of humor “A comical effect of this artillery fight was the destruction of the dinner of myself and staff by a Federal shell that fell into the fire-place of my headquarters at the McLean House,” he wrote in his diary. Perhaps the shell would have been more of a shock had it not been just one of many volleys in the first major campaign of the Civil War: the Battle of Bull Run.

The house belonged to a man named … [ Read all ]