The History Behind Honduras: Gunboat Diplomacy Is Over

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 The recent coup in Honduras begs the question: What will the U.S. do?  There is a long history of American intervention in Central America–will this history repeat?  In a word–no.

Thanks for watching.

Dr. Art Pitz
The Professor’s House
Know the History–Understand the Choices

Keep Your Eyes on Iran’s Security Forces

In the midst of the current crisis in Iran, it would be easy to be thoroughly confused.  There is always a certain degree of fog in such a situation.


Cover of Khandaniha weekly during Iranian Revolution in 1979 (from Kebria's photostream under Creative Commons license)

Cover of Khandaniha weekly during Iranian Revolution in 1979 (from Kebria's photostream under Creative Commons license)

Protests can bring down regimes especially if the security forces disobey orders and/or go over to the side of the protestors or are not called on at all by the authorities.  That’s what happened with Iran under the Shah in 1979.  They refused to continue to use massive violence against the huge protests. 

Remember the collapse of the wall in Berlin in 1989.  Gorbachev decided not to send in the tanks—as Stalin or Brezhnev certainly would have done.  Louis XVI’s security broke down in the early stages of the French Revolution.  The Tsar’s apparatus disintegrated in 1917.

There are so many examples from history of events like this.  The regime in Ukraine fell apart just a few years ago due to huge protests.  Solidarity’s actions in Poland led to the collapse of communism there.  Segregation in the South came unglued due to the use of excessive force by Bull Connor in Birmingham.

Before you get too hopeful about all this, however, we must remember that not all large protests succeed.  Who can forget Tiananmen Square in China?  Or, few remember that King’s protests didn’t work in Albany, Georgia or in Chicago.  Coxey’s “Army” garnered no positive results from the administration in D.C. in 1894.  Neither the Bonus March or Hoovervilles inspired President Hoover to undertake large scale relief for the unemployed.

So, as you watch this Iranian crisis unfold, see what those with the weapons do.

Dr. Art Pitz
The Professor’s House
Know the History—Understand the Choices

Is Hungary a Cautionary Lesson for Iran?

President Obama is being criticized for not issuing strong statements in support of the pro-democracy forces in Iran.  Certainly, one can understand the appeal of this criticism as it would affirm our values and arguably could encourage those pro-democracy forces in Iran.

However, I am mindful of what happened when we did just that in Hungary in 1956.  The Eisenhower administration wanted to “roll back” Soviet communism and led the pro-democracy forces in Hungary to believe that American support would be forthcoming even in the face of a Soviet invasion.

When that invasion came, in large part because the Soviets did not like the public stance of the Eisenhower administration and the prospect of seeing a democratic regime arise on their doorstep, the United States was forced to either put up or shut up.  The Hungarian protesters waited in vain for help to come, but the U.S. was not going to intervene in opposition to Soviet tanks.

We should also remember 1991’s Desert Storm.  Then, President George H. W. Bush and his advisors along with many, perhaps most, Americans encouraged the Shiites and Kurds to rise up and overthrow Saddam Hussein.  They did, and we stood by and watched them get slaughtered.

What is the lesson here?  Unless we are prepared to intervene, militarily, we should do as President Obama is doing.  Even with his mild statements, Ayatollah Khameini has already accused the U.S. of meddling in their internal affairs.  Painful as it is, to say more, as many wish Obama would do, could lead to the exact opposite of what we wish to happen.

We are NOT prepared to intervene militarily in support of the pro-democracy forces in Iran.  We can and should appeal to the Iranians to settle their disputes without the use of force–as Obama has done.  If we have substantive proof that the recent election was a fraud, we can condemn that and urge our allies to do likewise. We certainly can honor the courage of the demonstrators and give our moral support. History has given us many examples of popular uprisings against oppression, and I’ll be drawing the comparisons as the situation in  Iran unfolds.

Dr. Art Pitz
The Professor’s House
Know the

Could Ahmadinejad Stop Health Care Reform?

As you may have witnessed, there have been a fair amount of comparisons of the current financial crisis with the Great Depression.  Recently, I attended a presentation on this topic by the well known American historian Dave Kennedy.  In his view, and I agree with his analysis, many of those comparisons are off the mark.

Why? The comparisons look at this crisis compared with the depths of the Great Depression in 1933.  Perhaps a better comparison would be from the start of each crisis (the 1929 Stock Market Crash and the collapse of Lehman Brothers) to a comparable date in 1930 with now.  If one does that, one can see that this crisis is actually worse than the one in 1930.  Unemployment now is higher, the decline in GDP is higher, the loss of home mortgages is worse, and more.

So, is this crisis going to wind up worse than what we had by the inauguration of FDR in March, 1933?

Probably not.  We have far more economic stabilizers in place and we have a willingness to use them.  We also have more knowledge of what it takes to deal with such a crisis.  The Federal Reserve is most unlikely to repeat its catastrophic mistakes in dealing with the Great Depression.  Congress is also not going to pass anything like the Smoot-Harley Tariff of 1930 which raised tariffs to the highest level ever and effectively shut down international trade.  Further, and perhaps most important, we are not dealing with Herbert Hoover’s unwillingness to unbalance the budget and to provide massive relief for those harmed by the Great Depression.  You might like to read the article on Hoover in the latest “American Heritage.” 

What we do have is an opportunity to address fundamental problems.  Given the nature of our checks and balances system, such opportunities come along rarely and don’t last long.  Rahm Emanuel is correct when he has been quoted as saying that we shouldn’t waste this crisis.  For example, Health Care reform ( “The protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use;…”) has been an issue ever since the Progressive Party in 1912 made it an issue.  We have successfully provided for unemployment insurance and Social Security, but have yet to protect all “against the hazards of sickness”.  President Obama is probably right when he said that if we didn’t get health care taken care of now then we might have to wait a long time to get it done.

The trick will be to provide a government insurance option that doesn’t drive private health insurance out of business.  We’ve been able to do that with Medicare so we should be able to do that for all.  Further, President Obama is not going to repeat the errors that Hilary and Bill Clinton did in 1993.  It is worth adding that we have a bipartisan consensus that we need to help provide for those who are unable to provide health insurance for themselves.

President Obama has been heavily criticized for taking on so many issues at the same time.  But, he has read the history and knows that any willingess to resolve those issues will not stick around long.  If affairs in Iran, Afghanistan, or Iraq really go south, for example, then don’t count on much consensus on domestic issues.  Remember the Vietnam War?  The reform impetus of the 1890’s was drowned out by the trumpets of the Spanish-American War; the Progressive Era by WWI, the New Deal by the gathering storms of WWII; the Fair Deal by the Red Scare and the Korean War; and LBJ’s Great Society by Vietnam. 

Seems to be an obvious pattern here.  How do you think this will play out?

Dr. Art Pitz
The Professor’s House
Know the History–Understand the Choices

Cold War Left Overs: North Korea Today

North Korea is the one remaining hot spot left over from the Cold War, and the chance of the regime changing anytime soon are almost nonexistent. To understand North Korea today, it helps to take a look at its past.  Korea was long under Chinese control and/or influence until Japan took it over in the aftermath of the Sino-Japanese War in 1895.  Japanese imperialism was arguably one of the worst forms of imperialism and Korea suffered mightily under their rule.

Japanese control lasted until the last days of World War II.  At that point, Korea was arbitrarily divided between the Soviets in the North and the Americans in the South.  It is doubtful that either side could have imagined that that split would have lasted so long.  It is useful to note that Korea was not a high priority for either country at that time.

It was normal in 1945 for the Soviets to craft a state in their image in the North while the South became more American.  The Soviets were led by Josef Stalin and therein lies almost all of the problems we face with North Korea today.  It is the one remaining Stalinist regime on the planet, and the Korean division is a remnant of the Cold War.  South Korea has been a stunning success story given the miserable shape it was in at the end of the Korean War.  American involvement in the Korean War along with the United Nations helped midwife this long term success.

What does it mean to say that North Korea is a Stalinist system?  “Horrid” effectively captures the meaning.  Kim Il Sung rules through a secret police and has a totalitarian regime of the worst possible sort.  Stalinism means paranoia, a passion for secrecy, no rule of law, no civil rights of any kind, and a brutal, repressive regime.  Stalin brought on famine for large numbers of Soviets and so has the North Koreans.  It is hard to find any redeeming virtues in such a nation.

It is not surprising therefore that the North Koreans would seek to have nuclear weapons.  So did Stalin.  They see having nukes as essential for their security and as useful bargaining chips.

Well, what can be done?  Containment seems advisable in such a way as to lead eventually to the mellowing of this country.  That’s what the U.S. did with Stalin and North Korea has nowhere near the power of the former Soviet Union.  We have to be very patient and into containment for the long haul.  We have some bargaining power since they are so poor and hungry.  Whatever we do has to be done in concert with China and Japan.  A lone ranger policy here would be a foolish venture.

The main concern, arguably, is that North Korea may export their expertise to other rogue states.  Iran comes to mind, for example.  It seems unlikely that North Korea would use their weapons to attack South Korea for then our nuclear arsenal comes into play.  Any North Korean attack would kill American soldiers and no American administration is likely to stand still for that.  So, our policy should be designed to do as much as possible to keep North Korea from exporting what they know.  Maybe, we can offer enough carrots to wean them off of their nuclear program though this may be doubtful.

Do you see any other options for dealing with North Korea?

Dr. Art Pitz
The Professor’s House
Know the History–Understand the Choices

The History Behind Guantanamo

With all of the current controversy over the use of waterboarding and other questionable interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, I am reminded of how we acquired the base in the first place.  The U.S. coerced ownership of this place from newly quasi-independent Cuba in the aftermath of the Spanish American War.


 Indeed.  Without reviewing here the background reasons for the Spanish-American War, we can say that the U.S. indulged in a binge of imperialism in its aftermath.  The U.S. defeated Spain in the war and took over Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines as a result.

 As for Cuba, the U.S. had allegedly fought on behalf of Cuba’s independence from imperialist Spain.  Cuba did become free of the Spanish yoke only to exchange that yoke for an American one.  The U.S. imposed the Platt Amendment upon the new Cuban government whereby the U.S. retained the right to intervene at any time to defend American, not Cuban, interests in the island.  This Amendment was even placed within Cuba’s new Constitution.

 In addition, the U.S. insisted upon and received Guantanamo as a base.  If you look at a map of the Caribbean, you can readily understand why.  Guantanamo coupled with ownership of the Florida Keys and Puerto Rico put the U.S. in a position to make the Caribbean into an American lake.  And, so it became.

 Given this imperialistic background, it is perhaps not too surprising that allegedly nefarious undertakings would transpire at this base in our era.  Read about the actions taken by the American Army in putting down the Filipino revolt in the early 20th century and one wonders if we have indeed learned from our past.

Art Pitz
The Professor’s House

Historical Memory vs Holocaust Deniers

I recently returned from a tour of Holocaust sites in Poland with a group of my university students. Standing in places like the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto, the Maidanek concentration camp near Lublin, or Auschwitz-Birkenau, I thought more about the mentality of Holocaust deniers and their chances of success.

When I teach on the Holocaust, as I am now, I am often asked: “What is going to happen when all of the survivors are gone?”  In essence, I’m being asked, “Will there be more Holocaust deniers and will they be more likely to be listened to?

This is a legitimate concern.  Even with some survivors left (such as Elie Wiesel), there have been a significant amount of Holocaust deniers–especially in the Middle Eastern Islamic world.

Now, how is this possible?  How can someone deny the mounds and mounds of evidence?  Isn’t this akin to believing that the world is flat?

It is, but it is far more malicious.  My experience has been that such deniers almost always have an agenda.  Denying the Holocaust is a way to deligitimize the existence of Israel.  The argument goes like this: since the imperialist west had guilt feelings over its treatment of Jews, they overlooked the legitimate national aspirations of Palestinian Arabs to foist Israel upon the map.  This anti-Zionism is but warmed over anti-semitism.

Will this cottage industry gain more traction once the survivors are gone?  It is not enough to say that this won’t happen since we have the recorded testimonies of so many survivors (along with those of perpetrators and bystanders).  After all, it shouldn’t be happening right now, but it is.

I am sorry to say that as long as there is a widespread desire to wipe Israel off the map that denial will continue to exist.  Whether it will spread once the survivors are gone is hard to say.  If the Middle Eastern Islamic world is finally willing to come to terms with Israel’s existence then this denial will not have such potent force.  But, until then, such denial will continue and it has the potential to capture more adherents particularly amongst the non Middle Eastern Islamic world that seeks to demonize Israel.

This means that, if anything, it is even more imperative that we continue to teach about the Holocaust.  To fail to do so would give Adolf Hitler a posthumous victory.

Dr. Art Pitz
The Professor’s House

Remember Communism and the Cold War?

Television interview in Lublin, Poland, March 10, 2009

I recently returned from a 10-day tour of Holocaust sites in Poland with Suzanne and a group of St. Ambrose University students. For most of the students on the trip, communism and the Cold War are ancient history, but not to the Polish people.

For them, even World War II is a fresh and poignant memory. The second largest group, after Jews, to perish in Nazi concentration and death camps were Poles. The Poles faced the Nazis destruction of over 90% of Warsaw as a consequence of the Warsaw uprising, then their liberators were the Soviet army. If you remember the history, Poland was then occupied as part of the USSR until 1989. I have great respect for the Polish people.

When Suzanne and I lived in Slovakia in 1996-97 and again from 2001-03, we had an opportunity to experience firsthand the difficulties of transitioning from the communist system. We shared offices with professors at Prešov University, who had been members of the Communist Party, the people we regarded as dangerous enemies when we were growing up. They, of course, felt the same about us. What a shock it was to us when we began meeting people who, instead of being as thrilled as we were that the Soviet system had collapsed, were nostalgic about the social securites they enjoyed under communism and very apprehensive about the future.

While we were in Lublin, in eastern Poland where the Maidanek concentration camp still stands, I got to be a momentary celebrity when I was intereviewed for the evening news by the local TV station. I also gave a lecture at John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin on the causes of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet system, and the results. If you’re interested in this topic, please take time to listen.

The Collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union
re-recording of a lecture 49 minute lecture delivered March 11 in Lublin, Poland

Dr. Art Pitz
The Professor’s House

Will the Stimulus Package Produce Only Low-Wage Jobs?

One of my readers emailed this excellent question in response to two of my previous posts, “Abraham Lincoln’s Economic Stimulus Package” and “When Deficit Spending Worked Wonders.”  Let me begin with Lincoln and the Transcontinental Railroad, which produced a sizable number of construction jobs that paid reasonably well and a strong  multiplier effect.

The problem was not so much the pay but the danger in those jobs. Workers often had to work in difficult weather conditions a long way from anything in particular.  Shelter was rudimentary as well as sanitation.  More importantly, it was very hard work and there were a fair number of accidents on the job in the days of no workman’s compensation. 

Mural in Coit Tower in San Francisco created through the Public Works of Art Project in 1934 ( photo by sarah1rene under Creative Commons license)

Let’s fast forward to the Great Depression and the New Deal.  Here, it is true that most of the new government jobs only paid minimum wage. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was a case in point.  It employed eight million people, but mostly in minimum wage jobs. But, very little work was available so this was better than nothing.  Further, the New Deal didn’t want to attract workers away from the good-paying jobs that did exist.

It is highly unlikely that the jobs the Obama Stimulus Plan will “create or save” will be primarily minimum wage. The money in the plan will go mostly to private firms through contracts, not to direct employment. True, beginning with Bush, the federal government did nationalize Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac along with several big investment banks. But, nationalization in the financial sector has not produced low wage jobs.

It is better to pay attention to the example provided by FDR during WWII.  Here, there were millions of defense-related jobs.  And, they paid quite well–so well, in fact, that most workers were able to save a considerable amount especially in WWII Savings Bonds.  Part of this was enforced savings. There were few consumer goods available during the war due to wartime rationing and because most industries had retooled to produce weaponry.

The current Stimulus Plan will not rely on defense-related jobs.  While the U.S. is engaged in two wars, it is not likely that the U.S. government will move to mass produce vast quantities of weapons, and it is questionable whether we have the manufacturing base to do what we did during WWII.  To be effective, the Stimulus Plan will have to produce better-paying jobs through private sector employment. Fortunately, jobs in many of the areas targeted by the Stimulus Package, such as construction, have had moderately good pay and benefit in recent years, thanks in part to the influence of labor unions.

I don’t think the jobs resulting from the Stimulus Plan will be primarily low wage jobs, but what do you think?

Dr. Art Pitz
The Professor’s House

Arab-Israeli Conflict, part 4

(50 minutes)   To listen offline, download the mp3 file (right click and save target as)

Golan Heights Gun from Six Day War by hoyasmeg ( under Creative Commons license

This is the last of my series on the Arab-Israeli conflict. It covers issues resulting from the Six-Day War in 1967. It’s important to understand these issues because they are the same issues that will have to be resolved to achieve a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians. This session deals with:

  • An explanation of the causes and results of the Six-Day War
  • Existential issues: Does Israel have a right to exist?
  • A look at the other issues dividing Arabs and Israelis

Thanks for listening. If you have questions about the Arab-Israeli conflict, please leave a comment. I’ll try to answer there or in a future blog post.

Dr. Art Pitz
The Professor’s House