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Another Redirect…

September 8, 2013 2 comments

To a small slice of history from my home of Santa Fe, originally posted on my personal blog. Hope my faithful readers–all six of you–enjoy it.

 

A Slice of History

Napoleon of the Stump

April 14, 2013 Leave a comment

For the last several months, for two hours a week, I have been locked in a soundproof room with James K. Polk. Yes, that Polk: 11th President, architect of the war with Mexico, subject of a They Might Be Giants Song (alas, to my ear, not one of their best efforts; I suppose they thought the obscurity of the subject was good enough.  Me, I would have gone for Millard Fillmore).

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

Polk, from an earlier edition of the diary.

OK, I am not actually locked into that little booth. And of course Mr. Polk has been dead for some 160 years. What I am doing is recording his diary for the New Mexico State Library’s division for the blind. It’s very similar to the volunteer gig I did a few years ago in Chicago, with one main difference. There, we read books requested by our clients, and multiple readers did one book. Here, it’s one reader, one book. And the readers choose the books to record.

Yes, that’s right, I chose to read aloud Polk: The Diary of a President 1845 1849 (edited and annotated by esteemed historian Allan Nevins), thinking some hearing-impaired person might be longing to share in its wonders too.

Gotta keep those History Nerd bona fides up.

Actually, the diary makes some sense for our library. We try to focus on books that have some appeal to Southwestern clients, and what could be more relevant than getting the perspective of the president who brought much of that region into the Union? And it seemed right up my alley to choose something that would give me new insight into one of our presidents—perhaps a bit of a controversial one—given my role at Biographers International Organization (here’s a sample of the newsletter I edit, for the curious). Finally, if I’m gonna read a book out loud, it might as well be about history, since that is my vocation.

I say Polk is controversial because as a champion of manifest destiny at the expense of Mexico, he seems to have tapped early on some of the imperialist impulses that truly emerged some 50 years later, and there was a chauvinistic element in his attitude toward the Mexicans. And of course he was all for letting slavery expand into America’s newly gained Western lands. Or am I wrong?

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

A scene from the war that added more than 500,000 square miles to the United States.

In his introduction, Nevins offers a historiographical view of Polk that dismisses earlier claims such as those. He says an “anti-slavery interpretation of the Mexican War” led late 19th-century historians to paint Polk as a conqueror marked by “Machiavellian adroitness” who lied to Congress—or suppressed facts, as Nevins puts it, to get a war with Mexico he already wanted. Not so, Nevins claims: Polk was honest and conscientious, if stiff and mediocre, and not capable of “deceit and double dealing.” (Of course, there is this observation of Polk from a contemporary political adversary, John Quincy Adams, who called him a “slaveholding exterminator of Indians.”)

Nevins wrote in 1952; later historians were more apt to side with their 19th-century brethren in assessing Polk’s aims and attitudes. After all, he ran on a Democratic platform in 1844 that was staunchly expansionist. Still, as one college textbook from 2000 notes, war was not inevitable with Mexico; Polk just “made decisions and carried them out in ways that exacerbated already existing tensions and made war difficult to avoid.” In the end, the authors claim, Polk was lucky things turned out as well as they did, but many of the gains he sought—primarily California and the Rio Grande as a border with Mexico—might have been obtained without a war that killed 50,000 Mexicans and left many others under the rule of a Protestant, Anglo-Saxon nation that disdained them.

H. W. Brands, writing in 2002 (The Age of Gold) emphasizes that California was the prize Polk truly craved. He asked Mexico to sell the land; when it refused, Brands says, “Polk determined to take California by force.” Not a vote for casting the Mexican War as an accidental conflict, I don’t think. And, apropos of the Adams’ description quoted above, the 2003 work Slavemaster President: The Double Career of James Polk, by William Dusinberre, shows how Polk’s Southern roots and slave holdings shaped his pro-slavery political views, including support for the gag rule in the House.

So what does the Polk diary reveal about the man? To be fair, I’m only about halfway through, but he does come across as someone who knows his “private” words will be read by others (as surely all president have for generations, if not all the way back to Washington). He also also endured something modern presidents I’m sure are glad to be done with: entertaining complete strangers who come to the White House seeking handouts and loans. Not government money, mind you, but Polk’s personal funds. Perhaps that’s what made him seem so humorless, except when recounting his exasperation with Congressmen and others seeking political favors (so glad that practice has ended). He also seemed to keep close track of personal and political slights, sometimes impugning the motives of those who disagreed with him, showing some of the self-righteousness and pettiness he has been criticized for by some historians.

I don’t particularly like the Polk who emerges from his own words, but that probably reflects my biases. But like anyone else, he has his high and low moments. He condemns one Protestant minister seeking a chaplaincy in the army for his “abuse of Catholics and…fanaticism,” and he made a personal loan of $100 in gold to a Congressman, even as he deplored the man’s descent into alcoholism (the lawmaker soon after killed himself, leaving Polk to comment on the “melancholy” of intemperance). Yet Polk also had derogatory views of the Mexicans (though not an uncommon stance for Americans of the day), and he found it amusing when a Portuguese diplomat gave a “solemn account” of the queen of Portugal’s miscarriage. Huh?

I’ve seen several sources that say at one time Polk was often included in historians’ lists of the top ten presidents, primarily, I assume, because of the huge expansion of the country that went down on his watch. A 2010 poll I found still had him highly ranked, at #12. So, as I keep reading and recording, I’ll try to keep an open mind about Young Hickory.

And dead last in that survey? Andrew Johnson. I don’t think I’ll be reading his diary any time soon.

Thoughts of Persia

April 18, 2012 2 comments

Mitt Romney has a history problem. I’m not talking about his personal history; his public persona suggests his worst infraction was sneaking a sip out of a bottle of Coke behind the family’s sprawling Bloomfield Hills home. No, I mean he has a problem getting the facts of history right, as an op-ed piece he wrote to rattle his saber at Iran shows. The thrust of the piece was to paint Barack Obama as weak in the face of Iran’s rising nuclear threat, and he would be different, by gum. He started the piece by referring back to the release of the U.S. hostages on January 20, 1981, just minutes after Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president.

The hostages, back on U.S. soil, after more than a year in Iranian custody.

To Romney, the release was Iran’s acknowledgment that they faced some tough times under Reagan’s watch if the hostages weren’t freed (not, as is widely accepted, because months of negotiations and internal Iranian concerns led Ayatollah Khomeini to agree to their release). Yup, why Reagan was so tough on the Iranians, he secretly sold them weapons, in violation of U.S. law and his own promise never to deal with terrorists. Yeah, Romney pines for the good ol’ days, under Sheriff Ronnie. You probably won’t hear too much from Romney on the Iran-contra scandal…

Attending Phyllis Bennis’s recent talk about U.S.-Iranian relations got me thinking about the shared history of those two countries. The recent past, with the hostages and ever-tense relations often inflamed by bellicose rhetoric, has not been pretty. But the History Nerd wondered: Was it always thus?

Our man in Tabriz…

Depends on who you ask, I guess. Justin Perkins recounted receiving some good treatment at the hands of the Muslim government of Persia, circa 1835. Perkins was the first American missionary to live in what we now call Iran, arriving there in 1834 with his wife. His mission was to work with the Nestorians, a Christian sect that traced its roots back to a 5th-century dispute over the teachings of Nestorius. The Persian Nestorians lived in and near the mountains of Kurdistan. Perkins not only had to deal with a foreign culture as he spread Congregationalist teachings and general learning. He also confronted religious obstacles in the form of local superstitions and “papal errors” that had crept into Nestorianism, the latter courtesy of missionaries sent from Rome. Perkins’s son recounts these years in Persia in the biography he wrote of his father, noting that even though the Nestorians were surrounded by “the gross darkness of Mohammedanism,” the land’s Muslim rulers treated the elder Perkins well.  One member of the ruling family ordered that Perkins and his associate have army protection, as thanks for their “attending to the education of the people, and render[ing] the people useful by teaching them European science.”

Learn more about those ancient Persian empires in a book by yours truly.

The Americans and Iranians first established official diplomatic relations during the 1880s. (An earlier trade treaty had been negotiated but never put into effect.) By this time, Persia was still an independent nation, but a shell of the great empire it had once been. Actually, three separate empires had risen and crumbled in the region, starting with the Achaemenid dynasty of the 6th century BCE. By the 19th century, however, Persia had become another battleground in the “Great Game” between Russia and Great Britain for dominance in Central Asia. The glory of Cyrus and Darius and Mithridates and, yes, even  Khosrow I, was long past.

That point was forcefully driven home in 1919, when the Anglo-Persian Agreement gave the British virtual control of Iran. The people, as U.S. State Department correspondence indicates, were incensed by their government’s capitulation, but feared demonstrating against it because of the presence of British troops. One report said that Iran’s intelligentsia realized some foreign influence was inevitable, and “they would have welcomed such on the part of the United States.” Persians hoped for some sort of American remedy, and some were disappointed when it never came. The rising tide of nationalism, though, led to the takeover of the government in 1921 by the first Pahlavi shah, the father of the infamous shah who would be one of the greatest U.S. allies in the region—and a player in the later hostage crisis.

U.S. troops prepare to move supplies along the Persian Corridor.

By this time, a discovery beneath Persian soils set the groundwork for those deepening U.S.-Iranian ties. The country had oil, lots of it. And as we all know, America would eventually need some of that oil, and a general balance of power in the region that favored its interests. But Americans did not arrive in any force in Iran until World War II. Fearing a German takeover of the country (the first shah had established close ties to Germany), the Soviet Union and Great Britain invaded Iran in 1941. A small number of U.S. troops and civilians arrived to help move supplies through Iran–the so-called Persian Corridor–to Russia and keep oil flowing to the Allies. The Americans built roads and operated plants that made vehicles and aircraft for the Soviets. Thousands of Iranian civilians also took part in these efforts.

At the end of the war the Soviet Union was not happy, because it didn’t have the oil interests that the Brits and Americans had secured during the war. Joseph Stalin tried to reassert old Russian influence over northern Iran, supporting rebels there. He ended that support in April 1946, and Iranian troops, working with a U.S. military adviser, crushed the rebellion. The Soviets were out of what was a historical sphere of influence for them, and we were in. But U.S. leaders would continue to fear Communist influence in Iran and do whatever they had to do to keep a friendly regime in power there.

Those steps included using the CIA to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government in 1953 and putting the second Pahlavi shah onto the Peacock Throne. This part of the story is more familiar, so I won’t go into detail. Suffice to say, said shah used petrodollars and cozy U.S. relations to build a brutal dictatorship, which led to the revolution of 1978 and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. Which begat the hostage crisis and 30-plus years of tensions and talks of going to war with an Iran that supposedly covets nukes, to intimidate Israel and no doubt tweak the Americans yet again.

To the Iranians, Iranian-American professor Vali Nasr claims, 1953 was a motivating factor in the future animosity between Iran and the United States. The U.S.-inspired coup was a “humiliation,” one that was “exorcised by the taking of the American hostages in 1979.” The Iranian nationalism that first emerged during the 1920s had been stoked anew, and remains today, even if many Iranians oppose the new authoritarian regime that replaced the old one (“Meet the new boss…”).

What do the Iranians think of the tough talk from a Romney or other Americans? Efraim Halevy, a  former head of Israeli intelligence, said that Romney’s op-ed piece could fuel Iran’s desire to quickly do more work on a weapon, before Romney—conceivably—wins the election. But Iran’s real concern was not building a bomb, Halevy asserted, but preserving its regime, as economic sanctions begin to take effect. Whatever happens, our relations with Iran will remain complex–perhaps a little too much so for the historically challenged Romney.

Unknown Moments

January 19, 2012 Leave a comment

Coal miners battling for their rights in West Virginia. Scandal tainting the national pastime. Piranhas on the loose. All not-so-stellar moments in our country’s history, but ones presented to a vaster audience than most history books reach, thanks to the pen and camera of filmmaker John Sayles.

(OK, the last bit is not part of our history, but Sayles did write the script for Piranha in his days working as a hired gun for B-film producer extraordinaire, Roger Corman.)

The author and filmmaker

Sayles is also a novelist, and he was in town last night to discuss his latest book, the historical novel A Moment in the Sun. I haven’t read it, but I know the near-1,000 page tome covers, as usual, parts of our history most American don’t know about—and that some flag-waving types would probably prefer we all ignore. Why dwell on the details of stomping out foreign freedom fighters or denying blacks their rights, when we are at heart God’s chosen country?

Yeah.

The decidedly leftist Sayles does want to dwell on the details, as he writes about the only insurrection in U.S. history, led by white supremacists against the duly elected black officials of Wilmington, NC. And as he takes a look at the bloody—some might say ruthless and/or barbaric—squashing of a rebellion in the Philippines, as locals who had successfully battled Spain for independence had a tougher time against the Yanks. Both events took place in 1898 (though the Filipino insurrection stretched on for several years), in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war.

The new(ish) book

Sayler read a chapter (a whole freakin’ chapter; it was the longest reading by an author that I’ve ever attended…) which describes the life of a NYC “newsie” trying to sell papers announcing the start of that war. Newspapers, or one in particular—William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal—is often cited as the fanner of flames to get America into the war, after the mysterious explosion of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor. (Modern consensus—it was an accident, not some deliberate attack by Spanish forces, which then controlled Cuba.) And the refrain through the chapter was “War!” shouted out by our streetwise hero and the other kids trying to make a buck hawking papers.

I’m not an expert on the era, but I did notice one historical inaccuracy in the chapter: The narrator talks of the newsie putting one of his hard-earned pennies, a “Lincoln,” into a Mutoscope, an early motion-picture machine. Only problem is, the first Lincoln penny did not appear until 1909. Oops. But the chapter was filled with wonderful dialogue and a fine eye for historical detail—including the marked attention to ethnicity paid by the characters-from-many-backgrounds. We have, of course, transcended that today…

Emilio Aguinaldo--first pres of the Philippines, captured rebel leader

Afterward, Sayles and fellow author Francisco Goldman talked about the book, Sayles’s creative process, and a bit about his latest film, Amigo, which covers some of the same territory as the book. Sayles noted that he didn’t know about the war in the Philippines until his mid 30s—not a sign of his lack of intelligence, but of the general effort, deliberate or not, to whitewash that first major American intervention.

I dug out an old high-school textbook from the 1970s. Its references to the Filipino insurrection: one sentence about the Filipinos taking up arms “in open revolt against the United States” and another about the general news blackout regarding the “war to suppress Emilio Aguinaldo and his Filipino patriots.” And this from a book written by generally liberal—or at least mainstream—historians. In 2006, in a different kind of book, historian David Traxel wrote about the Progressive Era and the country’s role in World War I. Crusader Nation, its subtitle says, is about the “United States in Peace and the Great War, 1898-1920.” Which implies all was peaceful from the end of the Spanish-American War until 1914, but Sayles, and the tens of thousands of Filipinos killed by American guns, knew better. I found no mention of the insurrection in Crusader Nation.

But I found some telling quotes about the war, and America’s foray into imperialism, while writing a short historical play a few years back. It was called “Truth, Justice, And…” and it riffed on comments by-then president George W. Bush, suggesting that the horrors of Abu Ghraib (a bit before the even-worse horrors of Haditha), were an anomaly; violence, especially toward the innocent, is just not part of the American character. The play suggests otherwise, as do some of these quotes I found from some of the young American soldiers sent to battle the Filipinos:

“It was like hunting rabbits; an insurgent would jump out of a hole or the brush and run; he would not get very far…. I suppose you are not interested in the way we do the job. We do not take prisoners.”

“…legs and arms nearly demolished; total decapitation; horrible wounds in chests and abdomens, showing the determination of our soldiers to kill every native in sight. The Filipinos did stand their ground heroically, contesting every inch, but proved themselves unable to stand the deadly fire of our well-trained and eager boys in blue. I counted seventy-nine dead natives in one small field, and learn that on the other side of the river their bodies were stacked up for breastworks.”

“We burned hundreds of houses and looted hundreds more. Some of the boys made good hauls of jewelry and clothing.”

Some soldiers, though, then as now, were not altogether thrilled with their mission:

“They are fighting for a good cause, and the Americans should be the last of all nations to transgress upon such rights. Their independence is dearer to them than life, as ours was in years gone by, and is today. They should have their independence…”

(You can find these and other quotes here.)

Sayles said that much of our present position—I assume he means as an intervening nation—started with the war in the Philippines. It certainly made us an imperial power, which is what some American leaders wanted. Other voices, however, did speak out against taking on the “white men’s burden”; Mark Twain comes to mind. But then as now, the forces that speak for fighting wars when we have not been attacked always seem to get more play than those that oppose killing foreigners for exaggerated claims of “national security.” The Filipinos certainly learned that, even if most Americans–still–don’t.

There Will Be No Blood

December 25, 2011 2 comments

Faithful readers know that it doesn’t take much to set the History Nerd into a tizzy. Just a few words can do it, as this post on the Civil War shows. This week, it was the simple phrase “bloodless conquest.” A circular from the History Book Club (the HN has been a faithful member for decades) used that phrase while promoting a new book on Stephen Kearny’s trek into California during the Mexican War. Along the way to what would become the Golden State, Kearny traveled through New Mexico, taking control of the territory for the United States. That’s where the offending phrase came in.

The sanctuary that wasn't.

The ordeal here in the Land of Enchantment, HBC’s blurb claimed, was a “bloodless conquest.” Hmm, I thought, what about the remains of that church at Taos Pueblo I’ve written about before? Didn’t the cannon fire that reduced it to rubble spill some blood too?

I suppose the copy meant bloodless in the sense of no large-scale clash of armies, and that was certainly true. When the Mexican War began, the governor of New Mexico was Manuel Armijo, a local wealthy landowner. He asked Mexico for more troops and began to muster a volunteer force. About 1,700 U.S. soldiers under Kearny were soon on their way from Kansas to New Mexico, and they knew who the enemy’s leader was. As they marched the Americans sang a little tune with words penned by one of their own: “Oh, what a joy to fight the dons, and wallop fat Armijo! So clear the way to Santa Fe! With that we all agree, O!”

Kearny’s men reached New Mexico in August. Armijo never received the promised reinforcements (unlike in 1841, when the Mexican government sent aid to thwart a planned attack by Texans intent on seizing New Mexico for themselves—perhaps one reason among many why Texans are still somewhat scorned here today?), and he knew his local volunteers were no match for the Americans. Also influencing him were several Americans who acted as emissaries for the U.S. government. The story goes, among Anglo sources at least, that Armijo was persuaded to abandon any thought of resistance, with some greenbacks making the decision a little easier for the guv to make. The state historian here disputes that Armijo took a bribe. In any event, the governor left Santa Fe for Chihuahua and Kearny took control unopposed. It was, as New Mexican historian Marc Simmons notes, the first time U.S. troops had conquered a foreign capital. Manifest Destiny, indeed!

Some New Mexicans welcomed the commander and his troops. After all, they were American immigrants who had settled there years before. But the Spanish and Indian populations were not as thrilled. Wealthy landowners in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, fearing the inevitable Anglo land grab, began organizing a rebellion by the end of 1846. Details of the plan leaked out and the leaders were arrested. But to the north in Taos, new leaders emerged, determined to fight for their land (proving once again that one man’s freedom fighters are another’s insurgents—or, in the language of the day, “insurrectionists”).

Fort Burgwin, named for one of the American soldiers killed in Taos.

The Taos Rebellion started with the killing of the American governor, Charles Bent, in January 1847. Also killed in the first blows of the rebellion were several dozen other Americans there and in other northern towns. The Niles Register, a prominent newspaper of the day, relayed news of the deaths, noting also that “their families [were] despoiled.”

U.S. forces moved north from Santa Fe to squash the revolt, and they found the New Mexicans in the church at the Taos pueblo. Not recognizing the hiding place as a sanctuary, the Americans opened fire. Cannon shot and flame destroyed most of the church; the ruins of it are still standing next to the pueblo’s cemetery. The better-armed Americans then killed about 150 Indians and New Mexicans. Fighting also took place in Mora. The residents there fled before the invaders destroyed all the buildings and set fire to crops. Soon after, most of the rebel leaders were captured and tried for treason, an oddity given, in the words of our state historian, “the illogic and in fact illegality of convicting citizens of another nation of ‘treason.’” But invading armies are not always known for their logic or legality, eh? In any event, the convicted were executed.

And the amazing thing about these several weeks of conflict and killing? It was all bloodless.

The HBC wording that incited this rant just goes to show that you can’t always believe marketing copy (as if anyone needed the History Nerd to affirm that…).  And it seems like another example, intentional or not, of how some people tend to whitewash certain aspects of our history. But here in New Mexico, some folks don’t forget.

And So It Still Goes

December 21, 2011 Leave a comment

As night enveloped the city of Dresden, Germany, the buzz of approaching aircraft filled the streets. From 17,000 feet up, the planes, hundreds of them, began to release their loads:  tons of incendiary, high-explosive, and conventional bombs. As the weapons pummeled the city, huge firestorms broke out. The intense heat created a vacuum that sucked the air out of the bodies of some residents. Others were charred to a crisp, never even having time to move before the fast-moving flames and searing heat engulfed their homes.

The author and subject

And as readers of one of the most influential novels of the 1960s know, Kurt Vonnegut was there.

Vonnegut was an American POW on February 13, 1945, when the infamous Dresden firebombing began. He had been one of 150 prisoners sent to a slaughterhouse in the city that the Nazis had turned into a factory to produce a malt-based, high-protein syrup. Holed up in bunker beneath the slaughterhouse, Vonnegut survived the devastating attack, then was given the job of “body miner”—he combed the rubble looking for dead civilians.

The biographer

Vonnegut’s experiences led to his writing Slaughterhouse-Five, a book 20 years in the making that finally appeared in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War. His witnessing of the Dresden horrors, his biographer Charles Shields asserts, also led to something like, if not actual, PTSD. That trauma, combined with Vonnegut’s mother’s suicide when he was about to leave home to serve overseas (on Mother’s Day, no less); his father’s seeming indifference; and Vonnegut’s own sense that he was both unable to meet expectations and didn’t fully receive the praise he deserved, fed a depression that haunted the author throughout his life.

Shields was in Santa Fe to promote his authorized biography of Vonnegut, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut: A Life, the first-ever of the writer who touched so many young Americans during the Vietnam era, and who continues to do so today. One of those 1960s teens who came under Vonnegut’s spell was Shields, and he described the “rocky friendship” that began after he finally convinced the aging, chain-smoking author to cooperate on a bio.

The biographer recounted getting phone calls from Vonnegut late at night, from a man whose second wife, the photographer Jill Krementz, cut off his access to some of his old friends. To Shields, the calls were more the grasping for human contact from a lonely, 80-something man than the attempts by a biographical subject to shape how his story would be told. Shields described how early on in their relationship, Vonnegut went off on family wounds suffered decades before. The biographer-as-therapist, I wrote in my notes, and Shields then seemed to affirm this by offering his diagnosis, describing his subject/patient as a “still-aggrieved adolescent.”

From what Shields said and what I’ve read about the book (I have not read the bio itself), he did not pull punches. Vonnegut’s affairs, his drinking, his less-than-sensitive parenting: they are all there.  Yet it’s apparent that Shields has a deep respect for the lonely, one-time suicidal, much beloved-and-also dismissed author. And he appreciates all that Vonnegut endured. The man, Shields said simply, withstood “so much pain.”

Dresden, of course, was the source of a great deal of that pain. But Vonnegut’s ordeal also gave him the book that launched his career as a best-selling author. Slaughterhouse-Five will always resonate, because Americans will always, seemingly, get involved in wars that lead to atrocities. Though, interestingly, it was our frequent partners in crime, the British, who called for the Dresden bombing.

There was a strategic element to it: The Soviets were beginning their march toward Berlin and they wanted the Allies to bomb German communication and transport centers. Dresden, among several other cities, fit that bill. Winston Churchill was particularly eager to help the Soviets and weaken German morale with major attacks on urban centers. British planes began the bombing on Dresden that created a fiery glow visible hundreds of miles away. The next day, when American bombers arrived to finish the job, they had trouble seeing targets because of all the smoke and flames.

The bombing

Historians don’t doubt that there were military targets in the city, but the leveling of Dresden and the killing of up to 60,000 civilians appalled many people after the fact. Churchill, the following month, tried to distance himself from the attack, and in recent years, some people have called the Dresden bombing (and the similar firebombing of Tokyo and other Japanese cities, carried out by U.S. planes) a war crime. The BBC has an interview with a former RAF bomber pilot who took umbrage at the charge. But there’s no question that the “total war” effort of the Allies led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Axis civilians, not even counting the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

To Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s alter ego in Slaughterhouse-Five—and probably to Vonnegut himself—the historical debates don’t mean much. To him, the bombing was an all-too-real nightmare that came to dominate his life. A horror no one should have experienced then, or should ever experience. Shields calls SH-5 Vonnegut’s best book, and probably few would argue that. The book, and the event it’s based on, shaped the life of a funny, touching, satirical, and sometimes-profound American writer.

Take Me Back to Taos

December 17, 2009 4 comments

A recent conversation turned to traveling, and destinations in the Southwest came up. I don’t recall if someone mentioned Arizona or New Mexico, but I quickly offered my opinion that Phoenix is a hellhole I could easily never visit again, and that one of my favorite places in the world is northern New Mexico, specifically Taos.

On the High Road from Santa Fe to Taos

One of my tablemates had never heard of Taos, which I guess is not surprising if you’ve never been to the region. Home to barely 4,000 souls, it probably only registers for culture mavens, students of US history, and skiers.

The pueblo

For most tourists, the main attraction is the Taos Pueblo, just a few miles out of town. Some times when I’m relaxing, I imagine taking that drive from the center, bearing right, heading past the tiny “casino,” and pulling into the parking lot. To your left is a cemetery and ruins of a church (more on that later), while the center is filled with the original adobe pueblo. Behind it is part of the Sangre de Christo Mountains and the unseen Blue Lake, a sacred site said to be the birthplace of the Taos Indians. To the right is another part of the pueblo. The pueblo’s claim to fame: It has been continuously inhabited for 900 or so years, longer than any other spot in the country. About 150 people live in there year round, eschewing electricity and other modern conveniences as they remain true to their culture. Other tribal members live near the pueblo and spend time there during the summer.

The people of Taos are sometimes called Pueblo Indians, along with the other Indians of the region. They trace their roots to the Anasazi and Mogollon of centuries past. The native New Mexicans speak three different but related languages; Taos and several other pueblos nearby use Tiwa. The Taos and tribes from the other pueblos nearby greeted the Spanish when they explored the region in 1540. Unfortunately for them, the Spanish were looking for more than just a hearty welcome. Gold topped the list, along with converts to Catholicism. Suffice to say, as in Florida and just about everywhere else the Spanish came ashore in North America, the visitors did not bode well for the Pueblo Indians.

And again

The Spanish largely ignored New Mexico until 1598, when the first settlers trekked north from Mexico. Under the leadership of Juan de Onate, they subdued various Pueblo tribes. By 1680, the Indians were feeling less hospitable, and Taos and the other pueblos united in a successful, though short-lived, rebellion. The leader, a shaman named Popé, lived for a time in Taos. The people there had shown their resistance to foreign rule even earlier, killing a missionary decades before. But after the Spanish reconquest of northern New Mexico, the Taos and their neighbors remained under Spanish rule for almost 150 years. Only to see another bunch of white-skinned outsiders seize power during the Mexican War.

The remains of the mission church

Among many US leaders of the 1840s, taking Mexican lands, especially the much-coveted California, was part of America’s grand “Manifest Destiny,” a mission from God much less entertaining than the one Blues Brothers undertook. In 1846, soon after the Mexican War began, US forces quickly took control of northern New Mexico. Charles Bent, an American trader who lived in Taos, was named the governor. Local Indians and Spanish New Mexicans joined forces to resist their new rulers, killing Bent and other Americans. The rebel leaders, along with civilians, holed up in the Taos Pueblo mission church, where a much-better armed American force carried out a retaliatory attack. The remains of the church and the graves nearby still remind the Taos of their introduction to US rule.

In later years, another American who lived in Taos, Kit Carson, did his part to endear the Americans to the Native Americans of the region. He carried out bloody attacks against the Navajo, as the US government tried to force them onto reservations. You don’t often hear as much about that as you do his exploits as a frontiersman. His house is in downtown Taos (such as it is) and serves as a museum.

New Mexicans, whether Spanish or Indian, were not too respected by the incoming Anglos. That’s one reason why it took so long for New Mexico to become a state, as American leaders doubted their ability to practice democracy. But finally, the territory joined the Union in 1912, and soon artists discovered the natural beauty of northern New Mexico. Socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan built a home in Taos and invited artists to work there. Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams were just two who accepted the offer, drawn to the light and the mountains and allure of the high desert. D.H. Lawrence came too, and he later bought land outside Taos (of course O’Keefe became the most permanent transplant of all, settling down in not-too-distant Abiquiu).

Taos sunset on my last visit

Today Taos still has its cultural scene and a counterculture feel. The three influences – Pueblo, Spanish, and Anglo – live side-by-side, if not always comfortably. I’m drawn to the region because of that blending, because of the history, and because of the spiritual sense I feel as I look at the mountains or watch the sunset. After my first visit, travelers’ Stockholm syndrome took hold: I was ready to sell most of my possessions and move there. I didn’t, but I still think about it. In the meantime, I visit whenever money allows, And when I meet people who have never heard of Taos, I quickly tell them of all its splendors.