April 15, 2007

Black Tom and Seeing History Clearly

Today I read a story about Black Tom.

Black Tom used to be an island in the mouth of the Hudson River. Ninety years ago, there was a massive explosion on the island, which was felt as far away as Philadelphia and killed at least seven people. One ton of gunpowder-based munitions -- bullets, mortars, grenades, bombs -- had been stored on a Navy depot on Black Tom, which on July 30, 1916, were destined for shipment to support British and French soldiers fighting in the wasteland of trenches that was northeastern France against Germans and Austrians. Officially, the U.S. was neutral at the time, but everyone knew better and that President Wilson had sided us quietly with the British in an effort to contain expanding German power. So German saboteurs blew up the ammunition -- and took the island along with it. The top of the island was blown off and today, Black Tom is completely submerged at high tide.

Some people call this the first act of international terrorism in the United States. I bet you'd never heard of it before today.

Some people want you to believe that the first time a terrorist pulled off an attack on U.S. soil was five years ago when the planes hit. A great many Americans seem to enjoy that fiction. But fiction it is, as surely was the fiction that preceded it. Foreign powers have never been prevented from acting within our borders because we have oceans on two sides and relatively friendly neighbors on two other sides.

Anarchists tried to blow up Wall Street in 1920.

Peurto Rican nationalists tried to copy the IRA's tactics in 1975 and started blowing up historical buildings in New York City.

Muammar Quadafi blew up an airplane flying to America over Scotland in 1988.

Al-Qaeda had attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, kiling 6 and wounding over a thousand people. Our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up in 1998. The USS Cole was attacked by suicide bomb in 2000. As awful as it was, September 11 was nothing new other than the drama of its success.

We also have a myth that America has never been invaded successfully. The British sacked Washington in 1814, which seems like a reasonably successful invasion to me -- especially since reconquest of the United States was not a British military objective in that war.

In 1915, Pancho Villa, the former governor of the state of Chihuaua and a general in the Mexican Revolution, led a number of raids into Texas and New Mexico, to steal money and military supplies including food and ammunition for his men. His guerilla raids were singularly successful and our punitive expedition to track him down afterwards used overwhelming and technologically far superior force -- it was the first time that aircraft were used in a military operation and coordination with cavalry and infantry forces in Northern Mexico were apparently much better than expected. Still, eleven months of operations singularly failed to find Villa or any of his men, and the military came home empty-handed.

In 1859, the United States and British North America (today called the Dominion of Canada) engaged in hostile military maneuvers in a fight over the San Juan Islands due to poor knowledge of geography on the part of the drafters of the Oregon Treaty that fixed the boundary between the U.S. and Canada at the forty-ninth parallel. As a result, U.S. and British colonists flooded into islands in the Straits of San Juan de Fuca near the border of Washington State and British Columbia. Tensions between the two sets of colonists came to a head when an American colonist shot dead a pig belonging to an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company, giving the conflict its name, the "Pig War." For nearly a year, American and Canadian forces maneuvered and played a waiting game; American forces could ill-afford to open a conflict with civil war brewing in the south, and the British far outnumbered their counterparts, so it could be said that the eventual award of the islands to the U.S. was in part due to American forces acquitting themselves well against tough odds. But mainly it was the result of cool heads prevailing after the death of the Pig -- who, fortunately, was the only casualty of the conflict. Indeed, the U.S. had at odds with Canada once before, in the Aroostook War of 1838-1839, and in this conflict too it took cool heads on both sides of the dispute to prevent shooting deaths.

The myth of American unassailability is pleasant but it's better to be aware of the truth. We're dealing with bigger issues now than a dead pig. But, as usual, what's most interesting about history is what hasn't changed as opposed to what has.

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