Turning Points in History

And there is something to be said for historian Oscar Handlin's notion that you can't fully understand history, or at least really enjoy it, unless you can see the past as a line made up of millions of points, with every point a turning point that could have gone the other way.

Forget Y2K

The millennium is not a problem; it should encourage 1,000-year leaps backward into history. 

Smithsonian, February 1999.

 

Khruschev Remembered

If we had known that the old Cold War - at least on the simple hot terms we had known till then - had changed forever, would we have been more impressed with Nikita Sergeyevich as we watched him ramble through the Yugoslav countryside? 

Harpers, 1971.

 

But if enough of us get killed something may happen ...

Though the uprising was put down by the USSR, it seemed clear that the Soviet grip on East Europe would eventually prove untenable. 

The New York Times Sunday Magazine, November 20, 1966.

 

The Road Back to Budapest

Thirty years after the revolution succeeded and was crushed, Hungary "is rich, nearly free and rapidly changing."

Smithsonian, November 1986.

 

Towering Witness to Salvation

THE GULAG ARCHIPELAGO VOL I by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by Thomas P. Whitney
LETTER TO THE SOVIET LEADERS by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, translated by Hilary Sternberg

Even if little comes of his advice, history may yet judge Solzhenitsyn a success - and not merely in the realm of art. For he is surely one of those towering witnesses thrown up by history in moments of crisis to remind the world that the pursuit of material progress is no way to the peace that passes understanding. 

Time, July 15, 1974.

 

Stones at the Edge of the Civilized World

The building of Hadrian's Wall marks the moment when the Roman Empire first stopped expanding and decided to hold what it had against the barbarians. 

Smithsonian, April 1985.

 

Tapestried Tales of Two Rough Channel Crossings

In 1066 the Normans landed in England; in June 1944 the Allies landed in France.  The Norman invasion changed the language and the history of England; because the Allies weren't repulsed in the first day or so, the allied invasion meant that Germany would surely lose the war. 

Smithsonian, May 1994.

 

Where Columbus Was Coming From

Violent Europe (circa 1492) had dazzling art and some science, but decidedly was not about to export  gentleness or environmentalism to the New World.

Smithsonian, December 1991.

 

The Siege of Leyden

Phillip II of Spain's troubles in trying to maintain Catholic rule over the far off and  heretical  Netherlands, amounted to his version of our Viet Nam war. It involved years of indescribable cruelty. The long siege
of Leyden brought horrific woe to its citizens.  But when, in 1518, he had to lift the siege, the moment gave birth to Holland as a new, free and  Protestant nation, a decisive event in the history of  the Reformation.

Horizon, 1976.  (Note: Horizon Magazine is now defunct.)

 

Shadows on the Rock

England took Gibraltar in 1745.  For 262 years, now, Spain has tried to get it back.  Her best shot  came in 1778 when France joined her in a massive and spectacular attempt.  Sure of its vast fleet, thousands of rounds of  powder and shot, and the world's first "unsinkable warship, France invited the wealth and beauty of Europe to come down and watch Gibraltar fall.

The starving and outnumbered British eventually had to eat grass which proved  easier for their vegetarian commander than for most of  his garrison.  But hungry British gunners  invented the use of red hot canon balls and sank the unsinkable ship. All this was part of a far flung struggle by France and England  for world empire (a struggle that in a small way involved the  American colonies). The resulting treaty carved up seas, and slave trading routes, and the turf of the New and Old world, in surprising ways.  

Smithsonian, September 1997.

 

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité ??

CITIZENS: A CHRONICLE OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION
by Simon Schama

As tragic drama the French Revolution has everything, including an historic significance, that can scarcely be overstated. 

USA Today, 1989.

 

The French Overdid It

SISTER REVOLUTIONS: FRENCH LIGHTNING, AMERICAN LIGHT
by Susan Dunn 

The French Revolution, Dunn sadly observes, has laid its dread mark on every revolution since, in part because France refused to learn anything from the American experience.

Smithsonian, 2000.

 
What if, Back in 1788, We Hadn't Ratified Mr. Madison's Constitution?

Five votes either way in crucial Virginia would have defeated it. A what if history piece, but on those terms clearly a turning point. Had it not been ratified southern colonies might have seceded way earlier, or been taken under the wing of Britain or Spain. Serious historians generally hate "what if" history on grounds that it's hard enough to find out what did happen in any detail, let alone what might have happened. But everybody who is at all interested in history deals in such speculations; belief that everythng that happened in the past had to happen the way it did, saps historic curiosity.

Smithsonian, June 1988.

 

After More Than Two Centuries, This May Be Mr. Madison's Year

For reasons both fateful and frivolous, the Father of the Constitution is still a man hard to know, and harder to lionize.  Without Madison's political skill, there would have been no constitution, and  Jefferson would never have become President nor established anti-federalist rural Democracy as an American ideal . 

Smithsonian, September 1987.

 

The Way We Were - and the Way We Went

The term "manifest destiny" was first coined in 1844. Starting in 1846 the United States of America swiftly picked up a million square miles of real estate and its westward destiny was highly manifest. Beyond contriving (and winning) the Mexican war, acquiring California and the rest of the continent, 1846 was the turning point in US expansionism, eventually, some say, the start of future empire building,etc.

Smithsonian, April 1996.

 

The Laurel and the Ivy

THE LAUREL AND THE IVY, THE STORY OF CHARLES STEWART PARNELL AND IRISH NATIONALISM
By Robert Kee

Kee's essentially chonological approach very properly puts readers in touch first with the Parnell who really matters - the difficult man and master politician who in a brief period, from 1874 to 1889, gave demoralized Ireland a powerful political party, a solid hope for Home Rule and an expanding sense of national destiny. 

Washington Post Book World, 1994.

 

No Revolution Ever Produced a Nobler or Purer Spirit

The extraordinary life of Erskine Childers led him far from the sea he wrote about, and loved, to execution as a traitor by the brand new Irish government, for joining the Irish who perversely, fruitlessly, went to war against their own countrymen in 1922. Like Hungarians facing Russians in 1956, the Irish rose in 1916 to throw off Brititsh rule. Unlike the Hungarians, they won.  Their struggle saw the first use in modern history of political terrorism to blackmail a great power. 

Smithsonian, November 1994.

 

How to Keep the 20th Century Mostly at Bay

For centuries the tiny island of Sark has turned its back upon the turning points of history, still carrying on with a low-budget feudalism, dislike of cars, and mixed memories of a Great Dame.

Smithsonian, May 1986.