How Lincoln’s Death Impacted The World

On this day 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, just weeks before the U.S. Civil War would officially end. Americans were not the only ones grieving their first president to be killed in office; as The Atlantic reports, his untimely death reverberated across the ideological spectrum and the world.

Why was Lincoln’s death mourned so deeply in foreign lands? He never traveled overseas, either before or during his presidency. Except for the ministers and consuls who journeyed to Washington, few Europeans ever had the opportunity to meet him. Television and radio did not yet exist to carry his face and voice throughout the world. Foreign mourners could only know him through newspapers and word of mouth.

For many, this was enough. In both Lincoln and the American experiment writ large, many Europeans saw an idealized view of their own aspirations. Sympathy came easily in Italy, where a war for national unification had also just been completed. “Abraham Lincoln was not yours only—he was also ours”, wrote the citizens of Acireale, a small town in Sicily, “because he was a brother whose great mind and fearless conscience guided a people to union, and courageously uprooted slavery”. For the German states, whose own national unification would come within the decade, the American conflict was also their own. “You are aware that Germany has looked with pride and joy on the thousands of her sons, who in this struggle have placed themselves so resolutely on the side of law and right”, proclaimed members of the Prussian House of Deputies in their memorial for the fallen president. The U.S. consul in Berlin noted that one of the deputies had a son currently serving in the Union Army, while another had lost his only son at Petersburg.

Workers and activists in Europe’s nascent socialist movement felt they had lost a genuine ally. The International Workingmen’s Association in London had saluted Lincoln, “the single-minded son of the working classes”, upon his re-election in 1864 and its “triumphant war cry [of] ‘Death to Slavery'”. Now they lamented the murder of “one of the rare men who succeeded in becoming great without ceasing to be good”. Among the condolence letter’s signatories was the group’s secretary for Germany, Karl Marx.

Such international outpouring of grief, condolence, and concern says as much about the rising power and profile of the U.S. at the time as it does about Lincoln’s qualities and achievements. American affairs were of great and growing interest to the rest of the world, and would remain so — for better or worse — to this day. It is a fitting response to the man that helped ensure that the U.S. would remain a unified and robust country at the first place (albeit at great cost).

America’s Troubling Firebombing of Japan

Prior to the better-known atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which have also been subject to controversy and ethical discussion), the United States executed a series of “firebombings” against Japanese cities that claimed more lives in a single night — over 100,000 civilians, mostly women, children, and the elderly — than the more infamous atomic strikes that followed months later.

Jacobin examines the various problems with the campaign, on both a strategic and ethical level (e.g. there were little to no military or economic targets, virulent anti-Japanese racism may have motivated the attacks, etc.)

In January 1945 — two days before Franklin Roosevelt was to meet with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Yalta — the Japanese were offering surrender terms almost identical to what was accepted by the Americans on the USS Missouri in the Japan Bay on September 2, 1945.

The Japanese population was famished, the country’s war machine was out of gas, and the government had capitulated. The Americans were unmoved. The firebombing and the nuclear attacks were heartlessly carried out. If anyone is guilty of disregarding the “context” of the firebombing of Tokyo, it’s the sycophantic and biased American historians who deride these critical facts.

What little criticism that exists of the firebombing is attacked for failing to put the bombing in proper context and not providing alternate solutions for ending the war. These attacks are also riddled with “they did it too” justifications.

World War II was carried out with brutality on all fronts. The Japanese military murdered nearly six million Chinese, Korean, and Filipino civilians by the end of it. However, to argue that Japanese civilians deserved to die — that children deserved to die — at the hands of the U.S. military because their government killed civilians in other Asian countries is an indefensible position, in any moral or ethical framework.

One can see parallels with the equally controversial Allied bombings of Dresden, which killed 22,000-25,000 civilians for little strategic merit.

What are your thoughts on these largely undiscussed (at least in popular discourse) actions? I recommend reading the whole article to get a wider picture of the positions for and against this decision, and whether the usual justifications have any merit.

Mary Edwards Walker — Only Female Medal of Honor Recipient

Mary Edwards Walker (1832 – 1919) was an American feminist, abolitionist, and surgeon who became the only woman, and one of only eight civilians, to receive the Medal of Honor.

Mary Edwards Walker I

She worked as a teacher to pay her way through Geneva Medical College (now Hobart College), where she graduated as a medical doctor in 1855, the only woman in her class. She married fellow medical school student Albert Miller set up a joint practice in Rome, New York. It failed to take off, largely because female physicians were generally not trusted or respected at that time. Walker briefly attended Bowen Collegiate Institute (later named Lenox College) in 1860, until she was suspended after refusing to quit the all-male school debating society.

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The An Lushan Rebellion

On this day in 763, the devastating An Lushan Rebellion against the Tang Dynasty of China came to an end. Sanning seven years and three emperors, the revolt was led by General An Lushan, who declared himself emperor and established the rival Yan Dynasty in the north. The scale of the conflict was beyond the norm for most of the medieval world, involving the mobilization of 800,000 to 1 million troops in total.

Estimates of the death toll vary wildly, from 13 million to 36 million; because China accounted for about a third of the world’s population at the time, the higher figure — which is admittedly controversial — would represent one-sixth of all humans, making the An Lushan Rebellion proportionally the deadliest conflict ever (and even in absolute terms it remains in the top ten).

The world’s second-bloodiest conflict in total loss of life is another Chinese civil war, that of the Three Kingdoms era, which spanned almost one hundred years during the 2nd and 3rd century. Anywhere from 36-40 million people were killed, a number that would not be surpassed until WWII in the mid-20th century (though some estimates put the Mongol Conquests of the 13th-14th century at around the same amount as the Three Kingdoms).

A contemporary list of history’s biggest wars is dominated by China, including WWII (in which the country suffered 14-20 million casualties, second only to Russia), the aforementioned Mongol Conquests, the Taiping Rebellion of the mid-19th century (20-100 million deaths), and the 17th century conquest of the Ming Dynasty by the Qing (25 million).

China’s Forgotten Contributions to World War II

Like the Soviet Union, China played a large but understated role in history’s greatest conflict, essentially doing to Japan what the Russians did to its German ally: draining Axis troops and resources through a constant and ferocious battle of attrition, all while the Western Allies opened up another invasion route. China had been fighting Japan long before the world war had even broken out, and its experiences were by far among the longest and bloodiest of any participant.

Yet this vital contribution is barely acknowledged among the more prevailing U.S.-centered version of events. At most, the Chinese — again, like the Russians — are footnoted as allies who did do some fighting, yet are not accorded due credit for the sheer scale and strategic importance of their contributions (not always purposefully, although the Cold War did not endear us to giving the Communist enemy much credit for helping end the war of all wars).

Oxford historian Rana Mitter has endeavored to resolve this problem with the new book Forgotten Ally: China’s World War II, 1937-1945which explores the full breadth of China’s experience of the war, from the Japanese invasion that took place years before, to the political chaos the followed the conqueror’s expulsion.

Judging from an interview with the author on Pacific Standard, the book seems both comprehensive and balanced, revealing modern China’s own complex relationship with its past (unlike the other Allies, the Chinese remain comparatively more reserved about their World War II experience, for reasons the article touches on).

I plan on reading the book soon, and I recommend you all check out the interview hyperlinked in the preceding paragraph. It really sold me on why this is such an important effort, especially the following quote:

The scale of China’s involvement in the war was massive. Chiang, for example, fielded four million troops at the Nationalist’s height, while China as a whole lost an estimated 14 million in the war. Had China folded, Japan’s capacity to fight the U.S. or even the Soviets would have been vastly amplified.

For point of reference, the U.S. suffered total of over 420,000 combat deaths in the entire war — a sobering contrast to China’s very different experience in the war (especially as half to two-thirds of Chinese deaths were civilians).