Two Tales Of Tyranny

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Thirty years is a long time.  It’s more than a generation.  It’s on the very edge of living memory.  So it’s no surprise that not many people know that today marks the 30th anniversary of two very important events in the history of tyranny.  One — under the diligent efforts of an oppressive government — fading from view; the other, largely forgotten for very different reasons.

In the spring of 1989, protests across China were gathering momentum.  They called for the total reform of the Communist government, and their epicentre was Tiananmen Square.  The Square had been occupied by thousands of students from Beijing’s universities since the middle of April.  On May 20th, the Chinese government declared martial law and ordered the students to leave.  In an unheard of act of disobedience, the students refused.  Two weeks later, on a warm evening in June, Deng Xiaoping called in the military, and the protesters in Tiananmen Square began hearing reports that the People’s Liberation Army was on the march.  What they didn’t know was the unarmed citizens of Beijing were fighting a desperate battle to stop the tanks.  All over Beijing, ordinary people had crowded into the streets to defy the People’s army – human barriers facing totalitarian steel.  The army didn’t care.  They had their orders.  They opened fire.  Stunned and enraged, the people fought back.  They threw up makeshift barricades and pelted the trucks with bottles, stones and Molotov cocktails.  But there was never any doubt: shopkeepers and office workers are no match for professional soldiers with automatic weapons.  Hundreds were killed that night, thousands injured and the trucks rolled on; their objective, the students in Tiananmen Square.  By midnight, the Square was surrounded and the young people were given an ultimatum: leave Tiananmen, or face the consequences.

There is no definitive account of what happened next.  Some say hundreds more were killed, but the Chinese government insists that there were no further casualties.  What we do know is most of the students did not leave voluntarily.  (There are videos of them, amid sporadic gunfire, shaking their fists at the soldiers and singing The Internationale.)  But we also know that, by mid-morning, the students were gone, and later, when a crowd of people (mostly parents looking for their children) approached the Square, the soldiers once again opened fire and then called in more tanks.  (We have a famous photograph of one man’s brave attempt to stop them.)  Whatever happened in the dark, early hours of June 4th, by the end of the day, the Chinese Spring was essentially over; ironically, crushed by the People’s Liberation Army.

Halfway around the world, June 4th, 1989 was Election Day in Poland.  But this was no ordinary election because, for the first time in 50 years, there was more than one name on the ballot.  For the first time since Hitler and Stalin had carved up the country in 1939, Poles had an opportunity to choose who would rule them, and millions were determined to make that choice.  In the big cities, the turnout was cautious; still, thousands waited patiently for their turn at democracy.  In other parts of the country, small towns were virtually shut down as everyone who could, went to the polling stations.  By the end of the day, it was clear that Lech Walesa’s Solidarity Party had broken the power of the Communists.  They’d won every seat they were allowed to contest in the Sejm (parliament) and 99 out of 100 seats in the Senate.  Their victory was so overwhelming many thought Moscow would annul the vote and send in the Red Army. (It had been done before.)  But Mikhail Gorbachev was not Leonid Brezhnev, and in 1989, the Soviet Union had its own problems.  The results were allowed to stand.  It was the first tear in the Iron Curtain that had divided Europe and dominated world politics for 45 years.  Here was proof that the Communist State was not invincible.  Within four months, the people of Berlin had pulled down the Berlin Wall.  Less than a year later, most of the other Warsaw Pact nations had held their own free elections, and Germany was reunified.  Within two years, the Soviet Union itself collapsed: the Cold War was over.

Today, no one much remembers Lech Walesa, the Soviet Union or the Cold War, and China’s economic power has made it expedient to shut up about Tiananmen Square.  Besides, our world is much more concerned about who’s wearing what on the Red Carpet and which celebrity wrote something unfortunate on Facebook five years ago.  But we need to remember these tales of tyranny because — even though eventually the pen is always mightier that the sword — there are also hard occasions when the sword wins.

News Of The World (2019)

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Generally, North Americans believe that the rest of the planet is inhabited by angry people who hate us, so it follows that most media outlets don’t concern themselves with “foreign” news.  However, as spring slowly slides into summer — and there’s not much going on locally except baseball and basketball playoffs — a few items slip across the ocean, just to prove we remember that the rest of the world is still rotating.

In Hong Kong, a couple of thousand people held a march to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.  (Yeah, it’s been 30 years!)  Meanwhile, in the rest of China, nobody much noticed because officially the Tiananmen Square Protest (read Massacre) didn’t happen.  Oddly, most of the marchers look as if they weren’t even born when Deng Xiaoping ordered his tanks to clear out the student protesters and reaffirm Mao’s maxim that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

The European elections are over and, like 99.99% of North Americans, I have no idea what just happened.  First of all, it looks as if everybody and his sister gets a political party in Europe, and aside from the Greens, they’re all known by a variety of acronyms.  Plus, aside from the far right and the far left, to the untrained eye, they all look remarkably similar.  Then there’s the question of who represents who.  Here’s just one example (and this scenario played out all over Europe on Sunday.)  According to the media, in France, Madame Le Pen kicked the crap out of Monsieur Macron — except Le Pen’s group got 23.3% of the vote and Macron’s got 22.4%.  That’s less than a 1% difference!  And, according to my math, this means the majority of French people (54.3%) voted against both of them.  I understand that Europeans have been playing at politics for a lot longer we have and – look around — it’s worked out pretty well.  Besides, given our recent electoral history, we have no room to point fingers.  However, from this side of the Atlantic, it all looks like Game of Thrones – minus the dragons.

And finally, back in Asia

There’s a serious problem on Mount Everest – overcrowding.  Apparently, so many people want to stand “at the top of the world” that climbers have to form a line to reach the summit.  That means standing around in the cold and the wind and the lack of oxygen, waiting your turn.  And this year, the wait time is anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour and a half.  The problem is, like tourists everywhere, these idle alpine adventurers are dropping tons of trash on the pristine mountainside – which (from the pictures I’ve seen) isn’t pristine any more.  And, unlike most tourist attractions, there aren’t any janitors up there to clean up the mess.  As much as I worry about climate change, I’m beginning to think it’s going to be bucket lists and selfies that destroy this planet.

Tune in again next year for more news of the world.

Pearl Harbor — Outside The History Books

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I love history.  It reads like a bad novel.  History has so many oddities, improbabilities and strange coincidences that, if you didn’t know it was true, you’d think it was all fake.  For example, today is the 77th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  (FYI: you can’t just say “Pearl Harbor” anymore; nobody knows what you’re talking about.)  Whatever you call it though, aside from the American nuclear attack on Hiroshima three and a half years later, Pearl Harbor was the most important event in the 20th century.  It turned a European civil war into World War II, ended the worst economic depression in history and catapulted smalltown Americans onto the global stage – a role they’ve never been comfortable with.  That’s the thing about history though it’s full of unintended consequences that very few people see at the time.  I doubt very much if many Americans — even today — realize that the attack on Pearl Harbor was not the opening salvo in a carefully orchestrated Japanese plan to dominate the Pacific.  In fact, I think they’d be surprised to learn that, in general, the Japanese didn’t even want to go to war with the US (they were much more interested in Britain) and the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor was actually the direct result of a half-forgotten battle near the nowhere village of Nomonhan stuck somewhere on the Mongolian border.

Depending on how much time you’ve got, you can trace what Franklin Roosevelt called “December 7th, a day that will live in infamy” all the way back to a cold night in 1930, when a couple of Japanese colonels, stationed in Kwantung, China , got into the sake and hatched a plot to invade Manchuria.  Ishawara Kanji and Itagaki Seishiro, the particular colonels, knew what every person in Japan knows to this day.  Japan is a small bunch of islands that can hardly feed itself.  It has no natural resources, and unless it dominates international trade, it will always be at the mercy of every bullyboy with an attitude who happens to stroll by.  Remember, it was the American, Commodore Perry who dramatically pointed this out in 1853, when he sailed into Tokyo Bay, pointed his cannons  at anyone who poked their head up, and suggested the Japanese sign a treaty he just happened to have lying around the quarterdeck.  Anyway, Ishawara and Itagaki got to talking and decided that Japan needed a dependable source of raw materials (which, by coincidence, was going begging just across the border in Manchuria.)  They came up with a cunning plan, and on September 18th, 1931 manufactured an “incident” with China that sent Imperial Japanese troops across the border.  The Pacific Ocean, Pearl Harbor and America were never on the agenda.

In the 1930s, Japanese politics was so complicated it’s almost impossible to understand.  For example, the Japanese Emperor, Hirohito, who, as a living god, commanded absolute obedience from every Japanese citizen, never actually issued any orders just in case they weren’t obeyed.  However, in a nutshell, there were two political factions: the army (who saw the future intimately tied to mainland Asia) and the navy (who wanted a crack at the European imperial powers, Britain, France and the Netherlands.)  For most of the decade, the army dominated the government in Tokyo.  They saw China falling apart at the seams and figured with a few armoured divisions, some airplanes, and maybe a little poison gas here and there, they could take advantage of the situation.  China would become a Japanese province with a vast pool of subservient labour and a ready market for Japanese goods.  They also saw the resources of Manchuria dwarfed by the almost limitless expanse of Soviet Russia, which (once again) was now just across the border.  Plus, Japan, with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, was a member of the Anti-Comintern (anti-communist) Pact.  They saw the Soviets as their natural enemies.  Besides, quite a few senior army officers had been young soldiers when Japan slapped the snot out of Russia back in 1905.  They didn’t see any problem with pointing their tanks north again.  It was quick and easy and handy to the homeland.

In 1932, Japanese troops reached the border between Manchuria and Soviet Mongolia.  The well trained victorious Kwantung army didn’t really see any need to slam on the brakes when their natural enemy, the Soviet Union was just an imaginary line away from getting its ass kicked a second time.  Over the next seven years, there were hundreds of very bloody “incidents” in the undeclared border war.  These “incidents” escalated over time until 1939, when a bunch of Japanese officers (again, without permission from Tokyo) decided to get serious and see just how tough these Soviets were.  They sent a couple of divisions to occupy the disputed territory.

The battle of Khalkhin Gol went back and forth for a couple of months.  However, times were changing for the Soviet Union.  They were in the middle of negotiating a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany, which they signed in August, 1939.  This gave them the freedom to send a lot of soldiers and armour — that weren’t going to be needed against Germany in Europe — to the Far East to settle scores with Japan.  They were commanded by General Zhukov (the guy who would go on to defend Stalingrad in 1942 and take the Nazi surrender in Berlin in 1945.)  He massed over 50,000 Soviet troops, complete with tanks and airplanes, in an offensive assault in August.  He encircled the Japanese forces, at a village called Nomonhan, and when they wouldn’t surrender, destroyed them.  It was a humiliating defeat and it broke the back of the army’s independent power in Tokyo.  The way north was now blocked by a resurgent enemy, the Soviet Union and a back-stabbing ally, the Germans.  It was the navy’s turn to run the show.

Japan still needed raw materials, and the only other place to get them was in southern Asia where the Europeans, preoccupied by their own war in Europe, were hanging on to their colonies by prestige alone.  There was rubber in British Malaysia and oil and gas in Indonesia (the Dutch East Indies.)   The problem was, in the ocean, directly between Japan and Jakarta, was The Philippines, an American colony.   Japan could not run the risk of having their military cut off from the homeland by a belligerent American navy, possibly based in the Philippines.  They needed to neutralize American sea power in the Pacific before they could go after the resources of the crumbling European empires.  And where was the America Pacific fleet?  Pearl Harbor!

And the rest, as they say, is history.

 

Originally written in 2011