Category Archives: History

Icelandic Punk MuseumIceland





Iceland has many attractions. I am not sure that this is one of them, but I loved the anarchic spirit of the posters around this former site of a public washroom. I don’t think my tour guides would have recommended it. the museum wanted to make sure there was no mistaking it for its former position.


The museum wants to make sure that it not mistaken for the former “loo.” It  was formally opened in 2016 by Johnny Rotten. The museum claims to be a small museum with a big attitude. It contains photos, sounds, posters, instruments, clothes and various other memorabilia from the 80-90’s punk scene in Iceland.



Thankfully, it makes few claims for redeeming social merit.  Who needs that anyway?



Start the revolution without me



Wild, Wild Horses


On a exploration of the Tonto National Forest by car, we stopped at Butcher Jones Road where we were surprised by a herd of wild horses walking through the picnic area and beach. Many, including us, ambled up to them trying to take photographs. I counted 13 horses in the herd. It is amazing to see wild horses. One onlooker explained to me that this was the only place the horses could access water so they came almost every day for a drink. We watched carefully to make sure we were not trampled. Apparently no one has ever got hurt by them though he recommended standing close to a tree since they never ran into trees.

Another photographer explained to me that he was part of a conservation group that successfully pleaded with the governor to halt efforts to send them to a glue factory. For now at least their tenure is secure. I applauded him for his efforts. We took many photographs of them today. How could we not?

The  volunteer group called the Salt River Wild Horse Management Group (‘SRWHMG”) has made the protection of these wild horses their mandate. They believe that the horses and their ancestors have been roaming free along the lower Salt River in Arizona, for centuries. Arizona’s State Archives hold historic evidence of their existence in the Salt River Valley, dating all the way back to the 1800’s when they were already referred to as “native stock”.  But in 2015 they were threatened with total removal.

SRWHMG monitors daily the horses and keeps records of them. Sometimes they rescue and rehabilitate suffering and injured Salt River wild horses. Part of the problem is that the horses wander onto highways. As a result this group maintains and repairs miles of fencing along Bush Highway and recreation areas. They want to keep a small piece of “wild” for future generations to come.

The mustangs may be descendants of Spanish or Iberian horses that were brought to the Americas by the Spaniards in the 16th century. The name “mustang” was derived from the Spanish word mustengo, which means “ownerless beast.” Today the word “mustang” and “wild horse” are used interchangeably.

In 1687 one of the first European explorers of the region, Missionary Father Eusebio Keno journeyed to Southern Arizona (then part of the Mexican Sonora). Due to his efforts, missions and stockyards were developed. He reportedly left hundreds of horses and cattle at each mission. His many expeditions on horseback covered over 50,000 square miles. He had 6 successful missions in Arizona including in Phoenix and Tubac.

By the 1800s wild horse herds were found all over the western plains and were noticed by many settlers and explorers. For example, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark saw them on their historic exploratory expedition from 1804-1806. Sadly, the horses were treated like the bison. Mass extermination started around 1850 because wild horses were considered competition for cattle. Many were shot or poisoned. The United States Forest Services (“USFS “) and ranchers organized roundups to shoot them. Even as late as 1908 the Forest Service put out a standing order to kill every wild horse on sight in Lander County. The wonderful animals were considered “worthless.” In the Phoenix area they were slaughtered in the thousands. The Bureau of Land Management now believes that there are about 500 left in Arizona.

The USFS  believes that they are not wild, but are escaped “livestock.” They did not want to be responsible for their management. They were not able to find any wild horses when they went looking, but  SRWHMG today believes they did not look very hard. SRWHMG suggests that they based their analysis on only one faulty outing. Yet as a result the USFS said they intended to sell the horses unless someone claimed them. In 2015 they issued a “notice to impound” to the public, but no one came to claim ownership. Even the Native American tribes did not claim them. The SRWHMG therefore takes the position that they are not truly feral or stray livestock. What is clear is that the horses are indeed wild and unowned. The SRWHMG believes that they are part of Arizona history and ought to be preserved. As a result they are doing their best to protect them from possible destruction by the USFS. For the time being it appears that they are safe, but this protected status is fragile. Ironically, the wild horses now rely on the advocacy efforts of humans, their long time foes. In the world of wild life conservation this is a frequent anomaly. Life is strange.


The Return of History


One of the best things about an extended stay vacation is that it offers time for things it is harder to do at home–such as reading.  Reading is one of my greatest pleasures.  I will comment on a few of the books I have read on this vacation. Here is the first

Today I am recommending not just a book, but a series of books. I am talking about the Massey Lectures a series of outstanding books by great thinkers co-sponsored by CBC, House of Anansi Press, and Massey College at the University of Toronto. Oddly, I have actually brought the two most recent books in this series on this trip.

The book I just finished is The Return of History by Jennifer Welsh. Welsh’s book is a rethink of an earlier very famous article by American political commentator Frances Fukuyama entitled “The End of History,” in which he argued that the demise of confrontation of East and West epitomized by the apparent end of the Cold War in 1989, was actually much more than that. Fukuyama argued this was the end of humanity’s ideological evolution as it entailed the “universalization of Western liberal democracy.” In other words it was the final form of government and this would lead to a waning of traditional power politics and large-scale conflict and the emergence of a much more peaceful world. Optimistic wasn’t he? Welsh definitively puts an end to this thesis, based on historical events that occurred since then.

What I really liked about the book (and there were many things) was the way she knitted together a broad collection of international historical events into a rational narrative without over-simplifying them. She makes sense of history in other words.

Too many of us (me clearly included) catch only a glimpse of current events, particularly on the international stage, by reading newspapers and magazines, or watching news stories on television, or, horrors, listening to our opinionated buddies at the coffee shop. Naturally we miss parts of each story. Often we miss large parts of the story without realizing it. It is difficult to understand what is going on in the world that way.

It is really nice for someone like Welsh to put them together in a comprehensive and rational way and look at them that way. It makes us feel briefly smarter. Sadly, that feeling soon passes with each new overtaking event.

When we look at places like Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Afghanistan, and closer to home like the United States Germany and Great Britain, among many others, complacency is hardly justified by the facts. Dread is a much more rational response. It is not the triumph of the west that we can reasonably look forward to, the decline of the west seems much more likely.

Welsh points out that liberal democracy has overcome many crises in its short history during which it has flourished, but this has lulled both its leaders and its citizens into a false sense of complacency that is rapidly crumbling. As she says, “Our relative success in the past has created blind spots that now threaten to take us into a decade or more of great political, as well as economic turmoil. History is back with a vengeance.”[1]

This is a very good book.

[1] Jennifer Welsh, The Return of History, (2016) p. 46

The Tonkin Bay Resolution


When Lyndon Johnson became President after John Kennedy died, he realized that knew new plans and new strategy were urgently needed. The U.S. was getting mired in a war it did not need and Johnson did not want. But he felt he was stuck with it. He chose General Westmoreland to lead the American war effort in Vietnam. He had been a decorated military leader in Korea and Johnson chose him personally. He also replaced Henry Cabot Lodge as Ambassador with General Maxwell Taylor.

By the end of his first year as President, his cabinet and top military generals recommended that he increase the number of American military “advisors” in Vietnam from 16,000 to 23,400 by the end of 1964.

Johnson wanted to gradually increase military pressure on the North. Soon Johnson authorized American aircraft to bomb neighbouring Laos. He allowed American vessels to oversee shelling of coastal bases of the North. Of course, all of this was conducted in secret. “The American people were not to be told. It was an election year.” So the truth was withheld from them.

Misleading the public about critically important matters like war, is abhorrent. It makes one extremely wary of politicians. How can they possibly justify withholding the facts from the people who will have to pay the ultimate price for the decisions the politicians make? Or withholding the truth from parents who see their children volunteer to serve their county in war. No one has the right to withhold relevant information to them, least of all one’s elected officials.

Meanwhile the Joint Chiefs of Staff told the President that they were fighting on the North’s terms. They urged much more massive and dramatic action. They wanted air strikes on the north and the deployment of American forces in South Vietnam. They wanted boots on the ground. Johnson refused believing such aggressive action would pull China into the war just as such actions had pulled them into the Korean War in 1950.

Barry Goldwater, his opponent in the election blamed Johnson for holding back and doing nothing about Communist aggression. On July 30, 1964 South Vietnamese ships under the direction of the US military shelled two North Vietnamese islands in the Gulf of Tonkin. The tiny North Vietnamese navy was on high alert. As the television series said,


What followed was one of the most controversial and consequential events in American history. On the afternoon of August 2nd the destroyer USS Maddox was moving slowly through international waters in the Gulf on an intelligence gathering mission in support of further South Vietnamese action against the north. The Commander of a North Vietnamese torpedo boat squadron moved to attack the Maddox. The Americans opened fire and missed. North Vietnamese torpedoes also missed, but US planes from an American carrier in the bay damaged two of the North Vietnamese boats and left a third dead in the water. Ho Chi Minh was shocked to hear of his Navy’s attack and demanded to know who had ordered it. The officer on duty was officially reprimanded for impulsiveness. No one may ever know who gave the order to attack. To this day, even the Vietnamese cannot agree but some believe it was Le Duan.


Many like Huy Duc a North Vietnamese soldier believed that the North Vietnamese leader who was gradually taking over from Ho Chi Minh wanted to “elevate the war.” Some of the North Vietnamese soldiers, like Nguyen Ngoc, believed that had this not been done the North would have achieved victory in 1965. They already had much of the countryside and the government would likely have collapsed within a year if the Americans had not intervened with a large military force, as they did. However, as we know, these actions drew the Americans in and drew them in big time. Johnson ignored military advice and did not retaliate immediately. However he warned the North that any more unprovoked military attacks against Americans would bring them into the war. He failed to mention of course to the American people that the actions of the North were not unprovoked. They had been provoked by shelling of he South Vietnamese forces. “Both sides were playing a dangerous game.” And, of course, in war dangerous games often lead to violence. I hope the current American President appreciates this, but I seriously doubt it. Trump like so many American Presidents before him is filled with hubris about how easily it will be for the US with all its weaponry to win any war it chooses to engage in.

On August 4, 1964 the American radio operators mistranslated North Vietnamese radio traffic and concluded that a new military operation was imminent. It was not. They were actually getting ready for attacks from the South. Although no attack occurred, hyper alert Americans convinced themselves wrongly that an attack had occurred. Johnson was told an attack had “probably occurred” and decided it should not go unanswered.

Johnson, in announcing relation against this aggression by the North said it would be limited because “Americans know, though others seem to forget, the risks of widening war. We still seek no wider war,” he said. After that, for the first time, American pilots dropped bombs on North Vietnam.

2 months earlier, Johnson had asked McGeorge Bundy one of his military advisors to draft a resolution for Congress to authorize the President to use force in against the North Vietnamese. He now sent that to Congress. The Tonkin Bay incident was what he needed to ask Congress for authorization by way of that draft resolution to deal with aggression against the US by North Vietnam. As a result he got the famous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution from Congress which as Johnson said, was “like my Grandma’s nightshirt, it covers everything.”

Johnson was waiting for the right time to send a message to North Vietnam that we are ready and serious to deal with North Vietnam by supporting South Vietnam. As James Willbanks, an American military commander said, “That message was sent; I think we misread the enemy, because they are just as serious as we are.”

I think Willbanks was wrong. The North Vietnamese were more serious. Much more serious. The Americans talked a great line. They spent a lot of money. They sacrificed a lot of lives, but eventually they cried ‘Uncle.’ The North Vietnamese never did. They defeated the greatest military power in the history of the world! They could only do that with more grit, more determination, and more intelligence. In all of these the Americans were second rate, no matter how loud their barrage of patriotic words.

On August 4, 1964 the Tonkin Resolution was passed by a vote of 88 to 2 in the Senate and in the House it received unanimous approval. When it comes to aggressive military measures, the President of the United States usually gets his way. And he did again. Overnight Johnson’s approval rating for handling the war jumped from 42% to 72%. Even doves considered him measured and reasonable compared to Goldwater who seemed extreme. “The American public believed their President.” Even though he had not been entirely honest with them.

Of course North Vietnam did not believe Johnson. They were not convinced that he sought no wider war. They decided to escalate their efforts in the south before the American sent in their own combat troops. For the first time Hanoi started sending North Vietnamese troops into the south out of the paths they had hacked out of the Laotian jungle–the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The war was ramping up.

It was really a small incident, but it was the first that had pitted North Vietnamese forces against US Forces. It is not without significance that this was just before a Presidential election that Lyndon Johnson wanted to win. Just like Kennedy had wanted to win and just like Nixon would want to win after him. Johnson wanted to show that the Vietnamese that America was strong. He wanted to show Americans that he was strong. He wanted to appear decisive.

The Tonkin Bay resolution is seen by many now as the crucial resolution that got America mired in the war in Vietnam. It was the basis–the legal basis–for all that happened from the American perspective.

Of the two dissenting votes one was given by an amazing American. This was Senator Wayne Morse from Oregon. He was interviewed by Dick Cavett. When I was in college we would watch the Dick Cavett show nearly every night. Cavett had intended to have a late night entertainment talk show but he and his viewers were attracted to controversial subjects. None was more controversial than the War in Vietnam. Morse was able to speak the truth to power, when almost no one else was able to do that. He was one of the only 2 Senators that failed to support the resolution. These are the powerful words he said on that show that day,


If the Johnson administration had told the American people 5% of the facts of the Tonkin Bay incident the resolution never would have passed. The second thing I want to express in my conversation with you is watch out for the development of government by secrecy and executive supremacy. You had it manifested in the Tonkin Bay resolution. You just were not told the facts about America’s aggression in Tonkin Bay…We are a very proud people and its good that we’re proud, but we can’t run away from the facts just because we have a false sense of pride. And the difficulty with our Vietnam policy is that we have been the outlaw in South East Asia. We have been the aggressor. We violated one section after another of the Charter of the United Nations. We practically tore up the Geneva Accords. We have to face up to the fact that we cannot conduct a unilateral military course of action around the world without the world organizing against us. We’ve got to get out of Asia.


Dick Cavett later described that show with obvious pride. Cavett said the audience fell dead silent when Morse spoke about why we were so mistaken about this war. Cavett believed that Senator Morse was a great man. “He would be almost the definition of one.” It is not easy to say ‘No” when all around you are clamoring for war. Morse could do that. What a pity that more political leaders were not able to hear him.

On November 1, 1964 the North Vietnamese forces shelled an American air base in the south. 5 Americans died, 30 were wounded, and 5 B-57 bombers were destroyed on the ground, and 15 more were damaged. The Joint Chiefs recommended the President authorize an immediate all out air attack on 94 targets in the north and to send in regular marine units, not as advisors but as combat forces. Johnson refused to this 2 days before the election. Johnson won the election by a landslide.

As soon as the election was over, Johnson approved what he called “a graduated response.” These included limited air attacks along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos and tit for tat attacks on North Vietnamese targets. He did not want to launch sustained attacks on the North until the South got their own house in order. In private, Johnson doubted that air power alone would ever work. He believed that eventually he would have to send in ground troops. He did not say so publicly. Again, the President did not tell the whole truth. And young men and young women volunteered to risk their lives to support their government. But their decisions to volunteer were made without knowing the truth. That should be a war crime.

All the News (or not)


General Paul Harkins was the America head of the Military Assistance Command in Vietnam in the early 1960s. Robert Strange McNamara was an American business executive and the eighth Secretary of Defense appointed first by President Kennedy in 1961. He kept his position under President Lyndon Johnson until 1968. He was considered a brilliant thinker and was responsible for implementing what was called systems analysis and later called policy analysis. Like so many of Kennedy’s advisors he was a Harvard Graduate. Harvard has never been famous for graduating students filled with modesty. They considered themselves the best and brightest.

McNamara loved data and he constantly demanded more of it from those under his supervision, such as General Paul Harkins. As a result, Harkins, doing as he was told, provided McNamara with mountains of data. In fact, McNamara was provided with “far more data than could ever be adequately analyzed.” As a result alarming reports from field officers such as John Paul Vann were not given the attention they deserved.

General Harkins had little use for sceptical reporters such as Neil Sheehan. Sometimes he even preferred that “bad news was buried.” Why advertise your own shortcomings?

When bad news is not seen or paid sufficient attention to, military analysts like McNamara are not in the best position to make the best decisions, no matter how bright they were. Even the best and brightest need all the news–the good, the bad, and the ugly. If military leaders are not in a position to make the best decisions their soldiers suffer more than anyone else.

The current occupant of the White House at the end of 2017 is famous for treating any news he does not like as “fake news.” As a result he too can fall into the same trap that Kennedy did. In fact this is much more likely in Trump’s case, because Kennedy was not a moron. Morons, more than most, need all the bad news.