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Willie Nelson releases “Red Headed Stranger”

April 30, 2020 in History

By Editors

The following content is sponsored by Legacy Recordings.

On May 1, 1975, Willie Nelson releases “Red Headed Stranger,” a concept album that would become the country music maverick’s first smash hit.

Born and raised in Texas, Nelson made his way to the country mecca of Nashville, Tennessee by 1960. He quickly earned a reputation writing songs for other artists—including “Crazy,” which became a huge hit for Patsy Cline in 1961—and went on to record more than a dozen albums of his own.

In the early ‘70s, frustrated by the smooth, heavily orchestrated Nashville sound, Nelson moved to Austin, Texas. Amid the city’s growing hippie music scene, Nelson felt free to be his offbeat, bandanna-wearing self. He released “Shotgun Willie,” considered one of his best albums, in 1973, followed by “Phases and Stages.”

But like his previous albums, neither of them sold that well, and when his record company, Atlantic, closed its country branch, Nelson was left without a label. Fortunately, his agent managed to negotiate a contract with Columbia that gave Nelson complete artistic control (a rare thing in the music business).

In January 1975, while driving home from a ski trip in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Nelson’s then-wife, Connie, reminded him of “Red Headed Stranger,” a ‘50s ballad written by Edith Lindeman and Carl Stutz about a grief-stricken cowboy that Nelson had played on the radio during his years working as a DJ. By the time they got back to Texas, he had spun the story of the song into the concept for his next album.

Combining Nelson’s songs with other songwriters’ work, “Red Headed Stranger” tells the story of the Stranger, a man with long red hair and blue eyes (like Nelson himself). After catching his wife cheating on him with another man, he kills them both, then goes on the run.

Nelson recorded the album in a small studio in Garland, Texas with a trusted group of musicians, including his sister and longtime collaborator, Bobbie. It took about a week and cost just $4,000 in studio costs. The sound was so spare—mostly just piano, guitar and drums—that executives at CBS Records (Columbia’s parent company) didn’t want to put the album out, saying it sounded like a rough demo and people wouldn’t want to buy it.

In fact, “Red Headed Stranger” hit number 1 on the country charts, and eventually went multi-platinum. The first single, “Blue Eyes Crying in …read more


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Amid 1918 Pandemic, Bootleg Whiskey Became a Respectable Medicine

April 30, 2020 in History

By Greg Daugherty

Prohibition proved no match for the deadly virus—at least for a while.

When influenza began to sweep through the U.S. in 1918, a frightened nation looked to an unproven but familiar remedy: whiskey. There was just one problem. More than half the states had passed Prohibition laws by then, making liquor difficult, sometimes impossible, to legally obtain.

As citizens in the so-called dry states pleaded for whiskey to prevent or treat the deadly virus, some resourceful officials hit on a solution: Liberate the vast stores of bootleg liquor that had been confiscated since the statewide laws went into effect. While some of that contraband had simply been poured down the sewers, much of it remained locked away as evidence or perhaps with an eye toward eventual repeal.

Newspapers across the U.S. reported that military doctors were administering confiscated whiskey in Army camps, which had been hard hit by the flu. In Richmond, Virginia, two railroad cars of it reportedly rolled into beleaguered Camp Lee. At Camp Dodge, Iowa, where more than 500 soldiers had already died, hundreds of quarts had been dispatched to fight the influenza, the papers reported.

The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI (TV-PG; 5:42)

WATCH: The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI

The Army was largely mum about what it was doing, while pro-Prohibition forces maintained that those stories were exaggerated, if not downright false. Some called them German propaganda, branding the reports a “Diabolical Hun Plot” meant to put American soldiers at risk from deadly alcohol.

But before long, officials were breaking out their bootleg whiskey for civilian hospitals, too. Hospitals in Omaha, Nebraska received 500 gallons, courtesy of the local sheriff. The commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, meanwhile, ordered his revenue agents in North Carolina to distribute their confiscated whiskey to hospitals around the state.

See all pandemic coverage here.

Doctors debate whiskey’s medicinal merits

The medical community was divided on whether whiskey was of any real use in fighting the influenza or anything else. The highly regarded United States Pharmacopeia, which published standards for prescription and over-the-counter medicines, had dropped whiskey, brandy and wine from its listings in 1916. The following year, the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association had thrown its weight behind Prohibition, resolving, over the objections of some delegates, that “the use of alcohol as a therapeutic agent should be discouraged.”

A revenue agent wearing a …read more


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Steps Leading to the Fall of Saigon—And the Final, Chaotic Airlifts

April 30, 2020 in History

By Christopher Klein

The conflict in Vietnam ended in turmoil in 1975 with the largest helicopter evacuation of its kind in history.

The dulcet tones of “White Christmas” that crackled over Armed Forces Radio airwaves on April 29, 1975, failed to spread cheer across sunbaked Saigon. Instead, the broadcast of the holiday standard after the announcement that “the temperature in Saigon is 105 degrees and rising” instilled fear and panic in all who recognized the coded signal to begin an immediate evacuation of all Americans from Vietnam.

Although the United States had withdrawn its combat forces from Vietnam after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords in 1973, approximately 5,000 Americans—including diplomats, marine guards, contractors and Central Intelligence Agency employees—remained. President Richard Nixon had secretly promised South Vietnam that the United States would “respond with full force” if North Vietnam violated the peace treaty. However, after the Watergate scandal forced Nixon to resign, the North Vietnamese Army felt emboldened to launch a major offensive in March 1975.

“From Hanoi’s point of view, the turmoil leading up to and including Nixon’s resignation was an opportunity to take advantage of a distracted United States,” says Tom Clavin, co-author of Last Men Out: The True Story of America’s Heroic Final Hours in Vietnam. “North Vietnam never intended to abide by the 1973 agreement—its ultimate mission was to unify the country—but the political crisis in America allowed them to move up their timetable.”

North Vietnamese Capture Cities en Route to Saigon

A North Vietnamese armored car crashing through Independence Palace’s main gate in Saigon.

After winning a decisive battle at Ban Me Thuot and capturing the central highlands, the North Vietnamese Army swept south and captured the cities of Quang Tri and Hue with little resistance and no American response. The fall of Da Nang, South Vietnam’s second-largest city, on March 29 unleashed a furious exodus that included desperate residents clinging to the rear staircase and landing gear of a World Airways plane and falling to their deaths as it took flight. After watching news coverage of the incident, President Gerald Ford confided to an aide, “It’s time to pull the plug. Vietnam is gone.”

With little American appetite for re-engaging in the Vietnam War, Congress rejected Ford’s request for $722 million to aid South Vietnam. When communist forces seized Xuan Loc on April 21, South Vietnamese President Nguyen …read more


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How the US Got Out of 12 Economic Recessions Since World War II

April 29, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

From post-war recessions to the energy crisis to the dot-com and housing bubbles, some slumps have proven more lasting—and punishing—than others.

A recession is defined as a contraction in economic growth lasting two quarters or more as measured by the gross domestic product (GDP). Starting with an eight-month slump in 1945, the U.S. economy has weathered 12 different recessions since World War II.

On average, America’s post-war recessions have lasted only 10 months, while periods of expansion have lasted 57 months. Some economists predict that the COVID-19 pandemic will put an end to the longest period of economic expansion on record, which ran 128 months—more than a decade—from mid-2009 to early 2020.

February to October 1945: End of WWII

World War II was an economic boon for the U.S. economy as the government infused tens of billions of dollars into manufacturing and other industries to meet wartime needs. But with the surrender of both Germany and Japan in 1945, military contracts were slashed and soldiers started coming home, competing with civilians for jobs.

As government spending dried up, the economy dipped into a serious recession with GDP contracting by a whopping 11 percent. But the manufacturing sector adapted to peacetime conditions faster than expected and the economy righted itself in a tidy eight months. At its worst, the unemployment rate was only 1.9 percent.

November 1948 to October 1949: Post-War Consumer Spending Slows

When wartime rations and restrictions were lifted after WWII, American consumers rushed to catch up on years of pent-up purchases. From 1945 to 1949, American households bought 20 million refrigerators, 21.4 million cars, and 5.5 million stoves.

When the consumer spending boom began to level off in 1948, it triggered a “mild” 11-month recession in which GDP shrunk by only 2 percent. Unemployment was up considerably, though, with all former GIs back in the job market. At its peak, unemployment reached 7.9 percent in October 1949.

July 1953 to May 1954: Post-Korean War Recession

This relatively short and mild recession followed the script of the post-WWII recession as heavy government military spending dried up after the end of the Korean War. During a 10-month contraction, GDP lost 2.2 percent and unemployment peaked around 6 percent.

The post-Korean War recession was exacerbated by the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy. As would happen in many future recessions, the Fed raised interest rates to combat …read more


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How Pandemics Spurred Cities to Make More Green Space for People

April 27, 2020 in History

By Christopher Klein

From wider, tree-lined boulevards to lush parks, 19th-century cholera pandemics shaped some of the world’s most famous urban landscapes.

Cholera Transforms London and Paris

A satirical cartoon showing the River Thames and its offspring cholera, scrofula and diphtheria, circa 1850s.

As cholera roared through London in 1854 and took the lives of approximately 10,000 of its residents, British physician John Snow mapped instances of the disease in one neighborhood and found a connection not to contaminated air, but to a public well contaminated by leaking sewage. That same year, Italian anatomist Filippo Pacini, isolated the bacterium that caused cholera, but it would be decades before the discovery was widely accepted.

In the interim, raw sewage continued to overflow into the River Thames, and in the summer of 1858 it caused the “Great Stink,” an odor so repugnant it forced the closure of the Houses of Parliament and the construction of a modern sewer system that transported the city’s waste far enough away from London that the river’s tides took it out to sea. In addition, the muddy shorelines of the Thames were narrowed and replaced with embankments with riverside roads and gardens.

Across the English Channel, Emperor Napoleon III came to power in France in 1848 amid a cholera outbreak that took the lives of approximately 19,000 Parisians. An admirer of the parks and garden squares of London, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte sought to remake Paris in the wake of the pandemic. “Let us open new streets, make the working class quarters, which lack air and light, more healthy, and let the beneficial sunlight reach everywhere within our walls,” he declared.

Under the direction of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, French authorities tore down 12,000 buildings, built tree-lined boulevards and parks, erected fountains and installed an elaborate sewage system that transformed Paris into the modern-day “City of Light.”

“Haussmann’s plans were in part designed to bring fresh air and light into the dense urban grid, and were cited as such when inspiring the plans of Chicago and Washington, D.C.,” Carr says, “but it should also be noted that Haussmann’s long boulevards were also a convenient way to eliminate blighted housing, facilitate surveillance and deploy military quickly to all corners of the city.”

READ MORE: Full Pandemics Coverage

…read more


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How Nixon’s Invasion of Cambodia Triggered a Check on Presidential Power

April 27, 2020 in History

By Jessica Pearce Rotondi

Following months of secret U.S. bombings on Communist bases, American ground troops were deployed to northern Cambodia on April 28, 1970.

When President Richard Nixon ordered U.S. ground troops to invade Cambodia on April 28, 1970, he waited two days to announce on national television the Cambodian incursion had begun. With resentment already building in the country over the conflict in Vietnam, the incursion felt like a final straw.

The news unleashed waves of criticism from many who felt the president had abused his powers by side-stepping Congress. By November 1973, the criticism had culminated in the passage of the War Powers Act. Passed over Nixon’s veto, it limited the scope of the Commander-in-Chief’s ability to declare war without congressional approval.

While the act was an unusual challenge, presidents since have exploited loopholes in the War Powers Resolution, raising questions about executive power, especially during states of emergency.

READ MORE: The US and Congress Have Long Clashed Over War Powers

Why Did the U.S. Invade Cambodia?

Nixon Orders Invasion of Cambodia (TV-PG; 1:02)

LISTEN: Nixon Orders Invasion of Cambodia

Cambodia was officially a neutral country in the Vietnam War, though North Vietnamese troops moved supplies and arms through the northern part of the country, which was part of the Ho Chi Minh trail that stretched from Vietnam to neighboring Laos and Cambodia.

In March 1969, Nixon began approving secret bombings of suspected communist base camps and supply zones in Cambodia as part of “Operation Menu.” The New York Times revealed the operation to the public on May 9, 1969, prompting international protest. Cambodia wasn’t the first neutral country to be targeted by the United States during the Vietnam War—the United States began secretly bombing Laos in 1964, and would eventually leave it the most heavily bombed country per capita in the world.

READ MORE: Why Laos Has Been Bombed More Than Any Other Country

The Cambodian Incursion (April-June, 1970)

Nixon approved the use of American ground forces in Cambodia to fight alongside South Vietnamese troops attacking communist bases there on April 28, 1972. Recent political developments within Cambodia worked in Nixon’s favor. Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had led the country since its independence from France in 1954, was voted out of power by the Cambodian National Assembly on March 18, 1970. Pro-U.S. Prime Minister Lon Nol invoked emergency powers and replaced the prince as head …read more


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President Ulysses S. Grant: Known for Scandals, Overlooked for Achievements

April 24, 2020 in History

By Greg Daugherty

The Civil War hero left the White House under a cloud, but he also had substantial achievements—like passing the 15th Amendment.

For decades after his death in 1885, Ulysses S. Grant suffered a reputation as one of the nation’s worst presidents, consistently ranking in the bottom 10 in polls of historians. But in more recent years, historians have taken another look at the Civil War hero. Popular biographies, such as Ronald C. White’s American Ulysses (2016) and Ron Chernow’s Grant (2017), have made compelling cases that Grant’s presidency merits reexamination, and that his contributions while in office were more substantial than he’s been given credit for in previous decades. At a time when the nation was still recovering from the trauma of civil war, he worked to knit together the frayed Union, lift up formerly enslaved people and advocate a humane, if not enlightened, policy regarding Native Americans.

No one might be more surprised by this reputational revival than Grant himself. His autobiography, published in two volumes in 1885, covers some 1,200 pages, beginning with a discussion of his ancestors and ending with his Civil War years. His presidency is hardly mentioned.

Grant’s farewell message to Congress in 1876 shows he sensed that history might judge him harshly. “Mistakes have been made, as all can see and I admit,” he wrote. “But I leave comparisons to history, claiming only that I have acted in every instance from a conscientious desire to do what was right, constitutional, within the law, and for the very best interests of the whole people. Failures have been errors of judgment, not of intent.”

Two years later, the New York Sun put it another way, calling Grant “the most corrupt President who ever sat in the chair of Washington.”

So how good (or bad) president was he? Here is some of the historical evidence.

READ MORE: 10 Things You May Not Know About Ulysses S. Grant

A swirl of scandals

There’s no denying that Grant left office under a very large cloud. From beginning to end, his Administration produced a swirl of scandals. While none rose to the notoriety of a Watergate or Teapot Dome, their sheer numbers must have been dizzying to Americans at the time.

Grant dressed as a trapeze performer holds up corrupt members of his administration in this 1880 political cartoon.

Grant’s attorney general, secretary of war, secretary of the navy …read more


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When WWI, Pandemic and Slump Ended, Americans Sprung Into the Roaring Twenties

April 24, 2020 in History

By Dave Roos

After enduring dark times, Americans were eager for a comeback.

The unprecedented death and destruction wrought by World War I leveled economies the world over, but the situation was different in the United States.

In fact, 1914 to 1918 were mostly boom years for the U.S. as the federal government poured money into the wartime economy. Previously a debtor nation, the U.S. emerged from the war as a chief lender and arguably the strongest and most vibrant economy in the world.

But even that wartime boom doesn’t fully explain what happened next. Somehow, despite a global flu pandemic that killed 675,000 Americans in 1918 and 1919, and a depression that gutted the economy in 1920 and 1921, the United States not only recovered but entered into a decade of unprecedented growth and prosperity. Americans began a spending spree: the Roaring Twenties was on.

The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI (TV-PG; 5:42)

WATCH: The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI

The ‘Boomlet’ Before the Bust

The Federal Reserve, created in 1913, flexed its monetary policy muscles for the first time during World War I. Since the American public was unwilling to fund the war effort through taxes, the Fed did it by printing more money. The result by 1918 was runaway inflation. A pair of shoes that cost $3 before the war now cost $10 or $12.

Economists predicted a post-war crash as military factory orders dried up after the 1918 Armistice. Compounding the end of the wartime economy was the spread of the so-called “Spanish flu,” a virulent contagion which not only killed hundreds of thousands of Americans from the fall of 1918 to the spring of 1919, but shuttered businesses from coast to coast.

Incredibly, the dire post-war economic predictions didn’t come true. At least not immediately. American consumers, who had patriotically scrimped and saved during wartime, began to live it up. Europeans also joined in, purchasing $8 billion in exports from America. Inflation ticked upward, and so did prices, but consumers were willing to pay anything for a taste of freedom.

“Instead of the deflationary slump widely expected, the economy experienced an inflationary boomlet, and everybody exhaled,” says James Grant, the author of The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash that Cured Itself. “The inevitable did happen, but it didn’t happen on schedule.”

Not ‘Great,’ But Still a Depression

Interior of New York Stock Exchange, circa 1920.

To combat …read more


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How the Black Death Spread Along the Silk Road

April 23, 2020 in History

By Patrick J. Kiger

The Silk Road was a vital trading route connecting East and West—but it also became a conduit for one of history’s deadliest pandemics.

The, which causes plague, to leave their rodent hosts and find new places to live, such as camels and their human owners. After several years of flea relocation, as the scientists’ theory goes, it took another decade for the caravans to gradually advance the plague westward, until it reached the edge of Europe.

Kaffa, a Crimean Black Sea port now known as Feodosia, “seems to be the jumping off point for the primary wave of the medieval Black Death from Asia to Europe in 1346-7,” Welford says. “Genoese or Venetians left Kaffa by boat, infected Constantinople and Athens as they made their way to Sicily and Venice and Genoa. But I suspect [Black Death] also made it to Constantinople via an overland route.”

One famous 14th-century account claimed that plague was introduced to Kaffa deliberately, through a Mongol biological warfare attack that involved hurling plague-infected corpses over the city’s walls.

Black Death Spreads East to West, And Then Back Again

How the Black Death Spread So Widely (TV-PG; 3:32)

WATCH: How the Black Death Spread So Widely

Whether that actually happened, the plague eventually became a disaster in the East as well as in the West. “It killed off many of the Mongol rulers and other elite, and weakened the army as well as the local economies,” explains Christopher I. Beckwith, a distinguished professor at Indiana University Bloomington, and author of the 2011 book Empires of the Silk Road. It’s estimated that the Black Death killed 25 million people in Asia and North Africa between 1347 and 1350, in addition to the carnage in Europe.

A 2019 study by German researchers genetically linked the Black Death to an outbreak that occurred in 1346 in Laishevo in Russia’s Volga region, raising the possibility that the disease may have spread from Asia by multiple routes.

In any case, when the Black Death reached Europe, it attacked a population that already was weakened and malnourished by the brutal nature of the feudal economy.

“I think a good argument can be made that [Black Death] hit at a time when the health of the poor was compromised by the stress of famines, poverty and the very nature of serfdom,” Welford says.

In The Decameron, written in 1352, Giovanni Boccaccio describes …read more


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How the US Pulled Off Midterm Elections Amid the 1918 Flu Pandemic

April 22, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

A lot was on the line, and not just for Democrats in Congress.

In the fall of 1918, the United States was approaching a midterm election like none other before. Not only were President about a “Republican quarantine against Democratic campaign speeches.” (Smith still narrowly managed to unseat the Republican incumbent, Charles Whitman, as governor that November.)

READ MORE: How US Cities Tried to Halt the Spread of the 1918 Spanish Flu

Voting in a Pandemic

Since local and state authorities largely controlled the measures taken to control the spread of the virus, voting in the 1918 midterms looked very different depending on what part of the country you were in.

By November, when the flu was generally waning in the eastern part of the country, it was ramping up in the West. In Sacramento, California, some poll sites couldn’t open, according to the Sacramento Bee, because “there were not enough citizens who were well enough.” In San Francisco, health officials issued an order in late October mandating that people wear face masks while in public or in a group of two or more people. All poll workers and voters were required to wear masks on Election Day, prompting the San Francisco Chronicle to call it “the first masked ballot ever known in the history of America.”

By contrast, things were getting back to normal on the East Coast. Public health officials in Washington, D.C. made the decision to reopen churches on October 31, and schools and theaters on November 4, the day before the midterm election. In New York City, health commissioner Dr. Royal S. Copeland similarly began rolling back restrictions in early November, with businesses resuming their normal operating hours by Election Day.

Despite the risks involved, there appears to have been little public discussion about simply postponing the election that year. Jason Marisam, a law professor at Hamline University who has studied how the flu pandemic affected the 1918 midterms, argues that there might well have been talk of postponement—if the United States hadn’t been at war at the time. But with their troops fighting overseas, Americans’ spirit of civic pride was running high, and voting was seen as a necessary act of patriotism.

READ MORE: Why the Second Wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu Was So Deadly

The Spanish Flu Was Deadlier Than WWI (TV-PG; 5:42)

Low …read more