If you’ve ever read about pirates, you might have heard of Stede Bonnet especially if I’m your reading you’ve seen something about Blackbeard. But if you’ve only heard of him then you might well be puzzled. This was what author, Jeremy Moss found when he began his search to find out the truth about the ‘Gentleman Pirate.’
Though rather obscure today, Bonnet was better known than some in the 18th century, indeed he was known in his day as one of the more infamous pirates of the Atlantic and Caribbean. But is this deserved?
Amongst student of maritime crime, Bonnet is known as a bit of a joke, and Moss’ critical eye for detail makes him perfectly suited to act as his biographer. Bonnet was a wealthy gentleman who seemingly had a midlife crisis and joined the 18th century equivalent of a biker gang, only he bought all the bikes and hired all the riders to form his gang.
“the author brings the reader into constant contact with important contemporary sources, such as trial records, later history and collections of state papers. Not enough pirate history does this”
Though it is true that he learned a great deal from being the prisoner of Blackbeard, and associations with others like Charles Vane, by the time of his capture he had learned how to act like a pirate, cruising and capturing passing craft casually from a secluded inlet, and puffing and blowing about taking revenge on ships from Carolina, and threatening to shoot any of his crew dead who refused to fight. As Moss brings us through the story of his unusual life, one even begins to wonder who was conning who when it came to Blackbeard.
This book highlights very well the difference between the wannabe apprentice pirate captain Bonnet and ‘real’ pirates, who acted according to codes and traditions and considered themselves a loose brotherhood, hence they felt entitled to act in certain ways depending on who had done what in disregard of the rules. We see this when Moss looks into his motivations in turning criminal. Jacobite sympathies (a popular affectation by certain captains) mixed with, mid life crisis & literal dementia is an original hypothesis, and one that is actually borne out by the available sources.
When I read the book, I loved how the author brings the reader into constant contact with important contemporary sources, such as trial records, later history and collections of state papers. Not enough pirate history does this, and it will really enable a serious student to do some proper digging. *doffs cocked hat*.
Stede actually got off to a good start but he wasn’t a typical pirate as he literally owned his ship & the crew had bounties, but he revealed he was no sailor and then got hammered by a Spanish Man O’ War.
The hero, for all his faults is treated kindly, for instance Bonnet is thought by the author to have likely remained faithful to his wife. I suspect the author is trying to make Bonnet out to be less than the figure of fun that he is commonly ascribed. And it’s true Bonnet isn’t implicated with women in the record.
Apart from a few small things, mostly cosmetic to do with naval terminology and weaponry, which gave me no pause to doubt the overall narrative, there were no speed bumps. A highly detailed coverage of the trial of the pirates takes up part two of the book, offering day by day narrative of the proceedings, yielding many interesting points for studious readers, and some are also amusing, such as Chief Justice Alein becoming irritated when he could get no straight answer as to wether or not Bonnet was, as he called it ‘commander in chief’ of the pirate ship.
This wonderful moment of anecdote shows us not only the singularity of the semi-diplomatic nature of pirate crews, but we can also see the novelty of it at the time, as the confused Chief Justice becomes increasingly irate at the mention of the power of the pirate quartermaster exceeding that of Bonnet.
Excellent appendixes round out the book, which is in sum highly readable and supremely informative. I look forward eagerly to Moss’ future work.
The Story of China was a book I was not looking for but in a way I had been waiting for it since at least 2014. In late 2020 I found myself remembering that Michael Wood had not only made an appearance on twitter but that he had written a book on China. The subject of Chinese history is not a small one. From my own brief divergences into the subject of Qing military affairs, for which I read Lovell’s book on the Opium War in 2014, and my reading of Jung Chang’s biography of Empress Dowager Cixi in 2016, I was aware of the daunting scale of the ground I would have to cover in order to better my understanding of one of the world’s great civilisations.
Everything that is united will fall apart and everything that is fallen apart will come back together again. So it has always been.
When during the brief breath between UK lockdowns in the autumn of 2020 I saw the golden eyes of the sinuous, wild haired jade dragon, coiling up through the gilt clouds that frame the title, in a bookshop window I realised that if I was ever to step towards a better understanding of how to interact with Chinese history, Michael Wood would be the author I would trust to guide me.
My confidence in Wood stems from when, again, many years ago, I had reached out and pulled from a bookshelf in Waterstones Inverness a reprint of Wood’s Conquistadors. I then consumed as many of his documentaries as I could, including the documentary on China, which I watched for inspiration after I had been persuaded to review Frank Dikotter’s book on the Cultural Revolution. For all this I felt reassured in purchasing it, not only for the rare beauty and quality of the production of the hardback, but because Wood knows how to write grand history of great complexity with great accessibility.
Having finally found the time between pressing projects to finish it, I can happily say, my faith has been rewarded. The Story of China is the history of a civilisation from a grassroots perspective. In this book we look at Chinese history from a different perspective, not that of a philosophical or intellectual one, but a demographic, sociological one.
Wood focuses not so much on the story of China as a nation but as a civilisation. Thus you will often find yourself not in the courts of emperors but in Han peasant farms, Qin magistrate courts and Tang watchtowers. Indeed only once we reach the age of the Great Qing, (and dare we say it the 20th century ‘dynasties’), can it be said that the Story of China lends more weight to the Emperors themselves as much as his subjects, and even then the occupants of the dragon throne, for all their glamour, are only ever the framework to Wood’s main argument. That the story of the Chinese civilisation can be interacted with through the people who experienced it. And I think he is right.
The wars, laws, social, economic and political movements are revealed through the experiences of the people who were effected by them. With considerable skill, Wood ensures that the vast array of ever changing characters who appear in this book, who have shaped and coloured Chinese history, even those who play only the most fleeting part in it, appear so that they can echo the great themes of the civilisation right down to the end.
A slave who could turn his hand to five trades, soldiers on lonely outposts asking friends to give them news and procure them clothes and shoes, female poets, travel writers, revolutionaries and a true life police procedural murder mystery with the Qin Empire’s version of Hercule Poirot. All have something to say about the historical edifice of China, and in doing so allow the reader to place a more human face upon it. These of course drift along in a narrative, with the famous and legendary, that shifts between geography, culture, biography and story with seamless ease.
In terms of dynasties, Wood primarily examines their political and cultural aspects, one or two emperors of the crop from each is covered, which is simple enough with the Qin, but more difficult with longer lived ones and the Qin, Han and Tang empires feature prominently in the first third of the book.
Events here are both critical and incidental to the people who lived through them, as they left glimpses of what it was like to be a part of the rise and fall of dynasties but it is their experiences that are presented in the most detail. As such more time is given over to mini biographies of people most westerners will have never heard of, but who could be said to be as influential in their own sphere as Samuel Pepys or Jane Austen.
As a result, Wood is just as likely to shun the gilded halls and soft furnishings of palaces, the battlefields, siege works and councils of war, to examine the rude thatch and homespun of the villages nearby, because what is decreed at the top will eventually reach the roots, and it is indeed at a grassroots level, as much as a higher one, that Wood wants us to experience the story China.
As he narrates each dynasty, Wood brings us to the world of the village and the family. Central to the heart of Chinese History is the family histories, lovingly curated and preserved through many calamities and still treasured by many today. With each upheaval and political change comes the ‘View from the Village,’ which is a peak into what was going on outside the imperial court, and the provincial governments. I found myself eagerly anticipating each coming view as the chapters wore on.
Wood has given the reader a thorough introduction to the great themes and debates of Chinese civilisation.
Within this framework, individual lives are used to carry the story forwards, and Wood places special emphasis on the arts as a focal point of culture. Rather than court intrigue or decisive battles, Wood seeks different propulsion for his story. Celebrating economic, scientific, military and architectural achievements are commonplace in most histories of empires and nations, but the Story of China is very much a work that is built around literature and poetry and the people who created it. As a result equal time is given to high and low characters; the famous and the obscure travel together and men share the limelight with women in a equitable light that does not pander.
By the end, though I am admittedly unread in the great expanse of Chinese historiography, it seems that Wood has given the reader a thorough introduction to the great themes and debates of Chinese civilisation. Most of all the continuing balancing act of Confucian moral government and centralised despotism set against the tableau of one of the richest literary and material cultures in the world. More than anything I believe this book wonderfully shows how successive dynasties have tried to espouse the Mandate of Heaven, in whatever form would keep them in power, and how that influenced the people over whom the mandate gave power.
I admit that I might need to ask forgiveness for my delight in finding the portion of the book devoted to the ‘modern dynasties’ from 1911 to 2019, somewhat more concise than the sections of the great imperial dynasties. Or perhaps my bias for those more distant things allowed me to drift more quickly over the upheavals that followed to fall of the Qing: The Civil War, the struggle against the Japan and the progress of Communism.
But therein as I closed the book, I found myself considering the collective eras of Mao, Deng and Ji, (the former two, still within the reach of living memory for people living under the latter) against those of the Tang, Song, and Ming and thinking how new this China, or perhaps I should say, this image of China, we have all come to accept, respect and fear, really is. As I write this the words of the Ming writer Luo Guanzhong, written in the first chapter of his Romance of the Three Kingdoms drifted softly through my mind: ‘Everything that is united will fall apart and everything that is fallen apart will come back together again. So it has always been.’
They were known as bloodhounds. Because the relentless way the British Light Infantry would attack and pursue their patriot foes bred a chilling similarity to a pack of hunting dogs in full chase.
With their sleek and cut down uniforms, garish feathers and distinctive bugle-horns blaring behind them as they went into battle, these were probably the most feared infantry in the British Army Serving in North America during the Revolution.
As author Robbie MacNiven shows us in this book, this was a reputation that the light infantry battalions consciously adopted and cultivated. They bred an elite culture within their ranks and at every opportunity encouraged an aura of capability, toughness and mercilessness that is reminiscent of special forces today.
Even in defeat they were dangerous and Patriot commanders learned to be weary of them on the battlefield. Their fighting spirit was such that they became mutinous at the mention of making peace with the rebels. Their officers, no less spoiling for a fight than the men, would write home of how fighting the Americans was much like fox hunting.
A steely eyed breed of short, stocky, active and dangerous men was born within these light companies. Men adept in the art of movement and concealment, of ambush and encirclement. They asked for no quarter and gave none, and they pursued their enemy relentlessly until they stopped kicking.
The author reveals this elite force with great descriptive skill and academic verve. Not only in battle but on campaign and in camp, giving good descriptions, visual and textual of the dress and training of the units. Also including information on loyalist forces and some little known areas of light infantry history as well. One of the most interesting is the rarely explored subject of the 1776 ‘contract rifle’ which was issued to five men in every light company.
The reader will be able to begin to get an image in their mind as to the esprit de Corps of the light infantry battalions, some of their terminology and traditions, and a sense of warfare in North America in general too.
Here warfare was dominated by who could deploy the most flexible infantry, and as a result this book builds on what other Osprey authors such as Stuart Reid have written about the so called ‘American scramble.’
An open order firing line able to act by company as well as by battalion, a theory which came to dominate practical linear warfare in the 19th century .
The book expands every now and then to observe that the British Army did not just stumble upon the light infantry doctrine at Shorncliffe camp in the early 1800s. A circular pattern emerged from 1755 to 1803 where as needs required light troops would be authorised and disbanded, but always enough residue would remain to ensure that the next time war loomed the light corps would return stronger than the last time. So by the start of Britain’s Napoleonic epic, fully authorised permanent light infantry battalions would be ready as a result.
With excellent accompanying images by Stephen Walsh this title is highly recommended.
A simplistic appreciation and survey of three fairly well known actions during the North American War of 1812 is delivered by Gregg Adams in this latest combat title.
While offering little that is terribly novel about the challenges and minutiae of how opposing Battalions tackled each other in the field during the conflict, it is good to see this overlooked conflict get attention.
The point of this book is to demonstrate how the US Army learned to hold it’s own against the British. It does this in straightforward style. The Americans are beaten in two battles, Queenston Heights and Chrysler’s Farm, then win a victory themselves at Chippewa which apparently demonstrated their ability to fight. Yet in the end I felt no closer to understanding what went into this change than I did to begin with.
It is a trend in histories of the wars between Britain and the US to create an underdog scenario in order for the Americans to rise above their supposedly invincible enemies. While there is no doubt that the US Army was in poor shape in 1812 and only found its feet in 1813, this recipe has been done many times and in the confined space of a this type of book, there might have been an opportunity here to investigate a different angle.
The battles are described at a fairly high angle level, without delving too deep into tactical or practical doctrine. Methods of fire control, logistics, and systems of arms handling and manoeuvre are only very briefly explained. The Americans lose the first two battles because of poor leadership and what the author calls their amateurish methods, but with little to demonstrate what exactly this looked like. To be honest I was left to imply from the quotes by General Scott that extensive training in roughly established methods paid dividends and that success could have been theoretically achieved at any time previously. Even the section dealing with Scott’s camp of instruction focuses only on the General’s opinion.
As one might expect, in the last year of the war some talented officers came along and got around to doing a proper job. This book is about regular infantry, and so discussing the militia and irregular forces, isn’t something it has time for, and that is good. But every now and then it throws in a little nugget of unsubstantiated information that raises more questions than answers. For instance in the section dealing with Chippewa, the author happily throws in a description of American Regulars taking aimed shots as if this was; A a hugely unusual thing, and; B even practical at all, given each side had roughly the same capabilties in terms of accuracy.
Combat books should realistically be about the dynamics and first hand experiences of combat from a very low level point of view, trying to conjure up a picture of combat from the ranks so the reader can get beyond the staple military history jargon, revealing what terms like ‘forced back’ actually looked like and what it meant.
This book gives some snappy and exciting battle summaries, especially if you like the David and Goliath scenario of British pros eventually being bested by Yankee amateurs, but little of the boots on the ground realities of linear combat in North America.
On the first day of June 1606 the mutilated body of a Punjabi wise man was swept downstream from Lahore. He had been drowned in the River Ravi after being cruelly tortured for his faith on the orders of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir. The current buffeted the lifeless corpse, carrying it southwest towards the lower branch of the Sutlej and maybe from there onwards to where the waters of the Five Rivers meet at the all defining Indus.
His name was Arjan, the fifth Guru of the Sikhs, the builder of the Harimandir Singh (Golden Temple) and their first martyr in their struggle against the Mughals. ‘Sit fully armed,’ Arjan advised his son and heir regarding his throne, shortly before he died. He enjoining him to lead his people in the ways of the previous Gurus in all respects, except for that now the Sikhs must in addition to seeking spiritual truth, keep their weapons close.
His son, Hargobind listened well and from his reign was seeded the strong Sikh virtues of spirituality and the warrior arts, forming the first community defence force known as the Akalis, or the Immortals. For as Guru Hargobind demonstrated with the miri and piri swords at his ascension ceremony, he would fight worldly enemies with one hand and spiritual ones with the other. ‘The destroyer of the enemies’ ranks, the brave, heroic Guru, is also a lover of mankind,’ the savant, Bhai Gurdas wrote, for ‘To protect an orchard hedge it with thorny trees.’
And like the prickly plants of Gurdas’ metaphor, the Sikhs became a thorn in the side of the Mughal empire. Stamp as they might even the mighty Aurangzeb could not wipe them out without being impaled by their points. Indeed much as Jehangir had stoked the fires of Sikh resistance by murdering Guru Arjan, the pressure exerted by Aurangzeb when he treacherously murdered the 9th Sikh Guru, and sent his head to his young son, won him a perilous enemy.
The young and dynamic Guru Gobind Das codified the warrior-protector tradition, forming the Khalsa army, where as the authors of Warrior Saints explain ‘even someone born into the lowliest caste could, through the force of their arms and the justice of their cause, become reborn as kashatriya or defender of the people.’
So powerful was this motivation, that the Sikhs soon began to eclipse the Rajputs as the most feared warriors in northern India, the tales of their epic victories becoming legendary throughout Hindustan.
The dual role of pitiless warrior and benign saint was exemplified during the actions of one warrior called Kanhaiya, who offended the elite Akalis by offering water to both Sikh and Mughal wounded, explaining later to the Guru ‘I saw neither Mughals nor Sikhs there. I saw only the Guru’s face in everyone.’
From these beginnings in the 17th century, the Sikh Khalsa Empire was born. Becoming, as time wore on, the last independent state in India to challenge the British East India Company’s supremacy, due to the unifying genius of the great Maharajah, Ranjit Singh, whose death in 1839 would leave the kingdom in such confusion that it would eventually fall prey to the European conquerors.
This book is a joy to read; every page brings something interesting to the eye and enlightening to the mind. The care and passion of the authors in crafting this volume is clear to see and has been infused into every page, bringing four centuries of Sikh Military history to life in a deeply impactful way.
Warrior Saints is the visual history of the core values of the Sikh Warrior Saint Tradition. Presenting a legacy of art and culture for the descendants and adherents of the Gurus today as well as a record for students of history and art alike. Through rare paintings and photographs from a rich variety of sources the authors have collected, in this first volume of the new edition, a stunningly accessible chronicle of the rich legacy of the Sikh Kingdom.
The Duke died on 14 September 1852, in Walmer Castle on the South coast of Kent, this had been his official residence as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. This post was the last of The Duke’s military and government offices he had held. The Duke had been, in turn, Warden of the Tower of London, Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, and, Chief Ranger of Hyde Park and St James Park, Leader of The House of Lords, Lord High Constable of England, Prime Minister and at various times Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Home Department, for War and the Colonies and Minister without Portfolio. In short a great statesman and advisor for three monarchs (George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria).
Born in 1769, he was 83 years old and still working; his retirement was only half-hearted as his many honorary positions, along with his near legendary status within Victorian society, led to additional work and calls for advice.
On the morning of 14 September, The Duke’s Valet, Kendall entered his master’s modest bedroom within the castle at 6 o’clock in the morning. The Duke did not apparently move when the fire was laid, despite the clattering of a poker in an iron grill. Only when Kendall entered a second time, this time to open the wooden shutters did the Duke stir.
Kendall recalled he told the Duke that it was getting late, as he rose early, he responded:
“Is it? Do you know where the apothecary lives?” “Yes, at Deal, your Grace.” “Then Send for him. I wish to speak to him”.
Deal is the next town to Walmer, less than a kilometre away, and so Kendall sent for the apothecary to come at once. When he arrived the Duke complained of “some derangement” and held a hand up to his chest. The apothecary obviously felt it was no serious condition, he felt the elderly Duke’s pulse and prescribed an ammonia stimulant, after which he returned home, promising to return later.
The Duke’s condition, sadly, did not improve. It is now believed that he had suffered a stroke overnight or a series of small seizures, which given his age, he was unable to recover from.
Kendall, a ever attentive valet asked the Duke if he would like some tea, which he normally took with sugar, the Duke responded positively, “Yes, if you please”. These were the last words he ever spoke.
On the apothecary’s return the Duke was not conscious, so a doctor was sent for. A few different remedies and poultices were tried, but the Duke did not seem to return. Kendall proposed that they moved him from the camp-bed to the nearby chair, a favourite wing-back. All present agreed to move him there. It was now half past 3 in the afternoon, the Duke of Wellington was quite motionless and gently he passed away.
A mirror was put near his lips, but no breath showed on the glass. This was shown to all in the room
Queen Victoria was deeply upset and refused to accept the news at first. She called the country’s loss “irreparable” and continued, “He was the GREATEST man this country ever produced, and the most devoted and loyal subject, and the staunchest supporter the Crown ever had”
The wishes of Queen Victoria were to include both Houses of Parliament in the arrangements for the funeral, but as the houses were not sitting, they had recently been prorogued, there was therefore a further delay in the final arrangements until Parliament could meet. During this time, and because the Queen had not received formal approval from Parliament, it was agreed that the Duke’s body would remain at rest at Walmer Castle.
It was also Queen Victoria’s wish that the Duke would, at great public expense, be interred in St. Paul’s Cathedral. After all formal arrangements were made, work on the organisation and preparation for the funeral began under direct supervision of Prince Albert, such was the importance given to the Duke’s passing. Prince Albert worked closely with Lord Derby and the Home Secretary Spencer Walpole to arrange one of the largest funerals ever seen, certainly given the population size of the time, an estimated 1 million or more lined the route of the 2 mile procession from Horse Guards to St Paul’s via Apsley House and Wellington Arch, the route was extended to allow for the volume of spectators. There was a national outpouring of grief as it signalled the end of not only a great man’s life, but also an era passed with The first Duke of Wellington.
This post was written by Marcus Cribb, who is the Site Manager at Apsley House London and in my opinion the best kind of person: someone who admires wellington as much as I do. Please find more of his writings here. https://www.dukeofwellington.org/blog
Field Marshal Count Alexander Suvorov was not a man who felt that war needed to be any more complicated than necessary. The quickest way to get an enemy running was to find his weakness and attack it. The quickest way to chase an enemy from the field was to run at him with bayonet and sabre.
Under this diminutive but dynamic deity of battle, Russian troops were expected to be battle ready, not parade ready, and anything that impeded the proper performance of regiments in the field was considered surplus to requirements.
Any officer who had too much baggage or too grand a household had better not let Count Suvorov know about it. From this pragmatism flowed a practical battle-sense that the Count tried to imbue deep into the heart of the Russian army.
The following extract from the memoirs of General Denis Davydov, who was told many things about Suvorov by his father, and as a child even met the old warhorse once. It demonstrates both Suvorov’s no nonsense attitude to warfare, and his practical nature for conditioning troops for the type of battle he wanted to fight:
‘Because the primary obligation of the cavalry was to cut a path through enemy ranks, it should not be concerned with speed alone and maintaining line while on the gallop. It must surge into the midst enemy line or could and strike at anything close to hand, not turn about and break off the engagement alleging that the firing had frightened the horses, or retreat in good order without making actual physical contact with enemy fire.
In order to stop this practice, Suvorov trained the horses of the cavalry to gallop at full speed and accustom them to break through the the central ranks of the opponent’s firing line. To achieve this, he saved the manoeuvre for the end of the training period, relying on the memory of the animals, and reinforced with a verbal command that they knew would signal the conclusion of the exercise.
For this purpose he had half his troops dismount and stand with carbines loaded with blanks. The soldiers were separated from one another by the distance necessary for one horse to gallop between them. The other half remained on horseback, aligned opposite the gaps of the facing infantry, and then were ordered to attack.
The soldiers were told to discharge their weapons at the very moment when the horses galloped through their lines. The riders would then dismount and the training manoeuvres were over. The theory was that instead of being frightened by the shots fired directly at them, the horses would look forward to the moment of facing the infantry fire, remembering that the sound of shots would be followed by their being reined in, haltered, or returned to their stables. Indeed, they would neigh and be eager to charge!’
This imaginative drill, which took advantage of the animals’ natural inclination to return to their stables to rest and feed, had it’s issues. Mostly derived from dismounted troops being, struck, trampled and sometimes killed by charging horses.
For this reason dismounted duty was loathed by the soldiers. Whenever he would be told a man had been killed in this horse training exercise, Suvorov would exclaim ‘May the Lord have mercy on them! I may kill four, five or even ten men; but I’ll train five or ten thousand!’
Not all Suvorov’s officers felt this was the way to use cavalry of course. But only experienced officers dared use their own judgment in the presence of their chief. Colonel Davydov of the Poltava Light Horse Regiment who commanded the second line of cavalry during an exercise in a calm and orderly manner in a classic supporting role, was brought up at dinner the same evening, and asked why he had ignored an order from Suvorov to hurry up. Apparently Suvorov had already led the first line in three charges and thought Davydov was dragging his heels.
Davydov, who knew the old general well enough to know how to get around him, thought for a moment and replied that there had been no cause for the second line to charge, as the first line kept pursuing.
‘And what if the enemy had taken heart and repulsed the first line?’ Quizzed Suvorov.
‘That could never happen.’ Replied Davydov ‘Your excellency was leading it.’
A new book, written by Anthony Ruggiero has been published and is now available, please have a look, as I’m sure it will be a great read.
‘The Tudor Dynasty of England, spanning from the late fifteenth century into the early seventeenth century, was filled with colorful monarchs that impacted the country politically, economically, and socially. One of those monarchs was Mary Tudor, the daughter of King Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. Mary ruled over England from July 1553 to her death in November 1558. Despite its initial promise and success, Mary Tudor’s reign was unsuccessful due to the increased influence of foreign power. Mary’s early life and struggle to the throne reflected her determination to rule, her strong religious conviction to Catholicism, and her reliance on Spain.’
The year 1962 is a year that most Americans will never forget, because that was the year the world was on the brink of nuclear warfare, stemming from the conflict between the United States, Cuba and the Soviet Union. This conflict came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. At the time the United States and the Soviet Union were in the midst of the Cold War. Which although there was no official declaration of war, was a period of immense tension between the two world powers due to their conflicting ideologies: The United States was democratic and the Soviet Union was communist. The Cuban Missile Crisis occurred when the Soviet Union installed nuclear missiles in Cuba. The reason for this action was that Cuba, an ally to the Soviet Union, was nearly invaded by United States forces in 1961 in the failed Bay of Pigs excursion in an attempt to get rid of Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro was responsible for dismantling the economic relationship between The United States and Cuba, which was created nearly a half a century earlier. The Soviet Union also felt that since the United States had naval bases in Europe close to the Soviet Union it was only fair that they had a missile base close to the United States. Although the situation would later be averted, the crisis ultimately shaped the relationship between the United States and Cuba through the rest of the twentieth century.
In 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American war, when the United States had defeated Spain, the Spanish signed the rights to its territories, including Cuba, Puerto Rico and Guam, over to the U.S, which subsequently granted Cuba its independence with the stipulation that the U.S. could intervene in the country’s affairs if necessary and that it be granted a naval base at Guantánamo Bay. For the next half of the twentieth the two countries more or less cooperated, with the U.S. helping to squash rebellions and heavily investing in the economy of Cuba.
Prior to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, tensions between the United States and Cuba were already on the rise. After taking control of Cuba in 1959, following the Cuban Revolution, communist leader, Fidel Castro, formed an alliance with the Soviet Union. Thus the relationship between the United States and Cuba was no longer intact. As a result The United States placed an embargo on Cuba on October 19th, 1960, and placed a further embargo on exports to Cuba except for food and medicine after Cuba nationalized American-owned Cuban oil refineries without asking for permission. On February 7th, 1962 the embargo was extended to include almost all imports. During Castro’s regime, Cuba became dependent on the Soviet Union for economic and military support.
This enraged the United States whom at the time was in a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Both countries were already in a race to build up their armed forces. The Arms Race was a competition between both countries to scare each other by creating bigger, more powerful missiles and bombs. The United States was more advanced than the Soviet Union in technology. The Soviet Union tried to catch up as quickly as possible and neither stopped creating weapons. The alliance between the Soviet Union and the Cubans frightened many Americans because Cuba is extremely close to the United States, just ninety miles off the coast of southern Florida. By having an ally to the Soviet Union so close to the United States, many Americans feared a Soviet invasion and ultimate communist take over. President at the time, John F. Kennedy, concluded that something had to be done to prevent this from happening.
President Kennedy’s solution led to the failed attempt of an invasion in 1961, known as the Bay of Pigs. The Bay of Pigs occurred in April of 1961, Cuban refugees, armed and trained by the United States, as well as American soldiers attempted to invade Cuba and tried to overthrow the government of Fidel Castro. The invasion was unsuccessful and many were killed or imprisoned. The event was deemed to be one of the most humiliating events in American military history. Reports claim, that President Kennedy was visibly shaken by the failure. This event would set in motion the events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Castro was convinced that the United States would try again to invade, and sought to attain military helpfrom the Soviet Union. The leader of the Soviet Union, also known as the Soviet Premier, Nikita S. Khrushchev, agreed with Castro’s concerns and had decided to send Soviet Missiles in order for the Cubans to be able to protect themselves.
Following reports of the Soviet Union placing missiles in Cuba, John F. Kennedy issued a public warning to the Soviet Union, in September of 1962, that no harmful weapons were to be placed within Cuba. However, the United Sates still sent a U2 aircraft, to overlook the situation in Cuba. The aircraft confirmed that there were Soviet missiles on Cuban territory. However, the U2 aircraft was shot down before it could return to the United States. Although it was not confirmed whether or not it was Soviet forces or Cuban forces that had shot down the aircraft, it had already served its purpose. President Kenney and his officials agreed that by the U2 aircraft being shot down and that by the Cubans now have attained Soviet missiles that they were teetering on the brink of war.
Following these events, President Kennedy was uncertain of what course of action he should take. However, Kennedy also felt that it was not right that Cuba had the missiles. Nor did he want to appear weak. Throughout many meetings with his advisors, which, went on for nearly a week, they came up with a variety of options, including a bombing attack on the missile sites and a full-scale invasion of Cuba. According to an account by one of Kennedy’s advisors, Theodore C. Sorenson, Kennedy did not want to “force Khrushchev’s hand…” Essentially, he did not want to drag the United States into war. Kennedy wanted to protect the United States.
In order to avoid war, first, Kennedy would place the U.S. Navy on a blockade, or quarantine, of Cuba to prevent the Soviets from delivering additional missiles and military equipment. Second, he would deliver an ultimatum that the existing missiles be removed. In a television broadcast on October 22, 1962, the president notified Americans about the presence of the missiles, explained his decision to create the blockade and made it clear that the U.S. was prepared to use military force if necessary to prevent any military advances by the enemy and his main concern was national security. However, many Americans still feared that the nation was on the brink of nuclear war.
Khrushchev viewed President Kennedy’s invoking of the blockade as an “act of aggression.” Thus a critical moment during the crisis occurred on October 24, when Soviet ships headed towards Cuba came close to the line of U.S. vessels whom were enforcing the blockade. Any attempt by the Soviets to break the blockade would likely have started a military confrontation that could have quickly turned into a nuclear battle. However, the Soviet ships stopped short of the blockade. Despite the fact, there was no formal battle there was still the issue of the missiles still in Cuba. Thus the issue was still on going. Although this event at offered some positive insight that a war could be avoided the tense standoff between the superpowers continued throughout the week. And on October 27, an America aircraft was shot down over Cuba, and a U.S. invasion force was readied in Florida.
Tension was still very much apparent. The Soviet Union and American leaders found a way out of this crisis. During the crisis, the Americans and Soviets had exchanged letters and other communications. On October 26, Khrushchev sent a message to Kennedy in which he offered to remove the Cuban missiles in exchange for the U.S. leaders not to invade Cuba or allow any other country to invade Cuba. The following day, the Soviet leader sent a letter proposing that the Soviet Union would remove its missiles in Cuba if the Americans removed their missile bases in Turkey.
A major issue that resulted in the Crisis was that the United States had missile bases in countries that were close to the Soviet Union. For example, Turkey and Italy. These missile bases were called the Jupiter Missile base. Officially, the Kennedy administration decided to accept the terms of the first message and ignore the second Khrushchev letter all together. Secretly however, American officials also agreed to withdraw their nation’s missiles from Turkey. When U.S. Attorney General and brother to President Kennedy, Robert Kennedy personally delivered the message to the Soviet ambassador in Washington and on October 28, the crisis came to an end. After the Soviet Union completed their removal of missiles in Cuba, the United States officially ended their blockade and finished removing missiles in Turkey by April 1963.
There was a lot of backlash following the crisis. The relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union became strained for a long period, after Khrushchev’s removal of the missiles. Fidel Castro accused the Soviet Union of backing down from the Americans and not supporting the Cuban revolution. European allies of the United States were also upset, not because of the United States’ actions during the crisis, but because Kennedy and his administration kept quiet and did not include them in negotiations that might have led to a nuclear war. However, within the United States President Kennedy’s popularity increased as his handling of the situation was deemed as redemption for the Bay of Pigs. Leaders within the Soviet Union were disgusted at Khrushchev’s withdrawal of the weapons. There was perhaps one positive aspect of the crisis. Having gone to the edge of what President Kennedy referred to as the “abyss of destruction,” both nations initiated steps to begin some control over nuclear weapons. Less than a year after the crisis ended, the United States and Soviet Union signed an agreement to end aboveground testing. This came to be known as the Limited Test Ban TreatyWhich prohibits the testing of Nuclear Weapons in the atmosphere, underwater, or in space.
Following the Cuban Missile Crisis the United States still continued their embargo of Cuba. This continued through the remainder of the twentieth century, even after the fall of the Soviet Union. The United States government strengthened the embargo with the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which states that the embargo may not be lifted until Cuba holds free and fair elections and switches to a democratic government that does not involve any member of the Castro Family.
The Cuban Missile Crisis was an event that definitely highlighted the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the twentieth century. The reason for the Crisis varies due to the many other situations that had transpired or were transpiring. The Cubans who were essentially under the control of the United Sates for the first half of the century were now under a new, communist regime under Fidel Castro, which the United States was not happy about. After the United States had imposed an embargo and failed to invade Cuba in the Bay of Pigs, the Soviet Union placed missiles within the country. However, the leaders of the Soviet Union had their own motives. The Soviet Union just wanted to be able to place a missile base close to the United States because the United States had missile bases close to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union essentially used the crisis to also force the United States to terminate those bases. In general Cuba was in middle of the larger feud between the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite the fact, the crisis was resolved, the Cold War continued for over the next twenty years. Cuba still remained under communist control and the relationship between the United and Cuba still remained the same.
Anthony Ruggiero is a High School History Teacher in New York City, New York. In addition to teaching, he has been published in several magazines and blogs. Such as: History Is Now magazine, Historic-U.K. magazine, Tudor Life magazine, Discover Britain magazine, The Odd Historian magazine, the Culture-Exchange blog, Inside History magazine, Versus History blog, The New York History Review and The Freelance History Writer blog. Through continuing to research and write, he is able to share his findings with his students in order to engage them in their learning and help them succeed. His work can also be viewed on his Twitter handle: @Anthony10290122
The other series I started in the lost spring of 2020 was with Marcus Cribb, Manager at Apsley House, where we discuss the Duke of Wellington. To kick off we went into the Waterloo campaign and have only just emerged out the other side.