Civility: An Essential of Civilization

(This essay was originally published as “Civilization is Dependent upon Civility,” February 11, 2017, in the Newport Daily News.)

The growing incivility in American civilization has finally hit home for me. For the first time, someone posted a comment with coarse language to my blogsite.

The person was clearly an African American, so I allowed his use of the n-word: He was quoting its use by a white person. However, when he called this white person a “little racist piece of [swear word],” I edited it.

One Saturday afternoon in the early 1960s, I was working at Wildermann’s German “Pork Store” in northern New Jersey when Kenny Wildermann, my childhood friend’s older brother, admonished me, probably in response to my own swearing. He gave me a definition of swearing which I still like in its simplicity and truth. He defined it as “an immature way to express oneself forcefully.” Now I would modify it to “an immature and uncivil way … .”

There is not much disagreement among historians about the definition of “civilization.” A common definition is: a complex culture/society with a large number of people who share common elements. The common elements may include such things as cities, political structure, military structure, social structure, increased material wealth and specialization of labor, writing, religion, and artistic and intellectual activities.

Of course, because a body of people may meet these markers does not mean that the civilization is necessarily “civilized.” Civility, like beauty, is clearly in the eyes of the beholder. For example, in his book, “We Were Not the Savages,” Daniel N. Paul judges the British settlers of the 15th-19th centuries as more savage and uncivil than the native peoples of Canada’s maritime provinces.

Likewise, the question of who were more “civilized” during the crusades of the high Middle Ages will certainly turn on whether the original source is a Christian or Muslim writer.

During the Revolutionary War, the British certainly considered us “colonials” to be an uncivilized bunch, clearly shown in the uncivilized and dishonorable way we fought them.

To me, a clear marker for the civility of a society or civilization is the level of respect and dignity that its adults have for each other, reflected in part by the level of profanity and vulgarity they use toward each other. What words do they use in the public square to communicate with each other? When faced with disagreement, do they avoid slanderous and salacious attacks on one another and remain focused on the actual issue?

The answers to these questions have significance. For when human dignity and respect are not upheld, soon neither will the basic human rights of the Western tradition: freedom of speech and of dissent, and the pursuit of happiness, among others. Taken to its extreme, incivility will eventually lead to the trampling of human beings.

If indeed civility is an important part of the stitching which holds a healthy civilization together, American civilization is clearly at risk. The information revolution has given us the internet with all its wondrous benefits; however, there is no code of ethics that governs it, something I have now witnessed firsthand. Our technical advances seem to have outstripped our ethical codes, a situation that will only intensify as technology continues to progress in leaps and bounds.

Added now to the impact of the no-holds-barred ethical code of the internet on our society is the ethical code of our new president. The first president in history without any public service, President Donald Trump has brought, understandably, a commercial and capitalistic code of ethics to the office of the presidency. This is in contrast to the unwritten code of behavior that comes with this office, the office of our head of state and as such our first citizen of civility. This unwritten code I have witnessed and admired in my adult life in presidents from John Kennedy to Barack Obama. We may argue about its specifics; however, I would guess we would have little argument on this: The president must be a role model of civility and of citizenship.

If he is able to make the transition to this unwritten but nonetheless genuine ethical code, he will ineluctably raise the level of civility in the public square and contribute immeasurably to what the ancient Romans called “civilitas,” meaning “we are all citizens together.” It is this word, after all, from which we get the word “civilization.”

Fred Zilian ( has been teaching Western Civilization and World History for twenty years at the high school and college level.


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An American Creed?

(This essay was originally published as “Do We Need an American Creed?” on January 15, 2017, by the online History News Network.)

After such a harsh, uncivil election season and with a new presidency approaching, the necessity of reaffirming an American Creed gains urgency.

During this holy season, Christians and Jews return to their timeless creeds with increased fervor and piety. In 325 CE, Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor, troubled by the controversy over heretical Arianism, called a council of church leaders to resolve it. In ultimately condemning Arianism, it also formulated the Nicene Creed, the basic beliefs of Christians which 1700 years later Roman Catholics still recite at every mass.

Creeds come in different shapes and sizes. Not only religions but also individuals have creeds. George Washington, beginning at sixteen, tried to live by “The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation:” 110 rules of good character contained in a 16th century Jesuit book. Benjamin Franklin held 13 virtues to be supreme and listed these in his autobiography. They include such things as: 1. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation, and 13. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.

In the wallet of Dennis Lee Curtis, an armed robber, was found a set of rules when he was arrested in Rapid City, South Dakota, in the early 1990’s. They included: 1. I will not kill anyone unless I have to. 2. I will take cash and food stamps—no checks. 8. I will enjoy robbing from the poor to give to the poor.

Successful, resilient countries also need creeds. In his farewell speech, President Obama referred to such an American Creed. In referring to earlier immigrants, he said: “They embraced this nation’s creed and it was strengthened.”

With such a fragmented country, I wondered whether my history students and I could formulate an “American Creed:” words on which most Americans would or at least should agree. I explained to them that unlike most great powers in history, Americans define themselves by certain words and principles. We have never reposed our trust and identity in an emperor, king, ruler, or political party.

At term end, we arrived at these. One: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ….” (Declaration of Independence, 1776) Two: “…that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” (Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863) Three: Emma Lazarus: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. (Emma Lazarus, 1883) Four: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933) Five: “… ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (John F. Kennedy, 1961) And finally, six: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” (Martin Luther King, Jr., 1963)

Since I essentially had done the selecting, I asked the students, when assessment time came, to add a seventh quote. I received some interesting ones. Not surprisingly, one student offered the Pledge of Allegiance. Also, “The greatness of a man is not how much wealth he acquires but in his integrity and ability to affect others around him positively.” (Bob Marley) “All great change in America begins at the dinner table.” (Ronald Reagan) “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous.” (Frederick Douglass) At the end of his farewell speech, President Obama offered his own addition: “Yes we can.”

At the climax of the musical Don Quixote, the near-death Quixote, scorned and covered with scars, asks Dulcinea: “Tell me the words.” He has forgotten the words which once actuated him on his quest. This exercise reminded me and my students of words which have inspired Americans, and others beyond our shores, for two and one-half centuries. They have helped to make the USA not only the political, military, and cultural leader of the West, but also its moral leader.

George Packer, in his award-winning book, The Unwinding, suggests how America in the last four decades has been in a “vertigo” of “unwinding,” bringing power to organized money, a surfeit of freedom, aloneness, change, and new celebrity icons. As we undergo renewal, only the cacophony of “American voices” has persisted.

Perhaps with the arrival of the new year, political power passing to a new group of leaders, and our search for common ground, we can rediscover the right words from our past, rebalance their inherent conflicts, and find their best application for America’s future.

An educator for 35 years, Fred Zilian ( teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI. He also performs as Abraham Lincoln in his one-man show, “Honest Abe,” (

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Move Over Lone Ranger; Here Comes Martin Luther King

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on January 16, 2017.)

About twenty years ago, I attended a conference in California where we discussed the ideas of the famous 17th century philosopher-scientist Francis Bacon. I learned much about him, but the greatest insight I gleaned was during a coffee break. I was speaking with a woman from Canada, a professor, who said, “I don’t have any children, but if I did, I would move to the US.” Quite surprised, I ask: “Why?” She replied: “Because in the United States, you still believe in heroes.” Canadians, she explained, seemed bent on cutting down all their heroes, except for some star athletes.

Coming of age in the 1950s and 60s, my baby-boomer generation believed in heroes. We watched shows like “The Lone Ranger,” “Superman,” and “Gunsmoke.” Men had their weaknesses; however, they sought to do right, to seek justice, to be driven by moral principles. They spoke a moral vocabulary. They possessed a moral compass. In that age, presidents didn’t lie, at least we did not think they did. They never made statements like President Bill Clinton, “That depends on what your definition of ‘is’ is.” They did not seem obsessed with celebrity but rather with serving as first citizen of our country. They had been war heroes who led large invasion fleets to free captive continents from totalitarianism.

One need not be African-American, or even American, to see Martin Luther King, Jr. as a genuine, true-blue, hero. Consider his accomplishments. In 1955, at the age of 26, he earned a Ph.D. from Boston University. He also led the Montgomery bus boycott opposing laws which forced blacks to ride at the back of buses or give up their seats for whites on crowded buses.

At age 29, he published his first book, Stride Toward Freedom. In 1957 King helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, an organization of black churches and ministers that aimed to challenge racial segregation.

In the 50s and 60s, he organized and led numerous protests against racist laws which sought to keep the races segregated and hinder the progress of African-Americans, activities that led to jail on numerous occasions.

Throughout 1966 and 1967, King increasingly turned the focus of his civil rights activism throughout the country to economic issues. He began to argue for redistribution of the nation’s economic wealth to overcome entrenched black poverty. In 1967 he began planning a Poor People’s Campaign to pressure national lawmakers to address the issue of economic justice.

In the spring of 1968, this focus on economic rights took King to Memphis, Tennessee, to support striking black garbage workers. He was assassinated there by a sniper on April 4. News of the assassination resulted in an outpouring of shock and anger throughout the nation and the world, prompting riots in more than 100 United States cities.

His most famous speech is the “I Have a Dream Speech.” King and other black leaders organized the 1963 March on Washington, a massive protest in Washington, D.C., for jobs and civil rights. On August 28, 1963, King delivered this stirring address to an audience of more than 200,000 civil rights supporters. This speech expressed the hopes of the civil rights movement in oratory as moving as any in American history:

However, to me this is not his most poignant & powerful speech; it is the one he gave on April 3, the night before he was shot.

“Like anybody I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

We can draw many things from the life of Martin Luther King. One reminder this holiday brings to me is to envision—as he did— a world of better social justice, better opportunities and freedoms for people who, for one reason or another, have been left behind in the march of history.

I am reminded of a book, popular a few decades ago entitled, “The Education of a WASP.” (WASP: white-Anglo-Saxon Protestant) Towards the end the author, Lois Stalvey, dreams of a world shorn of color boundaries. Perhaps someday in the future we shall not talk of black, white, brown, and yellow. Perhaps one day, she says, we shall all be one beautiful creamy color. I have seen this happen in my own extended family, which now includes African-Americans.

So today, I have asked my own pantheon of heroes—the Lone Ranger, Superman, Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates, Mother Teresa and Abe Lincoln, among others—to move over and make room for Martin Luther King.

Fred Zilian ( teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University. He also performs as Abraham Lincoln in his one-man play, “Honest Abe” (

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British and Hessian Forces Occupy Newport, Island

(This essay was originally published as “Dec. 8, 1776: Newport Invaded,” on December 8, 2016, by the Newport Daily News.)

Two hundred and forty years ago today, British and Hessian forces landed and occupied Aquidneck Island, beginning a nearly three-year occupation with devastating consequences for the island and its people.

After abandoning revolutionary and recalcitrant Boston in March, 1776, the British decided to seize and occupy Aquidneck Island and Narragansett Bay for several reasons. Both British Admiral Richard Howe and brother General William Howe agreed on the need for a base of operations in New England, so geographically the Island and the Bay were good solutions. Strategically, with Narragansett Bay as a base, British forces could launch operations to other parts of New England, e.g., to defend New York City merchant ships from revolutionary privateers operating from Boston. Politically, Newport was reported to be the home of many loyalists, Americans loyal to the British Crown. Many loyalist Newport merchants, for example, could be counted on to support British efforts so that the strained economic and social connections could be restored. They hoped that Newport could return to its golden age earlier in the 18th century.

When the British force arrived offshore on December 7, five months after the Declaration of Independence, Newport’s population had plummeted from a prewar high of about 9,000 to 5,000 or lower. Late that day the armada dropped anchor west of Weaver’s Cove (near Melville, Portsmouth) and near Dyer’s Island. The force consisted of seven ships of the line (warships), four frigates (lighter warships), and seventy transports. Onboard were about 6500 military personnel and about 1500 civilians. The military forces consisted of both British and Hessian (from the Germanic state of Hesse) mercenary soldiers, about equal in number, commanded by General Henry Clinton.

The entire body landed on December 8, and were unopposed by any patriot resistance. Certainly a good number of Newporters welcomed the arrival and shared the reaction of Hessian officer C. Wende, who recorded in his regimental journal: “One can hardly imagine how majestic the arriving fleet looked.”


Occupation forces coming ashore, December 8, 1776

(Painting of Robert Clevely, 1777)

The forces immediately spread throughout the island and occupied the high ground and existing entrenchments. A British regiment landed at Newport and moved into the city. Several prominent city officials met the leaders of the force and escorted them to the Colony House where they peacefully gave up authority. The island was now under British military rule.

While many locals may have viewed the British arrival calmly and with thanks, this was not the case regarding the Hessians, whose reputation for cruelty and abuse had preceded them. Newporters generally tried to keep their distance from the Hessians; however, not all relations were tense. Samuel Freebody, for example, relied for firewood on a Hessian officer who lodged with him, indicating the “greatest harmony” between them and had “no doubt of his kindness continuing.”

With such a dramatic increase in population, there was a dramatic impact physically and environmentally on Aquidneck Island and the surroundings lands, aggravated by the three very harsh winters during the occupation. Two days after the landing, Lieutenant Frederick MacKenzie recorded in his diary that there was a very hard frost with ice an inch and a half thick. Writing of the cold later in the month, MacKenzie noted that a bottle of water under his bed had frozen as had a bottle of ink inside a desk. The winter of 1778-79 was so cold that several Hessian soldiers froze to death in an unheated guard house, recorded by one observer as “standing in their sentry boxes frozen to death, each with his musket standing by his side.”

Social tensions rose as the temperatures dropped and wood became scarcer. A British officer recalled during one winter the British commander gave “orders for the Cutting Down of almost every tree on the Island for fuel,” as well as tearing down vacant houses and fences. It is estimated that a total of 200 buildings were torn down throughout the occupation.

Social tension also increased because of limited housing, even though many houses had been vacated by people who had fled rather than face the occupation. In the summer, many troops would disperse throughout the Island; however, in the winter most would return to Newport straining the resources. They moved into all public buildings (including the Colony House), taverns, and homes. Except for Trinity Church, all churches became barracks.

Men faced severe constraints on their movements and activities during the occupation. They had to obtain written permission to leave or return to the island, had to register their small boats with the authorities, and obtain written permission to fish or hunt fowl. People suspected of having sympathy for the rebel cause were punished. Newporter Fleet Greene recorded in his diary that one military commander “Abuses the Inhabitant Friends to Liberty in a Most shocking Manner. Not suffering them to talk in the street.”

Women could move more freely than men and so were helpful in obtaining needed supplies and news. Many claimed a greater degree of social independence and used their social and sexual leverage on lonely soldiers to their advantage. However, their relative ease of movement came with costs. As their public visibility increased, so did the chance of abuse by soldiers.

Mary Gould Almy was certainly not alone in the challenge she faced. While a loyalist at heart, her husband Benjamin joined the rebel ranks, and she was therefore forced to maintain connections to both sides. “I am for English government,” she wrote in her diary, “and an English fleet.”


Mary Gould Almy

During the occupation, she operated a boarding house on Thames Street. Benjamin survived the war and returned to operate the house with his wife afterward. When George Washington as president visited the city in 1790, he boarded at the house (razed in the 1920s). The Almys were so taken with the visit that they reportedly saved for decades the blanket he used.

(The author would like to thank Bert Lippincott of the Newport Historical Society and Sue Rousseau of the Portsmouth Free Public Library for their assistance.)

Fred Zilian ( teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University.


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Presidential Election: Onward to the Past?

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on November 15, 2016.)

Though I voted for Hillary Clinton, I am a product of the American system and a believer in it. As such, I am prepared to accept and support Donald Trump as our 45th president. I hope we can all get behind him.

And who can disagree with his main election slogan: “Make America Great Again”. As an American patriot and retired Army officer, I am all for this. I guarded the frontiers of freedom for five years of my life: four years on the Inter-German Border and one year on the De-Militarized Zone in Korea. When President-Elect Trump, a baby boomer as I am, has referred to a Golden Age of America, he seems to look back to the late 40s and 50s, a time when “we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war.”

I remember those good ole days. While he was across the Hudson River in New York City, I was a few miles west in northern New Jersey, in a solid middle-working class town, Hasbrouck Heights. Even at that young age, I could sense the vigorous economic growth of the post-war years. A cow pasture at the edge of town suddenly turned into a huge factory; large grocery markets appeared where once farmers sold their vegetables by the bushel-basket.

By the early 60s, America seemed to dominate the world. We had a young, charismatic president with a beautiful wife and two young children, who led us through the Cuban Missile Crisis. American culture pervaded the world: Coca-Cola, blue jeans, Mickey Mouse, Rock ‘n Roll, and Hollywood. Our German landlady in Mainz, Germany, once related to me how in the 50s and 60s, “Made in America” was sought after; however, this was not the case by the late 70s and 80s. Yes, the good ole days—I am all for bringing them back.

Unfortunately, that world is gone with the wind. To name just a few of the changes: In 1960 the world had 3.04 billion people; today it has 7.4 billion, most expecting water, other scarce resources, and internet access. In 1960, China was ranked 6th in gross domestic product and was about to enter its disastrous Cultural Revolution. By 2010, it had climbed to 2nd behind the US, had turned capitalistic, had rebuilt its infrastructure, and was in the process of building a blue-water navy. In 1980, as I walked to teach my undergraduate class, the eyes of just about every student I passed met mine; now, most have their eyes on their iPhones.

A second concern is his credentials. When the Chicago Cubs wanted to break the century-old curse and build a championship team, they did not hire the head of Proctor & Gamble or General Electric. They hired successful baseball insiders, many from our championship Boston Red Sox. By one count there are over ten former Red Sox players and administrators who were acquired by the Cubs, including Theo Epstein, Jon Lester, John Lackey, and Mike Napoli. They also hired a seasoned manager in Joe Madden, a proven performer with 21 years of coaching experience.

Mr. Trump brings to the Oval Office great credentials as a manager, businessman, and communicator; however, these a leader do not make. Especially in the current age of the anything-goes internet and after such an ill-mannered election campaign, it is essential that he be our first citizen of civility. Beyond America, I hope our president can continue to be the leader of the free world and speak to the hopes and aspirations of, not only America’s down-trodden, but the huddled and persecuted masses of the world. Even though the full promise of the American Creed, highlighting human rights and dignity for all, is yet to be fully achieved in our own country, our pursuit of these has defined America not simply for 240 years but for 400, certainly here in Rhode Island.

It has not been simply because of our battleships, bombs, and brains that we have been bestowed with this leadership mantel, but also because of our moral leadership, specifically our defense of human rights and our pursuit of social justice, however flawed and inept these pursuits may have been at times. It was one of us who formulated those transcendent words which continue to capture the hearts of so many: “all men are created equal” and “they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Mr. Trump’s welcomed words of conciliation and unity on election night reminded me of one of his fore-runners, also a Republican, as our country was stumbling toward the Civil War: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies… The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Fred Zilian is a writer and performer. He also teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University.




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German U-Boat Visits Newport in 1916, Sinks Five Ships after Departure

(The essay was originally published as “Courtesy During Wartime,” by the Newport Daily News on October 7, 2016.)

One hundred years ago today, October 7, 1916, a German submarine visited Newport for several hours before departing to sink at least five European merchant ships off the coast of Nantucket. At that time the United States was still a neutral country in World War I, a war that had raged in Europe and elsewhere for over two years. The major belligerents included Great Britain, France, Russia, and Italy, one the one hand, and Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire, on the other. The US would enter the war in April, 1917.

On Saturday afternoon, October 7, the German submarine, U-53, commanded by Kapitanleutnant Hans Rose, entered Newport harbor and anchored near the cruiser flagship of Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves, commander of the Atlantic Destroyer Flotilla, based in Newport. Besides Rose, the crew consisted of three officers and 33 enlisted men.


Hans Rose

U-53 was an impressive piece of German engineering and technology. At 212 feet long, it was powered by two 1200-horsepower diesel engines, enabling it to reach a surface speed of 17 knots, a submerged speed of 11 knots, and also to range 9,400 nautical miles. For armament it had four 18-inch torpedo tubes and a pair of 3.5-inch deck guns. According to Rose, it could receive radio transmissions from 2,000 miles.

Once anchored, Rose brought his crew on deck in full uniform complete with medals. He made courtesy calls to both Rear Admiral Gleaves and Rear Admiral Austin M. Knight, commander of the Newport Naval Base and president of the Naval War College. He was told that because of United States neutrality, he could remain but a few hours in Newport or risk internment. Unfazed, he invited high-ranking naval officials and their wives aboard the submarine for a tour and drinks, also inviting members of the press. Before departing the city, Rose was seen handling local newspapers which carried shipping news, suggesting perhaps the true motive for his visit. The very next day it would sink off Nantucket at least five European merchant ships.

However, while the October 7 edition of the Newport Daily News carried a small article on the visit, its lead article was on the World Series between the Boston Americans and the Brooklyn Nationals. Its bold headline read: “More Than 42,000 See the First Big Game.” The game was played “before what was apparently the largest crowd which ever looked upon a battle of base ball (sic).” (Boston won that game and the series four games to one.) Also reported on the front page were the winners of the individual baseball titles. Tris Speaker, playing for Cleveland, won the American League batting title (.390) while Lou McCarty, playing for New York, took it for the National League (.339). Ty Cobb finished second behind Speaker in batting but stole the most bases (68) and had the most runs scored (113).

The paper also contained a large ad for the remarkable “Studebaker”: “Success Is the Thing that Succeeds.” It asserted great claims for the superior performance and sales of the vehicle for the previous 13 months throughout the country as well as in Newport and closed with “Buy a Studebaker,” $875 for a 4-cylinder and $1085 for a 6-cylinder.

Two days later on October 9, the Daily News gave a full report on the nefarious activities of U-53 after departing Newport on its “…Errand of Destruction Off Nantucket Lightship.” It indicated that upon leaving Newport “she changed from a craft intent upon paying social courtesies to one of destruction.” “Soon after daylight Sunday [it] sank her first ship near Nantucket Shoals lightship which is well outside the neutral zone.”  In sum it sank at least five merchant ships, three British, one Dutch, and one Norwegian.

The Newport navy flotilla was mobilized to rescue passengers, most ships departing only half-manned.  There were no reported casualties from the sinkings as Kapitanleutnant Rose allowed all passengers and crew to abandon the ships before he torpedoed them.

Admiral Gleaves indicated that there were 220 survivors, including 32 women and 10 children. The survivors were brought to Newport by the navy ships; mild weather and calm sea allowed no loss of life in the rescue operations. Newport’s population, including such high society people as Mrs. French Vanderbilt and Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, remained at the Government Landing “practically all night, waiting to receive the survivors,” who were cared for locally then subsequently given transport to New York City and Boston.

Historian Brian Wallin underlines the significance of that weekend for Americans by stating: “it demonstrated to Americans the destructive power of German U-boats and served as a warning of what would come if the United States entered the war on the side of the allies.”

Fred Zilian ( teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University.

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The Great Wall of Trump

(This essay was originally published by the online History News Network as “The Great, Sad, Impractical Wall of Trump”, on September 25, 2016.)

This is not the first time in history that a superpower notable has called for a long, protective wall to hold back unwanteds, although perhaps the first time the leader has been so demagogic as to assert that he will have the unwanteds pay for it.

In 117, Hadrian became the emperor of Rome as it was reaching its zenith. His 73-mile, east-west wall across Great Britain took six years to complete and demarcated the northern limit of the Roman Empire in its province of Britannia. Historians disagree about the reasons for the wall. When he acceded to the throne, there was much rebellion throughout the Empire, not only in Britannia, but also in Egypt, Judea, Libya, and Mauritania, and he wished to shore up defenses on the frontiers. Clearly one of the reasons was to keep out the barbarian Picts, Celts, and others. Secondly, it served as a visible and prominent symbol of Roman power—manned with Roman forces, turrets, watchtowers, white-washed and gleaming in the sun. Also in question was its effectiveness, although it appears there was no major invasion from the north while the wall was manned.

Like Hadrian’s Wall, the Great Wall of China was to serve as a barrier between the civilized and uncivilized world to its north and also as a symbol of the power of the Qin Dynasty, the first Chinese empire. The first part of the wall was built in the 3rd century BC in response to the threat posed by the nomadic Xiongu people on China’s northern frontier. Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi sought to strengthen fortifications to keep the nomads out. He sent Meng T’ien with 100,000 men to address the challenge. The Han Dynasty historian Sima Qin describes how Meng “seized control of all the lands south of the Yellow River and established border defenses along the river….” “The whole line of defenses stretched over ten thousand li [about 3300 miles]….” Over the centuries the wall was expanded so that it eventually stretched to over 13,000 miles. In addition to a defensive fortification it also served the purposes of border control and migration control. Effective at times as it might have been, it certainly did not prevent the conquering of China by the Mongols in the 13th century or the Manchus in the 17th.

The most heavily militarized border in the world today is the De-militarized Zone which divides North and South Korea, where I served as an Army officer 1981-82. It is 160 miles long and about 2.5 miles wide. I was stunned the first time I traveled to the DMZ and surveyed the extensive fortifications—fences, minefields, ramparts, watchtowers, and even hooks submerged in the Imjin River. At that time South Korean boats were patrolling the river because an infiltrator had been detected shortly before my arrival. Clearly a tremendous amount of resources has been expended by both sides on these border fortifications. At present, the United States maintains about 28,500 military personnel in support of South Korea. Despite all the effort, North Korean tunnels have been found under the DMZ in 1974, 1975, and 1979. At the time I served there, intelligence sources estimated that the North Koreans had dug probably over 20 such tunnels, still undiscovered.

These examples suggest that unless a country is prepared to expend great resources in building and policing a wall, human ingenuity finds ways to breach it in proportion to the strength of the incentives—empire, more grazing land, conquest, and now economic opportunity and wealth from drug money. And the more impermeability a country seeks with its wall, the greater the expenditure of resources.

Robert Frost wrote about walls between neighbors in his poem, “Mending Wall”. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down,” Frost says to his neighbor. In his election-season pandering to conservative, dominant-culture Americans, Trump clearly embodies Frost’s neighbor who resists the needlessness of the wall on certain parts of their border—where Frost’s apple orchard borders his neighbor’s pines and where there are no roaming cows to keep in.  However his neighbor, holds fast and says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’”

A retired Army officer, Fred Zilian teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, Newport, RI.

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