Five Ways to Annoy a Historian

by Abigail Pfeiffer on July 22, 2015

Being a historian is awesome. As a history professor, I get to spend my days writing about history, talking about history, and educating others about history. It’s a pretty sweet gig most of the time. But like anything in life that rocks, there can also be an annoying side.  Below are the top five ways to annoy this historian.

People constantly trying to stump you. How many times has this happened to you? Someone asks you “What do you do?” to which you respond with “I’m a historian.” Most people take this opportunity to tell you how much they hate or love history and then the conversation ends and life resumes as normal. But others (the people I loathe with the fire of a 1000 suns) feel this is a great time to try and stump you. They then precede to ask you the most obscure historical question (that they surely don’t know the answer to themselves) all with that stupid smug look on their face.

Intense sadness at the knowledge that you will never be able to read all the books. You know that pile of books in your office that has been collecting dust for the last several months? Or that giant wish list on Amazon filled with books? Yeah, you’re never going to read all of them. There are simply too many books and not enough time in your life to tackle them all.  Accept it, grieve for all the books you can’t read, and move on.

Meeting other historians and they have to out “historian” you. Have you ever met another historian, perhaps one with the same specialty, and they have a burning desire to show you they know more about history than you? I have had a few run-ins with this special type of historian. I always assume that they didn’t receive enough love or attention from their parents, or from their graduate school professors.

Kindle vs. Print. How many of us know that person that looks down their nose at you and your Kindle while they self-righteously proclaim that they would never own a Kindle and only reads print books? On one hand I agree. I love the smell of a book, especially old books. I love licking my finger and turning the page. Kindle books just don’t compare. But I do have a Kindle and I really enjoy it. I think of myself as an equal opportunity reader.  I keep it in my purse and then if I’m ever waiting in line at the grocery store or the DMV, then I always have something to read (note: never, ever go to the DMV without a book. Might as well make that time count!) The challenging part is choosing which books I want in print and which ones to buy on my Kindle. Some books I want to add to my physical book collection (anything about TR is automatically bought in print!) but the lower price tag of the kindle version speaks to me….

What are you going to do with a history degree? Now I’m sure this has happened to every single historian. When I went to graduate school and people would ask me what I was studying, I would reply “military history.” Then they would look at me quizzically and say “What are you going to do with that? Why don’t you get a business degree?” Sorry, but I’m not going to spend my time and money on a graduate program that I’m not 100% passionate about. The world NEEDS historians and we should encourage young history students instead of crapping all over their dreams and pushing them into fields they aren’t passionate about. I’m ok not being a millionaire businesswoman…I love history and get to spend all my days immersed in it. That’s priceless in my opinion.

So, do you agree with any of these? Add your own in the comments!

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Congressional War Declarations

by Abigail Pfeiffer on March 5, 2015

Well, America, here we go again. As many of you probably know, President Obama recently asked Congress for an “Authorization for the Use of Military Force.” In this authorization draft, the President is asking for a three year time frame in which to conduct limited military operations against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). The document states the military limitations as “The authority granted in subsection (a) does not authorize the use of the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” An analysis of this and its effects will be another post for another day. Let’s be clear that President Obama is not asking for an official declaration of war.

However, this made me start thinking about the powers Congress holds in regards to war declarations and the use of military force. Article 1, Section 8 of the US Constitution grants Congress specific powers when it comes to declarations of war and other military powers. There are really three categories to examine in which Congress can authorize the use of military force and the appropriation of funds for military operations. These three categories are:

  • Declaration of war
  • Military engagements authorized by Congress
  • United Nations military engagements funded by Congress

When it comes to official declarations of war, Congress has only used their Constitutional power eleven times in American history.

  1. The War of 1812 was the first time Congress declared war. This war declaration was on June 17, 1812 against Great Britain.
  2. Congress declared war against Mexico on May 12, 1846 which commenced the Mexican American War and expanded US territory to include the American Southwest.
  3. War was declared against Spain on April 25, 1898, a few short months after the explosion on the USS Maine. This is often referred to as

    Wreckage of the USS ''Maine'' in Havana Harbor, 1898

    an Imperial or Colonial war since the US received Guam and Puerto Rice, and purchased the Philippines for $20 million.

  4. Nineteen years later, Congress declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917 which began direct American involvement in WWI.
  5. In addition to declaring war on Germany in 1917, Congress declared war against Austria-Hungary on December 7, 1917.
  6. On December 8, 1941, Congress declared war on Japan in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  7. Congress declared war against Germany on December 11, 1941 in response to Germany’s declaration of war on the US earlier that day.
  8. The same day, Congress declared war against Italy on December 11, 1941.
  9. Then came a lull in WWII war declarations, but they quickly resumed again. Congress declared war against Bulgaria on June 4, 1942.
  10. June 4, 1942 proved to be a very busy day in Congress, as they also declared war on Hungary.
  11. Finally, Congress declared against Rumania on June 4, 1942.

There you have it. So while it seems America has been perpetually at war since our birth as a nation, (which we pretty much have) Congress has only used their war declaration powers eleven times. You might be thinking, well what about the Korean War? That would fall under the category of a UN military engagement funded by Congress. What about the Vietnam War and the Gulf Wars? Those would fall under “military engagements” authorized by Congress.

But whichever language you choose to spin it, war is war – if people are fighting and dying, then in my opinion that is a war, regardless of how Congress or historians define it.

Do you think there will be any war declarations in the near future, or will we keep going with these limited military engagements?


E. Michael Helms

Have you ever had one of those bad days that everything seems to be going wrong? Maybe your car broke down, or the restaurant messed up your order, or your internet is running slow (oh the horror!). We’ve all been there. But I would take any of these problems over the type of hell soldiers go through in war.

Recently I read the Vietnam War memoir The Proud Bastards: One Marine’s Journey from Parris Island through the Hell of Vietnam written by E. Michael Helms. In this account, Helms takes the reader through his time in the Marine Corp, starting with his very first days as a Marine at Parris Island to his subsequent deployment to Vietnam in 1967. Helms gives a vivid account of what Marine recruits experience during boot camp with a sense of humor that keeps the reader engaged and entertained, especially with his humorous tales of overly strict Marine boot camp officers. An example of Helms colorful portrayal of Marine boot camp life include this gem: “This evening at chow I got caught talking in the chow line with Dan Coker, a buddy of mine from South Carolina, and now we are going to pay for it but good. It was just a quick whispered exchange about how hungry we both always are, but ol’ Eagle-ears Burns heard us. I swear, that bastard could hear a gnat fart during a tornado.” (Helms, 24) Normally I don’t find myself laughing when reading a war memoir, but in this case, Helms hit my funny bone!

After his experience at Parris Island, Helm was sent to Dong Ha and assigned to the Second Battalion, Fourth Marines – an outfit that had seen substantial combat action by the time Helms arrived. Helms, like every FNG (fucking new guy) in Vietnam, experienced a time of uncertainty upon arrival. After training with the same group of men at Parris island, he found himself knowing only one other soldier from training. As Helm’s tour continued, he became an “old salt” after several combat experiences. Helm’s does a masterful job writing about his combat experiences and making the reader feel a bit of the anxiety a soldier feels during a combat excursion. In Chapter 10, Helms writes about his experience laying an ambush: “Picked out one of the figures and waited for the gun team to blow the ambush. And waited…..and waited…..Jesus H. Christ, guys, they’re getting awfully close….shit, they’re almost on top of us now. What the hell’s the matter with you assholes? God, they must have been sleeping. Should I shoot? Better wait….better blow it now or it may be too late. God, somebody fucking do something!” (Helms, 77)

Helm’s had similar experiences as other young American Vietnam vets – especially the horror of watching friends die violent combat deaths and the incompetency of the military leadership. In Chapter 20, Helm’s writes about going out on an LP (Listening Post – each night a group of soldiers leaves the perimeter and listens for any enemy activity), which needless to say, is not a desired activity by most soldiers. In this particular incident, Helms’ LP group almost mistakenly fired on another group of Marines, as the communication from leadership did not alert them to the other Marine’s presence and Helms’ group assumed they were the enemy. His anger shows through in this passage: “Somebody back at the CP is fixing to catch hell from one lowly PFC. I came that-fucking-close to blowing those bastards away, and if I had they would’ve died and maybe we all would’ve died and who the hell put two LPs in the same area? Worthless sons-of-bitching brass-fucking office pogue rear-echelon bastards can’t even get their shit together enough to keep LPs away from each other so we don’t blow our own shit away! Goddam ‘em, and their fucked up war!” (Helms 183-184)

Perhaps the most troubling part of the book is when Helm’s describes the murder of an American soldier at the hands of another American soldier. When men were sent to Vietnam, they all understood that they risked dying in Vietnam in combat. What most of them probably didn’t anticipate was death by another American. This is a testament to what can happen to men in extended combat situations and how PTSD is a condition that negatively affects our soldiers.

I strongly recommend this book to anyone interested in a grunts view of the Vietnam War. It is a straightforward account of one man’s experience in Vietnam in 1967. The reader does not need to be well versed in military jargon in order to enjoy this memoir. While every soldier had their own unique experiences during this war, The Proud Bastards highlights a common thread from most combat memoirs: survival, the brotherhood of soldiers, the crippling fear of combat, and the intense relief to have survived the tour.

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Korean War ex-POW Reunion – Louisville, KY

by Abigail Pfeiffer on August 5, 2014

Former POW Elliott Sortillo

Last week I was in Louisville, Kentucky at the historic Brown Hotel, at the reunion for the ex-POWs of the Korean War. In 1976, the Korean War ex-POW Association was created by Bill Norwood, a former POW from 1951-1953. The Association was formed to provide a means of support for the ex-POWs, as well as to provide friendship, assist with veteran issues, and to honor the Korean War POWs. Each year, the association holds the reunion in a different city at the end of July and early August. This time of year coincides with the July 27, 1953 armistice that ended hostilities in the Korean War, as well as the time when the majority of the ex-POWs were repatriated. Sadly, this year is the association’s last reunion as the former POWs are in advanced age and many are dealing with health issues.

I became involved with the subject of the Korean War POWs when I was a graduate student at Norwich University. In 2012 I was working on my master’s thesis about the stunningly high death rate of the Korean War POWs and several of the men graciously granted me interviews. After I graduated I was invited to their reunion in Omaha, Nebraska in the summer of 2012. There I met many more of the men and their families and several more of the men granted me interviews. Last year I was unable to attend, however, I did not want to miss this year’s reunion since it is their final organized reunion.

I did my best to soak in this experience and I am so grateful to the all ex-POWs and their spouses who allowed me to ask questions (sometimes personal and difficult questions) and inquire about their experience as POWs. These men are living history and as time passes we are losing more and more of them.

Time for a short history lesson about the Korean War. The Korean War began on June 25, 1950 when communist North Korea invaded capitalist South Korea (Korea was split into north and south with the end of WWII). The North Korean army pushed the

Former POW Sal Conte.

South Korean army south and took the capital of Seoul. The United Nations authorized the defense of South Korea and the United States, under General Douglas MacArthur, led the military action into Korea. In September, 1950 the UN forces landed at Inchon and pushed the North Korean forces back north of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ, also known as the 38th Parallel). The war may have ended at this time if it had not been for Chinese involvement on the side of North Korea. China had recently become a communist country after a revolution in 1949 and they were happy to assist their communist neighbor. The Chinese entered the war in the fall of 1950 and overwhelmed many of the UN defenses. Many Americans were taken prisoner during the fighting in the fall of 1950. Officially, 7,190 Americans were taken prisoner during the Korean War, with 93% of the POWs coming from Army units. Of this 7,190, only 4,428 returned home at the end of hostilities, which figures out to an official death rate of 38%. Note that I indicated this is an “official” death rate, since there are thousands of men unaccounted for from Korea, and certainly some of the MIA (missing in action) from Korea had died as POWs and their deaths were not recorded. Many ex-POWs and historians believe the death rate of the POWs could have been as high as 50%.

What makes the Korean War POWs unique is that they were the first set of American POWs who were used as bargaining chips and propaganda purposes. Cease fire negotiations stalled over the issue of voluntary repatriation. Remember that when the POWs returned home in 1953, they returned to an America rife with anti-Communist sentiment. Unfortunately many of the repatriated POWs were accused of collaboration with the Chinese Communists and rumors persisted regarding the conduct of the POWs while they were interred. The U.S. military debriefed all the returning POWs and investigated charges of collaboration. Wild speculation and outrageous claims that were not based on fact stated that approximately thirty percent of POWs collaborated with the enemy. However, after the military concluded their own investigations, they reported that only 4.3 percent of POWs were found to be guilty of any wrongdoing. Quite a difference between 4.3 percent and thirty percent!

ex-POW Cecil Phipps, post interview photograph

Last year was the sixtieth anniversary of the armistice that ended hostilities. The veterans of the Korean War are in their early eighties and every year we lose more and more of them. It is crucial that historians strive to get their stories recorded before this entire generation is lost, and give future generations the opportunity to learn about the Korean War and not just as a side note in a high school textbook.

My interviews from the Korean War ex-POW reunion will be used for a book I am writing about the Korean War POWs. Throughout this post you will see pictures of me with the men I interviewed. The book will be finished this fall and I hope younger generations of Americans find their experiences as fascinating as I do.

Former POW Bill Borer

Former POW John Toth

Helen Hewitt, widow of a former POW Roy Hewitt.

Former POW Robert Batdorff


Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo

By Jack Cheevers – Published by the Penguin Group, 2013

Act of War by Jack Cheevers

I just finished reading an excellent Cold War era naval history: Act of War: Lyndon Johnson, North Korea, and the Capture of the Spy Ship Pueblo by Jack Cheevers. Cheevers has produced a riveting account of the USS Pueblo that was captured by North Korea in January 1968 off the shores of Wonson. 1968 proved to be a tumultuous year – in America and for the crew of the USS Pueblo.

The Cold War dominated United States foreign policy during the 1960s. It was not uncommon for both sides to seek intelligence about military operations. This was precisely the Pueblo’s mission – to collect intelligence on North Korea but remain in international waters. The Pueblo was led by a boisterous and outgoing leader – Commander Lloyd Bucher. The Pueblo was Bucher’s first command and he was eager to take the reins of his first command. Little did he know that he would become one of the most controversial figures in United States military history.

Cheevers described the physical characteristics of the Pueblo and the nature of its spy operations. He detailed the Pueblo’s imperfections and the attempts of Bucher to fix the Pueblo’s issues prior to the beginning of its mission. Commander Bucher is a central character in the book and Cheevers did a wonderful job describing the dynamics between Bucher and his officers and enlisted men.

Cheevers followed the progress of the Pueblo and its preparations while still stateside, to Hawaii, to Japan, and then finally to North Korea. There were parts of the Pueblo’s preparations that left Bucher ill at ease. There was a substantial amount of classified documents loaded onto the Pueblo, yet not enough destruction equipment to destroy the material in the case of communist attack. There was also a distinct lack of munitions on the Pueblo, and the two machine guns on board took significant time for the crew to enable. This became a problem when the Pueblo was surrounded by North Korean boats and MiG fighters, as the Pueblo did not have the firepower to defend itself. Another issue was naval support in the event of aggression – which obviously never came to the rescue of the Pueblo and its crew.

Cheevers, a former political reporter, spent a significant amount of the book detailing the political and diplomatic side of the Pueblo ordeal. Obviously the seizure of the Pueblo was an embarrassment to the United States, especially considering it was at the hands of North Korea and not a larger communist state like Russia or China. North Korea was adamant that in order for the release of the Puelbo’s crew, the United States needed to offer a full apology. Naturally North Korea wanted to use an apology for propaganda purposes. Almost the entire year of 1968 – from the capture of the Pueblo and its crew in January to their release in December – was spent in diplomatic lingo. Countless meetings between the United States and North Korea led to nothing but a diplomatic stalemate. Finally, after an agreement between the US and North Korea, the crew of the Pueblo was released on December 23, 1968.

When the crew arrived in San Diego, they were met by exuberant family members and live television cameras. They received a hero’s

Lloyd Bucher

welcome and reunited with family after an extremely difficult year. One sailor met his infant son for the first time. After arrival, the crew went to their next destination – the United States Naval Hospital at Balboa Park in San Diego. Most of the sailors needed medical attention for physical injuries sustained in North Korea. In addition to physical issues, the emotional and psychological health of the men needed attention.

However, their ordeal, especially for Bucher, was far from over. Bucher’s actions, specifically how he surrendered the Pueblo without firing a shot, were scrutinized by the Navy. Bucher’s actions were investigated by a Naval Court of Inquiry, headed by five Navy admirals. Their recommendation after the inquiry included a court martial for Bucher for five particular offenses. Nevertheless, with public opinion squarely on the side of Bucher and his crew, the top naval leaders realized that putting Bucher on trial was not a possibility. Bucher escaped a court martial and spent a few more years in the Navy before his retirement. Despite the criticism he received from the Navy, his crew stood behind him and credited his bravery as a key factor for survival despite brutal beatings and torture endured in a North Korean prison camp.

The Cold War era was an important part of American history, indeed, it spanned almost half of the twentieth century. As tensions increase yet again between the West and Russia, it is crucial to have an understanding of Cold War politics and key events. Act of War does just this and gives the reader an in depth glimpse into one important Cold War event and the effect it had on the people involved and United States foreign policy.  Act of War can be enjoyed by anyone interested in history – not just professional historians or Cold War enthusiasts. However, historians will find this book valuable as the book is rich with primary sources. The reader does not need an in depth knowledge of naval operations, nor do they need to be politically astute in order to enjoy this story of survival and perseverance.

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