On Dec. 16, 1944, the German army launched a massive surprise offensive into the Ardennes forest in Belgium which became known as “The Battle of the Bulge.” The battle, launched 70 years ago, would become the largest American engagement of the war — and the bloodiest — resulting in nearly 20,000 U.S. troops killed over five weeks.
[Clifford] VanAuken, then a 19-year-old combat medic, was sleeping on the kitchen floor of a farmhouse near Nancy, France, when he was woken up at 2 a.m. to travel to Belgium.
“We thought the war was about over and then the Germans launched this horrendous attack,” he said. “It was a battle that surprised all ally commanders.”
In a must-see documentary about the members of Easy Co., 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the survivors talk at length about the battle, the bitter cold, and the intense artillery fire that they had to endure.
“There was on top of this hill there was a ridge, a treeline,” said one veteran, who was there at Bastogne. “We were dug in on that ridge. The Germans knew right where we were, and they really gave us a shellacking.”
The incredible bravery of American troops, with support to come later by Lt. Gen. George Patton’s Third Army, ultimately led to an allied victory. But it came at a heavy price, with the U.S. Army suffering over 100,000 casualties, according to The History Channel.
“When a man was wounded, we felt glad for them. We felt happy for them,” Capt. Richard Winters later recounted. “He had a ticket to get out of there, and maybe a ticket to go home. And when we had a man who was killed, we found that he was at peace and he looked so peaceful. And we’re glad that he found peace.”
Watch some of the men who survived the battle tell their stories:
In 1839, England went to war with China because it was upset that Chinese officials had shut down its drug trafficking racket and confiscated its dope.
Stating the historical record so plainly is shocking — but it’s true, and the consequences of that act are still being felt today.
The Qing Dynasty, founded by Manchurian clans in 1644, expanded China’s borders to their farthest reach, conquering Tibet, Taiwan and the Uighur Empire. However, the Qing then turned inward and isolationist, refusing to accept Western ambassadors because they were unwilling to proclaim the Qing Dynasty as supreme above their own heads of state.
Foreigners — even on trade ships — were prohibited entry into Chinese territory.
The exception to the rule was in Canton, the southeastern region centered on modern-day Guangdong Province, which adjoins Hong Kong and Macao. Foreigners were allowed to trade in the Thirteen Factories district in the city of Guangzhou, with payments made exclusively in silver.
The British gave the East India Company a monopoly on trade with China, and soon ships based in colonial India were vigorously exchanging silver for tea and porcelain. But the British had a limited supply of silver.
Starting in in the mid-1700s, the British began trading opium grown in India in exchange for silver from Chinese merchants. Opium — an addictive drug that today is refined into heroin — was illegal in England, but was used in Chinese traditional medicine.
However, recreational use was illegal and not widespread. That changed as the British began shipping in tons of the drug using a combination of commercial loopholes and outright smuggling to get around the ban.
Chinese officials taking their own cut abetted the practice. American ships carrying Turkish-grown opium joined in the narcotics bonanza in the early 1800s. Consumption of opium in China skyrocketed, as did profits.
The Daoguang Emperor became alarmed by the millions of drug addicts — and the flow of silver leaving China. As is often the case, the actions of a stubborn idealist brought the conflict to a head. In 1839 the newly appointed Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu instituted laws banning opium throughout China.
He arrested 1,700 dealers, and seized the crates of the drug already in Chinese harbors and even on ships at sea. He then had them all destroyed. That amounted to 2.6 million pounds of opium thrown into the ocean. Lin even wrote a poem apologizing to the sea gods for the pollution.
Angry British traders got the British government to promise compensation for the lost drugs, but the treasury couldn’t afford it. War would resolve the debt.
But the first shots were fired when the Chinese objected to the British attacking one of their own merchant ships.
Chinese authorities had indicated they would allow trade to resume in non-opium goods. Lin Zexu even sent a letter to Queen Victoria pointing out that as England had a ban on the opium trade, they were justified in instituting one too.
It never reached her, but eventually did appear in the Sunday Times.
Instead, the Royal Navy established a blockade around Pearl Bay to protest the restriction of free trade … in drugs. Two British ships carrying cotton sought to run the blockade in November 1839. When the Royal Navy fired a warning shot at the second, The Royal Saxon, the Chinese sent a squadron of war junks and fire-rafts to escort the merchant.
HMS Volage‘s Captain, unwilling to tolerate the Chinese “intimidation,” fired a broadside at the Chinese ships. HMS Hyacinth joined in. One of the Chinese ships exploded and three more were sunk. Their return fire wounded one British sailor.
Seven months later, a full-scale expeditionary force of 44 British ships launched an invasion of Canton. The British had steam ships, heavy cannon, Congreve rockets and infantry equipped with rifles capable of accurate long range fire. Chinese state troops — “bannermen” — were still equipped with matchlocks accurate only up to 50 yards and a rate of fire of one round per minute.
Antiquated Chinese warships were swiftly destroyed by the Royal Navy. British ships sailed up the Zhujiang and Yangtze rivers, occupying Shanghai along the way and seizing tax-collection barges, strangling the Qing government’s finances. Chinese armies suffered defeat after defeat.
When the Qing sued for peace in 1842, the British could set their own terms. The Treaty of Nanjing stipulated that Hong Kong would become a British territory, and that China would be forced to establish five treaty ports in which British traders could trade anything they wanted with anybody they wanted to. A later treaty forced the Chinese to formally recognize the British as equals and grant their traders favored status.
More war, more opium
Imperialism was on the upswing by the mid-1800s. France muscled into the treaty port business as well in 1843. The British soon wanted even more concessions from China — unrestricted trade at any port, embassies in Beijing and an end to bans on selling opium in the Chinese mainland.
One tactic the British used to further their influence was registering the ships of Chinese traders they dealt with as British ships.
The pretext for the second Opium War is comical in its absurdity. In October 1856, Chinese authorities seized a former pirate ship, the Arrow, with a Chinese crew and with an expired British registration. The captain told British authorities that the Chinese police had taken down the flag of a British ship.
The British demanded the Chinese governor release the crew. When only nine of the 14 returned, the British began a bombardment of the Chinese forts around Canton and eventually blasted open the city walls.
British Liberals, under William Gladstone, were upset at the rapid escalation and protested fighting a new war for the sake of the opium trade in parliament. However, they lost seats in an election to the Tories under Lord Palmerston. He secured the support needed to prosecute the war.
China was in no position to fight back, as it was then embroiled in the devastating Taiping Rebellion, a peasant uprising led by a failed civil-service examinee claiming to be the brother of Jesus Christ. The rebels had nearly seized Beijing and still controlled much of the country.
Once again, the Royal Navy demolished its Chinese opponents, sinking 23 junks in the opening engagement near Hong Kong and seizing Guangzhou. Over the next three years, British ships worked their way up the river, capturing several Chinese forts through a combination of naval bombardment and amphibious assault.
France joined in the war — its excuse was the execution of a French missionary who had defied the ban on foreigners in Guangxi province. Even the United States became briefly involved after a Chinese fort took pot shots at long distance at an American ship.
In the Battle of the Pearl River Forts, a U.S. Navy a force of three ships and 287 sailors and marines took four forts by storm, capturing 176 cannons and fighting off a counterattack of 3,000 Chinese infantry. The United States remained officially neutral.
Russia did not join in the fighting, but used the war to pressure China into ceding a large chunk of its northeastern territory, including the present-day city of Vladivostok.
When foreign envoys drew up the next treaty in 1858 the terms, were even more crushing to the Qing Dynasty’s authority. Ten more cities were designated as treaty ports, foreigners would have free access to the Yangtze river and the Chinese mainland, and Beijing would open embassies to England, France and Russia.
The Xianfeng Emperor at first agreed to the treaty, but then changed his mind, sending Mongolian general Sengge Rinchen to man the Taku Forts on the waterway leading to Beijing. The Chinese repelled a British attempt to take the forts by sea in June 1859, sinking four British ships. A year later, an overland assault by 11,000 British and 6,700 French troops succeeded.
When a British diplomatic mission came to insist on adherence to the treaty, the Chinese took the envoy hostage, and tortured many in the delegation to death. The British High Commissioner of Chinese Affairs, Lord Elgar, decided to assert dominance and sent the army into Beijing.
British and French rifles gunned down 10,000 charging Mongolian cavalrymen at the Battle of Eight Mile Bridge, leaving Beijing defenseless. Emperor Xianfeng fled. In order to wound the Emperor’s “pride as well as his feeling” in the words of Lord Elgar, British and French troops looted and destroyed the historic Summer Palace.
The new revised treaty imposed on China legalized both Christianity and opium, and added Tianjin — the major city close to Beijing — to the list of treaty ports. It allowed British ships to transport Chinese indentured laborers to the United States, and fined the Chinese government eight million silver dollars in indemnities.
The Western presence in China became so ubiquitous, and so widely detested, that an anti-Western popular revolt, the Boxer Rebellion, broke out in 1899. The hapless Qing Dynasty, under the stewardship of Dowager Empress Cixi, first tried to clamp down on the violence before throwing its support behind it — just in time for a multi-national military force of U.S., Russian, German, Austrian, Italian, French, Japanese and British troops to arrive and put down the rebellion.
It then spent an entire year looting Beijing, Tianjin and the surrounding countryside in reprisal.
‘Century of Humiliation’
It’s hard to over-emphasize the impact of the Opium Wars on modern China. Domestically, it’s led to the ultimate collapse of the centuries-old Qing Dynasty, and with it more than two millennia of dynastic rule. It convinced China that it had to modernize and industrialize.
Today, the First Opium War is taught in Chinese schools as being the beginning of the “Century of Humiliation” — the end of that “century” coming in 1949 with the reunification of China under Mao. While Americans are routinely assured they are exceptional and the greatest country on Earth by their politicians, Chinese schools teach students that their country was humiliated by greedy and technologically superior Western imperialists.
The Opium Wars made it clear China had fallen gravely behind the West — not just militarily, but economically and politically. Every Chinese government since — even the ill-fated Qing Dynasty, which began the “Self-Strengthening Movement” after the Second Opium War — has made modernization an explicit goal, citing the need to catch up with the West.
The Japanese, observing events in China, instituted the same discourse and modernized more rapidly than China did during the Meiji Restoration.
Mainland Chinese citizens still frequently measure China in comparison to Western countries. Economic and quality of life issues are by far their main concern. But state media also holds military parity as a goal.
I once saw a news program on Chinese public television boasting about China’s new aircraft carrier Liaoning— before comparing it to an American carrier. “They’re saying ours is still a lot smaller,” a high school student pointed out to me. “And we have only one.”
Through most of Chinese history, China’s main threat came from nomadic horse-riding tribes along its long northern border. Even in the Cold War, hostility with the Soviet Union made its Mongolian border a security hot spot. But the Opium Wars — and even worse, the Japanese invasion in 1937 — demonstrated how China was vulnerable to naval power along its Pacific coast.
China’s aggressive naval expansion in the South China Sea can be seen as the acts of a nation that has succumbed repeatedly to naval invasions — and wishes to claims dominance of its side of the Pacific in the 21st century.
The history with opium also has led China to adopt a particularly harsh anti-narcotics policy with the death penalty applicable even to mid-level traffickers. Drug-trafficking and organized crime remain a problem, however. The explosion of celebrity culture in China has also led to punitive crackdowns on those caught partaking in “decadent lifestyles,” leading to prominent campaigns of public shaming.
For example, in 2014 police arrested Jaycee Chan, son of Jackie Chan, for possessing 100 grams of marijuana. His father stated he wouldn’t plead for his son to avoid imprisonment.
Past history does not always determine future actions. Chinese sentiments toward the United Kingdom today are generally positive despite the Opium Wars. The escalating military confrontation over the South China Sea is a reality of our times, but that doesn’t mean China’s leaders will forever be committed to a strategy of expansion and confrontation.
Nonetheless, fostering better relations requires that we understand how China’s current foreign policy has it roots in past encounters with the West.
Twenty-eight years after the untimely death of T. E. Lawrence — the Englishman known the world over as “Lawrence of Arabia” — Hollywood made a movie about him.
It was, in the parlance of the day, a “doozy.”
Epic in scale and scope and concerning the extraordinary particulars of Lawrence’s role in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire leading up to World War 1, “Lawrence of Arabia” was nominated for ten Academy Awards in 1963 and took home seven including Best Picture.
Though many with first hand knowledge of the true events of Lawrence’s life were quick to criticize the film’s dramatic liberties, much of the frisson that makes it a cinematic tour de force arises from the undeniably ambiguous nature of the man himself.
T. E. Lawrence was a poet, an archeologist, a diplomat and a spy. He spoke French well enough to translate whole volumes of its literature to English. He spoke Arabic well enough to forge alliances between feuding Bedouin tribes. The question of his sexuality has been a matter of scholarly gossip for the better part of a century. Setting his extreme need for personal privacy against his talent for finding the center of world-changing events, the journalist Lowell Thomas famously commented that Lawrence “had a genius for backing into the limelight.”
But for all that’s debatable about T. E. Lawrence, many of his military superlatives are accurately recorded and verifiably real. As a British Army advisor to Arab Prince Faisal, Lawrence helped organize — and in many cases participated in — a number of the most pivotal maneuvers of the Arab Revolt. We was, to use a modern term, as deeply embedded amongst the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula as the necessity of his assignment required, perhaps more than his superiors in the British Army would deem advisable, certainly beyond what Edwardian cultural empathy could possibly conceive.
Lawrence saw the desert and went all in.
The film culminates with the Oct. 1, 1918, reclamation of Damascus, when the Arab forces, led in part by Lawrence and backed by the British Army, marched through the gates of the city in triumph. All across the Arab Peninsula, the forces of the Ottoman empire were retreating or surrendering to Prince Faisal’s nationalized Arab army.
The organized harassment campaign deployed against Ottoman railroads, depots and installations–a guerrilla approach perfected by Lawrence and his Bedouin irregulars from 1917 through 1918–had so destabilized the Ottoman position in the region that when it finally came time to take Damascus, the city surrendered without resistance. By the end of the war, the Arab Coalition had seized Palestine, Transjordan, Lebanon, southern Syria and vast swaths of the Arabian Peninsula. British General Allenby hailed Prince Faisal for his role in the victory (but was surely, in the same breath, congratulating himself for following Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence’s lead with the strong-willed Arab peoples):
I send your Highness my greetings and my most cordial congratulations upon the great achievement of your gallant troops … Thanks to our combined efforts, the Ottoman army is everywhere in full retreat.
As word of the adventures and exploits of Lawrence of Arabia spread throughout the West, the sheer romantic gall of the man, not to mention the exotic backdrop against which he won his fame, fired an insatiable public story engine that would spin over the particulars of his life forever after. The 1963 film was, among many takes on the subject matter, perhaps merely its most high-profile.
Lawrence’s own memoir of the Arab Revolt, “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” complicates his legacy far more than it elucidates, fueling unending debate among his biographers. As fodder for the imagination, it’s really all too perfect. His story is the stuff of legend precisely because it raises more questions than historical sleuthing can answer. But whatever the truth, the film that emerged is a juggernaut, a four hour cinematic tone poem about the ravenousness of Destiny when it’s got a man like T. E. Lawrence in its jaws.
There’s a subsection of YouTube dedicated to playing the same song on repeat, over and over again, for hours at a time. Parents think it’s just a part of raising children when they have to listen to the same kids’ song, over and over again, for days at a time. Both of these cases have nothing on the five months of playing the exact same polka song over 1,500 times, continuously, as the Soviets retreated from Finland during the Continuation War.
As the Finns recaptured the city of Vyborg from the Soviets, they would have to travel across land saturated with mines left behind by the Soviets. When the Finns chased out Soviet soldiers, the Soviets retreated to safety, the mines detonated and devastated the Finns. There were so many mines left that civilians, even after reclaiming the city, were still forbidden to reenter their homes.
This was until an unexploded mine and the radio equipment next to it was brought to Jouko Pohjanpalo, credited as being the “father of Finnish radio” for his work establishing the Finnish radio field. Jouko tinkered with the explosives and the associated radio device and discovered that it operated at the frequency 715 kHz. Inside the radio receiver were three tuning forks. When a certain three-note sequence was sent over the radio and all three forks vibrated — boom.
Now all they needed to do was send out a signal to jam the sequence. They needed something fast with a lot of chords that wouldn’t also set off the mines. So, they played Säkkijärven Polkka by Viljo “Vili” Vesterinen. It was an immensely popular song at the time and many Finns associated it with great national pride, similar to how Americans feel today hearing America, F*ck Yeah!
And so began Operation: Säkkijärvi Polkka. The Finns blasted the song at 715 kHz so the mines wouldn’t explode and they continued to fight. The Soviets learned what was going on and changed the radio frequency for their mines. Because the Soviets didn’t change the mines, just the frequency, the Finns played the song on repeat on every frequency the mines could possibly operate on. Out of the one thousand or so mines in the city, only 12 went off.
In a press interview years later, Jouko told them,
In the crowds and the homeland, the operation received a legendary reputation because of its mystery. Säkkijärvi’s polka went together about 1,500 times. All kinds of rumors circulated about somebody crazy enough to have emitted it on every radio station.
To hear the majestic polka song that helped win a war, check out the video below.
During World War II, George H.W. Bush served in the U.S. Navy. A pilot assigned to a torpedo squadron in the Pacific Theater, Bush flew the TBM Avenger, a torpedo bomber capable of taking off from aircraft carriers that would famously see combat during the Battle of Midway on June 4, 1942.
Bush enlisted in the Navy’s flight training program fresh out of high school, becoming one of the Navy’s youngest aviators. He first saw action in May 1944 and would go on to fly 58 combat missions. Then, on Sept. 2, 1944, he was hit by anti-aircraft fire during an attack run on the Japanese-occupied island of Chichi Jima.
“Suddenly there was a jolt,” Bush wrote later, “as if a massive fist had crunched into the belly of the plane. Smoke poured into the cockpit, and I could see flames rippling across the crease of the wing, edging toward the fuel tanks.”
His two crewmembers were killed in the attack, leaving the young pilot to complete his bombing run against a radio facility and bail out alone over the Pacific into jellyfish-infested waters. During the egress, he struck his head, which bled profusely as he swam to a life raft and hoped for rescue.
He was one of the lucky ones. Many aviators struck down during that battle where captured and executed and, according to Bradley James’ bestselling novel Flyboys: A True Story of Courage, their livers even eaten by their captors.
After four hours, the USS Finback, a lifeguard submarine, found him. Now you can watch the video from the moment when the Finback’s crew pulled from the water the man who would go on to become the Director of Central Intelligence and the 41st president of the United States, serving from 1989 to 1993. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions during the mission.
President George H.W. Bush died on Nov. 30, 2018, at the age of 94 years old.
Domestic animals are rarely associated with Antarctica. However, before non-native species (bar humans) were excluded from the continent in the 1990s, many travelled to the far south. These animals included not only the obvious sledge dogs, but also ponies, sheep, pigs, hamsters, hedgehogs, and a goat. Perhaps the most curious case occurred in 1933, when US Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s second Antarctic expedition took with it three Guernsey cows.
The cows, named Klondike Gay Nira, Deerfoot Guernsey Maid and Foremost Southern Girl, plus a bull calf born en route, spent over a year in a working dairy on the Ross Ice Shelf. They returned home to the US in 1935 to considerable celebrity.
Keeping the animals healthy in Antarctica took a lot of doing — not least, hauling the materials for a barn, a huge amount of feed and a milking machine across the ocean and then the ice. What could have possessed Byrd to take cows to the icy south?
Klondike the Guernsey cow waits on the dock in Norfolk, Virginia, alongside the alfafa, beet pulp and dairy feed that would keep them alive in the far south
(With permission of Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS-127998, contact for re-use, CC BY-ND)
The answer we suggest in our recently published paper is multi-layered and ultimately points to Antarctica’s complex geopolitical history.
Solving the “milk problem”
The cows’ ostensible purpose was to solve the expedition’s so-called “milk problem”. By the 1930s, fresh milk had become such an icon of health and vigour that it was easy to claim it was needed for the expeditioners’ well-being. Just as important, however, were the symbolic associations of fresh milk with purity, wholesomeness and US national identity.
Powdered or malted milk could have achieved the same nutritional results. Previous expeditions, including those of Ernest Shackleton and Roald Amundsen, had survived just fine with such products. What’s more, William Horlick of Horlick’s Malted Milk sponsored Byrd’s second Antarctic expedition; the seaplane Byrd used was named for this benefactor.
Crates of Horlick’s Malted Milk destined for Byrd’s second expedition. With its carefully placed sledge, husky and sign, the shot seems posed for publicity purposes.
(With permission of Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS-23703, contact for re-use, CC BY-ND)
So if fresh milk was not actually a health requirement, and other forms were readily available, why go to the trouble of lugging three cows and their accoutrements across the ice?
The cows represented a first, and Byrd well knew that “firsts” in the polar regions translated into media coverage. The expedition was privately funded, and Byrd was adept at attracting media attention and hence sponsorship. His backers expected a return, whether in the form of photographs of their product on the ice or mentions in the regular radio updates by the expedition.
The novelty value that the cows brought to the expedition was a valuable asset in its own right, but Byrd hedged his bets by including a pregnant cow — Klondike was due to give birth just as the expedition ship sailed across the Antarctic Circle. The calf, named “Iceberg”, was a media darling and became better known than the expeditioners themselves.
The celebrity attached to the cows helped the expedition remain in the headlines throughout its time in Antarctica, and they received an enthusiastic welcome upon its return. Although the unfortunate Klondike, suffering from frostbite, had to be put down mid-expedition, her companions made it home in good condition. They were feted on their return, meeting politicians in Washington, enjoying “hay cocktails” at fancy hotels, and making the front page of The New York Times.
It would be easy, then, to conclude that the real reason Byrd took cows south was for the publicity he knew they would generate, but his interest in the animals may also have had a more politically motivated layer.
Eyeing a territorial claim
A third reason for taking cows to Antarctica relates to the geopolitics of the period and the resonances the cows had with colonial settlement. By the 1930s several nations had claimed sectors of Antarctica. Byrd wanted the US to make its own claim, but this was not as straightforward as just planting a flag on the ice.
According to the Hughes Doctrine, a claim had to be based on settlement, not just discovery. But how do you show settlement of a continent covered in ice? In this context, symbolic gestures such as running a post office — or farming livestock — are useful.
Domestic animals have long been used as colonial agents, and cattle in particular were a key component of settler colonialism in frontier America. The image of the explorer-hero Byrd, descended from one of the First Families of Virginia, bringing cows to a new land and successfully farming them evoked this history.
Richard Byrd with Deerfoot in a publicity shot taken before departure.
(With permission of Wisconsin Historical Society WHS-130655, contact for re-use, CC BY-ND)
The cows’ presence in Antarctica helped symbolically to turn the expedition base — not coincidentally named “Little America” — into a frontier town. While the US did not end up making a claim to any sector of Antarctica, the polar dairy represented a novel way of demonstrating national interest in the frozen continent.
The Antarctic cows are not just a quirky story from the depths of history. As well as producing milk, they had promotional and geopolitical functions. On an ice continent, settlement is performed rather than enacted, and even Guernsey cows can be more than they first seem.
It first entered Navy service in February, 1895, with some doubters mocking its excessive armament while Americans hoped that its speed, steel, and guns would allow it to survive while outnumbered if under heavy attack. Instead, the small but mighty USS Olympia slaughtered an enemy fleet, bombarded shores, and escorted convoys during its 27-year career.
The USS Olympia, a fast cruiser with heavy armament.
In the late 1800s, the U.S. Navy wrestled with what the service should do and what ships it needed for the 1900s. The battle of the Merrimack and Monitor decisively proved that wooden ships were on their way out, but the rise of steel ships showed that the iron vessels made in earnest during and after the Civil War wouldn’t survive either.
Meanwhile, sails were the efficient and cheap method of propelling a ship, but it was clear that steam gave commanders more flexibility and more options in combat.
And the Navy needed ships to secure American shores even as a constrained budgets made ship-building tough. Some presidents were already looking at using the Navy for power projection as well.
So, the Navy had to decide whether it should have lots of cheap ships, lots of coastal defenses, steam or sail power, all while keeping power projection a feasible option.
The Navy figured out a plan address all the changes and requirements: A new fleet of steel vessels that relied on steam power but still had masts for sails for long voyages when the winds were favorable. Because the U.S. couldn’t spend as much on ship hulls as potential European attackers, each ship would be heavily armed and as fast as possible.
This resulted in cruisers that could hopefully run ahead of enemy fleets, pelting the lead of the enemy ship with shot after shot while staying out of range of the rest of the enemy fleet. (Video game players do this today against powerful enemies and call it, “kiting.”)
The USS Olympia in front of a column of cruisers circa 1900.
(Francis Christian Muller)
The Olympia fit all the qualifications of the new naval plan. It could steam at over 21 knots while most of its potential enemies topped out at 18. It had four 8-inch guns, two in a single turret forward and two in a turret aft. These big guns were the primary armament, but the ship also had ten 5-inch guns. A few years after launch, it also got Gatling guns and sidearms for potential boarding parties.
Some naval observers around the world critiqued the design, saying that it was either an overarmed cruiser or a too-tiny battleship. But these heavily armed cruisers were designed for their own mission, and they could outrun attackers while picking them off with their larger guns.
The defensive war Olympia was ostensibly designed for never came, though. Instead, it was sent to the Pacific where it became the flagship of Commodore George Dewey before the USS Maine, a larger and even better armed ship, blew up in Havana Harbor. While the explosion was later found to have likely been caused by an ammo handling accident or an overheated bulkhead that touched gunpowder stores, the U.S. blamed it on a Spanish attack at the time.
In response to the Maine’s destruction, Dewey and his squadron were sent to Manila Bay to attack the Spanish fleet there. The hope was that the ships, protected by steel and heavily armed, could rush past the guns of the Spanish coastal defenses and engage the Spanish fleet with the large guns.
The USS Olympia leads the attack against the Spanish fleet at the Battle of Manila.
But the rest of the fleet held its fire until Dewey saw the fleet, crept in range, and got the angles right. Spanish rounds were raining against the steel hulls of the American ships, and gunners crouched behind the paltry armor and prayed for safety until Dewey, on the Olympia, calmly told the ship’s captain, “You may fire when ready, Mr. Gridley.”
The American fleet opened up and slaughtered the decrepit Spanish fleet, sinking all vessels and capturing the port in mere hours. America now owned the capital of the Philippines and would get the islands in the peace treaty that came later. Nine Americans had been wounded while the fleet had killed 161 Spanish fighters and wounded 210.
The Olympia and Dewey became famous, and the ship went on to serve in World War I as a convoy escort. And, in 1918, Olympia bombarded the shore during an amphibious assault at Murmansk in the Russian Civil War.
But the era of the Dreadnought had come, and in the years following World War I, it became clear that the Olympia was no longer enough ship to compete with enemy combatants. And America, flush with prestige after World War I and possessing overseas colonies from the Spanish-American War, had the money to build a larger, more powerful fleet.
In 1922, Olympia was decommissioned, and the hull was slated for the scrap heap, but activists pushed for the ship to be turned into a museum. It took decades of wrangling before Philadelphia donors got the money to return Olympia to the 1898 configuration and moored the ship in the city’s waterfront in 1958.
Since then, the ship has hosted visitors who wanted to walk the weathered boards of its deck or see the steam engines that made its speed possible. The Flagship Olympia Foundation is trying to raise the money necessary to dry dock and overhaul the ship. It’s already been on the water since 1892, and could have decades more in it after repairs.
Gunnery Sgt. Carlos Hathcock was the kind of Marine that would inspire generations of warfighters. He engaged in sniper duels and came out on top every time. He hunted Viet Cong and North Vietnamese officers through the jungles and grasses of Vietnam. And a new animation from The Infographics Show tells his story as a cartoon.
Most Hard Core American Sniper – The White Feather
Hathcock was an Arkansas native who grew up hunting in order to help feed his poor family. He aspired to military service, and specifically the Marine Corps, and enlisted soon after he turned 17. He was soon competing in marksmanship competitions with the Marine Corps and won some prestigious competitions including the Wimbledon Cup.
From a base in Vietnam, he achieved the longest sniper shot up to that point in history, and he did it with a .50-cal. machine gun in single-shot mode. He waged an extended sniper duel against the “The Apache,” a female Viet Cong platoon leader who tortured Marines, eventually dropping her from 700 yards when she got lazy and peed in the open.
He hit her with his first shot even though he had been switching rifles when he spotted her. After the first shot dropped her, he scored a second hit, just to be certain.
In another engagement, Hathcock and a spotter saw a green platoon of North Vietnamese Army troops. Hathcock hit the lead officer, and his spotter dropped the officer at the back. There was a third leader who tried to escape across a rice paddy, and so the Americans dropped him too. In order to protect their position from discovery, the sniper team stopped firing.
Instead, Hathcock and his partner called artillery, moved positions, and wiped out the enemy force.
He killed an enemy officer after four days of crawling to the target. (Hathcock believed it was an enemy general, though the NVA never acknowledged losing a general at the time and place that Hathcock scored his kill.)
He hunted down an enemy sniper sent to kill him, shooting his foe through the scope just moments before the Vietnamese sniper would’ve hit him.
So, yeah, there were lots of reasons that he was a legend. Check out the cartoon at top to learn more.
The Air Force is now aged well into its seventies and the branch that started as an offshoot of the U.S. Army is looking at having a child of its own — the U.S. Space Force. Even though the mere need for the U.S. Air Force is one that is still debated in some circles, it’s pretty safe to say the service is here to stay, and for good reason. The men, women, and aircraft of the U.S. Air Force have accomplished some of the most incredible feats in military history.
When you look back at the legacy of the USAF, there are so many important, pivotal events that either established the Air Force as one to be reckoned with, cemented the legendary status of some great American heroes, or made the difference when it was needed the most. There’s a reason these moments will live forever in our collective imagination. Like the mythological tales of great heroes setting out to impress the gods, these are the Air Force’s finest moments.
You have to admit, it’s ballsy to go into combat in a rig made of canvas and popsicle sticks.
(U.S. Air Force)
1. The St. Mihiel Offensive – World War I
For four years, the St. Mihiel Salient was a giant bulge in the lines of the Western Front. In 1914, the German Army managed to create a 250-square mile indentation on the front while trying to capture the fortress at Verdun. When the United States joined World War I in 1918, General John J. Pershing demanded an area of the front that was exclusively the responsibility of American forces. He got it.
An important aspect of that battle was the air war over St. Mihiel, the largest air battle of the entire war. 1,476 allied aircraft took on 500 German aircraft over four days in September 1918. The First U.S. Army Air Service took command of air elements from the United States, France, Italy, Great Britain and Portugal. Combined force air power destroyed enemy aviation, achieved complete air superiority, and aided ground forces while denying enemy air reconnaissance assets.
From the USAF’s raid on the Ploesti Airfields in Romania.
(U.S. Air Force)
2. World War II
An essential element to early Nazi successes in World War II relied on the new tactic of blitzkrieg, which required large but very fast movements of concentrated forces and massive air firepower. Before entering the war, the U.S. Army Air Forces saw the importance of air power in the skies over London and were shown that power in force at Pearl Harbor. After entering the war, the Air Forces were tasked with gaining air superiority, crushing the Germans’ ability to wage war, and prepare Fortress Europe for an allied invasion.
During World War II, being on a bomber crew was deadlier than even landing on the beaches of the Pacific with the U.S. Marines. As the war came home to Germany, the Air Force only stepped up the intensity of the bombing campaign while proving that American airmen and technology were more than a match for the Luftwaffe. By the end of the war, the Nazi air forces struggled to put up a fight as fuel, pilots, and ammunition were in such short supply against the overwhelming air power of the USAAF.
In the Pacific theater, the Air Force immediately brought the pain as fast as they could after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The daring Doolittle Raid started out the war with Japan by reminding them that they weren’t out of the United States’ long reach. The Air Force fought alongside the Navy in as many pitched air battles as were needed, but the real strength of the Air Force came at the end of the Navy and Marine Corps’ island-hopping campaign. As air bases were set up closer and closer to the Japanese Home Islands, Army Air Forces bombers pummeled mainland Japan with firebombs, crippling Japanese industry until two days in August 1945 changed the world forever: the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the Pacific War for good.
In all your life, you’ll never be this cool.
(U.S. Air Force)
3. The Tuskegee Airmen – World War II
In the days before the integration of the Armed Forces, African-Americans served primarily in support roles, and usually as enlisted men. That all changed in the lead up to World War II when President Roosevelt ordered the Army to begin training black pilots at Tuskegee Army Air Field – in the heart of the segregated South. It was a time when Americans widely believed that black people could not be trained to use advanced technological equipment, especially aircraft.
Not only were the college-educated Tuskegee Airmen able to fly and operate aviation technology, they were really, really good at it. Tuskegee Airmen flew some 15,000 sorties in the skies of Europe and North Africa during World War II, risking their lives and the reputation of their entire race on their performance. Their success rate on bomber escort missions was twice as high as other groups in the 15th Air Force and, over the course of the war, they took down hundreds of enemy planes, thousands of enemy railcars, and even sank an enemy destroyer.
The massive successes of the more than 14,000 Tuskegee Airmen led to the integration of the Armed Forces after the war and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., one of the first black Amy Air Force pilots, became the first African-American general of the newly-created U.S. Air Force.
The Original Grubhub.
4. The Berlin Airlift – Cold War
The first battle in the ideological war that pit Western Capitalism against Eastern Communism wasn’t fought with guns or bombs, it was fought with food. After WWII, Berlin was divided into four zones, each administered by one of the victorious European Allies. The area surrounding the city was entirely Soviet-dominated. The German capital was, effectively, nestled deep inside Soviet-occupied East Germany. As Cold War tensions mounted, the USSR cut off all land routes to the Western-occupied parts of the city in an effort to starve out the capitalist allies. Any help to Berlin could only come through a dedicated air corridor.
In the days before massive cargo planes, like the C-5 Galaxy, the U.S. Air Force and the Western Allies launched what became known as the Berlin Airlift, a massive coordinated cargo hauling campaign that (at its height) saw an aircraft land in Berlin every single minute. German ground crews were soon able to unload an aircraft within 20 minutes in order to make sure the city was nurtured with the 394,509 tons of food, coal, and other supplies the city would need to survive the almost year-long Soviet siege of the city.
5. MiG Alley – Korean War
During the Korean War, the Air Force was again put to the test. The Nazis developed jet-powered fighters by the end of World War II, but even then, it was an imperfect technology. By the time the Korean War saw Communist forces engage the United Nations Coalition on the Korean Peninsula, both sides were still flying propeller driven aircraft. That soon changed. As the war ground on through December of 1950, the United States still had no jet-powered answer to the Soviet-built MiG-15 jet fighter.
Then, finally, came the F-86 Sabre. The swept-wing design and the skill of UN and American pilots were able to make short work of MiG-15 fighters. In the infamous “MiG Alley” – the Northern area of North Korea, near its border with China – where Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean fighters waited at high altitudes to come down raining death on UN fighters, featured massive jet vs. jet air battles. Air Force F-86 pilots had a stunning 10-1 kill ratio.
Robin Olds is the reason for the Air Force’s “Mustache March” tradition.
6. Operation Bolo – Vietnam War
The early days of the air war over Vietnam didn’t go so well for the USAF. The Vietnam War’s kill ratio is a dismal but disputed 2-1. Air Force sorties coming to the landward side of Vietnam from bases in Thailand were picked up by superior North Vietnamese early warning radar and intercepting Communist planes were able to wait for the incoming Air Force planes. Once inside North Vietnam, Air Force pilots had only their eyes to help guide them. Air Force pilots would always end up on the defensive against skilled North Vietnamese pilots and surface-to-air missile batteries.
Air Force legend and triple ace Robin Olds devised a way to take advantage of the increasing boldness of Vietnamese pilots. In “Bolo,” Olds created what looked like a standard USAF F-105 bombing run to North Vietnam’s radar. Enemy MiG-21s made a beeline for what they thought were the usual F-105 Thunderchief bombers only to find Olds and his fleet of F-4 Phantoms ready for air-to-air combat. Without suffering a single loss, the Air Force downed seven enemy MiG-21s, changing the way the Air Force fought in the air. In the weeks that followed, North Vietnam lost half of its combat planes to U.S. airmen.
Behold: The reason the movie “Jarhead” has no climactic battle scenes.
(U.S. Air Force)
7. Operation Desert Storm
The air war of Operation Desert Stom was one of the most massive and successful air campaigns ever. Since Coalition aircraft could roam the skies in the region virtually unopposed. The buildup of men, materiel, equipment, and aircraft was one of the largest airlift operations in military history (even bigger than the Berlin Airlift). By the time the deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait came and went, the U.S. Air Force was more than ready to take the initiative.
Starting Jan. 17, 1991, the Air Force launched more than 100,000 sorties against Iraqi targets and dropped more than 88,000 tons of ordnance. Like a modern-day Noah’s Ark story, the Air Force pummeled Iraq for some 40 days and 40 nights. After the U.S. Air Force smashed some 38 Iraqi aircraft, those pilots still in the air fled to Iran (who they just finished an eight-year war with) rather than face the U.S. Air Force in combat. The Gulf War ended in Iraqi defeat on Feb. 23, 1991.
There’s no denying the fact that fashion trends change over time. Think back to what we were wearing 10 years ago … or 20. The clothing choices of our past are laughable. But when we go even further back, to the days of discomfort and disfunction, that statement is brought to an extreme. Wartime clothes and civilian wear alike was completely different in the 1860s. Bonnets and skirs abounded, and war uniforms were hot and rarely functional.
Take a look at just how different the clothing was during these times — and consider how life might have been in wearing these complicated rigs. (And with no air conditioning — we shudder at the thought.) Together, we consider just how far military wear has come and how function meets daily operations.
Considering we were fighting ourselves, it’s not hard to believe that solider uniforms — Union and Confederate alike — were quite similar. The main distinction between sides were the colors and footwear.
Union soldiers wore a navy blue top and a lighter blue on their pants. They also wore black boots that were cuffed with white ankle coverings. Meanwhile, Confederate soldiers wore gray pants, gray tops, and black boots. The cuts and manners in which gear was worn were very similar, most notably, a roll pack on the back and spike bayonet on the rifle.
Meanwhile, women wore big, billowing dresses that flowed out with hooped undergarments. Gloves, bonnets and button-down boots were also daily norms. These fancier outfits were common at the time for women who spent their days socializing. But after the onset of the war, dresses became less elaborate and certain accessories, like gloves, were often done away with altogether. Higher classes still dressed to impress, while those who joined war efforts had to opt for more practical wear.
Working dresses were most often long sleeved and accompanied by aprons. Classes usually wore different types of fabrics, too. With lower class opting for cotton or coarser materials, while upper class chose fabrics with big patterns, stripes, and textures like velvet and silk.
Due to the high death rate of the war, all classes usually owned black outfits to express their mourning after losing a loved one.
Those who were not fighting had their own style of dress during the Civil War. Rich men usually wore suits and hats. Suits had big long coats and hats were tall and wide-brimmed. The thought process at the time was that excess fabric cost more money, so clothes were often big and billowing. Dresses also had excess fabrics on the skirts.
While working classes wore big, loose pants that were usually held up with suspenders. Loose, long-sleeved cotton shirts topped off the look with a tie or ascot for style, and tall boots.
Kids were usually dressed in clothing very similar to their parents … just shorter. For instance, dresses and trousers were usually mid-calf level for girls and boys, respectively. This was to differentiate kids’ clothing. It also allowed kids to wear the same pieces as they grew taller. The main difference was younger males who wore dresses, which traditionally took place until or around the age of 5. However, this tradition changed around the 1860s — the start of the war — when young boys began wearing knickerbockers, which were wide-legged pants that buttoned at the knee.
The image of the men who fought in Vietnam is usually that of a draftee who didn’t want to be there, likely from a poor family, who were sent to die while they were still teens. But nothing could be further from the truth. Only a third of Vietnam vets were draftees. The average age of U.S. troops in Southeast Asia was 23, and more than 80 percent had a high school diploma, twice as many as the World War II generation. They were more educated, affluent, and older than any assembled American fighting force who came before them.
But even if they were a force of draftees, would that have mattered?
The short answer is “nope.”
While the popular consensus is that the United States lost the war in Vietnam, the U.S. handily won the fighting in Vietnam. The United States didn’t win every single battle, but it won almost every single major engagement, even those massive, infamous surprise attacks of the North Vietnamese, which garnered headlines but little else. The Tet Offensive, arguably the most famous enemy attack of the whole war, was a huge defeat for the Communists. And no American unit ever surrendered to the enemy in Vietnam, either.
For many Vietnam veterans who enlisted to fight in the war, drafted men made good, if not better, soldiers when put to the test. Other volunteers say they saw no difference between drafted Americans and volunteers, and would not have known how they ended up in Vietnam without asking. The only real way you could ID a drafted soldier is by seeing a troop who was much older but wearing a lowly rank. Some volunteer troops even said they respected draftees for answering the forced call to service and fighting without question.
They weren’t all happy about going, of course.
Whether American troops in Vietnam were one-third draftees (as the facts dictate) or they were a force of young, poor, uneducated conscripts (As pop culture would have us believe), what is indisputable is what they accomplished there. The United States was able to win most of the major pitched battles fought there. And while popular history says the United States lost in Vietnam, if the goal of the war was to prevent other countries in the region from falling to Communism (you know, like dominoes), then, the U.S. may have won in the long run.
Some 475 million people in Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines do not currently live in a Communist state. When the United States began to ramp up its efforts to help South Vietnam, it moved masses of military men and materiel into these countries. Those forces bolstered the governments of those countries, who all faced some form of insurgency or Communist upheaval at the beginning of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. By the time the U.S. left South Vietnam, those countries had secured their borders, governments, and way of life against Communist threats.
So maybe we should reconsider the idea that we lost and that draftees somehow weren’t as dedicated to winning.
In 1981, the United States accused the Soviet Union of providing chemical weapons to Communist countries in Southeast Asia to test a new kind of toxin for use in the ongoing arms race. Hmong tribesmen who fought with the US and South Vietnamese before the end of the Vietnam War described a kind of “yellow rain” pouring down on them from the skies.
The truth was a relief to both the villagers and the bees – and was actually kind of worse, in some ways.
Today is the day you readers learn that bees poop.
Refugees fleeing the reprisals from the Communist governments of Laos and North Vietnam reported to their American allies that low-flying helicopters had dumped an oily yellow liquid on them en masse. Those hit by the liquid claimed to have suffered from seizures, headaches, and blindness, as well as some internal bleeding. The United States didn’t know exactly what the substance was, but they believed it was a chemical agent the Soviets were testing on these unwitting refugees.
President Reagan’s Secretary of State Alexander Haig accused the Soviet Union of doing as much in 1981:
For some time now, the international community has been alarmed by continuing reports that the Soviet Union and its allies have been using lethal chemical weapons in Laos, Kampuchea, and Afghanistan. … We have now found physical evidence from Southeast Asia which has been analyzed and found to contain abnormally high levels of three potent mycotoxins—poisonous substances not indigenous to the region and which are highly toxic to man and animals.
We’ll give him partial credit.
The Soviets, of course, denied every word of this. They would have denied it even if it was true. And you can’t blame Haig, this totally sounds like something the Soviet Union would do. But to get the international community behind the accusation, the United States needed to prove it – that would prove to be a huge problem.
The refugees were inconsistent with their stories, and the so-called samples of the agent proved inconclusive in laboratory testing. Furthermore, the sufferers of the effects of the “toxin” were actually suffering from fungal infections in their skin. No one knew exactly what was happening until a Harvard researcher decided to check it out once and for all. Biologist Matthew Meselson traveled to the affected areas to do his own legwork, separate from the official investigation. Traveling to Laos, he recreated the events surrounding the alleged attack and found that it wasn’t a strange chemical substance. It wasn’t even strange. In fact, it was fairly common.
Because everybody poops.
Meselson’s team found the yellow raindrops clinging to leaves in northern Laos. Once they concluded that this is what the refugees were describing, they conducted a test on the matter and found many kinds of pollen grains in it, typical of those digested by bees. It was, in fact, bee poop. Huge clouds of bee poop fell on those people.
When his study went up for peer review, it was found that villages in China had the same experience, only instead of chemical weapons, the villagers thought the yellow rain foretold a dangerous earthquake.
The Espionage Act of 1917 defined espionage as the notion of obtaining or delivering information relating to national defense to a person who is not entitled to have it. The Act made espionage a crime punishable by death, but there are always men and women willing to risk it — for country, for honor, or maybe just for some quick cash.
Whether they infiltrated the enemy’s ranks or sweet-talked the details out of careless persons who ignore all those “loose lips sink ships” posters, these are the most notorious spies with the most successful espionage missions in history, ranked by the operations they disrupted, the damage they dealt, and the odds stacked against them.
The Central Intelligence Agency team that discovered Soviet mole Aldrich Ames. From left to right: Sandy Grimes, Paul Redmond, Jeanne Vertefeuille, Diana Worthen, Dan Payne.
10. Aldrich Ames — COLD WAR
Aldrich Ames is a 31-year CIA veteran turned KGB double agent. In 1994, he was arrested by the FBI for spying for the Soviets along with his wife, Rosario Ames, who aided and abetted his espionage. Following his arrest and guilty plea, Ames revealed that he had compromised the identities of CIA and FBI human sources, leading some to be executed by the Soviet Union.
During a nearly year-long investigation into his subterfuge — and his subsequent trial — it was revealed that Ames had been spying for the Soviets since 1985, passing details about HUMINT sources, clandestine operations against the USSR, and providing classified information via “dead drops” in exchange for millions of dollars.
Ames is currently serving his life sentence, while his wife, as part of a plea-bargain agreement, served only five years and walked free.
Virginia Hall receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from General Donovan in September 1945.
9. Virginia Hall “The Limping Lady” — WWII
Virginia Hall was one of the most successful espionage operatives of World War II, earning not only the contempt of the Gestapo, but the Distinguished Service Cross — the only civilian woman to be so honored. As a spy, she organized agent networks, recruited the local population of occupied France to run safe houses, and aided in the escape of Allied prisoners of war.
Oh, and she did it all with a wooden leg named ‘Cuthbert.’
Known by the Nazis as “The Limping Lady,” she was recruited by British spymaster Vera Atkins to report on German troop movements and recruit members for the resistance in France. Posturing as an American news reporter, she encoded messages into news broadcasts and passed encrypted missives to her contacts.
She signed up with the U.S. Office of Strategic Service and in 1944 she organized missions to sabotage the Germans. She is credited with more jailbreaks, sabotage missions, and leaks of troop movements than any other spy in France.
Harriet Tubman needs no introduction.
8. Harriet Tubman — CIVIL WAR
Everyone knows that Harriet Tubman helped slaves reach freedom through the Underground Railroad after her own escape in 1849. When the Civil War broke out 11 years later, she continued the fight by becoming a spy for the Union Army.
Though she was unable to read or write, Tubman was exceptionally bright. Her time spent with the Underground Railroad taught her to keep track of complex details and information, scout transportation routes, and arrange clandestine meetings.
She used these skills to build a spy ring, mapping territory, routes, and waterways, and collecting human intelligence about Confederate movements and weaponry. She was the first and only woman to organize a military operation during the Civil War, overseeing the transport of Union boats through Confederate-mined territory based on intel she had collected.
During the same raid, she helped to free 700 local slaves, 100 of whom would take up arms for the North.
George Blake, far left, along with other Soviet spies.
7. George Blake — WWII-Cold War
George Blake was recruited to the Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as MI6, during World War II. During the Korean War, he was taken prisoner by the Korean People’s Army, and during his three year detention he became a communist and decided to betray his country.
In 1953, he returned to Britain a hero, but secretly began his work as a double agent for the KGB, wherein he would compromise anti-communist operations and reportedly betray over 40 MI6 agents and dismantle MI6 operations in Eastern Europe.
In 1961, he was exposed by a Polish defector, arrested, and sentenced to 42 years of imprisonment, but in 1966 he broke out and fled to Moscow, where he was awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin.
(Civil War Harper’s Weekly, April 4, 1863)
6. Agent 355 — AMERICAN REVOLUTION
There were several Patriot spy rings that worked to overthrow British occupation during the Revolutionary War, but very few of these secret groups had women who actively took part in the espionage. The Culper Spy Ring, however, is known mainly for a very unusual agent, a spy known then and now only as ‘355’ — the group’s code number for the word ‘woman.’ The mystery woman’s identity was kept secret to protect herself and likely her family, but her daring contributions to the American cause have been remembered in history. She took part in several counterintelligence missions, including spy operations that resulted in the arrest of major John Andrew — the head of England’s intelligence operations in New York — and the discovery of Benedict Arnold’s treason.
Some historians guess that Agent 355 was likely a shopkeeper or a merchant who learned information about Red Coat military operations from chatty British customers, and that she would then divulge this information to George Washington. Regardless of her methods, Agent 355 made critical contributions to the Revolutionary cause.
5. Rose Greenhow — CIVIL WAR
Confederate spy Rose Greenhow is credited with obtaining critical intelligence about the Union’s plans to attack in Manassas, Virginia. She established her spy network in Washington DC at the beginning of the Civil War, and it quickly proved its worth when Greenhow uncovered details about Union General Irvin McDowell’s plans in 1861. Greenhow spirited intelligence to Confederate General Pierre G.T. Beauregard, who requested extra troops when he met Union forces at Bull Run on July 21st.
The Battle of Bull Run was the first major land battle of the Civil War and, as a result of Greenhow’s intelligence, the South was able to achieve a major victory and launch their rebellion with momentum. Confederate President Jefferson Davis himself sent Greenhow a letter of appreciation after the battle.
Federal authorities were soon able to trace Greenhow’s activities, however, and she was placed under house arrest before an incarceration in the Old Capitol Prison. After her release, she would continue to fight for the Southern cause until her death at sea while transporting Confederate dispatches aboard a British blockade-runner.
Ronald Reagan’s July 21, 1987, meeting with MI 6 asset Oleg Gordievsky.
(Image via Ronald Reagan Presidential Library)
4. Oleg Gordievsky — COLD WAR+
Oleg Gordievsky has been given credit for shifting the balance of power during the Cold War. For 11 years, he spied for MI6 while working as a high-ranking KGB officer in London. In 1968, Gordievsky was a junior spy working abroad for the KGB when the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia. He resolved himself to fight the communist system from within. In 1972, Gordievsky was recruited by MI6 after he was referred by a Czech spy who had defected to Canada.
Over the next decade, Gordievsky would provide details of current and former KGB operations as well as the KGB’s attempts to influence western elections. He was exposed to Moscow by Aldrich Ames and managed to survive a KGB interrogation despite being drugged. MI6 managed to recover Gordievsky and smuggle him safely out of the country.
He is one of the highest-ranking KGB officers ever to operate western espionage missions and for this he was sentenced by Soviet authorities to death in absentia.
3. Francis Walsingham — TUDOR ENGLAND
Most spies work in secret, but Francis Walsingham served Queen Elizabeth I with the badass title of Spymaster. A staunch Protestant, Walsingham served as Principal Secretary of State for the Tudor queen before joining her Privy Council, where he devised an intricate spy network during her reign. He uncovered what became known as the Babington Plot of 1586, which lead to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots the following year.
Encouraged by her supporters, Anthony Babington wrote a letter to Mary concerning “the dispatch” of Queen Elizabeth during Mary’s incarceration in England. Mary’s reply was intercepted by Walsingham and Thomas Phelippes, who copied the letter and forged a damning postscript to the end. Walsingham used the copied letter and the cipher text of the original to convince Elizabeth that for as long as Mary lived, she posed a threat to the Protestant throne.
Elizabeth reluctantly signed Mary’s death warrant and she was beheaded on February 8, 1587. Elizabeth safely reigned until her own death in 1603.
Former FBI agent Robert Hanssen.
2. Robert Hanssen — COLD WAR+
Former FBI agent Robert Hanssen spied for Soviet and Russian intelligence services from 1979 to 2001 and remains one of the most damaging double agents in American history. His espionage activities included delivering thousands of pages of classified material to Moscow, revealing the identities of human sources and agents and details about America’s nuclear operations.
The FBI discovered Hanssen’s treachery and he was indicted on 21 counts of spying for the Soviet Union and Russia. He would finally plead guilty to 15 counts of espionage and conspiracy in exchange for 15 consecutive life sentences in prison over the death penalty.
1. The Rosenbergs — COLD WAR
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were the first U.S. citizens to be convicted and executed for espionage during peacetime after they were found guilty of delivering classified information about the atomic bomb to the Soviet Union. Julius was an engineer for the U.S. Army Signal Corps and his wife Ethel worked there a secretary. In 1950, they were implicated by David Greenglass, Ethel’s younger brother, who worked at Los Alamos, a secret atomic bomb laboratory in the States and who confessed to providing classified intelligence to the Soviets.
The Los Angeles Times reported that not only did the Rosenbergs do “their best to give the Soviets top atomic secrets from the Manhattan Project, they succeed in handing over top military data on sonar and on radar that was used by [Moscow] to shoot down American planes in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.”
After a controversial trial and global speculation, they were executed via electric chair on June 19, 1953.