This Month In History: January 2007

  By Act of Oblivion, January 2007; Revised
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On January 17th, 395, the Roman Emperor Theodosius died in Milan. Theodosius is chiefly remembered for two momentous decisions that shaped the future fate of the Empire. Firstly, for finally adopting Christianity as the official religion of the state, and secondly for splitting his heirloom, the Empire, between his two sons Honorius and Ardcadius. Born in Spain in 347 as the son of a high-ranking officer, Theodosius followed in his father’s footsteps and rose to be the military commander of one the troubled provinces on the Balkans, a task not to be envied. In 378, Gratian appointed him Co-emperor, with a special responsibility for the East. For the next decade, Theodosius was mainly concerned with the Goths, one of the many wandering Germanic tribes that had swarmed all over the Empire, until after coming to a settlement with Theodosius, they settled briefly in Pannonia. His other chief concern were the frequent civil wars, caused by the increasingly complex power structures in the Empire, whose rule was shared amongst a number of Emperors and Co-Emperors, with the occasional pretender rebelling in one of the

Only after Valentian’s death in 392, could Theodosius assume sole control about the Empire’s affairs, and use the few years left to him to eradicate the last remains of the pagan beliefs of Greek and Roman antiquity, and to establish Christianity as the sole religion of the Emperor and its ruler. With a number of decrees and laws, Theodosius outlawed the many pagan rituals still being performed, sanctioned the destruction of many a pagan temple and, last but not least, put an end to the Olympic games that had been held since times immemorial. In the factional struggles between the Arians and Niceans, Theodosius came out on the side of the latter, and the Nicean Creed that had been formulated at the famous Synod under the guidance of Constantine I, became the official doctrine of the state church, to remain so to this very day. Theodosius’ decrees meant the final victory of Christianity over its rivals, and without realising it too much, the Emperor had created the first of the two Pillars on which the Roman Empire was to rest for another thousand years. The second one was his decision to divide the Roman Empire after his death, a mere confirmation of the fact that the Empire had long since become to large to be ruled efficiently from one city by one Emperor, and that both the Western and the Eastern part had gone their separate ways. Splitting the Empire between his sons, Theodosius virtually created two independent realms, that would both suffer very different fates. The Western part as only to last another few decades until it was overrun by the Germanic tribes, while the East, having become after Constantine I seat and powerhouse of the Empire, was to hold on till 1453. (By Komnenos)

On January 19th, 1795, the ‘Batavian Republic’ was declared in the Netherlands. The name originates from the Roman term for the Germanic tribes that populated the Low Countries during Caesar’s times. Since it’s ‘Golden Age’ in the 17th century, when the Netherlands was arguably the richest, most industrious and most civilised country in Europe, it had gone into a process of political and economic decline. The European centres of commerce and with it the dominance over the global trade had shifted to its British rival, and the Anglo-British War of 1780-1784 only cemented the loss of status. The deteriorating wealth and influence of the Dutch Republic had initiated a popular reform movement by ‘Patriots’ that not only sought the restoration of the country’s former glory, but also wanted to reform the encrusted political structures. These aims had been informed by the political demands of the enlightenment, a greater participation of the middle classes in political affairs, and the guarantee of human rights.

Since its independence from Spain in 1581, the United Provinces had been a Republic with an elected ‘Stadholder’ at its head. In practise, however, the
Flag of the Batavian Republic
Flag of the Batavian Republic
Netherlands had been ruled by the House of Orange, the descendents of Willem I, the ‘Silent’, of Orange who had been the driving force behind the independence struggle. In 1740, the position of the ‘Stadholder’ had become hereditary, and in 1780, Willem V of Orange stood at the helm of the Dutch Republic that by then had become an increasingly oligarchic edifice, with a few influential and very rich families running the affairs of the state. By the mid 1780s, the country was at the brink of a civil war, ‘Patriots’ against ‘Orangists’, with the former threatening to gain power and to abolish the Orange dynasty. The arrest of the wife of Wilhelm V’s wife, Princess Wilhemina by patriot militia provided the excuse for the Orangists to appeal for help. In due course, the Prussian army invaded the country in 1787, and in a short time suppressed the revolt and restored the House of Orange. A large number of the patriots escaped to France, where they could witness many of their ideals put into practise by the French people. In the War of the First Coalition the French revolutionary army marched into the Netherlands in 1795 after a winter campaign, bringing back many of the exiles with it, not dissimilar to what happened in neighbouring Germany, and was welcomed by parts of the Dutch people.

The French installed a number of “Patriots” in the Dutch government, in the attempt to avoid the impression of the Netherlands being occupied territory, and on January 19, 1795 the new "Batavian Republic" was proclaimed. The new government introduced wide-ranging reforms, changing the constitution and political institutions of the country and importing many of achievements of the French Revolution. (By Komnenos).

On January 30th, 1649, the first birth pangs of an English Republic were felt when King Charles I of England was beheaded by order of Parliament under the direction of Oliver Cromwell. Colonel Thomas Pride had earlier ‘purged’ the existing government of individuals deemed unsuited to the new regime and in the process created the Rump Parliament. On January 4th, 1649, the Rump had assumed supreme legislative power and set up court to try Charles Stuart. In the trial that followed, Charles I was found guilty and condemned as a ‘tyrant, traitor and murderer,’ and executed in front of Whitehall Palace in London. The Civil Wars raged intermittently between 1642-1648 and were principally fought over three divisive issues, namely, who had control over the military, the king, or Parliament? Who appointed the King’s Counsel, was it personal royal choice or did Parliament have a say? and finally, the controversy over religious issues and the existence of an episcopacy. In a possible desire to unite his kingdom, Charles had appeared significantly influenced towards a Catholic position and the promotion of the Laudian and Arminian facets of English religious society. In doing so, Charles alienated mainstream religious belief and practice, greatly alarmed the religious sensibilities of Puritans and Protestants, and revived past memories of the English reformation and the persecution of Protestants. Indeed, Puritan attempts to readdress the king over a possible return to Catholicism may have hastened the onset of the English Civil War. To make matters worse, Charles attempted to gain singular control of the bishops. Calvinists argued that bishops are not required, as they were not appointed by ‘divine right.’ For Charles, this control was essential as this matter provided a parallel
King Charles I
King Charles I
challenge to authority. If bishops could be removed, the king’s own divine right could be called into question, and the king could be removed; ‘No bishop, no king.’

All these matters were illuminated by the king’s attempt to establish a non-parliamentary government between 1629-1640. Recent historiography has generally identified this period as the ‘Personal Rule’ of a monarch who according to the revisionist argument, “governed so ambitiously and so successfully” that the road did not inevitably lead to the triumph of Parliament. However, the very nature of personal rule without a parliament meant that the essential forum for discussing grievances against the king was not available. Therefore, limited success in the ‘personal rule,’ a lack of prudence and authoritarian kingship would determine Parliaments list of grievances in the Short Parliament. The king stood accused of failure by undermining “the liberties and privileges of parliament,” introducing “innovations in matters of religion,” and acting against the “propriety of our goods.” The result was a parliamentary attempt to restrain the royal authority. Royal government came under criticism and scrutiny by Parliament, and every aspect of royal policy was investigated on all levels. To the Whig historians these were the ‘eleven years tyranny’, a period of absolute government by an autocratic monarchy that ensured England swiftly travelled down a ‘high road to civil war.’

Royalist supporters and Parliamentarians could not find an amicable consensus on all the issues and the dispute eventually led to war between the two sides. In August 1642, Charles declared war on the parliamentary forces accusing them of treason. A declaration of war was always a prerogative of the crown and not Parliament, an act that backfired on Charles at his trial when he was charged with declaring war on the people of England. The first battle took place in October 1642 at Edgehill. There was belief by both sides that this battle would sort things out once and for all. Charles believed he would win and restore his royal government. However, Edgehill proved to be an inconclusive battle, a draw with no outright winners. Charles initially decided to march to London, which raised fears that the city would be attacked. Charles arrived and found the area fortified and defended, turned about and marched for Oxford. Parliament handed to the king the ‘19 propositions’, a whole set of grievances that outlined what Parliament wanted Charles to address. If the king had accepted the proposals there would have been no war, but Charles refused to relinquish his royal authority and the conflict continued.

In 1643, Parliament offered the king the ‘Treaty of Oxford’. This treaty outlined ‘peace terms’ that demanded control of the militia, a parliamentary role in the king’s council, and stressed that there was no need for bishops, no need for church hierarchy, and no religious courts. The king declined the to address the treaty. In 1645 Parliament readied the New Model Army, a force of 21,000 men reorganised and led by Sir Thomas Fairfax, with Oliver Cromwell the Lieutenant general of the cavalry. In June of the same year, the last great battle of the first civil war was fought at Naseby, essentially a mopping up operation of defeated royalist forces but it took sometime to complete and Charles did not really surrender. Instead, the king left to go to Oxford and then gave himself up to the Scots, who since the mid 1640’s had been tentative allies having been negotiating a Royalist-Scottish settlement that would install the Scottish church. In return, the king expected the Scots to fight against the English, however, the Scots handed the king over to Parliament. Between 1646-48, Charles continued to negotiate with the Scots, possibly to buy more time, but failure led to a second civil war in which the Scottish were roundly beaten by Parliament forces. During this period, the New Model Army offered Charles a new treaty in the ‘Heads of Proposals’, but Charles still refused to give in.

In late 1648, Parliament issued yet another peace accord, but Charles received the ‘Treaty of Newport’ with the same indifference that characterised earlier offers. Time finally ran out for Charles I when Colonel Pride’s a military coup installed only men who would support the persecution of the king for treason. Eight days before he was executed, King Charles I declared that, “the commons of England will not thank you for this change, for they will remember how happy they have been of late years under the reign of…myself, until the beginning of these unhappy troubles, and will have cause to doubt that they shall never be so happy under any new.” (By Act of Oblivion).

January 30th, 1968 proved to be a significant turning point in United States foreign policy in Vietnam. This was the beginning of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. In addition to localised battles and skirmishes, North Vietnamese troops attacked thirty-six provincial capitals and five major cities in South Vietnam, including an attack on the United States Embassy in Saigon. In 1967, the North Vietnamese had contemplated a victorious finale to the ‘War in Vietnam.’ According to Ang Cheng Guan, “The Official History of the Vietnamese People’s Army” reveals that in April 1967, an examination of the North’s military position was initiated to gain a better understanding of the ‘military-political’ situation to help put together an appropriate strategy for future action. It was believed that a ‘prolonged or protracted’ war would only lead to a build up of American military strength, and as such, a short decisive victory was needed in 1968. The decision was taken to instigate a vigorous attack and destroy the American forces while building up the impetus to a general offensive. The intended strategy was to limit the capacity of American forces by launching all out attacks on the major cities, followed by a general uprising throughout the countryside, a role assigned primarily to the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam. Shortly before his untimely death, General Nguyen Chi Thanh established a set of planning proposals for the offensive in May 1967, and then presented his strategy to the Political Bureau and Military Central Commission two months later. During December 1967, the North Vietnamese appeared to believe that the American war effort had peaked and was in a position of ‘strategic stalemate.’ Indeed, in late 1967, McNamara and his advisors put forward to President Lyndon Johnson a policy memorandum that recommended a change in American strategy, an approach that led to a proposed shift from ‘search and destroy’ to ‘clear and hold’ battlefield tactics. However, Johnson did not implement a change in policy for the remainder of 1967, and in January, General Westmoreland presented an optimistic and ‘friendly picture’ of the forthcoming year.

Although January 31st 1968 traditionally marks the start of the North Vietnamese military offensive, the attacks during the Tet festival period constituted the second phase of General Vo Nguyen Giap’s strategy. Although there were attempts to extend North Vietnamese gains during the ‘mini’ Tet in March, by 11th February 1968, the major offensive had run out of steam and ended in a virtual military defeat for the North Vietnamese and NLF forces. The NLF may not have had widespread authority in the South, but the Tet Offensive proved that the Vietcong certainly had an extensive presence in the urban and rural areas. Nevertheless, the general uprising failed to materialise and the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, alongside American forces, eventually reduced the North’s initial military operations and reversed the majority of the successes achieved at the commencement of the Tet Offensive. All the same, it was an effective, and damaging political and diplomatic defeat on the American administration and its forces in South Vietnam, not least, because the offensive came almost immediately after the American public were informed that the war in Vietnam was being won. Moreover, as late as January 1968, General Westmoreland had presented an optimistic and encouraging picture of current events in Vietnam and predicted ‘increased success’ for the coming year. The general offensive/general uprising may not have been a total success, and although Giap would later concede that Tet had been “directed primarily at the people of South Vietnam,” the General observed, “our biggest victory [was] to change the ideas of the United States.”

For some politicians in the United States, it was becoming apparent that perhaps North Vietnam could not be pummelled into submission by the sheer weight of American bombing. A chapter was about close on the American war in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese Tet Offensive delivered to the United States media and Government, a picture of Vietnam that clearly demonstrated the ineffectiveness of American military policy in South East Asia. For General Westmoreland, the Tet Offensive provided justification for an increase in American troops, however, guided by the advisory role of the ‘wise men,’ President Johnson rejected Westmoreland’s proposal for an expanded war and instead opted for de-escalation and negotiation. Not only did Tet mark the beginning of the United States policy to de-escalate the American war in Vietnam, it also signalled the conclusion of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency. As a result of the Tet Offensive Johnson declared, “I am taking the first step to de-escalate the conflict. We are reducing-substantially reducing-the present level of hostilities. And we are doing so unilaterally, and at once.” Johnson announced a partial halt to American bombing, and in the event of fruitful negotiations was willing to cease the air campaign altogether. The North Vietnamese attempts at a general offensive/general uprising proved to be a decisive moment in the American war in Vietnam. Although U.S. forces eventually fended off the massive surprise attack and achieved a military victory, Tet became a propaganda victory for the Vietnamese due in some measure to graphic news reports on television which helped turn U.S. public opinion against continuation of the war. On January 27th, 1973, United States involvement in the Vietnam War ended as North Vietnamese and American representatives signed an agreement in Paris. The United States agreed to remove all remaining troops within 60 days thus ending the longest war in American history. Over 58,000 Americans had been killed, 300,000 wounded, and 2,500 declared missing. (By Act of Oblivion).