November 5, 2020: A Date Full Of Ethics, Good, Bad, And Complicated

November 5 is one of the ethically significant days in U.S. history and, as Willy Loman’s wife famously said, “Attention must be paid.” For example,

  • On this day in 1912, arguably the most destructive and unethical President in US history, Woodrow Wilson, was elected, thanks to Teddy Roosevelt’s inability to get his ego under control. Wilson, a racist, super-charged Jim Crow; after gaining re-election by boasting that he kept America out of the Great War, he entered the war anyway, destroying the lives of thousands of young men to no discernible purpose. When he was a key member of the “Great Powers” leaders to decided on the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, he permitted ruinously punitive conditions to be imposed on Germany, seeding the anger and nationalism that led to the Second World War. He did this so that his pet project, the League of Nations, would be included in the treaty, and then couldn’t even get the U.S. Congress to approve the idea or join the body itself. Meanwhile, Wilson, against the warnings of medical experts, sent thousands of infected soldiers to Europe, spreading the deadly flu that killed millions. If our current pandemic should be laid at the feet of China, and it should, the so-called Spanish Flu by rights should be remembered as “the American Flu,” or better yet, “Wilson’s Flu.”

As a final unethical flourish, Wilson suffered a debilitating stroke while trying to get the public behind his League of Nations, and allowed his wife and doctor to hide the fact, as they illegally ran the country from his bedside. Despite all this, historians lied to the public for decades, listing him as one of the greatest Presidents, when he may have been the worst.

  • In Minnesota on Novembber 5, 1862, more than 300 Santee Sioux were sentenced to hang for their part in an uprising that was probably justified by outrageous mistreatment. A month later, President Lincoln all but 39 of the death sentences and granted a last-minute reprieve to one more, but the other 38 were hanged on December 26 in a mass execution. Lincoln is often criticized for this, but in truth he had a very difficult utilitarian ethics conflict to solve, and, as I wrote here, did his usual good and ethical job. From the post:

He was being lobbied hard to sign the death orders. He could see that the convictions were flawed, but realized that the war, the Union, his leadership, the fate of slavery and his Presidency could not be sacrificed to the Indian wars. On December 1, 1862, he told Congress, “The State of Minnesota has suffered great injury from this Indian war,” signaling that he would not subject his leadership to a perhaps fatal dose of additional unpopularity by completely over-ruling the army.

But it was a difficult choice for him. Lincoln already had a well-established record of applying mercy to the cases of condemned men. In his review of death sentences for desertion, Lincoln over-ruled the trial courts at a rate of approximately 75 percent that steadily increased to 95 percent by the end of 1862. He was also forced to consider how a mass execution would play in France and especially Great Britain, which was then considering whether to recognize the Confederacy as an independent nation, and perhaps whether to provide it assistance.

  • On this date in 1968, Richard Nixon was elected President, completing an amazing political comeback after what was thought to be career ending loss to Pat Brown in the 1962 race for California Governor. Nixon achieved this miracle in part by convincing voters that he was a nicer version of the old Tricky Dick, even appearing on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” to mock himself. Later we discovered that Nixon had worked behind the scenes to undermine peace talks between the Johnson Administration and North Vietnam.

 Compared to that, Watergate was trivial.

  • The decision to sneak-bomb Pearl Harbor was made by the Japanese high command on this date in 1940.

It’s the day that should live in infamy for creating the “day that will live in infamy.”

  • On the same day in 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt was re-elected for an unprecedented third term as President. Talk about “breaking norms,” this was a big one: George Washington’s wise decision to rule out the new position of U.S. President becoming a lifetime post was essential to defining the new American democracy, and, like so much of what Washington did, prescient and based on his own analysis. So hallowed was this decision that Teddy Roosevelt took himself out of the running for the 1908 race when he didn’t have to, since technically he had only been elected President once. FDR, however, decided that the twin crises of the Great Depression and the ominous war in Europe justified breaking with tradition. And he was President for Life, running for a fourth term and winning, then dying in office.

“When ethics fails, the law steps in”  the Ethics Alarms slogan goes. Realizing that a healthier FDR could well have become an American dictator, we added a Constitutional Amendment making George’s norm the law of the land.

33 thoughts on “November 5, 2020: A Date Full Of Ethics, Good, Bad, And Complicated

  1. Regarding Roosevelt’s ego giving us arguably THE singularly WORST President in history –

    You know that’s precisely what will happen in 2024 if the RNC rejects another Trump candidacy (assuming a Biden win this go around). Because you know Trump will make a third party run.

  2. The decision to bomb Pearl Harbor was made a year before the attack?

    Typo?

    And Wilson re-segregated the federal government, doing untold damage to race relations in America.

    -Jut

      • Is it really? I can believe it that in the military planner’s world, the decision to “attack pearl harbor” could easily be a year and change in advance of the actual decision “to attack”.

        Our military has dozens of contingency scenarios ready to go with objectives decided upon well in advance. The only thing missing was the actual decision to follow through the attack.

        I would assume that attacking the United States had been on Japan’s back burner last ditch national game plan *many many* years prior to 1941…with their planners wargaming various scenario before settling on Pearl Harbor as the most appropriate target of attack long before Japanese political planners ever got around to finally deciding to actually attack in late 1941.

        • I mean, it was the case that Germany had a broad WW1 offensive strategy planned out earlier than 1912…arguably as early as 1900. They merely flipped the switch in 1914 because they felt it was a now or never balance of power in Europe.

          As late as just before WW2 we had contingency plans for offensive operations into Canada if the need arose. As far as I can assume plans like that exist and always will for a wide variety of scenario our nation or any nation may ever find themselves in.

        • Yamamoto sent his outline of the attack plan to the Navy Minister on January 7, 1941. It took perhaps a month or two before he got approval and had the forces assigned to start training for the attack. The major part of the training apparently happened during the summer of 1941.

          During 1941 their technical people had to solve munitions problems — mainly figuring out how to get a torpedo to run in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor — the problem was that air dropped torpedoes hit the water and plunge down some distance before settling onto their course. In shallow waters that would mean they’d hit the bottom and explode right away. I don’t remember just how they did it — my memory says either parachutes or control fins (or both).

          At any rate, it seems that November 5th was the day the Emperor gave his approval to the plan, although he didn’t give his approval to the attack itself until December 1st. The fleet left their harbor in northern Japan on November 26th under strict radio silence. It was in position to strike the afternoon of December 7th (Tokyo time), and at dawn the next day — you know the rest.

        • Or which mean one do you mean?

          “Remember, remember the Fifth of November
          Gunpowder, treason and plot.
          . . .
          A stick or a stake for King James’ sake
          A penny or two will a bonfire make
          If you can’t give us one, we’ll take two;
          The better for us and the worse for you! ”

          or
          We come cob-coailing for t’ Bon Fire Plot.
          A piece o coal sets the Guy a-light
          If you’ll give us owt, we’ll steal nowt,
          but bid you our goodnight.'”

          or
          “Guy, guy, guy
          Poke him in the eye,
          Put him on the bonfire,
          Watch him die.’

          or
          (the sweet version of the foregoing ,,, though my knowledge of young boys
          and Shirley Jackson’s Lottery tells me the first two of the last three words are prone to change. It’s also part of a Christmas song.):

          “If you don’t have a penny a ha’penny will do.
          If you havint got a ha’penny, then God bless you.”

    • If Congress doesn’t expand, we should consider them. The Senate and even some House seats have turnover rates equitable with some of the least vibrant and entrenched “democracies” of the world.

      Before considering term limits, I’d much rather entertain the following ideas:

      1) Expand the House by a multiple of 4 or 5. I don’t care if that means 2200 Representatives on our hands. Or hell let’s have 4500 Representatives on our hands where each one represents 75-80,000 Americans each.

      This solves ALOT of the problems plaguing our current system – from money complaints to polarization complaints to gerrymandering complaints.

      2) Somewhat more radical – let’s add one more Senator per state. Enough with the “safe states” every election cycle. Let both party apparatus’s go through a pucker factor in each state when election time comes around.

      3) Even more WILDLY RADICAL (and will never happen despite it helping to solve even more of our electoral woes) – let’s subdivide the 12-15 most populous states into more homogenous cultural entities.
      El Paso Texans are about as same different in political and economic interests from Houstonian Texans as they are from New Yorkers. Northern Californians similarly are wildly different from Bay Area Californians and Southern Californians.

      Atomizing the nation into smaller entities will allow the individual states to be alot more likely to think they can solve their local problems at a local level without feeling the need to appeal to their political allies on the national level. There will be a tendency for more moderate and nuanced candidates to dominate as individual elections won’t feel like any individual voters ONLY chance to protect their interests at the cost of other people’s interests.

      • Ways and means: 1) Expanding the House could be done with an act of Congress — the original House had 65 representatives and it expanded steadily as states were added until Congress froze its size at 435, if memory serves sometime in the first part of the 20th century.

        2)Expanding the Senate would require amending the Constitution, but (with one caveat) making it 3 instead of 2 per state would not subvert the Founders purpose. The Great Compromise in Philadelphia was to have a house with equal representation for each state.

        The caveat here would be that if you expand the House too much, it dilutes those extra 2 (or 3) electoral votes for electing a president. If you expand the House too much (assuming that electoral votes are assigned the same way as we do now), one side effect is to essentially morph presidential elections into electing a president by popular vote. That’s a bridge I would not want to cross.

        • No doubt. I am sensitive to the argument about Senate dilution.

          At the Founding there were about 2.5-3 Representatives per Senator…that expanded pretty quickly to 3.5 then around 1800 it jumped to 4.2 Reps per Senator.

          1812 it was 5 per…gradually decreaing to 3.9 by 1822, with a jump up to 4.4 through 1832. Within a year or so the ratio hit 5 reps per senator again decreasing to 3.3 by 1872, with a jump up to 4 per and it fluctuated between 3.9 and 4.3 from the 1870s until it ossified at 4.53 in 1913 (made permanent in 1929)…with the final change with the admission of Hawaii and Alaska bringing the ratio to 4.35 representatives per senator.

          With a massive increase in the house to like 2200 (minimum for representation) and in the wildest dreams an additional Senator per state the ratio would be 14.7.

          Meaning the Senatorial influence in electoral politics would be almost nonexistent.

          Which is one reason I’d be all for the extra wildest dream – breaking up the biggest states into more homogenous and manageable entities. Which even a minimal break up would still leave you at like 10 reps per Senator… a ratio never had in our history.

          But leaving things the same is only going to make polarization worse.

  3. Good ol’ Colonel House was a fascinating advisor to Wilson. The book Philip Dru: Administrator remains an intriguing artifact of Wilson’s legacy, that’s worth a read for the “coincidental” nature of the story.

  4. A post that might be right, might be wrong, but one I find I agree with in every respect.

    The more I have learnt about Wilson over my lifetime, the more profoundly I have become disappointed by him. The League of Nations and Kellog-Briand pact were necessary, *are* necessary, but need to be implemented in a way far less dysfunctional and corrupt than the United Nations.

    Wilson was a piece of shit though.

    (How often do I use scatology? Hardly ever. I reserve it for special occasions. This qualifies)

  5. November 5, 1831, was the date that Nat Turner was tried before the Southampton County, VA Court for “conspiring to rebel and making insurrection.” The trial lasted six hours, he was convicted and sentenced to death. His execution date was set for November 11. The verdict stated, “on which day between the hours of ten o’clock in the forenoon and four o’clock in the afternoon he is to be taken by the Sheriff to the usual place of execution and then and there be hanged by the neck until he be dead.” Turner was hanged in Jerusalem, VA and his corpse was drawn and quartered, then beheaded. 56 other slaves were tried and executed for their participation in the rebellion.
    Nat Turner’s Rebellion was responsible for re-energizing the militia systems in the slave states and devastating the abolitionist movement in the South.

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