Burl Ives is one of those long dead artists of yore who would be nearly completely forgotten were it not for an annual revival every Christmas season. He had popular recordings of “Frosty…” and “Rudolph…,” and was featured in one of the Rankin-Bass animated Christmas shows as a singing snowman. The one Christmas song he made his own was “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas, and it’s a pretty annoying one at that. Ives was a fascinating character, a burly ex-NFL player who profitably turned to folksinging in the Thirties. He became famous doing that until he was the definitive Big Daddy on Broadway and on film in Tennessee Williams’s classic drama “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (Williams wrote the part with Ives in mind), leading to a long acting career.
He was blacklisted during the Red Scare, named names for HUAC and alienated the folksinging crowd. Ives had such a pure, light voice that he had great success with children’s songs (like “I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly”), yet on screen and stage he was usually a menacing presence. I always found the image of “Big Daddy” singing “Holly Jolly Christmas” bizarre.
December 13 is one of those banner days for ethics, good and bad. In 2000, Al Gore gave an admirable speech abandoning his efforts to flip the results of the too-close-to-call (literally) Presidential election, the ethics high water mark in his otherwise sketchy career. TIME disgraced itself on this date in 2019 by naming exploited teen mouthpiece for the climate change lobby Greta Thunberg as its “Person of the Year.
The worst December 13 historical event is probably “The Rape of Nanking,” which began in 1937, a prelude to Japan’s greater ambitions expressed in World War II. Nanking, then the capital of China, surrendered to Japanese forces and Japanese General Matsui Iwane ordered that the city be destroyed. Nanking was burned, and the Japanese army slaughtered an estimated 150,000 captured Chinese soldiers, massacred 50,000 male civilians, and raped at least 20,000 women and girls of all ages, often mutilating or killing their victims afterwards.
Or maybe, taking the long view, the worst thing to happen on December 13 was President Woodrow Wilson arriving in Paris for the crafting of the Treaty of Versailles. America’s worst President essentially abandoned his efforts to be a moderating influence on the vengeance-minded representatives of France, England and Italy, instead focusing his efforts on an ego-driven quest to make a pet personal obsession a reality, a “League of Nations.” The brutal treaty inflicted on Germany proved a catalyst for the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, and Wilson’s failed “Fourteen Points” led the U.S. into a period of isolationism and official neutrality that helped facilitate the Holocaust.
All moral luck, of course: Wilson couldn’t foresee the damage the Treaty would trigger. No one could. But bad ideas generally have bad consequences. The trick is recognizing that they are bad in time.
Finally, this date witnessed the horrible Battle of Fredericksburg, the Union’s Pickett’s Charge, in 1862. Just visiting the battlefield today is sufficient to drive home the utter incompetence demonstrated by Union General Ambrose E. Burnside.
Robert E. Lee had moved his troops into place along Marye’s Heights above Fredericksburg, along a sunken road protected by a stone wall, looking downhill on Fredericksburg. One Southern officer claimed “a chicken could not live on that field when we open on it,” and he was right. Chickens had the sense to stay away, but Burnside, the newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, was certain he was no chicken. On December 13 ordered 14 attacks against the Confederate line above him, each as bloody as the one before. No Union soldiers reached the wall at the top of Marye’s Heights. The North’s casualties were an estimated 12,650 killed and wounded, while Lee lost a third of that. During the bitterly cold December night, many of the Union wounded froze to death. Nevertheless, Burnside, an idiot, wanted to try again with more attacks on December 14. His subordinates had to physically restrain him from giving the order.