Thursday, August 8, 2013

Traitors! From Arnold to Snowden

A Traitor's Signature...?
Benedict Arnold, 1740 - 1801

Benedict Arnold
I have in my possession a letter that is dated March 17, 1776 and was written on behalf of an ancestor of mine, Stephen Van Rensselaer.  The letter was a gift from my grandmother, Georgina Van Rensselaer, of Bedford, New York.  Stephen Van Rensselaer was, at the time, a soldier in the American army invading Canada.  He was a leader of the New York colonial militia who fought in the American Revolution and evidently longed to go home.  The letter is signed simply "B. Arnold".

The Letter
Here is the full text:

"Sir (General Wooster),

Captain Van Rensselaer being anxious to go home I have permitted him to go to Montreal, until your pleasure is known.  The troops who have lately arrived here are not mustered.  Neither have I any person here fit for that office, that can be spared from their office.

I am your obedient servant,
B. Arnold

Camp before Quebec
March 17, 1776"

Benedict Arnold had been wounded a few months earlier at the Battle of Quebec on December 31, 1775.  My homesick ancestor was, thankfully, allowed to slink away to help propagate the species!  I must confess that Commander Kelly may owe a debt to our nation's most notorious traitor!

Commander K., Pepe and Arnold Plaque, London
Benedict Arnold ( distinguished himself with the capture of the fort at Ticonderoga and at the battle of Saratoga.  Then, passed over for promotion by the Continental congress, he turned to the British and attempted, unsuccessfully, to surrender the American fort at West Point.  He survived the war and was rewarded with a commission as a Brigadier General in the British Army.

Arnold was of course, symptomatic of what was going on throughout the 13 colonies at the time.  Roughly one third of colonists were active supporters of the rebellion, one third were Tories who remained loyal to the crown and one third were poised somewhere in between, waiting to see who would win the struggle.  The American Revolution was, in truth, a civil war that wrenched apart families.  The patriot and founding father Benjamin Franklin never spoke again to his Tory son, William Franklin, the crown's governor of New Jersey.

Benedict Arnold in London, 62 Gloucester Place
Later Arnold would go on to become the benchmark for treason to Americans.  In London today you can find a plaque to "Major General Benedict Arnold American Patriot" in London today.
Aaron Burr, 1756 - 1836

Aaron Burr
According to the The US Constitution, "Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

The next great traitor on the American scene, Aaron Burr, had served as the third Vice President of the Untied States.  He assassinated the tremendously gifted Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton in a duel that ended his political career.  He then schemed in a Western plot to invade Mexico and set himself up as its King.  He was tried but not convicted of treason due to the absence of two witnesses corroborating testimony.  Thomas Jefferson, the President with which he served, thought that he was guilty as hell.
Caleb Strong

Caleb Strong and the War of 1812
During the war of 1812 (see... the Federalist Governor of Massachusetts, Caleb Strong, attempted to negotiate a separate peace between Britain and New England.  "Madison's war" with England was tremendously unpopular with Federalist New England as England was their largest trading partner.  New England farmers sold cattle and produce to the Royal navy during the conflict.  The Hartford Convention (see... raised the possibility of secession from the union and, thereby, destroyed the credibility of the Federalist party.  At this point in our history American national identity was still a pretty fluid concept.  We clearly needed the Star Spangled banner that emerged from this war to help us in becoming Americans  (see...

San Patrizio Battalion
During the Mexican-American war there were a number of American deserters who defected to the Mexican side during Polk's war of manifest destiny.  They formed the San Patricio (St. Patrick's) battalion. Many of these were recent immigrants to the United States and Catholic who sympathized with the Mexicans.

The Mexican government actively encouraged American "desertions with promises of respect, public assistance, and eventual land grants.  In June 1847, Juan Soto, governor of Veracruz, distributed a handbill, in both Spanish and English that appealed to 'Catholic Irish, Frenchmen, and German(s) of the invading army!' It started ,'The American nation makes a most unjust war to the Mexicans and has taken all of you as an instrument of their iniquity.  You must not fight against a religious people, not should you be seen in the ranks of those who proclaim slavery of mankind as a constitutive principle.  The religious not on the part of those who desire to be the Lords of the world, robbing properties and territories which do not belong to them and shedding so much blood.'"  Source: A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1846 U.S. Invasion of Mexico, Amy S. Greenberg, 2012,

When the Mexicans were defeated many of these men were executed.

US Civil War
The costliest war in US history was over the issue of where an Americans loyalties lay with the nation or with their home state?  From a Union perspective "Johnny Reb" was a traitor who ignited the war by firing on the stars and stripes at Fort Sumter.  From a Confederate perspective, Lincoln was a tyrant who led a brutal inhumane war against the men, women and children of the South.  Robert E. Lee was a traitor to the Union and its Army, but a loyal son of Virginia.  The Civil War concluded with the treachery of John Wilkes Booth and his conspirators.

This war has been endlessly sentimentalized as being a war fought by "the greatest generation".  The truth is that there were heroes, cowards, and a lot of very scared, very young men who served in World War II.  After being thumped by the Germans at Kasserine Pass, hundreds of American soldiers deserted in the North African campaign and were made POWs by the Germans.  Many American aviators in the US Army Air Corps "got lost" and flew to neutral Switzerland or Sweden knowing that they and their plane would be grounded and held for the war's duration.  "Almost ninety crews deliberately landed their aircraft in Sweden or Switzerland, where they were interned for the rest of the war."  Source: The Second World War, Antony Beevor, 2012.  Self-preservation trumps patriotism more often than not.  These men were "anxious to go home" like my ancestor.

Lee Harvey Oswald
"Treason: Noun, The crime of betraying one's country, esp. by attempting to kill the sovereign or overthrow the government".  Oswald's action on 11/22/63  provide a textbook example of the definition of treason.   A former United States marine shot and killed his head of state and a police officer (both decorated World War II vets) on that day (see earlier post...

Hanoi Jane
Many Americans went to south east Asia to fight the red menace and over 50,000 died.  Others took to the streets protesting the war.  Jane Fonda visited North Vietnam and manned an anti-aircraft battery while John McCain was being tortured in the Hanoi Hilton.   Inverting the behavior of my ancestor, Stephen Van Rensselaer, many young American fled to Canada to avoid the draft.
Snowden: Hero or Traitor?
Is Snowden a hero or a traitor?  History will surely judge, but history requires the passage of time; at present all we can rely upon are journalistic accounts to form any opinion.  Any judgement of Snowden must, therefore, be provisional in nature.

He is certainly not a traitor in the traditional sense.  He is not an assassin, a terrorist, a self-interested schemer like Aaron Burr, nor has he apparently betrayed U.S. military secrets. In some ways he appears to be a startlingly conventional American: he misses his father and his girlfriend  Could it be that Snowden, tiring of Borscht and cold weather, will become "anxious to go home" like my ancestor Stephen Van Rensselaer in the frozen wastes of Canada?

Has Snowden, however, provided aid and comfort to our enemies?  Will his actions ultimately put more Americans in harms way? These questions linger and have no easy answer at this time.

On one hand, Snowden is a whistle-blower who has exposed that the American government is spying on its own citizens.  On the other hand, the enemies of America are armed, dangerous and real.  No American wants to live through another 9/11-style attack.  His actions would seem to have compromised our nation's security efforts.

He certainly violated his sworn duties to non-disclosure.   What is undeniable is that
Snowden is yet another is a series of catastrophic intelligence failures that have littered American history (Little Big Horn, Pearl Harbor, 9/11, WMD in Iraq, etc.).  As a nation, as a people we Americans are really not very good at keeping secrets.  Moreover, the Snowden case should force us to rethink the wide scale privatization of the US military and intelligence functions that has been the policy of the past two administrations (See Mark Mazzetti's  The Way of the Knife, 2013, A private contractor who has signed an NDA can never be held up to the same standards as a soldier or CIA agent.

CONCLUSION--No Neutral Ground
We live in an era of attenuated national loyalty.  Kids in our elementary schools no longer start the day with the pledge of allegiance.  In our Universities ROTC programs have been expelled and anti-American diatribes are rewarded with tenure (Ward Churchill, Howard Zinn, etc.).

We live in an Internet age where Amazon rolls, Borg-like, through the retail world destroying independent bookstores and mom and pop retailers in the name of greater efficiency and customer convenience.  We can change banks at the click of a mouse.  We can now go "lookin' for love in all the wrong cyber places" -- just ask Anthony Weiner.  Betrayal has just become too darned easy.

Nietszche wrote that "There are no facts only interpretations."  Some will make the relativistic argument that loyalty and treason is merely a question of perspective.  One man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.  Benedict Arnold, American traitor was also Benedict Arnold, English patriot.

This may be true up to a point, but this argument collapses when one recognizes that there is, in truth, no neutral ground on which to stand.  None of us can truly rise above the fray.  Ultimately, all of us are "anxious to go home".  We may all occupy varying perspectives, but some perspectives are more humane, life-affirming and enlightened than others.  Some perspectives are derived from resentment, envy and bitterness while others may have nobler origins.

Special thanks to Lloyd Low for suggesting this topic.


American espionage...

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Bill Funk said...

Great post Chris! In my view, the best ever.

Anonymous said...

Appreciate the background!

I regret that an apparently well-intentioned, young man has made himself a technical enemy of the US government. It's a complicated issue that will eventually suffer from public fatigue, and only the diehards will likely give attention to Snowden's fate.