This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History


Marc-William Palen
History Department, University of Exeter
Follow on Twitter @MWPalen

From uncovering secret Cold War wiretaps to why the Nazis studied US race laws for inspiration, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.

Canadian cabinet secretly approved Cold War wiretaps on anyone deemed ‘subversive,’ historian finds

Dave Seglins
CBC News

A Canadian historian has found top secret documents from the dawn of the Cold War that show the federal government secretly approved an RCMP surveillance program to wiretap suspected spies, communist sympathizers and others deemed “disloyal” or “subversive.”

Dennis Molinaro of Trent University says he was stunned to discover documents that show the cabinet of Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent passed a “secret order” in 1951 to authorize the RCMP surveillance, code-named Picnic. But the actual cabinet edict, which formed the cornerstone of decades of future wiretapping, was never revealed to Parliament and never transferred to Canada’s archives. “Ultimately, we don’t know how big it gets, how far it goes, how long people are wiretapped,” Molinaro told CBC News. “There are indications that this wiretapping goes on until at least the second term of Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s government.” He says officials in the Privy Council Office refuse to release the 65-year-old secret order — or even confirm it exists. [continue reading]

The Trade War that America Started – And Canada Won

James Watkins

Once upon a time, the United States signed a trade treaty with its neighbor that reduced taxes on goods traded between the two countries. The tariff reductions allowed trade between them to boom, more than doubling in a little over 10 years. But protectionist murmurings in America gradually grew into a chorus, suggesting that the other side was benefiting disproportionately from the deal. So the U.S. tore up the treaty, igniting a tariff battle.

As they say in Quebec, déjà vu. The country in question is Canada, and the year is 1866. To be precise, the so-called Reciprocity Treaty had actually been signed between the United States and Britain (the provinces that would later form the nation of Canada were still British possessions at the time). It allowed those territories tariff-free access to the U.S. market for their natural resources in exchange for providing Americans with extended fishing rights. The final straw for the U.S. in abandoning the 1854 treaty had been political — protesting the tacit support that the British had shown to the Confederacy during the Civil War. It also helped that some Americans thought that inflicting economic hardship on those north of the border could coerce them to “come within the magic circle of the American Union,” as then–Secretary of State William Seward put it. On the contrary, the move prompted Canadian Confederation — the unification of the colonies as the Dominion of Canada. [continue reading]

Mau Mau veterans urge election boycott unless Britain pays back trillions in colonial reparations

Adam Withnall

Victims of atrocities during British colonial rule in Kenya have called for a boycott of next year’s general election until billions of pounds of reparations are paid by the UK. Veterans who fought against white settlers and the British Army during the fight for Kenya’s independence say they have never been compensated for the persecution they suffered.

In 2013, the British government agreed to pay out £20 million in reparations to a group of more than 5,000 survivors of the Mau Mau rebellion. The agreement saw the then-Foreign Secretary William Hague recognise on behalf of the UK, for the first time, “that Kenyans were subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration”. “The British government sincerely regrets that these abuses took place,” he said. [continue reading]

The CIA Is Celebrating Its Cartography Division’s 75th Anniversary by Sharing Declassified Maps

Danny Lewis

As much as James Bond is defined by his outlandish gadgets, one of the most important tools for real-life spies is actually much less flashy: maps. Whether used to gather information or plan an attack, good maps are an integral part of the tradecraft of espionage. Now, to celebrate 75 years of serious cartography, the Central Intelligence Agency has declassified and put decades of once-secret maps online.

These days, the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies rely more on digital mapping technologies and satellite images to make its maps, but for decades it relied on geographers and cartographers for planning and executing operations around the world. Because these maps could literally mean the difference between life and death for spies and soldiers alike, making them as accurate as possible was paramount, Greg Miller reports for National Geographic. [continue reading]

Why the Nazis studied American race laws for inspiration

James Q Whitman

5 June 1934, about a year and half after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of the Reich, the leading lawyers of Nazi Germany gathered at a meeting to plan what would become the Nuremberg Laws, the centrepiece anti-Jewish legislation of the Nazi race regime. The meeting was an important one, and a stenographer was present to take down a verbatim transcript, to be preserved by the ever-diligent Nazi bureaucracy as a record of a crucial moment in the creation of the new race regime.

That transcript reveals a startling fact: the meeting involved lengthy discussions of the law of the United States of America. At its very opening, the Minister of Justice presented a memorandum on US race law and, as the meeting progressed, the participants turned to the US example repeatedly. They debated whether they should bring Jim Crow segregation to the Third Reich. They engaged in detailed discussion of the statutes from the 30 US states that criminalised racially mixed marriages. They reviewed how the various US states determined who counted as a ‘Negro’ or a ‘Mongol’, and weighed whether they should adopt US techniques in their own approach to determining who counted as a Jew. Throughout the meeting the most ardent supporters of the US model were the most radical Nazis in the room. [continue reading]


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