This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History

Rainbow flags at the Flag Day ‘Raise the Rainbow’ march, June 14, 2017, New York City, honoring LGBT rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker, who died in March 2017. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

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

From Guantanamo’s darkest secret to the night the US bombed a Chinese embassy, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.


Guantanamo’s Darkest Secret

Ben Taub
New Yorker

In 2004, Steve Wood was deployed to Guantánamo Bay, as a member of the Oregon National Guard. He and his comrades were told that many of the detainees were responsible for 9/11 and, given the opportunity, would strike again. “I just remember being super excited, because I thought, I’m going to be doing something important,” Wood told me. For two weeks, he worked as a guard in the cellblocks, monitoring men who had been captured on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Then a sergeant major pulled him aside for a brief interview, and assigned him to work the night shift in Echo Special, a secret, single-occupancy unit that had been built to house the United States military’s highest-value detainee.

The International Committee of the Red Cross—which has access to many of the world’s most notorious detention sites, some of them in countries where there is no rule of law—had recently sent representatives to Guantánamo, but the base commander, citing “military necessity,” had refused to allow them into Echo Special. The man confined there was referred to by his detainee number, 760. When Wood tried to search for 760 in Guantánamo’s detainee database, he found nothing. [continue reading]

Between Radicalism and Repression: Walter Rodney’s Revolutionary Praxis

Charisse Burden-Stelly
Black Perspectives

On June 13, 1980, the Black Marxist, Pan-Africanist, historian, and scholar-activist Walter Rodney was assassinated in Georgetown, Guyana. That year, students and faculty at the University of Dar es Salaam, where he taught for eight years, demanded the university confer upon him a posthumous honorary degree. They insisted that his dedication to the cause of Third World liberation, his support for freedom struggles in Southern Africa against Portuguese colonialism and white supremacist regimes, his immense contribution to transforming the university into a progressive institution, his unparalleled intellectual work excavating the impact of enslavement, colonialism, and imperialist oppression on African people, and his struggle against the repressive and “tyrannical” Burnham regime, among many other contributions, made him ideally suited for such an honor.

One year later, an article titled, “Walter Rodney—Son of Mankind” published in the West Indian Digest described this freedom fighter in the following way: “From time to time an individual embodies and personifies the collective expression of a class, a race, or a people struggling to be free. Walter Rodney embodied this quest, but with the kind of humility and honesty which endeared him to all those who came in contact with his ideas.” As these two examples demonstrate, the global Black community was angered and disgusted by Rodney’s politically-motivated execution and understood it to be a form of imperialist aggression meant to stifle and undermine revolutionary insurgencies in Guyana and throughout the Third World more broadly. [continue reading]

China’s Latest Crackdown Target Is Liberal Economists

Matthew Campbell and Peter Martin
Bloomberg

Unirule is the brainchild of Mao Yushi, a respected 90-year-old economist who was among the first scholars to spread free-market ideas such as deregulation and privatization within China. Until recently, the think tank was one of the country’s more influential nongovernmental organizations, benefiting from the relative liberty granted to economics since the rule of Deng Xiaoping, who once declared that he didn’t care “if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.” So long as they stayed mostly clear of politics, scholars were free to discuss Western thinkers and how their ideas applied to China. The result was a vibrant intellectual community that interacted with government decision-makers, providing data-driven reality checks for officials with little experience outside the Communist Party.

That space has shrunk drastically under President Xi Jinping, who has forcefully reasserted the party’s power and the state’s economic role, and has attacked the civil society that emerged under his predecessors. A crackdown on dissent that began shortly after he took office in 2012 has seen Unirule, which has a small but consequential following among entrepreneurs and academics, hounded almost into oblivion. Its Chinese website and social media accounts have been shut down, its events broken up, and some of its staff barred from traveling abroad. [continue reading]

Congress Wants State Department to Reckon With the ‘Lavender Scare’

Robbie Gramer
Foreign Policy

It took two full years for Andrew Ference’s parents to discover the truth of their son’s suicide. In the summer of 1954, Ference, a State Department worker in the U.S. Embassy in Paris, was detained by State Department security officers who suspected him of being gay. Over the course of two days of interrogation, Ference admitted to having a relationship with his roommate, Robert Kennerly, then a courier with the embassy. Four days later, Kennerly came back to their apartment to find Ference’s body. He had killed himself after being forced to resign from his post.

The State Department security officers covered up the circumstances of Ference’s suicide, telling his parents that he killed himself because he was grieving over health problems. Even today his death remains a relatively unknown footnote in a dark chapter of State Department history known as the “Lavender Scare.” During the 1950s and ’60s, buoyed by the so-called Red Scare aimed at purging communists from the federal government, a group of senators and top State Department officials sought to force out all State employees on the basis of perceived sexual orientation. [continue reading]

The night the US bombed a Chinese embassy

Kevin Ponniah & Lazara Marinkovic
BBC News

It was close to midnight and Vlada, a Serbian engineer, was speeding towards his apartment in Belgrade. He had taken his 20-year-old son out that evening but bombs had started to fall across the Yugoslav capital. The power grid was down and he wanted to get home. Nato, the world’s most powerful military alliance, had been pummelling Yugoslavia from the skies since late March to try to bring a halt to atrocities committed by President Slobodan Milosevic’s forces against ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. It was now 7 May 1999 and the US-dominated air campaign was only growing more intense.

Vlada’s family had spent many nights in recent weeks huddled with others in the basement of their apartment building as air raid sirens blared outside, praying that an errant missile wouldn’t strike their homes. They were lucky, some thought, to live just next to the Chinese embassy – an important diplomatic mission. Being there would surely protect them. [continue reading]

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