Oklahoma’s forgotten soldier diplomat

In 1944, Major General Patrick J. Hurley was given what proved to be an impossible task: reconciling the Nationalist Chinese of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists of Mao Zedung.

Hurley was one of the most influential Oklahomans of the first half of the twentieth century. Born to Irish immigrant parents in the Choctaw Nation, he became a prominent Tulsa attorney and businessman and an Army officer who served with distinction in World War I. In 1929, Hurley was named Secretary of War in the Hoover administration, thus becoming the first Oklahoman to hold a cabinet-level position.

Although a partisan Republican, during World War II Hurley became Franklin Roosevelt’s personal envoy to the Soviet Union and later the Far East. It was in this later capacity he arrived in China, initially to mediate the tense relationship between the autocratic Chiang and prickly U.S. General Joseph Stilwell.

Stilwell, however, had already reached the point of no return. Against Hurley’s advice, he confronted Chiang with an ultimatum that resulted in Stilwell’s replacement.

Although the Communists and Nationalists were nominal allies against the Japanese, their armies functioned more or less independently and sometimes at odds with each other. Hurley’s task was to set the foundation for a united China during the final stages of the war and going forward.

The U.S. position was a difficult one. Its alliance of necessity with the Soviet Union aside, the United States was not keen on promoting communism. Those familiar with the situation, though, generally found the Communists better organized and disciplined and less corrupt than the Nationalists. Stilwell’s staff, in fact, clandestinely equipped and assisted the Red Army, and  continued to do so even after Stilwell was recalled.

Throughout his time in China, and during two trips back to Washington, Hurley contended not only with the seemingly intractable differences between the Communists and the Nationalists, but intrigue within the U.S. State Department.

John Carter Vincent, the official in charge of Washington, fought long-term commitments to Chiang, preferring “flexibility which would permit cooperation with any leadership in China ….” State Department officials in China leaked confidential information to Mao, undermining Hurley’s attempts to negotiate a coalition government led by Chiang.

Vincent gained considerable influence following Roosevelt’s death, and in November 1945, Hurley called a press conference in Washington to announce his resignation. He told reporters that State Department personnel in China had collaborated with the Communists in an effort to oust Chiang and the Nationalists.

The furor thus created effectively ended, but he does not seem to have minded much. He moved to Santa Fe, N.M., where he became involved in uranium mining, and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate three times. He died in 1963 at the age of 80.

Hurley is now largely forgotten, but at least one important monument to him remains in Tulsa. In 1929, Hurley and a business partner built the first “apartment hotel” in the city at 1314 S. Main St. Restored in the 1990s, the Ambassador Hotel is today the city’s most exclusive boutique hotel.

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Another 10

Anyone on Facebook the past few weeks has come across the challenge to list 10  books that have influenced (and presumably been read by) the person in question. A certain amount of sniping has followed, mostly over the number of people who claim to have read Joyce.

No one asked for my list, but I mentally began compiling one anyway — and soon noticed some things even more surprising than how many people are simpatico with Dante. Hardly any of the lists I’ve seen include the Bible, William Shakespeare or non-fiction in general.

Shakespeare wrote plays and sonnets — not, technically, books — but he and the Bible are undoubtedly the two most lasting influences on Western literature.  Non-fiction includes everything from Plato to Glenn Beck.

As I said, no one asked for my list. But here it is anyway, annotated.

1. The Bible. Really, there is no understanding Western civilization or Oklahoma politics without it.

2. The Tower Treasure, Hardy Boys #1, by Franklin W. Dixon. The Hardy Boys (and Nancy Drew) were how I discovered reading could be fun. Ghostwriters were paid $75-$100 per volume to crank out these books; needless to say, they received no royalties.

3. Harlow’s Oklahoma History, by Victor Harlow. My introduction to Oklahoma history. Pretty dry, in retrospect. Goble and Scales’ Oklahoma Politics, among others, is an easier read, but Harlow’s sparked an interest that has never flagged.

4. Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball,” said historian Jacques Barzun. I would add Huck Finn.

5. The Mysterious Affair at Styles, by Agatha Christie. My first grown-up book.

6. The Illiterate Digest, by Will Rogers. Still my hero.

7. To Absent Friends, Red Smith. The last and maybe greatest of the old-time sports writers. When asked if writing a daily column was difficult, he said, no, you “simply sit down at the typewriter, open your veins, and bleed.”

8. And Still the Waters Run, by Angie Debo. The part that Rodgers and Hammerstein left out.

9. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. “Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting v under the more flexible v of his mouth.”

10. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck. The Grapes of Wrath is bigger and more important, but I happen to like this one better.

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Oklahoma’s Ewe Lamb Rebellion

William Henry Davis “Alfalfa Bill” Murray generally wins the prize for Oklahoma’s most colorful and eccentric public figure. Born in Toadsuck, Texas, he became an intermarried citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, was president of the Oklahoma constitutional convention and first speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives. He served in Congress, started an ill-fated agricultural cooperative in Bolivia and hitchhiked his way to victory in the 1930 gubernatorial election.

Gruff, profane, ill-kempt, Murray denounced the Ku Klux Klan, called African Americans “coons” and sent the National Guard to keep Texas from opening a toll bridge across the Red River. He tromped around the governor’s office in his stockinged feet, had the executive mansion’s lawn planted to potatoes and made a delusional run for the presidency in 1932.

So yeah, he was pretty far out there.

But for sheer unadulterated weirdness, Henry S. Johnston runs a close second. A Biblical scholar, he also dabbled in Rosicrucianism, an esoteric and obscure philosophy allegedly based on “ancient truths” passed from Middle Eastern mystics to a medieval German named Christian Rosenkreutz. Johnston attended seances with his wife, consulted astrologers and numerologists, claimed to have been reincarnated at least twice, and counted his secretary’s canaries among his closest advisers.

In the end, it wasn’t the canaries that proved his undoing. It was the secretary.

These were hazardous times for Oklahoma governors. The previous elected chief executive, Jack Walton, last just 10 months before the Legislature removed him from office. Impeachment proceedings were initiated against two more of the state’s early governors, and a third had been indicted on federal fraud charges.

Johnston was elected governor in 1926. A dapper, scholarly man, he had been the first president pro tempore of the Oklahoma Senate, and for a short while it appeared  his term as governor would be a successful one. At his urging, the Legislature increased appropriations for common education and authorized the construction of a crippled children’s hospital.

But lawmakers used to speaking to the chief executive whenever they liked were at first annoyed and then outraged by Johnston’s appointment of an executive secretary, Mayme Hammond, who blocked the door to the governor’s office. More than that, they believed, she exercised undue and possibly even mystical influence over Johnston, and at times acted as the de facto governor. At the end of the 1927 legislative session they demanded Hammonds be fired.

Johnston, in his typically meandering manner, refused.

“If you came to me with a thousand sheep,” he said, “and I had only one ewe lamb and you wanted me to destroy that, do you think I would be so base as to destroy it? I repeat, gentlemen, it would be yellow, it would be unjust to Mrs. Hammonds to sacrifice her and her character on false charges.”

Thus began what became known as the Ewe Lamb Rebellion.

Hammonds’ opponents labeled her a “She-svengali” and initiated a special session for the purpose of driving her and Johnston from office. Hammonds probably didn’t help herself any by explaining her ability to keep track of goings-on all over the state through astral projection. It also didn’t help that her relatives, including her husband Dr. O.O. Hammonds, began showing up  and the state payroll.

The initial attempt to oust Johnston failed, but the continued presence of Hammonds and Johnston’s support of the Al Smith, the Democrats’ Catholic, anti-Prohibition candidate for president in 1928, eventually led to his undoing. In 1929, Johnston was convicted on a single count of incompetence and removed from office.

Thus, Oklahoma became and remains the only state to impeach and remove from office two consecutive elected governors.

Lieutenant Governor William J. Holloway, a level-head former state Senator, replaced Holloway and was able to put through several significant reforms during his short time in office. More importantly, he instilled a sense of order to state government despite the turmoil of the onset of the Great Depression.

But the Oklahoma constitution barred Holloway from seeking election to a full term in his own right, thus opening the way for Alfalfa Bill Murray — an eccentric, to be sure, but an eccentric no one dared impeach.

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Ferguson and the Boston Massacre

Upheavals like the one in Ferguson, Mo., do not happen all of the sudden. They are not about a white police officer shooting a black teenager. They are about everything that happened before that moment. They are about every real and perceived slight and grievance accumulated over months and years.

The riot we call the Boston Massacre was the culmination of  years of hard feelings between colonists and British soldiers. The colonists resisted import duties by boycotting British goods. This, naturally, encouraged smuggling, which the colonial secretary countered by sending a war ship and soldiers. The captain felt perfectly justified impressing Bostonians into service. Bostonians disagreed. The British soldiers, restless on shore and short of money, hired on for casual labor, which took jobs away from colonists; at the end of the day, often as not, they all wound up in the same taverns, drinking rum and trading insults.

In February 1770, an 11-year-old boy was killed when a customs official fired off a shotgun in an attempt to disperse a mob surrounding his house.

In March, a British sentry struck a boy for insulting an officer. A crowd gathered. Reinforcements were sent to rescue. Snowballs, insults and bits of debris were hurled at the soldiers, until one of them was knocked down by a rock. We all know where it went from there.

This is not to equate the goings on in Ferguson with the Boston Massacre. But the Boston Massacre didn’t just happen all at once, or because of one single event, and neither, I’d be willing to bet, did Ferguson.


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A farewell to Senator Coburn

A farewell to Senator Coburn.

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