Thursday, March 31, 2016

Guest Post from Chris Oakley

August 15, 1962--Defection Attempt Sparks Second Korean War

A disillusioned U.S. Army private’s attempt to cross the 38th parallel and defect to North Korea touched off a second war in the Korean Peninsula just over nine years after the signing of the armistice that ended the first one.

Private 1st Class Joseph Dresnok, a Virginia native whose marriage had failed during a previous stint in the Army, had made up his mind to abandon his post rather than face a court-martial for forging his commanding officer’s signature on a pass into the nearby town. As he was attempting to make his way over the DMZ to reach the nearest North Korean outpost, a U.S. sentry spotted him and called for him to come back to the South Korean side of the line. In response, Dresnok fired off a round from the twelve-gauge shotgun he carried with him. The sentry immediately returned fire, and even though neither Dresnok’s shotgun blast nor the sentry’s answering bullet hit anything, the noisy exchange of gunfire was enough to persuade a nearby Korean People’s Army border patrol that an American attack on the North was imminent.

Just minutes after the sentry fired on Dresnok, U.S. outposts all along the 38th parallel came under heavy North Korean artillery bombardment, which in turn provoked retaliatory U.S. and South Korean air strikes. By nightfall, U.S. and ROK infantry were engaging the NKPA at six key points along the Demilitarized Zone, and a somber President John F. Kennedy told the American people that the U.S. was once again at war with North Korea.

In contrast to the first Korean conflict, which had ground on for over three years before concluding in a stalemate, the Second Korean War ended after just ten weeks with a decisive U.S.-ROK victory. The Soviet Union and China, North Korea’s main foreign allies, were caught off guard by the rapid pace with which events unfolded and had no time to act before U.S. and South Korean troops routed the NKPA in a series of set-piece battles that culminated with the fall of Pyongyang to U.S. Marines on October 18, 1962. North Korean dictator Kim Il Sung was fatally wounded as he was attempting to escape the city; his son Kim Jong Il fled to China and would later be granted political asylum there by the Mao Zedong regime. Although scattered groups of Communist insurgents would continue to harass U.S. and South Korean forces until mid-January of 1963, the capture of Pyongyang effectively marked the end of North Korea as a separate country. Without military placements able to back their bravado, Chinese and Soviet Union diplomats judged the US harshly for imperialism but kept themselves out of the war rather than facing early defeats before the bulk of their forces could move. The formal re-establishment of a unified Korean nation was announced by President Park Chung-Hee on March 2, 1963; the anniversary of that proclamation would then become a Korean national holiday, Reunification Day.

Post-reunification Korea quickly established itself as one of the strongest military and economic powers in Asia. In foreign affairs, the Korean government took a largely pro-U.S. policy line, particularly after the Pueblo incident of 1968 in which a U.S. Navy communications ship was fired upon by a Chinese submarine while on the Korean side of the China-Korea maritime boundary line. During the Vietnam War, over 30,000 ROK troops fought on the U.S. side against the Viet Cong and NVA; the Koreans also provided air support and intelligence data to U.S. forces and gave political asylum to North Vietnamese defectors. The ROK armed forces’ most notable success in Vietnam came in the summer of 1974 with a raid on the port of Haiphong by Korean air force fighter jets which destroyed thousands of tons of supplies and equipment meant for the Viet Cong.

By 1978, fifteen years after Korea was officially reunified, the ROK had the highest standard of living of any country in Asia and the third-highest in the entire world. In the 1980s, Korean athletes would make their presence felt at the Olympics, most notably at the 1988 Summer Games when the Korean women’s gymnastics team upset Romania to win the group bronze medal and the men’s boxing squad won golds in the lightweight and welterweight divisions. In 1991, Korea became the third country in the world to send human beings into space, launching a two-man capsule from the Yongbyon rocket facility on a three-day orbital flight.

The former DMZ was re-purposed into a national park complex that included nature preserves, historical and cultural museums, and a memorial site commemorating the thousands of ROK soldiers who died over the course of the two Korean Wars. The old “truce village” of Panmunjom, evacuated after the end of the First Korean War, became a private retreat for the Korean president and a meeting place for Korean and foreign officials. In Pyongyang, the headquarters of the defunct Korean Workers’ Party was converted to an archive storing millions of documents and files related to the human rights abuses and war crimes committed by the fallen Kim Il Sung regime. While the United States would substantially reduce its military presence in Korea after the Vietnam War ended, a sizable garrison would remain on station along the Korean-Russian frontier until the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1988. In the 1991 Gulf War, Korea would serve as a critical transit stop for coalition troops being deployed to Kuwait and Iraq. As Korea entered the twenty-first century, its economy would enter a new era of rapid growth thanks to “green” technology and the resurgence of the country’s automotive industry.

PFC Dresnok never knew the consequences his actions had wrought; when North Korean soldiers finally sighted him, they shot him dead on the spot. His body was left to decay in the rough countryside between the northern and southern sides of the DMZ, and his fate would continue to be a mystery until 1965, when a group of hikers on a nature walk found his skeletal remains near the site of his execution. Larry Allen Abshier, a GI who had gone over to North Korea three months before Dresnok’s defection attempt, was hanged as a spy not long after Dresnok was shot. Charles Robert Jenkins, a sergeant who’d been contemplating defection to North Korea himself, changed his plans and decided instead to defect to the Soviet Union, where he would live until its collapse at the end of the Cold War.


In reality, the only shot fired during Joseph Dresnok’s defection was the shotgun round from Dresnok himself as he was walking across the Korean DMZ. He was briefly detained at an NKPA border outpost before being sent to Pyongyang; he would spend the next decade there being indoctrinated in Kim Il Sung’s juche ideology before being granted North Korean citizenship in 1972.

As of this writing, Dresnok is the only living American expatriate left in North Korea; Larry Allen Abshier died of a heart attack in 1983 while Jerry Wayne Parrish, a U.S. Army Specialist 4 who defected to the North shortly after Dresnok crossed over, succumbed to kidney problems in 1998. Charles Robert Jenkins left North Korea in 2007 and emigrated to Japan, where he subsequently turned himself in to U.S. authorities and served a 30-day jail term for desertion. The DMZ today constitutes the most heavily fortified border on Earth.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

2700 BC - Gilgamesh Protects the Flower of Youth

After the tragic death of his formal rival and friend Enkidu, king of Uruk Gilgamesh set forth on his quest to find the secret to eternal life so that he would never face his own dark end. He journeyed to the end of the world, traveled underground through a tunnel under Mount Mashu, crossed the oceanic Waters of Death, and at last met Utnapishtim, an immortal man who survived the Great Flood centuries before. Utnapishtim admited that his immortality was singularly bestowed from the gods, not something that can be replicated. Saddened, Gilgamesh prepared to leave.

He was granted a final token, however: the story of an undersea plant that granted eternal youth. Gilgamesh dove for the flowering plant called Ur-shanabi, the "Plant of Heartbeat," with rocks tied to his feet. Despite it being covered in thorns, he seized it and began the long journey back to Uruk. Along the way, he was tempted to bathe in a glistening pond to prepare for his reentry to the city, but a prickle of a thorn prompted him to be determined in keeping his precious plant safe. He even slayed a serpent wandering nearby out of caution.

Gilgamesh's experiment of giving some of the plant to an old man in the city turned him into an eager youth once more. Gilgamesh then used the plant himself, maintaining youth as he built a grand garden centered upon it. Word of the plant spread through the ancient world, causing many kings to seek it for themselves. Gilgamesh proved selfish with eternal youth, granting it only to those who proved themselves worthy and humble before him and the gods. Those sentenced to die routinely besieged the city, but Uruk's walls and Gilgamesh's semi-divine strength proved too strong. The Pharaohs of Egypt, unable to seize the flower, cursed it as sacrilege against the cycle of death.

Gilgamesh ruled for over 1,000 years, keeping at bay opponents even as powerful as the Assyrians, until the Hittites came with their iron chariots. He fled with the plant, although cuttings were delivered to the Hittite kings, who established their own rule over the Middle East. Although the plants established a ruling class of century-lived royals, climatic shift brought an era of drought to the region. The starving populace rebelled against their kings, many of them who had established themselves as gods on Earth now seen as powerless. The resulting dark age eventually brightened as Babylonians again established rule, only to be eclipsed by the Medes and Persians. They themselves were conquered by Alexander, leading the Greeks.

When Alexander fell ill in Babylon, a mysterious visitor arrived at court offering the curative properties of a thorny plant. He was physically young and enormously strong, but his eyes were wizened by uncounted centuries. Although the interpreter struggled to determine the man's accent, the man's royal stature prompted Alexander's guards to allow him to pass. The man introduced himself as "Gilgamesh" and said that a plant he offered would cure any illness and return Alexander to his youthful vigor. He had made his offer to Cyrus the Great, but Cyrus had refused, stating that eternal youth would only make him weak in his day-to-day affairs.

Alexander, however, leaped at the chance. Upon his recovery, Alexander placed Gilgamesh as ruler over conquered Babylon, just upriver from the ruins of Uruk. Alexander himself marched west, ultimately reminding the world that eternal youth was not immortality when his life ended upon a Roman blade.

Gilgamesh continued his rule. Rather than holding his plant selfishly, he sent envoys to rulers he deemed suitable bearing a flowered gift worth another lifespan. His kingdom remained strong, although it faced increasing strife from the west and south as monotheists stated that God demanded death from men. Waves of crusades and holy wars marched against Gilgamesh, but he was aptly supported by his allies in the east, including the Great Khan, who would rule the greatest empire on Earth for centuries.

Despite the European kings decrying the flower, it gradually became proven that many of them secretly bought their own clippings and replaced their own sons upon tasting its gift of youth. Sciences of botany and chemistry progressed as scientists attempted to unravel the secrets of enzymes within the plant. When at last a synthetic Formula of Life was created, the growing middle class of bankers and merchants proved a fertile ground for sales. The widespread interest was met with large-scale production in the Industrial Revolution, and soon Earth faced a new problem of rampant overpopulation of ever-young, healthy citizens clamoring for resources.

Gilgamesh himself continued to rule over a carefully cultivated Mesopotamia, the one center of progress and peace on the world, surrounded by enormous walls to keep out anyone deemed unworthy.


In reality, according to the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest recorded literary work, Gilgamesh lost the plant to the serpent as he bathed. He returned empty-handed to Uruk, where he took great solace in seeing his works, such as the great walls of Uruk he erected to defend the city.

Friday, January 22, 2016

January 19, 1809 - Birth of Famed Military Man Edgar Allan Poe

The lifelong military career of General Edgar Allan Poe began during his troubled youth, trying to find a place in the world. Poe, who had been born as the second son of actor David Poe and actress Eliza Hopkins Poe, did not know his parents. His father abandoned the family in 1810, and his mother died of tuberculosis in 1811. His siblings were scattered; Poe was sent to live with a foster family, the Allans. They moved from Richmond, Virginia, to London, and young Poe was juggled between boarding schools, never in one place long.

Returning to America in 1820, Poe continued his education, spending a year at the University of Virginia before dropping out. He had quickly burned through his allowance, and requests for more money were turned down as Poe’s debts seemed to increase just as the flow of money did. His relationship with his foster father became very strained, prompting Poe to set off on his own, working a variety of small jobs before enlisting in the Army in 1827 under a pseudonym and lying about his age.

The Army proved to give Poe enough stability to publish his first book, Tamerlane and Other Poems. His writing is likely to have been inspired by his older brother Henry, who had traveled the world with another family and written in the Romantic style of Lord Byron. The two mailed poems to one another, and Edgar’s “The Happiest Day, The Happiest Hour” was mistaken for Henry’s upon publication. Although Poe’s book showed his talent, it was met with little recognition. Few of the 50 copies printed sold.

While his writing career struggled, Poe did well in the Army. He was promoted within months of enlistment into the artillery, which doubled his pay. In two years, he was Sergeant Major for Artillery, but Poe had reached the highest rank he could as a noncommissioned officer. With his future in the military frozen, he consulted his commanding officer. Declaring that he had come to the Army under a false name due to his struggles with his foster father, he requested an early discharge so that he could attend West Point and become an officer.

Lieutenant Howard considered using the situation as an opportunity to force Poe to restore his relationship with his foster father, but ultimately Howard decided that the affairs of home would only trouble his bright young soldier. Howard approved Poe’s request and said famously, “The Army is your family, son.” These words would follow Poe for the rest of his life.

En route to West Point, Poe visited his biological family in Baltimore. He stayed with his aunt, young cousin Virginia, and brother Henry, who worked in a law office and was as famous for his drinking as he was for his romance. Henry had given up publishing his work, although he encouraged Edgar while falling ill with tuberculosis. There were rumors of Poe’s foster mother dying and his foster father remarrying, but Poe distanced himself from the troubles and instead focused on his career.

Poe began his studies at West Point in 1831, graduating four years later alongside many classmates who immediately resigned to be engineers and lawyers rather than go fight in the Second Seminole War. Poe stayed on, cheered on in his writing by his fellow soldiers. Publishing was largely a business of piracy with printers stealing the works of authors across the Atlantic so that they did not have to pay royalties, yet Poe found a ready audience for his tales of mystery, macabre, and adventure among the military. He found a good deal of time to write while he waited for deliveries working in ordinance. He was routinely punished for dereliction of duty due to heavy drinking and later sent to “dry out” on the frontier.

Out in the lonely forts of the West, Poe found himself with even more time to write and, in 1838, published the complete The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, telling the tale of a stowaway having adventures at sea. The novel had been published in installments, and the military mail wagon was packed with letters from readers eager for more. As he included special codes with hints toward the answers to his cliffhangers, the mail only increased. Inspired, Poe began writing ongoing adventures of Pym, producing an average of one per year through the next two decades in addition to his collections of short stories and poems. Poe’s work was interrupted by the Mexican-American War, although the experiences gave him fuel for a wealth of new stories and a collection of non-fiction stories about his fellow soldiers.

By the time of the Civil War, Poe had been promoted to Colonel. He continued working in supply, although his expertise in cryptology soon gave him a new position in code-breaking. Poe’s finest hour is claimed to be at Chancellorsville, when he cracked the Confederate code stating that they themselves had cracked the Union code. While General Hooker prepared to call back his forces to a defended position in the trees, duplicating Lee’s tactic that had devastated the Union at Fredericksburg, other officers suggested they maintain their forward position on the hilltops. Poe wrote an intelligence report that painted the image of victory so eloquently that Hooker’s mind was changed. When Stonewall Jackson attempted his infamous flanking maneuver, he found himself too far behind the Union lines and surrounded. Jackson was killed, and his famous brigade was captured, leaving Lee to a humbled retreat to Virginia, where he would surrender in late 1864.

Poe stayed with the Army following the war, overseeing military publications as he continued the Stars and Stripes newspaper founded by Illinois soldiers in Missouri. He died in 1869, leaving behind several chests of notes and unfinished stories, along with an entire manuscript written in a code that has never been solved.


In reality, Poe became reacquainted with his foster father, which later led to a series of arguments about Allan’s care for his illegitimate children. Poe decided to leave West Point and was drummed out for neglect of duty. Henry Poe died just months later, possibly while Poe was visiting him. Poe’s cousin-and-wife Virginia Clemm, whom Edgar married when he was 26 and she 13, also died young of tuberculosis. Poe himself died under mysterious circumstances, but not before writing immortal literature such as “The Raven” and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which founded the detective genre.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

What if John the Baptist Survived?

This article is an expansion from David Atwell and the editor at Today in Alternate History. It may be found here.

Just as the soldiers of Heroditas approached the cell of John the Baptist in the prison beneath the Machaerus fortified palace, a terrible earthquake struck. John escaped, swimming across the nearby Dead Sea, leaving the princess Salome shrieking with rage as her father could not fulfill his promise of John’s head on a silver plate.

It was another turn in the literally epic life of John. Born to an elderly mother by miracle, John was heralded by the angel Gabriel, just as his relative Jesus of Nazareth would be the next year. As he grew, John spent two years of penitence eating locusts and wild honey while dressing in camel hair in the wilderness before becoming an itinerant preacher. He fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah (and others) as a new Elijah, a messenger to prepare the way for the messiah. The arrival was confirmed when John baptized Jesus, and a dove and a voice came from Heaven.

Although Jesus told John, “You bring me great joy,” and their preaching included the criticism of religious leaders, the two’s disciples bickered. John focused on baptizing and purifying the nation of Israel, while Jesus sent his own disciples to baptize and reached out to Samaritans and Gentiles. John initially had a much larger following, so large, in fact, that Herod had him arrested. Languishing in prison for two years, John’s faith is shaken, and he sends a disciple with a message to Jesus, “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.” Yet, Jesus told the crowd, “Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist; yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

After the earthquake, John was protected in Judea by faithful followers and any pursuit amid the throngs swarming Jerusalem for the Passover became impossible as Herod’s soldiers were unwelcome in Roman territory without Pilate’s agreement. John baptized quietly, notably attending Jesus’s triumphant entry the following Passover but famously absent from the Last Supper, although it is said he witnessed the Crucifixion.

The Baptist re-emerged on the scene after Jesus’s death, preaching his Johannine variant of the Word. Aside from the fundamental differences of interpretation, his surviving disciples (some of whom had become followers of Jesus and now returned to his own fold) received an unpleasant reminder of the greater patience of their late master. The Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus would record that in his second ministry John continued to practice his rituals corresponding strongly with baptism but on a vastly increased scale. This culminated with the mass baptism in the Sea of Galilee that would change the world forever.

Christendom would soon face a great schism over the question of Gentiles as former Pharisee Saul of Tarsus became the man to be known as Saint Paul and campaigned for universal missionary work. Initially, Simon-called-Peter served as a neutral leader between the factions, but John eventually broke away. While Paul’s ideals brought the Roman world into Christianity in the west, John turned eastward. Generations of his followers settled in in the marshes of lower Mesopotamia, forming up their own belief structure as Mandaeans with a focus on dualism: light and dark, clean and unclean, purity and sin.

Jerusalem was an infamous meeting ground for the two sects and religious riots often broke out over the question of sprinkling and submersion. Upon the arrival of Islam, there was sudden common ground, and an alliance of the Byzantines and the Mandaeans prevented conquest of the city by the Arab Caliphate in 638 AD. Since that day, Jerusalem has served as a tense neutral ground, often seized by one side who is soon then pushed out by a brief alliance of the others.

Author's Note from Today in Alternate History: in reality John began to doubt Jesus and he was not spared by God. His shrine was desecrated and many Churches, as recently as 2010, lay claim to parts of his remains. The descriptions of John vary in the Gospels and there are further differences in the Catholic Faith with some even believing that he never sinned at all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

June 16, 1906 – Sequoyah Enabling Act

In a surprising turn, the delegation from the Sequoyah Constitutional Convention to Washington was greeted by sudden support by President Theodore Roosevelt and won their chance to be named the 46th US state.

The land between Texas and what would become Kansas had been designated as “Indian Territory” since the days of removal under President Andrew Jackson. Following the Civil War, Reconstruction of the tribes who had made agreements with the rebelling Confederate States resulted in an eastward compression of land designated for Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Seminole, and Chickasaw. The western lands of “Oklahoma Territory” served as reservations for other tribes such as the Kiowa, Cheyenne-Arapaho, and Pawnee. The remaining Unassigned Lands were empty for years until opened up for general settlement in the Land Run of 1889. More land runs and lotteries quickly populated the west with burgeoning cities and farms where there had once been rolling prairie.

The Twin Territories soon turned to the idea of statehood, with Indian Territory hosting conventions in 1902, 1903, and 1905. They outlined a proposed state called “Sequoyah” after the famous Cherokee linguist. When the proposal came to Washington, however, politicians there were skeptical, especially since Oklahoma Territory was preparing its own convention to be held in the capital, Guthrie, the next year. Western states had proven to be something of a wildcard, such as the 22 electoral votes going to James Weaver of the short-lived Populist Party, potentially costing Benjamin Harrison the win over Grover Cleveland. The more formal Eastern political leaders determined unifying the two territories into one more predictable state would be the solution.

However, as men in the Republican Party’s back room attempted to predict how this state would actually act, they came upon curious numbers from the US Census Bureau. Indian Territory was overwhelmingly Democratic, including the delegation’s own representatives like Charles Haskell from the Creek and William Murray from the Chickasaw. Oklahoma Territory, which had been populated largely from the Midwest, was much more Republican. The territories had nearly identical populations near 400,000, but the overall Democratic population could form a majority in the state. They recommended separate states to maximize Republican seats in the House of Representatives, where the Republicans were losing ground.

The political gamble paid off. In 1908, after welcoming in Sequoyah and Oklahoma the year before, the Republicans maintained a majority in the Senate while stymieing losses in the House. The Oklahomans proved to continue their loyalty in 1912, granting a handful more electoral votes to Taft, although it was hardly enough to overcome Wilson’s majority. Throughout the years, the former Twin Territories could be counted upon for predictable votes.

Yet ultimately the “investment” proved a bad one for the GOP when, in 2000, Democrat former vice-president Al Gore was elected by a single vote despite Republican George W. Bush’s secure hold on Florida.


In reality, the Enabling Act mandated that the territories would be entered into the Union as a single state. Although widely Democratic for its first years, Oklahoma is now solidly a red state.

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