Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and the Greek Myths: the prosaic truth behind real monsters and mythical monsters

Garrett Ryan, “Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and the Greek Myths” (Toldinstone, 21 August 2021)

Part of a collaboration with NORTH 02, a YouTube channel dedicated to palaeontology and human evolution, this video in the Toldinstone series explores possible inspirations for some of the monsters known in Greek mythology: fossils of dinosaurs and prehistoric beasts from the Cenozoic Era that came after the Cretaceous Age ended some 65 million years ago. In particular, historian and narrator Dr Ryan looks at the griffins – creatures with lions’ bodies but the heads, wings and tails of other animals – and a possible connection with fossils of Protoceratops dinosaurs from Central Asia. He also examines the possibility that the skulls of dwarf mammoths and elephants on some of the Mediterranean islands inspired the monsters known as Cyclopes. Dr Ryan then turns his attention to mammoth fossils and the likelihood that they inspired the giants who fought Zeus, his siblings and their allies in the titanic battles that were the Gigantomachy.

After mentioning these creatures and the possible links to dinosaurs, mammoths and their relatives, Dr Ryan cautions against assuming a causal relationship between dinosaurs and griffins, or between mammoths and the giants and Cyclopes. Dr Ryan points out that the griffins existed in Greek myth long before the Greeks became aware of the worlds beyond the territories of their Scythian neighbours in Central Asia and the area now known as Mongolia where the Protoceratops fossils were found. The possible connection between dwarf proboscidean skulls and Cyclopes might seem to be on firmer ground: the Greeks did not know of elephants or their relatives until late in their history as an independent people; and, on seeing the fossil skulls of prehistoric elephant relatives, would have been awestruck and obsessed with finding an explanation for the presence of a giant cavity between the eye sockets. Again though, until definite evidence can be uncovered, we should not be rash and assume that dwarf mammoth and elephant skulls were the direct inspiration for the Cyclopes. The Cyclopes existed in Greek mythology for a very long time and discoveries of dwarf mammoth and elephant skulls came some time after the myths of Cyclopes became widespread. In other words, it is a case of making evidence, real or not, fit the narrative, rather than following the evidence to see where it goes. In addition Greek mythology happens to teem with monsters stitched together with various human and animal body parts: the Minotaur, Cerberus and the Medusa are just some of the hideous creatures infesting the myths. Also in describing Greek technological and engineering achievements of some 2,500 years ago, we should not forget that the ancients did not have the scientific method and their worldview may not have been as rational or as enlightened as we assume it to be.

The video is lavishly illustrated with photographs and film stills that echo the myths Dr Ryan refers to. While viewers may be disappointed that dinosaurs and mammoths were not directly or indirectly responsible for the creatures of Greek myth, they can at least take comfort in the fact that the Greeks had vivid imaginations and endowed their myths, legends and stories with flawed heroes and the most monstrous demonic beings.

Why the Sparta you know never existed: a militaristic culture stereotype revealed as no different from landed gentry

Garrett Ryan, “Why the Sparta you know never existed” (Toldinstone, 8 April 2022)

Classical Sparta has long been perceived as not much more than a highly martial society that trained all its male citizens for little more than to fight wars and prepared all its women (that is, the daughters of Spartan citizens) for marriage to Spartan citizens and bear them sons for war. Undoubtedly the unique and highly regimented nature of Spartan society for its male citizens, and the rigorous education of boys for their future role as soldiers that such a society demanded, have contributed to the popular stereotype. However as historian Dr Ryan explains in this episode of his long-running Toldinstone series, Spartan society was actually more complex than it at first appears. In a short space of time (just under 13 minutes), Dr Ryan quickly describes the lives of Spartan male citizens, their womenfolk and the helots (slaves) who served them.

Spartan men and women are revealed to have lived the lifestyles of what we might call the landed gentry and aristocracy, with men engaged in soldiering, exercising in gymnasiums, hunting for pleasure and dining with their friends, and their womenfolk involved in running their households, directing their domestic slaves, raising young children – and often also running their own businesses. The lives of helots, who far outnumbered the Spartan citizenry, could be brutal and miserable – but they were necessary to carry out the functions of Spartan society so that Spartan citizens could effectively live lives of luxury. Dr Ryan then compares Spartan and Athenian societies and points out that most differences between the two city-states in their politics, their class structures and the lifestyles of their elites are really differences in degree.

It is true that all male Spartan citizens trained to be soldiers for the state – but what they had to do was perhaps equivalent to modern male citizens living in a society where conscription is compulsory and all men of draft age (18 years to early 60s) are regarded as part of their country’s national reserve, to be called to serve at short notice. When the country is at piece, then male citizens are more or less free to live their own lives, provided they maintain their weapons and participate in regular training programs as required. If Spartan boys were taken from their families to train in physical education in special state facilities to prepare for their future adult lives as soldiers, this was not much different from, say, the British practice of enrolling upper and middle class children in boarding schools for several years with the aim of instilling British values and belief in British uniqueness and superiority in the children and prepare them to govern and control the lower classes and British overseas colonies. If the lives of the helots (slaves) under Spartan rule were harsh and humiliating for them, parallels in Western societies can be found: Anglophone settler societies in North America, Australia and elsewhere employed slave labour, convict labour and indentured labour to do their dirty work while their ruling elites enjoyed lives of relative ease and pleasure; and similar might be said for settler societies founded by other European nations in areas they colonised in the Americas, Africa and Asia.

The revelation that Spartan society and culture are really not so very different from Athenian society and culture – or even from modern Western society and culture – is less surprising than at first it might seem. Perhaps what we really should be surprised at is how we have been persuaded over the decades to see Classical Athens and Sparta and their relations as a metaphor for Cold War relations between the West (western Europe, North America and their allies) and the East (Russia / USSR, China and their allies) and how the two ancient Greek city-states ended up being shoehorned into stereotypes with Athens supposedly being gold-standard democratic and Sparta being the antithesis of Athens.

Unfortunately Dr Ryan doesn’t go far enough into his video to explore why Sparta has had such bad press from its Athenian enemy and from modern Western nations anxious to portray themselves as a sort of New Athens … but then, such an exploration would require questioning how and why Classical studies has been politicised and used to justify Western political and cultural superiority towards non-Western nations, usually with the aim of dominating those other nations, repressing their peoples and cultures, and stealing their lands and resources.

How did Roman Aqueducts work? – an entertaining introduction to Roman engineering prowess and its support of Roman culture and values

Garrett Ryan, “How did Roman Aqueducts work?” (Toldinstone, 19 March 2022)

At last historian Dr Ryan tackles the topic every eager student of Roman civilisation wants to know: how did Roman aqueducts work, why did the Romans build aqueducts and how successful were the aqueduct systems? The aqueducts and their networks represent perhaps the peak of Roman engineering and the Roman flair for practical thinking and planning. Most of all, aqueducts fully represent how Roman values and lifestyles, centred around the city, were supported and maintained by Roman technological achievements.

Dr Ryan introduces his topic with a beautiful photograph of Rome’s famous Trevi fountain followed by other stunning visuals and a history of aqueduct evolution from Ancient Greek times through the Hellenistic era to the Romans who hit on the idea of using arched bridge technology to help bring spring water from hillsides and mountains to their cities. Dr Ryan stresses that aqueducts were not built to supply drinking water; instead they were built to supply water for public baths (sponsored by elites) and for private use by wealthy families. Building an aqueduct was actually a difficult and arduous process: the downward gradient of an aqueduct had to be gradual and gentle, and for this Roman engineers relied on specialised instruments to measure relative distance and height between two distant points and achieve ideal water levels. Aqueducts usually ran underground for much of their length, following the contours of the land. Arched bridges help to maintain the gentle downward gradients of aqueducts when they emerged from underground, and rows of arched bridges (such as the famous and spectacular Pont du Gard in France) might be built for such maintenance. In some valleys, Roman engineers might build inverted siphons if arched bridges could not be built.

When aqueducts reached the cities they were intended for, the water they carried – and they could carry up to billions of litres a day – ended up in primary distribution tanks and then secondary distribution tanks branching off from the primary ones. From the secondary distribution tanks, water would be piped to public baths, public fountains, factories and private luxury homes. Those who could afford having water piped into their homes applied to the Roman Emperor for permission to have a calix (a metal, usually bronze, connector; bronze was used as it was hard for thieves to tamper with) installed into a local secondary distribution tank; a pipe would be run from the calix to the customers’ homes. Water bills were paid based on the size of the calix. When customers died or sold their homes, the calix would be removed and the buyers would have to apply anew for a calix. Those who had water pumped into their properties often used the water extravagantly in the form of fountains, private baths and gardens.

Aqueduct maintenance was constant and often difficult; not all cities that had aqueducts cleaned them regularly and aqueducts often ended up clogged with mineral deposits carried by water.

Dr Ryan concludes his mini-lecture by noting outstanding examples of aqueduct systems that served cities long after the Roman civilisation fell in the 5th century CE. One such example is the aqueduct of Constantinople which carried water into underground cisterns in the city and which was maintained well into Ottoman times: the Ottomans themselves used the aqueduct to supply water to their imperial palaces and maintained, repaired and even extended the system.

As is usual with Dr Ryan’s mini-lectures on Classical civilisation in his Toldinstone series, this instalment is informative and entertaining, and illustrated with spectacular photos of aqueduct systems, diagrams and maps. The talk might have been longer and more complete if Dr Ryan had added something about how waste water was used to flush public toilets and to clean streets, and then disposed of in underground sewers and ultimately into rivers.

Surprisingly Dr Ryan touches very briefly on the topic of whether the lead used in aqueducts and the pipes attached to them might have caused lead poisoning that is presumed to have contributed to Ancient Rome’s decline. While the talk does not say whether the lead pipes did or did not, two things from the talk stand out: water was constantly moving from gravitational pressure through the aqueducts so it would not have picked up much lead; and (ironically) aqueducts not regularly cleaned would have been coated with mineral deposits like calcium carbonate from the water which would have prevented direct contact between the water and the inside lead pipe surfaces.

This mini-talk serves as an introduction to a fascinating aspect of Roman life, culture and technology, and how the technology serves culture and reflects it and its values. Viewers will be astonished that the aqueducts were not built to benefit ordinary working city people – the hoi polloi had to get their drinking water from public fountains, and use public baths and toilets – but instead to benefit the wealthy. The realisation that Rome was not a society structured around caring for people but instead around exploiting people hits hard indeed.

The horrors behind the beauty of a memorial site in “Europe’s Unknown Death Camp – Jasenovac – Croatia – WWII”

Graham Phillips, “Europe’s Unknown Death Camp – Jasenovac – Croatia – WWII” (22 April 2021)

I had not known of the infamous World War II concentration / death camp in Jasenovac, established by the Independent State of Croatia in 1941 in Occupied Yugoslavia, in which tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people were brutally murdered by the Ustaše regime. One of the largest camp complexes in Europe – the third largest according to Wikipedia – the Jasenovac camp complex became notorious for its barbaric methods of murdering people: prison guards were often hired from local farming communities and they killed their victims – Serbs, Roma, Jews, anti-fascist dissenters – as if they were animals, with blunt objects such as hammers, knives and axes. The camp was run from 1941 to 1945, when the Ustaše tried to wipe out evidence of the camp by digging up and burning corpses, killing all remaining prisoners, and torching the camp buildings so that only ruins, smoke, ash and burnt bodies were found by Yugoslav forces when they came to liberate the camp. Jasenovac and other similar camps in Croatia represent the only major concentration camp network operated by a regime to imprison and kill Jews and other ethno-religious groups and dissenters independently of Nazi German control, though the Ustaše were also allies of the Germans at the time.

In this short video, British journalist Graham Phillips visits the Jasenovac memorial site on the banks of the Sava River near the Bosnia-Herzegovina border. The camera (probably a drone) pans out over the now-peaceful and bucolic rural scene, interrupted only by a monumental statue in the shape of a flower commemorating the dead. Archived films from the 1940s and sub-titles convey the stark truth about the horrific crimes committed at Jasenovac; even now, 80 years after the camp was established, controversy over the actual numbers killed with Croatian sources attempting to minimise the numbers of victims continues.

The video is well made with a very judicious selection of background music that encourages silence and respect for the dead. The usually gregarious Phillips keeps his narration to an absolute minimum save for explanations about the nature of the statue at the memorial site. Viewers will be most struck by the difference between the peace and beauty of the site and the surrounding landscape with its calm and gentle river, and the thought of the horrors suffered by the Jasenovac camp victims.

Were the Romans Close to an Industrial Revolution? (Part 2): a lesson and a warning to post-industrial societies

Garrett Ryan, “Were the Romans Close to an Industrial Revolution? (Part 2)” (Toldinstone, 5 March 2022)

You guessed it … after the first video in which he presents evidence of the Romans being a pre-industrial society, narrator Dr Garrett Ryan brings forward in Part 2 the cultural, political and economic barriers that ultimately prevented the Romans from developing an industrial society. And these barriers are considerable: the lack of financial institutions that would fund research and development; the disdain of political elites for technological innovation; poor communications throughout the Roman empire; an education system – or rather, lack of one – that would encourage the spread of scientific and engineering knowledge; the lack of a large market for mass produced goods like textiles; and the oversized domination of a landholding aristocracy and its values, favouring investment in property and luxury goods over production, in Roman society and politics that had the effect of discouraging the formation and growth of an entrepreneurial class and its associated values and beliefs. All these barriers, singly and together, worked to prevent the rise of a culture that would favour industrialisation and the social, political and economic transformation that it would have brought to Ancient Rome.

The depth that Dr Ryan achieves in presenting the reasons for Roman failure to industrialise, in such a short film, is impressive though the speed with which he packs in the information is nothing short of breathtaking (ahem!) and viewers would be well advised to listen to the video again (if not watch it) again for as many times as they wish for everything he says to soak in. I often say with Dr Ryan’s Toldinstone videos that they could be slower, with perhaps more pauses between statements of fact, and this observation applies more to this video than to others in the Toldinstone series because the arguments the professor makes come thick and fast. Comparisons with the social, political and economic context of late 18th century / early 19th century Britain are apt though comparisons with other cultures that were also in a pre-industrial state (such as China at various stages of its history, or Japan during the Tokugawa shogunate) could also have been made.

The real lesson to be learned from Part 2 is not so much why Ancient Rome failed to industrialise but why Britain succeeded in industrialising, and knowing the context in which this success took place. By emphasising that Ancient Rome lacked the financial structures that made financing mass production on a large scale possible; that Ancient Rome did not have an education system that reached out to all its people regardless of their class or wealth and which might have given them the general scientific and engineering knowledge and skills to carry out research and make new discoveries and inventions; and moreover, that Ancient Rome and its politics were dominated by landowning elites who poured their money into property acquisition and conspicuous luxury consumption, the video makes its case in a backhanded way that a context in which various social, political and economic ideologies and belief systems, that favour particular trends in science, engineering and technology, come together at the right time in the right place must exist for breakthroughs to occur. Often such ideologies and belief systems put the common folk and their needs, individual and collective, before the needs and desires of a small privileged class.

In an age where the English-speaking world is now obsessed with class and hierarchy and the values of its political elites have become much the same as those of the Roman elites (property acquisition and speculation, conspicuous luxury consumption, privatising education and knowledge rather than spreading knowledge and skills to everyone regardless of class) to the extent that money is going into non-productive avenues instead of productive ones, this video should serve as a warning to us all.

Were the Romans Close to an Industrial Revolution? (Part 1): evidence that Ancient Rome was a pre-industrial society

Garrett Ryan, “Were the Romans Close to an Industrial Revolution? (Part 1)” (Toldinstone, 26 February 2022)

This video and its second part could have been combined into one exploring and explaining why the Roman Empire never experienced an Industrial Revolution on the scale that took off in Britain in the late 1700s / early 1800s and spread to continental Europe. On the other hand, such a video, longer and self-contained, would have had to cut out the entertaining story about the Roman noble who invented a steam-powered engine that generated vibrations in a building he shared with an annoying neighbour that introduces this first part which looks at the potential the Roman Empire had for large-scale industrialisation and manufacturing. Dr Ryan firstly dispels modern myths and stereotypes about Roman society that argue that Roman culture and technology discouraged the use of labour-saving devices. In particular, Dr Ryan points out that the Romans were keen on opportunities for making profit – and the technology that enabled such opportunities – as exemplified by the dense trade networks within the empire and between it and other cultures, and that the institution of slavery was a costly investment for large landowners who would have looked favourably on technologies that either gained more output from the slaves they had or dispensed with slave labour entirely if the outputs generated with the technologies justified getting rid of slaves.

After dispensing with the myths, Dr Ryan makes a strong argument for Roman imperial society being on the verge of an Industrial Revolution: mass production in pottery and Roman garum (fish sauce) along with standardisation and the energy and labour systems and facilities needed to support such production was present; mining across the empire was organised on a massive scale; power sources based on water were used; and individual Roman scientists and engineers experimented with using steam to power turbines.

As always with his videos, Dr Ryan argues for the Romans being more innovative and technologically minded than we give them credit for, clearly and succinctly with examples and anecdotes backed by colourful photographs and other visual illustrations. This first part could have been a bit longer and its pacing a bit slower for viewers to savour more fully. There is a sense of a steady escalation towards a climax that will appear in Part 2 and a slower escalation would heighten audience anticipation of that climax.

The presentation is quite sober and not as droll as other videos in the Toldinstone series though the topic of whether Rome could have had an Industrial Revolution has attracted enough attention (and perhaps enough ridicule of Roman society as being too stagnant to have had such a breakthrough) that perhaps more entertaining stories would have made the video appear more facetious than serious.

How Warm was the Roman Climate? – a brief survey of evidence for the Roman Warm Period

Garrett Ryan, “How Warm was the Roman Climate?” (Toldinstone, 23 February 2022)

In this instalment in his Toldinstone series on Youtube, Dr Garrett Ryan surveys evidence from dendrochronology (the study of tree rings) and other physical proxy phenomena that the Roman Empire experienced a long period of warm climate from the second century BCE to the second century CE known as the Roman Warm Period. The first part of this mini-documentary deals with the physical evidence that the late Roman Republic / early Roman Empire experienced warm summer temperatures in the Alpine region of about two degrees Celsius higher than they are today. Other physical evidence from places as far apart as Britain, Spain, Italy and southwest Turkey also suggest average annual temperatures of about two degrees Celsius higher than their current late 20th-century equivalents.

The second part of the mini-documentary emphasises that the Roman Warm Period was specific to the Mediterranean World and Europe, and that other parts of the world did not experience similar phenomena. The Roman Warm Period is thus not comparable with current global warming. The documentary concludes by looking at what impact the Roman Warm Period and its end might have had on Roman history and deducing that this climatic phenomenon and its aftermath had much less impact than might be assumed; while it is true that the Roman Warm Period could have allowed Hannibal to take his elephants over the Alps, and changing climate in Central Asia could have caused a long drought that forced nomadic Hunnic tribes there to travel across western Asia into Europe during the fifth century CE, the period’s warmth was neither uniform nor consistent across the empire’s territory and the empire’s final downfall was due to internal economic and social causes.

Illustrated with photographs and maps, the video is very informative though perhaps not quite as entertaining as others in the series – the topic doesn’t quite lend itself to a colourful roaming travelogue showing art, the ruins of formerly imposing and magnificent buildings or literature – and Dr Ryan’s narration seems more terse and less humorous. There is still much food for thought though, as to how the Roman Warm Period might have influenced the physical settings in which the dramas and events that made the Roman Empire what it was then and what it is to us today played out.

The Chinese defeated the US Army in 1950: how the US lost the Korean War in the long term through arrogance and ignorance

Carlton Meyer, “The Chinese defeated the US Army in 1950” (Tales of the American Empire, 18 February 2022)

Compared to his other short history documentary videos on his channel, this latest installment in Carlton Meyer’s “Tales of the American Empire” Youtube series might not look quite as colourful, based almost entirely as it is on old 1950s black-and-white newsreel film archives. Yet the narrative here is relevant to contemporary audiences 70 years later with the world edging closer to a global war between the United States and its allies on the one hand and Russia, China and their allies on the other. Everyone concerned about such a potential war would do well to watch this video about how, during the Korean War in late 1950, the Chinese fought American military forces in the Battle of Unsan and then later in the Battle of Chosin Reservoir (at Lake Changjin) in North Korea.

While the Chinese suffered much heavier casualties than the Americans did in both battles, in the long term the battles had the effect of shattering US confidence in capturing North Korea and US hopes of reuniting the Korean peninsula under Western domination. In the end, the Chinese and North Koreans pushed the Americans and South Koreans back to the 38th parallel near the present-day border between North and South Korea. Narrator Meyer puts much of the blame for American blunders during US conduct of the war in North Korea in 1950 onto General Douglas Macarthur who failed to study Chinese fighting tactics in North Korea, relied more on military technology and less on strategy, and pursued the Chinese into traps they had set for the Americans.

Meyer may take a rather eccentric view of the outcome of the Battles of Unsan and Chosin Reservoir in suggesting that the Chinese really won these battles despite their heavy losses and being unable to make good on the gains they made during the fighting due to overstretched supply lines on their side. His argument that American losses were as much due to arrogant assumptions that the US could easily push the Chinese back to the Chinese-North Korean border (and even beyond) and that the fighting would be over by Christmas, as to the enemy’s determination and resilience, is worth noting. In the current age, with Americans assuming that Russia will conduct a hot war with Ukraine using outdated World War II strategies and military hardware, and both China and Russia having reformed their armed forces and supplied them with new technologies that are leaving the US behind in the way of military technological innovation, the US really cannot afford to rely on old stereotypes about other nations’ capabilities in waging war, and to conduct military policy based on those stereotypes.

The video is much stronger on the details of the battles the Chinese and the Americans fought, though less so on the outcomes of the battles and the consequences those outcomes had for the US and the Korean peninsula in the decades that followed. Still, Meyer is to be commended for introducing current audiences to aspects of a war the US government would prefer people not to know – because Americans would discover that their nation’s armed forces are much less powerful than the propaganda spread by the Pentagon and Hollywood suggests, and that their political and military leaders really are much more stupid and incompetent than they suspect.

Celebrating the achievements of Roman-era civil engineering in “Were Roman Roads more Durable than Modern Highways?”

Garrett Ryan, “Were Roman Roads more Durable than Modern Highways?” (Toldinstone, 5 February 2022)

Here’s another entertaining and informative episode in the ongoing history documentary series Toldinstone, this one compares Roman-era road networks and infrastructure with their modern equivalent in the West. Vividly illustrated with photographs, maps and sketches, narrator Dr Garrett Ryan describes the extent of the Roman imperial road network through Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, showing how the roads traversed a variety of often difficult and even extreme physical environments and climates: semi-desert conditions in North Africa, humid and damp environments in northern Europe (especially Britain) and Alpine regions. He quickly goes over how the roads were built and what materials were used in different parts of the Empire – there were many regional variations – and how they were often built by Roman troops. Milestones often indicating the name of the reigning Emperor at the time as well as distances to or from the nearest towns would mark the boundaries of the roads. The most frequent users of the road networks were the Roman Army itself – indeed, roads were constructed in such a way (mostly straight and wide) as to allow foot soldiers to move swiftly – and messengers carrying post with farmers, traders and shepherds with flocks also using the roads.

Like their modern counterparts, Roman roads had traffic police and toll booths, and Roman engineers performed great feats of civil engineering in building bridges and mountain tunnels, many of which survived well into the 20th century. The Puente Romano in Mérida, Spain, was still being used for road traffic as late as 1991; even now, it is in use for foot traffic. The most significant part of the video though comes in the comparison of Roman and modern roads: just as with modern roads, Roman roads needed frequent repairs due to wear and tear from traffic and weather and other physical extremes. In some ways, the comparison is not fair as modern road networks are built to withstand far heavier loads and more frequent and faster traffic than Roman roads had to endure, and often in much more extreme physical and climatic conditions. The video mentions that the amount of traffic crossing North American highways in a day might be equivalent to the amount Roman roads experienced in a calendar year! At the same time, modern roads have to be cost-effective in terms of the materials, technologies and processes used, and (even with regular maintenance) most are built to last only a few decades before they have to be replaced completely. In that sense, Roman-era roads are indeed more durable than modern roads but one has to remember they were built by a society with very different values and these values are reflected in the roads themselves: their construction, their materials, even the fact that they join in a network, reflect Roman imperial power and the importance of the Roman Army in maintaining that power and ensuring peace and stability wherever the Roman Empire dominated. As Dr Ryan notes, this of course does not detract from the achievements of Roman-era civil engineering, many if not most of which were the innovations and breakthroughs of their time.

The mini-documentary is well structured and narrated to answer a particular query put to Toldinstone about one aspect of Roman civil engineering and technology that is one of the Roman Empire’s most enduring legacies to Western civilisation.

Panama Ransacked in 1989: a brief snapshot of a seedy relationship between the CIA and Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega

Carlton Meyer, “Panama Ransacked in 1989” (Tales of the American Empire, 4 February 2022)

A very informative video, this instalment in Carlton Meyer’s Tales of the American Empire series investigates the secret history of CIA involvement in Central America and the roles played by George H W Bush as CIA Director and then later as US Vice President (1981 – 1988) and US President (1989 – 1992), and by Manuel Noriega as head of Panamanian intelligence, cocaine trafficker and Military Leader of Panama (1983 – 1989) who was on the CIA payroll on and off from the early 1970s on. Bush and Noriega worked to keep Central America under US and CIA control using cocaine smuggling operations to fund CIA activities aimed at undermining governments in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Central America. However in the 1980s a rift developed between Noriega and the US government under President Reagan when Noriega refused to modify a 1977 treaty requiring US military bases in Panama to close by the year 2000. From then on, Noriega began to work independently of the US government and the CIA in smuggling cocaine from Colombia into the US, and to resist overthrowing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

The US government began looking for ways to get rid of Noriega, especially after Bush himself embarked on his Presidential campaign in 1988 and became potentially vulnerable to blackmail from Noriega over his role in the CIA’s drug smuggling operations from Colombia to the US. After Bush won the Presidency in November 1988, the plan to overthrow Noriega as Panamanian leader – and also to plunder Panama to erase all evidence of Bush’s involvement in cocaine trafficking – began in earnest. This culminated in the US invasion of Panama in December 1989 which included a massive bombing campaign of Panama City that resulted in much destruction, mostly in poor neighbourhoods, and (depending on the source) killed as many as 3,000 Panamanian civilians and made 20,000 homeless. Noriega gave himself up and was replaced by another set of crooks.

The close and complicated association that Noriega had with the CIA, Bush and the US government through the 1980s is hinted at in the documentary. Viewers wanting more information about Noriega and how he blew hot and cold in his partnership with the CIA can refer to the links provided by narrator Carlton Meyer beneath the video. Archived photographs, film of the US invasion of Panama, maps, interviews and a speech by US linguist / political activist Noam Chomsky summarising Noriega’s role and place in Panamanian politics and history flesh out Meyer’s narration.

Once again Meyer does excellent work in exposing the seedy underbelly of US imperial politics in Latin America and the criminal nature of the US government and its intelligence agencies. The grubby links between US global politics and international drug trafficking networks are clearly exposed in this particular example of cocaine trafficking in the 1980s, and the role it played in enabling the continuing dominance of US power in Latin America.