Episode 23 – The Fall of Constantinople versus the Cold War

Today’s Event Bracket battle pits two vastly different incidents. One, the Fall of Constantinople, was the culmination of a series of events and the general deterioration of the successor to the Roman Empire. The other, the Cold War, started suddenly, then ended with a whimper. Let’s see who moves on to the second round.

The Fall of Constantinople officially occurred on May 29, 1453, after a 53-day siege by the Muslim Ottoman armies. But the end didn’t come because of the siege or a lost battle or two, it was part of the gradual and long decline in one of the greatest empires in world history. The conquest of the fortress-like city was a watershed moment, shaking the foundations of all of Christian Europe but it was something that was, inevitable.

Let’s start with the siege and the subsequent capture of the capital of the Byzantine Empire.

The Ottoman Empire’s troop were led by a 21-year-old, Sultan Mehmed II. The Byzantine’s Emperor was Constantine XI Palaeologus who ascended to the throne in 1439, being the regent for his brother John VIII for the two previous years. The two led vastly different worlds, one, the Ottoman Empire was on the ascent, reaching its apex in the 1550’s under Suleiman the Magnificent, someone we will see in episode 37 against Marcus Aurelius. Constantine was a capable leader but he during his reign, we have seen an empire that was at its nadir. They saw their peak 1,000 years earlier, during the reign of Justinian I, in 527-565.

The Sultan Mehmed led about 90,000 men to the siege of Constantinople including numerous masons to help build another fort to help cover the army’s transport of men through the straight of Bosporus. Included in the army’s arsenal were 700 cannons including one called the Basilica. It was 27 feet long and used 600-pound projectiles that could do severe damage to the walls of Constantinople. While it could only fire seven times a day, its effect was devastating. They needed this as three walls were surrounding the city and they had held back 23 sieges before this one.

In Constantinople, they only had about 10,000 men to defend the city as most people already bailed out knowing the end was near. There were about 2,000 foreign mercenaries to help out, but clearly, that was not going to be enough. When Mehmed arrived on April 6, 1453, they had to have looked over the walls in abject fear. This town that once held a million people was now down to 50,000.

By April 18th, Mehmed II believed that 12 days of cannon fire should be enough to breach the walls and take the city. He sent in men to try to break through the opening, but they were repulsed. Two days later four relief vessels from Genoa made it into the Golden Horn next to the city with supplies. Mehmed knew that he had to control that region but couldn’t get past the massive chain that crossed the narrow waterway. So, in an incredible engineering feat, he had thirty boats hauled overland to take control of the Golden Horn.

In the ensuing weeks, two significant gaps in the outer wall allowed more troops of the Ottoman army to attack, but they were repulsed yet again. The Turkish engineers tried to dig under the walls and place land mines underneath, but that failed miserably as well. Then they decided to scale the walls. That was even more disastrous for the invaders, so much so, there was talk of giving up. Mehmed II knew that if he did that, it would likely cause him his life.

On May 29, 1453, another breach in the walls near the Lycus River was opened, and the Turks sent in their Bashi-Bazouks into the gap. They were repulsed, so another wave of men was sent in, they also failed, but the defenders of the city were beginning to tire, so a third wave, this time of Janissaries went in. They started to make headway when another group of Turks opened an undefended gate which allowed a mass of men to enter the city.

Constantine XI led the remaining men, and many of the citizens of Constantinople at the Ottoman army and they were all slaughtered. For the next few days, the city was sacked and looted with Mehmed making sure that he would take control of the most important and wealthiest buildings. The Hagia Sophia was quickly converted from one of Christendom’s most magnificent churches into a Muslim Mosque. Those citizens who were not murdered were sold into slavery. It is estimated that the number enslaved topped 30,000.

The aftermath of the taking of Constantinople was enormous. All throughout Europe, concerns of an invasion of their continent by the armies of Islam would be unstoppable. If the walls of Constantinople could be breached, what hope did the rest of Europe have? As we shall see in episode 52, with the battle of Vienna facing Zama, the onslaught would be halted, but that would take more than 130 years of fighting.

Now for our Putting it Into Perspective segment.

In the 1450’s, Machu Picchu was being built, Pope Nicholas V issues the Dum Diversas bull which legitimized colonial slave trade, Johannes Gutenberg produces the first Bible printed using his moving type-press, and the War of the Roses begins in England.

Next up is an event that many of you have lived through, the Cold War. Beginning in 1947, just two years after the end of World War II, an event occurred that would last for 44 years and would bring the world to the brink of destruction.

The Soviet Union and the United States of America were allies during the later stages of the war, but it was an uneasy alliance. The two were diametrically opposed to each other both economically and politically. The Soviets were under an authoritarian, Marxist-Leninist regime, while the Americans were a federal republic with a capitalistic economic system.

With the USSR taking eastern Europe as a supposed buffer to prevent another invasion, the US responded with what is known as the Truman Doctrine. The Truman Doctrine was introduced to the world at a joint session of the US Congress on March 12, 1947. The following is an excerpt from Harry Truman’s speech.

“At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one.

One way of life is based upon the will of the majority and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression.

The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.

I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.

I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way.

I believe that our help should be primarily through economic and financial aid which is essential to economic stability and orderly political processes.”

This is where the Cold War began as the Soviets, and in particular, Joseph Stalin believed that they were being threatened. Turkey and Greece were in their region, near their borders and US aid, both financially and militarily so close to them was not acceptable. Greece was in the midst of a civil war with the US supporting the anti-communist faction.

With Stalin tightening his grip on Eastern Europe, the United States with its allies decided to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. In 1947, the British and French signed the Treaty of Dunkirk whereby they would protect each other in case of attack from Germany or the Soviet Union. Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands quickly joined the following year. Talks to expand the treaty led to the formation of NATO in 1949 with the addition of the US, Canada, Italy, Portugal, Norway, Iceland, and Denmark.

In response, Stalin created his own alliance known as the Warsaw Pact. Starting in 1946 the following countries joined in order of their acceptance: Albania, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the German Democratic Republic. Let’s be clear though, this was not a voluntary decision to join forces with the Soviet’s, it was expected.

The sharp ideological divide between the west and the Soviet-Bloc nations would keep fueling the tensions through the number of regime changes in the US and USSR. General Eisenhower‘s leadership during World War II helped elevate him to the Presidency in 1953 because of the American people’s belief that he was level-headed and could lead them through the troubling times.

Eisenhower carried on the idea of the war of ideas that men like John Foster Dulles and George F. Keenan espoused. Keenan especially believed that this Cold War would not be fought militarily but through propaganda and words. The Soviet Union controlled the media in the East, so the West started things like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The war of words was on.

The communist win in the Chinese Civil War alarmed the west so when Kim Il-sung’s North Korean People’s Army invaded South Korea in 1950. Stalin was surprised that the UN supported the defense of South Korea. The fighting would last for three years, 1 month, and 2 days.

Tensions began to mount with the Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles’ plan to increase the US’s nuclear arsenal with plans for “massive retaliation” if the Soviet’s decided to attack another sovereign country. The USSR was now going through a reign change with the ascension of Nikita Khrushchev after the death of Stalin.

Khrushchev would taunt the west with his plans to unify the German city of Berlin through force if necessary. He believed that “Berlin is the testicles of the West. Every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.” His offer was flatly rejected. This would eventually lead to the Berlin Crisis of 1961 culminating with the construction of the Berlin Wall beginning that same year.

Another earth-shattering occurrence during the early years of the Cold War was the Cuban Revolution. The United States had a communist country only 90 miles off its shores, something that they couldn’t stand for. This led to the ill-fated Bay of Pigs Invasion in April 1961 which was beaten back. This was a humiliating defeat for the new US President, John F. Kennedy.

It was under the Kennedy – Khrushchev administrations that the world came close to a nuclear end, with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Khrushchev thought that putting nuclear missiles in Cuba was a smart move despite getting told otherwise by advisors. October and November of 1962 brought the US and USSR to the brink of war, but thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. It is one of my first memories of fear in my family as I was in Kindergarten that year and remember seeing my parents and older brother transfixed by the TV during the news segments.

Khrushchev for his part in the crisis would lose his position of leadership in the Soviet Union in 1964, replaced by Leonid Brezhnev, Nikolai Podgorny, and Andrei Gromyko. This trio, which would later be Brezhnev’s only later on, would continue the war of words except, they were painfully aware that the US had a vastly superior nuclear force than they did. They would extend the Cold War, but mainly through proxies.

Asia, Africa, and Latin America was the battleground now. Money and weapons from the US and her allies would pour into countries on those continents, letting them fight it out. The exception, of course, was in Vietnam. North Vietnam was backed by both the Chinese and Soviet communist regimes with the US and her allies supporting the South. The Chinese gave additional aid as they did in Korea, with hundreds of thousands of troops. The US did the same for the South, eventually causing the death of 58,000 Americans, over 2.5 million Vietnamese lives and unknown Chinese deaths.

Lyndon Johnson was now the US president after the Kennedy assassination. His hard line was led by a somewhat secret policy known as the Mann Doctrine. What it called for was turning a blind eye to dictatorships, regardless of their human rights records, as long as they were pro-west. But, if they were leaning towards communism, the US would intervene.

An example of that intervention was the election of the Socialist Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970. The CIA aided a military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet in 1973 to rid themselves of Allende. The ensuing massacres of leftists stained the country for decades.

By now Richard Nixon was the US President and he, along with his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger began to try to improve relations with Communist China and their leader, Mao Tse Tung. The reason it was successful in part was the growing Sino-Soviet split which almost led to war between the two communist countries in 1969.

In February 1972, Nixon went to China and began talks. Seeing this, Brezhnev and the Soviets decided they needed to get into talks with the US as well. This opened the era known as détente. Coming out of these discussions was treaties to reduce the nuclear arsenal of their two countries. One was SALT I, the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Things were slowly ratcheting down.

One of the primary motivators for these peace-like treaties was economic. Both the US and the Soviet Union were pouring vast amounts of money into their militaries at the expense of their people. We were not to learn until years later that the USSR was actually going broke because of it.

Nixon was out, and new US President Jimmy Carter was in. This period, which would last until 1985, would be known as the Second Cold War. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1978 to prop up their communist regime with the US supporting the Mujahideen, this is where Osama bin Laden got his training and weapons, a man we will hear more about in episode 96, the last episode in round one, when he faces off against Attila the Hun.

The US and some of its allies boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow and withdrawing the approval by the Senate of the SALT II agreement. Things were deteriorating. They were to get worse with the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency that year.

Reagan was a staunch anti-communist from his days in Hollywood. He along with the new British Prime Minister and fellow conservative Margaret Thatcher would build a strong stance known as the Reagan Doctrine. They would support covert activities and resistance movements throughout the world for anyone espousing an anti-communist position. That and the President significantly increased military funding.

The Soviet leadership was aging with few young people to take on advanced government roles. When Brezhnev died in 1982, he was replaced by Yuri Andropov who died in 1984 followed by Konstantin Chernenko who passed away a year later. Reagan has been quoted as saying, “How am I supposed to get anyplace with the Russians if they keep dying on me.”

The next man to take the reigns of the Soviet Union was no old man, Mikhail Gorbachev was named the new head of the Communist Party when he was 54, a spring chicken compared to the last three leaders. He would lead the USSR through his policies of perestroika, restructuring, and glasnost, openness. These policies and others would lead to the gradual collapse of the Soviet Union which was in existence since 1922, ending 69 years later in 1991.

The end of the Cold War came with a whimper. The Eastern Bloc nations dumped communism, with many actually joining NATO. China, while still a communist country, is open to the West. Still, in 2018, tensions between Russia and the US have begun to reach levels seen during the Cold War. Will we see a resumption of the hostilities we saw back then? Hard to say but I certainly hope not because if it does get bad, we may not be able to prevent it turning from a war of words and ideologies to an actual nuclear war.

Now on to the scoring.

First off, we have the 15 points allotted for the number of people involved in the event. Slam dunk for the Cold War as billions of people were affected compared to about 100,000 with the fall of Constantinople. 15 point to 1, Cold War takes it.

Second is the effect on the rest of the world at the time it occurred for 20 points. Both had an enormous impact on the surrounding world with a slight edge going to the 20th-century conflict. 20 points to the Cold War, with Constantinople’s fall getting 18.

Next up is the long-term effect. This one surprisingly has to swing in favor of Constantinople as it has had time to makes its effects known. The fall caused the city to become Istanbul, it solidified the standing of the Ottoman Empire on the world stage and rattled the rest of Europe for centuries. 25 points for the Byzantine capitals fall, with the Cold War getting 18 as its ramifications have not entirely shaken out.

Finally, we have the big 40-point giveaway which is based on the effect of the event on the country or countries involved. While the fall of Constantinople ended the 1,000 Roman Empire, it was already in a state of collapse. The fall to the Turks was only the end-point that was inevitable. The Cold War was greatly responsible for the fall of one of the two great powers in the world, the USSR. Tens of millions of lives were lost due to proxy wars, suppression of rebellion as well as financial hardships suffered by many on all sides. For this, I give 40 points to the Cold War and 25 to the fall of Constantinople. The Cold War will next face, the French Revolution in the second round.

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Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



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