Tom Wicker

Tom Wicker

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Thomas Grey Wicker was born in Hamlet, North Carolina, on 18th June, 1926. He served in the United States Navy during the Second World War and afterwards studied at the University of North Carolina, graduating in 1948. After leaving college he became a reporter on the Sandhill Citizen in Aberdeen. He eventually became the Washington correspondent of the The Winston-Salem Journal.

In 1957 he won a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard University and in 1959 became associate editor of The Nashville Tennessean. In 1960, James B. Reston hired him to work for the New York Times. Over the next few years he reported on politics.

On 22nd November, 1963, he was in Dallas with President John F. Kennedy when he was assassinated. According to Robert D. McFadden: "The searing images of that day - the rifleman’s shots cracking across Dealey Plaza, the wounded president lurching forward in the open limousine, the blur of speed to Parkland Memorial Hospital and the nation’s anguish as the doctors gave way to the priests and a new era - were dictated by Mr. Wicker from a phone booth in stark, detailed prose drawn from notes scribbled on a White House itinerary sheet. It filled two front-page columns and the entire second page, and vaulted the writer to journalistic prominence overnight."

Tom Wicker, who was in the press bus at the back of the procession, wrote in the New York Times the following day: "Most reporters in the press buses were too far back to see the shooting… It was noted that the President's car had picked up speed and raced away, but reporters were not aware that anything serious had occurred."

Despite the problems of finding out the truth of what had taken place, journalists were highly praised for their reporting of the assassination. Harrison Salisbury, who worked for the New York Times, claimed that "The coverage had begun with classic reportage - Tom Wicker's on-the-scene eyewitness. It could not be beat I told him to... just write every single thing you have seen and heard. Period. He did. No more magnificent piece of journalistic writing has been published in the Times. Through Tom's eye we lived through each minute of that fatal Friday, the terror, the pain, the horror, the mindless tragedy, elegant, blood-chilling prose." It would seem that the readers of Times could not get enough of Wicker and sales of the newspaper increased dramatically in the days following the assassination. On 26th November, 1963, the circulation of Times reached 1,089,000, nearly 400,000 more than its normal sales.

In August 1964, Wicker replaced James B. Reston as chief of the newspaper’s 48-member Washington bureau, and two years later he inherited the column of the retiring Arthur Krock. Wicker acclaimed the success of President Lyndon B. Johnson in the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but opposed his involvement in the Vietnam War.

He denounced President Richard M. Nixon for covertly bombing Cambodia, and in the Watergate Scandal accused him of creating the “beginnings of a police state.” As a result Nixon put Wicker on his “enemies list". Wicker also criticised Ronald Reagan over the Iran-Contra scandal and George H. W. Bush, for "letting the Persian Gulf war outweigh educational and health care needs at home".

Robert D. McFadden described Wicker as "a hefty man, 6 feet 2 inches tall, with a ruddy face, jowls, petulant lips and a lock of unruly hair that dangled boyishly on a high forehead. He toiled in tweeds in pinstriped Washington, but seemed more suited to a hammock and straw hat on a lazy summer day. The casual gait, the easygoing manner, the down-home drawl set a tone for audiences, but masked a fiery temperament, a ferocious work ethic, a tigerish competitiveness and a stubborn idealism, qualities that made him a perceptive observer of the American scene for more than a half century."

Tom Wicker remained a staunch supporter of the Warren Commission conclusions and this was reflected in his book on the assassination, Kennedy Without Tears: The Man Beneath the Myth (1964). When the House Select Committee on Assassinations reported that the "scientific acoustical evidence establishes a high probability that two gunmen fired at President John F. Kennedy" and added that "on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy", Wicker mounted a campaign against it. Wicker was chosen to write the preface for the Bantam edition of the HSCA's final report. In nearly ten pages Wicker gave the reasons for doubting the committee's findings and criticised it for "excessive sensationalism". Wicker was obviously influenced by his own reporting of the assassination. In the days following the assassination he constantly supported the lone-gunman theory.

Other books by Wicker, include JFK & LBJ: The Influence of Personality Upon Politics (1966), A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt (1975), Richard Nixon and the American Dream (1991), Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America (1996) and Shooting Star : The Brief Arc of Joe McCarthy (2006).

Wicker also objected to the movie, JFK, made by Oliver Stone. In the first few months after the movie was released, over 50 million people watched the movie. Robert Groden, who had worked as an advisor on the film, predicted that: “The movie will raise public consciousness. People who can’t take the time to read books will be able to see the movie, and in three hours they’ll be able to see what the issues are.” Wicker was well aware of the danger this film posed: “This movie… claims truth for itself. And among the many Americans likely to see it, particularly those who never accepted the Warren Commission’s theory of a single assassin, even more particularly those too young to remember November 22, 1963, JFK is all too likely to be taken as the final, unquestioned explanation.” This was confirmed by a NBC poll that indicated that 51% of the American public believed, as the movie had suggested, that the CIA was responsible for Kennedy’s death and that only 6% believed the Warren Commission’s lone gunman theory.

Thomas Grey Wicker died following a heart attack at his home in Rochester, Vermont, on 25th November, 2011.

The coverage had begun with classic reportage - Tom Wicker's on-the-scene eyewitness. No more magnificent piece of journalistic writing has been published in the Times . Through Tom's eye we lived through each minute of that fatal Friday, the terror, the pain, the horror, the mindless tragedy, elegant, blood-chilling prose.

Mr. Wicker covered Congress and the Kennedy White House, the 1960 political campaigns and presidential trips abroad. His output was prodigious - 700 articles in his first few years, many of them on the front page, others in the form of news analysis in The New York Times Magazine or the Week in Review....

On Nov. 22, 1963, Mr. Wicker, a brilliant but relatively unknown White House correspondent who had worked at four smaller papers, written several novels under a pen name and, at 37, had established himself as a workhorse of The Times’s Washington bureau, was riding in the presidential motorcade as it wound through downtown Dallas, the lone Times reporter on a routine political trip to Texas.

The searing images of that day - the rifleman’s shots cracking across Dealey Plaza, the wounded president lurching forward in the open limousine, the blur of speed to Parkland Memorial Hospital and the nation’s anguish as the doctors gave way to the priests and a new era - were dictated by Mr. It filled two front-page columns and the entire second page, and vaulted the writer to journalistic prominence overnight.

Nine months later, Mr. Wicker, the son of a small-town North Carolina railroad conductor, succeeded the legendary James B. Reston as chief of The Times’s 48-member Washington bureau, and two years later he inherited the column - although hardly the mantle - of the retiring Arthur Krock, the dean of Washington pundits, who had covered every president since Calvin Coolidge.

In contrast to the conservative pontificating of Mr. Krock and the genteel journalism of Mr. Reston, Mr. Wicker brought a hard-hitting Southern liberal/civil libertarian’s perspective to his column, “In the Nation,” which appeared on the editorial page and then on the Op-Ed Page two or three times a week from 1966 until his retirement in 1991. It was also syndicated to scores of newspapers.

Riding waves of change as the effects of the divisive war in Vietnam and America’s civil rights struggle swept the country, Mr. Wicker applauded President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress for passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but took the president to task for deepening the American involvement in Southeast Asia...

The Wicker judgments fell like a hard rain upon all the presidents: Gerald R. Ford, for continuing the war in Vietnam; Jimmy Carter, for “temporizing” in the face of soaring inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis; Ronald Reagan, for dozing through the Iran-contra scandal, and the elder George Bush, for letting the Persian Gulf war outweigh educational and health care needs at home. Mr. Wicker’s targets also included members of Congress, government secrecy, big business, corrupt labor leaders, racial bigots, prison conditions, television and the news media.

New York Times Company records. Tom Wicker papers, Manuscripts and Archives Division, The New York Public Library.

Repository Manuscripts and Archives Division Access to materials Advance notice required. Request access to this collection.

Journalist and author Tom Wicker (1926-2011) was a longtime editor and columnist for The New York Times . The Tom Wicker papers document Wicker's tenure at The Times as Washington Bureau chief (1964-1966) and as associate editor and political columnist (1966-1991). The collection consists of correspondence with both Times colleagues and readers concerning Wicker's columns and political viewpoints, internal memoranda about Times editorial decisions, letters regarding his involvement with outside institutions, and transcripts of interviews with and conducted by Wicker.

[Police Chief Jesse Curry and New York Times Reporter Tom Wicker at Parkland Hospital]

Original black and white photographic negative taken by a Dallas Times Herald staff photographer. This image shows Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry standing beside an unidentified police officer outside of Parkland Hospital on November 22, 1963. The top has been put on the presidential limousine, seen in the background. The man at the right edge of the photo is Tom Wicker, a New York Times reporter.

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Original black and white photographic negative taken by a Dallas Times Herald staff photographer. This image shows Dallas Police Chief Jesse Curry standing beside an unidentified police officer outside of Parkland Hospital on November 22, 1963. The top has been put on the presidential limousine, seen in the background. The man at the right edge of the photo is Tom Wicker, a New York Times reporter.

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1 photograph : negative, b&w 35 mm.


This image is the fourth photograph on negative strip 16 in the Dallas Times Herald collection.

The Dallas Times Herald newspaper employed a number of staff photographers who were assigned to cover President Kennedy's visit to Fort Worth and Dallas. Not all photographs have a confirmed photographer.

The images on this negative strip were taken by one of two Dallas Times Herald staff photographers at Parkland Hospital on November 22, 1963. There were two Dallas Times Herald photographers at Parkland who stayed for the press conference which appears in the last frames on this negative strip - Eamon Kennedy and John Mazziotta. One of them took these photos. Bob Jackson, who was at Parkland earlier, was not present at the press conference.

Whatever Happened to Integration?

IN the ideological warfare between liberals and conservatives, African-Americans exist as a kind of Rorschach test, an enigma to be solved in the context of their disturbing exceptionalism in a country obsessed with its own exceptionalism. Blacks have been in this country as long as its earliest European settlers. Why haven't they, well, for lack of a better phrase, quite measured up? Why do they lag behind whites and seemingly behind all the other immigrant groups to have come here? To white liberals like Tom Wicker and Benjamin DeMott, African-Americans are incorruptible victims, sanctified by their long history of suffering at the hands of whites, and stigmatized by the legacy of slavery and a virulent, unending white racism. As many conservatives see it, all the problems of blacks are essentially caused by an inability to fit in to the culture in which they live and an inability to stop seeing themselves as victims -- an attitude that white liberals encourage them to maintain.

In short, the liberal believes that whites are the problem, the conservative that blacks are the problem. Any thinking black person must sit between these contesting categorizations, which have existed since antebellum days, feeling something between bemusement and contempt. Although blacks at various times, under various circumstances, may prefer one explanation to the other (usually, though certainly not always, the liberal's to the conservative's), the truth about blacks is to be found not in the middle ground but, paradoxically, in both views simultaneously, and in neither of them. The race problem is not really understood if it is seen as a white problem or a black problem. It is an American conundrum.

Americans do not like protracted problems or problems that suggest a limit to their power. Part of this is bound up with the belief of both blacks and whites in American exceptionalism -- the idea of this country as a redeemer nation, a New Jerusalem. Americans also do not like to face the liberating possibilities of the profound historical tragedy within themselves hence white neo-conservatism on the one hand, Afrocentrism on the other -- ideologies of tragedy avoidance or sheer escapism.

Tom Wicker, a southerner and thus more believable as a sincere white liberal because he was reared amid the worst kind of racism, has in essence written a defense of the moral and political superiority of the welfare state, apparently the only kind of state in which blacks can thrive. (Conservatives assert that the welfare state has been the utter ruination of blacks.) His book argues that white America has reneged on its promise of integration and full justice and economic parity for black Americans in the 1960s and 1970s -- a promise implicit in the Brown school-desegregation decision of 1954 and explicit in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- as it reneged on full citizenship and political parity for black Americans during Reconstruction. What has happened, Wicker asserts, from the time of Richard Nixon through the time of Ronald Reagan, has been a steady retreat on the question of civil rights and black advancement, for reasons of expediency on the part of white politicians at best, or of wretched cowardice on the part of white civic leadership at worst. The country is as racist as it ever was, and the white population is still selfishly, even pathologically, venting its anger at and fashioning its scapegoats from the least among us -- African-Americans. Now, this thesis is hardly new. Andrew Hacker and Derrick Bell are among the latest to sell a great number of books having anguish and outrage about the black condition as a theme. Of course, no one is very happy with race relations in the United States, the sorry state of which was supposedly revealed, according to Wicker, by the public response to the O. J. Simpson verdict. In fact, Wicker's indictment has a measure of merit and truth in it. Nonetheless, there are a great number of problems with this book.

"If racial integration is to be revived as essential to a secure future for America, an effective new political party forthrightly working for economic justice will be necessary," Wicker writes in Tragic Failure: Racial Integration in America. "African-Americans," he says explicitly, "must build a new political party." (Who could be more expert on the issue of economic justice or a better advocate for it than the very group that has suffered the greatest economic injustice? is, I think, Wicker's reasoning.) Then we would have the usual populist assemblage of poor whites, other racial minorities (after all, Wicker reminds us, whites themselves will be a minority come 2050), and the like -- that is, people who are "likely to encounter some degree of economic and racial disadvantage."

Frankly, it is incomprehensible to me how black people could solve the problems of isolation and alienation they face in the political realm (Republicans and Democrats are chary about a black political agenda and even, to some degree, about the black vote itself) by forming their own political party, which would seem to do nothing more than institutionalize their isolation and alienation as a disaffected minority.

wishes to be an accusatory book (against whites), but it is in essence a lazy book. For instance, Wicker says that "the growth of the black middle class was largely lost to view [of whites] in the lurid new visibility of the underclass remaining in the ghetto." Yet how does one explain the impact of people like Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, and Michael Jordan, and of the barrage of images on television and in advertising of a seemingly happy and broad black middle class -- images that have encouraged whites to believe that some blacks have indeed made it?

Blacks strike the white imagination in largely contradictory ways: as huge success stories and as the underclass of criminals and welfare cheats. An analysis of this contradiction is needed, but the book does not provide one. Wicker states, "It's plain now that those inner-city blacks noticed mostly when they appear on the nightly television news as perpetrators or victims of crime will be with us for years to come." But since most nightly news shows, both local and national, have black reporters and even black news anchors, why won't their images stay with "us" just as long? And if inner-city blacks are seen largely as criminal, how much have they participated in their own degradation through the marketing and commercialization of their cultural expressions, hip-hop and rap? These exploit the image of the black male as outlaw and deviant to titillate the white suburban mind and to give black culture, for the black consumers of this product, some supposedly subversive, radical edge. Changing crime into political resistance, marginalization into a broad expression of humanity and liberation, has been a romantic preoccupation of the bourgeois intellectual since long before Foucault and the postmodern sensibility. In other words, blacks have historically been far too willing to accept distortions of themselves, because they see themselves culturally as whites see them: in intensely romantic terms.

In speaking of the connection between the black image and criminality Wicker does not mention that Danny Glover, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, Martin Lawrence, Wesley Snipes, Laurence Fishburne, Jim Brown, Sidney Poitier, Paul Winfield, Yaphet Kotto, and Will Smith have all played cops or government agents in movies or on television. What impact has this had on the image of the black as criminal? If it has had none, why?

The book suffers greatly from this lack of consideration of the difficult contradictions in American culture. There is no serious thinking here. In a footnote Wicker suggests that although Lincoln thought that blacks should be sent back to Africa, he never suggested that whites go back to Europe. But Lincoln would have thought that sending blacks back to Africa was humane, because they had been brought here against their will (unlike whites) and may very well have wanted to go back. (Of course they did not.) Also, Lincoln believed that as a recently freed people with no education and what appeared to him to be servile habits, they stood little chance of surviving in direct competition with whites.

There are a number of other questionable assertions in this book. Wicker makes much, for example, of the following double standard: black leaders are forced by the white media and the white establishment to repudiate the oddball, racist, and crackpot speakers among them (which is true), whereas white leaders are not required to do so. This does not seem quite true. One has only to consider the response to Al Campanis's notorious remarks about blacks' "lacking the necessities" to be baseball managers and executives the suspension of the Cincinnati Reds' owner, Marge Schott, for racist remarks or the overwhelming mainstream disapproval of The Bell Curve to know that blacks and their sympathizers can exercise power in this realm of repudiation as well. Once again, what is needed is an examination of how the complicated business of group repudiation of racist ideas works in our country.

In speaking about sellouts, Wicker writes, "An African-American clearly would have a difficult task succeeding materially in American society (save perhaps in sports or show biz) without joining, to some extent, in the values and attitudes of that society -- as a minor example, without dressing conventionally." Surely many whites, too, feel that they must "sell out," not be themselves, in order to get a job or pursue a career in the mainstream. That is what all the talk of conformity in the 1950s and surely the countercultural revolt of the 1960s was about. Selling out in order to make it is an issue that transcends race. Obviously it is even more difficult for blacks, in part because the opportunities to sell out are fewer and the demand for conformity is more charged. Dressing conventionally, Wicker suggests, is a white custom. Yet blacks have a long history of manners, etiquette, dressing well. What Ralph Ellison referred to as "elegance" is not foreign to black experience.

The overall problem with this book is that Wicker chose not to provide a deeply focused look at race relations and liberalism in this country. He did not interview dozens of people from various walks of life and in various locations to give their perspectives on integration and liberalism. He did not read -- or at least did not provide evidence that he had read -- all the books, conservative and liberal, about race and the pros and cons of integration that have come out in the past ten or fifteen years. If he had done this, Tragic Failure might have been an important book, instead of a sloppy, ill-considered one that says nothing new and does not condemn the failure of the national will to effect integration or defend liberalism nearly as well as the work of Jonathan Kozol and William Julius Wilson, for instance. This book largely turns on the fact that a white southerner wrote it and in a rather bellicose way calls other whites incorrigible racists -- which they may very well be, but that does not solve much of anything. And, of course, he charitably excuses black folk of all complicity after the fact, which is a form of rank patronization. Even the oppressed are not immune to stupidity, opportunism, greed, demagoguery, and a complex form of connivance in their own suffering.

BENJAMIN DeMott's The Trouble With Friendship: Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Race is more interesting, in part because DeMott's concerns are largely centered in the cultural realm, where most people find the real heat and light about race. It is also a more interestingly reasoned and argued book than Wicker's. DeMott's basic case is that through films, television, advertising, and other cultural products a "friendship orthodoxy" has arisen, in which the relationship between the races has become intensely personalized, the persistent dogma is that the races are essentially the same, and racism is regarded as the viewpoint of a psychotic fringe, a marginal expression that whites, once they are awakened, fight and defeat through their good will. Racism thus has no connection to power relations, to the purpose and coherence of American institutions, to the very sense of the nation as a political and social entity. In these dramatizations blacks bring no brutal history of oppression to the table and whites no sense of advantage from having had them to oppress. Everyone is more or less innocent, and after a few rough moments a kind of recognition of common humanity is achieved and we all go off together into that great, gettin' up, biracial morning. As far as it goes, this thesis about the representation of race relations and racial history in American popular culture is correct. But, alas, it does not go very far.

DeMott's marks are too easy. To condemn as fantasies most current Hollywood films with major black characters misses two points. First, Hollywood films are always about fantasy human relationships, whether they deal with man against the dark forces of society (film noir), marriage and sex (the romantic comedy, the screwball comedy, the domestic drama), or so-called social realism (the "problem" film, the protest film). Few American films have ever shown "power relations," "institutional influence on the formation of character," or other Marxist constructs. The fact is that race fits in with all these other relationships and gets dramatized in pretty much the same way. I am not sure that white America is trying to avoid anything more with race films than it is trying to avoid with films on any other subject. What is important is how race fits into this larger overall pattern but DeMott simply describes the pattern, very incompletely and without the kind of historical rigor that would have given his argument value. A consideration of the careers of Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier in the 1950s alongside the careers of Hattie McDaniel, Stepin Fetchit, Clarence Muse, Willie Best, and the cohort of black comic actors of the 1930s and 1940s would have made his point far more powerfully and vividly. Poitier thought what he was doing was a matter of dignity, although DeMott would complain that his films were early versions of the black-white friendship fantasy. But McDaniel thought that what she was about concerned dignity as well, which is why she said she'd rather play a maid than be one.

Second, DeMott picks films like White Men Can't Jump and Regarding Henry, which are easy to analyze in the way he chooses, as friendship fantasies -- but these are not expected to be anything more, politically, than, say, The Terminator or Casino. And, of course, why should they be anything more? What about a look at, for example, the blaxploitation movies of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which many blacks believe saved Hollywood financially and claimed, at times, some sort of social relevance? What about an examination of the black filmmaker in Hollywood and how he or she dealt with the "friendship orthodoxy"? Why are American films generally disposed not to deal with personal problems as having political and economic origins? Is it because of the ideology of individualism that so permeates the culture and that everyone -- black and white -- believes?

Another historical and cultural point DeMott misses is that, as David Riesman described in his classic work, The Lonely Crowd, post-industrial society, in particular America after the Second World War, is other-directed -- that is to say, concerned with personal relationships. The prevalence of the other-directed social character goes a long way toward explaining why the race problem is depicted as it is in our cultural products and why many blacks and whites are satisfied with that form of depiction. Why does DeMott not talk about any of this?

The racial friendship fantasy is not some recent Hollywood invention it dates back to Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), both premised on intense friendships between people of different races. The friendship fantasy is deeply entwined with our concept of slavery itself -- with one of the nation's worst political and social crimes. Herman Melville's "Benito Cereno" brilliantly explodes the idea of interracial friendship as a delusion. What lies behind the utopia of racial fusion is the horror of race war, Melville tells us. DeMott does not talk about any of this he does not show that he is especially learned in the details of race in this culture. Those who are interested in this subject should read Melville.

The Atlantic Monthly February 1997 Whatever Happend to Integration? Volume 279, No. 2 pages 102-108.

Chianti “Fiascos”: A Subset of Wicker Wrapped Bottles

Many readers will be familiar with a popular decorating trend from the 1960’s whereby chianti bottles served as candle holders. Flower children inserted specially made rainbow candles into the neck of bulbous green chianti bottles and allowed them to drip down over the bottles. You were very hip if you owned such a decoration.

What I didn’t know was that the “straw” wrapped bottles containing dry red wine from the hills of Tuscany were known as fiascos. The straw work crept only half-way up the bottle and was made of some sort of marsh leaf rather than a wicker-type material.

And here’s a funny story. Literally, just one hour after learning the meaning of fiasco, I came across the term in a mystery novel. The main character was served wine from a chianti fiasco!! Crazy right??

And in case you’re wondering, fiasco in Italian means complete failure as it does in English. Because of this connection, many wineries stopped wrapping their chianti bottles to avoid the negative connotation of the word.When I happened upon this oil painting at a garage sale not too long ago I had to buy it since it involved a Chianti fiasco(!). That and it cost just $1.00.

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There are multiple edits of the picture

As with Blade Runner, the variety of prints of The Wicker Man is mind boggling. Officially, there’s a short, medium, and long edit but there are various versions in between made up of various portions of footage that were cut from the master print.

The only way that EMI and British Lion thought that The Wicker Man could work was as a B picture, so they cut it down to a scant 87 minutes and released it in England. A 99 minute version of the film was sent to Roger Corman in America who suggested that the 87 minute version be released in America. The film was restored in 1979, but somehow the 99 minute version made it onto VHS in America in the 1980s.

A “final cut” of the film was released by Studiocanal on October 13, 2013. This final version of the film runs 91 minutes long, eight minutes shorter than the director's cut.

The Evil Empire

A quarter century ago, President Ronald Reagan delivered two masterful addresses within two weeks of one another: the so-called “Evil Empire” and “Star Wars” speeches. In them, Reagan laid out two great strategies for dismantling the Soviet Empire. He did it boldly without backing off, not permitting the economy, news media, polling numbers, or the permanent governing elite to intimidate him.

By calling the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” Reagan sent a clear signal that America was going to challenge the Soviet Union morally, win the psychological information war, and de-legitimize it. If the government was evil, he argued, how could it have authority? In the second speech, Reagan announced the space-based Strategic Defense Initiative, thus instigating a scientific and technological arms race that the Soviet Union could not win.

Reagan’s strategy worked indisputably, leading to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet we tend to forget that Reagan’s ideas—and overall approach—were so radical at the time that almost no one accepted them as the basis of sound policy. At the time, paths were clear to a somewhat more conservative Cold War à la Nixon and Ford or a more liberal Cold War à la Jimmy Carter, but the grand strategy to eliminate the Soviet Union needed Reagan’s vision.

Even today, few in the academic left and news media believe Reagan was right. The anniversary of these two speeches provides an opportunity to examine this critical period and ask, “What are the lessons for today we might learn from Ronald Reagan?”

Reagan’s ideas were so radical that almost no one—including his own staff—accepted them as the basis of sound policy

In Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union, Peter Schweizer argued that Reagan methodically pursued a coherent general strategic goal. Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick, who had served in Reagan’s cabinet and had an office next to mine at the American Enterprise Institute, confirmed Schweizer’s premise during one of our conversations.

The Ambassador admitted that neither Reagan nor anyone serving with him would have predicted the Soviet Union would disappear in 1991. However they believe it was much weaker than the elite thought, and that if America kept crowing it that something good would result. This was the underlying psychology of the team that Reagan assembled in 1981.

The United States was a mess in the early 1980s. Reagan had inherited an economy from Carter that was in collapse. The recession that Carter’s policies induced did not fully kick in until 1982, so it became Reagan’s problem. Pundits and some academics talked about a permanent recession. In his newsletter, Alan Greenspan conceded that the economic situation would not get much rosier. As a result, Reagan had fallen behind in the polls.

Internally there was much dissension. Most of his senior staff second-guessed him. The State Department consistently undermined his foreign policy. Even senior people in the White House, including his wife, thought he should retire.

During this difficult period, Reagan fell back on Reagan, much like Lincoln fell back on Lincoln during the Civil War. Great willful presidents have enormous capacities to outmaneuver the bureaucracy. But they have to pay attention.

Officials from the National Security Council and State Department routinely receive advance copies of foreign policy speeches for their input. Reagan knew they would try to prevent him from describing the Soviet Union with the clarity and forcefulness he knew was necessary to establish moral dominance. So he chose a different venue.

An opportunity arose on March 8 for an address to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando, Florida. Few remember now that the Evil Empire speech was primarily a comprehensive discussion of domestic policy. Only at the end does Reagan being to talk about foreign policy in the context of its moral meaning.

“So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals,” said Reagan, “I urge you to beware the temptation of pride—the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”

In one short but unequivocal statement he asserted that the core of totalitarianism was evil by definition. No other statement of moral purpose would be more important in bringing about the end of the Soviet Empire.

The Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars speech, which Reagan gave to the nation from the Oval Office on March 23, 1983, also generated little enthusiasm—and even hostility—from his advisors. Every major element of his administration, except his National Security advisor, Judge William P. Clark, and the head of the Science Counsel, Jay Keyworth, who had drafted the speech at Reagan’s direction, opposed it. Secretary of State George Shultz vigorously objected.

Speaking with clarity and conviction, Reagan fundamentally dismantled the entire strategic framework of “mutually assured destruction,” the arms negotiation mindset that had defined American policy for the past two decades. That he could do this in one speech demonstrates his decisiveness and the power of the presidency.

The scale of Reagan’s courage emerged clearly in light of the responses to these two speeches. The pushback from the mainstream media was particularly strong, not unsurprising because the American news media was deeply committed to the secular left. In the tradition of H.L. Mencken, the media reacted viscerally, instinctively, and savagely to any reference that suggested religious, moral, or other kind of judgment. Anthony Lewis wrote in The New York Times that “Reagan used sectarian religiosity to sell a political program. The Evil Empire speech was primitive, a mirror-image of crude Soviet rhetoric. What is the world to think when the greatest of powers is led by a man who applies to the most difficult human problem of a simplistic theology?” The core notion of Lewis’s criticism was of moral equivalence. How could America judge the Soviets?

Reagan achieved an extraordinary strategic victory: an entire empire disappeared and millions of people were liberated

Tom Wicker, also at The New York Times, wrote, “The Evil Empire speech was smug and a near proclamation of Holy War.” Wicker nearly got it right: it was clearly a proclamation of intellectual, moral, and political warfare. And the Reagan administration waged that war against the Soviets with the Pope, the British Prime Minister, labor unions, and the Catholic Church in Poland as our allies.

The administration squeezed the Soviet Union on many fronts simultaneously: reducing the price of oil, passing laws that slowed or prohibited the sale of advanced technology, and accelerating the pace of science and technology.

Reagan’s grand strategy worked. He did it without a traditional war. Poland converted without firing a shot, followed by Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and then the Soviet Union. This achievement ranks as one of the most extraordinary strategic victories in recorded history: An entire empire disappeared and hundreds of millions of people were liberated.

Yet, many of the people who disagreed with Reagan in the 1980s have still not learned anything. Their view of the world today, their understanding of foreign policy, is as factually wrong and likely to get us in trouble as it was then. Why don’t we hold them accountable when they clearly are out of touch with reality? Is the side which was right about the elimination of the Soviet Empire potentially right about the current conflict across the planet with the irreconcilable wing of Islam? Or is the group who was fundamentally wrong about the Cold War and fundamentally wrong about the Soviet Union, now suddenly correct?

The greatest presidents educate America—and are willing to stand up for what is right

The greatest of our presidential leaders consistently educate the nation and move it toward a keener understanding of its moral purpose. And they do it sometimes with speeches that are astonishingly dense with detail. I saw Reagan give fact-and-number-laden speeches 20 times during his eight years as president. He would just pile on the facts. No political consultant in America would have thought these speeches effective. But Reagan intuitively knew that neither the news media nor the academic community was giving the American people the facts.

In the few months after he gave one of these speeches, the American people would read and think about them. There were debates—and the country gradually would become educated and think differently. Too often Reagan’s speechmaking has been described as glib when Reagan’s genius actually was the ability to offer a logical argument based on facts and driven by moral purpose. He challenged people to fundamentally reassess their beliefs and succeeded. It took enormous moral courage as well as extraordinary skill.

Compare Reagan’s communications ability with those of Lincoln’s, who was arguably the most brilliant presidential communicator. Reagan used fewer Shakespearian and biblical references he was less of a poet. But both used facts and logic effectively. Both strove to establish moral superiority.

Over the past half century, the academic left has taught us that thinking in terms of right and wrong is fundamentally inappropriate because it is judgmental. Reagan, Lincoln, and other great leaders understand instinctively that the opposite is true: there is no choice except to render judgment in everything that truly matters. In the final analysis, judgment requires individuals in positions of authority to determine with conviction that one course of action is right while another is wrong. Then stand up and say that the nation should do the thing that’s right and not do what is wrong.

Reagan will be regarded as one of our greatest presidents not only because he eliminated the Soviet Empire, relaunched the American economy, and rebuilt American civic culture, but because of his underlying core set of beliefs that gave a generation of Americans a new grip on what it means to be an American.

The Revolution That Was 1968

Two assassinations, a bloody war, violent protests, racial unrest, colorful hippies, a celebration of sex and rebellion, and John Lennon’s countercultural anthem, “Revolution”� had them all.

It was the year that shattered the fragile consensus that had shaped American society since the end of World War II. It was the year when assassinations ended the last hope of a nonviolent civil-rights movement and the creation of a new biracial political coalition. The year witnessed the coming of age of the baby-boom generation, the 76 million Americans born between 1946 and 1964, who rebelled against tradition and all forms of conformity. And it forged, for better or worse, the world in which we live today.

The 1960s began with hope and optimism, with policymakers and intellectuals celebrating the dawn of a new age of consensus. But the fragile harmony quickly began to fray. Young Americans took to the streets to protest President Lyndon Johnson’s decision to escalate the Vietnam war. African Americans had marched to end the southern system of Jim Crow. Women fought against gender stereotypes that confined them to the role of housewives. And hippies questioned the cultural assumptions that informed American life.

These political and cultural resentments simmering beneath the surface of American society exploded in 1968. Nearly every week produced news of another earth-shattering event.

During the third season of Star Trek, Nichelle Nichols as Uhura and William Shatner as Captain Kirk shared television’s first interracial kiss. (Credit: CBS/Getty Images)

The year was full of cultural expressions of change. NBC launched a new comedy, Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, that upended TV conventions with its irreverent and satirical humor, providing viewers with a much-needed respite from the turmoil engulfing the nation. Movies such as The Graduate explored topics of sex and rebellion, and the original Star Trek featured an interracial kiss. “Where I come from,” declared Captain Kirk, “size, shape or color makes no difference.” It was the year that John Lennon sang “Revolution,” and Jefferson Airplane declared that “Now it’s time for you and me to have a revolution.” On Broadway, “The Boys in the Band” opened the closet door and explored the idea of same-sex attraction, while “Hair” celebrated the counterculture with its plea for “harmony and understanding.”

The year marked a milestone for the women’s liberation movement. On a sunny day in September women gathered on the Atlantic City boardwalk to protest the Miss America Beauty Contest. They threw items that symbolized oppression—girdles, curlers and bras—into a 𠇏reedom Trash Can.” Because the boardwalk was made of combustible wooden planks, the fire marshal refused to allow them to set the can on fire, but that didn’t prevent reporters from claiming the women had 𠇋urned” their bras. Two blocks away, African-American women, who had been unrepresented in the official contest, hosted a rival “Miss Black America” contest.

The spirit of rebellion even seeped into the Summer Olympics in Mexico City where American medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” to show their support for black power.

Perhaps the most profound image of a year came on Christmas Eve, when the crew of Apollo 8 surfaced from behind the moon to see our blue planet as it emerged over the colorless lunar surface. Their iconic �rthrise” photo, which revealed a small and fragile planet, fed a growing environmental movement that called for preserving precious resources like clean air and water. “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,” observed the astronomer Carl Sagan. “There is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”

A shot of Earthrise from the Apollo 8 mission. (Credit: NASA)

Nothing, however, exposed the raw nerve of discontent more than Vietnam. The year began with the United States still embroiled in a seemingly endless war. On January 31, 1968, communist troops launched an offensive during the lunar new year, called Tet. The assault killed 1,500 Americans and burst the illusion that the United States was winning the war. TV anchorman Walter Cronkite, echoing many Americans, declared the U.S. was “mired in stalemate.” At that moment, President Lyndon Johnson turned to an aide and said, “It’s all over.” If he had lost Cronkite, he had lost “Mr. Average Citizen.”

He was right. Support for LBJ’s Vietnam policy dropped to 26 percent and, with no end in sight, Johnson announced at the end of March that he would not seek reelection. Tet destroyed the Johnson presidency, but more importantly it called into question the Cold War belief that America had a mission to battle communism wherever it reared its ugly head. Over the next few decades, the two political parties would offer strikingly different approaches to the world. Many young people who protested the Vietnam War, like Bill Clinton, would seize control of the Democratic party—the party of JFK and LBJ that lurched the nation into war𠅊nd articulate a more restrained view of American power.

Republicans, meanwhile, became the new internationalists, insisting that the nation continue to flex its military muscle abroad. President Donald Trump has appropriated both messages, but more out of political expediency than conviction. He adopted an isolationist stance during the campaign, calling for an 𠇊merica First” approach to world affairs, but once in office he has threatened enemies with intervention and even nuclear annihilation.

Soldiers taking cover beside a fence as a fire rages among buildings in Saigon during the Tet Offensive. (Credit: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

In the short run, the chief political beneficiary of the shift of opinion after Tet was Senator Eugene McCarthy, whose army of volunteers allowed him to score a psychological victory over LBJ in New Hampshire’s March primary. One of the 𠇌lean for Gene” volunteers who knocked on doors throughout the state was a Wellesley student named Hillary Clinton. Four days after the primary, however, Robert F. Kennedy, the brother of the slain president and now a senator from New York, entered the race for the Democratic nomination.

Many Democrats believed that Kennedy was the only politician in America who could pull together the fractured liberal coalition. “How do you seek to change a society that yields so painfully to change?” he asked his youthful supporters at campaign stops across the nation. Kennedy believed that convincing poor people of all colors to pursue their shared class interests offered the only solution to the deep racial hostility that was tearing the nation apart. “We have to convince the Negroes and poor whites that they have common interests,” Kennedy told a journalist. “If we can reconcile those two hostile groups, and then add the kids, you can really turn this country around.”

Kennedy was not the only voice calling for a class-based, biracial coalition that year. By 1968, Martin Luther King had abandoned his previous emphasis on dramatic confrontations and instead focused on community organizing to build a class-based, grassroots alliance among the poor. King, who spent most of the winter organizing a “poor people’s march on Washington,” argued that America’s racial problems could not be solved without addressing the issue of class. “We must recognize,” he said. “that we can’t solve our problems now until there is a radical redistribution of economic and political power.” King now considered himself a revolutionary, not a reformer.

In April, while in Memphis to support striking garbage workers, King reaffirmed his faith in the possibility of racial justice: “I may not get there with you. But we as a people will get to the promised land.” The following day, April 4, a bullet fired from the gun of a white ex-convict ripped through King’s neck, killing him instantly.

Robert F. Kennedy shaking hands with local residents as he visits riot-damaged communities in Washington, D.C. in April 1968 following a period of civil disorder triggered by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Credit: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

With King dead, RFK became for many disaffected people, black and white, the only national leader who commanded respect and enthusiasm. But Kennedy suffered the same fate as King, gunned down by an assassin’s bullet that tore through his brain after he had won the crucial California primary.

The bullets that killed MLK and RFK snuffed out any hope of forging a new progressive coalition. For a generation, progressives have been left wondering: What if they had lived? Would Kennedy have gone on to secure the nomination and win in November? Would King’s “poor people’s march” have succeeded in sending a powerful signal about the possibility of forging a black-white alliance? We will never know the answer to those questions. Instead, their deaths were a potent reminder that bullets, not ballots, would shape the future of American politics. The assassinations demoralized young people who had protested the war, and guaranteed that the old guard would solidify their control over the party.

The old and new came together in Chicago for the 1968 Democratic National Convention. It proved a combustible mix. When the convention approved a plank supporting LBJ’s Vietnam policy, anti-war activists donned black arm bands and remained in their seats, singing “We Shall Overcome.” As dramatic as these events were, the real action was taking place outside the convention hall where the police assaulted a group of peaceful demonstrators. With no attempt to distinguish bystanders and peaceful protesters from lawbreakers, the police smashed people through plate-glass windows, fired tear-gas canisters indiscriminately and brutalized anyone who got in their way. “These are our children,” New York Times columnist Tom Wicker cried out as the violence swirled around him.

The History of Wicker and Rattan Furniture

Many people in the United States associate wicker furniture with the years since the Victorian Age. In many cases, the shape of wicker furniture certainly seems to evoke a certain Victorian sensibility – an emphasis on grace and even an elaborate style. However, the truth about wicker and rattan history is much deeper. In fact, the history goes so far back that it just may surprise you.

Because wicker is a weaving process, it may be said that the first human beings to build shelter using a palm-weaving process were actually the first wicker furniture makers. Weaving as a process for survival – building shelters, constructing clothing, etc. – is as ancient to human beings as is agriculture itself. So it may come as no surprise in this context, to learn that wicker furniture’s history is not only deeply imbedded throughout the years, but imbedded into the history of civilization itself.

From basket weaving in the Fertile Crescent to Victorian wicker furniture to the modern age of outdoor-friendly furniture, wicker/rattan is a category of construction that has built a strong legacy throughout the world’s history. But it only makes sense to start at the beginning – and by that, we mean the very beginning. Let’s begin with an examination into the roots – forgive the pun – of Rattan itself.

Rattan: A Botanical History

In the plant kingdom, there is a family you might recognize: that of the Arecaceae. The name might look like a tongue twister, so allow us to translate into a word that might be a little more familiar:palm. (In fact, the widespread use of the word palm has led to many people renaming this botanical family the Palmae or Palmaceae.)

The family includes 202 genera and around 2,600 individual species. Move a little further down the family tree and you’ll find the subfamily Calimoideae, which consists of three further sub groupings, or “tribes”: Calameae (Rattan), Eugeissoneae, and Lepidocaryeae. The result is that the word “Rattan” actually does not refer to a specific species of plant, but rather an entire group of plants that fall under the “tribe” of Calameae, or Rattan plants.

In fact, there are some 600 species that fall under the category of Rattan. Many of these species actually differ in their growth behaviors. Some Rattan plants grow as shrubs, while others follow the “climbing habit” that is typically associated with palm plants. Generally, the growth habits of rattan plants help scientists classify and separate each species. Rattan utilized for furniture tends to come from the high-growing plants that grow strong, long stems however, a variety of rattan plants can be used for different purposes.

Unlike many other agricultural innovations that helped spark the agricultural revolution, the utilization of rattan plants did not come about as the result of cultivation. Instead, rattan was largely picked from wild growth – this is largely true throughout the history of rattan plants.

Overall, the human harvesting and use of palm plants has a rich history. The natural advantages present in many palm plants, from its generally lightweight-but-strong texture to its easy weaving and strong leaves, can come in handy in a number of ways. Coconut, for example, is a highly useful and edible fruit of the coconut palm. It’s not unreasonable to assume that many members of the palm family had a vital role in the history of civilization because of their impact on trade. However, rattan stands out in the palm family for its own unique characteristics and uses – and it’s important to review these before further delving into the history of wicker furniture.

Rattan as Its Own Plant

Throughout history, rattan was harvested from the wild because of two main advantages: it is both strong and malleable, which makes it perfect for the structuring of crafts including furniture. Much of its use in ancient history, however, was relegated to basket weaving – scientists have carbon-dated many baskets to as far back as 8,000 B.C., perhaps even further. This predates even pottery, suggesting that rattan – and many other similar materials – had a key role in shaping human history.

The word “rattan” itself comes from the Malay word rotan. It’s appropriate that the name of the plant comes from this corner of the world, as the plant itself can trace its origins to tropical and subtropical Asia. As a plant that survives well in the tropics – where heavy rain is part of the annual climate – it’s no surprise that rattan continues to thrive there, being mostly produced in Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

Describing Rattan

Although rattan comes in a variety of shapes and sizes depending on the individual species of the “tribe,” calameae generally shares a number of characteristics, many of which make it ideal for its use in wicker furniture. Primarily, rattan’s generally slender shape, full stem, and barbed leaves separate it from a number of other similar materials such as palm and bamboo. Let’s take a closer look at the characteristics of this tribe.

Stem: The long, thin stem of rattan that grows high is very strong, lightweight, and generally easy to shape. This means that rattan itself is not only ideal for weaving, but also works well structurally in the building of a variety of furniture types, though much rattan furniture will also be reinforced with wood if need be. A main difference between rattan and bamboo is that while bamboo stems are hollow, rattan stems are not: they’re rattan all the way through. Although bamboo is strong, rattan is better suited for furniture because bamboo is more likely to crack and split under more weight.

Leaves: The leaves of the rattan may be what differentiate it the most from other plants in the palm family. Most palms are clustered into a sort of “crown” shape. A rattan plan doesn’t look like this. Instead, the leaves are pointed into barbed tips. Because of the slender stems of rattan plants, the slender leaves contribute to an overall physical difference that makes rattan easy to differentiate from other plants in the palm family.

Resin: Like many similar plants, rattan can have a resin, specifically from the fruit of fruit-bearing rattan trees.

The Movement of Early Rattan

Of course, rattan itself couldn’t have influenced civilization in the myriad of ways that it did (which you’ll read about in the next section) if it had stayed primarily in Asia and Indonesia. Some histories trace the trading of early rattan to its original spot of Indonesia, eventually reaching mainland China through trade. From China, it eventually spread to Japan. Of course, tracing the history of rattan trade throughout Southeast Asia is very difficult due to the problems inherent in dating and finding similar artifacts throughout the world.

The spread of ancient rattan may have been aided by the fact that rattan grows year-round it’s not seasonal like some other plants. (This is also a favorite fact for rattan fans, especially those concerned about the impact of harvesting material like wood on the environment). This encourages year-round trade, of course, and makes trading across oceanic distances favorable, which may help explain how rattan was able to reach the Fertile Crescent including ancient Egypt. However, it’s important to remember that while these near east ancient civilizations almost certainly created wicker weaves, they did not necessarily use rattan. It was far more likely to find rattan wicker in ancient China and Japan, for example, thanks to their proximity to where rattan was most prevalent.

Ancient Wicker: Egypt, Rome, and China

The history of Rattan as a material for producing wicker weaving materials is difficult to trace. Just how prevalent was rattan trade from Southeast Asia and Australasia into the Fertile Crescent, where many of history’s great civilizations would grow to thrive and develop?

What is clear, however, is that wicker furniture and basket weaving was as integral to the formation of early civilization from Egypt to China as was, perhaps, any other method of construction or craftsmanship.

Our first stop is in Egypt, where the oldest examples of wicker have been found. Considering that ancient Egypt’s history dates back several thousand years, it’s not difficult to see the impact that wicker had on civilization.

Wicker in Ancient Egypt

There is no evidence to link ancient Egyptian wicker to rattan materials most scholars believe that ancient Egyptian wicker simply came from the lush source of reeds and fiber materials available around the Nile delta. The Nile, of course, was the source of just about every material imaginable to the Egyptians – it’s no surprise that wicker finds its roots there, as well.

The Nile wasn’t only a source of reeds, but entire varieties of “swamp grasses.” Generally, these reeds were wet (hence the term “swamp” grasses) – but it wasn’t long before ancient Egyptians discovered the strength of their reeds after they were dried. Given the abundance of sun in northern Africa, this was not a difficult process.

The process of drying out reeds that had already been moist not only allowed ancient Egyptians to discover how durable they were, but how malleable they were – the reeds could be molded into a certain position when wet and, as they dried, they would eventually come to hold that shape. Today’s process of molding rattan is actually not entirely different from this ancient process. As the old saying goes: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

It’s believed that the distribution of wicker crafts varied according to class and wealth. For example, archaeologists have been able to turn up chairs, baskets, and chests made from wicker weaving in the tombs of ancient Pharaohs. Evidence suggests that the “average” Egyptian family might have only been able to afford a couple of these luxury items.

Just as is the case today, exotic materials created by specific cultures would have been popular throughout ancient history. Wicker materials from Egypt were just as easy to trade as any other material, which helped wicker spread throughout the region of the Fertile Crescent and even across the Mediterranean Sea. Given how light these materials were, (similar to the rattan materials of today) it was not difficult to ship and transport wicker throughout the region. This helps explain the abundance of wicker crafts throughout antiquity.

Wicker in Ancient Rome

Rome conquered Egypt during the civil war between Cleopatra (with her lover Marc Antony) against Octavian (the future “Augustus” and first emperor of Rome). When Octavian won, the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt – which had been ruling since the days of Alexander the Great – came to a close and Egypt came under control of ancient Rome.

The Romans were fond of exotic cultures, particularly that of Egypt. In fact, the Romans were happy to absorb the best characteristics of other cultures into their own – they had even adopted the Greek system of mythology, giving their gods and goddesses new Roman names. Wicker was no exception Romans not only took to the Egyptian practice but also expanded on it, using wicker weaves to create privacy screens. It may have also been the ancient Romans who came up with the idea of creating swings made of wicker, a practice that continues to this day.

Although the Egyptians tended to be fond of elaborate, exotic weaves, the Romans quickly adapted the wicker to suit their own tastes. Straighter lines and curves now seemed to take over the world of wicker. While Egyptians used the entire color palette to paint on wicker, the Romans favored neutral tones, such as beige or white colors.

Because Rome contributed its massive infrastructure to the spread of wicker, it could be said that wicker truly gained popularity in the world when it was used throughout Rome. Ancient Rome was able to unify the culture of the Mediterranean, so thus it’s influence on the world of wicker can’t be ignored. Specifically, Rome’s control and influence over the entire European continent should be remembered, because Europe would become the foothold for wicker through the dark ages, allowing the practice to be spread throughout the world later on. One place in particular wicker would later spread: China.

Wicker in China

Given China’s proximity to the ideal rattan-growing areas of Southeast Asia and Australasia, it may be tempting to presume that China’s history of wicker is even richer than that of Egypt and Rome. However, despite the abundant resources available for wicker weaving in China, some sources say that wicker did not reach China until the 15th century -- well after the fall of Rome and especially after the heights of ancient Egypt.

The chief reason for the lack of wicker in China before then: they simply weren’t familiar with the process. Trade routes between Europe and China had been established earlier than the 15th century, of course. Marco Polo, the Italian (specifically, Venetian) merchant, traveled to China and documented these travels in the 13th and 14th century – this did a lot to establish a link between the two continents in terms of culture, trade, and exploration.

This may help explain the delay in wicker in China before then. However, once discovered, Chinese contributions to the world of wicker were significant: they enjoyed a smaller, thinner weave that worked well for storage bowls and boxes. The Chinese were especially preoccupied with creating storage boxes that could be lightweight while holding and protecting writings that were deposited therein.

Wicker would go on to have an influence in the continent of Africa as well, during the history preceding our next section however, Africa’s contributions to the world of wicker is generally not considered as significant of those listed above, probably due to a lack of resources.

Wicker in Europe and the Victorian Age

To those people who associate wicker weaving with a more modernist approach – from the 19th century on – would likely appreciate how popular wicker became during the Victorian Age.

The Victorian Age, of course, refers to the period of British history from 1837 through 1901 – the reign of Queen Victoria. By this time, the American colonies had already become the American states. Wicker as an art form had already arrived in the colonies during the age of exploration, but it wouldn’t be until the Victorian Age (along with its strong cultural influence) until wicker would truly rise to prominence again. Wicker in this age would also go on to be explored, refined, and modified in new and interesting ways that helped ensure its long-term popularity – a popularity that exists to this day.

In other words, wicker in Europe – and especially in the Victorian Age – went through many of its major formations during the history you’re about to read.

Pre-Victorian Europe

The Victorian Age in England was just one age among many throughout its history – it’s easy to forget the Norman, the Elizabethan, the Caroline, and the Georgian Ages, for example. The Victorian Age is of special relevance to Americans because of its close historical proximity, but the truth is that wicker survived to the Victorian Age thanks to its history in pre-Victorian Europe.

Wicker, of course, survived the fall of Rome (which many experts place around 476 A.D.). Marco Polo and other European tradesman and explorers would play integral roles in introducing many popular European customs and cultural influences throughout the world – not just in China, but in the newly-discovered continents west of the Atlantic Ocean.

The seemingly ever-shrinking world came to appreciate the antiques of ancient Roman culture, as well as the contribution of resources now available through worldwide trade. Indeed, as explorers poked and prodded around the Earth, they shortened the trips from India to England, for example, further closing the gap between mainstream Europe and non-European cultures.

With rattan – an ideal base for wicker – flourishing in Southeast Asia and a renewed interest in the Roman style during an age of neo-classicism, wicker was one of the cultural imprints of antiquity that encountered a revival during the Renaissance and post-Renaissance years. When the quality of rattan’s strength as a base for wicker increasingly becoming common European knowledge, demand for the resource would eventually go up – as well as demand for the furniture fashioned from it.

Trade, however, was constantly interrupted in the pre-Victorian years thanks to frequent wars (including the War of Revolution in the United States and the Napoleonic Wars, among others). It wasn’t until the peaceful trade of the Victorian Age, that wicker would truly begin to expand to its current status as a world-renowned furniture style. When Queen Victoria took over the throne of England at the tender age of 18, the groundwork for a general period of peace and prosperity – despite many major hiccups – was laid.

Victorian Europe

Generally speaking, the Victorian Age coincided with the Industrial Age -- a period of major changes in transportation, manufacturing, and craftsmanship. It’s no wonder that wicker furniture saw major changes in the Victorian Age as well.

Thanks to well-established trade routes and the European Age of Exploration, discovery of rattan’s particular strengths, wicker was essentially in for a renaissance all its own during the Victorian Age. European and American minds alike found that wicker furniture was conveniently lightweight, inexpensive, and easier to clean than the traditional upholstered furniture of the day.

Wicker was also a natural match for meeting the stylistic demands of the day. While elaborate furniture designs may have only been relegated to the upper classes of European in the pre-Victorian age, the age of manufacturing left a middle class that demanded something similar to it’s style -- even if it wasn’t quite the same price as what might be expected in the upper class.

The fact that wicker furniture is easy to paint, contributed to its expanding popularity during the Victorian Age. Painting wicker white and other natural colors (which, maybe not so coincidentally, was also popular in ancient Rome) was a standard practice throughout these times, contributing to the styles of wicker that we’re also generally familiar with today as Americans.

By the time the Victorian Age wrapped up, the world had already crossed into the 20th century. Worldwide trade had become a common practice and wicker had already cemented itself as a common way to produce furniture throughout the western world. Additionally, rattan as a material for wicker had grown to an immense popularity, including in the United States.

Wicker Arriving in the Americas

Before moving on to wicker’s more modern history in the Americas, it may be appropriate to take a step back and ask an important question – how wicker got here in the first place. Indeed, wicker’s history in the Americas does predate the Victorian Age. Wicker came to America with the earliest of settlers – both as a resource for furniture and as a skill, or piece of knowledge. Because so much transportation was handled by boat, it was important to have storage bins and other furnishings that were lightweight – they would take up similar space but not add so heavily to the overall load of a transatlantic journey.

Subsequently, wicker suitcases and wicker traveling trunks became very popular in the Americas. In many cases, this was simply due to the fact that people traveled lightly on their way across the ocean. It may not have been any European’s specific intention to bring over their wicker luggage to the Americas as a method of introducing it to this culture. Instead, wicker largely first arrived in the western hemisphere simply because it was convenient to travel with.

With the Victorian Age now on the horizon and a presence of wicker already established in the Americas, the conditions were ripe for a wicker explosion in the United States in the 19th century.

Early Wicker in America

With the foundations for wicker’s presence in America already laid by the earliest settlers and travelers – who brought wicker with them usually as a matter of convenience because of its lightweight properties – wicker was ready to take a more prominent role in the Americas.

The major change here, of course, was the fact that the colonies of British America won their independence from the crown in the late 18th century. Americans, however, still retained many of their British sensibilities. Not only would British and Americans continue to share a common language, but in many ways they would share a common culture – Victorianism in Great Britain did not only influence its remaining colonies but also influenced the United States. This was going to be very apparent in the way Americans would come to embrace wicker furniture throughout the 19th century.

But Americans weren’t only going to follow in the world of wicker: they were primed to take a role of prominent leadership, primarily thanks to the innovations of one key man: Cyrus Wakefield. In just a few short centuries, the idea of wicker in the Americas would be reshaped from European influence, into a newly-minted American style. Let’s trace the history of wicker as it underwent its transformation in the United States.

Wicker in Colonial America

Prior to the United States winning its independence from the British crown, very few citizens thought of themselves as “Americans.” They were colonists, to be sure, but they were also British colonists, loyal to the crown of Great Britain. It certainly follows that the cultural styling of Colonial America followed this pattern – one that would continue in similar fashion, for many years to come.

To these Americans, wicker furnishings and luggage were part of the culture they brought with them from Great Britain. Not only did colonials bring their own materials when they sailed from England and Europe, but they also brought their skills. It wasn’t long before colonial Americans were producing their own wicker furnishings – though, at this time, the furnishings tended to be relegated to work such as baskets and cradles. Though rattan wicker had been produced before, it certainly hadn’t reached the popularity of today. The result: for a long time, wicker in the Americas was relegated to small storage-based items.

One of the earliest wicker artifacts known to exist in the Americas was a cradle – which happened to be a popular wicker item in the Americas for a long time before wicker was truly explored to its Victorian and post-Victorian heights.

After the Revolutionary War, the state of wicker in America for the most part, didn’t change for several decades. However, a transformation was on the horizon – one that would alter the destiny of wicker furniture in America as well as throughout the world.

Cyrus Wakefield

The utilization of rattan was not uncommon in the Americas or throughout the world prior to the mid-1800s. The major problem, however, was that not many people seemed to recognize the potential of this strong-but-pliable material as a natural resource to be matched up with the wicker process.

In fact, Europeans at large didn’t seem to realize how to properly utilize rattan. They found a use for it on wooden ships, using it as a way to hold ship cargo in place. Taking into account that the material was considered so disposable, many sailors would simply dump it once their cargo reached harbor. It was this dumped rattan that Cyrus Wakefield, an American, would utilize to change how rattan and wicker furniture were used.

It was Wakefield who would not only realize that rattan was ideal for creating wicker, but realized that rattan wicker furniture was an idea with a lot of potential. Wakefield would take the discarded rattan and shape them himself until his enterprise was large enough to begin manufacturing on a large-scale basis.

Wakefield would establish a factory for producing his products in South Reading, Massachusetts, but eventually the town would change its name to simply “Wakefield” in recognition of his accomplishment as well as his local influence.

But Wakefield’s influence on the world of rattan and wicker can’t be understated. It was he who realized that rattan could be used as more than ship ballast on a large scale. As furniture-makers began to realize the possibilities of using rattan for wicker as well as for support (sometimes deferring to wood for straight-corner items), even in furniture that people could sit on for leisure, the industry of wicker furniture in the Americas would take off – this time, for good.

Wicker Leading into Modern Times

In 1897, Wakefield’s company would merge with Heywood Brothers & Company, forging together two of the most prominent makers of wicker furniture at the time. The two companies – now working as one – went on to create a wicker furniture catalog that was highly influential and would help set the tone for wicker in the modern United States.

By now, wicker and rattan were not limited to being used on transportation. Instead, they were being utilized to their full potential in a full range of items: from chairs and end tables to couches and swings. With all of these options printed in one place (the new company’s catalog), a modern age in wicker furniture was being developed.

The catalog, dubbed “Classic Wicker Furniture”, utilized the best assets of both companies. One company would supply the artistic designs, while the other was able to handle much of the manufacturing as well as the logistics of the orders. With one company providing just about everything that wicker customers needed, wicker furniture was now much more readily available to a larger market. Furniture that had once been relegated to Pharaohs, noblemen, and the upper class was now available to everyone.

That is largely the state of wicker furniture in the modern world. The 20th century would see real modernization for wicker furniture. With the Industrial Revolution infusing the manufacturing base for widespread sale of wicker furniture, companies like Heywood Brothers & Wakefield Company were now able to reach a much wider base. This sets the stage for our final chapter in wicker history: explaining the modern history of wicker furniture and why wicker furniture finds itself where it does in the 21st century.

Modern Wicker and Rattan

All of the history we’ve gone through thus far has led us to modern wicker and rattan – the history of rattan and wicker furniture as it exists today. Given the extraordinary journey that wicker and rattan have taken to get from ancient Egypt and Southeast Asia to your front porch, it’s only appropriate to set a broad historical context for the wicker furniture you find so easy to acquire in the world of 2013. However, if you really want to understand your new wicker and rattan purchases from a historical context, we’ll also have to take a look at modern wicker and rattan history, especially their account throughout the tumultuous and ever-changing, 20th century.

First, let’s set the scene: wicker and rattan during the Victorian Age in Europe and in America saw a revolution as rattan began to become the norm for creating and crafting such furniture. Much of this can be credited to the innovations of Cyrus Wakefield, of course, but the emergence of the industrial age also saw a revolution in terms of how wicker could be produced. There was greater efficiency in manufacturing for a number of items wicker furniture was no different. And though wicker furniture would still often be hand-assembled, the growing influence of machines meant that wicker furniture could also be more affordably produced.

As we navigate the 20th century, we’ll not only find that machines have had a large impact on the history of wicker, but that a new devotion to arts and crafts would shape the destiny of wicker furniture. Let’s continue to explore the history of wicker and rattan as they emerge onto the modern scene.

Wicker in the Early 20th Century

After the merging of the Wakefield and Heywood Chair Manufacturing Company, wicker was poised to make its national presence known. Because the Heywood Company had developed a way for wicker to be weaved mechanically, wicker was about to undergo an industrial revolution in the early 20th century, much in the same way automobiles would arrive on the scene.

The problem? There was a slight decline in the popularity of wicker during the early 20th century. While wicker patterns had been popular during the Victorian Age, modern sensibilities turned to a more simplistic style. Popular wicker companies of the time (including Wakefield and Heywood) tried to change their designs in order to adapt to these new sensibilities. The results were wicker patterns for chairs and similar furnishings that attempted to emulate a more simplistic, modern style.

However, a competing designer, Marshal Lloyd came up with a new innovation to boost the popularity of wicker. It would be an innovation that would help define the development of wicker furniture throughout modern times: creating wicker furniture from synthetic materials. Using synthetic materials to produce wicker furniture had a distinct advantage over many natural types of wicker because the synthetic materials in many cases could be more durable, especially when exposed to elements of the weather like the sun or rainfall (note: We’ll address how wicker handles different weather later on).

This great innovation led to a renewed interest in wicker. Modern furniture was expected to be versatile and able to handle a number of different environments. Now that synthetic wicker furniture joined that group, many people considered the lightweight wicker furniture to be a viable option for their own homes. And because wicker furniture looks as natural outdoors as it does indoors, it also added an element of versatility for those who wanted to bring some of their furnishings outside for picnics and other similar events. Wicker’s regained popularity sustained throughout the century.

Rattan vs. Synthetic Wicker

The innovation of synthetic wicker also gave customers a choice: whether to choose rattan or synthetic wicker for their furniture. The choice, however, revealed some advantages and disadvantages to each type of wicker furniture.

Rattan furniture had a number of distinct advantages. In addition to being lightweight, strong, and durable – which had made it such a solid option for wicker furniture in the first place – rattan is also porous like wood. This means that rattan is especially ideal for painting, coloring, and even sealing. It is easy to use rattan furniture in a number of ways, giving rattan a reputation as a highly versatile material for furniture. (However, as rattan is porous like wood, you will have to avoid exposure to sunlight and rain.)

The advantages of synthetic wicker (also known as “all-weather wicker”), often made from an artificial material known as “resin,” which is a substance close to plastic, were obvious. It is better suited to the environment than any natural option would, considering it wicks water and moisture away easily and doesn’t rot when left out too long. Additionally, it is highly resistant to sun damage, which is concerning when leaving any type of natural furniture outdoors.

In order to properly choose the furniture that would work best for their personal needs, customers now had to consider if their furniture would see most of its use indoors or outdoors. In the outdoors, synthetic wickers are often preferred. Indoors, rattan furniture is ideal. But the choice isn’t always black-and-white.

To this day, choosing your wicker materials remain the individual’s preferences. This leads us into the truly modern age of rattan and wicker.

Wicker and Rattan in 2013

Visit any serious wicker outlet today, and you can see the results of thousands of years of history and innovation. Not only will you find a variety of rattan furnishings ranging from end tables and beds to chairs and desks, but you will also be able to procure synthetic wicker furniture for more frequent use outdoors.

This is, of course, a far cry from the world of wicker throughout much of its history. Even ancient civilizations that saw the potential of wicker as a lightweight travel material did not see the potential of rattan when used in wicker. Previously, people didn’t see how widely wicker weaves could be applied in order to create a variety of designs – this was largely an innovation of the Victorian Age.

Now, in 2013, wicker and rattan – even synthetic materials – are joined at the hip to create a large variety of options for a large variety of customers. Though wicker and rattan furniture had once been the domain of the upper class, it is now available to just about anyone who is in the market for new furniture.

If you find yourself in the market for some furniture, you’ll likely want to know what is you’re looking at. Now with the history of wicker and rattan behind you, you’re ready to move on to the next step: learning about the materials that go into wicker to give it its unique properties.