Updating the anthem

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O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave

O’er the land of the free tyranny

and the home of the brave slave.


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A few de facto corrections

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Whose life is it anyway?

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WHOSE LIFE IS IT ANYWAY?

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Back around 1980 the question hadn’t really been settled,

so a play and movie with that title were able to inspire a lot of controversy.

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Forty years later though we’ve arrived at an answer on which everybody (that counts) agrees:

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Your life of course belongs to the GOVERNMENT.

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a few de facto corrections

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Two wars. Two judgments.

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WAR

It isn’t hard to figure out why wars aren’t popular. Death, dismemberment and disabilities accompanied by a loss of liberty, opportunity and material possessions are things most of us don’t set out to invite for ourselves and our friends, especially when the conditions that prevail after we’ve lived through them are often no better than what they’d been before, sometimes worse.

What is hard to understand is why a war sometimes turns out to be as popular as it is. Maybe it has to do with what brought it about. Did the people of the time think participation was beneficial or even necessary? If they did, their initial enthusiasm would likely to be affected by what followed. Whatever its original purpose, if the war was waged to a successful end in a reasonable amount of time, positive feelings probably persisted. But if it dragged on for years and especially if it was eventually lost, early emotions were likely overcome by regret and unconsciously adapted to fit attitudes that emerged later. Or so I’m led to think.

… and its Motives

Reasons for things as complicated as war can’t be summed up in a sentence or two, of course. What impelled President Roosevelt to seek war in 1941 is different from what led Henry Ford or Charles Lindbergh to support it once it was under way, Dwight Eisenhower and Douglas MacArthur to wage it, or you or me or the guy down the block to accept the taxes and conscriptions it took to pay for it.

All sorts of things can induce a nation to resort to war. The desire for the kind of power that comes from conquest leads to military offensives apt to invite criticism, while the motive least likely to be second-guessed is defense against such aggressions. The United States, to its good fortune, has been subject to few such inducements. The War of 1812 did bring British soldiers to the American mainland, but the attacks by Japan in 1941 produced fighting only on Pacific islands and, curiously, on battlefields halfway around the world against a different enemy entirely. The trigger was pulled by the Japanese on a gun left temptingly in view by the American president with the immediate response being against the aggressor, but the intended adversary had been Germany all along. Once the bombing of Hawaii had aroused the nation’s taste for war, Europe was easily brought within the range of conflict.

As it happens, Germany posed no immediate threat to the United States, and the cost of picking up the challenge it laid down was anything but trivial. Other than the Civil War in which losses on both sides were Americans, World War II proved to be the country’s costliest and two thirds of the U.S. casualties were in Europe. Yet that military involvement was also America’s most popular and has come to be regarded not only as necessary but too long delayed. What was it about tackling Germany on its home ground that people viewed as worthwhile enough to accept the sacrifices it involved with as little complaint as they made?

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The United States went to war in 1941 for the same reason as in its other military engagements of the twentieth century: to help friendly nations in conflict with hostile ones. Joining other people in their wars is usually justified as being in the national interest, with the reasons that underlie that overarching one being the protection of the freedom to trade, travel and implement internal and external policies without fear of reprisals from nations that otherwise might impose them but that are currently engaged in fighting one’s friends. And that motive becomes even stronger when the enemy is an exponent of a relentlessly aggressive political creed like fascism or communism.

Other than seeking to inhibit aggression in general or avoid particular consequences, the most common reason for getting involved in other people’s wars is a sympathy for the nation attacked and antipathy for its attackers. The readiness with which the United States took on Germany is a reflection of the degree to which Americans had been rooting for England before Pearl Harbor aroused their appetite for war, and that in turn rested on cultural and political attitudes they shared with Europe generally and the British especially. Hostility to Germany may have lingered slightly from the First World War, but mostly it was induced by the nature of the government that came to power there in 1933 and the expansion that that government pursued with intrusions into Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland for starters and Denmark, Norway, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, England and the Soviet Union subsequently.

Internal policies also provide incentives for war, often of a moral nature useful in reinforcing others more clearly tied to self-interest. Partisans of a war tend to put more stress on its humanitarian aspects as time goes by, by calling attention to the rectitude of their allies and the perversity of their enemies. Fighting Nazis is a good example. The threat that Germany posed to England and the damage it had already done to other countries was surely the main reason the United States was willing to take up arms in Europe, but the Nazi treatment of Jews later came to be spoken of as if it had been just about as important. That this was an after-the-fact adjustment is evident from the refusal of the United States to relax immigration rules while Germany was still seeking to export its Jews, and the fact that, despite the dictatorial nature of the Nazi government and the racial oppressions it did impose, it wasn’t until after the United States entered the war and perhaps partly as a panicked reaction to that fact, that the Nazis set about the campaign of extermination that came to light at the end of the war and was subsequently cited as a nobler reason than the real ones for decisions made earlier.

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TWO WARS

 

With that as a rough background on the war of the 1940s, let’s compare it with one that came later that was not so popular and see what made them similar and different and how they were viewed at the beginning and came to be regarded at the end.

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(more…)

Obituary

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After a long period of declining health

Liberty in the United States died on Monday, March 16, 2020, at 9 a.m.

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It is survived by

political despotism

and social and intellectual subservience.

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A memorial service has not been scheduled

nor a final resting place selected.

(Neither is currently allowed).

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Those wishing to extend their condolences to the bereaved nation are invited to remain silent.

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democracy and tyranny

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Science fiction

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Science fiction?

No, not much.  The plots are too improbable.

An example or two?  Okay, take a look at these.

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In this society the cops have had their brains homogenized and their faces erased, see, so they’re completely anonymous when they round up unconverted humans who try to hold religious services.

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And here’s a bunch of humanoids standing in line to have food doled out to them with their faces covered up and interaction forbidden, while they keep their eyes fixed on the little boxes they’re all controlled by.

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Where do writers come up with ideas like that?

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Okay, I’ll grant you in some of those third world countries that aren’t ready for democracy … who knows what people might choose to put up with?

But in a republic where kids are taught the Bill of Rights and to respect other people’s opinions as if they were their own, nobody’d go along.

In our part of the world

I feel safe in saying –

things like that just couldn’t happen.

Not now, not ever.

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a few de facto corrections

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Democracy: a theorem and proof

A few de facto corrections

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Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

 

…nor shall any person be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; …

 

… nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

 

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

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But look …

NObody wants freedom if it’s got to apply to the other guy as well.

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Equal protection of the laws

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A dream betrayed

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Waco 1: what happened

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THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…


Sand Creek, Colorado, November 29, 1864. Army Colonel John Chivington led a troop of Colorado cavalrymen in an attack on a band of Cheyenne Indians under Chief Black Kettle and Arapahos under Chief Niwot who’d camped peacefully along Sand Creek outside Fort Lyon, Colorado at the invitation of the governor and under his promise of protection. The soldiers killed Chief Niwot along with something on the order of 150 Indians, of whom roughly two thirds were women and children, and mutilated the bodies of the dead in retaliation for similar practices indulged in by Indians. About 25 of the attackers were killed.

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Wounded Knee, South Dakota, December 29, 1890. After witnessing the death of Chief Sitting Bull at the hands of the Indian policemen who’d come to arrest him for participating in the Ghost Dance religion, two hundred of his fellow Hunkpapas sought refuge by setting out for the Pine Ridge Agency 170 miles to the south. On the way they were joined by a band of Minneconjou led by Spotted Elk, also under threat of arrest for his part in the Ghost Dance. The combined group of approximately 350 men, women and children was intercepted by federal troops, who set about disarming those who had weapons.  A stray gunshot triggered a response by the soldiers with rifles and artillery that resulted in the deaths of approximately 153 Indians including Spotted Elk and 25 soldiers.

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THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME

Waco, Texas, April 19, 1993. On the pretext of serving a search warrant, agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) launched an attack on a rambling cluster of buildings that housed 130 members of a Christian religious community presided over by a man named David Koresh. Six members of the sect were killed and 4 wounded while four of the attackers died and 16 were wounded. After a standoff of 51 days another attack was launched, this time by the FBI with armored vehicles and poison gas, that took the lives of 76 more residents including David Koresh: 21 men, 32 women, and 23 children including two not yet born. As a result of the attack, the entire complex was burned to the ground with most of the people trapped inside including all of the children.

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WHAT HAPPENED AT WACO

Davidians, Branch Davidians, the Living Waters Branch and David Koresh.

The community headed by David Koresh at the time of his death was the fourth incarnation of a Seventh Day Adventist splinter group founded in 1934 by a man named Victor Houteff. He called his faction the Davidian Seventh Day Adventist Association in honor of Israel’s King David. Houteff wasn’t able to win the support of the parent church for his distinctive approach to interpreting the Bible though, so he went off on his own and established a place for his sympathizers which he called Mount Carmel, seven miles northwest of Waco, Texas. Over the course of the next ten years this community of Davidians grew from a dozen members to over a hundred.  When the value of the land appreciated, they sold the original plot and moved to a less expensive site northeast of Waco (east of Bellmead, south of Axtell), also dubbed Mount Carmel.

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Houteff died in 1955 and his sect split into two factions. One was led by his wife, the other by a man named Ben Roden. Houteff’s widow lost out to her rival when she made a prediction of the Second Coming that didn’t materialize. Roden and his wife had meanwhile been inspired by a trip they took to Israel in 1958, and when they assumed control of what they now called the Branch Davidians, they set about soliciting converts. They had some success in these efforts, drawing interest from people in other parts of the world: Israel, Australia, England the Caribbean among them.

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Ben Roden died in 1978, and his wife, Lois, took over, renaming the group she now headed the Living Waters Branch. Three years later a twenty-two year old man from Dallas of no particular distinction joined the community. His name was Vernon Howell. In a way it would’ve been hard to predict from his earlier years, he combined a knowledge of the Bible with a gift for putting his thoughts into words that earned him a share of the preaching duties. Tensions arose, however, when, contrary to Lois’s wishes, her son, George, stated his determination to take over from his mother when she died. In 1984 Howell married a 14 year old Mount Carmel resident named Rachel Jones. Foreseeing disaster if George assumed command, Howell led a group of like-minded individuals a hundred miles east and established a rival camp at Palestine, Texas. A twenty-two year old student of religion named Marc Breault joined him there and became one of his trusted associates.

Lois Roden died in November of 1986, leaving her son in control of Mount Carmel by default. Quirky and impulsive as George was, he wasn’t able inspire loyalty in anything like the way that his mother or Howell had. The community started to fall apart, which Howell saw as an opportunity.  In November of 1987 he led group of eight armed confederates from Palestine to Waco, hoping to undermine George’s hold by collecting evidence that the latter had broken a law having to do with grave robbing. George discovered the men on his property and exchanged gunshots with them, but the police arrived before any serious harm resulted. They arrested Howell and the other trespassers and charged them with attempted murder. When the case came to trial in April 1988, George’s eccentricities led to his presenting his case poorly with the result that Howell and his companions went free.  George was left to contend with a charge of evading property taxes, and when he protested too vociferously in court, he was held in contempt. A year later he killed a man over a triviality and was confined to a home for the insane.

Howell meanwhile gained control of Mount Carmel by accepting responsibility for its back taxes. Starting in April 1988 he also set about reviving its fortunes. His manner of leadership was deceptively passive. By drawing on an ability to project sincerity, he was able to win others to his side with dialogue and persuasion rather than commands or threats. The people who fell in line behind him included a wide variety of ages, races and nationalities, but mostly with an Adventist background, already ingrained with a respect for scripture. Howell appealed to these people on the basis of his knowledge of the Bible and his aptitude for formulating interesting interpretations of its prophecies. Drawing confidence from his success, in 1989 he indulged in a bit of self-glorification by changing his name to David Koresh – David from the famed King of Israel and Koresh from the biblical name for the Persian king, Cyrus, who let the captive Jews return to their homeland. Terms that had formerly been applied to the community he now led – Davidians, Branch Davidians, Living Waters Branch – fell into disuse. Koresh’s followers had no agreed-upon title.

Opposition

Marc Breault had been among Koresh’s staunchest allies at Palestine, but tensions developed between the two over Biblical interpretations, and Breault came to resent the degree to which Koresh was able to influence his followers without even seeming to try. In 1989 Koresh announced a new policy for which he claimed divine sanction.  Henceforth the men would abstain from sexual intercourse and leave that activity solely to him, so that the children who resulted would all have been fathered in accordance with God’s wishes.  Breault was married, and although his wife was in Australia at the time and spared the impact of the new rule, Koresh’s audacity was too much for Breault to swallow. He was unable to persuade the other men to share the degree of his outrage, but he left Mount Carmel and set about trying to find ways to subvert the leadership of the man he’d formerly supported. Koresh was disappointed in having lost his ally, but he was neither willing to back down nor inclined to retaliate.

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In 1990 Breault sent a private detective to inform Texas and federal authorities of unsavory activities he claimed to have witnessed inside the compound, mainly of three sorts: Koresh’s manifold sexual activities that included intercourse with girls 16 years of age and younger; beatings administered to children; and the stockpiling of arms that included illegal automatic weapons. The officials proved more resistant to Breault’s charges than he’d expected, maybe because they hadn’t been supported by similar complaints from other residents or neighbors, and the fact that Breault was known to have been a competitor of Koresh who’d lost out in a contest of wills.  Whatever the reasons for the policemen’s lack of interest, Breault wasn’t about to give up. Later that year he met with the sheriff to repeat his allegations in person, again without managing to inspire an investigation.  In early 1992 Breault enlisted a Australian television producer to make a documentary about Mount Carmel.  Surprisingly Koresh chose to cooperate with the filmmakers, but he was appalled by the negative slant Breault managed to impose on the result. The film’s impact was slight though, since it was only shown in Australia.

When Breault testified at the custody hearing of a girl who had been living with her mother at Mount Carmel, the judge took his allegations of sexual misconduct seriously enough to order the mother to keep the child away from Koresh, so the girl was no longer with her mother when the latter died in the assault staged by the FBI in April 1993. Breault meanwhile again brought his accusations to the attention of the local sheriff, who this time passed them on to the Texas Department of Child Protective Services (CPS). In February 1992 CPS sent a social worker with some other Texas officials to Mount Carmel to see for themselves what was going on. They followed that visit with two more, as well as with an interview of Koresh at the CPS office. The investigation was closed on April 30 with a report that included the statements, “none of the charges could be verified” and “The children denied being abused in any way by the adults of the compound.”  In fact Breault’s contention that children had been subjected to violence was the most weakly supported of his claims. Although he had been able to get statements from some former Mount Carmel residents to back him up, both the children and adults interviewed by the CPS agent as well as survivors of the attack a year later said the same thing.  Paddling was sometimes used as a punishment, but it was done in a controlled and even-handed manner. Children were highly valued members of the Mount Carmel community and were treated well by their parents and other members. Why wouldn’t they be? Seventeen of them were the leader’s own sons and daughters.

Law Enforcement

It was during the CPS investigation, that agents of the Treasury (at that time, later Justice) Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) were first observed in the area by neighbors of Mount Carmel, who informed the residents of what they’d seen. Child abuse wasn’t within the purview of ATF, so the agency had probably become involved because of Breault’s accompanying claim about illegal weapons. In June 1992, two months after the conclusion of the CPS investigation, a delivery man noticed dummy grenades in a package he brought to the compound and reported it to the sheriff’s department, which in turn contacted ATF. Further investigation of delivery receipts revealed that gunpowder had also been shipped to the place, as had rifle parts that could be used to convert semi-automatic weapons, which fired one bullet for each pull of the trigger, to automatic, which continued firing as long as the trigger was held back. The former were legal, the latter were not unless properly registered. Now at least ATF had a plausible basis for its interest, even though nothing they’d uncovered so far was illegal in itself.

The possession of dummy grenades, rifles, rifle parts, and gunpowder were all consistent with the completely legal sales certain Mount Carmel residents engaged in at gun shows. That the buying and selling of guns was one of the means by which the people of Mount Carmel supported themselves was something ATF soon became aware of, if its agents hadn’t already known. In July 1992 two ATF men interviewed a Waco gun dealer named Henry McMahon who was the source of many of the weapons Koresh and his associates bought for resale. McMahon phoned Koresh while the agents were at his place to tell him of the investigation, and Koresh said that the agents were welcome to come by and examine his inventory if they had any doubts about its legality. The agents chose not to take advantage of Koresh’s offer. This was seven months before ATF launched an armed attack on Mount Carmel in order to serve a warrant obtained by one of those same two agents, based on the possibility there might be illegal weapons on the premises.

During the last half of 1992 helicopters frequently flew low over Mount Carmel, encouraging the notion that the place was under surveillance. ATF was repeatedly in contact with Koresh’s avowed enemy, Marc Breault, who had also become a source of information for a couple of reporters for the Waco Tribune-Herald who were putting together a series of articles about Koresh. In January 1993 ATF allowed its presence to become even more obvious by establishing a command post at an airstrip ten miles from Mount Carmel and stationing four agents in a house across the road from Koresh’s compound on the pretense they were shopping for ranch property. One of the four, Robert Rodriguez, wound up spending a lot of time with Koresh and his pals, presumably to sniff out illegal weapons, but he apparently enjoyed socializing with the men as well, and he developed a sympathy for them. In the report he later submitted to his supervisors he said he’d found no evidence of illegal guns.

On February 27, 1993 the Waco Tribune-Herald printed the first article in its series on David Koresh, squarely on the front page and labeling him, “The Sinful Messiah”.  Perhaps in coordination with the newspaper, ATF had picked the following day to launch an attack on Koresh’s compound on the pretext of serving a search warrant. That the agency had something more dramatic in mind than a routine exploration of the premises was evident in advice given to reporters to stick around.  An event worthy of their interest was about to take place.

In the few weeks he’d come to know Koresh, Robert Rodriguez had never let on who he really was, although Koresh knew he had to be a cop of some sort.  On Sunday, February 28 the ATF agent showed up at Mount Carmel at 8 a.m. on the excuse of bringing a copy of the second Tribune-Herald article for Koresh to look over. An hour later an agitated Mount Carmel resident returned from his job of delivering mail, took Koresh aside and told him of having seen TV cameramen and armed ATFers converging on the place, and military helicopters hovering nearby. Koresh passed along what he’d been told to Rodriguez and let the obviously nervous agent get away as he’d apparently intended to all along: before the assault started. Rodriguez immediately phoned his commander to tell him that Koresh knew something drastic was in progress and that the raid ought to be called off. By the time Rodriguez made his way to the local command center, however, the operation had already been launched.

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 ATF: The Attack: February 28, 1993

The main ATF force came from Fort Hood, 50 miles southwest of Waco. It consisted of 80 vehicles strung out over a mile of highway and included two cattle trailers, each containing about 40 armed and armored agents. Half a dozen snipers had been positioned at the periphery of Koresh’s land and three helicopters borrowed from the National Guard bore an additional dozen men. As the trailers arrived, troops jumped down and headed for the double doors at front of the main building, guns drawn. At 9:45 the first shots were exchanged in a battle that continued until a cease fire was agreed to around two hours later with the building still in the hands of Koresh and his followers, six of whom had been killed during the course of the battle and four wounded, Koresh himself the most severely with a bullet hole in his side. ATF meanwhile had suffered four dead and sixteen wounded.

An extensive literature exists as to who fired the first shots in the encounter and those that followed, where they originated, at whom they were directed, what kind of weapons were involved and who said what to whom during the engagement. Questions persist about all these matters. Not to imply that the answers lie beyond the reach of investigation, before you get caught up in researching the details, ask yourself this: does it really make any difference whether it was one of Chivington’s men who fired the first shot at Sand Creek or if it was one of Black Kettle’s warriors who saw mounted soldiers bearing down on his village? Or how many of the Indians participated in the defense of their community, and how many shots they were able to get off against the invaders? Because, like Sand Creek, there’s no controversy about the basics of what happened at Waco that morning: who was attacked and who did the attacking.

On Sunday February 28, 1993 approximately 130 individuals were living within the walls of Mount Carmel, of whom 43 were children under the age of 15, 45 were women, and of the 42 men, 8 were 50 years of age or older. Since George Roden had departed and David Koresh took over five years earlier, the community had lived in harmony with its neighbors. Individual members came and went as they wished, some joined, some left. The majority considered Mount Carmel to be their home despite the primitive nature of its buildings and facilities. Although an extensive stock of guns was kept on the premises primarily for resale at gun shows, and some of those guns were used in target practice by the individuals who enjoyed such things, during Koresh’s regime none of the residents had engaged in acts of violence or aggression with or without the use of firearms. In fact on this particular Sunday a large percentage of the weapons and related paraphernalia normally kept on site had been taken to a gun show for possible sale.

Most of us grant that people engaged in peaceful pursuits have the right and even the duty to defend themselves and their dependents against an unprovoked attack, especially if it’s also unannounced and unexplained, whether on a national scale or individual, and regardless of what authority the aggressors claim to be acting in behalf of. Who would have denied Black Kettle the right to resist Colonel Chivington’s charge?  The Texas Penal Code puts it this way: “The use of force to resist an arrest or search is justified; if before the actor offers any resistance, the peace officer uses, or attempts to use, greater force than necessary to make the arrest or search, and; when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect himself against the peace officer’s use or attempted use of greater than necessary force.” And there’s no inconsistency in presuming that David Koresh would have allowed a search of Mount Carmel if ATF had presented its warrant in a manner appropriate to the circumstances. The invitation he’d extended to their agents seven months earlier to examine his stock of guns supports that point of view, and Koresh would have reasonably believed that by complying he’d have the law on his side including the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable search and seizure. If for reasons not evident, ATF officials thought that Koresh might have obstructed their search, they had only to bring the warrant at a time he was away from the premises, of which they’d be readily aware since they had four agents stationed across the road from his home.

The reason ATF didn’t do any of these things, it seems evident from statements made by government representatives then and later, is that it was in the grip of a mindless paranoia about religious cults, typified by the kind of language the Tribune-Herald employed in its article, but that should never have been allowed to influence an organization ostensibly committed to serving the public with prudent actions and impartiality concerning beliefs.

The Warrant

The pretext on which ATF launched its attack was to serve the warrant granted by Judge Dennis Green at the request of ATF Special Agent Davy Aguilera – one of the two men who’d been interviewing Henry MacMahon seven months earlier when Koresh volunteered to let the agents inspect his stash of guns.

Here’s what the document allowed Aguilera and his colleagues to do:

To: Special Agent Davy Aguilera and any Authorized Officer of the United States

 Affidavit(s) having been made before me by Special Agent Davy Aguilera who has reason to believe that on the premises known as the residence of Vernon Wayne Howell and others, Rt 7 Box 471-B, AKA: Mount Carmel Center, Waco, McLennan County, Texas, its appurtenances, vehicles underground structures located on entire premises of the 77 acre compound in the Western District of Texas, there is now concealed a certain person or property, namely:

 A quantity of firearms, including but not limited to: an assortment of AR-15 rifles and AK-47 rifles, and parts thereof, along with a quantity of assorted machinegun conversion parts, which, when assembled, would be classified as machineguns, machinery and implements used or suitable for use in converting semi-automatic weapons to fully automatic and for constructing destructive devices such as pipe bombs, and homemade grenades, this machinery would include, but not limited to metal lathes and milling machines, .50 caliber anti-tank rifle, sten guns, grenade launchers, practice rifle grenades, practice hand grenades, various chemicals, including but not limited to black powder, igniter cord, aluminum metal powder and potassium nitrate, magnesium metal powder, metals in various forms, inert “pineapple” type hand grenades, pipe bombs and parts thereof, and other suitable casings of unknown description which, when assembled, would be classified as destructive devices as those terms are defined in Section 5845 (b), and Section 5845 (f), Chapter 53, Title 26, United States Code, which are not registered with the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record, Washington, D.C., as required by law, and documentary and computerized evidence of receipt, ownership and instructions for converting semi-automatic firearms into machineguns, and the construction of improvised explosive weapons, including computer hardware, peripheral equipment and software containing files and directories and the information thereon. This is to include any disks, manuals, printouts and other assorted computer equipment.

I am satisfied that the affidavit(s) and any recorded testimony establish probable cause to believe that the person or property so described is now concealed on the person or promises above-described and establish grounds for the issuance of this warrant.

You are hereby commanded to search on or before February 28,1993 (not to exceed ten days) the person or place named above for the person or property specified, serving this warrant and making the search in the daytime – 6:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. and if the person or property be found there to seize same, leaving a copy of this warrant and receipt for the person or property taken, and prepare a written inventory of the person or property seized and promptly return this warrant to Dennis G. Green, (U.S. Judge or Magistrate) as required by law.

February 25, 1993 8:43 p.m. at Waco, Texas

Signed: Dennis G. Green, U.S. Magistrate Judge

Attached to the warrant was a copy of the affidavit Aguilera had written to justify the search (Waco search warrant and affidavit) – a fifteen page document that contained, among other things, descriptions of weapons alleged to be stored at Mount Carmel and the means by which Aguilera had reached the conclusions he had. The items listed weren’t illegal in themselves, as it turned out, but allowed speculation that in combination, they might have been used to convert legal weapons to illegal: semi-automatic rifles to automatic, for example, or dummy grenades to live ones. The sources of Aguilera’s information were typically secondhand and laced with speculation. Much of the data he cited had little or no connection with things illegal. A few samples:

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Lieutenant Barber further stated that the UPS employee Larry Gilbreath, became suspicious and concerned about the deliveries, most of which were shipped Cash On Delivery, (C.O.D.) because of their frequency and because of the method used by the recipient to receive the shipments and to pay for them.

Gilbreath would be instructed to drive to the Mount Carmel Center to deliver the package and collect for it. That on those occasions when he was at the Mount Carmel Center to deliver and collect for the C.O.D. packages he saw several manned observation posts, and believed that the observers were armed.

I was also advised by Lieutenant Barber that Robert Cervanka, a known long time McLennan County citizen, who lives near the Mount Carmel Center compound, had, on several occasions, from January through February of 1992, heard machinegun fire coming from the compound property.

I interviewed Terry Fuller, a deputy sheriff … and learned from him that …while on routine patrol in the area of the Mount Carmel Center…he heard a loud explosion … [and] observed a large cloud of grey smoke dissipating from ground level on the north end of the Mount Carmel property.

Furthermore all the testimony had been taken from individuals known to be antagonistic to Koresh, with no opportunity for rebuttal from Koresh himself, his partisans or neutral acquaintances. Koresh had allowed ATF’s agent, Robert Rodriguez, to come and go as he wished at Mount Carmel for a period of several weeks. The testimony Aguilera elicited from Rodriguez as a result of these visits was so far from supporting the affidavit’s assertions as to prompt a smile and raise the question why Aguilera chose to include it.

Granted all these deficiencies of substance, the information about weapons that Aguilera did include in the document was sufficiently detailed and technical, and Aguilera’s background sufficiently pertinent that it would probably be unreasonable to expect the judge to turn down the agent’s request for what appeared to be a routine search.

You might think that the constitutional prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure would prevent policemen from bursting unannounced into a person’s home prepared to strike or shoot anyone who resisted, in order to seize the occupants and their possessions. But judicial precedent does in fact allow such intrusions as long as they’ve been legitimized by what’s called a “no-knock warrant”, one that includes a clause authorizing the officer “to enter the premises to be searched without giving notice of the officer’s authority and purpose.” Whatever your opinion may be of such warrants, their existence is irrelevant to this case. Judge Green did not give a no-knock warrant to Agent Aguilera.

The Waco tragedy wasn’t attributable to the fact that ATF asked for and received a search warrant on flimsy evidence, but to the manner in which ATF served that warrant.

Allegations, Deceptions and Misdirections

What’s more disturbing about Aguilera’s affidavit than the inadequacy of its evidence is the inclusion of matters unrelated to its purpose, phrased in such a way as to prejudice the reader against Koresh. Aguilera consistently refers to the Mount Carmel religious community as a cult, inviting comparison with such discredited factions as those of Charles Manson and Jim Jones. He tells us that Howell changed his name to Koresh because he believed he was the Messiah or the Anointed of God. He quotes an anonymous source to the effect that a machinist “associated with Vernon Howell … had been arrested on seven occasions since 1984 for unlawful possession of drugs.” He brings up the matter of the CPS investigation, not to let us know that it found no evidence of child abuse, but that the social worker who conducted it told him that one of the children she interviewed wanted to own a gun when he grew up so he could be like the other men; and that Koresh had told her he considered himself to be a messenger from God. Aguilera also described an interview with a former member of the community who’d left after becoming disenchanted, and who claimed that Koresh had fathered fifteen children by various women, some as young as twelve years of age.

Whatever factual information there may have been in these items gleaned from Aguilera’s conversations, they had nothing to do with his reason for requesting a warrant from Judge Green. The extraneous details were included in order to associate David Koresh with various malign activities and attitudes: unconventional religious beliefs, illegal drugs, child abuse, and sexual excesses. And it wasn’t only Special Agent Aguilera who resorted to such purposeful misdirections. To their discredit, other government authorities tried to justify the degree of violence they’d unleashed on Mount Carmel by rehashing charges of the same sort in order to create an impression that what the federal cops were really engaged in was rescuing kids and other captives from the clutches of a demonic cult.

So even if you’re willing to grant the inappropriateness of what Aguilera put into his affidavit, you may still be asking yourself the same question the Tribune-Herald did: how had Koresh been able to get away so long with doing all the things Aguilera alluded to?

The answer, of course, is that he hadn’t. Starting in 1990, Marc Breault had repeatedly directed the attention of the authorities to three sorts of illegal activity he claimed his former friend had been engaged in: sexual intercourse with girls sixteen and under, thus constituting statutory rape which is illegal even if consented to, violence against children, and the possession of illegal weapons. By February 1993 enforcers of the law had had three years to take action on any of these accusations they thought were supported by sufficient evidence. Statutory rape is customarily investigated at the instigation of an injured party or her parents. In this case the charge came from an avowed enemy of Koresh without support from any individuals affected. Whether it was because the case wouldn’t have held up in court or wouldn’t have been welcomed by the alleged victims, the police consciously chose not to pursue it.  Texas CPS had been prodded into a two month investigation of the possibility that violence had been used against children at Mount Carmel, but they failed to find any evidence of it.  In trying to legitimize a request for assistance from the military, ATF had intimated that residents of Mount Carmel were involved in drug traffic, but there was no basis for the claim and Breault had never suggested it. The only one of Breault’s allegations that did remain unresolved by February 1993 was that illegal weapons were being stored at Mount Carmel, most notably rifles converted from semi-automatic to automatic operation without having been properly registered.  It was to search for such illegal weapons and only for that purpose, that law enforcers were granted permission to enter the grounds of Mount Carmel.

FBI: The Siege: February 28 to April 19, 1993

 

With ATF having badly bungled an operation that should have been routine, the Waco standoff was turned over to the Justice Department for resolution.  Wretched as ATF’s performance had been, the attitude of the FBI toward the people they now confronted and the actions they took against them turned out to be so reprehensible that the question of why the writers of the Constitution had made no allowance for a national police force never needs to be asked again.

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The FBI promptly cut off Mount Carmel’s phone service except for a single line to their own command post to be used for negotiations. Later they disconnected the electricity as well, switching it back on only at those times they wanted the besieged to be able to hear a radio broadcast. It was still winter. The nights were cold. Without electricity, the occupants had to rely on propane heaters for what warmth they could coax from them and on Coleman and kerosene lanterns for light.  Since the source of Mount Carmel’s water supply was a well with an electric pump, the absence of electricity made it hard for the residents to replenish the small amount of water they still managed to keep in bullet-damaged tanks. It also meant that refrigerated items like milk would spoil in a short time. And even that wouldn’t have been so bad if the FBI hadn’t withheld milk intended for the children in order to put pressure on their parents. And imagine what a kick those Justice Department guys got out of the way the women and kids reacted to the obscene phrases and lewd gestures they directed at them. But then, they must’ve figured, if you’re given a job to do, you might as well give it all you’ve got.

If you’re inclined to label the actions I just described as siege tactics, what would you call setting up an array of loudspeakers to blast a continual stream of repulsive sounds at a building to keep the people inside it from being able to sleep and maybe drive some of them over the edge? And for the ones who plugged up their ears, how about shining a bank of bright lights on the place all night? The word for measures like that is torture, and that’s what the FBI subjected a community of 35 women, 27 men and 21 children to, of whom only the men and not more than half of them could have been involved either in the illegal activity being investigated or in returning the gunfire of the troops who’d attacked their home. The rest of people who were made to suffer through the siege hadn’t done anything at all of interest to the FBI.  They’d been minding their own business when ATF showed up unannounced at 9:45 on a Sunday morning and left them to find something to hide behind while armed agents shot the blazes out of the building they lived in and killed six people in the process.

Once the shooting stopped, the besieged were free to leave if they wanted to. Nobody on their side was going to prevent their exit. But having been through what they had, most of them weren’t about to put their lives or liberty on the line by turning themselves over to the people who’d killed six of their companions. The troops surrounding the place hadn’t backed off, after all, nor had anybody in authority acknowledged they’d made a terrible mistake. Most of the residents stuck with David Koresh and chose to follow where he led.

During the first five days of the siege, 21 children were sent out for their safety. A few of the younger women went with them as did the oldest members of the community. Among the latter were a woman of 75 and another of 77 who were arrested and charged with attempted murder until it dawned on the officer in charge that those two probably weren’t the ones who’d been shooting at his soldiers. But eight of the adults were incarcerated as material witnesses.  Half of the children had been kept at Mount Carmel by their parents though, for fear of losing custody of them if they let the kids fall into the hands of the authorities. And that’s exactly what happened. On March 9 the Texas Department of Protective and Regulatory Services took it upon itself to decide who would be given custody of each of the 21 children who’d been sent out.

On March 11 Janet Reno officially took office as President Clinton’s new Attorney General.  From then on, she was the one who headed the Justice Department, she was the one ultimately responsible for what the FBI did. For the 51 days of the siege, negotiations continued over the phone between the two factions, with the FBI trying to induce the residents to come out and the latter holding back out of fear of what would happen to them if they did. A total of 35 people did exit during the siege: 9 women, 5 men and the 21 children mentioned above. But more than twice that number chose to stay where they were, and they were the ones who bore the brunt of the FBI’s wrath when the latter unleashed unannounced its program of retribution.

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The press and popular opinion

Maybe the most obvious question to ask is, what was the press doing all this time? In fact that’s just what the residents of Mount Carmel wanted to know.

It’s clear they didn’t understand. Not yet. They didn’t know about the press and press bias – not until they discovered they were going to be its victims rather than its beneficiaries.  Nobody’d told them that if you belong to a group the press sympathizes with, you can’t have a better ally. But if you happen to be in a group they’re down on … look out!

Reporters like to portray themselves as providing protection against injustice by bringing the truth to light. If ever a person needed some truth brought to light, it was David Koresh, but look what he got.

If there’d been a mob to appeal to, they’d’ve surely got him lynched.

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“What is truth?” Pilate asked as if he weren’t sure, and maybe it isn’t always obvious, but whatever it is has no connection with what the reporters in Waco and their editors back home were dishing out. And even if individual journalists didn’t realize until later that they’d been had by the people in charge, in the decades that have elapsed since, why haven’t they got together and acknowledged the mistake they made in not recognizing Waco as the quintessential example of government-gone-wrong that it was?

Politics

First of all there’s politics. Clinton’s Democrats had taken over from the Bush’s Republicans just a month before the ATF invasion, and the working press was overwhelmingly on the side of the new administration against the old. The reporters couldn’t bring themselves to admit that the guy they’d backed had made such a mess of things, not that soon after taking office anyway. It was a little like the break Kennedy got with the Bay of Pigs 32 years earlier. If you have the press on your side, you can get away with excuses nobody’d pay any attention to in any other circumstances.  For Kennedy that meant he could verbally accept responsibility for what had happened on the beach in Cuba and wind up being treated as a self-sacrificing hero, because the newsmen let everybody know it was really the CIA that’d conned the just-inaugurated president into doing what he did. For Clinton it was even easier. People like David Koresh weren’t afforded even the limited brand of sympathy that anti-Castro Cubans had been. After all, who cares what happens to a cultist?

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Social etiquette and acceptable prejudice

Mainly it goes back to something called social etiquette: the unwritten law that say who’s in and who’s out, who you can you make negative generalization about and who you can’t. Everybody that reads newspapers or watches TV learns by experience how it works, even if they couldn’t quite put it into words.  You can’t criticize women in general, for example, or Negroes or Jews or American Indians or homosexuals. But you won’t raise an eyebrow and might even prompt a nod of approval with a slighting remark about men or White people or Germans or WASPs or smokers. Try calling somebody a nigger and you’ll find yourself looking at nothing but the backs of the people you’d been talking to a minute earlier, and maybe having to dodge a spate of obscenities flung your way by Blacks and Whites with equal vehemence. Call somebody a redneck though in the same tone of voice, and the sophisticates’ll smile knowingly while the guy you insulted is expected to accept with good grace whatever grain of truth there may be in what you called him.  One epithet’s as derogatory as the other, and both are based on generalized judgments about disparaged groups. Why is one winked at while the other’s treated as totally out of line?  It’s social etiquette that decides.  But who decides social etiquette? Maybe you can figure that out by yourself, but here’s a hint. It has something to do with the people who pay it the most reverence.

Of course it isn’t just accidents of birth, like sex, race and nationality that define categories that get treated as okay or the opposite. Social etiquette takes account of beliefs and enthusiasms as well.  Who’d have the nerve to make light of environmentalists, for example, or feminists? But of all the groups that you can get away with ridiculing without fear of being called a bigot, one of the favorites is fundamentalists – people who take the Bible seriously enough to make it the dominant authority in their lives. The fact that fundamentalists have been so relentlessly denigrated by opinion-makers over the years means that nobody has to resort to epithets like Bible-thumpers any more to express the degree of his disdain. The word itself has come to incorporate all the disparaging connotations its users always meant to imply, to the extent that the people it refers to have taken to calling themselves evangelicals instead. But if there’s one faction even more subject to socially acceptable prejudice than fundamentalists, it’s got to be gun fanciers.  And why not? The arbiters of social etiquette have absolutely no need or inclination to join the National Rifle Association, so why should they make any effort not to offend the people who do?

Now think of somebody who’s both a fundamentalist and a gun fancier but whose particular brand of Christianity is so off-beat that it only attracts a small group of followers – which makes it, of course …

a “cult”!

Staying Relevant

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FBI: Annihilation: April 19, 1993

The plan devised by the FBI and signed off on by Attorney General Reno was to use tanks equipped with arms protruding forward to break holes in the walls of the compound and spray tear gas inside, while Bradley Fighting Vehicles, a smaller form of tank, shot exploding cartridges containing the same gas through windows and other openings. The purpose was to drive the residents into the open with the prospect that if they failed to emerge, the tanks would knock the walls down around them. Although unannounced and unadmitted as a weapon, it was evident to anyone familiar with the plan and its circumstances, that if the effort dragged on too long, fire would eventually break out and reduce the whole place to rubble. When the conflagration did predictably occur, the authorities were ready with the excuse that it had been started by the “cult members” it had destroyed, who of course were incapable by then of protesting any calumnies circulated about them.

The type of tear gas chosen by the Justice Department was of a particularly fiendish variety. It employed a chemical called CS which is so poisonous that three months earlier the federal government had agreed to a Chemical Weapons Convention that forbade its use in war.  CS causes nausea, dizziness and lung congestion and burns the skin on contact.  It’s intended for use outdoors – not in confined spaces nor, since the smaller the person subjected to it, the more devastating the reaction, on children or babies of which there were 12 at Mount Carmel, age 4 and under. Dangerous levels can be achieved by a single canister in an enclosed room and excessive exposure can render its victim incapable of flight, while the fumes released when it burns can be lethal. CS was to be sprayed from tank nozzles with carbon dioxide, but in the cartridges shot by the Bradleys, it was dissolved in methylene chloride, another irritant of eye, skin and lungs which becomes flammable when mixed with air and can explode if sufficiently confined. When it burns it produces hydrogen chloride and phosgene, the poison gas made famous by its use in World War I and proscribed by international law. The combined effects of the sprayed gas and exploded canisters would raise the level of CS within the walls of Mount Carmel far above what its manufacturer described as life-threatening.  

In addition to the gas, however the besieged were faced with another danger. The cluster of buildings in which they were housed was flimsily constructed of wood, straw bales had been stacked against some of the walls as a barrier to incoming bullets, the supply of water was so low that it provided no plausible means of fighting a fire if one did break out, and the lack of electricity forced a reliance on such open-flame devices as kerosene lanterns and propane heaters. The FBI shot something like four hundred CS rounds into the building. Given the amount of methylene chloride they contained, the possibility that fire would not break out had effectively been reduced to zero.

The attack began a little after 6 a.m. with tanks ramming holes in the building in order to spray CS inside while the Bradleys shot canisters that exploded on impact, and both types of vehicles set about random acts of destruction until a little after noon when fire erupted at several points, producing a conflagration that obliterated the building and whatever evidence it retained of the battle that had taken place there on February 28. 74 people and 2 fetuses died from a combination of toxic inhalation, suffocation, burns and trauma induced by the tanks themselves and the structures they caused to collapse. For twenty one of the victims gunshots hastened death in acts of suicide and mercy killing.  Nine individuals managed to escape from the blaze; David Koresh was not one of them.

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Aftermath

Eleven Mount Carmel residents were indicted by a grand jury for their part in the events of February 28, charged with the murder of and conspiracy to murder federal officers, with some miscellaneous firearms offenses thrown in as well. Only eight of the eleven had actually been present during the encounter with ATF. Of these, three chose to exit Mount Carmel during the subsequent siege while five were still in residence on April 19 when the fire broke out, but they managed to escape. Of the three who had not been at Mount Carmel during the battle in February, two had been arrested in the process of trying to return to the place, while the third had been at a gun show in another part of the state. The defendants were tried together in San Antonio. The jury deliberated four days in reaching a verdict in which all the defendants were found not guilty of the most serious charges: murder and conspiracy to murder. The result shouldn’t have been surprising given the fact that none of the defendants could be directly linked to any of the four deaths or sixteen woundings of ATF agents. Three defendants were found not guilty on all counts and released. Seven were convicted of aiding and abetting voluntary manslaughter, however, and five of those were also found guilty of carrying a firearm during a crime of violence. The individual who’d been off attending a gun show was convicted of weapons violations.

 

Since the convictions were of relatively minor offenses, the defendants had reason to expect mild sentences, but there were a couple of twists yet to come. For the jury to have found some of the defendants guilty of carrying a firearm during a crime of violence was inconsistent with their not having found those same people guilty of the associated crime, which led the judge to tell the jurors he would have to dismiss the convictions for carrying a firearm. After hearing additional arguments from the prosecution, however, he reversed himself in the most radical way imaginable. Rather than having the inconsistent verdicts void the convictions, he decided that, on the contrary, the convictions implied guilt for conspiracy to murder, with the result that the jury’s exoneration of all the defendants on that count was effectively nullified, allowing the judge to assign sentences of particular severity: 40 years imprisonment for five of the eight defendants, 20 years for one, 15 years for another, and five for the last.

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No grand jury was ever impaneled to hear evidence concerning the culpability of members of ATF or the FBI, their supervisors in the Treasury and Justice Departments, or any member of the Executive Branch in the violent deaths of 80 members of the Mount Carmel community.

Additional information

I set out to examine how aberrations of law enforcement can lead to instances of injustice and tyranny, and I purposely concentrated on an example that illustrates how bad things can get. The Waco incident makes the point not only by how brutally the victims were treated, but also by the fact that rather than being acknowledged as an atrocity, it continues to be regarded as controversial in the country where it occurred – as if the killings at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee had never been recognized as massacres.

I examined those aspects of the government’s program that I thought demonstrated my thesis without trying to present a comprehensive picture of everything that happened at Waco or going into related issues. Lots of writers have taken on other aspects of the story though, so if you want to fill yourself in on some of the details, let me suggest you at least include the following.

Dick Reavis was assigned to do an article on Waco. As soon as he started digging in, he was struck by how biased the press coverage had been, and he felt driven to get something into print as soon as he could to set the record straight. Even with that as motivation, The Ashes of Waco wasn’t published until 1995, two years after the events described, but it does incorporate Reavis’s extensive research and his analysis of the distortions that characterized the reports from government and press sources. For purposes of emphasis Reavis’s book employs a scrambled chronology that has the disadvantage of sometimes making it difficult to keep the sequence of events straight. He also devotes a lot of time to exploring David Koresh’s religious beliefs in advancing his thesis that one of the chief causes of the tragedy was the failure of government officials to make a serious effort to understand the mind of the man they were dealing with.

If you want to know what it was like to live through the ATF attack, the siege that followed and endure the horrors of the annihilation, read the account of one of the handful of people who managed to survive those experiences. A Place Called Waco was published in 1999, six years after the event, which allowed its author time to gain some additional perspective on what he’d been through. The chronology is more straightforward than Reavis’s, although as an autobiography the book may include a bit more about the personal life of David Thibodeau than you’re interested in knowing.

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If you’ve never observed palpably evil machines going about their work, you’ll get your chance in this two hour and sixteen minute documentary film directed by William Gazecki, along with some other things you never thought you’d see – federal cops methodically destroying a building that has men, women and children inside; filmed comments of people who, you realize as you watch, have only a short time to live; and testimony from participants and observers at the congressional hearings that came later, including Dick Reavis and David Thibodeau. You’ll watch in amazement as the Attorney General of the United States and Senator Joe Biden blithely condone paramilitary actions that took the lives of 82 innocent human beings; and you’ll witness an inversion of moral sensibilities so bizarre you wouldn’t have believed it could happen: Democratic Congressman Tom Lantos of California, well-known as a holocaust survivor, defends the calculated destruction of a disparaged religious sect by characterizing its head as, “a criminally insane, charismatic cult leader.” If it’s his party allegiance that led him to such an abnegation of normal human feelings, he should never have joined a political party.

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Waco 2: what it means

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Waco search warrant and affidavit

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Waco 2: what it means

click on a picture to enlarge it and see its title

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Writers of our day like to contrast governments they call democracies with ones they label tyrannies. If democracy means relying on the will of the majority to choose people to enact laws subject to constraints imposed by a constitution, the presumed contrast doesn’t add up to much. Democracy turns out to be fully compatible with tyranny. The will of the majority can be as oppressive as that of a dictator or of a narrow political faction, and constitutions are as subject to whims of favoritism and animosity as any other expressions of preference. And even if elections and constitutions offer the prospect of putting a lid on despotism, the people in charge of modern democracies routinely get away with undoing the will of the majority and evading the provisions of their constitutions. In fact residents of democracies may wind up considering themselves at a disadvantage relative to their more obviously oppressed neighbors since they’ve already tried the measures that are supposed to prevent tyranny and found out that they don’t work. People subject to the whims of an autocrat can at least cling to the hope that things will get better when the man-in-charge is overthrown.

Democracy and Tyranny

Since the presence or absence of elections doesn’t prove to be a very reliable way of distinguishing good governments from bad, let’s try making an evaluation based on how the functions of government actually get carried out, in other words how legislators, police, judges and jailers of a given regime go about doing their jobs, regardless of how they were chosen.

PERILS OF LAW ENFORCEMENT

In particular, let’s consider the guys that wear the badges. Everybody who’s heard the phrase, police brutality, knows there’s a potential for cops to take advantage of the authority they’ve been given by arresting people they shouldn’t or using too much force to make the arrests they do.   Historians illustrate the dangers with a set of incidents they tend to standardize on, in which enforcers of the law attack and kill people who hadn’t been convicted of a crime and weren’t threatening serious harm. In the history of the United States some incidents routinely cited are:

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The Sand Creek Massacre, November 29, 1864.

Acting on his own hook, Colonel John Chivington led a troop of Colorado cavalrymen in an attack on a band of Cheyenne Indians under Black Kettle and Arapahos under Chief Niwot who’d camped peacefully along Sand Creek outside Fort Lyon, Colorado at the invitation of the governor and under his promise of protection. Numbers are disputed and vary from one report to another, but probably at least 250 of Chivington’s approximately 700 man force took part in the assault, killing something on the order of 150 Indians, of whom roughly two thirds were women and children. The soldiers mutilated the bodies of the dead in retaliation for similar practices indulged in by Indians. About 25 of the attackers were killed, some, perhaps many, by stray bullets from other soldiers’ guns. A series of investigations followed in which Chivington’s actions were roundly condemned.   Chivington left the army and its legal jurisdiction three months after the incident. He was never tried in civil court or punished other than by the opprobrium he had to endure for the rest of his life and the damage that did to some of his ambitions.

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The Haymarket Riot, May 4, 1886.

As can be said of the Sacco and Vanzetti affair and for the same reason, this incident has been so heavily politicized as to make it almost impossible to find out what actually happened. The following at least seem plausible. On May 3, 1886 workers on strike at a McCormick factory in Chicago set about harassing the people who’d been hired to replace them as the latter left work at the end of the day. Policemen stationed at the tension-filled site fired at the attacking strikers, killing two. On the following night, union supporters staged an outdoor meeting at Haymarket Square, half a mile west of downtown, Chicago to protest the killings.   As the police moved to disperse the crowd at the end of the rally, an unidentified individual threw a bomb that killed one police officer and wounded six others so severely that they all died of their injuries. The police responded with gunfire and exchanged shots with members of the crowd, leaving four dead and many wounded on both sides of the affray. Eight men were ultimately put on trial for the bombing, only two of whom had been present at the explosion, and neither of whom was thought to be the thrower. All eight were convicted of complicity, however, seven sentenced to execution, one to 15 years in prison. Subsequent appeals were denied, but two of the sentences were later commuted to life in prison, and one of the convicted men, the alleged maker of the bomb, committed suicide. The remaining four were executed in November 1887, eighteen months after the riot.

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The Battle of Wounded Knee, December 29, 1890.

Sitting Bull, Chief of the Hunkpapa Sioux, had been living at the Standing Rock Agency for nine years when he became an advocate of the Ghost Dance, a religious practice initiated by an Indian mystic the year before. In an attempt to suppress the religion, federal authorities sent a squad of forty Indian Police under the command of Lieutenant Bull Head to arrest Sitting Bull. When the partisans of the chief tried to prevent his being taken, gunshots were exchanged, one of which struck Bull Head, who then shot Sitting Bull in the chest while a confederate shot the aged chief in the head. Seeking relief from government oppression, a group of 200 Hunkpapas set out from Standing Rock for the Pine Ridge Agency 170 miles to the south where the once influential Oglala chief, Red Cloud, still resided. On the way they were joined by a band of Minneconjou Sioux led by Spotted Elk (also known as Big Foot), another chief trying to avoid arrest for having encouraged the Ghost Dance. The group of 350 men, women and children was accosted by federal troops, who set about disarming those who had weapons. When a gun was discharged by an unidentified person, the soldiers responded with   rifle and artillery fire that resulted in the deaths of approximately 153 of the Indians and 25 soldiers.

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The Kent State shootings, May 4, 1970.

In response to a series of demonstrations at Kent State University against the expansion of the Vietnam war, on Saturday, May 2, the mayor of Kent requested that the National Guard be sent to maintain order. The soldiers arrived too late to prevent the ROTC building from being burned to the ground by protesters. Two days later opponents of the war called for a rally to be held at noon at the campus Commons. Fearing continued violence, University officials banned the rally, and when a crowd assembled anyway, sent the National Guard to disperse it. Tear gas proved ineffective, but as the guardsmen advanced with fixed bayonets, the demonstrators retreated, some throwing rocks at the soldiers or lobbing teargas canisters back at them. The soldiers succeeded in clearing the Commons, but when they turned and headed back in the direction from which they’d come, they continued to be harassed and taunted by angry demonstrators. Half an hour after the beginning of the confrontation, one of the guardsmen fired a pistol that triggered an outburst of gunfire from his companions lasting less than a minute but that left four students dead and nine wounded. Eight guardsmen were indicted, but no trials or criminal convictions ensued, although the victims were awarded a cash settlement from the state of Ohio as the result of a civil suit.

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There’s another event that isn’t put forward as frequently though, due to the way it’s been politicized, but it exemplifies the dangers of law enforcement more dramatically than any of the ones listed. It’s the attack federal agents made on the religious community of Mount Carmel near Waco, Texas, February 28, 1993, followed by the two month siege they imposed on the residents and the destruction they ultimately wrought on the people who chose to stay.

Waco 1: what happened

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WACO IN CONTEXT

Of the four incidents listed above, Waco has the strongest parallels with those at Sand Creek and Wounded knee, both of which produced casualties in the hundreds. In fact the number of fatalities at each of the two Indian engagements was close to twice as many as those at Waco, but Waco was more disturbing for other reasons: the degree of calculation it incorporated and the depth of malevolence, the time it lasted and the various levels of government that stood behind it.

Sand Creek

Sand Creek stands out as the incident among the four in which the killings were the most clearly intended. However, it was also the most attributable to an individual acting on his own, in which his actions and those of the men he commanded were subsequently disowned by the army and the higher reaches of government, even though they were excused in practice to the extent that no criminal prosecutions resulted and no material consequences followed for Colonel Chivington.

The February ATF attack on Waco was similar to Sand Creek in being a planned assault. It was different in two ways – less pernicious in that the casualties were neither anticipated nor desired; but more pernicious in not being the brainchild of a single misguided individual but the fully intended product of a government agency. ATF had hoped to intimidate David Koresh into docility by the magnitude of the armed force they sent against him.

The FBI attack of April 19 is a different matter altogether, in which intent remains unclear. It’s hard to believe that the people who formulated the plan and sold it to the Attorney General and President actually set out to kill the inhabitants of Mount Carmel. But it’s almost as hard to think that they didn’t realize that conflagration and death were the most likely result, given the amount of poison gas they injected into the building, the fact that they allowed walls to be pushed   in on unseen inhabitants, and the likelihood that fire would eventually break out in the tinder box environment they set out to demolish. Were the people responsible for the raid, from the FBI commander on up to President Clinton, that evil; or were they that stupid?

Wounded Knee

Wounded Knee resembles the February 28 encounter at Waco in being a planned action that went wrong and whose casualties were not desired or foreseen but resulted from a panicked overreaction to unexpected resistance. A more striking similarity is the part played by religion in the two incidents. Despite the fact that neither the Ghost Dance nor David Koresh’s preachings had led to acts of violence, both creeds were viewed by the government with such alarm that it felt called upon to suppress and disarm the groups that held them. If Sitting Bull and Spotted Elk had not been advocates of the Ghost Dance, and David Koresh had not been viewed as the head of a religious cult, the government would not have acted in the manner it did and the tragedies of Wounded Knee and Waco would not have occurred.

Haymarket

Although the Haymarket Riot has little in common with Waco, there are a couple of points worth noting.   Each has come to be viewed through a set of political filters. In the case of Haymarket, they derive from a sympathy for unions, socialists and anarchists. For Waco, they’re of an opposite sort, rooted in hostility to gun ownership and off-beat religious sects.   The greatest similarity between the two incidents is the injustice of the judicial actions that followed, in particular the severity of the sentences imposed on individuals whose connection to the acts of which they were convicted was tenuous or unprovable.   For the Haymarket Riot this constitutes the chief basis for criticism of the government. For Waco it was only the last in a series of injustices inflicted one after another on a group that had been living at peace with the world until it was attacked.

Kent State

The Kent State shootings, like the February 28 attack at Waco, were yet another example of a panicked overreaction to resistance in which the casualties were neither planned nor desired. It offers no parallel to the purposeful violence that occurred at Waco on April 19, however. Like all the other incidents discussed here, the law enforcers at Kent State went untried and unpunished for the civilian deaths they caused.

Wartime events

Parallels to what happened at Waco can also be found in such events as the My Lai Massacre and the Nazi suppression of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In the latter, as at Waco, it was the fact that the besieged put up a resistance that provided the pretext for their ultimate destruction. Since these disasters were products of wartime, however, they aren’t as appropriate as the four listed earlier for comparison with peacetime incidents in which officers of the law killed and wounded people of their own nation.

Inferred guilt

Some of the attempts to justify the government’s conduct at Waco have echoes in earlier attempts to defend Chivington for what he did at Sand Creek: the claim that the victims were guilty of things for which they should have been punished but weren’t.   In the case of Sand Creek it was atrocities committed by Indians against settlers. At Waco it was a grab-bag of alleged misdeeds by David Koresh, some of which were in violation of the law while others were not. Harming children and the possession of illegal weapons fall into the first category; sexual promiscuity, holding unconventional religious beliefs and stockpiling guns into the other.

As an excuse for acts of retribution, presumptions of guilt fail for the obvious reason that it takes more than presumption to justify punishment. Guilt has to be established in a court of law under rules that let both sides have their say. And in these particular cases, as it turns out, the allegations were mostly false. The people Chivington attacked may have been of the same tribe as ones who’d tortured and killed settlers, but they weren’t the same individuals. And the local police hadn’t acted on the offenses of which David Koresh and his confederates were accused, because the deeds either weren’t illegal or weren’t supported by enough evidence to hold up in court. It needs hardly be said that in any large collection of people there are going to be some who are guilty of unpunished crimes. That’s as true of the Indians at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee and of the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto as it is of the residents of Mount Carmel. In no such cases does the probability of guilt by some legitimize a punishment for all.

What makes Waco different

Having considered a number of examples of law enforcement gone wrong, let’s take a look at what makes Waco a greater indictment of government than the others.

First of all there’s what happened on February 28 and the totally inappropriate way a search warrant was served on a community that had no history of violence or resistance to law enforcement. Sending a convoy of armed agents supported by three National Guard helicopters to subdue 130 members of a religious sect, of whom two thirds were women and children, made no sense in the first place and, in the second, showed a total disregard of Fourth Amendment guarantees against unreasonable search and seizure – even in light of precedents that had legitimized “no-knock” entry since ATF’s warrant did not allow such a thing.

More disturbing is what happened after February 28. Fifty-one days passed in which the authorities had a chance to reconsider their actions and decide what to do next. In none of the four incidents discussed above had law enforcers been given an opportunity anything like that, to reflect calmly on what they’d done with a chance of undoing or mitigating some of the results. The government could have pulled its troops back while a grand jury was given a chance to assign responsibility for the actions of its agents. Not only did the officials fail to do that, they put the blame for all the deaths that had occurred on the people they’d chosen to attack. And in apparent retaliation for their own losses, they put together a plan of particular vindictiveness, exacting retribution not only on the relatively few individuals who’d had the audacity to fight back, but on all the people of Mount Carmel, the majority of whom were innocent women and children. And it wasn’t just that the victims were inappropriate. The methods to be used against them were of an especially cruel nature – a gas so pernicious its use had been outlawed in war, to be massively injected into the living quarters of 62 adults and 21 children of whom twelve were age four and under. That was to be accompanied by tanks battering down the walls behind which the residents sought shelter for themselves and their children, in an environment both sides knew was ripe for a fire that neither side had the facilities to fight – the attackers because they’d chosen not to bring the equipment they’d need, and the attacked because they hadn’t the ability to do so.

The government forces could take as much time as they needed to resolve the standoff, and, given the nation’s focus on the events at Waco, officials at every level of government, up to including the President of the United States, were enlisted in the effort. Yet the best these people were able to do was devise a plan that resulted in the deaths of all but nine members of a community they’d held captive for almost two months.

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But it wasn’t only the government that stood condemned by what transpired. The nation served by that government shared in its responsibility, excusably perhaps for having elected the people who engineered the tragedy, but not for giving them a free ride after seeing what they’d done.   Watergate forced a president to resign for hiding his knowledge of the theft of some files from the opposing party’s office. Waco, on the other hand, involved the formulation of a predictably lethal assault on a religious community followed by its execution in a manner that violated the law and the Constitution and wound up taking the lives of 82 human beings. Not only was no one impeached or indicted in consequence, the Attorney General kept her job for eight more years and the incident wasn’t even a campaign issue in the next presidential election.

Waco holds its own against any example of malicious law enforcement you can cite. What makes it a greater indictment of the society in which it occurred than, for example, the excesses of the Gestapo or KGB, is the degree to which federal enforcers in the United States managed to enlist the press in backing up what they’d done, by having them put out news reports that kept the country on the government’s side. It couldn’t happen here, a lot of us would’ve said in advance, not with reporters looking on. But it did happen and it happened in spades. And in the decades that have elapsed since, the people responsible have never felt called upon to apologize for their part in the tragedy.

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THE CONSTITUTION

What does the Constitution have to do with all this? Just about everything, as it turns out. If the Bill of Rights had been adhered to, the tragedy of Waco could never have taken place.

The founders of the republic knew that the best way to keep tyranny in check was by a putting tight limits on the government’s powers. They couldn’t have made their commitment to that principle any clearer than by having the Constitution conclude with:

The Tenth Amendment

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Language that simple doesn’t leave room for argument. The federal government flat out does not have any powers not explicitly granted to it. Those powers are limited and in particular don’t include the creation or operation of law enforcement agencies. Policing is left to the states. That this was the intent of the Constitution rather than an oversight is confirmed by an article contributed to The Federalist by the one founding father who might have been thought least likely to defend such a point of view. Among his peers, Alexander Hamilton was probably the most prominent advocate of strong central government. In spite of that, here’s what he had to say.

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A nation of cops

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The ATF and the FBI exist in defiance of the Constitution and the Tenth Amendment.

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In addition to limiting the government’s powers, the writers of the Constitution sought to prevent the undoing of its intent by using language clear and concise enough that any literate person could understand it. The less need for interpretation, the less involvement by judges, the fewer opportunities there’d be for legal chicanery. Take a look at The First Amendment.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

These guarantees couldn’t have been put much more succinctly, but notice that they are limited in applying only to what Congress can do, with no corresponding implications for the states. Of course there’s a good reason for that. The writers of Constitution realized that people would find it necessary to put some restrictions on speech and the press, but they wanted to make sure that whatever abridgments did result would be formulated and enforced at the lowest level possible in order that they best reflect the attitudes of the individuals they would be imposed on: laws against perjury, for example, libel, pornography, incitement to riot, violation of copyright, and publication of state secrets on the one hand, along with the compulsion to testify in court on the other. As regards religion, Congress was prohibited not only from establishing one but from interfering with states that chose to do so. A number of states had in fact been founded by people with strong religious ties.

Church and State

The carefully crafted phrases of the First Amendment, along with lots of other Constitutional provisions, have been casually swept aside with the passage of time, to be replaced by such unratified instances of judicial creativity as the “doctrine of incorporation”. All of which testify to the degree to which the United States has freed itself from the burden of having to observe a constitution.

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The people who created the republic did so by resorting to the force of arms in order to overcome a government they found oppressive.   Their success in that endeavor depended on having the weapons they needed to do it. The last thing they were about to give up was even the smallest part of that right. James Madison put it this way: A well regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained in arms, is the best most natural defense of a free country, a point of view that was incorporated into Bill of Rights in only slightly different words.

The Second Amendment

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The ensuring of this right was done by an amendment purposely kept separate from the First because it had to be stated more strongly, as a freedom that could not be denied or even infringed by any level of government. No legal limitations of any kind by any one would be allowed on the keeping and bearing of arms.

Time has treated the Second Amendment even more shabbily than the first. All sorts of infringements have been imposed on the right it was intended to guarantee, and in fact it was to enforce just such infringements that the ATF attacked Mount Carmel.

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The ATF attack on Mount Carmel was executed in defiance of the Second Amendment.

To the extent there’s been a change in prevailing attitudes concerning the right to keep and bear arms, that change could have been accommodated in a manner that preserved the constitutional nature of the United States government, namely by amendment.   But as time and practice have shown such efforts to be unnecessary and prone to uncertain outcomes, proponents of change have reasonably concluded: why bother with an amendment when you can get what you want without having to go through the prolonged and unpredictable process of ratification?

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The conciseness that characterizes the Constitution does result in some passages being so brief as to require interpretation or reference to outside sources. What constitutes “due process of law” in the Fifth Amendment, for example, or “cruel and unusual punishments” in the Eighth?

The Fourth Amendment

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

As much to the point as the sentence is, it does leave the meaning of “unreasonable searches and seizures” unclear. The vagueness is mitigated by the requirements for “probable cause”, “oath or affirmation,” and the necessity of describing the place to be searched and the persons and things to be seized. Beyond those specifics though, the word, “unreasonable” still requires clarification? Is it something you and I can expect to agree on?

Maybe not,” you volunteer, “but we can at least put some limits on what the phrase definitely allows and definitely excludes. Let’s try this. You describe a form of search you think is so ‘unreasonable’, that no sane person could disagree. Starting from that extreme, we’ll see if we can narrow the meaning down.”

“Okay,” I say, “that seems as good an approach as any and shouldn’t be too hard to do. How’s this? A group of men batter down the door of a home without giving any warning or explanation except to shout ‘Police! Search warrant! Lay down!’ as they burst through and proceed to seize persons and property inside regardless of whether anyone heard what they said or understood it, all the while having guns at the ready and prepared to strike down or shoot anyone who resists. Now that’s a method of search and seizure that anyone would call ‘unreasonable’. Don’t you agree?”

Of course,” you reply, “How could I not? But it also happens to be a method allowed by the judicial system of the United States as long as it’s been justified in advance by something called a no-knock warrant.”

“That’s as may be,” I say, “but it’s irrelevant since your question had to do with what the Constitution says.”

And of course that is the crucial difference: what the Constitution says and what it’s been taken to mean. Unbelievable at it may seem to a naive reader, the no-knock warrant has been accepted as a legitimate procedure of law enforcement in United States in defiance of the Fourth Amendment. As it happens though, that fact has no bearing on what happened at Waco on February 28, since such a warrant was not issued by Judge Green, leaving the ATF’s action unsupported by the Constitution either as written or as interpreted.

The ATF attack on Mount Carmel was executed in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

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DEMOCRACY AND TYRANNY

Those who take the time to study what happened at Waco in 1993 and how those events have been conventionalized by historians, will find it hard to come up with a more terrible indictment of the United States government and the culture it reflects. Early on John Adams saw the nature of the underlying problem, and he put it into words on a number of occasions:

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

 Liberty can no more exist without virtue and independence than the body can live and move without a soul.

 Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private, and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.

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Murderer One

The Biggest Lie

Worst President USA

The View from Mars

Infamy Quiz

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Hedy Lamarr: inventor?

click on a picture to enlarge it and see its title

This is Hedy Lamarr.

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This is Thomas Edison.

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What do they have in common?

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THEY WERE BOTH INVENTORS!

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History popularizer Richard Rhodes devoted a book to exploring Hedy’s most renowned excursion into what we normally think of as Edison’s bailiwick. It’s called Hedy’s Folly. The author makes no attempt at objectivity but portrays his subject exactly as she would have wanted to be portrayed. Following a lead established by other writers, he sets out to convince us that “Hedy in Vienna, George [Antheil] in Paris and then the two of them meeting up in Hollywood to invent a fundamental new wireless technology makes a remarkable story …” Now neither Hedy nor her collaborator had had any training in wireless technology nor even in science, yet the breakthrough attributed to them – which goes under the name “frequency hopping spread spectrum” – is currently used in military and radio control applications and in consumer products that go under the name “bluetooth”; and its purview is sometimes extended by Hedy’s fans to encompass the entire realm of cell phones and WiFi.

So, take that, Edison!

From the looks of your fellow inventor, you didn’t need to expend all that perspiration after all.

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On the other hand…

if you’ve been led to conclude as I have that the judgment of history is always wrong, you’ll be inclined to take a step back, ask who Hedy Lamarr was, what she knew, and what exactly she did contribute to the development of wireless technology.

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Hedy

She was born Hedwig Kiesler in Vienna in 1914 and left school at the age of 16 to follow a career in acting, landing small parts on the stage before going to Berlin to become involved in films. She muddled along with modest success until she attained instant fame by appearing naked in some of the scenes of a 1933 Czech film called Ecstasy.

The manner by which she achieved her renown – which her parents learned of only after the movie came out – would cling to Hedy and color people’s perception of her for the rest of her life.   It was of course her attractiveness that led to her being invited to do nude scenes, and that same quality naturally drew the interest of the men she encountered. One of them was an Austrian industrialist and munitions manufacturer named Friedrich Mandl who persuaded her to marry him later in the same year that Ecstasy was released – also, by the way, the year in which Hitler came to power in Germany. After the marriage Mandl tried in vain to buy up all the copies of Ecstasy in order to have them destroyed. Hedy meanwhile found herself in charge of a household frequented by some of Austria’s richest and most influential men. It was a situation that would have delighted most women of ambition, of which Hedy was certainly one, but in this as in many other matters she proved to be quite different from most women. In fact she developed a distaste for her husband and the life into which he’d led her, resulting in a divorce after four years of marriage. Even before it took effect though, Hedy was off to Paris and then to London where she encountered U.S. film mogul Louis B. Mayer. He knew of her from her appearance in Ecstasy and invited the strikingly beautiful 22 year old to come to Hollywood. She arrived in October of 1937 and was awarded a boffo part in the movie, Algiers, with Charles Boyer. Over the course of the next dozen years she appeared in 19 films opposite such major stars as Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, John Garfield, Robert Taylor and Jimmy Stewart,

Hedy capped her movie career in 1949 with her most commercially successful role, playing Delilah to Victor Mature’s Samson in Demille’s version of the biblical epic. But whatever positive qualities Hedy had were undermined by her penchant for making bad decisions. In her personal life this led to a string of sexual adventures and failed marriages; in her professional life to an attempt to transcend the crowd-pleasing popularity she’d achieved with her natural attractiveness by exercising greater control over the movies she became involved in. As things turned out, her success as Delilah was followed by a series of box office disappointments that gradually undid the degree of stardom she’d attained; and in contrast with actresses who managed to bounce back from temporary lulls, Hedy was never able to regain her former prominence. Few interesting roles came her way after 1951, and by the time her sixth and last marriage ended in 1965 her career had been in the doldrums for a long time.

She made headlines the following year by being arrested for shoplifting. The charge was dropped, but with the help of a couple of ghost writers she capitalized on her time in the spotlight by turning out an autobiography called Ecstasy and Me.   In it she came across as self-absorbed, self-indulgent and sex-obsessed, and although she’d approved the contents of the book before it was released, she turned around afterward and disavowed everything in it, suing her publisher in the process. In fact she did relate many of its incidents quite differently on other occasions. In 1991 she was again charged with shoplifting and again let go. She lived out her life in relative seclusion, succumbing to heart disease at her home near Orlando, Florida in 2000 at the age of 85. Her later years bring to mind the travails of some other female stars of her era: Betty Hutton, for example, Veronica Lake and Rita Hayworth.

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Curiosity

Enigmatic as Hedy was, one of the most intriguing things about her was that during the period of her maximum allure, she devoted a lot of her spare time to inventing things. A scientific lightweight she may have been, but the ideas she came up with depended on curiosity and imagination rather than technical competence. At one time or another she delved into such diverse realms as reconstituting soda pop from a pellet (a la Alka Seltzer), better designs for traffic signals and tissue boxes, and methods for tightening the skin. The idea for which she was awarded a patent, however, and whose subsequent revelation led to a curious renewal of fame in the 1990’s, lay in a field for which people of her background seem particularly ill suited. It was to making the weapons of war more deadly that Hedy and her musically inclined collaborator set their hands at the end of 1940.

Hedy had been in Hollywood for three years. Although the United States stayed on the sidelines when Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Hedy’s emotions became engaged with the plight of the Allies and especially the vulnerability of their ships to German U-boats. Given the fact that torpedoes were the primary means by which the Germans were sinking Allied ships, it’s curious that Hedy sought to improve the effectiveness of those devices rather than of measures designed to counteract them.

From 1933 to 1937 Hedy had been married to a munitions manufacturer, so she’d had contact with people familiar with military matters in general and submarine warfare in particular. She later recalled a conversation she’d had in 1936 with a German engineer involved in designing torpedoes that could be steered remotely after launch. Since torpedoes run under water, radio wasn’t a suitable means of guidance; a wire that unreeled from them during transit was the method most commonly employed. Glide bombs were a form of torpedo dropped from airplanes. They’d been introduced by Germany in World War I, and since they traveled through air they could be and were adapted to radio control during World War II. In seeking a patent, Hedy constructed a scenario in which torpedoes were launched from a ship and directed to their targets by a shipboard controller who could turn the torpedo’s rudder left or right with radio signals. Since radio didn’t propagate through water we’re led to wonder if Hedy intended the torpedoes to stay on the surface. Whatever she had in mind, the patent application made it clear that the recommended measures could be used to enhance the security of any device controllable by radio, whether on land, sea or in the air.

The deficiency of radio for wartime purposes to which Hedy addressed her attention was its vulnerability to interception and jamming. The solution she came up with was to vary the transmitted frequency in a pattern that would be unpredictable to an enemy. A commercially available radio of the time may have suggested the idea by allowing any of eight preset frequencies to be selected or changed from a dial on a remote control device.

The use of radio to guide devices from a distance had been invented and explored by others, so Hedy couldn’t hope to patent that part of her plan, but for any application in which radio control was appropriate, varying the frequencies in the way she described would make interception difficult or impossible. Therefore when she submitted a request to the patent office it was under the title, “Secret Communication System”. You can’t patent an electric light by noting that sending electricity through a wire will make it glow; and you can’t patent a secret communications system by noting that varying the frequency it uses will prevent jamming. You have to provide an application of your idea that’s capable of accomplishing a purpose you describe. That’s what Hedy set out to do by showing how her anti-jamming strategy could be used to make the remote control of torpedoes more secure. One of the things her idea relied on was that the sending and receiving radios always had to be tuned to the same frequency. A method for achieving that coordination was supplied by a man Hedy met almost by chance and who came to be listed as her collaborator.

Georgy

His name was George Antheil (ANT-hile) and he was a composer.

Fourteen years Hedy’s senior, he’d been born in the United States, but his immigrant parents had raised him to speak German as well as he spoke English. He spent his childhood immersed in music to the virtual exclusion of other subjects, and by the age of 22 he’d become sufficiently accomplished as a pianist and composer to set his sights on joining the avant garde in Paris. He succeeded to the extent that he soon found himself among such cutting edge composers as Stravinsky, Satie, Milhaud and Auric. It was a time when outrageousness could be made to substitute for musicality in getting the public’s attention. George was invited to play some of his more outré piano pieces at the opening of the Swedish Ballet in Paris in 1923. One of the concert’s backers arranged for George’s performance to trigger a riot of the sort that had brought fame to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring ten years earlier. George hadn’t been informed of what was going to happen, but he was unfazed by the furor he caused and even amused by it. And why not? Three years later he was able to capitalize on what he’d gone through to achieve the peak of his fame by staging a performance of his own Ballet Mecanique.

George’s score called for a variety of noise makers – saws, hammers, bells, and airplane propellers – along with conventional instruments and 16 synchronized player pianos. As things turned out, he was forced to cut the number of pianos to eight and have them played conventionally; but that proved adequate for his purposes. At its premiere in Paris Ballet Mecanique created a stir of just the sort George had hoped for, although it did fall short when he tried it again in New York. In researching the orchestration he’d intended to use, George spent a lot of time at the Pleyel piano factory learning about player pianos and how they worked – knowledge he was subsequently able to draw on in designing a device to implement a new approach to musical notation he’d come up with, in which a moving scroll guided a pianist’s fingers to the appropriate keys. He called the invention SEE-note and attempted to have it patented, but his efforts came to nothing.

George continued to knock about Europe for another half dozen years before moving back to the United States during the depths of the Depression. Outrageousness no longer offered a route to fame, and George’s musical innovations drew little interest. When an opera he’d labored over flopped at Julliard, he lapsed into a period of inactivity. His need for income eventually drove him to look for work in Hollywood. He arrived in 1936 and over a period of years was able establish himself as a writer of movie music – conventional by his earlier standards but suited to its purpose. By the time he met Hedy in August of 1940, he’d completed scores for the Demille films, The Plainsman and The Buccaneer. In spite of those successes, demands for his talents remained sparse.

Synchrony

Hedy and George were introduced at the home of a mutual friend. They found they had a lot in common. Like George, Hedy was an accomplished pianist, familiar with life in Europe and in Paris in particular. She spoke German and English, had a strong sympathy for England in its struggle against Germany, and was possessed of a curiosity that was wide-ranging but unschooled. It also happened to be the case that although George was married, he never passed up an opportunity to be around attractive women. From the similarity of their interests and perhaps for reasons more personal, Hedy and George wound up spending a lot of time together; and the concern they shared about the war in Europe led them to devote some of that time to exploring Hedy’s ideas for weapons improvements.

George’s attempts to get SEE-note patented had given him experience that proved relevant. His technical background was slight, but if there was one thing he knew something about, it was how a player piano worked. What it did was convert perforations cut in a paper scroll into the notes the piano played. The scroll was wide enough to accommodate 88 positions across, one for each of the piano’s keys. As the scroll was pulled over a horizontal bar with 88 openings, a vacuum in the bar allowed each perforation to be sensed by the flow of air it induced when it lined up with an opening. That flow was used to trigger a hammer into striking the key corresponding to the perforation’s position. If a player piano could be made to translate perforations into audio frequencies, a similar machine could surely be designed to translate perforations into radio frequencies. In the former a flow of air would cause a hammer to strike a particular key, in the latter it would cause a switch to enable a particular condenser.

In preparing to stage his Ballet Mecanique George had not only learned how a player piano worked but how to synchronize one piano with another. If each was equipped with an identically perforated roll that was put in motion at the same moment and kept moving by motors of the same speed, the two pianos would continue to play the same notes at the same time. While a piano roll had to accommodate 88 different notes, a secret communication system didn’t need anywhere near that number of frequencies. The example described in Hedy’s plan was limited to four frequencies for actually conveying information to the torpedo and three others to confuse a potential interceptor. What was needed then, was a paper ribbon wide enough to accommodate seven perforations – more like a teletype tape than a piano roll. One ribbon would control the frequency of the sending radio while an identically punched one would control that of the receiver. If both were set in motion by the launching of the torpedo, and they were advanced by motors of the same speed, the frequencies of sending and receiving radios would remain in sync. It all sounded plausible, but George never invested the effort it would take to build a prototype and put his design to a test.

Bureaucracy

There were additional details to be taken care of. A patent agent employed by the inventors located an electrical engineer to provide broad-brush schematics of the sending and receiving radios, with a separate condenser shown for each of the transmitter’s seven frequencies and each of the receiver’s four. The legal firm of Lyon and Lyon supplied patent attorneys to get the application into the proper form and make sure it presented each of its claims with the right level of detail. The proposal was submitted to the U.S. patent office on June 10, 1941 at the same time it was making its way to the War Department under the auspices of the National Inventor’s Council – with a push from some of George and Hedy’s high-placed friends. It wasn’t until early 1942, two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, that the inventors heard anything back. The Navy had taken a look at their plan but rejected it. Hardly surprising under the circumstances. With the nation suddenly finding itself at war, investigating novel weapons designs wouldn’t have been high on the War Department’s list of priorities. Plus which the Navy didn’t use radio controlled torpedoes or have any plans for developing them, and the improvements known to be needed for their torpedoes were of an entirely different nature.

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And, let’s face it, George’s contribution was a liability rather than an asset. The vacuum-based sensors used in player pianos were adequate for a bulky item that stood on the floor of a living room, but they’d been developed in the course of the preceding century in which electricity wasn’t available in the home, so they relied on foot pedals for the required power and currents of air rather than electricity to transfer forces. When multiple frequency radio was being expanded by other developers later on, the few who’d been made aware of George’s scheme were never tempted to use it.

Nevertheless there was some good news for the inventors. Six months after the Navy turned their proposal down, it was assigned patent number 2,292,387. Relying on different criteria from those of military evaluators, the people at the patent office concluded that the concept was original enough to get their blessing and the proposed application plausible enough. And that was all they insisted on. The award provided Hedy and George intellectual vindication, but no material rewards. Their proposal continued to lie in the Navy’s files, unused by the one customer at whom it had been aimed. The patent expired in 1959, the year that George died of a heart attack and long after Hedy had gone on to other things.

That then was the sum total of Hedy Lamarr’s contribution to wireless technology: she applied for and was given a patent for a method of protecting radio transmissions against jamming and interception by varying the frequencies-used in a manner that was unpredictable by an enemy. The purpose to which she put her idea presumed its applicability to the control of torpedoes by radio and rested on a method of synchronization that would have been clumsy in practice but probably could have been made to work. The device was never actually built, so its design was never tested. Later developers of multiple frequency systems were generally not aware of Hedy’s patent and none of them were guided or inspired by it.

Technology

Under the same incentive of improving wartime security that had motivated Hedy’s efforts, military engineers were pushing radio technology hard during the early 1940’s, and they continued to do so after the war was over. A set of techniques they worked on was later grouped under the title, “spread spectrum.” What these communications methods had in common was a reliance on a greater range of frequencies than was needed for the information they transmitted. The advantage they gained was increased protection against noise, jamming and interception.

Spread spectrum was initially confined to the military applications for which it was developed, but in the 1980’s the Federal Communications Commission authorized civilian use, and developers were quick to capitalize on an ability it provided of allowing multiple users to share a common frequency band without interfering with each other, yielding a dramatic expansion of capacity that led to such now-familiar applications as GPS, cell phones and WiFi.

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The two most common forms of spread spectrum are called “direct sequence” and “frequency hopping”. A direct sequence transmitter imposes pseudo-random noise on the signals it sends out. This has the effect of expanding the range of frequencies-used and flattening the graph of their spectrum, obscuring the existence of a signal and making its interception and jamming more difficult by those who recognize its presence. The superimposed noise appears random to a potential interceptor, but it’s called pseudo-random because it can be reproduced by anyone who knows the algorithm that was used to create it. In particular, a receiver can be equipped with that algorithm in order to allow it to generate the same noise pattern and subtract it from the received signal to restore the original. Frequency hopping is similar in that it also relies on a pseudo-random generator, but rather than imposing the output as noise, the transmitter uses it to select from a variety of allowed frequencies. A receiver equipped with the same algorithm can use it to change frequencies in synchrony with those being sent.

What Hedy and George proposed is an instance of frequency hopping in which the pseudo-random sequence is punched on paper tapes rather than being incorporated into the electronics. While the underlying idea is the same, the method of implementation does make a difference. Paper ribbons and vacuum-based sensors are prone to mechanical errors and breakdowns. They aren’t capable of changing frequencies as rapidly as electronic methods nor of incorporating the same kinds of error checking and correcting schemes.

Varying transmission frequencies to inhibit jamming is a concept general enough that it can’t be attributed to a single inventor. At its most basic it’s what radio operators do manually from time to time to keep the other side guessing. Starting in 1903 with various patents and publications, Nikola Tesla and others explored the concept in the United States and elsewhere, Germany in particular; and the German army employed a version against the British in World War I. That these developments preceded Hedy’s involvement needn’t detract from her claim to originality. Given the limited knowledge she had of technical developments and the improbability that she executed a thorough patent search, it’s likely she came up with the idea on her own.

For those with enough interest in the subject and understanding of its terms, there is a scholarly article that recounts the history of spread spectrum technology, including frequency hopping, written in 1982 by electrical engineer Robert A. Scholtz. It’s called:

“The Origins of Spread-Spectrum Communications”, IEEE Transactions on Communications, Vol. COM-30, No. 5, May 1982, p. 822

https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/a931/ac1b3ef11235d4516f341b3b5bd8b1ee330e.pdf

The article doesn’t mention Hedy and George, which merely reflects the fact that their patent played no part in the development of frequency hopping or wireless technology since it lay unknown and unused until it was unearthed by later investigators whose advances had already passed it by. That the concept Hedy latched onto was a good one, is attested to by the degree to which it was exploited by others before and after Hedy’s interest. It also emphasizes the fact that there’s more to inventing than having a good idea or recognizing one. The Army Signal Corps became involved in developing secure radio systems starting in the early 1940’s. Their engineers did achieve successes that were kept classified and therefore unknown to the outside world until the 1980’s; but in spite of their investigations of spread spectrum technology and those of others, Robert Scholtz concludes in the paper cited above: “In 1963 BLADES [a communications system developed by Sylvania for the Navy] was installed on the command flagship Mt. McKinley for operational development tests. … intentional jamming was encountered, and BLADES provided the only useful communication link for the McKinley. Thus, BLADES was quite likely the earliest FH-SS [frequency hopping spread spectrum] communications system to reach an operational state.” (Underlining added.)

Philanthropy

Although Hedy’s patent was never acted on, its existence did become known as a result of patent searches initiated by later investigators, the earliest remembered being in 1955 by an engineer who’d intended to use frequency hopping in a design he’d been working on, only to have it superseded by a cabled system. But later researchers of spread spectrum were as surprised as he’d been to find among papers and patents elicited from Bell Labs and Sylvania, the U.S. Army and the Navy, Telefunken and Siemens, and dozens of other centers of electronics research, a patent issued in 1941 to a pair of unaffiliated individuals for a “Secret Communications System” that relied on player piano technology to synchronize changes of frequency between a pair of communicating radios. If the names on the patent had been Helen Kugler Murray, let’s say, and Greg Atley, nobody would have given it a thought, and we would have heard no more about it, but as it turned out they were Hedy Kiesler Markey and George Antheil, and it took only a little effort of memory to recall that Markey was one of the married names of Hedy Lamarr – film star and glamour queen of a bygone era, who’d gone through some tough sledding in the meantime and was living by herself now, with her attempted contribution to the war effort and communications technology of her day having long been forgotten.

Who could let an opportunity like that get away, to introduce some zest into the life of an individual with a past as intriguing as Hedy’s had been? Certainly not Colonel Dave Hughes, veteran of the Korean and Vietnam wars, pioneer in the spread of the internet and wireless communications to rural areas. Born in 1928, Dave had been 9 years old when Hedy arrived in Hollywood and 21 when she’d turned her wiles on an overmatched Samson. Once Dave became aware of the actress’s forays into inventing and the kind of life she was currently living, the thing he set about doing was as good as done. It took three years, but through his efforts and those of the people he enlisted online he saw to it that the recipient of an award he’d been given by the Electronic Frontier Foundation for 1993 was bestowed on Hedy for 1997. It included a posthumous acknowledgement of George’s part as well. So there it was, attested to by a reputable scientific organization – the unarguable importance of Hedy’s contribution to wireless technology.

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History

So here’s how we write it up:

“In the bleak early days of World War II ensconced in her mansion outside of Hollywood, the World’s Most Beautiful Woman inveigled the Bad Boy of Music into helping her come up with a way to give the Nazis back some of their own. And all that these two unlikely individuals wound up doing was to invent frequency hopping – the crucial first step in the development of spread spectrum technology that’s led through various modes of multiple access to GPS, cell phones, WiFi and all the other wireless services we rely on so heavily today.”

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Wait a minute! You can’t put that down. Anybody that knows anything about Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil will realize how phony it is. Not only did Hedy and George not invent frequency hopping, it wasn’t until years after their proposal got shelved by the Navy that anybody found out that the two of them had been given a patent for something that later came to be known under that heading; but none of the people who succeeded in putting frequency hopping and the technologies that followed it to practical use, drew on anything Hedy and George had done.

You’re missing the point. This is the way everybody wishes it had been, the way it should have been, the way it will have been … once the book comes out.

Are you telling me that’s how history gets written?

Of course it is. You mean you didn’t know?

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Hedy Lamarr Patent

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Time and its traces: singers 3

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Popular singers 3

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Billie Holiday,   1915 – 1959

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Ella Fitzgerald,   1917 – 1996

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Johnny Cash,   1932 – 2003

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Pat Boone,   1934 –

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Elvis Presley,   1935 – 1977

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Elton John,   1947 –

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Emmylou Harris,   1947 –

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Olivia Newton-John,   1948 –

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Timea and its traces: singers 1

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Time and its traces: singers 2

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Does God exist? Merton & Greene

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THINGS IN COMMON


Thomas Merton and Graham Greene

were two of the 20th century’s more prolific writers of English. Merton (1915-1968) concentrated his efforts in religious exposition and advocacy of various social and political causes. He’d written several novels as a young man but only one was published and that after his death when his fame had been established by other things, most notably a spiritually-oriented autobiography he completed at the age of 31 that became a bestseller in 1948. Greene’s (1904-1991) reputation rested mostly on his novels but he was also a writer of short stories, essays, movie reviews and screenplays; and he completed two autobiographies. The men were contemporaries in the sense that Merton’s life fit well inside that of Greene – born 11 years later and died 23 years earlier. Merton spent most of his life in the United States, but he attended school in England from the ages of 13 to 19, while Greene was an Englishman whose works were popular in the United States and he sometimes incorporated Americans into the novels he wrote.

What invites comparison of the opinions of these men is the fact that both were raised in households where religion had little relevance, yet both converted to Catholicism, Merton at 23 and Greene at 21, and they came to be known as Catholic writers as a result of their dealing with people and issues associated with that religion. Subscribing to the same faith might make their agreement on God’s existence seem obvious, but with Greene especially assumptions of belief or allegiance could never be taken for granted.

To illustrate the danger in making such assumptions, I’ll stray from the main subject long enough to explore an attachment shared by the two men that was common in the times in which they lived and has strong parallels in our own day, but that I’ve never been able to make any sense of. The antagonism Merton and Greene felt to the Nazism preached by Hitler could be assumed so readily that to have asked either man how he felt about it might have been taken as an insult – an aversion automatically extended to the less virulent combinations of nationalism and socialism fostered by Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain and to all of which the word “fascism” was customarily applied despite the fact that it was really only appropriate for the party Mussolini founded in 1919. On the other hand even a cursory reading of Marx and Engels’ “Communist Manifesto”, written back in1848, revealed the same kind of generalized judgments that characterized Hitler’s invective and derived from the same kind of resentments and prejudices, except that the former concentrated its vitriol into fewer words and aimed it at different targets (muddled minds: Karl Marx). What’s more, Lenin, Trotsky and Stalin had been at least as ruthless in pursuit of their Communist goals as Goebbels, Himmler and Heydrich would prove to be for the Nazis, and the success Communism achieved over time allowed its bosses to put an end to far more innocent lives than Hitler would manage in his 12-year reign. Also of interest is the fact that Communism was more hostile to religion than any of the fascisms were. Marx had labeled religion the opium of the people, and that attitude had had consequences for believers in Russia and Mexico and would later in Spain and China as well (red legacy). Given the number of indictments lodged against Communism by the time Merton and Greene took a look at it, it’s astounding that both men actually numbered themselves among its partisans for a while.

Merton’s infatuation took place before his religious conversion, lasting roughly from 1931 to 1935 with his active participation limited to the few months before he chose to bow out. It was flip-flops in policy mandated by party leaders that led to his disenchantment more than anything else, although the capriciousness of those changes led him to take a closer look at the inconsistencies and inanities of Marx and his Soviet implementers. Merton remained a captive of the animosities Marx had relied on in promoting class warfare, however, so that in writing about his experience later he rationalized what he’d done in terms of feelings he still held but in which he failed to acknowledge any prejudice. “… a shrew of a French-woman, one of those spiteful, sharp-tongued bourgeoises, who was giving free expression to her hatred of one of her neighbors who very much resembled herself.” “The so-called culture that has evolved under the tender mercies of capitalism, had produced what seems to be the ultimate limit of this worldliness. And nowhere…has there ever been such a flowering of cheap and petty and disgusting lusts and vanities as in the world of capitalism.”   “I was born the sworn enemy of everything that could obviously be called bourgeois‘.What astonished me altogether was the appearance of a saint in the midst of all the stuffy, overplush, overdecorated, comfortable ugliness and mediocrity of the bourgeoisie.” “I do not say that it [devotion to St. Therese of Lisieux] changed my opinion of the smugness of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie: God forbid! When something is revoltingly ugly, it is ugly, and that is that.” Contempt for the bourgeoisie is no less pernicious than contempt for Jews, after all, and had consequences as dire – numerically even more so.

On the other hand Merton continued to view Communists and the groups they favored with stars in his eyes. “…in Harlem the Communists were strong. They were … performing some of the works of mercy that Christians should be expected to do. If some Negro workers lose their jobs … the Communists are there to divide their own food with them, and to take up defence of their case.” Negroes, laborers and union members; the poor, the out of work and the disaffected, including those among them willing to resort to violence: that was Communism’s constituency – the factions on which it depended for whatever political power it would attain and the ones it necessarily championed. It was also a constituency that gave Communism the lure it had for people like Merton and Greene, whose sympathies were tied to that race and those classes – and to those who sided with them. But justice is more complicated than allegiances. In fact it depends on overcoming the biases they inspire. “If you love those who love you,” Jesus reminded us, “what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. … But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back.” Sticking up for the groups you’re tied to emotionally or politically comes easily. What’s hard is treating your enemies with the same degree of consideration. Justice depends on viewing people as individuals, from outside the boundaries of race and class all the other traits that allegiances depend on.

In contrast with the briefness of Merton’s commitment, Greene’s persisted to the end. In defiance of all the evidence he’d been exposed to during the course of his life, in 1987 – four years before his own death and that of Communism in Russia – he presented the following to a group of officials in the Kremlin as the position of the church he’d joined 61 years earlier: “There is no division in our thoughts between Catholics – Roman Catholics – and Communists. In the Sandanista Government my friend Tomas Borge, the Marxist Minister of the Interior, works in close friendship with Father Cardinal, the Minister of Culture, the Jesuit Father Cardinal, who is in charge of health and education, with Father D’Escoto, who is Minister for Foreign Affairs. There is no longer a barrier between Roman Catholics and Communism.

Catholics marching in step with Communists, followers of Christ arm in arm with those of Marx. Late in life Greene apparently saw nothing incongruous in Christians giving support to a political creed that had proved more destructive of human life and liberty than any in history and was hostile to God and the practice of religion as well. That was a combination of loyalties it would have been hard to predict. Certainly it would have been in 1963 when Rolf Hochhuth created a stir by writing a play in which he accused Pope Pius XII of having failed to oppose with sufficient vigor a political philosophy of similar malevolence.

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ROADS TO CONVERSION

 Thomas Merton

was born in Prades, France, in January 1915 to a father visiting that country from New Zealand and a mother from the United States whom he’d met and married in Paris. Since the Great War was in progress, France promised to be a more perilous place to live than the United States, so Tom’s parents took him across the Atlantic in 1916, and the three of them found a house on Long Island, New York, not far from where the parents of Tom’s mother lived. Two years later Tom’s brother, John Paul, was born.

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Tom received little religious education as a child. His mother had a notion of God sufficient to induce her to attend Quaker meetings on occasion, but in general she regarded organized religion as superstitious. His father was more receptive. He took the boy to a Quaker service so he could see what it was like and allowed him to attend services at the Episcopal church where he was the organist. Looking back on that early exposure to religious observance, Tom described it temperately: “One came out of the church with a kind of comfortable and satisfied feeling that something had been done that needed to be done.

Tom’s father was an artist, but in addition to playing the organ in a church, he took jobs as a landscape gardener and pianist at a movie theater to earn what the family needed to live on. Tom’s mother died of stomach cancer when her son was six. She’d avoided contact with him at the end of her life to spare him the pain of seeing her die, but his memories of her remained blurred as a result. Her death did allow Tom’s father to devote himself more exclusively to his art. He took his son to Massachusetts briefly and then to Bermuda, in search of subjects to paint. After a successful exhibition in New York, he left Tom in the care of his grandparents and went to France. Tom’s grandmother and grandfather had had little more involvement with religion than his parents, but they did think of themselves as Protestant. When they sent Tom to Sunday school he found it so boring he was allowed not to continue.

After two years in Europe Tom’s father returned but only long enough to inform his son that the two of them would be headed back across the Atlantic. It was 1925. The war had been over for seven years, Tom was ten and he dreaded the move, but when he got to France he was enchanted by the countryside they traveled through. He had his first exposure to the churches and monasteries of the Middle Ages – an era that would exert an increasing influence on his thoughts as time went by. Tom spent three years in towns of southern France, with his father going off to paint while he had to accommodate himself to the difficulties of learning a new language and adapting to the varying kinds of boys he encountered in the schools he attended. He did develop an affection for France but it was based more on the culture that had evolved there earlier than for what the country had become by the third decade of the 20th century. In any case he felt a sense of relief when he learned from his father that they were moving to England in 1928.

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One of the things that made the transition as pleasant as it turned out to be it was the presence of an aunt and uncle who lived in the borough of Ealing in London. For a year Tom attended school at Ripley Court near their home while his father signed him up to board at Oakham the following fall.   Ripley was an Anglican school and at this point in his life Tom accepted its practices without difficulty. “I did acquire a little natural faith,” he wrote later, “and found many occasions of praying and lifting up my mind to God. … And for the next two years I think I was almost sincerely religious.”

On a trip to Scotland in the summer of 1929 Tom’s father fell ill and returned to London for diagnosis. The problem turned out to be a malignant brain tumor for which he had to be hospitalized.   Despite his father’s incapacity, in September Tom made the trip to Oakham, a hundred miles north. After adapting to life in his new environment, he started to assert his intellectual independence. Like Ripley, Oakham was an Anglican institution, but Tom bridled now at some of the religious and philosophical instruction to which he was subject.

During the summer break Tom was able to visit his father frequently at the hospital in London. Shortly after returning to Oakham in September, however, he was informed that his father had died. “The death of my father left me sad and depressed for a couple of months,” he wrote, “But eventually that wore away.” Other changes were taking place as well. “It was in this year … that the hard crust of my dry soul finally squeezed out all the last traces of religion that had ever been in it. There was no room for any God in that empty temple full of dust and rubbish… .” By the fall of 1931 Tom considered himself a different person from the boy who’d entered Oakham two years earlier. In his eyes he was, “the only one in the whole place who knew anything about life, from the headmaster on down.” The things he chose to read reflected his newly rebellious attitude. Except one. The headmaster gave him a book of poems by the Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Tom didn’t quite know what to make of Hopkins’ poetry, but he did find it to his liking.

In 1932 Tom passed an examination that would allow his admission to Cambridge the following year. During the summer he visited Rome and got caught up in exploring the churches there and the religious art in them: “I loved to be in these holy places,” he wrote about it. ” I had a kind of deep and strong conviction that I belonged there.” “… for the first time in my life I began to find out something of Who this person was that men called Christ.” “I took the trolley … to the Trappist monastery of Tre Fontane. … and the thought grew on me: ‘I should like to become a Trappist monk.’ … The thought was only a daydream.”

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By the time he returned to the United States, however, he found that “… this real but temporary religious fervor of mine cooled down and disappeared. At Easter we went to the church where my father had once been organist … and there I was very irritated by the services.” At the end of 1933 he went back to England to take up his studies at Cambridge and was drawn into a self-indulgent crowd whose way of life he came to despise but from which he hadn’t the will to extricate himself. “Nothing compared to the bitterness that soon began to fill me in that year at Cambridge.” The administrator of Tom’s funds became aware of what was happening and advised him to give up on the diplomatic career Cambridge was supposed to be preparing him for. Shamefacedly Tom accepted his guardian’s advice and by November 1934 he was on a boat headed for New York.

He decided to enroll at Columbia University to which he could commute from his grandparents’ home on Long Island. He found the place to his liking. “These people were at once more earnest and more humble, poorer, smarter perhaps, certainly more diligent than those I had known at Cambridge,” is how he explained it, but it isn’t really clear that his new associates were any less involved in self-gratification than the ones in England had been, for whom he’d developed such contempt. “Three or four nights a week my fraternity brothers and I would go flying down in the black and roaring subway to 52nd Street where we would crawl around the tiny, noisy and expensive nightclubs ….” After emerging from a night of jazz and alcohol in Manhattan’s bars, Tom found that, “the thing that depressed me most of all was the shame and despair that invaded my whole nature when the sun came up, and all the laborers were going work.” Whatever glimpse he’d had in southern France and Rome of a more serious side of his nature had evaporated. “I was spiritually dead,” he admitted. “I had been that long since!

By February of 1937 Tom was 22 years old had been at Columbia for two years. Despite his social excesses, the talent for writing he would draw on for the rest of his life had emerged. He was doing well in his studies and more than that in extracurricular literary activities. Among the courses he signed up for was one in medieval literature, so when he came across a book called The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy he dove into it only to discover it was an exposition of traditional Catholic theology. Initially put off by the degree of its orthodoxy, he continued to read and found the book to be a revelation in providing intellectual legitimacy for a God divorced from superstition – a Being unique in requiring no cause and no justification for its existence, since existence is its very nature. This chance encounter with Catholic thought turned out to have lasting consequences. For one thing it inspired a desire to go to church, which he initially addressed by attending services at the Episcopal church where his father had played the organ but which fell short of what he’d been looking for.

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In February of 1938 he received his Bachelor’s degree and signed up for graduate courses in English. He also set out to write a thesis about William Blake, a poet from whom he’d drawn spiritual insights that led him to the conclusion that, “the only way to live was to live in a world that was charged with the presence and reality of God.” How that was to be accomplished he had yet to work out. Among the realms of thought he delved into were those of the Eastern religions, in which he found parallels to the writings of St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avila. What clinched his link to Catholicism though, was Jacques Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism and the investigation of scholastic theology that book led him to undertake.

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In August Tom went to mass for the first time and found in it what he’d missed in the Episcopal service. Looking back on the state of mind he’d reached by September, he wrote, “It had taken little more than a year and a half from the time I read Gilson’s The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy to bring me up from an ‘atheist’ … to one who accepted all the full range of possibilities of religious experience…” While reading about Gerard Manley Hopkins’ conversion, Tom was seized with a determination to take a similarly decisive action. He went to a priest he knew and told him he wanted to become a Catholic. Two months of reading and instruction followed, during which time he came to realize that of the two main branches of Catholic thought, it was not the analytical approach of St. Thomas and the Scholastics he was most at home with, but the more intuitive spirit of St. Augustine, the Desert Fathers and the mystics. At the middle of November 1938 he was baptized into the Church and received his First Communion.

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The big step had been taken; what followed was a bit of a let-down. During the course of the next year, his life continued very much as it had been. It may have been the outbreak of war in Europe that jolted him into more serious reflections, but in any case it was in September of 1939 that he concluded that what he really wanted to do, was to become a priest. After conferring with a friend who knew the details of such things, he decided to join the Franciscan order. His friend also recommended an experience he himself had had: a week’s retreat at the Trappist monastery in Gethsemani, Kentucky.

Tom applied to the Franciscans but was told he’d have to wait almost a year, until August of 1940, to be admitted to their novitiate. He turned in his application and reluctantly went back to what he’d been doing. The following spring he traveled to Cuba, visited the churches there and was inspired by the humility of the people he found in them. Yet as the time approached for him to join the Franciscans, he was beset with doubts – not of his beliefs but of his motives and worthiness to be a priest. After a couple of failed attempts to reassure himself, he reluctantly abandoned his vocation. He did dedicate himself even more to his personal devotions, however, and the following Easter he made a retreat at the Trappist monastery his friend at recommended. During the week he spent among the community of monks sworn to silence, he came to appreciate the value of the contemplative life. “The last thing I did before leaving Gethsemani,” Tom recalled, “was to ask … for the grace of a vocation to the Trappists, if it were pleasing to God.” It took another eight months for Tom to convince himself that the mistake he’d made earlier was in choosing the Franciscans rather than this more demanding order. What he’d wanted was to give everything to God. In December 1941, shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Tom packed up his things and headed back to Our Lady of Gethsemani this time to stay.

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Graham Greene

was born in 1905 in Berkhamsted, 30 miles northwest of London where his father was the headmaster of an Anglican boys’ school. Along with his five brothers and sisters, Graham grew up and was educated in the sedate and comfortable environs of that school.

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His intellectual development can’t be described with anything like the detail that Tom’s can. Graham did write about his early life, but he didn’t reveal much about his thoughts, especially those of a spiritual nature . What we do know about Graham’s early years are incidents he chose to include in his autobiography, some of which were distinctly unusual.

For reasons not obvious, the onset of adolescence brought him to an emotional crisis, “Only in the clouds ahead I could see that there was no luminosity at all,” he would describe his state of mind. “Yet anything, I felt, anything, even a romantic death, might happen to save me before my thirteenth year struck.” His view of his himself had become distorted. “I was back in the house of my early childhood, but the circumstances had changed. … In those early days I had not even been aware that there existed in the same house such grim rooms as those I lived in now. … I had left civilization behind and entered a savage country of strange customs and inexplicable cruelties … I was like the son of a quisling in a country under occupation.” “There was a boy at my school called Carter who perfected during my fourteenth and fifteenth year a system of mental torture … Carter continually tempted me with offers of friendship snatched away like a sweet, but leaving the impression that somewhere some time the torture would end.”

Once he’d reached the age he’d been dreading, he found himself subject to self-destructive impulses. “I had passed thirteen and things were worse even than I had foreseen. I lay in bed in the dormitory … and … I began trying to cut my right leg open with a penknife. But the knife was blunt and my nerve was too weak for the work.” “I tried out other forms of escape after I failed to cut my leg. …   I went into the dark room …and…drank a quantity of hypo under the false impression that it was poisonous. On another occasion I drained my blue glass bottle of hay-fever drops.” “A bunch of deadly nightshade … had only a slightly narcotic effect, and once … I swallowed twenty aspirins before swimming in the empty school baths.”

At last came the moment of final decision. It was after breakfast one morning … that I made my break for liberty. I wrote a note … saying that … I had taken to the [Berkhamsted] Common and would remain there in hiding until my parents agreed that never again should I go back to my prison.” At the age of fifteen Graham deserted the school lodgings he’d come to despise and took up residence on a patch of park land without a tent, blanket, rain gear, food or utensils – just a book he’d brought to while away the time. He intended to subsist on wild blackberries and sleep under the stars. His capitulation, as perhaps he’d known all along, turned out to be remarkably easy. “I think at least two hours must have passed … I moved rashly out beyond the cover of the bushes and began to descend, until … I came face to face with my elder sister, Molly. … I went quietly home with her. It was a tactical defeat, but it proved all the same a strategical victory. I had changed my life. … Perhaps I was nearer a nervous breakdown than I now care to believe.”

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Graham’s father talked with the boy at length about the incident but remained dissatisfied with the level of understanding he’d achieved, so he called in Graham’s older brother, Raymond, who was studying medicine at Oxford. Raymond suggested psychoanalysis. The result was that Graham was sent to live in the house of an analyst in the Bayswater district of London, a place he came to love.   When he returned to school from his psychoanalytic sojourn, everything at Berkhamsted had somehow been transformed. “I had no fear of the old routine of classes.” he said.” … I found it easy now to make friends. The domination of Carter was over for good. … I was at last in the mainstream.” Was it the sessions he’d had with the analyst that made the difference, relief from a routine he’d come to hate, attention shown him by his father and brother, a combination of the three, or was the turnaround essentially inexplicable? Graham doesn’t offer an explanation other than to say that the interval he spent with the analyst were the happiest six months of his life.

His loathing of his life at Berkhamsted had been overcome, and that allowed him to complete his studies there and move on to Oxford; but the underlying problem hadn’t been disposed of. By the summer of 1923 Graham was eighteen and felt that, “Boredom had reached an intolerable depth.” “I realized that my old enemy was merely biding his moment.” “A manic-depressive, like my grandfather – that would be the verdict on me today, and analysis had not cured my condition.” When he came across a pistol in a room he shared with his brother, he put it into his pocket and headed for the same Common where he’d staged his break for liberty three years before. Somewhere he’d read about Russian roulette: you put a bullet into one of a revolver’s six chambers, spin the cylinder, put the muzzle to your head, and pull the trigger. One chance in six you’ll kill yourself. “I thought I had stumbled on the perfect cure. I was going to escape in one way or another.” But it wasn’t to be – not this time anyway. “There was a minute click,” he recalled after he’d tried it, “and looking down at the chamber I could see that the charge had moved into firing position. I was out by one. I remember an extraordinary sense of jubilation. … I went home and put the revolver back in the corner cupboard. This experience I repeated a number of times . At fairly long intervals I found myself craving for the adrenalin drug, and I took the revolver with me when I returned to Oxford.” Over the course of the next several months he repeated the exercise six times and survived all of them – by which time that form of flirting with death had lost its ability to energize him as it had earlier. He put the revolver away and was never tempted to take it up again. Avoiding boredom by extraordinary means continued to characterize his actions, however, leading him over the years to places like Liberia, Mexico, the Congo, Kenya, Malaysia and French Indochina at the times that they were in the throes of wars or revolutions that put the lives of everyone at risk.

Graham had given his readers a glimpse into the psychology of his youth, but what about the things Tom spent so much time on: God and religion and the evolution of the feelings that led to his conversion? The contrast in the two men’s experience is striking. Not only is Graham’s account of these matters more sparse, but the details are so ambiguous as to leave us wondering how he’d come to the position he held before his conversion, what he believed afterward, and if he could have put either into words with any precision.

By the age of twenty Graham was a confirmed atheist and the Catholic woman to whom he’d become engaged was aware of it. Nevertheless Graham decided to sign up for instruction in her faith to find out what she believed, having no thought of joining her Church and in fact considering such a turn of events impossible. The instructor assigned to him was a priest whose obesity seemed inappropriate to his calling but who turned out to be very different from what Graham expected him to be. Father Trollope had been an actor in his youth, he explained later, and had been moved almost against his will into becoming first a Catholic and then a priest, about which he mused: “See the danger of going too far. There are dangerous currents out at sea which could sweep you anywhere.” Graham developed respect and affection for Trollope and began looking forward to their sessions together. Somewhere along the line he also dropped his resistance to joining the Church. How much had that change been induced by his friendship with the priest? Looking back on it 45 years later, Graham insisted that he, “became convinced of the probable existence of something we call God,” only by an intellectual effort that was serious and prolonged. On the other hand, he could no longer remember what had led him to that conclusion, only that it was not, “by way of those unconvincing philosophical arguments,” that he would later make fun of in a short story. He also neglected to elaborate on Who he considered Jesus to be, the degree of moral authority he granted Him, how much faith he put in the gospels and what he thought of the Pope. However he may have felt about such matters, he was baptized into Church on February 1926 at the age of 21, having chosen Thomas for his christening name – in honor, he made clear, of the apostle commonly referred to as Doubting Thomas. “I remember very clearly the nature of my emotion as I walked away from the Cathedral: there was no joy in it at all, only a solemn apprehension. … I was afraid of where the tide would take me.

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AFTERWARDS

Tom

If there’s a word for Tom’s approach to writing it’s enthusiasm. He was at his most entertaining in relating personal experiences along with his top-of-the-head reactions to them. And he could come up with an opinion on just about any subject you’d care to name and go on to express his thoughts a lively manner. (“If I ever had gone crazy, I think that psychoanalysis would have been the one thing chiefly responsible for it.“) On one page he’d commend his newfound faith with the fervor of an evangelist (“What a revelation it [his first attendance at a Catholic Mass] was, to discover so many ordinary people in a place together, more conscious of God than of one another, not there to show off their hats or their clothes, but to pray.”). On the next he’d deride a contending creed with equal verve (“Professor Hering was … one of the few Protestants I have ever met who struck one as being at all holy.“).

Together with the attraction his beliefs had for committed Catholics, it was these qualities of his writing that led to the success of the autobiography he wrote shortly after joining the Trappists. He called the book The Seven Storey Mountain after Dante’s conception of purgatory, and in it he focused on the intellectual journey he’d made from doubt to faith and from the noisy world of a student and writer to the silent realm of a contemplative monk.

In the little more than twenty years left to him Tom would turn out something on the order of two dozen more books on spiritual matters, an approximately equal number on moral, social and political issues, a dozen volumes of poetry, and a variety of writings on related themes – all with the acquiescence and encouragement of his superiors at the monastery.

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As time went by the kind of personal experiences that had constituted the bulk of his most popular book were replaced in his writings by philosophical reflections and interior musings. A balanced evaluation of contending ideas was not among Tom’s talents or interests, but his gift for words did make him an effective persuader – probably more than the value of his analyses warranted. As an example of the political insights he presented to his readers, here are some of Tom’s comments on the causes of war – so diffuse, he found them to be, that no individual could be held responsible; while the attitude he adopts is one of accepting culpability for the world’s travails by ostentatiously proclaiming his own sinfulness.

By this time, I should have acquired enough sense to realize that the cause of wars is sin.

Now it seemed that at last there really would be war in earnest. … They [most people] did not realize that the world had now become a picture of what the majority of individuals had made of their own souls. … There was something else in my own mind – the recognition: “I myself am responsible for this. My sins have done this. Hitler is not the only one who has started this war: I have my share in it too …”

I knelt at the altar rail and on this the first day of the Second World War received from the hand of the priest, Christ in the Host, the same Christ Who was being nailed again to the cross by the effects of my sins, and the sins of the whole selfish, stupid, idiotic world of men.

He realized that the reliance he put on emotion and intuition could lead to inconsistencies between what he wrote and what he did . “I have had to accept the fact that my life is almost totally paradoxical. I have also had to learn gradually to get along without apologizing for the fact, even to myself.” Here are some of the things he was talking about:

He’d become a pacifist well before he entered the monastery, yet he accepted without demur his nation’s involvement in war, his brother’s voluntary participation in it, and even being forced to contribute to the effort himself as long as he didn’t have to engage in combat – a hope that he never had to put to the test. (“This war was what I had earned for myself and the world. I could hardly complain that I was being drawn into it.” “Did we really have to go to war? … As far as I could see, it was a question no private individual was capable of answering … The men in Washington presumably knew what was going on better than we did … If they called us to the army, I could not absolutely refuse to go.”)

He believed that, having made man in His image, God was so personally committed to the welfare of His creatures that He came to earth as a human being to redeem them (“Christ was not a wise man who came to teach a doctrine. He is God, Who became incarnate in order to effect a mystical transformation of mankind.“); and he respected God’s first commandment not to have strange gods before Him. On the other hand he could simultaneously endorse such a completely different view of divinity as that of the Tao. (“If there is a correct answer to the question, ‘What is the Tao?’ it is: ‘I don’t know.’ … It is like an empty bowl that can never be filled.‘” “The whole secret of life lies in the discovery of this Tao which can never be discovered.“)

While proclaiming an all-encompassing love for mankind (“In Louisville … I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.“), he could issue blanket condemnations of people who started from premises different from his own. (“The greatest sin of … the West … is not only greed and cruelty, not only moral dishonesty and infidelity to the truth, but above all its unmitigated arrogance toward the rest of the human race.” “There are some men for whom a tree has no reality until they think of cutting it down, … men who never look at anything until the intend to abuse it and who never even notice what they do not want to destroy.”)

While extolling a life of silence and meditation, Tom devoted much of his own time to producing manuscripts for publication and interacting with people outside the monastery – in person when he was allowed to, otherwise by letter. (“The fact that I was hurrying and ran into people only indicates that I was much less of a contemplative than I thought I was.” “There are days when there seems to be nothing left of my … contemplative vocation … And everybody calmly tells me: “Writing is your vocation.“)

As it turned out Tom died in Thailand at the age of 53, apparently of heart failure brought on by an electric shock he suffered while attending a monastic conference there.

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Graham

graduated from Oxford in 1925. He also started corresponding with a Catholic woman named Vivien Dayrell-Browning. Out of curiosity about her beliefs, he decided to take instruction in the Catholic faith, wound up joining her Church in February of the following year, and marrying the woman in October of 1927.   During this period of his life he was moving from one job to another in an effort to settle on something that suited his talents. Ultimately he landed a job as a sub-editor with The Times of London that seemed to fill the bill. In his off hours he engaged in a pursuit more to his liking – writing novels. After three tries he managed to get one published in 1929. It was called The Man Within, and its success was sufficient to induce him to quit his job – against the urgings of his employer, by he way, and unwisely it seemed even to him after three years without further success. Finally he tried his hand at an action thriller which he called Stamboul Train, and it proved to be a winner, at least to the extent of letting him continue in the profession he’d chosen. Once he’d got his feet on the ground, Graham was able to turn out one book after another, many of his 24 novels becoming best sellers with a lot of them being made into movies as well. He would write two autobiographies, four travel books, lots of short stories, essays and movie reviews, and collaborate on eight different screenplays.

It isn’t my purpose to evaluate Graham’s literary accomplishments, but some of the comments I make about his life and thought may create the impression that I dismiss his talent as a writer. Let me point out that among the eight screenplays Graham worked on, I would personally rank two of them among the best I’ve ever encountered: The Fallen Idol (1948) and what for me is Graham’s masterpiece, The Third Man (1949) – in neither of which does he use the word, Catholic, or make any reference to God or religion. Having had the sense to ignore that subject, he also seemed to profit from the constraints that screenwriting imposes on the people who do it; and in the particular films I named he was able to draw on the talents of director Carol Reed as well – none of which detracts from the magnitude of Graham’s achievement.

As a successful author Graham was able to take advantage of material he gained in travels to out of the way places at perilous times and by indulging in practices prevalent in those locales. During his visits to Indochina during the war between the French and Communists in the early 1950’s, for example, he became a frequent and avid user of opium.

One of the things we can conclude from the way Graham lived his life is that his membership in the Catholic Church had little effect on his moral behavior, at least with respect to sex and marriage. Graham and his wife would have two children, one in 1933 and the other in 1936, but neither his attachment to his family nor the standards of his religion kept him from patronizing prostitutes and indulging in sexual liaisons as opportunity allowed. Some of his affairs lasted for years, including one with a woman named Catherine Walston that started in 1946 and led to the breakup of his marriage two years later. Although never divorced, Graham would live separately from his wife children for the rest of his life.  

If Tom can be characterized as an enthusiast, Graham came near to being the opposite. In a number of his books he offers an insight into his personality by including a character that has a lot of his own traits. The Graham stand-in is typically wry and reticent in casual conversation, a lapsed Catholic or borderline atheist. The image he presents to the people around him is of a man so weary of the world as to have lost interest in it and its people. But that turns out to be a pose. A little prodding from someone in the story brings out the moral philosopher in him, and he turns out to be quick to judge and harsh in his judgments, often harsher than the people he criticizes for engaging in the same practice but who rely on standards different from his own.

Malcolm Muggeridge was an English writer who was almost an exact contemporary of Greene, having been born and died one year earlier. The two men crossed paths during World War II as a result of their joint involvement in military intelligence, and they later wrote articles for some of the same publications. Muggeridge, who would later convert to Catholicism with results quite different from those of Graham, had a flair for summing up people in a few words. Here’s what he had to say about Graham.

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I once went with Graham Greene [to a stage show featuring nude women]. The spectacle appealed to him for its tattiness and seediness; the guise in which he most likes the Devil’s offerings to be presented. … For expeditions in the Blitz, he made a special act of penitence and other appropriate liturgical preparations in case death came upon him unawares. It made me feel uneasy, and even envious; like traveling in a first class railway carriage with a first-class ticket holder when one only has a third-class ticket oneself. I imagined Graham being carried away to paradise and I left behind in purgatory, or worse. Ever since I have known him, he has seemed to me to possess some special quality of aloofness and detachment from the passions he so concerns himself about in his novels, and, for that matter, in his life. If you come upon him unawares … an expression in his face of isolation from everything and everyone around him, makes it seem almost as though he were blind. One almost expects him to have a white stick, and to need a friendly guiding hand to see him across the road. I once without thinking said of him that he was a saint trying unsuccessfully to be a sinner, and I a sinner trying equally unsuccessfully to be a saint. The remark, which was widely quoted, annoyed him, not so much because it credited him with being a saint (a role for which he has no taste), as because of my pretensions to be a sinner. What sort of sinner are you? he asked scornfully, as though I had claimed some quite undeserved achievement or beatitude.

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DOES GOD EXIST?

Tom

We have been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves to God, and in proclaiming the glory of God.

I believe that Christ, Who is the Son of God, and Who is God, has the power to raise up all those who have died in His grace, to the glory of His own Resurrection.

God gave man a nature that was ordered to a supernatural life. He created man with a soul that was made not to bring itself to perfection in its own order, but to be perfected by Him in an order infinitely beyond the reach of human powers.

Jesus Christ was not simply a man, a good man, a great man, the greatest prophet, a wonderful healer, a saint: He was something that made all such trivial words pale into irrelevance. He was God.

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Enough said?

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Graham

wrote the first of two autobiographies at the age of 67. When he got around to explaining why he’d joined the Catholic Church 45 years earlier, he said, “I cannot be bothered to remember – I accept. With the approach of death I care less and less about religious truth. One hasn’t long to wait for revelation or darkness [as it turned out, he still had 20 years to live].” Not only did he leave the reason for his decision murky, but the degree of his commitment as well. “I had not been converted to a religious faith. I had been convinced by specific arguments in the probability of its creed.” “At that time I had not been emotionally moved, but only intellectually convinced; I was in the habit of formally practicing my religion, going to Mass every Sunday and to Confession perhaps once a month, and in my spare time I read a good deal of theology – sometimes with fascination, sometimes with repulsion, nearly always with interest.” He did stop going to mass and Confession for a while but later resumed the practices.

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From the nature of the life Graham led and the content of the novels he wrote – say from Brighton Rock in 1938 to A Burnt-Out Case in 1960 – we’re led to conclude that whatever religious convictions he started out with grew weaker with time. Nevertheless he’d made a conscious decision to join the Church and was apparently reluctant to disavow that choice. He did continue to cling to certain Catholic practices while ignoring the more substantial matters that underlay them, suggesting that he found comfort of the sort that non-practicing parents get from having their children baptized and receive First Communion. He has a character in The Heart of the Matter take note of these confusions of the superficial with the substantial, that he himself was subject to: “‘It’s a wonderful excuse being a Catholic,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t stop you sleeping with me – it only stops you marrying me.‘”

Graham didn’t like being referred to as a Catholic author. He did invite the label though by the frequency with which he identified characters in his stories as Catholics and attributed their behavior to that fact. In speculating about the nature of his religious commitment, we should take note of the pressures of social etiquette. Members of some groups are given protection against disparagement by rules then in vogue – Negroes, Jews, women, and homosexuals certainly in this era – while unprotected groups remain fair game for negative generalizations that may be tolerated, acceded to or even applauded. One of the ways that members of these latter groups try to blunt the effects of socially acceptable prejudice is by criticizing the class they belong to even more than its critics do. A willingness to admit the failings of one’s own faction suggests open-mindedness without requiring an admission of personal guilt. When an individual man criticizes men in general for how they treat women, he isn’t confessing a fault; he’s blaming other men for their failure to do what he’s done. In a similar way a White person castigates White people for they way they treat Negroes; a German derides Germans for having been Nazis. Males, White people and Germans are born to the groups they find themselves in and can’t opt out. They deal with the consequences by whatever means they think appropriate. On the other hand a person’s religion is a matter of choice. Catholics can choose to leave the Church, but those who don’t can at least mitigate the denigration they’re sometimes subject to by the fervor with which they acknowledge that the clergy is behind the times and other Catholics are intellectually servile. Graham indulged this option to the hilt, demonstrating the lack of his subservience by the extent to which he ignored and belittled Catholic teachings. As a novelist he had plenty of opportunities to create characters to make the point. Catholics for whom he wanted to retain the reader’s sympathy he usually portrayed as having lost all or most of their faith, and rather than turning to a priest or the Bible to resolve their moral quandaries, they’d rely on their personal feelings. On the other hand, evangelizers and those who followed the teachings of the Church because they believed God’s authority lay behind them, usually got rough treatment at Graham’s hands. This kind of anti-loyalty could become so exaggerated as to constitute a parody of manipulative writing. Take a man named Rycker in A Burnt-Out Case. Graham subjects this Catholic to such an array of author-devised gimmickry in an effort to turn readers against him that the character becomes sympathetic in our eyes as an underdog relentlessly being attacked by a bully.

Here are a few other examples, none of which is the least obscure in the novel in which it occurs:

Brighton Rock (1938). The vicious gang leader and murderer is a Catholic. The woman who pursues him to put an end to his depredations has no religious feelings but acts out of her innate concern for others.

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The Power and the Glory (1940). During a suppression of religion in Mexico, priests and nuns who persist in their beliefs are being executed. They have to go on the run to survive – as would happen a decade later in Spain as well. It’s a situation custom-made for a Catholic writer to come to the defense of the persecuted members of his faith, and the plot Graham concocts seems designed to do just that: a Catholic priest is hounded by an enforcer of atheism as implacably as Valjean was by Javert in Les Miserables. But it’s Graham Greene at the controls this time around, not Victor Hugo. Rather than having a sympathetic down-and-outer like Valjean be his hero, Graham chooses to personify Mexico’s tyrannized Catholics by an alcoholic priest who’s violated his vow of celibacy in fathering an illegitimate child by one of his parishioners, is uncertain of his religious beliefs and tentative in acting on them. The man who’s out to kill him, on the other hand, is a dedicated agent of a communist-like government, convinced he’s helping the people of his region by disposing of the knavish priests and nuns who prey on them through their superstitions and in other contexts shows himself quite capable of acts of kindness. As you might expect, it’s this Javert-like character who carries the day in Graham’s account. Once he’s rounded up the priest, he has him shot. So what can the Catholics of Mexico take from the way things turn out? A little consolation maybe in viewing the murder of the priest as an opportunity he wouldn’t otherwise have had to triumph through martyrdom. But how about Graham himself? Quirky as his allegiances were, what did he think about killing people when they thought they’d go to heaven as a result?

The Heart of the Matter (1948). Major Scobie’s a likeable guy and a more than competent police commissioner, but he’s troubled by complications that have arisen from an adulterous affair he’s involved in. Raised as a Catholic, Scobie feels compelled to confess his sins to a priest, but in spite of what the priest, the Church, and the Old and New Testament have to say about adultery, Scobie’s innate sense of compassion induces him to disregard their advice. Think of the pain it would bring to his wife or mistress if either one of them had to get along without him! He goes on to explain to the confessor: “I don’t know how to put it, Father, but I feel – tired of my religion. It seems to mean nothing to me. I’ve tried to love God, but … I’m not sure that I even believe.” So Scobie’s lost his faith or at least most of it; but there’s apparently a scrap lodged somewhere in his psyche, because he continues to be beset with mental anguish – not for having violated God’s laws concerning marriage and sexual intercourse, it turns out, but the Church-imposed restriction against receiving Communion while not being in the state of grace!  

The End of the Affair (1951).   A writer and a married woman are attracted to each other and fall easily into a sexual liaison. Both are atheists; neither has any moral compunctions about adultery. They’re in love, after all, and the woman’s husband is a bit of a bore. During the Blitz the two of them are carrying on their affair in a building when it’s hit by a bomb. The woman discovers the hand of the writer protruding from the rubble and thinks he’s been killed, but he pulls himself out and recovers without serious damage. From that day on though, she avoids further contact with him, putting an abrupt end to their affair. Two years later the writer encounters the woman by chance, one thing leads to another, and he gets a look at a diary she’d been keeping. He discovers that during the few minutes she’d thought he was dead, she’d made a deal with God – Whom she didn’t believe in – that if it could turn out that her lover was still alive, she’d break off her relationship with him. From that time until the present she’s lived up to the terms of the contract she’d made with a Being-who-didn’t-exist, giving Him an opportunity to prove to her that in fact He did. The story goes on to other religious inanities, some of which are of an explicitly Catholic nature, but the bargain with God lies at the heart of the plot – concocted by an adult human being, we’re led to believe, to serve as the basis for a book that turned out to be a best seller and went on from there to inspire two movies.

Sometime after publication of The End of the Affair Graham was informed by a Cardinal that his earlier novel, The Power and the Glory, had been condemned by the Holy Office, but that he, the Cardinal, thought The End of the Affair would have been an even more appropriate target. Graham would later take consolation from the reassurance Pope Paul VI offered him on the matter, but Pope Pius XII had shared the Cardinal’s reaction. “I think this man is in trouble,” Pius had observed to a British bishop after reading The End of the Affair. “If he ever comes to you, you must help him.”

A Burnt-Out Case (1960). The main character is an architect famed for the Catholic churches he’s designed. Somewhere along the line he’s lost his faith not only in God and his religion but in his profession as well. If there’s no God, what’s the point of building churches? So he gives up on civilization, flips a coin, and winds up in a leper colony in the Congo. His background proves useful in putting up a new hospital there. Everybody praises him for the effort he’s put into it and the humanitarian or religious impulses that motivated him; but the architect goes out of his way to insist there’s absolutely no noble or religious purpose behind any of his actions. There is one individual, however, even more important to the welfare of the lepers, and even more self-effacing in his work. That’s the determinedly but unabrasively atheistic doctor. There is another guy lurking in the background though, who eventually brings about the architect’s downfall. As you might guess, he’s a dedicated Catholic, particularly ostentatious in the way he practices his religion.

These are some examples of how an author considered Catholic by the literary world portrayed his church in those of his novels where he chose to raise the issue of religion, leading readers like me to wonder what the devil an anti-Catholic author might have been able to add.

From the diffidence with which Graham practiced his religion we’re led to conclude that his membership proved to be something of an embarrassment for him. Whether or not he would have joined the Church if he had it to do over again isn’t what we set out to discover though. What we would like to know is what Graham would have said to the question: Does God exist?

My guess is that even late in life he would have said yes but out of habit rather than conviction. There is a piece of evidence more instructive on the matter than his actual response, however. Looking back from 1971 Graham wrote, “in January 1926 I became convinced of the probable existence of something we call God,” and he proceeded to add, “though I now dislike the word with all its anthropomorphic associations and prefer Chardin’s ‘Noosphere’.”

Noosphere. For those not familiar with the word, it comes from the Greek, “Nous,” meaning mind or intellect, and was popularized by the Jesuit priest, anthropologist, and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. To Teilhard and his disciples, the Noosphere is the sphere of mind or thought, as the atmosphere is the sphere of gases that surround the earth. Biosphere offers a closer analogy, being that area or realm of the earth in which living things reside. Teilhard endowed the Noosphere with properties beyond those of a geographic region though, viewing it as the repository of the effects of evolutionary processes that had already led to the emergence of human thought and will continue to direct man’s progress toward his ultimate destiny, which Teilhard identified with the Second Coming.

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You may find the idea of the Noosphere profound, looney or something in between, but the word was not intended as either a synonym or a substitute for God, whether the latter is conceived as an impersonal Creator, the Cosmos, an inward dwelling Spirit, or a thinking Being personally concerned with the lives of His creatures, as He is for Moslems, Jews and Christians. The Noosphere is a quasi scientific notion that occupies a place in Teilhard’s philosophy similar to what the biosphere does in that of Darwin’s disciples, each containing the effects of and evidence for evolutionary processes – those that led to human thought and social organization for Teilhard, and to the variety and sophistication of life-forms for Darwinists. Neither the Noosphere nor biosphere is opposed to a belief in God, but each is sometimes cited by its proponents as evidence against the need for God because the effects of evolution don’t require the intervention of an external intelligence.

We leave discussion of these philosophical points to those who find them interesting. What matters for us is that Graham viewed Teilhard’s Noosphere as a better word for what he believed in than an omniscient Being endowed with humanlike traits of the sort that Jesus personified and that the other members of the Trinity also exhibited. The vagueness of the meanings people attach to the words they use makes it difficult to be insistent about what they actually believe, especially with reference to such amorphous concepts as God, but this much seems clear: in the later stages of his life at least, what Graham meant by the word, God, would not have been regarded as God by you or me or the people who read his novels.

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Does God exist? Tom says yes. Graham says no.

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Oh those Nazis!

If ever a tragedy was put to a purpose unworthy of what it had cost the human race, the fictional depiction of the Nazis’ attempt to exterminate Jews within the empire they’d accumulated by 1942 has got to be among the worst. For a generation after the defeat of the Third Reich, every second movie seemed to feature Nazis as the villains – a trend that persists to this day with diminished frequency.   “Never forget” was the excuse given for the relentlessly hackneyed characterizations in those films. Forgetting is one way of undermining a history lesson. Trivializing it is another.

For writers who didn’t want to invest the effort it took or hadn’t the talent to create plausible antagonists, Nazis came custom-made. From the stream of wartime propaganda and postwar revelations they’d been exposed to, audiences could be relied on to start salivating for retribution at the first sight of a guy with a swastika on his sleeve and a sneer on his lips. Unfortunately for those of us brought up on such stuff, identifying malefactors never proved to be as easy as looking for the identifying patches on people’s armbands and the expressions on their faces.

It isn’t only by over-conventionalization that screenwriters served the public poorly. The degree to which they focused outrage on that political faction to the virtual exclusion of all others left audiences with the impression that Nazis were unique in their attachment to evil, and if only we could get rid of them everything would be pretty much okay. But the 20th century was a mother lode of murderous governments, and that would have been more widely acknowledged if there’d been a greater dispersal of villains in works of fiction.

It’s certainly true that programs of the sort the Nazis conducted against Jews and other governments did against other groups, lured sadists out of their lairs and advanced some of them to positions of authority. Acts of the sort presented on screen did take place, and the people responsible were sometimes infected with the kind of fiendish glee directors coaxed from their actors. Nevertheless, film makers who chose to regale audiences with one scene after another of torture and death were appealing to aspects of human psychology most of us regret. To some degree we all share in the feelings that motivated Hitler’s agents, and we demonstrate that fact when we watch a stream on-screen atrocities – whether committed by storm troopers, mad slashers or sexual assaulters – while congratulating ourselves on how much better we are than the people portrayed. We need to be aware of depredations governments inflicted on the people they ruled, of course, to make recurrence less likely, but getting caught up in elaborate re-enactments can have an effect opposite to the one desired. Extended exposure to the most terrible things people can do to each other numbs us to the horror those deeds inspired when we first learned about them and stirs up feelings of resentment we’re likely to over-generalize. We may in fact wind up more rather than less likely to acquiesce to a repetition, at least if the relationship between the new victims and their persecutors is in line with our own social alliances. The benefit of learning about the events of 1933 to 1945 isn’t in developing a reflex reaction to the sight of a swastika. It has to do with the bureaucratization of murder.

In films of the sort I’m talking about kids from Brooklyn and Texas take on the Wehrmacht to the latter’s regret, or Frenchmen foil the S.S. with the help of agents parachuted in by MI6. The writers didn’t have to spend time establishing the malevolence of enemy; they just put Nazi identifiers on the people we were supposed to root against. While most of those dramas were relatively undistinguished, some drew on the talents of the people behind the camera to achieve greater impacts.  Brecht’s only contribution to American movies — the screenplay he did for Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die (1943) — incorporated some of the more extreme examples of wartime emotion; and a number of films from after the war drew on pretty much the same kind of feelings — Rossellini’s Rome, Open City, for example. Since Nazis continued to be featured as villains for a long time, later writers had an opportunity not to conventionalize them as much as earlier ones had done – if that’s what they chose to do. Steven Spielberg directed Schindler’s List forty-eight years after Open City‘s premiere. It’s surprising how much the films had in common.

Rome, Open City (1945)

 

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Schindler’s List (1993)

 

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I’d grown up watching wisecracking G.I.’s take the measure of the master race, so it took a while to dawn on me how canned the characterizations had been and how unjust most of those films were in attributing guilt to Germans as a whole for things their government had done. As the basis of prejudice, generalized judgments are never fair, but this one wasn’t even consistent with reactions to similar events. Other regimes had been or would be responsible for the destruction of more innocent lives or greater percentages of their populations, draw on resentments as deep-seated and inflict pain with as little compunction (the worst government ever). Trying to rate the relative depravity of those endeavors didn’t serve much purpose, but distinguishing who was responsible for them did. It was a simple matter of being fair. The Nazi dictatorship had been as intolerant of dissent as any. Its persecutions were enforced by its agents with little involvement of outsiders. The attempted extermination of Jews took place during wartime conditions that were even more ruthless than they’d been earlier, and it was conducted under a blanket of secrecy imposed by the exigencies of propaganda. Killings that had been carried out earlier in the Soviet Union (red legacy) and would be later in China and Cambodia – to name three of the Nazis most prominent competitors in infamy – were also imposed by dictatorships but in circumstances not as tight as wartime Germany’s. Their consequences were spread more widely throughout society and were publicized for purposes of intimidation, leaving virtually no family untouched and no individual unaware of what was going on. Citizens were induced to volunteer names to enforcers to deflect attention from themselves. By and large Stalin and Mao managed to retain the affection of their subjects through all that, at least as judged by the displays of sorrow that followed the dictators’ deaths. Yet neither the Russians nor Chinese were held responsible for what had gone on in their countries, nor were Cambodians, Japanese, Italians or the residents of any dictatorship but that of the Germans.

In reading about individuals who’d survived various oppressions, I came to a different view than the one I’d formed watching Bogart befuddle the Gestapo. One of the things that stood out in first-person accounts was how routinely a program of imprisonment and murder could be carried on in the background once it had been incorporated into a bureaucracy. And rather than being smirking sadists, the people who ran those campaigns turned out to be pretty much like you and me. Initially some of them may have bridled at what they were told to do, but the consequences of refusing were so dire they’d fall into line until the monotony of their duties let them forget what they were. The best way to keep from winding up as a victim or a victimizer was to go about your business without paying attention to what was happening or being much concerned about it. We can admire Corrie Ten Boom, Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and a million lesser heroes without condemning individuals who chose not put their own lives and those of their families on the line in order to oppose policies they had no chance of undoing. If people need to justify not overthrowing governments they dislike, then residents of murderous dictatorships can at least cite threats of death and imprisonment in defense of what they failed to do. It’s in places where people have elected representatives to put their desires into law and newspapers keep them informed of what’s going on, that can’t fall back on that excuse for tolerating evil when it’s all around them (democracy and tyranny).

I claim no credit for insight into what had happened a generation before my own. What I learned, I learned from individuals who’d lived through it and chose to write about their experiences. I did conclude that the things they related were generally more instructive than the battles between good and evil I was treated to in movie houses; and later on I confirmed at least some of what they’d said by things I lived through myself (the view from Mars).

From films in which political oppression is the backdrop I picked three that I found especially affecting. All of them happened to take place during Nazi occupations of the countries in which the movies were later produced. They’re low volume affairs featuring folks like you and me trying to live out their lives at a time when terrible things were happening just out of sight. The acts of heroism they feature fall a long way short of anything Errol Flynn would’ve bothered to re-create, because they were the kind of things an ordinary guy might get involved in, knowing they’d be barely be noticed if they worked but catastrophic if they didn’t. Another of the things these movies have in common is that none of them resorts to on-screen atrocities to work up our emotions. They didn’t have to do that, see, because it’s you and me they put up there on the screen.

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The Shop on Main Street

1965

Directors: Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos

Screenplay: Ladislav Grosman from a story by Ján Kadár

Language: Czech

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The Garden of the Finzi-Continis

1970

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Screenplay:Vittorio Bonicelli and Ugo Pirro from a novel by Giorgio Bassani

Additional dialogue: Vittorio De Sica, Franco Brusati, Alain Katz, Tullio Pinelli, Cesare Zavattini, Valerio Zurlini

Language: Italian

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Au Revoir les Enfants

1987

Director and screenplay: Louis Malle

Language: French

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Democracy and tyranny

click on a picture to enlarge it and see its title

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DEMOCRACY

Are you for it or against?

Let me guess.

Democracy turns out to be one of those words that keeps its positive connotation no matter how much its meaning changes with time and fashion. Like freedom and equality, for example, liberal and progressive. And some others.

Writers of our era tend to distinguish good governments from bad by whether or not they qualify as democracies; but whatever your notion of good government may be, it’s got to take more than that into account.

As it happens, the meaning of the word is sufficiently nebulous as to have inspired such dictionary entries as “the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority“, or “the absence of hereditary or arbitrary class distinctions or privileges“.

The definition I’ll use is more specific – a political system in which elections play an important part in choosing officials and making laws. But coming up with a responsive government takes more than elections.  Votes, after all, can be manufactured, suborned or miscounted, and ballot choices can be made inconsequential by restrictions on candidacy. The ability to vote and to run for office has to be open to almost everybody over a certain age, the most important functions of government have to be performed by elected officials, and the various levels of government have to be included. A republic in which groups are represented by individual legislators qualifies as long as the latter are chosen democratically and conduct their duties in the same way. It isn’t necessary that each individual’s vote have the same weight in every context though. Proportional representation can be biased by regional considerations as it is in the U.S. Senate or the Electoral College. Victories can require more than a simple majority, close popular votes can be referred to legislators for decision, and appointed judges can rule on the legality of democratically enacted laws.

In outline this is the version that currently prevails in the United States. What people think democracy ought to entail has changed considerably with time and place though, along with the purpose it’s intended to serve. When the U.S. Constitution was first set down, the wisdom of the majority was granted less authority than it is today. Democracy didn’t require universal suffrage, women were routinely excluded, eligibility to vote differed from one state to another, and legislative districts could be based on geography rather than population. The result was viewed as democratic because it was in accord with ideas then in vogue.

In reacting against what they’d viewed as oppressions by their British rulers, the breakaway colonists sought the common good by devising an arrangement in which everyone would be allowed to pursue happiness in his own way, with legal restraints limited to what was necessary for an orderly resolution of disputes and protection against aggression. “To form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” is how they put it. At the national level this led to the creation of three distinct branches that would contend to keep each other in line while being forced to cooperate enough to accomplish their limited duties. Officials weren’t granted powers that would let them entice voters with promised benefits, while it was thought that the people who elected them ought to be better informed than the average and have a greater stake in society. Exactly who was to make up the electorate was left to the states.

For the House of Representatives: “the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.” For the Senate: the Senators from each state shall be “chosen by the Legislature thereof”. For President: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress…”

The initial design didn’t taken enough account of the human desire to judge and control on the one hand and promote one’s interests on the other. The French Revolution that came close on the heels of the American drew its energy mostly from those emotions and produced regimes dedicated to changing things, ostensibly for the better, rather than leaving people to decide individually what their problems were and how to solve them. The equality that Jefferson had attributed to all men served as a pretext for evening out the traits by which various groups were measured, leading to rights being created for some at the cost of liberties for others (Civil rights, civil liberties), while the increasing deference paid to equality led to the determination that everyone be allowed to vote and every vote count about the same.

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Over the course of a century and a half this approach from Europe supplanted the more passive one the United States had started out with along with the latter’s tendency to relegate decisions to the lowest levels feasible. Since everybody stood to gain or lose in a spate of government initiatives, elections changed from ensuring the honesty of officials and putting a lid on their ambitions to picking leaders whose views were in line with one’s own. A candidate’s political and social allegiances became more important than his personal qualities. What aspects of life ought to come under government control remained subject to debate, but as time went by a point of view favored by reformers gradually took hold: that officials should have whatever powers they needed to implement the vision they’d formulated, and they ought to be able to impose it from the top. None of this waiting around for people to zero in on the right way of thinking and then letting them act on whatever they’d decided if and when they chose.

Majority rule

The thing that stayed constant through all this was a commitment to majority rule – honored in rhetoric even when it wasn’t in practice. Whatever functions the government took upon itself, electing the officials to carry them out would at least ensure they’d be in accord with the will of the people. Or so the theory maintained. Anybody who’d lived in a democracy for as little as a year realized that the “the will of the people” was largely an empty phrase. In a nation whose inhabitants had even a moderate range of backgrounds and beliefs, justice and the common good wound up having almost as many definitions as there were residents or at least as resident factions. It was the majority that got its way in an election, after all, leaving the losers to stew about the results and the winners too, if they hadn’t been offered the choices they’d wanted.

Nobody needed to be to reminded of the deficiencies of majority rule less than the founders of the United States.

Jefferson: “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

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Madison: “Measures are too often decided, not according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority.”

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Given the dangers they saw in an unrestrained majority, it isn’t surprising that the writers of the Constitution came up with some measures to mitigate their effects. Restrictions on who could vote were aimed at lessening the degree that self-interest would play in elections, although whatever merits that idea may have had, had to be sacrificed when the drive for equality led to suffrage being made universal. As full-time professionals, law-makers were likely to be better informed and less narrowly motivated than the people they were elected to represent; and having two senators from every state gave protection to interests assumed to be regional – an idea that made more sense when concentrations of like-minded people still lingered from the founding of the colonies but that persists even in our own day in places like Utah. And there could hardly have been a greater confirmation of the degree to which economic and social values are sometimes associated with geography than the secession of eleven contiguous states in 1861. Although the political allegiances of the two coasts continue to have a somewhat different character than the interior, alignments of our day tend to be associated with urban and rural characteristics more than with state boundaries – patterns of a sort that don’t invite the protection of minority interests or lend themselves to regional weighting even if that idea were still in favor.

Confronting the problem

John Adams expressed his reservations like this: “…despotism, or unlimited sovereignty, or absolute power, is the same in a majority of a popular assembly, an aristocratical council, an oligarchical junto, and a single emperor.

Given too much power “the majority of a popular assembly” can be as dictatorial as Napoleon or Hitler. So Adams and his pals incorporated a form of protection into the government they concocted, that, if it had been adhered to, would’ve been as effective now as it was then. It guards majorities as well as minorities and applies to other forms of government as much as to democracies.

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Limiting the powers granted to government is the one and only reliable way to prevent tyranny.

It isn’t so bad to be surrounded by people with beliefs different from your own if they can’t call on the coercions of government to force them onto you and your friends. In recognition of which, restrictions were imposed on the government by a means that continues to be the one most commonly employed: a written constitution whose ratification also brings it into line with the requirements of democracy.

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A Solution

As an illustration of a serious attempt to limit the reach of government, I herewith list all the powers granted to the Congress of the United States by its Constitution. The underlined category headings are an addition of my own.

Article I, Section 8

Government finances: collect taxes, incur and pay debt

“1: The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

2: To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;”

Coordinate trade among various political entities

“3: To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;”

Citizenship and bankruptcy

“4: To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;”

Economics: the money system

“5: To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

6: To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;”

Services and protections appropriate to government: post office, roads, copyrights, patents, courts of law

“7: To establish Post Offices and post Roads;

8: To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

9: To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;”

National defense

“10: To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

11: To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;12: To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

13: To provide and maintain a Navy;

14: To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

15: To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

16: To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;”

The nation’s capital

“17: To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings;—And”

Law-making

“18: To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

What makes this passage so striking is not only its brevity but the fact that the people who devised it later took the additional step of adding an amendment to leave absolutely no doubt about their intentions: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”. If a field of legislation is not explicitly listed in section 8, it is not within authority of the United States Congress.

There’s no provision, you’ll notice, for printing paper money, running banks or building dams (the depression); creating agencies to enforce laws (a nation of cops) or investigate crime; telling an employer how to treat his employees or a seller his customers; restricting the use of drugs, guns, alcohol or tobacco (prohibition); overseeing people’s use of air, land and sea; funding charities, scientific endeavors or the arts; getting involved in education or agriculture; dispensing health care or old age pensions; and certainly not in promoting one slant on life over another. You can probably come up with a dozen more things that Congress is NOT allowed to do – with a little thought maybe a hundred.

 

To the extent the citizens of the United States want government to provide protections, benefits, and restrictions in areas outside the ones listed in Article I, Section 8, all they have to do is have them implemented at a level closer to and more directly controlled by the people they’ll affect – state, county or municipality. Those programs won’t be imposed on any more citizens than the will of a local majority requires, maximizing the degree to which they reflect the attitudes of the people subject to them and increasing the degree of self-government – which, after all, is the purpose of democracy.  Well … isn’t it?

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TYRANNY

Tyranny arises when a government exercises more control over the lives of its citizens than it needs to in order to fulfill its functions of resolving disputes and providing protection against aggression. Whatever further strictures it chooses to impose will be enforced in the same way that other laws are, by depriving violators of life, liberty, property, health or comfort, usually carried out by agents of government but sometimes by other members of the populace. Ordinary folks get involved when law enforcers purposely deny some segment of society the security to which it’s entitled, leaving the unprotected at the mercy of those around them. Kristallnacht is a well-known example, a night in November 1938 when the Nazi government let it be known it wouldn’t intervene to stop acts of violence against Jews in retribution for the assassination of a German diplomat. During China’s Cultural Revolution vigilante groups were left free to attack individuals they deemed insufficiently dedicated to Chairman Mao.

Virtually all governments are granted more powers than they need to perform their essential functions, and those extra powers can constitute the basis of tyranny even when they’re exercised by people who’ve been elected fairly. The democratically ratified Constitution of the United States includes three passages that acquiesce to the practice of slavery despite the 5th Amendment’s guarantee: “nor shall any person be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. The government denied slaves the protections it gave to other residents while backing up their owners’ property rights. Outside that notable exception, however, the philosophy on which the United States was founded produced a government of sufficiently limited powers as to minimize prospects for tyranny. Or so it had seemed.

The people who designed the Republic put their faith in two safeguards: democracy and a constitution. Tyranny, they figured, could only be achieved by subverting at least one. But what if both were allowed to lapse?

Overcoming democracy

In complying with ordinary notions of fairness, officials in a democracy defer to the will of the majority. That means intellectual minorities have to be willing to accept the judgments of their more numerous compatriots. The question is, will they?

As all of us have witnessed at one time or another, people are quick to praise democracy when it produces what they want, but when it doesn’t, the people have spoken, becomes, we can’t let the mob get away with that! Certain segments of society have developed ways of getting around the outcomes of elections they don’t like, and they manage to do it while continuing to praise the principles they’re in the process of negating. Here’s how they go about it:

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Selective enforcement. Officials fail to enforce a democratically enacted law or enforce it only against certain people or in certain circumstances.

Unelected government. Decisions are made and restrictions imposed by officials who aren’t elected and don’t have to worry about satisfying constituents – in other words by that army of civil servants, regulators and administrators that keep their jobs election in and election out.

Pressure groups. Certain factions, usually with the support of the press, are able to influence legislators, law enforcers and judges out of proportion to their numbers, often contrary to voted outcomes, by relying on such means as political contributions and vocal support, public demonstrations and expressions of outrage.

Filtered news. Voters make decisions based on a handful of sources whose choice of what to report and how to report it is narrowed by the similarity of the education, occupation and social class of their members.

Skewed and stolen elections. Purchased and invented votes, ballots miscounted or thrown in the trash are some of the ways that party-dominated precincts can skew elections with little risk of investigation and less of prosecution. There are means not as palpably illegal though, that candidates and parties take advantage of when they think they’ll profit: how candidates and their parties get listed on the ballot, for instance, including the use of primary outcomes to leave major party candidates off, information provided to voters by the party in office, gerrymandered districts, registration procedures too lax or too complicated, failing to keep voter lists accurate, throwing out categories of ballots on technicalities and failing to inform those who’ve thus been disenfranchised, publicizing early vote counts in order to influence later voting. Go ahead, add a few of your own.

Overcoming the Constitution

Thomas Jefferson seems to have had a knack for foreseeing how people would undermine the protections he and his colleagues labored to devise. Using the word, “construction” where you and I would say “interpretation”, he wrote in 1803: “Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.” “I had rather ask an enlargement of power from the nation, where it is found necessary, than to assume it by a construction which would make our powers boundless.” Five years later: “The true key for the construction of everything doubtful in a law, is the intention of the law givers. This is most safely gathered from the words, but may be sought also in extraneous circumstances, provided they do not contradict the express words of the law.”

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The kind of corruptions Jefferson referred to are brought about by court decisions in which:

the meanings of Constitutional provisions are distorted by judges to suit their inclinations and made to imply things never intended, often in order to either:

invalidate democratically enacted laws by ruling them unconstitutional when they aren’t. As a means for undoing democracy, this has proven to be even more effective than the ones listed above; or

grant powers to the government to which it isn’t entitled, most commonly in allowing federal authority over matters the Constitution left to the states and the people, thereby pushing power to the top – the furthest remove from the people-served – where it contributes to tyranny not only of the majority but often of influential minorities as well – even when the designers of the government did everything they could to prevent such things from happening.

Tyranny in democracy

Throughout its history the United States has been referred to by historians and other writers as a constitutional democracy. Stretched as the meaning of that phrase has become, tyranny has proven to be highly compatible with it.

The state religion

The expansion of federal powers that resulted from ignoring Constitutional limitations has led to the imposition of a system of belief by means of laws, regulations and judicial precedents and promoted by propaganda and an array of rewards and punishments built into the tax and welfare systems.

Although it purposely hasn’t been given an official title, the set of beliefs in vogue is usually referred to as political correctness. It has ties with a political philosophy called liberalism, although that word has gone through so many changes of meaning as to leave it nearly empty: a term that can be applied to the points of view of both Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt can’t include much in the way of substance. Considering the breadth of its moral preoccupations, however, political correctness should probably be classified as a religion. Like the teachings of Buddha and Confucius, it advances a way of life without invoking or depending on devotion to a god.

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Among the more eccentric philosophies to capture the imagination of a significant part of a population, it ranges over all aspects of moral and social behavior, but its most passionate concerns are with environmental issues, racial (and other) allegiances and sexual behavior. Its precepts incorporate attitudes that would be dismissed rather casually in most contexts: doing things for the sake of “the planet”, for example, as if a chunk of earth had thoughts and desires with a greater claim on our sympathy than our fellow human beings; regarding people not only as not part of nature but as nature’s main enemy; and adopting a stance so implacably against change as to verge on the pathological.

Even more distinctive is the disconnection between rhetoric and practice. The faithful grant tolerance its usual degree of verbal respect, but on issues they consider important they turn out to be about as inflexible as could be imagined. The notion that declining populations of various species tell us which ought to survive and which needn’t, isn’t taken as an opinion as worthy of respect as any other, but as an aberration whose adherents have to be forced to prevent extinctions just as much as all us right-thinking folks. And is there a word more honored by believers than “diversity?” implying, you’d think, they’d welcome the variety of interests people have and the things they choose to do as a result. Dream on. There’s no aspect of human behavior with implications too minor to escape the compulsion to denounce, restrict, and forbid: smoking and dog poop, plastic bags and styrofoam, fur coats and leather boots, pesticides and preservatives, hunting and even eating meat – when people do it. For tigers and crocodiles it’s okay. And so are native plants and endangered species, helmets and seat belts, yellow tape and “stay on the path” signs at all the access points to nature.

The rules of racial attachment are even more at war with themselves. Is there any word that arouses the ire of believers more than racism? So what’s the prescribed response? Categorize people by race, decide which deserve sympathy and which condemnation, then direct benefits to the first group and disdain to the second. But wait a minute. What’s that you’re recommending?  Treating people as members of groups they happen to belong to rather than as individuals  — that’s racism, isn’t it? pure and simple:  The only difference between your version and mine is who’s in favor and who’s out. And how about all the other allegiances people latch onto – nation, religion,  political party and ideology? It’s the same thing right down the line: what counts is the faction you’re partial to. Or sex. Is there any better way to demonstrate how absolutely okay you are than by proclaiming the strength of your allegiance to women and homosexuals?

A last example and surely the most bizarre.  If there’s anything that shows that political correctness is more of a religion (how people ought to behave) rather than a political philosophy (how people ought to be governed), it’s the fervor of its involvement in sexual morality.  And what does the advertised position turn out to be? Voluntary sexual intercourse and things that resemble it are intended for pleasure – pretty much like roller coaster rides and bungee jumping – so they don’t have any moral implications and couldn’t. Not only that, but everybody’s so entitled to the satisfactions sex provides they’re absolved of blame for any consequences that result, like infecting somebody with AIDS or bringing an unintended human being into existence. And that’s the vision of sex that marriage ought to be based on – which by the way the government’s acknowledged in a court decision. So what about moral judgment? Is there any call for it? Sure, but just to shame those troglodytes who insist that the connection sexual activities sometimes have with love, marriage, bringing children into the world and God-knows-what-else implies they do have moral implications. Of course you and I realize that that kind of judgment comes from sources of authority long since declared passé. Intellectual developments of the last half century make it perfectly clear that, coercion aside, the only sexual sin is in claiming there could be such a thing.

Selective enforcement and equal protection

Selective enforcement doesn’t just subvert democracy, it undermines the Constitution as well. The 14th amendment (that went into effect in 1868) says, “nor shall any State … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws“. Laws not only have to be enforced but enforced uniformly. But how can that happen in a judicial system where money, fame and power play so big a part? Rich people get better lawyers, and defendants with organizations behind them get better treatment. Equal protection can also be undermined by decisions like the one that denies to a judge-invented category called “public figures” (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan) the same protections from libel that you and I are entitled to. Or enforcement can be geared to a specific extra-legal purpose, as when officials look the other way when people enter the country illegally, then compound the inequity by condoning entry from some places but not from others. The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) was used to put and end to Operation Rescue by the size of the penalties it levied on certain acts of civil disobedience, after which the act was put on the shelf to gather dust. Statutes ostensibly intended to combat crime can be phrased so broadly as to allow them to serve all sorts of other purposes. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) is an example; as is the tax code, which is so complicated it can be (and has been) used against just about anybody the government wants to go after; and legal offenses as vaguely defined as “conspiracy” and “felony intimidation”.

Religion and speech

The 1st amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press”. Could it be any clearer? Laws that interfere with the exercise of  religion or the free expression of ideas have to come from legislatures other than the U.S. Congress. Or so you’d think (church and state). So how can a federal law take away tax advantages a minister’s church is entitled to because he chooses to preach a message deemed political? By what authority can a federal court ban what Congress cannot: propounding belief in God in a community classroom? It’s religious beliefs, after all, that the 1st amendment protects even more than environmental and nationalistic ones, racial, sexual, social or moral. Yet it’s religious values that judges take it upon themselves to prevent students from hearing. How can a law (Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act) keep cigarettes from being advertised, any more than it could a laundry detergent, the Red Cross or a candidate for public office?   Speech is supposed to be free regardless of subject, and it’s clearly ideas that are as out of fashion as smoking that most need to be protected. The Federal Communications Commission was created by Congress, yet it uses the content of radio or television programs in granting licenses and makes broadcasters who want to promote a particular candidate provide “equal opportunities” for all his competitors.

Life, liberty and property

The 5th amendment says, “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. More than any other, this is the amendment whose disregard leads to tyranny. Perhaps in recognition of that fact, the 14th restated its provisions to make clear they applied to state governments as well as federal: “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. Meanwhile the 13th provided overlapping protection: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”. Until that amendment took effect in December of 1865 individuals could be legally kept in servitude as a result of constitutional provisions that were taken to override 5th amendment guarantees. And for a hundred years after its abolition, slavery was followed in most places where it had been practiced by racial segregation.

The income tax is a deprivation of property legitimized by the 16th amendment in 1913. The result is that on average employees in the United States turn over the proceeds of 40% of their working lives to governments.

Many deprivations of liberty have taken place without either due process or any Constitutional justification. Some also involved deprivations of life.

During the Civil War the plundering of regions in Virginia by Sheridan and in Georgia and the Carolinas by Sherman involved deprivations of life, liberty and property of civilians who were residents of the United States in the view of the government that sent troops against them.

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Approximately 60,000 Cherokees and members of other tribes from the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida were forcibly resettled onto reservations in Oklahoma accompanied by the loss of approximately 11,000 lives as a result of hardships of the journey and exposure to disease. Various other Indian tribes were forced onto reservations, usually closer to their homelands. Although some members of the more warlike tribes were undoubtedly guilty of offenses for which trial and punishment would have been appropriate, the Indians were confined to reservations without reference to individual guilt or innocence or having recourse to due process.

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120,000 Americans of Japanese descent were put into concentration camps during the Second World War, as were 11,000 Germans and 3000 Italians residing in the United States.

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Compulsory military service was put into effect during the Civil War from 1863 to 1865, the First World War from 1917 to 1918, then continuously from 1940 until 1973. During that time and despite Constitutional provisions to the contrary, 18 million men were deprived of liberty and subjected to involuntary servitude, the largest group being the 10 million drafted for service in the Second World War. Total casualties in those three wars and the ones in Korea and Vietnam that followed were 2.75 million, which included a million deaths, well over half of which were in combat.

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Perhaps the atrocities most damning of the society in which they took place were those carried out by ordinary citizens when law enforcers denied protection to certain segments.

Lynchings in which police chose to look the other way; and

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abortions allowed by court decisions that overturned democratically enacted laws protecting life prior to birth. Something on the order of 65 million innocent human lives have been legally destroyed in the United States since 1973, 10 times the magnitude of the Holocaust, with the number continuing to increase at the rate of approximately 3000 per day.

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Murderer One

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Time and its traces: child stars

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Mickey Rooney

1920 – 2014

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Shirley Temple

1928 – 2014

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Elizabeth Taylor

1932 – 2011

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Robert Blake

1933 –

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Dean Stockwell

1936 –

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Margaret O’Brien

1937 –

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Time and its traces: movie stars

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The Flimflammed Generation

click on a picture to enlarge it and see its title

My parents were born in 1906. That means they were 23 years old when the stock market took a dive in 1929. For the next 16 years – the part of their lives they devoted to adjusting to married life, bringing three children into the world and raising the youngest of them (me) to the age of 5 – they were subject to the rigors first of The Great Depression and then of U.S. involvement in World War II.

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Unlike earthquakes, floods, and drought-induced famines, depressions and wars are caused by men and attributable to decisions they make. Credit and blame can be assigned to the people who bring them about by intent or miscalculation; and whatever their motives may have been, their actions can be evaluated in the hope of avoiding similar consequences in the future.

HARD TIMES

In looking back on that time through the filters of recorded history, I’m struck not only by how concentrated the misfortunes were that my parents had to endure but the relative lack of anger they felt about what had been done to them. Foreseeing where actions will lead can be difficult, of course, and we make allowances for the fact that bad things take place without being intended. But the depression of 1929 and the war that followed ten years later must have set some kind of record for political mismanagement and predictive incompetence. What’s particularly galling for those of us whose precursors had to suffer through tragedies induced by the decision-makers of the time is the the degree to which the latter managed to cover their tracks by misstating and misinterpreting what they’d done, representing the foolishness and knavery for which they’d been responsible as sagacity and virtue. What degree of blame should we attach to the people who allowed themselves to be victimized with as little protest as most of them registered? How much did they understand of what was being done to them, how much should they have understood, and what could they have done about it? Except for those few with enough insight to see through the fog of rationalizations being dumped on them and who had enough influence to make a difference, the only avenue open to most was voting. Okay, so maybe they didn’t do a very good job of taking advantage of that opportunity, but given the choices they were offered, how much could they have accomplished? And how many of us would have had the confidence to defy the wisdom of the people being presented to them as experts in the same way that experts are presented to us now?

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Fortunately we don’t have to figure out how intentional the deceptions were. Objective evidence tells us that the worst depression of all time was followed by the worst war. Even if we leave reading minds and judging motives to political psychics, you and I are still moved to ask: who the devil was responsible for this?

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Flimmflam 1: the Depression

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Flimflam 1: the Depression

click on a picture to enlarge it and see its title

Flimflam 1: the Depression

The United States had gone through a lot of economic downturns since its founding, those of 1819, 1837, 1873, 1893, and 1907 being among the ones identified as “panics” in the language of the day – with that of 1920 having been the most recent of significance prior to 1929.   The question is: why did it take till the end of the third decade of the 20th century for the most devastating economic collapse of all to occur and what made it as bad as it was?  

Given what we know of human psychology with its ambitions and enthusiasms on the one hand, its regrets and recriminations on the other, most of us aren’t surprised that economic conditions produced by the combined actions of millions of people show the same kinds of ups and downs as the fortunes of individuals. In fact economic matters are probably more subject to erraticism than personal ones, given the degree to which they depend on borrowed money and the difficulties people have in foreseeing their ability repay, the capricious ways value is attached to such things as precious metals, jewels and works of art, and even more so to the foundations of investment like stocks and real estate. To say nothing of the intrusions of government and the impacts of events unforeseen.

Okay, you say, but the uncertainties inherent in lending money, evaluating investments and encountering life’s surprises have been around since the founding of the Republic and well before. People had learned to live with bumps in the economic road as much as in all the other byways of life. They’d come to realize that downturns induced by failures of confidence and unanticipated events often got extended by the kind of mob psychology people are prone to; but having been through events of that sort a few times, they also realized that financial collapses contain the seeds of their own reversal.   When apparent wealth evaporates in, say, a stock market crash, some of what happens turns out to be useful.   You have less money to the pay for things you’d planned on, to hire people and pay their salaries, and, maybe most regretfully, to meet your debts; so you wind up buying fewer things, firing unneeded workers, offering lower wages to those who stay on, and defaulting on your obligations or threatening to. All of which send prices and wages lower and unemployment higher. But it’s those naturally occurring adjustments that make goods more affordable, workers more hirable, partial payments more likely to be accepted on old debts and interest rates lower on new ones. As the feeling of panic subsides, people find prices have declined enough to allow them to buy more of what they need.   Sales pick up, then so do jobs and wages. If this sounds like Pollyanna playing the glad game, keep in mind it’s the results that have been witnessed over time and the reasons for them figured out by reasoning backward.   Prior to 1929, recessions occurred with moderate frequency, but the bottoms were usually brief, 12 to 18 months maybe, and things got back to pre-crisis levels in a couple of years, five at most.

Nobody liked the ups and downs, but they viewed them as much a part of life as catching cold or getting stuck in a rain shower or a traffic jam. Experience demonstrated that when individuals were allowed to act separately and freely in the ways they viewed as in their best interests, downturns brought on by occasional over-enthusiasms resulted in feedback of the sort that a thermostat relies on to bring a household back to its proper temperature or an engine’s governor to its proper speed.

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A little history

To see why 1929 turned out to be different we need to take a look at how the concept of government that prevailed in the United States had changed since the nation’s founding. The American Revolution was unique in seeking to give people as much freedom as was consistent with the orderly resolution of disputes and protection from aggression. At least that was the premise on which the Constitution was based even when it wasn’t scrupulously adhered to. That spirit was reflected in the sparseness of the economic duties assigned to Congress in Article I, Section 8: “To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures“.   With the tenth amendment’s guarantee that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” those few tasks were all that the federal government was allowed to do.

Four months after George Washington became the first president of the United States, rioters in Paris invaded the Bastille, signaling the start of a series of revolutions that took a completely different approach to government, one aimed at providing benefits to social and economic classes that had been short-changed under Europe’s monarchies. Government was assigned the task of identifying the problems of its constituents and coming up with ways to solve them by whatever means that might entail. Predictably this led to increased control over people’s lives, and, since poverty and the distribution of wealth were prominent among the issues considered, manufacturing, farming, employment, ownership and economic matters in general, were given special attention, all of which led to the emergence of varying degrees and flavors of socialism.

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By 1924 the legacy of the French Revolution was reflected in the accession of the first nominally socialist government in England, while more extreme examples had already been installed by Communists in Russia and Fascists in Italy.

  

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Having started from a different political heritage and being separated from Europe by the width of an ocean, the United States was slow to accept the notion of government as definer and corrector of society’s ills. By 1907, however, the idea had caught on to the extent that a sharp but brief financial downturn and associated bank failures led Congress to seek a remedy in legislation. Despite the fact that the Constitution made no provision for such a thing, more than a century of teasing unintended powers out of bland phrases allowed Congress to bring the Federal Reserve System (FRS) into being. The newly created agency consisted of a dozen banks in cities across the country under the overall direction of a Board of Governors in Washington. Its purpose was to oversee the nation’s monetary and banking systems.

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A little economics

One of its expected benefits was the elimination of business cycles and the bank failures they often entailed. To achieve this the FRS was given the ability to make loans to commercial banks at rates set by its Board.   More significantly it could also increase the supply of money in the same way that a counterfeiter does, by printing new bills. In practice the FRS more often emulated the check writing techniques of a forger – paying for bonds it bought with credits it created out of thin air and deposited into the seller’s account. These invented dollars not only added their value to that of the money in existence, they could also be used to back up loans. Banks earn their keep by charging interest on what they lend to customers; and it was the FRS that specified what percentage of a loan had to be kept on hand to accommodate withdrawals by the bank’s depositors.   If the FRS chose to cut the reserve requirement in half, say from 20 percent to 10, a bank could double the amount it lent out with the same amount of backing, putting twice as much money into the hands of its borrowers.

When the amount of money increases relative to the value of goods and services it represents in financial transactions, the effect is called “inflation”, even though it’s customarily measured indirectly by adding up the cost of a particular collection of products rather than the ratio of all-the-dollars to what-those-dollars-stand-for. When the FRS adds to the money supply, it takes a while for the new funds to work their way into the system from the accounts into which they’ve been deposited, but once that happens consumers find it takes more dollars than it used to to buy the same items: each one is worth less. By reversing the transactions used to increase the amount of money, the FRS can just as easily decrease it. The result is deflation. Fewer dollars will then be necessary to make the same purchases: each one is worth more.

Governments get involved in two kinds of economic activity: monetary and fiscal. The former is concerned with the forms of money, its quantity and the way it’s backed. In the United States these functions are under the control of the FRS. Attitudes prevalent in Europe led to the notion that a government can also serve useful purposes by fiscal measures – how it puts money to use – for example by sponsoring public works to create jobs. In the United States the executive and legislative branches both engage in fiscal matters when they specify who gets taxed and how much, which public programs get funded and which don’t, and what rewards are granted and penalties imposed on individuals and businesses to influence their economic behavior.

The FRS started operation in November of 1914, three months after the outbreak of World War I. The conditions that prevailed in Europe by the end of that war and the emergence of the United States as a major economic power gave the agency more importance than it had at its inception. The first important test of its influence on business cycles came with a drop in prices and wages that took place in the middle of 1920, accompanied by an upsurge in unemployment and a decrease in the money supply. The FRS responded in predictable fashion by creating money to compensate for what had been lost in the contraction. The economic downturn proved to be brief. It was over in one year with employment back to normal in another. It was in the middle of that slump that Warren Harding became president. He named Andrew Mellon his Secretary of the Treasury and Herbert Hoover his Secretary of Commerce. Of the three it was Hoover who’d become enamored of using fiscal measures for political ends, but the quickness of the recovery made the plans he’d devised unnecessary. There were lessons to be learned from the incident, however. The existence of the FRS hadn’t kept the recession from happening, but the agency did seem to serve a useful purpose in making money available when it fell into short supply. Fiscal measures hadn’t proved necessary, so their value remained debatable.

A decade of solid prosperity elapsed before a series of dramatic stock market declines at the end of October 1929 let the public know that a new recession was underway – one of particular severity. By this time Herbert Hoover had become president.   Now he’d have a chance to test his theories. As things turned out, the combined responses of the Federal Reserve and two presidential administrations produced some of the most boneheaded policies ever inflicted on an unsuspecting populace by people who passed themselves off as experts. Looking back from 90 years, we can laugh at their pretensions. For the people who had to live through it, the laughs came hard.

 

Big D

The FRS responded to the crisis as expected by creating money and easing credit. For reasons hard to fathom, the Board then reversed its policy and let the money supply decline during 1930 and even more dramatically in the two years that followed, so that by the beginning of 1933 a third of the money in circulation in 1929 had ceased to exist. Deflation is good for lenders, lousy for debtors since the latter have to pay off their loans with dollars worth more than the ones they’d borrowed. In tough times, of course, any amount of money is hard to come by, and when a borrower defaults it hurts both him and the lender. But the FRS failed in ways other than letting the money supply go down.   When the economy takes a turn for the worse, the depositors of a bank, especially a small one, start to wonder about its financial stability. They can cause a “run” if all of them try to withdraw their money at the same time, and that can sink the bank since most of its deposits are out on loan.   Before 1914, big banks helped little ones in situations like that by extending them credit. Some banks stayed afloat by simply refusing withdrawals until they’d had time to replenish their reserves – awarding themselves a “holiday” – even though they may have been in violation the law when they did it. The strategy didn’t always work, but it did save a lot of banks before the FRS was established. When a lifeguard comes on duty, swimmers head for deeper water since they don’t have to rely on their friends to pull them out if conditions get rough. By 1929 the big banks were letting the little ones look after themselves since the FRS had gone on duty as a lender of last resort. A spate of bank failures started around the end of 1930 though, and it continued on and off through the next couple of years. What was the FRS doing all this time? Good question. Credit was predictably hard to come by during the Depression, but at the end of 1931 the FRS made things even tougher for the banks it was supposed to be helping by raising interest rates more than it ever had on the loans it offered them. Banks continued to fail, with a particularly severe period in the interval between Roosevelt’s election in November of 1932 and his taking office four months later.   It wasn’t until 1934 that confidence was restored and runs became rare when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) was created. A government agency could provide safety of a sort commercial banks couldn’t. The FDIC was able to draw on funds collected by coercion. Taxpayers who’d chosen not to trust banks with their savings wound up buying insurance for those who had. It wasn’t fair but it solved a problem. Nobody bothered to complain.

Hoover 1929-1933

The older I get the more I’m convinced that the judgments of history are never right. My mother told me never to say never though, and maybe she had a point: given the law of averages, once in a while the historians have got to at least come close. “Once in a while“, I said – not this time. Hoover stood by while the Depression did its worst, they tell us, then Roosevelt got elected and put an end to it with a slew of imaginative programs. That’s how they put it in the book I was taught out of – honest.

Whatever Hoover’s shortcomings may have been, they didn’t include not trying to overcome the Depression. What he wound up doing made things worse though, so he can be criticized for trying too hard.

Within a couple of weeks of the crash Hoover called a series of meetings with businessmen and coaxed them into keeping wages at pre-Depression levels. This was supposed to help not only people they employed but the economy as a whole by allowing demand to stay high. People with protected wages made out like bandits.   It was the rest of the population that had to pick up the tab for their good fortune. High wages mean high prices. With national income down, consumers couldn’t afford to buy as much as they used to. Demand declined and so did the number of employees needed to meet it. Protected wages for some meant being out-of-work for others. After all though, what would you expect when you purposely cut the link between wages and prices?

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Relying on the logic that led to propping up wages, Hoover decided to prop up prices as well. This time it was farmers he was out to save.   The Federal Farm Board (FFB) bought up products they viewed as “surplus” in the sense that the quantity available resulted in lower prices per unit. The artificial demand induced by FFB purchases did keep prices higher than they would have been, not only for the people who were trying to sell the crops they’d raised, of course, but also for the ones who were trying to buy them to feed their families. It also led farmers to grow even more of what the FFB had set out to cut back on.   The government’s response to too much cotton, was to tell cotton farmers to grow less. When, predictably, that didn’t work, officials had them plow a third of what they’d planted back into the dirt. While most of the nation was scrambling to afford the basics of life, cotton farmers were out in the fields, destroying what they’d grown. And why not? That’s what the experts paid them to do, after all; and who in his right mind would want lower prices?

What else did voters need protection from? How about foreign competition? Hoover got Congress to jack up tariffs in 1930 with a bill named for its sponsors, Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley. The U.S.’s trading partners naturally struck back with higher tariffs of their own.   Just when consumers were trying to get the lowest prices they could, bargains on imports disappeared along with overseas markets for U.S. products. You couldn’t exactly call the new tariffs unfair because everybody was made to suffer. And Hoover came up with one more way to get in good with the locals: he had immigration cut.

Tax receipts went down when productivity and income did, but Hoover wasn’t about to give up on spending money to keep the economy in motion. He upped the budget each year from 1929 to 1932, a combined 40% over the interval, creating a deficit in every year but the first. By 1932 he figured he had to do something about the growing debt though, so he got Congress to pass one of the biggest peacetime tax increases ever. All sorts of taxes went up – excise, corporate, inheritance and you-name-it   – together with across the board increases on income. For the lowest brackets – yearly incomes under $8000 – marginal rates more than doubled, while the maximum went from 25% to 63%.

When times are hard people need every dollar they can put their hands on just to afford the basics.   And they have to be allowed to spend their money as they choose. Dollars are votes. How people put their hard-earned income to use conveys better than any theory or speculation what it is they actually need and want. It tells farmers and manufacturers what to produce, employers who to hire, and the unemployed what skills to acquire. Taxes do just the opposite. They take money out of the hands of people who’ve earned it and let an office-bound official decide what to spend it on and what jobs to create in the process.   During Hoover’s tenure tax revenues were channeled into a bunch of expensive long-term projects like the San Francisco Bay Bridge, the Los Angeles Aqueduct and Boulder (later Hoover) Dam, all of whose benefits lay years in the future, while the labor those dollars were being converted into did nothing to address the current needs of the Depression’s sufferers.

You say I’m being too hard on Hoover. Okay, use whatever words you want to to describe the results of his fiscal interventions. You can’t hide the fact that they produced the worst economic record in the nation’s history.

Roosevelt 1933-1945

Roosevelt took office at what proved to be the low point of the Depression.   Unemployment was around 25% and the banking system was in shambles. The new president launched a dizzying array of programs aimed at improving things, and he certainly got the public’s attention with his damn-the-torpedoes way of going about them.

Just two days after being sworn in, for example, he declared a week long “bank holiday”. All the banks in the country had to shut down and re-open only as regulators allowed. The idea was to forestall failures by forcing banks to catch their breaths in the same way that those in trouble had chosen to do individually during earlier panics. A lot of states had already tried the idea, but Hoover had resisted it at a national level because of the disruptions it caused: not just a few banks unavailable for a day or two but all of them for an extended period, and not just the depositors’ ability to withdraw funds but the whole range of banking services.   Beyond that, it established a new precedent for federal control. It wouldn’t be up to individual bankers to decide when to re-open. Government officials would tell them if and when they could.

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Was the holiday a success?  Since 1929 the number of banks had shrunk from 25,000 to 18,000. Fewer than 12,000 were able to re-open within ten days of the start and only 3,000 more did so later, leaving a net loss of 3,000 banks during the holiday. Granted some were absorbed in mergers and others eventually paid back most of their customers’ deposits, the moratorium didn’t put an end to failures, but it did seem to boost public confidence in the banks that survived.  The real solution lay a year in the future.   States could have chosen to insure bank deposits since doing it at the national level called for a constitutional amendment. But who could be bothered with details like that at a time like this? So they just went ahead and created the FDIC anyway. Constitution be damned; it did solve a problem?

Roosevelt launched a lot of new programs that way, many of them concentrated in the first hundred days of his term: the Emergency Banking Act, Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), Federal Emergency Relief Act, Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA), Tennessee Valley Authority, Federal Securities Act, National Employment System Act, Home Owners Refinancing Act, and the National Industrial Recovery Act which set up the National Recovery Administration (NRA) to oversee all sorts of economic activity.   Virtually all of Roosevelt’s initiatives were bigger, more coercive versions of things Hoover had already tried, but they also incorporated the distinctive attitudes of his administration – viewing the federal government as the solver of the nation’s problems, offering employees protection from employers, unions from management, farmers from competition and borrowers from lenders. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” drew on much the same set of sympathies as had motivated Europe’s ventures in socialism.

Despite following in Hoover’s wake, Roosevelt seemed not to have learned much from his predecessor’s mistakes. Like Hoover, he set out to keep wages and prices high, but rather than soliciting the voluntary cooperation of businesses, he had the NRA impose a set of rules euphemistically called a “Code of Fair Competition”.

While many of the projects Hoover funded could be criticized for diverting labor from more urgent needs, Roosevelt’s misdirections outdid those of his predecessor by a country mile.

  

The Works Project Administration (WPA) invented jobs to fit the interests of the people it brought on board. Out-of-work artists, for example, were paid to paint murals on the walls of post offices, and theater folk to produce dramas they couldn’t have put over commercially but that allowed the participants to express the sympathy many of them felt for the most murderously intolerant and economically inept regime yet to gain control of a nation (the Soviet Union, of course) by sentimentalizing the factions it appealed to and demonizing the ones it treated as enemies.

     

Sponsoring public art had the advantage that the people who benefited could let their audiences know how much they appreciated a government that paid them to do whatever they wanted to.   Some taxpayers did object to the latitude allowed the participants and the flagrance of the propaganda that resulted. The public may have become accustomed to being flimflammed, but it hadn’t yet been lobotomized. Other agencies followed WPA’s lead, dreaming up jobs to suit the people it hired.   What more could a teenager ask than to have the CCC send him to a national park to lay out trails for vacationing hikers? Needless to say, the services provided to the public by Roosevelt’s make-work agencies had not been on the shopping lists of the Depression’s victims.

Another area in which Roosevelt easily outstripped the man he’d replaced was in the wholesale destruction of farm products. Following the lead set by the Hoover’s FFB but leaving its predecessor numerically in the dust, the AAA not only paid growers to plow under 10 million acres of cotton and 12,000 of tobacco but to kill 6 million baby pigs at a time when a lot of the population had accustomed itself to going without meat in its diet.

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Of course not every action of the Roosevelt administration was as inane as the ones I’ve chosen to list here. When the president came up for  re-election in 1936, he could cite the fact that virtually all the economic indicators had improved since he took over. Yearly average unemployment had gone from 25% in 1933, to 21.7, then 20.1, winding up at 17% in the election year. Not as rapid as recoveries from earlier panics had been nor as complete, but a lot better than the dreary slide Hoover had had to witness: 3.2% in 1929 followed by 8.9, 15.9, and 23.6, reaching 25% in the year he turned things over to his successor.

So how did Roosevelt manage to do better than Hoover by relying on more grandiose versions of schemes that had already failed? There were some differences of course, a couple of which were significant. The FRS started doing the job it was supposed to by increasing the money supply and making credit easier to get; and the FDIC virtually put an end to bank failures. Hoover had become president with the economy at such an exalted state that, looking back, we’re tempted to think the only way it had to go was down; while Roosevelt had taken charge with things so bad that maybe the reverse was true.   And then there were the effects of public relations and public perceptions. Having been in office when the Depression started, Hoover had to take the rap for having caused it. Whether that judgment was fair or not, everything he tried just made things worse.   What’s curious is that he wasn’t blamed for the misguidedness of the things he did, but for not doing enough of them. Roosevelt had the advantage of being out of office when the economy went sour. By tying that in with his inherent air of self-assurance, the elaborateness of the program he’d put together, and the sympathy he got from the press, Roosevelt created the impression of a knight coming to the rescue – an image Hoover’s low-key reassurances never remotely approached.   If there’s a placebo effect in politics   – and the bank holiday was surely an example of one – the medicine Roosevelt dished out benefited from the flair with which he went about it.

A placebo can make people with aches and pains feel better, but it won’t cure them of cancer.   Roosevelt came up with enough small victories in his first four years, including a an 8% reduction in unemployment, to beat Alf Landon by the biggest margin of any of his four presidential victories. The timing of that election turned out to have been opportune for the president though. Less than a year later things took a turn for the worse, and by 1938 unemployment was back to 19%. What leads to the conclusion that Roosevelt’s progress had been more cosmetic than substantive is the fact that nine years into the Depression – four under Hoover then five under Roosevelt – the economy wound up in a worse state than it had been in any of its preceding 150 years except for 1932 and 1933.   Once unemployment reached 9% in 1931, for the next ten years it stayed above the level it had attained in any previous panic or recession. Judged by economic data, Hoover’s tenure was the worst in history, but Roosevelt’s was a close second.

The greater calamity

With the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, the imposition of military conscription in 1940, and full blown wartime involvement in 1941, the effects of he Depression became lost in the more dire consequences of war. With half a million men in the armed forces in 1940, 2 million in 1941, 4 million in 1942, and 9 million in 1943, unemployment ceased to be a measure of distress. That does invite another question though. How in the devil did the United States manage to get involved in two wars at the same time, both fought thousands of miles from its own borders?

 

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Flimflam 2: the War

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Flimflam 2: the War

click on a picture to enlarge it and see its title

Flimflam 2: the War

Inside the moat

The United States is unusual in being separated from the lands of its philosophical roots by an ocean. Despite its ties to Europe and the British especially, the width of the Atlantic allows the United States to insulate itself from Europe’s wars, a fact the early presidents were well aware of.

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In his farewell address George Washington put it this way: “The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. …. Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities. … Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”   Jefferson seconded Washington’s advice at his inauguration: “…it is proper you should understand what I deem the essential principles of our government … peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.

What’s puzzling is that later presidents seemed determined to unlearn the lesson the first ones had grasped so readily, leading their nation into the two most devastating conflicts of all time in spite of the fact that the fighting took place thousands of miles from the land they inhabited.

 

Had the presidents forgotten how terrible war is? and even if they had, how were they able to convince the public to go along with them? Because the plain fact of the matter is people don’t like war and resist attempts to have one forced on them.   Why would a rational being choose to put his life and health on the line along with those of his children, relatives and friends; acquiesce to a form of servitude in which he’s asked to kill others or be killed himself; have his home and possessions imperiled; and forgo life’s comforts in order to provide his government the means to destroy the people and property of another country? All for the ostensible purpose of seeing to it that a nation, perhaps not even his own, will be governed by a faction he regards as preferable to the one favored by the other side. The case against participating in war seems so obvious as not to merit serious discussion.

Yet anybody who’s read as little history as a single volume, knows from the number of wars that have taken place it can’t be very hard to overcome people’s natural resistance to them; and when it does happen, it seems to depend on nothing more than the ability to arouse certain emotions of allegiance, idealism, antipathy and outrage.

There are lots of reasons nations go to war, of course, some more persuasive than others – resistance to armed invasion probably being the one most easily agreed upon. With oceans to its east and west and benign neighbors north and south, that risk was small for the United States – at least until technology reduced the protection afforded by distance. An inducement to war that’s always had a special appeal for heads of state is national aggrandizement. By the end of 1898 though, with the Spanish American War concluded, Hawaii annexed, Alaska paid for, and acquisitions from Mexico long absorbed, the United States seemed to have satisfied its territorial ambitions. That doesn’t mean it had given up on trying to control the behavior of other states, but there are methods short of war by which that can be accomplished.   It’s imperialism-by-threat-and-promise that the United States has continued to engage in over the years, as do most nations big enough to intimidate their neighbors.

What was it then that led the United States into a cataclysm as destructive as the Second World War and as remote from the nation’s interests and location?

World War I

To put the matter in perspective let’s look at what had happened 25 years earlier.   In August of 1914 an Austrian archduke was assassinated by a Serbian revolutionary – an incident worthy maybe of a one-line footnote in the history of the era except that it happened to induce Austria-Hungary to declare war on Serbia, which in turn led the other nations of Europe to choose up sides in a war whose devastation would turn out to be greater than any in history to that time, and whose primary political results were the re-drawing of national boundaries in a way not obviously better than they’d been earlier. All of which resulted in that conflict being cited more often than any other as demonstrating the futility of war.

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It’s hard to understand how any nation other than one actually attacked would allow itself to be drawn into such a pointless encounter. President Wilson proclaimed the United States to be neutral and adopted the rhetoric of impartiality, but his sympathies were undoubtedly with England and the Allies over Germany and the Central Powers. By and large the people of the United States shared Wilson’s point of view but with not nearly enough fervor to want any part in what-was-clearly Europe’s war.   In his 1916 election campaign the president acknowledged the popular mood and appealed to it with the slogan, “He kept us out of war;” and it worked.

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If that makes sense, then figure this out. A mere five months after being re-elected on a record of having preserved peace, Wilson induced Congress to declare war on Germany. There were other issues involved but the principal one was Germany’s announcement at the end of January 1917 that it was resuming “unrestricted submarine warfare”, meaning German submarines would feel free to attack any ships that traded with England and its wartime allies. In the next two months German U-boats did sink 9 U.S. merchant vessels, resulting in the deaths of 43 people, 17 from the United States.   Did that justify a declaration of war?   Before you answer, consider the fact that by becoming a belligerent the United States ensured that German submarines would attack not only those ships that traded with the Allies, but all other U.S. ships as well. Furthermore the United States had already accustomed itself to complying with England’s blockade of Germany. Attacks by submarines constituted a harsher method of enforcement than the kind of interdiction England was able to employ with its surface fleet, but mariners could avoid both by deferring to the German demands as they did to the British.   In any case the losses incurred by merchantmen willing to risk attack by submarines paled in comparison with what would prove to be the costs to the United States of involvement in the war: a quarter of a million casualties including 50,000 deaths.

     

To sum it up: Wilson chose to acquiesce to England’s blockading of Germany but to declare war on Germany for blockading England, a decision whose consequences were out of proportion to the loss of trade the United States would have suffered by giving in to the German demands as it already had to the British. It’s hard not to attribute Wilson’s contrasting responses to the difference in his feelings for the two countries – kinship with England, antagonism to Germany – leading him to abandon the neutrality he’d preached until then and join England in its struggle, despite the cost in life, liberty and property to the people he was supposed to be serving. As it happened, Wilson was able to persuade most of his countrymen to follow where he led by citing selective instances of German brutality and portraying the war he was now advocating as dedicated to spreading democracy rather than defending territory. The reason for Wilson’s switch, its suddenness and the means by which he got the electorate to go along with him are of interest to us because of parallels they have with what Roosevelt wound up doing a generation later.

World War II

Having absorbed Austria and Czechoslovakia without resorting to force of arms, then engineering an alliance of convenience with the Soviet Union, the German Empire launched an invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. England and France had pledged to stop Hitler if he continued his acquisitions after Czechoslovakia, so they wound up declaring war on Germany under circumstances that could hardly have been less auspicious. Neither was in a position to prevent Poland from being overrun and neither made any attempt to do so. What their declarations of war ensured was that once Germany had completed its conquest of Poland, it would make France and England its next targets, probably in that order.

What if the two countries had held off? Poland was the last area outside the Third Reich with a significant German-speaking population. It’s possible Hitler would have stopped his depredations once he’d taken it over. Given the degree of the Wehrmacht’s success until then, however, it’s more likely he would have ordered his army to continue eastward against his erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, which in fact is what he did ultimately, but only after having paused long enough to conquer France and make an attempt to overcome England’s defenses. Hitler was an admirer of the British and their empire and had sought an alliance with them, while he had nothing but contempt for the Russians on racial grounds and political ones. Watching from the sidelines while the Nazis went after the Communists is something that could have afforded the British and French a grim pleasure, given the fact that the only European regime that had proved itself more inimical to human life and freedom than Germany was the Soviet Union.

The United States’ reaction was similar to what it had been a generation earlier. Roosevelt proclaimed the nation neutral although his sympathies and those of most of his countrymen were with England and its allies; and they watched with regret as Germany proceeded from one military success to another in the year that followed. Poland surrendered before the end of September. The German army took on Denmark and Norway the following April.   The former collapsed in a few hours and the latter after a couple of months. The Germans then moved westward, overrunning Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg in May on the way to France, which capitulated in June 1940.   In preparing to invade England, Hitler sent his air force to soften up the latter’s defenses only to have the Luftwaffe beaten back in three months. One year after the start of the war France was under German control and England was hanging on by the skin of its teeth as the only surviving opponent of Hitler’s aggressions. Well aware of the gravity of the situation that had developed in this, Europe’s second major military conflagration in barely a quarter of a century, the people of the United States remained determinedly on the sidelines.   George Washington seemed to have had it right: “Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.”

In the presidential election of 1940, Roosevelt borrowed a page from Wilson’s book.   He recognized the mood of the public and took advantage of it by promising: “And while I am talking to you mothers and fathers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again: Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” One day after making that commitment, he confirmed it: “I am fighting to keep this nation prosperous and at peace. I am fighting to keep our people out of foreign wars …

But Roosevelt was purposely deceiving the people he spoke to. He’d determined to get the United States into the war, and he’d avoid blame for it by inveigling the other side to strike first. He’d privately told his campaign staff, “Of course we’ll fight if we are attacked … then it isn’t a foreign war, is it?”

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From the start Roosevelt had been far less concerned than Wilson with preserving the appearance of neutrality. As early as November of 1939 he’d had Congress amend the American Neutrality Act in a way that allowed arms sales to England and France.   When Italy joined Germany’s invasion of France, Roosevelt described Italy’s action as, “the hand that held the dagger has struck it into the back of its neighbor.”   When Paris fell to the Nazis in June, he responded by beefing up the U.S. navy. In September he okayed trading destroyers to the British and signed the act that made military service mandatory for men between 21 and 35 years of age. With the 1940 election behind him, the partisan nature in his preparations became even more blatant.   In December he accused Hitler of planning world conquest and ruled out negotiations as useless. In January 1941 he approved secret high level talks with the British on how to defeat Germany when the U.S. entered the war. In March 1941 he signed the Lend-Lease Act into law that allowed the U.S. to sell, lend or give war materials to nations the administration wanted to support. In October the U.S. destroyer Reuben James was torpedoed while escorting a British convoy as part of what the administration labeled with a straight face “the Neutrality Patrol”.

The president rationalized having promised that, “Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars,” by representing his actions as defensive and designed to prevent war rather than wage it. That explanation would hold water only if he’d seriously tried to shield the country from aggression, but his calculated violations of neutrality clearly invited it.   What he’d found out was that no matter how far he stretched the limits of neutrality or fractured them, Hitler wasn’t going to respond by declaring war. So how could he get the U.S. into the fray without obviously violating the pledge he’d made to the mothers of America? Shortly before the election of 1940, something happened that opened up a whole new option.

When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, the Chinese had already been engaged for two years in a war to drive an occupying Japanese army out of their country. The United States had remained neutral in the affair, although the president and the majority of the population sided with the Chinese. As was true of Europe, popular sympathies didn’t remotely extend to wanting the United States to become militarily involved in Asia. In September of 1940 Japan became part of the Axis by agreeing to “The Tripartite Pact” with Germany and Italy, which required that if any of the three were attacked by a country not yet in the war, the other two would come to its aid. To Roosevelt this meant that rather than having to coax an obviously unwilling Hitler into declaring war, he might be able to achieve the same thing by getting the more fractious Japanese to commit an act of aggression that would allow the U.S. to retaliate and obligate Germany to support its ally. But would Hitler cooperate by honoring the terms of the Pact?   There was only one way to find out.  

Pearl Harbor

In looking back, there’s no room for doubt as to what Roosevelt was up to. As early as the 1940 election he’d admitted privately he intended to get the United States into the war by provoking an incident from the other side. A month after Japan made its pact with Germany, a memo was circulated among Roosevelt’s staff listing a series of measures designed to strain relations with Japan, all of which were ultimately implemented. In July of 1941 Roosevelt froze Japanese assets in the United States, bringing commercial relations between the two countries to an end.   Even more devastating to the Japanese and something they would have to find a way to overcome was an embargo on trade instituted at the beginning of August of 1941 in which the United States – later joined by the other two dominant colonial forces of the Pacific, the British and Dutch – denied to Japan the oil it needed not only for its military adventures but for its economic life. On October 16 Secretary of War Stimson recorded a meeting with Roosevelt he’d attended: “We face the delicate question of the diplomatic fencing to be done so as to be sure Japan is put into the wrong and makes the first bad move – overt move.” On November 26, 1941 the United States presented a ten point proposal to the Japanese that included demands known to be unacceptable to the latter: withdrawal from China coupled with support for Chiang Kai-shek’s regime there, renunciation of the Tripartite Pact and scrapping economic plans for a “Co-Prosperity Sphere” in East Asia. Stimson summarized the president’s attitude in the diary entry he made ten days before Pearl Harbor. “[Roosevelt] brought up the event that we are likely to be attacked perhaps next Monday [the attack actually took place 6 days after that] , for the Japanese are notorious for making an attack without warning, and the question was what we should do. The question was how we should maneuver them into the position of firing the first shot without allowing too much danger to ourselves.” In anticipation of the attacks Roosevelt had alluded to, U.S. Naval commanders were given written instructions to let the other side, “commit the first overt act.”   Decrypted Japanese diplomatic and military communications were the source of the information Roosevelt had relied on in his prediction. The only matter about which controversy remains is the how specific was U.S. foreknowledge of the targets to be struck by the Japanese on or about December 7, whether or not Pearl Harbor was among them, and the degree to which officials purposely withheld information from the Army and Navy commanders on Hawaii in order to ensure that the damage would be sufficient to justify a declaration of war.

The Biggest Lie

Although the two aircraft carriers that would ordinarily have been stationed at Pearl Harbor had been sent safely out of the way, Roosevelt was probably surprised by how much damage the Japanese were able to inflict on the U.S. fleet, even though most of it was borne by battleships that were obsolete or close to it due to their vulnerability from airplanes and submarines. In any case it was the extent of the devastation in Honolulu that allowed Roosevelt to achieve the goal he was after as easily as he did. Drawing on his considerable oratorical skills and treating the strike as if it had come as a surprise, he got Congress to okay war against Japan with only one dissenting vote (Jeanette Rankin).   What Roosevelt couldn’t have been sure of on December 8, was whether Hitler would cooperate by honoring the Tripartite agreement. Surprisingly enough, he did. Germany declared war on the United States three days later.  

Roosevelt profited as Wilson had from the sympathy of the press. Even before he delivered his speech to Congress, the Pearl Harbor headlines had changed the mood of the nation in the direction he’d sought.   And there were subtler ways that writers had been supporting his preparations for war. People who wanted to stay out of the fight were routinely labeled “isolationists” while those who favored military participation were called “interventionists”. It wasn’t war and peace that was at issue, these labels seemed to imply, but whether one wanted to be “isolated” from the world or was willing to “intervene” in it. It was a language convention put into harness by people who supported military involvement, and it wouldn’t be retained as the standard way of distinguishing those who favored from those who opposed any of the United States’ subsequent wars, none of which would prove to be as popular with opinion makers as this one.

     

Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor had achieved all that Roosevelt could have hoped for: getting the United States into the fight not only against Germany but Germany’s treaty partner in Asia as well. People were so energized by the damage to the fleet that in their newfound appetite for war they barely bothered to distinguish one member of the Axis from another. On December 6, 1941 they’d been as satisfied as ever with the neutral stance the country had maintained for the last two and a quarter years. Two days later they wouldn’t have been denied their chance for vengeance on Japan; but more surprisingly they accepted the prospect of simultaneous involvement on another continent with only a little less enthusiasm. Did the ninety minutes in which Japanese planes dropped bombs on Honolulu really justify a reversal that sudden and that complete?

What if…

Consider what was going on in Asia. That the rulers of Japan were of an imperialistic frame of mind was evident in the war they were waging in China. That same expansionist spirit led them to promote the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” as a peaceful way of flexing their economic muscles. Given the commitment they’d made to that trade group, there’s little reason to think they would have simultaneously launched a war to take over the dependencies of the United States, the British and the Dutch except for the necessity of overcoming the embargo being imposed by those nations. If Roosevelt hadn’t been as determined as he was to provoke an incident, he would have reached an accommodation with Japan, the invasions of December 7 and 8 wouldn’t have taken place, and there would have been no war in the Pacific and no trigger for U.S. military engagement in Europe. What would the consequences have been?

In the Far East the influence of the United States would have declined as the Philippines moved toward independence and other colonies loosened their ties with Europe and America. The Japanese would have tried to take advantage of that situation with results we’ll never know but that might still have led to war. The short-term consequences for China are also unknowable, but hindsight lets us conclude that the eventual result couldn’t have been worse than what actually happened. Four years after Japan’s defeat, Mao Tse-tung established a government in China that would prove to be the most internally murderous in the history of mankind and one of the most politically and intellectually intolerant. The cost is usually estimated at something on the order of eighty million Chinese lives destroyed purposefully and through a mindless commitment to an ideology that didn’t work.

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If it hadn’t been for Pearl Harbor, would the United States have remained on the sidelines in Europe, or would events there have led to the same result as the one that was achieved in practice by a roundabout route? Germany posed no threat of invading America. For citizens of the United States it was what happened on the other side of the Atlantic that was at issue. Did that merit going to war?

When a country takes up arms in defense of others, it serves its own interests to the extent that it puts the nations it aids in its debt. Wilson had chosen to represent the military support he gave to the Allies in 1917 in moral terms, however, as defending democracy. The hawks of the next generation followed Wilson’s example, claiming that the armed intervention they sought was required in the interests of global justice. Heads of state have moral obligations other than punishing the world’s malefactors though, preserving peace for the people they serve, for example, and sparing them the consequences of war. What’s more, for one nation to take on the role of   policeman, judge and executioner of another contains dangers so obvious that those functions are usually consigned only to multinational organizations like the League of Nations. By 1941 the League’s deficiencies had become so evident that that option was not available.

Policing the world

The United States had political and cultural ties with various European countries, England especially, that put it at odds with their Axis antagonists. But if those sympathies had been thought sufficient to justify war, the time to have acted on them had long since gone by. By November of 1940 France had surrendered and Britain had managed to stave off attack only through the efforts of its air force. Meanwhile Roosevelt was still promising to stay out of foreign wars and was re-elected on that basis. In the year that followed, the French remained under the thumb of the Germans, but the situation improved considerably for the British.

When Hitler decided to invade the Soviet Union in June of 1941 he not only brushed aside a valuable ally but created an enemy on his eastern border as dangerous as the one on his west that had been standing alone against him until then. It may not have been evident in the Wehrmacht’s initial successes, but anybody who’d read a history book would’ve been struck by how witlessly Hitler had ignored the similarities between what he was doing and what Napoleon had tried in 1812.

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Cultural kinships hadn’t provided enough incentive for the U.S. to enter the war on behalf of its friends in Europe, nor had the aggressions committed against those nations. Lots of invasions had taken place in the preceding few years, all of which were decried by the U.S. but none of which remotely prompted it to intervene: Italy of Ethiopia, for example; Germany of Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, and the Soviet Union; and the Soviet Union of Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. But what about the German empire? Did its continued growth or its denial of independence to the states that made it up constitute an offense sufficient for intervention? Before you say yes, consider the fact that the largest empire in the world belonged to the British and the largest contiguous one to the Soviets. And the United States had a small empire of its own. If imperialism called for military suppression, then the United States’ first thrust should have been against its allies.

As time has gone by, war against the Third Reich has come to be regarded as inevitable. The murder of millions of Jews and other disparaged races demanded action no matter what the cost – never mind the fact that the deeds cited took place after the United States had entered the conflict. What has turned out to be the judgment of history rests on the assumption that regardless of how indirectly the United States was actually drawn into war, if Germany’s racial crimes could have been foreseen, they would have merited armed intervention in any case.   It’s certainly true that participants in a war like to publicize the atrocities of their enemies, but the internal policies of another country are rarely sufficient to induce an invasion solely to correct them – except by an armed force that has such an overwhelming advantage that its victory is a foregone conclusion.

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In order to distinguish cause from effect and decide whether what’s come to seem unavoidable really was, let’s take a look at the sequence of events. The regime that took hold in Germany in 1933 was regarded with contempt by most Americans – a dictatorship in which elections were a charade, civil liberties denied, and Jews and other factions relentlessly persecuted.   Nevertheless the program of extermination for which the Nazis became famous at the end of the war, didn’t begin until 1942. The mass murders that were to take place in the concentration camps and some that had already occurred on Germany’s eastern front and elsewhere in the Reich weren’t part of the data on which Roosevelt was called to act at the end of 1941.   In fact, it would have taken a bit of nerve for the president of a nation in a large part of which racial segregation was being enforced and interracial marriage banned to berate Germany for its racial policies prior to that time. He would have had to take refuge in the advice of the profligate father: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor reversed the attitude of U.S. residents toward war in barely an instant. In particular it led to their acceptance of hostilities against Germany in retaliation for the invasions the latter had launched over the preceding two years. Those acts of aggression subsequently came to be viewed as a less compelling reason for taking up arms than what happened at Auschwitz and Treblinka, but only with the aid of hindsight. Up until six weeks before the U.S. entered the war, Germany had been encouraging Jews to emigrate although penalizing those who did by making them leave their possessions behind. If helping Jews under siege had been a significant factor in the policies of the United States, immigration restrictions would have been eased or eliminated. They weren’t. Entry visas remained hard to get for Jews seeking escape from Germany, while U.S. military involvement did nothing to help those left behind. In fact it was in the month that followed Pearl Harbor that the Nazis adopted a plan to exterminate the Jews within their empire. Was that a coincidence? The German army had been in the field for over two years, and the casual attitude toward killing that takes hold of a country during wartime came to pervade the thinking of the people in charge. The addition of the United States to the list of their enemies inspired a wave of alarm with dire consequences for the unprotected, and when the Allies stopped the German advances and began turning things around a year later, the pace of the slaughter they’d initiated in 1942 became even more frenzied.

Similar provocations

We can’t re-run history under different conditions to discover what the United States would have done if the Holocaust had been known in advance, but we can draw some inferences by looking at how the country responded to known misdeeds of roughly the same magnitude. The reason we have a basis for comparison is because there was a regime in Europe that predated that of the Nazis by sixteen years and had long been relying on murderous internal policies to maintain the degree of control it achieved. In fact given its longevity, the government of the Soviet Union compiled a record for mass murder that outdid by a wide margin what the Nazis concentrated into the last three and a half years of their reign.

Like the Nazis, the Communists had founded their government on a contempt for democracy, suppression of civil liberties and a disregard for human life and liberty. They’d subjected a greater variety of groups to persecution, however, exhibited more hostility to religion and economic endeavor, imposed tighter restrictions on travel and emigration, had a larger and more pervasive state police force and a bigger network of concentration camps.   By the time the United States took up arms against Germany, the Soviet Union had compiled a record of 24 years of tyranny, available for examination by anybody who cared to take a look:

The worst government ever

Included in the chronicle were deaths engineered through a variety of government-conducted programs – massacres carried out during the Civil War, for example, political and social persecutions that went under the name the Red Terror, unsupervised rampages of the state police (known variously over time as the Cheka, GPU and NKVD), consignment of oppressed classes to the forced-labor camps that constituted the “Gulag” and to the life-destroying conditions that prevailed in them.

  

All of this was in the historical record when Roosevelt took office in the United States and Hitler in Germany in 1933. In the eight years that followed, the Soviet oppressions became even worse. For resisting collectivization Stalin imposed a famine on the Ukraine in which lingering starvation took the lives of something on the order of six million people – numerically the equivalent of the Holocaust.  

He followed that with The Great Terror: a series of publicized trials leading to the execution of many of his former comrades and potential future adversaries, paralleled by a low profile program of executions conducted throughout the country by the NKVD in accordance with quotas furnished by the Kremlin.   Through all of which the Gulag persisted, and as a result of which it grew.

The number of innocent lives taken by the Soviet government during this time is conservatively estimated at twenty million.

 Red legacy

Dissimilar consequences

Given the similarity of the Communists’ deeds to those of the Nazis and the greater availability of knowledge about the former, we’re led inquire if indeed the United States did intervene to prevent their continuation, perhaps with the assistance of other high-minded nations? If not, what consequences did ensue for the Soviets?

Here’s the answer.

In 1933 New York Times’ correspondent, Walter Duranty, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reports from the Soviet Union in which he managed to keep the readers of his newspaper in the dark about the famine that had been imposed on the Ukraine and that he was aware of.

In 1938 U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph Davies offered his view that, “the Kremlin’s fears were well justified,” in staging The Great Terror. Three years later he wrote a book called Mission to Moscow, in which he had nothing but praise for Stalin.

In August of 1939, Hitler and Stalin formed an alliance that allowed Germany to invade Poland from the west and prompted England and France to declare war on Germany in response. Two weeks later the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east, to which there was no response by England, France or anybody else.

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In June of 1941, Hitler dumped his erstwhile ally by sending the Wehrmacht into the Soviet Union, initially with great success. Stalin immediately turned to England and the United States for help, both of which welcomed their new partner with no recriminations and began supplying him with material aid including weapons of war. The first two consignments from the United States were in June and October of 1941 while the U.S. was still officially neutral. The value of all the aid furnished to the Soviet Union was exceeded only by the total sent to members of the British Empire, but it was three and a half times what went to France and seven times what went to China.

In June 1942 Roosevelt’s closest personal adviser, Harry Hopkins, promised the Soviet Union: “We are determined that nothing shall stop us from sharing with you all that we have.”

In July of 1943 Roosevelt assured the radio public, “The world has never seen greater devotion, determination, and self-sacrifice than have been displayed by the Russian people and their armies, under the leadership of Marshal Joseph Stalin.”

In February of 1945 Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met at Yalta in anticipation of a joint victory over Germany. The three heads of state reached an agreement that would allow the Soviet Union control of postwar developments throughout Eastern Europe and guaranteed that former residents of the Soviet Union who turned up in Western Europe after the war would be forcibly returned to their homeland.

Questions worth asking

So it’s not true that the calculated destruction of six million people, or even 20 million, would necessarily cause intervention by the United States to prevent continuation.   The instance we just examined led in fact to friendship, material aid and servility. All of which raise a number of questions.

What do the parallel experiences with contrasting responses to the deeds of Germany on the one hand and the Soviet Union on the other tell us about the rectitude of morally corrective wars?

What do they tell us about the government and controlling culture of the United States?

What do they tell us about the judgment of history? and

What do they tell us about the political leadership to which the flimflammed generation was subject?

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A just war

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Four U. S. Painters

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EASTMAN JOHNSON 1824-1906

 Cranberry Harvest

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In the Hayloft

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WINSLOW HOMER 1836-1910

Long Branch, New Jersey 1869

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The Fog Warning

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JOHN SINGER SARGENT 1856-1925

Nonchaloir

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Oyster Gatherers of Cancale

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FREDERIC REMINGTON 1861-1909

A Dash for the Timber

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Radisson and Groseilliers

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Four good paintings

Three Russian painters

Illustrators

Art: imitation and inspiration

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Oscar wilde-truman capote: ascent

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Two writers

 

One born in Dublin found fame in London. One born in New Orleans found fame in New York.

 

Separated by 70 years and 3500 miles.

 

Connected by talent, eloquence, wit and self-assurance…

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and a friendship with Andre Gide.
 

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Each was granted a spell of unrivaled popularity.

Each made a decision that led to disgrace, ostracism and death.

 

A story stranger than either would have put on paper

was lived by both.

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STARTING OUT

Oscar 1854-1871

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland October 16, 1854. His father, William, was a surgeon famed for his knowledge of the eye and ear about which he wrote a pair of popular textbooks. He also wrote on a variety of other topics, including Ireland, travel and archeology. He was knighted for his contributions in 1864. Before his marriage William had fathered an illegitimate son and two daughters whom he supported financially but left to be raised by relatives rather than in his own home.

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Oscar’s mother was also an author but of poetry and articles promoting Irish independence. Both parents were members of the Irish branch of the Anglican church, and they had Oscar baptized in that religion, although his mother also had some inclinations toward Catholicism. Oscar’s only legitimate brother, William, was two years older than he, and his sister, Isola, two and a half years younger, but the latter died of a fever at the age of nine.

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Truman 1924-1932

Truman Capote was born September 30, 1924, in New Orleans, christened Truman Streckfus Persons. His parents, Arch Persons and Lillie Mae Faulk, had a troubled marriage.   Arch was involved in one failed money-making scheme after another, while Lillie Mae wanted to be off on her own, unhampered by the demands of a husband or child. In the summer of 1930 she left five year old Truman with his cousin, two aunts and an uncle – in the small (population 1400) town of Monroeville, Alabama while she went to New York in pursuit of a more interesting life.   Looking back on the time, Truman remembered having felt abandoned, but he also found things to like about his life in Monroeville. Of the people who took care of him, he retained especially fond memories of his Aunt Sook. And although he was small for his age and his voice was high-pitched and feminine, he’d been endowed with a toughness of spirit that got him through the difficulties of being different from the other kids. His closest friend was Harper Lee, a girl slightly younger than himself who lived next door and would include a character based on Truman in To Kill a Mockingbird – the novel she would write in 1960. Despite spending only a couple of his childhood years in Monroeville, Truman’s experiences there left him with impressions he was later to capitalize on in his writings.

In March 1931 Truman’s father was jailed for passing bad checks. Lillie Mae sued him for a divorce that became effective in November. The following March she married Joe Capote, who’d been raised in Cuba and whom she’d met earlier in New Orleans. Since that meeting he’d become a successful Wall Street executive, so when Truman’s mother became his wife she was able to send for her son and be reunited with him in New York in September of 1932. The boy was adopted by his stepfather and his name was changed to Truman Garcia Capote.

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GETTING EDUCATED

Oscar 1871-1878

Oscar was taught at home until he was nine but then was sent to a boarding school in the northern part of Ireland. He proved to be an outstanding student and returned to Dublin at age sixteen to take advantage of a scholarship he’d won to Trinity College. Again he excelled in his studies, and he was drawn into an intellectual movement called aestheticism, which stressed beauty over moral purpose in works of art and encouraged a personal style of showy elegance, typified by such adherents as the poet, Swinburne, and the painters, Rossetti and Whistler.

  

On completing three years at Trinity, Oscar received a gold medal for the excellence of his Greek studies, and he also won a scholarship to Oxford. He moved to England in 1874 to continue his academic career. In contrast with the exaggerated refinement he later became famous for, Oscar was tall (6′ 3″), physically robust, and anything but meek in his encounters with other people. He had a fling at rowing and boxing in his first year at Oxford but he gave up sports for intellectual pursuits. The rituals of the Masons intrigued him sufficiently to join that fraternity, and he flirted with Catholicism as well, based on the appeal of its liturgy rather than its beliefs. The aspects of his personality that remained constant were those associated with aestheticism. He dressed as a dandy, adopted a flamboyant manner and made no effort to obscure his interest in the kind of androgynous hedonism his fellow aesthetes were known for – an inclination some of his friends advised him to tone down.   He also engaged in more conventional pursuits, seeking associations with attractive women, the most serious of which was with a girl named Florence Balcombe. She was three years younger than he and, despite Oscar’s persistent attentions, wound up marrying Bram Stoker, later to be the author of Dracula.

His dedication to the Greek and Roman classics remained undiminished, but his career at Oxford was marked by run-ins with school authorities due to an insouciance he’d developed, probably in part as a reaction to the ridicule he had to endure as a result of his offbeat style of life.   Outgoing and witty as he certainly was, Oscar might also have been described as smug and arrogant. He certainly attracted admirers and repelled detractors to a greater degree than most of his contemporaries. Among the people he managed to befriend were two of the more prominent writers of the day – Walter Pater, whose views on art and manners were similar to his own, and John Ruskin, whose guiding philosophy was different in concentrating more on social improvement than aesthetic purity.

 

Oscar succeeded in getting a number of his poems published, some on religious themes, others that drew on his knowledge of the classics or on his dedication to beauty as an end in itself; and in spite of having no credentials in the world of art, his facility for words enabled him to get a review into print of an exhibition he’d seen in London. He toured Italy during the summer of 1875, returned there in 1877, then proceeded on to Greece, staying well past the time he was supposed to be back at work at Oxford, resulting in his being penalized by the administrators of his scholarship.   Despite that insubordination and others that had preceded it, he wound up winning the coveted Newdigate prize for poetry in 1878 and he followed that with a first place in his final examinations, allowing him to exult at the degree of success he’d achieved despite the disapproval of his university overseers.

Given the level of his academic achievements, the extent of his travels, the poems he’d written and the people he’d come to know, by the time Oscar left Oxford he was a person of some intellectual repute. While that was an advantage in the literary world he inhabited, his immersion in the classics induced him to put enough obscure references into the poems he wrote to puzzle casual readers of the time and even more so those of today to whom the world of the ancient Greeks and Romans is largely unknown territory.

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Truman 1932-1944

His stepfather’s income allowed Truman advantages he’d been denied earlier. He started his New York schooling in the fourth grade at Trinity, a private institution. A few years later his parents transferred him to a military school, probably in an attempt to suppress the overly feminine qualities he exhibited and to which   his mother had never become reconciled.   Truman hated the place though and they let him return to Trinity. When his parents moved to Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1939, they sent him to the public high school, but on returning to New York in 1942, they enrolled him in a private school again.

Truman wrote a series of short stories that he showed to his teachers, of whom Catherine Wood at Greenwich was sufficiently impressed to establish a lasting friendship with him and devote a good deal of her time to helping advance his talent. The New Yorker was known for short fiction of the sort Truman was trying to emulate, and he wangled a job with the magazine as a copy boy. Despite a demeanor that made him seem even younger than he was, Truman had enough self-confidence to invite some of the editors to take a look at his writings.   Only one exhibited any interest though and then not enough to offer any hope of publication.

Truman was a poor student which he attributed to the fact that he’d decided early on that all he wanted to do was be a writer, so he put no effort into things that didn’t advance that goal. He graduated from high school in 1944, older than most of his classmates since he’d had to repeat his senior year. His lack of interest in college protected him from the kind of homogenization that education can produce, but it also left him with less knowledge of history, literature and the arts than most of the writers he would find himself among.

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ON HIS OWN

Oscar 1878-1890

Oscar graduated from Oxford in 1878 at the age of 23. His father had died two years earlier, leaving his heirs only a few pieces of property from which they could hope to earn an income. Oscar chose to sell part of his inheritance in order to be able to move to London and share an apartment with an artist friend named Frank Miles. In 1879 Oscar’s mother also took up residence in London and set about cultivating the literary set there by treating its members to afternoon teas attended by one or both of her sons.

Successful as Miles was as a painter, the apartment he shared with Oscar became a gathering place for artists, models, actors and other public figures. One of the women whose fame Miles helped to foster by the portraits he painted of her, was a youthful beauty named Lillie Langtry. Although she was married, she became involved in a not-so-secret affair with the Prince of Wales, resulting in the future Edward VII’s being among the people who stopped by Oscar and Frank’s place from time to time. When Lillie’s husband went bankrupt, Oscar was among the friends who urged her to take up acting; and it was her subsequent success in that endeavor that led to the celebrity she achieved first in England and later in the United States.

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By 1880 Oscar had yet to produce a literary work of any renown, but his talent for self-advertisement had made him known in London society. In fact, the extravagance of his clothing and manners embodied the idiosyncrasies of aestheticism to the extent that when Gilbert and Sullivan set out to satirize the movement in Patience, it was Oscar and his flamboyant friend of the moment, the artist James McNeill Whistler, who served as models for the characters that personified aestheticism in the operetta.

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It wasn’t as if Oscar hadn’t made an effort to advance his literary fortunes. He completed his first play in 1880 and tried to interest various actresses in bringing it to the stage. It was called Vera, and of all the premises an avowed aesthete might have chosen to launch his career, that of Vera had to be among the most unlikely. Loosely based on a historical incident, it was about a Russian woman who sets out to assassinate the Czar in pursuit of revolutionary goals. If nothing else it illustrated the degree to which Oscar could stretch his literary interests to include just about any issue on which his characters could voice aphorisms of the sort Oscar delighted in crafting. His efforts to have the play put on in London failed, but three years later he was able to wangle a staging in New York.

In 1881 Oscar paid for the publication of a limited edition of 61 of his poems. Most of the friends to whom he sent copies responded appreciatively, but the critical reception was lukewarm or less, one of the frequent complaints being that the poems were too derivative. Oscar started in on a new drama to be called The Duchess of Padua. Another historical tragedy, its setting was at least closer to the social world Oscar actually knew than the one of political zealots in Vera.   Completion, of course, was a long way off and the prospects for success unpredictable. As it turned out, the play wasn’t put on until ten years later under the title Guido Ferranti, and then it only ran three weeks.

In the meantime Oscar needed money. The success of Patience in New York led one of its producers to suggest that Oscar capitalize on the interest in aestheticism it had inspired by giving lectures across the United States, not only to explain the movement to the people there but to personify it for his audiences. Oscar signed on and arrived in New York in January of 1882, grabbing the press’s attention by coming down the gangplank in full aesthetic regalia.   With the publicity the newsmen willingly supplied, he found his lectures well attended; and, once he got his feet on the ground in terms of content and style, the tour proved worthwhile despite the rigors of relentless travel and occasional hostile reactions. Oscar didn’t return to England until December, 1882, having spent almost a year on the other side of the Atlantic.

 He promptly departed for Paris to work on The Duchess of Padua and hobnob with the likes of Paul Verlaine and J. K. Huysmans – writers known as “decadent” for the French literary movement they belonged to and one that shared a common ground with aestheticism.

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Back in London by May of 1883, Oscar set about courting Constance Lloyd, a woman he’d come to know a couple of years earlier. He had to schedule his visits to her around the demands of a lecture tour he was engaged in and a short trip he made to New York in August for the opening of Vera.

The play only ran for a week. Despite that disappointment, personal and financial, he went ahead with the wedding in May of 1884. The couple honeymooned in Paris, and by the time they were back in England Constance realized that that the money she’d brought to the marriage wouldn’t be enough to keep up with Oscar’s spending habits. It wasn’t long before she found herself pregnant, giving birth to their first son, Cyril, in June, 1885, and another to whom they gave the name, Vyvyan, in November of 1886.

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In many of his published writings as well as in personal contacts and private correspondence with various male friends, Oscar had made little effort to conceal his homosexual inclinations; but it wasn’t until the year in which his second child was born and Oscar was a mature 31 that he had his first – or so he later claimed – sexual affair with a man, a student named Robert Ross, seventeen years old at the time, but who would turn out to be one of the most enduring of Oscar’s friends. The involvement with Ross initiated a pattern of conduct that would become an increasingly important part of Oscar’s life in spite of the mixed feelings he apparently had about what he was doing and the negative consequences it had for his family. He stopped having sexual relations with his wife, and although Constance accepted the change without recriminations, it isn’t clear that she initially realized the reason behind it.   In any case she was to prove extraordinarily forbearing about Oscar’s acts of self-indulgence, an attitude that contrasted strongly with the broad swings of emotion that characterized Oscar’s relations with the various men he took up with.

Oscar managed to supplement the income Constance brought to the family with lectures and book reviews he turned out with his customary verbal flair. He also wrote short stories and fairy tales some of which still find their way into anthologies, and he composed essays in which his knack for provocative generalizations compensated for the diffuseness of the points he was trying to get across. Despite having made a contribution to all these genres, it would still be fair to say that the success Oscar had achieved by the end of the 1880’s rested more on the style of life he’d come to represent than his artistic accomplishments.   That was about to change. While Oscar’s personal life remained immured in clandestine sexual affairs, his literary career was about to take off.

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Truman 1944-1948

Truman had not only failed to interest The New Yorker in his fiction, he was fired from his job for inadvertently offending Robert Frost at a convention they both attended. His determination to become a writer remained as strong as ever, and as an indication of the affection he held for the place of his childhood, it was to rural Alabama he returned in the fall of 1944 to come up with the stories he needed to launch his career. As it turned out, the surroundings he’d chosen provided the inspiration for what would be his first novel, and he went to New Orleans, the place of his birth, to get it started. In the spring of 1945 Truman returned to Manhattan – which, for all his later travels, would continue to be the center of his intellectual life.

If there was a talent Truman had to a greater degree than any of his contemporaries, it was the ability to ingratiate himself with the people he met, including those who could help him advance in his profession. That talent hadn’t been sufficient to overcome the disadvantage of his youth when he was at the New Yorker, but by the time he returned from New Orleans he was able to talk Rita Smith at Mademoiselle into publishing a story called “Miriam”.   It appeared in the June 1945 issue of the magazine and would go on to win the O. Henry Memorial Award the following year. At Harper’s Bazaar, it was Mary Louis Aswell he persuaded to take up his case, and she got “A Tree of Night” into their October issue. Surprising as it seems, the success of these stories and the handful that accompanied them was enough to establish Truman among the up-and-comers in American literature, to the extent that when Life magazine declared in 1947 that, “a refreshing group of newcomers on the literary scene is ready to tackle almost anything,” not only was Truman included in the group, it was a two-thirds-of-a-page picture of him in the kind of sumptuous surroundings he favored, that headed up the article.

The circle of Truman’s acquaintances was large and would continue to grow. It was no longer centered in people of the sort he’d known in Alabama, but in their almost exact opposites – the economic and intellectual elite of New York. Truman would come to be both a representative and captive of the faction he’d chosen to live with and of the styles that governed its behavior, among which were sexual standards far looser than the ones portrayed on radio and television and in the movies of the day and promoted in its schools. Two decades later society’s norms would move closer to those of the social world Truman inhabited in 1948; but as he stood on the brink of success, Truman was already surrounded by people to whom the unabashed homosexual behavior he’d come to adopt was regarded as unexceptional and allowed Truman to enter without qualms into his most serious involvement to that time – a two-year affair he had with an eminent literary biographer named Newton Arvin.

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SOCIETY’S DARLING

Oscar 1890-1895

In 1889 Oscar, then 34, started work on a novel at about the same time that he established a sexual liaison with a 23 year old aspiring writer named John Gray. It was that conjunction of events that led Oscar to give the surname he did to the his most famous fictional character. The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared in the July 1890 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. The following year a revised and somewhat longer version came out in book form.   Aided by the reputation Oscar had already made for himself, the novel was a sensation – controversial in a way that contributed to its fame and that of its author. And its premise struck such a responsive chord with the public that “to have a portrait in your attic” could only imply an experience like Dorian’s.

At heart Oscar was a dramatist. Each of the twenty chapters in his novel reads like a scene in a play, most of them taken up with dialogue among two or more of the principal characters.   Oscar saw this static quality as a defect when he wrote: “I am afraid it is rather like my own life – all conversation and no action. I can’t describe action: my people sit in chairs and chatter.” It’s true that the verbal exchanges last longer than what’s needed to advance the plot, and Oscar’s poetic inclinations led him to include descriptive passages in chapter XI that seem to go on forever. But he’d chosen to write a philosophical novel, and he did what he had to, to bring out the points he wanted to make. What worked to Oscar’s advantage in the extended discussions he felt obligated to include, was his talent for creating dialogue that seemed to jump off the page.

A work unique in an author’s output is often best considered in isolation from his other writings. Not only was Dorian Oscar’s only novel, in it he presented aestheticism in quite a different light than he’d done elsewhere. Oscar set out to explore the philosophy through the attitudes of three contrasting characters. Lord Henry Wotton is the engaging raconteur who recommends indulging in pleasure as the best way to seek the beautiful in life, but his commitment to that idea is limited mostly to uttering epigrams in support of it. Dorian is only twenty years old at the start of the story. He comes under Henry’s spell and is the one who winds up putting the older man’s maxims into practice. And Basil Hallward is the painter of Dorian’s portrait. In thrall as he is to the young man’s physical attractions, he’s also the only one of the three who feels the pull of moral constraints.

Under the premise of the plot, Dorian is able to keep his youthful appearance by having his portrait suffer the effects of his age and experience; and the painted image’s deterioration makes clear the degree of Dorian’s dissoluteness. We only witness a few of his misdeeds. The first is the ease with which he absolves himself of guilt in the a suicide of a girl whose love he’d callously rejected. Eighteen years later he commits murder to preserve the portrait’s secret, but it isn’t until then that Dorian notices a “loathsome red dew that gleamed, wet and glistening, on one of the hands …“, suggesting that whatever he’s been up to in the meantime didn’t extend to deeds of violence. He does retain the vestige of a conscience though since he feels compelled to visit an opium den in an attempt to erase the memory of the murder he’s done and the unspecified depravities that preceded it.

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We’re given a clue as to their nature when Basil confronts Dorian with the reputation he’s acquired: “Stavely curled his lip, and said … that you were a man whom no pure-minded girl should be allowed to know, and whom no chaste woman would sit in the same room with. … Why is your friendship so fatal to young men? There was that wretched boy in the Guards who committed suicide.   You were his great friend. There was Sir Henry Ashton, who had to leave England, with a tarnished name. You and he were inseparable. What about Adrian Singleton, and his dreadful end? What about Lord Kent’s only son and his career? … What about the young Duke of Perth? What gentleman would associate with him?” All of which suggests that Dorian’s offenses have been mostly sexual in nature, some involving women, more with men.   When Dorian dismisses Basil’s criticisms with, “You ask me about Henry Ashton and young Perth. Did I teach one his vices, and the other his debauchery? …,” we conclude that it isn’t so much his acts of self-indulgence that Dorian’s tried to numb his conscience to, but his responsibility for the other people he’d coaxed into participating in them.

 

The characters Oscar employs to make his points were drawn from the circle of his acquaintances, Robert Ross and John Gray probably among them; but they also incorporate aspects of Oscar’s own personality. At other times and places Oscar defended aestheticism and the practices it fostered. In this work of fiction though, the deterioration of Dorian’s image leaves no doubt as to the judgment he makes of his protagonist and what he’s been up to. The fact that Oscar purposely endowed Dorian with a lot of his own proclivities, makes that judgment especially affecting.

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The success of the novel advanced Oscar’s position in the London literary world, but it was the talent he was able to draw on after that had happened that propelled him to its very forefront. Having tried and failed to make his mark with dramas like Vera and the Duchess of Padua, he seems to have recognized that his greatest theatrical talent lay in arranging onstage encounters among people of the sort he knew but that he endowed with a facility for repartee much like his own. By adopting that approach Oscar achieved a success he’d never come close to with his serious dramas. Lady Windermere’s Fan was in fact a smash hit when it opened in February of 1892.

What’s surprising is that at the same time Oscar was writing a play of charm, subtlety and wit, he was also churning out an erotic melodrama in French.   Salome may have had its basis in the Bible, but Oscar chose to turn the story of prophet’s martyrdom into a tale of lust bizarre enough to have attracted connoisseurs of decadence like Dorian Gray. With a major stage success to give weight to his opinions now, Oscar was able to get a production scheduled to open in June of 1892, but it was called off when the censor enforced a ban against portraying Biblical characters onstage. The play did come out in print the following February; and it was eventually premiered in Paris in 1896, but by that time Oscar was in prison. Although Salome has never been performed much as a play, the story Oscar invented lives on in the libretto Richard Strauss put into the opera he wrote in 1905 and that proved to be among his more popular.

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Oscar seems to have drawn the appropriate conclusion from the fate of his two preceding plays. By following the precedent he’d set with Lady Windermere he wound up with another winner in A Woman of No Importance. It opened to good notices in April of 1893, although it hasn’t shown quite the staying power of its predecessor. An Ideal Husband followed in January 1895, extending Oscar’s string of successes to three. And it was just one month after that that his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, had its first performance in London.

It’s hard to imagine a more rewarding period in any author’s life than the one that had begun for Oscar in 1890 with the publication of Dorian Gray and lasted through the premiere of Earnest in February of 1895. Who would have suspected that the man responsible for four comedic gems in a row was about to make a decision that would bring his world crashing down around him?

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Truman 1948-1966

Other Voices, Other Rooms was published in January 1948. At 231 pages it was short for a novel, even though it was the longest piece Truman had yet written. The plot and characters drew on the environment in which he’d grown up and on the experience he’d had in learning to deal with his homosexuality. The story also included instances of the kind of lurid melodrama other Southern writers like William Faulkner had become famous for. The fact that the book was an instant hit could partly be attributed to the degree of celebrity Truman had achieved before its release; but the reviews were good and it stayed on the best seller list for nine weeks, testifying to Truman’s talent and transforming him from an aspiring writer into an established one.

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For the next 27 years Truman’s literary output would be relatively sparse but continue to be regarded highly enough to ensure his place among the nation’s top authors. In 1949 he had collection of short stories published. In 1950 there was a book of essays as well as his second novel. Like the first, The Grass Harp was short and based on Truman’s memories of Monroeville. It was lighter in tone though, and although it was counted a success, it didn’t have the impact or sales of Other Voices.

With two novels to his credit Truman decided to have a fling at writing for the theater. The fame he’d acquired allowed him to enlist the involvement of people with proven track records in stage and film. The first thing he tried was an adaptation of The Grass Harp. It only ran a month on Broadway. Next he contributed some dialogue to a De Sica directed film that flopped for reasons not closely connected with Truman’s input. He was more substantially involved in the script for John Huston’s Beat the Devil, however, and despite having Humphrey Bogart and Gina Lollobrigida in the cast, the movie did poorly at the box office, and the screenplay was one of the things that got blamed. Truman next turned one of his short stories into a musical. It was called House of Flowers. Harold Arlen wrote the music and Pearl Bailey headed up the cast. It did better than The Grass Harp but only lasted five months.   With his attempts at drama falling short, Truman decided to try his hand at non-fiction. Six years later though, in 1960, he did collaborate on The Innocents, an excellent movie adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

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While Truman was in the midst of his theatrical disappointments, things of more devastating nature were taking place in his personal life. At the beginning of 1954 he was in Europe after finishing work on Beat the Devil when he was called back to New York with the news that his mother had died of a drug overdose. The tragedy had been brewing for a couple of years. In 1952 his adoptive father, Joe Capote, embezzled money to try to match his income to his expenses. The theft was found out and Joe was told he could avoid being prosecuted only by paying the money back.   In an attempt to do just that he resorted to some schemes that led nowhere and left him and his wife flat broke.   Truman had been indulgent to the financial irresponsibility of his parents and would have continued to help them, but his mother suffered a breakdown from this reversion to the poverty of her first marriage, and, with a history of drinking problems behind her, she turned to alcohol and sedatives and engaged in heated exchanges with the man she blamed for what had happened and for earlier infidelities as well.   All of which set her on the downward slide that led her to take the overdose that killed her. Joe was subsequently convicted of forgery and grand larceny and spent a year in Sing Sing starting in January of 1955.

By 1955 Truman was on the lookout for something new. He signed on for a trip to the Soviet Union with a cultural exchange production of Porgy and Bess, then wrote up what he’d witnessed in a The New Yorker article called The Muses Are Heard, later released as a small book.   By combining straight narrative with wry commentary and a bit of invention, Truman turned what could have been a boringly respectful look at peaceful coexistence into an entertaining account of incompetence and misadventure. Along the way he sharpened the journalistic skills he would put to a more serious purpose three years later.   He also did an interview with Marlon Brando on the set of Sayonara that contained a foretaste of things to come. Brando had agreed to the interview but hadn’t reckoned on Truman’s being as skillful as he was in drawing out details too personal to be made public. When Truman put everything Brando’d told him into the published piece, the actor felt betrayed and let Truman know it.

In 1958 Truman came up with the second of the three works (along with Other Voices and In Cold Blood) by which he’s best remembered.   Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a novella that he sold to Esquire and was later released as a book with three stories added. The plot was slight. It was the fey heroine of the piece, Holly Golightly, that made it memorable.   Both the story and Holly’s personality were changed by George Axelrod in the screen adaptation he wrote three years later, but that did nothing to detract from the popularity of either the movie or its source. The fame of Breakfast at Tiffany’s continues to rest on two rather different versions.

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In November of 1959 Truman read a newspaper account of the murder of four family members in western Kansas. Eager to put his journalistic skills to use, he decided to do an article on the effect of the tragedy on the people of the area. He enlisted the help of his childhood friend, Harper Lee, and the two of them set out by train for Holcomb, Kansas, in mid-December. Although the trip would ultimately lead Truman to one of his most renowned achievements, in looking back on it later he admitted that if he’d known what his involvement would cost him in emotional wear and tear over the course of the next seven years, he would have torn up the newspaper and found something else to write about.

 On December 30, 1959, two weeks after Truman and Harper arrived in Holcomb, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith were arrested in Las Vegas, confessed to the crime, and were brought back to Kansas to be arraigned. Truman was allowed to interview both men at length after which he left Kansas but returned for the trial in March. It started on the 22nd and ended on the 29th with Hickock and Smith sentenced to be executed. The hanging was scheduled for May, but the Kansas Supreme Court granted a stay that stretched into five years of appeals, during which time the killers stayed on death row in the state penitentiary. The purpose the execution might have served in putting a quick end to their ability to do further harm, providing an example dramatic enough to inhibit similar deeds and sparing the people of Kansas the cost of supporting them, had effectively been undone. Memories of the Clutter family faded while attention focused on the mental agonies the murderers were going through in awaiting execution while their appeals inched their way through the courts. Truman continued to work on the book, but he felt compelled to hold back publication until the men’s fate had been decided.   In the meantime he stayed in contact with both of them and formed an especially close relationship with Smith.   When the hanging finally did take place on April 14, 1965, Truman felt obligated to attend, but the sympathy he’d developed for the murderers made witnessing their deaths all the more terrible, especially in light of his knowledge that the only reason he’d come to know either one of them was that the pair had collaborated in killing four totally innocent people that he would never have a chance to meet much less become friends with. Memories of that sort don’t dissipate with time no matter how often you ask them to.

Truman was now able to conclude his work and the result came out as a four-part serial in The New Yorker starting September 25, 1965 with a book version following in January. He contended that what he’d accomplished constituted a literary revolution in the way it combined the techniques of novel-writing and reporting.   Whatever merit there was in that claim, In Cold Blood did become an immediate best seller that inspired a great deal of comment, literary and sociological. When it was turned into a movie the following year, Truman picked Richard Brooks to direct. Brooks turned around and wrote his own screenplay while keeping Truman from further involvement in the film. The result was a movie that was competent enough to pay its way at the box office, but Truman needn’t have worried about its stealing his thunder as, to some extent, the movie version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s did. It was Truman’s written account that had caused all the talk.   Credit for In Cold Blood stayed firmly in the author’s pocket and propelled him to the peak of his literary fame and financial good fortune.

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 Finding himself on top of his social world, Truman had an inspiration to host a ball at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan to which only the specific individuals he named would be allowed. He scheduled it for Monday, November 28, 1966. It was nominally in honor of Washington Post owner, Katharine Graham, but everyone knew the real center of attention was Truman himself. Given the range of his acquaintances, it wasn’t surprising that the affair proved memorable for those who were able to attend; but for reasons that transcend anyone’s ability to predict, it became one of the most widely reported and best remembered social occasions of the 20th century.   Fifty years after Truman’s Black and White Ball took place at the Plaza, its fame lives on.

1966-1974

The extent to which what happened next can be attributed to the emotional effects of writing In Cold Blood is one of those things that can never be determined; but it is true that major changes in Truman’s life started at about the time that he completed that book. First of all he became increasingly dependent on alcohol and pills. Phyllis Cerf, the wife of his publisher, recalled, “When I first knew him, we would have a little wine with lunch, then a martini. But during the writing of In Cold Blood his drinking grew, grew, grew. … That kind of drinking was new to him.

The effect most visible to the reading public, however, was a decline in his literary output. Back in 1958 Truman had come up with the idea for a novel that would that would cap his career, he maintained, rivaling Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past in the depth of the insights it would provide into that segment of society which its author knew from the inside.   He’d already given the unstarted book its title, Answered Prayers, and he promised that in it he would tell all. By 1967 Truman had received a $25,000 advance from Random House and sold the movie rights to 20th Century Fox.   Four years later in 1971 he’d made no progress and had to return what Fox had given him. In that same year he contracted to do a screenplay of The Great Gatsby for Paramount, but the studio rejected the script he turned in and tried to wiggle out of paying him for it since he’d been late in completing the work.   In 1972 he accompanied The Rolling Stones on a tour of the United States. When it was over he couldn’t summon the effort he needed to commit the experience to paper, so the deal he’d made fell through. In 1974 he went to Houston to report on a particularly grisly serial murder case for The Washington Post . Again he failed to complete the assignment, this time, he claimed, because it resembled too closely what he’d done in In Cold Blood .

Among the qualities that made Truman unique were the number and variety of his personal relationships.   These included male friendships that had no sexual component, such as with network executive William Paley, publisher Bennet Cerf and TV host Johnny Carson. More complicated and characterized by much wider swings of emotion were his homosexual liaisons. Before he ended his affair with Newton Arvin in 1949, Truman had already begun another with an aspiring novelist named Jack Dunphy. Sometimes on, sometimes off, this involvement would prove to be the most enduring of its type in Truman’s experience, lingering as a friendship until his death. There were others of varying lengths and intensities ranging from chance encounters to decades-long infatuations that could be resumed at a moment’s notice as proximity and convenience allowed, as, for example, with stage and costume designer Cecil Beaton.   Starting in 1970 Truman became involved with a series of men from outside his social circle: air-conditioner repairman “Danny” in 1970, bartender Rick Brown in ’71, commercial artist Robert MacBride in ’72, and bank clerk John O’Shea in ’73. Truman’s acquaintances were accustomed to accepting his homosexual partners as a matter of course, but the individuals he linked up with during this particular period and the fervor of Truman’s attachment to them seemed to signal a distinct change and one they viewed as not for the better.

And then there were the women in Truman’s life – attractive, sophisticated and wealthy.   Free of sexual complications, these friendships were more comfortable and more enduring than the affairs he had with men. He’d come to know Jackie Kennedy’s sister, Lee Radziwill, some years earlier, but starting around the time of the Black and White Ball, Truman took her under his wing and the two became almost inseparable as he attempted to create an acting career for her out of thin air. He’d been friends with Joanne and Johnny Carson during their marriage. When the couple divorced in 1972, Truman adopted Joanne in much the way that he had Lee earlier, and Joanne returned the favor with a dedication that never flagged.

The women with whom Truman formed the deepest attachments, however, were members of a group of trend-setting socialites he’d come to know in the mid to late 1950’s and that he referred to as his “swans”.   Elegance and self-assurance came naturally to all of them so that the affection they showered on Truman provided an element of stability in his life by which he achieved whatever degree of peace of mind he ever did. Within this convivial group of women, Slim, wife of Baron Kenneth Keith, and Babe, wife of William Paley, were the two for whom he developed the closest feelings. Babe and Slim would certainly have topped Truman’s list of friends, and Truman would have been at or near the top of theirs.   Of Babe Paley Truman would say, “She was the most important person in my life, and I was in hers. I was her one real friend, the one real relationship she ever had. We were like lovers; she loved me and I loved her.

All of which makes particularly inexplicable the step Truman would take in 1975.

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Oscar Wilde and Truman Capote: Descent

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Oscar wilde-truman capote: descent

 DECISION

Oscar 1895

 It was shortly after the publication of Dorian Gray in 1890 that Oscar, age 35, first met Alfred Douglas, age 20. In the course of the next two years Oscar became involved with the young man in what would prove to be among the longest of his homosexual involvements, the one subject to the greatest variations of emotion and certainly the one that had the most profound effect on his life.   Alfred might have been described as mercurial by an admirer, fickle by a detractor, and concupiscent by either. He was the son of the John Sholto Douglas, the ninth Marquess of Queensbury who was famous for having formalized the rules of boxing.   When John Douglas became aware of the nature of his son’s relationship with Oscar, he told Alfred to break it off.   Alfred not only refused his father’s request but included a gratuitous insult in his reply. John responded in April of 1894 by threatening to disown Alfred and terminate the source of his income. All that that ultimatum accomplished was to set his son even more determinedly against him. In June the elder Douglas decided to try a different tack. He confronted Oscar with his demand that the relationship cease.   Having no desire to become involved in the family dispute, Oscar flatly denied the man’s allegations and asked those of his friends who knew about such things what legal recourse he would have if John chose to advertise the charges. John continued to fail in his efforts to control his son, so in February of 1895 – the same month in which Earnest opened in London – he once again turned his attentions on Oscar. He left a business card at the latter’s social club on which he’d scribbled: “For Oscar Wilde [illegible] Somdomite.” At the urging of Alfred but against the advice of everyone else he asked, Oscar decided to seize upon this incident to initiate a libel suit against John Douglas.

The note had clearly been intended as an insult, probably in an attempt to goad Oscar into an ill-advised reaction. The words were almost unreadable though, and the card had been left for Oscar to view in private. The best defense for someone charged with libel was to show that what he’d alleged was true. By suing John, Oscar was encouraging the man to collect whatever evidence he could to demonstrate that Oscar was indeed a “sodomite”. Oscar was aware that sodomy (buggery or anal intercourse) was illegal, but he also knew from his own experience that the offense was only prosecuted when an obvious victimization or public scandal created the kind of popular pressure that made it necessary. Oscar’s libel suit would produce just such a scandal.  Oscar had been engaging in the proscribed practice for ten years and had taken little effort to conceal what he was doing. In fact he’d paid off minor blackmails to some of the boys he’d had sexual relations with and he’d incurred the wrath of some of their parents along the way.  All of which should have brought home to him how vulnerable he was. So why did he do what he did?

“He looked around and saw the knife that had stabbed Basil Hallward. … It would kill the past, and when that was dead he would be free. It would kill this monstrous soul-life, and without its hideous warnings, he would be at peace. He seized the thing and stabbed the picture with it.”

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Truman 1975

With nine years of weak and uncompleted literary ventures acting as a goad, in 1975 Truman decided he had to get back in the game with something major, and that could be nothing other than his long-promised masterwork, Answered Prayers.   Since he’d told his publisher about the idea 17 years earlier, Truman had had the novel continually in his mind and occasionally committed parts of it to paper, but there was nothing to show for these efforts except scattered remnants.   If he waited to publish until it was done, it would never happen. He would force himself to move ahead on the project by having chapters appear in magazines as he completed them. The first, to be called “Unspoiled Monsters,” would introduce the novel’s protagonist, P.B. Jones, who resembled Truman in many ways – in particular in being a writer. As then envisioned, the second chapter would be, “Mojave,” an instance of Jones’s fiction. Since Truman had finished the second chapter but not the first, he submitted “Mojave” to Esquire for publication in June 1975. The response of the public was positive enough to encourage Truman to go on releasing other parts as they became available.

The next part he had ready was called “La Cote Basque”. It would have been chapter 5 or 7 in the book but it stood on its own, even though Esquire chose to bill it as “a first look” at Answered Prayers.   Like virtually all the characters in the novel, those in “Cote Basque” were either modeled on or composites of people Truman knew. The chapter starts with Lady Ina Coolbirth inviting P.B. Jones to lunch at Manhattan’s Cote Basque restaurant. Among the other patrons are a number of Truman’s acquaintances identified by their actual names. He ridicules some of the people present along with others that they chat about by letting us in on their lunchtime conversations. Lady Coolbirth meanwhile regales her companion with accounts of foolish and indiscreet activities she’s become aware of as a result of being an insider in Manhattan society. By the background Truman bestows on Lady Coolbirth, he lets us know that this loose-tongued gossip is based most nearly on his treasured friend, Slim Keith. One of the individuals about whom she relates a lurid account of a comically inept infidelity is called Sidney Dillon; but Truman’s associates would recognize the man as the author’s close friend, Bill Paley, husband of Babe – the woman whose friendship Truman valued above all others, and who, as her friends were aware, was now dying of cancer.

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Lady Coolbirth also spins the tale of a woman who’d shot her husband when she discovered he was about to have their marriage dissolved on the basis of its bigamous beginning.  The version she presents to Jones had been common in the gossip of 20 years earlier when the incident on which it was based took place. Ann Woodward was the name of the actual woman involved, and she was exonerated in the shooting death of her husband on the presumption that it had been accidental.  “Cote Basque” was scheduled to come out in the November 1975 issue of Esquire. A week before that happened but probably after the article’s contents had leaked out, Ann Woodward killed herself with an overdose of drugs.

“Unspoiled Monsters,” the first chapter of Answered Prayers, appeared in Esquire‘s May 1976 issue. “Kate McCloud”, which became the second chapter when “Mojave” was excised from the novel, was published in December. Truman seemed not to have learned much from the reaction of his friends to “Cote Basque”. In “Unspoiled Monsters” he again goes out of his way to belittle people who’d befriended him – playwright Tennessee Williams and author Katharine Anne Porter under pseudonyms, and composer Ned Rorem under his own name, although the affront was less egregious this time around in that none of the individuals had been anywhere near as close to Truman as Slim and Babe.

There is another aspect to Answered Prayers worth mentioning, although it’s a subjective thing, not as easy to demonstrate as explicit acts of tattling.  There is a quality to Truman’s prose that’s different from what it had been earlier – a crassness in the incidents related, a vulgarity in the language he uses and a manifest delight in being malicious. To me at least the change is evident and its direction is for the worse. Knowing what we do about the trajectory of Truman’s life, it isn’t particularly surprising. Compare the difference between what Truman wrote early and late in his career, with, for example, what Tennessee Williams or Carson McCullers did.  Life among the rich and famous – if that’s the proper label for the faction to which successful writers and other artists gravitate – is apt to leave its mark on those who don’t resist.

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DISGRACE

Oscar 1895-1897

Oscar’s judicial travails were to last approximately three months, from March 1, 1895, the date he brought suit against the Marquess of Queensbury, until May 25, when he went to prison. It was divided into three parts: the libel suit against John Douglas, the first trial of Oscar that resulted in a hung jury and the second trial in which he was convicted.

In deciding to go ahead with his libel suit, Oscar may have thought that his opponent would limit his examination of Oscar’s past to his published writings and some love letters to Alfred that had fallen into his father’s hands.   But John’s legal team had neither the need nor the desire to rely on Oscar’s involvement with their client’s son. What they had to do was show that Oscar was a “sodomite”.  With only a little investigative effort they were able to come up with a list of 15 incidents that took place during the previous three years in which Oscar solicited sodomy from 12 different boys, ten of whom were named. Oscar and his lawyers were made aware of their opponent’s strategy at a preliminary hearing on April 1, but Oscar brushed aside the list as fabricated and let the trial proceed as planned.

Although Oscar’s sexual partners were always young, his more enduring relationships were often with men at least in their twenties, as Alfred Douglas was.  “Boys” was an appropriate term for the teen-agers on the list compiled by John’s defense team, however. It was in fact the word that Oscar used in referring to them. Alfred Wood was seventeen when he got involved with Oscar, as was Freddy Atkins.  Most of the names on the list were obtained by a private detective in searching the lodgings of a man named Alfred Taylor, who was in the business of linking men like Oscar and Alfred with a stable of prostitutes he ran – boys who knew how to coax money and favors from their clients and weren’t above resorting to blackmail when they thought they could get away with it. Edward Shelley was one of those on the list who had not been a member of Taylor’s crew, however. Oscar had encountered him working in the office of a publisher and inveigled him into a relationship that the boy later sought to terminate. Shelley’s father tried to break Oscar’s hold on his son when he found out about it, as did the father of a schoolboy named Sidney Mavor, and, of course, the father of Alfred Douglas as well.  Keep in mind that the names on the list compiled by the defense had been obtained in an effort that was sufficient for its purpose, but how many other boys might have been identified in a more exhaustive search and what additional information they might have provided remains unknown.

The trial opened on April 3, 1895. Oscar was ably represented by a barrister named Edward Clarke. The case he presented rested almost solely on the testimony he elicited from Oscar to the effect that the latter’s publications and the letters he’d written to Alfred contained language appropriate for expressing a poet’s feelings, but neither those writings nor the fact that Oscar had been willing to buy back other such letters provided a justification for calling Oscar a sodomite. John Douglas was also supported by a talented barrister. His name was Edward Carson and he went on to considerable success in the law and politics. In his cross examination, Carson questioned Oscar closely about the matters the prosecution had raised and probably succeeded in convincing the jury of Oscar’s homosexual inclinations but not of his participation in sodomy. But Carson had another card to play, and it was trump.   By relying on the investigation the defense had conducted, he was able to confront Oscar with the names and backgrounds of specific boys with whom Oscar been involved over the last few years and the elaborate gifts he’d given them. Carson was also aware of the part played by Alfred Taylor, whom he described to the jury as, “a most notorious character – as the police will tell the court“. When Carson completed his cross examination, all that was left for him to do was corroborate the incidents he’d questioned Oscar about with the testimony of other witnesses, and he announced that that was just what he was going to do. Clarke realized by this time that Oscar had deceived him and tried to minimize the damage to his client by taking Carson aside and offering to drop the suit. After some back and forth over details and gaining Oscar’s agreement, Clarke announced the withdrawal of the libel action when court opened on the third day; and the judge instructed the jury to rule that John Douglas had been justified in what he’d said.

But that wasn’t going to be the end of the matter. Evidence had come to light that couldn’t be swept back under the rug. Oscar realized that he’d become liable to arrest for things that had come out in the trial.  He also knew that he could avoid prosecution by the simple expedient of going to France – a place where he had friends and would feel completely at home.  His allies urged him to leave, and John Douglas announced that he wouldn’t do anything to prevent the flight as long as Oscar didn’t take Alfred along. Even the law enforcement officials held back long enough to give Oscar time to get out; but, curiously enough, having made what seemed an inexplicably foolish decision in taking John Douglas to court over a private insult, Oscar now chose to stay and face whatever the law held in store for him.   On the evening of April 5 two policemen arrested Oscar and took him to the local police station to be charged.

The libel suit had hinged on an allegation of sodomy, and Oscar’s lawyer chose to terminate the action when he concluded that that charge was about to be proved in court. Sodomy was indeed a crime that Oscar could have been tried for, but what he wound up being convicted of was “gross indecency,” a misdemeanor under a statute that didn’t define what the term meant. Courts interpreted it as homosexual practices in general, which was easier to prove than the specific act of sodomy as long as the judge and jury were willing to treat as an offense something that vaguely defined. Conviction carried a maximum penalty of two years imprisonment.

Within his social milieu there was a strong feeling that Oscar was being persecuted for a deed outside the bounds of legislative interest. Laws shouldn’t be used to force the values of one group on another, Oscar’s supporters would have argued, even if the values being imposed happen to be those of the majority. People are entitled to hold whatever beliefs they wish as long as the actions they engage in are voluntary and victimless. In other words, the purpose of legislation is the prevention of harm rather than the regulation of conduct.

Fashions in morality and law change, of course, sometimes quite quickly.  Since Oscar’s day, sodomy and other homosexual activities have come to be regarded as matters of preference not subject to legal restriction, at least for adults capable of rational decisions.  The erasing of those laws has been part of general movement toward more sexual freedom, extending to pornography as well. But fashions are as capricious in sexual matters as elsewhere. Prostitution, polygamy and incest remain illegal in many jurisdictions as do statutory rape and other activities including marriage if the age of at least one of the participants is below a specified limit, whether willing or not.

Moral attitudes in other areas of human behavior are just as subject to changes in fashion as those having to do with sex, of course, and raise similar questions about the limits of governmental control, what should be regarded as harm, and who should be considered a victim. If we assign a value to personal freedom sufficient to prevent the imposition of sexual standards, that same limitation should extend to all the other areas of human activity that are voluntary and victimless. As things have turned out, however, greater freedom in the sexual realm has run counter to the general trend. An increase in the size of governments has encouraged an expansion of their powers and the sacrifice of personal freedom in the interests of imposing the values of the culturally dominant on the population as a whole, resulting in an increase in the number and variety of victimless crimes.

Judged by sexual attitudes prevalent in our day, the treatment to which Oscar was subjected is regarded as an unwarranted intrusion by government into matters inherently private. But it isn’t as if that’s an attitude that’s arisen since Oscar’s time.   Homosexuality had plenty of accepters and approvers in 1895, especially among the artists and intellectuals that made up Oscar’s social circle. Influential as they were within their own set, they seemed not to have affected popular opinion to the degree that their modern counterparts do. In any case Oscar defended homosexual behavior from the witness stand in much the same language that someone might do it today – as expressing love between two men in a manner that’s at least as worthy of acceptance as sexual intercourse between a man and a woman.

Nevertheless there was a reason for public support of Oscar to be kept as restrained as it was by those who sympathized with his point of view. The evidence against Oscar didn’t involve personal relationships with people like Robert Ross, John Gray, or Alfred Douglas.  It consisted of a bafflingly large array of sexual encounters Oscar had with males much younger than himself, with whom he had no continuing association, whose services he paid for with money and other gifts, and who wound up blackmailing him for his trouble on a number of occasions. The attraction was sexual; the goal was pleasure; love had no part to play in it.

Beyond that disconnection from the lofty rhetoric by which Oscar defended his sexual activities, however, lay more serious questions. The testimony of the boys as to how they’d become part of Taylor’s ring and the age at which that had happened, leaves a large measure of the responsibility for the life they were leading squarely at Taylor’s feet. Oscar’s friendship with Taylor and his ongoing patronization of Taylor’s trade, made him a sharer in that responsibility. Even more directly attributable to Oscar were the impacts he had on people like Edward Shelley, who weren’t part of Taylor’s crowd, but whom Oscar inveigled into acting against their inclinations and their parents’ wishes. It wasn’t the corruption of youths for which Oscar was tried, but he was as blamable as Dorian Gray for the regret he brought to those he involved in his activities.  And taking advantage of the lure his money and the authority his age gave him over the youngsters he picked as his sexual partners is repellent to everybody except the most devoted captives of a contending allegiance. To argue that voluntary sodomy and similar acts shouldn’t fall within the bounds of government regulation is one thing. To cite the evidence of Oscar’s trials to uphold that point of view is quite another.  The nature of Oscar’s conduct did more to undermine the case against regulation than to support it.

Oscar wasn’t allowed bail so he had to spend the time until his trial in jail. Three hearings were held to determine if the evidence warranted his being tried, and the Grand Jury decided that it did. The trial began April 26. Oscar’s co-defendant was Alfred Taylor, the man who’d been responsible for linking Oscar with male prostitutes. Oscar was again defended by Edward Clarke. The evidence presented by the prosecutor consisted mainly of testimony from the boys with whom Oscar had sexual relations during the period from 1892 to 1894 – the same testimony that Carson would have presented in defense of John Douglas if the libel trial had continued. The witnesses were young and of questionable character and reliability; but while they expressed remorse for what they’d done, they also offered an extensive inventory of homosexual activities, including sodomy, solicited by the defendants.  Oscar took the stand to deny all their allegations of illegal conduct. After less than four hours of considering the evidence, the jury announced that it was deadlocked, and its decision was accepted by the judge, thus ending the trial. Hearsay reports of what had gone on in the jury room indicated that the vote had been 10 to 2 or 11 to 1 for conviction.

The prosecution could have decided to drop the case at this point, but chose not to, meaning there would be another trial. On May 7 Oscar was let out on bail, however, with half of the required ₤5000 being provided by friends. He thus had another opportunity to flee the country, but again he chose not to.   The second trial started May 22.  Frank Lockwood was the prosecutor this time, while Clarke again stood for the defense. Taylor was tried first and convicted. The evidence presented against Oscar was similar to that of the first trial but limited to fewer incidents.  The proceedings concluded on May 25.  In less than three hours the jury reached a verdict of guilty, and the judge prescribed the maximum allowable sentence of two years at hard labor. Oscar was taken to Newgate prison for processing, then to Holloway, and on June 9, to Pentonville Prison in north London.

Life at Pentonville was difficult: the food was meager, the cell cold, the toilet was a pail, the bed a wooden board and the prisoners were kept from talking to each other while being allowed only one visit from the outside every three months. Hard as that was for all the inmates, it represented a greater contrast with Oscar’s former circumstances than for most of the others. Oscar was able to profit from his fame, however. A sympathetic official named R. B. Haldane went out of his way to get Oscar transferred to Wandsworth Prison on July 4, 1895.  Conditions there were somewhat less severe, but Oscar suffered a fall that injured his right ear and he remained in poor health, so Haldane was able to arrange another transfer on November 21, this time to Reading Gaol 37 miles west of London.  The work Oscar was assigned was less strenuous, but it wasn’t until a new warden, Major Nelson, was appointed in July of 1896, that a really significant improvement in living conditions took place. Oscar praised Nelson extravagantly when he was released from prison on May 18, 1897, having completed his two year term.

Prior to Oscar’s conviction, he and Alfred had continued their passionate attachment. Alfred visited Oscar in jail every day until the first trial started, then joined some of Oscar’s other male associates in France, where Oscar sent him a number of love letters. Left out in the cold, Constance at least managed to evade the clamor of the trials by taking the two children to Switzerland. She changed her last name to Holland and was urged by friends to get a divorce. Oscar became aware of the advice being given her and sent her a letter from Wandsworth, assuring her he still cared and pleading with her not to terminate the marriage.  How much of his motivation had to do with access to Constance’s financial resources isn’t clear. He did have a falling out with Alfred at about the same time, the ostensible cause of which was Alfred’s intention to write an article for a French journal about his relationship with Oscar that would include quotations from letters Oscar had sent him during the trial. Oscar protested that those letters were personal and their publication would be a serious betrayal of trust. They were also homosexual in tone and would have jeopardized Oscar’s hopes for a reconciliation with Constance and the possibility of a reduced sentence.   Alfred agreed to forego publication, although two months later he went ahead with a similar piece that didn’t include the direct quotations.

Meanwhile Constance had been won over. She called off the divorce and forgave her husband everything. She visited him at Wandsworth Prison in September of 1895 and again at Reading in February of 1896, when she brought him the news that his mother had died despondent two weeks earlier. Constance would survive only two more years, dying at the age of 40 in April 1898 while Oscar was living in Paris. A provision of her will provided Oscar with ₤150 a year, an allotment she’d suspended during three months in 1897 when Oscar, released five months earlier, had resumed his life with Alfred.

During the last few months of his imprisonment and while he was still on the outs with Alfred, Oscar composed a long letter to his former paramour. He wasn’t allowed to mail it from prison, so he gave it to Robert Ross on his release to copy and forward. The first part is a rambling inventory of Oscar’s grievances, mostly against Alfred, but accepting blame with self-praising humility for having been too tolerant of the faults of others. The latter half is more philosophical, elaborating Oscar’s view of his own importance to literature and the effects his imprisonment had on his spiritual growth.  He manages to bring Jesus into the picture, praising the founder of Christianity in terms that are purely artistic rather than assigning Him any divine authority. The letter was put together under prison restrictions by a man in difficult circumstances who was obviously feeling sorry for himself. What he’d set out to do was shame the person he blamed for his being where he was, and, confident he’d accomplished that, he went on to display his magnanimity by forgiving the chastised reprobate. It was a private communication, intended to evoke a particular response from a person for whom Oscar had very mixed feelings.  Neither the wording nor the ideas expressed were aimed at the level of literature.  In spite of all that, in 1905, five years after Oscar’s death, Ross capitalized on Oscar’s fame by having an edited version put into print. To give potential readers the idea it was worthy of their attention and its author’s talent, he gave it the noble-sounding title, De Profundis – the opening phrase in Latin of Psalm 130: “Out of the depths” (I cry to You, oh Lord). It continues to be read by those who have sufficient interest in Oscar’s life to be curious about what was going through the man’s head during his last months in prison.

1897-1900

Once out of jail Oscar headed for Dieppe on France’s Normandy coast to join his friends, Robert Ross and Reggie Turner. When the two departed after a week or so, Oscar continued to be visited by other acquaintances and guests they brought along to meet the recently freed martyr to conventional morality. It was during this time of relative contentment that Oscar produced his last significant contribution to literature, a poem of 109 six-line stanzas called The Ballad of Reading Gaol.  

Drawing on his prison experiences, Oscar chose to focus the poem’s attention on a particular incident that had taken place in Reading in July of 1896 – the hanging of Charles Wooldridge for murdering his wife in an act of jealousy. Oscar put his considerable poetic skills to work in coming up with the right rhymes, meter and imagery to create the tone of despair he was after, but like other of his forays into serious thought the underlying philosophy remained confused. With a straight face he invites us to consider his own plight as similar to that of a murderer facing execution. He expresses sympathy for a wife-killer and the other inmates of the jail, but not for the victims of their crimes. He contrasts the clemency Jesus offered to sinners with the harsh treatment the guards inflicted on the prisoners, but he fails to extend that same clemency to the guards. He gives special emphasis to the line, “each man kills the thing loves“, by repeating it, then goes on to explain that “some do it with a bitter look, some with a flattering word,” while “The brave man [kills the thing he loves] with a sword“, and “The kindest use a knife, because the dead so soon grow cold.” Whatever brand of moral relativity he sought to encourage by these locutions, those of us familiar with how Oscar had lived his own life can’t help but wonder if he didn’t intend it at least in part as a justification for the way he’d treated his wife and children.

During the summer Oscar and Alfred exchanged a series of letters that led to their reconciliation.  They met in Rouen on August 28, 1897 then traveled to Naples where they lived together from September through November. On December 3 though, Alfred picked up and left, prompted in part by pressure from his mother and Oscar’s wife, perhaps; but there was more to it than that. Oscar’s fall from grace, Alfred’s increasing age, and the acrimony that had separated them during Oscar’s imprisonment may all have contributed to a change in their feelings, but whatever the reasons, the passion they’d shared for five years had dissipated.

Oscar stayed on at Naples until February, 1898, when The Ballad of Reading Gaol was published. The author was listed on the book’s cover as prisoner number, “C.3.3.”, but everybody knew who that was, and its sales were – for a poem at least – spectacular. Oscar moved to Paris a few days later, arriving February 13th. The success of his Ballad didn’t lead to a substantial increase in his income, however, the restoration of his reputation, or a revival of his ambition to write.  In fact, preceded as it had been by the Alfred’s departure two months earlier and followed by Constance’s death two months later, it proved to be a peak from which Oscar’s fortunes would continue to descend.

Money was a big part of the problem. Oscar’s only regular income was the stipend he got as a result of Constance’s will.   Although he’d found lodgings in a relatively cheap hotel, otherwise he refused to accommodate his way of life to his reduced financial circumstances, whiling away his hours buying drinks in cafes and taking occasional trips to other parts of the continent. Meanwhile he made no effort to support himself either by writing or other endeavors, so the way he wound up paying his bills was by dunning any of his friends or acquaintances who happened to come by. Coupled with the decline in his conviviality induced by having spent two years in jail, this beggarliness led to his being avoided even by such stalwart pals as Robert Ross and Reggie Turner. Oscar did continue to have some visitors though, including Alfred, who turned out to be at least as prone as Oscar to asking anybody he met for money. In response to the monotony into which his life had sunk, Oscar took to drinking more and indulging in another addiction of long standing that he couldn’t bring himself to give up – buying and seducing boys – all of which required money he didn’t have and for which his friends were unlikely to volunteer donations.  This was the life Oscar led, mostly in Paris, from the spring of 1898 to the fall of 1900.

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Truman 1975-1984

What he’d done might be called social suicide. His two closest friends, Slim Keith and Babe Paley, never spoke to him again, and he was shunned by others he’d made fun of and those who sympathized with them. To these people Truman had revealed himself as an informer, a liar and a betrayer of friends. The penalty he had to endure was limited to social disapproval, however, which was something he could choose to ignore or at least pretend to. There were plenty of individuals he hadn’t injured who continued to treat him as they always had, justifying what he’d done as the prerogative of a writer perhaps or as just none of their business. Lee Radziwill and Joanne Carson stuck by him, and Truman stayed on good terms with celebrities like Andy Warhol and Liza Minelli and continued to socialize with them and the social set they belonged to at such fashionable centers of decadence as New York’s Studio 54 in the late 1970’s.

And he hadn’t lost his capacity for writing. Well, at least not completely. No more chapters of Answered Prayers made it into print, but in 1979 after going through some devastating bouts of drunkenness and drug-taking, Truman was able to pull himself together long enough to come up with a bunch of stories and mock journalistic pieces to accompany “Mojave” in a book that was released at the beginning of 1980 under the title, Music for Chameleons. Aided in part by the notoriety of its author, the book spent 16 weeks on the best seller list – curiously enough, given its content, the one for non-fiction.

But things had happened that couldn’t be undone. Even to those of his acquaintances who bore him no grudge, Truman was in a different category now than he’d been before. His friendship was something to be defended rather than bragged about.  He’d been tainted by the opinion of others in a way that he never had been, for example, by his flamboyant homosexuality. In the same year that Truman was at work on Music for Chameleons, a libel suit made its way to court that had been brought by his literary rival, Gore Vidal. In a magazine interview Truman had described an incident during Kennedy’s presidency in which he claimed that Vidal had been thrown bodily out of the White House. Truman was relying on his pal, Lee Radziwill, a White House insider, to confirm his side of things. But she didn’t. She testified for Vidal’s side instead. That put an end to a friendship of something over 20 years. Four more years went by before the case was settled with Truman having to apologize to his sworn enemy.

Truman had started a slide downward after reaching his professional peak in 1966, but the reaction to Answered Prayers in 1975 almost certainly contributed to increasing the rate of decline. He developed a greater dependence on liquor and pills and resorted to harder drugs, cocaine prominent among them. Binges became more frequent and periods of alcoholic incoherence, one of which took place on television in an interview in 1978.  His two arrests for drunk driving made it into the newspapers, while his personal life became a chaotic jumble of arguments and reconciliations, avowals of love and acts of revenge involving various of the men he’d had relations with over the last few years: Jack Dunphy, Rick Brown, Bob MacBride, and John O’Shea. In March of 1981, O’Shea became so exasperated with Truman that he beat him badly enough to send him to the hospital. Truman signed up for various drug rehabilitation programs, but none of them had results that lasted long, and he was treated at hospitals with increasing frequency, registering at Southampton 4 times in 1981, 7 times in 1982, and 16 times in 1983. Truman’s friends could see what was happening. He was being destroyed by his addictions, but nothing any of them said or did seemed to slow his downward progress.

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DEATH

Oscar 1900

Oscar’s health had declined during his time in jail, and it’s not clear that he ever fully recovered.  In particular he’d injured his right ear in a fall at Wandsworth in 1895 and had to endure occasional recurrences of pain and discharge from that ear.  In September 1900 he took to his bed with an affliction serious enough to require surgery to be performed on his right ear on October 10. He seemed to improve and was able to get out of bed on the 29th.  His most constant attendants during this period were his friends Robert Ross and Reggie Turner.  He walked to a cafe with Ross, who warned him that the absinthe he ordered was a form of poison. Oscar answered, “And what have I to live for?” The following day he was suffering again. The ear infection grew worse, apparently evolving into meningitis, an inflammation of the covering of the brain that tended to be lethal at the time. Doctors prescribed morphine and opium, but the drugs didn’t do much to relieve the pain and nothing to reverse the course of the disease.  His condition continued downward.  By the end of November he was lapsing into periods of delirium. He tried to speak but in his agony couldn’t get the words out.  By November 29 he seemed to have reached the brink of death. Ross was a nominal Catholic and aware that Oscar had expressed an admiration of Catholicism on a number of occasions, so he brought a priest to the bedside.   Oscar was unable to say whether or not he approved, but he seemed to acquiesce to the conditional baptism and absolution the priest administered. He died the next day, at 2 p.m., November 30, 1900 – a month and a half after his 46th birthday.

“There was a cry heard, and a crash. … Lying on the floor was a dead man, in evening dress, with a knife in his heart. … It was not till they had examined the rings that they recognized who it was.”

Oscar was buried on December 3, 1900 in a Catholic ceremony that included a requiem mass. The funeral was attended by a moderate number of mostly-French friends and admirers. Alfred Douglas had arrived the day before. With Robert Ross and Reggie Turner at his side, it was he who led the mourners.

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Truman 1984

Truman lived in a house near the eastern end of Long Island. He suffered two falls there at the start of 1984 that required trips to the hospital. After recovering he went to see Joanne Carson in Los Angeles, where he was treated for phlebitis and stayed alcohol free during the process. Once the phlebitis was under control he headed back to New York and started drinking again. On August 2 he wound up in the hospital once more, comatose from his worst overdose yet. Close as he came to death, he did revive, then headed west again, claiming that his off and on companion of 30 years, Jack Dunphy, nagged him too much.  He arrived at Los Angeles on Thursday August 23, and was welcomed to the home of the always-loyal Joanne Carson.  When she visited his room on Saturday morning, she found him so weak that she offered to call the paramedics, but Truman told her not to. He talked to her for the next few hours. Since he hadn’t improved, she again suggested getting medical help. Again he said no. “I don’t want to go through that again. … If you care about me, don’t do anything. Just let me go.” He continued chatting with her, ultimately drifting into disconnected phrases. He died around noon on August 25, 1984, one month short of his 60th birthday. His last words were, “I’m cold.”

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DENOUEMENT

Two men blessed with a wit that made them the center of any group they chose to join,

a facility for the written word that earned them a place in world literature,

an enormous number of acquaintances and lots of friends,

lives rooted in self-assurance and the admiration of those around them.

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Oscar made it to the top of his profession when he was forty (February 1895);

Truman when he was forty-one (January 1966).

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But there was another side to their lives.

A preoccupation with sexual gratification that could only be called obsessive,

an absorption with self that inevitably brought sorrow to the people closest to them,

and a dependence on adulation to a degree that when the adulation came to an end,

so did the world in which they lived.

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Exiles: Ezra Pound & Bobby Fischer

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Quantum reality and me

WHAT THEY SAID

Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.

So claimed Niels Bohr, one of the theory’s developers. And he should know …

Well, shouldn’t he?

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Or take a look at the comments of some other popularizers of science:

The world of quantum mechanics is so strange, indeed, that even Albert Einstein found it incomprehensible …”      John Gribbin

No other theory of the physical world has caused such consternation as quantum theory, for no other theory has so completely overthrown the previously cherished concepts of classical physics and our everyday apprehension of reality.”      Peter Atkins

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WHAT THEY WERE TALKING ABOUT

The consequences of quantum theory that Bohr found “shocking” and that Einstein is alleged to have found “incomprehensible“, are illustrated about as well they can be in a thought experiment Richard Feynman dreamed up and put into the opening paragraphs of The Feynman Lectures on Physics, volume 3, Quantum Mechanics. Take a look at what he had to say and pay attention to the details. If you don’t find them intriguing and puzzling, I’ll be surprised.

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http://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu/III_01.html

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Okay. If you didn’t take the time to read the whole account, I’ll give you the drift but warn you it leaves out things that are interesting and significant.

Consider three different but similar experiments.

The first one exemplifies the behavior of particles. A machine gun on the left sprays bullets at a steel barrier (a) that has two holes in it, each a bit bigger than a bullet, a few inches apart. The bullets that get through strike a parallel wall a couple of feet to the right and create a pattern that’s dense at the points opposite each hole but gets sparser the further you move away from those points. In the diagram below P1 shows the probability that a bullet will strike a given point on the rightmost wall if only hole 1 is open, P2 if only hole 2 is open (b), while P12 (c) displays the probability with both open – the sum of the other two.

Particles

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The second experiment exemplifies the behavior of waves. It uses the same basic setup, but rather than bullets being directed at the barrier, it’s water waves that spread out circularly from a point, like ones you’d create by dropping stones onto the surface of a pond. When the top of a given wave comes to a hole in the barrier, it produces a peak on the other side that radiates outward and proceeds to the far wall, where it leaves a trace whose intensity (amplitude squared) is plotted in the diagram below. With only hole 1 open, it’ll be l1, with only hole 2, l2 ( b). With both holes open the waves from the two holes interact to produce undulations whose intensity is graphed as l12 (c). The alternation of peaks and troughs is the thing to notice about interacting waves.

Waves

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To physicists this is all routine. They tend to think in terms of particles and waves because they’re accustomed to treating material objects in motion as particles and effects produced by disturbing the surface of water, plucking stretched strings or transmitting light through parallel slits as waves.

The third experiment exemplifies what happens in the subatomic world dealt with in quantum mechanics. The setup is similar to the other two but has to be imagined as taking place on a scale so tiny as to accommodate electrons being directed at the barrier. The ones that go through the holes strike the far wall at specific points just like the bullets did. The probability distribution with only hole 1 open is P1, with only hole 2, P2 (b). The surprise comes when you open both holes. Then the pattern produced at the wall on the right is the undulating line P12 (c) that has the same kind of peaks and troughs as the water waves in the previous experiment.

Electrons

We call electrons particles and think of them as such since, among other things, they produce impacts at specific points like bullets do. In moving through space though, they create interference patterns as if they were waves. So what the devil are they? The obvious thing to do is look at what goes on at the two holes. Does each electron go through one or the other like a bullet does? If so, how does the accumulation that strikes the opposite wall manage to create a probability pattern with troughs (where no electrons hit) so close to the center of the distribution? And if not, how does an electron make it to the far wall to strike it at a particular point?

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You decide to use a light (or an electromagnetic wave of some other frequency) to sense if and when an electron goes through one of the two holes. Guess what? When you do that, each of the electrons does show up at one of the holes, but instead of a wave, the aggregate now produces the probability distribution, P’12, like the bullets did!

Sensing electrons

This last result illustrates Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle which says that the more certain you make yourself of an object’s location, the less certain you’ll be about its momentum or motion, although the “uncertainties” involved turn out to be significant only for tiny objects like electrons. Feynman goes on to describe another experiment that illustrates more clearly the connection with momentum, but the implication for the case we’ve just described is that it’s impossible to design an apparatus to determine which hole an electron passes through that won’t also disturb the electron sufficiently to suppress the wavelike interference pattern associated with its movement through space.

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Feynman calls the mixed resemblance to waves and particles and the probabilistic nature of the predicted results, “the heart of quantum mechanics“, and he goes on to claim, “In reality it [the electron experiment] contains the only mystery.”

My summary isn’t as rigorous as his full account, but it does get across the difficulty of visualizing the subatomic world in terms of just particles or waves. He goes on to add, “We cannot make the mystery go away by ‘explaining’ how it works. We will just tell you how it works.

Complicated, high-level phenomena can be explained in terms of more fundamental, lower-level ones, but an experiment as basic as what’s described here can only tell us what happens with predictable regularity under prescribed circumstances. It doesn’t explain; it doesn’t say why. As it turns out though, that limitation isn’t restricted to the world of quantum mechanics. It applies to the fundamental observations that lie at the heart all experimental fields. It’s that ultimate dependence on the observed but unexplained that imposes a limit on science’s ability to contribute to philosophical speculation.

What I’d like to do is explore a little more fully the difference between what experiments actually show – whether in the quantum realm or elsewhere – and how their results get put into words, sometimes confusingly. It’s the distinction between science and philosophy I’m talking about, and its importance is reflected in what those two very different approaches to knowledge have managed to achieve over the years. By confining its methods to what can be objectively agreed upon, science has attained a degree of reliability and usefulness that other intellectual endeavors have not. The limitations that science willingly accepts allow it to make progress over time by building one success on top of another; while philosophers are still trying to decide whether or not Plato got it right.

So what are the things that distinguish science from less successful approaches to knowledge?

(more…)

Time and its traces: scientists

Scientists

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Charles Darwin

Biologist

1809 – 1882

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James Clerk Maxwell

Physicist

1831 – 1879

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J. Willard Gibbs

Physicist

1839 – 1903

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Sigmund Freud

Psychologist

1856 – 1939

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Marie Sklodowska Curie

Chemist

1867 – 1934

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Albert Einstein

Physicist

1879 – 1955

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Werner Heisenberg

Physicist

1901 – 1976

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James Watson

Biologist

1928 –

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Time and its traces: writers

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Everything they told you is a lie

For all the historical happenings that’ve been turned to intellectual concrete by time and convention, none can have been more distorted in the process than the infiltration of the U.S. government by Communists during the 1930’s and 40’s. What’s mainly remembered these days are the efforts that experience led to, to get Communist partisans fired from their jobs – not to protect the nation from any danger, the history books tell us, but as part of a paranoia of the sort that had characterized the Salem witch trials and the Spanish Inquistion.

The investigations of government security risks that Senator McCarthy started in 1950 were separate from and more straightforward in purpose and method than the collaboration that had arisen between the major movie studios and the House Committee on Un-American Activities two years earlier. In a curious inversion of chronology, the Hollywood enterprise is often labeled with McCarthy’s name.

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To find out what actually happened so you can give credit to those who deserve it and dismiss those who don’t, you have to learn to look past the standard account – way past.

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1. First and most important, recognize what was at stake. The world’s first (and at the time only) Communist government was probably the most oppressive regime that had ever existed in terms of liberties denied and human lives purposely destroyed. Add to that the fact that Communism is a proselytizing creed, constantly seeking converts to spread its influence; and that the Communist parties throughout the world, including the one in the United States, were under the tight control of the Soviet Union.

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2. If you come to accept that view of things, you’ll have to reconcile your common-sense expectations of what the popular reaction to a government of that sort would be with the fact that an admiration of Communism was fashionable among intellectuals, journalists, politicians and performers of the era, not only as a political theory but as it had been put into practice in Russia.

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3. If you manage to digest such seemingly contradictory pieces of information, you may not find it surprising that a lot of the people who came into positions of authority during the Depression were accepters if not admirers of Communism, President Roosevelt among them. With people like that in charge, it was easy for Communism’s fans to get government jobs; even easier for those who chose to hide their allegiance in order to be able to serve Soviet interests better; and easier than that when Roosevelt made common cause with Stalin in 1941.  There were a few of those fans though, two in particular, who knew what was going on and tried to do something about it. I wonder if you ever heard of either one.

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 4. In order to get a feel for the political mood of the era it’s worth taking the time to compare what the Communists and Nazis had been up to on the one hand with the response to what they did by the people of the United States and its government.

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As things turned out, Communism’s global gains in the wake of World War II were enormous: Eastern Europe, North Korea and China as the foundation for a continued expansion, together with an early access to nuclear weapons by the Soviet Union. How much, we’re led to wonder, did the policies of the United States contribute to that success?

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Let’s take the points one at a time.

1. Red legacy

2. Fash(ion)ism

3. Two who stood up

4. The worst government ever

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Red legacy

The founders

Start with the point of view Marx promoted. He and his pal, Engels, summed it up nicely in the Communist Manifesto they published in 1848. The emotions that animated the two men – their allegiance to the proletariat and abhorrence of the bourgeoisie (middle class) – prompted the generalized judgments that pervade the document. If you’re looking for examples of vindictiveness you can stop. This is as much as you’ll ever need.

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“Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. … The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.” … And so on.

Hard to imagine a view more spiteful or less likely to attract adherents as a result? So you might think. But as a matter of fact, lots of people bought into Marx’s attitude and the rancor that underlay it. Take Lenin:

The bourgeoisie,” he wrote in imitation of his mentor’s vitriol, “are still persistently committing the most abominable crimes and recruiting the very dregs of society to organize riots. … Exceptional measures will have to be taken to combat these saboteurs and counter-revolutionaries.” “For as long as we fail to treat speculators the way they deserve – with a bullet in the head – we will not get anywhere at all.”  When one of Lenin’s commissars suggested, “What is the point of a People’s Commissariat of Justice? It would be more honest to have a People’s Commissariat for Social Extermination,” his boss responded, “Excellent idea. That’s exactly how I see it. Unfortunately it wouldn’t do to call it that.”

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Or Lenin’s right hand man, Trotsky:

“The question about who will rule the country – that is about the life or death of the bourgeoisie – will be decided on either side not by reference to the paragraphs of the constitution, but by the employment of all forms of violence.” “We are forced to tear off this class [the bourgeoisie] and chop it away. The Red Terror is a weapon used against a class that, despite being doomed to destruction, does not wish to perish.”

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(for more see Dmitri Volkogonov’s Lenin or Trotsky.)

Can prejudice be made any more blatant? To be fair though, words are one thing, deeds could turn out to be another. What did the Communists actually do when they got the chance?

The revolution

In March (February by the calendar then in use in Russia) of 1917 Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown in a popular uprising that replaced the monarchy he headed with a government that called itself “Provisional” in the sense that it was only intended to last until a democratically elected Constituent Assembly produced a constitution for a new republic. In the interim a confusing welter of political parties vied for control. Most of the factions were socialist in nature, each appealing to potential constituencies on the basis of promised protections and benefits. Among the contending parties, the Bolsheviks stood out in the degree of their commitment to Marx, Communism and their preferred class, the proletariat – to the degree that they called the government they later established, “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Time would demonstrate the degree to which these attachments of class and ideology would lead them to extremes of ruthlessness.

The proletariat were people who earned their living by working for others, usually at manual labor for relatively low pay. There were a lot of them and they developed expectations of what the revolution might do for them. To parties that won their favor they could offer political muscle through groups of elected representatives called “soviets“. The Bolsheviks in fact rested their claim of popular support on the backing of these influential worker-councils and made their rallying cry, “All power to the soviets.” And they went on to rename the nation they later came to control, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. With proletarians to back them up along with soldiers who wanted out of the First World War, the Bolsheviks took advantage of the relative passivity of most of the other parties and, at Lenin’s urging, overthrew the Provisional Government in November of 1917 (October by the calendar then in use). From there they went on to consolidate their hold on the nation. Elections for the Constituent Assembly did take place, but the Bolsheviks wound up with only 175 of the 703 seats. The Assembly convened once, after which government agents locked its members out of their meeting place. The prospect of a Russian republic went aglimmering.

By the next month – December 1917 – Lenin was able to get away with calling the leaders of the non-socialist opposition, “enemies of the people … to be arrested immediately and brought before the revolutionary court.” “Enemies of the people” turned out to be a useful term for those the Bolsheviks sought to subdue: aristocrats, the bourgeoisie, religious people, industrialists and entrepreneurs, large landholders and small, monarchists, anarchists, Mensheviks and other brands of socialists, and nationalists of various stripes. Anathematized classes? Yes, there were a lot of them. As Lenin had proposed, Bolshevik enforcers tended to bypass regular courts of law in preference for “revolutionary” ones that were more in tune with what they thought should constitute “sabotage”, “espionage”, “abuse of one’s position” and “counterrevolutionary” activities.  

The state police

Also in December of 1917 the Bolsheviks created an organization that would prove crucial to everything they would go on to accomplish over the next 74 years. Initially called the Cheka, its successors would be known by a variety of letter designations: GPU, NKVD and KGB among them. What it was, was a police force on the lines of the Tsar’s Okhrana but that would far surpass its monarchist predecessor in size, scope and ferocity. In March 1918 the Bolsheviks moved the center of their government from St. Petersburg to Moscow and established Cheka headquarters in a building on Lubyanka Street. With a companion prison in the Lefortovo district, these two structures would become renowned as centers of government-conducted torture. In April the Cheka launched its first raids against anarchists in Moscow, executing 25 as “bandits” – a term that would subsequently be applied to striking workers, draft-dodgers, and farmers who resisted the seizure of their produce. In May and June of 1918 the Cheka shut down non-Bolshevik newspapers, dispersed non-Bolshevik soviets, arrested leaders of opposition parties and suppressed strikes.   In August the head of the Cheka declared, “anyone who dares to spread the slightest rumor against the Soviet regime will be arrested immediately and sent to a concentration camp.” His agents then launched a campaign called “the Red Terror” in which 10,000 to 15,000 “enemies of the state” were executed in the two months of September and October 1918. By way of comparison, in the 92 years from 1825 to 1917 Tsarist courts had imposed 6360 death sentences, only 3932 of which were carried out. When some of the Bolsheviks criticized the Cheka for excessive ruthlessness, Lenin had the party’s Central Committee issue a proclamation forbidding the press to publish “defamatory articles” about the new state police force.

The Civil War

The turmoil of the revolution had produced food shortages. Lenin put the blame on peasant farmers. “Smallholders,” he said in April 1918, “have always been afraid of discipline and organization. The time has come for us to have no mercy, and to turn against them.” To which Trotsky would add, “Our only choice now is civil war. Civil war is the struggle for bread … Long live civil war!Civil War there was and an extraordinarily brutal one that lasted well into 1921. It had its compensations for the people in power. Actual or threatened resistance could be treated as an act of war rather than as a crime with all the inconvenient legal protections that due process ordinarily entails.

Atrocities were many and terrible, committed by a wide variety of the factions involved, those of the revolutionary government competing with the worst. By January 1918 soldiers of the nascent Red army were already engaged in acts of torture, dismemberment and murder against resisters in the Ukraine and other rural regions. In July, an unsuccessful revolt against conscription and seized crops in Yaroslavl led to the execution of 428 people. In March of 1919 soldiers in Astrakhan joined striking workers. The Cheka and the army overcame the protesters, filled the local prisons with captives, then shot and drowned 3000 more before staging a rampage in which they killed a thousand bourgeois residents. To impose new taxes in the Ukraine, government enforcers sent hundreds to concentration camps. And the Cossaks paid heavily for their opposition to the new regime. 300,000 to 500,000 were killed or deported out of a population of around three million.

Elimination of the bourgeoisie proceeded apace. Members of the “possessing classes” and other “socially undesirable” elements who’d been imprisoned in the cities where the Bolsheviks gained control, were often executed – in Kharkov, for example, between 2000 and 3000 in Feb-June 1919, and another 1000-2000 in December of that year; in Rostov-on-Don approximately 1000 in January 1920; in Odessa 2200 in May-Aug 1919, another 1500-3000 between Feb 1920 and Feb 1921; in Kiev at least 3000 in Feb-Aug 1919; in Ekaterinodar at least 3000 between Aug 1920 and Feb 1921; in Armavir , between 2000 and 3000 in Aug-Oct 1920. The list goes on.

During the war the Red Army managed to subdue independence movements in Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Dagestan, Turkestan and the Ukraine. It also found time to invade Poland in February of 1919 but was decisively beaten back at the Battle of Warsaw in August of the following year. In 1921 resistance in the province of Tambov was put down with an extraordinary degree of brutality, including the use of poison gas against those who sought refuge in the forests. Through it all the Cheka carried out at least 250,000 summary executions of “enemies of the people” with some estimates ranging above a million.

A particularly ironic incident took place near the end of the Civil War. Kronstadt was a naval fortress near St. Petersburg whose sailors had been acclaimed as heroes of the revolution when they’d executed their Tsarist officers in March of 1917. Before the Bolsheviks came to power they’d taken up the chant “All power to the soviets” in supporting soldiers who refused to return to the front lines. But by February 1921 they’d had a change of heart about the government they’d supported for the last four years. They published a list of demands calling for new elections, increased freedom and the lessening of various oppressions, then hooted down agents the government sent to mollify them. Acting under orders of military commissar Trotsky, the Red Army attacked the fortress and took control after a bloody 2 week siege. Two thousand rebels were executed and 6000 imprisoned. 8000 managed to escape to nearby Finland, some of whom were lured back by a promise of amnesty only to be sent to concentration camps.

(Nicholas Werth, The Black Book of Communism)

The camps

In August 1918 Lenin sent a telegram to the party’s Executive Committee instructing them to intern “kulaks [a derogatory term for peasants who had prospered, presumably at the expense of others], priests, White Guards [anti-Bolshevik soldiers], and other doubtful elements in a concentration camp.” He clarified what he’d meant by “doubtful elements” when he ordered the arrest of the leaders of the Mensheviks – a breed of socialist more tolerant of other opinions than the Bolsheviks were. Of more significance was Lenin’s recommendation of where to put the captives. This would be the new government’s first use of concentration camps as an alternative to prisons. Administered by the Cheka (later the GPU and NKVD), the camps allowed greater latitude over the way prisoners were treated than the judicial system did. Once this alternative had become established, it was increasingly relied on, with the camp population increasing from around 16,000 in May 1919 to more than 70,000 in September 1921.

In 1922 the GPU established a particularly large installation on the Solovetsky Islands in the White Sea not far from the Arctic Circle. It held 4,000 captives at the end of 1923. By 1930 the number had grown to 50,000. It would serve as a prototype for the “Gulag,” an array of detention centers that would spread across the land and whose inhabitants would be forced to labor on government projects such as canals, dams, railroads, logging, farms, factories, and mines. Inmates were classified by the nature of their offenses, with politicals of a socialist stripe initally given better treatment than “counterrevolutionaries” and “criminals”. Counterrevolutionaries included non-socialist politicals, former members of the Tsar’s government, the clergy, Cossacks, and participants in the Tambov and Kronstadt rebellions; while “criminals” might be serving time for such subjectively defined transgressions as “destruction of Soviet property”, “hooliganism”, “speculation”, “leaving one’s work post”, and “sabotage” in addition to familiar offenses like theft, assault, rape and murder.

Lenin died in 1924. In the struggle that followed, Trotsky lost his position as military commissar and was exiled from the country in 1929. By 1927 Stalin had effectively taken control of things to the extent that what happened after that can reliably be ascribed to his will. One of the things that took place was a huge expansion of the camps. In mid-1930 the Gulag housed about 140,000 people; by early 1932 it was 300,000; by January 1935, 965,000; and by 1941 it had doubled again to almost 2 million. Or so official records lead us to believe.

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Numbers

In addition to the data cited above, records show that the number of camps reached something on the order of 30,000 with individual populations ranging from a few hundred to more than 25,000. During 1938 the overall mortality rate was eight percent – one Gulag resident in 12 died that year – implying a considerably higher figure at the camps located in harsh climates. 18 million is often given as the number of people who were sent to the camps between 1928 and 1953.

Keep in mind that reliable figures are hard to come by, whether for the number of prisoners at a given site or the deaths that occurred there during a particular time period or over the years. There were an enormous number of camps and records are spotty, but what’s more important is that Soviet statistics are notorious for the degree to which they were cooked. The same incentives that prompted rosey distortions in economic matters apply to other realms as well. Administrators were under imminent threat of execution or imprisonment if they failed to meet their quotas, so they’d naturally resort to whatever means they could get away with, to make the totals for their facility come as close as possible to what they thought they were supposed to be.

A conscientious investigator of the era has to devise ways of cross-checking and adjusting official figures by comparing them with records less subject to being engineered ­­– the census, for example, death data, or information collected for purposes not closely tied to personal destinies. Historian Robert Conquest invested a great deal of effort in making such comparisons and estimated that approximately two million died in the camps during 1937 and 1938 with 7 million remaining at the end of that period and an additional million in prison. Post-Soviet Russian scholars tended to find the estimates he’d made too low.

Numbers aside, there are plenty of accounts of what it was like to be scooped up by the GPU at two in the morning, interrogated under the threat of death, transported to a remote location and forced to work under whatever conditions prevailed at that site.   Solzhenitsyn‘s Gulag Archipelago and Shalamov‘s Kolyma Tales describe what happened as well as it can be done. What readers of these accounts discover is that the camps were killers for more reasons than one. The people sentenced to them were often transported thousands of miles in trains that took forever to get where they were going, with the passengers crammed into unheated freight cars, food and water doled out irregularly and sanitary facilities limited to a pail in a corner of the car. Thousands died along the way. Conditions in the camps were often little better, especially in northern locations like Solovetsky, Kolyma, Vorkuta and Norilsk. Inmates slept elbow to elbow on wooden floors and platforms with only a blanket for insulation. What heat there was came from an iron stove in one corner of the barracks, the toilet was a bucket, food barely sufficient for life was doled out under threat of being cut back if output lagged. Little protection was given against disease, none against other prisoners. Street-hardened criminals shared space with people whose offenses were the political party or religion they belonged to, alleged membership in the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie, or having been labeled “kulaks” by the GPU. Many were sent to the camps for offenses concocted out of thin air by the GPU as a way to explain government failures, one of the most frequent such charges being “wrecking“.

Wrecking

When central planning replaced economic competition, productivity took a nosedive. Lenin managed to prop up the economy for a few years by allowing a degree of individual enterprise, but Communist leaders felt compelled to come up a better way to motivate managers and workers. Stalin put his Five Year Plan into operation in 1928. Those who achieved the goals assigned them were held up for praise as “shock workers” or “stakhanovites”. Those who fell short or failed to satisfy their controllers for whatever reasons wound up taking the blame for the evident shortages of food and consumer goods. That didn’t mean just losing a job or going bankrupt. It was likely to result in a trip to the Gulag or a bullet in the brain. The GPU’s job was to give the government an alibi by convincing managers and technical specialists to admit they’d purposely brought about the shortfalls and to supply the names of others who’d done the same. As the interrogators discovered, the same tortures that made people confess to crimes they didn’t commit could be used to induce individuals to turn over to the state any foreign currency, gold or jewelry they’d had the sense to hang onto as a protection against the predictable collapse of the monetary system.

Vladimir Tchernavin was a scientist in the fishing industy in September of 1930 when 48 officials involved in food production were identified as “wreckers” by the GPU and executed a couple of days later with elaborate publicity. Tchernavin was hauled into prison for the same offense, where he was interrogated over a period of six months and threatened with death if he didn’t admit the charges. He managed to hold out but still wound up being sent to hard labor at Solovetsky during a time when 26 of his colleagues were shot and 34 sent to the Gulag. Tchernavin had the good fortune to be reassigned to duties that gave him more freedom than his fellow prisoners. He took advantage of the opportunity to escape with his wife and son to Finland and then to London, where he wrote an account of what he and his fellow workers had been going through. It was published in English in 1933 as I Speak for the Silent. His wife elaborated the details of their flight in Escape from the Soviets.

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Collectivization

Communist doctrine required that farms be “collectivized” – taken from their owners and put under state control with the people who had formerly owned them continuing to do the same work but now as employees. Peasants who resisted were labeled “kulaks”, their possessions were confiscated and they were sent with their families to labor camps or deported to remote parts of the country with no means of making a living other than as low-paid laborers on the same kind of government projects as prisoners of the Gulag. When collectivization fell behind schedule in 1929, Stalin called for the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class.” Peasant farmers found themselves lumped in with capitalists, aristocrats, the bourgeoisie and the clergy, as “enemies of the people”. After 65 days of relentless evictions, deportations and shootings, Stalin showed his compassion by calling off the liquidation he’d initiated. Forced collectivization continued as formerly.

The Famine

1932 was a year of famine. The Ukraine was the nation’s most productive agricultural region and its farmers were among those who’d resisted handing over their crops and lands. In one of the most lethal retributions ever taken by a government against its own people, the GPU diverted all the region’s agricultural output to other parts of the country and left the local inhabitants with nothing to eat.   Six million is the most commonly cited figure for the number who starved to death. Twenty-five years later China’s Great Leap Forward would take more lives – perhaps over 40 million. Those deaths did result from the mindless imposition of an ideologically-driven policy, but they were not its avowed purpose.

(Malcolm Muggeridge, Winter in Moscow, and William Henry Chamberlin, Russia’s Iron Age, described the Ukrainian tragedy shortly after it happened. Robert Conquest summed it up later in Harvest of Sorrow.

The Great Terror

Loyalty to Stalin was enforced as relentlessly as his policies but by a more dramatic means. A wave of government-engineered killings took place from 1936 to 1938 as part of a purge that was later christened The Great Terror.

With the assassination of Communist official Kirov serving as a pretext, Stalin initiated a series of trials to which members of the foreign press were invited. The defendants were former Bolshevik leaders, most of them heroes of the 1917 revolution. They were followed into the dock by some of the country’s top military leaders – all charged with collaborating with foreign governments or with partisans of Trotsky to undermine the Soviet regime. Although the staged events were referred to as trials, the outcomes were known in advance, with the guilt of the accused assumed as readily by the defense and the judge as by the prosecution. Most of the defendants confessed to what they’d been accused of in tones of total self-abnegation – not surprising in light of the tortures they’d been subjected to and the threats that had been aimed at their families.

Less advertised were the killings that took place throughout the nation at the same time, some preceded by trials, others by only a few minutes in front of an NKVD “Special Board” or “Troika”, or by no hearing at all.   Executions were scheduled in accord with quotas given to the NKVD, with the names of victims often elicited from testimony of individuals who turned in their neighbors to protect themselves. Approximately 7 million people were arrested and a million executed. Among the dead were such threats to society as poet, Osip Mandelstam, short story writer, Isaac Babel, and novelist, Boris Pilnyak. Two million more died in the camps.

(Robert Conquest, The Great Terror, a Reassessment)

The Spanish Civil War

With the record of death and oppression Communism had already left in its wake, it’s surprising that it took the Spanish Civil War to trigger the disaffection of such presumably thoughtful writers as George Orwell and John Dos Passos.

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In February of 1936 a confederation of socialists and communists called the Popular Front won a majority of seats in the Spanish parliament by appealing to a constituency similar to that of the Bolsheviks – manual laborers and hired workers, the poor and propertyless. The people from whom land, wealth and economic freedom were likely to be taken in order to redeem the socialists’ pledges viewed justice and the functions of government rather differently than the Popular Front did. Religion was another a source of division, with the socialists generally hostile to faith and the Church, while their opponents were tolerant or sympathetic. Factional differences were many and complicated and ran deep enough to bring about a climate of pervasive violence, one result of which was army General Franco‘s determination to undo the results of the election. Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy came to Franco’s aid while the Soviet Union supported the Republic. What led to the disillusionmentment of people like Orwell and Dos Passos wasn’t Stalin’s decision to intervene on the side of the elected representatives, but how his agents conducted themselves when they got to Spain. Given the degree of ruthlessness they’d become accustomed to using against enemies at home, they achieved an influence out of proportion to their numbers, which they put to use, not to unify the resistance against Franco as much as to wreak revenge on their non-Stalinist allies. POUM was the acronym for a Spanish communist party with which George Orwell had affiliated himself in joining the fight against Franco. NKVD agents launched a program against POUM, resulting in a wave of assassinations, the banning of the party, the arrest of its Executive Committee, and the disappearance of Andres Nin, one of its leaders. Jose Robles was a Spaniard and a friend of American novelist, John Dos Passos. He was also a backer of POUM and other Spanish communist and socialist factions. When Robles disappeared, Dos Passos went looking for him. After a prolonged search, he concluded that his friend had been executed, not by partisans of Franco but by Robles’ ostensible comrades in arms, the NKVD.

(George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia)

Civil Liberties

With the government holding a monopoly on land, capital, business and jobs, economic freedom was limited to how an individual chose to spend whatever money he could get his hands on, and what kind of a job he’d ask the government for – assuming he hadn’t got himself into a don’t-hire category because of something he’d said or done. Newspapers were part of the same monopoly as other Soviet enterprises, so the prospect of a free press never really presented itself. And given the fact that an offhand remark in praise of Trotsky or critical of Stalin could bring a visit from the NKVD followed by torture sessions at Lubyanka and a trip to the Gulag for those who managed to avoid a bullet in the brain, freedom of speech wasn’t much resorted to either. Artistic expression had meanwhile become a domain of the state, with Stalin and various party committees exercising control over what would and would not be allowed in the realms of literature, drama, movies, art and music.  

In a reversion to practices of earlier times, freedom of religion was sacrificed to an official system of belief. It was called atheism and its devotees were particularly intolerant of competing creeds. During the Russian Civil War and again in 1929 and 1930, the people in power brought intense pressures to bear against the members of the Orthodox Church along with other faiths, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Baptists being given special attention. The destruction of some churches and the conversion of others to anti-religion museums, confiscation of church property, imposition of ruinous taxes, treating church collections as the hoarding of silver, and using church membership as a filter for employment were some of the things that were done to discourage the practice of religion, with consignment to labor camps and execution available for the more obstreperous believers. There were 54,692 Russian Orthodox churches holding services in 1914. 15,835 remained in 1936.

As early as 1919 emigration from the Soviet Union had become difficult. Controls were tightened in subsequent years and border patrols were beefed up so that by 1936 even illegal emigration was close to impossible. In 1932 an internal passport system was instituted to identify Soviet citizens and restrict where they could live and travel within the borders of their own nation. A less stringent system had existed prior to 1917, but it had been abandoned during the revolution as an obvious instrument of monarchist oppression.

(Eugene Lyons, Assignment to Utopia)

The cost

Despite the uncertainties of Soviet statistics, there is a number that’s emerged from a variety of studies as a probable minimum for the number of deaths of innocent residents of the Soviet Union purposely brought about by its government from its inception in 1917 until the death of Stalin in 1953. That number is 20 million.

(The Black Book of Communism, The Great Terror, a Reassessment)

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Fash(ion)ism

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Fash(ion)ism

In the swing of things

For reasons I find obscure, Communism managed to attract intellectuals and opinion-makers in the United States well past the time that its horrors were known by everybody who had the least interest in finding out about them. To demonstrate the degree of popularity that Communism achieved – under that name and others like “Marxism”, “Leninism”, “Marxism-Leninism,” “Stalinism”, and (deception intended) “socialism,” I offer a non-exhaustive list of Americans prominent in the arts and sciences who spoke and wrote favorably about the Soviet Union or joined organizations that promoted that nation’s fortunes during the 1930’s or subsequently. Some of the people listed here were members of the Communist Party, others were not, but all expressed their admiration strongly enough to have left a record in the history of the era.  

 

Writers: Nelson Algren, Sherwood Anderson, Marc Blitzstein, Erskine Caldwell, John Dos Passos, John Dewey, Theodore Dreiser, Max Eastman, James T. Farrell, Howard Fast, Waldo Frank, Dashiell Hammett, Lillian Hellman, Ernest Hemingway, Granville Hicks, Sidney Hook, Langston Hughes, Eugene Lyons, Archibald MacLeish, Arthur Miller, Lewis Mumford, Clifford Odets, Dorothy Parker, Budd Schulberg, Irwin Shaw, Lincoln Steffens, Edmund Wilson, Richard Wright, Upton Sinclair, Louis Untermeyer, Carl Van Doren.

Screenwriters: Herbert Biberman, Ring Lardner Jr., John Howard Lawson, Albert Maltz, Abraham Polonsky, Waldo Salt, Donald Ogden Stewart, Dalton Trumbo.

Movie Directors: Jules Dassin, Edward Dmytryk, Elia Kazan, Lewis Milestone, Robert Rossen, Frank Tuttle.

Actors: Morris Carnovsky, Lee J. Cobb, Howard Duff, John Garfield, Will Geer, Sterling Hayden, Marsha Hunt, Larry Parks, Howard da Silva, Gale Sondergaard, Lionel Stander, Orson Welles.

Singers: Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger, Josh White.

Artists: Stuart Davis, Rockwell Kent, photographer Paul Strand.

Scientists: J. Robert Oppenheimer, David Bohm, Philip Morrison, Harlow Shapley.

Given the number of people, the variety of their professions, the fame many of them achieved and the positive reputations they retained in spite of the fondness they’d expressed for one of the most oppressive political systems ever invented, what this partial list brings home is that Communism managed to acquire an intellectual panache that allowed its adherents to view themselves and be viewed by others as progressive and intellectually daring in a way that members of competing political faiths did not – in spite of the fact that the competing faiths rarely had deeds as iniquitous to explain away.

What the list doesn’t do, is imply an equality of knowledge, commitment, responsibility or blame on the part of the people who are on it. A wide variety of attitudes is represented, not only with respect to political attachments but all sorts of other aspects of life. Some of Communism’s enthusiasts were undoubtedly captives of intellectual fashion. Lightly-attached devotees of that sort along with a number of the more committed did a double-take when Germany struck an agreement with the Soviet Union in August of 1939, paving the way for the two countries to invade Poland and split the conquest between them, with more aggressions to follow. Of the Soviet admirers who chose to get off the bandwagon for the 22 months the pact lasted, most climbed back on when Germany invaded its erstwhile ally in June of 1941, returning Hitler to the top of Stalin’s enemies list. There was another breed of believer who’d made a well-thought-out commitment to Marx‘s philosophy and Lenin‘s politics. Some of these people managed a turnaround when they saw what the combined attitudes of those two men had produced. Whittaker Chambers, Max Eastman, Sidney Hook, Eugene Lyons, and John Dos Passos were early enthusiasts for the Soviet experiment who became dedicated opponents before Stalin‘s deal with Hitler made Communism temporarily unfashionable. But for all the advocates who fell away in 1939 or earlier, permanently or only for a while, there were plenty who stuck by The Man of Steel through all the changes he put forth as the latest political wisdom. Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammet, Theodore Dreiser and Howard Fast, Dalton Trumbo and Albert Maltz, Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Harlow Shapley managed to absorb the Hitler link-up without evident distress. Most of them maintained their sympathies through the war, some well beyond, some indefinitely.

(Eugene Lyons, The Red Decade)

Personal observations: things about Communism USA that leave me baffled.

Fashionability

Why is it that fans of Communism don’t get blamed for the misdeeds of the governments that put their ideology into practice in anything like the way that fans of Fascism, Nazism, and military dictatorships do? If the people listed above had expressed the same degree of fondness for Fascism as they did for Communism, their intellectual reputations would’ve been in the dust. As an admirer of Mussolini‘s Fascism, poet Ezra Pound had to endure a stigma no admirer of Communism was ever subjected to. And the disparity of treatment became even greater after 1945 when current and former advocates of Communism were made to testify before congressional committees and were acclaimed by their intellectual colleagues as guileless martyrs with no suggestion they’d been subscribers to or dupes of a pernicious doctrine. Can it be as simple as that what’s-called-the-left gets excused for things that what’s-called-the-right does not?   After all, at their extremes the left and right stand for exactly the same things – the total control of society through the oppressions of police, the compliance of judges, disregard for individual human lives, disdain for democracy and contempt for freedom of belief and behavior. What does distinguish left from right and apparently spawns the antagonism between the two, are the different allegiances and antipathies they encourage. But whether it’s proletarians that are being honored and the bourgeoisie condemned, or Aryans exalted and Jews derided, the consequences are the same for groups despised by the people in power.

In trying to figure out how Communists managed to win the era’s intellectual fashion contest, I came to the conclusion they talked a better game than their adversaries, attracting converts by the fervor of their rhetoric about the poor and downtrodden and the degree of anguish they expressed for the racial and social groups they took to their hearts as a result. Rhetorical agility aside though, if there’s one thing political parties all draw on, it’s a concern for society’s down and out; and most of them have a far better record than Communists do of producing economic benefits for the people they put in that category. To say nothing of the fact that Christians, Moslems, Jews and Buddhists are at least as eager as politicians to help people in need, and so are members of the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, the United Way and people-who-give-to-panhandlers. There is a crucial distinction among advocates for the poor and disenfranchised though, and it’s the degree to which they promote hostility toward those they view as their enemies. Contempt for the bourgeoisie is no less malign than contempt for Jews, and its consequences can be and have been as terrible.

On reflection, you realize you don’t have to tie your efforts to a government, a party or any organization to help the people you think are worthy, in ways that you think best. Acting individually and freely you can donate time, money or service to whomever you think appropriate, direct whatever benefits you have control over toward those people and encourage efforts on their behalf by others – without having to support causes you disagree with or force others to support ones you prefer. Individual acts of mercy, after all, is what Jesus taught.

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The reaction

A curious thing about the popularity Communism achieved with American intellectuals is how its enemies reacted to that success. They were appalled at how many of the cultural elite – people who influenced society far out of proportion to their numbers – were then or had been in thrall to such evil. Exposure was the main weapon at their disposal, so that’s what they turned to, with the expectation that social disapproval would have the effect on discouraging Communism as it had had on slavery and child labor, Nazism and the Ku Klux Klan, the segregation of races and the exclusion of Jews.

In relying on publicity rather than prosecution, it’s not surprising that the houses of Congress voted to give their committees subpoena power – the right to compel testimony. What is surprising is that the judiciary let them to get away with it. Being forced to speak is as much an infringement of liberty as being prevented from speaking, and that holds true whether it’s Communism being investigated, Nazism, terrorism, organized crime, oil spills or global warming. It’s also the case that compelled testimony has long been accepted as part of “due process of law” as the United States inherited that concept from the British, but there was neither need nor Constitutional warrant for allowing that form of coercion to be used outside the judicial system.

Another curious thing about the reaction to Communism in the United States is the form of social disapproval it inspired. Most of us acknowledge the right of an employer to exercise his principles as he wishes as long as he does so passively – without aggression – by not hiring people whose beliefs or deeds he personally regards as despicable, for example. In fact, for jobs in education and law enforcement, the armed forces, health service and social work most of us would join him in taking account of an applicant’s dedication to some particularly repellent creed. What’s sufficiently different as not to be acceptable, is for an entire industry, or at least all principal players in it, to agree among themselves to exclude a class of applicants for reasons other than their ability to do the job. Collusion and conspiracy, cartel and monopoly are the words we associate with barriers that cut across company boundaries; and blacklisting is the name we give to the practice when we disapprove of it. It’s true that unions have long been allowed to impose global restrictions on employment in industries they dominate – including the trades involved in movie-making, by the way – so the precedents are mixed. But if industry-wide exclusions can be forbidden in some contexts on the grounds that they are coercive, then fairness requires they be forbidden in others – whether it’s the heads of industry or of unions that are behind them, and whether or not they’re condoned by certain agents of government.

Secretiveness

There’s a reason that public exposure proved as disruptive for Communists as it did, and it has to do with an attitude of secrecy they consciously adopted. Even if you don’t subscribe to a controversial point of view, you can admire those who admit their allegiance to it and are willing accept whatever passive measures their opponents choose to employ against them. On the other hand, it’s hard to respect people who deny their beliefs in order to avoid disapproval or to be able to pursue their goals without letting others know what they’re up to.

The foes of Communism naturally regarded a commitment to its tenets as something be ashamed of, something to hide. Curiously enough, the adherents of the creed gave the impression of sharing the same attitude. Most of us don’t regard our political inclinations as personal or secret. In fact, many of us look for opportunities to proclaim them as loudly as we can. But even if you prefer not to say what party you belong to or voted for, you aren’t likely to be offended by my asking you what it is; and you wouldn’t consider that you’d “informed” on your friends by merely telling me what you knew of their political beliefs. Granted that congressional committees shouldn’t be able to force people to divulge their preferences or those of others, the fact that Communists reacted as strongly as they did to questions about their political allegiances created the impression that they agreed with what was being said about them: they were up to something they shouldn’t have been. If they’d admitted membership or sympathy as readily as the followers of most parties do, they’d have earned the respect of others and would likely have been extended the same latitude as individuals who aren’t afraid or ashamed to acknowledge their beliefs.

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Two who stood up

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Two who stood up

The temper of the times

On several occasions President Roosevelt volunteered an opinion of Joseph Stalin.

In 1943, when former ambassador to the Soviet Union, William C. Bullitt, warned Roosevelt about the ambitions of that nation and the man who headed it, Roosevelt responded: “I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of man. Harry [Hopkins] says he’s not and that he doesn’t want anything except security for his own country, and I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of democracy and peace.”

In a Fireside Chat delivered to the nation on July 28, 1943: “The world has never seen greater devotion, determination, and self-sacrifice than have been displayed by the Russian people and their armies, under the leadership of Marshal Joseph Stalin. With a Nation which in saving itself is thereby helping to save all the world from the Nazi menace, this country of ours should always be glad to be a good neighbor and a sincere friend in the world of the future.

In a letter to Churchill: “I think there is nothing more important than that Stalin feel that we mean to support him without qualification and at great sacrifice.”

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, as quoted by British Field Marshal Alan Brooke: “of one thing I am certain; Stalin is not an imperialist.”

At a meeting with his cabinet after returning from Yalta Roosevelt noted that since Stalin had studied for the priesthood, “something entered into his nature of the way in which a Christian gentleman should behave.”

When the Roosevelt administration established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union for the first time in1933, William C. Bullitt was appointed ambassador. Initially a Soviet enthusiast, he soured on the regime as he came to know it. In 1936 Roosevelt replaced Bullitt with Joseph Davies, whose positive view of Stalin remained unshaken by what he witnessed in Moscow. After attending one of the show trials in 1938 Davies commented, “the Kremlin’s fears [regarding treason in the Party and the Army] were well justified“. In a memo he wrote: “Communism holds no serious threat to the United States. Friendly relations in the future may be of great general value.” Elsewhere he described Communism as “protecting the Christian world of free men“, and urged all Christians “by the faith you have found at your mother’s knee, in the name of the faith you have found in temples of worship” to embrace the Soviet Union. When his ambassadorship was over he wrote a book called Mission to Moscow, in which he had nothing but praise for Stalin and the nation he headed. “He gives the impression of a strong mind which is composed and wise. A child would like to sit on his lap and a dog would sidle up to him.” The book was turned into a movie in 1943 to create sympathy for the the United States’ ally of the moment.

Harry Hopkins was probably the closest of Roosevelt’s advisers to the extent that he actually took up residence in the White House in May of 1940. He was also known for his Soviet sympathies. At a rally in June 1942 he promised: “We are determined that nothing shall stop us from sharing with you [the Soviet Union] all that we have.” At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, an event remembered in retrospect for the extent to which the severely ill Roosevelt was buffaloed by the robust Stalin, Hopkins advised: “Mr. President, the Russians have given in so much at this conference I don’t think we should let them down. Let the British disagree if they want – and continue their disagreement at Moscow.”

On the other hand …

There were those who knew better. Some of them because they’d been part of the Soviet effort to infiltrate federal agencies in order to get inside information about the United States government and to influence its policies.

Whittaker Chambers was born in 1901 in Philadelphia to a family of modest circumstances. He joined the Communist Party at the age of 24 while he was a student at Columbia University. Looking back on that time, he offered some thoughts on why he’d done what he’d done, and they reveal a bit about the intellectual cast of his mind:

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“In the West, all intellectuals become Communists because they are seeking the answer to one of two problems: the problem of war or the problem of economic crises. …

“In the days when I joined the Communist Party [1925], it could offer those who joined it only the certainty of being poor and pariahs. During the 1930’s and 1940’s, when Communism became intellectually fashionable, there was a time when Communist Party patronage could dispose of jobs or careers in a number of fields. … Almost without exception such men and women [who got jobs as a result of their Communist connections] could have made their careers much more profitably and comfortably outside the Communist Party. …

“Few Communists have ever been made simply by reading the works of Marx and Lenin. The crisis of history makes Communists; Marx and Lenin merely offer them an explanation of the crisis and what to do about. …

“It is in the name of that will to survive the crisis…that the Communist first justifies the use of terror and tyranny…

“Terror is an instrument of socialist policy if the crisis was to be overcome…

“Only in Communism had I found any practical answer at all to the crisis, and the will to make that answer work.”

For six years Chambers worked openly in the Communist Party. He took a job with the Party’s newspaper, The Daily Worker, starting out by collecting payments, graduating from that humble task to become a writer and editor until he chose to resign over a disagreement about party politics. He then submitted some stories to the Communist magazine, The New Masses,which were such a hit with the Party’s higher-ups that he was invited to become its editor. The following year a representative of Soviet military intelligence suggested he leave the open party and accept a position in the underground. Chambers said no, only to discover that the “suggestion” had really been more of an order. After thinking it over, he decided to yield to party discipline. For the next seven years he worked as a spy, initially doing routine tasks in transmitting documents from local espionage agents to the Soviet Union. Having demonstrated his loyalty and competence, in 1934 he was given duties of much greater importance – liaison between an array of covert Communists in federal agencies and their foreign controllers. The people with whom Chambers became involved had been organized by a man named Harold Ware. “Once the New Deal was in full swing,” Chambers later wrote, “Hal Ware was like a man who has bought a farm sight unseen only to discover that the crops are all in ready to harvest. All that he had to do was to hustle them into the barn. The barn in this case was the Communist Party. In the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, Hal found a bumper crop of incipient or registered Communists…. The immediate plan called for moving the ‘career Communists’ out of the New Deal agencies, which the party could penetrate almost at will, and their gradual infiltration of the old-line departments, with the State Department as the first objective.” One early member of the Ware group was a lawyer named Alger Hiss with whom Chambers would become close friends and who did manage to move to a position in the State Department. The degree of penetration the Soviets achieved at that time was such that the head of the underground in the United States confided to Chambers, “Even in Germany under the Weimar Republic, the party did not have what we have here.”  

Chambers, however, wasn’t the ideological robot Hiss would prove to be. In 1936 his curiosity was aroused by a minor news item about a general in the Red Army who’d been shot for treason. This led him to inquire about the purges then underway in Moscow and to his being told by his Soviet controller that asking such questions could put a person in line to be shot. It took a major effort for him to overcome his years of ideological conditioning, but Chambers was driven by that response to get a copy of I Speak for the Silent and read it through. The more he learned about what the Communists had been doing since the revolution, the greater his disillusionment became until he reached the point that he knew had to get out. In April of 1938 he abandoned his post in the underground and his connection with the Party. Aware of others who’d been assassinated for such things, he deserted the house he’d been living in and went on the run with his wife and child. The need to earn a living forced him back into public life though, just in time to accept a position a friend had found for him with Time Magazine.

He started the job in April of 1939. In August the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with Germany, making likely a war in Europe in which the United States might become involved. Presuming the Soviets would share the results of their espionage efforts with their German allies, Chambers decided he had to let the President know what had been going on. He got a journalist friend named Isaac Don Levine to arrange a meeting, not with Roosevelt, as it turned out, but with Assistant Secretary of State Adolf Berle. At the meeting Chambers gave Berle the names of twenty or so espionage agents and clandestine Soviet sympathizers in positions of sufficient importance to be dangerous to the nation’s safety. Alger Hiss was one of them. Berle scribbled notes on everything Chambers said and appeared to take the warning seriously. Months passed though and nothing happened, so Chambers checked back with Levine. “Adolf Berle, said Levine, had taken my information to the President at once. The President had laughed. When Berle was insistent, he had been told in words which it is necessary to paraphrase, to ‘go jump in the lake.‘”

Two years later, FBI agents visited Chambers at Time. Although they’d come to see him about another matter entirely, Chambers assumed they were there as a result of the meeting he’d had with Berle in 1939 and told them of the notes the latter had taken at that time. That got Chambers the attention not only of the FBI but of the Civil Service Commission and Office of Naval Intelligence, whose agents stopped by to question him on various subsequent occasions. From 1946 through 1948 Chambers was contacted with increasing frequency by the FBI about people he’d named in his meeting with Berle. As it turned out, the G-men were confirming testimony they’d received from a more recent defector – a woman whose career in the underground had overlapped with his but that he’d never heard of.

Elizabeth Bentley was born to a prosperous family in Connecticut in 1908. She graduated from Vassar, spent a year in Italy and returned to the United States, jobless in the Depression year of 1934. Among the friends she made while looking for work was an enthusiastic Communist who urged her to join the Party. Bentley took the step in 1935 and was surprised to discover how many of the people she knew were already secret Communists, as she herself became when she adopted the alias, Elizabeth Sherman.

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Her reasons for joining constitute an interesting contrast with the more intellectual ones that Chambers wrote of. Bentley was driven by emotions that had been aroused in her through the good-heartedness and righteous rhetoric of the Party members she’d come to know personally. “They [Communists] seemed to be continually engaged, at the sacrifice of a considerable amount of time and energy, in humanitarian projects, such as better housing for the poor, more relief for the underprivileged, and higher wages for the workers. It is they, I thought, who are the modern Good Samaritans. It is they who are putting into practice the old Christian ideals that I was brought up on.” She also wanted to fight Fascism, a party she’d come to know and oppose during her stay in Italy. The reasons for that opposition aren’t clear though, given the fact that the sponsorship of public works, the resulting creation of jobs and state control of economic matters generally were features Fascism shared with Communism, along with the government’s ability to make sure its policies were followed through a reliance on dictatorial powers. But then Bentley was able to draw on an experience she’d actually had under Fascism, but not under Communism.

In 1936 the purge of early Bolsheviks and the show trials that accompanied them were under way in Moscow – the event that led Chambers to re-evaluate his commitment to Communism. Bentley was still firmly in the Party’s intellectual grasp, however. “As far as I remember,” she recalls, “none of us Communists ever questioned the charge that these men were traitors and criminals.”

Four years after joining the Party, Bentley was introduced to a man named Jacob Golos, a member of the secret police, she would later discover, with an impressive history of achieving Communist goals by whatever means it took and prone to justify in retrospect any endeavors done in the interests of the Soviet Union. When Golos told Bentley to cut her connections with the open Party so she could work for him in the underground, she did as he ordered; and it didn’t take long for the two of them, working as closely as they did, to fall in love. Golos had a wife and son in the Soviet Union, but marriage was a worn-out remnant of bourgeois morality, after all, so it presented no barrier to their taking up life together. Bentley’s responsibilites included helping Golos manage a couple of shipping businesses in New York to provide money for the Party and serve as a cover for espionage. Curiously, it wasn’t until May of 1941, more than two years after she’d started her collaboration with Golos, that it dawned on Bentley she was no longer working for Communists in the United States but for the Soviet Union. When Germany invaded that country a month later, Golos was ordered to, “get as many trusted comrades as possible into strategic positions in United States government agencies in Washington, where they will have access to secret and confidential information that can be relayed to the Soviet Union.” “Knowing all the risks involved,” he asked her,are you still willing to go on with me?” Whether it was the United States she was serving or the Soviets was no longer of concern. She’d come to accept whatever Golos told her. “I had made my choice and I would stick to it. ‘Of course,’ I answered quietly.

Bentley now became engaged in the kind of liaison work that Chambers had graduated to before his defection. She and Golos operated under the overall control of the NKVD, however, while Chambers had been part of a parallel but separate espionage effort run by military intelligence. Once immersed in her new duties, Bentley told Golos how impressed she was at the number of people he’d been able to enlist as quickly as he had. “Very simple,” the man told her, “this organization has been built up solidly over a period of years and is always ready in case of emergency.” Looking back on her activities of the time, Bentley confirmed the strategy Chambers had enunciated. “Many of the contacts we took on as agents were already in government service. If they were in positions that we considered productive, we left them where they were, otherwise we encouraged them to pull strings and move into more sensitive agencies.

Most of Bentley’s undercover contacts were dues paying members of the Party, although some chose to remain outside as sympathetic hangers-on. The most important of the groups she dealt with was centered in the Treasury Department, having been organized by an Agriculture employee named Greg Silvermaster. Bentley also came to know and know of an extensive array of other agents, many of whom had been in Chambers’ circle or on its periphery. These shared contacts later allowed the recollections of Chambers and Bentley to be compared and confirmed. Among the more prominent officials who had connections with both Bentley and Chambers were Harry Dexter White, an Under Secretary of theTreasury; Lauchlin Currie, an adviser to President Roosevelt on economics and China; and Alger Hiss, a State Department employee whom Bentley knew of but only second hand.

 

By 1943 Bentley’s feelings for Golos had come to transcend her attachments to the Party and the Soviet Union. It was his continuing dedication to Communism that drove her to work as hard as she did. But something happened that put Golos at odds with his supervisors. It might have stemmed from his failing health, but he attributed the problem to a drastic falling off in the quality of NKVD personnel. Whatever the reason, he was ordered to turn over to new Soviet agents his American contacts – people as crucial to his work as Silvermaster, for example, with whom he’d created a bonds of trust and friendship by long and careful cultivation. He was even asked to consider separating his work from Bentley’s. Neither he nor she was willing to contemplate demands of that sort, so by Thanksgiving of 1943 Golos found himself faced with handing over his contacts in three days or being branded a traitor. That night he died of a heart attack in Bentley’s presence.

She was devastated. The person who’d been the primary motivation for her work was dead – killed, as she saw it, by pressures put on him by fools in the NKVD. She’d been in the movement long enough to continue her duties robotically, but now she was confronted with having to do what Golos had been ordered to. She sought help from Earl Browder, a friend who’d headed the Communist Party of the United States. When Browder deferred to the Soviets, Bentley was left without an ally of sufficient influence to give her any hope of defying her adversaries. This led her to ask herself if she wanted to continue her work in the underground and her association with the Party. She’d known agents who’d gone bad and been killed for it, so she had no illusions about the possible consequences. On the other hand she was angry enough to seriously consider the opportunity the FBI gave her to get back at the people who’d betrayed her and the man she’d loved. In August of 1945 Elizabeth Bentley paid a secret visit to the FBI office in New Haven, Connecticut.

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The reasons for Bentley’s defection constitute an even greater contrast with those of Chambers than had her reasons for joining. They certainly weren’t based on an acknowledgment that she and Golos had been laboring for the forces of evil. In fact the people against whom she sought revenge were the ones who’d tried to interfere with that work.   “We thought we were fighting to build a better world,” she wrote later, “and instead we are just pawns in another game of power politics, run by men who are playing for keeps and don’t care how they get where they’re going. It was for this shabby thing that Yasha [Jacob Golos] fought and gave his life – now I knew the answer to the awful struggle he had gone through the last days of his life. He had discovered what was really going on, but he was too broken then to want to live any longer. They had killed him, these people, killed one of the most decent people that had ever lived!

Once she’d decided to change sides, she did allow herself to delve into the darker aspects of Communism’s past. She became more critical of the Soviet Union and less so of the United States. But her primary motivation remained personal and emotional. It was because of what they’d done to her and her man, that she wanted to bring down around the ears of the people who ran it, the extraordinarily successful espionage apparatus that had been established years earlier. Remarkably enough, in that effort this lone enraged individual largely succeeded.

Starting in November of 1945, while continuing to work in the Soviet underground, Bentley met periodically with FBI agents, who took the information she gave them and combined it with their own research to create an enormous file on clandestine Soviet intelligence activities, including data on the approximately 150 people whose names she’d supplied. The extent of Bentley’s revelations led to her being called to testify before a grand jury in New York in July of 1947. By then almost two years had passed since her defection, and the Soviet espionage operation had come to a standstill as a result of their undercover agents being told to lie low. Bentley continued her work with the Grand Jury for the better part of a year, after which she was invited to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (usually abbreviated HUAC). It was then – July of 1948 – that the newspapers picked up her story and overnight Elizabeth Bentley became “the Red Spy Queen”.

Party politics

In order to understand what happened next, it’s useful to have some feel for the political forces in play at the time. When Bentley went to the FBI late in 1945, Harry Truman had been president for less than six months, but Democrats had occupied the White House for more than twelve years. The war was over. Germany and Japan were no longer enemies of the United States, and it was becoming clearer every day that the country’s erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, was not the agent of progress and democracy Roosevelt and his advisers had led the nation to believe. To the extent it could be shown to exist, Communist infiltration of government agencies would no longer be dismissed as an irrelevant fancy, and blame for it would be laid at the feet of the people who’d let it happen. Truman viewed international Communism as more of a threat than Roosevelt had, but if the man from Missouri was anything, it was a partisan politician. His Justice Department was not about to acknowledge the state of affairs that Elizabeth Bentley’s testimony indicated had come into being during the last decade.

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What complicated things for Truman was the fact that the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, didn’t share his desire to hush things up. Roosevelt had been faced with the same problem, but the mood of a nation at war and his own popularity made it easier for the Commander in Chief to act imperiously. Even before Bentley came forward, the FBI had accumulated an enormous amount of information about Communist penetration of federal agencies. Bentley’s revelations made action on them just that much more urgent. On the other hand, Truman held the aces and he knew it. The FBI was part of the Justice Department. Hoover took his orders from the Attorney General and the Attorney General from the President. What may have caused the president a bit of concern was his uncertainty about Hoover’s willingness to stick with the chain of command. But Truman needn’t have worried. Rather than going public with what he knew, Hoover kept shoving information at Truman and the people around him in the form of new and more elaborate reports, realizing all the while that they could choose to do what they did and push the information aside.

The Justice Department ran the Grand Jury investigation to which Bentley’d given evidence. The outcome they aimed for was that her information would appear to have been thoroughly explored but contain nothing worthy of criminal charges. Interestingly enough that’s exactly what happened. A year of Bentley’s testifying led to exactly zero (0!) indictments.   In a court of law it would only be her word against that of the accused, the prosecting attorney could point out to anybody who chose to ask about the vacuous result. And that would have seemed plausible in light of the testimony actually taken. But the prosecutors were as aware as the FBI of the availability of Chambers to back Bentley up, and of Louis Budenz as well – another turned-around Communist who’d known many of Bentley’s people. The prosecuting attorney consciously chose not to call either of those men or indeed anybody else capable of supporting Bentley’s charges.

What the Grand Jury did next was launch an investigation of the leaders of the open and legal Communist Party. In that effort they succeeded in getting eleven (11!) indictments under the Smith Act – a law enacted in June 1940 when war with Germany, the Soviet Union or both seemed imminent, providing the impetus to include as one of the act’s provisions that it was a crime to advocate violent overthrow of the government. The only purpose in trying Communist Party officials for that offense would be to show the newspaper-reading public that Truman’s Justice Department was plenty tough on Communism, so tough that in going after those particular rascals they were willing to brush aside the Constitutional guarantees everybody else was entitled to in being able to put their beliefs, however obnoxious, into speech and print.

Republican Congressmen, meanwhile, were at least as concerned as Hoover about the real threat to the government through Soviet infiltration. And not only were those Congressmen not subject to the control of the Attorney General, they’d be only too happy to bring to light any scandalous conditions that could plausibly be traced to the Democrats.

Chambers and Hiss

 

During July of 1948 Bentley was quizzed by HUAC, which then included first term Republican Representative Richard Nixon. In August the Committee called Chambers to confirm and expand on what Bentley’d told them. Chambers started his testimony August 3. During the course of the day’s questioning he mentioned Alger Hiss as one of the undercover Communists he’d dealt with. To give Hiss a chance to respond, the Committee asked him to appear on August 5. Hiss, who now held the position of President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, stated categorically that he’d never been a Communist, never known Whittaker Chambers and didn’t recognize a photo of the man. In fact Hiss conducted himself with such self-assurance that most of the Committee’s members thought they’d been had by Chambers, ought to dump him as a witness and go on to somebody else. It was Nixon who talked them out of it. One of the two witnesses had to be lying and it was up to the Committee to figure out which it was, since it was as clear as day that nobody else ever would. So three weeks of questioning went by with directly contradictory statements from the two men and a personal confrontation staged between them. Hiss wound up doing a lot of backpedalling and tap-dancing and finally did claim to have known Chambers but under the name of “Crosley”; but nothing more damaging came of it than that. Chambers remained unequivocal about Hiss’s membership in the Party but steered clear of mentioning espionage. On August 25 HUAC concluded its questioning of the two with no recommedation for action against either one – for espionage, perjury or anything else. Hiss had plenty of friends in high places who continued to praise his character and insist he’d been maligned, but for those who took a look at the information the Committee had elicited and the means they’d had to use to get it, Chambers had the clear edge in believability.

Testimony to Congressional committees is protected against being treated as libelous. Hiss challenged Chambers to repeat what he’d told HUAC in a setting where he could be sued for what he said. This Chambers did on the television show, Meet the Press, on August 27. After considering his options for a month, Hiss followed up on his threat and sued Chambers on September 27. The Chambers-Hiss confrontation had already become a major news event. The lawsuit made it moreso. A Grand Jury charged with investigating Communist activities could no longer choose to ignore Chambers. As soon as he’d been served with a summons for the libel suit, he received another from the Grand Jury. What wasn’t clear, was whether the Justice Department hoped to draw on his knowledge of the Soviet underground to go after Hiss and people like him, or if it was Chambers they wanted to indict, to put an end to all the charges he’d been making that were now garnering a lot of unwelcome attention.

On November 4 there was a pre-trial hearing for the libel suit that was to have enormous consequences. As a routine measure in making evidence known to both sides, Chambers was instructed by Hiss’s lawyers to turn over to them any letters or other communications he had from Alger Hiss. Although the requesting attorneys had no notion of what they’d invited, Chambers had in fact squirreled away 65 pages of State Department documents illegally synopsized and copied by Hiss. He retrieved these papers, along with some rolls of microfilm whose contents he couldn’t remember, from the home of a relative where he’d left them ten years earlier. At the next pre-trial hearing on November 17 he turned the papers but not the film over to Hiss’s lawyers. The documents made clear what Chambers had refrained from saying: the two had clearly been involved in espionage. At the instigation of Hiss’s lawyers, copies of the papers were given to the Justice Department, an agency that had been reliably protective of Hiss’s interests.  

Keep in mind that Chambers was now caught up in three different government procedures, each with its own purpose, each with a cast of characters that would defend its interests against those of the other two. He was a witness for the House of Representatives’ Committee on Un-American Activities, a witness for the Justice Department’s Grand Jury, and the defendant in the civil suit initiated by Alger Hiss.

A couple of weeks passed. On December 1 an item appeared in the Washington Post that Chambers had come up with evidence of major importance in the libel suit. HUAC’s Chief Investigator, Robert Stripling showed up at Chambers’ farm the same day to ask what was up. Chambers said he couldn’t reveal anything about a case in progress, but Stripling had Chambers come by his office the next day where the latter was presented with a subpoena requiring him to “turn over to the House Committee on Un-American Activities any evidence whatever that I might possess which related in any way to the Hiss Case.” Viewing the Committee as an ally against the Justice Department, Chambers readily complied by retrieving the rolls of microfilm from a hollowed out pumpkin on his property where he’d hidden them overnight. Enlargements of the film resulted in a stack of evidence four feet high. The promptness with which Stripling had acted was clearly inspired by his determination to keep any other evidence Chambers might have from falling into the hands of the Justice Department.

Justice struck back by having the FBI spirit Chambers away to a private office to be grilled at length about the microfilm he’d given to HUAC as well as some other matters the Justice Department was interested in. Chambers was also handed a subpoena requiring him to appear before the Grand Jury immediately, forestalling any attempt by HUAC to lay prior claim to his testimony. But Nixon and the Committe weren’t about to back off. The tension between the two factions came to a head at New York’s Pennsylvania Station when members of HUAC and the Justice Department got into a shouting match that led to an agreement under which Justice got photostats of some of the microfilm and HUAC was allowed to interview Chambers in private before his next Grand Jury appearance.

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What the people in the Attorney General’s office had set out to do was evident in the memos they sent to the FBI at this time, requesting an investigation to determine if Chambers had committed perjury but no parallel effort concerning Hiss. Nevertheless, it was the FBI that did the Justice Department’s investigating, and the men in that bureau had no compunctions about following lines of evidence that would put Alger Hiss in a bad light. Nixon and Stripling meanwhile made it clear they wouldn’t hesitate to resort to the Committee’s headline-grabbing ability if Hiss were handed a free pass. Chambers and Hiss both testified. The evidence against Hiss was persuasive, but the crucial last link was to show that Hiss had had access to the typewriter on which the damning documents had been typed, and that device had not been located. On December 7, with a week to go in its term, the Grand Jury didn’t find the evidence conclusive enough to indict. Over the weekend of the 11th and 12th the FBI came up with other papers known to have been typed in Hiss’s household. When the typefaces were compared, the typewriters were shown to be the same. This seems to have been the crucial link in the Justice Department’s decision about which man to go after, and it certainly inspired the prosecution’s next step. If certain facts can be shown to be true, then asking questions about those facts can sometimes be used to induce perjury. The federal prosecutor asked Hiss specific questions about the typed documents and the period of time during which Hiss had been in contact with Chambers, to which Hiss had to lie to be consistent with his earlier testimony. On December 15, the last day of its term, the Grand Jury indicted Hiss on two counts of perjury.

Chambers wasn’t off the hook, but the prosecution had effectively been confronted with a choice of which man to indict. They had started out wanting to it to be Chambers in spite of the fact that it was he who had renounced the errors of his past and voluntarily placed himself in danger of going to jail in order to make amends for what he’d formerly been involved in. But the evidence showed what it showed, and the surrounding political situation wasn’t as controllable as the President might have liked. The case against Hiss was clear. Indicting Chambers as well would undermine the credibility of the chief witness in that case. Chambers held his breath, but he wasn’t indicted. So ended 1948.

During the course of the next year Hiss was tried twice. Under Judge Kaufman, Prosecutor Murphy and Defense Attorney Stryker, the jury hung on a vote of 8 to 4 for conviction. Retried under Judge Goddard, Prosecutor Murphy and Defense Attorney Cross, Hiss was convicted unanimously of two counts of perjury on January 21, 1950. He went to jail in March 1951. His libel suit against Chambers was dismissed the following month.

Aftermath

By the time of Bentley’s defection in 1945, the opportunity to prevent the most dramatic consequences of Soviet penetration had gone by the boards. If Roosevelt had taken to heart the situation that Chambers’ conversation with Berle had disclosed in 1939, the aftermath of World War II might have been different. To suggest a few possibilities, Alger Hiss wouldn’t have been at Yalta in February 1945 to hold the hand of two-months-in-office Secretary of State Edward Stettinius; Harry Dexter White wouldn’t have had the ear of Secretary of the Treasury Morgenthau in plotting Germany’s postwar fate, Lauchlin Currie wouldn’t have helped decide which of the contending factions in China would be rewarded and which stiffed; and the Soviet Union wouldn’t have exploded an atomic bomb as early as August 1949.

As Chambers was to write a few years after the excitement of his encounter with Hiss has subsided, “Most of the Communists in the Hiss Case, like most of those in the Bentley case, are going about their affairs much as always. It is not the Communists, but the ex-Communists who have cooperated with the Government who have chiefly suffered. All of the ex-Communists who co-operated with the Government had broken with the party entirely as a result of their own conscience years before the Hiss Case began.” A handful of individuals were actually tried and convicted of Communist related activities: Alger Hiss and William Remington for perjury, Carl Marzani for lying on his government application, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for passing atom bomb secrets to the Soviet Union, for which the latter two were executed. Bentley’s revelations did have the effect of shutting down the espionage operation that the Soviets had been conducting so successfully until then. What was not as dramatically affected was the influence admirers of Communism continued exert from inside. In spite of a Loyalty Program put into effect by an executive order of President Truman, the manner in which individuals with documented Communist ties disappeared from government rolls remained much as it had been until 1948: they were pressured to resign but allowed to leave without penalty. If there’s something anti-Communist agitators can take consolation from, it’s the fact that many did move on.   On the other hand, the extreme discreetness of their departures obscured from the newspaper-reading public the degree to which allegations of infiltration had had substance; and, since nothing went into the folder of a resigning employee to indicate that he’d been asked to resign or why, he was free to seek a different job in the government or with an agency that had strong ties to the government.

It was in fact the half-heartedness of this approach to security that led to the subsequent involvement of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Being a senator rather than a representative, McCarthy had no direct connection with HUAC. The post from which he would go on to conduct his inquiries was as chairman of the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the Senate’s Government Operations Committee. As a Republican, however, he had the same political motivations as the Republicans in HUAC in exposing Democratic malfeasance. Starting from a list of 108 potential security risks in the State Department that had been compiled by the House Appropriations Committee two years earlier, he and his staff added some names of their own and set about checking the current status of the people enumerated. Many were found to be still working for or in collaboraton with the government, leading Senator McCarthy to declare in a speech he delivered in Wheeling, West Virginia on February 9, 1950 that “I have in my hand 57 cases of individuals who would appear to be either card carrying Communists or certainly loyal to the Communist Party, but who nevertheless are still helping to shape our foreign policy.” There was then and remains to this day controversy about the words McCarthy actually spoke from the podium in Wheeling, but not concerning what he’d intended to say, since he clarified the matter when questioned about it later. It took a few days for the reaction to build, but from February 20, 1950 until McCarthy was censured by the Senate in December of 1954 on two abstruse charges, he would be continually engaged in investigations of two sorts: those he conducted to expose what he believed to be government security risks, and those (5 of them) conducted by his Senate colleagues to expose what they believed to be the impropriety of his methods.

(M. Stanton Evans, Blacklisted by History)

The cost of standing up

As people who’d been in the Party long enough to have seen what had happened to other apostates, Elizabeth Bentley and Whittaker Chambers may not have been surprised at the degree of vilification to which they were subjected by Communists and their intellectual allies. The nature of the allegations followed the prescribed pattern so predictably as to be comical if they hadn’t also been so vicious: sexual proclivities too shameful to be spoken of out loud, drunkenness, insanity, and, politically, crytpo-fascism.

Elizabeth Bentley died in of cancer in 1963 at the age of 55. She had documented her experience in joining and working for the Soviet underground and her decision to leave it in an intriguing 1951 memoir called Out of Bondage.   What sets her book apart from other accounts of lapsed Communists is the degree of personal – as opposed to political – motivation it reveals: her feelings for Jacob Golos in particular, but the other friendships and enmities she developed within the party, and the apparent ease with which she managed to switch political allegiance when she felt betrayed by the people for whom she’d labored long and hard.

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Whittaker Chambers died of a heart attack in 1961 at the age of 60. In 1952 he’d published his autobiography, Witness, in which he describes how he’d been drawn into the Communist world, his work in the open and underground Party, his disillusionment and subsequent determination to take a stand against what he’d come to regard as philosophical blight of the age, realizing, as he put it, that he was leaving the winning side for the losing one. As a professional writer he was well equipped for the task, but what he achieved in the book transcended what might have been expected. In detailing his sojourn through the political enthusiasms of his era, he allows us to discover as he did the nature of the spiritual collapse that had led to the emergence of Communism in the 19th century and the consequences that had in his century, the 20th, in helping to make it the most governmentally murderous of all time.

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National heroes

From the United States of the 1930’s and 40’s various individuals linger in public memory. In the cultural realm such people as playwright Lillian Hellman, author Ernest Hemingway, and folksinger Woody Guthrie are still honored; in science J. Robert Oppenheimer for the work he did in helping to create the atomic bomb; while in the politics, Franklin Roosevelt remains dominant.

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Neither Whittaker Chambers nor Elizabeth Bentley is much remembered though. Mention their names to a hundred people and most will never have heard of either one, although Chambers retains some lingering fame from the notoriety of his confrontation with Hiss. Of those who do remember Chambers or Bentley, the most likely comment will be, “Oh, yeah. Didn’t he have something to do with the start of McCarthyism?”

One way of judging a nation is by the people it comes to regard as heroes. Once an idol becomes established in the public mind, there’s a good chance he’ll wind up being depicted in a government memorial, often in Washington D.C. There his bronze or marble image will invite the admiration of passers-by …

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safely insulated from time’s caprices and those pesky reminders of what the person it represents actually did.

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The worst government ever

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The worst government ever

No, I’m not about to make the choice. There are too many ways of defining badness to hope that we can reach a shared conclusion on the basis of historical evidence. More importantly the choice has already been made. Ask a hundred people to name the worst government ever and more than half will say Nazi Germany. That the Nazis constituted the ultimate political evil is a convention of the age – an opinion you can advance as true without expecting an argument. On what basis? The number of innocent people they purposely put to death is surely the main one. As it happens, Mao Tse-tung’s China – a larger country over a longer period of time – was responsible for the deaths of far more innocent people than Hitler’s Germany, although perhaps half of the Chinese died as the result of a mindlessly pursued political agenda rather than by purposeful extermination. For concentrated malevolence though, Pol Pot’s Cambodia may have been the champ. In less than four years the Khmer Rouge managed to reduce the population of the nation it ran by twenty to thirty percent. What such statistics illustrate more than anything else is that for atrocities of that magnitude comparisons not only seem irrelevant but verge on being offensive to the extent that they treat as ordinary subjects for discussion things that should never seem ordinary.

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COMMUNISTS AND NAZIS

But a comparison of government iniquities can sometimes serve a useful purpose. During the 1930’s and 40’s two distinct tyrannies were in control of nations of Europe. The way the citizens and officials of the United States reacted to those tyrannies – the Communist and the Nazi – led to decisions on matters as important as participation in a war that cost the United States a million casualties. To evaluate the wisdom and consistency of those decisions we need to take a look at what the Soviet Union and Germany had been up to, what the people of the United States knew about their activities, and how they reacted to what they knew.

There are at least three decision points of the era that are worth taking a look at.

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1. SEPTEMBER 1939

Germany invaded Poland from the west, leading Britain and France to declare war on Germany and bring world war to Europe. Germany’s comrade-in-arms of the moment, the Soviet Union, invaded Poland from the east two weeks later, to which Britain and France made no response.

At that time Communists had been in charge of the Soviet Union for 22 years. They’d come to power by overthrowing a democratic regime that offered little resistance, after which they installed a dictatorship which managed to stay in power by prosecuting a particularly brutal civil war in which both the government forces and their opponents were guilty of many atrocities. Among the Communists’ first acts was the creation of a state police force with extraordinary powers over life and death, including the routine use of torture, usually preliminary to imprisonment or execution. In collaboration with the army, the police helped to stifle various independence and resistance movements during the Civil War, leaving the Soviet Union at the end of the conflict as the world’s largest contiguous empire, its dominion extending across many cultures, languages and religions. Starting in 1922 the government set about constructing a network of forced-labor camps in which the police were able to exercise more control over the inmates than the prison system allowed them, and which provided an inexhaustible source of captive workers for a whole host of government projects. Famine was employed as a weapon against those whose lands and crops the government sought to appropriate. The economic shortfalls that resulted from centralized control were used as an excuse to punish individuals accused of bringing them about. To render his power absolute Stalin had the police oversee a lethal purge of the Communist Party and the army, then extended the policy of intimidation by terror it depended on, to the population as a whole. Among the factions subject to harassment, imprisonment and execution were the bourgeoisie, aristocracy, landowners, entrepreneurs, clergy, peasants and members of all political parties except – and then only for while – Bolsheviks. Freedoms of speech, press, assembly, emigration and economic endeavor virtually ceased to exist, while those of local travel and religion were severely cut back.

Nazis had been in charge in Germany for six and a half years. They had come to power by having more members elected to the German parliament by the end of 1932 than any other single party, leading President Hindenburg to name their leader, Adolf Hitler, Chancellor.   Hitler took advantage of the authority he’d been given to establish a one-party dictatorship without having to resort to violence. Opposition was stifled by a police force that operated under its own laws, resorting to torture, execution and the relegation of undesirables to concentration camps. Communists were the chief political victims while the most relentlessly persecuted faction of society – people defined to be Jews under an arcane set of racial laws devised for the purpose – were dismissed from their jobs, denied educational opportunities and subjected to public disparagement. In contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, the government expanded its military capacity, moved troops into the Rhineland, occupied Austria, the German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia and then the rest of that nation, incorporating these areas into its expanding empire. Freedoms of speech, press and assembly were suppressed and others severely curtailed.

Similarities and differences

By September of 1939 the governments of the Soviet Union and Germany had come to resemble each other in many ways. There were differences worth mentioning though. Although the state police of both nations operated as laws unto themselves, the Soviet NKVD was far more pervasive, employing perhaps twenty times as many as the Gestapo‘s 20,000. The inmates of the Gulag also far exceeded those of Nazi concentration camps, the former numbering in the low millions at least, the latter around 21,000 – fewer in total than some of the larger individual installations in the Soviet Union’s array of 30,000 camps. The most severely persecuted factions in Germany were Jews and other racial groups; while the Soviet government directed its repressions against a wide variety of economic and social classes along with adherents of various political and religious creeds. Speech, press, and assembly were tightly controlled in both countries, but religion, travel and economic endeavor were allowed greater latitude in Germany. With private enterprise functioning under government control, the German economy was more productive and prosperous. The Nazis embarked on a program of expansion into adjacent, predominantly German-speaking areas, relying on the threat of their increased military capability to inhibit resistance. The Soviet Union stayed within the borders it had at the end of its Civil War, although its military capacity was initially far greater than Germany’s and its empire both larger and more diverse that what the Third Reich achieved by 1939.

(Paul R. Gregory, Terror by Quota: Security from Lenin to Stalin)

Most significant was the difference in the number of killings instigated by the two governments. The Red Terror; the Civil War; suppression of the bourgeoisie, various political, social and religious factions, and of individuals labeled “wreckers” or “kulaks“; fatalities induced by conditions in the Gulag; the famine imposed on the Ukraine; and the Great Terror were all part of the Communist legacy by this time. The number of innocent lives destroyed by the Soviet regime almost certainly already exceeded what the Nazis would bring about by the end of their relatively brief reign. Despite the persecutions, injustices and absence of freedom that characterized the Third Reich at this point, the organized death campaigns for which the Nazis would become renowned – first against the physically and mentally disabled and later against Jews and other disparaged races – had not yet begun.

When the Soviet Union and Germany concluded their non-aggression pact in August 1939, it was admirers of Communism who tended to be embarrassed by the Soviets choosing to link up with Nazis. On the basis of the atrocities that had actually been committed by the two governments at that time, however, it would have been more appropriate for admirers of National Socialism to be embarrassed by Germany’s decision to associate itself with Communists.

What people knew

It’s certainly true that casual newspaper readers in the United States in 1939 were not as aware of what had been going on in the Soviet Union as they were of Germany’s external aggressions and internal repressions; and this was due to an absolutely terrible job turned in by the journalists of the 1930’s. American reporters in the Soviet Union and their editors back home seem to have entered into a conspiracy of silence for reasons known only to themselves. An example of the prevailing press bias that has since become famous was the awarding of the Pulitizer Prize in 1932 to New York Times correspondent, Walter Duranty, for reports from Moscow in which he managed to screen his readers from knowledge of the famine being imposed on Ukrainian peasants that resulted in something like six million dead and of which Duranty later acknowledged he’d been aware. But blame for the average citizen’s lack of familiarity with Soviet misdeeds has to be shared with government officials such as Ambassador Joseph Davies and the administration he served. Residents of the American Embassy could not fail to know about the famine of 1932-33 on the one hand and fraudulence of the show trials on the other. Even less could they deny knowledge of the NKVD’s ongoing roundup of Soviet residents for torture, imprisonment and execution, since the American embassy was a center of continual appeals for help from potential victims of that endeavor.

(Tim Tzouliadis, The Forsaken)

These calculated failures to inform could hardly have been anticipated by ordinary newspaper readers and absolve the general public of blame for its ignorance. The same cannot be said of those who went out of their way to praise the Soviet government and urge support for its policies. People who have the ear of the public as a result of fame they’ve achieved in one field or another are granted an opportunity to publicize their beliefs that’s not available to the average joe. As a result, when they set out to proselytize, they incur a greater than average responsibility to know what the devil they’re talking about. Accurate sources of information did exist about what the Soviets had been up to, although it certainly was harder than it should have been to find them and to resolve their discrepancies with more conventional sources of news.

(William Henry Chamberlin, Russia’s Iron Age; Malcolm Muggeridge, Winter in Moscow and The Green Stick; Eugene Lyons, Assignment to Utopia; Robert Conquest, The Great Terror, a Reassessment)

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2. JUNE 1941

Germany did an about-face and invaded its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union, with extraordinary initial success. In desperation Stalin turned to the British for military assistance and to the United States for material aid.

In the interval since September 1939, a lot had happened in Europe. Germany had gone on from its conquest of Poland to defeat Norway and overrun Denmark, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland on the way to overcoming France in six weeks, before failing in an attempt to gain control of England‘s airspace. Frustrated in his plan to cross the Channel, Hitler turned his sights toward a target he’d always much preferred – the Soviet Union.

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In the meantime Stalin had taken advantage of his 22 month accommodation with Germany to indulge his own territorial ambitions. The Communists overran the eastern part of Poland, invaded Finland and occupied Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Moldavia. In the Soviet conquest of eastern Poland the NKVD executed over 20,000 prisoners of war, several thousand of whom were found later in a mass grave in the Katyn Forest by German occupiers. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, the allies officially attributed the massacre to the Germans until long after the war.

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Both Germany and the Soviet Union made a habit of consigning prisoners of war to forced labor under the life-destroying conditions that prevailed in the concentration camps of the two countries. The fatality rate was extremely high.

Shortly after the invasion of Poland, an ominous turn of events took place in Germany that prefigured things to come but went largely unnoticed by a world caught up in war. Influenced by eugenics notions popular with certain factions in the United States, Hitler signed a decree authorizing that patients who “are considered incurable, can be granted mercy death.” This allowed doctors to end the lives of patients they viewed as unworthy of life because of mental or physical deficiencies. Although the policy was rescinded in August 1941 in response to moral objections, it continued to be observed unoffically and ultimately resulted in the deaths of somewhere around 100,000 helpless inhabitants of hospitals and other institutions.  

Although these killings were treated as crimes against humanity at the Nuremberg trials in 1946 and of sufficient gravity to warrant executing doctors responsible for them, deeds of a similar nature no longer scandalize members of the prevailing culture of Europe and the Americas as they did then and as the extermination of racial groups continues to do. As it turns out, the notion that some lives are not worth living was revived after the period of disfavor it went through as a result of being associated with Nazis. Individuals with physical or mental imperfections can be killed without qualm in the United States as long as it’s done early enough in their development to fall under the mantle of “abortion rights“, while hospital ethics committees legally approve elimination of the old and infirm by methods as excruciating as the denial of food and water under the pretext of affording the subjects “death with dignity“.

Even for those officials of the United States and Great Britain who were aware of Germany’s resorting to legalized euthanasia to get rid of its unproductive members, in deciding which nations to help, which to ignore, and which to oppose, as late as June 1941 they would have found the record of past atrocities was still far greater for the Communists than for the Nazis.

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3. MAY 1945

Germany surrenders to the Allies, leaving Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union to decide how to deal with their defeated enemies and rework the face of Europe.

The most riveting occurrence that took place between June 1941 and May 1945 – discovered by the Allies at the end of that period – was the program of human extermination carried out by the Germans from the beginning of 1942 to the end of the war, that brought about the deaths of six million Jews along with a somewhat smaller number of gypsies and other factions regarded by Nazis as undesirable. As one of history’s most extravagant and calculated examples of mass murder, it put Hitler’s regime firmly into the category of governments so irredeemably perverse as to render comparison with other agents of mass murder beside the point.

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Shortly after being invaded by the German army, the Soviet Union set about rounding up its residents of German descent and deporting them to remote areas of Siberia and Kazakhstan which were unprepared to receive the influx. The entire population of the Volga German Republic – one of the most prosperous parts of the nation – along with ethnic Germans from other regions were forced from their homes, loaded into freight cars, and transported under health-destroying conditions to places where at best they could hope to survive in dire poverty. Over a million individuals were relocated. The number that survived the trip and the difficulties of restarting life in unreceptive lands is not known.

This action of the Soviet Union prefigured the brutality with which the occupying powers would relocate Europeans of German descent after World War II.

One of history’s greatest tyrannies had been undone, its cities reduced to rubble and its people to destitution. A similar tyranny wound up on the victorious side that was not only still in control of its own destiny but of that of much of Europe.

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Afterward

The conclusion of the Second World War and the fate of the Nazis did nothing to redeem or reform the Communists. A few examples.

The British, French and Americans rounded up all the former residents of the Soviet Union they found in their zones of occupation: prisoners of war along with those who’d fled westward to escape the devastations of war or the tyranny and poverty that characterized their nation. In line with an agreement reached at Yalta in February 1945, these captives were turned over to Soviet officials for repatriation. Realizing what was in store for them, most resisted, some committed suicide. Something on the order of two million people were put onto freight cars at gunpoint and sent back to the country of their origin, with the majority of those who survived winding up in the Gulag. This action by the victorious forces came to be known as Operation Keelhaul.

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In all the countries they occupied at the end of the war the Soviets managed to bring about the accession of regimes similar to the dictatorship that ran their own country.

In January of 1953 Soviet newspapers announced the arrest of nine doctors, six of them Jews, charged with poisoning government officials years earlier. This was merely the latest publicized incident in a series of a political stratagems engineered by Stalin dating back to 1948. It came to be known as the Doctor’s Plot and seemed to presage additional accusations, trials and executions of the sort that had been associated with the purge of the late 1930’s. The endeavor was cut short by Stalin’s death two months later, but it remains of interest in exhibiting Stalin’s sympathy for attitudes usually associated with Nazis since the officially promoted line on the matter depended heavily on allegations of a Jewish conspiracy.

With the forced repatriation of former Soviet residents from western Europe, continued repressions typified the Doctors’ Plot, and post-war conditions that led to thievery in order to survive, the population of the Gulag attained an all-time peak in the early 1950’s.

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No excuses

Communists and Nazis. What can we say about the two systems of government without fear of contradiction? They were similar; they were different; they were terrible. Deciding which was worse isn’t of consequence, but what is important is acknowledging that admirers of Communism had no more basis for enthusiasm than admirers of Nazism.   Casual readers of the news back then who took on faith whatever journalists and political commentators told them, can be excused for their initial ignorance.  By 1939 though enough information had made its way into print that for all but the most determinedly uninformed that excuse had been exhausted.

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Infamy quiz

Infamy

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Dec 8, 1941 Sept 12, 2001 Jan 23, 1973

On which of the following days were approximately 3000 U.S. residents killed in acts of aggression?

a. December 7, 1941

b. September 11, 2001

c. On average, every day of every year for the last 44 years

d. All of the above

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 Adolph Hitler Josef Stalin Harry Blackmun

Which of the following governments facilitated the death of 6 million of its own people?

a. The Third Reich from 1941 to 1945.

b. The Soviet Union from 1932 to 1933.

c. The United States every 6 years starting in 1973.

d. All of the above

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swastika Hammer and sickle NARAL logo

Which of the following resulted in the greatest loss of innocent human life?

a. The Holocaust, 1941 to 1945

b. The Gulag Archipelago, 1923 to 1987

c. The Great Leap Forward, 1958 to 1962

d. The Roe v. Wade decision, 1973 to the present

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Answers? The most inclusive and accurate for all three  is d.

Why these answers may seem surprising is that, contrary to current convention, abortions are included here along with all the other ways of killing people. The very young, very little and very dependent are given the same importance as the very old, very infirm, very ignorant, very obnoxious, very insane and very anything else. If we’re all created equal, then every child has the same value as you and I, before birth or after, the same value, for that matter, as an ensign drowned on the Arizona, an executive crushed at the World Trade Center, a Krakow Jew gassed at Auschwitz, an Odessa kulak frozen at Kolyma or a Szechuan farmer starved while tending his backyard steel furnace.  What slavers did to Negroes and Nazis to Jews was treat them as less than the human beings they certainly were, but no more certainly than children are in their mothers’ wombs. The family of man includes every individual, living, human being. Nobody gets left out because of irrelevant details like color, race, age, size, ability or belief.

The legal killings that have been going on in the United States (and lots of other places) for the last 44 years are as worthy of our awareness as all the other infamies cited above, most of which have been made far more familiar by history books.

Victims change with fashions in thought.

Infamy persists.

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The View from Mars

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A bum rap: Pontius Pilate

A bum rap?

What would you call it?

Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea when Jesus was arrested in Jerusalem.

MarkHere’s how Mark described what happened. ..the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate questioned Jesus about the charges that had been made against him, but Jesus refused to offer any defense; so Pilate went back to the chief priests and asked, “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” “Crucify him!” they shouted.” Even though Jesus had made no attempt to exonerate himself, Pilate viewed the accusations against him as groundless. “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

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Matthew

Matthew adds the following: When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!”

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LukeLuke tells us that Pilate sent Jesus to see Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee, who happened to be in Jerusalem at the time. A “tetrarch” was a local ruler allowed to govern under limits imposed by the Roman occupation; and Galilee was Jesus’ home region. Jesus didn’t defend himself to Herod any more than he had to Pilate though, so after letting his soldiers mock Jesus, Herod sent him back to Pilate. Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.” But the whole crowd shouted, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.) Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”   For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed.

 

JohnJohn provides more details of Pilate’s conversations with the accusers and the accused: So Pilate came out to them and asked,”What charges are you bringing against this man?” “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said,”‘Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” “But we have no right to execute anyone,” they objected. After questioning the prisoner further, Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying,”Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face. Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted,”Crucify! Crucify!” But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.” The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do You come from?” he asked Jesus,but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said.”Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon. “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted,”Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!”   “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

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Munkacsy-Christ Before Pilate

What stands out in all this is, first of all, the strength of Pilate’s conviction that Jesus was innocent, and, secondly, the extent of the efforts he was willing to make to bring the chief priests and elders around to his way of thinking, including washing his hands in front of them in an attempt to shame them into accepting his conclusion, and showing them that having Jesus flogged and crowned with thorns was punishment enough.  As it turned out, the Jewish authorities remained unconvinced.  Since they needed the governor’s approval to execute Jesus, Pilate could simply have asserted his authority and denied them the ability to proceed.  In line with what he’d probably become accustomed to doing in matters that were primarily of concern to his Jewish subjects, however, he did what critics of imperialism would ordinarily have applauded: he made his case to the local authorities as strongly as he was able but accepted their judgment as conclusive.  It was after all, a religious matter about which he, as a Roman outsider, could claim less competence than virtually anything else he might be asked to rule on.

For this act of deference to Jewish law Pilate continues to be remembered on every one of the million occasions each day that a Christian recites the creed: “Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, … was crucified under Pontius Pilate…”

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Forgive us our trespasses

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Nostalgia: Cadillacs and Penguins

click on a picture to enlarge it and see its title

Zenith radio

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Having a good time

It was all so simple.   You’d turn the dial till you came to something you liked, and then you’d stop and listen   Maybe it’d be The Cadillacs doing Speedoo.

Speedoo

Bum bum bum ba pa, doodley

Bum bum bum ba pa, doodley

Well, now, they often call me Speedoo

But my real name is Mister Earl

mm-mm-mm-mm

Well, now, they often call me Speedoo

But my real name is Mister Earl

mm-mm-mm-mm

All for meetin’ brand new fellas

And for takin’ other folks’s girl

mm-mm-mm-mm

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Or maybe it’d be The PenguinsEarth Angel.

Earth Angel

Earth angel, earth angel

Will you be mine?

My darling dear

Love you all the time

I’m just a fool

A fool in love with you

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There were plenty of stations to pick from and almost too many tunes to keep track of, some of which got called rock and roll and some of which didn’t. Who could say why? Who cared?   You might’ve stopped at Fats Domino‘s Ain’t That a Shame or Little Richard‘s Tutti Frutti. Or you might’ve kept going till you got to Pat Boone‘s version of either one. On the other hand you might’ve taken a liking to Tennessee Ernie‘s Sixteen Tons or Webb Pierce‘s In the Jailhouse Now. Maybe it was The Crew-CutsSh-Boom you liked. Whatever sounded good to you, WAS good. That’s as much thought as it took.

The problem – if you could call it that – was the choices. If you were listening to Eddy Arnold‘s Cattle Call on the country station you’d be missing Frankie Lymon‘s Why Do Fools Fall in Love further down the dial. You could’ve picked Joe Turner‘s Shake, Rattle and Roll, but maybe you liked Bill Haley‘s better. Joe could probably get you back with Corrine, Corrina, but Bill could counter with Burn That Candle. There were The Turbans, of course, and When You Dance, The PlattersOnly You, Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally, The DiamondsLittle Darlin‘.  The El Dorados had Crazy Little Mama and I’ll Be Forever Loving You.  Chuck Berry followed Maybellene with Roll Over Beethoven. And Fats was never one to be outdone. I’m in Love Again this month, Blueberry Hill the next.

The Cadillacs  The Penguins

Bill Haley  Chuck Berry  Pat Boone

It was teenagers doing the picking, of course, teenagers and kids. And what do kids know? How to turn a radio on maybe, change stations, and buy records. That’s about it. But look, hadn’t they made a star out of Frank Sinatra a few years earlier? And weren’t they doing the same thing now for Bill Haley and Chuck Berry? Next year they’d latch onto Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, and after that it’d be Jan and Dean and The Beachboys. Then The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Like I say, what the devil do kids know?

Giving it meaning

You don’t have to have been there. You can like any kind of music you want to without having seen it invented. But it does help, and you know why? If you were there, you’d have the sense not to pay attention to all the sociological nonsense that got dumped on the proceedings later on. By grownups, I mean, when they took it over.   You know what I’m talking about: all that bushwah about what race the performers were, or how blue-nosed everybody’s parents were, and even (please not again!) how Elvis got photographed from the waist up.

That’s the kind of thing that got into the newspapers then and history books later because of the way grownups conventionalized that period in the same way they insist on conventionalizing everything that comes along. Every change has to have its reason; every movement its meaning. How else can you make sense of something as complicated as half a billion individuals deciding how they’re going to spend their time and money? Put a bunch of experts onto it and let ’em categorize, analyze and criticize to their hearts’ content. That’s how you turn an exercise in personal taste into a cultural phenomenon. Well, isn’t it?

Going big-time

Here’s some of what I’m talking about. In 1961 the grammy awards added a category for “rock and roll”. In 1965 Bob Dylan made it respectable when he traded in what was left of Woody‘s legacy for electric guitars, drums and some new duds.

Bringing It All Back Home

By1967 rock had it’s own magazine, so just in case you didn’t know what the best songs were and who’d sung ’em, from now on there’d be somebody to tell you.

Rolling Stone #1

And not only that, if you didn’t know what kind of politics rock and roll fans were supposed to have, they’d tell you that too.

Even Peter Paul and Mary got around to digging rock and roll – admittedly with a dose of irony thrown in. By 1983 rock had its own “Hall of Fame”. Now how much more established can anything get than that?

String quartet #14  Tutti Frutti

Barely a step from Beethoven’s late quartets.

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What was there left to achieve?   How about government endorsement?   In the United States tax-subsidized TV stations are part of a network called PBS – “Prescribed Belief System” I think it stands for. I happened to tune in a broadcast of an old rock and roll documentary recently. Where do you suppose I came across a thing like that on TV these days? PBS, of course. Where the heck else would it be?

Capturing time in amber

The film was called The Last Waltz. That’s the name The Band gave to the farewell performance they put on in San Francisco in 1976. Even by that time rock and roll had been around long enough to accumulate what seemed like a surfeit of elder statesmen. The Band‘s five members qualified, of course, along with a bunch of other big timers that came by to help them close things out: Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Neil Young, Neil Diamond, Paul Butterfield … and some more.

The Last Waltz

What struck me was how many of the guys involved were still trying so hard to sound as if they’d been born in a tarpaper shack 20 miles south of Memphis, you could hardly understand one word out of every three they sang. In spite of the fact that they’d come from places like England, Ireland, Canada, Chicago and New York. Except the one guy who had been born 20 miles from Memphis.   He didn’t have anything to prove, so you could understand every word he said.

What put the capper on the night’s festivities was when The Band‘s long-time collaborator, Bob Dylan, came out of the wings in his new chapeau and helped wrap things up.

Bob Dylan-The Last Waltz

And get this: Martin Scorsese was on hand to put the whole thing on film. Not only that, he coaxed Robbie Robertson and his fellow Bandsmen into giving us the lowdown on what it’s like to retire from the road – after 16 years of nothing but rock and roll, one darn night after the other. The message was loud and clear. Rock and roll was a meaningful endeavor if ever there was one, not something you’d want to leave in the hands of a bunch of wheyfaced adolescents.

Coming full circle

Actually I’d seen The Last Waltz before, and somehow it’d been fresher the first time around.   I think maybe it was Neil Young‘s performance that put the idea into my head; or was it Lawrence Ferlinghetti?   Anyway I didn’t feel like sitting through the entire show again. So what do you think I did? I turned off the TV and got out my old copy of Speedoo, put it on the turntable and gave it a whirl. You know, you’d be amazed.   In spite of all the surface noise that disk’d picked up over the years, you could still understand everything The Cadillacs said.

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Nostalgia: Sid and Frank

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Nostalgia: the Opry

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Nostalgia: Al and Zoot

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Unsung heroics: Jeannette Rankin

The courage to stand against the tide

Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin was elected to the House of Representatives as a Republican from Montana in 1916, taking office in March 1917. A month later she was one of only 50 members of the House who voted “no” on Democratic President Woodrow Wilson’s request for a declaration of war against Germany. The resolution carried overwhelmingly, however, 82 to 6 in the Senate, 373 to 50 in the House.

Rankin held her congressional seat for only one two-year term, but she was re-elected to the House 24 years later in 1940. Again she served only one term, but it happened to include December 8, 1941 when Democratic President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress for a declaration of war against Japan.

With the attack on Pearl Harbor having occurred just the day before, Roosevelt felt he had Congress firmly in his pocket. And he did — with one exception. The vote in favor of war was 82 to 0 in the Senate. In the House it was 388 to 1.

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388 to … 1?!

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Now who do you suppose voted “no”?

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the biggest lie

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War is hell… or is it?

You can learn a lot about people by watching old movies. Mostly, I mean, about the ideas that were in fashion when the movies were made and that led the people of the time into doing what they did. Fashions change, but once a thing’s on film, it stays like it was.

Take war for example. Given what it leads to, most of us take for granted it’s something to avoid, and we object when government officials or other influential people try to push us into one. But sometimes … well sometimes the exact opposite is true. And the funny thing is, nobody seems much struck by the how quickly the reversals come about and how complete they can be.

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Erich Maria Remarque got All Quiet on the Western Front published in 1928, ten years after the end of the First World War.   It was a success as a novel, and Hollywood turned it into movie a couple of years later.

All Quiet poster

Lew Ayres plays a German teenager named Paul Baumer. When war comes, his teacher – representing a generation who’d wind up cheering from the sidelines – dramatically urges his students to go out and fight for their country.

Teacher exhorts class

Paul and his friends take the teacher’s advice and sign up, but they find life in the trenches a lot different from what they’d been led to expect. When Paul comes home on leave a few years later he happens by the school where the teacher, Professor Kantorek, is telling the next crop of students the same things he’d told Paul’s class. He invites Paul to tell the boys what it’s like to serve in the army.

Kantorek: … Paul, lad, you must speak to them. You must tell them what it means to serve your fatherland.

Paul: No, no, I can’t tell them anything.

Kantorek: You must, Paul. Just a word. Just tell them how much they’re needed out there. Tell them why you went, and what it meant to you. …

Paul to class 

Paul: I can’t tell you anything you don’t know. We live in the trenches out there, we fight, we try not to be killed; and sometimes we are. That’s all.

Kantorek: No, no Paul!

Paul to Kantorek

Paul: I’ve been there! I know what it’s like! …

I heard you in here, reciting that same old stuff. Making more iron men, more young heroes. You still think it’s beautiful and sweet to die for your country, don’t you?   We used to think you knew. The first bombardment taught us better. It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country it’s better not to die at all! There are millions out there dying for their countries, and what good is it? …

You asked me to tell them how much they’re needed out there. [to the class] He tells you, “Go out and die!” Oh, but if you’ll pardon me, it’s easier to say go out and die than it is to do it! And it’s easier to say it, than to watch it happen! …

We’ve no use talking like this. You won’t know what I mean. Only, it’s been a long while since we enlisted out of this classroom. So long, I thought maybe the whole world had learned by this time. Only now they’re sending babies, and they won’t last a week! I shouldn’t have come on leave. Up at the front you’re alive or you’re dead and that’s all. You can’t fool anybody about that very long. And up there we know we’re lost and done for whether we’re dead or alive. Three years we’ve had of it, four years! And every day a year, and every night a century! And our bodies are earth, and our thoughts are clay, and we sleep and eat with death! And we’re done for because you can’t live that way and keep anything inside you! I shouldn’t have come on leave. I’ll go back tomorrow. I’ve got four days more, but I can’t stand it here! I’ll go back tomorrow! I’m sorry.

Paul’s point of view – and Remarque’s? There’s nothing subtle or obscure about it. War is terrible and purposeless. Don’t listen to people in authority when they try to get you to fight in the wars they start. If you can find a way to stay out of them, by all means do so.

The novel and the movie were great successes.   The world applauded the message they presented. Paul had put into words the wisdom of his time.

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In spite of all that, another war got fought less than a generation after the one Paul had been involved in, in a lot of the same places. Its consequences were even more devastating and its outcome even more dubious.

So, what would you expect a repetition-of-history of that kind to lead to? Among other things, another movie. In 1946, just sixteen years after All Quiet on the Western Front had been released to almost universal approval, another film came out of Hollywood that dealt with men returning from war to the places where they’d grown up and encountering the people who’d stayed home while they were getting shot at.   It was called The Best Years of Our Lives, based on a novel by MacKinlay Kantor with a screenplay by Robert Sherwood.

Best Years poster

The story centers on three returning servicemen: Fred, Homer, and Al, played respectively by Dana Andrews, Harold Russell, and Frederic March.

Fred, Homer, Al

Fred, we learn, has to endure terrible nightmares as a result of his experiences as a bombardier. But of the three men, it’s Homer who’s suffered the most. Both of his hands had to amputated and replaced with mechanical hooks.

Fred's nightmare  Homer's hands

Given consequences of that magnitude, you might think the film would take an even dimmer view of soldiering than the one Remarque had had Paul Baumer express; and that it would promote even more strongly resistance to those who push young men into the military conflicts that they’ve initiated.

If that’s what you’d have thought, you couldn’t have been more wrong. In spite of the plaudits All Quiet had been awarded for its unblinking stand against war in general, the war that followed it was not only the most destructive in human history but probably the most popular one the United States has ever been involved in. If you’d found that surprising back then, you might have been led to point out that there were still plenty of people around who’d seen All Quiet on the Western Front and had sympathized with what it said.   In fairness to those individuals at least, the new movie couldn’t just dismiss the point of view they’d committed themselves to so strongly.

Once again, if that’s what you’d have thought, you’d have been wrong. It’s true that Paul’s point of view does get presented in The Best Years of Our lives, but in a way that … well, let me give you the details. See what you think.

Jobs are scarce so Fred has to accept a position at the drugstore where he’d worked before the war. He’s manning the soda fountain one evening when Homer stops in and orders a sundae. There’s another customer at the counter, a man named Mollett.   He has an enameled American flag pin in his lapel and he’s reading a newspaper whose headline is: “SENATOR WARNS OF NEW WAR”.   He strikes up a conversation with Homer in which Homer makes light of the problems of having mechanical hands.

Mollett: You got plenty of guts. It’s terrible when you see a guy like you that had to sacrifice himself – and for what?!!

Homer: “And for what?” – I don’t get you, mister. …

Mollett: Well, we let ourselves get sold down the river. We got pushed into war…

Homer: Sure – by the Japs and the Nazis, so we –

Mollett: – the Japs and the Germans had nothing against us. They just wanted to fight the Limeys and the Reds – and they’d have whipped them, too – if we didn’t get deceived into it by a bunch of radicals in Washington.

Homer: What are you talking about?

Mollett: We fought the wrong people, that’s all. Read the facts, my friend. [he points to his newspaper] Find out for yourself why you had to lose your hands – and then go out and do something about it.

Fred [interposing – to Mollett]: You’d better pay your check, brother, and go home.

Mollett: Say!   Who do you think you are –

Fred: You pay the cashier over there.

Mollett [to Homer]: And there’s another thing! Every soda jerk in this country has got the idea that he’s somebody!

Mollett heads toward the cashier. Homer follows him, comes up from behind and pokes him in the shoulder. Mollett turns.

Homer confronts Mollett

Homer: Look here, mister – what are you selling, anyway?

Mollett: I’m not selling anything – except plain, old-fashioned, Americanism –

Homer: Some Americanism! So we’re all a bunch of suckers, eh? So we should have been on the side of the Japs and Germans, eh?

Mollett: Again I say – just look at the facts.

Homer [keeps tapping Mollett on the chest]: I’ve seen a couple of facts. I saw a ship go down and over eight-hundred of my shipmates went with it. Were those guys suckers?

Mollett: That’s the unpleasant truth – and the sooner we get wise to it –

Homer: If I only had hands – I’d – [He rips the pin off Mollett’s lapel and throws it on the floor. Mollett grabs Homer’s arm.] Let go of me, you – [Homer pushes Mollett backward]

Fred [vaults over the counter and confronts Mollett]: Take your hands off him.

Fred intervenes

Fred slugs Mollett so hard that the latter falls backward into a glass display case, shattering the whole case and leaving Mollett unconscious. The store manager has come over in the meantime and manages to bring Mollett around.

Fred [to the manager]: Don’t say it, chum. The customer is always right. So I’m fired. But this customer was not right. [to Homer] I’ll meet you outside, kid.

Fred leaves.   Homer bends down, picks Mollett’s enameled flag pin off the floor and sticks it in his own lapel.

Homer and Fred walk alongside each other on the sidewalk outside.

Homer: Gee – I’m sorry, Fred. I lost you your job. But that guy –

Fred: I know. I caught some of his conversation. You read about people like that, but you seldom see ’em, luckily.

Okay, what do you think? Do the makers of this movie want you to seriously consider Mollett’s point of view? About as seriously, I’d guess, as the makers of All Quiet wanted you to consider Kantorek’s. But whatever deficiencies of tact and verbal expression their authors may have imposed on these two guys, Kantorek was clearly an intellectual ally of Homer and Fred, and Mollett was an ally of Paul.

question mark

 

So where does that leave us, the audience of these films? The next time somebody ventures the opinion that politicians and people in authority got the country into a war it had no business being in, and lots of innocent kids suffered and died as a result, what are we supposed to do: thumb our noses at the officials for what they did to the kids, or knock the guy flat who had the nerve to even suggest such a thing?

 

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The biggest lie

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What’s in a name? appeaser

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Muddled minds: Albert Einstein

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Muddled minds: Bertrand Russell

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A Just War

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California Man

EVOLUTION IN ACTION

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Neanderthal Man

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California Man

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Functions served by Californian adaptations

 1.  Helmet insulates brain against external stimuli

 2.  Smart phone provides link to similarly evolved hominids

 3. Water bottle hydrates without risk of contaminants

 4. Poop bags exhibit moral sensitivity

 5. Cloth bag manifests spiritual awareness

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California cuisine: my review

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The sky is falling, the nation responds

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Time and its traces: singers 2

Popular singers 2

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Edith Piaf young Edith Piaf old

Edith Piaf, 1915 – 1963

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Amalia Rodrigues young Amalia Rodrigues old

Amalia Rodrigues, 1920 – 1999

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Judy Garland young Judy Garland old

Judy Garland, 1922 – 1969

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Doris Day young Doris Day old

Doris Day, 1924 – 2019

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Eydie Gorme young Eydie Gorme old

Eydie Gorme, 1928 – 2013

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Joan Baez young 1