Democracy and tyranny

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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 there has to be more to it than that since votes 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.

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 rather than 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 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 than a political philosophy, 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

click on a picture to enlarge it

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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

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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