Monday, December 31, 2012

Defcon 2

According to Stone, there was never a more precipitous time during the Cold War than during the Kennedy administration.  Not that he holds Kennedy personally responsible for it.  He thrusts most of the blame on the  Joint Chiefs of Staff, notably Gen. Curtis LeMay, for creating this highly volatile time.  The JCS ordered the military to Defcon 3 during the Cuban Missile Crisis, with over 25,000 troops deployed in Southern Florida and fighter jobs hovering low over Havana.  ICBM sites were at Defcon 4, but the country wasn't made aware of this, and remained on Defcon 2.  Indeed, we did seem on the eve of destruction.

Interestingly enough, Stone gives most of the credit to Khrushchev, not Kennedy, for defusing the situation, and notes a stray Soviet nuclear sub that had ventured through the Cuban "quarantine" and was rocked by depth charges.  He credits Vasili Arkhipov for having cautioned the commanding officer of the B-59 sub from unleashing the warheads on board, and saving the world from an almost certain nuclear war.  This sounds like one of those apocryphal stories the Soviets would invent to create a hero in the situation, but it has been picked up by numerous news sources and was the subject of a PBS production, The Man Who Saved the World.

Unfortunately, comments like these undermine what was otherwise a very good Episode 6.  Stone is not content to point to all the misconduct by the United States which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, he feels it was Kennedy's blunders that almost unleashed a nuclear Armageddon, and once again the Soviets save the day, only for Khrushchev to suffer the wrath of Moscow hardliners and be ousted from office.  Much of the correspondence Stone cites seems to come from the former premier's memoirs, Khrushchev Remembers, which was translated and published in the US in 1970.

Ollie give the impression that Kennedy had fallen prey to the Joint Chiefs of Staff panic-mongering, and it was only in his last months of 1963 that Kennedy began to understand that the Communist threat was not so severe and was prepared to embark on a new road, formalized by the signing of a Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in October, 1963.  It was this spirit of reconciliation which Stone feels inspired renewed worries among the conservative guard in the Democratic Party that Kennedy was too much a liberal to be leading the country during such a dangerous time.

Stone also points to interviews with Robert Kennedy and other members of JFK's cabinet who said Kennedy actually had a withdrawal plan for Vietnam set to begin when his re-election was assured.  Sadly, that day would never come and Stone sees Johnson's ascension to the presidency as the return of the old guard, much like Truman's rise in 1945.  The Gulf on Tonkin incident occurred in 1964, so we can only guess how Kennedy would have reacted to it.

Much of this is speculation.  It was only with the release of KGB files in the early 1990s that we learned that the Soviet Union didn't have as large a nuclear arsenal as many perceived in the late 50s and early 60s.  Whether the US military purposely beefed up the numbers to push Congress for more nuclear appropriations is debatable.  Certainly, the Soviets liked to project they had more weapons than they actually had as nuclear brinksmanship had become the order of the day.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Hidden War

In Episode Five, Stone explores the Eisenhower administration, although he uses a number of flashbacks and flashforwards to explain where his decisions came from and what they resulted in, such as the "blowback" from the CIA sponsored coup of the Mosaddegh government in Iran in 1953.  This seemed more an extension of the Truman Doctrine as carried forward by George Foster Dulles, Eisenhower's Secretary of State, who Stone snidely notes was a protegee of James Forrestal.  It seems that Eisenhower not only gave his chief cabinet members wide latitude, but his top military leaders as well.  All this, Stone says, allowed Eisenhower to essentially conduct hidden wars.

On the surface, Eisenhower appeared as the great statesman, even forging ties with the new Indian government in the wake of their independence from Great Britain.  However Nehru, like many of the emerging world leaders, was suspect of Eisenhower's true intentions, and according to Stone had good reason to be.  Ike was a convert to the the strategy of limited nuclear war, and the concept of "Brinksmanship" arose during his administration, where Dulles and others repeatedly threatened the use of nuclear weapons to beat back advances by the Soviet Union and China.

Stone is on much firmer ground in this episode, as much of what he presents has been the subject of numerous Cold War accounts.  There isn't much that is new here.  But, he does offer a compelling chain of events that resulted in the US squandering the good will of the world, as its covert activities were felt around the world.

Yet, Stone still portrays the Soviet Union and China as misunderstood nations.  After the death of Stalin, he points to Khrushchev's attempts to "reach out" to the US and later visit the country in 1959.  Stone mentions the de-Stalinization efforts that took place in the USSR, which he felt represented a potential turning point in American-Soviet relations.  But, Ike was apparently slow to react, and when Cuba fell in a bloody revolution, Eisehower thought the "domino principle" may very well take place in the Americas, and was having none of it.

Stone also scolds Eisenhower for not reining in bully boys like Joe McCarthy, who helped stir up the anti-communist hysteria in America, which of course Ollie feels was entirely unjustified.  What surprised me was that not once did Stone mention Adlai Stevenson, who ran against Eisenhower twice. Stone had spent so much time on Henry Wallace in the preceding episodes, that you would think Stevenson would be the ideal foil in this episode.  Instead, he chooses Marshall, also America's Cold War alter-ego, a man who had softens his position considerably against the Soviet Union, and now advocated tolerance and nuclear disarmament.

Stone points to the proxy wars taking place around the world and how the new leaders of the emerging "developing countries" got together in Java in the mid 50s for the Bandung Conference -- an attempt to figure out how best to combat American aggression.  Nehru was there, as was Ho Chi Minh, Nasser of Egypt, and China's new premier, Zhou Enlai.  Apparently, all they succeeded in doing was making themselves targets for the CIA, as an attempt was made to blow up Zhou's plane, apparently by Taiwanese subversives, on his way home from Jakarta.

Such was the political climate in the golden 50s, yet Eisenhower somehow managed to project a face of calm and certainty, belied only by his farewell address in 1961 where he questioned the growing military-industrial complex in America.  Stone viewed this televised speech as a form of absolution, as Eisenhower had presided over an unprecedented arms build-up, which saw a 22-fold increase in nuclear weapons, not to mention the massive infrastructure that was built to support these warheads that were positioned all over the world.

To make matters worse, Eisenhower had apparently divested himself of the sole authority to launch these weapons, signing a resolution that allowed leading military figures to make this decision if cut off from the President during a crisis situation.  This became the subject of Kubrick's black comedy, Dr. Strangelove, from which he shows a clip of Gen. Turgidson noting the resolution the President had signed.

Of course, this is a highly condensed and highly stylized episode that literally portrays Eisenhower as Jim Anderson from Father Knows Best, who successfully was able to keep Americans oblivious of the notorious events the US was involved in around the world while they enjoyed their post-war prosperity.  It probably would have been better to reference Arthur Miller's All My Sons, which more pointedly examined the lies a good father covers up, presumably to protect his family, and is forced to admit his shortcomings.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Burn, Burn, Burn

Some books are better left alone, and that certainly was the case with On the Road.  After so many years in waiting, I expected something strong from Francis Ford Coppola and Walter Salles, but instead the movie is little more than a chronicle with way too many melodramatic scenes that capture neither the body nor the spirit of Kerouac's classic novel.

The long scroll version came out a few years ago, thanks to Jim Irsay, who bought the scroll and sent it on the road, starting with Boott Cotton Mills in Lowell, Massachusetts.  I suppose he had to cover the hefty price tag that came with his purchase, but for most it was a rare glimpse of this magical scroll.

I was working on Boott Mills in the 80s, during my first stint with the National Park Service, and tried to save a late 19th century reinforced concrete storage building, which was part of the sprawling complex.  Kerouac apparently liked to hang out in it as a kid.  He mentions Boott Mills in The Town and the City.  Unfortunately, the building was razed and a memorial park made in his honor.

The story too seemed flattened in this film, reduced to vignettes underscored by be-bop numbers, like a set of melancholy music videos for a generation raised on MTV.  I supposed that's the way it goes in this day and age, but Walter Salles had given us so much more in Che Guevera's Motorcycle Diaries.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Red Peril

In Stone's Fourth Episode on the origins of the Cold War, he states that Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech in Fulton, Missouri was a "quantum leap in belligerence toward the Soviet Union," although what Stone clips from that speech Churchill was spot on.  The Soviet Union did indeed "desire the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines."  Yet, Stone sees the Cold War having been started by the US and Great Britain in an effort to maintain English-speaking control of the world.

Once again we hear from Henry Wallace, as he spoke out in New York for a "middle way," which according to Stone "deeply embarrassed" the Truman administration.  Byrnes supposedly told Truman that either he or Wallace had to go.  After some deliberation, Truman "fired" Wallace.  Interesting, because in the previous episode Stone stated that Wallace resigned from the administration.  Whichever the case, Wallace was definitely a thorn in the side of Truman, and would serve his progressive interests better by going it alone.

Stone states that the US assumed global leadership with the support it gave Greek and Turkish autocratic governments in 1946-47, ultimately leading to the notorious Truman Doctrine, which greatly expanded the reach of the Monroe Doctrine.  After a heated Congressional debate, money poured into Greece and Turkey to support the government forces against the communist uprisings, which Stone clearly sees as heroic struggles, recalling the Spanish Civil War.

Ollie seems to take the tone of 1940 liberals who still had an idyllic view of Communism, noting the blacklisting that occurred in Hollywood and other attempts to ferret "communists" out of America.  He notes Reagan, Mayer and Disney's complicity in these efforts.  Surprised he didn't mention Elia Kazan as well.  Granted, this was very much a black mark in American history, but I think these efforts had more to do with breaking down the growing strength of the screen guilds, which threatened the control studio executives had over the film industry.  The "red peril" was simply a convenient excuse.  But, Stone prefers not to look very deeply into these labor disputes, rather he presents it all as part and parcel of a grand conspiracy scheme to make the Soviet Union into the "Evil Empire."

The techniques which Stone describes the CIA using to ensure pro-democratic governments in Western Europe were exactly the same as those the KGB used to ensure pro-communist governments in Eastern Europe.  Yet, Stone clearly portrays the US as the bully, using the Marshall Aid Plan to make a "satellite" of Germany, which upset Stalin, who feared the resurgence of this bitter enemy.  Stone portrays the suppression of Czechoslovakia as a direct reprisal to the Marshall Plan, which he sees as little more than a money laundering operation for oil companies.

It seems that Stone will save the growing tensions in Asia and the Pacific rim for the subsequent episode, although he mentions the fall of China and North Korea to communism, greatly agitating Americans, and adding to the anti-communist hysteria.

Throughout, Stone presents Wallace as the champion of the common man, and in a rather amazing leap of imagination sees Wallace's candidacy as helping Truman stage his major upset in 1948, as Wallace forced Truman to make civil rights an issue, which brought more Democrats out of the fold on election day.  One can only speculate what turned the vote on election day, as Dewey seemed to have victory assured, yet lost by a substantial margin.  My guess is spotty political polls.

Wallace had warned against a Cold War, but Stone says Truman's "deliberate exaggeration of the communist threat both overseas and at home" and was now "signaling fear and aggression."  This Stone believes is what led to the Soviet Union's expansion into Eastern Europe, essentially creating a bulwark against potential American and British aggression through NATO.

Of course, this is the way the Soviet Union long portrayed its entrenchment in Eastern Europe.  Stalin and subsequent Soviet premiers always saw their actions as reactionary, as though it needed this line of "defense."  I suppose one can sympathize given the French and German invasions of the 19th and 20th centuries if one didn't live in Eastern Europe, but the USSR wanted nothing less than to recreate the Tsarist Russian boundaries, fudging a little bit to give it extra space.  Eastern Europe once again found itself caught in the middle.

One can certainly argue that had we established a policy of engagement with the Soviet Union there might have been more accommodation on both sides and not the divided Europe we saw come out of World War II.  Lurking in the subtext is a liberal "lost cause," the belief that had Wallace been the Vice-President instead of Truman, we would have had a radically different alternative history.  Ollie holds up his liberal hero as a power sharer, willing to accommodate the Soviet Union and other nations seemingly antithetical to US interests.  Yet, it appeared that Wallace suffered from a credibility gap, which might explain why he received only 3% of the vote.

One more round

Good ol' Boxing Day, as the Brits' call it.  A day in which the servants were rewarded with a day off, after having tended to their masters' family the whole day.  Today, most of us find ourselves recovering from indigestion, a sugar hangover, too much drinking or all of the above.  Originally, this was the Feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr, which dates back to the fourth and fifth century, with many still leaving offerings at their churches for the less fortunate.  But, for most Americans it is a mad rush to the mall to exchange Christmas gifts like that too small sweater or that tie or scarf you have no use for.

For me, it is a day to relax and enjoy the morning quiet in the house.  I have no urge to go anywhere.  How is everyone else getting along on this fine day?

Monday, December 24, 2012

Ollie and Uncle Joe

I guess what galls me the most about this series is the way Stone has elevated Stalin's role in WWII.  Stalingrad was a battle of attrition during a very bleak winter, much like Napoleon's Battle of Borodino.  Hitler, like Napoleon, had not only misjudged the Russian will to defend itself, but had seriously misjudged the exceedingly cruel winters.  It was hardly a great tactical victory.

A great book to read is Vassily Aksyonov's Generations of Winter, as he deals with this specific period in history.  It is a modern novel along the lines of War and Peace.

Fortunately for Uncle Joe, his forces prevailed and were able to drive the Germans back, seizing on the opportunity to snatch back much of Eastern Europe and a quarter of Germany in the process.  The Baltics were completely absorbed into the Soviet Union, as was the Ukraine, Belarus and a number of other former independent countries.  Stone doesn't mention this at all.

Stone seems to view Stalin as a coldly pragmatic man that could be worked with.  Most historians regard Stalin far less favorably, noting how he took full advantage of Roosevelt, much to Churchill's chagrin, using Yalta to lay claim to a great swathe of real estate.  As it turned out, Truman wasn't so accommodating, but by that point Eastern Europe was lost and the continent would remain divided for the better part of five decades.

I'm very curious to see how Stone treats the Cold War, because Stalin used this time to carry out some of his most punitive actions, with massive deportations throughout Eastern Europe and resettling large swathes of this area with new Soviet citizens.  It wasn't just Jews, as Yuri Slezkine writes about in his book, The Jewish Century, but Eastern Europeans and Central Asians as well, who found themselves being shuffled about the new Soviet Union.

Stalin wanted to amalgamate the far-flung and culturally diverse country into a whole and the only way to do that was to break down subordinated national identities.  You can still see the effects of this today in places like Kaliningrad, probably the only place where this cultural genocide succeeded.

So, when I see Stone making Stalin into a heroic figure, I just have to wonder from whose point of view is he  writing this "Untold History of the United States?"  It sounds pretty much like that which my wife told me was taught in Soviet schools.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Bomb

I fell asleep about halfway through Episode Three thanks to Oliver Stone's droning voice, but I stirred myself awake and picked up the episode where I dozed off.  The footage is pretty much what we have all seen before: the firebombings of Germany, the terror bombings of Japan with the villain being "Demon" LeMay.   Even though bombing campaigns began under Roosevelt, Stone feels that Truman ratcheted up the wholesale destruction with his focus on Japan, the aim being to demoralize the national population and bring Hirohito to his knees.

Truman would accept nothing less than unconditional surrender, and as Stone notes, Hirohito sought better terms of surrender through the Soviet Union.  Stone feels there was much dissension within American ranks, noting the petition among atomic scientists at Los Alamos to stop the bomb, which Oppenheimer reported to Leslie Groves.  This led to Szilard and others being detained.  Something many scientists never forgave Oppenheimer for.  All this can be read in American Prometheus.  But, one can only imagine such a petition would have had little impact on Truman.

Throughout the episode, Stone presents the Japanese as victims, noting the tremendous damage that resulted from the terror bombings. He goes to great lengths to show how Americans already had a bitter racist view of Japanese, showing scenes of Japanese-Americans being herded up in internment camps, along with cartoons that portrayed Japanese as monkeys.  So, it followed as a matter of course that there would be little opposition to Truman razing Tokyo and other Japanese cities to the ground.

He claims Hirohito was inured to the damage and only surrendered when the Soviets closed in on Manchuria.  Stone seems to feel that if the US had allowed Hirohito to remain in power, which advisors like Stimson apparently encouraged, the war would have ended sooner and that there would have been no need to drop the bomb.  Instead, Hirohito hung onto the bitter end, with Stone giving credit to Stalin, not Truman, for the emperor's ultimate surrender.

In his exceedingly calm, detached voice, Stone paints Truman as a cold-hearted Machiavellian, determined to keep Japan and the Asian rim in the American sphere of influence, irregardless of the number of lives taken in the process.  Stalin is portrayed as a man who honored agreements, unlike Truman who callously ignored the Yalta Conference.  This, Stone feels, is what led to the "suicidal arms race."

Stone ends the episode on an ironic note, saying that the allies ultimately allowed the Japanese to keep their emperor, but fails to note that the US demanded an entirely new form of government that reduced the emperor to a shadow of his former self.   As a footnote, he let's us know how positively Truman has been treated subsequently, referencing McCollough's biography and taking the 1995 HBO movie, based on McCollough's book, to task.  Stone concludes,

"The real Harry Truman is far darker than McCollough's heroic underdog.  Despite his denials, his flawed and tragic decision to use the bomb against Japan was meant instead as a ruthless and deeply unnecessary warning that the United States could be unrestrained by humanitarian considerations in using these same bombs against the Soviet Union if they continued to interfere in Europe or Asia.  However, on a larger moral scale Truman knew he was beginning a process that could end life on the planet, as he said explicitly on at least three occasions.  Yet, he forged ahead recklessly.  Unnecessarily killing people is a war crime.  Threatening human extinction goes far, far beyond that."

Stone heralds Henry Wallace once again for having a broader view of the outcome of the war, a new "Amercan Century," as he called it.   Stone shows a clip of Wallace resigning his cabinet position in Truman's administration, and later running for President as a Progressive candidate, but drifts off on the sad note that he only garnered 3% of the vote.

It would make for much more compelling drama if Stone had invited noted historians on the show, rather than he narrating these episodes like bedtime stories.  However, this is presumably an "untold" history, so Stone wants to give the impression he is shedding new light on these historical events.  I'll be curious to read noted historians' reactions to this series.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Hyde Park on the Hudson

On a lighter note, Mother Jones hails Bill Murray as "far and away the best Franklin D. Roosevelt in movie history."  Here's the trailer.

Seems FDR has drawn cinematic attention as of late, including this oddball movie with Barry Bostwick as the "American Badass!"  Jon Voight played the President in Pearl Harbor.  John Lithgow played him in 1994 movie, When Lions Roared.  Ralph Bellamy assumed his character in the television mini-series War and Remembrance and in the 1960 movie, Sunrise at Campobello.  Edward Hermann also played FDR twice in television movies from the late 70s.  He was even portrayed by Nikolai Cherkasov in a 1949 Soviet film, The Victors and the Vanquished (11:40 min. mark). The earliest known portrayal is by Al Richardson in a 1937 Three Stooges' movie, Cash and Carry.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Magic Bullet Theory

We haven't heard much about Jim Garrison since Oliver Stone made a hero out of him in  JFK in 1991.  Garrison died one year later, but here we are 20 years later and his "classic account" has been reprinted.  It was first published in 1988 and had a profound impact on Stone.  In it, Garrison put forward the theory that the CIA was behind Kennedy's death, and implicated quite a number of people, including Lyndon Johnson.  Alex von Tunzelmann debunks Garrison's theory in her review of the film, although she gives the film kudos for  entertainment value.  Here is Costner as Garrison expounding on "the magic bullet theory."

Remembering Sandy Hook

The nation took pause yesterday in memory of perhaps the worst civilian gun-related tragedy in American history.  There have been 31 school shootings since Columbine in 1999.  Yet, local and state governments find it ever more difficult to pass gun laws in the wake of the Supreme Court decision that shot down a DC gun ban in 2009.  We hear over and over again that "guns don't kill people, people kill people."  Well, having easy access to assault weapons sure makes killing people a lot easier, especially six and seven year olds.  One can only hope that a horrible incident like this will call attention to the runaway "gun culture" that has developed in America, and has affected middle-class kids like Adam Lanza.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Truman Committee

One of Oliver Stone's contentions in his "Untold History" is that Truman was an 11th hour choice for Vice-President after it was clear there was no popular support for Jimmy Byrnes to replace Henry A. Wallace on the ticket.  Stone shows archival footage of the strong support on the convention floor for Wallace, and that Truman was the furthest person from anyone's mind, especially Roosevelt who had already made his sympathies clear in regard to Wallace.

Well, there are other accounts like this one, Choosing Truman, in which Robert Ferrell noted that a Truman Committee had been formed as early as Spring of 1944, well before the convention and that not only Dixiecrats but northern conservative Democrats like Bronx leader Edward Flynn saw Truman as the perfect compromise solution.  As Alonzo Hamby noted in this American Experience clip, the "Missouri Compromise."

Ferrell referenced a dinner with the President on July 11, 1944, eight days before the convention, where names were brought up to replace Wallace on the ticket.  Truman's name was "injected" into the conversation, and by the end of the dinner talk, Roosevelt himself was apparently willing to accept Truman as the VP choice, virtually sight unseen.

Of course, accounts will vary, but Stone clearly wants viewers to believe that Wallace was not only the "people's choice" for Vice-President in 1944 but also the President's choice.  However, one finds that there was widespread anxiety among Democratic leaders against Wallace staying on the ticket in 1944, especially with the very real possibility of FDR's imminent death.  Most felt that the next Vice-President could very well become President by ascension, and many Democratic leaders felt more comfortably with Truman.

American Dreamer

Oliver Stone spends a lot of time of Henry Wallace in the first half of the second episode of The Untold History of the United States, capping off Wallace's lost 1944 nomination for Vice President with Jimmy Stewart's famous "Lost Causes" speech from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.  There is some resemblance.  One can only speculate what it might have been like if Wallace had won the nomination over Truman in 1944, and as Stone noted became president upon FDR's death.   I'm not sure what his source information was, but here is a book from 2000 entitled American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace.  Unfortunately, the book is no longer in print and is quite pricey.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

We demand this fraud be stopped!

Michigan has become the latest state to adopt a Right-to-work law, in what appears to be a rather blatant effort to further bust unions.  Similar efforts are also being made in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.  On the surface, the Right-to-work law sounds reasonable.  Why should workers be required to be part of unions in order to retain their jobs in closed shops?   I suppose this is why so many Americans support these measures.  But, when you look at the forces at work, notably the Koch Bros, this is nothing more than an attempt to further undermine unions in America, which have suffered greatly ever since the Taft-Hartley Act was passed over Truman's veto in 1947.  Today, 24 states have right-to-work laws, and of couse if Republicans had their way there would be a national right-to-work law undermining those states which still respect unions.  Republican presidents have invoked the Taft-Hartley Act to break strikes, most recently Bush in 2002 to end a longshoremen's strike on the West Coast, which shut down virtually all the ports.  Just shows that the struggle never ends.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Mayan Factor

I'm glad someone is setting the record straight as to the Mayan Apocalypse.  I remember traveling through Arizona in 1987 and taking part in the Harmonic Convergence at Chaco Canyon.  That's the great kiva pictured above.  It was fun, but I don't think very many persons took McKenna's doomsday prophecy seriously at the time.  He was largely interested in ecological awareness and had created a cult of sorts around the idea that if we didn't clean up our act in 25 years this Mayan prophecy from the 12th century would hold true.  He inspired Jose Arguelles to pen a book called The Mayan Factor.  The "convergence" referred to more than one ancient calendar that supposedly lined up on the seemingly far-off date of December 21, 2012.

It is amazing how something like this can gather steam and become such a big part of the collective consciousness that NASA and the White House are spending time counseling parents on how to relieve the stress many children are having over this impending "apocalypse."  Of course, it doesn't help when so many media outlets are hyping this event through so-called documentaries and "truthy" articles.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Best Health Care System in the World

Every once in a while I light on Fareed Zakaria, GPS.  As is often the case, I don't find him the best tracking system.  Last night, he delved into health care, claiming that the US still holds the edge in medical technology innovation, and that Scandanavian countries "ride on the back" of America.  I'm not exactly sure what he meant by this, other than Scandanavian countries wouldn't be providing their fantastic health care without American innovation.

It struck me as a rather lame argument, especially when reading this assessment of the FDA, which often lags behind in approving innovative drugs that have profound consequences on health care.  We also know that countries like Japan, which don't have hang ups with stem cell research, have clearly seized the advantage in this regard, thanks to the ban the Bush administration placed on stem cell research for the better part of a decade.

It is certainly true that the US spends more on health care per capita than any other country in the world.  Yet, according to the World Health Organization, it doesn't have much to show for it.  WHO consistently ranks the US far down the list of countries when it comes to providing quality health care. Yet, it seems many Americans still have this illusion that the United States has the best health care system in the world.  PBS once again tried to put American health care in perspective.

Everyone an historian

Apparently, Oliver Stone has assumed the mantel of Howard Zinn in creating a series for Showtime in which he presents his version of historical events.  The Examiner offers an amusing review, which is about what you would expect from Stone.  After all, he has given us his version of JFK's assination, Nixon, Salvador and the Vietnam war, safely in the realm of re-creations, so we could choose to accept or not accept his view.  But, now he presents his views as documentary.  There is a companion volume to this series, weighing in at nearly 800 pages and I well imagine chock full of images.  In an age when just about everyone considers himself an historian, I guess Ollie is just as entitled to present his view of events as Baba O'Reilly or Moonbase Newt.

The first three episodes were available as screenings to critics before the series premiered on Showtime in early November.  There was much initial feedback to the screenings.  The contentious speculation that Truman knew in advance of Japan's surrender before dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshimo and Nagasaki is made in Episode Three, simply titled The Bomb.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

One small step ...

Someone shared this clip on facebook, part of the PBS series on Makers: Women Who Made America, which will air early next year.  The most amazing part of the footage is that this is 1967, long after such famous women athletes as Babe Didrikson, who probably could have run the Boston Marathon as fast as most guys.  A long distance runner myself, it is great to see so many women competing in the Vilnius Marathon each year.  It is certainly not a men only event.  Here's to Kathrine Switzer!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Remembering Pearl Harbor

As the White House tries to calm families, especially young ones, of the impending doomsday scenarios surrounding December 21, this day marks a real tragedy, the attack on Pearl Harbor.   There have been no end to conspiracy theories over the years including the US sanctioning the attack so that FDR could finally plunge the US into WWII.  They have all been debunked, but persist nonetheless.  Sadly, Americans seem to have a fetish for conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios, rather than accept the realities of situations.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

So Long Dave

Another American original has left us.  Dave Brubeck was featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1954 and never had to look back.  His career spanned 7 decades and reshaped the world of jazz with his unusual and engaging rhythms, like Unsquare Dance, and reached a high point with his classic 1959 album, Time Out, which gave us perhaps the most recognized jazz song in history, Take Five.  Like Dizzie Gillespie and other jazz greats, Brubeck was a world traveler and engaged audiences all around the globe wth his infectuous music.

Illicit Literature

Seeing the anniversary of the banning of Ulysses, it brought to mind all the books that have been banned in America over the years for one reason or another.  The most common complaint is the impact books like The Catcher and the Rye would have on young impressionable minds.  Even the Harry Potter series won't be found on some high school library shelves, because of its so-called "demonic" content. 

Then there is the presumed sensitivity to racial issues.  As a result, Disney has refused to reprint its classic film, The Song of the South, although numerous pirate copies are available through the Internet.  An interesting case of a self-imposed ban.

Why all the fuss?  In 1983, the Alabama State Textbook Committee rejected The Diary of Anne Frank because it was a "real downer."  The logging industry took exception to The Lorax, and sponsored a book called The Truax.  Discussing puberity is a taboo too, judging by the reaction to What's Happening to My Body?

Here's more banned books over the years.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Happy Holiday

With Advent now upon us I thought I would share this little bit of Americana.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Our Man in Port-au-Prince

A new book has come out on Graham Greene, one of my favorite novelists, examining his time in Haiti and Central America.  These "adventures" became the seeds of his classic novels, The Comedians, Our Man in Havana and The Power and the Glory.  He brushed shoulders with "Papa Doc" Duvalier and other tyrants, but used his inimitable black humor to characterize them.  My father was working in Haiti and the Dominican Republic as a geologist during this time and was a Graham Greene fan himself, which is why this book has special resonance for me.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Flirting with the Fiscal Cliff

Flipping through the channels last night I saw three CEOs, including the head of UPS, on Bloomberg arguing that it is enough to close loopholes in the tax code to increase revenue and spare us a nose dive off the "fiscal cliff."  On National Geographic, I saw "Doomsday preppers" feverishly preparing stocks for the end of the world.  They come from various points of view, but the guy last night was bottling his own wine to use as barter in a post-apocalyptic society, while eating cans of dog food.  On CNN, the House and Senate leaders  came to the podium to announce they were ready to talk compromise, although Boehner and McConnell didn't appear to be giving much ground.

Watching the events of the last 15 years from a distant vantage point, it amazes me that the Republicans and their CEO friends feel like they are still fighting an ideological battle.  They won a long time ago.  The Clinton administration was essentially a repudiation of Democratic values in favor of Republican values, outflanking Republicans in Congress on everything from a crime bill to a balanced budget.  After 11 years as governor of Arkansas, Clinton knew how to play the game and he played it well.

Obama hasn't been quite as good.  He still let a few Democratic initiatives slide through, like the Affordable Health Care Act, which made Republicans cringe.  But, otherwise he pretty much played by the same game plan, even suggesting Social Security and Medicare be put on the table for domestic cuts, which Biden quickly reminded him was off limits.  To hear these CEOs bitch on Bloomberg, to raise taxes would be the end of the free market as we know it, sending all these "doomsday preppers" into their rat holes, while the rest of us battle it out in the post-apocalyptic city streets.

Each winter the business titans meet in Davos, Switzerland, to discuss strategy.  While this business summit is a bit too much like Ayn Rand's mountain summit in Atlas Shrugged, these business leaders are for the most part progressive and are looking for ways to spur the global market and better the lives of the lumpenproletariat, if for no other reason than to be able to buy their products.  This was essentially the strategy behind "globalization," which is rarely uttered these days.

Warren Buffett seems to think staving off the "fiscal cliff" is relatively easy business, but when one side refuses to back down from its Grover Norquist anti-tax pledge, it no longer appears so easy. The Democrats feel they won a mandate to raise taxes on the wealthy in the polls, but Boehner argues that since the Republicans held onto the House the mandate remains theirs.  Mitch is kind of stuck in the middle, looking weaker than ever as Senate minority leader, but even he still strikes a bellicose tone on tax cuts.  Meanwhile, President Obama listens to labor and business in a series of meetings hoping to reach a compromise that he can present to Congress.  We can only hope all this is done before December 21.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving

The official “pardoning” of White House turkeys is an interesting White House tradition that has captured the imagination of the public in recent years. It is often stated that President Lincoln’s clemency to a turkey recorded in an 1865 dispatch by White House reporter Noah Brooks was the origin for the pardoning ceremony. Brooks noted,

About a year before, a live turkey had been brought home for the Christmas dinner, but [Lincoln’s son Tad] interceded in behalf of its life. . . . [Tad’s] plea was admitted and the turkey’s life spared.

The Washington Post used both “pardon” and “reprieve” in a 1963 article in which President Kennedy said of the turkey, “Let’s keep him going.” The formalities of pardoning a turkey gelled by 1989, when George H. W. Bush, with animal rights activists picketing nearby, quipped,

. . . this guy [has] been granted a presidential pardon as of right now.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Rebecca Latimer Felton in her own words

I noticed that on this day in 1922 Rebecca Latimer Felton was the first woman inducted into Senate, even if it was only symbolic.  She was probably best known for her work, Country Life in Georgia in the Days of My Youth.  This online text also includes speeches she gave before the Georgia Legislature Women's clubs and other organizations.  She was quite a lady!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Westward Ho!

I saw a page at abebooks on box sets, and was hoping for a set of A.B. Guthrie novels.  His Western sequence started with The Big Sky in 1947, perhaps my favorite Western novel.  Of course it was years ago that I read it and it may not make as big an impression on me now as it did then, but here is a copy in google books.  This particular volume has an introduction by Wallace Stegner.

Guthrie followed up with The Way West (1949) and These Thousand Hills (1956).  He picked up the thread again in the 70s with three more novels which I haven't read.  You can find first editions of these novels for as little as five bucks at abebooks.  I guess they had large printings.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

History as Fiction

I was listening to Moonbase Newt on The Colbert Report the other night and he mentioned his new novel on Washington, Victory at Yorktown, completing a trilogy I never knew existed.  Stephen Colbert was having fun with Newt about the election, space stations and his passion for history novels.  I'm not sure whether Newt projects himself as George Washington, as Glenn Beck did in his universally panned biography of the founding father, or if he is attempting to educate young impressionable minds by appealing to their sense of adventure.  I did a quick search and noticed that William Forstchen  is also credited in these novels.  Seems Bill is a pro in this sort of genre, having had his sci-fi series, The Lost Regiment, optioned by Tom Cruise and M. Night Shyamalan for a movie.  I'm surprised Newt just didn't put Washington on the moon, but then I guess he wasn't quite willing to go that far.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Reader's Corner

While we explore other group readings, I thought it might be nice to pull up a chair in Wilson's library (c. 1921) and discuss some of the other books of American history or culture we're reading.

Right now I'm reading Woodward's The Price of Politics.  After a condescending introduction that suggests Obama is self-centered and totally unprepared to be president, I'm not sure what to expect, but I'm going to stick with it for awhile.  Woodward does have a way of getting access to all the notes from all the meetings that occur behind closed doors.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Bruce Almighty

Peter Ames Carlin is the latest to tackle the Boss.  This is a new biography that places Springsteen in the broader cultural history of America.  In recent years, Springsteen has moved beyond icon, often credited as the man who saved Rock 'n Roll, to troubadour in the style of Pete Seeger.  His homage to Seeger is a wonderful album.  He was honored at Kennedy Center in 2009 by Barack Obama, and figured in the news again during the relief efforts of Hurricane Sandy.  But, not everyone holds Bruce in such high regard,

How can anyone fault a man who gives us a version of Old Dan Tucker like this!  The clip is from the Sessions Band Live in Dublin.

An American Original

This biography of Washington Irving caught my eye.  It came out in 2008.  Judging from this short review by Walter Russell Mead, it covers a lot of Irving's political history.  Of course, Irving is known for his great literary contributions, which could make for a fun read.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Join in.  Help us pick our next book of American history to discuss.  We're a friendly bunch.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Should farm animals be counted in electoral vote?

To counter the growing strength of the Latino votes, Midwest state legislators are proposing a 3/5s rule for farm animals that would allow them to have a greater number of US representatives and more electoral votes in subsequent general elections.   They looked at the huge swathes of red in farm and ranch states and felt there must be some way to get a better accounting for this vast amount of real estate that votes Republican.

The beef and pork industry seems keen on the idea as they hope it will increase federal subsidies and allow them to have an even greater voice in politics.  These industries felt it unfair that corporations could be counted as persons but that farm animals are still regarded as non-human.

Animal rights activists have yet to weigh in on this, but there is some favorable response as they feel farm animals have long been overlooked in the struggle for equal rights, and hope that such legislation would allow them to press charges against those ranchers who treat them adversely.  Farm animals themselves have yet to be interviewed on the subject.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Happy Birthday Sesame Street!

The big winner of this election is Sesame Street, which is 43 years young today.  Here is the original episode from November 1969.  You really have to wonder about a political candidate going after Big Bird, and here is Big Bird greeting Sally on PBS's most famous address.  The show has had a magical run and has reached far beyond its narrow confines.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Lincoln and Euclid

Listened to Doris Kearns Goodwin on Charlie Rose tonight.   It was fun as the two discussed who better for Obama to channel in these next four years.  Most of their thoughts swirled around LBJ, FDR, TR and Lincoln, with Rose plugging a new reprint of her book that ties in with movie.  He even featured a film clip in which Lincoln was weighing Euclid's thoughts on equality and how it might become part of his emancipation proclamation.  Goodwin said that Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible, not only capturing Lincoln's distinct walk but his high-pitched voice as well.  She also noted how faithful Spielberg was in recreating the Lincoln White House right down to first editions copies he was reading at the time.  Goodwin noted that Lincoln was a reader, thrilled over copies of Shakespeare and the King James Bible to the point he couldn't sleep.

On Lincoln's interest in Euclid, author David Van Haften noted,

I found countless references to Euclid and they all said about the same thing: Lincoln read Euclid, he mastered Euclid, and he took Euclid’s Elements with him while riding the judicial circuit. The only real substantive clue that there was more here than meets the eye was a rather loose statement that Lincoln read Euclid to find out how to “demonstrate.”

It's the math, stupid!

I like the title if nothing else.  Nate Silver was plugging his book on the Colbert Nation.  Here is a review from the LA Times.

And yet during the 2008 elections, it took mere months for Nate Silver to become one of the political world's most respected experts, the guy anyone who wanted to be taken seriously had to cite. With good reason: Unlike so many of the people who make their living predicting elections, Nate Silver can do math.

Silver, who got his start working with baseball statistics before eventually moving on to politics and founding his website (now part of the New York Times), acknowledges as much in his new book, "The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don't."

Surprised he didn't go with a baseball metaphor, but I guess he has a thing for Faulkner.

The Hangover

For Obama the biggest hangover is a split Congress.  Once again, the Democrats invested all the energy in key Senate races, seeing their control as vulnerable with 23 Democratic seats up for election.  They not only retained all these seats, but picked up two Republican seats, notable Ted Kennedy's old seat in Massachusetts, with Elizabeth Warren exacting her revenge on the Republicans for refusing to consider her nomination for head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau back in 2011.  Now, she will be able to oversea finances directly in the Senate.  Unfortunately, the Democrats didn't do such a good job in the House, losing seats.  At least Allen West lost his seat in Florida, with teabaggers in general fairing badly in this election cycle.  It doesn't seem that the Tea Party caucus will be so strong this time around, although Michelle Bachmann will return as its fearless leader.  John Boehner actually sounded contrite in his comments after Obama's historic victory Tuesday night, but it remains to be seen whether there will be any movement in current lame duck Congress.

Still, you get the sense Republicans aren't accepting the results.  Karl Rove kicked up quite a tantrum on Fox News when his news station called the election before midnight.  Rove refused to accept the results streaming in from Ohio, considering Hamilton county still in play.  This led to leggy Megyn Kelly giving us a tour of the "decision room" at Fox.  Maybe the folks at Fox can pitch in and buy Karl Rove a touch screen like the one John King uses on CNN.  King's descriptions were quite effective as he showed that all those swathes of red in Ohio were accounted for.  The only outstanding votes were in blue counties along Lake Erie.  Hamilton county, in the south of the state, seemed split right down the middle like the rest of the country.

Donald Trump and Ted Nugent also had a hard time coming to terms with the results, venting their puerile thoughts on Twitter.  As the idea of "four more years" starts to sink in, you see some Republicans actually contemplating moving abroad.  I saw one friend on facebook considering a move to Belize, which makes more sense than Canada and Australia.  These countries are far more "socialized" than the United States and would only increase their angst.  But, I take these as idle threats.  I'm sure the Republicans will retrench in the months ahead and come up with new lines of attack on the President they refuse to recognize.