A Bridge Too Far

I’ve heard this phrase bandied about as pundits discuss the latest political gaff of this year’s sorry presidential election. It means an action or step that is too ambitious or overreaching. I have the impression that it implies something that cannot be accepted or accomplished after a series of successful actions – and now I know why.

This is a fairly recent phrase coming from Operation Market Garden, an Allied airborne military operation of 1944 designed to strike at the heart of Nazi industry. Securing bridges for advancing ground forces was an essential part of the plan. Several brides were captured, but the operation failed to capture the main road bridge over the river Waa.

The specific phrase A Bridge Too Far is a 1977 epic war film, based on the 1974 book of the same name by Cornelius Ryan.

Atoms in the Family: My Life with Enrico Fermi

atoms-in-the-familyI obtained this book by Laura Fermi published in 1954 by my usual method of interlibrary loan. It is an excellent book that gives personal insights into Enrico and many other of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project. This is an excellent companion to the book by Leona Woods reviewed last week, and readers shouldn’t become accustomed to having a review posted each week. I’m doing more writing than reading lately. Also, I once again am posting a summary of the book complete with page numbers for reference, which is how I usually save information to be used in my book about the history of the development of nuclear weapons and the Rocky Flats Plant.

The first sections of the book introduce Laura Capon and Enrico Fermi in Italy when they first became acquainted in Italy. It progresses to their wedding and the beginning of the troubles for Jews imposed by Mussolini (Il Duce). Laura was a non-practicing Jew, so she and the children were all at risk. She tells of how their lives became increasingly dangerous until the family left Italy by travelling to Sweden to accept Enrico’s Noble Prize and made it to the United States. The “becoming Americanized” is fascinating reading. Laura’s father, an Italian naval officer, was at first not concerned about the actions that Mussolini took in the early days. “Il Duce knows what he is doing. It is not for us to judge his actions.” 5-6

The book describes the childhoods and families of the Capons and the Fermis. As an example, a traumatic loss struck the Fermis when Giulio, the oldest son, died of complications from an abscess in the throat. (Laura and Enrico would name their son Giulio.) The family moved into a melancholy existence and Enrico filled his life with studying and outdoor activities. It wasn’t long before his teachers declared that he was “exceptional.” His academic achievements and early career are described. 15-32 Much of one chapter is devoted to his yellow Peugeot, which is described as having a top speed of 20 mph. The next chapter describes the Fermi’s early married years 33-68

Fermi began to achieve wide recognition for his brilliance and was named to the Royal Academy of Italy in 1929. Enrico and Laura spent two months of 1930 at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. They also spent some time in New York City, where Laura was astonished to note “…with a shock the existence of tattoos…on the bare arms of summer riders, in the most civilized city in the world.” (What would she think today?) They were often asked what they thought of Mussolini, which was “…indicative of the great interest fascism had aroused in the United States. Those were good times for fascism, which was looked upon with tolerance, often with sympathy, both inside Italy and abroad.” 73-81 Continue reading

The Uranium People

the-uranium-people_webThis autobiography by Leona (Woods) Marshall Libby is a valuable asset to anyone wanting to learn about the people involved in the Manhattan Project. Leona was the only woman present when Chicago Pile-1 sustained controlled nuclear reaction under the leadership of Enrico Fermi, who had become Leona’s friend. I obtained the book through my local library’s interlibrary loan process, which I recommend for books such as this one that was published in 1979. Leona’s book focuses on the achievements of the Manhattan Project and includes very little personal information. The book often meanders into stories of events involving Leona and other Manhattan Project scientists, but I thought those distractions from the main story were among the most interesting. The front and back covers of the book contain reproductions of the famous letter from Albert Einstein to F. D. Roosevelt outlining why the United States should speed up research on chain reactions and warning that Germany might have embarked on the same effort. I highly recommend this book, and will warn that I’m going to break from my tradition of trying to restrict this review to two pages. Besides, I haven’t posted a review in weeks, so I “owe” a very long review. I’ll let the reader decide how much they want. I often record page numbers for items from the book in what I call my “personal reviews”, and I’ll leave those in the event someone wants to look up the reference. I also left the sections I recorded in bold for my own reference on passages that I wanted to be certain to remember when writing my book about Rocky Flats.

Leona had done her doctoral work as a chemist in the University of Chicago physics department chaired by Nobel laureate Arthur Compton. Her doctoral professor was future Nobel laureate Robert Milliken. She joined the Metallurgical Laboratory in August 1942. She describes details of her work where she was the only woman participating in activating “Fermi’s Pile.” She also was involved in at Argonne, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Her primary role in the operation of the first nuclear reactor was to build boron trifluoride counters to detect neutron flux. 118 She frequently expresses pride in her soldering skills in making the detectors in her autobiography.  She was obviously disappointed that, “Laura Fermi, who kindly was going to read the book before its publication, died suddenly December 26, 1977.”  Ix-x

There are many stories about Leona’s numerous interactions with Enrico and Laura Fermi. She was clearly an admirer. Chapter 1 begins with the sentence, “Perhaps the most influential person in my life was Enrico Fermi.” She then lists all of his positive attributes and adds, “He managed all of this…without pomposity.” She said even “…he was amazed when he thought how modest he was.” I was also impressed that she said Fermi was influenced by the deterioration of relations between the U.S., Soviet Union, and China and the Soviet detonation of a deliverable hydrogen bomb to lay “…in a store of canned goods and water in his basement.” 1-9 I intend to leave most discussions of how Enrico and his family made it to the United States to escape the Fascism that threatened Laura and their children to a review in another book “Atoms in the Family” authored by Laura Fermi. Continue reading

No One Wants to Look Like a Nazi

Today’s expression isn’t verbal, it’s a gesture. I ran across this in a Smithsonianmag piece:

“[America’s salute to the flag originally required you to] raise your right hand, flip your palm down, point it toward the flag in a salute and recite the words. These instructions might seem unthinkable today for obvious reasons—they’re reminiscent of rows of Nazis saluting their Fuhrer. But believe it or not, they date from the beginning of the Pledge itself.

The stiff-armed salute came from the 1890s along with the words to the US Pledge as part of an effort to heal the wounds of the Civil War with a shared ritual in schools, and to assimilate immigrant children. But when Nazi’s adopted the same gesture, in 1942 Americans dumped their 50-year tradition (along with other symbols ruined by Nazis.) The US Flag Code was adopted because every American needed instruction in the new salute, though it can’t be enforced as a law.

The Pledge, by the way, was originally

“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands—one nation indivisible—with liberty and justice for all.” Francis Bellamy reportedly wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in two hours.

Congress added words including “under God” in 1954 to distinguish the United States from “godless Communism.” So both the words and gesture of the Pledge were modified in response to America’s enemies. I could accept going back to the original words, but I must admit my skin crawls at the original gesture.

Decline or Rise of a New Prosperity?

Manufacturing is dying in America, and the middle class that was built on post-WWII GI bill education and manufacturing is going with it. Jobs move overseas to cheap labor markets thanks to trade deals that favor a powerful elite. Millions around the world are rising from extreme poverty at the price of the Western World’s middle class – which might look like a good tradeoff to aliens watching from space, but isn’t so good if you happen to be losing. We should all be sad and angry.

I’ve heard that a lot and I guess I believe it. Just look at the tags in my tee shirts – all manufactured overseas.

I also tend to think of the Christian Science Monitor as a reputable news source, so I read their recent article carefully.

The surprising truth about American manufacturing

“United States manufacturing output is at an all-time high, worth $2.2 trillion in 2015, up from $1.7 trillion in 2009. And while total employment has fallen by nearly a third since 1970, the jobs that remain are increasingly skilled.

“Across the country, factory owners are now grappling with a new challenge: Instead of having too many workers, as they did during the Great Recession, they may end up with too few…

“In western Michigan… unemployment here is low (around 3 percent)… For factory owners, it all adds up to stiff competition for workers – and upward pressure on wages.” CSM

The situation isn’t all rosy: “Employment in manufacturing has fallen from 17 million in 1970 to 12 million in 2015. The steepest declines came after 2001, when China gained entry to the World Trade Organization and ramped up exports… In areas exposed to foreign trade [like my tee shirts], every additional $1,000 of imports per worker meant a $550 annual drop in household income per working-age adult.” CSM

Despite job openings, lots of young workers don’t want to work in manufacturing. They watched their parents shoulder large amounts of overtime only to get laid off in the Great Recession, see the overall downward trend, and are being pushed into college instead of trades by parents, schools, and the government.

I checked Wikipedia, which seems like a decent place to get an overview.

“In 1990, services surpassed manufacturing as the largest contributor to overall private industry production, and then the finance, insurance and real estate sector surpassed manufacturing in 1991. Since the beginning of the current economic downturn in 2007, only computer and electronic products, aerospace, and transportation have seen increasing production levels…

“A total of 3.2 million – one in six U.S. factory jobs – have disappeared since the start of 2000. The manufacturing sector of the U.S. economy has experienced substantial job losses over the past several years.” Wikipedia

Continue reading

Doing Something That Doesn’t Work For Five Hundred Years

Drunkenness of Noah - a problem that's been with us a long time

Drunkenness of Noah – a problem that’s been with us a long time

Author Susan Cheever sets out to fill a gap in American History with Drinking in America, Our Secret History, and her personal life doubtlessly influences her writing. A third of the way through the book, Cheever writes of her own family’s battle with alcohol and notes that “alcoholic families are nightmarish places, heartbreak machines in which the innocent fare worse than the guilty.” She herself stopped drinking when “brought to my knees by alcoholism.” Authors of straight history “texts” don’t get personal in the body of their work.

Despite her family, Cheever acknowledges that alcohol, and the “unstoppable” “crazy courage,” “both brilliance and incompetence” of drunks, has contributed to America. Drinking has led to American disasters and triumphs. “Rum could make you brave, confident, and scornful of conventional obstacles.”

She offers excellent retellings of many familiar pieces of history: the Pilgrims and Puritans (not the same people at all!), the Revolution, Civil War, woman’s suffrage and Prohibition, Kennedy’s assassination – with vivid details I had never read. The idea that some of the Pilgrims’ difficulties were due to most of them being drunk (by modern standards) almost all the time is intriguing. And you’ll find some famous names revealed as heavy drinkers, along with others who hated alcohol and drunkenness, beginning with the Pilgrims. Reviewers on Amazon point out Cheever’s speculation and factual errors (“riddled” says one), and her book isn’t footnoted like a text would be, but it’s worth your reading time.

But I’d like to note her comments on history. While there have been historians seeking to push an agenda or prove a point, “modern history, for the most part, claims to be objective… observant neutrality occasionally punctuated with some wise commentary. There are many advantages – no ax to grind, no idea to sell, no political point to make. But there are disadvantages… Historians miss a lot.”

This view of history limits our perspective. She notes that, after reading “hundreds of indexes and tables of contents, and dozens of books… [she finds that] few historians even mention drinking and its effects.”

I assume historians skip across drinking in history, in part, because ascribing any positive outcome to drunkenness is embarrassing – or at least, counterintuitive. The idea that inebriation was part of daily life for men, women, and children (!) as well as founding fathers and Nobel winning authors simply doesn’t click.

Yet it seems to me that the truth is worth knowing, and Cheever’s book offers something to add to my view of history. It does reinforce my basic feeling that The War on Drugs is a mistake, and I try to be skeptical of books that confirm my pre-existing biases. But even punishments from the 1600s that would be considered torture today didn’t stop drunkenness, which pretty much agrees with the effects of modern punishments on drug addicts. Perhaps, by ignoring an element of history, we are repeating it.

American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace

american-dreamerI obtained this book through the interlibrary loan system with the single purpose of checking out an original reference for the book I’m writing about the Rocky Flats Plant during the Cold War. I was surprised that the book has over 600 pages, checked the page with the reference I wanted, and then began skimming it. Much to my surprise the book drew me in. For those unfamiliar with him, Henry Agard Wallace was a fascinating character. He grew up in a farm family that published a newspaper that focused on farming and political issues associated with farming. He was raised to be a completely moral Christian, and seldom allowed even the most vicious political attacks he would eventually suffer later in his public life to stir him to do more than offer a reasoned defense.

Most people probably know something about Wallace because John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice President for his first two terms, strongly opposed FDR running for a third term. (Garner had been chosen as the Vice President in a deal that allowed FDR to receive his first nomination by the Democratic Party. FDR and Garner were polar opposites, and my impression is that they detested each other and went out of their way to avoid the need to have any contact.) A large slate of candidates wanted to have the VP slot, but FDR chose Wallace.

FDR had chosen Wallace to be his Secretary of Agriculture during his first two terms despite the fact Wallace was a Republican. Party difference was immaterial, because Wallace was a strong Progressive. He also was a brilliant man who studied and comprehended the role of genetics in crop yields. He and his wife formed a hybrid corn seed business that eventually made them wealthy. The chickens he bred eventually provided a substantial portion of eggs to the nation and the world.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are about the key role Wallace played in his position of Secretary of Agriculture in the New Deal during years when famers were being crushed by the Great Depression. Fans of small government will be astonished and disturbed at the growth and reach of his department. His first personnel action was to appoint Milton Eisenhower, Ike’s brother, head of information services with instructions “…to transform the department immediately into a vast action agency to restore parity of income to American farmers.” The primary focus of the many government actions taken under Wallace’s leadership was to improve farm income by the “…promotion of planned scarcity.” Wheat was the easiest crop for the new strategy, because many wheat growing areas were experiencing a crushing drought. “It would not be necessary to plow under growing wheat; nature had done it—unequally, cruelly, to be sure, but decisively…” Millers and bakers didn’t like the new processing tax that paid expenses for the new program until they understood they could blame the price increases on the government. Continue reading