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

Killing Patton

killing patton book cvrThis is another in the series of “Killing” books written by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, and my wife says this is her favorite book in the series. The subtitle of the book is “The Strange Death of World War II’s Most Audacious General.” The book does present some compelling evidence that Patton may have been killed. He did create some powerful enemies, including some in the U.S. military, Stalin, and some Germans.

The book begins with a description of Private First Class Robert W. Holmund, an explosives expert in Patton’s army. Private Holmund and his fellow soldiers have been ordered to attack a heavily fortified and mostly underground fortification called Fort Driant. The bombing and artillery strikes that preceded the assault have had no effect on the Wehrmacht fighters who have remained safe within the fort’s fifteen-food thick walls and hidden forest pillboxes. Machine guns that the soldiers have named “Hitler’s Zipper” because of the high-speed ripping sound as it fires twelve hundred rounds a minute open up on the attackers as their advance stalls at the barbed wire around the fort. The machine guns are joined by rifle fire, mortars, and artillery. The Americans eventually disengage and crawl back to safety. Eighteen have been killed or wounded. And that’s just the start.

The soldiers try again a few days later, and this time they make it through the barbed wire to again be faced with precision fire from everything the Germans have. The survivors are forced to hastily dig foxholes to escape the barrage. The medics race from foxhole to foxhole to tend to the wounded until they are killed. The soldiers find a way into to the tunnels and battle the Germans underground. The survivors withdraw to the foxholes and the Germans mount a counterattack. There are only four of Holmlund’s squad left alive by the time a sniper’s bullet fells him. The descriptions of the combat are vivid.

The book intersperses descriptions of Patton and the speeches he gave his troops to prepare them for war with descriptions of the war. He said, for example, “Americans despise cowards.” “Americans play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost and laughed. That’s why Americans have never lost nor will ever lose a war; for the very idea of losing is hateful to an American.” I wondered whether the parents of Private Holmlund wished he had been a little less brave. Continue reading

The Truman Presidency: The History of a Triumphant Succession

the truman presidencyThere are several books about Harry S. Truman, and I started this book by Cabell Phillips with a bit of skepticism. The book was published in 1966, and it does suffer from the fact that much of the information about Soviet spying was still classified at that time. The author therefore writes disbelievingly about reports of espionage activities by government officials. One example involves the separate revelations by two people who turned themselves in to the FBI admitting they had been Communists and couriers for large Soviet espionage networks. The author refers to them as “A tense, overwrought spinster named Elizabeth Bentley and a moody senior editor of Time Magazine.”  Their stories “…were so incredible that the FBI at first refused to countenance them.” It is true that the liberal media chipped away at the credibility of both people and their testimony to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The media had stories that questioned the mental state of both people and portrayed them as unsavory or at least unattractive. The eventual declassification of counterespionage information and the opening of Soviet archives validated the testimony of both people.

Getting that quibble set aside, I did find the book to have good information that is well presented. The dustcover sets the tone of admiration the author has for Truman. He describes the Truman’s story as “…one of the most heartening and surprisingly personal success stories in the annals of politics. From the day in April 1945 when the news of FDR’s death shocked the nation, Harry Truman, the unprepossessing ‘little man from Missouri,’ grew slowly and haltingly to become one of the ‘great’ American Presidents.” That tone continues with the first two sentences of the Preface. “Harry S. Truman was a quite ordinary man. He was also a quite extraordinary President.” The author acknowledges the help of Dean G. Acheson, Clark M. Clifford, and Averell Harriman, three people I have read were trusted Truman confidants. I thought that gave the book a stamp of credibility. Continue reading

Brotherhood of the Bomb

brotherhood of the bombThe subtitle of this book by Gregg Herken is “The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller.” Another book by the author, “The Winning Weapon” (a review was posted October 1) concluded that too much was made of Soviet espionage of the Manhattan Project. “Brotherhood of the Bomb” reaches an entirely different conclusion. A footnote on page 126 states “Near the end of the war, because of Fuchs and other spies at Los Alamos, the Russians had a precise description of the component parts of Fat Man, including such engineering details as the makeup and design of the explosive lenses use to compress the plutonium core and the exact dimensions of the bomb’s polonium initiator. The device that the Soviets exploded in their first nuclear test, in August 1949, was essentially a copy of Fat Man.” “The Winning Weapon” was published in 1980 and “Brotherhood of the Bomb” in 2002. Much was learned about the extent of Soviet spying after the first book was published in 1980. For example, the Venona Project that revealed the massive extent of Soviet spying was declassified in 1995. Both books have value to someone interested in the atomic bomb and its impact on the Cold War, and the first gives a good idea of how much of the media looked at the issue of Soviet spying in 1980.

“Brotherhood of the Bomb” gives detailed insight into the scientists who became famous as the result of discovering what could be accomplished, mostly in the form of weapons, with atomic energy. Lawrence had announced in 1932 that “…heavy particles not only disintegrated readily but in the process seemed to release more energy than it took to break them apart.” He proposed a vista of cheap, reliable, and virtually limitless energy…” His “disintegration hypothesis” was greeted with skepticism verging on ridicule. Rutherford made his now famous statement that “anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of atoms was talking moonshine.” Continue reading

Social Security Debt Collection

There was a recent media dust-up over the Social Security Administration seizing tax refunds to recoup over-payments that happened more than a decade ago. However, Stephen Ohlemacher of the Associated Press explained that the program would be halted at least temporarily in his article titled “Social Security halts effort to collect old over-payments.” A 2008 law allows use of a “…Treasury program to seize federal payments to recoup debts that are more than 10 years old. Previously, there was a 10-year limit on using the program.”  “The Social Security Administration says it has identified about 400,000 people with old debts. They owe a total of $714 million.” Some of the disputed benefits were paid to surviving parents or guardians of children eligible for survivor benefits or the benefits paid to a disabled child. The agency says it has already collected $55 million, and at least some of it was collected from children and grandchildren of those who were overpaid. Continue reading

The Predictable Surprise

book cvr_ predictable surpriseThe subtitle of this book by Sylvester J. Schieber is “The Unraveling of the U.S. Retirement System.” The book is neither a fun nor easy book to read (unless you are a compulsive accountant). However, you should consider the book if you want to know about the history and current status of Social Security and other retirement plans. Sadly, I must say the book does not have easy answers for how we can get our politicians to address some daunting problems. The dust cover explains, “Social Security is projected to deplete its funds in the 2030s. Pensions from previous generations have either disappeared or been completely reengineered…Americans are faced with the conundrum of how to pay for a growing retired population with dwindling financial resources.” The author believes privatizing part of Social Security would be a good first step, but has given up on that idea because politicians have made it a toxic idea.

I consider the most important part of the book to be a series of quotes made by Barack Obama at a roundtable discussion with the editorial board of the Washington Post four days before his first inauguration. “As soon as the economic recovery takes place, then we’ve got to bend the curve and figure out how we get federal spending on a more sustainable path…We are going also to have a discussion about entitlements and how we get a grasp on those…As bad as these deficits that have already been run up have been, the real problem is with our long-term deficits, actually, have to do with our entitlement obligations…So we’re going to have to shape a bargain. This, by the way is where…some very difficult issues of sacrifice, responsibility, and duty are going to come in because what we have done is kick this can down the road and we are now at the end of that road. We are not in a position to kick it any further…I have told my folks, to some consternation on their part, that we have to signal seriousness in this by making sure that some hard decisions are made under my watch and not under somebody else’s because the usual game is to say, ‘well, here’s what is going to happen but, by the way, it just happens to start in the ninth year from now.’ What we have to signal is that we are willing to make hard decisions now.”  (This passage is on pages 373-374 of the hard cover book I read. I’m providing a link to the full recorded statement.) Continue reading