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

Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025

suicide-of-superpowerBefore I get into the review, I have an announcement for frequent readers. I’ve decided to spend less time on reading and reviewing books and more time working on my new book about the Rocky Flats Plant and the Cold War. We intend to maintain a regular once a week schedule for expressions and commentaries, which might be associated with something that I’m drafting for the book. We will continue to do book reviews when we feel the urge, but it undoubtedly won’t be once a week. That notice made me want to spend more time working on the Rocky Flats book and less time on this review. This might be a short review for such a long and data-rich book.

The book by Patrick J. Buchanan is not a fun book to read. It chronicles numerous aspects of American life and government that are in decline or collapse. It is well over 400 pages of despair. I was curious whether Buchanan would provide any hope at the end of the book, and I must say the hope offered by the final paragraph is tepid, at best. “And the crises that afflict us—culture wars, race division, record deficits, unpayable debt, waves of immigration, legal and illegal, of people never before assimilated, gridlock in the capital, and possible defeat in war—may prove too much for our democracy to cope with. They surely will, if we do not act now.” It’s tough to find a positive message in that, especially with our dysfunctional government and (commentary alert) lack of leaders willing to submit themselves to our increasingly brutal election process.

I must admit that I’ve never been a “Buchanan fan,” although I also admit that reading this book made me admire his ability to identify and explain important historical facts despite that they aren’t fun reading. I’ll give the example of “Fruits of Free Trade” that begins on page 15. Buchannan mentions it could be more appropriately titled, “An Index of the Decline and Fall of Industrial America.”

  • From 2000 to December 2010, industrial production fell for the first time since the Depression and America lost 3 million private sector jobs
  • One in three manufacturing jobs disappeared
  • We ran trillions of dollars in trade deficits
  • China now holds the mortgage on America
  • Etc.

The most disturbing comment is that “…the cumulative current account deficit of the United States from 2000 through the third quarter of 2010 exceeded $6 trillion. To finance it, we had to borrow $1.5 billion abroad every day for ten years.” (Emphasis added) Continue reading

Inside the Nazi War Machine

nazi-war-machineThis book by Bevin Alexander has a subtitle, “How Three Generals Unleashed Blitzkrieg Upon the World,” and is an excellent book for people interested in military history. The three generals were Erich von Manstein, Heinz Guderian, and Erwin Rommel, and they developed a military strategy that opposed that of the German high command and Hitler. My simplistic summary is that they refused to fight battles on a wide front. They led with concentrated panzer attacks against the widely-spread “penny packets” of French tanks. They almost always outpaced the infantry divisions that followed. They refused to slow the assault to allow consolidation of the flanks, which the high command believed would be vulnerable to counterattack. The conventional thinking was that the French army, which was “…the most formidable and best-equipped army in Europe…” with their British, Holland, and Belgian allies would pinch in from the sides and capture the tanks and soldiers in the deep penetration. The remarkable outcome was that the massive French army mostly just surrendered at the shock of how quickly the center of their front had been destroyed by Nazi fire power. The Luftwaffe supported the attacks with old and slow Stuka dive bombers that could precisely target French tanks or other forces that stood in the way. Static warfare that had been the norm throughout World War I was replaced by “maneuver warfare,” or Blitzkrieg.

The book portrays how the German generals continually successfully implemented their concentrated assaults and refused to acknowledge orders from the high command to stop and allow the supporting troops to catch up. Overall military organization is also described as being valuable to the Germans and paralyzing to the French. German commanders believed they should lead from the front where they could quickly recognize situations presented by opposing forces and terrain and make immediate adjustments. French units couldn’t deviate from existing orders without written orders, which often took days to be prepared and delivered. The German commanders also had the admiration and support of their soldiers, which resulted in achieving sometimes incredible results. Rommel was said to insist on being in the first vehicle going forward in an assault. Once he insisted on standing on the middle of a bridge important to a planned attack that was under bombardment by British bombers. He wanted it known how valuable the bridge was to German plans and risked his life to demonstrate it. Continue reading

Westward Migration – History and Recreation of Traveling the Oregon Trail

oregon trailThe Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck offers three travel tales braided together. There is the westward migration of Americans starting around 1840; the tale of Buck’s own crossing of the old trail with a mule team and wagon; and memories of his father’s horse and mule, wagon and carriage adventures – and unresolved father issues.

Buck decided to make “an authentic crossing of the Oregon Trail.” In preparation he read many travel diaries and historical accounts. The trail “has been meticulously charted and marked, with long, undeveloped spaces now preserved as a National Historic Trail” but also crossing private land. I was surprised to learn that, “except for two bad stretched of suburban sprawl,” the trail is generally accessible, especially since much of the way is now farm and ranch roads or even paved highways.

Early in the book Buck presents a lengthy story of the brother who accompanied him. The brothers woes of unemployment after the Republican Recession of 2008 and temporary crippling in a building accident segues into the 1840s and 1850s, when “families were disrupted and lives destroyed by the financial panics and bank failures that recurred every decade” further aggravated by “religious squabbling and labor strife” and the political issue of slavery. Migration west became “a safety valve that prevented a calamitous society from imploding.”

Pioneer knowledge has been lost
Buck recounts his efforts to obtain a wagon and mule team – somewhat hard to do since no one does this sort of trip anymore. He’s lucky to have his childhood familiarity with livestock and Amish and Mennonite friends who use horses for farming.

But horses aren’t suited to a long hard trip. Draft horses of the 1800s were “agrarian mastodons” while mules were smarter, tougher, and “the common phrase ‘stubborn as a mule,’ [is] a classic example of a man ascribing stupidity to the beast instead of to himself.”

Buck provides a lot of information about mules. “No less a figure than George Washington was America’s original maharajah of mules… [students don’t know] that the father of their country worked the same day job as Donald Trump. Washington was a land developer.”

I enjoyed this part of Washington’s life, which I hadn’t read about before. Europeans viewed Washington as a hero for defeating the despised British, so in 1785 the king of Spain sent him donkeys as breeding stock for working mules. I’ve met little burro donkeys with backs a bit higher than my waist and big riding donkeys – so different – so I found the descriptions delightful.

Buck also shares his efforts to recreate a suitable wagon, and even diagrams of the triple-tree design for hitching a three-mule team to a wagon. I didn’t know that the term “Conestoga” refers to an eastern cargo wagon that played almost in role in the western migration, or that the first factory assembly line produced wagons, not Ford cars. There’s even a side trip through how building the famous eastern canal system helped evolve a practical wagon.

After a hundred pages, the journey west begins
There’s a lot of information from trail diaries on the trip west. Runaway teams, disease, and hunting accidents caused frequent injury and death. Bridges are a special hazard for mules, which “can get a third of the way across… look sideways… panic… and overturn the wagon or crash into cars in an attempt to escape.” Covered bridges prevented this by blocking the animals view – and I thought they were just pretty! Buck includes a story of his father getting a terrified team across a bridge with his kids help.

RVs are a special hazard for Buck. They would often drive slowly very close to the mules to take pictures or drive ahead to stop, nearly blocking the road, to take more pictures as Buck drove by. He calls RVer men who wanted to make jokes about the wagon as “himbos,” as a play on “bimbos.”

An amazing woman pioneer
The westward migration was a huge change from fur traders and “backwoodsmen like Daniel Boone [who] could disappear into the great forests for months alone. Carrying just a small haversack, a musket, and a long knife.” But in 1836 there was “enormous prejudice against” white women going west with their husbands. This led into a wonderful tale of Narcissa Prentis, the firs white woman to cross the Rockies. She married a fellow missionary – apparently for the convenience of both – and sent installments of her diary back east with various fur traders they encountered who were headed that way. (People seemed to take the burden of delivering letters very seriously.)

Continue reading

Value Families or Family Values?

way we really areAre collapsing family values the cause of America’s troubles?

  • Dire pronouncements on the future of American families.
  • Single moms worry their sons are doomed to lives of violence.
  • Pundits propose harsh penalties against people in “non-traditional” families.
  • Real wages are falling.

If this sounds like the latest news, consider The Way We Really Are  – published in 1998.

A family historian and faculty at Evergreen State College, Stephanie Coontz states her goal is to

“complicate an issue that the consensus proclaimers argue is so self-evident only a fool would disagree”.

Beaver Clever’s All-American “breadwinner family” where father works away from the home and mother raises the children is only 150 years old. In the breadwinner family, women’s access to economic and political roles is restricted, but historically productive work was part of mothers’ work. Breadwinner men’s nurturing is restricted, but historically fathers were part of daily parenting of children. Continue reading

Engineering Communism

engineering-communismThe subtitle of the book by Steven R. Usdin is, “How Two Americans Spied for Stalin and Founded the Soviet Silicon Valley.” I’ve always been interested in why Americans spied for the Soviet Union, and this book tells me at least two of them eagerly spied and believed in Communism to their deaths. The book tells how Joel Barr and Alfred Sarant, members of the Rosenberg spy ring, provided technical details of radar, antiaircraft aiming devices, and the proximity fuse to the Soviets during World War II. The KGB, a Russian abbreviation for “Committee for State Security,” helped them escape when the spy ring began to crumble. The KGB then helped them overcome Soviet bureaucracy to build electronics industry with new identities. Barr became Joseph Berg and Sarant became Phillip Staros. Their story is extraordinary because the two led happy and productive lives behind the Iron Curtain while most defectors “…were despised and distrusted by their Soviet counterparts…and quite a few drank themselves to death.” Neither ever admitted their espionage activities. Barr did readily acknowledge that he felt greater loyalty to the USSR than to the United States “…because the Soviet Union was the only nation on earth trying to build the communist utopia he fervently believed in…” Neither Barr nor Sarant ever indicated any remorse that the secrets they passed to the Soviets were used against American pilots and soldiers in Korea and Vietnam.

Barr and Sarant learned engineering at the City College of New York (CCNY). The two were among the half of the 100 engineering students who were communists. Their informal cell, which was led by Julius Rosenberg, included Barr, Sarant, Morton Sobell, Max Elichter, Bill Danziger, and Bill Perl, and all would eventually spy for the Soviet Union. Sobell, Elichter, and Danziger landed jobs the Navy Bureau of Ordnance. Barr started at the Civil Aeronautics Authority and had to hide his Communist affiliation because the Hatch Act barred government employment to anyone belonging to certain organizations, including CPUSA. Barr did distribute literature encouraging fellow employees to join the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists, and Technicians (FAECT). The KGB used FAECT and other similar organizations to recruit agents. By 1940 Lieutenant General Pavel Fitin, head of Soviet foreign intelligence, commanded a covert force in the United States that exceeded the number of FBI agents.

Barr worked at Fort Monmouth and eventually went to work for Western Electric, where he worked on perfecting the Norden bombsight. He was allowed to carry classified documents to his home to “work overtime”

The book mentions that the FBI finally began to wake up to the Soviet espionage threat “…around the time of the Soviet victory over the Nazis at the epic battle of Stalingrad…” The FBI ballooned to 4,380 agents, and many of them were working on surveillance of suspected Soviet activities. Continue reading