Monday, November 12, 2018

An American Tries To Understand Armistice Day-On 3Q

This past Sunday, November 11, marked the Centennial of Armistice Day, the European commemoration of the agreement to end World War I. Representatives from more than 60 countries attended carefully choreographed ceremonies to honor the sacrifice of those who fought.

The Europeans take the Great War seriously. Americans really don’t. It just doesn’t feel like our war. To us, it’s an old chest filled with musty, tattered maps and the remains of broken monarchies and shattered ambitions. Even the early film footage, jerky and grainy in black and white, looks more like a silent movie than something real. We know we participated, and naturally we were heroic. Our boys saved the Allied powers from the Huns, all the while singing “Over There” and wooing the local pulchritude. It’s what we broad-shouldered, brave, optimistic, can-do Americans do.

But, if you want to contextualize our actual contribution, consider the following:

The United States committed 2.8 million servicemen to the war, and suffered 53,402 killed in action, 63,114 deaths from disease and other causes, and about 205,000 wounded. On an absolute level, that’s a lot of lives. But, by contrast, in just one extended, insane battle, the Europeans fought the Somme Offensive, with more than 3 million men engaged and 1 million casualties. Then there was Gallipoli, the infamous, disastrous push by then-First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill in the Dardanelles, which provided the Ottoman Empire with its last meaningful military victory, and included a horrific sacrifice by ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand combined forces) and half a million casualties. And Verdun (between the French and the Germans), which lasted close to 11 months in 1916, and yielded nearly 700,000 casualties and more than 300,000 dead. And Passchendaele (3rd Battle of Ypres, Flanders Fields), between Great Britain, France, Belgium and Germany, in July to November 1917, in which the dead and wounded may have been as high as 700,000. And Operation Michael, the last major German offensive in the West (Germany, the UK, France, and, finally, the United States), which had almost 500,000 casualties. That, of course, skips every battle between the Germans and the Russians.

Read about these and you are stunned by not just the numbers (the human cost of the Somme alone was comparable to the total of all US casualties for the entirety of World War II) but the sheer arrogance and pig-headedness of both the military and political leadership of the time. I don’t know if it’s possible to understand the thinking that you could apply 19th Century concepts of cavalry charges (without the horses) in the face of 20th Century killing technology. It takes an astounding amount of myopia to see what is in front of you and refuse to adapt, and almost a contempt for human life to see it wasted this way. We talk about The Lost Generation (in Europe, the “Generation of 1914”), but they were lost by leadership who valued their lives far too little. We have to ask ourselves, what impelled so many civilized nations to walk down this road of utter and mindless self-destruction?

You can’t begin without recognizing that WW I didn’t just happen. Europe had been seething for decades. The ground was still hot from the First and Second Balkan wars (one Balkan War not being enough). But, if the tinder was there, the match was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire crown. The killer, Gavrilo Princip, was a Bosnian Serb member of Young Bosnia, a group seeking to end Austro-Hungarian rule in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

That should alert you to two critical tectonic forces. A monarchy that no longer exists, exercising control over an adjoining country, which had previously been under control of yet another monarchy (the Ottoman Empire) that also no longer exists. Add to this stew the rest of the Balkans, riven by centuries-old tribal rivalries, constantly shifting borders, two alpha-dogs in Serbia and Bosnia, and the toxic catnip that being “the soft underbelly of Europe” represented to other European powers. The stage was set.

Then, an ominous pause of almost a month as Austria-Hungary evaluated its options, and then issued an ultimatum to Serbia. Serbia considered it, consulted with its Russian allies, and acceded to certain points, but not the entire proposal. It was not enough. Austria-Hungary’s pride (and hunger) unsated, and being emboldened by a German “Blank Check” of unconditional support, it declared war against Serbia. Both the Germans and the Austrians gambled that the Russians, who had shown a recent predilection for backing down, would do so again. This time, they were wrong. Russia saw a need to come to its Slavic brother Serbia’s defense. We now had a regional war.

It would soon go continental, driven by the incredible entanglement of mutual defense treaties. The Russians and the Serbs and the Germans and the Austro-Hungarians weren’t the only pairs of “allies.” The British had an arrangement with Japan; France had one with Russia and another with Belgium. Finally, France, Britain, and Russia came together as the Triple Entente. As one country after another entered the war, their allies felt compelled to honor their agreements, eventually sorting themselves out into two opposing teams: The Allied Powers (the Triple Entente, then Italy, eventually joined by United States) and the Central Powers, consisting of Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria.

Of course, these countries didn’t come in just out of a sense of honor. Opportunism and empire-building played a critical role. All thought of themselves as great powers. They had spent the last few decades in competitive arms buildups, secret diplomacy that often showed a stunning lack of consistency and integrity, and a globe-spanning grand colonialism that allowed every country to dream of more land and more conquests. Those conquests could be on other continents (Africa, South America, Asia) or, quite literally, right next door. Early 20th Century European states did not see the map of Europe as immutable. Entire regions belonging to adjoining countries might be up for annexation, as they had been for the entire 19th Century. What’s more, the collective leadership of Europe seemed to agree that to the strongest went the spoils. All those “allies” were also rivals.

This made a good little war seem a bit appealing to many, not unlike a duel on the field of honor. It would be quick; you would bloody the nose of your opponent and walk away with a deep harbor, some fertile lands, perhaps some mining interests, or even a collection of factories.

Germany certainly thought that way. Since Bismarck, they had been building military strength, both on land and at sea, testing others for weakness, and pining for recognition. They resented the British for the size of their Empire, had contempt for the perceived weakness of the French, and saw the “Slavic Menace” as existential, yet something that could be defeated easily, if it were done soon enough. They were confident they could fight a two-front war, with speed being the essential component in the West. Their Schlieffen Plan called for a quick thrust through then-neutral Belgium to defeat the French and bottle up the British Expeditionary Force. The Kaiser told his soldiers they would be home “before the autumn leaves,” and what evidence we have indicates that most of them, as well as the public, thought the same.

In the actual event, things didn’t quite work out as planned. In both the West and East, Germany’s early successes were ultimately met with determined resistance. Its ally, Austria, with an ambition greater than its abilities, decided to see what goodies it could take from the Italians, and it bogged down as well. Suddenly, Germany was in a three-front war of attrition—no dashing cavalry, no lightening victories. The leaves began to fall, and the troops stayed to watch them.

While there’s little doubt that the making of European policy was dominated by the aristocracy and the military, what about the home front, what about the opinions of the best minds? In Germany, many of them were ardent supporters of the war. There was the “Manifesto of 93,” signed by 93 scientists, authors, theologians, artists and historians, musical composers and playwrights, including a dozen past and future Nobel Prize winners. “As representatives of German Science and Art, we hereby protest to the civilized world against the lies and calumnies with which our enemies are endeavoring to stain the honor of Germany in her hard struggle for existence—in a struggle that has been forced on her.”

Some of these best minds took a more active role than boosterism. On April 22, 1915, at the second Battle at Ypres, Germany shattered the 1899 Hague Declaration banning the use of chemical weapons by using massive amounts of chlorine gas. Otto Hahn, a future Nobelist in Chemistry (1944) helped install the cylinders, after being convinced by Fritz Haber (Nobel in Chemistry in 1918) that poison gas would shorten the fighting. Later, Haber would recruit two other future Nobel prize winners, James Franck and Gustav Hertz.

Haber’s initiative ushered in a more lethal phase of the war. Once the Germans used it, the French, then the British, and then finally the United States began to develop their own brands of toxins. In a cruel twist, Haber’s wife, the brilliant Clara Immerwahl, a PhD in her own right, grew increasingly haunted by the use of gas. She begged her husband to stop, he refused, and one day, after a particularly heated row between them, he stalked off to conduct an attack on the Eastern Front. In his absence, she committed suicide.

Of course, Haber was wrong. The gas didn’t end the war, nor the introduction of tanks, nor dirigibles and planes dropping new kinds of bombs, nor extraordinary amounts of artillery. Men were stuffed into uniforms, ferried to the front with bayonet and spade in hand, and, on orders from detached commanders who saw their troops as mere abstractions on a chess board, sent to charge into the machine gun fire.

Again, one has to ask, why, when it became obvious there would be no quick and decisive victories, when the death count was mounting far higher than anyone could have anticipated, did it have to continue? Why didn’t saner heads draw back in 1915 and 1916?

They did, a bit. There were some peace discussions going on, even as early as 1914, with the Germans attempting to cut a deal with the Russians and even the French. Before US entry into the war, Woodrow Wilson made proposals that would have largely restored the status quo ante. In 1917, the Pope, worried that Europe was falling apart, proposed something similar to Wilson’s framework. Finally, the Austrians, recognizing their own efforts flagging, and with famine at home, reached out to the British and French, offering some concessions. But, with the exception of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in March of 1918, where the new Bolshevik unilaterally settled with the Central Powers, none of these even approached fruition. In hindsight, one can see why—none of the combatants could bring themselves to say yes. Time and again, the parties wanted things they hadn’t achieved on the battlefield. They were still building empires at the price of lives.

And so, it went on. More trenches and barbed wire, more machine guns and gas. More corpses and more mourners. From the mouth of Remarque’s fictitious Paul Baumer, “We have become wild beasts. We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.”

Annihilation came. When it was over, four dynasties had fallen—Austria, Germany, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. Between 17 and 20 million died, another 20 million wounded, the majority, civilians. The victors imposed an unwise peace at Versailles, paving the way for a second, far more destructive war. The fields of France and Belgium, pockmarked by trenches and adorned with barbed wire, were later filled with cemeteries. They were crowded yesterday with ordinary people carrying poppies, paying their respects to the fallen, and perhaps, to the end of innocence itself.

“We are the dead,” the poet said. Their grave markers stand, not just as a reminder of their sacrifice, but also as a dignified, silent reproach to the leaders who failed them.

An American Tries To Understand Armistice Day first appeared on November 12, 2018 on

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Mortar and The Pestle on 3Q

My dad was a pharmacist. He had an old-fashioned store (including an actual soda fountain and stools) and some of the old-fashioned tools of the trade: scales and eye-droppers, spatulas and ointment bases, graded flasks and beakers, amphorae, and his mortar and pestle.

Pharmacy was a bit more of an art in those days and doctors often wrote prescriptions that had a little eye of newt in them. This could make Dad cranky, as they took time and counterspace, but I suspect that, secretly, he liked doing them. He would bring out the mortar and pestle (sometimes with a Remington’s Practice of Pharmacy), and, for all intents and purposes, he could have been an herbalist for a Pharaoh, so old was the tradition of combining exotic ingredients and using time and pressure until the desired potency and texture was achieved.

I have been thinking about that mortar and pestle the last few weeks. They remind me of how just the simplest set of tools, coupled with accumulated knowledge and craftsmanship, can produce something useful and even essential. And, they make me wonder whether, in this insane age, where ignorance and even falsehoods are celebrated and experience scorned, there is anything at all they still have to teach.
Last month, I attended the 16th annual conference of Columbia’s Center on Capitalism and Society. The topic was “The Economic Consequences of Mr. Trump: Jobs, Wages, Trade, Growth, Health and Satisfaction.” The organizers made a real effort to include views from across the spectrum, although it’s fair to say a majority were not Trump supporters. Nevertheless, the overall tone was cautious and analytical, rather than hypercritical. These are serious people (including three Nobel Prize winners), all literate and classically trained, and all share a deep understanding of the laws of economics, and a vast knowledge of data and historical trends.
There is no way I can do justice to a day of such intense sobriety, so I’m going to take a shortcut. Trump is not like anyone in their collective experience.
Rather, he is the mad scientist who tosses out the Remington while throwing into the mortar things they warned you in apothecary school definitely don’t go together. At the bottom of the bowl is a bizarre combination of traditional Republican pro-business policies and an utterly unconventional dose of populism, corporatism, and mercantilism. To thoroughly abuse Neil Simon, it can best be described as either very bad meat, or very good cheese.
But does it work? Or does the toxicity-to-efficacy ratio leave the patient on the brink of multi-organ collapse? The conferees’ goal was to make some sense out of it all.
It wasn’t all negative. Even Trump’s harshest critics didn’t deny some upside. There has been growth and lower unemployment, and the stock-market has (or had) been making new highs. Trump does plenty of mainstream things that conservative economists love—mostly cut taxes, provide a safe harbor for repatriation of profits held abroad, roll back regulations, and aim at non-military government spending. For the rest of Trump’s package, there was considerably less enthusiasm. There was a lot of concern about the deficit, and surprising consensus on Trump’s gutting of environmental regulations and his obsession with coal. I expected the more conservative members of the group to defend this, but just about everyone saw the costs dwarfing whatever short-term economic benefits might accrue. And virtually no one liked the trade wars and tariffs; bear in mind, to a classically trained economist, the infamous Smoot-Hawley bill, passed in 1930 and signed by Herbert Hoover, remains the gold standard of bad.
Yet in all of these cool and calculated observations, graphs, and charts, there was also an interesting undercurrent: Trump is not an idiot—he can be appallingly ignorant, but most of the time he’s just purposely unorthodox and lacking in subtlety. And perhaps he has done us all a favor by identifying issues that we have been unable to reconcile using the old ways—things that the electorate may have internalized and voted on without having fully articulated. There are two main themes of the start of the 21st Century. The first is the unraveling of the post-World War II international order, which is based on a web of military alliances cinched together with trade agreements. The second is the crumbling “domestic” order that is supposed to deliver both widespread prosperity and the type of government that the largest number of people can accept as beneficial and reasonable. These are things that need our attention.
Of course, Trump’s medicine for both is typically Trumpian: A strong dose of Trump. “Real” America is mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, either at home or abroad. Get on board, pay the toll of obeisance, or get stomped on.
Can this work? Trump says he can win any trade war. Few professionals agree, yet he did renegotiate NAFTA and get some concessions. We can debate the extent of his victory, but even if there is a marginal improvement, then the question is strictly whether the damage to relationships with the Mexicans and Canadians (and, potentially, those other countries who may no longer see the U.S. as a stable negotiating partner) was worth the price. Is the NAFTA example scalable, and can it be applied to foreign policy? Is Trump’s fetish for Putin and his contempt for NATO partly for show to persuade the Europeans to take greater responsibility for their own security? If so, will that also reduce our influence? Pretty much all of us know what the Establishment’s consensus on that is—he’s a reckless fool. But he’s a reckless fool who happens to be President, and until he leaves, he’s the only game in town.
When he does leave, what’s next? To this point, I had a fascinating conversation last week with a semi-retired journalist who had spent many years covering the inner workings of Congress. He talked about the destructive influence of partisanship, but what was really interesting was his insights as to how laws are made. What most people don’t understand about legislating is that, to do it right, you need both openness to other ideas and sufficient depth to grasp the nuances. Obviously, Senators and Congressmen can’t possibly have granular expertise in every topic (most of them aren’t interested anyway) so they rely on aides who theoretically do. The system works if the aides are serious and involved—they really can be the unsung heroes of good legislation. The problem, the journalist told me, is that the aides are no longer any good. Where once they were hired for their abilities, now they are either basically publicity people, focusing on the soundbite that will make their boss look good, or come from (and will return to) the industries or special interests they are supposed to help regulate.
When the aides are bad, the laws they write are bad, shot through with technical errors and sprinkled with spoils and petty punishments. This, perversely, feeds the disdain that most Americans have for their government, and further radicalizes them, leading to ever-more extreme office holders with even less capacity for doing anything well. The process repeats itself in election after election, until what we have is the distilled essence of stupid, and leads, inevitably, to someone like Trump. So, whether Trump is the apotheosis of an age that rejects knowledge and nuance because it seems ineffectual, or just the product of it, is beside the point. The trendlines have been here for decades, and it’s the electorate itself that has engaged in self-sabotage. The shock of 2016 shouldn’t have been that Trump won the Electoral College. It’s that anyone like Trump could get 63 million votes. That reflects our, and conventional wisdom’s, collective failure.
How do we stop failing, regain our secular faith in our system and recapture our competence? As the Kavanaugh hearings showed us, grandstanding, preening for the cameras, and the worst kind of rank partisanship seem to be the default setting for virtually everyone in, or aspiring to, higher office. When you get this sick, there is no overnight miracle cure.
Maybe we just have to go back to basics. There is one thing my Dad sometimes did that sticks with me. He couldn’t spend time with everyone picking up a prescription. But occasionally, especially for a worried parent, he did. He would emerge from behind his raised white work area, the magic potion in his left hand. He used his right as a musical conductor might have in a quieter passage, held at a 45 degree angle, palm face down, gently counting beats as he gave precise instructions. He identified possible side-effects, mentioned that improvement might not be linear or immediate, gave markers of progress to watch for. Only then would he place the package into anxious hands. These interactions, which rarely lasted more than a minute or two, very often calmed people, made them a partner, and gave them agency.
Expertise, partnership, and agency is exactly what many want from their government, not endless bickering and embarrassing public displays. There’s a palpable ache out there to be called to something better, something with beauty and meaning and value. Most of us feel it, but it is particularly acute in younger people, for whom the future is a lifetime of learning, and the mistakes of the past not their doing.
Perhaps that explains two emails I received from my friend Christine Helmer, a Martin Luther scholar and Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern:
“The quarter started yesterday—my intro to theology is oversubscribed, odd, seems like the kids are really anxious nowadays and seeking some lasting values (amid a news cycle that is thoroughly distressing)” and then, “Getting ready for my oversubscribed class, dealing with the knowledge of self and knowledge of God…”
If the future of this country wants to grapple with big issues like philosophy and theology, maybe the rest of us should take heed and hold up our end.

Or, to borrow from a different liturgy, the Gates of Repentance are always open.
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
The Mortar and The Pestle was first published on October 15, 2018 in

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Monday, September 17, 2018

The Lost Summer of William Jennings Bryan-on 3Quarksdaily

He flew so fast and so close to the sun that it took an entire lifetime to fall back to Earth.
William Jennings Bryan was just 36 years old when, on July 9, 1896, he seized the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination on the back of a single, electrifying speech, “Cross of Gold. Twenty-nine years later almost to the day, a haunted shell of his former self, he sat at the prosecution’s table, waiting for opening arguments in the Scopes Monkey Trial, unaware it would lead to his humiliation and ultimately hasten his tragic end.
In between, “The Great Commoner” was nominated twice more by his party, in 1900 and 1908, and served as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State from 1913 to 1915. He then threw himself into efforts for causes as diverse as women’s suffrage, direct elections for Senators, and Prohibition. In the 1920s, he shifted his primary focus to his faith, but remained a prominent figure among Democrats through the 1924 Convention, when he was literally heckled off the stage in tears while trying to broker a compromise on an anti-KKK platform plank.
Bryan is an enigma. He failed frequently, but got multiple chances where abler men were passed over. Contemporaries questioned his intelligence and the scope of his interests, yet the exacting, often arrogant Wilson put him in his Cabinet and gave him a free hand with Latin American policy. His durability might best be ascribed to his possession of two tremendous assets: First, he was arguably the best orator of his time, compelling almost whenever and wherever he spoke, and, second, he seemed to have a psychic bond with his base. As the historian Richard Hofstadter noted, while other politicians of that era may have sensed the feelings of the people, Bryan embodied them. His people stayed with him through his successes and his disappointments.
There is no modern politician to compare to Bryan, at least no one who would fit into any recognizable political species. But to understand him, even a bit, it’s worth examining a single six-week-long journey he took from Chicago’s Colosseum to New York’s Madison Square Garden in the summer of 1896.
You have to start with The Speech. Myth has it that “The Boy Orator of the Platte” emerged from complete obscurity. This is not true. He had been a Congressman, and a player in the Democratic Party for several years. His allies had been quietly organizing behind the scenes and gathering delegate pledges well before Chicago. But there’s no arguing that he could never have launched his candidacy without the extraordinary performance he gave.

The Speech is worth reading on its own. Theatrics aside, there are potent themes in there. Bryan hammered away at the moral, intellectual, and economic conflicts between labor and capital, and between Wall Street and Main Street. And, as virtually every listener in the hall that day knew, he was right. The deck was stacked against the common man. Unbridled capitalism, turbocharged by abundant political corruption, had ushered in a Gilded Age of huge personal fortunes. Steel, chemicals, railroads, oil and coal, zinc and nickel, meatpacking and banking—if there was money to be made, there were tough men to make it. There was an attitude amongst them that they were the winners in the Social Darwinism race and should therefore be exempt from living by any other man’s rules. Elected officials (properly compensated of course) largely agreed.
The humbler (and virtually everyone was humbler than Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Stanford, Frick, etc.) didn’t merit quite so many friends in high places. Labor found government willing and even eager to use (or let business use) muscle to keep them in line, and deaf to initiatives like workplace safety regulations, minimum wage, and child-labor laws. Farmers had an entirely different set of challenges: During a time of extended declines in commodity prices and land values, they found themselves hemmed in on one side by tariffs meant to protect domestic manufacturers, and squeezed by monopolistic pricing for machinery, storage, and shipping on the other. The scarcity of hard currency at a time where a bushel of anything bought less each year enhanced the appeal of Bryan’s Free Silver crusade.

The short-lived Populist Party had highlighted some of these issues in 1892, with some modest successes. Their candidate, James Weaver, carried five Western states and received Electoral College votes in a sixth, but there wasn’t yet a critical mass to take the movement national. Then, the Panic of 1893 intensified the hardships of the worker and farmer. Unemployment across the country shot up to crippling levels and farm prices fell yet again. Banks failed, and, with them, the deposits of working and middle-class families evaporated.

Opportunity was there for the right man with the right message, and, when Bryant walked onto that podium in Chicago, he knew it. Using words that are eerily modern, he defined the political universe: “There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.”

Bryan insisted those masses occupied the same plane as the moguls. He professed to see no difference between the wage earner and his employer, the farmer and the grain trader, and the miner and “the few financial magnates who in a backroom corner the money of the world”—all were businessmen. All were worthy of equal treatment.

If he had built on that, he might very well have stitched together a winning coalition. But, operating with the peculiar myopia that was always to hamper his ambitions, he stumbled. First, he made a tactical mistake—having laid the groundwork for a broad-based attack on inequality, in the next breath he essentially abandoned every other idea to focus on silver as the magic bullet. He then compounded the error by blocking the Vice-Presidential candidacy of a moderate running mate, John W. McLean, who might have brought gravitas (and money) to the ticket. This alienated “Gold” Democrats (roughly one-third of the delegates) who were already a bit dubious about the rest of the platform. Back in William McKinley headquarters, there was considerable celebration.

His second mistake probably came from his gut. Bryan wasn’t really a coalition-builder—he was a man with a messianic sense of purpose and very distinct set of preferences. His heart was with the farmers: “You come to us and tell us that the great cities are in favor of the gold standard. I tell you that the great cities rest upon these broad and fertile prairies. Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

It’s the appeal of a purely sectional candidate, made all the more curious because Bryan had planned a whistle-stop rail trip to New York immediately after the Convention to accept his nomination, followed by a swing through New England.

Gaffe followed gaffe. He’s quoted as saying he was traveling East “in order that our cause might be presented first in the heart of what now seems to be the enemy’s country, but what we hope to be our country before the campaign is over.” His opponents pounced, and as much as his defenders (including some historians) claim that “enemy country” was “ripped out of context,” it sticks, particularly because he repeated it.

What happened next were even more unforeseen consequences, unanticipated disasters, and missed opportunities. Bryan’s rail route took him to dozens of cities and towns along the way, and in each one he was expected to give a speech and meet and greet. His voice, that magnificent Gideon’s Trumpet, weakened to barely a whisper. He and his wife Mary’s hands grew so swollen from being grabbed that eventually well-wishers were told not to touch the couple. And, to accentuate the misery, a massive heat wave gripped the country.

Bryan and retinue arrived in Manhattan on August 11th. The city was in no mood to celebrate; rather, it was in the grip of an epic human disaster. Nearly 1500 people died over a 10-day stretch, many small children. The tenements, crammed with immigrants and the working poor, without reliable indoor plumbing, many rooms without windows, without light or air, baked in the sun each day, making them virtually uninhabitable. People fled to fire escapes and roofs, some died in falls when they rolled over in their sleep, or when iron or masonry gave way. The streets were filled with dead horses, too numerous to be carted away before they started to decompose.

In this monumental catastrophe, official New York, in the thrall of Tammany and the monied interests, did virtually nothing. The idea of government intervention on behalf of the suffering poor and working classes seemed ludicrous to them. For days, their only visible presence was that of police shooting dogs and preventing people from sleeping in parks. Two men did jump in, Commissioner of Public Works Charles Collis, who instituted a plan of widespread hosing down of blocks in the poorest neighborhoods, and then-Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt, who arranged for the purchase and distribution of blocks of ice to the desperate. But that was it.

It was an astounding example of the very excesses of Capitalism that Bryan had been inveighing against, and an incredible opportunity. But he failed to seize it. Where was he? Giving what was certainly the worst major speech of his life. On August 12th, an estimated 12,000 New Yorkers trooped into sweltering Madison Square Garden to take his measure, and hear him demolish the defenders of the gold standard. They were quickly disappointed. Perhaps it was because of his weakened voice, perhaps it was for tactical reasons (he later said he was convinced the New York newspapers would refuse to report accurately what he said), but he decided to skip his usual extemporaneous, dramatic style, and read something prepared.

Whatever the motivation, it bombed, and after a few minutes, people started filing out. By the time he had finished droning, the Garden was mostly empty. The speech was panned by virtually every newspaper except the Hearst organ New York Journal, which, for business reasons, was an unabashed Bryan supporter. The after-effects were almost immediate. Few people came to the several receptions to meet the nominee—and even fewer of those were people of influence.

Bryan had squandered his best opportunity to convert the doubters, and his team of advisers quickly cancelled the rest of his Northeastern/New England swing. Curiously, no one seemed willing to use the extra time to regain the initiative, have Bryan and Mary visit some of hardest-hit neighborhoods, show compassion for those who official, monied New York seemed all too willing to ignore.

The couple left town for a visit with an old friend of Mary’s, and the moment passed. Bryan’s candidacy never really recovered. Between the “enemy country” remark, his forgettable speech, and his obsession with the Silver issue, he had defined himself as a parochial candidate without a strategy to appeal beyond his base. In November, McKinley swept the Northeast, and won decisively. In a rematch four years later, McKinley would expand his margin, including taking Bryan’s home state of Nebraska. 

Progressivism would have to wait for abler champions with broader visions—people like Robert La Follette and TR. If there was consolation for Bryan, it may have finally come from the tens of thousands of his brethren who lined the funeral train route that brought his body from Tennessee to Arlington Cemetery. He never left his base, and they never left him.

The Lost Summer of William Jennings Bryan, first appeared on, where it was published on September 17, 2018 
Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)
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Monday, August 20, 2018

Return to The Atomic Cafe--On 3Quarks

Will you know what to do when the atomic bomb drops? 

This question, and others like it, are vividly on display in the 4K restoration of Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty, and Pierce Rafferty’s 1982 documentary, The Atomic Café. Having seen the movie when it was first released (my kids’ reaction to this information was “of course you did”) I was determined to return to my roots. But, this being 2018, I took full advantage of technologies not available in the Neolithic Age: I quickly went online and bought two tickets for a night when the filmmakers themselves would be there for a Q&A. Then I fired off a few text messages to friendly liberals of a similar vintage to see who else was going, because you really don’t go to one of these things without a posse.  

I was not to be disappointed.  Six of us converged on the newly renovated, but still decidedly funky Film Forum.  First, my 26-year old son, who spared me the dubious honor of being the only person in the audience in a suit, white shirt, and dark tie (we looked like refugees from a Book of Mormon casting call). Then four of the like-minded, three of whom could be described as gracefully aging hipsters (wearing, respectively, a pair of gray braids, a great-looking gray Van Dyke, and a graying inside out T-shirt) and finally, my pal (and liberal conscience) Melinda.  

I could write books about Melinda, and I should, because there aren’t enough Melindas in the world.  She’s a Yellow Dog Texas Democrat who brought with her to New York an indestructible accent, an odd affinity for driving minivans as basic transportation in a car-unfriendly city, and an inexhaustible capacity for good works. If there was a protest anywhere, Melinda knew about it, probably organized it, and occasionally got arrested for it. There are still places that are off-limits to her, for a variety of Deep State-ish reasons. Greenwich Village, of course, is not one of them. Melinda is the genuine article.

But I digress. The movie is the thing you came to see, and the movie is what you should get.

It opens with the first A-bomb tests in the New Mexico desert, and, with those blasts, you notice something different: No narration. The filmmakers spent five years reviewing material at the National Archives, and one of the very smart choices they made was to let the original footage speak for itself. This isn’t some Comedy Central mashup. It’s a serious film that trusts itself.

Next, the Enola Gay flies unopposed over Hiroshima, “Little Boy” drops, and the unimaginable occurs. Paul Tibbets, the captain and leader of the mission appears on screen, speaking directly into the camera. Tibbets is calm and authoritative, and the use of him, and his presence, so early, helps to frame one of the central moral ambiguities about the dawning of the Atomic Age: Are there circumstances in which the use of nuclear weapons is morally acceptable?

This is a more complex question than it appears at first, and the answer isn’t forced on you. To Tibbetts, it’s a clear yes, and, as uncomfortable as that may make many feel now, he was voicing the prevailing opinion of the time. My father, drafted in 1944 and deployed to the Philippines,  was unquestionably a life-long liberal, and an early and vocal opponent of Vietnam. But when it came to Hiroshima, he really didn’t have doubts. The Japanese were extraordinarily stubborn and courageous fighters, and he saw the first bomb as an awful, but justified alternative to a D-Day-like invasion of the mainland. He did question the second strike, at Nagasaki: having demonstrated the power of what Emperor Hirohito called “a new and most cruel bomb,” couldn’t we have waited a bit longer than three days for Japan to surrender? But I never heard him waver on Hiroshima, even several decades afterwards, when the full impact of all of the consequences of the bomb became clear.  

Reasonable people might disagree with Tibbets and Dad, and it’s more than likely that the filmmakers do, but I think it’s a sign of their sophistication and discipline that the movie doesn’t dwell on it. The heart of The Atomic Café is what happens after the genie is let out of the bottle: the jaw-dropping efforts by our government to shape public opinion through a staged combination of Doomsday and Pollyanna.

Americans in the 1950s and 60s believed, simultaneously, in three somewhat conflicting things: The first was that we were the most powerful country in the world, all the more so because we had this absolutely wonderful nuclear arsenal. The second was that we were in mortal danger from the Communists, who were trying to undermine us from within, while planning for our mass destruction from without.  And the third was that, while the danger was real, proper preparation would save most of us, so, preparation was both prudent and patriotic.

The Atomic Café takes us back to the first years of living under the threat of mass annihilation. A lot of it looks like it could have been written for an early version of The Onion, so absurd is the footage to modern eyes. There are cartoons, portentous voice-overs, silly songs, school kids “ducking and covering,” and Moms in pearls making themselves comfortable in fallout shelters. Add an exceptionally humorless and unappealing American Communist woman (in shawl and tortoiseshell glasses!) gesticulating wildly, an absolutely excruciating clip of two girls who look like they belonged at a 4-H meeting describing the canned goods they’ve set aside in case of attack, and a variety of politicians making bat-shit crazy statements, more than a few of whom should have known better (Lloyd Bentsen, looking at you here).  There’s even Hugh Beaumont (Beaver Cleaver’s Dad) projecting manly, but comforting confidence.

What is fairly clear is that the policy-makers in Washington didn’t have much different a strategy then that of the fictional General Buck Turgidson in Dr. Strangelove—a nuclear war was bad, but winnable. “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”  All provided, of course, that we had the will to prepare. “Mr. President, we must not allow a mineshaft gap!”

But this isn’t fiction, and the unreality of what unspools in front of you (a family at a picnic seeing the blast, and then covering themselves with a sheet?) leads you back to a very contemporary feeling: Government sees the public as something to be manipulated, not as something to be served.

I don’t think there’s a more stunning example of this than a bit of footage that had stayed with me since I first saw the movie in 1982—American troops, seen in a training exercise, first sitting in trenches, waiting for a small tactical nuclear weapon to be exploded. A Chaplain comforts them by saying it would be ”one of the most beautiful sights ever seen by man.” The soldiers are all given little badges to wear to register their exposure to radiation—it should be safe, they are reassured, but if it’s too much, well, they might die, but don’t worry about it. Several are interviewed as they calmly discuss what’s about to happen. Then, detonation, the men emerge, and march straight into the mushroom cloud.

One of the most striking aspects of seeing the movie again, 36 years later, is that, even though I remembered it almost frame by frame, my emotional reaction was significantly different. It turned out that experience was common to the room. In the Q&A afterwards with the filmmakers, it was clear that much of the audience was like me—former duck-and-cover kids who roared the first time, but were now laughing nervously, if they were laughing at all. My friends felt the same way, and my son, not generally given to overstatement, called the movie “terrifying.”

Same film, why the difference? The world has changed. In 1982, the USA, the Soviet Union, and China understood that nuclear war meant mutual assured destruction, and, notwithstanding the rhetoric, none of them wanted it. Strategic arms reduction talks had begun in 1969, during Nixon’s first term, and led to SALT I and SALT II. While most people realized that the agreements merely blunted the arc of nuclear proliferation, at least there was a consensus that we should step back from the abyss. The danger, many thought, came not from the superpowers, but from two newer members of the nuclear club, India and Pakistan, who, for tribal reasons, might not necessarily be rational actors. That was then. Now, we just seem to surrounded by a dangerous entropy and implacable hostility: Not only are there rogue states like North Korea and Iran, but also stateless threats and random kooks, hopped up on a bizarre ideology or just a desire to be destructive. The bomb could drop at any time.

With that as perspective, you again have to acknowledge the skill of Loader and the Raffertys: while the material is old, the movie isn’t in the least bit dated. As you watch, time speeds up and the surreal kaleidoscope tells the story: The Bomb as savior, The Bomb as part of competitive nationalism, The Bomb as described by J. Robert Oppenheimer: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Then, it’s over. The lights come on, and you sit back in your chair and wonder at the cosmic irony of we humans flailing helplessly against the Golem we birthed.

The Atomic Café. It’s worth the trip. 

Return to The Atomic Cafe first appeared on on August 20, 2018