Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.

Archive for June, 2014

Hobby Lobby SCOTUS Ruling:

The Supreme Court ruling on BURWELL, SECRETARY OF HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, ET AL. v. HOBBY LOBBY STORES, INC. has now opened up the precedent (ignoring how narrowly tailored the ruling was to only contraception) that under the RFRA, even if its a compelling government interest, the state cannot mandate any firm with sincere religious beliefs to carry out a requirement, so long as the government can pick up the slack? It seems like the least restrictive means will always be making the government do it instead and not restrict at all anyone’s religious beliefs.

On page 46 of the opinion, Alito writes: “Our decision should not be understood to hold that an insurance-coverage mandate must necessarily fall if it conflicts with an employer’s religious beliefs. Other coverage requirements, such as immunizations, may be supported by different interests (for example, the need to combat the spread of infectious diseases) and may involve different arguments about the least restrictive means of providing them.”

This certainly leaves open the possibility that the Court could rule differently on the “least restrictive means” issue in the future, but his language in section V-B, which discusses the “least restrictive means” test, seems to indicate that it is a difficult standard to pass. On page 41 of the opinion, he indicates that “the most straightforward way of [meeting the least restrictive means test] would be for the Government to assume the cost.” He also says that “HHS has not shown … that this is not a viable alternative.” This seems to indicate that if such a challenge were to come up regarding vaccination or blood transfusions, or whatever else, the burden would be on the Department of Health and Human Services to show that it would be impractical for the Government to cover the cost. That would be quite the burden for the Government to prove.

Ginsberg seems to agree with that reading in her dissent. On page 29 on the dissent, she writes, “And where is the stopping point to the ‘let the government pay’ alternative? Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, … or according women equal pay for substantially similar work…? Does it rank as a less restrictive alternative to require the government to provide the money or benefit to which the employer has a religion-based objection?” In addition to indicating that the Court’s logic could prove problematic in the future, she asserts that it is flawed at present, saying, “In sum, in view of what Congress sought to accomplish, i.e., comprehensive preventive care for women furnished through employer-based health plans, none of the proffered alternatives would satisfactorily serve the compelling interests to which Congress responded.”

I agree with Justice Ginsberg on many points here, especially the last few pages of her dissent. Justice Alito attempts to narrow his ruling as much as possible, but leaves a lot of questions unanswered as to the basis for his narrow ruling. To me, the most compelling arguments come from sections III-4 and IV (pages 27-35) of Ginsberg’s dissent. She basically asserts that the Court’s ruling has much broader implications than it intends, and poses quite a few questions about the basis for the narrow ruling.

I am also inclined to agree with her reasoning that the Court should have no business in determining which religious views are legitimate and which are not, and that religious exemptions from generally applicable law should be reserved for groups that are organized “for a religious purpose” and/or “engaged primarily in carrying out that religious purpose”.

The Supreme Court ruling can be found here:

Justice Ginsburg’s dissent here:

Were Southern Generals better than Northern Generals in the US Civil War?

Right after the Civil War, there was something called the myth of the “Lost Cause.” It was pioneered by Edward A. Pollard, A Richmond journalist who wrote a history of the war in 1866, called (can you guess?) The Lost Cause. Basically, the book says that the Confederacy was a glorious agrarian state, and was defended by the best armies in American history. Pollard argues that the Armies of the Confederacy were more motivated, they fought better, they were led by better officers, and they were fighting for a noble and glorious cause (the defense of the antebellum south). Many historians, especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, repeated this myth and rebuilt it into its modern, “acceptable” form. Basically, they repeated it so often, and so loudly, that the “Lost Cause” became accepted as truth. Men like Douglas Southall Freeman, and even Ken Burns, have been influenced by the “Lost Cause” mythos. More recent historians have moved away from the “Lost Cause” myth, but the myth is still incredibly powerful, especially in conservative and southern circles, where the myth is undergoing yet another reinvention.

Were the South’s generals really better? Well that depends.

Robert E. Lee was repeatedly able to produce battlefield successes; hes called the American Napoleon for good reason! But he also failed strategically, by wasting the South’s precious manpower in offensive battles that cost the Confederacy more than it gained.

And on the other hand, Ulysses Grant maximized the Union’s advantage, especially in the Overland Campaign, by using multiple armies to attack the Confederacy all along its border. This strategy prevented the Confederates from reinforcing one area after another, as they had done in 1863, and it also stretched the CSA’s manpower to its very limits. So, there, you could say that Grant better adapted his strategy to the unique strengths and weaknesses of the resources at his disposal. In addition, he waged a spectacular series of campaigns, first in Mississippi against Vicksburg, then later against Lee in Northern Virginia, which achieved remarkable battlefield success.

What held Grant back, and what held both the Confederacy and the Union back throughout the war, was the state of professionalism in the wartime armies. Many of the Generals who fought in the American Civil War, on both sides, really weren’t generals at all. Lee was a Colonel before the war, Grant was a washed up Captain, Winfield Scott Hancock was a quartermaster, Sherman was a Colonel at First Bull Run, etc. Nobody really had the command experience required to maneuver large forces either strategically, or tactically. Unlike in Europe, where generals learnt how to be generals for decades before a war put their training to the test, in America, these men had to learn on the job. What that meant was that those with natural talent, like Lee, Grant, and Sherman, floated to the top, while everyone else made a mockery of warfighting. And when a commander would be wounded, or worse promoted, their subordinates would have to come up to fill the gap, regardless of skill or training. The Armies needed officers, and it was too late to shove a new batch through West-Point to make a general staff.

Thats why we often look at the Union Army, especially the Army of the Potomac under Hooker and Burnside, and snicker. They look so dumb, and these men were give command of an army. But really, I think if you look at what was going on in the Western theatre, and if you look at the Corps commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia, Grant and Lee were the exceptions, not the rule. They were the cream that rose to the top. Even men like Longstreet and “Stonewall” Jackson had major problems with commanding their forces in the field, Longstreet did poorly without Lee’s supervision, and Jackson did so with it.

So I think thats the real issue with Generalship in the Civil War. The South was fortunate to have found Lee so early on, while Grant was a gem that had to be dug out of the rough.

Why did Hitler so grossly underestimate the Soviet Union’s war capability?


There were a number of reasons why Hitler and the Oberkommando of the Wehrmacht had underestimated Soviet troop strength and capabilities before the 22nd of June in 1941. First of all were the failures of intelligence to accurately produce a realistic estimate of enemy troop strength and their ability to recover said losses. The Germans were aware of the size of the red army in general terms and that they would in theory be outnumbered, but they had a lack of respect for the capabilities of Soviet troops. Finally the Germans did not account for the soviets relocating major factories and centers of industry from central and southern Russia to the East of the Urals – beyond the range of both ground forces and the Luftwaffe.

Intelligence reports before the start of Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941 failed to account for the size and scale of the massive rearmament process and military reforms that had been ordered following the debacle of the Winter War with the Finns in 1939 and 1940. Even though the Soviets were eventually able to prevail over the Finns, the conflict showed serious flaws in Red Army training and tactics. Intelligence failed to account for large tank formations and the emergence of newer tank models like the KV2 and T34’s that were just beginning to come off production lines around that time period. These newer tanks models were a cut far above older T-26 lighter tanks that at that point were prone to malfunctions and obsolete to German tank models. Even with close to 28,000 tanks at the start of the invasion – many of these would be destroyed, disabled, or captured by the end of the year. Seeming to confirm that the German commanders and intel officers were correct in their assumption of Soviet Tank capability – disregarding the tremendous difficulty with which German units were having in knocking out T34 models and KV2’s that lighter german tanks and anti tanks guns couldn’t hope to penetrate. The Soviet tankers nicknamed the lighter German anti tanks guns like the Pak 36 “The Door knocker” due to its poor performance against their tanks. Soviet aircraft production was heavy but the were heavily reliant on obsolete or inferior aircraft like the Il16 and LaGG 3 (nicknamed the Guaranteed Varnished Coffin by its pilots due to its acronym, wooden construction, and poor performance), Soviet aircraft production would eventually see great examples of design and performance like the Yak 3, 7, and 9 – along with the Lavochkin La5, Ilyushin Il2 Sturmovik, and other mass produced designs. The soviets lost up to 97% of their air strength after the end of 1941 and had to completely retrain their newer batches of pilots on brand new machines that had little testing. Soviet pilots would not be able to rival the skill, tactics, or competence of German pilots until very late in the war when they began to have more confidence in their ability – along with the introduction of comparable fighter aircraft. This was also not accounted for as the Germans did not consider the ability with which the Soviets would have to produce the massive amounts of aircraft the were able to muster over the war. Germany also did not account for Lend-Lease American aircraft like the Bell P39 Airocobra, A20 Boston, P62 Kingcobra, P40 Hawk, B25 Mitchell and others. Lend lease would also provide tens of thousands of quality trucks and Willy’s Jeeps that gave the Russians much greater mobility and reliability in their mobile forces. Even though intelligence had dropped the ball early on German commanders were confident that they could over come the superior number of obsolete and unreliable soviet tanks that they were knocking out and capturing by the thousands in 1941.

German commanders and Hitler personally going into Barbarossa had a clear contempt for the average Soviet soldier in regards to his fighting ability and morale. They believed – with some credence – that the normal Red Army soldier and the entire command structure (Hitler famously remarked that “one need only to kick in the door and the whole rotten structure would come crumbling down”) would collapse under the onslaught of the assembled invasion force of close to 2 and a half million men – the largest ever deployed in the history of warfare. After the Red army’s abysmal performance in the winter war against the Finns, this seemed to confirm to the Germans that this was indeed the case – the Red Army was in such a perilous state of affairs that they could not hope to stand to the might of a Blitzkrieg attack on their motherland. They did not count on the fact that major reforms to increase military effectiveness and a willingness of Stalin to reinstate former disgraced military commanders like Konstantin Rokossovsky, among others, after the purges of 1937 and 1938 when events transpired against him. Formerly taboo tactics of Deep Battle and driving penetrations by newly formed Tank armies would form the basis of a reinvigorated Red Army with competent and motivated commanders. Stalin lacked the ideological shame Hitler had in his actions and was willing to listen to the advice of his commanders or reinstate those that had previously fallen out of favor. Red Army soldiers put up tremendous resistance to German advances and attacks that caused ever increasing amounts of casualties that the Germans could not adequately replace. The Germans did not count on the specialty the Soviets had in defending against attack, “every village into a fortress” as was remarked. Dug in emplacements underneath houses, earthen bunkers, determined fighters that would fight on long past the point at which other European armies would have surrendered all typified German underestimation of Red Army skill and resolve – no matter the amount of prisoners they took or divisions they destroyed. This resolve became the most famous at Stalingrad, in which the 62nd Army under Chuikov was able to pin down and survive the onslaught of the 6th Army under Friedrich Paulus long enough to allow massive reserves to cut off and surround them, thus turning the tide of the entire Eastern Front.

Finally the Germans thought once they captured the Soviet industrial and agricultural heartland of Ukraine that the industrial capacity to make war would cease for the Soviet Union. What the Germans did not count on was the ruthlessness with which Stalin relocated thousands of factories from their original locations to beyond the Ural mountains – along with most of their workers. Even though these facilities had to endure terrible conditions early on, some production lines were brought online even before the roofs had been built, with snowflakes falling on fully operational tank production lines. Even with the Germans capturing the Ukraine early on in the war after the resounding successes at Kiev, Odessa, and the Crimea – with Erich Von Manstein pulling off some of the most impressive tactical feats of the 20th century – the industrial capacity of the Soviet Union would endure. By 1943 Soviet tank, aircraft, and gun production had surpassed or even doubled anything the Germans could even hope to muster from their own economy; from factories and industrial facilities beyond the range of their bombers. Soviet war production was able to far surpass the limits of German industrial might by their relocation of factories – something that was never accounted for in the German invasion of the Soviet Union.

So an underestimation of forces by German intelligence, a lack of respect or admission of Russian fighting ability and resolve, and the relocation of major industries beyond the reach of the German military all accounted for the survival of Soviet war making capacity. These failures contributed directly to the failure of operation Barbarossa, Blue, and Citadel to turn the tide against the Red Army. German war production and reserves simply couldn’t keep up with the fanatical defense that the Soviets displayed in blunting the advance of the Wehrmacht. They made grave errors in underestimating the capabilities and ideological will that drove the Russian people around Stalin rather than against him (though they didn’t have much choice to begin with)

Sources: Richard J. Evans “Third Reich at War” – Anthony Beevor “Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege”, various documentaries and textbooks

How close was Heisenberg to successfully developing the Atomic bomb for the Nazis?

The way I like to talk about this is in this way: what are the phases necessary for developing a nuclear weapon? In some ways, it’s easiest to first talk about this in the context of the American Manhattan Project.

In 1939, Einstein and Szilard wrote the famous letter to Roosevelt about bomb issues. FDR said, “sounds interesting,” and made a very small exploratory committee to look into it (the Uranium Committee at the National Bureau of Standards). This is what we might call an exploratory stage. It was basically theoretical studies and small laboratory studies. The questions they were trying to answer were very basic: Is atomic energy something worth worrying about? Can an atomic bomb, or an atomic reactor, be built in the near term by anybody?

The conclusions they came to weren’t encouraging. By 1941 the top science advisors in the US had basically concluded that while it might be possible to make nuclear weapons, it was going to be very difficult to do so and probably not worth spending a lot of money and time on in the near term. The atomic bomb, they reasoned, was unlikely to play a role in World War II.

Towards the end of 1941, though, they received a report from scientists working in a similarly exploratory capacity in the UK which concluded that the bomb could probably be built in a short amount of time if a sufficient effort was put into it. The British scientists were successful in convincing the American administrators that the program should be moved into a new stage of development.

This new stage we might call the pilot stage. It sought to establish on a small scale some of the key aspects that would go into a real production model. Roosevelt approved this just before Pearl Harbor. Basically this required building several small-scale production plants, and funding work on building an experimental nuclear reactor.

By mid-1942 it became clear that they felt this was all worth spending more money on, and by late 1942 it was decided that the US Army should be brought into the matter, because they had the experience necessary to construct the massive factories and plants necessary to produce actual atomic bombs. This is the transition into the production phase. You’ll note that in this case, the pilot stage was very brief. This was unusual and noted even at the time; they were really flying by the seat of their pants, drawing up plans to build full-scale industrial reactors even before the first experimental nuclear reactor had gone online (which happened in December 1942).

It is this final phase, from 1943 to 1945, that is the Manhattan Project proper, when it was run by the Manhattan Engineer District of the US Army Corps of Engineers. This is the full (crash) production program to make atomic bombs, and required a huge expenditure of resources.

There is some irony in the fact that the original, 1941 estimate by the US scientists about the difficulty of making an atomic bomb was more or less correct. They had concluded that a bomb, though feasible, would be very difficult to make, and that nobody else was likely to really be working on one. The UK scientists underestimated the difficulty substantially. The final bomb project cost about 5X what was estimated in 1942, when it started the transition into the production phase, to give some indication of the disparity of estimates. And we now know, of course, that making an atomic bomb was difficult and no other nation did get very far in it during the war.

OK, but back to Germany. Where did they end up? They started their exploratory phase in 1939, the same as the USA (and the same as the USSR, Japan, France, and the UK). Like the US, they concluded that this was interesting but pretty difficult. Nobody thought this was going to be an issue in the present war — which, of course, Germany was doing very well in, early on.

By 1942, they started to realize that things weren’t going so well. They started to get more interested in the uranium issue. But even then, it was still just a transition towards the pilot stage — they were looking into building an experimental reactor. They were hampered in this by many factors.

They never got to the end of this phase before the war ended. What if they had? They still would have to start a production phase, which was the most difficult and most costly of the phases.

So by 1945 they were almost to the phase that the United States moved out of in 1942. They were pretty far from getting a bomb, and even if they had decided, in 1942, to start building one, it’s really unclear that they would have been able to pull it off, merely because the sizes of the buildings required for such a program would make them very attractive bombing targets.

US Marines watch F4U Corsairs drop napalm on Chinese positions near the Chosin Reservoir; December 26th, 1950


Forgotten war. And forgotten it seems, that the main foe were Chinese soldiers.

There is a great documentary called “Chosin”. It’s on Netflix and has a lot of interviews with survivors that are unbelievable.

One that has stuck with me was the man who was wounded, then the truck carrying him to an aid station was captured by the Chinese/North Koreans. They set the truck on fire to kill the wounded, but this guy managed to get out only to be shot in the head. He survived that, crawled down a trench only to be discovered by a chinese patrol who tried to beat him to death with their rifles. Survived that too and almost died of hypothermia before finally being discovered by a American patrol. It really gives you a sense of how horrendous that campaign really was…

Here’s the trailer: 

Hitler’s Pants being burnt by the allies after the war; ca 1947


Führer Führer Hosen auf Feuer?

I’ve always loved the pointing gesture. As if to say “See? invade and occupy most of Europe, murder tens of millions of people, and we will burn your goddamn pants.”

The Nazis had carefully preserved the pants from the  Operation Valkyrie assassination attempt and the allies inherited them after the war. They were concerned that if they put them in a museum they’d end up becoming a shrine to Hitler so they burnt them instead.

Hitlers pants after the Operation Valkyrie assassination attempt; ca. 1944

It looks like he got blown up with Acme dynamite.

It looks like he got blown up with Acme dynamite.

The last photo of the Far Eastern Party. Two of them would never make it home; ca. 1912


The leading theory as to why the two expedition members died is hypervitaminosis A from eating their own husky sled dog’s livers.

(A gripping account of Douglas Mawson’s 1912-13 Antarctic expedition. Unimaginable hardship in the cause of science. Mawson’s hair fell out, skin peeled off. He survived only by bathing his eyes in cocaine and eating his dogs)

This story reminds me of the time when it was about 30 degrees (F) and I had to walk about three blocks to get some chips. I made it, but on the way back, I actually pulled out liner gloves and put them under my regular gloves, as I had packed them in my coat, along with other provisions. Slipping more than once on the way, I had to bend my knees to keep from falling in the snow that was a record 2 inches deep. Unexpectedly high winds made the last block nearly impassable on the sidewalk and I actually had to revert to walking along the street, which had not yet been cleared — and it wouldn’t be clear for a whole day due to the demands of this unheard of weather phenomenon of 2 inches of snow in early December. When I finally arrived, the I found that many of the chips had been broken from the rigors of the journey. So, I can identify.

Sinbad in a Sousaphone; ca. 1940s


The crew of the Coast Guard cutter Campbell adopted a mixed-breed puppy in 1938.  Little did they know that their canine companion would become a world famous Coast Guard veteran.  He was, literally, a member of the crew, complete with all the necessary enlistment forms and other official paperwork,  uniforms, and his own bunk.  He sailed on board the combat-tested cutter through World War II and saw much action, both at sea and in port.  As Life Magazine reported: “An Old Sea Dog Has Favorite Bars and Plenty of Girls in Every Port.”  Until recently he had the honor and distinction of being the only Coast Guardsman to be the subject of a biography!  It was Sinbad of the Coast Guard, written by Chief Specialist George R. Foley, USCGR and published by Dodd, Mead and Company of New York during the war. The book made him an international celebrity.

Although he served honorably, he did run into a bit of trouble on occasion, as any sailor might during a long career at sea.  He caused an international incident in Greenland, another in Casablanca, and was busted in rank a few times for minor infractions.  As another author noted:

“Sinbad is a salty sailor but he’s not a good sailor. He’ll never rate gold hashmarks nor Good Conduct Medals.  He’s been on report several times and he’s raised hell in a number of ports.  On a few occasions, he has embarrassed the United States Government by creating disturbances in foreign zones.  Perhaps that’s why Coast Guardsmen love Sinbad, he’s as bad as the worst and as good as the best of us.”

Regardless of the fact that he liked to blow off a little steam while on liberty, he was a brave and capable sailor when he was on duty.  He earned the respect and affection of his shipmates during one famous battle when the Campbell fought it out with the Nazi submarine U-606.  The cutter was severely damaged during the fight and the commanding officer ordered all but essential personnel off the ship. They transferred to a nearby destroyer but a tough and hardy few stayed on board the Campbell while the cutter was towed to safety, patching her hull and ensuring that she stayed afloat during the voyage.  Among that few was Sinbad.  

He served faithfully on board Campbell for eleven years, garnering more sea time than most of his contemporaries, before finally retiring to the Barnegat Light Station.  He passed away 30 December 1951 and was laid to rest beneath the station’s flagstaff. 



From his mount a German horseman views an early airplane at Tempelhofer Feld (Tempelhof’s Airfield) Berlin; ca. 1900s


Alfred J. Eggers, Jr. stands beside the Atmosphere Entry Simulator he invented in 1958 as a laboratory means of studying the problems of aerodynamic heating and thermal stresses during re-entry.


The tubular tank in the foreground held air under high pressure. When a valve was opened, the air flowed through the test section (the dark area under the high-voltage signs) into the chimney-like vacuum tank. As the airstream moved, a high-velocity gun fired a test model through the chamber in a left-to-right direction.” (More info)

A self-firing rifle improvised by the Anzacs during their evacuation from Gallipoli, used to deceive the Ottomans into thinking that the Anzacs still occupied their trenches; ca. 1915



Fire was maintained from the trenches after the withdrawal of the last men, by rifles arranged to fire automatically. This was done by a weight being released which pulled the trigger. Two kerosene tins were placed one above the other, the top one full of water and the bottom one with the trigger string attached to it, empty. At the last minute, small holes would be punched in the upper tin; water would trickle into the lower one, and the rifle would fire as soon as the lower tin had become sufficiently heavy. Another device ran a string, holding back the trigger, through a candle, which slowly burnt down, severed the string, and released the trigger.

Such devices provided sporadic firing which helped convince the Turks that the Anzac front line was occupied long after thousands of men had crept down to the beaches and escaped. British generals estimated that half the force would be lost in any attempt to withdraw because the Turks could not fail to notice as the trenches were so close. In the event, the Turks were so deceived that 80,000 men were evacuated with only about half a dozen casualties.


RB-36H Peacemaker of the 72nd Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, Heavy (51-13741) flying over San Francisco Bay; ca.1954



The original concept was intended to bomb Germany from bases in North America because the US thought that Britain would fall to the Nazis. (Source)

A Convair B-36H sitting next to a B-29 Superfortress, for scale:


Children playing with stacks of hyper-inflated currency in the Weimar Republic; ca. 1922


More information on that period and its effects here. This is often cited as one of the reasons that Hitler rose to power.

(It’s also why we used the tactic of the Marshall Plan after WWII.)


The Water Gate Orchestra played for the benefit of the animals at the Washington Zoo, Washington, D.C.; August 8, 1939.


Comedian and singer Ernest Hare expressing his thoughts on Prohibition; ca. 1920

What is that!?! A revolver for ants?!

What is that!?! A revolver for ants?!

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the introduction of alcohol prohibition and its subsequent enforcement in law was a hotly-debated issue. Prohibition supporters, called drys, presented it as a victory for public morals and health.

Japanese plane shot down during the battle of Saipan; 1944

What I find most striking in this photo is the plane still appears to be trying to hit a boat off in the distance.

What I find most striking in this photo is the plane still appears to be trying to hit a boat off in the distance.

The aircraft carrier in the distance is the escort carrier USS Kitkun Bay (CVE-71).

Joseph McCarthy


Senator Joseph McCarthy, was arguably, one of the most successful conspiracy theorist in American history. McCarthy was able to meticulously manipulate the Red Scare hysteria with the help of the media, the encouragement from the Republican Party, and this enabled him to pursue his agenda of combating the supposed red infestation in the State Department. Communist witch-hunts had become synonymous with the rhetoric of the period.

McCarthyism, was indeed, an opportunity for Soviet propagandists to exploit. McCarthy gave Europeans, who resented American power, a respectable reason for expressing their hostility. You just have to look at the sheer extent of the anxiety and hysteria that developed in American society. The level of blacklisting, denial of civil liberties, the witch-hunts, persecution of American citizens and the recklessness of McCarthy and his demagoguing. Many began to doubt if the country of McCarthy was a safe guardian of nuclear weapons.

He targeted the state department and the army (to his own detriment) and the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) targeted Hollywood and business organizations in an attempt to root out communists. His methods were largely counter-productive and very destructive. Anybody that pled the Fifth Amendment were immediately interpreted as an admission of guilt. I think it was similar to that folklore hysteria you hear about – reporting your hated neighbor to the police for communist activities or suspicion, and a swat team storms in and grabs them.

McCarthy did not uncover any real Soviet spies, and he was not successful in his efforts – quite the opposite. He went on an anti-communist crusade, which led to the loss of jobs for countless hundreds, destroying businesses, exacerbated Red Scare fears and left an aftermath of uncertainty and anxiety in American society.

“Bismarckian Diplomacy”:


Otto von Bismarck was certainly a great politician, but you cannot place every single bit of German success squarely onto his shoulders. He created the final product, but he also had some great tools at his disposal.

Industrialization had finally begun to take off in the German speaking territories in the 1840’s to 1850’s, especially in his own Prussia. This gave him a strong economy. He also had the best military on the continent by far at his disposal. Albrecht von Roon successfully reformed and expanded the Prussian army.

Voltaire is thought to have said “Most states possess an Army, but the Prussian Army possess a state” which showcases the warrior culture of Prussia. Drawing on the support of the Junkers, who were the aristocratic warrior elite, and on the legacies of Frederick the Great, Roon was able to turn a good military into one that was probably the best in the world. This army was put into the hands of Helmuth von Moltke who was a brilliant strategist and reformer in his own right.

Bismarck’s brilliance came in his use of these tools to form a Prussian dominated German state. To do this, he basically had to do three things:

1.Begin to draw the German people together, awakening pan-German nationalism. He did this in the Second Schleswig War, by creating a conflict with Denmark. It’s more complicated than I would really want to get into here, but essentially Prussia and Austria jointly declared war on Denmark over a minor territorial dispute, which demonstrated Prussian strength and riled up the population to support unification.

2.His second step was to exclude Austria from the proposed German state. He did this by using disputes with Austria over annexed Danish territory. In the Austro-Prussian war Prussia’s new and improved army was led to a quick victory by Helmuth von Moltke. This is where Bismarck had a really good idea. Rather than push their luck, continue the war, and hope to gain more territory, Bismarck successfully pushed for a limited war. Prussia annexed Austrian Holstein and some Austrian allies, but more importantly, Austria agreed not to interfere in German affairs. This lead to the eventual creation of the North German Confederation.

3.Bismarck wanted to turn the strong but still loosely held together North German Confederation into a true empire. He also wanted to add the southern German kingdoms. He regarded war with France as a necessary prelude to German unification. He basically manufactured a political crisis involving a Prussian prince claiming the Spanish throne. The claim was withdrawn, but Bismarck managed to goad Napoleon the Third into declaring war by essentially insulting his envoy. The French declaration of war branded them as the aggressors in the eyes of all the Germans, not just the Prussians. The Bavarians, plus other south Germans, were drawn in on the side of the Prussians. The Prussian victory (brought about by that excellent Army) cemented their position as the center of Germany. The German Reich was declared in the immediate aftermath of war, creating a new continental power.

After Unification, Bismarck continued to act intelligently. In World politics, a balance of power does not always lead to peace, nor does an imbalance lead to war. After unification, Germany was universally regarded as the premier continental power.

Bismarck’s strategy was to isolate the only power with which they had poor relations, France. He managed to keep France basically without allies using his policies. He kept the League of the Three Emperors between Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Germany active as long as possible, and when that fell apart he signed the Reinsurance Treaty which assured neutrality between Russia and Germany. He also avoided challenging British naval supremacy, a policy not continued by his successors.

By not challenging Britain, they mostly maintained traditional British neutrality in continental affairs. But when what was clearly the strongest continental power began building a large fleet, the British lined up with France and Russia, setting up the alliance system that lead to World War 1. Bismarck knew that Germany’s limited coastline and numerous choke points would make challenging Britain directly difficult. When the new Emperor ordered a build up anyway, it led directly to a realignment of Britain on the side of France.

Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, executed for espionage 61 years ago today; June 19, 1953



They actually gave the Soviets the proximity fuse (which is a huge leap in anti air). Through Venona we were reading their codes and knew of them. Their handler has since written a book on it confirming they were spies. The atomic component they gave the Soviets was rather minor but still, used to make the atomic bomb. After Venona was declassified it is difficult to say they were innocent because, well, you can read the messages from their handler with their confirmed code names.

* The trial judge agreed on the death penalty before the trial began. An eternal blot on American justice.


Torture during the inquisitions of the 12-14th centuries.

There is little evidence of much inquisition-inflicted torture outside those directly related to the conditions of imprisonment in 13/14th century.

The papal bull Ad exterpanda restricted torture in its same authorization of it: no breaking bones. It doesn’t say what one should do, but emphasizes imprisonment. The unstated concomitant tortures of prison were variously hunger, disease, cold, close confinement and shackling.

In fact the most famous of inquisitors and author of key inquisition manuals, Bernardo Gui, explicitly states in the early 14th c in his Practica inquisitionis that imprisonment is the most effective method for extracting confession. A review of Gui’s registers the Liber sententiarum, which are fairly detailed, shows imprisonment being highly varied in type (from a style of short house arrest to multi-year). Gui also suggests psychological techniques such as threats against family and friends being discovered as heretics, or threats they will be ‘outed’ by family and friends, all driving to the ‘relief’ of confession, ‘relief’ that the worst punishment for everyone in your social circle has been avoided.

Although we should generally dismiss the view that torture such as the ‘rack’ or ‘flaying’ or other such dramatic ideas for this period of inquisition for lack of evidence, or rather misinterpretation of the use of the word ‘torture’ found in sources, we should see clearly the totality of the consequences of imprisonment mentioned above. The best source on this is James Given’s Inquisition and Medieval Society: Power, Discipline, and Resistance in Languedoc (Cornell, 1997), in particular chapter ‘Inquisitor’s Techniques’.

Below is the letter from the consuls of Carcassonne complaining about the local inquisitor Jean Galand at the end of the 13th century, 50 years on since the establishment of the first real inquisitions at Toulouse. This is wholly taken from Given’s book above, and he suggests there is perhaps some exaggeration in it:

We feel ourselves aggrieved in that you, contrary to the use and custom observed by your predecessors in the inquisition, have made a new prison, called the mur. Truly this could be called with good cause a hell. For in it you have constructed little cells for the purpose of tormenting and torturing people. Some of these cells are dark and airless, so the those lodged there cannot tell if it is day or night, and they are continuously deprived of air and light. In other cells there are kept miserable wretches laden with shackles, some of wood, some of iron. Nor can they lie down except on the frigid ground. They have endured torments like these day and night for a long time. In other miserable places in the prison, not only is there no light or air, but food is rarely distributed, and then only bread and water.

Many prisoners have been put in similar situations, in which several, because of severity of their tortures, have lost limbs and have been completely incapacitated. Many, because of the unbearable conditions and their great suffering, have died a most cruel death. In these prisons there is constantly heard an immense wailing, weeping, groaning, and gnashing of teeth. What more can one say? For these prisoners life is a torment and death a comfort. And thus coerced they say that what is false is true, choosing to die once rather than endure more torture. As a result of these false and coerced confessions not only do those making the confessions perish, but so do the innocent people named by them […]

In this we can see the use of the verb ‘torture’ in its abstracted, descriptive sense. This use has been co-opted into historiographical narrative about medieval inquisition as a capital-t ‘Torture’, divorcing it from context. It has thus been merged with our understanding of medieval secular torture and punishment which did involve various (famous) forms of corporal torture.

At the same time, we can see this as skillful use of the concept of ‘torture-that-isn’t-really-torture’ by ecclesiastics; it allowed claims by popes, legates, inquisitors that it was simply ‘imprisonment’ and that the conditions of imprisonment were the fault of the imprisoned: they inflict it upon themselves. This is a more subtle view, but makes clearer our understanding of the relationship between Christian notions of sin and punishment within an ethic of self-punishment that are distinctly medieval, and which we live with today.

How did lobbying as we know it today get its start in the United States?

Lobbying had always existed in the United States, even before its independence, thriving in local governments. When crafting the constitution and the Federalist Papers, James Madison saw commerically motivated “factions” as threatening to the general will. He tried to neutralize that threat by making them compete against each other. Even though the First Amendment protects the right to petition, Madison hypothesized that special interest groups would often negate each others powers, thus preventing any possibility of tyranny. Since the federal government did not deal with many economic matters throughout most of the nineteenth century, lobbying occured only at a state level. However, the onset of the Gilded Age and increased federal intervention in fiscal matters also brought a heightened scale of lobbying as we know today.

How were large exotic animals caught and transferred to rich collectors before tranquilizers?

The possession, display, and gifting of “exotic” animals was a constant of the medieval and early modern elite from England to China. Unfortunately, sources don’t provide the clearest picture of the mechanics of this social trade. As you can imagine, chroniclers were much more interested in enumerating the splendor and exoticness of the massive (and minor–Matthew of Paris loved him some porcupine) beasts. Still, every now and then we catch some glimpses, although more pertaining to the upkeep of animals than their original capture.

Texts of veterinary science from the Arab world outsource the problem. While these books offer solutions for what ails common animals (especially horses), when it comes to elephants and “special” donkeys, a.k.a. zebras, they mention the importance of having a trained keeper arrive with the animal from India or sub-Saharan Africa. Europeans used outsourcing, too. The lions who arrived in 1775 London from Senegal were proudly presented by English soldiers–who had stolen them from the original trappers and then killed the people.

Medieval people were well aware of the art of luring, and also of provoking. Jean de Joinville tells a tale of a lion hunt in Caesarea (popular among crusaders), which might offer some insight into trapping:

The King set to work with his people to hunt lions, so that they captured many. But in doing so they incurred great bodily danger. The mode of taking them was this: They pursued them on the swiftest horses. When they came near one they shot a bolt or arrow at him, and the animal, feeling himself wounded, ran at the first person he could see, who immediately turned his horse’s head and fled as fast as he could. During his flight he dropped a piece of his clothing, which the lion caught up and tore, thinking it was the person who had injured him. And while the lion was engaged thus the hunters again approached the infuriated animal and shot more bolts and arrows at him. Soon the lion left the cloth and madly rushed at some other hunter, who adopted the same strategy as before. This was repeated until the animal succumbed, becoming exhausted by the wounds he had received.

In most cases the point was surely the lion’s death, but one can imagine a similar bait-and-subdue method used for capturing. Medieval bestiaries (texts describing the traits of animals, moralized for religious instruction) are not known for their rigorous devotion to realism, but this English bestiary illumination shows goats instead of humans used to lure the lions, who are then trapped into a pre-prepared hole or ditch.

Medieval animal-keepers were well aware of the use of chains and muzzles to control their charges.

Gaston Febus in his Livre de chasse divides animals into two groups: those who dogs “commonly and willingly hunt”, and the rest of them. That group, notably, does not include the great exotic beasts. Nevertheless, the English monarchs, at least, took great sport in using dogs to lion-bait for their entertainment.

Transport would have been situationally dependent, as the journey of the 18-19th century giraffes show. The giraffes headed from Sudan to Vienna and Paris seem to have been transported the same way from the African interior to the coast, strapped to the backs of camels. At that point, they were transported by ship to Europe. The giraffe bound for Vienna was carried across the Alps in a cart, a journey which ultimately damaged its skeleton and internal organs enough that it died soon after arrival. Zarafa the Giraffe, headed for Paris, did better. Her keepers elected to land in Marseilles and have her walk to Paris, protected from weather by an oilskin blanket.

As far as transport and keeping goes, the biggest logistical issue was feeding the animals! Most of our menagerie records, in fact, concern either the money used for food or the amount of food. The (probable) polar bear in 13th century London, when kept on a “one long and strong cord,” was allowed to fish in the Thames for its meals! It seems that many of the carnivorous beasts in the London menagerie ate primarily sheep. Much later, Zarafa the Giraffe traveled with 25 cows to provide her daily requirements for milk. (Apparently giraffes drink milk?)

We should not understate either the skill of medieval animal-keepers–or the inherent danger. Arab rulers imported keepers with their beasts for a reason; English kings designated “Master of Lyons and Bears” for a reason (even if they did not always pay on schedule). They reached certain levels of taming with their charges, who nevertheless remained wild animals. A tragic example from 17th century London demonstrates this:

Mary Jenkinson, living with the Person who keeps the Lyons in the Tower, going into the Den to show them to some Aquaintance of hers, one of the Lyons (being the Greatest there) putting out his paw, she was so venturous as to stroak him as she used to do, but suddenly catched her by the middle of the Arm with his Claws and mouth, and most miserably tore her Flesh from the Bone…They thrust several lighted Torches at him, but at last they got her away…She died not many Hours after.

Herman Goering and the Holocaust.

Herman Goering doesn’t really fit into that group of “radical Nazis” who were responsible for developing and tweaking the Nazi racial theory, this would include people like Hans Frank, Heinrich Himmler and Alfred Rosenberg.

But Herman Goering wasn’t some secret anti-Nazi. He definitely bought into the racial theory, or at the very least he had no problem implementing it.

Goering was a key figure in developing things like the Hunger Plan, which entailed starving millions of “inferior people” to death. In 1941 he told the Italian foreign minister, Ciano, that “This Year 20-30 million people in Russia will starve”. Goering’s Green Folder outlined Nazi plans in the East. Goering signed off on and endorsed orders that led to countless deaths and suffering for non-Aryans.

Goering agreed with Hitler’s and Himmler’s orders that the Jews should be completely deported and destroyed. In private conversations with Martin Bormann, Goering said that he “believes the steps taken by the Reich leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, to be absolutely correct”. Goering also gave a speech a few days earlier which said that Churchill and Roosevelt were “drunken and mentally ill people who dangle from the Jews’ wires”. Goering agreed with Hitler that the extermination of the Jews and other non-Aryans was a necessary act to ensure the survival of the German people. Goering referred to the war as a “great race war about whether the German and Aryan will survive or if the Jew will rule the world”.

It’s also worth noting that Goering was formally in charge of Jewish policy. Goering therefore gave a number of orders that allowed the Jews in any German controlled territory to be killed. One such order was give to Reinhard Heydrich. The order stated that Heydrich had the power to “make all necessary preparations in organizational, practical, and material respects, for a total solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe”.

As for other “Nazis” who may not have been as anti-semetic. A number of the July Bomb Plotters, notably Claus von Stauffenberg, while still anti-semetic, didn’t think the Jews should be exterminated. There weren’t any Nazis that one could classify as “not an anti-Semite”