Posted on April 22nd, 2013 No comments
A while back in an online discussion with a German “Green,” I pointed out that, if Germany shut down its nuclear plants, coal plants would have to remain in operation to take up the slack. He was stunned that I could be so obtuse. Didn’t I realize that the lost nuclear capacity would all be replaced by benign “green” energy technology? Well, it turns out things didn’t quite work out that way. In fact, the lost generating capacity is being replaced by – coal.
Germany is building new coal-fired power plants hand over fist, with 26 of them planned for the immediate future. According to Der Spiegel, the German news magazine that never misses a trick when it comes to bashing nuclear, that’s a feature, not a bug. A recent triumphant headline reads, “Export Boom: German Coal Electricity Floods Europe.” Expect more of the same from the home of Europe’s most pious environmentalists. Germany has also been rapidly expanding its solar and wind capacity recently thanks to heavy state subsidies, but the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, especially in Germany. Coal plants are required to fill in the gaps – lots of them. Of course, it would be unprofitable to let them sit idle when wind and solar are available, so they are kept going full blast. When the power isn’t needed in Germany, it is sold abroad, serving as a useful prop to Germany’s export fueled economy.
Remember the grotesque self-righteousness of Der Spiegel and the German “Greens” during the Kyoto Treaty debates at the end of the Clinton administration? Complying with the Kyoto provisions cost the Germans nothing. They had just shut down the heavily polluting and grossly unprofitable industries in the former East Germany, had brought large numbers of new gas-fired plants on line thanks to increasing gas supplies from the North Sea fields, and had topped it off with a lame economy in the 90′s compared to the booming U.S. Their greenhouse gas emissions had dropped accordingly. Achieving similar reductions in the U.S. wouldn’t have been a similar “freebie.” It would have cost tens of thousands of jobs. The German “Greens” didn’t have the slightest problem with this. They weren’t interested in achieving a fair agreement that would benefit all. They were only interested in striking pious poses.
Well, guess what? Times have changed. Last year U.S. carbon emissions were at their lowest level since 1994, and down 3.7% from 2011. Our emissions are down 7.7% since 2006, the largest drop among major industrial states on the planet. German emissions were up at least 1.5% last year, and probably more like 2%. Mention this to a German “Green,” and he’s likely to mumble something about Germany still being within the Kyoto limits. That’s quite true. Germany is still riding the shutdown of what news magazine Focus calls “dilapidated, filthy, communist East German industry after the fall of the Berlin Wall,” to maintain the facade of environmental “purity.”
That’s small comfort to her eastern European neighbors. Downwind from Germany’s coal-fired plants, their “benefit” from her “green” policies is acid rain, nitrous oxide laced smog, deadly particulates that kill and sicken thousands and, last but not least, a rich harvest of radioactive fallout. That’s right, Germany didn’t decrease the radioactive hazard to her neighbors by shutting down her nuclear plants. She vastly increased it. Coal contains several parts per million each of radioactive uranium and thorium. These elements are harmless enough – if kept outside the body. The energetic alpha particles they emit are easily stopped by a normal layer of skin. When that happens, they dump the energy they carry in a very short distance, but, since skin is dead, it doesn’t matter. It’s an entirely different matter when they dump those several million electron volts of energy into a living cell – such as a lung cell. Among other things, that can easily derange the reproductive equipment of the cell, causing cancer. How can they reach the lungs? Very easily if the uranium and thorium that emit them are carried in the ash from a coal-fired plant. A typical coal-fired plant releases about 5 tons of uranium and 12 tons of thorium every year. The German “Greens” have no problem with this, even though they’re constantly bitching about the relatively miniscule release of uranium from U.S. depleted uranium munitions. Think scrubber technology helps? Guess again! The uranium and thorium are concentrated in the ash, whether it ends up in the air or not. They can easily leach into surrounding cropland and water supplies.
The last time there was an attempt to move radioactive waste to the Gorleben storage facility within Germany, the “Greens” could be found striking heroic poses as saviors of the environment all along the line, demonstrating, tearing up tracks, and setting police vehicles on fire. Their “heroic” actions forced the shutdown of Germany’s nuclear plants. The “gift” (German for “poison”) of their “heroic” actions to Germany’s neighbors came in the form of acid rain, smog, and airborne radiation. By any reasonable standard, coal-fired plants are vastly more dangerous and damaging to the environment than the nuclear facilities they replaced.
It doesn’t matter to Germany’s “Greens.” The acid rain, the radiation, the danger of global warming they always pretend to be so concerned about? It doesn’t matter. For them, as for the vast majority of other environmental zealots worldwide, the pose is everything. The reality is nothing.
Posted on March 25th, 2013 No comments
Germany is plagued by an unusually large number per capita of pathologically pious zealots of the type who like to strike heroic poses as saviors of humanity. The number may even approach the levels found in the USA. They definitely take the cake when it comes to the subspecies of the tribe whose tastes run to nuclear alarmism. They came out of the woodwork in droves the last time an attempt was made to move radioactive waste via rail to the storage facility in Gorleben, tearing up the tracks, peacefully smearing a police vehicle with tar and setting it on fire, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Now, in keeping with that tradition, an article just appeared in the German version of New Scientist, according to which those evil Americans are actually planning to restart the production of (shudder) plutonium.
Entitled The Return of Plutonium and written by one Helmut Broeg, the article assumes a remarkable level of stupidity on the part of its readers. Mimicking Der Spiegel, Germany’s number one news magazine, its byline is more sensational than the article that follows, based on the (probably accurate) assumption that that’s as far as most consumers of online content will read. Here’s the translation:
The USA stopped producing plutonium 25 years ago. In order to preserve the ability to launch deep space missions, they will resume the production of the highly poisonous and radioactive material.
Only in the body of the article do we learn that the particular isotope that will be produced is plutonium 238, which, unlike plutonium 239, is useless for making nuclear explosives. As it happens, Pu-238 is the ideal material for powering thermoelectric generators such as that used on the Curiosity Mars rover because it decays primarily via emission of alpha particles (helium nuclei) and has a half life of 87.7 years. That means that its decay products are mostly stopped in the material itself, generating a lot of heat in the process (because of the short half life, or time it take half of the material to decay), which can be converted to electricity using devices with no moving parts. The world supply of the material is currently very short, and more is urgently needed to power future deep space missions.
All this is very sinister, according to Broeg. He quotes Heinz Smital, who, we are informed, is an “atomic expert” at Greenpeace, that, “the crash of such a satellite could contaminate large areas with radioactivity. Don’t look now, Mr. Smital, but if you’re really worried about radioactive contamination by alpha emitters like Pu-238, you might want to reconsider building all the coal plants that Germany is currently planning to replace the nuclear facilities it has decided to shut down. Coal typically contains several parts per million of radioactive uranium and thorium. A good-sized plant will release 5 tons of uranium and 10 tons of thorium into the environment each year. Estimated releases in 1982 from worldwide combustion of 2800 million tons of coal totaled 3640 tons of uranium (containing 51,700 pounds of uranium-235) and 8960 tons of thorium. That amount has gone up considerably in the intervening years. The cumulative radiation now covering the earth from these sources dwarfs anything that might conceivably result from the crash of a rocket with a Pu-238 power source, no matter what implausible assumptions one chose to make about how its containment would fail, how it would somehow enter the atmosphere at hypersonic speed so as to (optimize) its dispersion, etc. Of course, the radioactive isotopes released from burning coal will also be with us for billions of years, not just the few hundred it takes for Pu-238 to decay.
But wait! Dispersal of Pu-238 isn’t the only problem. There’s also (drum roll) the BOMB! Broeg drags in another “expert,” Moritz Kütt, a physicist at the Technical University of Darmstadt, who assures us that, “In the production of Pu-238, some Pu-239 is produced as well. As a matter of principle, that means the US is resuming the production of weapons-useful material.” Kütt goes on to ask what the world community would have to say if Iran announced that it would produce Pu-238 for a space mission?
To appreciate the level of gullibility it takes to swallow such “warnings,” one must spend a few minutes to check on how Pu-238 is actually produced. Generally, it is done by irradiating neptunium 237 from spent nuclear fuel with neutrons in a reactor. Occasionally the Np-237 captures a neutron, becoming Np-238. This, in turn emits a beta particle (electron), and is transmuted to Pu-238. It’s quite true that some of the Pu-238 will also capture a neutron, and become Pu-239. However, the amounts produced in this way would be vanishingly small compared to the amounts that could be produced in the same reactor by simply removing some of the fuel rods after a few months and chemically extracting the nearly pure Pu-239, which would not then have to be somehow separated from far greater quantities of highly radioactive Pu-238. In other words, if the world community learned that Iran had a nefarious plan to produce bomb material in the way suggested by Kütt, the reasonable immediate reaction would be a horse laugh, perhaps followed by sympathy for a people who were sufficiently stupid to adopt such a plan. As for the US deciding to replentish its stocks of bomb material in this way, the idea is more implausible than anything those good Germans, the brothers Grimm ever came up with. It only takes 4 kilos of Pu-239 to make a bomb, and we have tons of it on hand. In the unlikely event we wanted more, we would simply extract it from reactor fuel rods. The idea that we would ever prefer to attempt the separation of Pu-239 from Pu-238 instead is one that could only be concocted in the fevered imagination of a German “atomic expert.”
Posted on January 7th, 2013 No comments
Der Spiegel, Germany’s top news magazine, has been second to none in promoting green energy, striking pious poses over the U.S. failure to jump on the Kyoto bandwagon, and trashing nuclear energy. All this propaganda has succeeded brilliantly. Germany has a powerful Green Party and is a world leader in the production of wind and solar energy, the latter in a cloudy country, the lion’s share of which lies above the 50th parallel of latitude. Now the bill has come due. In 2012 German consumers paid more than 20 billion Euros for green energy that was worth a mere 2.9 billion on the open market. True to form, Der Spiegel has been churning out shrill condemnations of the high prices, as if it never had the slightest thing to do with promoting them in the first place. In an article entitled “Green Energy Costs Consumers More Than Ever Before,” we find, among other things, that,
The cost of renewable energy continues climbing year after year. At the beginning of the year it increased from 3.59 to 5.27 (Euro) cents per kilowatt hour. One of the reasons for the increase is solar energy: more new solar facilities were installed in Germany in 2012 than ever before. The drawback of the solar boom is that it drives up the production costs paid by consumers. The reason – green energy producers will receive guaranteed compensation for every kilowatt hour for the next 20 years.
As a result, German consumers saw their bills for electricity increase by an average of 12% at the beginning of 2013. The comments following the article are at least as revealing as its content. The environmental hubris of the population shows distinct signs of fading when tranlated into terms of cold, hard cash. Examples:
What a laugh! The consumers pay 17 billion Euros, and the producers receive 2.9 billion Euros. Conclusion: End the subsidies for solar facilities immediately!! It’s too bad that the pain of consumers – if the Green Party joins the government after the Bundestag election – won’t end, but will only get worse. Other than that, solar facilities belong in countries with significantly more hours of sunlight than Germany.
Those were the days, when (Green politician) Trittin told shameless lies to the public, claiming that the switch to green energy would only cost 1.5 Euros per household.
In ten years we’ll learn what the green energy lies are really going to cost us.
The real costs are even higher. When there’s no wind, or clouds cut off the sunlight, then the conventional energy sources held in reserve must make up the deficit; the oil, coal and brown coal energy plants. If production costs are calculated correctly, then their expense should be included in the price of green energy. All at once there is a jump from 17 billion to 25 billion Euros in the price we have to pay for the “favors” the Green-Red parties have done us.
Specious arguments about the supposedly comparable costs of the nuclear power plants Germany is in the process of shutting down are no longer swallowed with alacrity. For example, in response to the familiar old chestnut of citing exaggerated costs for decommissioning nuclear plants and storing the waste a commenter replies:
Hmmm, if nuclear energy is so expensive, why are so many countries in central Europe – for example, the Czech Republic – interested in nuclear power? Certainly not to breed actinides to build nuclear weapons in order to become “nuclear powers.” The cost of long term waste storage in terms of the energy produced only amounts to about 0.01 Euros per Kw/h. Even decommissioning expenses don’t add significantly to the overall cost… Let us split atoms, not hairs.
A “green” commenter suggests that the cleanup costs for the Fukushima reactors be automatically added to the cost of all reactors:
According to the latest figures for November 2012 for Fukushima: 100 billion Euros. Distributing this over the total energy production of 880,000 GWh (according to Wikipedia) that’s 11 cents per kilowatt hour. That amounts to twice the “prettified” cost of nuclear power (without insurance and without subsidies) of 5 cents per kilowatt hour. And even then the Japanese were lucky that the wind didn’t shift in the direction of Tokyo. But the 100 billion won’t be the last word.
Drawing the response from another reader:
Let’s see. Japanese nuclear power plants produce 7,656,400 GWh of energy. In comparison to economic costs in the high tens of billions, 100 billion suddenly doesn’t seem so unreasonable. It only adds 1.3 cent per KWh to the cost of nuclear energy. Peanuts. In Germany, renewables are currently costing an average of 18 cents per KWh. That translates to 100 billion in under four years. In other words, thanks to renewables, we have a Fukushima in Germany every four years.
In response to a remark about all the wonderful green jobs created, another commenter responds,
Jobs created? Every job is subsidized to the tune of 40,000 Euros; how, exactly, is that supposed to result in a net gain for the economy overall?? According to your logic, all we have to do to eliminate any level of unemployment is just subsidize it away. That’s Green politics for you.
Another unhappy power customer has noticed that, in addition to the hefty subsidy he’s paying for his own power, he has to finance his well-healed “green” neighbors rooftop solar array as well:
Whoever is surprised about the increases in the cost of electricity hasn’t been paying attention. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. At the moment the consumer is paying for the solar cells on his neighbor’s roof right along with his own electricity bill. Surprising? Who’s surprised?
It’s amazing how effective a substantial and increasing yearly hit to income can be in focusing the mind when it comes to assessing the real cost of green energy.
Posted on November 8th, 2012 No comments
The election is history and the unlucky soothsayers I referred to in my last post are eating crow. To paraphrase Billy Joel in one of his songs, “they didn’t have quite enough information.” For the edification and amusement of my readers, here are some of Tuesday’s losers.
Noted Republican strategist Karl Rove. He thought the polls suggested that more Republicans and fewer Democrats would show up to vote than in 2008. He was wrong.
In an article entitled, “Reflections on Mittmentum,” the ever hopeful Roger Kimball, who blogs for PJmedia, wrote the day before the election,
My own sense of the matter, as I have said here on many occasions, is that Mitt will not only win but win handily. The final tally, I suspect, will show Mitt the victor with something like 330 electoral votes.
The day after, a chastened Kimball wrote,
But I misread and misread badly both the mood of the country and the depth of support for Obama’s failed policies. I will doubtless get around to rejoining Ron in the battle, but a little hiatus for reflection will not come amiss.
That is certainly a sentiment his fellow prophets will agree on. Soothsayers over the water also got their comeuppance on Tuesday. Christopher Carr of Australia’s conservative mag, The Quadrant, had assured his readers,
On November 6, 2012, Mitt Romney will be elected President of the United States by a comfortable margin. It will not be a cliffhanger, despite the chorus of conventional wisdom.
Carr added that, because of his choice of Paul Ryan as a running mate, and his strong performance in the debate, Romney’s victory was assured. In his post mortem after the results were in, he sadly concluded,
Mitt Romney played Mr. Nice Guy. President Obama played the demagogue. But nice guys finish last.
In Germany, Der Spiegel’s token conservative pundit, Jan Fleischhauer, also had it wrong. In an article entitled “Bad, Bad Romney,” a satirical dig at the usual German version of reality in which the Republicans are bad guys and the Democrats good guys, he writes,
In the media the battle for the White House is already decided; Mitt Romney… has no chance. Unfortunately, wishful thinking isn’t much help in a democracy. The Republicans may not have the press on their side – but they have the numbers.
Not one to dwell on his mistake, Mr. Fleischhauer penned another article entitled “Our Obama-Love is Infantile“ a couple of days after the election analyzing the “root causes” of German anti-Americanism. It was probably more useful to his readers, noting, for example, that Germans have been hopefully and confidently predicting the downfall of the United States for the last 40 years. In fact, it’s probably been longer than that. I note in passing that, in reading the many comments after the articles on the U.S. elections on German webzines, there are a lot more Germans pointing to the faults of their own country and condemning the ubiquitous destructive criticism of the United States than there were, say, ten years ago. The usual received wisdom according to which the U.S. is the decaying embodiment of evil imperialism, run by shadowy financiers, and inhabited by Bible-thumping Christian versions of the Taliban, is still there in abundance. However, more nuance is gradually being added by those who ask questions such as why, if we are so evil, and Germany such a paradise, so many Germans are looking around for the best shortcut to a Green Card.
One thing that both the lucky and the unlucky pundits will likely agree on is that the electorate is fractured along racial and gender lines as never before. Political ingroups in the U.S. are rapidly becoming less defined by ideology, and more defined by demography. Romney won the vote of white males over thirty by a massive majority. Obama won the black, Hispanic, Asian, and single female votes by similarly huge majorities. His majorities trumped Romney’s. It seems that similarly constituted Democratic majorities will continue prevail more frequently than not in national elections for a long time to come. To the extent that political and economic issues mattered in this election, they mattered less in their own right and more as cultural attributes associated with race and gender than in past elections. The Benghazi debacle was a huge deal for white males over thirty. It was a non-issue for young black women.
Posted on November 6th, 2012 No comments
In an article entitled “Hitler’s Second Front,” that appeared in the November 1942 issue of the Atlantic Review, one T. H. Thomas confidently predicted disaster for the British forces in North Africa. In his words,
Roughly speaking, Rommel is sixty miles or so away from winning the war. There looms up close at hand the prospect of a decisive victory – one which would involve an irreparable disaster to the Allied conduct of the war.
In the mustering of forces for this battle, the enemy has now the advantage of position. At one time British convoys could still take the direct sea route to Alexandria, but German dive bombers then appeared over the central Mediterranean. By now it has actually become Mare Nostrum. The British forces in Africa and the British fleets had no planes with which to strike back in kind. British factories do not produce them.
British tanks were hopelessly outclassed by the Germans:
These actions (earlier fighting in north Africa) also brought into the field German medium tanks armed with 75′s (i.e., 15 pounders) against British tanks carrying nothing larger than 2-pounders. The effective range of the German guns is said to be over three times that of the 2-pounders. This contrast has dominated the fighting in Egypt since that day. The British 2-pounder is an excellent tank against infantry positions. In the naked landscape of Libya, mechanized warfare develops the situation of duels between tank and tank, or tanks against anti-tank artillery. On this footing, the heaviest British tanks were hopelessly outranged.
Victory, was out of the question for the British. It was merely a question of hanging on for dear life until the various nostrums proposed by Mr. Thomas could be applied:
The narrow front at El Alamein has become the keystone of the whole arch of Allied resistance east of Suez. Here, as on every other front, the pressing task is to avoid defeat – the question as to how the war is to be won does not yet arise.
As it happens, on this day 70 years ago, just as Thomas’ prophecy of doom was appearing on the newstands, the question of how the war was to be won did arise. Rommel’s “hopelessly superior” forces had been smashed by a British offensive after nearly two weeks of brutal fighting. The remnant was in speedy retreat, leaving Hitler’s Italian allies, who had fought well at El Alamein, helplessly mired in the desert without food, ammunition or fuel. Quoting from the Wiki article on the battle:
It had not been the first time that the Allies had had numerical superiority in men and equipment in the Western Desert, but never had it been so complete and across all arms. Furthermore, in the past—except in field artillery—they had struggled with the quality of their equipment. But with the arrival of Sherman tanks, 6-pounder anti-tank guns and Spitfires in the Western Desert, the Allies at last had the ability to match the opposition.
Allied artillery was superbly handled. Allied air support was excellent in contrast to the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica which offered little or no support to ground forces, preferring to engage in air-to-air combat. This overwhelming air superiority had a huge effect on the battle…
In the end, the Allies’ victory was all but total. Axis casualties of 37,000 amounted to over 30% of their total force. Allied casualties of 13,500 were by comparison a remarkably small proportion of their total force. The effective strength of Panzer Army Africa after the battle amounted to some 5,000 troops, 20 tanks, 20 anti-tank guns and 50 field guns.
So much for Mr. Thomas’ prophecies of doom. The Atlantic described him as follows:
A military hitorian who served with distinction on the staff at GHQ in the First World War, T. H. Thomas is well qualified to appraise the developments of the war.
I have no information on what became of him after he penned the article, although I didn’t put a great deal of Google time in searching for him. If he had written the same stuff in Germany or the Soviet Union, no doubt he would have been shot as a defeatist. However, the Allies were remarkably tolerant of pacifists and defeatists during the war. I suspect that such tolerance played a major role in the rapid collapse of France, and may have cost Hitler’s other enemies dearly if he had not been so completely outmatched by the forces arrayed against him. Be that as it may, there were many other T. H. Thomases writing similar disinformation about Hitler and the phenomenon of Naziism, the likelihood of war, the probable outcome of the war, etc., during the 30′s and 40′s. I know of none whose careers suffered significantly as a result. Apparently they just swept their past mistakes under the rug, and kept writing more of the same.
Fast forward 70 years, and a new generation of pundits has been busily enlightening readers as to the reasons why either Mr. Obama or Mr. Romney will inevitably win the election. Half of them, more or less, will be wrong, and the other half, more or less, will be lucky. Given the number of pundits and the laws of probability, a random few will be very lucky, predicting not only the outcome, but the exact tally of votes in the electoral college. No doubt these lucky ones will be celebrated as geniuses, at least until the next election. Except for Cassandra, successful fortune tellers have always prospered. However, those who put too much faith in them would do well to recall the example of Mr. Thomas.
Posted on September 26th, 2012 No comments
Pundits on the right have been less than pleased by what they view as a timid defense of freedom of speech and appeasement of radical Islamists by both Obama Administration officials and public intellectuals on the left in the wake of the murder of Ambassador Stevens and the accompanying violence in the Mideast. See for example, this piece by Ann Althouse, and this by Victor Davis Hanson. If the wobbly stuff emanating from the L.A. Times, The New Republic, and MSNBC is in any way representative, they have a point. In fact, the Left in the US and Europe has been exchanging admiring glances with the Islamists for some time. It’s not surprising. Following the collapse of Communism, radical Islam is the only game in town if your tastes run to extreme ideologies and you like to imagine yourself as a savior of the world. Unfortunately, it takes a very flexible intellect to abandon the ideological shibboleths embraced by the Left for the last couple of decades in favor of a misogynistic and fundamentalist version of Islam. Hence, the love affair has been carried on from a distance for the most part. If it’s any consolation to Professors Althouse and Hanson, things have been worse. Much worse.
It’s instructive to occasionally step back from the flood of information about current events that constantly pours in over the public media and look at the equivalent sources of information and opinion from times gone by. Consider the first half of the 1930’s, for example. The Great Depression had a strong tendency to adjust the attitudes of the public intellectuals of the day. Many of them were also fascinated by, and strongly supportive of, the totalitarian regimes that had recently appeared on the scene, some leaning to the Communist and some to the fascist variants thereof. I found interesting examples of both while thumbing through an old copy of The Atlantic Monthly.
The issue in question, dated November 1934, began with a piece by Vincent Sheean entitled “Youth and Revolution.” I highly recommend Sheean’s books, such as Not Peace but a Sword and Personal History to interested readers. Sheean was an excellent writer and journalist, and had a knack for turning up at key places just as events that shaped history were happening. He was also a forerunner of what a whole generation of later journalists became; a self-appointed champion of noble causes who saw the world in stark black and white, with few shades of grey in between. He had no illusions about Hitler at all, and witnessed and wrote about Nazi brutality against the Jews at a time when many “experts” who should have known better were dismissing such stories as “atrocity fables.” Hitler was a “bad guy.” Stalin and the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, were “good guys.” When it came to the bloody deeds of the likes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco, Sheean didn’t miss a trick, but was strangely blind to the ample evidence of similar mayhem available at the time if the perpetrators happened to be Communists.
In the article he wrote for the Atlantic, Sheean describes a trip to China in 1927. To set the stage historically, he arrived in China during the Northern Expedition, in which Nationalist forces under Chiang Kai-shek triumphed over a coalition of warlords and succeeded in uniting most of the country in 1928. Nanking had fallen to them in March 1927, a couple of weeks before Sheean arrived, and tensions between Chiang and the Communists in the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party) were coming to a head. They would soon culminate in Shanghai Massacre and the purge of Communists from the party which, until then had been supplied with arms and money from the Soviet Union. The Soviet envoy, Mikhail Borodin, was allowed to “escape” from the country. Here are a few excerpts from Sheean’s article:
The moment of triumph was inevitably the one in which the two elements among the Cantonese victors would separate. Genuine revolutionaries – those who wished to change the conditions of life in China, and not simply the forms or names of government – found themselves obliged to cling to the Left Wing of the Kuomintang, in which Russian influence was paramount. The others – those who took part in the revolution for their own advantage, or were prevented by the tenacity of middle-class ideas from wishing to disturb the established arrangement of wealth – collected around the treasuries of Shanghai and Nanking, under the patronage of the Chinese bankers of those cities and their new ally, Chiang Kai-shek.
…the difference between an academic acquaintance with Communism and an actual perception of its spirit is very great. The step required to pass from the first state to the second is so easy that it may be accomplished in a moment, and so difficult that it may involve the effort of a lifetime… but when the step has at last been taken, the barrier passed, we enter a world in which all parts of the structure of existence are so related and harmonized, so subjugated to a sovereign system, that its ordered beauty and majesty give us the sensation of a new form of life, as if we had moved off into space and taken up our abode, for a time, on another star… The world of Lenin (which is, in effect, all around us) can be entered in a moment, but only if the disposition of circumstances, persons, influences, can conquer the laziness of a bourgeois mind. The required combinations occurred for me at Hankow, and were given force and form, particularly, by Michael Borodin and Rayna Prohme (Russian editor of the left wing Kuomintangs newspaper).
Borodin, a large, calm man with the natural dignity of a lion or a panther, had that special quality of being in, but above, the battle that seems to me to deserve, in itself and without regard to the judgment of the world, the name of greatness… As I knew him better I perceived – or, rather, he showed me – how his political philosophy made breadth and elevation inevitable in the mind that understood it. He was an Old Bolshevik.
Such were the musings and reminiscences of a “mainstream media” journalist in 1934. As the reader will gather, Sheean was singularly ill-equipped intellectually to give his audience a balanced view of the Stalinist regime in Russia, or an understanding of the real nature of Communism. I encourage anyone who thinks he was the only one writing the sort of stuff cited above in 1934 to look through a few of the intellectual journals of the time. The question among many of the authors who contributed to them was not whether capitalism was dead, but which flavor of socialism would replace it, and whether the “inevitable” transition would occur violently or not. For the record, Borodin disappeared into the Gulag in 1949, and died in captivity in 1951, having escaped that fate much longer than most of the old Bolsheviks. The current state of the “worker’s paradise” in China should be familiar to most readers.
Apologists for the other brand of totalitarianism extant at the time, fascism, were fewer in number, but hardly uncommon. One of them, William Orton, a professor of economics at Smith College, contributed an article to the Atlantic entitled “New Wine in Germany.” It soothed readers’ “irrational” fears about Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime that had seized power in that country in January 1933. Orton had no more problem with Hitler’s suppression of “bourgeois” freedoms than Sheean had with the suppression of those freedoms by the Communists. He wrote at a time when much of the propaganda about atrocities perpetrated by the Germans in World War I had been debunked, spawning an attitude among intellectuals that all reports of atrocities were to be taken with a grain of salt. This instance of “learning the lessons of history” was particularly unhelpful at a time when the Communists and Nazis were competing for the title of greatest mass murderers of all time. The many eyewitness reports coming out of Germany and the Soviet Union were dismissed with the sage observation that, “It’s necessary to break a few eggs to make an omelet. Orton applied this logic to the violent Nazi persecution of the Jews that Sheean, among others, had already described in great detail. Here are some of the things he had to say about the “New Wine in Germany.”
It is not difficult, after three thousand miles of travel in Germany, to recognize in one’s mind a certain general impression; but it is almost impossible to convey that impression in speech or writing. One has the sense of a tremendous spiritual or psychological fact – overwhelming in its magnitude, urgent in its significance. But since the ingredients of this fact are primarily neither personal nor political, it eludes the scope of both the ordinary news story and the ordinary article. Perhaps the film could do it justice.
A sound film, of course, it would have to be. Drums – no, not the drums first. Silence – the silence that surrounds a great ship coming into harbor; and, somewhere up above, a band playing the new national anthem, the ‘Horst Wessel Lied’ – a fine music, reserved, steady, powerful in its measure, swinging out in the sunshine over the massed decks, over the narrowing water, over the crowded dock, over thousands of arms held motionless in the splendid gesture of the Fascist salute. Swing the camera along those lines of hands, held tense, not flaccid; close up to the faces; look at the lips, look at the eyes, shining, shining…
Confronted by this transition from party to government, British and American opinion exhibits a reluctance to face the facts that amounts to a positive refusal. Atrocity stories are played up, blunders magnified, oppression emphasized, …until a fair estimate of Hitler and his system is out of the question. There was the same display of stubborn short-sightedness in regard to the Italian and the Russian revolution, but in neither case was the myopia as acute as in this one. The roots of the disease must be exposed, since it renders a realistic attitude to modern Germany impossible.
Evidently Orton considered himself just the man to cure the “myopia,” and convey a “realistic attitude” about Hitler. He continues,
Germany is completely united in the determination to assert her equality of status with other powers; she has the means to do so, and there exists neither the right nor the possibility of preventing her.
Whether we will or no, we must take the risk of believing in the German people.
Germany has no present desire to provoke a war; and she has given certain tangible evidences (as Mussolini did not) of this fact. Hitler said, a few weeks ago, that ‘no colony was worth a single German life.’ His lieutenants have repeatedly said that with the return of the Saar there will remain no further cause of quarrel with France. There is good ground for accepting these assurances. But more weighty evidence is supplied by the ten-year treaty with Poland and the agreement recently concluded by Danzig with that state. To anyone who knows at first hand what conditions are like on the eastern border, those two settlements are an impressive demonstration of the will to peace.
Anti-semitism had been a problem, but Hitler had wisely put a stop to it:
Anti-semitism got altogether out of hand; until, when Streicher’s organ, Der Stürmer, attacked the President of Czechoslovakia, that too had to be temporarily suppressed.
It was with such stories of Hitler’s “will to peace” and his “suppression of anti-Semitism” that Orton reassured and “enlightened” the great democracies on the eve of the greatest existential struggle in their history. It is not recorded that he suffered any ill consequences for this “service.” As far as one can tell, it was forgotten, and he continued as a respected professor at Smith until his death in 1952. Searching the Internet, one learns that, “Russell Kirk praised Orton as a “humane economist,” “at once liberal and conservative,” seeking to “liberalize and humanize the Dismal Science.”
In a word, conservatives frustrated with the Left’s flirtations with radical Islam should take heart. Things have been worse. At the moment, at least, the United States and the European democracies don’t face an immediate threat to their existence. Meanwhile, there is no reason to believe that we will not continue to be “enlightened” about similar threats as we move into the future. Whether such “enlightenment” will be a significant contributor to our eventual downfall only time will tell.
Posted on September 4th, 2012 No comments
H. L. Mencken, the great Sage of Baltimore, edited the American Mercury from its inception in January 1924 through the issue of December 1933. It was always a worthwhile read while he was at the helm, published without pictures except for the advertisements, two columns to a page. There were articles about politics, science, religion, the arts, and whatever happened to strike Mencken’s fancy, along with occasional poems and short stories. Mencken continued the fascinating monthly review of newly released books that he had begun in The Smart Set, which he had edited during its heyday with George Jean Nathan. Every issue of the Mercury included an “Americana” section, made up of unwittingly comical extracts from newspapers and magazines across the country, and usually including a slap or two at the Ku Klux Klan, at least until that organization’s power and influence began to wane. Indeed, while he never patronized them, few if any individuals did more to promote respect for African Americans than Mencken. He frequently published the work of W. E. B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, Carl van Vechten, and many other black intellectuals. However, he did not alter the typically snide and sarcastic attitude he reserved for everyone else when speaking of them, and so was later condemned for “racism.” No good deed goes unpunished.
The final issue of the Mercury with Mencken as editor was as irreverent as the rest. There was an article entitled “Musical Slaughter House,” by one Edward Robinson, identified as “a piano teacher from New York, who condemned attempts to nurse The Metropolitan Opera through the Great Depression by appeals for charitable donations, noting, for example, that,
The list of the company’s productions would alone earn complete damnation in the eyes of even moderately civilized music-lovers, for the essential artistic contribution of the Metropolitan has been to preserve operas like “Aida” and “Pagliacci” from an oblivion that should have been theirs on the night they first appeared.
There was a piece on the radical socialist paper, The Masses, by journalist Bob Brown, with the less than complimentary take-off on its name, “Them Asses.” Brown occasionally wrote for The Masses, and his article is actually quite complimentary, at least by the standards of the Mercury. There were some fascinating vignettes on the workings of a radical sheet during the heyday of socialism, and biographical sketches of editor Max Eastman, a confidante of Trotsky, and other contributors.
Mencken was one of the foremost unbelievers of his day, so it was only fitting that his final edition of the Mercury should include an article about atheism. Entitled “Atheism Succumbs to Doubt,” its theme was that atheist activism was on the decline for lack of opposition. Noting that,
Not one believer in a thousand appears to know the difference between the Nicene and the Athanasian creeds. To the overwhelming majority Christianity is simply a ritual associated with sacred concerts on Sunday and chicken dinners at irregular intervals, the whole sustaining a variety of more or less useful funds and institutions.
The author concludes,
The faithful of romantic inclination dabble in theosophy or Bahaism. Are they excommunicated? Nay, even the village atheist would be welcomed into the fold if he’d be willing to subscribe to the Y.M.C.A. and hold his tongue. So the God-Killers marching forth to battle nowadays find the enemy’s camp deserted, Daniel’s lions dead of old age, and the Shekinah departed unto the Ozarks.
He makes the intriguing claim that American infidels had been vastly more robust and influential 50 years before, in the heyday of the great atheist speaker and writer, Robert G. Ingersoll.
It was not always thus. The God-Killers of half a century ago were taken seriously and took themselves seriously… In those days hundreds of atheistic pamphlets were published and sold in the United States. They bore such titles as “Why Don’t God Kill the Devil?” “The Myth of the Great Deluge,” “Where Is Hell?” “Death-Beds of Infidels,” “Faith or Fact,” “The Devil’s Catechism,” and “When Did Jehoshaphat Die?” John E. Remsburg, author of the last-named, proved by the Bible and arithmetic that this King of Israel died on sixteen different dates. Today nobody knows or cares that Jehoshaphat ever lived.
Fast forward another 75 years, and another crop of “God-Killers” has appeared on the scene, commonly referred to as the New Atheists. As readers of The God Delusion, penned by Richard Dawkins, one of the most famous of the lot, will have noted, he cannot turn his gaze our way without imagining an “American Taliban” behind every bush, and is as innocent of any knowledge of this flowering of American atheism as a child. Perhaps some nascent Ph.D. in history should take the matter in hand and document the doings of the “God-Killers” of the 1880′s, not to mention their rise and fall and rise again since the days of such famous infidels as Ethan Allen, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson.
Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany at the end of January, 1933, and Mencken, who was known as a Germanophile, took up the phenomenon of Nazism in the “Library” section of his last issue. Noting five titles on the subject as “a few of the first comers among what promises to be a long procession of Hitler books,” he proceeded to outline the implications of the rise of Hitler a great deal more soberly and presciently that most of the journals of the day. Typical of the stuff appearing at the time was a piece that appeared in the Century some months earlier whose author, rich in the wisdom of journalists, assured his readers that there was not the slightest reason to be concerned about Hitler or the hijinks of his followers. Mencken was not so sanguine. Echoing what John Maynard Keynes and many others had foreseen immediately in 1919, he wrote,
The most surprising thing about him (Hitler) it seems to me, is that his emergence should have been surprising. He was, in fact, implicit in the Treaty of Versailles.
He goes on to note some inconvenient truths about Hitler’s anti-Semitism that are as true now as they were then:
His anti-Semitism, which has shocked so many Americans, is certainly nothing to marvel over. Anti-Semitism is latent all over Western Europe, as it is in the United States… (The Jew) is an easy mark for demagogues when the common people are uneasy, and it is useful to find a goat. He has served as such a goat a hundred times in the past, and he will probably continue in the role, off and on, until his racial differentiation disappears or he actually goes back to his fatherland. In Germany, as in Poland, Austria and France, he has been made use of by demagogues for many years, precisely as the colored brother has been made use of in our own South.
Germanophile or no, Mencken has no illusions about what the rise of Hitler may portend, and doesn’t mince words in explaining it to his readers:
In such matters what is done cannot be undone; the main question, as I write, is how long the orgy will last, and whether it will wear itself out or have to be put down by external force. If the latter is resorted to, and it takes the form of military pressure, we are probably in for another World War.
During the entire decade he was editor, the Mercury reflected Mencken’s own cynical attitude, sometimes insightful and sometimes shallow as it was. Then, as now, authors craved seeing their work in print, and adjusted the style of the stuff they submitted to suite his taste accordingly. As a result, the paper always had a distinctly Menckenian flavor during his reign. In his final editorial, we find Mencken at his most optimistic, assuring his readers that nothing would change:
In case there be any among those readers who fear that the change of editorial administration will convert the magazine into something that it is not they may put their minds at ease. In its basic aims and principles there will be little change. Hereafter, as in the past, it will try to play a bright light over the national scene, revealing whatever is amusing and instructive, but avoiding mere moral indignation as much as possible.
The Mercury was to be taken over by Henry Hazlitt, who “was my first and only choice for the post he takes, and I am completely convinced that he will make a first-rate magazine.” Alas, it was not to be. Hazlitt didn’t see eye to eye with the publisher, and resigned within four months. The Mercury was taken over by Mencken’s former assistant, Charles Angoff, and took a sharp turn to the left. After the fashion of the political and intellectual journals of the time, it became a forum for authors who were cocksure that the demise of capitalism was just around the corner, and differed mainly in the degree of mayhem they deemed necessary for the inevitable transition to socialism. There were several similar jarring changes before the final demise of the paper in 1980.
No matter, the Mercury of Mencken’s day is as fascinating as ever for those seeking relief from the unrelenting political correctness and overbearing piety one often finds in its modern equivalents. There are usually a few copies available on eBay for interested readers at any given time, although prices have been trending upwards lately.
Posted on August 31st, 2012 No comments
Niall Ferguson’s recent publication of an article attacking Obama in Newsweek generated a lot of useful data on the nature of political thought. Consider, for example, the hundreds of comments left on liberal and conservative political blogs and websites. They’re easy enough to find on Google. On the former, the commenters are typically furious because of their conviction that Ferguson’s article is nothing but a pack of lies, and on the latter they are triumphant because of their conviction that Ferguson not only answered but demolished the charges of deception, and exposed his opponents as the real liars. For the most part, the comments are morally charged, and seem to fully vindicate Jonathan Haidt’s point about the emotional dog with a rational tail. To the extent that any of the commenters attempt to use reason at all, it is to vindicate intuitions about whether Ferguson is “good” or “evil” that are entirely predictable depending on whether they dwell on the right or left of the political spectrum. There are virtually no instances of the apparent use of reason to weigh and balance the evidence before forming an opinion. The more obsessed an individual is with politics, the more predictable his opinions become on any politically loaded issue. If there is any good news in all this, it is that both sides are well-represented in the social media, at least in the United States. The rare individual who is inclined to weigh the evidence on both sides and attempt to formulate an opinion informed by reason at least has easy access to both points of view. The result is a salutary restraint on the ardent partisans of both sides that encourages them to occasionally temper their ideal worldview with doses of reality. If only one point of view were represented, there would be an opposite tendency to replace reality with fantasy.
The German media provides a good example of how this works in practice. As in the U.S., the social media in that country has powerful voices on both the “left” and the “right.” There are pronounced differences among the partisans of both sides, particularly regarding issues of local interest. However, as regards, the U.S., the message from both sides is remarkably similar. This was very evident in the most recent of the periodic eruptions of anti-American hate in Europe that reached its climax during the final years of the Clinton and the first years of the Bush Administrations. Coverage of the United States, whether in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on the right or Der Spiegel magazine on the left, was uniformly anti-American and quasi-racist. For example, Americans were universally stereotyped as prudish, religious fanatics, gun nuts, etc. Occasionally the bitter attacks on the U.S. took up so much space on Der Spiegel’s website that it was difficult to find any news about Germany. The anti-American wave only subsided when a few people on the other side of the Atlantic began to notice (and be shocked) by what they were seeing. Apparently the big dogs in the German media concluded that, profitable though it undoubtedly was, they would have to tone down what had become blatant hate mongering if they wanted to preserve some chance of continuing to win prestigious international prizes for “objectivity.”
Today things are significantly more subdued although the media still throws a chunk of red meat to the Amerika haters now and then. However, the one-sided nature of the reporting is still the same. Consider, for example, the recent coverage of the Republican National Convention. Whereas, after a brief honeymoon, the Obama Administration is now generally portrayed in the German media as merely ineffectual, the Republicans are decidedly bad guys who are typically described as “radical,” “extreme,” and “crazy.” They are, of course, “racist” as well. Thus, for example, there was heavy coverage of incident in which two unknown individuals threw nuts at a black CNN correspondent and told her that was how they “fed the animals,” but no mention of the seemingly more egregious racism behind the defacing of Republican Mia Love’s Wikipedia entry, and little, if any, notice of the fact that persons of color were prominent speakers at the convention at all.
Paul Ryan is described as an “extremist” in both the “rightist” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (“Ryan is known as a proponent of budget slashing and massive cuts in the area of social welfare”) and the “leftist” Der Spiegel (“Romney’s choice for Vice President has prepared a plan of battle that includes more explosive for America’s democracy than all (Sarah) Palin’s vices – nothing less than a declaration of war on America’s social solidarity”), based on either grossly distorted and one-sided portrayals of his record, or, more commonly, no evidence at all. In spite of the fact that the federal budget proposed by Ryan calls for increased spending every year for the next decade and beyond, he supposedly wants a “skeleton state.” In condemning Ryan, Der Spiegel goes so far as to provide its readers with a fairy tale version of “history” that would never pass the “ho ho” test if there were anyone around with an interest in bothering to challenge it:
Ryan sees himself as a tribune of the people. He likes to quote Ronald Reagan’s remarks to the effect that, if the rich had more, their riches would “trickle down” to the rest of the citizens. The result of this experiment is well known: Reagan had to massively increase taxes in 1982, because the U.S. budget deficit had become gigantic.
In fact, Ryan couldn’t quote Reagan’s remarks about “trickle down” economics, because the term is a straw man used by his enemies. English speakers can easily Google the facts about economics in the Reagan years, and see for themselves that the 1982 tax increase was not “massive” by any reasonable definition of the term, and particularly not when compared with the tax cut of 1981, that it represented a compromise in return for spending cuts, that there was a net overall decline, not increase, in the tax rate during the Reagan years. Furthermore, in spite of tax cuts, as noted by economist M. T. Griffith,
As a result of the Reagan tax cuts, tax payments and the share of income taxes paid by the top 1% climbed sharply. For example, in 1981 the top 1% paid 17.6% of all personal income taxes, but by 1988 their share had jumped to 27.5%, a 10 percentage point increase. The share of the income tax burden borne by the top 10% of taxpayers increased from 48.0% in 1981 to 57.2% in 1988. Meanwhile, the share of income taxes paid by the bottom 50% of taxpayers dropped from 7.5% in 1981 to 5.7% in 1988.
The “gigantic” U.S. budget deficit of 1982 was only about half what it is today as a percent of GDP. The arguments and interpretations of the legacy of the Reagan years continue in the U.S. to this day, with lots of spin on both sides. The point is that the version in the German media is generally a great deal more crudely one-sided than one typically finds in the U.S., even among the most ardent partisans on either side. Only one point of view speaks with a significant voice in the social media. “Fact checking” by the other side is not a concern, because there is no other side, other than a few brave but insignificant bloggers.
The Eastwood speech was another prominent feature of the convention that was portrayed one way by the Right, and an entirely different way by the Left. In Germany, it was portrayed only one way, more or less in lockstep with the version you’re likely to find in the New York Times or Washington Post. Which version you happen to prefer is beside the point. The point is that, on this as on so many other complex issues dealing with the U.S., in Germany, you only get one version, and it’s usually a great deal cruder and tendentious than its equivalent here.
According to Marx, a monopoly of the social means of production in the hands of a single economic class is a bad thing. In practice, it seems to me that a monopoly of the social means of communication on behalf of a single point of view may be a good deal worse. That was the state of affairs that prevailed in the U.S. in the 60’s and 70’s. With respect to “news” about the United States, it is a state of affairs that prevails in Germany, and probably a good number of other countries to this day. Where such monopolies exist, formal “freedom of the press” is meaningless. Keep that in mind the next time you feel like whining about Rush Limbaugh, Foxnews, and the many influential U.S. bloggers and websites of the right, or about George Soros, MSNBC, and the many influential U.S. bloggers and websites of the left. As long as both of them exist, it’s a good thing. They keep each other honest.
Posted on July 31st, 2012 2 comments
Well, actually that’s only technically true. Any potential Obama voter who can afford the fare and tell a red state from a blue state becomes an honorary U.S. citizen as soon as they set foot on these shores. They can vote as often as they like, as long as they don’t do it all in the same precinct. Still, I had to chuckle when I glanced at the website of Der Spiegel this morning. They are so in the tank for Obama they make MSNBC look like the soul of objective journalism. Here are the stories I found in a quick glance through:
Headline: Candidate Embarrassing Byline: Stiff as a board, clueless, artificial. Republican Presidential candidate exposed many of his weaknesses on his European tour.
Headline: Romney Enrages Palestinians (have they ever not been enraged?) Byline: Romney campaigns on his foreign tour – and arouses the Palestinians against him in the process.
Headline: Romney’s Blundering Tour through Europe Byline: The U.S. candidate for President booked a week of blunders and slip-ups in Europe. Things just aren’t going right for the Republican.
Headline: Stepping in it On Tour Byline: The Palestinians accuse him of racism, the British are cross, and Polands Solidarnosc doesn’t like him.
Headline: Romney Advisor Curses Reporters in Warsaw Byline: There’s no end to the criticism directed at Romney’s foreign tour – now one of his advisors lost his cool.
And mind you, that’s just what I saw in a quick glance on a single day. Actually, it’s a huge improvement. Back in the last years of the Clinton and first years of the Bush Administrations, Der Spiegel’s website was so full of vile, quasi-racist anti-American rants that it was often difficult to wade through it all and find any news about Germany. They only gave it up when a few people across the pond started to notice, and the editors realized they were putting all those prestigious international prizes for “objective journalism” in jeopardy. They still occasionally throw out some red meat to the Amerika haters, but only enough to keep them on life support.
Posted on July 23rd, 2012 No comments
We tend to be strongly influenced by the recent past in our predictions about the future. After World War I, any number of pundits, statesmen, and military officers thought the next war would be a carbon copy of the one they had just lived through, albeit perhaps on a larger scale. The German government’s disastrous decision to declare war in 1914 was likely influenced by the quick and decisive German victories in 1864, 1866, and 1870. The Japanese were similarly mesmerized by their brilliant success against the Russians in 1904-05 after an opening surprise attack against the Russian fleet lying at anchor at Port Arthur, and assumed history would repeat itself if they launched a similar attack against Pearl Harbor.
Sometimes startling events force the reevaluation of old ideas and paradigms, such as the German armored Blitzkrieg or the destruction of powerful battleships from the air in World War II, or, more recently, the sudden collapse of Communism and the Soviet Union from 1989-91. We are always fascinated by such events, yet few of us grasp their significance as they are happening. Our tendency is always to look backwards, to fit the revolutionary and the unprecedented into the old world that we understand rather than the new one that we can’t yet imagine. So it was after the dropping of the first atomic bombs. It certainly focused the attention of public intellectuals, unleashing a torrent of essays full of dire predictions. For many, the future they imagined was simply a continuation of the immediate past, albeit with new and incredibly destructive weapons. It was to include the continued inexorable push for world dominion by totalitarian Communism, centered in the Soviet Union, and world wars following each other in quick succession every 15 to 20 years, about the same as the interval between the first two world wars.
Such a vision of the future was described by James Burnham in “The Struggle for the World,” published in 1947. Burnham was a former Marxist and Trotskyite who eventually abandoned Marxism, and became one of the leading conservative intellectuals of his day. His thought made a deep impression on, among others, George Orwell. For example, he had suggested the possibility of a world dominated by three massive totalitarian states, constantly at war with each other, in an earlier book, “The Managerial Revolution,” published in 1941. These became Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia in Orwell’s “1984.” The notions of “doublethink”, the totalitarian use of terms such as “justice” and “peace” in a sense opposite to their traditional meanings, and the rewriting of history every few years “so that history itself will always be a confirmation of the immediate line of the party,” familiar to readers of “1984,” were also recurrent themes in “The Struggle for the World.”
Burnham, born in 1905, had come of age during the stunning period of wars, revolutions, and the birth of the first totalitarian states that began and ended with the world wars of the 20th century. He assumed that events of such global impact would continue at the same pace, only this time in a world with nuclear weapons. As a former Marxist, he knew that the Communists, at least, were deliberately engaged in a “struggle for the world,” and was dismayed that U.S. politicians at the time were so slow to realize the nature of the struggle. He also correctly predicted that, unless they were stopped, the Communists would develop nuclear weapons in their Soviet base “in a few years.” This, he warned, could not be allowed to happen because it would inevitably and quickly lead to a full scale nuclear exchange. His reasoning was as follows:
Let us assume that more than one (two is enough for the assumption) power possesses, and is producing, atomic weapons. Each will be improving the efficiency and destructive potential of the weapons as it goes along. Now let us try to reason as the leaders of these powers would be compelled to reason.
Each leader of Power A could not but think as follows: Power B has at its disposal instruments which could, in the shortest time, destroy us. He has possibly made, or is about to make, new discoveries which will threaten even more complete and rapid destruction. At the moment, perhaps, he shows no open disposition to use these instruments. Nevertheless, I cannot possibly rely on his continued political benevolence – above all since he knows that I also have at my disposal instruments that can destroy him. Some hothead – or some wise statesman – of his may even now be giving the order to push the necessary buttons.
Even if there were no atomic weapons, many of the leaders would undoubtedly be reasoning today along these lines. Atomic weapons are, after all, not responsible for warfare, not even for the Third World War, which has begun. The fact that the political and social causes of a war are abundantly present stares at us from every edition of every newspaper. The existence of atomic weapons merely raises the stakes immeasurably higher, and demands a quicker decision.
But to assume, as do some foolish commentators, that fear of retaliation will be the best deterrent to an atomic war is to deny the lessons of the entire history of war and of society. Fear, as Ferrero so eloquently shows, is what provokes the exercise of force. Most modern wars have been, in the minds of every belligerent, preventive: an effort to stamp out the fear of what the other side might be about to do.
The existence of two or more centers of control of atomic weapons would be equal to a grenade with the pin already pulled.
According to Burnham, the resulting nuclear war or wars would lead to the collapse of Western Civilization. In his words,
If, however, we are not yet ready to accept passively the final collapse of Western Civilization, we may state the following as a necessary first condition of any workable solution of the problem of atomic weapons: there must be an absolute monopoly of the production, possession and use of all atomic weapons.
One wonders what direction world history might have taken had someone like Burnham been President in 1950 instead of Truman. He would have almost certainly adopted MacArthur’s plan to drop numerous atomic bombs on China and North Korea. We were lucky. In the end, Truman’s homespun common sense prevailed over Burnham’s flamboyant intellect, and the nuclear genie remained in the bottle.
However, in 1947 the U.S. still had a monopoly of nuclear weapons, and, for the reasons cited above, Burnham insisted we must keep it. He suggested that this might best be done by establishing an effectual world government, but dismissed the possibility as impractical. The only workable alternative to a Communist conquest of the world or full scale nuclear war and the end of Western Civilization was U.S. hegemony. In Burnham’s words,
It is not our individual minds or desires, but the condition of world society, that today poses for the Soviet Union, as representative of communism, and for the United States, as representative of Western Civilization, the issue of world leadership. No wish or thought of ours can charm this issue away.
This issue will be decided, and in our day. In the course off the decision, both of the present antagonists may, it is true, be destroyed. But one of them must be.
Whatever the words, it is well also to know the reality. The reality is that the only alternative to the communist World Empire is an American Empire which will be, if not literally worldwide in formal boundaries, capable of exercising decisive world control. Nothing less than this can be the positive, or offensive, phase of a rational United States policy.
As a first step to empire, Burnham proposed the union of Great Britain and the United States, to be followed, not by outright conquest, but by firm assertion of U.S. predominance and leadership in the non-Communist world. Beyond that, the Communist threat must finally be recognized for what it was, and a firm, anti-Communist policy substituted for what was seen as a lack of any coherent policy at all. Vacillation must end.
Fortunately, when it came to the nuclear standoff, Burnham was wrong, and the “foolish commentators” who invoked the fear of retaliation were right. Perhaps, having only seen the effects of dropping two low yield bombs, he could not yet imagine the effect of thousands of bombs orders of magnitude more powerful, or conceive of such a thing as mutually assured destruction. Perhaps it was only dumb luck, but the world did not stumble into a nuclear World War III as it had into the conventional world wars of the 20th century, and the decisive events in the struggle did not follow each other nearly as quickly as Burnham imagined they would.
Burnham also failed to foresee the implications of the gradual alteration in the nature of the Communist threat. At the time he wrote, it was everything he claimed it to be, a messianic secular religion at the height of its power and appeal. He assumed that it would retain that power and appeal until the battle was decided, one way or the other. Even though he was aware that the masses living under Communism, other than a dwindling number of incorrigible idealists, were already disillusioned by “the God that failed,” he didn’t foresee what a decisive weakness that would eventually become. In the end, time was on our side. The Communists, and not we, as Lenin had predicted, finally dropped onto the garbage heap of history “like a ripe plum.”
However, Burnham wasn’t wrong about everything. To win the struggle, it was necessary for us to finally recognize the threat. Whatever doubt remained on that score, at least as far as most of our political leaders were concerned, was dissipated by the North Korean invasion of the south. Our policy of vacillation didn’t exactly end, but was occasionally relieved by periods of firmness. In the end, in spite of a media dominated through most of the struggle by Lenin’s “useful idiots” and the resultant cluelessness of most Americans about what we were even trying to do on the front lines of the “clash between the cultures” in places like Vietnam, we prevailed.
It was a near thing. Burnham feared that, even after losing the opening battles of the next war to a United States with a monopoly of nuclear weapons, the Communists might regroup, abandon their vulnerable cities, and transform the struggle into a “people’s war.” His description of what would follow was eerily similar to what actually did happen, but in a much smaller arena than the whole world:
They would transform the struggle into a political war, a “people’s war,” fought in every district of the world by irregulars, partisans, guerillas, Fifth Columns, spies, stool pigeons, assassins, fought by sabotage and strikes and lies and terror and diversion and panic and revolt. They would play on every fear and prejudice of the United States population, every feeling of guilt or nobility; they would exploit every racial and social division; they would widen every antagonism between tentative allies; and they would tirelessly wear down the United States will to endure.
Though the result would be not quite so certain, perhaps, as if the communists also had atomic weapons, they would in the end, I think, succeed. Because of the lack of a positive United States policy, because it would not have presented to the world even the possibility of a political solution, its dreadful material strength would appear to the peoples as the unrelieved brutality of a murderer. Its failure to distinguish between the communist regime and that regime’s subject-victims would weld together the victims and their rulers. Americans themselves would be sickened and conscience-ridden by what would seem to them a senseless slaughter, never-ending, leading nowhere. The military leadership would be disoriented by the inability of their plans based on technical superiority to effect a decision. The failure to conceive the struggle politically would have given the communists the choice of weapons. From the standpoint of the United States, the entire world would have been turned into an ambush and a desert. In the long night, nerves would finally crack, and sentries would fire their last shots wildly into the darkness, and it would all be over.
Change “the world” to Vietnam and it reads like a history instead of a premonition. Tomorrow is another day, and I doubt that any of us will prove better at predicting what the future will bring than Burnham. We have lived through an era much different, more peaceful, and more sedate in the pace of events than the one he experienced between 1914 and 1945. We should beware of assuming, as he did, that the future will bear any resemblance to the immediate past. The world is still full of nuclear weapons, some of them already in the hands of, or soon to be in the hands of, dictators of suspect rationality. Some of our intellectuals soothe our fears with stories about the “vanishing of violence,” but as Omar Khayyam put it in the “Rubaiyat,” they could soon be “cast as foolish prophets forth, their mouths stopped with dust,” through some miscalculation or deliberate act of malice. As the Boy Scouts say, “be prepared.”