Von Braun

The Book of the Week is “Von Braun, Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War” by Michael J. Neufeld, published in 2007.

Born in Prussia in March 1912, Wernher von Braun grew up in a wealthy, cultured, intellectual family who encouraged his interest in science. He played the cello and piano. At thirteen years old, he was sent to boarding school. Although he failed math and physics, he learned these subjects to the extent he needed to in pursuing his passion for rocketry and astronomy.

In 1932, von Braun’s father snagged a plum civil service position. As a result, the German army funded von Braun’s research into rocket-based weaponry. In summer 1933, he took flying lessons. He later completed his PhD at one of the most prestigious universities in Germany.

After Hitler’s purge of political dissidents in spring 1934, the German army and air force had a duopoly on top-secret ballistic missile research directed and supervised by von Braun.

In November 1937, von Braun was compelled to join the Nazi party, or be fired. Although ample evidence has emerged that he was aware of the evil purposes to which his projects were applied, he appeared to suppress his moral revulsion in connection therewith. His first love and loyalty was working toward his goal of creating vehicles that could explore outer space. But he was ordered to make weaponry first.

“After 1938, corporate and university researchers were also integrated in increasing numbers, further propelling funding in breakthroughs in liquid fuel propulsion, supersonic aerodynamics, and guidance control.” In spring 1940, von Braun was compelled to join the SS or be fired. He reluctantly did so.

Von Braun’s was a serious moral dilemma. It is unclear what the consequences would have been had he refused to willingly participate in operations involving slave labor (Resistance fighters, Communists, criminals, concentration camp internees) subjected to inhumane conditions (disease, torture, starvation) in making the instruments of war, and to willingly participate in the making itself.

The first successful ballistic missile (launched via a rocket), occurred in October 1942, after various trial-and-error failures (balls-of-fire explosions). This kind of experimentation at that time was, and still is, agonizingly slow and astronomically expensive. At the start of WWII, the weapons program had about twelve hundred employees. Wartime meant von Braun’s experimental resources of nitric acid, diesel oil and aluminum alloys were diverted to Hitler’s actual military usage, causing serious production problems.

In spring 1945, von Braun and his immediate boss were able to carry out their plan at war’s end of turning themselves over to the Americans, with whom they would share their rocketry expertise.

According to the author, in June 1945, the Americans liberating Germany persuaded about 350 skilled rocket-workers, and their relatives, numbering a few thousand, to emigrate to Alabama and New Mexico in the United States. The Soviets grabbed a few “brains” who traveled to East Germany, and then the Soviet Union. The author didn’t explicitly state which superpower acquired more talent.

In the 1950’s in the United States, von Braun published his writings, lectured, and literally broadcasted his opinion that the United States should engage in space exploration for the purpose of launching a satellite that would indicate weapons installations of surveilled regions on earth, among other purposes.

Read the book to learn of the political power struggles and trials and tribulations that von Braun and the German and U.S. governments underwent in aerospace research as matters of national pride and security; of why some historians might describe von Braun as an overrated attention whore; and how times have changed (hint– in the 1960’s, “…only nation-states had the resources to finance and direct huge guided-missile and space programs.”).

The Dean

The Book of the Week is “The Dean, The Best Seat in the House” by Rep. John D. Dingell, with David Bender, published in 2018.

Born in July 1926, Dingell was appointed a page (messenger boy) beginning when he was eleven, helping a Republican U.S. Congressman, thanks to his father– Rep. John Dingell, Sr. (D., MI); his boss was Republican, to avoid the appearance of partisanship.

Dingell, who had a younger brother and sister (who died of illness at a year old), was of Polish Jesuit extraction. The family lived in Detroit. In 1932, his father ran against a Congressional opponent who had ties to the KKK. In his teens, he went hunting for squirrels and turkeys at his boss’s farm in Northern Virginia.

In 1955, Dingell won a special election to fill his dead father’s seat in Congress. This, after serving in the military at the end of WWII, and graduating (via the GI Bill) from Georgetown University with a degree in chemistry.

According to the author, only in the past few decades has politics in the United States become nastier than ever. And he knew. He served 59 years in Congress.

In August 2009, he held a Town Hall meeting in Romulus, Michigan to speak about the healthcare bill (Obamacare). The hundreds of protestors and hecklers who filled the meeting hall weren’t even from Michigan. They were from other midwestern states.

They believed the propaganda that had sparked fear and outrage against Obamacare. “This was an ambush organized by that evil Dick Armey and his lunatic Tea Party crowd. The Koch brothers were funding the whole damn thing in order to stop the Affordable Care Act from passing in Congress.”

The brainwashed attendees rudely, childishly yelled slurs nonstop at the tops of their lungs the whole time. Dingell was used to such abusive treatment however, having had a cross burned on his lawn more than once, as he supported Civil Rights laws. Like his father before him, however, he didn’t put up with corruption.

It is little known that in 1943, Dingell’s father submitted the first national healthcare proposal ever in the United States. The American Medical Association railed against it because the plan would have reduced its power.

Another surprising bit of information is that President Richard Nixon was a great advocate of environmentalism (only in the United States, of course), supporting the EPA and clean air and water legislation in 1970; this is curious, given Nixon’s track record in connection with the desecration of Vietnam.

Dingell played well with others, befriending even Republicans by going hunting with them for all kinds of animals (not the kind who showed up at his Town Hall meetings, though).

Read the book to learn more about Dingell and his views.

The Gambler – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “The Gambler, How Penniless Dropout Kirk Kerkorian Became the Greatest Deal Maker in Capitalist History” by William C. Rempel, published in 2018.

Born in Fresno, CA in June 1917, Kerkorian was the youngest of four children of Armenian extraction. In the first half of the twentieth century, he pursued his passions of amateur boxing and piloting planes. His entrepreneurial spirit led him to go into the chartered airplane business. He began associating with unsavory characters when he bet on sports in 1961. His FBI dossier related this factoid that was learned via wiretapping.

Kerkorian dreamed big and took the outrageous risks required to fulfill them. Thanks to his cultivating friends in high places, in the early 1960’s, he managed to borrow a steep $5 million to purchase a DC-8 (jetliner) to expand his transcontinental shuttle service for the U.S. military and other lucrative clients.

In 1963, Kerkorian got into the casino business. He launched an IPO for his holding company in 1965. Then he became aggressive in acquiring companies against their will. Like Western Air Lines. He also opened the biggest hotel/casino in the world in July 1969. He got international celebrities to provide entertainment on opening night just to rub it in the faces of the competition, such as Howard Hughes.

However, one casino Kerkorian took over had been run by the Mob. In late 1969, the IRS forced him to sell a yacht and a plane to pay back-taxes. In 1972, a German bank was dunning him for an amount of money he couldn’t possibly pay. He didn’t worry. He simply ordered that his financially struggling company, MGM, issue a ginormous dividend to himself, and all other holders of the company’s stock. This way, he could pay off his personal bank debt; never mind that MGM risked going bankrupt. Of course some shareholders sued.

Read the book to learn of Kerkorian’s many other adventures in business and pleasure.

Rose Kennedy

The Book of the Week is “Rose Kennedy, The Life and Times of A Political Matriarch” by Barbara A. Perry, published in 2013.

As is well known, the Kennedy family members’ fates were fraught with traumas and tragedies. Rose gave birth to nine children, starting in the nineteen teens (alphabetically): Bobby, Edward, Eunice, Jean, John, Joseph Jr., Kathleen, Patricia and Rosemary.

In July 1890, Rose was the oldest of six children born into the wealthy Fitzgerald family of Boston. Her father was elected as a U.S. Congressman in 1894. Around 1906, he took over the weekly newspaper The Republic. Later, he was elected mayor of Boston. Rose, instead of his wife, accompanied him on his campaign and diplomatic travels. Their ethnic identity was Irish Catholic, enemies of the Protestant Yankees.

Rose defied her parents’ wishes in her choice of a lifelong mate– Joseph P. Kennedy. Through the decades of the nineteen teens through the 1930’s, Rose’s growing family lived in locations pursuant to Kennedy’s highly lucrative business and political activities, even though he almost never saw his wife and kids (due to work and philandering)–  Riverdale in the Bronx; Bronxville in Westchester County, New York; Hyannis Port, Massachusetts; and Palm Beach, Florida.

In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Rose’s husband to be the first chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The agency was formed  to regulate Wall Street– criminalize insider trading and require disclosure of transactions in order to rein in the kind of excessive greed in which ironically, Joseph Kennedy himself indulged– that was partly responsible for the devastating, nationwide financial crash.

Even during the Depression years, however, the Kennedys lived high on the hog. In February 1938, the president appointed Joseph the ambassador to Great Britain. In publicly supporting her husband, Rose comfortably fell into the role of social butterfly– meeting with royal family members at luncheons, cocktail parties and teas. She also spent loads of time monitoring her children’s health, (boarding-school) educations and welfare.

During John’s 1952 senatorial election, and her other family members’ numerous other elections, Rose made countless public appearances campaigning, and fund-raising for her husband’s charity for underprivileged children. Joseph wrote checks and bribed journalists. Their 26 year-old son Bobby served as John’s campaign manager. The family was a political tour de force.

In April 1961, the day after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Rose had business more important than a traumatized JFK to attend to: shopping for fur coats in New York City for her future trips accompanying her president-son everywhere, including diplomatic visits to Europe. In 1962, the youngest child, Teddy, sought John’s vacated Senate seat. To assist him, Rose made a promotional film, of course omitting all inconvenient facts from her stories in order to project the Kennedys as the perfect family.

Alas, read the book to learn how very sugar-coated that film was, along with many other details of Rose and her family.