Ruth Bader Ginsburg – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Ruth Bader Ginsburg” by Jane Sherron de Hart, published in 2018.

Born in Brooklyn in March 1933, Bader grew up in a cultured household. She took piano lessons, played the cello, and summered annually at her relatives’ Adirondacks camp. A voracious reader, she was sent to Hebrew school, and skipped an academic grade. However, her mother, with whom she was very close, passed away of cancer when she was seventeen.

The culture and politics of Bader’s generation “… limited aspirations and choices for young women.” The GI Bill, the Federal Housing Administration and Social Security– just to name a few sources of privilege, provided the men with resources denied the women. The far-reaching institutional discrimination they engendered was accepted as a given in American culture.

Bader received a scholarship from Harvard Law School. But, since she married before attending the school, it was naturally assumed that she no longer needed the scholarship because her-father-law would pay the tuition. Obviously, the school would have honored the scholarship if the married Bader had been male.

Unusually, though, Bader’s parents-in-law encouraged her to pursue her dream of becoming an attorney, even though she was female. She was one of nine women in her class of 552 students. She made Law Review, and before graduating, had a daughter. Bader’s husband served as a true equal partner while the two alternated attending law school, and fulfilling childcare and domestic responsibilities. Before he graduated, he had a serious bout of testicular cancer.

In 1959, even though Bader graduated co-valedictorian, she couldn’t find a job due to her gender. Such prejudice was equivalent to the denial of graduate-school acceptance of Jews in the Soviet Union that lasted into the 1980’s.

With the help of a law-school professor’s aggressive recommendations, Bader ended up clerking for a judge, teaching law at Rutgers, then teaching law at Columbia University (benefiting from “Affirmative Action”), and directing legal projects on gender discrimination for the ACLU. She was super-dedicated, and worked around the clock.

Unfortunately, Bader was unable to be a major legal mover and shaker in the Women’s Movement because it was fragmented and complex with infighting. Various organizations were trying to further gender equality through litigation and lobbying, whereas, with the Civil Rights Movement, only the NAACP was trying to change laws.

Read the book to learn of how Bader became a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, a few major cases she argued during her career, the difference between “benign discrimination” and “paternalistic discrimination” and much more about her professional and personal life.

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 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.

Nikita Khrushchev

The Book of the Week is “Nikita Khrushchev, and the Creation of a Superpower” by Sergei N. Khrushchev, published in 2000. This is the Soviet leader’s biography, written by his younger son, born in 1935. 

Born in April 1894 in Kurskaya, Nikita possessed excellent survival skills as a politician until the mid-1960’s. In the 1930’s, his growing family’s living standards were almost comparable to that of the West, considering they received government-provided housing and food.

During WWII, in March 1943, Nikita’s older son’s (vulnerable Soviet) warplane (of inferior quality) was shot down and he was killed (a not uncommon occurrence). The Soviet government arrested his widow and charged her with spying for Britain or Sweden (also a not uncommon occurrence). The author’s mother (Nikita’s wife) spread propaganda for the district party committee, and cared for the author’s young cousins whose older relatives were doing war work or who had been killed in the fighting. Those who Americans would call “draft dodgers” consisted of privileged family members of government officials, who did “theatre administration” stateside.

After WWII ended, the USSR’s government featured a “…morbidly suspicious Stalin surrounded by backstabbing and cutthroat courtiers jockeying for position.” In 1950, the Khrushchev family moved from the Ukraine to Moscow. Nikita had to choose his friends carefully, even when taking a walk with a comrade outside his vacation house (dacha), as they were closely tailed by gossipy bodyguards. As a Politburo member, he rode in an armored limousine.

Nikita made various policy changes after Stalin’s death in 1953. In connection with weaponry, in order to keep up with the United States, he ordered his country to make nuclear submarines, which required less exorbitant spending than cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers. He also felt that ballistic missiles were the wave of the future.

In early 1956, a Central Committee secretary found documentation on Stalin’s purges and show trials. Like any good bureaucrat, the secretary felt obliged to draft a memo on the heinous crimes described therein. A few of the many disturbing lines included: “During 1937-1938 alone, 1,548,366 people were arrested, 681,692 of whom were shot. Top level leaders in republics, territories, and provinces were arrested; then their replacements were arrested, and so on. Of the 1,966 delegates to the Seventeenth Congress of the all-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), 1,108 were arrested, 848 were shot, and so on.”

Soviet dissidents– victims of Stalin’s arbitrary human rights abuses but faithful to Communism– who were still alive, were soon to be released from the gulag. They could potentially present a public relations disaster for Nikita. Thus, Nikita formed a “truth and reconciliation” commission of sorts, to air their grievances, and put all the blame on Stalin for past totalitarian policies. However, no compensation was forthcoming for the victims and no punishments were imposed on the offenders.

In October 1956, just prior to the bloody suppression of protestors in Hungary, Soviet spies were led to believe that the Poles were planning to break away from the Union, and get Westernized. So the Soviets conferred with the Poles and the other Soviet satellites Romania and Czechoslovakia to keep them in the Soviet fold. Tito, the Yugoslavian leader, was still on speaking terms with the Soviets, but he had declared his territory’s independence from the USSR some time before.

In the following weeks, Nikita certainly did not want the Poles, Romanians and Czechs to copy Hungary’s rebellious action; that might lead to their defecting to the hostile, imperialist capitalists. He gave the order to send tanks to Budapest because “… the imperialists threatened to oppress the people, the workers and the peasants.” Fortunately, no violence ensued elsewhere, as Nikita struck a deal with the Poles. They would no longer receive reduced-price coal from Silesia, but their substantial debt to the USSR was canceled.

By summer 1957, political enemies of Nikita were starting to plot against him in the USSR’s two governing bodies, the Central Committee and the Politburo (Presidium). However, Nikita was able to hang on to his power in a vote that resulted in demotions and exiles of the perpetrators.

By late August 1957, the Soviets had developed an intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially hit any place on earth. However, expensively, the army (which possessed no experience in weaponry) rather than the aviation industry, was the governmental entity producing it. Two years later, Nikita formed an entity that made only strategic missiles.

The author spent many, many pages recounting the details of the Cuban Missile Crisis. All through the summer of 1962, Nikita had actively pursued an aggressive military mission: secretly, actually shipping Soviet missiles from the Union to Cuba for the purpose of “defense.”

For, the United States had launched a (botched) clandestine military operation at the Bay of Pigs to try to destabilize Cuba. It had nuclear weapons at the ready in Turkey and Italy, that could reach the USSR; in previous months, it had been sending a few U-2 spy planes over Soviet territory– a violation of the Union’s airspace. Not that the Soviet government hadn’t launched sixteen surveillance missions over France by 1960. And installed listening devices in private homes throughout the USSR. Pox on everyone’s houses.

Anyway, the possibility of actual mutual assured destruction reared its ugly head when, in the third week of October 1962, American intelligence officials discovered that the Soviets had assembled twelve nuclear missiles and more were on the way. Shortly thereafter, the United States declared an embargo on Soviet ships heading toward Cuba because presumably, they were carrying weapons parts. The Soviets didn’t take kindly to that, but the embargo was never actually strictly enforced.

Nevertheless, Nikita had an ally in Fidel Castro, who allowed the weaponry to be assembled and potentially launched from his nation’s soil in Cuba.

There were indications from Nikita’s conversations with Castro that Castro was a sociopathic hawk, spoiling for a fight with the United States. Castro was almost looking forward to becoming a martyr by preemptively taking out major American cities via the weaponry. He had heard from his intelligence agents that America was going to send ground troops to his country within two days.

Five days into the crisis, when Nikita realized Castro meant what he said, Nikita told American President John F. Kennedy that he was willing to withdraw the missiles on certain conditions. The United Nations hammered out the details. Castro was furious at Nikita.

So according to this book, Castro’s saber-rattling was why Nikita reconsidered his own aggressive stance with the Americans, not because Kennedy stared him down.

The development of nuclear missiles in the USSR was not without trials and errors; many costly errors. In October 1960, there occurred a rocket-testing accident in which nearly 150 tons of fuel and oxidizer burst into flames of three thousand degrees Fahrenheit, vaporizing 74 people in the vicinity. There were a lot of very important spectators at the test, so safety procedures were neglected in the rush to launch the rocket.

Read the book to learn of the power and ideological struggles among members of the Soviet government during Nikita’s reign, the serious problems suffered by East Germany, Nikita’s ouster, and much more.

The Netanyahu Years – BONUS POST

This political biography, “The Netanyahu Years” by Ben Caspit, translated by Ora Cummings, published in 2017, described a speech-making, megalomaniacal Israeli leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, who made a miraculous comeback, given his situation and mediocre, if not disgraceful record.

This book committed an egregious factual error in two different places: “During Bill Clinton’s first term in office in 1997…” and “His [Netanyahu’s] first meeting with Bill Clinton took place on July 9, 1996. Clinton had already been in office for six months, Netanyahu, barely one month.”

The reader is also left wondering about the following: “On November 21, 2005, Ariel Sharon announced he was leaving the Likud Party…” but in later text, “On December 18, 2004, Prime Minister Sharon suffered a minor stroke… Two weeks later… a second stroke… pushed Sharon into a coma from which he never awoke.”

Besides, this book was sloppily proofread, presented confusing timelines, was redundant and disorganized; perhaps the author believed he was building suspense. Nevertheless, the overall themes of the book’s subject’s career and personality came across as credible.

Born in 1949 in Israel, Netanyahu grew up in a political family. His father’s side believed in Jabotinsky’s brand of Zionism– at one time proposing that the Jewish homeland be located in Uganda. In the early 1940’s, his father got no action from Franklin Roosevelt on saving Europe’s Jews, so he and his Zionist political group allied with Republicans to get some.

In September 1947, the elder Netanyahu put forth a Revisionist proposal at the United Nations opposing the Jewish/Arab partition. He ruled his family by fear and force, with regular beatings. Starting when the younger Netanyahu was eight, the family moved to New York City and two or three years later, Philadelphia. But the youngster’s heart was still in Israel. He returned there every summer during his teen years.

In the late 1960’s, for five years, Netanyahu served in an elite, top secret group in the Israeli military. He was almost killed in a secret Suez Canal mission. Despite serving in the Israeli military, he was apparently able to keep his American citizenship. For, he returned to America to major in physics and chemistry first at Cornell and then graduate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Netanyahu became a businessman but Moshe Arens convinced him to become a politician (or diplomat/propagandist, to be more specific) on behalf of Israel beginning in the early 1980’s. He was already divorced with a daughter, whom he later very nearly disowned, not through any apparent fault of hers. He then went through a second wife. Not because he was a media whore, although he was also that.

By May 1988, Netanyahu was a high Likud (Conservative) Party official in Israel. Yet he did American-style campaigning. He paid a fortune for voter and polling data, and was a super fundraiser. Like Donald Trump, he had his claques, flacks and sycophants. He started dating another female. They broke up. However, she got pregnant during election season. For the sake of his image, he felt he needed to marry her.

During the next election, Netanyahu still felt he had to prove his sexual prowess by having an affair. His political enemies blackmailed him on this score, but he outwitted them. He went on television to honestly admit it but refused to withdraw from the race. In spring 1993, he reconciled with his wife, with the condition that she was free to behave like a “bridezilla”– not with regard to a wedding ceremony, but with regard to his political career. She owned him and his career ever after.

In 1994 and 1995, again, mimicking an American politico who practices hate-mongering, Netanyahu incited young Likud voters to whip up a frenzy of outrage to protest the peace talks among then-Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin, the PLO, Jordan and Syria; such talks were moderated by American president Bill Clinton. Netanyahu tacitly supported the protestors when they gathered “… in Jerusalem’s Zion Square where huge simulated photographs of Rabin in an SS Nazi uniform were raised high. Crazed demonstrators set fire to Rabin’s picture.” Luckily for Netanyahu, the perpetrator of Rabin’s November 1995 assassination was unaffiliated with the Likud party.

In 1996, Netanyahu won his election for prime minister by a nose, partly due to election legislation he helped to enact. Like John F. Kennedy, he underwent an epic fail early in his administration, due to his youth and inexperience. Like with the Bay of Pigs incident, the prime minister authorized a sneak attack on an enemy of his– the terrorist group Hamas.

Netanyahu’s administration was a revolving door of personnel, thanks to his wife’s interference. Together, especially when campaigning, they were like other dictatorial couples– the Ceausescus, the Perons, the Marcoses… with their outsize egos, department of dirty tricks, and broken campaign promises, especially after their election victory in 2009. At his reelection, Netanyahu hogged the jobs of five ministers, plus that of prime minister.

Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu launched a hate campaign against American president Barack Obama when he realized he couldn’t get along with him. This book rambled on in a few chapters on the conversations between the Americans and the Israelis regarding the “Iran nuclear deal” but never did explain what it was. Netanyahu made Obama a scapegoat for all his troubles and derived a huge amount of political capital from doing so. The same way Trump has done.

Read the book to learn more Israeli history, and additional ways Netanyahu was bigger than Israel, given his rumored psychological problems.


Let the People In – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “Let the People In, The Life and Times of Ann Richards” by Jan Reid, published in 2012.

Born in September 1933 in Waco, Texas, Richards attended Baylor University on a debate-team scholarship. She gave up the team (and the scholarship) to get married in 1953, but still graduated.

Richards’ immediate family eventually consisted of a husband and four children. They lived in Austin, Texas. Her husband was a lawyer who represented labor unions and civil rights activists. Their social group consisted of hard-partying (drinking, pot-smoking) liberal Democrats, like Molly Ivins. Lots of hippies and anti-war protesters lived in their neighborhood, a college town.

In 1972, Richards kicked off her political career as campaign manager for Sarah Weddington, who was elected to the Texas House of Representatives. Four years later, Richards herself was elected Travis County Commissioner; her husband, Justice of the Peace.

In 1980, it was alcohol-rehab time for Richards, in Minneapolis. Her career comeback began in 1982. During the campaign, her opponent tried to smear her with drunkenness and mental instability. It backfired on him. She was still elected Texas State Treasurer. The following year saw the finalization of her divorce.

Candidates traded vicious slurs in the 1990 campaign for Texas governor. Richards claimed her opponent’s company “… had been cited for intentionally dumping 25,000 barrels of waste mud and oil into a tributary creek of a lake that provided drinking water for the small town of Brenham. Partners and competitors in the oil and gas industry sued his companies more than three hundred times.”

That is the kind of specific data that, if true, should be all over the evening news– constantly screamed from the pro-environmental side of the “global warming” debate. But go one step further: in order to effect real political change, environmentalists should provide solid, numerical information on how humans are ultimately harmed by pollution. Information should be spread far and wide on cancer clusters, financial damage to specific communities, and proposed legislation that strikes a compromise between minimizing economic sacrifices while maximizing environmental friendliness– in order to minimize harm to humans.

For, “global warming” is not rocket science… It’s not even earth science… It’s political science! Everyone knows that usage of the catchall phrase “global warming” is simply a political football used for getting votes and/or money. It an easy way to produce fear and outrage through vast generalizations and mudslinging. It is irrelevant whether “global warming” actually exists, and if so, it is irrelevant the extent to which it is caused by humans. Local pollution in America should be the focus of political action for Americans. Worldwide anti-pollution efforts are too acrimonious and complicated to bother with.

Anyway, once elected, Richards tried to execute environmentally-friendly initiatives. However, her efforts were thwarted because officials in the Texas governor’s office have staggered terms. Workers senior to her were loyal to her predecessor.

It stands to reason that long-term international agreements that regulate geographically wide-ranging desecration would be many times more difficult to come by– if Richards had trouble trying to push through legislation with a few tens of residents of her own state, in Texas alone. Her lieutenant governor was also a thorn in her side. Read the book to learn why, along with much more on the rest of her career and life.

The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson

The Book of the Week is “The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson, Maverick Genius” by Phillip F. Schewe, published in 2013. This is a biography of the multi-disciplinary mathematician / scientist, theorist, professor, author and lecturer.

The author named nearly all of the most famous twentieth-century nuclear physicists (and provided historical backdrop that led to scientific advances in physics, war and astronomy), and briefly described their contributions– even a few of whom Dyson hardly knew; that is, except for two scientists, who happened to be female:  Marie Cure and Lise Meitner. This oversight might be due to the fact that the author encountered little or no literature on them (due to their gender) when researching this book. Ironically, the author did admit, however, that Dyson’s marital troubles were due to his sexist hypocrisy.

Anyway, born in Great Britain in 1923, Dyson grew up in a wealthy family in the London suburb of Winchester. His mother was already 43 at his birth. Pursuant to family tradition, he was sent to boarding school at eight years old. Due to WWII, in two years rather than four, he earned a degree in mathematics at Cambridge University.

Dyson was then tapped to use his newly acquired knowledge as a tactical aviation consultant of sorts for the war effort, staying stateside. Postwar, as a graduate, he resumed his education, studying physics at Cambridge and Cornell universities. He never did finish his PhD.

Nevertheless, of all his lifetime’s workplaces, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton was where he spent the longest total time. In the late 1940’s, he was supervised by J. Robert Oppenheimer. He explained the missing link between Richard Feynman’s, Julian Schwinger’s and Shin’ichiro Tomonaga’s ideas about field theory in nuclear physics; more specifically, quantum electrodynamics.

Yes, Dyson did rocket science, too, at the dawn of the 1960’s. However, it was all theoretical. He actually wanted to go on a mission to Mars or Saturn or Jupiter. Dyson’s fluency in Russian allowed him to understand the Soviet mentality on the space and arms races.

Paradoxically, during the Cold War, an adverse consequence of the testing of nuclear weapons included cancer deaths due to radiation exposure; about a thousand of them annually. This was an acceptable sacrifice (in the name of saving the world)– as highway deaths numbered about fifty thousand annually. That changed of course, with nuclear accidents and seat belts in later decades.

In 1976, Dyson supervised a graduate student who wrote a term paper that generated much controversy.  “From non-classified government documents, freely available to anyone, Phillips [the student] proceeded to gather a primer of frightening specificity showing step by step how to build a nuclear bomb.” The student got an “A.”

Read the book to learn of Dyson’s views on extraterrestrials and extrasensory perception, on how religion and science can coexist; his fantasies about what humans could do in outer space in the future; his participation in a think tank named Jason, his take on global warming, the reversal of his beliefs on nuclear matters, and much more.

Genius in Disguise

The Book of the Week is “Genius in Disguise” by Thomas Kunkel, published in 1995. This book describes the life of Harold Ross, who came up with the concept of, and co-founded, The New Yorker magazine.

Born in 1892 in Aspen, Colorado, Ross was bitten by the journalism bug as a teenager. He quit high school to start his career as a news gatherer. He was restless, however, and traveled to various states to ply his trade. Regarding the media, there is nothing new under the sun:  While in New Orleans in 1912, “… he demonstrated the agile reporters’ trick for manufacturing news where none exists.”

Ross worked for the army publication Stars and Stripes during WWI. After the war, he moved to New York City, where his social group consisted of the Algonquin Round Table members and other literati such as his fiancee Jane Grant. She worked for the New York Times, and he served as publisher for a weekly magazine for veterans.

In February 1925, Ross decided to break out on his own by starting The New Yorker. He wanted to sell a weekly magazine that resonated with New Yorkers of his generation. The recent introduction of technological advancements in publishing, the early days of radio, and special postal rates made the time ripe for Ross’ brainchild. Besides, at that time, magazine advertising was the way to gain national reach for products and services.

The New Yorker‘s goal was to entertain wealthy readers. So it avoided reporting on politics and economics. Ross was a difficult managing editor because he was a panicky perfectionist.  In fact, a “… New Yorker piece might be scoured fifteen or twenty times by six or eight different people, all in the name of perfection” for editing, fact-checking and proofreading. Ross became an indispensable, fearless leader. The other party crucial to the publication was its major initial investor, an heir to the Fleischmann yeast fortune.

Read the book to learn how, ironically, the animosity between Ross and Fleischmann maximized The New Yorker‘s profitability; about the one-article issue of August 1946; the difference between Wolcott Gibbs and Aleck Woollcott; and how the publication changed through the decades. A bygone era in magazine publishing.

Prime Time

The Book of the Week is “Prime Time, The Life of Edward R. Murrow” by Alexander Kendrick, published in 1969. This is a biography of the famous radio and TV journalist whose career started in the 1920’s.

Born in 1908 in North Carolina, Murrow was the youngest of three sons. He was raised as a Quaker. His family moved to Washington state when he was five years old. Murrow’s graduating high school class numbered eleven. Their motto was “Impossible is un-American.” He then attended Washington State College, majoring in “speech” (public speaking). Participating in student government, he got the chance to travel to Europe.

In the 1930’s, news that was reported via radio in the United States consisted of concerts, sporting events, presidential speeches and sensational courtroom trials– simply conveying facts with no analysis; nothing too depressing. Murrow first went on the air in 1937, covering the coronation of King George VI in England. He did “man on the street” interviews.

Then for nine years, Murrow  was a producer for CBS radio news in London. His boss, Bill Paley introduced the first radio simulcast from London, Paris, Rome, Berlin and Vienna, via shortwave transmitters accompanied by at least one landline, whose signals were sufficiently strong to reach New York City. Such an innovation obsolesced newspapers because it was live. On the eve of WWII, the new political regime in Berlin practiced censoring of broadcasts from Vienna and Prague. But they were live.

Murrow avoided gathering news stories for CBS from certain kinds of people who would profit from peace at any price, and so they favored appeasement of the Germans. Those greedy individuals included war profiteers. He did, however, put himself in harm’s way because he felt obligated to report directly from the “belly of the beast.” One would think he had a death wish and/or an enormous ego. His employer’s office building was bombed in London while he was on a rooftop across the street. He cheated death many times.

After Germany’s surrender, Murrow reported from Buchenwald and Leipzig. After the war, all radio shows went commercial. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began investigating it by subpoenaing scripts of the shows. Murrow became a highly paid radio executive for a year and a half. In the fall of 1947 he made even more money when Campbell’s soup sponsored the interview show he hosted. He took his TV show “See It Now” on location to the Korean war front.

HUAC pressured Murrow to preach hatred for the Soviet Union, or else he would be blacklisted from the broadcasting industry, or worse. Fortunately, he was a sufficiently powerful figure to broadcast what he wanted without getting censored. He was still smeared by the Hearst papers and right-wing leaflet printers.

Murrow had this to say about the interrogations over which freshman Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy presided: “… many of those named by witnesses on camera were never given a chance to reply… the newspapers and magazines… also tended to regard McCarthy’s unsupported charges as proven facts, or at least gave that impression.” He also contended that the senator “… had used sweeping, unsupported statements, hypotheses presented as facts, accusations of lying by witnesses, conversion of a congressional hearing into a trial…” etc., etc., etc. Once again, there’s nothing new under the sun.

Nevertheless, Murrow showed himself to be a hypocrite on more than one occasion in his career. He was a contributor to a sobering Collier’s magazine story published in October 1951, about a hypothetical nuclear war that happened in the summer of 1953. His fictional account covered the part where an atom bomb leveled Moscow. In Paris, he complained via radio about those “…irresponsible magazines in the United States which aid Russian propaganda about American intentions.”

Interesting factoid: At the 1952 presidential conventions, there were twelve hundred each of: casts and crews of news shows and reporters, and political delegates.

Murrow put forth three reasons why the government or journalists lie: “when lying is deemed vital to the national security, or prestige, or face-saving.” As is well known, the use of all three excuses has been abused in meta-lies in past decades; especially those following this book’s writing.

Read the book to learn a wealth of additional information on the power struggles between sponsors and TV-show creators in monitoring show-content due to the tug of war between the profit motive and the role of broadcasting in society as perceived by the creators and regulators; on Murrow’s troubles with the State Department and the FBI; his radio and TV shows; and on how American propaganda is targeted internationally toward specific peoples in specific ways.