onassis (sic)

The Book of the Week is “onassis” (sic) by Will Frischauer, published in 1968. The biographer immediately resorted to a disclaimer on his Acknowledgements page. In compiling this volume, he sourced twelve books in his Bibliography, claimed he drew upon interviews, and fifteen years’ worth of his readings on his subject, conceding that “… in many instances the dividing line between fact and fiction is so blurred…”

Nowadays, an equally vague author, whether authorized or unauthorized– to write about a wealthy alpha male (especially a politician) whose crack public-relations mythmakers gloze over unpleasant details– usually has the goal of rewriting history. That did not appear to be the case, at least with this book.

Born in 1906 in Smyrna, Onassis was of Turkish extraction. He was six years old when his mother passed away. His father lucratively sold tobacco, grain and hides. Sent to a Greek Orthodox (Christian) school, Onassis excelled at water polo and, already fluent in Turkish and Greek– became so in English, French and Italian.

In September 1922, when hostilities flared up between the Turks and Greeks, Onassis helped his family (except for his father, who was arrested early on) survive by playing well with parties on both sides of the conflict. His good relationship with the United States Vice Consul (a neutral party) allowed him to reunite with his older sister, two younger half-sisters and stepmother in Athens, and then travel to bail his father out of jail.

The father was furious that Onassis wasted money to bribe the authorities to get him sprung, as he would’ve been released anyway. The Turks froze foreign bank accounts of the family’s business when they took over Smyrna.

In 1923, taking advice from friends, Onassis got a job with a telephone company. He got away with lying about his age (said he was older) and birthplace to obtain an ID card. Then he felt the need to strike out on his own. His persistence paid off after a number of frustrating weeks, when he was finally able to sell his father’s Oriental tobacco to the Argentinians, who had been importing it from Brazil and Cuba.

Onassis was eventually able to get both Argentinian and Greek citizenship with the use of his dishonest identity-document application. After presiding over a failed cigarette business, in the next five or so years, he made his first million dollars. It was unstated exactly how. It was stated that he made business contacts wherever he went, some of whom he obviously inherited from his father.

Onassis was appointed a trade diplomat for the Argentinian government, and got into the shipping business. He started with used ships with Greek registration, then, in the early 1930’s, to avoid petty bureaucrats, switched to Panamanian registration. Other advantages with the latter included financial transactions that were permitted to be made in any currency, that were tax-free.

Onassis revolutionized the industry by ordering the construction of monster-sized oil tankers– with unprecedented capacities of tens of thousands of tons. The Swedes built the boats, and J. Paul Getty shipped the oil to Japan. Onassis, unlike the competition, also built comfortable living quarters for his ships’ crews, to foster employee loyalty.

During WWII, Onassis broke into the whaling industry, selling whale meat to mink farms and whale livers to the Borden food outfit. After the war, he took a bride; she was seventeen, he was forty. They raised their family in Oyster Bay, Long Island.

Yet another unique shipping-related activity Onassis pioneered, involved a risk-management contractual arrangement for international shipping. Prior to its implementation, he thought he had done his due diligence.

Onassis consulted an attorney to make sure he would be complying with maritime law– as he was purchasing surplus vessels of the United States, but registering them under other countries’ flags for purposes of deregulated operations and tax evasion. Nevertheless, by the mid-1950’s, the American Maritime Commission questioned its legality, anyway.

Read the book to learn additional specifics on how Onassis became rich and famous, and stayed that way.

Billy Martin

The Book of the Week is “Billy Martin, Baseball’s Flawed Genius” by Bill Pennington, published in 2015. This biography documented not only Martin’s life, but how the culture of American baseball has changed through the decades.

Born in May 1928, Martin grew up in West Berkeley, California. His lower middle-class family consisted of a mother of Italian extraction, a stepfather of Irish extraction, and four siblings. He was passionate about playing baseball from the time he was a young child.

In his teen years, Martin was an amateur boxer at the local community center, and played on his high school basketball team. But he was mentored by minor-league and professional baseball players at his local baseball field, in James Kenney Park. He learned all the tricks, including the unethical ones.

At eighteen years old, the hot-tempered Martin was hired as a member of a minor league team in Idaho Falls, Idaho, thanks to mentor Casey Stengel– a baseball great– who spotted his doggedness and obvious talent. Most of the time, though, rather than play, he was assigned to loudly trash-talk the opposing teams in front of his team’s dugout. This was a valued activity in baseball in the 1940’s and 1950’s, practiced by teenagers all the way up to professionals.

Martin’s dream to play for the New York Yankees came true, starting in 1950. “There was free booze in every clubhouse in the country, and every stadium had a press room lounge where the drinks were complimentary… Players, coaches, reporters and managers” were no stranger to the clubby atmosphere.

Martin was a drinker with his buddies, Mickey Mantle and Whitey Ford. However, Martin developed a reputation for getting into not only barroom brawls, but also fights with umpires– often kicking dirt on them– and getting thrown out of games. Through the years, he had trouble staying employed for more than three seasons at a time, as a player, scout, coach or manager on various teams. As a manager, his expertise lay in turning around losing teams.

In 1972, fans braved subfreezing cold weather overnight outside the stadium, standing in line to buy tickets to the final regular-season game of the Detroit Tigers, who of course made the playoffs, under Martin’s intense, win-at-all-costs management.

Martin taught his players how to steal opposing teams’ signals, and steal bases– even three at a time when the bases were loaded– plus how to bunt.

One edgy trick Martin got away with was executed by his Yankees in the last game of the 1976 World Series. The half-inning ended with a bad call, as a Yankees baseman “… caught the ball in stride [but too late] and then quickly ran off the field before the call was made.” In on the ruse, the team followed. The umpire wrongly called the safe runner out.

Later, the Bronx fans threw things onto the field, at the Kansas City Royals players. That was normal fan behavior into the 1970’s. Ejections by security were few and far between.

Furthermore, just as the last 1977 playoffs game was ending, fans who had run onto the field obstructed the last base runner from scoring until a group of ten police officers surrounded the runner to allow him to get to home plate. Exciting for its time: that player’s game-winning home run was videotaped in color from multiple camera angles.

Yet another bygone aspect of baseball included gratuitous violence. In the 1977 playoffs, “[George] Brett slid hard at third base… propelling him into [Graig] Nettles, whom he also shoved with a forearm to the chest. Nettles responded by kicking Brett in the ribs as he lay on the ground. Brett jumped up and threw a right hand punch that grazed the top of Nettles’ head and knocked off his cap… [unsurprisingly] the benches emptied…”

During the 1980 season, Martin taught his Oakland A’s pitchers how to get away with an illicit spitball. He told them to rub an excessive amount of soap on the inner thigh of their uniform. This would mix with their sweat. Rubbing the ball on it before pitching would give them an edge in striking out batters. At the time, a suspicious umpire would inspect body parts other than the thigh, so the pitcher wouldn’t get caught.

By the end of 1988, George Steinbrenner had owned the Yankees for fifteen years. During that period, he had changed managers fifteen times, five of which involved Billy Martin.

Read the book to learn of numerous episodes of Martin’s shenanigans on and off the field.

Adlai Stevenson

The Book of the Week is “Adlai Stevenson, His Life and Legacy, A Biography” by Porter McKeever, published in 1989.

Born into a cultured, literate, wealthy family in February 1900 in Los Angeles, CA, the subject of this tome was named after his grandfather, Adlai (“Ad-lay”). The family, which lived primarily in Bloomington, IL ran farms inherited from their ancestors. Stevenson had an overprotective mother: “…she would pick up Adlai in her electric car to ‘rescue’ him from his ‘rowdy’ companions.”

Stevenson’s interest in politics was sparked in 1912 by his meeting presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson when his family summered in New Jersey. Besides that, his father was a politician in Illinois.

Stevenson volunteered to serve in the Army toward the end of WWI. Upon graduation from Princeton University, he attended Harvard Law School under the duress of his father, but failed out after a year. He next went to work for the family’s newspaper, then returned to school and graduated. He became a workaholic in Chicago for the next three decades. Sadly, he hardly ever saw his three sons, born in the early Depression years, and his wife, who developed paranoid schizophrenia.

Stevenson was appointed to various diplomatic positions in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. By 1948, in a pleasant surprise, he was elected by a large margin, Democratic governor of Illinois. His strong suit was peace negotiations, and civil rights advocacy.

If anyone in the last hundred years in American politics had a reputation for honesty, it was Stevenson. He truly “drained the swamp”– eliminated partisan patronage in Illinois law enforcement. He gave teachers a raise, funded highway maintenance, and enacted desegregation in various areas, among other liberal causes.

Despite Stevenson’s intellect, eloquently expressed prophetic insights, and sense of humor– his non-competitive temperament meant that his supporters had to push him hard to run for president in 1952. And they did. So when he lost to Eisenhower, he wasn’t particularly aggrieved. In fact, he congratulated his opponent.

Nevertheless, he took the big bucks that “Look” magazine paid him to write a series of articles on his travels in Europe and Asia. Speech making and selling compilations of his speeches were also lucrative for him. He was then able to honestly pay off his campaign debt of $800,000.

By 1954, Stevenson conveyed to the world what he had learned: “Nations and peoples do not respond like unthinking dominoes. But it took a terrible toll of lives and treasure to find that out, and there is great uncertainty that the lesson has yet been really learned.” The aggressors and colonialists in the world’s hot spots were bad at “Vietnamization” even then.

On the Cold War home front, “… Eisenhower was willing to pay the price of sacrificed careers and political turmoil for the votes of pro-McCarthy senators.” The upshot of this was that a few thousand federal employees were fired, of 72 million, for being potential subversives, but only one true Communist was found.

By 1954, even the Republicans agreed with Stevenson that McCarthy had to go. Two years later, popular as ever among young, idealistic voters, but still more focused on trying to influence long-term policy than achieve personal gain, Stevenson explicitly said he did not want to run for president again. But he did. Even though in private he yelled at someone, “Campaigning like this makes a whore out of you!”

In January 1960, Stevenson met with Soviet ambassador Mikhail Menshikov, who gave him a handwritten note from Khrushchev saying the USSR fervently hoped that Stevenson would run for president that year; they wanted him more than anyone else to lead the United States. Stevenson declined to run.

Even so, as though to tease competing candidates John F. Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and Stuart Symington– Stevenson appeared at the Democratic National Convention anyway. Thousands of his supporters were still hoping to rally sufficient delegates to get him nominated as the final Democratic candidate.

Read the book to learn of the major changes in American politics that Stevenson made, and much more.

Putin

The Book of the Week is “Putin, His Downfall and Russia’s Coming Crash” by Richard Lourie, published in 2017. This slightly sloppily edited volume had strange capitalizations in spots. It was actually more about Russia’s history and recent fossil fuels situation in connection with its allies and enemies, than with its dictatorial leader who started his third term in May 2012.

Born in 1952, Putin grew up in a family that was friendly with Stalin. His father was a spy. He was told that the easiest way to get recruited by the KGB was to go to law school, so he did. He did stints in Leningrad and Dresden. At the tail end of the 1980’s, when the German Democratic Republic was in its last throes, almost all of KGB’s Dresden office’s records were burned. In January 1990, Putin returned to Moscow. Unemployed. Then worked on his doctoral thesis, a portion of which he acquired through plagiarism.

By August 1991, Putin saw which way the wind was blowing, and resigned from the KGB. Poland had been damn near bankrupted by a radical economic program called shock capitalism, imposed upon it by Western Ivy Leaguers. Between 1990 and 1994, in Boris Yeltsin’s Russia, economist Anatoly Chubais forced the same harmful transition on Russians.

Due to rampant inflation, Russians had to sell everything they owned in order to be able to afford food. The United States sent food aid to Russia. In early 1992, a food voucher system was started.

However, Putin signed contracts with food suppliers who raked in big bucks but failed to deliver the food. It is unclear whether Putin knew or cared that those suppliers were crooks, or that Russians were starving. For, rather than personally profiting, he was more interested in attracting foreign financial aid that would modernize Russia, and in collecting long-term valuable political contacts.

In October 1993, Yeltsin ordered Russian troops to fire on protestors (whom the media claimed wanted to bring back Communism) in front of Moscow’s Parliament building. There were tens of deaths.

It was actually a small number of politically astute crooks who conspired with Putin to loot the country. His career took a turn for the better in 1999, when he convinced Yeltsin via blackmail (apparently still a “thing” these days) to step down and let him become Russia’s supreme leader starting in 2000. Once in power, Putin actually kick-started the Russian economy by nationalizing oil companies, and taking control of the gas industry and television.

Read the book to learn of Russia’s aggressive stances on: the Ukraine, the Crimea, former Soviet satellites and former Republics, China, and the Arctic [hint– the extremely likely probability of a catastrophic oil spill, and decades of actual irradiation from nuclear dumping make the Arctic a less than ideal place for a land grab]; the effects of economic sanctions imposed on Russia; and the alleged role of cybercrime in the 2016 presidential election in the United States.

The Last Man Who Knew Everything

The Book of the Week is “The Last Man Who Knew Everything, The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Atomic Age” by David N. Schwartz, published in 2017.

Born to a wealthy family in September 1901 in Italy, Fermi was mentored in science by a colleague of his father, who worked for the railroad. This, after suffering the trauma of having his older brother die unexpectedly having throat surgery in 1914.

Fermi had a photographic memory, which helped to make him a brilliant student in mathematics and physics from studying textbooks. He was required to learn German too, to keep abreast of developments in the scholarly journals.

Fermi eventually became a physics professor at the University of Rome. His teaching gig, which he was also really good at, lasted from 1926 to 1938. He married in July 1927 and several years later, he wrote, and his wife edited and translated, a high school physics textbook that became part of the standard high school curriculum in Italy.

Quantum statistical mechanics was his specialty. Athleticism was another. Fiercely competitive, he always outdid his colleagues in hiking and climbing the hills around Rome. He became well traveled, thanks to attendance at international physics conferences. Some were hosted in the United States, which had better research funding than his native country.

By the late 1920’s, Fermi had cofounded a world-class nuclear physics research institute in Rome. The first entering class consisted of three graduate students. The younger generation was reflecting on new quantum theories to which the old-school Italian physicists were resistant. Fermi was in the former group.

In spring 1929, Mussolini selected members, of which Fermi was one, for an elite scientific society. He offered them big money so that they would do Italy proud (like academic and athletic scholarships bestowed upon fiercely competitive students, dispensed by elitist schools in the United States nowadays).

In the early 1930’s, Fermi supervised scientists who traveled internationally to different labs to learn from their fellow Europeans; yet they also competed with physicists at prestigious institutions in Berlin, Paris, Berkeley in California, and Cambridge in England.

In October 1934, Fermi’s team discovered that “…slowing down neutrons enhanced the radioactivity induced by neutron bombardment.” In connection therewith, he applied for a patent in Italy and the United States. He got a new lab.

By 1936, Mussolini was finding that invading Ethiopia was an expensive proposition. He began to depend on financial aid from Nazi Germany. By summer 1938, Hitler had control over ruining careers of Jews in licensed professions, civil servants, and white collar jobs in Italy.

In late 1938, after much red tape and worrisome scheming, Fermi and his wife (who had been deemed Jewish) escaped Italy first for the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, at which he took his trophy and money, and then for the United States. He ended up working at Columbia University.

At a Washington, D.C. conference in January 1939, physicists announced they had figured out how to produce fission, the process required to detonate an atomic bomb. Some were concerned that if Hitler’s scientists got hold of such knowledge, he would order mass destruction of his enemies before they could stop him. Fermi felt there was a low probability that Germany could build such a device. But Fermi was persuaded to share the thereafter-secret formula with the United States Navy. This would show his loyalty to America at a time when Italy was not exactly America’s ally.

Read the book to learn the parties involved with, locations of, trials and tribulations regarding, and Fermi’s role in the Manhattan Project; what Fermi did thereafter; and the Edward Teller/J. Robert Oppenheimer dispute, plus other physics-related occurrences up until Fermi’s death.

The Shadow President

The Book of the Week is “The Shadow President, The Truth about Mike Pence” by Michael D’Antonio and Peter Eisner, published in 2018.

Born in 1959 in Columbus, Indiana (yes), Pence was the third oldest of six children. He was a champion debater in high school. He lost two Congressional races starting in 1990. After his second loss, he wrote a public statement admitting to his negative campaigning but neither repented nor apologized. He hosted a radio show, then a TV show.

Pence served twelve years in Congress beginning in 2001 and four years as Indiana’s governor before getting elected vice president of the United States in 2016.

The first thing Pence did as governor was pass a tax cut for “Hoosiers” (as he calls people from his state), but he exaggerated its benefits. He had epic fails in connection with forming public/private partnerships and refusing to: fund healthcare initiatives in Indiana and to pardon a man who was wrongly imprisoned for ten years. “At worst, he [Pence] was a powerful official willing to inflict pain on an innocent man in order to show he was tough on crime.”

People who worked with Pence said he wasn’t intellectual and didn’t take the work seriously. He did travel abroad extensively, however, suggesting he was hankering for higher office.

He is a radical conservative Christian right-winger; others of his ilk include President Donald Trump’s appointees– the heads of various federal agencies. They attend Bible study sessions.

Pence believes in predestination, and his hero is the late convicted Watergate criminal Charles Colson. His views are as follows: virulently anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-big government, anti-national healthcare, pro-charter schools, pro-privatization of government entitlements, pro-tax cuts, pro-reducing the deficit, pro-financial aid for Israel, pro-NRA, and pro-trade agreements like NAFTA.

According to the book, Pence is involved with a secretive Christian Right group called the Family (aka the Fellowship), which is anti-union, anti-Communist, and pals around with anti-gay business leaders and even dictatorial world leaders in order to grow its social network of wealth and power.

It might be recalled that President Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and and Control Act of 1986. It was for an economic (not a humanitarian) reason: the workforces of various industries (agriculture, construction, etc.) depended on and consisted of, a significant number of immigrants.

At that time, Pence favored that legislation (which conditionally gave citizenship to: specific illegal immigrants who did seasonal farmwork, and illegal immigrants who were in America before the start of 1982). Not anymore.

Incidentally, when politicians and employers tacitly turn a blind eye to illegal immigrants in the workforce, they are not only favoring money over people, but also money (and political expedience) over American citizens. There is real conflict among greed, xenophobia and helping their constituents.

In January 2017, Pence was present at a Trump Tower meeting at which the directors of the top four U.S. intelligence agencies “… presented classified and categorical evidence that Russia had hacked into the U.S. election and that Vladimir Putin was personally responsible for authorizing this activity.”

At that time, the director of national intelligence told Trump that he and his colleagues lacked the authority and capability to determine whether Russia’s intrusion significantly affected the outcome of the election. But then he wrote that such activity did in his 2018 memoir. Nonetheless, Pence declared it didn’t.

Lastly, Pence fell under the spell of the Koch brothers, and is Trump’s sycophant. He therefore will argue against all things environmentally friendly, and will always waffle at press conferences and in interviews. Read the book to learn of additional details.

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.

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.