The Big Rich – Bonus Post

“The Big Rich” by Bryan Burrough, published in 2009, is a long ebook that details the lives and times of the four Texas families who became extremely wealthy Americans from the oil business in the first half of the twentieth century. “They… became the country’s first shirt-sleeve billionaires… accumulated every toy of their age…” including lavish residences, private jets, boats, fancy cars and politicians (when they got into politics).

The editing of this book is a bit sloppy in spots. Nevertheless, according to this book, oil was first discovered in Texas in a well that was later named Spindletop in Beaumont, around 1901. The abundant quantity of oil found there caused a price drop that prompted a conversion from coal to oil among railroads and steamship companies. Suddenly, thousands of people sought to get rich quickly from oil, similar to the way people wanted in on the California Gold Rush. The nineteen teens saw a proliferation of automobiles requiring oil.

Read the book to learn all the details about the people, places, politics and peripheral issues (such as professional sports) associated with the oil industry in Texas over the next ten decades.

Milosevic, Portrait of a Tyrant

The Book of the Week is “Milosevic, Portrait of a Tyrant” by Dusko Doder and Louise Branson, published in 1999. This lengthy volume contains the history of the six Slav Republics– Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia– from WWII through the late 1990’s, and the biography of a fascist, supremacist, genocidal terrorist– Slobodan Milosevic. His wife, Mira chimed in at specific moments. They had the usual traits of all tyrannical couples– extreme narcissism, hubris syndrome, refusal to face reality and vengefulness. You can see where this is going, if you’ve read your history. “Western leaders were loath to get involved in the Yugoslav mess.” They got involved insofar as to reap economic benefits and public relations kudos for negotiating peace plans.

Milosevic was born in August 1941 in suburban Belgrade, the capital of both Serbia and Yugoslavia. His parents, at different times, died via suicide. During his decade-long reign, he was an undiplomatic megalomanaical micromanager, pursuing his goals through conspiracy, deception and force. He demanded mindless loyalty, discarding those who worked for him when their assignments were done. There was high turnover among his staff.

After the Communist Marshal Josip Broz Tito, leader of Yugoslavia died in 1980, Milosevic stepped into the power vacuum. Tito had tried to foster the unity of different ethnic groups. To keep the peace, he allowed them to freely practice their religions. Serb nationalists didn’t like that. They wanted to be dominant.

In the early 1980’s, Milosevic was appointed Communist Chief of Belgrade by his friend, whose family was party-entrenched into the 1980’s. Then in January 1986, he was promoted to Communist party chief of Serbia. His friend became president of Serbia. Milosevic was largely responsible for installing his cronies to strictly enforce Marxism.

Different ethnic groups hated each other. For instance, the Albanians were sworn enemies of the Serbians and the Turks. Milosevic deviously was able to convince each side that he agreed with them. He used a divide and conquer strategy in addressing them, sowing seeds of hatred among them. He would eventually betray his aforementioned friend. Since he didn’t control the army or the police, all he could do was spread propaganda and incite crowds.

Milosevic had the newspaper Politika secretly launch propaganda attacks on his political enemies. He also secured the support of military and party chiefs. Only two groups opposed his usurping of power: the Communist Albanians and his wife’s father’s old-line Communist politicians. Milosevic’s wife disowned her father for that. His secret enemies also included ethnic Albanians, Bosnians, Muslims and Croats. He pushed for Serb nationalism, regardless of whether different ethnic groups supported Communism.

By the fall of 1989, Milosevic had seized political control of Kosovo and a part of Serbia with a high Hungarian population, and Montenegro too. In 1990, he rigged the presidential election for himself, with 53 parties as candidates for Parliament, most run by his operatives.

In spring 1991, there was serious opposition to Milosevic’s desire to take over all of Yugoslavia. In March, he and the dictator of Croatia met secretly to plan how to carve it up. In June 1991, he had no objection to Slovenia’s secession from Yugoslavia because it had virtually no Serb citizens. Croatia, also mostly Catholic, followed suit with its own secession. The Serb dictator had previously been able to eliminate democratic leaders through arrests, intimidation or corruption. Both he and the Croatian dictator incited violence and hatred against the peoples of other Balkan territories.

The Bosnian leader knew his nation was doomed because he saw how ruthless the Serb and Croat dictators were. Bosnia was 44% Muslim, 31% Serb and 17% Croat. By summer 1991, the Serbs were warring against the Croatians. It was mostly independent military groups and not the Yugoslav army. The Serb men who had been drafted didn’t even want to fight. Men were forced to fight against their will. “The regime vigorously suppressed all news about malcontents and desertions. There were political killings of dissenters by the police and paramilitary members.” 

A rumor had it that there were 83 different armed groups in Bosnia, some mercenaries, in the secret pay of Milosevic. A group would go to a village and do ethnic cleansing of Muslims. The Croatian army did this too, demolishing mosques in Bosnia. The Serb dictator denied the existence of the paramilitary groups. There was lots of looting. He was careful to act as though he delegated authority for people on his staff so it would appear that he had less power than he actually had. He left no paper trail.

In autumn of 1991, Milosevic insisted that the nationalists and not the republics were the legitimate constituent units of the Yugoslav Federation. In January 1992, the Bosnian Serbs proclaimed their own republic, separating themselves from the rest of Bosnia. The different territories voted on whether to go to war. The lands Milosevic had under his thumb voted yes: Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina and Kosovo. Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia voted no.

In spring 1992, the United States finally intervened by extending diplomatic recognition (recognizing a country as a sovereignty (independent nation)) to the Muslim government in Sarajevo in Bosnia. The Saudi Arabians had pushed the Americans to do so.

By summer 1992, villages were on fire; Muslims fled. There were detention camps. The Serbs were like Nazis. There had been torture and executions. Student protesters blamed Milosevic for the Siege of Sarajevo. In November 1994, a show-trial was held to judge war criminals. Milosevic’s government controlled the media. The idea of a Greater Serbia was dead in the face of diplomatic recognition of Croatia and Bosnia by the United States, Germany and other European nations. Disaffected nationals held secret meetings planning to overthrow the Serbian dictator. There was palace intrigue.

In late May 1992, the UN imposed a total economic embargo against Yugoslavia. Milosevic used the sanctions as an excuse to say the Serbs were a victim of worldwide conspiracy. From 1991 to January 1993, the Yugoslav citizen’s average monthly salary fell 97%. In a scheme of appearing to be conciliatory, Milosevic got an American business leader of Slavic origin appointed as prime minister. Against the Serb dictator’s secret wishes, the new prime minister wanted to democratize, Westernize and unite Yugoslavia, give it capitalism, and recognize the different nations’ sovereignties. But he knew he had to remove Milosevic from office first.

Prime Minister Milan Panic proposed that Milosevic resign and take a job as a drug company executive in California. Panic got high praise from Yugoslavians. The Serb dictator was hated. Even the media criticized Milosevic. However, the U.S. State Department did not support Panic because the UN sanctions were a delicate matter that the U.S. said needed to be discussed through the UN. Panic wanted the sanctions lifted. The U.S. didn’t want to get involved in the war in Bosnia. Panic pressured Milosevic to resign but he refused. “Panic was in charge of the federal police and secret police but Milosevic controlled the Serb police.”

In October 1992 the Serb police took over the building of the federal police. Panic, fearing civil war, attempted to get the conflict resolved through political rather than military means. His cowardliness prompted the American government to throw its support behind Milosevic. A little later, Panic was a candidate in the Yugoslav presidential election. He lost because Milosevic rigged the election. Shocking.

The Serb dictator’s wife Mira wrote libelous columns in the newspaper. In summer 1994, desperate to hold onto his power, Milosevic attacked the Bosnian Serbs in a propaganda campaign; he had used them to acquire his power just five years earlier.

By 1995, the Serb economy had recovered from a steep currency devaluation of the dinar and its conversion to the Deutschmark imposed in 1993 by Milosevic. The dictator’s wife had welcomed large financial contributions from the newly rich, corrupt businessmen who manipulated the closed Yugoslav market. The state-run media made her book on economics a best seller in 1994. In 1995, she was elected to Russia’s Academy of Sciences. This was as much of a joke as Yasser Arafat’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

Read the book to learn what happened in the rest of the 1990’s. Or this blogger could just tell you: more of same. And a boatload of refugees.

The Astonishing Mr. Scripps

The Book of the Week is “The Astonishing Mr. Scripps” by Vance H. Trimble, published in 1992. This large volume documents the life, among other family members, of Edward Willis Scripps, born in June 1854, the 13th child of James and Julia Scripps. He became the head of the nation’s first newspaper chain by the end of the 19th century.

Prior to journalism, starting at twelve years of age, Scripps was required to assist his father at bookbinding, on the farm and at a sugar mill. He quit school at fifteen. In 1872, after dabbling in a few other ventures, at eighteen, he escaped a life of manual labor to help his 38-year old older brother in the print shop at the Detroit Tribune. The culture was such that journalists had to frequent a bar in order to get good assignments. There was peer pressure to drink.

About five years later, Scripps moved to Cleveland to start another newspaper there. He wanted to sell the paper on the streets, rather than through the customary routes with paperboys. “A newsboy could buy copies wholesale at the pressroom door for half a cent, thus earning fifty cents for each hundred sold.”

The composing room was where the ad and editorial departments had a conflict because advertising copy and news stories competed for space so the one that was typeset second got short shrift at deadline time. Scripps’ paper favored blue collar readers. Its rivals were read by wealthy, industrialist readers. Scripps supported trade unionism and opposed the capitalists. He tried to maximize revenue from subscribers rather than advertisers so he could write what he wanted; he thus didn’t have to print what advertisers told him to.

In 1880, Scripps started yet another newspaper in St. Louis– the Evening Chronicle. A competing paper, the Post Dispatch, was bribing the Chronicle carriers to transfer their route customers to the Post Dispatch. That same year, during the presidential election, the Chronicle’s circulation jumped to 13,000 and afterwards, fell back to 10,000.

In early 1881, when James Garfield was inaugurated U.S. President, Scripps wrote, “Hence we are writing the thing up from home [St. Louis], dating it from Washington and putting big headlines over it. Of course it is fraud, but there is no greater fraud than the doubt whether the country ever had a president with a title honestly acquired.”

The four newspapers were losing money, so in 1888, Scripps formed a “syndicate”– consolidated them– to achieve economies of scale and make them profitable. Nevertheless, he still imposed draconian, petty cost-cutting measures on his employees the following year, such as making reporters pay for work-related costs like transportation, pencils, business cards and promotional copies of the paper.

On the home front, Scripps’ wife had gotten pregnant seven times in twelve years. Four children lived to adulthood.

In 1904, Scripps knew it was a conflict to “… pollute its columns with noxious hucksterism. America’s press would never be truly free and honest until newspapers flatly refused to print any advertising matter at all.” Wealthy merchants could threaten to bankrupt a paper by not advertising. Scripps looked for a city where a paper could stay in business through circulation revenue alone. He thought the paper should be an instrument for fighting oppression and improving quality of life: “… better sanitation, better education, better and healthier and more moral amusements, better homes, better wages, better sermons in our churches, better accommodations on street cars.”

The two conditions required for success with an advertising-free paper are: it must be interesting and have prompt and dependable delivery. But for Scripps, the costs exceeded the profits because he had to pay printers, pressmen, reporters, circulators, rent, utilities, etc. This blogger believes that in the 21st century, many online publications have the aforementioned conditions; however, a third condition includes the fact that readers must be willing to pay for the product.

In 1915, Scripps invested in Max Eastman’s radical weekly “The Masses” – ironically named, because the weekly’s focus was not on the downtrodden, but America’s elite. Eastman’s 22 liberal contributors submitted articles for free. The paper still operated at a loss; circulation was stagnant. There is nothing new under the sun.

Scripps wanted his teenage son Bob to work, saying “I do not want to you to be a simple onlooker and student and critic of life…” Around 1913, Bob had an affair with the wife of his father’s business partner, just like in the movie “The Graduate” (1967). Only, Bob was under 18 years old. There is nothing new under the sun.

Unsurprisingly, Scripps was a cynic. He was “… convinced, rightly or wrongly, that altruism, which is almost universal, is still almost universally a minor motive in a man.”

Read the book to learn the history of the wire services, how the people at the Scripps newspapers coped with local political corruption, how they shaped policy in Washington, survived natural disasters and wars, company power struggles, and the consequences of the Scripps family’s alcoholism.

The Impossible Rescue – Bonus Post

This blogger skimmed “The Impossible Rescue” by Martin W. Sandler, published in 2012.

This ebook describes the 1897 disaster in which eight whaling ships were hemmed in by mid-autumn ice for months when unexpectedly severe weather struck Point Barrow, Alaska. The total 265-member crews faced starvation, as they had insufficient food supplies for surviving more than a few months. They were subjected to darkness day and night, and temperatures tens of degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The whalers’ volunteer-rescuers consisted of a few small parties of local natives and men from the United States who, at different intervals, coming from different directions, braved blizzards in trekking more than 1,500 miles overland with varying numbers of dogs, sleds, reindeer and hundreds of pounds in supplies. [It might be recalled that America purchased the territory of Alaska in 1867, and Alaska became a state in 1959.]

What the men did entailed life-threatening risks and extreme sacrifices. One of the groups was traveling with both dogs and reindeer simultaneously.  When sleds are pulled by both kinds of animals, “…the dogs follow their natural instincts to attack the deer.” Even keeping the dogs as far back from the deer as possible proved quite difficult.

Read the book to learn what happened to the rescuers and the rescued.

On the Wings of Eagles

The Book of the Week is “On the Wings of Eagles” by Ken Follett, published in 1983. This ebook recounts how a group of employees from the American company EDS, stationed in Tehran, underwent an incredible, life-changing experience in early 1979, at the start of the Iranian revolution. H. Ross Perot, CEO of EDS, got “down in the trenches” with his men, and toward the end of the story, was portrayed as a Daddy Warbucks character; his endless money and friends in high places helped him magically remove bureaucratic obstacles to get things done in a hurry.

The Iranian government was EDS’s sole client in Iran. In mid-1978, it started to default on EDS’s multi-million dollar bill for engineering social-security and health insurance software. The extremely suspenseful series of events was focused on two EDS men in particular whom one Iranian in particular from the old (Shah’s) regime had arrested and jailed. He set their bail at an outrageous $13 million in a petty power game. There were three ways the company could get those two employees released from jail: “…legal pressure, political pressure, or pay the bail.” Or a few other ways, which were illegal.

Assistance and sympathy of the officials at Tehran’s American Embassy for EDS were less than forthcoming. There were many more serious problems to deal with.

Initially, the aforesaid Perot exhibited an American mentality, thinking that he and the bad guy could settle the matter with legalistic negotiations. However, Iran was not playing by the same rules. He then came up with a hare-brained scheme, which would involve breaking various federal laws if certain of its components were to occur in the United States.

As an aside– this blogger found it hard to get used to the vocabulary that Americans used at the time of the book’s publication– “…what the McDonald’s girl said to me…”  “…blond Swedish girl in her twenties,” “stewardesses” and “knapsack,” among other old-fashioned terms. There was also a funny scene late in the group’s emotionally traumatic saga. After surviving many serious threats to their lives over the course of weeks, the EDS group was on a plane that was having mechanical trouble in the air. “I can’t believe this,’ said Paul. He lit a cigarette.”

Read the book to learn the fate of the individuals involved in this riveting thriller.

American Radical

The Book of the Week is “American Radical, The Life and Times of I.F. Stone” by D.D. Guttenplan, published in 2009. This is the biography of a muckraking journalist, who wrote of “good, honest graft” and the “…human wreckage piling up around me.”

He was born Isadore Feinstein on Christmas Eve, 1907 in Philadelphia. He spoke Yiddish as a second language. In 1924, because his grades were below Harvard standards and there was open enrollment for local residents, “Izzy” as he was affectionately known, began attending the University of Pennsylvania. He changed his name to I.F. Stone at the tail end of his twenties.

The year 1955 saw Congressional surveillance of Stone’s weekly publication “Weekly.” Stone launched lawsuits against his oppressors, arguing that public moneys should not be used to violate his 1st Amendment rights to privacy and freedom of the press. He would have lost his lawsuits but for a curious situation.

James Eastland, chief counsel and chairman of the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, included the New York Times as one of many newspapers and magazines he was surveilling. Stone had embarrassed the Times for pointing out inconsistent behavior: the newspaper’s firing of its employees who were accused of Communist leanings. Yet the Times had published articles arguing for civil rights, anti-segregation, condemning McCarthyism and immigration restrictions. The Times was indignant because it thought it was being singled out for investigation by Eastland. Eastland dropped his investigation.

Other organizations accused of harboring Communists included the Boy Scouts, Voice of America, the USO and YMCA. The Justice Department‘s whole roster of professional informers was finally discredited…” when an ex-Communist admitted to fabricating the allegations against the organizations. In fall 1955, finally, there was vindication of Stone and other activists who were under threat of arrest or deportation or subpoena.

This blogger believes the author’s historical accounts are misleading in spots; he implies that in 1948, when the Israelis had achieved military victory over the Arabs in their war for an independent homeland, the Arabs fled. Historical accounts other than this book say that the Israelis subjected the Arabs to a forced evacuation from their homes where they had been residing for generations.

The result of the Hungarian uprising of 1956, according to the author, was cause for celebration for Stone, because a new government was installed that would impose socialism, and Stone was all for socialism. The author neglects to mention that the Soviets crushed the revolt in an orgy of bloodshed. Then the author goes on to say that Stone misread the Suez Canal Crisis.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn modern history through the eyes of a smartass reporter who called a spade a spade most of the time.

Roses Under the Miombo Trees

The Book of the Week is “Roses Under the Miombo Trees” by Amanda Parkyn, published in 2012.  This is a four-year chronicle of a family in Rhodesia in the early 1960’s. The country at the time was comprised of three territories, one of which later became the country of Malawi.

When she was in her early twenties, the author, an Englishwoman, married a Rhodesian. They, as light-skinned people, had all the creature-comforts a former British colony had to offer: tennis, golf, bridge, swimming, and yachting. However, technology in entertainment and telecommunications was behind that of the United States. Few people had television in rural areas, and telephone calls still had to be made with the help of a live operator. One of their neighbors had a tennis court made of dead anthills, that had been shaped with water and sun-dried.

The author describes their social life and how it changed as her husband was transferred to different territories in connection with his employment; the birth of their two children, her love of gardening and the job performance of the household’s dark-skinned domestic servant.

Read the book to learn the details of the ups and downs of the family’s life, in their specific time and place.