The Depression Americans who went to the USSR

Back in the early 1930s, several thousand Americans packed up and went to work in the Soviet Union. Few ever returned. Few survived to the Cold War era.

When we look back on an historical decision that might seem nuts to us, we should subtract our hindsight and seek to understand what was known at the time before making judgments. In this case:

  • While there was some information about the large-scale suffering and death of the Holodomor and the liquidation of private agriculture, few Americans understood how bad it truly was, and few cared. We’re ass-ignorant of the world today, even though a network connects us with the news sources of our choice via devices held in our hands. Who would expect us to be less ass-ignorant back when the information was pre-selected by a newspaper publisher?
  • In 1933, the USSR was just sixteen years old. It presented itself as the fiery champion of working-class interests. In those days, working-class people were willing to strike, fight, and die for better conditions. It wasn’t insane for a typical American worker to wonder whether those Russians might not have come up with something good, even if at first they’d had a messy civil war. The more educated Americans realized that, to a large degree, our own revolution was a civil war with foreign intervention as much as it was a revolt against a foreign power. If our independence came with a civil war, why not that of other countries?
  • 1933 could be described as the heart of the Great Depression. Unemployment was the norm. Homelessness was commonplace. Workers with skills, such as laid-off Ford automotive employees, wanted only a place to use what they knew. The USSR was playing industrial catch-up, and that made them very receptive to Ford technology and those who understood it.
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had not yet written The Gulag Archipelago. There was no way to foresee the purges of the late 1930s, still less the long-term pathology of penology as an economic and social control mechanism lasting into the 1960s. No one knew, either, that a wildly gesticulating little World War I Austrian corporal would, within six years, launch a war of genocidal conquest, much less who would be on which side. Americans were more concerned about ending Prohibition so that those who could afford to do so could legally escape into alcohol, long a very American habit. Hoover had failed, new leadership was in place, and it was hard to imagine anything worse.
  • There were no nuclear weapons; there was no Cold War; there was only one avowedly communist country in the world; the United States professed non-alignment. Eastern Europe had not been handed off to Stalin, who was relatively new to power. Mao Zedong was holed up in the mountains of northern China figuring out how to get into power against a powerful foe like Chiang Kai-Shek.
  • This country seems always to have had, and even to require, a designated enemy. Sometimes it’s a race, sometimes it’s an ideology, sometimes it’s a country–but this country has rarely if ever not had an enemy and I’m not sure it would know what to do without one. (Some of us think that if it doesn’t have one, one is designated for us, just to keep us marching along, but that’s a personal view.) The specter of world communism was an easy demonization, because: it tied into our own social dissent, it promised to run absolutely counter to the ruling interests, and it had already been seen–at least by those in the know–to bring on convulsion, shortage, repression, and state-sponsored murder. (That not everyone believed those tales is also a factor, but in this case the stories were if anything an understatement.)
  • With any designated enemy, there are two sides, usually both about half wrong. One side will always be making that enemy out to be less than human, meritless, the ultimate enemy of all that is decent, unworthy of the least sympathy. The other side will always be looking for mitigating factors, exceptions, reasons to believe otherwise. It’s still with us today. There are still people, for example, who will try to deny or minimize the Holocaust. But there are also still people who will make any excuse necessary for any people or nation that opposed the Holocaust. In 1930s US society, the side demonizing the USSR was obvious enough, though it also went so far as to view the average Russian (or other Soviet citizen; barely half were Russian) as a half-civilized Asiatic. The side mitigating for the USSR was not too ignorant to realize that the side demonizing the USSR and its constituent peoples had a vested economic interest in avoiding state-planned economics, in breaking organized labor, and in continuing to sit on its pile of inherited wealth. Reality: while some of the Soviet government’s actions were barbaric, a people who produce the cultural landmarks of Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoi, and many more, are certainly not barbarians. And while a massive slave labor camp system and a period of mass starvation almost defying comprehension may fairly be said to overshadow any social advances, social advances there still were; they just were not sufficient for a balanced mind to consider them worth enduring mass starvation. I’m not sure what could be, since the dead are no longer around to enjoy social advances.

Our view of past times will always be more balanced when we remember what the people of the times did not know.

In this timeframe, in this economic situation, several thousand working-class Americans, mostly out-of-work automotive laborers, accepted the Soviets’ open invitation to come and work. A few were communist ideologues who had bought into one extreme of the pro-Soviet narrative, but most were more interested in a better way to provide for their families. The USSR was buying one of Ford’s old plants, and it would need workers familiar with auto manufacture. (The Soviet weakness in this area would persist for many years. During WWII, they considered our Lend-Lease tanks and fighter planes mostly substandard, but without our humble trucks, the Soviet Army would have had a far harder logistical time.)

The US government and industrial leadership generally did not care if a bunch of laid-off laborers wanted to move overseas. If they didn’t want to be at home, great; they were no longer our problem. If they represented useful propaganda for the USSR, oh well; there weren’t very many, and with or without them, domestic conditions were such that it was best not to draw the competing propaganda sword with a country lacking a free press. (Even into the 1970s, the USSR would use old Depression breadline photos and footage as anti-US propaganda. Then again, in the 1970s, I very well remember that we were still talking of the USSR as if the Stalin purges had never abated.)

What most of those Americans did not realize was that the Soviet government automatically granted most Soviet citizenship upon landing, whether or not they applied for it. According to US law, accepting a foreign citizenship meant renunciation of US citizenship. Ah, but what if they never accepted Soviet citizenship? If they were in prison, and the State Department asked about them, and the USSR said “They have become Soviet citizens and are no longer your concern,” there wasn’t much State could do about it unless permitted into prison to verify the situation.

In order to do that, the State Department–seen from its perspective of the time–would have to care about a bunch of lousy commie sympathizers who actually thought it was better to have a job with the commies than to be at home starving in the land of apple pie and baseball. (The Americans in the USSR in fact missed baseball enough to establish a league.) While the USA has rarely done much to prevent anyone from expatriating, it also rarely continues to care about anyone who does so. That went double for anyone who expatriated to a society whose ideology proclaimed capitalism an evil to be torn down, and most Americans felt likewise. They don’t want to be at home? Hope the door hit them in the ass, and they don’t come back.

Americans have never taken especially well to the notion that anyone would voluntarily choose to be anywhere but the United States, given a choice in the matter, because Americans have never taken too well to the notion that there could ever be any better place. Thus, in a case like that of these American expatriates, there would neither be government interest in their cause, nor any public groundswell to pressure it. Just a few isolated relatives writing to the State Department to beg its intervention on behalf of people it fundamentally did not want to assist, let alone get back.

Stalin’s purges began in 1937. They decapitated the Soviet Army, leaving corporals leading platoons (normally led by junior lieutenants) and majors commanding brigades (normally led by brigadier generals). They ripped through every ethnicity and social class, a concept the USSR had done nothing to eliminate. The pattern was arrest, beatings and torture, confession and implication of others, a show trial, and a sentence either of death or a quarter century at labor intended to cause death. Many were shipped to the Kolyma gold fields in eastern Siberia, where they died by the thousands. A good many were sent to mine uranium, with predictable outcomes. They came in waves, and it continued into World War II and after.

Against a sum of arrests reaching mid-eight figures, and eventual deaths estimated around twenty million, a few thousand Americans didn’t even count as an arrest wave. Many of the arrests were by quota in any case, with people picked up simply because this or that region had been estimated to contain 200 Enemies of the People, thus that many must be arrested. Any NKVD officer declining to do this was guaranteed arrest. Anyone who did comply would probably be arrested in turn later. It wasn’t genocidal in that it wasn’t specific or discriminate enough to target a particular class, ethnicity, faith, or whatever. Just because it doesn’t meet the definition of a genocide does not lessen its enormous brutality.

What of the American embassy? There was no help there. Ambassador Davies, a political appointee who had married into a fortune, said and did nothing to upset Stalin or his Soviet hosts. He did spend a lot of time collecting artworks, but he and his staff generally ignored or dismissed the representations of family members concerned for relatives who had vanished. While the record indicates that Davies was a nest-feathering toady and complete invertebrate, we should remember that there was limited effective pressure at our disposal, as there would always be. Americans have the tendency to think of their country as all-powerful, that if we do not do something, it’s because we choose not to rather than we cannot. Let’s imagine an interview with the shade of Ambassador Davies, in which I come ready to blister his bureaucratic ass and have an accounting:

“Ambassador, the charge is simple. Americans went to the Gulag, most died, and you flitted about collecting art. Every one of those Americans deserved less than you to be in a Gulag.”

“That’s a very harsh charge, young man. Would you have had me go to Stalin and demand the handover of Soviet citizens?”

“They were not Soviet citizens by choice. It had been assigned to them.”

“So you say. You may well be correct. The only way for us to know that would be to interview the captives in a setting where it was safe for them to speak the truth, and you can say all you wish that we should have demanded that, but the demand would have been refused. And angrily; we would have been accused of calling them liars. Again, probably they were–but if they were, what then would you have had us do?”

“You’re telling me we had no economic pressure to bring to bear?”

“Not without harming our own country. Our ability to guide the economy through the late Depression depended in part on our ability to buy gold, and the Soviets were selling.”

“Gold often mined by your countrymen until their deaths from starvation, disease, and protracted abuse.”

“My former countrymen, all of whom on some level chose to live under the Communists rather than stay home. Just to put this in perspective.”

“All right; I’ll accept that you had no practical leverage to verify their changes in citizenship. You were appointed a diplomat. Could you not have made at least some representations on behalf of people?”

“I could have done more of that, at the risk of being expelled and the Russians completely cutting off all communication. They weren’t in a very forthcoming mood. As you may recall, they were killing their own people by the millions. But very well; let’s say we did that, and they told us to butt out of their internal affairs. What then? You cannot seriously be proposing that the United States should have gone to war over it. We had little economic leverage. Furthermore, there was the risk of driving them into Hitler’s camp, and with the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact in 1939 it looked as though that had happened. Do you, my inquisitor from the lands of lumberjacks and cowboys, in your hindsight, believe that US interests would have been well served by forcing a longer and more enduring cooperation between a resource-rich USSR and a resource-poor but technologically advanced Nazi Germany?”

I would not be able to help seeing the old bastard’s points. That is why we put our history in the context of its times, so that we subtract our modern hindsight in the effort to make a reasonably informed evaluation of the past.

Few of the Americans ever saw home again, and those who did typically didn’t get home until the Khrushchyov era (beginning mid-fifties, ending mid-sixties). While the Gulags didn’t go away by magic when Khrushchyov admitted they’d gone way too far, they gradually became less brutal, less prevalent, and less indiscriminate. Make no mistake; a Soviet citizen still had to watch his or her words, and the Lubyanka and Lefortovo would remain dreaded into the 1990s. But there’s no evidence the repression maintained the Stalinist level. As a practical matter, it could not have; lest they run out of people to kill, or to guard those on their way to die.

And what of later inquiries into the fates of Americans, during and after Khrushchyov? In the first place, admitting an embarrassing truth with comfortable ease is not naturally a human trait, and it is especially not a Russian cultural trait. Where records had been kept in full, many had been destroyed by people seeking to cover their own culpability. Many were falsified, as in “died of stomach cancer” could mean “died during gang rape when thrown to criminals” or “starved and fell dead on the spot while mining gold.” Sometimes it helps to ask nicely, rather than make demands; the one making demands may puff up with his or her Great Moral Rightness, but s/he doesn’t get what is desired. A lot of French nationals all went missing, and the evidence indicates that many of their fates were eventually learned. Many of ours’ fates still remain unknown or obscure. It may be that the French weren’t as pushy and rude as our people.

But even then, in the second place, here’s the question that can’t be evaded. Suppose we had become insistent, from the 1950s even to today. Fine; and what if they just said “go to hell”? Would we then move closer to a potential nuclear exchange? Invade? Stop selling them grain (hardly good news for our farming industry)? In the end, if the Soviets or their successors didn’t or don’t want to answer, nothing realistic could compel them. And there’s more, one of the most uncomfortable realities to face, one with implications hard to face even today.

To wit: let’s imagine you are a foreign leader aware of an embarrassing number of carefully sequestered American prisoners your country holds. If proof were released of their survival–that your country had held them all this time just because letting them go would be to release a thousand accounts condemning your country’s deceit and inhumanity–what would you do? At some point, acting in brutal self-interest and national interest, what is there to stop you from doing the most logical but brutal thing? I think it very likely that this occurred in Vietnam, for example, that some of our POWs remained in captivity into the 1980s, and that when it came time for relations to thaw, the Vietnamese government most likely made all traces of them disappear. How much easier would this be in a country whose territory includes the vast expanse of Siberia?

It follows that, if that had occurred, there will never be an admission of it. If proof even exists, it may always be beyond our reach.

So yes: several thousand Americans disappeared into the Gulag system. Most may safely be presumed to have died before Stalin, based upon those fates we do know. A few eventually found their ways home during political thaws. Yes, they were naïve to buy into the bright future offered by Stalin’s USSR, but very few ever renounced US citizenship in a conscious way, nor ever meant harm to the country most still considered theirs. And they were fools indeed if they imagined that FDR would aggravate Stalin by lifting one finger on their behalf, especially (as we now know) with presidential advisor Harry Hopkins either a Soviet agent or near enough to render the difference unimportant. I find it very uncomfortable to face, but some truths are uncomfortable: as much as my evidence about Davies makes me loathe everything the man stood for, I don’t have an answer for the ultimate question in any era: “Okay, smart guy. Tell us how we do that without blowing up the world and screwing our whole country. I’ll wait.”

It doesn’t make Davies a fundamentally decent man who wanted to do the right thing. He wasn’t and didn’t; he didn’t want to do anything for anyone but himself, as it looks to me.

Perhaps you know you are getting near to some historical understanding when you uncover enough nuances to destroy any clear-cut feelgood angels-vs-demons outcome.

Even if you uncover demons, their enemies are not always angels.

There is a thing you can do for immigrants

Now and then, Americans go through a spasm of nativism. It happened when the Irish immigration waves began in the 1840s, it happened again in the World War I era, and it is happening now. The gist of nativism is that immigration is bad, we should reduce it, that ‘those people’ are not like ‘us’ because they look/sound/worship/eat ‘differently.’ And of course, that they will be the death and destruction of us.

Protip: the problem is not when people are waiting in long lines, following years-long processes, and sneaking across borders to get into your country. That is a sign of health. The problem is when they cease coming, and when your own people begin leaving.

We may differ on the definition of ‘immigrant.’ Fine; use your own definition. Myself, I have reached the point where I no longer care whether a person followed the process; I care only that, if I know about a person only his or her immigration/legality status, and his or her level of xenophobia and hatred, I know I’d rather have the xenophobic hatred go somewhere else, and I’d rather the non-native took that spot. Put another way, I like even the illegal aliens better than I like the native-born people who have made it a life’s mission to hate them. I would rather live next to the illegal aliens than those who have made xenophobia a philosophy. I feel that even the illegal aliens are doing more good for my country than people who would turn it to a police state to get rid of them. And thanks both to the stupid, pernicious redefinition of the word ‘immigrant’ to include people who did not actually follow an immigration process, which was a wrapped gift to nativist xenophobia, here’s the reality: everyone who wasn’t born here is feeling scared, hated, rejected, unwanted, disrespected, unvalued, and seriously rethinking the decision to live here. Even those who have become citizens.

I’m not taking this shit.

That is not my country. If it’s war to the knife for the American soul, then it’s time to draw the rhetorical steel. Xenophobia has already drawn and slashed away. It isn’t owed a warning.

If your vision of America is a diverse nation that embraces many accents, races, faiths, cultures, and ideas, then you probably value immigration in some form. If you do, then you could tell them. I have begun to do so. My wife has followed suit.

The method is simple. English is a very difficult language to speak without an accent; take that from someone who has learned a number of foreign languages. Most persons who speak with foreign accents were not born here. If it’s important to you, you can ask the person where he or she is from, or what is his or her native language. The only issue is that you wouldn’t want to do this with anyone born here, so however you ascertain that is up to your good sense. And it should be a person whose positive impact you would like to recognize–hard work, kindness, goodwill, whatever. I’m not here to tell you what moves you.

When you do, take a quiet moment, and say something kind and welcoming. “Thank you for coming to this country. I’m glad you’re here. You’ve made it better.” Whatever expresses your feelings; I’m not here to tell you what those should be, what words to use. Just let that person know that America isn’t entirely the wall of xenophobic hatred it has begun to resemble.

Chances are it’s the first time he or she has heard that. You would not believe the results.

  • My dentist wept openly.
  • My doctor smiled a most unreserved Anglo-Scottish smile.
  • The owner of our favorite Middle Eastern restaurant looked very much as if he would cry.
  • A jewelry salesperson lit up with joy.

In every case, it has made a difference for someone who was feeling confusion, fear, rejection, mixed emotions. In every case, I have been glad I did.

I’m going to keep it up. I’ve had it with this bigoted crap. If I’m going to hate anyone, it’s going to be bigots, not people who came to my country and did something to make it better. This bigotry crap may, deep down, represent what America truly is overall, but I’ve never wanted to belong to very many groups, and it doesn’t represent me. It is not necessary to be tolerant of intolerance; that’s fourth-grade logic meant to clear a space for hate. Tolerance of intolerance eventually destroys all tolerance, which is why the intolerant demand their own tolerance–it’s just a slash in that war to the knife, at a spot they imagine to be vulnerable.

I will not be silent, and thus let membership be assumed of me.

If you, like me, look around at the accentless grandchildren of the Vietnamese boat people and smile at their impact; if you look at the accentless children of the Bosnian refugees and smile at their impact; if you look at the survivors of African violence and smile at their impact…then there are at least some immigrants you like. Good; we can work with it. Feel free to say something to those who came from elsewhere, for your own reasons, in your own words, by your own choice, as the situation moves you.

Every time you do, you slash back against nativist hate.

Does your center point move?

If it does, congratulations. Your mind works the way most people’s do. Your life is easy because everyone else understands you, and your views don’t make anyone uncomfortable.

If it doesn’t, I feel for you. Welcome to my world.

Many areas of opinion and judgment may be viewed as continuums: number lines, if you will. Do elementary schools still use number lines to help teach arithmetic? Mine all had them stuck to the wall above the chalkboard (we still had chalkboards). A number line, as I recall them, began with -10 on the left and counted up to zero, then counted up to 10. Zero was one’s center. In a subtle way, I believe this contributed to the formation of many of our moral and ethical perceptions.

Turning to application, the assumptive logic is that every issue must have two sides, each with extreme and moderate stances, and there must be a center balance point that hybridizes both sides in a sort of compromise. This is a comforting way of looking at the world. It means the other side of an issue is never a demon, except for its extremist minority, of which one’s own side of the issue also has such a thing. It means giving the other side a fair shake, recognizing that one’s opposition is also decently minded and simply sees things from a different perspective. Doesn’t that sound sweet as cane sugar?

It also means one can arrange never to be an extremist…because most people’s center point moves from zero with current events. As long as one’s center also moves, one can feel comfortably within at least one embracing faction on any issue. One never need feel isolated. So let’s say that two million households normally go bankrupt in a given year; in the next year, the number doubles to four million. Most of the people who felt that two million was way too many will now decide that two million wasn’t so bad and that four million is way too many. Last year, two million was horrible. Now, two million is cool. The center point has shifted. Being bankrupt still hurts two million people just as much; that doesn’t register with the mainstream.

Of course, if one side’s former moderate segment goes crazy extreme, and that side’s lunatic fringe goes apocalyptically extreme, the relative center point shifts to remain in between the two extremes. And if the opposing side shifts in the same direction, both shifts will drive the center that direction. Now what was once the midpoint is the mainstream position of one side. The new midpoint represents its opposition’s former moderate stance.

In my view, this means a floating moral compass, a concept I find abhorrent when not well monitored. I do not have a problem with a moral compass that moves for reasons of principled reflection. I have a great problem with a moral compass that moves simply because there is a “new normal” that the majority of the public now assigns to the center of the number line–because it believes there must always be a center, and that center is always the point between the extremes.

Let’s take college tuition costs. In my college days (1981-86), in-state tuition cost about $6000 for a four-year degree at a public university. At the minimum, with an entry-level job meant for college graduates without technical degrees, one could expect about $22,000 in annual compensation. (Unless you were lazy, an ass, or a geranium, it would improve within a few years. It meant a frugal existence in a studio apartment, but it was independence.) Thirty years on, tuition at that same university would cost about $48,000. However, that does not mean that the typical entry-level job will pay about $176,000. In fact, not even the typical technical/professional starting pay will approach that. A relativistic moral compass looks at this situation as the “new normal”: enormous student loan debts, stupidity to major in any subject that doesn’t produce a near-certain high-paying job, actual education as a waste of time for most people.

My “normal” has not moved. My normal is that it’s reasonable for college tuition, managed economically, to work out to about a third of what one can expect to earn in one’s first year of an entry-level position requiring some form of bachelor’s degree. Improvement would be for it to work out to about a fourth or a fifth of what one could earn, though if we took it much farther, a lot of people would be in college who truly have no business there. (This in fact is kind of what has happened, with a whole lot of dim bulbs pressured to attend college–another of my generation’s Great Leaps Forward.) Worse would be for it to bloat up to half of one’s beginning earnings, or unthinkably bad, to cost as much as a full year’s beginning gross earnings.

Most people’s “normal” has moved. Think not? Let’s say tuition were cut in half, to $24,000. Would the typical poli sci major be able to earn about $88,000? She wishes. She is more likely to be working at Chipotle for minimum wage or a little better, living to pay student loans, tutoring in Spanish on the side, living with her parents because in no way can she afford student loan payments and independent life. Even if the cost were cut in half, it still produces untenable economics.

My “normal” is still where it was. Most people’s “normal” has shifted so that tuition is still too expensive, but a cut in half would suddenly make it seem cheap. Their “normal” would shift. Mine has not and will not. Current tuition costs are an obscenity, and even if cut in half, will still be an obscenity. The professors have not gotten sixfold raises. Neither have the custodians, the librarians, or the RAs (shoutout to all of my old colleagues, and others who have done that job). Yet universities still demand that much money, and it goes somewhere. To someone. For something.

Either the cost of education is screwed up, the wage scale and job market are, or perhaps both are.

My “normal” will not simply reset to the current situation, or to a point slightly to the more balanced direction of the current situation. This situation is obscene. This is unpardonable. It is unsustainable. My generation let it happen, and it is one reason I consider my generation the worst in American history. We were the last who got to adventure in childhood before full bubblewrap set in, we were the last who could afford financially sane college education, and we turned around and allowed those things to be taken away from our children. Even those of us who did not have kids, like myself, whose number line centers just kept moving as the trees were cut down and the monkey bars were turned to plastic, as CPS was called for unsupervised play and a third of our kids were drugged into not being childish, as wages stagnated and tuition spiraled out of control, as student loan costs began to look like home loan costs and the purpose of college ceased to be education and simply devolved into job training to produce for a corporatist state, who did not scream bloody murder about it and who came to accept a new normal, were complicit by silence and rationalization.

Rationalization is pernicious. It sneaks up on us. Keep rationalizing away increasingly greater evils, and we will one day wake up with moderate evil as one’s “normal.”

One may apply the number line model to many situations, not all of them measured in economic terms. There are just and sensible reasons for one’s “normal” to shift; let’s take race relations. If our “normal” had not shifted from 1950, we would still be a nation of open Archie Bunkers. A few annual lynchings would be expected, as would segregated separate-and-unequal schools (and cans, and drinking fountains, and neighborhoods, etc.). Stereotypical and denigrating overt depictions of minorities would be the norm. Over time, we came to realize that for the majority to mock, denigrate, and lynch minorities was an unacceptable way for a majority to treat our fellow equally human beings (as which, speaking of that, we ought to recognize said minorities). Did we, the privileged majority, become saints? Not even close; but our “normal” shifted. Some, like me, will argue that it didn’t shift far enough, that the compensating efforts are not adequate. When you can still die for your skin color in a traffic stop, I think it’s hard to argue otherwise. But where a “new normal” is born of the gradual rationalization of progressively greater obscenity, I refuse to shift mine.

If two hundred million people do/accept/tolerate/rationalize a wrong or stupid thing, it will still be a wrong or stupid thing. Majority status does not confer rightness or wisdom. Often it means that a whole bunch of people rationalized their way down the number line, taking their center with them, feeding themselves the comforting porridge of a balanced world with two neatly arranged sides, each possessing more or less equal moral and intellectual merit.

I won’t shift my center. I haven’t yet, and it’s too late to start now even if I suddenly decided I needed the comfort of group approval.

That, I find, is a thing I not only do not expect, but do not even desire.

My Archie Bunker experience

Everyone over forty knows exactly what I mean by that. Many under forty may not.

In 1971, the nation was divided and distressed. The Middle East would probably boil over again. We were losing in Vietnam, trying to tell ourselves it wasn’t really losing if we simply quit and abandoned the RVN government to its fate. Back in those days, there was a left wing, including on the world stage where the Soviet Union worked hard to export its authoritarian-left perspective. It seemed to make inroads everywhere. For our part, we talked big about exporting democracy, but the truth was that we’d throw money and support at any dictator who supported us over the Soviets. We lived in daily fear of global thermonuclear war.

At home, the civil rights movement had won its war but would find that winning the peace was much like the difference between de jure and de facto. The women’s movement was still called ‘Women’s Liberation,’ and it was nowhere near winning its war. Men who had fought in World War II did not understand why their sons not only refused to fight in Vietnam, but did anything possible to avoid it. Cowboys and hippies exchanged insults, and at times punches. In the previous year, Ohio National Guardsmen had opened fire on protesters at Kent State University, killing four and wounding nine. The year before that, the massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese villagers by a platoon of the Americal Division at My Lai had gone far to shake our sense of ourselves as the good guys.

The Pirates won the World Series in 1971, and I turned eight. That year, the sitcom All in the Family first aired. The show depicted a crabby, selfish, bigoted, working-class, staunchly right-wing World War II veteran, Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor). Jean Stapleton played his wife Edith with great comic genius, keeping a straight face when it was hard imagining anyone could; she was far more tolerant than her husband, but just as old-fashioned. With the Bunkers lived their daughter, Gloria (Sally Struthers), a somewhat dimwitted partner to her husband Michael Stivic (Rob Reiner). Mike, whom Archie typically addressed as ‘Meathead,’ was attending college while he and Gloria lived with the Bunkers to save money. As Archie was a parody of the day’s right wing and social conservatism, Mike parodied the left wing and social liberalism of the day. He was sexist, condescending, self-righteous, and inconsiderate.

I don’t remember Archie ever saying “nigger”–by 1971, that was the first (and only) racial slur that had become unacceptable on a broad social basis–but I’ve been watching old episodes, and I did hear him say “chink,” “spic,” “Hebe,” “gook,” “bohunk,” “fag,” and “Dago.” In nearly every episode, he called Mike a “Polack.” It must be quite jolting to the younger ear; it jolts mine, and I remember when such talk was just starting to go underground, throughout the seventies. (Some of us thought it had been eradicated, but that was wishful thinking. One can prevent a person from articulating bigotry, but that will not change that person’s beliefs.)

The show was so popular because it held up a mirror to the culture of the day, with nuanced characters and some good comedy. It may have been the catalyst for some self-awareness growth. We all knew at least one Archie Bunker. All in the Family ran for nine years, with a couple of middling spinoffs.

The reasons all this matter, at least to me, are:

  1. If I don’t help to tell the history of my times, people will make up fictitious purpose-driven versions.
  2. It touches my life because I came moderately close to being the son-in-law of an Archie Bunker.

Back in my twenties, I got involved with a young lady–we’ll call her Katie–who was in a mode of post-collegiate-but-still-living-at-home rebellion against her parents. The father, who worked construction, might well have been somewhat grateful that this time his daughter had brought home someone of similar ethnic background to herself. The previous one had not been, and you can imagine what Archie (I think I’ll just call him that) had on his mind about that. He was an ugly flat-faced SOB who looked like he could eat wallpaper off a wall, and not without virtues; unfortunately, among his virtues was not multicultural tolerance and acceptance. He was also a troll, and knew that his racism offended me, so he made the most of that: he’d turn the channel to a boxing match, for example, and talk about how much fun it was to watch a couple of “niggers” beat each other up.

Unlike TV’s Archie Bunker, whose wife Edith had a heart of gold, Katie’s mother was as mean and bigoted as her husband, and considerably more vindictive. On some level, her husband was human; the mother was not. In fact, Katie did not have one single relative I could bear: a brother and cousin, clones of the father; an absurdly dumb sister; a stereotypical drunk, deaf uncle. The price of dating Katie, and of later being engaged to her, was to be required to endure these people most weekends.

Can you believe I tried for five years to make this relationship work? Good lord. I had my flaws, and I contributed my share of mistakes, but in the end it was time to bow to reality. Significantly poorer, I moved on in relationships. We still have a few friends in common, but Katie moved on and married (this time, to a Hispanic man; Archie must have just loved that). We haven’t spoken in nearly a quarter century; both her parents are gone, but I’ll be glad just never to have any reminder too direct of that experience.

I guess the point of this tale is that if you’re young, and you happen to be watching old TVLand reruns of All in the Family, and you simply cannot believe they could get away with talking like that on TV (except maybe on premium movie channels), much less that such views were commonplace, believe it. And they are by no means all gone even today.

I hope your generation sees the final die-off of those attitudes, because with their current remalnaissance*, mine will not live to see it.


*For those of you who are not French speakers, this is my neologism for ‘re-misbegotten.’ ‘Renaissance’ means ‘rebirth’ and ‘mal’ means ‘bad.’ It is not meant to be correct French, but to modify the English term to indicate that the original birth was no good either.

It’s time to start telling them the brutal truth

In the past, this blog has described the steady incoming stream of Amazon review requests. Most are easy to dismiss with a reason that is not the only reason, but is a truthful reason:

  • “I don’t review e-books.”
  • “It’s outside my area of interest.”
  • “I cannot spare the time to devote to such a large volume.”

I’m just being gentle.

I’m not helping them by doing so.

Truth: every time, if I thought the book would be interesting, I’d take a review copy and read and review it. Further truth: my work involves reading a great deal of horrible writing and being nice to its authors, and when I am not being paid real money, I have less mental energy to dance around the truth of “this writing is no good.” I have to save more detailed and tactful replies for paying clients. They are entitled to tactful constructive critique in detail, and review-seekers are not.

So we’re getting to:

  • “The review would very likely be negative, which I’m sure was not your objective.”
  • “You have interesting subject matter, but I cannot get past the choppy writing.”
  • “The writing does not reflect competent editing and proofreading services. These are not optional.”
  • “If the Amazon Look Inside feature is at all reflective of the published work, the typesetting is borderline unreadable.”
  • “The writing does not even reach the fundamental baseline for adequacy in print, sorry to say.”

Or, in some odd cases:

  • “I am not sure what about my body of work caused you to think a children’s book would interest me, but it does not.”
  • “This is the second time you have contacted me to volunteer my time as your marketer. When you receive no reply to your first inquiry, a second is probably going to get you the type of attention you would not want. No, thank you; and let that please be the end of this, all right?”

Do I enjoy this? No. Do I wish people didn’t publish crappy writing? With all my heart. Is it my duty to tell them so? No, but if it will avert further solicitations, that’s all right with me. Do I get a kick out of disappointing writers? If I did, I would not be in the business of helping them succeed.

We’re just going to have to lay it out there.

Poi oh poi

Another box checked off the “try this and find out what it’s all about” list.

Hey, they aren’t all bad. I find I love kimchee. It does have a smell like something gone off, but it has nothing of that not-food taste I find in most vegetables, and especially none of the revolting cloy characteristic of cole slaw. I last had a school lunch in second grade, and I can still remember the nauseating taste of cafeteria cole slaw nearly half a century later. Menudo, on the other hand, not so good; it was like a rich taco-flavored soup with a strong acid refluxiness on the finish. I never need to eat the latexy cow stomach chunks again. In fact, I need never to eat them again. Same for muktuk, which I admit I am still mystified some cultures see as food. Black pudding? Good stuff. Ouzo? Tastes exactly like Nyquil to me, or liquid black licorice, than which same I think I’d rather eat cole slaw. With that abomination among condiments, Miracle Whip, so as to get two barfs out of the way. Vegemite, Marmite? Always have one of the two around.

So yeah, I try things. I’d long wondered how to find poi, which is taro paste, until Brain Trust here (living in Portland, a city with a substantial and diverse Asian population) finally hit upon the notion of an Asian grocery store. “Sure,” said the customer service counter person, “it’s over in produce. Tends to vanish fast, though.”

Well, we do have plenty of Pacific Islanders.

Turned out it hadn’t vanished. They sell it frozen in twist-tied bags. Package includes instructions for thawing and serving it. I took a close look; in frozen state, a sort of mauve block roughly the size of a package of frozen peas (but hopefully less repellent). I grabbed one, went off to get a jar of kimchee as well, and checked out.

First lesson: the twist tie was more of a suggestion. It slipped off sometime during the ride in my truck, causing leakage in the plastic grocery bag. Joy. Package fully secured, I went about the rest of a frustrating afternoon: medical appointment with practice that hires dumb admin staff. Stuck in traffic due to eternaconstruction that has been going on for nearly two years with no discernible progress. Used shocking language several times to describe fellow motorists, shaking my head in sad disdain and hoping they lip-read the filth flowing freely from my voice box. Waited in line at post office only to find out that insured mail had evidently been tampered with en route. Said screw it, no haircut; I want to go home now and have a cigar and let this afternoon be over.

After a moderately relaxing cigar, during which I found out that my day’s dinner workup was dashed and I’d have to come up with something else, I decided to try the poi. I also opened the kimchee, on the logic that if the poi was too awful a single bite of kimchee ought to clear away the taste. If not, I could have poi for dinner with a side of kimchee. Couldn’t lose. I extracted a mostly-thawed corner of the mauve block and popped it into my mouth.

I’d like to report that it was delicious, or gross, or weird-tasting, or even ralphtacular. Those would betray your trust. Reality was far blander; one might even call it the ultimate in bland. Compared to this stuff, Wonder Bread is a flavor burst. So is plain pasta. I’m serious. So far as I could tell, poi has no taste at all. It’s completely neutral. It had the consistency of fine hummus, but less flavor than plain steamed rice or even plain tofu. It didn’t smell bad; it didn’t taste bad. It didn’t smell like or taste like anything. It has about the flavor of distilled water.

I am still trying to determine how someone sat down one day and said, “Hey, maybe if we pound this root up into purple paste, it’ll be edible.” Maybe you have to grow up with it. It does, however, explain why Hawai’ians have so embraced Spam: if this was the alternative, any would treat Spam like a boon from on high.

Anyway, I tried it so you don’t have to unless you feel driven. It won’t hurt you, but it probably will not leave you wanting another dose.

Stuff I spend time explaining over and over about history

Because I’m interested in history–or more likely, because I can’t learn to shush about the subject–friends and acquaintances ask me a steady stream of questions about it. Now and then, I even know the answer. If I don’t, it may inspire me to learn something, maybe order a book, develop at least a basic background.

There are also a few things those who ask tend to forget, and it is very natural. Perspective matters. When you’re seeking historical understanding, it’ll come easier when you bear uppermost in mind that:

Back then, the participants did not know how the future would unfold. Let’s take, for example, the legend of the Holy Grail. The evidence for its existence is, well, more a matter of faith than of evidence. It isn’t hard to imagine that such a relic would take on legendary status, provided one assumes that the persons in the story had a functional and updated crystal ball with up-to-date prophecy software. The idea is that a charismatic religious figure’s followers, or at any rate someone, saved a dining utensil from a group dinner (which they knew 100% was their final meal together, ever). And that this follower, or presumably someone else to whom the event was important, took the utensil to a Roman public execution and used it to catch the blood of the suffering religious figure. We are then asked to imagine that this artifact survived, and can ever be proven authentic to our modern satisfaction.

Well, if you take it on faith, that’s fine by me, but faith is not germane here. What’s germane is the assumption demanded by the whole tale: that at the time, anyone had the faintest understanding that this religious figure would become the center of a family of faiths that would shape and dominate Western civilization for many centuries. Absent this foreknowledge, this crystal ball, there is no reason anyone’s going to think to grab the wine goblet from the dinner. It would seem a little macabre to go scoop up some of the blood of the condemned, rather disrespectful. Granted, customs differed back then, but was that the norm? “Rachel, take this cup and go catch us some of Uncle Flavius’s blood. Quick like bunny, before the legionary spots you!”

But let’s say someone did save this cup; what then? Did he or she (just because one tale ascribes it to Joseph of Arimathea does not make that automatic truth; it could as easily have been a woman) put it on a shelf in the pantry? On the mantel? Sure, if that person could foresee the days of Constantine, he or she would have saved it, but everyone who was an adult in CE 30 or so would be elderly before the Christian movement numbered more than a few thousand. Christianity did not become the dominant faith of the Empire for at least two centuries. There was no way to know the future, thus (again, absent a faith-based conclusion, which cannot be addressed by evidence or logic; that’s why it’s called faith) no reason to expect anyone to keep track of a dish. Even if someone did save it, odds loom long against its ongoing survival and identification for even a century, much less two millennia. Within fifty years of the Crucifixion, any wiseacre could have taken a likely-looking chalice and proclaimed it the Holy Grail. Within five hundred, many had done just that.

They did not know, in the moment, what the future held–unless you bring in questions of faith and prophecy, which is your perfect right. But when you do, you depart from history and enter theology. It is unreasonable for anyone to expect anyone else to accept one’s own theology as history, for there are too many theologies. Whether we can ever know it or not, there was only one authentic history; modern interpretations and perspectives on that history may vary, but the events were one sole version when they occurred.


A year back then took as long as a year does now. We have the tendency, even the temptation, to compress ancient time. The farther back it is, the greater the compression. Oh, we do not do this if we give it careful thought; it is a tendency rather than an automatic event. Here is an example.

The War of American Independence began in 1775 and ended in 1783. That is eight years. Right? Eight years are a re-elected presidential administration. In eight years, a newborn grows to t-ball age. Eight years normally span a combined secondary and collegiate education. Imagine that the war had been declared around the time of Obama’s inauguration, and just ended last month. That’s how long it took. No less, no more.

I recently read a rather stupid message board post asserting that the Muslim Conquests (622-750 CE) had been “rapid.” This is a perfect example. One hundred and twenty-eight years are “rapid” only if we’re referring to matters that normally take millennia or more, like geological shifts and the evolution of new species. For a military imperial expansion, that’s a long time–including plenty of timeouts here and there to consolidate control, make hummus, build mosques, and so on. As I write, one hundred twenty-eight years ago, it was 1889 CE:

  • The European powers were just getting a head of steam dividing up most of Africa. (Most of the Africans would not be consulted.)
  • The Chinese Empire was nearing its last two decades, but the Japanese Empire was vaulting itself into the modern era by pure force of dedication.
  • The United States military was still fighting the Indian wars, had bought Alaska just twenty-two years prior, and had limited ability to project overseas power.
  • Nearly every European country had a monarch.

Look at all that has happened in 128 years, then tell me it was “rapid.” Twelve decades is plenty of time for plenty to happen.

Because in 9748 BCE, and in 47 BCE, and in 244 CE, and in 1889 CE, a day, a week, a month, a year, a decade, and a century took just as long as they do now. Time didn’t speed up just because an Egyptian dynasty lasted maybe a millennium. That millennium still took one thousand years.

Put into perspective: the Roman Republic lasted nearly five centuries. The western Empire lasted another four and a half centuries after that, and the eastern Empire outlasted its western kin-empire by a millennium. Four and a half centuries ago, it was 1667–the era of Cromwell, the Dutch on Manhattan Island, and Issac Newton. Five centuries ago, it was 1617; the Jamestown colony was a decade old. One millennium ago is just fifty years before the Norman Conquest of England, and just eighty years before the first Crusade stormed Jerusalem. That’s how long those timeframes are.

Why am I hammering on this seeming obviousness? Because it sneaks up on us. We tend to compress ancient times; the farther back, the more quickly we treat it as having passed. Rome became a republic in 509 BCE and, arguably, an empire in 27 BCE. The Rome of 27 BCE had not undergone any form of “rapid” transformation from its early republican days; the process had taken long enough to span the longest imaginable lifespans of five consecutive persons. It had taken over twice the current lifespan of the United States. If you think it’s been quite a while since Lexington and Concord, one presumes, you think twice that while is quite a greater while. That approximates the lifespan of Rome as a republic. Some tidbits to help this sink in:

  • Caligula ruled Rome for about the length of a U.S. presidential term.
  • The Napoleonic Wars lasted twelve years, about the time from birth to puberty.
  • The American Civil War took about as long as it takes to get a bachelor’s degree.
  • The golden age of piracy, if such a thing can be so described, only lasted about thirty years–as of 2017, the time elapsed since George H.W. Bush was stepping up his run for the presidency, or Snooki’s birth. (No, I’m not going to apologize for associating that name with an historical discussion. Whatever it takes to get across the length of time involved, that’s what I’ll use.)
  • The Pony Express only operated for eighteen months. In eighteen months, a newborn infant transforms into a toddler doing her best to emulate a howler monkey on cocaine. Or: in eighteen months, two human pregnancies can be laid end to end (not that I recommend it).


It’s not enough to address the question. One ought to question the assumptions implicit in the question. This is closely allied with the first guidance, but deserves its own portion. Let’s say we are looking into the mind and motives of President Franklin D. Roosevelt with regard to U.S. entry into World War II. Some would say that he talked isolationism out his mouth, for public consumption, yet deliberately took actions that would lead his country into global war. You might ask:

  • Do we know at what point in time FDR considered U.S. entry inevitable?
  • Pursuant to that: have we evidence that he so considered? How strong is that evidence?
  • Is it imaginable of him that he would have maneuvered his country toward war in order to complete its economic recovery?
  • Pursuant to that: was it even understood at the time that such a war might have that effect on a Depression-recovering economy?
  • There seems little doubt that FDR shaded U.S. policy well toward the Allies, but is there an imaginable circumstance in which we might have shifted to strict neutrality or even a pro-Axis stance?
  • Pursuant to that: is there anything now known about the war, that FDR could not know at the time, that would have caused a shift? A full apprehension of the magnitude of the Holocaust? The realization that Churchill most surely sought to maneuver the U.S. into a war few of its people desired?

When someone spouts off about history, in particular about the motivations of an historical figure, there are strong grounds for posing a lot of questions–and for questioning the underlying assumptions. That’s how a sound historical argument is constructed: one examines and researches all one’s own assumptions, because when someone comes along to counter it, that person’s best odds to crumble it is by kicking out its underpinnings. For example:

There’s a conspiracy theory about former Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, once a close confidant of Adolf Hitler, who flew to Britain in an escort fighter. The story generally told and believed is that Hess was nutty, and that he acted without Hitler’s approval, and that in any case in no way were the British willing to discuss ending the war unless Hitler were ready to abandon his conquests. There are reasons to question that story, and there’s a whole tinfoil argument about Hess’s motives for flying to Scotland. The portion of the theory I want to address is the notion that Hess died during the war, in captivity, in a flying boat crash off Scotland; this view goes on to state that the Hess tried at Nuremberg and incarcerated at Spandau was a double seeking to put one over on at least some of the world.

Want to leave that theory bleeding in the Ditch of Discarded Zany Ideas? For example:

  • How easy is it to get someone, who just happens to look a hell of a lot like Hess, to go on trial and do life in prison for war crimes he did not actually commit?
  • What possible motive could the Allies have for covering up such a plane crash and the guy’s death, if authentic?
  • Some twenty years into his sentence, Hess (‘ ‘) finally agreed to see his wife and son. Not only did they believe him genuine, they lobbied as hard as possible for his release. Could a phony version of you fool your child? Your spouse? How could that impostor have the shared memories to discuss? If the assertion is that they were in on the cover-up, someone has to present a credible case for why they would do that.
  • We have photos of Hess (‘ ‘) in his old age at Spandau. Rudolf Hess was a very distinctive-looking character, with eyebrows that would have been a generous donation to Brows of Love if such a thing existed. In those photos, he looks exactly like one might expect an elderly Hess to look. An impostor might not age nearly as authentically.
  • The other Spandau prisoners knew Hess from before and during the war. Why should we believe that they couldn’t tell an impostor? Failing that, why should we deduce that they all agreed to maintain a conspiracy?

The theory of Hess’s death is so fragile that all of these questions, and more that you could probably think of, must be answered with compelling evidence in order for us to waste any further time on such a theory. Since it’s a zany theory that demands people to have acted counter to their predictable behaviors and interests, and because it really doesn’t make a lot of fundamental sense as to motives, it is fragile. So much so that, if any one of those questions does not have a full and powerful answer, the absence of that answer is probably enough to make the theory collapse into nonsensicality.


Just because most of a story is flawed does not mean all of it can be discounted. History is rarely so simplistic. Let’s go back to Hess. To my mind, by far the most tantalizing tinfoil question in play is: what if Hess acted with Hitler’s approval (with planned disavowal in case of failure), expected an audience that was ready to negotiate, and definitely planned to return home?

Could a faction of His Majesty’s Government have been ready to throw in the towel? The Hess flight happened just after the Blitz ended; Hitler may have known he was calling off the bombing campaign, but it’s unlikely Churchill knew that. In short: were the British expecting Hess, and was Britain much closer to a separate peace than it would be politic to become public?

One tantalizing story, not fully verified, is that the portion of the Hess files that remains classified has been sought by researchers (perhaps insiders), and that the files contain only the notice that the material is on permanent loan to the Windsor Archives. That would mean that, short of the personal command of the reigning monarch, no power in the United Kingdom could compel their release. If something in there were terribly embarrassing to part of the aristocracy, that would be an elegant monkey wrench in the investigative machinery. I am not aware of any firm proof that this situation obtains, but were it to come to light, it would seem to catch the Royal family hiding something. We would then ask all the logical questions as to what it might be, and why they might do that. If they had good enough answers, we might have a theory.

The point, though, is that this information comes from the same tinfoil book that claims Spandau’s Hess to be a double. Does the zaniness of that idea help the book’s overall credibility? Well, what do you think? However, does that zaniness mean that the authors are incapable of getting any facts correct? Surely not. Could the aroma of a more interesting and plausible story be wafting from the ruin of a collapsed argument? I believe that it could be.

Here’s another: the Salem Witch Trials. The airy ‘science’ argument is to blame it all on ergotism, a hallucinatory condition associated with a mold found in rye. Hardly anyone questions it. It ends the conversation: “They freaked out because science, duh.”

Oh, really?

Fine. Then one of two things is true: people of that time knew of the properties of ergot, or they did not. If they did, someone should explain why a slave (by definition the most vulnerable member of Salem society), who is not recorded as being a complete suicidal idiot, would administer such a substance to teenage girls when that was most likely to bring wrath down upon her defenseless head. Or why the girls administered it to themselves, which is only plausible if they knew how to find a nice concentration of the stuff.

Or they didn’t know about it, in which case we are to believe that somehow, one of the most attention-seeking and drama-prone demographics in the human species–the pubescent female–all blundered upon this One Potent Batch of ergot-tainted food that somehow, the rest of their families did not ingest. We would ask: why weren’t whole families losing it? Why wasn’t the whole community coming unglued?

Put another way: why was the group most repressed by the religious social straitjacket of Salem, the most blamed for any potential sexual misconduct, the least free to do what it wanted, suddenly acting up? If no one poisoned them–and it makes no sense anyone would do that unless we are to imagine that the girls knew how to do so, and it was like an acid trip–why have fits? We don’t know, but “to get attention, because teenage” is a path of low resistance.

While we are at it, why not ask: if it was accidental ergotism, how come the ‘bewitchings’ went away when the community finished hanging and pressing witches? Unless we’re going to assume that the prosecution was correct and that the thankful community got all the miscreants (or scared the rest into abjuring their witchy ways), there would logically be more freakouts. But if there’s a record of those, I’m unaware of it.

My reading of the record is that the community realized that the hysteria had gone too far, and it suggests a likely reason the girls ceased their histrionics: the realization that their drama queen lark had cost a number of lives. They might be afraid to confess their little game, but they had probably gotten all the attention they could ever want, kind of like an ignored kid who starts a fire in the kitchen and realizes he can’t control it.


The jury of historians rarely completes its deliberations with a unanimous, unambiguous verdict. The best we can get is a broad consensus. How we get at, evaluate, question, support, doubt, undermine, and otherwise address that consensus–that is what historians do.

And the joy is that it’s open to anyone who cares enough about the relevant events to invest the time exploring.

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