Category Archives: Britain

Japan’s Industrial Pollution in 1897

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 532-534:

Another internal matter that disturbed the emperor in 1897 and would have future ramifications was the copper poisoning caused by the mines at Ashio. On March 24 a cabinet committee was established to investigate the situation. The extent of the harm to the environment and the suffering of the inhabitants of the region could hardly be exaggerated. Fish had disappeared from the Watarase River and its tributaries. Innumerable dry and wet fields had been ravaged. In recent years there had been frequent flooding, and the damage increased each year. At every session of the Diet, [early environmental activist] Tanaka Shōzō (1841–1913), a member of the House of Representatives, described the terrible damage, appealing for preventive measures and relief. However, neither the government nor the mine owners did anything to help the people of the region, and it was feared they might stage a march on Tōkyō to appeal directly to the government.

Shortly before the investigating committee was established, the minister of agriculture and commerce, Enomoto Takeaki, traveled to Ashio in mufti to observe the effects of mineral poisoning. He was so shocked by what he saw that he resigned his post, taking blame for the disaster. The emperor was much upset when he was informed of conditions in Ashio, and on April 7, at his request, Tokudaiji Sanetsune sent letters to the governors of Gumma, Tochigi, Saitama, and Ibaraki Prefectures asking if they thought that the sudden spate of public criticism was occasioned by the damage caused by the flooding of 1896 or if it went back to 1892 and 1893 when the frightening effects of pollution were first discovered.

At the time some observers blamed the disasters on the indiscriminate felling of trees, resulting in landslides that filled the riverbeds. The rivers, unable to flow freely in their normal courses, had broken through the embankments and spread the poison in their water over the land. The governors were requested to reply without concealing anything and appending relevant documents.

As a result of the reports received from the cabinet committee, on May 27 [“Copper King”] Furukawa Ichibei, the operator of the mines, was issued a set of thirty-seven orders requiring him to provide settling ponds, filter beds, and similar facilities to prevent the mine water from overflowing and to eliminate smoke pollution. He was told that these improvements must be completed within 150 days and that mining operations would be halted until the settling ponds and filter beds were ready. In the event that Furukawa disobeyed these orders, he would be forbidden to engage in further mining.

On November 27 the cabinet, satisfied that the work of the committee investigating the mineral poisoning at Ashio was more or less completed, relieved the committee of its functions, and assigned to the appropriate ministries the supervision of preventive measures and restoration of affected land. Judging from the persistence into the late Meiji era of the issue of copper poisoning, it is obvious that the pollution controls ordered by the government at this time were not strictly enforced. The desire to build a modern, rich country was so strong that the Japanese tended to tolerate environmental pollution, even when it was as extreme as at the Ashio copper mines.

Eleven years earlier, in 1886, Suehiro Tetchō had published Setchūbai (Plum Blossoms in the Snow), a work often praised as the finest of the Meiji-period political novels. It is set in 2040, the 173rd year of the reign of Emperor Meiji, and opens with the sounds of cannons and bugles blowing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of the constitution. The accompanying illustrations depict the Tōkyō of the future. It is a city of grim rows of brick buildings from which innumerable tall chimneys emit black smoke. Tetchō wrote enthusiastically, “Telegraph wires spread like spiders’ webs, and trains run to and fro to every point of the compass. The electric lamps are so bright that even at night the streets look no different than in broad daylight.”

A reader today may shudder at the thought of a city so devoid of amenities and so tainted by industrial pollution, but Tetchō undoubtedly believed that his readers would be delighted by a future rich with the progress represented by chimneys belching smoke; he seems to have thought that the more Tōkyō resembled London, the greatest of the Western cities, the happier the Japanese would be. The chamberlain Hinonishi Sukehiro recalled:

Whenever His Majesty made a journey in the Kansai region, a little before the train passed Ōsaka he would say, “We’re getting close to the smoke capital…. Now we’re in the smoke capital.” Whenever we approached Ōsaka, he would look out of the window at the landscape. When he saw a great deal of smoke rising, he would be extremely satisfied.

For Emperor Meiji, no less than for Suehiro Tetchō, the “smoke capital” was a term of praise; but the copper mines at Ashio served as a grim reminder of the cost to the environment and to human lives of such progress.

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Reactions to Atrocities at Port Arthur, 1894

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 492-493:

Everything seemed to be going favorably for the Japanese when reports sent by foreign newspaper men who had witnessed the occupation of Port Arthur not only horrified readers abroad but for a time threatened Japan’s reputation as a modern, civilized country. The first report on the Japanese troops’ actions after conquering Port Arthur was made by Thomas Cowen, a foreign correspondent of the Times of London. After leaving Port Arthur, he reached Hiroshima on November 29 and had an interview the following day with Foreign Minister Mutsu. Cowen astonished Mutsu with his detailed descriptions of the ghastly scenes he had witnessed. That night Mutsu sent a telegram to Hayashi Tadasu:

Today I met with a Times correspondent who has returned from Port Arthur. He says that after the victory the Japanese soldiers behaved in a outrageous manner. It seems to be true that they murdered prisoners who had already been tied up, and they killed civilians, even women. He said that this situation was witnessed not only by newspaper men of Europe and America, but also by officers of the fleets of different countries, notably a British rear admiral.

The immediate reaction of the Japanese government to this and similar dispatches that appeared in the foreign press was to send out reports favorable to the Japanese. Bribes were given to Reuters to circulate pro-Japanese articles. Some newspapers like the Washington Post were directly paid to print articles favorable to Japan. Various foreign journalists were by this time in the Japanese pay.

Military censorship of the Japanese press was initiated at this time. A set of four regulations was drawn up, headed by the following instructions: “Reports should record insofar as possible true facts concerning acts of loyalty, courage, righteousness, and nobility and should encourage feelings of hostility toward the enemy.” Those who violated these regulations would be suitably punished.

Worldwide attention was drawn to the events that had occurred at Port Arthur by a brief cable dispatch from James Creelman, a foreign correspondent of the New York newspaper the World:

The Japanese troops entered Port Arthur on Nov. 21 and massacred practically the entire population in cold blood.

The defenseless and unarmed inhabitants were butchered in their houses and their bodies were unspeakably mutilated. There was an unrestrained reign of murder which continued for three days. The whole town was plundered with appalling atrocities.

It was the first stain upon Japanese civilization. The Japanese in this instance relapsed into barbarism.

All pretenses that circumstances justified the atrocities are false.

The civilized world will be horrified by the details. The foreign correspondents, horrified by the spectacle, left the army in a body.

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Japan’s Treaty with Korea, 1876

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 256-257:

The first meeting between representatives of the two countries lasted for four days. The negotiations were conducted with ritual politeness on both sides but consisted mainly of repetitions of familiar arguments. The Japanese wanted to know why their attempts to secure a treaty of peace and friendship had been consistently rebuffed; the Koreans in return wanted to know why the Japanese had used titles for their emperor that put him on an equal footing with the emperor of China, thereby placing Korea in a subordinate position. After denying any intent of asserting suzerainty over Korea, the Japanese asked why their ship had been fired on at Kanghwa. The Koreans answered that because the Japanese marines were dressed in European-style uniforms, they were mistaken for either French or Americans. They failed to apologize, saying merely that the provincial officials had not recognized that the ships were Japanese. The Japanese delegates then demanded why the Korean government had not informed its provincial officials of the flags flown by Japanese ships and insisted that this required an apology. The Korean commandant replied that he was charged only with receiving the Japanese visitors; he was not authorized to make an apology.

The negotiations dragged on, interrupted by periods of consultation between the Korean commissioners and their government in Seoul, but on February 27, 1876, a treaty of friendship was at last signed between Japan and Korea. After the signing ceremony, the Japanese offered presents to the Koreans, not only the traditional bolts of silk, but a cannon, a six-shooter, a pocket watch, a barometer, and a compass. The gifts (with the exception of the silk) were strikingly like those the Americans had given the Japanese when the first treaty between the two nations was signed, and the treaty itself had almost identical significance: Japan was “opening” Korea, the hermit nation, to diplomatic relations and to trade. One Western scholar later commented,

As the Western Powers had done with herself, so did she now, without one particle of compunction, induce Korea to sign away her sovereign rights of executive and tariff autonomy, and to confer on Japanese residents within her borders all the extraterritorial privileges which were held to violate equity and justice when exercised by Europeans in Japan.

When word of the signing of the treaty reached the diplomatic community in Tōkyō, the ministers of the various countries asked for an audience with the emperor so that they might express their congratulations. The emperor invited them to a banquet at the Shiba Detached Palace, where each minister had the opportunity to convey joy over the signing of the treaty and hopes for greater and greater friendship between Japan and Korea.

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First Foreign Enclave in Tokyo, 1869

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 164-165:

During Meiji’s stay in Tōkyō, negotiations were opened with the foreign diplomats living in Yokohama on a number of matters: the end of their policy of neutrality in the conflict between the government and the rebels; the destruction of the rebels in Hakodate; the disposition of the Japanese Christians; and the issuance of paper money. The negotiations did not go smoothly. The foreign representatives, headed by the redoubtable Sir Harry Parkes, refused to consider any request that seemed to threaten the sacred right to trade—in Hakodate and anywhere else.

On January 2 a foreign trade center was opened in Tōkyō at Tsukiji, which was also made available to foreigners for residence. Samurai were forbidden to enter the settlement without written permission. This restriction on the passage of samurai into the concessions was probably intended to allay the foreigners’ fear of sworded samurai, but it had the effect of lowering their prestige. Before long, the samurai were given the task of protecting foreign ships, something none of them could have foreseen. Ōnuma Chinzan wrote a poem on their plight:

A little Yang-chou—that’s the new Shimabara;
Our browbeaten Japanese warriors guard the barbarian ships.
“Please don’t come here wearing your swords—
Please come instead with a hundred thousand coins.”

In the winter of 1868, at the same time that daimyo mansions in Tsukiji were demolished to provide living space for the foreigners, a new licensed quarter, named after the old Shimabara in Kyōto, was opened nearby. The last two lines of the poem indicate that for the prostitutes of the new Shimabara, money counted more than a customer’s rank. This surely was no less humiliating for the samurai than the duty of protecting foreigners, despite their jōi [Expel the Barbarians] convictions of a few years earlier.

On January 5 and 6 the emperor received the ministers from foreign countries, evidence of his hope for increased and better relations between Japan and the rest of the world. In Western diplomatic practice, there was nothing remarkable about the emperor’s receiving foreign diplomats and providing refreshments for them, but it was unprecedented in Japan. It is all the more astonishing when one recalls that Kōmei, who considered that the presence of foreigners on the sacred soil of Japan was an unspeakable offense to the gods, had died less than two years earlier. The young emperor was willing not only to meet foreigners but was affable to them.

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Meiji and The Mikado

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle p. 136:

Three days after [British envoy Sir Harry] Parkes and [junior interpreter A. B.] Mitford were presented to the emperor, the first clash occurred between the imperial forces advancing on Edo and the Shinsengumi, a band of some 200 men under the command of Kondō Isami (1834–1868). The imperial forces under Itagaki Taisuke were victorious. Perhaps the most memorable thing about the march of the imperial troops to Edo was the song they sang, “Tokoton’yare,” composed by Shinagawa Yajirō (1843–1900) during the battles at Toba and Fushimi. This song spread not only throughout Japan but also to England, where the music and part of the Japanese words were incorporated into the operetta The Mikado, composed in 1885: Miyasama, miyasama, ouma no mae no, pira pira suru no wa nan jai na, tokoton’yare ton’yarena. Arya chōteki seibatsu seyo to no nishiki no mihata ja shiranka, tokoton’yare ton’yare na.

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How Multinationals Dodge Taxes

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 165-167:

Two-thirds of trade happens within multinational corporations. To a large extent those companies decide where to pay taxes on which portions of their earnings. That leaves ample scope to avoid paying taxes anywhere or to pay taxes at a rate far below what purely domestic companies pay.

Imagine a multinational company making rubber chickens, called Fowl Play Incorporated. Fowl Play’s headquarters and most of its customers are in the United States. A subsidiary, Fowl Play Cameroon, runs a rubber plantation in Cameroon. The rubber is shipped to a factory in China, owned by another subsidiary, Fowl Play China, where it is made into rubber chickens and packaged. The rubber chickens are shipped to Fowl Play’s parent company in the United States, which sells them to mainly US customers.

Fowl Play could simply pay taxes in each location based on an honest assessment of the proportion of its income that accrues there. But it has a duty to its shareholders to maximize returns, and its executives want the bonuses that come from turning big profits, so its accountants are instructed to minimize the effective tax rate Fowl Play pays by booking more revenues in places with low tax rates and fewer revenues in places with high tax rates. If, for example, Fowl Play wanted to reduce its tax liability in Cameroon and the United States by shifting profits to China, where it has been granted a tax holiday to build its factory, it would undervalue the price at which the rubber is sold from the Cameroonian subsidiary to the Chinese one, then overvalue the price at which the Chinese subsidiary sells the finished rubber chickens to the parent company in the United States. All this happens within one company and bears scant relation to the actual costs involved. The result is that the group’s overall effective tax rate is much lower than it would have been had it apportioned profits fairly. Many such tax maneuvers are perfectly legal. When it is done ethically “transfer pricing,” as the technique in this example is known, uses the same prices when selling goods and services within one company as when selling between companies at market rates. But the ruses to fiddle transfer pricing are legion. A mining company might tweak the value of machinery it ships in from abroad, or an oil company might charge a subsidiary a fortune to use the parent’s corporate logo.

Suppose Fowl Play gets even cannier. It creates another subsidiary, this time in the British Virgin Islands, one of the tax havens where the rate of corporation tax is zero. Fowl Play BVI extends a loan to the Cameroonian subsidiary at an astronomical interest rate. The Cameroonian subsidiary’s profits are canceled out by the interest payments on the loan, which accrue, untaxed, to Fowl Play BVI. And all the while Fowl Play and the rubber chicken industry’s lobbyists can loudly warn Cameroon, China, and the United States that, should they try to raise taxes or clamp down on fiddling, the company could move its business, and the attendant jobs, elsewhere. (The BVI company is only a piece of paper and doesn’t employ anyone, but then there is no need to threaten the British Virgin Islands—its tax rate could not be lower.)

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Lebanon Before Independence

From Beirut 2020: Diary of the Collapse, by Charif Majdalani (Other Press, 2021), Kindle pp. vi-viii (preface to the English-language edition, which provides very helpful context for the diary entries, which I will refrain from excerpting):

For centuries, the religious mosaic and cultural diversity thus introduced into the lands that would become Lebanon were more or less well managed by the central powers of the empires on which Lebanon and its neighbors depended. Of course, there were clashes and conflicts, but everything remained under the slightly manipulative control of the dominant powers, and notably, from the sixteenth to the beginning of the twentieth centuries, of the Ottoman Empire.

When that empire collapsed in 1918, victorious France and Great Britain divided up the Middle East. It was France that secured the mandate over Lebanon, thus fulfilling the wishes of part of its Christian population, which sought to place itself under French protection and to avoid British rule. It should be noted that the Christians had long felt closely connected to France. Many had adopted the French language and culture well before the period of the Mandate, and had dreamed of the French taking control of the country to rid them of the Ottoman occupation. This privileged relationship between the Christians of Lebanon and the French also explains why the Lebanese never felt any hostility toward France. In the Lebanese worldview, France was never seen as an occupying power, but rather as an ally. Only the highly ideological left-wing discourse of the 1970s attempted to represent France as a colonial power, which it never really was in Lebanon, despite some instances of very transient irregularities. In fact it was with the assistance of the Christians, and on their advice, that the French determined the current borders of Lebanon in 1920: they adjoined a long band of coastline and the interior plain of Beqaa to the original Lebanon Mountains, along with the northernmost part of Galilee in the south. The overriding aim was to unite as many regions as possible where the inhabitants were Christian. The Maronites, the Eastern-rite Catholics and Greek Orthodox communities actively worked toward the creation of the new nation in its present form, and considered it to have been founded for them alone, even though part of its population was Muslim or Druze. During a relatively soft Mandate that barely lasted twenty-five years, the French successfully managed the antagonisms between the various communities. But when Lebanon acquired independence in 1945, the foundations for discord were already laid, notably regarding the definition of the country’s identity. The Christians still felt closely connected to the West, the Muslims for their part felt they belonged more to the Arab world. Nevertheless, the two communities both demanded and obtained independence together, then found a way of avoiding conflict by decreeing that the new Lebanon was not a Western country, but nor did it belong to the Arab world. This was the famous affirmation of national identity by a double negative.

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German U-Boat Losses, 1943-44

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 280-281:

After the carnage of 1942 and early 1943, the Allies had seen a stunning turnaround in the Atlantic. By September 1943, most U-boats had been swept from the Atlantic waters. This was thanks not only to the new high-speed bombes but also to a host of other Allied war measures: advances in radar, sonar, and high-frequency direction finding; more aircraft carriers and long-range aircraft; better convoy systems. The Allies changed their convoy cipher, and Dönitz could no longer read it. The tables turned. During the summer, American hunter-killer units used code breaking along with other intelligence to find and sink big German submarines that were sent out to refuel U-boats. These refuelers were known as milch cows, and between June and August, American carrier planes sank five. In October, they finished off all but one. The refuelers were critical to the U-boats’ ability to stay so far away from their home base, and as the milch cows went down, the U-boats began to drift homeward.

There was always the chance, however, that the U-boats could come back. And they did try. In October 1943, the U-boats reappeared. But now the costs were punishingly high. For every Allied merchant vessel sunk, seven U-boats were lost. Now Dönitz was the one who could not build boats fast enough to replace those he was losing. In November, thirty U-boats ventured into the North Atlantic and sank nothing. The U-boats began lurking elsewhere, clustering around the coast of Britain, hoping to intercept materiel brought in for an anticipated invasion of France. Dönitz was always trying to innovate the U-boats, adding a Schnorchel that enabled them to remain submerged longer. He was willing to sacrifice his boats, and his men, and kept the U-boats in the water even as a way to tie up Allied resources.

But it was a losing battle. In May 1944, the Allies sank half the U-boats in operation—more than the Germans could replace. More than three-quarters of the U-boat crews were killed, suffering terrible watery deaths. The women in the tracking room were privy to the full immensity and horror.

By now the British had indeed handed over the four-rotor bombe operations to the Americans. After the war, a U.S. Navy file was made of messages from grateful—and gracious—British colleagues. “Congratulations from Hut six on colossal… week,” said one missive from Bletchley. An internal British memo acknowledged that “by half way through 1944” the Americans “had taken complete control of Shark and undoubtedly knew far more about the key than we did.”

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Occupied Germany as Ethnic Wastebasket

From Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War, by R. M. Douglas (Yale U. Press, 2012), Kindle pp. 192-193:

As 1946, the year of “organized expulsions,” began drawing to a close, each of the Big Three was feeling the strain. “At present,” Colonel Thicknesse warned, “we tend to regard occupied Germany as a waste-paper basket with a limitless capacity for the unwanted waste of the world. We are not convinced that this attitude is correct, either economically or politically.” According to figures reported to CRX [= Combined Repatriation Executive], by November the Soviet zone had admitted more than 1.8 million expellees from Poland and Czechoslovakia; the U.S. zone approximately 1.7 million from Czechoslovakia and Hungary (including 160,000 who had arrived via Austria); and the British zone more than 1.3 million from the Recovered Territories: a cumulative total of almost five million people. To this figure could be added a number which could not be precisely calculated—but certainly one in the hundreds of thousands for each occupation zone—of Volksdeutsche who had made their way under duress out of their countries of origin, but entered Germany as unregistered “infiltrees.” All were arriving in a country whose urban centers the Western Allies had gone to immense trouble and expense during the previous five years to level to the ground, an endeavor in which they had enjoyed considerable success and which had left Germany with “a worse housing problem than has ever before existed in any area of comparable size and population.” Even after every available camp, military base, school, church, barn, air raid shelter, and, in some cases, cave had been filled with expellees, the onrushing human tide continued to overwhelm the best efforts of the rudimentary German administration upon whose shoulders the occupying forces thrust the responsibility. As a rule, according to reception officers in all three occupation zones, the expellees were arriving in possession of little more than the—usually insufficient—clothing in which they stood. The overwhelming majority were women and children. Few could make any meaningful contribution in the short term to their own support. Hundreds of thousands needed immediate care, in hospitals, old-age homes, orphanages, or residential centers for the disabled, though the shortage of resources meant that a great many would not receive it.

This was not at all how the Allies had envisaged the population transfers when they had been sold on the idea during the war. Then the stated rationale had been to remove a cohort of “dangerous” Germans—above all, fit men of military age—who might threaten the security of the countries in which they lived. Instead, it had been the least dangerous Germans who had been deported, while the fit men were being held back for forced labor, and in many cases pressured to take out Polish or Czechoslovak nationality against their will. The occupying powers thus found themselves presented with a first-class social, economic, and humanitarian crisis that threatened to undo whatever plans they had made for German reconstruction, as well as to disrupt the economies of the expelling states for years to come. Predictably, each of the Big Three with the benefit of experience discovered its enthusiasm for this novel method of “stabilizing” the European continent shrinking to the vanishing point. After coping—or failing to cope—with the “wild expulsions” of 1945, and finding the “organized expulsions” of 1946 from their perspective to be less satisfactory yet, each of the Allied powers entered 1947 with the same overriding objective: to put an end to what was proving an intolerable burden to it as quickly as possible.

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The 1941 Boom in U.S. Codebreaking Jobs

From Code Girls, by Liza Mundy (Hachette, 2017), Kindle pp. 22-25:

During World War II, code breaking would come into its own as one of the most fruitful forms of intelligence that exists. Listening in on enemy conversations provides a verbatim, real-time way to know what that enemy is thinking and doing and arguing about and worrying over and planning. It provides information on strategy, troop movements, shipping itineraries, political alliances, battlefield casualties, pending attacks, and supply needs. The code breakers of World War II advanced what is known as signals intelligence—reading the coded transmissions of enemies, as well as (sometimes) of allies. They laid the groundwork for the now burgeoning field of cybersecurity, which entails protecting one’s data, networks, and communications against enemy attack. They pioneered work that would lead to the modern computing industry. After the war, the U.S. Army and Navy code-breaking operations merged to become what is now the National Security Agency. It was women who helped found the field of clandestine eavesdropping—much bigger and more controversial now than it was then—and it was women in many cases who shaped the early culture of the NSA.

The women also played a central role in shortening the war. Code breaking was crucial to Allied success in defeating Japan, both at sea and during the bloody amphibious assaults on Pacific islands against a foe that was dug in, literally—the cave fighting toward the end of the war was terrible, as were kamikaze attacks and other suicide missions—and willing to fight to the death. And in the all-important Atlantic theater, U.S. and British penetration of the Nazi Enigma cipher that German admiral Karl Dönitz used to direct his U-boat commanders helped bring about the total elimination of the Nazi submarine threat.

The chain of events that led to the women’s recruitment was a long one, but a signal moment occurred in September 1941, when U.S. Navy rear admiral Leigh Noyes wrote a letter to Ada Comstock, the president of Radcliffe College, the women’s counterpart to Harvard. For more than a year the Navy had been quietly recruiting male intelligence officers from elite colleges and universities, and now it was embarking on the same experiment with women. Noyes wanted to know whether Comstock would identify a group of Radcliffe students to be trained in cryptanalysis. He confided that the Navy was looking for “bright, close-mouthed native students”—that is, high-achieving women who had the sense and ability to keep a secret and who had been born in the United States and were free of close ties with other nations.

“Evidence of a flair for languages or for mathematics could be advantageous,” Noyes said, adding that “any intense sociological quirks would, of course, be undesirable.” Without stating what such “quirks” might be, the admiral suggested that a handful of promising seniors could enroll in a training course the Navy had developed.

“In the event of total war,” Noyes told her, “women will be needed for this work, and they can do it probably better than men.”

Ada Comstock was happy to comply. “It interests me very much and I should like to take whatever steps would be thought serviceable,” she promptly wrote to her friend Donald Menzel, an astronomy professor at Harvard who was serving as a point person for the broader naval recruiting effort. Astronomy is a mathematical science and a naval one—for centuries, navigation was done using the position of the sun and the stars—and many of the instructors who taught the secret course would come from the field.

At the Navy’s request, Comstock also approached leaders of other women’s schools. These deans and presidents were devoted to the cause of educating women and eager to defend liberty and freedom of thought against fascism and totalitarian belief systems. They also were keen to develop career opportunities for their students. The leaders savvily perceived that war might open up fields—and spots in graduate schools—that up to now had been closed to women. Even before Comstock received the Navy’s letter, many of the leaders had been strategizing over how they could provide what Virginia Gildersleeve, dean of Barnard College, called “trained brains” to a war effort that would depend on advances in science and math.

The women’s college leaders met at Mount Holyoke on October 31 and November 1, 1941, with representatives from Barnard, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, Wellesley, Radcliffe, Smith, and Mount Holyoke attending. Comstock told them about the Navy’s request and said Radcliffe would participate. She distributed some materials the Navy had developed: a “Guide for Instructors” and an “Introduction to Students.” The idea was that selected students would take the course during the remainder of their senior year, then go to work for the Navy, in Washington, as civilians. The “Guide for Instructors” assured them that no prior experience was necessary and that they would receive a “gouge,” or answers to the problems. The instructors would be given a few texts to jump-start their own education, including a work called Treatise on Cryptography, another titled Notes on Communications Security, and a pamphlet called The Contributions of the Cryptographic Bureaus in the World War—meaning World War I, the so-called war to end all wars.

The result was the wave of secret letters that appeared in college mailboxes in the fall of 1941, summoning surprised young women to secret meetings. Most were in the top 10 percent of their class, selected based on academic performance as well as character and loyalty and grit.

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