Category Archives: publishing

Reassessing Blame for the Khmer Rouge

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 581-609:

Much of the scholarship on the Khmer Rouge was written in the first few years after their reign. And most of that was colored by the general disdain, endemic among journalists and authors, for Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and America’s misadventure in Vietnam. It’s hard to overstate the contempt so many people felt, especially Europeans. The more recent broad, scornful view of George W. Bush seems mild in comparison.

In this climate William Shawcross, a British journalist, wrote his seminal book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. It concluded that the American bombing of Cambodia, intended to destroy Vietcong sanctuaries there, drove the peasantry to the Khmer Rouge and ensured their victory. The liberal media (and I was a card-carrying member; I read and admired his book while flying to Cambodia in 1979) heaped adulation on Shawcross.

Now, thirty years later, with passions cooled, it is quite clear that his conclusion was wrong. The American bombing began a year before the Lon Nol coup. Sihanouk had quietly acquiesced, saying he wanted to be sure the Vietnam War did not spread into his own country. And in 1970 the Khmer Rouge was still a negligible force.

At the same time, since the late 1950s Sihanouk had spent a decade cultivating the Chinese leadership, Mao Tse-tung and Zhou Enlai. They grew to be Sihanouk admirers and friends—at a time when China had very few friends. Mao gave Sihanouk a magnificent mansion on Anti-Imperialist Street in Beijing and feted him every time he came to town—which was often. The Chinese also happened to be the Khmer Rouge’s primary patrons and advisers. Would Mao and Zhou have authorized Pol Pot to overthrow their very good friend, Prince Norodom Sihanouk?

Lon Nol was, of course, a different animal with different motivations. He gave the Americans carte blanche to bomb wherever they pleased. In 1970, shortly after Sihanouk was thrown from office, he told an American television interviewer why he thought Lon Nol was so eager to give the United States whatever it wanted: “Some officers in our army and many deputies and many members of government want to be your allies because they want your dollars. They don’t think about the destiny or the fate of our homeland.” Even angry and embittered, his words rang true. As before, he called them “more patriots for dollars than for Cambodia.”

When Lon Nol took power, the Khmer Rouge controlled little more than the areas around their jungle redoubts. More recent scholarship has suggested that the American bombing, for all its wanton, deadly results, so disrupted the nation that it delayed the Khmer Rouge’s ultimate victory until after the B-52 campaign had ended, in August 1973.

If Lon Nol had not staged his mercenary coup, most likely the Khmer Rouge would never have come to power. That is, of course, Sihanouk’s view, but other Cambodians hold it, too. Hem Heng, the Cambodian ambassador to Washington, said, “If not for the Lon Nol coup, there would be no Khmer Rouge.” But in his view, that did not let the United States off the hook. “They supported the coup,” he said. “They supported Lon Nol.” The available evidence suggests but does not necessarily prove that theory.

Years later Sihanouk told James Garrand, an Australian television documentary maker: “We cannot remake history,” but “I don’t think I made serious mistakes. You should see Mr. Lon Nol because if we have to go back to the starting point, would he still like to destroy his country by a coup d’état against Sihanouk? Or would he like to restore Sihanouk as head of state? I think your question should be put to Mr. Lon Nol.”

Sihanouk is partially correct: Lon Nol does share responsibility for what was to come. But it is beyond question that after the prince was thrown from office, by allying himself with the Khmer Rouge and urging his countrymen to join, Sihanouk condemned his people to damnation.

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Reassessing Chiang Kai-shek

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2610-2703:

In 2003, Jonathan Fenby, former editor of the London Observer and the Hong Kong South China Morning Post, published a rather revisionist biography, Chiang Kai-shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost. Fenby partially challenges the received wisdom about Chiang, that he was a corrupt and inept ruler, who dragged his heels on fighting the Japanese despite all the aid he got from the United States during World War II, and who lost China to Mao because he was the lesser man. Fenby notes, in passing, that had Chiang not been kidnapped for a few days in 1936, he would have been in a political circumstance to launch an offensive against the communists right there and then when they were still weak, and the twentieth-century history of China might well have been different.

Then, in 2009, Jay Taylor, former China desk officer at the U.S. State Department and later research associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard, followed up with a stronger revisionist biography of Chiang, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, which more so than the Fenby book took apart many of the preconceptions about the founder of Taiwan. Both authors, Taylor especially, blame the unduly negative image of Chiang on the journalists and State Department foreign service officers who covered China during World War II. The pivotal character in this story was the wartime American military commander in China, Army Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell. Stilwell quite simply hated Chiang, calling him “Peanut” behind his back, and passed on his bile to the journalists and foreign service officers, who, courted by Stilwell, naturally took the American general’s side. Taylor mentions Time’s Theodore H. White, Newsweek’s Harold Isaacs, and the New York Times’s Brooks Atkinson in this regard. It was they especially who began a legend that poisoned Chiang’s reputation for generations to follow.

Indeed, Theodore White writes in his memoir that Stilwell “wanted us to know that from the day of Pearl Harbor on, ‘this ignorant son of a bitch has never wanted to fight Japan.… Every major blunder of this war is directly traceable to Chiang Kai-shek.’” Actually, what really turned White against Chiang was his coverage of the Honan famine in 1943, when he saw how Chiang’s soldiers were, by collecting grain as taxes, literally starving masses of peasants to death. Another factor was the glowing reports that journalists such as White were filing about the communists, including Mao and his number two, the “suave, engaging” Zhou Enlai, with whom, as White admits, he “had become friends.” The “wine of friendship flowed,” White recalls about his relationship with Zhou. White admits from the vantage point of 1978—three and a half decades after the war—that in Zhou’s presence he had “near total suspension of disbelief or questioning judgment.… I can now see Chou for what he was: a man as brilliant and ruthless as any the Communist movement has thrown up in this century.” Then there was the heady experience of actually meeting Mao himself in his northern China lair in Yan’an during World War II. “What scored on my mind most was his [Mao’s] composure,” White writes. “There was no knee jiggling as with Chiang Kai-shek.… The indelible impression was … a man of the mind who could use guns, whose mind could compel history to move to his ideas.” About Chiang, White writes of his “rigid morality … animal treachery, warlord cruelty and an ineffable ignorance of what a modern state requires.” It would have been better had Chiang been removed from the Chinese leadership early enough in the war, White says.

Historians Jay Taylor and Jonathan Fenby go a significant way toward dismantling the worldview of White and his colleagues.

Taylor’s book, published by Harvard University Press, is particularly trenchant, given what we in the West think we know about Chiang. Precisely because Taylor (and Fenby, too) do not engage in a whitewash, after finishing their books we feel that we know Chiang from the inside, rather than through a Western journalistic prism unduly influenced by Stilwell.

Taylor admits that Chiang (unlike Mao) “had little charisma and was generally not liked by his peers.… He was an inhibited man … a staid seemingly humorless individual who had a terrible temper.” More crucially, Chiang from early on, as a result of his studies, was consciously Confucianist, a worldview that emphasized political order, respect for family and hierarchy, and conservative stability. It is this belief system that has ultimately triumphed—whether admitted to or not—throughout much of East Asia and in China itself, accounting for the region’s prosperity over recent decades, even as the communism of Mao and Zhou Enlai has been utterly discredited.

Besides Confucianist thought, Chiang in his early years was also deeply influenced by the culture of Japan, which to Chiang embodied “disciplined efficiency,” from the train system to education to manufacturing. Japan’s fierce modernism infected Chiang with the need to fight corruption. But here he encountered fierce resistance, like when Nationalist army commanders rejected Chiang’s calls to centralize military financing. Chiang, according to Taylor, “soon realized that he had to give the fight against corruption much lower priority than that of retaining cohesion and loyalty among his disparate supporters … both civilian and military. He had no choice.” Chiang has often been accused of tolerating corruption, but the alternative in the warlord age in which he operated was to become an extremist ideologue, like Mao. Chiang was far from perfect; but neither was he as deeply flawed as his detractors, applying the standards of the West to a chaotic early-twentieth-century China, demanded. “Craftiness and suspicion are the usual marks of successful political leaders in Chiang’s circumstances,” Taylor explains. No doubt, years of warfare in the 1920s and early 1930s established Chiang as an exceptional military commander, maneuvering multiple army corps over thousand-mile fronts, without tanks, maps, and trucks, and with only a few rail lines, often in circumstances of personal bravery. He used bribery and divide-and-rule tactics against the warlords, even while, “as an expression of rote neo-Confucian self-cultivation,” Chiang complained in his diary of his personal shortcomings.

A map of China during this period establishes the formidable circumstances facing Chiang, as well as his considerable achievement: the whole of central and coastal China divided into massive puddles of warlord control, over which Chiang slowly, painstakingly, established a very tenuous primacy. And he did it without foreign aid, unlike Mao’s communists. He was paying for weapons and training from Germany, even as there is no evidence in his statements or in his diary that he ever subscribed to Hitler’s fascist ideology, according to Taylor. Under Chiang, says Taylor, the power and authority of the central government was greater than at any point since the mid-nineteenth century, while the rate of illiteracy among government troops diminished over these years from 70 to 30 percent. Fenby concurs, pointing out that Chiang’s Nationalist ascendancy in parts of the country “was a time of modernization such as China had not seen before … there was a flowering of thought, literature, art and the cinema,” and the repression used by the regime was not comparable to what the communists would later unleash. Without Chiang, Fenby writes, “the odds would have been on a continuation of the warlord era, and the fragmentation of China into eternally conflicting fiefdoms.” It was Chiang who kept in check pro-Japanese elements in his administration, which on their own might have allied China with Japan, opening up an attack on the Soviet Union from the east while Hitler attacked from the west. After the fall of Nanjing to the Japanese in 1937, Taylor writes, “Chiang Kai-shek issued a proclamation as rousing as that which Churchill would give twenty-one months later and with some similar imagery.”

Stilwell missed all of this. “In Stilwell’s mind,” writes Taylor, “Chiang had no values; no skills in government or generalship; no real interest in the modernization and welfare of China … no human qualities worth noting.… For Stilwell, life was categorical, nuances nonexistent.” While American officials, influenced by Stilwell, believed Chiang wanted to avoid fighting the Japanese in order to store arms to fight the communists later on, during the 1941–1942 Burma campaign Chiang’s troops suffered eighty thousand killed and wounded, whereas total American casualties around the world at that point were 33,000. By the end of fourteen years of war with Japan, China would sustain three million military casualties, 90 percent of them Chiang’s troops. Meanwhile, Mao’s communists were pursuing the very strategy Chiang was accused of: avoiding major military entanglements with the Japanese in order to hoard their strength to later fight the Nationalists. But this did not prevent foreign service officers like John Paton Davies and John Stewart Service, who were working for Stilwell, from describing Mao’s communists as “agrarian democrats” and “much more American than Russian in form and spirit.” Mao would go on to kill tens of millions of people—sixty million perhaps—in government-induced famines and other atrocities, which in absolute terms—along with the Mongol Conquests of the thirteenth century—counts as the second largest man-made carnage in history after World War II. What these foreign service officers and journalists overlooked was that Mao’s talent for creating a mass organization—the very thing that Chiang distrusted, according to Fenby—made Mao’s movement more dynamic, and thus more impressive to Western visitors, but also more dangerous should that mass organization pivot in a totalitarian direction.

Chiang would be proven right in his assessment, made near the end of World War II, that rather than agrarian democrats, Mao’s forces would prove to be “more communistic than the Russian communists.” Indeed, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution would both occur within a quarter century of that statement. And yet Chiang’s Guomindang army failed utterly to meet Stilwell’s expectations, and thus remained the corrupt, inefficient force that went on to be vanquished by Mao. Barbara Tuchman, Stilwell’s sympathetic biographer, may have caught the imperfections of Chiang best by labeling him a master of “plots” who “governed for survival,” rather than for social change, even as among the Nationalists there was—as one Chinese academic put it—“no one better in sight.” Chiang’s seeming “infuriating absence of conscience” in the eyes of the Americans was, in part, Tuchman says, a consequence of Chiang’s resentment at China being treated as a minor theater in the war, with most of the aid and attention going to Europe.

Tuchman grasps what Stilwell didn’t. “The Kuomintang military structure could not be reformed without reform of the system from which it sprang,” but China was not “clay in the hands of the West.” Or as Fenby puts it, Stilwell “was behaving as if he were in a stable democracy, where a professional army is answerable to an elected government, fenced off from interference in politics.” Nobody understood China and Chiang’s tragedy as much as Chiang himself. In what Taylor calls his “remarkably candid” assessment, penned in January 1949, following the communist takeover of the mainland, Chiang wrote, “we are in a transitional period where the old system has been abolished but the new system is yet to be built.” He implies that the blame falls with the incoherent and fractious system he himself had managed, in turn a product of the warlord era.

Because this revisionist retrospective is so long, it will be the last passage I quote from this book.

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Sarajevans Angry at Everyone, 1994

From Logavina Street, by Barbara Demick (Spiegel & Grau, 2012), Kindle Loc. 2113-2184:

NATO had executed maneuvers during 1994 to try to dissuade the Serbs from their attack. In April, U.S. F-16s and FA-18s bombed Serb troops when they attempted to overrun the UN safe haven, Goražde, in eastern Bosnia, and NATO warplanes struck again in November to protect the enclave of Bihac.

The air strikes were timid measures—pinpricks, denounced the critics. They only enraged the Bosnian Serbs, who retaliated by seizing UN soldiers as hostages and cutting off humanitarian access to Sarajevo.

The NATO ultimatum was a bluff and the Serbs had seen through it. By mid-December, the Bosnian Public Health Institute reported 109 Sarajevans killed and more than 500 wounded since February 9, when the ultimatum was issued. Former U.S. president Jimmy Carter flew into Bosnia the weekend before Christmas to patch together a new cease-fire. He was in Pale with Radovan Karadžić the afternoon of December 20, when two 120-millimeter mortar shells hit Marije Bursać Street, around the corner from Logavina. They mangled a bicycle, sent laundry flying, and annihilated the kitchen of a house whose elderly occupants were out collecting humanitarian aid.

Logavina residents were enraged, none more so than Esad Taljanović. The dentist’s six-year-old son, Emir, was playing outside when the shells detonated about a hundred yards away. Emir came back home, frightened and tearful.

“You see, I should not let my son out for thirty seconds,” raged Taljanović. He was furious with the Serbs, the United Nations, and Jimmy Carter. “It is the same thing as if Truman stood next to Hitler and negotiated with him.”

Ekrem Kaljanac picked up the telephone, the only working appliance in his apartment, since the electricity was off again.

“Yes, hello,” he said. Then, cupping his hand over the mouthpiece, “It’s Hillary Clinton. She’s worried about us and was wondering how we’re doing.”

Ekrem’s mischievous performance was intended to point out the absurdity of the idea that anybody in the United States, least of all in the White House, cared about Sarajevo.

Sarajevans were fed up with politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats, relief agencies, and everybody who had promised to help, then failed to deliver.

People were especially frustrated with the United States and the vacillating policies emanating from the White House. Sarajevans had believed Clinton when he promised, during his presidential campaign, to be more proactive in Bosnia than George Bush. “If the horrors of the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide,” Clinton had said in August 1992, while Sarajevans were huddled helplessly in their bomb shelters.

Ekrem mercilessly teased his wife. Minka, like many of the women on Logavina, had been charmed by Clinton, who they thought resembled John F. Kennedy.

“I saw Clinton a lot on television. He was so good-looking. He was promising a lot and I believed him,” Minka confessed sheepishly. “I was convinced that the Americans were going to bomb the Serbs and end the war.”

“Clinton lies. He behaves like an actor,” interjected Ekrem bitterly. His brother, Safet, joined in. “I watch the news. Americans are more interested in a cat in New York than they are in Bosnians.”

It was not only Clinton’s political rhetoric that persuaded Sarajevans the United States would rescue them; they saw America as the embodiment of the multiethnic state they hoped to create in Bosnia.

A popular poster hanging in cafés around Sarajevo depicted an American flag with a Bosnian lily next to the stars, suggesting that Bosnia become the fifty-first state. Moreover, Bosnians were so utterly convinced of the righteousness of their cause, they simply couldn’t believe that the United States would not do something—anything—to intervene.

The invective was also directed against journalists. An emotionally unbalanced woman in her thirties who lived in the Kaljanacs’ apartment building cursed and spit on the ground whenever she saw us coming. Although most Logavina residents remained unfailingly polite and hospitable, they, too, vented their frustration.

“Aren’t you ashamed that your country has done nothing but stand by and watch us die?” Esad demanded of us as his wife served us coffee in their dining room.

Sead Vranić best encapsulated the mood of Sarajevo during that increasingly dangerous month of December 1994. “All days are the same now. You get up and see if you have electricity, or water. You listen to what Clinton says in the morning, and hear that he’s changed his mind by afternoon, then discover in the evening he has forgotten what he said in the morning,” Sead said wearily.

It was not as though Bosnia was being ignored. The peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia was the largest and costliest in the United Nations’ history, consuming some $1.6 billion a year. That didn’t take into account the extra $700 million spent by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The UN Security Council had passed more than one hundred resolutions dealing with the Yugoslav conflict. Most of them were laughably ineffectual. For example, Resolution 752 stated: “The Council demands that all parties concerned in Bosnia and Herzegovina stop the fighting immediately.”

Between the diplomats and bureaucrats, the soldiers, aid workers, and journalists, there were more foreigners in Sarajevo than there had been since the 1984 Olympics. By a conservative count, there were at least 150 nongovernmental agencies working in the area, ranging from Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) to the comic spin-off Clowns sans Frontières, which brought jugglers to entertain Bosnian children.

Yet all the money and good intentions didn’t alleviate the cold, dark nights with nothing to eat. It didn’t stop the shellings and it didn’t stop the sniper fire. Sarajevans resented the foreigners, witnesses to their indignity. They scorned the UN anti-sniper teams who did too little to stop the snipers. They hissed at the TV crews that staked out the dangerous intersections, waiting to film the next sniper victim.

Sarajevans had turned against the United Nations since Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s visit to the city on New Year’s Eve 1992, after which he commented: “I understand your frustration, but you have a situation that is better than ten other places in the world.… I can give you a list.”

Their anger had turned to outright paranoia. “It is like they are experimenting on us to see how much we can take,” remarked the normally sensible Jela, echoing an increasingly common sentiment.

Sarajevans were angry—at everyone. Their free-floating rage hung over the city. The summer of 1994 had been like a furlough from prison, a chance to relax. Having let down their guard once, they couldn’t psychologically gird themselves for the relapse of war. They were starting to lose it.

The spirit of cooperation that had sustained Sarajevo through 1992 and 1993 was under enormous strain. Hardliners in Izetbegović’s ruling Party of Democratic Action proposed banning Serbian songs from the radio. Sarajevans cherished the maudlin Serbian love songs and the proposition failed, but the militants persisted and in October, BiH Television censored a comedy skit poking fun at Islamic fundamentalists. Ljiljan, an Islamic magazine, set off another debate by questioning the propriety of mixed marriage.

“To be honest, I hate Serbs a little more now. The Croats, too,” Ekrem Kaljanac declared in a pique of resentment. Sarajevans were quicker to speak deprecatingly not only of Serbs and Croats but also of the Muslim refugees who were pouring in from the villages of eastern Bosnia. They called the refugees papaks, or peasants.

The neighbors on Logavina Street quarreled more frequently. Jealousy was rife, especially when it came to utilities. One evening when I was visiting the Kaljanacs, the family was using enough stolen electricity to illuminate a twenty-five-watt lamp. Each time they heard steps in the hallway, they guiltily unscrewed the pathetic little lightbulb, lest anyone discover their secret.

Twenty years later, the “International Community” has hardly changed its modus operandi.

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Political Implosion Journalism

From Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West, by Blaine Harden (Penguin, 2012), Kindle Loc. 178-195:

As a correspondent for the Washington Post in Northeast Asia, I had been searching for more than a year for a story that could explain how North Korea used repression to keep from falling apart.

Political implosion had become my specialty. For the Post and for the New York Times, I spent nearly three decades covering failed states in Africa, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the slow-motion rot in Burma under the generals. From the outside looking in, North Korea seemed ripe—indeed, overripe—for the kind of collapse I had witnessed elsewhere. In a part of the world where nearly everyone else was getting rich, its people were increasingly isolated, poor, and hungry.

Still, the Kim family dynasty kept the lid on. Totalitarian repression preserved their basket case state.

My problem in showing how the government did it was lack of access. Elsewhere in the world, repressive states were not always successful in sealing their borders. I had been able to work openly in Mengistu’s Ethiopia, Mobutu’s Congo, and Milosevic’s Serbia, and had slipped in as a tourist to write about Burma.

North Korea was much more careful. Foreign reporters, especially Americans, were rarely allowed inside. I visited North Korea only once, saw what my minders wanted me to see, and learned little. If journalists entered illegally, they risked months or years of imprisonment as spies. To win release, they sometimes needed the help of a former American president.

Given these restrictions, most reporting about North Korea was distant and hollow. Written from Seoul or Tokyo or Beijing, stories began with an account of Pyongyang’s latest provocation, such as sinking a ship or shooting a tourist. Then the dreary conventions of journalism kicked in: American and South Korean officials expressed outrage. Chinese officials called for restraint. Think tank experts opined about what it might mean. I wrote more than my share of these pieces.

Shin, though, shattered these conventions. His life unlocked the door, allowing outsiders to see how the Kim family sustained itself with child slavery and murder. A few days after we met, Shin’s appealing picture and appalling story ran prominently on the front page of the Washington Post.

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Early Days of Baseball Radio Broadcasts

From The Greatest Minor League: A History of the Pacific Coast League, 1903-1957, by Dennis Snelling (McFarland, 2011), Kindle Loc. 2224-2241:

Radio was becoming wildly popular, and in 1927 two important developments accelerated growth in the fledgling industry. First, radio manufacturers reached agreement with the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) to use company patents that were essential in mass production of radio sets. Second was the development of the alternating current radio tube, which made it possible to manufacture radios that could be plugged into a standard electrical outlet.

Mass broadcasting to the general public was on the horizon and sports were to be a major beneficiary of this new technology. Baseball had been broadcast on radio since 1921, and the New York Yankees had aired the World Series for several years, more or less in the same play-by-play fashion as today. However, most baseball coverage consisted of a simple recitation of wire accounts sent by telegraph to the local station, providing only the actual details of the game without commentary.

KHJ in Los Angeles broadcast play-by-play results of the World Series in 1925 to great fanfare, relaying results from three thousand miles away almost as they happened. By 1927 KPO radio in San Francisco was using a direct line from Recreation Park to provide play-by-play details of every game. In Oakland and Seattle, game accounts and scores were provided nearly every day except Sunday. William Wrigley, who had a direct telegraph wire into his home on Catalina Island so he could keep abreast of his Chicago Cubs, took notice of radio’s potential to promote the last-place Los Angeles Angels. Hoping broadcasts would drum up interest in an otherwise uninteresting team, Wrigley announced that KHJ would cover the Angels every day.

There would be lively debate about radio in the PCL [= Pacific Coast League] over the next few seasons – Bill Lane for one remained there was no turning back. At the league meeting following the 1928 season, a resolution was defeated that would have banned radio from the ballparks. Though yet in its infancy, radio would soon become as inseparable from baseball as newspapers were.

Ironically, at the same time radio was becoming established, a new invention was being developed on the second floor of a warehouse at 202 Green Street in San Francisco, near Telegraph Hill. This new all-electric technology would further revolutionize broadcasting and the world of sports. In January 1927, Philo T. Farnsworth, the twenty-year-old son of an Idaho farmer, met with Crocker Bank vice president James J. Fagan and pitched his idea. Fagan, whose son would later own the San Francisco Seals, was able to convince W.W. Crocker, president of the bank, to invest in it. Nine months later, Farnsworth completed the first successful demonstration of his new technology at the Green Street warehouse. On that day in San Francisco, modern television was born.

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Media Bullshit in World War I, 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 8795-8835:

Those who suppose the modern media uniquely prone to hyperbole, fantasy and deceit should consider the madness of rumour and invention that overtook the world’s press in 1914. The Daily Mail published a detailed account of an entirely fictional naval victory. ‘If damaging rumours start,’ wrote Dr Eugen Lampe in Ljubljana early in September 1914, ‘they spread at immense speed. If two people meet on the street, they ask each other: Any news? Nobody knows anything. But there are people who always choose to believe and broadcast the worst. For a week, the atmosphere has been extremely tense. Families, whose husbands and sons are in the army, mourn, pray and tremble. They fight to get at newspapers. Then they whisper: there are none of our casualties on the list of wounded. They do not want to tell us! There are so many that they cannot record all of them!’

Few of the journalists called upon to write about the war had any knowledge of military matters, and their ignorance showed. The introduction of trench warfare was at first greeted in the French press as a cowardly innovation by the Germans, who were mocked as ‘moles’. Many papers talked up the enemy’s weakness, flagging morale and food shortages. Austrian cities were said to be pleading with the Italians to save them from looming famine, while Germany was allegedly struggling in vain to recruit Italians to replace mobilised factory workers. Late in September The Times produced a wildly exaggerated calculation, based on the casualty lists, showing that the BEF had lost 40 per cent of its officers in a month of fighting. Ludwig Wittgenstein, aboard a Vistula picket boat, wrote on 25 October: ‘Yesterday evening a silly report came that Paris had fallen. At first I was delighted, until I realised the story could not be true. These fantasy reports are always a bad sign. If there was genuine good news, such nonsenses would not be necessary.’ Five days later, he eagerly scanned a German newspaper, and feared the worst after recognising the vacuity of its content: ‘No good news – which means the same as bad news!’

Meanwhile in France, on 19 August l’Eclaireur of Nice announced a fictitious clash between the Royal Navy and the High Seas Fleet in the North Sea, in which the British had allegedly lost sixteen dreadnoughts including Iron Duke, Lion and Superb. French newspapers were especially enthusiastic about publishing reports concerning the German Crown Prince, an army commander in the field. On 5 August he was the victim of an assassination attempt in Berlin; on the 15th seriously wounded on the French front and removed to hospital; on the 24th subject to another assassination attempt; on 4 September he committed suicide, though he was resurrected on 18 October to be wounded again; on the 20th his wife was watching over his death bed; but on 3 November he was certified insane. None of these stories contained the smallest element of truth.

L’Action française informed the public that the Maggi dairies and Kub shop chains were in reality intelligence centres manned by Prussian officers who had become naturalised Frenchmen in anticipation of war; radio transmitters were concealed in every dairy, and Maggi milk was infused with poison. These reports caused mobs to storm the premises of these perfectly innocent, though foreign-owned, businesses. Among the most preposterous myths to be widely broadcast was that of ‘turpinite’, a new super-explosive supposedly invented by the chemist Eugène Turpin, which would effortlessly extinguish German troops in their trenches. The French satirical magazine Le Canard enchaîné was founded at around this time, as a reaction to the deceits perpetrated in the traditional press.

Some of the shortcomings of newspapers were no fault of their own, but instead the consequence of governments’ refusal to provide facts or allow correspondents to visit the front. In Britain Col. Repington complained that censorship was being abused ‘as a cloak to cover all political, naval and military mistakes’. It was undoubtedly true that the system was exploited to sustain public morale much more than to conceal operational secrets from the enemy. In France, after the Marne the General Staff began to provide a thin dripfeed of information to the press, but the damage was already done: a credibility gap had opened which was never entirely closed. French journalists – and, before long, their readers – became chronically sceptical about all official pronouncements.

French soldiers in the field referred contemptuously to the ‘bourrage de crâne’, literally ‘skull-stuffing’, but properly ‘bullshit’, which made up the content of the newspapers that reached them. Maurice Barrès of l’Echo de Paris became notorious for his enthusiasm for the war, which prompted the impassioned pacifist Romain Rolland to dub him ‘the nightingale of carnage’. Poilus, rejecting the conventional press, turned instead to trench newspapers which soldiers wrote and copied for each other, or to Swiss titles when obtainable. Philosopher Alain Emile-Auguste Chartier, now a soldier, wrote on 25 November: ‘The Journal de Genève is eagerly seized upon here and officers make cuttings from it; the military reports are admirable and everyone agrees that our papers seem ridiculous by comparison.’

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Rapid Change before 1914

From Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastings (Knopf, 2013), Kindle Loc. 554-577:

It is a conceit of our own times to suppose that we are obliged to live, and national leaderships to make decisions, amid unprecedentedly rapid change. Yet between 1900 and 1914, technological, social and political advances swept Europe and America on a scale unknown in any such previous timespan, the blink of an eye in human experience. Einstein promulgated his special theory of relativity. Marie Curie isolated radium and Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite, the first synthetic polymer. Telephones, gramophones, motor vehicles, cinema performances and electrified homes became commonplace among affluent people in the world’s richer societies. Mass-circulation newspapers soared to unprecedented social influence and political power.

In 1903 man first achieved powered flight; five years later, Ferdinand Count Zeppelin lyricised the mission to secure unrestricted passage across the skies, an increasingly plausible prospect: ‘Only therewith can the divine ancient command be fulfilled … [that] creation should be subjugated by mankind.’ At sea, following the 1906 launch of the Royal Navy’s Dreadnought, all capital ships lacking its heavy ordnance mounted in power-driven turrets became obsolete, unfit to join a fleet line of battle. The range at which squadrons expected to exchange fire, a few thousand yards when admirals were cadets, now stretched to tens of miles. Submarines were recognised as potent weapons. Ashore, while the American Civil War and not the First World War was the first great conflict of the industrial age, in the interval between the two the technology of destruction made dramatic advances: machine-guns achieved reliability and efficiency, artillery increased its killing power. It was realised that barbed wire could be employed to check the movements of soldiers as effectively as those of beasts. Much speculation about the future character of war was nonetheless mistaken. An anonymous 1908 article in the German publication Militär-Wochenblatt asserted that the 1904–05 Russo-Japanese experience in Manchuria ‘proved that even well-defended fortifications and entrenchments can be taken, even across open ground, by courage and cunning exploitation of terrain … The concept of states waging war to the point of absolute exhaustion is beyond the European cultural experience.’

Socialism became a major force in every continental state, while Liberalism entered historic decline. The revolt of women against statutory subjection emerged as a significant issue, especially in Britain. Across Europe real wages rose almost 50 per cent between 1890 and 1912, child mortality declined and nutrition greatly improved. But despite such advances – or, in accordance with de Tocqueville’s view that misery becomes less acceptable when no longer absolute, because of them – tens of millions of workers recoiled from the inequalities of society. Industries in Russia, France, Germany and Britain were convulsed by strikes, sometimes violent, which spread alarm and even terror among the ruling classes. In 1905 Russia experienced its first major revolution. Germany displaced France and Russia as the British Empire’s most plausible enemy. Britain, which had been the world’s first industrialised nation, saw its share of global manufacturing fall from one-third in 1870 to one-seventh in 1913.

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