Truman

That famous photograph of Harry S. Truman holding up a newspaper with the erroneous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” was taken in St. Louis the day after the 1948 presidential election. Truman became our nation’s 33rd President in April 1945, when FDR died in office at the end of World War II. In short order and on Truman’s watch, we defeated Nazi Germany and then Japan and brought our boys home. But Truman had not been very popular during his first four years in office. Public opinion polls, the press and his fellow politicians all projected that he was going to lose. When the early returns on election night indicated as much, the editors of the Chicago Daily Tribune (now the Chicago Tribune) printed their headline, which turned out to be wrong, giving Truman something to laugh about.

Official portrait of Harry S. Truman by Greta Kempton painted in 1945 — the year our nation’s 33rd president first asked Congress to pass universal health care for every American.

 

That fall, the man from Independence, Missouri, ever confident, had campaigned energetically across large swaths of the country, largely from the back of a train, and wherever he went he drew impressive crowds. Even when his train made whistle-stop stops in small towns in the wee hours, large masses turned out to hear this down-to-earth, man-on-the street kind of man. In many ways he was a man of the people. He knew what it was like to put in a hard day’s work. He had been a farmer, and a small business owner. He was a war veteran too. He was not a great orator, but he always spoke honestly and directly, without equivocation or trying to play both sides of the coin. Famously, he never blamed others.

Before he became Vice President and then President, Truman served in the United States Senate, where he developed a reputation as a “New Deal Democrat.” As President, he was even more progressive in many respects than FDR had been. He called for a higher minimum wage, and proposed increased federal spending for education, housing and public works projects. He also called for universal health care for all Americans. He called these proposals the “Fair Deal.” Truman was also better than FDR had been on civil rights. He laid the groundwork for the desegregation of the U.S. military, and he prohibited discrimination based on race for those applying for civil service jobs.

On the world stage, Truman supported the formation of the United Nations and NATO, and he pledged support to countries electing their own leaders in free elections. This policy, known as the Truman Doctrine, was intended as a check on the growing influence of the Soviet Union. Truman was also responsible for the Marshall Plan, which provided postwar economic aid to Western Europe, and the Berlin Airlift, which delivered food and other supplies to the Western part of Berlin that was surrounded by the Soviets. He recognized the state of Israel upon its founding in 1948.

“Truman” by David McCullough

 

It was also Truman who made the fateful decision to drop nuclear bombs on Japan. And he sent our troops to Korea, which would eventually cost countless thousands of American lives. What I did not realize before reading “Truman,” the masterful, thousand-page biography by David McCullough, is how much worse these things would have turned out to be, had it not been for the bespectacled man in the White House with a sign on his desk that said “The Buck Stops Here.” When Truman made a decision, it was only after careful deliberation about what he thought was best for the country. If that made him less popular, so be it.

It was toward the end of his time in office that Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, thus plunging his already low public approval even lower. At the time this was shocking. But with the passage of time many, including me, believe that MacArthur was a dangerous demagogue who needed to be fired. It took a man like Truman to have the guts to dismiss him. The general had threatened to use nuclear weapons against China. And he interfered with Truman’s diplomatic efforts to bring the fighting in Korea to an end. By relieving MacArthur, Truman solidified one of the most important principles of our Constitution, which is civilian control of the military.

Another of Truman’s achievements was the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission, which is now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which put control of atomic weapons and energy in elected civilian hands, rather than the military.

When he left office Truman was unpopular, but over time his standing in the eyes of the public began to improve, to the point at which, today, when surveys are conducted, he usually ranks in the upper tier.

Truman was born in 1884 and hailed from Independence, Missouri. Today that’s part of the Kansas City metropolitan area, but in Truman’s day it was a completely different city. After graduating from high school he attended a business college but did not graduate. Instead he took a number of jobs, including railroad timekeeper and bank clerk. He also worked for his father on a farm in Grandview, Missouri.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917 Truman was old enough that he could have stayed home, but instead he enlisted and went to France as an officer, where his talents as a leader emerged. Truman served in the war with bravery and initiative. He fought in three battles and later received medals.

Upon returning from the war, he opened a men’s clothing store in Kansas City with a business partner, which was successful until an economic downturn forced it out of business. But Truman paid off his store’s debts over the course of many years.

After the store went out of business Truman entered politics, as an elected county judge, with the help of the Pendergrasts, who were a well-connected political family. Truman himself was not corrupt, but the Pendergrasts were involved in all manner of shady dealings and Truman’s association with them caused grief for him for decades to come. Being county judge was an administrative job, not the kind of judge who presides over trials. Truman was responsible for building roads. And rather than awarding the contracts to friends of the Pendergrasts, he hired construction crews who could actually do the work and do it well and under budget. The roads in that part of the state had never been better.

In 1934 Truman was elected to the United States Senate, and he was re-elected in 1940. His crowning achievement as a Senator was his work as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, which became known as the Truman Committee. The goal was to root out waste, fraud and abuse in the military. Truman and his fellow committee members held hearings and made visits to military bases. But there was no grandstanding the way many other Senate committees conducted themselves. The Truman Committee took its business seriously, ultimately saving our nation untold billions of dollars. In my view, the work of Truman and his committee proved to be absolutely vital to our country’s ability to achieve victory in World War II.

In 1944, when FDR ran for his unprecedented fourth term, he was in failing health and party insiders decided to dump Vice President Henry Wallace from the ticket because he was considered too far left, and replace him with Truman. According to the book, Truman did not want to do this but was strong-armed by FDR into going along with the plan. As fate would have it, Truman was Vice President for just 82 days before FDR died and he was summoned to the White House to take the oath of office.

Here are some additional notes about our nation’s 33rd President:

  • He played the piano.
  • The S. was a middle initial only, in honor of both is paternal and maternal grandfathers — Anderson Ship Truman and Solomon Young, respectively.
  • As a boy Truman had eyeglasses, which made him an oddball in rural Missouri.
  • He married Bess Wallace, and they had a single child, a daughter named Margaret.
  • Truman’s heroes were Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
  • Both before and during his presidency, Truman traveled extensively throughout the country.
  • He was an avid reader who was thoroughly educated about American history. He knew all about the Civil War, as well, including its many generals and all the battles and who won each and how.
  • When he was president, Truman had four Secretaries of State: Edward Stettinius Jr. (whom he inherited from FDR), James F. Byrnes, George Marshall and Dean Acheson. That third Secretary of State gave his name to the Marshall Plan, although it was really Truman’s plan but Truman wanted Marshall’s name on it to get it through Congress.
  • During his presidency Truman conducted a much-needed gut renovation of the White House, and while the construction was under way he and his wife and daughter lived across the street, in Blair House, for several years.
  • When Truman was staying in Blair House, he was the target of an assassination attempt by two Puerto Rican radicals. A police officer was killed in the gunfight between the would-be assassins, the police and the secret service.
  • When Truman was president his daughter, Margaret, embarked upon a career as a singer, with modest success. At one point Truman got in a huge public fight with a critic who had written her a bad review. In an interesting plot twist, years later that same newspaper critic was one of the few journalists who came to Truman’s defense when he fired MacArthur!
  • After Truman left the presidency and returned to Missouri, he had no Secret Service protection, but he did receive it after JFK was killed.
  • He lived until 1972, making him the earliest president to still be alive when I was born!
  • “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” was a one-man play, later turned into a movie, in which actor James Whitmore portrays Truman, reflects on his life and re-enacts various White House encounters. When I was very young, my mother and father took me to see this movie, and I remember being really bored but my parents thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

As I mentioned, I learned so much about Truman by reading the biography by McCullough. It was a pleasure to read this book, which is a comprehensive, cradle-to-grave narrative complete with helpful photographs, notes, index and bibliography. This was a long book that seemed short, and there is much, much more in it than mentioned above. There are some laugh-out-loud anecdotes, including one about a White House staff member fixing drinks for the first family and another in which Truman, while out on a walk, tells a tree that it’s doing a good job.

“Harry S. Truman” by Margaret Truman

 

I followed up McCullough with a second book, “Harry S. Truman” by Margaret Truman, at 581 pages. I remember my father having a copy of this book in paperback. I found a used copy at the Strand Bookstore before the pandemic. I was slightly disappointed in Margaret Truman’s book. I thought she would write more about the family life. Instead she focused on policy, but the descriptions of meetings were so detailed that I suspected that Truman himself wrote the book, or large portions of it, to help settle scores. Just a hunch.

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading just one book about Truman and it’s between these two, I would recommend McCullough’s. As for me, someday I definitely want to read more about Truman. In my view, he was one of our nation’s very best presidents.

NASDAQ opening

I attended the opening of NASDAQ today, at the TV studio in Times Square. The president of the American Dental Association and principals of Henry Schein Inc. rang the opening buzzer, to commemorate the 18th annual Give Kids A Smile effort to treat and educate underserved children.

Fred Michmershuizen Henry Schein

 

Article on the Dental Tribune website here.

Mayor Pete

Mayor Pete Buttigieg book reviewHis book is titled “Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future.” He was born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1982, after his parents moved there from El Paso, Texas. His father is a first-generation American who was born in Malta. He attended Harvard and graduated with honors. Then he was named a Rhodes Scholar and attended Oxford University in England. He got a job at a consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., working for various clients, but he says he did not find that work very rewarding. In 2004 he worked on John Kerry’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.

In 2009 he joined the United States Navy Reserve, becoming a Lieutenant. In 2010 he ran for State Treasurer of Indiana but lost. The following year, he ran for Mayor of South bend and won with a big majority. As mayor, he focused on the local issues of importance, including modernizing the sewer system, the implementation of a 311 system, and municipal budgeting. One of his signature achievements was a “1,000 properties in 1,000 days” initiative to repair or demolish many of the city’s vacant houses. In 2014, while he was mayor, he was deployed to Afghanistan and served for one tour of duty. He took a leave of absence as mayor to fulfill his military commitment.

In 2015, after returning from active military duty and resuming his mayoral duties, he came out publicly in a column he wrote for the South Bend Tribune in which he revealed his sexual orientation to one and all. Also in 2015, he spoke out against an anti-gay Indiana state law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed by then Governor Mike Pence. Later that year, he was re-elected with an even larger majority.

A few more notes on Mayor Pete Buttigieg:

  • He plays the piano!
  • He’s also really smart and speaks multiple languages, although he does not brag about this in his book.
  • He met his husband, Chasten Glezman, on a dating app, and they were married in 2017.
  • Together they adopted a rescue dog and named him Truman (after the President).
  • His second term ended on January 1 of this year, so now he is former Mayor.

In his book, he talks a great deal about his hometown, which was among the hardest hit in the Rust Belt. He also reflects on the vapidity of the catchphrase used by the current occupant of the White House. In the concluding, and best, chapter of the book, he points out that what’s printed on that red hat is actually a backward-looking slogan based largely on fear. He articulates many of the feelings I have had myself about this for some time now. Therefore in today’s book report I will let the Mayor have the final words:

“There is no going back. South Bend cannot and should not rewind to the Studebaker heyday of the 1950s, just as America cannot restore the old order in which families obeyed a single, male head of household, each race had its so-called place, average weather was the same from one decade to the next, and a job was for life.

“We don’t actually want to go back. We just think we do, sometimes, when we feel more alert to losses than to gains. A sense of loss inclines us, in vulnerable moments, to view the future with an expectation of harm. But when this happens, we miss the power of a well-envisioned future to inspire us toward greatness.

“There is nothing necessarily wrong with greatness, as an aspiration, a theme, or even as the basis of a political program. The problem, politically, is that we keep looking for greatness in all the wrong places. We think we can find it in the past, dredged up from some impossible ‘again,’ when it reality it is available only to those who fix their vision on the future.

“South Bend, for all our struggles, has formed my faith in a great future.”

William L. Shirer’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’

The best thing that happens in this very long book is that Hitler kills himself. It comes at the end, in late April 1945. By this time the Allies, under the command of General Eisenhower, had retaken France and were advancing into Germany from the West. The Russian army was closing in on Berlin from the East, and the leader of the Third Reich was holed up in an underground bunker with military personnel, some aides, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife and their six young children, and a few other hangers-on, including a female companion, Eva Braun, whose secret relationship with the Fuehrer had been kept from the public all this time.

With his regular army disintegrating by the day, the deranged murderous lunatic at the center of it all was ordering old men, and even boys as young as 10 years old, to fight. Some of this insanity is depicted in the Oscar-nominated movie “Jojo Rabbit,” which is in current release and is presented as a comedy even though the story is anything but funny. Hitler was cruel and evil, and he was also crazy. In the end he was telling his people that he was about to unleash secret weapons (not a nuclear bomb but rather jet fighters and rockets) that would alter the course of the war — which, by this time, he was losing decisively. Hitler had also been consulting his horoscope, which told of a big sign coming that would signal a change in the course of the war. Even when the “sign” materialized (FDR’s death), it did not change things. The war in Europe was about to end with the total defeat of Nazi Germany. Sadly, this did not come before 50 million soldiers and civilians had been killed. Among the dead were 6 million Jews, who had been murdered by racist thugs as part of an intricately planned, systematic effort at genocide.

Hitler died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, and his wife died of cyanide poisoning when she bit down on a glass capsule. Their bodies were then placed outside in a bomb crater and, as per Hitler’s instructions, doused with gasoline and burned. They had been married just a day before, in a late-night ceremony in which both bride and groom had to vow in accordance with German law that they were each of pure Aryan blood. The next day Goebbels and his wife killed their six children and then themselves. Others in the bunker either committed suicide or fled. This is depicted in the 2004 movie “Downfall,” in German with English subtitles. The German military officially surrendered a week later.

“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” by William L. Shirer, is a book I had been long meaning to read, but it’s length — more than 1,200 pages including notes and bibliography — and dark subject matter had held me back. The picture of the book shown here is a hi-res scan of my hard copy. I chose to cover the Nazi emblem on the jacket and spine with black masking tape. It was originally published in 1960. This is a 30th anniversary edition published in 1990. The author was a broadcast journalist who was in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power and who witnessed many of the events firsthand. He also drew upon the vast amount of Nazi government documents that were recovered after the war, testimony of witnesses and defendants at the Nuremburg trials that followed, as well as personal interviews.

I picked up this book now because it fits in well with the World War II-era presidents I am currently reading biographies of. I wanted to learn more about the war and about Hitler, especially where he came from and how he came to power. It was not pleasant to read this book, which describes what is arguably the darkest chapter in all of human history.

For today’s book report I’ll summarize some of the key points of what I learned, but first, some terminology. Reich means realm or empire. The Third Reich was Nazi Germany, which lasted for 12 years, from 1933 to 1945. The First Reich refers to the Holy Roman Empire, which existed from the Middle Ages until the rise of Napoleon in the early 19th century. The Second Reich was better known as the German Empire, which existed from the 1870s until the end of World War I. During both eras there were various emperors (Kaisers) including the last one, Wilhelm II, who had to abdicate at the end of World War I. The Weimar Republic followed World War I and was the constitutional system of representational government established in Germany, with free elections, which sadly only lasted for about 15 years, until Hitler and his Nazi party came to power.

The Nazi party was the National Socialist German Workers Party, or National Socialist party, which is a misnomer because the Nazis were not socialists. Rather, the party was based on militant nationalism, expansionism, totalitarianism and overt racism. Fuehrer, which is what they called Hitler, is German for leader. The Luftwaffe was the German air force. The Wehrmacht was the German armed forces, including the army, navy and air force. U-boats were German submarines, as depicted in the 1981 film “Das Boot,” in German with English subtitles. Blitzkrieg meant lightning war, which involved using tanks to overwhelm armies in quick, overwhelming attacks. Lebensraum meant living space, which is what Hitler wanted more of for the German people, but only those belonging to the Aryan race, which he considered superior to all others.

Hitler laid out his plans in “Mein Kampf,” which translates to “My Struggle.” According to Hitler and his stupid book, the master race was entitled to expand eastward, take over the land and kill or enslave the inferior races. That was his evil plan from the beginning.

Hitler was born in 1889 in Austria, which at the time was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and when he was very young his family moved to Germany, when it was still the German Empire or Second Reich as mentioned above, and then back to Austria. His father was a civil servant and he wanted his son to follow in that career path, but Hitler wanted to become a painter. After dropping out of high school Hitler moved to Vienna and applied to art school, but he was turned away for lack of talent. Vienna at the time was one of the most beautiful, vibrant and cosmopolitan cities in the world, but for the next several years Hitler lived in squalor and might have been homeless for a time. He started reading racist literature that helped solidify his hatred for Jews.

In 1913, according to the book, Hitler moved to Munich, to avoid military service in Austria because he did not want to serve alongside Jews and others whom he considered undesirable. He was still an unemployed loser when war broke out a year later, and despite not being a German citizen he managed to get permission to join the Bavarian army. He fought bravely and received the Iron Cross. He attained the rank of Corporal. He was wounded twice, first by being shot in the leg and the second time by a gas attack that left him temporarily blind. It was during his convalescence in the hospital that Germany surrendered, thus ending World War I. According to the book, Hitler cried over this like a baby and later started to blame the “November criminals” for their “stab in the back.” According to this ugly conspiracy theory, which took hold, it was Jewish bankers and others pulling strings behind the scenes which led to Germany’s premature and unnecessary surrender in the war. In truth the German military had been soundly defeated.

The Treaty of Versailles came about after World War I and required Germany to pay reparations and severely limited its ability to build up a military force. It also required Germany to cede territory. To most Germans, these measures were humiliating. Even worse, two rounds of economic hardship ensued. First, there was a period of runaway inflation in the early 1920s that left many people financially destitute. Then, when the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929 it set off not only an American depression but a global one, causing massive unemployment throughout Europe and especially in Germany. These were ripe conditions for fringe political parties to take root.

After the war Hitler returned to Munich and got involved with one of these radical organizations, which was a precursor to the Nazi Party, which Hitler took control of. With his hateful, angry rhetoric, Hitler made many speeches and attracted a following. In 1923 he and his followers attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic in a coup, which became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. The revolt was unsuccessful, resulting in violence in which police killed several of the co-conspirators. Hitler survived the confrontation and ran away, only to be arrested later. During his subsequent trail, Hitler caused a spectacle in the courtroom with his angry outbursts, which only increased his fame and notoriety. He was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment, but he was released after about a year.

While he was incarcerated Hitler began working on “Mein Kampf.” He also reflected on his unsuccessful coup, realizing that if he was to overthrow the government he needed something to replace it with. He also concluded that to come to power he would have to do so through constitutional means, and by infiltrating existing institutions. He and his fellow Nazis divided up the country into districts and appointed regional and local leaders to act as a de-facto shadow government. They also started running candidates for office. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, they established a quasi-military police force, the Sturmabteilung (the SA, also known as the Brownshirts) which were basically a bunch of street thugs who used violence and intimidation to bully their political opponents. In federal elections in 1924, 1928, 1930 and 1932, Nazis won seats in the Reichstag, the German legislature, but they never attained a majority. But by 1932 they had more seats than any other party. Also in 1932 Hitler ran for president but lost to Paul von Hindenburg, the incumbent, who was a war hero. The way it worked is that the President appointed the Chancellor, who would form a government. But it was difficult to form a government with so many political parties vying for power. In the midst of all this political chaos, in 1933, Hindenburg, who by this time was a very old man and close to death, named Hitler Chancellor.

Shortly thereafter there was a fire in the Reichstag building, which the Nazis blamed on the Communists. In the ensuing confusion, Hitler persuaded Hindenburg to issue a decree giving him emergency powers. The legislature subsequently passed an Enabling Act, officially ceding their power to Hitler. Then a year later Hindenburg died, and rather than calling for new elections Hitler proclaimed himself Supreme Leader and Chancellor, in essence dictator for life. With his new power Hitler outlawed all the rival political parties and had their leaders jailed, shot or sent away to concentration camps. At first the concentration camps were not death camps. That came later. Hitler also outlawed unions and silenced academics and clergy who dared to speak out against him. He also took control of the press. He basically created a police state. Hitler enacted a number of laws targeting Jews, who were forbidden to work at universities or at various other jobs. Many fled or were deported. In November 1938 it got even worse when Jewish schools, synagogues, private homes and businesses were destroyed in a single night of terror, what became known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass.

Hitler was also preparing for war. When he set forth his crazy ideas to the generals, many knew immediately that this would ultimately lead to complete ruin for Germany. But those who dared raise objections were fired, killed or otherwise eliminated by Hitler, one by one. And in disobedience of the Versailles Treaty, first secretly and then openly, Hitler began a campaign to build up the German military, with more ships, tanks and warplanes. This caused unemployment to fall, but wages were low and it was difficult if not impossible for workers to change jobs or seek better working conditions.

Also in violation of Versailles, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, which had been occupied by France, but nobody stopped him. This was in 1936. According to the book, this was the riskiest move Hitler had yet made and had the French stopped him, his whole house of cards would have fallen right then and there. But Hitler had sensed that the World War I allies were wary of armed conflict and would let him get away with quite a lot. He was correct. Hitler next turned his sights on Austria, where many citizens were of German heritage. In March 1938, in what became known as the Anschluss, Hitler annexed Austria. He marched his armies right in and took over, without firing a shot. This is the backdrop of the events depicted in the musical and movie “The Sound of Music.” In the film’s best scene, Captain Von Trapp tears down a Nazi flag and rips it in half. And of course at the end of the movie, rather than accepting a commission in the German Navy, he and Maria lead their family to safety over the Alps into Switzerland.

 

Next Hitler targeted Czechoslovakia, specifically the Sudetenland, or border regions, again where many citizens of German heritage lived. In a policy that became known as appeasement, the allies allowed Hitler to take the Sudetenland with a promise that he would stop there. Of course he was lying. Hitler was constantly lying. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made three separate trips to Germany and after the third visit, which took place in Munich in September 1938, he met personally with Hitler and when he returned home he waved the paper and was hailed as a hero for securing the peace.

Shortly thereafter Hitler took not only the Sudetenland but the interior of Czechoslovakia as well, and then he made a non-aggression pact with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and agreed that Germany and the USSR would divide Poland. When Germany invaded Poland on Sept 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. At this time King George VI (Queen Elizabeth II’s father) addressed his nation, the back story of which is depicted in the 2010 film “The King’s Speech.

But neither England nor France was on a war footing. France was especially ill equipped. The German army conquered Poland in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile Britain sent troops to the continent, but the leaders of Britain and France had trouble communicating with each other and failed to put up much of a fight at all. Germany was able to run roughshod over not only Poland but many more countries as well, including Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The German army also invaded France, which fell in about a week. Hitler then went on a victory procession down the Champs Elysees in Paris. Soon the entire British army became trapped and surrounded on the northern coast of France. Under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister of Great Britain, more than 300,000 troops were evacuated home across the English Channel. For more on this miraculous escape, watch the 2017 movies “Dunkirk,” which is violent, and “Darkest Hour,” which is inspirational and ends on a hopeful note.

Hitler’s next plan was to persuade Britain to surrender. He had plans to invade, but first he decided to attack from the air. In what became known as the Battle of Britain, the German Luftwaffe bombed London, which was defended by the Royal Air Force. It was a ferocious conflict that went on for months, but ultimately the British fighter pilots prevailed. During this time Churchill delivered a number of speeches to the British people that held up morale. King George VI decided to stay in London with his family rather than flee to Canada, which also helped reassure the British people.

After being frustrated by England, Hitler next decided to invade the Soviet Union! (Had he read my book report on Napoleon, he would have known what a bad idea that would turn out to be!) In “Operation Barbarossa,” the German army advanced all the way to Moscow and then got trapped in the cold, brutal winter. They were also held back in Stalingrad. Rather than allow his army to strategically retreat, Hitler ordered his generals to stay and fight to the death. Then, frustrated with his generals, Hitler fired his military chief of staff and rather than replace him, he decided to take over personally. Think about how ridiculous this is. Here is someone whose highest rank to date had been Corporal, and now he thinks he knows better than all his generals.

But it was about to get even worse for the murderous lunatic. About the same time Hitler was losing battles in the Soviet Union, on the other side of the world, the United States was bombed in Hawaii. Our country then declared war on Japan. And days later Hitler declared war on the Americans, in accordance with a deal he had just made with the Japanese. The United States first got involved in the Middle East and Africa, then Italy, and finally, in June 1944, under the command of General Eisenhower, troops from the United States, Britain and Canada invaded France in what became known as D-Day. This is the part of the war depicted in the 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

It would take almost another year for the Allies to finally defeat Germany, and sadly the end of the Third Reich did not come fast enough. Beginning with the invasion of Poland and later with the invasion of Russia, the Nazis escalated their genocidal plans against the Jewish people. At first many Jews were rounded up and shot, others were confined to urban ghettos in Warsaw and other cities. Much of this is depicted in the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List.” This was all a calculated Nazi plan to literally kill all the Jews in Europe. Starting in 1942, in what they called the “Final Solution,” the Nazis started sending Jews to concentration camps to be murdered in gas chambers and their bodies were burned. In addition to Jews, Roma (Gypsies) and homosexuals were also killed, but most of the victims were Jews. At Auschwitz alone, it is estimated that more than a million people were murdered. There’s an exhibit to this horror currently on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage here in New York City.

Here are a few more notes about Hitler:

  • He was a vegetarian!
  • He was a fan of classical music and opera, especially Wagner.
  • His family name was Shicklgruber, which would have been Hitler’s own last name except his father, who was of illegitimate birth, had the name changed.
  • He did not become a German citizen until 1932.
  • Before Hitler rose to power he had a relationship with a cousin, who died of a gunshot wound. She might have been murdered, or she might have committed suicide.
  • He dictated Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess and several others.
  • Hitler designed the Nazi flag himself, with the black swastika in the center of a white disk on a red background. This became the flag of Germany from 1935 to 1945 and was used during the Olympics in Berlin in 1936 and was on the famous Hindenburg blimp, which went down in flames over New Jersey in 1937.
  • Before the swastika was stolen by Hitler as a symbol of hate, the icon was used in many different cultures throughout history, including in Asia and even among some American Indian tribes.
  • The Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was in power at the same time as Hitler, and their fates are intertwined in many ways. Italy and Germany were Axis allies during World War II, along with Japan. Mussolini was deposed in 1943, only to be rescued later by the Nazis. Toward the end of the war, Mussolini was executed by firing squad by his fellow Italians, and his body was hung upside down and defiled. This might have been a reason Hitler wanted his own body to be burned.
  • As part of his plan to seize power, Hitler had the leaders of the SA killed in what become known as the “Blood Purge,” also called the “Night of the Long Knives.” Hitler did this to prevent trouble with the regular German military.
  • The SS (Schutzstaffel) was originally part of the SA but it continued under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, who was one of the most evil of all Nazis. The SS under Himmler ran the concentration camps and carried out the Holocaust.

There is much more in the book, including many passages about the many plots to arrest or kill Hitler over the years. The most famous of the plots was depicted in the 2008 film “Valkyrie,” starring Tom Cruise. The book also has lots on diplomacy, especially leading up to the war, and it is quite detailed in that regard, often describing the frantic meetings on a day-by-day or even hour-by-hour basis. Yet as long as the book is, and as much information it contains, it barely scratches the surface of the horrors unleashed on this world by Hitler.

End-of-year update on the presidents

This year I read biographies of seven more presidents, getting me a bit closer to my goal of reading at least one book on every president, in order. But, as you can see, I am running out of space on the bookshelf and I might have to build more shelves or else move! I have not started Truman yet, but I will in the New Year.

 

If you scroll back through my feed here on fredmick.com, you can read my most recent book reports, not only of presidents but others as well.

Article about what to do in New York for visitors from out of town

Every year I write a “travel story” for our at-show newspaper, Dental Tribune Today, which we publish on-site at the Greater New York Dental Meeting. The article is meant for those who might be coming to the event from out of town and offers some sightseeing ideas.

Click below to see the article in a larger window. You can also read the article on the Dental Tribune website, by clicking here.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein

In 1905, when he was just 26 years old and working as a clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern, he wrote four scientific papers that would forever change the way humanity comprehends some of the most fundamental laws of nature:

  • First, he demonstrated that light comes in specific quantities or packets, called quanta, later to be called photons, and this discovery helped explain the photoelectric effect, which is what happens when light bounces off an object. This disproved the long-held belief in “ether,” or a substance in space through which light waves were thought to travel.
  • He helped prove the existence of molecules and how they can be measured, and he showed how the existence of molecules explains Brownian motion, or the vibrations of particles suspended in liquid.
  • He then put forth his theory of Special Relativity, in which he disproved Isaac Newton’s concept of absolute time. According to Einstein, measurements of time, and also of space and distance, are relative to the motion of the observer. He said that there can be no absolute time or absolute space, but something he called spacetime.
  • Next, Einstein came up with the principle of mass-energy equivalence, as expressed in the most famous formula in all of science, e=mc2, in which e is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light. The equation means that energy can be converted to mass and vice versa. Decades later this formula would lay the foundation for the development of nuclear weapons. More on that in a moment.

Albert Einstein came up with all four of these scientific breakthroughs in a single year, known as his “annus mirabilis” or “miracle year,” in his spare time. That’s because his day job was that of patent clerk, a position he had settled for after being unable to get a job as a professor following his graduation from university in Zurich. Despite having set the scientific world on fire, he remained relatively unknown and even kept his patent clerk job for several more years.

Einstein book review
“Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson

 

This is according to “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson, a book that describes, in 551 pages, not only Einstein’s many theories but his entire life story as well. For me as a reader, I must admit I found much of the science in this book difficult to understand. Come to think of it, I was actually quite baffled. The chapters on his life and times were much more enjoyable.

Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist. He was born in Germany in 1879. He was a Jew. When he was a boy he was given a compass, which fascinated him. When he was still in his teens he moved to Switzerland and renounced his German citizenship. This might have been to avoid compulsory military service. According to the book, Einstein did not like military parades, soldiers marching in the street or any such glorification of war. He also shunned blind deference to authority. He questioned everything.

He was “stateless” for five years after moving to Switzerland, at which time he became a Swiss citizen. He attended the Swiss federal polytechnic institute in Zurich. He married and would later divorce Mileva Maric, a fellow student who was from Serbia. She was a Christian. They had two sons, Hans Albert Einstein and Eduard Einstein. According to the book, he and Mileva also had a daughter, who apparently either died at a very young age or was given up for adoption. His second wife was Elsa, who was his cousin. She had two daughters, one of whom would eventually live with Einstein. For many decades Einstein had a live-in secretary, Helen Dukas, who was with him constantly and served as his gatekeeper. Einstein also had several mistresses over the years, sometimes in plain view of his wife.

After leaving the job at the patent office, Einstein held several teaching positions and eventually landed at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, in Berlin, where many of the world’s brightest minds then held court. But to go there he had to become a German citizen again. It was from there that he put forth his theory of General Relativity, in which he said, among other things, that gravity happens when objects bend the fabric of spacetime. He also predicted that light from another star would be bent by the Sun’s gravity, and in May 1919, during an eclipse, this was tested and proven to be true. The results were published on the front pages of newspapers around the world, thus making Einstein an overnight global celebrity. From then on his name would be synonymous with the word “genius.”

In 1921 Einstein made his first trip to the United States, at the invitation of Chaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization. Everywhere he went Einstein was greeted by large crowds and inquisitive reporters. Einstein played the part of the friendly professor and answered the reporters’ questions with quick, snappy lines delivered with a grin.

In subsequent visits to the United States, Einstein attended the opera, went to a Hollywood film premiere with Charlie Chaplin, was feted with statues, awards and keys to cities, and he spoke at universities. For a time, Einstein expressed pacifist views and even encouraged all who would listen to shun compulsory military service. But when the Nazis came to power in Germany, Einstein’s views on pacifism and conscientious objection to the draft changed. For the second time he renounced his German citizenship. In 1933 Einstein sought refuge, first in Great Britain and then in the United States, accepting a position at Princeton University in New Jersey. He had also been courted by the California Institute of Technology. Einstein spent the rest of his life in the United States. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940. He died in 1955.

At the outset of World War II, Einstein, with the help of another scientist, Leo Szilard, wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning that it would be possible to use uranium in a chain reaction that would release an unimaginable amount of energy. The letter was hand delivered to FDR and was read aloud to him. After that and a follow-up letter from Einstein, the president established the top-secret Manhattan Project, which would result in the development of nuclear weapons. Einstein himself did not work on the bomb, Robert Oppenheimer and many other scientists led that effort. When Germany’s defeat in the war seemed imminent, Einstein wrote FDR yet another letter calling for caution in deploying the weapon, but FDR died before he received it and the letter instead went to President Harry S. Truman, who passed it to a subordinate.

Einstein had brought the possibility of a bomb to the attention of FDR because he thought the German scientists back in Berlin would certainly be working on one themselves, but when he learned that was not the case he regretted his decision for the rest of his life. After World War II Einstein spoke out in favor of arms control, and for the establishment of a world government. He wanted a body that would be stronger that the United Nations turned out to be, something with a military force, which he considered necessary to prevent future wars and human annihilation. Isaacson quotes Einstein, speaking to Newsweek magazine, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Here are some additional facts about Albert Einstein:

  • He thought visually, and he conceived of his theories largely in visual terms. He often used “thought experiments” to develop his ideas.
  • He was a creative thinker who was similar in many ways to those who revolutionized other fields, such as Sigmund Freud in psychology and Pablo Picasso in art.
  • According to the book, he was not an atheist.
  • Nor was he a communist. But he was investigated by J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, which kept a file on him.
  • He believed in social and economic justice, as well as personal freedom. He was skeptical of the socialist revolution when it began in Russia because he felt it would be repressive and authoritarian.
  • In general, he was good natured and friendly, although he could be emotionally distant and even a bit cruel to those close to him. According to the book, he was especially mean at times to his first wife.
  • He had wild, unruly hair. It was part of his image of a disheveled scientist. He could also be forgetful and often misplaced his keys or train tickets.
  • He played the violin.
  • He also enjoyed sailing.
  • He had many lifelong friends and scientific colleagues.
  • One of his friends was Queen Elisabeth (later the Queen Mother) of Belgium.
  • When his first wife originally refused to give him a divorce, Einstein was able to persuade her by promising to give her the money should he win the Nobel Prize at a future date.
  • Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921, not for relativity but for his work on the photoelectric effect. Isaacson’s book explains all the drama and politics of how that happened.
  • Originally Einstein had written his famous formula as L=mv2, but he later changed it to E=mc2 to comply with more common symbols.
  • Before collaborating with Szilard on the letter to FDR, the two patented a refrigerator.
  • Both of his stepdaughters had husbands who wrote books about Einstein.
  • After the death of Weizmann, who had become the first president of Israel, Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel, but he politely and firmly declined.
  • After Einstein’s death, in a ghastly act, his brain was preserved in a jar and was later experimented on by various scientists, none of whom ever learned anything significant.
  • The theoretical physicist is portrayed in the musical “Einstein’s Dreams,” currently running Off-Broadway, which, in my opinion (I went to see it last weekend) was completely wrong scientifically and on many other levels. It is based on a book of the same name.
  • In the movies, Walter Matthau gives what I consider to be a much more enjoyable portrayal of Einstein is in the 1994 film “I.Q.,” also starring Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins.

Also during Einstein’s lifetime the field of quantum mechanics took shape. This is the study of atoms and subatomic particles. In his own mind Einstein was troubled by many of these discoveries, which were made by Niels Bohr and many other scientists. That’s because determining the location of an electron around the nucleus of an atom required the use of probabilities, which caused Einstein to utter his immortal words that God does not “play dice” with the universe!

Another facet of quantum mechanics is known as entanglement, which is an observed phenomenon in which two particles that have interacted with each other will have opposite properties even when far apart from each other. Einstein called this “Spooky Action at a Distance,” which is a term still in use today — google it or look it up on YouTube!

Einstein spent the final years of his life thinking and working on a theory that would reconcile relativity with quantum mechanics. It’s an effort that continues to this day.

For me, reading “Einstein: His Life and Universe” was a nice little peek into the world of theoretical physics. I think I might understand some of this stuff a little better now, but I am not sure. But it was still fun to read about, and I am glad I did. This was the second biography I have read by historian Walter Isaacson, who is the former managing editor of Time magazine. Earlier I also read his book on Benjamin Franklin, which was fantastic in my opinion. Isaacson also wrote a biography of Steve Jobs, which I do not plan to read, and another of Leonardo DaVinci, which I certainly will at a future date.

David M. Oshinsky’s book about polio

In “Polio: An American Story,” author David M. Oshinsky identifies four key heroes in the fight to eradicate the disease. They are Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, the scientists who developed vaccines; Basil O’Connor, chairman of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the organization founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and FDR himself, who was the world’s most famous polio survivor. My own mother was another.

book review Polio: An American Story David M. Oshinsky
“Polio: An American Story,” by David M. Oshinsky

 

FDR contracted the disease in 1921, after he had been governor of New York but before he became president. Like countless others, he was crippled for life by the virus. Many others died. During his convalescence he visited a property in Warm Springs, Georgia, which included a swimming pool and a hotel, and he purchased the property and turned it into a facility to help treat those with polio, mostly children. FDR brought in Basil O’Connor, his business partner, to run it. The fee was $42 per week, but patients who could not afford it were allowed to come anyway. FDR had used most of his life savings to purchase the property and later relied on private fund-raising.

Later, during his presidency, FDR founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which still exists today as the March of Dimes. O’Connor ran the national foundation for decades. The purpose of the organization was twofold: First, to pay for medical care for those who were stricken by polio and, second, to fund research to develop a cure.

Over the decades the national foundation raised and distributed many millions of dollars. It was the first time such an organization had been formed to combat a disease, and it was groundbreaking in many ways. The fund-raising drives, which were clever and successful, involved local community involvement and later included having a “poster child.” Many of the initiatives also brought in celebrities, who hosted balls across the country each year on FDR’s birthday.

There had been an unsuccessful attempt at a vaccine in the 1930s, but it was not until many years later that Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, working separately, developed the vaccines that were ultimately successful. The Salk vaccine came first and was used to treat most children in the United States in the 1950s. The Sabin vaccine followed and was used to treat most children in the Soviet Union and in many other parts of the world. The Salk vaccine involves an injection or a series of injections of a killed virus, while the Sabin vaccine involves ingesting weakened live virus on a sugar cube.

Salk and Sabin were rivals, and their differing approaches on how a vaccine should be developed — and how quickly — led to bitter disputes in the scientific community.

A few more notes:

  • There are three types of the virus that causes polio, which is also called poliomyelitis or infantile paralysis. The term “infantile paralysis” is something of a misnomer, since most of those stricken by the disease are children.
  • Each type of the polio virus has various strains, some more aggressive than others.
  • Salk, whose work landed him on the cover of Time magazine, became a celebrity. He was criticized by fellow scientists as being a publicity hound. Salk was also criticized by many of the scientists who worked under him, who felt that he did not adequately credit their own contributions.
  • Eddie Cantor, the movie actor and radio personality, coined the term “march of dimes.” He was one of countless celebrities who helped raise funds for the cause. Others included Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo, Mary Pickford, Mary Martin, Joe DiMaggio and Lucille Ball, among many others.
  • In recent years some have speculated that FDR might not have had polio at all, but rather Guillain–Barré syndrome.
  • Today, the dime in your pocket features a portrait of FDR, in recognition of his founding of the March of Dimes!

I learned a great deal reading “Polio: An American Story” by David M. Oshinsky. I think the author did a good job of explaining the science without getting too complicated for a reader without much of a medical background. He also did a very good job of putting the disease into the context of the times. The book is also helpfully illustrated with many pictures, which help tell the story of this dreaded disease and how it was conquered.