Friday, May 20, 2016

Why Hiroshima Narrative Still Matters: Americans Still Liable to Back Use Again

I've been writing about atomic/nuclear weapons and the first (and only) use of The Bomb in 1945 against civilians in war for almost 35 years now: literally hundreds of articles (from TV Guide to The New York Times)  and two books, Hiroshima in America--with Robert Jay Lifton--and Atomic Cover-up.   See the posts just below for my latest just last week after the announcement of President Obama's upcoming visit to Hiroshima.   That's my photo at left in Hiroshima on August 6, 1984.

I've covered a lot of ground, but part of the writing has focused on the case against dropping the two bombs, which killed over 200,000, the vast majority women and children.  Occasionally some has asked, "Okay, fine, but what does it matter today?"  I will reply:  Polls show that most Americans, and media commentators, still support the use of the bomb in 1945 (historians are divided), and most American officials and all presidents have agreed.   So the lesson is:  the weapon can be used--even though most say "never again"--despite the promise of killing hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of civilians, and therefore it's more likely it will be used again.  A line against using the bomb has been drawn...in the sand.

So, here's a new piece, and poll, at the Wall Street Journal.   Offered a scenario today similar in some ways to the one in 1945--the U.S. is at war with Iran and faces a possible invasion of that country which might be forestalled if we drop a bomb on an Iranian city--six out of ten support the use of The Bomb.   That figure rises to 8 in 10 among Republicans--so, BernieorBust people who seem have little fear of Donald Trump's finger on the nuclear button, take notice.

Now, I have to wonder about the sample for this survey.  Oddly, only about 1 in 3 say our use against Japan in 1945 was justified.  That is easily the lowest number I have ever seen in such poll.  But maybe that is even scarier--for these same people  then turned around and supported use against Iran.  Think about it.   The article also cites a 2013 survey that found 19% back using nukes against al-Qaeda even if conventional bombing, they were told, would be just as effective.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

New Public Editor and Iraq

UPDATE:   This is my piece from two years ago, moving it up at my blog because Liz Spayd has just been named new Public Editor at The New York Times to succeed the terrific Margaret Sullivan (who is going to the Post).   Frankly, I have not followed Spayd's work at CJR and cannot comment on that one way or the other.

Unlike a lot of media and political writers I am not one to let bygones be bygones, at least in a very few tragic or high stakes cases.  For example, the media failures in the run-up to the Iraq war, given the consequences.  This explains my reaction to the Columbia Journalism Review today announcing, after a widely-watched search, that it was hiring Liz Spayd of The Washington Post as its new editor.

Now, I suppose I should review her entire career, for context, though others are doing it and you can read about it in plenty of places.  She has been managing editor of the Post for years now and obviously supervised a good deal of important work (and some not so terrific, of course).  But I am moved to recall, and then let go,  one famous 2004 article, by Howard Kurtz, then media writer at the Post, which I covered at the time (when I was the editor of Editor & Publisher) and in my book on those media failures and Iraq, So Wrong for So Long.

In a nutshell:  The NYT, under Bill Keller, had printed as an editors' note  a very brief and very limited semi-apology for its horrific coverage during the run-up to the war.  The Post, almost equally guilty (see headline in photo), didn't even do that, leaving it to one of its reporters, i.e. Kurtz, to report it out.  His piece made the paper look pretty bad, with some embarrassing quotes from editor Len Downie, Bob Woodward and Karen DeYoung, among others.  And there was this passage about Spayd:
Liz Spayd, the assistant managing editor for national news, says The Post's overall record was strong.

"I believe we pushed as hard or harder than anyone to question the administration's assertions on all kinds of subjects related to the war. . . . Do I wish we would have had more and pushed harder and deeper into questions of whether they possessed weapons of mass destruction? Absolutely," she said. "Do I feel we owe our readers an apology? I don't think so."
In some ways, the "hero" of the Kurtz piece was Walter Pincus, the longtime national security who had tried to get more skeptical stories on Iraq WMD in the paper (or get them on the front-page).
But while Pincus was ferreting out information "from sources I've used for years," some in the Post newsroom were questioning his work. Editors complained that he was "cryptic," as one put it, and that his hard-to-follow stories had to be heavily rewritten.

Spayd declined to discuss Pincus's writing but said that "stories on intelligence are always difficult to edit and parse and to ensure their accuracy and get into the paper."
Michael Getler later reviewed his years as ombudsman at the Post from 2000 to 2005, and offered a strong critique of the role of the paper's editors in the Iraq WMD disaster. He observed:
I should say at this point the Post is an excellent paper, and it also did some excellent reporting before the war—more than you might think. But I also had a catbird seat watching it stumble and, while my observations are necessarily about the Post, they may be more broadly applicable. From where I sat, there were two newsroom failures, in particular, at the root of what went wrong with pre-war reporting. One was a failure to pay enough attention to events that unfolded in public, rather than just the exclusive stuff that all major newspapers like to develop. The other was a failure of editors and editing up and down the line that resulted in a focus on getting ready for a war that was coming rather than the obligation to put the alternative case in front of readers in a prominent way. This resulted in far too many stories, including some very important ones, being either missed, underplayed, or buried.
Gelter chronicles the many important stories the Post either did not cover or buried deep inside the paper (including reports on large antiwar marches).   Then he adds:
Here’s a brief sampling of additional Post headlines that, rather stunningly, failed to make the front of the newspaper: “Observers: Evidence for War Lacking,” “U.N. Finds No Proof of Nuclear Program,” “Bin Laden-Hussein Link Hazy,” “U.S. Lacks Specifics on Banned Arms,” “Legality of War Is a Matter of Debate,” and “Bush Clings to Dubious Allegations About Iraq.” In short, it wasn’t the case that important, challenging reporting wasn’t done. It just wasn’t highlighted.
Of course, Liz Spayd was just one of a group of editors and hardly deserves full blame for the Post's performance.  But she did defend that record afterward--and said no apology was needed. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

What Obama Must Visit: Inside a Mound in Hiroshima

In the northwestern corner of the Hiroshima Peace Park, amid a quiet grove of trees, the earth suddenly swells. It is not much of a mound -- only about ten feet high and sixty feet across. Unlike most mounds, however, this one is hollow, and within it rests perhaps the greatest concentration of human residue in the world.

Grey clouds rising from sticks of incense hang in the air, spookily. Tourists do not dawdle here. Visitors searching for the Peace Bell, directly ahead, or the Children's Monument, down the path to the right, hurry past it without so much as a sideways glance. Still, it has a strange beauty: a lump of earth (not quite lush) topped by a small monument that resembles the tip of a pagoda.

On one side of the Memorial Mound the gray wooden fence has a gate, and down five steps from the gate is a door. Visitors are usually not allowed through that door, but occasionally the city of Hiroshima honors a request from a foreign journalist.

Inside the mound the ceiling is low, the light fluorescent. One has to stoop to stand. To the right and left, pine shelving lines the walls. Stacked neatly on the shelves, like cans of soup in a supermarket, are white porcelain canisters with Japanese lettering on the front. On the day I visited, there were more than a thousand cans in all, explained Masami Ohara, a city official. Each canister contained the ashes of one person killed by the atomic bomb.

Behind twin curtains on either side of an altar, several dozen pine boxes, the size of caskets, were stacked, unceremoniously, from floor to ceiling. They hold the ashes of about 70,000 unidentified victims of the bomb. If, in an instant, all of the residents of Wilmington, Delaware, or Santa Fe, New Mexico, were reduced to ashes, and those ashes carried away to one repository, this is all the room the remains would require.

More than 100,000 in Hiroshima were killed by The Bomb, the vast majority of them women and children, plus elderly males.  Fewer than one in ten were in the military. 

Most of those who died in Hiroshima were cremated quickly, partly to prevent an epidemic of disease. Others were efficiently turned to ash by the atomic bomb itself, death and cremation occurring in the same instant. Those reduced by human hands were cremated on makeshift altars at a temple that once stood at the present site of the mound, one-half mile from the hypocenter of the atomic blast.

In 1946, an Army Air Force squad, ordered by Gen. Douglas MacArthur to film the results of the massive U.S. aerial bombardment of Japanese cities during World War II, shot a solemn ceremony at the temple, capturing a young woman receiving a canister of ashes from a local official. That footage, and all of the rest that they filmed in Hiroshima and Nagasaki revealing the full aftermath of the bombings, would be suppressed by the United States for decades (as I probe in my book Atomic Cover-Up).

Later that year, survivors of the atomic bombing began contributing funds to build a permanent vault at this site and, in 1955, the Memorial Mound was completed. For several years the collection of ashes grew because remains of victims were still being found. One especially poignant pile was discovered at an elementary school.

The white cans (that's my photo) on the shelves have stood here for decades, unclaimed by family members or friends. In many cases, all of the victims' relatives and friends were killed by the bomb. Every year local newspapers publish the list of names written on the cans, and every year several canisters are finally claimed and transferred to family burial sites. Most of the unclaimed cans (a total of just over 800 in 2010, for example) will remain in the mound in perpetuity, now that so many years have passed.

They are a chilling sight. The cans are bright white, like the flash in the sky over Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. From all corners of the city the ashes were collected: the remains of soldiers, physicians, housewives, infants. Unclaimed, they at least have the dignity of a private urn, an identity, a life (if one were able to look into it) before death.

But what of the seventy thousand behind the curtains? The pine crates are marked with names of sites where the human dust and bits of bone were found -- a factory or a school, perhaps, or a neighborhood crematory. But beyond that, the ashes are anonymous. Thousands may still grieve for these victims but there is no dignity here. "They are all mixed together," said Ohara, "and will never be separated or identified." Under a mound, behind two curtains, inside a few pine boxes: This is what became of one-quarter of the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

As Obama Agrees to Go Hiroshima: A Protest Letter for Another President

Earlier I published an excerpt from my new book, Hollywood Bomb: The Unmaking of 'The Most Important' Movie Ever Made, on Ayn Rand writing a rival pro-nuclear script for a rival studio.  Here's another excerpt, about what happened after President Truman objected to a scene in the MGM film on The Bomb, and ordered revisions.

A bizarre, and revealing, postscript to President Truman's involvement with The Beginning or the End was provided by Roman Bohnen, the actor who portrayed Truman in the original sequences. Bohnen, a 51-year-old character actor, had appeared in such well-known movies as Of Mice and Men, The Song of Bernadette, and A Bell for Adano.

Learning of the need for a re-take, following the White House critiques, Bohnen on December 2, 1946, wrote the President a polite, but slyly critical letter.   He noted the President's concerns about the depiction of his decision to “send the atom bomb thundering into this troubled world,”  adding that he could "well imagine the emotional torture you must have experienced in giving that fateful order, torture not only then, but now—perhaps even more so."  So he could “understand your wish that the scene be re-filmed in order to do fuller justice to your anguished deliberation in that historic moment.”

Then he offered a suggestion. People would be talking about his decision for a hundred years, he observed, "and posterity is quite apt to be a little rough" on Truman "for not having ordered that very first atomic bomb to be dropped outside of Hiroshima [his emphasis]with other bombs poised to follow, but praise God never to be used."

His suggestion: Truman should play himself in the film! If he believed in his decision so strongly why not re-enact it himself?

"If I were in your difficult position," Bohnen wrote, "I would insist on so doing. Unprecedented, yes--but so is the entire circumstance, including the unholy power of that monopoly weapon." Perhaps to show that he was serious about all this, Bohnen indicated that he was sending a copy of the letter to Louis B. Mayer.

Ten days later, Truman responded warmly, apparently missing (or ignoring) Bohnen's sarcasm. He thanked the actor for his suggestion that he play himself but admitted that he didn't have "the talent to be a movie star" and expressed confidence that Bohnen would do him justice. Truman then took time to defend in some detail the decision to use the bomb, revealing much more about his emotional attitude than he usually did.

The President explained that what he had objected to in the film was that it pictured his decision as a "snap judgment," while in reality "it was anything but that." After the weapon was tested, and the Japanese given "ample warning," the bomb was used against two cities "devoted almost exclusively to the manufacturer of ammunition and weapons of destruction."  (A complete lie.)

“I have no qualms about it whatever for the simple reason that it was believed the dropping of not more than two of these bombs would bring the war to a close. The Japanese in their conduct of the war had been vicious and cruel savages and I came to the conclusion that if two hundred and fifty thousand young Americans could be saved from slaughter the bomb should be dropped, and it was.

"As I said before," Truman concluded, "the only objection to the film was that I was made to appear as if no consideration had been given to the effects of the result of dropping the bomb—that is an absolutely wrong impression."  There is nothing on the historical record, or in Truman’s letters and diaries, however, to indicate that he did give strong consideration to the human toll in the Japanese cities, the release of radiation--or letting the nuclear genie out of the bottle.

For whatever reason, MGM replaced Bohnen in the re-takes with a slightly younger actor, who was instructed to portray Truman with more of a "military bearing" (a revealing suggestion in itself). Did Truman or someone at the White House demand that Bohnen be replaced after reading his note to Truman?  (This seems likely.) Did Louis B. Mayer drop him after seeing a copy of the letter sent to him by Bohnen?  Or did a conflicted Bohnen simply quit?

In any event, when The Beginning or the End was finally readied for release, the actor playing the President in the pivotal scene was Art Baker, who portrays the peppy, salt-of-the-earth Truman as magisterial and aristocratic: in other words, as a worthy successor to Franklin Roosevelt.  Baker wrote to Charlie Ross on January 7, 1947, revealing that he’d been picked to play the president in the re-take—and then expressing warm feelings for Truman.

For much more, see Hollywood Bomb.

True Nature of Trump Supporters

If you've heard it once, you've heard it a thousand times from the mainstream media:  Most of Donald Trump's supporters are not fringe people, they are just angry, disaffected workers afraid for their jobs and standard of living and blah blah blah.  This is said despite what polls have consistently shown about the beliefs of the majority of them.  Now a new PPP poll finds that 65% of those with a favorable view of Trump believe that Clinton is a Muslim and only 13% feel he is Christian.  And:
59% think President Obama was not born in the United States, only 23% think that he was   --27% think vaccines cause autism, 45% don't think they do, another 29% are not sure. --24% think Antonin Scalia was murdered, just 42% think he died naturally, another 34% are unsure.
The polls also finds Trump narrowing gap on Hillary's lead. 

Obama Breaks Mold, to Visit Hiroshima

Update, May 10, 2016:  President Obama announced today that he will become first president to visit Hiroshima while in office but will not apologize for U.S. using the bomb (nor has Hiroshima demanded this, even if warranted).

Secretary of State John Kerry toured the Hiroshima memorial sites last month and said:  .
“It is a stunning display. It is a gut-wrenching display,  It tugs at all of your sensibilities as a human being. It reminds everybody of the extraordinary complexity of choices in war and of what war does to people, to communities, to countries, to the world.”


UPDATE 2015:  Caroline, yes:  she is back. 

UPDATE 2014: Caroline Kennedy, the new ambassador,  did attend the memorial service in both cities.  Photo left as she lay wreath in Nagasaki today. 

UPDATE 2013:  Caroline Kennedy sworn in as new U.S. ambassador--and if the new tradition holds, she will represent America at the Hiroshima and Nagasaki memorial services next August.  Here father never got there, but she will.

Earlier: Sensitive to world opinion about the use of atomic weapons against Japan in 1945, no American president has ever visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki while in office. Except for Dwight D. Eisenhower, the former general, none of them has expressed any misgivings about the use of the bombs in 1945. Shortly after becoming president, however, Barack Obama took the surprising step of at least expressing a desire to go to the two cities.

Then, in 2011, for the first time, a US ambassador to Japan, John Roos, attended the annual August 6 commemoration in Hiroshima. And in 2011, for the first time ever, the United States sent an official representative to the annual memorial service in Nagasaki—the deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Tokyo, James P. Zumwalt. He read a statement from Obama expressing hope to work with Japan for a world without nuclear weapons, a goal the president expressed early in his term but has made little progress on achieving.  “I was deeply moved,” Zumwalt told reporters after attending the ceremony. “Japan and the United States have the common vision for a world free of nuclear weapons, so it is important that the two countries make efforts to realize it.”

Naturally, many conservatives accused Obama of "apologizing" for Truman dropping the bomb. 

This year, Roos will again attend the Hiroshima memorial--meaning this has truly become a new tradition, at least under this president.  Next year, it appears, Caroline Kennedy will do the honors, with her special link to a former president.

While many Japanese hail the US moves, some of the survivors of the bombing and their ancestors are skeptical. Katsumi Matsuo, who lost her mother in the attack, told the Mainichi Shimbun in 2011, “What is the point in him coming now, after 66 years? His visit will only be meaningful if it promotes a world free of nuclear weapons.”

Still, Obama has broken a sad record of total denial, which has accompanied the suppression of key evidence about the effects of the bombings (as chronicled in my new book and e-book Atomic Cover-up) dating back to the 1940s.

Of course, there was no way President Truman was going to make that visit, even telling an aide, after leaving the White House, that while he might meet with survivors of the bombing in the United States, he would “not kiss their asses.” President Eisenhower did not visit the atomic cities, but he famously expressed displeasure with the use of the bombs in 1945, saying we shouldn’t have hit Japan “with that awful thing.” Richard Nixon came to Hiroshima before becoming president.

Reflecting on the visit in a 1985 interview with Roger Rosenblatt, he said the bombings saved lives, but noted that General Douglas MacArthur had told him it was a “tragedy” that the weapon was used against “noncombatants.”

Jimmy Carter visited Hiroshima after leaving office but did not take part in any ceremony or comment afterward. Ronald Reagan also invoked the notion that the bombings actually saved lives. When protests from conservatives and some veterans groups caused first the censorship, then shutdown, of a full exploration of the atomic bombings at the Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC, in 1995, President Clinton backed the suppression.

So two cheers for Obama for at least marking what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next step: an honest American reappraisal of the bombings and real progress on nuclear abolition.

Note: Last year, President Harry S Truman’s grandson, Clifton Truman Daniel, became the first kin of the president (son of his daughter) to step foot in one of the two cities he ordered destroyed in August 1945, killing over 200,000, the vast majority civilians. Four days before the annual commemoration, he toured the city and exhibits in the Peace Museum and met with survivors who seemed pleased, while pointing out they still held his granddad in low esteem.

Then on the morning of August 6--late on August 5 in the U.S.--he took part in the annual official ceremony in Hiroshima's Peace Park (which I attended back in1984). He told journalists that it was hard to listen to the tragic stories of the survivors but he was glad he did it to gain a wider appreciation of the effects (and in some cases, after-effects) of his grandfather's action. Japanese leaders made their annual pleas for antinuclear policies, with growing emphasis on the nuclear power aspects after the Fukushima disaster.

Daniel said he did not second-guess Truman’s decision, offering the usual bromides about no-good-decisions in war. He should be congratulated for at least making the trip, but his name might he Denial, not Daniel. Some no-good decisions are worse than others. 

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The Best of Townes

I've wanted to do this for awhile, so why not now?   As we mark anniversary of his tragic death.   Some of us--a few of us--consider the late great Townes Van Zandt one of the great American songwriters ever (and great American fuck-up).  You may have heard of him, or not.  You may have heard one or more of his songs, or not (or more likely heard them, even in True Detective, and not known it was by him).  So here's what I consider his greatest, in no order, both his versions or great covers of his songs by others.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Socialist "Bros": Upton Sinclair and Bernie Sanders

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A famous longtime Socialist,  the white-haired maverick led a grassroots movement to unexpectedly challenge the Democratic party establishment in a raucous primary campaign.   His opponent was a well-known pillar of the party with many years on the national stage and as an official in Washington who was the natural frontrunner.   He and others within the party admitted that they rather liked the challenger, and that many of his ideas were good ones, but wildly impractical.  Those policies called for full employment, redistribution of wealth, and expanding the social safety net for the many unemployed or infirmed.  Party insiders said the challenger, if somehow elected, could never get any of that past Republican legislators, who outnumbered Democrats.  Far more likely, he would never get that far:  As the the Democratic nominee, he would drag the party down to certain defeat in November, even with a mass movement behind him.    If nothing else, the "Socialist" tag would doom him, even with a liberal Democrat presently in the White House.

We are talking, of course, of Senator Bernie Sanders--but also, famed muckraking author Upton Sinclair.    In Sinclair's case, the campaign was for governor of California.   The amazing grassroots movement was known as EPIC, for End Poverty in California.  And, surprise, Sinclair would win the Democratic primary, in a landslide.  His campaign would become one of the most influential of the century, echoing down to this day.      

The year was 1934; the president was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The economic crisis FDR faced was far worse than what President Obama confronts today, but some similarities exist.   Sinclair was not Bernie Sanders, but his campaign provides many lessons for Sanders supporters and opponents--and media analysts--today.

Of all the left-wing mass movements that year, Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California (EPIC) crusade proved most influential, and not just in helping to push the New Deal to the left. The Sinclair threat—after he easily won the Democratic gubernatorial primary—so profoundly alarmed conservatives that it sparked the creation of the modern political campaign in America. Profiling two of the creators of the anti-Sinclair campaign, Carey McWilliams would later call this (in The Nation) "a new era in American politics—government by public relations." It also provoked Hollywood’s first all-out plunge into politics, which, in turn, inspired the leftward tilt in the movie colony that endures to this day. 

Back in the autumn of 1934, political analysts, financial columnists and White House aides for once agreed: Sinclair’s victory in the primary marked the high tide of electoral radicalism in the United States. Left-wing novelist Theodore Dreiser wrote a piece for Esquire declaring EPIC "the most impressive political phenomenon that America has yet produced." The New York Times called it "the first serious movement against the profit system in the United States."

Sinclair lost in November, but the inspiring success of his mass movement basically created the liberal wing of the state’s Democratic Party, which  endures to this day.   
(My book on the 1934 race, The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize, has been published in new print and e-book editions.)

* * *
Nearly three decades after his classic novel The Jungle (1906) exposed dangerous and abusive conditions in the meatpacking industry, Sinclair decided, "You have written enough. What the world needs is a deed." Sinclair, who had moved to California in 1916, had written dozens of influential books while finding time to spark numerous civil liberties and literary controversies, get arrested and become perhaps the best-known American leftist abroad.

He had twice run for governor of California on the Socialist line, to little avail, but the election of FDR in 1932 encouraged him to give the Democrats a whirl. While he backed the New Deal, he saw that it did not go nearly far enough. Hugh Johnson, who ran Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration, had allowed big business to subvert its codes, and a national textile strike loomed. Nearly one in four people was on relief in New York, with the numbers only slightly better in many other large cities. Adequate relief payments and some form of social security were promised but still unrealized.

So the country’s best-known member of the Socialist Party switched his affiliation to Democrat and used his pen one more time, writing and self-publishing a sixty-four-page pamphlet, I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty. Then he set out to make his fantasy true.

Although Sinclair could draw thousands of votes on name recognition alone, he considered a grassroots movement his greatest hope. Thousands quickly rallied to his cause, organizing End Poverty League clubs across the state.

Note to Obama: a detailed, step-by-step plan—"a way out," as Sinclair put it—and a steely will help. Recall the absurd limits and confusion of the Obama healthcare bill and then consider this promise: "End Poverty in California." It doesn’t obfuscate, qualify or compromise (at least in advance). And it doesn’t include an addendum, "if only we had the money or GOP support."

Sinclair, in a nutshell, outlined a classic production-for-use plan, where all of the unemployed would be put to work in shuttered factories or on unused farms, with goods traded, providing necessities. No one would go hungry or homeless. The elderly and infirm would get relief or pensions. Co-ops would receive state aid. Another plank in the platform: open up discarded studio lots and help out-of-work movie people make their own films. Naturally, this caused most of the Hollywood studio chiefs to threaten to move their operations to Florida.

Many who sympathized with Sinclair—including his friend McWilliams, the young California writer and future Nation editor—found some devil in the details, but the candidate promised to junk what didn’t or couldn’t work.

A pen his only weapon, Sinclair led an army of crazed utopians, unemployed laborers, Dust Bowl refugees and all-purpose lefties to take on "the vested interests." He noted, "Our opponents have told you that all of this is socialism and communism. We are not the least worried." I, Governor became the bestselling book in the state. EPIC clubs kept popping up like mushrooms, funded largely by bake sales, rodeos and rallies; and a weekly newspaper, the EPIC News, reached a circulation of nearly 
1 million by primary day in August 1934.

Sinclair swept the Democratic primary. Dozens of EPIC candidates also won races for the party’s nod for the State Senate and Assembly, including Augustus Hawkins and Jerry Voorhis, both future Congressmen. "It is a spontaneous movement which has spread all over the state by the unpaid labor of tens of thousands of devoted workers," Sinclair noted. "They were called amateurs but they have put all the professional politicians on the shelf." All that stood between EPIC and the governor’s mansion was a hapless GOP hack named Frank "Old Baldy" Merriam, who had become governor after the death of "Sunny Jim" Rolph.

Where did FDR stand? A few days after winning the primary, Sinclair took a train east to meet with the president at Hyde Park, under the glare of national press coverage. The White House was torn. Sinclair was a true radical and a loose cannon. Roosevelt and his political director, Jim Farley, feared that the president, already accused by the right of being a socialist—led by Father Coughlin, the Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh of his day—could not afford this taint. Those tilting to the left, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins, were far more enthusiastic about EPIC. And then there was the rather significant matter of Sinclair being the party’s nominee in a year when controlling a major statehouse was vitally important. FDR believed the greatest challenge for the head of a democracy was not to fend off reactionaries but to reconcile and unite progressives.

During the Hyde Park meeting FDR suggested that "experiments" within the overall New Deal framework could be valuable. Sinclair was elated, but the president held off any public endorsement.

Meanwhile, EPIC organizing surged in California. The number of local chapters was now more than 800, and circulation of the EPIC News reportedly hit a staggering 2 million. Black precincts that had reliably voted Republican (the legacy of Lincoln) now split down the middle. Even a few Hollywood screenwriters, such as Dorothy Parker, who normally kept their politics under wraps in the right-wing movie colony, spoke out for Sinclair. So did Charlie Chaplin.

But "the vested interests" organized the most lavish and creative dirty-tricks campaign ever seen—one that was to become a landmark in American politics. There’s far too much to describe in this limited space (it’s the focus of my book), but it involved turning over a major campaign to outside advertising, publicity, media and fundraising consultants for the first time. What was left of the official GOP campaign was chaired by a local district attorney named Earl Warren.

California’s newspapers, led by William Randolph Hearst and Harry Chandler, covered only Merriam’s activities, while mocking Sinclair day after day with quotes from books and novels taken out of context. (Chandler’s Los Angeles Times referred to Sinclair’s "maggot-like horde" of supporters.) Hollywood moguls, besides threatening the move to Florida, docked most employees a day’s pay, giving the proceeds directly to Merriam’s coffers. Millions of dollars to defeat Sinclair poured in from business interests across the country, all off the books. And then there were the attack ads (i.e., newsreels) shown in movie theaters around the state, created by the saintly film producer Irving Thalberg, causing near-riots in some places.  (You can watch excerpts and other vintage video here.) 

FDR, displaying an Obama-like tendency, waited, refusing to make a bold move to help Sinclair ward off the savagely unfair assaults. As a result, Sinclair fell behind in the polls—and then the president was advised to not endorse a probable loser. Farley sent an emissary to California to strike a deal with Merriam: if the GOP governor promised to back the New Deal down the road, the White House would remain silent on Sinclair.

The EPIC fervor continued right up to election day. Activists, looking at their numbers and energy, were certain their candidate would prevail. Sinclair, in fact, would receive almost 900,000 votes, twice the total ever for a Democrat in the state, but would still finish about 200,000 votes behind Merriam. Revealing the true strength of the grassroots movement, however, two dozen EPICs won election to the state legislature, including Hawkins and Culbert Olson. The legacy of the EPIC campaign? Merriam did embrace much of the New Deal, providing at least some fresh help for suffering Californians. Responding to the Hollywood moguls’ outrages during the campaign, actors and writers turned left and feverishly bolstered their fledgling guilds.

On the national scene, Sinclair’s strong showing encouraged Minnesota Governor Floyd Olson to predict an agrarian revolt that would bring down "the profit system," and five left-wing Congressmen called a conference to explore a third-party bid. Lewis Schwellenbach won a Senate contest in the Northwest on the End Poverty in Washington platform. The La Follettes and their Progressive Party pretty much took over Wisconsin, where a modern maverick, Senator Russ Feingold, faces a tough re-election fight this year.

Emboldened by the results of the midterm elections and Sinclair’s strong showing, Harry Hopkins near the end of 1934 proposed a comprehensive program, dubbed End Poverty in America, which the New York Times said "differs from Mr. Sinclair’s in detail, but not in principle." Along with other popular movements—from the Townsend Plan pension crusaders to Huey Long in Louisiana—EPIC exerted a leftward pressure on the New Deal, strongly influencing FDR’s groundbreaking legislation on Social Security and public works. The "Second New Deal," which also included the Works Progress Administration and National Labor Relations Act, would be more prolabor and antibusiness than the first.

A lesson for today? Mobilizing to prove grassroots support for a "radical" option usually produces positive results, even if that’s not certain immediately. It wasn’t exactly an EPIC movement, but as Ari Berman showed in his book Herding Donkeys, Howard Dean’s 2004 race for president—and the once-mocked "fifty-state strategy" he carried out as Democratic Party chief two years later—led to Obama’s election in 2008. Berman also pointed out that part of Obama’s problem is that as president he ignored much of his grassroots operation, once in office.

Revealing another typical result, the EPIC campaign split over whether to remain in the election business or align with the co-op movement and other groups outside the party system. When Sinclair returned to writing books, the End Poverty League and the EPIC News slowly declined, revealing the dangers of depending too much on one inspiring figure to lead a mass movement. Of course, we saw this years later with Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition, not to mention with Ross Perot and his "movement."

Still, a backlash against the GOP tactics in the ’34 campaign helped push Culbert Olson to election in 1938 as the state’s first Democratic governor in decades—defeating Merriam by 200,000 votes. Olson hired Sinclair’s pal McWilliams to direct the state immigration and housing agency.

Many years after the Sinclair race, McWilliams remarked that he still came across EPIC cafes "in the most remote and inaccessible communities of California" and EPIC slogans "painted on rocks in the desert, carved on trees in the forest and scrawled on the walls of labor camps." While he questioned Sinclair’s ability to govern, he hailed his "conviction that poverty was man-made, that you didn’t need it."

This is perhaps the greatest message of the EPIC campaign, but are Democrats listening today in Washington?  And as the Sinclair campaign showed, the Republican reaction to a popular grassroots campaign would be truly frightening.

In a New York Times column, Bob Herbert, with a touch of anger, declared a few years ago, "Election Day is approaching, but neither party cares to focus on the nightmare facing millions of Americans who have been laid low by unemployment, home foreclosures, personal bankruptcies, and jobs that offer only part-time work, lousy pay and absolutely no benefits…. Weirder still is that even Democrats who should know better are buying into this self-defeating austerity posture." Herbert concluded by calling on all of us to "take our cue from the best moments in American history, when the nation rolled up its sleeves and placed the interests of ordinary people at the top of its agenda."

Surely, the EPIC crusade of 1934 was one of those moments. But the eternal debate—work within or outside the two-party system?—continues, as well it should.


Sunday, February 7, 2016

Super Bowl-'Downton Abbey' Conflict Coming!

With Downton Abbey continuing many a household will face the same conflict we witnessed in past years:  the PBS show coming up against the final quarter of the Super Bowl tonight  (in homes without DVR etc.)  So, once again, here is classic from a couple years back that found the original Downton gang settling down to catch the game: 

Monday, January 25, 2016

EPA Whistleblower Hits Agency on Flint

Almost forty years ago I met Hugh Kaufman, a youngish engineer at the Environmental Protection Agency in D.C. tasked with investigating toxic leaks at chemical dump sites around the USA, before that was a major national issue.   The Love Canal case was just emerging and I was particularly interested because the crime scene was in my hometown of Niagara Falls, N.Y.   Kaufman was playing a key role from inside EPA in exposing, for the press and for congressmen, such as Rep. Al Gore, the dangers at Love Canal and hundreds of other sites.  I wrote about that, and him,  in a major magazine piece and then in my first book, in 1981, Truth and Consequence: Seven Who Would Not Be Silenced.

Hugh continued to raise hell from and at EPA in this realm for years, decades, without losing his job.  Somehow he is still there today.   He keeps in touch with me on some key cases--amid the friendly back and forth on his Nats vs. my Mets (he has gained new fame as the "Chicken Man" at the Nats' ballpark, but that's another story).

He has been weighing in on the Flint water poisoning crisis for some time, of course, and today he has sent me an email he has written to two Washington Post reporters, praising them for their Flint story from yesterday but trying to point them to certain troubling aspects--his usual manner.  Here it is:

Dear Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Dennis,

Kudos for your article in this mornings Washington Post on the Flint Water Contamination Case where you folks compared the Flint MI contamination case to the Love Canal NY contamination case.

I was one of the engineers who helped start the USEPA 45 years ago, and in the mid 1970's, when I was the chief investigator on Hazardous Contamination Cases at EPA, I was the EPA whistleblower on the Love Canal Contamination Case (I'm still at EPA working on Superfund and Emergency Response issues).

The Flint case is much worse than the Love Canal case.
In the Love Canal case EPA did NOT coverup contamination information to protect the financial interests of business "players" (eg. Occidental Petroleum) and politicians.

In the Flint case EPA DID coverup contamination information to protect the financial interests of business "players" (eg. American Cast Iron Pipe Company) and politicians.

Further, 40 years ago, EPA actively looked for and identified other Love Canal type cases, and took definitive action, with the support of Congress, to find and remedy other Love Canals throughout the pendency of that case and beyond.

There were numerous Congressional Hearings at the time which spurred Government at all levels on to do the right thing.

Today, EPA is NOT looking for other Environmental Justice cases like Flint, where minority populations are being poisoned in defiance of Federal laws and regulations, and there are ZERO Congressional Hearings planned.

I would respectfully encourage you folks to continue your excellent reportage on this terrible state of affairs, as the Washington Post did on the Love Canal case, and its ramifications, almost 40 years ago.

The Washington Post is credited with the term "follow the money." I respectfully request that you all consider following the money on the Flint Contamination case, as the Washington Post did on the Love Canal case, back in the 1970's.

Thanks for your consideration, Hugh Kaufman, USEPA

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

When FDR Shafted Socialist-Democrat Candidate Upton Sinclair

As the Bernie Sanders campaign catches fire (at least in two early states):  The following happened 82 years ago,  just after  muckraking author "Uppie" Sinclair,  the former Socialist, swept the Democratic primary for governor of California leading one of great grassroots movements ever,  EPIC (End Poverty in California)--and seemed headed for victory in November.  His meeting with a very friendly FDR at Hyde Park seemed to clinch the deal.  They even chatted about Teddy Roosevelt's response to Upton's The Jungle 30 years back.  Then Roosevelt and his top aides screwed him, backing his right-wing dullard GOP opponent.

Eleanor backed Sinclair in epic race--but FDR instructed aides to tell her to remain silent, and she did.  Sinclair wrote her a key private letter after meeting with the president, but she was away when it arrived, and the aides opened it and informed the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, no less.

And the dirtiest, and one of the most influential, campaigns in USA history--it virtually created the modern campaign--emerged to defeat him.  Hollywood took its first all-out plunge into politics and the saintly Irving Thalberg created the very attack ads for the screen.  See a trailer below for my book on what led to all this:


Saturday, January 16, 2016

My Book on Hollywood Politics

My recent  e-book When Hollywood Turned Left  (Townsend Books), is something borrowed, something new, yet all very entertaining--and revealing.  It answers the question:  Okay, we all know Hollywood has been pretty damn liberal for a long time, but how did it get that way?  This book traces it back to the 1934 race for governor of California when the outrageous actions by the conservative studio bosses--such as docking every employee one day's pay for the GOP candidate--forced left-leaning (but still powerless) actors and screenwriters to organize and fight back, in spades.  And the rest is history.

If this sounds fairly familiar--at least to my fans and/or longtime readers--it's because most of the book is taken from my 1992 "classic" The Campaign of the Century, although with a new Introduction and fresh material elsewhere.  Ever since that earlier 620-page book (winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize and much other acclaim) appeared, many would-be readers have requested that I create a smaller, although still very substantial, volume focusing on the wild and wooly Hollywood angle.  So, after a couple decades of hearing this, I've finally done it, thanks to the brave new world of e-publishing, and now with clickable links!

So now there's no excuse (such as "I won't read any doorstop books") to not enjoy this story and it's wonderful cast of characters,  including Will Rogers, Charlie Chaplin, Louis B. Mayer, Katharine Hepburn, Billy Wilder, W.R. Hearst, Jimmy Cagney, and on and on.  As some know, my major discovery was the trio of faked newsreels produced by the saintly Irving Thalberg to destroy Sinclair--the first full use of the screen to destroy a candidate, and precursor of TV "attack ads" today.   Here's my video that covers some of that.  But even that is just small part of this book ($3.79 for limited time only, for all Kindles, iPads etc.).  Hooray for Hollywood! Of the full Campaign of the Century in print or ebook.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

MoveOn Endorses Sanders Over Clinton


Just announced in an email to members, and it was overwhelming:
It's official: MoveOn members have voted to endorse Bernie Sanders for president. Now, with your help, we will mobilize and help him win.
After more than 340,000 ballots were cast in a four-day membership vote, Bernie Sanders has earned our endorsement with an overwhelming 79% of votes cast, far more than the 67% threshold required for an endorsement. That's the best-ever performance of any presidential candidate in MoveOn's 17-year history.
This vote was not only decisive, but participation was broad based, with more ballots cast than any other endorsement vote in MoveOn's history.

It’s no surprise that Bernie Sanders has earned overwhelming support from MoveOn members. The issues his campaign is raising—tackling economic inequality, ending corporate influence over our politics, breaking up too-big-to-fail banks, expanding Social Security, fighting climate change, avoiding senseless wars, and more—are the same issues that MoveOn members have been fighting for for years.
Now, with just 20 days until voting begins in the 2016 presidential primary, we're adding our millions of collective voices in support of this historic campaign.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Bowie Up Against the Wall

Bowie song inspired something he witnessed at the Berlin Wall--two separated lovers....and my upcoming book indeed looks at "heroes... just for one day." Building tunnels under the Wall to reunite, in many cases, lovers.

'Never Wave Bye-bye"

I was never a big fan of David Bowie, going back to 1971 when edited one of the first major profiles of him for Crawdaddy.  I was a little old for (and wholly uninterested) in Ziggy and "glam-rock" and then electronica, white R & B, and so on.  Just never connected but he was purportedly a nice guy and obviously broadly  influential.  Always loved and still love 'Modern Love," however, as well as his more recent "Wake Up" with Arcade Fire.  R.I.P.

'The Nation' Adopts Metered Pay Wall

Katrina Vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of The Nation, announced today that  the 150-year magazine (I was a daily blogger there from 2010-2014) has now adopted a "metered pay wall" for its previously "free" Web site.  Here is an excerpt from the email:

In the past, the only way to read everything The Nation publishes (including our 150-year digital archive) was to subscribe. Unlike most magazines that rely on advertising to pay their bills, The Nation has always depended on the support of our readers and the generosity of our donors. But beginning today, January 11, 2016, we’re switching to a model based on metered access to our online content. We think this new system will better suit casual readers and give us the ability to share our most important work in a timely manner at critical news moments (we’re working to build a movement here, after all). Here’s how it works:

  • Everyone will be able to read 6 articles for free over a 30-day period.
  • After the first 3 articles, you’ll be asked to sign up for one of our newsletters so that we can stay in touch with you about our journalism.
  • After 6 free reads in 30 days, you’ll be asked to subscribe at our special, introductory rate of $9.50 for 6 months of unlimited digital access. (That’s less than 37 cents per week!)
  • All print and digital subscribers can log in to enjoy unlimited access. For more details on the meter or on how to create or manage your subscription, go to our handy FAQ.
Many of you already subscribe (thanks!). Some of you have let your subscriptions lapse (now’s a great time to renew!). And for others of you, this will be the first time you’ve been asked to pay for access to our articles. Because we only do journalism that matters, we believe our regular readers should be proud to subscribe—and to help keep The Nation accessible to new readers. Over the next few months, we’ll be keeping a close eye on how this is all working, as well as answering customer queries.


Friday, January 1, 2016

The Atom Bowl

The famed biologist Jacob Bronowski revealed in 1964 that his classic study Science and Human Values was born at the moment he arrived in Nagasaki in November 1945, three months after the atomic bombing (which killed at least 75,000 civilians) with a British military mission sent to study the effects of the new weapon.  Arriving by jeep after dark, he found a landscape as desolate as the craters of the moon. That moment, he wrote, “is present to me as I write, as vividly as when I lived it.” It was “a universal moment…civilization face to face with its own implications.” The power of science to produce good or evil had troubled other societies. “Nothing happened in 1945,” he observed, “except that we changed the scale of our indifference to man…“

One of the most bizarre episodes in the entire occupation of Japan took place less than two months later, on January 1, 1946, in Nagasaki.  (For more on this critical period,  and my own experiences in Nagasaki, see my book, Atomic Cover-up.)

Back in the States, the Rose Bowl and other major college football bowl games, with the Great War over, were played as usual on New Year’s Day. To mark the day in Japan, and raise morale (at least for the Americans), two Marine divisions faced off in the so-called Atom Bowl, played on a killing field in Nagasaki that had been cleared of debris. It had been “carved out of dust and rubble,” as one wire service report put it--without mentioning that it was the former site of a high school where hundreds of students perished on Auhust 9--and was soon dubbed "Atomic Athletic Field No. 2."

Both teams had enlisted former college (from UCLA to Temple) or pro stars serving in Japan for their squads. The “Bears” were led by quarterback Angelo Bertelli of Notre Dame, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1943, while the “Tigers” featured Bullet Bill Osmanski of the Chicago Bears, who topped pro football in rushing in 1939 (and then became a Navy dentisst). Marines fashioned goal posts and bleachers out of scrap wood that had been blasted by the A-bomb. Nature helped provide more of a feel of America back  home, as the day turned unusually chilly for Nagasaki and snow swirled.

More than 2000 turned out to watch. A band played the fight song, “On Wisconsin!” The rules were changed from tackle to two-hand touch because of all the irradiated glass shards from the atomic blast remaining on the turf.  A referee watched for infractions.  Each quarter lasted ten minutes. 

Press reports the next day claimed Japanese locals observed the game—from the shells of blasted-out buildings nearby.  The two stars, Bertelli and Osmanski had agreed to end the game in a tie so that both sides would be happy but Osmanski, after leading a second-half comeback, could not resist kicking the extra point that gave his team the win, 14-13.

More than 9,000 Allied POWs were processed through Nagasaki, but the number of occupation troops dropped steadily every month. By April 1946, the US had withdrawn military personnel from Hiroshima, and they were out of Nagasaki by summer. An estimated 118,000 military personnel passed through the atomic cities at one point or another. Some of them were there mainly as tourists, and wandered through the ruins, snapping photos and buying artifacts.

 A commemorative booklate produced for the game included this line:  "In the rubble of the atomic bomb, we made a gridiron.”

When the servicemen returned to the US, many of them suffered from strange rashes and sores. Years later some were afflicted with disease (such as thyroid problems and leukemia) or cancer (such as multiple myeloma or forms of lymphoma) associated with radiation exposure. More on this and related issues here.

UPDATE:   The images of the program for the game above were new to me until today.   A former  Marine named Bob Trujillo read my piece and sent it to a bunch of other Marines and the son of one of them responded with the program.  I've now been in touch with the son and, yes, his father later suffered health defects he related to his atomic exposure in 1946.   Thanks to Bob Trujillo (@chelledaddy) for this amazing contribution.

Thursday, December 31, 2015

63 Years On: The Death of Hank Williams

One of the great tragedies of modern music, the sudden death of Hank Williams at the age of 29--in the back seat of a Caddy, the cause still disputed (see recent Steve Earle novel)--happened 63 years ago today. Well, as Hank sang, he did not get out of this world alive.  Here are few links and videos marking the day.

Radio announcement of his death.  A small part of his funeral service, including Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe and  others singing Hank's "I Saw the Light."   A fuller part of the service.   Trailer for recent movie The Last Ride starring Henry Thomas of E.T. fame and great song about that ride from Emmylou Harris.   Hank (and Emmylou) doing one of his greatest, "Alone and Forsaken."   Some home movies of Hank as he sings "Long, Gone Lonesome Blues."  Rare TV clip as Hank does "Hey Good Lookin.'"  Alan Jackson's hit tribute, "Midnight in Montgomery."   Waylon's classic, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?"

Below, June Carter introduces sister Anita singing duet with Hank on his "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)."

The Band, 44 Years On

One of the epic live gigs ever opened tonight at NYC's Academy of Music in 1971, featuring The Band (plus Allen Toussaint leading the horn section).  And  I was there one night.  A box set appeared a few years ago.  A highlight:

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Best Album of 2015

Yes, the material is up to fifty years old but my pick is the amazing collection of alternate takes from Bob Dylan's epic recording sessions in 1965 and 1966 that produced, in little more than one year (imagine this today) the greatest album by anyone (Highway 61) plus Bringing It All Back Home and the two-lp Blonde on Blonde.  Besides Bob, the songs feature the top guitarist of the mid-1960s, Mike Bloomfield, and The Band, when they were still the back-up band, The Hawks.  The new collections come in two-lp, six-lp (my copy) and then one for completists including every note.... Here are some of the highlights (which only scratch the surface) available for free over at YouTube...

Most fans have said they prefer every single song in the released version but I disagree in a few cases, such as "Please Crawl Out Your Window"  (no cowbell) and one take of "Highway Revisited 61" (thanks to the vocals).