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Another New Book Available: States of the Union, The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published States of the Union: The History of the United States through Presidential Addresses, 1789-2023.   St...

Sunday, October 31, 2021

A COVID update

 Last Thursday afternoon, I received my Moderna booster and a flu shot.  I experienced a much more severe reaction than I had for either of my original shots, and was laid pretty low for a full 48 hours.  Thus I am taking a relatively easy way out this morning and will content myself with an update on COVID data from around the country for the last week, and how it compares to previous weeks.

The news, basically, is good, suggesting that the delta variant surge has definitely passed its peak.  On August 20, nationwide new deaths per million for the previous week were at 23.  Two weeks later, on September 3, new deaths per million for the past week were up to 35, and on September 17 that figure was 41.  It appears to have peaked one week later on September 24 at 44, and on October 8 it was down to 41.  The average figure for the next two weeks was 35, and for the week ending last Friday it was just 30.  In short, weekly deaths nationwide nearly doubled between August 20 and September 24, and if present trends continue we will be down to the August 20 level within two more weeks.

Meanwhile, however, we remain two completely different countries with respect to the pandemic.  19 of the top 20 most seriously hit states last week were red or purple. The full list includes Montana, West Virginia, Idaho, Kansas, North Dakota, Georgia, Ohio, South Carolina, Kentucky, Delaware (blue), Wyoming, Oklahoma, Florida, Arizona, Iowa, Pennsylvania, Texas, Maine, Alaska, and Michigan.  They averaged 43 deaths per million people for the week.  The best-off 20 states, on the other hand, averaged just 16 deaths per million, and 15 of them are blue.  The full list: Colorado, Utah, Washington, Minnesota, Oregon, Vermont, South Dakota, Louisiana, California, Illinois, New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Connecticut, Nebraska, D.C., Rhode Island, and New Hampshire.  There are 216 million people in those 20 worst-hit states, and 5832 people died there last week who would not have if their death rates had matched that of the 20 best off states.  These figures also explain why we are losing people more quickly than the major European states now.  

The refusal of the political authorities in the red states--who presumably speak for the majority of their populations--illustrates the attack on enlightenment principles coming from the right.  Another attack, based on identity as the source of all knowledge, is coming from the left.  I do not think there is any alternative to enlightenment principles to hold a modern nation together.


Saturday, October 23, 2021

The Republicans Struggle On

It was about nine and a half years ago that I wrote the post reproduced below, about half way through the Obama Administration.  Thanks to important reading about Communist strategy during the Vietnam War, I realized that the Republican Party was pursuing a long-term strategy of making it impossible for the federal government--their enemy--to function.  I was reminded of it and moved to repost it by reports that two Republican Senators, Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, are pushing the strategy to new heights--or rather, depths--in the Senate.  Cruz is putting a "hold" on every Biden ambassadorial appointment to pressure the Administration to impose sanctions on European nations who have agreed on a new natural gas pipeline from Russia.  Hawley is doing the same for every confirmable appointment to both the State and Defense Departments in an obviously vain attempt to get Secretary of State Blinken, Secretary of Defense Austin, and National Security Adviser Sullivan to resign because of the results of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.  As a result, only one ambassador as been confirmed, nine full months into the Biden administration.  Only 21% of State Department positions in Washington requiring confirmation have been confirmed.  

68 years ago, Republican Senator Joe McCarthy tried to block President Eisenhower's selection of Charles Bohlen, one of our leading Soviet experts at the time, as Ambassador to the USSR. Bohlen had served in the American delegation at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, and Republicans had branded that meeting as a treacherous betrayal of the United States.  President Eisenhower refused to be intimidated, however, and Bohlen was confirmed.  McCarthy at that point was almost unique in his demagoguery, but Cruz and Hawley are Republican stars, past and future presidential hopefuls.  I remember the day in the spring of 1961 when my father appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after JFK had appointed him Ambassador to Senegal.  Also present was a black academic, a Howard University professor of romance languages named Mercer Cook, who had been chosen as Ambassador to Niger.  The committee approved both of them quickly.  They had not had to fill out endless questionnaires about their financial situations in those distant days, and when the Senator chairing the hearing--Frank Lausche of Ohio, I believe--asked a single standard question as to whether they had any holdings that would create a conflict of interest, Cook replied, "Sir, I'm a schoolteacher," to general laughter.  My father and Cook were typical of an almost new kind of ambassadorial appointment of which JFK made a couple of dozen--neither foreign service officers nor major campaign contributors, but simply Americans who had distinguished themselves in government, journalism, or academia, who knew foreign languages and history, and whom the new administration thought would be good advertisements for the country.  They also included Edwin Reichsauer and John Kenneth Galbraith of Harvard, whom he appointed to Japan and India; William Attwood in Guinea; and General James Gavin in France.  

No Republican sought to hold any of those choices up, because everyone agreed that the United States was engaged in a continuing struggle to preserve and extend our values around the world.   No, we did not always wage it wisely, but it held us together and encouraged us to try to live up to our ideals, most notably with respect to civil rights.  We have lost the sense of our nation as a common enterprise, the view that presidents from one Roosevelt to the next managed to develop, and another few decades of presidents managed to maintain.  The same feeling enabled us to pass a series of lasting and effective domestic reforms, and to get rich Americans to pay their full share of the price of civilization.  I hope that somehow we can recover some of that.

The extent of Republican success became even more apparent earlier this week in a New York Times story about a nationwide attack on the authority of public health agencies, a result of the COVID epidemic.  These agencies were already underfunded when the epidemic began, and now threats have driven many of their leaders to resign, while Republican state and local governments cut back their authority.  Like the Republican gun mania, this attacks one of the fundamental functions of the modern state.  Quarantines and vaccines emerged centuries ago as essential weapons against disease, and now Republicans are taking them away where they can. 

Here is the original 2012 post.


One of the most important readings about the Vietnam War that I have ever encountered is a chapter by the late Douglas Pike, a real authority on the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese, about dau tranh, or struggle, the philosophy behind the Vietnamese Communist revolution. Dau tranh, Pike explains, had two forms: military and political. Of the two, the political was far more important, and indeed, the Viet Cong always had several times as many active political workers as soldiers during the Vietnam War. Their mission was to rally their own troops and sow confusion among the enemy, doing whatever they could, in particular, to make the South Vietnamese government unable to function effectively. They also infiltrated that government at every level and tried to influence the views of enemy forces. Their goal, essentially, was to reduce society to chaos and allow the well-organized Communist Party to take over. The other day I raised some eyebrows in a small group setting by suggesting that the Republican Party has been practicing dau tranh for more than twenty years. It has now crippled government at all levels and has a good chance of reducing much of the United States to chaos in the next ten years.

Dau transh in its current form started with Newt Gingrich's all-out assault on the Democrats in the House of Representatives, whom he was determined to demonize in order to take away their majority. Grover Norquist's anti-tax pledge, now signed by almost every Republican in Congress and thousands more in state legislatures around the country, is another form of dau tranh. So, of course, is the ceaseless drumbeat of propaganda day after day, week after week, year after year, on Limbaugh, Hannity and the rest. So is the attack on the authority of the mainstream media, universities and scientists. Oddly, while this attack on government probably did more than anything to land us in our current economic mess, the mess also makes dau tranh more effective, because it undermines confidence in the government. Conservative Republicans have also waged long-term dau tranh within our legal system, using the Federalist society to develop a network of conservative lawyers and judges and packing the courts whenever they can. Jeffrey Toobin has analyzed the increasingly significant results of that effort in a series of articles in the New Yorker.

I was moved to write this post because I have to deal with dau tranh almost daily myself in managing this blog. One of my regular readers is a fanatical right-winger who probably posts 50 comments a week here, week in and week out. They are not really comments, for the most part--they are links to some piece of right-wing propaganda, often accompanied with personal abuse towards myself. I think I know who he is, although we have never met face to face, and I also regard him as the prime suspect for having put my name on the Obama=Hitler email which is still circulating, even though he denied it when we were both still on the same discussion forum. (He was kicked off the forum when his dau tranh and personal abuse went too far.) I warn, of course, on the blog, that abusive anonymous comments will be deleted, but he berates me for doing so nonetheless. The attempt to keep the extreme Republican view of the world in the foreground is a key element of Republican dau tranh, just as it was for Nazis and Communists.

The Republicans' real target is the idea that dominated the last century--the idea that human reason can design, and create, a better world. That is why Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson have been given places in their Pantheon of villains. I'm afraid they have sufficiently discredited that idea that it no longer dominates our political life, and might be disappearing altogether. Their lust for power is much, much greater than their respect for the truth. This is the threat the nation faces. Pike also argued provocatively in one of his books that there was no known counter-strategy to dau tranh, and I'm afraid he may have been right.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Does Democracy Depend on Literacy?

 My new book in progress, States of the Union, 1789-2021--a concise political history of the US based on presidential addresses--is now complete in draft form through Herbert Hoover, and I am working on the research for FDR, focusing so far on the New Deal and his various attempts to reshape the economy before 1940.  Coincidentally, President Biden and the Democrats are trying to push a kind of new New Deal through Congress, including both an infrastructure package and redistributive measures dealing with health care, child care, and the tax code.  FDR had the advantage of huge Congressional majorities.  1930 through 1936 represent the only time in American history when the same party--the Democrats--gained strength in four consecutive presidential elections--although their greatest majority, the 1936 one, suddenly proved elusive during 1937.  He also enjoyed the support of some very liberal Republicans such as George Norris of Nebraska and Robert Lafollette of Wisconsin.  I am struck, however, by the difference in the kind of debate the country was having then and what we are having now.  The country debated many complex issues in a very sophisticated way in the 1930s--and we don't seem to be able to do that anymore.

For at least the first 160 years of our history, our leaders spoke frequently about the great democratic experiment that we had undertaken, and what it would take to make it succeed.  They took their mission very seriously--and so did the country.  Every significant newspaper (and some insignificant ones) printed major presidential addresses in full, and without radio, the movies, or television before 1920, the people had little choice but to read them, and they did.  The length of the State of the Union message grew steadily during the 19th century, partly because presidents didn't deliver it in person, and it peaked with Theodore Roosevelt, who annually sent messages of 20-25,000 words.  Woodrow Wilson brought the annual address into the modern era by drastically reducing its size and delivering it in person, and that has been the norm ever since.  FDR, despite the extraordinary breadth of his program, also kept his addresses relatively short, and he supplemented them with one or two radio Fireside Chats lasting 30-60 minutes each year, which also explained how he saw the nation's problems and what his administration and the Congress were trying to do about them in some detail.  In my earlier book on 1940-1, I found that evening radio addresses by major political figures had been another key forum for political debates.

By contrast, it seems to me that neither President Biden nor any other leading Democrats are making a sustained, detailed effort to explain what they are trying to do, what it will cost, and what effects they expect it to have to the American people.  If we read the newspapers and listen to a little cable news we know that a $550 billion infrastructure bill has already passed the Senate, and that the Democrats have an addition $2.5 trillion bill for child care, medicare expansion, and environmental measures under consideration, whose cost is likely to shrink to $1.5 trillion or less to get Senators Manchin and Sinema on board.  Checking, I find that the $550 billion infrastructure bill is for five years--$110 billion a year--whereas the $2.5 trillion infrastructure bill is for ten, another $250 billion a year.  Federal expenditures currently are about $6.6 trillion annually.  While I am not a domestic policy wonk, I think I'm better informed than average, and I have very little understanding of the details of either bill, how they will change the US, and what economic effects they are expected to have.  No one seems to be making much of an effort to let us know.

This must in part be the fault of our politicians.  Given that they are more or less required to spend several hours a day fundraising with wealthy donors and institutions, they don't have that much time for communicating with the public at large.  But it is also the fault of the media, which have transformed our political landscape.  I can't remember the last time that a Senator, a Congressman or a cabinet member made a major impression on the country with an hour long speech on some policy--perhaps because they do not think that significant numbers of Americans would watch or read such a speech.   The media runs on sound bites.  And broadcast media--television and talk radio--no longer sees its role as the vehicle for politicians to reach the country.  Rather than market our political leaders or our political process, the TV networks market themselves.  Even on NPR's News Hour--easily the most serious tv news broadcast available now--one sees many times as much of Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins than one does of any political figure from Joe Biden on down.  That  problem is even bigger on the private cable networks.  The consequences of this trend emerged in dramatic, horrifying fashion in 2016, when a reality TV star defeated the leading candidates of both parties in the presidential election.  Our political leaders still hold our destiny in their hands, but we no longer pay them nearly as much attention as we did in the first two-thirds of our history.  The media used to tell us what politicians said and what they were doing--leaving the citizenry to decide how they felt about it.  Now they spend most of their time telling us what to feel about it.  

Democracy, the founders understood, required an informed citizenry.  That is why several early presidents, from Washington to John Quincy Adams, called frequently for a national university in Washington--a proposal Congress never adopted.  Perhaps American democracy grew and thrived largely because of a nationwide thirst for the printed word, then almost  the only form of entertainment.  Now books play much less of a role in our lives, the newspaper audience has shrunk, and the newspapers have cut way back on conveying complex information in favor of fanning approved emotion.  That is why even I had to look up the total of federal revenues (about $3.6 trillion) and expenditures (about $6.6 trillion) lately.  The cyberworld has been a godsend for me because it makes so much information instantly available--but one has to have the curiosity to find that information, and the framework in which to integrate it.  We don't teach those things anymore, and we are suffering for it.

Saturday, October 09, 2021

A Brief History of the Nobel Peace Prize

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to journalists from the Philippines and Russia this past week piqued my curiosity about what sort of person has generally received it in different eras.  With help from Wikipedia, I found that the answer was in some ways more interesting than I had expected.

Great wars, of course, mark appropriate dividing lines for a history of a prize devoted to peace.  The first thirteen years of the prize (1901-13) set the pattern for the future. Of the 18 persons or organizations awarded the prize during those years--multiple awards have always been common--15 of them had worked in  some national or international organization working for peace, such as the Interparliamentary Union or the International Peace Bureau.  Of the remaining three, two were American statesmen--President Theodore Roosevelt, recognized for mediating the peace negotiations between Russia and Japan in 1905, and former Secretary of State Elihu Root, who had worked for international arbitration.  The third was a German novelist, Bertha von Suttner, recognized for her pacifist and feminist novel Lay Down Your Arms. These three categories--individuals or organizations working for peace, statesmen who have done much to bring it about, and authors with a political bent--have remained the most popular kinds of selections ever since.

Only once during the First World War in 1914-18 was the prize awarded, to the International Red Cross-which has won three times--in 1917.  Peacemaking became the leading task of statesmen after that war, No less than ten leading politicians or diplomats won between 1919 and 1939, beginning with President Woodrow Wilson, justly regarded as the founder of the League of Nations.  Others in this group included the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany in 1924-5--Sir Austen Chamberlain, Aristide Briand, and Gustav Stresemann--and the American diplomat and soon-to-be Vice President Charles Dawes, who concluded the Locarno Treaties and reached a settlement of the reparations question during those years.  In 1936 the Argentinian foreign Minister Carlos Saavedra Lamas won for mediating a war between Paraguay and Bolivia. A new kind of winner, the Norwegian explorer Fridtjof Nansen, won in 1922 for work among refugees, and the organization bearing his name won again for similar work in 1938.  Six individual activists for various causes related to peace won in this period, including the American social worker Jane Addams and a German journalist, Carl von Ossietzky, who had exposed Germany's secret rearmament.  The winners also included the British author Norman Angell, who had correctly predicted in his 1913 book The Great Illusion that great power war would be economically disastrous, falsely trusting that this would prevent the powers from embarking upon it.

The prize was not awarded from 1939 until 1944, when the International Red Cross won for the second time.  Long-time Secretary of State Cordell Hull, who won in late 1945 for helping to bring about the United Nations, was I suspect a stand-in for Franklin Roosevelt, who had died in April of that year (the prize has only once been given posthumously.)  In the years 1946-89--the era of the Cold War--23 activist individuals or organizations have won, including two Quaker organizations, the missionary Albert Schweitzer, Dr. Linus Pauling for his campaign against nuclear testing, Martin Luther King, Jr. , Soviet physicist Andrei Sakharov, the Polish labor leader Lech Walesa,  the Dalai Lama, and the South Amnesty International, Africans Albert Luthuli and Desmond Tutu.  The ten statesmen or diplomats who won during this turbulent era included Secretary of State George Marshall (for the plan that bore his name); the American Ralph Bunche and the Canadian Lester Pearson for stopping wars in the Middle East in 1948 and 1957;  German Chancellor Willy Brandt, for the agreements with Poland and East Germany that ended the critical period of the Cold War in Europe; Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (who declined the award) for negotiating the 1973 Vietnam agreement; UN Secretary General Dag Hammerskjold, awarded the prize posthumously in 1961; Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat (but not Jimmy Carter) for the Camp David agreements of 1979; Prime Minister Eisaku Sato of Japan, who renounced nuclear weapons for his country; and Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, for attempts to bring peace to Central America, in 1987. They also included Mikhail Gorbachev, who did the most to bring the Cold War to an end.  

The post-Cold War period is now about thirty years old.  Initially, the end of that long conflict led to determined and sometimes successful attempts to settle longstanding conflicts.  Frederick Willem de Klerk and Nelson Mandela shared the prize for ending apartheid in South Afirca in 1993, and Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres won for the first major Israeli-Palestinian agreement in 1994.  Like Answar Sadat, Rabin also paid for his peacemaker's role with his life. Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and Jose Ramos-Horta shared the prize for work to free their native East Timor in 1996, and South Korean President Kim Jae-Dung won for ultimately unsuccessful efforts to reconcile with North Korea in 2000.  John Hume and David Trimble, two Northern Irish politicians, won for helping to pacify their country in 1998.  Kofi Annan won for his work as UN Secretary General in 2001, and former President Carter won for numerous diplomatic efforts in 2002. Since then, however, the only two heads of government to win have been Juan Manuel Santos of Columbia, for helping to end his country's long civil war, and  Barack Obama, who received the award within months of taking office and did very little to justify it in his eight years as President.  His only major diplomatic achievement, the Iran nuclear agreement, did not survive the change of administration.  25 activist individuals and groups have won since 1991, including Al Gore for his work on global warming, three separate groups of women's rights activists in the Third World in 2011 (Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leyman Gbowee, and Tawakkul Karman), 2014 (Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai), and 2016 (Nadia Mursa and Denis Mukwege), four Tunisians who helped set up a democratic government in their country after 2011, and this year's two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov.

Nine years ago, I concluded my last lecture at the Naval War College with the following quote from Clausewitz.

"“In war, as in life generally, all parts of a whole are interconnected and thus the effects produced, however small their cause, must influence all subsequent military operations. . .In the same way, every means must influence even the ultimate purpose. . .thus we can follow a chain of sequential objectives until we reach one that requires no justification, because its necessity is self-evident.  In many cases, particularly those involving great and decisive actions, the analysis must extend to the ultimate objective, which is to bring about peace.”

Rabin, Arafat and Peres won the Nobel for the Oslo Accords in 1994.  Those accords did not ultimately bear fruit, and since then, no head of state, head of government or foreign minster has won the Nobel Prize for actually settling an international conflict, and only one, in Colombia, has won for settling a civil war.  The major nations of the world--including, I regret to say, my own--have evidently forgotten that the task of statesmanship is to bring about peace.  Despite--and in some ways, because of--the two world wars, the dream of world peace dominated the 20th century.  We need to revive it in the 21st.

Wednesday, October 06, 2021