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Monday, December 08, 2003

A-bombs, politics, movie stars & wars

I've just finished reading Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb, a kind gift from a thoughtful colleague.  Its 788 pages tell the story of the Manhattan Project exhaustively but adeptly for the most part.  It's lively, the science is tough but followable for a dedicated layman, and it's easy to see why this book won a Pulitzer, National Book Award, and other recognition when it came out in 1986.  Its politics hold up fairly well despite a rather significant unexpected event — the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union — since its publication.  And frankly the description of the efforts that were required for the first atomic bombs are almost comforting to read today — at least until one remembers that North Korea and Pakistan, among other countries, have managed to make the necessary effort.

I think the best of the book's many excellent quotes comes from a 1954 interview with physicist Edward Teller, who died this past September 9th at age 95: 

Scientists naturally have a right and a duty to have opinions.  But their science gives them no special insight into public affairs.  There is a time for scientists and movie stars and people who have flown the Atlantic to restrain their opinions lest they be taken more seriously than they should be.

Barbra, are you listening, babe?  Sean Penn?  Here's a hint:   if a movie star can't identify who the "flown the Atlantic" allusion in Teller's quote is a reference to and explain why it was included in his remark, then said movie star's present conclusions about any subject requiring a vague knowledge of history are ipso facto worthless. 

One jarring mistake almost made me lose faith in the author mid-book, however, and it's appropriate to note on this, the 62nd anniversary of Franklin D. Roosevelt's address to Congress after Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor:

... The [Japanese attack on December 7th] accounted for eight battleships, three light cruisers, three destroyers and four other ships sunk, capsized or damaged and 292 aircraft damaged or wrecked, including 117 bombers.  And 2,403 Americans, military and civilian, killed, 1,178 wounded, in unprovoked assaults that lasted only minutes.  The following afternoon, Franklin Roosevelt, addressing Congress in joint session, requested and won a declaration of war against not only Japan but German and Italy as well.

(P. 392, italics by BeldarBlog.) 

DUH.  That's just dead wrong.  Anyone with even a moderate knowledge of 20th Century world or American history would know that it was Germany and Italy who first declared war on the US on December 11, 1941.  We promptly reciprocated, but in the first instance this was a bizarre, paranoid, and colossally stupid decision by Hitler, slavishly copied by Mussolini, that neither of them was obligated to make by the terms of the September 1940 tri-partite pact they had with Japan.   (Article III of that pact only obligated each member to help defend another if that member was attacked, and did not oblige them to intervene in favor of a member like Japan who was not itself an attacker; this was no mere formality, either, as evidenced by the pointed Japanese decision not to declare war on its old enemy the Soviet Union when Germany attacked the Soviets in the summer of 1941.) 

Certainly through his support of Britain with lend-lease destroyers and aggressive Atlantic convoying by the US Navy, FDR had already moved America away from absolute neutrality toward Germany, and indeed, his national radio address on December 9, 1941, shows signs of intentional conflation of the declared war against Japan with the not-yet-declared war with Germany.  But by declaring war against America, Hitler took FDR off of a sizeable political hook, directly enabling the "Europe First" strategy that otherwise would have faced rocky political roads with an American populace intent on gaining revenge in the Pacific.  How could the author of this Pulitzer Prize winning book not know these facts?

Posted by Beldar at 09:44 PM in Current Affairs, Politics (2006 & earlier) | Permalink

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