Why Did Japan Attack Pearl Harbor?

This is a guest post by Dave HackersonA previous post in this series is can be found here.

The International Dateline is truly a fascinating thing. It’s like a magic wand of time that can both give and take, depending which way you head. Each time my family and I fly back to the Midwest, the space time continuum is seemingly suspended. Leave Tokyo at 4:00 pm, touch down in the Midwest at 2:00 pm, and then reach our final destination by 5:00 pm of the same day. Over 15 hours of travel that appears to have been compressed within the span of one single hour. I still can’t wrap my head around it at times.

This dateline has a way of slightly altering our perspective of historical events. Most Americans are familiar with the following quote from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “December 7th, a date that will live in infamy.” The date to which he refers is the day on which the Combined Fleet of the Japanese Imperial Navy under the command of Admiral Isoroku Yamamato attacked the elements of the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. However, this is the narrative from the American side of the International Dateline. The December 24th edition of Shashin Shuhou (Photographic Weekly), a morale boosting propaganda magazine published in Japan from the 1938 until mid-1945, carried the following headline for its graphic two-page artist’s depiction of the attack: “Shattering the dawn: Attack on Pearl Harbor, December 8th”. The Japanese government christened the 8th day of each month as Taisho Hotaibi (literally means “Day to Reverently Accept the Imperial Edict”) to commemorate the great victory over the United States at Pearl Harbor and the Imperial declaration of war on the US and its allies (the day also served to regularly renew nation’s fervor and commitment to the war effort). Was Pearl Harbor a great victory for the Japanese? The answer to this question depends on the context in which the attack is viewed. From a purely military engagement view, it is safe to say that it was a resounding success, but did this single engagement succeed in shaping the course of the upcoming conflict? This is the question that the Mainichi Shinbun explored in the third installment of its series “Numbers tell a tale—Looking at the Pacific War through data” (the original, in Japanese, is here). True to the narrative on this side of the Pacific, this article was released on December 8th last year. Just as with the other installments in the series, it presents a slew of data that helps to put historical events into context.

“Did the attack on Pearl Harbor truly break the US? Japan’s massive gamble with only a quarter of the US’s national strength.” The title of the article does a nice job of setting up the exhaustive economic analysis it conducts in an attempt to answer this question. The very first thing the article does is to compare the respective GDPs of the US and Japan in 1939. At this time, Japan’s GDP stood at 201.766 billion dollars. However, this amounted to less than a fourth of the US’s GDP of 930.828 billion dollars (note that figures are not adjusted for inflation). Even the UK had a larger GDP than Japan at 315.691 billion dollars. When you combine the GDPs of the US and UK, Japan already suffered a disadvantage of greater than 6 to 1.

The next set of figures the article introduces is related to industrial capacity. The first thing it examines is iron production, and here the article makes reference to the quote by Prussian leader Otto Van Bismarck, who claimed that it was iron which made a nation. Taking Bismarck at his word, Japan’s iron production did not bode well for its position as a nation. In 1940, Japan’s national production of crude steel was 6,856,000 tons per year. In contrast, the US was producing nearly nine times that amount at 60,766,000 tons per year. Likewise, Japan lagged far behind the US in terms of electric power output and automobile ownership. Japan’s electric power output in 1940 stood at 3.47 billion kWh, but this figured was dwarfed by the US’s output of 17.99 billion kWh. The gap in automobile ownership is also especially telling. The 1920s are often considered to be the decade in which America “hit the roads” and became enamored with the automobile, and this fact is backed up the figures for automobiles owned by Americans in 1940. By that year, there were already 32,453,000 automobiles on roads in the US. Japan didn’t even come close, with only 152,000 automobiles scattered across the country.

In addition to lacking the physical resources and infrastructure to sustain a prolonged war of attrition, the makeup of Japan’s economy also posed a number of difficulties. Here the article emphasizes a major difference between Japan and other first world nations at that time: Japan was not a “heavily industrialized nation”. This fact was clearly reflected in the country’s exports. In 1940 finished metal products accounted for only 2.8% of the nation’s exports, while raw silk, textiles, and clothing products made up for more than a quarter. Likewise, only 30% of the nation’s income was generated by industry, which was less than the combined income of agriculture, retail, and transport sectors. In the 1930s, Japan made every effort to expand its heavy industries. The Truman administration dispatched an investigative committee to Japan after the war to study the effects of America’s strategic bombing on Japan and its economy. The study found that in 1930 the industrial makeup of Japan was 38.2% heavy industry and 61.8% light industry. By 1937 Japan had succeeded in reversing these percentages to 57.8% and 42.2%, but the difficulty the nation had in securing the resources it needed for industry restricted its industrial capacity. The study did not mince words in its assessment of the Japanese economy. “The nation of Japan is truly a small country in every manner of speaking, and ultimately a weak nation with an industrial infrastructure dependent on imported materials and resources, utterly defenseless against every type of modern-day attack. The nation’s economy at its core was rooted in a cycle of daily subsistence, in which people only produced what they needed for that day. This left it with no extra capacity whatsoever, leaving it incapable of dealing with potential emergencies that may arise.”

To compensate for its lack of resources, Japan cast its gaze across the waters to Manchuria. Japan had steadily expanded its interests in Manchuria since its victory in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, and placed the South Manchuria Railway Company as the primary driver of this massive undertaking. This company was founded in 1906 upon the railway Japan received from Russia after the war, and was a national policy concern that was half-owned by the state. Japan aimed to make Manchuria the focal point of an own economic bloc that also included Korea, Taiwan, and China. While Manchuria was rich in natural resources, it was highly underdeveloped, and Japan ultimately exported far more machinery and infrastructure building equipment than the resources it imported. While Japan was able to construct some of this machinery and equipment on its own, it was dependent on material and machine-related imports from the US, UK, the Netherlands, and Australia, the very nations against which it would ultimately go to war. In 1930, Japan exported nearly 96% of its raw silk thread to the US, which would send raw cotton back the other way. Japan would then process this cotton into finished cotton products for export to British India and the UK. Using the profits from these exports, Japan would then import strategic resources from the US, UK, and the Netherlands, such as oil, bauxite to create the aluminum used in air craft, and the bronze needed for the metal casings of bullets. The problematic nature of these trade relationships was pointed out by the Japanese economist Toichi Nawa of Osaka University of Commerce (present-day Osaka City University). In his book Research on the Japanese Spinning Industry and Raw Cotton Problem, Nawa stated that “any confrontation with the UK and US would be tragic, and must be avoided.” He further elaborated on Japan’s trade issues, saying that “the more Japan rushes along its efforts to expand heavy industry and its military industrial manufacturing capacity so it can bolster its policies on the continent (Manchuria and China), the more dependent it becomes on the international market, creating cycle that leads to increased imports of raw materials. Herein lies the gravest of concerns for the Japanese economy.”

Nawa’s words proved to be all too prophetic. Japan’s aggressive agenda in China following the Marco Polo Bridge incident in 1937 brought heavy criticism from the global community. As the conflict in China escalated, Western nations retaliated with economic sanctions and restrictions on imports. The most devastating of these was the US’s decision to ban all oil exports to Japan in August of 1941. The US was the world’s largest producer of oil in 1940, accounting for over 60% of the world’s supply. The upper brass of the Imperial Japanese Navy had predicted that they had enough oil stockpiled to wage war for at least 2 and half years, but if the UK and US shut off all oil exports, they would have no other choice but to move into Dutch territory and seize the oil fields of within 4 to 5 months in order to augment their supply. The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred exactly four months later.

Did Japan truly have the capacity as a nation to wage a modern war against a nation such as the United States? As tensions rose in US-Japan relations, Japanese government and military officials took a hard look at the data available in an attempt to answer this question.

A joint military and civilian economic study group organized around army paymaster Lt. Colonel Jiro Akimaru was set up in February 1941 to undertake this task. Known as the “Akimaru Agency”, this group was split into four sections to study the total war capacity of Japan, the UK-US, Germany, and the Soviet Union. The report they compiled by the end of September 1941 made the following conclusions:

1)      The conflicting state between Japan’s military mobilization and its labor force has become fully evident. Japan has also reached its peak production capacity, and is unable to expand it any further.

2)      Germany’s war capacity is now at a critical point.

3)      Not a single flaw exists within the US’s war economy.

Even if Japan sacrificed the living standards of its populace to boost its war capacity, it still would not have the financial resources to compete with the US. Hiromi Arisawa, a member of the UK-US section who was also president of Hosei University during his lifetime, made the following remarks when reflecting back on the report the Akimaru Agency prepared:

“Japan cut national consumption by 50%. In contrast, America only reduced its national consumption by 15 to 20%. Excluding the amount of supplies they shipped to other Allied nations at that time, the savings from this reduced consumption provided them with 35 billion dollars* for real war expenditures. That was 7.5 times greater than what Japan was capable of achieving with its cuts.”

Lt. Colonel Akimaru alluded to this fact when he presented the report at an internal staff conference meeting for the Army. Gen Sugiyama, Chief of Staff of the Supreme Command, acknowledged that the report was “nearly flawless” in its analysis. After praising Akimaru for the quality of the report, he then issued the following order. “The conclusion of your report goes against national policy. I want you to burn every copy of it immediately.”

Lt. Colonel Hideo Iwakuro, founder of the Nakano School and a military intelligence expert, was dispatched to the Japanese embassy in the US and took part in the planning of unofficial negotiations between the two countries. He returned to Japan in August of 1941 and met with influential figures in the political and business world, trying to persuade them of the futility in war with the US. At the Imperial General Headquarters Government Liaison Conference, Iwakuro presented the following data based on his own personal research to demonstrate the gap between the US and Japan in terms of national strength.

Iwakuro’s conclusion was straight and to the point. “The US has a 10-1 advantage in terms of total war capacity. All the Yamato-damashii (Japanese fighting spirit) we throw at them will not change anything. Japan has no prospects of victory.” Incidentally, the next day War Minister Hideki Tojo (who later became Prime Minister) immediately ordered the transfer of Iwakuro to a unit stationed in Cambodia. Iwakuro made the following remarks to the people who came to see him off at Tokyo Station. “If I should survive this ordeal and ever make it back to Tokyo, the Tokyo Station we see here will most assuredly lie in ruins.” Those words came to fruition in the spring of 1945.


Admiral Yamamoto salutes Japanese pilots.
Admiral Yamamoto salutes Japanese pilots.


So did the attack on Pearl Harbor truly break the US? The quote made by Admiral Yamamoto at the end of the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! puts it quite succinctly: “All we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” Though there is debate about whether he actually uttered those words, Yamamoto was no stranger to the US having studied at Harvard and spending time as a naval attache, and he knew full well the awesome industrial might and material resources the nation possessed. Japan played a great hand with its attack on Pearl Harbor, but as Yamamoto knew, the deck was already stacked against it. The only thing that remained to be seen was how long Japan could make its kitty last.


Why am I ignoring Nigeria?

By Seth Studer

I take a little exception to the smarminess of certain media’s response to the Charlie Hebdo murders. Last week, they inform us, we witnessed two horrific massacres: the murder of 12 satirists in Paris and the murder of roughly 2,000 civilians in Baga (that’s in Borno, Nigeria). But, they continue, judging from CNN, Fox, and your Facebook feed, only one of these terrible crimes got any coverage. To ask the question “which one: the 12 Europeans or the 2,000 Africans?” is to answer it. While the loss of 12 innocent lives and an implied assault on Free Speech (which doesn’t really exist per se in France) rallies millions across the Great White West, virtually no one is speaking for what Teju Cole calls “unmournable bodies” (an eloquent phrase, although the critical theorist’s habit of saying body when you mean person upsets his essay’s thesis). Cole’s essay in the New Yorker (linked above) is intelligent and passionately argued, and he handles his argument’s underlying ethos – the aforementioned smarminess – with more grace than others (the latter article incorrectly states that Nigeria is south of the equator, a reminder that the many truths revealed by postcolonial theory – e.g., global North vs. global South – do not always square with geographical reality). But in general, I felt scolded for paying more attention to France than Nigeria.

And I probably deserve a scolding. Did mainstream news outlets focus on France over Nigeria as the consequence of a bias toward white Europeans? Absolutely! Was the attack on Charlie Hebdo more frightening and noteworthy to Western audiences than the massacre in Baga because the former represents an attack on the imagined “center” of Western civilization rather than its “periphery”? You bet!

So should 2,000 murder victims be more “newsworthy” than 12 murder victims? I think it depends on the circumstances. 

Anyone who hasn’t been following Boko Haram over the past many months is an irresponsible consumer of world news. The mass violence last week represents the terrifying apex of an ongoing story. We spent much of 2014 preoccupied with the horrors inflicted upon the Nigerian people by this radical group (even Michelle Obama got involved, which got American conservative media involved, etc., etc.). The Charlie Hedbo massacre, meanwhile, fell out of a clear blue sky. Both discrimination against Muslims and Muslim unrest in France are ongoing, but nothing concrete or obvious precipitated this attack. These murders arrived on our screens demanding a context. Hence, the intense coverage.

And for me, intense coverage of the Charlie Hebdo massacre is essential not merely because it reinforces Western commitments to free speech (commitments that tend to get waylaid when they’re needed most). Coverage is essential because France is an important European nation in the grips of a major rightward political and cultural shift, one that could potentially turn more strident, more xenophobic, and more violent. After a half century on the fringes (and apparent defeat in the face of European unification), Europe’s right-wing parties (as opposed to its right-of-center parties) are, ahem, on the march. In the United States, extreme right-wing rhetoric has benefited from decades in the mainstream: a speaker’s racism or xenophobia can be carefully coded and embedded in speeches about tax policy. In Europe, the far right has been far wilder and wilier. They’ve retained their ugliness and wear it explicitly on the surface. (Whenever one of my liberal friends unfavorably compares America’s conservative politics with Europe’s socialist policies, I remind them, “Yes, you like their left wing, but you don’t want their right wing.”) Meanwhile, since the 2007/08 global banking crisis, nationalism in Europe – both right-wing and left-wing – has resurged to levels not seen in decades. Because of their knotted political and economic ties to Germany (or Russia), the peoples of Europe are seeking social and cultural distinction. Secession movements have gained renewed traction in the geographical and political expanse between Scotland and Crimea. Consequently, Germans and Russians are also asserting their national character in ways that, twenty years ago, would have seemed taboo.

This, for me, is the context of the Charlie Hebdo attack, far removed from the bloodshed in Nigeria (admittedly, all things connect in our post-post-colonial world, as African expats like Cole convincingly demonstrate). Note that the above paragraph doesn’t include the word “Islam.” I don’t think you need to dwell much on radical Islam to understand the socio-cultural dynamic that drives millions of French residents into the streets. From a French perspective, however, immigration from the Muslim world underscores every aspect of the current national identity crisis. Thus, when an event like the attack on Charlie Hebdo occurs, you get 3.7 million people in the streets and attacks on Muslims.

This, to me, is a very big story indeed.

Two thousand people died in Nigeria last week, it’s true, but 3.7 million people marched throughout France yesterday – roughly one million in Paris alone. What do those one million want? What do they represent? Many of them are doubtless sympathetic with France’s Muslim minorities. Few among them are likely to be extreme French nationalists (though more of them are sympathetic with French nationalism than Western liberals would like to imagine). Whatever their motives, this represents a good moment to take France’s cultural temperature. The context demands it. Your first response to Charlie Hebdo should be an unequivocal condemnation of the murders and support for free speech. But your second response, given the atmosphere in Europe, should be concern for liberalism in France. Because, contrary to what the news coverage is telling you, continental Europe is not historically an easy or natural home to liberal values. And because a march can be a mob by another name.

Nixon/Vietnam/1968: What We Know and When We Know It

By Seth Studer

The story broke in August. I was working on an academic article about Richard Nixon in post-Watergate American culture (forthcoming). When not working not working on the article, I actively avoided Nixon-related stories in the news media and on the Internet: not an easy feat in August 2014, the fortieth anniversary of Nixon’s resignation. Then again, it was a little easier than I would have liked. The stories, like coverage of the JFK assassination’s fiftieth anniversary the year before, were pretty scarce and uneven. Inevitable, I suppose. In two years, Hillary Clinton (nominee presumptive) will cast a ballot for herself as president of the United States. What a dim memory her husband’s impeachment seems already. Ex-senators Trent Lott and Tom Daschle recently visited South Dakota State University, where I teach, to wax poetic about the post-ideological, post-historical nineties: a time when, to hear them tell it, the two great American parties apparently worked together in constant harmony, tossing aside profligate “political differences” for the good of God and country. One recalls the many obituaries of Ronald Reagan that read as if Tip O’Neill and the Gipper played “government” each day before retiring together to a pub in the evening to share pints and sing Irish drinking songs. Our national history is like an elementary school recess period; we will not allow anything vaguely resembling a row on the playground.

And so intelligent Americans consistently misremember, or are compelled to misremember, events the nineties and eighties: events that they witnessed firsthand. How much dimmer Watergate must seem to those who lived through it. My mother watched the hearings as a junior high student while earning babysitting money; tough times, stagflation. I recently quizzed her on the names “John Dean” and “Sam Ervin,” which elicited vague recognition but no concrete memory of the basic contours of the only scandal to prompt an American president to resign. The players themselves did little better. During the first week of August 2014, Bob Woodward and Carl Berstein appeared on NPR, the CBC, and the BBC, describing the events of 1973-1974 – and their role in those events – less convincingly and with less interesting conclusions than they had at the time. PBS News Hour managed to assemble a nice roundtable featuring Timothy Naftali (Nixon aficionado and NYU professor), Beverley Gage (the best historian of post-1945 America working today, currently at Yale), Pat Buchanan (Pat Buchanan), and Luke Nichter, a Nixon scholar and professor at Texas A&M – Central Texas whose July 29 2014 book The Nixon Tapes provides one of the most thorough single-volume accounts of the 37th president’s self-recordings. The main topic: who remembers Watergate? What was the big deal? Nixon wasn’t such a bad guy after all, right?

Journalist Ken Hughes’s Chasing Shadows: The Nixon Tapes, the Chennault Affair, and the Origins of Watergate was published the same day as Nichter’s volume. A few weeks later, after journalists and Nixon buffs ruminated and digested Hughes and Nichter’s work, stories began to pop up across the Internet highlighting new revelations from the transcripts. In particular, a revelation from Hughes provoked strong reactions. Salon featured a dramatic excerpt from Chasing Shadows, featuring a scene that prompted George Will to accuse Nixon of treason. These stories did not receive much fanfare, but the headlines were sensational. New Watergate bombshell! The scandal behind the scandal! Nixon guilty of treason! Even George Will admits it! For most intelligent Americans, the story had all the impact of a new Bee Gees single. But for those who, like me, think and talk and read and write about Richard Milhous Nixon with an almost neurological compulsion, something exciting had happened.

Here’s the short version. One of Hughes’s transcripts (July 15 1971) features Nixon explicitly ordering a break-in at the Brookings Institute. This is notable for one major reason and a couple minor ones. Major: it’s the only time on the tapes we hear Nixon directly order a break-in. Minor: breaking into Brookings is a pretty big deal, and explicitly ordering such a break-in directly is a pretty big deal, especially for Nixon, a master of suggestion and the subtle cue. But there were few obvious reasons for Nixon to give such an order in 1971; the Watergate break-in seems rational by comparison (Democratic National Committee, election year, etc.). One is forced to assume that Brookings had something that Nixon wanted very badly, although Nixon does not quite say.

Hughes argues that this transcript represents the genesis of the plumbers/Watergate/resignation. We are unlikely to find another such explicit order to break into an august enemy think tank; this seems to represent the moment when things went a little crazy for Nixon. Most coverage of Hughes’s book focused on this sensational thesis, that the Brookings affair wrought Watergate.

The evidence against the thesis is very strong: the origins of the Nixon administration’s culture of surveillance are far too numerous and diffuse to reduce to a single event. But even for Hughes (who at times seems to use the word “Watergate” simply to attract a general audience – and why not?), the fact of Nixon ordering a break-in is less compelling than the fact of Nixon ordering this break-in. The ostensible purpose was to blackmail former president Lyndon B. Johnson with documents, located at the Brookings Institute, that revealed Johnson’s plan to broker a surprise Vietnam peace settlement by October 1968. Peace in Vietnam would have significantly boosted Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s chances of succeeding Johnson. Proof of such chicanery would have given Nixon political leverage over Johnson. But, as Hughes writes, Nixon’s staff (including Henry Kissinger, who participated in the fun) doubted that Nixon’s burglars would find anything useful at Brookings. And why would Nixon want leverage over an unpopular ex-president?

From Chasing Shadows:

 At that point, Nixon just wanted the former president to hold a press conference denouncing the leak of the Pentagon Papers—not much of a motive to commit a felony. … [And the] potential downside was enormous—impeachment, conviction, prison, disgrace—and the upside was questionable at best. If Nixon were the kind of president to conduct criminal fishing expeditions for dirt on his predecessors, his tapes would be littered with break-in orders. But Brookings is the only one.

There is a rational explanation. Nixon did have reason to believe that the bombing halt file contained politically explosive information—not about his predecessor, but about himself.

The reason, Hughes argues, is that Nixon hoped to obtain documents implicating himself in the failure of the 1968 Paris Peace Talks. Allegations that Nixon had sabotaged the peace process would emerge and grow in the decades after Watergate.

George Will’s review of Chasing Shadows shifted the focus from Hughes’s thesis to his data, new data which, Will argued, implicated Nixon in “treason” (Will’s word choice received more attention than his argument). While other journalists focused on Hughes’s link between the new data to Watergate – his attempt to carve a “Rosebud” out of a few seconds of tape – Wills argued that the real story had been missed. Hughes provides very strong, if very indirect, evidence of what we already almost knew about Paris 1968: that, to bolster his chances of becoming president, Nixon sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks that would have almost certainly ended the Vietnam War by early 1969. All the other “White House horrors” – Watergate, ratfucking, domestic espionage, “the Canuck letter,” even Allende – pale in comparison to this.

Johnson and Nixon
Johnson and Nixon

According to both Hughes and Will, Nixon gave an irrational order: break into Brookings and steal documents. Why? To blackmail Johnson? The risk was too great, and they might not even find the documents they wanted. There must be another, more rational reason. According to Hughes, Nixon must have been looking for files implicating himself in sabotage, files that he could obtain by no other means, files that his enemies at Brookings might have possessed: “Ordering the Brookings break-in wasn’t a matter of opportunism or poor presidential impulse control. As far as Nixon knew, it was a matter of survival.” This reasoning (in short, that Nixon would not have behaved irrationally) was strong enough to convince Will to charge a Republican president with treason.

I disagree not with Will’s conclusions, nor even with his reasoning (though depending on Nixon to make rational decisions is frequently a losing game), but with his confidence in this new evidence to make the case for treason.

All responsible historians and Nixon buffs know that Nixon betrayed Johnson and sabotaged the Peace Talks; we also know that Nixon ordered a break-in at the Brookings Institute. The question has always been how well we know. How much data to we possess? How much must we rely on reasonable inference? Who said what, when, where, and why? We already knew that Lyndon B. Johnson probably had direct evidence of Nixon’s involvement – but Johnson’s evidence has never been recovered, and Nixon denied any involvement in the Peace Talks to Johnson’s face. So when a Nixon scholar claims to have evidence of the 1968 sabotage, it’s a big deal. Thanks to Hughes, we have some new data. Nixon ordered the Brookings job. We know no that with 100% certainty. We always suspected, but now we know. But we can still only infer, with great confidence (approaching knowledge), that he sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks. Such great confidence that I’m willing to say “I know.”

But Hughes hasn’t found the smoking gun that Will and others are made it out to be. Will’s article and Hughes book are both padded with backstory and dot-connecting that aren’t derived directly from the tapes or from the public record.

Hughes would argue that the 1968 sabotage was Nixon’s greatest secret, that he built a citadel of surveillance and paranoia around himself in order to protect that secret, and that Watergate must necessarily be understood as an outcome of this secrecy. I agree that Nixon’s sabotage of the Paris Peace Talks were probably his greatest secret – but we have not heard Nixon himself admit that. That’s the nature of secrets and the nature of Nixon. And Nixon is nothing if not resistance to simple casual analyses. One simply cannot imagine a Nixon White House sans paranoia and plumbers, with or without the Peace Talks scandal, just as one cannot imagine Nixon as a consistent ideologue or as a good friend or as a convincingly honest man.

We will probably never get that piece of hard evidence – the fact in a pumpkin patch, the smoking datum – that proves Nixon intentionally sabotaged the 1968 Paris Peace Talks and deliberately extended the Vietnam War until October 1972 for political purposes. We don’t need such concrete evidence, really – the historical evidence against Nixon is about as strong as historical evidence gets. In lieu of a taped confession, we must content ourselves with reasonable inference based on hard data. And Hughes’s transcript is one more very hard datum to add to the pile, shedding a little more light on Nixon’s most heinous crime; undue focus on Watergate and the plumbers distracts from the fact that Nixon committed his most evil act before he was even president. We should be interested in the 1968 Paris Talks not because they led to Watergate and resignation. We should be interested because they represent a devastating lost opportunity to end the wickedest war in American history.

Remind Me: How is Putin Winning?

By Seth Studer


Last week, the Washington Post ran a headline that captures everything wrong about how Russian president Vladimir Putin’s political and military maneuvers in eastern Europe have been covered in the West: “Ukraine ratifies associations with E.U., grants concessions to rebels.” The newly strengthened relationship between Kiev and the E.U. is rightly emphasized, but the small concessions to Russophone rebels in eastern Ukraine is added as an apparently obligatory counterbalance – common throughout what we in America cloyingly call “the mainstream media” – to reinforce the narrative that Russia is somehow on the move. I say “cloyingly” because the sentiment reflects an American Cold War nostalgia that never quite collapsed under the Berlin Wall or the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a nostalgia for three networks, two newspapers, and one Bad Guy. “See! Concessions! This is why Obama is weak and Putin is strong! The West is in retreat and the rebels are getting concessions! Right?! Right?!”

Mr. President, build up that wall!
Mr. President, build up that wall!

Here’s a different perspective:

At this time last year – September 24, 2013 – Ukraine’s president was little more than Putin’s stooge, Moscow’s man in Kiev, a corrupt thug who lived in a Eurotrash mansion (“Opulence: I has it”) and kept two bells on his nightstand: one for vodka, the other for prostitutes. Viktor Yanukovych had spent his political life advocating and advancing close ties to Russia. He became president after his predecessor, a reformer who was poisoned and disfigured in what amounts to hilarious retro-Cold War shenanigans gone terribly wrong, failed to win reelection. Ukraine was leaning toward Russia, and through Yanukovych, Putin effectively determined Ukrainian foreign policy. You might say that Putin was co-president of Ukraine.

Flash forward one year: Yanukovych is gone, ousted by his own people. Instead of enjoying considerable power over Ukrainian policy, Putin now owns Crimea (which has only been Ukrainian since 1954), exerts direct influence over some parts of eastern Ukraine (instead of the whole thing), and finances (though denies any ties to) a ragtag bunch of crypto-fascist Russophones who can’t distinguish between a Ukrainian fighter jet and a passenger plane full of innocent Europeans (they can’t even control their Twitter accounts; at least ISIS has decent PR guys).

Meanwhile, Kiev has never been closer to Europe, and its fate has never seem more intertwined with the EU’s. As a bonus, the Baltic states just got reassurance that NATO benefits will be honored, and Russia is facing several not-insiginificant economic sanctions from many of its ostensible allies.

Am I the only one who sees Putin as the net-loser here? And Obama? He barely had to do a thing to achieve this outcome.

But...but...Obama has a pink backpack and Putin doesn't wear a shirt!
But…but…Obama has a pink backpack and Putin doesn’t wear a shirt!

Twenty-five years ago, Berlin was the primary political border of Europe, where East and West faced off. Today, the border has shifted eastward…all the way to Kiev. Putin (shirtless) is in a helluva fix, and all Obama (mom jeans) had to do was make a couple phone calls. The West is kind of kicking ass, and we’re not even trying that hard. Because while Russian hardliners project a lot of strength, they tend to exert it by beating dogs, shooting tigers, and undermining themselves.

Building a Better Middlebrow: the Case of Ken Burns’s “The Roosevelts,” Pt. 1

By Seth Studer

Ken Burns

Preface: No spoilers, please…

I am not yet finished watching Ken Burns’s fourteen-hour long saga The Roosevelts: An Intimate History. Nevertheless, I can already reflect on what Burns’s latest contribution tells us about the much-touted “Golden Age of Television.” An historical documentary on PBS spanning fourteen hours, most of it comprised of black-and-white archival footage and Baby Boomer talking heads (e.g., George Will, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and one or two real historians), is being sold to the American public as “intimate.” And the series is intimate; Burns’s focus almost never turns from Roosevelts Teddy, Franklin, or Eleanor. The Roosevelts is easily his most intimate portrayal of a Great American (or, in this case, a Great American Family), and it reflects his growth as a filmmaker over the last half-decade, beginning with The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (a hot mess, to be sure, but a beautiful hot mess) and Prohibition (a tight little policy pic – his best film). In many ways, The Roosevelts is a return to the Burns I knew and hated in The Civil War and Jazz. But he’s returned wiser, sharper. His obnoxious Great Man, Big Battles gloss on the byzantine complexities of American social and political history has never, ever looked so good and contained so much substance. We can learn a lot from Burns’s most recent hybrid success-failure. Specifically, how to build a better middlebrow within American mass culture: a middlebrow it deserves and, I think, a middlebrow it wants.

The Roosevelts’ final episode aired last Saturday, but I’m not worried about catching up. Since the middle of last week, PBS has posted the following message to my Facebook feed at least twelve times: “Remember: you can binge watch the ENTIRE series – until Sept 28th – on your local PBS station’s website or Roku.” Today, the most consistent and interesting purveyor of American middlebrow culture is AMC. Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead: the pretensions of HBO with half of the budget and twice the accessibility. And AMC uses the exact same language to sell me Mad Men that PBS is using to sell me The Roosevelts.

"Binge all over me," says Betty Draper.
“Binge all over me,” says Betty Draper.

Much like Netflix, which has built a business model premised on its customer’s desire to “binge” on original content (we all finish House of Cards and Orange is the New Black knowing full well it will be an entire year before we get new episodes), AMC is encouraging its audiences to consume its products in the manner of a frat boy seeking to increase his blood alcoholic content as quickly as possible, or in the manner of a psychologically distressed person for whom food is a dangerous psycho-physiological outlet. Given the well-established link between consumption, consumerism, and sex (“INDULGE” is the word they coupled with Christina Hendrick’s Joan Harris), no one is really surprised by AMC’s ad campaign. But when the same tactics are applied to a 14-hour documentary about Eleanor Roosevelt, the time has come to ask some interesting questions.

Part One: Ken Burns – not a Historian, but he plays one on TV!

Throughout the 1980s, Ken Burns directed small documentaries on topics ranging from the Shakers to Huey Long and the Statue of Liberty. In 1990, he earned national fame for his seventh documentary, The Civil War, a nearly twelve-hour documentary about the Conflagration Between the States that, amazingly, managed to say very little about the causes – social, political, and cultural – of the war itself. A viewer could watch all 690 minutes of Ken Burns’s Civil War and learn nothing about the Civil War. Besides the battles, of course. Burns spends as much time on the Battle of Chattanooga (the third most important battle fought in Tennessee, the second or third least important state in the Confederacy) as he spends on the policy battles that raged between Lincoln, his advisors, and the Congress; or the internal divisions and resentments within the Confederacy itself, which did as much to weaken their cause as the Union juggernaut. Slavery is discussed, obviously, but as a fact and not a consequence of U.S. policy; the impact of its demise on U.S. politics is minimized. Every single black character is voiced by Morgan Freeman, who gravely intones the words of Frederick Douglass and then hams it up, step ‘n’ fetch it-style, when reading the words of perfectly literate enslaved (or merely working class) black men.

If Burns’s later films would suffer from an overemphasis on personalities, his Civil War underplays them in favor of events. Lincoln’s political acumen; Grant and Sherman’s brutal tactical genius; the stubborn dignity of black leaders who, receiving emancipation, refused to prostrate themselves before Northern whites; the grace with which many Confederate leaders, Lee among them, accepted defeat; all of these Great Persons are overshadowed by Great Battles, so that viewers in every media market from Picacho Pass to Pennsylvania could look out across their amber waves of telephone wire and pavement and intone, “It happened here.”

Among the talking heads, the thickly accented Shelby Foote utterly consumes Burns’s Civil War. He appears at least ten times more frequently than any other historian or author. Foote is a documentarian’s dream: folksy, charismatic, intellectual, and a born storyteller. But Foote is also kind of an idiot. When he volunteers to name “two authentic geniuses” produced by a war that gave America seven presidents, he identifies Abraham Lincoln (one of the great statesmen of the nineteenth century, along with Benjamin Disraeli and Otto von Bismarck) and Nathan Bedford Forrest (a lieutenant general in the Confederate army and founder of the terroristic Ku Klux Klan’s first iteration). This declaration had, apparently, once placed Foote in hot water once with a Southern relative, who grimly intoned, We never thought much of Mr. Lincoln down here. Foote chuckles in response to his anecdote. Southerners have strange feelings about that war, he observes.

Ya think?

Foote is not a Confederate partisan. He is simply a Civil War buff. But a buff is the most dangerous kind of historian. I am a Nixon/Watergate buff, which is why I am reluctant to make major claims about the man or the event. Foote has made a career buffing up the Civil War, giving it sheen but no shine, clearing away dirt but revealing nothing. Burns is in awe of Foote, whose volumes on the Civil War constitute the kind of history most popular with “buffs”: battles, more battles, personalities on the field, more battles, blood, guts, glory. We remember the names of colonels and privates but none of the congressmen. We learn more about Forrest than we learn about William Seward, Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, Alexander Stephens, or Judah P. Benjamin.

Here’s a tip: any middlebrow history of the American Civil War that does not begin – begin – with transatlantic trade, not merely of slaves but of all goods, is lying to you. Period.

Between The Civil War and The Roosevelts, Ken Burns’s style underwent significant improvement. He produced two “event” histories of Baseball and Jazz, widely praised except by hardcore fans of baseball and jazz, alongside shorter treatments of subjects we portray on banknotes and passports: Lewis and Clark, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, and westward expansion. In 2007, he attempted to catch the White Whale of all American historical narratives, World War II, but took such a circumspect route – no straightforward, consensus-minded historical narrative; firsthand accounts from veterans; a “bottom-up” approach to major events – that he confused most of his viewers, who came expecting “the Burns treatment” (letters from Eisenhower, Tom Hanks as Patton, David McCullough’s eyebrows, etc.). The War was a failure.

By the end of The War, Burns seemed finally to grasp his own unique strengths and limitations. On the one hand, he could spew middlebrow schlock about the United States of America better than anyone. On the other hand, he had a tendency to attach himself to Great White Dudes (Shelby Foote, Thomas Jefferson) and no capacity to represent the subtle movements upon which history progresses. Why not, then, spew schlock and attach himself to lesser-known, more interesting Great White Dudes? And why not cast these Dudes in a story less obvious than, say, THE CIVIL WAR or THE WEST?

What followed were the best documentaries Ken Burns has yet made.

In my next post: The National Parks, Prohibition, The Rooseveltsand Burns in TV’s “Golden Age”

The Wizard of Oz Is an Anti-Finance Manifesto

By Kindred Winecoff

Somewhat apropos of my previous post is the following anecdote, which I’ve read a number of times and have always forgotten. I’m pasting it here for posterity’s sake. It is from Daniel Little’s review of David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years:

There are many startling facts and descriptions that Graeber produces as he tells his story of the development of the ideologies of money, credit, and debt.  One of the most interesting to me has to do with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

L. Frank Baum’s book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which appeared in 1900, is widely recognized to be a parable for the Populist campaign of William Jennings Bryan, who twice ran for president on the Free Silver platform — vowing to replace the gold standard with a bimetallic system that would allow the free creation of silver money alongside gold. … According to the Populist reading, the Wicked Witches of the East and West represent the East and West Coast bankers (promoters of and benefactors from the tight money supply), the Scarecrow represented the farmers (who didn’t have the brains to avoid the debt trap), the Tin Woodsman was the industrial proletariat (who didn’t have the heart to act in solidarity with the farmers), the Cowardly Lion represented the political class (who didn’t have the courage to intervene). … “Oz” is of course the standard abbreviation for “ounce.” (52)

The symbolism of the “yellow brick road” needs no elaboration.

UPDATE: As was been pointed out by Thomas in the comments, this was discussed long ago in the Journal of Political Economy.