Robin Lindley Robin Lindley blog brought to you by History News Network. Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 ( Cooking at Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater [INTERVIEW] Elsie Henderson, who cooked at the famed Frank Lloyd Wright house Fallingwater outside Pittsburgh, turned one hundred on September 7.

Ms. Henderson worked for Edgar and Liliane Kaufmann, the Pittsburgh department store magnates, and later their son Edgar jr. (he preferred that jr. not be capitalized) for more than 15 years. Asked what contributed to her longevity, she said simply: “Good food.”

Ms. Henderson’s kitchen was a hub of activity at the unique Fallingwater house, hailed as the most significant private residential structure in the United States

Author Suzanne Martinson tells the story of Ms. Henderson and shares her recipes in The Fallingwater Cookbook: Elsie Henderson’s Recipes and Memories (with the late Jane Citron and chef Robert Sendall; University of Pittsburgh Press).

In addition to an exploration of dining and food, the lively book offers a slice of twentieth century social history through the experience of Ms. Henderson at Fallingwater including her observations of the eccentric Kaufmann family, her sense of historic events and race relations, and her meetings with Wright, Isaac Stern, and Senators Ted Kennedy and John Heinz among others. According to Ms. Martinson, the book began when Lynda Waggoner, director of Fallingwater, gave her Ms. Henderson’s little brown notebook of handwritten recipes.

Ms. Martinson is a former food editor and writer for the Pittsburgh Press and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She is a two-time winner of both the James Beard and Bert Greene Awards for food journalism. She lives in Kelso, Washington, with her husband Bob.

Ms. Martinson talked by telephone from her home about Fallingwater and its famous cook and her own work as a writer a few weeks before Ms. Henderson’s centennial birthday celebration.

* * * * *

Robin Lindley: How did you come upon the story of Fallingwater cook Elsie Henderson?

Suzanne Martinson: I met Elsie Henderson in 1991 when I interviewed her for a Sunday magazine cover story of The Pittsburgh Press magazine. I was food editor of that paper and, after it closed, of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

We became friends and, one day, Elsie said she'd like to write a cookbook but didn't know how to go about it. Not knowing how much work it would be, I said "I'll write it for you." It took me ten years. If I hadn't retired, it still wouldn't be done.

When you met Ms. Henderson, weren’t her days as a cook at Fallingwater long past?

Long past, but she has an excellent memory. She can bring up names and dates and seldom makes an error.

Your book details Elsie’s life and her account of the people who lived at Fallingwater.

That's what made it so special: her view from the kitchen. You don't really know people until you live with them. Certainly the employees who lived under the same roof with the Kaufmanns probably knew them best. The old Upstairs, Downstairs thing.

You wrote that Ms. Henderson was a product of the African American oral tradition and didn’t keep precise records of her recipes. Didn't her recipes date back to her mom and grandmother?

Her grandmother was part Native American. She lived in the South so Elsie did not have much contact. Her own mother passed on her love of cooking. Elsie once wanted to be a practical nurse. Her mother said, "You hate blood. Why would you want to be a nurse?" Elsie decided that being a cook would be a better fit.

And Elsie grew up in Pittsburgh?

Yes. She was the youngest of thirteen children. She had eleven brothers and a sister. Her dad died when she was about two years old. Her mother was an ambitious woman who could get things done -- the go-to woman of Mount Washington, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where Elsie grew up.

What was Pittsburgh like in terms of race relations?

There certainly was discrimination, but Elsie had a strong mother with a lot of spunk. One day her mother was going to buy Elsie a new dress at a department store. The saleswoman kept bringing out dresses, until her mother asked why she didn't show them [a particular] dress. The woman said, "I didn't think you could afford it." Elsie's mother got angry and said, "I can afford anything in this place. I've got eleven boys who all work. Bring out the dress."

One black person told me that African Americans weren’t allowed to try on shoes. They drew an outline of their feet on cardboard and they would be fitted from these templates. You know that you can't get shoes to fit that way.

Was Mount Washington integrated?

Yes. There were, for instance, quite a few Italians. One of the great loves of Elsie’s was an Italian. On our travels, Elsie and I have met people who knew of her family at that time. They lived on a hillside overlooking downtown. When she was a little girl, Elsie cleaned the bathroom floor of an older lady who, she said, was “crippled up.”

Elsie seldom describes a person's race. Sometimes she jokes about “being the only black face in the crowd,” but she doesn't distinguish people by race.

She's been around rich people all her life, and she said in a way the Kaufmanns were prejudiced. They preferred to have black people working for them because they thought they were more honest. I said, "Elsie, how dare you stereotype that way." She was then ninety-six and by her account “that's the new seventy,” so she can say whatever she wants.

I was impressed that she was a great reader as a child.

A tremendous reader. In fact the neighbor women worried about her. "That girl's always got a book in her hand. Doesn't she play with other kids?” Elsie said most of them didn't have a book in the house. She has always been self-educated. She took up studying French at the University of Pittsburgh when she was ninety-four.

Speaking of the French and cuisine, did she talk about Julia Child?

She never mentioned Julia Child, but on a recent trip to Fallingwater, at the observation deck, Elsie spoke French to a visitor who couldn't speak English. She continues to amaze me and inspire me.

And she quit high school to work?

She was in a hurry to earn some money. She knew Edgar Kaufmann Sr. by sight for a long time. At seventeen, she worked in “bad accounts” in the Kaufmann’s warehouse. In the olden days, when customers made their department store purchases, the store charged them and then delivered them to their house at no charge. Elsie watched the invoices come through and, if the people hadn't paid their bills, she wouldn't send out their things.

Did Ms. Henderson talk about life in Pittsburgh during the Depression and World War II?

She always had work because she was a talented cook. She thought the Kaufmanns were her dream come true because, though she just worked weekends, she got paid for the whole week. If she didn't see them during the winter when they were not at Fallingwater, mostly a summer retreat, she still got paid.

Times were hard for many. The Swift meat man said the Kaufmanns must eat a lot of premium meat, but everyone who worked there laughed. The meat was for Mrs. Kaufmann's six longhaired dachshunds. In fact, one of Liliane’s friends asked her how she could feed her dogs premium beef when everybody else was on rationing, and Mrs. Kaufmann said in her husky voice, "Well, I didn't start the war."

On weekends, Elsie would fry up a pound of bacon and a dozen eggs and Mrs. Kaufmann would watch her dogs eat their breakfast. The dogs had special custom-made mattresses for their kennels.

The house was finished in 1939?

Yes, at the height of the Depression. People around there were so grateful to get any kind of work. The house is in Fayette County, which is in the shadow of Pittsburgh, but very rural with self-sufficient people. One of Wright's axioms was that you should build with materials on site, so the locals hauled all the stone by horse to construct Fallingwater. The lumber also came from there. It was quite a feat.

So Edgar and Liliane, co-owners of Kaufmann’s Department Store (now Macy’s), had Fallingwater built as a vacation home?

It's about an hour from Pittsburgh. Shortly before he died, Mr. Kaufmann told Elsie he had ordered a helicopter so they could get there faster. Elsie asked, “Are you going to fire all the chauffeurs?" He said no, and she said she'd ride with them.

Edgar Sr. was a flamboyant person. He loved woman. He'd drag Elsie out of the kitchen and introduce her to all of Fallingwater’s guests. It seemed to Elsie that the guests looked at him “funny” and wondered, what kind of person was this who would introduce the hired help to the guests? He even danced with her around Fallingwater. He was a character and loved people, and that was why he was a great merchant.

Mrs. Kaufmann wasn't just a lady of leisure. She did the buying for the elegant Vendome shop on the top floor of Kaufmann's. She had quite the taste in art and furniture and clothes, and was a beautiful woman. A Picasso hangs over her bedside table.

And they used the house mostly on weekends?

On Thursday morning, Elsie would meet with their cook at their penthouse in Pittsburgh and ask what they ate during the week so she didn't duplicate it on the weekend. She kept meticulous records of all the guests, when they came, and what she fed them, so when they returned, they weren't fed the same recipe. Even if you fell in love with one of her dishes the first time around, you probably weren't going to see it again.

Did she save those records?

When she moved from her house, the people who helped her clean out the basement threw them away. She is still distraught. Even then, she had a sense of history and her part in it and the Kaufmann's part in it. For example, Elsie cooked for Isaac Stern and Frank Lloyd Wright.

What happened when she met Wright?

He was quite a ladies' man, too. He visited Fallingwater after a flood when Elsie was working for Edgar Kaufmann, jr., after his parents had died. Elsie met Wright at the airport, and “Junior” had six men waiting for Wright on the bridge to the house.

The architect didn't want to go on the freeway, but to be driven through Pittsburgh’s eastside where the universities are. When Wright saw the 41-story Cathedral of Learning classroom building at the University of Pittsburgh, he called it "the tallest 'Keep Off the Grass' sign I've ever seen." It wasn't modern architecture. Elsie told the architect they had to build up because there wasn't enough land. He didn't care. It was just an ugly building. People in Pittsburgh love the building.

There were many things Wright didn't approve of, including the chairs Mrs. Kaufmann chose for the dining room. She bought three-legged Italian chairs, and Wright wanted his barrel chairs in there. Edgar jr. thought his mother was right because the floor was uneven stone and these sat better. Wright wanted to control everything: the furniture, where statues ought to go,

Elsie cooked lunch for Wright. She remembered that he had crab salad, some corn sticks and sherbet. He sat alone at the dining room table.

Did Wright make a pass at Elsie?

When he first met her, he asked what she did for the Kaufmanns, and she said, “I plan and prepare their meals.” Said Wright: "If you cook as well you look, I going to have a good meal."

Didn’t Kaufmann Sr. have a reputation as a womanizer?

Elsie called him the "Greatest Womanizer in the Western World."

The Kaufmanns were first cousins, and had to leave the state to marry because first cousins aren't allowed to marry in Pennsylvania. First cousins marrying was common in Europe, and they solidified ownership of Kaufmann’s Department Store, and lived their life together, and they had affection for each other.

That's not to say Mr. Kaufmann didn't have his dalliances. One time Elsie went to Fallingwater with Mr. Kaufmanns when Mrs. Kaufmann arrived unexpectedly. Elsie served lunch, and then she went to her room in the adjoining guest/staff house. She found Mr. Kaufmann's girlfriend sitting on her bed.

It's interesting that Frank Lloyd Wright decided to build above a waterfall. I don’t think a land use agency would approve that today.

It's had some structural problems. It's flooded twice, once when Elsie was there with Junior, as she called him. The creek rose and water came rushing through the house up to the top of the chairs.

Edgar said, "Elsie, I've got the ham."

Elsie said, "At lunch, you said it was too salty."

"That was then, this is now," he said. They took the ham to the guesthouse and waited for the flood to recede. It took a long time to clean up. A horrible mess. The gardener's wife, Mrs. Green, lost her preserves, but they saved all the liquor in the basement.

Wasn't Fallingwater voted the “Building of the Century” by the Architectural Institute?

I think it was the “House of the Century.”

And wasn’t Wright older -- about sixty-eight -- when he designed Fallingwater?

The wonderful house rejuvenated his career. And Edgar jr. took it upon himself to be his promoter.

Do you get a sense of how the Kaufmanns treated their staff?

The Kaufmanns trusted their employees. They didn't even lock their liquor cabinet. Mr. Kaufmann said, "I hire talented people and then I let them do their job."

Nor did Mrs. Kaufmann interfere in the kitchen. Sometimes she'd request something and Elsie would make it. She was slender and looked like a fashion model. When there were no guests, she ate just a few julienned vegetables and little pieces of fruit.

Mr. Kaufmann, on the other hand, would snack on clove cake or slices of ham loaf. He couldn't sleep and he'd wander around at all hours of the night.

And you visited Fallingwater even before meeting Elsie in 1991?

It's a magical place: that water and the sheer beauty of it. And it's so isolated. The Western Pennsylvania Conservancy has done a wonderful job. It’s as though Elsie and the Kaufmanns just walked out the back door.

I was always interested in the kitchen. As a food editor, I saw many fancy kitchens, but this was a modest little kitchen but at the time it was the best you could have. There was an Aga range and all the latest equipment. I wondered who cooked there, what they ate, what they were like. There were, for instance, different sets of dishes for each meal.

Elsie really loved the Kaufmanns, who were generous people. She gave them a "12" on a one-to-ten scale.

Didn’t they use a coal stove when she started there?

Simon, the man who fed the dogs, would come in and feed the coal stove. Elsie couldn't do fine baking with that. She really liked her Mint Chocolate Angel Food Cake. Mr. Kaufmann bought her an electric range.

The Kaufmanns didn't eat prepared food. No commercial salad dressings. All the breads were homemade. Everything was from scratch. That’s trendy today.

You wrote that the recipes in your book fit with today's farm-to-table movement.

The Kaufmanns had a greenhouse with flowers and a vegetable garden. Mr. Kaufmann was a kind of gentleman farmer who hired people to do the heavy work.

At various times, they had beef cattle, a flock of lambs, and a herd of Jersey cattle. The Jersey cows had a tiled milking parlor. Even the cows lived right. At the end of the weekend, Mr. Kaufmann gave each of the people who worked for him a gallon of milk. He said he had to charge, so he charged just ten cents.

The Kaufmanns had all this fresh food available to them. If they hankered for lobster, they had it flown in. And the Kaufmanns were very athletic. They walked or swam off the calories. They hiked the woods. It's rugged there.

They were hardy people. Didn’t Elsie spot them swimming nude on her first day at work?

Her very first day on the job, she saw the boss, his wife and all their guests swimming “buck-naked.” Not many cookbook writers get to use those words.

Some of the recipes seem exotic. Are most of the ingredients readily available?

Definitely Elsie's recipes are very accessible because she worked there in the '50s and '60s.

Chef Bob Sendall, whose All in Good Taste Productions provided the food for President and Mrs. Obama at the G-20 conference, is a famous chef in Pittsburgh. Here's how small the cooking world is. Elsie cooked for H.J. “Jack” Heinz and his son, the future Senator Heinz when he was a little boy. Bob cooked for Sen. Heinz, and he has cooked for Teresa Heinz Kerry, who is married to Secretary of State John Kerry. The meals he creates are very farm to table. All locally raised fruits and vegetable. It's a wonderful way to eat. It's great to go to the farmers market and look the farmer in the eye and know she gathered those eggs or he plucked that basil you're buying.

You mentioned that Elsie's recipes are from the 1950s and 1960s. Do you see your book as a historic document?

They ate heavier at that time with more butter and sauces. It was nothing to throw in half a cup of butter, whereas now we might use two tablespoons. We still have great fruits and vegetables. We don't have to put cheese on everything to make it edible.

Some of us are eating more healthfully, but sadly I'm afraid it may be a middle-class trend. People without a lot of resources end up eating a lot of bad food. Good fresh food grown locally often costs more than processed food

Did you and Elsie cook together to reconstruct her recipes?

Elsie and I had a lot of meetings and lunches. She has also cooked me many great meals. She wrote down a list of ingredients, and we would go over the directions. There are certain standard ways you make things, like cakes and breads. Elsie considers herself a baker, although she makes casseroles and many other things.

At Fallingwater the butler cooked many of the meats on the grill. Elsie mostly made the side dishes, the breakfasts, the lunches.

For the book, Bob Sendall and Jane Citron contributed additional meat recipes and many other cutting-edge dishes. Fallingwater Cafe chef Mary Anne Moreau also provided some delicious recipes.

Many days I would be in the middle of testing something and I'd phone Elsie to ask questions such as "Do you think we really need two cups of flour?" And she'd say, “You might even need a little more.”

Generally, her recipes were right on. You could follow them and they turned out. I know they work because I've cooked them and eaten them. I guess that's how a lot of people acquire traditional ethnic recipes.

As a food editor, I was always trying to get ethnic recipes out of Pittsburgh cooks. It’s a very rich city ethnically and a lot don't have written recipes. They're in the cook’s head so you talk with them. I spent a day with one African American woman trying to get her recipe for sweet potato pie, and I never did get it in a recipe form. It was more of a dialog with her. "Yeah. I might use three sweet potatoes. If I had four, I'd use four. Or you could use six."

Elsie's recipe for sweet potato pie in the book is more specific. I myself am a recipe cook. The first time I make something, I follow the recipe exactly, then later I might add more or less of something.

One of my favorite stories about being a food editor is, the first day on the job, I walked in off the street and still had on my coat. The editor said a reader wanted to talk with me. She had a problem with a recipe. She was on the phone and said, "I want to make banana bread, but I don't have any bananas." I said, "Well, baking is chemistry, and bananas have a lot of liquid in them. If you leave those out, I don't think you would be very happy with this banana bread. And besides, about the only flavor banana bread has is banana." And she said, "Oh. OK. I'll jump on my bike and buy some bananas."

What would you like readers to take from your book?

I think it shows a family. The Kaufmanns were Jewish, but they always celebrated with their employees at Christmas. They said this is a time for family, and they'd have a party with the help at Fallingwater. Elsie thought the world of them, and they thought the world of her. And Edgar jr. tried to take care of her if she needed money. They were good people.

And for them to give their house to the people to enjoy was a wonderful thing to do. There were no strings attached. The Kaufmanns chose the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy because they thought the organization would do a good job preserving it.

In the beginning of showing the house [1963], Edgar Jr. had a strong hand in how it would be presented. He wanted people to see how they lived. He didn't want ropes or areas tied off. Turn a corner, and there's a Picasso. It's amazing, as though they just walked out the back door. And they really did just walk out the back door. Magical.

Robin Lindley ( is a Seattle writer and attorney, and features editor for the History News Network. His interviews with scholars, writers and artists have appeared in HNN, Crosscut, Writer’s Chronicle, Real Change, The Inlander, Re-Markings, NW Lawyer, and other publications.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
American Hellfire: Historian Robert Neer on "Napalm" American Hellfire:

Historian Dr. Robert M. Neer on His Groundbreaking Book Napalm: An American Biography

by Robin Lindley

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order

and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.”

This business of burning human beings with napalm . . .

cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., April 4, 1967


            February 1942. Just two months after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, at a dark time of defeat and anxiety for America, a bright spot for the military: Harvard researchers led by revered chemist Louis Fieser developed an incendiary weapon that would burn longer than traditional weapons, stick to targets, and extinguish only with difficulty. It was cheaper and more stable than existing alternatives, could survive extremes of hot and cold in storage, and could be mixed by soldiers on the battlefield.      

            Christened napalm, the deadly new form of thickened hydrocarbons helped win victory for the Allies in World War II. Indeed, although it was used extensively in both Europe and the Pacific, napalm was particularly effective against Japan as it fueled flamethrowers used against imperial troops and was dropped in bombs that incinerated dozens of Japanese cities and killed hundreds of thousands more Japanese than the atomic bombs—at a fraction of the cost.

            A few years later, U.S. forces dropped more napalm on enemy cities during the Korean War than was used in the Second World War.  Napalm strikes followed in short order in Greece and numerous other countries from Kenya to Brazil. There was little outcry about the use of this horrific weapon as it won wars.

            But napalm lost much of its luster during the increasingly fraught American war in Vietnam. Gruesome photographs of napalm wounds borne by Vietnamese civilians, including small children and infants, stoked the antiwar movement in the United States, and sparked student demonstrations against manufacturer Dow Chemical. After the war, popular culture from books to poems to music and Hollywood movies made the incendiary a monster, and international lawyers codified norms that restricted its use against civilians.


            Since then, the use of napalm has been disfavored and restricted under law, although recent reports indicate that napalm-like weapons have killed civilians, including school children, in the Syrian conflict.

            For the first time, historian Robert M. Neer tells the complete story of napalm from its American birth and successful use in war to subsequent revulsion and legal restriction in his book Napalm: An American Biography (Belknap Press, Harvard).  In this wide ranging cultural and social history of napalm, Dr. Neer provides the historical context of napalm in the history of fire as a weapon of war; sets out technical details on chemical and engineering issues; traces the history of napalm from war “hero to pariah;” explores moral and legal implications of its use; and offers an unflinching account of the human cost of this powerful incendiary in war after war in the past 70 years.

            Critics have praised Dr. Neer’s groundbreaking book for its original research, vivid writing, and measured, balanced approach to the history. Historian John Fabian Witt, author of Lincoln’s Code, for example, wrote: “Napalm is a revelation. In a story that takes us from Harvard Stadium to Vietnam, Robert M. Neer retells the past 70 years of American history through a single extraordinary and terrible invention. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the American way of war and its humanitarian dilemmas.” And in Dissent, Thai Jones remarked: “Robert M. Neer's clear-eyed and harrowing new account surveys this infamous technology from both perspectives. This is history, in a literal sense, from above and below. Using napalm as a symbol for American global influence acutely demonstrates the political trajectory of a superpower, from impetuous upstart to tortured giant to--finally--chastened hegemon.”

            Dr. Neer is a Core Lecturer in the History Department at Columbia University specializing in the history of the United States in the context of 20th and 21st century globalization, with a special focus on U.S. military power. He received his Ph.D. in History in 2011, his M.Phil. in 2007, and a J.D. and M.A. in 1991, all from Columbia. His current book project is a global history of the U.S. military, based on a Columbia course he has taught titled “Empire of Liberty.”. In his 14-year hiatus from Columbia after earning his law degree, he worked in international business and politics in London, Los Angeles, Singapore, Hong Kong and Boston. He also is the author of Barack Obama for Beginners, and his journalism has appeared in The Boston Globe, the Asian Wall Street Journal, and other periodicals and websites.

            Dr. Neer recently talked by telephone from New York about his book and research on napalm.


            Robin Lindley: What prompted your interest in the history of napalm?

            Dr. Robert Neer: I lived overseas for a long time in Hong Kong, Singapore and London.  As a result of that, I developed a strong sense that the perception of America outside the United States was often quite different than it was inside the United States. In traveling around in many different countries, I was able to see firsthand the extent of the U.S. military presence overseas in many different contexts.

            I wanted in the broadest sense to tell a story about America in the world and how there might be one perception of the country outside and another inside. Specifically, people inside the country often think of America as extremely just, well meaning, perhaps at the worst misunderstood.  Outside, some people consider the United States to be quite brutal, ignorant and dangerous.  There are many falsehoods in both of those ideas, but I wanted to bridge that gap.

            And I wanted to focus on military developments and the position of the United States in a global context. 

            Then I enjoyed reading books like The Making of the Atomic Bomb and The Social History of the Machine Gun, and books like Cod, Salt, and others that were biographies of things that talked about the power of technology and the environment to influence history.

            I suggested to my advisor that this might be the basis for a dissertation. He, a wonderful advisor, said,  “Great. You just need to choose a weapon and a period.” I thought about different weapons and napalm was the most dramatic weapon I could think of.  When I looked, I discovered there wasn’t any scholarly treatment of its history, or, really, any treatment of its history at all.  In fact, the best publically available source of information when I started the project was Wikipedia: there weren’t any scholarly articles in any journals at all.  So that was a good dissertation topic, and it developed into a book.

            Robin Lindley: In your book, you include a history of use of fire in warfare back to ancient times.  I recall the scene in the movie Spartacus where the slave forces were rolling burning logs over the ranks of Roman soldiers.

            Dr. Robert Neer:  You may also remember in the movie Gladiator that they used incendiary weapons in a battle between Romans and Germanic tribes: flaming arrows and catapulted fire pots.

            Fire is a very powerful weapon for a variety of reasons. First, it releases energy and can do more damage later than at the moment of impact. Explosives, by contrast, carry their energy with them and, although they can be very damaging, they’re limited in a sense that fire is not.  Also, in more intimate combat, it’s very effective because people have an instinctive fear of fire that’s very deep set.  That’s evident in conceptions like the fires of Hell or fire-breathing dragons, and many different manifestations of frightful things that are closely associated with fire.  So people have sought to take advantage of that from very early times.   There are many descriptions as early as the Bible and all the way through the Middle Ages.

            Tactically, however, a weapon is only as useful as the range with which you can use it.  Although fire early on, as with Greek fire famously used during the Byzantine Empire and in many other contexts, was useful, the development of cannons made many fire weapons obsolete.  Before the fire could be delivered to a target, the people could be killed by a projectile.  An illustration for the principle that I use is the scene in Indiana Jones when he is confronted by a fearsome swordsman and he pulls out his pistol and shoots him. That’s an example of range being an important consideration in combat.

            Closely associated with the history of napalm as a weapon is the development of the airplane because, when airplanes were invented and perfected in terms of reliability and quantity—which happened to a significant degree in World War II—fire came back into vogue because people could drop it on other people and stay out of range of bullets or artillery shells.  Although people have tried to use fire throughout the history of combat, around the 1400s it stopped being so effective until World War II. So there was a 500-year interregnum in the use of fire weapons that napalm spectacularly ended. 

            Robin Lindley: You mention the use of flamethrowers in combat in World War I. 

            Dr. Robert Neer:  People experimented and tried to use incendiary weapons straight through from the 1400s with all kinds of experiments using different delivery technologies.   During World War I, different incendiary bombs were tried.  The Germans dropped firebombs on London from zeppelins. Mixtures of rubber and gasoline were used in flamethrowers.  Because there weren’t very effective air delivery systems, and also because the mixtures they used weren’t as effective as later mixtures as napalm, those weapons were not very effective or significant.

            Robin Lindley: And you mention the use of incendiaries just before World War II, such as the German bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War.

            Dr. Robert Neer: At the same time as napalm was developed, other incendiary weapons were also developed that proved to be quite effective although not as effective or as used in as great quantities as napalm.  For example, the cities of Dresden and Hamburg were burned to the ground by the British using magnesium weapons. And the Germans at Guernica in the Basque region of Spain used thermite weapons to destroy that town.

            Robin Lindley: And, by 1942, the chemist and Harvard professor Louis Fieser had created napalm.  Why did the U.S. need napalm then?

            Dr. Robert Neer:  Just prior to the beginning of World War II, a group of leading research scientists, spearheaded by Vannevar Bush—a prominent American scientist and academic leader—organized a committee to develop technologically advanced weapons of war that they thought would be needed by the United States in what they expected would be a war that would involve this country.  With the support of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the government established the National Defense Research Committee [NDRC] to develop a new relationship between the government and universities for war research through a practice that is now common, but that was very innovative at that time.  The government provided money to universities to use their facilities and people to do research on military technologies.

            Through that program, the first research into incendiary weapons began at Harvard in the chemistry department led by Professor Fieser.  The goal was to respond to what was perceived as the probability that the United States would need incendiary weapons in the expected conflict.  Their initial research focused on mixtures of rubber and gasoline following the technologies that were used not very successfully in World War I.  But after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, America’s supplies of rubber were dramatically reduced, so the chemists switched their focus to experimenting with different chemical and petrochemical combinations to make thickened gel incendiary weapons.

            Robin Lindley: It seems that magnesium was an effective incendiary. How was napalm an advance as a weapon?

            Dr. Robert Neer: This research was perceived as a solution to a technical problem.  The reason the United States didn’t want to use magnesium is that it was afraid it wouldn’t be able to get enough magnesium.  They moved away from rubber because they couldn’t get enough rubber.  And they thought they might have other needs for magnesium besides use in weapons. 

            And then, through what you might call a fortuitous circumstance, the ultimate concoction that they devised, the method of thickening gasoline using other chemicals, produced a weapon that was far superior in its military characteristics. For example, flamethrowers that shoot napalm could shoot three times farther than the previous types.  Also, with the previous types, about 90 percent of the mixture they delivered would burn up before reaching the target. Napalm increased the delivery fraction by about ten times.  Instead of having most of the incendiary material vaporize before reaching the target, the napalm would shoot a much larger flaming rod onto whatever they aimed at.

            In addition, from the perspective of using napalm in bombs, it was extremely stable. It could be chilled to very cold temperatures as in a bomb bay or heated to a hot temperature as in a tropical storage facility. It could be stored for a very long time. It was relatively inexpensive and easy to make because it could be reduced to a powder that could be mixed in the field with gasoline to produce incendiary gel.

            Robin Lindley: Professor Fieser had a successful test of napalm at Harvard in 1942 and he later said he didn’t contemplate the use of napalm on humans.  

            Dr. Robert Neer: Fieser told the government about the improved formula that they had developed on Valentine’s Day, 1942.  The War Department then supplied the Harvard scientists with a lot of bombshells—the same bombshells the U.S. used for its poison gas arsenal because those types of bombs were made with a thin steel skin that would burst easily and scatter whatever was inside over a large area.  It’s striking because, after World War I, people were very worried that poison gas would be dropped on cities and create devastation.  In fact, that was done, but it was done with fire, and not with poison gas, and the tests were done with the same type of bombshells.

            They did the first test of napalm bombs on Independence Day, 1942.  To your point, Fieser, in his reminiscences of that time, wrote that they were focused on solving a technical problem and they always anticipated that the weapon would be used against things.  It’s at variance though from the tests the War Department conducted. 

            The Harvard scientists tested the bomb in a pool of water that had been dug into the Harvard College soccer field behind the Harvard Business School in Boston, across the river from Cambridge.  Then they participated in field trials because there were competing gel incendiary weapons produced by DuPont and other companies and the Army was doing comparative tests.  The first tests were in some villages in Indiana that the government condemned and moved everybody out so they could practice burning down the houses and the stores.

            Later on, because the British in particular thought those test weren’t rigorous enough, they built model Japanese and German villages at a new test facility that the government created in Utah and practiced burning them down in various ways.  Those were residential buildings complete down to the furniture and even the clothes in the closets to model the potential targets.

            It would seem that it wouldn’t take a tremendous leap of imagination to suppose that these munitions might affect people: they modeled bedrooms in particular.  Still, it’s possible to credit the idea that they would be burning down houses as opposed to actually dropping napalm directly on human beings. 

            Robin Lindley: The experiment using bats as kamikaze deliverers of napalm was fascinating.

            Dr. Robert Neer: Many things are interesting about that story. One of them is that the government at the time spent almost five times as much money on the bat testing program, Project X-Ray, as they did in actually developing napalm.  The napalm budget for research and development was about five million dollars in current dollars, and compare that with the $27 billion dollars that was spent on the Manhattan Project, even though napalm wound up incinerating many more Japanese cities than the atomic bombs did.

            Fieser collaborated with the bat program extensively after his work of actual development of napalm was complete. For the rest of the war, the Harvard scientists created a James-Bond type, special napalm weapons research laboratory and production center at Harvard where they designed and made all kinds of special weapons using napalm, from a napalm pill that could be popped into a gas tank where it would swell up and sabotage tanks, to a special glass incendiary grenade to throw on the battlefield, to a special device called “The Paul Revere,” which could be used to start fires on land or on water.  Another one called “The Harvard Candle” was a special fire-starting device that could be used to destroy buildings. 

            Among those projects was a plan to arm millions of kamikaze American bats; I call them “suicide bomber bats” in the book, with tiny napalm bombs using a chemical fuse that Harvard scientists built.  They’d be dropped out of airplanes in special bat bombs that would be kept at cool temperatures to keep the bats quiet until release, and then when they floated down, [the bombs] would open like accordions with a parachutes and the bats would gently fall down onto small platforms and revivify under the salubrious effect of warmer air as they descended and then flutter off into whatever building or house they were near.  About 20 minutes after being released from the bomb, these chemical fuses would burn down and trigger the napalm time bomb that would burn down the house or whatever they dropped their way into.

            In the end, the only buildings the bats actually incinerated was a brand-new Army airfield in Carlsbad, New Mexico, next to the famous caverns that had a large supply of bats. Fieser armed several chilled animals to show off the system to an Army film crew. In an instant, the heat revived them and they flew away. A desperate hunt followed, but right on schedule they detonated, and burned the entire facility to the ground, tower and all. The base commander raced up with fire trucks but had to watch, distraught, from behind a fence; researchers refused to let him approach the top secret technology testing area.

            In early 1944, after spending about $24 million in today’s dollars, Marine Corps officials canceled the program without explanation: a historical mystery that remains to be resolved.

            Robin Lindley: As you’ve alluded to, the cost of napalm was far less than the atomic bombs produced by the Manhattan project when considering the damage done by these weapons. Those statistics are stunning.

            Dr. Robert Neer: Yes.  Napalm was used as widely and as quickly as possible by the United States in World War II.  They sent it to Europe where it played a role in the Normandy landings and in the battle in the Ardennes and the battle of the Bulge and elsewhere.

            But it was mostly in the Pacific where it was deployed to the greatest extent. In the case of Japan, the United States eventually incinerated 66 of Japan’s largest cities, 64 of them with explosive weapons and napalm, and two of them with atomic weapons.  Considering that the atomic weapons cost about $27 billion in today’s currency just for their development and destroyed two cities, that would be about $13 billion per city incinerated, whereas napalm cost about five million dollars, and that weapon burned to the ground 64 cities, about $83 thousand dollars in development costs per city destroyed. 

            That’s an indication of the power of chemistry.  I wrote that “the bomb got the press, but napalm did the work.”  It also speaks to the difference between the physicists who were some of the most prominent scientists in the United States and in the world, and subsequently had reams of books written about them, compared to the chemists who arguably produced a more cost effective weapon, but weren’t particularly famous.  Fieser was a well-known chemist, but not famous on the level of Robert Oppenheimer or Albert Einstein, and yet produced a very effective weapon.

            Robin Lindley: And the comparative casualties in the bombing of Japan produced by napalm versus the atom bombs is stunning.

            Dr. Robert Neer: The greatest human-created cataclysm in the history of the world remains the United States attack on Tokyo on March 9, 1945, because over 87,000 people died on that night as a direct result of the bombardment, which is more than died in either of the explosions at Hiroshima or Nagasaki.  Of course, many people died of follow-on effects. Radiation poisoning killed many people after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki events, but that also happened in Tokyo because people who were burned out of their houses became sick or from smoke inhalation developed pneumonia and many illnesses and problems that were follow-on effects of the burnt down city around them.  That underlines the incredible destructive power of fire.

            Robin Lindley: It seems that even air force general Curtis LeMay was stunned by the aftermath of the Tokyo bombing.

            Dr. Robert Neer: He said we, “scorched and boiled and baked to death more people in Tokyo on that night of March 9-10 than went up in vapor at Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”

            Robin Lindley: This is a morbid question, but can you explain what happens when a human being is struck by napalm?

            Dr. Robert Neer: It’s a very effective because it’s sticky and burns at a very high temperature. 

            Fire works by emitting radiation, and it emits radiation most strongly to whatever it is touching.  If you think of a burning match, the hottest part of the match is the stick of the match that directly touches the fire, and the next hottest parts are above, then to the sides, then below.  So, if you want to make an effective incendiary, the closer you get it to what you want to burn and the longer it can be kept there, the more radiation energy you’ll be able to transfer to whatever the target is, and therefore the more effective it will be at starting and maintaining a fire. 

            In the case of a human being, this means that if you get hit by napalm or get napalm on you, this sticky substance that burns at an extremely high temperature will stay there and continue burning all the way down to the bone, unless it is put out. 

            It is worth noting that napalm itself is not extremely flammable. You need a relatively high temperature to get it to burn, so the other great scientific achievement of the Harvard scientists was figuring out a way to ignite this sticky, tough gel that they invented.  Their solution was to use white phosphorus, a chemical that burns at a very high temperature when it comes into contact with air.  The system they developed was a thin column of high explosive, TNT, inside a thicker cylinder of white phosphorus, and those two cylinders were inserted into the middle of a napalm bomb.  When the bomb detonates, the high explosives blast the white phosphorus into the napalm and scatters it over a wide area, and that produces a fire cloud.

            For a person who is unfortunate enough to come into contact with this invention, not only can the napalm burn them, but little bits of white phosphorus that are mixed into it can also burn them.  If you put it out by putting mud over it or putting the [affected] part of the body under water, if there’s enough white phosphorus mixed in, when it comes back into contact with the air, it starts burning again. That’s an awful wound that can take a long time to treat and heal.  This has devastating effects for people.

            Robin Lindley How is the fire from this material extinguished when initially treating napalm wounds?

            Dr. Robert Neer: In the case of Kim Phuc, the little girl captured in the famous 1972 photo “The Terror of War,” the napalm that hit her eventually burned itself out after peeling off several layers of her skin.  When that picture was taken, her skin was still burning.  She wasn’t a human torch, but there was still combustion in the skin, and usually it will burn itself out or the person will die.

            Robin Lindley: You frame the book with the very moving story of Kim Phuc who was just nine in 1972 when she was injured by napalm—and, as she ran from the blast, became the subject of Nick Ut’s photo, one of the iconic photos of the twentieth century.

            Dr. Robert Neer: I was very moved by talking with her and, given her experiences and the power of what she had to say about them, it was very appropriate way to begin and end the book, especially since it’s a “An American Biography.” I see it as a story of the United States in the world, not just a story about napalm. 

            Also, I would say it’s a hopeful story or even uplifting because the larger subject of the book is why we don’t use napalm as much any more, and how it could be that burning a city in 1945 with napalm was considered a heroic act and celebrated by Americans, but subsequent uses of napalm, especially after Vietnam are condemned worldwide and faced with such disapproval that I would say that military powers are restrained from using it, even though it’s legal to use it under international law on the battlefield against combatants. 

            Robin Lindley: You also detail the uses of napalm between World War II and the war in Vietnam, particularly by the U.S. in Korea and by our allies, often against anti-colonial forces or other insurrections.

            Dr. Robert Neer: After the effectiveness of this inexpensive, very stable weapon was demonstrated by the United States in World War II, commanders all around the world wanted to use it for their own purposes.  It wasn’t a difficult chemical problem to solve once it had been demonstrated, and the United States didn’t bother to keep it secret.

            Indeed, at the same time that the Rosenbergs were being electrocuted for espionage relating to the atomic bomb, the United States published the chemical formulas for napalm in a patent for the whole world.  That probably didn’t make much difference because it was a weapon that was easily observed and it was adopted widely regardless of the patent, but it’s an interesting parallel. 

            Subsequent to World War II, napalm was used in most major conflicts around the world.  It was used by many U.S. allies and it was also used by other countries that were not so friendly to the U.S.   But a broader paradigm is that it was used in general by the rich and the powerful against the poor and the dispossessed. 

            As I mentioned, it’s a weapon that is most effectively delivered by airplanes, so people with airplanes used napalm against people without airplanes all around the world, from parts of disintegrating colonial empires like Vietnam and Kenya to civil war like in Nigeria and in Brazil to conflicts between parties of all different descriptions as in India and extensively in the Middle East.

            I think that speaks to the military effectiveness of this weapon and a lack of any real criticism of it.  It was just another way of waging war until Vietnam.

            In the Korean War, the United States adopted a similar military strategy to that which had been so effective in Japan, and used napalm to incinerate Pyongyang and many other cities to the point where Douglas MacArthur came back and told Congress that the level of destruction in Korea made him want to vomit.  More napalm was used in Korea that in World War II, and then again more napalm was used in Vietnam than in Korea.

            Robin Lindley: You write that napalm was a hero that came a pariah, and it seems the shift of opinion was the result of its use in Vietnam with images like those of Kim Phuc running from a napalm blast and others that came out of the war.

            Dr. Robert Neer: I don’t think it was the use in Vietnam that turned napalm into a pariah so much as the fact that the United States lost the war. 

            When napalm was winning in World War II and Korea, there was very little criticism of it at all.  It should be said that many images of napalm in Korea were censored, but there were descriptions of its use, and it was no secret by any means.  And, as I said, it was also used enthusiastically around the world by military commanders in a variety of other countries. 

            During the Vietnam War, for the first time, a nationwide protest movement developed that saw in napalm a symbol or metaphor for their complaint about U.S. involvement in the war over all.  The record, as I saw it, suggested that the starting point was criticism of the war, and the vehicle that the criticism was manifested through was napalm.  Of course, these are complex phenomena, and many people objected to use of the weapon itself.  They were empowered to do that by a far greater amount of coverage and description of the effect of the weapon than had ever before been seen.

            While it certainly wasn’t a secret that napalm was being used by Americans in the Second World War and the Korea War, it’s also true that it was much more widely covered during the Vietnam War than ever before.  For example, Ramparts magazine published the first photographs of children and other civilians affected by napalm.  And Ladies Home Journal and Redbook [ran] very vivid descriptions of the impact of this weapon on civilians.  That triggered a nationwide protest movement by the youth of America on college campuses across the country against Dow Chemical Corporation, which manufactured napalm, [and that] continues to scar Dow’s reputation to this day.

            In a fairly short period, but in tandem with the nationwide movement of protest against the Vietnam War, this highly focused objection to napalm became a national movement.

            Those protest movements occurred in the late 1960s.  The iconic photograph of Kim Phuc was in 1972, after it seems that the U.S. defeat in Vietnam was clear to many people that were familiar with the story there. It was only after the war had been fought that napalm turned into the global pariah that it is today.  It’s depiction after the war in movies, books and poems and all kinds of different media took the message of those protestors and mobilized it, distributed it, and cemented it. I’d say that didn’t happen during the war itself, but only after the conclusion of the war was clear.

            Robin Lindley: After Vietnam, it would seem that the United States would be reluctant to again use napalm, but you describe subsequent military uses. 

            Dr. Robert Neer: The United States since Vietnam has been reluctant to use napalm, but the solution that the Defense Department adopted to that problem was to continue the use of incendiary weapons but just not call them napalm, which is evidence of the social opprobrium that napalm assumed following the Vietnam War. 

            During the first Gulf War, the United States used napalm to ignite oil in trenches that the Iraqis had built as a defensive mechanism.

            During the [1993] invasion of Iraq, the United States used napalm to capture various Iraqi positions that were resisting our troops.

            In response to media reports in 1993 on the use of napalm, the response was that the United States had destroyed its last stocks of napalm.  That response was based on the argument that the word “napalm” means the specific chemical formulation of weapon that was used from 1945 to 1975, and now our incendiary weapons are gelled weapons with a different chemical formulation and therefore they are no longer napalm.  The problem with that argument is that the term [napalm] itself has no chemical meaning.  It means only any gelled form of petroleum, and the current incendiary weapons that the U.S. has its in arsenal use gelled petroleum based weapons so they are napalm, just as the weapons that were dropped in 1945. 

            But taking the military spokespeople at their word, it’s entirely possible to understand how they would be unclear about that because there wasn’t any history to tell them how the word was created or developed.  That’s an example of what happens when a country loses its history and that’s a testimony to the work that historians do.

            Robin Lindley: You call napalm “a war criminal on probation.” What is the legal status of napalm?

            Dr. Robert Neer: International law had no real criticism of napalm when it was winning, during World War II, during the Korean War, and as other nations used it.

            The legal regulations of incendiary weapons under international law only came after the U.S. defeat in Vietnam became clear.  It was only in 1980 that the United Nations General Assembly adopted Protocol III of the wonderfully named Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.  This is a treaty that regulates a rogue’s gallery of horrible weapons that people have invented for war. Protocol III covers incendiary weapons and stipulates that these devices are under no circumstances  to be used against concentrations of civilians, even if military facilities are mixed in with those concentrations.  That’s a war crime under provision of international law. 

            A threshold point to observe is that napalm and other incendiary devices are completely legal to use on the battlefield against combatants.  For example, the use of napalm by the United States during the invasion of Iraq was perfectly legal under international law.

            The response of the United States to the international control regime was to reject it.  Ronald Reagan and the first president Bush both refused to submit that treaty to the Senate for ratification.  President Clinton decided to submit it but only with a caveat or “reservation” as it’s called, which said that the U.S. would recommend ratification of the treaty but only with the proviso that the United States would disregard the treaty if, in its sole judgment, using incendiary weapons against concentrations of civilians would save more civilian lives than not doing so.  To my ears, that sounds similar to General LeMay’s justification for incinerating the cities of Japan.  He said that people who objected to that kind of warfare reminded him of the foolish man who cut off the dog’s tail an inch at a time because he said it hurt less that way. 

            That was the position under President Clinton, but the Senate, for its part, was not interested in even discussing that treaty under President Clinton.  The second President Bush followed the policy of his predecessor and urged ratification on the same basis with the same proviso, but the Senate was unwilling to discuss the issue until the very end of his term, at which point, along with a rush of other treaty legislation, they ratified the treaty subject to the proviso that I described. And President Obama signed that treaty on his very first day in office.  That’s the current law that the United States follows, and also most of the world’s other countries, although not all.

            Robin Lindley: You have a fascinating background with a law degree and a variety of jobs before you earned your doctorate in history and now you’re teaching history at Columbia University.  How did you come to the profession of history?

            Dr. Robert Neer: I went to law school at Columbia, but missed the undergraduate experience from my college days as a history major.  After my second year of law school, I applied to a joint JD-PhD program at Columbia and was accepted.  In my third year of law school, I had the experience of getting my Masters degree in history at the same time I completed my JD requirements.

            After that, I had a lot of debt and I had been in school for a long time.  I took a leave of absence and wound up spending 14 years working in the media and entertainment and also in politics in London, Hong Kong, Singapore, Los Angeles and Boston. 

            But I maintained my love for history throughout that time and, when I came to a stopping point in my business career, I went back and talked to my professors at Columbia and told them I’d like to come back and finish my doctorate.  They were encouraging and said, “Once admitted, always admitted. Come on back.”

            In 2005, I returned to the program.  I went through a year of required course work to get my mind back in the world of academia.  Then I took my general exams and then wrote my dissertation.  Along the way, I had experience teaching in the history department at Columbia and, when I graduated and there was a job opportunity that they offered me, I took it, and I’ve been very happy ever since.

            Robin Lindley: Do you have any final thoughts on what you hope people take from your book or on the continuing resonance of this story?

            Dr. Robert Neer: My main hope is that other people would be interested in writing other books or articles on different aspects of the story of napalm.  There are plenty of interesting ones.  I made a website,, where I’ve presented ideas for other studies about napalm.

            The remarkable thing to me about this story is what I would call “the silence.” This weapon that has affected millions of people around the world, and was invented in the United States, which has one of the largest professional groups of historians in the world, wasn’t written about at all by anybody for 71 years.  That’s my greatest ambition for this project.


Robin Lindley is a Seattle writer and attorney.  He is the features editor for the History News Network and his writing has appeared in HNN, Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Real Change, Re-Markings, NW Lawyer, and more. He is the former chair of the World Peace through Law section of the Washington State Bar Association. He has a special interest in human rights, health and the history of medicine. He can be reached at




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Kennedy [INTERVIEW]]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 American Hellfire [INTERVIEW]]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 The Forgotten Healers of World War I [INTERVIEW]]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 "There Was No Barrier Between [Seeger] and All of His Friends and Supporters"]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Sharecropper’s Troubadour: John Handcox Full Article:]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Interview with Victor Navasky about political cartoons]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 How Brain Wounds and Illnesses Have Advanced Medical Science: An Interview with Acclaimed Science Writer Sam Kean on the History of Neuroscience

To read this interview click here.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
A Life In Cartoons: An Interview with New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff

To read this interview click here.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
The Brutal Reality of the Iraq War: An Interview with Award-Winning Photographer Michael Kamber on the Hidden War Seen by Photojournalists

To read this interview click here

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
The Longest Battle of the First World War: Historian Paul Jankowski on the Slaughterhouse of Verdun (Interview)

To read this interview click here.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
The World’s Only Stand-Up Economist Explains Climate Change here.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Black Women Entertainers in a Revolutionary Time: An Interview with Historian Ruth Feldstein here.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Tim Egan on Edward S. Curtis, 'Seattle's Michelangelo'

To read this interview click here.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
MLK's Final Year: An Interview with Tavis Smiley

To read this interview click here.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
This Is How Our Recent Wars Looked to Acclaimed Photojournalist Peter van Agtmael

To read this interview click here.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
The Battle between Journalism and Fiction: Doug Underwood on Genre Bending Journalists and Literary History (Interview) here.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Polio Boulevard: Acclaimed Poet Karen Chase Recalls Her Childhood Illness, Her Complicated Recovery, and Her “Small History” here to read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 The Complex History of Pain: An Interview with Joanna Bourke here to read the interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad: An Interview with Eric Foner here to read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Do You Remember Dag Hammarskjöld? You Should. An Interview with Biographer Roger Lipsey here to read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Lincoln’s Body in American History— Richard Wightman Fox on His New Book (Interview) here to read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Exploring the Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson with E. Ethelbert Miller (Interview) here to read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Dr. Jonas Salk, the Knight in a White Lab Coat: An Interview with Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
1919, the Year of Racial Violence: An interview with David Krugler

Click here to read this interview. 

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
How Bad Was FBI Spying on African American Writers? An Interview with William Maxwell here to read this interview. ]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 The Forgotten Story of Groundbreaking American Surgeon Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter: An interview with Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz. here to read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Christian Appy on the Legacy of the Vietnam War: An Interview here to read this interview. ]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 The Heroism of Dalton Trumbo: An Interview with Larry Ceplair here to read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 This Is Why Historian Ari Kelman Decided to Write a Graphic History of the Civil War (Interview) here to read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 The New PBS Series on the Civil War: An Interview with the Creator of "Mercy Street"

Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
Mercy Street in Context: Historian Pamela Toler on the Real Nurses of the Civil War

Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
How Our Stone-Age Brain Undermines Smart Politics: An Interview with Rick Shenkman here to read the interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 The Cruel History of Eugenics in America: An Interview with Adam Cohen

Click here to read the interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
Why Adam Hochschild Decided to Write about the Spanish Civil War (Interview) here to read the interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 The Making of a Politician: Sidney Blumenthal on His New Biography of Abe Lincoln (Interview)

Click here to read this article.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
How Religion Drove George W. Bush's Decisions: An Interview with Biographer Jean Edward Smith

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Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
The Making of America’s “Most Valuable Local Official”: An Interview with Civic Activist Nick Licata on His Political Evolution

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Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
The Eruption of Mount St. Helens: The Untold History of this Cataclysmic Event

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Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
The Other Slavery: An Interview with Historian Andrés Reséndez

Click here to read the interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
War, Memory, and Vietnam: An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen here for the interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Beyond Forgetting: An Interview with Steve Sem-Sandberg on His Historical Novel, "The Chosen Ones" here to read the interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Why It's Time to Get to Know the Black Civil Rights Activist James Lawson: An Interview with Michael K. Honey here to read the interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 The Art and Life of J.M.W. Turner: An Interview with Biographer Franny Moyle here to read the interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Bellevue: “America’s Most Storied Hospital” – An Interview with David Oshinsky Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
Dark Days in the City of Light: An Interview with Holly Tucker

Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
Why I Study Comics: An Interview with Hillary Chute read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Broken Brains on Trial: An Interview with Kevin Davis here to read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 The Origins of American Imperialism: An Interview with Stephen Kinzer here to read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 “I Wanted to Tell the Story of How I Had Become a Racist”: An Interview with Historian Charles B. Dew here to read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 The Creation of the Unprecedented PBS Series "The Vietnam War"<P>An Interview with Co-Director Lynn Novick here to read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 The Troubled Genius of Robert Lowell: An interview with clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison on her groundbreaking study of art and illness. here to read this interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 What You Don't Know About Abolitionism: An Interview with Manisha Sinha on Her Groundbreaking Study here for the interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Understanding the Persecution of the Rohingya Minority in Myanmar: An interview with international criminal law attorney Regina Paulose here for the interview.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 Review of Michael K. Honey’s “To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice”

Click here to read the review.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
Was a Tulane Psychiatrist Described by Some as a Monster a Victim of Presentism?

Click here to read an interview with Lone Frank.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
The Horrifying Nazi Roots of the Doctor After Whom Asperger’s Syndrome Is Named

Click here for an interview with Edith Sheffer.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
Ferdinand Marcos, the FBI, and the Deaths of Two Union Activists in Seattle here to read this interview with Seattle attorney Michael Withey on the investigation into the assassinations of Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes, Jr. and the long quest for justice.]]> Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0 On War and Remembrance: An Interview with Jay Winter

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Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
A Distinguished History Professor Retires—Then Goes to Art School:

Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
The Sudden Death of a Democracy: Historian Benjamin Carter Hett on the Fall of the Weimar Republic

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Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
The Refugee Camps of Twentieth-Century Britain—Historian Jordanna Bailkin Discusses Her Groundbreaking New Book "Unsettled" Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
Trump’s War on Civil Rights and Beyond: A Conversation with Acclaimed Political Analyst and Civil Rights Historian Juan Williams Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
A History of Huntington Disease and Beyond Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
Carolyn Forché: Bearing Witness to the Wounds of History Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
The Overlooked Story of “the Greater United States”: Historian Daniel Immerwahr Shares His Unique Perspective on American Empire Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
Historian Ian Reifowitz on How the Race-Baiting Invective of Rush Limbaugh on the Obama Presidency Led to Trump Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
Exploring the Curious Sources of Medieval Law: An Interview with Acclaimed Historian Robin Chapman Stacey Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
Historian Ian Reifowitz on How the Race-Baiting Invective of Rush Limbaugh on the Obama Presidency Led to Trump Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
The Overlooked Aftermath of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Click here to read this interview.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
Investigating Technology and the Remaking of America Click here to read the interview. 

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
Interview: Acclaimed History Professor Gordon Chang on "Ghosts of Gold Mountain" In the nineteenth century, thousands of Chinese workers braved perilous conditions to build the transcontinental railroad that linked the east and west coasts of the United States. However, the memory of their lives and their back-breaking efforts in extreme conditions faded quickly once the rail line was completed and the Golden Spike was driven in Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869.

To fill in the historical record, acclaimed expert in Chinese American history Professor Gordon H. Chang explores this forgotten yet momentous story in his new book Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Professor Chang vividly illuminates the journey of Chinese workers from poverty and war in China to their work building the Central Pacific Railroad (CPRR) from the California coast to Utah under the most extreme physical conditions imaginable as they also faced discrimination and violence in the new land. They laid rail in burning deserts and spent brutal winters digging tunnels in the treacherous Sierra Nevada Mountains. They were segregated, mocked, beaten, robbed and even murdered. Yet their tireless labor provided a foundation for the nation’s enormous industrial growth in the late nineteenth century. 

As Professor Chang recounts, 20,000 Chinese railroad laborers made up 90 percent of the workforce on the western link of the transcontinental railroad, the largest workforce of any private enterprise in America to that time. More than one thousand died in the effort and many more suffered severe and often disabling injuries. Exact figures on these casualties will never be known because the railroad kept no records of these catastrophes.

Virtually no documents by the Chinese rail workers survive, so Professor Chang conducted innovative research drawing on family memories, government records, archaeological reports, and other materials to reconstruct their punishing work and their daily lives. He succeeds in bringing this forgotten history from the margins of public memory and honoring the workers who helped create modern America.

Gordon H. Chang is the Olive H. Palmer Professor in Humanities and Professor in the Department of History at Stanford University as well as codirector of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project and former director of the Center for East Asian Studies. He specializes in the history of America-China relations and Asian American history, and has written extensively on these topics. His other books include Among These are Friends and Enemies: The United States, China, and the Soviet Union, 1948-1972; Morning Glory, Evening Shadow: Yamato Ichihashi and His Internment Writing; Asian Americans and Politics: Perspectives, Experiences, Prospects; Chinese American Voices From the Gold Rush to the Present; Asian American Art: A History, 1850-1970; and Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China. Professor Chang is a fourth-generation Californian who now lives in Stanford, California.

Professor Chang generously responded by email to a series of questions on his new book.


Robin Lindley: Congratulations on your groundbreaking book on Chinese railroad workers of the nineteenth century, Ghosts of Gold Mountain. How did you come to study and write about this overlooked history?

Professor Gordon H. Chang: I am a fourth generation Californian and had heard about the Chinese railroad workers when I was growing up in the Oakland area.  Substantive information about them was absent from history books and I had long wanted to address this neglect.  I conducted research on them throughout my career but it wasn’t until this past decade that I was able to devote full attention to them and co-direct a project involving more than a hundred other scholars to recovering their history.

Robin Lindley: As you note in your book, there was virtually no documentary evidence from the workers themselves. What was your process in researching and writing about them?

Professor Gordon H. Chang: The absence of documentation from them because of the destruction of their archive formed a huge challenge.  Many were literate but we believe their archive was destroyed because of the violence they and their relatives suffered in China and America in the 19th and 20th century. 

We had to read evidence in new ways and to rely on other disciplines such as archaeology that are not dependent on textual evidence.  Our published work reflects this inter-disciplinary effort.

Robin Lindley: Why did the Central Pacific Railroad decide to hire workers from far off China when other people in the country could have assumed that role?

Professor Gordon H. Chang: The Central Pacific turned to hiring Chinese out of desperation.  When construction began in 1862, the company wanted only white workers, but far fewer than needed showed up to work.  By 1864, the company turned to hiring Chinese, many of whom were already in the state. 

Chinese began migrating to America in the 1850s.  They came to seek opportunities, some going to the gold country with many others turning to wage work in mines and infrastructure projects.  They were not destitute or indentured.  They came because of the stories they heard about gold in California and the employment opportunities that were available.  

They were part of a huge migration stream that went all around the world.  Almost all came from the Pearl River delta in the Canton (Guangzhou) area, which had been hard hit with ethnic and political violence. 

Robin Lindley: How many Chinese laborers were employed by the CPRR?

Professor Gordon H. Chang: We estimate that up to 20,000 Chinese workers labored on the CPRR line over five years.  At their high point, about 12,000 labored but, because of turn-over, many worked for short periods of time. 

Robin Lindley: What did you learn about the working conditions and effectiveness of these Chinese men?

Professor Gordon H. Chang: They completed the most difficult and arduous and dangerous work. Ninety percent of the construction work force was Chinese on the CPRR.  They made themselves indispensable to the company. Because of their industry and discipline, they gained the respect of the railroad barons and developed a national reputation for themselves.  After the completion of the railroad, they were hired all around the country to work on local and regional lines.

Robin Lindley: Despite their tireless work, the Chinese faced discrimination and violence.

Professor Gordon H. Chang: The good work of the Chinese turned out to be used against them, as they were seen as labor competitors.  A xenophobic movement rose to drive them out of the country through violence and politics.  By 1882, Congress passed the first of what is known as the Chinese Exclusion Acts.

Robin Lindley: What did you learn about the role of women in this history of Chinese workers?

Professor Gordon H. Chang: The railroad workers were all men, but they had contact with women in their lives: as mothers, sisters, wives all back in China, or with prostitutes brought as slave girls to the US.  Eventually, some started families in the US that became the foundation of today’s Chinese American community.

Robin Lindley: It seems that many of these workers returned to China after the railroad project was completed.

Professor Gordon H. Chang: After the construction effort many, perhaps a third, returned to China.  Many others stayed in the US to continue to work on railroads throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries or went on to work in other occupations.  It is likely that the spread of Chinese restaurants in America was a result of the many cooks who served the workers and went on to open restaurants wherever the railroad could take them.

Robin Lindley: What do you hope readers take from your book on these previously ignored workers?

Professor Gordon H. Chang: Their accomplishments and suffering (some 1200 may have perished in the construction effort), needs to be remembered and honored.  We’ve tried to do this in our work and urge your readers to learn about the hidden and untold story of their epic efforts one hundred and fifty years ago.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Chang for your thoughtful comments, and congratulations on your groundbreaking book, Ghosts of Gold Mountain.

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
An Interview with Mary V. Thompson on the Lives of the Enslaved Residents of Mount Vernon


Mount Vernon Historian Mary V. Thompson is the author of “The Only Unavoidable Subject of Regret”: George Washington, Slavery, and the Enslaved Community at Mount Vernon (University of Virginia Press, 2019).

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based writer and attorney. He is features editor for the History News Network (, and his work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, NW Lawyer, Real Change, Huffington Post, Bill,, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights and conflict. He can be reached by email:


Drawing on years of extensive research and a wide variety of sources from financial and property records to letters and diaries, Ms. Thompson recounts the back-breaking work and everyday activities of those held in bondage. Without sentimentality she describes oppressive working conditions; the confinement; the diet and food shortages; the illness; the drafty housing; the ragged clothes; the spasms of cruel punishment; the solace in religion and customs; and the episodic resistance. 

Ms. Thompson also illuminates the lives of George and Martha Washington through their relationships with black slaves. Washington was a strict disciplinarian with high expectations of himself and his slaves. As a young man, he callously bought and sold slaves like cattle. However, as Ms. Thompson explores, his attitudes toward slavery and race changed with the American Revolution when he saw black men fight valiantly beside white troops. Although not a vocal abolitionist, his postwar statements reveal that he found slavery hypocritical and incompatible with the ideals of democracy and freedom for which he had fought. He was the only Founding Father who freed his slaves in his will.

Ms. Thompson brings to life this complicated history of enslaved people and their legendary owner. Her careful explication of the many aspects of life at Mount Vernon offers a vivid microcosm for readers to better understand the institution of slavery and its human consequences during colonial period and early decades of the republic.

Since 1980, Mary V. Thompson has worked at George Washington's Mount Vernon in several capacities, and currently serves as Research Historian who supports programs in all departments at Mount Vernon, with a primary focus on everyday life on the estate, including domestic routines, foodways, religious practices, slavery, and the slave community. She has lectured on many subjects, ranging from family life and private enterprise among the slaves, to slave resistance, to religious practices and funerary customs in George Washington's family. Her other books include “In the Hands of a Good Providence:” Religion in the Life of George Washington, and A Short Biography of Martha Washington.Ms. Thompson also has written chapters for several books, entries in encyclopedias, and numerous articles. She earned an M.A. in History from the University of Virginia.

Ms. Thompson generously responded by email to a series of questions on her work and her new book on the slave community at Mount Vernon.


Robin Lindley: Congratulations Ms. Thompson on your recent book on George Washington and enslavement at Mount Vernon. Before getting to your book, I wanted to ask about your background. How did you decide on a career as a historian?

Mary V. Thompson: My father was a major influence on that.  He served for 32 years as an Army Chaplain and, through quite a few moves, would drag us to nearby museums and historic sites and encourage us to read about the next place we were going and all the exciting things that happened there, so we were pretty psyched by the time we got there. He was also the first curator of the Army Chaplains Museum, when it was in Brooklyn, during the Bicentennial of the Revolutionary War.  As part of that job, he also edited a 5-volume history of the Chaplains Corps, while writing the first volume, which covered the American Revolution.  So, as I went through high school, I helped in the museum with some of the exhibits, helped with acquisitions, and with research. I loved all of it.

Robin Lindley: I understand that you’ve spent most of your professional career as a historian at Mount Vernon. How did you come to work at this historic plantation and what is your role?

Mary V. Thompson: This was definitely a result of serendipity---or providence, depending on your world view.  I was getting ready to finish a master’s degree at the University of Virginia, while working as a volunteer for the Army Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, and sending out what felt like bazillions of resumes for jobs all over the country.  I started out part-time [at Mount Vernon] as an historic interpreter (giving tours to about 8,000 visitors per day).  From there, I moved on to doing special projects for the Curator, then to assisting full-time in the Curatorial Department.  I moved up to being the Registrar in the Curatorial Department, which involved cataloguing new objects as they came into the collection, keeping track of where everything was, doing inventories, working with insurance companies, etc.  

To keep me from going nuts, they gave me one day per week to do research on a specific, agreed-upon topic, the first of which dealt with foodways.  After a few years, my boss asked me to switch to studying slavery and slave life at Mount Vernon.  In the late 1990s, as the 200thanniversary of George Washington’s death was rapidly approaching, I worked on three major projects: a travelling exhibition entitled, “Treasures from Mount Vernon:  George Washington Revealed,” which opened in late 1998 and travelled to five cities around the country; redoing the furnishings in the mansion, with special exhibitions to make the house look as though the Washingtons had just walked out of the room; and the recreation/reenactment of George Washington’s funeral, a three-hour event on C-Span.  

I was then moved to the Library, where I worked as the Research Specialist and then as Research Historian.  This involved dealing with questions from people all over the country, generally dealing with domestic life here at Mount Vernon; helping authors, illustrators, and publishers by vetting publications; helping pretty much every department on the estate with helpful quotes and deciding whether we had enough information on a particular subject to do a special exhibit or program built around it.  Best of all was the opportunity to give talks on and publish my own research.  

Robin Lindley: What sparked your recent book on enslavement at Mount Vernon? 

Mary V. Thompson: I actually started working on the topic in the late 1980s, because Mount Vernon really needed to be able to teach its staff and visitors about this issue, but it was probably about seven or eight years after that before it knew it wanted to be a book.  It was in the early 1960s that I first learned about slavery, as a result of the Civil War centennial, which was going on when I was an elementary school student, at the same time that the Civil Rights movement was playing out on the news every night during dinner.  Then in graduate school at the University of Virginia in the late 1970s, slavery was the subject of much of our reading and classroom discussions.

Robin Lindley: Your book has been praised for its impressive detail and extensive research. What was your research process?

Mary V. Thompson: Thankfully, I was able to start with some of the sources compiled by prior members of our Library staff.  One of the Librarians had put together a bound volume of statements by George Washington on the topic of slavery, which she’d typed up back in the 1940s.  I went through that, page by page, listing the topics covered on each and then photocopied the pages and put them into loose-leaf binders for each of those topics.

I also went through bound volumes of photostats of the Weekly Work Reports that Washington required from his overseers, as well as photostats of his financial records.  The Weekly Reports provided detailed information on the work being done on each of the five farms that made up the Mount Vernon estate, as well as information on the food being delivered to each, the weather on each day, food delivered to each farm, the number of people working on each farm, and explanations for why certain people were not working each week.  This last category was really interesting, because it provides information on illnesses, injuries, childbirth, and how long women were out of work because they were recovering from giving birth.

Another great source was correspondence by family members other than George Washington, as well as descriptions of Mount Vernon by visitors to the plantation, that often mention those enslaved there.  In order to understand where Mount Vernon fit in the overall picture of plantations in Virginia, it was also necessary to learn about life at Monticello, Montpelier, Sabine Hall, and elsewhere in the colony/state.   

Robin Lindley: You reconstruct and put a human face on the lives of slaves at Mount Vernon—despite the virtual lack of any contemporary documents by slaves from that period. How did you deal with that challenge?

Mary V. Thompson:  Getting at the enslaved community was one of my favorite parts of this project.  I started by taking the two fullest slave lists, from 1786 and 1799, and used them to try to reconstruct families. Thankfully, these two lists enumerated the people on each of the five farms and what their work was, with the 1786 list linking mothers and their children who were too young to work, and the ages of those children.  The 1799 list did the same, but also linked women and their husbands and told where those husbands lived (whether they were on the same farm with their wives and children, lived on another of Washington’s farms, or belonged to another owner altogether, or were free men).

 Comparing the two lists made it possible to start reconstructing extended, multigenerational families.  I put together a document for each of the farms, organized by family, and then, as people would be named in the work reports, the financial records, or correspondence, would put those references in the individual records, if I was as sure as I could be that I’d found the right person.  

For most of the people, I was keeping track of such things as information about what work they were doing; references to their health; children; ways they might have made extra money; rations of food and clothing; instances of resistance; etc.

Robin Lindley: I was impressed by your description of the massive size of Mount Vernon and the number of slaves who worked there. How would you briefly describe the Mount Vernon plantation in Washington’s era in terms of area, farming, crops, forests, and number of slaves? 

Mary V. Thompson:  Mount Vernon reached an ultimate size of 8,000 acres during Washington’s lifetime. While Washington, like many plantation owners prior to the American Revolution, started out as a tobacco grower, by the late 1760s, he was making the switch from tobacco to grain and from markets in Europe to American and West Indian markets.  Much of the land was still forested after switching in crops and markets. As I understand it, in order to keep fireplaces running on a daily basis for heating, cooking, and washing, it takes ten acres of forest to get enough trees and branches dying naturally to do those things, without the need to cut any more trees.  The largest number of enslaved people on the plantation was 317 in 1799, the last year of George Washington’s life. 

Robin Lindley: What are a few salient things you learned about Washington’s treatment of slaves? 

Mary V. Thompson: Washington was a stickler for detail and a strict disciplinarian.  He was also approachable when his enslaved workers had problems with their overseers, needed to borrow something, or someone was interested in moving from one plantation job to another that required more responsibility.  They even talked to him to clarify things, when he didn’t understand a particular problem.  

Robin Lindley: How did Washington’s military background affect his treatment of slaves and other workers?

Mary V. Thompson: Washington used the same methods to keep an eye on his army as he did on the plantation with his slaves.  He directed that both officers and overseers spend time with his soldiers and slaves, respectively; he expected regular reports from them so that he had a very good idea about how things were going and would also travel daily through his military camps and farms to catch problems before they became major issues.  He also insisted on proper medical care for both soldiers and slaves and was a strict disciplinarian in both situations.

Robin Lindley: How did Martha Washington see and treat slaves? It seems she was more dismissive and derogatory than her husband concerning black people.

Mary V. Thompson:  Like her husband, Martha Washington tended to doubt the trustworthiness of the enslaved people at Mount Vernon.  Upon learning of the death of an enslaved child with whom her niece was close, she wrote that the younger woman should “not find in him much loss,” because “the Blacks are so bad in th[e]ir nature that they have not the least grat[i]tude for the kindness that may be sh[o]wed them.”  

The Washingtons never seemed to realize that they only knew Africans and African-Americans as people who were enslaved, which meant that they were not interacting as equals and any ideas they may have had about innate qualities of this different culture were tainted by the institution of slavery.

Robin Lindley: I realize that direct evidence from slaves is limited, but what did you learn about how slaves viewed George Washington? 

Mary V. Thompson:  Because Washington was so admired by his contemporaries, many of whom came to Mount Vernon to see his home—and especially his tomb—those visitors often talked with the slaves and formerly enslaved people on the plantation in order to learn snippets about what the private George Washington was like. 

Extended members of the Washington family, former neighbors, official guests, and journalists, often wrote about their experiences at Mount Vernon and what they learned about Washington from those enslaved by him. Some people were still angry about how they were treated, while others were grateful for having been freed by him.

Robin Lindley: In his early years as a plantation owner, Washington—like most slave owners—saw his slaves as his property and he bought and sold slaves with seeming indifference to the cruelty and unfairness of this institution. He broke up slave marriages and families, and he considered black people indolent and intellectually inferior. However, as you detail, his views evolved. How do you see the arc of Washington’s life in terms of how he viewed his slaves and slavery?

Mary V. Thompson: That change primarily happened during the American Revolution.  Washington took command of the American Army in mid-1775.  Within three years, he was confiding to a cousin, who was managing Mount Vernon for him, that he no longer wanted to be a slave owner.  In those years, Washington was spending long periods of time in parts of the country where agriculture was successfully practiced without slave labor and he saw black soldiers fighting alongside white ones. He also could see the hypocrisy of fighting for liberty and freedom, while keeping others enslaved.  There were even younger officers on his staff who supported abolition.  

While he came to believe that slavery was something he wanted nothing more to do with, it was one thing to think that slavery was wrong, and something else again to figure out what to do to remedy the situation.  For example, it was not until 1782 that Virginia made it possible for individual slave owners to manumit their slaves without going through the state legislature.  After an 8-year absence from home, during which he took no salary, Washington also faced legal and financial issues that would also hamper his ability to free the Mount Vernon slaves.

Robin Lindley: Many readers are familiar with the story of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. Did you find any evidence that George Washington had intimate relationships with any of his slaves or any free blacks?  

Mary V. Thompson:  Not really. As a young officer on the frontier during the French and Indian War, one of his brother officers wrote a letter, teasing him about his relationship with a woman described as “M’s Nel.”  The wording suggests several possibilities: she might have been a barmaid working for a tavern owner or pimp, whose first initial was M; another possibility is that she was the mistress of a brother officer; or perhaps that she was enslaved to another person.  With the minimal evidence that survives, there are many unanswered questions about this mystery woman.

The oral history of an enslaved family at Bushfield, the home of Washington’s younger brother, John Augustine Washington, alleges that George Washington was the father of a young male slave named West Ford, who was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, roughly 95 miles from Mount Vernon, about a year or two after the American Revolution.  Here, the surviving documentary evidence contradicts the oral history, indicating that Ford’s father was someone in the Bushfield branch of the family.

Robin Lindley: What struck you particularly about the working conditions for slaves at Mount Vernon and how did they compare to conditions at other plantations?

Mary V. Thompson:  As was true on other Virginia plantations in the eighteenth century, the enslaved labor force at Mount Vernon worked from dawn to dusk six days per week, with the exception of four days off for Christmas, two days each off for Easter and Pentecost, and every Sunday throughout the year,  Because Easter and Pentecost took place on Sunday, which was already a day off, the slaves were given an additional day off on the Monday following the religious holiday.  If they were required to work on a holiday, there is considerable evidence that they were paid for their time on those days.

Robin Lindley: What are a few things you’d like readers to know about the living conditions of slaves at Mount Vernon?

Mary V. Thompson:  Most of the enslaved residents at Mount Vernon lived in wooden cabins—the smaller ones served as homes for one family, while the larger “duplexes” housed two families, separated by a fireplace wall.  

The majority of Americans at this period, free and enslaved, lived in very small quarters.  In comparing the sizes of cabins used by enslaved overseers and their families at two of the farms at Mount Vernon with those of the overseer on a plantation in Richmond County, the two at Mount Vernon had a total living space of 640 square feet, while the other had 480 square feet.

The homes of 75% of middle-class white farmers in the southwestern part of Virginia in 1785 were wooden cabins ranging from 640 square feet to 394 square feet.  Our visitors tend to be very surprised to learn that the entire average Virginia home for middle class or poor families in the eighteenth century would fit easily into just “the New Room,” the first room they enter in the Mount Vernon mansion. In other words, pretty much everyone was on the poor end of the scale, unless they were like the Washingtons, the Custises, or the Carters.  

Robin Lindley: I was surprised that some of the Mount Vernon slaves were literate. I had thought that education of slaves was illegal then. 

Mary V. Thompson: There were no restrictions on teaching slaves to read in eighteenth century Virginia, and, in fact, it might have been a useful skill, especially for slaves working in more of a business capacity, than in agricultural labor.  It was not until after a slave revolt known as Gabriel’s Rebellion (1800), that the state passed a law forbidding enslaved people to gather together in order to learn to read.  At least one historian has suggested that between 15 and 20 percent of slaves could read in the 18thcentury.

Robin Lindley: You found evidence that many slaves were aware of African lore and practices—at times from stories passed down through generations and at times from black people more recently arrived from Africa. What are some things you learned about African influences?

Mary V. Thompson:  African influence can be seen in everything from naming practices within families, to family lore and folk tales told to children, the languages spoken in the quarters, religious beliefs and practices, and even some of the food and cooking traditions.

Robin Lindley: You note that slaves were punished physically at Mount Vernon and that even Washington at times applied the lash. What did you find about forms of punishment at the plantation?

Mary V. Thompson:  One of the changes on the plantation after the war, recorded by Washington’s secretary Tobias Lear, was that his employer was trying to put limits on the physical punishment doled out to the slaved.  According to Lear, Washington wrote that no one was to be punished unless there was an investigation into the case and “the defendant found guilty of some bad deed.”  After the war, Washington also tried to use more positive reinforcement, instead of punishment, in order to get the sort of behavior he wanted.  Those positive reinforcements included such things as the chance to get a better job, earning monetary rewards, or even better quality clothing.

Robin Lindley: What happened to slaves at Mount Vernon who escaped and were recaptured? 

Mary V. Thompson: It would depend on the circumstances and how difficult it was to get them back.  Some people might run away briefly because of a conflict with someone else in the quarters, or with an overseer and needed a breather to let the situation cool off.  Others might have left to visit relatives on another plantation.  If they were not gone long and came back on their own, there might be little punishment.  In other cases, if someone continually ran away or was involved in petty crimes, they might be punished physically or even sold away.  

We know of at least one slave, who was sold to another plantation in Virginia, after running away four times in five years; three times when George Washington sold a person to the West Indies, something many people today consider akin to a death sentence; and one case where a young man at Mount Vernon—and his parents—were told that he would be sold there, as well, if he didn’t start exhibiting better behavior.

Robin Lindley: Did you find examples of slave resistance?

Mary V. Thompson:  Yes, many. When people today think of resistance, most probably are thinking of things like running away, or physically fighting back with an overseer, stealing something to eat, or poisoning someone in the big house. Not everyone was brave enough or desperate enough to do something so easily detectable.  They might well have tried something less obvious, like slowing down the pace of work, procrastinating on finishing a particular job, or even pretending to be sick or pregnant.  

Robin Lindley: Oney Judge Staines was a Mount Vernon slave who escaped to New Hampshire a few years before Washington died. He was angry and vigorously sought her return, but was unsuccessful. Did you find new information on this fascinating case?

Mary V. Thompson:  It wasn’t exactly new information, but the fact that this young woman was one of the “dower slaves” from the estate of Martha Washington’s first husband, meant that Martha did not own her or any of the others, but only had the use of them (and any offspring they had) until her death.  George Washington would lose access to those slaves upon Martha’s death, when the dower slaves would be divided among the heirs of her first husband, who in this case were her four Custis grandchildren.

According to a Virginia law at the time, if any dower slave from that state was taken to another state, without the permission of the heirs—or presumably the guardian of those heirs if they were minors—then the heirs or the guardian acting on their behalf would be entitled to take the entire estate immediately, without having to wait for the death of either the husband or wife. Oney’s escape may well have threatened the entire Custis estate.

Robin Lindley: You note that Washington was the only slave-owning Founder who freed all of his slaves in his will. You also note that he seemed circumspect and perhaps ashamed about owning slaves later in his life. Did he ever speak out publicly for the abolition of slavery in his lifetime?

Mary V. Thompson:  It depends on what a person means by “publicly”.  Washington corresponded with quite a few abolitionists, both British and American, after the Revolution.  In response to those people who were pushing him to emancipate those he held in bondage, Washington typically responded that he thought the only legitimate way to do that was through a gradual process of manumission, much like the northern states were setting up.  He noted that he would always vote to forward such a plan, however, he never stood in front of a legislative body as a proponent of a plan like that.  

Robin Lindley: What do you hope readers take from your groundbreaking book? 

Mary V. Thompson:  I would like people to understand that slavery in eighteenth-century Virginia differed from the same institution in both the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, and that it was a complex institution.  For example, there were people at Mount Vernon who were free, hired, indentured, and enslaved.  They came from many countries and cultures on two continents, represented a variety of both European and African religious traditions, and began their relationships speaking many different languages.  

Robin Lindley: It’s a complicated story. Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments Ms. Thompson, and congratulations on your illuminating book on the Father of the Country and enslavement on his plantation. 


Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0
The Ruthless Litigant in Chief: James Zirin Paints a Portrait of Trump Through 3,500 Lawsuits


American presidents before Donald Trump had some record of public achievement in politics, government or the military before they were elected. Donald Trump lacked any of those credentials, but brought his astounding history of involvement in thousands of lawsuits to the nation’s highest office. This trove of cases from more than 45 years reflects Trump’s contempt for ethical standards and for the US Constitution and the rule of law, the foundation of American democracy.

As a perennial litigant, Trump weaponized the law to devastate perceived enemies, to consolidate power, to frustrate opposing parties, as former federal prosecutor and acclaimed author James D. Zirin illuminates in his compelling and disturbing history of Trump’s use and abuse of the law, Plaintiff in Chief: A Portrait of Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits (All Points Books).

Mr. Zirin is a distinguished veteran attorney who spent decades handling complex litigation. He is also a self-described “middle of the road Republican.” Plaintiff in Chief stands as his response to Trump’s disrespect for law and our legal system. He stresses that the book is a legal study, not a partisan takedown. 

In his book, Mr. Zirin scrupulously documents Trump’s life in courts of law. Based on more than three years of extensive research, the book examines illustrative cases and how they reflect on the character and moral perspective of the current president. The details are grounded in more than 3,500 lawsuits filed by Trump and against Trump. Litigation usually involves sworn affidavits attesting to accuracy and testimony given under oath if a trial occurs, so Mr. Zirin is able to reference page after page of irrefutable evidence of Trump's legal maneuvering, misstatements, hyperbole, and outright lies. 

As Mr. Zirin points out, Trump learned how to use the law from his mentor, the notoriously unprincipled lawyer and fixer Roy Cohn whose motto was “Fuck the law.” Trump took Cohn’s scorched earth strategy to heart and used the law to attack others, to never accept blame or responsibility, and to always claim victory no matter how badly he lost.

”Trump saw litigation as being only about winning,” Mr. Zirin writes. “He sued at the drop of a hat. He sued for sport; he sued to achieve control; and he sued to make a point. He sued as a means of destroying or silencing those who crossed him. He became a plaintiff in chief.”

And Trump also has been a defendant in hundreds of legal actions, as Mr. Zirin details. In 2016, there were 160 federal lawsuits pending in which he was a named defendant, as well as numerous other investigations and proceeding. Mr. Zirin observes that Trump “has been sued for race and sex discrimination, sexual harassment, fraud, breach of trust, money laundering, defamation, stiffing his creditors, defaulting on loans, and . . . he [has] been investigated for deep ties to the Mob, which he enjoyed over the years.” 

And Trump’s pattern of disrespect and contempt for the law persists. As Mr. Zirin writes, "All this aberrant behavior would be problematic in a businessman. . . But the implications of such conduct in a man who is the president of the United States are nothing less than terrifying."

Mr. Zirin is a leading litigator who has appeared in federal and state courts around the nation. He is a former Assistant US Attorney for the Southern District of New York under the legendary Robert M. Morgenthau. His other books include Supremely Partisan-How Raw Politics Tips the Scales in the United States Supreme Court and The Mother Court, on great trials from the Southern District of New York in the mid-twentieth century. His articles have appeared in array of publications including Time, Forbes, Barron’s, The Los Angeles Times, The London Times, and others. 


Mr. Zirin also hosts the critically acclaimed television talk show Conversations with Jim Zirin Digital Age, which airs weekly throughout the New York metropolitan area. In August 2003, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg appointed him to the New York City Commission to Combat Police Corruption. He is a Fellow of the American College of Trial Lawyers, and is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. A graduate of Princeton University with honors, he received his law degree from the University of Michigan Law School where he was an editor of the Michigan Law Review and a member of the Order of the Coif.


Mr. Zirin graciously responded to questions on his study of Donald Trump by telephone from his office in New York.


Robin Lindley: Congratulations on your new book Mr. Zirin, and on your distinguished legal career. In your book, you chronicle Donald Trump’s life as a ruthless litigator for almost a half century. How did you come to write Plaintiff in Chief on Trump’s life through more than 3,500 lawsuits? 

James D. Zirin: About three years ago, a friend suggested that I write a biography of Roy Cohn. I knew Roy Cohn. He was an unscrupulous lawyer. He was disbarred 1986, about three years before he died. And he was Trump's lawyer and confidant, and their relationship was very close, very intimate. He boasted to a journalist that he and Trump spoke about five or six times a day. This was before Trump had any notion of seeking political office. 

Cohn really taught Trump everything he knows about waging what I call asymmetrical warfare, weaponizing the law and using litigation as a means to attain the various objectives that he had. They met in a bar in 1973 just after Trump had been named as a defendant along with his father in a race discrimination in housing suit brought by the Justice Department. Trump had a number of lawyers and normally a suit like that ends quickly with a consent decree with the defendant agreeing that he or she won't discriminate anymore without accepting or admitting or denying the allegations in the complaint. 

Cohn had a different recipe for going forward. He liked to beat the system. He'd been indicted three times by the legendary prosecutor Robert M. Morgenthau, and he'd been acquitted three times. Cohn’s recipe was fight, and he taught Trump the tools he used. Number one is, if you're charged with anything, counterattack. Rule number two is, if you're charged with anything, try to undermine your adversary. Rule number three is work the press. Rule number four is lie. It doesn't matter how tall a tale it is, but repeat it again and again. Rule number five is settle the case, claim victory, and go home. And that's exactly what happened in the race discrimination case. 

So anyway, I created a book proposal, which I sent to my agent and my publisher, St. Martin's Press. In its wisdom, the Press said I should try to write a larger book about the influence of litigation on Donald Trump because that's the way he had conducted himself in the 40 years before he achieved office, and I should use Cohn perhaps as a springboard but the book should center on Trump and what experience he had had in litigation. So, I did that and that's how I came to create the book. 

Robin Lindley: It's a remarkable and chilling account of Trump's life through the prism of his legal affairs. You stress in the book that the two most powerful influences in his life were Roy Cohn and his father, Fred Trump. 

James D. Zirin: Yes. His father, of course, was a defendant as well in the race discrimination cases. His father was also a real estate operator and he came up against the government in the arena of FHA loans. He was accused of profiteering. He testified before a Senate committee and was interrogated by Senator Lehman. He made a lot of money by mortgaging out with FHA loans in ways that they were never intended. Then when he was asked about the profits, he said he had never withdrawn the money from the bank, so therefore there were no profits. That was ridiculous. But here is an example of saying something that's totally ridiculous for public consumption that somehow or other some people will believe. And that's the approach Trump has used professionally and that's the approach he continues to use in office. 

Robin Lindley: Were you ever involved in litigation with Donald Trump? 

James D. Zirin: No. I never was. I met him several times, and I met him with Roy Cohn several times. 

When I first met Cohn, I was an Assistant US Attorney and Cohn was being investigated by a federal grand jury. I worked for Robert M. Morgenthau then and that investigation resulted in indictments. Cohn was in the anteroom of the grand jury chamber and witnesses were waiting to testify and he raised his open hand in what might be interpreted as a high five. I naively thought it was a high five to encourage the witnesses since they were facing the daunting experience of testifying before a grand jury. And it wasn't the high five at all. He was telling them to take the Fifth. 

That’s how Cohn operated and that's the way Trump operates. It's saying something that's highly incriminating and doing something that's highly incriminating, but doing it in a way so that you have total deniability if anyone calls you out for it. 

Robin Lindley: What was your impression of Trump when you met him decades ago?

James D. Zirin: I really met him only to shake hands. I never met him to talk with him, but I knew of his reputation. I knew he didn't pay his bills. I knew he didn't pay his lawyers. I knew he'd been in bankruptcy five times, and I knew about his Atlantic City casinos. I knew he'd been sued a number of times. And I knew that he had been a plaintiff an extraordinary number of times. He sued journalists. He sued small business people for using the Trump name. He sued women who he was involved with. He sued his wives even after a divorce, both Ivana and Marla Maples. And I knew that a lot of settlements he entered during litigation were kept under seal in the files of the court so the public would never know the terms of the settlements. 

In one major litigation effort, you had the so-called Polish brigade case which involved the construction of Trump Tower that opened in 1983.Trump had undocumented Polish workers and he did not contribute to the union pension fund as he was required to do. There was litigation and it was eventually settled for 100 cents on the dollar after lengthy litigation including a trial in which the trial judge said Trump's testimony was completely lacking in credibility. But the case was settled. We never knew what the terms of settlement were except, about 20 years later, a judge unsealed the settlement papers and it turned out that Trump had settled for 100 cents on the dollar. 

Robin Lindley: Full disclosure: I'm a lifelong Democrat and I think most in my party would agree with your history and characterization of Trump.

James D. Zirin: I'm actually a lifelong Republican and I'm decidedly anti-Trump because I don't think he represents the values of the country or the Constitution of America. I think he's been a rogue president.  

Robin Lindley; I agree. A lot has happened since your book came out, with Trump’s reaction to the Mueller report, his impeachment, his weaponizing of the Department of Justice, and more suits against the media and others. And Trump continues to follow the Cohn rules. Trump famously said he needed a Roy Cohn. Does he have his Roy Cohn now in William Barr, the Attorney General? 

James D. Zirin: Many people have suggested that. I think Barr is more of an ideologue. He's not an unscrupulous lawyer as Roy Cohn was. 

Roy Cohn represented mobsters and he was a crook. He was eventually disbarred because he stole $100,000 from a client. He was disbarred because his yacht went up in flames and a crew member was killed. He collected the insurance. It was supposed to go to his creditors, but instead he pocketed the money. He was disbarred because he made a false and misleading statements on an application to become a member of the DC bar, and there was a disbarment hearing. Trump was one of a number of his character witnesses and he testified to Cohn’s good reputation for honesty, integrity, truth and veracity. And of course, Cohn’s reputation for honesty, integrity, truth and veracity was very bad.

And after Cohn was disbarred in 1986, Trump distanced and himself from Cohn, but that was not for long because Cohn died three weeks thereafter. There was a funeral and Trump stood in the back of the room and delivered no eulogy, and never said much more about him. 

What we do know about how close the relationship is that 30 years later, in 2016, when Trump was elected president, he turned to gossip columnist Cindy Adams, a friend of his, and he said, “Cindy, if Roy were here, he never would've believed it.” So we know that’s how close the relationship was. And, in the White House in 2017 when counsel Donald McGahn was dragging his feet about firing Sessions, Trump made the famous statement, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” 

Robin Lindley: It seems to many observers that William Barr is acting as the president's personal attorney and has an authoritarian attitude about the Constitution and the role of the president while scoffing at the separation of powers. 

James D. Zirin: That is easily said, but I don't think it's easily demonstrated because the Constitution does not say that the attorney general must be independent of the president. There is a tradition of independence in the justice department, particularly since Watergate where the Attorney General must serve the Constitution, and not the president, and if there's a conflict the Attorney General should do something to resolve that conflict. 

 I think Barr has been quite cavalier about observing that tradition. He doesn't believe in it. He is contrarian and a libertarian. He believes in the unitary executive so that Trump is free to do basically anything he wants to do because he's the President of the United States. Barr has not been a check on Trump's unbridled abuse of power, but it's not really for the attorney general to do that. It's for the Congress to do that through the impeachment power, so you can't say that Barr has failed to ride herd on the president because he would take the view that that's not his obligation.  

Robin Lindley: Thanks for explaining that view of the Attorney General’s role. Since your book came out the impeachment occurred. Senator Susan Collins thought the president would be chastened by that process. Of course, that hasn’t happened. How do you see Trump’s response to the impeachment and the unanimous Republican Congressional support of him, with the exception of Mitt Romney? 

James D. Zirin:I think Trump believes he's above the law, and when I say the law, I mean the law including the Constitution. 

The Republicans in the Senate were willing to give him a pass for various reasons. I suppose they could rationalize it. They could say, number one, it was for the American people ultimately to decide on whether he should remain in office and we have an election coming up in a few months. And number two, what Trump did was bad perhaps, but it wasn't so bad as to amount to an impeachable offense. Impeachable offenses are what two thirds of the Senate say they are was going to be. 

I don't think anyone ever thought that two thirds of the United States Senate would vote to remove him from office. But the Constitution provides for a trial and it's supposed to be presided over by the Chief Justice. And this was not a trial. It was a travesty because who has ever had a trial where the prosecution can't call witnesses to present the evidence. And that's what Romney was extremely upset about. 

I think it was a Senator Lamar Alexander's who said we don't need witnesses because, if five people say you left the scene of the accident, why call a sixth? And so, it was pretty much uncontested what the facts were, and what is to be made of those facts is up to the United States Senate under our Constitution. It shows that the hoary document we call the Constitution of the United States, which we put on a pedestal and supposedly has iconic significance, is an 18th century document that in the real world is pretty inefficient in curbing the powers of a tyrannical president. And I think that history will record that. 

Robin Lindley: And Trump responded that the impeachment was “a hoax” and said his letter to Ukranian President Zelensky was “perfect.” He actually asked a foreign government to interfere in an American election. It seems a high crime and misdemeanor under the Constitution. Elections are sacrosanct in a democracy. 

James D. Zirin:Well, that's true. And a high crime and misdemeanor does not have to be a crime that's in the United States Code, although this amounted to an invitation for a bribe, but also amounted to extortion, both of which are in the United States Code. 

But at the time of the enactment of the Constitution, there was no United States Code. The Constitution mentions bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors. It was quite clear from the Federalist papers and the ruminations of Hamilton and Madison and others that abusive presidential power was an impeachable offense. And here you certainly have an abuse where Trump was using the foreign policy of the United States and the leverage of withholding funds for military aid that were authorized by Congress in order to achieve a domestic political advantage and benefit himself. 

Robin Lindley: And Trump continues to bring lawsuits from the White House. In the last couple of weeks, he's sued the New York Times and CNN for defamation. Of course, he'll never appear to be deposed, so those lawsuits will probably go nowhere. He continues to use the law as a weapon. You chronicle that sort of abuse of the legal system for the last 45 years or so. 

James D. Zirin: That's right. He has sued a lot of writers. Before he took public office, he sued the journalist Tim O'Brien for daring to write that his net worth was overstated. They took his deposition, and he demonstrably lied at least 32 times under oath, and the case was eventually dismissed. The defense was able to show the truth that, in fact, he had overstated his net worth. That was one of Trump’s sore points and he sued whenever someone said he was worth less than he believed should be stated. But O'Brien won his case. 

And he brought other cases against journalists. He sued an architectural critic for the Chicago Tribune for suggesting that one of his buildings, which wasn't even up but was planned, would be an eyesore on the horizon. The judge threw the case out because of the rule of opinions. To succeed in a libel action, you have to show that a statement of fact which is defamatory and false was made of and concerning the plaintiff. The architect stated an opinion that the building would be an eyesore on the horizon, and that's not something that could ever be libelous. 

Robin Lindley: You use the term “truth decay” and Trump is probably responsible for either misstatements or outright lies on an average of at least 10 times a day. How does this pattern of lying fit into his attitude toward the law? 

 James D. Zirin: I think he enjoys lying. I think it's part of his DNA. I don't think he has any grasp of the facts at all, so he says whatever he thinks will help him and whatever comes into his head. 

It is expedient, I suppose, to lie in litigation if you crossed an intersection through a red light. You can lie and say it was a green light and that changes the legal outcome of your case. And that's the way Trump operates. But he would go beyond that because he would say the heck with you and the horse you rode in on as he did in the House impeachment inquiry. Then, he denounced Adam Schiff and denounced Jerry Nadler and denounced the witnesses. He tried to subvert the whole proceeding by denouncing the whistleblower and by showing that those people who lined up against him were of low character and were themselves liars.

All of this goes back to Joe McCarthy because this is the way McCarthy operated. Then adversaries accused McCarthy of engaging in a witch hunt and accused McCarthy of generating these hoaxes. And of course, Roy Cohn was McCarthy’s chief counsel. And so he learned how useful those charges can be and how devastating they can be in any kind of controversy. And he taught all of that to Trump and Trump uses that to his great advantage.

Robin Lindley: Yes. And Trump certainly follows the Roy Cohn rule about declaring victory no matter how badly you lose. 

James D. Zirin: Yes. Even that conversation with Zelensky he called “perfect,” and it was something other than perfect. I don't know whether he's going to say the Corona virus is a perfect hoax, but perfect is a word that recurs again and again in his lexicon. 

Robin Lindley: Pardon me for this psychological observation, but you write that power and dominance are even more important to Trump than money. That seems pathological. And he seems to take a sadistic joy in attacking and ruining anyone he perceives as a foe of some sort. 

James D. Zirin: Well, that's true. 

In one of the cases that I describe in the book, he got wind of the fact that a small business, a travel agency conducted by father and daughter in Baldwin, Long Island, was using the name Trump Travel. Not Donald Trump Travel, but Trump Travel. They used Trump Travel because they were selling a bridge tours for people who play bridge, and “trump” is a bridge term. Also, like “Ace Hardware,” they thought “Trump” keynoted excellence. This was a little storefront travel agency in a small Long Island community. Trump had never been in the travel business and he never had any business involvement in Long Island, but he sued them. And at the end of the day, they were allowed to continue to use the name Trump Travel, but it had to make the lettering a little smaller. And they'd exhausted their life savings in defending the case. So he was quite sadistic about the way he went about it. 

There was another similar case where an unrelated family named Trump from South Africa had a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical business and Trump sued them. He'd never been in the pharmaceutical business and had never been in business at that point anywhere outside the United States. But this family had the wherewithal to defend the case and eventually the case was thrown out completely.

 Robin Lindley: What are a few things you learned about Trump's ties to the Mob or organized crime? 

James D. Zirin: In the first place, his father had ties to the mob. His partner was a man named Willie Tomasello who was a made man and they were partners in various real estate ventures. 

Through Roy Cohn, Trump met leaders of the five families in New York, principally Fat Tony Salerno, Paul Castellano, and others who controlled the poured concrete business in New York. He also met John Cody who was a labor racketeer and president of the Teamsters.

 At that time, particularly because of the mob involvement, poured concrete was a much more expensive way of constructing a building than structural steel. The poured concrete business was dominated by Castellano who was murdered, and Salerno who was eventually sent to jail for a term of about 99 years. 

Trump retained these mafia companies to construct buildings out of poured concrete even though it was more expensive. We don't really know why he did that, but his mob ties ran quite deep. They existed in Atlantic City where he had a number of casinos, principally the Taj Mahal, which went bankrupt six months after its opening. At times, on a Tim Russert program and under oath, he denied that he had any contact with the mob, but he was warned by the FBI when he went into Atlantic City that he shouldn't deal with mobsters because it would ruin his reputation. 

But Trump continued to have contact with mobsters. On at least two occasions, which I relate in the book, he admitted that he had ties with the mob. In the construction of Trump Tower, the Teamsters called a citywide strike. Construction trucks and concrete trucks didn't have access to construction sites, but mysteriously at Trump Tower poured-concrete trucks passed the picket lines and continued their work. Cody, the president of the Teamsters got not one, not two, but several condominium units at Trump Tower for a female friend of his who had no visible means of support. 

Robin Lindley: Did you learn anything about Trump’s ties to the Russian mob and Russian oligarchs?

James D. Zirin: Yes. A lot of it is revealed in the book [by Craig Unger] House of Trump, House of Putin. But in 1986, a Russian oligarch walked into Trump Tower and he bought five condominium units with monies that had been wired from London and laundered from Russia. He was a member of the so-called Russian mafia. Eventually the Attorney General cracked down on it and made a finding that these apartments were purchased with laundered funds. So Trump’s ties to Russia go back at least that far, maybe further. And he has continued to deal with Russian oligarchs throughout his business career. 

Robin Lindley: Money laundering is complicated to me. Can you say more about Trump and laundered funds?  

James D. Zirin: Money laundering is where money comes from some illegal source and the money can't be reported, so the origin of the money must be concealed, and that's why it's called laundered money. A good way to conceal the source of money, particularly with money from Russia that is obtained by fraud or theft or in violation of Russian laws, is to buy a condominium unit in New York and the condominium unit is there and there's no tracing of the funds. The funds went to Trump and he deposited them in his bank accounts and he used it to pay his loans, and the origin and tracing of the funds just disappeared. 

Robin Lindley: And you indicate that Trump has repeatedly used laundered money to hide illegal funds.

James D. Zirin: The interesting thing with Trump and the Russians is that Deutsche Bank was his principal lender. No other bank would touch him. He now owes about $365 million to Deutsche bank. At one point in time, he was in default on a debt service payment to Deutsche Bank and they were about to sue him. Trump tried to stop them with the same technique, a suit against the bank: a counter attack, suing for fraud in lending. Somehow or other that got resolved, and the debt service obligation was extended and another department of Deutsche Bank continued to lend him large sums of money. Now that’s very suspicious because what bank lends money to a customer who's been in default, number one, and number two, what bank lends the money to a customer who has sued them and charged them with fraud?

Deutsche Bank pleaded guilty to money laundering for Russian interests and there were definite ties between Deutsche Bank and the Russians, which have never been fully explored. Russian money in effect may have been used to guarantee Trump’s indebtedness.  I think Trump's son Eric said on a number of occasions, and Donald Jr. said at a certain point in time that they couldn't get financing until they got it from Russia. 

Robin Lindley: Yes, I recall that comment. Trump also has been able to keep his tax returns secret. How do you see his refusal to reveal his returns and its significance?

James D. Zirin: Trump’s five predecessors in office all had no trouble releasing their tax returns. Both Republicans and Democrats seem to regard this release as a tradition although there is no legal obligation imposed on a president to release his or her tax returns. 

Trump's tax returns remain shrouded in mystery. Now, the District Attorney of New York County obtained a grand jury subpoena covering eight taxable years, and five of the eight were before Trump became president. He didn't subpoena Trump for them, but subpoenaed Trump's outside accountants and the Trump organization. Right up the line the courts sustained the subpoenas and said that the accountants had to comply, which they were willing to do except Trump had instructed them not to. That matter is now before the Supreme Court and will be argued in March. Presumably it'll be decided in June before this term of the Court ends. 

In addition, committees of the House of Representatives have subpoenaed some tax returns and that matter is also before the Supreme Court. 

Now, this is absolutely appalling. In the Second Circuit subpoena case brought by the Manhattan District Attorney, Cy Vance, Judge Chin questioned the lawyer for Trump in the Second Circuit. “Now your client said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and no one would mind. None of his followers would mind and would still vote for him. I suppose if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue a district attorney would investigate the case. Couldn't the police investigate the case? Couldn't they seize the gun? Couldn't they talk to witnesses?” Trump’s lawyer answered “No, your honor. He’s protected by the fact that he's president.” And if anyone buys that one, I think the rule of law is seriously compromised. 

Robin Lindley: Yes. That goes back the wealth of evidence you present that Donald Trump has no regard for the rule of law or the Constitution. 

James D. Zirin: Yes, if it gets in his way. He said that impeachment was unconstitutional even though impeachment is provided for in the Constitution. So he doesn't know what he's talking about as a legal matter. 

There were also the instances of his undermining the judiciary, accusing judges who decide against him of being Obama judges or Mexican judges and taking them on individually as so-called judges. And he's undermined the judiciary in a way that's totally obnoxious to any lawyer who's dedicated to the rule of law.

Robin Lindley: He swore an oath to the Constitution as president and yet continues to attack the legal system and the rule of law. 

James D. Zirin: Justice John Marshall said we're a government of laws, not men. He would've said today men and women.  But Trump has attacked not only the legal system, but the judges who administer the legal system like Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsberg who he thinks should recuse themselves from all Trump-related cases. And again, he's gone after the individual judges. 

Robin Lindley: You also point out his abusive treatment of women and his payments of hush money to his paramours.

James D. Zirin: He did that before he took office and that's why Vance wants to see Trump’s tax returns, to see how these payments were treated on his tax returns and perhaps to find payments to other women. 

Robin Lindley: Since the book came out, have you received any backlash or criticism from Trump supporters or Republicans.

 James D. Zirin: No. I'm often asked if I expect Trump to sue me, and I say I wish he would because it would help the sales of the book. The book Fire and Fury would have sold about 5,000 copies, but then when Trump tried to enjoin it, it was like “Banned in Boston” and it became a runaway bestseller and sold three million books. 

I haven't received any backlash because the book is very well documented and everything in it is true, but the [Trump supporters’] response is basically, so what.  The stock market is up. We have less regulation. The government is less intrusive in our lives, except maybe when it comes to abortion. [To Trump supporters] this is all a good thing. And they spit up the names Pelosi and Biden and Bernie Sanders, and they ask would you rather have someone who's going to tax and spend like Bernie Sanders who promises a chicken in every pot? Or would you rather have a Donald Trump whose policies are a good though he's a little ridiculous. That’s the comment.

Robin Lindley: In the context of your study of Trump’s attitudes and perspective on the law, how do you see Trump’s response to the public health crisis now of coronavirus?

James D. Zirin: The coronavirus is quite likely to be the undoing of Donald Trump, when his mendacity, ignorance and shallowness came into full view, an empirical reality, as indisputable as the laws of science or a Euclidian equation.

I saw it all coming and I cried aloud in my book “Plaintiff in Chief. “

Here’s a partial list of Trump’s lies about the coronavirus: 

In President Trump’s first public comments about the coronavirus, on Jan. 22, he assured people that it would not become a pandemic: “No. Not at all,” he told viewers of CNBC. “It’s going to be just fine.”

In the weeks that followed, he offered a series of similar reassurances:

“We have it very well under control.”

“We pretty much shut it down coming in from China.”

“I think the numbers are going to get progressively better as we go along.”

“We’re going very substantially down, not up.”

“It’s going to disappear. One day — it’s like a miracle — it will disappear.”

None of it was true.

Robin Lindley: Do you have any words of wisdom now on the future of democracy and the rule of law? Trump has persisted in twisting the law to his interests or ignoring it in the lifelong pattern you portray vividly.

James D. Zirin: He has continued and I think he will continue. And I think the rule of law has been seriously undermined. 

Our democracy has been seriously compromised because the framers of the Constitution never thought the system would work this way. Republican senators deserve part of the blame because of their need to retain power or whatever, they did not respect the oath they took to be fair and impartial judges of the facts and the law, but instead voted along party lines to acquit him. 

Robin Lindley: Trump said sometime in the 90s, as you note in your book, that “I love to have enemies.” I think most of us wouldn't feel that way and it seems pathological to me. What did you think when you found that quote from him? 

James D. Zirin: Most politicians are controversial and have political enemies. I think Trump relishes that perhaps more than others and he loves to attack them personally. We know Biden is “Sleepy Joe” and Elizabeth Warren is “Pocahontas” and Bernie Sanders is “Crazy Bernie.” He has nicknames for everyone and he revels in trashing them rather than addressing the merits of anything they propose. 

Robin Lindley: The mentality of an eight-year-old bully, it seems. You write that Trump’s experience in lawsuits reflects “his inmost ulterior motivation.” This comes out in your responses, but could you sum up your sense of his character, motivation, and morality based on your extensive research?

James D. Zirin: His virulent combination of anti-science, anti-law, ignorance, irrational conspiracy theorizing, instability, narcissism and vindictiveness has led us to national catastrophe. If he is re-elected, I fear for the republic and the American people.


Robin Lindley: As you demonstrate, Trump is an anomaly in terms of the adversarial system. Do you have anything to add on his abuse of legal process? 

James D. Zirin: Look, the adversary system is the crown jewel of our legal system. We got it from the British. The idea is that you had lawyers on both sides who were partisan, who were like the Knights Templar who rode into battle on behalf of somebody or other in the Middle Ages. That has been the best way of getting at the truth. In contrast, in civil law countries like France or Germany, the judge conducts the inquiry. The judge might ask questions of the lawyers, but the lawyers don't develop the evidence on both sides. 

But adversary doesn't mean enemy. What Trump has demonstrated is that we have a great legal system and we all have the benefit of it. But there are also limitations for the law and those limitations can be exploited by someone determined to beat the system, and that's what Trump has done.

Robin Lindley. Thank you, Mr. Zirin and congratulations on your groundbreaking and compelling book on the life of Donald Trump through the perspective of his thousands of lawsuits. It's been an honor to talk with you

Fri, 10 Apr 2020 07:25:59 +0000 0