Robin Lindley Robin Lindley blog brought to you by History News Network. Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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]]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 American Hellfire [INTERVIEW]]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 The Forgotten Healers of World War I [INTERVIEW]]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 "There Was No Barrier Between [Seeger] and All of His Friends and Supporters"]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Sharecropper’s Troubadour: John Handcox Full Article:]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Interview with Victor Navasky about political cartoons]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
A Life In Cartoons: An Interview with New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff

To read this interview click here.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
The World’s Only Stand-Up Economist Explains Climate Change here.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Black Women Entertainers in a Revolutionary Time: An Interview with Historian Ruth Feldstein here.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Tim Egan on Edward S. Curtis, 'Seattle's Michelangelo'

To read this interview click here.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
MLK's Final Year: An Interview with Tavis Smiley

To read this interview click here.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
This Is How Our Recent Wars Looked to Acclaimed Photojournalist Peter van Agtmael

To read this interview click here.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
The Battle between Journalism and Fiction: Doug Underwood on Genre Bending Journalists and Literary History (Interview) here.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Polio Boulevard: Acclaimed Poet Karen Chase Recalls Her Childhood Illness, Her Complicated Recovery, and Her “Small History” here to read this interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 The Complex History of Pain: An Interview with Joanna Bourke here to read the interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad: An Interview with Eric Foner here to read this interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Do You Remember Dag Hammarskjöld? You Should. An Interview with Biographer Roger Lipsey here to read this interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Lincoln’s Body in American History— Richard Wightman Fox on His New Book (Interview) here to read this interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Exploring the Words and Wisdom of Charles Johnson with E. Ethelbert Miller (Interview) here to read this interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Dr. Jonas Salk, the Knight in a White Lab Coat: An Interview with Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
1919, the Year of Racial Violence: An interview with David Krugler

Click here to read this interview. 

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
How Bad Was FBI Spying on African American Writers? An Interview with William Maxwell here to read this interview. ]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Christian Appy on the Legacy of the Vietnam War: An Interview here to read this interview. ]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 The Heroism of Dalton Trumbo: An Interview with Larry Ceplair here to read this interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 This Is Why Historian Ari Kelman Decided to Write a Graphic History of the Civil War (Interview) here to read this interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 The New PBS Series on the Civil War: An Interview with the Creator of "Mercy Street"

Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
Mercy Street in Context: Historian Pamela Toler on the Real Nurses of the Civil War

Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
How Our Stone-Age Brain Undermines Smart Politics: An Interview with Rick Shenkman here to read the interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 The Cruel History of Eugenics in America: An Interview with Adam Cohen

Click here to read the interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
Why Adam Hochschild Decided to Write about the Spanish Civil War (Interview) here to read the interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 The Making of a Politician: Sidney Blumenthal on His New Biography of Abe Lincoln (Interview)

Click here to read this article.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
How Religion Drove George W. Bush's Decisions: An Interview with Biographer Jean Edward Smith

Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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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Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
The Eruption of Mount St. Helens: The Untold History of this Cataclysmic Event

Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
The Other Slavery: An Interview with Historian Andrés Reséndez

Click here to read the interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
War, Memory, and Vietnam: An Interview with Viet Thanh Nguyen here for the interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Beyond Forgetting: An Interview with Steve Sem-Sandberg on His Historical Novel, "The Chosen Ones" here to read the interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 The Art and Life of J.M.W. Turner: An Interview with Biographer Franny Moyle here to read the interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Bellevue: “America’s Most Storied Hospital” – An Interview with David Oshinsky Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
Dark Days in the City of Light: An Interview with Holly Tucker

Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
Why I Study Comics: An Interview with Hillary Chute read this interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Broken Brains on Trial: An Interview with Kevin Davis here to read this interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 The Origins of American Imperialism: An Interview with Stephen Kinzer here to read this interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 What You Don't Know About Abolitionism: An Interview with Manisha Sinha on Her Groundbreaking Study here for the interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 Understanding the Persecution of the Rohingya Minority in Myanmar: An interview with international criminal law attorney Regina Paulose here for the interview.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
The Horrifying Nazi Roots of the Doctor After Whom Asperger’s Syndrome Is Named

Click here for an interview with Edith Sheffer.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.]]> Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0 On War and Remembrance: An Interview with Jay Winter

Click here to read the interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
A Distinguished History Professor Retires—Then Goes to Art School:

Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
The Sudden Death of a Democracy: Historian Benjamin Carter Hett on the Fall of the Weimar Republic

Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
The Refugee Camps of Twentieth-Century Britain—Historian Jordanna Bailkin Discusses Her Groundbreaking New Book "Unsettled" Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
A History of Huntington Disease and Beyond Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
Carolyn Forché: Bearing Witness to the Wounds of History Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
Exploring the Curious Sources of Medieval Law: An Interview with Acclaimed Historian Robin Chapman Stacey Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
The Overlooked Aftermath of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster Click here to read this interview.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
Investigating Technology and the Remaking of America Click here to read the interview. 

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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. 


Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +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

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
A Conversation with Medical Historian Frank M. Snowden from Rome on COVID-19, the Situation in Italy, and the History of Epidemics


My home state, Washington, became ground zero for the coronavirus or COVID-19. On February 28, 2020, the mysterious disease took the first life in the US at a long-term care facility in Kirkland, a Seattle suburb. Within a few weeks, deaths of more than 30 other patients from this facility were linked to the virus. At this writing, Washington State has suffered more than 300 deaths from the COVID-19 and more seven thousand people have tested positive for the virus. And the toll mounts daily.

I live in Seattle, about five miles from the ill-fated suburban nursing home that became a sort of Petri dish for the new pandemic. As in most states now, all Washington citizens are now under orders from our governor, Jay Inslee, to “stay at home,” except for workers in essential businesses or to address medical and food needs. We’re fortunate in Washington State that Governor Inslee listened to public health experts and took immediate steps to “flatten the curve” and reduce virus deaths by ordering closure of nonessential businesses and encouraging simple health measures such as social distancing and hand washing. 

The pandemic has affected all of us in many different ways. I have a special interest in the history of medicine and I wanted to know more about past global pandemics and the story of this mysterious new virus, COVID-19. 

Luckily, I recently came across distinguished historian Professor Frank Snowden’s magisterial new history, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present (Yale University Press). 

Professor Snowden’s sweeping chronicle of infectious disease epidemics over the past 700 years offers vivid descriptive accounts of diseases from bubonic plague, smallpox, and tuberculosis to malaria, polio, HIV/AIDS, SARS, Ebola, and more, and also details the transformation and evolution of societies ravaged by epidemics. 

His book is also a compassionate account that gives readers a sense of the human face of those who suffer and die from epidemic illnesses, as well as those who offer care for victims as they sacrifice their own health, and those who seek treatments and cures. And it’s a story of medical progress and setbacks as it offers a context for understanding the new coronavirus in this era of rapidly emerging diseases. And, the book is a testament to the importance of understanding history in preparing for epidemics and developing effective responses.

Frank M. Snowden is the Andrew Downey Orrick Professor Emeritus of History and History of Medicine at Yale University. His other books include The Conquest of Malaria: Italy, 1900–1962, and Naples in the Time of Cholera, 1884–1911. The Conquest was awarded the Gustav Ranis Prize from the MacMillan Center at Yale in 2007 as “the best book on an international topic by a member of the Yale Faculty,” the Helen and Howard R. Marraro Prize by the American Historical Association as the best work on Italy in any period, and the 2008 Welch Medal from the American Association for the History of Medicine. He received his doctorate from Oxford University.

Professor Snowden graciously talked with me by telephone from his home in Rome, Italy. We began by discussing the situation in Italy, which has been devastated by COVID-19. He also explained the coronavirus in detail and its historical context.


Robin Lindley: Congratulations Professor Snowden on your sweeping new book of medical history, Epidemics and Society. How are you doing in Rome? 

Professor Frank M. Snowden: I can't really complain. I'm doing as well as can be expected, but the circumstances aren't good for anyone at this point. But given that, things aren't too bad. Talk about yourself. I know Seattle also is having a terrible time. 

Robin Lindley: My wife Betsy and I are doing fine here. We are under Governor Jay Inslee’s order to stay at home, so we're staying in. We can go out for neighborhood walks but parks and other public gathering places are closed. Schools and non-essential business are closed. We went to a couple of grocery shopping hours for seniors, which are always a happening. The clerks eventually told us that these are the busiest times of day. So we’re well and safe so far. We have a governor who listens to public health experts, fortunately. 

Professor Frank M. Snowden: Yes. Jay Inslee is a wonderful governor. I was sorry he dropped out of the presidential race.

Robin Lindley: He’s a devoted environmentalist with strong views on the climate crisis. And he’s been an acknowledged leader in addressing this pandemic as national leadership has faltered. Each state now operates as a separate fiefdom, each one bidding against others for critical medical equipment. Governor Inslee has urged citizens to observe public health admonitions to stay well and protect others.

Professor Frank M. Snowden: Are some people defying the orders?

Robin Lindley: Most people we see are compliant and trying to observe physical distancing and other protocols. I sense that defiance isn’t a big problem, at least around Seattle area. How are you were doing and what's happening in Italy right now? 

Professor Frank M. Snowden: I’m doing well personally. Like everyone else in the country, I’m locked down at the moment and it sounds a bit more rigorous than in Seattle. No one is allowed outdoors unless you have what's regarded by the state as an essential job such as in healthcare. But for ordinary mortals, you are allowed outdoors only for the purpose of shopping for provisions or medications. In fact, it's hard to show up for anything else because almost everything else is closed. 

Therefore, while one can go out to shop for food, you must have an official document that you download that says your purpose for going outside and where you are planning to go to show if the police stop you. And if where you're actually found is different from where you said you would go, then you can be subject to a hefty fine. And the police are fairly frequently outside. You are not allowed to go for a walk or things like that. There's only the one purpose, and you're not allowed to meet anyone. You can't visit family members or even an elderly parent. All social gatherings are forbidden.

One learns a lot from observing. In fact, I've kept sort of a diary during these three weeks of a lockdown so far, partly on how it's affecting me as I think about it, but more importantly, what I observe as I walk around the neighborhood on my shopping outings, which is really all I can see. I have a very small view of the world because I can't leave this neighborhood, just like anyone else. But I do see changes in people's attitudes over time. 

I would say that nationally, this is from reading and not from any direct observation, it seems as though the rather stern lockdown has been mostly accepted by people for several reasons. One is that it is imposed by democratically-elected people who, citizens trust, will be held accountable. Furthermore, it’s temporary, and there's just one message. The state doesn't speak with multiple voices as seems to be happening with the United States government. In other words, in the Italian situation there isn't the chaos of a president, fifty governors, boards of education, and mayors all saying different things. There's just one policy and it's uniform over the entire country. 

And with that goes very careful messaging.  Everyone understands that the measures taken are essential, and that their purpose is to protect people. The message conveys the clear idea that a lockdown is only known way of dealing with the crisis. 

Another aspect of the government message is that you're not helpless. There are things that you can do -- by complying -- to protect yourself and everyone around you. And that’s a powerful message. We’ve learned that we're all in this together, and the government is saying that at every opportunity. And you can hear the result even in the lines waiting outside of shops, where people say things such as, “I wonder if this was what it was like in the world war?” People have made reference to the Blitz in London when everyone was in a very tightly regulated, confined situation, but there was a sense that everyone was in the same situation together. I found that quite moving. It’s important for leaders elsewhere to have the chance to observe that.

But people are quite worried and frightened.  That comes across as well. For example, in the building where I'm staying the super and I were chatting. I said, “Don't worry too much. One day, this too will be over.” He replied, “Let’s hope we’re still alive to see that day.” Clearly, he meant to be funny, with a sort of Australian gallows humor. But his comment also showed me the extent to which people really are frightened, and you can see that everywhere.

For example, when you go shopping and encounter someone in the street, even though you’re both wearing masks, are outdoors, and are widely separated, most of the time that person will actually go into the street and walk around the cars to avoid coming anywhere near you. That’s a clear sign. 

And I heard neighbors waiting in supermarket lines grumbling about other people in the supermarket who weren't wearing masks, even though they’re not at all easy to find these days. We are not short on toilet paper, but masks and gloves seem to be what Italians have stocked up on. Nevertheless, there are all people who are put out that others are being socially irresponsible. 

So that’s what I'm observing. But my sense that people are compliant was pointed out by the local newspaper Il Giornalein Rome, which had a comment that this is the first time in 3000 years of Roman history that the people of Rome have been obedient. That's a nice way of thinking about it.

Robin Lindley: I look forward to your diary Professor Snowden, if you publish that. Why do you think the COVID-19 positive cases and death toll are so high in Italy? There are more than 15,000 virus deaths in Italy now and more than 125,000 people there have tested positive for the virus.

Professor Frank M. Snowden: That's one of the puzzles of this epidemic here. There are some clues, but I can't answer your question fully. I can just make a couple of observations in passing. One is a paradox of Italian success, and that is to say its healthcare system has been very effective in prolonging life so that you can live several years more by being here than in the United States, for example. One of the consequences is that the most vulnerable cohort of people, the elderly people, actually live longer than almost anywhere in the world. So I think that's one factor. But that doesn’t explain the whole difference. 

  Some of the answer may have to deal with how statistics comparatively are collected during this epidemic. Comparative observations are often like comparing apples and pears because the data behind them are collected in such different ways. The number, the amount of testing, and its extent, also varies from country to country and from place to place in a country. But the calculation of the number of deaths is very reliable because the bodies of the dead are unmistakable. The denominator, however, is the number of cases and that is a moving target. For every country that figure is very, very unreliable. 

Therefore, the appearance of a high mortality in Italy is partly an artifact of how statistics are collected rather than of what's actually happening. But that’s a suspicion, and I can't actually prove it except to say that the numbers in every country, as everyone agrees, are very unreliable because not enough testing has been done almost anywhere except in a few places like South Korea and parts of Italy. The Italians have done a lot of tests, but it's actually hard to get a test, so I don't place a lot of faith in what the real denominator is here, or anywhere.

Robin Lindley: Have you had a test for COVID-19? 

Professor Frank M. Snowden: No. You would have a hard time getting the test at the moment because they are reserving them for people who have the classic symptoms. To get a test in Rome at the moment, you need to have a temperature and some difficulty breathing and a cough. Otherwise, it would be difficult to just request one. If I have a cough, it might be related to hay fever or something, and they would say, well let's monitor and see how this develops. I myself had a very slight temperature at one point.  I've been in contact with a physician and the temperature doesn't seem to be going anywhere. He told me that the health system would not see that as a valid reason to have the test.

 Robin Lindley: That's the same situation here. And there aren't a lot of tests available. I appreciate your book Epidemics and Society. It's very helpful in providing context for what we’re now experiencing with COVID-19. What is this new coronavirus and how did it originate?

Professor Frank M. Snowden: The novel coronavirus is present in wild animals, particularly in bats that are a reservoir for it. There are hundreds of species of bats, and some of them harbor the virus, although their immune system is such that they are actually not affected by it. It doesn't cause a bat disease. 

Part of the story of our globalized world is that we have this huge population, nearly eight billion people, with a common world economy that's constantly expanding. With that expansion, we are relentlessly devastating animal habitat, and the consequence is more and more encounters between people and wild animals than ever before. Polar bears are now found in Alaskan towns, and wild boars have become common in the streets of Barcelona. One can go on and on.

With regard to bats, a number of scientists have done studies and found that people in central China--in Wuhan--had been eating bats even before this became a human disease on a large scale, and there were spillover infections. Scientists discovered also that people had been in caves and they discovered the artifacts in terms of beer cans and other objects found in the caves.  They were able to discover a number of viruses and to identify the ways in which they spilled over from the bat population to humans. For the most part these encounters went unnoticed because they didn’t produce clusters of infection although testing demonstrated that there were people who had antibodies to the coronaviruses the scientists discovered. 

It also happens that people invade the areas where the bats live for extended periods and bring them and other wild animals to bushmeat markets to be sold for religious and medicinal purposes. Traditional Chinese medicine, for example, holds that various parts of these animals are health-giving and can be used as remedies to various maladies or conditions that people have. So there is a market for these animals, and their meat, being expensive, is a status symbol. 

The animals are taken to the wet markets in cages and butchered at the time of purchase in very unhygienic conditions such that their blood runs over everything as does water sloshing from fish tanks and other contaminants. Imagine a great warren of closely adjoined stalls with no hygienic regulations narrow passages jam-packed full of people like a large Petri dish. In Wuhan, the virus contaminated the environment of such a market. The coronavirus was actually found in the market, which wasn’t even closed down. Shoppers were infected and they took it home with them and spread it to their neighbors and families. So this disease began silently and unnoticed, and then spread in clusters through a very congested city. 

We can say that this virus was transmitted to people because of the way in which the human relationship with the environment and the habitat of animals has been transformed by our constant demographic and economic growth, taking over more and more areas of the planet and destroying biodiversity. So that's how the disease got to humans. 

Robin Lindley: Does climate change also play a role in the spread of the virus? 

Professor Frank M. Snowden: Yes, climate change also plays a role in this. One can see that particularly in vector-transmitted diseases because a world is being created that extends the area within which various insect vectors such as mosquitoes can thrive, and you have the spread of Zika, malaria, and dengue fever. Those are really important aspects of climate change. 

Climate change is definitely changing disease patterns and producing emerging diseases that human beings are vulnerable to. So that is a very important factor. With regard to coronavirus, it's not so clear that climate, as opposed to habitat, is the major issue. We don't know very much about this disease because it has been known to affect humans only since December. We’ll learn a lot more about it as we go forward.

Robin Lindley: How does coronavirus affect humans and eventually lead to their demise?

Professor Frank M. Snowden: There’s a lot of misinformation about coronavirus. It’s not transmitted in casual encounters. It’s not transmitted on an airplane by an infected person to people sitting several or more rows away. By comparison, smallpox and measles could be transmitted through the air in just that way.

At least one of the good things about coronavirus is that it transmits within a small radius of infectivity. And it tends to infect people not through transient contact, but through prolonged contact as would occur in a family group, a workplace, restaurant, bar, or school. I'm afraid we're going to see many more cases in prisons and other closed places. 

COVID-19 is spread through droplets when people cough, sneeze, or talk, sending sputum into the air. Then the virus borne by the droplets is then inhaled by people or it contaminates a surface that people later touch, contaminating the fingers that they then bring to their mouth, nose, and eyes.  In fact, as studies show that, in the course of an hour, a person normally touches his or her face many times, allowing the virus to find a portal into the body. That's a very common way in which this disease is transmitted. 

Once admitted to the body, the coronavirus doesn't cause an upper respiratory infection, but rather goes down very far down into the lungs.  In serious cases, it leads to pneumonia. Therefore, severe complications are oxygen hunger and breathing disorders that require ventilators and other respiratory support.  Patients who have those very severe symptoms suffer respiratory distress leading in turn to multiple organ failure. It's not at all -- as we've sometimes been told -- like the common cold or seasonal flu. COVID-19 is far more likely to lead to agonizing disease and death.

Robin Lindley: Isn't this coronavirus considered a form of SARS [Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome]? That seems the closest analogy from your book. I was struck by the parallels in terms of Chinese concealment and how the SARS virus traveled in 2003. 

Professor Frank M. Snowden: Yes, indeed. COVID-19 is the disease and the coronavirus responsible is so similar genetically that it is termed SARS-V-2. 

SARS also began through a spillover from the animal world to people. And it seems to have originated in the same wet markets as the coronavirus. In fact, immediately after the end of the SARS outbreak, the Chinese authorities closed down these so-called wet markets. But then there was enormous push-back, and even authoritarian regimes often respond to popular pressure. The regime therefore yielded to popular sentiment in this matter and reopened the markets.

We need to remember that wet markets serve traditional Chinese medicine and folk beliefs such as the idea that eating wild meat makes you more robust and resistant to disease. At the same time, it's good for people who don't have refrigeration. Furthermore, since bush meat is expensive it’s a status symbol.

So these markets sprang up again, although the regime knew that they were a danger to public health. Today, there’s a lot of speculation about whether they’ll ever be reopened. But unfortunately, they were re-opened after SARS.

Robin Lindley: I don’t remember great public concern about SARS. Are there similarities between the progression of SARS in 2003 and what's happening with COVID-19? How did the SARS epidemic end? 

Professor Frank M. Snowden: As human beings, we dodged a bullet with SARS because SARS is not so very easily transmitted as COVID-19 is, and so it was possible to contain it. It reached a number of different countries, but then was then confined within hospital settings and didn't initiate community spread. SARS thus lasted just six months.

Both are pulmonary viral diseases, and SARS is more deadly. But it doesn't produce asymptomatic or presymptomatic carriers who shed virus in the way COVID-19 does, and it is therefore more readily detected.  The incubation period is also different, and SARS requires more prolonged contact. Although their genomes are close, they are quite distinct diseases and SARS is much less dangerous as a pandemic disease than COVID-19.

Robin Lindley: Thanks for explaining that Professor Snowden. I didn't realize the great difference in terms of transmission of SARS and coronavirus. I also wanted to ask about swine flu, the H1N1 virus that hit the United States in 2009 and caused about 12,000 deaths and about 60 million cases. Trump has mentioned swine flu and claimed that President Obama failed to respond. This administration also seemed to view swine flu as analogous to a COVID-19. What have you learned about swine flu? 

Professor Frank M. Snowden: I actually don't think that it was forthcoming of our president to say that Obama didn't respond and that this new virus is similar. They are two completely different diseases and they're transmitted in different ways. The way that they reach humans is very different. 

Although H1N1 affected a large number of people, it didn’t have anything like the impact COVID-19 is having and is likely to have because we're still at a fairly early stage in the spread and progression of the COVID-19. Unfortunately, it looks as though it's only beginning to ramp up in India, Africa, and Latin America. So I think we haven't at all seen the world spread of this and the total toll it’s going to take in human life and suffering. So the analogy with swine flu is a poor one.

The naming of that disease as the swine flu caused people in Egypt in particular to slaughter all their pigs, holding pigs responsible for the disease. That’s one of the reasons that WHO was very careful to appoint a commission of scientists to find a term for the virus that was scientifically solid and didn't point a finger at a particular group or ethnicity or geographical area or even animal groups such as pigs. The swine flu is an example of why they took so much care about that. 

Scientists are very upset with the decision of the present administration in the United States to insist now on names for coronavirus such as the Wuhan virus or the Chinese virus or the foreign virus. It strikes me that this is part of this administration’s refusal to take science seriously. Many leaders of today's Republican party don't accept the theory of evolution or climate science. All of that also goes together with a rejection of the term COVID-19. That has very serious implications in terms of the relationship of our world to science, to authority and to expertise. 

I worry that the science behind the term COVID-19 is not being accepted because the implications of not accepting it are first, the one that I mentioned regarding the rejection of science. But a further serious result is the rise of stigma against people of Asian origin all around the world. That's been one of the sad and often violent undertones of this outbreak. 

Pigs suffered under swine flu and people of Asian origin are suffering now by being stigmatized and discriminated against. There are attacks occurring as we speak in various parts of the world by people who are bigoted and don't even make distinctions between Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese or other Asian people. They lump them all together and discriminate against all people of Asian origin as if coronavirus were embedded in their DNA.

Robin Lindley: How does coronavirus compare to the influenza of the great pandemic from 1918 to 1919?          

Professor Frank M. Snowden: It was a pandemic of influenza that also affected the deep areas of the lungs. Most lethally, the immune system of the body of young adults generated a devastating autoimmune response. Unlike COVIOD, the 1918 influenza preferentially targeted people in their twenties, thirties, and forties. 

It seemed unnatural that the flu pandemic was not so severe the elderly or the very young. The elderly are partly immune-suppressed and children have immune systems that have not fully matured. The very robust immune responses of young adults instead produces what is called a cytokine storm that mobilizes blood and the white blood cells as an immediate defense against the virus that has invaded the lungs. Unfortunately, the impact of so robust an immune response is that the blood in the lungs actually causes the patient to drown  

That's part of the story. This Spanish influenza was more easily transmitted over distance, and it was also far more lethal than COVID-19. In some ways a first reaction is that we're fortunate that this isn't the Spanish influenza. On the other hand, we don’t know what the future will hold and whether COVID-19 will be contained or will instead ravage those countries of the developing world where you can't practice social distancing because of the density of housing, or hand washing because of the absence of supplies of safe water; where people's immune systems are already compromised by other morbidities, such diabetes, malaria or HIV/AIDS; and where resource-starved healthcare systems offer no protection.

South Africa has the largest number of people suffering from HIV/AIDS, an immune suppressive disease, so one can imagine that coronavirus could take a terrible toll in loss of life and suffering there, especially in the congested and impoverished townships. So the context matters a lot in determining how serious this pandemic is going to be.

Robin Lindley: You mentioned the fraught term “China virus” and the stigmatizing of Asian people. There have been some horrible incidents just in the last couple of days in the US with attacks on Asian-appearing families and even severe injuries to toddlers. From the history you share in your new book, it seems epidemics often lead to oppression and hate crimes. And you note that germ theory was a phenomenal scientific discovery, but it also led to stigmatizing of poor and dispossessed people. 

Professor Frank M. Snowden: Yes, indeed. Stigma is one of the red threads that run through the history of epidemic disease. 

 It would be inaccurate, however, to say all epidemic diseases have produced this sort of reaction in populations. We were just talking about the Spanish influenza that doesn't seem to have produced such reactions in a sustained or widespread manner.

We can't automatically assume that when there's a pandemic disease, there will be an outbreak of stigma to accompany it. But, beginning with bubonic plague [from the fourteenth century to the eighteenth], there have been such reactions. That was a time of great violence, stigma and witch-hunts for whoever might be deemed responsible for the disease.  There were waves of antisemitism. In Strasbourg, France, the two thousand Jews who lived there were rounded up and offered the choice between either converting to Christianity or being killed on the spot. Those who chose not to convert were burned alive in the Jewish cemetery. Similarly, as the Christian Flagellants whipped their way across Europe in their 40-day processions of repentance, they often projected their violence outward onto foreigners.

That's an important part of the history of bubonic plague. One can see it also in the work of Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni who wrote a wonderful novel that's in part a plague novel called The Betrothed set in the 17th century when Milan was at war with Spain. As it happened, some helpless Spaniards having nothing to do with the war or espionage happened to be in Milan, and they were rounded up by local citizens and denounced for spreading the disease by smearing poisonous ointment on the doors of the city. The local authorities tried them and, under torture, they confessed. They then broke them on the wheel and then burnt them at the stake. The authorities also raised a column there to warn that in perpetuity, anyone who committed the same crime would experience a similar fate.

Blaming people has happened again and again. It happened with cholera. It certainly happened as we know with HIV/AIDS with the stigmatizing of homosexuals. This violence is not something that's new and it has accompanied many epidemic outbreaks over the course of many centuries. 

It's a very unhappy part of our psyche that so many people are tempted to look for an easy, nonrational explanation--that is to find a scapegoat. It has led to witch-hunts across the centuries, and that's a very regrettable part of our history. It's one of the reasons I think it's so unfortunate to call this the “Chinese virus,” which somehow legitimizes the reaction that Chinese people are somehow to blame for this virus. 

Robin Lindley: Yes. Some people with Asian physical features have paid a horrific price in recent weeks. I’d like to go back to the preparedness of the United States for the coronavirus now. This administration often has adopted divisive, antiscience and xenophobic positions that don’t bode well for addressing a global pandemic. Trump is also notorious for blaming Obama for every failing of his policies. However, the Obama administration had policies and people in place for dealing with pandemics, and those people and policies were abandoned by the current administration. How do you see US preparedness for this new pandemic?

Professor Frank M. Snowden: To me, one of the most disturbing questions posed during this pandemic thus far was the one our president raised when he asked “Who could have thought?” The answer to that is that everyone should have anticipated a pandemic challenge because, since the avian flu of 1997. public health authorities and epidemiologists have been saying that a pandemic – probably of a pulmonary virus -- is an inevitability and that it's only a question of when.

In 2005, when [infectious disease doctor] Anthony Fauci testified before the US Senate, he made an analogy with meteorological science. Climate scientists can warn people who live in the Caribbean with a certainty that they will experience hurricanes in their future. It's not a matter of whether but of when, although it’s impossible to predict the date or the force of the storm. But it will definitely come. The same, Fauci said, is true of epidemic diseases. We’re ever more vulnerable to pulmonary viral epidemics because of climate change, human population growth, the destruction of biodiversity and animal habitat, and the growing frequency of viral spillovers from the animal world. 

All of that is part of the globalized society that we've created and therefore the vulnerability and risks that we're facing. The idea of preparedness was raised consistently and loudly from 1997 onward. 

Preparedness is not simply a partisan issue. The Republican administration under George W. Bush developed a national plan for endemic disease that was published in 2005, and revised by 2007. It was followed on the global level by international health regulations making emerging diseases notifiable while the World Health Organization drew up an international, emergency plan. Similarly, departments of health in all 50 states of the US had their preparatory plans. Various major corporations also had plans in the event of a new pandemic threat internationally and to the United States. 

Under Presidents Bush and Obama, the United States launched the President's Malaria Initiative, a massive campaign to combat malaria in Africa, and parallel efforts against tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Within the National Security Council, they also appointed a council to advise the government on how best to counter the threat of an epidemic challenge that was known to be coming. 

It was a tragic that Trump fired Admiral Ziemer, the head of the council, and dismantled the whole organization that he led. It's also poignant that in 2018, the World Health Organization appointed a distinguished commission of international scientists headed by the former prime minister of Norway, herself a major scientific figure. In 2019, in its report entitled “A World at Risk,” the commission warned of another pandemic. That was the most recent of warnings that had been sounded constantly for nearly a quarter of a century.

So, to have the president of the world's most powerful nation ask, “Who could have known?” is profoundly distressing because that's something that the whole world of science knew. That's also why I was so upset by the failure of the administration to use the term COVID-19. By insisting on “Chinese virus,” the president demonstrates a blatant contempt for science and its arguments. It's in that context that the administration slashed the budgets for public health and for scientific research; stood down the sentinels; and discarded the structures on which our security depends. But such an approach did not happen in the United States alone. Other countries have done just the same. In Italy, for example, the Five Star Movement has consistently denigrated science, while the Italian government has savagely cut the funding for its health care system and for research. The budgets for the World Health Organization were also slashed. 

The point is, we didn't need to be so unprepared for this event. It was predicted. The tragedy is that the world turned a deaf ear to the warnings of scientists. In this way a quarter of a century of advance notice was squandered. That’s a central part of why we are where we are today. 

Robin Lindley:  What are the responses to pandemics that you’d like to see the US and other nations employ? 

Professor Frank M. Snowden: I’d mention two interesting little statements. One was from a doctor in Toronto on the front line against SARS in Toronto. When that pandemic was over, he was asked what needed to happen, so it would never recur. He replied, “We must be forever changed.” Similarly Bruce Aylward, the Canadian epidemiologist who led the WHO mission to China, was asked what is required for our preparedness. He said, “What is required is that we have to change our mindset.”  What he meant was we must change our hearts and minds.  

As Dr. Tetros, the Director General of the WHO said, one of the requirements of preparedness is that every human being on the planet needs to have the guarantee of access to health care. It’s not just a humanitarian issue, but also an issue of enlightened self-interest because we've now created a genuinely global world where a virus appearing in Jakarta in the morning will land in Mexico City and San Francisco by nightfall. And  having access to healthcare is actually what it means to post sentinels. If people don't have access to a doctor because there are none, or the cost is prohibitive, or they're afraid to see a doctor because of stigma, then diseases can spread without anybody’s knowing. That's one of the great lessons to be learned from COVID-19.

It’s also prudent economically and fiscally prudent to establish universal access because dealing on an emergency basis with recurring challenges is the most expensive possible way of protecting public health. During the Ebola epidemic of 2014-2016, the cost of fighting Ebola on an emergency basis exceeded severalfold the cost of establishing sustainable health systems in the three countries of West Africa that were struggling with the disease. Once established, those systems would have helped to promote health in multiple additional ways.

So it’s economically prudent and I think we'll see that the final cost of the coronavirus will be enormous and that it will disrupt the economy for a long, long time. It seems clear that it would have been far more cost effective as well as more humane to have had health care for everyone on earth. That would be my first point. 

We also have to recognize that a major driver of this disease is poverty. Millions of people can't afford to see a doctor, to practice social distancing, or to wash their hands frequently.  One need only think of the chawls of Mumbai, the townships of South Africa, or the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. There are many places so crowded that people live with nine or ten people to a small room with no water supply. If they are locked down, people face starvation. 

Thus, the relationship of the industrial world to the emerging world is a very dangerous one in terms of health. We see now the large-scale flight of the capital from the third world with a devaluing of currencies with the result that goods and services essential to life are prohibitively expensive. Already, in large parts of the world, mothers are watering down the milk for their children because costs have suddenly shot up. In addition, the disappearance of tourism and investment means that people throughout the third world will be deprived of the necessities of life and that the world will suffer a massive surge in unemployment will further drive the pandemic. 

The world needs to realize, as Bruce Aylward said and as Dr. Tetros has been saying daily during, we really are all in this together. This virus is a disease of globalization and we must realize that microbes don't recognize borders. They don't make a distinction between the wealthy parts of the world and the impoverished parts of the world. And you cannot create walls to hold them out. 

Taking this global perspective, carefully funding the World Health Organization is a major part of our preparedness. Indeed, that's part of how we need to be changed forever after this experience. Just as important as dealing with this pandemic is the question:  once it is successfully contained, what are we going to do? What are our priorities for the future? 

This isn't the last microbial challenge, but the point about these challenges is they don't have to devastate us. There are things we can do to protect ourselves. One of those I didn't mention is directing scientific research. It is possible to develop vaccine platforms that are multivalent. That could have been in place with seasonal influenza vaccine platforms that could quickly generate a vaccine against, coronaviruses as a class. But that hasn't been done. We weren't developing and investing in the tools that medical science could provide us if we funded it in sustainable ways. That also needs to be done. 

Robin Lindley: Thank you for sharing those ideas on preparedness, Professor Snowden. I’m interested in your background. You’re one of America’s foremost scholars on the history of medicine. How did you decide to specialize in the history of medicine? Did you have a medical background? 

Professor Frank M. Snowden: The history of medicine is something that I hadn't anticipated doing, and I've been doing it now for 40 years

I believe two things got me into it. I studied political philosophy for my undergraduate degree. Then, in my doctoral work, I transitioned to becoming a historian. I started with political and social history and then discovered the field of history of medicine as I did broader reading on disease and health. 

I found that pandemics are looking glasses that reflect us back to ourselves. Why? Because these pandemics touch every area of the human psyche. They deal with such fundamental issues -- philosophical, religious, and moral. They touch our deepest anxieties and pose the question of the sudden death of our families, our children, our communities, and ourselves. They raise the question of our relationship with our deepest beliefs. Do we believe in a divinity that is all powerful, omniscient, and knowing, and yet created a world where, as with the Black Death, children were killed en masse? So people wrestle with their religious beliefs in times of epidemics. 

And, as we're seeing with coronavirus, pandemics devastate the economy, generating all sorts of anxieties about employment, about hunger, about one’s savings, about one's capacity to care for loved ones. 

All of these questions are thrown up. And what about political authorities? Do we trust them? Are they protecting us? All of those kinds of questions are raised by epidemic diseases. I found them a tremendous way of understanding how societies are put together, what their ultimate values and their moral and political commitments are. 

And I believe that epidemics are major parts of the big picture of historical change. Let's not say that they should replace economics, nor should they replace other factors such as environmental ones and a host of others. I'm not saying that studying epidemics should replace them, but they need to be an essential part of the historian’s craft. 

I decided to study epidemics in a really big picture away, and I took on the fall of the Roman empire. The fifth century was a time when there was major climate change in the Mediterranean and it was also a seismic and volcanic period, and with that a surge in mosquito populations. You see in the Italian peninsula a major series of epidemics of the worst form of malaria, falciparum malaria, that has been demonstrated by the DNA analysis of teeth from fifth-century burial sites. Malaria epidemics were also demonstrated archeologically by the abandonment of towns and villas during this period as malaria extended its reach. That led to the dislocation of agriculture and the economy, to the crisis of the economy, and to the weakening of the Roman legions. So that was a major factor in the fifth century, and then in the sixth century there was the Justinian plague. 

I would argue that in the future it won't be possible to deal with the fall of the Roman empire without invoking the major impact of disease. There are many, many other examples, but I just thought that the fall of Rome would help make the point. 

Robin Lindley: You’ve studied some of the most horrendous catastrophes in human history. What gives you hope now as we face a mysterious new pandemic in a time of anxiety and uncertainty?

Professor Frank M. Snowden: If I thought that the history of infectious diseases was exclusively a study of disaster and despair, I would long ago have abandoned the subject as unbearably depressing. Fortunately, however, along with the dark sides of human nature, epidemics also demonstrate our brighter and more hopeful qualities. One can see that again and again in the heroism of physicians, nurses, and caregivers; in the dedication and ingenuity of medical scientists; and in the slow, but steady advance of the science of public health and hygiene. 

That history fills me with the hope that we will, in the end, survive COVID-19, and with that experience behind us, we will resolve to organize our society in such a way that we are not again scourged by a deadly pandemic.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Snowden for your thoughtful insights and timely discussion of the mysterious virus we now face. And congratulations on your sweeping new history, Epidemics and Society. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. Stay safe and well in Rome.


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 visual imagery, medicine, law, human rights and conflict. He can be reached by email:

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
Interview: Historian and Professor Nancy K. Bristow on the Forgotten Police Shooting of Black Students at Jackson State College 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 visual imagery, medicine, law, human rights and conflict. He can be reached by email:

Just after midnight on May 15, 1970, officers of the Jackson Police Department and the Mississippi Highway Patrol attacked unarmed students at Jackson State College, a historically black college in Mississippi. The law enforcement officers unleashed a murderous fusillade of hundreds of gunshots into a group of African American students who were simply standing in front of a women’s dormitory. After just half a minute of intense gunfire, two young men were left dead and a dozen young men and women were wounded, including several women in the dorm.

This tragic moment of brutal racial violence was soon largely forgotten in history. And, in subsequent accounts, the incident seems eclipsed in memory by the massacre at Kent State University ten days earlier, on May 4, 1970, when National Guard troops confronted antiwar protesters and wildly fired live ammunition into the throng of students, killing four white students and wounding nine others.

In her groundbreaking new book Steeped in the Blood of Racism: Black Power, Law and Order and the 1970 Shootings at Jackson State College (Oxford), distinguished historian and Professor Nancy K. Bristow unravels this complex story of this tragic and overlooked racial incident at Jackson State. The book is based on her meticulous examination of the history of racism in Jackson, the role of the college in the community, the horrific shooting, and the subsequent investigations and unsuccessful attempts of surviving victims and relatives to find justice. She also considers the role of memory, deeply ingrained racism, and the cultural response, in understanding this act of state violence against African Americans.

Steeped in the Blood of Racism presents the results of Professor Bristow’s painstaking investigation of the bloody eruption of violence at Jackson State and its historical context.  In addition to wide-ranging archival research of official records, photographs, news reports, and other material, she interviewed dozens of witnesses and others. As with her previous work, her powerful and deeply humane book offers a moving and sensitive account of an episode of overlooked history with consequences that still resonate today.

Professor Bristow teaches American history with an emphasis on race and social change at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, and she is a founding member of the university’s African American Studies Program. She also serves on the Race and Pedagogy Institute’s leadership team. She is a past Washington State Professor of the Year. Her other books include the critically acclaimed American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Pandemic and Making Men Moral: Social Engineering during the Great War.

Professor Bristow graciously responded to a series of questions by email.


Robin Lindley: Congratulations on your groundbreaking and heartbreaking new book Professor Bristow. In Steeped in the Blood of Racism, you have done an extensive investigation into the police shootings of students 50 years ago at Jackson State College in Mississippi.

Your new book seems a departure from your previous books: American Pandemic on the 1918 influenza epidemic in America, and Making Men Moral on social engineering during the First World War, although those books also explore issues of memory, race and class, among other matters. What inspired your meticulous exploration of the horrific events at Jackson State?

Professor Nancy K. Bristow: I have been teaching African American history for thirty years, and running throughout this history is a central theme of the brutality of white supremacy.

I learned about the Jackson State shootings through a student’s research paper, and recognized both its importance in illuminating the consequences of the “law and order” perspective championed by Richard Nixon and its resonances with the ongoing crisis of state-sanctioned violence against people of color today.

As I began researching what happened at Jackson State, I realized how effectively this one story illustrates so many of the themes that emerge in the history of state violence against African Americans—how easily law enforcement fires on African Americans, the racism that makes this action such a quick response, the reality that officers rarely face consequences for their actions, the ongoing trauma that results from this brutality, and the resistance of so many in the white community to seeing this violence for the ongoing crisis it represents.

The story of what happened at Jackson State in May 1970 is one that every American should know if they want to make sense of the world they live in today.

What happened at Jackson State College on May 15, 1970, when police unleashed a tremendous fusillade of gunshots on a group of African American students, fatally wounding two young men and injuring many other students?

The night of May 14-15, 1970 was the second night of conflict between students and law enforcement.  The night before, some young people—students or local youths—had thrown rocks at white motorists on Lynch Street.  This thoroughfare bisected the campus, and was a longstanding source of harassment for students.  White commuters often endangered them by racing through the campus, and were also known to abuse student with racial epithets and insults.  In 1964 a student was struck and hospitalized, and in the aftermath, and on many occasions in subsequent years, the young people protested the mistreatment and laid claim to the street. 

On the night of May 13, police were called to close the street to motorists. A few trash bins were set on fire, and there was even a hapless attempt to attack the ROTC building. But law enforcement did not enter the campus, and things soon quieted. 

The next night, though the president of the university, John A. Peoples, asked the city to close the street to forestall any additional problems, the city refused.  Late that evening, rock throwing resumed, and the street was again closed. A crowd gathered in front of a men’s dormitory, Stewart Hall, on the western edge of campus. Someone drove a dump truck up Lynch Street from a nearby construction site and it stalled in front of Stewart Hall, and someone ignited it.  A city fire truck, called to put out the blaze, brought with it both city policemen and the Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol (MHSP). Their mission was to protect the fire truck. But with the fire out, these forces did not retreat to the periphery of the campus as they were charged to do, but instead marched up Lynch Street through the center of campus.  They took with them the city’s armored tank, shotguns loaded with heavy buckshot, two submachine guns, and two rifles with armor-piercing bullets. 

The forces halted in front of the women’s dormitory, Alexander Hall, where young people were enjoying the warm Mississippi night, and turned to face them, weapons leveled. Women’s curfew was at 11:30, and a little after midnight plenty of men were still hanging out, talking with the women through the windows.  They were shocked by the arrival of the troops, because they knew they were on their own campus, and had done nothing wrong.  Even so, they retreated behind the chain link fence between the dorm and the street when an officer commanded them to. And then a bottle crashed on the pavement and law enforcement opened fire.  For 28 seconds.  They fired more than 150 rounds, leaving over 400 bullet and shot marks on the exterior of Alexander Hall.  Two young men—James Earl Green and Phillip Gibbs—were killed, and twelve other young people were injured in the barrage.

When the firing finally stopped, the officers turned to picking up their spent shells, leaving the students to tend to one another.  They offered no aid to the injured. The on-site commander of the MHSP, Lloyd Jones, bullied the students, ordering one to check on the bodies of Green and Gibbs, lacing his words with racial epithets.  One reporter noted a mood of “levity” among the officers. Finally, the National Guard, who was to have replaced the city police and MHSP on campus, arrived and began helping the students.

You detail the history of Jackson State—a historically black college—and its place in the Jackson community and the state of Mississippi, a notorious site of racial violence through history. The shootings occurred early in the days of desegregation and in the time of a growing Black Power movement, but wasn’t Jackson State a quiet, conservative school that was tightly controlled by a white board of directors?

Though some of this is true—certainly the repression faced by African Americans in Mississippi—the situation at the college was more complex than the traditional narrative has suggested. 

Yes, Jackson State College was controlled by an all-white Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning in Mississippi, and the board attempted to keep a tight rein on students across the state. For the black colleges, this meant students faced particularly harsh repercussions if they engaged in activism of any sort, and especially civil rights actions.

Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s the college’s president, Jacob Reddix, conceded to the board’s demands in hopes of building a school that could serve its students well. In 1957 Reddix withdrew the school’s basketball team from the NCAA playoffs to avoid facing a white team in the next round of the tournament.  In 1961, when students from Tougaloo College north of Jackson attempted to desegregate the city’s downtown library and were arrested, some 800 students at Jackson State rallied in support, and even attempted a march to downtown.  Law enforcement cracked down on the march, and the president expelled two students believed to be leaders in the actions.  He also suspended the student government. Students learned early the consequences of activism on the Jackson State campus.

But by 1970 Jackson State was a changing institution.  A new president, alumnus John A. Peoples, saw himself as part of “the new breed of college presidents,” people who were “proud to be black and who would speak up for the freedom of black people.” He wanted to create a “true university,” and this included expanding student rights and allowing greater opportunities for student expression and racial consciousness. The school newspaper increasingly carried stories about contemporary issues, from the war in Vietnam to issues of black identity. Students brought local activist and Fayetteville Mayor Charles Evers and Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael to campus. The institution opened its Institute for the Study of History, Life and Culture of Black People, with noted writer and faculty member Margaret Walker as its director.  And some students became advocates of Black Power. It was this changing campus that law enforcement assaulted in May 1970.

The horrific shootings at Jackson State happened just 10 days after National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio killed four white students and wounded others during a protest against the US invasion of Cambodia. What should readers know about the historical context of these two college campus shootings?

On April 30, President Richard Nixon informed the American public that US troops had invaded Cambodia.  People were shocked, and antiwar activists were outraged.  Nixon had run on the promise of ending the war, had recently announced troop withdrawals, and was now expanding the war. Protests erupted around the country.  On the fourth day of protests at Kent State University, National guardsmen opened fire on students there, killing four young people and injuring nine more.  In the aftermath, students at campuses nationwide organized memorial services and letter writing campaigns, vigils and mock funerals. The largest student strike in US history took hold.

Though there were no established antiwar groups on the Jackson State campus, activists there nevertheless mobilized to protest both the Cambodian invasion and the Kent State shootings. Some 200 to 300 students boycotted classes, and still more participated in a protest rally, and conversations about “KSU/Cambodia/Viet Nam/Draft/etc.” continued on the campus in the days to come. It was in the midst of this nationwide unrest that law enforcement opened fire on students at Jackson State.

The story of the Kent State killings has overshadowed the deadly Jackson State police assault since both incidents occurred. You stress that both incidents were conflated as two shootings of student protestors, but you found that the incidents were very different. What did you learn about how the shootings at Jackson State were seen and why they were so readily forgotten by most, and then virtually disappeared from history?

The important distinction between the two shootings is the white supremacy that caused the shootings at Jackson State and accounted for the amnesia that surrounds them. 

The students at Jackson State College were assaulted because they were black students attending an HBCU in one of the most viciously racist states in the country.  As the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest concluded, “racial antagonisms” were essential to understanding law enforcement’s behavior, as was their awareness that if they fired, they would face neither disciplinary action nor criminal charges.

Though many of the students at Kent State understood this distinction, the broader American public conflated the two events. TIME headlined its piece on the Jackson State shootings “Jackson: Kent State II.” This quick linkage unfortunately hid the essential role of racism in the events at Jackson State College. In the years to come, as anniversaries passed, the media increasingly ignored the Jackson State shootings, using the violence at Kent State to serve as the iconic example of all of the campus conflicts of the era.  If they were all the same, it seemed, one could stand for the whole.  The victims at Jackson State became, as the Chronicle of Higher Education listed them, simply “others who died.”       

What was the historical problem you began with for your book and how did your book evolve during the course of your research?

I initially imagined a book exploring the ways the law and order narrative was used to justify state violence in the latter part of the civil rights era.  I wanted to understand how, as the nation professed to be moving into a more just future in the wake of major civil rights legislation, new mechanisms were employed to continue to repress African Americans.  I planned to write a book looking at how white representatives of the state used violence to control various elements of the black community in the late 1960s and early 1970s—not only college students but also black power advocates, people engaging in civil disturbances, the incarcerated.

I began my research with the shootings at Jackson State College, and stumbled into the opportunity to write this more focused book for Oxford University Press. I jumped at the opportunity, because my initial trip to Jackson State convinced me how important it was that more people learned this story.

What was your research process? For me, the book reads in part like a gripping, scrupulously detailed account of a complex crime.

I began with the archival sources, I think because that felt easiest.  But once I was situated with the essentials of what took place, I realized the book would be hollow, would lack the humanity it demanded, if I did not talk directly with people who had been affected by the shootings—those who knew James Earl Green and Phillip Gibbs, those who were injured, those who were witnesses, those who fought to keep the memory of that night alive, and those who continue the work of commemoration and remembering.

Talking to people, having so many people entrust their story to me, was the most humbling experience I have had as a historian. I will never forget this gift, and the responsibility it carries.

I have felt my duty as a historian in an entirely new way with this work. With any project one needs the research to be comprehensive and careful, the story that is told complex and correct.  With this charged story of violence and loss, and with issues of white supremacy at its center, the responsibilities seemed dramatically heightened. 

Two young African American men were killed in the shooting: James Earl Green and Philip Gibbs. What would you like readers to know about these men?

People need to understand, most importantly, that they did not deserve what happened to them, that they were murdered by white supremacist members of law enforcement. And people need to know that these young men were full of life, with talents they did not get to develop in full.  And people need to know how beloved they were, how costly their deaths were for their friends, families, communities, and honestly their nation. 

More specifically, people should know that Phillip Gibbs was a junior at Jackson State, where he was studying politics and considering a career in law.  He and his wife Dale had a son, Phillip Jr., and she was, unknown to them at the time, pregnant with their second son, Demetrius. His friends remembered him as a “caring, sharing person,” someone who would “help anyone.” Gibbs was visiting with his sister and her roommate through the window of Alexander Hall just before he was shot.

James Green was just 17 years old, and was close to his high school graduation.  He was the middle of nine children, and had a wonderful sense of humor.  His sisters remember his loving personality, and how he could lift a person’s spirits no matter how down they were. And, they told me, “he could make a joke out of anything.”  He was on his way home from work at the Wag-a-Bag grocery where he had worked since he was eleven when he was killed.

The students at Jackson State were shot by notoriously racist officers of the Jackson police and the Mississippi Highway Patrol. In this instance, it seems the National Guard urged restraint. What are some things you learned about deep-seated white supremacist views of the police officers and their record of relationships with the African Americans in Jackson and Mississippi?

The Jackson city police had a long history of racism and of mistreatment toward African Americans, and were a constant source of harassment for the students at Jackson State.  They had brutalized civil rights activists throughout the decade. Though the force had added a few African Americans by 1970, none of them were officers, and black and white policemen still did not partner or ride together.  It had been the chasing of a student onto the campus that provoked two nights of unrest in 1967, ending in the shooting of four young people and the death of local activist Benjamin Brown. Brown had not been involved in the trouble, and was shot from behind as he ran away from law enforcement.

The Mississippi Highway and Safety Patrol (MHSP) remained an all-white force in 1970, and was well known not only in Mississippi but also nationwide for its brutal white supremacy. Lloyd “Goon” Jones, the on-site commander at Jackson State on the night of May 14-15, might help illustrate this. On the force since 1956, he had been a part of several moments of abuse during the civil rights struggle.  He had arrested Freedom Riders in 1961, he had been among those who failed to intervene in the riots at the University of Mississippi in 1962, he had ordered the tear-gassing of one of the March Against Fear campsites in 1966, and in 1967 had fired his weapon the night law enforcement shot and killed Benjamin Brown. The tapes of his transmissions both before and after the shootings offer a visceral understanding of the utter disregard he felt for African Americans as he used derogatory language, and dismissed the importance of the slain and injured.  Interviews with eyewitnesses and victims, both those by investigators in 1970 and those I conducted, only confirm the absolute absence of humanity of this man, who commanded the MHSP that night.

As you detail, no police perpetrators of the attack were criminally charged or disciplined for their actions. Indeed, they won praise from the white Southern establishment for advancing “Law and Order.” You explore the “Law and Order” narrative and how it came to define responses to African Americans in the Jim Crow era and the recently desegregated South. What should we know about the racially-coded appeal of “Law and Order” to many Americans in 1970?

Perhaps most importantly, the appeal of this racism, cloaked in the language of “law and order,” reached well beyond Mississippi or the South.

Linked to longstanding historical stereotypes that framed African Americans as inherently dangerous, misrepresentations first used to justify slavery, this revised rhetoric of law and order emerged on the American political landscape in Barry Goldwater’s 1964 run for the presidency. Though his candidacy failed, others recognized that some voters were attracted to his criticism of federal intervention on behalf of civil rights, and to his calls for law and order. The success in the 1968 primaries of George Wallace, reconstructed to evade the use of derogatory language even as he continued to appeal to white supremacy through the language of “states’ rights,” reinforced the idea that there were many white Americans who would welcome the opportunity to cloak their racism in the guise of a concern for law and order. 

Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy was based in part on the idea that this kind of racist appeal could bring white southern voters, once solidly Democratic, into the Republican party.  He was right.  Part of the tragedy is that these appeals did not go down with the Nixon presidency, but became standard practice across the political spectrum, but especially among Republicans, facilitating not only the ongoing crisis of state violence against people of color but also helping to build the carceral state.

What happened with official investigations of the Jackson State police shootings?

There were multiple investigations of the shootings.  The first was a local one, conducted by a bi-racial committee appointed by the mayor. It concluded that there was “no evidence that the crowd in front of Alexander Hall threatened the officers prior to firing.” A more fulsome investigation was carried out by the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest.  Supported by a team of investigators, as well as the materials gathered by both the FBI and the mayoral committee, this politically and racially balanced body released a special report on the Jackson State shootings that emphasized the role of racism in producing the shootings. It concluded, “The 28-second fusillade from police officers was an unreasonable, unjustified over-reaction” and “clearly unwarranted.” Neither of these bodies, though, carried any ability to indict or prosecute.

The justice system proved anything but.  Though US Attorney General John Mitchell assured the campus that he would order a full investigation, the appointment of Judge Harold Cox to oversee the federal grand jury undercut that promise. Cox was a well-known racist and segregationist who used racial epithets regularly. He had established his white supremacist credentials when he threw out the felony charge of “conspiracy to deprive the victims of their civil rights” against seventeen men in the murder of James Chaney, Mickey Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman during Freedom Summer. 

The federal grand jury produced neither a report nor any indictments.  The Hinds County grand jury modeled itself on the federal one, with the judge borrowing from the words of Cox. Suggesting jurors should see their work as a “bulwark against those who seek . . . to oppress,” the court concluded that no one who engaged in civil unrest or did not extricate themselves from it “has any right to expect to avoid serious injury or even death” if “extreme measures or harsh treatment” proved necessary. This grand jury, too, would return no indictments for the shootings.

It may surprise and upset some readers that wounded survivors of the shootings and families of the fatally-wounded men sued for some compensation, yet they never found justice or restitution. Why was it so difficult for these worthy plaintiffs to find some degree of sort of recompense in the post-segregation South of the early seventies?

In 1972, three of the injured students and the families of James Earl Green and Phillip Gibbs brought a civil suit.  Led by the gifted Constance Slaughter, the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Mississippi Law School, the case was a very strong one.  But it was not strong enough to succeed against the white supremacy of the defense, which relied on the rhetoric of law and order to depict the students as criminals, or of the all-white jury, which ruled for the defendants. 

A victory on appeal proved hollow when the court also ruled that the city, state, and their representatives, were covered by sovereign immunity.  When the Supreme Court refused to hear the case in 1974, the doors to justice were closed. 

 You are a distinguished historian and an expert on historical memory. How would you like to see the Jackson State shootings in our history?

This event needs to be part of the way we think about the black power era, the late 1960s and early 1970s.  We need to understand that in the aftermath of the civil rights successes of the mid-1960s, old-fashioned racist violence by law enforcement continued, even as it was dressed up in new rhetoric. 

By 1970 police in Mississippi and elsewhere could not, at least theoretically, gun down unarmed innocents, even if they were black.  The reality is that they could, so long as they could justify themselves as acting in the interests of law and order against a purportedly criminal element.  Being black in the United States was all it took to be cast as such. This reality is laid bare in the horrors of the Jackson State shootings and their aftermath.

Thank you Professor Bristow for your illuminating comments and for your original research on this overlooked history. Is there anything you’d like to add on your book or your work as a historian?

Mostly I want to thank you for your willingness to share this story with your readers, and to ask readers to hold the stories of those who were hurt—physically, psychologically, emotionally, and in other ways—in their minds and in their hearts. 

Also, I want to urge readers to recognize the direct linkages between this past and our present.  The crisis of state-sanctioned violence against people of color is ongoing. We must demand accountability when those who represent us as officers of the state--law enforcement officers--act on white supremacy and commit this kind of violence.

Fifty years is too long for these crimes to continue to happen, and to go unpunished by our justice system.

It’s an honor for me to share your thoughtful words Professor Bristow. I admire your humane and creative approach to history that breathes life into the past and inspires hope for a more tolerant and just world. Thanks again for your generosity and your pioneering history of the Jackson State shootings in 1970, a timely and provocative history. Congratulations on this important new book.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
Love, Loss, and Leadership in a Time of Mass Death— An Interview with Erik Larson


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, ABA Journal, NW Lawyer, Real Change, Huffington Post, Bill,, and more. He has a special interest in the history of visual imagery, medicine, law, human rights and conflict. He can be reached by email:


In the face of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, Americans are understandably worried as they prepare for a new normal. The nation was unprepared for this novel virus despite warnings for years from scientists. The initial approach to the virus was halting and bumbling. And guidance from administration leaders often has been contradictory and ill-informed as the current president appears to prefer fabrications to science, blame to empathy, division to unity. As thousands die.


As we contend with the pandemic and our dysfunctional politics, the story of another fraught moment may offer hope and some solace as well as lessons on leadership and survival. Seventy years ago, with the constant threat of a Nazi invasion and the horror of deadly bombing raids during the Blitz, the citizens of Britain were famously stoic and unified. Clarity from Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the government on expected behavior and the national interest contributed to social stability and British resilience. At the same time, Churchill offered reassurance and inspiration even in the darkest moments. He was reliably honest about the price of the war and the necessary sacrifices as he encouraged unity and resistance to the Nazi forces that dominated Europe. His words bolstered the spirit of Britons as they faced the rain of bombs, the fear of invasion, the unknown.


In his compelling new book, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, bestselling author and master storyteller Erik Larson explores how Churchill, his family, and his closest advisors survived during his tumultuous first year as Britain’s prime minister, from May 1940 to May 1941.


On Churchill’s first day in office, German forces invaded Holland and the Netherlands, and had already occupied much of western Europe. Two weeks later, the huge British Expeditionary Force was evacuated from Dunkirk. France soon fell. The RAF managed to hold off the Luftwaffe that summer, but then Britain faced months of relentless bombing.  As Mr. Larson details, the casualties of the Blitz were staggering. The German aerial bombardment, from September 7, 1940 to May 11, 1941, left 44,652 dead, including 5,626 children. Meanwhile, the war was going badly for British forces in the Mediterranean and North Africa, as supply ships were lost to U-Boats in the Atlantic. And, despite Churchill’s desperate pleas, the isolationist United States was only slowly granting aid. 


Through all of the setbacks and terrible losses, Churchill offered his fellow Britons lessons in what Mr. Larson calls “the art of being fearless.” Churchill remained steadfast: committed to bolstering the perseverance and confidence of his citizens while fighting onto victory over the Nazis. The German high command saw his pugnacious spirit as a form of insanity given Britain’s precarious military situation. 


While presenting this historical background, Mr. Larson brings this period to life with his focus on the more intimate saga of the Churchill family, capturing the human drama of their situation with his trademark moving and cinematic writing. Every moment he illuminates is based on meticulous historical research of archival materials, diaries, letters, once-secret files that were recently disclosed, and more. 


In The Splendid and the Vile, readers are privy to the private lives of Churchill and his beloved wife Clementine, as well as the youthful antics of their 17-year-old daughter Mary; the troubled marriage of their son Randolph and Pamela Churchill; the trials of Churchill’s lovelorn personal secretary John Colville; the mercurial service of air minister Lord Beaverbrook; and others. Further, Mr. Larson’s descriptions of the human carnage, the cratered cities, the terrible loss, are haunting and heartbreaking as the accounts of average Britons who survived the terror and constant fear to carry on shine through.


Mr. Larson is an American journalist and writer who is most well-known as the author of compelling nonfiction booksgrounded in history. Six of his eight books became New York Times bestsellers.  The Devil in the White City (2003) was a finalist for the National Book Award and won the Edgar Award for the Best Fact Crime book. Hulu plans to adapt that book for a TV series. His 2011 book, In the Garden of Beasts, about how America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany and his daughter experienced the rising terror of Hitler’s rule, has been optioned by Tom Hanks for development as a feature film. He also wrote the bestselling Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania; Thunderstruck; and Isaac’s Storm about the giant hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas, in 1900, which won the American Meteorology Society’s prestigious Louis J. Battan Author’s Award. 


Mr. Larson was a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal, and later a contributing writer for Time Magazine. His magazine stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and other publications. He also has taught non-fiction writing at San Francisco State, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, the University of Oregon, and the Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham, Washington. He lives in Manhattan with his wife, a neonatologist and the author of the nonfiction memoir Almost Home. They have three grown daughters. 


Mr. Larson generously responded by email to a series of questions on his work and his new book, The Splendid and the Vile. 


Robin Lindley: Congratulations Mr. Larson on your compelling and moving new book The Splendid and the Vile. You recount a fraught year in Britain when the nation faced a relentless German bombing campaign and the fear of invasion as you detail the lives of the Churchill family and others during Winston Churchill’s first year as prime minister, from May 1940 to May 1941.

As we’re now hunkering down in the face of a mysterious and deadly pandemic, your book is bringing hope to readers as they learn of how exalted and average citizens coped with the anxiety and fear in wartime. What have you learned about reactions to your book during this current period of uncertainty?

Erik Larson: It’s really very gratifying. Readers tell me they find solace in the book. I think it’s partly because the story helps put things in perspective. At least we don’t have to worry about bombs falling through our roofs. But I think it’s also partly because it’s a classic story of good and evil, and they know it has a happy ending. Plus, it takes them out of today’s political dysfunction, to a time when a true leader was at the helm, something we dearly lack today. 

Robin Lindley: What inspired your new book? 

Erik Larson: About five years ago my wife and I moved to Manhattan from Seattle. Almost immediately upon arrival I had a kind of epiphany as to how incredibly more wrenching New York’s experience of 9/11 was, as compared to mine, even though I like millions around the world watched the disaster unfold in real time on television. Not only did New Yorkers see the towers on fire and hear the sirens and smell the smoke; they were further traumatized by the fact that this was their home city under attack. 

I started thinking about London in World War II, and how ordinary Londoners managed to endure the nightly attacks of the Luftwaffe—during the phase we know as the “Blitz,” the city underwent 57 consecutive nights of bombing. My first idea was to try to find a typical London family, and describe its experience. But then I thought, wait, why not write about the quintessential London family—the Churchills, and Churchill’s close advisors.  

Robin Lindley: In the acknowledgements section, you wrote of your own anxiety for your children. What do you hope they take from your book on this perilous year in Britain?

Erik Larson: Well, so far only one of my daughters has read it, and she tells me she actually really enjoyed it. But I don’t think she sees it as providing some instructive takeaway. I do hope, however, that readers at large will perhaps come away with a reminder as to what real leadership looks like. 

Robin Lindley: What was your research process? You’re known for finding often obscure details and overlooked records.

Erik Larson: One thing I realized early on is that there was no way I’d be able to read everything that had ever been written about Churchill. I don’t think I appreciated the volume until I actually got started on the research. You know the old saying, “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” 

I made a strategic decision: I would read as much as was necessary to get a good grasp of the Churchillian landscape, but then immediately dive into the archives, which is where I feel most comfortable. I knew I would find new things, because I was asking a new question. Oddly enough, no one previously had done a book aimed at revealing how Churchill et al. actually went about enduring the Blitz and subsequent raids during that first year of his premiership. So, there’s actually a lot of new material in the book. As to obscure details: I live for them! 

Robin Lindley: I imagine you spent years on your new book. How did the book evolve from your initial conception?

Erik Larson: I realized that the narrative was much more complicated than I had envisioned. Suddenly I was juggling subplots involving love affairs, secret weapons, conniving advisors, even the bizarre arrival of Hitler’s number two man on British soil. I’d say this was my toughest narrative thus far. The big challenge was to wrestle it all into a book of readable size. It became an incredible journey. For my wife—not so much! She couldn’t wait ‘til I finished it. 

Robin Lindley: You wrote that “history is a lively abode, full of surprises.” What are some surprises that stand out for you from the creation of The Splendid and the Vile?

Erik Larson: Oh, well, what didn’t surprise me! But I guess the most surprising thing, and the most delightful, was that Churchill was a lot of fun. He had a great sense of humor and absolutely no sense of personal vanity. He could be a total jerk, yes, and his closest associates knew well that he could be rude, inconsiderate, overbearing, and capricious. But, he was funny, charming, affectionate, and his staff adored him. 

Robin Lindley: You present a warm and moving portrait of Churchill and his family. Churchill demonstrates firm leadership, an indomitable spirit, an encouraging and determined attitude in the face of devastating bombing and military defeats. Did you worry about romanticizing Churchill?

Erik Larson: No. There’s nothing to romanticize. In writing history, you have to go with what the record provides. No one’s a total hero, no one’s a total villain—with the exception, that is, of Hitler, Goering and Goebbels!  

Robin Lindley: Churchill had periods of severe depression throughout his life that he called his “black dog,” but it seems he had no serious symptoms in the period you cover despite the brutal aerial bombardment of England and the omnipresent threat of invasion. Was that your sense?

Erik Larson: He had his down moments, of course, and I mention those. For example, his mood just before he learned of the attack on Pearl Harbor. But I did not come across any reference during his first year as prime minister to any significant period of deep or profound depression. He had a knack for being able to shake himself out of his periodic black moods. Alcohol helped. I describe one lunch where he was in a terrible mood, until the booze began to flow. Though I hasten to add that Churchill, while he liked to drink, was anything but an alcoholic. 

Robin Lindley: Through the darkest days you cover, Churchill was adept at bolstering the spirit of most Britons. Why was he so effective as a leader at this perilous time? What could our current president learn from Churchill’s example as we face a mysterious and deadly pandemic?

Erik Larson: What Churchill understood was that he had to be frank with his audience. The British public were in the thick of it. They knew a certain ground truth. If Churchill were to try to snow them with happy talk about miracle weapons or promises that the Luftwaffe would eventually just go away, he would have risked raising distrust and degrading morale, at a time when both were crucial to Britain’s survival. His approach was to give the country a sober appraisal of what was happening, followed by reasons for optimism—real reasons, not some fantasy. For example, an assessment of how rapidly the country was building planes, and how brilliant the RAF was at repelling attack.

Of course, to do any of this, he first had to have the words to express himself, and boy did he have the words. He dictated his speeches to his personal secretary, and that’s a talent that requires not only a deft grasp of the English language, but a mind that can manipulate phrases and syntax on the fly. He also had an ability to express empathy, which was an important element in a time of war. It was not unusual to see him openly weeping at the scene of a bombing, something I can’t imagine our current president doing on any occasion, ever.  

Robin Lindley: It’s obvious that Churchill had a deep understanding and love for history. And he had also written books of history. How did this respect for and knowledge of the past affect his leadership?

Erik Larson: This was a very important element. He understood the grand sweep of British history, and was able in his speeches to place his listeners in that story, so that they too felt a part of it and understood that only with their help would that grand story continue. He made his listeners feel bolder and stronger, and cast them as champions and guardians of that history.

Robin Lindley: You describe vividly the 57 consecutive days of bombing and other massive raids that Britons experienced. How was it that the spirit of resistance to the Nazis hardened rather than flagged during the days of these murderous attacks? Was this part of the stiff-upper lip, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” British spirit?

Erik Larson: Churchill seemed to understand that courage and confidence were infectious—that by expressing his own courage and confidence at all times, he could help the public find their own. 

It was also the case, I think, that under certain circumstances—good leadership being one of them—people adapt to prolonged crisis remarkably well. Case in point was Olivia Cockett, a young woman who, like most Londoners, was terrified after the first night’s bombings and remained so, until one night an incendiary bomb landed outside her home and she snuffed it out, as civilians were asked to do. It changed her outlook completely. She went from victim, to warrior, and lost her fear. One later night she’s out strolling with her boyfriend when they hear the telltale scream of two descending bombs. He shouts for her to “Get down!” But she thinks, “Not in my new coat, I’m not.”   

Robin Lindley: You mention the British Mass Observation Program that involved thousands of civilian volunteers. What was that project? Didn’t you find records of the MOP that were previously unavailable?

Erik Larson: These records were always available, and they are an incredible resource for anyone interested in the Blitz. Mass Observation was a social sciences organization founded before the war to try to get a better sense of what ordinary British life was like. It recruited hundreds of people to keep daily diaries and to submit them for analysis. Then came the war, and many members continued to keep their diaries. A number of these have been published as free-standing books, and are an invaluable reference. I use these accounts a bit differently than other scholars-- as elements of narrative rather than as static sources of quotations. 

Robin Lindley: There were some notable Nazi sympathizers in Britain and then Oswald Mosley’s fascist party before the war. Were there British efforts to make peace with the Nazis as Churchill counseled resistance?

Erik Larson: Hitler did send out repeated peace feelers, because he wanted to remove Britain from the war so that he could focus on the Soviet Union, but Churchill rightly understood that these would ultimately prove worthless once Hitler achieved his goals elsewhere. Whether the debate over peace reached the intensity depicted in the film “Darkest Hour” is open to question. Suffice it to say, Churchill chose a path of unstinting defiance. 

Robin Lindley: The air Battle of Britain in the summer of 1940 is celebrated and, after the evacuation of Dunkirk, that boosted the spirits of many Britons, including Churchill. I think some people believe that this RAF victory of sorts ended the threat of a Nazi invasion of Britain. As you detail, however, the following months until May 1941 were horrendous for the British militarily. What are a few things you’d like readers to know about the British military situation?

Erik Larson: The invasion threat persisted. Popular myth tends to compartmentalize elements of the German air campaign into neat boxes, namely the so-called “Battle of Britain” and the “Blitz.” In reality, the campaign consisted of a seamless escalation that did not end until May 10, 1941. 

What we think of as the Battle of Britain resolved nothing, though it did lodge the RAF and its fighter pilots forever in the pantheon of British heroes. The Blitz followed soon afterward, with the first deliberate German raid on London, on Sept. 7, 1940, which was followed by another 56 consecutive nights of raids against the city. The British endured this phase, but even then the raids did not end. Winter weather forced interruptions, but the raids that did occur were even more severe, with possibly the worst of the war taking place on May 10, 1941. Over the winter the risk of invasion waned, because of weather, but with the advent of spring, the threat once again seemed grave—though intelligence began detecting a shift in Hitler’s attention toward the East. It was that shift, and Churchill’s staunch defiance, that ultimately ended the invasion threat, and caused the Luftwaffe to suspend its raids against London. 

That year of endurance constituted Britain’s first major victory. Of course, what followed was four more years of war, and many very dark days. What ultimately shifted the balance irrevocably in the allies favor was America’s entrance into the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Robin Lindley: You are acclaimed for your vivid descriptions of every detail in your books, and each detail comes from your rigorous research of actual witness accounts and other resources. In your new book, you bring to life the post-bombing world: the dust clouds, the glittering broken glass, the cratered dwellings, the smell of cordite. I was struck by the shortage of wood to make coffins, and that evokes the recent problems in New York with treatment of the remains of COVID 19 patients. How did the British handle the remains of the massive number of dead from air raids?

Erik Larson: They dealt with it all in a very systematic matter, with ad-hoc morgues set up in the city’s neighborhoods—for example, in a public bath—and with systematic record-keeping. 

One story that did not make it into the book, alas, was about a three-month investigation by Scotland Yard into the disappearance of an employee of an architectural firm, after a bombing. It was important to determine that the man had indeed died and the precise cause of death, because without such a determination his grieving wife could not have claimed her death benefits or insurance. The Yard also had to eliminate the possibility that the man had faked his own death. Ultimately the formal conclusion was that he had been “blown to bits.” 

Robin Lindley: You intersperse the stories of the Churchills and others in Britain with responses of Nazi leaders to the pugnacious Churchill and their plans for air raids and invasion. It seems that invasion of Britain was a possibility until May 1941 when Hitler turned his focus to Russia. How did the Nazis see Churchill and the resilience of the citizenry in the face of murderous aerial bombing? Did you have particular sources you relied on for the views of the German leaders?

Erik Larson: Mainly I relied on intelligence reports and diaries, in particular the diary of Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s chief of propaganda. Hitler, Goering, and Goebbels simply could not understand why Churchill didn’t give up and seek some sort of peace. To them, he seemed like some kind of crazy person. Goebbels in his diary expresses surprise time and again at his unwillingness to seek a negotiated end to the war.   

Robin Lindley: Churchill was desperate for US aid and he frequently communicated with FDR and pleaded for help. As I recall, the two leaders had never met personally before Churchill became prime minister, but they admired each other. What would you like readers to understand about the Churchill-FDR relationship?

Erik Larson: The most interesting element is simply the fact that Churchill knew from the very beginning of his premiership that Britain would not be able to prevail without the full participation of America as a belligerent. He himself later wrote that he pursued Roosevelt the way a besotted lover would pursue the object of his affection. In the end of course it was  Pearl Harbor that brought America into the war, but even before that Churchill’s efforts undoubtedly helped increase the amount of aid that the U.S. was willing to contribute. 

Robin Lindley: In addition to Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine, several other characters vividly emerge in your book. Their daughter Mary was in her late teens and you recount her adventures during the perilous year you describe. What drew you to Mary’s story?

Erik Larson: Early on I was lucky enough to receive permission to read and use her diary. At the time, apparently, I was one of two scholars to have been given that honor. (I don’t know who the other is.) 

Mary was 17 in May 1940. She kept a detailed daily diary, full of observations about the war, her father, and her own life. She wrote with great charm, and provided a very clear sense that despite the woes of the world, life went on. She went dancing at RAF parties; attended the annual debutante ball in London during an air raid; and in her diary makes periodic reference to episodes of “snogging in the hayloft.” What’s not to love! 

Robin Lindley: John Colville, Churchill’s secretary, also seems one of your favorite characters. Who was he and why was he so significant at this time?

Erik Larson: Colville was one of Churchill’s cadre of private secretaries, a group of very hard-working young men who served almost as apprentice prime ministers. He kept an incredibly rich diary of life at No. 10 Downing Street—a diary, by the way, that he himself acknowledged he should not have been keeping, because of the security risk it posed. Every Churchill scholar consults this diary—but I decided Colville wanted to step forward and become an actual character. I discovered that his published diary leaves out some key elements of his life that were very important to him at the time, namely, that he was in love, and the object of his desire did not love him back. Tragic, in a universal way! 

Robin Lindley: And then an American envoy, the reliably disheveled Harry Hopkins, entered the story in 1941. What was Hopkins’ role and why was he important to Churchill? 

Erik Larson: Hopkins was Roosevelt’s close friend and advisor. He actually lived in the White House. Roosevelt sent him to England so that he could provide an accurate sense of who Churchill really was and how Britain was faring. Churchill, recognizing this, took Hopkins with him everywhere, and wined and dined and charmed him, with an eye always to winning Roosevelt’s favor. It worked, too. 

Robin Lindley: Your book is based on your meticulous research. You have said you don’t consider yourself a historian, however. I think you’re too humble. How do you see your role as a writer who explores events from the past?

Erik Larson: As I’ve said before, my goal, strange as it sounds, is not to inform, though anyone who wishes can quote my books in their PhD theses. Rather, I’m drawn by story. My goal is to create as rich a historical experience as I possibly can—all true of course—in the hope that readers will be able to descend into the past and linger there a while as if they were part of whatever saga is unfolding. One lovely aspect of the reading imagination is that, if you tell a story right, readers will forget that they know the ending, and feel the same tensions and suspense as experienced by citizens of London. Or so I hope.  

Robin Lindley: Who are some historians or other writers that you see as inspirations or influences?

Erik Larson: David McCullough. Barbara Tuchman. Dava Sobel—her “Longitude” was one of the books that made me start thinking about writing narrative history. More recently I’ve become a huge fan of Andrew Roberts, a foremost Churchill scholar. He’s a sharp writer, and funny, and he’s got an eye for the kinds of detail that I love. 

Robin Lindley: Have you decided on your next project?

Erik Larson: Ha! No. I wish. I’m back in the “dark country of no ideas.” I’ve got a couple of contenders, however. And neither one has anything to do with World War II or Churchill! 

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers about your book or thoughts on how the lessons of this history of Britain during the darkest days of the Second World War may help us as we confront the COVID-19 pandemic?

Erik Larson: I think the main parallel is that these times require us all to pull together, just as Londoners had to do. For us, the noblest thing is to stay home, and if we do go out, wear a mask. My home city of New York has millions of heroes, now, staying home, losing jobs, going nuts—figuratively and literally—all to help prevent the deaths of countless other souls whom they do not know and will never meet. It’s really quite dashingly heroic, even if it does require staying home. Churchill would have had much to say about it, with compassion and, without doubt, a tear or two at the pathos of it all. 

Robin Lindley: Thank you for your thoughtful comments Mr. Larson. It’s an honor to share your words with readers on your work and moving new book, The Splendid and the Vile. Congratulations.


Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
The Apocalypse Factory: Steve Olson Discusses the Path of Plutonium From Hanford Nuclear Reservation to Nagasaki Steve Olson is an award-winning, Seattle-based science writer. His other books include Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens (Winner of the Washington State Book Award); and Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins (a finalist for the National Book Award and recipient of the Science-in-Society Award from the National Association of Science Writers). His articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Science, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and many other periodicals. Mr. Olson also has served as a consultant writer for the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the National Institutes of Health, and many other organizations. 

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, ABA Journal, Real Change, Huffington Post, Bill,, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, and art. He can be reached by email:




In the late 1930s, German scientists were conducting experiments to create atomic bombs. In response, and fearing a German bomb, scientists and engineers in the United States in 1939 launched what became the Manhattan Project, an effort to develop the world’s first nuclear weapons. And to beat the Germans to the punch.

In early 1941, American nuclear chemist Glenn Seaborg discovered the radioactive element that he named plutonium, which has an atomic number 94. In the months after he isolated the element, he and others saw plutonium’s potential as a fuel for atomic weapons. American efforts to develop a nuclear weapon redoubled after the US entered the war with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

As part of the Manhattan project, the US rapidly built a huge facility for plutonium production at Hanford in south central Washington State, an arid, desolate area on the banks of the Columbia River.

During the war, the Hanford nuclear facility attracted tens of thousands of workers from scientists and engineers to skilled workers and laborers. Except for a few project leaders, workers did not know the goal of their intense work at the plant until an atomic bomb fueled with Hanford-produced plutonium incinerated most of the Japanese city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. That “Fat Man” bomb killed at least 80,000 people—mostly civilians—and injured many others. Three days earlier, on August 6, Hiroshima had been destroyed by a uranium-fueled bomb.

After the war, scientists determined that plutonium was a more efficient fuel for nuclear weapons than uranium. Hanford became the hub for the production of plutonium, the fuel for all of the nuclear weapons produced during the Cold War. 

After the raucous early work camp was shut down in 1944, the operators of Hanford lived in what historian Kate Brown calls the government-created and highly-subsidized “Plutopia” of Richland, Washington, where highly-paid workers and their families were provided first-rate education, health care, and other amenities. In this arrangement, workers produced the extremely dangerous plutonium and the government kept their work secret.

When the Cold War waned in the 1980s, plutonium production stopped at Hanford. The mission then shifted to environmental cleanup and restoration. Today, the facility continues to make news, especially on health concerns and the progress of the massive clean-up.

In his lively and lucid new book Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age (W.W. Norton), acclaimed author Steve Olson blends history and science to tell the story of plutonium and of the massive production facility at Hanford. He details how the nuclear facility was created and how it shaped the story of the region and the nation. And he persuasively argues that Hanford is the most important site of the nuclear age.

Mr. Olson’s new book is based on extensive research and travels to Hanford and other US site, as well as to Nagasaki—a trip that contributed to his vivid and moving description of the bombing 75 years ago and its horrific aftermath. 

Mr. Olson chronicles this nuclear era history through human stories from survivors of the bombing to the great nuclear scientists and military leaders as well as the humble laborers and citizens of the Hanford area. A native of eastern Washington, he presents a unique perspective on the immense Hanford facility that altered world history. 

Mr. Olson is an award-winning, Seattle-based science writer. His other books include Eruption: The Untold Story of Mount St. Helens (Winner of the Washington State Book Award);  Mapping Human History: Genes, Race, and Our Common Origins (a finalist for the National Book Award and recipient of the Science-in-Society Award from the National Association of Science Writers); Count Down: Six Kids Vie for Glory at the World’s Toughest Math Competition (named a best science book of 2004 by Discover magazine); and, with co-author with Greg Graffin, Anarchy Evolution. His articles have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Science, Smithsonian, The Washington Post, Scientific American, and many other periodicals. Mr. Olson also has served as a consultant writer for the National Academy of Sciences and National Research Council; the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology; the National Institutes of Health; and many other organizations. 

Mr. Olson generously responded to a series of questions in a conversation by email.


Robin Lindley: Congratulations Steve on your new book on plutonium and Hanford. What inspired your new book? Did it grow out of your childhood in Eastern Washington or your past research on the many topics that you’ve explored in your writing?

Steve Olson: Several things had to come together for me to begin working on this book, but I doubt I would have started it if I hadn’t grown up in Othello, Washington, just 15 miles away from the nearest reactor at Hanford. We couldn’t see Hanford from Othello, because it was on the other side of a ridgeline from us. But we knew it was there, behind barbed wire fences and heavily guarded.

Also, I’ve always been interested in science, even when I was a kid, so I grew up wondering what went on at Hanford. And then, in 1983, when I was living in Washington, DC, a magazine editor sent me to Hanford to write a story about nuclear power, and I decided in the middle of that trip that I wanted to write a book about the place someday.

Robin Lindley: How did you and your family and friends think about Hanford when you were in grade school and high school?

Steve Olson: I grew up in Othello in the 1960s and early 1970s, and Hanford at that time was still an extremely secretive place. People had known since the end of World War II that it make plutonium for nuclear weapons, but they didn’t know much more than that. My grandfather was an occasional steamfitter at Hanford. But workers at the plant had to agree not to tell even their family members what they did.

Robin Lindley: Your book is wide-ranging, from the discovery of plutonium to the story of Hanford and the wartime use of plutonium to nuclear waste cleanup efforts today. How did your book evolve from your initial conception?

Steve Olson: Not long after I decided to someday write a book about Hanford, Richard Rhodes published his incredible book The Making of the Atomic Bomb. That book had a big influence on my thinking about what became The Apocalypse Factory.

I always wanted to tell the whole story of the nuclear age, from the discovery of fission and plutonium to the present day. But to make the book manageable, I knew that I had to tell the story from a particular perspective, so I chose to tell it largely through the lens of the people associated with Hanford’s construction, operation, and decommissioning.

Robin Lindley: What was your research process for the book? Did do archival work and interviews the major figures you discuss? Did you find any surprises?

Steve Olson: I did almost every kind of research I can imagine doing -- interviews, archival research, multiple days spent in Hanford and the surrounding area, trips to places like Oak Ridge and Nagasaki, and huge amounts of reading (I didn’t anticipate how much reading I would have to do). 

I was surprised by how much new material I found, even on a topic that many others have written about. Some of it is trivial, like the fact that Fermi built his first reactor in a racquets court rather than a squash court. But some is much more important. I make the claim, for instance, that the Manhattan Project would not have happened if Glenn Seaborg hadn’t discovered plutonium a few months before Pearl Harbor, which is a claim that hasn’t been made before. That’s the advantage of telling the story from the perspective of Hanford. Things that seem puzzling about previous historical accounts suddenly become clear.

Robin Lindley: Your writing on the experiments with uranium and the discovery of plutonium is vivid and engaging. You cover this history of radiation and nuclear physics from the time of the Curies to the work with atomic weaponry. The speed of development of atomic weapons was breathtaking.

Steve Olson: Maybe the most exciting thing I discovered in writing the book is how many scientific developments had to occur in relatively quick succession to make atomic bombs possible. The scientific story of plutonium’s discovery is amazingly compelling -- and also idiosyncratic. 

If you ran history again, it would almost certainly not work out the way it did. I’m glad you liked the scientific descriptions, because that section of the book used to be about twice as long. But my editor at W. W. Norton, Alane Mason, argued that readers would not be eager to plow through that much science before Hanford even appeared on the scene, and I struggled mightily to cut that material down.

Robin Lindley: Nuclear chemist Glenn Seaborg is credited with discovering plutonium and is a major figure in your book. What are a few things you’d like readers to know about him and his discovery?

Steve Olson: Many readers, I think, will feel a special affinity with Glenn Seaborg -- I certainly did. He was from a small town, was fascinated with science as a boy, worked his way into world-leading scientific institutions through perseverance and good judgment, and suddenly found himself in a position to change the course of world history. The discovery of plutonium in 1941 was not at all preordained. If Seaborg hadn’t had the knowledge and experiences that he did, plutonium might not have been discovered for several more years, and the Manhattan Project might not have happened. Counterfactuals are impossible to construct reliably, of course. But a historical account of its discovery makes clear how improbable this particular course of events was.

Robin Lindley: When did US nuclear scientists first realize that a world-altering weapon of war could be made from uranium and later plutonium? 

Steve Olson: The full awareness grew on them gradually, even if the path ahead seems clear in retrospect. Not long after the discovery of fission around Christmastime of 1938, scientists realized that an atomic bomb should be possible if enough of a rare isotope of uranium could be separated from uranium ore -- a process that seemed so daunting that the physicist Niels Bohr once said “it would take the entire efforts of a country to build a bomb.” 

But the realization that plutonium also could be used to make an atomic bomb took place slowly after Seaborg and his graduate student assistant first isolated the element on February 24, 1941. A committee at the National Academy of Sciences -- where I’ve worked as a consultant writer for the past 40 years -- considered the issue in three reports issued over the last half of 1941, and you can see the committee’s position change as the prospects for a plutonium bomb grew brighter.

Robin Lindley: A big part of your story is of how Hanford was chosen as the site for producing plutonium and how the nuclear facility there shaped history. What were the major considerations in choosing Hanford for this huge facility?

Steve Olson: I start the book with the selection of the Hanford site. In December 1942, a colonel from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer named Fritz Matthias was sent to the western United States to look for a place to build the world’s first large-scale nuclear reactors, which is what you need to produce enough plutonium for atomic bombs. He took a list with him of the necessary site characteristics: water and electricity for cooling the reactors, a rail line to transport equipment and chemicals, and enough isolation to limit casualties if one of the reactors blew up. As soon as he flew over the Horse Heaven Hills in south-central Washington State and saw the arid and sparsely populated plain that lies within a broad bend of the Columbia River just southwest of Othello, with powerlines from the Grand Coulee dam running through the site and a spur line from the Milwaukee Road, he knew he’d found what he was looking for.

Robin Lindley: How did Hanford fit into the overall development of nuclear weapons in the Manhattan Project?

Steve Olson: Hanford produced the plutonium for the first nuclear explosion in human history -- the Trinity test that was carried out in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima used uranium produced at the Oak Ridge facility in Tennessee, but that was a technological one-off -- almost no bombs of that design were ever built again.

The Nagasaki bomb, and future bombs then in the pipeline, were designed to use plutonium from Hanford. Along with a second facility built later in South Carolina, Hanford produced the plutonium that is used as a trigger in all the current nuclear weapons in the U.S. arsenal. That’s why I call my book The Apocalypse Factory. If the plutonium from Hanford is ever used in a large-scale nuclear war, human civilization will probably end.

Robin Lindley: How did the US government deal with residents of the area including Native Americans in taking possession of the land for the Hanford facility?

Steve Olson: Callously, at best. The 1,500 or so residents of the area that would become Hanford all received a letter saying that the government was taking over their property and that they had a few weeks to a few months to move elsewhere. They were horrified, though many later said that they also felt a patriotic obligation to comply. But then the government tried to pay them much less for their land than it was worth, which set off new rounds of acrimony. 

Meanwhile, the land in that area had been used for millennia by various groups of Native Americans, including the Wanapum, who were the group closest to Hanford. Though they retained some rights to visit the land during World War II, they subsequently lost those rights. The Wanapum were treated as badly as Native Americans were all over the West.

Robin Lindley: Historian Kate Brown called Richland the biggest welfare program in US history. How did Hanford evolve from a rowdy work camp of mostly single men to a community of middle-class families in Richland? 

Steve Olson: I would characterize Richland, at least in the early days, as a kind of military installation or base, though one dressed up in the garb of a small American town. When people moved to Hanford, they went to work as employees of the large companies that had contracted with the government to build and operate Hanford. Military officials oversaw the companies and the town’s residents, and those officials felt that they had to provide a semblance of normalcy for people to do their jobs well and compliantly. The town depended on the government for its survival, but the handouts were indirect and targeted.

Robin Lindley: Apart from some high-ranking officials, the workers at Hanford didn’t know that their work would result in a plutonium bomb that would eventually incinerate much of Nagasaki, Japan. How was secrecy maintained on this massive project that employed hundreds of workers?

Steve Olson: The security was astonishing. I know, since my grandfather and some of my high school friends worked there. While building the reactors, crafts workers would know what they were doing but not what anyone else was doing. Workers climbing a ladder would have to show clearances to prove that they belonged higher up on a ladder rather than lower down. Billboards, water towers, and fliers were plastered with the phrase “Silence Means Security.” If people talked too much, informants among the workers would alert their superiors, and the talkers would be reprimanded or terminated. Even after most of the security restrictions came down at Hanford, the old sentiments prevailed.

Robin Lindley: On August 6, 1945, the US dropped its first atomic bomb, a uranium device, on Hiroshima. On August 9, Hanford’s plutonium bomb fell on Nagasaki. However, Nagasaki wasn’t the original target. What did you learn about the change in plans and the phrase, “Kokura’s luck”?

Steve Olson: Nagasaki was the backup target on the second bombing mission, and it was added to the target list in an amazingly capricious way. On July 24, the generals in charge of the atomic bombings in Washington, DC, received a message to add Nagasaki to the bombing list from air forces chief Henry Arnold, who was with President Truman at the Potsdam Conference. Nagasaki was not an obvious target, and no one knows who at the conference insisted that it be included in the list, but the generals in DC complied. 

Then, the day of the mission -- which had all kinds of things go wrong -- the primary target, Kokura Arsenal, was covered by clouds and smoke by the time the B-29 containing Fat Man arrived at the city. The Bockscar, which was piloted by 25-year-old Charles Sweeney, made three runs on Kokura, but the crew were never able to see the target and drop the bomb. Thus, the phrase that is still associated with the city: the luck of Kokura.

Robin Lindley: Your description of the Nagasaki through the eyes of a Japanese doctor and other witnesses is vivid and heartbreaking. What was the scope of the destruction in Nagasaki and the casualties?

Steve Olson: I did my best to describe the devastation and human carnage, but there’s no replacement for going to Nagasaki or Hiroshima and reconstructing in your mind what an atomic bomb can do to a city and its people. The Urakami Valley of Nagasaki is several miles wide and eight or ten miles long, yet almost everything in the central part of the valley was destroyed. 

My own sentiment is that any national leader who has the authority to drop atomic bombs should be required to go either to Nagasaki or to Hiroshima and witness the scale of destruction that the bombs caused. And those two bombs were very small by today’s standard!

Robin Lindley: What were the medical consequences of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki? 

Steve Olson: Casualties at both Nagasaki and Hiroshima are surprisingly hard to estimate. But deaths caused by the Nagasaki bombing could have exceeded 100,000. Tens of thousands of people were killed by the initial blast and fire. Tens of thousands more died in the succeeding days, weeks, and months from the radiation generated by the bomb. And tens of thousands more died prematurely in later years from cancers and other diseases caused by their radiation exposure. And this is just a small example of what would happen if nuclear weapons are ever used in warfare again.

Robin Lindley: You mentioned that you traveled to Nagasaki as part of your research. How did it feel to visit there?

Steve Olson: I spent a week in Nagasaki reconstructing the minutes, hours, weeks, and months after the bombing through the eyes of a surgeon at the Nagasaki Medical College Hospital named Raisuke Shirabe. I traced his steps in the hills above the hospital as he fled from the burning city. I had parts of his diary translated into English. I met with his daughter and granddaughter and talked with them about Dr. Shirabe, who subsequently spent decades studying the effects of the bomb on the city’s residents. It was the most emotionally affecting research I’ve ever done for a book.

Robin Lindley: How do you see President Harry Truman’s role in deciding to use atomic bombs? Wasn’t there disagreement on whether to use a second bomb?

Steve Olson: Leslie Groves, the leader of the Manhattan Project, who is one of the central characters of my book, once said that Truman was like “a boy on a toboggan” when it came to making decisions about the use of atomic bombs on Japan. Truman generally distanced himself from the decision making. He never made a formal decision to use the bombs. The course was set by Groves, and Groves wanted to use two or more bombs to end the war quickly. He had the additional motivation of wanting to demonstrate that both of the approaches he had backed -- uranium from Oak Ridge, and plutonium from Hanford -- worked so that he would not have to answer to congressional committees for wasting government funds.

Robin Lindley: Manufacture of nuclear weapons picked up during the first couple of decades after the Second World War as the Cold War with the Soviet Union heightened. The nuclear weapons built after the war were fueled by plutonium so Hanford became a busy production facility. Why was plutonium preferable for bombs as opposed to uranium—as used in the Hiroshima bomb?

Steve Olson: Plutonium produces significantly more energy, pound for pound, than uranium. In modern nuclear weapons, a small pit of plutonium is detonated to create temperatures high enough so that isotopes of hydrogen in other parts of the bomb begin to fuse together, which releases much more energy than the original plutonium bomb. Essentially, every nuclear weapon in the U.S. and Russian arsenals is built around a small version of the Nagasaki bomb.

Robin Lindley: What was Hanford used for once production of nuclear weapons slowed? Didn’t plutonium production end there in the 1980’s?

Steve Olson: By the 1970s, both the United States and Soviet Union had more plutonium than they would ever need. Each country had built more than 30,000 nuclear weapons, representing more than a million times the destructive power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the insane size of these arsenals began to drop, and the excess plutonium was set aside either to use in future weapons or to be disposed of. Since then, most activities at Hanford have been directed toward cleaning up the horrendous environmental contamination caused by decades of plutonium production.

Robin Lindley: What have you learned about environmental damage caused by the Hanford nuclear plant?

Steve Olson: Hanford is the most radiologically contaminated place in the western hemisphere, matched only by the comparable site in the former Soviet Union. One hundred and seventy-seven tanks, most the size of a large auditorium, contain millions of gallons of highly radioactive and toxic chemicals generated in the process of producing plutonium. If you held a glass of that material at arm’s length, you’d be dead in a couple of minutes. 

The Department of Energy has made lots of progress in cleaning up Hanford, but it has just begun to deal with the tank waste. Current plans are to immobilize the waste in glass logs and deposit them in a long-term radioactive waste repository. But the technology has been difficult to develop, and the United States has not yet created a repository for the high-level nuclear wastes it has generated.

Robin Lindley: Is the US now making nuclear weapons?

Steve Olson: The United States and Russia are no longer adding to the size of their arsenals. But they are modernizing and miniaturizing their nuclear weapons, which could have the effect of making them easier to use, and if the United States refuses to extend the New START treaty, which expires next February, nations are likely to start building more nuclear weapons. 

As I say in the book, we are going in the wrong direction. Every action we take should be directed toward constraining and ultimately eliminating these moral abominations.

Robin Lindley: To me, the issues of the Hanford cleanup are very complex and seem overwhelming, especially when scientists talk about the extremely toxic substances at the site and the 24,000-year half-life of plutonium. What is the status of the cleanup now and what needs to be done?

Steve Olson: As I said, the Department of Energy has made important progress. Most of the sites right along the Columbia River have been cleaned up, though they are still largely off limits to visitors. Most of the contaminated equipment and soil have been transferred to a plateau in the center of the site, which is also where the tanks of radioactive waste are located. But completing the cleanup, which the federal government is obligated to do, will take many more decades and will cost hundreds of billions more dollars.

Robin Lindley: Hanford and the Tri-Cities have benefited from huge federal government expenditures for more than 70 years, yet the populace seems to be largely conservative and anti-government. How do you see the politics in the region?

Steve Olson: It’s a great contradiction, as are so many aspects of our political life these days. The adjoining cities of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco, known as the Tri-Cities, were largely the creation of the federal government, and they remain heavily dependent on federal largess -- more than $2 billion per year flows to the area for the ongoing cleanup. But the area is generally conservative, even if many individuals and groups in the region are not. 

Many people think of the area as rural, even though the regional population is now more than 300,000. The population tends to skew white, older, and blue collar, since Hanford was for decades a production facility. 

I grew up surrounded by the conservative politics of the area, and they puzzled me even as a kid. I could see no obvious reason why people so distrusted government. I’m still puzzled. I’d like to write about it someday to try to understand it better.

Robin Lindley: You have a gift for bringing complex issues to life. Who are other writers you admire or see as influences? Are there rules you follow in your lucid writing about technical issues for a general audience?

Steve Olson: I dedicated this book to my wife and also to the memory of John Hersey, from whom I took a nonfiction writing course in college in the spring of 1978. All my books have been heavily influenced by what he taught me. He wanted us to pay attention to the structure of our writing, often by adopting a model that we would visualize in putting a story together. He taught us to pay attention to individual words -- we read poetry in his class to see how words fit together and acquire meaning from their context. 

John Hersey was also my personal connection to World War II.  He had been there in 1946 doing research to write his book Hiroshima.  Now I was in Japan 72 years later doing historical research in the other city destroyed by an atomic bomb.

It’s very kind of you to say that I have a gift for writing, but I see whatever success I’ve achieved as solely the result of practice and determination.

Robin Lindley: You deal with world shaking events in your book, and we are still faced with the threat of nuclear annihilation and an intractable nuclear waste mess, and now a novel virus that is devastating much of the nation. As an acclaimed writer and astute observer, where do you find hope?

Steve Olson: I remain a hopeful person, even though writing a book about nuclear weapons can beat the hope right out of you. But humans have not used nuclear weapons in warfare, as of August 9, for three-quarters of a century. Until recently, the United States and Russia were making steady reductions in their arsenals. 

Many people who have been or could in the future be in positions of authority recognize the need to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth. And the ongoing cleanup of Hanford gives me hope. As I wrote in the book, “Hanford’s cleanup, if done persistently and well, could provide an object lesson in making the Earth whole again.”

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add about your new book or your writing for readers?

Steve Olson: Learning what happened at Hanford is, I think, the best possible way to learn about the nuclear age and what can be done to abolish nuclear weapons. I tried to write this book so that readers would end it with a sense of both understanding and purpose.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Steve for your generosity and thoughtful comments. And congratulations on your sweeping new book on Hanford, plutonium, and much more. It’s an honor to connect with you.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
Fabrication and Fraud in the Lost Cause: Historian Adam Domby Interviewed




Adam Domby, an award-winning historian and specialist on the Civil War and Reconstruction, examines the role of lies and exaggeration in the Lost Cause narratives and their celebration of white supremacy in his timely and groundbreaking new book The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (University of Virginia Press, 2020). 


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, Re-Markings, 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:


Members of the Minneapolis Police Department killed George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, on May 25, 2020. The shockingly brutal 8 minute and 46 second televised asphyxiation of Mr. Floyd sparked nationwide outrage and protests against police brutality and the many forms of systemic racism.

Mr. Floyd’s death also led to renewed efforts to remove Confederate monuments that celebrate slavery, treason, white supremacy, and racism. In several cities, public officials or protesters removed these memorials. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported in 2018 that more than 1,700 monuments to the Confederacy stood in public places. Many remain.

As the president shares racist talking points and vows to protect all memorials, including the Confederate tributes, many Americans are learning more about their history, particularly about the cruelty of slavery, the treason of the South to defend this brutal enterprise, the postwar defeat of Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era of rigid segregation and disenfranchisement of Black citizens.

The Confederate monuments were constructed as reminders to white citizens of their supposed racial superiority while they were meant to intimidate and even terrorize Black people and keep them subservient. Most of these statues were erected in the first two decades of the twentieth century and later during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the fifties and sixties. The monuments are points of discord as they dishonor the Black and white soldiers who died for the Union, while they demean and disregard the humanity of Black people.

The monuments that sentimentalize Confederate heroes who lost the war convey the Lost Cause myth of the Confederacy, a narrative that romanticizes slavery as benevolent as it recalls Confederate soldiers as gallant and chivalrous, rebel leaders as saintly, the South solidly united against Northern aggression, and Reconstruction as corrupt. Above all, the Lost Cause myth is built on a belief in the superiority of the white race and the need to forcibly control and subjugate Black people. 

Professor Adam Domby, an award-winning historian and specialist on the Civil War and Reconstruction, examines the role of lies and exaggeration in the Lost Cause narratives and their celebration of white supremacy in his timely and groundbreaking new book The False Cause: Fraud, Fabrication, and White Supremacy in Confederate Memory (University of Virginia Press, 2020). 


In his book, Professor Domby debunks the romantic Confederate myths by exposing the cruelty and barbarity of slavery; the ambivalence of many Confederate troops; the high rate of Confederate desertion; the extent of Union sympathizers in the South; the rise of Jim Crow; the brutal violence against Blacks; the monuments erected to intimidate Black citizens; the many lies about war service by white Southerners to claim veterans’ pensions; the myth of Black Confederates; and more. 


Professor Domby’s book reveals that much of our understanding of the Civil War remains influenced by falsehoods of the Lost Cause, lies perpetuated in popular movies such as the silent classic The Birth of a Nation and the lavish Gone with the Wind. As a historian, he sees an obligation to share the reality of history and put to rest longtime falsehoods that were used to justify white supremacy, Jim Crow segregation, and the disenfranchisement and subjugation of African Americans. 


Dr. Domby, an Assistant Professor at the College of Charleston, is an award-winning historian of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the American South. In addition to Civil War memory, lies, and white supremacy, Professor Domby has written about prisoners of war, guerrilla warfare, Reconstruction, divided communities, and public history. He received his MA and PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after receiving his BA from Yale University.

Professor Domby generously discussed his work and his writing by telephone from Charleston, South Carolina.


Robin Lindley: Thanks for speaking with me Professor Domby about your work as a historian and your new book, The False Cause, a debunking of myths about the Confederacy and the Lost Cause narrative. 

I understand that you’re dealing with many media inquiries, and it must be somewhat surprising how newsworthy your book has become with the increasing focus on our history of racism since the brutal police murder of George Floyd in May. It seems many Americans are rethinking our fraught past as our president doubles down on his racist rhetoric.

Professor Adam Domby: Yes. I wrote the book knowing that the Lost Cause memory obviously still mattered. And I wanted the book out by the 2020 election in part because of the appeals to Confederate symbols.  

I didn't necessarily expect the president himself to be quite so blatant as he's been. I also didn’t realize how many monuments were going to be suddenly removed. I knew the book was would be somewhat timely, but I did not expect to have at least one reporter calling me a day, if not more, for about a month this summer. I have talked to reporters before, but now it's very busy, and it definitely caught me a little off guard. 

I felt the book needed to be written because it relates to the present issues. The historical narratives that these monuments are supporting are fundamentally undergirding systemic racism. And, so long as we have these falsely propagated narratives of history, the harder it will be to dismantle systemic racism. I see it as the start of a longer process—of first correcting the historical narratives so that we can actually address the ramifications of what has happened historically. 

Robin Lindley: You mention in the epilogue of your book that historians have a duty to question false narratives and myth, and you do a masterful and carefully documented, point-by-point, debunking of the Lost Cause narrative. How did you got involved in this project? Did you grow up in the South? 

Professor Adam Domby: Yes. I was born and raised in Georgia. In fact, my childhood home was not far from where Sherman's headquarters was during the siege of Atlanta. And I always had an interest in the Civil War. I saw the movie Gettysburg as a kid, and I followed other stories of the war.

But I went to college being a math major. I thought I would get a degree in math and that lasted all of one semester. I was fortunate that, on a whim, I took a class called “Wilderness and the North American Imagination” that was taught by Aaron Sachs, and I really liked this class. I picked another class that he was teaching, and that led me to eventually major in history. During college, I initially thought I’d be a colonial historian, but I fell in love with the Civil War again when I took a class with David Blight and started to see things that I had grown up learning in new ways. 

I grew up in a region where the Confederacy was still often romanticized. So it was eye-opening for me to take a Civil War class and additional seminars on memory that presented a different view of the war.

I hadn’t decided yet to be a professional historian. I was going to be a park ranger. I worked as a park ranger for a while, and then left that, worked in politics for a bit, and then decided to attend graduate school. Even then, I didn't think I'd write about Confederate monuments. I planned to write on prisoners of war. But, in my first year of grad school, I stumbled upon a document while working on a term paper, and that document sort of launched me on this process. The document was a [1913] dedication speech by Julian Carr for a Confederate monument [at the University of North Carolina]. 

I didn't realize at the time how important that speech would be in shaping my own future. I thought this was an opportunity to teach people a little bit about Jim Crow. But I put it out there and activists took it and ran with it, really educating people about these monuments. I didn't really think about social activism, and I didn't fully appreciate yet the impact these monuments have on students and faculty of color who have to walk by them. That only came later. I saw this as a side project, maybe for some articles in the future. 

I had two articles that I wanted to write. One was all about white supremacy and memory and the other was about lies and memory. And then I looked at those projects and it eventually dawned on me that this was actually the same project. The lies were part of the monuments and the white supremacy aspect was tied to the monuments and the Confederate fraud. 

I arrived at the College of Charleston just after the Mother Emanuel terror attack here. And then the 2016 election of Donald Trump led me to put aside my dissertation project and focus full time on this project. This was a book I felt was important to have out there that would be useful to people who are having to engage neo-Confederates to show how this Lost Cause narrative was propagated and continues to be propagated. I think it has something both for the public and for other scholars. 

Although it seems timely on some level, I did not realize how timely it would become, until it came out. I was actually worried it would come out too late. I really was hoping to have it out before the primary elections, but it turned out to be perfect timing. 

Robin Lindley: You begin your book with a description of the Silent Sam monument and that speech of Julian Carr, who you researched. From your book, it seems that Carr was a grandiose conman who misled people about his background as he celebrated the Confederacy. What did this Silent Sam statue represent to him?

Professor Adam Domby: Silent Sam was a Confederate monument put up by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.  It came up at the same time as all those Confederate monuments at city halls and courthouses. In fact, this statue at Chapel Hill is across the street from a courthouse and Post Office, so it’s central in the town. It was put up in 1913, and other colleges have similar monuments such as the University of Mississippi. Increasingly they're being removed because they were put up at a time when the schools were segregated and there were no Black students at the time. Making Black students feel welcome was the opposite of what college leadership wanted to do at the time. These monuments were put up explicitly to celebrate white men and to teach white supremacy to the next generation. 

The state's future leaders and the next generation were being trained at UNC, according to Carr, and he wanted them to learn to be white supremacists. That's basically what he said. And this monument was meant to celebrate the success of overturning Reconstruction. And something we often forget about the Lost Cause is that it wasn’t just about how we remember the war. It's also about how we remember the antebellum era and how we remember the era after the war. 

You might say the Lost Cause narrative includes history all the way to the present. It’s an evolving memory of course, but the memory that they wanted and still want.  

Robin Lindley: How did Carr embrace the Lost Cause narrative? 

Professor Adam Domby: The Carr speech was unremarkable at the time, despite the fact that he was saying that Silent Sam was a monument to white supremacy. His speech was so unremarkable that the newspapers did not carry any note of it other than that he gave a speech and he had given so many speeches before. They ran the governor's speech and a few other speeches given that weekend, some of which also hinted at white supremacy, but the Carr speech was largely forgotten with a few exceptions because he'd given so many similar speeches. The only thing that stands out from this one was the statement he makes about his personal part. To Carr, this was a monument devoted to celebrating the overturning of gains that African Americans had made, and this was in the aftermath of the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Carr wanted to celebrate that North Carolina was now a controlled by whites. He was helping create the solid South. It didn't exist in 1876. It was created by disenfranchisement largely and aided by false narrative of history. 

Robin Lindley: What would you like readers to know about the major aspects of the Lost Cause narrative?

Professor Adam Domby: The first is the denial of the cause of the war. Denying the central role of slavery is crucial for the Lost Cause myth because, if you fought a war for slavery, you were a loser. If you fought a war for states' rights and it's 1901 and state's rights still exist and are constantly being cited as a reason why the federal government shouldn't intervene in disenfranchisement, then you're a victor. In fact, you can be celebrated by continuing the fight for segregation, and you were a hero for segregation as well. This was overtly making Confederate soldiers into white heroes of white supremacy while also stopping them from being the losers. 

Lost Cause narratives also remember slavery as benevolent, while simultaneously remembering Reconstruction as a time of corrupt African-Americans and carpetbagger. The benevolent slavery aspect brings this idea that there were happy slaves. But slaves were actually brutally terrorized into labor. That is what slavery does. But in this false memory there was a time when the races got along, and everyone was happy before the war, and only the intervention of Northerners during Reconstruction caused poor race relations in the South. And by this narrative, disenfranchisement of African Americans can be seen as not the cause of race relations being strained but as the cure for it instead. To be clear, Reconstruction was also not a time of exceptional corruption.

Similarly, Confederate soldiers are remembered as the most heroic and devoted soldiers of all time who were only defeated due to overwhelming manpower. The problem with this, of course, is the high levels of desertion in North Carolina and other states. 

The conduct of the war is another aspect of the Lost Cause that is often overlooked.  How do we remember the conduct when we ignore racial massacres? Race and racism shaped every aspect of the war: how the war was fought and how that shaped Confederate strategy. So, with the Lost Cause, these Confederate soldiers are rewritten as noble men, despite what they fought for, how they fought, and that they in participated in racial massacres. 

And, returning this narrative of history, the lie is not just used to remember Confederate soldiers well, but to justify Jim Crow as a system, to defend Jim Crow, and to support Jim Crow. To me, that’s the central key to this whole thing. All of these lies are holding up the biggest lie of all: that races are different in that one race is better than the other. That that's the big lie at the top. 

Robin Lindley: Thanks for that explanation Professor Domby. When I was in grade school and high school in late fifties and early sixties it seems that these myths were the view reflected in our history textbooks. I grew up in Spokane Washington, and our texts shared a romanticized view of the South and slavery, and stressed the failures of Reconstruction.

Professor Adam Domby: It's a narrative that became the norm and was pushed very much. In the South, this Lost Cause version was appreciated as a way of defending the South from Northern intervention. That narrative of history allows you to also say that race relations in the South are a Southern issue. That's the message of the Lost Cause. Whereas, if you have a more accurate version and you're living in Washington, you might think, maybe we should intervene. Instead, this was all about convincing and exporting the views of the South to the North and West. 

Robin Lindley: And also, I think, so publishers could sell the same books in the North and South. Your book is very timely. The president has been criticized by many for seeming to care more about these monuments to dead racists and traitors than he cares about living Americans. 

Professor Adam Domby: Especially the lives of Black Americans. It's worth pointing out whose lives he cares least about. It’s true that many Americans are dying right now due to Covid-19, but communities of color are impacted at much higher rates of infection and death. 

He also ignores that police violence is similarly disproportionately borne by African Americans. And Trump is not a historical rarity. We see the same thing in Julian Carr’s language back in the early 20th century when Carr said, “lynching is bad but. . .”  There should be no “but” at the end of the statement, because lynching is bad. We should be able to stop there, but he didn’t. He said lynching is bad but, until all white women feel safe themselves, we can't even address it. For Julian Carr, the lives of Black men were less important than white women feeling comfortable. This seems reminiscent of Trump’s appeals to suburbia.  

The statement Black Lives Matter is so important right now because historically Black lives had been viewed by those in power as less important than things like monuments and every white woman feeling entirely safe at all times. 

We see something similar now with Trump as he focuses on monuments while ignoring the underlying meaning as a way of signaling either on purpose or not. But we're seeing that signaling again and again, and the roots of that racism are not new. 

Robin Lindley: Thanks for pointing out the meaning of Black Lives Matter. After all this time, some people are still confused. You mention in your book that, when many of us read about Southerners, we immediately think only of white men while ignoring most of the other people there, particularly the non-white people. I do that at times.

Professor Adam Domby: I'm guilty of that myself. I think we all are. I think you'd be hard pressed to find a history teacher in this country, even a historian of the South, who doesn't occasionally mess that up when they're in class or writing. When I finished the book, one of the last things I did was go through and check every time I used the word “Southerner” and I caught myself multiple times in that final rewrite where I said Southerner when I meant white Southerner. It's short hand that we grew up with. That's what happens when you live in a society that is built around systemic racism. You don't realize you're inviting it, so it requires conscious effort to avoid these mistakes. 

Robin Lindley: What do you think should happen with the symbols of the Lost Cause such as the Confederate statues and monuments? 

Professor Adam Domby: The first thing I would say is that my own views are constantly evolving. One of the things that I've learned by talking to colleagues and students who are Black is that I can't fully appreciate the harm done by these symbols when they're seen by a person of color or a Black person. The closest I can imagine, and this is not the same, is my visceral reaction when I see a swastika, and I'm of Jewish descent. Another historian of the South phrased it like this: So, when I see a Confederate monument, it doesn't insult my personhood in what it says, but it insults my principles, which is a very different experience than if I were Black.

It’s important for us to realize the harm that these monuments do, and it’s very hard for a white person to appreciate it. A white person must listen and hear what harm is done by these monuments and what message these monuments represent, whether or not they believe that's what the monuments were meant for. With symbols send messages, there's always a subtext. The same goes for the Confederate flag. So I think that's the first thing to remember. 

The second thing to remember is that, when it comes to monuments, I don’t think I’m the most important person to ask. One of the things that I see is that these monuments were put up in an incredibly undemocratic fashion. I think that there isn't anything wrong with allowing communities to decide what to do with them. If they decide they want to put them in a museum, that’s on them. If they decide they want to try contextualization, that's on them. If they decide to pull the thing down and leave it broken in the park, that might be the best solution for them. 

In some ways, I feel like my job is to give the context of the monuments that allows communities to decide what to do about it. I try usually to avoid giving an opinion about what to do with monuments, except when the monuments are in communities that I've lived in. That being said, I think that these monuments are tools of racial oppression at times, as when they stand in front of a courthouse. And so those are especially problematic, and I don't think that they teach history.

Robin Lindley: And what should happen with the Confederate flag?

Professor Adam Domby: I think the Confederate flag has no place being put in front of schools or public buildings. It is a symbol that was from its creation designed to intimidate Black people and to celebrate white supremacy. From its earliest days, the flag was tied to white supremacy and that meaning has only grown over time. [Former Republican Governor] Nikki Haley liked to say that the symbol was appropriated. It wasn't appropriated by white supremacists. It was already owned by them. It just became even more so. 

It’s important for us to remember that fixing the narrative is the starting point to undoing systemic racism. It's not the endpoint to take down the monuments, but it is also not just a symbolic act because it undermines the Lost Cause, which upholds white supremacy. It’s more than a symbolic act because having a democratic landscape that is welcoming to all impacts how the next generation learns about how to understand who's worthy of admiration and what values we should emulate, and who we want to emulate. But it doesn't solve the problems society faces. 

Some political figures are perhaps hoping that, if we just remove the monument, the problem goes away. But the problem is still there. The problem is systemic racism. Getting rid of the monuments is a first step in being able to understand the sin of racism. And so long as you believe the Lost Cause, people will be able to claim with a straight face that systemic racism doesn't exist.

You literally have Republican politicians right now saying that systemic racism is not a thing and that these monuments teach history and have nothing to do with slavery. So long as you have that message going forward, I don't see this [monument removal] as solely symbolic action because the narrative they are upholding is both false and justifying white supremacy.

I would love to see a democratic process and see communities discuss and decide as a group where everyone has a say, but the reality of the situation is that Southern legislatures have made that nearly impossible. And so, perversely, what you have going on is that heritage acts are leading to the destruction of monuments because there is no democratic process. What do people do instead when all legal means are exhausted? There's only one option: they resort to extra-legal means. 

And the process has the potential also to be educational. I saw in Charleston over the last five years that the city has learned about the history of John C. Calhoun through debates, and that's the history that wasn't there when he was just a monument. In the process of removal, people were able to learn something. That being said, that it took five years is both upsetting and surprising. It should have been quicker perhaps but I am also a little surprised it didn’t take longer. 

I would love to see our landscape be one that is welcoming to all. That is more important than using monuments to teach history. I thought for a long time, that Silent Sam and other statues had the potential to be a teaching tool. I could use them to teach about Jim Crow and white supremacy, and racial violence during Reconstruction. And I thought that for longer than I should have. 

But I knew there was no going back when avowed white supremacists started showing up on the UNC campus to “protect” the monument. That's when I had the realization that this monument was making students of color and myself feel unsafe. And I don't need monuments to teach Jim Crow. I don't even need a picture of them. I can talk about it. But I can't teach about Jim Crow if my students and I can't get to the classroom safely. And to me that moment meant long term there was no solution that kept the monument on campus.

The other key thing that led me to shift my views was talking to students and faculty of color and listening to them, hearing them say that they would take a different route when they're going to Franklin Street [to avoid Silent Sam]. When they're walking through campus, they avoid that part of campus. Why are they doing that? The monument was harmful because students need to feel welcome on their campus. A fundamental aspect of being open to learning is to feel safe. It’s very hard to learn when you don't feel safe in that environment. 

Robin Lindley: It’s impressive that you consulted with Black students and Black faculty members on the Silent Sam statue at UNC. Now, with the current climate and the president's comments about race, people are learning more about history. 

Professor Adam Domby: I am not sure it is impressive. It seems UNC should have been doing that all along and they still aren’t. I don’t know about learning history, but with the president’s overt appeals to racism, it's become increasingly hard to deny racism as a problem in our society. 

There were plenty of people in the Obama era who wanted to say that racism is solved. We have a Black president. You will not find people on the left saying that anymore, but you will find people on the right saying that and pushing white supremacist talking points at the exact same time. Some are very clearly lying and are very clearly dog whistling at times. I think there's no question that, when the Trump administration does a lot of these actions, it's a purposeful dog whistle and becoming a foghorn.

Trump went to Mount Rushmore [on July 4, 2020] and announced his plan for a garden of heroes not including a single Native American [at this sacred Native American site]. And, if you look at the language of that executive order explicitly, it says it includes American citizens at the time of the action. If you look at who's considered an American citizen in the 19th century, Native Americans aren't included. Legally speaking, you cannot include Sacajawea who would be an easy choice. She's noncontroversial to whites as she helped white people; she's nonthreatening

The idea that America is a white nation is embodied in that historical narrative that Trump’s pushing. You'll also notice which African Americans are included. It's always whoever is perceived by the right as safe, at least in memory if not in reality, You have MLK, but you don't have Malcolm X. You have Frederick Douglas, but you don't have W.E.B. Du Bois. You have Booker T. Washington instead. You have Frederick Douglas, but you don't have Nat Turner. So, you have safe individuals. A lot of conservatives love to quote MLK and present themselves as being racially progressive. 

Robin Lindley: And they ignore the last three years of Dr. King’s life when he talked about militarism, materialism, racism and economic injustice. 

Professor Adam Domby. They also forgot what happened to him. He said all these great things, and then he got shot and killed. 

When we look at these larger questions of monuments and memory, again and again what we're seeing is that white supremacy is alive and well. And the narratives in history are being used to either signal or overtly state who belongs and who doesn't, who's included and who’s not. When Trump says we’re trying to celebrate our heritage, he's not talking about the heritage of Native Americans or the heritage of Black Americans. He's saying that heritage is about white Americans because it's a concerted, exclusionary perspective. I think that his speechwriter, who presumably was Stephen Miller, did it on purpose. Even though he knew exactly what he was dealing with, he chose to not have a single Native American on that list. The surprise to me is Phil Sheridan and George Custer weren’t on there. 

Robin Lindley: Yes, Custer didn’t make the final cut. Rev. William Barber recently mentioned that Trump focuses on statues but ignores issues of health care, education, economic inequality, and the cost of racism. 

Professor Adam Domby: It's a really important point that Barber made and it’s worth reiterating time and time again: no monument is worth more than a single life. I don't care what the monument is to. I value the life of a human that's living far more than I value any monument to someone who's dead. The idea that you're going to shoot someone for tagging a monument screams that the life of a dead individual from the past is worth more than a current life is very telling. 

Robin Lindley: You stress the extreme violence against Blacks with the massacres of Black Union prisoners of war by Confederate troops during the Civil War, and the postwar lynching of Blacks by the KKK and violence of other vigilantes. How do these crimes and violence against Black Americans tie in with the Lost Cause narrative? 

Professor Adam Domby: We see what the Lost Cause narratives tell us and who we're supposed to celebrate. Why the police violence toward Black men and women is so much more than toward white men and women, has a long history. 

I like to use the example of Nathan Bedford Forrest who grew up in a slave society and worked as a slave trader. He made a fortune off separating families and, to him, that was perfectly acceptable. It was more important to separate families than to keep families together. Let's remember that he sold children away from their families because his bottom line was more important than their lives. When he saw an enslaved person who was out of line in his eyes, his immediate reaction was toward violence. 

And it's no surprise that, during the Civil War, when Forrest sees armed Black soldiers, his immediate reaction is to consider this a slave revolt. And that was the Confederacy's reaction. Jefferson Davis orders said that when they saw Black troops, that was considered a slave revolt. So Forrest was directly involved in murdering Black prisoners of war because, for him, that was the appropriate response. 

And then after the war, when you see African Americans asserting independence and not doing what Forrest wants, he joins in the Klan violence and passes that on to his grandson, Nathan Bedford Forrest II, who became a head of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and was a Klan leader as well. What he learned growing up in that family was that the appropriate response to African-American asserting independence or being out of line was violence. Values get passed on another generation, not just by people saying you should be racist, but by observing what your father does and what your grandfather does and remembering how he's celebrated after the fact. And Forrest is still celebrated, and so it's no surprise. Then when we move forward to the 1960s, you have Bull Connor in Alabama thinking that violence is the appropriate response to Black children asserting that they had rights. We saw him use dogs and fire hoses and billy clubs. That is a historical legacy of a learned behavior: that a quick reaction with violence is the appropriate way to maintain order. Connor understood violence as how to maintain the status quo. 

And so, it's no surprise that today that police disproportionately shoot African Americans because they grew up in a society which was the society that Bull Connor came out of, which came out of the society that Nathan Bedford Forrest II came out of, and that Nathan Bedford Forrest came out of. And so, this is a long, drawn out process. You talk about fighting against white supremacy. This doesn't end overnight. This is a process that will take generations. And, I'd love for us to be able to declare racism dead tomorrow, but I don't foresee it. 

Robin Lindley: Thanks for those powerful words Professor Domby. Have you read historian Professor Heather Cox Richardson’s new book, How the South Won the Civil War? 

Professor Adam Domby: It's a brilliant book There’s an old saying that the North won the war but the South won the peace. That is problematic. We must be clear. When we say the South won, what do we mean? We mean the white South, because Southerners also include Black legislators and governors and other as well. If you're talking about South Carolina, for instance, the vast majority of South Carolina was supporting the Union because the vast majority of South Carolinians were enslaved. 

Her book does a wonderful job explaining how we got to where we are today. I think it pairs quite nicely with my own book that looks at the underlying historical narratives of an ideology she studied. 

And our books bring the history to the present, unlike some earlier histories. Bringing the past into the present is actually important right now in this moment where the Lost Cause is present and white supremacy has seen a form of resurgence. And the tie to the president is something that historians should address, in my opinion. Some may say that is too presentist or too political. But you can’t ignore the fact that all of our history writing has an agenda. We all choose to write on topics because we think they matter. Being more upfront about it is actually the best solution. 

I appreciate that many books more recently directly tie into the present situation. I think there's a growing sense among historians that the act of writing history is political and, in the act of teaching of history, the narrative we choose is a political decision. And, to pretend it's not, is it in itself a political decision.  

Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Domby for your thoughtful and illuminating comments. And congratulations on your groundbreaking new book The False Cause on the myths of the Confederacy.

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
A Conversation with Seattle Author Dr. Lawrence Matsuda on His Debut Historical Novel "My Name is Not Viola"

Lawrence Matsuda portrait by Alfredo Arreguin




On December 7, 1941, forces of the Japanese Empire attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor and left hundreds of American military members and civilians dead or wounded. In response to the surprise attack, the United States declared war on Japan the next day. The attack on America inflamed anti-Japanese sentiment and hysteria that led to hate crimes, particularly on the West Coast, against aliens and US citizens of Japanese extraction—and those who looked like them.

Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s February 1942 Executive Order 9066, the US government forcibly removed 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry from their homes and incarcerated them in concentration camps.  Most of these interned people were kept in the camps until 1945, with the exception of early releases of a few, such as the valiant souls who volunteered to serve in the American armed forces, including members of the Japanese American 442nd Regiment that became the most decorated American unit of the war. Others were released to attend college or work in defense industries like munitions factories in areas away from the West Coast.

The unfortunate internees subjected to the harsh and dehumanizing conditions of the prison camps had committed no crime but were rounded up, dispossessed, and detained unconstitutionally based only on their ancestry and race. And about two-thirds of the internees were United States citizens. 

The detainees included Hanae and Ernest Matsuda who, with removal in 1942, lost their home and grocery business in Seattle. Like thousands of others, they were evacuated without due process and were incarcerated at the Minidoka concentration camp in Idaho where Hanae gave birth to two sons and a stillborn child.

Hanae and Ernest Matsuda’s youngest son Lawrence was born in 1945 in Block 26, Barrack 2, of Minidoka Camp. Their baby’s prisoner number was 11464d. 

Now Dr. Lawrence Matsuda, a renowned Seattle writer and human rights activist, brings to life his mother’s travails, traumas, and triumphs in mid-20th century America in his debut historical novel My Name is Not Viola. The events experienced by the fictional Hanae of the novel mirror actual incidents in the life of his mother including her girlhood in Seattle’s Japantown; her pre-war journey to Hiroshima, Japan; her removal from her Seattle home and incarceration at the brutal Minidoka concentration camp; her quest for Hiroshima relatives after the atomic obliteration of the city; her marital woes; her severe depression and incarceration at Western State Hospital, a psychiatric facility; her resilience grounded in Japanese and western beliefs; and her evolution as a force for good.

The novel captures the rhythm of life in Seattle’s Japantown, the unrelenting misery of internment at the Minidoka camp, and the pain and loss of internees as they returned home after the war to face dispossession and poverty. This history through the eyes of the fictional Hanae grips the reader with its lively writing and evocative imagery while sharing an important and heartbreaking chapter from our American experience. Yet it is also a story of hope and triumph despite recurrent traumas—and quite timely as we face an unprecedented pandemic and political crises today.

Dr. Matsuda is known in Seattle as a voice for social justice, equality, and tolerance. He is a former secondary school teacher, administrator, principal, and professor. He received an MA and PhD at the University of Washington.  

As a writer, Dr. Matsuda is most well-known for his poetry. His first book of poems, A Cold Wind from Idaho, was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2010. He has published two other books of poetry, one in collaboration with renowned American poet Tess Gallagher, as well as a graphic novel about the Second World War experiences of the Japanese American 442 Regimental Combat Team. Chapter one and two of that graphic novel were animated by the Seattle Channel and both won regional Emmys, one in 2015 and the other in 2016. His poems have appeared in many publications including Raven Chronicles, New Orleans Review, Floating Bridge Review, Poets Against the War website, Nostalgia Magazine, Plumepoetry, Surviving Minidoka (book), Meet Me at Higos (book), Minidoka-An American Concentration Camp (book and photographs), the Seattle Journal for Social Justice, and many others. And he co-edited the book Community and Difference: Teaching, Pluralism and Social Justice, winner of the 2006 National Association of Multicultural Education Phillip Chinn Book Award. 

And Dr. Matsuda continues to work tirelessly for a more just and tolerant nation.

He graciously talked about his new novel and his writing career by telephone from his home in Seattle.


Robin Lindley: You had a successful career as an educator, administrator, and professor. How did your “encore career” as a poet and writer come about? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: When I got my PhD, I decided to take something fun because the PhD was tough sledding and not always enjoyable. So, I took a poetry class from Nelson Bentley. 

Robin Lindley: He was a beloved professor at the University of Washington.

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. I enjoyed it a lot. I attended his class several times and read for the Castilla reading series for several years. He always encouraged me to publish my poetry. He was a good person and took great pride in having his students published. 

I moved my energy into poetry after my PhD, and continued to write poetry when I was working. Most of it was not great, but mediocre poetry. 

In about 2008, I decided to get good at poetry. I worked with Tess Gallagher. She helped me with my first book of poetry A Cold Wind from Idaho. I thought I was done because I had worked with some other people who helped. I gave the manuscript to my friend, the artist Alfredo Arreguin, and he said Tess Gallagher was coming to his house, and that he would show the book to her. Evidently, she was taken by the manuscript, but decided it needed revisions. She worked with me for about a year, mostly electronically. We finally met and I submitted to Black Lawrence Press as part of a contest. It didn't win first prize, but received honorable mention, and it was published in 2010. Currently more than 1,300 copies are in print.

Robin Lindley: Thanks for sharing that story. It’s wonderful that one of our great American poets, Tess Gallagher, helped launch your writing career. Now you've written this historical novel, My Name is Not Viola, based on the life of your mother. What sparked a novel at this time? Did you see it as a memoir for you as well as the story of your mother? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: It started as a play in the Minidoka [concentration camp] canteen where old guys were sitting around and talking in a general store--cracker barrel scene.

I decided that the play wasn't going anywhere. It was just talking, and it needed a little more action. So, I looked to my own life and I compared it to my mother's and my mother had a much better story. 

It's not a memoir because some of it is fiction, and it’s not an autobiography. It follows the same character in the first person from beginning to end. It’s a historic novel that looks very much like the memoir.

The bones of the novel are my mother’s story and that structure is true. My mother was born in the United States. She went to Japan and was educated there. She came back to the United States, and thengot married. She was incarcerated. And she went to a mental hospital. So, all the bones are true, and to add flesh, I borrowed some of the stories that she told me. I filled in the blanks and then, to move the story farther, I added stories that I heard from other people about Minidoka. 

I’ve made pilgrimages to Minidoka six or seven times. They have a story time when former internees talk about being there. I borrowed some of those stories, and then farther out, I brought in stories of my friends, and then way out farther it was just fiction. So, the book is historic fiction based on the general outline of my mother's life. 

What motivated me is, I have always thought that each person has a good story, and at least one novel. I decided I needed to write and find my one novel, but it wasn't my story. It was my mother's story. 

The other thing is that I’ve always felt an artist should keep moving. I went from poetry to a graphic novel, to a kind of a poetry exchange with Tess. and then to a novel. I'm always trying to do different things. I think an artist should always try something new. Because the incarceration is so powerful it is very tempting to dwell on it and not move forward.  For the novel, I wanted to present the context of the incarceration and the afterward to give a larger perspective. 

Robin Lindley: Thanks for your words on your process. How did you decide on the novel’s title, My Name is Not Viola?

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I found my mother’s high school annual and there were inscriptions like “Good Luck, Viola.” I asked her who Viola was, and she said her teacher gave her that name. 

Robin Lindley:  In your novel, you take your mother’s life and add to the story. Picasso said that art is the lie that tells the truth. You share an engaging human story that deals on so many levels with the forces of history such as racism and injustice and the aftermath of war. It’s incredible how much she dealt with in her life.

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: There are 120,000 stories of people who were 

forcibly incarcerated and each one is different but similar. They all experienced the same thing at different levels. My story is only one of 120,000. 

Robin Lindley: You were born a Minidoka in 1945 so you must not have any direct memory of the internment.

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: No, but I do have borrowed memories. No matter what, at every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, every New Year's party, every wedding, funeral, the evacuation and the incarceration always came up. It's just a part of life. And I have these borrowed memories that usually focus on the worst of the experience. 

I don't have clear memories in the traditional sense, but my friend, a psychiatrist, says that, when my mother was pregnant, more than likely some chemicals were sent to me in her womb and that affected me in terms of fear and stress that made up my personality. And he also has said that, when he talks to someone who has deep problems, oftentimes he asks if their grandparents suffered any problems? He says big traumas are passed down for three generations. He feels that what happened to your grandparents and your parents is relevant to your current situation. 

Robin Lindley: I’ve heard about studies on genetics and past trauma. There are several studies with grandchildren and children of Holocaust survivors. 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda:  So the trauma is passed down, and somehow you adjust. The third generation of trauma can still affect you.

Robin Lindley: So, we’re haunted by the traumas of earlier generations. You deal with almost a century of modern American history in the book. What was your research process as you wrote the novel?

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I went to Minidoka about six or seven times. In 1969, I taught the first Oriental American history class in the state of Washington at Sharpless Junior High School—now Aki Kurose Middle School. So I was interested in history and, while there, a number of things happened. I met Mineo Katagiri, a reverend who founded the Asian Coalition for Equality, and we worked together. 

Later on, some members of the Asian Coalition for Equality and I confronted the University of Washington because they were not admitting Asian students into their educational opportunity program (EOP). At the time, it was called the Special Opportunity Program, which served poor whites, blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, but not Asians. 

And so, my interest in history took a step into activism. Ironically, it did again with the kids in the Oriental American history class. At that time, we were still referred to as “Orientals” and the term “Asian” was emerging. The class made a display of miniature barracks like those at Minidoka for an exhibit called “The Pride and the Shame,” a Japanese American Citizen League’s traveling exhibit for the University of Washington Museum. 

Bob Shimabokuro in his book, Born in Seattle, writes about how the traveling exhibit was the impetus for the reparations movement for Japanese Americans. So, my history interest moved me into activism, and my activism was rooted in history, especially anti-Asian, anti-Chinese, and anti-Japanese prejudice which culminated in the forced incarceration.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for your work for change. To go back to your novel, I’m curious about the story of your main character Hanae, who is based on your mother, and your mother's actual experiences. Did your mother go to Hiroshima, as in the novel, when she was about nine and have a rather dismal experience with her relatives, especially her older brother’s wife?  

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: That was not true. She was born in Seattle and she went to Japan at age one and she returned with her mother and brothers about eight years later.  Her father stayed in Seattle and sent money home to Hiroshima when the family was there. And when she was nine years old, she came back to Seattle. When she was 21, she returned to Hiroshima to live with her older brother and that's when she couldn't get along with her sister-in-law and left after a year. 

Robin Lindley: And did she have an older brother Shintaro who was an officer in the Japanese Navy? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. He was a submarine officer. He was not a captain, but he was a high-ranking officer on a submarine. He mentioned that the warlords were feeling very confident because of the victory over a Western power in the Russo-Japanese War.

Robin Lindley: The militarists were building sentiment for war in Japan in the early 1930s. In your novel, you depict the removal, the evacuation, and the internment vividly. Was your depiction of Hanae’s story in the novel similar to what your mother experienced in the shocking removal and then the incarceration. 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes, it was as described

I think most of the Japanese were shocked. They knew that the Japanese nationals were at-risk as non-citizen aliens. There was a law that wouldn't allow them to become naturalized citizens, so they were aliens. That would be her father's generation. But the initial thought among the Japanese was that they would not take the Nisei [second generation] who were US citizens. So, they were shocked when citizens were taken because it was totally unconstitutional and un-American. You don't round up and arrest citizens for no crime without due process, right?

Robin Lindley: Didn’t the US government contend that the order of evacuation and internment was to protect people of Japanese origin because of extreme anti-Japanese sentiment after the Pearl Harbor attack?

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Some people used that excuse, but that wasn't the reason that they were evacuated. If you read the actual evacuation notice, it says all persons of Japanese ancestry, alien and non- alien, were to report to designated locations. And overnight the Nisei, who were citizens, became non-aliens. 

Robin Lindley: And weren't the families and others of Japanese ancestry actually rounded up by troops armed with rifles with fixed bayonets? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. There were troops. The people were told to report to certain places.  The earliest pickups were done by the FBI. They took  mostly first-generation people who were leaders of the community shortly after Pearl Harbor while the bulk of Japanese were taken in April. 

Robin Lindley: It was a heartbreaking violation of human rights and the rule of law. What happened once these citizens and non-citizens were rounded up? What happened to their property and possessions? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: It was different in every region of the country, but here the Japanese obviously sold off a lot of their goods at fire sale prices. And they stored some items. My parents actually stored some goods at a storage company and also at the Buddhist church. 

There were people in rural areas who left their land to others to care for. For example, on Bainbridge Island, some leased their land to their Filipino workers. They did take care of it and when the Japanesereturned, the land was in good shape. And some of the Japanese split the land with the Filipino workers. Other Japanese left the land and it was totally in disrepair when they came back. Many couldn’t keep their properties because they couldn't pay the taxes. So it was lost. 

There are countless stories. One storeowner left his ten-cent store to a Jewish man to care for. I think he was a jeweler who watched the boarded-up store and took care of it. Nothing happened to that store, but other places such as farmhouses were destroyed, especially when they came back. A farm house was burned on Vashon Island. There were farm houses vandalized in anti-Japanese incidents in Hood River where the whole town signed a petition not to permit the Japanese to return--but the Japanese did anyway. 

Each place has a different story, but overall, most of the people lost their businesses. Most of them lost their jobs. Most of them lost their homes. Most of them sold whatever they had at huge discount. So it was a very difficult time. Goods were sold for a penny on the dollar and customers took advantage because they knew that the Japanese were vulnerable. 

Robin Lindley: You have some remarkable scenes in your novel. I was struck when some white person wanted to buy a piano for a dollar. 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. The Japanese knew they couldn't take it with them. And, if a store was going out of business, they would sell at a huge discount on all goods. They were trying to make something, no matter how small.

Robin Lindley: Were their physical attacks on people of Japanese origin following the Pearl Harbor attack? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I hadn’t heard of any physical attacks. I know some Filipinos were beaten up because they were thought to be Japanese. The Chinese wore buttons saying “I am Chinese.” And I know that there was a man who was impersonating an FBI agent and he tried to do some bad things to Japanese women. 

Robin Lindley: That was such a time of fear and hysteria. What are some things you’d like people to know about the conditions of the concentration camp at Minidoka where your parents were held and where you and your brother were born? You describe the circumstances vividly in your novel. 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: They were in the desert. The food was not always sanitary. The quarters were cramped. There was no privacy. People had to use the latrines instead of regular toilets. There were scorpions and rattlesnakes and dust storms. 

All of that was just a given, but the worst part of it was being betrayed by your country. I compare it to rape. The whole community was raped and we handled it like rape victims. Some were in denial and others tried to prove that they were good citizens. Some committed suicide. Others were just depressed. So, the worst part of it was the mental realization that the whole community was raped. And very few on the outside really cared. I compare it to a rape by your uncle--by someone you trust in your family. It was a rape by our Uncle Sam.

Robin Lindley: And wasn’t the internment out of sight and out of mind, without much press coverage or any outside attention? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. Minidoka was tucked into a ravine and 9,000people were imprisoned there. If you drove by, you wouldn't even see Minidoka even though it was the third largest city in Idaho at the time.

The physical conditions were bad, but I think the mental trauma was really devastating. The fact that your country betrayed you. And afterwards. Think about it. Who can you trust if you can't trust your government to protect you and maintain your rights? Who can you trust? 

Robin Lindley: That history is devastating. What sort of housing did your mom and dad live in there at the concentration camp? I understand the shelters were very crude and crowded with little privacy.

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: They lived in barracks that were hastily constructed. They had tar paper on the outside and weren't shingled or sided. It was like army barracks. It was open and they used blankets as curtains, and several families shared each building. The noises and the smells spread. The barracks were heated by a pot belly stove that burned coal.

At the first relocation center, my parents were given ticking and sent to a pile of straw to stuff a mattress. That's what they slept on at Camp Harmony in Puyallup, which was actually a county fairground. Some of the bachelors lived in the horse stalls that still had horse smells. My cousin got the measles and was quarantined in a horse stall. 

When they moved to the permanent camps, like Minidoka and the other camps, they lived in hastily-constructed, army-style barracks with cracks in the floors, cracks in the walls. The wind would blow through. And the barracks all looked alike so people could get lost and wander into your area at night. 

Robin Lindley: And there were extreme temperatures in the hot summers and cold winters. The weather must have been miserable. 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: It was cold and muddy in winter. The residents had to walk on boards that were laid down on the mud. And that was how they got to the mess hall. My mother would never eat Vienna sausage because it caused dysentery several times. 

Robin Lindley: And wasn’t healthcare limited? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: There was a patient hospital on site. When there was an outbreak of dysentery, you had to line up at the latrine with everyone else, because everyone who ate at the same mess hall had dysentery. One night, the lines were so long and the internees were upset, the guards thought there was a riot. Soldiers were going to shoot. The residents shouted, “No, no, it's dysentery. We've got the trots.” And so, the soldiers left them alone.

Robin Lindley: When your parents were released from Minidoka with you and your brother, they returned to Seattle where they had been dispossessed. And your mother was facing the additional trauma of dealing with the probable deaths of her relatives in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: They actually released many people at Minidoka before the end of the war to work, attend college or join the army. My father left several times to find housing, which he never found.  So, they stayed in camp until it closed. The administration shuttered it down, turned off the electricity, and told them to leave, and gave them a train ticket and $25.  

Back in Seattle, my family stayed in the basement of my mother's friend's house for a while. We lived there until my dad could find proper housing, but it was in short supply because of the war and the GIs coming back. 

It was not an easy time. And, there was racial real estate redlining in Seattle, so we couldn't move to the best part of town. We could only move to certain parts of town. If those areas were taken, it was tough luck. And in fact, some of the Japanese who moved out of the Central Area returned and found that African-Americans who came up from the South to work during the war had moved into the redlined area.  

Robin Lindley: That’s another tale of discrimination in America, and we're still living with the results of racist red lining. Thanks for sharing that insight. I didn't realize the effect on the Japanese community. Your mother must have been shaken by the terrible atomic bombing of Hiroshima and the lack of news about her relatives. 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. The first news they heard was that Hiroshima was bombed. Tokyo had suffered firebombing with more or less conventional bombs like napalm, but the residents did not understand what an atomic bomb was and the results.  

Recently, I read an article about how the US was suppressing news about the Hiroshima destruction until John Hersey visited Hiroshima and wrote his famous book, which revealed the aftermath. 

The news came in very slowly. It wasn’t like today when, if something happens, CNN is there by the next day. This news dribbled in. They knew that Hiroshima was destroyed, but they didn't know quite what that meant. It was the instantaneous destruction that was hard to comprehend. You could understand something being destroyed slowly, but everything in Hiroshima was vaporized or destroyed in an instant. 

My mother didn't know what happened to our relatives. It was only because of our relatives in the countryside that she found out the full story. But it was tough for her because she had lived in Hiroshima and she knew the city, so it was really devastating to realize that the city and many of her relatives were gone instantly. 

The people of Hiroshima were not soldiers. Soldiers expect to be put in harm's way and die, but these were civilians: old women, old men, young children, and workers.  They were evaporated and destroyed instantly or many died later of radiation sickness. 

Robin Lindley: Have you traveled to Japan and visited Hiroshima? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. I was actually in Hiroshima during the 50th anniversary of the bomb.  It is a strange city. Kyoto is very old. You see the shrines and the old architecture. Hiroshima is modern. It doesn't look like a Japanese city, but a modern city because it was totally destroyed. And in real life, our family home was only a thousand meters from ground zero. 

Robin Lindley: That visit must have been very moving for you then. Now it’s the 75th anniversary. 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. But I was surprised too when I met my relatives, the children and grandchildren of my mother's oldest brother. They were all very positive, very healthy, and very energetic. They were generally happy people. I met Akkiko who survived the bomb. She was in the family home at the time.  I met her son, and her son’s son. So it seems life goes on. 

Robin Lindley: Yes, that’s encouraging. Didn’t Akkiko suffer radiation illness and severe burns?  

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. She’s mentioned in the book. 

Robin Lindley: Your description of Hanae’s treatment for depression at Western State Hospital, a psychiatric facility, is very moving. It happened in 1962 and you juxtapose her experience with the Cuban Missile Crisis. You also destigmatize mental illness. Does your portrayal in the novel parallel your mother’s own “incarceration” at the hospital when she was admitted for severe depression? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I really couldn't say for sure because she never talked about it. But I did talk to my friend who is a psychiatrist.  He took me to the Western State Hospital Museum and I saw what it was like, and I knew what they did at the time. I studied the hospital’s history and learned that doctors specialized in lobotomies at the time.

Robin Lindley: Did you visit your mother when she was in the hospital? You must have been a teenager then. 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I visited her once. They wouldn't let me go inside. We had to meet her in front of the hospital, in the parking area, at the turnaround. She came out to see us.

Robin Lindley: What do you remember about that visit?

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: She was very thin and she looked worse than when she entered. 

Robin Lindley: And what kind of treatment did she receive? Did she actually have shock treatment or electroconvulsive therapy? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I'm sure she did. My psychiatrist friend told me that was pretty standard. 

Robin Lindley: Did your mother seem depressed to you before she was hospitalized? Did she talk about suicide? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes, she seemed depressed, and she was very distant and not engaged. But she did admit to her sister-in-law that she was contemplating suicide. 

Robin Lindley: Wasn’t there almost an epidemic of suicide among the internees after the war?

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. There’s no real data on that because nobody kept track of it. But I talked to Tets Kashima, who was a professor of Asian American studies, and he said in California suicide was prevalent. There were just a lot of suicides. And the other thing was, few people talked about it. 

Robin Lindley: From some history I’ve read, such as The Nobility of Failure by Ivan Morris, it seems that suicide is honorable in Japanese culture and tradition. And in your novel, some characters see suicide as an acceptable way to cope with loss and depression. 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: That's the samurai tradition. If you dishonor your master, or yourself, you must die too. That led to a custom of ritual suicide. Hara kiri, which translates into “cut your stomach.” And that’s what samurai did. And my friend, [the artist] Roger Shimomura had ancestors who were famous for a double suicide. They stood face to face and stabbed each other simultaneously. So, they committed ritual suicide together. 

Robin Lindley: That's an elaborate way to go. You indicate that Hanae and your mother were influenced by both Japanese and Christian traditions. Were those traditions a source of your mother’s strength and resilience through the catastrophes in her life? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. I think both of them helped her. She could call on Japanese tradition to deal with her stress if an American tradition did not help. So, she had a little more of an arsenal, if you will, or two toolboxes to pull from. However, some tools that helped her survive became counterproductive. Take the Japanese word shikatanganai. “It can't be helped.” That word helps you get through, but after a while it doesn't move you forward. 

Robin Lindley: Yes. “It can't be helped.” When I read that phrase in your book, it reminded me of Vonnegut’s refrain: “So it goes.” It can’t be helped seems a pessimistic adage rather than we can change this or we can do better. 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: It isn't really. Japan was a harsh land of starvation, earthquakes, and typhoons. When your house fell down, no one in the village wanted to hear you crying because their house fell down too. And so it’s shikatanganai, it can't be helped. It's just what happened. 

And in America, a rich country, not a poor country like Japan, there is no shikatanganai. Here, your house falls and you call your lawyer. You sue the city. You sue the architect. You sue your neighbors. But it's not that it couldn't be helped. You’ve got to sue somebody. And it's really an irony that, in a poor country, they accept their fate but in a rich country, they always want to contest what happens. Not always, but there’s a different feeling. So this Japanese value helped my mother and others cope with overwhelming forces. 

Robin Lindley: Maybe that's akin to the acceptance stage of grief. 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes, you accept fate rather than get angry.

Robin Lindley: It’s a different perspective. I was interested in your influences, and you have mentioned the naturalist writers such as Frank Norris and his classic novel The Octopus. Naturalism concerns how characters deal with the forces of nature, the forces aligned against them, and you write beautifully of how your characters take on fate. Do you see the influence of writers like Norris in how Hanae deals with forces beyond her control and then, it seems, becomes a force herself? 

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: Yes. The naturalists felt that the forces of nature superseded human ambition. Human beings have to deal with natural forces at work in this world and these forces often overcame individuals.  In The Octopus, the novel by Norris, the railroad was a force which had to reach from coast to coast to deliver grain to the starving people in India. So that was another force to deal with. And even though the ranchers resisted the railroad, they couldn't stand up to it because the force was more potent. It had to deliver the grain to feed the starving masses. 

If you look at our situation today, there are numerous outside forces at play. One is obviously the pandemic. The other is the political situation. And these forces that are largely out of our control. But in the novel, Hanae managed to survive the adverse forces and learned to surf the waves of the tsunami and become a force herself--not a capital letter F force like feeding the starving in India, but a small force that is filled with equality and social justice. 

We're in that kind of a situation now. The large forces out there can destroy us, but we must learn to use them and to survive them and become forces for good. And if many people get together and become forces themselves, they can become a large force, like a natural force, like the starving masses in need of grain. We need to persevere and make it to the other side and become forces ourselves.

Robin Lindley: And you have been a force for social justice and for democracy in your writing and in your activism and teaching.

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I have tried.

Robin Lindley: I’ve read about your many accomplishments. You’re too humble. You’ve written now about atrocious incidents and the resulting trauma, but you have also shared triumphs of the human spirit. Where do you find hope today?

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: When I was a kid, I read all the Greek mythology in the Beacon Hill Library at grade three. And that helped me. I think that mythology is something like history. I recall that Pandora opened a box and unleashed all these horrible things. But the thing that was left in the box was hope. There is still hope.

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers?

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda: I'd like to speak to why the Japanese were incarcerated. Three presidents, Reagan, Bush Senior, and Clinton, said in the letters of apology. They said the causes were racial discrimination, wartime hysteria, and failed leadership. And I ask you to take a look at what we have now regarding racial discrimination. My hope is that things get better. For wartime hysteria, which was called propaganda then, and is now called fake news. I hope that the network that peddles fake news crashes and burns. And the last one, failed leadership. I hope that our failed leaders are repaired or replaced soon. So those are my three hopes. 

Robin Lindley: Those are powerful thoughts to end on. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful comments Dr. Matsuda, and congratulations on your moving new novel, My Name is Not Viola. It’s been an honor to speak with you.


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, Huffington Post, Bill,, NW Lawyer, ABA Journal, Real Change, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, and art. He can be reached by email:

Dr. Lawrence Matsuda, a renowned Seattle writer and human rights activist, brings to life his mother’s travails, traumas, and triumphs in mid-20th century America in his debut historical novel My Name is Not Viola. 





Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
Inspiration from the Banks of the Indus River: A Conversation with Nibir K. Ghosh



It’s been a season of uncertainty and dread in the United States as we contend with a deadly global pandemic, a reckoning with centuries of racism, bitter political divisions, historic environmental disasters, political corruption, and an unraveling of national institutions, among other challenges.

For another perspective on history and for words of encouragement, I consulted distinguished Indian author, scholar, editor, and public intellectual Professor Nibir K. Ghosh, a recognized and reliable source for knowledge, wisdom, and inspiration. 

In a lively dialogue by email, we recently discussed Professor Ghosh’s background, his literary study and works, and his thoughts on history and current events. He generously shared his views on the situation in India and its history as that huge nation now struggles with COVID-19 and approaches the number of cases and deaths that the US grimly has attained. With his background in American studies and his academic work in the US, his insights on our history and culture are particularly astute and timely. 

Beyond the sweep of history and this fraught moment, Professor Ghosh shares insights on the writers and thinkers he studies. His new collection of essays and other writing, Mirror from the Indus, is a treasure trove of his words and wisdom with timeless relevance. For instance, note the resonance now of his comments on the lives and work of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And, Professor’s Ghosh’s vision of the interconnectedness of all people in One World without discrimination is particularly instructive and inspiring today as both of our nations face the future with anxiety, ambivalence, and guarded hope.

Dr. Ghosh, D.Litt., is a UGC [University Grants Commission] Emeritus Professor and former Head, Department of English Studies & Research, Agra College, Agra, India. An eminent scholar and critic of American, British and Post-Colonial literatures, he has published over 180 articles and scholarly essays on various political, socio-cultural and feminist issues in reputed national and international journals.  

Professor Ghosh is also the founder and chief editor of Re-Markings (, an international biannual journal of research in English. Besides Mirror from the Indus, Professor Ghosh is the author of 14 other acclaimed books including Gandhi and His Soulforce Mission; Charles Johnson: Embracing the World; Multicultural America: Conversations with Contemporary Authors; Calculus of Power: Modern American Political Novel; Shaping Minds: Multicultural Literature; W.H. Auden: Therapeutic Fountain; and Perspectives on Legends of American Theatre.

Professor Ghosh was awarded the prestigious Senior Fulbright Fellow at the University of Washington, Seattle during 2003-04. He is currently on the Review Panel of Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States (MELUS) published by the University of Connecticut, and the African American Review, the Quarterly International Journal on Black American Literature and Culture of the Modern Language Association. During 1992-96, he was the Executive Member of the Board of Directors for the American Studies Research Centre (ASRC) in Hyderabad. Funded by the US government, the Centre was one of the most important institution for American Studies outside of the United States. For two consecutive terms, Professor Ghosh was elected to the ASRC Board with an overwhelming majority, an unprecedent achievement in the history of the organization.

In 2018, The Osmania University Centre for International Programmes, Hyderabad, conferred upon Professor the Lifetime Achievement Award during the Centennial celebrations of Osmania University.

 Professor Ghosh’s blogs and reflect his curiosity and his constant engagement with society, polity, culture, and more.


Robin Lindley: It’s a pleasure to hear from you Professor Ghosh. Congratulations on your fascinating new book Mirror from the Indus. You’re a distinguished professor and scholar of literature and history as well as a public intellectual in India. Did your family and early schooling lead you to your career pursuits? Did you have some especially influential teachers and professors?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: Thank you for your keen interest in my work, especially in Mirror from the Indus.

When I look back from the vantage point of the present moment at my early childhood, I can easily recall how fond I have always been of reading for pleasure and wisdom. To my father, who served in the Indian Air Force, I truly owe the incessant urge to fall in love with words and ideas that came from reading fairy tales, illustrated comics, classical tales of adventure, stories of revolutionary heroes, pictorial books on Indian History etc. that I would receive from him as gifts. From my mother’s zeal in performing her pujas (worship), I developed an early interest in spiritual stories. As a student my favorite subjects were English, Science and Mathematics. I had my initial schooling in Air Force School in Delhi before the family moved to Agra where I joined the Air Force Central School.

In those days it was customary for bright students to have either Engineering or Medicine as appropriate career options. I fondly remember how my English teachers would always encourage me to participate and represent my school in debate, essay writing and elocution contests. When I stood first in V class, our principal, Mrs. I. Montes, gifted me King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table retold by Phyliss Briggs, a story that impressed me a great deal. However, you will be surprised to know that teaching as a career never figured in my wildest imagination. After my schooling, I did my graduation in Science from Agra College, Agra (founded in 1823 during the British rule). While doing my graduation I joined the Coca Cola company as a Chemist for a while. 

It was after my graduation that I was in dilemma whether to go in for M.Sc. in Physics or for M.A. in English literature. After a good deal of deliberate reflection, I finally opted for the latter. Though I had been reading literature for enjoyment for years, the post-graduation course opened a completely new universe because I was able to see in what I read the inevitable connection between literature, history, society and polity of numerous nations and cultures. When my name appeared in the merit list of the University, I began to receive offers of appointment as a Lecturer in English. That is how I entered the teaching profession. I had no regrets of not going for more lucrative jobs because the opportunity to teach literature gave me the happy satisfaction of being able to combine my vocation and avocation. 

Robin Lindley: That sounds like the ideal career choice. What was the subject of your doctoral dissertation and what did you learn from that study?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: The topic of my Ph.D. work was “W. H. Auden: From Communism to Christianity.” My doctoral work was a very exciting experience. It gave me access to a totally new way of looking at events, ideas and personalities beyond the limited confines of what I had been hitherto reading. It introduced to me the importance of interdisciplinary perspectives. 

In connection with my work I visited on a regular basis the British Council and American Center libraries in New Delhi and had long periods of stay at the American Studies Research Center at Hyderabad. The study of Auden’s poems made me delve into the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression of 1929, the Weimar Republic in Germany and the emergence of Hitler, the Spanish Civil War culminating in World War II, Existentialism as a philosophy, Psychology from Freud and Jung to Langland, besides various nuances of Christianity, all of which seemed necessary to get the right perspective to studying the writings of Auden. 

Robin Lindley: How do you see the arc of your career from professor and author and now to chief editor of your ambitious and lively journal of the arts and culture, Re-Markings?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: I see a natural evolution in the ‘arc’ of my career from a teacher to author to the Chief Editor of Re-Markings. 

As a teacher I enjoyed interacting with my students and in motivating them to see how the narratives they read were relevant to the lives they lived. My participation in seminars and conferences on a regular basis brought me into close contact with scholars and academicians from different parts of India and abroad.

Right from the time I joined the teaching profession, I got many opportunities for publishing my work in magazines and periodicals of repute. On many occasions it had struck me that I should do something in return for all the valuable space that my writings got in prestigious publications. That is how Re-Markings was born in March 2002 as an International biannual Journal of English Letters. I felt happy to provide a forum to aspiring scholars, academics, poets and critics to express their concerns. 

It is difficult to believe how time flies as in March 2021 Re-Markings is slated to complete 20 years of its publication. As for the international outreach and the prestige the journal enjoys, you are in a better position to judge. In starting and continuing the publication from Agra, I must acknowledge the ideational and graphic support and guidance I have constantly received from its Executive editor, Sandeep Arora. 

Robin Lindley: Much of your writing and research concerns British and American literature and history. What sparked this focus?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: My writings and research in British literature began with the study of authors and works prescribed in the master’s program and continued unabated to the study of Auden and beyond. In my M.A. course we had a special paper on Modern American Literature that introduced me to writers like Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neil and others. 

My knowledge of American History largely evolved from a course I attended at the American Studies Research Center, Hyderabad in 1978. The one-month long course was titled “Looking for America.” The faculty comprised distinguished professors from American universities in the domain of Literature, History and Culture. One professor, John G. Cawelti from Chicago University and author of The Six Gun Mystique, became a close friend. The discussions I had with him, when he visited Agra, and later through correspondence, proved very valuable in my enhancement of the knowledge of American literature and history. 

Robin Lindley: What’s it been like for you to live and work in the romantic city of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal—a tribute to love? You rhapsodize about the remarkable city in your writing about the literary giant Rabindranath Tagore and in other work.

Professor Nibir Ghosh: Living, studying and teaching in Agra has been an enriching experience. Agra, having been the center of Mughal rule, is steeped in History. The monuments like the Taj Mahal, Red Fort, Fatehpur Sikri etc. make you feel a part of a bygone era. It is from Fatehpur Sikri that Emperor Akbar preached his philosophy of Sulaha Kul or the essential oneness of all religions. I used Rabindranath Tagore’s poem on Shajahan to say that if a poet could give eternal life to a monument made in alabaster, how greater must be his ability to give vibrancy to the nameless toiler and tiller of the land. 

Robin Lindley: In addition to your writing on literature, you have an excellent grasp of history and the context of the works you study. How do you see the role of history in your research and writing?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: I have always believed that no matter how much we talk about art for arts’ sake kind of writings, literature isolated from history and culture cannot exist on its own. An extensive study of the relationship between American history, literature and politics became the focus of my book Calculus of Power: Modern American Political Novel published 1997. In this book I have examined American literature from the perspectives of Economics, War, Women Empowerment, Race, and American Justice on Trial. While engaged in this expansive project, I made an in-depth foray into the history of the foundation and subsequent making of America into a super power. 

Robin Lindley: Your new book, Mirror from the Indus, presents a collection of your essays, tributes and memoirs. How would you like to introduce this remarkable collection to new readers?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: That’s an interesting question. The endorsements on the beautiful cover by celebrities like Ethelbert Miller, Dr. Tijan M. Salah and professor Jonah Raskin are bound to evoke great expectations in new readers. I would like to say that they will most likely find in my select writings a wide-ranging variety of themes, personalities and concerns. 

By exploring and examining the life and work of a very eclectic list of writers, poets, social reformers, spiritual giants, revolutionaries, freedom fighters, monarchs, statesmen, artists, and intellectuals, I have tried to show that compassion and sensitivity to human concerns, the ability of individuals to be the change they wish to see in the world, the courage and the grit to challenge the status quo, defending the right of individuals to exist as individuals, the ordinariness of the extraordinary pursuits of enlightened humans in the terrain of all the temporal as well as universal, are bound to keep them riveted to the collection.

Robin Lindley: The book is a gift to readers. I enjoyed especially enjoyed your introductions to several writers and scholars who were new to me. A subtitle for Mirror could be something like Writing Without Borders. 

In the introduction, you describe this anxious time during a deadly global pandemic, and conclude that section with this inspiring sentence: “Let us all come together as members of One World to fight and defeat the forces of pestilences and usher in a glorious Republic of peace, prosperity and happiness without any discrimination.” It’s obvious that transcending boundaries is important to you. How can the humanities, the arts, help do this?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: Thank you for enjoying reading through Mirror. Yes, I agree that in keeping with the contents of the book, ‘Writing Without Borders’ could very well be taken as a subtitle. 

I have always believed from my own experience of interface with people from different communities, religions, nations, cultures and the like, that innately there is in all of us a craving for a world without borders. It is only when we begin to get out of what Robert Frost calls the “Mending Wall” syndrome that real communication takes place in a spirit of easy give and take. I may cite from my own life as a case in point. I was born in Poona (now Pune), the land of the Maratha ruler Shivaji, into a Bengali household. My mother tongue is Bengali. I have lived in the Hindi heartland most of my life. My wife (to whom I have dedicated the book) is a Punjabi. I have felt hugely enriched by not restricting myself to particular climes and regions be it national or international. I have loved and enjoyed reading Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway as much as Anton Chekhov, Albert Camus or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. If you look at the titles – “Beyond Boundaries.” “Embracing the World,” “Shaping Minds,” “Erasing Barricades,” Multicultural America” etc. – of many of the books that I have authored and edited, you may notice that harmony and oneness constitute the essence of my creative and critical endeavors. 

As an instance of my approach to overcoming prejudices and stereotypes, I would like to share an experience with a Pakistani gentleman. On my return home from the Fulbright tenure at the University of Washington, Seattle, I received a call from one Zeeshan-ul-hassan Usmani requesting me to edit a collection of essays written by Fulbrighters from India to America and from America to India. Considering the enormity of the task and constraints of time, I said no. In the next minute, Zeeshan said that could I reconsider my decision in the light of the fact that his mother hails from Agra. I had no alternative. I named the collection Beyond Boundaries. The arts and the humanities can go a long way to create bridges between cultures. In 2017, Re-Markings brought out A World Assembly of Poets as its signature Special Number, guest-edited by Dr. Tijan M. Sallah. The contributors included poets from all the five continents and over sixty countries. Even a cursory glance at the volume will convince you how only in the true Republic of Poets all demarcations separating one individual from the other can disappear.

If you look at the list of contents in Mirror from the Indus, you may notice that the figures taken into account are from various communities, religion and culture: Hindu, Brahmin, Dalit, Muslim, Sikh, Jew, Christian, Anglo-Indian, French, Canadian, British and what have you.

Robin Lindley: Your work brings light and pulses with your love of humanity and justice. Do you consider yourself a humanist?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: Yes, obviously. It is not a crime, I guess, to profess the love of humanity and justice. 

In our own era, from a pragmatic point of view, it may be gainful to avoid clichés like justice and human values because the majority always tends to remain in the mainstream and go with the flow of the current but I strongly agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that “our life begins to lose meaning the day we become silent about things that matter.” I learnt very early from my experiences in several roles, that if one decides to fight for justice at any level one must learn to conquer both ‘temptation’ and ‘fear.’ I have always tried to portray this through my own actions and through all my writings, talks and lectures.

Robin Lindley: Your writing reflects those values. And, in your writing and well researched articles, you make me want to read and learn more, particularly from the authors and books you cite. Is it fair to call you a literary activist?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: If activists are not identified with any flag-carrying activities, I would not mind being called a literary activist. Each issue of Re-Markings in its 20-year journey has remained committed to its manifesto of highlighting broad socio-political and cultural issues of human import so as to promote harmony through healthy interactive discussions and debates. Even when I am lecturing or delivering a talk to audiences comprising the youth, I remain focused on what each of us can do in our individual capacities to reduce discrimination, disparity and prejudice that create yawning gulfs among one individual or group and another. 

Robin Lindley: Bridging gulfs between people is a noble goal in today’s world. In your tribute to Mahatma Gandhi and his relevance now, you note how he influenced the likes of President Barack Obama and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who called Gandhi’s influence “inescapable.” What do you think Dr. King meant?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: Please allow me to cite the words of Barack Obama on Gandhi that I have used in my tribute to Gandhi in Mirror: “He (Gandhi) inspired Dr. Martin Luther King. . . if it hadn't been for the non-violent movement in India, you might not have seen the same non-violent movement for civil rights here in the United States. . . He was able to help people who thought they had no power realize that they had power, and then help people who had a lot of power realize that if all they're doing is oppressing people, then that's not a really good exercise of power."  

Dr. King had reiterated that Gandhi had “lived, thought, and acted, inspired by the vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony. We may ignore him at our own risk.” 

In a world torn by conflict and violence, Gandhi’s ideals of “truth and non-violence” may seem at times quite anachronistic but there is much logic in his simple observation that “an eye for an eye would make the whole world blind.” As a politician, Gandhi may have made mistakes but as a mortal he continued to perform his experiments with truth till the very end of his life. 

Robin Lindley: You’re well acquainted with the lives of Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi and others who have worked for social justice. To help readers understand their strategy in working for justice, how do you think nonviolent resistance now might advance the dismantling of systemic racism in the US—and perhaps quell the political and religious friction in India?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: That’s a complex question. In order to dismantle the solid structures of systemic racism in US and political and religious friction in India on the lines of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, it is necessary that leadership must spring from the youth who will be able to project and guard the interests and concerns of their respective communities without bothering about promoting their own vested self-interests. 

Mindsets cannot be changed with speeches and slogans; they can be broken only through sterling acts of self-sacrifice. Gandhi was forthright in pointing out in the “Introduction” to his Autobiography that “My experiments have not been conducted in the closet, but in the open…. My purpose is to describe experiments in the science of Satyagraha, not to say how good I am. In judging myself I shall try to be as harsh as truth, as I want others also to be.” What is relevant to caste/race applies equally to religion. 

Robin Lindley: You comment on many literary giants in your new book with sensitivity and understanding. I loved the jungle stories and other writing of Rudyard Kipling when I was young but later came to see him, as George Orwell did, as a hidebound British jingoist and imperialist and thus came to ignore his writing. You have a more thoughtful and nuanced view. How do you see Kipling’s writing?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: I do not wish to contest your dislike of Kipling and his writings but do allow me to point out that George Orwell, in the same remark that you allude to, admitted that “During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him, and at the end of that time nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten and Kipling is in some sense still there.” 

In my view, in spite of Kipling’s jingoistic imperialism, he commands admiration of readers by his sensitive approach to human problems. For over a century now, Rudyard Kipling’s poetic utterance, “Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” has been used time and again, both in and out of context, by all and sundry to define visible boundaries that demarcate civilizations characterized by the East and the West. Consequently, I thought of doing a bit of research to find out what led Kipling to draw such an inference.

It is indeed ironical that Kipling’s most misunderstood statement is generally used by those who have probably not read the poem at all. Through a single line, they are quick to conclude that there exists an unbridgeable gulf between the two civilizations – one supposedly ultramodern and the other gradually rising out of a relatively primitive past. Endowed by the bliss of ignorance, they tend to ignore, perhaps deliberately, the true import of Kipling’s observation that does not end with the line mentioned above but goes on to the length of a full quatrain that reaffirms human belief in synthesis and synchronicity by cutting across cultural barriers. The quatrain with which Kipling’s 1892 poem, “Ballad of East and West,” begins and ends reads thus:

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,  Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God's great Judgment Seat;  But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,  When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth.

In my piece on Kipling in Mirror I have shared my inference that Kipling sees the relationship between the ruler and ruled not permanently confined to master/slave binaries but one that can, through courage and daring, meet on the level ground of equality. 

In both spirit and flesh Kipling’s poetic statement ought to transform those who espouse the idea that civilizations should never mix and that cultural barriers are insurmountable. In the present era of communication and satellite revolutions it may be futile and superfluous to imagine that “mortal millions” should remain isolated and “alone” in inviolable cultural isles of their own. Also, you may have noticed from your reading of The Jungle Book how Kipling draws our attention to ways and means to deal with the environmental crises that we are now facing.

Robin Lindley: Thank you for those comments on Kipling’s still relevant words. In discussing the work of Somerset Maugham, you state: “Above all, Maugham has succeeded in demonstrating through The Moon and Sixpence that masterpieces are eternal contemporaries of mankind and have value and significance beyond the immediate confines of a particular moment in history.” How do you see “the confines of history”?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: Frankly speaking, what drew me to The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham was my deep interest in the life of Paul Gauguin. In school, I had read somewhere that when Gauguin had gone nearly bankrupt after quitting his job as a stock-broker in Paris, and his wife had scorned him saying that if his paintings couldn’t even buy some medicines and a glass of milk for their ailing son, they were really worth nothing. Gauguin had calmly accepted that, though she was right then, yet his paintings would someday adorn the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Somerset Maugham’s fictional biography reminds us that though, striving for the ‘Moon’, Paul Gauguin may have landed himself with only ‘Sixpence’ in his lifetime, but what is significant is how posterity has acknowledged his immortal creations. 

My reference to “the confines of history” suggests that immortality of an artist can never be judged by contemporary appraisal of art but must await the continuous assessment of time beyond the immediate moment in history.   

Robin Lindley: I enjoyed your tribute to the renowned English poet W. H. Auden, the subject of your dissertation. You write that Auden, though not a church-going Christian, saw the teachings of Jesus as “a strong reaction against the evil and absurdity of class and racial prejudice.” What did Auden see in the words of Jesus? 

Professor Nibir Ghosh: Thanks for your appreciation of my tribute to W. H. Auden in Mirror from the Indus. Auden’s views and his interpretations of Christianity are both descriptive and prescriptive. His prose pieces are as elaborately concerned with Christianity as his poetic outpourings. 

In numerous essays, Auden explores the theme of Christianity in its essence and tries to relate its relevance to man’s needs in contemporary society. For Auden, even a bleak post-war landscape attains significance when viewed through the perspectives of a Christian world. Though the chaotic conditions exist yet there is an undercurrent of hope that the situation is redeemable. 

Auden considers God to be “the cause and sustainer of the universe” and says that “our real desire is to be one with Him. . . Ultimately that is the purpose of all our actions.” He demands that God should be invoked to restore order and meaning to the universe: “Let us praise our Maker, with true passion extol Him/ For, united by His word, cognition and power, / System and Order, are a single glory.”

Auden affirms the value of faith and what it can achieve. He extols the idea of faith in a world devoid of spiritual values. In his personal life too, Auden was wholly devoid of self-importance or pretentiousness, and he often revealed a humility that was both deep and genuine. Kindness and generosity were traits of his individual behavior.

On the basis of faith in God, Auden is able to assess the nature of ‘Love’ in a deeper and more precise manner. It is my strong assumption that Auden believed in the solitary and silent mode of praying and not in prayer as a spiritual exercise. He criticized the sectarian spirit displayed by the churches but honestly believed in the quintessence of Christianity. Christianity, for him, stood for something more profound than the celebration of empty ceremonials. 

Robin Lindley: You’re a friend of award-winning author, professor, public intellectual, and all-around brilliant scholar and artist Charles Johnson, a University of Washington professor emeritus. You wrote a book about his work, Charles Johnson: Embracing the World, with American poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller. You also worked with Professor Johnson at the UW. How did you come to work with him and how do you see his place in the pantheon of American literary figures?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: Many years ago, when the Public Affairs Section of U.S. Embassy, New Delhi, informed me that Charles Johnson—author of Middle Passage, Oxherding Tale, Dreamer etc., a MacArthur Fellow and winner of the National Book Award—was visiting India on a lecture tour, and that I was to accompany him in India, I was thrilled by the prospect of interviewing him against the backdrop of the Taj Mahal.  My enthusiasm did not last long as his visit did not ultimately materialize on account of the Iraq war. Perhaps Fate had ordained that we would meet not in Agra but at the University of Washington, Seattle. 

Initially, when I was awarded the prestigious Senior Fulbright Fellowship, my choice as the place of work was City University New York with Professor Morris Dickstein as my faculty associate. When I was given an additional option by CIE in Washington, DC., I decided to join the University of Washington as my project was on contemporary African American Writings, with Charles Johnson as my faculty associate. 

Two days after settling down at an apartment at Furman Avenue (thanks to the kind courtesy of professor Richard Dunn, HOD English), we were pleasantly surprised to see at our dwelling none but the famed Charles Johnson himself who, accompanied by his daughter Elizabeth, came to visit us. I warmly welcomed him by wrapping a shawl around him as we honor scholars in India. Guess how he reciprocated! He gave me a huge packet he had brought for us. When I untied the fancy ribbons and opened the packet, there lay in front of us over two score books—novels, essays, interviews, photo-autobiography, and so much more—all of which he had authored. His endearing inscription on each one of them made them all the more valuable. I instantly realized the extent of his magnanimity and goodness that I had hitherto seen in his correspondence. I may also mention here that Dr. Sunita’s project, as a Visiting Scholar at the School of Asian Languages, UOW under the guidance of professor Michael Shapiro, was translating Johnson’s novel Dreamer into Hindi.

My frequent long conversations with him contributed significantly to my understanding of the nuances and complexities of certain basic issues confronting contemporary America and also inspired me to engage in fruitful conversations many other celebrities within and beyond Afro-America. 

We were truly privileged to be introduced by Charles to August Wilson who invited us to dinner at the Broadway Grill. The animated exchanges that I had with authors like August Wilson, David Guterson, Octavia Butler, Jonah Raskin, Ethelbert Miller, Kathleen Alcala and others besides Charles Johnson, flowered into a precious collection titled Multicultural America: Conversations with Contemporary Authors (2005). 

Before meeting Charles Johnson, I was very much familiar with the works of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin and many other African American writers, poets, philosophers and critics. In my view Johnson has created an enviable niche for himself in the pantheon of African American writings.


Robin Lindley: How would you describe Professor Johnson’s style and voice as a writer of fiction and nonfiction?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: As you may be aware, Johnson’s work, especially his fictional output, is firmly grounded in Philosophy. I truly admire his non-fiction where his voice is most pronounced and impactful. His Buddhist leanings have not only added to the glory of his writings but also contributed a great deal to his abiding generosity and compassion that one can instantly recognize on meeting and talking to him.

I had interviewed him for my book, Multicultural America: Conversations with Contemporary Authors and also for Re-Markings. It is very significant that hinting at the danger of living in a parochial cultural fishbowl, he lyrically resonates the need for a completely new outlook that makes some narrow race-centered complaints irrelevant in an increasingly complex multicultural and global economy. He not only loves to address the symptoms of change in terms of acute identity crisis but also tries to prepare the aesthetic ground for such a change. Our mutual bonds of friendship brought him to Agra where I enjoyed his and Sharyn’s loving company with the Taj as a backdrop in February 2018. 

Robin Lindley: You’re a sensitive reader with innovative views of the literature you consider. I was struck by an essay you wrote on Joseph Heller’s classic satirical and painful war novel, Catch-22. You mentioned Wilfred Owens’ famous words on “the pity of war.” How did you come to write about Heller’s book? Are there other works on war you’d suggest for readers?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: As I have mentioned earlier in this conversation, a chapter of my book Calculus of Power: Modern American Political Novel is titled “In the Theatre of War” where I have taken up for discussion four war novels: For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. 

Heller’s novel Catch-22 has always fascinated me for its unique approach to war and all that it involves. The central problem before the novel’s protagonist is to find means and devise a strategy to survive in the hostile bureaucratic system. It is through Yossarian’s inner conflict mainly that one gets a fairly good idea of what it means to be trapped in such a system. Heller exposes the hypocrisy of the bureaucratic enterprise based on the purely vested interests of those who are at the top of the hierarchy and who want the war to go on irrespective of the need for a motive. He is decidedly against the capricious self-seekers who are either making money or having fun at the expense of performing heroic deeds in order to win honor and worship for he feels he can easily be replaced by any of the ‘ten million people in uniform.’ 

Unlike Fortinbras (in Shakespeare’s Hamlet) who was prepared to risk the lives of twenty thousand men for an egg shell, Yossarian has only one passion: to stay alive and fight those in power who were about to get him. He lives in perpetual dread of everything he could possibly imagine.

In a carnivalesque spirit Heller exposes the hypocrisy of the military bureaucracy without undermining, of course, the military strength and superiority of the United States of America. Through the use of unconventional mode of aesthetic expression, blending pungent humour with the horrifying spectacle of war, Heller succeeds in conveying that the conventional heroics associated with war are no longer tenable in the modern era. 

Robin Lindley: I appreciated the introduction in your new book to the work of Dalit poet Namdeo Dhasal. Decades ago, we were taught in my public school that the Indian caste system was extremely rigid and that Untouchables or Dalits were outcasts doomed to lives of drudgery and brutal discrimination without hope of social mobility. What is the reality of the caste system now and the situation of Dalits today?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: What you were taught decades ago about Indian caste system being extremely rigid has been in resonance with ground reality even in contemporary times. 

As the ambivalence of the “American Dilemma” continues to haunt the conscience of the most powerful democracy in the world, the USA, no less problematic is the issue of Caste for the world’s largest democracy, India. During elections it can be seen how important a role caste plays in determining the suitability of a contestant fielded by any political party.

According to many noted Dalit writers, it is true that oppression and humiliation of the Dalits have not ceased. They exist still in subtler variations in many segments of society and polity despite sweeping changes in legislations and legal sanctions.

I have specifically mentioned in my essay on Namdeo Dhasal in Mirror from the Indus that. though India can take pride in upholding its democratic credentials by installing two Dalit Presidents in the Rashtrapati Bhavan and electing a Dalit woman chief minister four times in the largest state in India besides numerous ministers to the union and state cabinets, it cannot be denied that Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s dream of liberty, equality and fraternity continues to elude the Dalit community in India.

My view is that the Dalits in India and the African Americans in the US who come from poor economic backgrounds must be made to understand the importance of upward mobility through education and work skills despite all the challenges that may threaten such initiatives. Also, the ones who have reached the higher echelons of power through affirmative action/reservation must take the initiative to encourage their less fortunate brethren to rise and shine in a grossly unequal world. 

A large measure of hope for the Dalits lies in the fact that they are getting increasingly articulate in projecting their rights and responsibilities through their writings in print and social media.

Robin Lindley: When Dr. King visited India in 1959, a school principal referred to him as an American “Untouchable.” King was stunned but, on reflection, agreed with that assessment. A big question, but from what you know of America and our history, is the view of Black people in the US comparable how Dalits or “Untouchables” are seen and treated in India?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: Dr. King may have been surprised to be seen as a “Black Untouchable” in 1959 because he may not have been aware of the fact that Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the Dalit icon, had first brought to light the similarities between the predicament of the African Americans in the US and the Dalits in India in terms of oppression, discrimination and inequality. 

W. E. B. Dubois had written a letter to Dr. Ambedkar lauding his leadership in the Dalit cause. Dr. Ambedkar had inspired and encouraged several Dalit scholars to go to the U.S. to study African American literature and to interact with activists in the field. African American literature, consequently, served as a model for Dalits in India who wanted to give expression to their suffering and agony on account of centuries of exploitation and discrimination. Time and again, Dr. Ambedkar pointed out to his devout followers that they could learn from their African American counterparts how to articulate their emotions with boldness and daring. Using the activist model provided by the Black Panther movement, the Dalit Panther movement was created in Maharashtra.

There are close parallels where race in the US and caste in India are concerned though some, like Lama Rangdrol, may argue that the Dalits live in greater misery than the average black in America. 

Though atrocities against Dalits continue to be seen in India, it cannot be denied that changes in attitude are also visible in Dalit writings. New ways of thinking, the outlook of the new generation, scientific and technological advancement, the IT revolution etc. have affected a paradigm shift in peoples’ consciousness. 

The discriminatory modes too have undergone changes. The social media and the internet provide the opportunity to connect with everyone on earth without the prejudice of caste, creed, color, religion or nationality. 


Robin Lindley: Like me, many readers may be puzzled by the ongoing religious tensions and eruptions of violence on the south Asian subcontinent. Did the tensions today originate with the partition and independence in 1947, or was there always violence between the two primary religions, Hindu and Muslim? This topic is worthy of many books, but what’s your sense?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: It would not be correct to conclude that religious tensions and eruptions of violence between the Hindu and Muslim communities in India originated as a result of the partition of the nation in 1947. Of course, the partition drew a permanent wedge in the two communities and those who had lived in peace and harmony for ages turned foes overnight and participated in orgies of violence that remain unparalleled in the history of the sub-continent. 

In my opinion the Hindu-Muslim discord is a legacy of the divide-and-rule policy of the British Government. The First War of Independence (which the British designate as a mutiny), that took place in 1857 and literally shook the citadel of English rule in India, was fought with the Hindus joining hands with the Muslims to drive away the British. Consequently, after the failure of the combined forces, the British power realized that in order to consolidate their Empire, it was necessary to pit one community against the other. In fact, the English succeeded in their sinister design by creating pressure groups who advocated the partition of the country. It is, however, relevant to note that the Indian National Army (INA) under the leadership of the revolutionary leader Subhas Chandra Bose offers a unique example of Hindu-Muslim amity and brotherhood. 

Even today, the legacy of creating communal discord under the divide-and-rule policy seems to be a convenient tool in the hands of politicians to sustain their political existence. 

Robin Lindley: Our current president Donald Trump and India’s Prime Minister Modi are seen by some commentators as similar in that they both use fear and division to appeal to their political bases. Our countries are very different, but do you agree with that view of the two leaders? How do you see them? 

Professor Nibir Ghosh: History bears evidence to the fact that be it democracy or dictatorship, the leaders do resort to the use of fear and division to keep themselves in power. The strategy of the two leaders you mention may be quite similar when it comes to consolidating their respective political bases. But what makes Modi different is that he enjoys the admiration of people from the lower economic strata on account of his ability to connect with them on one-to-one basis through his emotional speeches and seemingly genuine concern.

Robin Lindley: Indian writing in English is gaining popularity in the United States. Who are a few Indian writers you’d recommend to American readers?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: Since most American readers are already aware of the much-hyped works of Booker and Pulitzer Prize recipients who are immigrant US citizens, I would recommend writers like R. K. Narayan, Mulk Raj Anand, Raja Rao, U. R. Ananthamurthy, Mahashweta Devi, Munshi Premchand, Nissim Ezekiel, Jayanta Mahapatra among numerous others.

Robin Lindley: You thoughtfully consider this era of the COVID 19 pandemic in the introduction to Mirror from the Indus and in your recent blog entries. The United States now leads the world in COVID cases and deaths. What is the situation in India with the pandemic?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: India is closely following on the heels of the United States in the domain of rising COVID 19 pandemic cases. Population density is a major cause for worry in India. Poverty, unemployment, lack of health care and infrastructure facilities add to the challenge. In fact, the onus of protection from the Corona virus largely rests on individuals in terms of social distancing and sanitization. Ayurvedic medicine and herbs seem to provide some hope for increasing immunity to check the effect of the virus.

Robin Lindley: You offer many encouraging and wise words at this time of peril for the entire globe. Where do you find hope at this challenging time?

Professor Nibir Ghosh: I have elaborately stated in the Preface to Mirror from the Indus that what we need most in this time of peril is to heed the voices of philosophers, poet-prophets, writers and intellectuals who have warned us time and again to bring in a revolutionary change in our attitude and approach to halt our onerous march toward doom. 

Like mindless robots we have often refused to listen to the voices of sanity. In 1762, at the very beginning of The Social Contract Jean-Jacques Rousseau had asserted that “man is born free and everywhere he is in chains” and had suggested that the only way we could break the fetters was to “return to nature.” Following Rousseau, William Wordsworth warned us to refrain from entering the whirlpool of the endless cycle of getting and spending. Rather than enter into a “Social Contract” to breach the unsurmountable gulf between affluence and poverty, mankind moved on, unmindful of impending catastrophes, presuming that the powerful, the wealthy and the affluent would always remain untouched by such storms of adversity. 

We are bound to feel pessimistic when we are reminded about the recent happening in Minneapolis where four white policemen attempted, in the manner of the deadly virus, to create respiratory problems leading to the death of George Floyd, a black American. The event clearly demonstrates the human resolve to continue with the status quo of the powerful asserting their dominance over the oppressed and powerless wings of society.

However, it can certainly be hoped now that the day is not too far away when one could assuage the accumulated guilt of centuries by inculcating the feelings of compassion and universal brotherhood toward the downtrodden and helpless masses. We must learn to accept the paradigm shift from the emphasis on integration and inter-connectivity of a globalized world to the new norms of social distancing, isolation and quarantine. COVID 19 has come with numerous lessons for mankind, the most prominent being the need for compassion, fellow-feeling of love and brotherhood for one and all. 

If we join our hands and hearts in this hour of grave global crisis, curb our own immediate self-interests, and work in communion for a society where individual happiness can coexist in harmony with the general good of all, there is enough room for hope and optimism.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Professor Ghosh for your illuminating comments and congratulations on your compelling new book Mirror of the Indus. It’s sure to be a resource for many years to come. And, as renowned American poet and a past University of Washington professor Theodore Roethke said, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” At this anxious time, I find your words and your writing reassuring, and I know other readers too will appreciate the light you cast at this dark time. 

Professor Nibir Ghosh: Thanks Robin for your deep interest in my work. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation. I shall be happy if the light of my book illumines even a little corner of a heart in despair. 


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 Re-Markings, Writer’s Chronicle, Crosscut, Documentary, Huffington Post, Bill, NW Lawyer, ABA Journal, Real Change, and more. He has a special interest in the history of human rights, conflict, medicine, and art. He can be reached by email:

Sat, 24 Oct 2020 15:32:35 +0000 0
Bergen-Belsen Through the Eyes of a Teenaged Inmate: A Conversation with Bernice Lerner


A Teen Inmate, a Physician Liberator, and Crimes Against Humanity: A Conversation with Dr. Bernice Lerner on Her New Book: All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, A British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen


By April 1945, as the Second World War neared an end in Europe, it was obvious that Germany was losing. Yet, many Nazi death camp and concentration camp commanders were furiously bent on exterminating as many “enemies of the state” as possible before the collapse of the Third Reich. 

In an odd turn of fate in mid-April, the Germans surrendered the notoriously brutal and overcrowded Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to British troops on orders of Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, the official in charge of the Final Solution, the Nazi effort to destroy all European Jewry.

On entering the camp on April 15, 1945, Brigadier H. L. Glyn Hughes, Deputy Director of Medical Services of the British Second Army, was shocked. He was not prepared for the squalid hellscape that greeted him: 60,000 living but extremely ill, starving, and wasting prisoners, and 10,000 putrefying, unburied corpses, as epidemics raged through the camp. Hughes assumed the monumental task of setting up medical services for this city of pain, suffering, and death in the middle of a combat zone.

A highly decorated veteran of both world wars, Hughes served with the invading Allied forces in the bloody and costly campaigns through France and Belgium and into Germany. Once at Bergen-Belsen, he called for and coordinated medical units and employed innovative tactics to treat as many of the ill and injured prisoners as possible. Survivors admired his compassion.

The experience of witnessing the horrific conditions at Bergen-Belsen unnerved and profoundly moved Hughes. He testified about the horrors of the camp at the trial of accused Nazi war criminals from Bergen-Belsen: “I have been a doctor for thirty years and seen all the horrors of war, but I have never seen anything to touch it.” 

When the British arrived at Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, 15-year-old prisoner Rachel Genuth was critically ill. By then, she and her sister Elisabeth had survived deportation from their home in Sighet, Transylvania; two months at the Auschwitz death camp where the rest of their family was murdered; enslavement at the Christianstadt labor camp; and then a death march to their last site of imprisonment and abuse, Bergen-Belsen. Rachel was near death by the time rescuers attended to her, days after the British arrived.

Author and scholar Dr. Bernice Lerner juxtaposes the stories of her mother, Holocaust survivor Ruth Mermelstein (ńee Rachel Genuth), and heroic British physician and liberator Glyn Hughes in her moving and compelling new book, All the Horrors of War: A Jewish Girl, A British Doctor, and the Liberation of Bergen-Belsen (Johns Hopkins University Press). 

In this first Holocaust history to focus on a high-ranking liberator and a Holocaust survivor, Dr. Lerner traces the separate journeys of Hughes and her mother during the final year of the Second World War. She documents the Allied advances and costly setbacks that Hughes and the Allied armies endured as she intersperses the vivid story of Rachel’s deportation from her home to her horrific and heroic journey through cruel incarceration and enslavement, from brutality and dehumanization to survival and renewal.

As Dr. Lerner stresses, although Hughes and her mother Rachel never met, Rachel was the beneficiary of Hughes’s commitment to saving as many prisoners as possible at Bergen-Belsen. The book reveals harsh truths about war and atrocities and human suffering, but a story unfolds ultimately about empathy and courage and the will to live.

The book is based on extensive historical research and a trove of resources including the papers of Glyn Hughes, oral histories, interviews, and more. Dr. Lerner masterfully combines the fruits of her scholarly research with gripping and engaging storytelling.

Dr. Lerner is a senior scholar at Boston University's Center for Character and Social Responsibility. She also wrote The Triumph of Wounded Souls: Seven Holocaust Survivors' Lives, and co-edited Happiness and Virtue beyond East and West: Toward a New Global Responsibility.  She earned her doctorate at Boston University's School of Education and her masters’ degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary. A specialist in adult education, she has lectured extensively on ethics and character in the US and around the world. Among courses she taught at Boston University were Resistance During the Holocaust and Character and Ethics Education. She also designed and taught Ethical Decision Making for Education Leaders for Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies.

Dr. Lerner graciously responded to questions by telephone from her home. It was heartening to learn that her mother, Rachel Genuth—now Ruth Mermelstein—is living in her own home and thriving at age 90. Ruth is also a frequent and popular speaker on the Holocaust, and especially enjoys talking with school groups. She finally learned the details of her rescue at Bergen-Belsen from her daughter’s research.


Robin Lindley: Congratulations Dr. Lerner on your groundbreaking new book All the Horrors of War that interweaves your mother’s Holocaust story with the story of British officer and physician, Brigadier Glyn Hughes, who supervised medical care during the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, the last site where your mother was imprisoned. 

Before getting to your book, I want to ask first learn more about your background as a writer. You're also a scholar with the Center for Character and Social Responsibility at Boston University.

Dr. Bernice Lerner: I was a previous director of the Center at Boston University where I worked for seven years after completing my doctorate in the School of Education. Many of the scholars I worked with were philosophers, so I became steeped in Aristotle and Plato and contemporary writers on virtue ethics. The Center trained teachers on principles and methods of character education. We worked with educators from all over the world, helping them to think deeply about goals for their students--at all grade levels, from preschool to college. 

I did a lot of teacher training stateside and I went as far as Indonesia and Singapore and Japan. Virtue ethics fascinated me because it provides a lens through which you can analyze any material that you're reading or viewing or teaching. It involves asking questions about people’s choices. What is the right course of action in various situations? How do our habits and dispositions show who we are, our character? What does it mean to act out of character? 

The study gave me a framework and a lens. And then of course, I was dealing with the most evil acts in the history of the world when doing my work on the Holocaust. And that subject has always been an interest—my parents are both survivors. I had a lot of questions, about what happened to them specifically, and what happened to my grandparents and my parents’ siblings. 

How did your new book evolve?

At first, I didn't tackle my parents or my own family at all. My first book was about seven Holocaust survivors who were very different from anyone in my family—after having missed years of schooling they went on to earn advanced or terminal degrees. (My relatives did not have much formal education.) Finally, I wondered what happened to my mother at the end of the war, after she fell unconscious. There was a hole in her memory—she could not tell me what happened. How actually was she saved? Why am I here? How am I here? That led me to more questions. What were the mechanics of it? What if the British had come in two days later? I wouldn't be here. My children wouldn't be here. And my grandchildren. None of us would be here. 

Of course, the tragedy is that so many lives, so many generations were cut short. And Bergen-Belsen was a dumping ground for people who had survived the entire war until the end. They were the ones who had evaded the gas chambers at Auschwitz and were doing slave labor and endured the death marches. It took so much to make it to the end of the war, and then people died by the thousands in Bergen-Belsen.

It was a miracle that your mother survived as you describe so vividly in your new book. I admire your lively writing and extensive research. What inspired your book apart from your mother’s story?

When I was trying to figure out exactly how my mother survived, that led me to Glyn Hughes. He was the man most prominently associated with the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.

I set out initially just to write a biography of Glyn Hughes. I was interested in what his character was like and what he was thinking and feeling when he entered and surveyed Bergen-Belsen. I wanted to know about his background and what he brought to the experience. And how it affected him. 

Hughes was such an important figure to the Jewish survivors who knew him in Bergen-Belsen. He was a Schindler-type character in that he befriended survivors and he kept in touch with many of them for the rest of his life. He appreciated his role in their history. So who was this man? I tried to figure out who he was by meeting his surviving relatives and friends. So that was a journey, and that began almost 16 years ago. 

What are a few things you'd like readers to know about Dr. Hughes? 

He saw the humanity in the throngs of “living skeletons.” His motives were moral—immediately, he vowed to save as many lives as possible. As a doctor, he would have wanted to treat more people, but he had such a big responsibility. He faced an absolutely impossible situation that was unprecedented in the history of humankind. 

When he came into the camp, there were 60,000 people who were still breathing and there were 10,000 corpses. Many of the people were dying, emaciated skeletons. Inside barracks built to hold a maximum of 100 people, 600 to a thousand were crammed in and there were no sanitary facilities. Hughes described what he saw when he came into the camp, and he was totally unprepared, totally shocked. 

In Bergen-Belsen, the British liberators settled on a triage system, a factory-like approach that would help them save the most lives possible. Medics went into the huts and marked the foreheads of people who were still alive, who might have a chance. And they were dealing with contagious diseases. Typhus was raging and its germ was in the dust. 

I would never compare anything to that time and place, but we face a situation of medical rescue with COVID-19, and it’s not over yet. Back in April, doctors in Boston wrote about how they might have to triage patients and treat only a limited number. They were using ventilators and they didn't have enough. And they were going to have to make decisions about who to try to save and who they couldn't—who was not worth the effort. This sounded to me like a wartime decision. 

You describe Hughes’ duties when he was in charge of dealing with mass casualties suffered by British troops after the invasion of Western Europe and during the Allied push into Germany. You do an excellent job of juxtaposing the Allied military advances and setbacks with your mother's experience. Perhaps some younger people think that the Allies landed in Europe on D-Day and then got into Germany and that was it. As you chronicle, there were many losses and setbacks for the Allies and months of brutal combat before they got into Germany. You do a commendable job of reminding people of just how incredibly bloody that Allied advance was.

I had read a lot about the Holocaust, but I felt very ignorant about the battles and what it took for the Allies to advance. 

I traced Glyn Hughes’s journey and his responsibilities because I wanted to know what he had already seen before he got to Bergen-Belsen. He was in charge of medical services—first for the British Army’s 8 Corps, and then for the entire British Second Army. He had to decide, for example, how to efficiently evacuate casualties. And how to lift men's morale and make them feel that medical care was near and that they'd be taken care of. And they were facing the most feared units of the German Army. The Panzer and SS units were ferocious fighters and completely dedicated to Hitler. So many young men were maimed, so many died on the way to my mother's rescue. That's a personal way of putting it, but the sacrifices were enormous. 

So Hughes had big responsibilities and he was always looking at the mega-picture. Where can I commandeer a hospital? How should the transportation work? And he was always liaising with higher-ups and meeting with his assistant directors of medical services.

Hughes had overall responsibility for treatment of the wounded and sick and setting up hospitals and all sorts of logistics. So, this was far beyond what we see in a movie or television program like MASH. 

Yes. It was fascinating how he instituted down-to-a-science protocols and was also very innovative. His units had to learn to set up and take down casualty clearing stations and regimental aid posts very quickly. Everything had to be movable and they had to figure out ways of treating those who suffered wounds of various types and degrees. They computed exactly how long each surgical case would take. That was 48 minutes and 32 seconds or so. Attention was paid to every conceivable detail and there was a lot of practice and preparation. Finally, at Bergen-Belsen, he and his men met an unfathomable situation for which they were totally unprepared. 

And you describe vividly Hughes’ impressions when he entered Bergen-Belsen, and how this horrid experience changed his life. 

That was where you really saw his humanity because Hughes had seen every horrific aspect of military combat. He was a highly decorated veteran of the First World War. When he was a Regimental Medical Officer he would run onto the battlefield to try to save wounded men. He saw the bloodiest aspects of war, and he displayed great courage. 

When he arrived at Bergen-Belsen, he had seen nothing like it. He said that he had seen all of horrors of war, but nothing to touch Bergen-Belsen—it was so obscene and perverse. Many who were there describe it as being like Dante’s Hell with the gruesome visions inside and outside the huts. And the stench. Hughes broke down crying, and I think that says so much because he was a tough, hardened, military man. And he cried. He did not initially know how he would go about creating order.

Hughes didn't follow Army protocol and file reports. He just immediately went into action to find help and impress upon the Second Army that, even though there were ongoing battles in northwest Germany, this was a humanitarian disaster and they needed to divert some units to assist at Bergen-Belsen. And he put very good people in charge of procuring resources and readying a hospital, and brought in experts in typhus control and feeding the starved. He tried to get help from wherever he could. 

And the way people deal with disasters, as we see now with COVID-19, is to track numbers. Numbers are a way to get on handle on things, so that's what the British were trying to do when they arrived at Bergen-Belsen. More than 500 people were dying every day after the liberation for several weeks.

At the beginning of our current pandemic, not-yet-graduated medical students were pressed into service. In early May 1945, Hughes brought 97 medical students to Bergen-Belsen. They had been scheduled to do famine relief work in Belgium, but instead were diverted to Bergen-Belsen. And these young men did a very good job treating the backlog of patients remaining in the huts.

There were criticisms and questions about whether more could have been done.  If you put yourself in Hughes’s shoes, it was just an impossible situation. 

By a month or two after the liberation, some people began to recover. Some, who had been active in Zionist groups before the war, emerged as leaders. They started to organize the survivors, to build a community of  “displaced persons.” Many, in their twenties and thirties, paired up. There were a record number of weddings, and then, within a few years, of babies— born in the Glyn Hughes hospital. (Survivors who observed Hughes witnessed his compassion. They named the hospital that was set up near the camp for him.) 

Hughes saw this forlorn group of people organizing themselves. They brought in entertainment. They had a theater. They had their own police force. They had their own newspaper. And once people had food and clothes and some supplies, they started to show their true personalities and all this captivated Hughes. So even when he didn't have to go there anymore, he kept going every day to the Belsen DP (Displaced Persons) camp. He witnessed a remarkable transformation. The summer of 1945 was a watershed in his life.  

So the Glyn Hughes hospital was built at Bergen-Belsen? 

No, it was a short distance from the camp. It had formerly been a hospital for the Wehrmacht, the German Army, and there was also a nearby complex that had been used for German soldiers. There was a “roundhouse,” a large hall adorned with portraits of Hitler. All these facilities were taken over for use by the Jewish DPs. 

It’s striking that liberation didn't occur at the moment the British arrived. And the statistics you mention are staggering with more than 10,000 unburied dead when the British entered on April 15, 1945. And then 2,000 people died right after their first meal.

Yes. The British soldiers saw these starving people begging for food, and they gave them their rations. They gave them Spam and other foods that the digestive systems of the prisoners could not handle. Their intestines were all shriveled; their bodies were dried out and dehydrated. They were eating this very rich food and they had cramping and diarrhea and they died. They just died. That was very tragic. 

The British liberators did not initially know what kind of food to feed these people. They didn't have experience with this level of starvation and abuse. In India, the British gave starved people “Bengal Famine Mixture,” some kind of gruel that proved too sweet for the European palates of Bergen-Belsen survivors. Hughes eventually worked up five different diets for people in various stages of emaciation and starvation, with very gradual increases in nutrients. 

And one would expect the killing to stop with the arrival of the British, but it continued for days. Not just the Germans but also the Hungarian guards were shooting survivors. And didn’t Dr. Hughes witness shootings of prisoners by either the SS or the Hungarians guards? 

Yes. When he first came into the camp he saw some inmates running to a potato patch and the SS guards were shooting them. He saw it. He and the British officer he was with had to put an end to what was a matter of habit.

People think that the liberation happened in one day and prisoners were cheering when the Allied soldiers came in, but it didn't exactly happen that way. It was really a process. 

I would say that the liberation took place over an extended period. For the first couple of days in Bergen-Belsen, Hungarian guards were left in charge-- the British didn't have enough personnel to keep order and make sure contagious prisoners didn’t leave the camp. The Hungarian guards in watchtowers were shooting those who ran to the potato patches because they were starving. 

There was chaos. The liberators faced problems you might not think of: trying to bring in food and water, repairing the water main break, restoring the electricity that had gone down. The Germans sabotaged camp operations before they left. It was a crazy interim period and the British were struggling to set up the facilities. 

The cruelty you describe was horrific. You write that, shortly before liberation, SS guards baked ground glass into bread and fed it to prisoners as a way of eliminating more people before the Allies arrived.

Yes, and those who got the bread were so hungry that they ate it. I thought maybe that was a rumor that my mother heard, but I came across a survivor account and he said that's exactly what they did. It destroyed people's intestines, and so many died that way. The man who survived said he could feel the crunch of the ground glass between his teeth. 

And then to your mother’s harrowing story. Have you been collecting your mother’s stories and those of other survivors since your youth? 

Yes, since I was maybe 13 or 14 years old, but not intentionally or consciously. When I was a kid, maybe six or seven years old, I would ask my mother about her childhood because it was so interesting and different than how I was growing up on Long Island. She grew up in Romania, which seemed exotic and romantic to me. And then she would tell me about her postwar life in Sweden. 

She was smart in sharing her stories. She's just such a positive person. She never wanted to tell me how hard things were: how poor she was in Romania or how sick she was in Sweden. Mostly she told me about her adventures, the fun and daring things she did. And she talked about how kind the Swedish people were, and what a wonderful country it was. 

But when I was about 14, the age she was when she had been taken away, she started to tell me what happened during the war. What happened in Auschwitz. What she experienced as a 14- and 15-year-old. She said, What would it be like if someone were to tell you that in two months your family would be killed and you would lose your friends, your entire community, everything you ever had or owned? You'd think they were crazy. You couldn't imagine that happening. 

And she would tell me all this before the word Holocaust was out there. This was what happened during the war, and she wasn't talking about it to other people. She wasn't even talking about it with my father, who was also a survivor. But late at night, we'd be down in the basement laundry room, and she’d tell me. She was ironing one night and she put down the iron and she stretched her arms out behind her and knelt over. She said this was how she, then 50 percent dead, had to drag the dead to a mass grave. Some were not even dead-- they were still breathing. 

And I couldn’t shake that image from my mind. I was going to high school then and I wasn’t hearing anything like that in my history classes. Later, I studied and taught the Holocaust. But I knew little about the war. Finally, I started to research events—larger contexts—that bore on my mother’s fate. But I also held her particular story. By following an individual, one can begin to grasp the wider story. Writers and film producers understand that. 

The story of your mother and Glyn Hughes would make a gripping movie. Her odyssey was incredible. She and her sister Elisabeth were rounded up by the Nazis. They were taken to Auschwitz first and then to a labor camp and then marched to the horrific Bergen-Belsen. She experienced different forms of incarceration. Each was brutal and dehumanizing, but younger readers may not understand the different forms of imprisonment used by the Nazis. 

Yes. She was captured in the last year of the war. The Germans were losing the war, and already millions had been murdered. My mother and her family were taken in the massive Hungarian deportation in the spring of 1944 and deported to Auschwitz—the largest death camp where one and a half million people were killed. 

My mother was shocked and she might have been numb. In Auschwitz, those who were temporarily spared were given ersatz coffee or “food” laced with bromide, a drug that numbed their senses. 

There was a chance—for those who were fit—of surviving Auschwitz. There was this tension among German higher-ups between needing slave laborers and wanting to kill as many Jews as possible. About ten percent of the more than 424,000 arrivals from the Hungarian provinces who were deemed strong enough were siphoned off—they could be worked to death slowly. 

Some were tattooed—they were meant to be around for a while and given a number. My mother was not tattooed. She was among thousands of “depot prisoners” who were being held to see if they might be needed for the war effort or sent to the gas chambers, which were operating day and night. It must have been hell seeing the smoke from the ovens and the red sky and smelling the stench of burning bodies. When my mother asked a longtime prisoner where her parents were, the woman told her to look at the smoke. That’s where they are. 

It was just horrific. And to think she was a kid who had never been outside her little town. She had never traveled anywhere away from home. She had never slept anywhere else. And here she was in this inconceivable place called Auschwitz—a death camp. And everyone around her was in the same terrifying situation.

She missed her parents’ protection, but she was the type of kid who could fend for herself. She had had big responsibilities at home—heavy chores and helping with her grandmother’s butcher business. She had to deliver orders of poultry to distant parts of town, and made her way back in the dark after curfew. And so, once she somehow acclimated to Auschwitz-Birkenau, she looked to what she could do to survive. 

And she volunteered for different duties. She took out the pail of excrement at night to see if there was something useful she might find. She volunteered for work that would earn her a piece of bread. She dared to beg privileged prisoners for a bit of something they might have on them. 

For the two months she was in Auschwitz, she did not know whether she would die the next day. I describe in the book the various “selections”—to think that some SS officer would determine whether you would live or die by looking you over for a second is crazy making. Harrowing. And so difficult for we who were not there to imagine. 

Bergen-Belsen, this center of one of the most horrific atrocities in human history, had to also seem insane to an innocent young teen. 

Yes. And no matter where you came from, no matter what your background or profession, everybody was equal there. It didn't matter if you were rich or poor or had an education or not. Everyone was in the same horrifying boat. But some people knew better than others how to cope with hardship. I would ask my aunts and uncles—all survivors—about their experiences. They told me that those who were not used to hard work at home, those who had maids and had been pampered, had a harder time than people who had not been coddled.

That my mother and her sister Elisabeth managed to leave Auschwitz together was a miracle. They were selected to work in one of the thousands of labor camps because again, the Germans needed slave laborers.

Conditions varied by camp and much depended on the type of work that you were forced to do, the dispositions of the overseers, the rations that you were given—the Germans realized they had to feed prisoners if they wanted them to produce before dropping dead. 

At the Christianstadt labor camp, my mother was picked to work in the kitchen. This was like winning the million-dollar lottery. She could eat the SS officers’ leftovers. And that's probably the reason she survived ultimately because she had six months in this environment. It was still a very dangerous place, but she could take chances and get nourishment.

But at the beginning of February 1945 came the death march. During the final chaotic months of the war the Nazis evacuated camps in the paths of would-be liberators so no inmate would fall alive into Allied hands. 

That was the Nazi plan. You vividly describe the death march of your mother and her sister to the camp. So many people died or were killed by guards on that brutal trek to Bergen-Belsen. 

Yes. My mother and her sister were on this death march. After five weeks on the road and one torturous week in a cattle train they arrived in Bergen-Belsen. It was mid-March, about two weeks after Anne Frank died there. She was older than my mother. And death was the norm. About 17,000 people died in March in Bergen-Belsen.

Didn’t Anne Frank die of typhus? 

Yes. And probably of other things as well.

Many people don't understand the difference between Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz. Auschwitz was a killing factory. You didn't see emaciated people there because people had come (in the case of the Hungarian transports) straight from their homes. Most inmates didn't last long. They were killed right away or within a short time. 

Bergen-Belsen was a camp of the war ravaged. It had the largest number of inmates at the end of the war. They had been through so much. Many were but musselmanner, living skeletons. And disease was rampant. At least three epidemics were raging in the camp at the time the British came in. 

Tens of thousands of prisoners congregated at Bergen-Belsen.  Didn’t the Nazis disagree on whether these people should be exterminated or still used as slave labor? And didn't Himmler suggest keeping the camp intact because he knew that the war was nearly over and he didn't want to be responsible for more extermination? 

Yes. At that point in the war, there wasn't a question of using the prisoners for slave labor. The focus was on getting them away from the liberators, on following Hitler’s orders: no inmate was to be left alive. That's why they were dumped in Bergen-Belsen and other camps inside Germany. 

In early April, Himmler ordered the killing of all the inmates in certain camps. Then, he turned Bergen-Belsen over to the British Army intact. This is a “truth is stranger than fiction” story. His masseuse played a part in it. As I describe in the book, it’s just an unbelievable story about how he was convinced to hand over this camp to the British Second Army rather than kill everybody. Maybe he thought that a show of humanity would somehow save him. But he killed himself when the British found him. 

Anyway, in this unprecedented move, the Germans handed over Bergen-Belsen to the British. It was a crisis situation, because if they bombed the camp or there was fighting in the area, some prisoners could escape and spread disease throughout the countryside and that was a risk for the people fighting in the area, the Germans and the British, as well as civilians. 

The handover occurred just three weeks before the end of the war. If that had not happened, my mother wouldn't have survived. I wouldn't be here. It was a race against time for her and other of the inmates to “hold on.” Tragically, the race was lost for too many. Thousands kept dying even after the liberation.

There are so many strange twists to the story. You write that the Bergen-Belsen Commandant Josef Kramer and a brutal SS guard Irma Grese conducted a tour of Bergen-Belsen for the first British troops who arrived on the morning of April 15. Kramer and Grese seemed quite proud of this hellscape they’d created.

It was bizarre. They were in the habit of killing. This was what they did for their jobs. And they believed in what they were doing. They regarded the inmates as subhuman.

And in the meantime, your mother registers the liberation and she was elated but, within a couple of days, she's very ill, and then some fellow prisoners beat her mercilessly. And so, your mother was actually dying? 

Yes. In telling the story, I wanted to show what was actually happening on the ground, behind the scenes. My mother was beaten to a pulp by her fellow inmates days after the British arrived. People treated so poorly had been reduced to this animalistic state, and they didn't just snap out of it on the day of the liberation. It was a long process to come back to life. My mother was near death after having been beaten so badly. I explain that in the book. 

My mother was placed in a makeshift hospital room for dying prisoners. Every day for three weeks, 11 of the 12 people in her room died and 11 nearly dead were brought in to fill their beds. She hung on. She described those details to me when I was a teenager. Later, when I wrote her story, I could calculate practically the day that she was evacuated to the hospital because I had read accounts of the evacuation. The bits of information she told me were windows into larger contexts. 

It’s an amazing survival story—a story of the narrowest escape. The rescuers presumed your mother would die, yet she hung on for weeks. If they used triage, then she was grouped with those who weren’t expected to survive. 

Yes. And she was unconscious when she was taken to “the human laundry.” She didn't know it was called that until I researched the rescue. 

Before she was beaten, but after the British arrived, she wandered to this warehouse that contained tons of clothing and she picked her way through seams and lapels and found all these treasures—gold pens, rings, currency—the deportees had brought with them. And her greatest heartbreak was the moment she came to and realized her precious stash had been taken away from her. There were all these heartbreaks. And then, when she came to full consciousness she thought, “I survived, but how lucky am I? I lost my home, my family, and my health.” 

Her sister Elisabeth also survived and Elisabeth was with your mother for much of the time? Helping each other must have had a role in their survival. 

Yes. It was very important to have a partner in one’s struggles. Elisabeth sacrificed her life for my mother at Auschwitz. She was ready to die with my mother when she herself was picked for possible labor. At that moment, Elisabeth showed her love and deep compassion for her sister. From that point on, my mother did everything in her power to help my aunt survive whatever trials they went through. She would “organize” food for the both of them. They helped each other. And when my mother was in that makeshift hospital, knowing that her sister was alive and in decent shape was a real driving force for her because, if she died, she would be leaving her sister all alone in the world. 

My mother mustered her will to live because of Elisabeth and because she was only 15 and felt she had not yet lived much of life. She didn't know how very sick she was or how long recovery would take, but she fought to have a chance. And her father's parting words to her in the cattle car before they got to Auschwitz came back to her—he had confidence that she would make it. She had to live up to his words.

Your mother was eventually evacuated from Bergen-Belsen to Sweden. What was the role of Sweden in helping survivors of the camps, and how did your mother, unlike many other people, wind up there and then live there for ten years?

The Swedes led a humanitarian mission to save these people and help them get back on their feet. Perhaps they felt guilt over their neutrality or how they helped Hitler during the war. Who knows? But they took in about 7,000 really sick people from Bergen-Belsen. The idea was to rehabilitate them and, after about six months of medical treatment, they would go on their way and maybe be repatriated in their home countries. 

When my mother got to Sweden, she was very sick. She had tuberculosis, and she was in various TB sanatoriums and rest homes in Sweden for ten years. I don't know any survivor who went to Sweden who didn't say that Sweden was wonderful and the Swedish people were kind, and that meant so much. These people had seen the worst of humanity and then in Sweden they were so well cared for. My mother had certain post-war experiences that showed her that there was still humanity in the world.

My mother loved Sweden. When we (my sister and I) were growing up, our house was a mixture of cultures, with certain traditions and foods from Hungary, Romania, and Sweden. Though my parents wanted to be American, they couldn’t help but transmit what they carried from Europe. 

Robin Lindley: You describe many moving moments in your writing. I can’t recall if this scene was from your new book, but after the liberation there were thousands of displaced persons left at Bergen-Belsen. One drop of supplies included a large shipment of lipstick. The soldiers thought that this shipment just useless, but women survivors were thrilled and eagerly accepted the lipstick. It was almost part of their resurrection—a restoration of human dignity after being dehumanized for months and years. That story was so moving. 

Yes, that was fascinating. 

Humanitarian organizations, such as the Red Cross and Jewish organizations, were sending shipments to Bergen-Belsen. And they got this huge box of lipsticks and whoever opened it thought that was ridiculous and completely useless. And then they distributed the lipsticks and that was the best feeling for the women when they started to put on lipstick. They felt like human beings again. And when they were given clothes or a needle and thread and some old garments that they could tailor, life came back to them. They wanted to make themselves look presentable and attractive to the opposite sex. Little things that you might not think about really mattered. 

Yes. A marvelous story of the renewal. 

And becoming human again. There are so many of those little stories. In one instance, a soldier turned to Jewish leader and said, “Look at that woman. She's crazy. She's combing her hair with a broken piece of a comb.” And the leader said, “You give her a real comb and see which she would choose. Then you could see if she were crazy.” 

These people were so deprived and they didn't have the basic supplies that we take for granted. If they had a choice, and they were given the real thing, they wouldn’t have looked crazy. And they were used to saving every little thing they could get their hands on—a piece of string had uses.

Adjusting to life after the war had to be challenging. How is your mother doing now? 

She's doing well. Thank you for asking. I worry about her because of the pandemic. I can't visit with her and she normally has a lot of speaking engagements. She’s really wonderful. She has such a great message when she speaks to kids, and she speaks to a lot of middle and high school students about the Holocaust. 

What did she think of your book? 

She read drafts of it, and I kept her abreast of the entire publishing process, so she learned a lot. She is happy that I achieved the goal of writing her story, and we are both happy to have saved members of our family—a few of the six million—from oblivion. 

She must be really proud of you. 

We are proud of each other. 

Does she live in a senior facility?

No. She’s going to be 91 in a few weeks, and she lives in her own home and takes care of everything in the home herself. 

That’s amazing. She’s still doing well after all of those narrow escapes. Please give her my best regards.

I will. Thank you so much for your interest and this interview.

It’s been a pleasure talking with you Dr. Lerner. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful and moving comments. And congratulations on your compelling and illuminating new book All the Horrors of War on the journeys of your mother and the liberator Brigadier Glyn Hughes, MD.  

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


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