May 27, 1907 – Birth of Rachel Carson, Marine Biologist Who Advanced the Global Environmental Movement

Rachel Carson, born on this day in history on a family farm in Pennsylvania, is best known for her book Silent Spring, originally published in 1962.

As a child, Rachel was an avid reader and published her own story when she was ten. At the Pennsylvania College for Women, she majored in biology while continuing to write. As a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, she studied zoology and genetics. Although she intended to get a doctorate degree, she was forced to leave school to help support her family during the Great Depression. She at first took a temporary position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing radio copy for a series of weekly educational broadcasts focused on aquatic life. The Bureau of Fisheries was impressed enough by her that in 1936, she became the second woman hired by the Bureau of Fisheries for a full-time professional position, as a junior aquatic biologist.

Rachel Carson, 1940 Fish & Wildlife Service employee photo

Rachel Carson, 1940
Fish & Wildlife Service employee photo

For the Bureau, she wrote pamphlets on conservation and natural resources and edited scientific articles, but in her free time she turned to writing articles and books for the general public.

In mid-1945, Carson first encountered the subject of DDT, a revolutionary new pesticide — lauded as the “insect bomb” after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — that was only beginning to undergo tests for safety and ecological effects. Editors found the subject unappealing, however, and she published nothing on DDT until 1962.

In early 1950, Oxford University Press expressed interest in Carson’s book proposal for a life history of the ocean, spurring her to complete by early 1950 the manuscript of what would become The Sea Around Us. Chapters appeared in Science Digest and The Yale Review — with one chapter winning the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s George Westinghouse Science Writing Prize. Nine chapters were serialized in The New Yorker beginning June 1951 and the book was published July 2, 1951. The Sea Around Us remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 86 weeks, was abridged by Reader’s Digest, won the 1952 National Book Award for Nonfiction and the John Burroughs Medal. It also led to two honorary doctorates for Carson. The Sea’s success led to the republication of Under the Sea Wind, which became a bestseller itself. With success came financial security, and in 1952 Carson was able to give up her job in order to concentrate on writing full time.

She was driven by the belief that human beings were an integral part of nature but distinguished by their immense power to alter it, which could have irreversible deleterious consequences.

In Silent Spring, published in 1962, she not only documented the adverse environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides, but accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation, and public officials of accepting the industry’s marketing claims unquestioningly.

The book was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, but inspired a grassroots environmental movement that led to the eventual banning of DDT and other pesticides.

Carson died in 1964, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter. Her legacy lives on through the advances she helped spur in the global environmental movement, including the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

In 1994, a new edition of Silent Spring was published in which Vice President Al Gore wrote the introduction, and in 2012 Silent Spring was designated a National Historic Chemical Landmark by the American Chemical Society for its role in the development of the modern environmental movement. It was also named one of the 25 greatest science books of all time by the editors of “Discover Magazine.”

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May 24, 1987 – Golden Gate Bridge Flattens at the 50th Anniversary Celebration

On this date in 1987 San Francisco held a celebration for the approximate fiftieth anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. (The actual anniversary was on May 27, but May 24 was a Sunday and therefore more suitable for a ceremony.)

The official website of the Golden Gate Bridge tells us that in 1846, Captain John Fremont declared California’s independence from Mexico and named the entrance to the San Francisco Bay “Chrysopylae,” which means Golden Gate in Greek.

More gold became associated with the city after its discovery in Northern California in 1849. San Francisco exploded into a city of 35,000.

In 1919, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors launched a study of the feasibility of a bridge across the Golden Gate Strait. The study was completed in May, 1920, and the prominent engineer Joseph B. Strauss in Chicago was selected to head up the project. It wasn’t until December, 1928 however that the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District was incorporated as the entity to finance, design, and construct the bridge. A year later, two dedication ceremonies were held to mark the start of borings for the tower piers at each end.

San Francisco’s Joseph Strauss Memorial, in March 2010.

In the summer of 1930, Strauss hired a local architect, Irving Morrow, to design how the bridge would look. Morrow was later recognized for his aesthetic contributions – the Golden Gate Bridge’s distinctive Art Deco lines, burnt red-orange hue, and the structure’s dramatic lighting. Still, it wouldn’t be until January 5, 1933 that the bridge construction officially began.

On April 27, 1937 the “Last Rivet Ceremony” was held at midspan. On May 27, 1937 Golden Gate Bridge opened to pedestrian traffic and on May 28, it opened to vehicular traffic at twelve o’clock noon, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key in the White House to announce the event to the world. Simultaneously, every fire siren in San Francisco and Marin was sounded, every church bell rang, ships sounded their whistles, and every fog horn blew. The bridge opened ahead of schedule and under budget.

On the timeline of the official website for May 24, 1987, the entry only reads: “Golden Gate Bridge celebrates its 50th Anniversary.” But it was actually a much more exciting event, and the website does describe what happened on its page “Golden Gate Bridge Anniversaries.

According to “The Mercury News” newspaper published in San Jose, California:

On May 24, 1987, 300,000 people were stuck in human gridlock for hours while getting a rare chance to cross the 1.7-mile bridge en masse on foot to celebrate the bridge’s golden anniversary. Officials quickly closed the bridge, so a half-million other people waiting to cross never got the chance. Still, the enormous, unprecedented weight caused the middle of the bridge to sag 7 feet.”

Engineers maintained afterward that the bridge was never in danger of collapsing. (…just like the Titanic was never in danger of sinking…)

An estimated 350,000 people turned out for the bridge walk, which kicked off the Golden Gate Bridge 50th anniversary celebration. (AP Photo/Doug Atkins)

The article furthermore contended:

On fully loaded suspension bridges the size of the Golden Gate, it’s normal to have ‘deflections’ of up to 10 feet, said Greg Deierlein, a Stanford University professor of civil and environmental engineering.”

The bridge had originally been engineered to hold 4,000 pounds for every foot of bridge. During the mid-1980s, concrete was replaced with a lighter steel framework, boosting that capacity to 5,700 pounds per foot. Ewa Bauer, chief engineer of the bridge district, said that the designers of the Golden Gate over-engineered the bridge to accommodate at least an additional 150 percent weight.

Stephen Tung, the author of the article in the “Mercury News,” writes:

No one knows the exact weight of the pedestrians on the bridge on that May day. But assuming the average person weighs about 150 pounds and occupies about 2.5 square feet in a crowd, there would have been about 5,400 pounds for every foot in length. That’s more than double the weight of cars in bumper-to-bumper traffic.”

For the sixtieth anniversary in 1997, a different celebration was planned: The world was able to explore the famed landmark virtually via an interactive web site. On the 75th anniversary in 2012, the main activities were held at Fort Point, Crissy Field, The Presidio and Marina Green.

Review of “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” by Heather Morris

Lale Sokolov, born in Krompachy, Slovia in 1916, was transported by the Nazis to Auschwitz on April 23, 1942. Late in his life, he told his story to the author. She decided to call this book a “novel” because she created dialogue based on what Lale told her, and because of the uncertainty of the veracity of memory. Nevertheless, she states:

“Lale’s memories were, on the whole, remarkably clear and precise. They matched my research into people, dates, and places.”

At the time he was sent to Auschwitz, Lale was 24, healthy, and could speak a number of languages, all of which proved very fortunate for him. In fact, as inappropriate as it seems to speak of an inmate of Nazi concentration camps having a lot of “luck,” the truth is that Lale, in spite of his circumstances, had an inordinate amount of it. Even one of the S.S. marveled he was like a cat with nine lives. Almost without exception, those who tried to do what he did in the camps were executed – or tortured first and then executed.

Lale became a Tätowierer, or tattooist, for the camp, one of the men assigned to brand the prisoners when they arrived, just as was done to Lale when he came to Auschwitz. The Nazis used the tattoos to identify bodies after they killed them, in order to facilitate their meticulous record-keeping that chronicled who arrived and who was killed.

Children at Auschwitz showing their tattooed arms

Lale hated the job, but it was a way to keep alive, and he vowed when he came there that he would survive and see those who were responsible pay a price. He held on to that thought using it like a mantra to make himself get up each morning, and the next and the next.

Lale Sokolov showing his own tattoo from Auschwitz

He soon got another reason to go on living, after meeting a girl whose tattoo had faded and needed to be redone: Gita Furman (born Gisela Fuhrmannova) was also from Slovakia. Lale was entranced by her dark eyes, and began a secret courtship with her. He was helped by a number of factors. Because he was one of only two Tätowierers, he had more freedom than other prisoners, and even got extra rations. He was able to walk around and befriend two local (non-Jewish) workers who came from the nearby town, and from whom he received meat, chocolate, and even medicine, for which he paid in jewels confiscated by the Nazis from incoming prisoners. He got those from the girls who worked in “Canada,” where the possessions of new arrivals were collected and processed. The girls transferred jewels and money to Lale, and he used it as payment for goods from the outside. These he shared not only with the girls from Canada but with others.

Women’s Barracks

He was in this way able to help get Gita penicillin when she was sick. After she recovered, he also managed, through bribes, to obtain a job for her in the camp office where life would be easier. He paid the guard in charge of Gita’s barrack to get time to see her. He helped anyone he could (everyone in the camp always wanted more than what the camp provided), and he was repaid in kind when he himself needed help. Thus both he and Gita survived until 1945, when the Russians were closing in and the Germans abandoned the camp. But first, the Nazis tried to kill remaining prisoners. In the ensuing chaos, Lale and Gita independently escaped and made their separate ways back to Slovakia.

Lale went to the main train station in Bratislava every day, hoping to find Gita among the many survivors arriving daily. And after two weeks, there she was. They were married in October, 1945. When he got into trouble with the new government in Czechoslovakia, again Lale got lucky, and he and Gita escaped, making their way to Australia in 1949.

The author met Lale in 2003, after Gita died and when Lale wanted to tell his story to a writer who was not Jewish, so would more likely be without personal baggage or preconceptions. She visited Lale two or three times a week for three years until his own death in 2006 and gradually learned his story.

PHOTO: Lale and Gita with their son Gary in the 1960s.

The author concluded:

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is a story of two ordinary people living in an extraordinary time, deprived not only of their freedom but also their dignity, their names, and their identities. It is Lale’s account of what they needed to do to survive. Lale lived his life by the motto: ‘If you wake up in the morning, it is a good day.’ On the morning of his funeral I woke knowing it was not a good day for me, but that it would have been for him. He was now with Gita.”

I would only counter that I didn’t think of Lale and Gita as “ordinary” at all. As Lale said to Gita about her friend Cilka, who was forced to perform sexual acts with one of the SS:

“Tell her I think she is a hero. . . You’re a hero, too, my darling. That the two of you have chosen to survive is a type of resistance to these Nazi bastards. Choosing to live is an act of defiance, a form of heroism.”

Lale also, to me, was heroic, and extraordinary.

The book includes photos and some additional information about the fate of others mentioned in the story.

Evaluation: This powerful book of courage and hope when there is no justification to feel either is an incredible story, and highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published in the U.S. by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2018

May 17, 1792 – Buttonwood Agreement Marks Informal Beginning of New York Stock Exchange

The Buttonwood Agreement, which took place on May 17, 1792, was a one sentence agreement organizing securities trading in New York City. This document was signed outside of 68 Wall Street by 22 individuals and two two-man firms. According to legend the signing took place under a buttonwood tree, but this tree may never have existed.

Signing of the Buttonwood Agreement, via Library of Congress

The agreement had two provisions: 1) the brokers were to deal only with each other, thereby eliminating the auctioneers, and 2) the commissions were to be 0.25%. It reads as follows:

We the Subscribers, Brokers for the Purchase and Sale of the Public Stock, do hereby solemnly promise and pledge ourselves to each other, that we will not buy or sell from this day for any person whatsoever, any kind of Public Stock, at a less rate than one quarter percent Commission on the Specie value and that we will give preference to each other in our Negotiations. In Testimony whereof we have set our hands this 17th day of May at New York, 1792″

In 1817, 27 brokers went further and constituted themselves as the New York Stock and Exchange Board. In that instance, a set of 17 rules were adopted to govern trading and the admission of new members.

According to law professor Stuart Banner, in “The Origin of the New York Stock Exchange, 1791-1860” (The Journal of Legal Studies, Vol 27, No. 1, January 1998, available online here):

The origin and the early growth of the New York Stock and Exchange Board can be attributed in large part to the brokers’ success in regulating themselves, a success that enabled them to create wealth and to capture wealth from nonmembers.”

Notably, he also adds:

The value of the stock and exchange board’s regulatory function was enhanced by the unenforceability in the New York courts of an important class of transactions. In its earliest decades, the board was the only institution capable of regulating, and resolving disputes arising from a wide range of market activity.”

For an interesting description of how early stock trading was conducted, Banner’s article is an excellent resource.

May 15, 2011 – Church of Scotland Admits it Persecuted Travelling Community

The Scottish Travelling community has been a part of Scotland since at least the 12th Century. It arose from Scottish workers who wandered the country taking seasonal farming jobs and providing goods and services, especially as tinsmiths and peddlers. In spite of their Scottish origins, they were and still are looked upon as outsiders.

Although there are no official figures on the number of Gypsy Travellers in Scotland, numbers are estimated at between 15- 20,000 people, or less than 0.5 per cent of the Scottish population. The 2011 census revealed that Scotland was the most common country of birth for Gypsy/Travellers in 2011 (76 per cent), followed by England (11 per cent).

Source: Scottish Government Report at https://www.gov.scot/Publications/2015/12/5103/4

A Fact Sheet for journalists points out:

Despite these relatively small numbers, there is significant coverage of this group of people in the media. A recent study by Amnesty International shows that a disproportionate amount of that coverage is negative.”

A report issued on this date in history by the Church of Scotland allowed:

The Travelling Community has historically suffered much discrimination. For example, in 1533 King James V issued a decree banning gypsies from Scotland saying they should ‘depart forth of this realme with their wifis, bairns and companies.’ Discrimination has continued and even intensified in the succeeding centuries as access to land for temporary sites has been more and more tightly restricted and legislation impacting on Travellers more rigorously enforced.”

In its 2011 report, the church made a public statement admitting its complicity in the persecution of Travellers and in forcibly removing children from Traveller families and sending them abroad. Church ministers were even present sometimes when youngsters were forcibly taken from their families and sent to Australia and Canada during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.

But it proposed an excuse:

With hindsight, we can regard with regret some of the attitudes which the Churches have displayed towards the Travelling Community and, when it occurred, deplore their historic failure to stand alongside a minority group facing discrimination and even persecution. However, it should be acknowledged that proposals . . . were made in the belief, at the time, that they would bring benefit both to the Travelling Community and to wider society.”

In recent times, the Human Rights Act of 1998 and the Equality Act 2010 have recognized Travellers as an ethnic group which provides them with greater protection against discrimination. Nevertheless, many Travellers report continued biases affecting them in such areas as housing facilities, education, healthcare, and legislative representation. The BBC reported in 2017 that discrimination against Travellers in Scotland has become the last form of “acceptable racism.”

The Scottish Parliament focused on the issue of Traveller discrimination for Human Rights Day 2017. It admitted that research showed “entrenched and stubbornly high levels of discrimination” against the community. A recent Scottish Social Attitudes survey found 34% of people in Scotland believed a Gypsy/Traveller was “unsuitable” to be a primary school teacher, and 31% would be unhappy if a close relative married a Gypsy/Traveller.

Davie Donaldson, a young campaigner for Travellers rights, argued that people in the “settled community” needed to be more willing to meet Travellers: “We are the same as everyone else. We may have a unique culture but we have always been here. We are rooted here the same as everyone else. We are your fellow man.”

Davie Donaldson is a campaigner for Travellers rights

A Scottish government spokesman said: “We recognise that Gypsy/Travellers are among the most disenfranchised and discriminated against in society, which is why we are determined to do all we can to remove barriers to achieving equality. . . . “

To that end, the Scottish government published “A Fairer Scotland for All: Race Equality Action Plan 2017-2021” on December 11, 2017. You can access it here.

May 13, 1940 – Winston Churchill’s First Speech as Prime Minister to House of Commons in Which He Sets Out War Policy: Victory at All Costs

As Lewis E. Lehrman wrote in Lincoln & Churchill: Statesmen at War, Lincoln and Churchill both believed winning over public opinion was essential:

They would by word and action mobilize the people and resources of their countries to fight a relentless struggle for unconditional surrender of the enemy. Defeat was unthinkable.”

On this date, in Churchill’s first speech as Prime Minister to the House of Commons, he showed his prowess in mobilizing language in this stirring effort to mobilize the country for the war that was now heating up:

We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal. But I take up my task with buoyancy and hope. I feel sure that our cause will not be suffered to fail among men. At this time I feel entitled to claim the aid of all, and I say, ‘come then, let us go forward together with our united strength.’”[emphasis added]

You can read the entire speech here.

Winston Churchill, December 1941 by Yousuf Karsh

Review of “The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost” by Cathal J. Nolan

I have been an avid reader of history for many years. I estimate that I have read several hundred books that can be classified specifically as “military history.” With all due respect to John Keegan and Thucydides, Cathal J. Nolan’s The Allure of Battle may be the most perceptive and one of the best written of the bunch.

Nolan’s main thesis is that many military planners and historians have been seduced by the appeal of a big, decisive battle choreographed by a brilliant tactician (think Napoleon), as an instrument of state policy and as a tool to resolve controversies. That is, win a major battle and you can win the war. He argues that such a perception has nearly always been flawed, and has led to disastrous consequences for states basing their policies on it. Seeking a decisive battle has not only usually been the wrong strategy, but:

. . . with few exceptions, the major power wars of the past several centuries were in the end decided by grinding exhaustion more than by the operational art of even the greatest of the modern great captains.”

Nolan bemoans the fact that time and again, military theorists as well as generals have been seduced by the “cult of battle.” To demonstrate, he delves into details of all the significant – mostly European – wars from the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) to World War II. He shows that lopsided victories in large battles seldom put national or international disputes to rest, but this fact has never led to an abandonment of the theory.

The Battle of Borodino, fought on September 7, 1812, by Louis-François Lejeune, 1822

So many factors, often aleatory, figure into the final equation of victory: economic resources, food and water supplies, relative health of armies, differential access to superior weaponry, and “the powerful reality of moral and material attrition.” Moreover, military engagements often designated as “great” by historians are not necessarily the most important. For example, students of the United States Civil War focus on the battles at Antietam and Gettysburg, which stand out for the number of casualties sustained as well as their political import. But they were not decisive. Rather, the Battle of Vicksburg had much greater effect on the outcome of the war by cutting the Confederacy in two along the Mississippi River and opening the river to Northern traffic. Nuance, however, is not as compelling for either histories or propaganda campaigns as are stories of vast, bloody conflicts. Because of, or in spite of this, countries rarely seem to learn from the past. Nolan seeks to remediate that problem.

Battle of Vicksburg shown by Kurz and Allison, chromolithographers in the mid-1880s

Nolan is not so dogmatic as to assert that his thesis always applies. Importantly, he cites the example of Moltke’s success in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) as an exception. Nevertheless, he demonstrates that even such famous generals as Marlborough, Frederick II of Prussia, and Napoleon ultimately were unsuccessful in their efforts to end major disputes with climactic battles. In fact, even Moltke’s ostensible favorable outcome in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 was quite misleading in that the French, though they were defeated in battle and their capital was occupied, continued to harass the Prussians outside Paris and eventually expelled them from France.

The archetypical example of the unsuccessful quest for a decisive battle occurred at the onset of World War I when the Germans attempted to eliminate the French army in one extended blow by executing the Schlieffen Plan before the Russians were able to mobilize. [The Schlieffen Plan was the name given to previously formulated German war plans for the invasion of France and Belgium in 1914.] The initial thrust of the German army simply expended its momentum and degenerated into the most frustrating grinding exhaustion in military history.

Count von Schlieffen in 1906

Nolan is capable not only of hard-headed analysis, but also of moving prose. He observes that the planners of war are usually older men who do not actually have to fight it. Here he describes how hatred of the war and the enemy arises in various situations, usually after the initial thrust of invasion degenerated into the slog of inglorious attrition:

It came from fear of being shot or bayoneted at Verdun, or captured and mutilated by a Soviet partisan, or murdered by a roving SS death commando. From being 18 or 20, far from home, ashamed over crying in your slit trench every night, embarrassed by loss of bowel control. From lying under a barrage during another accursed Isonzo battle or charging a sleeping French division over the Somme with bayonet and unloaded Mauser. From seeing a buddy step on a landmine on Guadalcanal or disappear into a pink mist at El Alamein or Okinawa. Or watching a mate die from a sniper’s bullet while hung up on a the wire at Ypres or on the ash at Iwo Jima, or charging the Russian machine guns at Mukden, or sick with typhus in a prison camp, or doing forced labor down a Honshu mine. It came from hedge-fright because you thought tirailleurs or snipers were hiding behind every haystack or down the next cellar, so you tossed in a grenade as you passed by and heard a family scream. It came from scrambling with 10,000 other prisoners for ‘a bit of potato, please,’ looking up as a callous camp guard tossed scraps into a surge of starving men.”

His depiction of the condition of the Japanese garrisons on Borneo and New Guinea at the end of World War II is succinct but powerful:

Death on land, at sea, in the air. Always death, and more death. Not glorious at all, in fact. More nihilistic: thin, fanatic, futile, fatalist.”

Evaluation: This is an excellent book that should serve as a warning to would-be conquerors and put a damper on paeans to past and future Napoleons. The hardcover book includes illustrations, maps, and extensive footnotes.

Note: Allure of Battle is the winner of the 2017 Gilder Lehrman Prize for Military History. This major book prize “recognizes the best book on military history in the English-speaking world distinguished by its scholarship, its contribution to the literature, and its appeal to both a general and an academic audience.”

Rating: 5/5 stars

Published by Oxford University Press, 2017