Thursday, October 22, 2020

At dinner with Stalin

‘Marshal Stalin stressed in his remarks his feeling that the three Great Powers which had borne the burden of the war should be the ones to preserve the peace. He said it was ridiculous to think that a country like Albania should or could have an equal voice with the United Kingdom, the United States, or the USSR. It was they who had won the war.’ This is from the diaries of Edward Reilly Stettinius Jr. written while he was attending the Yalta Conference. Born 120 years ago today, he was Secretary of State under Roosevelt in the latter part of the Second World War,  and went on to become - albeit briefly - the US’s first ambassador to the United Nations.

Stettinius was born in Chicago, Illinois, on 22 October 1900, to a mother of colonial English ancestry and a father of German descent. He grew up in a mansion on the family’s estate on Staten Island and graduated from the Pomfret School in 1920. Although he attended the University of Virginia until 1924, he spent much of his time helping poor Appalachian hill families and working with employment agencies trying to assist poor students at the university. By 1926 he had opted out of college, and taken a job at General Motors working as a stock clerk. That same year, he married Virginia Gordon Wallace, daughter of a prominent family from Richmond, Virginia, and they had three sons. 

Stettinius rose rapidly at General Motors becoming, in 1931, vice president in charge of public and industrial relations. He worked to improve unemployment relief programs, and served on the Industrial Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration. By 1934, though, he had joined U.S. Steel, the country’s large corporation, and he became its chairman in 1938. From 1939, he served on the National Defense Advisory Commission, as chairman of the War Resources Board, and later was administrator of the Lend-Lease Program. In 1943, Franklin Roosevelt appointed him to the role of Under Secretary of State, with promotion to Secretary of State in late 1944.

The following year, Stettinius was a member of the US delegation to the 1945 Yalta Conference, and he chaired the US delegation to the San Francisco conference which brought together delegates from 50 Allied nations to create the United Nations. Thereafter, he was appointed the first US Ambassador to the newly created United Nations. However, he was only in the post a few months before resigning in protest at President Truman’s refusal to use the UN as a forum to resolve growing Soviet-American tensions. Subsequently, he headed the Liberia Company, which encouraged US firms to invest in the development of the African country. He became rector of the University of Virginia until his death in 1949. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Office of the Historian, American National Biography (log-in required), and

In 1975, New Viewpoints published The Diaries of Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., 1943-1946 as edited by Thomas M. Campbell and George C. Herring. In their introduction the editors state: 

‘A diary naturally reflects the personality and needs of the man who compiles it. Stettinius intended his diary primarily as a record of his official activities, not as a source of intellectual satisfaction or emotional release. Hence it is confined largely to public matters and tells little about his private life. The diary sometimes offers sensitive and perceptive comments on public affairs in World War II, but in general it takes a cautious, even uncritical approach, reflecting the cautiousness of Stettinius’s personality and his concern for the reputations of the men around him. A sometimes insecure man who stood in awe of many of his associates, Stettinius liked people and desperately wanted to be liked, and his diary lacks the candid, frequently acerbic appraisals of men which typify the diaries of John Quincy Adams and Henry Stimson. He deals only sparingly with the power struggles that were going on around him, and indeed plays down his own conflicts with his associates.

Nevertheless, the Stettinius diary forms an important and revealing record of American diplomacy during and immediately after World War II. The summaries of conversations with U.S. officials and foreign diplomats nicely supplement the official documents published by the Department of State. The transcripts of phone conversations are a particularly valuable source, and frequently catch prominent officials in candid, unguarded moments. The diary provides significant information which cannot be found elsewhere, and it reveals much about the manner in which decisions were made in the State Department and the government as a whole.’

Here are several extracts from the diary.

9 June 1944
‘The president [Franklin D. Roosevelt] has made up his mind that it would be a mistake for him to “mix in” with the question of the Polish primer minister going to Moscow. He has come to the conclusion that Stalin would misunderstand this in view of the president’s statement to Stalin at Tehran that this was a political year. The president has authorized me to tell the Polish prime minister that he cannot send the message to Stalin but for me to make the suggestion that the Polish prime minister make arrangements to go to Moscow through President Beneš of Czechoslovakia. 

The prime minister thought that perhaps an approach might be made at this level, but he wondered whether, if the approach was made at the military level, the Soviet authorities might accept with alacrity military collaboration, but as their armies advanced, they would go ahead independently on the political level and organize the administration in Poland along their own lines without consultation with the Polish government-in-exile. No final decision was made as to the advisability of making this second approach.’

28 July 1944
‘Mr. Metcalf of Time came in and said he wanted to discuss the Argentine situation and asked whether or not we were prepared to go all out [on] economic sanctions. I told him that that was an unfair question and that he was just trying to get a scoop. I told him with a smile, “No comment. I’m a diplomat.”

He then asked several questions about the postwar discussions. I told him there was nothing to be said other than we were going to have the discussions and that I was going to head up the American group.

Mr. James Reston came in for general background discussion. He asked if we had made up our minds as to the partitioning of Germany. I said that that was something under discussion and study and I could see nothing gained by discussing this matter in the American press.

He then asked about the new ambassadors to be sent to exiled governments. I told him that matter was “moving along” but that there was nothing I could say on the subject at this time.

Mr. Reston then said that lately he seemed to be getting very little satisfaction from me, or any help or guidance.’

10 November 1944
‘I . . . finished up some work in the car on the way to the Union Station to meet the president [Franklin D. Roosevelt] who was coming in at 8:30 from Hyde Park in his special train.

The sky was overcast and it was raining fairly hard when we got there. I went into the train to greet the president. All members of the cabinet were there, together with the heads of many of the agencies.

The car was surrounded by radiomen, MP guards, and a host of Secret Service agents.

After greeting the president, I got back into my car and waited for the procession to begin. . . .

At exactly 9:00 the first car left the station loaded with Secret Service agents in their armoured car. The second car contained the president, and seated with him in the back of the car were Vice-President Elect Harry S. Truman, and Vice-President Henry A. Wallace. The only other occupant of the car, beside the driver, was Johnny Boettiger, the president’s grandson. The next five or six cars contained newsmen, and following them were the greeting committee of cabinet members and so on. We were about the tenth car. 

The procession stopped at Columbus Memorial fountain  where commissioner John Russell Young extends to the president Washington’s official homecoming welcome. The president responded with a few minute’s talk [sic] on how glad he was to be back, but he didn’t hope to make Washington his permanent home.’

The president entered the room at 2:10 pm, and the entire cabinet rose and clapped. The president was very cheerful and looked well. The president said he was like the old man Dante wrote about, who had gone to Hell four times. 

The president said the past campaign had been the dirtiest one in his entire political career.

The president turned to me and said he had been out of touch with foreign relations and was there anything new. I told the president there was much I would have to report to him and hoped to have a private talk promptly; stating to him that we had me with the Latin American ambassadors yesterday and that we had made good progress and I was sure we would get their full support on the world organization. I told the president that we had taken them to the Blair House afterward. The president asked whether we served liquor, and I said, yes, but always after five o’clock. He then said, “You must invite me over some time!” ’

14 November 1944
‘I met with Nelson Rockefeller [coordinator of Inter-American Affairs] and a group of his chairmen from various Latin American countries. The meeting was brief, and in the main we discussed Argentina. It was their general feeling that if the British supported us, we could force out the present Argentine regime in a matter of weeks. However, they did point out that it would be necessary for the British to cooperate with us honestly and not say to the Argentine people, “We are awfully sorry we have to do this, but the United States is forcing us to take this position.” These men pointed out that in this way, the United States would be further criticized and be considered a brute, and Great Britain, the poor innocent party to the deal. I assured Mr. Rockefeller and his chairmen of the State Department’s whole-hearted support.’

4 February 1945
‘I attended a dinner which the president gave for Mr. Churchill and Marshal Stalin at Livadia Palace [Yalta]. During the greater part of the dinner the conversation was general and personal in character. But during the last half hour the subject of the responsibilities and rights of the big powers as against those of the small powers came up. Marshal Stalin stressed in his remarks his feeling that the three Great Powers which had borne the burden of the war should be the ones to preserve the peace. He said it was ridiculous to think that a country like Albania should or could have an equal voice with the United Kingdom, the United States, or the USSR. It was they who had won the war. He said he was prepared to join with the United States and Great Britain to protect the small powers but that he could never agree to having any action of any of Great Powers submitted to the judgment of the small powers. The president and prime minister said that they agreed that the Great Powers would necessarily bear the major responsibility for the peace but that it was essential that they exercise their power with moderation and with respect for the rights of the smaller nations.

After Marshal Stalin and the president had left, I talked with the prime minister and Mr. Eden briefly on the voting question. The prime minister reiterated that he had been inclined to the Russian view on voting procedure because he felt everything depended on maintaining the unity of the three Great Powers. Without that the world would be doomed to inevitable catastrophe and anything that preserved that unity would have his vote. Mr. Eden took vigorous exception to the prime minister’s statement on voting procedure and said he believed the United States formula was the minimum essential to attract the support of the small nations to the organization, nor did he feel that the British people themselves would accept a ruling of unqualified unanimity.’

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

King of the Castle

The Daily Express has an incredible feature article: “Why Barbara is King of the Castle.” As I thought, the press is crediting me with having fought and won triumphantly a battle with my colleagues over the Transport Bill. Dick is a bit fed up about all this having loyally supported me all the way through and not relishing his role as the ogre of the piece.’ This is from the diaries of Barbara Castle, born 110 years ago today, a key figure in the Harold Wilson’s Labour governments in the 1960s and 1970s.

Barbara Anne Betts was born on 6 October 1910 in Chesterfield, though was brought up in Pontefract and Bradford, as her father, a tax inspector, moved to different positions. In Bradford, the family became involved with the Independent Labour Party. There, Barbara attended the local grammar school where she excelled academically, and enjoyed acting. At St Hugh’s College, Oxford, she joined the university Labour Club, and became its treasurer. She moved to London to take up journalism, and became more involved in politics. She began an affair with the much older William Mellor, helping him in the 1935 election campaign. She, herself, was elected to St Pancras Metropolitan Borough Council in 1937. Through the Second World War she worked at the Ministry of Food and was an Air Raid Precautions warden during the Blitz. She worked as a journalist on the left-wing weekly Tribune and for the Daily Mirror, whose night editor, Ted Castle, she married in 1944. The following year she was elected Member of Parliament for Blackburn - a seat she would hold for 34 years - quickly making a name for herself as the Red Queen (for her fiery speeches and red hair).

Castles first appointment in government was as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Sir Stafford Cripps, President of the Board of Trade, and then she continued in the same role for Harold Wilson. During the 1950s, she emerged as a high-profile Bevanite, and a vocal advocate of decolonisation and the Anti-Apartheid Movement. Under Prime Minister Wilson, she served, initially, as Minister for Overseas Development (a newly created position) from 1964 to 1965. Subsequently, she was appointed Minister of Transport (1965-1968) and then First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Employment (1968-1970). 

In opposition, while Ted Heath was Prime Minister, Castle continued to be the spokesperson on employment although she fell out with Wilson. When Labour was returned to power in 1974, Wilson appointed her Secretary of State for Health and Social Services. When James Callaghan took over the Labour leadership, in 1976, she was dismissed from the cabinet. Three years later, despite having opposed Britain’s entry into the Common Market, Castle was elected to the European Parliament, where she remained a leading socialist until her retirement in 1989. She was created a Life Peer in 1990. She died in 2002. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Cotton Town, The University of Bradford, Spartacus Educational, or The Guardian.

While still an active politician, in the 1980s, Castle published two volumes of diaries, chronicling her time in office from 1964-1976 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980 and 1984). They were widely praised, as Wikipedia notes: the London Review of Books said that they show ‘more about the nature of cabinet government - even though it deals with only one Cabinet - than any previous publication, academic, political or biographical.’ Michael Foot in The Listener claimed that the diary, ‘whatever else it is or not, is a human document, hopelessly absorbing’. Paul Johnson in the Sunday Telegraph wrote that it was ‘a contribution of first rate importance to our knowledge of modern politics’.

In her preface, Castle states: ‘Whatever else may be said about political diaries they are at least an instantaneous account and therefore more accurate than a retrospective one. And it takes courage to publish them. I would like to think that, say, Roy Jenkins or Tony Benn had kept a record of what they thought, said and did at every stage in their progress in government and then were ready to publish it later without any expurgations designed to polish up their image or distort the facts retrospectively. Such pieces of self-exposure can only strengthen the democratic process by enabling people outside government to follow the evolution of those inside and judge for themselves why politicians think and act as they do and how far any adaptations of policy they may make are due to honourable realism and how far to political cowardice.’

Here are two extracts.

23-26 December 1965
‘Papers full of pictures of me. My appointment the sensation. The fact that I couldn’t drive had almost, as Harold predicted when I tried to use this as an argument against appointing me, turned out to be an asset. Ted and I drove back to London so that I could kiss hands. Then into the Ministry with Tony to introduce him and say last farewells. I could hardly tear myself away from my beloved desk. (Andrew later sent me a letter I shall treasure all my life.)

So home at last to Christmas, punctured by various phone calls which I refused to take. Stephen Swingler nobly took over the ministerial comments on the road accident figures; also stood by for twenty-four hours for a meeting with George Brown about the railways’ ‘early warning’ of their intended fares increase due to expire on 28 December. On Christmas Eve Stephen phoned to say all attempts to locate George had failed. He had been doing a tour of office parties and just wouldn’t reply to messages. That morning he was still hors de combat and the meeting clearly could not be held. Apparently this sort of thing has happened before.’

11 March 1968
‘The Daily Express has an incredible feature article: “Why Barbara is King of the Castle.” As I thought, the press is crediting me with having fought and won triumphantly a battle with my colleagues over the Transport Bill. Dick is a bit fed up about all this having loyally supported me all the way through and not relishing his role as the ogre of the piece. Frank Allaun popped up to me in the dining room in the House to tell me at more than one meeting recently - some with trade unionists and some with university people - my name has seriously been canvassed for PM. It is a flattering thought, but I don’t take it seriously.

In the meantime I am mopping up a series of office meetings. One concerned Clause 45 of the Transport Bill in which we really are taking a fantastically wide extension of the manufacturing powers of nationalized industries. Having won Cabinet approval for the general principle of extension in the Bill, I have sent my officials away to work on it and they have come back with the Bill drafted to give me practically limitless powers. It is amusing to hear them explaining solemnly that any attempt to define the powers in a Bill in order to limit them would merely lead to unwarrantable restrictions. Once again I marvel at the civil servants: these chaps really hate the whole idea of these manufacturing powers but, the policy having been adopted, they are taking the job of implementing it au sérieux. Hankey, Deputy Treasury Solicitor, assured me that the only way to control the use of the powers was by the provision officials had made for the Minister to approve all proposals for their use, to have the right to modify or withdraw proposals and the duty to publish them. The control in other words would be through the Minister. The CBI has been pressing for inclusion of a phrase to the effect that, in using the powers, nationalized industries must behave in all ways like ‘a company engaged in private enterprise’. Hankey is against my accepting this on the grounds that it doesn’t make any sense, but the others think it might have some advantages presentationally. The real safeguard is that I have got Bill Johnson to agree reluctantly to set up a separate subsidiary company to run the railway workshops. This of course would have to conform to the Companies Acts. But, having gone into all the pros and cons very carefully for an hour this morning, I have decided that an amendment to include the desired words would not do any harm and might do some good. I have asked them to consult the Scottish Office urgently and table a Government amendment on these lines.

Went along to Dick’s room at 7.45 to discuss the Transport Bill guillotine to find no John Silkin there. Dick was in a sour and desperate mood. He had been dining with Aubrey Jones, who complained he had never been consulted on the new proposals for P and I policy. Dick wasn’t too optimistic either about the Budget being radical. “The trouble is”, he says, “Harold and Roy will just think it is radical.” We sat there drinking and gossiping for nearly an hour waiting for John Silkin to turn up.

His failure to do so only heightened Dick’s irritation. That was his trouble, he said, he had to deal with a Chief Whip who was irresponsible. He himself was still seriously thinking of throwing in his hand: why didn’t he just retire and write books and see more of his family? In these moods Dick is not a very reliable witness to anything. But I am really worried by his state of mind.’

Saturday, October 3, 2020

The last manuscript

‘There it was - a bound ledger of the kind used in simple bookkeeping; it was in just such ledgers as this that Wolfe had written his first longhand drafts of everything. The ledger was full to the last page of his almost illegible penciled scrawl, with the title, “A Western Journey,” at the beginning. [ . . .] It was the last manuscript which that large hand of the artist would ever write.’ Thomas Wolfe, one of America’s 20th century literary heroes, was born 120 years ago today. On his early death (he was not yet 40) he left behind a number of manuscripts, including a diary of his very last trip - as described above by the editor of later works, Edward Aswell.

Wolfe was born on 3 October 1900 in Asheville, North Carolina, the youngest of eight children. His father was a stone carver and ran a gravestone business, while his wife ran a boarding house. He studied, from the age of 15, at University of North Carolina, where he become a member of the Dialectic Society and Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. He ran the student newspaper for a while, took a course in playwriting, and won the Worth Prize for Philosophy. In mid-1920, he entered Harvard University, where he studied playwriting with George Pierce Baker - Baker’s 47 Workshop produced several of his plays.

In 1923, Wolfe moved to New York City, teaching at Washington Square University, but still intending to become a playwright. In 1924-1925, he travelled through Europe, and on the way back met Aline Bernstein, a set designer. Although she was married and some 20 years older than him, they embarked on a five year affair. Biographers say she exerted a powerful influence over Wolfe, encouraging and funding his writing efforts, now focused on fiction rather than drama.

In 1929, Scribner published Wolfe’s first novel Look Homeward, Angel, a fictionalised account of his own early experiences of family, friends, and the boarders at his mother’s establishment. It received mixed critical reviews in the US, but became a bestseller in the UK. Some members of his family and the Asheville community, however, were upset with their portrayals in the book. Wolfe then traveled to Europe for a year on a Guggenheim Fellowship. His second novel, Of Time and the River, was published in 1935. As with the first novel, Wolfe’s lengthy manuscript had been cut and shaped significantly by the Scribner’s most prominent book editor, Maxwell Perkins. It was more of a commercial success than the first, but Wolfe himself was displeased with the way it had been edited. Subsequently, Wolfe left Scribner’s and joined Harper & Brothers. Although he quickly published a memoir entitled The Story of a Novel (in which he wrote at length about his relationship with Perkins) he never published another novel in his lifetime. He returned to spend time in Germany (where his books were popular) but found he did not like the political developments and returned to the US. 

In 1938, after submitting over one million words in manuscript form to his new editor, Edward Aswell of Harper & Brothers, Wolfe left New York for a tour of the Western United States. In July, he fell ill with pneumonia, and in September he died from tuberculosis. Two long novels were edited posthumously by Aswell - The Web and the Rock and You Can’t Go Home Again - as well as other short stories and plays. Encyclopaedia Britannica has this assessment: ‘Wolfe was gifted with the faculty of almost total recall, and his fiction is characterized by an intense consciousness of scene and place, together with what is often an extraordinary lyric power. In Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River, Wolfe was able to imbue his life story and the figures of his parents with a lofty romantic quality that has epic and mythopoeic overtones. Powerful emotional evocation and literal reporting are combined in his fiction, and he often alternates between dramatically effective episodes of recollection and highly charged passages of rhetoric.’ Further information is also available at Wikipedia, US National Library of Medicine, or North Carolina Historic Sites.

One of the manuscripts Wolfe left behind after his tragic early death was a diary he had kept during his last trip. It was edited by Aswell and published as A Western Journal - A Daily Log of The Great Parks Trip by University of Pittsburgh Press in 1951. The full text can be read freely online at Internet Archive. The short book starts with a ‘Note’ written by Aswell. In it, Aswell describes how Wolfe, having finished his trip, wrote him a letter in which he mentioned ‘A Western Journey’. Aswell concludes the note as follows: 

‘. . . on that sad September fifteenth, a few hours after Wolfe had died, I sat in the hospital talking with the members of his family. The question of his unpublished manuscripts came up. I asked if they knew anything about “A Western Journey.” His mother undertook to look through his bags. And there it was - a bound ledger of the kind used in simple bookkeeping; it was in just such ledgers as this that Wolfe had written his first longhand drafts of everything. The ledger was full to the last page of his almost illegible penciled scrawl, with the title, “A Western Journey,” at the beginning. There were not fifty thousand words, nothing like it. Wolfe always used round numbers loosely. When he said, “I have written a million words,” he meant: “I have written a lot.” When he said, “I have written fifty thousand words,” he meant: “I have written only a little; in fact, I have just started.” It was the last manuscript which that large hand of the artist would ever write.’ 

Here are two extracts from the diary.

20 June 1938 
‘Left Portland, University Club, 8:15 sharp - Fair day, bright sunlight, no cloud in sky - Went South by East through farmlands of upper Willamette and around base of Mount Hood which was glowing in brilliant sun - Then climbed and crossed Cascades, and came down with suddenness of knife into the dry lands of the Eastern slope - Then over high plateau and through bare hills and canyons and irrigated farmlands here and there, low valley, etc., and into Bent at 12:45 - 200 miles in 4 1/2 hours - 

Then lunch at hotel and view of the 3 Sisters and the Cascade range - then up to the Pilot Butte above the town - the great plain stretching infinite away - and unapproachable the great line of the Cascades with their snowspired sentinels Hood, Adams, Jefferson, 3 sisters, etc, and out of Bend at 3 and then through the vast and level pinelands - somewhat reminiscent of the South for 100 miles then down through the noble pines to the vast plainlike valley of the Klamath? - the virgin land of Canaan all again - the far-off ranges - infinite - Oregon and the Promised Land - then through the valley floor - past Indian reservation - Capt Jack - the Modocs - the great trees open approaching vicinity of the Park - the entrance and the reservation - the forester - the houses - the great snow patches underneath the trees - then the great climb upwards - the foresting, administration - up and up again - through the passes the great plain behind and at length the incredible crater of the lake - the hotel and a certain cheerlessness in spite of cordialness - dry tongues vain-licking for a feast - the return, the cottages, the college boys and girls who serve and wait - the cafeteria and the souvenirs - the great crater fading coldly in incredible cold light - at length departure - and the forest rangers down below - long, long talks - too long with them about “our wonders”, etc - then by darkness the sixty or seventy miles down the great dim expanse of Klamath Lake, the decision to stay here for the night - 3 beers, a shower, and this, reveille at 5:30 in the morning - and so to bed!

First day: 404 miles 

The gigantic unconscious humor of the situation - C “making every national park” without seeing any of them - the main thing is to “make them” - and so on and on tomorrow’

23 June 1938

‘Up at 7 o'clock in hotel at Mohave - and already the room hot and stuffy and the wind that had promised a desert storm the night before was still and the sun already hot and mucoid on the incredibly dirty and besplattered window panes - and a moments look of hot tarred roof and a dirty ventilator in the restaurant below and no moving life but the freight cars of S.P. rr - and a slow freight climbing fast and weariness - so up and shaved and dressed and gripped the zipper and downstairs and the white-cream Ford waiting and the two others - in the car - and to the cafe for breakfast - eggs and pancakes, sausages most hearty - and a company of r.r. men - So out of town at 8:10 and headed straight into the desert - and so straight across the Mohave at high speed for four hours - to Barstow - so in full flight now - the desert yet more desert - blazing heat - 102 inside the filling station - the dejected old man and his wife - and so the desert mountains, crateric, lavic and volcanic, and so more fiendish the fiend desert of the lavoid earth like an immense plain of Librea tar - and very occasionally a tiny blistered little house - and once or twice the paradise of water and the magic greenery of desert trees - and yet hotter and more fiendish - through fried hills - cupreous, ferrous, and denuded as slag heaps - and so the filling station and the furnace air fanned by a hot dry strangely invigorating breeze and the filling station man who couldn’t sign “I'm only up an hour and my hands shake so with the heat” - and Needles at last in blazing heat and the restaurant station and hotel and Fred Harvey all aircooled, and a good luncheon, and an hour here -  

so out again in blazing heat - 106° within the strolling of the station awning - 116 or 120 out of it - and so out of Needles - and through heat blasted air along the Colorado 15 miles or so and then across the river into Arizona - pause for inspection, all friendly and immediate - then into the desert world of Arizona - the heat blasted air - the desert mountain slopes clear in view and more devilish - the crateric and volcanic slopes down in and up and up among them, now and then a blistered little town - a few blazing houses and the fronts of stores - up and up now and fried desert slopes prodigiously - and into Oatman and the gold mining pits, the craterholes, the mine shafts and the signs of new gold digging - Mexicans half naked before a pit - and up and up and only up and up to Goldcrest? 

Across the Mohave the S.P. fringed with black against the blazing crater of the desert sky snakes on, snakes on its monotone of forever and of now - moveless Immediate and at last the rim and down and down through blasted slopes, volcanic “pipes" and ancient sea erosions, mesa table heads, columnar swathes, stratifications, and the fiendish wind, and below the vast pale, lemon-mystic plain - and far away immeasurably far the almost moveless plume of black of engine smoke and the double header freight advancing - advanceless moveless - moving through timeless time and on and on across the immense plain backed by more immensities of fiendish mountain slopes to meet it and so almost meeting moveless-moving never meeting up and up and round and through a pass and down to Kingman and a halt for water and on and on and up and down into another mighty plain, desert growing grey-green greener - and some cattle now and always up and up and through fried blasted slopes and the enormous lemon-magic of the desert plains, fiend mountain slopes pure lemon heat mist as from magic seas arising - and a halt for gas at a filling station with a water fountain “Please be careful with the water we have to haul it 60 miles” - 5280 feet above - and 4800 feet we've climbed since Needles and on and on and up and the country greening now and 

steers in fields wrenching grey-green grass among the sage brush clumps and trees beginning now - the National Forest beginning - and new greenery - and trees and pines and grass again - a world of desert greenness still not Oregon - but a different world entirely from the desert world and hill slopes no longer fiend troubled but now friendly, forested familiar, and around and down and in a pleasant valley Williams - and for a beer here where I thought I was 3 years ago - bartender a Mexican or an Indian or both and out and on our way again only the great road leading across the continent and 6 or 7 miles out an of turn to the left for the Grand Canyon - and not much climbing now, but up and down again the great plateau 7000 feet on top - and green fields now and grass and steers and hills forested and cooler and trees and on and on toward (levelly) the distant twin rims - blue-vague defined - of the terrific canyon - the great sun sinking now below our 7000 feet - we racing on to catch him at the canyon ere he sinks entirely - but too late, too late - at last the rangers little house, the permit and the sticker, the inevitable conversations, the polite goodbyes - and (almost dark now) at 8:35 to the edges of the canyon - to Bright Angel Lodge - and before we enter between the cabins of the Big Gorgooby - and the Big Gorgooby there immensely, darkly, almost weirdly there - a fathomless darkness peered at from the very edge of hell with abysmal starlight - almost unseen - just fathomlessly there - So to our cabin - and delightful service - and so to dinner in the Lodge - and our rudeeleven in jodphurs, pajamas, shirts, and country suits, and Fred Harvey’s ornate wigwam - and to dinner here - and then to walk along the rim of Big Gorgooby and inspect the big hotel - and at the stars innumerable and immense above the Big Gorgooby just a look - a big look - so goodnight and 500 miles today -’

Saturday, September 26, 2020

A short, passionate infatuation

’That morning I bought my first lacquer box (on Petrovka). It had been several days now that, as often happens with me, I had been concentrating exclusively on one thing as I made my way through the streets: it was lacquer boxes in this particular case. A short, passionate infatuation. I would like to buy three of them - but am not entirely sure how to allot the two acquired in the meantime. That day I bought the box with the two girls sitting by a samovar. It is quite beautiful - even though it has none of that pure black which is often the most beautiful thing about such lacquerwork.’ This is from a short diary kept by Walter Benjamin, considered one of the most important cultural philosophers of the 20th century, during a visit to Moscow in the mid-1920s. He committed suicide 80 years ago today while trying to flees the Nazi, and it’s only since his death that many of his works have been published to much acclaim.

Benjamin was born in Berlin in 1892 into a wealthy family of assimilated Ashkenazi Jews. He was educated at Kaiser Friedrich School in Charlottenburg, though he spent a couple of years, because of ill-health, at a boarding school in the Thuringian countryside. He studied philosophy at the universities of Berlin, Freiburg, Munich (where he met Rainer Maria Rilke and Gershom Scholem), and then Bern where he met Ernst Bloch. He also met and married Dora Sophie Pollak (née Kellner) with whom he had one son. 

In 1919, Benjamin was awarded his Ph.D. (translated title: The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism). Subsequently, he was unable to support himself and family so he returned to Berlin to live with his parents. Here he became socially acquainted with Leo Strauss, a figure he would admire for the rest of his life. In 1921 he published the essay Kritik der Gewalt (Critique of Violence). His attempts to submit another professional dissertation to the University of Frankfurt were not successful, but he published it in 1928 under the title Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of the German Tragic Drama).

During the 1920s, Benjamin worked as a literary critic, essayist, and translator. In the mid-1920s, he journeyed to Moscow, to visit Asja Lascis (a Latvian Bolshevik whom he had first met in Capri in 1924), with whom he had fallen in love. Following the rise of Nazism, he relocated to Paris in 1933, where he continued to write for literary journals. When Paris succumbed to Nazi occupation, he fled toward Spain hoping to make onward passage to America. Having reached the border town of Portbou he was mistakenly advised that he would be turned over to the Gestapo. In despair, he took his own life, on 26 September 1940. The posthumous publication of his prolific output significantly increased his reputation in the later 20th century. Das Passagenwerk (The Arcades Project), for example, helped set the foundations of what became known as critical and cultural theory; and Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) is considered to have been an incisive analysis of the social importance of photography. Further information is available at Wikipedia, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

During his winter trip to Moscow in 1926-1927, Benjamin kept a detailed daily diary. This was not published in English until 1986, first by MIT Press in Issue 35 of October, and then, under the title Moscow Diary, by Harvard University Press (edited by Gary Smith and translated by Richard Sieburth). Some pages can be previewed at Googlebooks. The publisher states: ‘Benjamin’s diary is, on one level, the account of his masochistic love affair with this elusive - and rather unsympathetic - object of desire. On another level, it is the story of a failed romance with the Russian Revolution; for Benjamin had journeyed to Russia not only to inform himself firsthand about Soviet society, but also to arrive at an eventual decision about joining the Communist Party. Benjamin’s diary paints the dilemma of a writer seduced by the promises of the Revolution yet unwilling to blinker himself to its human and institutional failings.’

Here are three extracts from Benjamin’s Moscow Diary.

10 January 1927
‘An extremely disagreeable argument with Reich took place this morning. He had decided to take me up on my proposal to read him my report on the debate at Meyerhold’s. I no longer had any desire to do so, but went ahead anyway with an instinctive reluctance. Given the previous conversations about my contributions to the Literarische Welt, nothing good could certainly come of it. So I read the thing quickly. But I was positioned so poorly on my chair, looking straight into the light, that this alone would have been enough for me to predict his reaction. Reich listened with a tense impassiveness, and when I had finished, limited himself to a few words. The tone in which he said them immediately touched off a quarrel that was all the more irresoluble because its actual grounds could no longer be mentioned. In the middle of the exchange there was a knock at the door - Asja appeared. She left again soon thereafter. While she was present I said very little: I worked at my translation. In a terrible frame of mind I went over to Basseches’s to dictate some letters and an article. I find the secretary most agreeable, if somewhat ladylike. When I learned that she wanted to go back to Berlin, I gave her my card. I was not keen about running into Reich at lunch, so I bought myself some food and ate in my room. On my way over to Asja’s I stopped for some coffee, and later, going back home after the visit, I had some more. Asja was feeling quite ill, got tired right away; I left her alone so she could get some sleep. But there were a few minutes during which we were alone in the room (or during which she acted as though we were). It was at that point that she said that when I again came to Moscow and she was well, I wouldn’t have to wander around on my own so much. But if she didn’t get well here, then she would come to Berlin; I would have to give her a corner of my room with a folding screen, and she would follow treatment with German doctors. I spent the evening alone at home. Reich arrived late and had a number of things to recount. But following the morning’s incident, at least this much was clear to me: I could no longer count on Reich for whatever concerned my stay here, and if it could not be profitably organized without him, then the only reasonable thing to do would be to leave.’

11 January 1927
‘Asja again needs to get some injections. She wanted to go to the clinic today and it had been earlier arranged that she would stop by and fetch me so I could accompany her there by sleigh. But she didn’t come by until around noon. They had already given her the injection at the sanatorium. She was as a result in a somewhat agitated state and when we were alone in the corridor (both she and I had telephone calls to make), she clung to my arm in a momentary access of her former boldness. Reich had taken up his position in the room and was making no signs of leaving. So that even though Asja had finally come to my room in the morning once again, it was totally pointless. I put off leaving for a number of minutes, but to no avail. She announced that she didn’t want to accompany me. I therefore left her alone with Reich, went to Petrovka (but still was unable to obtain my passport) and then to the Museum of Painting. After this little episode, my mind was finally made up to fix the date of my departure, which in any case was rapidly approaching. There was not much to see in the museum. I learned later that Larionov and Goncharova were big names. Their stuff is worthless. Just like most of the things hanging in the three rooms, they seem to be massively influenced by Parisian and Berlin painting of the same period, which they copy without skill. Around noon I spent hours in the Office of Culture waiting to get tickets for the Maly Theater for Basseches, his woman friend, and myself. But since they were unable to inform the theater by telephone at the same time, our passes were not accepted that evening. Basseches had come without his friend. I would have liked to have gone to the cinema with him, but he wanted to eat and so I accompanied him to the Savoy. It is a far more modest establishment than the Bolshaia Moskovskaia. I was also fairly bored with him. He is incapable of talking about anything other than his most private affairs; and when he does, it is with a visible awareness of how well-informed he is and how superbly capable he is of imparting this information to others. He continued to leaf through and read around in the Rote Fahne. I accompanied him in the car for a stretch and then went straight home, where I did some more translating. That morning I bought my first lacquer box (on Petrovka). It had been several days now that, as often happens with me, I had been concentrating exclusively on one thing as I made my way through the streets: it was lacquer boxes in this particular case. A short, passionate infatuation. I would like to buy three of them - but am not entirely sure how to allot the two acquired in the meantime. That day I bought the box with the two girls sitting by a samovar. It is quite beautiful - even though it has none of that pure black which is often the most beautiful thing about such lacquerwork.’

22 January 1927
‘I had not yet washed but was sitting at my table writing when Reich arrived. It was a morning on which I was even less inclined to be sociable than usual. I barely allowed myself to be distracted from my work. But when I was about to leave around twelve-thirty and Reich asked me where I was off to, I discovered that he too was going to the children’s theater to which Asja had invited me. The sum total of my preferential treatment thus turned out to be a futile half hour wait at the entrance that previous day. Nonetheless I went on ahead to get something warm to drink in my usual cafe. But the cafes were also dosed that day, and this, too, is part of the remont policy. So I slowly made my way down Tverskaia to the theater. Reich arrived later, and then Asja with Manya. Since we had now become a foursome, I lost interest in the thing. I couldn’t stay to the end anyway because I had to meet Schick at three-thirty. Nor did I make any effort to take a seat beside Asja; instead I sat between Reich and Manya. Asja asked Reich to translate the dialogue for me. The play seemed to be about the creation of a cannery and appeared to have a strong chauvinistic bias against England. I left during the intermission. At which point Asja even offered me the seat next to hers as an inducement to stay, but I didn’t want to arrive late or, even more important, turn up exhausted for my appointment with Schick. He himself was not quite ready. In the bus he spoke of his Paris days, how Gide had once visited him, etc. The visit with Muskin was well worth it. Although I only saw one truly important children’s book, a Swiss children’s calendar of 1837, a thin little volume with three very beautiful color plates, I nevertheless looked through so many Russian children’s books that I was able to get an idea of what their illustrations were like. The great majority of them are copies of German models. The illustrations in many of the books were printed by German lithography shops. Many German books were imitated. The Russian editions of Struwwelpeter that I saw there were quite coarse and ugly. Muskin placed slips of paper in various books on which he noted down my comments. He directs the children’s book division of the state publishing house. He showed me some samples of his work. They included books for which he himself had written the text. I explained to him the broad outlines of my documentary project on “Fantasy.” He didn’t seem to understand much of what I was saying and on the whole made a rather mediocre impression on me. His library was in lamentable shape. There was not enough room to set up the books properly, so they were strewn every which way on shelves in the hallway. There was a fairly rich assortment of food on the tea table and without any prodding I ate a great deal, since I had eaten neither lunch nor dinner that day. We stayed for about two and a half hours. Before I left he presented me with two books he had published and which I silently promised to give to Daga. Spent the evening back home working on the Rilke and the diary. But - as is the case at this very moment - with such poor writing materials that nothing comes to mind.’

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Diary briefs

Inside Francis Bacon - Thames & Hudson, The Guardian

Pranab Mukherjee’s diary habit - Times of India

Secret WWI diary of Kiwi - Penguin, Stuff

Mladic’s war diary made art - Balkan Insight

The POW diaries of Dr. Frank Murray - The Belfast Doctor, Irish Central

Dr. Zha’s Diary of fighting Covid-19 - CGTN, China Daily

Jane Birkin’s diaries published - Orion Books, The Guardian

Emmeline B. Wells’s diaries published online - Church Historian’s Press, Deseret News

Marian Anderson’s diaries digitised - Smithsonian, Penn Libraries

WWI diaries auctioned - Hansons Auctions, Daily Mail

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Eliasson the go-between

Happy 80th birthday Jan Kenneth Eliasson. A Swedish diplomat and politician, he served as ambassador to the US, and as Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations under Ban Ki-moon. His remarkable track record as an international mediator has been widely recognised, and was, in fact, the focus of a 2001 biography, The Go-Between: Jan Eliasson and the Styles of Mediation. The book, which starts with a preface by Kofi Annan, includes a number of references to, and quotes from, Eliasson’s personal diaries.

Eliasson was born on 17 September 1940 into a working-class family in Gothenburg, Sweden. As a gifted student, he was selected to take part in a student exchange programme with the US in 1957 (where he briefly met the future President, Senator John F. Kennedy, at a Democratic party fundraiser). In 1962, he graduated from the Swedish Naval Academy and became an officer in the Swedish Royal Navy. By 1965, he had completed a master’s degree in economics and passed the entrance exam for the Swedish diplomatic corps. He returned to the US as First Secretary in Sweden’s embassy during the early 1970s. In 1980, he opened Sweden’s first embassy in the newly renamed state of Zimbabwe. From 1982 to 1983, he acted as Diplomatic Advisor to the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. He was Director General for Political Affairs in the Ministry for Foreign Affairs from 1983 to 1987 (during which period he took part in a UN mission, mediating in the Iran–Iraq War), and from 1988 to 1992 he acted as Sweden’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York (where he also served as the Secretary-General’s Personal Representative on Iran/Iraq).

During the 1990s, Eliasson, in his capacity as Chair of the United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA) committee working on emergency relief, was one of the driving forces behind the formation of the UN Department of Humanitarian Affairs in 1992, becoming its first Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs. As such, he mediated crises in Myanmar and Sudan. After leaving the UN, he worked as mediator in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 1994 to 1999, he was Swedish State Secretary for Foreign Affairs; and from 2000 to 2005 he was Sweden’s Ambassador to the US. 

In 2005, Eliasson was unanimously elected President of the United Nations General Assembly, for its sixtieth session, a position he held for a year. Thereafter, he served again, briefly, in the government as Minister for Foreign Affairs, until his party lost the 2006 election. From 2006 until 2008, he acted for Kofi Annan as a special envoy to Darfur, Sudan. In 2012, he was appointed Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, a post he held until 2016. In 2017, he was appointed by the Swedish Government as governing board chair of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He is married to Kerstin Eliasson, former Swedish State Secretary for Education and Science, and they have three children. He has authored many books and articles and is a frequent lecturer on foreign policy and diplomacy. Since 1988, he has been a visiting lecturer on mediation, conflict resolution and UN reform at Uppsala University. Further information is available from Wikipedia and Nordics Info.

In 2010, the United States Institute of Peace published a book - entitled The Go-Between: Jan Eliasson and the Styles of Mediation - written by Isak Svensson and Peter Wallensteen, with a preface by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The book can be previewed at Amazon or Googlebooks. In their introduction, the authors say: ‘We have been fortunate enough to discuss these mediation cases with Ambassador Eliasson. [. . .] We have also had access to Mr. Eliasson’s personal diaries from these mediation experiences. Such quotes have a reference to the date they are recorded in the diary. Interviews and diary entries are translated from Swedish by the authors.’ It may be some time before Eliasson’s diaries are published if ever, but, thanks to Svensson and Wallensteen, here are four short extracts.

3-4 March 1994
‘This is almost unbelievable. Here I am in a rundown guesthouse with windows demolished by the recent bombings in tiny, mountainous Nagorno-Karabakh, which finds itself in the middle of a bloody war over its own existence and future. I have almost never felt the unique power and mechanisms of hatred and violence as clearly.’

9 April 1994
‘There is competition and power ambitions at the heart of this.... The parties clearly feel pushed around and need us - possibly to play one negotiator against another.’

20 September 1994
‘My most recent visit took place three years ago in mid-September, together with Secretary-General Pérez de Cuéllar. His main objective was to free the hostages captured in Lebanon. . . Even today, I still have difficulties in accepting “the deal" - the guilt of Iraq . . . in return for assistance in the Bekaa Valley.’ 

23 September 1994
‘If I do not have the confidence of the Russians. I need to consider whether I should terminate my own role, or Sweden’s role, as a mediator in this mission. However, first we need to know whether CSCE is ready to give a substantial contribution to the security of the region. If not, we should probably leave. To give our blessings to a solution that the parties do not want should not be a Swedish concern.’

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Mencken’s disagreeable character

Henry Louis Mencken, one of the most famous and controversial US journalists of the early 20th century, was born 140 years ago today. Largely self-taught as a writer, his editorials and opinion pieces for The Baltimore Sun brought him early fame. A diary he kept from the age of 50 was sealed for 25 years after his death but, on being published in the late 1980s, revealed ‘disagreeable aspects’ to his character, notably racist and anti-semitic views.

Mencken was born on 12 September 1880 into a German-American family in Baltimore, Maryland, the son of a cigar factory owner. He attended private school, and Baltimore Polytechnic, and then, rather than go to college, he joined the staff at his father’s factory, where he worked for three years. When his father died, and the factory was taken over by his uncle, Mencken left to pursue a career in journalism. He became a reporter for the Baltimore Morning Herald in 1899, and, in 1906, joined the staff of The Baltimore Sun (where he would work at intervals through the rest of his life). He soon made a name for himself writing editorials and opinion pieces. From 1914 to 1923, he coedited (with George Jean Nathan) The Smart Set, a satirical magazine influential in the growth of American literature, and from 1924 he edited American Mercury (a magazine he had also founded with Nathan).

In 1930, after a seven year courtship, Mencken married Sara Haardt, a German-American professor of English and an author 18 years his junior. Unfortunately, she died in 1935 of meningitis, leaving Mencken grief-stricken. During the Great Depression, Mencken opposed the New Deal, which cost him popularity, as did his open contempt for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and reservations regarding US participation in World War II. Apart from journalism, Mencken wrote widely. He is perhaps best known for his monumental study, The American Language, ranked as one of the top 100 influential books in the US. He also wrote on religion, ethics, politics, literature, women, and even baby care; and he published three popular volumes of reminiscences.

Encyclopaedia Britannica has this assessment: ‘Mencken was probably the most influential American literary critic in the 1920s, and he often used his criticism as a point of departure to jab at various American social and cultural weaknesses. His reviews and miscellaneous essays filled six volumes aptly titled Prejudices (1919-27). In literature he fought against what he regarded as fraudulently successful writers and worked for the recognition of such outstanding newcomers as Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis. He jeered at American sham, pretension, provincialism, and prudery, and he ridiculed the nation’s organized religion, business, and middle class.’ He died in 1956. Further information is also available at Wikipedia and the Mencken House website.

Mencken began to keep a diary from 1930, but, for several years after his wife’s death, he rarely made any entries. It was only from the early 1940s that he started keeping it again on a regular and systematic basis. On his death, at his request, the diary - some 2,000 pages of typescript - was sealed for 25 years in the vaults of Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt Library. It was not until 1989 that Alfred A. Knopf published The Diary of H. L. Mencken as edited by Charles A. Fecher (republished by Vintage in 2012). ‘Here, full scale,’ according to the publisher, ‘is Mencken the unique observer and disturber of American society. And here too is Mencken the human being of wildly contradictory impulses: the skeptic who was prey to small superstitions, the dare-all warrior who was a hopeless hypochondriac, the loving husband and generous friend who was, alas, a bigot. Mencken emerges from these pages unretouched - in all the often outrageous gadfly vitality that made him, at his brilliant best, so important to the intellectual fabric of American life.’

Not only a bigot, in fact, but a racist and anti-semite - see the Los Angeles Times or The Paris Review. When interviewed about his book (see C-Span), Fecher acknowledged that some people might be ‘shocked and surprised’ by the ‘disagreeable aspects’ to Mencken’s character revealed in the diary, but those who had previously known his work would surely not have been so surprised. (The book’s publication led the National Press Club to question whether it wanted to change the name of its library - hitherto the H. L. Mencken Memorial Library. Fecher argued, in the same interview, that it should not be changed given that Mencken was ‘probably the greatest American journalist’. Nevertheless, in 1990 the library was renamed the Eric Friedheim Journalism Library.) The published diary can be borrowed digitally (briefly) at Internet Archive. Here are several extracts.

6 November 1930
‘When I got to New York yesterday afternoon from West Chester, Pa., I found a message from a Swedish news agency, saying that Sinclair Lewis had been given the Nobel Prize. It was splendid news to me, for it was very bad news for all the professors. The Swedes rubbed it in by saying that, after “Babbitt,” they were chiefly impressed by “Elmer Gantry.” This book, which is dedicated to me, aroused all the pedagogues and patriots at home, and got very few good notices.

In the evening I was at the Philip Goodmans’, and they discovered that Lewis and his wife, Dorothy Thompson were in town. We called upon them at their hotel in 50th street at 11 p.m. Lewis, when we got to the hotel, was in his dressing-gown. There was a bottle of whiskey on the table, but he was fairly sober. When the Associated Press called him up with the news he thought it was a joke. Convinced at last, and asked what he had to say, he said, “Another great wet Democratic victory!” The A.P. did not send this out. He and his wife are going to Stockholm in a few weeks. After that they plan to go to Russia.

Lewis, of course, made a great mistake in not refusing the Nobel Prize, as he some time ago refused (at my suggestion) the Pulitzer Prize. If I had got to him in time I’d have tried to induce him to do so. But by the time Goodman and I arrived it was all over. Dorothy was all aglow. She would have fought my proposal, and no doubt beaten me. She married a novelist somewhat in decay, and far gone in liquor - and now finds herself the wife of a Nobel prizeman, with a triumphal tour to Sweden ahead of her.

Nathan told me today that Ralph Barton, the comic artist, lately attempted suicide by poison. He has been in a low state for months, and has done very little work. Nathan says he moans for his third wife, now married to Eugene O’Neill, and has proposed to her that she leave O’Neill and return to him. She naturally refuses. O’Neill is now rich and has a country place in France.’

11 November 1938.
‘H. R. Knickerbocker, foreign correspondent for Hearst, was in Baltimore last night delivering a lecture. I met him later, and for the first time. His appearance rather astonished me. He was born in Texas and is the son of a Protestant preacher, but he looks decidedly Jewish. He has the reddish hair of a blond Jew, along with the faint freckles and pinkish eyes.

He told me that he was well acquainted with Hitler, and used to see him relatively frequently in the days before Hitler came to power. At that time there were rumors that Hitler’s iron cross was bogus, and Knickerbocker one day ventured to ask him about it. Hitler said that he had got it in the following manner:

During the war he was a dispatch rider, and one day he was sent across a part of the front that was a kind of No Man’s Land. The Germans assumed that there were no Frenchmen in it, but when he had got half way across Hitler heard French voices and on investigation found that there were a number of Frenchmen in a dugout. Hitler approached the only entrance and barked several loud orders, hoping to convince the men within that a considerable German party was above. The trick worked, and in a few minutes Hitler had the Frenchmen coming out one by one, their hands in the air. He was armed only with a pistol, but inasmuch as they came out wholly unarmed, he was able to line them up and march them back to the German lines. It was for this exploit that he received the iron cross.

Knickerbocker said that the story was told to him in the presence of an English correspondent. When it was finished Hitler said politely: “If these Frenchmen had been either Englishmen or Americans the chances are that I’d not be here.”

Knickerbocker said that Hitler in his private relations is a very amiable fellow, and has a considerable sense of humor. But whenever he gets on public matters he begins to orate. Knickerbocker said that he’ll start in an ordinary tone of voice and that in a few minutes he’ll be howling like a stump speaker, with his arms sawing the air.

Knickerbocker is also acquainted with Mussolini. He told me that Mussolini hates Hitler violently, and will undoubtedly walk out on him at the first chance.’

16 October 1941
‘I spent a couple of hours at Schellhase’s last night with Sinclair Lewis. He is in Baltimore to put on a play called “Good Neighbor,” by Jack Levin, a 26-year-old Baltimore advertising agent. I dropped in at Ford’s to pick him up, and found him back stage in the midst of a group of actors who seemed to be mainly Yiddish. He introduced me to several of them, but I didn’t catch their names.

Lewis is on the water-wagon, and during our sitting drank nothing but iced coffee. Toward the end of the evening he asked for a plate of chocolate ice cream. After we had been at Schellhase’s for an hour or more his girl showed up. She is a young Jewess rejoicing in the name of Marcella Powers, and has a part in “Good Neighbor.” She turned out to be a completely hollow creature - somewhat good-looking, but apparently quite without intelligence. Lewis told me in her presence that he had been hanging up with her for more than a year.

Before she саmе in he said that he had left Dorothy Thompson finally a year or so ago. He said that life with her had become completely impossible. She is a born fanatic and spends all of her days in howling and ranting against the wickedness of the world. Lewis told me that this oratory finally wore him down to such a point that he had to flee.

He looks almost ghastly. His face is the dead white of a scar, and he is thin and wizened. He told me that he had a new novel under way, but said that he was in some doubt that he’d ever finish it. Its principal character is a large scale do-gooder - a former college president who sits on innumerable committees and is active in every good cause. Such an idiot, in his palmy days, would have been nuts for him, but I begin to doubt, as he apparently doubts himself, that he will be able to swing the job now. Obviously, he is in a state of mental collapse, not to mention physical decay. Long-continued drink and two wives of the utmost obnoxiousness have pretty well finished him. He seemed to be immensely delighted when I told him that both Cabell and Hergesheimer had told me at different times that they regard “Babbitt” as the best novel ever written in America.’

25 August 1943.
‘I went to Washington today to see Col. Livingston Watrous of the Army, deputy director of the Special Service Division. This division is in charge of all indoctrination work, and publishes a great variety of bulletins, papers, pamphlets and books for the soldiers. I was interested especially in its series of pamphlets on the countries that American troops are now quartered in, most of them containing sections on the local languages. Those for Australia, New Zealand, Northern Ireland and Great Britain contain vocabularies of words differing in American and English. Watrous received me very politely, showed me many of the documents his men are preparing, and introduced me to some of his subordinates. He has very large quarters and a staff running to hundreds of officers and civilians. On his desk was a copy of “Heliogabalus.” He told me that he often re-read it, and asked me to autograph it, which I did.

His office is in the famous Pentagon Building at Arlington, which I saw for the first time. After the taxicab comes into sight of it there is a good mile of weaving through the maze of roads which surround it. The track doubles back on itself several times. Once inside, the visitor has to present himself at a reception desk, where very polite girls hear his business. Mine telephoned to Watrous, and then informed me that a guide would be sent down to show me to his office. She warned me that it might take the guide 15 minutes to get to the reception desk. Within ten minutes a young colored girl showed up, and I followed her along half a mile of corridors. I had been given a badge at the reception desk and had to show it when I entered the building proper. On my return I had to show it again, and also a pass that Watrous had given me, covering the pamphlets his secretary had wrapped up for me.

The Pentagon Building is so huge that it is downright comic. Also, it is extraordinarily ugly. It cost, so I have heard, more than $100,000,000, and houses nearly 100,000 jobholders. The surrounding grounds, broken up by the winding roads, are even more hideous than the building.’

3 May 1945.
‘It is a curious fact, but nevertheless a fact, that my piano technic seems to improve with age. I never practise, and seldom touch a piano save at the Saturday Night Club; in fact, the one in the house has not been opened for years. Nevertheless, I find it possible to play things today that would have stumped me a dozen years ago. Even my left hand is gaining more or less facility. In theory, the reverse should be the case, for my sight is naturally not quite as quick as it used to be, and my congenital incapacity for manual operations grows worse instead of better in other directions. But when it comes to playing second piano I am definitely better than I used to be.’

5 May 1945
‘Last night I finished reading the two volumes of the Diaries, Reminiscences and Correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, brought out in London in 1869, with Thomas Sadler as editor, and reprinted “from advance sheets,” by Fields, Osgood & Company of Boston the year following. So far as I know, it has never been reprinted since. I had heard of it for many years, but never came to looking into it until a few weeks ago, when I asked George Pfeffer, the old book dealer, if he had it, and he dug up a copy from his cellar. This copy was inscribed “Margaret J. Preston, 1870,” and had probably been in stock since before I was born, for Pfeffer’s predecessor, Smith, set up business in the 70’s. It turned out to be immensely interesting stuff. Robinson was a nonentity, but he had the faculty of scraping acquaintance with famous men, and with some of them he became very intimate. His recollections of Goethe, Schiller, the Schellings, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Lamb and other eminentissimos of the early Nineteenth Century tell little about them that is unobtainable from other sources, but there are human touches that are very charming. Robinson was one of the first, if not actually the first Englishman to be educated in Germany, and his pictures of life at Jena, Weimar and Frankfurt in 1800 and thereafter are illuminating and instructive. He remained a violent Germanophile until his death at 92 in 1867. I am very fond of such books. They make capital reading for the hour or so between going to bed and falling asleep. I can’t recall ever falling asleep in fifty years, save on a few occasions when I was ill or much in my cups, without reading at least half an hour. The theory that the practise is damaging to the eyes seems to me to be buncombe. My eyes, despite some sclerotic changes, are perfectly good at 65. I not only read in bed every night; I also do nearly all my daylight reading lying down. I believe fully in the Chinese maxim that it is foolish to do anything standing up that can be done sitting, or anything sitting that can be done stretched out.’

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

For a few cattle

One hundred and twenty years ago today, a young Tasmanian soldier, John Hutton Bisdee, serving in the Boer War, risked his life to carry an officer out of danger, and thus became the first Tasmanian to be awarded a Victoria Cross. His diaries, along with other Bisdee family papers, are held at the Archives Office of Tasmania, and contain a vivid account of the day he became a hero.
John Hutton Bisdee was born in 1869 at Hutton Park, Melton Mowbray, Tasmania. He was schooled in Hobart, and then worked on his father’s property until 1900, when he enlisted in the 1st Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen’s Contingent to serve in the South African War.
Soon after arriving in the Transvaal, Bisdee was one of an advanced scouting party ambushed. Six out of the party of eight were hit, and the horse of one of the wounded officers broke away and bolted. Still under fire, and in an exposed position, Bisdee dismounted, lifted the wounded officer onto his own horse so as to carry him out of danger. This action led to him being the first Tasmanian awarded the Victoria Cross.
>Subsequently, Bisdee had a lung infection and was invalided home; but after recovering he returned to the war in March 1901, this time with a commission as a lieutenant in the 2nd Tasmanian Imperial Bushmen’s Contingent and served until the end of the war. He later served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the First World War, during which he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire, and was Mentioned in Despatches. He died in early 1930. There is a little more information available at Wikipedia, and Archives of Tasmania
A significant collection of papers once belonging to the Bisdee family - John Hutton Bisdee’s grandfather first sailed to the Antipodes in 1820 - are now held by the Archives Office of Tasmania. These include a journal written by the grandfather during his voyage, and three diaries written by Bisdee between 1898 and 1901, mostly during the Boer War. Bisdee’s diary is quoted extensively in Tasmanians in the Transvaal War by John Bufton (1905), freely available at Internet Archive (and the source of the following extracts).
1 September 1900
‘Warned last night that we should be called at 2 a.m. to repeat the day before’s movement, but this was countermanded during the night. I expect Boers were lying in ambush for us. Twenty of us sent on patrol in the afternoon under Captain Brooke and Lieutenant Wylly to secure some cattle. Had a terrible experience, which I shall never forget. We were led through a narrow neck into a veritable death trap. I cannot understand how the officers did not realise the danger. This neck led into a sort of basin with steep rocky hills rising in front. They opened fire on our five advance guardmen at short range, and then upon all of us, and how we got away at all is most wonderful. As it was we had four wounded, Wylly slightly, and Sergeant G. Shaw and Willoughby and Corporal Brown rather worse, and J. S. Brown very seriously, and the guide also severely wounded. The two latter fell into the hands of the Boers, and we fear they are in a critical state. The others are being attended to by the ambulance. The bullets came round us as thick as hail, and exploded with loud report as they struck. Captain Brooke was unhorsed. I gave him mine, running alongside myself, as he also received a slight wound in the leg. Corporal Brown’s horse was shot, and Wylly gave him his horse, as he was wounded badly in the foot. Groom then picked up Wylly on his horse, and we rode for our lives. Two men, Clark and Blackaby lost their horses (Clark gave his to Willoughby), but managed to evade the Boers, and arrived in camp late. Walter’s horse was shot, and he, stopping with J. S. Brown, was captured by the Boers, who let him go to report upon Brown’s case, and send an ambulance in. Altogether it has been a terrible experience, and seems so utterly foolhardy to go into such a place without scouts well out in front and good supports behind. All for the sake of a few cattle!
5 September 1900
‘Rest to-day. Prepared for Boers, but they kept in check and driven back by our friends, the guns.’
8 September 1900
‘Marched till 1 o’clock this morning, then had a rest for three hours, when we were sent off again patrolling after some Boers supposed to be in the vicinity. Some of our men came across two of them and gave them a hot time, but they got away, leaving bandoliers and meat bag. We stopped most of the afternoon at Saltpan, a large salt factory close by a salt lake, which lay in a deep basin. It looked like a lake frozen over. Started again at 5.30, and marched on to Waterval, which we reached at about midnight, very tired.’
This article is a slightly revised version of one first published on 1 September 2010.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Mrs Indira is here

‘Half an hour after lock up yesterday there was a tremendous knocking at the outer gate and the matron came in excitedly announcing “Mrs Indira is here.” A minute later Indu followed by five other women came in. [. . .] It appears that the women intended to have a meeting but before it could commence the police arrived and made an attempt to arrest Indu and some others who were there.’ This is from a short diary kept by Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit during her third term of imprisonment by the British. Pandit, born 120 years ago today, was a key figure in the movement seeking to gain independence for India. She served her new country as an ambassador for many years, and was the first woman President of the United Nations General Assembly. Indira Gandhi was, in fact, Pandit’s niece, and later on, after independence, they would become political opponents.

Vijaya Lakshmi Nehru was born on 18 August 1900 in Allahabad (now in Uttar Pradesh but then in North-Western Provinces, British India). Her father was a wealthy barrister who served twice as President of the Indian National Congress, and her brother Jawaharlal Nehru, 11 years older, would go on to become the first Prime Minister of independent India. Vijaya was educated privately at home but also in Switzerland. After being forced to abandon a secret liaison with a Muslim journalist, she was married to Ranjit Sitaram Pandit, a successful barrister, in 1921, and they had three daughters. They both became active in the Indian nationalist movement. She was first elected to a local political post in 1934, but rose quickly to be appointed a minister in 1937 - the first woman to become a cabinet minister.

She was imprisoned by the British authorities in 1932-1933, again in 1940 (after resigning with other cabinet ministers in protest against the British including India as a participant in the Second World War), and finally in 1942-1943. Her husband died in Lucknow prison in 1944.

After being widowed, Pandit travelled in the US, lecturing, before retuning to India in early 1946 and resuming her portfolio as minister of local self-government and public health in the United Provinces. Following India’s freedom from British occupation in 1947, she joined the foreign service becoming India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union (1947-1949), the US and Mexico (1949-1951), Ireland (1955-1961) during which time she was also the Indian High Commissioner in the UK, and Spain (1958 to 1961). Between 1946 and 1968, she headed the Indian delegation to the United Nations, and in 1953 she became the first woman President of the United Nations General Assembly. 

In India, Pandit served as Governor of Maharashtra from 1962 to 1964, after which she was elected to the Indian parliament’s lower house, Lok Sabha, for Phulpur, her brother’s former constituency (Jawaharlal Nehru had died in 1964). Pandit was a harsh critic of Indira Gandhi’s years as Prime Minister. She retired from active politics, but came out of retirement in 1977 to campaign against Indira Gandhi, thus helping the Janata Party win the election that year. In 1979, she was appointed the Indian representative to the UN Human Rights Commission, after which she retired from public life. She died in 1990. Further information is available at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and in her memoir: The scope of happiness (see Internet Archive).

During her third and final term of imprisonment, Pandit kept a diary. This was first published in 1945 by The Signet Press (Calcutta) as Prison Days. Her preface in the book reads: ‘This little diary does not attempt to record all the events which took place during my last term of imprisonment. It was not written regularly and is of no special importance. But since the period from August 1942 onwards was enveloped in darkness and many people still have no idea what prison life means, this may help in giving a picture of the conditions prevailing in one of the better run jails of the United Provinces. The treatment given to me and to those who shared the barrack with me was, according to the prison standards, very lenient - the reader must not imagine that others were equally well treated. When the truth about that unhappy period is made known many grim stories will come to light, but that time is still far off. A few pages of the diary and some incidents have had to be omitted for obvious reasons. I offer this little book to those who are interested in understanding something of what goes on behind the prison gates.’ A copy of the original publication can be read online here. More recently, the diary has been reprinted by Speaking Tiger.

Here are several extracts (the first three available on the Speaking Tiger website, and the last two taken from the original Signet Press edition).

12 August 1942
‘I woke up with a start and switched on the light. Binda was standing at the foot of my bed. He told me the police had arrived and wished to see me. It was 2 a.m. My mind was a confused jumble of the events of the preceding twenty-four hours. The shots fired on the students’ procession were still ringing in my ears and before my eyes I could only see the faces of those young men whom I had helped to pick up and remove to hospital. I was utterly weary in mind and body and more than a little dazed.

The girls were asleep on the veranda and I did not wish to disturb them. Both Lekha and Tara had gone to bed exhausted after what they had been through the day before. They had seen sights which would not easily be effaced from their memory and were bewildered and unhappy.

I went out to the porch. The City Magistrate, the Deputy Superintendent of Police, and half a dozen armed policemen were standing waiting for me in the darkness. I switched on the light and was amazed to find the grounds full of plain-clothes men some of whom had actually come up on to the veranda. This annoyed me and very curtly I ordered them off into the garden before speaking to the City Magistrate. He was ill at ease and said he had a warrant for my arrest. ‘Why is it necessary for so many armed men to come to arrest one unarmed woman at this amazing hour?’ I asked. A search was also to take place, I was informed. I told them to go ahead with the search while I got ready for prison.’

15 August 1942
‘Food is an overrated subject. One realizes this most forcibly in jail. It is all right if one is in pleasant surroundings with the right people and the food is well cooked and well served. It is certainly possible to enjoy a meal in such a setting. But when one has to cook in the most primitive fashion and the heat is making one ill and the rations are mildewed, it is really a doubtful pleasure. I have decided to give it up and shall try to confine myself to bread and tea.

Prison tea has to be seen to be believed! My experience of tea is fairly varied, ranging from the exquisitely perfumed and delicate varieties that Madam Chiang sends me to the nondescript syrupy stuff one is obliged to swallow during election campaigns—but never have I seen or tasted anything like jail tea. I am convinced it is some special and very deadly variety of leaf grown for the poor unfortunates who are in prison. Not having any tea of my own I took this decoction once and nearly passed out. It would give me a tremendous thrill if I could make all jail officials live for one week on jail rations.’

18 August 1942
‘There is a new rule for political prisoners. We will not be permitted newspapers, letters, interviews or any article from home. Jail clothes will be provided. Our allowance will be reduced from twelve annas to nine annas per day.’

25 August 1942
‘Last night was very sultry and hot, but the yard was bathed in silver light all night. It is still hot and very muggy this morning and we seem to be in for a bad day. My head has ached ever since I got up and the throbbing is increasing inspite of the Aspro that I have taken. It is not going to be a very cheerful day for me, I’m afraid!’

11 September 1942
‘Half an hour after lock up yesterday there was a tremendous knocking at the outer gate and the matron came in excitedly announcing “Mrs Indira is here.” A minute later Indu followed by five other women came in. The others are Ram Kali Devi, Mahadevi Chaube, Lakshmibai Bapat and two young girls: Vidyavati and Govindi Devi. It appears that the women intended to have a meeting but before it could commence the police arrived and made an attempt to arrest Indu and some others who were there. There was a scuffle between the crowd and police. Indu was pulled about and bruised and had her clothes torn. Finally they were brought here. Feroz has also been arrested. There was great excitement in our barrack. Indu was put in here and the others in the barrack opposite. They talked excitedly for a long time after we had composed ourselves. Indu has no news of Bhai which is very disturbing. Bapu’s news, the little she had, was also not good.

Ranjit has been very unwell and could not leave Bombay He plans to spend ten days in Khali before returning to Allahabad. I am terribly worried about Ranjit. He wants such careful looking after.’

Saturday, August 15, 2020

Wastebasket of War

‘It’s true that I don’t know any cardinal state secrets, now that I’m serving at sea far from the center of government, but I’m sure it will be necessary to record frankly in my diary about matters of official business that won’t appear on official records, my opinions, my impressions, my speeches and actions, and my private matters, without regard to distinction, as they come into my mind day by day. This will be of some use to someone else in the future, because of my past guilt in bringing events to the state they’re in today, and because of my present post as chief of staff of the Combined Fleet that carries the burden of the welfare of the state. Accordingly, it will be appropriate to give this diary the name “Wastebasket of War” or, rather, “Seaweeds of War”. This is Matamo Ugaki - a Japanese admiral who died 75 years ago today in a kamikaze mission - writing about his reasons for starting a diary just two months before Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbour.

Ugaki was born in 1890 into a farming family in rural area of Okayama, western Japan. He graduated from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy in 1912, was commissioned as ensign in 1913 and promoted to lieutenant in 1918. After graduating from the Naval Staff College he was promoted to lieutenant commander. He was a staff member of the Naval Gunnery School for three years, and was then appointed as a resident officer in Germany from 1928-1930 with the rank of commander. After promotion to captain, he was employed as an instructor at the Naval Staff College. In 1935, under Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, he was assigned as a staff officer to the Combined Fleet for a year before being given his first command: the cruiser Yakumo. The following year, he was given command of battleship Hyūga.

As the Pacific War broke out, Uhgaki became a key figure in the Japanese Navy as the Chief of Staff to Yamamoto. In April 1943, he was flying with Yamamoto in separate bombers but both got shot down. Yamamoto died while Ugaki survived, thereafter, though, blaming himself for Yamamoto’s death. The following year, he commanded the First Battleship Division in the Battle of the Sibuyan Sea. Near the end of the war, he was the commanding officer of the 5th Air Fleet, directing the kamikaze special attacks against Allied ships off Okinawa. 

On 15 August 1945, only hours after Emperor Hirohito had formally acknowledged defeat, and against the protest of his lieutenants, he donned a simple uniform without any rank insignia and flew a kamikaze mission. The Americans reported no successful kamikaze attacks that day, and thus it was assumed that Ugaki’s suicide mission ended in the sea. Ugaki was posthumously awarded the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun. Further biographical information on Ugaki can be found at Wikipedia, World War II Database, Military History, Pacific Wrecks, and in Admirals of the World: A Biographical Dictionary, 1500 to the Present (Googlebooks).

1n 1991, the University of Pittsburgh Press published Ugaki’s diary: Fading Victory: The Diary of Ugaki Matome, 1941-1945, as translated by Masataka Chihaya, a former officer in the Imperial Japanese Navy. The title was re-issued in 2008 by the Naval Institute Press (see Amazon). The publisher says: ‘[The diary is] invaluable for its details of the Japanese navy at war, [. . .] augmented by editorial commentary that proves especially useful to American readers eager to see the war from the other side. When first published . . .  this diary was hailed as a major contribution to World War II literature as the only firsthand account of strategic planning for the entire war by a Japanese commander.’

It is explained in the book that members of Ugaki’s family preserved the diary after the war. The Etajima Museum of Naval History holds 13 of the original 15 volumes (always, apparently, written by Ugaki in a room dedicated to the Kamikaze Special Attack Forces). The volume covering the first three months of 1943 was lost after the war, and permission to use the diary entries for April 1943 to February 1944 (when Ugaki was convalescing after being shot down) was refused by his son Hiromitsu.

As a preface to his diary Matome wrote: ‘It’s true that I don’t know any cardinal state secrets, now that I’m serving at sea far from the center of government, but I’m sure it will be necessary to record frankly in my diary about matters of official business that won’t appear on official records, my opinions, my impressions, my speeches and actions, and my private matters, without regard to distinction, as they come into my mind day by day. This will be of some use to someone else in the future, because of my past guilt in bringing events to the state they’re in today, and because of my present post as chief of staff of the Combined Fleet that carries the burden of the welfare of the state. Accordingly, it will be appropriate to give this diary the name “Wastebasket of War” or, rather, “Seaweeds of War”.

Pacific Wrecks has one review of the diary, and the Kamikaze Images website another. The author of the latter explains that, generally, Matome focuses on the course of the war - with many entries summarising battle details. The website provides the following as a typical example of an uneventful day:

13 May 1944
‘Partly fair. We crossed toward the Shinnan islands and the north of Borneo. At 1830 we entered Balabac Channel. We sailed in a long line of columns. On the first day, two reconnaissance seaplanes cooperated with us in guarding from Singapore. Yesterday we didn’t dispatch any of our own aircraft. Apart from the extent to which it could help us, I was pleased to see they have come to cooperate with us at sea. After passing through the Balabac main channel, we took the northerly course, avoiding shoals. Fleet training wasn’t executed today. The sensitivity of enemy submarines' telephones has become stronger after entering the Sulu Sea.’

However, Matamo does, sometimes, include personal details in his diary, and the author of the Kamikaze Images review provides a summary of this personal content:

‘Although his wife Tomoko passed away in 1940, he remembers her fondly, especially on each anniversary of her death. On April 26, 1944, Ugaki writes (p. 364), “Today is the day on which four years ago the death of Tomoko, my wife, took place. Early in the morning I prayed for her happiness and told her spirit of my determination. It’s my firm belief that I owe her soul a great deal for my being able to do my duty today like this.” Ugaki also writes as a proud father about his son Hiromitsu, who was appointed as a naval medical officer in January 1945. Some diary entries briefly mention Ugaki’s pastimes, mainly hunting and poetry writing. Many poems he wrote in his original diary have not been included in this English translation, but a translated poem about special attack forces poignantly expresses Ugaki’s feelings toward the young men who died in suicide attacks. A few comments mention his personal health, including continuing problems with his teeth that sometimes cause him great pain. Just one week prior to the end of the war, he visits the hospital to get a crown for a tooth.’

Finally, it is worth noting that one of Ugaki’s diary entries - his last - is widely referred to in biographies. Wikipedia, for example, mentions it: ‘Ugaki made a last entry in his diary noting that he had not yet received an official cease-fire order, and that as he alone was to blame for the failure of his valiant aviators to stop the enemy, he would fly one last mission himself to show the true spirit of bushido [Samurai moral values]. HistoryNet has more on the diary and Ugaki’s final kamikaze mission.