The Assassinations of Joseph Smith Jr. and Hyrum Smith


Joseph Smith Jr.

June 27th marks the anniversary of the 1844 assassinations of Joseph Smith Jr., the Mormon founding prophet, and his brother Hyrum Smith at the Carthage Jail in Hancock County, Illinois. It is usually a day of remembrance for those claiming the legacy of Smith and the religious group he founded. The murders occurred late in the afternoon of the 27th, when conspirators engineered an attack on the jail. Although they killed only the Smith brothers, Mormon Apostle John Taylor was also seriously wounded while Willard Richards survived essentially unscathed.

This event set in motion a series of tumultuous changes, leading to the succession of Brigham Young as the head of the majority group of Mormons. He, of course, led them to Utah where they became a powerful force religiously, economically, and politically. Other groups also emerged; there occurred a splintering of the church as constituted in the era of Joseph Smith into at least ten identifiable groups. The fights were over theology and doctrine, polity and personality, pettiness and provocation. My own religious home among this panoply of groups, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (which changed its name to Community of Christ in 2000), coalesced around the leadership of the prophet’s son, Joseph Smith III, a bit later.

How the Smiths came to be in the Carthage Jail, for me, is the most interesting part of the story. Perhap the greatest mistake of Joseph Smith Jr.’s, life—certainly it was the most costly—was the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper, published by Mormon dissidents in June 1844. They exposed Smith as an authoritarian leader who controlled everything in Nauvoo. They challenged his leadership, his practices—especially plural marriage—and his militarism. Smith pushed the Nauvoo city council to declare this newspaper a “nuisance” and ordered it destroyed.

In another time, in another circumstance, Smith might have gotten away with the destruction of the Expositor. Not this time. The dissenters Smith sought to destroy this time had been a part of Mormonism’s middle class, persons who had known both power and influence—especially William Law, a successful businessman and a counselor to Joseph Smith in the First Presidency for a time in the early 1840s—who immediately filed charges for Smith’s arrest. He was ensconced in the Carthage Jail, along with brother Hyrum and other lieutenants, on the afternoon of the 27th when armed conspirators assassinated the Smith brothers.

A murder conspiracy developed only on the afternoon of the 27th as men called together by the local militia leadership near Carthage were dismissed without any official mission. As they returned to Carthage, they gradually dwindled to no more than 75, but some began to assert that since they were gathered together that they should, according to John Hay, who grew up in the area, “finish the matter totally. The unavowed design of the leaders communicated itself magnetically to the men, until the entire company became fused into one mass of bloodthirsty energy.” George Rockwell placed the best possible light on the conspiracy by telling his father soon after the event that those involved were “unwilling to be trifled with any longer, [and] they determined to take the matter into their own hands, and execute justice before they [the Smith brothers] should succeed in making their escape.”

Thomas Halman was present in Carthage at the time of the mobbing. A little more than a month after the murders he wrote to a friend, George Weston, about the episode. His account provides an interesting perspective on the conspiracy: “About four o’clock on the 27th of June the jail was surrounded by a mob disguised, who demanded the prisoners. The guard told them to desist—fired and wounded some, but before they had time to do more, they were being held down by the mob (taking good care not to hurt them) whilst others of the mob were making quick but thorough work of the object they had in view. They reached up stairs, Hyrum closed the door upon them and received his death wounds thro the door. Jo fired upon them, from some unknown cause raised the window on the cast and jumped from it. But received a number of balls before he reached the ground. They both expired immediately!”

Artist’s depiction of the asassination of Joseph Smith.

William R. Hamilton was one of the youngest members of the militia at the time of the Smiths’ murders in 1844. Later a judge in the county, he was the son of Artois Hamilton, who owned the hotel in Carthage. Hamilton described his experiences of the murders in a letter to Foster Walker, a resident of Pontoosac, in Hancock County. Hamilton noted that the mob approached the jail from the north, streaming on either side to completely surround the building. “The guards were quietly sitting in front and in the hall below,” he commented, “all of whom were captured without much trouble or danger. Just a little suspicion might be attached to the officer in command. Yet it might be presumed he thought his only duty was to keep the Smiths from coming downstairs.”

Hamilton wrote that he sprinted to the site of the murders ahead of his company. “When about fifty yards away I saw Joseph Smith come to the window and fall out.” Then he added:

One of the men went to him and partially straightened his body out beside the well curb. Just at this time I got up amongst the men and heard him say, “he’s dead,” when all the mob immediately left. I went to where Smith was lying and found that he was dead without doubt. I then went up to the room where they had been quartered, where I found Hyram Smith lying upon the floor on his back, dead. No person was in the room, or came while I was there. He was stretched out on the floor, just as he had fallen after being shot. The shot that killed him was fired through the door panel by one of the mob, while in the hall, and struck him in the left breast; he falling backward. There were in the room at that time four persons the two Smiths and Elders Taylor and Richards. Taylor was wounded, being hit several times—all flesh wounds—and was the same night taken to Nauvoo. Richards was not hurt and immediately after the mob left the hall, carried Taylor into the cell department of the jail, which was done just before I went upstairs.

Hamilton also described how the Mormons had tried to secure the door when the mob came upstairs and how Smith had fired an old English pepper-box revolver through the doorway. He then commented that “After I had satisfied my curiosity, seen and been among the mob, seen the prophet shot, and seen the dead men, it occurred to me I ought to go home and tell the news. When about 200 yards from the jail I met the company coming ready for business. Nothing was to be done but to “about face,” return to camp and be disbanded; which was promptly done in good order, as their prisoners were dead and not likely to run away.”

As soon as the murders were done the mob disappeared. John Hay remarked of this: “They went home at a killing pace over the wide dusty prairie. Warsaw is eighteen miles from Carthage; the Smiths were killed at half-past five; at a quarters before eight the returning crowd began to drag their weary limbs through the main street of Warsaw,—at such an astounding rate of speed had the lash of their own thoughts driven them.”

They were concerned that the Nauvoo Legion would march but it did not. While the women and children were ferried across the river to Missouri, the “men kept guard night and day in the hazel thickets around the town.” But nothing happened. The Mormon leaders called for patience and mourning but not revenge. They sent a delegation to Carthage to retrieve their dead. The bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith were returned to Nauvoo the next day and buried on June 29.

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Anti-War and Anti-German Sentiment in Illinois in World War I


When the United States entered World War I in April 1917 the overall population of Illinois firmly supported the American war effort; however, there were persistent anti‑war and pro‑German sentiments expressed by some in the state. The state had a long history of anti‑war activism; it had been a hotbed of “Copperheadism” during the Civil War, the members of which advocated the negotia­tion of a peaceful settlement allowing the South to create an independent nation.

At the time of American entrance into World War I, Illinois had more German‑ and Austrian‑born residents than any other state, and Chicago was the considered the world’s sixth‑largest German city, whose mayor forcefully opposed American involvement in the fighting. Indicative of this position, just before the declaration of war 25 German‑American leaders from Chicago went to Washington to convince President Woodrow Wilson that the United States should either remain neutral in the European war or enter on the side of Germany rather than the British and French. When the declaration of war was presented to the U.S. Congress in April 1917, five of the 50 votes against the declaration came from Illinois representatives. All of these congressmen were reelected the next year, indicating that their position was popular with their constituents.

U.S. propaganda poster in World War I.

Other leaders in the state opposed the American entrance into World War I for reasons other than ancestry. Jane Addams, the eminent Chicago social worker, chaired the Women’s Peace Party and worked for American neutrality on moral grounds. She, and such pacifists as Jenkin Lloyd Jones believed the war unnecessary. From the Chicago headquarters of the Socialist Party emerged constant criticism of American involvement in the war. The party also organized anti‑war rallies and other activities which hampered the prosecution of the war.

The International Workers of the World, a radical labor organization which was also based in Chicago, opposed the war as a capitalist machination to further enslave laborers. That the anti‑war position of these individuals and groups was appreciated by many is suggested by the 1917 judicial election in Chicago where the Socialist ticket polled approximately one‑third of the vote against a Republican/Democratic coalition of incumbents.

Jane Addams organized and attended peace rallies and protests against the war. Here she is shown with the Noordam peace delegates in 1915.

These were minority opinions, however, and the individuals holding them were suspected as traitors by the majority of the Illinois population. This suspicion led to action in some cases, and not all of it was legal. The confiscation of anti‑war literature in the Socialist Party headquarters in Chicago and the resultant action to restrict their use of the postal service may have been somewhat overzealous but was probably legal because of the sedition laws on the books. The sentencing of 166 members of the Interna­tional Workers of the World to 20 years in prison on the general grounds that they hampered the war effort was certainly of questionable legality.

Equally unfair was the treatment of residents of German extraction. German aliens were registered by the state on 4 February and 17 June 1918 so that their whereabouts could be traced. They were barred from certain zones such as defense plants and military installations unless they obtained a special pass. Some community leaders, without any official declaration to do so, pressured German‑language newspapers to cease operations, and there was in some locales informal boycotts of businesses operated by German‑Americans. In most cases the people had done nothing to warrant any action against them, and most were actively supporting the war effort. This harsh approach toward dealing with Ger­man‑Americans was unwarranted in all but a few instances.

Robert Prager (1888-1918), was a German-born coal miner Collinsville, Illinois, during World War I.

The most serious incident took place in Collinsville, near St. Louis, in April 1918 when Robert P. Prager was lynched. Prager was a German immigrant and a Socialist who was suspected of being a spy. Stripped, bound with an American flag, and dragged through the streets, Prager was murdered amid the cheers of some 500 spectators. Governor Lowden demanded that the guilty be punished, but when 11 men were finally tried for the murder their attorney justified the deed as “patriotic murder.” Less than 25 minutes after beginning deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty and the lynchers were released.

As tragic as these instances of intolerance were, they represented minority positions for most residents of the sate. Illinois, both the government and the population, essentially supported the war effort and took pride in the state’s performance. With the ending of hostilities following the 11 November 1918 armistice, in which Germany admitted its defeat, the nation began to demobilize. As the Illinois troops came home Governor Lowden met most of the major units at their debarkation points to congratulate them on their performance. Many of the state’s men under arms had participated in the most important and decisive engagements of the war, and before the middle of 1919 most of them had been mustered out of the service. Many of the state’s veterans went to St. Louis for the first national conven­tion of the American Legion, an organization that remains one of the most effective voices for veterans in the United States.

The Illinois experience in World War I, like that of the rest of the nation, was a watershed in the history of the state. It was an enormously heady time, one in which the citizenry sought to “make the world safe for democracy,” to use a phrase President Wilson coined to justify the war. The state enthusiastically supported the war effort, except in these few isolated instances. But in a million ways when Illinois emerged from World War I, it was a changed entity. Just from an economic standpoint the war wrought enormous dislocations. More people moved from the farms to the factories, races were thrown together in the larger cities, and business investments were shifted. It signaled the increasing presence of the national government into the affairs of the state’s residents in the form of the draft, government loans, defense installations, income taxes, and the like. Of especial importance, as they experienced the horrors of “the war to end all wars,” the experience signified the passage to a more skeptical population.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Nauvoo Polygamy: ‘but we called it celestial marriage'”


Nauvoo Polygamy: “but we called it celestial marriage.” By George D. Smith. Signature Books, Salt Lake City, Utah, 2008. Introduction, photographs, appendices, footnotes, bibliography, index. ix + 705 pp. ISBN: 978-1-56085-201-8. Hardcover with dustjacket. $39.95.

Plural marriage, or polygamy, among the Mormons has long been one of the most controversial and fascinating subjects in the history of the American religion. During the Nauvoo, Illinois, sojourn of the Mormons between 1839 and 1846 the practice of marrying more than one wife grew as a tenet of the faith and Joseph Smith Jr., founder and prophet of this religious group, initiated several of his closest associates into the “Principle,” telling them that it was demanded of God for his chosen people. This book by George D. Smith, long a student of Mormon polygamy and the dominant force behind Signature Books as an alternative publisher of Mormon history from that offered by the church’s official press, offers the most detailed and sophisticated analysis of polygamy’s origins and practice during the life of the prophet.

Gossip about the practice of polygamy had swirled about Mormonism since the early 1830s—an 1835 General Conference had even adopted a resolution explicitly denying the charge—but the practice emerged full-blown in Nauvoo during the early 1840s. According to faithful Mormon accounts Joseph Smith had begun it only because it was the will of God. A commandment to that effect had come as early as 1831 and Smith had practiced polygamy in fits and starts over the years, but he expanded it secretly in Nauvoo.

A formal revelation commanding this practice came in 1843, but it was still not well known even among the faithful until after his assassination in 1844. His first plural marriage in Nauvoo was to Louisa Beaman on April 5, 1841, and by the time of Smith’s death the best evidence suggests that he had married some 33 different women. Some of these were young teenagers, most of whom he had met while they had been servants in his home. He also pressed other confidents to take additional wives, some of whom were already married to other men. Through all of this rumors swirled and Smith consistently denied them. When resistance to these actions arose in the church and dissenters accused him of reprehensible actions—including internal dissenters such as the upright William Law—they were defamed as “persecutors,” “false swearers,” and “wolves” whose charges were “of the devil.”

For those accepting plural marriage this practice was about extending familial ties into eternity, achieving eventually the status of godhood in the “celestial kingdom.” The complex theology justifying this emerged over time, but it was built on a set of assumption about gender relations, priesthood, hierarchies of power, and both subservience and surrender to church authorities on the part of those entering the “Principle.” The critical aspect of this is the necessary linkage of women to men. The faithful wife, or more likely wives, had gifts and promises and blessing with the husband, but not in her own right, and this helped ensure her subservience.

These themes of subservience and surrender are brought to the fore in this book by George D. Smith. The men who engaged in polygamy signaled their surrender and subservience to Joseph Smith, although they would have said they signaled it to God, by agreeing to alter their lifestyles in ways that forever set them apart from the American mainstream. The women who entered the “Principle” also sacrificed their desires and dreams on the altar of plural marriage to serve their husband and family. Accepting plural marriage required a remarkable alteration of societal norms. It ensured that as long as the individual desired maintaining a relationship to the family, he or she also had to remain true to the Latter-day Saint church as the only place where the practice of polygamy would be tolerated.

This domination of the lives of believers in such a fundamental manner led to abuses and a series of scandals in Nauvoo. George Smith delights in relating these issues. First, there is the seduction of married women who were induced to leave their legal husbands, usually without a divorce, and sometimes their children to take up with some Mormon priesthood member in plural marriage. Second, and more nefarious, was the pursuit of teenagers and their inducement to enter plural marriage with much older Mormon priesthood. Prurient interests, as George Smith makes clear, drove much of this effort. That is not to say that those engaged in plural marriage were motivated solely by lust. The vast majority seemed to believe they were engaged in carrying out God’s will.

The story that George Smith tells here, with its emphasis on subservience and surrender, seduction and priestly hierarchies is one that makes modern Mormons uncomfortable. Although the church practiced polygamy openly in Utah until 1890, abandoning it only as part of an agreement with federal officials, some believers in the mission of Joseph Smith Jr. continue to practice polygamy to the present. The last part of Nauvoo Polygamy details the debate over the nature and meaning of polygamy in Mormon history and how it has been dealt with, or more likely not dealt with, by the church’s current membership. George Smith titles one of his chapters discussing this subject “A Silenced Past” and excoriates the church hierarchy: “Instead of evaluating a difficult past in order not to repeat it, the church leadership tried to separate its troubles from their apparent causes” (p. 442).

Understanding these myths, how they arose, why they have salience, and how they have affected the people being studied is critical to furthering understanding about Nauvoo and the church’s experience there. George Smith found little of this in the recounting of the official church response to Nauvoo polygamy. Indeed, Smith concludes, “The thirteen-million-strong mainstream LDS Church tries to suppress the memory of a half century of polygamy” (p. 550). While Smith is essentially speaking to the Mormon membership in Nauvoo Polygamy his desire to tell this story is also appropriate for non-Mormons interested in the history of Illinois and his study makes an important contribution that will be valuable to all seeking fuller understanding of the Mormon experience in Nauvoo.

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Celebrity Activism in Sports and Society


Jane Fonda in the 1960s.

It is almost a truism in modern America that celebrities engage in various causes aimed at overcoming various challenges plaguing society. Much of this is accepted and even celebrated. As often as not, it is the result of a unique confluence of circumstances beyond the control of any individual. As Neal Gabler has written: “Celebrity not only has narrative advantages over traditional art, it seems to be the most effective, the most efficient, the most accessible, the most rapid, the nimblest means to reify the country’s inchoate fears and longings and to do so entertainingly to boot. Celebrity is protean. It can touch upon practically anything in American life: Race (O.J. Simpson), changing sexual roles (Bobbitt), middle-age crisis (Bill Clinton), betrayal (Woody Allen and Mia Farrow), sexual harassment (Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill), you name it. One is almost assured that if an issue is roiling omewhere in the American consciousness there will eventually be a celebrity narrative to dramatize it” (Neal Gabler, Toward a New Definition of Celebrity [Los Angeles, CA: The Norman Lear Center, 2010], p. 14).

Brigitte Bardot

As  Saabira Chaudhuri wrote in 2006 in Forbes: “Charities have long relied on boldfacers to help promote their causes. Jerry Lewis’ annual muscular dystrophy telethon dates back to 1966. Sexy actress Brigitte Bardot retired from Hollywood in 1974 to devote all her time to animal rights. Sometimes their motives aren’t entirely selfless. Controversial celebrities exploit charity work as a way to buff up an image, or perhaps even for tax purposes.” The complex interrelationships between celebrities and causes of all shapes and sizes go back centuries, but emerged as critical components in the modern media age of the twentieth century.

Mark Twain

Writers in the nineteenth century used their celebrity power to lead charges for alterations in the public sphere. Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Harriett Beecher Stowe loudly supported the abolition of slavery. Mark Twain denounced American imperialism and atrocities in the 1898-1902 wars against Spain during the Filipino insurrection. Twain famously wrote that there are “two kinds of Civilization–one for home consumption and one for the heathen market” and “two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him…then kills him to get his land” (Mark Twain, “To the Person Sitting in Darkness,” North American Review, February 1901, reprinted in The Freeman, December 14, 1921, pp. 324-27, quote from p. 325).

More recently, celebrities from many arenas have stood for societal change. From Hollywood—such stars as Angelina Jolie, Sean Penn, George Clooney, Marlin Brando, and many others—to rock’s recording studios—John Mellencamp, Bono, and 50 Cent come to mind—to others famous for being famous—perhaps Paris Hilton and John F. Kennedy Jr. are the best American examples—celebrities have long used their influence to change the world. They have something that others lack, the ability to gain an audience and make a statement to anyone. Their telephone calls are returned, their tweets are re-tweeted, and their causes gain note because of their championing of them.

Bono with President George W. Bush

In sports, likewise, athletes have long engaged in social causes, especially charities, and have received accolades for it. As only a few examples, bicyclist Lance Armstrong’s foundation has raised millions for cancer research. In addition, NFL great Bart Starr supports several charities, including the Rawhide Boys Ranch for troubled teens. Furthermore, NBA superstar Michael Jordan has supported several organizations, including Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of America, Special Olympics, and CharitaBulls. Stan Musial’s “Stan the Man Foundation” supports the military and their families by providing financial support to them in times of crisis. MLB Hall of Famer Lou Brock and his wife are ordained and engage in a range of charitable activities through their ministry.

There are arguably two types of activists, and while many are of one type few are known for the other. The first type is the celebrity as do-gooder writ large. Most of the people mentioned thus far are in that category. Unless there is some scandal associated with these charitable activities, and that occasionally happens, these people are universally praised for their civic-mindedness and efforts to “give back to the community.” These individuals, for all of their positive attributes, do not challenge power but rather they embrace it. Unlike Mark Twain, they are more likely to appear in photos with political leaders than to call them out in any meaningful way.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono

The second type of activist is more like Mark Twain, a persistent and powerful voice for change that questions the power structure and demands a fundamental restructuring of society. They are revolutionaries rather than reformers. William Easterly characterized this phenomenon in the Washington Post when philosophizing on the differences between John Lennon and Bono. Without questioning his activism, Easterly comments that “While Bono calls global poverty a moral wrong, he does not identify the wrongdoers. Instead, he buys into technocratic illusions about the issue without paying attention to who has power and who lacks it, who oppresses and who is oppressed. He runs with the crowd that believes ending poverty is a matter of technical expertise–doing things such as expanding food yields with nitrogen-fixing leguminous plants or solar-powered drip irrigation.” John Lennon, however, was a different type of activist. He called out those who occupied the corridors of power to “give peace a chance” and to “imagine” a world without countries, war, or oppression. Easterly adds:

True dissidents–celebrity or not—play a vital role in democracy. But the celebrity desire to gain political power and social approval breeds intellectual conformity, precisely the opposite of what we need to achieve real changes. Politicians, intellectuals and the public can fall prey to groupthink (We must invade Vietnam to keep the dominoes from falling!) and need dissidents to shake them out of it.

True dissidents claim no expertise; they offer no 10-point plans to fix a problem. They are most effective when they simply assert that the status quo is morally wrong. Of course, they need to be noticed to have an impact, hence the historical role of dissidents such as Lennon who can use their celebrity to be heard (William Easterly, “John Lennon vs. Bono: The Death of the Celebrity Activist,” Washington Post, December 10, 2010).

Failure to confront the problem head on suggests a lack of moral commitment. Can one oppose the wrongs of the world without opposing those who commit those wrongs?

Sportswriter William Rhoden made a similar argument for sports figures and their activism, or lack thereof. While there is a pantheon of athlete activists in history, few today fall into that category. In his estimation, “athletes have ridden the coattails of protest movements, benefiting from the sacrifices of the [Paul] Robesons and [Jackie] Robinsons and Jim Browns and Muhammad Alis, but have been content to be symbolic markers of progress rather than activists in their own right, pushing progress forward. They have been unwilling to rock the boat” (William C. Rhoden, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete [New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006], p. 217).

The ultimate athlete’s protest: Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics.

Although Rhoden was writing specifically about ­African American athletes, the story is the same regardless of race or ethnicity. They are processed, like so many manufactured products, homogenized “to get along, they learn by inference about the benevolent superiority of the [owners] and enter into a tacit agreement to let the system operate without comment,” said Rhoden. They learn, he adds, “to accept the power structure as it is. The young, talented athlete learns about the value of cultivating the far-reaching range of affiliations, connections, and alliances that can make the athlete’s…journey smooth; he also learns about the kinds of associations and ideas that can make it quite miserable or even terminate it altogether.” They learn early on to keep their mouths shut, uttering trite clichés and little more. That is one of the reasons why when an athlete articulates sophisticated criticism of the status quo, regardless of the purpose, it is such a delight to journalists and such a threat to owners and others in the power structure.

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Planetary Protection: Announcing a New National Academies Study


The National Academies has just published the interim report, “The Goals, Rationales, and Definition of Planetary Protection.” It makes for really interesting reading. You may find a downloadable copy here.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Rumsfeld’s Wars: The Arrogance of Power”


Rumsfeld’s Wars: The Arrogance of Power. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008. By Dale R. Herspring.

This is an important book, but a difficult one to get through. This is the case not because of turgid writing or poor analysis, but because it is so disturbing. Donald Rumsfeld had a reputation as a superb administrator and organizer when he took office as President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense in 2001. Having served both in that capacity and in a range of other senior governmental posts in previous Republican administrations, he brought a wealth of experience and understanding about the manner in which the U.S. government operated. But he was also well known as an arrogant, ruthless bureaucratic infighter. Some, even inside the Republican Party, distrusted him and were sure that he would sell out his best friend for personal gain.

Dale Herspring, a retired Foreign Service officer and Navy veteran, is a faculty member at the University of Kansas. His work, Rumsfeld’s Wars: The Arrogance of Power, reviews the experience of Rumsfeld at the Pentagon. He especially analyzes two major elements of his experiences in the DoD. The first was his stated task upon entering the SECDEF job of military transformation, a shorthand for the reorganization of the services into smaller, more nimble, more technologically advanced, and presumably more flexible and effective armed forces needed for the twenty-first century. Many people inside the defense establishment had been talking about transformation since the end of the Cold War; the loss of the Soviet Union meant that the dominant concerns of more than 40 years had changed and the military needed to change in response. Rumsfeld was certain that he had the answer to what was needed in this transformation, and refused to listen to others and to take other perspectives seriously.

In implementing his presumed reforms he disregarded the advice of his senior officers, some of whom were just as committed as he to transforming the military, and according to Herspring even went so far as to seize control of the promotion system to ensure that only those with whom he thought he could work reached positions of leadership. This was unprecedented in the last half of the twentieth century and said to the military brass that he considered them incompetent and unprofessional as well as deserving only of his manipulation. As you might guess, Herspring documents a succession of failures, some of them brought on by Rumsfeld through his “arrogance of power,” but also because he was abandoned by the officer corps who through inaction and sometimes active resistance sidetracked his efforts. Although probably not intended by Herspring, this discussion reads like a Greek tragedy as hubris overcomes the central character and leads to failure and collapse.

Even more to the point is Herspring’s analysis of the second great challenge of Rumsfeld’s leadership of the DoD, the Iraq War. Again, Rumsfeld, with the help of key Neocons Donald Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, totally failed through both ignorance and arrogance. Wanting desperately to build a case for attacking Iraq in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in Washington and New York, Rumsfeld—who actually was not much of a Neocon himself—allowed Feith to run wild in the Pentagon using his specially created “Office of Special Plans” to sift through raw intelligence data in search of linkages between al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein. While the revelations on torturing detainees to build this connection had not yet come out and Herspring did not relate anything on this aspect of part of the story, he makes clear that Feith’s actions were far beyond the norm.

Herspring wrote of Feith’s efforts, “They were certain these linkages were there; it would only be a matter of putting things together…This approach runs counter to that of professional intelligence analysts. Either there is a connection or there isn’t, no matter how many leads are followed” (p. 104). It was a type of desperation that Herspring documents, and it took the U.S. into a war that was unnecessary and the aftermath of which was exceptionally poorly executed. Inside of the government, others questioned this effort as well, especially Secretary of State Colin Powell, who said of Feith’s argument about a connection between 9/11 and Iraq, “This is bullshit” on February 2, 2003 (p. 122). Nonetheless, he presented a toned-down version of it before the U.N. on the fifth.

Rumsfeld also accepted the Neocon assessment that the Iraqis would greet the Americans as liberators and the DoD failed to plan for the aftermath of the toppling of Saddam Hussein. Essentially there was no plan beyond purging Iraq of the Baathists who had run everything in the nation under Saddam’s direction. They did almost as poorly in disbanding the army. All of this was intended to rid the halls of power of individuals loyal to Saddam but by dismissing them, Iraq lost virtually all of the people who had the skills necessary to maintain order, keep utilities working, etc. Moreover, it really ticked off the very same people, and some of them organized the opposition that grew up in Iraq within a few months of the American occupation. Rumsfeld, in presiding over this process, “refused to work with the rest of the government, being convinced that only Defense knew how to approach political problems like de-Baathification” (p. 144).

When confronted with the realities of failure in Iraq, Rumsfeld was both arrogant and obnoxious. Herspring makes the case that one instance shows this better than any other. In late 2004 a solder asked him, “Why do we soldiers have to dig through local landfills for pieces of scrap metal and compromised ballistic glass to up-armor our vehicles?” Rumsfeld responded, “You go to war with the army you have.” Herspring’s comment is telling: “Instead of expressing concern and talking about what Washington was doing to solve the problem, the young man was basically told, ‘suck it up, you have what you have’” (p. 177). More than a year after taking down Saddam, there was no excuse for not providing the troops what they needed to maximize the change of their survival and a successful accomplishment of their mission.

In the end, Herspring has offered a valuable analysis of what happened in the Pentagon under Rumsfeld, and by extension the problems of the military in Iraq. It is not surprising that President Bush would sack Rumsfeld, but he waited far too long. The same is even truer of some of his underlings in the DoD. What a mess, and it’s far from resolved. Herspring, I should add, is not a partisan in this story. He approaches it as scholar who seeks to document what has happened and why.

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Summer Reading: Indispensable Books on the History of the Space Shuttle


GPN-2000-001870When NASA began work on what became the Space Shuttle at the end of the Apollo program, few recognized how important a part of American life it would become over the next thirty-plus years. While not vast, the literature on the history of the Space Shuttle is now large enough to permit assessment.

In terms of technical history nothing is better than Dennis R. Jenkins, Space Shuttle: Developing an Icon 1972-2013  (3 volumes, slipcase, Dennis R. Jenkins). It presents an overview of the vehicle’s development and use. It begins with a discussion of the origins of the goal of winged spaceflight in the 1920s, extends through the Dyna-Soar, lifting body, and X-plane research until the decision to proceed with the Space Shuttle in 1972. It then goes into great detail about the shuttle’s design and development effort in the 1970s and then discusses in some detail all of the missions of the program since 1981. In every case Jenkins offers an excellent technical analysis of all aspects of the vehicle. This book is the place to start in any effort to understand the history of the Space Shuttle. When the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) started investigating the shuttle accident of February 1, 2003, its members read an earlier edition of this book as background to their important work. Not surprisingly, Jenkins soon became a staff member supporting the CAIB and his expertise showed in the final report.

David M. Harland, The Story of the Space Shuttle (Chicester, UK: Springer-Praxis, 2004), is another solid account of the origins and development of the Space Shuttle. In spite of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, the author claims that the Space Shuttle remains the most successful spacecraft ever developed. He argues that the scientific contribution it has made to the international space program is exceptional, and that its missions to Mir, Hubble, and the International Space Station make it an indispensable vehicle whose place in the history of the Space Age is secure. This is a revision and updating of a 1999 book on the history of the shuttle. Additionally, David Hitt and Heather R. Smith’s Bold They Rise: The Space Shuttle Early Years, 1972-1986 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), and   Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle Program, 1986-2011 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2013), by Rick Houston and Jerry Ross, relates the story of the shuttle throughout the program.

Well-known writer and eccentric T.A. Heppenheimer has published two volumes on the history of the Space Shuttle that present important perspectives on its origins and development. The first, The Space Shuttle Decision, 1965-1972  (History of the Space Shuttle, Volume 1) (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002, a reprint of NASA SP-4221, 1999), reviews the shuttle’s technical antecedents in the X-15 and various rocket booster technologies, and illuminates the principal personalities involved in the Space Shuttle decision and their motivations. He traces NASA’s evolving program goals, technical calculations, political maneuvering, and fiscal constraints, and explains the myriad designs that preceded the 1972 approved shuttle concept. His second volume, Development of the Space Shuttle, 1972-1981 (History of the Space Shuttle, Volume 2) (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), traces the development of the shuttle through a decade of engineering setbacks and breakthroughs, program management challenges, and political strategizing, culminating in the first launch in April 1981. The focus here is on the engineering challenges: propulsion, thermal protection, electronics, and onboard systems.

Additionally, Into the Black: The Extraordinary Untold Story of the First Flight of the Space Shuttle Columbia and the Astronauts Who Flew Her (New York: Touchstone, 2016), by Rowland White discusses the first mission of the Space Shuttle in 1981.

Written by one of the most respected journalists currently covering NASA’s human spaceflight program, Pat Duggins’ Final Countdown: NASA and the End of the Space Shuttle Program (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2007) is a combined valentine/criticism of the Space Shuttle program that has operated from the Kennedy Space Center since 1981. It takes as its entrée the decision made in the aftermath of the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003, to retire the fleet by 2010 and to develop a new human spaceflight vehicle, the Orion capsule powered to orbit by the Ares I booster, to replace it. For all if its many strengths as a well-written, engaging work of history about a topic that can become endlessly technical and difficult to follow, Final Countdown is really “once over lightly” as a sophisticated historical account of the shuttle program. As an introductory work, however, it is outstanding.

Perhaps appropriately, disasters in the shuttle program have attracted considerable attention from writers. The Challenger accident during launch of STS-51L on January 28, 1986, received early and persistent treatment. The most useful study is Diane Vaughan’s The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, enlarged edition, 2016). The first thorough scholarly study of the events leading to the fateful decision to launch Challenger, this book uses sociological and communication theory to piece together the story of this disaster in spaceflight and to analyze the nature of risk in high technology enterprises. Three other books take a journalistic approach to the subject. These include two early publications, Malcolm McConnell, Challenger: A Major Malfunction (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1987), and Joseph J. Trento, with reporting and editing by Susan B. Trento, Prescription for Disaster: From the Glory of Apollo to the Betrayal of the Shuttle (New York: Crown Publishers, 1987). Both of these books use the Challenger accident as a window to review the NASA management and R&D system emphasizing the agency’s “fall from grace” in the early Space Shuttle era of the 1980s. Claus Jensen, No Downlink: A Dramatic Narrative about the Challenger Accident and Our Time (New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1996), recounts the story of the Challenger disaster as a symbol of American technological decline. The recent Truth, Lies, and O-Rings: Inside the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2009), by Allan J. McDonald with James R. Hansen, presents a first-person account of the accident by a senior official at ATK Thiokol, the builder of the solid rocket boosters that failed during the Challenger’s launch.

There are five major books offering first person accounts of Space Shuttle operations. The earliest of these is Henry S.F. Cooper’s Before Lift-off: The Making of a Space Shuttle Crew (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987). Written in a journalistic style without scholarly apparatus, it is an excellent first person account of the 1984 mission of STS-41G. More recently, Tony Reichhardt has edited, Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years—The Astronauts’ Experiences in their Own Words (New York: DK Publishing, 2002). As said in the title, this work captures stories from 77 astronauts who have flown on the Space Shuttle since 1981 in a heavily illustrated, oversized format. Of similar interest is The Space Shuttle: Celebrating Thirty Years of NASA’s First Space Plane (Minneapolis, MN: Zenith Press, 2011), by Piers Bizony. Similar in format, but focused on the shuttle/Mir episode in the mid-1990s, Clay Morgan, Shuttle-Mir: The U.S. and Russia Share History’s Highest Stage (Washington, DC: NASA SP-2001-4225, 2001), offers a large-format picture book/CD-ROM with a multimedia history of the Shuttle-Mir story. It emphasizes the team members on the ground, the missions of the Space Shuttle to and from Mir, and the tales of the seven American astronauts who, with their Russian crewmates, worked under often challenging conditions. A searchable CD/ROM further explores the Shuttle-Mir program with historical documents, photos, biographies, correspondence, and oral histories.

The Space Shuttle taken from the International Space Station.

The Space Shuttle taken from the International Space Station.

Additionally, in early 2006 two memoirs of shuttle astronauts appeared. Thomas D. Jones, Sky Walking: An Astronaut’s Memoir (New York: Collins, 2006), offers more reflectiveness and less swagger than many earlier works by astronauts and focuses attention on the working men and women who operated in Earth orbit to deploy satellites, repair the Hubble Space Telescope, and build the International Space Station. A veteran of four shuttle missions, Jones’s memoir is one of only a small number of such first person accounts, and his style, penetrating insight, and wit makes it an essential book for anyone interested in the history of recent spaceflight. Another astronaut memoir that appeared at almost the same time is Mike Mullane’s Riding Rockets: The Outrageous Tales of a Space Shuttle Astronaut (New York: Scribner’s, 2006). It is an entertaining, if sophomoric, work that speaks to the pilot mentality still present in the NASA astronaut corps. Mullane was chosen as a candidate in 1978, and his memoir oozes the machismo and conceit made famous in “The Right Stuff” without the heroism and sense of mission. More recently, Mike Massimino’s Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe (New York: Crown Archetype, 2016)  is a very interesting astronaut-scientist memoir.

Finally, the Columbia accident on February 1, 2003 has prompted the publication several books on the accident, none of them as thoughtful and useful as Diane Vaughan’s work on Challenger but all suggestive of future investigation. Philip Chien, Columbia—Final Voyage: The Last Flight of NASA’s First Space Shuttle (New York: Copernicus Books, 2006), and Michael Cabbage and William Harwood, Comm Check…: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia (New York: Free Press, 2004), are journalistic accounts of the mission, the accident, and its aftermath. They review the crew’s training, scientific work, and the details of this mission. Mark Cantrell and Donald Vaughan, Sixteen Minutes from Home: The Columbia Space Shuttle Tragedy (New York: AMI Books, 2003), offers a tribute to the crew and a sympathetic look at how the tragedy affected the families of the crew and the American public. Frederick F. Lighhall’s Disastrous High-Tech Decision Making: From Disaster to Safety (Indianapolis, IN: Kilburn Sackett Press, 2015), offers lessons on the accident and to learn fro the disaster.

Finally, a new book on the cultural history of the Space Shuttle may be found in Spaceflight in the Shuttle Era and Beyond: Redefining Humanity’s Purpose in Space (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017).

Collectively these books, as well as a few others that cannot be mentioned in a brief assessment such as this, sketch the broad contours of the Space Shuttle program, a program that has dominated more than half of the nearly sixty-year experience of human space flight.

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Redirect: “How should we protect and preserve our history — on the Moon?”


Lisk Feng

Lucas Laursen has a good piece in ideas.ted.com entitled: “How should we protect and preserve our history — on the Moon?” I spoke to him about this story of preserving the lunar landing sites, as did others associated with pursuing their preservation. The story is here. Any feedback is most welcome.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Leveling the Playing Field”


downloadLeveling the Playing Field: How the Law Can Make Sports Better for Fans. By Paul C. Weiler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Many of the major issues of modern professional sports revolve around issues of the law. Harvard University’s Henry J. Friendly professor of law Paul C. Weiler believes this firmly and Leveling the Playing Field is his attempt to explain this central issue of sports business. Much of this terrain has been pursued in other works, but Weiler’s perspective is interesting.

Weiler takes the reader through the looking glass world of the sports business, exploring the nature of free agency, the various revenue streams of the major sports franchises, the long history of the shakedown for new sports complexes paid for with public money, the problems of steroids and other methods of cheating, and television and other revenues generated through sports activities. It is a familiar story, and Weiler tells it relatively well. His approach is balanced and his tone is evenhanded, even when the subject does not deserve it.

His solution to the problems of Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League boil down to one piece of national legislation. “The only way to avoid a regular replay of the experience of the 1990s is to have Congress pass a law that bars redistribution of middle-American taxpayer dollars into the pockets of wealthy Americans like George Steinbrenner.” He adds, “I hope my readers now understand that as fans we would be better off if our favorite sports had the combination of a salary tax and a stadium cap” (p. 345).

That might help, although I am opposed to any restraint on the ability of players—the labor force—to receive whatever income they are able to negotiate for their services since they are fundamentally the stars of the show. But I only wish it were that simple! I very much question all the problems of the sports business could be cured in this way, and I must add that the devil would be in the details of any such congressional action and its ramifications might be strikingly different from what was intended. Witness the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act and how it simply changed the rules of the game; it did not appreciably alter the game itself. Additionally, the ability to pass legislation of this type in early twenty-first century America appears virtually nil.

While I found this book quite interesting and worthy of consideration, I was annoyed by the relative lack of academic rigor in the discussion. At no point, for instance, did Weiler offer detailed thoughts on the nature of the legislation that he believes is necessary. Additionally, the book is completely without scholarly apparatus, not even a selected bibliography, and I find this unacceptable in a serious work.

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NASA’s Overestimates of Soviet Lunar Capabilities During the Moon Race


NASA Administrator James E. Webb, who served between 1968 and 1968.

NASA Administrator James E. Webb, who served between 1961 and 1968.

Many times NASA officials used the national security intelligence on the Soviet Union to sustain their case for an aggressive effort to complete Apollo by the end of the 1960s. In a few instances these public statements aroused within the administration charges of NASA complicity in overestimating Soviet capabilities as a means of ensuring the agency’s budget.

The most serious incident took place in the fall of 1968 when NASA Administrator James E. Webb was battling within the Executive Branch over budgetary issues and losing. The NASA budget had started a downward trend from a peak in 1965 of $5.2 billion and would not bottom out until 1974. The NASA budget for fiscal year (FY) 1968 had been $4.6 billion, but was reduced to $3.99 billion in FY 1969. Out-year projections looked even more bleak and the NASA administrator went on the offensive.

Although previously cooperative with the White House in these matters, Webb had been more or less ramrodded by the president on September 16th into announcing his retirement from NASA effective October 7, 1968. Threafter he had nothing to lose in publicly complaining about the lack of American resolve to continue aggressive space flight funding.

Webb complained about the reductions in NASA’s funding, and argued that it may have already allowed the Soviet Union to retake the lead in the space race. He tagged his concern to the circumlunar flight of Zond 5, which began on September 15, 1968, and emphasized a downward trend for the American effort in space while the Soviets were pressing forward with major initiatives. He envisioned serious consequences for NASA’s efforts arising from the Johnson administration’s decision to cut the space agency’s budget. As Webb wrote to the President:

  1. After deducting the 40,000 construction workers who were released as our facilities were completed, the work force now engaged in our program is about two-thirds the level reached in the peak year 1966. This means that a number of key design and engineering teams have already been broken up.
  2. Our rate of successful space launchings has fallen off sharply since the peak year 1966: we launched a total of 30 in 1966; 26 in 1967; and 11 to date in 1968. For 1969 the projection is higher because of a concentration of launches in support of the Apollo program.
  3. As things now stand we are terminating production of both the Saturn IB and Saturn V boosters as soon as the Apollo requirements are clearly met.
  4. Similarly, we are marking time in the development of a nuclear rocket engine pending your 1970 budget decisions.
  5. We have had to limit our planetary programs. We will fly two probes to Mars in 1969, are beginning work on two Mars orbiters for 1971, and will urge that the 1970 budget permit us to develop two Mars landers for 1973.

Webb contrasted these reductions, and in general limping along to the finish line in the Moon race, to what he thought of as a vigorous Soviet program. He noted:

  1. The Soviets show every indication of continuing to build upon their capabilities to demonstrate their power in astronautics and to master space. In the process, they are propelling the total base of their technological competence forward.
  2. The Soviet space program continued to expand in size and scope as indicated by the steady increase in successful space launches.
  3. We have the best of reasons to believe that the Soviets are nearing the end of a long developmental period in aerospace technology which will give them the ability to advance significantly ahead of us in space and challenge us in important areas of aeronautics.

Webb punctuated his attack by concluding that the Soviet’s seem bent on demonstrating a “capability that could change the basic structure and balance of power in the world.” Zond 5 demonstrated that the U.S. was behind the Soviets again and that they might possibly beat the U.S. to a lunar landing.

Donald Hornig, the President’s Science Advisor, became so upset with Webb’s public statements that he fired off an angry letter to LBJ about the “NASA Distortion of Where the U.S. Stands in Space.” He claimed that Webb exaggerated the importance of Zond 5 and the overall state of the Soviet space effort while minimizing the accomplishments and capabilities of the U.S. program. He claimed that these “unconscionable statements” were “undoubtedly motivated by their [NASA’s] budgetary programs.” Hornig countered Webb’s “doomsday” pronouncements with his own more rosy analysis:

In the manned lunar landing program, for example, we have successfully flown the Saturn V launch vehicle twice, the first flight in November 1967, while the equivalent Soviet vehicle has yet to fly. We expect the first Soviet launch in the next few months. Out best estimate of their capability indicates that before a manned lunar landing can be attempted it will be necessary to rendezvous and dock the payloads from two vehicles of the type they have not yet launched.

I conclude from this and other supporting evidence that we are at least one year ahead of the Soviets in this area—and not behind.

Hornig told the President that he would discuss this difference of opinion with Webb and try to get him to retract his statements. He closed the matter by informing LBJ that he would have the National Aeronautics and Space Council, a coordination organization assigned to the White House, investigate the matter and prepare an analysis.

Donald Hornig

Donald Hornig

Hornig also asked if the president would like to release that analysis as an official statement. In the lower left corner of the memo is a set of decision options and by the option, “Drop the matter,” Johnson placed a check. Hornig didn’t, and the Space Council sent to the President a report on the relative position of the Soviet and American space programs on September 30.

Immediately thereafter, LBJ dictated a note back to Hornig that took him to task for the attack on Webb. The president said, “It is hard for me to believe that Jim Webb would make ‘unconscionable statements’ or be ‘motivated’ entirely by budgetary problems.” He commented that Webb had reason to be concerned about the NASA budget, but that he fully understood the national commitment to completing Apollo on schedule. “I wanted him to succeed,” LBJ wrote, “and it was only with great reluctance that for the past two years I have taken action to meet the overall fiscal requirements laid down by a determined group in the Congress by accepting cuts made in the House Appropriations Committee.”

Then Johnson offered one of the most damning comments I have seen in writing among Washington politicos. He told Hornig that if he persisted in attacking Webb and NASA that his function could be open to criticism from other quarters, especially if there was some great Soviet triumph as Webb predicted might take place. “This would inevitably bring into question the judgment of your group in a way that might impair its usefulness.”

At the same time that LBJ was piqued at Hornig for attacking Webb, Webb’s statements clearly irritated the President as well. He went back to Webb and asked him about his public disagreement over the administration’s budget. He asked him for the basis of his charges and clearly challenged his loyalty to the Johnson administration.

James Webb and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

James Webb and President Lyndon B. Johnson.

On October 1st, only a week before his scheduled departure from NASA, and again on October 5, Webb responded to Johnson with detailed memoranda outlining his position on NASA, budgets, and the Soviet space effort. He again expressed concern about the downward trend in spending for space exploration in the U.S. and the perceived upward trend in the Soviet Union.

Webb closed by quoting his comments to the American Astronautical Society in July 1968, indicating that these trends “will have many serious effects on the U.S. position in aeronautics and space.” Webb did not budge from that belief to the end of his federal career, but ultimately he was proven wrong about the Soviets’ capability in space.

Of course, and hindsight it 20/20 here, the Soviet Union was nowhere near achieving a lunar landing in 1968. The Americans won that race to the Moon easily. Webb did not know that in the latter 1960s, however.

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