Perceptions of Belief in a Flat Earth


This is a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion's "L'atmosphère: météorologie populaire" (1888). The image depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky, showiing it as a solid hemisphere, to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption underneath the engraving (not shown here) translates to "A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet."

This is a wood engraving by an unknown artist that first appeared in Camille Flammarion’s “L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire” (1888). The image depicts a man crawling under the edge of the sky, showiing it as a solid hemisphere, to look at the mysterious Empyrean beyond. The caption underneath the engraving (not shown here) translates to “A medieval missionary tells that he has found the point where heaven and Earth meet.”

It’s a wonderful thing, the imagination of humankind. It has brought us the wonders of science and technology, the ideals of freedom and democracy, the inspiration to question, and the desire to help others, to name only a few positive attributes of the human imagination. It also fosters sometimes weird, esoteric, and just plain wrongheaded ideas.

One of those, at least in the current world in which evidence to the contrary abounds, is the persistent belief that the Earth is flat. The idea of a flat Earth has always been with humanity, and evidence to the contrary has not always been persuasive for those with a desire to believe the Earth is flat.

While this might have been an easily accepted concept from the perspective of humans limited to the surface of this planet this is not so much a rational perspective in the modern world. As recently as 1945 this belief was listed as the second of “twenty critical errors in history” in relation to the idea that Columbus proved that the world was round. He didn’t, anyone educated knew differently, so did sailors and travelers around the globe.

Still the belief persist. There are fascinating individuals such as Samuel Birley Rowbotham (1816-1884), who took the pseudonym “Parallax,” and began what he called “Zetetic astronomy” to promote a flat Earth theory. This “Zetetic” theory has fueled the modern concept of the flat Earth and it persists with formally organized groups to the present. Sometimes those adopting this belief, such as Wilbur Glenn Voliva and his followers in the utopian community of Zion, Illinois, were motivated by biblical fundamentalism.

Leo Ferrari, the philosophy professor who co-founded the Flat Earth Society in 1970.

Leo Ferrari, the philosophy professor who co-founded the Flat Earth Society in 1970.

Others, not so much. One of the most interesting organizations in this arena was the Flat Earth Society of Canada, organized in 1970 by Professor Leo Ferrari, St. Thomas Aquinas University. Ferrari took a decidedly post-modern approach to this subject and argued for personal decisions about the nature of the Earth. He asked everyone to overturn the authority of experts in favor of their own observations, and asked if individual perceptions were that the Earth was round or flat. It represented a fascinating and cockeyed perspective on modern society, made all the more so by outrageous street theater from Ferrari’s group.

At some level, this insistance on a belief that is clearly disprovable represents one of the most interesting aspects of our post-modern society. Who is to say what is true? does one decide for oneself, or does one trust in the authority of others, presumably specialists who know more about the subject.

A fascinating issue to be considered when thinking about such things as belief in a flat Earth, it seems to me, revolves around issues of scientific versus other types of authority. A hallmark of the scientific revolution was the privileging of scientific knowledge over other types—political, religious, economic, social, or cultural. Deference to this authority reached a zenith in the middle twentieth century, as it embedded intrinsically into the philosophy of Progressivism at the turn of the twentieth century emphasizing professionalism and scientific and technological expertise over politics in the solving of national problems.

A backlash occurred through several avenues, epitomized by one critic, Ralph E. Lapp, who characterized the rise of the scientific and technical elite as The New Priesthood, stated in his 1965 book. He urged Americans not to abdicate their political power to these elites, whom he believed were no better prepared to give answers than anyone else. “Like any other group in our society, science has its full share of personalities—wide-gauge and narrow-track minds, sages and scoundrels, trail-blazers and path-followers, altruists and connivers,” he wrote. “To say that science seeks the truth does not endow scientists as a group with special wisdom of what is good for society” (pp. 227-28).

A representation, with tongue firmly in cheek, of a flat Earth.

A representation, with tongue firmly in cheek, of a flat Earth.

In addition, the juxtaposition of the forces of modernity in relation to the concept of a flat Earth and the emergence of postmodernity, might also affect understandings. Historian of science Paul Forman suggests that trends from modernity, with its emphasis on the authority of experts, to postmodernity, with a tendency toward rejection of rule-following and questioning of what constitutes both knowledge and the authority to decide it, have been profound in the last few decades of the twentieth century.

Such an alteration of perspectives may have affected significantly the manner in which ideas about the flat Earth have been accepted or not in Western Civilization.

At some point I hope to do more with this subject. I am pursuing research for a book entitled “Envisioning the Earth: Conceptions of this Planet from the Flat Earth to Gaia.” I hope to do more with the flat Earth concept there. Ideas are welcome.

Posted in History, Lunar Exploration, Personal, Religion, Science | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Scientific Legacy of Fred Hoyle”


The Scientific Legacy of Fred HoyleThe Scientific Legacy of Fred Hoyle. Edited by Douglas Gough. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Fred Hoyle was the astronomer nobody knows. One of the most interesting and provocative scientists in his field in the twentieth century, Hoyle made important discoveries in astronomy, astrophysics, and astrobiology. In particular, he broke ground in such areas as the evolution of the universe, the accretion of stars, and modern cosmology. Sir Fred died in 2001 at the age of 86 and this book is the result of a conference held in celebration of his life and work in 2002. Edited by Douglas Gough, a colleague of Hoyle’s at the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, the twelve chapters of this book was written by colleagues and friends.

In the first chapter, dealing with Hoyle’s scientific legacy, Wallace Sargent attributes much of the current state of knowledge about the universe to the mind of Fred Hoyle while noting that his scientific work involved considerable creative thought, especially his efforts in nucleosynthesis, stellar evolution, and cosmology. This overview introduces several other chapters on individual areas explored by Fred Hoyle, all written by other scientists rather than historians.

Had historians been represented in this book, it might have turned out quite differently. For example, a full review and analysis of Hoyle’s insistence on the legitimacy of the “Steady State” thesis of the universe versus the “Big Bang” is not to be found here except in the most general terms. Hoyle’s persistence in the “Steady State Universe” in the face of building and eventually overwhelming evidence supporting the “Big Bang” is one of the most fascinating episodes of his career. While The Scientific Legacy of Fred Hoyle represents a useful tribute to the life of an esteemed colleague, it leaves open more questions than it answers.

Posted in Science, Space | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What Might a Global History of Space Exploration Look Like?


The International Space Station in 2012.

The International Space Station in 2012.

I would like to know the answer to this question. I would also very much like to hear what others think about the answers to this question. I have been contemplating this issue. Here are my thoughts thus far.

By its very nature space exploration has a resonance beyond national borders; at a fundamental level it is an activity that transcends national claims and appeals to global sensibilities. For centuries before Sputnik humanity has engaged in a virtual exploration of space through astronomical observation aided by astounding scientific and technological advances. In the more than fifty years since the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, moreover, more than 6,000 functioning satellites have been launched into Earth orbit and beyond—some to the farthest reaches of the Solar System—and more than 540 people have traveled in space.

Space exploration is intrinsically transnational; circumscription by national borders is a meaningless concept when faced with the realities of the longue durée of the endeavor. Regardless, our understanding of space exploration has been largely rooted in the framework of national(ist) narratives and geopolitical prerogatives; this has largely been because nation-states have dominated the historical conceptions of the undertaking. It is time to move past this limited, national historical framework.

For too many individuals the perceived apotheosis of space exploration remains the heady days after Sputnik, when the United States and the Soviet Union competed to trump the other in a series of progressively more complex feats in space. The Cold War space race retains its mystique, either as a benchmark that subsequent accomplishments could never equal or as an anomaly never to be repeated.

It has, in fact, become virtually impossible to think of space exploration without allusion to the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s and equally inconceivable for historians to interpret the exploration of space without regard to this nationalistic emphasis. But if we focus on a longer duration since about 1800—and view space exploration as something greater than a part of geopolitical rivalry—it takes on a more complex trans- and internationalist hue, as well as offers an opportunity to focus on more engaging economic, business, public/private, and international efforts.

I would like to undertake a study of this subject. My goal would be to develop a fully-rounded concept of a global history of space exploration in the longue durée of the last two centuries, offering perspectives on the way in which the relationship between national identity and space exploration has affected understanding of the history of space exploration; in fact, how it has been fundamental to it. This discussion would be intended as a starting point to revisit both the history and the historiography of space exploration and suggest some new avenues of investigation that move beyond formulations rooted in the Cold War space race.

This would require the exploration of various aspects of this theme and could possibly result in a fully developed work that might serve as a catalyst for future studies moving beyond current knowledge to a global history of the subject. In my estimation we would nee to characterize the story in a fundamentally different manner. It requires mastery of several broad subjects: scientific and technological innovation; financing and economics; business, corporations, and broad organizational interactions; cooperative ventures of all types; space exploration as a global phenomenon; and the characteristics and evolution of transnational arrangements. There may also be several other themes explored that are yet to be defined.

So, what would a global history of space exploration look like?

Posted in Cold War Competition, International Space Station, Space | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

A Typology of Empires throughout History


Istanbul; for centuries it was the crossroads of empire.

Istanbul, crossroads of empire.

I have been studying quite a lot about empires of late; their commonalities, differences, and circumstances. They may all look different, but a remarkably similar in perception. Merriam-Webster defines an empire as:

a (1): a major political unit having a territory of great extent or a number of territories or peoples under a single sovereign authority; especially: one having an emperor as chief of state (2):  the territory of such a political unit.

b:  something resembling a political empire; especially:  an extensive territory or enterprise under single domination or control.

Despite this seeming commonality, empires have had various types of governments, economies, religions, cultures, etc. They have existed in different times, divergent locations, and with strikingly disparate ambitions. While the people living within those empires believed that encompassed all of the power worth considering, today most of them look surprising small, challenged, and fragile. Even the most successful of the world’s empires were less than omnipotent, even at their most powerful.

When one peels back the layers, furthermore, I would suggest that there may have been only four types of empires in recorded human history. These four types I believe encapsulate all of the empires about which we have any knowledge. This typology may be satisfactory only to myself but let me outline my four types.

The Roman Empire at its height in 117 CE.

The Roman Empire at its height in 117 CE.

First, there are the “classical” empires of Western Civilization. Some of the most well-known in this category include the Roman Empire, the Ming dynasty of China, and the Ottoman Empire. The type of empire was built on the control of land, especially continuous land, and the bounty that came from it. There might be some divergences between empires of the type; especially the Mediterranean empire of Rome with its huge “lake” in its center and the enormous land mass of China; but the critical aspect of the empire was its ability to control land from outside threat and internal dissension. Its bureaucracy, justice system, economics and trade all made the sustaining of the empire possible, sometimes for very long periods. Usually a combination of internal dissent and external threat eventually took these empires down.

Second, the “mercantile” empires established by Europe after 1500 were distinguished from the “classical” type by the maritime emphasis they possessed. These empires relied on trade. Especially in Asia and Africa, European activities were limited to seizing labor, maintaining bases and depots but not much in the way of colonial settlements, and the extraction of wealth. They may have supplanted the local elites, but more often than not they incorporated local leaders into the power structure and together overcame the solidity of tribes or other local political and economic systems. In reality, however, the true power of these “mercantile” empires rested on the oceans and seas, were corporate in structure, and had very few outposts such as Bombay and Calcutta, Batavia and Macao, Madras and Goa.

Third, at the same time “settler” empires emerged under European suzerainty especially in the Americas. Spanish, French, English, and Dutch settlers established first slave labor societies in the Caribbean and then on the American continents. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries many of these colonies gained their independence, establishing a separate type of governmental, economic, social, and political structure modeled on the former mother country’s system. They may have then gone on to establish their own form of empire.

The British empire at its height.

The British empire at its height.

In other parts of the world, which had been dominated by “mercantile” empires from Europe, furthermore, also transformed in some cases into “settler” empires. The British in Africa, Australia, and parts of Asia offer an especially good example of this transformation. By the latter part of the nineteenth century, perhaps the high point of empire for that island nation, the British dominated every aspect of global economics and politics. It took two world wars, economic recession, and the rise of pro-democracy movements in the latter half of the twentieth century that led to the demise of the British empire.

Fourth, an age dominated by “ideological” empires emerged in the Cold War era based less on the occupation of land than on the ideological influence of other rulers and nations. The United States was the best example of this new imperial structure. It spent enormous effort influencing other nations to side with them in their rivalry with the Soviet Union. It also formed alliances, built bases world-wide, and deployed troops around the globe to ensure its hegemony.

Does this typology make sense to readers. What am I missing?

Posted in History, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World”


SwindallThe Path to the Greater, Freer, Truer World: Southern Civil Rights and Anticolonialism, 1937-1955. By Lindsey R. Swindall. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014.

This is a moderately interesting, marginally satisfactory study of two organizations operating between the 1930s and the 1950s. Both the Southern Negro Youth Congress (SNYC) and the Council on African Affairs were formed in 1937, arising largely out of socialist (sometimes communist) sentimentalities sparked by the Great Depression and the efforts of the New Deal to aid suffering Americans. Both ended rather abruptly, the SNYC in 1949 and the Council of African Affairs in 1955, in no small part because of the Red Scare and the targeting of leftist organizations.

Lindsey R. Swindall narrates the story of these two organizations, their involvement with African American leaders such as Paul Robeson and W.E.B. DuBois, and their ideals, their messages, their initiatives, and their successes as well as failures. She is enamored with the publications of these organizations and the intellectual nature of their arguments. She is also focused on the Pan-African nature of how both organizations approached their endeavors. This, of course, was especially the case with the Council on African Affairs, which was firmly in the middle of the anticolonial movement then underway in various colonies in Africa. World War II advanced this cause much more than any group in the United States could hope to do, but this Council advanced the larger cause as much as anything by calling consistent attention to it.

Swindall is at her best in her pen pictures of leaders in these organizations. She is a biographer of Paul Robeson, Paul Robeson: A Life of Activism and Art (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013), and as one might expect her characterization of this intrinsically fascinating individual is compelling. She also profiles writer Lorraine Hansberry, a mainstay of the Council on African Affairs’ periodical, Freedom, which provided urbane and thoughtful perspectives on what was happening in Africa. Beyond her longstanding role working with this organization, she was also the author of A Raisin in the Sun (1959). Unrelentingly Marxist, Hansberry was fascinated with activities in Africa and sought to bring to the African diaspora knowledge of events on the continent.  Swindall’s short biography of Hansberry and her efforts is excellent.

Aside from a modestly interesting dual-discussion of two organizations over about a twenty year period, this book will be useful largely to those who are investigating what Swindall calls the “long civil rights movement.” One of the differences of opinion that has motivated historians of the American civil rights crusade has been periodization. When did it start, and when did it end? What characterized its various aspects, etc? Historians can endlessly debate these questions. Eschewing the specifics of this debate, Swindall notes that the civil rights movement did not begin in 1954 with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision or the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott. It goes back much earlier, Swindall notes, and both the SNYC and Council on African Affairs were significant parts of those earlier efforts.

Fair enough. This is a reasonable history of these two organizations, but little more. It is not, unfortunately, a well-rounded study of the African anticolonial movement in the U.S.; if that is what the reader is seeking, seek it elsewhere. Moreover, it is also not a full-blown history of the struggle for civil rights in the American South—even during the period between 1937 and 1955—so if readers are looking for that story, also look elsewhere.

Posted in History, Politics, World War II | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

What Are Your Favorite Baseball Rivalries?


Most sports rivalries are a wonderful thing. They stimulate excellence on the field, the court, the ring, the links, whatever the place of competition. They generate attention from even the most casual observer of the sport and the activities of its players. Who didn’t tune in to watch the Soviets play the Americans in hockey during the Olympics; not only was it a great rivalry on the ice it also held enormous geopolitical resonance. Who doesn’t care about the Michigan/Ohio State football game?

The Juan Marichal/John Roseboro Bat Incident took place in a game between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 22, 1965.

The Juan Marichal/John Roseboro Bat Incident took place in a game between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers on August 22, 1965.

But what about Major League Baseball rivalries? The most serious incident in one of the most heated rivalries took place fifty years ago on August 22, 1965, when Juan Marichal, a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants, hit Los Angeles Dodgers catcher John Roseboro over the head with his bat. Earlier in the game, Marichal had knocked down Dodgers Maury Wills and Ron Fairly. Dodgers pitcher Sandy Koufax refused to retaliate but when Marichal came up to bat Roseboro returned pitches to the mound by throwing just past his head. Marichal then hit Roseboro twice in the head with his bat. A 14-minute brawl ensued before order could be restored.

Most rivalries don’t get this heated, but I have taken the opportunity to offer my top ten MLB rivalries over the course of professional baseball. Some you will agree with, others probably not so much.

  • New York Yankees vs. Boston Red Sox: This is a natural, the two teams have competed, each with their own diehard fans, since the first part of the twentieth century. One became the dominant team in the American League and at least until recently the other was the lovable bunch that came close often enough to keep their fans always anxious for next year. Really bad blood exists between them. Bucky Dent will forever have a “bleep” as his middle name.
  • New York/San Francisco Giants vs. Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers: Another natural with a history of tough head to head competition and a lot of bad blood. Juan Marichal beating John Roseboro in the head with a bat was the most violent incident in any game but the rivalry has been persistent and there were still probably few Dodger fans who cheered the Giants in 2010 as they won their first World Series since 1954. Any what about those World Series victories in 2012 and 2014? I doubt the Dodgers. who have not taken a World Series since 1988, enjoyed them very much.
  • Chicago Cubs vs. St. Louis Cardinals: There have been a lot of one-two finishes in the division where both of these teams play, with the Cards usually getting the better of it. But even if both teams are lousy, the intensity of the rivalry shows through at their games. With both teams playing well in 2015 the rivalry will be as intense as ever.
  • New York Mets vs. Atlanta Braves: This rivalry, always present since the birth of the Mets, really took off when the Braves rose to dominance in the NL East in the early 1990s. Lots of nastiness on the field, but nothing compared to what took place in the stands. I was once in the middle of a fight at Shea Stadium between Mets fans and some Braves afficionados. I had beer spilled on me, but otherwise escaped untouched.
  • Philadelphia Phillies vs. New York Mets: Like the Braves, the Phillies and the Mets have also squared off on some titanic struggles. With one team on the decline and the Mets on the rise perhaps this rivalry will cool off, but I doubt it.
  • New York Yankees vs. Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers: These two teams have met 11 times in the World Series, more times than any other pair of teams, with the Yankees taking all but three of those matchups. I look forward to another World Series between them, but who knows when.
  • Chicago White Sox vs. Cleveland Indians: These teams have usually not been all that good, but in the 1940s and 1950s and then again recently they have battled each other mightily.
  • Pittsburgh Pirates vs. Baltimore Orioles: There is not much of a rivalry today, but these two teams were just about the best in baseball in the 1970s and they played two memorable World Series in 1971 and 1979. I had a hard time deciding who to root for; they were both such inviting teams.
  • Oakland As vs. the rest of MLB: It’s hard to see it now since the A’s are not the team of old, but the A’s of the early 1970s and the late 1980s-early 1990s were hated. They had great players, some of whom were just plain ornery, and most of the time they not only won but dominated the other team.
  • Bad News Bears vs. Yankees: Yes, I know it’s not the MLB, but its still a good rivalry and in something as subjective as this list, why not. Besides, maybe Engelberg made it to the MLB under an assumed name.

This has been a fun list to compile. I hope you enjoy it. What are your favorite rivalries?

Posted in Baseball, Oakland A's | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Western Air Express and the First Scheduled Passenger Services Across the Rocky Mountains


WAE LogoI have long been interested in the rise of aviation in the American West during the 1920s. Accordingly, several years ago I began to investigate  Western Air Express, later renamed Western Airlines, which emerged as a pioneer air carrier proving passenger services between the West Coast and the Midwest. Although originally an air mail service, its leaders quickly grasped the potential profitability of providing regularly scheduled passenger service through Salt Lake City and the Great Basin as transit across the United States.

Just five weeks after beginning scheduled air mail operations, the company carried its first passengers. The Salt Lake Tribune on April 17, 1926, enthusiastically applauded the creation of a scheduled passenger service, noting that “The schedule calls for departure from Salt Lake at 10:10 a.m. (Mountain Time) and arrival at Los Angeles at 5:25 p.m. (Pacific Time) after a stop at Las Vegas.”

Ben Redman and J.A. Tomlinson pose at Salt Lake City before boarding Western Air Lines first passenger flight on May 23, 1926.

Ben Redman and J.A. Tomlinson pose at Salt Lake City before boarding Western Air Lines first passenger flight on May 23, 1926.

Passenger service finally started on  May 23, 1926, and the company’s first traffic manager, James G. Wooley, boasted before the flight that it was the first “regular commercial aerial passenger traffic in America.” Wooley commented to the Tribune on May 22, 1926, that “the new service will cut 19 hours from the traveling time between Los Angeles and eastern points and that Salt Lake will become an important junction for both air and rail travel.” He also thought passenger flights would bring prominent visitors to Utah and lengthen their stay since they would be able to decrease their traveling time.

The first passenger was Ben F. Redman, chairman of the Aviation Committee of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and a major stockholder in Western Air Express. He had lobbied long for the distinction, using his influence in the company to secure the first flight. He made that first airline reservation with a $20 check as a deposit on the $90 one‑way ticket. Another Salt Lake City resident, John A. Tomlinson, accompanied Redman on the flight.

The Douglas M-2, which differed from the M-1 mainly by replacement of the original tunnel radiator with a frontal type, became the first type of aircraft to fly passengers by Western Air Express.

The Douglas M-2, which differed from the M-1 mainly by replacement of the original tunnel radiator with a frontal type, became the first type of aircraft to fly passengers by Western Air Express.

Outfitted with coveralls, leather helmets, goggles, and parachutes, they climbed into the open compartment atop a bag of mail on a Douglas M‑2 biplane behind pilot Charles N. “Jimmy” James. They received box lunches and portable toilet facilities—a tin can. The aircraft took off at 9:30 a.m. and after a short stop at Las Vegas arrived by 5:30 p.m. at Los Angeles. On the same day the first commercial air passengers from Los Angeles also arrived in Salt Lake City. They were A. B. Nault and P. Charles Kerr, both prosperous Los Angeles businessmen.

This marked only the beginning; regularly‑scheduled passenger service grew rapidly thereafter. By the end of 1926, Western Air Express had carried 209 passengers at a profit of $1,029. Included among those first passengers was the first woman passenger, Maude Campbell, from Salt Lake City, who flew about two weeks after Redman’s May 23 flight. Other airlines operating throughout the region expanded into the passenger service after Western’s experi­ment. By the end of the decade, Varney Transport routinely flew passengers into Portland and Seattle, connecting from Boeing Air Transport which had the San Francisco to Chicago air routes. Pacific Air Transport, National Park Airways, and several other smaller companies operated passenger service through the Salt Lake City hub.

Posted in aeronautics, aviation, History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Wednesday’s Book Review: “Forever Blue”


forever-blue-high-resForever Blue: The True Story of Walter O’Malley, Baseball’s Most Controversial Owner, and the Dodgers of Brooklyn and Los Angeles. By Michael D’Antonio. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

There is no doubt but that Walter O’Malley (1903-1979), known to nemeses and fans alike as “The O’Malley,” was one of the most significant forces in major league baseball (MLB) between the 1940s and the 1970s. He gained partial control of the Brooklyn Dodgers in the early 1940s, pushed out the two other members of the Dodger troika—including Branch Rickey—and then assumed sole ownership for the rest of his life. He supported the integration of MLB—although he did not instigate it—fought repeatedly with Jackie Robinson and never really made up, sought a new baseball stadium in Brooklyn but ran afoul of New York public works guru Robert Moses, engineered the movement of the Dodgers to Los Angeles in 1958, built a great baseball park with a lot of political help in Chavez Ravine after ousting Hispanic squatters, and oversaw a terrific baseball team that dominated the National League in the early 1960s.

In the process O’Malley earned the ire of the whole of Brooklyn, at least partially inappropriately, gained the admiration of movie stars and others who wanted to bask in the glory of the Dodgers as they arrived in luxury in the third inning and left before the end of the seventh, and held the fierce loyalty of such true believers as manager Walter Alston and Buzzie Bavasi. Through all of this, O’Malley created a superb organization that ensured success on the field and generally positive relations outside the lines.

But O’Malley was neither universally liked nor respected; some even considered him evil. I don’t mean the Brooklynites who still condemn him to a special place in hell for spiriting the Dodgers to the West Coast. That story is much more complex than most people appreciate. I am speaking of those inside the MLB power structure. Longtime Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber, for example, characterized O’Malley as “the most devious man I ever met” (p. 335). I tend to believe Barber, in part because of how O’Malley entered the story of Charlie Finley that I researched a few years ago. The characterization of Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley, who also had his share of troubles with MLB’s most powerful owner, was extremely negative. Finley believed, quite rightly, that for decades O’Malley had manipulated baseball and its commissioners in manners that suited the Dodgers and himself. He believed Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, for example, served as a mere puppet to the powerful Dodger owner. And there is no doubt but that he was right.

Michael D’Antonio’s Forever Blue is a passable biography of Walter O’Malley. It is mostly, but not exclusively, about baseball and the Dodgers. D’Antonio gained access to O’Malley papers held by the family and therefore could bring to bear insights not available in any other account of his life. Unfortunately, while he uses these materials I’m not convinced that a real historian rather than a journalist, could not have employed them to write a much more satisfying biography. Until someone does so, this will probably have to suffice. It’s not a bad book, although I think overly apologetic toward an MLB stalwart that has a lot of warts on his face; I just believe the subject is so rich and the opportunity so great that there is much more to be done.

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Comments on the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 (Public Law 75-706)


Dwight D. Eisenhower

Dwight D. Eisenhower

I recently participated in a discussion of educational materials to be prepared for helping to understand the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower, president between January 1953 and January 1961. Eisenhower, whether one agrees with his policies or not, was a consequential president whose administration should be credited with many accomplishments. At the meeting, however, I learned that he was being credited with some that were undeserved. Most of those in the room had the mistaken impression that before the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 which created the Federal Aviation Agency, renamed the Federal Aviation Administration in 1966 when it became part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, there had been essentially no regulatory environment for aviation. I found this remarkable, and noted that it was not like there was nothing beforehand governing flight operations in the U.S. Accordingly, I thought it appropriate to review briefly the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938, which preceded the FAA by twenty years. Here is what I offered to the group.

An earlier Air Commerce Act of 1926 had also been a significant piece of legislation in establishing the nascent aviation industry’s place in the nation’s business culture, but it was far from an ideal mechanism for fostering and regulating aviation. By the latter part of the 1930s many people, including many members of Congress, were convinced of the necessity of overhauling the existing legislation. Even as the Congress was debating what to do with air mail contracts in 1934, Pat McCarran (D-NV) began to frame a bill for the management of aviation in the United States.

Senator Pat McCarran and Senator Key Pittman, (right) both Democrats from Nevada, exchanging opinions on President Roosevelt's proposal that the membership of the Supreme Court be increased to possibly 15 members. They are pictured as they attended a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Senator Pat McCarran and Senator Key Pittman, (right) both Democrats from Nevada, exchanging opinions on President Roosevelt’s proposal that the membership of the Supreme Court be increased to possibly 15 members. They are pictured as they attended a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

On March 26, 1934, McCarran proposed that all civil aviation be controlled by one authority having quasi-administrative powers similar to the Interstate Commerce Commission. The bill was almost immediately voted down by the Senate, as historian Nick A. Komons has commented, because it “was slightly ahead of its time; but the tide of informed opinion was running, if ever so slowly, in the direction of comprehensive economic regulation.”

McCarran worked almost alone during the next four years to gain passage of a similar bill to what he had proposed in 1934. He exhibited the most systematic thinking about aviation of any member of Congress. A sponsor of several pieces of aeronautics legislation, McCarran eventually developed a far-ranging plan for the region which he called “the blueprint for a new frontier.” A central point of it was the fostering of air transportation. “Huge cargo planes will become commonplace, and millions of tons of cargo will move by air,” he wrote in 1943. He added, “The skies will be filled with cargo vessels, plying the true course through that greatest sea of all—the Aerial Ocean….The inland regions of the west will not be inland, so to speak, because every airline and every airport facility brings these inland regions to the coast.” McCarran glimpsed something of the prospect of aviation for his region in the 1930s, saw much of it fulfilled during the war, and expected even more of it in the postwar environment.

McCarran wanted to be the author of the legislation that by 1938 many people believed was necessary to the safe conduct of air operations. The aeronautics world had been under a state of virtual political siege since May 6, 1935, when another member of Congress, Bronson Cutting, had been killed in the crash of a TWA airliner outside Kansas City, Missouri. He had been returning from New Mexico where he had been campaigning for reelection when the plane went down. More and more, people blamed the lack of firm federal control of aviation for Cutting’s death. McCarran was one, and he wanted to take a lead in avenging it with this legislation. There were a lot of ticklish congressional manueverings as this process went forward, FDR disliked McCarran and froze him out of the game of political give and take that was so much a part of the legislative process.

Instead Roosevelt decided to work through another longstanding aviation proponent, McCarran’s colleague, Representative Clarence F. Lea (D-CA). On March 4, 1938, Lea introduced H.R. 9738, a bill based on a Commerce Department recommendation to the Roosevelt administration. Lea’s bill had several important provisions: (1) a five-member Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) to oversee civil aeronautics; (2) a safety board to investigate and determine the probable cause of aircraft accidents; (3) gave the CAA to supervise intrastate flying; (4) allowed for certifications to remain in effect indefinitely; and (5) grandfathered all present certifications under the new CAA.

McCarran proposed his own legislation, a bill that was much more stringent in its management of aeronautics, that did not have the support of the president. At the same time FDR convinced Senator Harry Truman (D-MO) and Royal S. Copeland (D-VT) to introduce legislation similar to Lea’s which would have the backing of the administration. This effort, they believed, would circumvent McCarran’s efforts and enhance the opportunity for the Senate to pass legislation similar to Lea’s in the House.

There followed some sophisticated political hijinks, as the three senators worked for their various bills. McCarran believed, however, that the end was critical to his region and the nation. At one point he said that he had no pride of authorship and simply wanted a bill to pass. “Take my name off the bill if you want to,” he announced. “We need this legislation more than I need my name on a bill.” At the same time McCarran introduced another aviation bill that was similar to Lea’s. It was reported out of committee in May and on the 13th it was passed by the full Senate.

On May 18, 1934, the House passed Lea’s bill, and the two bodies formed a conference to complete the legislation. In considering the act McCarran gave one of his most impassioned speeches. Having just returned from a funeral in Nevada, he told how he had traveled 3,000 miles in a single day. “Every inch of the way there sat at the controls of that great plane a young man who had in his hands my life,” he said, adding that the U.S. must pass this legislation so that it “may take its place in the forefront of this great science and this great industry.”

Members of new Civil Aeronautics Authority take Oath of Office. Washington, D.C., August 8, 1938. Members of the newly created Civil Aeronautics Authority were administered the Oath of Office enmasse today by Associate Justice Harold M. Stephens of the Supreme Court.

Members of new Civil Aeronautics Authority take Oath of Office. Washington, D.C., August 8, 1938. Members of the newly created Civil Aeronautics Authority were administered the Oath of Office enmasse today by Associate Justice Harold M. Stephens of the Supreme Court.

McCarran’s rhetoric proved decisive. On June 11, 1938, the House agreed to the conference bill, and the Senate concurred two days later. Roosevelt signed the Civil Aeronautics Act into law on June 23, 1938, and it went into effect two months later. The act gave the air carriers an economic charter. It also created the Civil Aeronautics Authority and Air Safety Board, both with broad powers to establish and operate airways, and to regulate commercial air operations.

Robert H. Hinckley (right) discusses aviation with Orville Wright.

Robert H. Hinckley (right) discusses aviation with Orville Wright.

When the CAA was created one of the key figures in it was Robert H. Hinckley, who first entered it in 1938 and became its chairman in April 1939. From this post Hinckley tried to acclimate Americans to flying as a way of life. He summarized this perspective as “air conditioning,” the romance of flying. He said that this was “conditioning people to the air; just as the people of the South Sea Islands are conditioned to the water, that other strange element to man.” He wrote, “to be air-conditioned means to be in a state of readiness to do something about aviation and not just to feel strongly about it.”

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Reflections on the Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb


A couple of years ago I published on this blog the following discussion of the decision to use the atomic bomb at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. On the seventieth anniversary of this defining event in human history I am calling attention to it anew. I would welcome your comments.

The B-29 built by Boeing during World War was a critical new technology that transformed post-war aviation.

The B-29 built by Boeing during World War was a critical new technology that transformed post-war aviation.

It comes up every year at the time of the anniversary. It is one of the most difficult and complex questions in American history. Why did the leadership of the United States choose to drop the atomic bomb on Japan in August 1945, not once but twice?

This represents one of the most complex, divisive, and nuanced debates in the history of the United States in the twentieth century. U.S. President Harry S. Truman in August 1945 chose to drop two atomic bombs from B-29s on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, thereby forcing Japan to surrender and thereby ending World War II. A traditional conception of the decision, indeed the one most often voiced by actors in the decision, was that it was done to speed the end of the war and thereby preserve American lives that might be lost in future combat.

A revisionist interpretation, often identified with Gar Alperowitz, argues that the war was almost over and that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender anyway. The reason to drop the bomb, therefore, had little to do with the ending of World War II and was aimed more at impressing and influencing future relations with the Soviet Union. Another interpretation suggests that the use of the atomic bomb had more to do with American racism, and that the U.S. would have refrained from using such a horrific weapon on other Caucasians in Europe. Other scholars condemn the use of such a weapon targeting large populations, including non-combatants, as immoral and obscene. Subsequent historians have argued various permutations of these interpretations and the debate remains far from settled.

In the end historians have offered five fundamental considerations that played into the decision by Truman to use atomic bombs in August 1945. First, the decision makers, especially Truman, sought to end the war at the earliest possible moment. They believed this new and terrifying weapon would do so and should therefore be employed for what they considered the greater good of ending the bloodshed. Wrapped up in this argument, although historian J. Samuel Walker, who has written a book on the interpretations of the decision, thinks it a bit of side issue, was a widely held belief that bringing the Japanese to the surrender table would require an invasion of its islands.

This would be, as those considering it believed, a costly and lengthy campaign that might mean the loss of thousands of lives on both sides. Casualty estimates of all types exist, and they have been used in the debate since then to justify or condemn the use of the bomb. Those estimates, which are at best educated guesses that range broadly depending on the assumptions and the perspectives of those making them, are less useful in assessing what took place than the understanding that Truman was unwilling to accept any more casualties than absolutely necessary.

Second, Truman and his advisors were intensely concerned that they had to justify the enormous cost of developing the atomic weapon, and a decision not to use it once it existed would open them to significant criticism. As historian J. Samuel Walker concluded in “prompt & utter destruction”: Truman and the Use of the Atomic Bomb against Japan (1997): “The success of the Manhattan Project in building the bombs and ending the war was a source of satisfaction and relief.”

In this context, Truman expressed great concern that should he decide not to use the weapon once he had it that every American life lost thereafter would have been wasted. As he explained to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes in 1947, “I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.”

Third, at least one of Truman’s advisors, Secretary of State Byrnes, realized immediately and argued to his colleagues that this weapon would be useful in helping to bend the Soviet Union to American wishes in the post-war era. Truman recognized this as well, but according to Walker this was definitely an added bonus and not the primary consideration in using the bomb. As Walker concluded, “Growing differences with the Soviet Union were a factor in the thinking of American officials about the bomb but were not the main reason that they rushed to drop it on Japan.” Gar Alperowitz’s “atomic diplomacy” thesis, therefore, has merit however overstated it might have been.

Fourth, there was a lack of incentives among those making these decisions not to use the bomb. “Truman,” as Walker notes, “used the bomb because he had no compelling reason to avoid it.” While many people since 1945 have questioned the morality of its use, Truman and his advisors did not let those scruples—and they did exist among them—outweigh their goal of ending the war as quickly as possible.

Indeed, by the last year of the war conventional weaponry had laid waste to so many cities containing thousands of non-combatants—witness the firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo—that virtually no one in a senior decision-making role in the U.S. questioned the use of nuclear weapons despite their destructiveness since they believed dropping these bombs would shorten the war and save American and perhaps enemy lives.

Fifth, there is no question that such comments as these affected the debate: “Hatred of the Japanese, a desire for revenge for Pearl Harbor, and racist attitudes were a part of the mix of motives that led to the atomic attacks.” Again, this was not the primary consideration in dropping the bomb on Japan, “But the prevalent loathing of Japan, both among policymakers and the American people,” according to Walker, “helped override any hesitation or ambivalence that Truman and his advisors might have felt about use of atomic bombs.”

There are a series of questions still being debated about the decision to use the bomb. These include: “(1) how long the war would have continued if the bomb had not been used; (2) how many casualties American forces would have suffered if the bomb had not been dropped; (3) whether an invasion would have been necessary without the use of the bomb; (4) the number of American lives and casualties an invasion would have exacted had it proven necessary; (5) whether Japan would have responded favorably to an American offer to allow the emperor to remain on the throne before Hiroshima, or whether such an offer would have prolonged the war; and (6) whether any of the alternatives to the use of the bomb would have ended the war as quickly on a basis satisfactory to the United States.”

These historiographical questions ensure that future study of this subject will remain contested; overlaying all of it, of course, is the question of the morality of Truman’s decision. There is probably no conclusion to the debate, instead further inquiry and exposition will make a contribution to the marketplace of ideas where positions will be evaluated and accepted, rejected, or modified.

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