Wednesday’s Book Review: “The Mosquito Crusades”

Mosquito CrusadesThe Mosquito Crusades: A History of the American Anti-Mosquito Movement from the Reed Commission to the First Earth Day. By Gordon Patterson. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

Today Florida is viewed as a semi-tropical paradise, one in which Crockett and Tubbs patrol the brimming nightlife in Miami, from which orange juice is shipped all over the world, and to which everyone goes to theme parks such as Walt Disney World or Universal Studios or you name it in Orlando. But it was not always so, and my longtime friend and colleague, Gordon Patterson, tells in this fine historical work part of the reason why. Mosquitos, disease spread by them, and swamps go together and in the tropics they combine to create a potentially deadly situation.

Suppressing mosquitoes was long an objective for those in Florida, in the process helping to eradicate malaria, yellow fever, encephalitis, and dengue fever. The Mosquito Crusades tells this story with appropriate attention to balanced, scholarly analysis, style, and a flare for the drama of this core story.

Gordon Patterson, professor of history at the Florida Institute of Technology, has long been interested in efforts improve through science and technology the habitability of Florida and this study helps to illuminate a little-known effort to undertake mosquito control. It begins with the Reed Commission in 1900, an organization that sponsored experimentation in developing countermeasures for yellow fever.

It ends with the first Earth Day in 1970. In between, Patterson’s account ranges from the history of medical entomology to campaigns of pesticide distribution to political efforts to limit the use of pesticides to the give and take of efforts in Florida for advancing pest control and the safety of the public.

This is a very fine book about the history of a virtually unknown story in twentieth century America. It does much to rescue from obscurity an important account to control mosquito populations and the diseases they spread.

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Pancho Villa and the Rise of American Military Aviation

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century the United States Army had begun to perceive, albeit reluctantly, the significance of military aircraft to the conduct of warfare. This realization led to the establishment of a military section in San Antonio, Texas, and the use of the unit stationed there to support a military expedition against Pancho Villa in 1916.

Lt. Benjamin Foulois in 1911.

Lt. Benjamin Foulois in 1911.

The story really began in December 1909 when Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois was directed to take the only aircraft owned by the United States Army, a Wright Flyer Model B, along with nine enlisted men to Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas, with the instruction: “Your orders are simple, Lieutenant. You are to evaluate the airplane. Just take plenty of spare parts—and teach yourself to fly.” This group arrived with a crated airplane in southwest Texas in February 1910 and set to work. Since he did not then know how, Foulois corresponded with the Wright Brothers for instructions on how to fly it, and used their written comments to teach himself. He first went aloft on March 2, 1910, flying over San Antonio four times that day and finding flying weather in Texas much more “humane” than in the East.

Foilois also established personal firsts during that day: his first solo takeoff, his first solo landing, and his first crash landing. During the rest of 1910 and 1911 the fledgling Army air arm built up from its base in Texas a body of knowledge about aircraft and flight that proved invaluable in coming years. Foulois also proved, at least to the satisfaction of his immediate superiors in Texas, that aircraft had an important place in the military. When skirmishes broke out along the Mexican border in 1911 he took his Wright Flyer up and set a cross-country distance record of 106 miles on March 3 while on a reconnaissance flight in support of American ground forces.

HighFlight-1stAeroSqn2The first real test of the Army’s aviation organization came in 1915, with Foulois as a central actor. On April 13, 1915, two pilots took an eight man ground crew and one aircraft to Brownsville, Texas, to assist ground troops in patrolling the Mexican border. They flew for a week before cracking up the airplane and being forced to end air support. It was an inauspicious beginning. Later that same year, the 1st Aero Squadron was assigned to San Antonio, Texas, a city that in many ways became the mother-in-law of American military aviation because of all the flyers that met their wives there. The Army carved out a place for it at Fort Sam Houston, renaming it the San Antonio Air Center.

It was from San Antonio that the 1st Aero Squadron participated in the Pershing Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa. On March 9, 1916, Villa’s forces crossed the border and raided Columbus, New Mexico, killing 17 Americans. The next day Brigadier General John J. Pershing, commanding American forces in the region, organized a 15,000 man force to punish Villa. The 1st Aero Squadron left San Antonio with eight aircraft on March 13 and its aircraft began flying reconnaissance missions on March 16. Once again, the contribution of aviation was limited. The difficulty of operating at relatively high altitudes—about 10,000 feet with primitive equipment over the mountainous terrain of northern Mexico—was too demanding for the unit.

Pilots of the Ist Aero Squadron in front of their aircraft while pursuing Pancho Villa.

Pilots of the Ist Aero Squadron in front of their aircraft while pursuing Pancho Villa.

On the first sortie, for example, from Columbus to Casas Grande, Mexico, one aircraft was forced to abort, one was seriously damaged during an emergency night landing, and the other six made a landing to avoid night flying. By the end of April 1916, when most air operations ended, all eight aircraft were either worn out or seriously damaged in crackups. Foulois liked to brag in later years that the unit’s most successful activity took place on a scouting mission when it found a lost and thirsty cavalry column showed them the way home.

Although the squadron remained in the field through August 1916, obtaining additional aircraft, its contributions overall were not especially dramatic. In all it made 540 flights that totalled 346 hours, mostly on reconnaissance and courier missions.

The Army air unit in the Mexican incursion did not provide much in the way of critical support, but it did signal some potential for aviation in military operations. In part because of these activities, Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1916 which allocated more than $13 million for military aeronautics, flying schools, and new aero squadrons. Notwithstanding the experience of World War I and the role of the airplane in it, at a sublime level Pancho Villa may have been partially responsible for the early impetus to invest in military aircraft and to establish a capable aviation section in the U.S. Army.

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Ten Great Improvised Scenes on Film

This was produced more than a year ago, but still quite fascinating. CineFix has offered up a list of 10 outstanding improvised movie scenes. They include disturbing scenes by Marlo Brando and Martin Sheen from Apocalypse Now, Malcolm McDowell’s “Singing in the Rain” scene from A Clockwork Orange, Bill Murray’s “Cinderella story” scene from Caddyshack,  Jack Nicholson’s “Here’s Johnny” scene from The Shining, and several scenes from the late Robin Williams. Some are hilarious, others are moving, a few are just plain creepy. What’s missing? I guess I would have included Neve Campbell’s When Will I Be Loved (2004), a largely improvised movie as an object lesson in what not to do with improvisation. It had long boring scenes, poor lines for the actors, etc. In fact, it was more like life than I wanted. Anyway, this is an interesting clip of great improvisations.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Single Stage to Orbit”

9780801873386__75624.1437445900.1280.1280Single Stage to Orbit: Politics, Space Technology, and the Quest for Reusable Rocketry. By Andrew J. Butrica. (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Andrew Butrica’s book, while more than a decade old, is still germane to the current space policy environment. It takes a wholistic approach explicating how the American political right gained hold of the ideology of progress in the last two decades of the twentieth century. His goal is to place the history of the Strategic Defense Initiative Office/”single stage to orbit” spaceplane effort in the context of the United States’ well-documented political “right turn” of the past two-plus decades. He is very successful in examining the foundation and growth of the “conservative space agenda” and its linkage to various space advocacy groups. He also shows how conservative space advocates were able to manipulate the political system to achieve funding for their technological goal, a “Single Stage to Orbit (SSTO)” reusable launch vehicle.

Butrica’s book is the only book-length history of SSTO technologies other than memoirs of participants, and hence it addresses an important original topic. What makes the book worthy of serious and sustained attention, however, is its explicit examination of the “politics of space” and its linkage of space politics to a specific set of technologies and management practices. The conservative space agenda he reveals in this book has not yet been the subject of historical analysis, and this is the book’s primary contribution to the space history literature.

In itself, there is nothing overwhelmingly compelling about the story of SSTO. It was an effort begun in the 1980s, emphasized by Reaganite technological afficianadoes, to create a new space access capability through the development of a new space launcher. SSTO had long been the “holy grail” of spaceflight, the creation of a vehicle that could take off like an airplane, accelerate to hypersonic speeds, reach orbital velocity and enter orbit, and then return from space and land like an airplane on a runway. This is a very complex flight regime and one that has been impossible to achieve up to this time. Most engineers have thought it unachievable, and appropriately so, but it remained an enticing goal.

During the Reagan administration, some enthusiasts argued that technological stretch could make possible the “single stage to orbit” goal, and they achieved approval for a succession of SSTO programs. The tensions of the story are those of domestic politics and of engineers associated with industry versus those with government. The story plays out over several design projects from the National Aerospace Plane (NASP) through the DC-X to the X-33 of the 1990s. The story of these efforts is told in detail in this important new book.

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Is there such a Thing as American Exceptionalism?

textbook-thumb-200x282-80797I was struck by the discussion of American exceptionalism that became a running sub-theme of the recent American Historical Association annual meeting in Atlanta. It seems there is no way to square the perspections of exceptionalism presented everywhere with the reality of the American past. It may be that we are living at a time when Americans are seeking to reassert a national and cultural identity that seemed in jeopardy in the aftermath of the Cold War. Throughout most of American history, many Americans’ conceptions of their past has been informed by views of nationalism, exceptionalism, and triumphalism.

During the earliest years of struggle with the Soviet Union historians increasingly emphasized an exceptionalistic interpretation of the American past. Richard Hofstadter, the foremost historian of the consensus school, noted that as many people rethought America’s past after World War II, Nazi extermination camps, and totalitarianism of all stripes, they came to “a revival of the old feeling that the United States is better and different.” In such a context, he asserted, emphasis on conflict in American history seemed quite out of touch with the issues of concern to those seeking to understand the past as an entrée to dealing with present situations.

That consensus interpretation celebrated the long tradition of shared American ideals and values while de-emphasizing conflict, and that made the United States and its people somehow more socially advanced. Its advocates questioned the ideas and people who challenged those cherished principles, seeing in many of them strains of authoritarianism, anarchy, and narrow- and simple-mindedness of all varieties. Much of this approach, advocated a pragmatic liberalism that many believed was in constant jeopardy from forces of fear, anti-intellectualism, and authoritarianism.

But that master narrative of American history began to break down with the rise of the new social history of the 1960s. As Peter Charles Hoffer commented in Past Imperfect: Facts, Fictions, Fraud—American History from Bancroft and Parkman to Ambrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin (2004):

Outraged by the Viet Nam War and inspired by the civil rights movement, this new generation of professional historians set themselves the task of dismantling consensus history. Some of them were political radicals, and they gave renewed life to the progressive critique of consensus. Others were more concerned with black history and women’s history and were determined to move the story of these groups to center stage.

By the 1980s the consensus, exceptionalistic perspective on the American past had crumbled throughout academia, but it had not done so among the broader public and in the cultural institutions that sought to speak to the public. Those sectors represented a collective memory of the American past that was largely comforting and emphasized the idea of one people, one nation.

This shift of academic history from an emphasis on broad social unity to a multicultural, in some cases divisive, perspective on the past deeply troubled some elements of society. These traditionally minded groups viewed history as largely a civics lesson and a means of instilling in the nation’s citizenry a sense of awe and reverence for the nation-state and its system of governance. They questioned the necessity of alternate views of seeing the past, the reexamination of traditional interpretations, and the more multicultural, relativistic, and conflict-oriented approach to historical inquiry.

It was during this era that “revisionist history” first entered the lexicon as a term of derision, as if understanding of the past could never be altered in any way. Numerous castings of aspersions on the academic approach to history, the fruits of professors’ historical research, and professional historians as a group emerged from the 1980s on and accelerated as the century came to a close.

This debate represented a battle for control of the national memory. Would that vision be one that is unified—one people, one nation—or one that is fragmented and personal? Having lost this battle in higher education, or perhaps not even fully joining it, the forces of consensus and continuity struggled to control the far more significant and broader reach of history outside the colleges and universities. Critics believed that they had to prevail in those settings for the good of the nation as a whole.

The effort became something of a crusade, but not one orchestrated from the top down via some master plan. Instead, as individual issues arose the cultural right joined the fray to defeat what they viewed as a damaging, unusable version of the American past.

Attacks on the “new social history” abounded in the 1990s, such as the conflict over the National History Standards. Lynne Cheney, who had actually overseen the beginning of the effort as director of the National Endowment of the Humanities in 1992, led an attack on the National History Standards being created for K-12 educators beginning in 1994, and it did not abate for over a year. She, as well as many other conservatives, took aim at the National History Standards as representative of the perspective of academic historians and one that failed to buttress the nation-state. It presented, in her estimation, a “grim and gloomy” perspective on the American past that was far too representative of political correctness.

As columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote at the time of the debate, “The whole document strains to promote the achievements and highlight the victimization of the country’s preferred minorities, while straining equally to degrade the achievements and highlight the flaws of the white males who ran the country for its first two centuries.” In the end the conservative assault succeeded in forcing a major revision of the standards and the wholesale jettisoning of the teaching examples that had engendered the most serious criticism.

These efforts to control the telling of the past in the public sphere reached a broad audience through many avenues such as television, museums, and the elementary and secondary schools. Some of those efforts were subtle, but others have been heavy-handed. For example, as recently as June 2006 Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed the “A++” law aimed at reforming K-12 education in his state. A small but significant part of this legislation dealt with the teaching of history. Among other things, it mandated that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” It also directed a “character-development curriculum [that] shall stress the qualities of patriotism, responsibility, citizenship, kindness, respect for authority, life, liberty, and personal property, honesty, charity, self-control, racial, ethnic, and religious tolerance, and cooperation.” Finally, it directed an emphasis on “the nature and importance of free enterprise to the United States economy.”

While much of this language would place a “civics” spin on the teaching of American history—and could be largely innocuous—should such efforts find rigorous enforcement it offers room for only a narrow presentation of historical facts and little latitude for interpretation. Interpretation, of course, is the “stuff” of historical investigation and imagination; this approach represents a blatant pursuit of a “one nation-one people” approach to history and strives for consensus and continuity.

Is there a reason to be concerned about such activities?

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It Doesn’t Get Better Than This: Otto the Skateboarding Bulldog

When I saw this video was amazed. Otto is a four-year-old bulldog who recently set a new Guinness World Record by skateboarding between the legs of 30 people in Lima, Peru. This is something Otto wanted to do. He hopped on the skateboard, kicked it forward and coasted his way between the legs of a long line of folks waiting on the sidewalk. It was great. He’s certainly a lot better at skateboarding than I am. Check it out.

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Wednesday’s Books Review: “The National Labs”

National LabsThe National Labs: Science in an American System, 1947-1974. By Peter J. Westwick. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003, xii, 403 pp. $49.95, ISBN 0-674-00948-7..06

To help win the cold war the United States created a set of research institutions throughout the United States with the mission of ensuring that cutting edge science and technology found its way into the defense establishment. This set of “National Laboratories” had become so powerful by 1961 that President Dwight D. Eisenhower in his farewell address warned the American people not only about the “military-industrial complex” but also of the “danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” These laboratories have been under the nominal authority of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and later the Department of Energy (DoE). They included several entities associated with the Manhattan Project of World War II—Argonne, Berkeley, Brookhaven, Los Alamos, and Oak Ridge—as well as later additions, such as the Lawrence Livermore installation. Together, these facilities undertook extensive strategic weapons research and development during a forty-year cold war.

This collection of laboratories, manufacturing plants, test sites, and think tanks possesses a complex origins and evolution and has attracted sustained historical inquiry. The National Labs is a fine addition to this extensive and sophisticated literature. It works best as a synthesis of previous arguments about the role of these weapons labs in recent American history and as a vehicle for understanding the relationship between American science and the modern federal establishment.

Author Peter J. Westwick coins a new term, systemicity, as a unifying theme in this study, in the process emphasizing his contention that these facilities may only be understood as a diverse collection unified by a common goal and head but with significant centrifugal tendencies. For Westwick systemicity involves a changing set of alliances and rivalries central to the evolution of these weapons labs, negotiations abounding among those representing the various facilities and divergent priorities. These labs jockeyed for position and specialized or diversified in various areas to ensure primacy within the system. Their competition ensured the honing of skills perhaps not possible otherwise.

No doubt, systemicity as Westwick defines it has long been present, although one could question the value of advocating new jargon for what may be viewed as an obvious set of interactions. Similar interlocking themes may be seen in other distributed organizations ranging from such federal entities as NASA and the FAA, private corporations such as General Motors, and public/private entities such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or Intelsat.

Regardless of Westwick’s creation of jargon The National Labs makes an important contribution to knowledge about the evolution of this set of research institutions between 1947, when the AEC began operation, and 1974, when DoE took over responsibility for overseeing them. He traces the evolution of the labs from their origins as the developers of nuclear weapons, reactors, and other technologies of destruction to diversification into physical, biomedical, and other types of research.

Throughout, these labs have profoundly affected ours lives and our understanding of nature. The broadness of their research, the high costs associated with operating them, and the importance of discoveries coming out of them ensures that this is an important subject of study. Westwick’s synthesis is a valuable entrée into how these scientific institutions both altered and reflected the values of United States during the Cold War.

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Video of Arsenal of Democracy World War II Victory Flyover, May 8, 2015

Recently video premiered at the annual International Council of Airshows convention that captured last May 8th’s Arsenal of Democracy World War II Victory Flyover. This took place in Washington, D.C., and the assembled aircraft are stunning. Here is the video. Enjoy!


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“That’s Life”: Something Fun for New Year’s Day

“That’s Life” is a terrific song describing the ups and downs everyone experiences. It seems appropriate for New Year’s Day. It has been recorded by a panoply of singers over the years, some of those versions have been memorable. Written by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon, the 1966 recording by Frank Sinatra is certainly the most famous. This last year, in the finale of “Smash,” the recently-canceled NBC series depicting the difficulties in producing a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, it served as an object lesson for those who pursue success on Broadway and perhaps elsewhere as well. Here Megan Hilty and Katherine McPhee, the show’s rivals for the role of Marilyn, sing a stunning rendition of “That’s Life.” It is an exciting performance. Enjoy.

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Wednesday’s Book Review: “Independence”

IndependenceIndependence: The Struggle to Set America Free. By John Ferling. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012.

Writer John Ferling, has a knack for writing engaging, reflective, and insightful historical narratives. In Independence: The Struggle to Set America Free he tackles the process whereby American leaders and most of the rank and file came to accept independence from Great Britain. It was no straight line from loyalty to rebellion and the twists and turns are well documented in this entertaining book. It deals with the period from the 1760s until the completion of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. Ferling emphasizes biography and drama over detailed research and analysis.

The 14 chapters in this book are essentially collective biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Adams, Joseph Galloway, Lord Dartmouth, George Washington, John Dickinson, John Adams, George III, Charles James Fox, Thomas Paine, James Wilson, Robert Morris, Lord Howe, Abigail Adams, Robert Livingston, and Thomas Jefferson. The story marches through the process all of them followed from their places in the 1760s through the point at which they pursued hostilities.

In the course of this book readers are exposed to the battlefields of the early part of the conflict to the halls of the powerful in London and the colonists of all stripes who gathered in Philadelphia. Ferling plays throughout this account the related aspects of politics, insurgency, protest, warfare, and the debate over democracy. The most significant aspect of this story, it seems to me, is that it ended not in a military takeover, as has been the case so often during political transitions, but in the creation of republic. It was far from a given, and the result was far from the enlightened government that we are taught in patriotic literature. Yet, it was a remarkable time, the point at which the most powerful empire on Earth lost a key element of its holdings and its breakaway colonists created a dynamo of a nation.

This book is best in recreating drama and readers will find it an easy and enlightening reading experience. Professionals in the field will probably look long for new and different ideas, a thesis that will change the dynamic of understanding about the American Revolution, and will fail to find them. The strength of this book is in a powerful story very well told. It is great for undergraduates just being exposed for the first time to the themes of the revolutionary era.

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