H.L. Mencken, Where Have You Gone?

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At least in the most obvious sense, my title poses a dumb question. Where has H.L. Mencken gone? He’s been dead for more than 50 years. But though he’s long gone, and we won’t see his like again, many of those who cherish liberty wish they could call him back. America could use another like him, perhaps now as never before.

My introduction to the Sage of Baltimore came in my sophomore year of high school. Sharon Morrow, a teacher I wish I could personally thank today, extolled his virtues to our journalism class. To us, he was just an old dead guy. If a teacher liked anybody famous, the poor soul was automatically consigned to the purgatory of the uncool. But to suck up, this aspiring journalist read A Mencken Chrestomathy — a huge anthology of his essays and columns. Read it, and wrote a report.

I expected the project to be a chore, but I’ve seldom enjoyed a book so much before or since. Some of the pieces were dated, lampooning or lambasting people and notions nobody has heard of since the Roaring Twenties. But many could apply as sharply to today’s events as to those of times long past. What wicked and delicious fun Mencken would have had in 2012!

Henry Louis Mencken hated sham. He made mincemeat of hypocrites. He had a curmudgeonly love for this country, and he often spoke harshly to his American audience. But always with a twinkle in his eye. He could bring a reader to vein-popping outrage in one paragraph and pants-wetting laughter in the next.

He was a staunch libertarian before anybody knew what the word meant. “The government I live under has been my enemy all my active life,” he once wrote. “When it has not been engaged in silencing me it has been engaged in robbing me. So far as I can recall I have never had any contact with it that was not an outrage on my dignity and an attack on my security.”

Mencken certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

The young Ayn Rand regarded Mencken as an inspiration, remarking in 1934 that he was “one whom I admire as the greatest representative of a philosophy to which I want to dedicate my whole life.” If anybody ever stood up against Leviathan and refused to blink, it was he. In the feverish days leading up to World War I, he sacrificed his job as a newspaper columnist to denounce President Woodrow Wilson’s manipulation of public opinion in favor of entering the conflict. As Franklin Roosevelt amassed unprecedented power and craftily angled the US into World War II, Mencken earned FDR’s ire by opposing him and, in the process, lost another job.

His bedevilment of Roosevelt started during the Great Depression. “The New Deal began,” he famously observed, “like the Salvation Army, by promising to save humanity. It ended, again like the Salvation Army, by running flophouses and disturbing the peace.”

What might he have to say about our apparently endless War on Terror? Or — given his merciless mockeries of Prohibition — about our even more interminable War on Drugs?

About the first national crusade for sobriety, he had this to say:

Five years of Prohibition have had, at least, this one benign effect: they have completely disposed of all the favorite arguments of the Prohibitionists. None of the great boons and usufructs that were to follow the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment has come to pass. There is not less drunkenness in the Republic, but more. There is not less crime, but more. There is not less insanity, but more. The cost of government is not smaller, but vastly greater. Respect for law has not increased, but diminished.

Mencken was my introduction to libertarian thought. Not only to its thought per se, but to its attitude. I sensed even then, in the Carter years, that if he were to be miraculously resurrected (a notion at which he, a lifelong unbeliever, would cackle), he would give our moribund nation a much-needed kick in the pants. He had no use for whining or victimhood, and the spectacle of a president lamenting our “malaise” would be met with appropriate scorn. He certainly would not hesitate to call any chief executive who spent four years blaming his failures on a predecessor’s mistakes exactly what he is: incompetent.

“On some great and glorious day,” predicted the Sage, “the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

He knew a coverup when he saw one, and made sure it didn’t stay covered up for long. Campaign seasons were sources of neverending merriment to him. Never a partisan cheerleader, he treated his readership to what he saw as the unvarnished truth about both sides. And when a public servant displayed the integrity to do what was right, against overwhelming opposition, Mencken was likely to be the one voice in the press to point it out. Even though, about ambitious office-seekers in general, he remarked that “a good politician is quite as unthinkable as an honest burglar.”

What we lack today, in the mainstream media, is people who simply observe and comment without owing automatic allegiance to either side. Or observe and report with no preconceived agenda. Fox News, billing itself as “fair and balanced,” may see a different angle from its competitors, but it still sees only one angle. Like the blind men in a well-known Buddhist parable, some think the elephant is all trunk, while others reduce it to its giant posterior.

A people fit to govern itself needs to keep its baloney-detectors in keen working order. The people need to know when they’re being duped. They need to know how to recognize their own best interests. This requires sharp thinking on the important issues of the day. In our own day, journalists with the courage and wit to perform this service are in woefully short supply.

From 1899, as a cub reporter, until 1948, when he was felled by a stroke, Mencken did his utmost to help Americans understand the human drama and recognize the players for what they were. I owe him my rambunctious love for liberty, deep appreciation for the written word, and taste for fine cigars. I can’t personally thank him, any more than I can my high school journalism teacher. This essay will need to suffice.

“In every unbeliever’s heart there is an uneasy feeling that, after all, he may awake after death and find himself immortal.” Mr. Mencken, your great soul is immortal indeed. Too bad it can’t drag itself back here and knock some sense into us.




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Ronald Hamowy, R.I.P.

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Ronald Hamowy, who honored Liberty by becoming one of its Contributing Editors, died at 11:30 a.m. on September 8, in a hospital in Baltimore. The final cause of death was sepsis. Ronald had suffered for years from heart and kidney problems, and he had been hospitalized for several months.

He was one of the libertarian movement’s most important and vital scholars. An historian of the 18th century, he was known for his impeccable standards of research and writing. To discerning researchers of the Enlightenment — left, right, or center — his word was law. If there was a scholarly myth or illusion, he was the one who was trusted to puncture it. He was the person who meticulously set things straight. Many times, when I have mentioned his name in an academic conversation, the reply has been, “Ronald Hamowy! You know him?!

For libertarians, Ronald will always be recognized as a bright star of the post-World War II generation — but unlike many other grand old men of this or that era, he never became a Grand Old Man. He retained to the end his youthful joy and sense of first discovery. To him, any new fact — or any old movie, viewed on his constant friend, Turner Classics — was a pleasure to be greeted as if it were the first one in the universe. Even when ensconced as chairman of an august intellectual conference, Ronald let his eyes sparkle and his mouth crinkle with laughter, and with some little Count Basie-like verbal gesture he set the whole house laughing with his infectious wit.

Ronald was born in 1937, in Shanghai, China, the scion of a cosmopolitan Jewish family. His father was born in Syria; his beautiful and beloved mother in Egypt. He grew up in New York, where he supported himself with a number of jobs (one of them was running the streets, selling pop records). During his graduate work at the University of Chicago, he co-edited (with Ralph Raico) the New Individualist Review, a lively, beautifully produced libertarian intellectual journal. If you read it today, you will be sure to enjoy every word of it. Liberty — this journal — was consciously modeled on the American Mercury and the New Individualist Review.

The most important thing was Ronald’s ability to distinguish pseudo-individualism from the real thing. Nothing could be too real for him.

Ronald’s advisor at Chicago was Friedrich Hayek, but Hayek contributed little to Ronald’s studies. Hayek was above it all. Ronald was on his own, as students of Great Academics always are. His first dissertation topic required him to do research at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, where he found the research conditions impossible. Migrating to Oxford, which had resources adequate to another topic in which he was interested, he needed the sponsorship of some Oxford academic, to get permission to exploit the library. He approached Sir Isaiah Berlin, who rebuffed him. Berlin was “taking no more students.”

Ronald, who was only half as tall as other people, looked up at the great Sir Isaiah. “Listen,” he said. “I’m very smart. I’m very hard-working. And I’m funny.” All that was true. Sir Isaiah looked down at the small student in front of him, laughed, and said, “All right.”

Ronald was hard to resist. And he knew it. But he was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. If Ronald couldn’t make you laugh, you really weren’t worth the effort. And his wit was always . . . intellectually understood. No vulgarity. No easy laughs. Nothing but fun. But not coy, either.

One person who resisted Ronald was Ayn Rand. As one of the young libertarians (Ronald’s friend Murray Rothbard was another) who were invited to her apartment for intellectual discussions, he was cast into oblivion after a difference of opinion about . . . Rachmaninoff. Guests were asked to say who their favorite composers were, and when Rand’s turn came, she said “Rachmaninoff,” with specific reference to his second piano concerto. “Why?” Ronald asked. “Because he was the most rational,” Rand responded. At which Ronald laughed, thinking it must be a joke. He knew that the composer had dedicated that concerto to his psychiatrist — and anyway, rationality had nothing to do with its greatness. But Ronald’s laughter resulted in exile, and the loss of friends who were dear to him.

Ronald was a professor in the Department of History at the University of Alberta from 1969 until his retirement in 1998, at which time he immediately moved back to the United States. He detested conformist cultures, and he regarded both his department and, it is fair to say, Canada itself as epitomes of conformism. I once asked him what was wrong with Canada, and he said, “I’ll tell you. If you walk into a store in Canada, and you find a customer having a dispute with a sales clerk, 90% of the other customers will immediately side with the clerk. That person is regarded as an official, and therefore the one to obey.” He attributed this defect of Canadian culture in large part to the migration to Canada of people opposed to the American Revolution. They set the tone.

Ronald himself was always a revolutionary. He was outraged by any offense to individualism, so much so that he engaged in a ferocious online conflict with other gay libertarians who regarded the movie Braveheart as a tribute to the heroic individual. Ronald pointed out that the movie was historically ridiculous and anti-homosexual to boot. He argued, convincingly, that works of art really do need to be judged by their fidelity to historical truth, whenever they recommend themselves as historically true. But the most important thing was Ronald’s ability to distinguish pseudo-individualism from the real thing. Nothing could be too real for him. One day, when he and I were discussing various versions of libertarian thought, I asked him where he stood, and he replied (knowing I would not sympathize entirely), “Basically, I agree with Murray” — meaning with Murray Rothbard’s very radical libertarianism.

I believe that the antiwar strain of libertarian thought was important for Ronald. I remember accompanying him, when he visited San Diego, to the Adams Avenue (used) Bookstore (where else would you entertain Ronald Hamowy?). While browsing the stacks, I heard a voice muttering curses, somewhere else in the establishment. I found Ronald in a side room, seated amid stacks of books he was examining, and holding a copy of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August in his hand. Tuchman justified British intervention in World War I. “Damned British crap,” Ronald exclaimed, putting the book down as if he were giving long-overdue punishment to a whole school of thought. Which he was.

His life demonstrated that we libertarians are right: the individual, complex and whole, is the mysterious and unending source of all that is vital in our world.

Ronald’s works include The Scottish Enlightenment and the Theory of Spontaneous Order (University of Southern Illinois Press, 1987), Canadian Medicine: A Study in Restricted Entry (Fraser Institute, 1984), Dealing with Drugs: Consequences of Government Control (edited, Lexington Books, 1987), Government and Public Health in America (Edward Elgar, 2007), The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (edited, Sage Publications, 2008), and many articles, including one that was especially valuable for Liberty, on the intellectual argument about the American Revolution (Liberty, July 2008, pp. 37-42).

After his retirement, Ronald and his companion Clement Ho moved into a pretty, three-story house in the Washington suburb of Rockville, MD. There Ronald completed his magisterial edition of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (University of Chicago Press, 2011), which straightens out a great deal that Hayek left, shall we say, unstraightened. Ronald was already in poor health, requiring the use of a cane and, eventually, one of those personal elevators that take you from the first floor of your house to another floor. He had countless near-death experiences — frequently being rushed to the hospital, with only a half hour available to save his life. Yet he bravely undertook a long journey to Greece and Italy, which he enjoyed, and he lived with equivalent bravery from day to day. To see Ronald sitting at his desk, surrounded with computer wires, like a snake-charmer among his clients, watching his computer with one eye and Cary Grant (Turner Classics, again) with the other, was to imagine a cultural world that was, for once, under intelligent control.

Ronald was a combination of supposed opposites. He was a fiery combatant, yet a generous and lenient friend. He was sensitive and nostalgic, often to the point of tears, yet an unflinching judge of the written word. He struggled, year after year, against the uncountable illnesses that racked his body; yet he was always as valiant as a soldier undertaking his first combat mission. But there was no contradiction. His life demonstrated that we libertarians are right: the individual, complex and whole, is the mysterious and unending source of all that is vital in our world.

Ronald is survived by his friend Clement Ho, who was with him every step of the way. Anyone wishing to contact him is invited to do so, at cho@american.edu.




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The Most Decisive Battle of World War II?

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World War II was a messy affair. In spite of its perception as “the good war,” for some prospective combatants picking a side before all hell broke loose required intense political calculation. Alliances just before, during, and immediately after the war were fluidly tenuous.

The decade before the war’s outbreak presaged the muddle. The Spanish Civil War pitted — by proxy — the recently established Italo-German coalition against Russia in a classic ideological struggle. Italy’s incursions into Africa, on the other hand, were purely hegemonic grabs for colonial territory. In the Far East the situation was more complicated. In 1931, Japan grabbed Manchuria for its natural resources. In 1937, when Japan invaded the rest of China, both Germany and Russia squared off against it by supplying arms and essentials to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government. The United States, which supplied 80% of Japan’s oil imports and most of its steel, continued to do so.

Hitler considered Britain a natural ally, while Britain despised the Bolsheviks. Stalin despised the western democracies and the fascists equally, negotiating for an alliance with both camps right up to the day of the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Non-Aggression Pact on August 23, 1939 — which was only three days before Hitler’s planned invasion of Poland (delayed for six days by the signing of the Anglo-Polish mutual defense pact).

The muddle continued even after Hitler invaded Poland. Two weeks later, when Russia invaded Poland,Edward Raczyński, Polish ambassador to Britain — citing their mutual defense pact — appealed to Britain to declare war on the Soviet Union. Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax responded with hostility, stating that it was Britain's decision whether to declare war (a moot point, as a secret protocol of the pact identified only Germany as a prospective aggressor). Six weeks later, when Russia invaded Finland and the latter — out of necessity — allied itself with Germany, being unable to muster aid from the western democracies, Britain debated declaring war on Finland. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

As to Japan and Germany, their alliance was more a marriage of convenience than a pairing of soulmates. For one, Germany resented having to cede its New Guinea colony to Japan after World War I and besides Berlin’s aid to China, the Japanese rejected Hitler’s racial policies, going so far as to declare publicly that Jews were not a problem. The Führer, in an uncharacteristic backtrack, announced, “I have never regarded the Chinese or the Japanese as being inferior to ourselves. They belong to ancient civilizations, and I admit freely that their past history is superior to our own. They have the right to be proud of their past, just as we have the right to be proud of the civilization to which we belong. Indeed, I believe the more steadfast the Chinese and the Japanese remain in their pride of race, the easier I shall find it to get on with them.”It wasn’t until November of 1939 — three months after Hitler’s invasion of Poland — that the two signed a cooperation pact, and nearly a year later before Japan joined the Italo-German Axis in the Tripartite Pact.

Britain debated declaring war on Finland. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

Russo-Japanese relations were awful and getting worse. Immediately following the Russian Revolution, Japan had unsuccessfully contributed 70,000 troops to the Anglo-American effort to overthrow the Bolsheviks. Then, in 1905, the Japanese decisively defeated Russia in the Russo-Japanese War. By 1937, Japan was eyeing Siberia as a natural extension of its Manchurian and Chinese incursions. Stalin treated the island kingdom gingerly.

With Europe on the brink of war, his worst nightmare was the prospect of a two-front conflict. Japan did not reciprocate: it hated the Bolsheviks. Much of its contempt was caused by Stalin’s purges, which had castrated the Red Army. On June 12, 1937, Marshal Mikhail Tukachevsky, the guiding spirit behind the modernized Soviet army, together with seven other high-ranking generals, was shot. Stuart Goldman, author of Nomonhan, 1939, elaborates,

Of the five marshals of the Red Army, three were shot, as were all eleven deputy commissars for defense. Seventy-eight of the eighty members of the Military Collegium perished. Every military district commander was liquidated, as were the heads of the Army Political Administration and the Frunze Military Academy. Of the fifteen army commanders, only two survived. Fifty-seven out of eighty-five corps commanders were shot, as were 110 of the 195 division commanders. At the brigade level, only 220 of the 406 colonels survived. In the Soviet Far Eastern forces the attrition rate was even higher, with 80% of the staff being removed in one way or another. According to some sources, between one-fourth and one-third of the entire officer corps was executed, or discharged within a period of eighteen months.

To the Japanese government, by now controlled by the military, the annihilation of the Soviet professional officer corps was heretical — and an open invitation to invade Siberia.

* * *

While the regimes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin are well known and understood, Japan’s descent into military dictatorship and war was an enigma wrapped in a snowball set rolling by circumstance, without any one charismatic character leading the way.

During the last half of the 19th century, Japan had developed a parliamentary democracy under an emperor — revered to the point of veneration — as head of state. The Great Depression, which hit Japan early, in 1927, strained operations of government, already in disrepute because of widespread corruption, nearly to the breaking point. Frustrated by the Diet’s ineffectiveness, the military’s officer class dove into politics and pushed for decisive action — despite both an imperial prohibition and traditional samuraicustom. They held a trump card. As Goldman recounts, “An Imperial Ordinance dating back to 1900 stipulated that the army and navy ministers must be active-duty generals and admirals. Either service could thus cause the government to fall simply by withdrawing its service minister and refusing to put forward a replacement. By the late 1930’s, this expedient effectively brought civilian government under military control. Before long, generals and admirals themselves headed the government.”

For Japan, many factors, including both gekokujo — literally, “rule from below” — and bushido — “the way of the warrior” — produced a perfect storm. The government’s inability to deal effectively with the deteriorating economic situation was aggravated by Prime Minister Hamaguchi Osachi’s ratification of the London Naval Treaty of 1930. By this treaty, Japan accepted a ratio of 10:10:6 for American, British and Japanese heavy cruisers respectively — in spite of vehement opposition by the Navy General Staff, the Supreme War Council, the major opposition party, the Privy Council, countless nationalist societies, and much of the popular press. Six weeks afterward, Hamaguchi was assassinated. This was the first of a series of murderous assaults and coup attempts that prompted an American journalist to characterize the situation as “government by assassination.”

The Führer, in an uncharacteristic backtrack, announced, “I have never regarded the Chinese or the Japanese as being inferior to ourselves.”

Gekokujo is a Japanese concept that encourages action, initiative, and even principled disobedience in the application of moral ideals — especially if those ideals derive from bushido, Shinto, or Buddhism. It became the driving motivation for the political upheavals of 1930’s Japan. Coupled with another Japanese custom, that of considering direct orders an impropriety — a practice to which even commanding officers adhered — it became a justification for subordinates to ignore superiors’ “orders” (which, grammatically, were structured as “suggestions”), and act as they saw fit. While the top brass controlled the government, gekokujo controlled the lower ranks in a negative feedback loop that aggravated every contingency beyond anyone’s control.

* * *

The battle of Khalkhin Gol (Khalkhin River) — known in Japanese as the Nomonhan Incident — was a direct consequence of gekokujo. It wasone of the largest battles of World War II, and perhaps the most decisive one — except that it technically did not take place during World War II, or between declared combatants. It is the subject of Stuart D. Goldman’s Nomonhan, 1939: The Red Army’s Victory that Shaped World War II. Though based on a PhD. dissertation, it is a splendid book, gripping and well researched. It anticipates every question a reader might have, and answers it with context — a quality not uniformly present in historical narration.

Goldman sets the stage with an analysis of the global geopolitical calculus before the war, explores each country’s constantly adjusting foreign policy, then zeroes in on why Soviet-Japanese relations led to the conflict at Khalkhin River. The undeclared war — a series of confrontations spread over two years, involving nearly 150,000 personnel, and culminating in a massive battle near the village of Nomonhan — is brilliantly laid out, from the diplomatic to-and-fros, to battlefield minutiae, to individual soldier’s anecdotes, to follow-ups of the principal and minor characters during WWII and afterward (with Georgy Zhukov, later to become Marshal of the Soviet Union, Chief of the General Staff and Supreme Commander of Soviet forces, to the fore).

By 1937, Japan’s Kwantung Army, which in 1932 had conquered and occupied Manchuria (renamed Manchukuo), was bored and feeling its oats. In the interim, Japan’s Army General Staff (AGS) had been contemplating whether to extend the Manchukuo salient into Siberia, conquer the rest of China, or move south into Indochina. In June 1937, Kwantung took the initiative. Without notifying the AGS, it undertook a series of provocations along the Soviet-Manchukuoan border in an attempt to settle by force previously unsettled minor border alignment issues, with an eye to testing Soviet military resolve and gaining honor. The AGS had decided on a full-scale invasion of China proper, which it duly launched the following month. Faced with Kwantung’s provocation, the AGS was of two minds, and temporized. The result was a two-front war. Japan didn’t want that war, but still thought it could contain it if it played its diplomatic cards with the USSR adroitly.

Japan’s descent into military dictatorship and war was an enigma wrapped in a snowball set rolling by circumstance.

But Kwantung Army thought it knew better. Instead of heeding the AGS’s orders for restraint — phrased as suggestions — it escalated its thrusts into Soviet-dominated Mongolia. The deck was stacked against Stalin. Though the Soviet Far Eastern forces numbered half a million men, they were spread over a remote area two-thirds the size of the continental US, and hobbled by poor support and transport, including more than 400 miles of trackless terrain between Nomonhan and the nearest railhead (at Borzya in Siberia). Worst of all, the purges had demoralized the Soviet army. Kwantung Army, on the other hand, though numbering only 220,000 men, was bursting with pride and martial spirit from its recent victories, and was concentrated nearby, well-supplied by the South Manchurian Railway’s salient, which reached almost all the way to Nomonhan, yet was close enough to Japan to be reinforced quickly.

On June 1, 1939, Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov, a young deputy commander in Minsk, received an urgent phone call summoning him to a meeting with Kliment Voroshilov, Commissar for Defense. Zhukov betrayed no sign of apprehension at the possibility of joining the ranks of the disappeared. He was a bull: stout, blunt, crude, and short-tempered; given to drink, accordion playing, and convivial singing; overbearing but exceptionally brave. He was one of the few to survive multiple disagreements with Stalin, and he had a reputation as a man who could get things done. He was also — before the German blitzkrieg — an early proponent of tank warfare, a technique first used during the Spanish Civil War but discontinued because of its ineffectiveness in that conflict’s urban and guerrilla theaters. Khalkin Gol, on the open plains of Mongolia, was a better laboratory. Voroshilov ordered Zhukov to take command of the First Soviet Mongolian Army Group and contain the Japanese incursions.

Zhukov amassed a fleet of 4,200 vehicles to ferry troops and materiel from the railhead at Borzya to Tamsag Bulak, a small village within striking distance of the battlefield. The trucks moved only at night, with their lights blacked out. Meanwhile, to ensure tactical surprise for the Soviet attack, Zhukov concocted an elaborate ruse, setting up a sophisticated sound system between Tamsag Bulak and the battlefield to simulate the noises of tank and aircraft engines and of heavy construction. This long, loud nightly performance was meant to give credence to the false messages (in easily decipherable code, and meant to be intercepted) referring to the construction of defensive positions in preparation for a prolonged autumn and winter ground-holding campaign.

At first, the Japanese were fooled, and fired in the general direction of the loudspeakers. After a few nights, however, they realized it was only sound effects, became accustomed to the nightly “serenade,” and tried to ignore it. On the eve of the Soviet offensive, the sounds of actual pre-attack staging — which included bridges across the Halha River (Khalkhin Gol), deceptively built about 10 inches underwater, so they couldn’t be seen — went largely unnoticed by the Japanese.

Zhukov’s attack was preceded by an artillery and bombing barrage that no one, anywhere, at any time, had ever experienced. At one point — for three solid hours — an average of two heavy artillery rounds per second rained continuously on the Japanese positions. By the third day of this saturating fire, Japanese soldiers, who already had a reputation for superhuman endurance and never surrendering, were going insane. On August 20, Zhukov’s cavalry — tanks and infantry — charged. By August 31, Zhukov had declared the disputed territory cleared of enemy troops.

Zhukov was one of the few to survive multiple disagreements with Stalin, and he had a reputation as a man who could get things done.

The Soviet victory was absolute. Japanese casualties totaled 48,000; Soviet casualties, 26,000 — a very reasonable ratio. Nevertheless, the Red Army was gaining a reputation for troop attrition. Zhukov did not flinch from incurring heavy casualties to achieve his objectives. After the war, he told General Eisenhower, “If we come to a minefield, our infantry attack exactly as if it were not there. The losses we get from personnel mines we consider only equal to those we would have gotten . . . if the (enemy) had chosen to defend the area with strong bodies of troops instead of mine fields.” In the Winter War against Finland — a scant three months later — Russian techniques for crossing mined territory had been refined. Lacking, or eschewing, conventional sappers, Soviet commanders would deploy a single line of infantrymen, elbows interlocked, backed by NKVD snipers, across the mined field — singing patriotic songs to steel their courage.

* * *

Goldman argues that the consequences of the Soviet victory at Nomonhan reached far beyond Mongolia: from Tokyo to the Battle of Moscow and to Pearl Harbor. The timing of the Khalkhin Gol defeat coincided with the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact. The Japanese felt betrayed and diplomatically isolated. Defeated by the Red Army and deserted by Hitler, the government of Premier Hiranuma Kiichiro abruptly resigned.

In spite of Zhukov’s decisive victory, Stalin didn’t trust the Japanese — and with good reason. Like the Black Night in Monty Python’s Holy Grail, Kwantung Army was dismembered but foamingly rabid, raring to mount a full invasion of Siberia to regain lost face and honor. It went so far as to notify AGS to “kindly be prepared to mobilize the entire Japanese Army to engage in the decisive struggle against the USSR in the spring.” So Stalin reinforced Soviet Far Eastern Forces with 1.6 million men.

But the top brass at AGS had learned their lesson. They not only decapitated Kwantung’s command; they decided to phrase orders as “orders,” instructing Kwantung to assume a strictly defensive posture. And they reassessed imperial objectives. The thrust north into Siberia was shelved; instead, they set their sights on Indochina as a possible venue for breaking the increasingly stalemated China war by opening up a southern front against Chiang Kai-shek. This decision, logical in the short term, proved the Axis’ ultimate undoing.

It took nearly a year for all the contributing factors to fall into place. For one, Japan hadn’t yet joined the Axis (and wouldn’t for another year). Additionally, it took some time to convince Stalin that Japan was no longer a threat — in spite of his having a spy, Richard Sorge, in the highest levels of the Japanese government. How a Caucasian infiltrated the extremely ethnocentric Japanese high command is another story; but he did, and his intelligence was of the highest caliber. Very slowly, Stalin came to realize that Japan would not be a threat to his eastern flank.

His first move came two weeks after Zhukov’s victory, with the signing of the Molotov-Togo truce, terminating hostilities at Nomonhan. The reason Stalin didn’t invade Poland in conjunction with German forces was that he was waiting for a resolution at Khalkhin Gol. It wasn’t until the day after the cease-fire went into effect at that location that he gave the Red Army the go-ahead to grab eastern Poland. Finally, a year and eight months later, in April of 1941, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a neutrality pact.

Two months later, in June 1941, Hitler invaded the USSR, a move that took Stalin completely by surprise — but which Zhukov had predicted. By late summer, the German army was threatening Moscow. Stalin took a do-or-die stance: he entrenched himself in the capital, declaring that he was “going to hold Moscow at all costs”. As Averell Harriman, US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, later stated, recalling a conversation with Stalin, if Moscow — the nerve center of the USSR — fell, the Soviet Union would likely have capitulated.

“By early autumn, some Western military experts were predicting the collapse of Soviet military resistance within a matter of weeks,” Goldman states. Then, in September, Sorge reported that Japan would “absolutely” not attack Siberia. Only then did the Soviet High Command transfer the bulk of the 1.6 million men stationed in Siberia from east to west for the defense of Moscow. By December 1, German forces were only 12 miles away. It was then that “the Siberians” came to the rescue.

On December 5, Zhukov, who had been put in charge of the Odessa Military District after Khalkhin Gol and was now in charge of the defense of Moscow, launched a massive counteroffensive, spearheaded by the Far Eastern reinforcements. He threw the Germans back about 100 miles and held them there through the winter. It was the first Soviet success since the German invasion.

One day later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

For Goldman, these two events — direct consequences of the Battle of Khalkhin Gol — were the turning point of the war, rather than the Battle of Stalingrad (February 1943). He connects the dots between Khalkhin Gol and Pearl Harbor in this way: in July 1941, while the Germans were blitzing toward Moscow, Japan invaded Indochina — as per the AGS’s post-Khalkhin Gol plan. In response, the US and Britain cut all oil sales to Japan, over 80% of which came from the Anglo-Americans and their allies. The embargo was meant to stop the Japanese war machine; and it would have gone further, throttling the entire Japanese economy. To the Japanese, this was intolerable. The closest oil source was in the Dutch East Indies, modern day Indonesia. But they believed that if they attacked Indonesia, the US would enter the war. So, against the judgment of many of their senior commanders — based on the estimate that US industrial strength dwarfed Japan’s by a factor of 10:1 — AGS decided on a preemptive strike against the US fleet. It was a decision that one Japanese general presciently termed suicidal. The rest, as they say, is history.

* * *

Josef Stalin was the only major WWII combatant to avoid a two-front war. Throughout the first years of the war he’d badgered his allies to invade Europe, and at the February 1945 Yalta conference he, in turn, was pressured to declare war on Japan. He agreed to do so, but only three months after Germany's capitulation. This would allow him several months to transfer sufficient Red Army forces from Europe to the Far East.

At midnight August 8, exactly three months after VE day, and two days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Stalin delivered: the Red Army launched a massive invasion of Manchukuo — against Kwantung Army.

Many perceived Stalin’s move as a cynical grab for spoils. But at Yalta, Stalin had been unaware of the Los Alamos efforts; the war against Japan was nowhere near concluded; and his commitment to open up a Siberian front was a substantial undertaking, made in good faith. After Hiroshima, however, he did take advantage of the situation, trying to reclaim territory lost to Japan in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War — principally, Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands. Though Emperor Hirohito, on August 15, “ordered” (again, phrased in an oblique manner) Japan’s surrender, the Soviet advance continued down Manchuria, into Korea, and across to the off-lying islands. Some 600,000 Japanese troops surrendered and were marched north into the Gulag.

On September 2 Japan formally surrendered. Japan later concluded separate peace treaties with all the victors except the Soviet Union. There has been no formal peace treaty between Japan and the USSR or its successor, the Russian Federation. Russia’s occupation of the Southern Kuriles continues to poison relations between the two countries.

* * *

The Japanese Army General Staff’s decapitation of Kwantung Army did not dampen gekokujo or bushido. These qualities merely spread and entrenched themselves further. Kwantung’s high command had been punished with only slaps on the wrist: transfers and early retirement — no court martials. Mid-level commanders stayed put or were transferred.

Throughout the war Japanese soldiers gained a reputation for fanaticism, for never surrendering, and for suicide attacks. Even after Hirohito’s “order” of capitulation, a radio announcer tried to clarify: the emperor’s message actually meant that Japan was surrendering. But Imperial General Headquarters did not immediately transmit a cease-fire order. When it did, some thought it was a call for further sacrifice; others did not understand it or ignored it.

Japan concluded separate peace treaties with all the victors except the Soviet Union. There has been no formal peace treaty between Japan and the USSR or its successor, the Russian Federation.

Second Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda exemplified Japanese moral values. (On Onoda, see his No Surrender: My Thirty-year War, Kodansha International Ltd, 1974 — another good book.) He was stationed on Lubang Island in the Philippines in 1944. Onoda's orders stated that under no circumstances was he to surrender or take his own life. So he held out, and held out, and held out. Thirty years later, on February of 1974, Norio Suzuki, a Japanese adventurer on a quest for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, in that order, discovered him, befriended him, and urged him to come home. Onoda refused, citing his orders.

When Suzuki returned to Japan, he contacted Major Yoshimi Taniguchi, Onoda's commanding officer — by then a bookseller. When Taniguchi finally found Onoda, he couldn’t convince him to give up his position until he phrased his mission as an order following strict military protocol. Onoda came in from the heat on March 9, 1974. As of 2012, Hiroo Onoda is still alive and living in Brazil.


Editor's Note: Review of "Nomonhan, 1939," by Stuart D. Goldman. Naval Institute Press, 2012, 226 pages.



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New Light on a Great Libertarian

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One day in September 2011, I received the following email:

“I’ve just ordered your book on Garet Garrett, brother to my grandmother, Gertrude Garrett Graham, and my great uncle. There are a few anecdotes from his later years of retirement in Tuckahoe NJ and his relationships with his family and I’d enjoy talking with you, once I’ve read your book.”

It was signed, “Trudy Beth Bond.”

Garet Garrett (1878–1954) author of The Driver, The People’s Pottage, and The American Story, was one of the great libertarian journalists of the 20th century. I wrote a book about him, Unsanctioned Voice, published in 2008.

The book is more about Garrett as a writer than as a person and necessarily so. Most of his papers were lost. He had no children. His third wife, Dorothy Williams Garrett, had a son from a previous marriage, and he also had died, but I found his daughter. She had a few photos of Garrett but was too young to have known him.

Digging for details more than half a century after he died, I found one person who had known him: Richard Cornuelle, who had worked with Garrett in the early 1950s (and who died on April 26, 2011). Cornuelle had gone on to become an official at the National Association of Manufacturers — and had written a book, Reclaiming the American Dream, championing the nonprofit sector as an alternative to the welfare state. In 2007 I flew to New York City to meet him at his Greenwich Village townhouse and hear of his time with Garrett. Cornuelle, then 80, was delighted that someone wanted to know about the man who had been his mentor.

My book was more about Garrett as a writer than as a person and necessarily so. Most of his papers were lost.

Cornuelle gave me some personal details about Garrett, some of them incomplete. He told me one of Garrett’s sisters lived in a farmhouse on Garrett’s property at Tuckahoe. But which sister? Why was she there? What role had Garrett played in her family? He didn’t know. My book wasn’t mostly about things like that, but more personal details would have improved it.

After the book came out, I wondered whether I would hear from some lost relative. Three years went by. Then came the email from his grandniece, Trudy, who lives in the very town, Port Townsend WA, in which Liberty was founded and published for more than 20 years — a town about two hours’ drive and a ferry ride from my house.

Trudy was born in 1941. Through her, I got to talk to her brother Marshall, born 1943, and her sister Connie, born 1945. They knew Garrett as kids, aged 9 to 13. They were also part of a family that would have some stories about him. They might fill in some of the blanks in my account.

I had known that Garrett and his third wife, Dorothy, lived somewhere along the Tuckahoe River in New Jersey. From Connie, I received a satellite photo of the property.

At the beginning of the book I had listed Garrett’s siblings from Census records: Gertrude, Mary, Sarah, Thomas, and “what looks like ‘Clarra.’” But I knew nothing about them. Now I had their full names — it was “Clara” — and the dates of their births. I noticed that all but two of Garrett’s siblings were born in different towns, most of them not far from Garrett’s birthplace at Pana, in central Illinois. Garrett’s father Silas was a tinker — an itinerant tinsmith — and his family moved around.

From my new acquaintances, I heard one story of the children’s youth. Garret’s father, Silas, was a Protestant. What denomination was never said, though his funeral was in a Methodist church. According to Marshall, Garet’s mother, Alice, was a devout Catholic.

“They had made a pact when they married that their children would be allowed to make up their own minds,” Marshall said. “But the priest prevailed on Alice, and she did certain things behind her husband’s back, such as putting them in catechism class.” The effort backfired, and Clara, Gertrude, and Marie embraced the new religion of the time, Christian Science.

Then came an email from the very town, Port Townsend WA, in which Liberty was founded and published for more than 20 years.

“The Christian Science thing was a big schism in the family,” said Trudy, who was raised in that faith but abandoned it. She heard the story through her grandmother, Gertrude, who was zealous enough to become a Christian Science practitioner. Garrett was not a follower of Christian Science, and Trudy says his religious sisters disapproved of his drinking, smoking, and being married three times. But Gertrude and Marie also respected his achievement. They called him “Brother,” as if it were his name.

I learned little about Clara, who had stayed in Illinois. Sarah, whom they called Sadie, married a veterinarian and lived in Missouri and Iowa.

“I met my Aunt Sadie when I was 10,” Trudy said. “She seemed to have escaped the whole religion thing.”

Garrett’s younger brother Thomas had been an artist, and Connie has a painting of his (“landscape on the front, female nude on the back”). Thomas died young, in 1917, of somedisease. He is buried in the same cemetery as Garet and Dorothy Garrett, in Tuckahoe, which suggests that his elder brother had taken care of him — and perhaps had removed his remains, because Garrett didn’t move from Egg Harbor, NJ, to Tuckahoe until the mid-1920s.

The sister living on Garrett’s property was Marie. Trudy recalled the story that Marie had been living in Chicago. She was a man’s secretary for many years, and had become his mistress. “Supposedly his wife was sickly and when she died, he said, he would marry Marie, but he did not.”

His religious sisters disapproved of his drinking, smoking, and being married three times. But they also respected his achievement.

Trudy’s sister Connie writes: “As mother told me, Marie fell in love with a successful lawyer in Chicago. He was married and his wife was in a mental institution, and he told Marie there was some law that prevented a spouse from divorcing a spouse who is in an institution. So Marie consented to stay with him (my impression was that he paid for her apartment), something she otherwise would never have done.” Connie recalls her mother's stories of visiting Aunt Marie in Chicago as a kid, with her sisters Jane and Ruth, and "Uncle Walter" stopping by with candy for them.

When the man’s wife died, he wouldn't marry Marie. Connie continues: “Humiliated, Marie went east to Garet’s, where she stayed on, and where Joe French, Garet’s tenant farmer, fell for her and asked her to marry him.”

French was not an educated or worldly man. His claim to fame was playing baseball in the minor leagues in San Francisco, Topeka, Sioux City, Dubuque, Peoria, and Beaumont in the years before World War I. Trudy recalls that his fingers had been broken from playing catcher.

As Connie recalls the story, Marie went to Garet and asked his advice, telling him, “Imagine. That man is no more than a tenant farmer and he wants to marry me!” To which Garet replied, “At least he wants to make an honest woman out of you.” Trudy says that Marie married French “under duress from Garrett, who didn’t want to support Marie for the rest of his life.”

In none of Garrett’s writings does he talk about taking care of his family, or the stress of an obligation to do so. Garrett left his family in Iowa in his mid-teens. Several of the characters in his fiction are without family, and none of his fiction or his vast amount of journalism focuses on family issues or champions family loyalty. He addresses other things. Yet he takes care of his sister when the gamble of her life fails. He nudges her into a marriage with a man who loves her, and he provides them both with a house.

It is what honorable people do, if they can, when there is no welfare state.

Trudy, Marshall, and Connie recall Garrett as the success, the urban sophisticate, of the family — and, of course, much older than they. As preteens and early teens, they moved with their parents from suburban Chicago to New York City in 1953. She believes they were the only relatives of her generation who lived close enough to visit Garrett, and the only ones today who remember him.

In none of Garrett’s writings does he talk about taking care of his family, or the stress of an obligation to do so.

From the summer of 1953 to Garrett’s death in late 1954, they visited Tuckahoe often, staying at Marie and Joe’s, in the farmhouse on Garrett’s property. This other building was not a farmhouse really. It was a three-story brick house, covered with ivy. It had a ship’s binnacle on the porch, and Connie remembers it as “the captain’s house.” The place was the subject of a feature story in the Atlantic City Press. (Trudy has the clipping.) Part of the Stille Homestead, the house had been built in 1795 “by slaves,” the newspaper said, using “bricks brought from England.” It had thick walls and five fireplaces, two of them in the basement, “where in the cold winter time the first families cooked, ate and kept warm.” Upstairs it had a “borning room” where mothers gave birth, and outside was a small graveyard.

One of the side buildings had been made into a glassblowing studio for Garrett’s wife, Dorothy. Connie has a small bottle that Dorothy created, with a dime in it.

Trudy turned 13 in 1954. Of the captain’s house she remembers “a wonderful attic where I spent many, many hours reading old Saturday Evening Posts” that Garrett had kept in bundles. His articles were mostly above her head, but she saw his name on them in the Post. “It wasn’t really until then that I knew what Uncle Garrett did.”

Garet and his wife lived several hundred yards from the old house in a new house he had built. “Garet and Dorothy's house was enchanting to me,” Connie recalls. “It had the biggest fireplace I had ever seen and I remember very well the bust of Nefertiti that you mention in your book, as well as the high bookshelves that flanked the fireplace.”

Trudy remembers Garrett’s room with the two-story ceiling and the big fireplace. “The room had a cozy feel to it, almost like you would feel in a log home. Garrett was the boss of that room. Really he was the boss of the whole place. Dorothy was pretty much in her cups all the time.”

I had mentioned Dorothy’s alcoholism in the book, and all three of Gertrude’s descendants remembered it. They remembered Garrett drinking, too, but not being drunk.

They also remembered the outbuilding Garrett called his “cave,” where he wrote. “He built that,” Marshall recalled. “He was proud of that. He had a little storage area underground where he kept his ink cool. He had these big bottles of Scripps ink. Four of them. He’d refill the well on his desk.”

I had quoted Richard Cornuelle in the book about how Garrett would research a topic, keeping everything in his head, “muttering and fuming quietly. Then, suddenly, he would seize an old-fashioned pen holder, jam a new point into it, and scrawl on white foolscap, often for hours, panting and sweating, jabbing the pen in the ink now and then, until he had it all down.”

Scripps ink, from big bottles.

I had said in the book that Garrett sometimes hid in his “cave” from kids, and Connie, who turned 9 in Garrett’s last year, recalls:

“Although we did often go over to Garet and Dorothy's house, and I did catch my first fish off their dock, and Garet helped me unhook it, on the whole not too much happened of a family gathering nature when we were over there. We kids generally weren't allowed in his little building where he did his writing, but sometimes we were sent out there to fetch him or take him a snack, and I would look around in awe at all the books and papers around him.”

Trudy and Marshall remember Garrett showing them his artesian well, and how he had piped the water into his house. Garrett did his own plumbing.

In Unsanctioned Voice, I quote Cornuelle saying that Garrett had buckets of silver dollars under his porch as insurance against a feared inflation. (If he had lived another 20 years, they would have paid off.) Trudy and Marshall remember the stories of buried coins, either silver or gold. Marshall recalls that silver coins were found inside the ship’s binnacle, under a layer of sand.

When Garrett died, his property went to Dorothy. She died six months or so later, willing the property to her son, James. That was a setback for Marie and Joe, because they had to move out of the captain’s house into town.

Perhaps Garrett had an influence on the family. Connie was the closest to Garrett in her career: she became a writer and editor of Smithsonian magazine. Marshall is the closest to Garrett in his philosophy.

“I don’t think anybody knew about libertarianism then, if they called it that,” he says. “Most of us are still quite conservative, maybe not to the extent of libertarianism, but pretty near.”

“When I read about the attitudes of Garet Garrett, I see my brother,” Trudy says.

Trudy was an attorney, teaching classes in how non-attorneys could file papers and defend their rights. She recalls once going out with a man who admired Ayn Rand, and telling him, “I am the grandniece of Garet Garrett.”




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From Ayn Rand to . . . Edward Abbey?

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Libertarians of a certain age, when reflecting on their political odyssey, usually invoke Ayn Rand as the source of their epiphany — in spite of the fact that Rand herself repudiated the libertarian movement and labeled her philosophy Objectivism. Most libertarians weren’t persuaded: they continued the one-way lovefest, though many were beginning to feel embarrassed by the dogmatism, stubborn intransigence, absence of warmth or empathy, and cultishness of her aptly-nicknamed “collective.” Gagging on Objectivist correctness, Jerome Tuccille, a former Wall Street Journal writer and libertarian child of the Goldwater campaign, hastened the split between Rand and many of her erstwhile followers with the publication of his 1971 memoir, It Usually Begins with Ayn Rand, in which he lampooned Objectivists as zombie sycophants. Nevertheless, Rand remains the most influential libertarian of the twentieth century, though less and less so as more varied paths to libertarianism open.

Libertarians are radicals. Randian libertarians have especially radical expectations of the world. Relying on a philosophy so internally consistent that its dots nearly connect themselves, they continue to proselytize, believing that exposure to self-evident tenets will result in massive conversions. Next to the Bible, Rand’s philosophical novel Atlas Shrugged remains one of the best-ever-selling books in English. But while the Bible continues to make converts, particularly of the fundamentalist sort, Rand’s oeuvre is not nearly as successful.

Evolutionary psychologists hypothesize, on a smidgen of evidence from the Human Genome Project and other sources, that both religious inclination and political persuasion have genetic bases. Perhaps. On the other hand, I place libertarians smack dab in the middle of the left-right continuum (as does the "world’s smallest political quiz") — and there is some truth to that.

My father, founding CFO of what would later become AIG, admired Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society — its attempt at eradicating poverty. My mother had favored Richard Nixon over John Kennedy — despite the fact that she was a Catholic. Before she died, she’d become a staunch Reagan supporter, despite the fact that she was opposed to the death penalty. Though both had read Atlas Shrugged and Rand’s other major novel, The Fountainhead, neither perceived them as particularly political.Their politically schizoid children became, in turn: a conservative turned Obama-backer with vague New Age inclinations (oldest brother); a seeker settling into religious-right Republicanism (older sister); a liberal attorney who later found Christ and conservatism (little sister); and a left-right flirter slouching into moderate libertarianism and radical atheism (myself). Go figure. It seems that unless chaos theory is resorted to, political hegiras are often unpredictable and the motives behind them inscrutable.

* * *

At first, Ayn Rand didn’t charm me.

Recently graduated from college, I’d joined a group of 14 friends who proposed to kayak the 600-mile length of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula — at the time, a nearly preposterous undertaking considering that back in 1972, kayaking, as a sport, didn’t really exist in the US, and Baja’s infrastructure consisted of widely dispersed fishing villages connected by 4-wheel-drive tracks. We resorted to ordering kayaks from Germany, carrying our own essentials, and fishing for protein.

It was almost more than we could handle. Averaging, at first, only ten miles per day because of winds, contrary currents, swell and some of the highest tides in the world, most of the group abandoned the expedition at Santa Rosalia, Baja’s midway mining town. Still, four of us decided to forge on. Those who departed left us whatever we could use to aid our success. Except for Tek. He insisted that we pay — if not market price, at least something,for his dry noodles, crackers, peanut butter, chocolate bars, rusty lures, and battered reading material. I stared at him incredulously and asked, “Why?”

Unless chaos theory is resorted to, political hegiras are often unpredictable and the motives behind them inscrutable.

Now, on any long expedition, reading material is essential. While I had taken John Steinbeck’s Log of the Sea of Cortez, Tek had taken Atlas Shrugged. “Because it’s my stuff and I don’t owe it to you,” he responded, adding that I’d understand once I’d read the book, which he ended up giving to me. I paid him a token price for his offerings but used the book’s pages as fire starters after reading the back-cover blurb. Not only was his arrogance insufferable, but that title seemed a pretentious conceit, and the book’s catch-phrase, “Who is John Galt?” (touted as cutting-edge slang somewhere — I don't remember where) seemed as catchy and pithy as a bad English-speaking foreigner’s attempt at neologising — which is exactly what it was. (Years later, when I finally got around to reading Rand, I appreciated her perspective, one I was already taking to.)

* * *

The strongest formative influences on my political development occurred around puberty. I grew up in Havana, Cuba, the son of a well-to-do capitalist entrepreneur who’d married his Cuban secretary. Not only had he established Cuba’s AIG branch, but he introduced Volkswagen to the island and opened Cuba’s first paper products factory.

In 1960, a year and a half after Castro’s revolution, my family was forced to abandon everything, pack one suitcase each and flee Cuba for Mexico. All of our property was expropriated. Unsure of their next move, our parents placed us children in boarding schools along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, where we perfected our English and experienced the American Civil Rights movement up close.

By the time I entered high school, my political consciousness was being forged by the Vietnam draft and the presidential campaign of 1964. The Jesuit high school I attended in Phoenix, Arizona stressed critical thinking and public involvement, going so far as to hold mock Goldwater-Johnson debates for the entire student body. English classes included up-to-date reports and discussions of the goings-on in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, interspersed — at one time — with an in-depth study of Emerson’s “On Self Reliance,” a curious albeit insightful juxtaposition. I rooted for Barry, an unpretentious straight-shooter, with a solid grasp of the issues. But it wasn’t just his political values that attracted me. When I heard he’d mooned a censorious group that objected to the carousing at one of his campaign parties, he became my hero.

My friend EB and I decided to get involved. He joined YAF (Young Americans for Freedom) and introduced me to the John Birch Society’s nearby American Opinion Bookstore, which enabled me to buy and read None Dare Call it Treason. EB was sharp as a scimitar, a whiz at Latin and classical Greek, and unbeatable in debate, with a vocabulary that rivaled William F. Buckley’s. Together we joined the Model UN, a national high school mock UN project, where we hoped to be assigned to represent some important country — like France or Canada. We were assigned Ghana. Knowing nothing about Ghana — and just a tad disappointed — we decided to meet with President Kennedy’s ex-ambassador to that country, William P. Mahoney, who happened to live in Phoenix. Ambassador Mahoney was kind enough to grant us an interview just days before the conclave. True to form — and with EB’s command of parliamentary procedure — we brought little Ghana to the forefront by tabling some outrageously radical proposal in the General Assembly. That really got things going.

Later, I put together a presentation, complete with maps and photographs, on the Cuban Revolution and offered it to schools and interested groups. Nothing drives home an abstract news event to an elementary school audience like having a high schooler — only a few years older — recount how a revolution affected his family. Adult audiences, likewise, listened rapt and incredulous at what the kid lived through, always imagining the worst.

We brought little Ghana to the forefront by tabling some outrageously radical proposal in the General Assembly.

I was driven. Already president of my class, I decided to run for the Student Body Council — first for treasurer, then later for president. My libertarian inclinations were evident in my platform. I reasoned that since Student Body funds belonged to the students, my job was to maximize revenues and then return them to the students. The assembled student body had never heard such logical populism before. I could barely get through my speech for all the hollering and clapping, while the faculty members grinned nervously, wondering what their democracy had wrought. I won overwhelmingly. My opponent, Dick Mahoney (son of Ambassador Mahoney), who was later to become Arizona’s secretary of state and a Democratic candidate for governor, never stood a chance.

I kept my promise. To maximize Student Body revenues, I got the administration to fire the snacks and refreshments purveyor for varsity football games and, with a small crew of volunteers working out of the back of a pick-up truck outfitted with counters, ice chests and a till, took over the concession. The money poured in. Unable to convince the administration to issue rebate checks for each and every student at the end of the year, I decided to throw a big party with the funds. Between prom and graduation celebrations, I got Linda Rondstadt and the Stone Poneys — who’d just released their hit single “Different Drum” — to put on a dance-concert for the combined student bodies of my own Brophy Prep and our twin neighbor girls’ school, Xavier High.

* * *

EB and I ended up at different colleges, where we both broadened our horizons: me, in northern Arizona where I discovered girls, drugs, and outdoor adventure sports such as alpinism and kayaking, and acquired a knowledge base that instilled confidence in my developing opinions; EB at the University of Virginia, where he discovered boys, the law, and the power of big government to set certain injustices right. At first, EB was up to his old tricks. He and several right-wing buddies planned a takeover and subversion of the U of V branch of the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), a firebrand, radical left-wing organization that, by 1969, was already falling apart. As he recounts,

“Our strategy was to have some of ‘our people’ attend and cause a disruption and dissention. I, then, would emerge as the voice of reason. The ‘disruptors,’ as the plan called, made impassioned speeches, attacked me viciously (of course, we all reconnoitered later for a few beers to celebrate our triumph), and then called for a massive walkout. Many people followed them. Of course, that meant that the people left in the room would be easily convinced to elect me as their leader. (Others of my ‘planning committee’ remained to make and second the nomination.) From a tactical perspective, it was very successful. The local newspaper ran an article about ‘Young Turk EB.’ After that, I did nothing. I never attended another SDS meeting. The joy was in formulating and executing our plan. We had no intention of going further.”

While at the University of Virginia, EB (with his gay, black roommate) discovered that his tastes ran counter to the norm. Appalled at the social treatment his new friend was subjected to, EB came to the conclusion that it was only through the federal government’s efforts that racial bigotry would ever begin to be eradicated in as short a time as it ultimately was. So he pursued law, a skill that, by the time he passed the bar, he used to advocate gay rights. Today he describes himself as an anti-establishmentarian.

But I was still torn between Right and Left: on the one hand, debating the merits of Nixon’s Vietnam peace plan with fellow Prescott College students Tom and Randy Udall, scions of the Stewart and Morris Udall political dynasty (Tom is now US Senator from New Mexico); and on the other hand, convincing prospective conservative donors such as the Adolph Coors Trust and nascent Goldwater Institute (not today’s Goldwater Institute) that the small, private, liberal arts “hippie” college I was attending was worth supporting. I’d been handpicked for this PR fundraising job by the college’s president as an example of the caliber of student the college was training for "tomorrow’s" leadership role in society — in spite of my Mohawk hair-do, sometimes flamboyant dress, VW van pimpmobile, and of course my outspokenness.

At the trial, Sam defended himself by arguing that "it wasn't criminal damage, it was historic preservation." The jury acquited him after deliberating for 25 minutes. 

The outdoor adventure sports that Prescott College offered as an alternative to the more traditional football, baseball, and basketball at other colleges instilled self-reliance and initiative. They also imbued a passion for the natural environment and its wild places that, over the years, has only grown stronger for me. But it was the academic pursuits that were truly formative, intellectually. I majored in anthropology. Not your garden variety, Samoan-kinship-and-Arunta-fertility studies, but "processual" archaeology, at the time a new, cutting-edge approach to history that attempted to explain the nature and fabric of civilization.

While traditional archaeology collected potsherds, studied changes in art motifs, and concentrated on dating and categorizing sites, processual archaeology studied human adaptation — mostly technological — to changing environmental conditions and increasing population densities. Its corollary in cultural anthropology is known as the "ecological" approach (without the ideological baggage that term carries in common parlance). The specific question that gripped me was, “Why did the people who would become the American Indians, initially a homogenous population at the time of the Bering Straits crossing, develop high civilizations in the Andes and Mexican highlands but remain hunters and gatherers or incipient agriculturalists in the Great Basin and Amazon rain forests?” Today the synthesis this approach yields to the study of humanity is probably best — albeit only partially — exemplified by Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and its sequel Collapse, and given more scholarly exposition in the works of Karl Wittfogel, Leslie White, Gordon Willey, Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service, among others.

One elementary conclusion from the "New Archaeology" was the correlation that government power and control increases as population densities thicken and civilization becomes more technologically complex. However, correlation is not cause and effect — much less destiny — and, though the association of the two makes intuitive sense at some level, to this incipient libertarian the challenge was to analyze and discover just how much government denser and more complex societies actually required.

* * *

After graduate school I became a Mother Earth News-subscribing, back-to-the-land homesteader on a 160-acre parcel of rural Arizona land where I built my own energy-efficient home (powered by a wind generator), raised cattle, and grew a garden and orchard. I earned money doing archaeological environmental impact studies, building homes and doing some outdoor guiding. My wife made cowboy shirts and managed the local commercial truck garden. It was then that I discovered the Libertarian Party, through Karl Hess’ seminal article The Death of Politics, Roger McBride’s A New Dawn for America, and one of David Nolan’s local screeds. My wife and I both joined and decided to become politically active.

Our nearest municipality, Chino Valley, had just hired its first town manager, deciding that its exponential growth was just too much complexity for its traditional mayor-and-council government. Academically trained professional town managers often have a statist bent. Our newly hired statuesque blonde bureaucrat (with hair tickling the dimples on the backside of her knees), prided herself on her ability to extract state and federal funds through her skill at writing grant applications. Nonetheless, she was young and hip, and found us kindred souls. She hired us to write a pamphlet guide to local government for local citizens, a task we tackled with a libertarian bent. Additionally, she sponsored an Economic Development Committee to attract businesses to Chino Valley. I joined, though as something of a Trojan horse. Our little town wanted a supermarket, such as a Safeway, to locate nearby while I — not averse to the new facility — was afraid our committee members would sell their souls by imposing liens on the taxpayers (such as tax breaks for the chain), issuing industrial revenue bonds, or resorting to any number of other unfair competitive practices — or worse.

He pounced on my uncertainty about eliminating the police force, asking, “What crimes have the police ever prevented?”

1982 was a threshold year for the Arizona Libertarian Party. The popular five-term Republican Congressman, Sam Steiger, an outspokenly colorful character, declared his candidacy for governor as a Libertarian. Sam was a rancher, journalist, and Korean War hero who had twice represented Prescott in the state senate. He was plainspoken in the Goldwater mold, had a contagious smile and an outrageous sense of humor. His very public debate with his new party over conscription and his subsequent flip-flop actually helped him; it indicated that he was amenable to reasoned argument and not afraid to admit he was wrong.

When I first met him, at the offices of thePrescott Sun, the newspaper he published (and for which my wife worked), he was wearing a Stetson and cowboy boots, and was chomping on a big, lit cigar. He shook my hand, twisted his head back — as if to get a better perspective to look me over — and baited me with repartee.

“I’m all for the little guy,” he declared, pausing dramatically. “There goes one now!” he blurted in mock surprise, pointing at the floor, and stomping on the spot with an exaggerated goose step.

Sam wasn’t popular with the intelligentsia. He was once stopped by a traffic cop and the verbatim transcript of the exchange appeared as a full-page article in Prescott’s other newspaper, thePrescott Courier. To every polite request from the officer, Sam responded with a “Fuck off” or some other expletive-laden insult or an accusation of harassment. Neither a reason for, nor a conclusion to, the traffic stop was mentioned — absolutely no explanation other than the implication that Sam Steiger was not a fit citizen. Oddly too, the article was accompanied by a large, close-up picture of Sam’s face — apparently snapped from the passenger side — sardonically yet patiently putting up with the ordeal,.

But he was an active citizen. When the City Council erased a mid-block crosswalk connecting the courthouse with the bars on Whiskey Row in downtown Prescott, because a state highway ran concurrent with that street, the citizenry raised holy hell. Sam took the matter into his own hands and personally repainted the white lines. He was arrested and charged with criminal damage and disorderly conduct. At the trial, he defended himself by arguing that "it wasn't criminal damage, it was historic preservation." The jury acquited him after deliberating for 25 minutes.

Sam lost his bid for governor but garnered over 5% of the vote, crossing the magic threshold that gave the Libertarian Party ballot access. It was a sweet defeat. Years later, in 1999, he was elected mayor of Prescott.

* * *

Ballot access electrified Arizona’s Libertarians. State and county chapters organized. Precinct committeemen were appointed, elected or volunteered. I attended my first Yavapai County Libertarian Party meeting — an intense mixture of misfits, cranks, anarchists, hippies, dropouts, and nerds from both Left and Right, kitted up extremely informally (if not outrageously) — all united by instinct, intellect, and outside-the-box thinking.

There, at the meeting, I ran into Mark Davis — a close friend from high school but the last person I thought I’d run into. He recognized me and gave me a warm hug. He was big — solid and powerful (an amazing Charles Atlas-like transformation) — with long and thick, unruly strawberry blonde hair; but still freckled with his distinctive nostril slit, a scar from a tussle with a dog when he was a kid.

The last time I’d seen him was at "24th & Van Buren," Phoenicians’ euphemistic name for Arizona’s hospital for the criminally insane. I’d visited him there when I heard he’d been committed. Sitting cross-legged on the ground across from him in the thrice-fenced outdoor commons, I’d asked him what landed him there. He said he’d killed someone.

I was speechless. Aghast. Though extremely intense, Mark was no murderer. He was a minor, in the nuthouse. Who knows exactly what he meant by “I killed someone”? He could have meant anything from murder to accident to he just felt responsible for someone’s death to . . . who knows? I assumed it had all been an unfortunate accident and that he’d feigned insanity to ease his plight. (If anyone could fool a bevy of psychiatrists, Mark Davis, with his sharp intellect and determination, could.) I didn’t question him further, fearing that covert eavesdropping might pick up our conversation. I didn’t want to blow his cover. I wished him well and promised to visit again, but never got around to it.

It was now apparent that he’d survived the ordeal. We caught up.

Much had happened. In 1969, he had cofounded Terros, an extremely successful — albeit, at the time, controversial (both for its unconventional methods and staff) — crisis intervention program in Phoenix and had received a citation from the mayor for talking a man out of suicide. (Today Terros is a multimillion dollar enterprise that specializes in drug rehabilitation.) He’d also taken up martial arts and become a Sikh. He'd taken to riding a Harley and trolling for rednecks that didn’t like his long hair, beard, and turban, so he could teach them tolerance. Afterward he’d married and was now raising two daughters, whom he supported as a master craftsman, building high-end, lacquered, exotic-wood, shoji-screened cabinets for rich clients in, among other places, Santa Barbara, California. While there, he’d taken up some sort of Maoist revolutionary ideology. Surprised, I asked him if he hadn’t had a bit of a conflict between his political views and his employment. He responded that he was volatile, his thinking was always evolving, and that his convictions followed his conscience. But now, he was a libertarian — and he was raring to act.

Abbey’s point is that compared to industrial magnitude pollution, which kills people and animals, empty cans along a roadway are not only harmless; they provide income for homeless scavengers.

We discussed political philosophy. Mark’s libertarianism burned with the faith of the newly converted — it gravitated toward anarchy. Mine, tempered by experience, was more moderate. He ran down the list of government functions that could be privatized or eliminated. Mark being Mark (and now a libertarian, a species whose propensity to cavil is only exceeded by Marxist theoreticians and Jewish rabbis), pounced on my uncertainty about eliminating the police force, asking, “What crimes have the police ever prevented?”

Mark could go from convivial to confrontational in the flash of a rhetorical comment — eyes popping out, spit flying, face too close for comfort. But I’d grown up with him, liked him, and could calm him by tactfully pointing out that my opinions were provisional, while subtly reinforcing my affection for him. Luckily, the party chairman called the meeting to order. He announced that he was stepping down. He’d taken a political preference test and discovered that he was more conservative than libertarian. The honorable course, he believed, was to resign. The chair of the Yavapai County Libertarian Party was open.

With only a moment’s hesitation, Mark grabbed the baton and volunteered me for treasurer, adding that my clean-cut good looks, conventional attire, and calm demeanor were a necessary face for the party. It was a done deal: he became chairman and I became treasurer.

* * *

Mark had grown up the son of an oilman, bumping around places like Indonesia and Libya. He was precocious and idealistic from the start, with a sharp mind and boundless energy. He had raged in one direction or another since he was a preteen growing up in Phoenix, with his hidebound father ineffectively attempting to corral the boy’s energies with beatings. By the time he was 16, he’d been in and out of so much trouble that he was put in the California Youth Authority’s Los Angeles rehab center for unruly kids. As Dean Kuipers, in his September 1989 Spin article quotes him, “There was a lot of fighting, rapes, attempted rapes. I’m this screwed-up, basically naïve, suburban white kid, and this is right after the Watts riots. I came out of there pretty crazy, pretty wild.” Swearing never to be taken advantage of, he turned to weightlifting, self-defense and extreme endurance.

After reconnecting at the Libertarian Party meeting, we started to hang out together. Mark loved to take long runs in the mountains near Prescott. At sunrise, he’d run barefoot two and a half miles and up 2,000 feet to 7,000-foot Granite Mountain Pass and back, cutting a maniacal figure as he hurtled over rocks, prickly pear cactus, and blazing decomposed granite. I accompanied him once — with shoes. For us, being far from the beaten track, up on a mountain, down on a river, out in the desert or at sea was a meditation, a challenge, and a love affair all rolled into one. At his cabinet shop, he had a "heavy bag," which bore the brunt of his kickboxing workouts or his frustrations, demons that could materialize unpredictably at any time.

In high school, we’d hit it off: he a misfit, me a BMOC (big-man-on-campus). We’d found what we thought was a discarded B-52 fuel tank and decided to convert it into an outrigger canoe — the perfect undertaking for two hyperactive teens uncomfortable with just hanging out. The project was a big deal for a couple of 15-year-olds; it took most of the year. But we worked well together, and by the time I got my driver’s license, we had successfully launched the canoe on nearby Lake Pleasant. After that we drifted apart. During senior year he either left school or was kicked out.

Somehow, something similar happened after a few ill-attended Libertarian Party meetings where no one but me, Mark, and the new party secretary (of whom I retain no memory) showed up. We drifted our separate ways: me, to teach at an Outward Bound-type school in Colorado; Mark, to apply his boundless energy in new, more radical directions.

* * *

When local author Edward Abbey published The Monkeywrench Gang in 1975, it became an instant cult classic — the Atlas Shrugged of the environmental movement. The novel revolves around an unlikely alliance of four wilderness lovers who wage a war of low-tech sabotage — “monkeywrenching,” as they call it — against mineral exploitation and development of all stripes. The group is composed of Seldom Seen Smith, a “jack Mormon”; Dr. Sarvis, a rich, angry surgeon; Bonnie Abbzug, his (of course) gorgeous nurse; and a Neanderthal Vietnam vet named George Washington Hayduke. While “Who is John Galt?” became the catchphrase of Rand’s followers, “Hayduke Lives!”, appeared on bumper stickers, T-shirts, and graffiti — an expression of solidarity with monkeywrenching.

Monkeywrenchers proliferated — not least in Prescott. At our local college, a small group of activists fired up a chainsaw and, in the wee hours of the morning, cut down a new billboard just outside of town. But the novel’s impact was national. As Kuipers recounts,

“In April 1980, Dave Foreman and four other radical environmentalists took a hiking trip in the Pinacate Desert. They had all read about Hayduke and the Monkeywrench Gang, so as they sat in a dark, rural bar in San Luis, Mexico, they weren’t surprised to find themselves creating an organization that would advocate widespread ‘ecotage’ — property damage used to free wilderness areas from the blight of mining, foresting and commercial development. They named the group Earth First! after the premise of biocentrism that John Muir and Aldo Leopold had put forth: Every species on earth has an equal right to exist, the planet is not meant to be exploited, and measures must be taken to assure this. Today [1989], Earth First! has a network of over 50 ‘bureaus’ worldwide guided by project organizers rather than a main office. Edward Abbey’s fiction has become reality.”

Five years later, Foreman published (as both editor and partial author) Earth First!’s field manual, Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching — a how-to book that details everything from foiling coyote traps to spiking trees to decommissioning heavy construction equipment to downing power lines.

Sometime between 1983 and 1986, Mark Davis discovered a new cause: saving the earth. He’d later say he was willing to die to prevent the rape of Mother Earth, yet — oddly — was unwilling to join Earth First! formally. Not only was he not much of a joiner; he viscerally disliked Dave Foreman, thinking him a poseur. Later, of course, he’d accept operational funds from him. Mark and the small group of Prescott-area activists that had coalesced for monkeywrenching operations dubbed themselves the Evan Mecham Eco-Terrorist International Conspiracy (EMETIC), deriving the name from the later-to-be-impeached, car-dealership-owning, hyper-conservative Arizona governor.

John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” I changed my mind about this particular government intrusion.

Meanwhile, my environmental consciousness was fine tuning itself. Though I had no patience for Abbey and couldn’t get past the first chapter of The Monkeywrench Gang, one contrarian point he made struck a chord — and he made it in a very Randian manner. In a scene in Atlas Shrugged, Dagny Taggart, a railroad magnate and the novel’s heroine, is driving through endless, pristine forest. She’s terminally bored — until she spots a billboard. Her eyes light up, her lips curl into a smile, all her senses come alive, and she comments on the contrast between nature’s randomness and the billboard, an icon of the creative and purposeful effort of an individual.

Abbey, on the other hand, has one of his characters driving across a stunning Monument Valley-like landscape drinking beer and tossing the empties out the window — a monkeywrencher littering. His point is that compared to industrial magnitude pollution, which kills people and animals, empty cans along a roadway are not only harmless; they provide income for homeless scavengers. It got me to thinking about the difference between environmental aesthetics and environmental fundamentals, such as those with public health consequences, including air pollution — a subject first explored from a free-market perspective by Milton Friedman.

As a sometime land speculator, subdivider, and homebuilder, I faced a few decisions that helped focus my libertarian environmentalism — particularly in regard to zoning. At first I favored underground utilities, and was also instrumental in getting the county to institute a zoning ban on mobile and modular homes — both of these on aesthetic grounds. But when I received a cost estimate for underground utilities versus power poles for one project, I quickly changed my mind: the aesthetics were just not worth the price. The huge difference reflected a much greater expenditure of energy, time, and manpower. Aesthetics would have substantially increased the price of the finished product, thereby making it less affordable to more people. Additionally, underground utilities were costlier to maintain and repair.

One day a neighbor dropped by, worked up into a lather. He informed me that the state was planning to register all our wells with an eye, ultimately, to meter them, measure our water usage, and even charge us for the water from our own wells. My first reaction was outrage. But then the calmer strains of research took over. First, an overview of water policy, in libertarian author Terry L. Anderson’s Water Crisis: Ending the Policy Drought (Cato Institute & The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983). Then, a reading of the pending legislation.

The long and short of it was that some critical Arizona aquifers were being depleted at an unsustainable rate. And Chino Valley was smack dab in the middle of one of these. As Anderson had clearly pointed out, aquifer extraction is a "tragedy of the commons" phenomenon. His mitigating proposals were right in line with Milton Friedman’s insights, and, to my surprise, so was Arizona’s new law. The new AMA (Active Management Area) designations were meant to monitor water extraction, granting first-come-first-served rights to users in, as it seemed to me, an equitable solution to our homegrown tragedy of the commons. John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?” I changed my mind about this particular government intrusion.

But it was zoning that, after one contentious, standing-room-only public meeting of the zoning board, really rattled me. One of my new neighbors (who had bought a 10-acre parcel from me) approached me one day requesting support for a zoning variance he was seeking. He was an elderly man of modest means, living out his dream of retiring to a wooded, rural homestead. He proposed to install a mobile home on his lot and live in it while building a log cabin around it to enclose it, thereby saving time, money and interior finishing materials. Even though, when the project was completed, there would have been no trace of a trailer; its invisible existence was still, technically, in violation of the zoning restrictions. Hence the need for a variance.

I agreed to support him.

His petition polarized the neighborhood. Ideological lines were drawn and factions formed, mostly by those whose visceral hatred of mobile homes was an integral part of their identity. Neighbors who had previously been on friendly terms now avoided each other. I breasted my cards: antagonizing people did not yield beneficial results. Since I’d sold most of the lots and helped establish the zoning restrictions, most people assumed I was against the variance.

When news of the sabotage reached the FBI offices in Phoenix, FBI headquarters in Washington, DC ordered an investigation opened immediately.

At the zoning board meeting the room was packed, the tension was thick and the tumult intimidating — particularly for the elderly petitioner and his wife. Visibly shunned by most attendees, they were so nervous that he stared straight ahead, stoic and impassive, clutching his notebook of prepared comments, while his wife stood beside him, cheeks wet with uncontrollable tears.

My heart went out to them. I approached them, shook their hands, encouraged them, sat with them. The meeting was called to order. For most of us, it was our first zoning hearing, so the chairman explained the procedure. First, the petitioners would present their request, along with their reasons for the variance they sought. Afterward, members of the public could offer arguments for or against the proposed variance.

Watching that man kowtow to the zoning board on its elevated dais with the factious audience murmuring hostile comments gave me a glimpse of what ‘struggle’ sessions in Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution must have been like. Though already familiar with the political, philosophical, and economic arguments against zoning (see Land Use Without Zoning by Bernard H. Siegan, 1972 — a libertarian classic), I now became viscerally opposed to the institution.

After the old man presented his case and a dozen antis retorted, I spoke in his favor, surprising myself with such an eloquent supporting argument that the local newspaper quoted me and carried my photo.

All to no avail. The couple’s petition was rejected. I walked them out to their car. It was the least I could do.

* * *

In May 1986, three of the four sets of power lines leading to the Palo Verde nuclear power plant outside Phoenix were shorted with hemp cord and medium-gauge chain. The power plant’s lights flickered, the air reeked of ozone, and the technicians inside the control room scrambled to ensure that the backup generator would kick in. When news of the sabotage reached the FBI offices in Phoenix, FBI headquarters in Washington, DC ordered an investigation opened immediately. It was codenamed THERMCOM.

Though monkeywrenching continued throughout the next year, the FBI had few leads. Until October 5, 1987. That night, someone with a propane torch burned through bolts on several of the metal pylons supporting the chair lift towers at the Fairfield Snow Bowl ski area atop the San Francisco Peaks outside Flagstaff, Arizona. The peaks, the highest point in Arizona and visible for way over 100 miles, are sacred to the Navajo and Hopi Indian tribes living just to the northeast. EMETIC claimed credit.

On June 6, 1988, the FBI got its first break. Ron Frazier, one of the Prescott area eco-activists, became an FBI informant. He’d driven Mark Davis to a Phoenix welding supply store to purchase a torch, regulator, and hoses on September 29, 1987 — only one week before the torching. Unstable and jilted by his ex-lover, Ilse Asplund — who had then become Davis’ lover — he rationalized that he was protecting Ilse and her kids from the dangerous Davis. Mark could be arrogant and condescending and was oblivious to jealousy — traits that did not endear him to Frazier, a drug-addled stoner of modest intellect, once described as being a few neurons short of a full nervous system. The welding supply shop manager identified Mark Davis from a photo lineup. It wasn’t hard, given Mark’s distinctive split nostril.

Suspecting that EMETIC was somehow linked to Earth First!, the FBI assigned Michael Fain, an undercover agent, to infiltrate the group. Over the course of two years Fain, using the alias Mike Tait and the persona of a PTSD’d Vietnam vet, finagled himself into the group through the heartstrings of Peg Millet, half-sister of feminist author Kate Millet, an Earth First! activist and close confidant of Mark Davis. Some would say, later, that he was an agent provocateur. But he never gained the trust of Mark — who suspected he was a plant — until Tait accompanied him on his barefoot Granite Mountain run and “heavy bag” workouts.

In one instance, 28 power poles were cut three-quarters of the way through, and the last one finished off with a hacksaw, downing the entire power line when it toppled with an explosive flare of light.

On Labor Day, 1988, Tait, Millet, and a few other activists, hit the site of the proposed Mt. Graham observatory near Tucson, pulling out survey stakes lining the proposed access road to the observatory. Before the month was out, they struck again, cutting the power poles leading to the Hermit, Pine Nut, and Canyon uranium mines on both the North and South Rims of the Grand Canyon. These mines disgorge thousands of tons of earth with radioactive tailings and release a fine uranium dust into the winds — all on the border of national park land. With the North and South Rim mines being separated by a five-hour drive, EMETIC displayed a greater degree of coordination and synchronization than it had ever been credited with before. The EMETIC people had been particularly creative with their sabotage methods. In one instance, 28 power poles were cut three-quarters of the way through, and the last one finished off with a hacksaw, downing the entire power line when it toppled with an explosive flare of light.

The event was front-page news for days. At the subsequent trial, it was revealed that the FBI had known about the uranium mine strikes but declined to act, hoping that later it could somehow snare Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First!, whom it considered the ultimate kingpin.

A month later, on October 25, 1988, EMETIC hit the Fairfield Snow Bowl again, this time felling one of the chair lift’s main supports. EMETIC was getting bold. After the operation it sent communiqués to every radio and television station in Northern Arizona, warning the resort concessionaires to stop developing the San Francisco Peaks.

Now they had big plans, plans to do things that would stun the nation: cutting down the transmission lines leading from the Palo Verde (Arizona) and Diablo Canyon (San Luis Obispo, California) nuke plants, and the lines leading to the Rocky Flats atomic weapons facility near Denver. But the group needed a practice run.

The target was a transmission tower that supplied electricity to the Central Arizona Project’s (CAP’s) water-lift station near Wenden, Arizona. The CAP diverted Colorado River water to irrigate central Arizona. The commando team of Mark Davis, Mike Tait, Peg Millet, and Dr. Marc A. Baker, an ill-tempered botanist, was a nearly literal rendition of Abbey’s script.

After nightfall on May 30, 1989, they prepared to strike, with Mark as the ringleader bearing the torch. But so did the FBI — with a full SWAT team of more than 50 agents, H&K MP-5 sub-machine guns, helicopters with night-vision capability, and even bloodhounds. Davis and Baker were captured instantly. Tait disappeared. Peg Millet, 35 years old and a big woman, managed to elude capture, running into the desert, reaching Highway 60, and hitchhiking back to Prescott, over 60 miles away. She was apprehended the next day at work, where she showed up as if nothing had happened. Ilse Asplund, Davis’s girlfriend, and Dave Foreman were also arrested after the fact.

At the three-month-long trial, Gerry Spence, the celebrity attorney, headed the defense team representing Foreman. In a plea bargain, Asplund, Baker, Millet, and Davis pled guilty to one charge, involving about $5,200 worth of damage to the Snow Bowl ski lift. Foreman, who was thought to have funded part of the operations, got probation and a $250 fine and was forced to foreswear monkeywrenching. It was the end of Earth First!’s first incarnation. Baker served six months, while Asplund served one; each was fined $2,000. Millet was sentenced to 3 years and restitution of $19,821. Davis got six years and restitution of $19,821.

“I don’t want my species to die. I don’t want my kids to die. We are in the process of suicide. It’s all legal, but it’s suicide.”

At the sentencing hearing, the prosecutor wanted Davis to be remanded to jail immediately and to serve time without parole. But Davis had his say: “I have stood in front of men with guns and stopped them from beating women. I have stopped robberies. I have gone up a tower and pulled a man away from a 50,000 volt line,” he said, adding: “I don’t want my species to die. I don’t want my kids to die. We are in the process of suicide. It’s all legal, but it’s suicide.” Judge Broomfield was taken with Davis’ grandiloquence and gave him 17 days to report to prison. Furthermore, he gave Davis a sentence that would allow for parole at any time during his jail term.

* * *

In September 1991, four days before Mark reported to serve his time, the Los Angeles Times provided him with an editorial sounding board:

“An intelligent conservative knows some deep truths, including the illusory nature of free lunches and the inadvisability of taking irreversible actions without understanding the consequences. Our behavior is neither intelligent nor conservative . . . Growth by its very nature means an increase in the speed and efficiency of environmental destruction. Anyone who says aloud that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible is ridiculed. Denial has become official policy. . . . If what I and my three colleagues did has no effect other than to further damage an already tattered social contract, then I apologize. That was not the point. I acknowledge the necessity of courts and laws, and accept my prison term. But I am not sorry.”

In the late ’90’s I ran into Mark at a local hardware store in Prescott. He’d served four years of his six-year sentence at the minimum security prison in Boron, California. A severe claustrophobe, he had found the incarceration nearly unbearable — he’d lost 40 pounds in the two months of jail following his arrest — as he had found the separation from his two little daughters. Whatever his faults, Mark was a devoted and loving father.

The same month and year that the Los Angeles Times gave Mark a soapbox, Bill Bradford published my first feature article in Liberty. Ever since, realizing that nudging a left- or right-winger toward the libertarian middle is much more productive than attempting to badger him into libertarian purity, I’ve focused my political energies on writing and teaching, two fields where illiberalism cloaks itself in the language of liberalism — always mindful of the adage that “education is the road from obstinate ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty.”




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The Return of Coxey’s Army

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In 1894, Coxey’s Army, a legion of purportedly needy people, came to Washington to demand radical reform of the capitalist system. It was supposed to be a “march,” but some of Coxey’s soldiers tried to make their trip to the capital by hijacking railroad trains. The depredations of the Army were widely feared, especially by communities that lay on its route, but by the time it reached Washington its numbers had dwindled. It ended when its leaders were arrested for walking on the capitol grass. That took care of Coxey’s Army.

During the past few weeks, downtowns across the country have been the unwilling hosts of tribes of ignorant savages shouting about the wickedness of, guess what, the capitalist system.  They maintain that they represent the 99% of Americans whose lives are controlled by the remaining 1%, who supposedly own 99% of property in this country. Ironies abound: people who have nothing better to do than hang out in a park and empty their bladders in a McDonalds restroom are lauded and supported by labor unions; people who want to abolish wealth are bankrolled by “liberal” billionaires; and people who never vote are courted by the highest official representatives of the Democratic Party. Friendly media note with relief that the Occupy mobs are (usually) “peaceful.” I suppose that if you come over to my condo complex, pitch a tent, and refuse to leave, denouncing me day and night and threatening my neighbors with the risk of epidemic disease, you are being “peaceful.”

It’s a safe bet that not one Occupier, or mainstream commentator on the Occupiers, has ever heard of Coxey’s Army. So such people haven’t fully realized what the lowest level of police power can do to wipe up a “movement.” On October 13, all around the country, local mayors and cops started moving against the demonstrators, evicting them from their zones of occupation for reasons of health. Their tent cities were fouling the environment.

Of course, that’s another irony that should be savored.  One of the Occupiers’ great complaints is that capitalism is ruining the environment. Well, just look at what the Occupiers did to New York’s Zuccotti Park (which by the way is privately owned, despite Mayor Bloomberg’s apparent assumption that he owns it and can let protestors in and out whenever he wants). It’s hard to imagine a more degraded environment.  For this reason, the protestors were nearly kicked out of the park on October 14, a mere four weeks after they started to degrade it. On that day and the day after, they were kicked out of parks and other civic spaces in many other cities. On October 16, they were prevented from starting a camp in Chicago’s Grant Park.

A few more run-ins with local government, and the movement will probably go the way of Coxey and Friends. This is yet another irony, because what the protestors, “anarchist” or not, are really screaming for is more government, government that will run everyone’s life in the minutest detail. That’s the only way in which their multitudinous demands — for equal incomes, free money, vast solar energy projects, whatever — could ever be satisfied.

But there’s one nice, nonironic touch.  For once, one of the Occupiers said something correct. According to a CNN report on October 13, Occupy Wall Street spokesman Tyler Combelic promised resistance to any attempt to move the protest out of its usurped location, observing. "It's not an occupation if you can't occupy the park."  How true, how true.




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Age of Gold, Age of Paper

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It lasted for more than a thousand years. Its Great Palace was the seat of imperial and religious government for as long. It claimed to encompass the Roman Empire, and often did. It was the largest and greatest court in Christendom. In its Chrysotriklinos, its Golden Hall, hydraulic engines powered fountains, large organs, golden birds that sang in jewel-drenched trees, and golden lions that roared. Ambassadors bowed to its emperor as his throne magically rose to the ceiling. Gold mosaics dazzled visitors to its court and cathedral.

It was Byzantium.

I’m reading Judith Herrin’s history of that empire. She is a good historian but perhaps not much interested in economics. In her book, Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire, an essential fact of Byzantine economy gets a fleeting mention as a caption to an illustration: “Byzantium preserved a gold coinage of reliable fineness over 700 years.”

Many empires have been laid low by the degradation of their currency. I think ours is next. No historian will ever say that the US dollar preserved reliable fineness for even a tenth of 700 years.




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Rising Star

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Liberty is always delighted to acclaim the artistic success of libertarians. Our delight is increased when they are Liberty’s own authors.

Today it is my pleasure to introduce a book by one of my own favorites, Garin Hovannisian. The book is Family of Shadows, it’s published by HarperCollins, and it’s causing a stir on several continents.

Family of Shadows is the story of Garin’s family — who were by no means vague or ghostly people. They were vivid presences, taking their part in some of the most interesting events of the 20th century, from the massacres in Armenia during the time of “the breaking of nations” to the destruction of the Soviet Union. The book is a story of survival, and of the individual freedom that makes survival worth the effort.

It’s also a story told with great style and insight. All historians deal with “shadows,” but a good historian makes them more substantial than the ostensibly real people who surround us daily. And a good historian, like a good novelist, makes us wiser as we read. While reading Family of Shadows, I kept thinking, “This is a very good novel.” But it’s not fiction, nor is it fictionalized. It’s an exhaustively researched history, free of the shallow assumptions, inane theorizing, and formulaic prose of normal historical writing.

Read it for yourself. You’ll find that you won’t be able to put it down. In the meantime, I thought you’d be interested in knowing more about the author. So I asked Alec Mouhibian, himself a writer for Liberty, to interview his friend Garin.

Here’s a look into the writer’s workshop.

 — Stephen Cox

***

AM: Stories ask to be told. But some stories prefer to be left alone. Why, and how, did this story call to you?

GH: It's strange; I can remember exactly when and where it happened. It was in the fall of 2007. I was all alone in a computer lab on the eighth floor of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. I was a student there, writing my master's thesis about a group of magicians who had been meeting in secret for generations. . . . I'm not sure that's important. But what happened to me that afternoon is, I think, what writers waste their lives waiting for, one of those cosmic events — when stars seem to align into a constellation. . . .

What I mean to say is that I discovered, suddenly and for the first time, that all the details and metaphors and meanings of my family history somehow belonged to a great narrative.

My great-grandfather Kaspar had survived the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and escaped to the vineyards of California's San Joaquin Valley. My grandfather Richard had left his father's farm to pioneer the field of Armenian Studies in the United States. My father Raffi had left his law firm, the American Dream itself, to repatriate to Soviet Armenia, where he went on to serve as the new republic's first foreign minister.

So I realized that the family story was about three men who left — individuals who cheated their destinies — but it was also about men who, unbeknownst to them, had been serving a pattern greater than themselves. A homeland lost, remembered, regained — it was a perfect circle!

Then I knew I would have to write Family of Shadows.

AM: You mentioned how this story hit you as you were wandering the world of magic. You're quite the magician yourself. What connection is there between your history with magic and the discovery that led to this book?

GH: My father gave me my first magic set when I was five, and I knew immediately that I would become a magician. I loved to make the impossible happen, to play at the border of reality and fantasy. Of course I also loved to watch the reactions of people — the astonishment spread upon the faces of strangers. Anyway, I long ago gave up the wand for the pen, but not, I think, the passions that run through both of them: mystery and vanity.

AM: Explain where you had to go to write this book, what you had to explore, and how this vastarray of settings get along with each other in the story and in your mind.

GH: I didn't know, when I decided to write the book, just how far I would have to travel. I couldn't imagine that I would have to spend countless hours at the National Archives in Washington or the Armenian academy called the Jemaran in Beirut or the National Library in Yerevan or the Tulare Historical Museum in the San Joaquin Valley of California. But I think it was that other kind of travel — not through space, but into lost time — that was the most exhilarating. I realized that if I were to tell my story straight, I would have to conduct some difficult interviews — to go deep into the minds and memories of my living characters, where so many details of my story had been trapped for decades.

AM: Your book is evenly divided between the histories ofthree men. Before we go further, explain your process for choosing what to include and what to leave out of their story, and the stories of the many characters surrounding them.

GH: The book, as I first wrote it, was about 450 pages long. The one you'll find in bookstores today is 300. You know very well that you were in part responsible for this. I remember the first time you read the manuscript. I was sitting across from you, minding my coffee, pretending not to notice your reactions. You were quiet, mostly, but every so often, you would emerge from silence to sing the blues, and I knew this wasn't a good sign.

AM: I never thought my rendition of "My Baby Ain't No Baby No More" could be so pregnant.

GH: Oh, it was — and actually it made me realize just how big my own book had become. The truth was that those 150 pages were important — they told so much history and gossip — but they weren't important for this book. So I began to cut. It was slow and deliberate and painful at first. But then you remember what happened to me? Suddenly, I was slashing away at my pages — reversing months of labor. I bet I lost a lot of good lines, too, but it was necessary and, ultimately, deeply liberating.

AM: Homeland. Patterns greater than self. These fall under the greater concept of "Armenia," toward which all the dream-roads in your book lead. Define Armenia — in your own terms — for those (including Armenians) who have no idea what it might mean.

GH: To begin with, Armenia is an actual land — stretching between the Black and Caspian seas — where the Armenian people have lived for thousands of years. We used to have our own empire, but for most of history we were content merely to survive the rise and fall of neighboring empires — the Roman, Persian, Byzantine, Arab. Armenia was where kings came to do battle. And so the blood, the ethos, the mythology of countless civilizations is in our soil.

Armenian history forever changed in 1915. Western Armenia was cleansed of all Armenians by the nationalist Young Turk regime of the Ottoman Empire; those who survived the genocide scattered to new diasporas across the world. Eastern Armenia, meanwhile, was absorbed into the Soviet Union as the smallest of the 15 socialist republics. That tiny sliver of land is the Armenia you'll find on modern maps.

But for much of the 20th century, Armenia existed mostly as a dream. My father and my grandfather before him spent their childhoods yearning for a "free, independent, united Armenia." Forgive me, I do have to be poetic, because the truth is that for us, the millions of Armenians living in exile and dispersion, Armenia had become something like a poem: a spiritual landscape blossoming with metaphor and mystery and apricot. It is there that Family of Shadows is set.

AM: Mmm, metaphor. That strangest and most bitter Armenian crop.

Let's talk about Liberty, and its own role in the soil. I've known you for years, but I never really wanted to know you until your byline appeared in this magazine at the tender age of 17. How does individual liberty figure in the Armenian-American dream? How does it contend with the shadows that haunt every corner of the real and imagined Armenia?

GH: You're testing me. "Let's talk about Liberty" — wasn't that the slogan of the Cato Institute conference we attended in San Diego ages ago? That's where we first met Stephen Cox — followed him into literature and then into Liberty. It was our breakthrough!

Now you know as well as I do that Family of Shadows isn't a libertarian manifesto. But it is, I've long secretly believed, a kind of allegory of individualism and rebellion. At its deepest level, it is the story of three men who were born into times and places where they did not belong, who defied the great forces of history, who defied destiny. My great-grandfather defied his destiny of death during the genocide of 1915. My grandfather rejected his destiny on his father's farm. My father abandoned his destiny in the American Dream.

Maybe that's not fair, though. For my father, I think, the American Dream was never about achieving and enjoying liberty for oneself, but about spreading liberty across countries and continents.

AM: Is there no tension between the spread of liberty and the participation in an ethnic-national heritage, which might be at odds with individualism? How can this be reconciled in Armenia?

GH: Governments don't have ethnicities. People do. So I confess not to feel the tension. I don't see why an individual, living in a free society, shouldn't feel free to seek his private solace or meaning or peace wherever he pleases — in philosophy, religion, even national heritage. You build yourself a free country, but then what? You still have private problems. You still have to deal with death and salvation.As the great poet sings, "you're still gonna have to serve somebody."

AM: Classic Milton. Always comes through. Now of course your book is a powerful human drama, and should therefore matter to anyone who ranks himself among the humans. But perhaps you can explain why Armenia should matter to America.

GH: After the genocide of 1915, an unprecedented human rights movement swept through the United States. American citizens collected more than a hundred million dollars to help the surviving refugees; kids who didn't finish their suppers were told to remember "the starving Armenians." The most important witnesses and chroniclers of the genocide had been American ambassadors and consuls, and now it was the president himself — Woodrow Wilson — who was proposing an American mandate to safeguard Armenia.

In those years, the American people invested their spirit in the Armenian struggle — and I think the mysterious logic of that investment has revealed itself slowly through time. It's been forgotten, but in February 1988, half a million Armenians gathered in Yerevan, the capital of Soviet Armenia, to launch the first successful mass movement against Communist rule. Independence followed in 1991. That's when my father, an American citizen, returned to Armenia. That's also about the time when a million Armenians left a newborn Armenia to seek more certain destinies in the United States.

The stories, the histories, the Armenian and the American Dreams, were in conversation long before I tried to capture that conversation in Family of Shadows.

AM: The Russians have a saying: “Every grandmother was once a girl.” Perhaps it can also be said that every answer was once a question. So...any questions before you go?

GH: You know, I have been wondering: who is John Galt?




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Good as Gold

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James Grant is the best-spoken and most accomplished hard-money man in Wall Street. Plenty of people can inveigh against the Fed; the publisher of Grant’s Interest Rate Observer can put it in the context of today’s financial markets and also in the context of history.

Grant is also a historian. He wrote a biography of John Adams, and another of financier Bernard Baruch, and several other histories, including my favorite among his works, The Trouble with Prosperity: The Loss of Fear, the Rise of Speculation and the Risk to American Savings (1996). His new book, “Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker!” should be of particular interest to readers of Liberty.

That’s not because of any deep interest I have in his nominal subject, Thomas B. Reed (1839–1902). Reed was a moderately interesting figure. He was fat, he ate fish balls for breakfast, and he spoke French. He was a congressman from Maine, first elected in the centennial year, 1876. He was a man of his time, a Republican stalwart who supported the tariff and gold and opposed foreign wars. Though he was for woman suffrage, he was no progressive, at least in the sense that today’s progressives are. He had no desire to teach other people how to live. “Pure in his personal conduct,” Grant writes, “he had no interest in instructing the impure.”

During the 1890s, Reed was speaker of the House. His claim to fame is how he changed the House rules to give himself, and the majority, much more power to get things done. Whether that was good or bad depends on your point of view.

Parts of the book are about Reed’s parliamentary maneuverings and also about his wit. These parts are well-written, but I was not much interested in them. The greater part of the book, however, is about the financial events and national political battles from 1870 or so to 1899, which I found very interesting.

Now gold is the money of the distant past. In the 1870s, Grant observes, “Gold was the money of the future."

Grant covers several such things, from the collapse of the Freedmen’s Bank to the stolen election of 1876. He has a particular interest in the currency. One story he tells is of Lincoln’s printing of greenbacks during the Civil War, and the struggle afterward over restoring the link to gold. In the ideology of the day, restoration was necessary. It was part of honorable dealing. But people dragged their feet about doing it, because a national debt had been piled up during the war, and what was the need to repay investors in gold if they had bought bonds with greenbacks? And besides, there was a boom on, and shrinking the money supply would spoil it.

The boom went bust in 1873. For the rest of the decade the country was arguing about the commitment to return to gold. The way in which this argument was conducted was much different from the way it would be today. Now gold is the money of the distant past. In the 1870s, Grant observes, “Gold was the money of the future”:

“A 21st century student of monetary affairs may stare in wonder at the nature of the monetary debate in mid 1870s America. A business depression was in progress. From the south, west and parts of the east arose a demand for a cheaper and more abundant currency. Yet such appeals were met with, and finally subdued by, a countervailing demand for a constant, objective and honest standard of value.”

“Resumption day” was Jan. 1, 1879. There followed “a mighty boom.” In the 1880s, prices fell 4.2% and wages rose.

This was the era of laissez-faire. “The government delivered the mails, maintained the federal courts, battled the Indians, examined the nationally chartered banks, fielded the army, floated the navy and coined the currency.” The big social program was Civil War pensions — for the Union side, not the Confederates. By the standards of the day, the Democrats were the small-government party and the Republicans were the big-government party, but policy differences were at the margin only.

The federal government was funded by the tariff, which the Republicans, and Reed, thought was good for American labor. The Democrats quoted the free-trade arguments of Frédéric Bastiat. “The Republicans,” Grant writes, “having no ready answer for Bastiat’s arguments, were reduced to pointing out that he was, indeed, French.”

The ideological atmosphere started changing in the 1890s. The Panic of 1893 brought on a severe depression, and another political battle over the currency. This time the supporters of gold battled it out with the supporters of silver, with bimetallists arguing for both at once.

Grant provides the best explanation of the gold-versus-silver battle I have read, especially the futility of having two metallic standards at the same time. Here he is not so proud of Thomas Reed, who was by then speaker: “One senses, reading him, that he was not quite sure what the gold standard was all about.” Reed’s position “lacked clarity, or, one might even say, courage. [President Grover] Cleveland had one unshakable conviction, which was gold. Reed had many convictions, only one of which — no free silver — was strictly nonnegotiable.”

Reed’s final battle was over war with Spain. He was against it. The new president, William McKinley, seemed to be against it, but lacked the courage really to oppose it. Ex-President Cleveland was against it, as was William Jennings Bryan, the presidential candidate whom McKinley had beaten in 1896. But the Congress was for it, and even with his self-enhanced power as speaker, Reed couldn’t block the war resolution of 1898. It passed the House 310 to 6.

A year later, Reed resigned. He wrote to a friend, “You have little idea what a swarming back to savagery has taken place in this land of liberty.” Publicly he said nothing. Three years later he was dead.

And so Grant ends his book. It is a fine book. I recommend it. Don’t be put off by any lack of interest you may have in Thomas B. Reed. I wasn’t much interested in him, either. You don’t have to be.

Grant covers several such things, from the collapse of the Freedmen


Editor's Note: Review of "'Mr. Speaker! Mr. Speaker!' The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed, the Man Who Broke the Filibuster," by James Grant. Simon & Schuster, 2011, 448 pages.



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Enforcers of Health

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Libertarians have uneasy thoughts about the enforcers of public health. In my state, the public health authorities banned tobacco billboards — an act that some thought a violation of the First Amendment. This year, they pushed in the legislature to ban the sale of flavored cigars and pipe tobacco. In both cases, they have said that their aim is to make tobacco less attractive to children.

A century ago the fight was much more immediately vital. Then people of libertarian mind were fighting with the public health enforcers over the control of smallpox.

That disease was eradicated in the 20th century by campaigns of vaccination, many of them not entirely voluntary. In the United States, a turning point came in the epidemic of 1899 to 1902, when outbreaks of the disease prompted a political battle over compulsory vaccination. The story is told in legal writer Michael Willrich’s new book, Pox.

The push for compulsory vaccination grew out of the facts of the disease itself. It was a killer. Of people infected by the main strain of the disease, between 20 and 30% died. Smallpox was highly contagious, so that an infected person was a threat to everyone around him who was unvaccinated. First symptoms appeared more than a week after exposure, so fighting the epidemic by treating sick people was a strategy of being perpetually behind. The disease could, however, be stamped out by vaccinating the healthy.

For the progressives, the model was the Kaiser’s Germany. As Willrich says, “German law required that every child be vaccinated in the first year of life, again during school, and yet again (for the men) upon entering military service.” Germany had “the world’s most vaccinated population and the one most free from smallpox.”

In the constitutionalist America of the 1890s, vaccination was a state, local, and individual responsibility. Americans, writes Willrich, were “the least vaccinated” people of any leading country. The federal government had a bureau, the Marine-Hospital Service, to tend to illnesses of sailors; it had been started in the 1790s under President John Adams. The Service had experts in smallpox control, but they were advisory only and expected local authorities to pay for local work.

The antivaccinationists argued that compulsory vaccination would lead to other bad things. And four years later, in 1906, Indiana enacted America’s first compulsory sterilization law.

In a smallpox outbreak, the public health enforcers would set up a “pesthouse,” usually at the edge of town. They would scour the community for the sick, paying particular attention to the shacks and tenements of blacks, immigrants, and the rest of the lower classes, where the disease tended to appear first. People in these groups were subjected, Willrich says, to “a level of intrusion and coercion that American governments did not dare ask of their better-off citizens.”

Public-health doctors, accompanied by police, would surround tenement blocks and search people’s rooms. The sick would be taken to the pesthouse under force of law, and everyone else in the building would be vaccinated.

Often a community would have a vaccination ordinance that on its face was not 100% compulsory. It would declare that no child could be admitted to public school without a vaccination mark. For adults, the choice might be vaccination or jail — and all prisoners were, of course, vaccinated.

The procedure involved jabbing the patient with a needle or an ivory point and inserting matter from an infected animal under the skin. Typically it was done on the upper arm; often that arm was sore for a week or two, so that people in manual trades couldn’t work. Sometimes, vaccination made people so sick it killed them — though not nearly as often as the disease did.

Such was the background for the outbreaks of 1899–1902. At that time, two new factors emerged. First, America had just had a war with Spain, and had conquered the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. All these places were rife with disease — and their status as conquered possessions, Willrich writes, provided “unparalleled opportunities for the exercise of American health authority.”

There the authorities had no worries about people’s rights: “The army’s sanitary campaigns far exceeded the normal bounds of the police power, which by a long American constitutional tradition had always been assumed to originate in sovereign communities of free people.” And coercive methods worked. They worked dramatically.

The second new thing in 1899 was that most of the disease spreading in the United States was a less-virulent form that killed only 0.5 to 2% of those infected. That meant that many Americans denied the disease was smallpox, and didn’t cooperate. The public health people recognized what the disease for what it was, and they went after it with the usual disregard of personal rights — maybe even more disregard, because of “the efficiency of compulsion” overseas. And they stirred up, Willrich writes, “one of the most important civil liberties struggles of the 20th century.”

Their fight was with the antivaccinationists, whom Willrich calls “personal liberty fundamentalists” who “challenged the expansion of the American state at the very point at which state power penetrated the skin.”

He continues:

“Many antivaccinationists had close intellectual and personal ties to a largely forgotten American tradition and subculture of libertarian radicalism. . . . The same men and women who joined antivaccination leagues tended to throw themselves into other maligned causes of their era, including anti-imperialism, women’s rights, antivivisection, vegetarianism, Henry George’s single tax, the fight against government censorship of ‘obscene’ materials and opposition to state eugenics.”

Often, antivaccinationists denied that vaccination worked. Many were followers of chiropractic or other non-standard medicine; this was also the time of “a battle over state medical licensing and the increasing dominance of ‘regular,’ allopathic medicine.” Of course, the antivaccinationists were wrong about vaccination not working, but they were not wrong when they said it was dangerous. In 1902, the city of Camden NJ required all children in the public schools to be vaccinated. Suddenly children started coming down with lockjaw. They were a small fraction of those who had been vaccinated, but all of them fell ill about 21 days after vaccination. Several died, and the press made a scandal of it.

Our newly conquered possessions provided “unparalleled opportunities for the exercise of American health authority.”

Under the common law of the day, the vaccine maker — the H.K. Mulford Co. — was not liable to the parents, because it had no contract with them. Nor was the government liable, though the government had required the treatment. Thus, writes Willrich, “The arm of the state was protected; the arm of the citizen was not.”

The medical and public health establishment initially denied that the lockjaw had been caused by the vaccines. This was admitted only after a consultant to a rival vaccine maker, Parke-Davis, made an epidemiological case for it. Congress responded by quickly passing the Biologics Control Act of 1902, which ordered the inspection and licensing of vaccine producers, and required them to put an expiration date on their products. It was one of the first steps in the creation of the regulatory state.

The act calmed the public and drove some smaller companies out of business. The first two licensees were Parke-Davis (later absorbed by Pfizer) and Mulford (absorbed by Merck). And the purity of vaccines, which had been improving already, improved dramatically in the following decade.

The antivaccinationists turned to the courts in a fight about constitutional principles. The argument on the state’s side was that it had a duty to protect citizens from deadly invasion, which might be launched by either an alien army or an alien army of microbes. The argument on the other side was the individual’s right to control what pathogens were poked into his body, and, as the antivaccinationists’ lawsuit contended, his right to “take his chance” by going bare in a time of contagion.

They brought their case to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and lost. Citing the power of government to quarantine the sick and conscript soldiers in war, the court said, “The rights of individuals must yield, if necessary, when the welfare of the whole community is at stake.” Then they appealed to the US Supreme Court. In the same year in which the libertarian side won a landmark economic-liberty ruling in Lochner v.New York (1905), it lost, 7–2, in the vaccination case, Jacobson v.Massachusetts. Writing for the court, Justice John Harlan compared the case to defense against foreign invasion, and wrote, “There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good.”

It is an unlibertarian answer. The author of Pox thinks it was the right answer — and so do I, in this case. Smallpox was indeed a kind of invasion. In the 20th century it killed 300 million of Earth's people, and disfigured millions more. And though public health people can make similar arguments, and they do, about tobacco as a mass killer, I do not support their efforts to stamp out its use by ever more state intrusion. The difference is that with smallpox the individual’s refusal to be vaccinated put others in imminent danger of death. Collective action — compelled collective action — was the only way to defeat the invader. None of this is the case with tobacco.

Naturally, the progressives wanted to apply their wonderfully practical idea to all sorts of things. Referring to epidemics and the germ theory of disease, Willrich writes, “Progressives took up the germ theory as a powerful political metaphor. From the cities to the statehouses to Washington, the reformers decried prostitution, sweatshops, and poverty as ‘social ills.’ A stronger state, they said, held the ‘cure.’ ”

The antivaccinationists argued that compulsory vaccination would lead to other bad things. They made some fanciful statements; one wrote, “Why not chase people and circumcise them? Why not catch the people and give them a compulsory bath?” But they were right. Four years later, in 1906, Indiana enacted America’s first compulsory sterilization law. This was done in pursuit of another scientific, society-improving cause that excited progressives: eugenics. In 1927, in Buck v.Bell, the Supreme Court approved Virginia’s law of compulsory sterilization of the “feeble-minded.” That was the case in which Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes — supposedly the great champion of individual rights — pontificated: “The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v.Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

Jacobson has been cited in many Supreme Court decisions, usually to approve state power. And the applications have not been confined to medicine. In 2004, Justice Clarence Thomas cited Jacobson in his dissent in Hamdi v.Rumsfeld, which was about a US citizen captured in Afghanistan. Thomas, often regarded as the most libertarian of the current justices, was arguing that Yaser Esam Hamdi had no right of habeas corpus and could be held on US soil indefinitely without charge.

Collective action — compelled collective action — was the only way to defeat the invader. None of this is the case with tobacco.

The smallpox epidemic of 1899–1902 was a pivotal event institutionally as well as legally. The Biologics Act created more work for the Marine-Hospital Service, which a few years later became the US Public Health Service. The service’s Hygienic Laboratory, which was empowered to check the purity of commercial vaccines, later grew into the National Institutes of Health.

From the story told in Pox, you can construct rival political narratives. The progressives’ “we’re all in it together” formula about the need for science, federal authority, officials, regulation, and compulsion is there. And in the case of smallpox, progressivism put its strongest foot forward: it was warding off imminent mass death. Smallpox is one of the least promising subjects for the libertarian formula of individual rights and personal responsibility. Yet here you can also find the bad things that libertarian theory predicts: state power used arbitrarily and unevenly, collateral deaths, official denial of obvious truths, a precedent for worse things later on, and even the favoring of large companies over small ones.

I don’t like the progressive formula. But in the case of smallpox it fits, and I accept it, looking immediately for the limits on it.

Fortunately for liberty as well as health, few other diseases are as contagious and deadly as smallpox. Even Ebola and SARS — two contagious and deadly diseases of recent decades — were mostly fought by quickly isolating the sick. State power was necessary — some people were forcibly quarantined — but there were no mass vaccinations of the healthy.

Still, vaccination surfaces as an issue from time to time. It is, on its face, a violation of the rights of the person. So is quarantine. And yet it is prudent to allow both of them in some situations.

That is an admission that the libertarian formula doesn’t work all the time. Liberty is for rational adults in a minimally normal world. That is a limitation, but not such a big one. Surely it is better to design a society for people who can think, make decisions, and take responsibility, while in a few cases having to break those rules, than to live in a world designed for people defined as children of the state.


Editor's Note: Review of "Pox: An American History," by Michael Willrich. Penguin, 2011, 400 pages.



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