In an earlier post “Physics, Etc.”, as an aside, I threw out the statement that if one wanted to understand “everything”, physics was a good place to start. The implication was that I indeed wanted to understand everything and that such a goal was a worthwhile life pursuit for anyone. Now, I want to consider this idea, using history as an exemplar. One might of course take “understanding everything” as a crazy Zen dictum such as “believe nothing, understand everything”, and indeed it can be so taken. In a later post I will, in fact, consider how a religion of nothingness, fits with and caps off a comprehensive understanding of the particulars of our entire human situation.
Before engaging the main theme of this post, I will consider the somewhat irrelevant theme of why physics is, indeed, a good starting point towards “understanding everything”. This is mainly because physics, as an amalgam of abstract math and real-world experiment, is a difficult subject, an excellent pursuit in one’s youth when mathematical powers are at their peak. No one, not even Einstein, Schrödinger, Feynman, Gell-Mann, or the multitude of current day experimentalists and theorists is really smart enough to do physics well. One really needs an IQ of 4 or 5 hundred or so as well as an incredible imagination, creativity and, very likely, some luck.
Once one wants to leave physics for other fields, many open up. Technical or cross disciplinary engineering or financial fields are wide open, and even sciences such as biology or neurology, seemingly distant, have been served well by ex-physicists. However, the main point here is that if one at first concentrates in an area such as the humanities, arts, or social sciences, then later, tries to go in the other direction, towards physics or other sciences one finds that the difficulties are likely to be overwhelming. In saying this I’m not making any kind of value judgement about the worth of any particular area. In fact, part of the difficulty in moving from humanistic areas towards science, is finding the motivation to do so. Moving from an area in which the glory of the particular is a main attraction to an abstract area where there seems little magic or joy, hardly seems a worthwhile enterprise. Then if one does begin to sense an aesthetic in science or the wonder in the depths of physical being, one confronts mathematics, which is likely to come across as meaningless abstract gibberish. One ends up depending on popular expositions such as my last three posts; and such are unlikely to lead to much depth of understanding. In particular, one is unlikely to realize that physicists themselves, in spite of their great past successes are working in the dark mostly repulsed by the great mystery at the edge of their discipline.
In my own pursuit of understanding in areas outside of science, one crucial insight came to me rather late as I reflected on my experiences in becoming a decent skier. Growing up in Hawaii and then going to college in the Bay Area of California, I hardly even saw any snow until I was 22 years old. At that point I became fascinated with skiing, both downhill and back-country. In those days one used the same equipment for both. Our downhill skis had cable bindings which had side clips near the heels for downhill and by the front bindings for back-country. The latter allowed one’s heels to come up which made striding easier when on the level. For going uphill, we attached skins to the bottom of the skis. Out West where we skied on Mt. Shasta and in the Sierra, real cross country, langlauf, skis were unknown and thus the joys of kick and glide were missing. In those days I could not afford ski lessons so learned pretty much on my own and developed just about every disastrous, bad habit possible. In addition, it turned out that I didn’t really have a great deal of aptitude for the sport. Years later, in Oregon, skiing with real XC or modern downhill skis and realizing I had become a competent, if far from expert, skier in spite of all the obstacles, it became clear that my bad start and lack of aptitude didn’t much matter because I loved being out on skis and put in many enjoyable hours, in spite of many falls and a tendency for bad habits to reassert themselves in difficult situations. On cross country skis I attempted telemark turns in vain for many years finally getting the feel of the skis floating in the soft snow, the turns becoming effortless, as I skied down with an overnight pack from above the Palmer lift on Mt. Hood after climbing the mountain. With downhill skis after unlearning the old Arlberg technique, I finally trained my muscles to do the right thing by constant reminders, “skis together, look downhill, articulate”, but always I was likely to revert to a snowplow and backwards fall when things got tough. The lesson here is that when one tries to learn something new, aptitude doesn’t matter as much as finding meaning and joy in its pursuit. Such, enables the persistence in practice and the discipline which leads towards success, satisfying even when only partial. This lesson is crucial for teachers and professors at all levels and is largely ignored. That, however, is a subject for a different post.
For me personally, history is a wonderful example of confrontation and learning in a field outside of one’s main youthful interests. At first, I found boredom, if not outright hatred, then the glimmerings of interest and a grudging acceptance of some history. Finally, my interest widened to more areas and finally a fascination developed to the point where I could be accused of being a “history buff”. Ultimately, I’ve become interested not simply in the history of specific times and places, but in what doing history involves with the appreciation of the gifts and dedication required of a truly excellent historian. Finally, I’ve come to see how history has expanded to encompass in itself an understanding of everything. To tell this story of my involvement I will now move into “memoir” mode, beginning with how I grew up in Hawaii and found myself living at a time when happenings became history.
Honolulu, Territory of Hawaii, in the 1930’s was far from being the big tourist city it is nowadays. The tallest structure in the city was the Aloha Tower at the harbor, perhaps 10 stories high. The corporate buildings on Bishop Street were perhaps 5 stories high as were the two hotels at Waikiki. I remember that behind Ala Moana, one road cut through the land away from the shore to King and Beretania Streets, and, along the way, there were water-filled rice and taro paddies creating a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in East Asia. I don’t remember any water buffalo in these shallow ponds, but there certainly were such creatures in the paddies on the far, windward side of Oahu.
Around 1935 my parents built a large two-story house at 2244 Aloha Drive, in a still sparsely settled Waikiki neighborhood. The Ala Wai Canal, one block mauka (toward the mountains) from Aloha Drive was built between 1923 and 1928. Before then, the part of Waikiki where we were to live on Aloha Drive was swampy with two streams flowing to the ocean. The Hawaiian dictionary translates Waikiki as “spouting water”. Wai means fresh water as opposed to Kai for salt water, while Kiki can refer to any rapidly flowing water. Perhaps “turbulent fresh water” would be a better translation, but who really knows? Perhaps “spouting” could refer to waves hitting a stream as it flowed into the ocean. In any case Waikiki was a rather sleepy beach with a limited amount of sand and coral filled water off shore, cut off from the main city by the two streams. In the early years of the twentieth century the beach witnessed the resurrection of surfing, notably by Duke Kahanamoku who was also noted for his Olympic swimming medals and world records. By the 1920’s surfing was well established at Waikiki. My Dad’s pictures from that time show a row of surfers with their huge, weighty, ponderous redwood boards standing on the beach as well as pictures of Dad himself in a bathing suit that covered his chest, and, in the background, a pier running out to sea from the Moana Hotel. One aspiration of history is to create the impression of what it would be like to be present in a past time and place. I can imagine how Waikiki was in the 1920’s and how different it had already become by the time I could remember it in the mid 1930’s. (The pier had vanished among other things.) After 1928 the Waikiki streams flowed into the Ala Wai and the land where we were soon to be living was filled to appreciably above sea level. From our house we could walk makai (towards the ocean) down Royal Hawaii or Seaside Avenues five blocks to Kalakaua Avenue and the beach at Waikiki just beyond, where my younger brother George and I could play in the water and where I finally was able to keep my feet from continuously reaching for the bottom and begin to swim at age 6. (On a 1936 trip to the “mainland”; i.e., California and the U.S. beyond, George learned to swim at age 5.)
For some reason which was never at all clear to me, my parents tired of living in Waikiki and my mother, consulting with an architect, designed a new house which was built around the time I turned 11. This new home was located in lower Manoa valley at 2111 Rocky Hill Place, a short lane running uphill from Kakela Drive which began at McKinley Avenue and then rounded a corner and climbed up towards the top of Rocky Hill, an ancient volcanic remnant. (This area is easily found on Google Maps.) Our new house stood at the top of a 20 odd foot rock wall above McKinley and from our living room we had a view of Waikiki and the ocean beyond. This ocean view was partially blocked near the shore by Waikiki’s two hotels, the Moana and the Royal Hawaiian, as well as by lower buildings and the coconut trees between Kalakaua Avenue and the ocean. Later, when I was in high school, I became aware that on occasion we could see white surf break beyond the hotels when Summer storm surf came to the south shore from the great Winter storms south of Tahiti. The sight of such surf was a sign that we should, if at all possible, get down to Waikiki where my brother, my cousin and I could put on fins and swim out a half mile or so to body surf the large waves at First Break. Back in the late 1930’s and early 40’s, however, body surfing lay in the future and we mostly swam near shore and picnicked on the weekends on ivory colored coral sands surrounded by lauhala or ironwood trees on the far side of the island.
It was around this time that I became aware of the news of what was going on in Europe with a crisis concerning Czechoslovakia and the threat that Hitler’s Nazi Germany would start a world war. I was aware that there had been an earlier, very bad, war before I was born, but knew no details. I remember hearing broadcasts, called fireside chats, of our president whose reasonable, friendly, confiding, persuasive voice, capable also of withering scorn, completely won my admiration. I felt a sense of foreboding when war did come in 1939, a feeling which intensified as Poland, Norway, then France fell to the Nazis. I became aware that there was a threat from Japan, who had invaded China and Manchuria, and had joined the “axis” powers. I wondered why they were called “the axis powers”. (In fact, even now when I think I know, I haven’t actually read an explanation so my understanding is really based only on the plausible speculation that Germany and Italy cut through the heart of Europe like an axis around which all else would revolve.) In the summer of 1941 when Hitler invaded Russia, I felt a slight sense of relief after the German invasion slowed and halted, an outcome that had previously never happened. As the Fall came on there was news of worsening relations with Japan.
My folks and their friends observed that there was little threat to us in Hawaii because Navy PBY sea planes patrolled thousands of miles out to sea in all directions where they would detect any sign of Japanese naval activity. (Perhaps the PBY’s weren’t actually fictional, but they obviously did not patrol effectively to the North). My Dad worked for Castle and Cooke, one of the Big Five business firms who dominated much of the islands’ economy in those days. Castle and Cooke and the other Big Five had a controlling investment in Matson Navigation Company who owned 4 passenger ships as well as many freighters which supplied us with goods from the mainland and carried back our sugar and pineapples. Castle and Cooke also served as agents for Matson in Hawaii and I realize now that my Dad, involved with Matson’s island doings, would have been privy to all the scuttlebutt going around town. At that time, I was too ignorant and uncaring to be much aware of such things. What I was aware of were my parents’ friends in the Navy who visited us when in port. One, whose name I regrettably don’t recall, worked in the engine room of the heavy cruiser Houston. In the interest of personifying him, I’ll make up a name for our USS Houston friend, calling him “Sam” after the historic Sam Houston. (Sam might according to tickles in my brain, in fact, have been his real name.) In the Fall of 1941, Sam had heard from talk going around in the navy that we were very close to war with Japan. It could come at any time. In November Sam bid us good-bye as his ship sailed West to the far East. We never saw him again, the Houston being sunk in the early days of the war. Later, after the war, we heard that Sam had survived being in the engine room, but had died in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Our other friend, Forest Jones, was a petty officer on the battleship West Virginia, stationed at Pearl Harbor when not at sea.
December 7, 1941 was a Sunday. The previous September I had entered the 7th grade at Punahou, a well-known private school, founded in 1841 by missionaries living in the Kingdom of Hawaii. My classes, as always in those days, were somewhat boring, but I endured and learned the material as do most children. Weekends were somewhat of a relief and on that Sunday morning, feeling relaxed and free, I walked out into our yard and looked up to see the entire sky covered with anti-aircraft bursts. I knew what they were because I had frequently seen planes towing targets which were surrounded by eight or ten of these bursts as anti-aircraft gunners practiced. My feeling on seeing the sky covered was one of shock. I knew something was badly amiss, but did not jump to the obvious conclusion. Somehow, war was unthinkable, a feeling shared by all of the Island’s military authorities who should have known better. I went back in the house exclaiming about the bursts to my parents. We went into the living room and looked down to the ocean where two small freighters were coming toward port. Suddenly, two huge columns of white water rose near the ships, making a surreal, impossible image. My parents immediately went across the room to the large Philco radio console and turned it on. After its interminable warm up the radio came to life and the broadcast sounded entirely normal for a Sunday morning. Our feeling of relief did not last long, however, as the program was soon interrupted, with an announcer saying something like, “Folks we don’t know what is going on, but we’ll find out and get back to you as soon we can.” Then the music resumed. The second program break came shortly. “… The Hawaiian Islands are under enemy attack. … The Rising Sun has been seen on the wings of the attacking planes.” Shortly after the second resumption there was a third, announcing that the station was going off the air. Then silence.
I suppose we must have eaten breakfast, but I remember nothing about it. I do remember looking up from our front yard and seeing a formation of white planes high in the sky. Their motors made an entirely different sound than what I had usually heard from airplanes. They were presumably Japanese planes of a second or third wave heading towards Pearl Harbor. Later a single plane flew fairly low over us and dropped a bomb that hit harmlessly near a home at the top of the steep slope rising across Manoa Valley. Since that area was barely visible from our house, this incident most likely happened after we had left the house and walked up on Rocky Hill where there was a good view to the South and West. I felt very frightened. It had occurred to me that if a Japanese pilot had seen us, he would have mercilessly strafed us. There were no more planes near us, but we all kept in mind that there were nearby Kiawe trees under which we could hide had any appeared. Looking West toward Pearl Harbor all we could see was the crater of Punch Bowl blocking the view. Behind Punch Bowl rose a huge cloud of black-grey smoke. I figured that the Japanese had bombed the two or three large fuel tanks that lay on the shore of Pearl Harbor near Pearl City. I was wrong. Luckily for us, the Japanese had placed the fuel tanks which could have easily been destroyed with 2 or 3 bombs each, into a lower priority, which they decided not to exercise after their successful attack. Admiral Nagumo felt that leaving as fast as possible was better than pushing his luck by refueling planes for further attacks on the lower priority targets. I heard recently that the entire fuel supply for the Pacific Fleet was in those tanks and that it would have crippled our fleet for months had they been incinerated. Instead the attack concentrated on military airfields and the ships in Pearl Harbor, destroying most planes on the ground and sinking many ships. At one point as the morning wore on, I was able to look through some borrowed binoculars at the entrance to Pearl Harbor which we could see. There were ships moving out to sea with bomb spouts rising near them. Around 11 am we went back home just in time to see a big fire burn some buildings and homes about half way down towards Waikiki. We thought the cause was a final departing plane which had dropped a bomb, but in reality, we might only have imagined that we saw such a plane.
After Pearl Harbor came the bleak early days of the war which became a total disaster for U.S. and its allies in the Pacific. There has been much history written about WWII in all its multiple theaters, but one relevant fact not sufficiently emphasized, in my opinion, is the feeling one has of being in a “Total War” such as WWII. It is a feeling of constant underlying stress, like being in a tight athletic contest whether on the field or on the bench, but much more intense and much more prolonged. When will this war ever end? This feeling of underlying dread is not always in one’s consciousness, but lurks, waiting to spring into awareness. Life is not normal because there is a feeling that the whole world is awry and disaster seems never far away even if the war is being won.
In the days after Pearl Harbor, we wondered about Forest Jones on the West Virginia. As it turned out Forest survived Pearl Harbor and the entire war in the Pacific. In 1991 there was a 50-year anniversary commemoration of Pearl Harbor with Japanese participants in the attack joining Americans who had been there. My family had kept in touch with Forest during and after the war. During the war he had visited us frequently when his ship was in port and we had heard his stories of Pearl Harbor and beyond. Forest participated in the 50th anniversary commemoration though he was far from ever forgiving the Japanese for what he had endured in the war. He wrote up an account of his experiences at Pearl Harbor for the Naval Archives, and sent a copy to my Dad. By 1991 I was an unabashed history buff so saw to it that I had a copy of the Forest Jones account. It is worth quoting excepts from it.
“Forest M. Jones, LCDR, USN (Ret) November, 1991
“I was a 1st Class Petty Officer aboard the U. S. S. West Virginia (BB48) when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. I was on the forward Fire Control Platform, above the Navigation Bridge, and saw the Japanese planes coming down the shipyard channel. Three other Fire Controlmen on the platform and I immediately manned our battle stations in the two anti-aircraft gun directors located on the Fire Control Platform. We had the two directors manned with skeleton crews, before the General Quarters alarm was sounded…
“From our vantage point on the upper deck, we could see that some of the starboard guns were being manned by their crews. There was no attempt to man the guns on the port side due to continued torpedo strikes, fire and debris in the vicinity of the gun area.
“We were unable to obtain power to permit operation of the Gun Directors and were also unable to establish communications with the anti-aircraft guns. …
Forest writes that he descended with some of his fire control crew to the lower deck where crewmen were setting up the guns so he and his friend, Joe Paul, another fire controlman, went to the nearby Ready Service boxes and began to remove 5” shells used by the guns.
“While Joe Paul and I were removing ammunition from a Ready Service Box we were suddenly engulfed in a cloud of kapok from the life jacket locker above the Ready Service Boxes. We later discovered, after the attack, that one of the 16” armor piercing shells that the Japanese had modified to be used as a high level bomb had struck the top of the Forward Cage Mast and was deflected by the heavy metal coaming of the Signal Bridge. Were it not deflected it could have been a direct hit on the Ready Service Box where we were working. The shell penetrated to a lower level but failed to explode. The lives of Joe Paul and I were spared twice in the matter of a second. First when the bomb was deflected and then by its failure to explode almost directly under our position on the anti-aircraft deck.
“After unloading all of the available ammunition, I went to the Navigation Bridge where Captain Bennion was sitting against the forward metal shield on the wing of the bridge. He had been fatally wounded but was still alive. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do to alleviate his suffering. He had suffered a massive mid-torso injury by a fragment from a high level bomb that had struck the Number 2 Turret of the Tennessee.
Forest Jones and two other enlisted men then helped around 30 men to emerge from an escape tube, the only remaining route to safety from the main battery fire control room on a lower level deck.
“By this time the ship had taken a decided list to port due to underwater torpedo damage that led to extensive flooding. It was about this time I witnessed large explosions within the Arizona, which was directly astern the West Virginia. It was necessary for us to take cover in the protected areas of the bridge because of the great amount of flying debris. At this moment, I witnessed the Oklahoma, directly ahead of us, roll over to port due to heavy torpedo damage below the waterline. Within a few minutes all of the superstructure and decks were submerged and it came to rest with only part of the bottom visible.
(400 or so seamen were trapped inside the Oklahoma. In the days after Pearl Harbor we heard about a few who made their way up to the hull being rescued when their tapping was heard. All of the others perished.)
“The smoke from the burning Arizona was very heavy. Fortunately, there was no fire in the bridge area of the West Virginia. Although we were being subjected to numerous strafing attacks, we had no hits in the bridge area. During a lull in the attack I checked the Signal Bridge and Fire Control levels to make sure there were no wounded crewmen left in those areas.
“Apparently the heavy list to port was being remedied by counter flooding. The ship was gradually settling to the bottom on an even keel and finally came to rest with water to the Main Deck level. The word was passed on the upper decks and bridge levels to abandon ship (source unknown).
“Most of the crew abandoned ship in the vicinity of the starboard bow. Joe Paul and I were among this group. There were several motor launches moored in the area between the bows of the West Virginia and Tennessee. Joe Paul and I, along with an unknown fireman, manned a 40’ motor launch and made several trips to Hospital Point with wounded and other personnel who had been in the water and were heavily coated with fuel oil. We also towed floating bodies to the Hospital Point site. …
(Forest Jones mentioned to us during one of his wartime visits that after he abandoned ship, he had had to dive under burning oil to reach the launches. This detail was omitted from his report.)
“The West Virginia was raised, repaired, modernized and returned to Combat Operations in 1943. She was the only ship in Tokyo Bay during the signing of the surrender terms which had been at Pearl Harbor.”
End of the excepts from Forest Jones’ account.
After Pearl Harbor Forest was assigned to the carrier Enterprise where he saw much action especially in the Battle of Midway. Later he rejoined the West Virginia where he saw much more action, recounting to us how the battleship fired its 8” guns to create water spouts in the hope of downing kamikaze planes as they attacked the ship.
In the early days after Pearl Harbor Hawaii was put under martial law. (Surely one motivation for this was that our largest ethnic group in Honolulu at the time consisted of people who had come to Hawaii from Japan during the previous few generations.) Our lives resumed some sense of normalcy. We went down to Waikiki and swam, making our way through a passage in the rolls of barbed wire strung along the beach. The city was totally blacked out and we learned to move about our house after dark, feeling walls and remembering where doors were. Later we used cardboard and tape to blackout the windows of many of our rooms so had some light.
During the early months of the war before June, 1942, my parents had to decide whether or not to flee to the mainland rather than risk an Island invasion. They decided that the risk was small enough to be worth taking. However, some of my Punahou classmates disappeared. Under martial law our Punahou campus had been taken over by the Army Corps of Engineers. We 7th grade students held our classes in an open pavilion near the University of Hawaii Campus.
Except for following the news, hearing about our Guadalcanal Solomon Island invasion and the Battle of the Coral Sea, my memories of the time during early 1942 are quite vague. I do remember that outside of our school pavilion was a yard where we all played a game involving a football. Someone would grab the ball and run, while everyone else would chase after, tackle and pile on the runner. My memory is vague on one point, but I think the girls in our class did not sit out this game. Although I was one of the smaller kids, I thoroughly enjoyed this activity. I remember nothing about the Battle of Midway at the time except for my mother describing how she went to downtown Honolulu in early June and found the city almost entirely deserted. The grapevine had apparently informed people that something big was going on.
The “something big” was, of course, the Battle of Midway. See Incredible Victory: The Battle of Midway by Walter Lord for a fascinating full account. With our blithe assumption of American superiority, we did not realize at the time that we were taking on, arguably, the world’s best navy and naval air force who had vastly superior forces on the scene. We won the battle through luck, some vital decrypting of Japanese naval codes, some skill, and the incredible heroic sacrifice of our torpedo plane pilots. Something I found out later, probably while working at the Naval Ordnance Test Station, was a fact not mentioned in the book: until two or three years into the war the US had no torpedoes that could survive being dropped from a plane. Nevertheless, our torpedo plane pilots who must have known they were doomed, attacked the Japanese carriers once located. The lumbering torpedo planes became sitting ducks for Zero fighters who wiped out close to 100 percent of them. The Zero also played havoc with our outclassed fighter planes. After the Japanese “turkey shoot”, the planes involved needed refueling and, thinking, because of some miscommunications, that there were no American carriers anywhere nearby, Admiral Nagumo ordered a mass refueling. Thus, most of the Japanese fighter planes were helpless on their carrier decks when our largely unopposed dive bombers arrived on the scene. We sank all four carriers in their group and turned around the course of the war. The loss of their prime carriers was bad enough, but according to Saburo Sakai, a Japanese fighter ace, it was the loss of their highly accomplished fighter pilots that was even more of a disaster.
I don’t remember whether or not our victory at Midway was felt as an immediate relief in Hawaii. I do remember that one day we went down to Waikiki and the barbed wire was gone. It would be an interesting historical fact to know exactly when this happened, but as far as my memory is concerned it could have been as early as July of 1942 or as late as the end of 1943. I know that the blackout was lifted in 1944 when there really WAS no longer the possibility of a Japanese attack.
In the eighth and ninth grades we moved from our open pavilion down to a genuine classroom building at the University of Hawaii. Relevant to my rising distaste for History over the next few years was one or two social studies courses and a senior year American History course in which we seemingly, several times covered the American colonies before the Revolutionary War and nothing much beyond. At this time as I began to develop a fascination with math, the relevant history was being made right at our doorstep, and for me there was a total disconnect and irrelevance to the jumble of meaningless dates and events thrown out in the history classes.
In 1947 I became a Freshman at Stanford University. In those days, a notable course, required of all Freshman, was The History of Western Civilization. The course consisted of readings from the time being covered, followed by a presentation of the history with the relevance of the readings thrown in. This was actually an effective way of teaching history with the readings providing a flavor of the times that a mere description would lack. We had an excellent teacher, humorous, quizzical, unserious in manner, whose name I absolutely forget. Nevertheless, I and my roommate, the brilliant, creative Roger Shepard, in the same section of the course, pretty much goofed off. I skipped most of the readings, Plato’s Phaedo, being an exception. Roger and I did play close attention in the class so as to get some kind of a grade out of it and accordingly, some of the content must have rubbed off. What did begin to kindle my interest in my freshman or sophomore year was stumbling across a book in the Stanford library. The book was Germany Enters the Third Reich, written in 1933 by Calvin B. Hoover, a young economist who had received a grant to study the Soviet economy, after which he traveled to Germany in 1932 and witnessed the rise of Hitler first hand. Mr. Hoover had no access to the economics of Germany’s rise, but was a firsthand witness to the joy, relief, and passion aroused by Hitler. This book made the personal connection that began my transition to history buff. I took the WWII battles in the Pacific as personally meaningful, to say nothing of the advent of the atomic bomb and my feeling with the rise of the cold war that I was unlikely to make it to 30 years of age. At Stanford in those days, undergraduates were not allowed into the stacks and I have no memory of how I came to find the Hoover book. Perhaps it was among the books on a cart waiting to be shelved, sitting outside the stacks, where I could browse through the books.
I became interested in WWI and read about its horrors. The Great War 1914 -1918 was more of a slaughter than a war. It’s prime nightmare, for the British anyway, was the Battle of Passchendaele, along a tiny fraction of the Western Front in Belgium near the town of Ypres. See https://www.britannica.com/event/Battle-of-Passchendaele for an account. In an area turned into mud by early Fall rains, full of water-filled artillery craters, the British soldiers charged the German machine guns whose bullets tore through their bodies, while artillery, some from “friendly” fire, blew to pieces those who the machine guns missed. Daily casualties on the British side were as high as 17,000, while those for the entire engagement were some 250,000 or so. (There is still controversy). All of these casualties occurred between August and December of 1917. The battle was no picnic for the Germans either, their casualty estimate being 220,000. The ground gained by the British was minimal and they later withdrew.
Although the Allies won the war, their spirits were devastated by it, and rightly so. Though the Germans were definitely defeated, the myth arose that they had been “betrayed”, and that the shame of losing was undeserved. When Hitler came to power, his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, developed the effective propaganda technique of endlessly repeating “a big lie”, which his audience was largely inclined to believe. This propaganda technique also tends to convince skeptics against their better judgement and it seems to work universally if not met by counter-propaganda. Simple truth seems to be a none too effective antidote.
I became interested in just how WWI started and read a few interesting books about how nationalistic rivalries intensified and how leaders were blind to the weapons developments that made the war so terrible. The attitude of these Kings, Chancellors, Prime Ministers and others in power arose from the knowledge that there had been a long European peace with the few threatening crises resolved by diplomacy, combined with the feeling that war historically hadn’t been all that bad and might well simply “clear the air.” Then there was the blindness of European leaders to the chauvinism that had arisen throughout the peoples of all the European nations. Nationalistic patriotism had become extreme and many were spoiling for a fight. The powder keg was, of course, the Balkans area where the empires of Austria-Hungary, Russia, and Turkey became rivals to each other, all trying to suppress the wishes for independence of their subject peoples.
During the Cold War with its emphasis on avoiding appeasement, I feared that everyone was forgetting the lessons of what led to WWI. Fortunately, through luck and the perception of what a new total war would involve, we have avoided catastrophe so far, though the threat of nuclear annihilation still lurks.
I had become interested enough in history by my junior year at Stanford that I had the disheartening experience of “The High Middle Ages” mentioned in an earlier post. Also, at this time I was still totally uninterested in American History. How irrelevant it seemed. In later years I have of course found American History at least as fascinating as any other.
Returning to the theme of this post, namely “understanding everything”, I will point out that, at least in the case of History, becoming an addict, is not sufficient for the kind of understanding that would satisfy me. One needs to get behind the output of the historian or journalist to understand how history is done. What does being an historian involve? What are the required gifts that make a great historian? What are the paradigms of historical studies?
One distinction that historians make is between “primary” and “secondary” sources. A primary source is an unfiltered, first-hand account, perhaps a newspaper article, correspondence, private papers, memories elucidated through interviews, contemporary government papers or other such material. A secondary account is the story a historian or journalist creates from a selection of primary and other secondary sources. The write-up above by Forest Jones is an example of a primary source as are my memories in the memoir paragraphs above.
A first reason one needs secondary accounts is because primary sources are incomplete and unreliable in a variety of ways. The Forest Jones account above is dramatic but is unclear on many fronts. Among other things, one needs a map of Pearl Harbor showing where the battleships were moored in order to understand why the Port rather than Starboard sides of the ships were devastated. One needs to understand the structure of the old pre-war battleships moored in Pearl Harbor. In order to give a coherent account of the attack, one needs to actually consult the various archives scattered about. Secondary sources such as Wikipedia or books about the attack have information close at hand, but often mistakes persist in the secondary literature, and if one is conscientious, one needs to actually accomplish the tedious work of traveling to archives and going through the file folders or the reading of the original newspaper accounts.
I learned a little bit about archives first hand because a friend in Eugene, Oregon was Dean of Libraries at the University of Oregon, and, knowing of my scientific background, asked me to go through the papers of Aaron Novick, who had founded the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University. When Dr. Novick passed away, his office contents were put into 27 boxes and placed in the basement of the Special Collections department of the library. I accepted this challenge and boned up a bit on molecular biology reading The Eighth Day of Creation, an account of the early days when the structure of DNA was found and its workings elucidated. I certainly didn’t understand all of the material in that account, but got the general drift and learned the names of the main actors.
Going through the papers, letters and other materials was generally tedious, but from time to time very rewarding. I could read letters from Nobel winning scientists and others, some of whom perhaps should have won the big prize. I could follow the careers of students and post docs who later became distinguished scientists. Much material was redundant and I had to make judgements about what could be safely discarded. The final result was, if I remember correctly, 23 boxes of papers organized into somewhat coherent Series with a Finding Aid which gave a rough idea of what might be in each box. I could get an idea of an historian’s work, reading through papers in file folders in search of a relevant bit of key information, hoping that whoever made the Finding Aid didn’t botch the process.
What a historian faces in trying tell a story which is interesting, coherent and enlightening, a story which brings also a new insight into the understanding of the past or present, is typically an overabundance of not only primary material, but also many previous secondary works. The gifts one needs are first, a prodigious memory, second, the persistence to immerse oneself in the mass of material to the point where one gets a deep, intuitive understanding of the time and place of interest, and finally the ability as a writer to condense, redact and present in compelling prose an interesting, meaningful story.
I will now consider an example or two based on my recent reading and the thoughts they give rise to. These examples show how history can become an attempt to “understand everything”.
Traditionally, history has been the story of politics and war. I am reading a book right now by a historian who wrote this traditional kind of history; namely, The March of Folly by Barbara W. Tuchman. The history in this book may be traditional, but the idea of the book is to examine through history a particular question, perhaps new: Why have governments of all kinds repeatedly throughout history adopted policies that are totally destructive to their own interests and then persist in these policies when their stupidity has become obvious? What we have here is history as inquiry. Ms. Tuchman is careful to limit her examples to a particular kind of misgovernment; namely, folly or perversity. I quote:
“To qualify as folly for this inquiry, the policy adopted must meet three criteria: it must have been perceived as counter-productive in its own time, not merely by hindsight.”
After commenting lucidly on this first criteria, Ms. Tuchman moves on.
“Secondly a feasible alternative course of action must have been available. To remove the problem from personality, a third criterion must be that the policy in question should be that of a group, not an individual ruler, and should persist beyond any one political lifetime. Misgovernment by a single sovereign or tyrant is too frequent and too individual to be worth a generalized inquiry.”
In her long, fascinating introductory section Ms. Tuchman mentions many possible instances of unfortunate outcomes that could be studied and lists several of the rare occasions when governments were actually competent and successful. Then, in the remaining body of the book she concentrates on four more situations occurring throughout history from the ancient world to the US involvement in Vietnam. The section I’m immersed in is an examination of how England came to lose her American colonies, concentrating on the 20 years between 1763 and 1783.
One notable feature of Ms. Tuchman’s work is that she includes interesting material that doesn’t bear directly onto her inquiry. One gets a flavor of what it would be like to live in the England of that particular time. Society was highly stratified and parliament dominated by men from the ennobled, wealthy class. Excesses of high living were rampant with gout a common ailment. It was not only King George III who had mental problems. Many other ministers and notable members of parliament were subject to bouts of insanity and incapacitating ill health. Of course, it was the supposedly sane ones who were responsible for the acts of government blindness (almost insanity) which brought about the American revolution. Because of the richness of her story, I as a reader could make connections outside of the immediate story. The social partying and visiting among the great English estates persisted throughout the nineteenth century and were celebrated in the early twentieth century before the Great War by Saki (Hector Hugh Munro), a master of exquisite prose, in his short stories, full of understated British humor and a delicious presentation of human frailty. (Mr. Munro was another victim of the war, killed on the Western front.)
The richness of Ms. Tuchman’s story invites commentary in at least two areas. For one, it shows why elementary history courses are apt to be exercises in deadly boredom. Much of the interest of history lies in the incidentals which give a rich, colorful, complex picture, making a time and place come alive. Abstract this richness from history, leaving merely the dates of events thereby rendered meaningless, and the joy of history is gone. It’s as if one is attempting to give an emotionless machine the mastery of history by logically erecting a scaffolding which can later be filled in with the details. In a later post I can perhaps suggest alternative ways of teaching not simply history but other subjects, such as mathematics and physics, whose teaching falls prey to the same fallacy. (Actually, I don’t need to do this. One merely has to read Whitehead’s The Aims of Education, to get the picture.)
A second observation is that Ms. Tuchman does not stray too far afield from her main subject. One does not get a broader picture of what was going on, even in Europe, at the same time. For example, Mozart was born in 1756 and died in 1791, flourishing during the period of Ms. Tuchman’s study. Beethoven was born in 1770. The great chemist Lavoisier was born in 1743 and did his revolutionary work in chemistry around 1778 before being guillotined in a later, political revolution. Ms. Tuchman does mention how David Hume, the philosopher, was involved in the politics of the time, but there is no mention of James Watt who pushed through his crucial modification of the steam engine to success after 10 years of effort in 1776, enabling an irresistible quickening of the industrial revolution. During the same time period Captain James Cook explored the Pacific, mapping New Zealand, Australia’s East coast and discovering the Sandwich Islands where I was to be born some 151 years later. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations was published in 1776. Then there is literature and art. Interestingly, Ms. Tuchman, at the end of each section of her inquiry, includes a portfolio of paintings and documents relevant to her story. One can look at these, taking in the appearance of the main actors and by reading the captions see which artists were active at the time. As a masterful historian with an intimate knowledge of the times, Ms. Tuchman has the judgement of where to draw the line between too much and too little detail, herself painting an interesting historical picture without covering up what is vital to her inquiry. She supposes a reader, familiar enough with the history of the times, who can make connections beyond her immediate story.
Moving on, I note the dates in the last paragraph. In learning history dates should probably be kept to a minimum. How about 4000 BCE, 600 BCE, 1 CE, 618 CE (Tang dynasty), 1066 CE, 1492 CE and 1776 CE for starters? Dates, besides designating the linear flow of history, afford us the possibility of moving sideways in space and subject area so that we can appreciate what is contemporary during a given time period. This is what I’ve done in the last paragraph. With dates one can also move in new directions. In 8th grade math, one can bring in history. For example, most of us, at least in the past have learned about Roman Numerals. There are I, V, X, L, C, D and M. But wait. What is the Roman Numeral for 0? Of course, there is none. Neither is there a year 0. Dates skip zero going directly from 1 BCE to 1 CE. In an earlier post I talked about the invention of zero. One can easily do a little research online these days and find that zero was slow of establishment in Western culture. Adoption was quite uneven. This is part of the reason for its omission in our date line. There is little possibility of fixing this defect because it would mean our records of exact dates would need altering. Such is even more unlikely to happen than would be the reforming of our QWERTY keyboards. Once established, conventions are very difficult to change.
Although History with a capital H has traditionally been about politics and war, there are histories of almost any reality one can imagine. Looking at the paragraph above, one realizes that there are histories of music, chemistry, philosophy, technology, exploration, economics and art to name a few. However, there has been very little tendency for such histories to broaden themselves by moving sideways. If one is to start trying to understand everything through history one has a great deal of reading on one’s hand and has then a huge job of correlation. Of course, if this task is fun, why not fool around with it in a leisurely manner? I do own a book entitled The Timetables of History by multiple authors. The book consists of tables consisting of horizontal columns for a given date and vertical columns for History Politics, Literature Theater, Religion Philosophy Learning, Visual Arts, Music, Science Technology Growth, and Daily Life. There is a fascinating foreword by Daniel Boorstin, former librarian of congress, who has fascinating comments on what history is all about. I lack the sufficient viscerals of an historian to exhaustively engage in this book, most of the entries seeming to me of little import. Did you know that in the year 518 Sigmund, son of Gundobad became king of Burgundy, while in 1920 the Nobel prize in physics went to Eduarde Guillaume for discoveries of anomalies in nickel-steel alloys? (Actually, one might get interested enough in the times of Sigmund to wonder if Burgundy was already producing decent wine, another subject worthy of historical study.) There are interesting little gems scattered about in this book. During the interval from -2500 to -2001 Equinoxes and Solstices were determined in China, while in 1776 David Hume died. One can check out the mathematical inconsistency I’ve harped on earlier by checking that Augustus, the first emperor of Rome reigned from -30 to +14. Since 14 – (-30) is 44 as our 8th grade students have just learned, one sees he reigned for 43 years after one accounts for the missing zero. Of course, the book is a wonderful research tool.
Besides histories of the various subjects mentioned above and those specializing in particular time periods and various peculiarities, there has arisen in recent times a genre called “big” history or the history of everything. In an earlier post I commented briefly on Yuval Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and I have just interrupted my reading of Barbara Tuchman’s book to read Origin Story: A Big History of Everything by David Christian, an historian who worked mostly in Sydney, Australia, specializing in Russia both imperial and soviet, before becoming interested in “big” history around 1989. Dr. Christian starts his history with the “big bang” whose time occurred, according to the latest reckoning, 13.82 billion years ago. I had this book on hold at our library and when it became available, I downloaded it for a three-week loan and am now waiting expectantly to come back to Ms. Tuchman’s insights on the folly of Vietnam. Fortunately, I own The March of Folly so can put it aside for now.
Big history begins with the modern analogue of creation myth now called modern origin story because it is based on scientific, anthropological and historical evidence with the aspiration of being as non-fictional as possible. Several physicists have told the cosmological part of this story, but their accounts often lack the kind of human interest an historian can bring to the subject. The interest now does not concern the physics but the meaning of this history for us as human beings who live in this unbelievable universe, a meaning formerly brought to so-called primitive societies by their creation myths. Dr. Christian has created a timeline of significant “events” some of which embody a generalized form of the physical concept of “emergence” in which a startling new complexity can arise out of simplicity. These emergence events he calls thresholds, of which there have been eight so far in the reckoning of Dr. Christian. Threshold 1 is the Big Bang; 2, the first stars glow, 600 million years of so later; 3,4,5, include the first life on our planet; 6, the first evidence of our species, homo sapiens, 200,000 years ago; 7, ice ages end, farming begins, 10,000 years ago; 8, the fossil fuels revolution, 200 years ago. Fifty or so years ago begins an event, not a threshold, called the Great Acceleration; humans land on the moon and begin to have a geological impact on our planet. Dr. Christian optimistically includes a threshold 9, estimated to be 100 years in the future, A Sustainable World Order. Of course, this latter threshold might well not occur; instead not only “big” history, but, for us anyway, “all” history might come to an end.
Big history is interesting in at least a couple of ways. For one, it gives us a cosmic perspective, leaving out what is traditionally considered the flesh and blood of history, the wars, the politics, the human creations of art and empire. Thus, in its own way it creates an abstraction of history similar to that of traditional histories which also leave out most history. The second way in which I, anyway, find it interesting is that “big” history aspires to be a history of our entire human perception, encompassing our entire human adventure. History has become a “master” discipline expanding its role to subsume any and all other disciplines as it may require. It has become a way of “understanding everything”, requiring the aspiring master historian to not only find meaning in the usual historical written records but to move into many other fields which provide a setting for traditional history and allow an expanded meaning of human significance and human folly. “Understanding everything” in this sense requires one to understand a specialty and then move into other areas, struggling with new paradigms and expanding one’s intuition and awareness. Perhaps this expanded awareness can ultimately reach the emptiness outside of all existence or perhaps it can’t. In any case life becomes richer, more meaningful and more significant.