Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Nazi Invasion of Long Island

As grim and horrible as World War II was, it is also a great story book, with endless tales, as if everyone involved was part of a magnificent but frightening fable. Of all of its many tales, the Nazi invasion of Long Island ranks as one of my favorites. Although two books have been published on the subject in recent years, it is still not a well remembered or discussed event, not even on Long Island, which happens to be, of course, my home. Some of it, particularly the legal end, was kept secret for many years.

The invasion, carried out by eight Germans, occurred in late Spring, 1942. It’s important to put this in time perspective. The war technically started in 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, but the United States did not become involved in a open and direct manner until Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese on December 7, 1941.

America immediately declared war against Japan and a few days later against Germany and Italy after they declared war on us. (what a quaint idea – Congress declaring war - despite all our future wars, it was the last time it would ever happen)

The Allies were far from winning at the time that the saboteurs arrived here, in late Spring, 1942, although they may have, unknown to most, just begun to turn the tide. Still, Germany controlled the European continent and was doing tremendous damage to Allied shipping in the Atlantic. Japan ruled the Pacific (although it had just lost the Battle of Midway, which would be seen as a turning point in the war). There was still great fear of invasion in this country. In fact, earlier that year the almost entirely loyal group of Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were ordered to detention camps.

Thus, when you see the public reaction to this event, and how the President and Supreme Court acted, consider the fear and righteous anger in the country at the time, still reeling from Pearl Harbor, and just starting to get some licks in. It is comparable to the outrage and fear we felt right after 9/11.

This sabotage plan was commenced at Hitler’s urging and given the code name “Operation Pastorius,” which was meant ironically, as Franz Pastorius led the first group of German immigrants to America late in the 17th century. If things went well, the saboteurs would be blowing up railroads, manufacturing and power plants as well as Jewish department stores, among other targets. It was run by a passionate Nazi, Lieutenant Walter Kappe.

The eight saboteurs were chosen by Germany’s intelligence service because they had all lived in America at earlier times and spoke English. In fact, one was still an American citizen and another had been.

The training at a secret location known as Quenz Lake was serious, including practice with explosives, sabotage, unarmed combat, marksmanship and even parachuting. Yet, there may never have been a more incompetent and unmotivated group of saboteurs. While still in Paris on their way to the coast, one of the team, Heinrich Heinck got drunk in a bar and began saying “I am a secret agent”. His companions pretended they didn’t know him. Another one, Herbert Haupt, caused a ruckus in a brothel by not paying the prostitute who had serviced him. The leader of one of the two teams, John Dasch, left his fake papers on a train and was detained by a suspicious soldier, and had to be rescued by Kappe and a Gestapo agent.

Worse yet, the team discovered, upon inspecting the U.S. currency given to them by Kappe, that it contained a gold certificate, no longer in circulation in the United States, and bound to raise suspicions, and even more insanely, dollars stamped with Japanese symbols, that had been circulated in the Asia.

The eight were divided equally into two teams of four, one group to arrive by submarine on Long Island, another in Florida a few days later. (George) John Dasch had been the first man recruited for the operation. He had lived 19 years in America as a waiter. Although a former U.S. army air corpsman stationed in Honolulu, when war broke out he returned to Germany and got a job monitoring American radio for Kappe. He later would claim that he hated the Nazis and had never taken the plot seriously. That very well may be true.

Also on Dasch’s team was Ernest Burger, who had been a naturalized U.S. citizen. He had actually participated in Hitler’s Beer Hall putsch in 1923 and joined the German Army after Hitler came to power. At that point, his citizenship was deemed rescinded. Unfortunately for him, he backed the wrong faction, and barely escaped the same fate as his leader, who was murdered (“Night of the Long Knives”). Later he was sent to a concentration camp for allegedly falsifying government documents (actually, he was just critical of the Gestapo in a report). While he was there, the Gestapo interrogated his wife, causing her to miscarry. Burger never forgave them.

Heinrich Heinck and his co-worker Ernest Quirin, whose name would later grace the Supreme Court case that came out of this poor excuse for a crew, rounded out the team. The other team landed in Florida four days later, led by Edward Kerling, included Herbert Haupt, who had been naturalized a U.S. citizen in his youth, and had fled from a pregnant girlfriend back to Germany. Kerling had himself left behind a wife and mistress who he would have to juggle when he got here.

When the first crew arrived off Amagansett, NY (right near the better known Montauk Point at the Eastern end of the island) on June 13th, 1942, the Keystone Cops like group sprang into action. The team leader, Dasch, who had misplaced his papers on the train, jumped off the small rubber boat in which he was being rowed to the beach, believing he was close to the shore, and immediately sank. Fortunately for America, as you will see, he was rescued. The four men made it to land, but the sub became stuck on a sandbar and could be heard throughout the night trying to free itself.

When the saboteurs landed they were wearing military uniforms. This was important to all commandos, because to be caught out of uniform invading another country would make you a spy, not a soldier, and you would likely be hung instead of becoming a POW.

However, the uniforms were just in case they were caught landing, and the team immediately began to bury their uniforms in the sand along with their explosives. While they were doing this, along came an unarmed coast guardsman from the local station on patrol, by the name of John Cullen.

It was, of course, quite dark out. Because of the war, the coast was blacked out at night. Cullen had a flashlight and was quickly approached by Dasch, who hoped to fool him. It should not surprise anyone by now, but Burger, seeing Dasch with the guardsman called to him in German, hitting Cullen over the head with what was going on. Dasch told Cullen he did not want to kill him and gave him three hundred dollars. He gave a fake name to Cullen (who also gave him a fake one) but also told him to look in his eyes and remember his face. Dasch was already using Cullen's discovery for his own purposes. It would be ludicrous to believe that he really thought Cullen could be that easily bought off, and would not turn them in.

Which is exactly what he did. Cullen made his way back to the station and reported the incident (and yes, he turned in the money too). Guardsmen went back to the beach and watched the sub trying to free itself from the sand bar. By morning they had dug up the buried stash and reported it to the FBI, which began an unsuccessful manhunt.

In the meantime, the four saboteurs made it to the train station and in the morning bought tickets for Jamaica. If you are from Long Island you know that virtually all trains from Long Island go through that town, which at the time, had a high German population. The team bought some clothes there before moving on.

While in the City, they split into two smaller groups, Dasch with Burger and Heinck with Quirin. During a long night Dasch, challenged by Burger over his seeming lack of interest, confided to him that he never intended to go through with the plan, and wanted to turn everyone in. Burger decided to go along with him. With Burger left behind to distract the increasingly suspicious and hostile Heinck and Quirin, Dasch took a train to D.C. with a bagful of money to turn them all in. Before he left he made a telephone call to the FBI to prepare the way. He used the name Franz Pastorius. The FBI agent made a note of it, but did not connect it to the manhunt.

When Dasch got to Washington he again called the FBI, who were unprepared for him, but agreed to send a car to get him. Two agents questioned him but did not seem to take him seriously until he dumped the contents of over $80,000 onto the desk and floor. Frankly, I have always had a little difficulty understanding how someone claiming to be a saboteur could walk into an FBI office with an unexamined suitcase to begin with and open it up with no one stopping him.

The FBI was in the control of its founding member, J. Edgar Hoover, who may have the record for retaining the longest hold on a position of power in American history, as he ran the FBI and its predecessor agency from 1924 until his death in 1972, spanning 48 years and 8 presidents.

One thing Hoover knew how to do was puff up the FBI’s reputation. All eight saboteurs were quickly rounded up. Hoover immediately had a press conference in which he completely ignored the work of the on the spot Coast Guard. In fact, during his three media communications, there was not a single mention of the Coast Guard at all.

Hoover’s actions infuriated others in the government, including the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, who thought that the capture should be kept quiet until the second and third groups of saboteurs scheduled to come over arrived. Now it was too late.

The public was furious too, but at the saboteurs. Public opinion was overwhelmingly in favor of their quick death as was the media. Hundreds of German citizens were rounded up for questioning. One woman died of a heart attack during her interrogation. Three of the saboteurs had been waiters in America. Consequently, the Justice Department ordered the dismissal of all German and Italian waiters from D.C. restaurants and hotels.

President Roosevelt made up his mind that the death sentence for these saboteurs was “obligatory”. A military commission was set up by presidential order. It was believed by the president that the citizenry was still too complacent and a military trial would shake them out of it.

The trial rules set out in the presidential order were prosecution friendly. For example, the standard of guilt was less than the traditional reasonable doubt, a guilty verdict by only two-thirds of the presidents selected commission was sufficent to convict, as opposed to the usual unanimous verdict, and the rules of evidence were relaxed.

In a second order, the Army officers who were to represent the defendants were forbidden to go to the civil courts. This was interesting, because a famous Supreme Court case that arose during the Civil War (Ex Parte Milligan) had held that if the civil courts were open, then that’s where civilians should be tried. Even Hoover agreed this was the law. However, it was also true that Milligan had not been a member of an enemy army.

Moreover, this second order essentially prohibited the right of habeus corpus, which is where the right to bring a case to court by those in detention is found. It is considered one of the most important civil rights, and the constitution does not permit it to be suspended except by Congress (thus, not the president) and only then in time of insurrection or invasion.

To Dasch’s shock, the government would prosecute him and Burger along with the others. They talked Dasch out of explaining his role in the arrest during the trial, claiming that it would endanger his family at home and that it was important not to let the Nazis know how easy it was to penetrate America’s defenses. More likely, they did not want to let anyone know that the Coast Guard had discovered the intruders and that the FBI had ignored it. Dasch was told that they would be pardoned a few months later.

The 18 day trial began to great fanfare on July 8th, only four days after the Independence Day holiday when the sabotage was scheduled to begin. Although it was tried in secret, daily bulletins were released, and photographers were allowed to come in and take pictures of the prisoners.

The charges were not that impressive, and included sneaking past military and naval lines (which lines – there was a sparsely defended coast roamed by unarmed Coast Guardsman?) without uniforms for sabotage purposes, giving intelligence to the enemy (they hadn’t), lurking or spying around fortifications (and old favorite, but again, where had that happened?) and conspiring with one another and the Third Reich (well, that was true, but may not technically have been a war crime – conspiracy is clearly not deemed one now).

One of the defense attorneys was Colonel Kenneth C. Royall, who was a tough and dedicated military lawyer, and a student of Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter at Harvard Law. He and a co-counsel wrote to Roosevelt (who had appointed them and everyone else involved including the judges) to ask permission to go to the Supreme Court, despite the earlier order. They were told that they would not be given instructions and had to do as they saw fit. They asked for a writ of habeus corpus from the lowest civil federal court and were denied. They arranged to take it to the Supreme Court of the United States for a show down.

The case, In re Quirin, was not the Supreme Court’s finest moment, whether or not one agrees with their decision. The obvious conflicts of interest in this case were astounding. One of the justices, Felix Frankfurter, a Jewish immigrant from Austria who hated the Nazis even more more than most Americans, was completely entangled with the administration. Prior to the case coming up, he had sat down with his former boss, the Secretary of War, proposed the military commission and made suggestions as to who should be on it.

Another two justices (Roberts and Black) met with all counsel prior to the case at Robert’s farm, to see how they could smooth the way for it to come to the Supreme Court. This may have been necessary in this incredibly tense and fast moving situation, but it was highly unusual.

The Chief Justice Stone’s son was on the defense team. Another justice, Byrne, worked so closely with Roosevelt and the attorney general, Biddle, that Biddle, who tried the case himself, thought Byrne had left the court to work for the administration full time. In fact, Byrne would soon do exactly that.

For all that, only one justice, Murphy, recused himself, because he was serving for the armed forces at the time. He listened to the oral argument from behind the curtains.

Royall had a difficult time at the arguments, particularly from his old professor, Frankfurter. When asked if Hitler would be given a trial and constitutional rights if he and his generals landed on American soil out of uniform, he felt compelled to argue yes. Now that's a tough argument to make. He also argued, to general laughter, that the saboteurs were unarmed . . . er . . . except for the explosives. He did his best to rely on the Milligan case in which the court ruled that ordinarily, when civil courts are open, that's where prosecutions must occur.

I will spare you the rest of various legal arguments. A few things are important. For one, even the Supreme Court was never told of Dasch’s and Burger’s role. For another thing, Roosevelt let it be known through one of the justices that if they interfered with the trial, he would simply have all the prisoners shot. Imagine George Bush doing that today (and in case some of you think he did do something like that – so far the detainees are winning these cases).

Another incident of the case was also quite unusual. Justice Frankfurter actual sent an interesting memo to his brother justices, now known as Frankfurter’s Soliloquy, in which he imagined a hearing where the defendants made their claim and he shot back at them with insults and venom. He then pressed upon the other justices the fact that there were many good lawyers overseas who would be shocked that the court was even considering bucking the president on his commission during war, and argued that this wasn’t the time for legal niceties. Later however, Frankfurter may have regretted his role, describing the case as “not a happy precedent”. The Chief Justice later called it a “mortification of the flesh”.

Essentially, the court backed the president completely, but the court did not explain its reasoning until it issued a decision until nearly three months later. Some on the court and their staff were deeply troubled by this. One law clerk later wrote “If the judges are to run a court of law and not a butcher shop . . . the reasons for killing a man should be expressed before he is dead.”

Six of the defendants were in fact shot dead the very day after the Supreme Court gave its okay. It happened so quickly that their counsel learned about it from the press. Only Dasch and Burger were spared, their sentences being commuted by the president, who had final say. Dasch was given thirty years and Burger life, both at hard labor. They were not, in fact, pardoned until 6 years later, by Harry S Truman, and deported to Germany. After the war Dasch’s role was disclosed and he was reviled in Germany as a traitor. He longed to return to the United States but was blocked by Hoover himself. Dasch was not an easy man to like. He was extremely garrolous and annoying.

It is difficult nowadays to say whether the sabotage plans would ever have gone forward even if the would be saboteurs were not captured. It seems that even those that were not turning themselves in were more interested in womanizing and getting on with life than doing anything dangerous, but some of them were serious. Of course, who knows?

Royall had done a magnificent job for the most unpopular of defendants. Before the six condemned men were electrocuted they wrote Royall a touching letter commending him:

"Being charged with serious crimes in wartime, we have been given a fair trial . . . Before all we want to state that defense counsel . . . has represented our case as American officers unbiased, better than we could expect and probably risking the indignation of public opinion. We thank our defense counsel for giving its legal ability . . . in our behalf."

Royall later became a brigadier general, the last U.S. Secretary of War (it then became Secretary of Defense) and the first Secretary of the Army, and many many important contributions to our country, which I will not go into here.

We have in the last two years several cases come before the Supreme Court concerning the detention of prisoners in the War on Terror. The Quirin case is always put forward by the administration as the template. It is difficult to say if there is much left to its holdings now after the recent spate of cases. However, the “blank check” given to the president by Quirin and other cases has been canceled.

The recent court cases, unlike Quirin, which the public supported, are quite controversial. Some believe they are a last bulwark against tyranny, others a foolish interference with the job of the executive branch in winning a war.

In that respect, an article published by the Washington Post after Quirin strikes to the heart of both arguments. It said:

“To handle [the case] in the civil courts would be to help Hitler immensely, and that would be intolerable. We cannot afford to give our enemy, in our present pass, the slightest assistance. At the same time we are engaged in delivering the world from a tyranny in which the rights of the individual have no place. Those rights are enshrined in our reign of law. If we simply disregard the law, even in our treatment of enemies, we shall be in danger of coming out of the war as Hitlerian as Hitler.”

Perhaps both sides should take note in considering these difficult questions.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Hello, Hitler? or Yet another way to lose in Iraq.

“Hello, Hitler?”
“Ja. Who is this?”
“Its FDR. I just wanted to give you a heads up about D-Day.”
“Uh . . . one more time.”
“You know, the invasion. D-Day. The Allies invading Fortress Europe. Here’s what we are going to do. We have about 3,000,000 troops, give or take. We’ll be crossing over the channel in Normandy, so don’t bother defending anywhere else. Oh, its Ike’s show but Monty’s running the ground war, so call them if you need any more particulars. Anything else I can tell you . . . Oh, can’t believe I almost forgot, June 5th unless it rains, then the 6th. Gotta go."

If you think that the above scenario is ridiculous, consider this. We do pretty much the same insane thing in modern day USA, feeding every bit of information we can to the enemy.

Everyone else is busy talking about whether it’s going to work, who is supporting the President and what the Democrats are going to propose. All I want to talk about is why we are so incredibly stupid when we are supposed to fighting a war that everyone is so sure is more important than the Cold War, by revealing what should be secret information to our enemies.

For those of you who have missed it, this President has lost all of his teeth. Earlier this week, President Bush, in a moment which must have lightened the hearts of anyone who seeks America’s downfall, humbly went on tv, taking responsibility for making mistakes in the war and almost apologetically announced his strategy for a “surge” or “augmentation” of troops in Iraq. Thus, the president advised not just Americans, his political opponents and the media, but also any insurgent or terrorist in Iraq of how many troops he was sending and where they would be sending them. If that was too vague, former generals who are paid by cable news channels for insider analysis have happily spelled out for those who kill our troops, what the likely strategy will be in great detail.

I know what you are thinking. Big deal. It’s a new world and everything leaks, anyway. Really? The why does Congress bother having closed hearings for intelligence and armed forces? Why are things marked “top secret” by our government all the time (although admittedly, even ridiculously stupid things that are public knowledge already). Why did the government prosecute Wen Ho Lee over nothing. There must be some secrets when you are fighting a war.

Don’t think telling belligerents who plant bombs for our troops to ride over, would love to know where we will be going? Don’t you think that they would love to know where to concentrate their forces, or to temporarily vacate? Our enemy needs no intelligence operatives. All they need is a feed for American cable news. Now, they can plan out booby traps and fire zones with all the time in the world.

You might also think that, well, sure, but we are so good that we don’t need surprise to win. Ok, that might be true. I sure hope so. But it hasn’t proved to be the case so far, has it?

You think maybe they won’t notice what the President said (really being sarcastic here). Already it is being reported that certain insurgents or militia are secreting away their guns and are going to lay quiet for a while until the surge is over. This is all to the same effect. We will waste more money yet if we “surge” and there is no one to fight. If I were dedicated to fighting American troops I would do what General Washington did. Melt away. Retreat. Mix in with civilians. Or better, surprise our troops someplace we don’t expect them outside of Baghdad. It is no secret how to fight us. Every combatant in the world knows this.

Look at this way – does Al Qaeda tell us where they are going to strike? No. Do the insurgents tell us where they are going to concentrate their forces? Where they are going to plant IEDs? No, No and No (the third “No” was just for emphasis).

Here is another way to look at it. Pretend that the President did not make his speech this week and that the strategy wasn’t leaked out the week before. Instead, what if it was learned that a White House aid, anyone from the VP to the pastry chef, made a telephone call to Osama bin Laden and told him how many troops we were sending over, who would be leading them, and where they would be deployed. Would not that be the clearest case of treason you have heard of in a long time. Would not the President himself have suggested that the transgressor was a great criminal who had put America’s troops at risk. Heck, he pretty much said as much if you just voted Democrat in the ’06 elections.

But there is no need for any traitor to risk his neck, because the President did it himself. On TV! And we will continue to debate tactics and strategy in front of the world because politics trumps war almost every time in this kooky world we have set up where the media dictates our every move.

Now, I am not suggesting that the President is a traitor or that he has committed treason. I am just saying that what has become commonplace in this country, as a result of our rolling, non-stop politicking, the leaking of vital information to the entire world, is absurd.

No one, not one of these politicians or pundits from President Bush to the Daily Kos has any idea what is going to happen when we send more troops, or what would happen in the long term if we take our troops out (I think we all agree it would be pretty bloody short term). But everyone should also agree that not treating this as a serious war by keeping strategies and tactics a secret is just completely idiotic. Stupid. Moronic. Cretin-like.

There is no doubt the President made this announcement in the hopes of stirring patriotic embers and fending off the critics circling around his wagon. It didn’t work. Similarly, this week the administration gave up on the secret wire tapping program. Personally, I agree that it was an unlawful program under wiretapping laws prevailing since the late 70s, at least when it involved U.S. citizens and was not done on an emergency only basis. There must be oversight by Congress and the judiciary.

But there is no reason that Congress is not jumping through hoops to give the administration the tools it needs by creating more plastic exceptions for FISA. For example, let them tap for a month before being required to get a warrant; or let them tap international calls with suspected terrorists with only congressional oversight, but let prosecution be had only for true terrorist acts (and maybe with a few exceptions for heinous crimes --- after all, lets not be crazy about this).

Its pretty clear to me that Al Qaeda and other Islamists have this country pegged right. So did President Bush after 9/11. As a people we have lost our will to win or even to fight hard. That’s why they knew they could drain us dry in Iraq and why President Bush did not ask for any real sacrifices after 9/11. It just sounds more and more like the end of the Western Roman Empire. At this juncture, we need to either throw in with the President and try to win, or, just get out. Monkeying around is doing exactly what Al Qaeda wants, wasting our resources and sapping our will without our having a real chance to win.

No, I’m not saying give up for the hell of it. I am saying regroup, get our resources together and resume a more intelligent and far less costly War on Terror. We should not occupy any Muslim territory for the purposes of nation building in which we are not wanted by a large percentage of the population unless we are dedicated to completely disarming them with force, if necessary. The War on Terror has to be fought with special forces, and only occasional use of our large scale forces at the outset or against anyone stupid enough to face us on a battlefield. Working through allies in a country is a requirement. In Iraq that would be mostly the Kurds and only some proven Shiites, Sunnis, etc.

According to Robert Kaplan, a world traveling author who follows and imbeds with our troops, in his “Imperial Grunts,” that is precisely what we did when we went to war with Afghanistan, using a handful of special force troops in combination with indigent freedom fighters. They were allowed to follow their own initiative. The Taliban fell quite quickly. After that, however, long distance control from America, always late and always indecisive, our advantage has whittled away even with the special forces that remain intact.

Government never ceases to amaze. Even after Vietnam, where we couldn’t win through loss of political will, and Mogudishu and Lebanon, where we did tuck tail and run, we still enter another war where we can’t win or maintain an advantage because of our refusal to fight hard, capitalize on our gains and allow the troops on the field to do what they seem to know better than anyone else. I do not know what level of force will always be needed, nor where it turns into genocide (which we should avoid) but it is certainly a force far above what we do now.

But, most of all, please, please, for now at least, can we stop telling everybody else what our strategy is. C’mon, people.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Leo Szilard - Father of the Bomb?

The title is a question, not a declaration. Who is father of the bomb? Einstein, Roosevelt, Oppenheimer, Fermi? How about a strange little Hungarian refugee you probably never heard of named Leo Szilard. He gets my vote anyway, and would be impossible to leave him out in any even halfway comprehensive account of the making of the atomic bomb.

If you have ever read anything about the Manhattan Project, the World War II effort to build the atomic bomb, then you know literally thousands of people contributed to its creation, and that dozens can be said to be significant players. Many books on the subject leave most of them out.

Leo Szilard stands out for three primary reasons: he was the first to conceive of the chain reaction which was necessary to release the tremendous energy within the atoms. He was also the inspiration behind Einstein’s famous letter to Roosevelt that initiated the American push to develop the bomb. He, with another great scientist, developed the primitive atomic reactor that let us know the bomb was truly a reality. That he also later became the leader of the scientific community’s effort to prohibit use of the bomb, just makes him more interesting.

So, who was this genius (and yes, he was a genius, despite the popular overuse of the word)? His story and accomplishments will rivet and surprise you.

Szilard was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1898. He would grow to be a short portly man, perhaps a stereotypical absent-minded scientist who would do his best thinking taking walks or soaking in a tub. At age 16, he won the national prize in mathematics. He wanted to study physics but knew it had no future for him in Hungary. He served in World War I, but came down with the Spanish flu. It probably saved him from certain death; the fate of most of his regiment.

He later went to Germany to further his education, leaving a Hungary that was changing from a Communist government to a fascist one. In taking a break from what he believed was an unsolvable thesis problem posed by a professor, he came up with an answer to a problem in thermodynamics which he brought to the already world famous Einstein at a seminar. Although Einstein first thought Szilard’s idea was impossible, he quickly understood the brilliant solution. This scenario would repeat itself years later in more important circumstances, when his relationship with Einstein would come in handy. They filed several patents for inventions together, the most important being for an electro-magnetic refrigeration device.

Relying on his work to achieve his doctorate, he began studying nuclear physics.
In 1929 Szilard conceived what was later known as the cyclotron and patented it. The cyclotron is the basic device used to circulate atomic particles and crash them together using a magnetic field. It was the beginning of what is known as “big physics” which concerns virtually all major physics’ investigations today. He took it no further than the patent. Only a few months later an American, Ernest O. Lawrence, also destined for fame, came up with the same idea. Lawrence made a small working model and ended up with the Nobel Prize. Like so many of Szilard’s ideas, he did little with them, once they were patented.

Szilard’s greatest work was made possible by the discovery of the neutron in 1932. Being without an electric charge (unlike the positively charged proton with which it shared the nucleus, or the negatively charged electron which surrounded the nucleus) the neutron could pass through the nucleus’ electric barrier. This opened up the possibility, although doubted by many leading scientists, that the energy of the atom could be tapped. This was not long before Hitler came to power in 1933. That year Szilard took a train to Vienna. One day later he would have been among those stopped and interrogated by Nazis. He eventually wound up in Britain, an out of work Jewish refugee.

It was there, reading an article by the great Lord Rutherford, one of the founders of atomic physics, that he learned that he thought it “moonshine” that atomic energy could ever be used on an industrial scale. Szilard took a walk, and standing at a street corner, was struck by an idea he later thought of as his "moonshine" idea.

Richard Rhodes’ voluminous but brilliant The Making of the Atomic Bomb begins with Szilard’s epiphany of the chain reaction. If I can whet your appetite for this book by quoting the opening paragraph, then this blog is worth all of the other blogs in the world posted today:

“In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come”.

Szilard’s idea of a chain reaction was borrowed from chemistry. If he could find the right material to bombard a nucleus with its neutrons, one might enter it and cause two to be knocked out, and if those two entered two more nuclei . . . and so on, what would ordinarily be a tiny bit of energy, perhaps enough to move a grain of sand, would become, when multiplied trillions of times, energy sufficient to power the world, or blow it up.

A determined do-gooder, Szilard made great efforts to help other German scientists escape Germany and get settled where they could do their work. But, he was not well known himself, and was out of work. He did not have the facilities to test his chain reaction theory. Some element was needed which would fire out enough neutrons to do the job.

That work fell to another great scientist, Enrico Fermi, an Italian who made many great discoveries as a physicist, and is in the very top tier of physicists. He was far more disciplined, and certainly less erratic, than Szilard. Fermi had the lab, the materials, the technology and the assistants to test various substances to see which might create a chain reaction, an idea he came up with independently from Szilard.

But we are not discussing the making of the bomb in its entirety and will follow Szilard instead of Fermi, and wind up at the same place. Szilard continued to amend his patent ideas, including one patent which described what was later called critical mass, that is, sufficient radioactive substance to make the chain reaction self sustaining.

He wrote in that patent amendment these words . . .

“If the thickness (of the radioactive material) is larger than the critical value . . . I can produce an explosion”.

Szilard believed that Rutherford (not to mention Einstein and many other famous scientists) was wrong in believing that atomic power was not possible and that fictional writers who conceived nuclear energy were correct. Although Szilard was highly influenced by an H.G. Wells’ novel which, written on the eve of World War I, considered the destruction of the world by atomic bombs as occurring in the distant future -- 1956, he was more interested in using atomic energy to enable man to leave the earth and even the solar system, or to enforce world peace. He had a sort of complex messianic streak, coupled with genius and awesome self confidence with which he hoped to save mankind.

Although highly trained in physics, he had difficulty getting or holding a job. Fact was, Szilard was “brilliant but lazy” (I actually got that line from Spider-Man II). Despite all his inventions, he was almost purely a theoretician and felt performing experiments was beneath him. There was also a prejudice against him in England because he took out patents for his inventions, which was bad form among British scientists at the time.

He applied to work at Rutherford’s famed Cavendish Lab at Cambridge but was rejected. He thereafter was able to begin experimental work at the rival, but less important, Oxford lab, where he established himself as a nuclear physicist.

Szilard's devotion to what he believed was the truth regardless of its acceptance by established authority figures is quite attractive and brave. “I had never done work in nuclear physics before, but Oxford considered me an expert. . . Cambridge . . . would never had made that mistake. For them I was just an upstart who might make all sorts of observations, but these observations could not be regarded as discoveries until they had been repeated at Cambridge and confirmed”.

It was during this time period that Szilard came to a political conclusion which may have won World War II for the allies (quite a claim, I realize, but it was at least, one of a number of decisions that won it, and not Szilard's only one). Szilard had a profound and prophetic political eye, and was not only certain of Germany’s rearming, but also that war between it and Britain would happen long before others. He realized that if Germany developed the bomb (still just a notion) before Britain or America, it would be a disaster.

Therefore, in order to prevent Germany from learning of it, Szilard offered his patent for the chain reaction to the War Department, which, characteristically of good and wise similar acts, was rejected. Only when an older more influential scientist who worked with them intervened, did they accept it. Szilard set out to convince others to keep their work a secret. There can be little doubt that if the traditional method of publication following discovery had continued in nuclear physics, Germany’s scientists may have had a chance to learn enough from the future allies to beat them to the bomb.

Szilard ended up in America about a year before the war would begin, just as he predicted, something he had recommended to other refugee scientists (and also one Trude Weiss, who would much later become his wife). There he learned of the possibilities of uranium being the catalyst for which he was looking.

Eventually, Szilard was introduced to Fermi, whom he requested keep his discoveries pertaining to a chain reaction a secret. These ideas, although bouncing around academia, were virtually unknown to the public or government. Fermi thought the possibility of a chain reaction was small and should be played down; Szilard the opposite. But Szilard was determined to make it a secret and was eventually successful, at least as to the most important discoveries.

While Szilard’s battle for secrecy went on, he and Fermi worked together on a crucial experiment -- creating a chain reaction. Well, as far as the actual physical work went, Fermi did it with Szilard’s stand in. Szilard told Fermi he did not want to dirty his hands like a painter’s assistant. Fermi found this ridiculous and never worked with Szilard again. However, Szilard made many important contributions, and working together, they eventually succeeded in the chain reaction in a dramatic experiment (that could easily have gone out of control) which has, as we all know, changed the world, and our expectations of its survival. But it would not occur until December 2, 1942.

Prior to that experiment’s fateful conclusion, while Fermi was away in the Summer of 1939, Szilard dealt with something equally important. He was aware that the tiny country of Belgium was in possession of huge amounts of uranium mined from their colony in the Congo. It was in danger of being captured by Hitler. He also wanted the United States government to get involved. Szilard knew of someone whose reputation was irreproachable and who could get the ear of any government. Moreover, he also personally knew Belgium’s Queen. His name -- Albert Einstein, Szilard's old friend and fellow inventor.

Using a future Nobel prize winner and fellow Hungarian, Eugene Wigner, as chauffeur for a trip out to the Northeast end of Long Island to where Einstein was summering, Szilard was shocked to find out that Einstein (no longer at the forefront of physics) did not even know about chain reactions. Once Szilard explained, he quickly caught on. Einstein agreed to help, and drafted a letter to the Queen, which Szilard took with him.

Later that Summer, Szilard was able to make an appointment with a Roosevelt acquaintance who agreed to take a letter from Einstein to the president. Using Einstein’s draft letter to the Belgian Queen Elizabeth, he now drafted one to Roosevelt from Einstein.

The two of them worked together on further drafts on Szilard’s second trip to Eastern Long Island (at Nassau Point, which Szilard couldn't find then, and you would have difficulty finding now). Incidentally, Szilard’s chauffeur for that second trip was Edward Teller, a brilliant but difficult man who would later become father of the hydrogen bomb. Eventually, Einstein signed two letters to Roosevelt, a shorter and then a longer version.

The letter was transmitted to Roosevelt, and, of course, the rest is history, which I will not go into here in detail. I presume readers of this blog knows that the atomic bomb was developed as the “Manhattan Project” and that bombs were made at Los Alamos, New Mexico, with which the United States, after Germany had already surrendered, at least in part forced the capitulation of Japan by exploding the devices, dropped by airplanes, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. The readiness of the Soviet Union to at long last enter the fray against Japan also played a role in captitulation and some have argued the greater role.

Thus, Einstein’s famous letter to Roosevelt, now in the Smithsonian Institute, was more a product of Szilard’s hand, than Einstein. Though both took part in the drafting, Einstein would not even have been aware of the possibility of a chain reaction without Szilard, or thought to contact Roosevelt.

Szilard was not allowed much participation in building the bomb once the first chain reaction occurred in late 1942. He was kept clear of Los Alamos and mostly languished in Chicago’s Met Lab. He and General Leslie Groves, who ran the project from the government end, were at loggerheads from the beginning. Groves later described Szilard as “the kind of man that any employer would have fired as a troublemaker.” Groves and Szilard fought over the competition between security and scientific openness. They fought about Szilard’s pay and property rights in his inventions. Although Szilard, a private citizen, was finally paid for his work during the war while it was still ongoing, it wasn’t until ten years after the war that Szilard and Fermi won a joint patent for the nuclear reactor.

Not surprisingly, Groves later described Szilard as “unprincipled, amoral and immoral” and “an inveterate troublemaker and not a great scientist.” “He was an [entrepreneur], not a scientist." This was ridiculous, and it may be unfair to Groves to present it in a vacuum, as he was under insane pressure and did a magnificent, if not almost impossible job in supervising the entire project.

Groves even had Szilard under surveillance, assuming that the Hungarian pain in his neck was also a spy. Frankly, paranoia about the project was so great that even Einstein was not completely trusted, because of his pacifist politics. It is actually a wonder that Szilard, a fearless and relentless gadfly if there ever was one, was not locked up for the duration of the war. In 1945, prior to the use of the bomb, Szilard organized scientists against the bomb’s use. He was able to see Eleanor Roosevelt in an effort to get to the president, but Roosevelt soon died. Using a Missouri contact in the Chicago lab, Szilard almost got to see Truman, who had only learned of the bomb upon Roosevelt’s death, but was shunted aside to an underling.

Szilard was devastated by the bomb’s use in Japan and felt personally guilty. He had conceived the bomb as a prelude to his vision of peace under a world government on a Platonic model. He belatedly realized the destruction and problems the bomb would cause. Although I wouldn’t give two cents for the success of his utopian visions, which were no doubt born out of his own experiences in twentieth century totalitarianism, Szilard could be remarkably farsighted, envisioning both the bomb and its consequences before it was seen by others.

After the war, Szilard changed specialties, becoming a biologist (he was, after all, barred from working in the nuclear field dominated by the government which he had more than anyone else brought into the picture), and made important contributions in that field. He worked with Francis Crick and Jonas Salk. He was the author of an interesting, but not great, book, called The Voice of the Dolphins, his vision of world peace, and a few others you probably don't want to read. He married in his early fifties to his old friend, Gertrude Weiss, and died at age 66, on May 30, 1964, of a heart attack.

Szilard’s colleague’s, many of them Nobel Prize winners or deserving of the award, thought him a brilliant and more importantly, incredibly original and independent thinker. Eugene Wigner wrote that if all that was necessary were ideas, Szilard could have done the Manhattan Project all by by himself.

Why do awe inspiring scientists like Szilard get forgotten? Life goes on, that’s all. Today, brilliant scientists are submerged behind the Bill Gates and Steve Jobs of the world. However, like Nikola Tesla, who you may have read about here recently, it seems almost impossible that someone so important should be so easily wiped away from memory. Then again, this past semester I asked my college class who among them had heard of the Marx Brothers and was met with almost complete silence. So it goes.

Does Szilard deserve the title – Father of the bomb? Let’s put it this way, Rhodes began his magnum opus with Szilard's insight into the chain reaction. Szilard was the glue throughout the entire book -- wherever it wandered, it came back to his story. Rhodes even began his Epilogue with Szilard too. If Rhodes had voted on the "Father of the Bomb," I think he would have picked Szilard.

Recommended reading:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb is not only the best and most comprehensive treatment of the project and its antecedents (and I’ve read a number of them), it is also possibly the single best history or non-fiction book that I have ever read, and that’s a lot of books.

Of course, it is not for everyone. If you don’t like history or science (don’t panic, no math necessary), World War II stories, daring commando raids, hair raising escapes, behind the scene politics, mysterious conversations, intellectual battles between the world's greatest scientists, between scientists and soldiers, scientists and politicians, the interpersonal relationships of the great men of this century, incomparable drama, massive death, powerful explosions, personal sacrifice and “a ripping good yarn” as they used to say, then don’t read it. If you are interested, I promise you that there will be no disappointment. It is 790 pages of text, which will probably scare away most people. I have started to read it for a second time, slowly, a page or two at a time.

As for exclusive Szilard biographies, I have read only one with the excellent title Genius in the Shadows, by William Lanouette. It was a thorough and enjoyable book. I know of one other, Prophet of the Atomic Age: Leo Szilard, which I have not read, and it would probably be harder to find.

Or you could stop here, with this posting, and say, that’s enough.

Monday, January 08, 2007

New Political Analyses - a extra special report

What makes someone want to run for President? The last two have been savaged by their opposition so severely, it is hard to comprehend that anyone would want to put themselves in that place. Clinton was relatively popular with the public, but the Republican Congress and the media made his presidency hellish. Bush, who was the darling of the right, is now considered a traitor by many of them. And they like him lots, compared to the left.

We all know the answer, of course - ego and ambition. If we were less cynical, we might add love of country, but it gets so hard to believe that as they all cleave towards party lines once elected. Has anyone since Eisenhower been everyone's president?

Since my last piece on the 2008 race, another name has popped up -- John Edwards. There are reasons why he might feel confident. He performed well last time as a Democratic candidate, and did a credible job as second fiddle to the worst candidate since Michael Dukakis in 2004. Kerry's pathetic performance did not cast a shadow over him. How could it -- he is so light and sunshiney, he must float over anything dark and negative thrown at him.

Why is John Edwards so smiley and happy all the time? Call me cynical, but I am always suspicious of anyone who smiles so much. In my limited experience, they often turn out to be very unhappy. But, you have to give people the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he just has a great life.

Edward's chances in the nomination -- That's hard to decipher right now because we don't know if Obama is running. If he does, he will siphon off from Edward's people who want to vote for someone good looking, youthful and cheerful. Frankly, either of them would make Hillary look dour and tough by comparison. Although she has a reputation of being charming in private, too many people would not give her the time of day if she asked for it. Edwards is nothing but likeable, and he will benefit from the comparison. People would give him the time, and some their watch. However, as suggested above, Obama would draw some of these possible voters away from him.

I give Edwards a chance in the nomination, because there has to be an anti-Hillary candidate, and it might be him. He has actually tied in one Iowa poll with Obama so far (see below). He has the name recognition and the personality.

I give him much less of a chance in the general election. If the candidate is McCain or Guliani, they will bury him in terms of relevant experience. Edwards brief turn as a Senator does not seem sufficient to get him past that experience hurdle, particularly as his term was not stellar. He looked inexperienced in his debaes with Cheney and hasn't really done anything since then. Frankly, Dan Quayle's Senate experience looked deeper than Edwards' does.

Here's some quick advice for many of the candidates:

John Edwards. Don't smile so much. If you dye your hair, time to stop. Go grey. You look like a kid, and unlike JFK, you have no war record to balance your seeming youth against. Poverty issues will not win the election for you, because the poor people aren't voting. Just saying "security is important too" is not sufficient to convince anyone who doesn't think 9/11 was just a fluke.

John McCain. Careful in your tilt right. It may be necessary, and people understand that. But go to far, and you will lose the moderates who love you. Remember that people like you because they believe you have integrity. The recent Iowa poll put you on top, although just barely. A good sign, given how conservative Iowa is, but Guliani was breathing down your neck, and he's a socially liberal conservative.

Hillary Clinton. Although I cannot conceive what would make you do this, given how much you are hated by your enemies, here's my advice. Never raise your voice or get passionate in public, even if the crowd wants you too. You don't do it well. Its hard to listen to. Every shrill word out of your mouth will be repeated over and over by talk radio.

Joe Biden (who announced on Meet the Press yesterday). I don't know where to start. Take a breathe. Let other people speak. One thing people can't stand is a politician who hogs the mike. Don't be such a know-it-all. Limit yourself to ten words per sentence, and ten seconds an answer or question. Don't ask a question and then keep talking when someone tries to answer. Get staff who will tell you the truth about your faults and give them a buzzer for when you can't control yourself.

Rudy Guliani. I don't think he needs any advice from me or anyone else. He is very good at this, although I still think McCain (I have admitted my bias before) will win. I would not like to vote for him because I believe he has a mean streak ten miles wide which he demonstrated as a prosecutor and a mayor, but he has already convinced many people that he has changed. His speeches are the most conversational of all of the likely candidates.

John Kerry. Did you not read my first election blog? Go home, be rich, ski, sail or be Senator again. You are never going to get the nomination again unless the E.U. and America merge, and we all know the chances of that happening. OK, if you would not listen to that, how about this. Never make a joke in public again, and stop acting so professorial. People actually don't think you are that smart anymore.

Tom Vilsack. You just finished 3rd in the Iowa poll with 10%. Don't think it means anything. Both Edwards and Obama more than doubled your score, and you are from Iowa, for crying out loud.

Dennis Kucinich. I didn't include you in my last blog, so I will here. Everyone knows you are against the war. Many people agree with you. But they are not going to vote for you. Know why? Well, for one thing, you are short, and people care about that. Sorry. For, another thing, your trophy wife sort of ruins the whole man of the people thing. Look at the two of you in the mirror. See what I mean.Last thing -- you remind everyone of Dukakis and Paul Simon. Remember, how they did?

Here's a portion of the recent Iowa poll so you can see how your favorite's did:

QUESTION: If the 2008 Democratic Caucus for President were held today, which of the
following candidates would you vote for? (ROTATED):
John Edwards 22% 21% 23%
Barack Obama 22% 21% 23%
Tom Vilsack 12% 14% 10%
Hillary Clinton 10% 9% 11%
Al Gore 7% 7% 7%
John Kerry 5% 5% 5%
Wesley Clark 4% 6% 2%
Dennis Kucinich 4% 3% 5%
Joe Biden 1% 2% -
Evan Bayh 1% 1% 1%
Bill Richardson 1% 2% -
Undecided (NOT READ) 11% 9% 13%

QUESTION: If the 2008 Republican Caucus for President were held today, which of the
following candidates would you vote for? (ROTATED):
John McCain 27% 30% 24%
Rudy Giuliani 26% 27% 25%
Mitt Romney 9% 8% 10%
Newt Gingrich 7% 9% 5%
Condi Rice 4% 2% 6%
George Pataki 1% 1% 1%
Jeb Bush 1% 1% 1%
George Allen 1% 1% 1%
Sam Brownback 1% 1% 1%
Rick Santorum 1% 1% 1%
Duncan Hunter - - -
Undecided (NOT READ) 22% 19% 25%

Why Pataki, Brownback, Santorum, Biden, Kucinich, Kerry and Richardson are even thinking about it, is a mystery to me. Gingrich practically lives in Iowa for the last two years, and can stop kidding himself.

What about an Al Gore revival? You never know, although I wouldn't want to see a Gore-Clinton war. That would make Antietam look antiseptic in comparison.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

IEDs and Phalanxes - Comparing the Iraqi War with one fought 2400 Years Ago


America's lack of complete success in Iraq is frustrating for all Americans. Although no one doubts that the American military forces are the most powerful in the world, there is also no doubt (anymore) that we are in a quagmire -- we can't seem to win or lose. Both a surge of troops and a withdrawal seem equally fraught with danger. The question dangles whether there was anything we could have learned from history that would have helped us.

Since the beginning of the Iraq War I have occasionally read articles that said something like “Many commentators have compared the Iraq War with Athens invasion of Sicily during the Peloponnesian War”. Maybe they have, but I did a Lexis search and I can’t find any writer that really discusses it. Every article just says that the comparison has been made by others and even that it has been done to death. Guess I'm reading the wrong things.

Some commentators have also mentioned Victor Davis Hanson’s recent “A War Like No Other,” in which the author considers the importance and novelty of the Peloponnesian War, as being, at least in part, a comparison of the ancient war with the current Iraq War. It must have been subliminal, because Hanson’s book doesn’t mention Iraq or America at all.

The truth is that there are some similarities between the two wars, and you can judge the significance of them yourself. Why write a blog on it? To some degree, if writers are going to keep saying there are similarities, someone should actually say what they are. But also, the Peloponnesian War was pretty interesting in its own right, and some of us can't talk about it enough.

Part I will consider the basics necessary to make any comparisons, and in a few weeks we will discuss the Athens/Sicilian War itself.


The Peloponnesian War, really the second one, was fought in Greece, beginning a little over 2400 years ago in 431 B.C. and ending 27 long years later in 404 B.C. It was ostensibly between the two most powerful city-states, Sparta and Athens, but each was supported by many allied city-states.


Earlier that century, the Greeks, led by, Athens and Sparta, had fought off Persia, a huge and wealthy empire to the East. Persia is usually synonymous with modern day Iran, although at that time Persia’s empire stretched from now Western China across the expanse of Central Asia into parts of Europe and across Northern Africa. It was by far the largest and also the most powerful empire in the world.

There were also Greek colonies dotted along the perimeter of Asia, in what is now Turkey, and Persia had collected most of these into her empire. The Persian Emperor thought that he would just take over the Greek homeland too, and that it would be easy.

Most of us are aware, at least, that much of our heritage comes from Greece. Some small part comes from Persia as well. Many common words in the English language actually have, Persian roots, such as: magic and magi, checkmate (from “shahmat,” the king is dead) and chess, to name just a few. The Persian Empire at this time followed the religion of Zorastrianism which was a seed bed for many ideas that reached into Judiasm, Christianity and Islam.


The invasion turned out differently than the great Persian king Xerxes hoped. One of the major battles took place at Marathon. The runner who hightailed it back home to give news of the Greek victory ran all 26 miles, giving us the name Marathon for the long distance race. Ten years later Persia invaded Greece again and was temporarily stopped at Thermopylae. This was actually the name of a mountain pass which was extremely narrow. However, it was the only reasonable way for the Persians to get into Southern Greece by land, unless they wanted to go far out of the way.

There was Persia with its several hundred thousand troops. Greece was able to marshal only a few thousand soldiers. But the narrow pass was the perfect place for her unique type of warfare, as her flanks and rear could not be attacked. Protection at the pass led to a few advantages for the Greeks. One, they had developed much better armor and weaponry than the Persians. Two, they had perfected a technique called a phalanx, where they would link arms and hold their long spears out in front of them.

Somehow, the Greeks held off this army of hundred of thousands, but even with the added incentive of defending their own land, there was only so long they could do so.

Eventually, the Spartans volunteered to go it alone – just three hundred of them, while most of the others escaped (actually, probably up to a couple of thousand Greeks stayed, although 300 Spartans sounds so much better). The Persians had found a back way in with the help of a local. Virtually all of them died there, as they knew they would. The Persians moved on, but Thermopylae was a moral victory and a battle that has motivated soldiers throughout history. According to my English version of Herodotus' Histories, a monument later placed there included this inscription: "Go tell the Spartans, those who read/We took their orders, and now are dead". I have my doubts about how the writer from the 5th century B.C. knew how to rhyme in Greek which would be later translated into English still rhyming, but there you have it. Herodotus had a lot of doubts about the things he learned and told us too. I feel like I'm in good company.


Soon after, the Athenians, the great Greek naval power, defeated the huge Persian navy at the battle of Salamis. Although not deemed as glorious a victory in history as Thermopylae, it was at least as important a victory. It was not the last battle either, but it cut off Persia's supply line by sea and may have been the most critical victory. After that, the Greeks were not seriously challenged by Persia in their own homeland, although many Greek colonies that were in what is now Turkey remained in the Persian Empire.


The Greek city states were rarely united, and had this time come together only to defeat a foreign invader. They had language and some culture in common, but fought viciously among themselves. After defeating the Persians, the rivalry grew between Athens, which had entered its classical age in education, science, and the arts, and Sparta, a military state, dedicated to martial prowess. Athens had the best navy in Greece, and Sparta the best army. However, Sparta retreated within, leaving Athens with leadership of what was at first the Delian League and later became the Athenian Empire.


Over time, Athens, which had been experimenting with democracy for nearly two centuries, was influential in spreading this political practice sporadically throughout Greece. Athens did not act like a modern democracy, unless you believe the United States is presently an aggressive democracy enslaving the world and forcing its beliefs on everyone. Not only was Athens a slave power, as was just about everyone else, but it would use its military might or threats to force its political system on other Greek states. This allowed Sparta, which had enslaved its neighbors, to claim that the war was over freedom.

The goddess of wisdom and war was Athena, patron deity of Athens (although also worshipped in Sparta). Athens was famous for many things including architecture (such as the Parthenon), pottery, government, creating coinage, innovative theatre and philosophy. It is perhaps most famous for its long list of philosophers and artists who graced its walls, including philosophers Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, playwrites Euripides, Sophocles and Aristophanes and the political leader Pericles, to name only the most familiar. Athens is considered the mother of democracy and many other innovations in Western Civilization.


Sparta wasn’t exactly a monarchy, which indicates one ruler, because it, almost uniquely, had two Kings at a time. They weren’t all powerful rulers, though. A group of elders known as the Ephors also had a great deal of power. The Kings’ function was actually more military and religious in nature. To some degree Spartan citizens, as opposed to its slaves, had more freedom than Athenian citizens.

Young Spartans were raised to be warriors, being taken from their parents when infants to train. Spartans were Dorians who had invaded Greece centuries before. They had enslaved the local tribes, the Helots, when they settled on the peninsula, and were always worried that they would be attacked by the restless native population. It is one of the reasons that they preferred to remain close to home.The name Peloponnesian comes from the peninsula that Sparta was located on, supposedly named after the invading Dorian peoples' great ancestor, Pelops. Spartans could reach Athens in a matter of days through a thin isthmus (like so many English words, derived from the Greek) leading to the mainland.

Although Sparta was greatly feared for its military prowess, it soon became frightened of Athen’s growth. Both had many allies, splitting Greece into a jigsaw puzzle of two camps. Eventually Sparta invaded Athens in 460 B.C. This was the first Peloponnesian War. They finally entered into a truce about fifteen years later known as the Thirty Years Peace. It would not last 30 years.


The truce made it about half way through its expected life. In 431 B.C., Sparta invaded Athens again and continued to do so for a number of years.

Although more powerful on land, Sparta could not get Athens to come out and fight. On Pericles’ advice, the Athenian population gathered within the Long Walls it had completed the peace, and remained there. Based upon the water’s edge, Athens’ powerful navy allowed it to continue to feed itself and trade. The idea was to use its navy to make hit and run attacks on the Peloponnesian peninsula. Athens' grain was farmed far to the North, outside of Sparta’s area of influence, and shipped directly to Athens’ protected port.

Having to settle for destroying farmlands and olive groves, Sparta ravaged the Athenian countryside. Being safe within walls had downside too. Not only were Athens’ crops destroyed, but the city inhabitants suffered two devastating plagues. But it won sea battles and kept its empire alive. Nevertheless, it also suffered virtually complete financial disaaster.

Finally, Athens succeeded in pinning a number of Spartan troops on an island (Sphacteria, if you care), and Sparta agreed to a truce for a while in order to save their lives. Ironically, Sparta sacrificed 300 lives at Thermopylae, including its great King Leonidas, without even a hope of stopping Persia there, but would not allow slightly more (about 420) to be captured or die in order to continue its still hopeful war with Athens.


During this repose, Athens made a tragic mistake. Under the pretense of helping some neighboring democracies, it invaded the enormous island of Sicily in 414 B.C.

Even with its superior navy, Athens troops and sailors were virtually wiped out in the effort. The Sicilian defenders, with only a little help from a Spartan general, developed new marine techniques, improvising brilliantly to defeat the supposedly unconquerable Athenian navy. The loss wiped out Athenian finances, pride and seeming invincibility.


Somehow, the war did not end there. Despite the devastating defeat, Athens lasted another ten years. Only with the help of numerous allies, including now the same Persian Empire Greece had defeated earlier, treason and some brilliant work by Spartan generals on land and sea, Sparta defeated Athens in the last major battle at Aigospotami (in modern day Turkish waters) where most of the Athenian fleet was destroyed. After 27 years, Athens surrender (404 B.C.) and Sparta finally tore down its "Long Walls".

Although Sparta now set an oppressive counsel to rule Athens ("The Thirty Tyrants"), it did not destroy it, as it might have. The war had been the most brutal the Greek world had been known, and it would have surprised no one if Sparta had put the Athenian men to the sword and taken the women as wives and slaves. Civilization would be different today had it done so.

When I was in high school we learned that Athens was able to defeat Sparta because it was a democracy and its citizens trained both mind and body, not just the body, as opposed to the militarily consumed Spartans. I have heard this repeated by a number of people my age, so obviously this teaching of "history" was quite prevalent, at least on Long Island, and I imagine elsewhere. I have to wonder in a country where most people still think that Saddam knocked down the Twin Towers, how many high school graduates (if they ever think about it at all) believe Sparta lost to Athens. A good question for one of those cultural polls.


Sparta’s victory did not do it much good. After a relatively brief hegemony, Sparta was left behind and eventually disappeared from history as a power or influence. Mostly we are left with the inspiring story of Thermopylae (about which I am advised a movie will be coming out this year), and the word “Spartan,” referring to a simple and hard lifestyle without luxuries or comforts. Athens, quickly regained much of its influence, and went on to historic greatness and legacy, if not much power. Even when Greece had been conquered the next century by Philip II of Macedonia (Alexander the Great’s father) and then by Rome a few centuries later, its conquerors left Athens, already revered for its contributions to culture, with its freedom.

Two weeks from now, we will revisit the Sicilian War we discussed briefly above and see how closely our present one mirrors it.

About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .