Tag Archives: American History

Atomic City

Justin Nobel | Longreads | September 2017 | 12 minutes (2,920 words)

In the middle of Idaho’s Lost River desert is a green street sign that reads “Atomic City” with an arrow pointing to a lonely gravel track. One evening, some years back, I followed it. As purplish storm clouds swallowed the sun, I came across a cluster of scraggly trees and weather-beaten trailer homes. Beside an abandoned speedway sat an antiquated ambulance and across the street a neon Bar sign twinkled in the dusk. Inside the bar, I met drifter lovers from Colorado and a potbellied man in a hunting cap who worked as a spent-fuel handler for the nearby Idaho National Laboratory. We discussed nuclear energy, of which he was, not surprisingly, a fan. Then I asked the question that had brought me to Atomic City: What caused the 1961 nuclear disaster?

The spent-fuel handler ordered a shot of Jägermeister. “Have you heard of the love triangle?” he asked. I hadn’t. All I knew was there was something fishy about the disaster. Earlier that day, when I tried bringing it up at Pickle’s Place, in Arco, Idaho, thirty miles away, I received cold stares. “You won’t find much on that,” a brawny man with a girl at his side told me as he exited the restaurant. I heard the same thing at the gas station next door, and at the fleabag motel I checked into. People aggressively knew nothing, which seemed to imply there was something to know.

“One guy’s wife was messing around with another guy,” said the fuel handler, after downing his Jäger. “He got pissed off and messed up…I shit you not.” He then reenacted how the disaster might have happened: “You fuck my wife, I fuck you up” — and with fingers clenched he yanked his hand upward, making the motion of pulling a control rod out of a reactor core. Boom.

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American Sphinx

Illustration by Katie Kosma

Colin Dickey | Longreads | August 2017 | 14 minutes | 3380 words

We had come to a place muted of light. Every day felt like a potential backsliding, the news unrelenting, as though the nation had finally given up pushing back against its own savagery — and every day felt like the held breath before the fall. I thought increasingly of Stefan Lux, a Jewish journalist from Slovakia: Aghast at the rise of anti-Semitism during the 1930s, and at the inability of Europe’s bureaucratic governments to respond, Lux walked into the General Assembly of the League of Nations and, before the gathered diplomats, fatally shot himself. His last words were “C’est le dernier coup.” This is the final blow. It was only July 3, 1936; the blows would keep coming long after Lux’s death.

The center was not holding; there hadn’t been any center for decades. It was a country of bankrupt politicians, of killings by police so commonplace they barely made the news. It was a country in which families were routinely broken up by early morning immigration raids, where men abducted for traffic violations and women arrested for misdemeanors were sent off to countries they hadn’t known for decades. It was a nation where young white men found solace drifting through rage and irony, and felt alive only by terrorizing others. It was not a country in open revolution, but more and more its people felt revolution would at least be the exhalation they’d been waiting for. It was a country waiting for the final blow.

Whatever rough beast Yeats had seen had already slouched its way out of the desert, laying waste to everything that fell under its pitiless, blank gaze. The body of a lion and the head of a man, the indignant desert birds circling around its slow thighs, it has laid waste to the veneer of civility and decorum that had once been papered over the country.

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The 1972 Movie of the 1969 Musical, “1776”

Assembly Room, Independence Hall, Philadelphia via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.5)

There’s no going out on the 4th of July at my house. The evening is allocated to the soothing of an anxious dog. The shift runs from dusk (around 8:30 in my Northwest corner of the U.S.) until the bad noises stop. It’s a good night for movies. Thanks to a recommendation from Salon, I landed on 1776, the 1972 movie version of the 1969 musical.

“1776” brings to life the vibrant personalities that helped bring America to life. You have Daniels as the acerbic, indignant and unshakably honorable Adams, Da Silva as the sly and charming but deeply idealistic Franklin and Howard as the quiet and cerebral Jefferson. Like all of the best works about history, it forces audiences to see important figures from the past as flesh-and-blood human beings rather than stodgy icons.

Spoiler alert: the vote goes to independence and the rest is (sorry) history.  I did not read the entire Salon piece up front; I didn’t want to know anything more than “Yep, this movie is a great choice (for those of you stuck under 15 pounds of quaking dog) for July 4th.”

Because I didn’t read the entire write up, I didn’t know that none other than President Richard Nixon had feelings about the movie. It’s thanks to him the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” was cut; it’s since been restored.

In the musical “1776,” the song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” depicts Revolutionary War era conservatives as power-hungry wheedlers focused on maintaining wealth. So it’s not surprising that then-President Richard Nixon, who saw the show at a special White House performance in 1970, wasn’t a big fan of the number.

What is surprising is that according to Jack L. Warner, the film’s producer and a friend of the president, Nixon pressured him to cut the song from the 1972 film version of the show–which Warner did. Warner also wanted the original negative of the song shredded, but the film’s editor secretly kept it intact.

Small wonder — it’s a scathing number. “Don’t forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor,” scowls John Dickinson. (Dickinson refused to sign the Declaration of Independence.) The cast breaks into a second verse about the joys of conservatism.

We’re the cool, cool considerate men
Whose like may never, ever bee seen again
With our land, cash in hand
Self command, future planned

And we’ll hold to our gold
Tradition that is old
Reluctant to be bold

We say this game’s not of our choosing
Why should we risk losing?

No wonder Nixon hated it. It was the Broadway version of the 1776 version of “We’ve got ours, we’re good, thanks.”

The movie holds up well enough for 1972, though I’m fairly certain Martha Jefferson would not have sung to John Adams and Ben Franklin about her husband Thomas’ prowess at… violin, sure, that song is about his musical skills, sure. I found Franklin too cartoonish, though I liked William Daniels’ Adams a lot (he played Benjamin’s dad in The Graduate). I was riveted by “Molasses to Rum,” the number praising, among other things, the slave trade.

Once the credits rolled, I had to research any number of things — where Edward Rutledge stood on slavery, what happened to John Dickinson after he declined to sign the Declaration, and what about that Abigail Adams anyway?

I don’t know how I got through the 70s without seeing 1776. When I posted to Facebook that I was watching it, my feed lit up with commentary — including one friend admitting he would like to play Andrew McNair, the long suffering custodian/bell-ringer who keeps trying to open the windows to let some air into what’s now known as Independence Hall.

All those men in brocade, arguing in the heat of a Philadelphia summer. It must have stunk to high heaven in the room where it happened.


Stories mentioned:

Celebrating a Second Independence Day: A Juneteenth Reading List

Miss Juneteenth waves to the crowd during a celebration parade in Denver, 2015. (Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

June 19, also known as Juneteenth, marks the day when, more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted, slaves in Texas were informed of their freedom. As the National Museum of African-American History and Culture notes in a Tumblr post, it could — and arguably should — be celebrated as a “second independence day.” But as the museum writes, “Though it has long been celebrated among the African American community it is a history that has been marginalized and still remains largely unknown to the wider public.”

This morning, the White House issued a statement on Juneteenth that didn’t land well. USA Today compared his statement to that of President Barack Obama, highlighting, as a commentator at the Independent Journal Review also noted, that Trump chose to praise a white person where Obama focused on the freed slaves. For more on Juneteenth, we’ve collected stories that explain the fraught history of the holiday, and the need for celebration.

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What It Takes to Remove a President Who Can’t Do the Job

(AP Photo / Carolyn Kaster)

The “Goldwater Rule” is a gentleman’s agreement between members of the American Psychiatric Association which “prohibits psychiatrists from offering opinions on someone they have not personally evaluated.” It was put in place during the 1964 candidacy of Barry Goldwater after Fact magazine surveyed more than twelve thousand mental-health professionals and found that nearly half of those who responded said the candidate was mentally unfit of office. Read more…

‘The Stakes May Be the Survival of Civilization’

Paintings supported by the NEA were covered in shrouds at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 1990 to protest cuts to the federal program. (AP Photo / Al Behrman)

First Annual Report / National Endowment for the Arts / 1966 / 9 minutes (2,200 words)

With the signing of the National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities Act on September 29, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson completed the vision supported by John F. Kennedy for a federal council for the arts. The Trump Administration’s newly proposed budget would eliminate the program entirely. Here is an excerpt from the NEA’s First Annual Report from 1966.

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Greetings from Alabama

Alabama State Capitol
Alabama State Capitol via Wikimedia.

Overwhelmed by pieces that tell you how little you understand voters from “the other side”? Yeah me, too.

Here’s a different perspective. “The Alabamafication of America” compares that state government’s history of populism, corruption, and Evangelical roots with the attributes of 45’s administration.

On the populist scandal side:

Back in the 1940s and 50s, Governor “Big Jim” Folsom was one of the most popular men ever to hold the position. To this day, many Alabamians say that if another Folsom ever runs for office, they’ll vote for him, because Big Jim famously paved rural roads to underserved places (including my grandparents’ childhood homes). Big Jim was also famous for his vices—in a televised debate with George Wallace, Folsom showed up drunk and failed to remember the names of his many children. His apocryphal line—“if they bait a hook with whiskey and women, they’ll catch Big Jim every time”—remains prominent in Alabama lore.

The lesson is simple: populism rises above all other concerns in Alabama. Demagoguery has a long track record of success in the South, and a politician who sufficiently channels that energy can say and do most anything—“grab them by the pussy,” for example—and still win by a landslide. George Wallace’s racism cost Alabama millions in economic development and outside investment, yet his populist appeal won elections. He served several nonconsecutive terms as governor, including one as late as the 1980s.

Trump won the election with the same flair as Folsom. With his cabinet picks and his agenda, it looks like Trump will govern like an Alabamian as well, with the classic strategies of a Montgomery politician.

And on how to keep your own safe when they might be up to no good:

Newt Gingrich has suggested that Trump pardon his family members in advance for any violation while he is in office.

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It’s Wednesday, So This Must Be the Vice President’s House

Sketch by Charles Dana Gibson, in the public domain

Historian Merry Ellen Scofield, writing in Common-Placedives deep into the intricacies of 19th century social etiquette: calling cards, the hierarchies and politics of who visits who and when, and the details of the cards themselves. Focused on Washington, D.C., It’s a fascinating look at both historical ideas of social networking and how women wielded political power through etiquette.

It was sometimes the fashion to fold one’s card in order to indicate the purpose of a visit, particular folds indicating particular types of visits. A crease in the upper left indicated a social call; one in the upper right, a visit of congratulations; in the lower right, a visit of sympathy. If one were leaving town, he or she folded the lower left of the card. Mark Twain poked fun at the practice in The Gilded Age, warning his Washington protagonist that she had better take care “to get the corners right,” otherwise, she might “unintentionally condole with a friend on a wedding or congratulate her upon a funeral.”

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There Once Was a Dildo in Nantucket

Photo: Doug Butchy (CC BY 2.0)

Nineteenth-century Nantucket brings to mind whaling ships, harsh weather, and austere morality. So when a Victorian-era dildo was found in the chimney of an old Quaker home, back in 1979, it quickly became the subject of local lore.

In an essay at Literary Hub, Ben Shattuck traces the provenance of this unlikely sex toy (called a “he’s-at-home” by Nantucketers). Along the way, he also reflects on the tricky art of reconstructing intimate histories, and the ways that the objects we leave behind define us:

Mattie died at seventy-eight, in 1928, from a stroke. She had chronic myocarditis, an inflamed heart. At some point in the thirty years since James had passed, it seems, she’d gathered what she had left of him and stuffed it up the chimney, along with her dildo. All of it was small enough to fit on a damper ledge, and later inside a pink dress box. James and Mattie didn’t get to curate what they left behind, didn’t get to clean up.

Often, in death, you exit in a rush, with your things scattered about, your life exposed, your desk drawers a mess. That will be the case for all of us — leaving behind more than what we’ve accounted for. The valuables and debris of your life reach equal status at death. They are simply everything that’s left behind. Everything that was once yours. You will have thought of money, jewelry, maybe car or house, but you will not have thought of your toothbrush, your old slippers, letters from your first girlfriend you could never bring yourself to throw away, a favorite book, your child’s baby teeth. These items will be found, puzzled over, and either tossed out or kept in the back of a drawer to follow the next generation and maybe the one after that. There will also be those items you always intended to throw out but which your death will have safeguarded. I recently found in my great-grandmother’s correspondences a few letters from the secretary of state talking about the kiss they’d shared in her bedroom (she was sixteen at the time). Burn this letter, he’d written in red ink on the top of each one she saved.

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‘A Taste of Power’: The Woman Who Led the Black Panther Party

Photo: Platon

Elaine Brown | A Taste of Power, Pantheon | 1992 | 30 minutes (7,440 words)

 

Elaine Brown is an American prison activist, writer, lecturer and singer. In 1968, she joined the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther Party as a rank-and-file member. Six years later, Huey Newton appointed her to lead the Party when he went into exile in Cuba. She was the first and only woman to lead the male-dominated Party.  She is author of A Taste of Power (Pantheon, 1992) and The Condemnation of Little B (Beacon Press, 2002)She is also the Executive Director of the Michael Lewis Legal Defense Committee and CEO of the newly-formed non-profit organization Oakland & the World Enterprises, Inc.

Her 1992 autobiography A Taste of Power is a story of what it means to be a black woman in America, tracing her life from a lonely girlhood in the ghettos of North Philadelphia to the highest levels of the Black Panther Party’s hierarchy. The Los Angeles Times described the book as “a profound, funny and…heartbreaking American story,” and the New York Times called it “chilling, well written and profoundly entertaining.” Our thanks to Brown for allowing us to reprint this excerpt here. Read more…