Letters

  • Victory at Sea
  • Prison-Industrial Complex
  • Pick Your Part
  • On Tibet
  • Einstein and Planck

    Victory at Sea

    David M. Kennedy writes in "Victory at Sea" (March Atlantic) that even before the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, "the moral rules ... had long since been violently breached -- in the Allied aerial attacks on European cities, and even more wantonly in the systematic firebombing of Japan." A cursory reading of the history of the Second World War reveals that long before our involvement, Germany methodically and repeatedly bombed civilian populations in London, and Japan routinely rounded up civilians in China and elsewhere for summary execution. I certainly regret that the United States and its allies were forced to destroy Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo, but such actions were facilitated and made necessary by the violent slaughter of millions of innocent people by the Germans and the Japanese. Any course other than bombing those cities would have left Germany and Japan time to murder countless more innocent people. I would argue that the United States re-established "the moral rules" by defeating in whatever manner necessary two of the most violent and sinister powers this world has ever known.

    Brooke Lawson

    "Victory at Sea" was a pleasure to read, but it looks afresh at essentially only three items: the appalling weather-induced losses to North Atlantic convoys; Hitler's unbelievably poor strategic timing in declaring war on the United States; the nearly criminal ineptness of General Douglas MacArthur in failing to put all U.S. Philippine forces on full alert (including dispersal of aircraft) after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and Admiral King's stubborn refusal to institute a convoy system for coastal shipping.

    Despite his superb summary of the code-breaking efforts that led to our ambush of the Japanese fleet at Midway, Kennedy does not mention the further fruits of that decryption, which enabled us in April of 1943 to ambush and shoot down Admiral Isoruku Yamamoto, the prime architect of much of Japan's Pacific strategy.

    Lee Gaillard

    David Kennedy, in describing the "Bataan Death March," mentions some extenuating circumstances that might have produced the extreme brutality displayed by the Japanese toward their defenseless prisoners. One wonders what those circumstances might have been. As to "the pitiless inhumanity that came to possess both sides," is there a similar incident of American brutality toward Japanese prisoners of war available to historians?

    Colleen M. Bryant

    David Kennedy has it almost right when he states that MacArthur "speedily jettisoned his always dubious scheme" to repel the invading Japanese on the Philippine beaches in 1941 and to retreat to Bataan and Corregidor. The fact is that War Plan Orange II was designed to deny Manila Bay to the invader by holding Bataan and Corregidor with a well-armed, well-equipped, and well-supplied force until U.S. naval forces could relieve them. MacArthur violated Orange II when he insisted on keeping the supplies in the open city of Manila and issued his general orders to defend the beaches until death.

    Before the war my father, an Army engineering officer, worked on and ultimately was in charge of building defense facilities on Bataan. In his memoirs he stated that when the war broke out, the docks, water supply, tactical roads, and 127 camouflaged ammunition and supply warehouses on Bataan were completed. Only the airfield was not fully ready. But the supply warehouses were empty, and that doomed the defenders to starvation and disease. The terrible physical condition of the troops is much of the reason that so many could not sustain the rigors of the Death March.

    Early in the war my father, in a remarkably brave and daring effort, blew up the bridges and the oil-storage tanks behind the retreat to Bataan. For these actions he was awarded, of all things, a Purple Heart -- a paperwork snafu, and typical of how wartime commanders, much like popular history, never seem to get it quite right.

    Allen J. Manzano

    Ever since Attila the Hun, armies have fought their enemies with far less than the slightest moral behavior, toward warrior or civilian. The Germans and the Japanese abandoned "the moral rules that had long stayed warriors' hands from taking up weapons of mass destruction against civilian populations" from Day One of the war.

    As a combat veteran of General Curtis LeMay's 20th Air Force and a participant in the firebombing of numerous Japanese cities, I would want to be remembered as having helped to accelerate the end of the war. Our efforts contributed to the saving of thousands of Allied lives that would have been sacrificed with an invasion of Japan.

    Robert Collin

    If we are to take lessons from history, it is worth adding a footnote to "Victory at Sea." The subject is mine warfare. The United States made effective use of naval mines throughout the Pacific war, mines being the ideal weapon against a nation heavily reliant on maritime commerce. Six percent of the B-29 missions over Japan were actually devoted to mining, rather than bombing. At the end of the war Prince Konoye estimated that the economic effect of the mines was comparable to that of all the bombs dropped by the other 94 percent. The United States also suffered from mines. In 1942, for example, one U-boat laid a minefield off the Chesapeake Capes that sank several ships and temporarily halted coastal traffic entirely. Mine warfare is an inexpensive, unromantic method of sea denial that is highly effective against maritime nations such as the United States and Japan. That is as true today as it was in the Second World War -- our naval losses in Desert Storm were due to mines, not aircraft or cruise missiles.

    Alan Washburn

    The subtitle for David Kennedy's article says, "The story of the American war is incomplete without the sweep and strategic stakes of the war at sea, in which 104,985 American sailors and Marines were wounded, 56,683 were killed, and more than 500 U.S. naval vessels were sunk. Lest we forget."

    Unfortunately, Kennedy has forgotten to include the U.S. Merchant Marine losses in his totals. The U.S. Merchant Marine suffered a greater percentage of war-related deaths than all other U.S. services: one out of every thirty-two mariners died in the line of duty, for a total of 6,830 deaths. Eleven thousand were wounded, 1,100 died of their wounds, and 604 were prisoners of war, of which sixty died. A total of 833 large ships were sunk, thirty-one of them vanishing without a trace.

    These statistics were kept quiet during the war, in order to boost American morale, to keep mariners enlisting, and to withhold from the Axis powers information about their successes. These volunteers put their lives on the line to help win the war. Without their contribution we would never have won. Without them vital supplies of ammunition, food, gas, locomotives, oil, planes, and tanks would never have reached the Allied forces. Lest we forget!

    Gerald Reminick

    I thank the several correspondents who have added enriching detail to my account of America's struggle at sea during the Second World War. Let me here add just a few clarifying points of my own.

    1. Of course, Brooke Lawson is correct that Japan and Germany initiated terror-bombing before the British and, later, the Americans responded in kind. I regret that the wording of my article gave the impression that I was ignorant of those well-known precedents. Readers of the book from which my Atlantic article was drawn, will find that matter treated fully on pages 401 (Nanking) and 453 (the Battle of Britain). Yet the fact remains that well before Hiroshima and Nagasaki the Allies crossed the moral threshold that had earlier restrained them from the terror-bombing of civilians. In that sense the atomic bombs represented a technological innovation, to be sure, but hardly a moral one.

    2. Lee Gaillard will find on page 563 of Freedom From Fear a full discussion of the role that the code breakers played in the downing of Admiral Yamamoto's plane.

    3. Allen J. Manzano goes a long way toward answering Colleen M. Bryant's query about the "extenuating circumstances" of the Bataan Death March. As he notes, the American and Filipino captives were badly weakened by malnutrition and disease even before they fell into enemy hands. The Japanese were in similar shape, and had not anticipated taking so many prisoners so early in the campaign. In any case, I emphasized that these circumstances "were scarcely sufficient to exonerate the Japanese from the indictment that they behaved with wanton barbarity." And yes, there are regrettably similar incidents (though surely not comparable in scale) of American brutality toward Japanese prisoners. Ms. Bryant might want to look, for example, at E. B. Sledge's chillingly candid memoir, With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, which proves that war is indeed hell and that the Japanese had no monopoly on devilry.

    Prison-Industrial Complex

    I enjoyed "The Prison-Industrial Complex," by Eric Schlosser (December Atlantic), but I was puzzled by his assertion that "the nation's private prisons accepted their first inmates in the mid-1980s."

    Tracing the origins of the prison-industrial complex to a speech by Nelson Rockefeller on January 3, 1973, ignores a memorandum of November 13, 1969, from President Richard Nixon to Attorney General John Mitchell seriously questioning the efficacy of rehabilitation and directing Mitchell to develop a model "correctional system" that could be emulated by the states. Mitchell promptly translated Nixon's call for "correctional reform" into a long-range master plan for prison reform. That plan culminated in a theretofore unprecedented $800 million prison-building venture.

    In a speech to the National Corrections Conference in December of 1971 Mitchell praised the Bureau of Prisons plan for "prison reform" and announced the Justice Department's funding of a "National Clearinghouse for Criminal Justice Architecture." In 1970 the Bureau of Prisons' average daily population was hovering around 17,000. Today it is 100,000 -- and moving steadily upward.

    Hunter Hurst

    Despite his "tough on crime" rhetoric, President Nixon behaved much like a liberal reformer, funding drug-treatment programs and eliminating mandatory prison sentences for drug offenders. In 1970 the federal government imprisoned about 21,000 inmates; a decade later it kept only 24,000 behind bars. Today it imprisons nearly five times that number. The extraordinary growth in the federal inmate population stems from the long prison sentences being given to drug offenders, owing to Reagan-era mandatory minimums and tough sentencing guidelines.

    The nation's current private-prison system dates from the mid-1980s. In addition to the New York State "fee system" mentioned in my article, all sorts of private-prison schemes flourished during the nineteenth century. Inmates were often "contracted" or "leased" to entrepreneurs, especially in southern and western states. In 1894, for example, the Tennessee Coal and Iron Railroad leased the entire prison population of Tennessee for $100,000 a year. These private-prison schemes were eliminated during the early years of this century, amid revelations that inmates were routinely being worked to death, exploited for profit, and treated worse than antebellum slaves.

    Pick Your Part

    The guy in the U.S. Post Office cap whom Ian Frazier met in the Los Angeles junkyard ("Pick Your Part," March Atlantic) would not find a "clutch fan" in that junkyard or any other. A fan clutch, maybe. Also, Frazier would have had to rewrite the laws of gravity to get a plumb bob to project a horizontal line. Finally, when Frazier stumbled on the Buick Monte Carlo containing the Eve cigarette pack, he should have snapped it up immediately at whatever price the junkyard owner was asking. All the other Monte Carlos in the world are Chevrolets, so this one would have been worth a mint.

    John Henry Skaggs

    Many car engines do indeed have a part called a clutch fan. My automotive source -- Doug, at Gary's Conoco -- recently showed me one and how it works. As for the plumb bob, builders use it to plot horizontal as well as vertical lines. The Monte Carlo is in fact a Chevy, as Mr. Skaggs points out.

    On Tibet

    Re Peter Hessler's article ("Tibet Through Chinese Eyes" (February Atlantic): Although the issue of Tibet under Chinese rule is a complicated one, with multiple perspectives and interpretations, some hard facts are accessible to the serious scholar. Peter Hessler unfortunately does not demonstrate such critical scholarship. For instance, he uncritically recounts the Chinese propaganda that pre-1951 Tibet was an oppressive feudal society in which 95 percent of the population consisted of hereditary serfs and slaves -- a view thoroughly discredited by Rebecca French's revealing book on the socio-economic system of pre-1951 Tibet, titled The Golden Yoke: The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet. Hessler gives detailed statistics on the amounts of money that China has invested in Tibet, but fails to inform the reader about the vast resources that China has already removed from Tibet, at no benefit to the Tibetans. Contrary to Hessler's claim, this is indeed a classic colonial situation, as indicated in part by Hessler's own account of the attitude of the Sichuan settlers in Tibet. Moreover, Hessler's assertion that the Chinese government is helpless to keep them out of Tibet is preposterous: note how effectively this totalitarian government controls its population in a myriad of ways. Perhaps most objectionable is Hessler's portrayal of the Tibetans as a primitive race, incapable of learning three languages at a time (which is exactly what Tibetan refugees are doing in their schools in India), of whom 95 percent were illiterate prior to the Chinese occupation (a demonstrably false claim). Before the savage Chinese genocide, Tibet had a rich and in many respects advanced civilization, and the people were on the whole happy -- something that Hessler accurately states is generally not true of anyone in Tibet today, despite all the Chinese sacrifices and contributions to their latest conquest.

    B. Alan Wallace

    Nowhere does my article recount the Chinese propaganda that "pre-1951 Tibet was an oppressive feudal society in which 95 percent of the population consisted of hereditary serfs and slaves." I wrote, "Although the Chinese exaggerate the ills of the feudal system, mid-century Tibet was badly in need of reform -- but naturally the Tibetans would have much preferred to reform it themselves."

    This assessment is backed by first-person Tibetan accounts -- for example, Tashi Tsering's autobiography, The Struggle for Modern Tibet. Tsering is nobody's propagandist; he is highly critical of both the Chinese and the pre-1951 Tibetan society that denied him educational and social opportunities as a young man. Unfortunately there is a distinct shortage of voices like his, because this debate has become so highly politicized that almost nobody stands between the widely divergent views of the Chinese and the Tibetan government-in-exile.

    I strongly disagree with descriptions of Tibet as classic colonialism. The first rule of colonialism has always been that the colony supports itself while sending resources back to the owning country, and this is clearly not the case in Tibet. My sources here are neither the Chinese government nor the Tibetan government-in-exile but unaligned foreign observers who estimate that more than 90 percent of the Tibet Autonomous Region's revenue comes from outside the region.

    My point is not that this money has been well spent; in many cases it has been wasted. But it is critical to recognize that the Chinese are in Tibet not because they are greedy or savage but because they sincerely believe that this is part of their nation -- a nation that in the past was broken apart by foreign imperialism. Until Americans think seriously about the sensibility involved in this viewpoint, and how it complicates the issue, it's unlikely that we will play a productive role in bringing these two sides together.

    Einstein and Planck

    In his review of Einstein's Miraculous Year ("A Cataclysm of Thought," January Atlantic), Alan Lightman implies that Einstein originated the idea of light as a quantum phenomenon. My encyclopedia claims that it was Max Planck, who proposed this idea four years earlier. The ratio of the energy of a quantum to its frequency has ever since been known as Planck's (not Einstein's) constant. In 1918 Planck was awarded the Nobel Prize for his discovery. Einstein did make an important contribution in recognizing that the photoelectric effect was a quantum phenomenon, not explainable by classical physics, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921.

    The same source also reports that it was Max Planck who, in 1912, successfully applied the quantum theory of radiation to explain the spectrum from a "black body," another result that was unexplainable by classical physics. In 1917 Einstein published a paper in which he deduced the law of radiation using the generalized Bohr atom instead of Planck's linear oscillator.

    Have I misread Lightman? Einstein deserves a lot of credit, but not all of it.

    Arnold Benson

    My discussion of Einstein's quantum theory was not meant to be misleading. Max Planck developed the quantum hypothesis as a mathematical and heuristic device to explain the radiation in "black body"enclosures, and his quantumization referred to the allowed energy levels of the atoms inside the container. Einstein revolutionized Planck's heuristic idea by proposing that the quantum represent actual physical entities, namely the units of electromagnetic radiation called photons.


    The Atlantic Monthly; June 1999; Letters - 99.06; Volume 283, No. 6; page 10-16.

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