pulitzer prize

On Truman

I recently finished reading Truman by Pulitzer Prize winner David McCullough.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found to be insightful:

The influence of his teachers on his life, Harry later said, was second only to that of his mother, and when crediting a Tillie Brown or a Margaret Phelps for all they had done for him, he did so with the assumption that everybody of his generation had a Tillie Brown or Margaret Phelps in their background and could therefore understand how he felt.

More important and equally unexpected was the way in which he proved himself a leader. His first day in office he spoke to the point: We intend to operate the country government for the benefit of the taxpayers. While we were elected as Democrats, we were also elected as public servants. We will appoint all Democrats to jobs appointable but we are going to see that every man does a full day’s work for his pay. In other words we are going to conduct the county’s affairs as efficiently and economically as possible.

“Three things ruin a man ” Harry would tell a reporter long afterward. “Power, money, and women. “I never wanted power,” he said. “I never had any money, and the only woman in my life is up at the house right now.”

“It is a pity that Wall Street, with its ability to control all the wealth of the nation and to hire the best law brains in the country, has not produced some statesmen, some men who could see the dangers of bigness and of the concentration of the control of wealth. Instead of working to meet the situation, they are still employing the best law brains to serve greed and self-interest. People can stand only so much, and one of these days there will be a settlement…”

To the country, the Congress, the Washington bureaucracy, to hundreds of veteran New Dealers besides those who had gathered in the Cabinet Room, to much of the military high command, to millions of American men and women overseas, the news of Franklin Roosevelt’s death, followed by the realization that Harry Truman was President, struck like massive earth tremors in quick succession, the thought of Truman in the White House coming with the force of a shock wave. To many it was not just that the greatest of men had fallen, but that the least of men—or at any rate the least likely of men—had assumed his place.

“If we can put this tremendous machine of ours, which has made victory possible, to work for peace, we can look forward to the greatest age in the history of mankind. That is what we propose to do.”

The cost of winning the war had been $341 billion. Now $400 million was needed for Greece and Turkey. “This is a serious course upon which we embark,” Truman said at the finish, and the look on his face was serious indeed. “I would not recommend it except that the alternative is much more serious…If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world, and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation.”

The line between communism and democracy was clear: Communism is based on the belief that man is so weak and inadequate that he is unable to govern himself, and therefore requires the rule of strong masters.i Democracy is based on the conviction that man has the moral and intellectual capacity, as well as the inalienable right, to govern himself with reason and fairness. Communism subjects the individual to arrest without lawful cause. punishment without trial, and forced labor as the chattel of the state. It decrees what information he shall receive, what art he shall produce, what leaders he shall follow, and what thoughts he shall think. Democracy maintains that government is established for the benefit Democracy maintains that government is established for the benefit of the individual, and is charged with the responsibility of protecting the rights of the individual and his freedom in the exercise of those abilities…

“This is a Republic. The greatest in the history of the world. I want the country to continue as a Republic. Cincinnatus and Washington pointed the way. When Rome forgot Cincinnatus its downfall began. When we forget the examples of such men as Washington, Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson, all of whom could have had a continuation in the office, then we will start down the road to dictatorship and ruin. I know I could be elected again and continue to break the old precedent as it was broken by F.D.R It should not be done. That precedent should continue—not by Constitutional amendment but by custom based on the honor of the man in office. Therefore to reestablish that custom, although by a quibble I could say I have only had one term, I am not a candidate and will not accept the nomination for another term.”

But if the firing of MacArthur had taken a heavy toll politically, if Truman as President had been less than a master of persuasion, he had accomplished a very great deal and demonstrated extraordinary patience and strength of character in how he rode out the storm.

He was remembered as the first president to recommend Medicare, remembered for the courage of his stand on civil rights at the risk of his political fortunes. The whistle-stop campaign was recalled as one of the affirming moments in the history of the American political system.

On a closing note:

Ambitious by nature, he was never torn by ambition, never tried to appear as something he was not. He stood for common sense, common decency. He spoke the common tongue. As much as any president since Lincoln, he brought to the highest office the language and values of the common American people. He held to the old guidelines: work hard, do your best, speak the truth, assume no airs, trust in God, have no fear. Yet he was not and had never been a simple, ordinary man. The homely attributes, the Missouri wit, the warmth of his friendship, the genuineness of Harry Truman, however appealing, were outweighed by the larger qualities that made him a figure of world stature, both a great and good man, and a great American president.

A highly recommended read on Leadership and History.



On John Adams

I recently finished reading John Adams by David McCullough.

Below are key excerpts from this book that I found to be particularly insightful:

In truth, he was extremely proud of his descent from “a line of virtuous, independent New England farmers.” That virtue and independence were among the highest of mortal attainments, John Adams never doubted. The New England farmer was his own man who owned his own land, a freeholder, and thus the equal of anyone.

And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge, as their great Creator who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings and a desire to know. But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

If, by supporting the rights of mankind, and of invincible truth, I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal, his blessings and years of transport will be sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all mankind.

The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved.

Few Americans ever achieved so much of such value and consequence to their country in so little time. Above all, with his sense of urgency anc unrelenting drive, Adams made the Declaration of Independence happen when it did. Had it come later, the course of events could have gone very differently.

Years later, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams would describe the voyage on the Boston as symbolic of his whole life. The raging seas he has passed through, he seemed to be saying, were like the times they lived in, and he was at the mercy of the times no less than the seas. Possibly he saw, too, in the presence of John Quincy, how directly his determination to dare such seas affected his family and how much, with his devotion to the cause of America, he had put at risk beyond his own life. Besides, as he may also have seen, the voyage had demonstrated how better suited he was for action than for smooth sailing with little to do.

To Thomas Jefferson, Adams would one day write, “My friend, you and 1 have lived in serious times.” And of all the serious events of the exceedingly eventful eighteenth century, none compared to the arrival upon the world stage of the new, independent United States of America. Adams’s part in Holland and at Paris had been profound. As time would tell, the treaty that he, Franklin, and Jay had made was as advantageous to their country as any in history. It would be said they had won the greatest victory in the annals of American diplomacy.

The role of the executive Adams was emphatic. If there is one central truth to be collected from the history of all ages, it is this: that the people’s rights and liberties, and the democratical mixture in a constitution, can never be preserved without a Strong executive, or, in other words, without separating the executive from the legislative power. If the executive power, or any considerable part of it, is left in the hands of an aristocratical or democratical assembly, it will corrupt the legislature as necessarily as rust corrupts iron, or as arsenic poisons the human body; and when the legislature is corrupted, the people are undone.

The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us,” young schoolmaster Adams had written in his percipient letter to Nathan Webb, and to Adams now, as to others, dissolution remained the greatest single threat to the American experiment. “The fate of this government,” he would write from New York to his former law clerk, William Tudor, “depends absolutely upon raising it above the state governments.’ The first line of the Constitution made the point, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.’

‘o Adams the outcome was proof of how potent party spirit and party organization had become, and the most prominent was Burr’s campaign in New York. Washington, in his Farewell Address, had warned against disunion, permanent alliances with other nations, and “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” Adams could rightly claim to have held to the ideals of union and neutrality, but his unrelenting independence—his desire to be a President above party—had cost him dearly.

In turbulent, dangerous times he had held to a remarkably steady course. He had shown that a strong defense and a desire for peace were not mutually exclusive, but compatible and greatly in the national interest.

In fundamental ways each proved consistently true to his nature they were in what they wrote as they had been through life. Jefferson was far more guarded and circumspect, better organized, dispassionate, more mannered, and refused ever to argue. Adams was warm, loquacious. more personal and opinionated, often humorous and willing to poke fun at himself. When Jefferson wrote of various self-appointed seers and mystics who had taken up his time as president, Adams claimed to have lad no problem with such people. “They all assumed the character of ambassadors extraordinary from the Almighty, but as I required miracles in proof of their credentials, and they did not perform any, I never gave public audience to any of them.”

I do not believe that Mr. Jefferson ever hated me. On the contrary, I believe he always liked me: but he detested Hamilton and my whole administration. Then he wished to be President of the United States, and I stood in his way. So he did everything that he could to pull me down. But if I should quarrel with him for that, I might quarrel with every man I have had anything to do with in life. This is human nature…. I forgive all my enemies and hope they may find mercy in Heaven. Mr. Jefferson and I have grown old and retired from public life. So we are upon our ancient terms of goodwill.

On a concluding note:

That John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had died on the same day. and that it was, of all days, the Fourth of July, could not be seen as a mere coincidence: it was a “visible and palpable” manifestation of “Divine favor,” wrote John Quincy in his diary that night, expressing what was felt and would be said again and again everywhere the news spread.

A highly recommended read in the areas of history and leadership.




On The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt

I recently finished reading The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. As the title indicates this is a book that chronicles the early stages of Theodore Roosevelt from birth to his ascension to US Presidency.

Below are key excerpts from the book:

Politically, too, it has been a year of superlatives, many of them supplied, with characteristic immodesty, by the President himself. “No Congress in our time has done more good work,” he fondly told the fifty-ninth, having battered it into submission with the sheer volume of his social legislation. He calls its first session “the most substantial” in his experience of public affairs. Joseph G. Cannon, the Speaker of the House, agrees, with one reservation about the President’s methods. “Roosevelt’s all right,” says Cannon, “but he’s got no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license.”

Roosevelt is used to such criticism. He has been hearing it all his life. “If a man has a very decided character, has a strongly accentuated career, it is normally the case of course that he makes ardent friends and bitter enemies.”‘Yet even impartial observers will admit there is a grain of truth in Twain’s assertions. The President certainly has an irrational love of battle. He ceaselessly praises the joys of righteous killing, most recently in his annual message to Congress: “A just war is in the long run far better for a man’s soul than the most prosperous peace.”

To say that Theodore Roosevelt made a vivid first impression upon his colleagues would hardly be an exaggeration. From the moment that he appeared in their midst, there was a chorus of incredulous and delighted comment. Memories of his entrance that night, transcribed many years later, vary as to time and place, but all share the common image of a young man bursting through a door and pausing for an instant while all eyes were upon him—an actor’s trick that quickly became habitual. This gave his audience time to absorb the full brilliancy of his Savile Row clothes and furnishings.

Like a child, said Isaac Hunt, the young Assemblyman took on new strength and new ideas. “He would leave Albany Friday afternoon, and he would come back Monday night, and you could see changes that had happened to him. Such a superabundance of animal life was hardly ever condensed in a human [being].

Although the World claimed, with possible truth, that New Yorkers were pleased to see Roosevelt go,few could deny that his record as Commissioner was impressive. “The service he has rendered to the city is second to that of none,” commented The New York Times, “and considering the conditions surrounding it, it is in our judgment unequaled.” He had proved that it was possible to enforce an unpopular law, and, by enforcing it, had taught the doctrine of respect for the law. He had given New York City its first honest election in living memory. In less than two years, Roosevelt had depoliticized and deethnicized the force, making it once more a neutral arm of government. He had broken its connections with the underworld, toughened the police-trial system, and largely eliminated corruption in the ranks. The attrition rate of venal officers had tripled during his presidency of the Board, while the hiring of new recruits had quadrupled—in spite of Roosevelt’s decisions to raise physical admission standards above those of the U.S. Army, lower the maximum-age requirement, and apply the rules of Civil Service Reform to written examinations. As a result, the average New York patrolman was now bigger, younger, and smarter. “He was also much more honest, since badges were no longer for sale. and more soldier-like (the military ideal having been a particular feature of the departing commissioner’s philosophy). Between May 1895 and April 1897, Roosevelt had added sixteen hundred such men to the force.

Well might he be happy. Theodore Roosevelt had cone home to find himself the most famous man in America—more famous even than Dewey, whose victory at Manila had been eclipsed (if temporarily) by the successive glories of Las Guasimas, San Juan, Santiago, and the round-robin which “brought our boys back home.” The news that the United States and Spain had just signed a peace initiative came as a crowning satisfaction. Intent as Roosevelt might be to parry questions about his gubernatorial ambitions—thereby strengthening rumors that he had already decided to run—his days as a soldier were numbered. It remained only to spend five days in quarantine, and a few weeks supervising the demobilization of his regiment, before returning to civilian life and claiming the superb inheritance he had earned in Cuba.

One of the first outsiders to congratulate Roosevelt was William McKinley, who sent a handwritten expression of unqualified good wishes…There comes a time in the life of a nation, as in the life of an individual, when it must face great responsibilities, whether it will or no. We have now reached that time. We cannot avoid facing the fact that we occupy a new place among the people of the world, and have entered upon a new career.. . . The guns of our warships in the tropic seas of the West and the remote East have awakened us to the knowledge of new duties. Our flag is a proud flag, and it stands for liberty and civilization. Where it has once floated, there must be no return to tyranny or savagery . . .

If not the first, Theodore Roosevelt was certainly one of the first politicians to act responsibly in view of the changing economics and class structure of late-nineteenth-century America. As such he deserves to be ranked only slightly behind Altgeld and Pingree and Jones. If his governorship, which lasted only two years (and was subject to enormous distractions in the second), was less spectacular than some, it was spectacular enough in terms of his own membership in the social and intellectual elite. One thinks of his early contempt for unions, for Henry George, for the unwashed Populists, for the rural supporters of William Jennings Bryan. Yet as Governor, Roosevelt had shown himself again and again willing to support labor against capital, and the plebeians in their struggle against his own class.

A highly recommended read in the area of politics. I look forward to reading the sequel, Theodore Rex.

On Mountains Beyond Mountains

I recently finished reading Mountains Beyond Mountains – The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure The World – by Pulitzer Prize winning author Tracy Kidder.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Writing my article about Haiti, I came to share the pessimism of the soldiers I’d stayed with. “I think we should have left Haiti to itself,” one of Captain Carroll’s men had said to me. “Does it really matter who’s in power? They’re still gonna have the rich and :he poor and no one in between. T don’t know what we hope to accomplish. We’re still going to have a shitload of Haitians in boats wanting to go to America. But, I guess it’s best not even to try and figure it out.” The soldiers had come to Haiti and lifted a terror and restored a government, and then they’d left and the country was just about as poor and broken-down as when they had arrived. They had done their best, I thought. They were worldly and tough. They wouldn’t cry about things beyond their control.

Little sleep, no investment portfolio, no family around, no hot water. On an evening a few days after arriving in Cange, I wondered aloud what compensation he got for these various hardships. He told me, “If you’re making sacrifices, unless you’re automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you’re trying to lessen some psychic discomfort. So, for example, if I took steps to be a doctor for those who don’t have medical care, it could be regarded as a sacrifice. but it could also be regarded as a way to deal with ambivalence.” He went on, and his voice changed a little. He didn’t bristle, but his tone had an edge: “I feel ambivalent about selling my services in a world where some can’t buy them. You can feel ambivalent about that, because you should feel ambivalent. Comma.”

And then of course it dawned on him that he knew plenty of Americans—he was one himself—^who held apparently contradictory beliefs, such as faith in both medicine and prayer. He felt, he said, as though he hung in the air before his patient, “suspended by her sympathy and bemusement.” The study was for him a command—to worry more about his patients’ material circumstances than about their beliefs.

He had a knack for aphorism. “Medicine is a social science, and politics is nothing but medicine on a large scale.” “It is the curse of humanity that it learns to tolerate even the most horrible situations by habituation.” “Medical education does not exist to provide students with a wav of making a living, but to ensure the health of the community” “The physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor, and the social problems should largely be solved by them.” This last was Farmer’s favorite.

“For me to admire Cuban medicine is a given,” Farmer said. It was a poor country and made that way at least in part by the United States’ long embargo, yet when the Soviet Union had dissolved and Cuba had lost both its patron and most of its foreign trade, the regime had listened to the warnings of its epidemiologists and had actually increased expenditures on public health. By American standards Cuban doctors lacked equipment, and even by Cuban standards they were poorly paid, but they were generally well-trained, and Cuba had more of them per capita than any other country in the world—more than twice as many as the United States. Everyone, it appeared, had access to their services, and to procedures like open heart surgery. Indeed, according to a study by WHO, Cuba had the world’s most equitably distributed medicine. Moreover, Cuba seemed to have mostly abandoned its campaign to change the world by exporting troops. Now they were sending doctors instead, to dozens of poor countries. About five hundred Cuban doctors worked gratis in Haiti now—not very effectively. because they lacked equipment, but even as a gesture it meant a lot to Farmer.

He said patients came first, prisoners second, and students third, but this didn’t leave out much of humanity Every sick person seemed to be a potential patient of Farmer’s and every healthy person a potential student. In his mind, he was fighting all poverty all the time, an endeavor full of difficulties and inevitable failures. For him, the reward was inward clarity, and the price perpetual anger or, at best, discomfort with the world, not always on the surface but always there. Sensing with the world, not always on the surface but always there. Sensing this, I’d begun to be relieved of the shallower discomforts I sometimes felt in his company, that I’d felt keenly back in the airport in Cuba. Farmer wasn’t put on earth to make anyone feel comfortable, except for those lucky enough to be his patients, and for the moment I had become one of those.

Paul’s face grew serious: “I think whenever a people has enormous resources, it is easy for them to call themselves democratic. I think of myself more as a physician than as an American. Ludmilla and I, we belong to the nation of those who care for the sick. Americans are lazy democrats, and it is my belief, as someone who shares the same nationality as Ludmilla, I think that the rich can always call themselves democratic, but the sick people are not among the rich.” I thought he was done, but he was only pausing for the interpreter to catch up. “Look, I’m very proud to be an American. I have many opportunities because I’m American. I can travel freely throughout the world, I can start projects, but that’s called privilege, not democracy.”

Every patient is a sign. Every patient is a test.

A highly recommended read in the areas of human rights, healthcare and medicine.

On Thomas Jefferson

I recently finished reading Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power – by Pulitzer Prize Winner Jon Meacham.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

He had a defining vision, a compelling goal—the survival and success of popular government in America. Jefferson believed the will of m educated, enlightened majority should prevail. His opponents had less faith in the people, worrying that the broad American public might be unequal to self-government. Jefferson thought that same public was the salvation of liberty, the soul of the nation, and the hope of the republic. In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma. Jefferson had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move men, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic. To realize his vision, he compromised and improvised. The willingness to do what he needed to do in a given moment makes him an elusive historical figure. Yet in the real world, in real time, when he was charged with the safety of the country, his creative flexibility made him a transformative leader. America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromises. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end. Jefferson’s story resonates not least because he embodies an eternal drama: the struggle of the leadership of the nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world. More than any of the other early presidents—more than Washington, more than Adams—Jefferson believed in the possibilities of humanity He dreamed big but understood that dreams become reality only when their champions are strong enough and wily enough to bend history to their purposes. Broadly put, philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power.

Like his father, he believed in the virtues of riding and of walking. holding that a vigorous body helped create a vigorous mind. “Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded,” Jefferson once said…Jefferson was always asking questions. With “the mechanic as well as the man of science,” a descendant recalled, Jefferson learned all he could, “whether it was the construction of a wheel or the anatomy of an extinct species of animals,” and then went home to transcribe what he had heard. He would soon be known as a “walking encyclopedia.”

Jefferson and his fellow American Revolutionaries took the positions they did—positions that led to war in 1776 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776—partly because they saw themselves as Englishmen who were being denied a full share of the benefits of the lessons of English life.

For the colonists, the decision to revolt was not solely economic, but it was surely informed by concerns over money. In Virginia the impetus to rebel came from the propertied elements of society; the middle and lower classes were slower to follow the lead of men such as Jefferson. It was a rich man’s revolution, and Jefferson was a rich man. It was a philosophical revolution, and Jefferson was a philosophical man.

He had the best of editors in private: “self-evident” was Benjamin Franklin’s, In sum, Jefferson’s draft was a political undertaking with a philosophical frame. It was produced in a particular moment by a politician to satisfy particular concerns for a particular complex of audiences: undecided Americans, soldiers in arms, and potential global allies.

Boldness and decisiveness were sometimes virtues in a leader. Having failed to be either bold or decisive during the invasions of Virginia, he gained valuable experience about the price of waiting. At the time, however, he could not have known that one day he would owe something of his presidential success to his failures of 1781.

Like poetry, politics was partly inspiration, but it was, as Izard said and Jefferson knew, a craft that required relentless practice. It was a lesson Jefferson had learned in Williamsburg, and which now served him well an ocean away.

Liberty, he was saying, requires patience, forbearance, and fortitude. Republics were not for the fainthearted. “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” he told Madison, “and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

For Jefferson, the images of monarchy swirled. The rhetoric of the American Revolution—Jefferson’s rhetoric, the product of his own pen—seemed fainter in the clatter of a capital that he believed was beginning to feel more like a king’s court than the seat of a republic.

He understood the country was open to—even eager for—a government that seemed less intrusive and overbearing than the one Washington and Adams had created…Jefferson had long cared about two things: American liberty and American strength. For eight years he summoned all the power he believed he required to make America more like what he thought it should be.

The America of Jefferson was neither wholly Federal nor wholly Republican. It was, rather, a marbled blend of the two, confected by a practical man of affairs. The significance of the case of Louisiana in shaping the destinies of the country and in illuminating Jefferson’s political leadership cannot be overstated. He believed, for instance, in a limited government, except when he thought the nation was best served by a more expansive one. It was a moment to savor success.

Slavery was the rare subject where Jefferson’s sense of realism kept him from marshaling his sense of hope in the service of the cause of reform. “There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity,” he wrote in 1814, but that was not true. He was not willing to sacrifice his own way of life, though he characteristically left himself a rhetorical escape by introducing the subjective standard of practicability.

A Decalogue of canons for observation in practical life. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. 2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself 3. Never spend your money before you have it. 4. Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst, and cold. 6. We never repent of having eaten too little. 7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly. 8. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened. 9. Take things always by their smooth handle. 10. when angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.

On a beautiful day in Boston, with President Adams in the hall, Webster painted an indelible portrait of Jefferson’s and Adam’s ascent to the American pantheon: “On our fiftieth anniversary, the great day of national jubilee, in the very hour of public rejoicing, in the midst of echoing and re-echoing voices of thanksgiving, while their own names were on all tongues, they took their flight together to the world of spirits.”

Jefferson speaks to us now because he spoke so powerfully and evocatively to us then. His circumstances were particular, yet the general issues that consumed him are constant: liberty and power, rights and responsibilities, the keeping of peace and the waging of war. He was a politician, a public man, in a nation in which politics and public life became—and remain—central. As Jefferson wrote, “Man … feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs not merely at an election, one day in the year, but every day.”

He endures because we can see in him all the varied and wondrous possibilities of the human experience—the thirst for knowledge, the capacity to create, the love of family and of friends, the hunger for accomplishment, the applause of the world, the marshaling of power, the bending of others to one’s own vision. His genius lay in his versatility; his larger political legacy in his leadership of thought and of men.

We sense his greatness because we know that perfection in politics is not possible but that Jefferson passed the fundamental test of leadership: Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and dreams deferred, he left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been when he first entered the arena of public life. Jefferson is the founding president who charms us most. George Washington inspires awe; John Adams respect. With his grace and hospitality his sense of taste and love of beautiful things—of silver and art and architecture and gardening and food and wine—Jefferson is more alive, more convivial.

A highly recommended read on a defining figure of modern history.



On American Prometheus

I just recently finished reading American Pometheus – The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer – by Kai  Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. This Pulitzer Prize winner tells  the many dimensions of The Man and The Project which are unknown to most of us.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Oppenheimer’s approach to learning physics was eclectic, even haphazard. He focused on the most interesting, abstract problems in the field, bypassing the dreary basics. Years later, he confessed to feeling insecure about the gaps in his knowledge. “To this day,” he told an interviewer in 1963, “I get panicky when I think about a smoke ring or elastic vibrations. There’s nothing there—just a little skin over a hole. In the same way my mathematical formation was, even for those days, very primitive.,, I took a course from [J. E.] Littlewood on number theory—well, that was nice, but that wasn’t really how to go about learning mathematics for the professional pursuit of physics.”

However weirdly unintelligible—today as much as then—to the average citizen, quantum physics nevertheless explains our physical world. As the physicist Richard Feynman once observed, “[Quantum mechanics] describes nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it fully agrees with experiment. So I hope you can accept nature as She is— absurd.” Quantum mechanics seems to study that which doesn’t exist—but nevertheless proves true. It works. In the decades to come, quantum physics would open the door to a host of practical inventions that now define the digital age, including the modem personal computer, nuclear power. genetic engineering, and laser technology (from which we get such consumer products as the CD player and the bar-code reader commonly used in supermarkets). If the youthful Oppenheimer loved quantum mechanics for the sheer beauty of its abstractions, it was nevertheless a theory that would soon spawn a revolution in how human beings relate to the world.

In the late 1930s, Robert Oppenheimer found himself in the center of things. And that’s where he wanted to be. “Everything that happened,” said Kamen, “you’d go to Oppenheimer, and tell him what it was and he would think about it and come up with an explanation. He was the official explainer.” And then, beginning in 1941, Oppenheimer had some reason to think that he was being kept out of the loop. “All of a sudden,” Kamen said, “nobody’s talking to him. He’s out of it. There’s something big going on over there, but he doesn’t know what it is. And so he was getting more and more frustrated and Lawrence is very worried because he feels that, after all, Oppenheimer can certainly figure out what’s going on, so the security is nonsense to keep him out of it. Better to have him in. And I imagine that’s what finally happened; they said it’s easier to monitor him if he’s inside the project than outside.’

But if Rabi was already thinking about the moral consequences of an atomic bomb, Oppenheimer, in the midst of this war, for once had no patience for the metaphysical. He now brushed aside his friend’s objection. “I think if I believed with you that this project was ‘the culmination of three centuries of physics,’ ” he wrote Rabi, “I should take a different stand. To me it is primarily the development in time of war of a military weapon of some consequence. I do not think that the Nazis allow us the option of [not] carrying out that development.” Only one thing mattered now to Oppenheimer: building the weapon before the Nazis did.

Late in the summer of 1943, Oppenheimer explained his views on security to a Manhattan Project security officer: “My view about the whole damn thing, of course, is that the [basic] information we are working on is probably known to all the governments that care to find out. The information about what we’re doing is probably of no use because it is so damn complicated.” The danger, he said, was not that technical information about the bomb might leak to another country. The real secret was “the intensity of our effort” and the scale of the “international investment involved.” If other governments understood the resources America was throwing into the bomb effort, they might attempt to duplicate the bomb project. Oppenheimer didn’t think even this knowledge would “have any effect on Russia,” but “it might have a very big effect on Germany, and I am as convinced about that… as everyone else is.”

For Bohr, it was the communitarian culture of scientific inquiry that produced progress, rationality and even peace. “Knowledge is itself the basis of civilization,” he wrote. “[but] any widening of the borders of our knowledge imposes an increased responsibility on individuals and nations through the possibilities it gives for shaping the conditions of human life.” It followed that in the postwar world each nation had to feel confident that no potential enemy was stockpiling atomic weapons. That would only be possible in an “open world” where international inspectors had full access to any military and industrial complexes and full information about new scientific discoveries.

Bomb-building was more engineering than theoretical physics. But Oppenheimer was as singularly adept at marshaling his scientists to overcome technical and engineering obstacles as he had been at stimulating his Students to new insights at Berkeley. “Los Alamos might have succeeded without him,” Hans Bethe later said, “but certainly only with much greater strain, less enthusiasm, and less speed. As it was, it was an unforgettable experience for all the members of the laboratory.

Speaking in a low, quiet voice, he expressed his hope that in the years ahead everyone associated with the lab’s work would be able to look back on their achievements with pride. But on a sober note, he warned, ”Today that pride must be tempered with a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.”

No one left the auditorium that night unmoved. Oppie had spoken to them on intimate terms, articulating many of their doubts, fears and hopes. For decades afterwards, his words would resonate. The world he had described was as subtle and complicated as the quantum world of the atom itself. He had begun humbly, and yet, like the best of politicians, he had spoken a simple truth that cut to the core of the issue. The world had changed; Americans would behave unilaterally at their peril.

For nearly five years, Oppenheimer had tried to use his prestige and Status as a celebrity scientist to influence Washington’s growing national security establishment from the inside. His old friends on the left, men like Phil Morrison, Bob Serber and even his own brother had warned him that this was a futile gamble. He had failed in 1946, when the Acheson Lilienthal plan for international control over atomic bombs was sabotaged by President Truman’s appointment of Bernard Baruch. And now, once again, he had failed to persuade the president and members of his Administration to turn their back on what Conant had described to Acheson as “the whole rotten business.” The Administration now supported a program to build a bomb 1,000 times as lethal as the Hiroshima weapon. Still, Oppenheimer would not “upset the applecart.” He would remain an insider— albeit one who was increasingly outspoken and increasingly suspect.

For a few years after World War II, scientists had been regarded as a new class of intellectuals, members of a public-policy priesthood who might legitimately offer expertise not only as scientists but as public philosophers. With Oppenheimer’s defrocking, scientists knew that in the future they could serve the state only as experts on narrow scientific issues. As the sociologist Daniel Bell later observed, Oppenheimer’s ordeal signified that the postwar “messianic role of the scientists” was now at an end. Scientists working within the system could not dissent from government policy, as Oppenheimer had done by writing his 1953 Foreign Affairs essay. and still expect to serve on government advisory boards. The trial thus represented a watershed in the relations of the scientist to the government. The narrowest vision of how American scientists should serve their country had triumphed.

After the memorial service in Princeton on February 25, 1967, Oppenheimer was memorialized once again in the spring at a special session of the American Physical Society in Washington. Isidor Rabi, Bob Serber, Victor Weisskopf and several others spoke. Rabi later wrote an introduction for the speeches, which were subsequently collected and published in book form. ‘In Oppenheimer,” he wrote, “the element of earthiness was feeble. Yet it was essentially this spiritual quality, this refinement as expressed in speech and manner, that was the basis of his charisma. He never expressed himself completely. He always left a feeling that there were depths of sensibility and insight not yet revealed.”

A highly recommended book in the areas of physics, politics and foreign relations.

On Guns, Germs, And Steel

I recently finished reading the Pulitzer winner Guns, Germs, And Steel – The Fates of Human Societies – by Jared Diamond. As the author best summarizes:

Thus, we can finally rephrase the question about the modern world’s inequalities as follows: why did human development proceed at such different rates on different continents? Those disparate rates constitute history’s broadest pattern and my book’s subject. While this book is thus ultimately about history and prehistory, its subject is not of just academic interest but also of overwhelming practical and political importance. The history of interactions among disparate peoples is what shaped the modern world through conquest, epidemics, and genocide. Those collisions created reverberations that have still not died down after many centuries, and that are actively continuing in some of the world’s most troubled areas today…It seems logical to suppose that history’s pattern reflects innate differences among people themselves. Of course, we’re taught that it’s not polite to say so in public. We read of technical studies claiming to demonstrate inborn differences, and we also read rebuttals claiming that those studies suffer from technical flaws. We see in our daily lives that some of the conquered peoples continue to form an underclass, centuries after the conquests or slave imports took place. We’re told that this too is to be attributed not to any biological shortcomings but to social disadvantages and limited opportunities…I harbor no illusions that these chapters have succeeded in explaining the histories of all the continents for the past 13,000 years. Obviously, that would be impossible to accomplish in a single book even if we did understand all the answers, which we don’t. At best, this book identifies several constellations of environmental factors that I believe provide a large part of the answer to Yali’s question. Recognition of those factors emphasizes the unexplained residue, whose understanding will be a task for the future.

Below are excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

In short, plant and animal domestication meant much more food and hence much denser human populations. The resulting food surpluses, and (in some areas) the animal-based means of transporting those surpluses. were a prerequisite for the development of settled, politically centralized, socially stratified, economically complex, technologically innovative societies. Hence the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy, and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents. The military uses of horses and camels, and the killing power of animal-derived germs, complete the list of major links between food production and conquest that we shall be exploring.

There is no doubt that Europeans developed a big advantage in weaponry, technology, and political organization over most of the non-European peoples that they conquered. But that advantage alone doesn’t fully explain how initially so few European immigrants came to supplant so much of the native population of the Americas and some other parts of the world. That might not have happened without Europe’s sinister gift to other continents—the germs evolving from Eurasians’ long intimacy with domestic animals.

Knowledge brings power. Hence writing brings power to modern societies, by making it possible to transmit knowledge with far greater accuracy and in far greater quantity and detail, from more distant lands and more remote times. Of course, some peoples (notably the Incas) managed to administer empires without writing, and “civilized” peoples don’t always defeat “barbarians,” as Roman armies facing the Huns learned. But the European conquests of the Americas, Siberia, and Australia illustrate the typical recent outcome. Writing marched together with weapons, microbes, and centralized political organization as a modern agent of conquest. The commands of the monarchs and merchants who organized colonizing fleets were conveyed in writing. The fleets set their courses by maps and written sailing directions prepared by previous expeditions. Written accounts of earlier expeditions motivated later ones, by describing the wealth and fertile lands awaiting the conquerors. The accounts taught subsequent explorers what conditions to expect, and helped them prepare themselves. The resulting empires were administered with the aid of writing. While all those types of information were also transmitted by other means in preliterate societies. writing made the transmission easier, more detailed, more accurate, and more persuasive.

When a widely useful invention does crop up in one society, it then tends to spread in either of two ways. One way is that other societies see or learn of the invention, are receptive to it, and adopt it. The second is that societies lacking the invention find themselves at a disadvantage vis-a-vis the inventing society, and they become overwhelmed and replaced if the disadvantage is sufficiently great.

Considerations of conflict resolution, decision-making, economics, and space thus converge in requiring large societies to be centralized. But centralization of power inevitably opens the door—for those who hold the power, are privy to information, make the decisions, and redistribute the goods—to exploit the resulting opportunities to reward themselves and their relatives. To anyone familiar with any modern grouping of people, that’s obvious. As early societies developed, those acquiring centralized power gradually established themselves as an elite, perhaps originating as one of several formerly equal-ranked village clans that became “more equal” than the others.

Why were the trajectories of all key developments shifted to later dates in the Americas than in Eurasia? Four groups of reasons suggest themselves: the later start, more limited suite of wild animals and plants available for domestication, greater barriers to diffusion, and possibly smaller or more isolated areas of dense human populations in the Americas than in Eurasia.

These comparisons suggest that geographic connectedness has exerted both positive and negative effects on the evolution of technology. As a result, in the very long run, technology may have developed most rapidly in regions with moderate connectedness, neither too high nor too low. Technology’s course over the last 1,000 years in China, Europe, and possibly the Indian subcontinent exemplifies those net effects of high, moderate. and low connectedness, respectively.

There are many obvious reasons for these effects of history, such as that long experience of state societies and agriculture implies experienced administrators, experience with market economies, and so on. Statistically, part of that ultimate effect of history proves to be mediated by the familiar proximate causes of good institutions. But there is still a large effect of history remaining after one controls for the usual measures of good institutions. Hence there must be other mediating proximate mechanisms as well. Thus a key problem will be to understand the detailed chain of causation from a long history of state societies and agriculture to modern economic growth, in order to help developing countries advance up that chain more quickly.

A must read for anyone looking to better understand the past, present and future of human civilization.


On The Denial Of Death

I recently finished reading The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. This book won The Pulitzer Prize for General Non-fiction in 1974, and aims at answering the existential question through the refusal to acknowledge mortality.

Below are selected key excerpts from this work:

Society provides the second line of defense against our natural impotence by creating a hero system that allows us to believe that we transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth. We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information-society and global free market. Since the main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death, every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious. This means that ideological conflicts between cultures are essentially battles between immortality projects, holy wars.

When we appreciate how natural it is for man to strive to be a hero, how deeply it goes in his evolutionary and organismic constitution, how openly he shows it as a child, then it is all the more curious how ignorant most of us are, consciously, of what we really want and need.

And so we can understand what seems like an impossible Paradox: the ever-present fear of death in the normal biological functioning of our instinct of self-preservation, as well as our utter obliviousness to this fear in our conscious life.

The irony of man s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.

We can understand why anxiety “is the possibility of freedom,” because anxiety demolishes “all finite aims,” and so the “man who is educated by possibility is educated in accordance with his infinity.”Possibility leads nowhere if it does not lead to faith. It is an intermediate stage between cultural conditioning, the He of character, and the opening out of infinitude to which one can be related by faith. But without the leap into faith the new helplessness of shedding one’s character armor holds one in sheer terror. It means that one lives unprotected by armor. exposed to his aloneness and helplessness, to constant anxiety.

In other words, as long as man is an ambiguous creature he can never banish anxiety; what he can do instead is to use anxiety as an eternal spring for growth into new dimensions of thought and trust.

From this discussion of transference we can see one great cause of the large-scale ravages that man makes on the world. He is not just a naturally and lustily destructive animal who lays waste around him because he feels omnipotent and impregnable. Rather, he is a trembling animal who pulls the world down around his shoulders as he clutches for protection and support and tries to affirm in a cowardly way his feeble powers. The Qualities of the leader, then, and the problems of people fit together in a natural symbiosis.

The void of immortality-substance that would be left by the absolute abandonment of the leader is evidently too painful to support, especially if the leader has possessed striking mana or has summed up in himself some great heroic project that carried the people on.

One very interesting and consistent conclusion emerges from our overview of mental illness: that Adler was right to say that the mentally ill all have a basic problem of courage. They cannot assume responsibility for their own independent lives; they are hyper-fearful of life and death. From this vantage point the theory of mental illness is really a general theory of the failures of death-transcendence.

In the mysterious way in which life is given to us in evolution on this planet, it pushes in the direction of its own expansion. We don’t understand it simply because we don’t know the purpose of creation; we only feel life straining in ourselves and see it thrashing others about as they devour each other. Life seeks to expand in an unknown direction for unknown reasons. Not even psychology should meddle with this sacrosanct vitality, concluded Rank. This is the meaning of his option for the “irrational” as the basis for is the meaning of his opinion tor the irrational as the basis for me; it is an option based on empirical experience. There is a driving force behind a mystery that we cannot understand, and it includes more than reason alone.The urge to cosmic heroism, then, is sacred and mysterious and not to be neatly ordered and rationalized by science and secularism. Science, after all, is a credo that has attempted to absorb into itself and to deny the fear of life and death; and it is only one more competitor in the spectrum of roles for cosmic heroics.

In Conclusion:

We can conclude that a project as grand as the scientific-mythical construction of victory over human limitation is not something that can be programmed by science. Even more, it comes from the vital energies of masses of men sweating within the nightmare of creation—and it is not even in man’s hands to program. Who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead or what use it will make of our anguished searching. The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something— an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.

A recommended read in the areas of philosophy and psychology.

On Lords Of Finance

I recently finished reading the Pulitzer Prize winning, Lords of Finance – The Bankers Who Broke The World by Liaquat Ahamed. This book aim, as best described by the author is: “The collapse of the world economy from 1929 to 1933—now justly called the Great Depression—was the seminal economic event of the twentieth century. No country escaped its clutches; for more than ten years the malaise that it brought in its wake hung over the world, poisoning every aspect of social and material life and crippling the future of a whole generation. From it flowed the turmoil of Europe in the “low dishonest decade” of the 1930s, the rise of Hitler and Nazism, and the eventual slide of much of the globe into a Second World War even more terrible than the First. The story of the descent from the roaring boom of the twenties into the Great Depression can be told in many different ways. In this book, I have chosen to tell it by looking over the shoulders of the men in charge of the four principal central banks of the world: the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve System, the Reichsbank, and the Banque de France…Governments then believed matters of finance were best left to bankers; and so the task of restoring the world’s finances fell into the hands of the central banks of the four major surviving powers: Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. ”

Below are key insights from the book that I wish to share:

On Central Banks:

To understand the role of central bankers during the Great Depression, it is first necessary to understand what a central bank is and a little about low it operates. Central banks are mysterious institutions, the full details of their inner workings so arcane that very few outsiders, even economists. fully understand them. Boiled down to its essentials, a central bank is a bank that has been granted a monopoly over the issuance of currency. This power gives it the ability to regulate the price of credit—interest rates—and hence to determine how much money flows through the economy. Despite their role as national institutions determining credit policy for their entire countries, in 1914 most central banks were still privately owned.

On the start of WW1:

As the lights started to go out over Europe that fateful first week of August, every banker and finance minister seemed to be fixated not on military preparations or the movements of armies but on the size and durability of his gold reserves. The obsession was almost medieval. This was, after all, 1914, not 1814. Paper money had been in wide use for more than two centuries, and merchants and traders had developed highly sophisticated systems of credit. The idea that the scope of the war might be limited by the amount of gold on hand seems anachronistic. Nevertheless, here was the London magazine United Empire declaring that it was “the amounts of coin and bullion in the hands of the Continental Great Powders at the outbreak of hostilities” that would largely determine “the intensity and probable duration of the war.”

On the effect of the war on the US:

More important, the war had irrevocably changed the economic and financial position of the United States in relation to the rest of the world. The Fed, which barely existed in 1914, now sat on the largest reservoir of gold bullion in the world, making it potentially the dominant player if and when the international gold standard was restored.

On the impact of reparations on Germany:

Behind all the divisions that were to wreck Germany for the next few years, the one single factor that united every class and every political party—democrats and royalists, liberals and Socialists, Catholics and Protestants, northerners and southerners, Prussians, Bavarians, Saxons, and Hessians—was the injustice of the peace treaty, or as it was called the Diktat. And of all the various penalties heaped on Germany by the treaty – disarmament, dismemberment, occupation, and reparations—it was reparations that would become the single most consuming obsession of German foreign policy.

On the US monetary policy and Keynes:

The hidden irony was that every one of Keynes’s main recommendations—that the link between gold balances and the creation of credit be severed, that the automatic mechanism of the gold standard be replaced with a system of managed money, that credit policy be geared toward domestic price stability—corresponded precisely to the policies Strong had instituted in the United States.

On the expanding role of the Central Banks:

This new set of principles, somewhat cobbled together on the fly, represented a quiet, indeed carefully unheralded, revolution in monetary policy. Until then central bankers had seen their primary task as protecting the currency and confined their responsibilities to ensuring that the gold standard was given free rein, only stepping in at times of crisis or panic. The credit policy of every industrial country had been driven by one factor alone: gold reserves. The United States was, however, now so flush with gold that the solidity of its currency was assured. Led by Strong, the Fed had undertaken a totally new responsibility—that of promoting internal economic stability.

On Churchill and the return to gold standard:

Though Churchill remained chancellor until 1929, by 1927 he had come to realize that the return to gold at the old prewar exchange rate had been a misjudgment. But by then there was little he could do about it except fulminate in private about the evil effects of the gold standard. In later life, he would claim that it was “the biggest blunder in his life.” He blamed it on the bad advice he had received.

On the opposable forces facing Central Banks:

The men in charge of central banks seem to face a similar unfortunate fate—although not for eternity—of watching their successes dissolve in failure. Their goal is a strong economy and stable prices. This is, however, the very environment that breeds the sort of over-optimism and speculation that eventually ends up destabilizing the economy. In the United States during the second half of the 1920s, the destabilizing force was to be the soaring stock market. In Germany it was to be foreign borrowing.

On the blame attributed to the US and France regarding their “hoarding of gold”:

The Sunday Chronicle of September 20 carried a profile of Montagu Norman by Winston Churchill, as part of a commissioned series on contemporary figures. Since leaving office in June 1929, Churchill had quarreled with his Conservative colleagues over Indian self-rule and, now isolated and out of favor, felt free to express his disillusionment with the gold standard orthodoxy openly. The problem was not so much the standard itself, he argued, but the way it had been allowed to operate. It was the hoarding of gold by the United States and France and the resulting shortage in the rest of the world that had brought on the Depression. He had begun to sound almost like Keynes—in a speech to Parliament the week before he had described how gold “is dug up out of a hole in Africa and put down in another hole that is even more inaccessible in Europe and America.”

On the steps taken by the US Government to alleviate the great depression:

In February 1932, he pressed Congress to pass legislation that would make government securities an eligible asset to back currency. At the stroke of a pen the gold shortage was lifted, allowing the Fed to embark on a massive program of open market operations, injecting a total of $1 billion of cash into banks. The two new measures combined—the infusion of additional capital into the banking system and the injection of reserves allowed the Fed finally to pump money into the system on the scale required. But Meyer had left it too late. A similar measure in late 1930 or in 1931 might have changed the course of history. In 1932 it was like pushing n a string. Banks, shaken by the previous two years, instead of lending It the money used the capital so injected to build up their own reserves. Total bank credit kept shrinking at a rate of 20 percent a year…By Thursday, March 9, the Emergency Banking Act was ready to be submitted to Congress. Most of it was based on the original Mills proposal. Banks in the country were to be gradually reopened, starting with those known to be sound, and progressively moving to the shakier institutions, which would need government support. A whole class of insolvent banks would never be permitted to reopen. The bill also granted the Fee the right to issue additional currency backed not by gold but by bank assets. And it gave the federal government the authority to direct the Fed to provide support to banks. The legislation was supplemented by a commitment from the Treasury to the Fed that the government would indemnify it for any losses incurred in bailing out the banking system. This unprecedented package finally forced the Fed to fulfill its role as lender of last resort to the banking system. But to achieve this, the government was in effect providing an implicit blanket guarantee of the deposits of every bank allowed to reopen.

On the US coming off of the Gold standard:

Roosevelt’s decision to take the dollar off gold rocked the financial world. But in the days after the Roosevelt decision, as the dollar fell against gold, the stock market soared by 15 percent. Financial markets gave the move an overwhelming vote of confidence. Even the Morgan bankers. historically among the most staunch defenders of the gold standard, could not resist cheering. “Your action in going off gold saved the country from complete collapse,” wrote Russell Leffingwell to the president.

On the IMF:

Much of the negotiating had been done prior to the conference between the Americans and the British. At Bretton Woods, the biggest controversy was over how much money each country would be eligible to borrow from what was now being called the International Monetary Fund. The Russians, who were there in strength though very few of them spoke English, demanded that the borrowing rights reflect not simply economic power but also military strength, and insisted on equality with the British; India wanted to be on a par with China; the Bolivians wanted parity with the Chileans and the Chileans with the Cubans. The United States, as the find’s prime financier, set these quotas in a series of backroom deals orchestrated by White. On July 22, the conference came to its formal close with a great banquet. Keynes gave a final address. He reminding the participants of the economic chaos that had afflicted the world for almost a generation and paid tribute to the spirit of cooperation that had informed the discussions: “If we can so continue, this nightmare, in which most of us present have spent too much of our lives, will be over. The brotherhood of man will have become more than a phrase.” As he left the room, the delegates sang “For He’s Jolly Good Fellow.”

On a Concluding Note:

For many years people believed—even today many continue to do so—that an economic cataclysm of the magnitude of the Great Depression could only have been the result of mysterious and inexorable tectonic forces that governments were somehow powerless to resist…To the contrary, in this book I maintain that the Great Depression was not some act of God or the result of some deep-rooted contradictions of capitalism but the direct result of a series of misjudgments by economic policy makers, some made back in the 1920s, others after the first crises set in—by any measure the most dramatic sequence of collective blunders ever made by financial officials. Who then was to blame? The first culprits were the politicians who presided over the Paris Peace Conference. They burdened a world economy still trying to recover from the effects of war with a gigantic overhang of international debts…The second group to blame were the leading central bankers of the era in particular the four principal characters of this book, Montagu Norman, Benjamin Strong, Hjalmar Schacht, and Emile Moreau. Even though they, especially Schacht and Norman, spent much of the decade struggling to mitigate some of the worst political blunders behind reparations and war debts, more than anyone else they were responsible for the second fundamental error of economic policy in the 1920s: the decision to take the world back onto the gold standard…More than anything else, therefore, the Great Depression was caused by a failure of intellectual will, a lack of understanding about how the economy operated. No one struggled harder in the lead-up to the Great Depression and during it to make sense of the forces at work than Maynard Keynes. He believed that if only we could eliminate “muddled” thinking—one of his favorite expressions—in economic matters, then society could allow the management of its material welfare to take a backseat to what he thought were the central questions of existence, to the “problems of life and of human relations, of creation, behavior and religion.” That is what he meant when in a speech toward the end of his life he declared that economists are the “trustees, not of civilization, but of the possibility of civilization.” There is no greater testament of his legacy to that trusteeship than that in the sixty-odd years since he spoke those words, armed with his insights, the world has avoided an economic catastrophe such as overtook it in the years from 1929-33.

A must read for anyone seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the global financial system.

On Washington

I recently finished reading the masterpiece, Washington – A Life, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, by acclaimed author Ron Chernow. As Ron states in the introduction: “The goal of the present biography is to create a fresh portrait of Washington that will make him real, credible, and charismatic in the same way that he was perceived by his contemporaries. By gleaning anecdotes and quotes from myriad sources, especially from hundreds of eyewitness accounts, I have tried to make him vivid and immediate, rather than the lifeless waxwork he has become for many Americans, and thereby elucidate the secrets of his uncanny ability to lead a nation.”

Below are selected excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Gouverneur Morris agreed that Washington had “the tumultuous passions which accompany greatness and frequently tarnish its luster. With them was his first contest, and his first victory was over himself…Yet those who have seen him strongly moved will bear witness that his wrath was terrible. They have seen, boiling in his bosom, passion almost too mighty for man.

What strikes one most about the twenty-year-old George Washington was that his sudden remarkable standing in the world was the result not so much of a slow. agonizing progress as of a series of rapid, abrupt leaps that thrust him into the topmost echelons of Virginia society. The deaths of those he loved most dearly had. ironically, brightened his prospects the most. Quite contrary to his own wishes, the untimely deaths of his father and his half-brother had endowed him with extraordinary advantages in the form of land, slaves, and social status. Every misfortune only pushed him further along his desired path. Most providential of all for him was that Lawrence Washington had expired on the eve of the French and Indian War, a conflict in which George’s newfound status as district adjutant would place him squarely at the forefront of a thunderous global confrontation.

Beneath the hard rind, Washington was far more sensitive than he appeared. and this heartfelt message from his men “affected him exceedingly,” he admitted. He had a fine sense of occasion, displayed in this early response to his men. Already adept at tearful farewells, he exhibited the succinct eloquence that came to define his speaking style. He began by calling the officers’ approval of his conduct “an honor that will constitute the greatest happiness of my fife and afford in my latest hours the most pleasing reflections.” Unable to avoid a youthful dig at Dinwiddle and Forbes, he hinted at the “uncommon difficulties” under which he had labored. But it was the palpable affection he summoned up for his men that made the statement noteworthy. Washington thanked his officers “with uncommon sincerity and true affection for the honor you have done me, for if I have acquired any reputation, it is from you I derive it. I thank you also for the love and regard you have all along shown me. It is in this I am rewarded. It is herein I glory.”

One thing that hasn’t aroused dispute is the exemplary nature of Washington’s religious tolerance. He shuddered at the notion of exploiting religion for partisan purposes or showing favoritism for certain denominations. As president, when writing to Jewish, Baptist, Presbyterian, and other congregations—he officially saluted twenty-two major religious groups—he issued eloquent statements on rel i tolerance. He was so devoid of spiritual bias that his tolerance even embraced atheism.

For all the many virtues he had shown in his life, nothing quite foreshadowed the wisdom, courage, fortitude, and resolution that George Washington had just exhibited. Adversity had brought his best traits to the surface and even ennobled him. Sensing it, Abigail Adams told her friend Mercy Otis Warren, “I am apt to think that our later misfortunes have called out the hidden excellencies of our commander-in-chief.” She quoted a line from the English poet Edward Young: “‘Affliction is the good man’s shining time.'” One consistent thread from his earlier life had prefigured these events: Washington’s tenacity of purpose, his singular ability to stalk a goal with all the resources at his disposal.

Instead of elevating himself above his men, Washington portrayed himself as their friend and peer. Having softened them up with personal history, he delivered an impassioned appeal to their deep-seated patriotism.

The man who had pulled off the exemplary feat of humbling the most powerful military on earth had not been corrupted by fame. Though quietly elated and relieved, he was neither intoxicated by power nor puffed up with a sense of his own genius.

As Benjamin Franklin told an English friend after the war, “An American planter was chosen by us to command our troops and continued during the whole war. This man sent home to you, one after another, five of your best generals, baffled, their heads bare of laurels, disgraced even in the opinion of their employers.”

Historians often quote a September 1786 letter from Washington to John Francis Mercer as signaling a major forward stride in his thinking on slavery: “I never mean (unless some particular circumstance should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the legislature by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.” But this noble statement then took a harsh turn. Washington mentioned being hard pressed by two debts—to retire one of which, “if there is no other resource, I must sell land or Negroes to discharge.” In other words. in a pinch, Washington would trade slaves to settle debts. Clearly, the abolition of slavery would have exacted too steep an economic price for Washington to contemplate serious action.

Washington was a perceptive man who, behind his polite facade, was unmatched at taking the measure of people. People did not always realize how observant he was.

The gist of many of Washington’s remarks was that French actions toward America had been motivated by self-interest, not ideological solidarity, and flouted American neutrality in seeking to enlist the United States in the war against England. The imbroglio with Monroe signaled the demise of yet another Washington friendship with a prominent Virginian, a list that now encompassed George Mason, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Edmund Randolph.

The presidential legacy he left behind in Philadelphia was a towering one. As Gordon Wood has observed, “The presidency is the powerful office it is in large part because of Washington’s initial behavior.” Washington had forged the executive branch of the federal government, appointed outstanding department heads, and set a benchmark for fairness, efficiency, and integrity that future administrations would aspire to match.

Washington never achieved the national unity he desired and, by the end, presided over a deeply riven country…But whatever his or clamp down on his shrill opponents in the press who had hounded him mercilessly. To his everlasting credit, he showed that the American political system could manage tensions without abridging civil liberties. His most flagrant failings remained those of the country as a whole—the inability to deal forthrightly with the injustice of slavery or to figure out an equitable solution in the ongoing clashes with Native Americans.

Washington died in a manner that befit his life: with grace, dignity, self-possession, and a manifest regard for others. He never yielded to shrieks, hysteria. or unseemly complaints.

George Washington possessed the gift of inspired simplicity, a clarity and purity of vision that never failed him. Whatever petty partisan disputes swirled around him, he kept his eyes fixed on the transcendent goals that motivated his quest. As sensitive to criticism as any other man, he never allowed personal attacks or threats to distract him, following an inner compass that charted the way ahead. For a quarter century, he had stuck to an undeviating path that led straight to the creation of an independent republic, the enactment of the Constitution, and the formation of the federal government. History records few examples of a leader who so earnestly wanted to do the right thing, not just for himself but for his country. Avoiding moral shortcuts, he consistently upheld such high ethical standards that he seemed larger than any other figure on the political scene. Again and again the American people had entrusted him with power, secure in the knowledge that he would exercise it fairly and ably and surrender it when his term of office was up. He had shown that the president and commander-in-chief of a republic could possess a grandeur surpassing that of all the crowned heads of Europe. He brought maturity, sobriety, judgment, and integrity to a political experiment that could easily have grown giddy with its own vaunted success, and he avoided the backbiting, envy, and intrigue that detracted from the achievements of other founders. He had indeed been the indispensable man of the American Revolution.

A must read book about a key historical figure, not only for the US but for the world at large.