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Monday, 19th February, 2018
In August, 2016, The Stop Funding Hate began its campaign to convince companies to pull their advertising from those newspapers that use “fear and division to sell more papers” and demonise groups such as refugees and migrants. (1)
One of the groups main targets is those odious newspapers owned by Jonathan Harold Esmond Vere Harmsworth, 4th Viscount Rothermere. According to the Sunday Times Rich List he is estimated to be worth over £1 billion. He has non-domicile tax status and owns his media businesses through a complex structure of offshore holdings and trusts. This helps to explain why his newspapers tend to concentrate their attacks on "benefit cheats" rather than the wealthy who do not pay their taxes. (2)
As Private Eye pointed out: "For a man whose newspapers love Britain so much, the 4th Viscount Rothermere is remarkably enamoured of the world’s tax havens as shelters for his enormous riches. Since 1995, three years before the Hon Jonathan Harmsworth (as he then was) inherited the Daily Mail & General Trust plc empire from his father, the 3rd Viscount, the group has been controlled through a company, Rothermere Continuation Ltd, registered in Bermuda but run from Jersey... Lord Rothermere... inherited his privileged tax status from his father, the 3rd Viscount, Vere Harmsworth, who had himself acquired a French 'domicile of choice' by becoming a tax exile in Paris from the 1970s and pledging his lifelong allegiance to the country about which his papers were not always so kind." (3)
Rothermere is safe from prosecution from this government because of the loyal support he gives to the Conservative Party. This is a long tradition that can be traced back to his two great-grandfathers, Alfred Harmsworth, 1st Lord Northcliffe and Harold Harmsworth, 1st Lord Rothermere, who founded the Daily Mail in 1896. Alfred was the ideas man whereas Harold was the trained accountant who raised the money for the venture. (4)
The Harmsworth brothers had previously concentrated on publishing comics and magazines. This including the highly successful Comic Cuts and Answers to Correspondents. Both men were great supporter of the British Empire, and published Union Jack, a magazine that was full of stories of how British soldiers were heroically defeating its enemies abroad. (5) The Liberal Party supporting The Daily News, who had doubts about getting involved in foreign wars, attacked Harmsworth for "abetting national degeneration". (6)
Harold and Alfred both held extreme right-wing views and were desperate to gain political influence over the masses. In August 1894 they purchased the Evening News for £25,000. Established in 1881 to promote the interests of the Conservative Party, it developed one of the largest circulations in the market. However, the owner, Coleridge Kennard, found it difficult to make a profit from the newspaper and although by 1894 it had a circulation of over 100,000, it had suffered heavy losses. Alfred made it clear that his newspaper would "preach the gospel of loyalty to the Empire and faith in the combined efforts of the peoples united under the British flag". The declaration of principles continued that, in politics, the paper would be "strongly and unfalteringly" on the side of the Conservatives. (7)
Over the first few months Harmsworth had difficulty increasing the circulation of the newspaper. However, advertisers loved the newspaper and the profits soared. By the end of the first year the newspaper made a profit of £14,000. The following year he stated that sales had reached 394,447. Harmsworth claimed this as a world record for a newspaper and added that sales would be over 500,000 if they owned more printing presses.
Harmsworth developed a reputation for "Jew-baiting". On one occasion he published a joke about a Jewish businessman who arranged to have a fire on his premises so that he could claim insurance money. Unfortunately for Harmsworth, a Jewish tradesman in Shoreditch, bearing the same name as given in the joke, had recently claimed insurance for a fire in his London premises. He promptly issued a writ for libel against the newspaper. Harmsworth was forced to apologize and paid the man £600. (8)
In the late 19th century there were several one penny newspapers for the growing numbers of working-class and lower middle-class people who could read. These newspapers were printed on cheap tinted paper. Harmsworth had the idea of using more expensive high-quality white paper to allow for better illustrations. What is more, he was only going to charge a half-penny for the newspaper, and its free daily magazine. The newspaper was to be called the Daily Mail. "The object of the Daily Mail is to give every item of important news... The object of the Daily Magazine is to amuse, interest, and instruct during the leisure moments of the day." (9)
The Harmsworth brothers knew that they could not make a profit out of the venture by relying on the revenue received from the sales of the newspaper. The business model was based on creating a large circulation newspaper that would appeal to wealthy business owners wanting to advertise their products. These were people who would fully support the political message they intended to communicate. At the same time, they knew that it would be impossible for a left-wing newspaper to attract this kind of advertising that would enable them to compete with the price of the Daily Mail.
The Daily Mail was the first newspaper in Britain that catered for a new reading public that needed something simpler, shorter and more readable than those that had previously been available. One new innovation was the banner headline that went right across the page. Considerable space was given to sport and human interest stories. It was also the first newspaper to include a woman's section that dealt with issues such as fashions and cookery. Most importantly, all its news stories and articles were short. The first day it sold 397,215 copies, more than had ever been sold by any newspaper in one day before. (10)
Harmsworth gained many of his ideas from America. He had been especially impressed by Joseph Pulitzer, the owner of the New York World. He also concentrated on human-interest stories, scandal and sensational material. However, Pulitzer also promised to use the paper to expose corruption: "We will always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy with the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare, never be satisfied with merely printing news, always be drastically independent, never be afraid to attack wrong, whether by predatory plutocracy or predatory poverty." (11)
In order to do this Pulitzer pioneered the idea of investigative reporting that eventually became known as muckraking. As Harold Evans, the author of The American Century: People, Power and Politics (1998) has pointed out: "Crooks in City Hall. Opium in children's cough syrup. Rats in the meat packing factory. Cruelty to child workers... Scandal followed scandal in the early 1900s as a new breed of writers investigated the evils of laissez-faire America... The muckrakers were the heart of Progressivism, that shifting coalition of sentiment striving to make the American dream come true in the machine age. Their articles, with facts borne out by subsequent commissions, were read passionately in new national mass-circulation magazines by millions of the fast-growing aspiring white-collar middle class." (12)
Alfred Harmsworth completely rejected this approach to journalism. "Looking back, what it (the Daily Mail) lacked most noticeably was a social conscience... Alfred had no desire to start looking for social evils, and no need. What he had to keep in mind were the tastes of a new public that was becoming better educated and more prosperous, that wanted its rose bushes and tobacco and silk corsets and tasty dishes, that liked to wave a flag for the Queen and see foreigners slip on a banana skin." (13)
One of his journalists, Tom Clarke, claimed that his newspaper was for people who were not as intelligent as they thought they were: "Was one of the secrets of the Daily Mail success its play on the snobbishness of all of us? - all of us except the very rich and the very poor, to whom snobbishness is not important; for the rich have nothing to gain by it, and the poor have nothing to lose." (14)
Alfred Harmsworth made it clear to the leaders of the Conservative Party that the newspaper would provide loyal support against the movement towards social change. Arthur Balfour, the leader of the party in the House of Commons, sent a private letter to Harmsworth. "Though it is impossible for me, for obvious reasons, to appear among the list of those who publish congratulatory comments in the columns of the Daily Mail perhaps you will allow me privately to express my appreciation of your new undertaking. That, if it succeeds, it will greatly conduce to the wide dissemination of sound political principles, I feel assured; and I cannot doubt, that it will succeed, knowing the skill, the energy, the resource, with which it is conducted. You have taken the lead in the newspaper enterprise, and both you and the Party are to be heartily congratulated." (15)
In July 1896, Harmsworth asked a friend, Lady Bulkley, to write to Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquis of Salisbury, the new prime minister, suggesting that in return for supporting the Conservative Party, he should be rewarded with a baronetcy. The letter pointed out that as well as owning several pro-conservative newspapers he had recently established "the Daily Mail... at a cost of near £100,000". Salisbury refused but was willing to offer a knighthood instead. Harmsworth rejected the offer and commented that he was willing to wait for a baronetcy. (16)
It was not long before the Daily Mail began his "campaign of hate". Its first target was the trade union movement and soon afterwards it became foreigners. Alfred Harmsworth was a passionate supporter of the British Empire and he is said to have idolised two men, Joseph Camberlain and Cecil Rhodes. He intended to use his newspaper and the rest of his publications to "strum the Imperial harp". According to Harry J. Greenwall, the author of Northcliffe: Napoleon of Fleet Street (1957) Harmsworth "with the Daily Mail unleashed a tremendous force of potential mass thought-control" as it became the "trumpet... of British Imperialism." (17)
Alfred Harmsworth, a strong supporter of the Boer War, saw this as an opportunity to damage the Liberal Party. A series of articles appeared in the Daily Mail that questioned the patriotism of people like David Lloyd George, who opposed the war. The old-fashioned "Little Englander" position, said the newspaper, by sympathizing with the enemy in the South African crisis, had failed to interpret the sentiment of the nation for "England and Empire". According to Harmsworth, for the Liberal Party to survive, its only hope was to regain the trust of the country by supporting the band of thirty or so Liberal Imperialists, led by Rosebery, Asquith and Grey." (18)
The Boer War proved to be very popular with the British public. In 1898 the Daily Mail was selling 400,000 copies a day. Harmsworth encouraged people to buy the newspaper for nationalistic reasons making it clear to his readers that his newspaper stood "for the power, the supremacy and the greatness of the British Empire". By 1899 it had reached 600,000 and during the most dramatic moments of the war in 1900 it was almost a million and a half. (19) According to Adrian Addison, Harmsworth knew his readers would enjoy a good war. He would often say: "The British people relish a good hero and a good hate." (20)
Alfred Harmsworth also developed a hate campaign against Germany. At first he was concerned by Germany's decision to give all adult males the vote. This was followed by Otto von Bismarck taking the view that the best way of preventing socialism was by introducing a series of social reforms including old age pensions. In 1881 he announced that "those who are disabled from work by age and invalidity have a well-grounded claim to care from the state." When the issue was debated Bismarck was described by his critics as a socialist. He replied: "Call it socialism or whatever you like. It is the same to me." It has been argued that Bismarck's intention was to "forge a bond between workers and the state so as to strengthen the latter, to maintain traditional relations of authority between social and status groups, and to provide a countervailing power against the modernist forces of liberalism and socialism." (21)
In 1883 Bismarck introduced a health insurance system that provided payments when people were sick and unable to work. Participation was mandatory and contributions were taken from the employee, the employer and the government. The German system provided contributory retirement benefits and disability benefits as well. Germany was therefore the first country in the world to provide a comprehensive system of income security based on social insurance principles.
Bismarck explained: "The real grievance of the worker is the insecurity of his existence; he is not sure that he will always have work, he is not sure that he will always be healthy, and he foresees that he will one day be old and unfit to work. If he falls into poverty, even if only through a prolonged illness, he is then completely helpless, left to his own devices, and society does not currently recognize any real obligation towards him beyond the usual help for the poor, even if he has been working all the time ever so faithfully and diligently. The usual help for the poor, however, leaves a lot to be desired, especially in large cities, where it is very much worse than in the country." (22)
The Harmsworth brothers had always been opposed to the working-class having the vote and feared the welfare reforms introduced in Germany would become the policy of the Liberal Party. Harmsworth sent his leading journalist, George W. Steevens, to report on the country: "The German army is the most perfectly adapted, perfectly running machine. Never can there have been a more signal triumph of organization over complexity... The German army is the finest thing thing of its kind in the world; it is the finest thing in Germany of any kind... In the German army the men are ready, and the planes, the railway-carriages, the gas for the war-balloons, and the nails for the horseshoes are all ready too... Nothing overlooked, nothing neglected, everything practised, everything welded together, and yet everything alive and fighting... And what should we ever do if 100,000 of this kind of army got loose in England?" (23)
Harmsworth became convinced that Britain would have to go to war with Germany and urged the government to increase its spending on defence: "This is our hour of preparation, tomorrow may be the day of world conflict... Germany will go slowly and surely; she is not in a hurry: her preparations are quietly and systematically made; it is no part of her object to cause general alarm which might be fatal to her designs." (24)
In an interview Harmsworth gave to a French newspaper he explained his views on Germany: "Yes, we detest the Germans, we detest them cordially and the make themselves detested by all of Europe. I will not permit the least thing that might injure France to appear in my paper, but I should not like for anything to appear in it that might be agreeable to Germany." (25)
In 1904 the Conservative government rewarded Alfred Harmsworth with the title Lord Northcliffe. Harold Harmsworth had to wait another six years for his title, Lord Rothermere. By this time the brothers not only owned The Daily Mail but also The Evening News, The Daily Mirror, The Times, The Sunday Observer and The Weekly Dispatch. Despite this, the brothers were unable to stop the Liberal Party from winning a landslide victory in the 1906 General Election, when they won 397 seats (48.9%) compared to the Conservative Party's 156 seats (43.4%).
The Harmsworth brothers were especially hostile to the Liberal plans to bring in a welfare state based on the one that existed in Germany. The main hate figure in the government was David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who wanted to provide old age pensions for people over the age of 70. In 1909 Lloyd George announced what became known as the People's Budget. This included increases in taxation. Whereas people on lower incomes were to pay 9d. in the pound, those on annual incomes of over £3,000 had to pay 1s. 2d. in the pound. Lloyd George also introduced a new super-tax of 6d. in the pound for those earning £5,000 a year. Other measures included an increase in death duties on the estates of the rich and heavy taxes on profits gained from the ownership and sale of property. Other innovations in Lloyd George's budget included labour exchanges and a children's allowance on income tax. (26)
Lord Northcliffe disliked the idea of paying higher taxes in order to help provide old age pensions and used all of his newspapers to criticize the measures in the budget. The Daily News launched an attack on the wealthy men opposed to the budget: "It is they who own the newspapers, and when we remember that The Times, The Daily Mail, and The Observer, not to mention a host of minor organs in London and the provinces, are all controlled by one man, it is easy to realise how vast a political power capital exerts by this means alone." (27)
Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere also led the opposition to the National Insurance Bill, a health insurance scheme similar to one introduced in Germany in the 1880s. "Insurance was to be made compulsory for all regularly employed workers over the age of sixteen and with incomes below the level - £160 a year - of liability for income tax; also for all manual labourers, whatever their income. The rates of contribution would be 4d. a week from a man, and 3d. a week from a woman; 3d. a week from his or her employer; and 2d. a week from the State." (28)
Lord Northcliffe, launched a propaganda campaign against the bill on the grounds that the scheme would be too expensive for small employers. The climax of the campaign was a rally in the Albert Hall on 29th November, 1911. As Lord Northcliffe, controlled 40 per cent of the morning newspaper circulation in Britain, 45 per cent of the evening and 15 per cent of the Sunday circulation, his views on the subject was very important. (29)
Frank Owen, the author of Tempestuous Journey: Lloyd George and his Life and Times (1954) suggested that it was those who employed servants who were the most hostile to the legislation: "Their tempers were inflamed afresh each morning by Northcliffe's Daily Mail, which alleged that inspectors would invade their drawing-rooms to check if servants' cards were stamped, while it warned the servants that their mistresses would sack them the moment they became liable for sickness benefit." (30)
The bill was passed by the House of Commons on 6th December and received royal assent on 16th December 1911. However, Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere, had much more success in their campaign to stop women and most working-class men from being given the vote. He ordered his newspapers to ignore the subject as he believed any publicity only helped their cause. (Similar to the way that the Daily Mail today ignores giving publicity to those trying to expose the way wealthy people use offshore holdings and trusts to avoid paying taxes.) On a visit to Canada and the United States he proudly pointed out that newspapers in those countries had more information on the activities of the National Union of Suffrage Societies and the Women Social & Political Union than the ones controlled by him. (31)
However, he thought it wise not to give his opinions in public as he feared it would lose him readers: "My view of the position of newspaper owners is that they should be read and not seen. The less they appear in person the better for the influence of their newspapers. That is why I never appear on public platforms. As to the woman's suffrage business, I am one of those people who believe the whole thing to be a bubble, blown by a few wealthy women who employ their less prosperous sisters to do the work. I judge public interest in the matter by the correspondence received. We never get any letters apart from those from the stage army of suffragettes." (32)
Lord Northcliffe was also extremely hostile to trade unions. One of his journalists remembered how he behaved during a strike organised by the National Union of Mineworkers: "During this coal strike the orders came thick and fast. Whatever he might do through The Times in the way of influencing public opinion, he could do far more through the Mail, with its millions... He thought mob rule might be coming, so the mob must be divided; the public must be shown how the miners were enjoying themselves at the seaside or dog races while helpless workers in other industries suffered from the creeping paralysis." (33)
Lord Northcliffe had consistently described Germany as Britain's "secret and insidious enemy", and he commissioned Robert Blatchford, to visit Germany and then write a series of articles setting out the dangers. The German's, Blatchford wrote, were making "gigantic preparations" to destroy the British Empire and "to force German dictatorship upon the whole of Europe". He complained that Britain was not prepared for was and argued that the country was facing the possibility of an "Armageddon". (34)
Lord Northcliffe was highly critical of a Liberal government who were more willing to spend more money on the emerging welfare state than on defence spending. In the run-up to the 1910 General Election he accused the government of "surrendering to socialism" and that it was the patriotic duty of the British people to vote for the Conservative Party as Germany wanted a Liberal victory in the election. (35)
The Daily Mail campaigned for the introduction of military conscription to deal with the threat of Germany. It argued that "in recent years" no other subject "has attracted more attention, has aroused more discussion, or been followed by our readers with closer interest". It also published a pamphlet that dealt with this issue. Within a few weeks it sold over 1,600,000 copies. The Manchester Guardian accused the newspaper of "deliberately raking the fires of hell for votes". (36)
On the outbreak of the First World War the editor of The Star newspaper claimed that: "Next to the Kaiser, Lord Northcliffe has done more than any living man to bring about the war." Once the war had started Northcliffe used his newspaper empire to promote anti-German hysteria. It was The Daily Mail that first used the term "Huns" to describe the Germans and "thus at a stroke was created the image of a terrifying, ape-like savage that threatened to rape and plunder all of Europe, and beyond." (37)
As Philip Knightley, the author of The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth Maker (1982) has pointed out: "The war was made to appear one of defence against a menacing aggressor. The Kaiser was painted as a beast in human form... The Germans were portrayed as only slightly better than the hordes of Genghis Khan, rapers of nuns, mutilators of children, and destroyers of civilisation." (38) In one report the newspaper referred to Kaiser Wilhelm II as a "lunatic," a "barbarian," a "madman," a "monster," a "modern judas," and a "criminal monarch". (39)
Lord Northcliffe's greatest political victory was to destroy the Liberal Party. In 1916 he joined forces with David Lloyd George in an attempt to persuade the H. H. Asquith, the prime minister, and several of his cabinet, including Sir Edward Grey, Arthur Balfour, Robert Crewe-Milnes, 1st Marquess of Crewe and Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, 5th Marquess of Lansdowne, to resign. It was reported that Lloyd George was trying to encourage Asquith to establish a small War Council to run the war and if he did not agree he would resign. (40)
Tom Clarke, the news editor of The Daily Mail, claims that Lord Northcliffe told him to take a message to the editor, Thomas Marlowe, that he was to run an article on the political crisis with the headline, "Asquith a National Danger". He also told Clarke to print pictures of Lloyd George and Asquith side by side: "Get a smiling picture of Lloyd George and get the worst possible picture of Asquith." Clarke told Northcliffe that this was "rather unkind, to say the least". Northcliffe replied: "Rough methods are needed if we are not to lose the war... it's the only way." (41)
Asquith eventually resigned on 5th December, 1916, and was replaced by Lloyd George. He brought in a War Cabinet that included only four other members: George Curzon, Alfred Milner, Andrew Bonar Law and Arthur Henderson. There was also the understanding that Arthur Balfour attended when foreign affairs were on the agenda. Lloyd George was therefore the only Liberal Party member in the War Cabinet. Lloyd George wanted Northcliffe to become a member of the War Cabinet, however, Henderson told him that if this happened he would resign and take away the support of the Labour Party from the government.
The Daily Chronicle attacked the role that Lord Northcliffe and the other Conservative Party supporting newspaper barons had removed a democratically elected government. It argued that the new government "will have to deal with the Press menace as well as the submarine menace; otherwise Ministries will be subject to tyranny and torture by daily attacks impugning their patriotism and earnestness to win the war." (42)
Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Northcliffe, suffered from streptococcus, an infection of the bloodstream, that damages the valves of the heart and causes kidney malfunction. After he died in August, 1922, the newspaper empire was run by his brother, Harold Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere. His main enemy was the emerging Labour Party and its leader, Ramsay MacDonald, formed a minority government after the 1923 General Election,
As with the Daily Mail today, its main strategy was to try and link the Labour Party with the Soviet Union. During the election campaign that it was under the control of the Bolshevik government in the Soviet Union: "The British Labour Party, as it impudently calls itself, is not British at all. It has no right whatever to its name. By its humble acceptance of the domination of the Sozialistische Arbeiter Internationale's authority at Hamburg in May it has become a mere wing of the Bolshevist and Communist organisation on the Continent. It cannot act or think for itself." (43)
Two days after forming the first Labour government Ramsay MacDonald received a note from General Borlass Childs of Special Branch that said "in accordance with custom" a copy was enclosed of his weekly report on revolutionary movements in Britain. MacDonald wrote back that the weekly report would be more useful if it also contained details of the "political activities... of the Fascist movement in this country". Childs wrote back that he had never thought it right to investigate movements which wished to achieve their aims peacefully. In reality, MI5 was already working very closely with the British Fascisti, that had been established in 1923. (44)
Maxwell Knight was the organization's Director of Intelligence. In this role he had responsibility for compiling intelligence dossiers on its enemies; for planning counter-espionage and for establishing and supervising fascist cells operating in the trade union movement. This information was then passed onto Vernon Kell, Director of the Home Section of the Secret Service Bureau (MI5). Later Maxwell Knight was placed in charge of B5b, a unit that conducted the monitoring of political subversion. (45)
It soon became clear that the intelligence community was working very closely with the press barons to undermine the Labour government. In April 1924, MacDonald recommended Alexander Grant, the managing director of McVitie and Price, for a baronetcy. This was a surprise as Grant was a lifelong supporter of the Conservative Party. On 11th September, 1924, the Daily Mail reported that Grant had given MacDonald a Daimler car and was the holder of £30,000 worth of shares in McVitie and Price. (46) MacDonald replied that the shares simply covered the running of the car. This was hardly convincing and the story caused considerable embarrassment to the Labour government. He eventually agreed to give the car back to the company. (47)
On 10th October 1924, MI5 received a copy of a letter, dated 15th September, sent by Grigory Zinoviev, chairman of the Comintern in the Soviet Union, to Arthur McManus, the British representative on the committee. In the letter British communists were asked to take all possible action to ensure the ratification of the Anglo-Soviet Treaties. It then went on to advocate preparation for military insurrection in working-class areas of Britain and for subverting the allegiance in the army and navy. (48)
Hugh Sinclair, head of MI6, provided "five very good reasons" why he believed the letter was genuine. However, one of these reasons, that the letter came "direct from an agent in Moscow for a long time in our service, and of proved reliability" was incorrect. (49) Vernon Kell, the head of MI5 and Sir Basil Thomson the head of Special Branch, were also convinced that the Zinoviev Letter was genuine. Desmond Morton, who worked for MI6, told Sir Eyre Crowe, at the Foreign Office, that an agent, Jim Finney, who worked for George Makgill, the head of the Industrial Intelligence Bureau (IIB), had penetrated Comintern and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Morton told Crowe that Finney "had reported that a recent meeting of the Party Central Committee had considered a letter from Moscow whose instructions corresponded to those in the Zinoviev letter". However, Christopher Andrew, who examined all the files concerning the matter, claims that Finney's report of the meeting does not include this information. (50)
Kell showed the letter to Ramsay MacDonald, the Labour Prime Minister. It was agreed that the letter should be kept secret until it was discovered to be genuine. (51) Thomas Marlowe, who worked for the press baron, Alfred Harmsworth, Lord Rothermere, had a good relationship with Reginald Hall, the Conservative Party MP, for Liverpool West Derby. During the First World War he was director of Naval Intelligence Division of the Royal Navy (NID) and he leaked the letter to Marlowe, in an effort to bring an end to the Labour government. (52)
The newspaper now contacted the Foreign Office and asked if it was a forgery. Without reference to MacDonald, a senior official told Marlowe it was genuine. The newspaper also received a copy of the letter of protest sent by the British government to the Russian ambassador, denouncing it as a "flagrant breach of undertakings given by the Soviet Government in the course of the negotiations for the Anglo-Soviet Treaties". It was decided not to use this information until closer to the election. (53)
Stanley Baldwin, the leader of the Conservative Party, and H. Asquith, the leader of the Liberal Party, decided to being the Labour government down over the issue of its relationship with the Soviet Union. On 30th September, the Liberals condemned the recently agreed trade deal. They claimed, unjustly, that Britain had given the Russians what they wanted without resolving the claims of British bondholders who had suffered in the revolution. "MacDonald reacted peevishly to this, accusing them of being unscrupulous and dishonest." (54)
The following day, Conservatives put down a censure motion on the decision to drop the case against John Ross Campbell. The debate took place on 8th October. MacDonald lost the vote by 364 votes to 198. "Labour was brought down, on the Campbell case, by the combined ranks of Conservatives and Liberals... The Labour government had lasted 259 days. On six occasions the Conservatives had saved MacDonald from defeat in the 1923 parliament, but it was the Liberals who pulled the political rung from under him." (55)
The Daily Mail published the Zinoviev Letter on 25th October 1924, just four days before the 1924 General Election. Under the headline "Civil War Plot by Socialists Masters" it argued: "Moscow issues orders to the British Communists... the British Communists in turn give orders to the Socialist Government, which it tamely and humbly obeys... Now we can see why Mr MacDonald has done obeisance throughout the campaign to the Red Flag with its associations of murder and crime. He is a stalking horse for the Reds as Kerensky was... Everything is to be made ready for a great outbreak of the abominable class war which is civil war of the most savage kind... They must see that these miserable Bolsheviks and their stealthy British accomplices are sent to the right-about or thrown out of the country. For the safety of the nation every sane man and woman must vote on Wednesday, and vote for a Conservative Government which will know how to deal with treason." (56)
Ramsay MacDonald suggested he was a victim of a political conspiracy: "I am also informed that the Conservative Headquarters had been spreading abroad for some days that... a mine was going to be sprung under our feet, and that the name of Zinoviev was to be associated with mine. Another Guy Fawkes - a new Gunpowder Plot... The letter might have originated anywhere. The staff of the Foreign Office up to the end of the week thought it was authentic... I have not seen the evidence yet. All I say is this, that it is a most suspicious circumstance that a certain newspaper and the headquarters of the Conservative Association seem to have had copies of it at the same time as the Foreign Office, and if that is true how can I avoid the suspicion - I will not say the conclusion - that the whole thing is a political plot?" (57)
The rest of the Tory owned newspapers ran the story of what became known as the Zinoviev Letter over the next few days and it was no surprise when the election was a disaster for the Labour Party. The Conservatives won 412 seats and formed the next government. Lord Beaverbrook, the owner of the Daily Express and Evening Standard, told Lord Rothermere, the owner of The Daily Mail and The Times, that the "Red Letter" campaign had won the election for the Conservatives. Rothermere replied that it was probably worth a hundred seats. (58)
After the election it was claimed that two of MI5's agents, Sidney Reilly and Arthur Maundy Gregory, had forged the letter. It later became clear that Major George Joseph Ball, a MI5 officer, played an important role in leaking it to the press. In 1927 Ball went to work for the Conservative Central Office where he pioneered the idea of spin-doctoring. Christopher Andrew, MI5's official historian, points out: "Ball's subsequent lack of scruples in using intelligence for party political advantage while at Central Office in the late 1920s strongly suggests... that he was willing to do so during the election campaign of October 1924." (59)
Rotheremere's newspapers continued to increase their circulation. By 1926 the daily sales of the Daily Mail had reached 2,000,000. Lord Rothermere personal wealth was now £25 million and he was estimated to be the third richest man in Britain. Rothermere became increasingly nationalistic in his political views and in 1929 joined with Lord Beaverbrook to form the United Empire Party. Rothermere urged the Conservative Party to remove its leader, Stanley Baldwin, and replace him with Beaverbrook. He also argued for a reform of the House of Lords to make it possible for peers to be elected to the House of Commons. (60)
This dispute divided conservative voters and this enabled the Labour Party to win the 1929 General Election. Once again it was a minority government. However, MacDonald, aged 63, had long lost his left-wing views, and when he joined forces with the Conservatives to form a National Government his newspaper empire fully supported his £70 million economy programme that made a £13 million cut in unemployment benefit. All those paid by the state, from cabinet ministers and judges down to the armed services and the unemployed, were cut 10 per cent. Teachers, however, were treated as a special case, lost 15 per cent. Tom Johnson, who wound up the debate for the Labour Party, declared that these policies were "not of a National Government but of a Wall Street Government". In the end the Government won by 309 votes to 249. (61)
In the late 1920s Rothermere became a supporter of Adolf Hitler. Rotheremere's newspapers continued to increase their circulation. This dispute divided conservative voters and this enabled the Labour Party to win the 1929 General Election.
In the General Election that took place in September 1930, the Nazi Party increased its number of representatives in parliament from 14 to 107. Adolf Hitler was now the leader of the second largest party in Germany. James Pool, the author of Who Financed Hitler: The Secret Funding of Hitler's Rise to Power (1979) points out: "Shortly after the Nazis' sweeping victory in the election of September 14, 1930, Rothermere went to Munich to have a long talk with Hitler, and ten days after the election wrote an article discussing the significance of the National Socialists' triumph. The article drew attention throughout England and the Continent because it urged acceptance of the Nazis as a bulwark against Communism... Rothermere continued to say that if it were not for the Nazis, the Communists might have gained the majority in the Reichstag." (62)
According to Louis P. Lochner, Tycoons and Tyrant: German Industry from Hitler to Adenauer (1954) Rothermere provided funds to Hitler via Ernst Hanfstaengel. When Hitler became Chancellor on 30th January 1933, Rothermere produced a series of articles acclaiming the new regime. The most famous of these was on the 10th July when he told readers that he "confidently expected" great things of the Nazi regime. He also criticised other newspapers for "its obsession with Nazi violence and racialism", and assured his readers that any such deeds would be "submerged by the immense benefits that the new regime is already bestowing on Germany." (63)
Lord Rothermere also had several meetings with Adolf Hitler and argued that the Nazi leader desired peace. In one article written in March, 1934 he called for Hitler to be given back land in Africa that had been taken as a result of the Versailles Treaty. (64) Hitler acknowledged this help by writing to Rothermere: "I should like to express the appreciation of countless Germans, who regard me as their spokesman, for the wise and beneficial public support which you have given to a policy that we all hope will contribute to the enduring pacification of Europe. Just as we are fanatically determined to defend ourselves against attack, so do we reject the idea of taking the initiative in bringing about a war. I am convinced that no one who fought in the front trenches during the world war, no matter in what European country, desires another conflict." (65)
As Richard Griffiths, the author of Fellow Travellers of the Right (1979) has pointed out: "Rothermere visited Hitler on a number of occasions, and corresponded with him. As we have seen, Hitler's first major dinner party for foreigners, on 19th December 1934, had as its guests of honour Rothermere, his son Esmond Harmsworth, and Ward Price, together with Ernest Tennant. Rothermere's subsequent article in the Daily Mail was violently enthusiastic about what Hitler had done for Germany. Hitler wrote a number of important letters to Rothermere in 1933 and 1934, but the most interesting of them, because of its subsequent fate, was the one written on 3 May 1935 in which he advocated Anglo-German understanding as a firm combination for peace. Rothermere circulated this to many politicians, convinced that his personal contact with Hitler had produced a real breakthrough." (66)
Lord Rothermere also gave full support to Oswald Mosley and the National Union of Fascists. He wrote an article, Hurrah for the Blackshirts, on 22nd January, 1934, in which he praised Mosley for his "sound, commonsense, Conservative doctrine". Rothermere added: "Timid alarmists all this week have been whimpering that the rapid growth in numbers of the British Blackshirts is preparing the way for a system of rulership by means of steel whips and concentration camps. Very few of these panic-mongers have any personal knowledge of the countries that are already under Blackshirt government. The notion that a permanent reign of terror exists there has been evolved entirely from their own morbid imaginations, fed by sensational propaganda from opponents of the party now in power. As a purely British organization, the Blackshirts will respect those principles of tolerance which are traditional in British politics. They have no prejudice either of class or race. Their recruits are drawn from all social grades and every political party. Young men may join the British Union of Fascists by writing to the Headquarters, King's Road, Chelsea, London, S.W." (67)
The Daily Mail continued to give its support to the fascists. George Ward Price wrote about anti-fascist demonstrators at a meeting of the National Union of Fascists on 8th June, 1934: "If the Blackshirts movement had any need of justification, the Red Hooligans who savagely and systematically tried to wreck Sir Oswald Mosley's huge and magnificently successful meeting at Olympia last night would have supplied it. They got what they deserved. Olympia has been the scene of many assemblies and many great fights, but never had it offered the spectacle of so many fights mixed up with a meeting." (68)
David Low, a cartoonist employed by the Evening Standard, made several attacks on Rothermere's links to the fascist movement. In January 1934, he drew a cartoon showing Rothermere as a nanny giving a Nazi salute and saying "we need men of action such as they have in Italy and Germany who are leading their countries triumphantly out of the slump... blah... blah." The child in the pram is saying "But what have they got in their other hands, nanny?" Hitler and Mussolini are hiding the true records of their periods in government. Hitler's card includes, "Hitler's Germany: Estimated Unemployed: 6,000,000. Fall in trade under Hitler (9 months) £35,000,000. Burden of taxes up several times over. Wages down 20%." (69)
In July, 1934 Lord Rothermere suddenly withdrew his support for Oswald Mosley. The historian, James Pool, argues: "The rumor on Fleet Street was that the Daily Mail's Jewish advertisers had threatened to place their adds in a different paper if Rothermere continued the pro-fascist campaign." Pool points out that sometime after this, Rothermere met with Hitler at the Berghof and told how the "Jews cut off his complete revenue from advertising" and compelled him to "toe the line." Hitler later recalled Rothermere telling him that it was "quite impossible at short notice to take any effective countermeasures." (70)
This development explains why The Stop Funding Hate is right to campaign to convince companies to pull their advertising from the Daily Mail. According to its website: "Newspaper editors have a strong incentive to run sensationalist anti-migrant headlines: it boosts their readership – and that means they can earn more from advertising. Many of these advertisers have strong ethical stances on other issues: on discrimination in the workplace, on their supply chains, on their role in their communities. But when it comes to choosing which publications they fund with their advertising budgets, their own ethics and values have often been ignored. Until now."
The Daily Cartoonist
Bill Bramhall, editorial cartoonist for the New York Daily News, is being called out for a racist cartoon about New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang. Chief among those decrying the cartoon are Evelyn Yang, wife of the candidate, and the Asian American and Pacific Islanders Victory Alliance.
The cartoon appeared to be in reference to an interview on Sunday in which Yang told Showtime host Ziwe Fumudoh that his favorite subway stop in the Big Apple is Times Square.
It followed followed recent criticisms that Yang is out of touch with New York politics – which were spelled out in a Daily News editorial over the weekend.
‘Andrew Yang may be a quick study, but all the cramming he’s done since jumping into the mayor’s race can’t make up for years of inattention to New York politics and policies, best evidenced by the fact that he has never bothered to vote in a local election,’ the editorial read.
News organizations and websites from the Left and the Right are carrying the story.
Yang, running for New York City Mayor, had been the subject of criticism after saying his favorite subway stop was Times Square, which he said was the station closest to his home. AAPI Victory Alliance, a progressive Asian American and Pacific Islander advocacy group, also criticized the cartoon on Monday, calling it “disgusting and wrong.”
In a statement, Yang’s campaign spokesperson Alyssa Cass said of the reaction to Yang’s subway station comment, including the cartoon: “It’s hard to tell what offends them more – that his family has lived near that subway stop for 25 years or that he’s an Asian American.”
A spokesperson for Tribune Publishing, the parent company of the Daily News, did not immediately respond to USA TODAY’s request for comment.
The tech entrepreneur and former presidential candidate is among the leading candidates in the Democratic primary. Voting ends on 22 June. Unlike most of the other leading contenders, Yang has never held a job in city government and isn’t part of the city’s political establishment.
That status as an outsider has helped Yang with some voters but he has also been criticised for his lack of experience, for spending time at his house in the Hudson River Valley village of New Paltz after the pandemic struck, and for failing to vote in the last four mayoral elections.
Evelyn Yang, the wife of New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang , blasted the New York Daily News for a cartoon depicting her husband as a tourist, calling it a “racist disfiguration” of him.
Evelyn Yang followed up her initial Tweet with another…
The New York Daily News did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the cartoon. Andrew Yang’s campaign indicated he will address the cartoon on Tuesday.
As of this writing the cartoon remains on the New York Daily News webpage, and their Facebook and Twitter feeds.
UPDATE 8pm (eastern) May 25
Both Andrew Yang and the Daily News have responded to the cartoon and the reaction.
Andrew Yang addressed the controversy at a Tuesday-afternoon press conference held outside a Queens subway station where an Asian man had been pushed onto the tracks earlier this week, tying the attacks on himself to the increase in hate crimes across the city.
“Hate is tearing our city apart, and we need it to stop, we need it to end,” the candidate said. “Some of my opponents in this race have actually characterized some of us as being more New York than others — as if some of us belong here more than other people,” Yang said. “And I am here to say that that is wrong. None of us is more New York than anyone else. We all belong here.”
Evelyn Yang, who grew up in Queens, added, “Anytime someone implies that we are not New Yorkers, that we are not from here, that we don’t belong here, that we should go back to where we came from, it is exactly what it sounds like. It’s racism.”
In addition Andrew Yang issued a statement. In part below.
Josh Greenman, the editorial page editor for The News, defended the cartoon, which was penned by artist Bill Bramhall.
“Andrew Yang is a leading contender to be mayor of New York City, and as commentators, his opponents and The News editorial board have recently pointed out, he’s recently revealed there are major gaps in his knowledge of New York City politics and policy. Nor has he ever voted in a mayoral election,” Greenman said. “Bill Bramhall’s cartoon is a comment on that, period, end of story. This is not a racial stereotype or racist caricature.”
Though The Daily News did admit to alterations after complaints.
Greenman added that the original, online version of the cartoon had been altered for the paper’s print run after concerns were raised about it.
“After Bill tweeted his cartoon yesterday, people reacted badly to how Yang’s eyes were drawn,” he said. “Bill altered the drawing out of sensitivity to those concerns, without changing the concept of the cartoon, which he and we stand by.”
The Great Hypocrisy of Right-Wingers Claiming ‘Cancel Culture’
March 19, 2021
San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem at a football game in 2016. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP Photo)
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Imagine complaining you are a victim of “cancel culture”—from the floor of the House of Representatives, no less—and then the very next day holding a packed press conference covered by every single major news outlet. Or wearing a mask with the word “CENSORED” on it while you deliver fully uncensored remarks to millions of broadcast television viewers. This is how Marjorie Taylor Greene—the first lady of political thea-tuh who tweeted about suffering the “slings and arrows” of a “vicious cancel culture mob”—has spent her time in office so far. In the rare moments between her anti–“cancel culture” rants on high-profile right-wing podcasts and TV shows, the Georgia representative posts incessantly about just how canceled she’s been to her social media audience of more than 735,000 followers.
Greene and the entire right wing are currently using “cancel culture” in the same way Rudy Giuliani used to deploy “a noun, verb and 9/11”—as a handy-dandy phrase to inoculate themselves from wholly valid criticism. (Rhetorically, “political correctness” is its more direct predecessor, but then Black Twitter invented the term “cancel” and white conservatives decided that, like everything else, they just had to have it.) The current ubiquity of the phrase belies its central thesis, since all the airtime and column space conservatives are given to talk about cancellation proves they were never cancelled in the first place.
Ted Cruz claimed at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference that liberals have canceled stand-up comedy, and “Judge” Jeanine Pirro called the shutdown of white supremacist safe-space Parler a “censorship that is akin to a Kristallnacht.” The theme of this year’s CPAC, by the way, was “America Uncanceled” (though even organizers canceled one of their speakers), and the Republican National Committee last summer actually issued a resolution that stated: “Freedom of speech is trampled on daily with the notions of ‘political correctness,’ the plan to eliminate so-called ‘hate speech,’ and the promotion of a ‘cancel culture,’ which has grown into erasing of history, encouraging lawlessness, muting citizens, and violating free exchange of ideas, thoughts, and speech.”
Republican Senator Josh Hawley claimed his loss of a book deal because he voted to overturn a democratic election and helped incite a treasonous insurrection was an assault on his First Amendment rights, writing, “I will fight this cancel culture with everything I have. We’ll see you in court.” (Hawley got a new publisher roughly two weeks later and hasn’t mentioned the lawsuit since.) Jim Jordan, another House GOP “Stop the Steal” booster, called cancel culture—not Covid, escalating white-supremacist terror, or sexual abuse of college athletes during his time as a campus coach—the “most dangerous” issue in the country, and cited Donald Trump’s being kicked off Twitter for inciting the Capitol insurrection as proof that cancellation will cause “long-term consequences to our democracy.”
T hese are laughable concerns from those who tried to cancel millions of black people’s votes in the last presidential election, and whose party is now cranking out literally hundreds of voter suppression laws to cancel Black people’s voting rights. It’s also a perfect illustration of the bait-and-switch tactic underlying all the phony Republican hysteria fueling so-called cancel culture. Conservatives’ indignation is really just anger over the fact that marginalized folks—mostly thanks to social media—can now call them out for all the things they regularly say and do to further racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic agendas and white mob violence. What these put-upon conservatives are really pissed about isn’t censorship or cancellation. It’s consequences.
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Or rather, they’re against consequences for themselves. When they were the ones doing all the canceling, the right wing was actually fervently pro-cancellation. It’s not just the fundamental lie of “cancel culture” that’s so irritating, it’s the staggering hypocrisy of those who can’t stop, won’t stop whining about it. Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, in a tizzy over the discontinuation by the estate of Dr. Seuss of six lesser-known books with racist content, had the audacity to gripe via social media that “the woke mob” is trying “to erase our history and cancel anyone who disagrees.” This is the same Tom Cotton who wrote a whole legislative act aimed at banning schools from teaching the 1619 Project, the initiative exploring how the United States was indelibly shaped by slavery—or what Cotton blithely describes as “the necessary evil upon which the union was built.” Cotton is not concerned about the censoring of history he’s just picky about what parts of history get erased. What the Arkansas senator really means when he gets prickly about preserving “our history” is making sure the mythical white-supremacist recollection of American events is the only version schoolkids can read. Along with racist Dr. Seuss books, of course.
There is an historic thread tying right-wingers who today call everything left of them communism, who label anti-racist and social justice movements like BLM terrorism, and the anti–civil rights racists and red-baiting McCarthyite “traditionalists” of yesteryear. You want to know who was actually canceled by these sorts? Abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay, who was ordered by a court to stop printing his abolitionist newspaper The True American, had all his printing machines stolen by an angry racist mob, and was twice the target of attempted assassinations. Callie House, mother of five and a formerly enslaved woman who fought for reparations for emancipated black folks, who was railroaded on phony mail fraud charges in 1917 and served a year in the Missouri State Penitentiary. Labor leader and Socialist Party Chair Eugene Debs, who spent more than two years in jail for a 1918 anti-war speech.
There was also Paul Robeson, who had his passport revoked by the US State Department for his political beliefs and was forced to spend more than a decade living abroad. Racism and red-scare hysteria also canceled the acting career of Canada Lee, who was blacklisted from movies and died broke in 1952 at the age of 45. The song “Mississippi Goddam” got Nina Simone banned from the radio and much of the American South, and the Federal Bureau of Narcotics essentially hounded Billie Holiday to death for the sin of stubbornly refusing to stop performing the anti-lyching song “Strange Fruit.”
But really, we don’t even have to look that far back in time for examples of right-wing cancellation. All these self-deputized anti–“cancel culture” cops were, just a few years ago, openly in favor of canceling NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled—instead of sitting, on the advice of a former Green Beret—during the national anthem to protest police brutality against black folks. When right-wingers attempted to paint Kaepernick’s protest as an un-American insult to the military, he reiterated his respect for the “men and women [who] have fought for this country,” and underscored the need for America to stand by the principles it claims to send citizens to wage wars over.
“They fight for freedom. They fight for the people. They fight for liberty and justice for everyone,” Kaepernick said way back in August 2016, just days after his first silent protest. “That’s not happening. People are dying in vain because this country isn’t holding their end of the bargain up, as far as giving freedom and justice, liberty to everybody.”
What’s more traditionally American than black folks’ peacefully protesting as a way to demand that this country actually fulfill its promise of “freedom and justice, liberty to everybody”? In response, the people who now won’t shut up about being shut down —those who Debs, in the speech that got him jailed, rightly described as those “wrapped up in the American flag, who shout their claim from the housetops that they are the only patriots, and who have their magnifying glasses in hand, scanning the country for evidence of disloyalty”—were very keen on canceling Kaepernick for exercising the First Amendment rights they now claim to cherish. That group was led by Trump, who pushed hard to have Kaepernick fired. In a now infamous 2017 speech, the then-president targeted “NFL owners”—an overwhelmingly Republican collective of billionaires—and essentially demanded that when a player knelt in protest, they should throw “that son of a bitch off the field right now.”
The NFL kowtowed to Trump, decreeing that players who did not stand during the anthem would be fined. Not quite satisfied, Trump doubled down on his cancellation demands, saying, “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there, maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.” Two years after getting Kaepernick and NFL safety Eric Reid effectively blackballed from their careers for exercising their constitutional rights, Trump claimed that “cancel culture, driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees,” is “the very definition of totalitarianism.”
M arjorie Taylor Greene applauded Trump’s condemnations, posting social media messages alternately demanding “NO KNEELING” and thanking Trump “for pushing” the kneeling issue. The website Law Enforcement Today quoted her describing Kaepernick as a “destructive vocal influencer.” (Notably, when one of Greene’s conservative allies complained of censorship, Greene did a 180, tweeting, “You shouldn’t have to stop speaking the truth and posting about your political beliefs in order to continue your work…. And you are guaranteed free speech by the 1A!”) Cruz told his followers they should cancel rich spoiled athletes who “dishonor our flag” by committing to “never buy another shoe, shirt, or jersey.” Pirro called NFL protests for social justice “crap” and when Kaepernick sued the NFL for collusion, went on TV to loudly shout that Kaepernick didn’t “have a right to be in the NFL.” Yes, the woman who compared Trump’s Twitter ban to a Nazi pogrom against the Jews had the gall to demean Kaepernick as “a crybaby.”
Those calls to cancel Kaepernick, juxtaposed against the bogus concerns about “cancel culture” now coming from the same quarters, prove what was always painfully obvious: White conservatives don’t want free speech they want to speak hate without repercussions. The most salient American conservative value is cultural dominance, and these people resent the cultural shifts they perceive as threatening that dominance. For so long, they took pleasure in canceling folks for challenging their power, punishing dissenters by ruining reputations, careers and lives. Now, they’ve seized upon the word “cancel” to describe the comparatively mild discomfort of being held vaguely accountable by the people they believe should shut up, and put up with the pain they actively seek to cause. The anti–“cancel culture” movement runs on resentment and fear—of the democratization of social authority and influence, which they believe whittles away at their position as the arbiters of morality, justice, and freedom—virtues they have always defined in transparently narrow, self-serving terms. I’m not sure I’ve seen a better encapsulation of what cancel culture is about than just after the white-supremacist Capitol coup attempt, when The Nation contributor Andrew McCormick described one participant’s rage over facing consequences she obviously regarded as meant for other people.
“This is not America,” a woman said to a small group, her voice shaking. She was crying, hysterical. “They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.”
The sad part is, their powers almost fully remain intact. They’re just too greedy to recognize it.
Consequently, we get Tomi Lahren— the right-wing bullhorn whose entire career is such an unendingly tired and badly argued hot take about Kaepernick that she should have to pay him royalties and residuals from every paycheck—having the unmitigated nerve to call cancel culture “deadly and unAmerican.” Lahren has spent the last several months calling for conservatives to use cancel culture to cancel cancel culture, a plan demonstrating a stunning lack of vision or originality. What she means is that the right should keep perfecting the very thing they invented. Even as they complain of being victimized by it.
Kali Holloway Kali Holloway is a columnist for The Nation and the director of the Make It Right Project, a new national campaign to take down Confederate monuments and tell the truth about history. Her writing has appeared in Salon, The Guardian, The Daily Beast, Time, AlterNet, Truthdig, The Huffington Post, The National Memo, Jezebel, Raw Story, and numerous other outlets.
The 60-Year-Old Scientific Screwup That Helped Covid Kill
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Early one morning, Linsey Marr tiptoed to her dining room table, slipped on a headset, and fired up Zoom. On her computer screen, dozens of familiar faces began to appear. She also saw a few people she didn’t know, including Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead for Covid-19, and other expert advisers to the WHO. It was just past 1 pm Geneva time on April 3, 2020, but in Blacksburg, Virginia, where Marr lives with her husband and two children, dawn was just beginning to break.
Marr is an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech and one of the few in the world who also studies infectious diseases. To her, the new coronavirus looked as if it could hang in the air, infecting anyone who breathed in enough of it. For people indoors, that posed a considerable risk. But the WHO didn’t seem to have caught on. Just days before, the organization had tweeted “FACT: #COVID19 is NOT airborne.” That’s why Marr was skipping her usual morning workout to join 35 other aerosol scientists. They were trying to warn the WHO it was making a big mistake.
Over Zoom, they laid out the case. They ticked through a growing list of superspreading events in restaurants, call centers, cruise ships, and a choir rehearsal, instances where people got sick even when they were across the room from a contagious person. The incidents contradicted the WHO’s main safety guidelines of keeping 3 to 6 feet of distance between people and frequent handwashing. If SARS-CoV-2 traveled only in large droplets that immediately fell to the ground, as the WHO was saying, then wouldn’t the distancing and the handwashing have prevented such outbreaks? Infectious air was the more likely culprit, they argued. But the WHO’s experts appeared to be unmoved. If they were going to call Covid-19 airborne, they wanted more direct evidence—proof, which could take months to gather, that the virus was abundant in the air. Meanwhile, thousands of people were falling ill every day.
On the video call, tensions rose. At one point, Lidia Morawska, a revered atmospheric physicist who had arranged the meeting, tried to explain how far infectious particles of different sizes could potentially travel. One of the WHO experts abruptly cut her off, telling her she was wrong, Marr recalls. His rudeness shocked her. “You just don’t argue with Lidia about physics,” she says.
Morawska had spent more than two decades advising a different branch of the WHO on the impacts of air pollution. When it came to flecks of soot and ash belched out by smokestacks and tailpipes, the organization readily accepted the physics she was describing—that particles of many sizes can hang aloft, travel far, and be inhaled. Now, though, the WHO’s advisers seemed to be saying those same laws didn’t apply to virus-laced respiratory particles. To them, the word airborne only applied to particles smaller than 5 microns. Trapped in their group-specific jargon, the two camps on Zoom literally couldn’t understand one another.
When the call ended, Marr sat back heavily, feeling an old frustration coiling tighter in her body. She itched to go for a run, to pound it out footfall by footfall into the pavement. “It felt like they had already made up their minds and they were just entertaining us,” she recalls. Marr was no stranger to being ignored by members of the medical establishment. Often seen as an epistemic trespasser, she was used to persevering through skepticism and outright rejection. This time, however, so much more than her ego was at stake. The beginning of a global pandemic was a terrible time to get into a fight over words. But she had an inkling that the verbal sparring was a symptom of a bigger problem—that outdated science was underpinning public health policy. She had to get through to them. But first, she had to crack the mystery of why their communication was failing so badly.
Marr spent the first many years of her career studying air pollution, just as Morawska had. But her priorities began to change in the late 2000s, when Marr sent her oldest child off to day care. That winter, she noticed how waves of runny noses, chest colds, and flu swept through the classrooms, despite the staff’s rigorous disinfection routines. “Could these common infections actually be in the air?” she wondered. Marr picked up a few introductory medical textbooks to satisfy her curiosity.
According to the medical canon, nearly all respiratory infections transmit through coughs or sneezes: Whenever a sick person hacks, bacteria and viruses spray out like bullets from a gun, quickly falling and sticking to any surface within a blast radius of 3 to 6 feet. If these droplets alight on a nose or mouth (or on a hand that then touches the face), they can cause an infection. Only a few diseases were thought to break this droplet rule. Measles and tuberculosis transmit a different way they’re described as “airborne.” Those pathogens travel inside aerosols, microscopic particles that can stay suspended for hours and travel longer distances. They can spread when contagious people simply breathe.
The distinction between droplet and airborne transmission has enormous consequences. To combat droplets, a leading precaution is to wash hands frequently with soap and water. To fight infectious aerosols, the air itself is the enemy. In hospitals, that means expensive isolation wards and N95 masks for all medical staff.
The books Marr flipped through drew the line between droplets and aerosols at 5 microns. A micron is a unit of measurement equal to one-millionth of a meter. By this definition, any infectious particle smaller than 5 microns in diameter is an aerosol anything bigger is a droplet. The more she looked, the more she found that number. The WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also listed 5 microns as the fulcrum on which the droplet-aerosol dichotomy toggled.
There was just one literally tiny problem: “The physics of it is all wrong,” Marr says. That much seemed obvious to her from everything she knew about how things move through air. Reality is far messier, with particles much larger than 5 microns staying afloat and behaving like aerosols, depending on heat, humidity, and airspeed. “I’d see the wrong number over and over again, and I just found that disturbing,” she says. The error meant that the medical community had a distorted picture of how people might get sick.
Linsey Marr stands in front of a smog chamber in her laboratory at Virginia Tech. For years, she says, the medical establishment treated her as an outsider.
Epidemiologists have long observed that most respiratory bugs require close contact to spread. Yet in that small space, a lot can happen. A sick person might cough droplets onto your face, emit small aerosols that you inhale, or shake your hand, which you then use to rub your nose. Any one of those mechanisms might transmit the virus. “Technically, it’s very hard to separate them and see which one is causing the infection,” Marr says. For long-distance infections, only the smallest particles could be to blame. Up close, though, particles of all sizes were in play. Yet, for decades, droplets were seen as the main culprit.
Marr decided to collect some data of her own. Installing air samplers in places such as day cares and airplanes, she frequently found the flu virus where the textbooks said it shouldn’t be—hiding in the air, most often in particles small enough to stay aloft for hours. And there was enough of it to make people sick.
In 2011, this should have been major news. Instead, the major medical journals rejected her manuscript. Even as she ran new experiments that added evidence to the idea that influenza was infecting people via aerosols, only one niche publisher, The Journal of the Royal Society Interface, was consistently receptive to her work. In the siloed world of academia, aerosols had always been the domain of engineers and physicists, and pathogens purely a medical concern Marr was one of the rare people who tried to straddle the divide. “I was definitely fringe,” she says.
Thinking it might help her overcome this resistance, she’d try from time to time to figure out where the flawed 5-micron figure had come from. But she always got stuck. The medical textbooks simply stated it as fact, without a citation, as if it were pulled from the air itself. Eventually she got tired of trying, her research and life moved on, and the 5-micron mystery faded into the background. Until, that is, December 2019, when a paper crossed her desk from the lab of Yuguo Li.
An indoor-air researcher at the University of Hong Kong, Li had made a name for himself during the first SARS outbreak, in 2003. His investigation of an outbreak at the Amoy Gardens apartment complex provided the strongest evidence that a coronavirus could be airborne. But in the intervening decades, he’d also struggled to convince the public health community that their risk calculus was off. Eventually, he decided to work out the math. Li’s elegant simulations showed that when a person coughed or sneezed, the heavy droplets were too few and the targets—an open mouth, nostrils, eyes—too small to account for much infection. Li’s team had concluded, therefore, that the public health establishment had it backward and that most colds, flu, and other respiratory illnesses must spread through aerosols instead.
Their findings, they argued, exposed the fallacy of the 5-micron boundary. And they’d gone a step further, tracing the number back to a decades-old document the CDC had published for hospitals. Marr couldn’t help but feel a surge of excitement. A journal had asked her to review Li’s paper, and she didn’t mask her feelings as she sketched out her reply. On January 22, 2020, she wrote, “This work is hugely important in challenging the existing dogma about how infectious disease is transmitted in droplets and aerosols.”
Even as she composed her note, the implications of Li’s work were far from theoretical. Hours later, Chinese government officials cut off any travel in and out of the city of Wuhan, in a desperate attempt to contain an as-yet-unnamed respiratory disease burning through the 11-million-person megalopolis. As the pandemic shut down country after country, the WHO and the CDC told people to wash their hands, scrub surfaces, and maintain social distance. They didn’t say anything about masks or the dangers of being indoors.
A few days after the April Zoom meeting with the WHO, Marr got an email from another aerosol scientist who had been on the call, an atmospheric chemist at the University of Colorado Boulder named Jose-Luis Jimenez. He’d become fixated on the WHO recommendation that people stay 3 to 6 feet apart from one another. As far as he could tell, that social distancing guideline seemed to be based on a few studies from the 1930s and ’40s. But the authors of those experiments actually argued for the possibility of airborne transmission, which by definition would involve distances over 6 feet. None of it seemed to add up.
Scientists use a rotating drum to aerosolize viruses and study how well they survive under different conditions.
Marr told him about her concerns with the 5-micron boundary and suggested that their two issues might be linked. If the 6-foot guideline was built off of an incorrect definition of droplets, the 5-micron error wasn’t just some arcane detail. It seemed to sit at the heart of the WHO’s and the CDC’s flawed guidance. Finding its origin suddenly became a priority. But to hunt it down, Marr, Jimenez, and their collaborators needed help. They needed a historian.
Luckily, Marr knew one, a Virginia Tech scholar named Tom Ewing who specialized in the history of tuberculosis and influenza. They talked. He suggested they bring on board a graduate student he happened to know who was good at this particular form of forensics. The team agreed. “This will be very interesting,” Marr wrote in an email to Jimenez on April 13. “I think we’re going to find a house of cards.”
The graduate student in question was Katie Randall. Covid had just dealt her dissertation a big blow—she could no longer conduct in-person research, so she’d promised her adviser she would devote the spring to sorting out her dissertation and nothing else. But then an email from Ewing arrived in her inbox describing Marr’s quest and the clues her team had so far unearthed, which were “layered like an archaeology site, with shards that might make up a pot,” he wrote. That did it. She was in.
Randall had studied citation tracking, a type of scholastic detective work where the clues aren’t blood sprays and stray fibers but buried references to long-ago studies, reports, and other records. She started digging where Li and the others had left off—with various WHO and CDC papers. But she didn’t find any more clues than they had. Dead end.
She tried another tack. Everyone agreed that tuberculosis was airborne. So she plugged “5 microns” and “tuberculosis” into a search of the CDC’s archives. She scrolled and scrolled until she reached the earliest document on tuberculosis prevention that mentioned aerosol size. It cited an out-of-print book written by a Harvard engineer named William Firth Wells. Published in 1955, it was called Airborne Contagion and Air Hygiene. A lead!
In the Before Times, she would have acquired the book through interlibrary loan. With the pandemic shutting down universities, that was no longer an option. On the wilds of the open internet, Randall tracked down a first edition from a rare book seller for $500—a hefty expense for a side project with essentially no funding. But then one of the university’s librarians came through and located a digital copy in Michigan. Randall began to dig in.
In the words of Wells’ manuscript, she found a man at the end of his career, rushing to contextualize more than 23 years of research. She started reading his early work, including one of the studies Jimenez had mentioned. In 1934, Wells and his wife, Mildred Weeks Wells, a physician, analyzed air samples and plotted a curve showing how the opposing forces of gravity and evaporation acted on respiratory particles. The couple’s calculations made it possible to predict the time it would take a particle of a given size to travel from someone’s mouth to the ground. According to them, particles bigger than 100 microns sank within seconds. Smaller particles stayed in the air. Randall paused at the curve they’d drawn. To her, it seemed to foreshadow the idea of a droplet-aerosol dichotomy, but one that should have pivoted around 100 microns, not 5.
The book was long, more than 400 pages, and Randall was still on the hook for her dissertation. She was also helping her restless 6-year-old daughter navigate remote kindergarten, now that Covid had closed her school. So it was often not until late at night, after everyone had gone to bed, that she could return to it, taking detailed notes about each day’s progress.
One night she read about experiments Wells did in the 1940s in which he installed air-disinfecting ultraviolet lights inside schools. In the classrooms with UV lamps installed, fewer kids came down with the measles. He concluded that the measles virus must have been in the air. Randall was struck by this. She knew that measles didn’t get recognized as an airborne disease until decades later. What had happened?
Part of medical rhetoric is understanding why certain ideas take hold and others don’t. So as spring turned to summer, Randall started to investigate how Wells’ contemporaries perceived him. That’s how she found the writings of Alexander Langmuir, the influential chief epidemiologist of the newly established CDC. Like his peers, Langmuir had been brought up in the Gospel of Personal Cleanliness, an obsession that made handwashing the bedrock of US public health policy. He seemed to view Wells’ ideas about airborne transmission as retrograde, seeing in them a slide back toward an ancient, irrational terror of bad air—the “miasma theory” that had prevailed for centuries. Langmuir dismissed them as little more than “interesting theoretical points.”
But at the same time, Langmuir was growing increasingly preoccupied by the threat of biological warfare. He worried about enemies carpeting US cities in airborne pathogens. In March 1951, just months after the start of the Korean War, Langmuir published a report in which he simultaneously disparaged Wells’ belief in airborne infection and credited his work as being foundational to understanding the physics of airborne infection.
How curious, Randall thought. She kept reading.
In the report, Langmuir cited a few studies from the 1940s looking at the health hazards of working in mines and factories, which showed the mucus of the nose and throat to be exceptionally good at filtering out particles bigger than 5 microns. The smaller ones, however, could slip deep into the lungs and cause irreversible damage. If someone wanted to turn a rare and nasty pathogen into a potent agent of mass infection, Langmuir wrote, the thing to do would be to formulate it into a liquid that could be aerosolized into particles smaller than 5 microns, small enough to bypass the body’s main defenses. Curious indeed. Randall made a note.
When she returned to Wells’ book a few days later, she noticed he too had written about those industrial hygiene studies. They had inspired Wells to investigate what role particle size played in the likelihood of natural respiratory infections. He designed a study using tuberculosis-causing bacteria. The bug was hardy and could be aerosolized, and if it landed in the lungs, it grew into a small lesion. He exposed rabbits to similar doses of the bacteria, pumped into their chambers either as a fine (smaller than 5 microns) or coarse (bigger than 5 microns) mist. The animals that got the fine treatment fell ill, and upon autopsy it was clear their lungs bulged with lesions. The bunnies that received the coarse blast appeared no worse for the wear.
For days, Randall worked like this—going back and forth between Wells and Langmuir, moving forward and backward in time. As she got into Langmuir’s later writings, she observed a shift in his tone. In articles he wrote up until the 1980s, toward the end of his career, he admitted he had been wrong about airborne infection. It was possible.
A big part of what changed Langmuir’s mind was one of Wells’ final studies. Working at a VA hospital in Baltimore, Wells and his collaborators had pumped exhaust air from a tuberculosis ward into the cages of about 150 guinea pigs on the building’s top floor. Month after month, a few guinea pigs came down with tuberculosis. Still, public health authorities were skeptical. They complained that the experiment lacked controls. So Wells’ team added another 150 animals, but this time they included UV lights to kill any germs in the air. Those guinea pigs stayed healthy. That was it, the first incontrovertible evidence that a human disease—tuberculosis—could be airborne, and not even the public health big hats could ignore it.
The groundbreaking results were published in 1962. Wells died in September of the following year. A month later, Langmuir mentioned the late engineer in a speech to public health workers. It was Wells, he said, that they had to thank for illuminating their inadequate response to a growing epidemic of tuberculosis. He emphasized that the problematic particles—the ones they had to worry about—were smaller than 5 microns.
Inside Randall’s head, something snapped into place. She shot forward in time, to that first tuberculosis guidance document where she had started her investigation. She had learned from it that tuberculosis is a curious critter it can only invade a subset of human cells in the deepest reaches of the lungs. Most bugs are more promiscuous. They can embed in particles of any size and infect cells all along the respiratory tract.
What must have happened, she thought, was that after Wells died, scientists inside the CDC conflated his observations. They plucked the size of the particle that transmits tuberculosis out of context, making 5 microns stand in for a general definition of airborne spread. Wells’ 100-micron threshold got left behind. “You can see that the idea of what is respirable, what stays airborne, and what is infectious are all being flattened into this 5-micron phenomenon,” Randall says. Over time, through blind repetition, the error sank deeper into the medical canon. The CDC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In June, she Zoomed into a meeting with the rest of the team to share what she had found. Marr almost couldn’t believe someone had cracked it. “It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is where the 5 microns came from?!’” After all these years, she finally had an answer. But getting to the bottom of the 5-micron myth was only the first step. Dislodging it from decades of public health doctrine would mean convincing two of the world’s most powerful health authorities not only that they were wrong but that the error was incredibly—and urgently—consequential.
The Long, Strange History of Medicinal Turpentine
Turpentine was supposed to be good for lungs and chest ailments. Wystan/CC BY 2.0
Turpentine is a common sight in hardware stores and art cabinets. Made from pine resin distilled until clear, the oily liquid been used for hundreds of years as a water repellant, paint thinner, solvent, and lamp oil. (It is very flammable.) But for thousands of years, it’s also been used as a medicine, even though most modern doctors would strongly advise against ingesting it at all.
Turpentine has deep roots in medical history. In Looking for Longleaf: The Fall and Rise of an American Forest, author Lawrence S. Earley explains that the Romans used it to treat depression, naval surgeons during the Age of Sail injected it (hot) into wounds, and medics used it to try and stop heavy bleeding. Doctors found it appealing, even though they knew about its less-desirable effects.
“The rectified oil of Turpentine is a medicine much less used than it deserves to be. The reason probably is, the fear of its producing violent effects on the alimentary canal and urinary organs,” one doctor wrote in 1821. He also wrote that turpentine could greatly be put to use killing internal worms, since insects instantly died if exposed to the liquid. He ordered one patient afflicted with tapeworms to drink turpentine every few hours. During the Civil War, doctors administered turpentine internally and externally to halt infection, often with dubious results.
But the problem with turpentine oil was not simply some harsh side effects. Ingestion is often toxic, causing kidney damage and bleeding in the lungs. So why was it used?
No magic here: just turpentine. trialsanderrors/CC BY 2.0
Viewed in context, it’s easier to understand why doctors once used it as medicine. Pine tar, another related product, is still a useful medicine ingredient for rashes and skin problems, while turpentine oil, which was also considered good for lung health, is still an ingredient in Vick’s Vapor-Rub. (Although it’s listed as an inactive ingredient.) Turpentine is antiseptic, too, and the terrible taste and harsh effects could have been interpreted as signs that it was working. “King of the [medicines] was turpentine, a product of the tidewater pine forests,” Kentucky historian Thomas D. Clark wrote. “Turpentine had three important medical requisites: It smelled loud, tasted bad, and burned like the woods on fire.” It also had the strange side effect of making urine smell like violets.
Clark would know. Turpentine was widely used in the American South. When sailing meant wooden ships, pine products were in high demand for sealing leaks and preserving wood. The British especially valued pine forests, and almost immediately on reaching the Americas, they went in search of enough pines to produce the favored products. A “turpentine belt” developed in the South, and whole forests were tapped for resin. For many years, slaves were forced to do the difficult, painstaking work of making turpentine by “boxing” pine trees. Unfortunately, they were also compelled to take it as medicine, along with castor oil, for any number of illnesses. Today, some Americans still consider turpentine, often mixed with sugar, to be a folk remedy.
In the golden era of fantastical patent medicine, turpentine was an addition to a number of snake oils, such as Hamlen’s Wizard Oil. During Prohibition, piney-flavored turpentine oil was often used to make fake gin. But most people eventually stopped taking turpentine. Though it does have strong purgative qualities, its toxicity far outweighs any potential tapeworm-killing benefit.
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When the milkman still rode down Toronto’s streets
Blantyre Dairy milkman Herb Kingston with his father's delivery horse Nellie in Toronto in the early 1950's. Kingston started helping his father Huck deliver milk in a horse-drawn wagon at age seven.
Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail
This article was published more than 7 years ago. Some information in it may no longer be current.
Just call it the milkman-cave: In his Scarborough basement, Herb Kingston, 66, has put together a shrine to his life as a milkman in the 1950s and 1960s.
Handmade wooden horses pull handmade wooden milk wagons. Die-cast miniature milk trucks are parked diagonally on shelves. And binders hold black-and-white shots of Toronto milkmen and milk trucks, collected over the years.
He has become something of an amateur historian of his vanished trade, which he took up around the age of 7, helping his father, Huck Kingston, with his Beaches milk route in the early 1950s.
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Now, with online shoppers opting for home grocery delivery – and Amazon even getting into the business – Mr. Kingston, who does not have a computer, finds it funny that the idea of door-to-door delivery is being hailed as a product of the Internet miracle.
Admittedly, Canada Post letter carriers may soon to join their milkmen brethren in the occupational graveyard. But few under the age of 40 realize that if you go back little more than half a century, daily door-to-door delivery of all kinds of goods in this city was not a frill. Most Toronto households had milk, cream, butter, eggs, bread and even meat delivered – and all by horse-drawn wagon, a vehicle that some Toronto milkmen used until the late 1950s.
"All the kids today, living in apartment buildings, they have no idea," said Mr. Kingston, who gives talks at schools and old-age homes about being a milkman. Seniors, he says, remember milkmen as a neighbourhood fixture, almost part of the family. But children are simply amazed that milk was delivered every day, he said. One asked him what milkmen did when their horses died.
Of course, the milkman himself, with a horse or otherwise, died in this city decades ago, the victim of cars, supermarkets and corner stores.
But when Mr. Kingston's father started working as a milkman for the long-vanished Blantyre Dairy, near Queen Street East and Pape Avenue, the place was one of scores of dairies across the city, each with its own fleet of milkmen and trucks or wagons. Blantyre was one of the last Toronto dairies to abandon its fleet of horses, housed in a nearby barn.
It was an overnight job, then. But noise complaints – the clinking of the bottles – prompted Toronto to ban deliveries before 7 a.m. in the mid-1950s.
"We never used to talk," Mr. Kingston remembers of the quiet early mornings he spent on the milk route with his dad. "Because you did your side of the street and he did his side."
Newspapers in Nazi Germany
Newspapers were greatly used by the Nazi Party to spread the party line. Newspapers were commonly purchased in an era that pre-dated television and along with the cinema and radio was the primary mode of spreading information – information that the Nazi Party wanted to control. Hitler came to power on January 30 th 1933 and almost immediately set out plans that would give the Nazis total power over all newspapers. Once Chancellor, Hitler was in a position to implement from a propaganda viewpoint what he had written about in ‘Mein Kampf’:
“The receptivity of the great masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”
Control of newspapers was put into the hands of Joseph Goebbels, the head of the Ministry of Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda. Goebbels set up a department within the ministry that dealt solely with newspapers. The newspapers had to spread the same message as everything else – Gleischaltung – the coordination of the whole of Nazi German society so that it acted and thought the same. Therefore people could only read the news as it was presented to them by the government.
On October 4 th 1933 the Reich Press Law stated that all journalism had to be “racially clean”. Any Jewish and liberal editors and journalists were sacked and all remaining editors had to take a Nazi citizenship test and prove that they were not married to a Jew. Any Jew who owned a newspaper was pressurised into selling out. If any Jewish owner refused to do this, the government banned the production of his newspaper for a few days that could then become weeks and months. By using this tactic, the Nazis hoped to bankrupt Jewish newspaper owners. This is what happened to the Jewish owned publishing house Ullstein. It was taken to the brink of bankruptcy and sold out to Eher Verlag, the Nazi publishing house based in Munich. One of the newspapers acquired by Eher Verlag was ‘Vossische Zeitung’, a celebrated liberal newspaper founded in 1703. To prove to the world that the Nazi government was reasonable, Goebbels allowed the highly respected ‘Frankfurter Zeitung’ a degree of independence from central interference on the understanding that it got rid of its Jewish owners.
Nazi newspapers predictably did well after January 1933. The official newspaper of the Third Reich was the ‘Vőlkischer Beobachter’, which was edited by Alfred Rosenberg who was considered to be the Nazi Party’s primary intellectual. Joseph Goebbels had his own newspaper, ‘Der Angriff’. The ‘Vőlkischer Beobachter’ was printed in Munich and appeared in the morning while ‘Der Angriff’ was printed in Berlin and appeared in the afternoon. In this way, the Nazis covered the whole of Germany. Both newspapers fawningly supported Hitler and National Socialism and pushed Nazi ideas. To ensure that all major newspapers were in Nazi hands, Goebbels gave the old Berlin newspaper, ‘Boersen Zeitung’ (Stock Exchange Journal) to Walter Funk, Hitler’s economic and financial advisor.
‘Vőlkischer Beobachter’ translated as ‘Racial Observer’. It was the main Nazi daily newspaper and it was used to peddle whatever Goebbels wanted. It was anti-Semite, anti-Communist, anti-liberal and completely fawning towards Hitler. During World War Two, the German public only read about the ‘good news’ as nothing bad was allowed to be reported.
‘Der Angriff’ translated as ‘The Assault’ and it was a newspaper founded by Goebbels in 1927 and became effectively his property. Its subtitle was ‘For the Oppressed against the Oppressors’. The right hand column of the front page was reserved for the personal comments of Goebbels that were signed off ‘Dr G’. There were many libel actions against ‘Der Angriff’ but none were successful. It never had the circulation of ‘Vőlkischer Beobachter’ and became simply a tool to voice the opinions of Goebbels.
Some individual Nazis were allowed to produce their own newspapers as the party hierarchy had no doubts that they would not peddle the party line. Probably the most infamous was ‘Der Stűrmer’ by the anti-Semite Julius Streicher who claimed that ‘Der Stűrmer’ was Hitler’s favourite read. However, Goebbels viewed the newspaper as little more than a ‘daily rag’ and believed that it was more likely to harm the regime than present it in its best light such was the paucity of its contents that occasionally bordered on the pornographic. However, it is said that Hitler read each issue from cover to cover and any protests that Goebbels might have made would have fallen on deaf ears. Towards the end of World War Two, Goebbels had the opportunity to ban ‘Der Stűrmer’ using the lack of paper as a reason.
At its peak, Goebbels supervised more than 3,600 newspapers and hundreds of magazines. He met the editors of the Berlin newspapers each morning and told them what could be printed and what could not. He kept in similar contact with editors based elsewhere in Germany using telegrams. It is almost certain that every editor knew what was in store if he broke away from the instructions set by Goebbels. All editors were expected to fully praise Hitler and senior Nazi officials. In 1937, Goebbels appointed Hans Fritzsche as his link with Germany’s newspaper editors.
However, it does appear that the German public became tired of the lack of choice when it came to newspapers and the constant hammering home of National Socialist ideals. The annual sales of ‘Vőlkischer Beobachter’ fell drastically between 1933 and 1939.
The Lifesaving, Horrifying History of Wet Nurses
There’s a new boom in the sale of breast milk, largely to NICUs, where it can mean the difference between life and death for a premature infant. But some critics worry about unintended consequences of turning human milk into a product.
If the idea of selling human milk makes us queasy, looking at the history of the practice suggests there’s good reason. As Jacqueline H. Wolf explains in a 1999 paper for the Journal of Social History, breast milk has been an invaluable, morally troubling commodity for a long time.
In the years before the development of modern infant formula, breast milk was vital to babies’ health. At a New York institution that opened in 1865, babies died of diarrhea and malnutrition as quickly as they came through the door until the directors stopped using artificial food and brought in wet nurses.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Wolf writes, wet nurses were more often hired by well-to-do families than by institutions. In 1913, one physician asked colleagues around the country whether they had helped a family find a wet nurse. Out of 80 who responded, 72 had, and most said they assisted with the hiring of six or more a year.
Many families who hired wet nurses were suspicious of the very poor women who were willing to take the job, and even doctors who praised their crucial role in saving babies’ lives held them in obvious contempt. “The class of society from which wet-nurses are drawn in a very low one,” one doctor write. “And therefore the chance of their being diseased is very great and, besides they are generally of such a low order as to be difficult to manage.”
Most mothers refused to let a wet nurse’s baby live in their home, so women seeking the position were forced to turn their infants over to caretakers who would feed them the same inadequate artificial food their employers were going to great lengths to avoid. One private wet nurse hiring agency in New York placed their hires’ babies “out to board.” Ninety percent of the infants died.
One mother, Fanny B. Workman, wrote a letter to Babyhood magazine describing how she hired a “decidedly unattractive” wet nurse and was disappointed when, contrary to her instruction, the prospective employee showed up at her job interview with her own infant. The wet nurse eventually “placed out” the baby to take the job. Two weeks later, she received a telegram informing her that her child had died. Workman described convincing the woman to stay on the job instead of going to the baby’s funeral but wrote that afterwards she “became very unruly and obstinate” and ate food that did not agree with Workman’s baby. Finally, Workman fired her.
Other mothers responded to Workman’s letter with their own stories of trouble finding a wet nurse of “even average mental or moral qualifications,” as one put it.
The Music of War
Music has been an integral part of warfare and the soldier’s life since the dawn of history. Even the instruments on which it is played have themselves acquired great symbolic power — a regiment’s drums are second only to its colors as an emblem of honor and tradition. In the 18th century, the act of enlisting was described as ‘following the drum. Even today, those ancient symbols continue to be evoked by titles such as Dave R. Palmer’s Summons of the Trumpet, a study of strategy in the Vietnam War.
The function of music in war has always been twofold: as a means of communication and as a psychological weapon. Among the oldest references to the latter role appears in Chapter 6 of the Old Testament’s book of Joshua, with an exceptionally detailed description of the deployment of ram’s horns against Jericho, the oldest fortified human settlement known to archaeology. Although ram’s horns do indeed make a powerful blast of sound (to use the phrase favored by King James I’s translators), they can hardly be assumed to have been sufficient in and of themselves to level Jericho’s 7-meter-high walls of thick, undressed stone. Still, the biblical account of his campaign makes it clear that Joshua was a most subtle general who compensated for the numerical and technological inferiority of his men (at least some of Jericho’s Canaanite garrison had iron weapons, whereas the Israelites’ were entirely of bronze) by means of intelligence gathering, hit-and-run tactics and psychological warfare. Barring a highly coincidental earthquake, the story’s description of Jericho’s walls collapsing was most likely allegorical. Even if the exact nature of Joshua’s strategy remains conjectural, however, it seems clear that his elaborate scenarios, staged in view of the defenders and climaxing with his priests blowing their horns in unison, fired up his warriors and weakened the Canaanites’ will to resist.
Both the Greek and Roman armies used brass and percussion instruments — including the ancestors of the modern cornet and tuba — to convey information on the march, in the field and in camp. Greek armies on campaign employed musicians to accompany poetic recitations of odes and paeans designed to remind soldier and citizen alike of the valor of past heroes. After the collapse of Rome in the West, its tradition of martial music was preserved and refined by the Eastern empire in Byzantium.
There was no shortage of such practices among Rome’s Celtic enemies, who for centuries charged — and later marched — into battle accompanied by their own array of horns, drums and bagpipes. So integral were bagpipes to the Scottish martial repertoire that Britain outlawed the instruments after the defeat of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Scottish army in 1746 — only to lift the ban for the benefit of its own Scottish regiments soon thereafter.
During the first half of the Middle Ages, music was found in the courts and churches of Europe but not on the battlefield. The Crusades changed that, as they did so much else. Impressed by the Saracens’ use of military bands as both a means of instantly transmitting orders to distant formations and as a weapon of fear and affray, as Bartholomaeus Anglicus expressed it in the 13th century, the Christian knights soon emulated them. Among the Saracen instruments adapted were the anafil, a straight, valveless trumpet the tabor, a small drum, sometimes snared and the naker, a small, round kettledrum, usually deployed in pairs. The earliest mention of their use in combat appeared in Itinerarum Regis Anglorum Richardi I, a history of the Third Crusade published in 1648. In one battle fought in Syria in 1191, it describes trumpet calls being used to signal the start and recall of a Christian cavalry charge.
When veteran Crusaders returned to Europe, they brought instruments and ideas with them. As they were absorbed into various feudal or mercenary armies, the use of martial music spread rapidly. Such music also acquired new modifications, as different soldiers adapted it to their local tastes and practical needs. To the trumpets and drums were added shawms (early double-reed wind instruments) and bagpipes. Bands accompanied armies on campaign, played aboard ships or added their pomp to tournaments, festivals and other court functions.
In his 1521 treatise Libro della arte della guerra (The Art of War), Niccoló Machiavelli wrote that the commanding officer should issue orders by means of the trumpet because its piercing tone and great volume enabled it to be heard above the pandemonium of combat. Cavalry trumpets, Machiavelli suggested, ought to have a distinctly different timbre, so that their calls would not be mistaken for those pertaining to the infantry. Drums and flutes, he averred, were most useful as an adjunct to discipline on the march and during infantry maneuvers on the battlefield itself. One of his contemporaries commented at that time, Such a custom is still observed in our time, so that one of two fighting forces does not assault the enemy unless urged by the sound of trumpets and kettledrums.
By the end of the 17th century, warfare had become a stylized and highly formal business, as fierce charges gave way to the application of pressure by movement and massed firepower. Soldiers of the 1700s were required to function almost as automatons, to obey, smoothly and in formation, whatever commands were given by their superiors. With clouds of gunsmoke added to the din of combat, oral commands or personal example were not always reliable means of giving direction to an army. An order that was not heard — or worse, not understood — could be as dangerous as the enemy. Musically transmitted signals, however, could be heard above the crash of gunfire. The voice of the trumpet and the cadence of the drums were clear and unambiguous, making them vital to command and control.
Over time, the various national armies of Europe standardized their musically conveyed orders into a set of calls. Manuals from as early as the mid-16th century list such calls as Marche, Allarum, Approache, Assaulte, Retreate and Skirmish. Being able to identify those signals and translate them into specific actions was as basic a training skill as loading a musket.
Every nation eventually adopted its own signature march — the precursor of the modern national anthem — and its troops were required to memorize it as well. Amid the smoke of battle, a column of troops on the move half a mile away might be friendly or hostile, but even if their battle standard was obscured, they might be identified by their march music. Resourceful commanders had a way of sneakily turning those conventions to their advantage. In one incident during the Thirty Years’ War, a German force deceived its opponents by maneuvering to The Scots Marche. During the Battle of Oudenarde in 1708, a key fight in the War of the Spanish Succession, Allied (Anglo-Dutch-Austrian) drummers played The French Retreate so convincingly that part of the French army did, in fact, withdraw from the field.
When the first American soldiers manual — compiled by Maj. Gen. Wilhelm von Steuben — was issued to the Continental Army in 1778, it contained a list of beats and signals modeled on those used in European armies. More quickly than in Europe, however, the bugle replaced the fife and drum ensemble in the American ranks. In 1867 bugle calls for the U.S. armed forces, mostly patterned after French models, were codified and standardized into a form that largely survives today.
Although the electronic age has largely relegated bugle calls to ceremonial functions, they can still be resurrected if power or circuits fail. Communist Vietnamese forces used bugle calls in two 20th-century Indochina wars. The Chinese, who lacked modern radio communications, also used bugles during the 1950-53 Korean War. American soldiers and Marines were quite unnerved by the haunting sound of the Chinese bugle calls, stylistically alien to their ears, echoing among the dark hills around them. Their function was, in fact, the same as it had been in the 16th century, but the psychological effect revived that of the ram’s horn millennia earlier.
While burgeoning technology eclipsed the need for music to accompany movement on the battlefield by the mid-20th century, it remained an effective means by which states could manipulate the morale, energies and attitudes of armies and indeed entire populations. Perhaps it is difficult for 21st-century media cynics to look back on the quaint ditties that were popular in World War I and comprehend just how powerful a song such as Over There could be as a motivator of patriotism. Nevertheless, the classic songs of that period crystallized and gave form to an enormous amount of inchoate popular emotion.
It was during World War II, however, when both radio and cinema had become mature, ubiquitous technologies, that it became possible for governments to impress the art of music wholly into their service. Marches were still effective in all their customary roles, and the popular song again became the vehicle for knee-jerk sentiments. Most historians of popular culture agree that World War II’s pop songs were curiously inferior to those of World War I — few outlived their brief moment, and most have become dated to the point of embarrassment — but World War II was also the first time that classical music was mobilized as a weapon of war.
The Allies co-opted a prize from the Axis by adopting as their trademark the opening notes of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 — three Gs and an E-flat, corresponding to three dots and one dash in Morse code — to signify V for Victory. That musical signature served as a recurring leitmotif in Allied films, concerts and countless other forms of propaganda. How it must have galled Josef Goebbels not to have thought of it first!
Every combatant nation had musicians willing to contribute what they could to the war effort. In the United States, everyone from Frank Sinatra to Leopold Stokowski gave War Bonds concerts and made recordings exclusively for the armed forces. Jazz leader Glenn Miller lost his life en route to play for troops overseas, and cornetist Jimmy McPartland landed on D-Day with the U.S. infantry.
Nothing generated greater support for the Soviet Union than the dramatic story surrounding the creation and export-under-fire of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, subtitled Leningrad. A frail man with a weak heart, the composer was told that his greatest service to the Motherland would be to continue practicing his art, rather than serving in the Red Army. In July 1941, however, with the Wehrmacht advancing on Leningrad, he began composing his seventh symphony between shifts as an air raid fireman and while under heavy aerial bombardment. In October the Kremlin ordered him flown out of the city to the wartime capital of Kuybyshev on the Volga River. There, he completed his symphony and dedicated it to Leningrad, which by then was undergoing the most frightful and protracted siege of modern times.
Worldwide interest in the new work ran high. The orchestral score was microfilmed and flown to the West in a dramatic odyssey that included top-secret stops at Tehran and Cairo. Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski nearly came to blows as they vied for the right to conduct its North American premiere. Toscanini ultimately outmaneuvered his rival, although he later dismissed the work as trash. American audiences received it ecstatically, however. Its opening movement, featuring a hypnotic 13-minute crescendo depicting the relentless Nazi advance, is a gripping musical impression of mechanized warfare, and its concluding movement is a thrilling paean to victory. In terms of generating political, emotional and financial support for the Soviet cause, that one piece of music was worth three or four Murmansk convoys.
Even though the German propaganda ministry was scooped on Beethoven’s Fifth, there was plenty of music left to work with. The Third Reich had inherited a treasure trove of musical culture, produced by an unbroken line of musical geniuses ranging from Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner to Anton Bruckner.
Wagner’s operas in particular were for Goebbels and his vast bureaucracy metaphors and symbols that could be used to lend prestige to the Nazi regime, and resonance to the blathering of its ideologues. Adolf Hitler was equated with the Wagnerian hero Siegfried. It was even rumored in the 1930s that Winifried Wagner, the composer’s daughter-in-law, was destined to become Hitler’s wife.
There were, of course, some untidy details in the picture of German music under the Nazis. Felix Mendelssohn’s music vanished overnight — in spite of his Catholic conversion, he remained a Jew in Nazi eyes — as did the music of Paul Hindemith (officially and inaccurately labeled a decadent modernist), who became a U.S. citizen. Germany’s other greatest living composer, Richard Strauss — by 1940 a crotchety, cynical old man — accommodated himself easily to the new regime. Pianist Walter Gieseking promoted German Kultur by means of tours in neutral countries. Other ambitious young men, such as conductor Herbert von Karajan, took advantage of the Reich’s cultural peculiarities to advance their careers in a manner they have since defended as apolitical, but which many historians have regarded as simply coldblooded.
The musical world has always had its own politics and frequently Byzantine backstage intrigues, but the greatest artists — whatever their medium — prefer to inhabit an inner, spiritual world that does not mix comfortably with ideological and political priorities. Thrown suddenly into a totalitarian society, such artists can be corrupted by their own naiveté — as was the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg, whose political instincts were those of an adolescent child, but who was exiled from his country in 1945 for collaboration. Or, left defenseless by their idealism, they can be crushed by the apparatus of the state.
In the case of German conductor Wilhelm Fürtwangler, probably the most profound interpreter of the Austro-German repertoire the world has ever known, that struggle reached tragic dimensions. Fürtwangler’s career was almost ruined, and his death in 1954 undoubtedly hastened, by worldwide accusations that he was a Nazi or at least a servant of the Reich. Overwhelming evidence has surfaced since the war, however, to cause him to be viewed more sympathetically. The product of a sheltered, highly cultured upbringing, for years he was simply unable to take the Nazis seriously. When he finally realized the extent of their evil, he fought them from within, taking upon himself the burden of trying to be the conscience of German civilization. As early as 1933, Fürtwangler lodged a public protest to Goebbels about the mistreatment of Jewish artists. Unwilling, due to Fürtwangler’s international fame, to move against him openly, Goebbels responded that those of us who are creating modern German politics consider ourselves artists…art can be not only good or bad, but racially conditioned….
As Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry assumed control over the press, theaters, cinemas and concert halls, the works of more than 100 impure composers vanished. The ranks of most orchestras were purged of their Jewish musicians, and such great musical artists as Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Artur Schnabel and Lotte Lehmann went into exile. Fürtwangler agonized over whether to follow his colleagues — had he done so, he could have had his pick of orchestras in the United States or unoccupied Europe. But he was unable to believe that his beloved homeland was unshakably in the grip of what he viewed as street-brawlers and psychopaths. Surely, he rationalized, if he could keep before the German people the ideal example of Beethoven’s music, then sanity would return to the nation. He therefore chose to stay and mount a one-man spiritual resistance. I felt that a really great work of music was a stronger and more essential contradiction to the spirit of Auschwitz than words could ever be, he wrote after the war. It proved to be a noble but naive attitude, and it was totally misunderstood by many outsiders. Just before war broke out, Fürtwangler visited composer Arnold Schönberg, whose music had been banned. Torn between fleeing or remaining in Germany, the tormented conductor cried, What must I do? Calmly, sadly, Schönberg replied, You must stay and conduct great music.
Fürtwangler did more than that. He publicly fought the Nazis on such issues as banning Hindemith’s music and the 1939 order to dissolve the Vienna Philharmonic, which was rescinded due to his passionate intervention. He used his influence and international contacts to save the lives of many Jewish musicians, and obstinately refused to honor Nazi protocol demanding that every conductor begin his concerts with the raised-arm salute — an insult that raised audience applause and made Hitler seethe with rage. In regard to conducting in occupied countries, Fürtwangler wrote Goebbels, I do not wish to follow tanks into countries in which I have formerly been an invited guest.
Although Fürtwangler’s prestige protected him to some degree, the Gestapo was prepared to arrest his entire family if he showed any sign of fleeing the country. The defiant conductor must have known that, even as he knew that his telephones were tapped and his mail tampered with. In the final weeks of the war, Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler, who hated him far more than Goebbels did, determined to take the conductor down with the regime. Fürtwangler escaped to Switzerland just hours ahead of the Gestapo order for his arrest.
By 1945, the use of music to fuel German morale reached a saturation level. For some reason, Les Préludes by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt — whose romantic works had, after all, influenced his son-in-law, Richard Wagner — was always used to accompany film footage of dive bombers. Les Préludes was also used as a signature theme for the Sondermeldung, or special announcements, that periodically interrupted normal radio programming to announce victories, after the reading of which a snappy contemporary march would be played. We’re Marching Against England was played ad nauseam in 1940-41, then quietly replaced by anti-Bolshevik themes when the Wehrmacht moved east instead of across the Channel. There was a carefully nurtured atmosphere of ceremony surrounding those broadcasts Goebbels considered it vitally important that this image be preserved, even after the tide of war had obviously turned against the Reich. When a weekly magazine had the audacity to print a photograph of the recording used to herald the Sondermeldung announcements, Goebbels threatened the editors with a long vacation in a concentration camp.
In spite of Goebbels’ calculated efforts, the Brownshirt marches that set feet a-tapping in 1934 had started to grate on people’s nerves by 1944. Germans made bitter jokes about them. The light music programs that were piped throughout the Reich as a kind of Muzak had to drop Dancing Together Into Heaven from their play lists when Allied bombing raids lent them a measure of ghoulish irony. Mozart’s Requiem was banned as too depressing. Operas such as Beethoven’s Fidelio and Giacchino Rossini’s William Tell, with their themes of liberty triumphing over tyranny, were eventually suppressed. Jazz and swing music, naturally, were verboten.
Wounded heroes back from the Russian Front were not only rewarded with Iron Crosses but with passes to the Wagner Festival at Bayreuth — possibly not the ideal way to spend one’s furlough, especially if the featured opera chanced to be the 17-hour-long Der Ring des Nibelungen. Orchestras gave concerts in the Krupp munitions plants, although how much spiritual sustenance the undernourished, exhausted tank assemblers might have derived from those events is open to question. Round-the-clock radio broadcasts constantly featured the works of great Aryan composers. In order to broadcast the lengthy symphonies of Anton Bruckner without interruption, German technicians made the first significant use of magnetic tape as a recording medium. Allied intelligence personnel, monitoring those broadcasts in the wee hours of the morning and unaware of the new tape technology, assumed that Goebbels kept ordering the entire Berlin Philharmonic out of bed at 3 a.m. to play live concerts.
In his novel War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy observed that the effectiveness of an army is the product of the mass multiplied by something else by an unknown ‘X’….the spirit of the army. Throughout history, music has had the effect of raising that unknown ‘X’ by a considerable power. What was true of the Saracens during the Crusades remained true during later conflicts. In 1861, at the outset of the American Civil War, a young South Carolina private wrote after an especially rousing concert: I have never heard or seen such a time before. The noise of the men was deafening. I felt at the time that I could whip a whole brigade of the enemy myself!
What works for a regiment can be made to work on a national level, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the skill and persuasiveness of the manipulation. Even the horrors of modern warfare have proved easier to bear when their struggles are identified with and ennobled by great music. In 1942, on a nameless killing ground on the Russian Front, a diary was found in the pocket of a dead German soldier who had just returned from leave in Berlin. One of the last entries concerned a concert he had attended. Last night I heard a performance of Bruckner’s Ninth, the young man had written, and now I know what we are fighting for!
This article was written by William R. Trotter and originally published in the June 2005 issue of Military History magazine.
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Delivering the Mail Was Once One of the Riskiest Jobs in America
On May 15, 1918, as hundreds of thousands of American troops fought from the trenches of Western Europe, a small number of U.S. Army pilots took on a domestic mission. Though they worked in the skies above East Coast cities, far from the carnage of World War I, their task was life-threatening, and it was as crucial to the nation’s psyche as any conflict fought on foreign soil. While their peers carried bombs across the Atlantic, these men carried the mail.
On a gloomy Wednesday morning, thousands of spectators gathered in Washington, D.C., to witness what would be the world’s first regularly scheduled airmail service. As the crowd in Potomac Park buzzed with excitement, President Woodrow Wilson stood with the pilot, Second Lieutenant George Leroy Boyle. The two men chatted for a few minutes, Wilson in a three-piece suit and bowler hat, Boyle in his leather flying cap, a cigarette in his mouth. The president dropped a letter in Boyle’s sack, and the pilot took off for his journey from Washington to New York, with plans to stop in Philadelphia for delivery and refueling. The flight, however, never made it to the City of Brotherly Love.
With only a map laid across his lap to guide him on his northbound journey, Boyle turned southeast shortly after takeoff. Realizing his mistake, he landed in a soft field in Waldorf, Maryland, damaging his propeller. Officials from the United States Post Office Department, the predecessor to the United States Postal Service, drove the load of mail back to D.C., and unceremoniously put it on a train to New York. Two days later, after blowing a second chance to fly the mail north and making an emergency landing in Cape Charles, Virginia, Boyle’s time with the Post Office came to an inglorious end.
Boyle may not have been the Army’s best pilot, but his misadventures highlight just how bold of a decision it was to begin airmail service at a time when flight was still in its infancy. “There was a rather general feeling that aviation was not yet sufficiently advanced to maintain mail schedules by airplanes,” said Otto Praeger, the Second Assistant Postmaster General, in a 1938 interview. “Strangely enough, some well known aircraft manufacturers themselves doubted the advisability of embarking upon a regular airmail service, and a number of them came to Washington to urge me not to undertake the project.” But Praeger stayed the course, determined to make airmail “like the steamship and the railroad, a permanent transportation feature of the postal service.”
The Post Office Department's logo for the new service, a pair of wings carrying the globe, continued to be synonymous with airmail after operations were turned over to private companies in the late 1920s. (National Postal Museum) Following the 1933 short film, The Mail Pilot, Disney authorized a little Mickey Mouse mail pilot toy that was manufactured in the late 1930s with “Mickey’s Air Mail” inscribed on the wings. (Nancy Pope, National Postal Museum) Released in 1929, this Parker Brothers board game included metal airmail planes, an airmail route map of the United States and letters that had to be delivered. With a roll of the dice, players competed to be the first pilot to deliver their six letters and win the game. (National Postal Museum) This 1928 Parker Brothers game is played with cards that represent cities along early airmail routes. Players tried to obtain the right sequence of cities along the route, while pulling cards that caused delays from fog, storm and sleet. (National Postal Museum)
Unfortunately, indelibly changing the nature of mail delivery came with serious risk for the pilots involved. Of the roughly 230 men who flew mail for the Post Office Department between 1918 and 1927, 32 lost their lives in plane crashes. Six died during the first week of operation alone.
“They all understood the bargain they had made: risking their lives to get the mail where it needed to go,” says Nancy Pope, curator of the National Postal Museum’s new “Postmen of the Skies” exhibition, a commemoration of U.S. Air Mail’s 100th anniversary. “Businesses, government, banks, people—mail was how communication happened in America. This was not a universe where you’re sending a postcard to your grandma because she doesn’t like to text.”
From cover stories in the Saturday Evening Post to Mickey Mouse cartoons and board games, the new airmail service captured the imagination of the American public. Recognizing this widespread enthusiasm, the Post Office Department released a special delivery stamp featuring a blue Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) biplane inside a red frame. When 100 were accidentally printed upside down, the “Inverted Jenny” quickly became one of the most sought-after collector’s items in history. Today, a single Jenny can bring in more than $500,000. At the May 1 opening of “Postmen of the Skies,” authors Kellen Diamanti and Deborah Fisher released a book on the history of the Inverted Jenny, entitled Stamp of the Century, and the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a commemorative Forever Stamp featuring a similar blue-and-red aviation scene.
Everyone was talking about airmail, and it was the pilots who were the superstars of this early 20th-century cultural phenomenon. “These guys were the astronauts of their age,” says Pope. The Post Office received hundreds of applications, many from men who had no flying experience but were “eager to learn.”
Hobbled by a broken nose sustained in a plane crash a few days prior, Jack Knight saved U.S. Air Mail with his night flight, in a storm, over unfamiliar territory, landing triumphantly in Chicago. (National Postal Museum)
They all wanted to become household names, following in the footsteps of the famous Jack Knight, the man who saved airmail.
Knight’s story began in the late winter of 1921. By then, the Post Office Department’s airplanes were going coast to coast, but with neither illuminated landing fields nor lights on the aircraft, the flights could only deliver mail during the day. Without advanced navigation systems, pilots had to rely on terrestrial features—mountains, rivers, and railroads—to guide their way. One would fly from Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, to Cleveland, for example, land, and put the mail on an overnight train to Chicago. The next day, another pilot would fly the mail to Iowa City or Des Moines, put it on another train, and so on, until it reached San Francisco. Congress was not impressed by the complicated relay, seeing the whole process as inefficient, and it threated to defund the service.
Knowing his cherished airmail may be in its final hour, Otto Praeger organized a well publicized demonstration in which teams would fly day and night to transport their precious cargo. On February 22, 1921, George Washington’s birthday, two planes left New York heading west, and two left San Francisco heading east. The westward-bound flights were grounded by heavy snow in Cleveland and Chicago. One of the eastward-bound pilots crashed and died taking off from Elko, Nevada. That left only Jack Knight, hobbled by a broken nose, bruises and the effects of a concussion he had sustained when his mail plane crashed into a snow-covered peak in Wyoming's Laramie Mountains a few days earlier.
Knight was supposed to fly only from North Platte, Nebraska, to Omaha, but when he arrived, a snowstorm was descending upon the Midwest and his relief pilot was nowhere to be found. He was left with a choice: give up, and accept Air Mail’s demise, or fly at night, in blizzard conditions, over territory that he had never even traveled during the day. Knight chose hazard—and glory—eventually touching down in Iowa City, where workers had lit barrels of gasoline to outline the landing field. By the time he refueled and was ready to continue east, it was dawn. He landed in Chicago to a barrage of reporters, and Congress soon voted to continue funding Air Mail.