Bruce Springsteen, "Death To My Hometown"

>> Thursday, May 24, 2012

To-ing and fro-ing on the President's recent round of attack ads assailing Mitt Romney's time at Bain Capital. The President has doubled down, which I suppose he ought to; Romney, meanwhile, can't justify his own promotion of his Bain time as a résumé asset.

This is all cotton candy, really. It's a bullshit discussion because Romney's big argument, that running a business is somehow a qualification for him to run a country, is complete horseshit. But it's horseshit that some people gobble up with--forgive me--shit-eating grins because of the way we fetishize laissez-faire capitalism these days. So the President's counter-offensive, to the extent it's factually accurate is a thing-that-should-not-be, a rebuttal to incoherency; I guess he has to make it, it just seems pointless.

George W. Bush had private-sector experience, and he was a shitty president. You know I don't think much of Ronald Reagan, but conservatives love him, and he never ran a business a day in his life so far as I know. Conservatives loathe Jimmy Carter, and he and his wife successfully turned a struggling family farm into a thriving agricultural concern. Abraham Lincoln, arguably America's greatest president, was a complete failure as a businessman during the brief period--less than a year--he made a go of it, which may have contributed to his seeking public-sector employment. I mean, I could go on and on and on.

At some point in my lifetime, this bizarre meme entered American popular politics, that "business experience" somehow had anything at all to do with effective public service. It may have been during Ross Perot's campaign, when the two chief things anybody could say about Perot were "successful businessman" and "batshit crazy", and one of those would have looked pretty funny on a campaign poster. And now we have lots and lots of aspiring and serving politicians who will talk about their corporate or small business experience and say it gives them some kind of special insight into how things work; and this weird converse to that, which is that perfectly experienced public sector people will minimize their experience working in government and nonprofits (ironically, even Romney does this: he doesn't hide his gubernatorial service or work with nonprofits, and will even mention it himself sometimes, but it doesn't seem to be something he focuses on).

The United States is not a corporation. The United States is not a business. Corporations may have charters, but they don't have constitutions. The point in having a corporation is to engage in business in a manner that is profitable and limits the personal liability of investors. The point in having a government is to do things like promote the general welfare, keep the peace, enforce the laws, defend the nation from hostile powers, etc. These aren't even apples and oranges we're comparing, these are animals and minerals we're trying to hold side-to-side.

If Mitt Romney gets elected President, he's not going to be able to lay off Congress because their division isn't showing significant growth over the last quarter. If he's able to get a damn thing done (for good or ill), he'll most likely fall back on the cat-herding experience he racked up as a state governor before he needs a single thing he might have learned at Bain Capital.

Most likely, we have to say, because the truth is there's actually no job in the world, public or private, that offers any real preparation for being President of the United States. This is the most absurd thing about the kinds of discussions people generally have about whether one's résumé shows one has what it takes to lead the free world. The Presidency is a job where you're having a nice little photo op with a bunch of little kids and trying to promote your educational agenda (because you want to go down in history as the education president, natch), and some guy walks over and whispers in your ear that persons unknown have just wrecked a bunch of passenger jets full of people into three buildings and a fourth plane is unaccounted for. It's the job where you're having a nice enough Sunday evening when someone knocks on the door to let you know the Japanese have just bombed the fuck out of Pearl Harbor and they don't know how many men, ships and planes have been lost but apparently we're at war, sir. It's a job where your first day at work can involve standing in the back of a plane with one hand on the Bible and your predecessor's brains all over his wife who's standing next to you, and someone's going to get back to you in a minute-or-less when they find out whether or not there are Soviet bombs on their way or do we need to invade Cuba now or was it just Some Random Guy-With-A-Gun.

If you want to talk about résumés, I guess I have to point out that there's exactly one job on the entire Earth that will prepare you for serving as President Of The United States Of America, and you'll be shocked to read that job is serving as the fucking President Of The United States Of America. So if we want to make this a discussion about job experience over anything else, President Obama's already won that discussion. There may be a salient and even a prevailing argument that Mitt Romney's inexperience is trumped by other considerations--I'm not buying, but I'll let you make it if you want. But the idea that Romney is more qualified because he was a successful capitalist a while back when isn't it.

I wish in vain we could move on, already.


Nick from the O.C.,  Thursday, May 24, 2012 at 6:34:00 PM EDT  

Yep. Cogently argued and well written.

The thing is, as far as I can tell, the phase "experienced business person" is code for "will take a common sense approach to governance, unlike those overly educated and elitist professional public servants."

I think Tom Clancy employed this meme to some effect in "Debt of Honor" when he had Jack Ryan, successsful stock trader and venture capitalist (and historian and CIA analyst and National Security Adviser), implement common sense approaches to solving problems that the professional politicians had previously found to be intractable.

Come to think of it, I'm asserting here (for the first time), that Tom Clancy started the meme.

Anyway, good stuff!

Warner Friday, May 25, 2012 at 8:44:00 AM EDT  

" there's actually no job in the world, public or private, that offers any real preparation for being President of the United States. "

You used present tense, so technically correct, but Eisenhower had a job that at least prepared him and may have been more difficult. Note I can only think of the one single example.

And Bush II was a dreadful businessman.

Eric Friday, May 25, 2012 at 11:36:00 AM EDT  

Warner, I'd still contend that Eisenhower isn't an exception: I agree that he had an extraordinary difficult job that involved logistics, politics, and all sorts of considerations overlapping with the President's portfolio as Commander-In-Chief. But Ike didn't have to deal with a domestic agenda and was at or near the top of an organized command structure that didn't and doesn't operate the way the civilian bureaucracy does. And while Eisenhower had tough, life-and-death decisions to make as a General that were his and his alone, he nevertheless had someone above him who was ultimately even more responsible for more decisions, to whom he had to defer and who wielded the power to rescind authority delegated to him if circumstances required.

As a specific f'r'instance, Eisenhower played no role in the decision to develop the atomic bomb, the choice of targets, and the decision to actually deploy it--all in a decision process involving President Roosevelt and subsequently President Truman, General George Marshall, and other select military and civilian members of the American high command and Manhattan Project.

That isn't to downplay the toughness of Eisenhower's job, and I'd agree some of the skills he put to use in WWII were useful during his Presidential terms. But I suspect even he would have agreed they were unique and distinct jobs.

Nick from the O.C.,  Friday, May 25, 2012 at 4:20:00 PM EDT  


Not to drop a bomb into the discussion, but a couple of rhetorical questions for consideration.

1. By what document did President Truman order the uranium bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima? To whom was it written? On what date?

2. Both MacArthur and Eisenhower were made aware of the new bomb prior to its use. You are correct that neither military leader played a significant role in the choice of target or the decision to use the new bomb. What position do you think each General took with respect to dropping the bomb on Hiroshima?

(I have long been fascinated by the Manhattan Project and its role in shaping our modern world. I would be happy to answer my own questions, but what's the fun of that? There are lots of histories out there, many written based on documents declassified in the mid-1990's. Fascinating stuff!)

Eric Friday, May 25, 2012 at 5:06:00 PM EDT  

Do you know, Nick, I confess I don't know the answer to either of your questions, though if they're rhetorical, they don't have answers. It may be that Rhodes covered that and I've simply forgotten in the twenty years since I read his history.

Feel free to educate me. I am very, very weary this afternoon.

Nick from the O.C.,  Friday, May 25, 2012 at 9:10:00 PM EDT  

Answers, since you asked.

1. Truman never issued any order to any military authority to drop the atomic bomb. He may have given verbal direction, but nothing in writing. And no diary or autobiography or biography of any military official ever stated that such an order was received.

2. Both MacArthur and Eisenhower urged that the bomb not be used, as Japan was essentially defeated in August 1945. They thought that once the Russians defeated the Japanese on the mainland, that would be it.

Revisionist history? Yes. But based on declassified documents.

Apologies for any pedantry.

Warner Saturday, May 26, 2012 at 9:29:00 AM EDT  

I would have to go dig stuff out of the basement, but I have the recollection that Tinian (sp) and LeMay were under Nimitz not MacArthur. Plus the strategic Air Force was only nominally under the theater Supreme Commander.

My father's unit was the the AF unit scheduled to be in the first AF wave in the invasion, as they had already done North Africa.

I've seen no real evidence that the Japanese were close to surrender, although I've seen claims of such. The fighting on the last island, Okinawa (?) was certainly bloody enough. And there was an attempt at a palace coup to prevent the Emperor's recorded surrender message from being broadcast.

A demonstration might have worked, but I would point out that Hiroshima alone didn't.

Eric Saturday, May 26, 2012 at 11:50:00 AM EDT  

Pulled out my copy of Rhodes' The Making Of The Atomic Bomb, one of the definitive histories in my opinion. Yes, Eisenhower was against using the bomb--but, more relevant to my original point, he was also explicit that it wasn't his decision. Rhodes quoting Eisenhower:

The cable [regarding the success at Trinity] was in code, you know the way they do it. "The lamb is born: or some damn thing like that. So then he [Secretary Of War Henry Stimson] told me they were going to drop it on the Japanese. Well, I listened, and I didn't volunteer anything because, after all, my war was over in Europe and it wasn't up to me. But I was getting more and more depressed just thinking about it. Then he asked for my opinion, so I told him I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn't necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon. Well ... the old gentleman [Stimson] got furious. And I can see how he would. After all, it had been his responsibility to push for all the huge expenditure to develop the bomb, which of course he had a right to do, and was right to do. Still, it was an awful problem.

-Richard Rhodes, The Making Of The Atomic Bomb (Touchstone Books, 1986), p. 688 [emphasis added; ellipsis in the original].

Three more points not relevant to the original post, but regarding the bomb:

1) The contention that the Japanese were about to surrender is at best dubious. I agree with Warner's points. This doesn't justify dropping the bomb or dropping it on either Hiroshima or Nagasaki instead of merely demonstrating it or choosing a purely military target. And it may be that there were alternatives to a bloody island-to-island ground war.

2) I'm a little surprised, Nick, by the weight you give Eisenhower's and MacArthur's opinions about the Soviets winning the Pacific War on the Asian mainland. Not because of whether they were right or not (n.b. however that the Russians have a long record of failure to win wars in Asia going back at least as far as 1905; they were and are a European power and long lacked the ability to transport men and materiel east), but because I thought it was fairly settled that this was an outcome the United States didn't want. American postwar Pacific plans in 1945 involved fortifying Chiang Kai-shek's tenuous hold on China and neutralizing non-American influences (there was some disagreement in Washington over whether neutralizing non-American influences in Asia included restoring colonies to our Western allies or dismantling the prewar colonial system and creating independent Asian trade partners). The last thing we wanted, in any case, was to turn Manchuria into Germany, with Allied zones of control--we wanted Manchuria in the hands of the Chinese and the Chinese in our pocket. (Naturally, this almost completely backfired for the Americans--and for the Soviets--because the United States overestimated the Nationalists' capability to hold their own and the Soviets overestimated Chinese Communist fealty to a nation they mistrusted, already knew would be a source of border problems, and all-in-all considered a mere ally of convenience.)

3) Related to (2), there's a widespread consensus (which I happen to agree with) that the primary point of the atomic bombing of Japan wasn't merely a matter of speeding up the Japanese surrender, but also a matter of trying to intimidate the Soviets. Not really all that successful a project, in retrospect, but nonetheless.

Nick from the O.C.,  Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 5:21:00 PM EDT  

I see I did drop a bomb onto the thread, completely derailing it. My sincere apologies.

My point, however inarticulately made, was that the military consensus was that the Japanese were essentially defeated in July 1945. The politicians may have had other thoughts in mind, which is why the (tentative) Japanese efforts to negotiate a surrender with terms was rejected.

All the more ironic, then, that the actual surrender, negotiated after the dropping of both the uranium and plutonium bombs, was negotiated on much the same terms that had been rejected earlier.

As I noted, a lot of my thinking has been colored by histories published after 1995--i.e., after declassification of many documents. Detractors call it revisionist history, and perhaps it is. But I'm convinced.

Happy to recommend several books for additional reading, for those interested in purusing and pursuing.

Again, sorry to derail.


Eric Sunday, May 27, 2012 at 10:23:00 PM EDT  

No apology needed, Nick. It was an interesting discussion, probably more interesting than the original post.

Warner Monday, May 28, 2012 at 8:14:00 AM EDT  

Nick, I would be interested in the titles.

warner (at) wwjohnston (dot) com will not clutter up Eric's comments, and I'm more likely to see it.

Eric Monday, May 28, 2012 at 11:18:00 AM EDT  

Nick, please feel free to post the titles here, too.

Nick from the O.C.,  Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 10:53:00 AM EDT  

Don't want y'all to think I'm ignoring you. Titles will be posted later tonight (pacific time).


Nick from the O.C.,  Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at 9:56:00 PM EDT  

I have roughly 20 books on my bookshelf about the Manhattan Project and the ending of WWII. It was the Feynman stories that got me interested, and the controversy at the Smithsonian that spurred my interest. Here are three books that significantly influenced my thinking on the subject of the dropping of the bombs on Japan--

1. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb, Gar Alperovitz, Vintage Books, 1996.

2. Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy, Edited by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, The Pamphleteer's Press, 1998.

3. Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, Robert J. Lifton and Greg Mitchell, Grosset/Putnam, 1995.

To be clear, I do not have a lot of moral qualms about the actual dropping of the bombs. Dudes, it was war. However, I have been fascinated by the development of the atomic bomb and the "spin" that was developed over time to justify its use.

From my readings on the bombs, I also found some amazing biographies of the Post-WWII power elite, including The Color of Truth and The Chairman, both written by Kai Bird and highly recommended.

Warner Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 8:29:00 AM EDT  

I've no moral problems with the use of the atomic bomb, but as said above, my father was slated for that invasion. His unit was on a troop train enroute to the west coast in August 45, it just stopped.

Will check the books.

Eric Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 11:42:00 AM EDT  

Thanks for the recommendations, Nick.

The "moral qualms" issue is an interesting one: the atomic bombs were weapons of total war, and total war is a horrific and reprehensible thing even if one has to decide it's ultimately a necessary thing. But one of the problematic things about their use is a problem of what I would call moral pragmatism: by using such horrific weapons, we gave the people responsible for the Rape Of Nanjing, Nazi-calibre human medical experiments, POW atrocities and other such horrors some hook to hang victimization on; to some degree we sacrificed some level of moral high ground by using a weapon that may or may not have been necessary to end the war and avert more death and destruction.

An further pointed irony in that matter being that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the worst atrocities committed by the Allies in WWII--the firebombing of Tokyo was equally or more horrific (indeed, estimated death tolls from the firebombing of Tokyo are higher than the estimated deaths from the Nagasaki bomb and comparable to those of the Hiroshima bomb) and the more infamous firebombing of Dresden, while it almost certainly resulted in far fewer fatalities, was awful as well. But the A-bombs loom large in the postwar psyche for all sorts of reasons ranging from the destruction wrought from a mere pair of devices to the near-constant omnipresence of nuclear terror throughout the Cold War.

The moral pragmatism issue is one thing, perhaps a separate thing from the morality of dropping an A-bomb on a largely civilian city as an act of war. But that issue is, I think, far murkier: one doesn't really get the option of simply saying that it was wrong to drop A-bombs on civilians (although it was) without having to acknowledge what the other options were, including the options of conventional or incendiary bombings and the bloodshed of a land invasion.

And the argument that the Japanese were going to surrender anyway is something that has two unpleasant horns to get caught on. First, that's it's simply a debatable proposition (sorry, but it is). And second, that there's always the question of who knew or thought what when, which is never as simple as it can be made out to be by simply producing documents that favor one side of it or the other. Those intelligence documents and memoranda and such are only incomplete snapshots, at best, and they don't quite capture the weight that someone might have felt on his shoulders when evaluating equally uncertain options--"Perhaps the Japanese will surrender, but if this is wrong, how many soldiers will we need to risk and what will the Soviets do meanwhile? How long do we wait? What if this intel is wrong?"

I am reminded of a fine book of essays, edited by Michael J. Neufeld, Michael Berenbaum and called The Bombing of Auschwitz: Should the Allies Have Attempted it?, which attempts to present both sides of that question from a variety of approaches--intelligence, logistic, moral, political; and the ironic thing about the book in toto, although I think the editors (despite their attempts to be equivocal) subtly favor the argument that the Allies should have bombed the train tracks if not the camp itself, is that it inadvertently answers the question through the debate itself: if some the best historic and military minds of the postwar era, operating with perfect hindsight and access to documents from all sides, can't come to a consensus over the matter, it seems grossly unfair to blame any commander or head of state enshrouded in the fog of war for dithering or deciding to take what must have seemed a safer and more certain path.

The same might be said for the American decision to use the bomb, I think.

Nick from the O.C.,  Wednesday, May 30, 2012 at 5:48:00 PM EDT  

Eric, I have no problems with your analysis. We look backwards with our moral binoculars set on 20/20 and that's not fair to the folks involved at the time. Which is why I tried to clarify that I'm not judging.

What's more interesting (to me, anyway) is the way the decision was morally justified after the fact by certain folks, based on novel theories such as lives saved (when compared to debatable hypothetical casualty figures). The history of the "lives saved" justification has been the subject of several articles. I daresay many (if not most) modern historians of the period devalue its moral authority or even dismiss it entirely at this point in time.

Which is not to say that the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima was,itself, an immoral act--for all the reasons you list and more.

But speaking of the horns of the dilemma, the issue is this: The Japanese had actually tried to surrender and their attempts were rejected. Then the bomb was dropped. Then the other bomb was dropped. Then the Japanese offer of surrender was accepted on terms that were very similar to those that had been rejected a short while earlier.

At least, that's how I understand the chronology. NOTE: NOT a degreed, professional, historian.

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