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Marie Curie, Lise Meitner, and Jeanette Rankin

In recognition of the hysterical—-um, historic–election in the US tomorrow, I thought I’d talk about a few ladies who made history with connections to 7 November: two were born and a third set a precedent in the US Congress.  Oh, sure, there was Tsingtao and Yarmouth in 1914, and there was Tippecanoe in 1811, and Belmont in 1861, but today is Ladies’ Day here.  For what it’s worth…

Maria Salomea Skłodowska was born in Warsaw in what was then the Kingdom of Poland, which was a part of Russia, on 7 November 1867.  She got some of her initial schooling at the clandestine Flying (or Floating) University in Warsaw before she moved to Paris in 1891 where she met and married Pierre Curie. Between teaching and writing the Curies put together enough of a living to scrape by until 1903, when the Curies and Henri Becquerel were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. Marie Curie (as she was known in France) was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.  In 1906 Pierre was killed in a road accident, but in 1911 she was awarded a second Nobel Prize in Physics for her isolation of radium and polonium.  She was the first person to win two Nobels, and the only woman to win two.

Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Liese (originally Elise) Meitner was born in Vienna, in what was then Austria-Hungary, on 7 November 1878.  Unlike Marie Curie, Meitner was unable to obtain much of a formal early education, but instead got her early training externally, through tutors and testing…what today would be deemed “homeschooling.” She was the second woman to earn a PhD from the University of Vienna, gaining that distinction in 1905.  Listening to lectures by Max Planck at the Friedrichs-Wilhelms-Universitat in Berlin, she was drawn to the work of Otto Hahn as one of Planck’s assistants.  Together they discovered radioactive recoil, a key concept in nuclear fission. By 1938, Meitner had lost her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because she was a Jew, and had fled to Sweden. She was there in 1939 when fission was announced by Hahn and Fritz Strassman: her considerable contribution to fission work before 1936 was not mentioned in Hahn’s Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1944.  Subsequent historical research has concluded that Meitner was, indeed, wrongly deprived of the honor she was due.

By 1938, Meitner had lost her position at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute because she was a Jew, and had fled to Sweden.

With World War One raging in Europe, the American elections of 1916 were still fairly closely contested.  As Woodrow Wilson was reelected in part based on the slogan “he kept us out of the war,” the President-re-elect knew that it was only a matter of time before America would have to choose a side.  But on the same day, Jeannette Pickering Rankin, a suffragette/social worker and influential lecturer, was elected to represent Montana’s 1st Congressional district, the first woman to ever hold federal elective office in the United States.  Rankin took her seat on 4 March 1917.  The day before, the German foreign secretary Arthur Zimmerman acknowledged the authenticity of the telegram he sent to the Carranza government of Mexico that January, offering the return of Texas and Arizona if Mexico would go to war with the US.  The Zimmerman Telegram was a media sensation when it was released to the media on 18 February, 1917.  Combined with Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on 1 February, Wilson believed he had no choice but to ask Congress for a declaration of war on 2 April. After intense debate, Rankin was one of fifty members of the House to vote “no” on 4 April.  She later stated: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.” After losing her bid for reelection in 1920, Rankin finally re-entered Congress in 1940, and in December 1941 cast the only dissenting vote after FDR’s request to declare war on Japan.  “As a woman I can’t go to war,” she said to her detractors, “and I refuse to send anyone else.” She didn’t run for reelection in 1942, and was a peace activist until her death in 1973.

She later stated: “I felt the first time the first woman had a chance to say no to war, she should say it.”

As ironic as 7 November seems to be–two nuclear physicists born, one dyed-in-the-wool pacifist elected–as I write this the results of tomorrow’s election are unknown to me, but by the time you read this maybe we’ll know…or not, depending on how close it really is.  We shall see…

 

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3 November: Emperors and Cars and Frozen Peas

Normal people, of which I am not one, wouldn’t deign to put these topics together in a single blog entry, but…

On this day on 1852 a son named Mutsuhito was born in Japan who, in 1867, would ascend to the Chrysanthemum throne as the Emperor Meiji.  The tremendous structural changes that his reign would oversee would bring Japan from an isolated, agricultural, semi-feudal island state to world power status, defeating China and Russia in clockwork-like conflicts that thrust Japan onto the world stage.  By the time of his death in 1912, Japan had a manufacturing base unrivaled in Asia.

On 3 November 1900, the first ever automobile show ever held in the US opened in New York City’s Madison Square Garden.  About 150 different motor cars were on display from American pioneers now gone from the scene that included Duryea, Winton, Locomobile, Stanley, Columbia and Electric, as well as the more familiar Ford and Oldsmobile.  These were mostly steam and electric powered, but with a scattering of diesels and gasoline engines.  The show was well enough attended, but sales were not spectacular.  The modern  infrastructure for automobiles of any kind was still under construction, and would be decades before it was ready to support a large population of automobiles, regardless of how cheap they got.

Swiss race car driver Louis Chevrolet founded the Chevrolet Motor Car Company, with financing by Will Durant and William Little on 3 November 1911.  Starting with the Classic Six, Chevy grew to be the best-known passenger car brand by the end of the 20th century,  Able to manufacture roughly an automobile a second worldwide by 1960, Chevrolet, part of the General Motors Corporation since 1916, has been called the consumer-fueled rock upon which the foundation of the automotive industry rests.

Clarence Birdseye seems an unlikely character to join this list, but on this day in 1952 the company he started introduced the first flash-frozen peas to the US consumer market.  Peas were harder to flash-freeze than other vegetables, their form already somewhat mushy.  Birdseye had formed the firm in the 1920s and developed his flash-freezing methods first for fish and then for vegetables.  His active mind had moved on to other interests by the time frozen peas hit the market.

Other than the date, what connects these seemingly disparate events?  The Meiji presided over the expansion of Japan’s economy, and the superficial modernization of its society.  Unfortunately, he was unable to restrain or even modify the virulently nationalistic attitudes of the members of the former samurai class, which migrated into the army and the navy.  When he introduced his constitution to Japan, it was hailed as a landmark of moderation, but in practice it was a licence for the samurai to dominate.

At the same time, the United States was growing its automotive industry and developing its infrastructure based on consumer demand for inexpensive cars, and with it a manufacturing base unsurpassed by any other on earth, ever.  The Duryeas and Locomobiles fell out, but the General Motors’ kept on providing not only cars and trucks, but a pool of manufacturing and engineering knowledge that, come 1941, would eventually decide the contest in the Pacific that the Meiji would enable.  And the American forces, as they crossed vast oceans, were the best fed military organizations in history, provided in no small part by flash-frozen foods preserved by a process developed by a college dropout named Clarence Birdseye.

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Grant and Buckner: A Story of Fort Donelson

On the morning of 16 February 1862, Simon B. Buckner wrote a note to US Grant:

HEADQUARTERS, Fort Donelson
February 16, 1862.

Brig. Gen. U.S. GRANT,
Commanding U.S. Forces near Fort Donelson.

SIR: In consideration of all the circumstances governing the present situation of affairs at this station I propose to the commanding officers of the Federal forces the appointment of commissioners to agree upon terms of capitulation of the forces and post under my command, and in that view suggest an armistice until 12 o’clock to-day.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
S. B. BUCKNER,
Brigadier-General, C. S. Army.

Grant, commanding the Union army outside Fort Donelson, must have read the note with some sadness, and not a little despair.  His small force had suffered about a thousand casualties out of about 25,000 in a week of combat and bitter cold weather, was down to its last cracker and cartridge, and was riven by dissent in the upper command.  The Navy, which had done tremendous service the week before at Fort Henry, had withdrawn its gunboats, unable to reach the high bluffs with their big guns where Fort Donelson sat on the Cumberland River.  If pressed. Grant wasn’t certain he could take Fort Donelson by force.  But his family depended on him, and he could not withdraw.

HEADQUARTERS ARMY IN THE FIELD
Camp near Fort Donelson
February 16, 1862.

General S. B. BUCKNER,
Confederate Army.

        SIR: Yours of this date, proposing armistice and appointment of commissioners to settle terms of capitulation, is just received. No terms except unconditional and immediate surrender can be accepted. I propose to move immediately upon your works.

I am, sir, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
U.S. GRANT,
Brigadier-General, Commanding.

Writing his response likely caused Grant no end of pain.  Though his closest adviser, Charles F Smith, had told him “no terms the the damned rebels,” Grant was still torn.  In 1854, when Buckner and Grant were both officers on the California coast, Buckner had loaned Grant money to get home.  Grant had resigned his captain’s commission for reasons unclear to scholars to this day (the popular reason–drink–is under serious challenge with only anecdotal evidence to support it) and was pining to return to his family. Buckner was one of Grant’s best friends, and Grant didn’t have that many friends.

Buckner, a thorough military professional, probably received the note with some pain himself.  Just hours before he wrote his note to Grant, Buckner was third in command of Fort Donelson.  The senior officer, John B. Floyd, had been a governor of Virginia and a US Secretary of War.  He was also wanted in the North for corruption.  In a staff meeting that might have been funny in a Three Stooges act, Floyd passed the command to Gideon J. Pillow, who had beaten Grant at Belmont, Missouri the previous fall.  But Pillow,  though wounded and brevetted for his service in Mexico, was also under a cloud in the Union for graft.  Pillow passed the command of the fort to Buckner and joined Floyd in the small boat carrying them across the river with a few loyal retainers.  The night before, Nathan B. Forrest and about a thousand men took advantage of a thin escape route Pillow had opened the previous day.

Buckner commanded about 16,000 men (no one knew for certain how many), but without control of the river his rations would be gone in a week; his ammunition, less.  And though he knew Grant to be his friend, Grant was also known as a man of his word, there was no one with a better known reputation for determination and courage in the US Army than US Grant.

HEADQUARTERS,
Dover, Tenn.
February 16, 1862.

Brig. Gen. U.S. GRANT,
U.S. A.

        SIR: The distribution of the forces under my command incident to an unexpected change of commanders and the overwhelming force under your command compel me, notwithstanding the brilliant success of the Confederate arms yesterday, to accept the ungenerous and unchivalrous terms which you propose.

I am, sir, your very obedient servant,
S. B. BUCKNER,
Brigadier. General, C. S. Army.

Buckner likely didn’t see what else he could have done.  As they were taken into custody, the Confederates sullenly accepted their paroles and were released in a week.  But the name of “Unconditional Surrender” Grant rang from coast to coast as his star rose in the Union heavens.  It wasn’t the first time the phrase “unconditional surrender” was used during the war; the first was a Confederate demand that a tiny Federal garrison surrender an arsenal in Georgia.  But the press saw a beautiful harmonic in the phrase and Grant’s (not real) name.  Grant was born Hiram Ulysses, and was known in his youth as “Ulys.”  The name “Ulysses Simpson” (his mother’s maiden name) was one he accepted upon his entrance to West Point.

But no matter.  Buckner surrendered fully 5% of all the Confederate combat forces.  This staggering loss doomed middle Tennessee to Federal occupation, forced the evacuation of the state capital at Nashville, and provided the Union with a route into the Confederate west’s heartland.  Regardless of what happened in Virginia, where George B. McClellan was building a huge army of over 100,000 men, Grant was the current hero of the Union.

The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War tells the story of Fort Donelson and the struggle for Middle Tennessee in early 1862,  Available in paperback and PDF.

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An Unsolicited Review of The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War

Full disclosure: Jay D. Zollisch, (LTC, MI, USAR, Ret), the reviewer, is an old Army buddy of the author.

“From my view point this is a definitive book on the Civil War Battle of Shiloh.  If I were to read only one book on Shiloh this would be the book.  Why, because Johns book is so comprehensive and insightful.  The first 2 chapters set up the strategic influences that are going to come together to cause Shiloh.  The pre-Shiloh battles of Fort Donelson and Fort Henry are discussed, the different strategic objectives of the North and South and their lack of specific resources, the tradition and composition of the American militias, the peculiarities of the war in the West, the infantry and artillery weapons of our Civil War, how linear tactics were to evolve, and the importance of the American rivers in the Midwest as ‘travel and commerce waterways.’ All of this information flows nicely, and constitutes an excellent military PRIMER on the pre-Civil War soldier, logistics, officer quality, terrain,
and supporting government bureaucracies on both sides.

“After setting up these strategic influences, John drills down to discuss the operational level complexities.  All of the army, corp, divisional, brigade, and regimental commanders/units are noted with half page line and block charts.  All the key commanders are profiled so the reader can see some of their strengths, weaknesses, political influences, military experiences, and their specific contributions to the battle of Shiloh [especially Generals Grant, Sherman, Prentiss, Buell, Johnston, Breckinridge, and Beauregard].

“After setting the stage for the why, where, and who is going to fight, John narrates the Confederate pre-march and the Union camp setup immediately before the battle.  The actual battle scenes are narrated on a timeline basis, with Confederate action and Union reaction by corp, division, and regiment.  The reader gets a rare insight as to what happens when one militia army fights another militia army, and the following unique consequences to those type of soldiers ‘retreating and regrouping and who could lead them effectively’.  The battle flows are described in detail, the intentions of the flanking units revealed, and the perceptions and misperceptions of the higher level commanders identified.  There are ample battle position maps/charts in the book, to show the progression of regiments and brigades, every few hours.

“The research that went into this book, at all levels, is exhaustive but never boring.  If I were to make a documentary on the Battle of Shiloh, I would use this book as the format for Shiloh [and for any other Civil War battle].  I am a slow reader, but I could not put this book down and read it in 3 evenings, and this book goes into the top 10 category in my military library.  I highly recommend this book to all Civil War readers/historians.”  

The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War by John D. Beatty is available in paper back and PDF from Booklocker and other fine booksellers.

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The Founding of Japan and the Meiji Constitution

On 11 February in the year 660 BCE, it is said that the emperor Jimmu founded the empire of Japan.  Jimmu is said to have been descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu through her grandson Ninigi, and from the storm god Susanoo.  All of this is founded on myth, but far more reliable sources indicate that the Meiji emperor Mutsuhito’s constitution for the restored Japanese state/empire/arsenal was adopted on this date in 1889.

Most readers think “representative democracy” when they read the word “constitution,” but this is not always the case, and certainly it wasn’t for Japan.  The Meiji Constitution was a document that, by intent, ensured the tyranny of the hereditary samurai class by placing veto power for any policy in their hands, and their hands alone.  All the samurai had to do was withdraw their war minister (appointed from the ranks of the Army, samurai all), or later the navy minister (ditto) to force the imperial cabinet (selected from the Diet) to reform the government.  This they would do, repeatedly, when the governments–especially under the reign of Yoshihito, the weak Taisho emperor that followed the Meiji in 1912–did not support another of their unsanctioned outrages such as grabbing German territory in the Pacific at the outset of WWI, invading Manchuria, then China proper, in 1914, 1932 and 1937, respectively.  The process would be repeated during the reign of the Showa emperor Hirohito right up until 1941, when the appointment of General Tojo Hideki as prime minister obviated the need.

Most of the early 20th century was punctuated by assassinations, violent uprisings (food riots were common in japan, averaging two a year for the better part of a thousand years) and attempted coups d’état in Japan that everyone caught in the middle would support any measure that looked like it pointed to stability.  To the samurai, of course, this meant them running things.  And they “ran things” right up to August of 1945, when their emperor had had enough.

What Were They Thinking: A Fresh Look at Japan at War 1941-45 examines the political reality of the samurai against a backdrop of a world that moved beyond the need for them.  Available from fine booksellers everywhere.