Thoughts of November

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright Nov 2014


Thoughts on the Cold War era primary documents



The present is always an uncertain time. We can study the past to try and avoid repeating mistakes, but the present will always be full of surprises. These two post-World War Two documents, Kennan's Long Telegram and Novikov's Long Telegram, show us a bit about what the governments of the United States and Soviet Russia were thinking about each other after the war with Hitler had ended. With the finish of that great war, both sides were trying to figure out where they stood with the other, and both sides were trying to figure out what the other side intended to do next. Diplomats Nicolai Novikov and George F. Kennan wrote assessments of what the other side was up to that have become part of the history of that era. What we have here is a case of dueling "Long Telegrams" -- both of these documents have been described as long telegrams by some historians.

These two documents present points of view that with time became widely established within the two government circles. These documents show how documents can become historical icons for the thinking of a community, in this case the two governments.

The Kennan Long Telegram

Kennan was in Moscow when the State Department wanted "answers now" so he telegraphed them his thoughts. The basic idea he presented was that the Soviet Union version of Communism was inherently expansionistic. If the US didn't want that expansion to happen it would have to take action to contain it. He went on to say this expansionism was rooted in how the Communists ruled the USSR. It was in a fashion I describe in one of my essays as ruthless leadership. That leadership style depends on presenting the people of the community with the impression that there is a scary, threatening crisis in progress, and only by the current government being ruthless can the threat be defeated and tragedy be avoided.

In some of Kennan's writings, but it is not a big part of this piece, he also states that the Soviet system was unstable, and given time, it would collapse in on itself. In this piece, instead, he describes it as being a system that has a lot of flexibility in how it could achieve its expansionist goals -- if Plan A didn't work, it could quickly switch to Plan B.

The Novikov Long Telegram

As with Kennan, Novikov's superiors were looking for answers in a hurry. Curiously, while Novikov's work is called a telegram, based on what Wikipedia says about his whereabouts at writing time, he was back in Moscow. (It's a small point.)

Like Kennan, Novikov describes the policy makers in the opposition country (America) as expansionist. He says this policy is different from what was experienced during the war, and the difference is the difference between Roosevelt running things and Truman running things -- Roosevelt was a cooperator, Truman is a confronter. As evidence he points to how many military bases the US was establishing post-war. He also points out that the US has shouldered England out of the imperialism picture in the Far East. He wonders how much cooperation will really happen between the US and England in the future?

In sum, because of its new Truman-oriented government and their confrontational policies, America is now a threat to the Soviet Union.

The Context

World War Two had ended a year before. The terrifying threats of the Axis powers -- Germany, Italy and Japan -- were now gone. What was way up in the air was what this post-war world would be like? There was a lot of uncertainty. Who would prosper? Who else would wither? Now that the war stimulus was over, would the Great Depression (the "new normal" of that era) resume?

After a year it was clear that the US and USSR were going to be big powers, and it was going to take a long time for the former colonial powers -- Britain, France and the Netherlands -- to return to booming prosperity and power. This was allowing their former colonies and protectorates to get seriously restive. What should, and could, the Big Two do in this context?

This was the context within which these telegrams were written. It was clear that the US-USSR relation was going to be the most important for the remainder of the decade, if not longer. Time to call upon the diplomats for top secret assessment reports.

The Consequence

The mutual suspicions between the US and USSR were self-fulfilling. Because of the distrust, it was easy to see current events of the day in the context of the US and USSR doing sneaky things, as well as overt things, to support their side in combating the other side's expansionist tactics.

On the US side the CIA was envisioned as the main culprit in doing sneaky things. Two early examples that have become famous parts of history are the CIA intervening in government toppling in Iran (1953) and Guatemala (1954).

On the USSR side the Soviets were seen as overtly supporting the communist movements in central Europe, resulting in the "Iron Curtain", and secretly supporting those in other parts of the world, particularly those that were also anti-colonial, such as in China, Vietnam and Cuba.

The consequence was the collection of events we now call the Cold War era.


Historians sometimes say these papers created this thinking. I disagree with that. I say they were icons that well described the consensus thinking of those times and people. This describing well is why they became historic -- they were describing well what people of the time were feeling and basing their actions on.



On Revising & Contextualizing the History of this class


• Explain how this assignment has expanded and made more complex your understanding and approach to the study of history? How does your own historical context affect your response to the previous question?

Made it more complex? Well... it has demonstrated once again that there are many ways to look at an issue. But, in truth, the interesting part is not that history is being made more complex, it is the converse. What I see being taught is simplifying and editorializing history, not making it more complex.


• What other historical events that you have studied or are interested in might need revision in terms of how they are represented to students? Why do you think this for those topics/events? How does your own historical context affect your response to the previous question?

Based on what I have experienced in this class, and others at SLCC, there is an oversight in what is presented: Two additional things need to be kept in mind when discussing history:

o The historical context of the event, as in, what has or has not happened when this particular event happens. This is the "what was surprising"-theme that I bring up in class.

o The technological context of the event, as in, what technologies and resources are available to the participants of the event? This is important because it determines what physically can and can't happen in that historical context.

When these are left out, the history is happening in a vacuum, a vacuum that is filled with the opinions of historians who are writing about the events and the cultural trends of the day that are hot when the class is being presented. (This latter is called revisionist history.)

A current example is teaching that the Civil War was all about slavery and racism, from beginning to end. Based on what I have learned from other sources, and my own life experiences, and my understanding of the patterns of human thinking, the people experiencing the Civil War didn't feel that way! There were dozens of other issues wrapped up in the starting of that war. Another example: What brought these issues to a violent head in 1860 was a deep and world-wide bank panic in 1857. That scared everyone! But that history item is never talked about these days in Civil War discussions. I discovered it last year by reading current event articles about banking and economic history, after reading the articles I saw the pattern.

• How could your experiences working on this paper be applied in other contexts (personal, political, professional, academic, and/or a combination of all four)? Be specific.

These days I do a lot of reading about current events. As I do I discover patterns based on what is being reported today, and the history and science I have read over the many years of my life, and my own personal experiences. Using these I describe the new patterns I see and post the work on my White World web site.

An example from this class is reading about the Urban Crisis, and seeing how influential widespread home ownership was in discouraging Detroit's adapting to changing business and technology trends. I see this as the heart of the crisis. It is also a new example of a good intention producing a surprising bad result. This is something I have written extensively about in my latest book Goat Sacrificing in the 21st Century.

So, yes, I'm already using the techniques I have used to write this paper. They produce interesting results.



Thoughts on the civil rights era primary documents



The two source documents, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" (1963) by Martin Luther King Jr. and "Ballet or Bullet" (1964) by Malcolm X are both written by civil rights leaders during the heat of the mid-1960's Civil Rights movements. They reflect two different protesting styles for blacks trying to end racial discrimination in that era.

The Cultural Context

The 1960's were an era for lots of cultural change in the US. This was the time when the Baby Boomers were coming of age, and they were rebelling against the Cold War era conformity that their parents practiced. At the same time the blacks of America were once again actively trying to end racial discrimination.

(Related: I find it an interesting and unsolved mystery why the social damage caused by "Industrial Age Slavery" (my term) has been so hard to undue. Industrial Age slavery is the sort experienced when black Africans were moved to the Western Hemisphere as slaves to engage in agricultural occupations during the 1700's. I say this because Barbados, Haiti and the Southern US all experienced a similar form of migration, and all three spent many generations recovering after the slaves were freed. In all three the slaves were freed in the early/mid-1800's, and in all three the poverty and downtroddenness of the ex-slaves went on for many generations. Barbados blacks recovered in the 1950's, Haiti still hasn't recovered, and the Southern US started its final recovery in the 1960's -- the Civil Rights Era that these primary documents originated in.)

"Separate but Equal" Isn't Working

When the Reconstruction Era in The South ended without a successful integration of blacks and whites, a new governing philosophy was needed. What evolved was the concept of "separate but equal" -- blacks and whites would maintain themselves in separate societies, but they would be considered equal societies. In practice, the "separate" part was easy to maintain, but the "equal" part proved a lot more challenging.

As cultural change swept through America in the 1960's, liberals and blacks decided that it was time to embrace a new philosophy -- strong civil rights and integration. These concepts were the heart of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960's.

The Violent Context

This new philosophy was not easy to implement. These times were emotionally heated. In the years before these letters were written there was much unrest in the south. A year after Malcolm X penned his document there were massive, days-long, summer-time riots in the black ghettos of a dozen of America's major cities in the North and West. These summer riots happened again for another couple years. There was serious worry that the Second Civil War was about to become reality. In 1965 Malcolm X was assassinated by radical followers of the Nation of Islam, a group he had just parted ways with. In 1968 King was also assassinated, as was Robert Kennedy, John's brother. Heated times, indeed!

The King Document

King writes this as he is cooling his heels in a Birmingham jail. He is describing to some fellow clergymen why he is there and what his non-violence tactics are. In these he was inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, who pioneered these tactics in India. As Gandhi put it, the British were teaching the Indians how rule of law worked, and he used this to shape his protest tactics. Similar tactics served King and the other Civil Rights demonstrators well during the 1960's when American liberals were also working hard to make rule of law work.

The Malcolm X Document

In this speech he is addressing other blacks, other angry blacks. Malcolm X was no King protégé. He had a completely different style. Malcolm had given up on rule of law. He saw the legal/political system as too corrupt for rule of law to produce any gain for blacks. Instead he was promoting raw Black Power -- blacks needed to take over either the ballot boxes, or the streets.


These were violent and uncertain times for American society. The consensus and conformity that were highlights of the Cold War era were now slipping away. This was a time of rebellion for both white and black young adults. These were complex times, but the highlight of the rebellion for whites was the various forms of Counter Culture, for the blacks it was new entertainment styles and the Civil Rights movement.

Teacher comments: As usual I enjoyed your thoughts and insights. One of the keys here is the disillusionment that X has with politics while King- in the South- is still hoping that southern Blacks will get to participate in politics and then change things.


The Curiosity of the Chronic Arguments over the Proper Length of a Work Day



One of the interesting insights I have gained from my history class this year is how long workers, business owners, managers, and interested third parties have been arguing over what is the proper length for a work day. The unions and social justice types have been arguing for over a hundred years that the hours in the standard work day should be reduced. An example of this is the source document of Terence V. Powderly we read. Powderly was president of the Knights of Labor in the 1870/80's. Way back in 1887 he was arguing for shorter work days, and he was quoting Ben Franklin from a hundred years earlier saying, "if the workers of the world would labor but four hours each day, they could produce enough in that length of time to supply the wants of mankind." (Note: I don't know if Ben really said such a thing. I have my doubts. This is an example of twisting quotes to serve the current editorial need, a practice quite alive and well on Facebook today.)

The arguing hasn't stopped to this day, and the theme hasn't changed, "With all the productivity we now have, why aren't workers working [some shorter amount of time] instead of the long hours they are now forced to endure?"

Given how chronic this argument is, there must be thinking blind-spots and instinctive thinking sustaining it.

Why Reduce the Hours?

Why reduce the hours? For the union and social justice types, the compelling reason is to reduce unemployment. If one worker works less hours and output is to remain constant, then another worker can be hired to take up those lost hours.

For the economists and futurists, the compelling reason is we have so much material prosperity now, why not use part of it to reduce working hours and let workers enjoy doing other fulfilling activities, such as more recreation, education, and family time.

Both of these sound good and logical, but for some reason the concept doesn't sound as good and logical to either management or workers who currently have the jobs -- both seem to like it when a worker works long hours.

Management Objections

Managers have a problem with reduced work hours because it means more workers get involved in completing a task. This adds complexity and uncertainty in many ways.

o There is the additional accounting and training complexity of hiring and paying more workers.

o There is the complexity of how to do a task. As Frederick Taylor pointed out in his source document that we read, there are many ways to accomplish even simple tasks such as shoveling, and the choice affects productivity. If one worker is doing the job one way and other a different way, are the results going to be compatible?

o And there is the added complexity to quality control -- if something isn't done right, which worker is responsible? How do the manager and the workers find out?

With increasing automation many of the above problems are diminished. If machines are doing the actual manipulating, and computers are doing the actual accounting, then it becomes easier to accommodate many different people working on a task. This is why shift work became more commonplace starting in the 2nd half of the 20th century.

Worker Objections

Many workers like the work they do. They get a strong sense of satisfaction from a job well done. As a result, they really don't want to stop. An indicator of how powerful this feeling is is how many workers who have a well-paying eight hour "day job" pick up a second job. Contrary to social justice urban legend, in these cases it is not desperation motivating this, it is enjoying accomplishing things.

The result is that even today, even when it isn't necessary, many workers work long hours. They are enjoying the sense of accomplishment.


This combination of management reluctance to deal with increased labor-relation complexity, and workers deeply enjoying the sense of accomplishment they get from their work, is probably the root reason that basic working hours have not shortened much over the last sixty years.

If we as a community really want the work day to shorten and get more flexible, we have to deal with these two strongly felt instincts. One way is to make it easier to both get into and out of a job. We need to make getting jobs more like grocery shopping and less like getting married. If entering and exiting are easy, then workers and managers can both be more flexible and a lot more mixing and matching can happen.


Teacher comments: You raise some good points about the necessity to organize work to make it efficient, logical, and ensure worker accountability. Something to focus on from these documents as well are how they reveal certain attitudes from the time regarding workers and what mattered most to different groups of people.


--The End--