Roundup: Media's Take
This is where we excerpt articles from the media that take a historical approach to events in the news.
... what is at stake each time we erase the news is not just the nation's security but, more important, our history.
And that's why it's helpful to turn to history for an object lesson, a case of wartime censorship where the issue was much less murky and the results—at first glance, at least—unambiguous. You've likely heard nothing about it. And that, of course, is the problem.
The censored story was one of World War II's oddest, and it involved a fleet of handmade balloons sent east by the empire of Japan. Improbable though it may sound, from late 1944 through the spring of 1945, the Japanese launched more than 9,000 balloons from their nation's eastern shores. Filled not with mild-mannered hot air but extremely flammable hydrogen and armed with incendiary and antipersonnel bombs, the balloons rode the jet stream across the Pacific Ocean for several days before landing throughout North America.
No, really. Throughout North America. From Alaska to Mexico and as far east as suburban Detroit. Perhaps even more incredible, the balloons themselves were not made of any high-tech, weather-hardened fabric but simple paper panels held together with potato glue.
An extraordinary story, right? Irresistible to any reporter and not just because of the balloons themselves, but because of their potential: If a balloon could carry incendiary bombs across the Pacific, without detection or advance warning, what else might travel aboard? Saboteurs? Biotoxins?
Sure enough, stories began to appear. The day after New Year's, 1945, for example, the New York Herald-Tribune carried a brief story about one of the first balloons to arrive. After that, however, even as the balloons were crash-landing at the rate of two or three per day, the nation's media remained largely mum. That's because on Jan. 4, two days after the Herald-Tribune ran its story, the Office of Censorship asked the nation's print and broadcast journalists to report absolutely nothing more about the balloon bombs. And no one did.
The way the rest of the story plays out proves problematic for foes and supporters alike of wartime censorship. For those who oppose censorship, it's hard to argue against the outcome: Throughout the spring of 1945, the Japanese carefully monitored the American press for mention of their balloons. They found none. And since supply routes and launch sites were getting hammered by an ever-closer American military, Japanese authorities finally decided they could not keep up their unusual campaign absent any evidence of success.
Yet, unbeknownst to them, or virtually anyone outside the U.S. government, the balloons were proving successful. One balloon, for example, managed to cut through power lines leading from the Bonneville Dam on the Columbia River. A resulting power outage that was quickly restored may sound insignificant; however, that particular dam provided power to a factory in Hanford, Wash., which was secretly manufacturing plutonium for use in the atomic bombs destined for Japan. When the power went out, the plant's emergency safeguards—which had never been tested—were suddenly called upon to prevent the reactor from melting down. Plant officials held their breath; everything worked as it was supposed to (though it took three days to resume full operations).
In the end, America's best defense may have been the weather. Designed to start fires—which would deplete natural resources and divert human ones—the balloons plummeted into the Pacific Northwest during its wettest months.
On May 22, 1945, the government suddenly changed its mind about the ban on press coverage. The War and Navy departments issued a joint statement announcing, in part,"It is the view of the departments that the possible saving of even one American life through precautionary measures would more than offset any military gain accruing to the enemy from the mere knowledge that some of his balloons actually have arrived on this side of the Pacific."
This sounds reasonable and prudent, if a bit tardy. But there's a reason the departments suddenly came around to this way of thinking, and this is where the balloon campaign becomes a troubling case study for censorship's supporters.
Seventeen days earlier, on May 5, the Rev. Archie Mitchell and his pregnant wife, Elsie, took a group of children from his church on an outing to Oregon's Gearhart Mountain. Mitchell let the kids out of the car before he went off to park. His wife got out, too, to supervise. Mitchell found a spot up the road and pulled over. As he was getting out, he saw his charges clustered around a large white object on the forest floor. One of the kids tugged at it.
The bomb exploded, killing all the children and Mrs. Mitchell. They were the only fatalities on the U.S. mainland due to enemy action during World War II, and though a marker remembers them on Gearhart Mountain today, they're mostly overlooked, as they were by the War and Navy departments in that May 22 statement, which made no mention of the fatalities, only that"Japanese free balloons are known to have landed or dropped explosives in isolated localities. No property damage has resulted."
That was technically true: Mitchell had parked his car well clear of the blast.
Should we censor the news in wartime? No question: There are times when discretion trumps dissemination. But people need to be told more than just,"Be wary." Be wary of what? A particular methodology or place, or a suspicious object, like a briefcase—or a balloon?
Case in point: It's estimated that 1,000 of those World War II balloons reached North America. To this day, only 286 have been found. Here's hoping the next hiker who finds one has heard the news.
What does the battle of the balloons have to do with today's war on terrorism (other than the bizarre coincidence that the Mitchell tragedy occurred near tiny Bly, Ore., the same spot where recently arrested Muslim cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri is accused of trying to set up a terrorist training camp)?
Actually, the balloon battle may have less to do with us today than it does with citizens, soldiers, reverends, and children 60 years from now. Because as compelling a case as the balloon story may be for the virtues of wartime censorship, what's troubling is not that Americans in 1945 didn't know about these balloons; it's that most Americans today don't. The balloon bombs were erased not only from our national awareness, but from our collective history. We believe it never happened, just as our children might have been led to believe Abu Ghraib never happened....
John S.D. Eisenhower, in the International Herald Tribune (June 6, 2004):
The 60th anniversary of the Allied landings in Normandy, on the day known in common parlance as D-Day, was once again an occasion to pause and contemplate its significance. Like all Americans, I am proud of the achievements of my fellow soldiers but aware of the ordeal they underwent. To this day, I view those men with respect bordering on awe.
To me, as the son of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the general who commanded that invasion, it carries an added dimension. I find it difficult to believe, even after all these years, that my own father was such a historic figure. Sixty years of repetitive observances of D-Day have not dimmed my wonder....
I am asked time and again, "What would your father think if he were alive today?"
At this point, I must emphasize that I cannot with any confidence give an opinion
regarding what my father would make of today's scene. He was unpredictable when
examining any new problem because he always viewed it in its entirety, totally
free of thumb rules and largely independent of tradition. More obviously, the
world has changed drastically during the 43 years since my father left the presidency
The most fundamental conviction that the period of Ike's command in Europe and the Mediterranean imprinted on his mind was the cruelty, wastefulness and stupidity of war. He saw at firsthand how war destroyed cities, killed innocent people (in which I include most of the participating soldiers), wiped out national economies and tore up the structure of civilizations. Its wastefulness cut him to the bone, and its specter never left him. As a result, as president he kept the military budget as small as was consistent with the safety of the nation. He expressed his convictions eloquently in April 1953, about three months after his inauguration as the 34th president of the United States:
"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed .
"The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
"It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.
"It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals .
"We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed 8,000 people."
Not surprisingly, the war that included D-Day had made a pacifist of the man who bore the responsibility, its supreme commander.
As I consider the effect that D-Day and the war in Europe had on my father,
I am struck by the degree to which it convinced him of the value of allies.
With his detestation of war as a means of settling international disputes, Ike applauded the formation of the United Nations in 1945, even though he had no hand in its formation. Leaving the army in 1948 for private life, he was recalled to active duty in early 1951 to organize the military forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization when the military threat from the east seemed to become imminent. In his stay in Paris, Ike developed a strong belief in NATO that he never lost.
It so happens that I was witness to one example of Ike's concern for the opinions and attitudes of his allies during his presidency. In September 1959, Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union served up an ultimatum to the Western allies to get out of West Berlin or else. Ike chose to negotiate while rejecting the ultimatum. In the course of the ensuing talks, a mix-up in signals in the State Department resulted in an unintended invitation for Khrushchev to visit the United States alone, not in the company of all the nations involved in the current crisis.
That unilateral invitation may or may not have turned out to be a good thing, but the incident illustrated Ike's concern that his allies - now Britain, France and the newly emerging West Germany - be assured that he had no intention of representing their interests in his forthcoming conferences with Khrushchev. So Ike took some of his personal staff and boarded a new Boeing 707 on its maiden voyage as Air Force One to visit Konrad Adenauer in Bonn, Harold Macmillan in Britain and de Gaulle in Paris. With all of them he conducted frank talks, and Ike's allies were reassured. He would have it no other way....
Ike totally disapproved of "preventive war," and that conviction was put to the test early in his presidency. Some time in the early 1950s the Soviet development of the hydrogen bomb and the means to deliver it caused many Americans, some of Ike's advisers among them, to advocate launching a preemptive strike against the Soviet Union while the United States still enjoyed a preponderance of atomic power and the means of delivering atomic weapons. It would be preferable, these people argued, to remove the Soviet weapons of mass destruction. No legal or moral justification was required. A few million Americans would be killed, of course, but a far fewer number than if we waited and allowed the "Evil Empire" (not Ike's term) to strike first.
Ike would have none of it. Throughout his presidency he combined a policy of maintaining a military deterrent to war while at the same time extending the hand of friendship. The uneasy peace between the United States and the Soviet Union - the cold war - continued for nearly 50 years. It was expensive and it was dangerous, but civilization survived....
Many of Ike's policies were different from those we see being followed today. But he was the first to admit that situations change, and the policies followed in one generation might be used as guides to future action but never rules. How he would view today's world scene, I repeat that I do not know.
But I wonder.
George Melloan, in the WSJ (June 15, 2004):
... some of the same people who were attacking Ronald Reagan in the 1980s are still around doing the same thing to President Bush. Teddy Kennedy was calling Ronald Reagan a warmonger in 1984, thus feeding useful nuggets to KGB propagandists; he today chortles that Iraq is President Bush's"Vietnam." Senator John Kerry, now on the campaign trail accusing the president of irresponsibility, was similarly scornful of President Reagan's moves to resist Soviet and Cuban efforts to grab Central America. He called the president's well-founded fears of an invasion of Honduras by the Nicaraguan Sandinistas"ridiculous."
In a recent newspaper article lauding Senator Kerry, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.— that well-known chronicler of Democratic Party triumphs and Republican failures— wanted to make sure that George W. gets the blame if things go wrong in Iraq. He wrote that the war"was a matter of presidential choice, not of national necessity."
In 1982, Mr. Schlesinger came back from a trip to Moscow to report that there was fat chance that Ronald Reagan could push the Soviet Union into a social and economic collapse. Things were looking bright there, he said, admiringly. But of course that is exactly what Reagan did by touching off an arms race that overtaxed the sluggish, muscle-bound communist system.
I'm indebted for these recollections to Peter Schweizer's excellent book, published in 2002 by Doubleday, titled"Reagan's War." As he points out, Democrats were not the only Reagan doubters. A majority of the president's own cabinet was against the massive $32 billion military-budget increase he launched two weeks after entering the Oval Office. He replied that his primary responsibility was for the security of the U.S. and that the arms buildup would go ahead.
Former Republican presidents Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon also thought Mr. Reagan was spending too much on defense. Republican Senator Charles Percy of Illinois, a former corporate boy wonder (Bell & Howell), took it upon himself to counsel Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin not to"play into Reagan's hands" by taking a hard-line position.
The stakes were high in those Cold War years. As Mr. Schweizer recounts, President-elect Reagan just before his 1981 inauguration was briefed on the procedures to be followed if the Soviets launched a nuclear attack. Because Soviet missile submarines, called"boomers," were cruising in the Atlantic not far off the American coast, the president would have to decide how to respond to an attack within a space of six to eight minutes. An officer carrying the"football," a briefcase with the codes for launching a U.S. counterstrike, was standing nearby as Mr. Reagan took his oath of office.
In harking back to those years, it seems clear that Ronald Reagan was no more free of political adversaries than George W. Bush today. The idea that he got along better than Mr. Bush with Europe doesn't hold up to close scrutiny either. His support for a NATO plan to deploy Pershing II rockets and cruise missiles in Germany to counter Soviet SS-20 intermediate missiles trained on Europe provoked protest riots in Rome, Bonn and Berlin. Charges that he was a wild-eyed Western" cowboy" were similar to those leveled against President Bush today.
Elisabeth Bumiller, in the NYT (June 14, 2004):
...This past weekend, the White House Web site prominently featured a collection of Reagan remembrances and a photo essay of Mr. Bush at the funeral for the former president. The Bush campaign Web site went one better, offering a video of Mr. Reagan uttering his most famous lines -"These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc" - interspersed with Mr. Bush's own words -"He had the confidence that comes with conviction, the strength that comes with character."
It was difficult to tell where the 40th president ended and the 43rd began, a blurring further promoted by Ken Mehlman, the president's campaign manager, who told an Iowa Republican Party convention on Saturday that Mr. Reagan's spirit lived on."Every time an American soldier, sailor, airman or marine risks his or her life to ensure our security and peace, Ronald Reagan will be there," Mr. Mehlman said.
Of course, Mr. Bush's effort to wrap himself in the Reagan legacy drew plenty of skeptics, including a number of top Reagan officials, who said, all anonymously, that the presidencies could not have been more different. Mr. Reagan was pragmatic, they said, but Mr. Bush is ideological. Mr. Reagan was a unifier, they argued, while Mr. Bush has polarized.
"Bush wants to defeat his opponents, Reagan wanted his to join him," one former official of the Reagan White House said.
Leaving aside what many historians call a nostalgic rewriting of the Reagan era - plenty of Democrats despised and derided Ronald Reagan in a highly partisan time -there are still striking and significant contrasts in the politics, artifice and style of the two presidencies.
The first that leaps out is Mr. Reagan's ease with the camera and the way it captured his personality and seemed to enhance who he was. Americans felt they knew Mr. Reagan, who was little different off television than on.
"He had so much experience - he knew the expressions, the posture, the lighting, the angles," said Michael Evans, Mr. Reagan's White House photographer, who recalled that Mr. Reagan, so used to Hollywood sets, had no problems letting him into the Oval Office on historic occasions to shoot through the day.
"I'd say hello in the morning, and then he'd just totally ignore me," Mr. Evans said.
Mr. Bush, in contrast, is stiffer and often more tongue-tied on television than in person. He finds the camera so distracting that his staff quickly shoos photographers away."He just likes to get it over with," said David Hume Kennerly, who has photographed every president since he was Gerald R. Ford's White House photographer."If he had his choice, he wouldn't do it."
The second difference is in the business of politics. Mr. Bush, who is his own de facto campaign manager, loves the combat and gossip. His advisers say he knows his exact standing in recent polls, the names of his chairmen in the battleground states and probably the names of important county chairmen.
Mr. Reagan, in contrast, did not."Are you kidding me?" said Kenneth M. Duberstein, who was Mr. Reagan's last White House chief of staff."He didn't want to hear about the political ups and downs." Mr. Reagan's detachment meant that his operatives handled the dirty work, while Mr. Bush's immersion has helped drive one of the most politically aggressive White Houses in decades....