Fist Of History

March, 2015Archive for

Operation Plowshare and Operation Gnome – Atoms for Peace!

Monday, March 30th, 2015


So it is the 1950s and for the United States the Cold War has been humming along fairly nicely, both the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics are building an expanding collection of nuclear weapons, the first hydrogen bomb tests went well, but for the U.S. your government is running into a problem, the citizens are simply not accepting the awesome potential of atomic energy, and specifically atomic weapons, to remake the world into a better, more amazing place.  Instead they keep gripping about the possibility of utter devastation due to a potential nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.  So it was decided to put on a series of demonstrations of the fantastic peaceful applications for atomic weapons, mainly in the field of “massive construction projects involving making huge holes suddenly appear in the ground.”  Hence the creation of Operation Plowshare, a major U.S. initiative to develop a series of projects to improve America through the use of controlled peaceful nuclear explosions.


An example of an Operation Plowshare sub-project is the idea above, Project Chariot, a plan to use five carefully timed atomic blasts to create a brand new harbor in Alaska for use in trade and settlement.  Concerns about radioactive contamination and environmental damage did not deter this program, what did derail the plan was first concerns that setting of five nuclear weapons in close proximity to each other might be harmful to the local Alaskan native populations living nearby.  More critically though was the problem of cost, building this shiny new harbor would be expensive and the region in Alaska did not really need a new nuclear created harbor.  Most of the ideas considered were not actually tried, such as using atomic weapons to dig channels between underground aquifers in Arizona, or leveling off mountain tops in California for road construction, or my personal favorite, using multiple nuclear weapons to dig a huge trench for a new highway project.


However Project Gnome was implemented, a nuclear blast in New Mexico in 1961 aimed at the idea of detonating the weapon inside a huge salt dome.  The plan was the melted salt would retain a great deal of heat from the blast, allowing water to be bumped into the cavity, heated, and steam produced.  This in turn could be used to produce electrical energy from a constructed power plant on-site.  Ideally the system would provide a steady and regular source of extremely low-cost energy and the success could be duplicated in other eligible areas of the country.

The actual plan did not work out as well as hoped, when the weapon was detonated it failed to seal the shaft that had been dug down to get the weapon in position and cracks in the surface from the blast, along with the open shaft, vented radioactive steam into the atmosphere.  This turned off the U.S. population to the idea, although a year later a team sent down to check on the results of the blast confirmed the salt was still hot enough for use in steam production.  The idea though was abandoned, as was Operation Plowshare as a concept by 1977 after numerous additional test blasts to play with other ideas.  (Including an alternative to fracking as a means of natural gas production – rock shattered by water or rock shattered by the power of the ATOM!  What sounds cooler?)

Sources:  Wikipedia article on Project Plowshare and Project Gnome, io9 article on Operation Plowshare

The United States, Iceland, and World War II

Friday, March 27th, 2015


For the United States the year 1941 was an odd year diplomatically and politically, many within the nation felt that war was coming yet a large minority wished to remain neutral in any upcoming conflict.  As the Soviet Union, Germany, and Great Britain were embroiled in the war there was an odd twilight period when the United States remained effectively out of the conflict but indirectly assisted the Allied powers cause.  Franklin Roosevelt kept edging the United States closer to open conflict with Germany, as well as assisting in the resistance to Japanese expansion, through a series of clandestine activities.  These included an undeclared war with German submarines in the Atlantic and his support for the American Volunteer Group in China (otherwise known as the Flying Tigers.)  One particular activity though that stands out is the United States military occupation of Iceland in July 1941.


On 10 May 1940, in an effort to ensure that Iceland did not end up falling to possible German invasion, Great Britain sent 746 Royal Marines to the island to secure it against potential German shenanigans.  The government of Iceland protested this and declared itself neutral in the war but tolerated the British presence and cooperated with it.  This was mainly due to the fact Iceland didn’t have the capacity to actually resist.  Great Britain increased its troop presence on the island, but by July 1941 Great Britain need its troops in Iceland for use in the war but still needed the island nation secured against the Germans.  So on 7 July 1941 the government of Iceland officially “agreed” that its defense should be transferred from Great Britain to the United States.


Although the United States was neutral officially Marines were sent to Iceland to take up its defense.  Furthermore the United States maintained a garrison on the island throughout the war, only departing at the end of the war.  The occupation actually caused hardship for Iceland which had not been in the German war plans until the British intervened, after which point Icelandic ships became a regular target of German submarine attacks.

This intervention is an excellent example of the skill Franklin Roosevelt used in working to contain German aggression without pushing the United States actually into war.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Invasion of Iceland in World War II and the history of Iceland in World War II

Operation Frosty Errors – the Battle of Kiska Island

Tuesday, March 24th, 2015


World War II is filled with many epic campaigns and nail-bitingly close battles where United States military forces grappled with tenacious enemy forces.  In particular in the Pacific theater often the United States engaged with Japanese military forces determined to resist no matter the eventual cost.  This battle though, the Battle of Kiska Island in 1943, is not one of those moments.  Kiska Island is located in the Aleutian Islands and was captured by the Japanese in 1942 during the Battle of Midway – it was a side project for Japan.  Both the island of Attu and Kiska were captured by the Japanese despite a non-existence United States defensive presence, due to the need for the United States military to guard Alaska proper.


Despite providing a source of lovely and racist motivational posters the Alaska campaign was of low priority for the United States and Japan, but this did not prevent a brutal battle on the island of Attu in 1943, during which the United States military experienced one of the most brutal banzai charges in the entire war, Japanese soldiers penetrated United States lines to the point that final line rear echelon American troops had to engage the Japanese in hand-to-hand combat.  Due to this the United States military was understandably nervous when it prepared to invade the last Japanese Aleutian holdout island, Kiska, a few months later.


The invasion began with a three week aerial bombardment of Kiska Island, followed by a landing of 7th United States Infantry Division, the 6th Canadian Infantry Division, and a combined task force of Canadian and American troops, the 1st Special Service force.  The 7th U.S. landed on one end of the island and the 6th Canadian on the other end, on a particularly foggy morning.  As you can probably guess, the two forces bumped into each other and thought the other end of the bump was the mysteriously missing Japanese garrison.  The ensuing firefight ended up killing 28 Americans and 4 Canadians.  Overall taking the island cost both sides combined 313 soldiers due to the above friendly fire incident, booby traps, and frostbite.

However the Japanese were long gone, having quietly fled the island weeks before on rafts they made from trees on the island.  Furthermore during this battle the United States Navy fought the Battle of the Pips, an encounter when a United States Naval task force, which included two battleships, opened fire on unknown contacts near the island detected by radar.  After the war it was discovered that there had been no Japanese ships nearby and instead the United States Navy probably bombarded a resting group of birds on the oceans surface.

Bird casualties, regrettably, remain unknown.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Aleutian Islands campaign, the Battle of Kiska Island, and the Battle of the Pips

World War II, the GI Bill, Homeownership, and Racism

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015


One of the more interesting comments I read online these days is the argument that, although racist policies in the past boosted whites in the United States into a position of economic dominance, those events happened “long ago” and it is too late to really rectify them.  Most people who make those arguments look to the early to mid-19th century, and argue that modern African-Americans have benefited from the infrastructure improvements and land development that characterized the changes to the United States economically during that period.  Arguments about modern advantages are normally dismissed as “soft advantages” – unfortunate policies that since the 1960s have been changed and, therefore, African-Americans should be able to pull themselves up to economic parity with white Americans now that the “barriers are gone” and they can “unleash their potential.”

This, in my opinion, is hogwash and the post-World War II GI Bill (formally the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944) was designed and implemented in a way to give a massive federal economic boost to white Americans and deny African-Americans the same benefits.


If you served in the United States military in World War II, and you were white, post-war the federal government opened the world of home ownership to you on a subsidized platter of low-interest loans.  White military veteran borrowers found themselves suddenly able, for the first time ever, to actually get affordable, longer-term, home mortgages that required minimal to no down payment.  Rapid development of new suburban neighborhoods allowed white veteran families to move out of crowded urban centers and gain new homes, homes that could become investments and gain value against inflation in the impending decades.  Combined with the more commonly known huge boosts in funding for white veteran educational benefits, including support for advanced technical certificate training and college bachelors degrees, and you had the combined elements to rapidly expand the middle class in the United States and raise millions of white families to the ranks of lower middle class.


But the GI Bill in 1944 had been carefully written to respect the principles of federalism, and each state was able to administer the program as it saw fit.  This meant that states, in particular southern and midwestern states, had the freedom to implement a series of charming little “quirks” to their Veterans Benefits programs to keep African-American veterans from claiming their benefits.  Distant and hard-to-reach offices from black communities, employing only white office workers and enforcing policies that African-American benefit claim paperwork be “lost in processing”, lying to African-American veterans about their benefits, and ensuring that other systems implemented to keep African-Americans away from educational and housing opportunities were maintained.

The United States military helped these goals as well, often “losing” vital discharge paperwork for African-American veterans and rigging the discharge system to give African-American soldiers more dishonorable or non-military discharges than they were supposed to receive to reduce the number of eligible claimants.  These policies were seen as critical, because without them southern Representatives and Senators had threatened in 1944 to scuttle the entire bill and the “compromise” was seen as necessary.


This federal gift kept on giving post-World War II, with any drafted serviceman gaining access to these benefits and white America getting another major micro-boost of support for Korean War veterans.

I bring this up not to demand solutions – the problems of racial equality in the United States are too thorny and entrenched for a 500 word essay to properly attack – but I do bring this up in contrast to the arguments by many whites I’ve heard myself that any advantages whites gained were “too long ago” to be corrected today.  This benefit directly helped the grandparents of many readers of this blog, and their own access to middle class status rests upon the foundation laid for them in the late 1940s and early 1950s by the federal government.

A foundation African-American families were directly denied in the same period.

Sources:  VA History of the GI Bill, master’s thesis by Cyd McKenna on the GI Bill and the Homeownership Gap

Veterans Affairs and Warren G. Harding – Corruption on a massive scale

Monday, March 16th, 2015


One of the constants of political life is scandal, especially political scandal, and in the United States one of the standard marks used to describe a political scandal is to add the term “-gate” to a word to link the scandal to the famous Watergate scandal under President Richard Nixon.  Watergate was a huge scandal but in using it as a bellwether to try to show future scandals have the potential to equal it in impact modern commentators are missing the wonderful world of corrupt fiscal scandals that occurred under President Warren G. Harding.

In some ways Harding is comparable to Ronald Reagan, both men relied on a “hands off” approach to their subordinates and believed in a broad management style that allowed both individual initiative and individual corruption to flourish in their administrations.  For Harding the Teapot Dome scandal has the distinction of being one of the more infamous of his scandals but probably the most juicy scandal in terms of impact to the federal government was the Veterans Affairs Bureau scandal.  Post World War I the United States Congress voted $500 million (in today’s funds $5.5 billion) to fund the constructi0n of new hospitals and vocational training programs to assist World War I veterans with their injuries and return to civilian administration.


Harding appointed his good friend and trusted supporter Charles R. Forbes to oversee this massive effort and Forbes went nuts using that position as a means of graft and corruption.  Harding, in an effort to avoid corruption, had ordered all hospital construction bids were to be handled through a public bidding process with sealed bids.  Forbes simply fed information on the bids to his preferred contractors, in exchange for healthy bribes and favors, and then ensured they won the necessary bids.  Forbes also, through the power of accounting fun, boosted the cost per bed for hospital construction from $3000 on average to $4000 in payments, shifting huge amounts of government funds to his supporters.  Forbes also began to liquidate government stockpiles of medical supplies at huge discounts, again in exchange for an array of personal bribes.  (It is estimated he sold a total of $7 million on government hospital supplies for roughly $600,000 on the private market.)

Forbes also used his position to engage in many personal non-monetary benefits including “joy ride” train trips around the country to visit hospital construction sites, attending regular parties with booze, feasting, and gambling, and at least one affairs with a contractors wife.  (This contractor was a regular beneficiary of inside information on upcoming contracts.)  The party lasted for a little over a year before Forbes was discovered and fled the country in 1923, resigning his position while in Europe.

Eventually he returned to the United States and was tried and sentenced to two years in prison.  Overall he potentially cost the United States government tens to hundreds of millions in graft.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Warren G. Harding and Charles Forbes, White House biography on Warren G. Harding

Plan 1919 and the Pedersen Device

Monday, March 9th, 2015

Pedersen_deviceThere is nothing quite like a good “wonder weapon” story and the Pedersen Device of 1917 fits that criteria.  Developed by John Pedersen his device was designed to modify the standard M1903 Springfield Rifle to shift it from a standard bolt-action weapon into a modified semi-automatic weapon instead.  The core issue was the slow firing rate of the M1903, which required an infantry men after each shot to retract the bolt, expel the fired cartridge, and return the bolt into firing position which chambered a new round.  Pedersen understood, as did the military, that in the combat environment of the trenches of World War I this slower firing speed was a problem for infantry men rushing across contested territory between entrenched positions.  Furthermore the M1903 Springfield did not allow soldiers to fire “from the hip” as they moved and required a soldier to halt while advancing to shoulder the weapon and properly fire it.

Pedersen made his device with the goal of taking an existing weapon platform, which the military was struggling to produce in sufficient quantities, and modify it, rather than requiring the deployment of an entirely new weapons system.  This modification also allowed the original M1903 bolt assembly to be inserted into the rifle, allowing the weapon to be switched between “semi-automatic smaller cartridge mode” which had shorter range but higher shot rates, and a “single-shot larger cartridge mode” for sniping and fixed position defense.  The United States Army was quite excited by the prospect and bought the rights to the modification, which was carefully concealed to allow it to be a surprise for the enemy.


General John Pershing, Commander of all the Armies United States, was favorable to the new device and included it as part of the planning for the proposed 1919 Offensive.  He requested large stocks of the modified ammunition and hundreds of thousands of the devices, as the new weapon was a key part in a broader plan to redefine the warfare of World War I.  Plan 1919, developed by J.F.C. Fuller, a British staff officer, was an ambitious plan to shatter the German western defenses through a radically new method of fighting.  An armored column of tanks, supported closely by aircraft and fast mobility infantry, would punch a hole through the German trench lines and race to capture and destroy German military headquarters for that section of the front, disrupting command and control.

In turn a follow-up general offensive, with tanks leading the way, close air support, and infantry following in trucks with fast firing weapons, would push through a narrow front in the German lines, pushing them apart and racing to capture key strategic targets within the combat area.  Slower military forces would then follow-up on the offensive, capturing and isolating key German military units bypassed in the initial thrust and therefore forcing the German military to either rapidly fall back or be annihilated.


If that sounds familiar to you it should – it is the basic outline for the German method of war, war of mobility (also misnamed as blitzkrieg) – which the German General Staff developed in the later 1920s to a fuller potential.  Their work though was inspired by the 1919 Plan, which post-war they learned about and studied in detail.

The Pedersen device did not survive the rigors of war however, tested in 1920 in Panama it was found to have flaws and the military had moved beyond converting M1903 Springfields into a new goal, developing an entirely new rifle with inherent semi-automatic qualities.  (Eventually taking the shape of the M1 Garand rifle by 1932.)  With the development of the Garand however the Pedersen device was obsolete, but considered too dangerous to be simply sold to the general public, who could modify surplus Springfield rifles and vastly increase their firepower.  So the Pedersen devices in storage, thousands of them, were simply burned in a huge surplus reducing bonfire.

Sources:  Wikipedia articles on the Pedersen Device and Plan 1919


Howard Hughes and Las Vegas – Weirdness

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015


In honor of my recent trip I thought I would write about one of the more unusual moments in Las Vegas, NV history – the short period from 1966 to 1970 when Howard Hughes became Las Vegas.  Hughes prior to his 1966 interest in Las Vegas had developed a reputation as something of an eccentric billionaire, with a penchant for investing in strange projects and cutting edge ideas.  Hughes had made his fortune in the tool and die business, aircraft, and movies as well as investing in efforts to promote medical research.  But by the 1960s Hughes had gone from being often in the public eye to being a near total recluse.


His concerns about germs and degenerating mental state combined to push him towards trusting a small cadre of advisers to run his business empire.  (The car above was fitted with an airline grade air filtration system to protect against germs.)  Hughes though also had a pathological hatred of taxes, income tax, corporate income tax, sales tax, it didn’t matter, Hughes hated them all.  He had gotten into a lifestyle of shifting between hotel suites, in part to keep away from the press and also to avoid any state being able to claim him as a resident and demand taxes from him.  This trend in 1966 led him to Las Vegas, for a ten day stay at the Desert Inn near New Years Eve.


When the ten day reservation was up, Hughes simply refused to leave, the hotel casino owners planned to force him to depart but Hughes aid pushed to get them to leave him be.  Eventually when things became too difficult for the hotel owners Hughes negotiated to simply buy the hotel, turning the Desert Inn into the new center of his business empire.  Hughes kept the top floor for himself and the floor below that for his business operations.  Hughes also went on a buying binge in Las Vegas, purchasing a total of four additional casinos and a local television station.  In doing so Hughes also indirectly ended the era of mob-rule in Las Vegas and gave the city a needed infusion of capital which helped push it through an economic rough patch in the late-1960s and early-1970s, due to its rising Mob image and regular federal investigations into Las Vegas operations.


Hughes didn’t build anything, or remodel his holdings, with one exception, the purchase, conversion, and operation of the Landmark hotel and casino, an odd mushroom hotel built on the strip.  It never made much money and eventually closed after Hughes fled Las Vegas.  Now there are many stories about why Hughes got into Las Vegas as an investment, but the reason I find most compelling based on Hughes long-standing personality is the report it was, again, for tax evasion purposes.

Hughes had recently sold Transworld Airlines in 1966 for around $540 million – a sale taxed at a higher rate by the IRS because it was considered “passive income” rather than “active income.”  When Hughes learned that the gross proceeds from casinos however were taxed as “active income” he become very enthusiastic about suddenly owning and operating casinos.  Hughes also made a point of buying large amounts of undeveloped land in Las Vegas, land his corporate holdings contained after his death in 1976.

Hughes himself fled Las Vegas in 1970 to move on to new projects, having been a player in state politics in Nevada but finding the changing landscape of the city, and the politics of the state, no longer to his liking.  Rumor says that his suite in the Desert Inn was only opened for cleaning after he departed the city – it had remained closed to outsiders for four years.  (Just one sample of the weirdness, many reported finding sealed containers of Hughes waste products stored throughout the suite.)

diamonds_foreverThis story has an additional, odd cultural legacy, the James Bond film Diamonds are Forever.  In this 1971 film Sean Connery ends up investigating a diamond smuggling ring that operates through Las Vegas, where he infiltrates a casino owned by a mysterious and reclusive billionaire named Willard Whyte.  Later it turns out that Whyte is being impersonated by an evil Bond super-villain and Whyte’s corporate empire is being used for evil.  (An empire which includes heavy tech research, airplanes, and resource extraction.)  Oddly the film chose not to depict Whyte/Hughes in his classic attire of nakedness covering his genitals with only a napkin, which would have made the movie even more interesting I think personally.

Sources:  Wikipedia entries on Howard Hughes in Las Vegas, Desert Inn, article in the Las Vegas Review on Howard Hughes in Las Vegas, University of Las Vegas Digital Library entry on Howard Hughes