Sputnik and the Technological Factor

Sputnik had a far greater impact on American technology than it has been credit for in the past. It may have been the first man-made object to orbit the earth, a fact that overshadowed the contributions of other nations  involved in the IGY and damaged American pride, but it forced Americans to reevaluate their academic standards. The push for more STEM students underscored a renewed enthusiasm for American technical superiority. At the time, though, Americans might have viewed it as their civic duty to augment the scientific community and assure their place in the world as technological power. Today, we see sputnik as the first step in the exploration of space. It fostered the growth of engineering and scientific study and rapidly produced a large number of secondary technologies that have trickled into other technologies.

The prospect that technology is the result human imagination is another area to consider. The science fiction realm became much less far fetched once rockets began sending up people; in the years that followed, the vision of imaginary technologies in books and film became reality as the space race pushed for a greater degree of technical prowess. We can see that today, the technology we take for granted might only have existed in the mind of writers fifty years ago. What is the possibility that these things might have sprang up out of necessity if there was no pretext for it in the past? If that is the case, then what does the future hold for us now? What will the world look like fifty years hence?

History Cooperative contributors. “Sputnik: A Brief History of the Dawn of the Space Race.” History Cooperative, September 14, 2016. http://historycooperative.org/sputnik-a-brief-history-of-the-dawn-of-the-space-race/.

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Space Race Origins

The space race is often played out in a blow by blow timeline of events, starting with the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. But the space race might actually have its beginnings before World War 2. The seeds of the space race began once the Allied nations swept into Germany, confiscating technology and absorbing scientific personnel in Operation Paperclip. Sputnik was a blow to American morale and made many believe the United States was lagging behind the Soviets in the critical areas of rocket technology, but it was no surprise to the American scientific community that the Russians had been making this effort, only that they were able to achieve it first.

As the superpowers of the United States and Soviet Union set about applying their newly-acquired scientific foundations, the Cold War sunk in; first with nuclear weapons and contests for bomber superiority. Nuclear weapons were large and cumbersome; their deployment required large aircraft with heavy lifting capabilities and tended to have a great deal of tertiary services – maintenance, personnel, fuel supply and all of it’s infrastructure – that required large bases, spread out across the country. The desire for smaller nukes, led to a development of missile technology capable of reliably carrying those bombs. The same missiles ended up being the basis for the manned orbital missions and satellite deployment. Missiles gave way to larger and larger rockets as payloads increased.

Before the Soviets launched Sputnik, the United States was already looking to take the Cold War into the realm of space, controversially under the guise of the International Geophysical Year program – a program the USSR and several other countries were engaging in. President Eisenhower’s administration announced American contribution in 1955; the United States would launch satellites between July 1, 1957 and December 31, 1958. So the Soviets were well aware of American aspirations to reach space. Naturally, the effort on part of the Russians must have been increased to ensure their image of technological superiority over the West.  Many scientists in America were worried about the implications of the Soviets reaching space first; they often communicated with their counterparts in Russia about the state of their respective programs in an attempt to gauge their own progress. By the time of the IGY meeting on October 4, 1957, the Russians were still keeping their launch secret, but that evening the announcement at the meeting shattered American ideals of technological greatness.

“International Geophysical Year.” Wikipedia, September 20, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=International_Geophysical_Year&oldid=801596356.

Roger D. Launius. “Sputnik and the Origins of the Space Age.” Accessed October 16, 2017. https://history.nasa.gov/sputnik/sputorig.html.

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Rural Electrification During the Great Depression

Electrical power spread slowly from the cities, driven by the demand there. In the countryside, few farms were electrified as the infrastructure costs made it unprofitable for power companies to send it there. By the 1930’s, most farms were still without power, doing things the old fashioned way. In the depths of the  Depression, president Roosevelt set about changing this “capitalist wrong” to make electricity available to the farmers and small towns in rural America.

The Rural Electrification Administration set out to make this a priority and facilitate efficient and productive farming techniques. It was placed under the control of Morris Llewellyn Cooke, an early proponent of rural electrification; Cooke was also placed in control of several other New Deal policies where his background in mechanical engineering would be useful – the Upstream Engineering Conference, the Great Plain Drought Area Committee, and the Mississippi Valley Committee. The REA purchased the necessary raw materials, poles, wire, insulators to conduct the project and then commenced convincing farming co-ops to go along with the plan. This entailed selling the idea to each farm in the area and loaning sums of money to newly established co-ops that farmers joined to establish the connection to nearby power plants. The co-ops grew as more and more farmers paid to join them; once the lights came on, farmers paid back their loans through the co-ops.

The REA brought electricity to rural America but it also established electricity as more than a mere commodity. It was now seen as a right, something that everyone was entitled to obtain and that it should not be limited only to those who would make it profitable. By the end of World War Two, over 50% of farms had been electrified; by the 1950’s hardly any were left without it.

“Rural Utilities Service.” Wikipedia. July 05, 2017. Accessed October 04, 2017. https://en.wikipedia.org
/wiki/Rural_Utilities_Service#Rural_Electrification_Administration.
Winchester, Simon. “Lighting the Corn, Powering the Prairie.” In The Men Who United the States, 375-85. 1st ed. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2013.
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The War of 1812 and the Canadian Perspective

I recall in high school that we spent maybe all of two days going over the War of 1812. We covered some of the key aspects, the origins of the Star Spangled Banner, the British invasion of the mainland and subsequent burning of the White House, and American incursion into Canada. The reasons for the war were simplified and the battles glossed over in the text book. The significance of the war was lost as the class droned on through the period; in the end the relatively short chapter was forgotten, much like the war itself. Why?

In Canadian history, however, the War of 1812 is far more important, far more meaningful and inspiring, and is a source of national pride. The general consensus is that nobody really won; Americans are taught the war was a projection of sovereignty from Britain, a “second war for independence”. Why then, was it so significant to Canada? The only real “losers” were the Nations tribes who were, for the most part, doomed no matter who the victor ended up being. Territorial expansion from either the British-Canadian side or the American side would be a prelude to the coming forced migrations and atrocious actions by both the American and British governments.

The war was hardly fought for independence; territorial gains from battles won were never kept; the maritime “cause” was never fully resoled, if at all. What the war did accomplish, however, was distinguish Americans as a force to be reckoned with, and with global reach. In that sense, it did project American sovereignty. Canada sees the war as a adding to a growing sense of identity, unique and separate from British national identity. This parallels American identity growth throughout the period after the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolutionary War.  War, it seems, has a keen ability to build bonds between countrymen that transcends culture, ethnicity, and even ideology.

Hickey, Donald. n.d. The War of 1812. Accessed 9 27, 2017. http://www.pbs.org/wned/war-of-1812/essays/american-perspective/.

Pierre Berton, James H. Marsh, Tabitha Marshall. 2012. War of 1812. 3 6. Accessed 9 28, 2017. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/war-of-1812/.

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Household Labor

The notion that the household went from a producer to a consumer is misleading. Technology did more to increase the productivity of the home due to mechanization of various key areas: food, clothing, healthcare, transportation, water, gas, electricity, and petroleum. But productivity refers more to the ability for the household to do more for itself, to have more time to devote to child rearing. At the same time, this technological shift also reduced the male’s share of the work in the home; mechanization helped lift their burdens more than women’s. Machines tended to reorganize labor for tasks, such as washing clothes, cooking, and cleaning rather than eliminate the manual input.

An ideological shift precipitated from mechanization at home; tasks designated for women and men became more entrenched in their respective spheres. Mechanization fostered a deeper impression of men’s roles as wage earners and leaving the domestic tasks to women. Single women, however, could enjoy the benefits of bachelor lifestyle, only being responsible for their selves. But within families, the amount of domestic work was double that of men, despite the technological progress. And progress was unfounded, futuristic homes were not much different from traditional households.

Children also had a role to play in the labor distribution in the home. Sons tended to simply increase the amount of work for the females, siblings and/or mother. Daughters tended to decrease the overall amount of work per individual. Labor was usually divided according to gender, with parents reinforcing these roles.

Increasing labor for women outside the home did not reduce the labor within it and neither did technology. Technology reinforced established gender stereotypes and then ingrained them  deeper in social ideology. Men tended to “…require more housework than they contributed.” Women who worked also tended to have more housework, a fact the majority of women were well aware of. African American households were also aware of gender inequalities. But these households were more likely to address the issues and divide the labor and inequalities. Studies showed that black men participated in in household tasks more than white men. Hispanic families had similar views as whites, with division of labor along gender lines. In general, women from all ethnicities reported some conflict with their husbands  regarding housework.

Leonard, Eileen B. “Women, Technology, and the Myth of Progress.” Household Labor and Technology in a Consumer Culture. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson, 2003. 148-173. print.

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Revisionism, Denialism, and Negationism in History

Historical revisionism is a term used for the reinterpretations of facts and narratives based on new evidence and sources. It took on some negative meaning when revisionists began spinning history in some new direction, pursuing an agenda to cast a different light on some subject, or outright create false histories. While revisionism is an inherent part of historiography, since “good” historians try to avoid bias, the negationist point of view is an extreme case of revisionism where facts are chosen to be presented while withholding others expressly to support a new narrative. Revisionist history can be useful in the academic world as well as the socio-political realm, but revisionism doesn’t always have to underscore something nefarious. But just as well, revisionism can be a blow to an expert historian’s ego when he or she is suddenly proved wrong.

Things that can affect change in historiography can come from many sources; access to new data, scientific developments, nationalist pride, culture and ideology. These ever-changing academic disciplines contribute to a greater wealth of knowledge in academia; new developments create a basis for rewriting the known and accepted narrative. The problem comes when that new information diverts so drastically that the majority begins to refute it, sometimes to the point of completely ignoring the evidence. Of course, when the “new development” is entirely fabricated, it is up to historians to use their professional discretion to establish truth.

Again, truth becomes an important theme in historiography as I’ve attempted to point out in the Objectivity post. Some truths can be very hard to take, such as Gar Alperovitz’s The Dicision to Use the Atomic Bomb, where the evidence tends to point at the motives of historical figures; importantly, though, “truth” is relative term and it should be noted, here, that the interpretation of sources can be construed in different ways by different people. Sometimes these reinterpretations can reveal something important in the psyche of the population, culture, or society or it may shed new light on an old problem in science and technology.

McPherson, James. “Revisionist Historians.” Revisionist Historians | AHA, Sept. 2003, www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2003/revisionist-historians. Accessed 13 Sept. 2017.
“Historical Revisionism.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 08 Sept. 2017. Web. 13 Sept. 2017. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_revisionism>.
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Alperovitz’s “Decision”

Peter Kirstein is a professor of history at Saint Xavier University, Chicago. He is known for his research on the atomic bomb and studied under Howard Zinn – the author of my textbook in history 2014 (The Twentieth Century). With Kirstein’s knowledge, I felt that his review of Alperovitz’s The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of an American Myth (I’ll refer to it from herein as “Decision“) would be fair for the both the academic significance and historiography of the material.

Kerstein avoids rehashing the narratives of the book, instead he provides succinct condensations of the major “revelations” that Alperovitz first explored in his first book (Atomic Diplomacy) and then again in Decision. He also provides some corroborating stories from other sources that place in question the moral aspects of the bombings (referencing Terkel) and also the the realist perspective (reference to Haas). He places emphasis on morals in his review, bringing in some of his own works; questioning the morality of dropping the bomb is central to Alperovitz and Kerstein does well to bring in more sources (or at least embedding them in his own review) to bolster the arguments in Decision.

On Russia, Kirstein pares down the rhetoric surrounding the Soviet Union and it’s entrance into the Japanese campaign. It boils down to the Allied desire for Russia to enter the conflict earlier in the war, but then after the Trinity Shot the need for a second front from Russia was seen as unnecessary, owing to Truman’s belief in the power of the bomb. What Alperovitz argues, and Kerstein defends, is that the bomb was meant to be mostly a political weapon. Indeed, Kerstein quotes P.M.S. Blackett in saying that,

“the dropping of the atomic bomb was not so
much the last military act of the Second World War, as the first
major operation of the cold diplomatic war with Russia”
Along with the well-known statement that Truman gave to Stalin disclosing the bomb (without revealing as much), Kerstein also provides Churchill’s observations of that conversation, which I had not read before. This leads to  speculations about Russia’s knowledge of the a-bomb project (code named S-1). There is a great deal of evidence suggesting the Soviet Union’s espionage rings had penetrated the project; several spies were found later who had been involved in the Manhattan Project and the speed with which the Russians developed their own atomic bomb seems to lend credence.
  Kirstein is able to condense the majority of the information in Alperovitz’s book into a clean and clear summary-like review while also providing some background as well as some corroborating evidence in favor of the realist theme in Decision. Kirstein stands behind the narrative of  realism, and the revisionist ideals that implies, because it forces people to think about actions that may also result in great loss of life, and for some, respect in the eyes of others.
Kirstein, P. (2013). Reclaiming Realism for the Left: Gar Alperovitz and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. Advances in Historical Studies, 2, 46-53. doi: 10.4236/ahs.2013.22008.
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Basic Facts: The Atom Bombs of WW2

The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first of their kind, and up to the present day, the only time they have ever been used in war time. The story surrounding “the decision to drop the bomb” has been rehashed many times in the decades since. The high school-textbook-summary maintains that the United States made the decision based on projected deaths comparing an invasion of the Japanese mainland and dropping the bomb; the atomic bomb producing fewer American solder deaths as well as Japanese soldier and civilian deaths. When I took U.S. history in high school, this was still the story taught us. I wonder if this rhetoric has changed over the years or if it diverged any in different school districts?

The fact of the bombing generally revolves around the number of actual deaths (which are somewhat contested) and the results of dropping them; undeniably, the war ended shortly thereafter – on August 15, 1945. Little Boy was a uranium-fueled bomb, dropped on August 6, 1945. Japanese deaths are estimated at about 60,000-80,000 in the immediate blast, another 135,000 died of radiation exposure in the following months. Several of these deaths were Korean laborers and Allied POW’s. Six square miles of the city (about 90%) were completely destroyed in the blast or consumed by fires. In Nagasaki, approximately 40,000 people were killed instantly. After the effects of radiation took their toll, the death toll rose to some 50,000. A third of the city was destroyed.

The Soviet Union’s entrance into the Japanese campaign is also a source of explanation for using the atomic bombs. The theory is that it was an opportunity to also demonstrate the U.S.’s new weapons technology. That the Soviet’s were already aware of the existence of the atomic bomb, via  spies embedded in the Western Allies’ atomic bomb program, could explain Stalin’s unusually cool attitude when Truman announced to him the “new weapon of unusual destructive force.”

Helen Cleary, Phil Edwards, Bruce Robinson, Victoria Cook. 2003-2005. “WW2 People’s War.” www.bbc.co.uk. June-September. Accessed September 6, 2017. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/timeline/factfiles/nonflash/a6652262.shtml.

n.d. “The Manhattan Project an Interactive History.” www.osti.gov. Accessed September 6, 2017. https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan-project-history/Events/1942-1945/espionage.htm.

n.d. “The Manhattan Project an Interactive History.” www.osti.gov. Accessed September 6, 2017. https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan-project-history/Events/1945/potsdam_decision.htm.

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Objectivity and History

Robson opens by describing the reaction of academic institutions to Thomas S. Kuhn’s The structure of Scientific Revolutions. The “crisis”, as Robson describes it, underscored the idea of there being no real truth in philosophy and science, that the “truths” of history may not be any more real than the physical world science attempts to understand. To be clear, it describes how any one truth is just as valid as any other – that one source can be just as objective as another if there is no basis for judging what is objective in the first place.

Any new writing or other progress is based on comparison with the existing information; it’s easy to see the concern scholars have with this dilemma, how far must one go back to determine what is “correct” or “true”. But again, the written word is still subject to the biases of the author. At some point there must be a source that can be undeniably unbiased, but finding that source may be nearly impossible.

Robson makes references to the ideas of “good” and “bad” history, wherein the distinction is made through the source’s objectivity. But he says that the criterion for deciding that is what is missing – there can be no objectivity in history without this. Robson sums up this problem well, “…if I take a position in history and you agree with me, you write good history. But if you disagree with me, you write bad history”. Relativism is the reigning theory and it revolves around cultural and geopolitical beliefs. These beliefs shape the way historians describe their world.

But Robson asserts that the words of history are either true or false, that they can be backed-up and corroborated by evidence or they can fail this test and be deemed incorrect. That truth can be found in the context of the world in which it was written and still contribute to the wealth of historical knowledge. It is because of this that historians can write about subjects and provide  a multitude of view points and a wide range of interpretations.

Robson, Kent E. n.d. “Objectivity and History.” Dialogue Journal. Accessed September 3, 2017. http://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V19N04_89.pdf.

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