Reagan’s “Failure” Helped End the Cold War

(p. 9) Failure is in fashion these days. We read about failing fast and failing well, about grit incubated by repeated failure in school and innovation by repeated failure in business. So it may be a good time to consider the hidden virtues of failure in foreign policy. And who better to demonstrate those virtues than one of modern America’s great optimists?
On a Sunday evening in October 1986, Ronald Reagan returned to the White House after what he called “one of the longest, most disappointing — and ultimately angriest — days of my presidency.” He had spent more than 10 hours in discussions with Mikhail Gorbachev, in Reykjavik, Iceland, coming gut-­wrenchingly close to a breakthrough in United States-Soviet nuclear talks before everything fell apart. He was, in his personal assistant’s judgment, “borderline distraught.” Network news pronounced “the magic of the Reagan persona gone,” Gorbachev called him a “feebleminded cave man,” and even his own generals told him that his ideas “pose high risks to the security of the nation.” Soon, the Democrats would retake Congress, and the revelations of Iran-contra would spur talk of impeachment.
. . .
. . . foreign policy “failure” turned out to be the foundation of future accomplishment.

For the full review, see:
DANIEL KURTZ-PHELAN. “A Thawing in Iceland.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., Aug. 3, 2014): 9.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 1, 2014.)

The book being reviewed is:
Adelman, Ken. Reagan at Reykjavik: Forty-Eight Hours That Ended the Cold War. New York: Broadside Books, 2014.

Justice on the Plains

(p. 71) “What are you doing here?” the judge asked again.
“I cannot talk,” Ehrlich answered, in his hybrid English-German. “This guard will stab my heart out.”
“You talk to me,” Judge Alexander told him. “Now what are you people here for? It’s the middle of the night.”
“What’s that? A picture?”
An officer produced the picture that Ehrlich kept in his house–Kaiser Wilhelm and his family in formal pose.
“That’s a beautiful picture,” the judge said, then turned to the police. “Is that all you got against these people?”
“They’re pro-German. They’re hurting the war effort. Spies, for all we know.”
The judge turned to the Germans from the Volga. “How many of you are supporting America in the war?” All hands went up.
Ehrlich reached into his pocket and produced two hundred dollars’ worth of government stamps issued to support the war effort . A friend produced war bonds. The judge looked at the sheriff and asked him how many of his officers had war bonds or stamps. None.
(p. 72) “Take these people home,” the judge said. “If anything happens to them, I’ll hold you responsible .” They drove back in the freezing predawn darkness and released the men to their families at sunrise. A daylong party followed.

Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.
(Note: italics in original.)

Václav Havel Viewed America as the Natural Foe of Evil in the World

(p. C7) Havel’s personal and political philosophy can be summed up in a phrase from his 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless”: “living within the truth.” The world imposes great burdens on men, Havel argued, the first of which is a collective responsibility to be honest about the society they inhabit. In Havel’s political context, “living within the truth” meant speaking plainly about an inhuman political system–communism–and the lies and humiliating routines it forced its subjects to tell and endure. The bravest testament to this credo was Charter 77, a public appeal to the regime to respect the human rights it claimed to uphold. Havel was one of several co-authors and its main spokesman.
What drove Havel and others to sign the document was the persecution of a rock band, the Plastic People of the Universe, whose members were accused of “disturbing the peace.” Havel, who would cheekily adopt that malediction as the title for one of his books, soon followed the band to jail for similar offenses against the state. Imprisoned from 1979 to 1983, Havel was denied medical attention and endured great physical pain for his thought crimes. But the communists could not break him, and he refused an offer of early release in exchange for leaving the country. The greatest anguish the future president suffered at the hands of the sclerotic regime, which, in Mr. Zantovsky’s apt phrasing, “elevated oblivion to a method,” was the suppression of his ability to publish and speak freely.
. . .
As Czech president, Havel was a supporter of Western military intervention both in the Balkans and then, more controversially, against Saddam Hussein in 2003. At home and abroad, Havel was moved by the same humanitarian impulse: “Our indifference toward others can after all result in only one thing: the indifference of others towards us,” he said in 1993. This is what Mr. Zantovsky dubs the “Havel Doctrine” and it is rooted in Czechoslovakia’s history of being the victim of foreign invasion and occupation. “Our own historical experience,” Havel said in 1999 on the eve of NATO intervention in Kosovo, “has taught us that evil must be confronted rather than appeased.” The author hesitates to label Havel’s worldview “neoconservative,” and, at least as far as domestic politics are concerned, he is right: On most social and economic issues Havel was decidedly left of center. But Havel personally understood the role of evil in international relations and looked to America as its natural foe.

For the full review, see:
JAMES KIRCHICK. “Disturber of the Peace; Havel wrote passionately about evil, yet he abhorred confrontation.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Dec. 6, 2014): C7.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 5, 2014, and has the title “Václav Havel: Disturber of the Peace; The dissident wrote passionately about evil, yet he abhorred confrontation.”)

The book under review is:
Zantovsky, Michael. Havel: A Life. New York: Grove Press, 2014.

“Valuable Things Should Be Paid For . . . Music Should Not Be Free”

(p. R10) Music is art, and art is important and rare. Important, rare things are valuable. Valuable things should be paid for. It’s my opinion that music should not be free, and my prediction is that individual artists and their labels will someday decide what an album’s price point is. I hope they don’t underestimate themselves or undervalue their art.

For the full commentary, see:
Swift, Taylor. “WSJ 125 (A Special Report): Music — it’s Too Soon to Write Off the Album: Yes, Musicians Aren’t Selling as Many of them; but Taylor Swift Argues that the Best Artists Will always Find Ways to Break through to the Audience.” Wall Street Journal (Tues., July 8, 2014): R10.
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 7, 2014, and has the title “For Taylor Swift, the Future of Music Is a Love Story.”)

More Than 200,000 Volunteer to Die if They Can Be on First (One Way) Trip to Mars

(p. D2) When Seth Shostak, an astronomer who scans the cosmos for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence, asks middle school students how many of them want to go to Mars, all hands shoot up. When he asks how many would rather design robots that go to Mars, most hands drop back to their desks.
And when he asks general audiences how many would go to Mars even if it meant dying a few weeks after arriving, he invariably finds volunteers in the crowd. “I kid you not,” said Dr. Shostak, the director of the Center for SETI Research. “People are willing to risk everything just to see Mars, to walk on the surface of our little ruddy buddy.”
. . .
There is a catch, they say. Where NASA-style flight plans are designed on the Apollo moonshot model of round-trip tickets, the “one” in Mars One means, starkly, one way. To make the project feasible and affordable, the founders say, there can be no coming back to Earth. Would-be Mars pilgrims must count on living, and dying, some 140 million miles from the splendid blue marble that all humans before them called home.
Nevertheless, enthusiasm for the Mars One scheme has been of middle-school proportions. Last year, the outfit announced that it was seeking potential colonists and that anybody over age 18 could apply, advanced degrees or no. Among the few stipulations: Candidates must be between 5-foot-2 and 6-foot-2, have a ready sense of humor and be “Olympians of tolerance.” More than 200,000 people from dozens of countries applied. Mars One managers have since whittled the pool to some 660 semifinalists.

For the full story, see:
Angier, Natalie. “Basics; a One-Way Trip to Mars? Many Would Sign Up.” The New York Times (Tues., Dec. 9, 2014): D2.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Dec. 8, 2014.)

How the Federal Government Caused the High Plains Dust Bowl

(p. 50) People were pouring into town, taking up rooms at the Crystal Hotel– suitcase farmers who had no intention of ever settling there. They wanted only to rent out a tractor and a piece of ground for a few days, drop some winter wheat into the fresh-turned fold, and come back next summer for the payoff. It was a game of chance called “trying to hit a crop.” One suitcase farmer broke thirty-two thousand acres in southeast Kansas in 1921. Four years later, he plowed twice that amount. The banks seldom said no. After Congress passed the Federal Farm Loan Act in 1916, every town with a well and a sheriff had itself a farmland bank — an institution! — offering forty-year loans at six percent interest. Borrow five thousand dollars and payments were less than thirty-five dollars a month. Any man with a John Deere and a half-section could cover that nut. If it was hubris, or “tempting fate” as some of the church ladies said, well, the United (p. 51) States government did not see it that way. The government had already issued its official view of the rapid churning of ancient prairie sod.
“The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses,” the Federal Bureau of Soils proclaimed as the grasslands were transformed. “It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted, that cannot be used up.”

Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.