Tuesday, September 27, 2011

9/11 And The Vietnam Albtaross: The story of George Coker

America's engagement in Vietnam is a sordid saga of venality and war crimes. It was an age and time that makes current partisan discord look like exemplary brotherhood. The civil rights struggle, the anti-war movement, military drafts, a president assassinated, the air thick with conspiracy tales, America was a cauldron. When many rushed to scold US on 9/11 with a thinly disguised criticism of its foreign policy what drove most were the memories of Vietnam, especially of a little girl running naked, screaming, when her village was napalmed. 

Nothing has weighed heavily on US foreign policy as Vietnam. The nation's psyche was wounded for decades. US never again got into a full fledged war until the Gulf War of 1991. In fact Saddam had calculated that America with its aversion to seeing soldiers return in body bags would not venture into a war. That US had scurried out of Somalia in between Vietnam and Gulf War emboldened not just Saddam but Osama too.

Robert McNamara, LBJ, Nixon are the three most culpable individuals in what turned out to be America's shame ranked probably only next to the original sin of slavery. That they were not indicted as war criminals is not indicative of any exclusive power of America but symptomatic of how weak the world bodies are in prosecuting any such person. If those deserved to be prosecuted they should very well be along with so many others.

While most of the above is common knowledge what is less known is how America got dragged into this body quagmire. Eminent historian and two time Pulitzer winner Barbara Tuchman, author of bestseller 'Guns of August', traces how America slid into this mess that was not of its making in 'The March of Folly". During the days of World War II the Allies had an uneasy relationship which on some counts was even blatantly hypocritical. Churchill was calling for the defense of liberty while he jailed Gandhi and declared that he had not become "his majesty's first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British empire". De Gaulle while mourning the loss of France and yearning to be its leader again was clear that France will remain a colonial power. Stalin, as historian Robert Conquest labeled him, was the 'breaker of nations'. The least guilty in this was US led by FDR. FDR would plead with all three, Churchill, Stalin and De Gaulle to be fair to nations in their post war plans.

What is now known as Vietnam used to be Indo-China. It was the playground of the French, the Japanese and Chinese. The French ruled Vietnam with an iron fist and in true colonial fashion. Try watching the movie "Battle of Algiers" to get a sample. With Ho-Chi-Minh in saddle North Vietnam slid into the deadly embrace of communism. In a conflict that drew a wide array of nations and competing agendas Vietnam became America's "Bloodland", to adopt the phrase of a historian. America went headlong into Vietnam when the French sowed chaos and sought to exit out. With the passage of time what remains in most  people memory is only the carnage that US left behind and that is married to notions of a superpower trying to bludgeon a country of bicycle riders under the pretext of saving them from Communist stranglehold.

If one traces the role of countries in Vietnam its mindblogging to separate friend from foe. In what is characteristic of wars at various junctures both US and China had allied with the murderous regime of Khmer Rouge in the background of the Vietnam war.

With such stories to be told Hollywood was not far away. The anti-war movie "Hearts and Minds" was highly critical of US policy in Vietnam. A scene featured a Vietnam veteran,  George Coker, saying "If it wasn't for the people, it was very pretty. The people there are very backwards and primitive and they make mess out of everything". The movie in Hollywood style omitted to mention who Coker was. Wikipedia notes aptly that this was a propaganda movie. Not surprisingly it garnered an Academy Award. What the movie omitted was George Coker has been prisoner of war in the notorious "Hanoi Hilton". Coker had suffered inhuman torture that would make water boarding and Guantanamo look like five star facilities. Wikipedia details:

"While in a facility on the outskirts of Hanoi known as "The Zoo", he was forced to endure a torture called "the wall", in which he, as well as other prisoners, was forced to stand facing a wall in his cell with his hands above his head from the time a gong sounded at 5:30 in the morning until it sounded again at 10:00 at night. After two weeks, the knee injury he suffered when he ejected had worsened, and he was taken to a hospital where the infection was drained. After a two day respite while he recuperated, "the wall" torture continued for two more months. Coker called this "probably my worst experience in Vietnam".[1

Another Prisoner of War who was famously incapacitated due to torture in Vietnam is Arizona Senator and former GOP Presidential candidate John McCain. While critics of US foreign policy breathlessly recount tales of My Lai and napalming of villages the narrative becomes too stilted and blatant propaganda when it completely ignores the brutal realities of tortures by Vietnamese.

In what can be the very epitome of irony today US and Vietnam are close allies. John McCain and Hillary Clinton have visited Vietnam. Vietnam is a major outsourcing hub for software. Ultimately it was the market that triumphed. The victorious North Vietnam gobbled the south and the united country plunged into socialist abyss until recent times. The US failed to save South Vietnam unlike South Korea. South Korea under American tutelage (or hegemony as the critics remind us) became an economic power house. TOday South Koreans, thanks to American soldiers still dying in the DMZ ( I met a veteran wounded recently in South Korea), enjoy a free society that they can organize marches decrying US hegemony. The icing on the Vietnam-US detente is Vietnam requesting US help to stave of Chinese threat in the seas, New York Times, reports, quoting Nguyen Manh Hung, director of the Indochina Institute at George Mason University in Virginia, "Vietnam worries about Chinese in the South China Sea and America worries about interference in freedom of navigation,” Mr. Hung said. “Because of this, the strategic interests of Vietnam and the United States converge.”

The more and more I read on US foreign policy the angrier I get at the shibboleth of citing US foreign policy as reason for 9/11. That girl running naked with burning skin from a Napalm attack had more reason to be angry at US than the polygamist turned fundamentalist Osama Bin Laden and his thugs ever had. China, Japan, all of Western Europe, Philippines, India, Simgapore, Vietnam, South Korea are all beneficiaries of US economic policies and many owe their prosperity to US. It was US leadership, or hegemony, that saved Western Europe from Stalin. Communism laid waste continents and impoverished millions and it was US to the rescue almost always. What prompted Bin Laden was not any articulation of high liberal principles but sheer religious fundamentalism that was unique in that region. After the July 2004 London subway bombings Granta magazine ran an issue titled "the rise of British Jihad". That and about the apologists for terrorism in my next blog.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Road to 9/11: Harold Pinter's Anti-Americanism

On September 11th 2001 while America mourned several parts of the world mourned and in the same breath muttered "you had it coming". Sujatha wrote that the days USA's "gun boat diplomacy" are over and like a good father sent his son to USA to live and become, I guess, an American citizen. Aijaz Ahmed, living in USA, writing for Frontline divined that the 19 hijackers were thinking of the so many past injustices of USA.

When people complain of US foreign policy I hear the usual litany starting with Vietnam meandering through the past as far their erudition goes, perhaps the coup Teddy Roosevelt engineered to build the Panama Canal, to every present day conflict weaving an ugly tapestry of a hegemony run amuck. Yes, as in Vietnam, there are very justifiable blemishes on US foreign policy. No country in history with the economic and military size of USA could have an unsullied record. But to place America in the company of Nazi Germany or malign the US army like they were murderous blood lusty terrorists alone only betrays the pathological hatred of such opinion holders.

In spring of 2002, while the fires were barely put out and WTC was just mangled steel with 2500+ bodies still buried, Granta magazine asked eminent intellectuals across the globe to share their thoughts for an issue titled "What We Think of America". Orhan Pamuk, Ramachandra Guha, Amit Chaudhuri and many more including Harold Pinter.

Orhan Pamuk and Harold Pinter, both Nobel Laureates, perfectly bookend the range of emotions most feel about America. Pamuk, coming from Turkey, has a gentle portrait of USA told through a story of his childhood involving an American boy. Pinter's essay was an address he delivered On Sep 10th 2001, a day before 9/11. Pinter said the address is still relevant. Pinter eviscerates USA for the NATO bombing of Serbian forces of Milosevic. Pinter called the USA a 'rogue state', 'a fully fledged, award-winning gold plated monster...it knows only one language-bombs and death". Doris Lessing, another Nobel Laureate, wrote a meandering piece, "America, it seems to me,has as little resistance to an idea or a mass emption as isolated communities have to measles and whooping cough".

Harold Pinter scolded the USA for the NATO bombings in Bosnia and went on to organize funds for Slobodan Milosevic, need I add a word after that. Doris Lessing was a communist, a typical worshipper from afar who never lived under communism.

It is this 'gold plated monster' that sent thousands to the beaches of Normandy. Flagging off the D-Day landings Eisenhower said "half of them will not come back alive". America, Lessing says, allows ideas and emotions to wash over with little resistance like a populace stricken by measles. Sure, is that why America put its money and men defending Western Europe and her own beloved England. Referring to FDR's 'lend lease program' to England, Presidential historian Robert Dallek, chuckled, "what lend lease, there was no collateral to be lent against. FDR basically hoodwinked the people and supplied Churchill". Lessing jeers that Americans have short memories. She with a long memory forgot that US had to be dragged into both World Wars. It is a matter of conjecture that had US entered, what was seen as European conflict, earlier in WW-II much loss of life could have been stopped.

Torn between two wars, a terrorist attack that reshaped the psyche of a country and an economic recession, it was only USA that rushed its C-14 helicopters across the globe to save the thousands battling for life in Tsunami stricken Banda Aceh in Thailand. Note, there was no oil or any strategic advantage in Banda Aceh.

George W. Bush hiked the aid given to Africa to combat AIDS. A 2006 Washington Post article says he tripled the aid. Bill Clinton, through his 'Clinton Global Initiative', has negotiated with drug companies to supply AIDS drugs at a fraction of their prices. Why should American companies sacrifice their hard earned profits?

"Black Hawk Down" is a famous blockbuster that portrayed the infamous incident in Somalia. UN aid to famine stricken impoverished Somalis was being hijacked by war lords. US decided to take out one notorious war lord and the ensuing scuffle was absolute humiliation. The black hawk helicopter was shot down, the soldiers were killed and their bodies were dragged in the streets. This is the incident that is said to have crystallized Osama's vision that America could be hit. 1993 America was a different place. Cold War was won. NASDAQ and DOW soared, American economy was overheated. Clinton was battling for re-election. America was in no mood for war in a war ravaged Africa which had nothing to offer. Today millions of children face near certain death in Somalia due to continued famine.

When Russia imploded after the failed coup by the hardliners again it was America that rushed in to prevent USSR from self-incinerating. Yet again during a recession precious money was funneled to USSR to secure the nuclear war heads. David Hoffman, Pulitzer winner for his portrayal of Cold War arms legacy in 'Dead Hand', writes scathingly 'not one of USSR nuclear facilities met Western standards".

The Marshall Plan, Reagan's "Mr Gorbachev bring this wall down", Nunn_lugar aid for USSR, saving South Korea, rebuilding Japan, rebuilding Western Europe, saving millions in Bosnia and much more was all America.

Indira Gandhi came running to LBJ for wheat to feed India. USSR too, depended on US for food. Yes, the dictatorship of the proletariat could not feed itself. Well after the bloody collectivization drives in Ukraine and killing millions of Kulaks it was the Yankees to the rescue. By the way but for US Zhou-En-Lai would have marched to Delhi and given a Bhai-Bhai lesson to Nehru.

Ask anybody today, including most Americans, who started the Vietnam war. The answer would be America. Truth, of course is different. America was dragged into it by France and brought itself great shame by its conduct. However here too a wrinkle is often ignored. We only hear how USA napalmed villages. We never hear how American GI's were brutally tortured by Viet-Cong, torture that makes Abhu-Ghraib, however shameful, look like picnic. Google the words "Hanoi Hilton". I'll blog on this separately.

Every international institution owes its independence (however arguably) and robustness to American taxpayer money. USA pays more than 60% of UN's bills. No other country comes close. IMF and World Bank, both born out of US leadership, have saved millions across the world, unarguably unless  you are a bleeding heart liberal and a closet communist.

Hearing criticisms of inciting a coup in order to build Panama Canal Teddy Roosevelt reminded his critics that the coup he  incited were only 51st in a steady stream of coups. The canal helped world trade for 100+ years and was recently turned over to Panama. For over 200 years it was dream and TR, in what would be the 'American Century', turned it to reality. Of course one could argue over the morals of the coup. What would miss the point is that coups were par for the course and TR's coup, not entirely engineered by him but only aiding what was already underway, helped world trade and millions.

The Granta issue highlighted a critical dichotomy. Those from erstwhile communist countries were more sympathetic to USA than those from well heeled western democracies. Only a pathological hater like Pinter could call NATO bombings as evil and fund raise for Milosevic. He and others like him are beyond the pale of reason.

An American GI was distributing sweets to children in a street side in Iraq. They were ambushed in a terrorist attack. When Time magazine interviewed an insurgent and referred to the incident asking "what about the many children", the insurgent replied "Allah will understand, we had to get that one soldier". To equate both is not just fallacious reasoning but a very facetious reasoning.

So was really US foreign policy the angering element in fashioning the ghastly attacks? Osama had zero interest in anything as remote as articulating an alternate world vision or in standing up for some high liberty. He launched a religious attack, pure and simple. One can keep papering over it but thats what it is. One crude question to puncture the logic would be this:"If US foreign policy begets terrorism then how come it was not the Vietnamese or Filippino's or Grenadans or Haitians or heck even Panamanians or Cubans, why was it only the Saudis?". A peek into Osama's persona and his evolution into a jihadist is for another day.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ralph Nader, Upton Sinclair and Vasantha Balan

I am often asked what is it about USA that thrills me so much. The questions and wonderment get sharper in response to my carping about India. I turn 40 next year by which time I'd have spent most of my adulthood, 18+, in USA. I left India as a 25 year old, I could not leave earlier unfortunately. I wear my opinions on my sleeve and I make no bones about what I think of anything. Here is an issue that draws the distinction clear and bright between two civilizations.

Last year a Tamil movie, 'Angaadi Theru' ('Merchandise Street' or something close) became an unexpected blockbuster. The movie was made with teenage newbie actors on a very medium budget. The dialogues were penned by a popular contemporary Tamil writer, Jeyamohan. The dialogues were pedestrian and lacked any panache marking the pen of a writer. The movie was a thinly veiled, in fact not at all veiled, fiction of  the travails of employees in a store in a particular street in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

Renganathan Street near the Mambalam station is famous for its clutter of stores and of course, dirt and squalor. "Saravana Stores"is a prominent well known departmental stores selling everything from sarees to dresses to utensils etc. Every now and then 'Saravana Stores' would feature in some story in Junior Vikatan, a vernacular gossip magazine. Invariably the accounts would be about some woman customer being abused on charges of theft. Other than that nobody knew much about the store. After all this is India where nobody has time for anything other than immediate concerns.

'Angaadi Theru' laid bare very ugly truths about the store. The movie featured prominent hints about the store starting with their popular ad jingle to store logo and in one shot the camera would linger on 'Saravana Stores' neon signs itself. The movie relates how the store management would fish out teenage and sometimes plain children out of destitute families and later treat them like bonded labor. Abusing women employees, making employees live and eat in crowded areas, physical abuse, torture etc were portrayed unflinchingly. What is worse, the director said that what was shown was still not 100%. Watch the below clipping

The movie was a big surprise hit. In a state where movies packaged like bromides with no story or logic save super human heroes and voluptuous heroines are the fare this story of impoverished child workers was a very surprise hit. And the story ends there tragically.

There was no social awakening, no public furore, no zeal to legislate and correct such inhuman acts, no boycott of the stores. Nothing. Zip. Recently Tamil Nadu's top drawing star Surya recorded an ad for 'Saravana Stores'. Surya is no George Clooney.

There is no society with ills else it would be paradise. Even paradise was not liked by its occupants who nevertheless yearned for the forbidden fruit. How a society responds to ills and how remedies come forth, how the remedies remain institutionalized uprooting the ills forever are all the hallmarks of a responsible and responsive society.

Prompted by another thought I intend to blog on how America is a country of deep intellectual traditions influenced by ideas and books but here is a good sampling. 

Upton Sinclair wrote his bestseller  "The Jungle" about the meat packing industry in Chicago. Sinclair's intended focus was  the horrific circumstances of the workers and the appalling unhygienic conditions of how meat was packed and sold. The book, published in 1906, caused a furore and was instrumental in USA enacting the "Pure Food and Drug Act", the forerunner of the now functioning 'Food and Drug Administration' (FDA). Sinclair was disappointed that people only focused on the unhygienic meat part and did not address the workers conditions. Those were to be addressed later and workers rights became contentious issues.

Ralph Nader is mostly now known as the spoiler for Al Gore becoming President. Nader, however, is the quintessential 'consumer activist'. His book "Unsafe at Any Speed" , 1965, sent shock waves into the auto industry by causing an uproar amongst US consumers by ripping into how unsafe the cars were. GM, then US auto giant, tried to silence Nader by every crookish method. However the furore reached such proportions that Congressional Committee hearings were held. GM apologized to Nader and later paid out a settlement to Nader on a lawsuit on the harassment. Nader, wikipedia says, used the money to lobby for the creation of a watchdog agency, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). 

Tamils often mistake that culture is something about some hoary ancient literature (using words that are mostly not used in daily life) or some hazy notions of ill defined chauvinistic identity that has no basis in history or anthropology culture is beyond all that. About all that some other time.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Road to 9/11: Hamburg and the Patriot Act

As I wrote earlier 9-11 was just a murderous attack by fundamentalists and their supposed causes were nothing but fig leaves to disguise a murderous ideology. Not many realize that the attacks themselves were made possible by the freedom's enjoyed by the murderers in USA.

Terrorists used the freedoms of US and other western countries to hurt us. To be blunt, a 9/11 kind of attack was possible only in USA, a July 2004 attack was possible in UK. Neither of these would have been possible in xenophobic, illiberal regimes across the middle east from which the attackers mushroomed. Only in USA protected by freedoms given to all who are in its soil could the thugs execute such a dastardly act.

The 9/11 plotters were drawn from a group that is now referred as the "Hamburg Cell". Why did they choose Hamburg? Lawrence Wright, in his Pulitzer awarded and well researched book "The Looming Tower", provides a stunning insight. Germany in it is desire to redeem itself for the Nazi era excesses of curbing freedoms lurched to the other extreme. Hamburg, Wright says, became a sanctuary city, "Acknowledged terrorist grouse were allowed to operate legally, raising money and recruits-but only if they were foreign terrorists, not domestic. It was not even against the law to plan a terrorist operation so long as the attack took place outside the country".

A phrase that became famous in the aftermath of a colossal failure of US intelligence community was the "failure to connect the dots". To use a word that is common place today, there was too much "chatter" after the U.S.S.Cole attack. Today on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 NYC and DC are on heightened alert due to "chatter". Americans were infuriated to learn that CIA and FBI had so many clues. A very famous memo was the one given to Bush in August outlining exactly Osama Bin Laden's resolve to strike USA. Little mention is made of the fact that US laws prohibited sharing of information across agencies and even within agencies.

Wright says that FBI took Rule 6E - of the Federal Rules of Criminal procedure- as absolute. Rule 6E prohibits revealing any information arising from a grand jury testimony. Added to that was a new Justice Department policy in 1995, Clinton era, "that regulated exchange of information between agents and criminal prosecutors, but not among agents themselves". Wright says that FBI took it as holy writ to mean no exchange of information. The CIA too in turn had its own self imposed barriers on sharing information with FBI agents.

When I came to USA in 1998 all that I needed to get a driver license in USA was my social security number and proof of residence. I got a drivers license that was in no way different from a US citizen though I was on H1B. The drivers license renewal date was beyond my H1B visa date. In fact my immigration status was not even inquired about. In US other than for international travel nobody uses a passport for anything. Waving a drivers license for a curb side check in was routine. A driver license, as government issued ID was on par to a passport giving access to many things. Airlines would not share information on passengers to FBI that easily. The drivers licenses were not even tamper proof. my NJ license just had a photo stuck on a card and laminated. Post 9-11 all that changed. Patriot Act and its concomitant sentiments changed it all.

The cost of 9-11 operation to Bin Laden is estimated at $500,000. Half a million dollars!!! That's it. How as money funneled to the conspirators? Some through Hawala some through very legitimate means. Banks would not ask about immigration status for opening accounts, invasion of rights!! It was easy to open accounts with little and sometimes no information. Patriot Act put a stop to that. I work for a major retail bank in US and I've seen the transitions. Again not many know that as a country that welcomes immigrants by the thousands these supposedly lax procedures have made life easy during the initial struggling days for immigrants. Also those, now extinct, freedoms to open an account easily was good for many illegal immigrants from Mexico who come to US, though illegally, only to make an honest living and for the sake of their families.

When the Radia tapes were released most Indians were interested only in the gossip. Nobody, at least not most, batted an eyelid that a government department was eavesdropping on telephones used by people who posed zero threat to the government and as yet no case was made against them. Its impossible to do that in USA. Even if its done such evidence will be thrown out of the court. Obama, as candidate and as President, has repeatedly renewed the FISA act that governs wiretaps.

Americans, especially pre-9/11, are a very open and trusting people. States like NY, NJ, VA, CA and FL, with heavy immigration, are very accepting and hospitable to immigrants. When would-be hijackers told flight instructors that they did not need to learn how to land nobody's radar went up. As recently as 2009 political correctness prevented timely action in preventing a massacre. The Fort Hood Texas shooting suspect (he is no suspect actually, it is him) Nidal Malik was an American born Muslim who served as psychiatrist. Post 9-11 there were many warning bells about him. Political correctness trumped any attempt to dismiss or take any action. The result was a ghastly day that left 13 innocent men dead. This from a guy who was treated honorably as a citizen without any discrimination.

Lawrence Wright who interviewed hundreds to write his book and is very well aware of how rotten the real world nevertheless is uncomfortable in how US is balancing liberty and security. In his column he wonders, "is this the country we want to be". While I understand his concerns I am perplexed at what kind of policy prescriptions are available to combat this hydra headed monster.

America cherishes freedom of  opinion like anything. One could say the most despicable stuff and still strut about safely protected by the First Amendment. Pre-9-11 another issue tested the limits of free speech. Instances of hate crimes against homosexuals brought attention to what came to be labeled as 'hate speech'. US courts have ruled that hate speech is not free speech. However the bar is set pretty high. This problem reached its acuity in the July 2004 bombings in London. Mosques in an around London indulged in unbridled hate speech calling for Jihad against England by its own citizens who have enjoyed liberties not given to anybody in lands from which they came from.

Barack Obama, who sailed to the US Presidency on the power of rhetoric, recognizes what a potent weapon speech is. Nidal Malik was radicalized by listening to YouTube videos of Anwar Al Awlaki. Obama has issued an unprecedented kill order against Awlaki, a US citizen residing in Somalia. Ever since the botched CIA attempts on Fidel Castro, overt and not-so-overt, Congress has passed laws prohibiting the US President from issuing such orders. The Obama administration made out a case that Awlaki, by virtue of his preachings, is an imminent threat to US national security. Again, an act made possible, only in the backdrop of the Patriot Act.

Yes its easy to quote Ben Franklin who said "people who sacrifice a little liberty to secure a little security deserve neither". Ben Franklin would not have imagined the savagery of Al Qaeda. Ben Franklin or Jefferson could not imagine, with all their erudition, the vicious rationalizations of Qaeda. Who can understand  the murderous sophistry behind 'takfeer', declaring ones own coreligionists with whom one disagrees, as "un-Islamic" and hence OK enough to be killed?

America is a very dynamic and resilient country. We shall find our balance in due course. A recent PEW global survey reports that most American Muslims feel good about being in USA post-9/11 despite the harsh light that shone on the community as a whole.

American foreign policy is blamed for 9-11 by its apologists. Anybody who starts of condemning the attacks and then adds "but" to tag on their own prejudices against America is an apologist for terrorism. Let us not forget that Bush came to office vowing to pursue a more humble and withdrawn role, especially, militarily. Al Pacino, the aging Godfather who yearns to get out of the mafia business would get drawn back in after an attack on him. Pacino would curse "just when I want to get out, they pull me back right in".

As for those who continue to beat USA with the Vietnam stick, the napalm bombings and of course Palestine etc, I can only say, "none of the 19 hijackers were from Vietnam or Palestine". USA today shares a very good relationship with Vietnam.

On this day, the 10th anniversary of 9-11, a word of tribute to US armed forces. From the beaches of Normandy to Tsunami stricken Banda Aceh to the sands of Libya its US Army that often stands as a force for good. In human history if any army had the record of US Army, its blemishes and My-Lai notwithstanding, they can be proud.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Born-Einstein Letters: Physics and Friendship in Uncertain Times

S.Ramakrishnan, noted contemporary writer in Tamil Nadu, visited a book fair and listed the books he had bought. "Born-Einstein Letters 1916-1955:Friendship, Politics and Physics in Uncertain Times" was a very unlikely inclusion in that list. I always love to read anything by or about Einstein.

The 'letters' is an easy read but nevertheless rich one. Two great scientists living in a very politically tumultuous time exchanged letters over nearly 40 years of which for nearly 20 years they never saw each other. The letters are not just between Max Born and Einstein. Max Born's wife Hedi also corresponds with Einstein with lively exchanges.

The letters do not have any explosive content, not much that is unknown to general informed reader. However the first hand accounts of persecution, some rivalries, attitude of Governments toward science and state of scientific institutions all provide very valuable insights for the discerning reader. As I pointed out in my earlier blog Soviet Russia persecuted scientists just for teaching 'Theory of Relativity' .

The period covered by the letters, 1916-55, is the most tortuous time in Germany spanning two World Wars and the rise of Nazism. Born and Einstein are Jews and the drama plays out in many letters. Born, writing about the lack of job prospects for Epstein, says "as a Jew and a Pole (he) will therefore be strongly rejected". Born, Einstein, Bohr, Neumann and scores of other giants of science fled Nazi Germany, mostly to USA. The University of Gottingen, home to Math geniuses like Hilbert and Courant, lost all its crown jewels due to anti-Semitism. Courant fled Gottingen to NYU in New York. Courant is credited with creating the finest math department in USA. Neumann fleeing University of Berlin comes to 'Institute of Advanced Studies" in Princeton and played a key role in the development of the atom bomb along with other emigrant scientists. Born recounts how Philipp Lenard spearheaded an attack on Einstein fueled by anti-semitic hatred. Born credits Lenard with inventing the "difference between 'German' and 'Jewish' physics". Born also indicts another scientist, Johannes Stark, as being "responsible for the removal of all Jewish scholars".

Born met Henry Goldman of Goldman Sachs. Born admires Henry whose Jewish parents had emigrated from Europe and arrived penniless to USA. Henry's grandfather was a door-to-door salesman who finally ended up owning a small bank. The rest if history. Today, in 2011, Goldman Sachs is the most hated financial firm in Wall Street. When I hear snide remarks about Jews controlling Wall Street, Hollywood and USA I recoil. How many realize that Goldman Sachs was not created in a day?

Any student who has a love of Physics would find it enjoyable to read about names that we learn of as remote geniuses. Born tells that Max Planck suffers great tragedies losing his two daughters in childbirth. The book has an introduction by Heisenberg (Uncertainty Principle). Heisenberg's work in Nazi Germany was the most controversial. Born's writes a letter in which he remarks that Heisenberg is "Nazified". However Born who added notes to the letters in the 50's retracts that as too harsh a judgment. In another letter Born states that Heisenberg did not know much about matrices in math when Heisenberg worked under him. (The concept of matrices and the non-commutativity of matrix multiplication is the root of Heisenberg's revolutionary 'Uncertainty Principle'). I found it notable that though Heisenberg wrote an introduction letters critical of him are left intact.

Born is very open in admiring younger scientists, especially his assistants Pauli and Heisenberg. He practically admires them both. Pauli, we learn, is a lazy assistant who needed to be woken up from bed. In his note to a letter from Einstein congratulating him for his belated Nobel (Born was awarded the Nobel in 1953) Born concedes that he was very wounded for not getting the Nobel in 1932 along with  Heisenberg. Very graciously he writes "I got over it, because I was conscious of Heisenberg's superiority".

It is Hedi who provides relief in this collection. She upbraids Einstein for falling prey to a publicity stunt and sternly tells him to dissociate with a publisher. In another letter Hedi insists that Einstein "must read Rabindranath Tagore's novel 'Home and the World' ". I do not know how they read Tagore, in English or German. Note that the letters were originally written in German. In fact all three did not have great felicity with English as a language. All scientific papers were written only in German those days. After her visit to India Hedi published a book of sonnets about India.

Einstein's letters are mostly short. Ronald Clark's classic biography of Einstein has a chapter titled "Stateless Person" referring to a period of Einstein's life when he really did not belong to any country, he had no valid passport of any country. Advising Born to take up a position in Gottingen Einstein adds that as a 'rootless person' he is ill qualified to advise such a step. He says he buried his father in Milan, Mother is buried Germany, children living in Switzerland and he in Germany. Einstein worries about the world, wonders if Woodrow Wilson will make the 'League of Nations' a robust institute.

Einstein is supposed to have read Kant as a schoolboy. He writes to Born that Kant's 'Prolegomena' is not as good as Hume's books. Hume, as Will Durant notes, is credited with waking up Kant from his 'dogmatic slumber'. Such intellectual pastimes, especially reading an Indian author or a British philosopher , are wonderful especially in an age when there was no internet or Amazon.com or wikipedia.

Einstein is a warm man but not an intimate person. Writing from Princeton during winter Einstein says he is hibernating like a bear and adds that he feels lonely after the loss of his 'mate'. Thats it. His wife's death is an added line to his hibernating like a bear as if he was adding a line about having cold, not even fever. Born, despite having known Einstein for 40 years, is perturbed and it is he who draws attention to this fact in his explanatory note to the letter.

One thought which came to my mind was the wonder of progress in science in Germany in those years. Indians mostly complain about beurocracy, government control, lack of funds for research, lowly salaries for academicians as reasons for lack of scientific output. Most scientific institutions in Germany were run by the government, strapped for funds during the period 1916-1955 (in fact Germany was a pauper then), politics and racial tensions all plagued the scientific establishment. Yet it was the apogee for scientific research. Notably most progress was made in theoretical science, not experimental. Born who fled to Edinburgh writes that his salary was pittance, no pension even.

Born has very interesting anecdotes of Sir C.V.Raman. Born alleges that Raman encouraged his pupils to attack Born's theory concerning structure of crystals, in the pre-eminent scientific journal 'Nature'. Raman had invited Born to IISc-Bangalore, that Raman created. After that visit they fell out. Later during a meeting at a Nobel ceremony Born says Raman just stomped out telling Hedi that Max Born had insulted him. S.Chandrasekar's (nephew of Raman) biographer Kameshwar C. Wali writes in "Chandra" that Chandrasekhar's mother told Chandra to keep away from Raman's orbit.

Another interesting anecdote narrated by Born is about a Jewish physicist in Aligarh Muslim University. Born credits that physicist with establishing a fine physics department in AMU. Born says that the new Vice Chancellor, a Muslim, kicked out all non-Muslim staff.

As the 50's rolls in both Born and Einstein have aged considerably and the turmoil of fleeing their homeland takes it toll. Born, much to Einstein's disapproval, returned to Germany. Einstein never set foot in Germany after leaving it in the 20's. Now its cold war. Courant, now at NYU, invites Born to USA. Meantime McCarthyism rages in USA. People suspected of being communist had their careers broken, lives became hell. Born wrote that since he was born on the far side of the Iron Curtain he would not get a visa.

In their final days Born and especially Einstein became pacifists. Einstein agonized over his letter to FDR that kicked off the Manhattan project became a pacifist. Born says he would not like to visit UC-Berkley was because Edward Teller the father of atom bomb was there.

The letters end in 1955. Einstein passed away in April 1955 in Princeton NJ. I recently took my dad to the street where Einstein lived. 112 Mercer Street. Its a private home now. The gate had a small board "Private Residence".