"In 1892 at Stanford University, an 18-year-old student was struggling to pay his fees. He was an orphan, and not knowing where to turn for money, he came up with a bright idea. He and a friend decided to host a musical concert on campus to raise money for their education.
They reached out to the great pianist Ignacy J. Paderewski. His manager demanded a guaranteed fee of $2000 for the piano recital. A deal was struck and the boys began to work to make the concert a success.
The big day arrived. But unfortunately, they had not managed to sell enough tickets. The total collection was only $1600. Disappointed, they went to Paderewski and explained their plight.
They gave him the entire $1600, plus a cheque for the balance $400. They promised to honour the cheque at the soonest possible.
“No,” said Paderewski. “This is not acceptable.” He tore up the cheque, returned the $1600 and told the two boys: “Here’s the $1600. Please deduct whatever expenses you have incurred.
Keep the money you need for your fees. And just give me whatever is left”. The boys were surprised, and thanked him profusely.It was a small act of kindness. But it clearly marked out Paderewski as a great human being.
Why should he help two people he did not even know? We all come across situations like these in our lives. And most of us only think “If I help them, what would happen to me?” The truly great people think, “If I don’t help them, what will happen to them?” They don’t do it expecting something in return. They do it because they feel it’s the right thing to do.
Paderewski later went on to become the Prime Minister of Poland. He was a great leader, but unfortunately when the World War began, Poland was ravaged. There were more than 1.5 million people starving in his country, and no money to feed them.
Paderewski did not know where to turn for help. He reached out to the US Food and Relief Administration for help.He heard there was a man called Herbert Hoover — who later went on to become the US President. Hoover agreed to help and quickly shipped tons of food grains to feed the starving Polish people.A calamity was averted.
Paderewski was relieved.
He decided to go across to meet Hoover and personally thank him. When Paderewski began to thank Hoover for his noble gesture, Hoover quickly interjected and said, “You shouldn’t be thanking me Mr. Prime Minister. You may not remember this, but several years ago, you helped two young students go through college. I was one of them.”

Heh. Hoover was a brilliant mining engineer. After some year in China, he was returning to America by steamship. He struck up a friendship with a lady during the meals..  A day before they docked, the lady asked Hoover what he did for a living. "I am an engineer." "Oh! And I thought you were a gentleman!" she gasped.

Abraham Lincoln and the Indian Wars

Today's selection-- from The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic by Manisha Sinha. The Native Americans in the Civil War:

When recalling his time in an Illinois militia in the Black Hawk war of 1832, Abraham Lincoln, whose settler grandfather had been killed by Indians, joked that the only thing he had killed were mosquitoes. The so-called Black Hawk war, named after a Sauk chief, was a merciless slaughter of Sauks and Foxes (Mesquakies), who had returned to their lands after being forcibly exiled by the US Army. Like other settlers who served in the militia, Lincoln received a land grant for his service, further dispossessing the Sauks.

“During the Civil War, preoccupied with defeating the Confederacy, President Lincoln—who, compared to many Americans, was not a diehard Indian hater—did not give much thought to the Indian wars. In 1862, 303 Dakota warriors were condemned to execution in a summary military trial after the Dakota-US conflict led by Little Crow in Minnesota, after years of reneged treaties, land grabs, and mistreatment that had reduced the Dakota Sioux to starvation and desperation. Lincoln pored over the trial records and commuted the sentences of all except thirty-nine accused of particularly egregious actions. In the end, thirty eight were hanged—the largest mass hanging in American history and a blot on Lincoln's presidency. And like most US presidents, Lincoln signed off on laws dispossessing Indians. Besides indigenous people themselves, only abolitionists like the Indian advocate John Beeson protested. As he put it, the Dakota were a ‘sovereign people’ and ‘their hostile acts in Minnesota ... [were] one of war, and not rebellion; and for what the most civilized nations would deem sufficient occasion for war.’ The Dakota Sioux and some Ho-Chunks (Winnebagos), who had not taken part in the uprising, were expelled from their homes and consigned to reservations.

“The Civil War brought devastation to Native America. Even as army regulars stationed in the West were summoned east, volunteers under generals such as James Carleton continued to wage war on the Indian frontier. The gruesome Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado Territory in 1864 saw volunteers of the Third Colorado Cavalry murder nearly four hundred Arapaho and Cheyenne, mainly women and children. Captain Silas Soule, an abolitionist, blew the whistle on his commanding officer, Col. John Chivington, a Methodist minister, who ordered the massacre. At a court-martial led by Samuel F. Tappan of the abolitionist Tappan family, another officer, Major Patrick Wynkoop, testified that the Indian women had been tortured and ‘profaned’ in a manner that was truly ‘sickening.’

Sauk Indian family photographed by Frank Rinehart in 1899

“The report of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War, written by radical Benjamin F. Wade, strongly condemned Chivington's actions and the victims were given forty thousand dollars. Congress passed a joint resolution suspending all pay and allowances to Chivington's regiment. Charles Sumner called it an ‘exceptional crime,’ the ‘most atrocious in the history of any country.’ Despite congressional inquiries, Chivington went mostly unpunished. A month after the Sand Creek massacre, a Colorado cavalry regiment killed Lean Bear, a Cheyenne chief and one of the peace chiefs who had met with Lincoln in 1863 to protest settler encroachments. He was still wearing the peace medal Lincoln had given to him when he was murdered.

“Indigenous nations in ‘Indian territory,’ what is now the state of Oklahoma,—the so-called five civilized nations that had been expelled from their homelands in the 1830s-signed treaties with the Confederacy and fought on its behalf. Yet substantial numbers of people in these nations, especially among the Creeks and the Seminoles, many of whom had intermarried with former slaves, sided with the Union. Such indigenous unionists formed the first Indian regiments of the Civil War, in Kansas. Stand Watie, like many of the ‘mixed blood’ slaveholding elites of the Cherokee nation, supported the Confederacy and rose to the rank of a brigadier general in the Confederate army. His rival, John Ross, the ‘principal chief’ of the Cherokees, whom abolitionists had lauded before the war, had initially advocated neutrality and supported the Union. The Cherokees eventually surrendered to Union forces, and Ross met with Lincoln in 1862, trying to preserve the sovereignty of his nation. In a subsequent letter, Ross assured Lincoln that his nation had signed a treaty with the Confederacy out of necessity and that the true loyalty of Cherokees lay with the United States. At the end of the war, the fact that many of these nations were slaveholding—a mark of ‘civilization’ in the South—left them vulnerable when they signed treaties with the United States in 1866 that abolished slavery and recognized the equality of Indian freedpeople. (The status of Afro-Indians as full fledged members of Indian nations continues to be disputed.) In the late nineteenth century, the federal government gave Indian freedpeople and black settlers land in Indian territory, even as the abolitionist dream of land reform in the South withered.

“The pitting of freedpeople's rights against tribal sovereignty was the tragedy of formal Reconstruction in Indian territory. The southern Creeks, Chickasaws, and Choctaws abused freedpeople in much the same way as southern ex-slaveholders, reported agents of the Freedmen's Bureau. The remarkable northern Creek chief, Oktarsars Harjo, posited an alternative and, unfortunately, a minority vision: native sovereignty that included freedpeople. As he put it, ‘we were all one nation.’ Black settlers, fleeing southern terrorism, also cannot simply be viewed as equal participants in American colonialism in the West. The 1866 treaties between the US government and the five ‘civilized’ southern Indian nations resulted, C. N. Vann of the Cherokee nation argued, in land being taken from them and given to railroad corporations or designated as public domain. He was outraged ‘that the Government shall rob its wards and cover itself with ignominy, in order that these corporations may pile up mountainous fortunes.’ Indian territory would be opened to white settlement in 1889, paving the way for further dispossession and Oklahoma statehood. The loss of sovereignty suffered by indigenous nations in the West was compounded by wartime laws that were predicated on their dispossession: the Homestead Acts, which gave homesteads to settlers, citizens as well as immigrants, on ‘public’ lands, and the Pacific Railroad Act, which allowed for the construction of a transcontinental railroad through Native America.”

The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic: Reconstruction, 1860-1920
author: Manisha Sinha  
title: The Rise and Fall of the Second American Republic: Reconstruction, 1860-1920  
publisher: Liveright  
page(s): 310-312

The Spy Who Failed: Kurt Gödel

The spy who flunked it: Kurt Gödel’s forgotten part in the atom-bomb story

Kurt Goedel and Albert Einstein. Princton. Photography. 1950.

Kurt Gödel (left) and Albert Einstein in Princeton, New Jersey, in 1950.Credit: Imagno/Getty

The 2023 film Oppenheimer narrates the story of the atomic bomb entirely from the perspective of its eponymous hero. But there’s much that is left out. It is well-known that US efforts to build the bomb started years before physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer took over as director of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico in 1943. That project was initiated by fellow physicist Leo Szilard. Concerned by the pace at which nuclear-science discoveries were being made in Germany, Szilard persuaded Albert Einstein in August 1939 to write a letter to then-president Franklin D. Roosevelt, warning him of the risk of an atomic bomb in Adolf Hitler’s hands.

But Szilard wasn’t the only physicist to try to use Einstein’s prestige to alert the president. Viennese physicist Hans Thirring independently arrived at the same idea. Thirring’s attempt petered out, but deserves a footnote in history, if only because it involves none less than Kurt Gödel in the unexpected role of a secret agent. The tale has all the trappings of an Alfred Hitchcock movie.

Vienna Circle

Gödel, a mathematician and philosopher, was called by Einstein “the greatest logician since Aristotle” — a phrase coined in 1924 that stuck. Yet when Kurt enrolled at the University of Vienna 100 years ago, he started out in physics. Relativity was all the rage then, and Gödel’s professor, Hans Thirring, was an expert. He had just co-discovered an important feature of the Universe — that the gravitational field of a spinning ball (such as Earth) differs from that when the ball is still, now known as the Lense–Thirring effect. The difference is tiny, however, and it wasn’t measured until 80 years later, using first-rate space technology.

The avant-garde philosophers of the Vienna Circle, a group of self-appointed heralds of the scientific world view, also influenced Gödel and turned his mind towards the foundations of mathematics. By age 25, he had discovered his ‘incompleteness theorem’, which states roughly that there is no consistent formal system in which all arithmetical propositions can be proved. This was an epoch-making result.

Gödel became one of the first postdocs to be invited to the newly founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. But when he returned from the United States to Vienna in 1934, he had a nervous breakdown. Indeed, bouts of persecution mania and fears of poisoning would dog him for the rest of his life. Thus, during the 1930s, Gödel shuttled between seminars in Vienna, the Institute for Advanced Study and mental-health clinics.

His mathematical work shifted to ‘set theory’, especially the theory of infinites. And again, he achieved a landmark result. He obsessively pursued the ‘continuum hypothesis’, which states roughly that the infinitude of real numbers is next largest to that of natural numbers. Gödel managed to show that this hypothesis is compatible with the axioms of set theory — a brilliant feat. His shorthand notebooks from that period, which are currently being deciphered and published, show that he pursued in parallel a stupendous range of interests, including parapsychology and quantum mechanics — two fields that also engrossed his former physics professor, with whom he had never lost touch.

Thirring was charismatic, popular with his students and brim-full of ideas. He had invented a cape-like ‘hover-coat’ for skiers and held a patent on films with sound. He, too, was in close touch with the hard-nosed ‘positivists’ of the Vienna Circle, who thought that knowledge comes only from experience and logical analysis. But this did not dampen Thirring’s interest in paranormal phenomena.

To hold a truly scientific world view, one must be ready to swim against the mainstream. This applies to political tides, too: Thirring was one of the woefully few in Vienna to stand up firmly against the flood of Nazi students after Hitler came to power. The ‘brownshirt’ storm troopers — the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party — could not accuse him of being of Jewish descent, but his support of Einstein (who was Jewish) was bad enough in their eyes. And in 1938, as soon as Austria was annexed to the Third Reich, 50-year-old Thirring lost his professorial chair. But he did not lose contact with former colleagues. And he was well aware that, in physics labs everywhere, everyone was talking about nuclear fission — the division of the atomic nucleus and the resulting release of energy — which had just been discovered in Hitler’s Berlin.

Mounting concern

In the summer of 1939, after reading an article in the scientific journal Die Naturwissenschaften by Siegfried Flügge — later a leading member of Uranverein, the ominous ‘Uranium Club’ that was behind the German effort to build a nuclear bomb — Thirring had learnt enough to feel that the US government should be warned. Like Szilard, and at about the same time, he came up with the idea to use Einstein to alert Roosevelt. But how could Thirring contact Einstein? The Gestapo, the Nazi secret police force, would intercept every phone call or letter from Vienna to Princeton, where Einstein lived.

This is when Thirring heard that Gödel happened to be on a brief visit to Vienna, to see his mother and take his wife Adele back with him to Princeton. Why not use Gödel as a secret messenger to reach Einstein? Thirring entrusted Gödel confidentially with the task of warning Einstein about Hitler’s bomb.

Unfortunately, the plan proved ill-fated. Gödel’s departure was delayed for nearly four months by an avalanche of bureaucratic hurdles. At times, escape looked hopeless.

Difficulties and chicanery piled up. After Germany annexed Austria, Gödel automatically became a German citizen, and had to return his old passport. The visa for multiple re-entry into the United States was in the old passport, and the hopelessly overtaxed US consulate could not simply transfer it to the new one. Gödel had to re-apply to enter the United States, and thus join a queue of thousands who were desperately trying to escape from the Reich.

The Ski-Sailing” invented in Austria has now also entered Switzerland, where the famous ski resort at St. Moritz has been demonstrated. Photo: An impression of the new sport, St. Moritz, Switzerland January 1938.

The ‘hover-coat’ designed by Hans Thirring.Credit: BNA Photographic/Alamy

Gödel had also lost his lectureship, and thus his professorial status. The Nazis were re-structuring academic life, and Gödel’s former contacts aroused their suspicion. Would he be able to represent ‘New Germany’ abroad? A minor bureaucrat had found fault with Gödel’s previous journey to the United States; the revenue service questioned the few hundred dollars on his account. It seemed he was of Aryan descent, but where was his grandparents’ marriage certificate, and that of his wife’s grandparents? Administration ran amok.

As one Viennese eye-witness, the writer Leo Perutz, described it: “Obscure offices that no one had ever heard of before would suddenly emerge from hiding, would make their demands imperiously known, and would insist on being satisfied, or at least noticed and consulted.”

Gödel and his wife had moved out of their flat in September — but because they couldn’t leave the country as planned, they had to look urgently for new lodgings. On top of it all, a mustering commission of the German armed forces, the Wehrmacht, declared Gödel fit for garrison duty. It was like a bad dream. Indeed, many years later, he would still be plagued by nightmares about being trapped in Vienna.

Perilous flight

In the end, thanks to vigorous interventions by mathematician John von Neumann and others at the Institute for Advanced Study, the visas came through in early January 1940. By then, Hitler’s troops had overrun Poland, and Europe was torn apart by war. The United States wasn’t involved yet, and some neutral vessels still plied the Atlantic Ocean. However, they were routinely searched by Allied warships, and all German passengers were sent to internment camps. On top of that, there was the risk of running through the periscope sight of a trigger-happy German U-boat skipper. Obviously, an Atlantic crossing would not do.

The only way out was the other way around: eastward, through Siberia and the Pacific. A tight-rope act, but just feasible. The Soviet Union and Japan were both waging wars, but not against Germany, or the United States, or each other.

Thirring’s plan was still alive, and on the eve of Gödel’s departure, the dauntless physicist met him and relayed the secret message. It was by no means sure that it would reach its destination. At each hitch, the Gödels risked being stopped. They had a long way to go.

To Berlin first, for some final stamps on their documents. From there, across half of Prussia, to reach occupied Poland, with its bombed railway stations and baleful troop transports clustering the sidings. On through twilight Latvia and Lithuania, and into Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Each border crossing took hours. Each luggage search was nerve-racking, and each knock on the compartment door was ill-boding. Finally in Moscow, the Gödels spent a night in the gigantic Hotel Metropol, a gloomy block housing mostly Communist Party delegates, some anxiously awaiting their upcoming trials for disloyalty. These were the heydays of communist purges and spy scares.

At Yaroslavski station in central Moscow, the Gödels boarded the Trans-Siberian Express. Its other terminus was more than 9,000 kilometres away, in Vladivostok. During the seemingly endless nights of ice and snow, the train accumulated a colossal delay. After finally reaching Vladivostok, they had to take a ship — often running behind schedule — to Yokohama, Japan. While in Berlin, Gödel and Adele had booked a cabin in the SS President Taft for the leg from Yokohama to San Francisco, California. Inevitably, they missed the ocean liner, and had to wait for two weeks for the next one, the SS President Cleveland.

Once aboard, things started picking up. A day’s stopover in sight of Oahu, Hawaii, came as a welcome change from icy Siberian train platforms. The coast of California rising from the horizon was the climax. Years later, Gödel would still enthuse: “San Francisco is absolutely the most beautiful city I have ever seen.” There was just one last formality before landing: the immigration papers, with their obnoxious queries — “Have you ever been a patient in an institution for the care and treatment of the insane?” No.

Another railway ticket; another trans-continental ride, now in an elegant Pullman sleeper train; and the safe haven of Princeton at last, after almost two months of travelling. Gödel’s long-time friend, economist Oskar Morgenstern, reported in his diary on 12 March 1940: “Gödel arrived. This time with wife. Via Siberia. When asked about Vienna: The coffee is wretched!”

After having circled three-quarters of the globe, Gödel had reached Einstein’s doorstep. He could finally fulfil his mission. Despite all obstacles, Thirring’s message had arrived. Quite conceivably, it could save the world.

And this is where Gödel failed.

He confessed it to Thirring more than three decades later: on meeting Einstein, Gödel had not transmitted the warning, but merely “greetings from Thirring”. The bizarre excuse: he, Gödel, had felt that a nuclear chain reaction would be possible only “in a distant future”.

Lost legacy

What did Thirring make of this? We can only wonder. He had outlasted the Third Reich unbowed, reassumed his professorship and become one of the firmest voices against nuclear armament. By then, however, Einstein’s letter to Roosevelt, prompted by Szilard, was public knowledge. Thirring’s son Walter, who was also a theoretical physicist and a colleague of mine in Vienna, later told me that his father was always uneasy about his (imagined) role in the bomb project. Hans, who was an inveterate pacifist, saw himself as a link in the causal chain that had led to the horrors of the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945. Only in 1972, shortly before his death and already weakened by a stroke, did he learn that his message had never reached its goal.

As a secret agent, Gödel had proved a dud. But then again, fortunately, the spectre of Hitler’s atomic bomb had turned out to be no great shakes either.

Nature 627, 26-28 (2024)



  • Correction 20 March 2024: Owing to a late editorial change, the originally published text of this Essay made an erroneous statement about the nature of the continuum hypothesis, and stated mistakenly that Hans Thirring had lost contact with former colleagues.

The Mongol Conquests

Today's selection -- from A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells. The Mongols achieved “a series of conquests as has no parallel in history:” 

Mongolia Travel Map  Road Map Mongolia  Tourist Map Mongolia

“In the thirteenth century, … Turkish people from the country to the north of China rose suddenly to prominence in the world's affairs, and achieved such a series of conquests as has no parallel in history. These were the Mongols. At the opening of the thirteenth century they were a horde of nomadic horsemen, living very much as their predecessors, the Huns, had done, subsisting chiefly upon meat and mare's milk and living in tents of skin. They had shaken themselves free from Chinese dominion, and brought a number of other Turkish tribes into a military confederacy. Their central camp was Karakorum in Mongolia. 

“At this time China was in a state of division. The great dynasty of Tang had passed into decay by the tenth century, and after a phase of division into warring states, three main empires, that of Kin in the north with Pekin as its capital and that of Sung in the south with a capital at Nankin, and Hsia in the centre, remain. In 1214 Jengis Khan, the leader of the Mongol confederates, made war on the Kin Empire and captured Pekin (1214). He then turned westward and conquered Western Turkestan, Persia, Armenia, India down Lahore, and South Russia as far as Kieff. He died master of a vast empire that reached from the Pacific to the Dnieper. 

“His successor, Ogdai Khan, continued this astonishing career of conquest. His armies were organized to a very high level of efficiency; and they had with them a new Chinese invention, gunpowder, which they used in small field guns. He completed the conquest of the Kin Empire and then swept his hosts right across Asia to Russia (1235), an altogether amazing march. Kieff was destroyed in 1240, and nearly all Russia became tributary to the Mongols. Poland was ravaged, and a mixed army of Poles and Germans was annihilated at the battle of Liegnitz in Lower Silesia in 1241. The Emperor Frederick II does not seem to have made any great efforts to stay the advancing tide. 

“‘It is only recently,’ says Bury in his notes to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, ‘that European history has begun to understand that the successes of the Mongol army which overran Poland and occupied Hungary in the spring of A.D. 1241 were won by consummate strategy and were not due to a mere overwhelming superiority of numbers. But this fact has not yet become a matter of common knowledge; the vulgar opinion which represents the Tartars as a wild horde carrying all before them solely by their multitude, and galloping through Eastern Europe without a strategic plan, rushing at all obstacles and overcoming them by mere weight, still prevails .... 

“‘It was wonderful how punctually and effectually the arrangements were carried out in operations extending from the Lower Vistula to Transylvania. Such a campaign was quite beyond the power of any European army of the time, and it was beyond the vision of any European commander. There was no general in Europe, from Frederick II downward, who was not a tyro in strategy compared to Subutai. It should also be noticed that the Mongols embarked upon the enterprise with full knowledge of the political situation of Hungary and the condition of Poland—they had taken care to inform themselves by a well-organized system of spies; on the other hand, the Hungarians and the Christian powers, like childish barbarians, knew hardly anything about their enemies.’"

Portrayal of Ögedei Khan in a 14th-century Yuan-era album, originally painted in 1278

“But though the Mongols were victorious at Liegnitz, they did not continue their drive westward. They were getting into woodlands and hilly country, which did not suit their tactics; and so they turned southward and prepared to settle in Hungary, massacring or assimilating the kindred Magyar, even as these had previously massacred and assimilated the mixed Scythians and Avars and Huns before them. From the Hungarian plain they would probably have made raids west and south as the Hungarians had done in the ninth century, the Avars in the seventh and eighth and the Huns in the fifth. But Ogdai died suddenly, and in 1242 there was trouble about

the succession, and recalled by this, the undefeated hosts of Mongols began to pour back across Hungary and Rumania towards the east.

“Thereafter the Mongols concentrated their attention upon their Asiatic conquests. By the middle of the thirteenth century they had conquered the Sung Empire. Mangu Khan succeeded Ogdai Khan as Great Khan in 1251, and made his brother Kublai Khan governor of China. In 1280 Kublai Khan had been formally recognized Emperor of China, and so founded the Yuan dynasty which lasted until 1368. While the last ruins of the Sung rule were going down in China, another brother of Mangu, Hulagu, was conquering Persia and Syria. The Mongols displayed a bitter animosity to Islam at this time, and not only massacred the population of Bagdad when they captured that city, but set to work to destroy the immemorial irrigation system which had kept Mesopotamia incessantly prosperous and populous from the early days of Sumeria. From that time until our own Mesopotamia has been a desert of ruins, sustaining only a scanty population. Into Egypt the Mongols never penetrated; the Sultan of Egypt completely defeated an army of Hulagu's in Palestine in 1260.

“After that disaster the tide of Mongol victory ebbed. The dominions of the Great Khan fell into a number of separate states. The eastern Mongols became Buddhists, like the Chinese; the western became Moslim. The Chinese threw off the rule of the Yuan dynasty in 1368, and set up the native Ming dynasty which flourished from 1368 to 1644. The Russians remained tributary to the Tartar hordes upon the south-east steppes until 1480, when the Grand Duke of Moscow repudiated his allegiance and laid the foundation of modern Russia.

“In the fourteenth century there was a brief revival of Mongol vigour under Timurlane, a descendant of Jengis Khan. He established himself in Western Turkestan, assumed the title of Grand Khan in 1369, and conquered from Syria to Delhi. He was the most savage and destructive of all the Mongol conquerors. He established an empire of desolation that did not survive his death. In 1505, however, a descendant of this Timur, an adventurer named Baber, got together an army with guns and swept down upon the plain of India. His grandson Akbar (1556-1605) completed his conques and this Mongol (or ‘Mogul’ as the Arabs called it) dynasty ruled in Delhi over the greater part of India until the eighteenth century."

A Short History of the World
author: H.G. Wells  
title: A Short History of the World  
publisher: Fingerprint! Publishing  
page(s): 302-208

Sage Advice c. 1943

Livret A Short Guide to Great Britain  US Militaria  Collection
Search inside imag

Along the way the Army had given the men a slim booklet - A Short Guide To Great Britain, written, in part, by the English author of Lassie Come Home, Eric Knight. The guide says right off that if you're Irish-American, forget "old grievances," "There is no time today to fight old wars over again," It steps quickly through history --- "Our ideals of religious freedom were all brought from Britain when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock...and parts of our own Bill of Rights were borrowed from the great charters of British liberty." It gives some language pointers---"It isn't a good idea ... to say 'bloody' in mixed company in Britain--- it is one of their worst swear words." And it repeatedly cautions yanks about being rude:
  You're coming to Britain from a country where your home is still safe, food is still plentiful, and lights are still burning. So, it is doubly important for you to remember that the British soldiers and civilians have been living under a tremendous strain. It is always impolite to criticise your hosts. It is militarily stupid to insult your allies.  So, stop and think before you sound off about lukewarm beer, or cold boiled potatoes, or the way English cigarettes taste.

   Put away your comments about dreary English weather, dinky cars, worn-out trains, shabby dress, confusing currency, and bland food: The British don't know how to make a good cup of coffee. You don't know how to make a good cup of tea. It's an even swap. And "Keep out of arguments ... Never criticise the King or Queen."

   Above all, don't be a show-off:

   You are higher paid than the British 'Tommy'. Don't rub it in. Don't brag or bluster---'swank' as the British say.  If somebody looks in your direction and says, "He's chucking his weight about,' you can be pretty sure you're off base.That's the time to pull in your ears.

   The British will welcome you as friends and allies. But remember that crossing the ocean doesn't automatically make you a hero. There are housewives in aprons and youngsters in knee pants ... who have lived through more high explosives in air raids than many soldiers saw in first clashes in the last war.

   Remember there's a war on. Britain may look a little shop-worn and grimy to you. The British people are anxious for you to know that you are not seeing its country at its best. There's been a war on since 1939. The houses haven't been painted because the factories are not making paint---they're making planes. The famous English gardens and parks are either unkept because there are no men to take care of them, or they are being used to grow needed vegetables .... In normal times Britain looks much prettier, cleaner, neater.

I Will Tell No War Stories -
 What Our Fathers Left Unsaid about World War II.
pp 28-29
Howard Mansfiield

My own father had a similar book given to the English about the Americans. High on the list was "Never call an American soldier a "Yankee." You have better than a 50% chance of offending him and a considerable chance for getting into a fist-fight.

I moved from Hawaii to a new school in New Hampshire. The very first breakfast I attended advertised, on the menu board: chitlins.  "Chitlins!" I cried " "I think I just died and went to Alabama! You Yankee girls don't know how to make no chitlins!" Just then a 250 lb black cook came around the corner waving a major-sized frying pan in my direction. "Who you callin' a Yankee?" she demanded.