Aug. 30, 2011

Great Day in the Morning

by Robert Morgan

My father, when he was surprised
or suddenly impressed, would blurt
"Great day in the morning," as though
a revelation had struck him.
The figure of his speech would seem
to claim some large event appeared
at hand, if not already here;
a mighty day or luminous age
was flinging wide its doors as world
on world revealed their wonders in
the rapturous morning, always new,
beginning as the now took hold.

"Great Day in the Morning" by Robert Morgan, from Terroir. © Penguin Poets, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of American journalist, John Gunther (books by this author), best known for his best-selling memoir, Death Be not Proud, about the death of his teenage son, Johnny.

Gunther was born in Chicago, to a mother who was a teacher and a father who, in Gunther's words, "dabbled in real estate and excelled in drinking." He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1922 with a degree in English, from the start harboring literary and journalistic ambitions. He published his first novel, The Red Pavilion, in 1926, and four more by 1936, writing them so quickly in part because none of them excited him — he just produced one after another, he said, "almost as one produces a stick of chocolate by putting a penny in a slot machine."

In 1936, Gunther wrote the first of what would become a series of extremely popular sociopolitical volumes, Inside Europe, a journalistic overview of recent European events that included personality profiles of key figures, political analysis, and stories of local color. The book was an enormous success, not necessarily esteemed by critics but widely admired by the public because of Gunther's skill in arranging an enormous amount of information into an articulate and fluent narrative. Critics felt that Gunther sacrificed analysis in order to emphasize personal experience, but Gunther never claimed to be to writing for the ages — he wrote for his readers, and he captured their interest while humanizing the people and events they encountered in the headlines every day.

Eight more "Inside" books followed, for which Gunther traveled extensively, interviewing political and social leaders in each country he covered, reading massive amounts of statistics, talking to business leaders and average citizens. Time magazine reviewed Gunther's Inside U.S.A. in 1947, for which, the review explained, Gunther's publishers were "using all the paper they [could] find to print it" and spending $40,000 to promote it, though Time didn't expect it to outlast the year. The reviewer called Gunther's writing "brisk and breezy," but also "glib, superficial, exaggerated, full of impressions passing as insights and facts palmed off as truths." Still, it was to be considered the best of his books since Inside Europe 11 years earlier.

Readers today might find it interesting to encounter America's dirtiest city of 1947, Indianapolis, a unkempt place terrific for basketball and the American Legion; a Chicago as "full of crooks as a saw with teeth;" the "intense, concentrated, degrading ugliness" of Knoxville; and Butte, where "Whole neighborhoods are moldy, whole streets are rotten and decaying. The bars are preposterous and prodigious. I saw grandmothers teaching six-year-old kids to play slot machines."

The residents of New Orleans were then consuming 120 bottles of Coca-Cola per year while New Yorkers drank only six. In New England, the towns Calais, Paris, and Peru were pronounced Callus, Pay-rus, and Pee-ru. Gunther found New York's Governor Dewey as "devoid of charm as a rivet," Taft an amalgam of brain power and "majestic wrongheadedness," and a U.S. public life full of "poltroons, chiselers, parvenus" and "politicians bloated with intellectual edema." But, as Gunther reminded his readers, it was worth remembering that the United States was "the craziest, most dangerous, least stable, most spectacular, least grownup, and most powerful and magnificent nation ever known."

Forty-eight years ago today, in 1963, the diplomatic hotline between Moscow and Washington went into service. This was not yet the famous "Red Telephone" that is so often spoofed by Hollywood but, instead, a pair of dual telegraph lines connecting a system of Teletype machines and cryptography units on each end, a concrete connection between bitter enemies. The hotline was introduced to the American public on August 30th with a one-line statement from the Defense Department, which only said, "The direct communications line between Washington and Moscow is now operational."

The hotline was one of the few arms-control measures that the United States and the Soviet Union had been able to agree upon since the beginning of the Cold War 17 years earlier. Given this, one might have hoped for more ceremony for the hotline's first use, but there wasn't even an official exchange of messages or greetings, just a Teletype operator test phrase that read, "The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog's back 1234567890," and a return message from Moscow that was completely unintelligible to the United States operators, but at least demonstrated that all the characters on the Russian machines were working correctly.

The line was to be used only in an emergency, and had been conceived of during the Cuban Missile Crisis the year before, when serious delays in diplomatic communications between the Americans and Russians, delays sometimes long enough to cause one side to believe that the other had deliberately ignored its message, made obvious the need for a faster way for the two world powers to relay information at critical times.

It was hoped that this new hotline would help avoid future misunderstandings, and it was intentionally designed without any kind of voice component — neither a telephone nor a radio — because of the fear that tone of voice or confusion over colloquialisms might lead to serious problems; with telegraph machines, communication was virtually instantaneous yet allowed time for consideration and reflection before replying. And so four Model 28 Teletype machines from the Teletype Corporation of Chicago boarded a plane in July 1963 and were installed in the Kremlin by August 1st, while four comparable Soviet machines from East Germany made their way to the Soviet Embassy in Washington and on to the section of the Pentagon occupied by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Each country included a year's supply of spare parts, tools, operating instructions, telecommunications tape, and encoding equipment that neither would normally have shared.

The hotline was first used in an official capacity four years later, during the Six-Day War between Israel and its surrounding nations, and it worked admirably, allowing both sides to make each other aware of military movements that had great potential for being misconstrued. The Teletype machines and radio circuits were finally replaced with telephones and satellites in the 1970s. And in 1986, a high-speed fax machine was added, so that American and Russian leaders could share large amounts of graphic information such as maps and diagrams.

In film and popular fiction, world leaders are often portrayed as giving or receiving the ultimate message — that of some Earth-destroying offensive — on a hotline such as this, and certainly for those who lived or grew up during the Cold War, the image and the idea of the symbolic Red Telephone became closely linked to the terrifying threat of global nuclear war. The Red Telephone in one form or another has made appearances in everything from the James Bond novels to the Batphone with which Commissioner Gordon could contact Batman whenever homicidal clowns or penguins came to call.

The Red Telephone is used only rarely, but needs to be tested every day. In the Sixties, the Americans would send baseball stats or football scores, and the Russians would reply with bits of Russian poetry, perhaps lines from Vladimir Nabokov or Boris Pasternak. Or perhaps the line might have once carried the ending to poet Anna Ahkmatova's "And as It's Going," and how,

     The bird began to sing the song of light and pleasure
     To us, who fears to lift looks from the earth
     Who are so lofty, bitter and intense
     About days when we were saved together.

Today is also the birthday of Russian journalist Anna Stepanova Politkovskaya (books by this author), author of Putin's Russia and A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya.

Anna was born in New York City in 1958 while her parents, who were Ukrainian diplomats, were at the United Nations, but she grew up in Moscow, graduating from the Moscow State University's school of journalism in 1980 with a thesis on the Russian and Soviet poet Marina Ivanova Tsvetaeva. Anna married and had two children and settled down to the business of becoming a fearless, award-winning reporter who would speak for the victims of conflict even in the face of great personal risk.

Anna began her career as a reporter and editor for the accidents and emergencies section at a long-running Russian newspaper, Izvestia, then moved to another paper where she wrote about social problems, in particular the plight of refugees. But it was at Novaya Gazeta, a strongly investigative Russian newspaper that was critical of the post-Soviet regime, that Anna came into her own.

She was highly critical of Vladimir Putin, the former KGB lieutenant colonel who had become the second president of the Russian Federation. As she wrote of him in a later article, "Poisoned by Putin," it was under him that Russia was "hurtling back into a Soviet abyss, into an information vacuum that spells death from our own ignorance ... if you want to go on working as a journalist, it's total servility to Putin. Otherwise, it can be death, the bullet, poison, or trial — whatever our special services, Putin's guard dogs, see fit."

During the Second Chechen War, which began in 1999 when Russian forces entered Chechnya to end its de facto independence and reestablish Russian federal control of the territory, Anna distinguished herself reporting on what she called "state versus group terrorism," documenting torture, mass executions, kidnappings, and the sale by Russian soldiers of Chechen corpses to their families so that they might be given proper Islamic burials. She came to the conclusion that the only response one could possibly expect to such treatment would be more militant resistance, more terrorism, and the recruitment of more resistance fighters.

Anna reported directly from the killing fields, putting herself in harm's way, exposing what she called "medieval barbarity" in all its red and vivid brutality. In 2001, in the course of investigating punitive raids by the Russians on Chechen families, she was detained by Russian military officials who beat her, threatened horrific acts on her children, staged a mock execution of her with a rocket launcher, and forced her to drink poisoned tea to make her sick. Anna received numerous death threats, at least nine according to a colleague at Novaya Gazeta; she never denied being afraid, but her personal sense of responsibility and concern for her informants and for the people she spoke for would not allow her to give up or run away. She never spent more than a few weeks of her life outside of Russia, and though she had a passport and a U.S. visa, she apparently never even considered leaving Russia to report from a safer location. She said once, during a 2005 press conference in Vienna, that, "People sometimes pay with their lives for saying aloud what they think ... I am not the only one in danger."

In 2004, Anna was poisoned as part of what has come to be seen as a triple-whammy against free press in Russia. En route to cover the Beslan school hostage crisis, Anna, who had taken nothing that day because in her own words, "war has taught me that it better not to eat" before a conflict, was given a cup of tea and was unconscious within minutes. She later woke in a regional hospital where her doctors told her she had been poisoned and that the tests that had been performed at the airport were already destroyed. A second journalist who reported on Chechen war atrocities and who had also suffered a kidnapping by Russian forces was detained and jailed en route to Beslan, the third hit coming when the editor of Izvestia was sacked following that paper's graphic accounts of the Beslan massacre.

On the afternoon of October 4th, 2006, Anna returned to her central Moscow flat from a shopping trip with a load of bags and parcels. She dropped the bags in her apartment and then took the lift back down. As the lift doors opened, she was shot four times in the chest and once in the head at point blank range, and was found by a neighbor, lying on the floor with the handgun and empty shell casings beside her. She was 48.

Anna's murder by all accounts appeared to be a contract killing. And in a page straight out of Ian Fleming, two years later Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB and FSB officer turned journalist who spoke against Putin for Beslan and accused him of acts of terrorism and of ordering the death of Anna Politkovskaya, was poisoned and killed by the rare and radioactive isotope polonium-210. He had apparently been poisoned by a pot of tea.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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