Posts Tagged ‘World War One’

MY FATHER, THE SPY

Last week, Army Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman testified before the House Intelligence Committee regarding the impeachment inquiry. Some guardians of the land of the free and the home of the brave suggested that LTC Vindman was not loyal to this country. My father faced the same accusation.

Vindman, a Jew, immigrated from Ukraine at three, grew up in Brooklyn and received a degree from elitist Harvard. All tip-offs. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, he swore to protect and defend the Constitution. No real patriot would be fooled by that. Twenty-two years in uniform? A combat infantryman’s badge? A purple heart? Deceptions.

As to my father Morris: When America entered World War Two, he sought to become an air-raid warden. A routine investigation followed. Someone accused him of having been a spy for Tsarist Russia before and during World War One. Made sense, I suppose.

In 1906, Dad arrived at Ellis Island with my grandparents from Poland, then part of the Russian Empire. He was 2-1/2 (whether he was smoking a cigar remains undetermined) and obviously impressionable. Also clever. He claimed he remembered nothing about Warsaw. He spoke fluent English (with a New York accent). Ruses.

In 1914, the Perlsteins became citizens just as the Great War sent Russia reeling and in need of all the assistance it could get. Citizenship obviously enabled my father, 11, to go deep undercover. His smokescreen included baseball—playing in the schoolyard and rooting for the Yankees and Giants.

Russia sought information about American intentions. And what revealed American thinking more than baseball? Was Yankees right fielder Doc Cook a favorite of young boys? Giants pitcher Christy Mathewson? Did immigrant fifth-graders, America’s future soldiers and mothers of soldiers, really prefer penmanship and learning times tables to working in the fields? Were they exposed to endless propaganda about the countries from which their families fled for better economic opportunities and safety, particularly after Jews streamed to these shores following the 1905 pogroms in Kishinev and Kiev?

More proof against my father: Excellent report cards and a bar-mitzvah in 1916. Beyond the shadow of a doubt, he lacked kinship with salt-of-the-earth Christian-American kids packed off to coal mines, stockyards, fields and factories.

Ridiculous? Sure. No one accused my father of being a Tsarist spy, although he did have to submit a lot of paperwork before becoming an air-raid warden in Queens. And for the record, his love of cigars started at 12.

But there’s a point to be made. Defenders of President Trump tend to go off their meds. It’s not that they refuse to believe that he withheld from Ukraine American aid appropriated by Congress until Ukrainian president Zelensky agreed to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden and his presidential-candidate father Joe. And investigate Ukrainian interference in America’s 2016 election, although U.S. intelligence agencies pointed the finger at Russia, and William Mueller got indictments on 17 Russians.

It’s that they prefer character assassination to facts. So some attacked LTC Vindman to make a point of their own: If you weren’t born on American soil to American parents, you’re suspect.

Where then does that leave First Lady Melania Trump, who came to America from Slovenia in 1996 at age 26? I take her loyalty for granted. Does that make me, a native son, disloyal?

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HAUNTED BY HISTORY

Old newsreels and propaganda films of World War One can be difficult to relate to. Camera vibrations and slower frame speeds produce herky-jerky images in black and white. But Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies) has completed a documentary that brings the Great War to life. It’s haunting.

The trailer for They Shall Not Grow Old shows how Jackson digitally restored footage from Britain’s Imperial War Museum, adjusting the frame rate, colorizing many clips and transforming some into 3-D. (Read a fascinating overview in The New York Times.)

The documentary also provides voiceovers taken from BBC interviews with British vets in the ’60s and ’70s. Additionally, lip readers determined what some troops were saying, and actors with accurate regional accents dubbed scenes.

Obviously, uniforms and equipment are dated. The number of missing teeth, given the British love of sweets and war’s ravages, is astounding. But these soldiers no longer seem caricatures from an almost mythological past but our contemporaries. Note: Britain and its colonies lost 750,000 troops. The U.S. lost 53,000 after entering the war in 1917. Altogether, World War One took nine to 15 million lives.

Most Americans don’t come close to knowing these figures or the causes of a war that never should have been fought. We long have become a nation—even more so over the last two years—proudly ignorant of history and its impact on our present and future. The vengeful Treaty of Versailles (1919) sowed the seeds of World War Two.

In 1954, the U.S. became the dominant Western power in Indochina following France’s humiliating defeat at Dien Bien Phu. The Eisenhower administration knew little about Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, but Cold Warriors feared Communist Ho Chi Minh becoming a puppet of China. In reality, Vietnam had been hostile to its northern neighbor for 1,000 years. Some historians believe that Jack Kennedy would have withdrawn American advisors. I wouldn’t have bet on it.

Lyndon Johnson feared drawing conservatives’ wrath and sent more advisors until we staged the Gulf of Tonkin incident as an excuse to land major combat forces in the South. Richard Nixon, who won the presidency in 1968 after LBJ chose not to run for re-election, boasted of a “secret plan” to end the war. He waited until ’72—after re-election—to unveil it. Slaughter continued there, riots and societal breakdown here. Nixon’s secret? “Peace with honor.” Translation: Leave. We lost the war and 58,000 troops. South Vietnam fell.

George W. Bush and his handlers knew nothing about the Greater Middle East. Post-9/11, we went into Afghanistan to find Osama Bin Laden. Fine. Then we blew it. He escaped. We stayed. We’re still there. In 2003, we invaded Iraq to destroy weapons of mass destruction and create an American-style democracy. We found Saddam Hussein but no weapons. No matter. Mass destruction followed.

Ultimately, that led us into Syria. Now, we’re reversing course and leaving. I believe this move is premature—and dangerous. Secretary of Defense James Mattis does, too. He resigned yesterday.

They Shall Not Grow Old reminds us of George Santayana’s advice: “Those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.” It offers sound advice to each new generation. What truly grows old is our ignoring it.

To those who celebrate these holidays, Merry Christmas and Happy Kwanzaa! To all, Happy New Year!

The blog will take some time off and return on Friday, January 4.

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