Lincoln and empathy

A. Lincoln has a great little anecdote. In the grand scheme of Abraham Lincoln’s life, it’s hardly more than a footnote, and it takes up less than a page in the paperback edition.

Early in his career, Lincoln ridiculed an opponent and felt bad about it.

It really shouldn’t be noteworthy, but given how nasty people can get toward each other when arguing online, it’s worth highlighting.

According to Ronald C. White, Jr., Lincoln, then 31, was campaigning for William Henry Harrison and speaking against Martin Van Buren during the 1840 presidential election. That summer, a young Democratic politician named Jesse Thomas criticized Lincoln at a debate.

The criticism angered Lincoln. Though not initially present, once he got word Lincoln made his way there and was given time to respond, and he attacked back. “His attack quickly moved beyond the content of Thomas’s remarks,” White writes.

Lincoln resorted to imitating Thomas’s voice, gestures, and walk, making a caricature out of the man. And the crowd loved it. Their cheers fueled Lincoln’s mockery of his opponent, at the time blinding him to the pain he was causing Thomas.

Thomas eventually fled the scene in tears, and the incident became known as “the skinning of Thomas.”

“Lincoln was mortified,” White writes. “Sometime later he found Thomas and offered an apology. The young Lincoln, the man who prized reasonableness, struggled to control his emotions when he felt he was wronged.”

Lincoln succumbed to the heat of the moment and took things too far. The impulse to fight back is an understandable one, but he erred in how he did so. 

The important thing, though, is that he realized his error and learned from it. After ridiculing Thomas, Lincoln put himself in his opponent’s head, remembered his humanity, and acknowledged the pain he caused. This helped him steer clear of such immature, hurtful attacks later on in his career, which might very well have done more harm than good by undermining the causes he fought for.

It’s worth remembering whenever someone on the internet says the “wrong” thing.

Where no one had gone before

I recently watched and enjoyed For All Mankind on Apple TV. The series presents an alternate history in which Soviet cosmonauts landed on the moon before American astronauts. The first season is excellent; the second is a mixed bag, but at times excellent.

The series got me curious about the actual history of the space program, so I picked up Apollo 8: The Thrilling Story of the First Mission to the Moon by Jeffrey Kluger (2017).

Though the Apollo 8 mission is the centerpiece of the book, Kluger also recounts the history of the U.S. space program leading up to the first lunar flight, and he spends time getting to know Apollo 8’s crew: Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. Kluger does so in a clear, narrative form, even throwing in some dialogue to bring the scenes to life.

The book goes into gritty detail about how challenging and claustrophobic space travel can be—the constant danger, the cramped quarters, the stale air, the utter lack of privacy, and the absence of proper restroom facilities and the resulting indignities. At first glance, biological necessities do suck much of the romance out of exploration, but such details help illustrate what a tremendous, aspirational feat this whole mission was, with an abundance of courage, effort, intelligence, ingenuity, humility, and competence needed to make this voyage happen.

NASA achieved something unprecedented by sending three people far enough into space to view the entire Earth as a single, whole entity. Previous astronauts and cosmonauts had seen the Earth from space, but never so completely.

Kluger writes, “Now, however, Borman, Lovell, and Anders could see the planet floating alone, unsupported, in space. The Earth was no longer the soil beneath their feet or the horizon below their spacecraft. It was an almost complete disk of light suspended in front of them, a delicate Christmas tree ornament made of swirls of blue and white glass. It looked impossibly beautiful—and impossibly breakable.”

The mission occurred in the context of the Cold War, and competition between the United States and Soviet Union provided a motivating factor. But it seems to have quickly become about much more than trying to one-up a rival power.

Ultimately, Apollo 8 became an achievement for humanity, one that tapped into a shared thirst for exploration and discovery. The 1968 Christmas Eve broadcast from the moon’s orbit brought together the then-largest audience to view a single broadcast. Never had so few been heard by so many. For that matter, never had anyone been heard by so many. Interest in this mission united people from varying countries, backgrounds, and beliefs. Men were flying around the moon, and it was amazing.

The crew chose to read a Bible passage during the broadcast, one from Genesis. I appreciate the choice, not so much for the religious context, but just the idea of reading an ancient text while doing something that had never been done before. When the Genesis story was first written down, the idea of sending people into the heavens was nothing but a distant fantasy, utterly unobtainable.

But what was once impossible is now part of history.

After the flight, Borman predicted that scientists would someday station themselves on the moon, like they do in Antarctica. “I’m convinced it is no longer whether we’ll do these things, it’s a question of how long it will take and how much we’ll spend,” he said. “Exploration is really the essence of the human spirit, and I hope we will never forget that.”

Outside of fictional TV shows, that moon base clearly hasn’t come to pass … so far.

Judging Washington in context

Henry Wiencek shows us the right way to judge historical figures in his book, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America (2004).

Wiencek examines how George Washington’s views on slavery evolved throughout the course of his life. As a young, ambitious man, Washington uncritically accepted slavery, but at the end of his life, he amended his will to free all his slaves and provide for the younger ones’ education. In between, he gradually acquired scruples about slavery, such as when he realized that perhaps it was wrong to split up families when selling slaves.

The author doesn’t let Washington off the hook for participating in such an evil system. For example, Washington was once callous enough to raffle off slaves as prizes, and Wiencek doesn’t shy away from informing his readers about it. But he also gives credit where credit is due, painting a three-dimensional portrait of “a man of his time and ahead of his time,” as the jacket blurb in my edition describes Washington.

Washington never evolved on the issue as much as we would have liked him to. He was quite possibly the one man in America with the moral authority to provide real leadership and make real headway in ending slavery, but he failed to do so. Nevertheless, he increasingly questioned his own beliefs even as his own family remained firmly pro-slavery, which was a feat in its own right.

Read these books back to back.

In the introduction, Wiencek starts at the end, with Washington’s decision to free his slaves. The author writes:

“It was an astounding decision. As he sat in his study—a room that one visitor called ‘the focus of political intelligence for the new world’—Washington felt the isolation of the man who can see what others cannot or will not. He was a man who had discovered that his moral system was wrong. He had helped to create a new world but had allowed into it an infection that he feared would eventually destroy it.”

Throughout the book, Wiencek illustrates how degrading, inhumane, and brutal slavery was, and he explores the culture surrounding the horrible institution. He mentions one slaveowner, Robert “King” Carter, who would have his overseers cut off slaves’ toes so they wouldn’t run away—a practice that received the blessing of the law in 1705.

We all understand that slavery was a historical atrocity. An Imperfect God helps show us how it was an atrocity. At the same time, the book, through Washington, foreshadows young America’s ability to improve.

Coincidentally, not long after I read this book, I read Gone with the Wind. The contrast between the history and the historical fiction was stark indeed, revealing how the novel sanitizes slavery to an offensive degree. 

As a novel, Gone with the Wind is brilliant. As historical fiction, it’s fiction. The novel depicts an idealized version of the antebellum South, as well as the destruction of that idealized world. That makes for a great story, but we have to take it for what it is—an entirely fictitious story set in an alternate reality.

I likely would have reached similar conclusions even without having read Wiencek’s book. But fortunately, I did read the nonfiction first, and it enriched my experience reading Gone with the Wind

To those who haven’t already read them, I recommend both books—but start with the actual history.

Lenin’s red flag

Vladimir Lenin was the sort of person who should never, ever have been given any power. His ruthlessness during the Russian Revolution makes that clear, but he foreshadowed his cold-blooded disregard for human life much earlier.

In 1891-92, Russia’s Volga region experienced its worst famine in many years. According to Victor Sebestyen in his biography Lenin: The Man, the Dictator, and the Master of Terror, more than 400,000 people died over the course of the famine, either starving to death or contracting typhus or cholera.


“The central government did almost nothing to help the millions of starving peasants who poured into the towns begging for food,” Sebestyen writes.

This was, of course, not yet Lenin’s government. (And he wasn’t yet calling himself Lenin, but I’ll use that name here for simplicity’s sake.) Nevertheless, as a private individual, Lenin showed no sympathy for the famine’s victims. Relief campaigns were launched, but he had no interest in such efforts.

“For him the important thing was that the famine would weaken the autocracy and might further the cause of the Revolution. The thousands of people who died of hunger were simply unfortunate casualties of a war against Tsarist oppression,” Sebestyen writes.

Lenin was pretty much alone in this line of thinking. His callousness disturbed even his sisters, who were normally supportive of him.

His sister Maria is quoted as saying, “Vladimir Ilyich, it seems to me, had a very different nature from Alexander Ilyich [their late brother]. Vladimir … did not have the quality of self-sacrifice even though he devoted his whole life indivisibly to the cause of the working class.”

Sebestyen says, “He would shrug off accusations that he was inhumane, using an inflexible logic and a cold interpretation of Marxism which Marx himself would never have countenanced.”

He goes on to quote Lenin as saying, “It’s sentimentality to think that a sea of need could be emptied with the teaspoon of philanthropy. The famine … played the role of a progressive factor.”

After Lenin gained power, another food shortage occurred in 1918. The Bolsheviks didn’t cause the problem, but they, led by Lenin, amplified the pain and suffering.

Sebestyen notes that there were very few rich peasants in Russia at the time, but that didn’t stop Lenin from using them as scapegoats. The dictator branded rich peasants as “kulaks” and accused them of hoarding grain and starving Russia on purpose.

“The kulaks are the rabid foes of the Soviet government … these bloodsuckers have grown rich on the hunger of the people. These spiders have grown fat out of the workers. These leeches have sucked the blood of the working people and grown richer as the workers in the cities have starved. Ruthless war on the kulaks! Death to all of them,” Lenin said in a speech.

Lenin first expected the peasants to sell their grains to the government at an insultingly low price. The peasants, naturally, refused. So, Lenin established the Food Commissariat and unleashed armed requisition brigades on more than 20,000 villages within a couple of months.

As Sebestyen describes it, the brigades engaged in brutality—torturing peasants, stripping them, sometimes even killing them. One Bolshevik official compared the brigades’ work to “a medieval inquisition.”

Some Bolsheviks worried that the brigades were too harsh, to the detriment of the party’s reputation. Lenin did not relent.

Lenin’s instructions to Bolshevik chiefs illustrate a toxic combination of heartlessness and ruthlessness:

“Comrades, the kulak uprising in your five districts must be crushed without pity. The interests of the whole Revolution demand it, for the final and decisive battle with the kulaks everywhere is now engaged. An example must be made. 1.) Hang (and I mean hang, so the people can see) not less than 100 known kulaks, rich men, bloodsuckers. 2.) Publish their names. 3.) Identify hostages … Do this so that for hundreds of miles around the people can see, tremble, know, and cry: they are killing and will go on killing the bloodsucking kulaks.” 

In a postscript, Lenin added, “Find tougher people.”

According to Sebestyen, at least 3,700 were killed during the first year of food requisitions, and some villages were burned down. These extreme measures had little effect on the overall problem, and yet they set a terrible precedent.

He writes that “campaigns against the kulaks and forcing farmers at gunpoint to produce for the State became a feature of Soviet life for decades to come.”

Anyone who perceives utility in human suffering can’t be trusted to wield power with the necessary humility and compassion. Whatever good intentions Lenin may have had for Russia’s future, he quickly invalidated them with his willingness to dispose of people for his ideological cause.

In hindsight, the warning signs were there years before his ascension.

Herbert Hoover, hero of Belgium

Herbert Hoover typically ranks fairly low among U.S. presidents. It’s certainly hard to consider his presidency a success when it coincided with the Great Depression.

For some time, a myth persisted that Hoover was a do-nothing, laissez faire president who stood idly by while the economy collapsed. That’s blatantly false, and historians have been correcting the record on that. He may not have taken the correct courses of action as president, but doing nothing was not in his nature.

Herbert Hoover

At his core, Herbert Hoover was a hands-on problem solver, a trait he demonstrated during World War I when he, as a civilian, took it upon himself to organize food relief for Belgium’s entire population of 7.5 million people.

The German army had invaded and occupied Belgium, and among the tragic results, shipments stopped coming into a country that imported eighty percent of its food supply. The Germans consumed much of what was on hand, and they felt no obligation to feed the occupied population.

The British believed the Germans were responsible for feeding its captured territories, and the Germans blamed the British navy for blocking shipments. Meanwhile, 7.5 million people faced the prospect of starvation.

According to Kenneth Whyte in his biography Hoover, Herbert Hoover was living in London at the outset of World War I, and he met an American engineer, Millard Shaler, who was tasked with shipping 1,500 tons of cereals into Belgium. British trade officials wanted the neutral United States to supervise the delivery.

Washington, sadly, was slow to act, and $100,000 worth of food wasted away on a dock. A newspaper headline at the time read, “U.S. red tape starves Brussels.”

Hoover, Whyte writes, “was as galvanized by Belgium’s distress as he was furious at Washington’s foot dragging.”

So, Hoover developed a plan. With the support of U.S. Ambassador Walter Page, he met with various officials over the course of four days to discuss the situation and what could be done. Issues ranged from dietary requirements to difficulties of wartime shipping. The main challenges would be convincing the British to allow the food to be shipped into enemy territory and preventing the Germans from seizing the food for themselves.

The cold-hearted militaristic perspective was that if Belgium starved, the citizens would revolt and thus divert the attention of the German forces, thereby helping the Allies. To counter this, Hoover proposed a public relations campaign to elicit sympathy for the suffering nation, and that was merely one facet of the overall plan.

Hoover drafted a charter for the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB). Based in London and chaired by Hoover, the organization would be private, neutral, and run by volunteers. Its officers were to be men with relevant commercial experience also working for free, ensuring that the money raised actually went toward the mission of feeding Belgium. 

The CRB would fundraise from public and private sources alike, purchase food from different countries, and ship the food to Rotterdam and then into Belgium. A Belgian committee would handle the distribution from there.

Hoover insisted on strong centralization within the organization, and he believed a monopoly would be most effective, rather than diluting relief efforts among numerous well-meaning organizations, none of which would be vigorous enough to accomplish the monumental job.

Whyte notes that the CRB was not the first international humanitarian relief effort, but it possessed an unprecedented scope.

“The aim of the CRB was to provide almost the entire food supply for a nation of 7.5 million people, indefinitely. Hoover, representing a neutral country, intended to move massive supplies of food from the capital of one belligerent country (London) to the capital of a captive country (Brussels) occupied by their mutual enemy (Berlin). He would manage all of this in an atmosphere of war-bred suspicion and hate, and despite the disruption of conventional transportation and commercial activity in what was already shaping up to be the most destructive war in history,” Whyte says.

He continues, “No humanitarian venture, public or private, had ever approached Hoover’s initiative in scale or audacity.”

As CRB chair, Hoover acquired a unique form of diplomatic immunity. “Perhaps no other individual in the world moved so easily across enemy lines during the Great War,” Whyte says.

Hoover was also willing to sacrifice his personal fortune for the cause. “Let the fortune go to hell,” he’s quoted as saying.

There were, of course, difficulties. Costs exceeded projections, with a monthly $1 million tab ballooning into $4 million a month, and then $6 million a month. In 1915, the CRB expanded its scope to include feeding an additional 2 million people in Northern France.

Hoover sought government subsidies, which weren’t so easy to come by. The British believed relief efforts would ultimately just help the enemy and prolong the war, and the Germans weren’t eager to help either. Hoover realized that appealing to the combatants’ better natures wasn’t an effective strategy in this situation, so he played on their fears, telling both sides whatever he thought they needed to hear. Hoover saw his job as keeping Belgium fed, and if he had to bend the truth to accomplish that goal, so be it.

At one point, Hoover toured Belgium to observe the situation firsthand. He described the country as “a land of imprisonment” and said the Belgians were “surrounded by a ring of steel and utterly unable by any conceivable effort to save themselves.”

However, Hoover couldn’t bring himself to look at the food lines or directly interact with anyone receiving aid.

Whyte quotes an unnamed U.S. official as saying, “He told of the work in Belgium as coldly as if he were giving statistics of production. From his words and his manner he seemed to regard human beings as so many numbers. Not once did he show the slightest feeling.”

Reticent though Hoover was, those human feelings apparently did exist deep within, and he was particularly bothered by the plight of hungry children. “It is difficult to state the position of the civil population of Belgium without becoming hysterical,” Hoover said.

It’s true that Hoover was no saint. He could be rather thin-skinned and vain in the face of criticism, often resorting to ad hominem to defend himself. In any situation like this, it’s easy to take the cynical view and question a person’s motives in undertaking such a mission, especially when the person later goes into politics.

But the bottom line is that the CRB succeeded in saving many from starvation.

Hoover chaired the CRB for thirty months, until the United States entered World War I and he could no longer pass for a neutral entity. During those thirty months, according to Whyte, the CRB spent $200 million and shipped 2.5 million tons of food. Dutch and Spanish authorities then took over its operations, and by the war’s end, the organization had spent $865 million in total, with only $4 million of that going to administrative overhead.

Without Hoover’s intervention, the situation in Belgium could have been so much worse.

Whyte writes that Hoover’s “vision and experience enabled him to foresee the demands of industrial-scale humanitarianism in an age of industrialized global war.”

Hoover may not have been the man America needed during the Great Depression, but he was the man Belgium needed during World War I.