Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Computing the Winter Solstice at Newgrange: Was Neolithic Science Equal To or Better Than Ancient Greek or Roman Science?

Measure what is measurable, and make measurable what is not so.
Galileo Galilei
The purpose of this article is to compare the scientific accuracy and precision of two methods of determining the day of the winter solstice: that of the Neolithic builders of the Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland around 3000 BCE and that of the Roman Empire 3000 years later around 0 CE. It is my contention that the Neolithic method of capturing light in a massive 'spot dial' was equal to or superior to the Roman method of sighting the sun at noon over a period of days and then interpolating the time of the solstice. I believe I can support this argument with available research.


But before I make my argument, I would like to give my readers a bit of background and a personal story.

Once when I was teaching an advanced photography workshop, my class went on a field trip to the Duke greenhouse in Durham, NC in the winter. As we walked in, a student saw a flower in perfect light, lit by a shaft of sunlight coming down through the leaves of vegetation above it. He reached for his camera but then realized he was at the end of a roll of film, so he quickly rewound the exposed roll and put in a new one. But when he turned around about a minute later the flower was in shadow and the shaft of light had moved onto a leaf next to it. It was then that I realized how quickly the sun moves and how precisely moving light from the sun could be marked.

As a professional photographer for 40 years and the author of 3 books about the craft and art of photography along with a MA in Media, I understand how light works. Photography (literally meaning 'light drawing' from the Greek) is the medium of light. Photographers are craftsmen and artists who work with light and because of this, I believe photographers are more sensitive to light and its effects than non-photographers. So it is with this background I approach the subject of the remarkable 'light instrument' at the Newgrange passage tomb.

See my resume at:


The sun's declination during a year viewed from the side. (commons.wikimedia.org)

The sun's declination during a year viewed head on. (commons.wikimedia.org)

The Duration Of The Winter Solstice

...the sun appears to halt in its incremental journey across the sky and change little in position during this time.
National Geographic

It is important to note that at the winter solstice the sun barely moves (i.e., the sun's declination). In fact the word solstice means just that. It comes from the Latin 'solstitium' meaning "point at which the sun seems to stand still" (dictionary.com). While modern scientific explanations assert this happens only on one particular day and after that the days get longer -- this is not quite true. The length of the shortest day and longest night can remain almost the same (within a few seconds) for about week.

Because the sun 'stands still' for a number of days with very little movement,
it is hard to determine the precise day that the solstice occurs. 
The changes in Solar declination become smaller as the sun gets closer to its maximum/minimum declination. The days before and after the solstice, the declination speed is less than 30 arcseconds per day which is less than 1/60 of the angular size of the sun...This difference is ... impossible [ED: to detect] with more traditional tools like a gnomon or an astrolabe [ED: ancient tools the Romans and Greeks would have used]. It is also hard to detect the changes on sunrise/sunset azimuth due to the atmospheric refraction changes. Those accuracy issues render it impossible to determine the solstice day based on observations made within the 3 (or even 5) days surrounding the solstice...


Measuring the difference in the sun's movement at the time of the solstice was impossible with Greek and Roman tools and is barely "detectable with indirect viewing based devices like a sextant equipped with a vernier" which were not available until the 18th century. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solstice)

The following was the method almost certainly used by the ancient Romans & Greeks:
It is most likely, then, that equinoxes and solstices were determined by observing noon solar altitudes for a series of days before and after the events. [ED: my emphasis] When the Sun is crossing the meridian at noon, it is relatively easy to measure its altitude, and then knowing the geographical latitude, to compute the declination. From the declination, it is easy to compute the Sun’s position on the ecliptic (the longitude), and we know that Hipparchus knew how to do it. But it is only at noon that such an easy determination is possible. It is then fairly straightforward to estimate the time that the Sun’s declination reaches some specific targeted value: 0° for an equinox, and maximum or minimum for a solstice.That series of daily altitude measurements were used to determine the time of cardinal events can hardly be doubted, even though no surviving ancient source has documented such an episode. Especially for the solstices, it is essentially the only viable option... [ED: my emphasis]
Dr. Dennis Duke, Four Lost Episodes in Ancient Solar Theory, Journal for the History of Astronomy, (2008)


The Newgrange winter solstice alignment was first observed by renowned archaeologist, Professor Michael O'Kelly about 50 years ago:
Over the course of the early excavation, some of the many local visitors would often tell the O'Kelly's of a tradition, that the rising sun, at some unspecified time, would light up the triple spiral stone in the end recess of the chamber at Newgrange. 
Some minutes before sunrise on the 21st of December 1967, Professor O'Kelly stood alone in the darkness of the chamber at Newgrange, wondering what, if anything, would happen. To his amazement, minute by minute, the chamber grew steadily lighter and a beam of sunlight began to enter the passage and to travel inwards, "lighting up everything as it came until the whole chamber – side recesses, floor and roof six metres above the floor – were all clearly illuminated".

Entrance to Newgrange -- the critical roof-box is above the entrance. (commons.wikimedia.org)

Overhead diagram of Newgrange passage and solstice light. (Irish Art History Section, Professional Development Service for Teachers, P.D.S.T., Ireland)
Diagram of Newgrange passage and solstice light from the side. (Irish Art History Section, Professional Development Service for Teachers, P.D.S.T., Ireland)

After about 50 years since it was first discovered, there is now general agreement that the passage and chamber at the Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland is aligned with the winter solstice and that around the time of the solstice and only then, light falls down the long passageway to the farthest part of the chamber.
Once a year, at the winter solstice [the sun] shines directly along the long passage into the chamber for about 17 minutes and illuminates the chamber floor. This alignment is too precise to be widely considered to be formed by chance...Today the first light enters about four minutes after sunrise, but calculations based on the precession of the Earth show that 5,000 years ago, first light would have entered exactly at sunrise.
Document of the US space agency NASA. http://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/SED11/P8Newgrange.pdf
The key piece of the Newgrange design was a 'roof-box' or 'light-box' which controlled the way light came into the passage. It was built with carefully crafted baffles that restricted the entry of light to the time of the winter solstice and also so that the light only came in at sunrise.
For 17 minutes, therefore, at sunrise on the shortest day of the year, direct sunlight can enter Newgrange, not through the doorway, but through the specially contrived slit that lies under the roof-box at the outer end of the passage roof.
O'Kelly, Michael J., and Claire O'Kelly. Newgrange: Archaeology, Art, and Legend.
Roof-box that controls the light coming into the passage during the solstice.  (commons.wikimedia.org)

Shaft of light going into the passage. Used with permission: photo by Anthony Murphy, http://www.mythicalireland.com

Triple spiral carved in a stone in the chamber at the end of the passage. According to legend, the light from the sun illuminated these triple spirals on the day of the solstice. Used with permission: photo by Anthony Murphy, http://www.mythicalireland.com


As a photographer it struck me, that the setup at Newgrange is very much like a camera: there is an opening with a lens or aperture, there is a dark chamber (the word camera is derived from the Latin, camera obscura, meaning ‘dark chamber’), there is an exposure (a period of time that light is allowed into the camera and then shut off), i.e., the 17 minutes that the light shines down the hallway each morning and only during the time of the winter solstice. Plus, like a camera there is a point of focus, i.e., the day of the solstice when legend has it that the light shines down to the furthest chamber and illuminates the stone with triple spirals.

In fact, the Newgrange instrument has many similarities to a pinhole camera whose origins go back into prehistory. For example, it was already a well known phenomena when it was examined by Aristotle in the fourth century BC. The discovery of the pinhole effect is based on a common occurrence:
The camera obscura [ED: pinhole camera] works on a naturally occurring phenomenon...and can, for example, often be observed when sunlight filters through dense leaves.
Because of Newgrange's striking similarity to a camera, I dug a bit deeper on the Internet and found the following by Martin Brennan, a respected researcher, who discovered the following about a Neolithic structure related to and not far from Newgrange:
In 1980 Irish-American researcher Martin Brennan discovered that Cairn T in Carnbane East is directed to receive the beams of the rising sun on the spring and autumnal equinox - the light shining down the passage and illuminating the art on the backstone. The Cairn T alignment is similar to the well-known illumination at the passage tomb at Brú na Bóinne (Newgrange), which is aligned to catch the rays of the winter solstice sunrise.
Here is what Martin Brennan said about his discovery:
Suddenly, I stared in amazement as this beam of light began to register against a stone bearing measured inscriptions. As the day progressed, the beam of light slowly moved from west to east across the stone, the sequence being measured by the inscriptions. This observation provoked a chain reaction of intriguing thoughts. First of all, if there was any sundialling, it was advanced sundialling. They were using a ray of light. This is called a "spot" dial and it is a considerable advance over using a shadow. Secondly, a gnomon, which is simply a stick used to cast a shadow, is thought to be the first scientific instrument and its earliest uses can be placed over twenty thousand years ago, back in the Ice Age. A progressive development of this leading to the use of a spot dial could exploit the full potential of the instrument and its astronomical implications.
A spot dial is, in a sense, the opposite or negative of a traditional sundial, i.e., it is the reverse of a sundial that casts a shadow. Instead of capturing a shadow that is cast by the sun, a thin beam of light from the sun is captured in a dark chamber where it can be closely studied.


The spot dial at Newgrange magnified the movement of the sun at the winter solstice when the sun's movement was particularly hard to detect. With the right construction the movement of the sun can be magnified significantly. Here is O'Kelly's description of the movement.
...minute by minute, the chamber grew steadily lighter and a beam of sunlight began to enter the passage and to travel inwards, "lighting up everything as it came until the whole chamber – side recesses, floor and roof six metres above the floor – were all clearly illuminated"
In addition O'Kelly also stated that in 17 minutes the 'first pencil' of direct sunlight widened to a 17cm band and then narrowed before disappearing entirely. (O'Kelly, Michael J., and Claire O'Kelly, Newgrange: Archaeology, Art, and Legend)

However, J. Partrick, who investigated the alignment, at the request of Professor O'Kelly, found that originally the maximum width of the light would have been 40cm. The beam of light is now only 17cm because "...some of the stones are now leaning inwards, thus trimming down the width of the beam of light." (J. Patrick, Midwinter sunrise at Newgrange, Nature, 1974)


At exactly 8.54 hours GMT the top edge of the ball of the sun appeared above the local horizon and at 8.58 hours, the first pencil of direct sunlight shone through the roof-box and along the passage to reach across the tomb chamber floor as far as the front edge of the basin stone in the end recess. As the thin line of light widened to a 17 cm-band and swung across the chamber floor, the tomb was dramatically illuminated and various details of the side and end recesses could be clearly seen in the light reflected from the floor. At 9.09 hours, the 17 cm-band of light began to narrow again and at exactly 9.15 hours, the direct beam was cut off from the tomb. For 17 minutes, therefore, at sunrise on the shortest day of the year, direct sunlight can enter Newgrange...
O'Kelly, Michael J., and Claire O'Kelly. Newgrange: Archaeology, Art, and Legend. 
I would like to have very exact figures, such as the width of the beam of light every 5 seconds, as well as the position of the light on the walls and floor. But these figures are not available. However, with the figures we do have, we can do a rough estimate of the rate of the sunlight's movement.

I am guessing that the light spread from an original 4cm to 40cm at its maximum (the estimated original maximum as computed by J. Partick). Then according to O'Kelly, it took 11 minutes from the first pencil of light to reach the maximum width.

So:  Widening of light = 40cm - 4cm = 36cm or 360mm
Time it took to widen = 11 minutes = 660 seconds
So the movement of the light grew at this rate: 360mm/660 sec. = or about .5mm every second or about 3cm per minute (a little more than 1 inch per minute).

This means that the movement of the light was significantly magnified, enough to study it and to use that information to make a determination about the day of the winter solstice.

The above refers only to the widening of the light and not the movement of the band of light from one side of the passage to the other -- which I do not have any data for, but which would be an additional indicator for this instrument.

I believe that with this kind of magnification, it would be possible to make fine distinctions that could pinpoint the actual day of the solstice in real-time -- if the sky was clear.

A magnified display of the sun's movement is possible with large structures and the figure of .5mm per second is consistent with another large sundial, the Giant Sundial of Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, India.

"The Giant Sundial of Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, India, also known as the Samrat Yantra (The Supreme Instrument), stands 27m tall. Its shadow moves visibly at 1 mm per second, or roughly a hand's breadth (6 cm) every minute." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_sundials


One supposition that emerges from these studies of monuments incorporating astronomical alignments is that many of them became “special” when the astronomical body in question appeared at the appointed place. At these times, their sacred power was surely reinforced. Another way in which a similar effect could be achieved -- creating a very considerable visual impact at certain special times -- was through the interplay of sunlight and shadow.. A famous example occurs at the passage tomb of NEWGRANGE in Ireland.
What was the purpose and meaning of such hierophanies (ED: meaning "to bring to light the sacred" from the Greek]?  By carefully placing rock art designs, sunlight could be made to play across them at certain times, with impressive effect. The Luiseño [ED: a California Indian tribe], for example, had an intense ceremonialism, a rich sky lore, and a calendar regulated by various astronomical observations. Although their seasonal calendar was lunarbased, they observed and celebrated the solstices, attaching particular importance to the winter solstice, which they regarded as a time of cosmological crisis.
Dr. Clive Ruggles, (Professor of Archaeoastronomy), Ancient Astronomy: An Encyclopedia of Cosmologies and Myth


"Today the first light enters about four minutes after sunrise, but calculations based on the precession of the Earth show that 5,000 years ago, first light would have entered exactly at sunrise."
Document of the US space agency NASA. http://spacemath.gsfc.nasa.gov/SED11/P8Newgrange.pdf
Detailed drawing of Newgrange passage showing the precise placement of stones and the shaft of solstice light. Used with permission:
First, the roof-box is an anomalous feature without any obvious function in utilitarian terms (as it seems to us). Second, if the gap in the roof-box were merely 20 cm [8 inches] lower or higher, or the [lower] passage a few metres [10 feet] shorter or longer, then sunlight would never have entered the chamber.
Dr. Clive Ruggles, Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland Astronomy in Prehistoric Britain and Ireland
Speaking of the original alignment 5000 years ago:
Originally, the beam would have struck the rear chamber orthostat (C8) and, possibly, would have been reflected onto another chamber stone, C10, which contains the famous triple spiral. 
Anthony Murphy, quoted from a lecture to Astronomy Ireland in January 2002 
The Ancient-Wisdom website in the UK made this comment:
The Light-box/Roof-box - Above the entrance passage is a 'light-box', which precisely aligns with the rising sun at the winter solstice of 21st  December, so that the rays touch the ground at the very centre of the tomb... Many of the upright stones along the walls of the 19m (62ft) passage, which follows the rise of the hill, are richly decorated.
A researcher who took photographs at Newgrange over a number of days surrounding the winter solstice has this to say:
I noticed from my photographs that it [ED: the shaft of light] was in a different position each day. As the solstice approached the beam of light seemed to penetrate further each day, beginning on the left and ending on the right. However after the solstice the beam withdrew from the furthest point of entry and penetrated the central chamber less each day until it eventually failed to enter the central chamber at all.
Tim O'Brien
Tim O'Brien also said:
"The construction features of Newgrange provide the ideal environment in which to study the minute movement of the sun when it is at visual standstill." 
Writing about another but related Loughcrew Neolithic passage tomb in Ireland:
"As the sun shines directly onto the symbols engraved on the backstone they act not just as primitive representations of the sun, but as devices precisely positioned to measure solar movement."
Dr. Kate Prendergast made this point about its precision:
Further research has demonstrated just how precise this alignment is. Patrick (1974) has proved that the winter solstice orientation was operative when Newgrange was constructed, and therefore is an original, central and permanent feature of the monument. O’ Brien (1988) has shown that the chamber and passage are sophisticated and complex constructions, designed to maximize the accuracy and length of the beam of light coming into the chamber. His research indicates that at the time of construction, the beam of light entering the passage at Newgrange was so precisely framed by the roof-box that it could be used to calculate the day of the solstice itself. In short, Newgrange was precisely aligned on the winter solstice rising sun in such a way it could be used as a ‘clock’ to calculate the exact moment of the solstice. [ED: My emphasis]
Dr. Kate Prendergast, The Neolithic Monument of Newgrange in Ireland: A Cosmic Womb?


I believe this device could have determined the day of the solstice even during cloudy periods, and when the sky was clear, it might have been able to pinpoint the day of the solstice in real-time.

Since the weather in Ireland is unpredictable, the Neolithic Newgrange astronomers, nevertheless, would have been able to determine the specific day of the winter solstice even if it was cloudy or rainy. They could do this by noticing the pattern of light on clear days before and after the solstice when the light was advancing and receding. Then they could make a determination by interpolating, a method very similar to that of the Romans who, as I have said, calculated the actual day of the solstice after the fact by making a number of observations followed by interpolation.

O'Kelly has remarked that in the years since he discovered the Newgrange solstice alignment, there has always been at least one clear day during the period surrounding the solstice. (O'Kelly, Michael J., and Claire O'Kelly. Newgrange: Archaeology, Art, and Legend)

However, when the sun was out and the days were clear, I believe that it was possible for the astronomers at Newgrange to determine the day of the solstice in real-time, something which was not possible for the Romans or the Greeks.

If we can view the Newgrange structure and winter solstice alignment as an instrument, then we can say the following:
Light at sunrise near the time of the solstice was at first restricted to a narrow beam that went down a narrow hallway where it spread out, but in a controlled manner. This 'device' was very much like a magnifier that could enlarge and exaggerate the movement of the sun at a time when detecting movement was particularly difficult. Everyday the angle of the light changed along the walls and floor, and the light advanced further or retreated.

It is, therefore, possible that Neolithic astronomers could have made a determination about the day of the solstice with the following data their instrument had gathered: the entry point of the light, the length of time the light shown, the angle and amount of the light on the walls and floor, the width of the light, the rate at which the beam of light widened and contracted and possibly the quality of the light and shadows on the deeply grooved triple spiral stone and other stone carvings.


This Neolithic instrument at the Newgrange passage tomb in Ireland, that was designed to measure the sun's movement around the time of the winter solstice, was possibly equal to or superior to ancient Greek or Roman methods of measuring the day of the winter solstice.

It seems possible that the Newgrange instrument could determine the exact day of the solstice:
  •  If The Weather Was Cloudy: by measuring a one or more days near the time of the solstice and then calculating with interpolation the precise day of the solstice -- similar to what the ancient Romans and Greeks did but possibly requiring fewer days of observation to make a correct calculation
  • When The Sky Was Clear: on the exact day of the solstice by observing the character of the band of light -- something which the ancient Romans and Greeks could not do
Today it might be possible with computer simulations to test out these hypotheses. Hopefully in the future, this will be done.


These sundials demonstrate that with the right construction and design, sundials can be extremely accurate.

A precise modern sundial that is correct within 30 seconds all year long -- showing that sundials can be quite accurate when constructed properly.  (commons.wikimedia.org)

"Precision Sundial at the Carl Zeiss Planetarium in Stuttgart. Martin Bernhardt created a special gnomon for an equatorial sundial which adjusts for the equation of time and that allows one to read the time without knowing the date, to a precision of less than a minute." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_sundials

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Revisionist History: How the Past Can Be Altered

If a US high school student opened a textbook and read:
87 years ago our ancestors arrived here to make a new country
as the beginning of Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address, instead of the actual words:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation
and was told that these were the words Abraham Lincoln spoke, what student would question this?

But of course this would never happen -- right? Well, wrong.

When I was in high school I was given the standard poetry textbook, an anthology entitled MODERN AMERICAN & MODERN BRITISH Poetry. The book opened with this verse by Emily Dickinson:

I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

It turns out, this is not what she wrote. Instead here is her wording:

I never saw a
Moor —
I never saw
the Sea —
Yet know I
how the
Heather looks
And what a
Billow be.

Emily Dickinson's editor Higginson "had attempted wherever possible to smooth rhymes, regularize the meter, delete localisms, and substitute sensible metaphors. It was carefully designed to spare the reader's sensibilities by producing a maximum of decorum."

Editing and publishing most of her poems after her death, Higginson rewrote poem after poem -- turning Dickinson's entire body of work, her wonderful original verses, into sing-song rhythms and rhymes. And still today these edited poems are what you will find on the Internet if you Google her writing -- as these rewritten poems have become the accepted versions of her poetry.

More than 70 years after Emily's death in 1886, my authoritative poetry high school textbook presented students with altered versions of her work. (photo:commons.wikimedia.org)  "A complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry became available for the first time in 1955 when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Dickinson
Today Emily Dickinson is considered one of the greatest poets of all time and one of the first modern poets in the English language, but the full power of her work has been kept from us.


History is often rewritten by those in power. As modern historians have pointed out, we now realize it was/is written by the victors, the wealthy, the authorities and the educated. Very little is known about the lives of the working classes in the past, for example, because they were not considered important and they often did not have the means to record their own history.

History can be distorted in a number of way: by omission -- i.e., simply ignoring an important event, by downplaying the importance of an event, by interpreting the past to fit with a particular nation's or culture's assumptions, or by simply not telling the truth.

Yet the two examples I have cited might seem fairly harmless. But these are just the tip of the iceberg.


Soviet Russia was well known for rewriting history when it suited the purposes of the regime. Stalin, for example, often erased the records of people who were executed. These two photographs below show how good the Soviet retouchers were at removing someone once they had fallen out of favor.

 "Kliment VoroshilovVyacheslav MolotovStalin and Nikolai Yezhov at the shore of the Moscow-Volga canal." (text and image from wikimedia.org)  Yezhov, standing to the right of Stalin, was executed in 1940.  (photo:commons.wikimedia.org) "By the beginning of World War II, his status within the Soviet Union became that of a political unperson. Among art historians, he has the nickname 'The Vanishing Commissar' because after his execution, his likeness was retouched out of an official press photo; he is among the best known examples of the Soviet press making someone who had fallen out of favor 'disappear'."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikolai_Yezhov

It is enough that the people know there was an election.
The people who cast the votes decide nothing.
The people who count the votes decide everything.
Joseph Stalin

But even these examples of the Stalin era do not go far enough. Until 1989 the Soviets did not acknowledge a secret protocol that was part of the non-aggression pact they had made with Nazi Germany in 1939. Eight days after it was signed, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Two weeks after that the Soviets began the takeover of parts of Poland, Finland, Romania and all of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania -- as agreed in the secret agreement.
Certain regions and periods of history [ED: for Soviet historians] were made unreliable for political reasons. Entire historical events could be erased, if they did not fit the party line. For example, until 1989 the Soviet leadership and historians, unlike their Western colleagues, had denied the existence of a secret protocol to the Soviet-German Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, and as a result the Soviet approach to the study of the Soviet-German relations before 1941 and the origins of World War II were remarkably flawed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historiography_in_the_Soviet_Unionhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Molotov%E2%80%93Ribbentrop_Pact


Yet many countries in the West rewrote history as well.

When I was growing up in the 1950s in the United States, we were told the Soviets and communists were so inept at inventing and manufacturing, they needed to conquer and keep conquering adjacent countries to provide for their economies. This led to the idea that later became known as the domino theory -- meaning that communist countries must enslave other countries since they had no principles and were incapable of managing a practical economic system.

But while the 'Iron Curtain' countries in Europe were cruelly conquered and dominated after WW II by the Soviet Union, there was much more to this story. In 1945 after being attacked three times in less than 30 years (five times in 150 years), the Soviets wanted a buffer zone to protect themselves. The Eastern Bloc satellite countries became that buffer zone from the Soviet point of view -- rightly or wrongly -- but they were not part of a wide-ranging domino master plan.

Moreover, although not widely reported in Western history books, "The United Kingdom, France, Japan, Canada, the United States and many other countries had backed the White Russians against the Bolsheviks during the 1918–1920 Russian Civil War, and the fact hadn't been forgotten by the Soviets." These mostly western countries sent tens of thousands of troops to land on Russian soil and to fight the Russian government. These military forces stayed there seven years from 1918 until 1925.

Today this Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War is barely mentioned, if at all, in western college history courses. For example, in my Modern Civilization course at a major university, it was only refered to in a minor footnote. However, for those in Russia this intervention was quite important and some say still is important. 
"It was this victory [ED: over Allied forces in Russia] that helped forge post-tsarist Russia's self-image as a strong country that had stood up to the bullying of the west, and that lay at the root of the Cold War."  http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwone/eastern_front_01.shtml

 US so called 'Wolfhounds' in Siberia, Russia 1918 (photo:commons.wikimedia.org) 

As for the ineptness of the Soviets when it came to design and manufacturing -- this was simply a lie. The Soviets designed, built large numbers, and constantly improved the best tank of World War II, the legendary T34. This tank was a key factor in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Nazi Field Marshal Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist, called it 
"The finest tank in the world" 



From conception, to design, to manufacture, to use on the battle field, to constant improvements, the T34 tank was a remarkable Soviet success. This fact was well known to the US military but never shared with 'us boys' who were only told about the ineptness of the Soviet system. (photo:commons.wikimedia.org) 

These rockets were devastatingly effective militarily and psychologically -- striking terror in Nazi solders when they heard it's telltale sound known as Stalin's organ. The inexpensive, flexible and mobile Soviet multiple launchers could fire dozens of rockets within seconds which demoralized the Nazi troops. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katyusha_rocket_launcher 
(photo:commons.wikimedia.org) These Soviet rockets turned the tables psychologically on the Nazis whose Stuka dive bomber had been designed to produce a terrifying whine known as the "Jericho-Trompete ("Jericho Trumpet") wailing sirens"  and which had become "the propaganda symbol of German air power." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junkers_Ju_87

Their numerous aircraft  designs were also remarkable.

The Tupolev Tu-104 (NATO reporting name: Camel) was a twin-engined medium-range narrow-body turbojet-powered Soviet airliner and the world's first successful jet airliner. 

Soviet aircraft designer, Andrei Nikolayevich Tupolev, "designed and oversaw the design of more than 100 types of aircraft, some of which set 78 world records." 

Also as young American boys we were told that the Soviets were not capable of original thought and could only copy our designs. It was a fact that they were very good at copying but again there is much more to this story.
Tupolev headed the major project of reverse engineering the American Boeing B-29 strategic bomber, which was the world's first nuclear delivery platform. The USSR had repeatedly asked unsuccessfully for lend-lease B-29s. Using three machines which landed in Siberia after bombing Japan in 1945, Tupolev succeeded in replicating them down to trivial detail. Moreover, he got it into volume production, with crews fully trained in time for the 1947 May Day parade. The copy was designated Tu-4, with many subsequent Tu aircraft having the number 4 in their designations. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrei_Tupolev

Even the defeat of Nazi Germany by the Soviets was downplayed in the US. We were told that the Soviets won because of the severe Russian winter and not their military expertise. While the winter was a major factor in the Nazi defeat, it was because the Soviets knew how to use their winter to their best advantage. In fact it was called "General Winter" by the Soviet military as though the winter itself were a member of the armed forces. In the pivotal battle of Stalingrad, which many consider the turning point of the war, the Soviet's waited until winter to launch a counter attack which encircled the Nazi army and led to their surrender.

And there were many more examples. But, of course, as young boys we were only told the western view of history. And for good reason. With the peace time draft in place, there was a possibility we might be called to fight -- and we had been conditioned to protect our country against the communist menace and to fight an enemy that we had been taught not to respect. 

NOTE: I am not defending the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe after World War II or Soviet expansionist policies. I am saying that the West's point of view was based on assumptions and not on facts. American relations with the Soviets might have been quite different if the American view of history had been more realistic.


Yet time and history have an odd way of taking people and countries in directions they never expected. After China became communist, authorities in the west assumed that adjacent countries would fall under China's influence -- as countries had in Europe under the Soviets. So the domino theory and disrespect for the communist system clouded military thinking in the US and led to an unnecessary war in Vietnam. 

John Wayne signing a soldier's helmet during the Vietnam War. (photo:commons.wikimedia.org) Like many Americans, John Wayne accepted the US assumptions and made the film, The Green Berets (1968), in support of the Vietnam war -- yet he did not serve in the military as many high profile actors did. He co-directed this film, "requested and obtained full military co-operation and materiel from President Johnson," (wikipedia.org).
...movie critic Roger Ebert gave it [ED: The Green Berets] zero stars and cited extensive use of cliches, depicting the war in terms of "cowboys and indians."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Green_Berets_(film)
Wayne's failure to serve in the military was the most painful experience of his life. His widow later suggested that his patriotism in later decades sprang from guilt, writing: "He would become a 'superpatriot' for the rest of his life trying to atone for staying home."  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Wayne

2 years before the major commitment of US troops to the conflict in Vietnam, I was a student in college and could see the writing on the wall.   

When I researched the history of Vietnam, a number of facts stood out: Although the reasoning for the war was an Asian domino theory, it did not apply because the Vietnamese disliked the Chinese, so the Vietnamese brand of communism was not a spreading of Chinese influence.
"The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years...But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go." — Ho Chi Minh, 1946
In addition Vietnam was not an independent country that was being invaded, it was instead a French colony that had been badly treated by the French who at one point had exported rice from Vietnam while Vietnamese were starving.

Because the Vietnamese were trying to overthrow a colonial power, early on Ho Chi Minh sent a clear signal that he wanted to work with the United States. Around 1915 he had memorized much of Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. In a speech in North Vietnam in 1945, he quoted it at length -- hoping that the USA would realize he was fighting for Vietnamese independence and freedom from a colonial power just as the Americans had done in the Revolutionary War. (I did not this know at the time but found out later. However, the people in Washington should have known this.)
Was it a civil war or an invasion by a foreign power? After the division of Vietnam into a North and South Vietnam in 1954, the United States supported a referendum about possible unification and said "that peoples are entitled to determine their own future and that it [ED: the USA] will not join in any arrangement which would hinder this." However, this vote was never held in part because it became clear that the people of Vietnam would have voted to unify with the North under Ho Chi Minh. President Eisenhower wrote in 1954 that "I have never talked or corresponded with a person knowledgeable in Indochinese affairs who did not agree that had elections been held...possibly eighty percent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader..."  
Dwight D. EisenhowerMandate for Change. Garden City, New Jersey. Doubleday & Company, 1963, p. 372 
Lastly there was a model the USA could have followed, that of making an alliance with a communist country that was independent -- as we had done in Europe with communist Yugoslavia that had declared its independence from the Soviet Bloc.

In short the domino theory did not apply to the conflict in Vietnam; instead it was a civil war in which we could have had considerable influence if we had chosen to work with the North.

Now, if a 19 year old college sophomore in North Carolina could figure this out, someone in the halls of power in Washington DC should have figured this out too. But instead they believed their own revised history about the weakness and flaws of a communist system and the domino theory. So the US went to war. As a result tens of thousands of my generation were killed or wounded or permanently scarred by PTSD, many more Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed and wounded and the US lost.

Demonstration at Raleigh-Durham Airport, 2 years before the massive deployment of US troops in the the Vietnam War 
From the NC State University Student Newspaper The Technician, October 21, 1963

 2 years before the start of the war I was one of many students who picketed Madame Nhu, considered the First Lady of South Vietnam, in the Raleigh-Durham airport October 21, 1963 -- as I did not want the United States to get involved and could see no reason why we should. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madame_Nhu

After the war was over, the principle architect of the war, Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense, said that the war had been a mistake and that it was a civil war and that we should not have gotten involved. In a documentary film he expressed the following opinion:
The conflict in Vietnam was a civil war in the eyes of the people [ED: of Vietnam], not a Cold War battle that the U.S. thought it was.
 In 1995, he took a stand against his own conduct of the war, confessing in a memoir that it was 'wrong, terribly wrong.'
Quote from New York Times obituary 

Today most historians have come to agree with my view of the conflict in 1963 -- when I and many others picketed Madame Nhu.

The "dominant interpretation of the Vietnam War" today is that the
"Vietnam conflict was a tragic misadventure that could have been avoided had American leaders only been wiser, more prudent, and less wedded to the assumptions of the past."
The Oxford Companion to American Military History 



As I write this, the current Oscar nominated movie, The Imitation Game, has included a major factual error. In the movie Turing does not reveal the identity of a Soviet spy because the spy threatens to reveal Turing's homosexuality. This was simply not true. However, this fictional episode plays to people's prejudices about gay people in security positions -- and is likely to be believed. 

We might hope that the days of rewriting history are behind us. With the wealth of information on the Internet and also the speed of communication, fact checking can now be done in ways only imagined just a few years ago. It is up to each of us to keep historians honest and to not let preconceived ideas, assumptions and prejudices determine our view of the past which, in turn, will determine our actions in the future.

NOTE ABOUT THE KOREAN WAR: I am sure someone is going to rightfully say -- what about the Korean War -- wasn't that the 2nd domino to fall in Asia after China? And this is a legitimate question. But here are the facts: the Soviets were in Korea at the end of WWII because they were fighting the Japanese there, so that explains how the USSR ended up on Korean soil. Most importantly the soldiers defending South Korea in the war were fighting under the flag of the United Nations -- as this was not an American war, although this fact has been largely forgotten. And lastly, Korea is in a very different part of Asia than Vietnam -- so the falling domino metaphor, of countries next to each other falling into communist hands, is quite a stretch.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Your Personal Past: Regaining a Sense of Belonging by Understanding Your Personal History

 The only thing new in the world is the history you do not know.
 Harry S. Truman
Every generation tends to discount the past -- until they "get knocked in the head by experience" and then they look to history for examples and lessons.

Harry Truman, who had to make numerous unprecedented decisions at the end of World War II, looked to history for guidance.

President Truman who faced some of the most difficult decisions.  
Truman said:"The next generation never learns anything from the previous one until it’s brought home with a hammer."
"I’ve wondered why the next generation can’t profit from the generation before but they never do until they get knocked in the head by experience." 

Handed-down wisdom was not accepted until a crisis proved its wisdom. This meant that each generation, in its hubris, had to learn this painful lesson because it did not think that the past had anything useful to teach it. 

However, history has a number of stories to tell -- and to those who will listen the stories are priceless.

Military strategists today still study the tactics of Alexander the Great who fought more than 2300 years ago and who always faced a much larger army. This is a Roman picture of Alexander's Battle at Issus in Persia in 334 BCE.  (commons.wikimedia.org)

If you are interested in helping the environment, there are a number of examples of past ecological collapses. Such as:
Study traces ecological collapse over 6,000 years of Egyptian history

A Texas dust storm in 1935 approaching a town  (commons.wikimedia.org)

And the tragedy of the Dust Bowl in the US in the 1930s

Today, however, it seems that even recent history -- anything more than 10 or 20 years ago -- is often considered 'old school', 'out of date' and not really relevant.

Now, to be fair, there has been a definite break in the last 20 years -- computers and computer technology such as the Internet are distinctly different from typewriters and telegrams. And each generation must carve out a new path that is different from their parents. In addition cell phones have changed the way people communicate and relate to each other -- which is quite different from the recent past when all phones were connected to landlines and were anchored to a fixed location.

However, today there is often a kind of joyous ignorance as a friend of mine has pointed out, an attitude of "I don't know and I don't want to know."

Yet to be mired in the present is to never gain an overview of life -- the limitations of the brief present will not give you enough of a perspective. Understanding the past is like standing on a high hill where you can view a broad sweep of what life has to offer.


But even more importantly you would not exist without the past. The threads of life from your great-great-great-etc-grandparents have lead directly to you being alive today. And without those unbroken threads you would not exist.

And the past can reappear in surprising ways. Many children find that they take after their grandparents, more than their parents, for example. And psychologists have found that children who know their family history are better able to cope with crises in their lives -- because they can look to experiences in their family when relatives had to overcome similar problems.

Yet I hear over and over that the past does not matter, it is dead, and what's done is done.

So for a minute come along with me and participate in the following 'mind experiment'.

If you have always assumed that your parents were your birth parents, imagine how you would feel if later in life you discovered something different. For example, the singer Bobby Darin found out at the age of 32 that his family was entirely different from what he had thought.
...he discovered that he had been brought up by his grandparents, not his parents, and that the girl he had thought to be his sister was actually his mother. These events deeply affected Darin and sent him into a long period of seclusion. 

Bobby Darin (commons.wikimedia.org)

This is a particularly good example, because in a sense nothing had changed -- his family was still alive and well -- but events in the past had suddenly come alive and completely changed his relationships. So the past was not dead.

When you cut yourself off from the past, you have in a sense cut yourself off from who you are. You have made yourself into an orphan, who has landed on an island but who does not know how they got there and where they came from.


To understand the history that is important to you, you need to do the following:

  • Ask parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts about their past. You might do this at Christmas or on a birthday. But be in charge; don't let them ramble or focus on conflicts. If this starts to happen, ask another question.
  • Learn about the history of your town, your county, your state, your region -- this is easy now with the Internet. Wikipedia, for example, has a separate page for just about any town of any size. In any case just Google the name of your town and you may be surprised at what comes up. Read about the industries, famous people, geography, natural disasters, etc.
  • Learn about the history of your country: You should know the presidents (or prime ministers) during the last 50-100 years and the major events that occurred while they were in charge.
  • Learn about the world: When a major conflict or issue erupts learn the history of the conflict -- and read opinions from both sides about what led to that conflict.
  • Learn about your culture: Customs and holidays are often steeped in tradition -- learn about those traditions and how they were viewed at different times in the past.

Rock group picture from commons.wikimedia.org

Learn about people you admire: If you like a certain music group, for example, read about their influences and the history of the type of music that they play.


To test my own advice, I went online to learn more about my first home town of Sharon, Connecticut, the place where I was born but left more than 50 years ago. Being a writer and photographer today, I have always been interested in the arts and literature but was not aware that Sharon, in particular, was the home of so many actors and writers. For example, way back in 1781, Noah Webster author of the famous Webster's Dictionary taught in Sharon. When I did some online research I also found that a good friend of my mother's, Judson Phillips, was an important mystery writer and he also founded the summer theater, the Sharon Playhouse. This theater has made the town a magnet for actors, so today people such as Kevin Bacon have a home here.

Sharon Library
This unusual looking library was built in 1893. It was funded privately by Maria Bissell Hotchkiss. I have to believe that this remarkable library which has been part of Sharon for over 100 years has attracted writers to the town and also helped create an appreciative audience. It is still open everyday along with an annual book signing that features a number of famous authors. http://www.hotchkisslibrary.org/

Most things you learn about your personal past will add to your enjoyment and also to a feeling of being connected. Even when you discover stories of extreme pain and conflict, you may feel a sense of pride that those who came before you suffered and survived.

Knowing about your past will help you feel more comfortable in your own skin and also give you a sense of belonging and a sense that you are part of a long family tree.

Town of Sharon, Connecticut (Google Earth)