Ask the Editors

By Harold Frost

This is Part Two of a Five-Part Article

Part One

Part Two

Part Three

Part Four

Part Five

“Ask the Editors” appeared in each issue of The History Channel Magazine from 2003 to 2007 with answers to reader’s questions about history. A predecessor of “Ask the Editors” called “Fact or Fiction” ran in Biography magazine during its life as a mass-circulation monthly, 1997 to 2003.


Q. Thomas Jefferson spent a small fortune importing wine from Europe. I’m wondering how our wines compare to his. Is the wine that’s consumed today by the average American, at dinner or a party, as good as what Jefferson spent so much money on?

A. Probably yes, but we can’t be certain, because we can’t drink the exact same wine as Jefferson. Most wine that we might unearth from 200 years ago would be spoiled by now.

The science of winemaking has improved dramatically over the last two centuries, notes wine scholar Victor Geraci, with much of the progress coming since World War II in commercial vineyards in Northern California and in the research labs of the University of California, most prominently at the school’s Davis branch. This improvement leads Geraci to conclude that the wine that’s readily available today to American consumers at their local store, even moderately-priced stuff, is “very possibly as good as, or better” than what Jefferson so laboriously, and expensively, gathered from overseas.

In 2011 auctioneers sold a bottle of nearly 200-year-old champagne found in a shipwreck; the wine had been well preserved in the chilly darkness of the Baltic Sea bottom.

Q. Which revolution was more important to the world, the American or the French? I say it must be the American.

A. For long-term global impact, many scholars give the edge to the French Revolution of 1789-99, which introduced to the world the idea of deep, drastic, top-to-bottom, utopian social change – i.e., 24 million French citizens, excluded from participation in the life of their nation because of aristocratic control by 400,000 nobles, demanded inclusion and got it. (The American Revolution brought significant social change as well but not a complete overhaul.) The result in France was a new class structure, new ownership of property, a new nation from the ground up, far different from what had existed before. It can be argued that every major revolutionary figure since has been influenced by that vision, for good or ill, including Lenin, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Simon Bolivar, the acid-dropping cultural revolutionaries of the 1960s, and the Ayatollah Khomenhi. The utopian line from “Dr. Zhivago,” spoken by a young radical, sums it up: “People will be different after the revolution.” Not so, as things turned out.

Q. France supported America during our revolution; did we take sides in the French Revolution?

A. America steered clear of taking an official position on the French Revolution. The U.S. stance of avoiding entanglement in European affairs, which served as a foundation for American foreign policy through the 19th century, was formulated specifically as a response to the revolution in France.

Nonetheless, the French Revolution was fiercely debated on these shores. Historian Ron Chernow writes, “Americans (in the 1790s) increasingly defined their domestic politics by either their solidarity with the French Revolution or their aversion to its incendiary methods. The French Revolution thus served to both consolidate the two parties in American politics and deepen the ideological gulf between them.”

Alexander Hamilton and John Adams (members of the Federalist Party) denounced the revolution in France as it turned bloody and quite mad. Chernow writes, “(Hamilton) did not think a revolution should cast off the past overnight or repudiate law, order, and tradition.” Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (Republicans; later re-named Democrats) felt that the French Revolution was a noble fight for freedom, to be honored and defended. Jefferson saw a connection between the events in Europe and the fragile new American nation, writing, “The liberty of the whole earth was depending on the issue of the contest.” He also made perhaps the most controversial remark of his life – Chernow describes it as “chilling” – which suggests the hot emotions of the day: “(Rather than see the French Revolution fail), I would have seen half the earth desolated.”

Q. Who was the first driver to perform “donuts” and/or “burnouts” as celebrations of winning NASCAR races?

A. To the best of NASCAR’s historical memory, Ron Hornaday Jr. launched this tradition in the mid-1990s after winning a race in the NASCAR SuperTruck Series (known today as the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series). The ritual moved from trucks to cars at some point, but no one at NASCAR knows exactly when.

In a “donut” a driver guns the engine and puts the car into a circular spin (the traditional spelling is, of course, “doughnut”). In “burnouts” the driver peel outs in a straight line, or, sometimes, guns it and remains more-or-less in one spot. These stunts have roots deep in American life, in a thousand cities and towns on Saturday nights, when main streets hopped with car action. The maneuvers also stem from drag racing, where drivers often do burnouts to soften tires before a race to gain adhesion. (More on adhesion in motor racing here.)

Q. In the 1920s the Pullman company built six special railroad cars called the “Explorer Series.” I’m trying to find out what happened to three of them. The cars were named after great explorers: Ferdinand Magellan, Roald Amundsen, Robert Peary, Marco Polo, David Livingstone, and Henry Stanley. The Magellan is at the Gold Coast Railroad Museum in Miami, the Amundsen is at the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the Peary is at the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum in Campo, California. Where are the other three? Do they still exist?

A. The Marco Polo stands on a track at Washington Union Station in Washington D.C. The car is owned by CSX Corp., a large transportation firm, and is used for receptions, according to William L. Withuhn of the Smithsonian Institution. The other two cars, the David Livingstone and the Henry Stanley, have vanished from the public eye. They could conceivably reside in some corner of a railyard, rusted and neglected, waiting for a new moment of glory. Or maybe they were turned into scrap metal years ago.

As noted by the questioner, the Ferdinand Magellan is in a Miami museum. Its story is the most interesting of the six cars in the Explorer series. It’s a National Historic Landmark because it was heavily used by Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman. It was, writes historian David McCullough, “the only private railroad car ever fitted out for the exclusive use of the President of the United States.”

To provide FDR with comfort and security, the car was modified with special equipment, including an elevator for him and his wheelchair, air conditioning, and a great deal of armor plating. It was a “rolling fortress,” writes McCullough.

Truman found the Magellan to be the “perfect way to travel,” McCullough says – he “loved trains and loved seeing the country.” Truman and Winston Churchill played poker in the car on their way to Missouri in 1946 for Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech. The car, and its speaking platform, became headquarters for Truman’s 1948 “Whistle-stop Campaign” that covered 21,928 miles in 33 days. “No President in history had ever gone so far in quest of support from the people,” writes McCullough, “nor would any Presidential candidate ever again attempt such a campaign by railroad.” Among the factors mitigating against such an effort today is security – the Secret Service hates the idea of hundreds of miles of unprotected track.

Q. Can you tell me the vote totals achieved by Ronald Reagan in his runs for U.S. president and California governor, and the totals of his main opponents?

A. 1966 California governor’s election – Reagan 3,742,913; Edmund (Pat) Brown 2,749,174. 1970 governor’s election – Reagan 3,439,174; Jesse Unruh 2,938,607. 1980 presidential election – Reagan 43,904,153; Jimmy Carter 35,483,883; John Anderson 5,720,060. 1984 presidential election – Reagan 54,445,075; Walter Mondale 37,577,185.

Q. I remember hearing a version of the song “Wild Thing” in the ’60s by someone impersonating Sen. Robert Kennedy. Can you tell me more about this record?

A. A performer named Bill Minkin provided the Kennedy impersonation billed as “Senator Bobby.” The record reached number 20 on the Billboard pop chart in January of 1967. Minkin’s deadpan RFK voice makes a beautiful hash of the lyrics: “Wild thing/You make my heart sing/You make everything/Uh, groovy.” (The Troggs had a number one hit with “Wild Thing” the previous summer; the record is garage rock epitomized.)

Minkin was a member of a comedy troupe called “The Hardly-Worthit Players” – the name was a feeble pun on “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” the NBC news program of the day. The Hardly-Worthit Players issued a couple of novelty albums in 1966-67 but soon vanished into pop history. (One of its members, Dennis Wholey, has had a significant career in broadcasting.) Senator Bobby’s “Wild Thing” is available on CD as part of a box set of material titled “Cameo Parkway 1957-1967.”

A follow-up to “Wild Thing” by Senator Bobby is “Mellow Yellow”; it features parodies of both Kennedy and Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, billed as Senator McKinley (Dirksen’s middle name).

Q. It’s my understanding that a historian has identified a specific day when the modern world “began.” What’s the day?

A. Historian Paul Johnson says that the modern world began on May 29, 1919, when scientists conducted astronomical experiments that confirmed Einstein’s theory of how the universe works, where space and time are relative, rather than absolute. Einstein’s science overturned Isaac Newton’s conception of the universe, which was more ordered and linear, and which, Johnson notes, formed a philosophical and psychological framework for the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and “the vast expansion of human knowledge, freedom and prosperity which characterized the nineteenth century.”

Starting in 1919, humanity became unsettled on some deep level, or so Johnson claims in his book “Modern Times”: “All at once, nothing seemed certain in the movements of the spheres.” And that, he says, marks the start of the modern world. (Johnson’s use of the phrase “modern world” refers to the technologically amped-up period we now live in. Many historians use “modern world” in a broader sense, to describe the section of history that begins in about 1500.)

The question of when the modern world “began” is highly debatable of course. favors September 4, 1882, when Thomas Edison, after herculean labor spanning several years, ordered a switch to be thrown on a dynamo at the Pearl Street Power Station in Manhattan, lighting 400 lamps at sites around the neighborhood. Thus began operation of the world’s first central electric power station.

Q. I watched the movie “How the West Was Won” with my family and we really liked it. Can you give us background about the music, and the movie?

A. “How the West Was Won” (1962) features some of the best music of any history film. Composer Alfred Newman and his associate, arranger Ken Darby, were nominated for Oscars for their musical work on the film (they lost to John Addison and “Tom Jones”). Newman (1901-1970) won nine Academy Awards in his career and was nominated 44 times. A biography of Darby is here.

All the exhilaration of America’s westward thrust can be heard in the first 30 seconds of HTWWW’s main theme. The year 1962 – before the assassinations and riots, before Vietnam became a major crisis, before the history profession began rethinking America’s westward expansion – was, perhaps, the last year (for a while, anyway) when untrammeled exuberance about the expansion could be depicted in a major Hollywood picture. Certainly by the time of “Little Big Man” (1970) big-budget movie westerns had changed dramatically. (See here and here for relevant comments by historians.)

Debbie Reynolds sings up a storm in the film. This was one of her last major big-screen performances – she struggled in her 30s to transition from the image of America’s Sweetheart (i.e., “Tammy”) to more mature roles.

Dave Guard & The Whiskeyhill Singers do a small amount of vocal work for the movie. Guard was founder in the late 1950s of the Kingston Trio, a hugely popular folk act, but he left the group in 1961 to pursue a more hard-edged vein of music. His best work for “How the West Was Won” is a beautiful, gritty little number called “The Ox Driver’s Song” heard in the spectacular overture. (The piece starts at about 2:40 in the Youtube sample.) Guard said in an interview, “The original idea was for the Kingston Trio to do the movie, but Ken Darby heard us and liked our wilder sound better than the Trio’s smooth approach and used us.”

The film, covering the years 1839 to 1889, is composed of several vignettes: pioneers coming down the Ohio River (Karl Malden hams it up, capturing the hardscrabble fervor of a tough fundamentalist); a Far West shoot-out (featuring George Peppard), etc. A plethora of stars fill the screen. Henry Fonda, James Stewart, and Gregory Peck are all good, and Richard Widmark has one of the great roles of his career as railroad boss Mike King. Look for Lee Van Cleef (uncredited) in an early sequence as a river pirate.

Harry Morgan (later of “MASH”) does a cameo as Gen. U.S. Grant in the Civil War sequence. Morgan’s work is the best depiction of Grant ever filmed. Too bad someone didn’t think to cast him in a picture that focused on the great general.

The Civil War sequence, directed by John Ford, completely avoids use of the word “slavery” – an idiotic ahistorical decision by the filmmakers, undoubtedly generated by boxoffice worries. Another bad decision resides in the film’s opening line: “This land has a name today,” intones Spencer Tracy as the camera pans over a mountain range, implying that the naming of the American West is a recent development, that it was un-named for millennia. In fact much of the land was robustly named by native people; for example, “Gichigami” for what is known today as Lake Superior.

The movie was shot in Cinerama, a complex three-camera technology that resulted in vast screen acreage but also was accompanied by ugly seams separating three screen sections. In 2008 Warner released a remastered version of “HTWWW” that mostly succeeds at eliminating the seams, blending them into the background with expensive Hollywood/Silicon Valley magic.

Q. What did Hollywood do, on a day-to-day basis, to support America’s efforts during World War II?

A. Hollywood did what it does best – it made movies, lots of movies, working closely with the U.S. government to tailor its product to support the American/Allied war effort.

The Office of War Information (OWI) was Washington’s lead player in this endeavor. Within the OWI was found the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP), where scripts were reviewed, suggestions made, clout exerted. The BMP gave filmmakers a list of questions to consider during the production process, including the all-important one, “Will this picture help win the war?”

The result was an array of patriotic movies, some of which offered bizarre anomalies. For example, “Mission to Moscow” (1943) skips cheerfully past Joseph Stalin’s taste for mass murder. “Mrs. Miniver” (Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1942) ignores England’s deep class tensions, preferring to create the illusion of complete and cheerful unity. Leonard Maltin notes that the film “did much to rally American support for our British allies.”

For more information see “Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies” by Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black.

Q. Why did Meriwether Lewis commit suicide? He was such a great leader of men.

A. Lewis, co-leader of the Corps of Discovery of 1803-06 (the Lewis and Clark Expedition), died in the early morning hours of October 11, 1809, at a lonely inn called Grinder’s Stand in the Tennessee wilderness at the age of 35. Historians debate whether his death was suicide or murder. The “surest guide” to what happened that night, according to author and historian Larry E. Morris, is supplied by a man named Alexander Wilson, who interviewed participants in 1811. (Police work was a bit slow on the frontier in those days.)

As a preface, it should be noted that Lewis, while brilliant, charismatic, and brave, was not the most emotionally stable man ever, a fact noted by his boss, President Thomas Jefferson, who noted his tendency to develop “depressions of mind.”

In the autumn of 1809 Lewis was beset by malaria, was deeply in debt, and was drinking heavily. He also felt his honor had been impinged by an official in Washington, D.C. For some people in those days, a besmirching of honor was a life-or-death proposition resolved in a duel. Such a resolution was not an option in this case, apparently.

On the night in question, according to Alexander Wilson’s account, the innkeeper of Grinder’s Stand was startled by a pistol shot from one of the cabins, and heard Lewis cry, “Oh, Lord!” Then came another shot. Lewis was still alive but mortally wounded – part of his forehead was blown off and his brain was exposed. A couple of hours passed. Lewis remained conscious and was able to speak, but was apparently immobilized. In agony, he begged several on-lookers to finish him off with a rifle. No one dared; they watched in horror as he slowly expired. During these awful minutes he didn’t say anything about being shot by an intruder. This version of events, along with the fact that Lewis attempted suicide at least twice previously, strongly suggests that the great explorer took his own life out of a fearful burden of physical pain and emotional turmoil.

Q. When did segregation end in the U.S. military? I know that President Harry Truman signed an order ending the practice in 1948, but I’m sure I saw an all-black platoon at the Parris Island Marine Corps base in late 1949.

A. In a major civil rights speech on February 2, 1948, President Harry S. Truman ordered the Secretary of Defense to “take steps to have the remaining instances of discrimination in the armed services eliminated as rapidly as possible.”

One of the motivating factors for Truman’s speech was the racially-motivated murder, in July, 1946, of two black veterans of World War II. He was also guided by a landmark document called “To Secure These Rights” issued by a presidential committee. In addition, his action was driven by his desire to win African-American votes in northern cities in the 1948 election.

On July 26, 1948, Truman signed Executive Order 9981 banning segregation in the armed services. But the story doesn’t end there. As noted by writer and Air Force officer Merrill A. McPeak, “….The order was not actually sufficient inducement for the armed forces to do the right thing.” Resistance was fierce. Army officers, speaking anonymously, said the order didn’t really forbid segregation. Truman responded by saying, basically, “Yes, my order does forbid segregation.” On August 14, 1948, Secretary of the Army Kenneth Royall said “segregation in the Army must go” – but, he added, not immediately. On January 13, 1949, representatives of the Army and the Marine Corps, testifying in Congress, defended segregation, while officers from the Air Force and Navy said they would integrate. The Air Force won approval of its integration plan in May, 1949, and a Navy program was approved in June. Integration of blacks in the Air Force proceeded forthwith, but the Navy dragged its feet – as McPeak notes, the service continued its “policy of tokenism into the 1960s.” See here for a relevant comment by historian Gary B. Nash about his Navy service in the mid and late ’50s.)

The Korean War (1950-53), with its increased personnel demands, propelled integration of the American military. On March 18, 1951, the Defense Department announced that basic training in all the armed services was integrated – more than three years after Truman’s speech.

The long effort to end segregation in the military was a key component of the modern civil rights movement. Harry Truman, writes David McCullough, did “more than any President since Lincoln to awaken American conscience to the issues of civil rights.” See here for a profile of Truman; see here for background on his 1948 speech.

Q. My Dad recalls a global warming scare from the 1930s when he was a college student. Can you provide details? He keeps saying, “Global warming has been around forever, there’s nothing new under the sun.”

A. In the late 1930s an amateur British meterologist named G.S. Callendar studied a mountain of data and announced, in a scholarly paper, that global warming was coming. This idea generated a ripple of discussion on college campuses and in newspaper stories. Perhaps this is the event your father remembers. (A Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius speculated about global warming in 1896.)

Callendar was a lone voice in the wilderness and was widely dismissed. And, in fact, he was wrong, at least for the immediate future – from 1940 through the 1970s, global temperatures didn’t warm, they declined, as noted by Gregg Easterbrook in his 1995 book “A Moment on Earth: The Coming Age of Environmental Optimism.” Today, though, Callendar is seen by scientists as a key figure in the evolution of thinking about global warming (which, as scholars note, is better termed “global climate change”). Callendar’s efforts, according to historian Spencer R. Weart, author of “The Discovery of Global Warming” (2003), encouraged scientists in the 1950s to “look into the question with improved techniques and calculations.”

The ’50s research was largely funded by the U.S. military, which had Cold War concerns about weather. The new studies showed that carbon dioxide could indeed build up in the atmosphere, and led directly to the sophisticated studies of recent years, with hundreds of scholars using massive computers for crunching data. ●