Senate page     Dec. 11

Senate map
Previous | Next

New polls:  
Dem pickups: (None)
GOP pickups: (None)

Saturday Q&A

Abortion is still on the minds of readers, but it's not quite as dominant an issue as it was last week.

Current Events

L.B. in Savannah, GA, asks: With it looking very likely that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade with their decision in Dobbs next year, I've been thinking about other ways to guarantee the right to abortion. Roe was based on the "penumbra of rights" around the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which implies an unstated right to privacy. Would it be possible to make a stronger argument based on the Thirteenth Amendment's prohibition against involuntary servitude? Surely forcing a woman to carry a fetus and give birth against her will could be defined that way. Or, what about the common law right to self-defense? In Mississippi, giving birth is 77 times more likely to result in death than abortion. Is it a valid argument to say that a woman has the right to take the less risky option, even if that results in someone else's death?

V & Z answer: Those who favor keeping abortion legal have had no need, in the last half-century, to construct a legal theory that supports their case. The legal theory was already in place, and all they had to do was defend against right-wing attempts to poke holes in that legal theory.

If the Supreme Court wipes out that legal theory, then undoubtedly pro-choice forces will start filing lawsuits based on alternative legal theories. An organization like Planned Parenthood has actual lawyers who have actual expertise in the nuances of the relevant law, and so those folks could do a heck of a better job of exploring potential alternate legal theories than we can. That said, we doubt a Thirteenth Amendment argument would be the choice, as that implies that motherhood is akin to slavery. A dubious argument, and a politically charged one, with an issue where politics is apparently just as important as the actual law.

We would guess that the most probable line of attack would be to shift from the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Equal Protection Clause of that same amendment, which reads, in part, "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Though this was initially meant to apply to discrimination on the basis of race, it was extended to apply to discrimination on the basis of gender in Reed v. Reed (1971). Since prohibitions against abortion necessarily discriminate in an overwhelmingly disproportionate fashion against one gender, it is hard to see how such prohibitions can plausibly be harmonized with the Equal Protection Clause.

B.B. in St. Louis, MO, asks: If the Supreme Court upholds the Mississippi abortion ban, do you think that a family's ability to make end-of-life decisions will be jeopardized?

V & Z answer: Once rulings start to come from the heart and from the gut rather than from the law book, anything is possible. That said, an abortion involves one or more healthcare professionals performing a procedure. End-of-life decisions are the polar opposite; unless we're talking physician-assisted suicide, then end-of-life choices generally involve one or more healthcare professionals withholding a treatment or a procedure. Further, an unborn fetus has no say in the abortion, whereas the end-of-life patient usually does, up to and including living wills and do-not-resuscitate orders. So, the two situations aren't all that similar, and a government would be opening up quite the can of worms if they demanded that medical professionals do everything possible to extend life, regardless of the circumstances or the wishes of the patient. Actually, the first question would be: Who is going to pay for all of this unwanted and very possibly useless treatment?

S.K. in Bethesda, MD, asks: You wrote about a study that presented evidence that relatively few people are influenced by Fox News. This leads to an obvious question: If they aren't being influenced by Fox News, who or what are they being influenced by? An obvious candidate is Facebook; Nobel laureate Maria Ressa focused more on Facebook and its algorithms in her powerful Nobel lecture than she did on regime propaganda or partisan media outlets. Somehow, three-quarters of Republicans believe the 2020 election was stolen, but most of them aren't watching Fox, So, where are they getting their talking points from?

V & Z answer: To start, there is a whole right-wing mediasphere that reaches far more people than Fox does by itself. There are the radio programs, both national and local, and the podcasts, and the websites. And because most of the attention is on Fox, and maybe OAN and Newsmax, some of the really wild and crazy stuff barely gets any attention at all.

The right-wing mediasphere is also pretty incestuous, when it comes to the things that they talk about and the way they talk about them. In part, that is because the RNC and other entities take steps to shape the conversation by putting out weekly lists of talking points. In part, it's because they consume each other's output, for both entertainment and inspiration. And in part, it is because right-wing media types have very similar instincts, and gravitate toward the same kinds of issues and the same basic coverage angles, like moths to a flame. So, a person might listen to the Ben Shapiro podcast, and then catch half an hour of Savage Nation, and then peruse The Blaze, and be exposed to the exact same things Fox is talking about without ever having turned on their TV.

Beyond that, as you point out, people tend to live in political bubbles, and then tend to get a lot of their ideas from their friends. That can be online "friends" on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. But don't overlook in-person interactions and, in particular, the things that people hear in church, from both their fellow congregants and their pastors. In some American churches, the sermon is almost indistinguishable from an episode of Tucker Carlson's program.

A.A. in Branchport, NY, asks: Regarding Donald Trump's claim of executive privilege and subsequent Supreme Court hearing of his appeal of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision, you wrote, "it seems unlikely that they will take much longer than the month that the D.C. Court of Appeals took."

On what do you base that statement? Is there law establishing a minimum/maximum time to respond? Are you going by past precedent? Could you please elaborate?

Given that everyone on Team Trump is doing everything they can to run the clock out, why would the six conservative judges do anything but burn time?

V & Z answer: First of all, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals has only stayed their decision for 2 weeks. So, the Supreme Court has to make some sort of decision in that time period—reject the appeal, grant a hearing, impose their own stay—or the matter is moot. And since this isn't a particularly complicated case, and since the legal research has already been laid out in great detail for them (twice), and since there's clearly a time-sensitive element to this, there is much reason and much potential for them to dispense with the matter quickly.

Yes, the Court could drag things out, but given how quickly the previous two levels of the federal system handled the matter, it would be pretty obvious they were doing so. They've already got credibility issues, and they don't need to add to the list unnecessarily. While many people believe, as you do, that this Court is part of Team Trump, the evidence does not support that contention. As president, Donald Trump won less than half the cases that he and his administration brought before the Court, which is the worst number for any president in the last century. And he hasn't done any better as private citizen Trump, starting with his election-related lawsuits. This Court may well be in the bag for conservative policy goals, but they really don't seem to care about the former president, and they certainly don't appear to be willing to go to the mat for him.

One other thing to keep in mind. If SCOTUS screws around too much, Biden might just release the documents anyhow. The justices might wave their gavels menacingly in the direction of the White House, but there isn't anything they could do once the cat was out of the bag.

D.K. in Iowa City, IA, asks: Do you think it is possible or likely that the January 6 investigation will discover material so damning to Donald Trump and his people that he will be prosecuted and go to prison? And that the various Republican attempts to manipulate future elections will be thrown into disarray because of what is discovered?

V & Z answer: It is well within the realm of possibility that some, or many, of Trump's underlings will be sent to the hoosegow. That's what happened with Watergate and, by all evidences, this was far, far worse.

As to Trump himself, putting a former president behind bars is a tall order, particularly since he's pretty good at letting others get their hands dirty while he keeps his clean. If they do get him, it is likely to be for some tangential offense. For example, if he is compelled to testify, he could very well perjure himself. That said, until all the cards have been laid on the table, don't rule anything out. Team Trump quite clearly got very big heads after getting away with...everything for 4 years, and it sure looks like they got very sloppy and that they way overstepped.

E.W. in Skaneateles, NY, asks: I'm not a lawyer, but could John Eastman be referred to the Bar Association for discipline or even be disbarred for trying to take the Fifth in such obvious bad faith? Shouldn't he know from his first year of law school at the University of Chicago that the Fifth Amendment doesn't apply here? If so, would that, along with the dubious legal theory behind his argument to Mike Pence, raise enough questions for Bar action?

V & Z answer: Not only could he be referred, he already has been. The State Bar of California has received a letter asking them to review his behavior and to consider sanctions, including disbarment. And the letter isn't just from a bunch of unknowns taking a shot in the dark; the signatories include a former White House special counselor (Norman Eisen), two former state governors (Christine Todd Whitman and Steve Bullock), a former president of the California State Bar (Jeffrey Bleich), the dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law (Erwin Chemerinsky), several former judges, and half a dozen former state attorneys general.

That said, we're not sure how much disbarment would actually affect Eastman. He's been pushed into retirement from his academic career, and we don't know how often he actually practices law (requires bar card), as opposed to acting as a consultant/activist (doesn't require bar card).

B.S. in Chicago, IL, asks: You had a chart showing vaccination rates by party over time. It showed that 42% of Republicans were unvaccinated in April, but 60% are unvaccinated now. How is that possible?

V & Z answer: That chart did not show vaccination rates for the entire populace. What it showed was the partisan breakdown of those who are unvaccinated. So while some Republicans have gotten vaccinated since April, far more Democrats have done so. As a result, Republicans make up a far larger percentage of the unvaccinated than they did 6 months ago.

M.U. in Seattle, WA, asks: Why is COVID still going? Don't all pandemics eventually burn out? Are we not even close to that point? It's surprising to me that with all those who are vaccinated, and then the Delta surge, which I assumed infected nearly the rest, that we're still in this. And if Omicron is more transmittable than Delta but much more mild, won't that help speed along the process to get us to endemicity so that we can all stop griping about the politics of vaccine mandates and passports?

V & Z answer: You're operating under two assumptions that aren't correct. First, you are presuming that diseases cannot evolve quickly enough to evade existing defenses, whether natural or man-made. But diseases can evolve that rapidly, which is why Omicron could be a big problem if it turns out that a past case of COVID and/or the existing vaccines don't provide much protection against the new variant.

The second assumption is that human beings' immune systems are, in the end, able to fight off most or all diseases. But that is not the case, either. There are some where immunity just does not (or cannot) develop naturally. The second-leading infectious killer right now (behind COVID), and the 13th most common cause of death worldwide, is tuberculosis, which has been around for literally millions of years. At the moment, roughly 1.5 billion people worldwide are infected with Mycobacterium tuberculosis; most have had it for decades. The only things that keep TB from doing more harm than it actually does are: (1) most cases are, and will remain, dormant; and (2) it's treatable (though often those treatments don't make their way to poorer countries).

M.B. in Blaine, MN, asks: I haven't seen you post an updated table of deaths based on COVID compared to other major events (e.g., World Ware II). This was something you did numerous times under the prior president. Why have you stopped doing this (unless I have just missed these updates)?

V & Z answer: We've thought about bringing that back, and there were really only two things that stopped us. The first is that it's a little grim. The second is that you don't want to overdo any particular thing, and we were thinking we might have run it too many times as it was (we probably ran it six times).

Anyhow, we've gotten questions of this sort several times, and we were also tinkering with a slightly different way to present the information, so we'll probably get back to it sometime soon.


R.S. in Tonawanda, NY, asks: On several occasions, you've written that Georgia Secretary of State candidate Jody Hice (R) is running on a platform of making sure that he will "find" enough votes for Trump, and maybe other GOP candidates to win in 2024. Can you point us to where he actually said that, or is that just your sense of him from more circumspect things he has said on the record?

V & Z answer: He hasn't used those precise words, but he hasn't been circumspect, either. Last year, Hice railed against current Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R), declaring that the secretary "should" have found the votes for Trump in 2020 because there was surely massive fraud. Hice also voted not to certify the Georgia election results.

More recently, in his candidacy announcement, Hice accused Raffensperger of "creat[ing] cracks in the integrity of our elections," and said that he (Hice) would do far better, and that he would focus on "enforcing meaningful reform and aggressively pursuing those who commit voter fraud."

Given all of this, and given that there was no actual fraud, and given that Hice has Donald Trump's enthusiastic endorsement, it is very clear what his plan is.

S.W. in Raleigh, NC, asks: With the ongoing rise of remote working in our society, I wonder if you have any thoughts as to whether there might be a workable strategy that could be enacted that could shift red States into the blue simply by remote workers relocating? Would it not be a wise plan for left-leaning New Yorkers and Californians to move to lightly populated red states, such as the Dakotas or the Deep South, and make a significant impact on future elections by fundamentally changing the demographics of these states, while still working for companies in the blue states where their votes don't mean nearly as much?

V & Z answer: Schemes like this have been tried before. Perhaps most notably, the New England Emigrant Aid Company was founded in 1853 to relocate people from Massachusetts to Kansas in order to make certain that Kansas would vote to ban slavery when it came time for statehood. This was the antebellum version of turning a state blue.

Ultimately, the Massachusetts-to-Kansas plan was both a success and a failure. It was a success in that Kansas was tipped way in the direction of anti-slavery settlers, something like 90% to 10%. It was a failure because pro-slavery forces were so determined not to "lose" Kansas that they turned to extralegal measures when it became clear they were outnumbered. In the year 2021, don't discount the possibility that a red state could find some way to execute a similar maneuver. For example, "Only state residents can vote, and it now takes 10 years to establish residency unless you or your parents were born here."

Beyond that, there is a reason that so many people, especially young people, leave rural areas for suburban/urban areas: They don't want to live in rural areas. They want convenient (or reasonably convenient) access to shopping, and they want culture, and they want nightlife, and they want restaurants other than Applebee's, Chick-fil-A, and a coffee shop called "Eats."

That said, the advent of remote work is a wildcard whose implications are not yet known. And the relatively cheap land and housing prices of a Wyoming or a South Dakota or a Nebraska just might lead to a population shift like this. The original Silicon Valley got too expensive and too crowded, such that alternate tech hubs have emerged in other places, like Texas and North Carolina. If a Google or an Amazon builds a 10,000-employee administrative building in Cheyenne, WY, and then other big tech firms follow, then maybe the Cowboy State turns purple.

G.W. in Oxnard, CA, asks: Could the saber-rattling in Ukraine be a wag-the-dog situation to draw attention from the horrifically bad job Vladimir Putin has done on COVID mitigation, the terrible Russian economic situation, and other domestic Russian problems?

V & Z answer: Not only could it be, it certainly is. The Russian people have a rather high tolerance for abuse, but the kleptocracy has gotten out of control in that country and the COVID situation is an absolute disaster. Putin is desperate for a distraction.

S.K. in Sunnyvale, CA, asks: Summarizing part of Jennifer Rubin's advice to the Democratic party, you wrote: "[The Democrats] should make Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-CO), Louie Gohmert (R-TX), and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) the face of the Republican Party." Would the readership care to offer some villainous team name suggestions for this trio? Preferably something difficult to co-opt into a badge of honor (no "deplorables," however well the name fits). I'd offer "Democracide Squad," riffing on D.C. Comics' Suicide Squad, but "The Squad" is already taken.

V & Z answer: If readers have ideas, we'll run them tomorrow. Note, however, that "Wack Pack" is also taken (by Howard Stern).


R.S. in Madrid, Spain, asks: Once the Department of Justice indicts someone for Contempt of Congress, can a future congress withdraw the charges? It seems likely that the Republicans will control the House starting in 2023. Does that mean that they can drop charges that are outstanding from the previous session but have yet to be tried? The clock is ticking...

V & Z answer: It's a criminal charge, like any other, and once it's filed, it continues at the discretion of the DoJ. If members of the House were to ask AG Merrick Garland to drop charges, or to delay prosecution, and they had a good reason—like, say, the witness started cooperating—then Garland would listen. But he's not going to drop them because a Republican-controlled House says they don't want their buddies to get in trouble.

M.C. in Newton, MA, asks: Since discussion seems to have escalated about the possibility of Donald Trump being picked as Speaker of the House if Republicans regain the majority, I have some questions.

Although it seems that there's nothing stopping the House from electing a non-member as speaker, it's never happened before, so how would it work in practice? I assume that the speaker would still preside over debate, but would not be able to participate in votes. Would the speaker be able to introduce bills? Do any of the other powers traditionally exercised by the speaker depend on actually being a representative?

V & Z answer: At the moment, none of the powers do require the person to be a representative. Since the Constitution says so little about the job, 99% of the privileges and powers of the speaker are actually conferred by the Rules of the House of Representatives (the speaker's job is laid out on the very first page).

Those rules were written with the assumption that the speaker would also be a member, and so there are certain elements that aren't spelled out because it wasn't necessary. For example, the speaker is not explicitly given permission to appear on the floor of the House because that privilege is already granted automatically to members. So, you could make an argument that, if appointed speaker, Donald Trump would not be allowed to appear on the floor of the House. Presumably, the rules would be amended and clarified to account for things like this. On the other hand, it is unlikely that a majority would elect a new speaker and then promptly turn around and strip them of a bunch of powers. So, if Trump does become speaker (highly unlikely), he would almost certainly have the same powers that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) does right now, except for voting.

E.R. in Colorado Springs, CO, asks: When the topic of gerrymandering comes up, you frequently make comments like this one: "Trump won the state in 2020 with 53% of the vote, but the map makes 11 of the 15 districts Republican. We'll let you do the math, especially since the staff mathematician is once again 'indisposed,' but that is a lot more than 53%."

I don't believe you've ever stated the underlying argument explicitly, but you seem to be implying that it is inherently wrong when the proportion (i.e., Democrats vs. Republicans) of a state's representatives is inconsistent with the proportion of a state's voting population.

Setting aside whether the percentage of vote that went to Donald Trump is even a good proxy for the number of Republican voters, I'm having difficulty understanding this argument. In a simple majority-rule election system, I don't see why we would expect the proportion of Democrat and Republican voters in a state to directly correlate to party affiliation of the elected representatives, even in a state where the districts have been apportioned in a completely "fair" manner (whatever that means). For instance, if one party did have a 53% to 47% statewide advantage, but the voters were perfectly distributed across the state, the party with the 53% advantage would win every race!

V & Z answer: We are believers in the principle of "one person, one vote." And so we are therefore not fans of anything that works contrary to that. The gerrymander is one of those things. The underlying system for apportioning representation is another one of those things.

We would not propose that the breakdown of the House delegation should directly correlate to party registration or to the presidential vote. That's clearly not possible, particularly in states that only have one representative. However, when a state is close to evenly divided between the parties, but its congressional delegation is roughly three-quarters one party and one-quarter the other, that suggests strongly that something is wrong, whether it's the gerrymander, or the underlying system of apportionment, or both.

R.L. in Alameda, CA, asks: I don't know much about the structure of other democracies. But I am aware that, in the UK, Members of Parliament represent constituencies. Are these constituencies the equivalent of our congressional districts? How are these lines drawn? Are they ever re-drawn (reapportioned), as our congressional districts are every 10 years and, if so, are they subject to gerrymandering chicanery?

V & Z answer: The U.K. does not have a gerrymandering issue, as their constituencies—which are roughly equivalent in function to American congressional districts—are drawn by nonpartisan commissions, and on roughly the same timetable as in the U.S. (i.e., once a decade). However, the Brits also have issues that make their system less than perfect.

To start with, their process is quite slow. There is a whole lot of red tape, and it takes a long time to collect all the necessary information that is needed. Given that there is a fair bit of population movement in the U.K., it means that even when the maps are "new," they are generally way out of date.

A second problem, which aggravates the first, is that drawing maps in the U.K. requires acrobatics worthy of Cirque du Soleil. Legally speaking, the redistricting commissions have to respect county lines, geographic boundaries like rivers, and island constituencies (like the Isle of Man). There is also an expectation, if not a legal requirement, that certain longstanding historical constituencies will be left basically intact. So, putting all the pieces together is no small feat, even with the help of computers.

The third problem, and maybe the biggest, is that while district sizes are kept equal (as much as is possible) within each of the constituent nations of the U.K., they are not equal across the constituent nations. That is to say, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England are each entitled to a set number of seats by law, but those numbers don't correspond well to the populations of each of those nations, with the result that Scotland and Wales are overrepresented in Parliament relative to England and Northern Ireland. There are constituencies in Scotland with fewer than 25,000 voters, while there are some in England with 85,000 or more.

The ultimate result of all of this is that it's cost the Conservative Party some seats in Parliament that otherwise would have been theirs. Consequently, they are eager to reform the system, or at least to overhaul the maps again. But, as noted, red tape...


F.D. in Ninove, Belgium, asks: The Second World War probably ranks as one of history's most brutal, and certainly the most deadly, wars ever fought by humanity. And with regards to the number of humans involved, it's without comparison. New types of weapons (the A-bomb, ballistic missiles like the V2) were developed and used or relatively "new" weapons further developed to new levels (submarines, air war and terror bombing...) and new styles of atrocities (extermination camps) were applied.

But something I always wondered about is the weapon that did not get used... the First World War saw a massive use of chemical warfare. From teargas to chlorine gas to yperite and other deadly gasses. It's estimated that by 1918 a fifth to a quarter of all shells fired had a deadly chemical load.

But neither the Allies nor the Axis did employ that particular weapon in combat during the Second World War. They did develop new gasses though (for instance, Nazi Germany and Sarin, Japan's Unit 731). The belligerents didn't even use it as a last resort (for instance. the Soviets when the Germans were knocking on the gates of Moscow in 1941 or the Germans themselves when their Reich was crumbling all around them).

Can you please give an explanation as to why neither of the belligerent sides ever used this particular nasty but already tried type of weapon in combat?

V & Z answer: Well, there were chemical weapons used. The Japanese deployed them against their weaker neighbors (but never against Western powers). And the Germans used chemicals to exterminate people in their concentration camps. And what both of these sets of victims have in common is that they were not in a position to respond in kind. So, there is your first answer—the warring powers were leery of being the first to break the rules (there were several international conventions in place prohibiting chemical weapons) and inviting a response in kind. They knew how horrible the mustard gas of World War I was, and they presumed that whatever was used in World War II would be even worse.

The second issue is that chemical weapons are hard to control, and often end up doing as much harm to the deploying force as to the targeted force. And the third issue is that the great powers learned after World War I that if you have any leftover chemical weapons, it's really, really hard to dispose of them safely.

M.G. in Boulder, CO, asks: I recently read an article in Foreign Policy saying that bombing Hiroshima was unnecessary since the Japanese were on the brink of surrender. The author, Ward Wilson, repeats the ideas of Gar Alperovitz, who says three thing disprove the American narrative that the bomb ended the war:

  1. Timing: Hiroshima was bombed on Aug. 6, 1945, Nagasaki on the 9th. On the 9th, the Japanese Supreme Council met to discuss unconditional surrender. Had this been the result of Hiroshima, the Council would have met the night of the 6th or on the 7th. It was not the result of Nagasaki because the Council was already meeting when the bomb was dropped. On the 8th, the Foreign Minister requested a meeting of the Supreme Council to discuss Hiroshima, but the bombing was declared insufficiently important for a meeting.

  2. Scale: In the summer of 1945, The U.S. bombed 68 cities, 66 of which were conventional bombings. Hiroshima suffered the 2nd highest damage, but city bombings and civilian casualties were commonplace. Hiroshima was one bombing among many—the difference was not immediately apparent as many cities had been wholly or greatly destroyed. Not only did the Japanese know that, the American leaders could hardly have avoided knowing.

  3. Strategic Significance: The Japanese hoped to avoid unconditional surrender; they wanted to avoid war crimes trials, keep their form of government, and retain some conquered territory. They saw two alternatives—neither good, but they were not without hope. The first was that the army was strong and well-supplied so it might be able to fight off invaders for long enough to make negotiations possible. Alternately, the Japanese had a neutrality pact with the USSR. The pact would end in 1946—it was possible that the USSR could negotiate an agreement between the Allies and Japan with terms better than unconditional surrender. It would be in the interest of the Soviets to prevent the Allies from gaining too much influence in Asia.

    Then the Soviets attacked. Now there was no hope that the USSR would broker a deal, and, because the Japanese army was ready for an American attack from one direction, the Soviet attack, from the opposite direction, hit where the Japanese army was weak. Surrender was inevitable.

I'm not a historian, but this sounds reasonable. On the other hand, Laurens Van der Post, a South African writer knighted for service to the royal family of Britain, said that when he was in a Japanese POW camp in Indonesia, the carefully hidden camp radio died and was repaired by a young engineer (identified later as economist A.W.H. Phillips in The Economist's obituary of Phillips). They frantically tried to find news in a familiar language and eventually located a broadcast from Bombay. The broadcast indicated that something the size of a natural disaster had occurred in Japan, but that the disaster was not natural.

So Wilson/Alperovitz say Hiroshima originally appeared to be just another bombing and did not affect the Japanese decision to surrender, but the American "Our bomb saved lives" story is at least somewhat supported by the Van der Post/Phillips story that from the beginning Hiroshima was recognized as uniquely awful.

My question is "Who's right? Did we need, or believe we needed, the bomb?"

V & Z answer: We will start by pointing out that Alperovitz and Wilson are anti-nuclear activists who are less interested in understanding the past than they are in advocating for denuclearization in the present. That's not a problem, per se, but it does mean you should take their historical interpretations with a grain of salt or two.

Anyhow, there is little question that Japan would ultimately have been defeated even if the bomb had not been used. However, that defeat would have imposed serious costs in terms of both blood and treasure. Many Americans, many Russians, many Chinese, and many Japanese would have died while the process played out. Almost certainly more people than perished in the bomb blasts, and possibly far, far more.

On top of that, Harry S. Truman had some significant political and geopolitical concerns on his mind. He thought a demonstration of the bomb was necessary for domestic political reasons (See! We didn't waste $4 billion!), and to throw a scare into the Russians, and to keep the Russians from gaining a foothold in the far East, and to scare the whole world into thinking twice about using nuclear weapons in the future. Truman knew full well that Pandora's Box had been opened, and that there would soon be other nuclear powers, and concluded that the U.S. was better off teaching the world this lesson as opposed to being taught by some other country.

The answer to the latter part of your question, then, is "yes." Truman thought long and hard about the decision, and concluded that using the bomb was necessary. To the end of his days, he felt he had made the right choice. Or, more precisely, he'd identified the least bad choice from among a bunch of terrible options.

There's also one other thing to keep in mind. Japan is an honor/shame culture, and when it was clear that defeat was imminent, much of the populace still wanted to keep fighting, even as the leadership was ready to surrender. There is much evidence that the bombs actually gave Japanese leadership the excuse they needed to end the war quickly, as opposed to waging a futile and bloody fight against the U.S. and U.S.S.R for additional months (or years). So, the bomb may well have achieved something that could not otherwise have been attained, except at very great cost.

R.V. in Pittsburgh, PA, asks: I realize the 1963 film The Great Escape was a critically acclaimed movie, and it has a great cast. But that movie almost seems like a comedy, not a serious war film. In the movie, the skies are always sunny, the prisoners are never sick or ill-fed, their conditions are not that bad, and most of the music is upbeat. I mean, if you are depicting Germans in a World War II movie, they need to be depicted for the absolute monsters that they were. "Schlinder's List" would not have packed the same punch if it was upbeat and Spice Girls music was being played.

I also think it's possible the The Great Escape might have inspired Hogan's Heroes.

So is The Great Escape meant to be a serious film? What am I missing on that movie?

V & Z answer: (Z) teaches a class on historical films, and has a lecture where he combines the concept of a MacGuffin with a discussion of war films. A MacGuffin, as many readers will know, is an object or other plot contrivance that exists solely to motivate the characters to take action. The classic MacGuffin is the Maltese Falcon. It could just as easily have been a valuable painting, or a box of diamonds, or a $5,000 negotiable bearer bond, or some other desirable object; the Falcon's only importance is that everyone wants it and everyone is looking for it.

Anyhow, once the students have grasped that concept, then (Z) connects it to war films. With some war films, the director has something important they want to teach, or show, about that particular war. Schindler's List is a good example; Steven Spielberg had certain things he wanted people to know about World War II and the Holocaust. And World War II was essential to the film; you can't remake Schindler's List and set it during the Crimean War.

On the other hand, there are many war films where the war is just a convenient setting and a convenient means for motivating the characters to take action. In other words, the war is itself a MacGuffin. For example, The Sound of Music isn't trying to say anything about World War II, and didn't really need to be set during World War II. It's compelling to be fleeing the Nazis, but the von Trapps could also have been fleeing Stalin's Russia, or the Francisco Franco regime, or the Ku Klux Klan, or the mafia and the film would still work.

Anyhow, The Great Escape is meant to be a serious action film. It's not meant to make any sort of serious statement about World War II, which is just serving as a MacGuffin for the filmmakers.

As to Hogan's Heroes, the creators of that show could not be entirely truthful about their inspirations for fear of being sued for copyright infringement. But they clearly took a long look at The Great Escape and at Stalag 17. That said, the movie that was clearly their most direct inspiration was the Frank Sinatra film Von Ryan's Express. That one came out just 5 months before Hogan's Heroes debuted, and had the same dynamic of American officer leading mostly British POWs. And heck, the leather jacket that Bob Crane wore in the show was literally the exact same leather jacket Sinatra wore in the movie.

N.E. in San Mateo, CA, asks: My elementary-school-aged kids know basically nothing about World War II; while it's no substitute for actually reading things, or well-written documentaries, what are your recommendations for World War II movies that have some actual value for understanding the history?

Given the violence of war films, not sure this is practical, but bonus points if you can suggest something that would be appropriately watched by someone around 10.

V & Z answer: Well, the first thing that leaps to mind is JoJo Rabbit. It's entirely a work of fiction, but it introduces some important themes—the perniciousness of the Nazis, the impact on Jewish people—in an age-appropriate way (especially since JoJo himself is 10 years old). For those who haven't seen it, it's something of a cross between The Producers and The Diary of Anne Frank. There is a scene where a key character dies a violent death, but it's handled in a subtle way, such that someone who doesn't know what they're looking at might not even realize what's being implied (the victim is hanged, and you can only see their feet).

As to other possibilities, The Imitation Game introduces viewers to the contributions of those on the homefront while also touching on 1940s homophobia and sexism. It's not a documentary, by any means, but the larger themes are on target. The movie Patton might be a bit too dry for a young viewer, but it somehow highlights a very pro-war protagonist while being a very anti-war film, and it's not violent (some swearing, though). It also gives a good sense of what the war looked like, at least in Europe. And what about Casablanca, which most certainly helps understand the challenges of being a refugee and of being caught in the middle of World War II? Finally, Life is Beautiful is a little cheesy, but it's still engaging, and introduces the Holocaust without being as brutal as Schindler's List.

G.W. in Oxnard, CA, asks: My father served in World War II and he told us that he was in the motor pool for a psychological warfare unit. He said they did things like writing fliers and pamphlets that were air-dropped on German territory, sending some of their members behind the lines to coordinate with resistance groups, and driving the truck to bring the negotiators to the German commanders when they negotiated the surrender of German units. The description my father gave sounds a lot like a piece I saw on 60 Minutes about the Ritchie Boys; a unit of German expatriates (mostly Jewish). My question is: Was my father very likely working for the Ritchie Boys or were there other units besides the Richie Boys who did that kind of work? Is there some source where I might look up the unit my father served with or verify whether he was or was not serving with the Ritchie Boys? My father was the son of a German immigrant, but so far as we knew, he only spoke a few words of German, so I don't think he was a Richie Boy himself.

The other personal interest question I have that you couldn't help with is: How did my father lose his right leg? He told us many fanciful stories about how he lost the leg that weren't true, like he fell out of a plane without a parachute, and he got through that fine, but then a dog bit him. It was a German shepherd. The only story he told us that might have been true is he didn't remember due to traumatic injury memory loss.

V & Z answer: There were about 20,000 Ritchie Boys, so it's entirely plausible that's who he served with. After all, there weren't too many large-scale intelligence operations working close to the war front. As to his leg, one has to assume it was either traumatic, or that it was lost as part of an operation that was/is classified, and that he was not at liberty to discuss.

In any event, contact the government and get a copy of his service records. They will probably have his personnel file, his medical records, and his separation paperwork. The personnel file will tell you where he trained; if he was a Ritchie Boy then it will be Camp Ritchie. His medical records will likely tell you how he was injured.


D.T. in San Jose, CA, asks: I have noticed that much of the political world, including your site, will frequently refer to the African American demographic as "Black Folks." I am curious if there is a particular reason that this term is preferable to "Black People"? The "folks" nomenclature doesn't often get applied to other demographics, such as "Young folks," or "Folks with college degrees." Please don't interpret this as a criticism. I was just wondering if there was a precedent, or some style guide I was unfamiliar with.

V & Z answer: We think you might be understating the frequency of non-Black usages. Here is a day where we used "folks" eight times, and none of them was for "Black folks."

There are only so many words that can be used to refer to a group collectively. There's "population," "voters," "citizens," "people," etc. Sometimes those terms have just been used, and can't be used again without being clunky. Sometimes they are a little too formal or stilted for a particular context, or don't have quite the right meaning. "Folks" is often a useful alternative.

You are almost certainly right, however, that "Black folks" is a bit more common. Maybe a lot more common. And the reason is that many writers are not comfortable using "Black" as a noun. So, one can write "Southerners," or "Southern voters" or "Southern citizens." And one can write "Republicans," or "Republican voters," or "Republican partisans." But if you don't like writing "Blacks," then that means you're immediately working your way through the list of alternative options, meaning that any or all of those alternatives are going to show up more frequently than they would for other groups.

M.G. in Indianapolis, IN, asks: Will you accept sonnets or Haiku for political poetry?

V & Z answer: We've gotten a few pretty good non-limerick submissions that we were likely going to run, so yes, we will.

Previous | Next

Back to the main page