October 30, 2009 | Comments Off
Dr. Kent: Welcome back to Sound Authors. My next guest on the show is Dr. D.A. Henderson. He’s the author of ‘Smallpox: Death of a Disease.’ This book is an account of challenges, obstacles and disasters faced by an intrepid international program in achieving the global eradication of smallpox. Fascinating, fascinating tale. Welcome to the show, Dr. D.A. Henderson.
Dr. D.A. Henderson: Delighted to be with you.
Dr. Kent: Give me a little background about it. What is smallpox?
Dr. D.A. Henderson: Smallpox was probably the most devastating disease known to history. It goes back at least 3500 years, and has caused tens of millions of deaths, hundreds of millions of deaths, over the century. It’s a virus disease: it causes a severe rash, a high fever. The person who acquires it has about a 30 percent chance of dying from the disease, and some of those who recover are left blind. Throughout history, it was regarded as probably the most feared out of all the diseases: it’s worse than cholera or yellow fever, or any of the other diseases.
Dr. Kent: My goodness. How was it part of Americans’ lives early this century?
Dr. D.A. Henderson: It certainly kept going throughout the US until 1949; that was when our last cases occurred. One of the remarkable things is that the American Indians, the natives here in this country and throughout the western hemisphere, were particularly susceptible to it. So death rates of 60 to 80 percent were recorded. In fact, they recorded the fact that so many people died, that they couldn’t harvest the food to keep going, and whole tribes disappeared.
Dr. Kent: Wow. The toll just during the 20th century, according to your bio, says that there were 300 to 500 million deaths.
Dr. D.A. Henderson: That’s a fairly conservative estimate. Before the disease was eradicated (the last case occurred in 1977), we estimated that there were at least 300 million deaths. One compares that to what the New York Times has said how many people died as a result directly or indirectly of our conflicts in the 20th century, they estimate about 120 million, so it was more than two and half times that number dying as a result of smallpox in various countries throughout the world.
Dr. Kent: There’s such a hubbub around vaccines these days. Celebrities are starting not to vaccinate their children. This buzz is starting. With a father who’s a physician, he always tells me it’s foolish not to vaccinate, and part of the reason is because there’s such power in vaccines, and of course, with smallpox, my goodness, of course 500 million deaths, that’s a huge number that can be prevented by a vaccine. So tell me about the vaccine: how it works, how you started to think about coming up with it, or how the whole community did.
Dr. D.A. Henderson: The smallpox vaccine is actually largely comprised of another virus called cowpox, which did infect cows. It’s sort of a cousin of smallpox. It started very early that they found they could inoculate this material into the arm, and there would be an infection: a little pustule would form. The individual would then develop protective antibodies, antibodies in the blood, so that when the individual is exposed to smallpox, the antibodies would fight off the infection. This is the way vaccines work. Some of them, what they call ‘kill’ vaccines, you take a virus, like influenza, and you grow up a certain quantity of it, and you kill that virus and actually you inoculate it into the skin, and that really is your vaccine. Your body makes protective antibodies against that virus, which is dead – it’s growing – and when you are then exposed to the live virus, those antibodies are fighting off the invasion of the live virus.
Dr. Kent: Wow. How do you eradicate, even using something as incredible as this vaccination, how do you eradicate a disease? How can you get every single case?
Dr. D.A. Henderson: In fact, we did not try to get every single case. What we tried to do was provide a vaccine protection to let’s say 80 percent of the population. Now smallpox cannot infect animals, and it cannot just lie in the soil and infect people. So therefore, that virus, to keep going, it has to infect one person after another. One after the other. Think of it as a chain of infection. Now if we can stop that virus from infecting one person, and one person from infecting another, we then can break that chain and gradually get rid of the disease. So what we did was try to first of all protect a lot of people, by vaccination, and then we did something that’s called surveillance and containment: basically, find the cases. Once you’ve found a case, a team would go out and they’d vaccinate, in Africa for example, 30 houses around where the case was, all of the people there. Those people would then be protected. Then the patient could not spread the disease to anybody else. The chain would be broken, and little by little, you’d stop the spread of smallpox throughout the area.
Dr. Kent: Fascinating. Is that a technique that has been used before?
Dr. D.A. Henderson: Yes, it actually goes back a long time. Our first vaccine, the smallpox vaccine, goes back to 1796, and this was the discovery that you could take cowpox, or a little infection off of a cow and protect an individual person with that. So it had been used off and on, although it had been used pretty much on, until the time of eradication. But it was impossible really to get that vaccine out to distant areas, so that it wasn’t destroyed by feat, then to get it properly inserted in the skin so that it would really grow, and to do this throughout a lot of parts of the world which are very remote, and which are virtually inaccessible. So, it left places, areas and people where the smallpox could keep going and did keep going.
Dr. Kent: Wow. What other diseases could potentially be eradicated completely? There’s so many out there in the world, is it possible to eliminate some of these, and are efforts going on?
Dr. D.A. Henderson: It’s pretty hard to get rid of a lot of diseases. A number of them, like tuberculosis, an individual gets infected, and they get perhaps temporarily cured, but they’re still carrying the organism and can still transmit it. Poliomyelitis, for example, the individual spreads the disease, but you can’t tell where it is, because only one person in about 200 will get paralyzed, and the others will be infected, but there will be no symptoms, so that makes it difficult. There are some organisms that really largely exist in animals, and so we only get in contact with them periodically, like rabies: people know about that in dogs, and man does not get infected very often. So there are a lot of diseases that we cannot eradicate. Smallpox, fortunately, having been the most disastrous of all the diseases, had this weakness that it did not infect animals, and individuals, when they recovered from the disease, if they did, they were protected: they’d never get another case for the rest of their lives. So this was what we took advantage of with smallpox, and then tried to eradicate it.
Dr. Kent: Smallpox was essentially destroyed, but you talk about that there are stockpiles of this disease in certain places, and that could potentially be used as a weapon.
Dr. D.A. Henderson: It’s a worry. We do know that back in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, that the Soviet Union was working with smallpox. It was the preferred agent that they would use if they were going to use a biological weapon. So, this was a concern. When we got our last case, which actually occurred October 26, 1977, we then wrote to laboratories, contacted people all over the world who might still have some virus of smallpox. They were asked to destroy these; governments were asked to check their laboratories and to destroy them, or to transfer them to one of two laboratories which had been research laboratories that were working with us: one being actually in Moscow, one being in Atlanta, Georgia. After a while, all of the laboratories insisted finally that they had destroyed the virus or transferred it. It left us just the two places that we knew had the smallpox virus. Since then, there’s been continuing discussion as to whether those should be destroyed or not. This has been studied by many experts and scientists. I think most believe that it would be a good idea, let’s just destroy it. There’s some who believe that we might be able to learn something by retaining it, keeping it, and working with it, but there’s always a risk in that. The question is: are you going to risk having it escape, for example, or are you going to destroy it? This is something that is being discussed in the World Health Assembly and the World Health Organization: trying to reach a decision on this.
Dr. Kent: Well, it’s been such an honor talking to Dr. D.A. Henderson. He’s the author of ‘Smallpox: Death of a Disease.’ It’s so riveting thinking about all of this. I appreciate you being on the show, and I hope to talk to you again.
Dr. D.A. Henderson: Thank you very much; nice to be with you.
Dr. Kent: Again, you can find that book all over the place. It’s called, ‘Smallpox: Death of a Disease,’ by Dr. D.A. Henderson.
October 30, 2009 | Comments Off
Donald Ainslie Henderson, known as D.A. Henderson, is an American physician and epidemiologist, who headed the international effort during the 1960s to eradicate smallpox. As of 2005, he is a Resident Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Center for Biosecurity and a professor of public health and medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. He is also a Johns Hopkins University Distinguished Service Professor and Dean Emeritus of the School of Public Health, with a joint appointment in the Department of Epidemiology. Dr. Henderson is the author of, ‘Smallpox: The Death of a Disease.’
October 25, 2009 | Comments Off
Dr. Kent: Welcome back to Sound Authors. It’s my pleasure to have the New York Times Bestselling author, Ronald Kessler, to talk to us on the show today about his newest release called, ‘In the President’s Secret Service.’ Ronald Kessler, of course, has written many books, and they all are very investigative and fascinating. This newest one intrigues me the most of all of them. Welcome to the show, Ronald Kessler.
Ronald Kessler: Thanks for having me.
Dr. Kent: Now this is an incredible topic. How did you get access to former agents to write a book like this, ‘In the President’s Secret Service’?
Ronald Kessler: Usually I would water board, that worked pretty well [laughs]. But I’ve written previous books on the FBI and the CIA, and I think I tell an honest story, and that helps. An FBI agent introduced me to a Secret Service agent sometime back, I started anecdotes, and then more recently, several current Secret Service agents came to tell me about corner cutting that has been going on at the Secret Service, basically since the Homeland Security Department took over in 2003 (they used to be part of Treasury) to the point where they’ll actually not do magnetometer, metal detection screening at some events, or they’ll shut it down early, which really risks an assassination, just like letting people into an airplane without putting them through metal detectors. So that got me into the current Secret Service, and the Secret Service itself cooperated as well.
Dr. Kent: It was really in the news recently, you know folks have started bringing small arms or larger arms to these presidential events. Of course, they’re blocks away, but Secret Service does have a lot on their plate.
Ronald Kessler: Yes, in fact threats against Barack Obama are up 400 percent since he took office as compared with President Bush. A lot of them were, unfortunately, racist based. They’re not necessarily the town-hall meeting type people because they’re not really that political, they’re more just racist. They go onto white supremacist websites, for example. The people who run around with weapons near Obama’s events as you say kept at a distance, and they are certainly watched, and if they did try to get closer, they generally would be arrested, or detained. They’re idiots in my opinion, but they’re not really a threat to the president.
Dr. Kent: I know, even from that first speech on November 4, when Obama won, I remember one of the networks showed the very, very thick bullet proof glass that lined his stage. And from that moment, of course, now he has the presidential car, which is very, very safe. What kind of dangers are there to the president of the United States?
Ronald Kessler: There are so many different threats out there: there’s Al Qaeda, which would love to wipe out the president; there are these right-wing militia types; there are just nuts, and they’re the type that did actually kill JFK: Lee Harvey Oswald, and Hinckley who tried to kill Ronald Reagan; people who just think that it would be really nifty to kill a president. They don’t really care who it is, they just think the number one authority figure in the country is the president, and that’s the way to really get your name in the paper. It’s really a wonder there hasn’t been a successful assassination, and the agents that I talk to say that because of this corner cutting, the risks are even higher. Not only are they not doing metal detection screening, but the Secret Service has been cutting back on the size of counter-attack teams. They’re not keeping up today with the latest firearms; they’re using the MP5 submachine gun, as opposed to the newer and more powerful M4, which both the FBI and the military use, and they’re not even allowing agents the time to do firearms requalification or regular physical training, and they’re covering that up by asking the agents to fill out their own test scores. So this is the last time you would want the Secret Service to be cutting corners, and that is one of the aspects of this book. The other aspect is what are the presidents really like. The vice president, the first family, even cabinet officers, what are they like behind the scenes, because agents are really like human surveillance cameras: they see everything that goes on in private. That’s quite a wild story. It ranges from Jimmy Carter, who’s known as the most phony and nasty president, because he, for one thing, didn’t even want Secret Service agents to say, ‘Hello’ to him in the morning. It was just apparently too much trouble to say, ‘Hello’ back. He would pretend to carry his own luggage, but it was actually empty, or he would just carry it in front of the cameras, and as soon as the cameras were gone, he would give it to aids. He would also come into the Oval Office at five or six in the morning sometimes and tell the press office to tell the press that he was in there working hard for the American people at five AM, but then he’d fall asleep on the sofa. On the other hand, Jenna and Barbara Bush were also very difficult with the Secret Service. Jenna would even go through red lights to try to evade her agents. She just thought that was a game, a nifty thing to do. She wouldn’t tell them when she was leaving, or where she was going, so they had to conduct surveillance of her car, to find out where she was going and when.
Dr. Kent: What is the Secret Service? You mentioned the CIA and the FBI, and I guess we know a little bit more about the CIA – they’re abroad, and the FBI, they’re within the country. But what does the Secret Service do? Is it anything attached to the president? What is the Secret Service?
Ronald Kessler: It’s main function is protection of the president, and the first family, and that includes even the grandkids. For example, Dick Cheney’s grandkids were guarded. Michelle Obama’s mother is guarded because she lives in the White House. But it also investigates financial crimes such as counterfeiting, ATM fraud, phishing, stuff like that. Actually about two-thirds of the budget goes for protection, the rest goes for those investigations. It was ironically signed into law by Abraham Lincoln, who of course was assassinated – he didn’t want any protection at all, even though the Civil War was going on. He finally agreed to it just before he was assassinated, but the one DC policeman who was guarding him on the night he was assassinated decided to go off and get a drink at the local tavern, so Lincoln was totally unguarded when John Wilkes Booth killed him. When the Secret Service was started, it was just to go after counterfeiters, because that was a big deal at the time. About a third of the nation’s currency was estimated to be counterfeit because state banks would issue the currency, and each one would have a different imprint, so nobody even knew what the currency was supposed to look like. It wasn’t until years later when the Secret Service in a very zigzag sort of way started to guard the president, because a gang of counterfeiters happened to also threaten the president, so the Secret Service assigned two agents to guard the president, and that’s how they first got into protecting the president.
Dr. Kent: You’ve got all these great stories. I’m sure you have many more than you detail in the book. How do you cull through them and choose what will stay on the pages?
Ronald Kessler: I think I have a good sense for what will grab people’s attention, and what’s newsy: I used to be on the ‘Washington Post’ and ‘Wall Street Journal’ – but also, what might give some insight into either presidents or how agents think. They really are very dedicated; they will take a bullet for the president; they’re courageous. But it’s been the management that’s been the problem with the corner cutting. Luckily I had wonderful material to work with, and the book really worked. It’s on the New York Times bestseller list, and it’s available everywhere.
Dr. Kent: You mentioned some sort of negative stories about presidents. Are there any sort of positive gems that you uncovered? Sort of secret stories of real honesty and integrity and kindness?
Ronald Kessler: Well, Ronald Reagan was known as the nicest president. He would spend a lot of time with the agents, schmoozing, joking. He and Nancy would give them food. He one time came out of his California home, and he was wearing a pistol, and one of the agents said, ‘What are you wearing that for?’ And he said, ‘Just in case you guys need some help.’ Another time, he was about to go into an elevator at the White House residence, and an aid came and told him about Gary Hart’s affair with Donna Rice, and the fact that that was about to come out in the paper the next day. Reagan said, ‘Well, boys will be boys.’ Then he went up in the elevator, and said to the Secret Service agent, ‘But boys will not be president.’ Laura Bush also was a real sweetheart. She was loved by the agents. Mary Cheney, on the other hand, Dick Cheney’s daughter, was very difficult with agents. She would ask agents to take her friends to restaurants, which of course was not their job. When the detail leader objected, she got him removed, which of course tells you something about Secret Service management, and how spineless they are. They should not be removing people for doing their job. Joe Biden does not like Secret Service protection. He wants them to only have two vehicles in the motorcade guarding him, as opposed to the usual eight. So that’s not very good, especially if you have a whole bunch of terrorists who could have gotten the Secret Service. When Biden revealed at the Grid Iron dinner that there was this secret bunker at the vice president’s residence, that tells you what he thought about security. He later claimed he didn’t really say that, but the Secret Service e-mailed agents and told them that he had in fact compromised the location of those bunkers. When Biden threw the first pitch at the Orioles game last April, the Secret Service did absolutely no magnetometer screening. Both the Baltimore field office and the detail were outraged, just stunned, that the Secret Service would take a chance like that. Otherwise, he’s known as a good guy, and so is Obama. Obama treats agents with respect and consideration, and both he and Michelle have invited them to dinner several times, including when he was campaigning; that’s pretty unusual. Although he is continuing to smoke on a regular basis despite his claim to have given it up 95 percent.
Dr. Kent: Right. Once an addict, always an addict, right?
Ronald Kessler: Afraid so.
Dr. Kent: But he does treat them with respect and I guess there’s been many folks in several ways that compare Ronald Reagan and Barrack Obama, sort of strange bedfellows, but indeed they have a lot in common. Tell us a little more about our current president, and his code name, and any other details you might know about his detail.
Ronald Kessler: His code name is Renegade, and Michelle’s is Renaissance. The Secret Service assigns the same letter to all the code names for each family, so Bill Clinton is Evergreen, Hillary is Energy. No – I got that reversed. These code names are assigned by computer basically, they’re just randomly spewed forth. Then if a protectee doesn’t like a particular code name, they can get it changed. So George W. Bush, for example, initially was code named Tumbler, but he didn’t like that maybe because it reminded him of his drinking days, so he got instead the code name of Trail Blazer, which he chose. Dick Cheney was Angler because he’s a fisherman. Lynne Cheney was Author because she is a prolific author. With Barack Obama, well there are a lot of other tidbits. One is that he did meet secretly with Reverend Wright about three weeks before Reverend Wright gave the big speech at the National Press Club. We don’t know what happened, but Barack Obama met for about an hour in Reverend Wright’s home. I would assume that he was trying to get him to shut up, but he obviously was not very successful. The fact that he does treat agents with respect is certainly a good sign.
Dr. Kent: What’s it like for the life of an agent? What do these guys go through every day? Do they just show up and escort them? When I see them on television or whatever, their eyes are all over the audience, and it seems like each guy has a different region of the audience or whatever. What’s their job like?
Ronald Kessler:What their looking for when they’re actually protecting is anything out of the ordinary: a person who, for example, is not smiling when everybody else is smiling, or is sweating when nobody else is, or is wearing an overcoat in the summer, or they will also watch their hands to see if they’re making a dive for a pistol, let’s say. George H.W. Bush, would typically just leave the Oval Office and go greet people at the White House fence without telling the Secret Service beforehand – they wanted him to warn them so they could screen these people – but no, he liked to go out spontaneously and greet people. Well, the ‘Washington Post’ ran a story about this, and a few days later, agents noticed in the crowd this guy who sure enough was wearing an overcoat, sweating, wasn’t smiling when everybody else was smiling. They patted him down and sure enough he had a pistol on him, and he probably would have used it. So a lot of plots that they uncover, ranging from something simple like that to more complex – again it was Hezbollah that had a plot to take out George H.W. Bush after he left the White House. The CIA got onto it, and the Secret Service changed his route so that he was not in harm’s way.
Dr. Kent: These presidents do get protection, of course, for the rest of their lives, right?
Ronald Kessler: They used to, and Bill Clinton is the last president who will receive it for the rest of his life, along with spouses. After him, a new law has dictated that presidents beginning with George H.W. Bush will only receive it for 10 years, and his spouse, although the current president can always extend protection, which he has done with Jenna and Barbara Bush, and Dick Cheney, and Lynne Cheney. They can extend it on a temporary basis. That’s the new twist, when it comes to protection.
Dr. Kent: What are you working on next? What’s your next book project? Did I lose you? Of course, I’ve been speaking to Ronald Kessler. I lost him there for a second. I was just going to ask him one last question of what his next book project is. I will talk to him again in one second, but in the meantime, I’ll talk a little bit about his book. It’s called, ‘In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire, and the Presidents They Protect.’ We’ve heard some fascinating inside information, and of course, Ronald Kessler is the author of eighteen nonfiction books, and he’s a New York Times bestselling author. He began his career back in 1964, and ever since then has been putting together these incredible thrilling nonfiction books. Again, this current book is called, ‘In the President’s Secret Service.’ It’s available everywhere. Some incredible details in here about the former president, about his daughters, about Dick Cheney, and then Barack Obama: his smoking habit. Really fascinating stuff all the way on back to Ronald Reagan and others. If you want to check the book out, go to Amazon, or Barnes & Noble, and you can also order it from Borders. You can check out his website at Ronald Kessler dot com. I’ve got him back for my final question here. I just wanted to ask you, what are you working on now?
Ronald Kessler: I’m not really sure. It’s going to be another book that reveals secrets, because people love to get the inside scoop, and that’s what I’m working on.
Dr. Kent: So you’ve done these eighteen books through the years, and you love to get the secrets yourself it seems like.
Ronald Kessler: Yes, it’s a challenge. Maybe I’m perverse, but I don’t like to do subjects that are just too easy. Of course, that makes the books unique, and I also like to tell about something that is important. Certainly protecting the president is one of the most important things that you can do in this country.
Dr. Kent: Well, it certainly is. Thank you so much for being on the show. I’ve been speaking to Ronald Kessler, author of ‘In the President’s Secret Service.’ Thank you so much.
Ronald Kessler: Thanks, I appreciate it.
October 25, 2009 | Comments Off
From his website:
Ronald Kessler is the New York Times bestselling author of eighteen non-fiction books. Kessler began his career as a journalist in 1964 on the Worcester Telegram, followed by three years as an investigative reporter and editorial writer with the Boston Herald. In 1968, he joined the Wall Street Journal as a reporter in the New York bureau. He became an investigative reporter with the Washington Post in 1970 and continued as a staff writer until 1985.
Secret Service agents act as human surveillance cameras and observe everything that goes on behind the scenes in the president’s inner circle. Kessler’s latest book, ‘In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes With Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect,’ reveals what they have seen, providing startling inside stories about presidents from John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, as well as about their vice presidents, families, Cabinet officers, and White House aides.
October 24, 2009 | Comments Off
Dr. Kent: Hello everyone. Welcome to Sound Authors. I’ve got four fantastic guests on the show today. We’re back to an older format of Sound Authors, just for this show, and then we’ll be back to the brand new format with a great show next week. I’ve got four guests on the show today. My first guest will be Thomas Childers, an award-winning professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. His newest book is called, ‘Soldier from the War Returning.’ After that, I’ll be talking to the New York Times bestselling author, Ronald Kessler, about his newest book called, ‘In the President’s Secret Service.’ After that will be the children’s author of ‘The Curious Garden,’ Peter Brown. At the end of the show will be Chris Smither, an incredible folk musician who just put out his eleventh studio album. He’s had a nearly forty year career. It’s my pleasure to welcome the author of an incredible book called, ‘Soldier from the War Returning.’ It’s about the troubled homecoming from World War II. Welcome to the show, Thomas Childers.
Thomas Childers: Thank you. My pleasure.
Dr. Kent: Tell me about this book. It’s about a soldier from the war returning, just like the title says. Tell me about it.
Thomas Childers: Well, I think we’re all familiar with Tom’s Brokaw’s book ‘The Greatest Generation,’ and this is a greatest generation storyline of the generation of men who went off, fought the wraith of the great depression, went off, fought the Second World War, prevailed in it, and then came home healthy, happy, well-adjusted, worked hard, had families, and went on. Those stories have been told over and over again. They’re inspiring; they’ve been told in volume. But I wondered what happened to those veterans whose reentry was troubled: those long-ignored, and then their families, who found readjustment from the war a disruptive, enriching experience, much like those from Vietnam, and the current wars that we’re enduring. I was born just after the Second World War, in that first wave of baby boomers. I grew up in a small town outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee. One of the most common things that one can hear about men in the late ’40s, early ’50s, my mother would say, ‘He was never the same after the war.’ So I wondered if the experiences that I’d had growing up and seeing my parents, who had a very difficult time, if the parents of friends of mine, was somehow peculiar to my experience, or whether it was something more broad based. So I set out to find out, and discovered that in fact, the happy greatest generation storyline – it’s not that it’s so wrong, but it certainly doesn’t cover what was really a very traumatic reentry for so many veterans.
Dr. Kent: How does this differ from the books you’ve done before?
Thomas Childers: Well, I’ve written two other books about the Second World War. It’s the third in a trilogy, really. One was called, ‘Wings of Morning’ – the last American bomber shot down over Germany in World War II was about my maternal uncle who was killed on what was the last American bomber that was shot down over Germany in the Second World War – where the family had gotten a killed-in-action telegram on VE Day, so that while others were celebrating the end of the war, this family was plunged into real tragedy. I wanted to write about that, about the loss suffered by this family, and what it was like for these young men in their very early 20s who were flying dangerous missions over Germany in the Second World War. What I’ve then done in this book and the other two, is I’ve tried to write things that are historically accurate, but I’ve written them in a novelistic way, so that what I really wanted to do was to the capture the feelings and the experiences of people rather than the kind of dry historical rendering.
Dr. Kent: It’s a fascinating tale. You go into things in this book that again aren’t what we think of. Of course we think of Vietnam: we see Vietnam vets on the street. We know the story that they came home and it wasn’t a happy homecoming. We know even now the Iraq war vets, a lot of them have nerve damage, there’s hundreds of thousands of folks that have been injured in some way. Marriages dissolved, and all of this. So that happened too after the Second World War. What kind of things did you uncover?
Thomas Childers: It certainly did. First of all, we think of PTSD, which is written about a great deal about Vietnam vets, and the current wars. At the end of the Second World War, over in 1947, two years after the war had ended, over half the beds in veteran administration hospitals were occupied by men suffering from what they called neuropsychiatric disorders, we would say some form of PTSD. Forty percent of the army discharges during the war had been for psychiatric reasons. There were almost a million and a half troops hospitalized at some point during the war for what they called neuropsychiatric disorders. This was written about and talked about a great deal during the end of the war: men coming back, suffering from nightmares, alcohol abuse, shattered personal relationships. For example, in 1946 and in 1947, the United States went through a post-war divorce boom: the highest divorce rates in American history were in 1946 and 1947. We’ve topped them now, but it took until 1973 to do it. If you read through any of the things: books, ‘Life’ magazine, ‘Colliers’ and so on, divorce is talked about over and over and over again. One judge in Newark, New Jersey wanted – it was so common, that he was so furious at wives of service men, who were getting divorces, adultery being the charge – that he wanted to have their heads shaved, and then be branded with the scarlet letter. Didn’t happen.
Dr. Kent: Where do you find your documents? There’s so much material, I’m sure. You certainly culled through a lot of materials, but where did you find the most valuable material for this book?
Thomas Childers: The kind of thing I was just talking to you about, the numbers: psychiatric cases, the number of divorces, those were written up in ‘Time’ magazine and ‘Newsweek.’ You can follow them also in government statistical records. There are a lot of oral histories one can consult, but I did a lot of interviewing, all over the country: from California to Maine. Asking, talking to people, actually mostly many veterans of course, and now, unfortunately, widows of veterans, that generation passing away with great rapidity, and also people my age, that is now the grown children of veterans of the Second World War. What I discovered was that so many people had grown up in broken homes, had had fathers who had suffered from alcohol abuse, and so on, estranged parents and so on, and they were finally happy that they weren’t alone, that this has been the sort of great silent story of the aftermath of the Second World War. I have to say that one of the things about these oral histories is that you may be able to get veterans to talk about their combat experiences, but that’s not easy. It’s much more difficult to say, ‘Excuse me, but during the war, did you have an adulterous relationship? Did you drink too much when you came home? Did you abuse your wife and kids? Did you have nightmares? Were you ever treated for psychiatric problems?’ So it really takes pushing beyond this. One of the things that I did in the book is to write about my family, which had its great difficulties, the family of my best friend, whose father lost both legs in December of 1944, and had a very stormy relationship with his family when he came back. Then another man, a doctor, a very distinguished physician, a brilliant man, who was diagnosed in his 70s with a chronic case of post-traumatic stress disorder, which had led to divorce and estrangement from his children.
Dr. Kent: What is it like putting your own story into this book? Obviously it colors it in a different way.
Thomas Childers: It was a harrowing experience, and my parents are no longer alive. I’m not sure what they have thought about it, except that it’s true. It’s very, very difficult to do, and it was very courageous of the other people that I interviewed, the Alums, my best friend’s family, Michael Gould in Rhode Island, to be able to talk about very difficult personal experiences. But what it does do is to make those stories come alive, so that you’re not just dealing with divorce statistics, and statistics on psychiatric troubles.
Dr. Kent: Right. So what’s your take on this, the greatest generation? Obviously it’s in your subtitle to the book, it’s something that a lot of people think about, and it was a fantastic victory in some ways. Obviously these men were liberators, these men were heroes, whereas in Vietnam, it wasn’t the same situation. What did that stigma of the greatest generation, or of hero, or whatever, how did that affect this whole soldier from the war returning?
Thomas Childers: I think that nothing that I found in any way, it seems to me, diminishes the wartime generation’s accomplishments: they deserve all the testimonials and public tributes they get. But, what it does suggest is that the price they paid was far higher, the toll extracted from them and their families far greater, and their struggles far more protracted than the glossy tributes that we find in Tom Brokaw’s ‘The Greatest Generation’ would lead us to believe.
Dr. Kent: And you are a professor of history. When you’re teaching history to today’s young generation, how do you teach World War II history? How do you teach modern history to college students?
Thomas Childers: Well, the Second World War for college students now might as well be the 30-Year’s War from the 17th century. They’ve certainly seen movies; some of them watch the History Channel, even. But that generation of men and women that experienced the war is quickly passing away, and so what I try to do is to certainly deal with the major events of the war, give this great forward history, but also to bring as much of the experience, the emotional content of the war, what it was like for so-called ordinary men and women in the United States, or in Britain, or Russia, or Germany, or Japan. What it was like for them, and how they experienced what was the greatest, and by ‘greatest,’ I mean the most extensive conflict, in human history.
Dr. Kent: Well, it’s been such an honor chatting with you. The book is out on Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and of course I’ve been speaking to Thomas Childers, author of ‘Soldier from the War Returning.’ It’s a powerful testimony to the suffering of soldiers no matter what the conflict is. We might think that these folks didn’t go through the same thing that the soldiers are going through these days, but it seems to be the case.
Thomas Childers: Yes, absolutely.
Dr. Kent: And where can we find out more about you and about the book?
Thomas Childers: The Houghton Mifflin website, that certainly has information about the book and the University of Pennsylvania website has things about me and the books that I’ve written.
Dr. Kent: And students that are lucky enough to take your courses, what are you teaching now?
Thomas Childers: I teach a course called the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and then a course on the Second World War in film and fiction.
Dr. Kent: Well, a lot of us would love to be a fly on the wall in your classroom. Thank you so much for chatting with me today, and I hope to hear about the next one.
Thomas Childers: Well, thank you very much for having me.