TOWERING FIGURES FOR TURBULENT TIMES
By Martin B. Deutsch
December 4, 2008 -- In my November column, I suggested a cluster of books that would make ideal presents for the year-end holidays, especially at a time many of us are planning to reduce the scope and generosity of our gifts. A good book is a good suggestion any time, in any economic climate.
Now let's consider books about two of the most fascinating personalities in the 20th century, namely Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein. There's little doubt that the indomitable, tireless and brilliant Churchill was one of the great leaders of recent times. Einstein has to rank as one of the most unorthodox and creative thinkers of any time.
EINSTEIN: HIS LIFE AND UNIVERSE
Einstein: His Life and Universe, published last year and written by Walter Isaacson, is a compelling biography about one of the greatest scientific minds in the recorded history of mankind. It is written with great lucidity on two levels. There is the story of Albert Einstein's private life, often controversial and always absorbing, and the parallel description of his achievements as a physicist, mathematician and cosmic thinker.
In the book's prologue, Isaacson explains that he consulted dozens of scientists, professors and others who profess to understand Einstein's magic in order to make his scientific works comprehensible to the lay reader. As a graduate many decades ago of The Bronx High School of Science as well as at least one other institution of higher learning, I admit that I failed to grasp a single formula concocted by Einstein during his prolific life, which began in 1879 and ended in 1955. And while this book makes for great reading, it is also a challenge for those of us who would like to understand Einstein's theories. I still can't tell you the difference between one relativity or the other and I remain confused by E=mc2.
In this context, it is interesting to note that Einstein was not invited to participate in the Manhattan Project during World War II, apparently because the FBI had maintained a close watch on his leftist sympathies. Yet it was a letter from Einstein that helped persuade President Franklin Roosevelt to move ahead with the development of the atomic bomb. It's also interesting to note that as many as a dozen scientists who were driven out of Europe by Hitler's anti-Semitism, including Einstein, helped directly or indirectly in the making of the bomb. Had they been allowed or encouraged to stay, who knows who would have had the A-Bomb first.
Some other notable insights: In a two-week period during 1905, when Einstein was 26, he issued the four theories that reflect his greatest influence. He spent the next half a century defending, modifying, enlarging and redefining these findings. In 1905, incidentally, he was working in a Swiss Patent office since he had been unable to find a teaching job, even in a high school. The basic problem: He was Jewish.
Isaacson also wrote another fascinating biography in 2003, entitled Ben Franklin: An American Life. (Consider this profile of a remarkable founding father as a bonus-book suggestion.) Besides being a highly successful writer and former managing editor of Time magazine, Isaacson also heads The Aspen Institute, one of the country's leading think tanks.
CHURCHILL'S MEMOIRS OF WORLD WAR TWO
For the ambitious reader, there is Winston Churchill's six-volume memoir of World War II. It was first published in the late 1940s and early 1950s and it begins with The Gathering Storm and ends with Triumph And Tragedy." (For the less ambitious reader, there is a one-volume abridgement, first published in 1991.)
The six-volume work is remarkable for several reasons, not the least of which is the input by Churchill into every phase of public and military life. From keeping his tight little island safe from Nazi invasion to his ties with President Roosevelt and Russian strongman Stalin to the final victory over Hitler, Churchill was omnipresent during the war. Although the conflict with Japan was still underway in the spring of 1945, Churchill and his Conservative party were voted out of power while he was meeting with Stalin and Truman at Potsdam. Talk about both irony and Churchill's reward for his exemplary wartime stewardship of a beleaguered nation!
In the first volume, there are many fascinating insights into Churchill's futile attempts to warn his country's leaders, as well as their peers in the Western World, about the dangers posed by Hitler. Churchill points to various stages at which he believed Hitler could have been stopped in his tracks.
During the conflict, you get memorable personal glimpses of the towering figure that was Churchill, but also of other major players: George C. Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower; de Gaulle and Montgomery; Stalin and Molotov; and, of course, FDR.
The word "tragedy" in the title of the last volume refers to Russia's indifference to the various treaties hammered out during the war years regarding Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe. It was that betrayal that would lead to the Cold War that dominated the world for the next half-century.
All through the volumes, you have to be impressed by Churchill's prodigious command of the English language. He never made a mediocre speech. His mastery is also borne out in thousands of memos--he called them "minutes"--which he produced around-the-clock while simultaneously holding the posts of Prime Minister and Minister of Defense. He seemed to have dictated most of his messages from either his bed or his bathtub. Whatta guy!
Churchill was perennially restless and he became an avid traveler. During the war years, his obligations took him to various war fronts. He made frequent visits to FDR in the United States and traveled to four or five top-level conferences, which were designed, not always successfully, to shape a more peaceful post-war world.
This voluminous memoir brings to mind the obvious question that our entire planet currently faces: Will another Churchill emerge and, if so, where is he or she?
That somber note notwithstanding, please accept my warmest best wishes for the holidays and the coming New Year. Go read (and give) some good books!
ABOUT MARTIN B. DEUTSCH Martin B. Deutsch created Frequent Flyer magazine in 1980 and was editor-in-chief and publisher for 15 years. He also wrote a column called "Up Front" for Frequent Flyer during those years. In a 50-year career, he created, published and edited dozens of other travel publications. Deutsch is based in New York.
THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Martin B. Deutsch in the spirit of free speech and to encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Mr. Deutsch. This column may not be reproduced in any form without the permission of Mr. Deutsch.
This column is Copyright © 2008 by Martin B. Deutsch. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2008 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.