How We Record History Has Evolved Over the Ages

A 1935 copy of The History of Herodotus of Halicarnassus (Nonesuch Press) sold for $1,125 at an October 2013 auction.

By Jim O’Neal

We often fail to remember that history (itself) has a history. From the earliest times, all societies told stories from their past, usually imaginative tales involving the acts of heroes or various gods. Later, civilizations kept records inscribed on clay tablets or the walls of caves. However, ancient societies made no attempt at verification of records, and often failed to differentiate between reality and mythical events and legends.

This changed in the 5th century B.C. when historians like Herodotus and Thucydides explored the past by the interpretation of evidence, despite still including a mixture of myth (“history” means “inquiry” in Greek). Still, Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War satisfies most criteria of modern historical study. It was based on interviews with eyewitnesses and attributed actual events to individuals rather than the intervention of gods.

Thus, Thucydides managed to create the most durable form of history: the detailed narrative of war, political conflict, diplomacy and decision-making. Then, the subsequent rise of Rome to dominance of the Mediterranean encouraged other historians like Polybius (Hellenic) and Livy (Roman) to develop narratives to capture a “big picture” that made sense of events on a longer time frame. Although restricted to just the Roman world, it was the beginning of a universal history to describe progress from origin to present, with a goal of giving the past a purpose.

In addition to making sense of events through narratives, there was a tradition growing to examine the behavior of heroes and villains for future moral lessons. We still attempt this today with a steady stream of studies of Lincoln, Churchill and Gandhi, as well as Stalin, Hitler and Mao.

But there was a big hiccup with the rise of Christianity in the late Roman Empire era, which fundamentally changed the concept of history in Europe. Historical events started to be viewed as “divine providence” or the working of God’s will. Skeptical inquiry was usually neglected and miracles routinely accepted without question. Thankfully, the Muslim world was more sophisticated in medieval times and they rejected accounts of events that could not be verified.

However, neither Christians nor Muslims produced anything close to the chronicle of Chinese history published under the Song Dynasty in 1085. It recorded history spanning almost 1,400 years and filled 294 volumes. (I have no idea how accurate it is!)

By the 20th century, the subject matter of history – which had always focused on kings, queens, prime ministers, presidents and generals – increasingly expanded to embrace common people, whose role in historical events became more accessible. But most world history was written as the story of the triumph of Western civilization, until the second half when the notion of a single grand narrative simply collapsed. Instead, the post-colonial, modern world demanded the study of blacks and women’s histories, in addition to Asians, Africans and American Indians.

Now we are in another new place where it is increasingly difficult to know where to find reliable accounts of real events and a flood of “fake news” is competing for widespread acceptance. Maybe Henry Ford was right after all when he declared that “History is bunk!”

Personally, I don’t mind and still enjoy frequent trips to the past … regardless of factual flaws.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chair and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

As War Loomed, Hospitals Lacked Drugs to Treat Wounds, Infections

This 1939 original newspaper political cartoon by Joe Parrish (1905-1989), depicting Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini about to plunge into war, went to auction in November 2014.

By Jim O’Neal

In September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich and infamously declared he had an assurance for “Peace for our time.” The phrase was an optimistic borrowing from a versicle in the Anglican service of evensong: “Give peace in our time, O Lord, because there is none other that fighteth for us, but only Thou, O God.”

Chamberlain was wrong on several levels since Germany (Adolf Hitler) had no intention of granting peace to Britain and its European neighbors. Secondly, Britain had a true leader-fighter in Winston Churchill, who had warned the British Parliament in 1935 of “Germany arming at breakneck speed, England lost in a pacifist dream, France corrupt and torn by dissension, America remote and indifferent.” A year later, this was no longer a rhetorical flourish, but a dangerous fact as Britain would soon be at war.

From the largest cities to the smallest villages, citizens prepared their civil defenses: air-raid shelters designated, blackout curtains for homes sewn, gas masks delivered, and fire marshals named. Trading cards in cigarette packs showing film stars and athletes were replaced with a series of 48 “Air-Raid Precautions.” Plans were made to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people from large cities to remote rural areas.

Major hospitals were organized into emergency medical facilities. A blood transfusion system was set-up, with widespread training under the Red Cross First Aid course. Prominently missing in all this was the critical supply of penicillin … for one simple reason: It did not exist. Neither did any other vital drug to treat wounds and other infectious diseases common to war casualties.

History credits the discovery of penicillin many years earlier (1928) to Sir Alexander Fleming at St. Mary’s Hospital in London after a serendipitous encounter with a mold growing in an untended Petri dish. However, he was such a poor communicator and orator that his work was largely ignored. Plus, he found the substance “too frustrating and difficult to work with” and abandoned it.

Fortunately, a small group at Oxford recognized the substance’s potential as a “miracle drug,” although they did not have the resources to manufacture commercial quantities until grants from the Rockefeller Foundation spurred the installation of small production sites.

Even more astonishing was that the first major application occurred in November 1942 when a fire at Boston’s Cocoanut Grove nightclub killed 492 people. Several hundred people survived life-threatening burns after treatment with a penicillin variant. The fire started after a club employee changed a light bulb in a darkened area, lighting a match to see what he was doing. With Freon in short supply due to the war, a highly flammable gas (methyl chloride) was being used as a substitute. Boom … the fire engulfed the entire building.

Of course, tens of millions of people were subsequently saved on many battlefields and in hospitals and emergency rooms all over the world. The worry now is that that through overuse, bacteria have developed resistance strategies, leading to new “super bugs.” Survival of the fittest seems to be an immutable law of nature.

Remember to eat your spinach and wash your hands!

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

American Forces Quickly Rallied to Face German Aggression

Tom Lovell’s World War I Soldiers on Horseback, painted for a magazine story illustration, sold for $8,750 at a March 2012 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

At the start of 1917, only four months before the United States declared war on the German Empire, the U.S. army totaled 107,641 men. Sixteen other nations had larger armies. Another major weakness was the lack of recent experience in large-scale military operations. It had been a full 51 years since the armistice at Appomattox had ended the Civil War and many things had become rusty in the interim.

Also, somewhat remarkably, there was no modern military equipment heavier than medium-size machine guns!

Even the National Guard was larger (132,000 men), but this part-time militia was dispersed among the 48 states, generally poorly trained, and any federal oversight was unusually lax. One sparkling exception was the U.S. Marine Corps, over 15,000 first-class troops. However, they were scattered throughout the Western Hemisphere in America’s possessions and in Central American republics, acting as police in the aftermath of the 1898 Spanish-American War.

Despite this bleak situation, and because the Germans had committed far too many acts of war, on April 2, President Woodrow Wilson requested a joint session of Congress. On April 6, the U.S. Congress voted overwhelmingly to go to war. The vote in the Senate was 82-6 in favor (with eight abstentions) and 373-50 in the House, with Jeannette Rankin of Montana in the minority. In 1941, she would become the only member of Congress to vote against declaring war on Japan after Pearl Harbor.

Yet, by June 1917, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force, General John J. Pershing, had arrived in France and on July 4, American Independence Day, elements of his 1st Division paraded in the streets of Paris. Throughout the following months, fresh units of an Army designed to reach a strength of 80 divisions – nearly 3 million men – continued to arrive. By March 1918, 318,000 men had reached France, the vanguard of 1.3 million to be deployed, and not a single one had been lost to enemy action in oceanic transport.

Rare are the times in great wars when the fortunes of one side are transformed by the sudden accretion of reinforcements. Napoleon’s enemies in 1813 when the Russian army joined Britain/Austria … the North in our Civil War when the adoption of conscription added millions versus the South’s hundreds of thousands … 1941 when Adolf Hitler’s stupid declaration of war on the United States, followed by Japan’s ill-advised action, saved an isolated Britain and an almost defeated Soviet Union.

This was another of those times, when Germany had declared unrestricted war in the Atlantic in the flawed calculation that the war would be over in Europe before the United States could mobilize.

As philosopher George Santayana so wisely observed, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Luftwaffe’s Incendiary Bombs Devastated British Treasures

A first edition of John Dalton’s A New System of Chemical Philosophy (Manchester: S. Russell, 1808-10) sold for $7,812.50 at an October 2013 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

“Peace for our time” was proudly announced by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after signing the Munich Pact in 1938. This agreement effectively conceded the annexation of the Sudetenland regions of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in the hope it would quell Adolf Hitler’s appetite for European expansion. Today, it is universally regarded as a naive act of appeasement as Germany promptly invaded Poland.

A full year before, the British Museum had located a deserted, remote mine to store their priceless treasures in anticipation of war. Other institutions like the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery joined in by relocating historic records, manuscripts and artwork. Steel racks were constructed to store boxes and other containers, while shelves were hollowed out of solid rock walls. Special consideration was given to maintaining proper humidity, temperature and delicate atmospheric pressure. It turned out to be a prudent strategy.

However, despite all the frenzied planning, once the bombing started, there were simply too many British libraries to protect and the Germans were using special incendiary bombs designed to ignite buildings rather than destroy them. The effect was devastating and before the war ended more than one million rare volumes were destroyed.

One particularly perplexing example was the remarkable library of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (the famous “Lit & Phil”), England’s oldest scientific society. Alas, this included one of the most fascinating and least-known scientists, John Dalton.

Dalton

Dalton was born in 1766 and was so exceptionally bright he was put in charge of his Quaker school at the improbable age of 12. He was already reading one of the most difficult books to comprehend – Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia – in the original Latin! Later, at Manchester, he was an intellectual whirlwind, producing books and papers ranging from meteorology to grammar. But it was a thick tome titled A New System of Chemical Philosophy that established his lasting reputation. In a short chapter of just five pages (out of 900), people of learning first encountered something approaching modern conception. His astounding insight was that at the root of all matter are exceedingly tiny, irreducible particles. Today, we call them atoms.

The great physicist Richard Feynman famously observed that the most important scientific knowledge is the simple fact that all things are made of atoms. They are everywhere and they constitute everything. Look around you. It is all atoms … and they are in numbers you really can’t conceive.

When Dalton died in 1844, about 40,000 people viewed the coffin and the funeral cortège stretched for two miles. His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography is one of the longest, rivalled by only Charles Darwin and a few others.

Shame on the Luftwaffe for destroying so much of his original work. It is somehow comforting to know they weren’t bombed out of existence since their atoms are now merely part of something else … somewhere in our universe.

Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Hitler’s Seduction of German People was Sudden, Complete

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Adolf Hitler is among the figures featured in Gum Inc.’s 1938 “Horrors of War” trading card series. A complete set (288 cards) sold for $2,390 at a November 2011 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The same winter President Roosevelt came to power in the United States, another leader in Europe assumed his country’s highest office. Over the next 12 years, until their deaths just two weeks apart in 1945, the lives of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler would grow increasingly intertwined … drawn together as archenemies in a conflict that was the 20th century’s most grotesque and widespread event.

Even all these years later, the rise of Hitler still baffles. His seduction of the German people was so sudden and complete, his assumption of power so total, that he defies comparison with history’s other evil conquerors. One German philosopher called him an “error” in history, as if the Fates had been distracted while a deadly mutant virus took hold.

Both FDR and Hitler’s journey to power was propelled by a world economic collapse.

Along with America and most of Europe, Germany suffered a Great Depression, with unemployment reaching 25 percent. If it had been hunger alone, the people may have followed a very different kind of leader. But Hitler’s enormous popularity was also a product of Germany’s lingering desire for revenge.

Despite Germany’s surrender in 1918 (an armistice arranged by the Reichstag, not the Army), few accepted the fact that they had been defeated in World War I. Hitler was from Bavaria, a haven for right-wing nationalists, and he railed against the forces of Judaism and Bolshevism, while mocking the fragile Weimar government as “November Criminals” for acceptance of the armistice.

After the complete breakdown of the economy in 1930, the passion of resentment and revenge gained momentum to include students, professors and businessmen. Hitler’s anti-Semitic message resonated with a deep suspicion of money cartels and the perceived unjust punishment from the Versailles agreement. The campaign moved with the speed of a plague.

The Nazi bible was Mein Kampf, a two-volume treatise started by Hitler while in prison for the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, a bungled attempt to control Bavaria. As the movement gained in favor, Mein Kampf (My Struggle) became a best-seller and provided Hitler with a cloak of legitimacy. Still, it was Hitler’s voice, not his pen, that fueled the emotional appeal of the Nazi movement. In a brilliant insight, he grasped that the pain of the German people could be harnessed in a unique way. They had been victimized by the depression, humiliated by Versailles, robbed by chronic inflation and their spirit had devolved into despair, fear and resentment.

Hitler’s extraordinary oratory provided a powerful reassurance that they were a great people, their suffering unjust and he promised an improved life while those who were responsible for their pain would be punished. His two-hour speeches could hold a crowd of half-a-million people spellbound. It mattered not what he said, but how he said it. They were thrilled by the pageantry, the sense of historical inevitability and blind faith that Germany would rise again. It was only a short journey from here to another war of conflagration with even greater magnitude than the last.

The people were eager to get it started and so it came.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Battle of Stalingrad Defined Struggle Between Fascism and Bolshevism

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The Boy from Stalingrad was a 1943 Columbia Pictures movie about Russian youths fighting the German assault on Stalingrad. The propaganda film was officially approved by the U.S. government, which briefly worked to maintain its wartime alliance with the Soviets.

By Jim O’Neal

While the siege of Leningrad was under way, a ferocious battle was beginning over Stalingrad, a sprawling provincial city of half a million, outlining the banks of the Volga River.

If there was one battle that defined the struggle between fascism and Bolshevism – the essential confrontation that Adolf Hitler had long dreamed of winning – it was this one. From a strategic standpoint, it would allow Germany to cut off the supply route to the Russian Army up north and open the way for the Wehrmacht to control the oil fields surrounding the Caucasus Mountains.

But Hitler wanted Stalingrad for a personal reason, too. Joseph Stalin had named this city in 1925 to honor the battle he had led there during the Russian Civil War. Its capture would be a symbolic victory and erode Russia’s willpower. However, Stalingrad would prove important to both sides and together they would expend the lives of 1 million people in just five months.

The drama began with the Germans attacking the city’s northern edge and discovering Russian civilians, many of them women in dresses, firing the guns. It was a harbinger of the legendary Russian resistance. That night, an enormous roar deafened Stalingrad, the sound of 600 German planes descending at once. They dropped bombs carrying incendiary devices and when they ignited, the city was so bright from flames that soldiers 40 miles away claimed they could read a newspaper. In all, 40,000 civilians died that night and the worst was yet to come.

Since the city was home to several prized armament plants, tanks rolled off the assembly line directly into battle. Yet it was hand-to-hand combat that came to dominate the fighting – building by building, block by block, rooftop to rooftop – until giant piles of rubble remained. Snipers worked from every garret, booby traps appeared at every turn, and hand grenades came flying from every angle. The insanity of the fighting was obvious even to impotent commanders, but the two leaders in Moscow and occupied Ukraine insisted their armies fight on.

Ignoring the pleas of his advisors, Hitler failed to protect his flanks and fresh Russian troops encircled the city, trapping the entire German army inside. Now they were the ones under siege, starving and freezing while they waited for the promised reinforcements that never came.

By January 1943, the battle was over and 80,000 German troops were marched off to Soviet camps, where all but a handful would eventually die. Things would only go downhill from here as the German people lost faith and the Allies started their offense directly against the Fatherland.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Siege of Leningrad was Devastating for Russian People

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Nicolai Fechin’s Russian Girl, an oil on canvas laid on masonite, sold for $109,375 at a November 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

The suffering brought on by World War II was enormous, but when the total picture is considered there is little doubt that the greatest pain was borne by the people who lived within the grasp of the century’s most vicious tyrants: Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.

While Americans were busy managing the factories that made them the “Arsenal of Democracy” and focusing on Japan, the people of Central Europe and Western Russia were in a life-and-death struggle fought on the very streets of their cities.

Throughout the winter of 1941-42 and onward for 900 days, the people of Leningrad were suffering dramatically. Concerned that his German army might encounter enormous losses if they launched an all-out assault, Hitler ordered a blockade of the city. By starving its 3 million people, he hoped to break Russian morale and force them to surrender.

Since Leningrad was closed on the west by the Baltic Sea, to the east by the 80-mile-wide Lake Ladoga and to the north by the Finnish army, the Wehrmacht only needed to seal the southern flank to isolate the city. But even as the Germans closed ranks around them and started bombing warehouses and supply routes, the hearty citizens showed they would not be so easily defeated. Volunteers built thousands of air-raid shelters and pillboxes, and cut down trees to block the Germans’ path.

By late December 1941, Leningrad was down to two days’ supply of flour and people had to make bread from cellulose, sawdust and floor sweepings of flour. Animal feed became human food, weeds were boiled to create soup and the dead were hidden so families could continue receiving their daily rations. 53,000 perished that month, and by February another 200,000 would join them.

Somehow the city hung on.

Then came a breakthrough. Scientists discovered Lake Ladoga had frozen so deeply that it could support truck traffic. They cautiously started sending convoys across the “Road of Life.” In the first seven days, 40 trucks sunk to the bottom, but dozens of others made it and returned with precious food. Then women and children were evacuated and the city limped along in darkness and silence since there was no oil to light the lamps and even the birds were dead. In fact, every creature – living or dead, including the human corpses in the gutters – had been picked over by the hungry hordes.

Leningrad Radio broadcast from the generator of a ship frozen in a river and aired the sound of a metronome between programs to let listeners know the city was not dead, yet. By the time Leningrad was liberated in January 1944, nearly 1 million people had died.

There were more civilians dead than in any city, in any war, in the history of mankind.

During this siege, Hitler became obsessed with conquering Stalingrad and that proved to be a fatal mistake that cost him the war. The little colonel from Bavaria proved to be a poor general.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

As America Played, Europe’s Dictators Set Stage for World War II

This 1939 edition of New York World’s Fair Comics, featuring a blond Superman on its cover and graded CGC VF/NM 9.0, sold for $25,300 at a July 2002 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

Spring 1939 was a season of triumph for Europe’s trio of new dictators. Francisco Franco finished up his work in Spain at a cost of 1 million dead. Benito Mussolini seized Albania and Adolf Hitler marched unopposed into Prague and claimed the rest of Czechoslovakia. Neville Chamberlain and his Munich Pact would be enshrined in the hall of naïveté for eternity. Another diplomatic fantasy dashed.

War fever was ratcheted up a notch, but most of the world pretended not to notice.

In the United States, people sought escape in entertainment, particularly in New York, where the flashy World’s Fair offered them a glimpse into “The World of Tomorrow.” The pavilions of 33 states, 58 countries (minus Nazi Germany) and 1,300 companies filled the imaginations of visitors with modern marvels like television, nylons, robots and man-made electricity.

The popular General Motors “Futurama” exhibit drew 28,000 visitors daily and featured their vision of life in 1960, where everyone would be fit and tan, take two-month vacations and drive cars powered by “liquid air.” Visitors left with a button reading “I have seen the future” — wandering the 1,200 acres like members of a congregation that had witnessed a divine miracle.

The 1938 film Love Finds Andy Hardy marked the second pairing of the popular Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

In June, the King and Queen of England came to America and their parade in New York attracted over 3 million people (second only to Charles Lindbergh) and another 600,000 in Washington, D.C. Eleanor Roosevelt famously served them genuine American hot dogs when they finally made it to the White House.

Fantasy also reigned at the movies, where Walt Disney in 1937 introduced his first full-length cartoon, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and was hard at work on an animated paean to classical music, Fantasia. But the hottest box-office draw in 1938 was the freckle-faced teenager Mickey Rooney and his small-town exploits as Andy Hardy. Then came the most anticipated event in movie history, the premiere of Gone with the Wind and its epic romance in Civil War Georgia.

Awash in fairy tales and cartoons, science-fiction and nostalgia, people had little patience for bad news. However, when it started, there seemed to be no end. A surprise agreement between Germany and the Soviet Union and on Sept. 1, 1939, the killing began. After a faked Polish invasion of Germany, they unleashed 1½ million German soldiers in “response,” backed up by the most powerful war machine ever known to man.

Fantasy time had ended.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

Hitler Used Unrest to Decimate Rivals, Set Europe On Path to War

By 1941, Adolf Hitler (“The Mad Merchant of Hate”) and his Axis allies occupied most of Europe and North Africa. This copy of Daredevil Comics #1 (Lev Gleason, 1941) sold for $41,825 at an August 2007 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On June 28, 1919 – exactly five years after Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand – Germany reluctantly signed the Treaty of Versailles that ended their participation in World War I. The terms of the treaty were so punitive that the German people were stunned. After all, the treaty had been signed without any of their borders being crossed and many believed the army had been betrayed by politicians. There was even talk of restarting the war as crowds demonstrated in the streets.

The treaty was a long, extensive document that included extraordinarily high reparations (the “War Guilt” clause) covering everything from lost farmland to veteran pensions and anything in between. The French were especially eager to punish the Germans since over 1 million Frenchmen had been killed, mostly within their country. However, the Allies were also vindictive and determined to render Germany incapable of ever starting another war.

The German delegation had attempted to mitigate the harsh terms with a 400-plus page counter-proposal, but it was a futile effort and they were forced to accept the Allies’ conditions verbatim. What had been intended to cease all hostilities, ironically, merely extended them by the crushing burden imposed on the German people.

The implications turned out to be significant.

For the next two to three decades, Germans harbored deep resentment over such an unfair agreement and were susceptible to radical ideas for revenge. Further, the slowing European economies made everyday life difficult for broad swaths of people everywhere. Extremist fascist and communist ideologies seemed to offer solutions to national problems in Spain, Italy and Russia.

The National Socialist (or Nazi) Party was founded in Germany with racism as a formal guiding principle. The gradual disintegration of formal government structures cleared the way for Adolf Hitler to become chancellor. In 1933, when fire broke out at the Reichstag – the German parliament building – Hitler claimed it was a communist plot. This was all he needed as an excuse to decimate his rivals, assume an absolute dictatorship and set Europe back on the path to war.

However, it was the seeds that were planted in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles that sprouted into the conflagration that would become another war. Sadly, the whole world again would join the war, and we still bear the scars of our involvement.

William Tecumseh Sherman was right when he declared that war is hell, a lesson that every generation seems to need to learn for themselves.

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].

In Mid-1930s, News Joined Entertainment to Shape American Culture

The Fibber McGee and Molly radio show premiered in 1935 and aired for nearly 25 years.

By Jim O’Neal

In the mid-1930s, neither of the two big radio networks – NBC and CBS – had a news department. All they did was air a couple of daily five-minute news broadcasts that were supplied by the Press Radio Bureau. But toward the end of the decade, the country began to count on getting its news from both networks.

It became a standard evening ritual in houses. People gathered around rather large radio sets when it was time for the news and there was little conversation until it was over. They listened to commentator H.V. Kaltenborn with coverage of the Spanish Civil War, including the crackle of genuine gunfire … a real first on the radio.

In fact, as radio brought news into people’s homes, it began affecting public opinion on things going on in the world. So when something important happened in Europe, the country was eager to listen. Prior to this, they were mildly interested, but didn’t feel that they were intimately involved. Now, they were fascinated.

When Adolf Hitler annexed Austria, there was a full hour of coverage with correspondents in Paris, Berlin, London and New York acting like today’s Anderson Cooper. Then, in 1939, came the Czech crises, which was a major radio event and the country was enthralled by it … listening as much as possible. The minute-by-minute coverage monopolized the attention of the country and it was a great novelty to hear Hitler speak or British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich waving a paper and saying, “This means peace in our time!”

To hear the actual words was simply amazing.

It is no exaggeration to say that radio brought the country together, all at the same time, everyone listening to the same things. And the country liked being tied together that way. In the morning, people would say, “Did you hear that last night? What do you think?”

People didn’t quite see how all those things overseas were going to affect them personally, but it was the greatest show they’d ever been offered, and it helped the country overall achieve the melting-pot effect. Radio played a major role in helping people escape the daily humdrum with the soaps during the day and Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, and Fibber McGee and Molly at night.

Politics could never compete with The Shadow in my book.

Now we have to listen to both sides of every issue (sometime all sides) from “talking heads” who claim to be experts, who debate every point and counterpoint. Who are these people? How to judge their expertise or veracity when the ether is filled with so many divergent views? If you don’t have an opinion, just pick one and you can amaze your friends with your brilliant insights.

My advice is to watch the Fishing Channel. These folks really know their stuff and you can probably believe most of it … except when you hear “You should have been here last week. They were really biting!”

Jim O'NielIntelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is President and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].