Explorers Traded Insults, Verbal Attacks in Quest to be First

Robert E. Peary was included in a 1910 tobacco card set of the “World’s Greatest Explorers.”

By Jim O’Neal

In September 1909, two men, both Americans, emerged from the frozen tundra of the Arctic, each claiming they had accomplished something no other explorers had in recorded history. They had reached the North Pole!

The North Pole is a rather strange place. A point with no dimensions, no thickness or breadth, where every direction is south and a year is divided into one day and one night. At the time, it was 400 miles from any solid ground, across an ocean more than 5 miles deep, covered by a jumble of enormous blocks of ice drifting with the wind and the gravitational pull of the moon.

Of the two men, Frederick Cook’s claim had priority – he said he had been at the Pole in April 1908, but had been forced to winter in the Arctic another season because of bad weather. However, his veracity was strongly contested by rival explorer Robert E. Peary. Peary disputed Cook’s claim and proceeded to assert that he’d reached the North Pole on April 6, 1909. His message to The New York Times stated, “I have the pole, April sixth. Expect arrive Chateau Bay, September seventh. Secure control wire for me there and arrange expedite transmission big story. PEARY”

Thus began a series of insults and verbal attacks that the newspapers reveled in. A classic example comes from The Philadelphia Record in 1909: “Dr. Cook is either the greatest and at the same time the stupidest charlatan who ever attempted to impose upon a skeptical world, or he is the victim of the most malignant and devilishly ingenious persecution that hatred and envy could devise.”

The controversy widened after Cook’s ascent of Mount McKinley (Denali) was also questioned. Perhaps inevitably, it devolved into a litany of charges that included bribes, death threats and even sexual improprieties. Cook’s claims gradually came to be regarded as elaborate hoaxes. Attempts to ascertain the truth through impartial commissions and Congressional hearings all ended inconclusively.

However, what was proved (without any doubt) was that Frederick Cook – physician, explorer, author and lecturer – was also a crook who sold fraudulent stock in oil companies. A Fort Worth, Texas, judge sent him to jail for almost 15 years. President Franklin Roosevelt pardoned him in 1940, 10 years after he had been released from prison. He died shortly after that on Aug. 5 the same year.

Meanwhile, despite having been certified by the National Geographic Society, Peary’s claim about the North Pole was never secured. Even modern scholars have pointed out major discrepancies in his assertions and it seems unlikely he actually made it. He died embittered and exhausted by the long struggle despite receiving numerous medals, honorary degrees and international recognition.

Today, the only fact we know for certain is that in 1985, Sir Edmund Hillary (first to summit Mount Everest) and astronaut Neil Armstrong (first man to stand on the moon) actually landed at the North Pole in a small twin-engine plane. This allowed Sir Hillary to claim to be the first to stand on both the South and North Poles and on the summit of Everest.

It’s not clear to me why some ambitious reporter like Anderson Cooper didn’t simply ask some of the local residents about Cook and Peary … Santa and his elves are generally hanging around assembling the toys and stuff. That old North Pole is still a very strange place.

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].

While Dewey Focused on Election, Truman Dealt With Soviets

An original copy of the Chicago Daily Tribune’s famously wrong “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” edition from Nov. 3, 1948, sold for $1,493 at a June 2008 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

In 1948, Republicans selected New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey (Alice Roosevelt thought he looked like the groom on a wedding cake) to be their presidential candidate. He had lost in 1944 to FDR, but it was the closest anyone had come in four elections. Four years later, Dewey defeated a tough group of competitors that included Minnesota Governor Harold E. Stassen. In fact, Stassen was so close that Dewey challenged him to a debate just before the Oregon Republican primary.

The May 17 Dewey-Stassen debate was the first audio-recorded debate between presidential candidates in U.S. history. The debate centered primarily on the issue of criminalization of the Communist Party of the United States and was broadcast over the radio to the entire country. About 40 million people tuned in and Dewey was thought to be the winner. The real winner may have been voters, since this set a precedent that is still considered important today.

Dewey finally won the Republican nomination on the third ballot on June 24, 1948.

            Thomas E. Dewey

President Harry S. Truman had little interest in the Republicans or their convention since on the same date, June 24, the Russians decided to make a move in post-war Germany by blockading all rail, highway and water traffic in and out of Berlin. It seemed clear that Joseph Stalin was intent on forcing the Allies to withdraw from the partitioned city. Except for air, the Allied sectors were entirely cut off and nothing could come in or out of this critical German hub. About 2.5 million people were facing starvation and Truman was asked bluntly if American forces would remain in Berlin or pull out. In typical Midwest-style candor, Truman answered, “We stay in Berlin. Period.”

Four days later on June 28, while Dewey tried to rally voters to look beyond the crisis, Truman acted by ordering a full-scale airlift to Berlin. He sent to Germany two squadrons of B-29s, the giant planes associated with dropping the two atomic bombs on Japan. However, these particular planes were not equipped to carry atomic weapons, a small detail the Russians were unaware of.

Truman didn’t bother to consult with either the White House staff or any of his numerous political advisors in making the decision. He and Secretary of State General George C. Marshall were convinced that the future of Western Europe hinged on the Berlin issue and that leaving the Russians alone in Berlin could lead to a resumption of war. The numbers were sobering. The Allies had 6,500 soldiers in the city, while the Russians had 18,000. In addition, those 18,000 were backed up by 300,000 more in Germany’s Eastern Zone.

Politicians and newspapers editorialists thought it would be impossible to supply 2.5 million people with food, clothing and other essentials, especially when winter rolled around. However, by the fourth week of the airlift, American and British transports were roaring in by the hundreds each day. More pilots were being trained in Montana, flying blindfolded through extremely narrow mock routes, similar to Berlin routes. The New York Times even wrote in atypical tones, “We were proud of our Air Force during the war. We are prouder of it today.”

The effort was heroic, but it was not enough. So Truman stepped up and increased the number of planes, and 30,000 Berliners volunteered in the building of a new airfield. Voila! By October, the airlift was succeeding and Truman sent yet another 26 C-54 transports into the rotation. This increase helped guarantee supplies for the winter. Realizing their blockade ploy had failed, Stalin blinked and backed down!

“To do more would have been a direct threat to peace. To have done less would have been an abdication of our American honor and traditions,” said General Lucius Clay, the top U.S. official in occupied Germany. The 277,804 flights delivered more than 2.32 million tons of food and supplies, almost one ton for every man, woman and child in Berlin, the third-largest city in the world, behind Chicago and New York. Truman called off his airlift on May 12, 1949 … the same day Allied Powers approved the establishment of a new German Federated Republic, where the German people would rule themselves with their own government in Bonn.

They are once again the brightest country in all of Europe and dominate the E.U.

Note: I never met General Lucius Clay while he served as chairman and CEO of Continental Can Company from 1950-62 … although I received a short note from his office when I became plant manager of Continental’s South Gate, Calif., flexible packing group in 1962 at age 25. (I was told that was a record, but there is no proof.)

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].

Labor Secretary Perkins Did Her Part to Make Sure Social Security Endures

A Feb. 27, 1935, memo by President Roosevelt to Francis Perkins regarding Social Security went to auction in December 2008.

By Jim O’Neal

President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt created the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor on Feb. 14, 1903. It was renamed the Department of Commerce in 1913 and various bureaus and agencies specializing in labor were shifted to a new Department of Labor.

Until 1920, women were prohibited from having Cabinet-level positions since they were not allowed to vote. President Franklin D. Roosevelt broke this barrier in 1933 by appointing Francis Perkins as Secretary of Labor. She was instrumental in aligning labor with the New Deal.

The New Deal was a complex integrated plan to provide present relief, future stability and permanent security in the United States. Much of the president’s thinking about security – which would soon come to be called “social security” – rested on a premise that overcompetition in the labor market depressed wages, spread misery rather than income, curtailed the economy and worked special hardship on the elderly.

Roosevelt was determined to find a way to “dispose of surplus workers,” in particular those over the age of 65. The federal government could provide immediate relief to able-bodied workers as the employer of last resort, while returning welfare functions to the states. Unemployment insurance would relieve damage from economic downturns by sustaining workers’ living standards, and removing older workers (permanently) through government paid old-age pensions would create broad economic stability.

The longer-term features of Roosevelt’s grand design were incorporated into a landmark measure whose legacy endured and reshaped the texture of American life: the Social Security Act. No other New Deal measure proved more lastingly consequential or is more emblematic of the very essence of the New Deal. No one was better prepared to thread the needle of the tortuous legislative process than Secretary of Labor Francis Perkins and FDR personally assigned her the task of chairing a Cabinet committee to prepare the legislation for submission to Congress.

Madame Secretary (as she preferred to be called) brought to her task the commonsense practicality of her New England forebearers; compassion of the special milieu from her time at social-work pioneer Jane Addams’ Hull House; and a dose of political expertise gained as a labor lobbyist and industrial commissioner in New York. Perkins had evolved from a romantic Mount Holyoke College graduate, who tried to sell “true love” stories to pulp magazines, into a mature, deadly serious battler for the underprivileged.

She owed her position to a comrade-in-arms relationship with New York Governor Al Smith and FDR in New York reform battles and also the spreading influence of an organized women’s faction in the Democratic Party. She wisely believed that enlightened middle-class reformers could do more for themselves through tough legislation than union organization; and without the distraction of industrial conflict and social disruption.

Meanwhile, the American labor movement, led by the stubborn Samuel Gompers, relied exclusively on protection of labor’s right to organize. Even after his death, his American Federation of Labor (AFL) spurned legislation and continued to bargain piecemeal, union by union, shop by shop … a strategy that collapsed as the depression deepened.

We know how this ended on Jan. 17, 1935, when President Roosevelt unveiled his Social Security program. Today, 61 million people – or one family in four – receive benefits. However, there is no “lockbox” for Social Security and the flow of taxes and benefit payments are co-mingled with all General Obligations; which includes Medicare, military spending, food stamps and foreign aid. Everything is dependent on the federal government’s ability to levy taxes and borrow money to fund the unsustainable debts backed by “the full faith and credit of the United States.”

Some say that when it comes to global sovereign debt, we live in the best house on Bankrupt Street. However, I am willing to bet that FDR’s cherished Social Security program will never be touched. Francis Perkins did a superb job of getting this concept engrained in a special way and she must still be smiling. She liked her work and served for 12 years and one month – almost a record. James “Tama Jim” Wilson holds that distinction, serving as Secretary of Agricultural from 1897 to 1913, the only Cabinet member to serve under four consecutive presidents, counting the one day he served under Woodrow Wilson.

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].

Our Wishes, Passions Cannot Alter the State of Facts

“The Big Three” – Churchill, FDR and Stalin – at the Yalta Conference, Feb. 4, 1945.

By Jim O’Neal

In February 1945, with the war in Europe winding down, the time had come for President Franklin Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin to decide the continent’s postwar fate. They agreed to meet at the Black Sea port of Yalta to discuss the plan.

Each man arrived on Feb. 4, along with an entourage of diplomats, military officers, soldiers and personal aides. Among those attending for Great Britain were Alexander Cadogan, under-secretary for foreign affairs, and Anthony Eden, Britain’s foreign secretary. Stalin was accompanied by his minister of foreign affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, and the Soviet ambassador to the United States. Roosevelt brought Secretary of State Edward Stettinius and Averell Harriman, U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union.

Roosevelt, recently elected to a fourth term, also brought along daughter Anna as his personal assistant, instead of wife Eleanor.

Aside from agreeing to the unconditional surrender of Germany, their agendas could not have been more different. While Stalin was firmly committed to expanding the USSR, Roosevelt and Churchill focused on the war in the Pacific. They hoped Stalin would declare war on Japan once Germany surrendered. Unbeknownst to Churchill, Roosevelt secretly secured the Soviet dictator’s cooperation by agreeing to grant the Soviets a sphere of influence in Manchuria once Japan capitulated.

The Allied leaders also discussed dividing Germany into zones of occupation. Each of the three nations, as well as France, would control one zone. Churchill and Roosevelt also agreed that all future governments in Eastern Europe would be “friendly” to the Soviet Union. Stalin agreed to allow free elections in each of the liberated Eastern European countries.

There was also a great deal of debate over Poland, but it was all a series of empty, almost laughable promises from Stalin in return for consenting to help with the establishment of the United Nations, which Roosevelt desperately wanted to create. He sincerely believed this new organization would step in when future conflicts arose and help countries settle their disputes peacefully.

The initial reaction to the Yalta agreements was one of celebration, especially in the United States. It appeared that the Western Allies and the Soviets would continue their wartime cooperation into the postwar period. Some historians continue to debate the impact of the conference. However, the facts are crystal clear. By spring, hopes of any continued cooperation had evaporated. After Yalta, Stalin quickly reneged on his promises concerning Eastern Europe, especially the agreement to allow free elections in countries liberated from Nazi control.

The USSR created an Iron Curtain and installed governments dominated by the Soviet Union. The one-time pseudo Allies found themselves on a more treacherous and dangerous path to another more ideologically driven one – the aptly named Cold War. Was FDR too tired and sick? He died two months after Yalta on April 12, 1945, at age 63. Was Churchill out of the loop or drinking heavily (or both)?

Seventy-plus years later, we are still consumed with Russian aggression in Crimea, Ukraine, Syria and the Baltics.

“Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence,” said lawyer and future president John Adams in 1770, while defending British soldiers in the Boston Massacre trial.

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].

China’s Fall to Communists Launched Dark Period in American History

Andy Warhol’s screenprint Mao (With Orange Face), 1972, realized $47,500 at a May 2015 Heritage auction.

By Jim O’Neal

On April 4, 1949, the day the United States and 11 other nations signed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a Communist General by the name of Chu Teh began massing a million of Mao Tse-tung’s seasoned troops on the north bank of the Yangtze River. This was the last natural barrier between Mao and the few southern provinces still loyal to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT).

Three weeks later, Chu Teh’s veterans stormed across the Yangtze, but only met token resistance. Chiang had withdrawn 300,000 of his most reliable soldiers to form a rear-guard perimeter around Shanghai. A week later, Chiang fled across the Formosa Strait to Taiwan, along with a cadre of KMT, but it seemed clear that China was a lost cause.

Mao Tse-tung proclaimed Red China’s sovereignty on Sept. 21, 1949 – the same day West Germany declared its sovereignty – and this was followed by Chiang announcing the formation of his new government in Taipei. Chinese politician Sun Yat-sen’s 50-year-old vision for a democratic China was dead, and the U.S. expectation that Chiang would establish the non-communist world’s eastern anchor died with it.

The world now had two Chinas!

The American response was slow. Newspapers had carried regular accounts of the Chinese Communists and the KMT’s slow disintegration, but China was so vast, the geography so unfamiliar and movements of the unmechanized armies so slow, that Americans had lost interest in these distant battles.

However, when the KMT collapsed, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson decided to lay out the entire situation before the American people. On Aug. 5, 1949, the State Department issued a 1,054-page white paper, conceding the world’s largest nation had fallen into communist hands. The chain of events leading to this tragic end was also explained, including the $2 billion that had been largely wasted and the 75 percent of American arms shipments that had fallen into Mao’s hands.

The American people were stunned by this admission. Everything American diplomats had achieved in Europe – the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, NATO – seemed to have been annulled by this disaster in Asia.

The burning question was … who was responsible for losing China?

Richard Nixon of California flatly blamed the Democrats. On Feb. 21, a young congressman from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy, said that at Yalta, a “sick” Franklin Roosevelt had given strategic places to the USSR. This, Kennedy concluded, “is the tragic story of China, whose freedom we fought to preserve. What our young men saved, our diplomats and our presidents have frittered away.”

Thus began one of the darkest periods in American history. President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9835 created the “Loyalty Order” program and in 1947, the FBI began stalking “disloyal and subversive persons” by conducting name checks on 2 million federal employees and background checks on 500,000 annual applicants for government jobs. During the program’s five years, the FBI screened over 3 million Americans and conducted 10,000 field interviews. Preliminary indictments were filed against 9,977, of whom 2,961 were arraigned.

Seth Richardson, chairman of the Subversive Activities Control Board, summed up his findings for a Congressional committee: “Not one single case or evidence directing toward a case of espionage has been found by the FBI indicating that a particular case involves a question of espionage.”

In the entertainment industry, “blacklisting” became a form of blackmail and took its toll on a small group for a full decade.

Time has blurred the sharp contours of the Age of Suspicion, but it was a dark period that must never be allowed to recur.

We still don’t know, or agree on, who lost China.

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].