Category Archives: war

The worst president was John Adams

Every now and again a magazine cites a group of historians to pick the best and worst presidents. And there, at the bottom of the scale, I typically find James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Andrew Johnson; Warren Harding, and/or Ulysses Grant, none of whom deserve the dishonor, in my opinion. For Pierce and Buchanan, their high crime was to not solve the slavery /succession problem — as if this was a problem that any PhD historian would have been able to solve in a weekend. It was not so simple; the slavery question bedeviled the founding fathers, tormented Daniel Webster and Henry Clay; George Washington and Thomas Jefferson wrestled with it. None could solve it, at all when the country had relative levels of good feeling. Now, in the 1850s Pierce and Buchanan inherit this monster, and we blame them for not solving it when the nation was at the boiling point and Kansas was burning. They did the best they could in impossible circumstance, buying us time (Pierce also bought us southern Arizona).

Similarly, with Johnson: our historians’ complaint is that he didn’t manage reconstruction well — as if any one of them could have done better. You can’t blame a person for failing in a hopeless situation. Be happy they filled their terms, avoided war with our neighbors, and left the country richer and more populous than they found it.

Moving on to Grant and Harding, their crime was to be president at a time of scandal. But the very essence of this condemnation is that it presents the scandal, a non-issue in the large sweep of America, as if it were the only issue. Both Harding and Grant drank in the white house, and played cards while members of their cabinets stole money. These are major scandals to blue noses, but not so relevant to normal people. Both presidencies were periods of prosperity, employment, and growth. Both presidents paid down the national debt. Harding paid down $2,000,000 of debt, a good chunk of the debt incurred in WWI. Grant paid down a similarly large chunk of the debts of the civil war. Both oversaw times of peace and both signed peace treaties: Harding from WWI, Grant from the civil war and the Indian wars. Both left office with the nation far more prosperous than when they came in. No, these are not bad presidents except in the eyes of puritans who have require purity, and care little for the needs of the average American.

The worst president, in my opinion, was John Adams, and I would say he set a standard for bad that’s not likely to be beat. How bad was Adams? He oversaw the worst single law ever in American history, the sedition act. This act, a partner to the sedition act (almost as bad) was pushed though by Adams a mere 8 years after passage of the bill of rights. The act made it illegal to criticize the government in any way. In this, it made a mockery of free expression. Adams put someone in jail for calling him “his rotundancy” — that is, for calling him fat. The supreme court had to step in and undo that law, but this was a horrible law and only one of several horrible acts of Adams.

Another horrible act of Adams is that he decided to pick a war with France, our ally from the revolution. Adams himself had signed the treaty of Paris guaranteeing that we would never go to war with France. So why did Adams do it? He didn’t like French immorality and French Catholicism. He was insulted that French officials wanted bribes, and presented this to the public (the XYZ affair) as the reason for war. So Adams, pure Adams, got us to war with our oldest ally. But Adams didn’t stop there, having decided to go to war, he also decided to stop paying on US debt. He was too pure to pay debt to a nation that overthrew its king and set up a more-egalitarian state than we had. One where slavery was abolished.

Adams, of course did nothing to address slavery, though he berated others about it. And it’s not like Adams didn’t pay out bribes, just not to the despised Catholics. At the beginning of Adams’s single term a group of Moslems, the Barbary pirates, captured some American ships. Adams agreed to pay bribe after bribe to the Barbary Pirates for return of these US ships. But the more we paid, them the more ships the Barbary pirates captured. So Adams, the idiot just bribed them with more. By the end of Adams’s term, 1/4 of the US budget went to pay these pirates. When Jefferson became president, he ended the war with France by the simple solution of buying Louisiana, and he sent the US Marines to deal with the pirates of North Africa. Adams could have done these things but didn’t; Jefferson did, and is ranked barely above Adams as a result. So why is it that no historian calls out Addams as an awful president?.I think it’s because Adams wrote beautifully about all the right sentiments, especially to his wife. Historians like writers of high sentiment. According to 170 scholars, the top ten presidents, not counting those on Mount Rushmore are FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Reagan, Obama, and LBJ.

The bottom ten presidents. And there's Trump at the very bottom, with the usual suspects. Harrison was only president for a month.

The bottom ten presidents. And there’s Trump at the very bottom, with the usual suspects. Harrison was only president for a month.

And that brings us to the new poll. It includes William Henry Harrison among the worst. Harrison took office, became sick almost immediately, and died of Typhoid 31 days after taking office. The white house water supply was just down river from the sewage outlet, something you find in Detroit as well. He did nothing to deserve the dishonor except drinking the water after running a great presidential campaign. His campaign song, Tippcannoe and Tyler too is wonderful listening, even today.

And that brings us to the historian’s worst of the worst. The current president, Donald J. Trump. This is remarkable since it’s only a year into Trumps term, and since he’s done a variety of potentially good things: He ended a few trade deals and regulations that most people agree were bad. The result is that the stock market is up, employment is up, people are back at work, and historians are unhappy. What they want is another FDR, someone who’ll tell us: “We have nothing to fear, but fear itself.” whatever that means. By historian polls FDR is the second or third best president ever.

Robert Buxbaum. April 25, 2018. Semi-irrelevant: here’s a humorous song about Harrison. 

Military heroes, Genghis and confederate


This 13 story statue of Genghis Kahn looks over the plains of Mongolia.

All military statues are offensive, as best I can tell. Among the most offensive, is the 131 foot tall monument to Genghis Kahn in central Mongolia. Genghis Kahn is known for near-perfect military success, and for near-total disregard for non-Mongols; he treated them as cattle, to be herded, slaughtered, raped or pillaged. I imagine this statue is offensive to Chinese, Russians, Koreans, Moslems, Jews, Hindus, Poles, and Germans — people he slaughtered by the millions. For some Mongols too, I imagine this statue is offensive as a sad reminder that Mongolia no longer rules the eastern world. But the monument is not for the maudlin, nor is it intended to offend. Like other military statues, the Genghis monument is a rally point for soldiers, old and new. It’s a way to inspire Mongols to be great leaders of men, military and not. Such will see, in Genghis, a man who made tough choices, and carried through to great achievements. That he killed and oppressed others will be justified by noting he did it to keep his Mongols from being killed or oppressed. The grand size is chosen to encourage Mongols to think big.

Genghis appears in fictional form as the villain, Shan Yu, in Mulan. There, his motivation is he doesn’t like the wall. Mulan and the Chinese army stop his Mongol attack by burying them at a snow-covered mountain pass. Historically, a Chinese army did meet Genghis and his army at a mountain pass, but the Mongols were not defeated. Instead they bypassed the Chinese and captured their supplies. Genghis then offered the starving Chinese a choice: join or die. Those that joined had to fight those who did not. A few months later, Peking fell, and in a few years, the rest of Asia. Few of the turncoats survived. Given the same choice, Genghis’s men never turned on him.

General Lee planted a maple tree on this spot in Fort Hamilton, New York. in 2017 the  plaque is removed as it's considered offensive.

General Lee planted a maple tree on this spot in Fort Hamilton, New York. in 2017 the plaque is removed as offensive.

Genghis’s most famous saying is that one arrow is easily broken, but a bundle will overcome any adversary. Similar to this, he is supposed to have said that, if you treat your soldiers as sons, they will follow you even into death. Such words are nonsense to non-soldiers and professional complainers: those who do not imagine themselves going to war. Those who go to war as generals know this is how to behave; those who go as soldiers hope for a leader who values them as sons, and not as cannon fodder.

In the US we’ve begun removing all monuments to the southern forces of the Civil War. This may be a mistake, but it seems irreversible. We’ve kept our monuments for Northern generals including William Sherman, known for his tactic of total destruction, and for Phillip Sheridan, equally known for total war, and for the saying: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” But we no longer tolerate Confederates. Among the reasons is that we claim to ease the pain of black people — a pain I feel looking at the Genghis Kahn monument. Another reason, we’re told, is that the statues are “dog-whistles” to racists and white supremacists — a particular danger now, evidenced in the election of Donald Trump. A danger, I think, that’s been largely trumped up as a way to keep politicians and newscasters politically relevant.

For these reasons, or politicians have removed every last confederate monument in Florida, the last being a large grave-stone in the Woodlawn cemetery. Virginia’s governor has similarly declared his intention to remove them all from his state. The city of Baltimore removed all four civil-war monuments in the middle of one busy night, August 18, 2017, and the University of Texas did similarly, working at night. New York City removed a plaque remembering Robert E. Lee for planting a tree at Ft. Hamilton, And, last week, an honorary window at the Washington cathedral where Lee had been a deacon.

Statues of Robert E. Lee are a particular target. There are quite a few in Virginia where his family was prominent — it was Richard H. Lee’s motion in the Continental Congress that carried as independence; his home now serves as Arlington Cemetery. While Lee opposed slavery and freed his slaves before the war, he fought for the Confederacy, so clearly he didn’t oppose slavery as totally as we would like. And Lee only freed his wife’s inherited slaves in 1862, fairly late, though Grant still had slaves at that time. Besides, in 1852, Lee caused an escaped slave to be whipped. I imagine he did the same to runaway soldiers. Historians used to praise Lee, but now call him a cruel racist. In hindsight, we imagine we would have done much better.

General Lee statue being removed from University of Texas.

General Lee statue being removed from the University of Texas.

As best I can tell, Virginians still remember Lee fondly, particularly soldiers, veterans, and those who imagine themselves leading men in difficult situations. When I try to put myself in Lee’s position, I find I can’t imagine myself doing better or achieving more. His life involved thousands of divisions and hundreds of inspiring actions. In the choice to fight for Virginia and not for the north, I note that Lee was given the same no-win choice as Genghis’s trapped Chinese: join the Union army and kill your brothers, or be killed by that army. The exchange appears in this movie. I admire Lee’s courage to stand by his brothers; it seems the more honorable of two bad choices. Early in his life, Lee committed himself to only honorable behavior  — according to his conception. This is all I expect from myself, and the most I hope for from any other person.

Another thing is Lee’s surrender. I find it a model of how to end a war so that lasting peace is achieved. It’s remembered in Johnny Cash’s song, “God Bless Robert E. Lee.”  Another song, “The night they drove old Dixie down” calls Lee “the very best.” I would be hard pressed to find a better US general: one who won more or was better loved.

Japanese resettlement.

Japanese resettlement in WWII. Our history is full of painful decisions by people we admire. Let’s try to not repeat our mistakes or pretend we don’t make them.

A killer complaint lodged against Lee, and against all the confederates, is that they were traitors. If so, George Washington and Ben Franklin were traitors too. In England, Benedict Arnold is honored as a patriot with a statue on Trafalgar square, but we do not honor him, rightly I think. He turned on his friends and brothers. I think it’s politics that’s motivated the current spate of removal. Most of the confederate statues stand (stood) in Democrat-leaning cities of five Republican-leaning states: Virginia, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and Mississippi. The white, non-college country-folk of these states are being pitted against the darker, college-educated city folk in a fight for their hearts and pocket books.

As for my guess at interpretation of the statues themselves. I’m inclined to suggest that the statues and their inscriptions do not appear racists to me, so much as soldierly. The statues were largely erected between the Spanish-American war and WWII with soldierly (to my eyes) comments. Baltimore monument to Jackson and Lee, reads on one side: “STRAIGHT AS THE NEEDLE TO THE POLE JACKSON ADVANCED TO THE EXECUTION/ OF MY PURPOSE” and on the other side: “SO GREAT IS MY CONFIDENCE IN GENERAL LEE THAT I AM WILLING TO FOLLOW HIM BLINDFOLDED.” Another Baltimore inscription: “THEY FOUGHT AS GENTLEMEN.” To me this latter is a swipe at Sherman and Sheridan, who did not. Removing these statues is a swipe at the honor of southern soldiers. The statues now read “BLACK LIVES MATTER,” a slogan I read as anti-police, anti-Trump, and anti-white.

The remnant of Baltimore's Lee- Jackson statue, showing the old inscription and the new.

The remnant of Baltimore’s Lee – Jackson statue with the old inscription and the new..To me, the old inscription is military, mostly, and not as racist as the new.

The pain of black America is real, but the thing that’s missed is that it is similar to the pain of rural white America. Both have been left behind. I’ve noted that urban black Americans and rural whites have virtually no savings, It could be the two poor cultures don’t realize they have much in common. Or it could be (I think) some folks purposefully fermenting dissension. What is needed, at least is better financial sense, and a recognition that race isn’t racism, but to listen to CNN or read the New York Times, such understandings seem unlikely. The Trump election shocked everyone, I think, those who voted for him and those who didn’t — and perhaps even Trump himself. Hillary, it seems had already bought a house in DC to house her staff. The surprise is not a reason to turn on one’s fellow. I can hope that Trump will prove to be a great president. For now, he is the president, and we are faced by nuclear enemies. It hardly helps to see half of our electorate call the other half racists and deplorables. As with a bundle of arrows, we have strength in union, weakness in disunion. May we all be blessed for a good, sweet year of peace and brotherly love

Robert E. Buxbaum. September 24, 2017. Perhaps my fondness for Lee is because I’m named after him. Here’s my theory for why Mongol arrows flew further.

Estimating the strength of an atom bomb

As warfare is a foundation of engineering, I thought I’d use engineering to evaluate the death-dealing power of North Korea’s atomic/hydrogen bomb, tested September 3, 2017. The key data in evaluating a big bomb is its seismic output. They shake the earth like earthquakes do, and we measure the power like earthquakes, using seismometers. I’ve seen two seismographs comparing the recent bomb to the previous. One of these, below, is from CTBTO, the Center for Test Ban Treaty Oversight, via a seismometer in western Kazakhstan (see original data and report).

Seismic output of all North Korean nuclear tests.

Seismic output, to scale, of all declared DPNK nuclear tests as observed from IMS station AS-59 in Western Kazakhstan

North Korea’s previous bomb, exploded 9 September 2016, was reported to be slightly more powerful than the ones we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, suggesting it was about 20 kilotons. According to CTBTO, it registered 5.3 on the Richter scale. The two tests before that appear somewhat less powerful, perhaps 7-10 kilotons, and the two before that appear as dismal failures — fizzles, in atomic bomb parlance. The MOAB bomb, by comparison, was 9 Tons, or 0.009 kiloTons, a virtual non-entity.

To measure the output of the current bomb, I place a ruler on my screen and measure the maximum distance between the top to bottom wiggles. I find that this bomb’s wiggles measure 5 cm, while the previous measures 5 mm. This bomb’s wiggles are ten times bigger, and from this I determine that this explosion registered 6.3 on the Richter scale, 1.0 more than the previous — the Richter scale is the logarithmic measure of the wiggle amplitude, so ten times the shake magnitude  is an addition of 1.0 on the scale. My calculation of 6.3 exactly matches that of the US geological survey. The ratio of wiggle heights was less on the, NORSAR seismometer, Norway, see suggesting 5.8 to 5.9 on the Richter scale. The European agencies have taken to reporting 6.1, an average value, though they originally reported only the 5.8 from NORSAR, and a bomb power commensurate with that.

We calculate the bomb power from the Richter-scale measure, or the ratio of the wiggles. Bomb power is proportional to wiggle height to the 3/2 power. Using the data above, ten times the wiggle, this bomb appears to be 10^3/2 = 31.6 times as powerful as the last, or 31.6 x 20kTon = 630kTon (630,000 tons of TNT). If we used the European value of 6.1, the calculated power would be about half this, 315 kTons, and if we used the NORSAR’s original value, it would suggest the bomb had less than half this power. Each difference of 0.2 on the Richter scale is a factor of two in power. For no obvious reason we keep reporting 120 to 160 kTons.

NORSAR comparison of North Korean bomb blasts

NORSAR comparison of North Korean blasts — suggests the current bomb is smaller; still looks like hydrogen.

As it happens, death power is proportional to the kiloton power, other things being equal. The bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in the 15 to 20 kTon range and killed 90,000 each. Based on my best estimate of the bomb, 315 kTons, I estimate that it would kill 1.6 million people if used on an industrial city, like Seoul, Yokohama, or Los Angeles. In my opinion, this is about as big a bomb as any rational person has reason to make (Stalin made bigger, as did Eisenhower).

We now ask if this is an atom bomb or a hydrogen-fusion bomb. Though I don’t see any war-making difference, if it’s a hydrogen bomb that would make our recent treaty with Iran look bad, as it gave Iran nuclear fusion technology — I opposed the treaty based on that. Sorry to say, from the seismic signature it looks very much like a hydrogen bomb. The only other way to get to this sort of high-power explosion is via a double-acting fission bomb where small atom bomb sets off a second, bigger fission bomb. When looking at movies of Eisenhower-era double-acting explosions, you’ll notice that the second, bigger explosion follows the first by a second or so. I see no evidence of this secondary-delay in the seismic signature of this explosion, suggesting this was a hydrogen bomb, not a double. I expect Iran to follow the same path in 3-4 years.

As a political thought, it seems to me that the obvious way to stop North Korea would be to put pressure on China by making a military pact with Russia. Until that is done, China has little to fear from a North Korean attack to the south. Of course, to do that we’d likely have to cut our support of NATO, something that the Germans fear. This is a balance-of-power solution, the sort that works, short of total annihilation. It was achieved at the congress of Vienna, at the treaty of Ghent, and by Henry Kissinger through détente. It would work again. Without it, I see the Korean conflict turning hot again, soon.

Robert Buxbaum, September 11, 2017.

Peace killed the Indian, ended Spain’s golden age

The why of history is always more speculative than the what. Yet, to write about only the what, is to do only half of the job, if that. The what is largely interchangeable: the names of kings and generals, the dates and locals of battles and treaties. It’s the why that adds interest, and provides whatever lessons one can take forward. With this as background, I’d like to speculate on the cause of: the destruction of the American Indian, and the end of the golden age of Spain. For both and some others, I suggest an unusual villain, peace: too much peace. It’s a speculative why, but bear with me.

Lets start with the American Indian. In the mid 1700s, Indians controlled the majority of the continent. They had an advanced society of six main nations, held together by mutual treaty. The Indians had few guns, but were not less intelligent than the Japanese or Chinese, suggesting that they could have learned to make them if they desired (or realized they needed to desire). The Japanese did so in short order. Indians addressed the Continental assemblies, and though they were not integrated, quite, they were not segregated either. But this first period of co-existence ended, as best i can tell, in the years of and following the French and Indian war. In the war, some Indians supported the French and some the British, and each side looked after their Indians. After peace was established, however, English leaders like Lord Jeffery Amherst set up to wipe out the Indians of both sides, “this execrable race,” with blankets infected with smallpox, and good old-fashioned cruelty. His activities are memorialized, on the cafeteria china used at Amherst Colleges till the 1960s.

Cup from the cafeteria of Amherst College shows Lord Jeff pursuing the Indians.

Cup from the cafeteria of Amherst College, used till the 1960s, shows Lord Jeffery Amherst pursuing a band of Indians. Purple and white are the Amherst colors. 

My thought of why he did it, and why he succeeded, is that the Indians had outlived their usefulness. The ones on the French side had been enemies, and might be again. The ones on his, English side were annoying and might turn in the next conflict. Besides, Lord Jeffery and his ilk had idle military power. Removing the Indians was something they could do. The army at peace could otherwise get destructive, or turn on him (I’m speculating here on motives).

This pattern appeared again in the Revolutionary war and in the War of 1812. During each war, Indians were befriended by both sides, and recruited. Indians fought important battles in each war, now mostly forgotten; the defense of Canada was largely by Indians. After each war, these Indians were largely betrayed. In the War of 1812, the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and Creek mostly sided with the British, led by the fierce Shawnee general, Tecumseh. The Muscogee, Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, Cherokee, and Chickasaw, mostly sided with the US. Iroquois fought on both sides. In the years following the wars, these and these were sent west of the Mississippi. Those who had been allies with the US were paid for their land, those that sided with the British were not. A good price, but it was a forced sale none-the-less. I will speculate that they were exiled because they retained a government structure independent of the US, making them a threat. Also (I speculate) the military, Generals Harrison, Jackson, etc., had nothing better to do with an army that might have mutinied otherwise. By 1846, there was no serious future for the American Indian east of the Mississippi, and besides, there was an external enemy to fight — The Mexicans. My speculation: the Indians were destroyed by “the era of good feelings” that follows war.

In the case of Spain, I note that the Inquisition and Jewish expulsion followed suddenly after 300 years of science, art, literature, and coöperation. I also note that the Alhambra decrees (March 1492) followed almost immediately after the defeat the last major Moslem-held citadel, Granada in December, 1491, and the peace treaty of Granada (January 2, 1492). The Alhambra decrees of March 31, 1492 mandated that all Jews must convert or leave Spain, and gave free-reign to the Inquisition to punish heresy. At the time, the financier of the Spanish crown was a Jew, Don Isaac Abarbanel. And some years earlier another Jew, Shmuel HaNagged hand been vizier (2nd) to the king. My theory of the cause for the sudden switch is that it was not a sudden surge in religion, as some have suggested, but rather that the king and queen no longer needed an army or Jewish or Moslem allies, but they still had an army that might turn against them if not otherwise occupied.

In the interwar, peace years, Stalin removed 3 of the 5 top generals, 13 of 15 below them; 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 army corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars.

In the interwar, peace years, Stalin removed 3 of the 5 top generals, 13 of 15 below them; 8 of 9 admirals, 50 of 57 army corps commanders, 154 out of 186 division commanders, 16 of 16 army commissars, and 25 of 28 army corps commissars. Peace is hell.

I’m reminded that peace is the background to intrigue in at least six of Shakespeare’s historical plays: Macbeth, Hamlet, Richard III, Lear, Julius Caesar, and Othello. Richard III explains his behavior as follows (Act I, Scene 1):  “Why, I, in this weak piping time of peace, have no delight to pass away the time, unless to spy my shadow in the sun and descant on mine own deformity.”

A few other examples: After WWI, most of Europe removed their bearded aristocracy, and Stalin used the peacetime to remove much of the communist leadership including many of his generals and former friends – this was especially so after signing a peace treaty with Germany. And, in the US after WWII, we entered a period of communist witch hunts — a mini Inquisition directed at the writers and artists who provided Allied propaganda during the war. Even a general good, like peace can leave casualties.

Robert Buxbaum, July 7, 2017. I like to speculate on the why of history, and like to imagine my speculations are partially true, at least.

Future airplane catapults may not be electric

President Trump got into Hot Water with the Navy this week for his suggestion that they should go “back to god-damn steam” for their airplane catapults as a cure for cost over-runs and delays with the Navy’s aircraft carriers. The Navy had chosen to go to a more modern catapult called EMALS (electromagnetic, aircraft launch system) based on a traveling coil and electromagnetic pulses. This EMAL system has cost $5 Billion in cost over-runs, has added 3 years to the program, and still doesn’t work well. In response to the president’s suggestion (explosion), the Navy did what the rest of Washington has done: blame Trump’s ignorance, e.g. here, in the Navy Times. Still, for what it’s worth, I think Trump’s idea has merit, especially if I can modify it a bit to suggest high pressure air (pneumatics) instead of high pressure steam.

Tests of the navy EMALS, notice that some launches go further than others; the problem is electronics, supposedly.

If you want to launch a 50,000 lb jet fighter at 5 g acceleration, you need to apply 250,000 lbs of force uniformly throughout the launch. For pneumatics, all that takes is 250 psi steam or air, and a 1000 square inch piston, about 3 feet in diameter. This is a very modest pressure and a quite modest size piston. A 50,000 lb object accelerated this way, will reach launch speed (130 mph) in 1.2 seconds. It’s very hard to get such fast or uniform acceleration with an electromagnetic coil since the motion of the coil always produces a back voltage. The electromagnetic pulses can be adjusted to counter this, but it’s not all that easy, as the Navy tests show. You have to know the speed and position of the airplane precisely to get it right, and have to adjust the firing of the pushing coils accordingly. There is no guarantee of smooth acceleration like you get with a piston, and the EMALS control circuit will always be vulnerable to electromagnetic and cyber attack. As things stand, the control system is thought to be the problem.

A piston is invulnerable to EM and cyber attack since, if worse comes to worse, the valves can be operated manually, as was done with steam-catapults throughout WWII. And pistons are very robust — far more robust than solenoid coils — because they are far less complex. As much force as you put on the plane, has to be put on the coil or piston. Thus, for 5 g acceleration, the coil or piston has to experience 250,000 lbs of horizontal force. That’s 3 million Newtons for those who like SI units (here’s a joke about SI units). A solid piston will have no problem withstanding 250,000 lbs for years. Piston steamships from the 50s are still in operation. Coils are far more delicate, and the life-span is likely to be short, at least for current designs. 

The reason I suggest compressed air, pneumatics, instead of steam is that air is not as hot and corrosive as steam. Also an air compressor can be located close to the flight deck, connected to the power center by electric wires. Steam requires long runs of steam pipes, a more difficult proposition. As a possible design, one could use a multi-stage, inter-cooled air compressor connected to a ballast tank, perhaps 5 feet in diameter x 100 feet long to guarantee uniform pressure. The ballast tank would provide the uniform pressure while allowing the use of a relatively small compressor, drawing less power than the EMALS. Those who’ve had freshman physics will be able to show that 5 g acceleration will get the plane to 130 mph in only 125 feet of runway. This is far less runway than the EMALS requires. For lighter planes or greater efficiency, one could shut off the input air before 120 feet and allow the remainder of the air to expand for 200 feet of the piston.

The same pistons could be used for capturing an airplane. It could start at 250 psi, dead-ended to the cylinder top. The captured airplane would push air back into the ballast tank, or the valve could be closed allowing pressure to build. Operated that way, the cylinder could stop the plane in 60 feet. You can’t do that with an EMAL. I should also mention that the efficiency of the piston catapult can be near 100%, but the efficiency of the EMALS will be near zero at the beginning of acceleration. Low efficiency at low speed is a problem found in all electromagnetic actuators: lots of electromagnetic power is needed to get things moving, but the output work,  ∫F dx, is near zero at low velocity. With EM, efficiency is high at only at one speed determined by the size of the moving coil; with pistons it’s high at all speeds. I suggest the Navy keep their EMALS, but only as a secondary system, perhaps used to launch drones until they get sea experience and demonstrate a real advantage over pneumatics.

Robert Buxbaum, May 19, 2017. The USS Princeton was the fanciest ship in the US fleet, with super high-tech cannons. When they mis-fired, it killed most of the cabinet of President Tyler. Slow and steady wins the arms race.

A thought on what Cornwallis should have done 240 years ago

Build a wall.

As we’ve seen, Cornwallis’s actual plan January 1777 failed badly. Clearly, it was a bad mistake attacking Washington at Trenton. I’d asked what he should have done, and note that the British high command answer was that Cornwallis should have withdrawn from Trenton and hoped that Washington would have entered and allowed Cornwallis to trap him in the city. I don’t like this solution as it depends on Washington doing something very stupid.

After thinking a bit, I think Cornwallis should have left a detail of British soldiers, perhaps 2000-3000 and should have built a berm wall (an earthen wall) about the town. Cornwallis should have distributed guns to the Tory inhabitants, or encouraged the inhabitants to form a militia. Washington could still have shot in, but with far less precision than before. And he would now find he’s killing Americans. A likely result would have been the Trentonians shooting back at Washington’s men from Trenton’s rooftops. The combination of civil war and weather would have defeated Washington, or at least drawn him off. This is how we dealt with hostile Indians in the 1800s, and I suspect it could have worked here too.

Robert Buxbaum, December 27, 2016. Here, by the way is some odd Christmas music, and two odd Chanukkah songs. The strong defeated by the weak, the many by the few. In those days, at this time of year.

Cornwallis attacks. Washington goes to Princeton.

In the previous post, I asked what you would do as a general (Cornwallis), December 27, 1776. You command 30,000 troops, some 12,000 at Princeton of at total 50,000 against Washington’s 3500. Washington is camped 12 miles to the south just outside of Trenton with a majority of his men scheduled to leave in three days when their enlistments expire.

In fact, what Cornwallis did, is what every commenter recommended. He attacked at Trenton, and lost New Jersey. Cornwallis left 2-3000 troops at Princeton and marched south. Despite fallen trees, swollen rivers, destroyed bridges — all courtesy of Washington’s men –Cornwallis reached Trenton and attacked. By the time he got there, 2000 of Washington’s men had left, partially replaced by untrained militia. After a skirmish, Washington set up 400 militia to keep the fires burning, and without telling them where he was going “Fall back if the British attack”, he took the rest of his forces east, across frozen fields and swampland, then north to Princeton along the Quaker-bridge road. He later said the reason was to avoid looking like a retreat.

He split his forces just outside of Princeton, and a detachment, led by Hugh Mercer and 350  regulars had the first battle as they ran into the 17th and 55th British regiments as they prepared to escort supplies to Trenton. The British commander, Lt.colonel Mawhood, seeing how few men he faced, sent the 55th and most of the supplies back to Princeton, and led his men to shoot at the Americans from behind a fence. Mercer’s men fired back with rifles and cannon, doing little. Then, the trained British did what their training demanded: they rose up and charged the rebels with fixed bayonets. Mercer, having no bayonets, called “Retreat!” before being stabbed repeatedly, see painting. Mawhood’s men seized the cannon, turned it on the fleeing remnants of Mercer’s men.

General Mercer defeated at Princeton, as Washington shows up.

General Mercer defeated at Princeton, as Washington shows up.

It looked like a British victory, but then General Nathaniel Greene (the fighting Quaker) showed up with several hundred Pennsylvania militiamen. The militiamen had never seen battle, and many fled, after shooting into the British lines with rifles and another cannon and grape-shot. At this point it looked like a draw, but then, Washington himself joined the battle with two brigades of regulars: Hitchcock’s 253 New Englanders and Hand’s 200 Pennsylvania riflemen.

Washington managed to rally the fleeing Pennsylvanians; “Parade with us, my brave fellows! There is but a handful of the enemy and we will have them directly!” And Mawhood, now without most of his officers, ordered a last bayonet charge and fled down the Post Road to Trenton. Washington rode after for a bit “It’s a fine fox chase, my boys!”

James Peale, 1783. John Sullivan and his forces at Frog Hollow. Battle of Princeton

James Peale, 1783. John Sullivan and his forces at Frog Hollow. Battle of Princeton

The rest of the British along with Mawhood, met the rest of Washington’s men, lead by John Sullivan, at a place called Frog Hollow, near where Princeton Inn College (Forbes College) now stands. The Americans opened with grape-shot and the British put up little resistance. Those who did not surrender were chased into town, taking refuge in Nassau Hall, the central building of the university. Alexander Hamilton’s men (he’d been rejected by Princeton) took special enjoyment in shooting cannon into the building. A hole remains in the college walls and a cannonball supposedly decapitated a portrait of George II. About then the New Jersey militia broke in a door, and the British surrendered.

Washington had captured, killed, or destroyed most of three English regiments, took a wagon train of supplies, and left going north following a bit of looting. “Loyalists” were relieved of coins, liquor, shoes, blankets. They ate the breakfast prepared for the 40th, and were gone by 11 AM, heading north — to where?. Cornwallis returned before noon “in a most infernal sweat — running, puffing, blowing, and swearing.” His men looted the town again, but now what?

Was Washington headed to New Brunswick where a handful of British soldiers guarded Cornwallis’s supplies and a war chest of £70,000? He didn’t go directly, but perhaps by a circuitous route. Cornwallis went straight to New Brunswick and jealously guarded the place, its money and supplies. Washington meanwhile ran to safety in the Watchung Mountains outside Morristown. Cornwallis’s 17th claimed victory, having defeated a larger group, but Cornwallis gave up Princeton, Trenton, and the lives of the New Jersey loyalists. Rebels flocked to Washington. Loyalists were looted and chased. Hessians were shot in “a sort of continual hunting party.” Philip Freneau expressed the change thus:

When first Britannia sent her hostile crew; To these far shores, to ravage and subdue, 

We thought them gods, and almost seemed to say; No ball could pierce them, and no dagger slay.

Heavens! what a blunder—half our fears were vain; These hostile gods at length have quit the plain.


Robert Buxbaum. December 21, 2016. So now that you know what happened, what SHOULD Cornwallis have done? Clearly, it’s possible to do everything right militarily, and still lose. This is an essence of comedy. The British had a similar Pyrrhic victory at Bunker Hill. I suspect Cornwallis should have fortified Trenton with a smaller force; built a stockade wall, and distributed weapons to the loyalists there. That’s a change in British attitude, but it’s this dynamic of trust that works. The British retreat music, “the world turned upside down“, is a Christmas song.

You are Cornwallis, Dec 29, 1776. What should you do?

Here’s a military thought question: what would you do? It is Dec 29, 1776, and you are General Howe and/or Cornwallis. You command 32,000 troops, a big chunk of the largest and finest expeditionary force that England has ever mustered. Washington’s rag-tag army has shrunk from 25,000 at the beginning of the year to 3335 now. They’re arrayed outside of Trenton NJ following their one victory of the year. Their Christmas raid on Trenton killed 100 Hessians and captured 900. In that raid Washington lost only 6 (two to frostbite), but otherwise his year has been nothing but defeats, and you’d like to make sure his string of bad luck continues.

Washington at Trenton with captured regimental flag. December 25, 1776. Peale.

Washington at Trenton with a captured British flag. Dec. 25, 1776. Peale. What should Cornwallis do now?

You’ve retaken the city and have 4000 or so at Trenton and another 10,000 at Princeton, 12 miles to the north. You can march or stay. In favor of staying: the enlistment of 3000 or so of Washington’s army is up Dec. 31, and they’ve not been fed or paid. They will almost certainly quit. You can thus wait and attack Jan. 1, or attack now and give the rabble another reason to quit. Two other options: hole up and let the weather do the job, or bypass Washington, cross the Delaware, and attack Philadelphia, the colonial capital. Philadelphia is completely undefended. What would you do? What should you do? Making the decision somewhat pressing, Washington’s men keep making skirmish raids in and around Trenton. Shooting cannon or rifles in, killing here and there.

Please post your opinion of what Cornwallis should have done, and in a week or so, I’ll post an account of what Cornwallis actually did and how it played out (not well for Cornwallis).

Robert E. Buxbaum, December 8, 2016, roughly 240 years after the events described. I’ve written about other great revolutionary mistakes, and about the battle of Bunker hill.

Everett, the better reviewed Gettysburg speaker

Lincoln’s election was greeted with horror by the educated classes who considered him a western rube. “Honest Ape” he was called in the press. Horace Greeley couldn’t stand him, and blamed the civil war on his reckless speech. Continuing their view that the press is never wrong, Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, November 17, 1863 was given very poor reviews, see my essay on why.

But the press wasn’t all bitterness and gall. A two-hour speech earlier that day by Edward Everett, was a hit with those who’d travelled, some hundreds of miles to hear it. Everett’s showed he was educated and understood the dire situation and causes of the battle. And he presents the conflict in a classical context, as a continuation of Roman and Greek conflicts. Here follows the beginning and end of his two hour address.

Edward Everett on the Fifty dollar silver certificate.

For nearly fifty years, Edward Everett’s face graced the Fifty dollar silver certificate. Now the world little notes, nor long remembers him. So passes glory.

[1] STANDING beneath this serene sky, overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and Nature. But the duty to which you have called me must be performed;–grant me, I pray you, your indulgence and your sympathy.

[2] It was appointed by law in Athens, that the obsequies of the citizens who fell in battle should be performed at the public expense, and in the most honorable manner. Their bones were carefully gathered up from the funeral pyre where their bodies were consumed, and brought home to the city. There, for three days before the interment, they lay in state, beneath tents of honor, to receive the votive offerings of friends and relatives,–flowers, weapons, precious ornaments, painted vases (wonders of art, which after two thousand years adorn the museums of modern Europe),–the last tributes of surviving affection. Ten coffins of funereal cypress received the honorable deposit, one for each of the tribes of the city, and an eleventh in memory of the unrecognized, but not therefore unhonored, dead, and of those whose remains could not be recovered. On the fourth day the mournful procession was formed: mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, led the way, and to them it was permitted by the simplicity of ancient manners to utter aloud their lamentations for the beloved and the lost; the male relatives and friends of the deceased followed; citizens and strangers closed the train. Thus marshalled, they moved to the place of interment in that famous Ceramicus, the most beautiful suburb of Athens, which had been adorned by Cimon, the son of Miltiades, with walks and fountains and columns,–whose groves were filled with altars, shrines, and temples,–whose gardens were kept forever green by the streams from the neighboring hills, and shaded with the trees sacred to Minerva and coeval with the foundation of the city,–whose circuit enclosed

“the olive grove of Academe,
Plato’s retirement, where the Attic bird
Trilled his thick-warbled note the summer long,”–

whose pathways gleamed with the monuments of the illustrious dead, the work of the most consummate masters that ever gave life to marble. There, beneath the overarching plane-trees, upon a lofty stage erected for the purpose, it was ordained that a funeral oration should be pronounced by some citizen of Athens, in the presence of the assembled multitude.

[3] Such were the tokens of respect required to be paid at Athens to the memory of those who had fallen in the cause of their country. For those alone who fell at Marathon a peculiar honor was reserved. As the battle fought upon that immortal field was distinguished from all others in Grecian history for its influence over the fortunes of Hellas,–as it depended upon the event of that day whether Greece should live, a glory and a light to all coming time, or should expire, like the meteor of a moment; so the honors awarded to its martyr-heroes were such as were bestowed by Athens on no other occasion. They alone of all her sons were entombed upon the spot which they had forever rendered famous. Their names were inscribed upon ten pillars erected upon the monumental tumulus which covered their ashes (where, after six hundred years, they were read by the traveller Pausanias), and although the columns, beneath the hand of time and barbaric violence, have long since disappeared, the venerable mound still marks the spot where they fought and fell,–

“That battle-field where Persia’s victim-horde
First bowed beneath the brunt of Hellas’ sword.”

[4] And shall I, fellow-citizens, who, after an interval of twenty-three centuries, a youthful pilgrim from the world unknown to ancient Greece, have wandered over that illustrious plain, ready to put off the shoes from off my feet, as one that stands on holy ground,–who have gazed with respectful emotion on the mound which still protects the dust of those who rolled back the tide of Persian invasion, and rescued the land of popular liberty, of letters, and of arts, from the ruthless foe,–stand unmoved over the graves of our dear brethren, who so lately, on three of those all-important days which decide a nation’s history,–days on whose issue it depended whether this august republican Union, founded by some of the wisest statesmen that ever lived, cemented with the blood of some of the purest patriots that ever died, should perish or endure,–rolled back the tide of an invasion, not less unprovoked, not less ruthless, than that which came to plant the dark banner of Asiatic despotism and slavery on the free soil of Greece? Heaven forbid! And could I prove so insensible to every prompting of patriotic duty and affection, not only would you, fellow-citizens, gathered many of you from distant States, who have come to take part in these pious offices of gratitude,–you, respected fathers, brethren, matrons, sisters, who surround me,–cry out for shame, but the forms of brave and patriotic men who fill these honored graves would heave with indignation beneath the sod.

[5] We have assembled, friends, fellow-citizens, at the invitation of the Executive of the great central State of Pennsylvania, seconded by the Governors of seventeen other loyal States of the Union, to pay the last tribute of respect to the brave men who, in the hard-fought battles of the first, second, and third days of July last, laid down their lives for the country on these hillsides and the plains before us, and whose remains have been gathered into the cemetery which we consecrate this day. As my eye ranges over the fields whose sods were so lately moistened by the blood of gallant and loyal men, I feel, as never before, how truly it was said of old that it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country. I feel, as never before, how justly, from the dawn of history to the present time, men have paid the homage of their gratitude and admiration to the memory of those who nobly sacrifice their lives, that their fellow-men may live in safety and in honor. And if this tribute were ever due, to whom could it be more justly paid than to those whose last resting-place we this day commend to the blessing of Heaven and of men?

………………………………….. The speech went on for 58 sections of more-or-less this size and ends by mentioning the achievements of the other union armies and navy saying, “But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country there will be no brighter page than that which relates THE BATTLES OF GETTYSBURG.”


I find it long-winded and boring, but the crowd thought this speech wonderful. As grand as Lincoln’s 2 minute coda was plain. Part of the draw of Edward Everett was his cultured demeanor and his wide classical knowledge —  a big contrast to Lincoln. Everett had been president of Harvard, and had been a senator, a congressman, governor of Massachusetts, Secretary of State, and US Ambassador to Great Britain. Lincoln had been a country lawyer and one-term congressman. When states started succeeding, Everett had been the one called on to negotiate a compromise that delayed war until the firing on fort Sumter. All impressive in the day, now mostly forgotten glories. Today, many of his lines ring hollow today, e.g.  ” … that it is sweet and becoming to die for one’s country.” It just sounds weird to my ears. And the classic allusions sound pointless. By the early 20th century, most public pinion had changed; people decided that Lincoln’s was the better presentation, a monument to the spirit of man. The world remembers Lincoln fondly, but little notes, nor long remembers Everett, nor what he said there. The lesson: do not judge hastily. All things exist only in the context of time.

Robert E. Buxbaum, November 14, 2016. A week ago, Tuesday, our nation elected Donald Trump as 45th President of the United States, an individual as disliked and divisive as any since Lincoln. I do not know if he will prove to be honored or hated. There are demonstrations daily to remove him or overthrow the election. There are calls for succession, as when Lincoln took office. At Hampshire college, the flag was lowered in mourning. It’s possible that Trump is as offensive and unqualified as they say– but it is also possible that history will judge him otherwise in time. They did Lincoln.

Lessons of WWI: remove aristocrats and beards

Tzar Nicholas II and King George V.

Tzar Nicholas II and King George V, cousins and allies.

When I was a kid, Veterans day was called Armistice day. It marked the end of WWI. As many people died on all sides (there were many shifting alliances), it’s worthwhile asking what we’ve learned. The main thing, I think, is that aristocrats suck, both hereditary aristocrats, and the aristocrats of thought. Europe entered a world war for no big reason: small gains of land and status gains for a few aristocrats, generals, and thinkers at the top of society. These saw an opportunity to get medals and prove they could lead men in battle. The mass of Europeans cheered for war (see photo below, right) and followed them in battle. Millions were sent running at machine guns and poison gas. Most died, Those who survived returned home feeling less enthused about the ignorant, arrogant hereditary aristocrats, but still honored the generals and thinkers. They executed Tzar Nicolas of Russia and greatly reduce the power of the kings of England, Belgium, Turkey, Holland, and Austria. The thinkers inherited that power, but dropped the monarch’s face hair.

Emperor Franz Joseph

Emperor Franz Joseph II


Calif Mohammet V

Before WWI, virtually all of Europe was ruled by king; generally bearded kings who were believed to rule by divine right, as the will of God. The king generally had aid of a republican congress, a large aristocracy — counts, dukes, marchese, and earls, and the academic élite — professors and generals. All of these avoided association with the masses, except for show, all spent lavishly, and all maneuvered for power. By the end of WWI, no king in Europe retained real power, and the hereditary aristocrats discredited, power went to the intellectual aristocrats, where it resides today: generals, professors, newspapermen, novelists, generally mustached and modern. In 20 years or so, the new aristocrats would bring on WWII, in part because of a fear of war. Their wisdom proved to be little better than the old, but it is hard to say it was worse. The main lessons learned: avoid beards and aristocrats.

Brittains unified and cheering for the start of WWI

Britains unified and cheering for the start of WWI

In his book, “Diplomacy”, Henry Kissinger draws a few more lessons from the Great War. A major one is that balance of power works: it worked for the 100 years until WWI. Another lesson he draws: don’t let mutual defense treaties kick in until an actual invasion has begun: until troops actually cross the border. He blames hair trigger treaties for much of the trouble of WWI. His book is a good read, though, if only as a background his diplomatic approaches.

I write about WWI because of today is Veterans day, and also because two days ago we elected Donald Trump president of the US in a bitterly divisive election. Trump claims he wants “to drain the swamp,” a claim I take to mean that he intends to diminish the power of the intellectual aristocracy, the generals, writers, professors and politicians who think together, vacation together, club together, and control what it means to be educated. The Washington Post calls this removal a threat to western civilization; it removes the intelligentsia, and replaces it with racist boobs, or so they see Trump’s crew. There were anti election demonstrations in Boston, New York, Oakland, Austin, and Detroit. Upon election news a movement was started to impeach Trump, or get him to step down on claims that he stole the election. Officials of Hampshire college lowered the flag to half mast as a sign of mourning for our democracy. These acts of dissent are as heartfelt a reaction as the widespread approval that greeted WWI. I can hope the outcome is better.

For what it’s worth, I do not believe the supporters of Trump are as angry, or as stupid as portrayed: half a basketball of deplorables and irredeemables, the other half needing re-education (to borrow from Ms Clinton). These are the people who fight our wars, and I suspect we’ll be somewhat better off for giving them a voice. As for veterans day, honor the poor blokes who fought for our folly.

Robert E. Buxbaum, November 10, 2016.