1943: The Gathering Storm
By Isiah Smith, Jr. | Nov. 5, 2022
“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.” —Leonardo de Vinci
1943 proved to be a critical year in the annals of American history. That year foreshadowed the disruptions that impact our lives to this day. On Jan. 1, Project Y—The Manhattan Project’s secret laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, for development and production of the first atomic bombs under the direction of Robert Oppenheimer—began operation.
Later in January, the Casablanca Conference began, and FDR traveled from Miami to Casablanca, Morocco, to meet with Winston Churchill to discuss World War II. His goal: to finalize Allied military plans with the British Prime Minister. It was a precedent-setting odyssey. No president had ever departed the States during wartime, or ever visited Africa, or even ever traveled in an airplane. Since Lincoln, no president had visited an active battlefield. Too dangerous! And FDR accomplished all those things without the press finding out.
A day later, on Jan. 15, the world’s largest office building, The Pentagon, was dedicated in Arlington, Virginia.
It was the year the Allied Forces, codenamed Operation Torch (OT), took back North Africa (Morocco and Algeria). OT was commanded by General Dwight Eisenhower and included the British First Army. After their initial resistance, the Vichy French agreed to a ceasefire. The Allies encircled several hundred thousand German and Italian personnel in northern Tunisia, finally forcing their surrender in May 1943.
The campaign had been marked by numerous atrocities and abuses by both German and Italian forces towards prisoners of war and local Jewish, Barber, and Arab populations. These acts were often motivated by racism and antisemitism. 1943 was also the year a Japanese destroyer sunk future President Lt. John F. Kennedy’s PT-109 boat.
History consists of many small, seemingly unconnected events. Momentous events are buffeted by smaller, seemingly less important events that, viewed retrospectively, presage massive social changes to come.
On June 17, 1943, on an unseasonably hot 98-degree Fahrenheit day in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Newton Leroy McPherson was born. McPherson’s birth would profoundly impact politics, and thus life, in the United States. I would argue that this man’s birth provided the DNA leading directly to the violent divisions and ideological battles that culminated in 2020 in a bloody uprising against the government and the American way of life.
Forty-seven years later, in 1995, McPherson became the 50th Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a two-fisted political provocatory who was intent on burning everything to the ground down around him. Through adoption, he had become Newton (“Newt”) Leroy Gingrich. Thus began an unprincipled assault on American politics, launching a frontal attack on any notion of civility and bipartisan cooperation in politics. He almost single handedly transformed political discourse into a contact sport with the singular goal winning by any means necessary. If “opponents” are destroyed in the process, so much the better.
In the future, when writing about the evolution of public policy, political discourse and thought in America, historians will demarcate the times as Before Newt and After Newt. Before Newt, political discourse was a gentleman’s sport, rich in analysis, critique, nuance, metaphor, and cooperation and respect. If it accomplished anything at all, it was the sharpening of wit, wisdom, and the discovery of a way forward toward forming a more perfect union.
That seems hard to believe today, when name callings, vulgar nicknames, and unrestrained lies are the order of the day.
The Gingrich era saw politics and public policy transformed from a system of thought and analysis to a belief system. That ideology demanded nothing more than slavish devotion approaching religious fervor. To paraphrase writer and speaker Byron Katie, when you argue with beliefs, you lose, which perhaps explains why both Democrats and Republicans evolved into enemy camps armed with competing sets of beliefs. Under this sad situation, constructive conversations were not welcome at the table of political discourse and policy discussions. Reasoned analysis was rejected in favor of empty slogans, lies, and misdirection.
The genius of mutually constructive conversation is that it offers both an endless supply of new ideas and fresh ways of handling existential issues facing our country today. As Neil deGrasse Tyson writes in his new book, Starry Messenger, “Unless we check our egos on our self-importance, we run the risk of believing the world revolves around us and our opinions. Personal truths are not truths.”
Of even greater threat to our national well-being and continued viability as a functioning democracy is the belief that the truth lies in a party, a person, an ideology, or in a system of beliefs. Ensnared in such traps, the freedom to think is replaced by embracing someone else’s untested ideas and world view. That way leads to autocracy and spiritual and moral decay, as evidenced by the last six years of American political history.
Every day, the divisiveness, mutual antipathy, and distrust between different schools of thought seem to grow exponentially. What the future holds I cannot predict.
Isiah Smith, Jr. is a retired government attorney.