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Neil Cameron

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Atomic Bombs: The Real and the Might-Have-Beens

The history of the Second World War continues to be written and rewritten, with continuing present relevance. New perspectives from the present aside, the war studies have highlighted two larger themes in all history. The first is that important 'now it can be told' revelations in documentary sources have kept on appearing. The second and often related one is the emergence of fresh 'counterfactual', 'what if?' speculations about how the war evolved and ended. The best of all examples have come in re-examining the conception, design, and development of atomic bombs in the major powers from 1939 to 1945. Niall Ferguson once edited a whole anthology of historians writing counterfactual essays about great historical events, but his enthusiasm is not universally shared. Richard Evans, another famous British historian and a leading authority on Nazi Germany, regards these ventures contemptuously, as no more than a mildly amusing game. However, all great wars, with their big winning and losing gambles, have always produced 'for want of a horse' speculations. Tales of the Bomb, both real and imagined, combining elements of geopolitics, European scientific genius, American engineering ingenuity and scale, espionage, and war both hot and cold, have inevitably been irresistible. Above all, the possibility of Hitler's Germany coming first with the Bomb (a fear driving on the Manhattan Project scientists themselves) has been mulled from 1945 to the present. Two notable examples are Heisenberg's War (1997), by Thomas Powers, on the top German nuclear physicist, and The Winter Fortress (2016), by Neil Bascomb, about the successful British and Norwegian sabotage of the indispensable German heavy water plant in Norway. But an equally fascinating 'what if?' has been the conceivable possibility that Churchill's Britain, which unlike Nazi Germany, was actually well ahead of the U. S. in atomic research in the first two… Read More

H. G. Wells and His Enduring Weapons of Mass Instruction

Actor Rod Taylor starring in George Pal's 1960 version of The Time Machine   No writer of the 20th century has had, and still has, more influence on the public imagination  than Herbert George (always 'H.. G.') Wells (1866 –1946). But while becoming a world-renowned travelling public figure as well, no enthusiast for science as a new religion, and for a utopian and socialist reconstruction of all human society, had such an absence of practical effect, including on political leaders who often gave him public praise. He lived long enough to see the Second World War conclude with the two atomic bombings on Japan, and when he died a few months later, was an embittered man. His last and little-remembered small work was called Mind at the End of its Tether, in which he declared his disillusionment with the human race. This bleak conclusion followed his last two decades of voluminous but hastily-written and instantly-forgotten books, pamphlets, and newspaper articles. The exception was his widely-read 1934 Experiment in Autobiography, delighting readers almost as much as his early and brilliant science fiction tales, and bringing him a gushing letter of praise from Franklin Roosevelt, which exulted '...our [sic] biggest success is in making people think.' FDR was then creating his New Deal 'brains trust', which did somewhat resemble one of Wells's many calls for the establishment of such expert cabals. But the need for 'scientific planners' was a popular commonplace in the 1930s anyway: American New Dealers and Soviet Communists could alike look back to such proposals from the French Enlightenment's Henri de Saint-Simon, and even to Plato. It has not been unusual for writers to long outlive their times of triumph, combining broadening superficial fame with declining real impact, but Wells experienced this irony in its most acute form. His at… Read More

Lilliput and Brobdingnang

Tip O'Neill, the Boston Irish Democrat five times elected Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, regularly clashed with Ronald Reagan on U. S. national and international policies, but his most famous remark was “All politics is local politics.” This is one of those generalizations which sounds persuasive, but with its negation doing so as well. Political leaders and movements of the smallest and largest scale get regularly entangled. Furthermore, their relative and absolute scale also influences their real impact and their media depiction. But it is still constantly forgotten that, as Alfred North Whitehead once observed, we can be provincial in time as well as space. It is too little recognized that the preoccupations of the moment often resemble those of the huge and tiny folk portrayed in Gulliver's Travels. Consider the world's amazement at the phenomenon of Donald Trump. We are compelled to take half-seriously this most grotesque product of democracy: a giant of wealth, of entertainment, of fatuous utterance and bad taste, and now of political and military power. This June, adding another spectacle for Swiftian analogy, the Premier of Quebec has decided to renew a cry from Lilliput. While myself having once participated in our earlier Lilliputian endeavours, I had hoped they were ending. I once hoped this might also be true of Philippe Couillard, but alas, he has just announced his intention of trying to relaunch a Canada-wide discussion on "the five minimal constitutional demands" of Robert Bourassa, over three decades ago. Brian Mulroney's 1987 Meech Lake Accord, intended to meet those demands, failed to achieve the all-province ratification it required in three years, and that was followed by five more years of dreary federal and provincial alarms and excursions, to no useful consequence. Premier Couillard and his advisers can scarcely have expected this rehash… Read More

Truth, trust, trend, and Trump

Time magazine has lost most of the influence it once had, but not its flair for striking covers. A spring one asked, in bold red lettering on a black background, "Is Truth Dead?". They used the same cover format as they had once in 1966, then asking "Is God Dead?". But that had been a late popular reflection on Nietzsche's philosophical assertion that this was the case. The cover and content this time were current and narrow, and better replaced by "Has Trump Killed Truth?". Either choice recalls G. K. Chesterton's wise priest, Father Brown, explaining we should worry less about wrong answers, more whether we are asking the right question. Perhaps Nietzsche was doing so, as was the cooler but epistemologically similar David Hume, but maybe should not have published their obituaries. Both of them were revolutionary philosopher-theologians and historians of ideas, ever afterwards misunderstood and misapplied as destructive gravediggers. All "searches for Truth with a capital T" can be defined as "searches for God with a capital G,” including those made by atheists, despite some insisting otherwise. It has been, and likely will continue to be, an eternal and worldwide search. For Western European civilization, it can be traced back to ancient Greek philosophers, Jewish prophets, Roman statesmen, and Christian synthesizers; then only partially recast by Enlightenment philosophers. Later philosophers, in the English-speaking world, after Bertrand Russell, have largely scaled down Truth-seeking to analyses of the language we use when turning to “ultimate questions.” For most people most of the time, decisions about what to think and what to do are not made with conscious use of, say, epistemology, ethics, or logic.   University courses in philosophy, if well-taught, may give practical benefits. They can aid thinking to purpose in anything from particle physics research to grocery shopping,… Read More

Yesterday’s Heroes

The battle of Vimy Ridge in France, long commemorated in Canada as a defining moment of national identity, has special poignancy this month, now 100 years since it unfolded on April 9th, 1917. Many older Canadians still recall its courage and bloodshed through their own fathers: my own was there, along with his two brothers. But it is little remembered in other countries, completely overshadowed by two larger events in the week before and the week afterward. On April 9th, Woodrow Wilson declared war on Imperial Germany and its allies, transforming the war, and all future relations between the U. S. and the world. On April 16th, Vladimir Illich Lenin returned to Russia from his years of Swiss exile; the Germans sent him back on a sealed train, correctly anticipating he might end the Russian war effort. The latter was still being maintained by the fragile post-Tsarist liberal democracy that had come to power through revolution a month earlier. Wilson, a somewhat priggish warlord and peacemaker, became famous as the apostle of "universalized" parliamentary democracy and "national self-determination." This very American re-ordering of the world began with problems right from the Versailles peace treaties, and Wilson soon faded from the popular imagination, but much of his vision has been retained in American foreign policy ever since. The more single-minded Lenin, while his different dream of worldwide proletarian revolution not only failed, but produced terrible consequences, no longer receives the cult adoration he held for the worldwide left for seven decades after his 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. He and Wilson both suffered strokes and then death in the 1920s. But Lenin, who also had epilepsy, spent his last year, 1924, in wheelchair-bound total helplessness, dying at only 53. By then he had been forced to abandon, at least temporarily, many of his… Read More
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