Press Feed
Pages Menu

Neil Cameron

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

Kahn, Russell, and Rethinking the Unthinkable

Herman Kahn (left) and Bertrand Russell (right)   To better understand the dangers of the present confrontation between North Korea and the U.S. , it is worth re-examining the first years in which thermonuclear ICBMs became available to the U.S. and the Soviet Union, climaxing in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and how the arrival of these weapons in the 1950-1970 Cold War years was treated by two influential thinkers of the era. One was the rotund, jovial American strategic analyst, Herman Kahn (1922-83); the other, the British aristocratic philosopher and popular agitator, Bertrand Russell (1872-1965).   Kahn, reputed to have 'the highest IQ ever recorded', was one of a small group of strategists of a new kind coming out of WW II, civilians and quasi-academics. rather than military professionals. Although dropping out of his mathematics Ph.D. program at Cal Tech, he never let that get in his way. Shortly after the end of WW II, he joined the U.S. Air Force's new RAND ('Research and Development') thinktank, and also soon participated in thermonuclear ('hydrogen') bomb research at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. He was soon on equal footing with his older brilliant colleagues, many of them European e'migre's who had worked on the wartime Manhattan Project. Both they and the younger native-born strategic theorists like Kahn and Thomas Schelling had their main backgrounds in mathematics, physics, and economics. Kahn found an especially kindred spirit in the expatriate Hungarian, John von Neumann (1903-57), like him a cheery and sybaritic polymath with a stratospheric IQ. Both were not only interested in nuclear weapons, but in developing computers. They drew on equally new and more general 'systems theory', using computerized mathematics, and also on the theory of games, with its imaginative thought experiments seeking outcomes of alternative 'scenarios'.   Eisenhower was not fond… Read More

The Bright Countenance and the Obscuring Clouds

Beholding the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies --Poet John Milton (pictured, left) (1608 – 1674); inscribed on McGill's Redpath Library. ...There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life, in which [mass man] does not intervene, blind and deaf as he is, imposing his"opinions." ..Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game imposed by it. --Philosopher, Ortega y Gasset (pictured, right) (1883–1955). in Revolt of the Masses (1930). ...In today's climate, it's all -too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture....Think for yourself. --From an open letter of advice addressed to incoming university students everywhere, by a group of liberal professors teaching at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, August 29, 2017. __________________________________________________ Milton formulated his pleasant description of scholarly activity a few years before he wrote Paradise Lost. It was a visionary ideal, not an empirical account; in the actual colleges of the early 1600s, there was bitter conflict between supporters of the absolutist Stuart monarchy and the champions of Parliament, culminating in civil war. There was also plenty of more general riotous behaviour, much of it drunken. Francis Bacon claimed that students were made violent 'for want of sufficient maintenance', a little like the debt problem of students today. Nonetheless, it was widely understood that the pursuit of truth was the university's fundamental concern, however temporarily wayward the paths to it. For almost three hundred years after Milton's death, 'the bright countenance' in his mind's eye remained the central justification of university life. But by the late 19th century, the very idea of truth itself began to be undermined… Read More

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
Page 1 of 1912345...10...Last »