by Roldo Bartimole
a piece in the New York Times Magazine spoke of the
newest addition to America's nuclear arsenal -- the B-61-11. This awesome
new delivery system burrows its nuclear load into the ground before
exploding, "enabling it to obliterate targets like command bunkers and
chemical-weapons factories several hundred feet beneath the surface."
The article also informed us that at any one time we have 2,300 warheads "on alert," an overkill explosive power of 550 million tons of TNT, or the equivalent of 44,000 Hiroshimas. These were just a few of the many startling facts that surely shout the answer to the article's title: "So You Think the Cold War is Over?"
The article appeared the same day that Dr. Benjamin Spock died.
effects of fallout -- a 1950s' word -- upon children turned
Dr. Spock from the nation's Baby Doctor into a peacenik, a 1960s word. Once
he understood that the children he was nurturing with his advice to mothers
were being damaged by nuclear testing, his ethical grounding made it
imperative -- though uncomfortable -- to act as vigorously as the peace
marchers who helped bring down a president.
"My father in 1924 drove me over to the polling place in New Haven and told me that Calvin Coolidge was the greatest president the United States ever had. So I said, 'Yes, father,' and voted for Calvin Coolidge," recalled Dr. Spock of his political beginnings, from the radicalism of his later years. He later, of course, campaigned for Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy and -- to his later disgust -- Lyndon Johnson.
I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Spock twice in 1967 for a Wall Street Journal profile. The final product, most of it re-written at the Journal 's New York offices, disappointed me; the article portrayed Spock, the naive baby doctor, as being indoctrinated by left-wing radicals into his belief that the then-raging war in Vietnam was wrong.
Spock, who died March 15 at age 94, spent more than a dozen years in Cleveland. He came to Cleveland in 1955 as professor of child development to teach and do research at Western Reserve Medical School, where he remained until 1967.
After his death I remembered I had transcribed the interviews and found them buried, for the last 31 years, in a battered old briefcase of personal archival memories.
I can still hear Spock's New England accent (he called it a "diluted Boston accent") and a cadence of indignation as he remembered campaigning for Johnson in 1964: "I campaigned more actively for Lyndon Johnson. I did one big television thing with a group of scientists. All of us were delighted to campaign for Johnson, particularly on his promise not to escalate in Vietnam in contrast to [Barry] Goldwater's rash statements."
But then, as history shows us, Johnson did send more troops. In our interview, Spock exclaimed: "I felt betrayed and outraged when Johnson escalated in February, 1965. It was a wrong policy to start with, and then to help and elect a president who campaigned on the basis that he is not going to escalate and then turns around and does escalate seems to me was outrageous."
Spock, who had joined the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), had informed himself on issues relative to the war and nuclear arms, and wasn't simply being used because of his notoriety as the Baby Doctor. Spock had studied issues and history; he wasn't simply parroting slogans.
The Wall Street Journal article began stereotypically: "If a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, Benjamin McLane Spock, M.D., must have a large mind indeed." It then juxtaposed Spock's early Republican vote with the "leftist Dr. Spock who parades with bearded peace marchers" to point out his inconsistencies.
Spock was very consistent in his political views, which veered
early from his family's conservative politics. By 1928 he was voting
Democratic for Al Smith for president.
"My father was the general counsel for the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad, and it was natural that he would think that Calvin Coolidge was the ideal president, so it wasn't until I went to New York [Columbia University] and met medical students -- some of whom had socialist parents from Europe -- that I understood there was another side and, of course, the Depression settled down and there was a lot of political and economic ferment that involved all kinds of people -- I began to read the New Republic and ended up voting for Al Smith and Franklin Roosevelt, somewhat to the dismay of my family."
He didn't come to radical political views late in life. He explained that during the Spanish Civil War, "I would jump out of bed every morning and rush to the apartment house door to see what the war news was and it was absolute agony to see the Republican Guard beaten down by the fascist combination."
But Spock's views weren't of interest to anyone until after he published his world-famous Baby and Child Care in 1946. The book has since gone through six editions, with a seventh due in May.
"By 1956 somebody in the Stevenson campaign asked me to do a television [spot] -- I went down to Washington," he said, noting that he then campaigned for Kennedy and "more actively" for Johnson.
His political activity engendered "a deluge" of anger from the beginning. He said he'd get letters from mothers about this activity. "What right did I have to criticize Ike?" asked one mother. "I thought I could trust you. I'll never believe another word you say," said another.
"And one woman said, and this always amused me, 'I'd just like to know how much the Democrats paid you for that endorsement of Stevenson.' I had to write back to her that I had to pay my own way to Washington to do that small television bit and that I lost one of the best hats I ever had."
His reaction to critics always seemed to be tempered by the good manners he was taught in his strict upbringing. "I don't blame them at all," he said. "Certainly if I believed in someone professionally and then found out that he was a rank fascist, I'd not only feel let down by him as a person but I would rather begin to look for loopholes in his professional doctrines. It's the most natural thing in the world to do."
Even after Johnson's escalation of the war, when he was contacted to sign a statement in opposition, Spock said when it was read to him "I felt [it] a little bit rude in tone. But I felt so indignant I felt it was all right to sign my name to it."
his strong feelings on these matters, Spock, who was arrested a
dozen times, was an uncomfortable protester.
"I have to admit that if anybody thinks it is not uncomfortable for a professional man to demonstrate, he's crazy. I get lots of abusive mail and a lot of it says you're just a showoff and you're not satisfied with the attention you've gotten elsewhere. Well, I would defy anybody to get any pleasure [from demonstrating], at least the first few times.
"It makes nine of ten professional people acutely uncomfortable to demonstrate in public -- the stares, the condescension, the skepticism of the press. I think after you've done it a half dozen times [that] it becomes not so uncomfortable."
"I can remember when I was marching in Chicago with Rev. Martin Luther King and there were about forty American fascists there and they bellowed out, 'traitors.'" He chuckled. "And I can remember feeling this is going to be a good demonstration. You know, people know that we are here, there's some attention going to be paid to it. So I've sort of gradually acquired a sort of professional view of demonstrations."
Ironically, much of Spock's ability to move from what could have been a very comfortable life as a world-renowned pediatrician (and bestselling author getting three cents from each 50-cent copy sold, or about $30,000 in 1967) who could do whatever he pleased -- including sail his 35-foot Bahama sloop in the Virgin Islands -- to become a demonstrator once convicted to a two-year prison term (later reversed on appeal) was partially due to the strict upbringing he received from his conservative parents. "I have a terrible conscience," he told me.
He worried intensely about what his mother, a stern taskmaster, would think of his book. "I was very nervous about what she would think because obviously not only was I advocating a different upbringing, in a way anyone who is advocating a different upbringing is criticizing his parents. There was an element of criticism," he said.
"So I was very relieved when she came down to New York where I was living and working and said, 'Why Benny, I think it's quite sensible.' I thought this was the highest commendation possible," said Spock. He said that his mother, the late Mildred Stoughton Spock, then living in a nursing home, was still "a very critical person, very opinionated at the age of ninety."
told a story of how his parents forced him to wear a suit cut down
from one of his father's old suits. He had wanted a new suit from a fancy
New Haven haberdashery. It was 1917, World War I was well under way, and he
was 14 years old.
"My father thought it would be a good idea for the war effort and I went to look at [the suit] and was absolutely horrified because it didn't correspond in any way to what young men were wearing in the first place. It was sort of an iron-gray color and had very fine lines. Obviously a lawyer's or banker's material, not a boy's material. Instead of being tight, it flapped loosely in the trousers and the jacket was boxy. Worse of all, from my point of view, there was no cuff on the trousers. My heart sank and I protested. I can remember my mother landing on me like a ton of bricks and saying, 'You shouldn't be ashamed to be different from anybody else. You should be proud to be different, if there is any good reason to it.'
"She didn't believe in being eccentric for eccentricity's sake but she thought that to conserve wool was a good reason to look like a clown," Spock said.
He described his mother's teaching of principle over appearance, along with the experience of wearing the "iron suit with flapping trousers without cuffs," as good "preparation for marching in peace parades and picketing the board of education for civil rights."
"His passion related to his concern for children of the United States and that led to his being so concerned about what was happening to what some people called 'Spock Babies' in the Vietnam War, the ones who were brought up on his book," said Dr. John Kennell, professor of pediatrics at the Western Reserve Medical School and a colleague of Spock's.
He described Spock as a "very admirable leader" with an "excellent mind."
Dr. Kennell said that Spock's insights in his original book back in 1946 have held up "even by present-day standards of what we think are very important." He also said his friend had "a great sense of humor" -- unlike many of his colleagues in the medical profession.
Dr. Kennell took exception to a recent Newsweek article about Spock's relations with his family. "It hurt me as a friend of Ben's and his family to realize that the deceased can't defend themselves. The Newsweek article was very critical of Ben and his relationship with his children and his wife. From my point of view that was tilted pretty heavily in one direction without thinking of the many great things that he did do."
Marvin and Janet Rosenberg and their twin daughters were part of a research study conducted here by Spock in early 1960. Rosenberg remembers telling Spock of his concern that nuclear testing might contaminate the children's milk. He feels he may have helped trigger Spock's concern about nuclear testing and its impact on children. Spock, with Rosenberg, later accompanied a group to Washington, D.C., to address their fears to congressional representatives.
Rosenberg wrote in the Jewish News that Spock continued "to collect detailed information on his family until 1996. On his last visit, when he was 92, he said goodbye and told us he was getting too old to travel, but his wit, warmth, decency and intellect were very much intact." The Rosenberg children, Miriam and Ruth, were in their late thirties by this time.
In his interview
with me Spock said, "I was denying the danger of fallout
and I was denying the danger of nuclear annihilation, the way I think most
people do. There's an aspect of human nature that if you feel the danger is
too great and you can't cope with it, one of the mechanisms built into human
beings is to deny it for the time being at least until you see something
that you can do about it."
When he was first invited to join SANE, an organization dedicated to enlightening people about the dangers of the spread of nuclear weapons, Spock said he replied, "Oh, no. I don't know anything about radiation."
He had made a career of reassuring parents, he said, and "I didn't want to turn around at this point and pretend I knew something about radiation because it would immediately scare a million American mothers who would think the fallout level had reached really dangerous levels."
He was converted when the Soviet Union resumed nuclear testing in 1961. The escalation, Spock surmised, would lead to one round of testing after another by the U.S., the Soviet Union and other superpowers of the day.
Once again Spock's conscience would not allow him to sit by. "The only people who stand in the way are the citizens who realize this eventually will be suicide by the human race. So I thought, well, I'd better get busy," he said as if the burden automatically had become a personal one that he couldn't avoid.
Spock rang doorbells in 1966 in an East Side congressional district for Jack Day, one of about ten candidates in the nation running for the U. S. Congress as peace candidates.
Back in 1967 Day, now 84 and still active as a legal arbitrator, said of Spock, "In a word, he's a pure man and we should cherish him because there are very few." I called Day again last week and he used almost the exact same words to describe his old friend.
Day told of a twenty-minute conversation he once had with Spock. The subject was child pornography, the topic of a magazine column that Spock was preparing. The day after the conversation, Day received a check for $800 from Spock. He called Spock to tell him he didn't want to be paid for helping a friend, but Spock said he had sent the check because he was well paid. Day tore up the check.
"He was a pure guy and a courageous one -- the likes of him is unlikely to be seen again," Day said. He felt that the feeling that "he was doing what he must do" comforted Spock.
What is most disturbing to me about the 31-year-old interview with Spock were his words about the youth of America and what seems to be a loss of the passion and idealism of the 1960s, though he also saw some of the danger signals of the times.
"One of the few encouraging things on the horizon," said Spock then, "is there has sprung spontaneously more idealism in youth in the last few years than we've seen in the United States in a long while. I think this is a very encouraging thing." He also was encouraged by the idealism that allowed young people to "feel more comfortable working for the benefit for the extremely disadvantaged. Just as they say don't trust anybody over thirty, they also don't trust anybody who has $10 in his pocket."
He added: "I think it's always been necessary for youth to look for imperfections in their parents, and to accuse their parents and past generations of hypocrisy. It's always something youths have looked for, hypocrisy. They want to find flaws in [their parents] because if you thought that your parents were absolutely sincere and reasonably sensible, this would bind you to their aims and standards."
Spock lived to see much of that anti-establishment skepticism among young people disappear -- but it's likely he would still find hope in the young for a better world.
Albion Monitor June 9, 1998 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor)
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