Monthly Archives: August 2014

August 6, 1996 (a Tuesday)

The ALH84001 Meteorite

On this date, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin announced the discovery of evidence of a primitive bacterial life form on Mars. The evidence came from a tiny putative fossil found on a meteorite in Antarctica thought to have come from Mars billions of years ago. The meteorite, called ALH84001, was found in 1984 in Allan Hills ice field, Antarctica, by an annual expedition of the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Meteorite Program. It was preserved for study in JSC’s Meteorite Processing Laboratory and its possible Martian origin was not recognized until 1993.

The indication of life hinges on three important pieces of evidence, all discovered within mineralized fractures in the meteorite in close proximity to each other:

  1. hydrocarbons which are the same as breakdown products of dead microorganisms on Earth,
  2. mineral phases consistent with by-products of bacterial activity, and
  3. tiny carbonate globules which may be microfossils of the primitive bacteria.

Based on age dating of the meteorite, the following scenario has been proposed:

  1. The original igneous rock solidified within Mars about 4.5 billion years ago, about 100 million years after the formation of the planet (based on isotope ages of the igneous component of the meteorite).
  2. Between 3.6 and 4 billion years ago the rock was fractured, presumably by meteorite impacts. Water then permeated the cracks, depositing carbonate minerals and allowing primitive bacteria to live in the fractures.
  3. About 3.6 billion years ago, the bacteria and their by-products became fossilized in the fractures (based on isotope ages of the minerals in the fractures).
  4. 16 million years ago, a large meteorite struck Mars, dislodging a large chunk of this rock and ejecting it into space (based on the cosmic ray exposure age of the meteorite).
  5. 13,000 years ago, the meteorite landed in Antarctica.
  6. The meteorite, ALH84001, was discovered in 1984 in the Allan Hills region of Antarctica.

References:

  • S. McKay, E. K. Gibson Jr., K. L. Thomas-Keprta, H. Vali, C. S. Romanek, S. J. Clemett, X. D. F. Chillier, C. R. Maechling and R. N. Zare. “Search for past life on Mars: Possible relic biogenic activity in Martian meteorite ALH84001D, Science 273 (5277): 924-930 (16 August 1996).
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August 5, 1985 (a Monday)

Jewish slave laborers in the Buchenwald concentration camp near Jena, Germany. Elie Wiesel is on the second row from the bottom, seventh from the left. Reportedly Mel Mermelstein is on the top bunk at the far right. (16 April 1945)

On this date, Long Beach, California businessman Melvin Mermelstein struck a powerful blow against bogus history and historical hoaxes. Mel was awarded a judgment in a California court, in a contract case.

In 1980, the Institute for Historical Review (IHR), a Torrance, California organization that claimed that the planned extermination of Jews by the Nazis was a myth, had offered a $50,000 reward for anyone who could prove that the Holocaust actually happened.

Mermelstein was 17 years old in May, 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz, the largest of the World War II concentration camps. He was freed from the Buchenwald camp in April, 1945. His parents, two sisters and one brother did not survive the Nazi death camps. He offered his evidence to the IHR: Mermelstein sent the institute a lengthy affidavit recounting how he and his family were arrested in the spring of 1944 and sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. He described how he witnessed Nazi guards ushering his mother and two sisters and others towards (as he learned later) gas chamber number five.

The Holocaust deniers, of course, had no intention of paying up. They dismissed any evidence offered as inadequate, and continued to claim no one could prove that the Holocaust actually occurred.

Mermelstein, however, knew the law. He knew that the offer of the reward was a sweepstakes, a form of contract. He knew it was a contract enforceable in court. He sued the IHR, contending that the institute reneged on its offer after he submitted proof of the murders. The issue in court would be, was Mermelstein’s evidence sufficient?

Mermelstein’s lawyer, William John Cox, had a brilliant idea. He petitioned the court to take “judicial notice” of the fact of the Holocaust. The doctrine of judicial notice allows courts to recognize as fact something that is so well established that it doesn’t need to be evidenced when it is introduced in court — such as, 2 + 2 = 4, the freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit and 0 degrees Celsius, the Earth orbits the Sun, etc.

In a pre-trial hearing on 9 October 1981, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Thomas T. Johnson resolved the most controversial part of the case; the court ruled that the Holocaust had occurred. The judge declared:

Under Evidence Code Section 452(h), this court does take judicial notice of the fact that Jews were gassed to death at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland during the summer of 1944.

(…)

It just simply is a fact that falls within the definition of Evidence Code Section 452(h). It is not reasonably subject to dispute. And it is capable of immediate and accurate determination by resort to sources of reasonably indisputable accuracy. It is simply a fact.

That ruling meant that, by operation of law, Mermelstein had won the case, obviating the need for a court trial.

“It was the greatest ruling I could have hoped for,” Cox later said. “It would have been very easy for the judge to say the motions on summary judgment are denied. There was no real requirement that he do this…. It was a courageous decision.”

“His taking judicial notice was important, not in that it validated the Holocaust, but it avoided providing Holocaust deniers with a platform to grandstand and to present their historical distortion,” Emory University historian Deborah Lipstadt said.

On 5 August 1985, Judge Robert A. Wenke entered a judgment [archived here] based upon the Stipulation for Entry of Judgment agreed upon by the parties on July 22, 1985. The judgment required IHR and other defendants to pay $90,000 to Mermelstein and to issue a letter of apology to “Mr. Mel Mermelstein, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, and all other survivors of Auschwitz” for “pain, anguish and suffering” caused to them.

Mermelstein was portrayed by Leonard Nimoy and Cox was played by Dabney Coleman in a 1991 TV movie about the 1981 lawsuit called Never Forget. Mel wrote of the court battle in his autobiography entitled By Bread Alone: The Story of A-4685 (1979).

[Thanks to Ed Darrell, author of the blog entitled Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, for bringing Mel Mermelstein to my attention. — Ed.]

References:

At the Intersection of Science and Human Rights

Inmates sew at a compulsory drug rehabilitation centre in Kunming.

A study by Xue et al, published in Science‘s 13 April 2012 issue, tested an experimental treatment for addiction on 66 former heroin users confined at two detention centers in Beijing.

According to Reuters:

Studies published by Science must have approval from an ethics board; the Chinese scientists say their study had such approval from Peking University.

BUT…

Again quoting Reuters:

Joseph Amon, director of the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch, charged in [a] letter that in both [detention centers] addicts are ‘detained without due process’ and, he told Reuters, ‘held in a closed institution where monitoring of human rights abuses is not allowed.’ It is not clear from the study whether the addicts ‘were voluntary patients’ at the facilities or forcibly held, Amon said in his letter.

Mr. Amon, who is also an associate in the department of epidemiology at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and a lecturer in public and international affairs at Princeton University, is correct. Arrest for illegal drug use in China can lead to compulsory treatment (for a minimum of 2 years) at detention centers that function as de facto penal colonies where inmates are fed substandard food and denied basic medical care. The detentions are enforced by police, where the drug user has no opportunity to have a trial, face a judge, or raise an appeal. When a drug user leaves detention, the problems do not end there: their having been arrested for drug use is noted on their national identification card, making future employment difficult and leaving them vulnerable to frequent and humiliating searches by police.

This is not a rare phenomenon: according to a May 2009 report by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), half a million people are confined in drug detention centers in China at any given time. Most reports indicate that “treatment” during detention looks like punishment, exploitation, or merely lame, consisting of unpaid labor in chicken farms or shoe factories, or in the form of untested “therapies” like sandbox play, art, or boxing.

The study by Xue et al was conducted at Beijing Ankang and Tiantanghe Drug Rehabilitation Centers, but these are two of the facilities that have raised concerns about human rights violations over the past years.

‘The journal is not an investigative body,’ a spokeswoman for Science told Reuters. ‘On the basis of the authors’ response as well as (the editors’) own internal review, which included a science ethicist, the concerns about human rights seem to have been addressed, and the paper remains in good standing at this time.’

Daniel Wikler, a bioethicist at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, publicly commented:

Human Rights Watch has published valuable reports on inhumane treatment of drug addicts in many lands, including both China and the United States…But why brand the experiment by Xue et al as unethical?… Mr. Amon’s objections to the Xue et al study do not amount to much. He seems to be using the publication of the study as a means of drawing attention to wrongs in China’s treatment of addicts… it would be a shame if Mr. Amon’s letter tarnished the reputation of Chinese and U.S. scientists who seem to have conducted an innocuous (but valuable) experiment… [emphasis added]

Wikler is a frequent lecturer on ethics and health in the PRC and Hong Kong and holds honorary appointments at two Beijing research institutions, but he is no expert on the Chinese government’s attitude toward human rights and the rule of law. It seems at least equally plausible that Mr. Amon is using the wrongs in China’s treatment of addicts as a means of drawing attention to the unethical nature of the Xue et al experiment.

Inmates take an oath to resist drugs at a mandatory rehab center in Wuhan, China. (Stringer Shanghai/Reuters).

The authors of the study included 11 scientists at Peking University, led by Yan-Xue Xue, and two scientists, David Epstein and Yavin Shaham, at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), which is part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health. The NIDA declined to allow the two U.S. scientists to speak about the study. And the two NIDA researchers did not sign the response, nor did three of the Beijing University scientists. So the response to Amon’s letter published by Science in their 3 August 2012 issue was actually signed by only eight authors, all from Peking University, out of the total of 13.

In the authors’ response, the scientists explain that their work used subjects who they say were “court mandated” — but as noted before, drug users are usually sent to detention centers without any formal trial, never seeing the inside of a courtroom, because drug abuse in China isn’t considered a criminal offense. They dismiss Amon’s charges by stating, “The human rights violations mentioned by Amon would have violated China’s new National Narcotics Control Law and Chinese law in general…Patients who work are always paid. This provision has been put into effect for many years, and recently has been written in the National Narcotics Control Law, which bans forced labor.” This sounds like something written by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Such naivete about China’s respect for fundamental freedoms and human rights is disturbing. Chinese laws hardly justify confidence in the humane treatment of their study subjects.

There is a well-known saying in China that makes despotic officials (such as those staffing detention centers) happy: “the heaven is high and the emperor, far away”; therefore even if the central government is good and has formulated good laws, regulations, rules, codes, policies, etc., a despotic official may still do whatever he wants. China is too large and the central government is too far away to be aware of their malpractices; while the God who always upholds justice, is too high away to meddle.

In institutional settings, where conformity and compliance are rewarded, people may not feel that they have a real choice. Prisoners are aware that behavior is continuously monitored and assessed, and that this can have very real consequences.

As a scientist, I am appalled at the glib way the AAAS addresses human rights concerns. With drug user detainees in such circumstances in China, is voluntary informed consent of participants really possible? Are researchers who conduct research in these facilities complicit in the ill-treatment of drug users at the hands of Chinese authorities? I believe so.

Although the NIDA didn’t provide direct funding for the study, it did contribute financial support for the paper by paying the salaries of Epstein and Shaham. In a statement released to the Associated Press on April 22, the NIDA explained that its scientists “advised on the experimental design of the preclinical studies, and were involved in the data analyses and in the preparation of the manuscript.” Science magazine’s guidelines, as well as the NIDA’s code of conduct and standard scientific protocol, state that all co-authors are responsible for the sum total of any article published in its pages. By allowing their names to be published on the study, Epstein and Shaham took responsibility for the entire contents of the report, including the ethics of the research. Since these two scientists were significant enough contributors to the research to warrant authorship, should the study have also been reviewed under the (rather stringent) U.S. regulations governing prisoner research? I believe so. If it had been, would it have passed muster? I believe not. For one thing, under American law, federally funded research on inmates must be approved by a panel that includes at least one prisoner who volunteers to serve (see Title 45 CFR Part 46.304(b)).

I strongly urge Science magazine to retract this study for not adhering to standards protective of human subjects; verification of compliance with human rights standards should be obtained from third-party sources, not affiliated in any way with the CCP (which includes Peking University), as a matter of policy whenever considering publication of such studies from China.

References:

August 4, 2010 (a Wednesday)

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

— John Adams, “Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,” December 1770

Zen stones

Scales of Justice

On this date, U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker ruled in Perry v. Schwarzenegger that Proposition 8, the amendment to the California Constitution that banned same-sex civil marriage, was in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The ruling put Walker, a Republican, at the forefront of the gay marriage debate and marked the latest in a long line of high-profile legal decisions for the longtime federal judge. He was appointed by Ronald Reagan in 1987, but his nomination was held up for two years in part because of opposition from gay rights activists. (As a lawyer, he had helped the U.S. Olympic Committee sue a gay ex-Olympian who had created the Gay Olympics, an athletic competition.)

Ironically, most major media organizations, from the New York Times and ABC News to the Washington Post and National Public Radio, have lately reported on Judge Walker as gay or had commentators saying it. In fact, he has never confirmed to anyone in the media what sexual orientation he may be. As Michelangelo Signorile recently pointed out in the Huffington Post:

[T]he outrageous hypocrisy here on the part of the corporate media — and one that shows how they are manipulated by the right — is the fact that, even with proof and evidence, news organizations refuse to report on the secretly gay sexual orientation of conservative, anti-gay politicians and public figures when the argument for their exposure is made from the left. [emphasis added]

Lawyer Brian Levine, an attorney who practices civil litigation in San Francisco, wrote an analysis of the Perry ruling in which he said:

Most of the decision (the first 109 pages) is the “factual findings.” This is crucial, and here’s why. On appeal, Judge Walker’s conclusions of law are basically irrelevant. Questions of law are decided fresh on appeal, and the trial court’s thoughts on the law are entitled to no deference. On the other hand, only a trial court can make factual findings. A Court of Appeal must give great deference to the factual findings of the trial court, especially when those findings are based on the credibility of witness testimony. Judge Walker knows this. He knows that his primary role in this case is to weigh the credibility of the evidence that was presented at trial and apply the facts that were proven to the law. But the law — unlike the facts — ultimately will be decided by nine Justices at a higher pay grade. Consequently, we should be grateful to Judge Walker for carefully and diligently going through the facts of the case, creating a detailed and compelling record for the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court.

So, the trial court’s findings of fact and rulings on credibility are here to stay, no matter whether Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, or Alito approve of same-sex marriage or not. Lawyer Paul Hogarth, an attorney at the Tenderloin Housing Clinic in San Francisco, identified several important findings of fact, including:

[Fact #] 27. Marriage between a man and a woman was traditionally organized based on presumptions of a division of labor along gender lines. Men were seen as suited for certain types of work and women for others. Women were seen as suited to raise children and men were seen as suited to provide for the family.

(. . .)

[Fact #] 32. California has eliminated marital obligations based on the gender of the spouse. Regardless of their sex or gender, marital partners share the same obligations to one another and to their dependents. As a result of Proposition 8, California nevertheless requires that a marriage consist of one man and one woman.

Homosexual couples and heterosexual couples are equal.

These two factual findings together lead to the logical conclusion that restricting marriage to heterosexual couples is an archaic concept that relies on a presumption that men and women are different, and somehow both indispensable to form a marriage. The times are changing, and justices in the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) cannot simply “stick their heads in the sand.” Three more factual findings are also noteworthy:

[Fact #] 58. Proposition 8 places the force of law behind stigmas against gays and lesbians, including: gays and lesbians do not have intimate relationships similar to heterosexual couples; gays and lesbians are not as good as heterosexuals; and gay and lesbian relationships do not deserve the full recognition of society.

(. . .)

[Fact #] 67. Proposition 8 singles out gays and lesbians and legitimates their unequal treatment. Proposition 8 perpetuates the stereotype that gays and lesbians are incapable of forming long-term loving relationships and that gays and lesbians are not good parents.

(. . .)

[Fact #] 79. The Proposition 8 campaign relied on fears that children exposed to the concept of same-sex marriage may become gay or lesbian. The reason children need to be protected from same-sex marriage was never articulated in official campaign advertisements. Nevertheless, the advertisements insinuated that learning about same-sex marriage could make a child gay or lesbian and that parents should dread having a gay or lesbian child.

These three factual findings together strongly suggest that Prop 8 was motivated by an irrational fear (animus) toward gays and lesbians. In ruling on Perry, Walker stated:

The evidence at trial regarding the campaign to pass Proposition 8 uncloaks the most likely explanation for its passage: a desire to advance the belief that opposite-sex couples are morally superior to same-sex couples. The campaign relied heavily on negative stereotypes about gays and lesbians and focused on protecting children from inchoate threats vaguely associated with gays and lesbians. . . .

At trial, proponents’ counsel attempted through cross-examination to show that the campaign wanted to protect children from learning about same-sex marriage in school. . . . The evidence shows, however, that Proposition 8 played on a fear that exposure to homosexuality would turn children into homosexuals and that parents should dread having children who are not heterosexual. . . .

The testimony of George Chauncey places the Protect Marriage campaign advertisements in historical context as echoing messages from previous campaigns to enact legal measures to disadvantage gays and lesbians. The Protect Marriage campaign advertisements ensured California voters had these previous fear-inducing messages in mind. The evidence at trial shows those fears to be completely unfounded.

Judge Vaughn R. Walker

Walker correctly recognized that the rhetoric of “defending marriage”, which proponents have always been unable to explain satisfactorily in my view, actually amounts to simply saying that heterosexual couples are morally better than homosexual couples. Note that both Judge Walker in his ruling and David Fleischer in The Prop 8 Report identified the same campaign strategy used by Prop 8 proponents as responsible for the passage of the initiative. Fleischer observed:

Recycling a lie as old as Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign in 1977, the anti-gay Yes on 8 campaign whipped up fears about kids to move voters to its side. . . . Yes on 8’s fear-mongering about children was particularly effective because No on 8 waited sixteen of the thirty days remaining until the election was over to directly respond.

Judge Walker’s ruling concluded:

Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians. The evidence shows conclusively that Proposition 8 enacts, without reason, a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples. . . . Because Proposition 8 disadvantages gays and lesbians without any rational justification, Proposition 8 violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

Supporters of same-sex marriage march from San Francisco's Castro neighborhood to celebrate the ruling on Prop 8.

After the ruling was announced, a lawyer on the defense team, Jim Campbell, repeated their familiar but nevertheless misleading refrain:

In America, we should uphold and respect the right of [the] people to make policy changes through the democratic process, especially changes that do nothing more than uphold the definition of marriage that has existed since the founding of this country and beyond.

As a lawyer, Campbell should know better — that the will of the majority is not unlimited. A minority who must depend on the benevolence of those outside of its community is always subject to popular attacks. And as the framers envisioned, the role of the judiciary is to act as “counter-majority” in order to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority. I remind Campbell and the rest of his defense team of what Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and one of the most influential Founding Fathers, said in his first Inaugural Address (1801):

All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.

Likewise, John Stuart Mill wrote in 1859 in his famous essay, On Liberty:

The “people” who exercise the power are not always the same people with those over whom it is exercised; and the “self-government” spoken of is not the government of each by himself, but of each by all the rest. The will of the people, moreover, practically means the will of the most numerous or the most active part of the people; the majority, or those who succeed in making themselves accepted as the majority; the people, consequently, may desire to oppress a part of their number; and precautions are as much needed against this as against any other abuse of power. [emphasis in original]

This idea was embedded in a 1943 SCOTUS decision, West Virginia State Board of Education v Barnette (319 US 624). Judge Walker quoted in Perry from the opinion written by Justice Robert Jackson 67 years ago:

One’s right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to [a] vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.

In the case of West Virginia, the SCOTUS did a rare reversal of itself, acknowledging a mistake it had made in a Jehovah’s Witness case three years earlier. What happened between 1940 and 1943 to Jehovah’s Witnesses gave Judge Walker in 2010 his most potent precedent to show that voter will does not trump the protection of minority rights. Lillian Gobitas was among thousands of Jehovah’s Witness children expelled from public school for not saluting the flag. This religious sect believes that the flag salute is an idolatrous act of worship of a man-made symbol, which is forbidden by their God. Her case, Minersville School District v Gobitis (310 US 586), went to the SCOTUS and a fundamental question was asked: Should a free society force its citizens to engage in patriotic ritual? In 1940, the court answered “Yes.” National unity was at stake. It also said the threat of being expelled from school was a good way to achieve compliance. If anyone felt put out, the court said, he could seek remedy at the ballot box by asking the majority to see it his way.

At the height of World War II, when the U.S. was fighting nationalism in Germany, where Jehovah’s Witnesses were being sent to concentration camps for refusing to do the Nazi salute, the SCOTUS revisited the case. When Justice Jackson got the chance, he tackled the ballot box notion head-on. He wrote that the “very purpose” of the Bill of Rights was to protect some issues from the volatility of politics and “place them beyond the reach of majorities.”

Of course, Walker’s ruling is not the end of Perry v Schwarzenegger; both sides are preparing for an appeal. The appeal would go first to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, then to the SCOTUS if the high court justices agree to review it. And, Prop 8 proponents may ultimately prevail, especially in the SCOTUS as presently constituted. But regardless of the final outcome, even if Prop 8 is ultimately upheld, Judge Walker’s ruling has broken ground in American jurisprudence and I believe his reasoning will someday be affirmed by the nation’s highest court.

August 3, 2007 (a Friday)

Ban the Chinese Government

On this date, in one of history’s more absurd acts of dictatorship and totalitarianism, China’s State Administration for Religious Affairs issued a decree (State Religious Affairs Bureau Order No. 5) that all reincarnations of tülkus of Tibetan Buddhism must get government approval, otherwise they are “illegal or invalid”. The Chinese word for tülku is huófó (活佛), which literally means “living Buddha” and is sometimes used to mean tülku, although this is rare outside of Chinese sources. However, according to the Dalai Lama, “this is wrong. Tibetan Buddhism recognizes no such thing.” Also, in interviews that he has given, the Dalai Lama has frequently dismissed the notion of “living Buddha”, referring to it as “nonsense”. In the context of Tibetan Buddhism, tülku is used to refer to the corporeal existence of enlightened Buddhist masters in general. 

The Chinese decree stated, “It is an important move to institutionalize management on reincarnation of living Buddhas. The selection of reincarnates must preserve national unity and solidarity of all ethnic groups and the selection process cannot be influenced by any group or individual from outside the country.” It also requires that temples which apply for reincarnation of a living Buddha must be “legally-registered venues for Tibetan Buddhism activities and are capable of fostering and offering proper means of support for the living Buddha.”

In other words, China banned reincarnation without government permission. Tibetan Buddhists believe lamas and other religious figures can consciously influence how they are reborn, and often are reborn many times so they can continue their religious pursuits. So, the Chinese government decree, which took effect September 1, 2007, requires that each of these people who plan to be reborn must complete an application and submit it to several Chinese government agencies for approval.

This is what the Chinese Communist Party bosses like to call “religious freedom”. But beyond the irony was China’s true motive: to cut off the influence of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual and (at that time) political leader, and to quell the region’s Buddhist religious establishment more than 50 years after China invaded the small Himalayan country. By barring any Buddhist monk living outside China from seeking reincarnation, the law effectively gives Chinese authorities the power to choose the next Dalai Lama, who, by tradition, is reborn to continue the work of relieving suffering.

August 3, 1908 (a Monday)

Marcellin Boule’s vision in 1909 of Stone Age Man.

On this date, a nearly complete, buried skeleton of a Neandertal was discovered in a cave at La Chapelle-aux-Saints, France by two young clergymen, brothers Amédée and Jean Bouyssonie. It was examined by Marcellin Boule who overlooked its arthritic condition and as a result, his published description, which characterized the Neandertal as a shuffling, bent-kneed, and hairy creature capable of “rudimentary intellectual abilities,” became stereotypical.

Sculpture of a Neandertal man from the Ancestors exhibit at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, University of New Mexico.

This mistake was corrected by research in the 1950s.

August 2, 1964 (a Sunday)

The Gulf of Tonkin Delusion

Photograph taken from USS Maddox (DD-731) during her engagement with three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, 2 August 1964. The view shows all three of the boats speeding towards the Maddox (official U.S. Navy Photograph, Naval History & Heritage Command).

Photograph taken from USS Maddox (DD-731) during her engagement with three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats in the Gulf of Tonkin, 2 August 1964. The view shows all three of the boats speeding towards the Maddox (official U.S. Navy Photograph, Naval History & Heritage Command).

On this date, shortly after a clandestine raid on North Vietnamese facilities on Hon Me and Hon Nhieu Islands (off the North Vietnamese coast) by South Vietnamese gunboats under OPLAN-34A, the U.S. destroyer Maddox was fired on by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats.

OPLAN-34A was an operation approved by U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson on 16 January 1964 that involved raids by South Vietnamese commandos operating under U.S. orders against North Vietnamese coastal and island installations. Although American forces were not directly involved in the actual raids, U.S. Navy ships were on station to conduct electronic surveillance and monitor North Vietnamese defense responses under another program called Operation Desoto.

The August 2 attack on the Maddox was not unexpected. U.S. crews had interpreted one North Vietnamese message as indicating that they were preparing “military operations,” which the Maddox‘s Captain John Herrick assumed meant some sort of retaliatory attack. His superiors had ordered him to remain in the area.

At 8:00 PM on August 4 in the same area, the destroyers U.S.S. Maddox and U.S.S. C. Turner Joy intercepted radio messages from the North Vietnamese that gave Captain Herrick the “impression” that Communist patrol boats were planning an attack against the American ships, prompting him to call for air support from the carrier U.S.S. Ticonderoga.

Eight Crusader jets soon appeared overhead, but in the darkness, neither the pilots nor the ship crews saw any enemy craft. However, around 10:00 PM sonar operators reported torpedoes approaching. The U.S. destroyers  maneuvered to avoid the torpedoes and began to fire at the North Vietnamese patrol boats. When the action ended about two hours later, U.S. officers reported sinking two, or possibly three North Vietnamese boats, but no American was sure of ever having seen any enemy boats nor any enemy gunfire. Captain Herrick immediately communicated his doubts to his superiors and urged a “thorough reconnaissance in daylight.” Shortly thereafter, he informed Admiral U. S. Grant Sharp, commander of the Pacific Fleet, that the blips on the radar scope were apparently “freak weather effects” while the report of torpedoes in the water were probably due to “overeager” radar operators.

Because of the time difference, it was only 9:20 AM in Washington when the Pentagon received the initial report of the possible attack on the U.S. destroyers. When a more detailed report was received at 11:00 AM, there was still a lot of uncertainty as to just what had transpired.

In 2005, an internal National Security Agency (NSA) historical study was declassified [1][2]; it concluded that the Maddox had engaged the North Vietnamese Navy on August 2, but that there were no North Vietnamese Naval vessels present during the incident of August 4. The study stated regarding August 2:

At 1500G [3:00 PM Gulf of Tonkin time, 3:00 AM D.C. time], Captain Herrick ordered Ogier’s gun crews to open fire if the boats approached within ten thousand yards. At about 1505G, the Maddox fired three rounds to warn off the communist boats. This initial action was never reported by the Johnson administration, which insisted that the Vietnamese boats fired first.

Regarding August 4:

It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night… In truth, Hanoi’s navy was engaged in nothing that night but the salvage of two of the boats damaged on August 2 [emphasis in original].

Captain John J. Herrick, USN, Commander Destroyer Division 192 (at left) and Commander Herbert L. Ogier, USN, Commanding Officer of USS Maddox (DD-731), on board Maddox on 13 August 1964. They were in charge of the ship during her engagement with three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats on 2 August 1964 (official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center).

Captain John J. Herrick, USN, Commander Destroyer Division 192 (at left) and Commander Herbert L. Ogier, USN, Commanding Officer of USS Maddox (DD-731), on board Maddox on 13 August 1964. They were in charge of the ship during her engagement with three North Vietnamese motor torpedo boats on 2 August 1964 (official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center).

Historian Robert J. Hanyok, the author of the study, which was originally circulated in 2001, discovered that the NSA had initially misinterpreted North Vietnamese intercepts, believing there was an attack on August 4. Mid-level NSA officials almost immediately discovered the error, he concluded, but covered it up by altering documents, so as to make it appear the second attack had happened. “Only [information] that supported the claim that the communists had attacked the two destroyers was given to Johnson administration officials.”

With regard to why this happened, Hanyok concluded that the motive was not political but was probably to cover up honest intelligence errors. He wrote:

As much as anything else, it was an awareness that President Johnson would brook no uncertainty that could undermine his position. Faced with this attitude, Ray Cline [CIA’s deputy director for intelligence at the time of the action] was quoted as saying “… we knew it was bum dope that we were getting from Seventh Fleet, but we were told only to give facts with no elaboration on the nature of the evidence. Everyone knew how volatile LBJ was. He did not like to deal with uncertainties.”

Nevertheless, an August 4 National Security Council meeting which was held from 6:15-6:40 PM establishes that everyone present should have known that any North Vietnamese attacks were defensive in nature – that is how the CIA Director characterized them at the meeting [3]. At the time of this meeting, there was still conflicting evidence for the second attack, so they were not totally disingenuous in assuming that it had occurred.

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: The North Vietnamese PT boats have continued their attacks on the two U.S. destroyers in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin…

Secretary of State Dean Rusk: An immediate and direct reaction by us is necessary. The unprovoked attack on the high seas is an act of war for all practical purposes…

Secretary McNamara: We have agreed to air strikes on two bases in the north of North Vietnam and two base complexes in the south of North Vietnam…

(…)

President Johnson: Do they want a war by attacking our ships in the middle of the Gulf of Tonkin?

CIA Director John McCone: No. The North Vietnamese are reacting defensively to our attacks on their off-shore islands. They are responding out of pride and on the basis of defense considerations.

McCone’s observation did not stop the administration’s misrepresentation of the attack as unprovoked.

Johnson proceeded quickly to authorize retaliatory air strikes against North Vietnam. At 11:20 PM on August 4, Admiral Sharp telephoned Secretary McNamara to confirm that that the Ticonderoga “got her planes off at 0243”, or 10:43 PM Washington time and 10:43 AM Saigon time. Sharp indicated that it would take the aircraft almost 2 hours to reach their targets. After discussing the matter with General Wheeler, McNamara called President Johnson to inform him. At 11:36 PM, Johnson addressed the nation from the White House over radio and television, reporting the retaliatory attacks. [4] On August 5, he gathered congressional leaders and, without divulging the circumstances that might have helped provoke the torpedo attack, accused the North Vietnamese of “open aggression on the high seas.”

On 20 February 1968, Secretary McNamara testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee [5] that:

On August 2, one of our destroyers was attacked by North Vietnamese naval forces without provocation while on patrol on the high seas. Since the destroyer had suffered no damage and had repulsed and damaged her attackers, and since the possibility seemed to exist that the incident was an isolated act, no further military response was made. North Vietnam was warned the next day, however, of the “grave consequences which would inevitably follow” another such attack. Furthermore, the President announced that the patrol would continue and would consist of two destroyers. The next night, the two destroyers were also attacked without provocation on the high seas by North Vietnamese naval forces.

McNamara so testified even though incontrovertible evidence was then available to him that the second attack had not occurred.

George Ball, who at the time was an Undersecretary of State, later commented [6] in a 1977 BBC radio interview that:

Many of the people who were associated with the war were looking for any excuse to initiate bombing. The sending of a destroyer up the Tonkin Gulf was primarily for provocation… There was a feeling that if the destroyer got into some trouble, that it would provide the provocation we needed.

Squadron commander James Stockdale was one of the U.S. pilots flying overhead during the second alleged attack. Stockdale wrote in his 1984 book In Love and War: “[I] had the best seat in the house to watch that event, and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets — there were no PT boats there… There was nothing there but black water and American fire power.” Stockdale said his superiors ordered him to keep quiet about this. [7]

Starting in 2002 Hanyok and other government historians argued that his study should be made public. But according to an intelligence official familiar with some internal discussions of the matter, their efforts were rebuffed by higher-level agency policymakers, who by the next year were fearful that it might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the Iraq War (Operation Iraqi Freedom) that commenced in 2003 [8].

The justification for the “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” — the closest thing there ever was to a declaration of war against North Vietnam — was the incident that occurred in the Gulf of Tonkin on 4 August 1964. The simple fact is that there was no such incident.

A pattern took hold: continuous government lies passed on by pliant mass media. By reporting official claims as absolute truths, American journalism opened the floodgates for the bloody Vietnam War. [9] In the end, the operations in Vietnam would last for more than a decade and would bring about the deaths of over 50,000 U.S. soldiers and between 2 and 3 million Vietnamese citizens.

References:

  1. Robert J. Hanyok, “Skunks, Bogies, Silent Hounds, and the Flying Fish: The Gulf of Tonkin Mystery, 2-4 August 1964Cryptologic Quarterly, Winter 2000/Spring 2001 Edition, Vol. 19, No. 4 / Vol. 20, No. 1.
  2. ————-, “Spartans in Darkness: American SIGINT and the Indochina War, 1945-1975”, Center for Cryptologic History, National Security Agency, 2002. Accessed on 2 August 2013 at http://www.fas.org/irp/nsa/spartans/index.html.
  3. “Summary Notes of the 538th Meeting of the National Security Council,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968: Volume I, Vietnam, 1964, Document 278. Accessed on 2 August 2013 at http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1964-68v01/d278.
  4. “Editorial Note,” Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968: Volume I, Vietnam, 1964, Document 286. Accessed on 2 August 2013 at http://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1964-68v01/d286.
  5. Hearing Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, United States Senate, Ninetieth Congress, Second Session, with the Honorable Robert S. McNamara, Secretary of Defense, on February 20, 1968, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC: 1968. Accessed on 2 August 2013 at http://www.history.navy.mil/library/online/tonkinparti.htm.
  6. James Bamford, Body of Secrets (New York: Doubleday, 2001) p. 301. William Bundy has taken issue with this judgment, arguing that escalating the war North “didn’t fit in with our plans at all” (Robert McNamara, “The Tonkin Gulf Resolution,” in Andrew Jon Rotter, Light at the End of the Tunnel: A Vietnam War Anthology [New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991] p. 83). However, it no doubt fit in with some people’s plans.
  7. Jim Stockdale and Sybil Stockdale. In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years (1st ed.) (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1984).
  8. “Robert J. Hanyok: His NSC study on Tonkin Gulf Deception” New York Times (31 October 2005). Accessed on 2 August 2013 at http://hnn.us/roundup/entries/17620.html.
  9. Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon. “30-year Anniversary: Tonkin Gulf Lie Launched Vietnam War”, Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting. Posted 27 July 1994. Accessed on 2 August 2013 at http://fair.org/media-beat-column/30-year-anniversary-tonkin-gulf-lie-launched-vietnam-war/.

August 1, 1744 (a Saturday)

Do we not therefore perceive that by the action of the laws of organization . . . nature has in favorable times, places, and climates multiplied her first germs of animality, given place to developments of their organizations, . . . and increased and diversified their organs? Then. . . aided by much time and by a slow but constant diversity of circumstances, she has gradually brought about in this respect the state of things which we now observe. How grand is this consideration, and especially how remote is it from all that is generally thought on this subject!

— Text of a lecture given by Lamarck at the Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, May 1803

Zen stones

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

On this date, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was born in the village of Bazentin-le-Petit in the north of France. Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, Ernst Haeckel, and other early evolutionists acknowledged him as a great zoologist and as having helped establish the fact of evolution. Charles Darwin wrote in 1861 (The Origin of Species 3d ed., p. xiii):

Lamarck was the first man whose conclusions on the subject excited much attention. This justly celebrated naturalist first published his views in 1801. . . he first did the eminent service of arousing attention to the probability of all changes in the organic, as well as in the inorganic world, being the result of law, and not of miraculous interposition.

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, one of the top French scientists of the day, mentored Lamarck and helped him gain membership to the French Academy of Sciences in 1779 and a commission as a Royal Botanist in 1781. Lamarck was appointed curator and professor of invertebrate zoology at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in 1793.

Lamarck began as an essentialist who believed species were unchanging; however, after working on the mollusks of the Paris Basin, he grew convinced that transmutation (that is, evolution) of a species occurred over time. He became one of the first to use the term biology in its modern sense in his book Hydrogéologie, published in 1802. Lamarck’s book, Philosophie Zoologique (Zoological Philosophy), published in 1809 most clearly states his theories of evolution. Throughout his life, Lamarck criticized palaeontologist Georges Cuvier’s anti-evolutionary stance. He died penniless in Paris on December 28, 1829.