Monthly Archives: February 2014

Winston Churchill and Operation Unthinkable

Soviet soldiers after victory in Berlin. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R77767 / CC-BY-SA

Soviet soldiers after victory in Berlin.
Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R77767 / CC-BY-SA

The year was 1945. After six long years of war, the Allied Powers managed to force Nazi Germany to surrender, at the cost of millions of lives. In Europe, the biggest war in human history had finally come to an end. Now it was left to those great powers — the United States, the British Empire, and the Soviet Union — to decide on a way to bring peace to the ruined continent.

At least, that was the goal on paper. In reality, the Allies were hardly unified. Suspicions ran deep between the Western Allies and their Soviet counterparts. In particular, Winston Churchill, the old warhorse who managed to see his country through its darkest hour, saw the Soviet conquests in East Europe as a threat. In particular, he felt pained about the fate of Poland. After all, it was treaty obligations to Poland that dragged Great Britain into the war with Germany to begin with. Six years later, the country was under Soviet control, and Churchill was aware of just how tyrannical his Soviet allies truly were, even if the public’s sentiments toward the Communist power were warm due to their help in stomping out the Nazi threat.

So, mere days after Germany’s official surrender, Churchill asked his War Cabinet to draw up strictly hypothetical plans for an attack on Soviet military positions in East Europe. This plan, which would have effectively began World War III before World War II even ended, was appropriately dubbed Operation Unthinkable.


Operation Unthinkable version one: the offensive plan

Nazi prisoners taken in 1944. Churchill's planned called for 100,000 of these men to be rearmed to fight the Soviets.

Nazi prisoners taken in 1944. Churchill’s planned called for 100,000 of these men to be rearmed to fight the Soviets.

The initial version of Operation Unthinkable that the War Cabinet drew up called for 103 Allied divisions — 64 American, 35 British, 4 Polish, and 10 German — to attack Soviet forces on a front stretching from Hamburg, Germany to Trieste in Italy, a distance of almost 800 miles. The German divisions would be rearmed from among captured German POWs. These forces included 23 armored divisions and would be supported by 6714 fighters and 2464 bombers. Roughly speaking, the Allies could muster 3 million men to the effort. Naturally all of these would not be devoted to the attack, but even allowing for forces to be left behind for occupational and defensive purposes, it was a considerable number of troops mustered to the attack.

It was a number dwarfed by the Soviets, though. In the German theatre alone, the Soviet Union had 6.5 million troops, including 36 armored divisions. In total, the Soviets had 11 million troops.

Numbers alone are useful in war, but more useful is the quality of troops in the army. And the Soviet troops were hardened after brutal fighting against the Nazis on the Eastern Front. Nazi Germany showed their Soviet enemies no mercy because they believed Slavic peoples, including Russians, were subhuman. Add to that the fact that the Russians were Bolsheviks, a group the Nazis definitely did not hold in high regard, and you had a recipe for brutality on a scale the world had never seen before nor since. On top of that, the Soviet leadership had no real concern for human life. The men and women who survived the meat grinder that was the Eastern Front and marched on Germany were not people to be fought lightly. The Soviets took no issue with sustaining mass casualties, and would fight with a reckless abandon that the Allied forces couldn’t match.

All these factors together led the War Cabinet to deem such an offensive a fools errand. The odds of success were long, at best. Part of the reason Churchill proposed the bold plan was due to his knowledge of the American atomic weapons test. He envisioned using the bombs to bring Moscow to heel. But assuming that America had the stomach for continued war in Europe, and that they would bring their secret weapon to bear against a former ally, was more than a bit fanciful. The war with Japan had not yet ended, and how the Soviet Union might act against the Japanese Empire was still up in the air. The American leadership would not likely go for a war with its ally while another tangible enemy was still fighting.

If the British Empire was going to fight against the Soviets, they would basically be in it by themselves. Once Churchill saw his War Cabinet’s assessment, he asked for another analysis, still dubbed Operation Unthinkable due to its purely hypothetical nature, of Britain’s prospects in a defensive war against the Soviet Union.


Operation Unthinkable version two: the defensive plan

The next version of Operation Unthinkable assumed that the Americans would withdraw their forces to the Pacific. This would give the Soviet Union free reign to advance over the remainder of Europe. Essentially, this would put Great Britain in the same position it was against Nazi Germany; a lone island, with a huge enemy separated from it by a narrow strip of sea. Great Britain’s legendary navy would keep the Red Tide from sweeping across the Channel, and her air force could have kept back the Soviet air forces much as it had the German onslaught during the Battle of Britain.

But 1945 was not 1940, and technology had changed drastically over the course of the war. The Nazis had developed the infamous V-1 and V-2 rockets during the latter years of the war, which they employed in limited numbers against English cities. The Soviets had seized that technology, and the planners had no doubt they would use it in their hypothetical attack against the British Isles. The scale would be much larger, an onslaught that the British military could not stop.


Joseph Stalin

Joseph Stalin

Seeds of the Cold War

Once Churchill saw the dismal odds of both scenarios, Churchill ordered the Operation Unthinkable file closed. It would not be unearthed again until 1998, when the documents were discovered in a public archive.

However, that was not the end of the story. Despite attempts at secrecy, the Stalin (he show up a lot around here) got wind of Churchill’s plans. Hypothetical though they may be, the paranoid dictator saw them as another in a long list of grievances against him by the Allies. Operation Unthinkable planted another seed that would soon sprout into the Cold War, a conflict that would define the latter half of the 20th century.



The Associated Press. “Report: Brits mulled war against Soviets after WWII.” The Hour. October 9, 1998. pg A7 Retrieved from:,1090904

Hastings, Max. “Operation unthinkable: How Churchill wanted to recruit defeated Nazi troops and drive Russia out of Eastern Europe.” August 26, 2009. The Daily Mail. Accessed on: February 13, 2014. Retrieved from:

Simha, Rakesh Krishnan. “Operation Unthinkable: Churchill’s Plan to Start WWIII.” June 13, 2013. Russia & India Report. Accessed on: February 13, 2014. Retrieved from:


Fat Buddha, Skinny Buddha

The Laughing Buddha Image Credit: Wm Jas

The Laughing Buddha
Image Credit: Wm Jas

The word “Buddha” brings an image of a laughing bald man with a gigantic belly to most Western minds.This image of the Buddha has become so common that it is ingrained in our psyche. This might be because he often appears in sculptures in Chinese restaurants, where he is a symbol of luck, wealth, and abundance.

But this depiction of Buddha is not of the founder of Buddhism. In fact, it is another person entirely. And one common depiction of the historical Buddha, as we will see, could not be more different than the jolly, laughing figure we’ve come to know.


Pu-Tai, the Laughing Buddha

Like the Buddha, Pu-Tai, the Laughing Buddha, is based on a real person. He was originally a Zen monk who lived in China 1000 years ago. His kindness and generosity were legendary, so much so that he was regarded as a bhodisatva, a kind of Buddhist saint. Furthermore, it was said that in the future he would be a Buddha (which explains why he’s called the Laughing Buddha then, doesn’t it?)

Pu-Tai has morphed overtime to become the deity of contentment and abundance. He is depicted with a cloth sack that never empties, from which he can pull rice plants, other food stuffs, and candy for children. He’s a protector of poor and weak children, a bit like a bald Santa Claus without the yearly worldwide errand. Another common feature of Pu-Tai sculptures is his signature bulging belly, bald head, and laughing expression. He wears monks robes and carries a begging bowl, a common symbol of the Buddhist monastic tradition.


Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha

Gautama Buddha Image Credit: Lahore Museum, Pakistan

Gautama Buddha
Image Credit: Lahore Museum, Pakistan

Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of the Buddhist philosophy, is often depicted, on the other hand, as a living skeleton. The Buddha was born a prince in Lumbini, in what is now Nepal His father, responding to a prophecy that claimed young Siddhartha would be either a great emperor or a great holy man, sheltered his son from the ills of the world. Siddhartha lived a life of hedonism, where every whim was indulged. But eventually he discovered sickness, old age, and death in spite of his father’s best efforts, and he set out to discover why people suffer and if there was a way out of it.

To do this, he traveled to India and attached himself to various yogis and gurus who practice the strict ascetic teachings of the time. This included extreme exercise and self denial, in a bid to quiet the urges of the body and beat the mind into submission. Siddhartha Gautama surpassed all of his teachers, punishing himself for six long years. He starved himself near to the point of death, so that by the time he finally rejected the path of the extreme ascetic and sat down under the Bodhi tree at Gaya in India to achieve Enlightenment, he looked like a walking skeleton.

While the depiction of the Buddha as skeletal is not precisely common these days, it isn’t uncommon either. It is meant to show the folly of extreme asceticism, and it also shows the potential for transformation (since Buddha survived his dangerous experimentation and lived forty-five more years.)




“The Laughing Buddha.” Religion Facts. Accessed on: February 5, 2014. Retrieved from:

Bailey, Sarah Pulliam. “American Zenophillia.” Humanities. March/April 2010, Volume 31 Number 2. Retrieved from:

The Strange After-Life of Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham

Jeremy Bentham

Philosophers tend to be eccentric people. Diogenes lived in a barrel. Socrates would walk up to unsuspecting people in the street and engage them in philosophical debate; any time, anywhere. Jeremy Bentham was no exception to this trend. A British philosopher in the lat 18th and early 19th centuries, Bentham was far ahead of his time. He argued for women’s rights, better treatment of homosexuals, and the rights of animals. He is one of the founders of Utilitarianism, the philosophy whose basic tenet is to “do the most good for the most people.” Bentham was also the “spiritual founder” of the University College of London, meaning that while he did not play a direct role in its founding, his philosophies heavily influenced those who did.

These sorts of things seem par for the course of a great Enlightenment thinker. Jeremy Bentham’s will was where is eccentricity truly shined through.


The Auto-Icon


Attribution: MykReeve at the English language Wikipedia

Bentham’s will contained a stipulation that, upon his death which came in 1832 at the age of 84, his body was to be dissected and his head removed. Then the flesh was to be stripped from his bones. The bones were to be dressed in his usual attire, which would be stuffed with straw to give the appearance of life. His head, meanwhile, was to be mummified and then set atop his preserved remains. The entire mummy was then to be seated in a glass and wood case called an auto-icon (apparently people in olden times had a thing for displaying dead bodies.)

Originally, one of Bentham’s disciples, a man named Thomas Southwood Smith, owned the auto-icon. The University College of London acquired it in 1850. For the 100th and 150th anniversaries of the college, the auto-icon was brought out for the meeting of the College Council. Jeremy Bentham was listed as “present, but not voting.”

Bentham originally meant for his head to be part of the display. Thomas Southwood Smith employed an experimental preservation method. The head was placed under an air pump, over a container full of sulphuric acid. He then used the pump to draw off the fluid. While technically successful, the effort resulted in the head looking distorted and ugly looking. So, a wax likeness was made and placed on top of Bentham’s skeleton. The preserved head was placed between the mummy’s feet.

The preserved head became a target for pranks by students of the college. Once, so the legend goes, it was stolen and held for ransom, the proceeds of the heist going to charity. Another legend has the head showing up in a train station locker, and another has it being utilized for football practice. More likely, the head was taken off display due to ethical concerns over displaying human remains, and due to concerns about preservation. It’s now stored in the UCL Institute of Archeology, in a climate controlled store room.


Why’d he do it?

As for why Bentham had his body preserved in such an odd manner, no one is quite certain. It might have been a sort of prank, a flouting of the traditional beliefs surrounding death. It could have been due to an inflated sense of self importance. Or maybe it was a result of the age old impulse to preserve one’s legacy. No one knows for sure, but Jeremy Bentham and his Auto-Icon remain as a strange and macabre testament to a man and the philosophy he founded.



“Jeremy Bentham.” February 12, 2014. Wikipedia. Accessed on: February 15, 2014. Retrieved from:

“Bentham’s Head.” February 15, 2014. University College of London. Accessed on: February 15, 2014. Retrieved from:

“Auto-Icon.” February 15, 2014. University College of London. Accessed on: February 15, 2014. Retrieved from:

Stalin’s Ape-Man Super Soldiers — Urban Legend, or Reality?

Illya Ivanov

Illya Ivanov

The 20th century was a century of big ideas,such as a plot to re-engineer a continent. But geography was not the only thing people believed they could conquer with technology. Science could be used to engineer new and better humans. This was the premise behind eugenics, a pseudoscience that began in the 19th century and reached its horrifying apex with the Nazi atrocities of World War II. The idea was that either by encouraging people with desirable traits to mate or by discouraging people with undesirable traits from mating, the human race could be improved over time.

But perhaps this methodology was too slow for Joseph Stalin, who as the dictator of the Soviet Union was no stranger to megalomaniacal villainy. Legend has it that Stalin himself ordered the creation of a race of ape/human hybrids, super soldiers to rebuild his army in the wake of the devastating Bolshevik Revolution. But is there any truth to this?


Illya Ivanov, the Red Frankenstein?

This strange tale begins with an esteemed Russian scientist, Illya Ivanov. He was famed for his work artificial insemination in horses. He used his pioneering techniques to produce hybrids of various other animals, including a zebra/donkey hyrbrid (zeedonk.) As early as 1910, Ivanov speculated as to whether it was possible for apes and humans to produce hybrid offspring.

In 1926, years after the revolution,  Ivanov got his chance to test his hypothesis. The Soviet government gave him the equivalent of $10,000. He was to work with the Institut Pasteur in Paris, and to utilize their facilities in French Guinea. When he arrived in Africa, though, he found the facilities in a shambles. The only chimps there were juveniles who hadn’t yet reached sexual maturity. Later in the year, he was able to get his hands on three sexually mature chimps which he artificially inseminated with human sperm. However, when the chimps failed to conceive, Ivanov decided to take a different (and much more horrific) approach.

He hit on a plan to artificially inseminate human females with chimp sperm. He wanted to use subjects from a local hospital, and to inseminate them without their consent. He proposed this plan to doctors at the hospital, but the governor of French Guinea stepped in and put the brakes on the whole thing.

A chimp named Ham, used to test the Mercury test capsule. ...I included this picture both because it's cool and public domain.

A chimp named Ham, used to test the Mercury test capsule. …I included this picture both because it’s cool and public domain.

Ivanov’s expedition wasn’t a complete failure, though. He managed to secure 20 apes to establish a Soviet ape nursery. Unfortunately, all but four died before they arrived in the subtropical republic of Abkhazia. Once Ivanov established the nursery, he set out to find female volunteers to undergo artificial insemination.He managed to find five willing women, but the apes he managed to bring to the nursery all died before he could perform his experiment.

By 1930, the ever shifting political winds of the Soviet Union had changed. Before, positive eugenics was in vogue among the Soviet elites. By selectively breeding the best citizens, the Soviet Union could cultivate a hard working, communal-minded population. Ivanov’s work fit into this perspective because he believed by breeding humans with apes it would be possible to change humans in big ways, giving a concrete basis for the hypothetical notions of positive eugenics. It had the added bonus of giving more credence to Darwinian ideas, because if humans and apes were as closely related as Darwin believed they should be able to cross breed with humans. This could be used as a propaganda tool by the Soviet government to help its effort to stamp out religion (and replace it with what amounted to worship of the state.)

But these views fell out of favor. Stalin found he liked the Lamarckian view of evolution much better. This was the idea that acquired traits were passed on to the next generation. So, if a person develops big muscles, they will pass on those muscles to their children. It seems Stalin supported the Lamarckian view because the positive eugenics perspective was too close to what the Nazis believed, and since the Bolsheviks and the Fascists hated each other that simply wouldn’t do (a bit like how the Nazis wouldn’t accept the Theory of Relativity because a Jew came up with it.)

So, those who fell on the positive eugenics side of the spectrum were swept in a purge of the Soviet scientific community in 1930. This included Illya Ivanov, who was accused of being a saboteur by a fellow scientist when his artificial insemination equipment malfunctioned. Ivanov was exiled to Kazakstahn, where he died two years later.


…not so much.

Illya Ivanov was certainly nearing mad scientist territory. His unethical actions in Africa and the nature of his research certainly do a lot to make him a modern day Frankenstein. But the question is whether Ivanov was working on direct orders of Stalin to make super soldiers.

It turns out that wasn’t true. Stalin probably didn’t even know about Ivanov’s work, other than what he might have seen in the papers. The bit about the super soldiers came from an article in the New Scotsman, where they cite recently uncovered documents as a source. But there are no links to any of the sources, nor any other attribution. After the New Scotsman article, the notion of the ape super soldiers took off when the History Channel show Monster Quest did an episode on the topic.

Creationist websites also widely circulated the story. It fit well with their world view, since in their minds the failure to hybridize apes with humans overturns evolutionary theory. It didn’t hurt that it linked Darwin’s theory with a sociopathic atheist dictator, either.

While the urban legend brought a lot of attention to the case, the real story is about the intersection of ethics, science, and politics. The question wasn’t whether Ivanov could have hybridized humans and apes, but whether he should even try. These sorts of ethical questions are more pertinent today, with the advances in biotechnology that make things possible that Ivanov couldn’t have dreamed of.



Johnson, Eric Michael “Scientific Ethics and Stalin’s Ape-Man Superwarriors.” November 10, 2011. Scientific American. Accessed on: February 10, 2014. Retrieved from:

Grigg, Russel. “Stalin’s Ape-Man Superwarriors.” Creation Ministries International. Accessed: February 10, 2014. Retrieved from:

Pain, Stephanie. “Blasts from the past: The Soviet ape-man scandal.” August 23, 2008. The New Scientist. Accessed: February 10, 2014. Retrieved from:

“Stalin’s half-man, half-ape super-warriors.” December 20, 2005. The Scotsman. Accessed: February 10, 2014. Retrieved from:

Dunning, B. “Stalin’s Human-Ape Hybrids.” Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 17 Aug 2010. Web. 10 Feb 2014. <>

Robber, Mummy, Dummy: The Odd Story of Elmer McCurdy

Elmer_McCurdyUrban legends are stories that are just too good to be true. From the infamous “Hookman” who supposedly haunted Lover’s Lanes in the fifties and sixties to stories of deadly hairdos and maniacs stalking teenage babysitters, spooky fireside tales are basically the everyman’s horror story. They are told as if they are true, but more often than not they’re anchored more in shared anxiety than shared reality.

But now and then, an urban legend turns out to be more fact than hookum. Such is the case with the tale of the Corpse in the Funhouse. The story goes that The Six Million Dollar Man, a popular television show in the 1970s for those who are not up on their forty year old pop culture references, was filming an episode in a funhouse when a worker bumped into one of the props, a dummy painted in red fluorescent paint, knocking its arm off. When the tried to glue it back on, he was horrified to discover a bone sticking out!


From funeral parlor, to sideshow, to funhouse

The supposed “dummy” in the funhouse turned out to be the very real mummy of one Elmer McCurdy. Old Elmer thought himself quite the bandit, and in 1911 he made good on his nefarious plans by robbing a train in Oklahoma. Unfortunately for Elmer, all he managed to net from his heist was $46, two jugs of whiskey, and the ire of the local sheriff. Vowing to never be taken alive, Elmer went on the run. He wound up surrounded by the posse and was true to his word.

After being shot to death, his body was taken to the local funeral parlor. The undertaker embalmed the failed outlaw and found he did a pretty good job. When no family showed up to claim the corpse, the undertaker decided that his work was so good that he couldn’t help but put it on display (people liked to display corpses back in the day.) So he propped old Elmer up in the foyer and charged people a nickel apiece to see him (the change was deposited in the mummy’s mouth.)

McCurdy generated a steady flow of nickels until 1915 when two men claiming to be his brothers appeared. The undertaker reluctantly gave his cash cow to the supposed next of kin, who were actually two enterprising carnival promoters who promptly put McCurdy’s mummy into their side show as “The Outlaw Who Wouldn’t Give Up.” His mummy toured Texas, and from there took a winding road that passed near Mt. Rushmore, into L.A., through a few low budget movie sets, finally ending in the Long Beach funhouse where he was finally discovered during the Six Million Dollar Man Shoot.


Elmer McCurdy, laid to rest

After his discovery in the funhouse, Elmer McCurdy’s 66 year odyssey came to an end. He was laid to rest in Guthrie, Oklahoma in Boot Hill Cemetery. He was carried to his grave in a hearse pulled by two white horses. Elmer’s strange story came to an end when he was buried. Having found more fame in death than in life, McCurdy can finally rest peacefully.



The Associated Press. “Elmer McCurdy Goes Home to Boot Hill.” The Lakeland Ledger. April 23, 1977. pg 6B. Retrieved from:,5601106

The Associated Press. “Died With His Boots On.” The Evening Independent. December 11, 1976. pg 2A Retrieved from:,2770127

Mikkelson, Barbara. “Dead Man Gawking.” November 9, 2006. Accessed on: January 31, 2014. Retrieved from:

United Press International. “Amusement Park Mummy Was Elmer McCurdy, A Wild West Desperado.” Ludington Daily News. December 10, 1976. Retrieved from:,5751259


Confederate Pikemen of the Civil War

A Macedonian pike formation. Part of the army that Alexander the Great used to conquer the known world.

A Macedonian pike formation. Part of the army that Alexander the Great used to conquer the known world.

The pike is an ancient weapon. Essentially a long spear, it has been used effectively by such varied armies as those of Alexander the Great, William Wallace’s Scots, the Swiss, and just about every other Renaissance era fighting force. During those eras, when the pike was used in a dense formation of well-trained men, it was almost unbeatable in both defense and offense. The dominance of the pike on the battlefield only ended in the 1700s when firearm technology became more effective. It didn’t take a genius to realize that a musket had better range than a really long spear, and soldiers largely abandoned their ancient weapons in favor of the modern.

However, just because pikes were outmoded didn’t mean that people did not return to them in desperation. One such instance occurred in 1862, during the Civil War, when Governor Joe Brown of Georgia commissioned the state’s blacksmiths to forge 10,000 pikes.


Joe Brown’s Pikes

The pikes governor Joe Brown planned to arm his men with were about 6 or 7 feet long, with a clover-leaf shaped blade. They were meant to be paired with an 18 inch long knife. Rather than expecting his soldiers to stand their ground, Governor Brown envisioned the weapon as an offensive tool to be used to augment bayonet charges by better armed companions. He argued that a long pike would be superior in close quarters to the comparatively short rifle/bayonet used by regular troops, giving his pike-armed troops a decided edge once fighting devolved into a melee. He envisioned arming every able-bodied man in the state, first with pikes and then when they were available, rifled muskets.

Mind you, he was talking about arming men with spears in a war that became infamous for industrialized death. The rifled muskets used by both sides were accurate at up to 100 yards, and fired either musket balls or the deadly Minie balls, the latter of which often tumbled during flight and shattered bones. This isn’t even counting the improved artillery, rudimentary land mines, and primitive grenades.

A soldier, facing all of this, would have thought his Governor was insane to ask him to charge onto the battlefield armed with an anachronism. However, Joe Brown might not have been quite as crazy as people believed.


Desperate times call for desperate measures

The Joe Brown pike.

The Joe Brown pike. Image Source: Smithsonian Institution

When Governor Brown came up with his plans to arm Confederate forces with pikes, the South was doing well against the Union on the battlefield. It might have seemed odd to look toward arming every able-bodied man with a spear when the Confederacy had been trouncing their enemies, but Brown seems prescient in retrospect.We now know that, on paper at least, the Union’s victory in the war was assured. More men, more money, and an ability to produce more and better weapons. It doesn’t take a military genius to see that the odds weren’t in the South’s favor.

Which makes the South’s strategy, again with the benefit of hindsight, sound insane. Outnumbered, the South sought to end the war with an aggressive strategy, crushing the Union forces on the field and forcing Lincoln to come to the negotiating table when the high cost of the war was too much for the public to bear. That, or simply take the Union capital and cut the head of the snake (this is a vast oversimplification of a complex issue, of course, but I don’t have the time or space to delve into a more in depth analysis.)

Governor Brown, and likely others at the time as well, seemed to realize what more modern Civil War buffs and military theorists know 150 years later: the South didn’t have to win the war, it just had to not lose. Look at Vietnam; an enemy with vastly inferior military power was able to defeat a super power by simply wearing out its far superior enemy over time using innovative tactics (most famously, the Mongols and the United States.)

That was what the South could have done. Simply invite the North in and close the jaws, as it were. It would have been devastating and the war probably would have gone on longer, but a victory could have been possible then.

What would that have to do with Joe Brown’s pikes? Well, a war like that would have involved the entire Confederate population fighting tooth and nail against the northern aggressors. Arming men with simple weapons that could be used with little training and, more importantly, used in a stealthy manner would have been paramount.

But then, it’s easy to know what should have been done with 150 years of hindsight. The fact is that the thinking of the time was heavily influenced by Western European warfare, with its neat battle lines and formal rules of war. There were some instances of guerrilla style tactics used by both sides, especially on the frontier, and there was a fear in the North that the Confederate forces would take to the hills and extend the war for years after 1864. But for the most part, those tactics weren’t part of the thought process of the era.

So, Joe Brown’s pikes were seen largely as a curiosity. Troops hated them, preferring more modern weapons, and critics of the governor railed against him for wasting scarce war resources on useless weapons. All told, about 7099 pikes were made in Georgia during the war, but there is no record of them ever being used in battle.


Gilpin, R. Blakeslee. “A Fight to the Last Pike.” March, 2, 2012. The New York Times. Accessed: January 22, 2014. Retrieved from:

Griffith, Joe. “Joe Brown’s Pikes: Southern Steel in Close Quarters.” November 10, 2008. The Historical Society of the Georgia National Guard. Accessed: January 22, 2014. Retrieved from:


Atlantropa: The Plan to Engineer a Continent

Diagram of proposed locks at the Gibraltar dam.

Diagram of proposed locks at the Gibraltar dam.

The 20th century was marked by awe-inspiring engineering projects on a scale unmatched in human history. The Hoover Dam, the U.S. highways system, and the Three Gorges Dam are only a handful of the ambitious programs humans embarked on in the last century.

These projects are remarkable achievements, but they in no way match the scale of what people were able to imagine during those heady days of seemingly unlimited progress, when anything seemed possible. Among the most ambitious, borderline megalomaniacal, plan belonged to Hermann Sorgel. His solution to the problems facing Europe post World War I was nothing short of re-engineering an entire continent.


A man with a plan

Hermann Sorgel was a German architect who proposed his plan for Atlantropa (also known as Panropa) in the 1920s. He believed that the problems plaguing Europe — chronic warfare, unemployment, and political strife — were caused by overpopulation. The solution would later be encapsulated by the Nazi concept of Lebensraum, “living space.” Sorgel’s concept differed from that of the Nazis in that his concept of more European living space in that it was not limited to only Aryans. Also, it did not involve the aggressive theft of such living space from other nations. Point of fact, Sorgel’s Atlantropa scheme was explicitly pacifistic; it sought to make more living space for Europeans not by taking land from other Europeans, but by expanding Europe itself.

This would be achieved by lowering the level of the Mediterranean Sea using a series of dams, the largest of which would cross the Strait of Gibraltar. Twenty-five miles long,t would control the inflow of water from the Atlantic Ocean, and in the process produce huge amounts of hydroelectricity that would provide cheap power to millions. A tunnel connecting Spain and North Africa would be built underneath the massive dam, and it would contain two railroad lines and four road beds. The monstrous barrier would have lowered the level of the Mediterranean by 660 feet, freeing up huge tracts of land for European settlement. The Adriatic Sea would have ceased to exist, and Sicily would have expanded to the point it basically merged with the toe of Italy.

The next dam would cross the Dardanelles Straits, in what is now Turkey, and a third dam would be built between Sicily and Tunisia. This dam would effectively divide the Mediterranean in two, and it would act as a roadway to link southern Europe and Northern Africa. A set of locks and gates would be added to the Suez Canal to keep the connection to the Red Sea and the larger world.

Notice how the terms “European” and “European Settlement” have been used over and over. That is because, despite Sorgel’s peaceful intentions for Europe, he cared little for the vast majority of the world that wasn’t of European descent. This sentiment especially extended to Africa, which according to the racist thinking of the times was a dark continent with no history, civilization, or culture of any value. So, in his eyes, it would be no problem to simply take what Europe needed from Africa. If Europe needed land, then North Africa would have to become part of Europe. The next phase of his plan involved damming the Congo River to expand Lake Chad, and then using that water to irrigate the Sahara Desert. The now semi-tropical lands would effectively be a bread basket for a united Europe.


An unworkable idea?

Satellite view of the Mediterranian Sea.

Satellite view of the Mediterranian Sea.

For Atlantropa to work, it would have required the cooperation of every state in Europe. In a continent shattered by warfare and bad blood, that was a tall order. If it was politically unfeasible, Atlantropa was also an economic non-starter. France was shattered by the fighting on its homeland during World War I, and still in recovery in the 1920s. Germany was suffering from rampant inflation and the demands of the Treaty of Versailles. The lands of the former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires had collapsed into warring factions. There simply was not enough political or economic will to be mustered for a project the size of Sorgel’s Atlantropa.

Plus there were other factors to be considered. The nations of southern Europe were not thrilled by the idea. Large parts of their economies depended on the sea. Lowering the sea level would leave hundreds of villages, towns, and cities high and dry, completely changing ways of life that go back hundreds of years. It is doubtful too that the peoples of North Africa would be thrilled to have Europeans annex their lands.

The human costs would multiply once the inevitable environmental consequences kicked in. Sorgel proposed nothing short of deliberately shifting the climate of an entire continent. Then there is the ecological devastation that would result from the draining of the Mediterranean, the flooding of Lake Chad, and the irrigation of the Sahara. Many species of plants and animals, both on land and sea, would likely have gone extinct, and it is difficult to predict the cascade of effects that would have resulted from their absence.


Faded into history

Hermann Sorgel campaigned for Atlantropa for 25 years until his death in 1952. Interest in the project waxed and waned, but progress both technological and cultural eventually sounded its death knell. With the advent of nuclear power, people discovered a sustainable way to produce cheap power. After the horrors of World War II and the revelations of Nazi Germany’s atrocities, views toward racist attitudes began to shift. Colonial powers such as Britain had lost hold of their overseas territories bit by bit, and world opinion was turning against colonialism in general.

Simply put, Atlantropa became a relic in a changing world. The Atlantropa Institute held on eight years after Sorgel’s death, but eventually dissolved in 1960. Hermann Sorgel’s vision of utopia faded into history, becoming nothing more than an interesting footnote.


“Atlantropa.” 30 December 2013. Wikipedia. 17 January 2014. <>

“First Facts on the World’s Biggest Engineering Job.” The Spokesman-Review. 31 May 1929. Retrieved From:,4476781>

Edit Suisse Group. “Atlantropa.” Cabinet. Spring 2003. Issue 10. Retrieved From: <>



Confederate Bio-warfare: Dr. Blackburn and the Yellow Fever Plot

The virus that causes yellow fever. Symptoms include fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, back pain, and loss of appetite. Extreme cases result in the victim vomiting blood, which makes the vomit appear black.

The virus that causes yellow fever. Symptoms include fever, chills, nausea, vomiting, back pain, and loss of appetite. Extreme cases result in the victim vomiting blood, which makes the vomit appear black.

In the post 9/11 world, bioterrorism is the stuff of nightmares. During the Cold War arms race, the United States and the Soviet Union developed vast stockpiles of biological and chemical agents. The fear is that terrorists might get a hold of an engineered strain of small pox, anthrax, or the plague and let it loose in a city. Such an outbreak could, at the very least, derail an entire region. At worst, it could end civilization as we know it.

However, this fear is far from a modern preoccupation. Medieval armies would fling plague infected corpses over enemy walls to spread disease, and the scourge of small pox (in some cases intentionally spread) among Native Americans is well documented. One lesser known incident of bioterrorism occurred during the American Civil War, when a Southern sympathizer attempted to spread Yellow Fever among Northern cities.


Dr. Blackburn: physician…and terrorist?

Dr. Luke Blackburn was a Kentuckian, physician, and Southern sympathizer. He was famous for his treatment of yellow fever outbreaks in Louisiana and Mississippi, which made him more than qualified to help when the dread disease broke out in Bermuda. The year was 1864, and the South was hardpressed in its war against the Union. From the beginning, it lacked the industrial capacity and man power of its northern neighbor, a fact that was taking its toll three years into the conflict. The Confederacy was desperate for resources, and could ill afford the outbreak in Bermuda, a key partner in its trade network.


Dr. Luke Blackburn

So, Dr. Blackburn, eager to help the Southern cause, was duly dispatched to Bermuda, where he offered his services free of charge. Little did his patients know that his expertise was not offered solely out of the goodness of his heart. Dr. Blackburn gathered their bedding, clothes, vomit crusted rags, and other such disgusting articles. He packed them into trunks, which he put under the care of a co-conspirator named Mr. Swan. The plan was to ship the trunks first to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Norfolk, and Washington where the plague infested articles would be sold to clothing merchants, who would inadvertently spread yellow fever to their customers. A witness claimed that the good doctor had prepared a valise full of fine shirts for none other than Abraham Lincoln himself.

Since there was no mass outbreak of yellow fever that derailed the entire war effort and handed the South victory, it should be obvious that the whole plot failed. Witnesses to Dr. Blackburn’s nefarious deeds came forward, and the Union consul in Bermuda got wind of the scheme. The operation was shut down and Dr. Blackburn fled back to Canada.


A futile effort, and its aftermath

When Dr. Blackburn returned to Canada, he was arrested and charged with violating Canada’s Neutrality Act. However, charges were dropped since there wasn’t any hard evidence showing that the plague trunks had ever entered Canada’s border. In an odd twist, especially in light of today’s attitude toward terrorism and terroristic threats, the US government never followed up on the matter, although newspapers had a field day. While a link to the Confederacy was suspected, any record was destroyed in the wake of the Southern defeat.

As for Dr. Blackburn, he refused to talk about the plot. He continued his work with yellow fever, combating an outbreak in Louisiana in 1878. He was elected governor of his home state of Kentucky from 1879-1883, where he was held in high regard for his work on prison reform. The only time he spoke on the matter, Blackburn denied all involvement and said that the plot was too ridiculous for a gentleman to be involved with.

It turned out that he was right, in that regard. The yellow fever plot failed from its conception, because yellow fever is can’t spread directly from person to person. Instead, it is spread by mosquitoes. But one shouldn’t be too hard on Dr. Blackburn for that technicality. First, the germ theory of disease hadn’t be discovered yet. Second, the vector for yellow fever wasn’t discovered until 1911, so there was no way Dr. Blackburn could have known that his little scheme was doomed from the beginning.


Kolata, Gina. “New York Was Bioterrorism Target in 1864.” November 13, 2001. The New York Times. Accessed on: February 1, 2014. Retrieved from:

Segel, Lawrence. “‘The Yellow Fever Plot’ Germ Warfare During the Civil War.” September 2002. The Canadian Journal of Diagnosis. Accessed on: February 1, 2014. Retrieved from:

“The Yellow Fever Plot.” May 16, 1865. The New York Times. Accessed on. February 1, 2014. Retrieved from:

Death on the WInd: The Dugway Sheep Incident

Flock_of_sheepDuring the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union raced to build vast stockpiles of doomsday weapons. One should think that having enough weaponry to destroy the world once over would be enough for any self respecting superpower, but the two countries didn’t stop there. From nuclear to biological to chemical weapons, collectively known today as weapons of mass destruction, neither side hesitated to explore a variety of ways to exterminate the other guy.

While luckily these stockpiles of WMDs were never used in anger, their development had horrendous side effects on people living near testing grounds. One of the stranger incidents of a weapons test gone awry occurred in Utah’s Skull Valley, situated near the Dugway Proving Ground, when the US Army inadvertently nerve gassed 6,000 sheep.


Deadly cloud in the aptly named Skull Valley

March 13, 1968. Workers at the Dugway Proving Grounds performed three tests involving VX, a deadly nerve agent with an oily consistency. A drop on the skin the size of a pinhead can kill a full grown adult in 15 minutes. The first test involved firing a single VX laden artillery shell. The second involved burning 160 gallons of the nerve agent in an open pit. It is the third test, however, that has gone on to become infamous. This test involved a low-flying F-4E Phantom jet dumping VX on an empty test area 27 miles from Skull Valley. The jet performed its mission, but something went wrong with the spraying apparatus used in the test. It continued to leak the deadly agent as the pilot guided his plane over Skull Valley.

One terrifying feature of VX is how it persists in the environment. Due to its oily consistency, it clings to vegetation and can do so for days. In this case, the VX coated the grass and snow covering Skull Valley. Sheep living in the valley ate the contaminated grass and snow, and by March 14 some 6000 of them were dead. The Army of course denied responsibility for their deaths, but tests conducted on blood and tissue samples from the carcasses showed traces of VX in their systems. Tests conducted in 1972 at Edgewood Arsenal showed that sheep fed grass contaminated with VX exhibited the same symptoms as the sheep in Skull Valley.

View of Skull Valley fromthe Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area

View of Skull Valley fromthe Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area

However, sheep were not the only victims of the mishap in Skull Valley. Ray Peck and his family lived in the valley during the incident. Peck himself was outside working when the jet streaked overhead. He developed an earache before the end of the day. The next morning, before discovering the dead sheep, he thought the new fallen snow was so pretty that he decided to eat a handful of it (…does that seem like an odd reaction to anyone else, by the way?)

Imagine his fright when he found the dead and dying animals. Worse, imagine how he and his family felt when Army helicopters descended from the sky and officers, doctors, and soldiers swarmed his property. The doctors obtained blood samples from all of the Peck family members. Not long after the incident, Peck and his family began to suffer from terrible headaches. Ray Peck reported headaches in addition to bouts of numbness, paranoia, and burning pains in his legs. The family also suffered fertility problems after the incident, including an unusually high number of miscarriages.

The Pecks were not the only human casualties of the accident. Leaders of the Skull Valley Band of Goshute reported that older members of the tribe died not long after the leak. No investigation was made to find the source of these deaths, but tribal members believe there may be a link to the VX leak.


The Aftermath

Despite all the time that has passed since the Army inadvertently killed 6000 sheep and injured an unknown number of people, it has never once acknowledged its responsibility for the incident. While a 1970 report showing that VX from Dugway was responsible for the deaths was declassified in 1978, it did not come to the public’s attention until 1998. These and other reports were not followed up on by the Army, but rather were filed away and left to gather dust.

While the Army never took responsibility, the government did offer compensation to ranchers who lost their sheep, a paltry sum of $1 million. If anything positive came out of the mess, it was that the media reporting on the case was a factor in Nixon’s decision in 1969 to ban all open air testing of chemical weapons.

Small consolation for the people of Skull Valley, who have to live with the results of the leak to this day.



Davidson, Lee and Bauman, Joe.”Toxic Utah: A land littered by poisons.” February 28 2001. Deseret News. Acessed January 19, 2014. Retrieved from:

Norell, Brenda. “Skull Valley’s Nerve Gas Neighbors.” Indian Country Today. 25 October 2005.Accessed 19 January 2014. Retrieved from:

Woolf, Jim. “U.S. Nerve Gas Leak ’68.” Salt Lake Tribune. January 2, 1998. Accessed January 19, 2014. Retrieved from:


A Ghoulish Experiment: Project Sunshine and the Government Body Snatchers

Operation_Upshot-Knothole_-_Badger_001During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union conducted extensive weapons testing, including deadly biological and chemical agents, and most famously, nuclear weapons. By the early fifties, the public and politicians alike were both raising concerns about the potential hazards of nuclear fall out, especially after thermonuclear weapons testing accidentally irradiated the Marshal Islands in 1954.

Little did anyone know, however, that a year before the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) began a study to look into the matter of radioactive fallout. The goal was to try and ascertain just how widespread the worst product of fission, Strontium-90, were after the weapons tests conducted so far and what effects it would have on the biosphere and human populations. This data would be used to extrapolate what might happen if a full on nuclear exchange between the US and the USSR occurred.

A sensible goal. After all, if we were pumping ridiculous amounts of irradiated material into the atmosphere, it would probably be a good idea to figure out what exactly it was doing to the people, plants, and animals it wound up falling on. But the means to achieve that end were, as you will see, downright ghoulish.


Deadly Strontium-90

In order to understand the macabre experiments known ironically enough as Project Sunshine, we will need to understand some properties of strontium-90, the main focus of the study. I won’t bore you with an in depth chemical analysis, which is beyond my ability anyway.

Put short and sweet, Strontium-90 is a radioactive element produced during a nuclear detonation, a product of the splitting of heavy uranium or plutonium atoms. It also occurs in thermonuclear bombs, because while fusion reactions are “clean” in terms of radioactive fallout, they need to be kickstarted by a “dirtier” fission device. It has a half-life of 27.7 years (meaning that, after 28 years, a 1 gram sample of Strontium-90 will have decayed to .5 grams Sr-90; the remaining mass will be products of decay.)

That is part of what makes Sr-90 deadly; it can persist in the environment for a long time. What truly makes this radioactive element a killer is its tendency to replace calcium in bone. This can lead to high rates of bone cancer in populations effected by Sr-90 exposure.

So, in order to study the effects of Sr-90 on human populations, scientists working with the AEC needed bones. Radioactive materials tend to have the biggest effect on rapidly reproducing cells (that’s why radiation is used to treat cancers, by the way.) Bones tend to grow more rapidly in younger people, stopping major growth by about age 20. So, in order to best study the effects of Sr-90, the scientists specifically needed the bones of young people, preferably those of babies.

And that is where things took a turn for the horrific.


Macabre secrets

Scientists associated with Project Sunshine ran into difficulties procuring ‘samples’ for their experiments. Not only did the study require baby’s bones (particularly thigh bones), but in order to extract the radioactive elements, if any were present, the bones had to be burnt to ash. Much of the population of the United States and other parts of the English speaking world are predominantly Christian, and many Christians strongly believe that a body has to be buried, not cremated, in order to be able to meet Jesus “in the air” upon his second coming. And no doubt having a baby die is a traumatic experience. Obviously, very few parents in such a bereaved state would take kindly to government scientists showing up on their doorstep, asking for the mortal remains of their dearly departed infant.

So, Project Sunshine scientists had to get creative. They became body snatchers.

That isn’t hyperbole, either. Dr. Willard Libby, who was AEC Commissioner in 1955, said: “…if anybody knows how to do a good job at body snatching, they will be really serving their country.”

However, this was a bit more sophisticated than the body snatchers of previous centuries, who dug up freshly buried cadavers in order to sell them to medical schools. Project Sunshine involved an entire web of medical professionals and scientists, among others, all over the world. Basically, the men working on the project worked their private networks to secure sources of samples. Hospitals in countries as varied as the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and Formosa all unwittingly contributed dead citizens to the AEC cause. Of course, samples were procured without the next of kin’s knowledge. When the body snatchers bothered to ask family members for permission to take their dearly departed’s remains, they never said exactly what they were planning to do with them.

While it is difficult to get a full tally, at least 6000 and probably more bodies were used over the course of the study, which ran on into the seventies.


The full story?

Due to the shady nature of the experiment, the fact that in 2014 we are fifty odd years removed from what happened, we may never know the full story of what occurred during Project Sunshine. Investigations by the US, British, and Australian governments and media in the 1990s turned up a great deal of evidence, but some aspects of the project remain unclear. For example, it is unknown exactly how extensive the body snatching ring was, and precisely how many remains were taken and from where. To add to the difficulty, some of the more sensitive documents remain classified, locked away in government archives.

Still, Project Sunshine remains a strange and macabre expression of the Cold War arms race, an odd incident that will hopefully remain unique to its time in history.



Advisory Committee Staff. “Documentary Update on Project Sunshine ‘Body Snatching’.” June 9, 1995. Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments. Accessed on: January 24, 2014. Retrieved from:

Leela, Jacinto. “World Wakes Up to Horrific Scientific History.” ABC News. Accessed on: January 24, 2014. Retrieved from:

U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, U.S. Air Force Project Rand. “Worldwide Effects of Atomic Weapons: Project Sunshine.” US AEC. 1953 Retrieved from:

Rabbit Roff, Sue. “Project Sunshine and The Slippery Slope.” Centre for Medical Education. Dundee University Medical School. Accessed on: January 24, 2014. Retrieved from: