Author Profile #10:
June 2010: Prof. Ferenc Szasz Dies
FRANK GREGORSKY: "Szasz" sounds like the classic Hungarian name. Where were you born?
FERENC MORTON SZASZ: I'm American-born, but my father was born in Budapest.
GREGORSKY: The ISBN page of your 2006 book says you were born in 1940. When was your father [Ferenc Paul Szasz] born, and what did he do?
SZASZ: He was a mechanical engineer, born in 1906. That meant he was of the same generation as the atomic geniuses -- many of them German and Hungarian refugees -- I would one day write about in The Day the Sun Rose Twice.
GREGORSKY: If your father grew up in Budapest, he witnessed the Bela Kuhn communist takeover [of 1919].
SZASZ: He moved to Vienna while quite young, so he was not raised in Budapest. The family had only a summer estate in Hungary. So my father was really more Viennese than he was Hungarian. He spoke five languages. German was the main one and the family only spoke Hungarian at the dinner table.
GREGORSKY: And how did he get to the States?
SZASZ: He came in 1936. He worked for International Harvester. He had graduated from The Charles University in Prague. International Harvester had its headquarters in Moline, Illinois. And while in Moline, he met my mother, who comes from an old New England family. She was a schoolteacher. So they met and married, which made him a naturalized citizen. I have kind of an unusual background -- a Hungarian immigrant father, and an old New England family via my mother.
GREGORSKY: Um-hmm. Any brothers and sisters?
SZASZ: I'm an only child. Lots of cousins, though.
GREGORSKY: In what ways do you take after your dad?
SZASZ: Well, I did not inherit his facility for languages [chuckles]. But I grew up with an interest in things scientific. He was pretty close to being a genius -- I've met five Nobel laureates, and I think my father actually ranked among them. He would bring in technical matters. I didn't enter engineering, and had no skills along that line -- but I became familiar with the rhetoric. And later it dawned on me that one reason I was attracted to the story of Los Alamos was growing up with a partly immigrant family. So I could "identify" with those émigrés who guided the Manhattan Project in a way that another historian coming to the subject could not.
After discussing Hans Bethe, Leo Salard, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner and John von Neuman (plus a Canadian physicist named Carson Mark), Szasz says that "in a strange way" he found himself "with at least one foot in their camp," even though his major was History and he had "just a smattering of physics."
Mentors, Comic Books, and Whole Landscapes
GREGORSKY: I grew up in and around Rochester, New York. You make a fleeting reference to my hometown at the very start of the most recent book. Can you flesh that out?
SZASZ: That's where I got my PhD -- at the University of Rochester, in 1969.
GREGORSKY: Okay, we'll get to the college years shortly. I need to first see: What are some of the early books that shaped your sense of self, your values, framework and philosophy, etc.?
SZASZ: Well, that's a hard one. I was always a reader, partly because I was near-sighted. As a kid, I was passionate about reading.
GREGORSKY: But a few books lasted longer than all the others.
SZASZ: Everybody has a moment of epiphany. Mine came in the eight grade. We had just moved from Illinois to Ohio -- I spent the high school years in Bucyrus, Ohio. Town of about 13,000 then, and 13,000 now. My father managed the hydraulic-pump plant there and my mother taught in the public high school. I picked up The Count of Monte Cristo -- and it was the first book that I could not lay down. I had never read anything like that. I also read a great deal of comic books -- and I'm still a comic-book aficionado, and have written on comic-book history -- an essay on "atomic comic books."
GREGORSKY: Um-hmm! (Approvingly)
SZASZ: My mother -- an English teacher -- was appalled. She wanted me to read Little Lord Fauntleroy [laughter] -- but I preferred Batman, Donald Duck, and continued on my way.
GREGORSKY: So by age 16 or so, you would not have called yourself an intellectual, but at the same time were in "search mode." How would you describe what you were looking for?
SZASZ: Well, I certainly didn't know much as a teenager. But, at age 66, I think I might describe it as "something that would illuminate the human spirit."
GREGORSKY: Where did you begin college?
SZASZ: After graduating high school in 1958, I went to Ohio Wesleyan University -- in Delaware, Ohio, just 35 miles down the road. There I met a person who changed my life -- Richard W. Smith. He's still alive. He was teaching history. Smith graduated from DePauw, did a masters at Harvard, ran out of money, finished up at Ohio State. Smith had total recall -- I think it's called "iedic imagery." He was so good in the classroom that, if he had started to read from the phone book, people would begin to take notes. When I decided to become a History major, Smith took me under his wing. He said "you will take German and you will take French, and you will do this and you will do that" -- so I did everything he said.
He told me to apply to Rochester, so I could study with Glendon van Dusen, who was a specialist in the pre-Civil War period, which was also Smith's specialty.
After Szasz got to the U. of Rochester in 1962, he found to his dismay that van Dusen had retired. The whole department was shifting to what they called "social and intellectual history," which was a perfect foil for a question Gregorsky already had in waiting...
GREGORSKY: Your 2006 book [on New Mexico] contains what is for you a rare example of barbed commentary. The biographical-style Introduction describes graduate school training in "American social and intellectual history." And then you say "although this term has long since been tossed into the historical wastebasket, I still believe that the history of ideas as placed in their social context remains a viable approach to any valid understanding of the past." Can you elaborate on that statement here?
SZASZ: It has been dumped in the historical wastebasket. But "social and intellectual history" is still a viable discipline. It's the history of ideas. Not "philosophy," but the history of ideas held by the people -- and how they shift over time. So that's what I specialized in at the University of Rochester.
GREGORSKY: Philosophy is more a playing field for the elites --
GREGORSKY: -- whereas an "idea" in its extreme popular form can be, as Carl Jung said, a "psychic epidemic."
GREGORSKY: "Germany" in the 1930s was an idea that animated a whole country.
SZASZ: Absolutely. "What did ordinary people think of such-and such?" -- which legitimizes both the study of popular culture, and also the study of the elites. They all fit into this category of "social and intellectual history."
GREGORSKY: What name does the category go by now?
SZASZ: "Cultural history," which is not quite the same. And the old "social history" has gone off into kind of "working-class history," or the history of "under-represented" groups.
GREGORSKY: Yet you still -- here at the University of New Mexico four decades later -- list "intellectual history" as your specialty. Which strikes me as different from the history of intellectuals [laughter]. Anyway, what was covered by the term "social and intellectual history" as you got used to it in grad school?
SZASZ: It included artifacts. It included antiques. It included comic books. It included philosophers -- the history of ideas. The British writer Paul Johnson, who is very good, writes in this vein.
A seminar assignment from Milton Berman during the mid-‘60s awakened Szasz to the value of church archives. Berman had written a biography of John Fiske -- "the reconciler of evolution and religion at the turn of the century" -- and ended up directing Szasz's dissertation. That dissertation became Szasz's first book: The Divided Mind of Protestant America, 1880-1930. After a fascinating discussion of the last decade of William Jennings Bryan's life, we come to another theme that will define Szasz's work as a historian and author...
SZASZ: People need stories. A narrative line. A multiethnic nation especially needs stories. We in America need stories more than would a single people of a single faith and ethnicity. Only special kinds of stories will unite the disparate elements of the American nation.
GREGORSKY: Um-hmm, um-hmm.
SZASZ: And that's what I see "social and intellectual history" in part doing. I also think -- maybe naively -- that history has a quasi-inspirational role. It shouldn't be detached. It needs to kind of call forth, in Lincoln's terms, "the better angels of our nature." And so I see a quasi-religious dimension in the study of history -- in that sense of calling us to a higher plane. For me, it's not just an intellectual exercise. It has a moral dimension.
GREGORSKY: Your 2006 book distinguishes place from geography -- the former "signifies an emotional attachment to the land... it refers to a locale where a people have lived for generations..." And then you say: "To talk of place in a southwestern context usually brushes up against the idea of the sacred, a concept that most historians tend to shy away from." Why do you think that is?
SZASZ: Historians -- such as my esteemed colleagues with whom I have lunch three times a week -- are largely rationalists. I'm dearly fond of them [grinning], but they're not much aware of either organized religion or the spiritual dimension of the subjects they discuss. I'm not trying to find fault here; this is just their view of the world.
Writing about the spiritual really needs the insights of sociologists and anthropologists -- of religious-studies types. You don't find "S" in the archives -- for "spiritual." You have to kind of tease that part of the story out of ordinary people's memoirs.
SZASZ: You know, it cannot be "proven" in a way that other things can historically. But the dimensions of spiritual power in various subcultures need to be acknowledged.
GREGORSKY: Carl Jung [in a 1938 interview] had a fascinating theory about Adolph Hitler. He said Hitler was not the physically strong leader in the "chief gangster" sense of Stalin or Mussolini. Rather, he was a "medicine man," more like the African tradition where members of a community project their image of [in this case] "Germany" into him. That was why, when non-Germans looked at Hitler [on film] or heard him, he came off as a Charlie Chaplin stick figure. But, to the mass of Germans, there was a psychic connection with Der Fuhrer. Since nobody outside of the German "tribe" could get that, we were years late in figuring out what was really going on there.
SZASZ: I buy that. In fact I was just discussing this with our Russian historian Rob Robbins today. He said that only way you could understand Hitler -- explain it to a class -- is to liken the phenomena to a rock star. Young girls would present themselves to him, offer their virginity to him. They would stand by the motorcade, race out, and hope that the car would hit them, so that he would then come out and comfort them.
SZASZ: Or they would flash their breasts as Hitler went by. This is an adoration that is not understandable in any rational way.
GREGORSKY: Right. Females of any age would not do that to a Mafia chieftain.
SZASZ: [Laughter] Not at all. And you wouldn't do it to a present-day politician!
Origin and Purpose of His 1984 and 2000 Books
GREGORSKY: We're talking about religion and culture, but you've published just as much on science, which we'll shift to soon. Your 2000 book was Religion in the Modern American West. I confess: I have not read it, though I will soon. For now, one foundational question: Why did you write that book?
SZASZ: My first book [as indicated, grew out of the doctoral dissertation] and dealt with religion and science. Took a long time for that one to break into print, by the way. I got so sick of the subject [laughter] that, by the early ‘80s, I was looking for something totally different.
I saw a film by John Else called The Day After Trinity. It was a prize-winning video, showing on our PBS station -- the story of the Trinity Site. And in the middle was a sentence that the Governor received a phone call from Manhattan Project manager General Leslie Groves, in the middle of the night, saying that it might be necessary to evacuate the central part of the state of New Mexico. And so I thought: That would be a good 25-page article -- for a historical journal. And I ended up doing a couple of books on that, aided by friends who were in the scientific field.
GREGORSKY: Okay, there's the science trail -- we'll save the big book in that sector until the end. What about the religion track?
SZASZ: Gerald Nash was probably the preeminent historian of the American West in the department, and one of the top ones in the nation. He and my colleague Richard Etulain were editing a series on the 20th-century West for the University of Arizona Press, so writing Religion in the Modern American West began with an invitation. I would not have done that book on my own. They asked me: "Do you want to write that book for the series?" There was no study of religion in the 20th-century West.
GREGORSKY: Second question about that 2000 book: What most surprised you about the reaction?
SZASZ: The surprise was that it got very good reviews -- you know, usually you get hammered somewhere. It was reviewed by all the denominations, and most of the denominations found that I had made some small errors. I had the wrong order for a Catholic priest, and I had made an error here for somebody else, so that's fair. But basically most of ‘em said there hasn't been anything like this, and there really needs to be -- because it's a major factor of life.
TWO REVIEWS of Religion in the Modern American West
I've written a lot on the Great Plains. Religion holds a community together; the church holds a community together. Every ethnic church on the Plains is the place where the language is kept alive. It's a place where you hear the old stories. The old people can go there and not feel completely at sea. Just to take a different example: If you lived in Chicago, you would have the ethnic burial society, you'd have an ethnic press, ethnic bakeries and funeral homes, coffee klatches, and all that. On the Great Plains and in much of the West, the church has to take over all those functions -- so the church is a multifaceted Great Plains institution, and virtually everybody belonged, to one or another. I even include "free thinkers" in the church. It was a group of angry free-thinkers, but they formed their very own "free-thinker church" [laughter], for lack of a better term. On the Plains, everybody had to be a something. If you're not a something, you're lost.
GREGORSKY: The free-thinkers weren't a rump group in the main denomination, they were their own group.
SZASZ: Their own group.
GREGORSKY: But they had something roughly like "Mass"?
SZASZ: Well, I'm not sure of that -- but they had their own cemetery! The entrance to it said "abandon hope, all ye who enter here." And they would egg the visiting pastors -- throw eggs at them.
SZASZ: I also found that the West -- many of the stereotypes are true: The West was tolerant. It had Jewish mayors, Jewish sheriffs, Jewish Governors -- 50 years before Florida or New York.
GREGORSKY: One more on religion -- specifically, Francis Schlatter, who lived from 1856 to 1906. You call him "the spiritual healer of the southwest." He gets a whole chapter in Larger Than Life, but I'm guessing much of the research for this [profile] was done in the context of the earlier book.
SZASZ: Actually, no. I wrote an article on Schlatter -- I was just intrigued by him. I ran across some photos of him [example, to the right] while researching in the Library of Congress and was just stunned by them. So I wrote a little essay on him.
GREGORSKY: When was that?
SZASZ: Mid-‘70s, I think. But later I redid it, with a great deal more research. I read through the Colorado newspapers -- because his journeys and healing sessions were daily news: The phenomenon of a healer -- a faith healer, a spiritual healer. We're in 1895. Medicine has not yet come on a scientific basis. We're also in a subculture where spiritual healing is "the way" that people heal.
GREGORSKY: The 1890s were also known for séances and mediums, and for the spread of illegal drugs before we knew enough to make them illegal. I've read in several places that the 1890s resembled the 1960s. Not in economic terms at all, but in the sense of a grassroots bubbling-up of supernatural interest.
SZASZ: Absolutely. Absolutely. There's a genuine ferment in the 1890s. But to make it even more regional, Francis Schlatter surfaces south of Albuquerque. The Native American and Hispanic worlds -- their healing ceremonies would be all herbal or spiritual. So, had Schlatter tried this in Chicago [laughter], he would've gotten nowhere. He moved to Albuquerque, and then he moves up to Denver. Now Denver is an Anglo society; it's pretty secular -- but we're still in the --
GREGORSKY: Right. He probably couldn't have done it in Minnesota, because of all that bloodless Nordic rationalism.
SZASZ: No, absolutely. In the Southwest, though, Schlatter is a phenomenon. He doesn't take money, okay? And he takes no credit. In the present day, faith healing, spiritual healing, has a little bit of tawdry dimension to it. But Schlatter takes no money. He says he's not doing it; the Father is healing through his arms. He's a mystic, I think.
GREGORSKY: Okay, several things strike me about this chapter, but the biggest one is that you do take a position, on a controversial matter, at the end of this chapter, unlike many of the other hot topics (including the story of the 1945 A-Bomb test, where it's impossible to detect your own view, even at the end). You say, on page 213: "Did Francis Schlatter really cure people? Definitely yes. Hundreds of claims of cures emerged, many of them signed and verified; not all of these people could have been mistaken."
And yet, even there, your conclusion, because the chapter had insisted on viewing Schlatter in the social and economic context of the 1890s -- your conclusion is nuanced. Your declaration is more of an indication. How so? It leaves out the issue of whether Schlatter's power to heal came directly from God. No one would know what you think about that [aspect of this amazing Schlatter story] -- and I'm not going to ask you now!
GREGORSKY: And you couldn't "know" it if it did! Therefore, as a historian, you wouldn't take a position on it.
SZASZ: Well, they have done some social scientific studies that show how a patient's faith in his doctor accelerates the healing process. And so if they had faith in Schlatter, and they are healed -- who's to say where the ultimate source of that power was?
GREGORSKY: What about illnesses that are not psychosomatic or a function of damaged nerves? I mean, some charismatics claim they can heal people who have limbs of unequal length. If true, that kind of change can be physically verified!
SZASZ: [Laughter] I am dubious of that. I am slightly suspicious.
GREGORSKY: Have you ever had a supernatural experience?
GREGORSKY: You'd be open to it if it happened, though. You wouldn't scoff at it?
SZASZ: Ummm, no. I have read enough about it that I would not scoff at it. But no, I haven't --
GREGORSKY: Has your wife?
SZASZ: No. My wife is a specialist in Native American-Anglo relations. In that subspecialty, she deals with Celtics -- the comparison of Celts and Native-American history. Those experiences are a common thread in both of those cultures, especially seeing into the future. In the Celtic world, the supernatural is always "on our shoulder." Same is true for Native American.
GREGORSKY: Was it any kind of a special struggle to write the Schlatter chapter?
SZASZ: No. No, not at all. And the book that was easiest to write was The Day the Sun Rose Twice.
GREGORSKY: That's a good transitioner -- we can move from the religious topics to the nuclear ones, in the process focusing on what I perceive the special and positive nature of your historical prose.
Being Present and Detached at the Same Time
GREGORSKY: All right, bear with me -- this is long build-up to a simple question. One of the reviews of Religion in the Modern American West marveled at how you had covered a set of controversial topics with both empathy and impartiality. It's as if you felt a connection with many of the people, even while detaching yourself from any judgment, pro or con, about the value system or conduct.
SZASZ: I think that's one of the ways I was trained to write history -- with empathy, but without being judgmental. So much history today is written either from the right or from the left, where it's so easy to damn the things that you don't like -- so easy to criticize people for not holding 21st-century views. This is a great lack of imagination on the part of such historians. It's a cheap shot! Naturally, Lincoln doesn't think like we do. Neither does William Jennings Bryan. Neither does Franklin Roosevelt, for that matter.
GREGORSKY: I was fascinated to learn [in your portrait of Charles Lindbergh] that FDR called him a copperhead. Can you imagine President Bush saying something like that about a Democratic politician for having a radically different foreign policy?
SZASZ: No. Good point. That term had meaning as late as 1939. Bush would have to hunt for a term that would indicate that -- yeah.
GREGORSKY: Well, at least FDR could deliver political attacks with a sense of humor. With my own generation of "boomers," nearly everyone who campaigns for something does so stridently, often with personalized invalidation of the other side. Yet your books do cover some hot topics: Religion, nuclear technology, Indian rights and the gaming business. People who write these stories and histories and articles -- they can't resist letting the reader know their own views. Those of us who prefer straight history put up with that opinionizing as long as the author is doing his or her job in amassing the facts, including some that cut against their stance. With your work, I get a nice balance of facts -- and don't have to put up with any editorializing. Could you say a little bit more on your approach to writing the history of controversial topics without climbing "into the cauldron" yourself?
SZASZ: Well [pause] -- two areas where controversy just sort of "bubbles over" are things nuclear and things religious. Those happen to be the area [chuckling] that I write on. So -- I'm gone, I'm lost, if I start taking tacks. I become an "advocate." And while historical advocacy has its role, it's not mine.
Maybe I am by nature a compromiser. Maybe I learned it in part from living with [my wife] Margaret, who writes on Native American issues. As a non-Indian person, when she writes tribal histories, she has to be very neutral. She wrote a number of books on Indian education, and she too has been credited with having a detached impartiality -- yet being fair-minded.
GREGORSKY: But I'm going beyond "fair-minded," to include being present -- with the community, with the people, as they're wading through these issues. That's how your writing is striking me, and probably Margaret's would be similar. I don't get from your books any attitude of being "way up here in the stratosphere." Instead, I can see and hear the people you're writing about.
SZASZ: Well, thank you; that's a compliment.
One Story: Local, National, Global, and Timeless
GREGORSKY: Your 2006 book -- Larger Than Life: New Mexico in the 20th Century -- effectively brings together all your life's work. Every key theme is here: The region, the spiritual side, the scientific activism and legacy. But it was that 1984 book -- The Day the Sun Rose Twice -- that put you on the map.
SZASZ: That book almost wrote itself. Never has a subject so captivated me. Because I was venturing into a new field -- the history of physics, the history of science -- I had to tread very cautiously. I needed to document everything, lest I appear as a complete novice.
SZASZ: Yeh, exactly. "Somebody who wandered in -- "
GREGORSKY: I actually counted the pages of sourcing -- about 44 -- versus just 135 pages for the main expository prose. So over 30% of the text in that book goes to sourcing (and I'm leaving out the 27 pages of photos). Point is, I can't recall a more densely documented book, unless it would be a much thicker and heavier product.
SZASZ: Because nuclear weaponry is such a powerful theme, it draws in folks who read a couple things and think they know their way around. Well, I've spent 25 years in it, and I'm still in awe of what remains to be learned.
GREGORSKY: You mentioned becoming familiar with engineering jargon via your father. I guess the invention of the atomic bomb was in one sense a stupendous work of engineering. But where did the idea for this particular book come from?
SZASZ: The story just grabbed a hold of me -- (a) it's local, but (b) it's more than local, it's also national and international. I think it is the theme of the 21st century, as we see with Iran and Pakistan, and now North Korea.
GREGORSKY: If not at the dinner table talking with your father, when was the first "grab"?
SZASZ: Well, as the original dilettante, I was kind of interested in everything. I never was very mechanical -- I can't fix anything -- but I like to read about it. It just grew from this projected 25-page article for the New Mexico Historical Review -- on the potential evacuation of the state of New Mexico. That's how it started. And then a couple of people from our church --
GREGORSKY: When was that article published?
SZASZ: Well, it wasn't published [smiling] -- because it grew into a book!
GREGORSKY: All right, gotcha.
SZASZ: See, I started in the late ‘70s. And that first generation of scientists was still with us -- so I got to interview them. Most of the good interviews came not from the top people. I met Edward Teller, spoke with Hans Bethe -- but the best stuff came from second level, and even third level. The chef, the engineers -- they all had insights.
GREGORSKY: Was it hard to track those folks down?
SZASZ: No, because they were all around here. They came back here. They came back here because the Manhattan Project and the Trinity Site test were the high points in their lives. They were in their twenties; they went away; they came back. And they were very eager to talk. The top level had been interviewed to death. But the second-level people were delighted to have their story told. And so one interview led to another. Like Topsy, the research just grew.
With history, unlike fiction -- you know, I really admire fiction because I tried fiction a couple times, and it just didn't work [smiling]. I tried children's fiction, and I have an unpublished novel -- it's not gonna go anywhere. But the story line for Manhattan, Trinity and 1945 is built in. You've got the beginnings, and you have the culmination point, and then you have --
GREGORSKY: Man against the clock, man against the elements, man against man -- all the elements are there.
SZASZ: It's all there! I didn't have to search out anything [laughter]. And the cast of characters was so incredibly fascinating. You've got an Oppenheimer, you've got a Teller. You've got a Hans Bethe, you've got a Louis Hempelmann -- no one's heard of him, but he's the medical doctor, the expert. And it was his responsibility to make sure that people didn't come down with cancer. Then you've got the naïveté, and the expertise, of 1945 health physics. It's not 2006 health physics, but still -- they knew some things, and they didn't know others. Add the secrecy dimension, and you could not ask for a more powerful built-in narrative. I didn't have to do much. I had to just sort of fit in the details. Each interviewee added more anecdotes.
GREGORSKY: Did you save all those tapes?
SZASZ: Ummm, they were not taped. (For my book The British Scientists and the Manhattan Project book, those interviews were all taped; and the tapes went to Los Alamos.) These were all handwritten, and they're over there [he points to a stack], and they're gonna go to the University of New Mexico archives.
GREGORSKY: "Handwritten" -- you mean you transcribed the recorded interviews?
SZASZ: No, I didn't record! I just took notes.
GREGORSKY: Wow [semi-forlornly].
SZASZ: I was afraid to record on the grounds that they would be turned off by a machine. So I just went like this [demonstrating] -- I can write so that I get people verbatim.
GREGORSKY: Really? Shorthand?
SZASZ: No, it's not shorthand. But it's --
GREGORSKY: Your own code.
SZASZ: It's my own code; I'm very good at it. It's all those years of taking history classes -- from fast-talking instructors!
GREGORSKY: It was '77, '78, when this took off?
SZASZ: It started I think in '79, maybe '80. And then it picked way up. I read everything that came down the pike. Some of the stuff was being declassified -- slowly. And [the] Los Alamos [National Labs do] not encourage researchers -- they have no place for you. I met the archivist -- Roger Meade, who's still a good friend -- and was shown to this little room, and I got to research there. But when I went to go to the rest room, the guard had to walk with me, because I'd be going by a section that had secret material. Then he would wait for me, and I would come back.
They were cooperative. But they were not pleased to see me. One time a guy was standing over my shoulder -- watching me, as I was reading. Another time -- you know, you probably were involved in the making of classified documents where they blank out certain --
GREGORSKY: "Redacted" is the term.
SZASZ: Okay, they redacted certain items. And there was a number: "The total weight of Little Boy was blup." Well, I wasn't supposed to know that. But there are several versions of the same document, and one of the documents I saw had the correct number. So I'll never forget this: I was talking to this guy over the phone, and he said, "Well, I'm sorry, this is classified information." And so I said, "Well, is it..." and I gave him the number. I can still hear his cold statement of reaction. I was not supposed to know this number -- which, you know, makes no difference at all.
GREGORSKY: Ve haf vayz oov DEALING vith dis kind oov --
SZASZ: Precisely! And much later Roger Meade told me -- and I find this fascinating -- that much of the material I looked at has now been reclassified. Because -- it still works. It doesn't work "well" -- you can do it more efficiently 70 years later -- but it still works.
GREGORSKY: You still had a full teaching load at this time?
SZASZ: Yes. And the book has been in print for over 20 years -- which is kind of unusual for a history book. The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes is, by consensus, a great deal better. But the virtue of my book is that it's short.
Perfect Experiment, and No Lives Lost
GREGORSKY: Discussing, and in effect selling, The Day the Sun Rose Twice for over two decades now, what kind of emotions have you run into?
SZASZ: You can talk about Trinity without the same kind of emotional passion that Hiroshima and Nagasaki bring to the table -- because no lives are lost at Trinity. Okay?
SZASZ: With Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you're on moral ground that [pause] will never be resolved. But Trinity, every time there's an anniversary -- okay, there's still the possibility of demonstrations, of threats, of whatever. Yet no lives were lost. Perfect experiment, after all those years of work. So, you can be more "objective," if that's possible, with this.
GREGORSKY: Who came up with the title?
SZASZ: The title was from Luther Wilson, director of the UNM [University of New Mexico] Press. My first title, which was not very good, was "At the Edge of Knowledge." He selected "the day the sun rose twice" from one of the quotes in the manuscript.
GREGORSKY: How did publication of that book change your life?
SZASZ: Well, it enticed me forever into the field of researching the history of science, and atomic history. So I wrote The British Scientists and the Manhattan Project , and a series of articles on the theme, most of which are collected in Larger Than Life.
GREGORSKY: Twice a year the National Park Service opens up Trinity Site to tourists. How does that work?
SZASZ: It's well worth going there. There'll be two or three thousand people.
GREGORSKY: So when the website says "caravan," it's quite a procession. Hundreds of cars?
SZASZ: It's a long caravan. And the ground is still radioactive. Last time I was down there, people had Geiger counters. You know, it's not "hot hot," but they don't let you stay in there long. You wouldn't want to stay, [as] there's nothing but the obelisk monument.
GREGORSKY: How long do you get in front of the obelisk?
SZASZ: Well, I often give a little talk [as part of a lecture series organized by the National Science Foundation] -- so, 15 or 20 minutes. As for the tourists, they can stand in front of it for three hours, if they want to.
GREGORSKY: But someone will push you aside. Don't the Park officials have to keep you moving?
SZASZ: No, no. It's a huge area. People just wander around. There are booths, with people selling knick-knacks, and little coffee cups. Occasionally you see peace demonstrators. And I've heard of hard-line generals taking the stage -- so you get the right, the left --
GREGORSKY: What did the hard-line generals do?
SZASZ: One of them gave a talk on how "by God, this was absolutely the best thing that ever happened." Right next to him was the peace advocate. And [at the 60th-anniversary showing, on July 16, 2005], the Japanese press was there. Fortunately, a number of radicals were on hand, and the Japanese press interviewed these radicals, who said exactly what the Japanese press wanted them to say -- and that was fine.
GREGORSKY: Maybe we need some Japanese radicals from the left -- they could come to New Mexico and Trinity and say, "I'm glad you guys destroyed our homicidal military dictatorship."
SZASZ: Yeah, well, we didn't have any of those! The National Atomic Museum -- you been down there?
SZASZ: Okay, it's in Old Town. You can't miss it, because there's a missile in front of it. It's got mockups of "Little Boy" and "Fat Man." Well worth looking at.
GREGORSKY: Okay, good. Thank you for all your time, candor and war stories from academia and publishing. Now, what is the element of your life and work as a historian and author that we should've given a few minutes to, but we didn't because I didn't ask the right question. What's the dog that didn't bark?
SZASZ: [Pause] Well, I'm just incredibly lucky to stumble into something that -- having done it for almost 40 years -- I'm still as passionate and fascinated by. What's nice about this strange field [of "social and intellectual history"] is that, if you get tired of doing X, you get to do Y. If you get tired of subject L, you can do subject M -- [that's true of] American history in general, but especially the history of ideas. So I consider myself genuinely "blessed" to be able to enjoy going to work!
What Landscape Resembles America 2006-10?
GREGORSKY: We talked about the 1890s USA being like the 1960s -- in terms of new-age spiritualism, do your own thing, extreme individualism, political radicalism --
SZASZ: Right, yes.
GREGORSKY: Does what we're going through now remind you of any past socio-cultural era in America?
SZASZ: Okay, that's a fair question [pause]. The trouble with being a historian is that you search the past for parallels. None of them quite fits. I see a "questing" for spiritual certainty --
GREGORSKY: Which is different from spiritual awareness?
SZASZ: Yeah. "Certainty," not just awareness.
GREGORSKY: All right.
SZASZ: And I think, in part, the rise of the extremely rigid religious groups is directly related to the relativism that is being taught as history. "There isn't any story," or "it's not the story of liberty and democracy," it's [he makes a dismissive gesture] oppression here and -- you know, the unclear sound is sort of coming forth, and then there is a search for a kind of certainty.
GREGORSKY: On the Left, don't the extreme environmentalists carry that out in their own way. I mean, it's not God-centered, it's Nature-centered -- but aren't they also searching for certainty and some kind of absolute framework?
SZASZ: Oh yeah. Yeah, I don't see this just limited to the Right. The consensus, the idea of manners -- the whole history of manners I find fascinating. Judith Martin -- "Miss Manners" -- is a genius. She has a historical study of manners, which is just fascinating. Manners change over time. "Rudeness" -- when you go overseas, you can be inadvertently rude, because you don't know [what's expected].
GREGORSKY: That's more like being oblivious, as opposed to wanting to "incite" someone.
SZASZ: Exactly. You never do it [in those cases] intentionally, or you blow it. Getting back to historical parallels, I look to the late 1850s, when the government is in chaos, nobody seems to be in charge, there's violence all over the place. Take that on a world scale, and we look for who's the next Lincoln. With James Buchanan in office, and the country ready to disintegrate, who's the next Lincoln? I don't see a Lincoln anywhere immediately available.
GREGORSKY: Of course, they wouldn't have seen him in 1858 either.
SZASZ: Nope. Exactly. The "discomfiture" of the world -- I think religious wars are ones we need to avoid at all costs, especially in a pluralistic society. Yet I see us heading for a war of that ilk, combined with vast end-time philosophies that are not just evangelical, but Islamic as well, preparing the path for "the last Imam." These things don't bode well for those who like compromise and rational discourse and "let us behave like gentlemen." But I don't know enough about the Near Eastern faiths to speculate.
Do you know Morris Berman? Do you know his work?
GREGORSKY: Heard the name, but no.
SZASZ: Okay, he's in DC, and he's just written a book on the collapse of American civilization -- Dark Ages America. The world is going to hell in a hand-basket, says Morris. He gave me the book to critique while it was still in manuscript. "There is no hope. The liberals have lost it (he's a liberal), the conservatives are hopeless, and now there's no hope from the liberal camp either. So -- it's all over." That's his argument. Okay? [laughs] We're gone -- and Berman's moving to Mexico. No kidding. Peaceful old Mexico.
GREGORSKY: Yeah, sure. Maybe in the Baja Peninsula.
SZASZ: "Welcome to the Gringo World."
GREGORSKY: But you're not a pessimist. We're going through a rough patch, but doesn't that differ from being a doom-and-gloomer?
SZASZ: Exactly. Maybe it's upbringing -- growing up in the Midwest. It's pretty easy to say "it's over with," but -- I can't bring myself to so do.
© 2006, F.M. Szasz with Frank Gregorsky