Vol. 31 No. 5 · 12 March 2009

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Casus Belli

Clifton Hawkins argues that I am wrong in claiming that President Polk saw in ‘the disputed lands of Texas’ a casus belli for the Mexican-American War and that slavery was a central issue in the conflict (Letters, 29 January). To the contrary, he says: Texas was already in the Union as a slave state before the war began; the cause of the war was expansionism; and I was too quick to dismiss a pattern of brutality against enemy combatants – Mexican and, by the same logic, Native American – justified by a sense of racial superiority.

Yes, Texas was already a state. Its border – the Rio Grande or, as Mexico claimed, the Nueces River 150 miles north – was the casus belli. But slavery was what the war was really about and everyone at the time knew it. Thoreau wrote his famous and hugely influential tract ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ to explain why he had refused to pay taxes for a war that was being fought to expand slavery; John Quincy Adams thought the expansion of slavery was the issue; the Southern Democrats supported it enthusiastically for that reason; Northern Whigs generally opposed it. Slavery had everything to do with the Mexican-American War. One might argue that endemic 19th-century Protestant prejudice against Roman Catholicism or the notion of manifest destiny in itself should be regarded as forms of racism but my claim was that so broad a use of the term rendered it meaningless.

Hawkins also says I am wrong in claiming that Sherman’s March to the Sea had anything to do with showing Northern voters that victory was nigh and thus inducing them to vote for Lincoln. (My more general point was that in modern warfare politics plays a large part in the timing of armed violence.) He is right that Sherman didn’t begin the march after taking Atlanta on 2 September – it began on 15 November, after the election – but wrong in saying that Sherman therefore ‘deliberately stayed put’. His troops were actively engaged in securing important resources and territory from the Confederate armies under General Hood. The Union won a famous victory against Southern forces by holding the strategically important garrison at Allatoona, Georgia, a battle that gave rise to the then popular song and still current expression ‘Hold the Fort.’

Finally religion. Drew Gilpin Faust’s point, and mine, was that the men who were wounded or died in the Civil War and their families interpreted suffering and death within a fundamentally religious framework. In support of this view she says that more people attended church than voted. This is not a howler, as Hawkins claims. It is clearly true. But he is right that since women and blacks could not vote it is not as telling a statistic as it might be. Another piece of evidence, which makes the point better, is that the total number of Christian congregations in the United States expanded from 2500 in 1780 to 52,000 in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War – more than two and a half times as fast as the population. By any standard the United States was a thoroughly religious nation.

Thomas Laqueur
University of California, Berkeley

All Too Human

On the basis of my article on torture, Alex Bailin attributes to me the view that ‘it is acceptable to mould international law to fit executive policy if the law in question is unclear’ (Letters, 26 February). He adds: ‘It is not: the function of lawyers is not simply to provide “legal cover".’

I wouldn’t, and didn’t, put it quite like that. The idea was more that law is always hermeneutically indeterminate to some degree, and that, as Hobbes said, liberty depends on the silence of the law. So the interstices of the law leave wiggle room – e.g. for government lawyers – even in respect of grands faits like torture. Legal advisers don’t mould law: they take advantage of what the law doesn’t say.

Bailin goes on to say that ‘international law as it governs torture is in any case sufficiently clear and precise.’ I wonder. On 18 February the House of Lords ruled that Abu Qatada and two unnamed Algerians might be deported to face trial in Jordan, despite their lawyers’ fears that the proceedings would use evidence extracted under torture. Lord Phillips’s judgment stated: ‘I do not accept … that it require[s] a high degree of assurance that evidence obtained by torture would not be used in the proceedings in Jordan before it would be lawful to deport Mr Othman [Qatada].’

He added that the UK did not have to retain a terrorist suspect ‘to the detriment of national security’ in the absence of any ‘assurance that evidence obtained by torture will not be adduced against him in Jordan’. Concurring, Lord Hoffmann stated that there is ‘no authority for a rule that … the risk of the use of evidence obtained by torture necessarily amounts to a flagrant denial of justice.’ The clarity and precision of these opinions has now been blurred by the appeal made on Qatada’s behalf to the European Court, whose judgment will not be handed down for several years.

Glen Newey
Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies

A Few Words from Dirac

While it is certainly true that Dirac was a man of relatively few words, as David Kaiser makes clear, it is easy to exaggerate his reluctance to speak (LRB, 26 February). During the 1958-59 academic year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton he frequently had dinner in the cafeteria with young people like myself. He entered into our conversations, sometimes with quite unexpected comments. On one occasion I had asked a colleague what Hans Bethe – a very successful consultant and a well-paid professor at Cornell who even so lived quite modestly – did with his money. My colleague said he thought that Bethe invested it. ‘Maybe he loses it,’ Dirac commented. On another occasion, during a discussion of scientific collaboration, a colleague asked Dirac if he had ever collaborated. ‘The really good ideas,’ he said, ‘are had only by one person.’

Oppenheimer, the director of the institute, did not provide phones in individual offices on the grounds that they might be distracting. Instead, we had a hall phone that distracted everyone. One day, when Abraham Pais was in my office, we heard Dirac talking to a newspaper reporter on the phone. The reporter evidently wanted an advance copy of a talk that Dirac was going to give. Something about the conversation must have troubled him because he came into the office to ask Pais’s advice about sending the manuscript. Pais suggested writing on it: ‘Do not publish in any form.’ Dirac stood silently thinking while Pais and I continued our conversation. He then asked: ‘Isn’t “in any form" redundant in that sentence?’

Jeremy Bernstein
New York

How Susan Got Her Start

As someone who was around at the time, I’d like to add a note to Mark Greif’s review of Susan Sontag’s diaries (LRB, 12 February). As I recall, Susan inherited the gig of theatre critic at Partisan Review from Alfred Chester, who was one of her mentors, though she gives him short shrift in her diaries. Alfred claimed that when he left for Morocco in 1963 he turned the job over to Susan, though it’s unlikely that a young writer could have acted in so high-handed a manner with William Phillips, who was in charge of the magazine: it is more likely that Susan was simply Alfred’s successor. Perhaps he recommended her to Phillips, and since she’d already published there, and was attracting attention at the literary parties she attended, he signed her on. It certainly put her in a good position to get ‘Notes on Camp’ accepted. Alfred, seething with jealousy and never willing to believe she had an original idea in her head, told me she’d got her ideas from Auden’s essay on Oscar Wilde in the New Yorker the previous winter.

Edward Field
New York

Mark Greif notes that Susan Sontag essentially cowrote Philip Rieff’s Freud: The Mind of the Moralist. According to his source, Sontag’s son, David Rieff, the book had ‘appeared under PR’s sole authorship after their separation and subsequent divorce’.

I had often wondered why the magisterial yet fiery prose style of Rieff’s biography bore so little relationship to the more academic tone of his subsequent writing. In a long interview with Susan Sontag, recorded for Radio Three in January 2002, I raised this with her. She confessed that since Rieff had had writer’s block at the time, she had simply written the book for him. All their close friends knew it. There was an understanding that Rieff would someday return the favour. The divorce meant that it never happened. I asked Sontag whether this had affected her subsequent stance ‘against interpretation’. She laughed and acknowledged that it might well have.

Lisa Appignanesi
London N19

What Auden Knew

In his article on Joseph Needham, Eric Hobsbawm quotes without challenging it J.B.S. Haldane’s view that Shelley and Keats were the last poets to be abreast of developments in chemistry (LRB, 26 February). He must have forgotten Auden. When he states that the leading group of poets in the 1930s, ‘other perhaps than Empson, seem to have had no sense of living in an era of scientific wonders’, he should have included Auden in the exemption.

Auden went to Oxford with an exhibition in biology, having studied chemistry, botany and zoology in the ‘science sixth’ at Gresham’s School in Holt. He wrote in a review in the New Yorker in the 1960s that he had never regretted this. His school, almost alone at the time (the 1920s), gave science pride of place in the curriculum, and its very liberal regime allowed pupils to develop wide-ranging interests. For example, in 1925, his final year, Auden gave a lecture on ‘Enzyme Action’ to the school’s Natural History Society (to which more than half the school and large numbers of staff belonged). The catalytic properties of enzymes had been discovered in 1893 but it was not confirmed that they were proteins until 1926. His writing frequently demonstrated his knowlege of scientific concepts and terminology and his engagement with new scientific thinking. A colleague at Christ Church when Auden was in his sixties noted that the only journal he read regularly was Scientific American.

Hugh Wright

Pecking Order

In his article on Italy’s wretched condition, Perry Anderson does Berlusconi too much honour, placing him second only to the president of the republic in the institutional pecking order (LRB, 26 February). In fact, the president of the republic, as head of state, is followed in precedence by the president of the Senate, and then by the president of the Chamber of Deputies, the head of the government coming in fourth. But Berlusconi too seems to have trouble remembering this.

Richard Bates
London W2

Let Me Guess

A.N. Wilson reminds us that Maurice Bowra could be kind to the young (Letters, 26 February). He once gave me his rationale, shouting, ‘Self-interest! Self-interest!’ against my attempt to thank him for a supremely good turn. ‘Self-interest, dear boy. The gates of heaven open wide for those who are kind to us when we are young.’

John Jones

Who Decides?

Is it really Kate Kennedy’s wish to see novelists barred from writing about enigmatic figures like Ivor Gurney unless and until the scholars have ‘dismantled the myths’ (Letters, 26 February)? Who would make themselves responsible for deciding when academic study had shed sufficient light on the sacred subject for fiction to be allowed its turn? Would it be a job for the Arts and Humanities Research Council, perhaps? Or might the editorial board of the LRB care to take on the task?

Victoria Owens

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