Home » 2010 » February

The Graf Spee

grafThe Battle of the Rio de la Plata

The first significant naval battle of World War II took place not in the North Atlantic or the Mediterranean, but in the Rio de la Plata that separates Argentina from Uruguay. The battle featured one of the more usual events of the entire war, the scuttling by a German captain of his own ship.

In the late summer of 1939, the German battle cruiser Admiral Graf Spee left home waters on a mission to disrupt British commerce in the South Atlantic. The big ship was very fast and very well armed and over the course of several months preyed on shipping in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans, eventually sinking nine merchant ships. Before long the Royal Navy put its own squadrons on the hunt for Graf Spee and when the German ship turned into the mouth of the Rio de la Plata in December 1939 the battle was engaged. Graf Spee was damaged and one British ship badly damaged during the engagement.

The German Captain Hans Langsdorff put into the neutral port of Montevideo, Uruguay for repairs, while the British squadron waited off shore for his next move. Forced to depart Montevideo under international maritime law after only 24 hours, Langsdorff put off most of his 1,000 man crew, piloted the big ship about three miles off shore and detonated a series of explosive charges that scuttled the ship. The captain and a small contingent of sailors made for Buenos Aires in the ship´s launch where they arrived two days later.

The Graf Spee burned for four days before settling, not entirely submerged, in the huge estuary of the River Plate. The German crew was eventually detained in Buenos Aires.

Under circumstances that are still disputed, three days after he arrived in Argentina, Captain Langsdorff wrapped himself in a German naval ensign and shot himself in a Buenos Aires hotel room. He is buried in the Argentine capitol. One explanation for the captain´s suicide might be that Langsdorff felt that he was honorably taking responsibility for the loss of his ship. Other speculation centers on whether the Captain disregarded orders or whether the Graf Spee was really seriously damaged and might have fought through the British squadron to the open sea.

Remnants of the German ship scuttled in the Rio de la Plata are displayed today in the harbor at Montevideo. It is claimed that descendants of some of the German sailors still live in the area.

The battle in the River Plate is a fascinating detail of the role South America played in the war. Both Buenos Aires and Montevideo, as the trade and political centers of neutral countries, must have seen a great deal of intrigue and espionage. Both countries remained neutral, in part, to further their extensive trade with both sides. Later in the war, for example, Argentina thwarted U.S. efforts to create formal Latin American support for the Allied war effort. The move deeply angered Secretary of State Cordell Hull and likely moved the already pro-German Argentine military more in the direction of the Nazis.

It makes me think of the great film Casablanca and its timeless take on the intrigue and chaos in an exotic city during wartime. I wonder about the Rick´s and Inspector Renault´s of Latin America and how that awful piece of 20th Century history played out for them.

Iguazu Falls

fallsThe Grand Cataratas

In the far northeastern corner of Argentina, where the border bumps up against Paraguay and Brazil, is one of the most spectacular sights you could ever hope to see.

If the Grand Canyon of the Colorado is, well, grand then the falls at Iguazu are every bit as unique and impossible to capture in words or pictures. About 275 individual water falls dump 5,000 cubic meters per second of water over the falls. Vastly more water than Niagara. Victoria Falls in Africa is higher than Iguazu, but the massive sweep of the Argentine falls has to make it the water fall in the world.

Since 1934 the area has been, wisely for Argentina and the rest of us, protected as a National Park. The park, the first in Argentina, and the surrounding subtropical rain forest is also a World Heritage Site and one of South America’s top tourist destinations.

The river system that produces the falls drains an area comparable to the Amazon or the Mississippi. The system eventually drains to the vast Rio de la Plata separating Uruguay and Argentina. I have never seen so much water.

The park is very well maintained with access to the falls provided by an ingenious series of metal catwalks that allows a visitor to cross the many river channels and literally stand atop the great cataratas. Boat tours also travel up the river for a down below look at the falls. Yes, it is wet down there. Very, very wet. Sort of an E ticket ride at Disneyland, but conducted in the rain forest.

I have always thought the Grand Canyon was the single most impressive natural site I have ever seen. Iguazu Falls is every bit as grand. See this place if you ever get the chance. And good for the Argentines for taking such good care of such a remarkable and sensitive place.

An Argentine Icon

firpoDempsey vs. Firpo – A Fight For All Time

Only the most die hard American sports fan is likely to recognize the name Luis Angel Firpo. In Argentina he is a national icon thanks, in part, to one big fight and one amazing painting.

In 1923 Jack Dempsey was the biggest name in sports. The heavyweight champion of the world took a backseat to no one, not even the great Babe Ruth.

In 1923, Luis Firpo, nicknamed “the wild bull of the Pampas,” was a handsome, strapping, 6′ 2″ heavyweight contender who had made a name for himself by beating, among others, former champ Jess Willard. On September 24, 1923, Dempsey and Firpo met before 80,000 fans at the Polo Grounds in New York. The fight was over inside of two rounds, but what a brawl it was.

Within a few seconds of the first round Firpo knocked Dempsey down with a hay maker, but Dempsey bounced back to knock the Argentine down an unbelievable seven times. (No three knockdown rule and no neutral corners in those days.) Firpo somehow survived the onslaught and kept on punching. Just before the end of the first round he hit the champion so hard that Dempsey fell through the ropes and out of the ring. Dempsey landed on the press table.

That moment – Luis Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring – is captured in George Bellow’s famous painting.

Amazingly, somehow Big Jack pulled himself back into the ring and the round ended. The slugfest continued in the second round with Dempsey finally knocking Firpo out to retain the championship. Firpo pocketed more than $150,000 for the fight, a lot of money in 1923. He went on to fight a while longer, but used his smart business sense to parley his boxing skill into a fortune. Luis Firpo died in 1960, but is well remembered in Argentina where statues have been erected in his memory.

The Bellow’s painting hasn’t hurt either man’s reputation either. Firpo is the only man to ever knock Dempsey out of a boxing ring. Dempsey was tough enough to take it and still prevail. The picture has been reproduced a million times. If I ever own a place where you can get a beer and shot I know what would hang behind the bar.

There you have the Argentine roots of the one of the greatest boxing matches of all time and the origin of a painting the Smithsonian ranks as an American masterpiece.

The Malvinas

christinaPolitics the World Over

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is not really a movie star, she just plays one in the bizarre world of Argentine politics. As the first woman elected president of Argentina – she succeeded her husband who remains in Congress – she does command a certain rock star celebrity.

The papers in Buenos Aires right now are full of President Cristina’s worries about impending British oil exploration off the coast of the Falkland Islands, er, make that the Isles Malvinas in the south Atlantic.

Some might remember that Argentina and Great Britain engaged in a deadly little shooting war over those islands in 1982. The then-Argentine military government, hoping to divert public attention from its awful human rights record and inability to improve the economy, launched an invasion of what the Argentine’s still consider their territory. Margaret Thatcher, the “Iron Lady” and not willing to look weak in a showdown with Argentina, of all countries, dispatched the Royal Marines, the Royal Navy and several boatloads of national pride several thousand miles to the southern hemisphere to keep the desolate specks of land that make up the Falklands in the hands of the Brits.

Now, the British, no doubt sure that they settled the matter years ago, want to explore for oil in the area. Some estimates place the reserves in the billions of barrels. Silly Brits. Argentine maps still claim the territory – ergo it is really Argentine oil – even if most of the rest of the world thinks the whole affair a little silly; a Latin version of The Mouse That Roared.

Argentina plans to raise the oil exploration issue – “anachronistic colonization” one Argentine pol called it – at the United Nations. And not to put too fine a point on the dispute, it is being suggested in Buenos Aires that maybe British Prime Minister Gordon Brown is hoping to trigger an international incident to help his flagging standing in front of a national elections in Britain now expected in May.

The thought occurs that perhaps President CFK, as she is called in Argentina, also suffering in the polls, in a nasty dispute with her own vice president, and not very popular, may too appreciate the distraction of a good, old fashioned international dust-up. Just to put this in some context, one of the daily demonstrations last week in Buenos Aires’s main square – where Juan and Eva Peron used to rally the faithful – was a protest of Malvinas war veterans who were calling for better benefits. That little south Atlantic war back in 1982 may be mostly forgotten elsewhere. Not in Argentina.

The great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borge once referred to the Falkland’s War as “two bald men arguing over a comb,” but “wagging the dog” has long been good politics the world over. Expect diplomacy to prevail – eventually. For one thing, one Argentine writer estimates that the “powerful” Argentine Air Force might be able to get all of ten aircraft off the tarmac. Still, and more seriously, Argentina is threatening to hold up shipping in the area to halt the British moves.

Also expect, based upon the reaction in the land that still lays claim to the Malvinas, that a lot of newspaper ink is going to be spilled for the sake of national honor and, of course, politics. In the British press, CFK is dismissively called “the botox Evita,” but she knows a good role when she sees one. Drama is part of the president’s job description in Argentina.

Eye to Eye

penquinsThe World in Balance

It is impossible, I think, to kneel down to eye level with a penguin and not be impressed – awed even – with power of ol’ Mother Nature to put the whole world in proper perspective.

On a tiny, rocky island in the Beagle Channel off the coast of Argentina, about 8,000 penguins have settled in for their summer break in the southern hemisphere. Some of them spent the winter getting to this remote birthing room from as far away as Antarctica, 1,000 kilometers further south. The happy penguins we saw this week seem remarkably tolerant of humans, although the government here is careful to allow no more than 20 visitors at a time to their island and the visits – like to any maternity room – are short and quiet. Sudden movements are discouraged. Don’t mess with the penguins, in other words.

The day of our visit was beautifully sunny, warm and not too windy. Most of the chubby penguins seemed to enjoy basking in the warm, summer sun of the very South Atlantic with an occasional quick swim to bring lunch back for the kids. The penguins, mostly the black and white Magellanic penguin, happily posed for pictures. They should have been running a photo concession. They could easily have collected boat fare back to winter quarters.

On this perfect February day, nature seemed in perfect balance. That is, of course, a momentary human illusion. The glaciers nearby are retreating. The Antarctic ice is shrinking. Whatever one thinks of the global climate change, it can’t be lost on any of us that places like this tiny, rocky island off the coast of Argentina are indicators of the health of our own lives on the blue planet. For one day it all seemed in order, in balance. I’m already thinking about coming back for another visit. I hope the penguins feel the same, next year and for thousands more.

The End of the World

andesAndes + Ocean + Islands = Spectacular

I have always thought some of the world’s great scenery was in the American West. The northern Rockies in Glacier National Park in Montana and the Sawtooth Range in central Idaho are truly world class. For maritime views there is little to compare with the San Juan Islands between Washington State and British Columbia.

However, having spent a couple of days tramping around “the end of the world” has me convinced that the southern tip of Argentina – Tierra del Fuego – must rank as one of the world’s most spectacular pieces of real estate.

The Argentine’s have tried a thousands schemes of create an industrial economy here. Sheep ranching in the 1890’s, a massive prison in the early 20th Century and in the 1950’s Juan Peron decreed that a naval base be located in Ushuaia, the southern most city in the world. More recently port facilities have been developed. Still it is the incredible scenery that brings most of the visitors and generates most of the pesos.

Argentina has struggled to create a modern industrial society in a vast land with limited traditional natural resources. What Patagonia has in abundance – breathtaking scenery, penguins, birds and solitude – may be even more valuable in an increasingly industrialized 21st Century.

The end of the world feels more like the beginning of the world we will increasingly value. It is not all that easy to get here, but it will be impossible to forget and irresistible not to return.

On the Road – Still

francisWaiting for Godot…or Delta

The British mystery writer Dick Francis has died. I liked his crisp, descriptive writing and thank him for introducing me, along with many other Americans, I suspect, to the sport of steeplechasing. His obit in the New York Times recounts his own early career as a jockey. He rode a dozen races with a broken arm and won two of them.

There was another obit in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution over the weekend that was both difficult to read and impossible to ignore. Diane Caves worked for the Centers for Disease Control and went to Haiti three weeks before the earthquake. Here is one sentence from writer Mark Davis’s poignant piece about her life and work:

Diane Caves of Atlanta, a policy analyst with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was killed in the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti. This past Tuesday, nearly a month later, searchers found her body in the ruins of the hotel where she was staying. She traveled as much as she could. She laughed loud and often. She was 31.”

Moving from those sublime lives to the ridiculous, word comes over the weekend that two former politicians who ought to be retired for life – former Ohio Congressman Jim Traficant and former Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci – are positioning to attempt the post-prison comeback. Just what the U.S. Congress needs, an election Salon calls “the year of the crook.” At least those guys will have the most interesting hairstyles in the House. Meanwhile, good guys like Senators Evan Bayh and Judd Gregg are hanging it up. Not a good development for the Republic.

A lot of time to catch up on, and reflect upon, the news this weekend as Delta Airlines continues to recover in the American southeast from a “crippling” one inch snowstorm on Friday. Today is the day, I’m assured, when all returns to “normal.” I have faith.

Still, I couldn’t help reflect while, waiting for Delta, on Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play where two characters wait for that fellow Godot, who never shows up. At one point, Beckett has one of his characters proclaim: “I don’t seem to be able… (long hesitation) to depart.”

I know the feeling. But, today is the day when all returns to “normal.” I just know it.

On the Road

salmaChanging Planes on the Way to…

There’s an old story that if you’re headed for hell you’re going to have to change planes in Atlanta. True, except when its snowing. When that happens you can’t get there from here.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport claims to be the “world’s busiest” and, in the main, it seems a remarkably well run place. Vast, imposing, but well planned and operated, that is until the rare inch or two of snow arrives in north Georgia. Apparently snow was on the ground in 49 states on Friday. Only Hawaii was the holdout, but unfortunately I wasn’t headed in that direction.

A little bit of the white stuff, about the amount that would barely freshen up a ski slope in the northwest, virtually shut down ATL on Friday. Sitting around considering your fate during a “weather delay” provides LOTS of time to consider the human condition. Mostly that condition can be humorous, even amid a thousand cancelled flights. OK, so you have to look for the humor.

A Scotsman in the bar, awaiting his flight to Amsterdam and on to Glasgow – my guess, he’s still waiting – asked a young woman on a nearby stool if anyone had ever told her she looked like the actress Salma Hayak. She wisely didn’t respond. She also didn’t look like Salma Hayak.

During a stop at one of those typical airport shops – one of those places that carries watches, jewelry, etc. – a woman enters talking on her cell: “I’ve found something cheap,” she says, “I think this is what I’m looking for – cheap.” The salesperson glances over a with a smile and mouths under her breath, “cheap, not in this place.”

I’ve long ago quit checking luggage on any flight. I’m a straight on, carry on kind of guy. I figure given all the things that can – and often do – go wrong with air travel, why not eliminate at least one complication. I never check. The folks who did check on Friday wished they hadn’t. One guy sees my rolling bag and asks how I’d managed to retrieve it in and around all the delayed and cancelled flights. He looked absolutely envious when I told him. Maybe I should have offered him a clean pair of socks.

I saw most of the world in Atlanta on Friday. Most folks were pretty well mannered, a little stressed, tired and confused, but rolling with the travel punches. There was lots to see in Atlanta on Friday, but no Salma Hayak sitings – darn. Bet she doesn’t check either.

Toyota’s Troubles

toyotaAnatomy of a Recall, er, Recalls

David Letterman’s monologue hit a little close to home the other night. Dave said that things had gotten so bad at Toyota that the “navigation lady was praying.”

Indeed, prayer may be the next strategy at Toyota. At least it would be a strategy.

Whatever happens next, Toyota could do well to follow the lead of the navigation lady. She is the best thing about my Toyota. The navigation lady is always polite, authoritative, just a bit assertive in that favorite aunt kind of way, and she is always well prepared, unlike the top brass at Toyota. When you take a wrong turn, against her advice, the navigation lady will gently remind you to “make a legal U-turn” and get back on track.

Better than prayer, Toyota response to its current crisis of quality requires a legal U-turn. Listen to the navigation lady.

Toyota has violated all three of what I think of as the basic rules of handling a crisis. The company’s response has been consistently ineffective, slow and lacking a message. Three strikes.

Until very recently, Toyota failed to take charge of the crisis, admit the obvious and directly and convincingly apologize.

It seems like no one in charge at the big company asked the fundamental question that should always be asked in a crisis situation – what is the right thing to do to protect the public? Answering that question honestly and then acting in the public interest is almost always the surest way to protect the corporate reputation and maintain public trust. The image of Toyota’s CEO getting ambushed at a swanky Swiss resort during the world economic summit, followed by his escape in a sleek Audi (with good brakes no doubt) only helped drive the narrative of a company lacking real leadership and unwilling to assume responsibility for serious quality shortcomings. A brand as resilient as Toyota’s could have withstood an early, frank admission of lack of performance followed by a heartfelt apology and immediate corrective action. Instead, the response was halting, ineffective and forced. Most folks are forgiving, even of corporate CEO’s, if they believe they are getting the honest story and that contrition is genuine. Toyota dented the fender on this basic requirement.

Toyota has lacked a consistent, believable message.

Communication 101 here. A consistent message from the beginning of the crisis; a message that addressed what went wrong, what needs to be done to fix it and restating the company’s commitment to safety and quality would have helped shape the public – and Letterman’s – response. Perhaps Toyota should have immediately invited third-party supervision of its processes and aggressive engaged the regulators as it engineered a technical response to the crisis. Instead, customers and the public got what looks a lot like the stonewall.

And, Toyota has made the classic mistake in the age of the 24 hour news cycle, it has failed the test of speed.

Speed kills. In the age of instant communication, speed kills bad news or a lack of speed feeds the flames of crisis. Toyota’s response has been so slow and so defensive that it helped spawn a whole series of stories, like the lead piece in last Sunday’s New York Times, that only fed the notion that Toyota’s reputation for quality is a myth. With Toyota failing to provide a quick, credible counter narrative – no recognition of the need for speed – the crisis has kept growing.

Toyota will probably pick its way through this mess, but it will take some time and the damage will last a while. I’ll keep paying close attention to the navigation lady, at least for a while, but I may need some convincing to take a chance on another Toyota. The company is paying the cost of incredibly sloppy handling of big and very public troubles. In the modern world, a precise, quick and genuine response to a crisis is the only way to avoid an even bigger crisis.

The Lion of Idaho – Part II

BorahBorah: A Power in the Senate

Seventy years after his death, William E. Borah has become a shadowy historic figure in his adopted state of Idaho. During the nearly 33 years he spent in the United States Senate, however, Borah – called the Lion of Idaho – was a hugely influential figure in American politics, even though some of his contemporaries lamented his unwillingness, at times, to assume an even larger role.

Borah was a creature of the Senate and his times and the Senate was a different place in the first decades of the 20th Century than it has become today. Many senators tended to see themselves more as national representatives rather than home state advocates and the Senate was, in many respects, the ultimate political platform; a place to make a national reputation and a long career. Borah did both.

Some interesting details of Borah’s long career:

Borah never got along particularly well with President Calvin Coolidge, even though both were Republicans. One story has Borah being asked to the White House in 1924 where Coolidge was hoping to entice the Idahoan’s support in that year’s presidential election. Coolidge asked whether Borah would consider a place on the national ticket, to which the Senator reportedly replied, “Which place, Mr. President?” Borah ultimately rejected overtures to become vice president and refused to make the nominating speech at the GOP convention for Silent Cal.

Borah exercised great influence over a long period of time on appointments to the Supreme Court. In 1932, he played a pivotal role in convincing Herbert Hoover to nominate Benjamin Cardozo to the Court. Cardozo is now widely considered one of the greatest justices.

In 1937, Borah played a huge, behind the scenes role in derailing Franklin Roosevelt’s scheme to “pack” the Supreme Court by adding as many as six new justices. At a critical moment, Borah prevailed upon elderly Justice Willis Van Devanter, one of the Court’s staunch conservatives and a neighbor of Borah’s, to tender his resignation. The move, quietly engineered in personal conversation, helped undermine FDR’s plans by presenting the president with chance to appoint a liberal to the court.

At a time when the charge of being “soft on communism” was every bit as damaging as it was in more recent times, Borah was an early and long-time advocate for diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union. The Russian Revolution took place in 1917 and the United States did not extend formal diplomatic recognition until 1933. Borah called for recognition in the early 1920’s.

Borah’s reputation for independence and bipartisanship was greatly respected. In 1924, Montana Senator Burton K. Wheeler, a Democrat, was indicted on corruption charges. Many in the Senate saw the indictment as nothing more than a trumped up charge aimed at intimidating Wheeler who was conducting a high profile investigation of the Justice Department and corrupt Attorney General Harry Daugherty. Borah lead a bipartisan Senate investigation of the charges against Wheeler and concluded he was not guilty of anything except looking into Daugherty’s shady dealings. With little dissent, the Senate adopted the carefully crafted report. Wheeler was later also found not guilty by a Montana jury and Borah and Wheeler cemented a lifetime friendship. When it appeared that Borah might face a tough re-election in Idaho in 1936, and that the Democratic administration of Franklin Roosevelt would help Borah’s challenger, Wheeler publicly repudiated FDR’s meddling in Borah’s race and pledged to campaign for his Republican friend. Talk about bipartisanship.

In 1932, a well-known Washington reporter, Ray Tucker, published what became a very popular political book with the unforgettable title – Sons of the Wild Jackass. The title was a reference to a remark that New Hampshire Republican Senator George Moses had made when referring to the independent, progressive element in American politics. It was not meant as a compliment. Tucker’s book contained chapter length profiles of 15 of the “jackasses,” including Borah.

Tucker’s opening sentence regarding Borah is perhaps the best single description of the great Idaho senator. “There are four distinct political factions in the United States,” Tucker wrote, “Republicans, Democrats, Progressives and William Edgar Borah of Idaho.”

William E. Borah served longer in Washington, D.C. than any other Idahoan. He chaired the powerful Foreign Relations Committee for eight years, a role that made him an international figure. He dominated state politics, not by heading a political machine, but by the power of his personality and his carefully cultivated reputation for integrity and independence.