Hitler’s gifts (and Russia’s gift)

In the summer of 1984 Barack Obama was at Harvard Law, his future wife was a Princeton undergraduate, and Edward Frenkel a 16 year old mathematical prodigy was being examined for admission to Moscow State University. He didn’t get in because he was Jewish. His blow by blow description of the 5 hour exam on pp. 28 – 38 of his book “Love & Math” is as painful to read as it must have been for him to write.

A year earlier the left in Europe had mobilized against the placement of Pershing missiles in Europe by president Reagan, already known there as a crude and witless former actor, but, unfortunately possessed of nuclear weapons. Tens of thousands marched. He had even called the Soviet Union an Evil Empire that year. Leftists the world over were outraged. How unsophisticated to even admit the possibility of evil. Articles such as “Reagan’s image in Europe does not help Allies in deploying American missiles” appeared in the liberal press.

The hatred of America is nothing new for the left.

Reset the clock to ’60 – ’62 when I was a grad student in the Harvard Chemistry department. The best place to meet women was the International house. It had a piano, and a Polish guy who played Chopin better than I did. It had a ping pong table, and another Polish guy who beat me regularly. The zeitgeist at Harvard back then, was that America was rather crude (the Ugly American was quite popular), boorish and unappreciative of the arts, culture etc. etc.

One woman I met was going on and on about this, particularly the condition of the artist in America, and how much better things were in Europe. I brought up Solzhenitzen, and the imprisonment of dissidents over there. Without missing a beat, she replied that this just showed how important the Russian government thought writers and artists were. This was long before Vietnam.

It was definitely a Saul on the road to Damascus moment for me. When the left began spelling America, Amerika in the 60s and 70s, I just ignored it.

Fast forward to this fall, and the Nobels. The 7th Chemistry Nobel bestowed on a department member when I was there went to Marty Karplus. The others were Woodward, Corey, Lipscomb, Gilbert, Hoffman, Bloch. While Bill Lipscomb was a Kentucky gentleman to a T (and a great guy), Hoffman spent World War II hiding out in an attic, his father being in a concentration camp (guess why). Konrad Bloch (who looked as teutonic as they come) also got out of Europe due to his birth. Lastly Karplus got out of Euruope as a child for the same reason. Don Voet, a fellow grad student, whose parents got out of Europe for (I’ll make you guess), used to say that the Universal Scientific Language was — broken English.

So 3/7 of the Harvard Chemistry Nobels are Hitler and Europe’s gifts to America.

Russia, not to be outdone, gave us Frenkel. Harvard recognized his talent, and made him a visiting professorship at age 21, later enrolling him in grad school so he could get a PhD. He’s now a Stanford prof.

So the next time, someone touts the “European model” of anything, ask them about Kosovo, or any of this.

Those of you in training should consider the following. You really won’t know how good what you are getting really is until 50 years or so have passed. That’s not to say Harvard Chemistry’s reputation wasn’t very good back then. Schleyer said ‘now you’re going to Mecca’ when he heard I’d gotten in.

Also to be noted, is that all 7 future Nobelists in the early 60s weren’t resting on their laurels, but actively creating them. The Nobels all came later

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  • Curious Wavefunction  On November 5, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    It’s worth noting that Reagan’s over-the-top rhetoric and uncontrolled defense spending brought the United States and Soviet Union very close to nuclear war; the Able Archer exercise of 1983 was only one example of how much the US provoked the Soviets. It was only when Gorbachev visited the US that he realized that Americans did not actually want to wage war against his country.

    Yet Reagan was a paradoxical president since in his second term he began the largest arms reduction that the Cold War had seen until then. However even these efforts were thwarted by his irrational insistence on Star Wars, an insistence that basically destroyed the one chance that both powers had to dismantle their nuclear arsenals at Reykjavik in 1986. Basically Reagan was a man who consistently saw the world in black and white, preferring simple stories to complex truths.

    And not to compare, but if you’re talking about anti-Semitism, Harvard was voraciously anti-Semitic when Robert Oppenheimer was a student there in the 1920s. So were many other universities in this country. Abbott Lowell was as discriminatory as they come. He tried to limit Jewish enrollment to 15% and ban African-Americans from the freshman houses. It was only because of the firm stand taken by Harvard’s *liberal* Board of Overseers that Lowell’s “vision” for the university was thwarted.

    Also, it’s “Hoffmann” (for some reason his name is consistently misspellt).

  • luysii  On November 5, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    True, but that was nearly 100 years ago. We came far closer to nuclear war in the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 (I was there). Frenkel was discriminated against 29 years ago, and the Kosovo genocide was stopped by Clinton in 1999.

    Good and evil are indeed ‘simple stories’, but Reagan saw clearly what the more sophisticated had missed (or chose to ignore).

    I am definitely NOT conflating the anti-American left with liberalism, although as a
    long time reader of the Nation, I don’t often see them thinking America is doing anything good internally or in the world at large.

    As always, I enjoy your comments. Keep them coming.

  • Curious Wavefunction  On November 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    Ok, good. Looks like we are on the same page then. I would not confuse the majority of liberals who are as invested in the future of this country as their fellow conservatives with a tiny minority of radicals.

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