JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

A hanging problem with old gallows and Leuchter’s knowledge about the electric chair led to him to be hired to produce first a lethal injection machine, then a gas chamber.

McNamara’s return in 1995 to Vietnam and dinner with Foreign Minister, Xuan Thuy. “We almost came to blows.”

The chemist unwittingly made an accomplice to Holocaust revisionism.

Cyanide aesthetics

Troglodytic Fred investigates Auschwitz.

Why should McNamara’s work at Ford on seatbelts and the problem of human “breakage” make him competent to deal with international conflict?

The U.S. domino theory of communist takeover was a simplistic view of how people in other countries viewed their own history and options.

 

At the time of the missile crisis, some of Kennedy’s entourage did not know the U.S. had tried to assassinate Castro...

... and seemingly forgot the Bay of Pigs as motivating Russia and Cuba then.

 

The Tragic Flaws of
Fred A. Leuchter and
Robert S. McNamara

In spite of their blindspots with regard to capital punishment and war, Leuchter and McNamara did recognize, on some level, the irrelevance of their past experience to the tasks with which they were charged by people who wanted to believe in their expertise. Leuchter explains how his detailed knowledge of the electric chair led him to be hired by another state to design a lethal injection machine, and from there eventually to producing a gas chamber:

“Essentially the states talk with each other. We immediately got Illinois and we got Delaware. They had a hanging problem that they totally were not able to deal with. They had a gallows that had been stored for 25 or 30 years. They took it out and they screwed it together and it fell over. The only thing that was left that was functional were the hinges for the trap door. The reasoning here is that I built helmets for electric chairs, so now I could build lethal injection machines. I now build lethal injection machines, so I’m now competent to build a gallows. And since I’m building gallows, I’m also competent to work on gas chambers because I've done all of the other three.”

But at this point the degree to which Leuchter has come to believe in his own expertise emerges:

“And what really makes you competent is the fact that you have the necessary background, you do the investigation, you find out what the problem is and you solve it. It’s not anything different than any competent engineer could do. The difference is that it’s not a major market. A lot of people are not interested and are morally opposed to working on execution equipment. They think it’s going to change them.”

Those who refuse to work in the death industries on the grounds that doing so will change them are right, for everything we do changes us. Precisely and only because he became an expert on execution, Fred Leuchter was enlisted to aid the Holocaust revisionist movement. Leuchter himself never killed anyone using the machines of his own device, and he came to be reviled not for his profession, but for his public denial that millions of people had been annihilated by the Third Reich.

McNamara relays the most telling part of his 1995 exchange with the former Foreign Minister of Vietnam, Xuan Thuy, who decades after the end of the Vietnam war sternly admonished the former Secretary for his ignorance as follows:

“Mr. McNamara, you must never have read a history book. If you’d had [sic], you’d know we weren’t pawns of the Chinese or the Russians. McNamara, didn’t you know that? Don’t you understand that we have been fighting the Chinese for 1000 years? We were fighting for our independence. And we would fight to the last man. And we were determined to do so. And no amount of bombing, no amount of U.S. pressure would ever have stopped us.”

Similarly, it was Leuchter’s utter ignorance of the science of chemistry which prevented him from recognizing the ridiculousness of his supposed proof of the non-existence of gas chambers at Auschwitz, as the chemist who performed the “definitive” analyses explains:

“He presented us with rock samples anywhere from the size of your thumb up to half the size of your fist. We broke them up with a hammer so that we could get a sub-sample... You have to look at what happens to cyanide when it reacts with a wall. Where does it go? How far does it go? Cyanide is a surface reactant. It’s probably not going to penetrate more than 10 microns. Human hair is 100 microns in diameter. Crush this sample up, I have just diluted that sample 10,000; 100,000 times. If you're going to go look for it, you're going to look on the surface only. There’s no reason to go deep, because it’s not going to be there. Which was the exposed surface? I didn’t even have any idea. That’s like analyzing paint on a wall by analyzing the timber that’s behind it.”

While proud of their accomplishments, Leuchter and McNamara became inextricably entangled in a web of catastrophe owing to their in some ways humble belief that it was their place to do their job, without challenging the premises upon which the practice in question was based. And, although both men clearly derived pleasure from the power they possessed in virtue of the alleged expertise conferred upon them by others, in their better moments they recognize the role that chance played in the narratives that their lives became. This element of chance serves as a source of solace to both men, and Director Morris renders Leuchter and McNamara virtually impossible to hate, in spite of their glaring flaws, through his portrayal of their intermittent humility. As horrible as state execution, the Vietnam War, and Holocaust revisionism may be, Morris’ depictions of men intimately involved with these enterprises are finally sympathetic. Rather than denouncing these men as their critics do, the director offers us the opportunity to think about what it would be like to be in these unfortunate people’s shoes. Morris portraits are of tragic heroes, whose frailties are human-all-too-human, not heinous. These pictures thus illuminate the perils and pitfalls of human fallibility in a much more general way.

Both Leuchter and McNamara came to believe that because they had been hired to do a job, this, in and of itself, showed that they were qualified to do it. But why should a man who knows how to kill people using technology know anything whatsoever about historical research? Why should a man who has helped design cars and seatbelts while working on the problem of human “breakage” at the Ford Motor Company be competent to deal with international conflict? Through the misapplication of tools to problems for which they are not suited, human beings often find themselves in a “rabbit hole,” as Morris characterized Vietnam during his acceptance speech for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, awarded to The Fog of War on February 29, 2004:

"Forty years ago this country went down a rabbit hole in Vietnam and millions died. I fear we're going down a rabbit hole once again...”

Illustrating a metaphor used by President Johnson, Morris’ domino images suggest that one event leads to another. But the domino theory of communist takeover of small states, feared intensely by U.S. policymakers during the time of McNamara’s tenure as Secretary of Defense, was erroneously applied to Vietnam. Having already suffered under French colonial rule, the Vietnamese vehemently resisted the United States, which they quite understandably took to be yet another colonial power. Although the domino theory holds considerable appeal, in fact, as the case of Vietnam amply illustrates, it is impossible to predict the ultimate outcome of even one’s most deliberative actions, for it is impossible to predict their effects upon other people, all of whom are operating in accordance with their own beliefs.

So, for example, James Roth, the chemist who provided the analyses used to support Holocaust denial as presented in The Leuchter Report (which has been widely translated and distributed all over the world), produced a context-free analysis of the chemical constituents of the samples which he had been presented by Leuchter. That analysis was then appropriated by revisionists to defend a thesis fallaciously.

When Leuchter speaks in his capacity as a death expert, explaining why an electrocution must use 2000 volts or why a lethal injection machine must administer sequential doses in order to achieve the subject’s death, his words sound shallow and sophistic. While capable of parroting intelligent turns of phrase, Leuchter has somehow completely failed to grasp what the intentional annihilation of human beings really means:

“We must always remember, and we must never forget, the fact that the person being executed is a human being.

Similarly, McNamara cites many facts about his past regarding superficial measures of success such as his election to Phi Beta Kappa, his appointment as an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, or even that in grade school he was smarter than his classmates, all in a diaphanous effort to convince his audience of his superior intellect. But in describing the Cuban missile crisis, McNamara explains the choice which he and Kennedy faced as follows:

“On that critical Saturday, October 27 th [1962], we had two Khrushchev messages in front of us. One had come in Friday night, and it had been dictated by a man who was either drunk or under tremendous stress. Basically, he said, ‘If you'll guarantee you won’t invade Cuba, we'll take the missiles out.’ Then, before we could respond, we had a second message that had been dictated by a bunch of hardliners. And it said, in effect, ‘If you attack, we're prepared to confront you with masses of military power.’ So, what to do? We had, I'll call it, the soft message and the hard message.”

By including McNamara’s own description of the dilemma, Morris displays how the former Secretary’s reaction reflected his own presuppositions and the militaristic framework underlying his understanding of what are appropriate responses to conflict. In recalling this period, “the dates when we literally looked down the gun barrel into nuclear war,” McNamara does not even mention the April 16, 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion as a relevant factor in the Soviets’ stance. Instead, it takes Morris to remind McNamara of that offensive action, leading the Secretary to provide a much more elaborate explanation of what happened, and finally illuminating the rational grounds for what otherwise might have seemed to be a gratuitous provocation on the part of the Soviets:

Morris: “Also, we had attempted to invade Cuba.”

McNamara: “Well, with the Bay of Pigs. That undoubtedly influenced their thinking, I think that’s correct. But, more importantly, from a Cuban and a Russian point of view, they knew what in a sense I really didn’t know: we had attempted to assassinate Castro under Eisenhower and under Kennedy...and later under Johnson.”

Someone within the administration presumably knew about the U.S. attempts to assassinate Castro, but, without this information, McNamara’s context-free analysis of the Cuban Missile crisis seems just as foolish as Leuchter’s “proof” that cyanide was never used at Auschwitz.

Continued: The logic of error


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