Category Archives: History

What Is Novichok?

On March 4, 2018, former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were poisoned in the English city of Salisbury. Since then, journalists have been scrambling to find out more about the alleged poison, a mysterious substance identified by British authorities as “Novichok”.

First off, it isn’t just one chemical, but appears to be a whole new class of nerve agents, a type of chemical weapons which disrupt the mechanisms by which nerves control vital body functions.

So far, we are familiar with two main classes of nerve agents. The “G-series” was first synthesized by German scientists during World War II. Among this group are tabun, also known as “GA” (invented in 1936), sarin, also known as “GB” (invented in 1939) and soman, also known as “GD” (invented in 1944). (Interesting detail: the Third Reich’s military refused to deploy nerve agents as weapons even though by the end of the war, between 500 kg to 10 tons had been produced. But that’s another story). After the war, GF (cyclosarin) was added to this group in 1949.

The second group, the V-series agents, go back to mostly British development, which was continued with work done the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Members of this class are VE, VG, VM, VR, and VX.

Novichok (Russian: Новичо́к, “newcomer”) seems to be a class of nerve agents different from the two above. It was developed by the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s as part of a secret weapons program reportedly named “Foliant”. The specific intent was to be undetectable by standard NATO methods at the time, to defeat NATO protective gear, and to circumvent the Chemical Weapons Convention list of controlled precursors and classes of chemicals. All in all, over 100 chemical variants were developed and tested.

Most of what little is in the public domain about this can be traced to publications by two Russian chemists, Lev Fedorov and Vil Mirzayanov, writing for the Moskovskiye Novosti weekly in 1992. Mirzayanov claimed he made his disclosure out of environmental concerns, after measuring levels of deadly substances 80 times greater than the maximum safe concentration in the vicinity of Russian chemical weapons facilities. Mirzayanov was arrested in October 1992 and charged with high treason. He served some time in prison, and subsequent to his release, left Russia to live in the U.S. However, during Mirzayanov’s trial, some more details about the Novichok program emerged, and the Russian military was forced to acknowledge the existence of this group of chemicals.

According to Mirzayanov, the most potent compounds from this family, Novichok-5 and Novichok-7, are supposedly around five to eight times more potent than VX. The agents are reportedly capable of being delivered as a liquid, aerosol or gas via a variety of delivery systems, including bombs, missiles, artillery shells and spraying devices.

The absorption of nerve agents into the human body can be by skin contact, ingestion, inhalation or injection. Generally speaking, these chemicals were conceptualized as weapons of mass destruction and for wide dispersement. The pin-point use as murder weapons in targeted assassinations appears to have been an afterthought. But it is now well documented in several instances, such as the murders of Russian banker Ivan Kivelidi and his secretary Zara Ismailov in 1995, or the killing of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia on February 13, 2017. (The U.S. Department of State has claimed the assassination was a plot conducted by agents of North Korea, using VX).

And here it gets extremely troubling. It would appear that nerve agents, due to their rapid effectiveness in extremely small doses, make ideal weapons for assassinations. However, these chemicals require highly specialized skills and facilities to develop, manufacture and deploy – all of which is difficult to conduct except in the presence of state-sponsored weapons programs. Even where chemical weapons treaties led to the controlled and audited destruction of chemical weapons of mass destruction, there can be no doubt that small batches of all these substances were retained, and that of course, the process of making them (even in very small quantities) is well understood by those who were involved in these military weapons programs.

So are we looking at a coming new era of silent state-sponsored assassinations? Could this become a method for governments or institutions to get rid of regime critics, political dissenters or opponents, alleged traitors, whistleblowers and others deemed a threat, on a large scale?

It could well be. The other options – an illicit trade of these substances, or the possibility that criminal organizations, terrorist groups or rogue individuals may have found ways to cook them up in hidden labs – are equally scary.

Either way this will play out, the future on this issue looks gloomy.

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    A New Year’s Toast To Pope Gregory XIII

    by Tim Thompson

    Today, most of the world celebrates New Year. But that has been the case only since the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, which began to replace the older Julian calendar in 1582. The process lasted from 1582 until 1929, when the Soviet Union became the last country to abandon the Julian calendar (Greece switched in 1923). Most of the Catholic countries reformed their calendars quickly, in 1582-1583, while the non-Catholic countries followed rather slowly.

    The British Empire and its colonies did not switch until 1752, well after most of the Founding Fathers of the USA were born, so it is necessary to distinguish between “old style” (Julian) and “new style” (Gregorian) dates in American history. For instance, we recognize George Washington’s birthday as 22 February 1732, but he was born on 11 February 1732, when the Julian calendar was in place; 22 February is the translation of the Julian date into the Gregorian date, pretending that the Gregorian calendar had been in force even in 1732.


    The Gregorian calendar was adopted on the authority of Pope Gregory XIII [1502-1585], in order to fix the date for Easter, and return it to a date near the spring equinox (northern hemisphere), as it had been set in the First Council of Nicaea (20 May – 19 June, 325). The need to move Easter back to the right place in the calendar meant that when the new Gregorian calendar was adopted, 11 days were dropped, so that the day after Julian Thursday 4 October 1582 was Gregorian 15 october 1582 (5-14 October vanished).

    Another big change was that the beginning of the new year moved from 1 March to 1 January. Leap day at the end of February was the last day of the year on the Julian calendar; leap day remained at the end of February, but now it seems incongruous, since there is nothing otherwise special about the end of February in the Gregorian calendar.

    First page of the papal bull Inter Gravissimas. Click to enlarge.

    First page of the papal bull Inter Gravissimas. Click to enlarge.

    The old Julian calendar had been established in 46 BC under the authority of legendary Roman Emperor Julius Caesar [100-44 BC]. It was a modification of the older (and already many times reformed) Roman calendar. In even older, ancient civil calendars, the seasons were not fixed (i.e., the equinox and solstice dates drifted from year to year). The Roman calendar had already fixed that problem, but in a very cumbersome way. The old Roman calendar had 12 months, but only 355 days, so the Romans adopted leap months instead of leap days, and some years were as long as 378 days, just to keep the seasons in line. The Julian calendar fixed that, and fixed the length of the average year at 365.25 days.

    But the real year is about 365.2425 days (a fact already known to ancient Greeks, but ignored by Caesar). So the seasons slowly slipped, and by 1582, had drifted about 11 days out of sync. Hence, the adoption of the Gregorian calendar included slipping the calendar back to compensate. Also, the Gregorian calendar changes the rule for leap years, so that century years are leap years only if they are evenly divisible by 400. So, 1700, 1800 and 1900 are not leap years, but 2000 is (and 2100 will not be). This small difference is enough to keep the civil calendar in sync with the seasons for about 10,000 years.

    The Julian calendar and the older Roman calendars all started the new year in 1 January beginning about 153 BC. But in post-Roman Europe, the new year was usually moved to a date of Christian importance, such as Easter, the date of Annunciation (25 March) or the Nativity (25 December).

    In post-Roman Anglo-Saxon England, the new year commonly began on 25 December, to align with both the pagan Winter Solstice and the Christian Nativity. When the Normans took over, they moved the new year to 1 January (1087-1155), then moved it to 25 March (1155-1751). In 1752, when the British Empire finally adopted the Gregorian calendar, New Year once again moved to 1 January.

    So you can thank Pope Gregory XIII (and the British Empire) for today being New Year.

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    100 Years Ago, Europe (And The World) Went Mad

    100 years ago today, the Austrian (Habsburg) Empire declared war on Serbia. Russia sided with Serbia; the German Empire sided with the Habsburgs. France was requested to remain neutral but refused a clear reply, thereby leaving the German command unable to set up its deployment strategy. As a consequence, a declaration of war was propounded on France. And German troops marched into Luxembourg. Belgium also refused German troops to cross its territory on the path to France, and was served a declaration of war as well. The British Empire, irate that Belgian neutrality had been violated, declared war on the German Empire.


    And thus, what began as miscalculation and miscommunication all of a sudden turned into a global hellfire which consumed at least 17 million people and destroyed the British, German and Habsburg (Austrian) Empires. Almost nobody had seen it coming.

    It was more than one “Great War” (as it was known then). Long after the guns fell silent four years later, a freshly divided and chopped up Europe lay in turmoil. The new nation states, artificially decreed, and haphazardly concocted from the rubble of former aristocratic empires, soon turned into uncoordinated, unsustainable economies and failed states. This in turn set the stage for economic despair, political division and the rise of anti-semitism, totalitarianism, communism and fascism.

    Today, not enough time has passed to easily see the big picture. Many still view World War I, World War II, the Cold War and their multitude of ugly side shows of human perversion as separate events. But I believe all of this was part of an interconnected, complex greater picture — a dark era consuming much of 20th Century Europe.

    Sadly, I know only little of the fate of my own ancestors in WW-1. What I do know is that my grandmother had eight male siblings, all of whom were mobilized and sent to war. Those who returned came back traumatized, injured, sick, and suffering for the remainder of their lives. All had departed thinking that it would just be a matter of weeks. Nobody expected what it would turn into.

    My grandmother was still a minor, yet she was sent to work in a military hospital, while also taking care of  brothers home from the front on medical leave, and doing much of the household.

    There was little talk about it, as the older generation believed that children should be spared the stories of war and destruction. And I was too young to ask the right questions while my grandparents were still alive.

    Perhaps one day I will take time off to look through family archives and try to learn and reconstruct some of what has been lost.

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    Young Johannes Brahms in 1853

    I came across this somewhat rare picture of the German computer Johnannes Brahms (7 May 1833 – 3 April 1897), taken in 1853.

    Johannes Brahms, 1853

    Johannes Brahms, 1853

    Brahms was 20 years old at the time the picture was taken. Photographer and location are unknown, but 1853 turned out to be the year of fate for Brahms. All in that same year, he went on his first musical tour as accompanist for the Hungarian violinist  Eduard Reményi. In Weimar, one of the cultural capitals of Europe at the time, Brahms met  Franz LisztPeter Cornelius, and Joachim Raff. Falling asleep during a Liszt concert, young Brahms caused ill feelings and was fired as a result.

    After a foot journey through the Rhineland, Brahms took the train to Düsseldorf to meet  Robert Schumann, at whose house he showed up unannounced. Schumann recognized his talent and invited the youngster to stay for a while. Brahms proceeded to fall madly in love with Schumann’s wife, Clara who was 14 years older than him and had 7 kids, with one more on the way.

    A few months later, in early 1854 Schumann became mentally ill. After a suicide attempt in February, he was taken to a mental institution in Bonn, where he was confined for the two remaining years of his life. Torn between loyalty for Schumann and his feelings for Clara, Brahms continued to live in their house in Düsseldorf until shortly after Schumann’s death on July 29, 1856 at the age of 46.

    Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms carried on a very extensive correspondence over the years. Although Brahms asked for the letters to be destroyed, quite a few have survived and have been published, though they represent only a fragmented account of the complex relationship between Clara and Johannes.

    Johannes Brahms went on to become one of the the world’s most famous and influential composers.

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    by Tim Tompson*

    Easter Sunday will soon be upon us.

    In the year 325 A.D. the First Council of Nicaea defined the date for Easter as the first Sunday following the first Full moon after the Vernal equinox. But astronomically selected dates can move around; e.g., the vernal equinox can happen on 20 March as well as 21 March, and the phases of the moon are not tied either to the civil calendar nor to the equinoxes. So, for the purposes of calculating the date for Easter, the Roman Catholic church defines its own equinox as always happening on 21 March, and they use their own “ecclesiastical full moon”, which by definition always occurs on the 14th day of the ecclesiastical lunar month on the ecclesiastical lunar calendar (which assumes by definition that 19 tropical years equals 235 synodic months exactly [the correct number is 234.997]). In this way, Roman Catholic Easter always falls in the window of 22 March to 25 April.

    Roman Catholics use the Gregorian calendar, which was finalized in 1582 for the explicit purpose of returning the date of Easter to the same date it had when the First Council of Nicaea met. In the time between 325 and 1582, the vernal equinox had slipped backwards through the civil calendar to 11 March instead of 21 March, which it was in 325. So when the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar in 1582, ten days were skipped over, which moved Easter back to 21 March. And by the trick of skipping leap days in years ending in 00, unless they are evenly divisible by 400, the length of the average civil calendar year is shortened from 365.25 days (that is one “tropical year”) to 365.2425 days, the end result of which is that the civil calendar will fall behind the seasons by about one day come the year 3200 (a problem easily solved by skipping the leap day in 3200).

    The actual time it takes to go from one vernal equinox to the next is 365.24219878125 days, which should result in an accumulated difference between the seasons and the civil calendar of 3 days, 17 minutes, 33 seconds over 10,000 years. But the mean tropical year is decreasing by 0.53 seconds per 100 years (a slow tidal transfer of energy from sun to Earth), and the mean length of day is decreasing by 0.0015 seconds per 100 years (a slow tidal transfer of energy from Earth to moon). That’s why the calendar can lose a whole day in only about 1200 years. One could cleanup the next few thousand years by skipping the leap day in the year 3200, keep the leap day in 3600 and 4000, and skipping the leap day in 4500 & 5000.

    Eastern Christians (mostly the Eastern and Greek Orthodox churches, Eastern Catholic and Coptics) use the old Julian calendar, so they celebrate Easter basically a month later than do the Romans, in the window between 4 April to 8 May.

    There are various good reasons for having a civil calendar that is locked to the seasons. But the one that has been most important has proven to be the need to have Easter fall on a fixed time of the civil calendar year.

    * The writer is a physicist retired from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Among his main personal interests are astronomy, chess, languages and linguistics, and military history.

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    Book: Those Angry Days

    those_angry_daysHere’s a most fascinating new book by journalist Lynne Olson. As I have outlined in my previous post about Charles Lindbergh, America’s entry into World War II was by no means a given, nor was it popular among average Americans before the Pearl Harbor attack.

    Olson’s book goes into great detail describing the political division between the non-interventionist faction (of which Charles Lindbergh was a major proponent and figurehead) and those who wanted to support Britain — if not with an all-out war against Nazi-Germany, at least with arms shipments.

    Olson shines a light on many little known facts, for instance, a huge clandestine British operation to infiltrate US media, spy and discredit leading non-interventionist Americans, spread propaganda materials and even disseminate forged documents designed to draw America into the war. Roosevelt not only knew about these activities, but he also issued a loose directive to the FBI to conduct massive surveillance on non-interventionists from the popular “America First” movement.

    Terry Gross (All Things Considered) recorded this fine radio interview with the author.

    Those Angry Days
    Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight over World War II, 1939-1941
    by Lynne Olson
    Random House, Hardcover, 576 pages; List Price $18.
    ISBN-13: 978-1400069743

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    Charles Lindbergh

    Today is the birthday of one of my heroes, Charles Lindbergh: aviation pioneer, author, inventor, world traveler, explorer, environmentalist, intelligence agent, social and political activist, philanderer and — toward the end of his life — hermit and recluse.

    For most people alive today, the extent of fame and admiration heaped upon Lindbergh during his lifetime is hard to appreciate. After his transatlantic flight in 1927, practically every man, woman and child in America and Europe knew his name. (Contrary to what many people think, Lindbergh was not the first person to cross the Atlantic by plane. He was the first person to fly non-stop from New York to Paris).

    Lindbergh was a complicated, multifaceted and controversial man of many secrets. On the one hand, he neither cared for party politics nor for politicians. On the other hand, he was an American isolationist, a strong supporter of the America First movement who prominently advocated a neutral American foreign policy — as opposed to a military engagement in Europe.

    To underline his views before World War II, Lindbergh expressed admiration for the German Nazi party. To be more precise: Many years before the Holocaust and Nazi brutality during the subsequent war became known, Lindbergh expressed admiration for the rapid progress the German people were making at the time.

    While America was only slowly (if at all) recovering from the Great Depression, Hitler’s regime, almost overnight, eliminated corruption, inflation and unemployment. After suffering from many years of disastrous economic conditions, the German people seemed to be doing better each year. The Reich was making huge advances in science and technology, the aviation sector being of particular interest to Lindbergh.

    Lindbergh’s assessment of the strategic situation in pre-war Europe was that if Britain and France attempted to answer Hitler’s provocations with military power — without first building up its military aviation sector — both countries would fare very badly against the more modern Nazi forces. (Lindbergh’s analysis was shared by many high ranking military officers in France, Britain and in the United States. In hindsight, we know that Lindbergh’s assessment of the Luftwaffe’s strength before the war was perhaps a little exaggerated, but fundamentally correct).

    Back in America after living in Europe (and touring Nazi Germany), Lindbergh became active as an influential spokesperson for groups lamenting America’s drift toward war. During these politically charged times, the American pro-war propaganda machine began to loudly denounce Lindbergh as a Nazi-sympathizer and anti-Semite. (I believe he has neither, but more likely the victim of a campaign to ruin his character and undermine his influence as an opinion leader who had proven to be quite capable of rallying the masses).

    To understand this, one must comprehend the historical context. After WW-I, the stock market crash in 1929, and the resulting Great Depression the average American had very little appetite for another war in Europe. Truth be told, there were quite a few Americans who looked with a certain amount of admiration at how the German Reich’s new leadership was improving the horrendous economic problems of the German people practically overnight. In the process, the Nazi party had also wiped out the once very powerful German communist party and prevented a bolshevik Germany — a fact that did not escape American anti-communists.

    Lindbergh (and many other Americans at the time) thought that a strong Reich would keep Stalin’s Soviet Union under control, thereby making American involvement unnecessary and unwise.

    Even after the Third Reich’s quick victory against Poland in 1939, the vast majority of the American people remained “non-interventionists”, who wanted no part in the brewing European conflict. Opposed to them were the “interventionists”, who believed that Hitler had to be stopped at all cost, even if it meant going to an all-out war in Europe.

    Lindbergh argued that the United States was in a virtually impregnable position. Not only did Nazi Germany have no strategic ability to invade or harm the US homeland, it had shown no attempt whatsoever to develop military capability that could threaten America. Lindbergh proclaimed that when interventionists said “the defense of England” they really meant “defeat of Germany.” The non-interventionists also accused American industrialists of having purely financial motives for driving America to war.

    The political tensions and attacks on Lindbergh boiled over after a speech he delivered to a rally in Des Moines, Iowa on September 11, 1941. In that speech he identified the forces pulling America into the war as “the British, the Roosevelt administration, and the Jews”. While he expressed sympathy for the plight of the Jews in Germany, he argued that America’s entry into the war would serve them little better. Lindbergh said, in part:

    It is not difficult to understand why Jewish people desire the overthrow of Nazi Germany. The persecution they suffered in Germany would be sufficient to make bitter enemies of any race. No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution the Jewish race suffered in Germany. But no person of honesty and vision can look on their pro-war policy here today without seeing the dangers involved in such a policy, both for us and for them.

    Instead of agitating for war the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way, for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation. A few farsighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not. Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.

    [Wayne S. Cole, America First: The Battle against Intervention, 1940-41 (1953)]

    These remarks must be seen in the political context, and in view of the fact that Lindbergh, all his life, was a staunch and principled pragmatist who approached every problem with unemotional analysis.

    Before the war, Lindbergh (who after the war expressed great disgust after learning of the extent of the Holocaust) held the view that if Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union were left alone with each other, they would sooner or later smash each other to pieces — without the sacrifice of American lives, and without a global war. Had this come to fruition, one might argue that America would have been spared around 200,000 fatalities in the European theater. And since Nazi Germany would have wiped out or at least seriously decimated the Soviet Union, the whole Cold War, the nuclear arms race and all its global consequences would never have happened.

    Lindbergh’s views were quite popular before the war and made a lot of sense when seen from the perspective of the 1930s.

    As for the Holocaust: Although the US was already engaged by supporting Nazi Germany’s enemies financially and with massive arms shipments earlier, the United States and Germany officially did not go to war until 1941. Only two months later, on January 20, 1942, at the secret Wannsee Conference, the Nazi leadership, now overburdened by heavy losses in the campaign against the Soviet Union, supply shortages as a result of the British fleet’s campaign, and America now joining the war officially, decided to implement the “Final Solution” – the annihilation of all Jews under the Reich’s control.

    The question of whether the US military engagement in Europe (as well as other American policies and military strategy) accelerated, was a contributary factor, or perhaps even one of the culpable causes of the steady escalation of Nazi brutalities during the war is one of the politically most intensely charged subjects in all of history, and remains so even today.

    But back to Lindbergh:

    When America was attacked at Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh changed his anti-war stance overnight. Now he felt that his country needed his skills. But at that time, the Roosevelt administration and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI had practically declared him an enemy of the state. As a consequence, the US military rebuffed Lindbergh’s offer to go on active duty and fight for his country.

    But Lindbergh was not to be deterred. He joined the war effort in the Pacific as a civilian and flew more than 50 combat missions in support of the US Marine Corps and the US Army Air Force (the predecessor of today’s US Air Force). In addition, Lindbergh’s work as a pilot trainer and consultant made tremendous contributions to tactics, procedures and technology in American military aviation.

    Long after Lindbergh’s death, it was discovered that he had a secret family in Germany (as well as several mistresses), which he successfully kept a secret from both the press as well as his American relationships.

    Lindbergh may have been a man of many flaws, but one of even greater virtues, a man who spent his life unafraid of traveling over rough and rugged roads, toward the unknown, and daring to fly even the stormy skies.

    Recommended reading:

    A Scott Berg: “Lindbergh”. First published in 1998 (now in paperback)

    Lynne Olson: “Those Angry Days – Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight over World War II, 1939-1941”. Published 2013. ISBN-13: 978-1400069743.

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    The Los Angeles Air Raid

    The Battle of Los Angeles, also known as ‘The Great Los Angeles Air Raid’, is the name given by contemporary sources to the rumored enemy attack and subsequent anti-aircraft artillery barrage which took place from late February 24 to early February 25, 1942 over Los Angeles, California.

    Read more details here.

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