Friday, June 14, 2013

Speer, Galbraith and the United States Strategic Bombing Survey

Today, following his second session with the Strategic Bombing Survey, Speer was again walking on air. Suddenly the future was rising before him in Technicolor and it looked so tantalizing that even though he knew it might be an illusion, he had to drink deep of it.

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit, Captive Greece captured Rome. It was a phrase Speer had struggled with as a young student first learning Latin. How, he wondered, could a captive capture its conqueror? But now he understood. So charmed were his American interrogators by him, that they had decided, by unanimous assent, to rededicate their inquisition, “The University of Bombing,” with Albert Speer their honored professor. maybe the Americans were as much in love with him as they acted. For all he knew they were already sending the word back to their people in Washington that Albert Speer is one of us.

They’d spent the day discussing machine tools and the mixture of alloys for steelmaking. In Speer’s experience, unless the person was an engineer or technocrat, any discussion about such things would inevitably put them to sleep. But these Americans weren’t engineers. They were lawyers and economists and intellectuals and their passion for the ephemera of industry came from a different place. Like himself, they were driven to know the greater dynamics between machinery and human endeavor. These men understood that wars are not won merely by brave men with guns and force of will, but by production and logistics and unfettered supplies of oil, chromium, ball bearings and tungsten carbide.

“John Kenneth Galbraith;” Speer pronounced it slowly, savoring the sound of the words and then repeating it again, like an incantation which conjured up a shimmering of policy-level meetings and advisory groups. “John Kenneth Galbraith.”

“I tell you, Baumbach, this is a man who is going to matter in the post-war world. You wouldn’t believe how bright the guy is. He tried to nail my hide to the wall when I explained how we dealt with the shortages of tungsten carbide. He never imagined we’d rather cut out production of heavier caliber anti-tank ammunition in order to keep producing tungsten carbide machine tool bits. He thought I was lying. But I showed him. I had the numbers right there in my head. And when he saw that he’d been wrong and I was right, he said, ‘Well then, I take off my hat to you, Professor Speer!”

By now, of course, they were both quite drunk. Baumbach laughed and with a wide swoop of his arm snagged hold of the whiskey bottle from the table. Holding the bottle aloft, he proclaimed, “Let’s drink to your John Kenneth Galbraith!” He refilled Speer’s glass and then his own. Then, settling back onto the couch he clinked his glass against Speer’s. “Down the hatch!”

Speer drank the whiskey and leaned back in his chair. “I’m telling you, Baumbach, they ask such great questions.”

Instead of answering, Baumbach pushed himself backwards against the couch, snaking over the top until his head and shoulders pointed downward and his outstretched hands were touching the carpet. Apparently excited at seeing the world from upside down, he began waving his arms and addressing its inhabitants. “Well hello!” he called out. “So nice of you to join us. I guess the fact that you’re walking upside down must mean you’re from Australia. I suppose this means you are also a marsupial. Be that as it may, sir, you are welcome just the same. Why don’t you fix yourself a drink and come join us!”

At first Speer assumed Baumbach was speaking to imaginary guests. But then he looked over in the direction where Baumbach was waving and realized they weren’t alone. In the doorway stood a dumpy little man in a gray suit and ridiculous-looking square-frame glasses.

Placing his feet on the table, Baumbach pushed himself even further backward to get a fuller view of their visitor. The man just stood there looking so comically angry that it made Speer giggle. Then suddenly he realized the man was Himmler and in an instant the drunkenness dried up in him. He struggled to his feet. “Reichsfuhrer, I’m sorry, I didn’t recognize you!” he said.

(Excerpt from Germania, by Brendan McNally, Simon & Schuster, 2009, now also available on Kindle)

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