The Tangled Roots of War and Peace

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Photo illustration by Mark Riechers. Original images by Markus Spiske and Anton Dmitriev (CC0)

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Original Air Date: 
March 05, 2022

Ghosts from the past stalk Europe again today in the wake of Russian tanks and missiles. To find a path forward, we might need to look back.

Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin

At the end of WWII, Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin met in Yalta to forge a post-war settlement. Now, the war in Ukraine shows that we're living with their decisions. Historian Catherine Grace Katz tells the story of the three "daughters of Yalta."

Mural of ancient soldiers returning from battle

Why do humans still wage wars? Despite their terrible costs, they benefit certain groups, and thoughout history, they've also galvanized social movements and sparked scientific advancements. Margaret MacMillan explains how wars have shaped us.

Orwell among roses

George Orwell was the great writer on tyranny and authoritarianism. But as Rebecca Solnit shows in her book "Orwell’s Roses," he was also a gardener who loved flowers and trees. Beauty and the natural world sustained him through difficult times.

Show Details 📻
March 05, 2022
October 15, 2022
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:21):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. In early February 1945, an ailing Franklin Roosevelt traveled together with Winston Churchill, to Yalta.

Franklin Roosevelt (00:40):

The doctrine that the strong shall dominate the weak is a doctrine of our enemies and we rejected.

Catherine Grace Katz (00:52):

The journey there, I didn't appreciate how arduous that was and how much that shapes the tone of the rest of the conference.

Anne Strainchamps (01:00):

Historian Catherine Grace Katz is going to help tell the story.

Catherine Grace Katz (01:05):

Churchill and Roosevelt fly a harrowing night over enemy-occupied territory where they're still antiaircraft units. They're flying at low altitude and unpressurized planes. They finally then arrived in the Crimea where the airfield that they're landing on is dangerously short for the types of planes they fly and it's shrouded in fog. And then they have to drive a further six hours over battle-scarred road, sometimes at no more than 20 miles an hour and it's an absolute nightmare.

Anne Strainchamps (01:41):

When they finally arrived, it wasn't exactly what they were expecting.

Catherine Grace Katz (01:47):

The palace that they're using had once been glamorous and beautiful. It was the summer home of Tsar Nicholas II and his family. And then when the Nazis invaded the Crimea, they stripped the palace of everything, literally down to the doorknobs which they could strip out and use as scrap metal.

Anne Strainchamps (02:02):

So not a great place to negotiate the end of war.

Catherine Grace Katz (02:07):

The Soviets have just three weeks to restock it with everything they need for hundreds of people who are arriving. They just take the contents of glamorous hotels in Moscow like the Hotel Metropol and parted 1,000 miles south, maids' uniforms. All the workers there are basically dressed in the waiter's attire. Miraculously, they really pulled it together in time.

Speaker 5 (02:31):

[foreign language 00:02:31]

Anne Strainchamps (02:40):

There was a lot on the table at Yalta. With the war in Europe finally drawing to a close, the three men met to decide the future of Germany, Poland, Central and Eastern Europe. They wanted to create a lasting peace, but they all had different objectives.

Catherine Grace Katz (02:58):

FDR at this point in the war writes Churchill and the British empire off as something that belongs to the past. The Brits have really sacrificed the empire to be able to hold out until the rest of the world joined the fight against the Nazis. And for Churchill, this is personally really difficult and I don't think FDR appreciated that position enough. Meanwhile, the war in the Pacific isn't quite as far advanced and FDR is looking at the need for a potential ground invasion of the Japanese home islands. He wants to save as many American lives as possible. That means drawing the Soviet Union into the war in the Pacific in exchange for certain territorial concessions that Stalin has long had his eye on.

Catherine Grace Katz (03:42):

Also, incredibly important in Europe, especially to Winston Churchill, is the future of Poland and Polish sovereignty. Britain went to war in defense of Polish sovereignty at the outset and Churchill does not want to return home to London and look the Polish governments in the eye and tell him they weren't able to secure that which they went to defend at the outset.

Anne Strainchamps (04:01):

Even the finest Russian cutlery couldn't cut through all the tension. But Churchill at least had some help because he took his daughter, Sarah, with him.

Catherine Grace Katz (04:13):

Sarah's role at Yalta is really to be his confidant and protector in a way and also to be that person that he could trust implicitly in an environment where it's so hard to know who to trust where everybody has their own personal objectives. She had a really close bond with her father where she felt like she really understood the way that his mind worked.

Winston Churchill (04:36):

We must strive for a sane and just peace which will save us all and our children.

Anne Strainchamps (04:47):

Today, we're living with the consequences of the decisions made by the people gathered there. It's a story that's newly relevant now with the conflict in Ukraine. And thanks to Catherine Grace Katz's research, we now have the perspective of three viable witnesses to that moment, The Daughters of Yalta.

Catherine Grace Katz (05:10):

So there are these three incredible young women there, all between 27 and 38 years of age. Sarah Churchill, the daughter of the prime minister, Anna Roosevelt, the daughter of the president and Kathleen Harriman who was the daughter of the American ambassador to the Soviet Union, Averell Harriman, the youngest of the daughter, she's only 27. And when I started this project, I was the same age. And it's just incredible to think what would be like to be there with Stalin at 27 years old.

Anne Strainchamps (05:37):

History has forgotten about them and you've thankfully resurrected them. Tell us about them and why they were even there in the first place.

Catherine Grace Katz (05:45):

For me, this book really started with Sarah Churchill. I had the opportunity to be one of the first people to see her papers when the family and Churchill College at Cambridge opened her archive to researchers. She had a really close bond with her father which led her to have opportunities during the war to serve in an incredibly unique capacity. She would be with him like as a privy councilor, up until the wee hours of the morning, going through the diplomatic files that had been delivered from Downing Street while they're at the conference, allowing him to express his frustration especially with FDR at this point. And so he would be able to almost rehearse with her the rough draft of what he wanted to say.

Anne Strainchamps (06:25):

Did she do you think really understand her father in a way other people didn't?

Catherine Grace Katz (06:29):

I think she did. I think she really understood him more than perhaps anyone except her mother Clementine and a lot of this came from long hours that she would spend with him in the garden at their home Chartwell and Kent in the English countryside while he would be partaking in one of his favorite pastimes which was bricklaying, which he would do to relax.

Anne Strainchamps (06:49):

That's an interesting way to relax.

Catherine Grace Katz (06:51):

Yeah, exactly. So people know about his painting, but also bricklaying was very important to him. Then Sarah would be out there as his second mate mixing the cement, handing in bricks, maintaining the plumb line. So they had these hours together out in the garden where they'd be chatting with each other and Sarah said that she came to understand the way that his mind work, as if she could walk in silent step with him, anticipating his thoughts, even if he wasn't speaking and I think that that was a bond that's just incredibly important to both of them.

Anne Strainchamps (07:18):

So that's Sarah Churchill. Now on Roosevelt's side, his daughter, Anna was there with him. And what was her role?

Catherine Grace Katz (07:24):

That relationship between Anna and FDR is really complicated. Anna and her father were very close when she was a little girl, but of course, all this changed when he was diagnosed with polio and Anna was really sent away, held at an arm's length. But at Christmas 1943 when her husband joins the army and ships out to the Mediterranean, she moves back into the White House and Anna realized that something's not quite right about her father, that he's seems very ill and she insists he have a comprehensive exam to see what's wrong with him. And it reveals that he's dying of congestive heart failure.

Anne Strainchamps (07:59):


Catherine Grace Katz (08:00):

Dying, yes, because there is no cure for it at that time. And so Anna becomes the person who is really his gatekeeper at the White House, helping to decide who really needs an audience with him, who could meet with someone else, sometimes going so far as to take papers out of his inbox at night and deliver them to other people who she feels can handle them.

Anne Strainchamps (08:17):


Catherine Grace Katz (08:18):

Yeah. And she also is the one who's keeping the secret of his illness. He never once asked the doctor what's wrong with him. Even Eleanor Roosevelt can't quite come to terms with the fact that he isn't well.

Anne Strainchamps (08:29):

This is so fascinating. Anna, his daughter, and the doctor seemed to have been the only two people who knew that FDR was in fact dying.

Catherine Grace Katz (08:37):

Mm-hmm (affirmative) and it was extremely acute. By the time they go to Yalta, he's definitely not well. You can see in pictures sometimes he looks all right, other times he looks like he's on death's doorstep and that's how it goes with congestive heart failure. And there are lots of rumors, "Is he well?" but then the next day, he seems perfectly fine. And so Anna is just desperately trying to keep as many people away from him as possible at Yalta, including Winston Churchill who is exhausting, very well intentioned but has an exhausting personality. And FDR also sees his relationship with Stalin as more important than with Churchill at this point, so it suits his political objectives for Anna to keep Churchill away as much as possible.

Catherine Grace Katz (09:17):

And unfortunately, in Anna's attempts to do everything to protect her father, which is very admirable, I think at times impeded some of the diplomacy that needed to happen but in a way that FDR wanted and Anna didn't realize that she was unwittingly playing that role. He was using her at times to keep the secret, also to keep the secret of his affair with Lucy Mercer which is a whole other story.

Anne Strainchamps (09:41):

He was a secretive man.

Catherine Grace Katz (09:43):

Very secretive and is a relationship between parent and child that's really quite heartbreaking at times.

Anne Strainchamps (09:50):

Yeah. So we should set the stage which will bring us to the third daughter. This whole event is unfolding in a part of the world that everybody's eyes are on right now, the Crimean Peninsula. And at a particular place, this old crumbling palace that gets dumped in Kathleen Harriman's lap, tell us about her, why she's there and what challenges she faced.

Catherine Grace Katz (10:16):

So Kathleen Harriman is the daughter of Averell Harriman, who's the ambassador to the Soviet Union. He's one of the wealthiest men in America. He was the chairman of Union Pacific Railroad who ended up joining FDR's New Deal administration. And his younger daughter Kathleen was much like him, extremely athletic and adventurous and so she decided to join him when he became the ambassador to Moscow in 1943. And she really serves as his assistant ambassador. She learned to speak Russian for both of them, translates for him at certain social functions.

Catherine Grace Katz (10:44):

But by the time Yalta comes, Kathleen has had all this experience with Stalin and his inner circle, has more experience with than any other American woman in history. She also knows all of the British delegation that's coming. She knows all the Americans. So Averell Harriman leaves her in Yalta as he goes off to rendezvous with Churchill and FDR. And Kathleen is leading the advanced team. She's like the protocol officer, communicating with the Soviets, making sure everything at the palace is set up to foster diplomacy in the most effective way. And so it's often overlooked role, but one that's really important and continues to be so important in diplomacy today.

Anne Strainchamps (11:21):

I have to say I had no idea. It sounded like a nightmare. The US and Great Britain brought like 500 people with them. There was what, a handful of bathrooms in this place?

Catherine Grace Katz (11:32):

The bathrooms certainly add to moments of levity in this quite a dark time. There are all these funny stories about generals queuing for the bathroom in the morning, sending their aides to stand in line for them, others heckling each other to get out there taking too much time. Even one point where Stalin's guards think that he's been kidnapped, that the Americans had pulled this kidnapping stunt because Stalin disappeared into a bathroom around the corner and they didn't see him is hilarious and just really shows you the human side to even these great figures.

Anne Strainchamps (12:03):

Yeah, yeah. That's just fascinating and in the meantime these world-shaping conversations they were having. So the big subject which still resonates is Eastern Europe, and in particular, Poland. What was the situation?

Catherine Grace Katz (12:23):

So Poland is incredibly important to Stalin and had been to the czars before him and continues to be in the Russian mindset today where there has been this historic paranoia about invasion through the flatlands of Poland and also Ukraine. That's the path that Napoleon used, same path that Hitler used. And so they want to have a secure buffer around them. They want to make sure that they are in control. This is one of the main issues on the table. Churchill is determined to secure Polish sovereignty because that's what they want to defend in the first place. It's a large reason that the war started. You have Stalin and then at the end here saying, "Yes, yes, we'll guarantee free elections here. Not to worry. And we don't need any Western observers to make sure that this is all happening the way it should. And no, we should invite the Poles here. I tried to get in touch with them, but I couldn't reach them." And so the Poles are central to the story and they're not represented by anyone at the conference.

Anne Strainchamps (13:22):

And Britain and the US had reason not to believe what Stalin was saying because this is not that long after the Warsaw Uprising. Averell Harriman had been very close to them and very upset, even traumatized by it.

Catherine Grace Katz (13:37):

the Warsaw Uprising was hugely eye opening for Averell Harriman who had gone into this alliance with the Soviet Union. He really sees them as, "I have done business in the Soviet Union in my professional career." he had many investments there and just one of few American businessmen who did. He thought this is like doing business with anyone else. We can find common ground, work towards a common objective. And that really changed for him in August of 1944 during the Warsaw Uprising where there's this moment where the Polish resistance had an opportunity to expel the Nazis from Warsaw, knowing that the Red Army was not far away, that they'd come in to reinforce them.

Catherine Grace Katz (14:15):

And so they do an incredible job of rising up and throwing the Nazis out as far as they can. And then the Soviet Union, instead of coming in and reinforcing them, they just stopped on the bank of the river across from Warsaw. And they just let the Polish resistance just be absolutely slaughtered. And Averell Harriman, meanwhile, is lobbying Stalin to do something, lobbying Stalin to allow the Brits to do something. And he says, "No." It's really a turning point for Harriman and also sets up some conflict between him and FDR.

Anne Strainchamps (14:43):

How well do you think Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin understood each other?

Catherine Grace Katz (14:49):

I think that they understood each other very well in some ways and not as well in other ways. One of my favorite things that I found while I was researching was a letter from George Kennan, who was then the number two at the embassy in Moscow, writing to the Secretary of State Edward Stettinius, who'd asked for information and bios about the Soviet bureaucrats they'd be meeting with. And he writes back and says, "I'm sorry, unfortunately, I don't have what you're looking for. We don't have good information about the Soviet bureaucrats except for maybe Stalin himself. And any information that's out there is probably fake. The real information only given in their obituaries when there are no use to anyone anymore. And don't be lulled into this false sense of security that invitations to dinner and rounds of golf are going to change the mind of a Soviet bureaucrat. He doesn't speak for himself, his own personal feelings, don't enter it at all. It's only the objectives of the state."

Anne Strainchamps (15:46):

That's a really different political culture.

Catherine Grace Katz (15:48):

Very, very different. And I think FDR didn't understand that. And I think that's something that's been continuous to be a challenge for American leaders up to the present time.

Anne Strainchamps (15:58):

Having focused on Yalta through the eyes of these daughters and read their diary entries and the letters they wrote back to family and friends, did you come to any new realizations about Yalta see it any differently by seeing it through the daughters' eyes?

Catherine Grace Katz (16:15):

Yeah, I think it made me realize just the human struggle that went along with the altar. It's not just when we sold out to the Soviets. It was much more challenging than that and also that it really personally affected the leaders. They're not just there trying to make a deal. They're struggling on behalf of their people and I think the daughters provided this really tangible sense of the future for their fathers. Their own children are right in front of them and these are the people for whom they're trying to make the world a better and safer place.

Anne Strainchamps (16:45):

And for the women themselves, having been present at this world-shaping event, having tossed back shots of vodka with three nations' political elites, Sarah, Anna and Kathleen went home and they did not enter politics or diplomacy or really play any further role on the world political stage. Do you think they're Yalta experience had any continuing impact on any of their lives?

Catherine Grace Katz (17:10):

I definitely do. Kathleen Harriman was very reluctant to ever speak about her experiences in the Soviet Union or at Yalta. No matter what she said, people would either see her as being a fearmonger or too soft on Russia. So she just decided to really say nothing. Even her children really knew very little about her experience there. But for each of them, I think the fact that they were part of a really small community of women who knew what it was like to be in the room, and even though they didn't walk away from Yalta necessarily the best of friends were they call each other every week, I think the unique experiences that they had had, being at the height of power and being at the table with all of these stakeholders, it gave them a unique ability to empathize with each other and each of them experienced similar tragedies later in life, as the lingering scars of the war affected those that they loved.

Catherine Grace Katz (18:01):

And so you see certain moments where they communicate with each other and reassurance and solace is a really lovely letter, especially from Anna to Sarah. I don't want to give away the ending, but you can see that that shared experience they have just continued to play a role in their lives going forward.

Anne Strainchamps (18:17):

Okay, I'm waiting for the TV series. I so want to see this on screen.

Catherine Grace Katz (18:22):

Well, things are happening on that front, so stay tuned.

Anne Strainchamps (18:26):

Good for you.

Catherine Grace Katz (18:27):

Thank you.

Anne Strainchamps (18:35):

That's Catherine Grace Katz. Her book is called The Daughters of Yalta. And coming up-

Vladimir Putin (18:42):

Ukraine is not just a neighboring country to us. It is an inherent part of our own history, culture, spiritual space.

Anne Strainchamps (18:51):

The deep history of war.

Volodymyr Zelensky (18:53):

We are fighting just for our land and for our freedom.

Anne Strainchamps (19:02):

On To The Best Of Our Knowledge, from Wisconsin Public Radio, and PRX. For many of us, it seemed unthinkable that we'd ever see another major war in Europe. After two devastating world wars and evermore entangled global economy and the threat of mutually self-assured destruction, the costs of a new war appeared to outweigh any possible benefits. I guess we should have paid more attention to history. Canadian historian, Margaret MacMillan, argues that war is a perennial human activity and the reason we keep returning to it is because we have actually benefited from it. War has galvanized social and political movements and it sparked scientific advancement. That sounds like a terrible thing to say. So Steve Paulson dug a little deeper.

Steve Paulson (19:56):

So do you think human beings are inherently violent?

Margaret MacMillan (20:00):

This is a huge debate. And I think I come down the side that we're not inherently violent, that we may have violent tendencies. Evolution has left us with a certain collection of tendencies and reactions. And when we're afraid, we do have a tendency to lash out, a tendency to use violence on others. But I don't think that means that we are necessarily violent. Often we see examples of altruism and people's living together in the past. I think what is more important in why people fight and I'm thinking of war not just random one on one fighting. Why people fight in wars is organization, ideas, cultural values. The more organized we are, unfortunately, the better we seem to get that fighting. And war is actually very organized. It's not the sort of brawl that you might get outside a bar or the random violence you might get when someone feels frightened.

Steve Paulson (20:49):

So if war is a tendency that we have, maybe not that we all just want to go out and be warlike, but it's something within our DNA, what does that reveal about what it means to be human?

Margaret MacMillan (21:03):

Well, I'm not sure it is in our DNA. I think our propensity for violence may be in our DNA, but when you think of war, it is purposive and it's often calculating. People don't just rush helter-skelter into war. They think about it, they plan for it, they train for it and it takes off in a great deal of effort. The military know this and a great deal of training to turn people who may not want to kill others and may not want to risk their lives into those who will fight. And I suspect, and this is just a suspicion that once we settle down and became agriculturalists, then it was harder to pick up and move away.

Margaret MacMillan (21:37):

If you're nomadic, you can pick up and move into unoccupied space and get away from those who threaten you. But once you've settled down, it's much harder to move because you have something to defend. And of course, you have much more that someone else might want to take. And so the evidence is from archaeology that very early on agricultural settlements began building walls and that suggests they were worried that someone or something was going to attack them. And very early on, we see empires being established through the use of force, one group of people fighting another group of people to subjugate them, get that territory, bring them under control, perhaps make them into slaves.

Margaret MacMillan (22:13):

And so war seems to be very much not in our DNA perhaps, but in the DNA of social organization that, unfortunately, the better organized we get, we also get the better at fighting each other.

Steve Paulson (22:24):

And this is an age-old debate. Of course, isn't this what Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes argued about a few centuries ago, Rousseau being the person who's saying, "Oh, we're naturally peaceful," and Hobbes says, "No, we're not"?

Margaret MacMillan (22:38):

Yeah, Rousseau said, "Really, the trouble with us came when we began to get organized and that social organization has led us into becoming more confrontational with each other," whereas Hobbes said, "If you were to go back to the ancient world, the primitive world, you would find it very nicely indeed because there would be no central government and no way of controlling the impulses of people to fight with each other." What Hobbes saw is actually a good thing, was the development of a big state, the Leviathan, which had a monopoly of force, which could therefore maintain order in its own territories and defend its people against those who would try and take it over or destroy it.

Steve Paulson (23:15):

Do you think Hobbes was right?

Margaret MacMillan (23:18):

I think Hobbes was right in some ways, but I think where I think he was wrong ... I do share his pessimistic view, but where I think he was wrong is that he thought that it'd be impossible ever to have international society, that the international order would always be anarchic and always be dog against dog or cat against cat. And I think that was too pessimistic a view. I think we have been thinking for a long time about how we build international institutions and how we build international norms and ways of treating each other which will obviate, get rid of the need for war.

Margaret MacMillan (23:50):

Who would have predicted 100 years ago that the former enemies of, say, Britain, France and Germany would be living together and cooperating with each other? It would have seen an impossible dream. And so I think we have to bear in mind that it is possible to move beyond war as a way of settling differences among nations. We can use other means. We can use courts. We can use arbitration. We can use sanctions. International law, which has become very important since 1945, is used more and more to try and settle disputes among nations. So the possibility is there, but what we also have at the same time is the possibility for war.

Steve Paulson (24:25):

Now there is another historical counter example perhaps in terms of if we want to contrast human beings with another species and that's our ancient cousins, the Neanderthals, who were as big as the humans of the time, maybe bigger, but they did not seem to be as well organized socially, probably didn't live in as big groups. And of course, there's been this long-running debate or question about, "Why did the Neanderthals go extinct? Why did we survive?" And it maybe plays into what you're saying is that ancient humans were better organized and therefore more warlike, perhaps wiped out the Neanderthals.

Margaret MacMillan (25:05):

Yeah. Well, it's a possibility, isn't it? The better organized you are horribly in a way, the better you are at making war. Because when you think of what it takes to develop warriors, and it does take training and then have to get them the weapons, you have to provide the weapons, you have to feed them, you have to make sure they get in the right order to the right place at the right time. And of course, with modern war, it gets more and more complicated when you think of the huge logistical support that is needed for modern war. It is, I think, a question of organization. Big wars, long wars, deadly wars wouldn't be possible without tremendous organization.

Steve Paulson (25:44):

So it actually does suggest that there are evolutionary advantages to being warlike, that the groups willing to wage war against other people have prospered.

Margaret MacMillan (25:54):

Well, they have often prospered up to a point. And you could argue, as Hobbes has argued, and in fact, others, Charles Tilly, I think, has argued very persuasively that war has helped to create bigger states, which can in fact benefit those who live within their borders because they provide more stability and security and the Roman Empire was built through war and partly maintained through war. But those who lived inside the Roman Empire enjoyed a higher standard of living, could travel freely because the roads were safe and the seas were safe. Trade could move through all the Roman territories, again, because of the security it offered. And I think it's very striking that people wanted to move into the Roman Empire not out. And I think that's because life was better inside that big organization.

Margaret MacMillan (26:38):

Somewhere behind it lay the threat of force, and of course, the Roman borders were maintained by soldiers. But you could argue that building up bigger political units, even in brutal ways and even if they're not particularly nice to their own citizens, is probably creating a better environment for living than living in a state of anarchy with constant low-level wars and raids going on.

Steve Paulson (27:01):

Now, there is a counter argument that has surfaced in recent years, most notably from Steven Pinker who has argued that human beings are getting less violent, especially since The Enlightenment. What do you make of his argument?

Margaret MacMillan (27:17):

Well, it's a very interesting argument. Of course, he makes it with great research, great evidence and great subtlety. Many societies are getting less violence. We tolerate public violence much less. We no longer have prizefights where people batter each other to death. We no longer have people matched against animals. We no longer have public executions. And in most developed societies and many less developed societies, the homicide rates are way down. Your own country, the United States, is something of an outlier there, but generally, I think his argument that we are becoming more peaceful in the ways in which we deal with each other in domestic societies is right, but I don't think that's war and I think war is something different.

Margaret MacMillan (27:59):

There's a very interesting counter arguments by Charles Wrangham called The Goodness Paradox, which [crosstalk 00:28:04] ...

Steve Paulson (28:04):

Or you mean, Richard Wrangham.

Margaret MacMillan (28:05):

... last year. Oh, sorry, Richard Wrangham. Yes, sorry, The Goodness Paradox in which he argues that we have, in fact, probably become nicer and less violent as individuals. And he has this very interesting argument that, in a sense, we may have domesticated ourselves by our choice of mates and by breeding out or simply not reproducing those who are most violent among us or actually perhaps killing those who are most violent among us, rather than in the way in which wolves have been domesticated into nice friendly dogs who sit on your lap. And what he's argued, however, in the process of domestication, we may have become nicer as individuals, but we've also become better at organizing. And we've become better at using purpose of violence that the paradox he points to us that we may have got better at making war, even as we become rather nice to people.

Steve Paulson (28:52):


Margaret MacMillan (28:53):

It really is.

Steve Paulson (29:01):

Can we generalize about how most wars actually get started?

Margaret MacMillan (29:06):

Well, I tried to. There are many reasons. Someone assaults someone. Someone marries someone. Someone mistake happened, but I think if you look at it, I may be wrong, but I tend to see it as greed.

Vladimir Putin (29:23):

Ukraine is not just a neighboring country to us. It is an inherent part of our own history, culture, spiritual space.

Margaret MacMillan (29:33):

You have something that someone else wants, maybe that's territory, maybe that's silver or gold or whatever.

Vladimir Putin (29:38):

The modern Ukraine was completely created by Russia.

Margaret MacMillan (29:41):

And on the other side of that is fear.

Volodymyr Zelensky (29:44):

We're fighting just for our land and for our freedom.

Margaret MacMillan (29:51):

You may go to war because you feel you have no choice but to go to war because you fear for your very survival. And then the final category is I haven't got the right term for it, but I called it ideas and ideologies.

Vladimir Putin (30:11):

How deep the Western countries keep their word about non-expansion of NATO Eastwards. They just lied to us.

Margaret MacMillan (30:19):

It's the things we think and believe in that can lead us to make war. And religion, of course, can do that. If you want to build a paradise on Earth or if you want to achieve your salvation in eternity, you may go to war because death will have less peril for you. You'll feel less frightened of death and you feel you're part of a much greater cause.

Vladimir Putin (30:39):

And now they have new laws adopted against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

Margaret MacMillan (30:45):

And nationalism can be the same sort of thing. You will fight for a nation and die for a nation.

Petro Poroshenko (30:49):

And preparing the Molotov cocktail, this is the flowers for Putin. This is our soil."

Margaret MacMillan (30:58):

Because you feel you're fighting for something bigger than yourself.

Speaker 12 (31:03):

We are Orthodox Russians, and we are Russian speakers living in Donbas. We don't recognize the Ukrainian government. We are here to speak our own language.

Margaret MacMillan (31:12):

Or you will fight as many, people have done including of course in the United States, you'll fight in a civil war.

Speaker 13 (31:18):

I deem it necessary to immediately recognize the independence and sovereignty of Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic.

Margaret MacMillan (31:29):

You may go to war because you have different views within the same society, of what that society should be and who should control that society.

Steve Paulson (31:37):

And those tend to be the bloodiest wars, right? The civil wars.

Margaret MacMillan (31:40):

I think they tend to be the worst. You believe you're doing something for the greater good of humanity in the longer run and so anyone who opposes you really shouldn't be almost. It is almost a moral imperative to eliminate those people because they are standing in the way of a greater project and so you should feel no compunction in removing them from the face of the Earth.

Speaker 14 (32:05):

How do you feel?

Speaker 15 (32:05):

I'm so good. Very good. [foreign language 00:32:08] Mykolaiv.

Speaker 14 (32:08):

He's saying the Russian strikes come in last, but the town of Mykolaiv beat them.

Margaret MacMillan (32:19):

In civil war, you're not just fighting those soldiers out in the field or the sailors out on the seas, you're fighting the whole society because it is wrong.

Speaker 16 (32:27):

[foreign language 00:32:27].

Margaret MacMillan (32:32):

And so even the children are wronged, even the old people are wronged. There's no one innocent in such wars, at least that's the belief.

Speaker 17 (32:38):

[foreign language 00:32:38].

Steve Paulson (32:47):

Now we've been talking about the horror of war, but there is another side to it, which you go into at some length in your book and that actually a lot of good things come out of war, scientific advancement, sometimes more social equality. Societies can get restructured. How far would you take that argument?

Margaret MacMillan (33:09):

Well, I'm always cautious with it because I get people getting quite crossed as they should, but I think they misunderstand me saying that war is a good thing for us and I don't think that at all. But I think it is noticeable in history that it sometimes takes a very great challenge and great crisis to get us collectively to do things that we wouldn't think of doing in normal times because they're too expensive or too difficult or too disruptive. And war is one of those challenges which brings out those responses, so too is a pandemic. I've been reflecting very much on the current pandemic where you see governments which had been talking about austerity and getting rid of deficits and balancing the books, suddenly spending money with the free hand because it is necessary.

Margaret MacMillan (33:50):

Huge amounts of money had been invested in trying to find vaccines and treatments for the COVID-19. And I think war can do that as well. It simply makes possible things which aren't possible in peacetime.

Steve Paulson (34:02):

Can you give a few examples of that?

Margaret MacMillan (34:04):

Yeah, sure. Well, medicine. A great many medical advances have come about as a result of war. They might have come about anyway, but we'll never know. New drugs have been developed in war. Penicillin, for example, which was discovered in the interwar years of the 1920s was considered too expensive to produce. And then the Second World War came along, and suddenly, it's not too expensive when you want to keep those who are fighting for you alive. And society as a whole has benefited enormously from penicillin.

Steve Paulson (34:33):

So if violence is part of human nature and we seem to have this propensity to start wars, I guess I'm wondering, can we ever overcome these inherent urges within us or will we always be warring animals?

Margaret MacMillan (34:51):

I think we can overcome them and societies change. I'm so struck by the way in which Germany has changed. Germany was a society that in the 19th century when it was first made a country and in the 20th century was imbued or at least parts of German society were imbued with militaristic values and an admiration for the military in a sense, which the military shared that the military was the noblest and best part of the nation. And that's completely gone. Germany is a different society and a different country. I think what's happened in Europe is very, very significant.

Margaret MacMillan (35:25):

Most European countries have moved well away from military values and have moved away from thinking that war is a useful tool of state. For most Europeans, they don't want war. They don't think it's useful. I think it's a waste of lives and resources and it's pointless. It doesn't achieve anything. So I do think it's absolutely possible and indeed very hopeful that we can move into societies and ways of thinking which don't see war as something that should ever be used.

Anne Strainchamps (36:07):

Historian Margaret MacMillan talking about her book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us. Steve has a longer interview with her in Nautilus Magazine. You'll find the link on our website at It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Speaker 18 (36:43):

Battle from Madrid, the fascists attacking.

Anne Strainchamps (36:48):


Speaker 19 (36:50):

[foreign language 00:36:50]

Anne Strainchamps (36:51):

Fascism spreads across Europe.

Speaker 20 (36:54):

[foreign language 00:36:54]

Anne Strainchamps (36:56):

Hitler and Mussolini are on the rise in Germany and Italy. Franco seizes power in Spain.

Speaker 21 (37:03):

[foreign language 00:37:03]

Anne Strainchamps (37:07):

And volunteers from other nations flock to join the resistance. Among them, a young Englishman who would become the anti-authoritarian voice of his generation, George Orwell.

Speaker 22 (37:21):

With each claiming victory, [inaudible 00:37:23] rebels got to the capital.

Anne Strainchamps (37:27):

But before he packed his bags for Spain, George Orwell did something else. He planted roses and fruit trees, and in fact, an entire vegetable garden, which sounds maybe a little out of character for the guy who wrote 1984. For writer Rebecca Solnit, it opens up all kinds of questions about pleasure and beauty and political commitment.

Rebecca Solnit (37:59):

There's an ambient image of Orwell as this kind of stern, austere, pessimistic guy, prophet of doom, properly joyless and strenuous, but I never really thought what it was that this great antifascist, great voice against totalitarianism had planted, intended and cultivated and loved roses. And then one day, I found myself face to face with the roses still growing. And they, as we say it in California, blew me away and I knew really that day that this would launch a book and it would be a joy to write.

Anne Strainchamps (38:38):

Tell me about that day that you went to track down Orwell's fruit trees, the ones that he wrote about his roses.

Rebecca Solnit (38:46):

So I was on book tour that November, actually Day of the Dead, November 2nd, 2017. And on my way from London to Cambridge and I arranged for a taxi to meet me and take me to three miles from the little train station called Baldock on the way to Cambridge from London and take me out to the cottage and it was quite magical in a rural kind of way because the taxi driver normally know exactly where it's going, but he knew who I was going to. He pulled up and he said, "Oh, there's Graham in the lane right now. I'll just introduce you." They invited me in, and while the taxi meter ran, I had a wonderful long visit. Eventually, they disclosed that the fruit trees had been cut down in the '90s.

Anne Strainchamps (39:30):

Oh, no.

Rebecca Solnit (39:31):

They brought me to meet Nigel next door who remember the fruit trees and then they said almost as an afterthought, "Well, the fruit trees are gone, but would you like to see the roses he planted?" and, "Hell, yeah, I would like to see the roses he planted."

Anne Strainchamps (39:45):

And what did the roses look like?

Rebecca Solnit (39:47):

That November day, these two big straggly rose bushes were actually in bloom. They were as pale pink and one with yellowish at the base and a lot of the flowers were buds there. They were fragrant. They were deeply straggly and thorny as roses often are and just really tenacious.

Anne Strainchamps (40:08):

Like Orwell himself. So 1936, what was going on in his life at the time?

Rebecca Solnit (40:15):

Yeah, 1936 was a remarkable year for him. He went in February to the industrial districts to visit the coal miners, the unemployed to see how they lived and was really shocked by it as a middle class southern English then who had not really encountered that kind of poverty. And then at the end of the year, he went to the Spanish Civil War which alerted him to the dangers, not only of fascism, but also of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union which was corrupting the loyalist side of that war and defeating it in a lot of ways. And in between, he planted this garden. And those three things together are really remarkable, that he felt the need and the desire to do this pleasurable local hands-on garden thing in the midst of these two great epic political visits that so much made him the mature Orwell, the great writer.

Anne Strainchamps (41:12):

He wasn't just somebody who planted the odd rose bush and a few fruit trees. From what you discovered, it seems like he was a really obsessed gardener.

Rebecca Solnit (41:21):

He absolutely loved gardening. Said in a questionnaire, he was sent in 1940 that after writing the thing he was most passionate about was gardening, particularly vegetable gardening. He was raising chickens and selling the eggs as many as 100 eggs a week. He eventually had a couple of goats he milked religiously twice a day. And it's also very funny, he goes off to the Spanish Civil War and writes a long instructive letter on how to properly milk his goats to the person who would house it for him.

Anne Strainchamps (41:52):

And this is Orwell, the back-to-the-lander.

Rebecca Solnit (41:56):

Yeah, I the DIY Orwell, the back-to-the-lander, the Orwell who for me so much resembles Henry David Thoreau, also a passionate gardener, a great grower of melons and beans and Thoreau died of tuberculosis at 45 and was the great American political essayist of the 19th century. Orwell, dead of TB at 46, the great British political essayist of the 20th century. The connection Thoreau throw was screamingly obvious once I noticed it, but hardly anybody seemed to have.

Anne Strainchamps (42:31):

Yeah. And so I'm interested, not just in what we got wrong about Orwell, but why. As I was reading, I was thinking, personally, as the pandemic has worn on, I found myself craving beauty, more and more as a kind of respite from the news because the world that I see reflected in the daily headlines is just all toxic anger and anxiety. It's the pandemic and the trashing of the climate and threats to democracy, but in the face of that, cultivating a rose garden seems like a selfish kind of pleasure. What I liked so much about this book is that you're making the case that it might also be an act of resistance.

Rebecca Solnit (43:11):

One of the things I know very well from growing up more or less around the left is the sense that everybody should be 24/7 about the big important things and that everything else you do can be treated as trivial, irrelevant, self-indulgent, superfluous, etcetera. And Orwell felt like the perfect case study because nobody calls Orwell a lightweight or a dilettante or self-indulgent. While he was dying, he wrote one of the most important books of the 20th century. He was a great antifascist. He went and fought in the trenches against fascism. He stood up for his beliefs with incredible courage and he loved flowers and birds and roses and rural and domestic life.

Rebecca Solnit (43:54):

And so I do think Orwell, without using the term self-care, understood that you have to be sustainable in some way. I have been around activists all my adult life. I've seen people burnout, become embittered, spend so much time obsessing about what they're against that they somehow come to mirror it or be polluted by it. And I think Orwell never forgot what he was for. And you can see it in 1984 in his essays and how you lived your life.

Anne Strainchamps (44:23):

How do you see it in 1984 because I think that that is such a grim forecasting of totalitarianism?

Rebecca Solnit (44:32):

Oh, my God, one of the wonders of writing this book is I reread 1984 and I've been reading that book since I was a teenager and I too thought I knew it well. And I was shocked by what a completely different novel it was, not only from what I had always read it as but what almost all of us had. How does Winston Smith resist the totalitarian state that he's in? The very first thing that happens in the book, he takes out in a beautiful blank book he's bought. He luxuriates in the creaminess of the paper, the pleasure of taking an old ink pen and dipping it and writing by hand. And he knows as soon as he started this diary that he's essentially doomed himself that he's going to die for this, but he does it anyway.

Rebecca Solnit (45:17):

And then the rest of the novel, he's not really going to overthrow Big Brother. He tries at one point to join the resistance that turns out to be a trap, but mostly he takes pleasure in everyday things. He has a passionate love affair. He goes to the golden country that he's dreamed about to consummate this romance.

Anne Strainchamps (45:37):

Sounds like the whole book is just suffused with beauty.

Rebecca Solnit (45:40):

That was what shocked me. The resistance is beauty and pleasure and the life of the senses. And there's actually a very powerful intellectual argument. Orwell says that the final command of Big Brother was to ... Let me see if I can find it because it's a remarkable passage. "The party told you to reject evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final most essential command." And I found that fascinating because I felt very much also, of course, like the Trump era, "Believe the authorities. Don't believe your own senses. Don't believe that historical record." And this is something that I really learned from this research that the person who's able to resist authoritarianism is somebody who thinks for herself or himself or themselves, somebody who trusts evidence of their senses, somebody who's grounded in history and science but also just in everyday life. And so that's the form of Winston's rebellion.

Anne Strainchamps (46:41):

I keep thinking about another English writer, the poet John Keats, who wrote, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." You could make a parallel connection between ugliness and lies.

Rebecca Solnit (46:52):

One of the crucial things for Orwell was what I came to identify as integrity, Orwell found beauty, of course, in the natural world, but also in truthful language. He saw language as a contract we make among ourselves a lie. And he wrote about lies more than almost anyone in his time, "A lie is a false contract to cheat."

Anne Strainchamps (47:14):

But he connected this also to simply bad writing.

Rebecca Solnit (47:17):

Yeah, yeah. No, Orwell talked about the misuse of language in two ways. And his wonderful well-known essay, Politics in English Language, he talks about using euphemisms, circumlocutions to normalize or excuse the horrific, using vague, airy language to avoid acknowledging atrocities and we saw that in the Bush administration with collateral damage and enhanced interrogation, being the terms for civilian deaths and torture. But then in 1984, he described language being brutally reduced to language that was so reductive, you could, if it's fully succeeded, no longer think certain thoughts. And so the goal was a language that's free enough but precise enough, honest enough that we communicate truthfully with each other.

Anne Strainchamps (48:13):

Orwell wanted to turn political writing into an art he wrote to expose lies. But for him that was also an aesthetic project, and it is for you too, I think. I feel like that's at the heart of most of your writing.

Rebecca Solnit (48:25):

And I think there's a bunch of different pieces there, one of which is the duty that we may go to for refuge in reinforcement in between taking on the things we oppose. I found Orwell's life exemplary in its commitment, but also exemplary in like, "How do you take care of yourself and sustain yourself while also being somebody who is willing to take unpopular stands," as he said, "face unpleasant facts?"

Anne Strainchamps (48:54):

And so what does that mean for you in your own practice?

Rebecca Solnit (49:00):

Well, I'm incredibly lucky to live in San Francisco with the Pacific Ocean fronting our whole western side. So I go to the beach very regularly. I tend a garden and a lot of it is just little everyday stuff. I have exactly the same tea on the same tray every morning, domestic life and domestic routines and friendships and family and people close to me. And I think those are the very ordinary things that most of us draw some sort of sustenance and pleasure from the roses for a lot of us, but also in beautiful ideas. One of the things, again, that I felt very much Orwell exemplified was finding beauty and meaning beauty and integrity, beauty in what you might call honorable or idealistic activity. And I see that a lot of people around me and a lot of movements and being around those people has also sustained me so much.

Anne Strainchamps (50:05):

Well, thank you for your work and for giving us a fuller picture of him as well. Thank you so much.

Rebecca Solnit (50:12):

My pleasure. The book was a pleasure and talking to you is such a pleasure and here's to bread and roses for us all.

Anne Strainchamps (50:20):

Yes. Rebecca Solnit has written many books and essays. We were talking about her most recent, Orwell's Roses. I hope you find things to sustain you in the days ahead, moments of joy and simple pleasure, even when the world seems dark. To The Best Of Our Knowledge is produced by Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe-Kane, Angelo Bautista, Mark Riechers, Joe Hardtke, Steve Paulson and me, Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening and be well.

Speaker 1 (51:02):


Last modified: 
October 14, 2022