Vol. 46: The arrogance of hindsight
When you live in the present, the past seems so easy
I’m grateful to the Overland Journal, the quarterly magazine of the Oregon-California Trails Association, whose current issue contains a plug for Death of a Gunfighter, my 2008 biography of the Pony Express superintendent Joseph Alfred Slade (“a balanced, thoroughly researched and well-written account”). So, I hope I won’t seem churlish if I scold the writer, Scott Alumbaugh, about his central thesis: “For all the accolades, the dozens of books, articles, movies, granite monuments, and bronze medallion, the Pony Express was in reality just a short-lived messenger delivery service: nothing more, nothing less.”
Yikes. With the benefit of hindsight, Alumbaugh would have us believe that the fabled Pony Express— which carried mail regularly across almost 2,000 desolate miles from Missouri to California between April 1860 and October 1861— was a failure because it lasted only 18 months. This is sort of like arguing that the Berlin Airlift— which dropped 2.3 million tons of food, fuel, and supplies to the blockaded residents of Berlin in 1948 and ‘49— was a failure because it lasted only 15 months. By the same logic, Operation Dynamo, which rescued 338,000 British and French soldiers from the besieged French port of Dunkirk in 1940, was an utterly abysmal failure: It lasted only nine days.
Why fight Hitler?
What Alumbaugh dismisses as “a short-lived messenger delivery service” was in fact the federal government’s only northern link with California— then the world’s richest state, and heavily populated by southern sympathizers— on the eve of America’s Civil War. At a time when southerners in James Buchanan’s cabinet were transferring arms from northern arsenals to the South and shifting mail subsidies from northern routes in favor of southern carriers, the Union’s survival was by no means assured. The Pony Express’s audacious plan— construct 190 relay stations at ten- or 12-mile intervals and marshal 500 high-quality ponies, 200 station keepers, and 80 riders— drastically reduced the delivery time of a cross-country letter from three weeks to as little as ten days. This physically and financially precarious venture operated until a better solution— the transcontinental telegraph— was completed. By then, the Pony Express had made 308 runs east and west, carrying about 34,753 pieces of mail. It had helped keep California in the Union and facilitated Abraham Lincoln’s election as president when neither was a foregone conclusion.
I know what you (and Scott Alumbaugh) must be thinking: Why this preoccupation with cumbersome paper messages? Why didn’t people just send texts and emails, which are so much faster and cheaper? For that matter, was the Civil War really necessary, since the South would have voluntarily freed the slaves eventually anyway? Come to think of it, was World War II necessary? Couldn’t the world have spared itself all that death and destruction by just waiting for Hitler to die of natural causes?
How vital was mail delivery back in the good old days before iPhones? Let me put it this way: During the California Gold Rush, mail to and from the East Coast was delivered by ship via Panama or around Cape Horn. As soon as the monthly mail steamer was sighted from San Francisco, a cannon was fired on Telegraph Hill, triggering bedlam throughout the city. A physician writing in 1850 described men waiting in line for days; miners paying with gold dust to buy places in line from other men; men who expected no mail but stood in line anyway, to sell their position to someone else; men sleeping overnight in blanket rolls, all to hold their place in the hope of news from home.
Who needed the New Deal?
Scott Alumbaugh is hardly alone in his cavalier attitude toward the past. Christopher Corbett, himself the author of a book about the Pony Express, wrote a Wall Street Journal column in 2010 disparaging the Pony Express as a failed business scheme that “hemorrhaged money from day one, was doomed by technology….lasted a mere 78 weeks, (and) ruined its backers.” To my mind, Corbett and Alumbaugh represent a widespread contemporary phenomenon: otherwise, intelligent people who blithely judge the past by the standards of the present. They know that most of history’s disasters (like, say, the Civil War or World War II) ended acceptably, so they wonder why our ancestors did so much kvetching, back in the day.
— Some ten years ago, a Newsweek columnist argued that Germany shouldn’t be judged solely by the Third Reich, “which after all lasted only 12 years.” Easy to say if you didn’t live in Europe during those 12 years.
—In The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression (2007), the conservative polemicist Amity Shlaes contended that Franklin D. Roosevelt actually prolonged the Great Depression by promoting counterproductive economic policies that established today’s entitlement mindset — which, again, is easy to say if you were born in 1960 and enjoy the benefit of 70 years’ hindsight without having spent even a day worrying about where your next meal might come from.
Who needs coal?
—In a diatribe titled “How Robots and Algorithms Are Taking Over” (New York Review, April 2, 2015), the environmentalist Sue Halpern attacked automation for impairing “our very humanness — what makes us who we are as individuals" — not to mention “our humanity — what makes us who we are in aggregate.” Halpern declined to identify exactly whose humanity flourished back in the good old pre-robotic days when most people worked on assembly lines or in office typing pools, not to mention the good old pre-military drone days when faceless regimented soldiers were blown to kingdom come in trenches or massed infantry charges, or — the really good old days — when nine out of every ten Americans spent 80 hours a week working on farms from sunup to sundown.
— In Coal: A Human History (2003), Barbara Meese blamed coal for “the blackening of our skies and lungs for centuries, and now the dangerous warming of our global climate.” Had coal never been discovered, she suggested, “Humanity’s technological and economic progress might have been so gradual that progress could have been more humane, allowing us to avoid much of the misery of the industrial revolution, and possibly even to develop environmentally sustainable ways of living.” Something tells me that Meese has never experienced even one freezing winter day without some artificial heat source, nor has she wondered why more than one-quarter of Britain’s population moved to North America by 1750, so let me tell her: Those Brits came here not for religious freedom, but because they were running out of trees to keep themselves warm. Had coal not appeared when it did, the rest of the British would have moved here too.
The sun vs. the moon
Having properly punctured many overblown myths about the Pony Express, Scott Alumbaugh concedes that the Pony Express helped keep California in the Union. But then he suggests that California might have remained in the Union even without the Pony Express.
Alumbaugh reminds me of the Yiddish folk tale about the rabbi of Chelm who, when asked which is more important, the sun or the moon, declares after much solemn reflection, “The moon is more important, because it shines at night and gives us light to see with, whereas the sun shines during the day, when there is no need for it whatsoever.”
In fairness to Alumbaugh, I should mention that recently, at age 62, he bike-packed across 1,400 miles of the Pony Express route. That’s one way to appreciate the magnitude of the Pony Express achievement. I can think of a simpler way: Try going just 24 hours without checking your messages or phone calls.
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