Look Homeward, Obama

The Daily Beast is an American news and opinion website focused on politics and pop culture. In a 2015 interview, editor in chief John Avlon described The Beasts editorial approach: “We seek out scoops, scandals and stories about secret worlds; we love confronting bullies, bigots and hypocrites.”

Look Homeward, Obama (@The Daily Beast)

Later this week Barack Hussein Obama Jr. will visit Kenya for the first time as president of the United States. Years ago, he wrote about the village of Kogelo, near Lake Victoria, as the home of his father and his father’s extended family—as “Home Squared.” But this visit to Kenya will not be the kind of homecoming many in America might expect after so many years of misleading stories and paranoid fantasies about the president’s origins.

To understand his African origins, it’s important to understand how Barack Hussein Obama Sr., the president’s father, came to be in America in the first place, and how much distance he put between his son and Home Squared.

While in office, Obama has downplayed the Kenyan part of his background to the point of skipping the country on his four previous trips as president to sub-Saharan Africa. No doubt he was unwilling to feed the conspiracy theories of those pundits in tin-foil hats who have tried to portray him as a Kenyan-born socialist and Muslim.

Yes, the president is the son of a self-professed “African socialist” and the grandson of Onyango Obama, a convert to the Muslim religion just prior to the birth of the president’s father in 1936. But the tin-hats who wave those loaded words around have no idea what they meant to the president’s forebears or to his father’s Africa as it emerged from a century of bitter and often brutal colonization.

The conversion of Islam of the president’s grandfather did not run deep: Onyango quickly drifted away from the faith and did not raise his children as Muslims. By 1959, when Barack Sr. went to college in the United States, he had very little to do with religion. As most of us know, or should know, while at the University of Hawaii, the young Kenyan met and married Ann Dunham, a fellow student originally from Kansas, and their son, Barack Jr., was born there in Hawaii on August 4, 1961.

But how did Barack, Sr. get to that Pacific island 50th state of the USA in the first place? He owed his residence in Hawaii to the work of the African American Students Foundation, a project driven by American faith in democracy and the future of the emerging African people, as chronicled in my 2009 book, Airlift to America.

Founded by American entrepreneur William X. Scheinman and his close friend, Kenyan politician Tom Mboya, the AASF raised the money for its initial “airlift,” a term suggestive of the airlift that saved West Berlin from the communists a few years earlier. Baseball great Jackie Robinson, the hugely popular singer Harry Belafonte, and the actor Sidney Poitier signed an extraordinary fundraising letter, and in 1959 the AASF garnered enough donations to bring a planeload of East Africans to New York and to transport them to colleges throughout the U.S. mainland. Martin Luther King Jr. underwrote several airlifted students. Senator John F. Kennedy’s support for the airlift in its second year, 1960, positively influenced the black vote that was an important factor in his narrow presidential election victory.

Elizabeth Mooney, a pioneering American literacy specialist in Kenya who had taken an interest in the brilliant young Obama Sr., bought his ticket to Hawaii, but after he landed there the AASF supported him. And the organization’s files contain a half-dozen references to his time in Hawaii that reflect on his diligence, but also his personal troubles. There are checks made out to Obama Sr. for books and tuition payments, records of his receiving one of the Foundation’s Jackie Robinson scholarships, and copies of letters to Obama Sr. from Mboya, a fellow Luo tribesman. Mboya’s missives enclosed letters from the wife Obama Sr. had left behind in Kenya (along with children), pleading for his return.

The AASF airlift would be spectacularly successful in terms of what its graduates eventually accomplished. From the nearly 800 students in the program came the founding fathers and mothers of Kenya and its neighboring countries in East Africa. For a quarter-century, “the airlift generation” provided half of Kenya’s legislators and cabinet members, and many doctors, lawyers, and other leading citizens. Among the airlift graduates was Wangari Maathai, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts at reforesting East Africa.

When Obama Jr., was 2 years old, Obama Sr., left his American wife and son in Hawaii. They divorced shortly thereafter. He reappeared in Barack Jr.’s life only once, when the boy was 10, staying for a month, an occasion achingly remembered in the president’s 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father. In 1982, Barack Jr. was 20 and a student at Columbia when news arrived of his father’s death in a car crash in Kenya. After that event, Obama Jr. made his first visit to the country and became acquainted with his Kenyan relatives.

Yes, Obama Sr. did call himself an “African socialist,” but Kenyan socialism was not all that socialist, especially in the context of the times. Independent Kenya’s first leader, Jomo Kenyatta, found it important to state specificallythat the new country would not nationalize any industries, and to define African socialism as primarily devoted to righting the wrongs of the colonial period.

One of the bonds between AASF founders Scheinman and Mboya—and between Mboya and President Kennedy—was their belief that capitalism and democracy needed to be the twin pillars of Africa’s new nations. Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania was much more within the Communist orbit, and provided a very visible contrast to Kenya’s more capitalist version of African socialism.

Obama Sr., became a prominent voice for the Kenyan brand of African socialism. In a critique issued in 1965, he considered the important question, “How are we going to remove the disparities in our country, such as the concentration of economic power in Asian and European hands, while not destroying what has already been achieved?” His answer was to give the farmers more ownership and control over their land so they could make a better living.

Obama Jr. resembles his father in many ways, say men who knew the father well. Olara Otunnu, a Ugandan former undersecretary general for the United Nations, who interacted with Obama Sr. from their teenage years through to Obama Sr.’s death, was stunned by the physical resemblance of father and son: same physique, same gait, similar voice. Obama Sr., he recalled in an interview for my book, had “charisma, supreme confidence, and eloquence.” Otunnu added that it was a blessing the son had not inherited the father’s self-destructive flaws, a judgment echoed by other old friends of Obama Sr. who had been airlift participants.

“Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?” Thomas Wolfe asked in his novel Look Homeward, Angel. Before Obama Jr. ever became president that is what he went to Kenya to do. Now as he goes back, he can pay proper homage to what was, and was not, his heritage, unconcerned at last that his personal history will stand between him and the nation where he was born and elected twice to the highest office in the land.


— Tom Shachtman

George Washington, the First Vaxxer

The Daily Beast is an American news and opinion website focused on politics and pop culture. In a 2015 interview, editor in chief John Avlon described The Beasts editorial approach: “We seek out scoops, scandals and stories about secret worlds; we love confronting bullies, bigots and hypocrites.”

George Washington, the First Vaxxer (@The Daily Beast)

At a time when anti-vaxxer hysteria is colliding in the headlines with public alarm at the possibility of a global Ebola epidemic, it is bracing to read historian Tom Shachtman’s account of another time in this nation’s history when Founding Father George Washington kept his head (public hysteria was not invented yesterday) and insisted that his army be inoculated against smallpox, thus saving the lives of thousands of soldiers and in the process indirectly safeguarding the young nation he was charged with defending. Here’s an excerpt, adapted by Shachtman for The Daily beast, from his latest book, Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment.

In early January 1777, General George Washington decided to take an action that would later be deemed his most important strategic decision of the war, even though it had nothing to do with the positioning of his troops, and to take it on the basis of his scientific understanding of the situation: he was going to order the inoculation of all Continental troops and recruits against smallpox. For an agonizing 18 months he had been wrestling with the decision, knowing it would mean having to counter the express orders of the Continental Congress and the decrees of the legislatures of half the rebelling colonies.

It would be a daring, possibly dangerous move because, a quarter-century before the introduction of the Jenner “cowpox” vaccine that would make immunity to smallpox widely available, smallpox was still the biggest killer of the age. It had been so for the American colonies since the earliest days of European settlement: once or twice every decade, smallpox would sweep through cities and countryside, causing between 10 and 20 percent of all deaths in the years it appeared.

In July 1775, when Washington had first taken command of the Continental Army, outside of Boston, smallpox was rampant in the city. Reporting to John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, Washington wrote that he and his staff had been “particularly attentive to the least Symptoms of the Small Pox; hitherto we have been so fortunate as to have every Person removed so soon, as not only to prevent any Communication, but any Apprehension or Alarm it might give in the camp. We shall continue the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous enemy.”

Vigilance, yes; but taking the most aggressive action—not so much. While Washington was acquainted with a technique for protecting people against smallpox, he would not then use it, partly because it was deemed illegal by the Continental Congress and colonial legislatures, and partly because many physicians believed the technique did more to spread the disease than to halt its progress.

The technique, called “variolation,” was a form of inoculation in which pus from an infected person was inserted under the skin of an uninfected one; that gave the inoculee a mild case of the disease and, after the passing of a period of high communicability, lifetime immunity. But although championed by such scientific heroes as Benjamin Franklin, and undergone willingly by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and other leaders, variolation was castigated as unsafe for the community because the patient had to be isolated for a week prior to the inoculation and two weeks or more after it. Congress had forbidden military doctors to administer it and forbidden army officers to take variolation or have their subordinates do it, on pain of being cashiered.

During the first year of the Revolutionary War, Washington’s tactic of isolating army patients of smallpox didn’t stop the disease; that year, smallpox caused the deaths of more Continental troops than died on the battlefield.

Washington had his own immunity to smallpox, acquired in the “natural way,” through having survived a case of smallpox when still a teenager; the pock marks on his face were its testament. When the British abandoned Boston in the spring of ’76, Washington ordered that all the first Continental troops to enter the city have pock-marked faces, and that among their first tasks was the removal of any infected civilians.

After Washington’s victory in Boston, the remaining nine months of 1776 were among the most difficult for the commander and the American cause, with significant losses in the New York area in the summer and fall. He and the troops then retreated across New Jersey to a winter redoubt.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts had seen the light in regard to smallpox: after the military action had moved away from the area, and wanting to prevent a resurgence of the epidemic, the Massachusetts authorities lifted their ban on variolation and an orgy of it ensued—nearly 5,000 of the Boston area’s 10,000 inhabitants were inoculated in a relatively short period of time.

For Washington, the advent of winter meant fewer battles and more time for uninterrupted thought. During it, he reached two linked realizations that thereafter shaped his strategy: first, that preserving his forces was more important than controlling territory, and second, that to properly preserve those forces he would have to prevent them from dying of smallpox.

The scientific evidence on which he would base the decision was accumulating. The Massachusetts mass variolations proved it could be done. On a personal level, he had more evidence. He had his wife, Martha, inoculated in Philadelphia, and she came through the process healthy. But he also knew that the moment for ordering mass variolation would have to be opportune. Knowing that Congress would not be easily convinced, he softened them up by repeatedly petitioning for permission to allow troop detachments on their way to join the main army to skirt smallpox-prone Philadelphia. Each time, when he made these requests, Congress acceded to them, but still did not relent and issue a general order to inoculate the troops. Indeed, the idea of mass inoculation seems not to have occurred to the delegates, not even to the handful of physicians among them.

Military victory always gives a field commander added clout with his civilian overseers. Washington’s shocking success in the December 1776 raid across the Delaware River to seize Trenton had that effect—and he decided to seize the moment to unilaterally decree inoculation for smallpox as the policy of the army.

There then arose another roadblock in the path toward troop immunization, the result of intrigue among the fraternity of physicians in Philadelphia that led to a change in command of the medical services. Dr. John Morgan, perhaps the best-trained physician in the colonies, was then the leader. Dr. William Shippen Jr., Morgan’s rival since the days when they had both been at prep school, successfully connived to replace Morgan by accusing him of poor management bordering on dereliction of duty. Washington did not like the change but accepted it. He knew Shippen, who had recently inoculated Martha, and he was on even more familiar terms with Shippen’s brothers-in-law, the Lee family of Virginia. Partly to win Shippen to his position on mass variolation, Washington confided to him that he was going to petition Congress to raise the pay of surgeons willing to travel with the troops. But the main point of Washington’s argument to the new chief medical officer was, as he would soon put it, “Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure [inoculation against smallpox], for should the disorder infect the Army… and rage with its usual Virulence, we should have more to dread from it than from the sword of the enemy.”

Shippen’s initial answer to Washington’s request on mass variolation was a surprising but logical no; the doctor objected to it on the grounds that provision for post-inoculation isolation was inadequate, which might spread rather than limit the disease. During the remainder of January, Washington deferred to Shippen’s caution, but as February began and renewed outbreaks of the disease confronted the army, he overruled Shippen’s caution.

He had to inform Congress, but he decided to do so by burying the smallpox-prevention decision in the middle of a long letter to Hancock about other matters. Even so, the first draft of the paragraph about mass inoculation, written on February 5, contained a dollop of self-doubt: “The small Pox is making such Head in every quarter that I am fearful it will infect all the Troops that have not had it. I am divided in my opinion as to the expediency of innoculation, the Surgeons are for it, but if I could by any [other] means put a Stop to it, I would rather do it. However I hope I shall stand acquitted if I submit the Matter to the Judgment and determination of the medical Gentlemen.”

Washington re-read the draft of the paragraph and judged the wording as too weak, that his “divided opinion” or his deference to the “surgeons” might provide Congress with reason to order him not to inoculate, or a way to use the doctors to gainsay him. That would not do. So aide-de-camp Tench Tilghman was instructed to cross out that wording and substitute a stronger one, making the tenth paragraph of Washington’s February 5, 1777 letter to Hancock read: “The small pox has made such Head in every Quarter that I find it impossible to keep it from spreading thro’ the whole Army in the natural way. I have therefore determined, not only to innoculate all the Troops now here, that have not had it, but shall order Docr Shippen to innoculate the Recruits as fast as they come in to Philadelphia. They will lose no time, because they will go thro’ the disorder while their cloathing Arms and accoutrements are getting ready.”

Not waiting for a reply from Congress, the next day Washington issued unequivocal instructions to Shippen to begin mass variolation for smallpox.

The entire inoculation campaign was carried out in secret to prevent the British—and American Tories—from finding out about it and taking advantage. Small groups of Continental officers at a time were permitted to leave the Continental Army’s main camp to go to Philadelphia for the inoculation process; and physicians were dispatched to Kingston, New York and to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to set up facilities for inoculation, isolation, and recuperation. The isolation sites were mostly in private homes and churches.

Not all of Washington’s field commanders immediately agreed to the procedures. When there were objections, Washington’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, writing while the commander-in-chief was ill for a few days, reinstructed such officers as General Alexander McDougall and Major-General Adam Stephen on the unyielding nature of Washington’s demands for inoculation. To Stephen, in answer to an objecting letter to headquarters from Colonel Andrew Ward, a Stephen subordinate, Hamilton penned the most complete articulation of Washington’s reasoning:

His Excellency desires that this objection, with respect to Colonel Wards regiment, should cease; and that they may immediately be admitted to the benefit of innoculation, in the usual proportion. He begs also that the present opportunity, while the roads continue incommodious for any movements of the enemy, may be improved to the greatest advantage, as we do not know how long it may last; and shall have no time to spare, even if the utmost diligence is used …. Let this be urged upon the Doctors, and every thing else done which may be conducive to dispatch, in a matter of so great importance.

Washington also convinced Governor Patrick Henry to repeal Virginia’s law against inoculation. Troops traveling north from the Carolinas were soon stopping in Virginia to be inoculated before continuing on.

In the spring of 1777, the Continental Congress, acknowledging Washington’s success with mass variolation, at last issued a formal inoculation order. Before the end of 1777, nearly 40,000 troops had been inoculated. In the year following the start of mass inoculation, the infection rate from smallpox in the Continental Army fell from 17 percent to 1 percent.

Inoculating the American troops against smallpox effectively shielded Washington’s army from being decimated by disease until the arrival of foreign arms made it possible for them to turn the tide of battle in America’s favor. Nothing that Washington did had a greater impact on the outcome of the war than his actions to protect his troops from death by smallpox.

Adapted by Tom Shachtman from his book, Gentlemen Scientists and Revolutionaries: The Founding Fathers in the Age of Enlightenment, recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

September 12, 2017: Publication of “HOW THE FRENCH SAVED AMERICA”


September 12, 2017: Lecture at The White Hart Inn, Salisbury, CT

September 14, 2017: Lecture at The Hartford Club

September 26, 2017: Lecture at the Gunn Library

September 28, 2017: Lecture at Westport, CT Historical Society

October 3, 2017: Lecture at the American Revolutionary Roundtable, New York

October 7, 2017: Lecture on the book at Scoville Library, Salisbury CT

October 10, 2017: Lecture at Army-Navy Club, Washington DC