The word robot comes from the Czechoslovakian word robotnik, meaning “forced labor,” or “slave.” And indeed, since it was coined by Czech writer Karl Čapek in 1920, people have both feared and fantasized about robots. Friendly ones, like The Jetsons’ housecleaner Rosie or Star Wars’ C3PO, exist to make our lives easier. But lurking behind their helpfulness is the prospect of malevolence, a suspicion that the machines we’ve built in our image could turn on us. As Bladerunner artfully captured, becoming too dependent on robots could make us—not them—the real slaves.
Yet while pop culture reflects society’s conflicted feelings about automation, the scientific fields of robotics and artificial intelligence have marched forward with less ambiguity. Robots have transformed from clunky, bumbling machines to sleek, capable devices that deliver packages, vacuum our floors, and manufacture items we use every day. As these machines encroach deeper into our lives, the question of how we got here is increasingly relevant to scientific historians and other researchers. What philosophical, technical and cultural advances led to the automated world we now inhabit?
On April 26, 1986, a safety experiment at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in northern Ukraine went terribly awry, unleashing plumes of fire and invisible radioactive particles that rained down on surrounding towns and cities. Considered the worst nuclear accident in history, the Chernobyl disaster exposed millions of people to radiation and displaced some 200,000 people from their homes.
Yet coverage of the disaster by the Soviet government and state media was shockingly circumspect, focusing on the valiant efforts of workers rather than the devastation experienced by innocent people and animals. A July 1986 report from Pravda, the official newspaper of the USSR, for example, praised the “organized and precise work” of cleanup crews, adding that “many of the power station workers serving the power units are setting examples of courage [muzhestvo] and enthusiasm in their labor.”
American Proxy Wars: Korea and Vietnamis designed to feature Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) coverage of those two countries, but this database can be used for much more than researching the Korean and Vietnam wars. For example, let’s take this new Twentieth-Century Global Perspectivesdatabase “off-label” and see what it can tell us about America’s proxy war in Laos.
Laos itself was a creation of French colonialism in the late nineteenth century, and achieved independence in 1954 following the First Indochina War. The Pathet Lao, a communist organization, came into being in the early 1950s in opposition to French ambitions in Southeast Asia. The Pathet Lao were similar to the Viet Cong in that they had both political and military aspirations, and the two groups worked closely together. America targeted them both during the Vietnam War when the North Vietnamese Army moved its supply operations into Laos along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
As President Trump prepares for a landmark summit meeting with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, it’s worthwhile to recall an actual landmark in that country’s capital, Pyongyang. Moored on the Potong River in the Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum, the USS Pueblo is still listed by the U.S. Navy as in active military service since it was seized by the North Koreans on January 23, 1968. One crew member was killed during the assault, and the 82 survivors were imprisoned and tortured by the North Koreans for nearly a year.
Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, America’s suspicions of communism and deployments against the Russians remained largely unchanged. If President Trump expects dramatic shifts in North Korean or American strategic interests to result from a single summit, history has shown that deadly games of cat-and-mouse are persistent motifs of international relations despite diplomatic initiatives to the contrary.
Only three weeks ago the world media was filled with horrific images of Syria’s purported use of chemical weapons and the military response of America and its allies. But we’ve been here before which raises the question: why does this keep happening?
Readex’s Nuclear Arms and Weapons of Mass Destruction: Global Perspectives, 1945-1996, contains abundant references to the development of Syrian chemical weapons as a readily attainable foil to Israel’s alleged nuclear capability, and as an impediment to American hegemony in the Middle East. In that region, chemical weapons have become the less-developed country’s nuclear arms, with most of the benefits and few of the liabilities of the latter.
The late Syrian President Hafez Assad, father of current President Bashar Assad, said as much in a 1987 interview in the newspaper Al-Qabas, as broadcast on the Damascus Domestic Service, recorded and translated by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), and now found in Nuclear Arms and Weapons of Mass Destruction. Assad spoke of a “taboo” against the use of nuclear weapons that he used to Syria’s advantage:
Do you remember the “Duck and Cover” drills from the 1950s? The Soviet people practiced similar civil defense maneuvers in case the unthinkable happened. What follows is the entire table of contents (omitting the authors) of Soviet Military Translations, No. 368, 24 January 1967, drawn from Voyennyye Znaniya [Military Skills, Moscow, No. 12, December 1966] and found in Joint Publications Research Service (JPRS) Reports:
Civil-Defense Services must be Perfected
The Actions of Civil Defense and the Armed Forces must be Coordinated
Efficient Utilization of Machinery in Rescue Work
Civil Defense at a Khar’kov Plant
The Methods of Civil-Defense Training are very Diverse
Methods of Compensating for a Shortage of Shelters
Training of Civil-Defense Commanders is Financed Partially by the Enterprises
Average Norms for Loading Casualties on Vehicles
England’s Reliance on Evacuation of the Population
Civil defense was far from an abstract concept in the Soviet Union. Consider how granular their concern was, extending to the “norms for loading casualties” onto vehicles, with several articles using the imperative mood. Beneath the Cold War saber-rattling about communism “burying” capitalism and the bravado surrounding the U-2 Incident and the Cuban Missile Crisis, it isn’t much of a stretch to see in this list of articles a nation that is terrified of being nuked.
Readers of Mao Tse-tung’s ubiquitous “Little Red Book” of quotations have to wait until Chapter 6 until they make the acquaintance of Anna Louise Strong, the American journalist who elicited from Chairman Mao one of his most well known statements:
In his talk with the American correspondent Anna Louise Strong 20 years ago, Chairman Mao Tse-tung put forward the brilliant dictum that for the people who dare to make revolution, the imperialists, including the United States and all reactionaries are paper tigers.
Mao uttered his famous words during an interview with Strong that took place in the Yenan cave where he was living in 1946. Such quarters were necessary as Mao and Strong shared the perils of aerial bombardment from U.S.-sponsored Nationalist Chinese aircraft during the Chinese Civil War. Strong’s dispatch below hints at the respect with which she was treated by her Chinese interpreter, who apologized for jeopardizing the life of this American reporter from bombs that likely came from America.
Known as Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS) Daily Reports, 1941-1996, this digital archive of global news media offers crucial insight for students and scholars of geopolitics, political science and world history. It provides unique coverage of 20th-century events as they occurred—collected, transcribed and translated into English by a branch of the Central Intelligence Agency. Among the major regions covered are Africa, Asia (Soviet Union, China, etc.), Europe, Latin America and the Middle East.
Learn more about this online resource in this new 1-Minute Video:
Glenda Pearson, Distinguished Librarian, University of Washington, writes:
FBIS brings to the mind’s eye what on-the-spot video does now: it makes the events of the last half of the 20th century come alive, as well as guarantee that firsthand descriptions will survive to tell the tale even after events have been deconstructed, re-assembled and interpreted according to the prevailing political and historical theories of the day.
At the confluence of the period of racial violence known as Red Summer (1919) and the first Red Scare (1917-1920), Jamaica-born poet and journalist Claude McKay merged black anger with radical politics in his most well-known poem, “If We Must Die.”
McKay’s sonnet initially appeared in the July 1919 issue of The Liberator, a radical socialist magazine published in New York City from 1918-24 by Max and Crystal Eastman. The fame and impact of “If We Must Die” was such that it was soon reprinted as a rallying cry in other progressive magazines such as the September 1919 issue of The Messenger, available in African American Periodicals, 1825-1995.
Fifty years ago the North Vietnamese launched the Tet Offensive, a multi-pronged military campaign that underscored South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu’s inability to protect his country’s urban areas from attack.
Although the assaults were eventually repulsed, the heightened focus on the defense of South Vietnamese cities exposed rural areas to greater infiltration by the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) cadre, consisting of civilians and paramilitary personnel collaborating with the communist North.
America formalized the Phoenix Program in 1967 as a means of addressing just this eventuality. Through a melding of rural development with intelligence gathering and targeted detention and killing of suspected Viet Cong, they hoped to turn the tide of the war to the South and democracy.