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Nepal Himalaya, 2009

The Cold War at 8,848 meters

The summits of the tallest mountains in the world, all of which are located in the great Himalayan range from northeastern India to Pakistan, remained inviolate until the 1950s and early sixties, when all of them were climbed for the first time. In 1950, Annapurna in central Nepal became the first peak higher than 8,000 meters to be climbed (there are fourteen in all) when a French team reached the summit. Next, in 1953, a British expedition reached the top of the highest of them all, Mt. Everest or Chomolungma.1

It was by an accident of timing and geopolitics that these great mountains were first climbed in the fifties and sixties. Major European and American expeditions had made attempts on several of the 8,000-meter peaks in the twenties and thirties, but then the outbreak of World War II put these expeditions to a halt. When they resumed after the war, the Cold War had begun, and the subsequent mountaineering conquests took place in the context of this global struggle of ideologies.

In 1960, the Chinese government launched an expedition on the north side of Mt. Everest, which stands in Tibet. This was the first expedition on the Tibetan side since China had annexed the country in 1950. The government reported that three climbers reached the top of the mountain and left a plaster bust of Chairman Mao there as a memento of their visit. Mountaineers in the West generally doubted that the Chinese party had actually made it to the summit, as the only accounts released were party propaganda with a little mountaineering on the side. (The Chinese summiting is more widely accepted as veritable now.) Whether or not the Chinese climbers really reached the top, the expedition was a geopolitical coup, an assertion of China’s sovereignty over Tibet.

Three years later, a very different expedition attacked Everest from the southern side, through Nepal. This was the American Mount Everest Expedition 1963, or AMEE for short. Well-equipped, well-staffed (with 20 expedition members, 37 high-altitude Sherpas, and 909 porters), and well-funded by donations and government grants, the expedition was also highly-publicized. The expedition leader, Norman Dyhrenfurth, was a cinematographer by trade; he produced a movie about the climb and got Orson Welles to narrate it. One of the six members of the team to reach the summit was National Geographic Society photograph Barry Bishop. The expedition even had its own chronicler, mountaineer-author James Ramsey Ullman, who wrote a piece for Life magazine, the script of Dyhrenfurth’s movie, and a full book, Americans on Everest (which is a good read).

In his official account, Ullman repeatedly emphasized that AMEE’s climbing of Everest was not a nationalistic endeavor. For example, this passage:

The Chinese, on their climb of three years before, had declared that “we thought of Comrade Mao, took strength, and moved onward and upward”; but such sentiment would not do for AMEE. With due respect to our Chief Executive, and due allowance for the politics of the various team members, it is highly doubtful if anyone was climbing Everest for the President of the United States.2

Yet even if the men who actually climbed the mountain did not do so for national glory, the expedition had to present itself in a national context in order to get funding. The American public and government asked: Why climb Mt. Everest? It has already been climbed. To which AMEE replied: Because it has never been climbed by Americans before.

The rhetoric convinced individuals, mountaineering clubs, companies, and the US government to donate $400,000 to the expedition. The State Department funded expedition costs in Nepal with a grant of $82,000 in Indian rupees, which the US government had earned from the sale of American wheat and other agricultural commodities to India under the PL-480 Food for Peace program. The State Department also funded a goodwill tour of selected expedition Sherpas around the United States after the climb.

A great, friendly American expedition to Asia aligned well with then-President John F. Kennedy’s internationalist agenda, which also produced the Peace Corps and USAID. When Kennedy presented the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal to the expedition after the successful climb, he emphasized the international character of Himalayan mountaineering, citing other nations that had preceded the Americans to Everest. But he omitted the Chinese, as China was on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and this was the Cold War after all.

  1. The two actual summiters were Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa from Darjeeling. []
  2. James Ramsey Ullman, Americans on Everest: The Official Account of the Ascent Led by Norman G. Dyhrenfurth (New York: J.B. Lippincott, 1964), 237-38. []

Citizen of the cold-war galaxy

Warning! This post contains plot spoilers for Robert A. Heinlein’s novel Citizen of the Galaxy (1957).

I recently read the classic science fiction novel Citizen of the Galaxy, by Robert Heinlein. The book is an engaging space-opera tale of a young man who is a slave turned fugitive turned trader turned military recruit turned industrialist. The book is a good read, and it provided a welcome diversion from teaching and dissertation work.

As a child and teenager, I would read science fiction to learn about the future. Of course I knew that the future portrayed was imaginary, but I liked partaking of the author’s imaginings of what the future had to bring. Heinlein in Citizen of the Galaxy has plenty to say about the future, as his characters cross the galaxy on faster-than-light starships. Nowadays, though, when I read a sci-fi book, I am more interested in what it can tell me about the past. And that is why I found Citizen of the Galaxy particularly interesting.

Heinlein wrote the book in the early years of the Cold War. Even though he imagined the future, his book belongs to the period in which he wrote it, the 1950s. Here are three ways that the book reflects and responds to the world in which Heinlein was writing:

1. Planet Jubbul

The story begins on planet Jubbul, where the main character Thorby is purchased at a slave auction by Baslim the Cripple, an undercover abolitionist. To portray Jubbul, Heinlein drew on western perceptions of the East, which could either represent the Soviet bloc or nonaligned nations such as Egypt and India. The ruler of the planet is known as the Sargon, a name that Heinlein adopted from an ancient Mesopotamian emperor. The capital city of Jubbul is Jubbulpore; “-pore” is an old-fashioned transliteration of the Sanskrit suffix –pur, which means town or city (as in Jaipur, the city of Jai Singh II).1 The inhabitants of Jubbulpore practice real-life traditions that Heinlein’s American readers would have found exotic. One of these is a purdah, the seclusion of (mainly upper-class) women. (Parda is a Persian word meaning “curtain,” as women in purdah would stay behind curtains when in the presence of men who were not members of their family.)

2. Area studies in space

The next phase of Thorby’s journey is as a member of the free traders, who trade from one end of the galaxy to the other but are not subject to any government. The free traders, like the inhabitants of Jubbul, also have strange customs, but rather than letting them remain mysterious and exotic, Heinlein explains them. Most of the explaining is done by a character who is an anthropologist studying free trader culture on Thorby’s ship. The fictional anthropologist represents the factual period of area studies. After World War II, the United States began to pursue a global foreign policy, and a component of this policy was studying foreign cultures and societies so that Americans could interact with them appropriately. Funding for anthropological research spiked in the early Cold War. The anthropologist’s studying the free trader culture is a logical extension of US government-funded area studies of Asia and Africa from the early Cold War.

3. Galactic capitalism

The last act of Citizen of the Galaxy takes place on Earth, where Thorby struggles to regain the fortune that is his rightful inheritance. It turns out that Thorby’s family controls one of the galaxy’s major starship manufacturers. The industrial operation is capitalistic, and Heinlein uses the fictional company to comment on capitalism in America. The Cold War was a period of a great ideological dispute between capitalism and socialism. The United States promoted capitalism; Heinlein the narrator, true to his nation’s ideology, accepts capitalism. He does not accept it wholesale, though; he highlights its potential pitfalls. As the book ends, Thorby has just regained control of his fortune and is beginning to investigate the family business’s complicity in supplying ships to the slavers. To Heinlein, American capitalism is not value-free, either in the distant future or the 1950s. Capitalists must be held responsible for their actions, both domestically and abroad.

  1. Jubbulpore is the name of an actual city in central India, although it is now spelled Jabalpur. []

Jugaad’s Cousins

At the beginning of my sojourn in the Garo Hills of northeast India, I was surprised—among other things—to see technologies in use that I did not know were still used anywhere in the world. Farmers plowed their fields with ox-driven plows. Blacksmiths at local markets made knives and axes—not for tourists but for local people to use in their everyday work. Despite the presence of these technologies that I could have considered hopelessly obsolete, I never felt that I was in any time besides the twenty-first century. American celebrity news in the Calcutta Telegraph made sure that northeast India, as isolated as it may have felt, was still very much a part of the modern world.

In the Garo Hills, I saw a variety of old and new technologies used side-by-side. My downstairs neighbors embodied the mixed use of old and new. For entertainment, they watched any of a hundred channels on their satellite TV, or popped a VCD into their player—a format that never caught on in the West, but thrives in India. The parents carried cell phones, as did most or all of the other teachers at my school. They cooked on a gas stove, often with a pressure cooker (a 19th-century invention based on 17th-century principles). They washed their clothes by hand and dried them outdoors on clotheslines strung up between areca palm poles.

The effective mixture of old and new technology was a surprise to me because I, like most westerners, tended to think of technology in terms of innovation. In The Shock of the Old, David Edgerton argues that histories of technology should be based on use rather than innovation. Innovation-based narratives exaggerate the importance of technologies that are new, while ignoring old technologies that continue to be used around the world.1 In other words: tractors may be in almost universal use in the West, but many people around the world still eat food from fields tilled by ox-driven plows.

The Shock of the Old is a useful framework for thinking about Indian technology. As Edgerton remarks, a use-based narrative allows every place to have a history of technology, not just the centers of innovation. Western consciousness of Indian technology is usually restricted to the tech centers in places like Bangalore and Hyderabad. But every place uses technology, and can thus be discussed in a use-based narrative.

Edgerton describes several important examples of Indian technology and how a use-based perspective can open up new views of technology. In particular, transportation represents a distinctly non-western approach to technology. Hand-pulled rickshaws, a colonial invention, continue to be used in Kolkata. Cycle-rickshaws and particularly auto-rickshaws are creole technologies—imported technologies that gain new meaning in a different place. First appearing in India in the 1950s, auto-rickshaws were adapted from motor scooters. The auto-rickshaw concept has spread to other parts of Asia.2

I argue here that India’s judicious use of resources was partly necessitated by Cold War politics, India’s non-alignment restricted its access to technology from the industrialized superpowers. Although India received development aid and technology transfer from both the United States and the Soviet Union, India did not receive as much aid as countries that aligned themselves with either side. Another, more extreme, example of a country whose access to technology was inhibited by Cold War politics was Cuba. In the 1950s, Cuba imported American automobiles and consumer goods, but this trade was abruptly suspended after the communist rise to power in 1959. Cut off from American goods because of the trade embargo, Cuba had to rely on the distant Soviet Union for manufactured items that it could not produce indigenously. Throughout the remainder of the Cold War, and even to the present day, American cars, built in the 1950s, continue to be used in Havana. Some antique cars are restored and used to attract tourists; others are cannibalized for spare parts. As Viviana Narotzky writes in an essay in the collection Autopia: “A ’58 Dodge may have a Cadillac front grille, a Skoda radiator, a Plymouth fender and a Honda wheel cover. The brake fluid will be 50 per cent shampoo. None of the push-buttons will work.”3 The continued use of half-century-old American cars in Cuba represents an ingenious adaptation to political and economic conditions.

Technological improvisation and adaptive reuse take place in developed countries as well as the developing world. In Working Knowledge, Douglas Harper describes the operation of a small shop in the rural North Country of New York in the 1970s and 1980s. According to Harper, the North Country (the area north of the Adirondack Mountains) shares traits with many other parts of the rural North, Midwest, and mountain West of the United States. These places are poor, sparsely populated, and isolated from both supply chains and mass culture. Working Knowledge focuses on a shop run by a man named Willie, who specializes in Saab repair but engages in a wide variety of other tasks such as bridge construction and tractor repair. An important part of Willie’s work is bricolage, the adaptation of scraps (bricoles in French) into something useful. Bricoleurs engage in an informal economy, by making use of things that other people would simply throw away.4

My previous post quoted journalists and bloggers who touted Indian jugaad as the key to their country’s economic success. As this post should make clear, technological improvisation and adaptive reuse are not unique to India; they are performed worldwide, from the poorest country to the richest.5 But Indian jugaad is perhaps distinctive because it takes place on a vast range of scales, from projects as small as Subash rigging up wires so that his wife can use her oven, all of the way up to aircraft carriers and hydroelectric dams. In early independent India, the government as well as individual citizens had to improvise technological solutions.

  1. David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), xi-xiii. []
  2. Edgerton, Shock of the Old, 43, 46. []
  3. Viviana Narotzky, “Our Cars in Havana,” in Autopia: Cars and Culture, ed. Peter Wollen and Joe Kerr (London: Reaktion Books, 2002), 168-176. []
  4. Douglas Harper, Working Knowledge: Skill and Community in a Small Shop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). []
  5. Most technological improvisation, especially in poor countries, goes undocumented. For an intriguing example from sub-Saharan Africa, see Rowan Moore Gerety, “Ebony woodcarvers learn to craft machine parts, Marketplace, http://www.marketplace.org/topics/world/ebony-woodcarvers-learn-craft-machine-parts. []

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