Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Korzybski and the Battle of Los Angeles

In 1942, Alfred Korzybski traveled from Chicago to began a three-weekend seminar in Los Angeles on February 14. Befor the trip, he had written to Institute of General Semantics benefactor Cornelius Crane saying, “I am personally convinced that for nuisance sake Los Angeles will be bombed.” Indeed, he arrived there just in time to experience the most remarkable episode of ‘bombing’ on U.S. soil in the Second World War.

He and the Institute's Associate Director M. Kendig had gotten to the city by train several days before. He hadn’t felt enthusiastic about coming. Increasingly affected by his war injuries, traveling had become more bothersome. And although financially the Institute would come out slightly ahead, the considerable expenses and the time away from home, made him wonder about the worthwhileness of the trip. But the group of Los Angeles students, who organized this weekend series and another intensive in March, had been insistent. (Another group of students in San Francisco had organized a two-weekend seminar in Berkeley in April to follow.) Things seemed to be going well enough, though with the lectures and the personal interviews and whatever other appointments he had, he felt extremely pressed for time—in other words, not so different from his usual slave-driving of himself.

He had a suite at the Wilshire Arms Hotel, the site of the seminar. Alfred had the parlor that served as his bedroom and office with a bed in the wall and a table for his desk. The actual bedroom had two beds for Kendig, and for Charlotte Schuchardt who’d be coming out in a few weeks to replace Kendig as his assistant for the seminar. With a dinette and small kitchen, he found the place comfortable enough. He felt happy to have a small electric heater for his room to supplement the room heat. (He tended to get cramps in his legs if he didn’t stay warm enough and it could get surprisingly chilly in Southern California at this time of year.) With the lecture room in the hotel, he felt grateful that he didn’t have to commute elsewhere to teach since he tended to get breathless—apparently related to his ‘busted gut’, i.e., hernia—when he walked too much or got otherwise overexerted.

With a great deal of ongoing Institute business to take care of, Kendig returned to Chicago a few days after Charlotte’s arrival on February 26. Charlotte just missed by a day the ‘Battle of Los Angeles’, which had begun and ended on the morning of February 25.

A few days before, a Japanese submarine had surfaced off shore from Santa Barbara and shelled an oil facility there, about 100 miles along the coast north of Los Angeles. Although only minor damage occurred, Southern California—which had oil depots, airplane factories, and shipping facilities galore—had gone on alert. Then, in the early morning hours of February 25, something or things happened in the sky. Who and how many saw whatever happened does not seem clear. Police had reports of from one to 100 unidentified objects—Japanese aircraft?—flying along the coast from Santa Monica to Long Beach. Sirens blared to signal a blackout. Anti-aircraft batteries began firing (over 1,400 rounds) into the sky at the invaders. The ruckus likely awakened Korzybski in his downtown Los Angeles hotel room. Perhaps, he looked outside to see the ‘light’ show as did many people in Los Angeles.

Before the alert was over, five hours later, according to a newspaper account “Thirty persons, twenty of whom were Japanese, were arrested; two persons were killed in traffic accidents during the blackout and at least two houses were damaged by shells which had failed to explode in the air. Shrapnel which fell like hail in some sections broke windows and caused other minor damage.” Nonetheless, if there had been Japanese planes—if there had been any planes at all—they didn’t seem to have dropped any bombs.

No one in authority seemed to know what happened—or rather ‘everyone’ in authority seemed to be saying that different things had happened. While Henry Stimson, the U.S. Secretary of War, praised the successful defense of Los Angeles by local military and civilian defense, Navy Secretary Frank Knox declared that the whole thing had resulted from “a false alarm”. Korzybski seemed confident, based on reports from one of his students involved in Los Angeles area civil defense, that the Japanese Imperial Air force had made its presence known. But after the war, the Japanese denied any wartime mission at this time to Southern California. One thing seemed clear, a little over two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, people had gotten very nervous. And shooting into the sky at unidentified flying objects and having different authorities giving different stories, were not going to do much to reduce the nervousness or to improve wartime morale.


Lance Strate said...

This is a fascinating anecdote, Bruce. And I'm certain Korzybski had a great deal to say about the semantic reactions related to wartime jitters. I wonder what he made of the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast? Paul Heyer had some interesting things to say about it, noting that it had an influence on Marshall McLuhan's thinking (you can download a PDF of the article):

Bruce I. Kodish said...

Korzybski did have a lot to say about public evaluations related to wartime jitters. But I've looked in vain for anything he said in response to Welles' Broadcast and don't recall that I found anything specific. (It's been awhile since I worked on this.) Since I've written about it, I'll see what I can dig up in my manuscript that I might put into some blogposts about war jitters, Welles' broadcast,etc.. The more I get into McLuhan's work, thanks to you, the more I realize his greatness as a formulator. Thanks for the reference. The War of the World's broadcast remains well worth exploring in detail for lessons we might derive from it today.