"Since the First World War Americans have been leading a double life, and our history has moved on two rivers, one visible, the other underground; there has been the history of politics which is concrete, factual, practical and unbelievably dull; and there is a subterranean river of untapped, ferocious, lonely and romantic desires, that concentration of ecstasy and violence which is the dream life of the nation."

Norman Mailer
"The whole work of healing Tellus depends on nursing that little spark, on incarnating that ghost, which is still alive in every people, and different in each. When Logres really dominates Britain, when the goddess Reason, the divine clearness, is really enthroned in France, when the order of Heaven is really followed in China--why then it will be spring."

"This new history of yours," said McPhee, "is a wee bit lacking in documents."

C.S. Lewis

Synchronicities this week

  • June 24 Midsummer/St. John’s Day
  • June 24, 1947 The first flying saucers are sighted over Mount Rainier by pilot Ken Arnold.
  • June 24, 1542 St. John of the Cross, Spanish Carmelite mystic and poet, is born.
  • June 24, 1938 500 ton meteorite lands near Pittsburgh Pennsylvania.
  • June 24, 1717 First Free Masons' grand lodge founded in London.
  • June 24, 1374 A sudden outbreak of St. John's Dance causes people in the streets of Aachen, Germany, to experience hallucinations and begin to jump and twitch uncontrollably until they collapse from exhaustion.
  • June 24, 1314 Battle of Bannockburn; Scotland regains independence from England.
  • June 24, 843 Vikings destroy Nantes.
  • June 23 Midsummer’s Eve
  • June 23, 1972 Nixon & Haldeman agree to use CIA to cover up Watergate.
  • June 23, 1942 Germany's latest fighter, a Focke-Wulf FW190 is captured intact when it mistakenly lands at RAF Pembrey in Wales.
  • June 23, 1888 Frederick Douglass is 1st African-American nominated for president.
  • June 23, 1848 Workers’ insurrection in Paris.
  • June 23, 1713 The French residents of Acadia are given one year to declare allegiance to Britain or leave Nova Scotia, Canada. They choose the latter, migrate to Louisiana, and become Cajuns.
  • June 21 Summer Solstice (11:28 a.m.).
  • June 21, 1964 Three civil rights workers-Michael H. Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James E. Chaney-are kidnapped and murdered by the Klan in Mississippi .
  • June 21, 1948 The 33 1/3 RPM LP record is introduced by Columbia Records.
  • June 21, 1944 Ray Davies of the Kinks born in London.
  • June 21, 1916 Mexican troops beat US expeditionary force under Gen Pershing.
  • June 21, 1877 The Molly Maguires, ten Irish immigrant labor activists, are hanged in Pennsylvania prisons.
  • June 20, 1947 Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, gangster, the “man who invented Las Vegas,” shot dead in Beverly Hills, Cal.
  • June 20, 1909 Errol Flynn, greatest of the swashbucklers, born in Hobart, Tasmania.
  • June 20, 1944 Congress charters Central Intelligence Agency.
  • June 20, 1943 Detroit race riot kills 35.
  • June 20, 1893 - Lizzie Borden acquitted in murder of parents in New Bedford Mass.
  • June 20, 1871 Ku Klux Klan trials began in federal court in Oxford Miss.
  • June 20, 1837 Queen Victoria at 18 ascends British throne ; rules for 63 years ending in 1901.
  • June 20, 1756 146 British soldiers imprisoned in the "Black Hole of Calcutta." Most die.
  • June 20, 1631 The Irish village of Baltimore is attacked by Algerian pirates.
  • June 20, 1214 The University of Oxford receives its charter.
  • June 20, 451 Germans & Romans beat Attila the Hun at Catalarinische Fields.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

This Week in the Secret History: Viva Las Vegas? Non, Gracias

On June 20, 1947, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel, the man who brought organized crime to the West Coast, was shot and killed at his mistress Virginia Hill's home in Beverly Hills, California. Three bullets were fired through the window and into his head, killing him instantly.

In 1945, Siegel had a brilliant idea. Just hours away from Los Angeles sat the sleepy desert town of Las Vegas, Nevada. It had nothing going for it except for a compliant local government and legal gambling. Siegel decided to build the Flamingo Hotel in the middle of the desert with $6,000,000, a large piece of which came from the New York syndicate.

In their 2002 book, The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold On America, investigative reporters Sally Denton and Roger Morris chronicle how for half a century, Las Vegas has been the cutting edge of the corruption of American business and public institutions. They describe how Las Vegas emerged in the last years of the 20th century as America's fastest-growing city, and in the process, a family-entertainment and cultural center. But underlying that Las Vegas is an older, decidedly less friendly city, one shaped by an "alliance of gamblers, gangsters, and government" to cater to every kind of human weakness.

At the same time Las Vegas’ ethos of greed and artifice became a wholesale American model. Few presidents elected in the last century did not come calling on the desert city to secure funds and favors. Failed 1950s reform movements allowed for the ascendance of organized crime, fortified by huge "skim" profits from casinos. Operation Underworld, a WWII collaboration between government and "Syndicate" forces, forged extensive relationships between federal agencies, corrupted police and gangsters that proved central to Las Vegas's economic boom. The profits radiated corruption outward.

Here's an excerpt from an interview with Denton and Morris:

Q: Why did you write the book?

A: Denton: In almost 25 years as an investigative reporter and writer I have been constantly fascinated by the fact that almost every important story I ever came across—from New Mexico to Kentucky to Washington, DC, from organized crime, to drug trafficking and gun running, to political corruption at every level—sooner or later traced a trail back to Las Vegas. As a child growing up near Lake Mead on the outskirts of the city (I’m a native Nevadan), and especially with parents in the political process, I knew that Las Vegas was a great story -- its growth, its glamour, the endlessly intriguing people who came to it, some of them to our home. But it wasn’t until I wrote this book that I understood what the city really was and its absolutely central importance in America and the world.

A: Morris: In my experience in the White House and on the National Security Council, and certainly in my research as a presidential biographer and historian, there always seemed to be something missing in the traditional approach to American politics. The phantom, of course, was the largely unexplored, unacknowledged dark side of American politics, what Daniel Boorstin calls our "hidden history" that Las Vegas epitomizes so starkly. That darkness, those secrets, are not just an aberration. They are often at the heart of the American experience, though historians, like everyone else, are uncomfortable with that reality. I believe that seeing it and confronting it is the only way to make our history whole. I certainly wrote this book because Sally brought me to a deeper understanding of what the city was and is. But I also wrote it very much as part of a larger effort to show what America was and is.

Q: How and when was the Las Vegas Strip founded?

A: Denton The Strip was founded by Meyer Lansky and a truly multi-ethnic criminal consortium of underworld and legitimate business with most of the capital coming from the international drug trade, Mormon-dominated banks, and other financial institutions, insurance companies, Wall Street and other ostensibly legitimate interests.

Q: How and why did Vegas come to be ruled by such a national, multi-ethnic syndicate?

A: Morris: As the book shows again and again, Las Vegas was and is ruled by the same forces that did and do rule the rest of America. The corruption of America’s government, economy, and society nationwide in the 1920s and ’30s traced principally to that multi-ethnic force, of which the popular Mafia caricature was only a fragment. Our book shows that from the beginning in the 1940s and ’50s the city became a national, and soon global, money laundering capital of underworld profits from every conceivable pursuit—from petty vice in dozens of American cities and rural areas to international arms trafficking to the Middle East and Central America.

Q: Why was criminal activity rampant for so long? Why did no one put a stop to it? Who is to blame?

A: Denton: In a sense it is misleading in Las Vegas, and even in much of America, to draw that old distinction between criminal and legal. The system we are describing in the nation and the city is so profoundly and inextricably enmeshed, the old criminal ethic of exploitation and greed is so much the ethic of corporate "legal" America, that the distinctions are difficult to make when it comes to understanding power, the way things really work in America. The short answer is that a practically and/or ethically criminal system survived and survives in Las Vegas and elsewhere because it’s in essence inseparable from the ruling regime.

Q: What was the most startling revelation that you came upon while writing/researching this book?

A: Denton:
I was most intrigued by the sheer depth and breadth of all of the machinations around Cuba and Las Vegas in the 1960s, the underlying corruptions of an era in which my own political idealism was formed. The reach of the government-criminal collusions in the assassination attempts of Fidel Castro and the ensuing and abiding compromises that shaped so much of the America and world we live in, the unholy alliances that would become the prototype for decades of covert foreign policy.

A: Morris: Though I worked for two presidents and wrote a biography of one of them and a study of yet another, I have to say rather shamefacedly that as a historian and a journalist I was unprepared for the sheer continuity and depth of the root corruption in American politics and society that so dominates the last 75 years of the 20th century and has so determined the country we are. I especially loved the story of Senator Estes Kefauver, including his corruption hearings in 1950. He deserves a major biography. In a way, his experience says it all.

Q: Would you consider the growth and development of Las Vegas an American success story?

A: Morris:
By the accepted statistical standards, Las Vegas may be the greatest single business success story in American business history. No city has grown faster from an obscure desert crossroads, attracted more visitors, generated more wealth and profits for its size, than Las Vegas. It was, and is, the last of the great American boomtowns, where a lot of people made a lot of money more freely and more rapidly than perhaps anyplace else in America. Las Vegas was indeed a place of the new start and the quick buck for thousands of people. That’s the way Las Vegas, and obviously much of America, likes to see itself. But the dark side of that success and the tragedy for the city and the nation is that it has always been dominated by an oligopoly and it brought the ethics and values of a corrupt company town to the rest of the nation. The price of success was and has been terrible.

Q: What has America learned (if anything) from the rise of Las Vegas?

A: Denton:
Most of America has learned the wrong lessons, if any. Most of the country is still content to see Las Vegas as a distant aberration, a fun place in the desert that has little to do with the reality of their own lives even if casino gambling and the political power of the industry is dominant in their own home states. But as the book makes plain, to come to grips with the reality of Las Vegas is not to understand some pariah city, but rather to confront the underlying reality of America’s worship of money and all its materialism and the devastation of our democracy and economy by that obsession.

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