April 07, 2017

The origins of the “The Domino Effect”…

Contrary to what many sites on the Internet say, President Dwight D. Eisenhower did not coin the famous Cold War term “the Domino Effect.” 

He did use the phrase “falling domino principle” in a famous press conference on April 7, 1954.

Journalists at the time dubbed this “The Domino Theory,” which later came to be referred to as “the Domino Effect.”

The political concept encapsulated by those terms — the idea that if one country fell to the control of Communists, then nearby countries could follow — was a major foundation of America’s foreign policy during the Cold War years, which lasted from 1947 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

This concern was initially raised by President Truman’s Undersecretary of State, Dean Acheson.

In 1947, the government of Greece faced threats from Communist insurgents and Turkey seemed to be falling under the sway of the Soviet Union. Acheson warned in various public statements that, if the “Reds” took over in Greece and Turkey, Communism would likely spread south to Iran and as far east as India.

To counter this threat, President Truman asked Congress to approve $400 million in military and economic assistance for Greece and Turkey and proposed an anti-Communist policy eventually referred to as “The Truman Doctrine.” 

“It must be the policy of the United States,” Truman explained in a high-profile speech to Congress, “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

President Eisenhower, Truman’s successor, agreed with the Truman Doctrine’s goal of containing the spread of Communism. And, early  in his first term in office, he was forced to consider the need to apply that doctrine to Southeast Asia.

By 1954, France was on the verge of losing control of its colony Indochina (later called Vietnam) to Communist insurgents led by Ho Chi Minh. Eisenhower and his administration worried that if Indochina fell to Communist control, other Southeast Asian countries would follow.

During a White House press conference on April 7, 1954, reporter Robert Richards of the Copley Press asked Eisenhower: “Mr. President, would you mind commenting on the strategic importance of Indochina for the free world? I think there has been, across the country, some lack of understanding on just what it means to us.”

Eisenhower famously responded:

“You have, of course, both the specific and the general when you talk about such things. First of all, you have the specific value of a locality in its production of materials that the world needs.

Then you have the possibility that many human beings pass under a dictatorship that is inimical to the free world.

Finally, you have broader considerations that might follow what you would call ‘the falling domino principle.’ You have a row of dominoes set up, you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly. So you could have a beginning of a disintegration that would have the most profound influences.”

Eisenhower said this disintegration would lead to the “loss of Indochina, of Burma, of Thailand, of the Peninsula, and Indonesia following.”

In many news stories, reporters referred to Eisenhower’s falling domino principle as “the Domino Theory” or as “the Domino Effect.” The latter was a term that journalists Joseph and Stewart Alsop used in their popular syndicated newspaper column and claimed to have coined.

A month after Eisenhower made his famous remarks in 1954, Vietminh forces under General Vo Nguyen Giap defeated French troops at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

France soon ceded control of its former colony. And, under an agreement hammered out in Geneva, Indochina was partitioned into Communist-controlled North Vietnam and non-Communist South Vietnam.

In the following years, Eisenhower provided economic assistance and weapons to the fledgling South Vietnamese government and sent in a small number of American military advisors.

During the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy significantly expanded U.S. economic and military assistance to South Vietnam and increased the number of military advisors there to more than 16,000.

These decisions by Eisenhower and Kennedy set in motion a political and military domino effect that ultimately led to the Vietnam War.

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April 02, 2017

“Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”

Open the pod bay doors Hal
On April 6, 1968, director Stanley Kubrick’s visionary science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey was released to movie theaters nationwide in the United States.

The film, developed from the short story “Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke, had its initial premiere in Washington, D.C. on April 2nd, followed by local premieres in New York City and Los Angeles.

On April 6th, with the film’s general release, movie audiences throughout the country first heard several memorable lines that are cited by many books and websites as being among the most famous movie quotes of all time.

The most widely-known (and spoofed) line from 2001 is spoken by astronaut David Bowman (actor Kier Dullea).

He says it to HAL, the sentient HAL 9000 computer on the US space craft Discovery One, which is on a mysterious mission to Jupiter. (The name HAL is short for “the H-euristically programmed AL-gorithmic computer.”)

It comes near the end of the movie, after HAL begins killing off the ship’s crew.

Bowman takes a small space pod outside to retrieve the body of fellow astronaut Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood).

As Bowman returns to the ship, he asks HAL to let him back inside with the famous line: “Open the pod bay doors, HAL.”

This leads to one of most chilling exchanges in movie history:

2001 A Space Odyssey (1968) poster by Robert McCallDAVE:  Open the pod bay doors, Hal.
HAL:  I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.
DAVE:  What’s the problem?
HAL:  l think you know what the problem is just as well as l do.
DAVE:  What are you talking about, Hal?
HAL:  This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.
DAVE:  I don’t know what you're talking about, Hal.
HAL:  l know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me, and I’m afraid that's something I can’t allow to happen.
DAVE:  Where the hell’d you get that idea, Hal?
HAL:  Although you took very thorough precautions in the pod against my hearing you, I could see your lips move.
DAVE:  All right, Hal. I’ll go in through the emergency air lock.
HAL:  Without your space helmet, Dave, you’re going to find that rather difficult.
DAVE:  Hal, I won’t argue with you anymore. Open the doors!
HAL:  Dave...This conversation can serve no purpose anymore. Goodbye.

Dave uses a desperate maneuver to get back into the spaceship, without the helmet he’d left behind. He then heads determinedly to the room that houses HAL’s “brain,” and begins to shut down the rogue AI computer.

During the shutdown process, HAL senses what’s happening and utters one of the other famous lines from the film:

       “Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it.”

As HAL’s mind goes, he begins singing the old song “Daisy Bell,” which he was taught by his programmers:

       “Daisy, Daisy, Give me your answer do.
        I’m half crazy, all for the love of you.”

After HAL’s mind is fully gone, the minds of the movies’ viewers are blown away by the final scenes.

First comes the psychedelic “star gate” sequence, then a series of scenes showing Dave Bowman aging, dying, and finally being reborn as a shining “space baby.”

Would you like me to tell you what it all means?

I’m sorry, folks, I’m afraid I can’t do that.

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Further reading and viewing:

March 29, 2017

“The answer to everything…Life, the Universe, and Everything...is...”

In 2001, the brilliant British writer Douglas Adams left us Earthlings behind.

Before he left, however, he kindly informed us of the answer to the Ultimate Question — more specifically, the answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.”

In case you missed it, here’s a brief overview…

The answer was first revealed on March 29, 1978, when the fourth episode of Adams’ radio creation The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was broadcast on BBC Radio 4.

In that episode, Earthman Arthur Dent visits the planet Magrathea, where he meets Slartibartfast.

Slartibartfast tells Arthur he is one of the Magrathean planet manufacturers who helped design the Earth long ago, as a project for some hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings who happen to look like little white mice in our dimension.

Of course, Arthur Dent is a bit surprised to learn this. So, Slartibartfast plays an ancient tape recording for him that explains things. Sort of.

The narrator tells us that, millions of years ago, the mice (i.e., the hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings) “got so fed up with the constant bickering about the meaning of life, which used to interrupt their favourite pastime of Brockian Ultra Cricket — a curious game which involved suddenly hitting people for no readily apparent reason and then running away — that they decided to sit down and solve the problem once and for all. And, to this end, they built themselves a stupendous supercomputer…”

The tape includes the initial conversations between computer technicians and the supercomputer, which they had named Deep Thought.

They ask Deep Thought if there is an answer to “the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything” and, if so, whether Deep Thought could provide it.

Deep Thoughts answers:

“Yes…Life, the Universe, and Everything. There is an answer. But I’ll have to think about it...the program will take me seven-and-a-half million years to run.”

Fast forward to seven-and-a-half million years later. The descendants of Deep Thought’s creators anxiously await the computer’s answer.

Deep Thought tells them what it is, after warning that they’re not going to like it.

He provides the answer in a series of lines that are interrupted by comments from the listeners. When Deep Thought’s lines are pieced together, they comprise one of the two most famous quotations from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the other being “Don’t Panic!”):

“The answer to everything…Life, the Universe, and Everything...is...Forty-two.”

The listeners are flabbergasted. Forty-two!?!

Yes, that’s it. The number 42.

Deep Thought helpfully explains:

“Now that you know that the answer to the Ultimate question of Life, the Universe, and Everything is forty-two, all you need to do now is find out what the Ultimate Question is.”

When asked if he can tell them what the Ultimate Question is, Deep Thought says ‘no.’

But, he adds, another computer can be built that will:

“A computer of such infinite and subtle complexity that organic life itself will form part of its operational matrix. And it shall be called…the Earth.”

If at this point you don’t understand the Ultimate Answer or the Ultimate Question, don’t panic.

Just listen to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy radio series, or read the book version, published in 1979. Or watch the BBC Television adaptation, first aired in 1981. Then you’ll probably also want to watch the  2005 movie version.

After all that, the Ultimate Question and the answer will make perfect sense. Sort of.

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March 23, 2017

“Give me liberty or give me death!” – famous words Patrick Henry probably didn’t say...

Currier & Ives depiction of Patrick Henry
In late March of 1775, the American Revolution had not yet started. The “shot heard ‘round the world” was still a few weeks away.

But, to a growing number of Americans, a fight seemed inevitable if Great Britain continued to try to enforce its oppressive “Intolerable Acts” and taxes.

Some of the more militant American political activists — such as Patrick Henry — had begun urging local colonial governments to create militias that could be mustered to defend against or attack British troops.

Henry was a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses at the time.

On March 23, 1775, at a meeting of that legislative body in Richmond, he gave an impassioned speech in favor of mobilization.

According to legend, Henry ended his speech with these famous words:

“Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

Patrick Henry’s rousing address played a role in the House of Burgesses’ decision in favor of creating a Virginia militia. Henry himself was appointed a Colonel of the First Virginia Regiment.

However, no one knows exactly what he said in his speech on March 23, 1775.

Henry didn’t write down the speech or any notes about it at the time — or in the years before his death in 1799. Nor was any other written record made of the speech when he gave it in 1775 or during his lifetime.

So, why is the famous quote that ends with “give me liberty or give me death” attributed to Patrick Henry? And, why do many books and websites reprint what they cite as the “full text” of Henry’s “Liberty or Death” speech?

William Wirt The answer is: because another Virginia politician named William Wirt created his own reconstructed version of the speech in a biography he wrote about Henry and Wirt’s version became famous. 

Wirt decided to write the biography about five years after Henry died. Over the next ten years, he corresponded and talked with people who knew Henry, including some who were present when he made his moving speech.

One of them was Thomas Jefferson. Another was a judge named St. George Tucker, who gave Wirt extensive notes on what he remembered of the speech.

In 1817, Wirt’s book was published. He titled it Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry.

The version of Henry’s March 23, 1775 speech in that book was based heavily on Judge Tucker’s recollection. 

Obviously, of course, it would be impossible for anyone to recreate, word-for-word, any speech given 42 years earlier, based purely on other people’s memories.

Yet, what seemed to annoy a number of people who knew Henry much more than Wirt’s poetic license in recreating Henry’s speech was his overly idealized portrayal of the man.

Culpeper Minutemen 'Liberty or Death' flagJefferson called Wirt’s biography “a poor book” that gave “an imperfect idea of Patrick Henry.”

John Taylor, another Virginia statesman who knew Henry, called it “a splendid novel.” 

Comments from other contemporaries of Henry were even less kind.

Nonetheless, Wirt’s book was extremely popular and, over the years, his version of the speech that Henry gave on March 23, 1775 came to be thought of and portrayed as a real transcript — until modern historians and quote mavens began to look into it.

Experts on American history and quotations who have carefully studied the facts generally dismiss the idea that Wirt’s recreation of the entire speech is or could be accurate.

One researcher quoted in a post on the Colonial Williamsburg website concluded that “generations have been deceived into believing in the literalness” of the speech.

In The Yale Book of Quotations, Editor Fred Shapiro calls the text of the speech as reconstructed by Wirt “questionable.”

Ralph Keyes, author of The Quote Verifier and many other well-researched books about quotations and language, summed up his verdict in an NPR radio interview in 2006. When asked if Patrick Henry actually said “give me liberty or give me death,” Keyes answered: “Unfortunately, he didn’t.”

Keyes said his conclusion is that “William Wirt…put ‘give me liberty or give me death’ in Henry’s mouth.”

Other experts think that Henry might have said “give me liberty or give me death” or at least uttered the phrase “liberty or death.”

Those are certainly memorable words. And, later in 1775, “LIBERTY OR DEATH” was used as a slogan on the flag of the Culpeper Minute Men Battalion, a unit of Patrick Henry’s First Virginia Regiment.

However, the rest of the alleged final sentences at the end of the speech Henry gave on March 23, 1775 — and the “full text” of the speech reprinted by many books and websites — should probably be credited to either William Wirt or St. George Tucker instead of Patrick Henry.

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March 08, 2017

On this date, Ronald Reagan gave his famous “evil empire” speech—but he didn’t coin the phrase…

Ronald Reagan giving his evil empire speech 1983
If you’re like me, you’re a tired of hearing about Donald Trump and Russia.

However, as I was editing this post today on March 8, 2017, I couldn’t help being struck by the fact that Trump’s political hero, President Ronald Reagan, had a very different view of Russia than “The Donald.”

It was on March 8, 1983, that President Reagan gave the speech in which he famously called the Soviet Union “an evil empire.”

At the time, the Cold War and nuclear arms race between the United States and the USSR was still ongoing.

Reagan was vehemently opposed to recent calls by dovish political groups for a “nuclear freeze” that would limit America’s nuclear weapons arsenal.

In fact, he wanted to increase the number of American nuclear missiles in Western Europe under the auspices of NATO, claiming that it was a necessary response to the Soviets’ deployment of nuclear missiles in Eastern Europe.

Reagan reiterated these views in his speech on March 8, 1983.

Ironically, it was an address given to a convention of Christians: the annual meeting of the National Association of Evangelicals, held that year in Orlando, Florida.

In a part of the speech that dealt with the nuclear freeze proposal, Reagan said:

“I urge you to speak out against those who would place the United States in a position of military and moral inferiority...In your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride, the temptation blithely to declare yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong, good and evil.”

Although some books and websites suggest that Reagan coined “evil empire,” that’s not quite true.

I did a Google “NGram search” on the phrase and found a handful of uses in sources that date back as far as 1831. (A Google NGRAM search creates a graph showing the number of uses of a word or phrase in tens of thousands of books and magazines published during the past few centuries, along with links to see digitized copies of the sources.)

NGRAM search for 'evil empire'A literary publication called “The Anglo-Genevan Critical Journal for 1831” has an interesting early use of “evil empire” that some observers might deem relevant to modern American politics.

It says:

"The wicked misleader, who is allowed to go unanswered, will obtain a most despotic and evil empire over the minds of a whole people: and the minister of a Government, who neglects the press, is deserving of the deepest execration."

There’s a British history journal published in 1917 that calls Austria “the evil Empire of the Hapsburgs.”

“Evil empire” is also used in an anti-gambling Christian tract published in 1938.

There have probably been a smattering of other uses scattered throughout history and literature over the centuries.

But President Reagan definitely popularized the phrase and gave it its modern historic meaning.

Soon after the words left his lips during his March 8, 1983 address, it was being quoted, discussed and analyzed in news reports, embraced by Reagan supporters, and criticized by his opponents.

Thus, Reagan’s use ultimately became both one of his most famous and most infamous quotations and it’s what made the phrase a common part of our language. (See how the graph line in the NGRAM shown at right zooms upward after 1983.)

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union steadily crumbled and ultimately split apart.

The Cold War faded away and, although the threat of “mutually assured destruction” didn’t disappear, it became significantly less likely.

In recent years, some historians have credited Reagan’s hard-line stance against a nuclear freeze — and even his use of the term “evil empire” — as reasons for the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. (You can read more about that theory in the “Evil empire” entry in Wikipedia.)

So, was Reagan right on the issue of nuclear weapons? I don’t know.

But as someone who grew up during the Cold War decades, I do know I was relieved that the nuclear war between the US and USSR that many people thought was inevitable didn’t happen. Those “duck and cover” drills I practiced at my elementary school in the 1950s never quite made me feel optimistic about the odds of surviving.

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February 26, 2017

The story behind “Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer”

The idiomatic expression “on a wing and a prayer” is a now widely used to describe doing something under extremely difficult or disadvantageous circumstances and hoping that sheer luck, determination and/or God will allow its success.

During World War II, when the phrase first became part of the English language, it had a literal application.

It referred to Allied airmen flying back to their base in damaged planes, hoping and praying that they’d make it.

In his Dictionary of Catch Phrases (first published in 1977), the great language maven Eric Partridge speculated that “a wing and a prayer” was originally associated with the British Royal Air Force.

He thought it might have been used by RAF pilots as early as 1940.

That’s possible. But there are no newspapers or other sources I could find online that used the phrase prior to 1943, which is when it was made famous by an American song inspired by news stories about an American bomber crew.

On February 26, 1943, a B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber piloted by Hugh G. Ashcraft, Jr. of Charlotte, North Carolina was limping back from a bombing mission in Germany to an American base in England.

The plane, dubbed The Southern Comfort by its crew, had been riddled by flak and was damaged severely, “with a hole four feet square in the rudder, the nose shattered and the Number 3 engine spewing oil and flames.”

As they approached the shores of Britain, Ashcraft told his men over the radio: “Those who want to, please pray.”

Miraculously, Ashcraft got the The Southern Comfort to its home base and landed it safely, generating news in his home state of North Carolina and elsewhere about the pilot and crew that “prayed” their plane back.

The incident made Ashcraft a local celebrity. After the war, he became the first president of the Harris Teeter chain of supermarkets, which was first established in North Carolina and grew to have 243 stores in seven states.

The stories about Ashcraft’s cool-headed bravery and his suggestion to pray inspired the songwriting team Harold Adamson and Jimmy McHugh to write a new patriotic song.

The catchy phrase that popped into the mind of Adamson, the lyricist, was “Comin’ in on a Wing and a Prayer.”

He used it as the title of the song and in the chorus, which goes:

“Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.
Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.
Though there’s one motor gone, we can still carry on,
Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.”

The first popular version of the song, recorded by The Song Spinners, was released in June 1943.

Their version quickly became a hit. Soon, the song was being recorded and performed live by a long list of other singers, groups and bands, making it one of the biggest hits of the year.

One of the hippest versions recorded in 1943 was by a black vocal group from Missouri called The Four Vagabonds. (If you haven’t heard it, get hip by clicking this link to listen to it.)

I also personally love the far more recent cover of the song by Ry Cooder, on his 1972 album Boomer's Story.

If you’re a World War II history buff, you may know that the song also inspired the title of the 1944 movie Wing and a Prayer (a.k.a. A Wing and a Prayer: The Story of Carrier X).

That classic film, starring Dana Andrews and Don Ameche, is about American aircraft crews. However, it’s set in 1942 in the Pacific theater and is not about The Southern Comfort or B-17s.

If you’re highly-knowledgeable about aviation history, like my late friend writer Robert F. Dorr, you may know the aircraft primarily featured in the film are Grumman TBF Avenger torpedo bombers, Grumman F6F Hellcat fighters and Curtiss SB2C Helldiver dive bombers. You’d have to be a serious expert on planes, like Bob, or a student of anachronisms in movies, to know those planes weren’t actually used on U.S. Navy carriers until 1943.

Anyway, the fame of Adamson and McHugh’s hit song of 1943, which lent its title to a popular film the following year, firmly embedded “a wing and a prayer” in our language.

It’s a phrase that’s still familiar to most people, even if they’ve never heard the song or the story behind it.

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February 21, 2017

“Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

You can find many different lists of “books that changed the world” on the Internet.

Those lists vary considerably. But there are some books that show up on almost all of them.

One is The Manifesto of the Communist Party, more commonly known as The Communist Manifesto.

The Manifesto was co-written by Karl Marx and his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels.

It was first published in London on February 21, 1848 and it did indeed change the world by serving as a key philosophical foundation for socialism and communism.

The original edition of this seminal work by Marx and Engels was published in German, their native language.

Over the next few years it was translated into many other languages, including English.

Several famous quotations from The Communist Manifesto are included in many books of quotations and still frequently cited today.

One is the opening sentence of the Preamble:

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism.”

Another is the first line of Chapter I:

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”

The other famous words in The Communist Manifesto are its closing lines, at the end of Chapter IV.

The official English translation of the last four sentences, as approved by Engels, are:

“Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working Men of All Countries, Unite!.”

The shortened, more familiar — and often parodied — mistranslation of the last few sentences is:

“Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!”

As it turned out, other people’s visions of “Communistic revolution” and Marxism weren’t exactly what Marx and Engels had in mind.

In a letter he wrote on August 5, 1890, Engels remarked: “Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French ‘Marxists’ of the late [18]70s: ‘All I know is that I am not a Marxist.’”

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February 11, 2017

“Dying / Is an art, like everything else.”

“Lady Lazarus” is one of the best-known poems by the American poet and novelist Sylvia Plath.

It includes the oft-quoted lines:

        Is an art, like everything else.
        I do it exceptionally well.

        I do it so it feels like hell.
        I do it so it feels real.
        I guess you could say I've a call.”

This famous passage has a link to February 11th, but not because Plath wrote it on that date. She wrote the poem in October 1962.

The link is that on February 11, 1963 Plath turned art into reality by dying — at her own hand.

She stuck her head in the gas oven in her London flat and killed herself.

Plath had tried to commit suicide before but survived, a fact reflected in the dark humor of “Lady Lazarus.”

If you are a fan of Plath and her her poetry, you may know the story of why she was feeling suicidal again on that February day.

In 1956, after winning a Fulbright scholarship, Plath attended Newnham College in England. There she met the British poet Ted Hughes and married him the following year.

It was, as they say, a troubled marriage. And, Plath and Hughes could both be described as troubled people.

Hughes was a philanderer and (allegedly) abusive.

Plath suffered from periods of severe depression. Today, she would probably be diagnosed with clinical depression and possibly bipolar disorder.

In September of 1962, Hughes abandoned Plath and their two young children, Nicholas and Frieda, to live with a beautiful German expatriate named Assia Wevill.

The anguish Plath felt inspired some of her best poems, including “Lady Lazarus.”

And, in January 1963, Plath’s highly-acclaimed, semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar was published (under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas), putting her on the verge of worldwide fame.

A month later, on February 11th, Plath killed herself.

Ted Hughes has been vilified ever since by feminists and many other people, though he also has his defenders.

Given her depression problems, Sylvia Plath might have committed suicide regardless of how Hughes treated her.

But it’s hard to overlook the fact that in 1969, following six turbulent years with Hughes, Assia Wevill also committed suicide — after killing the daughter she and Hughes had together.

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