This Week in Block Island's history, September 14, 1997: Block Islanders critiqued by nationally famous historian
This week in Block Island’s history, on September 14, 1997, the cable network C-Span aired an interview with prize-winning author John Toland, who was born in Wisconsin in 1912.
Toland’s book “The Rising Sun,” describing Japan’s actions before and during World War II, won the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 1971. He gained greater fame for his later books: “Adolf Hitler — The Definitive Biography” and “The Day of Infamy,” a description of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
During that television broadcast 15 years ago, Americans heard the interviewer elicit responses from this expert on war, such as:
“I opposed the Korean War and publicly decried the Vietnam and Gulf wars... I have come to believe that this was the worst century of mankind because of it — the wars — the wars that solved no problems, only developed new ones. And if this continues and we have another war, I think it’s the end of the world because we now have a gas, for example, that can wipe out other countries in a few days.”
After hearing more of the 85-year-old author’s life, the interviewer asked of Toland:
Interviewer: “What are you going to do now that you’ve decided not to write anymore?
At first Toland headed down one path, mentioning his children. But then the brilliant man suddenly switched thoughts, and unexpectedly announced to all those listening across the country what he thought of a tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of the United States.
Toland: “I want to help my children, naturally. I just — have you ever been to Block Island? It’s a wonderful place because there, automobiles come in last.”
The interviewer was suddenly thrown off his own train of thoughts, not by Toland’s switch in subject matter, but because of the interviewer’s meager knowledge of geography — which in turn took Toland by surprise.
Interviewer: “Where is it?”
Interviewer: “Where is it?”
Toland: “Block Island is off Providence. It takes about 90 minutes to go by ferry boat over there and it’s not a big place, but I tell you, it’s a wonderful place. While I was over there, I met about six people I’ve known for years, just out of the blue meeting these people. But I liked it because everybody is polite. They have one policeman, I think, in the whole place or something like that, and he drives slowly.
“But the first thing that people think of are the pedestrians, and then the bicyclists, and so forth, and then cars come in last. And I’ve noticed with cars, when you come up to a four-way place, there’ll be about four cars, every car is waiting for the next one politely. You’ve never seen — and this — there’s no signs.
“They have stop signs and that’s about all, but no traffic lights or anything.
“And I just like the whole idea of people thinking of other people.”