DEFIANT: THE POWs WHO ENDURED VIETNAM’S MOST INFAMOUS PRISON, THE WOMEN WHO FOUGHT FOR THEM, AND THE ONE WHO NEVER RETURNED by Alvin Townley

(a cell in the Hanoi Hilton, Hoa Lo Prison)

For those individuals who were in awe of Laura Hillenbrand’s description of the imprisonment of Louis Zamperini in her book UNBROKEN, the emotions that you experienced will be repeated many times over should you choose to read Alvin Townley’s new book DEFIANT: THE POWS WHO ENDURED VIETNAM’S MOST INFAMOUS PRISON, THE WOMEN WHO FOUGHT FOR THEM AND THE ONE WHO NEVER RETURNED.   Townley recreates the experiences of America’s POWs from the Vietnam War.  Instead of presenting a general account that encompasses all POWs, Townley focuses on eleven men, who became known as the “Alcatraz eleven,” ten of whom returned from their ordeal and one who did not.  The author takes you inside the North Vietnamese prison system during the war as we follow each individual from their training, their war experiences, culminating in their being shot down over North Vietnam and their capture and imprisonment.  The men were imprisoned and tortured by their captors and the story Townley relates is one of the human spirit overcoming the most unimaginable events that one might create in one’s imagination.  Jerry Coffee, one of the POWs summarized their feelings in conversation with James Stockdale, the ranking leader of the “Alcatraz eleven” by quoting from the poem “Invictus:”

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul. (259)

From the outset of the book Townley addresses the controversies that surround America’s involvement in Vietnam.  Through the eyes of Commander James Stockdale we experience the chaos of August 4, 1964 and the reported North Vietnamese attacks on the USS Turner Joy and USS Maddox.  Stockdale witnessed events in the cockpit of his F-8 Crusader and saw little evidence of the attack on the USS Maddox.  These events were manipulated by President Lyndon Johnson to force through Congress the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (passed the Senate 98-2) and put the United States on a course that would result in the quagmire of Vietnam.  Townley does an excellent job integrating the political and military events that took place throughout the incarceration of the POWs.  The author provides analysis and cause and effect decisions that affected the men.  The Johnson administration’s policy of having the families of the downed fliers “keep quiet” did not allay the daily anxiety faced by the spouses and ended in the formation of the League of Wives of American Vietnam Prisoners of War in 1967 under the leadership of Sybil Stockdale and Louise Mulligan.  The role of the wives is integral to the story that is recounted as these woman refused to accept government stonewalling.  Finally, at the end of the Johnson administration they took it upon themselves to educate and bring to the attention of the American people the plight of their husbands.  With the election of Richard Nixon they found an administration that was more open to their requests. Though manipulated at times for domestic and diplomatic reasons, the actions of the US government changed and it carried over to the prisons in and around Hanoi and engendered a change in the torture policy pursued by Camp authorities employed against their husbands.

The book provides moving description of the torture that the POWs experienced.  The North Vietnamese government’s “Enemy Proselytizing Department’s” goal was to gain information from the POWs that could be used as propaganda against the United States.  When individual POWs were brought individually for interrogation they tried to follow the four rules of conduct that the prisoners developed under the leadership of Stockdale.  When they refused to speak, using the Geneva Convention as a shield they were told by their captors that “you are not a prisoner of war…Your government has not declared war upon the Vietnamese people.  You must answer my questions.  You are protected by no international law.” (55) Their rationale was that the POWs were criminals and that justified the application of torture.  Townley goes into intimate detail describing the torture techniques and their affect on the men.  All eleven were broken mentally and physically at one time or another and gave in to their captors demands.  This provoked tremendous guilt on the part of the POWs as they felt they had let their country and comrades down.  Part of the reason they were able to survive the demeaning conditions and mental and physical cruelty they suffered was the bond that was fostered under the leadership senior officers.   These officers helped develop a communication system within the prison through the use of a code employed during the Korean War.  One of the captives, Captain Carlyle “Smitty” Harris had overheard the use of a five by five alphabetic grid during an Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape School he attended before he was deployed, and helped educate the others in its use.  The communication network relied on tapping and other ingenious methods to keep as many prisoners in the loop as possible.  The North Vietnamese officials tried repeatedly to end all communication by torturing the men but were never able to shut it down.  The ability to communicate provided the men companionship and sanity throughout their ordeal and reflects the amazing resourcefulness they developed in captivity.

Townley discusses all eleven POWs but focuses the most on senior officers, Commanders James Stockdale and Jeremiah Denton.  By 1966 the North Vietnamese camp authorities told them “to choose the path of cooperation and lenient treatment or the path of resistance and punishment; they sought to separate the potentially cooperative from the stubbornly intransigent.” (113)  all eleven men chose the path of “resistance and punishment” and paid dearly for their decisions.  In a sense as the POWs pursued their intransigent attitude they became role models for each other and they looked at each other as positive examples which allowed them to cope with all attempts to break them physically and mentally.

In October, 1967 the men left the “Hanoi Hilton” and were transferred to a former French citadel one mile away.  The conditions were brutal, the torture increased, and many were subjected to further isolation; this prison was nicknames, Alcatraz.  The rhythm of captivity was ongoing, for example, a POW would be asked to write an apology or condemnation of American policy.  The POW would refuse and then he would be subjected to the most gruesome torture techniques.  Finally, the POW would succumb to write whatever he was ordered to.  This would continue in Alcatraz over and over for all eleven captives.  The only let up took place was when Ho Chi Minh died on September 2, 1969 and was replaced by Le Duan in the North Vietnamese hierarchy.  In addition to Ho’s death, Sybil Stockdale and Louise Mulligan’s organizational pressure on the Nixon administration led to a press conference were the US government finally went public with the information they had on prisoner treatment.  As a result in December, 1970, for the first time, Hanoi released the names of 368 POWs. (301)  Though torture was rare in the final years of captivity, the affects of imprisonment remained.

(homecoming, February, 1973)

As the negotiations in Paris finally bared fruit the men were released and returned to their families in February, 1973.  The question that dominated my thinking as I read Townley’s account was how these men survived their experience, some as many as eight years in captivity.  According to James Stockdale it was not his training, “rather [it was] his mind, the faith shared among prisoners, and the love of family, who now awaited his imminent return had kept him alive during the horrid term of imprisonment.” (348)   Upon their release Townley artfully brings the reader to the tarmac as the POWs arrive home to meet their spouses and children, some of whom they did not know since they were babies when they left.  As you read the authors description of the reunions it is very difficult to maintain dry eyes.  This is a book that should be read by all as not to forget the 58,000 deaths and over 300,000 wounded that the Vietnam War caused, as well as the trials that our current military families have suffered in the two wars that the United States has fought since 2001.

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THE MASTER OF RAIN by Tom Bradby

(Shanghai, circa 1926)

Set in Shanghai in 1926, Tom Bradby’s first novel published in the United States begins with the murder of a Russian girl in her apartment.  The murder is a brutal one and the investigation that follows lures the reader into the seamier side of Shanghai at a time when China is splintered between the Guomindang, under the leadership of Chang Kai-Shek; the emerging Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong; and the various European interests that date back to the unequal treaties of the 19th century.  THE MASTER OF RAIN, a title chosen for its relationship to a Chinese legend is a suspenseful novel that contains countless twists and turns that continue to the last page of the epilogue.  The story centers on Richard Field who left Scotland to join the International Settlement police force in Shanghai.  Field is an idealist who will soon learn the cruelties and corruption that make up daily life in the city.  Field will investigate the murder of Lena Orlov and will be drawn into a situation that he could never have fathomed when he arrived in China.

As the plot unfolds the reader is given an accurate portrayal of the political and economic situation in China in the mid-1920s.  The undercurrent of the civil war between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party is ever present.  Historical figures such as Michael Borodin, Chiang Kai-Shek, and Mao Zedong make cameo appearances to lend authenticity to the story.  The underworld of Shanghai is controlled by Lu Huang, a Chinese version of Al Capone in association with various westerners.  Lu possesses people as if they were objects, and controls the opium trade in conjunction with western elements, and all aspects of the city’s governing body including the police through graft and murder.

There are a number of interesting relationships that are developed throughout the novel.  Field falls in love with one of Lu’s “possessions,” another Russian girl, Natasha Medvedev and the reader follows the ebb and flow of their interactions.  Caprisi, a detective who works with Field, who arrived in China from Chicago, forms an interesting partnership with Field as he tries to protect him from himself and deal with his own demons.  Throughout the story Field tries to maintain his idealism, but when confronted by the drug trade, prostitution, and political corruption, he has to finally make his own deal with the devil as the book comes to a close.  The cast of colorful characters is well developed as the plot line keeps shifting and at times the reader is not sure where the story is leading.  After following the social and political undercurrent described in THE MASTER OF RAIN it is not surprising that following World War II, China would be taken over by the Communist Party.  The period Bradby writes about reflects how little westerners valued the lives of the Chinese people and how they were exploited for over a century.

AN OFFICER AND A SPY by Robert Harris

On Monday afternoon I went to see the film Monuments Men and once again I squarely faced the anti-Semitism that was rampant in France during World War II. Even in dealing with art and culture the French collaborationists of Vichy brought my blood to a boil. My wife asked me how a country that was the home of the enlightenment and the emancipation of Jews in the 18th century could still remain a prisoner of the disease of religious prejudice. First, I explained French roots in Catholicism and then mentioned the Dreyfus Affair, both endemic to the split in French society that has existed for centuries preceding World War II. As if by coincidence I have just read Robert Harris’ new historical novel, An Officer and a Spy that attempts to create the atmosphere in France following the trial of Alfred Dreyfus for supposedly selling French national security secrets to the country that soundly defeated them in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The affair invigorated the split in French society between liberals and anti-Semites that evolved into two political forces; the Dreyfusards, symbolized by the likes of Emile Zola and Georges and Albert Clemenceau who fought for the acquittal of Dreyfus, and the anti-Dreyfusards who were embodied by the Catholic Church and supporters of the French military establishment. The Dreyfus Affair not only affected French society and politics of the period but it also enhanced support for the burgeoning Zionist movement as a reporter for a Viennese newspaper was in attendance at the initial trial; one, Theodore Herzl. Harris’ novel, despite the negative comments in Janet Maslin’s February 3, 2014 review in the New York Times, is well conceived and after a somewhat slow start in developing the story achieves a dramatic flair that is well grounded in original source material. Of course, as any novelist, Harris does at times take some literary license, but overall it accomplished its goal of educating the reader on the implications of a historical event that still has repercussions today.

Harris does not recapitulate the entire Dreyfus Affair as he concentrates on the battle to overturn Dreyfus’ conviction of treason against the French state. Dreyfus was an artillery officer in the French army who was serving as a staff officer to the French General Staff. The novel is told through the voice of Colonel Georges Picquart who was promoted to be Chief of French Military Intelligence soon after Dreyfus was convicted. Picquart starts out supporting the conviction of Dreyfus but soon develops doubts about the evidence that was used to convict, and as he digs deeper, he comes to the conclusion that there was another spy who turns out to be Major Ferdinand Halsin Esterhazy. After spying on the suspect and accumulating further evidence Picquart is convinced that Esterhazy was the original spy and that Dreyfus was framed. The novel explores the machinations of French military authorities to the highest levels and their cover up to preserve Dreyfus’ guilt as he rots in a prison on Devil’s Island off the coast of South America.

Harris style is very descriptive, be it a palace, a courtroom, a prison cell, or a restaurant. Though the author does make up some of the dialogue, which is to be expected, it seems to conform to existing trial transcripts and other documentation. The travesty of injustice is presented and at times makes the readers’ “blood boil” because though the book is considered fiction, it represents accurately the historical events it discusses. Harris does a good job of presenting Picquart’s evolution as a military officer who out of honor refuses to accept the fallibility of his military superiors to a person who at first questions authority resulting in a mindset that challenges the duplicity and treasonous behavior of Generals Mercier, Billot, Gonse, and Boisdeffre, the leaders of the French army who know Dreyfus is innocent, but refuse to reverse themselves despite the fact that the evidence used to convict was falsified. The novel follows Picquarts’ public and private life, his imprisonment, and the culmination of his work in a way that captures the reader’s attention as all the major historical players are integrated into the narrative.

(Cartoon depicting Emile Zola’s famous newspaper article that skewers the French military establishment)

Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the novel are the repartee that takes place during the trials of Picquart, the French novelist Emile Zola’s libel trial, the final trial of Alfred Dreyfus, and the final meeting between Dreyfus and Picquart. I do agree with Janet Maslin that at times the dialogue and flow of the narrative is uneven, but as the story evolves it becomes an engrossing political thriller, and if one is learning about the “affair” for the first time it is an education in of itself. I recommend the book highly and I would encourage everyone to explore this topic because its lessons whether partisanship, prejudice, or rigid ideology that at times seems to infect our leaders is still in full display today.

THE BULLY PULPIT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF JOURNALISM by Doris Kearns Goodwin

One of the most important friendships in American History was the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.  They had a strong bond that lasted for years and then over a short period of time their friendship began to sour resulting in a schism in the Republican Party that caused them to lose the presidential election of 1912 to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.  Many historians have reached numerous conclusions as to why Teddy and Will went from being the best of friends to political enemies.  In her new book, THE BULLY PULPIT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF JOURNALISM, Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin goes beyond the issue of friendship between Roosevelt and Taft and has written three books in one that she masterfully integrates as she presents her narrative.  First, the reader is offered a detailed biography of Theodore Roosevelt, next we are exposed to detailed biography of William Howard Taft, and lastly, and most importantly Goodwin explores the world of investigative journalism, what Roosevelt eventually referred to as the “muckrakers,” primarily through a history of McClure’s Magazine and their well known stable of journalists.  Goodwin does a remarkable job synthesizing a vast amount of material as she merges the lives of S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, William Allen White, Lincoln Steffens, and others throughout her narrative.  The main strength of the book is her argument that it was the influence of these investigative journalists that fostered the Progressive reform era at the turn of the twentieth century.  She argues further that Roosevelt’s colorful personality and drive allowed him to develop reciprocal relationships with these writers that fostered public pressure on a small group of conservative Senate Republicans that brought about the reforms of the Roosevelt era. Goodwin writes, “this generation of gifted reporters ushered in a new generation of investigative reporting that allowed Theodore Roosevelt to turn the presidency into the ‘bully pulpit’ to achieve reform.” (xiii)  On the other hand, Taft’s personality and laid back approach to politics did not allow him to achieve the same type of working relationships with the press and he lost the ability to codify and expand upon Roosevelt’s legacy, “underscoring the pivotal importance of the ‘bully pulpit’ in presidential leadership.” (xiv)  In the background, Goodwin tells the story of the friendship between these two men and why it did not survive the political theater of the day.

The narrative begins with the standard biographical information of both men.  In terms of Roosevelt there is nothing that is really new as this story has been well mined by the likes of Kathleen Dalton, Edmund Morris, Henry Pringle and others.  The information on Taft is more interesting in that fewer biographies of the twenty-seventh president have been written.  In terms of Goodwin’s thesis what is important at the outset is how she compares the personality traits of the two men as they mature as individuals and politicians.  We learn that as a child Roosevelt was a fragile and sickly and developed “a fierce determination to escape an invalid’s fate [that] led him to transform his body and timid demeanor through strenuous work.  Taft, on the other hand, blessed from birth with robust health, would allow his physical strength and energy to gradually dissipate over the years into a state of obesity.” (34)  At Harvard, Roosevelt was a “slender young man with side-whiskers, eyeglasses, and bright red cheeks.  While Taft’s sturdy physique, genial disposition, and emphatic manner won immediate popularity at Yale.” (42) On  the one hand was an individual who suffered from a  inferiority complex who would work his entire life striving for superiority to overcome this self-perception, while Taft developed into a secure person who he was self-aware and accepted his limitations.  According to Goodwin, these traits explain a great deal about the course of their careers and their successes and failures.

Goodwin’s frequent verbatim entries into her narrative allow the reader to feel as if they are experiencing life with Roosevelt and Taft.  Both men had the good fortune of growing up as favored children in close knit families.  Where Taft “developed an accommodating disposition to please a giving father who cajoled him to do better,” Roosevelt “forever idolized a dead father who cajoled him to do more and do better.” (48)  The correspondence that Goodwin includes between these sons and their fathers provide interesting insights into their formative years and development of their personalities.  Roosevelt learned early on in his career as a New York State Assemblyman the value of the press as he sought a journalistic alliance when he went after a corrupt judge who was a puppet of financier Jay Gould, and learned about poverty from touring tenements with Samuel Gompers.  The assembly and his stint as New York City Police Commissioner provided Roosevelt with an important education, as opposed to Taft who shunned the very spotlight that the future Rough Rider craved.  Taft favored to fight his battles from the inside, trusting logic, reason, and facts.  Taft always tried to avoid controversy, and would hardly ever compromise his principles as he tried to balance the rights of labor with the rights of capital as a superior court judge.

As both men evolved in their careers Goodwin relates the deeply personal details of their personal lives.  Goodwin does a nice job exploring Roosevelt’s emotional trauma whether dealing with the deaths of his father, mother, or his first wife Alice.  Goodwin provides intimate details reflecting a side of Roosevelt that was not open to the public.  His “recourtship” and marriage of his childhood friend, Edith Carow is especially enlightening as Roosevelt had pledged never to remarry, and reflect the author’s insights and handling of their rekindled relationship, a topic that seems missing from most biographies of Roosevelt.  For Taft, the love of his life was Nellie Herron who after their marriage would be the driving force behind her husband’s career.  At each level ranging from his role as Solicitor-General, a judgeship on the Federal 6th Circuit District Court, Governor-Generalship of the Philippines, as Secretary of War and then his presidential campaigns, Nellie was his most trusted advisor and confidante.  Later, when she suffers a stroke and is incapacitated, Taft will make a series of mistakes that greatly affect his career.

As Goodwin breezes along with the narrative through Roosevelt’s presidency, coverage is not equally distributed.  The emphasis of the first half of the book is on Roosevelt, followed by significant sections on investigative journalists, and the remainder on Taft.  From my perspective I would have liked more emphasis to have been placed on the journalistic component of the story because Goodwin brings a great detail of refreshing new material to the fore.  Her discussion of S.S. McClure, the founder of the magazine of that name is wonderful.  Throughout the book the reader is presented with an egomaniac, who suffers from manic-depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but despite these “limitations,” the man is a literary genius.  McClure travels the world to find writers for his new publication with emphasis on the literary, but also investigative articles that will propel a new generation of writers to the American reading public that will foster careers allowing them entrance into the corridors of power, particularly that of Theodore Roosevelt, and engender a tremendous amount of influence as they prepare articles that support major legislative reforms.  The private lives of Tarbell, Baker, Steffens and White are chronicled as well as their personal relationship which created a family-like atmosphere at McClure’s.  Ida Tarbell’s research and writings dealing with trusts, especially John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, and examination of the tariff structure in the United States are thoughtful and set the stage for Roosevelt’s reputation as a trust buster and a proponent of lower tariffs.  John Stannard Baker’s investigation into labor practices and political corruption are the basis for labor legislation and a movement to reform representative democracy.  Lincoln Steffens’ SHAME OF THE CITIES educates the American public about political bossism and corruption on the state and local level.  William Allen White served as Roosevelt’s eyes and ears in the Midwest from his perch as editor of the Emporia Gazette headquartered in the small town of Emporia, Kansas. Lastly, Upton Sinclair, who was not part of the McClure’s team, novel, THE JUNGLE sent a message to congress about conditions in the meat-packing industry that culminated in the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and regulation of the meat-packing industry, and Jacob Riis, also not part of the McClure’s family educated Roosevelt on the role of poverty in the United States.  In all cases Roosevelt established a relationship with these journalists, inviting them to the White House, sharing speeches with them in advance, and gaining their confidence that he proof read some of their articles.  This relationship, along with the publicity that McClure’s and other magazines engendered created a climate whereby the Republican conservatives in the Senate who were tied to different industrial trusts eventually had to compromise and give in. As a result Goodwin’s conclusion as to the historical importance of this group of writers cannot be underestimated.

Much of the book is focused on domestic issues but certain important foreign policy problems receive coverage.  The traditional story of the Spanish-American War and Roosevelt’s role are related and its affect on the Rough Rider’s growing political profile.  As a result of the war the United States acquired control of the Philippines and it is here that Taft reenters the picture as Governor-General of the archipelago.  It is at this juncture of his career that Taft is happiest.  He enjoys the everyday intricacies of governing and he treats the Filipino people as fairly as possible when compared to the imperialists in the United States.  It is interesting to compare Taft’s views on race with that of the social Darwinists views of Roosevelt.  Once he is recalled by Roosevelt, who succeeded to the presidency following the McKinley assassination, Taft delays his departure as long as he can until he takes over as Secretary of War.  The other major foreign policy issue that the Roosevelt administration is known for is the building of the Panama Canal, or as Roosevelt stated, “I stole it!”  Here Goodwin offers a perfunctory approach, but there is little to add to David McCullough’s THE PATHWAY BETWEEN THE SEAS.

The best way to compare how Roosevelt and Taft approached reform and used the levers of presidential power is to compare a few of the many problems that Goodwin explores in depth.  The best place to begin is to develop a definition of what progressive reform was in the eyes of Roosevelt which Goodwin does not do.  For Roosevelt all trusts were not bad, and conservation was not radical environmentalism.  In Robert Wiebe’s BUSINESS AND REFORM AND THE SEARCH FOR ORDER we learn that Roosevelt believed in the concept of “efficiency.”  If a trust was deemed to be efficient and benefited the American people and they abided by certain government strictures, Roosevelt saw no reason to go after them.  As far as conservation, Roosevelt wanted to conserve America’s land and resources for future generations, but he also allowed their development, if done in a practical manner, and benefited society as a whole.  It is interesting that most progressives were not wide eyed radicals, but mostly middle class individuals who wanted to grow the American economy for the benefit of all.  In examining Roosevelt’s anti-trust suit against the Northern Securities Company, the Beef Trust, and Standard Oil, we see an executive who uses the levers of power and the publicity generated by his investigative journalist compatriots.  In gaining passage of his reform program which turned the 59th Congress into one of the most productive in American history Roosevelt had to overcome the opposition of a small group of Republican conservative senators who could block any legislation, sound familiar!  Roosevelt fed information to Ray Stannard Baker who wrote a six part series for McClure’s, entitled, “The Railroads on Trial.”  Goodwin provides interesting excerpts of their correspondence and the information that passed between the two was essential in creating a bill to set maximum rates railroad companies could charge.  After wheeling and dealing, the Hepburn Act emerged that allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to set maximum rates.  After reading THE JUNGLE by Upton Sinclair, Roosevelt sent investigators to Chicago, which in the end resulted in the Meat Inspection Act.  Finally, Roosevelt met with Mark Sullivan the author of a series of articles for Collier’s Magazine that described the contents of the food Americans consumed as well as industrial practices in their preparation, the result was the Pure Food and Drug Act.  As in most cases, Roosevelt would use the “bully pulpit” to gain public support for his reform legislation.  As Goodwin describes further, it was not uncommon for the president to travel across the country by railroad to educate the American public and gain their support.

In comparing Roosevelt’s approach with that of Taft after he assumed the presidency there are two glaring examples that reflect poorly on the Ohio native.   The tariff issue has dogged most presidents throughout American history.  Taft was seen as a conservative Republican who was tied to eastern corporate interests.  Taft himself wanted to lower the tariff on certain items and make it easier for the Philippines to export goods to the United States.  Taft’s approach was to gain support for legislation through personal relationships rather than “the big stick through the press.”  During the 1908 presidential campaign Taft promised tariff reform.  When Ida Tarbell wrote a series of articles explaining how high tariffs plagued the poor Taft was in a political corner.  Much like President Obama he had recalcitrant conservatives to deal with, particularly Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon.  Taft feeling he had no choice decided to support Cannon as he believed it would be very difficult to oust him from the Speaker’s chair.  The Payne-Aldrich Tariff that emerged did little to satisfy Republican insurgents who had enough with the conservative minority in Congress.  If that was not bad enough Taft’s public declaration after meeting with Cannon that the “conservative leadership’s promise to prepare an honest and thorough revision of the tariff” made him optimistic for the future reflected how weak he appeared. “Perhaps it was inevitable that Taft’s temperament-his aversion to dissension and preference for personal persuasion-would ultimately lead him to work within the system rather than mobilize external pressure from the “bully pulpit.” (588)

Another example of Taft’s political implosion in relation to his relationship with Roosevelt took place while the former president was traveling in Africa.  Gifford Pinchot, the Director of the Forest Service was a close friend of Roosevelt and shared his conservation views.  When Taft became president he replaced John Garfield as Secretary of the Interior with Richard Ballinger.  The first dust up occurred because when Roosevelt left the White House he had withdrawn 1.5 million acres of federal land along sixteen rivers in western states to prevent corporate takeovers of the land as the railroad and oil industry had done.  Upon taking office, Ballinger who was a former corporate lawyer restored the land to the public domain leading Pinchot to publicly condemn the action that he felt would result in the creation of a “waterpower trust.”  Next, Ballinger allowed a Seattle syndicate access to 5000 acres of Alaskan land for development.  It turned out that the spokesperson for the syndicate was tied to coal interests and before he was appointed as Interior Secretary Ballinger had been their legal counsel.  Goodwin explores this situation in her usual detail and points out that Ballinger may have done nothing wrong, but insurgents led by Pinchot never forgave Taft for firing John Garfield and a political scandal ensued culminating in a nasty congressional investigation.  Whether this was a true scandal is irrelevant because of the way Taft handled it.  When Louis Brandeis the attorney for the Pinchot forces learned that certain documents were predated by the Attorney General all was lost.  Taft should have fired Ballinger, but instead kept him on even after the investigation.  Goodwin is correct in stating, “The bitter struggle had consumed the attention of the country for more than a year.  Reformers’ faith in the president, already weakened by the tariff struggle, had plummeted.”  (627)  Once Roosevelt was brought up to date by Pinchot as to what had occurred the Roosevelt-Taft relationship was at the tipping point.  What would push it over the edge was the Taft administration’s filing of an anti-trust suit against U.S. Steel.   With Roosevelt’s return to the United States and his embankment on a sixteen week tour of the west, a progressive-conservative split in the Republican Party was at hand.

The U.S. Steel issue angered Roosevelt because during the Panic of 1907 it was the work of J.P. Morgan in agreement with the then president that if Morgan assisted the government his company would not be the target of an anti-trust suit.  This led to accusations and counter accusations headlined in newspapers across the United States between Roosevelt and Taft forces.  By 1912 the Republican Party rupture was complete.  Goodwin provides in depth analysis and details of the split that led Roosevelt to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination, and failing that, forming the Bull Moose Party that led to the election of Woodrow Wilson.  The campaign was extremely nasty and one could never imagine that the two former presidents would ever rekindle their relationship.  Goodwin does their relationship justice as she describes the emotional reunion before Roosevelt’s death.  In 1921, President Harding nominated Taft as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he longed for his entire career.

Goodwin’s final analysis of their Roosevelt-Taft relationship is accurate.  When she states in closing that the “two men had strikingly different temperaments [but] their opposing qualities actually proved complimentary, allowing them to forge a powerful camaraderie and rare collaboration” that during Roosevelt’s presidency brought progressive reform to the nation.  Under Taft, that legacy may seem to have been tarnished, but there were many progressive reforms that seem to have slipped past the public’s awareness.  After reading Goodwin’s encyclopedic narrative my opinion of Roosevelt remains the same, a man driven by a large ego who was responding to unconscious needs that revert back to his earlier life.  For Taft my view has changed; he was exceptionally competent in many areas, and though limited by his own personality and loyalty to what he perceived to be constitutionally correct emerges as the larger man (not physically!) than his lifelong friend.  Goodwin has mined an enormous amount of material as she has done in all her books.  If you are interested in exploring an age in American history that is rich in substance and contains many interesting characters then sit back and enjoy Goodwin’s latest work.

HITLER’S SPY CHIEF: THE WILHELM CANARIS BETRAYAL by Richard Bassett

Wilhelm Canaris’ role as the head of the Abwehr, German military espionage, before and during World War II has been openly debated since his execution by the Nazis in 1945. Some historians argue that he supported the Nazi regime when it was convenient and others who argue he was always in opposition to Adolf Hitler and saw himself as trying to save western civilization from the twin evils of Nazism and Communism. Richard Bassett posits in HITLER’S SPY CHIEF: THE WILHELM CANARIS BETRAYAL that Canaris had a tremendous impact on the course of the war by building an efficient intelligence system that refused to engage in the evil practices of the Gestapo and SS; further he should be credited for altering the course of the war through his support of General Franco against Hitler’s goal of seizing Gibraltar, thereby saving the Mediterranean Sea for the British navy; and lastly, his deliberate over-estimation of British forces available in his intelligence estimates after Dunkirk being the vital factor in delaying and cancelling the Nazi invasion of England and ultimately causing the defeat of Germany. There is an element of truth in all of these assertions, however they rest on somewhat dated sources and should be grounded in further research. The author presents many theories in the form of conjecture, and to his credit he tries to present both points of view, but then does not reach totally viable conclusions, i.e.; Canaris’ role in possibly achieving an Anglo-German demarche in 1943. After reading the book I am not certain how pro-Nazi Canaris really was and to what level did his anti-Semitism reach. Despite these drawbacks there are aspects of the book that are praiseworthy.

Bassett does an excellent job exploring the ideological and policy fissures that developed between Carnais and the Head of the SD, Reinhard Heydrich. Their relationship takes up a significant portion of the book ranging from Heydrich’s attempt to foment military purges in the Soviet Union in 1937 that resulted in Carnaris questioning the goals and tactics employed by the Nazis. Bassett follows their competition for control of the German military intelligence community that pitted the Abwehr against the SD closely as Carnaris saw himself as the antithesis of “the Butcher of Prague” who would be assassinated by Czech and Slovak agents working for the British in 1942. The author’s discussion of Canaris’ relationship with Winston Churchill is important and the conclusion seems to be had the British Prime Minister followed Carnaris’ lead perhaps the war could have been prevented in 1938 or at least ended in 1943. These suggestions are supported somewhat, but are not totally convincing. Another area of interest is Canaris’ interactions with “C,” Sir Stewart Menzies, the Head of British Intelligence during the war. Bassett alludes to a close relationship that impacted strategy, but does put forth enough supporting evidence to make his assumptions totally viable. Overall the book is an interesting read, but the author should rely on more up to date secondary sources and greater primary materials in support of his theories to gain further credibility.

WHITEY by Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill

On a day when the US Senate has bowed to the pressure of the NRA and turned its back on making our world a little safer I find it apropos to review a book that deals in part with gun running and murder. I am not going to suggest that these esteemed politicians are in any way are as morally corrupt as some have suggested in the media, but when first responders in Boston run toward an explosion to save people, can’t our elected officials take “the risk” of opposing the NRA and do what is right and is supported by 90% of the American people, in addition to over 80% of NRA members…..come on, get real, they could not pass a watered down bill to enhance background checks that still makes it illegal to create a national gun data base! Now that I have had my rant here is an interesting book;

In Black Mass Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill recounted the deal between James “Whitey” Bolger and FBI agent John Connolly that resulted in the unprecedented relationship that saw the nation’s leading law enforcement agency in bed with Boston’s Irish mob leader. In their new book WHITEY, Lehr and O’Neill cover similar material in the context of a biography of Bolger bringing the story up to his arrest in 2011 and the onset of his prosecution in federal court. The book is well researched and rests on strict documentation enhanced by numerous interviews. The entire gamut of Bolger’s life, from his beginnings in crime in “Southie,” through his nine year imprisonment, and emergence as the top crime boss in Boston whose tentacles reached throughout New England and further south is presented. Bolger’s relationships with loan sharks, drug runners, hit men, etc. are discussed in detail as are his relationships with his own family and women. What is especially interesting are the author’s attempts to analyze Bolger and his criminal mind and behavior attributing it to his relationship with his father and other causes. Also of interest is his relationship with his brother Billy who presents himself as the epitome of the law abiding politician, educator, and family man, but based on his actions he should probably have been prosecuted for base his work behind the scenes in support of his brother. Another startling angle deals with John McCormack, a Boston Congressman, who later became Speaker of the House of Representatives during the John Administration who worked the levers of power to assist Bolger during his prison stay and ultimate release. The book reads like a crime novel, but in the end it is the true story of an unrepentant murderer who ruined the lives of many and dominated the Boston crime scene for decades.

VASA: A SWEDISH WARSHIP by Fred Hocker

Two months ago my wife I found ourselves in Stockholm, Sweden. During our time in the city we visited one of the most extraordinary museums we have ever experienced, the Vasa Museum. Housed inside this enormous structure was a Swedish ship, the Vasa that was built under the reign of Gustavas Adolphus in the 1620s. The ship had a very short lifespan, despite the fact that it was commissioned by the Swedish monarch to fill the role as the jewel of the Swedish navy during the Thirty Year’s War. For the king the ship “would be a new milestone in his and the country’s journey from the European backwoods to the forefront of the international stage. (47)

Expectations were high on August 10, 1628 when the Vasa was launched. However after sailing about one nautical mile it heeled too far to the port side and sank as water filled the gunports below. I was fascinated by the history of the ship and how it was built and was amazed that after 300 years underwater it could be salvaged and become the focus of such a wonder museum. As a committed “bookaholic” I went to the museum shop and found what I was looking for, a history of the entire project, both past and present in Fred Hocker’s VASA: A SWEDISH WARSHIP.

Mr. Hocker begins his narrative by providing insights into the imperial rivalries of the 17th century that culminated in the Thirty Year’s War (1618-1648). I was surprised to learn that at that time Sweden controlled Lithuania and Finland and their main rival, Denmark controlled Norway, Skane (the site of Henning Mankell’s mystery series!), and Gotland. The author provides a detailed discussion as to how the Vasa was built including copies of the contracts, ledger entries, and a breakdown of all materials purchased to create such an imposing structure. What was amazing to me was that “trees had to be selected carefully, so the natural curves would suit the eventual shape of the timber as close as possible.” (42) Oak trees were chosen by the “Forest Master” for the ship’s hull, and pine for the decks. Over 1000 trees were needed to build the ship, but thousands more were used for fuel to create the necessary bolts, nails, and anchors.

The Vasa was Gustavas Adolphus’ plan to develop a navy strong enough to make the Baltic a “Swedish lake.” The Vasa was a multi-cultural project as is exemplified by the ethnic heritage of those who built her, i.e., Swedes, Danes, Dutch, German and English. The ships name, carvings, and color reflect the glory of the king and its subjects represented throughout the ship leads one to Ancient Rome and highlights the Renaissance influence in Northern Europe. Meticulous detail is evident on each carving and sculpture putting forth its own message and all were painted with colorful pigments. Hocker does a wonderful job explaining the types of sails the ship employed and other technical aspects of how the ship would be powered, steered and set on its proper course.
The author ‘s description of all aspects of life on board allows the reader to imagine that they were present for the first voyage. Whether a discussion of the crew’s clothing, living quarters, the food they ingested, health issues and a myriad of other details one gets the feeling that the clock has been turned back to 1628 and you are on deck as the Vasa is plowing the water of the Baltic Sea.

The tragic sinking of the Vasa in August, 1628 resulted in 30 deaths including women and children. The major reason for the calamity was that the decks were overbuilt and its reinforcing timbers created a poor weight distribution. The hull itself was too heavily built above the waterline and the underwater portion of the ship was to small for the amount of hull above the waterline. In simple terms, the gun decks were farther above the waterline than necessary. An immediate inquest was summoned and it concluded that the admiralty actually knew in advance that the ships design was flawed. The result was that the ship was too narrow at the bottom and it should have been built wider and deeper. No one was personally blamed, but the Captain and others “lacked the courage to tell the king that his glorious ship, named for his family was an accident waiting to happen.” (141) The significance of the Vasa was that it had a major impact on future naval construction as Hocker points out that “her loss was tragic but necessary element in building up the knowledge needed for the development of the ship of the line, the pinnacle of naval technology for nearly two centuries.” (155)

Hocker describes numerous attempts to raise the the ship over the next half century, but all ended in failure though they did recover 61 out of the 64 cannons, most of which were sold as salvage to the Danes who then would use them against Sweden in the Scanian War of the 1770s! The Vasa would remain under water until it was rediscovered by a diver, Per Edvin Falting on September 4, 1956. During the next five years preparations were made to salvage the Vasa and bring her to the surface. Employing the latest technology the Swedish navy and many private companies worked to float the ship on pontoons to recover her. On April 4, 1961 the Vasa broke the surface and ten days later she was completely afloat. The author provides the engineering details with diagrams to supplement the text so even the “nautical novice” would understand the complexity of the task. Experienced Archaeologists were brought in to excavate the Vasa and over 30,000 artifacts ranging from human skeltons, tools, guns, and other equipment were studied. These artifacts have given us a very accurate picture of what life was like during 17th century Sweden. Once the Vasa was floated the decision was made to preserve her and build a museum to house the ship. Hocker describes the process of preserving the Vasa, caring for the artifacts, and the technological process of moving the ship into its new home and building a museum around it that includes numerous exhibits. The museum opened in 1990 and over one million people visit annually to witness a 60 meter structure, 7 stories high enclosed in a weather controlled environment that has taken a moment of history and frozen it in time. (198) The book is fascinating for its narrative, but also for its diagrams which makes the complexity of what is being described understandable for the maritime laymen. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in maritime history, engineering, technology, or just a wonderful adventure story. Lastly, if you are ever is Stockholm you must put the Vasa Museum on your list of places to visit.

TIP AND THE GIPPER: WHEN POLITICS WORKED by Chris Matthews

 

As an avid viewer of MSNBC’s Hardball program each evening with Chris Matthews I am very familiar with his views and style, and usually agree with him.  I have read his previous books and looked forward to reading his latest, TIP AND THE GIPPER: WHEN POLITICS WORKED.  After reading the book and digesting his final thoughts as he states that “We need leaders able to balance large purpose with equally large awareness of the electorate, what message the voters have sent.  In a worthy contest this goes for those who’ve won but especially for those who haven’t. The rules of fair play can’t be simply cast aside.” (371) Reading TIP AND THE GIPPER I got the feeling I was having an intimate conversation with the author and his subjects.  Matthews lets the reader in to his inner most thoughts and cannot but admire both men he writes about and the relationship they forged.  Obviously, Matthews wants their relationship to be a model for today’s politicians who have given us a new concept, “partisanship on steroids!”

Matthews is a superb writer and his narrative flows like a literary work.  He is able to subtly integrate his own political education, first as a speech writer for Jimmy Carter and then as Tip O’Neill’s administrative assistant, as he develops the relationship between his two larger than life subjects.  As the historical narrative unfolds the reader would have to be blind not to think about our current state of government by stalemate.  Today, Reagan would probably be labeled a liberal Republican by Tea Party elements and his legislative accomplishments, particularly the 1983 Social Security legislation and the 1986 Tax Reform Law, would have been forcefully opposed by the likes of Cruz, Lee, and Paul.

Matthews is very insightful in a number of areas.  Early on he points out the weakness of the Carter presidency, the aloofness of the man from Plains, Ga.  When Reagan assumes the presidency in 1981 “his plan was to charm rivals and potential allies alike,” and Tip O’ Neill was his first major target.  By pointing out the political problem that aloofness in the Presidency can create, it is obvious who Matthews is pointing to.  From the outset O’Neill rejected an obstructionist strategy in dealing with Reagan’s proposed economic plan as he realized that the American people had spoken at the polls.  He decided that he would assist Reagan in achieving his agenda as much as he could, as it was his duty as an American patriot.  O’Neill’s biggest problem in dealing with Reagan was his “star power,” as the President was the consummate actor in addition to being shrewd and cunning in dealing with the Speaker.  Matthews’ role in the Speaker’s office was to assist O’Neill in adapting to using the media as a tool in dealing with Reagan.  It is from this vantage point that Matthews presents his narrative.

If O’Neill had considered any thoughts of creating roadblocks for Reagan’s legislative agenda they would have been immediately cast aside after the assassination attempt on the President.  Reagan’s handling of the attempt on his life was out of a Hollywood script and after being closer to death than the American people were led to believe he emerged as a “true American hero.”  For O’Neill this meant doing his best to lessen the assault on his liberal self, and in 1981 and 1982 Reagan was able to work with O’Neill and gain congressional approval for his tax cut, increase in military spending, all of which was to lead to a balanced budget by 1984.  It was very clear that what Vice President George H. W. Bush termed “voodoo economics” during the 1980 presidential campaign was not going to work and because of that O’Neill was able to gain Reagan’s cooperation in reforming the Social Security system and putting it on a firm financial footing for the future.

The most interesting aspects of Matthews’ book center around his description of the how the O’Neill-Reagan relationship developed and how they were able to work with each other despite their divergent political philosophies.  Matthews quotes freely from Reagan’s diaries and O’Neill’s memoir, and statements and speeches he was privy to.  In so doing he seems to create a conversation between the two men which reflected anger at times, but always mutual respect for each other.  The mutual respect was the key and they both believed that after 6:00pm politics would be set aside as they met frequently and seemed to enjoy each other’s company.  What is amazing is that despite their ideological differences and their battles over the budget and spending and tax issues they never lost their affection for each other.

The first third of book is a comparative biography of both men where Matthews does not present any new material that has not been gone over by the likes of Lou Cannon in his book on Reagan entitled, PRESIDENT REAGAN: THE ROLE OF A LIFETIME and John A. Farrell’s excellent biography, TIP O’NEILL ANDTHE DEMOCRATIC CENTURY.  After completing this section of the book, Matthews begins his account of the legislative battles between the two men and their disagreements on foreign policy.

Matthew’s description of O’Neill’s mood swings as he dealt with Reagan is fascinating.  In particular the Speaker’s anger when Reagan characterizes his liberal principles as demagoguery.  As a result he finally realized he had to graduate to the media age against a president who had mastered it for years.  Despite his periodic anger at Reagan, O’Neill always realized that no matter how weak the economy became after the Reagan agenda became law, the president always remained popular.  In addition, O’Neill was always wary of being seen as an obstructionist.  For Matthews, his role was to make O’Neill relevant again despite legislative defeats and not appear as “over the hill” as Republican strategists tried to make him out to be.  His media “remake” of O’Neill was successful and it forced the public to begin to question Reagan’s economic program and resulted in Democratic gains in 1982.  By 1983 Reagan began gearing up for his reelection and did not want Social Security to be an issue for the Democrats.  Hence, Reagan and O’Neill realized there was a political center in American politics that would benefit the entire country.

On foreign policy O’Neill took the position that the President needed Democratic support in dealing with the Soviet Union and events in Lebanon.  But Reagan’s position on the Sandinistas in Nicaragua reminded the Speaker of the slippery slope that led to the Vietnam War.  O’Neill was a major force in limiting the administration’s action in Latin America through the Boland Amendment and greatly resenting being “told” about the invasion of Grenada which he saw as an attempt to turn the focus of the American people away from the terrorist bomb that led to the death of 241 Marines.  Matthews is correct in pointing out that Reagan could not escape the Cold War paradigm that he believed in and accept the idea that there were numerous confessional rivalries in Lebanon as well as ignoring the history of resentment against American imperialism in the Americas. (276)

O’Neill’s final year in office was highlighted by the 1986 Tax Reform Bill as once again he and the President moved to the center in compromising their goals in the name of the American people.  Obviously many of the examples that Matthews presents seemed designed as lessons for today’s politicians many of whom only know how to say no instead of doing what is in the best interests of the nation as a whole.  Every day pundits reinforce the idea that nothing will can accomplished due to the current political environment, but Matthews has provided an honest historical portrait of two men who showed despite their differences what could be accomplished.

THOSE ANGRY DAYS: ROOSEVELT, LINDBERGH AND THE FIGHT OVER WORLD WAR II by Lynne Olson

Recently I visited the World War II tunnels under the White Cliffs of Dover. As a retired historian this fostered further interest on my part in examining the events surrounding Dunkirk and the German aerial blitz over England in 1940. Coincidentally, Lynne Olson, the author of a number of books dealing with the United Kingdom and the war, published her most recent effort, THOSE ANGRY DAYS: ROOSEVELT, LINDBERGH AND THE FIGHT OVER WORLD WAR II, 1939-1941, a survey of American policy toward events in Europe in the 1930s culminating with its entrance into the war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Olson as she has done in all her previous books presents a cogent and well written narrative that explores the role of those who sought to prepare for what they perceived to be the coming war with Germany and provide the British with the necessary assistance once war broke out following the German invasion of Poland in September, 1939. Further, Olson examines the role of the isolationist movement during the period, a group that sought to keep the United States out of the war at seemingly all costs. In her narrative Olson incorporates all of the main characters in this, at times, nasty debate ranging from Franklin D. Roosevelt to Charles Lindbergh. Other than a few minute details there is not much that is new here, but the book is an excellent synthesis of available primary and secondary materials and the author has prepared a smooth narrative that captivates the reader.

A number of important subjects and themes are explored. The discussion of the evolution of American public opinion toward the war in Europe is interesting, particularly how the British under the leadership of William Stephenson and his network sought to influence decision making in Washington. The role of Charles Lindbergh as he evolves from a national hero to a political partisan involved with isolationists at home and manipulated by Hitler’s government abroad is fascinating. The election of 1940 is accurately described and the fear felt by FDR for the candidacy of Wendell Willkie takes the reader inside both presidential campaigns. Wilkie is treated as a principled man. Despite his feelings about the New Deal, he supported the interventionist movement and he was an essential component politically as the Roosevelt administration sought to gain the passage of important legislation, i.e., the Destroyer Base Deal, Lend-Lease, and conscription in Congress.

Olson correctly points to Roosevelt’s attempt to alter the make-up of the Supreme Court in 1937 as his worst domestic political error that heavily impacted his ability to prepare the United States for the approaching conflict and provide assistance to the British after 1939. This defeat lessened FDR’s confidence in his own decision-making, reduced his influence on Congress, and saw his own popularity with the American people decline. This hamstrung attempts to alter the Neutrality legislation of the mid to late 1930s and was a boon to the political opposition led by the likes of Senators Burton K. Wheeler and William Borah, Robert Woods, the head of Sears Roebuck, Henry Ford, and Charles Lindbergh.

The passage of HR 1776, better known as Lend Lease is vividly presented in exacting detail. Olson’s description of the vituperative politics of the period through the eyes of the main characters is enlightening. The actions taken by Wendell Willkie and Lord Lothian, the British Ambassador to the United States, who died shortly after the bill was passed is detailed and reflects an author in total control of their material. Olson observes correctly that the passage of the bill was FDR’s most important prewar political victory and her choice of quotes is wonderful, i.e., Eric Sevareid, the CBS correspondent’s description of opponents of Lend Lease as “tobacco-chewing, gravy stained, overstuffed gila monsters, who nestled in their bed of chins, would doze through other speeches, then haul up their torpid bodies and mouth the old, evil shibboleths about King George III, the war debts, Uncle Sap, and decadent France (were) very dangerous men,” is also illustrative of the negativity, nastiness, and partisanship of the period.

Over the years some have argued that FDR sought to involve the United States in a war against Germany well before December, 1941. Olson’s argument to the contrary is right on as she states that FDR plodded along and took baby steps toward preparing the United States for what he was convinced would be a war to defeat Nazi Germany. FDR read the polls assiduously and was always afraid no matter what the political polls may have reflected that he was too far out in front of what the American people would support. Olson’s examination of the politics behind expanding the undeclared naval war in the North Atlantic highlighted by decisions of how much area the United States would defend in convoying merchant shipping is illustrative of FDR’s fears, as was his approach to the conversion of the US economy from domestic to military production.

There are numerous other areas that Olson explores ranging from the role of Hollywood in the propaganda war against Germany, the influence of anti-Semitism on American politics, the infighting within the American military establishment, and intimate portraits of the most important historical characters. Olson’s examination of events and the attendant research contribute to a well thought out and deeply interesting portrait of the United States and England as both faced the coming war and its final outbreak in 1939 and 1941. As a side note if anyone is interested in reading a counter factual historical novel dealing with this topic they should read THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA by Philip Roth who conjectures of what might have happened if Lindbergh had sought the presidency in 1940 and defeated Roosevelt, just food for thought.

THE WHISKEY REBELS by David Liss

I have been a fan of David Liss’ historical novels since they first appeared. THE CONSPIRACY OF PAPER, THE COFFEE TRADER, AND THE DEVIL’S COMPANY all possessed a historical flair that drew in the reader in a rather plausible plot line.  Liss’ THE WHISKEY REBELS, though a good read, falls short of the quality of his first three efforts.  The narrative of this somewhat light historical novel centers around two characters Ethan Saunders, and Joan Claybrook, who become involved in a plot to either save or destroy the Hamiltonian system of finance during the administration of George Washington.  Other fictional characters abound and they are integrated with the likes of Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton, William Duer, James and Marie Reynolds, Phillip Freneau, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, and of course George Washington.  The plot rests on events that preceded the actual Whiskey Rebellion that took place during this period and portends to present some of the causes of the revolt of western Pennsylvania farmers, angered by a federal excise tax on whiskey in 1794, whose cause was eventually crushed by an army of 13,000 men led by Alexander Hamilton.

After presenting the background narrative of the story concerning the plight of western farmers through through the eyes of the two main characters, Ethan Saunders and Mary Maycock, Liss then goes on to develop the financial schemes that are the heart of the novel.  Liss fictionalizes a plot to destroy the heart of the Hamiltonian system, the National Bank of the United States, and the events leading up to the actual the Panic of 1792.  The reader is presented with enough financial chicanery that would even bring a smile to the likes Bernie Maddoff.  Though there are no credit default swaps, bundling of real estate assets, derivatives or under water housing bringing about the phrase, “too big to fail,” the author does explores “the machinations in government securities, the attempt to overtake the Million Bank, and Duer’s bankruptcy-all of [which] are a matter of record.” (522). To Liss’ credit accurate historical themes are weaved into the narrative.  The reader witnesses the hatred between the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian factions that existed at the time.  The fight by western agrarian interests against eastern capitalist forces plays out and will remain part of the American political landscape through the twentieth century.  The duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton is “dually executed,” as is the burgeoning conflict that will ultimately lead to the actual Whiskey Rebellion.  Some of the characters are a bit difficult to accept, especially the battle hardened Jewish banker and former Revolutionary War spy, among others.  Overall it is an interesting tale chocked full of twists and turns but I recommend would Thomas Slaughter and William Hoagland’s monographs on the Whiskey Rebellion as a more accurate representation of what actually took place.