BACK CHANNEL by Stephen L. Carter

Whether reading Stephen L. Carter’s THE EMPEROR OF OCEAN PARK and the novels that follow that genre to his historical novel, THE IMPEACHMENT OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN I have always felt very satisfied and contented when completing one of his books.  After reading his latest effort at altering American history by recreating a fictional account of the Cuban Missile Crisis in BACK CHANNEL, I did not complete my reading with the same feeling.  To his credit Mr. Carter has complete command of the events that led up to the 1962 crisis, the diplomatic machinations between the Soviet Union and the United States, as well as the domestic pressure that was exerted within each government.  In a useful afterword, Carter explains the differences between his version of events and those that actually occurred allowing the reader to compare the two, and hopefully emerge with an accurate accounting for what took place.  The book is not even counter-factual history, it is more a fantasy that if you were not cognizant of actual events then you might fall into the trap and be engrossed with the plot.  It was difficult to accept the story line that Carter creates at the outset those American intelligence officials would employ a nineteen year old, black college student at Cornell University as a companion for chess champion Bobby Fischer at a competition in Varna, Bulgaria.  It seems at a previous match the Soviet champion had told Fischer that in Varna he would provide further information about Soviet intentions in Cuba.  From this point on the college student, Margo Jensen is involved in a whirlwind of espionage that will lead her to become the back channel conduit between Alexandr Fomin, a KGB Colonel, representing Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and President John F. Kennedy.  For those familiar with actual events you will remember there was a back channel during the crisis as Mr. Fomin met with ABC News reporter John Scali.  The substitution of Miss Jensen for Scali and the narrative that the author creates does not create a gripping tale for this reader.

Jensen meets a number of interesting characters in her journey ranging from State Department intelligence types, CIA agents, KGB Counter Intelligence officers, along with important historical figures like McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy’s National Security advisor and others.  We witness Jensen’s growth from an untrained college student in the art of espionage to one who will amaze those who have to deal with her.  The plot thickens as the missiles are discovered and the Soviet Union and the United States are brought to the brink of war.  On the Soviet side we meet Viktor Borisovich Vaganian, a KGB Captain in Counter Intelligence who is trying to discover who on the Soviet side leaked the information identifying what Moscow hoped to accomplish in Cuba.  His ally is a rogue American who is working for a domestic group that believes that Kennedy does not have the back bone to deal with the Russians.

As the book evolves the Cuban Missile Crisis is recounted with a number of historical details that are missing, rearranged, or created anew as it becomes clear that there is a war party in the United States who want to use the crisis as a vehicle to destroy the Soviet Union while the United States held the military advantage.  In the Soviet Union, Khrushchev must deal with his own war party who favors striking during the crisis because they believe that if the opportunity is allowed to pass they will have lost any hope of defeating the United States whose technological future was much brighter than Moscow.  Each war party tries to undo the back channel that involves Jensen, putting herself and those involved with her in repeated danger.

To Carter’s credit we are taken inside the Ex Comm national security meetings in Washington and the viewpoints of the participant run fairly close to what actually occurred.  The rendering of Generals Maxwell Taylor and Curtis Le May seems to hit the spot as are the views of Robert Kennedy, McGeorge Bundy, Robert McNamara and others.  Once the crisis is settled Carter presents two scenes that ring very true for the future.  In a conversation between Bundy and Kennedy, the president now satisfied the crisis is over turns his attention to what should be done about Vietnam as the administration begins to gear up for the 1964 election.  Secondly we witness a conversation between a CIA type, who Carter describes as a “traveling salesman of the clandestine world,” and Jensen, who is afraid what Kennedy’s domestic enemies might do in the future, the intelligence agent states that, “Still, if I were president, I suppose I’d watch my back.”  A strong reference to future conspiracy theories involving those who felt Kennedy was soft on Cuba leading to his assassination in 1963.

There are other moments in the narrative that move away from the crisis and involve Jensen’s family, particularly her father who was killed during World War II.  She learns that he was a hero and was blown up in order to avoid being captured by the Nazis as he ran agents during the war, and did not die, as she was previously led to believe in a motor vehicle accident.  The issue of course was that he was black, and the intelligence community did not employ such people during the war.  Because of this slight, Carter presents Jensen as the daughter who carries on her father’s work and her tenaciousness and character stem from his DNA.  We also meet other characters from Carter’s previous novels, i.e.; her grandmother, Claudia Jensen, Major Madison, Jack Ziegler, Vera Madison, and Agent Stilwell among others.  They are all integrated seamlessly and fit into the story line nicely.

(Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy chatting in Vienna, June 4, 1961)

The story began in a Conflict Theory class at Cornell taught by a former/current spy named Lorenz Nieymeyer and his prize student Margo Jensen.  Their relationship formed a secondary plot that is evident throughout the narrative as Margo is confronted with an adventure she never could have expected.  In an area of the book’s strength, Carter allows their personal and intellectual relationship to evolve and he closes his story by having the two meet, this time Miss Jensen holds the moral and intellectual high ground, and because of her ordeal she held her former professor in much lower esteem.  Had Carter written a novel centering more about their relationship with the Cuban Missile Crisis in the back ground it might have made for a stronger narrative and a more believable one?


(Richard M. Nixon boarding a helicopter at the White House on August 9, 1974 after he resigned the presidency)

During the summer of 1973, while in graduate school, I found myself transfixed by the Watergate hearings that were broadcast live each day.  For me it became almost a soap opera with the revelations of Nixon administration misdeeds.  Once Nixon resigned, the battle for the Watergate tapes continued. After the 37th president passed away, the federal government gradually released more of the Nixon tapes resulting in a thorough record of what went on in the Nixon White House between February 16, 1971 and July 12, 1973 when over 3432 hours of tapes were produced.  What we learned before Ken Hughes new book CHASING SHADOWS: THE NIXON TAPES, THE CHENNAULT AFFAIR, AND THE ORIGINS OF WATERGATE was disconcerting enough for the American public, but now as Mr. Hughes, a journalist who is a researcher at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center Presidential Program, since 2000 culled these documents reaching the conclusion that is even more damning concerning Nixon’s abuse of power than the original tapes that were released in the 1970s.  In October, 1969, Joseph McGuinnis wrote in his book, THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968 about the “new” Nixon, and the “old Nixon.”  According to Mr. McGinnis, the “new” Nixon was prepackaged as a candidate to avoid the “out bursts” and other political errors the former Vice-President had made in past elections that represented the “old” Nixon.  What emerges from Hughes detailed study is the reemergence of the “old Nixon on steroids,” as his political paranoia, hatred for those who made him look bad, anti-Semitism, and general nastiness is invariably documented on each page.

At the outset the author asks the question that after 40 years what we could possibly not have been exposed to concerning Watergate.  Hughes concludes “that the origins of Watergate extend deeper than we previously knew to encompass a crime committed to elect Nixon in the first place.” (x)  The first section of the book focuses on the Chennault Affair which by any standard was an act of treason against the American people.  At the time rumors abounded in Washington after the election of 1968 that there were members of the Nixon campaign, and probably Nixon himself who interfered with the Vietnam peace negotiations then in progress in Paris.   President Johnson wrestled with the idea of an unconditional bombing halt since March 31, 1968 when he announced he would not seek reelection.  Negotiations in Paris focused on the details of such a bombing halt and the Nixon campaign feared an “October Surprise,”[i] a few days before the election that would allow Vice-President Hubert Humphrey to defeat Nixon, who had led by 18 points in the polls in September, 1968.  According to Hughes, who produces records of conversations and other damning evidence describing meetings and phone calls between members of the Nixon campaign staff and Bui Diem, the South Vietnamese Ambassador to the United States, whereby they promised South Vietnam’s President, Nguyen Van Thieu a better deal if he would muck up the negotiations and wait until Nixon was President.  During the week before the election North Vietnamese negotiators in Paris actually move slightly closer to the Johnson administration position on the bombing pause and it seemed as if a deal was at hand.  Suddenly, Thieu informed Washington that there were aspects of the deal he could not support thus causing the deal to collapse.  Hughes provides proof that the emissary between the Nixon campaign and the South Vietnamese government was Anna Chan Chennault, (the spouse of Lt. General Claire L. Chennault who during World War II was the American leader of a volunteer air group, the Flying Tigers that defended China against Japanese invaders) whose relationship with Nixon went back to the China Lobby of the late 1940s and 1950s when Republicans accused the Truman administration of losing China to the Communists, a charge that the then Congressman Nixon used to vault himself into the Senate in 1948.  Hughes offers an almost daily description of the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam from right after Labor Day until the election.  The reader will learn from the documentary evidence the details of Johnson’s conversations with candidates Humphrey and Nixon.  What emerges is LBJ’s disappointment with the Democratic candidate who he feels is soft concerning a bombing halt and belief that despite Nixon’s duplicitous nature he would be a stronger president concerning Vietnam.  Late in the campaign Johnson learned of Nixon campaign machinations concerning talks in Paris, but he held back releasing it which would have most likely thrown the election to Humphrey.  Johnson warned Nixon very subtly that he knew what was occurring and the Republican candidate feigned surprise and reaffirmed support for the president’s policies.  Throughout the book, Hughes integrates verbatim transcripts to support his points, and there can be no doubt of Nixon and his staff’s culpability in treasonous activities.  The question remains why didn’t LBJ expose the actions of the Nixon campaign.  The answer probably rests with LBJ’s national security concerns, fear of weakening the presidency, and prolonging a war he desperately wanted to end to assure his historical legacy.

(Anna Chennault, the conduit for the Nixon campaign to the South Vietnamese government flanked by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger)

If Hughes description of the Chennault Affair is not disturbing enough then his exploration of other aspects of Nixon administration internal policy certainly is.  When Nixon arrives in the White House he immediately ordered his Chief of Staff, H.R. Haldeman to get hold of all the documents that LBJ had accumulated during the presidential campaign, i.e.; NSA intercepts from Ambassador Diem to Saigon, wiretaps of Chennault, CIA bugs overseas etc.  Haldeman tasked Tom Charles Huston to obtain the material.  Huston claimed that the Department of Defense Office of Internal Security Affairs had a report of all events leading to the bombing halt and it was located at the Brookings Institution.  Nixon obviously was concerned that should these documents become public his campaign organization and he himself personally would appear to have violated the Logan Act of 1799 that “prohibits as treasonous activity any interference by American citizens with the negotiations of the US government.” (38)  Nixon’s concern is readily apparent as he stated on June 17, 1971 in reference to the Brookings file.  “Now you remember the Huston’s Plan?[ii]  Implement it; I want it implemented on a thievery basis.  Goddamn it, get in and get those files.  Blow the safe and get it.” (68)

As one reads on it becomes surreal as Nixon becomes obsessed with anyone that appears to be his enemy.  His reaction to the leaking of the Pentagon Papers and the actions of Daniel Ellsberg reflect a heightened paranoia on the part of Nixon as he created the Special Investigative Unit (SIU), known as the “Plumbers” to deal with leaks and what he perceived to be domestic terrorism located in the basement of the White House. “The creation of the SIU violated both criminal law and the US Constitution.”  Nixon created a unit to commit crimes-like burglarizing the Brookings Institution, Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office, and later Democratic Party Headquarters at the Watergate Hotel.  Further, it specifically violated the Fourth Amendment that protected “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” (130)  

What was most disturbing to me apart from Nixon’s criminal offenses was his rationale for his actions and his virulent anti-Semitism.  “The leading conspiracy theorist in the White House was the President.  Nixon’s theory centered on three groups: Jews, intellectuals, and Ivy Leaguers.” (122)  He feared a “Jewish cabal” was out to get him arguing that Ellsberg, Morton Halperin (a member of Henry Kissinger’s staff who was wiretapped), and Leslie Gelb all who opposed him were Jews.  Hughes concludes that Nixon spoke about Jews in the NSC and the defense and State Departments as if they were security risks simply because of their religious background.  National security policy was not the only area that the Jews in Nixon’s eyes were out to get him.  Harold Goldstein who was an employment analyst at the Bureau of Labor Statistics for over twenty four years and served democratic and republic presidents going back to Truman, in Nixon’s view was publicizing unemployment statistics to make him look bad as he approached reelection.  This for Nixon was part of the “cabal” and he had Goldstein exiled to a regional office in Montana.   In dealing with Arthur Burns, the Head of the Federal Reserve Board, Nixon believed that Burns monetary and fiscal policy did not support his reelection, and  on July 24, 1971, he remarked to Haldeman, “there’s a Jewish cabal, you know, running through this, working with people like Burns and the rest, and they all-they all only talk to Jews.” (143)

(Daniel Elleberg, who leaked the Pentagon Papers)

Hughes develops his story that culminates in Watergate and includes some new documents concerning the break-in that had not been previously released.  It really does not change the outcome or the course of history it just reaffirms Nixon’s acute paranoia and as Bruce Mazlish wrote before the 1968 election in his psychological analysis, IN SEARCH OF NIXON, that there was a personality flaw that existed and no matter what success Nixon might have achieved, his self-destructive mechanism would undo it.  When Nixon resigned the presidency on August 8, 1974 and left the White House the next day, Mazlish’s prediction came true.


(What would a review of a book on Richard Nixon be without a picture of the Watergate Hotel?)

[i] The title of a book by Gary Sick written after the election of Ronald Reagan accusing the Reagan campaign of interfering with negotiations to obtain the release of American hostages in Iran between the Carter administration and the Iranian government.  The Reagan people were very concerned that Iran would agree to release the hostage’s right before the election, thus swinging the American electorate over to President Carter.

[ii] In June, 1971 the secret Huston Plan was designed to expand government break-ins, wiretaps, and mail openings in the name of fighting domestic terror.



(The Shermanesque  Stance!)

According to Robert L. O’Connell in his new book AMERICAN PATRIOT: THE TANGLED LIVES OF WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN, the life of the Civil War hero should not be portrayed in the traditional fashion by preparing a chronological narrative because its results would be too cumbersome.  Instead, the author has produced a fascinating book that consists of three parts that add up to a biography, but is organized in a rather confusing manner.  What the author has written is a “pseudo-biography” that covers Sherman’s life in excellent detail with a great deal of analysis.  I understand that historians are always looking for a fresh approach toward their subjects that have been dealt with previously, but at times they should not try and reinvent the wheel.  Again, let me reiterate, I enjoyed the book and took away a great deal, but at times I would have hoped the material in the last section of the narrative could have been included in the lengthy first section to form greater coherence.

O’Connell begins by arguing that Sherman’s life brings with it an enormous amount of documentary material stemming from his own writing, an extensive oral record of his statements, and the voluminous material produced by the Civil War.  The author concludes that it is almost impossible to produce a definitive one volume biography of Sherman.  In addition, the difficulty is enhanced because of the many myths associated with Sherman from the accusation of being a war criminal, a racist, and a very class conscious individual who supported the business classes.  The author concludes that there is evidence for each of these myths, but there is also material that disproves them, particularly when we apply twenty-first century standards to nineteenth century figures.  For O’Connell, Sherman falls into a category below Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and FDR as individuals who were responsible for furthering American growth and making transcontinental consolidation possible, and the author’s resulting effort accurately proves that point.

In preparing the book O’Connell has decided to portray three story lines.  The first, “if Jefferson was the architect of continental expansion, Sherman would become his general contractor.” (xviii)  By the time Sherman retired from the army in 1884, he “had become virtually a human embodiment of Manifest destiny.  Florida, California, reclaiming the Confederacy, winning the west.” (xix)  Second, the co-evolution of the army of the west and Sherman as its commander as he taught legions of men “the most valued of military skills: the ability to adapt,” and the ability to adjust on the fly after much trial and error.  Thirdly, Sherman created a model “of how to grab and hold on to fame in America, one that still works today.” (xx)  For O’Connell, Sherman’s life boils down to a three ring circus, each fascinating, but they must be dealt with separately or components of his life become too distracting.  As a result he sticks to a section describing Sherman as a military strategist, another as a general, and he concludes with a section of Sherman as a human being after retirement.  My problem is that these sections continuously overlap and there are parts of the book that the reader is told that what he is writing about will become much clearer later.  I admire O’Connell’s effort, but John F. Marszalek’s SHERMAN: A SOLDIER’S PASSION FOR ORDER did an admirable job of creating what O’Connell discounts.

O’Connell begins by lecturing the reader on the concept of military strategy and concludes that Sherman’s ultimate career goal was national consolidation of the central bond of the North American continent and Manifest Destiny.  He further concludes that he never wanted to be in total command during his military career, as it was difficult enough being in charge of strategy.  These conclusions are well supported in the first two-thirds of the book that make up section one.  O’Connell is on firm ground with his theme and goes on to support his argument as he takes the reader through Sherman’s career at West Point, the Second Seminole War of 1835-1842, a stint at on the Sullivan Islands across the harbor from Charleston, South Carolina, as a recruiting officer in the Pittsburgh region, a stationing in California, and investigating corruption in New Orleans.  What should be apparent is that the most important activity of this time period was the Mexican War, which Sherman missed out on, while others from his graduating class at West Point began to earn their reputations.  As a strategist what was most important for Sherman at this juncture of his life was his discovery of the importance of the Mississippi which fit his world view as he would describe the region as the “spinal column of America.”  Sherman’s love for geography and topography was born at this time and along with a photographic memory for detail.  This would allow him to remember almost every aspect from each area that he transverses in his career fostering the development of a data base that in part explains his success as a strategist during the Civil War.

(The Union siege of Vicksburg, July, 1863)

It is O’Connell’s discussion of the Civil War that is the strongest part of the book.  O’Connell does pepper this section with details concerning his upbringing, his relationship with the Ewing family, his marriage and raising a family all of which are important enough, but detail later in the book clarifies a great deal of what is discussed here.  In a sense the Civil War saved Sherman’s career.  By the early 1850s Sherman leaves the army and tries his hand in the private sector.  His father-in-law, Thomas Ewing, a cabinet officer, politician, and wealthy individual wanted him to take over  a Salt Mine he owned near his home in Lancaster, Ohio which became part of a tug of war between the Ewing family and his wife Ellen, and what Sherman wanted to do with his life.  The Ewing-Sherman relationship at times dominates the narrative as Sherman tries to be his own man and continually win over his wife.  The period preceding the Civil War was probably the worst period for Sherman.  His career as a New York banker ended with the crash of 1857.  He returned to California as a banker but due to the economy the venture was a failure.  He finally gives into Thomas Ewing’s urging and runs one of the the family businesses in Leavenworth, Ka.  It became increasingly clear to Sherman the only arena that he felt comfortable in was the military and after the election of Lincoln he rejoins the army and with secession his career is saved.

The author spends a prodigious amount of time discussing the major battles that Sherman was involved in.  The reader witnesses how Sherman trains and develops the army of the west and making it into one of the best fighting forces in American history by the end of the war.  We witness how Sherman cultivated his soldiers to believe in him and how he developed his command.  The knowledge of American geography is applied and we see his strategy unfold.  O’Connell delves into the egos of the period, be it Sherman, Henry Halleck, Simon Cameron, Edwin Stanton, Ulysses S. Grant and others and the personality conflicts that were readily apparent.  Sherman’s logistical genius greatly assisted Grant in Tennessee resulting in the Sherman-Grant relationship that was based on mutual trust.  Sherman was content to being Grant’s “wing man” or second in command and the relationship flourished.  Sherman suffered from depression and Grant tended to imbibe a bit too much as Sherman described their relationship, “he stood by me when I was crazy and I stood by him when he was drunk, now sir we stand by each other always.” (95)

For Sherman the battle of Shiloh in April, 1862 was a major turning point.  Shiloh was a success because Sherman was able to blunt the south’s effort to recover the initiative in the Mississippi Valley and opened the way for a rendering of the military balance in the west and securing Sherman’s reputation.  The theme of securing the Mississippi so crucial to Sherman’s thinking is explored in the run up to and final battle at Vicksburg a year later, culminating in a union victory in July, 1863.  Sherman’s audacious strategy was key and as 1864 approached Sherman was aware of the south’s tenacity so he convinced Grant that the best way to defeat the south was “to attack southern morale and its relationship to crushing the rebellion….Both understood the psychological effect of their blue-clad armies barging across the landscape, taking what they wanted, and wrecking anything that looked Confederate,” (132) they would engage the Confederate field armies and destroy them, killing rebels, and getting into their heads.  Grant would be the battering ram in the East, and Sherman would employ his mastery of operations and strategy as he marched toward Atlanta.  O’Connell’s discussion of the march to the sea is excellent.  We are placed inside Sherman’s mind as well as the Confederates he fought.  The detail is exquisite and is one of the major highlights of the book.  The burning of Atlanta, the seizure of Savannah, and the march into South Carolina for revenge against the heart of the enemy as it burns Columbia rather than Charleston and the move into North Carolina where Sherman softens his approach are all described.  The success was based on foraging and living off the land as well as engineering genius, but as with other topics there is greater detail about the “bummers” (foragers) in a later part of the book.  The author concludes this section of the book with a discussion of Sherman’s post war role in implementing the transcontinental rail road, a goal that he had set earlier in his career and fit right in with his belief of continental expansion.

The final third of the book is broken down into two parts.  The first explores Sherman’s soldiers and their relationship to him.  O’Connell describes the intricacies of the army of the west and its conduct during the Civil War.  We learn what fighting was like at Shiloh and Vicksburg.  We learn what it was like marching 120 miles on the way to Atlanta, and fighting an insurgency through the eyes of the participants.  Shiloh is explained through the vision of a seventeen year old drummer boy, and the life of a “bummer” is explored through their own eyes as they faced the difficulty of locating food for an entire army.  The author also explains the role of the new technology developed during the war and how it affected Sherman’s strategy and how his soldiers adapted to it.  Basically, this section is a history of the army of the west from its inception, training, skill set and application in battle, all information that could have been integrated more effectively in the first section of the book.

(Statue of William T. Sherman, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, located at 59th Street and 5th Avenue entrance to Central Park, NYC)

O’Connell brings his narrative to a close by describing the difficulties that marrying into the Ewing family presented.  His wife Ellen’s constant pressure to have Sherman convert to Catholicism irked the general and made him feel as if there was a papist plot against him.  Ellen’s need to spend meant that throughout their marriage there was always pressure on Sherman to make a great deal of money.  The competition between the legacy of Thomas Ewing and Sherman’s career path is a key component as to what drove Sherman a good part of his life, when finally after the Civil War he could feel that he was finally the dominant figure in the eyes of his wife.  O’Connell weaves in at least two of the affairs that Sherman was involved in during his marriage, but concludes the thirty year bond between Ellen and her husband always remained strong.  The author closes with a discussion of Sherman’s “rock star” career after the Civil War and how the public fed his need for approval.  There are components in the book that border on “psychohistory,” but the author’s conclusions in that area are a bit flimsy.  Overall the book is quite interesting and if one can deal with its organizational flaws it is well worth reading.

50 CHILDREN by Steven Pressman


(Gil and Eleanor Kraus and the 50 children they saved)

One of the most controversial aspects of the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews during World War II is whether the United States could have been done more to rescue the eventual victims of this genocide.  Historians have pointed to the lack of sympathy for the plight of Jews or the outright anti-Semitism in the State Department, the immigration quotas that existed going back to the 1924 legislation, and the political approach that the Roosevelt administration took towards the problem as it did not want to upset certain segments of the American electorate.  While all of these road blocks to save European Jewry existed many did find a way to assist in saving Jewish lives and were able to maneuver and overcome the numerous obstacles that were placed in their path.  Two individuals, Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, whose story is told in Steven Pressman’s new book, 50 CHILDREN, took upon themselves the challenge of confronting Nazi persecution in Germany and Austria in 1939 and were able to succeed where others failed in obtaining fifty exit visas to allow fifty children to escape their plight and come to the United States in May, 1939.  The book is based on the writings of Eleanor Kraus, interviews with those involved who are still alive, and a degree of historical research.  The story that is told is a remarkable one and should be praised as such.  However, as a historical monograph, much could have been added.  Since the book goes hand in hand with the excellent HBO documentary, 50 Children: The Rescue Mission of Mr. and Mrs. Kraus, which aired in April, 2013, it should be seen as an addendum to the program.

The story itself is a sobering one.  Pressman provides general details of events in Europe that affected their Jewish populations and integrates them into his narrative.  The most important would be the union of Germany and Austria, or Anschluss that took place in March, 1938, and Krystallnacht, the night of the broken glass that occurred in November of the same year.  These two events reflect that there was no future for European Jewry.  The Nuremberg Blood Laws that existed in Germany since 1935 were now applicable to Austria and after the pogrom of November, 1938 took place Herman Goering fined the Jewish community 400 million marks for the damage the Nazi thugs were responsible for.  Pressman’s description of these events are accurate, but he could have gone into greater detail and analysis in applying their repercussions as Gil Kraus developed and implemented his plan to save Jewish children.  After a discussion with Louis Levine, the head of the national Jewish fraternal organization called Brith Sholom, Kraus, a successful Philadelphia lawyer developed his plan to rescue fifty Viennese Jewish children in response to the events of 1938.

Pressman tells the story of how Kraus enlisted his wife Eleanor to take care of the massive bureaucratic paper work involved, and Robert Schless, a Philadelphia pediatrician, to accompany him to Vienna to carry out his plan.  What stands out a part from the Nazi persecution of Jews was the obstacles that Kraus and his cohorts had to overcome.  American immigration policy became the back bone of the opposition to allowing Jews to immigrate to the United States.  That policy was enforced by the State Department, particularly by certain officials such as Breckinridge Long, an Assistant Secretary of State, who sent a secret internal memo to members of the Foreign Service “to put every obstacle in the way and to require additional evidence and to resort to various administrative devices, which would postpone and postpone and postpone the granting of visa.” (136)  Long’s instructions were followed carefully as we see the obstacles that were placed in front of the Kraus’.  From nitpicking affidavits, raising financial issues, outright lies and denials, many in the State Department did their best to make sure that the Kraus’ mission to Austria failed.  If it were not for the cooperation of George Messersmith, another Assistant Secretary of State who had served in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power, and Raymond Geist, a Foreign Service officer serving in Berlin during the Kraus’ visit in 1939, the Kraus mission would have failed.  Pressman correctly points out that Messersmith and Geist, though sympathetic to the cause of saving the children covered themselves by manipulating documents to reflect their implementation of immigration policies.  Pressman citations of his sources are rather scant in this section of the narrative.  He seems to rely on one book, Henry Feingold’s THE POLITICS OF RESCUE, written in 1970 for much of his background information.  I would have suggested to the author that he consult David Wyman’s THE ABANDONMENT OF THE JEWS, 1933-1939, Richard Breitman and Alan Lichtman’s FDR AND THE JEWS, and Erik Larson’s IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS for a deeper and more recent understanding of State Department policy during that period.

Pressman does a wonderful job describing how the children were chosen.  The interviews that the Kraus’ conducted with the children and their families was heartwarming.  The transcript of these conversations was important for the reader to witness to gain insights into what parents were going through by sending their children to a foreign country, not knowing if they would ever see them again.   Another area that Pressman should be commended for was his discussion of the opposition from within the Jewish community for what the Kraus’ hoped to achieve.  This subject touches a nerve as many historians have noted throughout the Holocaust that different factions within the American Jewish community worked at cross purposes to the detriment of the victims of Hitler’s death camps.  Pressman also spends a great deal of time exploring the social and political climate in the United States during the Depression.  He discusses the hostile environment as people feared an influx of Jews at a time when jobs were at a premium.  He goes on to explore the depths of isolationist feeling that dated back to World War I, in addition to the undercurrent of anti-Semitism that scared American Jews who did not want to rock the boat by overtly supporting Jewish immigration.

When the author sticks to the plight of the children and the plan to save them he is at his best.  However, at times he strays from the story to bring in what appears to be a more human interest component.  Constant references to Eleanor Kraus’ feelings, wardrobe, and vignettes about her experiences detract from the overall narrative as do other examples.  The historical narrative of the Kraus mission and the obstacles they overcame are more than enough to carry the story, anything that detracts from it should not have made their way into the book.

Pressman concludes the narrative by tracing the lives of 37 out of the 50 children that were saved and what became of them and their families.  Overall, the book is well written and presents an unimaginable and heroic adventure that saved many lives and told a story that needs to be retold over and over so we will not forget the lessons of the Holocaust.  For the general audience the book will prove to be a quick and satisfactory read, but for those who would like more insight and documentation I think the book is somewhat lacking.

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown

(1936 University of Washington rowers who won gold at the Berlin Olympics)

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown is nothing short of a labor of love.  In describing the journey of the University of Washington rowing team from their blue collar origins, facing numerous financial obstacles, and confronting well funded opponents as they sought to represent the United States in the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, the author has presented a riveting narrative that will touch the reader on many levels.  In addition to the personal stories that are described, Brown writes of the poetry that is a necessity for a rowing team to be successful.  The story is told through the eyes of many of the participants in their quest for rowing perfection, but a number of characters stand out.  The coaches;  Al Ulbrickson, a quiet taskmaster who keeps his emotions inside, his freshman coach, Tom Bolles, who develops many of the rowers; to Joe Rantz, who must overcome poverty and abandonment by his family, to George Pocock, the British craftsman who lovingly constructed the shells that the rowers would use on their way to Berlin and after.   The story begins in the Seattle area in the midst of the Great Depression and its impact on the region in general and the young men whose futures depend on making the University of Washington’s rowing team.

The story focuses on the life of Joe Rantz whose mother died of throat cancer when he was a nine and was sent to Pennsylvania to live with an aunt.  Later, his father remarries and when Joe returns to his family he does not get along with his knew step mother.  Eventually Joe’s father must make a choice between his son and his second wife and the family they were building.  After the family home burns down Joe is exiled to live in a school house away from the family for a period of time, when finally Joe’s father informs him that the family was moving away and that he had to remain and fend for himself at the age of fifteen.  For the next few years Joe employs the survival skills his father has taught him, and skills he developed on his own like poaching salmon and stealing alcohol for resale to overcome the obstacles he faces.  Finally, he is taken in by his married older brother and is able to graduate from high school and gain admittance to the University of Washington.  After being recruited by the freshman rowing coach, Joe realizes the ticket to his future was to make the rowing team.  Joe had little money and few clothes and lived in a room at the YMCA.  He took a number of menial jobs and fit them in around his studies and the torturous grind that was college rowing.  Brown follows the trials that Joe must overcome as he draws the reader into the narrative to the point that you do not want to put the book down.

I have read a number of books of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  David Clay Large’s, THE NAZI GAMES: THE OLYMPICS OF 1936, and BERLIN GAMES: HOW THE NAZIS STOLE THE OLYMPIC DREAM by Guy Walters stand out, but Brown’s effort surpasses anything I have read for its detail, understanding the human emotion of sport, and how world events, particularly the rise of Nazi Germany impinged on the athletic stage.  Brown does a wonderful job of integrating the history of the time period into his narrative.  The reader is exposed to the devastation caused by the depression in the mid 1930s.  The unemployment and resulting poverty and their effect on families as fathers are forced to leave their children in order to seek a job elsewhere.  The Dust Bowl that blankets the Midwest at first and then destroys top soil throughout the United States resulting in the destruction of a major part of American agricultural production is reviewed in detail.  Overseas, the rise of Adolf Hitler to power is explained and the resulting violence against Gypsies, Jews, and Catholics is presented.  On a more personal level, Brown discusses the hatred between Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, and Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s chosen film maker as they fight over how the message of the Nazi ideal should be presented to the world.  The reader witnesses the laying of the foundation of what will grow into the Holocaust after the Olympic Games are completed.  The reader is made aware of the political infighting in the United States as President Roosevelt tries to deal with the problem of Nazi expansion.  In exploring these avenues, Brown places the Olympic Games in their proper historical context, and the importance of a Jesse Owens and the many athletes who sought to show Nazi racial theory for what it really was.

Apart from the personal stories of the nine men who will emerge from the rowing competitions from 1933 to 1936 in regattas such those on the Pacific coast, Poughkeepsie, New York, and the Olympic trials in Princeton, New Jersey what truly surprised me was the training that the rowers were exposed to.  I confess my knowledge of rowing is nil, but after reading Brown’s narrative I at least have some understanding of what the athletes went through.  The author’s description of “pain” cuts to the core of what these men accomplished.  For Brown the common denominator for the rower is that pain is “part and parcel” of the learning experience.  “It’s not a question of whether you will hurt, or how much you will hurt; it’s a question of what you will do, and how well you will do it, while pain has her wanton way with you.” (40) Brown’s discussion of the mechanics of rowing is important for the novice reader to understand what it means to have a successful “boat.”  In the case of the University of Washington’s first boat, “every one of them had come from humble origins or had been humbled by the ravages of the hard times in which they had grown up.  Each in his own way had learned that nothing could be taken for granted in life…..The challenges they had faced together had taught them humility—the need to subsume their individual egos for the sake of the boat as a whole—humility was the common gateway through which they were able to come together and begin to do what they had not been able to do before.” (241)

(US rowers win gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympic games)

The unbelievable demands of training, the fear of not having enough money for tuition each semester, feeling of anxiety, were among the many things that each rower had to overcome.  They knew the odds were stacked against them as their chief western competitor; the University of California had better facilities and financial support as did the eastern Ivy League schools.  Brown raises the important issue of social class in explaining the opponents the rowers had to contend with.  The ivy rowers mostly came from prep schools, had parents who were bankers and lawyers, and did not have to worry about their futures.  On the other hand, as Brown eloquently describes Joe Rantz and his team mates were blue collar in origin, and poverty was their life’s norm.  Brown’s rendition of the important characters in his narrative is sensitive and honest and as the story progresses the reader is rooting for “U Wash,” and as the author explains strategy, motivation, and the details of each race you feel as if you are sitting in the shell with the rowers, or you are inside the head of Bobby Moch, the coxswain, planning his next move as the rowing process has a very important cerebral component.

The author presents the pageantry and ostentation that was the 1936 Nazi Olympics in great detail.  He describes the hiding of any evidence of what Nazism was in reality; from removing the Gypsies, to taking down all evidence of anti-Semitism, and the vicious articles in the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer, magically disappearing.  Brown describes the first six rowing competitions in which the Germans won five gold medals.  He reserves his best for the final race involving the nine on nine competition that all looked forward to.  It is interesting how the US boat was placed in the worst lane, when having won the preliminary race they should have had the best one.  Needless to say, the US rowers were at a disadvantage from the outset.  Brown’s overall description of the race is amazing as the reader can hear his voice as if he were rendering the race’s description vocally as a play by play on the radio that millions across America were listening to.  The US would win the race by six-tenths of a second over Italy and one second over Germany as Hitler stood up and immediately walked out.  After reading Brown’s rendition of the race I immediately found a You Tube film on my lap top and watched the emotion of the rowers at the race’s conclusion over and over.  THE BOYS IN THE BOAT is a wonderful story, and what makes it better is that it is shows the triumph of the human spirit and though it is a “sports” book, it is one that can be enjoyed by all.

THE HEIST by Daniel Silva


(Caravaggio’s, “The Calling of St. Matthew,” 1599-1600)

It seems that each time a Daniel Silva novel involving Gabriel Allon, the master art restorer/Israeli special operations practitioner is published conflict in the Middle East region flares to a new level.  This summer is no exception as Israel trades rockets with Hamas in Gaza; ICIS has taken over large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, and the mass killings by the Assad regime in Syria continues.  Silva’s current volume, THE HEIST is a typical Allon yarn with periodic references to world events interspersed.  The book opens with the murder of a former British spy turned art middleman named Jack Bradshaw whose body is found in Lake Como, Italy by one of Allon’s circle of friends, the London art impresario, Julian Isherwood.  From that point on the plot is a bit different from the normal Allon escapade.  It centers on an art scam concocted by Allon to recover the Italian Renaissance painting, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence, by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.  As the initial plot unfolds characters from previous novels make their appearance, some with major roles.  Those familiar with previous works by Silva will recognize the assassin, Christopher Keller; Don Aton Orsati, the Corsican mobster; and the Swiss NDB counterterrorism expert, Christoph Bittel.  After reading about two-fifths of the novel the first plot comes to a conclusion and we are exposed to the second that is more in line with the previous formula used by Silva in his Allon series.

(the carnage that is the current civil war in Syria)

During the first part of the novel the reader is exposed to the underworld of the high end art trade that exists, particularly in Europe.  Allon emerges from this section of the story uncovering an ingenious way to preserve wealth that leads to the Assad family in Syria.  Silva’s thesis, based on significant contemporary research seems quite accurate, that the Assad family and their allies have hidden billions of dollars in wealth in banks in many parts of the world.  Realizing that some of this wealth has been frozen by certain governments and more might be in the future, the Assad dynasty uses stolen art as a hedge against any future loss of wealth that might detract from any exile should the dictator of Damascus be overthrown.  At the conclusion of the first plot, Allon realizes that art is a conduit to Assad’s wealth and he has squirreled away billions of Euros across the globe.  Allon designs an intricate sting to try and make Assad’s wealth vanish.  The usual suspects make up Allon’s team; again many have appeared in previous novels.  We welcome Eli Lavon, now an archeologist; Uzi Navot, soon to be replaced as the head of Israeli intelligence; Allon’s now pregnant wife, Chiara; Viktor Orlov, the London based former Russian oligarch; and Nigel Whitcomb and Graham Seymour, both of MI6 among others.  There are a number of new characters as Silva weaves his way through the underside of the European banking system and the intricacies of Syrian intelligence.

It took me a little longer than usual to get hooked on Silva’s plot line, but once I did it kept me in its grip.  To Silva’s credit, he avails himself of any chance to integrate the true background history of the story whenever he can.  In introducing the character of Jihan Nawaz whose family was killed by the regime of Hafez al-Assad in the massacre of Hama in 1982, Silva provides a mimi-biography of the dictator who ruled Syria from 1970 to his death in 2000 and his attempt to wipe out the Moslem Brotherhood who opposed his regime.  When speaking about Russian support for the current leader of Syria, Bashir al-Assad, Silva explains the Russian-Syrian connection and the role of Putin, and the recent Russian seizure of the Crimea.  In fact, had Silva waited a few months and postponed publication he could have worked in further developments in the ongoing Syrian civil war and Putin’s attempts to seize eastern Ukraine and his role in the downing of the Malaysian passenger air plane a few weeks ago.  If you have followed the previous thirteen Allon mysteries, the current episode should be satisfying, but I wonder after fourteen books if Silva’s formula is becoming a little stale.