A WORLD ON FIRE: BRITAIN’S CRUCIAL ROLE IN THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR by Amanda Foreman is an amazing book.  The breadth of knowledge and research in a narrative that encompasses over 800 pages of text and 100 pages of footnotes is to be praised and warmly received.  There are numerous books written about the Civil War, but few that focus solely on the role the British played in the conflict.  The story treats the diplomacy of the war in depth ranging from the interplay between Secretary of State William Henry Seward to British Foreign Secretary Lord John Russell and British Prime Minister Henry John Temple Palmerston.  Included, are lesser figures in each country’s foreign policy establishment, the most important being Charles Francis Adams, the American Minister in London, and Richard Bickerton Pemell, Lord Lyons, the head of the British legation in Washington.  Apart from the diplomacy of the war the role of propaganda in the United Kingdom is dealt with in detail and the major characters involved who worked assiduously to try and gain British recognition of the new Confederate government on the one hand, and opponents who tried to lower the temperature between the Lincoln administration and Palmerston government.  Other important components of the book are the role of British volunteers in both Union and Confederate militaries, and the forced conscription of British citizens.  Foreman’s sources are enhanced by her use of letters and diaries from Britons who were involved in key battles and discussions during the war and it offers a different flavor that many books on the conflict seem to miss.  Forman’s work is impeccable, however at times it can be a bit drawn out and one gets the feeling that every piece of minutiae involving the British has to be included in the text.

(Union forces shelling the port city of Charleston, SC, in 1863.  Frank Vizetelly illustrator)

The author integrates all major components of the war into her narrative, but what separates her approach is her reliance on the personal stories of men like Francis Dawson, a British volunteer who joined the Confederate navy, and later army who was also present Gettysburg, and the Wilderness campaigns and was wounded during the last month of the war; Frank Vizetelly, an artist and reporter for the Illustrated London News, whose drawings permeate the entire book and was present at almost every important occurrence during the conflict.  Others whose letters and diaries proved to be wonderful source material include; Francis Charles Lawley, the pro-Confederate reporter for the London Times, Dr. Charles Mayo, a British surgeon who traveled to the United States to gain further surgical experience and wound up at Vicksburg and other major battles and whose reports reflect the death and mutilation that resulted from the intensity of the fighting.  Two other soldiers stand out in Foreman’s narrative, Sir Percy Wyndham, an English soldier of fortune who had served with Garibaldi in Italy, joined McClellan’s staff during the Peninsula campaign and later was involved in other major actions; second was Major John Fitzroy De Courcy, a former British magistrate and Crimean War veteran who Seward promoted to Colonel and fought with the 16th Ohio Volunteers.

The driving force behind the books preparation was Foreman’s goal to ascertain why progressive classes in the United Kingdom, journalists, university students, actors, social reformers and clergy felt that the Confederacy had the moral advantage over the Union during the Civil War.  Lord Palmerston summed up British opinion of the United States nicely in an 1857 comment to Lord Clarendon, “The Yankees are most disagreeable Fellows to have to do anything about any American Question….They are on the Spot, strong….totally unscrupulous and dishonest and determined somehow or other to carry their point.” (19)  Foreman’s greatest strength is her descriptive prose that captivates the reader.  She is able to ply historical details and integrate her stories into the narrative at a marvelous rate as each page has portrayed on it another wonderful vignette.  She is able to tell a story that has been told in parts by previous books, but she is able to synthesize her information in creating an immensely readable account that is very fluid and keeps the reader engaged despite the book’s length.

The first few chapters form a review of Anglo-American relations from the conclusion of the War of 1812 through the election of Abraham Lincoln.  Figures as diverse as Charles Dickens, Fanny Trollope, Harriet Beecher Stowe; and numerous politicians such as Charles Sumner and John Bright make their appearance.  Each provides their opinion of Britain or the United States and the tension that existed between the two countries.  What clearly emerges is that most Americans despised the British who they saw as an empire in decline.  From the British perspective, they looked down upon their former countrymen and what seemed to drive British opinion before the war and during its conduct was its hatred of slavery.  British hypocrisy is fully evident since their importation of cotton fueled the profitability of the south’s “peculiar institution.”

(by Frank Vizetelly)

It is clear throughout the book despite certain episodes that Palmerston’s cabinet was united and felt it was imperative for Britain to stay out of the conflict in America once Lincoln was elected.  The Palmerston government had to fight off intense pressure from southern lobbyists and certain British business men and members of Parliament to retain neutrality during the war.  British shipping interests built a number of ships for the south, including the CSS Alabama that in two years “captured or destroyed a total of sixty five U.S. ships, causing more than $5 million worth of losses to the Northern merchant marine trade.” (624)  Throughout the war the British government had to try and prevent blockade runners and ramming ships that were sold to the south from leaving British ports to be turned over to the Confederate navy.  British shipping and Union blockading of the south formed two issues that frustrated all sides and on occasion almost brought England into the conflict or at the very least recognition of the Confederacy.  The Union seizure of two southern diplomats from a British vessel in the Trent Affair was another episode that breeded great distrust between Washington and London.  Once both sides, as in most cases, realized that a working relationship between the Union and the British was much more conducive to the success of their economies accommodations were reached.

Plots abound in Foreman’s presentation.  Smuggling of ships, weapons, food, and supplies from English ports involved numerous characters ranging from the work of James Bulloch, the Chief Confederate secret service agent in England and the architect of Confederate plans to fulfill the needs of the Confederacy to Jacob Thompson, a Colonel in the Confederate army, and the head of clandestine operations in Canada.  Thompson largest operation came in November, 1864 when he wanted to purchase a steamer and convert it into a warship in Guelph, Ontario.  John Yates Beall who conducted terror raids against the north earlier in the war, would captain the ship, renamed the CSS Georgia and would try and sink the USS Michigan and create havoc along Lake Erie against undefended cities from Buffalo to Detroit. The plot failed when Lord Monck, the British Governor-General of Canada had the ship seized and a number of conspirators arrested.  Not to be considered defeated, Thompson when on with another operation this time to set fire to New York City in retaliation for Union army’s torching of buildings in the south.  The operation did set fire to a few hotels and created some panic, but overall it must be categorized as a failure.  Propaganda played a major role in the conflict and the Confederacy supplied millions of dollars to Henry Hotze, sent to London in 1862 and became the editor of the pro-Southern Index to convince the British people and government to recognize and supply the Confederacy.  He was able to befriend William Gladstone, a member of Palmerston’s cabinet and leader of the British opposition to the Tory government as well as the future Prime Minister, who became the Confederate voice for recognition within the British cabinet.  Foreman has a number of detailed descriptions of the spy operations that existed, particularly from the southern point of view.  This material is interesting and entertaining and reflects a different aspect of the war that most do not think about.

(Southern refugees encamped outside Vicksburg, July 1863, by Frank Vizetelly)

Foreman describes all the major battles and their political implications between the states, as well as how they affected British policy toward the war.  Much of this has been told in other monographs, but Foreman’s use of British citizens and their involvement in these battles presents a new and interesting perspective.  Examples include the battlefield and naval illustrations of Frank Vizetelly of Charleston’s harbor channel as Confederates deployed torpedoes, or his illustration of the fall of Fort Fisher as Wilmington fell to union forces, in addition to the many Punch cartoons that are interspersed in the narrative; as well as the opinions offered by William Howard Russell of The Times as he described the southern mindset as one of delusion and naiveté as they dealt with their prospects of victory.  Dr. Charles Mayo’s descriptions of the injuries sustained at Antietam and Gettysburg provide further insights into the concept of total and technological warfare that did not exist before 1861.  On April 2, 1863, Francis Lawley unburdened himself to in a letter to a British MP concerning the bread riots in Richmond.  “The Confederate capital was a microcosm of the many hardships being endured in the south; hunger, and disease were spreading.  Smallpox had invaded the poorer neighborhoods as more refugees arrived…” (424) Lawley further stated after a brief visit to Charleston after the battle of Wilmington, “that the empty streets reminded him of Boccaccio’s description of Florence after the Black Death.” (726)

Federal troops retreating at the first battle of Bull Run, 1861, by Frank Vizetelly)

Foreman delves into the thought processes and analysis of the major characters in the conflict.  She spends a great deal of time trying to explain the actions of Secretary of State Seward as he seemed to alternate between bellicosity and conciliation on a daily basis in dealing with the British.  Less time is spent on Lincoln than in most studies and there is little that is new here, but her portrayal of Jefferson Davis is intriguing as she delves into his personal life and fears as realized by the Spring of 1864 that his policies that were based on achieving British recognition, the pressure from British labor who were suffering because of lost jobs due to a lack of cotton, and the expectation that Robert E. Lee would deliver military victories that would result in independence had all fallen by the wayside.  Foreman has an excellent chapter dealing with Davis’ support for changing northern opinion by raids from Canada that would also provoke a war between the Union and England.  This did not pan out as Palmerston withstood pressure from Parliament to at least mediate the war that would have allowed the south to maintain slavery.  But, it was the slavery issue that the south could never overcome, though Davis, desperate after Sherman had ravaged Savannah and Wilmington was about to collapse on December 27, 1864 sent an emissary to London to offer to abolish slavery in return for recognition of the South.  In reality, the offer was moot once the U.S. House of representatives ratified the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery on all American soil on January 21, 1865.

Foreman brings her narrative to a successful conclusion by providing an update on the lives her main characters following the Civil War.  Further, she goes on to discuss the outstanding issues that remained between the United States and Great Britain.  The negotiations between the two nations were at times contentious but because of the work of Charles Francis Adams and his cohorts settlements were reached.  First, the Treaty of Washington, signed on February 24, 1871  “established two tribunals, one to arbitrate the claims of private individuals against the United States for actions committed during the Civil War, the other to rule on the Alabama claims.” (802)  On September 14, 1872 the tribunal ruled that Britain owed $15.5 million plus interest for the damage caused by Confederate cruisers built and facilitated by the British.   According to Foreman, A WORLD ON FIRE was an attempt “to balance the vast body of work on Anglo-American history in the 1860s with the equally vast material left behind by witnesses and participants in the war—to depict the world as it was seen by Britons in America, Americans in Britain, during a defining moment not just in U.S. history but in the relations between the two countries,” (806)  it is quite obvious that the author has achieved her goal.


The opening narrative of Kevin Peraino’s new book, LINCOLN IN THE WORLD: THE MAKING OF A STATESMAN AND THE DAWN OF AMERICAN POWER finds the Lincolns at Ford’s theater with Mary Todd Lincoln resting her hand on her husband’s knee.  The author points out that this type of “tender” behavior was not the norm as Mrs. Lincoln was prone to spells of anger where she exhibited rather obnoxious and nasty behavior toward her husband which at times belittled him verbally for not having the wealth to take her to Europe.  She would, at times, further taunt him that her next husband would have the means to allow her to travel abroad.  In reality, Lincoln wanted to spend time “moving and traveling” overseas once his term in office was complete.  Lincoln had always wanted to visit Britain and fervently believed that the Civil War had tremendous global implications as the “Union effort was to prove to the world that popular government is not an absurdity.”  Lincoln further believed that the United States was a great empire and stood “at once the wonder and admiration of the whole world.”(1-2)

When one contemplates Lincoln’s presidency we usually point to his role in leading the North to victory on the battlefield, not any expertise or having a major impact on foreign affairs.  Peraino challenges that perception by arguing that despite the fact that his diplomatic team was frowned upon at best in European circles, Lincoln himself gave credence to that view by saying to a European diplomat at a state dinner that, “I don’t know anything about diplomacy….I will be very apt to make blunders.”  Lincoln’s State Department was able to avoid “European intervention on behalf of the Confederacy, which well have led to a Southern victory.”(5)  For all that has been written about Lincoln little has been put to paper about his conduct of diplomatic affairs.  Perhaps the best study appeared in 2010 with Howard Jones’ BLUE AND GRAY DIPLOMACY: A HISTORY OF UNION AND CONFEDERATE DIPLOMACY which is n in depth monograph encompassing most aspects of Civil War diplomacy.  Peraino’s study focuses almost exclusively on Lincoln’s role in world affairs and despite some organizational issues and awkward attempts to connect him to a number of world events and people the book is a useful addition to any Lincoln library.

Peraino conveys a great deal of interesting and informative details concerning Lincoln’s diplomatic escapades and sprinkles his narrative with some pointed analysis.  The book is thoroughly researched and posses an impressive bibliography.  Further the endnotes that are provided are exceptional resources for materials and information that are not present in the main narrative.  However, the author’s approach contain a number of drawbacks principally the way the chapters are sectioned.  The chapters are divided by pitting Lincoln against a different subject, be it English Prime Minister Lord Palmerston, Secretary of State William Seward, Karl Marx, Louis Napoleon III, and Lincoln himself.  The book makes no attempt at presenting itself as a comprehensive history of Civil War diplomacy as it focuses totally on Lincoln, but the detailed mini-biographies of each of the president’s “opponents” shifts attention away from the president and the author also has an annoying technique of trying to link each “oppositional” relationship by providing a ‘tease’ in the last paragraph of each chapter.

I agree with Peraino that the Mexican War was a turning point in Lincoln’s maturity as a diplomatic thinker and in a larger sense America’s place in the world.  Nothing in Lincoln’s background prepared him for the “donnybrook” that developed over his war views.  The election of 1844 was a referendum on American expansionism and a foreign policy awakening for Lincoln who would later favor the war effort when he later ran for Congress.  The major changes in technology preceding this period proved to be the” facilitator of American nationalism and continental ambition” that seemed to dominate the political discourse throughout the 1840s.(35)  Lincoln found himself in a quandary as he did not want to upset the sectional balance that existed between the free and slave states, but he could not ignore the war’s popularity.  Upon his election Lincoln joined the congressional opposition to the war.  He believed that the Mexicans had not done anything to provoke war and that President James Polk’s actions were unconstitutional as the power to declare war rested with the legislative branch.  Lincoln introduced his controversial “Spot Resolution” to determine exactly where the incident that launched the war was located, strongly suggesting that the war was caused by an American provocation.  For Lincoln the war resulted in a major problem, the addition of new territory that the south could claim for slavery thus undoing the balance of free and slave states, and the continued heated debate that over slavery that preceded the Civil War.  By the time Lincoln left Congress after one term he had learned a series of lessons.  He realized he needed a more nuanced approach to foreign affairs because territorial expansion would continue thus fostering the need to constantly rebalance the ratio of free and slave states.  Further, Lincoln believed that Polk had overstepped the bounds of executive authority in going to war.  It would take the Civil War for Lincoln to realize that in extraordinary circumstances the president must employ a strong hand.

When Lincoln assumed office European foreign ministers held a very low opinion of the new American president.  In fact the Russian envoy to the United States, Eduard de Stoeckl’s view of Lincoln was quite representative of his colleagues when he said, “Mr. Lincoln does not seem to posses the talent and energy that his party attributed to him when it named him its candidate for the presidency….Even his supporters admit that he is a man of unimpeachable integrity but of a poor capacity.”(103)  Opinions of Lincoln did not change his approach to foreign affairs as he was immediately faced with the issue of foreign intervention or recognition once the Confederacy was launched. The southern cotton trade was a delicate issue since Britain was so dependent on southern cotton for its mills.  Lincoln chose to blockade the southern coast and do nothing to aggravate any European power as a means of promoting their neutrality.

(Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William Henry Seward)

Lincoln’s Secretary of State William Seward agreed with this policy though Lincoln tended to have to reign in his remarks at times.  Peraino’s depiction of the Lincoln-Seward relationship does not really add anything new to the history of the period.  When Lincoln assumed office he needed Seward for the State Department as he viewed the office as critical for his cabinet to have legitimacy.  At the outset Seward believed that he should have been elected president and he was superior to Lincoln in experience and that he would make policy through the president.  With so many issues to confront almost immediately, i.e., instituting a blockade of the south, pursuing neutrality with Spain over Santo Domingo, reigning in abolitionists in order not to cause the border states to secede, the president and Secretary of State’s views began to converge and in a relatively short period of time Seward grew to respect Lincoln, and Lincoln’s trust in Seward increased markedly.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book involves Lincoln’s relationship with Lord Palmerston.  Lincoln believed that swift military success would block any British attempt at interference in American affairs.  However, this was not to be and Lincoln’s fallback position was to develop a strong navy and institute a firm blockade to send a message to the British Prime Minister.  Peraino provides a brief biography of Palmerston and elaborates on his low opinion of Americans and Lincoln in particular.  The situation was exacerbated when an American ship stopped the HMS Trent in Caribbean waters and seized two Confederate diplomats, John Slidell and James Mason.  Lincoln’s approach was to calm the situation by drawing it out and letting the British let off steam.  This episode is presented in detail and both sides came to the realization that a war between the two would prove disasterous to both nations.  Lincoln had decided to release the two men, but took his time to prepare those in the United States who wanted to stand up to the British no matter the consequences.  Peraino’s analysis is dead on in quoting Oxford scholar, Jay Sexton in that “the creditor-debtor relationship of Britain and the United States bonded the two nations together and gave them the common interest of avoiding war.  Succumbing to momentary passions or old grudges would prove counterproductive.”(127)

(British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston)

Peraino correctly credits Lincoln with a number of innovations that contributed to the Union victory.  With the North facing bleak finances by the second year of the war and with European banks refusing to grant credit, Lincoln and his cabinet decided to issue a national paper currency, that Congress eventually approved by passing the Legal tender Act.  Further a national income tax was implemented easing monetary issues as well as the creation of a new National Bank in 1863.  “These sweeping modernizations of the nation’s financial system were critical prerequisites to America’s rise to world power.”(163)  The other major innovation was the building of the Monitor, the first iron clad naval vessel that the United States launched causing “the London Times [to worry] that the innovation had made Britain’s fleet of 149 ‘first class warships’ obsolete.”(165)

The chapter dealing with Karl Marx is really a stretch since the two never interacted directly.  Lincoln may have read some of Marx’s articles in the New York Herald Tribune for whom he wrote opinion pieces but it was not necessary to bring in a mini-Marx biography and integrate his views on slavery and revolution into the narrative.  At the outset of the war Lincoln was concerned with keeping border states neutral.  This concern also helped formulate his views on free labor and American commerce.  Comparing Marx’s views to Lincoln does not enhance the narrative nor do events that lead up to the Emancipation Proclamation.  Marx had no influence on Lincoln’s decision making leading up to the issuing of the document.  The “pseudo” Union success at Antietam as a vehicle to exhibit Northern military prowess for Britain to keep her neutral was much more important.  Lincoln came to view the Emancipation Proclamation as a vehicle to gain the support of British workers who believed that they worked for slave wages.  Lincoln went so far as sending funds to help organize British worker rallies in support of the northern cause.  Any fears that the proclamation might provoke intervention were really offset by events in Europe as Prussia invaded the duchies of Schleswig and Holstein,  Austria and Italy were in the midst of a major conflict, and Polish revolutionaries were active with the support of the French against Russian rule, but this does not stop Peraino from insisting that the proclamation led Louis Napoleon III to intervene in Mexico in 1863.  Linking the proclamation and the French Emperor’s actions is another connection that does not measure up to sound historical analysis.

(French Emperor, Louis Napoleon III)

Peraino’s chapter that deals with Louis Napoleon III’s unfortunate attempt to revisit French holdings in the new world by placing Austrian Arch Duke Maximlian on a Mexican throne has little if any relationship to Lincoln’s issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.  The author’s discussion of Louis’s ego and delusions concerning French power is spot on though there is an over reliance on Jasper Ridley’s dual biography of Louis and his wife, Eugenie in cataloguing his life before he seized power.*  Louis never believed that the North could force the South to return to the federal union so he decided to take advantage of the Mexican debt situation to rekindle his long held goal of reestablishing French colonies in the new world.  What is most interesting is that Louis’ actions fostered a movement to bring the Confederacy back into the fold through a joint expedition to evict the French from Mexico.  This actually led to a meeting between Lincoln, Seward, and Alexander Stephens, the Confederate Vice President on February 2, 1865 that came to naught.  These types of details make Peraino’s narrative exciting, but overall his linkage to Lincoln’s emancipation announcement on January 1, 1863 does little to foster historical accuracy.  The key for Lincoln and the Union was success on the battlefield, which Sherman’s March through Georgia provided, leading to Lincoln’s reelection which forced Louis’ to reduce his support for his Mexican venture.  In fact, by this time Louis had almost totally abandoned Maximilian as he began to withdraw French troops, and ultimately the Austrian Arch Duke was captured and shot by Mexican forces.

(Lincoln and his secretary and confidante, John Hay)

Peraino’s final chapter is a misnomer, Lincoln v. Lincoln is a summary of Lincoln’s legacy through the post Civil War career of John Hay.  The chapter examines John Hay’s career in some detail and concludes with Hay’s belief that the roots of American power lay in a healthy economy and a brisk trade,” an idea that was consistently held by Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, and of course William McKinley’s Secretary of State.  My one suggestion for Mr. Peraino would be to consult the latest biography of Hay written by John Taliaferro, ALL THE GREAT PRIZES: THE LIFE OF JOHN HAY FROM LINCOLN T0 ROOSEVELT  for the latest analysis  concerning Hay’s growth as a diplomat and foreign policy thinker.

Lincoln’s handling of the Mexican fiasco reflects his command of the diplomatic game.  Peraino’s analysis is accurate as he points out that there was a natural tension in “Lincolnian foreign policy.  On the one hand, Lincoln’s moral vision represented American idealism” as he realized that slavery diminished American prestige abroad.  But at the same time he instituted a patient and cautious approach, a middle ground in his pursuit of diplomatic advantages.  Lincoln was a diplomat who knew when to threaten and then soften his pronouncements.  He knew when to be magnanimous, but at the same time putting his foot down and letting his opponent know what he would not continence as in his dealing with Louis Napoleon III.  Lincoln was the consummate balancer, effectively controlling domestic interference in the conduct of his foreign policy by members of his own party and the copperheads who sought to make peace with the south enabling them to maintain slavery.  Lincoln did an excellent job taking the measure of and preparing the American public for changes that were about to take place in administration actions, i.e., dealing with Palmerston over the Trent Affair or dealing with the French incursion into Mexico.  Lincoln should be a role model for future presidents to study how to deal with domestic and foreign policy crises and to Peraino’s credit he provides a narrative that would allow our politicians to study and learn from.

*Peraino also relies heavily on Jasper Ridley’s LORD PALMERSTON for background on the English Prime Minister.


Original caption: 9/16/1976– Binghamton, NY- Vice President Nelson Rockefeller gives a crowd of young hecklers an upraised middle finger gesture at the Broome County Airport during a brief stop here Sept. 16, while on a campaign trip with Vice Presidential candidate Bob Dole (L, Background, out of focus)

Today the term “Rockefeller Republican” is still considered a negative characterization to most members of the Republican Party.  The term stands for moderate republicanism that calls for fiscal prudence, but also a social conscience.  In the current political environment when a large number of Republicans are calling for the disassembling of major components of the federal government and are trying to limit people’s voting rights the ideas of Nelson Rockefeller fall on deaf ears.  For the former four time governor of New York bipartisanship and an all inclusive party were a major part of his political agenda for most of his time in office.  As most of the Rockefeller platform is unacceptable today, it suffered a similar fate in 1964 as Barry Goldwater became the Republican standard bearer against Lyndon Johnson.  Many would argue that the hatred for “Rockefeller Republicanism” by Goldwater voters was the precursor of today’s Tea Party.  If so a number of important questions must be asked.  First, how did Rockefeller’s brand of moderate Republicanism come to the fore? Second, why was it so successful in New York and rejected nationwide? Lastly, why did it provoke such an extreme reaction in 1964 that continues to this day?  In his new book, IN HIS OWN TERMS, a major new biography of Nelson Rockefeller, Richard North Smith attempts to answer these and other questions as he explores a career that included the governorship of New York, the Vice Presidency, coordinator of Inter-American affairs under Franklin Roosevelt, and one of the most generous and widely renown philanthropists of his era.

(New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller trying to address the 1964 Republican National Convention)

The portrait that Smith presents is a complex one.  Rockefeller comes across as an ideological follower of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal for a major part of his political career.   Later he would adopt a more conservative political agenda as he continued to seek the presidency on at least three separate occasions.  He comes across as a generous individual who uses his wealth to reward and assist others, but at the same time he could be a stubborn vindictive person who set out to get even with those who disagreed with him.  Domestically, Rockefeller pursued a liberal agenda, but in foreign policy he was a cold warrior, fearful of the communist threat he supported the Vietnam War for most of his political career.  On a personal level Smith describes a man who could be a caring father, but at the same time he appears as a serial philanderer.  His first marriage failed after thirty years, and after remarrying, he seemed to dote on the children of his second marriage angering those of his first.  The author explores in detail these aspects of the Rockefeller persona and career, and has written an almost encyclopedic biography of one of the most interesting political figures of the twentieth century.

Smith describes his thirteen year odyssey in writing this biography.  Its coverage is impressive as he conducted numerous interviews and thoroughly mined the attendant secondary and primary sources.  The result is extensive coverage of his subject that brings the reader into the Rockefeller family dating back to its founder John D. Rockefeller.  We witness the wealth that was available to Nelson Rockefeller and how he employed it to satisfy his almost obsessive need to acquire art, design and build numerous residences and public buildings, caring for his many associates and friends when they were in need, and of course, procure his own election as governor on four separate occasions.  Rockefeller was a “serial” believer in forming committees and/or commissions made up of the leading experts on whatever topic was of interest to him.  Each role he was tasked, be it, as coordinator for Latin American affairs under FDR, an emissary for Richard Nixon to Latin America, a study to ascertain the best way to rebuild Albany, NY, develop a way to improve the welfare system in New York as well as well as nationally, along with numerous others, Rockefeller in most cases funded these activities with his own money and many of the solutions that emerged, i.e., revenue sharing and enhancing John F. Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress were adopted by different presidential administrations.

In a book of this length there are many themes and storylines.  One that seems to dominate is the evolution of Nelson Rockefeller from a liberal approach to social policy, whereby he was willing to push through increases in taxes, fees and other sources of revenue to implement them.  Rockefeller supported a myriad of social programs from improvements in Medicaid, purification of water resources, women’s rights, the first state minimum wage law, to the implementation of civil rights legislation.  Rockefeller’s approach to executive leadership and legislative tactics are reviewed as well as his philosophy of government.  What emerges is the type of governor that New York hadn’t seen since FDR.  With the message of taking responsibility for developing problems for the future, he would tackle issues in the present so they would not become problems down the road.  The issue was his overly ambitious approach to executive leadership always risked alienating conservatives west of the Hudson River.  With a strategy that would evolve from a “pay as you go” philosophy that would bring revenues into line with expenditures, “thereby eliminating costly borrowing and setting the stage for renewed economic growth,” Rockefeller evolved into to a governor who blew up the state budget to meet the needs of his massive infrastructure and building expenses in addition to the budget shortfalls of New York City by borrowing and floating different bond proposals.  By the time Rockefeller reached the end of his third term in office and was elected to his fourth term he became increasingly fiscally conservative as he faced opposition from the state legislature and probably realized that the political current of the late sixties and early seventies would not help any presidential ambitions he might have if he did not change.  Another major storyline that dominated Rockefeller his entire life that permeates the book was his life long battle with dyslexia.  The governor was not aware that he suffered from this affliction, but whether he was attending the Lincoln School in New York, Dartmouth College, or just trying to keep up with the massive amount of reading that a state executive engaged in it was always a battle.  With his wealth as a cushion, Rockefeller was able to employ numerous individuals to assist in this process whether in preparation of legislation or developing auditory strategies to overcome his reading difficulties.

There are a number of fascinating aspects to Smith’s approach to his subject as he prepared  expansive footnotes at the bottom of each page providing the reader with ancillary information that was not available in the text.  Rockefeller’s private opinions of the likes of John Lindsay and Richard Nixon emerge in a very “colorful” fashion which made the mining of these footnotes quite entertaining.  Smith’s discussion of deeply personal issues is not blanched over.  The breakup of Rockefeller’s marriage to Mary Todhunter Clark (Tod) was detailed and very fair as was the coverage of his remarriage to Margaretta “Happy” Murphy.  The loss of his son Michael during an expedition to collect primitive art in a remote part of New Guinea shows a father who has to deal emotionally with a loss of a son.  The relationship of the Rockefeller brothers and their children receives a great deal of attention and produces many interesting insights into the dynamic of such a public family.  Importantly, Smith does not mince words or coverage in dealing with Rockefeller’s numerous extracurricular activities with numerous women throughout his marriages.  In fact we witness a scandal at the site of Rockefeller’s death as to how his body was treated by those who were with him and the medical papers that were prepared to spare the family any embarrassment.

Aside from the personal aspects of the Rockefeller story, Smith devotes a great deal of effort in explaining what drove Rockefeller.  He was an avid and meticulous collector of modern and primitive art and he set as a goal the creation of a museum to house modern art that he would proudly help establish with the creation of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).  The second area that fascinated Rockefeller was politics and how it could be used to help people and better his country, a career path that would dominate his life for over forty years.  The fact that Rockefeller realized that as a scion of wealth he did not have to worry about “ordinary things,” therefore he was motivated to pursue the extraordinary.  Rockefeller’s battles to create MoMA were his trial by fire, a learning course in the art of political infighting.  This would also be the case in the creative process and building of Rockefeller Center as he would take lessons  learned from these confrontations and apply them in the future in his fights with the legislature, opponents such as New York Mayors John Lindsay and Robert Wagner, as well as national political battles.  In dealing with transit and garbage strikes, prison issues including the riots and death at Attica, infrastructure and other building projects, Rockefeller’s learning curve was applied to many crises.

Rockefeller’s other area of interest was foreign policy, and Latin America in particular.  His approach to western hemispheric issues was ahead of his time.  It began as a strategy to block Nazi Germany’s inroads in Mexico and South America.  He agreed with FDR that hemispheric solidarity was the key to changing the perception that the United States was seen as a colonizer in the region.  In 1942 Rockefeller unveiled his “Basic Economy Program” that called for improvement in the region’s public health problems.  Rockefeller arranged training for hundreds of professional nurses to assist in creating medical clinics in outlying areas.  Further,  he worked to export penicillin to offset disease in the region.  “In four years, Rockefeller agents trained more than ten thousand in-service workers, nurses, doctors, midwives, sanitary engineers, and home demonstration agents.”(164)  Rockefeller engaged in a fierce bureaucratic battle with “Wild” Bill Donavan, the head of the Office of Strategic Services at the end of the war over policy toward Latin America.  After the war facing the fight against communism, Rockefeller was a proponent of foreign aid to the region, but his approach was geared to offset the sensibilities of the countries receiving it to avoid the charactiture of “Yankee Imperialism” that OSS policy seemed to engender.  Rockefeller’s sensitivity toward third world countries should not take away from his fervent anticommunism, particularly in dealing with Vietnam where he was a strong supporter of Lyndon Johnson and was able to develop a close working relationship with the president.

Smith does yeoman’s work in describing Rockefeller’s campaigns for governor and president.  In both areas Rockefeller’s wealth and ability to obtain the necessary support for his candidacies was ever present.  The elective success he experienced in New York could not be replicated on the national stage as the Republican Party shifted to the right throughout the nineteen sixties.  His battle against Goldwater in 1964 made him an enemy to conservative republicans and his indecision in 1968 cost him any hope of wresting the republican nomination away from Richard Nixon, which also destroyed any candidacy for 1972.  His hopes improved after he was chosen vice-president by Gerald Ford following the resignation of Richard Nixon, but any hope of influencing the Ford presidency was offset by major disagreements with Ford’s Chief of Staff, Donald Rumsfeld who would block Rockefeller at every turn over policy and political decisions.  Any hope of higher office was dashed in 1976 as Rockefeller’s support for civil rights and the Voting Rights Act made him a political liability with conservative republicans in the south and resulted in the candidacy of Robert Dole for Vice-President on the 1976 Republican presidential ticket.

Overall, Nelson Rockefeller enjoyed an amazing life.  Art connoisseur, benefactor to countless individuals, a mostly progressive governor, and an influential and sometimes polarizing national figure for decades.  Richard Norton Smith gives attention to all these aspects of Rockefeller’s life and has written an in depth and informative biography that I am certain will be the definitive work on an illustrious career for many years to come.

BLACK OUT by John Lawton

(British Prime Minister Winston Churchill surveying damage to London caused by Nazi bombers on September 10, 1940)

I have been a fan of Alan Furst for years.  His evocative approach to espionage and his character development made his World War II noirs exciting and hard to put down.  Now, I have discovered another master of that genre, John Lawton.  The first book in Lawton’s Frederick Troy series entitled BLACK OUT features the intrepid Frederick Troy and his cohorts in Scotland Yard and an amazing array of individuals, who live in London in February, 1944, and a number of them who will also turn up in Berlin during the 1948 airlift  The mystery opens with a dog digging around in the trash and seizing an object, then runs with it in its mouth and drops it in front of a boy, the object is a human arm.  The night before this incident an American soldier gets his throat cut at Trafalgar Square.  Once an investigation begins Detective Sergeant Troy starts to connect a murder that took place a year earlier to the “arm” victim and the American soldier.  Troy is friends with another “copper” from Scotland Yard, George Bonham who lives in a house that rents apartments, and a Peter Wolinski, who worked at the George V dockyard, has turned up missing for unknown reasons.  Wolinski supposedly had taught college in Germany until Hitler forced him to leave and was a close friend of Bonham.  Once the investigation commences we begin to meet a series of interesting characters that include Ladislaw Kolankiewicz, who since 1934 had been the senior pathologist in Herndon.  Cooperating with Kolankiewicz, Troy pieces together the possibility that the two deaths and another missing person are all linked.  Troy, whose uncle Nikolai Rodyonavich worked with a team of scientists at the Imperial College in the Applied Physics Department provides a photograph to augment Troy’s suspicions.  When a socialite, Diane Ormond-Brack is seen leaving Wolinski’s apartment with a copy of the same photograph that Nikolai had shown Troy, suspicions are further aroused.  What Troy gathers is that these individuals may have been developing “lightweight alloys, tough, non-corrodable, and thin.  And they were also on to what that is-on to chemical propulsion,” rockets.(88)  When Troy visits N.A.G. Pym at MI5, and a Colonel Zelig at American headquarters in London to obtain answers he is stonewalled by both and gets nowhere, reaffirming his suspicions that all three incidents are linked to rocket development by the Germans.  In laying out the plot Lawton has drawn the reader into his web of British accents and language, espionage, and a case that is definitely beyond Inspector Troy’s pay grade.

Frederick Troy is a wonderful character to build a World War II and post war noir around.  His family emigrated from Russia after Stalin took control.  Troy’s older brother is an RAF pilot and in 1936 Troy was a raw recruit from the countryside who was taken in my George Bonham and his wife and shown the ropes concerning survival in London and pursuing police work in a city that had been ravaged by the Luftwaffe for five years.  What Troy strongly suspects is that after a fourth murder that an American Major Jimmy Wayne, an Office of Strategic Services (OSS-precursor to the CIA) agent is involved with all of them.  His investigation seems reflect Wayne’s guilt,  but evidence is circumstantial.  Troy is joined by his protégé Jack Wildeve, and his commander at Scotland Yard, Stan Onions in seeking the truth.  Two women are also present to confuse and cajole Troy.  First, we revisit Diane Ormond-Brack,  a girl friend of Major Wayne who later will become Troy’s lover.  Second, is M/SGT Larissa Tosca, seemingly Colonel Zelig’s secretary, but even while she is bedding Troy has an interesting shadow life that he is unaware of.  The novel places the reader in the heart of London right before D Day, June 6, 1944.  Characters have to deal with shortages of food and other staples.  In addition, we witness the underground community that lives beneath London subways to escape years of bombing, and English resentment of American soldiers who seem to have taken over their country and especially their women.  At this time the United States and the Soviet Union, realizing that the end of Nazi Germany will soon be at hand engage in a race to bring out of Germany as many scientists and intelligence assets that they can.*  The story changes focus once the war ends and shifts to post war Berlin which is enduring the 1948 air lift.

The novel is exceptionally written and Lawton’s integration of events is very helpful for the reader in developing historical context.  Throughout the narrative the author merges his own opinion of certain historical figures that are not only humorous at times, but very accurate.  For example, Lawton references General Dwight D. Eisenhower as Troy has grown increasingly frustrated when OSS Colonel Zelig claims that the D Day commander that a meeting with Major Wayne was an alibi to block Troy’s suspicions. Describing Zelig and Eisenhower, Lawton writes, “The rain was beginning to soak through his overcoat.  He went quickly back to the car.  Was it worth a try?  One bald-headed American was probably much the same as any other bald-headed American.  The only difference lay in the amount of scrambled egg on the cap.  Though, being fair, Troy felt Ike had better table manners.”(106)  Along with numerous astute observations, Lawton regales the reader by placing certain literary figures throughout the narrative as an intellectual tease.  The relationship between the OSS and MI5 is explored in detail and British distrust for that “pernicious organization” is readily apparent.  For the Americans they had had it with British, “procedure and protocol.”  Lawton also introduces Soviet espionage in the last part of the novel that reorients both Troy and the reader.

Troy  finds himself in the middle of turf battles of allied intelligence agencies throughout the book.  His investigation is blocked by both agencies and his fight to solve, what he thinks are four murders in the shadowy background of D Day and after is fascinating.  The author’s conclusion tying pre and post war espionage is calculating and keeps the reader guessing.  Lawton first installment of Detective Troy is a great read and I look forward to engaging the entire series.

  • See “The Nazis Next Door,” by Eric Lichtblau reviewed by Deborah Lipstadt,  New York Times  October 31, 2014.