PACIFIC: SILICON CHIPS AND SURFBOARDS, CORAL REEFS AND ATOM BOMBS, BRUTAL DICTATORS, FADING EMPIRES, AND THE COMING COLLISION OF THE WORLD’S SUPERPOWERS by Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester’s latest book, PACIFIC: SILICON CHIPS AND SURFBOARDS, CORAL REEFS AND ATOM BOMBS, BRUTAL DICTATORS, FADING EMPIRES, AND THE COMING COLLISION OF THE WORLD’S SUPERPOWERS reinforces why I am such a fan and admirer of this eclectic social scientist.  No matter what topic Mr. Winchester takes on he has the uncanny ability to unwind what is a standard interpretation or history of a well-known topic and ferret out little known details to make something that is quite interesting, fascinating.  The list of Winchester’s books are impressive, whether he is exploring the history of the Atlantic, the men responsible for the creation of the English Oxford Dictionary, the annihilation of the volcano island of Krakatoa, or the story of the geologist, William Smith and how he geologically mapped the underside of the earth, and many more, the reader emerges educated and entertained by a master story teller.

In his current venture, Winchester explores historical aspects of the Pacific Ocean or in contemporary parlance the Pacific Rim.  Winchester is a social scientist par excel lance, employing history, political science, geography, and geology as he explores his diverse topics.  Where else can a reader learn about such a conglomeration of stories?  He begins his journey by describing a flight over the Pacific beginning in Hawaii and immediately provides a history of the international dateline and the importance of this massive ocean on our daily lives.  The blue expanse of the Pacific dominates the planet and encompasses one-third of the earth’s surface and forty-five percent of the planet’s surface waters.  Despite its beauty and hidden treasures Winchester describes how the Pacific has been a dumping ground throughout modern history.  America and its allies have conducted nuclear tests in the Marshall and Gilbert Islands among other locations.  Biological testing has contaminated numerous islands and two million gallons of Agent Orange are stored near the Johnson Atoll Islands and rockets carrying atomic weapons have exploded in the region.  What has been created is an ecological nightmare in many places.  It is a shame as Winchester correctly points out that “the Pacific Ocean is the inland sea of tomorrow’s world,” much in the same way the Mediterranean Sea was in the Ancient world, and the Atlantic Ocean was for the modern world.  Therefore improving our knowledge of the ocean and preserving it as best we can is so important.

Winchester concentrates his narrative from 1950 to 2014 as he describes the Pacific Ocean as an “atomic ocean” because of all the nuclear testing.  The narrative of events that he presents in each chapter seem unrelated, but taken as a whole we witness an important history of the Pacific.  Winchester’s first self-contained chapter describes the story of the Bikini Islands and the effects of the testing of the hydrogen bomb.  He then moves on to the invention of the transistor radio in the 1960s and its impact on society.  Winchester then introduces us to the film Gidget as an introduction to the importance of surfing and the industry it spawned to the Pacific culture.  We next meet the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea and revisit the Pueblo Affair of 1968 and other incidents that make the Pyongyang government so dangerous, even today.  Those interested in Australia will visit her history and her evolution from a backward, racist society to a more enlightened one in the 1970s and its reversion to its former “Crocodile Dundee” reputation after 1989 as it can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether it wants to be a Pan Pacific version of Canada and the United States or a backward mulish and racist country that cannot decide if it wants to accept non-whites as immigrants for their country.  Another issue that is extremely important for Australia is its approach to its coral reefs that have been damaged and are threatened with disappearance sooner than scientists ever imagined.  As Winchester aptly points out, the Australian government must decide what is more important, mining interests or the natural ecology of its coastline.

(Mt. Pitubo eruption in the Philippines on June 15, 1991)

Winchester dissects weather patterns, natural resources, plant life, tectonic mayhem, ecology, i.e.; describing areas of the Pacific as “garbage gyres,” through various discoveries and how they affect us. Of course, no history of the Pacific could be complete without a discussion of China’s evolution into a major economic and military power and what that means for the future of the Pacific region and the planet in general.  This evolution is reported in pure Winchesteresque manner as the author relates the Mount Pitubo volcanic eruption in the Philippines on June 15, 1991, the second largest volcanic eruption of the last century, to the decline of the American naval presence in the Pacific to the emergence of the Chinese goal of projecting a deep blue water navy.  The eruption resulted in the loss of the Subic Bay Naval and Clark Airforce bases in the region and created a military vacuum that the Chinese have been eager to fill.  Winchester describes numerous examples of how the Chinese have projected their newly acquired naval power in the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea, and the East China Sea and what it has meant to its Asian neighbors and has resulted in a number of close encounters with American ships and planes.

(the author, Simon Winchester)

There are so many interesting and insightful tidbits that Winchester puts forth in the narrative, that readers of many different interests will be satiated.  The role of the Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs and President Truman’s decision to allow thermonuclear testing in the Pacific in 1950 and its implication for our world is most important.  Winchester’s descriptions of the Marshallese people and the destruction of their culture is never talked about by historians. As a young boy I used to listen to New York Yankee baseball games on a small Sony transistor radio under my pillow never thinking about how it got there.  The chapter on Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka and their discoveries that morphed into the Sony Corporation is fascinating as the consumer electronics industry that was born in Tokyo is detailed and finally explains what was hidden under my pillow for many baseball calendars.  With the transistor radio in hand Winchester moves on to the art of surfing.  Known as “wave gliding” for over a century Winchester describes how the release of an “unexceptional film” in conjunction with the discovery of new materials created the polyurethane surf board that took a Polynesian invention and transformed it into a worldwide sport and industry.  Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the book is Winchester’s discussion of the relationship between the creation of the 38trh parallel after World War II separating North and South Korea, the seizure of the USS Pueblo, and the sinking of the RMS Queen Elizabeth and how their intertwining leads the reader to the explanation of the end of the colonization of Hong Kong and its emergence under Chinese control in 1997.  The Alvin, a three person submersible is described as it allowed scientists from Woods Hole, MA to locate many of the most significant deep-seas structures and assisted in the undersea mapping of the Pacific’s mid-ocean range system causing armies of geophysicists to uncover amazing discoveries.  Along the way Winchester introduces us to many inventors, political figures, scientists, and everyday people that have impacted our daily lives, yet most of us will have never run across them.  These and many other aspects of the book, particularly Winchester’s discussion of the interplay between Polynesian culture and the west will provide hours of entertainment and thought for any reader.

Simon Winchester not only is an excellent social scientist, he is a wonderful stylist and his writing is very easy to digest as your eyes fly across the pages.  PACIFIC is a fascinating work of many social sciences and is the type of book that should produce a wide audience, I give it five stars!

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DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODYSSEY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH by Jon Meacham

(Presidents George Herbert Walker Bush, George W. Bush, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush)

With the rollout of Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Jon Meacham’s new book DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODYSSEY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH what emerged in the media was the elder Bush’s criticisms of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney’s poor service in the administration of his son.  Many pundits have questioned the senior Bush’s judgement since another son, Jeb is in the midst of his own presidential campaign.  Whatever motivated the senior Bush it has created a great deal of buzz around Meacham’s latest biography.  After successful histories of Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and the relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Meacham’s latest effort is not quite on the level of his previous work.  In Meacham’s defense it is difficult to write a critical biography of a subject that is still alive, and as time has separated him from his presidency he has become more popular than ever.  George H.W. Bush was a lifetime Republican who served in Congress, the head of the Republican National Committee, held a number of important jobs in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and later served as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President.  Always a loyal party man he never could quite gain the confidence of the conservative wing of his party.  He was always seen as a Rockefeller eastern liberal Republican and he constantly had to prove his bonafides to conservatives.  If he were a candidate for office today, Bush would be relegated to the junior varsity on the debate stage on many issues.  To Bush’s credit as Meacham points out repeatedly in his narrative, he embraced compromise in public life and engaged his foes in the passage of important legislation as he was willing to buck his own party to do what he believed was right.

(Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney; Bush 41 referred to them as “iron asses.”

After reading Meacham’s description of Bush’s childhood in Connecticut, Kennebunkport, and South Carolina it is obvious what former Texas Governor Anne Richards meant about Bush’s presidential candidacy in 1988, when she stated at the Democratic National Convention that “for eight straight years George Bush hasn’t displayed the slightest interest in anything we care about.  And now that he’s after a job that he can’t be appointed to, he’s like Columbus discovering America.  Poor George, he can’t help it-he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” (334-35) The Bush children of the 1930s were insulated from want, but they were raised to feel a sense of obligation to others.  According to Meacham, the Bush family code was to disguise one’s ambition, and hunger to win.  For years I had difficulty accepting Bush’s authenticity and sincerity as I watched him “flip flop” on issues in order to get elected in 1980 and 1988 and avoid the charge that he was an eastern establishment Republican.  I must admit that for over half of Meacham’s narrative I became somewhat convinced that my view was harsh after reading the intimate details of Bush’s patriotism leaving his privileged education to become a naval pilot during World War II and how he reacted and handled being shot down in the Pacific with the loss of his radioman and tail gunner.  We see Bush as the supporting husband taking care of a spouse dealing with depression. Further, we are privy to Bush as a father and family man dealing with the passing of his daughter Robin at the age of three from leukemia, witnessing a distraught person who exhibits the traits we would all hope to have in a similar situation.

(Bush 41 must like Meacham’s bioghraphy!)

The book comes across as a conversation between the author and the reader.  At times one gets the feeling that Meacham is interviewing the former president conveying Bush’s view of his life, issues, and historical perspectives.  We are exposed to the major events in American history from 1964 on as they are intertwined with Bush’s political career.  The weakness is that part of the narrative comes across as an extensive magazine article intertwined with a degree of analysis.  Meacham for the most part is content with explaining Bush’s motivations for his decisions without delving deeply enough into their ramifications.  A case in point is Bush’s vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but a few pages later we learn he voted for the 1968 Fair Housing Act, as if the later vote canceled out the weakness of character reflected in the first vote.  We read a great deal about Bush’s personality and his commitment to the family ethos as represented by his father, Prescott Bush, but not enough of what can be described as the “edginess of politics” and its cut throat nature.  As I read the first few hundred pages I wondered how such a “nice person” became such a duplicitous politician who would lie about his knowledge concerning the Iran-Contra deal (apart from the Nicaraguan aspect), the use of the Willie Horton commercial in 1988 and his alliance with the likes of Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, his reversals on abortion, taxes, and other issues to make him palatable to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate.  What I gathered from Meacham’s narrative is that Bush according to the family credo was that winning was most important, but that is covered up by a political pragmatism rather than following what the author presents as his core principles.

Meacham does a credible job discussing the major aspects of Bush’s career.  His successful run for the House of Representatives and defeat as he tries to win a Senate seat in the 1960s.  We learn of his stint as UN Ambassador under Richard Nixon, envoy to China, and CIA Head under Gerald Ford, highlighting the domestic and international machinations of each.  The reader is placed inside his campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the development of their working relationship since Ronald and Nancy Reagan did not think much of the Bushes at the outset.  Meacham constantly points to Bush’s winning personality as his key asset and we can see how effective he is in winning over the President and developing a strong personal relationship during the Reagan administrations. The reader has an insider’s view of the White House during the first Reagan administration and the role that Bush played.  Then, the second administration seems to disappear in the narrative except for a discussion of Iran-Contra and the duplicitous role played by Bush.  By 1988 Bush must earn his next governmental position, the presidency, something he seems to have sought since his entrance into politics in the 1960s, because there are no longer any appointments coming his way because of the networking that had rewarded him for decades in business and politics.

(Part of 1988 Presidential campaign ad devised by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes)

Meacham’s focus and analysis seems to take a sharper turn as he deals with the 1988 presidential campaign as he examines the mistaken choice Bush admits to in choosing Dan Quayle as his running mate.  We follow the campaign and the errors of the Dukakis team as we see the former Massachusetts governor foolishly riding in a tank in New Jersey and is forced to deal with the prison furlough program that brought about the Willie Horton ad.  Once elected, Meacham accurately explores Bush’s successes in foreign policy and the difficulties he faced in dealing with Congress over domestic legislation during his term in office.

I am very familiar with Bush’s personal belief that he thought that he should receive the major credit for winning the Cold War, and I am certain that believers in the Reagan cult would beg to differ.  However, Bush senior must be commended for the way he handled the fall of the Berlin Wall and the personal relationship he was able to develop with Mikhail Gorbachev that fostered arms control and a lessening of tensions between the former Cold War competitors.  Meacham takes us from the night the Wall was breached through the difficult diplomacy that resulted in the reunification of Germany.  Though the definitive account of those heady days have yet to be written, Meacham’s narrative praising Bush for his calm and steady approach to events and his diplomacy, particularly with the Soviet Union and NATO members forms an excellent summary.  Bush has the reputation of overseeing a strong foreign policy that resulted in his words, “a new world order,” where the bipolar Cold War was replaced by a new unipolar world.  This characterization can be easily argued, but Meacham chooses not to in the same way as he glances over the American invasion of Panama to replace Manuel Noriega.  Perhaps if he would have delved into the background relationship between the American national security establishment and the drug trafficking Panamanian dictator the reader would be provided a clearer picture.  Further, Meacham leaves out some important details in the run up to the American invasion of Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  The reader is provided with a detailed account of Bush’s handling of the crisis, but what is missing is an accurate description of the messages we sent to the Iraqi dictator at the end of July, 1990 right before the invasion.  To his credit, Meacham explores the meetings between Saddam and American Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie whose career took a strong hit after the invasion took place.  Perhaps if the administration would have laid out clearer instructions, Glaspie’s messages to Saddam would not have been so misinterpreted to the point where he believed that the United States would not remove his forces from Kuwait militarily.  Bush is to be credited with putting together an international coalition against Saddam, and unlike his son he realized the vacuum that would be created if American troops marched on Baghdad in March, 1991 and that once the predictable civil war between Shi’ites and Sunni would evolve, Iran would emerge as the true winner.  Another aspect that Meacham should have explored closely is the Bush family’s relationship with the Saudi royal family and what impact it had on American policy.  Craig Unger’s HOUSE OF BUSH HOUSE OF SAUD is worth consulting.

(George Herbert Walker Bush as Navy pilot during World War II)

Meacham correctly points out that Bush did have a domestic agenda as he repeatedly refers to Bush’s diaries to support the idea that the president wanted to improve the lives of everyday Americans.  His successes include a raising of educational standards and enhancements for the Head Start program, amendments to the Clean Air Act, and the Americans for Disability Act.  However, once Bush had to deal with economic policy as the American economy fell into recession he ran up against a conservative wall in Congress led by Newt Gingrich.  Once he decided to turn away from his famous “read my lips” promise when he won the Republican presidential nomination and agreed to raise federal taxes to deal with the budget crisis he just reaffirmed the belief of conservatives that he was not one of them.  Again, to Bush’s credit he put political pragmatism and his country ahead of those in his party who may have pursued the actions of the Ted Cruz’s of today.  Meacham hits the nail on the head when states that Bush “could mold an international coalition, but he could not convince his own party to back their president.” (448)

Meacham provides an in depth account of the 1992 presidential campaign and the rivalry with the egoistic Ross Perot that resulted in the election of Bill Clinton.  The author puts the reader on the debate stage as Bush stares too long at his watch and has difficulty remembering the price of hamburger.  For Bush it was very difficult for a member of the greatest generation to lose the presidency to someone who he then characterized as a “draft dodger.”  However, Meacham is correct in pointing out that the reason Bush lost the election was that he did not seem to be that committed to his own election victory.  Time and again Meacham pointed to Bush’s diaries that expressed doubts as to whether he should have run.

Once out of office, Bush could theoretically relax, reflect, and enjoy his family.  For the most part he did, but he was worried about the course of his son’s presidency and the tone set by Bush 43’s administration commentary.  Overall, Meacham received unparalleled access to Bush 41 on a personal level as well as the availability to his diaries and many of those who served his political career and administration.  Meacham has written what appears to be an authorized biography that will be well received, but could have been a bit more incisive and balanced.

(Presidents Bush 41 and 43)

THE CRIME AND THE SILENCE: CONFRONTING THE MASSACRE OF JEWS IN WARTIME JEDWABNE by Anna Bikont

(Following the release of the film “Aftermath” in Poland in September, 2011, Polish deniers of the Jedwabne massacre of Jews during World War II strike once again)

My father was born a short distance from Krakow in 1913 when Poland was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and fortunately was able to immigrate to the United States in the mid-1930s, though many of our extended family would eventually perish in Auschwitz.  Growing up my father would tell me stories about what it was like to live among Polish Catholics in his village and the abuse that he endured.  Years later I read the book NEIGHBOR: THE DESTRUCTION OF THE JEWISH COMMUNITY IN JEDWABNE, POLAND by Jan Tomasz Gross in 2002 that described the pogrom committed by Polish Catholics against the Jews of Jedwabne on July 10, 1941 and was shocked, but not surprised.  The outcry against the book when it was published in Poland arguing that it was the Gestapo or other components of the German army that was responsible was to be expected.   With the publication of Anna Bikont’s haunting history, THE CRIME AND THE SILENCE: CONFRONTING THE MASSACRE OF JEWS IN WARTIME JEDWABNE in 2004, recently translated into English by Alissa Valles, the Polish people once again must face the historical reality of the actions of many of their co-religionists and not resort to the standard denials shifting blame to the Nazis.

Bikont a journalist for the Gazeta Wyborcza has written a book that is part history and part memoir as she assiduously gathered oral histories of events that took place in Poland during the war.  The narrative adds to Gross’ work and the reader learns immediately that Jedwabne was not the only pogrom that Polish Catholics engaged in.  In fact three days before the massacre at Jedwabne, in a village close by, the entire Jewish population of Radzilow was rounded up and burned, with no Germans present.  As we read on there are numerous examples of the liquidation of Jews with the assistance of the Poles, or were conducted solely by the Poles.

Bikont’s approach is to alternate chapters detailing her investigation through research in the Bialystok region, Canada, the United States, Israel, Argentina, and Europe or wherever her research took her, as she conducted interviews of individuals who lived in the area during the massacre with chapters dealing with the overall history of the area in the 1930s and 1940s.  The author does a good job chronicling the deterioration of the plight of the Jews in the 1930s, a period that began with Jews trying to be good Polish citizens despite the increasing level of anti-Semitism that would continue to manifest itself throughout the decade.  The arrival of Hitler in power in Germany in 1933, in part provided an opportunity for “the Camp for Greater Poland,” the National Party, and Catholic prelates to egg on the peasant population to perpetrate a pogrom in Radzilow in March of that year.  Marching to the slogan “We raise our plea before your alter/Lord, rid Poland of the Jews,” the peasant population that was suffering from the depression could focus its hostility on the Jews.  Throughout the 1930s the Catholic press did its best to instigate and heighten Polish hatred of Jews and encouraged acts of violence that by the summer of 1937, 65-70 acts of violence against Jews were reported monthly to the Interior Ministry.  This on top of parliamentary action against Jewish religious practices and education made Jews very wary of remaining in Poland.  As the Zionist movement expanded many families hoped to at the very least send some of their children to Palestine.  By September 1, 1939 with the Nazi invasion of Poland that avenue of escape was severed.

(Jedwabne, Poland synagogue, circa, 1913)

Bikont makes extensive use of archival material that support her thesis as to the role of the Poles in making the lives of Jews one of misery and death, during the prewar period and during the war itself.  Her use of the Jewish Historical  Institute and Jewish Historical Commission archives produces microfiche of Holocaust survivor testimony reflecting that not only were their pogroms in Radzilow on July 7, Jedwabne on July 10, but also in Wasosz on July 5.  For Szymon Datner, a renowned historian what happened at Wasosz rivaled the slaughter that took place in Kishinev in 1903 Czarist Russia.  Datner also documents the murder of Jews in 1945 as they came out of hiding by Polish peasants.  Bikont’s journal entries for the first six months of 2001 are especially important as the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne murders approaches.  She is confronted with outright denial or refusal to speak with her by individuals who were present in 1941.  Further, even Jews who survived are apprehensive to speak with her because they have either hidden the fact that they are Jewish, even from family members, or are just afraid of the repercussions.  One of the dominant excuses that is offered is that once the Soviet Union invaded Poland the Jews collaborated with the NKVD and turned Polish citizen’s names over to Russian authorities causing them to be sent into exile in Siberia.  Another argument is that it is being raised now, if it actually happened, so the Jews could collect billions in reparations from the Polish government.  This line of thought is seen as justification for burning 1600 human beings in a barn, and shooting another 42 in the market place area.

One of the more interesting chapters concentrates on the three Laudanski brothers, two of which were convicted of murder for the events of July 7, 1941 and their rationale that they too suffered under Soviet and German occupation. The third Laudanski brother, Kazimierz claims to have not been in Jedwabne on the day of the massacre and arrived three days later, though there is some evidence he was actually present.  Of the ten men convicted in the 1949 trial for the murders in Jedwabne, Zygmunt and Jerzy Laudanski, as of the publication of Bikont’s book in 2004, were still alive.  From all accounts and by their own admission they forced hundreds of Jews into the market place and then led them to the barn were they were burned alive.  There is also testimony that they beat and killed Jews while coercing them to reach the market place.  For their crimes Zygmunt Laudanski was sentenced to twelve years in prison of which he served six, and his brother Jerzy was sentenced to fifteen years, and served eight. From her interviews with the brothers, Bikont points out that they blamed the deportation of the Poles, including their family members under Soviet occupation on Jewish communists.  Among their comments   Zygmunt Laudanski states, “there was nothing as horrible as all that.  People are making it up now in revenge.”  Kazimierz Laudanksi comments, “Like all of the Polish people, we suffered under the Soviets, under the Germans, and under People’s Poland…Our people organized the roundup of the Jews, but didn’t take part in the burning, they behaved as peaceful people.” The Poles kept saying, “It’s God’s punishment.  It was a diabolical stunt organized by the Germans.  The Germans directed it, and used the Poles like actors in the theater.  But Poles wanting to burn Jews, there was nothing like that.” (119)

(as per Jewish tradition, Rabbis place stones on top of the monument denoting the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne, Poland massacre)

The remembrance monument for the massacre is another controversial issue for the people of Jedwabne.  The monument that commemorates the events of July 10, 1941 states, “Place of Execution of Jewish Population.  Gestapo and Hitler’s Police Buried 1600 People Alive July 10, 1941.”  Which of course is not accurate.  Bikont’s journal entries from 2001 reflect the animosity as the inscription is about to be changed as the 60th anniversary of the massacre approaches.  Jedwabne residents are upset that their town cannot escape the stigma of the massacre and resent journalists revisiting what they see as “ancient” history and the calls for a more accurate inscription.  These feelings are manifested by certain political and religious figures statements denigrating the monument and the impact it has on their lives.  One of the most distressing aspects of the book is Bikont’s exploration of the debate in the Jedwabne town council over the plans for the ceremony at the monument commemorating the massacre.  A majority of the council members refused to approve funding for the road that provided access to the Jewish cemetery for the ceremony.  What remains quite clear that Polish anti-Semitism remains very pervasive as of Bikont’s writing and many sections of the Polish population cannot overcome their hatred and view of history no matter what evidence is presented i.e., the creation of the “Committee to Defend the Good Name of Jedwabne,” dominated by the families of those convicted, and those who have taken over the homes of Jews in the town, or have seized Jewish property.  As Mayor Krzysztof Godlewski, later forced to resign because of his support of the new inscription and his assistance to Bikont during her research, tries to bring the council together he is met with repeated denial and virulent anti-Semitism.

The most important question that needs to be asked is why did the massacre take place?  For Bikont the immediate fuse that set off the events on July 10 was the Soviet occupation, which led to the charge of Jewish collaboration.  The Soviet occupation was equally difficult for Jews and Poles alike.  The Jewish social fabric and community life was destroyed by the Soviets, but the Jews did greet the Russians in a better frame of mind than the Poles.  The reason is obvious, the Poles with their virulent anti-Semitism and violence against Jews were now blocked by the occupation.  For the Poles it must have been humiliating to lose control of their own country and government and witness Jews having an element of freedom.  With the deportations of Poles as well as Jews it is much more convenient “to replace reality with a stereotype like ‘the Jews collaborated,’ all the more so if you know those who might have corrected this misconception had perished.” The new situation in which “the ‘kikes’ were given relative equality in civil law must have been a provocation to those neighbors raised on prewar anti-Semitism.” (179)  As far as the charge that Jews were involved in selecting who was to be deported, it is another Polish fantasy.  Bikont’s research points to three great deportations.  The first on February 9-10, 1940 resulted in taking away members of the Polish military, foresters, and other specific occupations.  The second wave in April, 1940 targeted families of those previously arrested: police officers, senior officials, political leaders and the local intelligentsia.  The third wave in June, 1940 involved “refugees” who fled the General Government, 80% of which were Jews.  The fourth wave that came in June, 1941 targeting the Polish underground partisan movement.  Since Jews were not generally accepted as partisans, to blame them is beyond the scope of reality.  Bikont, and Gross before her, clearly debunk the myth of Jewish denunciations as the cause of Polish deportation no matter how often Catholic prelates and Polish politicians repeat the charge. Once the Germans invaded the remainder of Poland on June 22, 1941 and continued on into the Soviet Union, the Poles responded with numerous pogroms against the remaining Jews, one of which was Jedwabne.

Bikont spends a great deal of time exploring the role of the Catholic Church in creating the environment for the massacre to take place, but also facilitating the pogroms that resulted.  She provides numerous examples of the statements and actions of Catholic prelates who disregarded the statements of the Vatican, particularly after the war.  The prelates continue the rationalization that the Jews deserved what they got because they denounced the Poles.  Bikont believed that the Church had reached a turning point in 1945 as it became the bastion against Sovietization of Polish society.  However those anti-Semitic feelings did not remain in the background for long as the deaconry in Jedwabne headed by Father Antoni Roszkowski continued spewing his hatred of the Jews.  Since 1988, Father Edward Orlowski held sway in Jedwabne and he carried on as if nothing had changed as far as Jewish guilt was concerned.  It is interesting to note that once the ceremony took place on July 10, 2001 no high level church representatives attended, though to their credit three priests do make an appearance.  For Jews, the fear of retribution was so high that only Awigdor Korchaw, the only Jewish witness who was in the market square the day of the massacre, had the courage to attend.

To Bikont’s credit as she tells the stories of the few Jewish survivors, she integrates their horrific accounts with those Poles who helped by hiding them or facilitating their escape.  Bikont follows her subjects around the globe in her quest to learn the truth and find out what happened to these people once the war ended.  Her description of the lives of Szmul Wasersztejn, the most important witness to events; Chaja Finkelsztejn, whose unpublished memoir of survival provides a window into the inhumanity of the people who committed the atrocities; Antonina Wyrzykowska, who hid seven Jews; and the author’s constant interaction with Radoslaw Ignatiew, the prosecutor of the Institute of National Remembrance leads one to accept Gross’s earlier finding that, the Poles were the instigators of the massacre and carried out the atrocities associated with it.  Her journal continues until July 10, 2004 and her final chapter has the fitting title, “Strictly speaking, Poles did it.”  One of the most heart rendering phrases in the book points to the post-war Polish generation when Bikont states, “the blood on the father’s hands burn the children,” which may explain why so many Poles today still have difficulty coming to terms with what happened almost 75 years ago in a country whose 2003 census listed 1100 Jews, out of a pre-World War II census of around 3.3 million.

(a man cleans the memorial to the Jews massacred in Jedwabne, Poland on July 10, 1941 defaced by Polish anti-Semites)

THE BLOOD TELEGRAM: NIXON, KISSINGER AND A FORGOTTEN GENOCIDE by Gary J. Bass

(the architects of American foreign policy from 1969-1974, Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger)

When one considers the foreign policy pursued by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger decisions related to Southeast Asia and relations with the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union come to mind.  In discussing Southeast Asia, the strategy pursued to end the war in Vietnam is front and center resulting in revisiting the “supposed” plan to end the war known as “Vietnamization” that emerged during the 1968 presidential campaign.  This promise to end the war was nothing more than the withdrawal of American troops and replacing them on the front lines with South Vietnamese soldiers and increasing American bombing.  As we know this policy also led to the illegal bombing of Cambodia and the “search” for North Vietnam’s headquarters in that war torn country.  The Nixon/Kissinger strategy resulted in prolonging the war in Vietnam and the facilitation of the rise of the murderous Pol Pot regime in Pnom Penh and the genocide of the Cambodian people.  Along with the foreign policy issues it resulted in domestic unrest symbolized by the deaths at Kent State, and illegal actions taken by Kissinger against his own staff to plug information leaks.  This was not the finest hour for American diplomacy, however once we turn to the 1971 opening with the People’s Republic of China and the Shanghai Communique of 1972, and the pursuit of linkage and Détente with the Soviet Union the Nixon/Kissinger realpolitik takes on a different hue.

When analyzing the Nixon/Kissinger approach to foreign affairs many seem to forget events in Southwest Asia, in particular, March 25, 1971 when the Pakistan army began its ruthless crackdown on Bengalis throughout East Pakistan in what today is called Bangladesh, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and ten million refugees.  Some would argue that the Nixon administration were following their Cold War calculations in arming the Pakistani army as the president and his national security advisor held India, a Soviet ally at the time in great disdain.  With Pakistan’s military dictator, General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan helping to set up the opening with China the Nixon administration was not about to criticize Pakistan’s crackdown in Dacca, East Pakistan.  What resulted was an onslaught that lasted months rivaling other genocides like Rwanda and Bosnia.  While the United States was not involved directly in these two examples, in East Pakistan American culpability was high as it was supporting the murderous Pakistani regime with weapons and equipment.  Estimates range up to 500,000 deaths and reflects the moral bankruptcy of the Nixon administration.  Fortunately, Gary Bass has written THE BLOOD TELEGRAM: NIXON, KISSINGER AND A FORGOTTEN GENOCIDE to remind us of what transpired.

Archer Blood was the United States’ counsel general in Dacca and he and his staff witnessed one of the worst atrocities of the Cold War and documented its horrific detail by informing the higher-ups at the State Department.  Despite the on the scene reporting of events, officials led by Nixon and Kissinger chose to ignore what was occurring and did little to ameliorate the situation.  What Bass has written is a detailed account of events and Archer Blood’s attempt to raise the consciousness of an administration that in many cases had none.  In his review of Bass’ book in The Wall Street Journal on September 20, 2013, a former chairman of Dow Jones and Company, Peter R. Kann argued that the atrocities that resulted from Pakistani actions in East Pakistan were unacceptable, but necessary because the Islamabad government headed by Agha Muhammad Yahya Kahn was the conduit between the United States and Communist China that would culminate in President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.  For Kann and his ilk, it seemed it was acceptable to sacrifice the Bengali people in the hundreds of thousands to proffer an agreement that theoretically helped extricate the United States from Vietnam, deal a diplomatic blow to the Soviet Union, and undo twenty two years of American non-recognition of Communist China.

(Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi)

After reading Gary Bass’ excellent account of events this is an analysis that is hard to accept.  Bass lays out the lack of ethnic and religious viability that resulted from the 1947 partition of India that created East and West Pakistan and their Muslim and Hindu populations.  He explores the events that led to the West Pakistani invasion of the East in March, 1971 as elections brought the victory of the Bengali Awami League under the leadership of Sheik Mujib-ur-Rahman, who incidentally were very favorable to the United States.  Since it appeared that Mujib, a Bengali Hindu might form a government and replace Yahya, the Pakistani military could not sit back.  When the Islamabad government backed away from the election results Bengali nationalists and the Awami League began to demonstrate and it appeared that East Bengal might secede from Pakistan.  Negotiations failed and on March 25, 1971, the Pakistani military under Yahya’s orders launched an attack against the 75,000,000 Pakistani citizens in the East.  The results were horrific.  By September over five million refugees poured into India and thousands of Hindus were killed, many were targeted and tortured and it appeared the disaster that resulted from the 1947 partition was repeating itself.

Bass’ narrative is an indictment of the conduct of foreign policy pursued by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon.  Archer Blood and his cohorts in the American consulate in Dacca reported accurate description of the mass killings by West Pakistani troops in the east, particularly Hindus, who made up only 16-17% of the population, but were 90% of the refugees.  Blood’s “selective genocide” telegram spoke of the genocide against the Hindu population and recommended that the United States pressure Yahya’s forces to disengage from the killings and atrocities and use American economic aid and weapons as a wedge to gain compliance.  Blood and Scott Butcher his junior political officer couldn’t believe the “silence” that emanated from Washington to their reports.  For Kissinger and Nixon, Blood and Butcher represented the “bleeding heart liberals” who inhabited the State Department.  Bass describes in detail, using White House tapes and other documentation to provide the reader with a window into the Kissinger/Nixon mindset.  For Kissinger, Blood was a “maniac” who would destroy his plans to open relations with China.  Nixon refused to pressure Yahya since he was relaying correspondence between Chinese Premier Zhou En-Lai that would lead to an invitation for Nixon to visit China.  Archer’s continued correspondence and support within the State Department angered Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers and led to Archer’s departure from Dacca and the ruining of his diplomatic career.

(Pakistani President Agha Muhammad Yahya Kahn and President Richard M. Nixon)

The crux of the issue was that the United States was supplying the weaponry that the Pakistani government was using to crush any Bengali opposition in East Pakistan.  American F86 Sabre jet fighters, M-24 Chaffee tanks and jeeps mounted with machine guns were the weapons of choice for the Islamabad dictatorship.  In fact 50-80% of Pakistani military equipment was supplied by the United States.  The American response to the carnage was a resounding “no” to pressuring Yahya.  American intelligence and State Department analysis led by Harold Saunders and others predicted that there was no way that Yahya’s forces could prevent a Bengali victory in the emerging civil war and that the country would break apart in creating the new country of Bangladesh.  This evidence fell on deaf ears at the White House.

Bass does a commendable job exploring the role of India and its Prime Minister Indira Gandhi throughout the crisis which would eventually result in war.  Gandhi tried to couch events in terms of the humanitarian needs of the Bengali people.  However, Bass assiduous exploration of Indian documents reflects Indian plans for war against Pakistan early on in the crisis.  Bass quotes the leading figures in Gandhi’s national security establishment in reaching his conclusions.  Though India was the world’s largest democracy, Kissinger and Nixon despised Gandhi and held a marked antipathy toward India that bordered on racism.  They both held a high opinion of Yahya, so any rapprochement with Gandhi was a non-starter.  Gandhi’s opinion of Nixon was in kind and there meetings where stilted at best.

Bass’ descriptions of the atrocities committed by both sides is heart rendering.  His portraits of the leading historical figures and reporters provides background information that enhance the readers understanding of events.  Bass’ discussion of the split within the State Department is fascinating as the American Ambassador to Islamabad James Farland castigated Archer, while Kenneth Keating, the American Ambassador to India supported the American consul.  Everyone stationed in Dacca supported Archer, but those in Washington were pressured to toe the Kissinger line.

As Bass correctly points out the world’s response to events was also enlightening.  India, a country with its own issues of poverty and disease was ill equipped to deal with the influx of millions of refugees.  The outbreak of cholera killed 6000 people each day and the response of the United Nations and the world community was weak at best.  One must remember that events were occurring in the midst of the Cold War where the Soviet Union was a supporter of India, Communist China and the United States stood behind Pakistan, and India and Pakistan saw each other as the devil incarnate.  One must also remember that Pakistan and India had fought a war in 1965, and China and the Soviet Union had fought a nasty border skirmish in 1969.  Any diplomatic or military moves that might have been taken must be seen in this context.  In addition, India found itself supporting the secession of what would become Bangladesh from Pakistan, at the same time it was crushing its own Kashmiri secessionist movement in Kashmir.  History makes for some interesting dilemmas!  According to Bass, as the refugee crisis deepened by September, 1971 war between India and Pakistan became inevitable.

The Kissinger-Nixon strategy of denial of what was occurring in East Pakistan is a fantasy as a September, 1971 CIA report argued that over 200,000 had been killed and that an ongoing “ethnic campaign” showed that almost 90% of the almost 10 million refugees flooding into India were Hindus.  These figures were also verified by a Pakistani general so the administrations “supposed” ignorance was a fabrication.  As the situation became dire, Indira Gandhi had already decided on war, but postponed a final decision until winter arrived which would block any intervention by China.  Bass does an exceptional job describing the diplomatic maneuvering between the Soviet Union as it signed a Treaty of Friendship with India, the Nixon administrations belated attempts to get Yahya to control his military, and to its credit Nixon did increase economic aid for the refugees to the tune of almost $250 million.

The most fascinating aspect to the crisis as war approached was the dialogue between India and the United States.  Nixon was obsessed that a war between India and Pakistan could ruin his opening to China.  In fact, Kissinger suggested that the United States ask China to move troops to the Indian border to send a strong message not to attack Pakistan.  The meetings between Gandhi and Nixon in Washington in November, 1971 reflected the disdain the two leaders felt for each other.  The Nixon tapes highlight the President’s characterization of Gandhi as that “old bitch,” and the Indian Prime Minister’s view of the Nixon was reciprocated.

Bass describes the Pakistani attack on December 3, 1971 (India had planned to attack the next day), the conduct of the war, and the resulting diplomacy and what is clear from the book and its impeccable sources is that if the Nixon administration had handled Yahya differently, the crisis that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh might have evolved differently.  War may have ultimately ensued, but did 250-500,000 people have to die, along with the creation of over 10,000,000 refugees before full scale combat ensued?

This episode in American diplomacy seems to have been forgotten, but Gary Bass’ fine book brings it to light and forces one to question the cavalier attitude Kissinger and Nixon felt for the people of southwest Asia typified by the president’s characterization of Pakistan as “they’re just a bunch of brown goddamn Moslems.” (216)  The tactics employed by Kissinger and Nixon to try and bend India’s will to US interests during the war were appalling as Nixon gave the Soviet Union deadlines, encouraged the Chinese to scare India, and dispatching the USS Enterprise task force into the Gulf of Bengal.  When Pakistani forces suffered the loss of equipment in large quantities, Nixon answered Yahya’s request for arms by gaining the support of the Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan to transfer US equipment to Pakistan.  With shades of the future Iran-Contra travesty over Nicaragua, the US promised to replace the equipment once the war ended despite the fact that it was illegal.  As the war was finally brought to a conclusion, the vindictive Nixon reemerged as he wanted to punish India, liberals domestically, and anyone who had opposed his policies during the previous ten months.  Once a ceasefire was a foregone conclusion, Nixon said, “I’d like to do it in a certain way that pisses on the Indians.” (319)  Bass’ book is based on exemplary primary research and should be considered the most complete work on the events in southwest Asia in 1971, and should attract anyone interested in a largely forgotten topic that has not gotten its due.

(Nixon and Kissinger in the Oval Office)

THE DEVIL’S PUNCHBOWL by Greg Iles

The Devil's Punchbowl (Penn Cage Series #3)

Greg Iles’ THE DEVIL’S PUNCHBOWL is the third installment of his Penn Cage novels.  The first two combined suspense, mystery, and insights into the human condition and the depravity of some.  Iles’ latest continues that trend as Cage, a former Houston prosecutor who returned home to Natchez, MS to raise his daughter Annie after his wife passed away from cancer.  Cage turned to writing and became a successful novelist, but local demands saw him become involved in a major civil rights case, a twisted drug case, and of course a murder investigation.  After witnessing how his hometown had deteriorated he decided to run for mayor and defeated his arch enemy Shad Johnson the sitting District Attorney.  Cage’s hope was to resurrect the city he loves, but after two years in his term he concluded that reforming education and municipal corruption was beyond his power.  His idealism faded as the political reality set in.  The novel opens as Cage meets with an old school friend, Tim Jessup, a recovering drug addict who was working at one of the floating casinos, the Magnolia Queen.  They meet late at night in the town cemetery where Jessup discloses that the casino operators are involved with a number of illegal activities ranging from dog fights, prostitution of underage girls, money laundering, and tax fraud.  This knowledge heightens Cage’s disgust and vows to resign his office.  However, when Jessup turns up dead and his house has been trashed he realizes that he is up against an organization that will kill anyone that gets in the way of their activities.

Cage knows he is up against something or someone that he has few resources of which to confront.  He is uncertain who on the Natchez city police or the county police he can trust.  He turns to his father, Dr. Tom Cage, and a group of paramilitary types led by Don Kelly, an ex-special forces operative in the Marines as well as his cohorts to save his family and pursue justice.  Dr. Cage also brings in Walt Garrity, a former soldier and Texas Ranger, that he had fought with during the Korean War to assist his son.  Cage also has worked with Danny Kelly, a former army special ops in Afghanistan who brings his Blackwater type organization with him to assist the mayor of Natchez since he cannot trust his own law enforcement apparatus.  The reader enters the casino world with its ancillary activities of money laundering, dog fighting, and political control, and if anyone threatens their agenda they seem to disappear if they stand in the way of what they are trying to achieve.  People like Seamus Quinn and his boss Jonathan Sanders are the epitome of ruthless operatives of which Cage must contend.  Included in this menagerie of criminals is Edward Po a Chinese corporate type who seems to be in charge, but is also a target of the Department of Homeland Security as represented by Special Agent William Hull.  Ile’s has strong opinions of the plight of the southern gulf coast and those individuals and groups, be it Asian or American who threaten to destroy his tranquil southern lifestyle.  Ile’s is also concerned about the educational bureaucracy that exists in his home state of Mississippi and its negative effects on the state’s future.   As Cage tries to deal with the situation characters from his previous books reemerge, i.e. Caitlin Masters the newspaper publisher and a woman he lived with for five years; Police Chief Don Logan, and the network of individuals that Cage worked with when he was a prosecutor in Houston.

One aspect that Iles’ introduces in his writing is the history of Natchez over the last century and how it impacts the current situation.  It gives the reader insights into southern culture and the accepted way of doing things.  For Penn Cage his frustration with the existing American legal system is something he is about to give up on.  The book also provides a window to international organized crime, particularly the Chinese variety and the strategies employed by the American justice system.  This is the third book in the Penn Cage series and is by far the best one.  Ile’s has the ability to grab the reader’s attention from the outset, and if you decide to read any of his work make sure you have set aside enough time for the task because once you become involved in the plot line it will be very difficult to put the book down.