JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: MILITANT SPIRIT by James Traub

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(John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States)

At a time when most Americans believe they are witnessing the most divisive political campaign they have ever experienced, they need only to turn the clock back to the 1828 presidential campaign when Andrew Jackson, angry because he believed the previous election had been stolen because of a “corrupt bargain” between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, launched a nasty and personal attack against Adams as early as his inauguration resulting in Jackson’s eventual victory.  This political clash is just one component of James Traub’s excellent new biography, JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: MILITANT SPIRIT.  Adam’s the son of our second president was a rather enigmatic and recalcitrant figure who seemed to always answer to principle, not political expediency.  His diplomatic career consisted of ministerial posts in the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, England, as well as serving as Secretary of State.  His political offices included the Massachusetts State Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Presidency.  Adams’ life is a compendium of late 18th and 19th century events where he usually was a focal point in any important situation.  This amazing career is skillfully portrayed by Traub as he dissects his subjects’ life and concludes that despite numerous achievements and failures, he never wavered from the moral convictions instilled in him by his parents, John and Abigail Adams.

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(Abigail and John Adams, John Quincy’s parents)

The success of Traub’s effort lies in mining the 15,000 pages of Adams’ journal that he kept over his entire life.  The fact that the journal has been digitized allows the author easy access and assisted in creating a window into his subject’s mind that is fascinating.  Traub explores every aspect of Adams’ life, especially his close relationship with both of his parents.  The reader can eavesdrop on conversations between the father and son where we see why Adams’ became the man he did.  Not quite a reincarnation of his father, but strikingly similar.  Many of the letters and conversations between mother and son are also available and we are exposed to the rigid moral principles and advice that Abigail offered. The type of father Adams’ became later in life is directly related to his own upbringing as he pursued the same method of childrearing as his parents.  As far as his relationship with his wife Louisa it does not measure up to the closeness between John and Abigail Adams.  He was a distant husband and Louisa and John Quincy spent many years apart.

At a very young age he “followed a set of standards, moral, and intellectual, to which people should be held, and he found much of the world wanting,” particularly women.  The pressure on Adams because of his parents was immense and this led to feelings of guilt and depressive episodes.  Many times he felt conflicted as he passed back and forth between aspiration and resignation.  Traub has the knack of interweaving Adams’ private life with his career in an interesting fashion.  We get a glimpse of all aspects of Adams be it in the family, years of diplomacy overseas, and his political career.  Traub’s careful devotion to detail creates an accurate portrayal of life on the family farm in Quincy, MA, Washington, DC, or the many countries that he served as a diplomat.

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(Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams who would outlive him by four years)

Adams was a much more pragmatic politician for his time and tried to stay away from rigid ideologues.  For example, he refused to join the Federalists in their attacks on Thomas Jefferson, a man he admired, and supported the purchase of Louisiana because for Adams, unlike today, country came first, not political partisanship.  Adams even supported Jefferson’s Embargo Acts (1807) when the New England region that he represented opposed it.  As Traub states “he would become an honorable outcast like his father.”

Traub does a masterful job explaining how Louisa endured her domineering husband.  The author’s narrative reflects a great deal of empathy toward Louisa as she tries to live apart from her sons for long periods of time while her husband was posted overseas.  This in conjunction to the many disappointments the couple endured, from separation, countless miscarriages, and the death of their daughter Louisa, and their two sons John and George, but as their marriage endured John Quincy and Louisa would grow somewhat closer.

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(Charles Francis Adams, the son of John Quincy that was most similar to his father)

Traub delves into all aspects of Adams’ diplomatic career.  His most important postings dealt with negotiations to end the War of 1812, as minister to England, and his work in St. Petersburg as he established a close and friendly relationship with Alexander I which proved very important during the period of Napoleon’s defeat and the establishment of the Holy Alliance.  Adams’ stint as Secretary of State is covered completely and the chapter devoted to negotiations with the British and concerns over the rise of Republics in the former Spanish colonies that led to the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 is one of Traub’s best.

Adams’ journal contains copious details of negotiations, social observations, and acute analysis.  Adams’ mindset, particularly as it related to the intellectual underpinnings of his foreign policy is incisive.  What emerges is a man whose belief system is somewhere between a realist and an idealist who spent his entire career trying to enhance American prestige and territory while avoiding what he considered reckless adventures, i.e.; recognition of Spanish Republics, whether to invade Cuba, the seizure of West Florida among others.  The intellectual core of Adams’ belief system rested on “the crucial distinction he made between freedom as a donation or grant from a sovereign and freedom as an act of mutual acknowledgement among equals.  This was America’s gift to mankind—a gift [that Adams] hoped to spread across the globe.”

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(Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States and a political foil to John Quincy)

Traub correctly points out that Adams’ was not a politician and would not seek office and do the necessary lobbying and cajoling to gain support for his own candidacy, and after assuming the presidency, to gain support for his legislative goals, particularly that of internal improvement and creating an infrastructure linking the expanding country.  The machinations involving the 1824 and 1828 presidential elections, his relationship with men like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Andrew Jackson, and especially his term as president can best summed up by the British historian George Dangerfield, here was “a rather conspicuous example of a great man in the wrong place, at the wrong time with the right motives and a tragic inability to make himself understood.”

Adams’ later career is presented in a clear and concise manner as he enters the House of Representatives, the only president to do so.  For Adams the issue of slavery was paramount and he saw the problem of states’ rights over tariffs as nothing more than a cover for the “peculiar institution.”  In the 1840s Adams found himself in the midst of many heated debates dealing with slavery.  At times he refused to label himself as an abolitionist, and would argue before the Supreme Court representing the men who had seized the slave ship, Amistad.  Further, he would become a thorn in the side of states’ rights supporters of slavery in the House of Representatives by repeatedly arguing against the “gag rule,” introducing petitions against slavery, and defending himself as attempts to censure him for his opposition to the “slavocracy” were introduced.  Adams would become a man without a party as he would support no faction in the House and found a unique role for himself, “the solitary vote of conscience.”

John Quincy Adams was the last link to the founding generation which in part makes his life so important.  In addition, he is also the last link between the creation of the United States and its near destruction by Civil War.  In a sense Traub argues that Adams’ time in the oval office was an unsuccessful interlude in a remarkable career that saw principle over expediency as the guiding light of one of the most remarkable figures in American history.  For Adams, no matter what the situation, Washington’s message in his Farewell Address to remain neutral abroad, achieve unity at home, and create the consolidation of the continent were his guiding principles and Traub does an excellent job explaining how his subject went about trying to achieve them.

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(John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States)

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VICTORY SEASON: THE END OF WORLD WAR II AND THE BIRTH OF BASEBALL’S GOLDEN AGE by Robert Weintraub

(Stan Musial and Ted Williams)

The year 1946 was a watershed in Post-World War II America.  It is the year that Robert Weintraub points out in his book, VICTORY SEASON: THE END OF WORLD WAR II AND THE BIRTH OF BASEBALL’S GOLDEN AGE that the United States had to reinvent itself from a collectivist society that was geared toward winning the war to one that could reabsorb millions of servicemen and women at a time when the country was unprepared to receive them.  1946 witnessed severe labor disruption, spiraling prices, wages that did not keep up with prices, and shortages of many goods and services.  As domestic trauma seemed to increase each day people began to grow concerned about our former ally, the Soviet Union.  Many feared a return to prewar depression and a new president who seemed unprepared for the office.  As baseball returned to the national consciousness at spring training sites, Winston Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, and at the State Department, George Kennan called for the “containment” of the Soviet Union in his “Long Telegram.”

When the government removed price controls prices rose on average about 18%, but wages lagged far behind resulting in a flurry of strikes nationwide.  Steel workers, miners, railroad workers all took to the picket lines almost bringing the nation to a halt.  The result was higher wages something that baseball players returning from the war had difficulty achieving.  Baseball was exempt from anti-trust legislation and through the “reserve clause” in contracts players were the property of the owners, in a sense a form of “indentured servitude.”  1946 represented the first time that teams were not missing players serving in the military and it was hoped by the players and their owners that their skills had not eroded during the war.

(Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey)

When I first picked up VICTORY SEASON I hoped that it would explain in detail how baseball served as a catalyst for returning a sense of normalcy to American life.  Weintraub does make the attempt, but does not really develop this theme enough.  The author does a magnificent job discussing some of baseballs endearing and not so endearing characters.  Focusing on the alcoholic owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers and later the New York Yankees, Lee MacPhail, we learn how he laid the foundation for Dodgers success in the 1940s and 50s, and then helped build the Yankees into the powerhouse that dominated baseball from 1949-1963.  Branch Rickey is portrayed as a genius who knew how to evaluate talent and took over the Dodgers from MacPhail.  He is also remembered as the person responsible for breaking the color barrier by recruiting Jackie Robinson, a strategy that Weintraub writes was motivated more for money that achieving racial equality.  We meet Leo Durocher the ornery manager of the Dodgers whose life was intertwined with numerous show business types.  Bill Veeck, the owner of the Cleveland Indians who brought many innovations to the game.  Red Barber, a southerner who brought his gentlemanly ways to the broadcast of Dodger games.  Jorge Pasquel a Mexican millionaire created a scare among major league owners when he tried to lure major league ballplayers for his “La Liga”  teams in different Mexican cities.  Lastly, Robert Murphy a Boston lawyer and member of the National Labor Relations Board who tried to organize players to stand up to the owners. Though he would fail, he laid the ground work for Marvin Miller to organize the players and get the “reserve clause” struck down creating free agency.

Weintraub also integrates the experiences of many players who fought in World War II and how it affected their later careers.  Among them are Hall of Fame pitcher Warren Spahn, who would survive the Battle of the Bulge and earn a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star; and Hall of Fame pitcher, Bob Feller who would see a significant amount of combat in the Pacific that greatly altered his view of life.  Of all the players who fought in the war only two were killed; Elmer Gedeon who played briefly for the Washington Senators was shot down over France as his plane tried to destroy one of Hitler’s V1 rocket sites; and Harry Mink O’Neill, a Marine who played for Connie Mack’s Philadelphia A’s and was killed on Iwo Jima.

(Iwo Jima Memorial, Arlington, VA)

Weintraub concentrates a great deal on the 1946 pennant races and World Series by focusing on Ted (the “splendid splinter”) Williams and the Boston Red Sox, and Stan (“the man”) Musial and the St. Louis Cardinals along with their amazing fan bases.  During his narrative all the major characters involved in the pennant race are explored with wonderful anecdotes and details that will make any fan of baseball history ecstatic.  The DiMaggio brothers, Bobby Doerr, Harry the Hat Walker, Pete Reiser, Jackie Robinson, Enos Slaughter are among the many stars of the game that Weintraub introduces and the reader gets to know.  Much of what Weintraub explores is based on his vast research and interviews with the few survivors of the 1946 season, their families, and newspaper reporters who knew them.

(Fenway Park, circa, 1946)

It appears Weintraub is straddling the line of writing historical narrative at the same time as presenting an interesting sports book.  He does an effective job integrating important aspects of the 1946 baseball season with the socioeconomic and political history of the period.  Weintraub explores the transportation industry, particularly the early use of airplanes by teams, railroad strikes that hindered teams from reaching their destinations, the segregation of society depriving black ballplayers the same amenities that white players enjoyed, the postwar housing shortage limited where all players could live, and many other examples.  When Weintraub focuses on this component of the story, it is fascinating, however, when he switches to the statistical component of baseball he seems to lose some of his effectiveness.

(Sportsman’s Park, St. Louis, MO)

An area that is both interesting and effective is when Weintraub introduces certain historical details and relates them to what is occurring on the diamond.  A number stand out, i.e.; aspects of the Nuremberg trials taking place in Germany-how a young guard smuggled a poisonous pill to Hermann Goering to facilitate his suicide, as well as describing how a truck strike in Boston during the World Series made it almost impossible to acquire day-to-day goods, especially baby food, among many other items.

For fans and players alike the return of baseball from the war years was an important vehicle in returning America to a more normal environment, but he goes a bit overboard comparing America’s victory in World War II with Enos “Country” Slaughter’s made dash home to win the 1946 World Series for the St. Louis Cardinals.  For fans and students of the game 1946 is like a “coming attraction” for baseball and the “Golden Era” that would follow.  Weintraub has written an interesting book that should satisfy those interested in the minutia of baseball history and how it was integrated into American society following World War II.

(Stan Musial and Ted Williams)

THE ANGEL: THE EGYPTIAN SPY WHO SAVED ISRAEL by Uri Bar-Joseph

October, 1973 was a traumatic period for the Arab-Israeli conflict which greatly affected the American economy.  On October 6th, Arab armies attacked Israel on Yom Kippur morning and the ensuing war resulted in an Arab oil embargo against the United States that brought long lines at gas stations, a spike in prices, and rationing.  The situation for Israel grew dire at the outset of the conflict, but after 21 days of fighting the Israeli Defense Forces proved victorious on the battlefield, though it can be argued the war resulted in a psychological defeat. No matter how the outcome is evaluated the situation for Israel could have been a lot worse had it not been for Ashraf Marwan, an Egyptian who spied for the Mossad who happened to be Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser’s son-in-law, and following Nasser’s death a close aide to his successor Anwar Sadat, which provided him with access to his country’s deepest secrets.  The story of how Marwan provided the Mossad information that should have allowed Israel to be on greater alert when the war came is effectively told by Uri Bar-Joseph, an Israeli academic with expertise in Israeli intelligence, in his new book, THE ANGEL: THE EGYPTIAN SPY WHO SAVED ISRAEL.

(President Gamal Abdul Nasser of Egypt, Mona, his daughter, and his son-in-law, Ashraf Marwan)

Bar-Joseph’s narrative follows Marwan from his rise to a position of power within the Egyptian government to his untimely death in 2007 when he was probably pushed over a terrace and fell to his death.  Marwan was a corrupt egoist who felt he deserved a powerful position in government.  His marriage to Nasser’s daughter was a step in achieving his goals.  The impediment was the fact that his father-in-law held a very low opinion of his son-in-law.  Intelligence sources made Nasser aware of Marwan’s avaricious lifestyle and he tried to get his daughter to divorce him.  When she refused Nasser allowed Marwan to work at a low level position in his office that he greatly resented, which in large part provided a rationale for him to turn to espionage to acquire wealth.

Bar-Joseph traces how Marwan gained access to Egyptian state secrets and analyzes why he chose to spy for Israel’s greatest enemy.  In assessing Marwan, Bar-Joseph concludes that his subject engaged in espionage for two reasons.  First, was financial.  Marwan needed money, but despite his contacts he was limited in influence because of Nasser’s Spartan approach toward his family.  If he was going to achieve the lifestyle he craved he would have to find a source of income that Nasser’s intelligence people could not uncover.  The second motive was Marwan’s ego.  Marwan craved power, but realized he was blocked by his father-in-law.  In his own mind he would show Nasser by turning to his father-in-law’s greatest enemy.  Disloyalty to Nasser was the solution for his financial and psychological crisis.

(Egyptian troops establish a beachhead in the Sinai on October 7, 1973)

Bar-Joseph does an excellent job explaining the marriage of Marwan and Israeli intelligence.  He describes in detail how Marwan offered his services and the vetting done by the Mossad.  The author takes the reader inside the Israeli intelligence community as they evaluate Marwan the person and as the relationship flourished, as well as the information that he made available.  Bar-Joseph discusses a number of important personalities, the positions they occupied, and their reactions to each other.  The key for the Israelis was to determine whether Marwan was a double agent.  Almost immediately the valuable material he provided trumped the idea he could have been playing them.  Though Bar-Joseph has a somewhat trenchant writing style, the picture he paints and many of the details he shares have never been published before and makes the book a very important work.

One of the keys to Marwan’s success was the Sadat-Marwan relationship as each needed the other.  Once Sadat assumed the Egyptian presidency he needed a link to Nasser’s family which did not think a great deal of him.  For Marwan, Sadat was a vehicle to improve his overall position in government to allow him to gain access to state secrets and new sources of wealth.  Marwan’s success was his ability to provide the Mossad Egypt’s most closely guarded secrets concerning plans to attack Israel.  For example, plans to cross the Suez Canal and establish a bridgehead in the Sinai, which came to fruition in October, 1973.  Further he provided notes of Egyptian meetings with the Soviet Union that showed that Moscow did not think Egypt was ready for war as well as the minutes of a Sadat-Brezhnev meeting in 1971 that was later shared with the United States.  Because of Marwan Israeli leaders developed a very accurate picture of Egypt’s intentions regarding war and peace, particularly that if Egypt attacked it would not be a comprehensive move to reconquer the Sinai.  Israeli military intelligence firmly believed, much to their detriment in October, 1973 that Egypt would never attack until they solved the problem of Israeli military superiority.

(Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat with senior military commanders during the Yom Kippur War)

Bar-Joseph traces the development of Sadat’s strategic thinking as he pressured the Russians to provide the necessary long rang planes, missiles, and air defense to allow an attack on Israel since he did not see a way to recover the Sinai through diplomatic means.  By August, 1973, the Russians would provide most of the necessary weaponry, leaving out SCUD missiles, a key item because Israeli military intelligence believed that Sadat would never launch an attack until he received the SCUDS.  As early as June, 1973 Marwan warned the Israelis that Sadat was changing his approach to war and decided he could attack Israel even if his forces were inferior.  The problem for Israel was that the head of its Military Intelligence branch, General Eli Zeira refused to revise his thinking and could not accept that Egypt possessed the where with all to launch an attack.  Further, Zeira refused to accept the fact that Marwan was not a double agent.  When the decision for war was made and Sadat asked the Russians to leave Egypt, Zeira believed that Sadat would now take a more defensive approach toward war, but for Sadat he had removed a major impediment to launching an attack.

The author provides the details of all the warnings that Marwan provided the Israelis as early as April 11, 1973 that Sadat had altered his thinking and an attack would come in the late spring or early summer.  Israeli military intelligence continued to mistakenly believe that Egypt would not launch an attack until it received SCUD missiles from the Soviets.  Marwan provided information of Egypt’s preparations for war as well as the developing alliance with Syria.  Throughout Marwan’s intelligence was dead on, but the Israelis did not analyze it correctly.  For Bar-Joseph his most important theme that he reiterates throughout the book is that as war finally approached by September, 1973 “Israel’s military intelligence was under the command of a group of officers whose commitment to a specific intelligence paradigm was unwavering, almost religious, even though it had been obviated by events almost a year earlier.”

What is fascinating about Bar-Joseph’s account is the detail he provides, particularly, an almost hour by hour account of the two days leading up to the war.  For example, the Israeli reaction to Marwan’s warning of October 4th that war was imminent, but the bureaucratic structure of Israel’s intelligence operations did not allow for the proper response and warnings to Golda Meir’s government.  The author does a credible job following the actions and views of all the major historical figures who were involved in the decision making on the eve of the fighting.  Even though Eli Zeira and those he influenced were unwilling to take Marwan’s warnings seriously which resulted in a spectacular intelligence failure, his information did speed up Israel’s reserve call up and other crucial decisions that saved them from an even greater military disaster than what occurred.

Once the war ended Marwan assumed a greater diplomatic role working directly with Sadat.  He became the liaison with Libya, Saudi Arabia and Syria, but also with Henry Kissinger as the United States tried to achieve a lasting ceasefire.  Even as Marwan worked to bring unity to the Arab world he was reporting to the Mossad.  Marwan’s influence then began to wane and he was forced to leave the government on March 1, 1976, but remained in the background working on a weapons consortium.  After Sadat’s assassination in 1981 he began a new chapter in his life moving to London.  Throughout he maintained his contacts with the Mossad, but after the Camp David Accords in 1979 he became a low priority for Tel Aviv.

(Israeli Defense Minister, Moshe Dayan and Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur War)

Bar-Joseph spends the latter part of his study conjecturing on who outed Marwan as an Israeli spy, and how he died in 2007.  His speculations do not reach concrete conclusions on either score, but Marwan dies shortly after he was outed, leading to all kinds of conspiracy theories that the author addresses.  Overall, Bar-Joseph describes an amazing life integrating all the major players in Marwan’s career as a spy.  Though, at times the book becomes bogged down in detail and is overly wordy, it is worth exploring because it is an important story that deals with a very sensitive topic.

(Ashraf Marwan)

THE DEVILS OF CARDONA by Matthew Carr

(Philip II of Spain and Hapsburg Emperor)

Toward the end of the late 16th century the reign of Philip II of Spain and ruler of the Hapsburg lands of Central Europe seemed threatened by external and domestic forces.  Externally, Queen Elizabeth of England worked to undermine his kingdom by supporting pirates and the armies of William of Orange as the Dutch continued their revolt against the Spanish monarch.  Across the Pyrenees, the King of France also did his best to cause difficulties for Philip.  Internally, Phillip had to deal with Moriscos, Moslems or Moors who had converted to Catholicism to avoid the punishment of the Inquisition.  This time period serves as the backdrop for Matthew Carr’s wonderful new novel, THE DEVILS OF CARDONA, an exploration of the social, economic, and political forces at work in Philip II’s kingdom through a plot centering on the murder of a despised Catholic priest, Padre Juan Panalle in the Belmar de la Sierra, an area in north eastern Spain near the French border.  Panalle was a despicable character who used his flock, mostly converted Moslems, to meet his sexual and economic needs.  Officials in Madrid had grown increasingly concerned about the Moslem threat and ordered Licenciado Bernardo Francisco Baldini de Mendoza a young judicial official to travel from his home in Valladolid in Castile to the site of the murder in Aragon and arrest and convict the guilty party.

Mendoza is a fascinating character who had witnessed the work of the Inquisition as a youngster and was still subjected to nightmares as an adult.  He never imagined that he would be part of the legal system that the Inquisition dominated during his career.  The instructions he received seemed clear, but as his work began his charge seemed much more complex than he was led to believe.  First, he had to deal with the goals of the Inquisition and its emissary, Mercader.  Second, was the government’s jurisdiction in Belmar, which fell under the auspices of the Countess of Cardona who had full jurisdiction over her kingdom that included Inquisitors and his Majesty’s own officials dating back to 1085, and recently renewed by Charles V in 1519.  Many of her vassals were Moriscos and she believed in bringing her subjects to Catholicism through acts of kindness, not the hammer blows of the Inquisition.  Mercader is convinced that the Countess is secretly allowing her subjects to maintain their Islamic faith, a charge that she vehemently denies.  Third, upon traveling to Cardona, Mendoza learned of the murder of three brothers which seemed to be an act of revenge perpetrated by Moslems. Fourth, a vicious plot perpetuated by one of Philip II’s counselors who sought to enrich himself by acquiring the Cardona estates.  Lastly, Mendoza was exposed to the threat of a supposed Moslem “redeemer,” who sought to avenge the work of the Inquisition and retake Spain from Philip II and reinstitute Islamic rule.

Carr does a magnificent job of capturing the essence of late 16th century Spain.  The cultural conflict between the Castilian and Aragonese regions is presented accurately as is the corrupt nature of the clergy, as well as the political and religious machinations of Philip II’s kingdom that greatly contribute to the novel’s plot.  The religious conflict between the Catholic Church and Islam dating back to the first half of the 16th century and the political problems between Castile and Aragon in particular are explored nicely through the many colorful characters Carr creates.  The plot is further enhanced as the Countess of Cardona, a widow whose extensive holdings are sought by many men who see their own power and wealth threatened by her marriage status.  By integrating “marriage diplomacy” into his story line, Carr heightens the reader’s understanding of events by placing them in their proper historical context.

As the novel progresses Mendoza finds himself in a jurisdictional fight with Mercader and the Inquisition.  Mercader has his own agenda that would allow him to rid Spain of the Moriscos and elevate himself in the eyes of Philip II.  Murders keep piling up and the conflicts between vested interests dominate the novel as evidence of a real redeemer emerge, particularly when  a Moslem family is massacred by a Catholic smuggling ring, creating further confusion.  As Mendoza’s investigation continues it takes a number of unexpected turns that will capture the reader’s attention to the point they cannot put the book down.  If you enjoy a good mystery enhanced by the sights and sounds of 16th century Spain, Carr’s effort will fascinate you.

The Devils of Cardona

67 SHOTS: KENT STATE AND THE END OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE by Howard Means

(Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller, May 4, 1970-the most iconic photo of the tragedy)

On May 4th, 1970, 28 people died in actions related to the war in Vietnam; 24 on the actual battlefield, and 4 on the campus of Kent State University.  My memories of that day are quite clear as I was a student at Pace University in New York City.  A day or two later I joined a demonstration against the war as Mayor John Lindsay ordered the flag at City Hall Park to be flown at half-staff in remembrance of the 4 student who died at Kent State.  Almost immediately construction workers who were working on the World Trade Center site marched up Broadway beating anyone who seemed to be against the war, while New York City’s finest did nothing to stop them.  The next day my US Army Reserve unit was activated on the St. John’s University campus in Queens to deal with demonstrations.  My experience reflects the split in American society at the time and the total deterioration that existed between generations, and the attitude of many toward the Nixon administration.  Howard Means’ new book 67 SHOTS: KENT STATE AND THE END OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE captures that time period as he reevaluates events leading up to the shootings, the actual shootings themselves, and how people reacted and moved forward following the resulting casualties.

(National Guard use of tear gas on May 4, 1970 at Kent State)

The climate at Kent State was heated long before President Richard Nixon went on television on April 30, 1970 to announce the American “incursion” into Cambodia to root out North Vietnamese sanctuaries that were used to attack American troops.  This announcement exacerbated tensions between the administration and the anti-war movement that was labeled as “bums” by Nixon and his Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.  Means was able to reconstruct events at Kent State through numerous interviews of many of the actual participants as well as conducting research at Kent State’s archive.  This allowed Means to weave his narrative encompassing the actions of students and members of the National Guard and try and determine whether the Guardsmen were under enough of a threat to open fire on the students, or did the climate that existed on campus from May 1-4 make the tragedy inevitable.

Tension on campus was brought to a head when students burned down the ROTC building on May 2nd, and later that day the National Guard was summoned by Governor James Rhodes and deployed on campus.  One of the most important questions that Means explores was why was the Guard was called upon when it lacked the training in crowd control, and the use of M1 rifles, when the Ohio Highway Patrol was trained and ready to intervene.  Means places a great deal of the blame for events on Governor James Rhodes who was running for the US Senate against Congressman Robert Taft, Jr. and wanted to strike a tough persona to enhance his election bid as he stated on the morning of 5/3 when things seemed to be calming down, that he “would eradicate the disease of student unrest, not merely treat the symptoms.”

(National Guard shoot a Kent State student, May 4, 1970)

The inevitability of a crisis at Kent State resulted from disparate forces-the high spirits of the student body (about 4,000 of 21,000 students who participated in the demonstrations), the spring like weather, the war in Vietnam, Nixon’s Cambodia speech, campus radicalism (about 300 students), the exhortations of Jerry Rubin, local anxiety, the generational divide, and growing tensions between the town and the university.  Means argues effectively that outside agitators were not responsible for May 4th, as events were fostered by Kent State’s student body.  Supporters of the National Guard argue that SDS was responsible for organizing students which was not true.  Means presents a frame by frame picture of May 4th and concludes that the shootings did not have to take place.  The National Guard spokespersons argued that there was a snipper who threatened the soldiers, but there was no evidence that one existed.  Further, the students did not rush the soldiers who claimed their lives were in danger.  The problem throughout the crisis was the lack of communication and coordination between the National Guard, the university, and town officials.  Means based his conclusions on evaluating the statements of the main participants and the interviews he conducted over many years.  For Means it is clear that the National Guard was not protecting itself from “imminent danger, instead, there seems to have been a strange mix of intentionality, horrific judgement, terrible luck, preventability and inevitability.”  The generation gap, the Age of Aquarius, all came together on May 4, 1970.

(The 4 students killed at Kent State)

Means describes the moods of students and guardsmen and the shock and outrage that followed the shootings.  He points to the heroes, like Major Don Manley of the Ohio Highway Patrol who convinced the National Guard commander, General Robert Canterbury to allow faculty marshals additional time to convince students to disperse, before further damage could be done.  Other heroes include Geology professor Glenn Frank, a former marine who convinced students to leave when the National Guard reformed and were getting ready to fire again.  However, most townspeople and guardsmen felt that the students brought the shootings on themselves and they got what they deserved.  It is amazing that the actual firing took 13 seconds to unleash 67 bullets!

Means does an excellent job describing the actions and statements of the Nixon administration as well as taking the reader into the White House.  He argues that Nixon became unmoored by events at Kent State that led to his famous 2:00am visit to the Lincoln Memorial to engage young people.  Means also examines the culpability of all the major players in this drama; from university president, Robert White; Kent mayor, Leroy Satron; Governor James Rhodes, and National Guard Commander Robert Canterbury and his officers.  Means explores the legal actions that followed and the Scranton Commission that investigated the shootings.  What emerges is that the death of 4 students and 9 wounded should not have occurred.  It was due to poor training, a lack of communication, and a political climate that was on edge.  Means has written a well-documented account of events and for anyone interested in one of the most iconic tragedies of the Vietnam era, this book is well worth consulting.

(Mary Ann Vecchio leaning over the body of Jeffrey Miller, May 4, 1970)

FICTION IN A NARCISSIST’S MIND

 

I have been trying to hold my tongue when thinking about the coming election.  However, last night the egoist from Manhattan just went too far.  Having studied the Middle East for over 40 years I am fully aware of the errors that President Obama has made in dealing with Iraq and Syria, but too blame him for being the “founder” of ISIS reflects the total lack of historical knowledge that the egoist is guilty of.  Perhaps the narcissist should read a book or consult documents dealing with the Middle East.  Perhaps he might learn that ISIS morphed from al-Qaeda in Iraq.  Perhaps he would learn that Abu Musa al-Zarqawi began the process as early as 2005.  Perhaps he would learn that the Bush administration destabilized Iraq to the point of creating the vacuum that Iran and ISIS have filled.  Perhaps he would learn that Paul Bremer was incompetent.  Perhaps he would learn that “Debathization” was one of the worst decisions the Bush administration ever made.  Perhaps he would learn that many of ISIS’ officer corps and leaders rose from the Iraqi Sunni military population.  I could go on, but I know “perhaps” doesn’t apply to Mr. Trump, as well as historical fact.  I apologize in advance if this rant bothers some, but I do not “tweet” so this is my vehicle for political therapy.

 

THE BLACK WIDOW by Daniel Silva

(ISIS overruns Raqqa, Syria)

While discussing his new book THE BLACK WIDOW in the Music Hall in Portsmouth, NH author Daniel Silva pointed out that the Paris bombing described in his sixteenth installment of his Gabriel Allon series was a complete fabrication.  In light of actual events that seem to coincide with the book’s publication, Silva seems clairvoyant, a trait that allows him to create plausible scenarios when compared to real events.  In part, this characteristic is responsible for the popularity of his work, along with the development of the Gabriel Allon character over the years.  In THE BLACK WIDOW, Allon is about to become the head of the “Office,” the nickname for Israeli intelligence when a bomb explodes in the Marais section of Paris, known for its Jewish population.  The attack was centered on a conference organized by Hanna Weinberg, the head of the Isaac Weinberg Center for the study of Anti-Semitism in France. The jihadi attack is successful and we learn about a man who goes by the nomenclature of Saladin.

What follows is one of Silva’s best books as the author presents an accurate reality that hopefully will never visit America.  Through Silva’s characters the reader is exposed to an accurate history of the Islamic State or ISIS and the background presented affords the reader the expertise that Silva has tapped in preparing his novel.  Many names will be familiar to Silva’s audience as they were developed in previous Allon books.  However, a new person emerges as one of the most important that Silva has ever created.  Her name is Natalie Mizrahi, a physician who immigrated to Israel because of the treatment of Jews in France, a subject that Silva treats as he argues that Islamic terror is a serious problem for Jews in France, and that the French government has been very laissez faire in dealing with it.  Dr. Mizrahi is recruited by Allon and trained to penetrate ISIS and gather intelligence concerning Saladin’s plans.  Saladin is a former officer and intelligence operator in the Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.  Once the United States invaded Iraq and defeated Saddam’s forces Washington pursued the mistaken policy of “debathization.”  Because of this error hundreds of Saddam’s Sunni officer core had nowhere to turn.  Saladin, like many others joined al-Qaeda in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi which eventually morphed into ISIS.

Sixth and I - July 2013

(author, Daniel Silva)

Throughout the novel Silva makes many astute judgements that currently affect the war on terror.  For example, the Brussels’ neighborhood of Molenbeek is presented as an ISIS oasis in the middle of the Belgian capitol.  Silva critiques President Obama’s Middle East policy (without mentioning his name) and statements concerning ISIS that he totally disagreed with.  The state of French-Israeli relations, the bureaucratic battles within the Israeli intelligence community are delved into, as is the sour relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv.  It is obvious that Silva has done a great deal of research in preparing his novel.  As I was reading the dialogue I had the feeling that I was reading from the works of Scott Shane, Michael Weiss, and Joby Warrick who have written extensively on ISIS and the war on terror, and lo and behold when I read Silva’s acknowledgements he cited these excellent journalist/historians.

What is fascinating about Silva’s approach is how realistic and believable his scenarios and characters are.  His description of turning Dr. Mizrahi into the Israeli agent Leila Hawadi is eye opening.  Further, the Mizrahi/Hawadi character’s indoctrination by ISIS is very disturbing as she witnesses the caliphate up close and what their raison detre is, as well as the actions they are planning.  Silva takes the reader on a thrilling voyage that I fear someday might come to pass.  If you are a fan of Silva’s previous efforts, you should find THE BLACK WIDOW a very satisfying read.

(ISIS overruns Raqqa, Syria)