IN EXTREMIS: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF WAR CORRESPONDENT MARIE COLVIN by Lindsey Hilsum

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(Marie Colvin in the Chechen Mountains, 1999)

“Why do I cover wars…. It is a difficult question to answer.  I did not set out to become a war correspondent.  It has always seemed to me what I write about is humanity in extremis, pushed to the unendurable, and that it is important to tell people what really happens in war—declared and undeclared.” (Marie Colvin, The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka, April 22, 2001)

 

Lindsey Hilsum’s new biography of Marie Colvin is a stark reminder of the plight of journalists in our ever-dangerous world.  According to the Washington Post at least 43 journalists were killed in 2018 with another 12 deaths whose causes are not totally clear.  The role of a journalist is to report the news as accurately as possible so citizens can make intelligent judgements about world events.  The life of Colvin presented in IN EXTREMIS: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF THE WAR CORRESPONDENT MARIE COLVIN reflects that dedication and commitment to that truth.  Hilsum, international editor for Channel 4 News in England is the perfect candidate to write about Colvin’s life as she herself covered wars and conflicts in the Middle East, the former Soviet Union, and Africa.  The recent murder of Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi Arabian government reflects the danger journalists face.  The evidence points to the murder being ordered by the Saudi Royal Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman because of Khashoggi’s negative reporting of Saudi policies.  In this case a journalist was not killed on the battlefield, though in a sense he was.  In Colvin’s case she would give her life reporting from Homs, Syria district of Baba Amir, killed by an artillery attack in 2012 during the civil war that continues to this day.

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(Colvin in Cairo during the Arab Spring, 2011)

Colvin was raised in a comfortable middle-class Catholic family on Long Island, a lifestyle she would totally reject after studying with legendary journalist John Hersey at Yale and move on to a dangerous yet rewarding career as a war correspondent.   Hersey was one of the first individuals who impacted Colvin’s life and work.  Another, her role model, Martha Gellhorn whose work during World War II was exemplary.  Hilsum meticulously chronicles Colvin’s relationships and how they affected her love life and career.  Perhaps the most important being Sunday Times correspondent, David Blundy.  This bond was less sexual and more of a lifetime friendship as they shared the same approach to their work, humor, and the way they approached the world.  Hilsum details other important relationships pointing out their importance to Colvin’s life and work which both seemed conceived as a war zone.  Colvin was married twice to husbands who repeatedly lied to her, had her own series of affairs and one-night stands, suffered miscarriages, and would resort to alcohol to deal with her pain.

Colvin’s big break came in 1985 as a UPI reporter she was sent to Morocco with other journalists to witness the celebration of King Hassan’s twenty-five-year reign.  This morphed into an assignment in Libya as its leader, Muammar Gaddafi, the self-declared revolutionary and supporter of terrorism decided to engage the United States in a manner that could only bring President Reagan to respond with overwhelming force.  During their relationship Colvin was able to score several interviews with the Libyan strong man, and while avoiding his sexual advances enabling her to explore his rogue ideology and what he might do next.  Hilsum delves into how Colvin conducted interviews and developed her approach to revolutionaries, terrorists, or as they described themselves, freedom fighters.   For Colvin, her reporting was designed to focus on “the role and feelings of the individual in the collective violence of war.” (56)

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Hilsum’s approach reflects Colvin’s dedication to her craft and the dangers she faced on a regular basis.  Be it confronting Muammar Gaddafi, her special relationship with Yasir Arafat, or interviewing other individuals who rebelled against existing power structures.  The reader is presented with an inside look at the pitfalls and obstacles journalists like Colvin faced each day in Libya, Iraq, Israel, Kosovo, Chechnya, East Timor, Afghanistan, and finally in Syria over the last three decades.  Hilsum relies on over three hundred journals maintained by Colvin, interviews with her peers, and impeccable research to construct a fascinating picture of Colvin’s private life and career which she had difficulty keeping separate.

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Hilsum does a nice job presenting the background history of each conflict area Colvin explores.  The author tries to explain the myriad factions in Lebanon as Beirut is divided at a green line with Maronite Christians, Amal,  Palestinian groups, bourgeoning Hezbollah all backed by different powers be it Iran, Russia or Syria.  In dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Hilsum bores down deep to explain its origins, the constant explosion into violence be it the Intifadas, the wars against Hamas, and the attempts at peace.  Hilsum describes Colvin’s approach to reporting as other journalists would file from the relative safety of Paris and Cyprus when covering Middle East tension, Colvin would get up close and want to experience events before she reported.  Danger be damned, as her journalism was distinguished  by her personal experience and she would become part of the nomadic group of journalists who wandered the landscape of the Middle East.

For Colvin the Middle East held a tremendous fascination which explains many of her stories.  She was able to develop a trusting relationship with the elusive Yasir Arafat and interviewed him over twenty times.  Hilsum describes the arcane nature of Palestinian politics and the reclusive nature of the Palestinian Chairman.  Arafat is the perfect example to study as Colvin had the uncanny ability to get people to speak to her.  Colvin’s reputation was secured as she was able to sneak into Basra in 1986 during the Iran-Iraq war, Beirut during the 163-day siege of the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp in 1987, and her reporting helped create world pressure to get the Syrians to force their surrogates to stop the fighting.  The following year her stories describing the first Intifada against Israel reaffirmed her status as a war correspondent.  Colvin was not known for her stylistic approach to writing, but she got the facts and the human-interest component, at times leaving it to her editors in London to fit the puzzle of her reporting together in a more coherent whole.

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(Homs, Syria where Colvin was targeted and killed by Syrian intelligence in 2012

The years 1998 through 2001 found Colvin moving from what area of conflict to another with seemingly no time in between.  1998 saw her in Kosovo reporting on the devastation caused by Serbian nationalists. 1999 revolved around Indonesia as rebels in East Timor declared their independence.  Later that same year Colvin moved on to Chechnya as the new President of Russia, Vladimir Putin decided to crush Chechen rebels who had broken away from Russia during the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Finally, becoming involved in the Sri Lankan Civil War where she was shot trying to leave a Tamil rebel held area, resulting in a loss of her eye, and a deep depression as she tried to recover physically as well as emotionally.

Hilsum chronicles Colvin’s eventual psychological spiral as she was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder for which she received treatment.  But her developing alcoholism was never treated.  As Hilsum vividly explains, “She could not unseen what she had seen, and he [a colleague] feared she was losing her ability to distance herself from horror.”  (Washington Post, December 21, 2018)  As Colvin describes herself in a November 12, 2010 piece it was difficult to distinguish between bravery and bravado. (294)

Colvin was a remarkable woman who had many irreconcilables demons within, but she found herself to a large extent as a war correspondent that made life, at times tolerable.  She witnessed and personally suffered a great deal of sadness and joy in her life, but her work is a testament for what journalism can accomplish, and the hope that those in power will care when reporting reaches the newspapers, websites, or television.  Hilsum has done an excellent job capturing the essence of who Colvin was and how she made her life meaningful.

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(Marie Colvin on assignment)

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THE PERILOUS ADVENTURES OF THE COWBOY KING, A NOVEL OF TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND HIS TIMES by Jerome Charyn

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(Theodore Roosevelt in the Dakota Badlands)

In Jerome Charyn’s last book I AM ABRAHAM the author presents an unforgettable portrait of Lincoln and the Civil War.  He boldly narrates his story in the first person and mixes his brand of humor with Shakespearean like tragedy.  In his current effort Charyn takes on the character of Theodore Roosevelt,  entitled, THE PERILOUS ADVENTURES OF THE COWBOY KING: A NOVEL OF TEDDY ROOSEVELT AND HIS TIMES. As he has done in the past, Charyn speaks in the first person beginning with Roosevelt’s relationship with his father, “Braveheart” as a boy during the Civil War and follows his career as an Assemblyman in the New York State legislature, serving as New York City Police Commissioner and Governor of New York, organizing the Rough Riders, to the precipice of the presidency.  As in most of his books when he resorts to a first-person narrative, Charyn possess the uncanny ability to get inside the mind of his protagonist and speak in very accurate historical terms, adding a dash of humor and sarcasm, in conjunction with an exceptional imagination.

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Charyn’s first book was published in 1964 and he has not lost any of his verve for writing, particularly entertaining, but meaningful historical fiction.  There are numerous biographies of Theodore Roosevelt ranging from Edmund Morris’ trilogy, single volumes by H.W. Brands, Kathleen Dalton, David McCulloch, and of course Roosevelt’s autobiography.  Reading a novel about Roosevelt is like riding an unbroken horse.  It usually proceeds at a gallop, then a canter, resulting in a full sprint.  Numerous characters appear, and thankfully Charyn has prepared a “Dramatis Personae” at the outset delineating all the major and secondary characters with a brief sentence or two for each. This is a great tool for the general reader who is not familiar with the Jay Gould’s, Roscoe Conklin’s, Dr. Leonard Wood, William Winters-White, Boss Thomas Platt, J.P. Morgan, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Josephine, Roosevelt’s pet cougar among the many historical figures that are recreated that appear in rapid-fire fashion throughout the novel.

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(The Rough Rider)

The Roosevelt family is accurately portrayed, particularly the roles of Bamie, his sister who became his mother, overseer, and confidante after the deaths of his mother and young wife Alice.  Whether it is conversations within the Roosevelt family or “Robber Barons,” political hacks, or other important historical figures Charyn’s dialogue and commentary reflect the author’s knack of gaining entrance into Roosevelt’s thought process.  It seems as if the author has obtained an intimacy with Roosevelt’s mind that allows the reader to feel as if he is in a private conversation with “Teddy.”  The reader can touch Roosevelt’s emotional pain as his beloved Alice and mother pass away the same night or the reemergence of his relationship with his childhood friend Edith Carow who he goes on to marry.  The emotional torture Roosevelt deals with as he must decide to forgo widowhood as its implications for his sister Bamie and his daughter Baby Alice is on full display and is indicative of Charyn’s ability to present the emotional torture that Roosevelt experiences, but at the same time exhibit the talent to describe it in a sensitive and meaningful manner.

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(Edith and Theodore Roosevelt)

Charyn is correct that Roosevelt was never without a cause, and once he was committed it was full speed ahead be it the corruption he dealt with as New York Police Commissioner, trying to push the United States into war with Spain as Undersecretary of the Navy, or his formation and financing of the Rough Riders for the war over Cuba.  In all these situations Charyn’s descriptions, scene recreation and dialogue are priceless as Roosevelt confronts the corrupt Pinkertons as Police Commissioner, his approach to training men for war, and the Battle for Kettle and San Juan Hills during the Spanish-American War.

Charyn’s Roosevelt is an obstreperous, emotional, and generous person who cared about those stricken by poverty, his soldiers, and it seemed anyone down on their luck.  We gain insights into the family man and his softer side.  However, this is not a hagiographical approach to fiction as Roosevelt’s flaws are readily apparent from his temper, racism, and intolerance for those who opposed him.  Overall, an entertaining read and a remarkable success as it could not have been easy writing a fictional account of a man whose actual  life fostered so many examples that seem made up.

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THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ by Antonio Iturbe; translated by Lilit Zekulin Thwaites

 

Image result for photo of the gate of auschwitz(The approach to Auschwitz)

The horrors of the Holocaust are well known and the figure of 6,000,000 is imbedded in our memory.  However, another figure that emerges that is just as repugnant to human consciousness is 1.5-1.6 million.  This is the figure associated with the number of children who perished in the Holocaust.  The Nazis had no compunction about killing children be it for ideological reasons that made them a danger to the 1000-year Reich or the fact they were unwanted.  Some were killed in retaliation for partisan attacks or others were part of the Action T4, the eradication of children with disabilities.  No matter the cause of death; Joseph Mengele’s medical experiments, clearing ghettos, the Nazis deemed that children needed to be eliminated.  Of the 6,000,000 that perished over 1,000,000 lost their lives at Auschwitz-Birkenau, of that figure it is hard to determine exactly how many were children.  Whatever the figure their existence at Auschwitz left them vulnerable to medical experiments, hard labor, and the constant fear of death.  To survive, any activity that seemed to be a hint of normalcy was important.  In Auschwitz a small school with a tiny library was allowed for children which becomes the focal point of Antonio Iturbe’s wonderous book, THE LIBRARIAN OF AUSCHWITZ. Translated by Lilit Thwaites.

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(Dita Polachova [Kraus])

The book is reminiscent of Markus Zusak’s THE BOOK THIEF for the tone that it sets.  The book is based on the experience of Dita Kraus who along with her parents was deported to Terezin in 1942, later in December of 1943 they were sent to Auschwitz where Dita was separated from her parents.  She would serve as the librarian in the block set up for children in Birkenau, with only a handful of books. Fredy Hirsch, a sports instructor from Prague ran the children’s block, and he along with a handful of teachers filled the children’s time with educational and cultural activities. One of these young educators was Otto (Ota) Kraus, Dita’s future husband.

“In March 1944, half of the children living at the children’s block were murdered, and their beloved Fredy Hirsch also died. In May, Dita and her mother were sent to Hamburg, Germany, where they were put to back-breaking labor. From Hamburg, the two women were transported to labor camps, and then in March 1945 to Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated several weeks later by the British Army.” (www.yadvashem.org/remembrance/archive/2014/torchlighters/kraus.html)

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(Dr. Josef Mengele and his experiments)

Kraus describes Iturbe’s work as being based on extensive conversations with her, along with other research and sources.  “It is a story born both from my own experiences and the rich imagination of the author.”  Though the narrative mirrors what Kraus experienced it stands on its own as literary witness to what she, her family, and so many others had to cope with each day, and the final toll it took on its victims.

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(Dita Kraus)

For the children who attend Alfred Hirsch’s school in Block 31 the question that dominates their world is why they should study when there’s little chance they will leave Auschwitz alive?  Hirsch’s rationalization is that Block 31 should be an oasis for children as they had little hope each day.  The reality is that 521 children received somewhat of an education in Block 31, but they live in constant fear of becoming a specimen in one of Dr. Josef Mengele’s morbid experiments.  For the children, the location of Block 31 is on the path of deportees walking from their transport to the showers and their death reinforced their plight.  For the teachers, how do you teach children when they can hear the noise attendant to victims who will shortly be gassed?

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(Dita and Raja Engländerová-Žádníková, Hagibor 1941)

Iturbe presents many characters who either suffer from tortured relationships or they torture themselves through anxiety and fear of what the future holds.  The author has a nose for detail and the sensibilities of his characters. Each character has their own way of coping.  For Dita, the protagonist it is being a librarian for the inmates and the danger that is part of her existence.  Dita treats her library which consists of eight paper books and six living books as if she is a doctor, perhaps a surgeon as each time a book needs repair, she stitches them back to life. For Rudi Rosenberg, who is the camp registrar, exposing him to the numbers associated with death he begins a relationship with Alice Munk, a young desperate Jewess.  Then there is Victor Pestek, a member of the SS, who develops a friendship with Renee Neumann.  For Fredy Hirsch it is to allow the children to focus on something other than their situation, for him when a child smiles it was an act of defiance.  For Ota Kelle, it was to teach children about Palestine and the future.  For Liesl Adler, Dita’s mother she must deal with the void that the the death of her husband has caused, and poor Professor Morgenstern, it was to act like a fool. As Iturbe develops these characters he integrates a historically accurate picture of what transpired in Terezin and Auschwitz, and brings along important historical figures like Mengele, Adolph Eichmann, Johann Schwarzhuber, Elisabeth Volkenrath, and Rudolf Hoss.  The language and behavior of the Kapos and SS, the description of the clothing and work of the inmates, the Wagnerian music in the background are all true to history.

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(Ota B. Kraus)

For Dita to survive, Iturbe describes her relationship with books that she treats as if they were sacred texts. She immerses herself into H.G. Wells’ A SHORT HISTORY OF THE WORLD, Thomas Mann’s THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN, Alexandre Dumas’ THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, and Jaroslav Hasek’s THE ADVENTURES OF GOOD SOLDIER SVEJK in order to understand the world in which she lives, and as a means of surviving each day.  As Dita communes with the book’s characters she questions many things including who she can trust in a world where rumors and lies dominate.  One of the survival  tools that Dita develops is creating a photo album in her head, something the Nazis could not take away from her as they worked to deprive children of their childhoods.

Aside from telling Dita’s story Iturbe engages in several philosophical aspects of life and survival, particularly in a concentration camp.  The human capacity and spirit for overcoming all obstacles emerges as does the importance of books in our everyday lives.  The book’s audience should be wide, and I encourage all to invest the time to experience it.

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(The gate to Auschwitz)

MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS by Stefan Zweig

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(Mary Queen of Scots)

The other day I went to see the film, Mary Queen of Scots  and as I do with most historical films, I wondered how historically accurate it was.  I vaguely recalled the biography of the Scottish Queen written over forty years ago by Antonia Fraser and it seemed there was a great deal of artistic license employed.  Since the most recent biography of Mary was written by John Guy it seemed like the best choice to read, however the film was based on that monograph. I decided to read an older classic account of the Queen written by Stefan Zweig in 1935 which has withstood the test of time.

Zweig, a prolific short story writer has written several biographies of major historical and literary figures that made him one of the most popular European writers in the 1920s and 30s.  Zweig delivers  a solid biography that encompasses her life begun during the time of Henry VIII who tried to pressure Mary’s father, James V to reject Catholicism and accept Protestantism.  James V would die six days after Mary’s birth (though Zweig seems to say they died on the same day), resulting in the ascension of Mary to the Scottish throne at birth.

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(Lord Henry Darnley)

What is clear about Scottish history is that it was very difficult for any monarch to rule Scotland effectively due to the marauding and jealous clans, led by lords who had difficulty projecting fealty to any monarch.  These lords were arrogant and greedy and were part of a somewhat narcissistic nobility.  Any wealth the monarchy might posses apart from sheep herds were gifts and grants from the French king or the Pope.  Historically Scotland was a pawn in the battle between France and England, and when war would break out, the English would land at Normandy, and the French would foment problems with their Scottish allies in the rear.

Zweig writes in a pleasant literary style that most historians can not match.  He writes with a scent of sarcasm whether discussing dynastic politics or diplomacy, and his monograph reads like a novel.  A prime example are the negotiations between Henry VIII and the Scots to marry his son Edward to the six-year-old Mary.  However, even after the negotiations are successful, she is spirited away by the French King Henry II to marry his son Francis.

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(Elizabeth I)

The basic problem is that Mary had a legitimate claim to the English throne once Henry VIII died and his heirs Edward and Mary died.  The Scottish Mary was the great grand daughter of Henry VII of England, and Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn was deemed a bastard.  Henry II would paint the English coat of arms on Francis and Mary’s blazon in 1559 thus fostering the enmity and creating a rival for Elizabeth I.  For the remainder of her life, Mary was seen by Elizabeth as a threat to her throne and eventually it would not end well for Mary.

Zweig will lay out the history of Mary’s short marriage to the sickly Francis and describe in detail her unwanted departure from France and return to Scotland.   Zweig effectively relates Mary’s emotional state as she departs France.  Zweig integrates Mary’s state of mind throughout the book and incorporates Mary’s own writings and words into the narrative.  When Mary departs for Scotland on August 14, 1561, she is traveling to a country that is totally strange and foreign to her.  She faces several obstacles before she arrives that will dog her for her entire reign.  She is to rule over a poverty-stricken country, she must deal with a corrupt nobility that seems to make war at the slightest provocation, she must confront a clergy that is equally divided between Catholicism and Protestantism, and must deal with foreign neighbors who are waiting to benefit from the fratricidal disputes that seem to occur regularly.

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(Lord Bothwell)

Zweig lays out the barriers that Mary must face when she assumes the throne.  She is poor as her mother; Mary of Guise left no inheritance.  Further, she must deal with wars of religion where the towns support Protestantism, and the countryside Catholicism.  In addition, she must deal with fanatical priests and foreign powers, and lastly nobles who convert to Calvinism as a means of seizing Church wealth.  Mary learned fast and decided that perpetual warfare was the way to preserve her Stuart heritage.  The question that dominants is how does one rule when more than half of your kingdom believes in a different religion.

Several important figures emerge that influence the course of Mary’s reign.  Her half-brother James Stuart, the bastard son of James V was her Prime Minister, and a Protestant.  A patient practitioner of the Machiavellian arts, he would have made the perfect king of Scotland.  James was wealthy in his own right and was always willing to accept subsidies to carry out the desires of Elizabeth I.  Another major figure was John Knox, the fanatical Calvinist preacher who refused to accept Mary as the legitimate ruler of Scotland.  His merciless antagonism and demagogic speeches designed to spread his dictatorial religious beliefs was a threat to Mary her entire reign.  When they finally meet for the first time, Zweig presents a wonderful description of their debate that demeaned Mary, who stood up to Knox but realized the difficulty that he presented.

Throughout Zweig allows the reader to experience Renaissance culture through the poets and their poetry of the period.  Mary who grew up during the French Renaissance was a cultured individual who did not fit in Scotland.  Zweig shifts his narrative to the social and cultural mores and norms whenever the situation warrants, and it is a pleasant change from the constant lack of decency and back stabbing that dominates Mary’s reign.

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Any biography of Mary must concentrate on her relationship with Elizabeth I.  Zweig
does an exceptional job and his narrative is based on facts presented or debated with a scholar’s enthusiasm.  There is a psychological dimension to the relationship between the two Queens and Zweig does his best to explore it and reach his own psychohistorical conclusions.  He possesses a deep admiration for Mary and her refusal to give into a destiny that she should have been able to predict.  Reading this monograph at a time of the “me-too” movement one must not take out any sexist frustrations one might feel in regard to Zweig’s comments, i.e.; “In spite of their superlative traits these two women remained women throughout and were unable to overcome the weaknesses inherent in their sex.”  The narrative concerning the monarchial cousins centered on their differences that led to the ruin of Mary and victory for Elizabeth.

Zweig correctly points out that the Treaty of Edinburgh was at the center of their inability to reach a rapprochement despite the flowery letters between the two.  Mary would not sign the treaty recognizing Elizabeth’s reign until Elizabeth had accorded the succession to Mary – but to Elizabeth that would be signing her death warrant.  Zweig points out the strengths and weaknesses of the cousins as well as their similarities and differences.  Mary possessed a madly heroic self-confidence that led to her doom.  Elizabeth suffered from a lack of decision making, but she would still be victorious.  Mary was the champion of the old Catholic faith and was a character out of the Middle Ages believing in chivalry which was dying out.  Elizabeth was the more modern monarch who was defending the reformation.  The approach to their individual kingdoms also sets them apart.  Mary’s kingdom belonged to her on a personal level and she was interested in territorial expansion of her realm, only if it would benefit her personally.  For Elizabeth everything she did was to expand her kingdom and add to the glory of England, not her personal possessions.  The resulting engagement in wars, colonial expansion, and spreading England’s influence around the world was the result.

Perhaps Zweig’s most fascinating chapters deal with marriage diplomacy between the two Queens.  The narrative is priceless as negotiations between the two go back and forth and characters like Lord Henry Darnley and Robert Dudley become pawns between the two women.  Zweig’s presentation is almost like a comedic sketch resulting in the secret marriage of Darnley to Mary that has grave repercussions as Elizabeth and James Stuart are shunned to the side and the result is war that at first Mary is victorious, but in the end creates tensions that could only result in her defeat.

Zweig constantly offers a lens into the human condition throughout the narrative.  He delves into the psychological imperative that drives Mary and provides a wonderful soliloquy encompassing her infatuation for Lord Bothwell and the repercussions of the murder plot to kill her husband and her almost immediate marriage to her husband’s murderer.  Zweig’s analysis is deep and carefully thought out and certain historical scenes are presented as if  from a Shakespearean play as there are constant comparisons to the Bard’s characters.  The result is that Mary’s psyche has deteriorated to the point that she is unable to face what she has done and how dark were her deeds.  A major component of the book is the decline in Mary’s psychological well being as her behavior is detrimental to her political position and her own happiness resulting in her self-inflicted downfall.

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(The execution of Mary Queen of Scots)

This decline is readily apparent as Zweig describes the negotiations between the cousins once she leaves Scotland and is “detained” in England in 1567.  Elizabeth wanted Mary to renounce her rights to the English throne and retire quietly.  Further, she wanted Mary to be cleared of involvement in the regicidal plot involving Bothwell and the death of her husband, Lord Darnley.  Zweig reproduces a great deal of documentation of the Westminster Conference which investigated the murder.  As in several cases dealing with Mary the results were not clear, but no matter the result Mary once again let her pride stand in the way of her safety as she lamented her situation and refused to give into Elizabeth’s demands.  The situation could easily have been resolved had Elizabeth, who at times had difficulty making major decisions just had Mary found guilty and executed in 1568 and not let the situation drag on for years with the same results.

As an aside, if one compares the film, Mary Queen of Scots to Zweig’s or other historical monographs it becomes clear there are several inaccuracies.  First, Mary and Elizabeth never met face to face as takes place toward the end of the film.  Second, the brutal murder of David Rizzio, Mary’s confidante does not take place in front of the Queen as is shown in the film as he was dragged into another stateroom for the deed to transpire.  Third, it is debatable to assert that Darnley and Rizzio were lovers as is reflected in the film.  Fourth,  Mary did not have a Scottish accent as reflected in the film as she was raised in France, and lastly Lord Darnley probably raped Mary the first time they had sex.  The film overall is well done with a diverse cast, which of course did not exist in the 16th century, but the gist of historical accuracy does come across and one must remember a film is made to make money – not bring true history  to the screen.

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(Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I as portrayed in the film)

Zweig has written a somewhat entertaining and literary biography of Mary Queen of Scots.  In reading the book one must realize the time period in which it was written and Zweig’s background as a writer.  It may not meet the criteria that today’s historians might call for, i.e.; a full bibliography and endnotes, but it is a legitimate work of history and I would recommend it for those who seek clarification, those  who have seen the film, or those who are just curious about one of the most enigmatic figures in history.

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(Mary Queen of Scots as portrayed in the film)

 

GRAND IMPROVISATION: AMERICA CONFRONTS THE BRITISH SUPER POWER, 1945-1957 by Derek Leebaert

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“Americans don’t do grand strategy.”

(Oliver Franks, British Ambassador to the United States, 1953)

From the outset of his new work, GRAND IMPROVISATION: AMERICA CONFRONTS THE BRITISH SUPER POWER, 1945-1957 Derek Leebaert puts forth the premise that the idea that the British were about to liquidate their empire because of financial and military weakness after World War II was fallacious.  Further, that the United States was fully prepared to assume the leadership of the west and would do so while creating an American led international order that we’ve lived with ever since was equally false.  Leebaert’s conclusions are boldly stated as he reevaluates the historical community that for the most part has disagreed with his assumptions over the years.  The author rests his case on assiduous research (just check the endnotes) and uncovering documents that have not been available or used previously.  Leebaert argues his case very carefully that American foreign policy in the post war era was very improvisational as it tried to develop a consistent policy to confront what it perceived be a world-wide communist surge.  Leebaert argues that it took at least until 1957 at the conclusion of the Suez Crisis for London to finally let go of their position as a first-rate power with a dominant empire, allowing the United States to fill the vacuum that it created.  No matter how strong Leebaert believes his argument to be I would point out that events in India, Pakistan, Palestine, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the creation of NATO, and the American loan of $3.75 billion all of which occurred before 1948 should raise a few questions concerning his conclusions.

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(British Prime Minister Winston Churchill)

Despite the assuredness with which Leebaert presents his case there are merits to his argument and the standard interpretation that has long been gospel deserves a rethinking.  His thesis rests on a series of documents that he has uncovered.  The most important of which is National Security Document 75 that was presented to President Truman on July 15, 1950.  Leebaert contends that this 40-page analysis has never been seen by historians and its conclusions are extremely important.  NSC 75’s purpose was to conduct an audit of the far-flung British Empire concentrating on its ability to meet its military commitments and determine how strong the United Kingdom really was, as men including John J. McCloy, Paul Nitze, David K. Bruce, and Lewis Douglas feared what would happen if the British Empire collapsed.   All important agencies in the American government took part in this analysis; the CIA, the Pentagon, the Treasury and State Departments and reached some very interesting judgments.  The document concluded that “the British Empire and Commonwealth” still had the capacity to meet its military obligations with an army of close to a million men.  Leebaert argues that “there had been no retreat that anyone could categorize, in contrast to adjustment, and no need was expected for replacement.  Nor could American energy and goodwill substitute for the British Empire’s experienced global presence.  As for the need to vastly expand US forces overseas, that wasn’t necessary.  Instead the United States should support its formidable ally, which included backing its reserve currency.” (234)  For Leebaert this document alone changes years of Cold War historiography.

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(President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall)

Harold Evans points out in his October 18, New York Times review that Leebaert offers other persuasive points that mitigate any American take over from the British due to their perceived weakness.  First, British military and related industries produced higher proportions of wartime output than the United States well into the 1950s.  Second, Britain was ahead in life sciences, civil nuclear energy, and jet aviation than America.  Third, England maintained the largest military presence on the Rhine once the United States withdrew its forces at the end of the war.  Fourth, British intelligence outshone “American amateurs.”  This being the case Leebaert’s thesis has considerable merit, but there are areas that his thesis does not hold water, particularly that of the condition of the English economy, dollar reserves, and how British trade was affected by the weakness of the pound sterling.

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(British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin)

Leebaert’s revisionist approach centers on a few historical figures; some he tries to resurrect their reputations, others to bring them to the fore having been seemingly ignored previously.  The author’s portrayal of British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin is a key to his presentation.  As the leader of the Labour Party, Bevin held leftist anti-colonial beliefs, but once in power the realities of empire, economics, and politics brought about a marked change particularly as it involved the Middle East, London’s role in any attempt at a European federation, the devaluation of the pound sterling, the need to create an Anglo-American bond, and numerous other areas.  Leebaert goes out of his way to defend Bevin in several areas, especially charges that he was anti-Semitic in dealing with the situation in Palestine.  Other individuals discussed include John Wesley Snyder who had strong relationships with President Truman and Secretary of State Marshall, who as Secretary of the Treasury oversaw the transition of the US economy to peacetime and was the driving force behind the Marshall Plan.  The American Ambassador to Great Britain, Lewis Douglas also fits this category as does Commissioner General Malcom MacDonald, who oversaw British policy in the Pacific from his position in Singapore, the hub of British Pacific power.

Leebaert’s narrative includes the history of the major Cold War events of the 1945-1950.  His discussion of the situation in Greece and Turkey including Bevin and US Admiral Leahy’s bluffs in negotiations that resulted in the Truman Doctrine and $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey.  The Berlin Crisis, the Soviet murder of Jan Masaryk, Mao’s victory in China and what it meant for Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the Korean War are all presented in detail.

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(George of Kennan, Ambassador to Russia; Head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff)

Perhaps Leebaert’s favorite character in supporting his thesis is Walter Lippmann, the American journalist who had difficulty deciding whether the British were using the United States as a foil against the Soviet Union, or as a vehicle to fill any vacuums that might avail themselves should England retrench.  But eventually Lippmann concluded that Washington believed that the British Empire would contain the Soviet Union all by itself, not the actions of an empire that was about to fold and pass the torch to the United States.

Leebaert is not shy about putting certain historical figures on the carpet and shattering their reputations.  Chief among these people is George F. Kennan, who was Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Head of the State Department Policy Planning staff among his many diplomatic positions.  For Leebaert the idea that Kennan was a “giant of diplomacy” as he was described by Henry Kissinger is a misnomer to say the least.  He finds Kennan to be emotional, careless, impulsive, and “frequently amateurish.”  Further, he believes Kennan was often ignorant about certain areas, particularly the Middle East and Japan, and lacked a rudimentary knowledge of economics.  But for Leebaert this did not stop Kennan from offering his opinions and interfering in areas that he lacked any type of expertise.

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(British Commissioner General Malcom MacDonald)

The situation in Southeast Asia was crucial for the British as seen through the eyes of Malcom MacDonald.  He firmly believed that if Indochina fell Thailand would follow as would the British stronghold of Malaya.  British trade and investment would be cut and wouldn’t be able to strengthen their recovering European allies, thus ending any American hope of a self-reliant North-Atlantic partnership. According to Leebaert, it was imperative to get Washington to support Bao Dai as leader of Vietnam and MacDonald made the case to the Americans better than the French.  If nothing was done the entire area would be lost to the communists.  Leebaert interestingly points out that in the 1930s when it appeared, he might become Prime Minister some day he backed Neville Chamberlain at Munich, now in the early 1950s he did not want to be seen as an appeaser once again.

At the same time disaster was unfolding on the Korean peninsula and Washington kept calling for British troops to assist MacArthur’s forces at Pusan.  The Atlee government did not respond quickly, and with British recognition of Mao’s regime and continued trade with Beijing, along with its attitude toward Taiwan, resulting in fissures between the British and the United States.  With Bevin ill, Kenneth Younger, the Minister of State argued that London could not be spread too thin because they could not leave Iran, Suez, Malaya, or Hong Kong unguarded.  Interestingly, Leebaert points out at the time the only real Soviet military plan was geared against Tito’s Yugoslavia.  The difference between Washington and London was clear – the British had global concerns, the Americans were obsessed with Korea.  Finally, by the end of August 1950 London dispatched 1500 soldiers, a year later 20,000 Commonwealth soldiers would be involved in combat operations.

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(President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles)

Leebaert’s premise that the British would not forgo empire until the results of the Suez Crisis was a few years off.  By 1951 strong signals emerged that the empire was about to experience further decline with events in Iran and Egypt taking precedence.  If Islamists focused on anti-communism in these areas the British were safe, but when they began to turn their focus to nationalism London would be in trouble.  Domestically, Britain was also in difficulty as financial news was very dispiriting. Due to the Korean War and the US demand for industrial goods the total cost for imports shot up markedly.  This caused a balance of payments problem and the pound sterling plummeted once again.  The cold winter exacerbated the economy even further as another coal shortage took place.  It seemed that the British people had to deal with the rationing of certain items, but the defeated Germany did not.  Further, by 1952 Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya began to take their toll causing London to face another external challenge.

The British strategy toward the United States was to stress the anti-communism fear in dealing with Egypt and Iran.  In Egypt, King Farouk was a disaster and the British feared for the Suez Canal.  In Iran, the English fear centered around the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company which had been ripping off Teheran for decades.  An attempt to ameliorate the situation came to naught as the company was nationalized and eventually in 1953 the British and American staged a coup that overthrew the elected Prime Minister, Mohamed Mossadegh.  In Egypt nationalism would also become a major force that London could not contain resulting in the 1952 Free Officers Movement that brought to power Gamel Abdul Nasser.  In each instance Washington took on an even more important role, and some have argued that the CIA was complicit in fostering a change in the Egyptian government.  In addition, Dwight Eisenhower became president and John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State.  Despite newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s hope that the World War II relationship could be rekindled, Eisenhower saw the British as colonialists who were hindering US foreign policy, in addition the relationship between Dulles and British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden was at rock bottom.  It became increasingly clear that the Eisenhower administration wanted to avoid being perceived as acting in concert with Britain in dealing with colonial issues, except in the case of Iran which the United States is still paying for because of its actions.

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(British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden)

Regarding Indochina, the United States and England could not reach any demarche as regards the plight of the French visa vie the Vietminh, particularly as the battle of Dienbienphu played out.  Leebaert does an excellent job recounting the play by play between Dulles and Eden, Eisenhower and Churchill as the US and England saw their relations splintering as negotiations and the resulting recriminations proved fruitless. This inability to come together over Southeast Asia would have grave implications in other areas.

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(British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill)

In another region, the Eisenhower administration would embark on a strategy to create some sort of Middle East Defense Organization to hinder Soviet penetration.  This strategy, whether called a “Northern Tier” or the “Baghdad Pact” of Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran or other nomenclatures created difficulties with Britain who sought to use such an alliance as a vehicle to maintain their influence in the region, particularly in Jordan and Iraq.  British machinations would irritate Washington as Eden and company resented American pressure to withdraw from the Suez Canal Base and other issues.  The result would be an alliance between England, France, and Israel to topple Nasser in Egypt.  The alliance was misconceived and would evolve into a break between the United States and its Atlantic allies even to the effect of the Eisenhower administration working behind the scenes to topple the Eden government and bring about the Eisenhower Doctrine signaling that the British had lost its leadership position and was no longer considered a “major power.”

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(Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

I must point out that I have written my own monograph that deals with major aspects of Leebaert’s thesis, DAWN OVER SUEZ: THE RISE OF AMERICAN POWER IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1953-1957.  My own research concludes that the United States actively worked to replace Britain as the dominant force in the Middle East as early as May 1953 when John F. Dulles visited the region and came back appalled by British colonialism.  Leebaert leaves out a great deal in discussing the period; the role of the US in forcing Churchill into agreeing to the Heads of Agreement to withdraw from the Suez Canal Base; the failure of secret project Alpha and the Anderson Mission to bring about a rapprochement between Israel and Egypt and its implications for US policy; the disdain that the Americans viewed Eden, the extent of American ire at the British for undercutting their attempts at a Middle East Defense Organization by their actions in Iraq and Jordan; the role of US anger over the Suez invasion because it ruined  a coup set to take place in Syria; and the Eisenhower administrations machinations behind the scenes to remove Eden as Prime Minister to be replaced by Harold Macmillan.  In addition, the author makes a series of statements that are not supported by any citations; i.e.; Eisenhower’s support for finding a way to fund the Aswan Dam after Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal; attempts to poison Nasser etc.

Overall however, Leebaert has written a monograph that should raise many eyebrows for those who have accepted the Cold War narrative of the last six decades.  There are many instances where he raises questions, provides answers that force the reader to conclude that these issues should be reexamined considering his work.  At a time when the United States is struggling to implement a consistent worldview in the realm of foreign policy it is important for policy makers to consider the plight of the British Empire following World War II and how Washington’s inability  to confront world issues in a reasoned and measured way and develop a long term strategy fostered a pattern that has created many difficulties that continue to dog us today.

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