SCHLESINGER: THE IMPERIAL HISTORIAN by Richard Aldous

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(President John F. Kennedy and Arthur M. Schlesinger)

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary a “gadfly” is a person who stimulates or annoys other people especially by persistent criticism.”  According to Richard Aldous, in his new biography, SCHLESINGER: THE IMPERIAL HISTORIAN, the definition fits Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s role as Special Assistant to the President during the Kennedy administration.  Aldous’ work is the first full-length biography of Schlesinger and he successfully grapples with a number of questions as his narrative unfolds.  First, was Schlesinger a great and important historian, a model of how academics and public service can mix?  Second,  was he a popularizer and court historian held captive to the establishment that nurtured his career?  After reading Aldous’ monograph there is no conclusive answer and elements of each question make up Schlesinger’s academic career at Harvard, as well as a speech writer and advisor to President Kennedy.  However, Aldous ably balances his subject’s talent as a writer of historical monographs and speeches with a clear acknowledgement of his shortcomings as a political analyst and aide.

My interest in Schlesinger dates back to a debate between Schlesinger and William F. Buckley, the editor of the National Review and the preeminent voice of conservatism during his lifetime.  I was a college senior and witnessed their give and take as I watched how Buckley goaded Schlesinger as the spokesperson for a liberal internationalist foreign policy as well as social engineering.  My memory points to an academic who had difficulty keeping up with Buckley and the scenes described by Aldous in the book provides further evidence as to how Buckley would get under Schlesinger’s skin.

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(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.)

Aldous’ work describes a young man who was guided by his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger, a Harvard professor and distinguished historian.  Along with his father, Harvard connections would guide Schlesinger through the world of academia as well as other aspects of his life, for example, his work with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) at the end of the war.  When Schlesinger felt uncomfortable in a position, his Harvard connections and relationships would ease him into a more favorable position.  Aldous explores the evolution of Schlesinger’s intellectual and ideological development very carefully honing in on the influence of his father, his attachment to Adlai Stevenson who twice ran unsuccessfully for president, a diverse group of Harvard academics like John Kenneth Galbraith and others, and the lessons learned as he tried to navigate his role in the Kennedy administration where he was seen as part of the liberal establishment in what was really a conservative leaning presidency.

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(Kennedy speech writer, Theodore Sorenson)

From the outset we see the young Schlesinger using his father as a role model.  Once he made the decision to attend Harvard and use “Jr.” as part of his legal name he was inevitably seem as “the sorcerer’s apprentice” in relation to his father.  Schlesinger would achieve early academic success with the publication of ORESTES BROWNSON: A PILGRIMS PROGRESS a book about  a convert who attempted unsuccessfully to liberalize and Americanize the Catholic Church. But the work that placed him on the academic ladder was his AGE OF JACKSON published in 1945 which moved away from Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” by emphasizing the national character of the western frontier that included urban workers, small farmers, and intellectuals in the Northeast.  Schlesinger would present Jacksonianism as a forerunner of the Progressive Era and the New Deal in attempting to restrain the power of the business community.

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Aldous’ work is in part an intellectual history as he follows the thesis of a number of important historians who came to the fore in the 1930s who impacted Schlesinger’s work.  At the end of World War II, Schlesinger’s academic bonafede’s would be enhanced with the completion of his seminal work THE VITAL CENTER which defends liberal democracy and a state-regulated market economy against the totalitarianism of communism and fascism.   As Schlesinger has written, “it is the very process of democracy itself, not perfect ends, which forms the bulwark against totalitarianism.”  The book that Schlesinger is most noted for is his chronicle of the Kennedy administration, A THOUSAND DAYS which earned him the nickname as the “court historian” for the abbreviated presidency.  As Aldous points out the book was to be a “legacy project” for Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and the book that resulted, completed a year after the assassination, “endures as a masterly portrait of a man that its author believed had been the perfect leader for a nation in the nuclear age and the zenith of its prosperity and global sway.”*

Aldous has prepared a thoroughly researched work with many insights into Schlesinger’s personal life, academic career, and public role. He introduces numerous stories and individuals that enhance the narrative. His competition with Theodore Sorenson during the Kennedy administration is a case in point as the two men vied for the primary role as the president’s speech writer.  Sorenson emerges as somewhat of a control freak who resented Schlesinger and did his best to make him as irrelevant as possible.  Another prominent individual that Schlesinger held in low opinion was Secretary of State Dean Rusk who he viewed as weak, lacking a backbone in debating issues and formulating policy. The publication of the first three volumes of the AGE OF ROOSEVELT which was supposed to run five volumes is a turning point for Schlesinger as he crystalized the war between liberalism and business-dominated conservatism, and ultimately the collapse of faith in business led to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Aldous effectively dissects the published three volumes which were all published by 1957.

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During that time Schlesinger worked to elect Adlai Stevenson as president as one of his major speech writers and advisors.  The relationship between the two men occupies a great deal of the narrative as the Kennedy people eventually saw Stevenson as weak and too liberal.  In fact, Aldous points out that Schlesinger was tasked to control Stevenson’s high moral tone during the Cuban Missile Crisis and make sure he was strong enough against the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council.  Schlesinger’s main problem in the Kennedy administration was his links to Stevenson’s presidential runs and the fact that conservatives within the administration saw him as a liberal in the mold of the eastern establishment.  Despite this, Schlesinger developed a good personal and working relationship with Kennedy even though he believed there were too many conservatives and Republicans in the administration.  He did have a great deal of access to Kennedy as the president enjoyed their discussions of history and ideas and wanted to be remembered as a great president and therefore, he thought it was wise to have in attendance a great historian as he saw Schlesinger as having a keen mind who drew parallels between events of the day and past historical events and figures.

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During the Kennedy administration Schlesinger fulfilled his role as a gadfly.  As a Special Assistant to the President he had no specific role and tended to delve into areas of interest as well as those assigned to him.  His views on the planning and outcome of the Bay of Pigs fiasco were dead on and Kennedy would ask him to analyze how the CIA and decision-making in general could be reformed or improved.  During the Berlin Crisis he advocated giving Khrushchev an out as not to humiliate him and possibly cause a war. He was involved in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty debate but was kept to the side except for his role as “keeper of the UN Ambassador” during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Schlesinger had limited interest in Southeast Asia and opted out on the issue of Vietnam which are an indication of the limitations of his role as special advisor without any particular portfolio.  If there is a weakness in Aldous coverage is his short shrift in discussing the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and the legislation that emanated from the Kennedy administration and other domestic issues that Schlesinger prepared speeches for.  But overall, Schlesinger’s role in the administration was impactful and somewhat influential, despite the fact it took him a long time to learn how to navigate the positives and pitfalls of a public career.

It is unfortunate that Aldous rushes through Schlesinger’s last four decades, devoting little space to works such as THE IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY, CYCLES IN AMERICAN HISTORY, THE DISUNITING OF AMERICA and his biography of Robert Kennedy.  In doing so “he misses the opportunity to examine how Schlesinger’s gradual loss of intellectual influence mirrored the crisis of American liberalism itself.”*  Despite this shortcoming, Aldous has written the preeminent biography of a fascinating career.

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(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and President John F. Kennedy)

*Michael Kazin, “A Liberal Historian’s Imprint on Mid-Century America,” New York Times, November 2, 2017.

THE SIBERIAN DILEMMA by Martin Cruz Smith

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A number of years ago novelist Martin Cruz Smith introduced readers to Moscow detective Arkady Renko in his landmark work, GORKY PARK.  Since that time Smith has developed the reputation as the premier practitioner of the Russian crime novel that includes POLAR STAR, STALIN’S GHOST, TATIANA, and WOLVES EAT DOGS.  Smith’s latest and ninth rendition of the Renko series is THE SIBERIAN DILEMMA which measures up nicely with his previous work, but it is a bit understated and does not rise to the level of intensity as a number of other works.

The story takes place mostly in the Siberian city of Chita and Lake Baikal as Renko is confronted with trying to keep his “girlfriend” journalist Tatiana Petrovna safe, carrying out the wishes of his boss, State Prosecutor Zurin, and untangling the machinations of Russian oligarchs, Mikhail Kuznetsov, referred to as “the hermit billionaire,” and Boris Benz.  Renko remains the irreverent character he has projected in other novels as he continues his humorous sarcasm amongst his constant wisecracks particularly targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian system of justice as is highlighted by the false arrest of Aba Makhmud, a Chechen falsely accused of trying to assassinate State Prosecutor Zurin.

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(Lake Baikal, Russia, the deepest lake in the world)

Smith provides the underside of Putin’s Moscow as oppressive policing, corruption, illegal wealth and other such issues are obvious to the reader.  The plot centers on Tatiana’s research and writing and Renko’s need to protect her.  Tatiana has traveled to Siberia covering a story centering Kuznetsov who is an idealistic oligarch (an oxymoron!) who has spent five years in prison after criticizing Putin and his cronies but is a candidate for president.  Tatiana is helping to edit a book Kuznetsov is writing, but the oligarch has a relationship with Boris Benz, a more traditional oligarch who is only out for himself and his money.  The problem is that as Victor, Renko’s partner points out “Tatiana is fatally attracted to dangerous stories, and you are attracted to her.  It makes for inevitable consequences.”

It is clear that both oligarchs have their own agendas and as usual in dealing with Russia it involves oil.  The question for Renko is that he does not know who he can trust as well as being inhibited by the fact he is in love with Tatiana.  As usual, as in other Renko novels he becomes flummoxed before he sharpens his perspective as the plot reaches a new level of suspense as the extraction of natural resources dominates.

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Smith introduces a number of new characters, chief among them is Rinchin Bolot who Renko met on the flight to Siberia.  Bolot describes himself as a “factotum,” or “a general servant,”  as well as a shaman.  Bolot will make himself indispensable to Renko and he seems to turn up at the most important parts of the story and Renko could not have survived without him.  Another interesting character is Saran, a pretty young lady who manages the Admiral Kolchak Hotel in Chita and will develop a warm relationship with Renko.

Smith’s 9th installment is a thriller by definition, but for most of the book is on a meandering path, and one wonders when the author will turn up the suspense a notch.  About two thirds of the way into the book he finally does, as Renko is attacked by a bear while at the same time there is an important assassination.  Aside from bears, Renko’s biggest problem is the box that Zurin has placed him.  Despite this uptick in suspense the story remains uneven.  But, despite this weakness Smith has written a fine novel that should not disappoint his readership – but then again it might.

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THE FIRST STONE by Carsten Jensen

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(Helmand Province, Afghanistan)

After eighteen years of combat in Afghanistan the war grinds on.  The Taliban has reemerged, and it appears that a negotiated solution with some sort of governmental power sharing is far in the future, if ever.  The war has produced a number of important novels like Elliot Ackerman’s GREEN ON BLUE, John Renehan’s THE VALLEY, and Nadeem Aslam’s THE BLIND MAN’S GARDEN.  The latest entry into this genre recently translated from Danish is Carsten Jensen’s THE FIRST STONE.  The book is exceptional, and it presents the Danish perspective on the war when most books on Afghanistan tend to focus on American soldiers.  Jensen is able to show that there is a universality when to comes to combat in Afghanistan dealing with numerous warlords and the Taliban that knows no delineation between the nationalities of NATO members who conduct the fighting.

At the outset Jensen, who has visited Afghanistan since the 1980s and the Soviet occupation numerous times, focuses on the camaraderie that exists among members of Third Platoon.  Each character is introduced and the interplay between them reflects how they believe in and support each other.  There are a number of important individuals that emerge; Andreas, a.k.a. “side kick” a filmographer who carries his camera everywhere creating a video record of the war.  Rasmus Schroder, the platoon leader, a former video gamer with a strange approach to warfare and life in general will become a major actor in Jensen’s plot.  Lukas Moller, the chaplain leads his men through the daily crisis of war shifting his beliefs from situation to situation.  Hannah, the only woman in the platoon appears to be ensconced in an emotional straight jacket.  Colonel Ove Steffenson, the Platoon Commander will make some poor decisions that affect everyone, and Naib Atmar, an Afghan warlord who for a time worked well with Steffenson.  Another major character is Sara, a former medical student from Kabul whose family is wiped out by the Taliban.  She is forced to marry a warlord and gives birth to a son which along with the war traumatized her and will lead her to a mystical self that impact all around her.  Lastly, Khaiber, a Danish-Afghani who is a member of the Danish Secret Service who is tasked to investigate the platoon when everything seems to go wrong.  His task becomes increasingly complex when his father, a mujahedeen enters the picture.

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Jensen leads the reader on a fascinating journey of men in combat.  First, he explores the special relationship among the soldiers.  Second, he places the platoon in a combat situation when two members are killed and how the platoon deals with their loss.  Third, the linkage between the war they engage in each day, and the developing violence at home.  It appears they are now fighting terrorists in theater as well as in Denmark.  Lastly, the ambush that kills thirteen members and what it does to the remainder of the unit.  It seems that a traitor may have been involved and what should be done about it dominates a large part of the story.  Steffensen as commander faces numerous crises; the deaths of the local mayor, his interpreter, civilians, and his own men creates questions of leadership and how to rectify a bad situation.

Jensen seems to cover every angle of the war. The relationship between violence at home and in Afghanistan dominates.  He explores why someone might become a traitor and what that individual hopes to gain from it.   Soldiers receive a great deal of training, but they cannot be trained to deal with every situation – how do platoon members react and cope?  How does one quantify leadership, effectiveness and failure?  What is the difference between a Taliban member setting off an IED with a cell phone and a drone dropping bombs seemingly out of nowhere?  The author develops the role of DarkSky, a Blackwater type company led by Mr. Timothy who has contracts with the US military.  The role of outsourcing the war is an important aspect of the novel.  Further, Jensen zeroes in on certain characters and pays particular attention to Hannah whose love obsession will be replaced by hatred and the need for vengeance and what it does to her and her compatriots.  Hannah is transformed from being emotionally involved with someone and being a subservient soldier to a woman with “blood lust,” which is very disconcerting as these feelings spread throughout the platoon.

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(Danish soldiers in Afghanistan)

The author pinpoints the evolution of the Danish platoon from a more “humane” approach to war to a more negative attitude towards the Afghans, particularly when they return home from Christmas leave after confronting accidents and deaths at home.  This can be seen in the tone of Chaplain Moller’s sermons as he has moved on from books and science fiction to domestic killing and the need to protect Denmark from terrorists.  The result is attendance at sermons skyrockets as he tries to equate the 1525 German Peasants Revolt/Thirty Years War to 9/11 and the period that followed.  The novels strength is that it zeroes in on the crisis of conscience that soldiers experience in Afghanistan and how it affects them emotionally on a daily basis.  Each character has to learn to mourn, accept the unacceptable, and learn to move on and carry out their duties, which at times makes them behave rather erratically.

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(Carsten Jensen, author)

The crisis of confidence is evident early on when Girishk Mayor Ali Shar, a purist who believes in the common people and democracy refuses to make deals with the Danes.  Steffensen will come to agreements with warlords, but he cannot develop a relationship with the Mayor who will be assassinated, probably by the local police commissioner.  The corruption of Afghanistan abounds, the results of an American bomb going astray killing numerous Afghan civilians whose relatives are paid for their lives, the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of Simon, the medical assistant, and the Taliban tribunal whose sentences seem barbaric to foreigners, but justice to Afghanis brings the novel a high degree of tension throughout.   These situations are all present for the reader to digest raising the question; why are we still there?

According to Tobias Grey in his September 1, 2019 New York Times book review;

Jensen likes to give his fiction an epic sweep. This worked well in his 2006 novel, WHY WE DROWNED which has, according to his publisher, sold more than a half million copies worldwide in 20 languages. But unlike that novel, which kept skillful control of its seafaring narrative, “The First Stone” is sabotaged by too many baggy subplots. It’s also stomach-churningly violent. The biblical heft of Jensen’s title suggests what he’s searching for, but far too often the narrative devolves into a gruesome parade of suffering.

The savagery of ordinary Afghans toward their enemies appears to know no bounds. Mutilated victims are scattered everywhere: “The villagers have flayed the skin loose from the middle of the forehead and rolled it down to the chin; it resembles a rubber mask pulled halfway down by an exhausted carnival worker.” Truth or fiction? Whatever the answer, Jensen’s novel coldly depicts a region that remains stubbornly cast in Rudyard Kipling’s mold.

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(Helmand Province, Afghanistan)

STAR OF THE NORTH by D. B. John

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(Kim Jong-il)

At a time when Donald Trump refers to North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-un, as a man he admires greatly despite the fact that his military keeps testing rockets over the Sea of Japan, it is fortuitous that a novel has appeared that delves into the “Hermit Kingdom” of North Korea.  D.B. John’s second novel STAR OF THE NORTH focuses on the authoritarian reign of Kim Jung-Il during 2010 and 2011 before Kim Jong-un took over the leadership role.  John integrates a number of important aspects of the Kim regime throughout the novel.  He explores the slave labor system, the rocket program that raises fears of nuclear weapons, the paranoia that is ever present among North Korea’s population, the class system that has party elites dominating the ruling structure, and the chemical warfare threat that North Korea presents.  John’s insights into the system rises from a series of interesting characters that he has created, a number of which reflect real people who have survived the North Korean regime.

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(Current leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un)

John, one of the few westerners to have visited North Korea begins his story in June 1998 as two students at Sangmyong University, Park Jae-hoan and Williams Soo-min are spending an afternoon at Condol Beach on Baengnyeong picnicking and taking photographs.  In the midst of their reverie they disappear.  The Inchon Metropolitan Police and the South Korean Coast Guard conclude after an exhaustive search that they must have drowned and end their investigation.  But, did they really disappear?  More importantly, why?

Twelve years later Charles Fisk, a CIA operative visits Dr. Jenna Williams, an Assistant Professor at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and the sister of Williams Soo-min.  Fisk is out to recruit Williams using her missing twin sister as bait.  From this point on John develops his plot line with three separate tracks that will come together very nicely.  First, the road Jenna Williams chooses is giving up her professorship and joins the CIA in an attempt to locate her sister when she learns that she had been kidnaped twelve years earlier.  Second, is the path taken by Cho Sang-ho, an official in the North Korean Foreign Ministry with the equivalent rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, who is sent to the United States to negotiate with the Americans at the United Nations.  Lastly, the life of Moon Song-de, a poor peasant woman who sold food and other items under a bridge in Pyongyang with other poverty-stricken individuals in an effort to survive as she wages her own personal battle against the state.

Image result for satellite photos of north korea prison camps(Satellite image of North Korean slave labor camp)

John does an exceptional job focusing on the machinations of North and South Korea.  Further, his exploration of the lives of everyday North Koreans who deal with oppression, lack of food bordering on starvation, and the anxiety of never knowing what will be ordered by “Dear Leader” is eye opening.  John’s effort is enhanced by an appendix where he describes North Korean personages, missile programs, the cult of Kim, kidnaping of foreigners, the Gulag/slave system, guilt by association and other aspects of life in North Korea.

One of the strengths of John’s novel apart from the superb story he has created that borders on contemporary realism is relating how the “Hermit Kingdom” functioned.  Whether discussing the hierarchic nature of the Communist Party that ruled the country, the vast Gulag/prison slave system, or how Pyongyang conducted its foreign policy the detail and accuracy of daily life within this paranoid dictatorship is exceptional.  Each character has a role to play as the horrors of North Korea emerge and affect them all as John takes the reader inside Camp 22, an element of the surreal world of slave labor that dominates Kim’s prison state in a graphic manner.

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(Satellite image of North Korean slave labor camp)

A surprising aspect of North Korean life that John puts on full display is the leaderships emphasis on “pure” bloodlines and its own paranoia when it comes to the United States and the west.  John has the rhetoric of the North Korean Communist Party down to a tee and expresses the realism that pervades the novel.  The voyage taken by Jenna Williams is heartwarming and cutthroat and lends itself to an engrossing story that is ongoing as I write.

Patrick Anderson concludes in his Washington Post (May 17, 2018) review that “STAR OF THE NORTH builds to a gripping climax. Cho, having escaped the prison camp, is desperately trying to reach China, even as Jenna, still searching for her sister, sets out to confront the Dear Leader himself. Can either possibly survive? It’s an exciting ending to a novel that, in addition to being highly entertaining, suggests the difficulties we face in dealing with a small, distant nation with values and beliefs so different from our own.”

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