Many of you are probably familiar with Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton which was the basis for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton.”  The book is the ultimate source for the first Secretary of the Treasury, and it is a narrative that is hard to measure up to.  However, there are a number of important biographies of Hamilton, one of which is Richard Brookhiser’s ALEXANDER HAMILTON: AMERICAN, a compact volume that covers all the important aspects of Hamilton’s life in a very analytical fashion that can serve as a wonderful introduction to its subject.

Brookhiser presents Hamilton as the nation’s accountant who was able to create the bureaucratic infrastructure that allowed the new republic to survive and fostered the basis of our current economy.  Brookhiser identifies a number of threads that run through his narrative.  First, despite his background as an immigrant throughout his life Hamilton saw himself as an American and a nationalist.  Second, Hamilton maintained his identity as a New Yorker and more importantly he brought his home state to center stage rivaling Virginia and Boston in influence.  Thirdly, was Hamilton’s fondness for the military pushing for a standing army to be used in any opposition to governmental policy which created a great deal of partisanship.  Lastly, his role as a constitutional lawyer reflected in the cases he tried and his authorship of the majority of THE FEDERALIST PAPERS.  Brookhiser argues that Hamilton may have been the most important of the founding fathers, if not the most significant, he was certainly on par with James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

File:James Madison.jpg

(James Madison)

The author has the uncanny ability to distill large amounts of information and presenting the most important salient details and analysis in a concise and flowing prose.  For example, his discussion of the fighting in upstate New York during the revolution and the role of General Horatio Gates or how James Madison, once an ally evolved into one of Hamilton’s most important intellectual enemies.  Brookhiser does an excellent job comparing Hamilton to other historical characters that he dealt with during his lifetime, presenting the strengths and weaknesses of his main subject in addition to the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and a host of others.  Perhaps Brookhiser’s most important contribution to our knowledge of Hamilton is how he interacted with Washington and Jefferson.  Brookhiser compares the political philosophies of these figures in addition to how their philosophies conflicted.

Brookhiser devotes an entire chapter to Hamilton’s views about government, economics, and the future of the new republic.  Later, Hamilton was seen as a monarchist who admired the British system of government as well as their economic system particularly the role of the Bank of England.  In many instances Hamilton sought to replicate the best of what the British had to offer, a strong executive, and a three-year elective assembly that was similar to the eventual House of Representatives.  It is obvious from the narrative that the author admires his subject, but he does not shy away from certain blemishes in dealing with Hamilton’s character, for example his affair with Maria Reynolds and though he was blackmailed by her husband James he continued the affair before going public with what he had done.  In discussing Hamilton’s behavior in this episode and others, at times Brookhiser engages in pop psychology which is not a strength of the book.  A clear example is when he writes in reference to the Reynolds Affair that “some of Hamilton’s wrath at Jefferson and his other enemies may well have been displaced anger at his own betrayal and folly.”

Brookhiser makes the interesting point that Hamilton was the least experienced of Washington’s first cabinet.  Henry Knox, the Secretary of War had been a general during the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State had been ambassador to France, and Hamilton served on Washington’s staff as an aide during the Revolution and was a prolific writer.  The key was that Washington could be his own Secretary of War and State because of his vast experience in those areas, but he did not have the economic background to function without his Secretary of the Treasury.

Brookhiser dissects the Hamilton-Jefferson relationship and reaches the conclusion that members of Jefferson’s entourage believed that Hamilton did not have the right “to instruct the founding fathers, to ignore their fears, and to redesign their institutions” as he proceeded to develop an economic and political system that sought to mirror England and overturn their idyllic southern squire lifestyle.  The competition with Jefferson is fascinating as Brookhiser dives into the election of 1800 when Hamilton did all he could to elect his foe because of his fear of Aaron Burr.

3rd Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr

(Aaron Burr)

Some might argue that Brookhiser’s work is a bit esoteric as he includes chapters on Hamilton’s writing ability, the role of passion in his contemporaries in addition to a chapter dealing with political and societal rights.  Be that as it may, the book is very effective in conveying the partisan hatred that existed during Washington’s second administration.  Brookhiser delves into the debates dealing with the French Revolution and America’s supposed debt for what the French had done during the American Revolution.  The character study of Aaron Burr is dead on as well as how Hamilton approached his family.  Overall, Brookhiser provides a valuable, incisive portrait of Hamilton’s character as well as his impact on America’s survival.  It is a concise work that will allow the reader to digest a great deal of information if they do not want to tackle other longer works encompassing Hamilton’s life and career.

 (Library of Congress)


Map of Broadway and Anne Over Time

(New York City in the 1840s)

I am always looking for realistic historical fiction, which is both accurate and creative.  It must reflect the time period it encompasses, and its fictional and non-fictional characters must be believable.  In the case of Lynsay Faye’s novel, THE GODS OF GOTHAM I was pleasantly surprised.  The book introduces Timothy and Valentine Wilde, two brothers that are as opposite as day and night.  Orphaned in childhood because of a fire they survived in New York City’s underworld in the 1820s and 30s.  Timothy will emerge as a strong individual who is hard working and honest, his brother Val will become what his brother describes as an alcoholic, drug addict, extortionist, thief, gambler, cheat, corrupt and violent, but he loves him in his own way.

Faye’s novel is the first of a trilogy involving Timothy Wilde as her main character.  After surviving a devastating fire in New York City in 1845, loosing everything Timothy rebuilds by accepting a position as a police officer in a department that was newly created because of what seemed to be daily murders on the city’s streets.   Wilde will make an excellent policeman as he is able to maximize his intuitive skills he learned as a bartender.  His brother Val becomes an officer on the force and the two of them make quite a combination as Val does not exhibit the same empathy and altruism of his brother.  Faye’s plot is fully integrated with the atmosphere in New York City in the 1840s.  The issues of Irish immigration, nativism, the corruption of city government, and the debauchery that runs rampant is background to what appears to be a mass murder of twenty two people, a number of which are children who appear to be Irish and are employed at Silkie Marsh’s brothel.

(Newspaper row (Park Row) in New York City in the 1840s)

Faye posses a superb knowledge of New York City politics, night life, characters endemic to the city, its culture, and its numerous ethnicities.  The odors of the city come across vividly to the reader and helps establish an ambiance that places one in a different time period.  Faye is able to capture the bigotry against Irish Catholics in a meaningful way from the outset of the novel, as she delves into the hatred for the Irish poor that saw over a million people leave their homes in Ireland because of the almost genocidal attitudes of the British government in the 1840s and their response to the potato blight and famine.  The corruption of ward politics is on full display reflected in the machinations of the Democratic Party and how its dispensed jobs and social services to the city’s inhabitants.  In fact, that patronage system is how Timothy and Valentine became policemen in the first place.

The new police department would be headed by Justice George Washington Matsell, a rather short, balding, large man who will surprise the reader with his cleverness and intellectual dexterity.  Other important characters include the reverend Underhill and his daughter Mercy, who Timothy will love no matter what behaviors she engages in.  Bird Daley, a precocious ten-year-old who witnesses the burial of most of the bodies and accidentally runs into Timothy on the street creating an interesting friendship.  Mrs. Boehm, a wonderful woman who makes end meet as a baker.  Dr. Peter Palsgrave whose actions will shock the reader.  Father Connor Sheehy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  Jacob Piest, a brilliant investigator.  Silkie Marsh, a madame who knows where all the secrets are buried, and numerous Irish immigrants and street toughs whose lives are in a constant battle for survival.

Faye has created an interesting juxtaposition between two brethren with different moral codes.  One a tool of a corrupt political system, the other a bit naive with a strong sense of right and wrong.  Faye has also captured the street vernacular that existed at the time and lends itself to the book’s authenticity.  The undercurrent that pervades the novel is carefully crafted and historically accurate as Chief Matsell and his force try and keep the bodies secret for fear that if the truth emerged and the murderer was Irish it could touch off violent riots that would result in the deaths of countless people.  In addition, if the murders took place under the auspices of the Democratic Party, the Whigs would replace them in power.  As you read the book one wonders who the possible serial killer might be.  Is it Valentine, perhaps a Protestant trying to create a situation that would send the Irish back across the Atlantic, or is it Silkie Marsh and her hired hands?  The end result will surprise you as Faye weaves a web that is difficult to dissect.

If you are a fan of Caleb Carr’s works or the film “Gangs of New York” the novel should whet your appetite and be very satisfying.  It is an unsettling read at times, but if you want a feel for a city that grew from about 60,000 in 1800 to half a million in just fifty years this book will offer many insights that can explain what such a demographic explosion could lead to.


Map of Broadway and Anne Over Time

(New York City in the 1840s)


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(Charles Lindbergh)

At a time when many Americans fear the impact of foreign interference in our elections, be it what the Russians did in 2016, or what may be in store for 2020 there is an excellent historical example of such a campaign on foreign soil that tried to sway Americans and help make entrance into World War II against Nazi Germany palatable.  The example I am alluding to is the subject of Henry Hemming’s new book, AGENTS OF INFLUENCE: A BRITISH CAMPAIGN, A CANADIAN SPY, AND THE SECRET PLOT TO BRING AMERICA INTO WORLD WAR II.

By June 11, 1940 a week after the British evacuation from Dunkirk allied shipping losses in the Atlantic had reached over 1,135,263 tons.  At the same time the German army outnumbered the British army 4.3 to 1.6 million.  In another month the Germans would launch the Luftwaffe against London in a “blitz” that would last almost a year.  The Churchill government faced long odds in overcoming the Nazi onslaught and the only hope to offset a disaster would be American entrance into the war, but in May 1940 only 7% of Americans favored doing so.  The British proceeded to send 700 crates of gold bullion along with a spy named William Stephenson to the United States. Interestingly, the author’s grandfather, Harold Hemming, a major in the Royal Artillery was a friend of the newly minted British spy, and along with his wife Alice would carry out a number of missions which included visiting American military bases and presenting a series of demonstrations revealing the intricacies of flash-spotting, a technique designed to locate German artillery, and lecturing soldiers what it was like to live in Nazi Germany.

Sir William Stephenson [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA141575]

(Sir William Stephenson)

Hemming does an excellent job recounting the business career that led Stephenson to be recruited by MI6 and chosen as Chief of Station with his main office in New York.  His task was to foster a climate that would allow Washington to declare war on Nazi Germany.  Hemming writes with an easy flair that allows the reader to become engrossed in how the British went about trying to surreptitiously convince the American people to favor entering the European war and pressuring their government to do so.  Stephenson’s task was not an easy one due to isolationist sentiment created by the Nye Commission which delved into the profits of munitions companies and other corporations from W.W.I., Neutrality legislation that hamstrung President Roosevelt, and a growing belief flamed by Charles Lindbergh that the British could not defeat Germany so it would be a waste for the US to enter the war.*

The British were not the only ones who were trying to manipulate American opinion.  Hans Thomsen, the German Charge d’affair in Washington was developing his own propaganda machine to keep the US out of the war, in addition to convincing a Montana Congressman and Senator to read pro-German material into the Congressional Record and using their congressional franking privilege to disseminate these views by mail to their constituents.  He was also able to bribe 50 Republican congressman, including New York’s influential legislator Hamilton Fish who attended the Republican National Convention to oppose entrance into the war.  “At the time the most extensive foreign intervention – direct intervention – ever in an American election campaign.”  Until Trump!

William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan, the Buffalo-born founder of the agency that preceded the CIA, won't have his name on Western New York's new veterans cemetery. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Strategic Services Society)

(General William J. Donovan)

Hemmings examines Lindbergh’s role in speaking out in favor of Nazi Germany very carefully tracing his views from the time of his son’s kidnapping and death.  Lindbergh would testify before Congress numerous times against legislation like the Destroyer-Base Deal and Lend-Lease both designed to assist the British navy whose merchant shipping was being shredded by Nazi submarines and the fact they were slowly going bankrupt.  The German embassy would mail Lindbergh’s speeches all across America to gain US domestic support.  Lindbergh would become the leading “isolationist” spokesperson in the country and a central figure in the “America First Committee” movement.

After describing what Stephenson was up against, including his own government who did not want to interfere in American politics as the 1940 election approached, the man in charge of British propaganda operations and returning refugees back to Europe as agents was ordered to hold back and not institute any radical plans.  Stephenson did have an ally, the British ambassador to the US, Lord Lothian who worked assiduously and ignored Foreign Office instructions to try and lobby Washington.  When Lothian died suddenly, Stephenson was left with Lord Halifax, a former Foreign Secretary and appeaser who Churchill sent to America to get him out of his cabinet.  Hemmings has unearthed a number of interesting commentaries presented throughout the book, for example, referring to Halifax as a “foxhunting aristocrat” who would not be well received in administration circles.

The Bow Tie Crowd.
Ian Fleming, 1958.

(Ian Fleming)

Once FDR is reelected in 1940 and he was able to get Lend-Lease passed it was clear that the president wanted to get the US into the war against Hitler’s forces.  He went so far as to have the US Navy patrol the North Atlantic hoping to create a casus belli to enter the war.  It was at this time that Stephenson, who had been put in charge of all MI6 activities in the western hemisphere, head the Special Operations Executive (SOE) nicknamed the “Ministry of Gentlemanly Warfare,” run MI5, British Passport Control and any propaganda dealing with the war effort, to take off the gloves and disregard his own Foreign Office.

An aspect that Hemming develops in full is the relationship of General William J. Donovan and Stephenson.  Donovan was a close friend of FDR and had the president’s ear.  Stephenson felt his relationship with the FBI did not deal with Nazi penetration enough and he sought to help develop a partner in the United States for MI6 in dealing with joint intelligence.  Stephenson worked to convince Donovan, who at first was skeptical, to pitch the idea to FDR.  Soon Donovan became Stephenson’s conduit to FDR leaving out J. Edgar Hoover.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the narrative is the role played by Wendell Willkie who ran for president against FDR in 1940.  Willkie spent most of the campaign as an “interventionist,” but under pressure from Republican isolationists he switched his position.  However, once he was defeated, he once again switched positions and became one of the administrations most important spokespersons favoring intervention.  Some have questioned why he changed positions.  Hemming points out that that FDR might have threatened to expose his long affair with Irita van Doren, but no matter the motivation he became what Secretary of State Cordell Hull characterized as a strategic weapon used by the administration to help the British.

Adolf Hitler : News Photo

(General Wilhelm Keitel, Hans Thomsen, and Adolf Hitler)

Adolph Berle, a long-time ally of FDR and in charge of US intelligence operations did not want to intervene to help the British and conducted a series of investigations into Stephenson’s growing spy network and he wanted to shut it down.  This provoked Stephenson into launching an all-out attack on American isolationists.  Hemming delineates Stephenson’s new strategy aside from spreading pro-British propaganda.  Agents were dispatched to infiltrate America First organizations as well as those in favor of intervention to create support for the British.  The best of his agents was Joseph Hirschberg who escaped Belgium before the Nazis arrived.  An orthodox Jew who lost most of his family in the death camps he was involved with assassinations and worked to subsidize “Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights.”  This was not the only organization Stephenson funded along with creating violent showdowns between protesters on both sides to drown out coverage of Lindbergh’s speeches in daily newspapers.  Another tactic employed was called “sibs,” meaning rumors from the Latin sibillare, to whisper.  The approach was simple, make up events, mostly anti-Nazi and have them investigated by newsmen and plant them in the media, for example, photos of Nazi atrocities, stories about the capture of German pilots behind enemy lines, convince shipping companies executives concerning German saboteurs, etc.  This became quite effective as agents would tell people things in “strictest confidence, that’s the best way to start a rumor.”  Another effective tactic was the creation, in conjunction with Donovan of a forgery unit under the auspices of a Hollywood screen writer, Eric Mashwitz outside Toronto designed to produce as many faked documents and news as possible.

A key for Stephenson and the Roosevelt administration was to directly link Berlin with spying on the United States.  Henry Hoke, a direct mail specialist stumbled on Thomsen’s franking scheme.  For Stephenson this was a direct link between the Nazis and isolationists.  Another hopeful episode was conjuring up a scheme that linked Berlin to a coup in Columbia involving forgeries and other strategies.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Hemmings discussion of Stephenson’s role in trying to create a mirror MI6 in the United States.  A number of interesting characters emerge, including Ian Fleming.  Stephenson did not give up on Donovan as the head of an American spy organization until he finally agreed to become the new Coordinator of Intelligence (COI).  The result is that the British had a tremendous impact on the creation of the OSS during the war, which would morph into the CIA in 1947.  Another fascinating component to the narrative is how Hemming lays out step by step how Stephenson developed his own organization that created the right atmosphere for Washington to enter the war in Europe; facilitated American aid to Great Britain; helped beat back and unearth the isolationists; and developing a conduit to FDR.

Perhaps the greatest error made by isolationists was a speech given by Lindbergh on September 11, 1941.  Lindbergh followed a speech given by FDR the same day involving the USS Greer which had engaged a Nazi submarine in the North Atlantic signaling the onset of a shooting war between Washington and Berlin.  Lindbergh’s address in Des Moines, IA  where he blamed the real “war agitators” as being the British, the Jews, and the Roosevelt administration.  He continued with a number of anti-Semitic remarks focusing on the price  Jews would pay should a civil war break out in the United States over entrance into the war, as well as a number of anti-Semitic tropes.  This led to a backlash against Lindbergh that his movement never recovered from.  Hemmings conclusion that Lindbergh was correct that there was someone or something behind the scenes was agitating for war, but it was Stephenson, not the Jews.

Title: A Man Called Intrepid: The Incredible True Story of the Master Spy Who Helped Win World War II, Author: William Stevenson

Hemmings picture of FDR’s actions is quite interesting.  Like Lincoln during the Civil War, the president can be accused of committing impeachable offenses.  In Hemmings view that conclusion fits FDR’s actions in securing Lend-Lease, the Destroyer-Base Deal, the American intelligence relationship with the British, instructing Donovan to setup public opinion polls to ascertain what the public thought of certain policies before they were instituted, and trying to foment incidents with the Germans that would make her declare war against the United States.  If these were not impeachable, at a minimum FDR was pushing the envelope.

Hemming has written a crisp and easily read description of how the British successfully influenced American policy leading up to WWII.  Stephenson’s work was the key as was his working relationship with Donovan and indirectly with FDR.  In addition, by December, 1941 polls reflected what Churchill and Roosevelt had hoped for, the American people were ready for war. If you are interested in the onerous debate and how public opinion was transformed by a foreign power this book is very timely.

*See Philip Roth’s novel THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA whose counterfactual story centers on the defeat of FDR in the 1940 election by Charles Lindbergh.

Charles Lindbergh And Spirit Of St Louis

(Charles Lindbergh)


(The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November, 1989)

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s I enjoyed a sense of security knowing where to focus my fears and angst.  The Soviet Union was the enemy and policymakers developed the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that carried us through threats like the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Fast forward to 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated, and my security blanket was gone – the Cold War was over.  In what President George H.W. Bush referred to as the unipower world, Americans now have to decide who the enemy was, since it was hard to imagine a world without one.

Andrew Bacevitch in his latest book, THE AGE OF ILLUSIONS: HOW AMERICA SQUANDERED ITS COLD WAR VICTORY examines the post-Cold War period as American policymakers struggled with which direction US foreign policy should go.  Bacevitch a retired army officer and graduate of West Point, in addition to being a professor emeritus from Boston University concludes that the path chosen carried a certain amount of hubris that led to numerous errors squandering our supposed victory that began when Boris Yeltsin faced down a coup attempt by elements in the Kremlin that could not accept defeat.

Former President George H.W. Bush smiles during the second day of the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

(President George H. W. Bush promised a New World Order)


According to Bacevitch the United States chose the path of globalization or unrestricted corporate capitalism designed to create maximum wealth.  Second, it fostered global leadership, or hegemony and empire.  Third, we called for freedom, emphasizing autonomy.  Lastly, presidential supremacy as the prerogatives of the legislative branch declined.  In making his case, Bacevitch provides historical context for each and integrates a comparison of his own career with that of Donald Trump.  In so doing Bacevitch seeks to explain how someone like Trump could be elected president and he will argue it could have been predicted based on events that took place in 1992 and after. For Bacevitch the villains who are responsible for basically continuing America’s path after the Cold War are the elites who pushed  a consensus that raised expectations, and when they went unfulfilled, outraged voters turned to Donald Trump.

The election of 1992 is a watershed in American history as President George H.W. Bush despite overseeing the end of the Cold War, prevailing against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, gaining an 89% approval rating, and promised a “New World Order,” lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton.  The election produced three insurgencies that directly relate to the election of 2016.  Former Nixon speech writer and newspaper columnist Patrick Buchanan, and millionaire H. Ross Perot were both verbal “bomb throwers” who represented an “America First” approach to foreign policy and a populist economic message.  Buchanan gave Bush a scare in the New Hampshire primary and Perot garnered 19% of the vote in the election.  The third member of this insurgency was actually Hillary Clinton who worked to do away with white male domination in society as she put it, a vote for Bill Clinton was “two for the price of one.”  Her battles in the White House reflect how Republicans, and right-wing political elements feared her.

headline photo

Bacevitch’s analysis throughout the narrative is based sound logic and a very perceptive view of American society and the conduct of foreign policy.  He takes the reader through the historically impactful ideas of Alfred Mahan, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Rudyard Kipling who explained the need for American expansion and nationalism.  In his discussion of “thinkers,” he points to Francis Fukuyama who created a secular ideology to justify American hubris in the 1990s and after.  Bacevitch also delves into the 1940-1992 period offering analogies that make a great deal of sense as he explains how the US emerged from WWII as the dominant power in the world, but shortly thereafter the Soviet Union became an ideological and military threat.

THE FREE TRADE ACCORD; Nafta: Something to Offend Everyone

Credit…The New York Times Archives

As one becomes immersed in Bacevitch’s narrative you begin to question the path the United States chose.  The expectations of the American economy after the Cold War was extremely bullish.  Globalization was seen as the key element to achieving economic domination and the spread of American values.  Global leadership was seen as policing this new American economic empire and a vastly increased military budget would fund the military who would police the world and enforce American hegemony.  As Colin Powell has written, “Our arms should be second to none.”  As the US led the way in techno-warfare a large conventional force was no longer needed.  Bacevitch discusses the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).  “It purported to describe the culmination of a long evolutionary march to perfection.  Globalization promised to reduce uncertainties that had plagued operation of the market.  In a similar manner, the RMA was expected to reduce—and perhaps even eliminate—uncertainties that had long plagued the conduct of war and had made it such a risky proposition.  The nation that seized the opportunities it presented would enjoy decisive advantages over any and all adversaries.”  The problem with techno-militarism is that “smart bombs,” drones and other “toys” are not as precise and predictable as policy makers are convinced of.  Washington also engaged in a “kulturkampf” as it tried to spread its values creating a backlash seemingly everywhere it went.

This approach led the United States to the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, the support of numerous repressive dictatorships, a war in Afghanistan that continues today, and other policies that today is making the United States a pariah among its allies and a joke in relation to Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China.  Bacevitch sums up the post-Cold War period very nicely, “the spirit of the post-Cold War era prioritized self-actualization and self-indulgence over self-sacrifice.”

Bacevitch saves his most trenchant remarks as he places the last three presidents under a microscope and renders the following judgements that make a great deal of sense.  By the time Bill Clinton left the White House white males still ruled Washington, Wall Street and Hollywood still saw further power to be garnered and making money was king.  Gays could neither marry nor serve in the military.  Checks on corporate capitalism all but disappeared. Americans learned to take war in stride observing from a comfortable distance with the volunteer army that targeted a miniscule part of the population.


(President George W. Bush shortly after his “Mission Accomplished Speech”

Under George Bush, the central theme of his administration was war, a complement to globalization and another means of bringing the world in line with American goals.  Clinton may have dabbled in war, but Bush went at it whole “hog.”  The Bush Doctrine argued after 9/11 that American prerogatives where beyond reproach.  American values were universal, and compliance was almost compulsory as resistance was futile.  When the US went to war, they did it with a sense of righteousness that was hard to fathom.  We saw ourselves as the global peacemaker, but in reality, we categorized them, i.e.; “axis of evil” rather than engage them.  Finally, Bush saw himself as a unitary executive and the world order that the Washington constructed was preordained.

Barrack Obama did not fair much better in Bacevitch’s estimation as he paved the way for a powerful backlash resulting in the election of Trump.  He saved globalized neo-liberalism with his $787,000,000 bailout.  His administration never reassessed globalization as a policy that caused the “great recession.”  After Bush’s failures, Obama gave using the military a new lease on life.  Obama vowed to win the war in Afghanistan and even promoted an Iraqi type of “surge” that was unsuccessful.  Hostilities continued in Iraq, civil war decimated Syria and part of Obama’s legacy was the continuation of wars.  Under Obama, the concept of “forever wars” took hold.  “Hope and change,” became “more of the same.”  He did become a cultural warrior celebrating diversity, empowering women, and exploring the variable nature of identity, but over all his administration was a missed opportunity.

One may disagree with Bacevitch’s assessment of the last few decades, but one must really think hard about the following.  The wars that continue are working class wars with a volunteer army that the elites have little to do with.  Globalization accelerated the de-industrialization of America as we exported more jobs than we created.  The disparity in wealth and income is abhorrent as 43 million people are below the poverty level, credit card debt is $8377 per household, and most retirees have just $5000 in savings.  After the Trump tax cut of 2018, the 1% keeps more and more of its wealth.  In this situation it is understandable that economic populism has run rampant.

Bacevitch has written a very thought-provoking book that demands that we reexamine our pre-2016 policies to understand what has been transpiring in American foreign policy since Trump assumed the presidency.  If the book has a weakness it is that Bacevitch’s criticisms are seemingly correct, but he never offers an alternative to what he criticizes.

(The inauguration of Barrack Obama as President)

Though the book appears to be a work that focuses on American foreign policy, it also shines a light on American social and cultural history.  A chapter entitled, “Al, Fred, and Homer’s America – and Mine!” provides insights into American society in the late 1940s and 50s through movies and social class issues.  There are constant references to literary works, the dismantling of our industrial base and how unwinnable wars tore apart our social fabric that bound all elements of society together.  The references to cultural tools is used as a vehicle to explain in part the partisan divide that developed in our country and in the end all of these references be it to John Updike’s character, Harry Angstrom or others rests on the author’s belief that the United States had an opportunity to alter its path.  However we chose not to and let the mistakes of the last 40 years continue to the point that even Trump with all his criticism and bombast about allies and wars has committed even more troops to the Middle East, and funded the techno-military component of the Defense budget to the maximum.  Bacevitch is a harsh critic and does not hold back, but it would be nice to know exactly what policy changes he would make.

(The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November, 1989)


The original.
(Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini)

Four years ago, I read Kim Ghattas’ account of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s tenure at Foggy Bottom.  The book was personal, clear, concise and analytical.  Her latest book, BLACK WAVE: SAUDI ARABIA, IRAN, AND THE FORTY-YEAR RIVALRY THAT UNRAVELED CULTURE, RELIGION, AND COLLECTIVE MEMORY piqued my interest in light of recent events.  Iran’s attack on Saudi oil fields, the proxy war in Yemen between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s machinations dealing with shipping in the Persian Gulf, and President Trump’s recent order resulting in the assassination of Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and the head of its Quds force makes the book extremely timely, but also very important as we seek to understand events in the most explosive region in the world trying to discern how the competition between the world’s leading Sunni and Shi’a countries will unfold.

Ghattas’ task is a difficult one, but she has met the challenge by presenting the relevant facts, personalities, theological ideologies, and major power interests in the area. She is able to break down  the apparent and hidden complexities involved in the Saudi-Iran relationship and provides numerous insights.

KSA Iran map

In 2001, David W. Lesch wrote a short volume, 1979: THE YEAR THAT SHAPED THE MIDDLE EAST arguing that events that year; the rise to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran; the seizure of American hostages; the occupation of the Holy Mosque in Mecca by radical students and Islamists; and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan all created a watershed for the Middle East and the world balance of power.  Ghattas builds upon Lesch’s hypothesis and argues that 1979 began a process that transformed societies and altered cultural and religious currents in the region fostering an evolution that bears little resemblance to what existed before.  For Ghattas, the year 1979 and the forty years that followed witnessed “the Saudi-Iran rivalry that went beyond geopolitics, descending into an ever-greater competition for Islamic legitimacy through religious and cultural domination, changing societies from within – not only in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but throughout the region.”  The influence of this rivalry spread to Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, and Afghanistan and unleashed sectarian identities and killings that had never defined these countries in the past.

Ghattas’ approach is to present her material in a clear and concise manner that is easily understood by the laymen as well as scholars.  She begins in 1974 focusing on events in Iran under the Shah and the plight of the Palestinians and the emergence of Ayatollah Khomeini and his vision for an Islamic state.  She explains the developing opposition to the Shah and the revolution that seemed to begin in 1977 with the death of Ali Shariati, a leftist Muslim revolutionary.  The blame for the death fell on SAVAK, the Shah’s internal security service exacerbating the public outcry.  In exile in Paris, Khomeini prepared cassette tapes of his ideas and promises which were smuggled into Iran provided a vehicle to chip away at the Shah’s popularity and reach the masses to foster revolution.

In this Nov. 15, 1977 photo, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran visits Washington. (AP)

(The Shah of Iran, Rheza Pahlavi)

Once Khomeini replaced the Shah, Ghattas details how his movement consolidated power; founded the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corporation; dealt with foreign movements like the Moslem Brotherhood, the creation of Hezbollah or “Party of Guard;” Khomeini’s uncompromising approach to government and gaining the approval of the Iranian people; and of course the many important personalities involved.  In creating the Islamic Republic, a tightly organized authoritarian regime, more repressive and murderous than the Shah’s emerges.  Mass shootings resulted, students and clerics disappeared, newspapers shut down, and emissaries were sent throughout the Middle East to foster a regional movement led by the Shi’a.

Ghattas does a wonderful job unearthing information that was not generally known before as well as refocus on concepts and arguments that now appear acceptable with hindsight.  First, the role of Yasir Arafat and how he developed a relationship with Khomeini from the outset hoping to gain support for his war against Israel.  Khomeini would use Arafat for his own ends and never really earned the support he craved as only weapons and training were provided.  Another example involves Saddam Hussein who wanted to kill Khomeini but would not act without agreement of the Shah.  The Shah would refuse, and one could only imagine how history would have unfolded had he agreed.  Ghattas also argues that though Khomeini did not order the seizure of the American Embassy in Teheran, feeling pressure from nationalists, Marxist students, and others who hated the United States dating to the assassination of Mohamad Mosaddeq in 1953 he would manipulate the situation for his benefit by publicizing his radical credentials.

(Seizure of American hostages at US Embassy in Iran, 1979)

Ghattas employs a number of individuals to create her narrative about important events.  The seizure and occupation of the Holy Mosque in Mecca is told through the eyes of Sami Angawi, an architect and lover of history who describes the changes in Saudi Arabia after the 1973 Oil embargo and the massive wealth that flowed to the Saudi royal family.  The zealots who took the mosque wanted the country to cut ties to the west, expel all foreigners, redistribute the oil wealth to the poor, and remove the House of Saud and their clerics who failed to uphold the purity of Islam.  For the Saudi royal family this reflected weakness and they needed to counter the move to place the holy sites in Medina and Mecca under the trusteeship of the Moslem world.

The author does a nice job comparing the cultural changes in Saudi Arabia and Iran.  In the case of Saudi Arabia, it was a case of arrested development, in Iran it felt like whiplash as a violent and dramatic undoing of decades of social, political, and cultural advancement that took place under the Shah was gutted.  Khomeini created a cultural revolution accompanied by a reign of terror.  Ghattas correctly points out that “these revolutions were amplified by the bitter rivalry that emerged that same year between two countries that had once been allies, a rivalry born out of Khomeini’s desire to upstage the Saudis as the leaders of the Moslem world.

All the events of 1979 seemed to be linked.  After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 the Saudi government fresh from the embarrassment of the Holy Mosque seizure, its recapture and its high death toll saw an opportunity to recoup its lost image by supporting and championing a move against “godless communists,” in addition it provided a vehicle to send radicals outside the country to fight against the infidels.

(Seizure of the Holy Mosque in Mecca, November 20, 1979)

Ghattas describes the relationship between Hafez al-Assad, the Syrian strongman and Khomeini which portends a great deal for the future destruction of Syria that we are witnessing today.  In 1982 when Assad crushed the Moslem Brotherhood and killed over 15,000 people in Hama, Khomeini just stood by.  Though Khomeini was an Islamist, he was also a pragmatist and with Assad, an Alawite (a sect of Islam that made up about 15% of the Syrian population) an alliance with Shi’a Iran was formed that continues to this day.

Saddam Hussein witnessed the instability in Iran and began to expel Iraqi Shi’a, placed clerics under house arrest, brutalized the Kurds, leftists, and anyone who opposed his regime.  After Saddam executed Ayatollah Mohammad Bager al-Sadr, the “Iraqi Khomeini,” Khomeini called for Saddam’s overthrow.  On September 22, 1980, Saddam declared war on Iran as the Iraqi military deemed Iran weak, isolated and unable to defend itself. Saddam believed he could win a quick war cutting Khomeini’s ambitions down to size.  As we know the war would continue for most of the decade causing hundreds of thousands of deaths.

(Soviet Mig-17s at airport in Kandahar, Afghanistan after the invasion)

Events in Egypt also would come to a head in 1979 as President Anwar Sadat took the gamble of recognizing Israel and agreeing to the Camp David Accords as a means of gaining US aid with his economy disintegrating and the poor ready to take to the streets.  Ghattas describes her narrative through Nageh Ibrahim, a medieval studies student who helped create Gama ‘a, a radical Moslem organization that was gaining strength believed that Sadat’s negotiations went too far, particularly as it left out the Palestinians. By 1981 opposition to Sadat had increased especially with the purge of 3000 Islamists, leftists, and socialists including journalists, feminists and others.  Sadat had managed to unite disparate groups to assassinate him.  The killing was carried out by Gama’a who believed conservative Egyptian society was ready for a revolution.  It was not as the military under Hosni Mubarak would retain power.  Interestingly Ghattas argues the killing of Sadat had less to do with religion because he was a pious Moslem, he called himself the “believer president,” and more to do with the attempt to seize power by radical Islamists.  What is increasingly clear as one digests Ghattas’ narrative, if 1979 was a turning point, 1980 was the point of no return.

Ghattas offers clear explanations as she discusses the disparate relationships among the leading characters she explores; in addition to their policies, beliefs, actions, governments they led and movements they represented.  Whether analyzing the strategies of Khomeini, Saddam, Assad, Arafat, or Saudi princes she is able to link their narrative to each other reflecting the powder keg the Iranian Revolution sparked in the Middle East.  Events in Lebanon and Pakistan in the 1980s and 1990s fit well into her narrative.  Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, “Operation Peace for Galilee” would contribute to the fracturing of Lebanese society.  Iran would take a major role as they ensconced themselves in the Beqaa Valley with the Syrian army and Hezbollah would ramp up its participation in Lebanese society into the poor areas of Beirut.  In Pakistan the 1980s witnessed a proxy war between followers of Iran and Saudi Arabia which would result in Shi’a-Sunni sectarian violence as the ideological war spread.  Ghattas tells the story of their differences through the eyes of Allama Ehson Elahu Zaheer who attended an Islamic University in Medina and Allama Arif Hussaini who studied in Najaf and was a follower of Khomeini.

Women drivers are set to transform the auto market in Saudi Arabia

(Saudi woman driving for the first time unaccompanied by a man!)

Saudi Arabia had a great deal of influence in Pakistan with longstanding ties to Pakistani clerics like Maarout Dawalibi who became a pseudo advisor to the Saudi leaderships well as Jamatt-eIslami a radical Pakistani Moslem organization.  In February 1979, General Zia-ul-Haq, who overthrew Prime Minister Zulfikar ali Bhutto imposed Shari’a law on Pakistan and Daealibi wrote the new legal code.  Pakistan experienced a cultural revolution similar to what occurred in Saudi Arabia and Iran, but Zia would become an ally of the US against the Soviets in Afghanistan as he needed American and Saudi support for his survival.  Pakistan had a tradition of using religion as a balm to soften defeat, i.e.; the loss of East Pakistan in 1971, the overthrow of Bhutto in July 1977, and its overall relationship with India.  Pakistan’s radicalization is linked to Peshawar, a city near the Afghanistan border which became a center for radical mujahedeen fighting the Soviet Union.  It was also the location for Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian doctor who was implicated and jailed for his role in Sadat’s assassination who later would become number two to Osama Bin-Laden in the al-Qaeda hierarchy who would move his family to Peshawar in the mid-1980s.  Peshawar would become the nerve center for Arab jihad.  As Ghattas astutely remarks, if Beirut was the supermarket of the left in the 1970s for Palestinians, Iraqis, Egyptians and Marxists, then Peshawar was the supermarket of the Islamists in the 1980s where “Islamic law, fatwas, the war of the believers, the unity of the Muslim nation, and the humanitarian needs of Afghan refugees” was discussed and acted upon.

As Saudi money poured into Peshawar, Zia allowed Saudi charities to build hundreds of madrassas, religious seminaries along the border with Afghanistan that taught the exclusionary teachings of fundamentalist schools of Saudi puritanism.  Many of the graduates of these schools became the core of the Taliban in the 1990s.  Ghattas writes that “the Saudis were helping to create an environment in which ideas and actions could be taken to the extreme, and they were blinded to the consequences of their creation because they could not recognize the intolerance of their own ideology,” a problem that haunts us in 2020.

Ghattas comes to a number of important conclusions with the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan which the Saudis took a great deal of credit.  Teheran wanted a say in the post war period but when they were not able to impose their will Khomeini unleashed a culture war by calling for the death of Salman Rushdie for his depiction of Mohammad in his book SATANIC VERSES.  Another major point was the removal of Saddam’s forces from Kuwait.  President Bush made a grave error by allowing the Syrians to dominate the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon along with their Hezbollah ally in return for Damascus’ support against Saddam.  The American presence in Saudi Arabia because of the war was part of the impetus for Osama Bin-Laden and the creation of al-Qaeda as “the infidels” seemed all over the kingdom.  The Saudis had their own culture war with women and radical clerics continued to rail against the royal family.  Ghattas is dead  pointing out that “until 1979, the kings had bent that product and the clerics to their will, keeping them in check.  After 1979, the Wahhabi religious establishment had become king.”

The bomb damaged building which housed U.S. military personnel and served as the headquarters for the U.S. Air Force's 4404th Wing (Provisional), Southwest Asia is in the foreground of this aerial photograph taken of the Khobar Towers complex near King Abdul Aziz Air Base, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia on June 29, 1996. The explosion of a fuel truck set off by terrorists at 2:55 p.m. EDT, Tuesday, June 25, 1996, outside the northern fence of the facility killed 19 and injured over 260. U.S. and Saudi law enforcement and military personnel are combing through the blast area searching for clues to the identity of the terrorists.

(Khobar Towers, Dhaharan, Saudi Arabia before bombing of June 29, 1996)

It is fascinating to explore the rapprochement that was reached between the Saudis and Iran following the death of Khomeini.  They did share a common interest that trumped their ideological differences as Teheran wanted to lessen the Sunni-Shi’a rift to allow greater access to the holy places in Mecca.  Even the Al-Khobar Towers bombing by Hezbollah elements did not cause a renewed rift.  But dark forces existed on both sides that hampered a continuation of any honeymoon.   For Iran supporters of Khomeini’s revolution remained in power – the Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah, and radical clerics.  On the Saudi side money was used to pursue an anti-western ideology in the madrassas and they continued to fund radical clerics throughout the region as well as the remaining mujahedeen from the Afghan War.

The Saudi-Iranian rivalry continued unabated after their brief lessening of tension in the 1990s.  It was rekindled after 9/11 and the US invasion of Iraq and it resurfaced with a vengeance during the Arab Spring.  With the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt in 2011, elections brought about the rise to the presidency of Mohammad Morsi, a member of the Moslem Brotherhood.  Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei compared the overthrow of Mubarak to the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and called for an Arab awakening in the region.  The Saudis were not amused, and they feared their own people would rise up and worked behind the scenes with the Egyptian army to get rid of Morsi which occurred on July 3, 2013.   The result was Field Marshall Abdel Fattah Sissi assuming the presidency.  Sissi was a friend of the Saudis who was officially elected President in May 2014 and maintains his hold on power in Egypt today.

In the last pages of her narrative Ghattas discusses the tragedies that are Syria and Yemen, with the spotlight on the roles Saudi Arabia and Iran in the carnage.  In Iran domestic opposition and demonstrations against Teheran’s expansionist policies were met with violence and repression.  In Saudi Arabia, the new king and his Defense Minister son, Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) proceeded to use its American military toys to wreak havoc in Yemen and kill Saudi citizens at home and abroad.  Ghattas recounts the murder of Washington Post reporter and Saudi citizen, Jamal Khashoggi by MbS and his minions  providing the reader a taste of what the new Saudi regime was like and who President Trump’s latest “buddy” really is.

There are many themes in Ghattas’ presentation.  The exploitation of Islam by dictators stands out.  Further, the chaos that has convulsed the region over the last four decades; the Iran-Iraq War, the upheavals in Afghanistan, the assassinations in Pakistan and civil wars in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen are all in some ways fallout from the fierce competition between two parallel “Islamic revolutions” in 1979.  Ghattas also reminds us that the region was not always this intolerant as before 1979 as modern art, abstract sculptures, and literature was allowed to proliferate in certain areas of the Middle East.  What makes Ghattas’ book special is that she tells many of her stories through the eyes of numerous men and women who spoke out against the repression that emerged after 1979 making the history relatable to the reader and an important contribution to the literature that tries to explain events that are at times incomprehensible, but continue to plague us.