THE NEW MAP: ENERGY, CLIMATE, AND THE CLASH OF NATIONS by Daniel Yergin

In 1973 due to the Yom Kippur War involving Israel, Egypt and Syria the world found itself caught in the midst of a global energy crisis as the Arab states employed OPEC to impose an oil embargo.  The result in the United States was long lines at gas stations, odd and even numbered license plates recognized to allow the purchase of gas, and a retraction of the American economy as oil prices spiraled and along with it the price of gasoline.  The US was tied to Saudi Arabia importing between 25-40% of its oil needs.  This situation reemerged in 1979 when the Shah of Iran, an American ally was overthrown by Islamists producing another oil crunch.  The history of these events and their impact on the world economy were delineated by Daniel Yergin in his Pulitzer Prize winning history of oil, THE PRIZE: THE EPIC QUEST FOR OIL, MONEY, AND POWER.  Yergin argued that the United States was running out of oil and he analyzed how that would negatively impact the American economy if changes were not implemented.  The American oil industry seemed to be at a standstill as the demands for sources of oil and the climate change movement began to converge.  In his new book, THE NEW MAP: ENERGY, CLIMATE, AND THE CLASH OF NATIONS, Yergin builds upon his previous history pointing out how the “shale revolution” has impacted the United States transforming the American economy and providing resources that have launched US energy reserves levels to perhaps the highest in the world.  This lack of energy dependency has been in many ways responsible for the boom in the American economy before the arrival of the coronavirus.

Yergin is a master storyteller and global energy expert who presents an incisive analysis of energy’s role in climate change and the role of international politics as everyone seems to be seeking an energy revolution for a low-carbon future.  For the United States, “fracking” seems to be one aspect of the equation that his increased its energy political prowess during the last decade.  The result has raised the level of geopolitical competition worldwide focusing on what appears to be a new Cold War between the United States and China, and Vladimir Putin’s pivot toward China as Russia’s energy production needs a reliable energy consumption partner.  Yergin focuses on these energy and geopolitical questions and the profound changes that seem to lie ahead.

(Tesla electric car)

Yergin’s presentation and analysis begins with the “shale revolution” in the United States and its impact on the world.  He  plies his craft well and no matter the area he delves into his prose is clear, the narrative is well founded, and his analysis is thought provoking and explains a great deal that many do not understand.  The Pre-COVID-19 American economy took off due to the new technology of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling that allowed the United States to become a major player in the world of oil.  Yergin explains how the American trade deficit declined due to this “shale revolution” and how foreign investment, particularly chemical related facilities has flowed into the US economy because of cheap natural gas.  Even American companies have cut their own foreign investment and increased domestic investment.  This has led to a manufacturing renaissance in the United States.

Yergin carefully explores the impact of the emergence of the United States as an energy superpower in the context of discussing different world regions and their energy needs.  The shale revolution has greatly impacted Russia who in 2013 was the world’s leading producer of natural gas as well as a major supplier to Europe.  With the arrival of the United States in the marketplace it has provided a diversification for European supplies lessening their reliance on Moscow and the games that Putin has played and depoliticized the natural gas market.  Further, new American sources have increased its flexibility in foreign policy which it has not known in decades.  It also allows the United States and China to interact in the global marketplace to the benefit of each other.  Middle Eastern states now find their influence reduced, it has brought the United States and India closer together and reduced the trade imbalance with Japan and South Korea.  In fact, by 2018 the United States overtook Russia and Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 oil allowed for its economic rebound as it provided 40-50% of the Russian budget, 55-60% of its export earnings, and 30% of its GDP.  With the changing marketplace with Europe, Russia has moved closer to China as they have a mutual need, Russia must export energy, and China must have reliable sources to fuel its economy.  The geopolitical realignment has also been affected by the decline in nuclear energy sourcing due to the Fukashima disaster in Japan that had led to their shutting down of nuclear power plants in Japan and Germany.  This is the key component of Yergin’s narrative, the geopolitical realignment in the world due to changes and sources of energy and its impact on the world economy.

Yergin is a superb historian as he focuses on the different regions of the world and the most important aspects as they relate to energy.  The decline in US-Russian relations is a key aspect particularly Putin’s reaction to President Obama’s reference to Russia as a regional power.  Events in the Eastern Ukraine, Crimea, Georgia, and exploration in the Arctic are all explored as is the China-Russia rapprochement or pseudo alliance focused on the expansion of American power.  The role of the South China Sea and China’s move to achieve hegemony in the area are thoroughly narrated as the region is the superhighway for China’s energy needs.  China’s strategy greatly impacts Vietnam, and other nations as China’s “core interests” have confronted America’s “national interests.”

At times Yergin seems to play the role of an energy and transportation dilletante as he explores what seems to be innocuous topics  that turn out to be very meaningful.  A case in point is how the emergence of the container industry has consolidated world trade.  This is reflected by the fact that China is responsible for 40% of the world’s container shipments or what Yergin refers to as how containerization has become the backbone of world trade.

Yergin exhibits his historical knowledge and analytical skills as he delves into the energy history of the Middle East.  Once the dominant region for energy, Middle Eastern countries now find themselves as competing in world markets, not dominating them.  Yergin has a firm grasp of the conflicts that have impacted the region since World War I.  His reporting is accurate as he approaches Iran’s drive for regional hegemony; the failure of the Arab Spring; the developing Saudi-Iranian conflict that has spilled over into Yemen; the axis of resistance formed by Iran as they dominate Lebanon, Syria, and to a large extent Iraq.  His approach explains the rationale for the new Israeli-Saudi accommodation as the common enemy of Iran reflects the truism of Harold Nicholson’s dictum that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Arctic_oil_platform

(Russian oil platform in the Arctic Ocean)

Yergin’s perceptive commentary pervades the entire narrative that expands beyond a historical approach to one that includes the most recent changes in the world’s attitude toward energy.  The emergence of climate change as a dominant issue is key Yergin focuses on new technologies that have produced the electric car, robotics, artificial intelligence, auto-tech, solar and wind as the world seems to want to reduce its carbon impact on the planet.  In addition, Yergin presents his concerns over the impact of the Trump presidency and Covid-19 on energy markets and how each has fostered dynamic changes in world politics and makes predictions as what might occur in the future. 

However, Yergin’s approach has been questioned by writers such as Bill McKibben in the Washington Post, and Adam Tooze in the New York Times.  What follows are excerpts of their issues with Yergin, McKibben writes;

Perhaps Yergin assumes that we have that map in our heads. Perhaps he wants to spare us the embarrassment of reviewing the shambles of Washington’s grand strategy since the war on terror. Perhaps he himself is conflicted, torn by America’s painful polarization. In the era of Trump there is not one American map. Yergin’s own position seems uncertain. He seems at odds with the recent turn against China. But he does not elaborate an alternative. On Russia, he merely notes that it has become a hot-button issue.

The result is a history without a center. A collage in which pigheaded Texan oil men, aspiring tech whizzes, Saddam Hussein, Qaddafi — dead in a drain pipe — Xi Jinping and his guy-pal Vladimir Putin, Saudi dynasts and vast arctic gas plants pass in review. The chronology is similarly helter-skelter. One minute we are pitching ideas to Elon Musk in Silicon Valley, the next we are back in 1916 peering over the shoulder of the diplomats who carved up the Ottoman Empire. At times it feels as if we are being whirled through a remix of the greatest hits from “The Prize.”*

Tooze writes;

Above all, the plummeting cost of solar and wind is reshaping the energy future, and here Yergin’s analysis is undermined by increasingly obsolete arguments about how hard it is to store power when the sun isn’t shining; electric grids are coping fine with ever-larger shares of renewable energy. They’re not, however, coping well with climate change: Drooping wires in record heat are responsible for many of the blazes now charring the West. Change clearly needs to come fast, and Yergin is so embedded in old patterns of thought that he can’t quite recognize the urgency. Even history bends to physics.**

No matter what one’s opinion is of Yergin’s new work it is an important contribution for the study of the topic, and the debate it has fostered.

*Adam Tooze, “The Future of Energy,” New York Times, September 15, 2020.

**Bill McKibben, “A Global Energy Study that Misses Some Climate Change Realities,” Washington Post, September 25, 2020.

THE LUCKIEST MAN: LIFE WITH JOHN McCAIN by Mark Salter

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Last week Donald Trump lost his bid for reelection no matter what conspiracy theory he employs or how many lawsuits he implements to overturn the results.  One reason he may have lost rests on the state of Arizona which went blue for the first time in decades.  Trump’s commentary concerning Senator John McCain before his passing arguing during the 2016 campaign that the senator was not a hero but a loser because he was captured after being shot down over North Vietnam does not seem to have sat well with the Arizona electorate.  McCain, the self-proclaimed maverick when it came to legislation and politics and former POW emerged once again in the 2020 election as his wife, Cindy, and daughter Meghan emerged as a driving force to defeat Trump.  McCain’s life story is a complex one due to the storied military history of his family, his personality, and his fervent belief in honor and standing up for the United States world-wide.  Mark Salter, friend and senatorial aide has offered a wonderful look inside McCain’s approach to life, beliefs, career, and the author’s relationship with him in THE LUCKIEST MAN: LIFE WITH JOHN MCCAIN.

According to Salter, McCain was the consummate practitioner of an honorable life.  Whether refusing an early release as a POW by Hanoi to remain in captivity until all his men were released, a commitment to political reform particularly when it came to came to campaign finances, immigration, or his ability to work across the aisle with the likes of liberals, Ted Kennedy, or Russ Feingold, McCain remained consistent.  Though some would argue that during the 2008 presidential campaign he became less of a maverick a more of a traditional Republican once he was defeated he assumed the moniker of maverick once again as is evidenced by his vote to kill Republican attempts to destroy the Affordable Care Act while he was slowly dying of cancer, which added to the ire of President Trump.  Salter’s book is not a traditional biography as it focuses on the author’s friendship and working relationship with the senator bringing forth numerous disagreements and sharp insights into McCain’s personality and beliefs.

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(John McCain tells his son Jack about his time as a Vietnam war P.O.W. as they look into a prison cell at the Hoa Lo prison in 2000.) 

Salter was in an excellent position to explore McCain’s life.  He co-wrote seven books with the senator and acted as a valued confidant for over thirty years.  The narrative provides in depth coverage of the most important aspects of McCain’s work, leaving certain gaps and chapters that can stand by themselves.  Salter describes a man with many foibles who dealt with them with a quick wit and a joking manner.  According to Salter he was a man whose “public persona, for most people, most of the time, he kept it real to a degree unusual for a politician.  And most people seemed to appreciate it.” 

The book is a cacophony of anecdotes, many of which are humorous, but apart from the levity Salter delves into McCain’s serious nature, his moral core, and his political and personal beliefs.  Since reading Robert Timberg’s mini-biography of McCain contained in his book THE NIGHTENGALE’S SONG I had always looked forward to a more in depth examination of McCain’s life and Salter provides it. Among the many important aspects of the narrative is Salter’s discussion of McCain’s family background that was so impactful for him. Salter catalogues the military careers of McCain’s father and grandfather and their impact on naval history and on him personally. “The late John McCain’s paternal line was touched by a kind of tragic greatness. The senator’s grandfather, “Slew” McCain, a brilliant and courageous admiral in the Pacific during World War II, dropped dead four days after the Japanese surrender; he was only 61 but, after years of high stress and hard drinking, looked far older. His son, John S. McCain Jr., a celebrated submarine commander during the war, rose to command the entire Pacific fleet during the Vietnam War. But an inner anguish, no doubt exacerbated by his own son’s imprisonment in North Vietnam for five years, drove Jack McCain, as he was known, to a debilitating illness.” McCain had a complicated relationship with his father as he felt that he loved the navy more than him, apart from the fact he was a binge drinker as a tool to deal with combat. His grandfather, Admiral John S. McCain, Sr. and his father are considered war heroes in their own right and it is obvious from Salter’s retelling they both helped foster McCain’s worldview, behavior, and sense of duty to one’s country.  McCain’s father assumed he would pursue a naval career which he resented and in part explains why he did so poorly at the naval Academy.  In a sense McCain was more like his mother who imparted his sense of humor, curiosity, candor, and lively intellect that required constant stimulation.  At Annapolis, McCain developed his antipathy to bullies, particular upper classmen and his entire life he refused to accept that type of behavior which helps explain his attitude toward President Trump.

John McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis) in 2006
(Despite their positions on opposing sides of the aisle, McCain and Sen. Russ Feingold joined forces to reform campaign finances. )

From the outset of his political career McCain showed that he had the ability to attract  Democrats and Independents.  In office he would cross the divide to work with Democrats on important issues.  Among the men who greatly impacted him early on was Congressmen Mo Udall of Arizona, the chair of the House Interior Committee who would become a close friend and taught him about the people, culture and history of Arizona.  Later he would work on campaign finance reform with Minnesota Senators Russ Feingold and Paul Wellstone, and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy on immigration reform.  Not only did he work with members from the other side of the aisle they would become his friends.  McCain was a proponent of “big government conservatism,” with Theodore Roosevelt as his role model.  McCain believed in improving the country through pragmatic problem solving rather than the “drown-government-in-a-bathtub goal of libertarian conservatism, achieved in part by restoring the public’s faith in the credibility and capabilities of government.”

The most compelling aspect of the narrative was McCain’s description of his treatment after he was captured and imprisoned after he was shot down over Hanoi.  Broken shoulder, leg, arm etc. and the lack of medical treatment, interrogation, and torture was gut wrenching.  For McCain, his later embarrassment and anger at himself for appearing weak is palatable, particularly the forced confession he provided.  Later during the Abu Ghraib crisis during the Iraq War McCain would become a thorn in the side of the Bush administration as he was angered by “enhanced interrogation” techniques that violated the Geneva Convention.  For McCain, waterboarding and other aspects of CIA techniques hit home for him and he refused to allow his country to stoop to those levels.

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(McCain Field, the U.S. Navy training base, was commissioned and named in honor of Admiral John S. McCain July 14, 1961. Standing before his plaque from left, grandson, Lt. John S. McCain III and his parents, Rear Admiral John S. McCain Jr. and Roberta Wright McCain. )

Another aspect of the narrative that is important was McCain’s attitude and untiring work to normalize relations with Vietnam and his approach to his former enemy is fascinating.  He experienced many trips to Vietnam, and he came to see the country as a “beautiful and exotic place with enterprising people who were unexpectedly friendly toward him.”  He was greatly involved in negotiations with Hanoi over POWs and MIAs and other issues that eventually led to normalization.  It was a rocky path and McCain was involved throughout.  He would argue with colleagues and many in America who believed that POWs and MIAs remained in Vietnam, but McCain came to believe that no American remained in Vietnam. He felt that these issues were kept alive by conspiracy theorists who were fools.  During contentious Senate hearings in 1991 McCain felt the truth needed to be accepted so normalization could proceed.

Salter provides complete analysis of and the course of McCain’s two presidential runs, 2000 and 2008.  It is clear that the Bush people feared losing to McCain in the 2000 South Carolina primary which may have cost them the presidential nomination by resorting to the Roger Stone/Charlie Black/ Karl Rove school of politics with lies and distortions to defeat McCain.  Later McCain who said the actions of the Bush organization was just politics, but on issues relating to Donald Rumsfeld, Abu Ghraib, the leadership, and the need for a “surge” in Iraq in 2004-5 McCain would get his revenge or support moves he felt were better off for his country.  The campaign in 2008 is examined where it seemed McCain moved toward traditional Republican politics and away from reform but be that as it may it was clear that there was little, he could do to defeat the Obama phenomenon.

What sets Salter’s work apart is his exceptional access to McCain personally as well as his relationship with the family. At times it appears that Salter has written an ode to McCain.  He recounts many positive accomplishments during McCain’s career.  But he also includes certain negative aspects of his subject’s personality; his ability to anger easily and even chastise colleagues on the Senate floor in vituperative language, his sometimes petulance, and his mistakes including the Keating Five scandal, and the selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate in 2008. However, McCain’s love of country, humility, honor code, and empathy for others outweigh any negatives of McCain’s persona.  To sum up McCain’s life Salter’s comment is best, he was a politician who wanted to be a hero, but he didn’t take himself too seriously.

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(March 14, 1973, McCain is released as a POW)

HENRY KISSINGER AND AMERICAN POWER: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY by Thomas A. Schwartz

Henry Kissinger
(Henry Kissinger)

For members of my generation the name Henry Kissinger produces a number of reactions.  First and foremost is his “ego,” which based on his career in public service, academia, and his role as a dominant political and social figure makes him a very consequential figure in American diplomatic history.  Second, he fosters extreme responses whether your views are negative seeing him as a power hungry practitioner of Bismarckian realpolitik who would do anything from wiretapping his staff to the 1972 Christmas bombing of North Vietnam; or positive as in the case of “shuttle diplomacy” to bring about disengagement agreements between Israel and Egypt, and Israel and Syria following the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the use of linkage or triangular diplomacy pitting China and the Soviet Union against each other.  No matter one’s opinion Thomas A. Schwartz’s new book, HENRY KISSINGER AND AMERICAN POWER: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY, though not a complete biography, offers a deep dive into Kissinger’s background and diplomatic career which will benefit those interested in the former Secretary of State’s impact on American history.

Schwartz tries to present a balanced account as his goal is to reintroduce Kissinger to the American people.  He does not engage in every claim and accusation leveled at his subject, nor does he accept the idea that he was the greatest statesman of the 20th century.  Schwartz wrote the book for his students attempting to “explain who Henry Kissinger was, what he thought, what he did, and why it matters.”  Schwartz presents a flawed individual who was brilliant and who thought seriously and developed important insights into the major foreign policy issues of his time.  The narrative shows a person who was prone to deception and intrigue, a superb bureaucratic infighter, and was able to ingratiate himself with President Richard Nixon through praise as his source of power.  Kissinger was a genius at self-promotion and became a larger than life figure.

Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon.

(Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon)

According to Schwartz most books on Kissinger highlight his role as a foreign policy intellectual who advocated realpolitik for American foreign policy, eschewing moral considerations or democratic ideas as he promoted a “cold-blooded” approach designed to protect American security interests. Schwartz argues this is not incorrect, but it does not present a complete picture.  “To fully understand Henry Kissinger, it is important to see him as a political actor, a politician, and a man who understood that American foreign policy is fundamentally shaped and determined by the struggles and battles of American domestic politics.”  In explaining his meteoric rise to power, it must be seen in the context of global developments which were interwoven in his life; the rise of Nazism, World War II, the Holocaust, and the Cold War.

In developing Kissinger’s life before he rose to power Schwartz relies heavily on Niall Ferguson’s biography as he describes the Kissinger families escape from Nazi Germany.  Schwartz does not engage in psycho-babble, but he is correct in pointing out how Kissinger’s early years helped form his legendary insecurity, paranoia, and extreme sensitivity to criticism.  In this penetrating study Schwartz effectively navigates Kissinger’s immigration to the United States, service in the military, his early academic career highlighting important personalities, particularly Nelson Rockefeller, and issues that impacted him, particularly his intellectual development highlighting his publications which foreshadowed his later career on the diplomatic stage.  However, the most important components of the narrative involve Kissinger’s role in the Nixon administration as National Security advisor and Secretary of State.  Kissinger was a practitioner of always keeping “a foot in both camps” no matter the issue.  As Schwartz correctly states, “Kissinger sought to cultivate an image of being more dovish than he really was, and he could never quite give up his attempts to convince his critics.”  He had a propensity to fawn over Nixon and stress his conservative bonafede’s at the same time trying to maintain his position in liberal circles.  Though Schwartz repeatedly refers to Kissinger’s ego and duplicitousness, he always seems to have an excuse for Kissinger’s actions which he integrates into his analysis. 

Donald Trump, Henry Kissinger
(Henry Kissinger and Donald Trump)

Schwartz correctly points out that Nixon’s goal was to replicate President Eisenhower’s success in ending the Korean War by ending the war in Vietnam which would allow him to reassert leadership in Europe as Eisenhower had done by organizing NATO.  This would also quell the anti-war movement in much the same way as Eisenhower helped bring about the end of McCarthyism.  Schwartz offers the right mix of historical detail and analysis.  Useful examples include his narration of how Nixon and Kissinger used “the mad man theory” to pressure the Soviet Union by bombing Cambodia and North Vietnam; the employment of “linkage” to achieve Détente, SALT I; and ending the war in Vietnam by achieving a “decent interval” so Washington could not be blamed for abandoning its ally in South Vietnam; and bringing about cease fire agreements following the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  In all instances Kissinger was careful to promote his image, but at the same time play up to Nixon, the man who created his role and allowed him to pursue their partnership until Watergate, when “Super K” became the major asset of the Nixon administration.

Kissinger was the consummate courtier recognizing Nixon’s need for praise which he would offer after speeches and interviews.  Kissinger worked to ingratiate himself with Nixon who soon became extremely jealous of his popularity.  The two men had an overly complex relationship.  It is fair to argue that at various times each was dependent upon the other.  Nixon needed Kissinger’s popularity with the media and reinforcement of his ideas and hatreds.  Kissinger needed Nixon as validation for his powerful position as a policy maker and a vehicle to escape academia.  Schwartz provides examples of how Kissinger manipulated Nixon from repeated threats to resign particularly following the war scare between Pakistan and India in 1971, negotiations with the Soviet Union, and the Paris Peace talks.  Nixon did contemplate firing Kissinger on occasion, especially when Oriana Fallaci described Kissinger as “Nixon’s mental wet nurse” in an article but realized how indispensable he was.  What drew them together was their secret conspiratorial approach to diplomacy and the desire to push the State Department into the background and conduct foreign policy from inside the White House. Schwartz reinforces the idea that Kissinger was Nixon’s creation, and an extension of his authority and political power as President which basically sums up their relationship.

HENRY KISSINGER MEETING WITH ANWAR SADAT
(Henry Kissinger and Anwar Sadat)

Schwartz details the diplomatic machinations that led to “peace is at hand” in Vietnam, the Middle East, and the trifecta of 1972 that included Détente and the opening with China.  Schwartz’s writing is clear and concise and offers a blend of factual information, analysis, interesting anecdotes, and superior knowledge of source material which he puts to good use.  Apart from Vietnam, the Soviet Union, and the Middle East successes Schwartz chides Kissinger for failing to promote human rights and for aligning the United states with dictators and a host of unsavory regimes, i.e.; the Shah of Iran, Pinochet in Chile, and the apartheid regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa. Schwartz also criticizes Kissinger’s wiretapping of his NSC staff, actions that Kissinger has danced around in all of his writings.

Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger
(Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger)

Though most of the monograph involves the Nixon administration, Schwartz explores Kissinger’s role under Gerald Ford and his post-public career, a career that was very productive as he continued to serve on various government commissions under different administrations, built a thriving consulting firm that advised politicians and corporations making him enormous sums of money, and publishing major works that include his 3 volume memoir and an excellent study entitled DIPLOMACY a masterful tour of history’s greatest practitioners of foreign policy.  Kissinger would go on to influence American foreign policy well into his nineties and his policies continue to be debated in academic circles, government offices, and anywhere foreign policy decision-making is seen as meaningful.

After reading Schwartz’s work my own view of Kissinger is that he is patriotic American but committed a number of crimes be it domestically or in the international sphere.  He remains a flawed public servant whose impact on the history of the 20th century whether one is a detractor or promoter cannot be denied.  How Schwartz’s effort stacks up to the myriad of books on Kissinger is up to the reader, but one cannot deny that the book is an important contribution to the growing list of monographs that seek to dissect and understand  “Super-K’s” career.

Former US Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger Sits In An Office383230 04: (No Newsweek - No Usnews) Former Us Secretary Of State Henry Kissinger Sits In An Office In Washington, Dc, circa 1975. Kissinger Served As The National Security Advisor To President Richard M. Nixon, Shared The Nobel Peace Prize For Negotiating A Cease-Fire With North Vietnam, And Helped Arrange A Cease-Fire In The 1973 Arab-Israeli War. (Photo By Dirck Halstead/Getty Images)
(Henry Kissinger)

THE LAST MILLION: EUROPE’S DISPLACED PERSONS FROM WORLD WAR TO COLD WAR by David Nasaw

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(Post war DP Camp at Grugliasco)

Today we find that immigration reform and related issues like DACA and a southern border wall are at the forefront of our election debate aside from Covid-19.  Immigration has been a very controversial issue throughout American history and one of the most contentious involved what to do with the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons that were a result of Nazi racial policy and their conduct during World War II.  By the end of 1945 roughly one million displaced persons remained in Germany: Jews, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, among other groups who refused to return to their home countries or had no homes to return to.  This group labeled the “Last Million” by author David Nasaw in his latest book, THE LAST MILLION: EUROPE’S DISPLACED PERSONS FROM WORLD WAR TO COLD WAR follows these individuals from three to five years as they lived in displaced person’s camps and temporary homelands in exile divided by their nationalities.  Nasaw’s effort is masterful as he offers a comprehensive study of this postwar displacement and statelessness.  Nasaw, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography for his monographs on Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst, and a superb biography of Joseph P. Kennedy might just win the Pulitzer with his current effort.

Ernest Bevin : News Photo
(British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin)

Nasaw’s narrative is accompanied by useful analysis concerning the plight, condition, and future hopes of the Displaced persons (DPs).  He delves into a myriad of aspects concerning the “Last Million,” including life inside the refugee camps ranging from issues like cultural nationalism to medical care.  Further, the politics and big power competition is on full display as are the domestic concerns of countries confronted with DPs issues.  Nasaw does an exceptional job of integrating the views of numerous historical experts like Tim Snyder, Valdis O. Lumans, Ytzkak Arad, Christopher Dieckmann and numerous others, documentary materials, the experiences of survivors,  memoirs and other writings of refugees.  Nasaw also produces documentary excerpts to allow the reader to get a feel for what the DPs were experiencing.  Nasaw’s use of personal histories of the DPs is an important contribution and forms an important background for the story he tells.  The depth of Nasaw’s research is reflected in the voluminous footnotes and extensive bibliography that he mines to support his conclusions

Nasaw pursues a chronological approach beginning with the end of World War II which one reporter described Germany as “history’s greatest hobo jungle” and another described the situation as “wars living wreckage – living, moving, pallid wreckage.”  This was the environment that over a million people found themselves following the war after close to four million people returned home. For Nasaw his monograph is the story of these displaced Eastern Europeans who once the war ended refused to go home or had no homes to return to.  “It is the story of their confinement in refugee camps for up to five years after the war ended.” 

In describing the plight of these displaced persons Nasaw develops a number of important themes that are fully explored and analyzed.  First, the “Last Million” saw their fate in the hands of the allies.  The United States and England believed that Eastern Europeans whose lands had been annexed or occupied by the Soviet Union had the right to delay or refuse repatriation and the international community had the duty to care for them.  This led to disagreements and confrontation with Moscow as Stalin wanted all displaced persons who originated from the Soviet Union and areas annexed before and during the war to be repatriated willingly or through force.  When thousands refused repatriation, Stalin tried to create havoc. 

This photo shows Chief of Staff General George C Marshall at his headquarters in the War Department located in the Washington office

General George Catlett Marshall Chief of staff of the United States at his desk in the war department circa 1942

(US Secretary of State George C. Marshall)

Second, after a year of trying to get people to return to the country of origin and the obstinate refusal of the “Last Million” to return home, the Americans and the British decided that repatriation having failed, they would have to be resettled in new homes and homelands outside Germany.  This would involve the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and its replacement the International Relief Organization (IRO) whose mandate would become resettlement, not repatriation.  Many Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Ukrainians and almost all Jews refused to return home creating many issues; from dealing with the opposition of the Soviet Union, and the desire of Jews to go to Palestine despite England’s refusal to allow them to do so. This would result in numerous commissions to investigate the situation as well as domestic political machinations and pressure.

Third, IRO member nations accepted the resettlement of Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but refused to do so for the 200-250,000 Jews who remained trapped in camps in the American zone while pressure was put on England to allow them to settle in Palestine.  The British looked at the situation from a power politics lens seeking to mollify the Arabs, protect the oil, foil Soviet attempts to expand into the Middle East, and maintain as much of their empire as possible.

Fourth, President Harry Truman worked to pressure the British over Palestine and Congress to allow Jews and other refugees to enter the United States.  He would lose the battle on both counts as the British were bent on kowtowing to the Arabs and midwestern Republicans refused to alter the 1924 Johnson Act as they argued that Jews were associated with communism and Soviet agents would be smuggled into the United States if “the gates were opened.”  Truman would continue to push his agenda of allowing 100,000 Jews to enter Palestine, and eventually supported the partition of Palestine and the recognition of the state of Israel in May 1948 despite British pressure and caustic commentary.

Fifth, many refugees were former Nazis or collaborators, and it became difficult to separate them out from non-criminal elements.  By 1946 it was becoming increasingly clear that 10-30% of the Volksdeutsche (people whose language and culture had German origins but who did not hold German citizenship) in the camps were pro-Nazi and favored Germany over Russia.  Many of the Baltic people and Western Ukrainians had committed war crimes and now they were trying to blend in.  No matter who these people were, it was decided against forced repatriation.  Two other aspects were also at play; first the United States was in a race to allow former Nazis who had skill sets needed in the developing Cold War visa vie the Soviet Union; second, in the end thousands of former Nazis and their collaborators were allowed into the United States, Australia, England, Brazil and Argentina in part to offset labor shortages.

Harry S. Truman
(President Harry S. Truman)

Sixth, the role of the American military who were placed in charge of the refugee camps was exceedingly difficult.  A prime issue was how to treat the Holocaust survivors -should they be housed and dealt with separately from other refugees like the Volksdeutche  and others who were POWS and Germans returning home.  This provoked a great deal of debate internationally as Washington, and London finally decided that the experience of the Jews was such that they needed special treatment after the US Army refused to do so.

Lastly, the concept of anti-Semitism was rampant even after the war which pervades the narrative.  It was clear in US congressional debate over refugee legislation on the part of southern Democrats and northern senators like Republican Chapman Revercomb of West Virginia.  On June 25, 1948 President Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act which mostly excluded Jews.  It allowed thousands of Volksdeutsche into the United States, many of which were Nazi collaborators, ie; Waffen-SS members, Auxiliary Police that worked with the SS, etc.  In Poland violence against Jews killed 2000, the most devastating occurred in during the Kielce pogrom.  It can also be seen in the policies pursued by the US military and commentary by the likes of General George Patton, and some of the policies pursued by UNRRA, the IRO, and the British government.

Nasaw explores many important individuals, and issues, placing them in the correct historical context.  He devotes a great deal of space to the Palestine impasse highlighting his narrative with a description of the Harrison Report, the work of the IRO, the voyage of the Exodus 1947 and other aspects of this difficult situation.  Nasaw also spends a great deal of time explaining the goals of each country and ethnic group that is involved with the DPs.  It seems that each country and nationality and/or ethnic group had their own agenda that often conflicted with another country or organization which the author hashes out and tries to explain the ramifications for decisions that were reached.  The actions of the Soviet Union before the Nazis invaded is key for Nasaw as Moscow annexed the Baltic states which will become a major sticking point after the war.

[Aglasterhausen / United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA): children]
(UNRRA caring for Last Million’s children)

Nasaw does not add much to the horrors that the Jews experienced during the war.  Building upon the work of Nikolaus Wachsmann, Nasaw focuses on slave labor for the Nazi infrastructure.  Even as the war was coming to an end the Nazis rounded up thousands of concentration camp survivors and POWS to build a Nazi infrastructure underground and in the mountains to prolong the war and allow the development of new weapons.  This would result in working people to death through labor with the same result as extermination camps.

One of the strengths of Nasaw’s work is his ability to make sense out of this complex and bewildering moment.  As Adina Hoffman points out in her review in the September 15, 2020 New York Times Nasaw “clarifies without oversimplifying” and his ability to “maneuver with skill between the nitty-grittiest of diplomatic (and congressional, military, personal) details and the so-called Big Picture.”  The question remains how could such a situation evolve?  The answer is complicated and Nasaw does a remarkable job summing up events and decision-making in a scrupulous manner.  The book itself is one of the most important written on the topic and Nasaw’s flowing writing style makes it much easier for the reader to digest.

Open original Scanned Items
(Post WWII DP Camp)

THE CITY IN DARKNESS by Michael Russell

Male and female militia fighters march at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War in July of 1936.
(Militia fighters at the outset of the Spanish Civil War)

After reading Michael Russell’s first two renditions of his Stefan Gillespie series I must say I was hooked.  The third installment is entitled THE CITY IN DARKNESS and has reaffirmed my view that Russell has the unique ability to combine components of a thriller and spy novel in the context of historical fiction.  Russell easily captures the reader’s attention and thus far all of his books have been extremely satisfying.  The novel begins in 1932 as Stefan, his wife Maeve, and their three year old son, Tom are camping.  Maeve decides to take a swim and that is the last Stefan will ever see of her.  A childhood friend of Maeve sees her swimming in the lake and drowns her.  This scene fills in the gap from the first two novels as Stefan thought Maeve’s death was an accident, but Russell develops a plot line where Stefan comes across evidence that his wife’s death may have been murder.

The action immediately shifts to the Spanish Civil War circa 1937 as Francisco Franco and his forces are approaching Madrid in a final effort to destroy the Republican government.  Brigadier Frank Ryan, commander of the 15th International Brigade made up of 400 Englishmen and Irishmen are set to blunt Franco’s advance.  As his wont, Russell creates a multi-layered disparate set of sub plots that can never seem to have any commonality.  An IRA raid on the Magazine Fort in the Phoenix Park in 1939; the death of Stefan’s wife; events in the Spanish Civil War; the possibility that Stefan’s boss, Detective Superintendent Terry Gregory of the Special Branch might be in bed with the IRA; the actions of German Intelligence in trying to use Ireland against England; and the pending release of Frank Ryan from one of Franco’s prisons all are developed fully, but one wonders how they can all come together.  A hint, as usual they all do.

Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco of Spain meet in Gare d'Hendaye in occupied France, October 1940 to discuss possible Stock Photo

(Adolf Hitler and General Francisco Franco)

Russell is extremely interested in atmospherics and everywhere that Stefan travels is fully explored.  The beauty of the Portuguese and Spanish countryside is on full display as are the streets of Lisbon, Madrid, Burgos, and Salamanca.  The comparison of the brightness of Christmas lights in Ireland in 1939 is juxtaposed to the darkness befalling Europe.  The damage caused by the civil war is evident when Stefan arrives in Madrid.  These and other descriptions provide a unique background for the novel.

THE CITY IN DARKNESS comes across as more of a spy novel than the first two installments in the series.  Ireland’s G2, the German Abwehr, and British MI5 all play an important role as Stefan’s assignments keep shifting as at first he was in charge of investigating the number of Irish men who left to fight for England against Germany, but after the murder of a post man he finds himself in a complex investigation which accidentally provides information for what really happened to his wife seven years earlier.

Apart from Frank Ryan who had ties to the IRA and fought against Franco’s army, a number of new characters are created that carry the novel.  .  Marie Duarte, Ryan’s partner.  Billy Byrnes, the post man who disappears.  Mikey Hagan, at fifteen fought in the Spanish Civil War whose life is saved by Ryan.  Jimmy Collins, the man who knows the truth concerning the murder of three women.  Simon Chillingham, a British diplomat turned spy.  Leo Kerney the Irish ambassador to Spain.  Florence Surtees, an artist who turns out to be someone completely different.  A number of German intelligence agents and a host of others.  Characters from the previous novels who reappear include Stefan’s parents and son, Katie O’Donnell, Stefan possible partner, Colonel Archer de Paor, head of Irish G2, Terry Gregory of Special Branch, and Stefan’s Garda partner, Dessie MacMahon.

(Lisbon was a spy center during WWII)

At times Stefan feels like a pawn in a game of chess between de Paor and Gregory.  As the novel evolves Stefan breaks away from his assigned tasks and strikes out on his own to accompany Ryan out of Spain once he is released, but more importantly to learn who was responsible for killing three women that include his wife Maeve.  The cruelty and death fostered by the Spanish Civil War is an important background to events as is the possible role of Ireland as a German ally against England as World War II has just begun.  Russell’s grasp of history is clear as he discusses the civil war and the role of Franco, as is his knowledge of the IRA and the politics that surround it.

Stefan is at a crossroads in his life as until he knew what happened to Maeve he could not move on.  He blames himself for accepting her death as an accident and he realized if he were to achieve closure, he would have to do it himself before he could develop a meaningful relationship with Kate.  The number of characters and the complexity of the story at times is hard to follow, but once you figure out where Russell is going with the plot it is engrossing and you wonder how it concludes.  Interestingly, the missing post man aspect of the story is drawn from the still unsolved true-life disappearance of postman Larry Griffin in the village of Stradbally on Christmas Day, 1929.

This is an ambitious novel that blends police procedures, a spy novel, and a historical mystery that is comparable to the writing of Alan Furst and John Lawton.  Obviously, I think a great deal of Russell’s approach to historical fiction as a thriller and I look forward to reading the next book in the series, A CITY OF LIES where Stefan finds himself on a dangerous mission in Berlin.

(The brutality of the Spanish Civil War)

THE ZHIVAGO AFFAIR: THE KREMLIN, THE CIA, AND THE BATTLE FOR A FORBIDDEN BOOK by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee

I remember years ago when I saw David Lean’s film “Dr. Zhivago,” leaving the theater with the name Lara rebounding in my psyche.  This led me to read the novel that just floored me.  Now so many years later I have read Peter Finn and Petra Couvee’s monograph THE ZHIVAGO AFFAIR: THE KREMLIN, THE CIA, AND THE BATTLE OVER A FORBIDDEN BOOK that choreographs Boris Pasternak’s journey from poetry to fiction, the Kremlin’s attempt to prevent its dissemination within and outside the Soviet Union, and the role of the CIA in trying to weaponize the novel as a vehicle in the Cold War.  The book itself appears professionally researched but there are a number of gaps, i.e., Pasternak’s experience during World War II is covered in a page or two, among others.  Overall, the book is well conceived, but I believe the authors could have done more with the topic.

The authors have written a segmented narrative which begins with a biographical profile of Pasternak including his professional relationships, marriages, affairs, which were many, and his poetic development.  They then move on to the evolution of Pasternak’s work from his poetry to his life’s work, DR. ZHIVAGO, a novel that he himself argued brought personal closure and satisfaction.  The authors offer an important dissection of the intellectual community under Joseph Stalin focusing on the purges and show trials of the 1930s which produced 24,138,799 books that were deemed “political damaging…and of no value to the Soviet reader” by the state censor resulting that these works were turned into pulp. World War II appears as an afterthought, but to their credit Finn and Couvee dissect the relationship between Stalin and Pasternak and explain why the novelist was able to survive while over 1500 of his compatriots perished.  They concluded it was because of his international status but more so by “Stalin’s interested observation of the poet’s unique and sometimes eccentric talent.”  Pasternak himself could never figure out why he survived.

(Olga Ivinskaya and Boris Pasternak)

An interesting aspect of the narrative revolves around the completion of the novel and its publication in the west.  Relying on communications between Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a young Milanese publisher, and Pasternak; Feltrinelli and Soviet officials; the Kremlin and Pasternak; internal Kremlin debate, and other western sources the reader is presented with a reasonably clear picture as to how the book was published.  What emerges is a nasty campaign waged by the Kremlin to deny publication in the west despite the “cultural thaw” that evolved after the death of Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization  speech of February 20, 1956 (though the book states it was February 25th).

Another component of the narrative centers on the role of the CIA in publishing the novel and distributing it throughout Europe and the Soviet Union.  Finn and Couvee describe how the CIA was engaged in relentless global political warfare with the Kremlin throughout the 1950s.  To counter Soviet propaganda, and challenge Soviet influence the CIA believed in the power of ideas – news, art, music, and literature that could slowly erode the authority of the Soviet state and its influence in its Eastern European satellites.  The authors trace surreptitious CIA activity focusing on the dissemination of western materials to the Russian people through Radio Free Europe; the American Committee for Liberation; the Free Europe Committee and others.  The CIA purchased books and rights from numerous publishers and did its best to make them available throughout the Soviet bloc.  In 1956 it would create its own publishing company, the Bedford Publishing Company to translate Western literary works and publish them in Russian.  Further it became involved in obtaining an original of Pasternak’s manuscript, making it available inside Russia through the Brussel’s World’s Fair in 1958.  It is a fascinating story in that the novel would be distributed by the Vatican exhibit to 500 Russian visitors who would transport it home.  The program had the full support of the Eisenhower White House and by 1970 the Bedford Company would distribute over one million books to Russian readers.

TIME Magazine Cover: Boris Pasternak -- Dec. 15, 1958

Finn and Couvee correctly point out that Soviet authorities created their own “monster” because if they had allowed the novels publication inside the Soviet Union it would have probably attracted a small literary audience, but by pursuing a strategy of repression it fostered worldwide surreptitious distribution creating a massive readership.  The Kremlin’s pressure on Pasternak almost drove him to suicide as they even went as far as to deprive him of his Nobel Prize which was awarded more for his poetry than DR. ZHIVAGO.  After accepting the prize Pasternak was subjected to a coordinated attack by newspapers, magazines, and radio, a loss of friends and colleagues, overt surveillance by the KGB, resulting in his decision to decline the award.  The Soviet literary tradition was clear, literature could either serve the revolution or the perceived enemies of the state.  One of the authors best descriptions of literature under Stalin was “formulaic drek,” which in Yiddish means “shit.”

The authors do a wonderful job discussing the numerous characters that impacted Pasternak’s life.  Relationships with his lover Olga Ivinskaya, discussions with Stalin himself and other Soviet officials, the work of Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, the Dulles Brothers, and numerous others read like its own novel.  The authors take a story that has many moveable parts and turned into somewhat of an intellectual thriller which is hard for us to relate to under our system of government where it seems everything whether true or not can be published on social media.  If there is a tragic character it is Ivinskaya, who was harassed, tried, and imprisoned after Pasternak’s death. If the authorities failed to get Pasternak, they sought revenge against his lover who they accused of currency fraud and being the real author of DR. ZHIVAGO.  In the end DR. ZHIVAGO was not a great piece of literature and perhaps the authors should have spent more time evaluating the literary value of the novel as opposed to its propaganda value.

Boris Pasternak
(Boris Pasternak)

THE CITY OF STRANGERS by Michael Russell

(Rosalie Fairbanks, a guide to the New York World’s Fair, points to the theme of the exposition — the Trylon and Perisphere — in New York on February 22, 1939, after the entire sheath of scaffolding was removed for the first time.)

As war approached between England and Nazi Germany throughout the spring and summer of 1939 Ireland did its best to remain neutral.  The Irish government had its own issues as segments of the Irish Republican Army refused to accept the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921 which created the Irish Free State in January 1922.  The result was a series of attacks by the IRA against England as well as the Irish Free State. The IRA’s goal was to try and undo the treaty and force the British out of Ireland for good creating a unified Ireland of Protestants and Catholics.  The role of the United States was ancillary as support for the IRA came from certain political factions and institutions as well as private citizens that resulted in the availability of weapons, munitions, and money for the IRA smuggled out of the United States.  The wild card in this process was the relationship of the IRA and Nazi Germany.  If war broke out between England and Nazi Germany, it would avail the IRA of the opportunity to conduct rear guard action against British interests to the benefit of the Hitlerite regime.  It is in this environment that Michael Russell’s sequel to THE CITY OF SHADOWS Detective Stefan Gillespie is placed in the untenable position of navigating the situation to carry out his mission for Irish military intelligence.

(BOAC Clipper Flying Boat)

Russell opens the second installment of his Stefan Gillespie series, THE CITY OF STRANGERS with a seven year old boy witnessing the revenge killing of his father by Free State soldiers who buried the body up to its neck in the sand at Pallas Strand.  As is his want, Russell leaves this introduction and moves on, however, the reader knows it is something significant that will turn up later in the novel.

Gillespie has enjoyed the last four years working on his parent’s farm in Kilranelagh with his nine year old son Tom.  He had given up working in Dublin, the reasons for which are explained in the CITY OF SHADOWS.  Gillespie is summoned by Dublin authorities to transport Owen Harris back from New York City for questioning as he is accused of brutally beating his mother to death and dumping her body into the sea.  What follows is a rather complex plot that at times even confuses Gillespie!

Russell has created a thriller that involves Nazis, the IRA, the NYPD, New York gangsters, Irish G2 (military intelligence and a host of interesting characters each with their own agenda.  Among those characters are Longie Zwillman, a Jewish New York gangster that seems to know everyone in the city; Dominic Carroll, the president of Clan na Gael in New York which hates Eamon de Valera, the president of the Free State –  in reality Carroll was a front for the IRA; Katie O’Donnell, Carroll’s sister-in-law; her sister Niamh Carroll, who is trying to escape from her husband, Captain Adam Phelan of the NYPD and his younger brother Michael also of the NYPD; Rudolph Katzmann, a German intelligence operative; Jimmy Palmer, a black trumpeter and taxi driver, gay actors, and a host of others.  A number of characters reappear from the earlier novel, chief of which is Captain John Cavendish, who enlists Gillespie into his web, in addition to Dessie MacMahon, Gillespie’s partner.  Historical figures abound including Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semitic pro-Nazi radio priest; Sean Russell, IRA Chief of Staff; Robert Montieth, one of Father Coughlin’s leaders in the Union of Social Justice; Duke Ellington, the band leader, and numerous others.

(Crowds march through the streets of Dublin to commerate the Easter Rising (1939). Getty Images. Image courtesy of the Independent.)

Russell has an excellent feel for New York City in 1939.  He paints a wonderful portrait of Harlem, jazz, the coming World’s Fair, the streets of Manhattan and the New York skyline, and the St. Patrick’s Day parade.   The reader feels as if they are in a time machine as he compares the wilds of County Wicklow with the buzz, glare, noise, and ambiance of the New York City, in addition to Gillespie’s flights on the flying boat from Dublin to New York and back.

As the plot unfolds Gillespie wonders how he went from trying to find an envelope containing IRA ciphers for Cavendish and take them back to Dublin with his prisoner to helping a gangster smuggle a wanted woman out of the United States, and trying to figure out how Katie O’Donnell fits in.  This is part of the beauty of Russell’s novels as disparate plots that appear unrelated seem to all come together, but over many chapters.  An escape for an IRA currier, the death of assorted characters, and an assassination plot of George VI are all key components of the novel.

Russell’s writing is clear, concise, always calm and never over-heated.  He also exhibits a strong command of history and knows how to maintain the interest of his readers.  His Gillespie series is an exciting and comfortable read and I look forward to the next book in the series, THE CITY IN DARKNESS where Gillespie wonders if his boss, Superintendent Terry Gregory, is working for the IRA.


(1939 World’s Fair, New York City)

HOAX: DONALD TRUMP, FOX NEWS, AND THE DANGEROUS DISTORTION OF TRUTH by Brian Stelter


Sean Hannity
(Sean Hannity)

Never in the history of American politics has a national news organization been an extension of a political party or president.  This may seem to be a harsh observation but when one examines President Donald Trump’s twitter feed, public statements, or speeches it appears at times to reflect what is presented on Fox News.  If one were to listen to the commentary of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Lou Dobbs, or the hosts of Fox and Friends among many others one can only imagine if the president is parroting them, or they are parroting him.  Amidst a pandemic that has killed over 206,000 Americans President Trump spends a good part of his day watching Fox News.  Since we live in such precarious times it would be interesting to know how this situation evolved, whether it is in fact true, and what are the implications for American democracy.  Thankfully, CNN’s Reliable Sources anchor, Brian Stelter’s new book, HOAX: DONALD TRUMP, FOX NEWS, AND THE DANGEROUS DISTORTION OF TRUTH has taken on this task.

The title of Stelter’s book, HOAX is very apropos.  It’s Donald Trump’s new favorite word.  He fears Covid-19 makes him look weak, something his ego cannot accept.  Instead of fulfilling his constitutional duty to protect the American people he categorizes the pandemic as a hoax, with Sean Hannity as his chief enabler, some referring to him as Trump‘s “shadow chief of staff.”  Stelter aptly describes how is early 2020, Trump and Hannity engaged in their usual feedback loop which had life and death consequences as they downplayed the coronavirus to the detriment of the American public.  Hannity “fed misinformation to Trump and Trump fed misinformation right back to Hannity.”  The two men brought out the worst in each other as it appeared that Trump programmed Hannity’s show with his constant call-ins during prime time and it often appeared that Hannity produced Trump’s presidency.  Hannity would become apart from granting sycophantic interviews and concocted conspiracies but a daily sounding board for the president.

(Rupert Murdoch)

The concept of a feedback loop is one of Stelter’s primary themes as he displays examples of it throughout the book that reinforce his arguments.  Whether dealing with Fox and Friends’ hosts, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham the loop seems fully functional.  A few examples.  When Congressman Elijah Cummings’ House committee was investigating how the Trump administration was treating migrants, all of a sudden Fox programming was reinforcing and supporting Trumps’ tweets – “The Battle for Baltimore,”  as Trump referred to Cummings’ district as “a disgusting rat infested mess that no human being would want to live there.”  Fox opinion hosts employed constant repetition as they did with trying to clean up Trump’s mess after his courting of white supremacists during and after the Charlottesville debacle, or how Fox went after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after she was elected to Congress in 2018, or the caravans that were invading America through Mexico before the 2018 Congressional elections, or Trump’s defense during the impeachment process or the Mueller investigation; or Trump’s belief that the crowd at his inauguration was much larger than Obama’s; or how a debunked conspiracy theory that a Democratic National Committee staffer was murdered for leaking campaign emails; or the false claim that Ukraine, not Russia, was interfering in the 2016 election; and of course the current coronavirus highlighted by hydroxychloroquine– the list goes on and on.

Fox’s approach raises the question are they really a news station or just entertainment and “brain washing” for the extreme right in America.  Rupert Murdoch has created an exceptionally profitable business model that thrives on deceit, lies, personal attacks, while reinforcing an alternative reality as opposed to fact and truth.  Stelter describes numerous personality issues at Fox, but more importantly he presents the schism that exist(ed) as the more traditional news types like Brett Baier, Chris Wallace and Shep Smith had to deal with the outrageous commentary of the Fox and Friends hosts, Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade and Ainsley Earhardt;  Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham.  Finally, in October 2019, Smith had enough and resigned because of disagreements with Carlson over Fox coverage of the impeachment process.  The reality for Trump is that unlike President Bill Clinton who created a “war room” to deal with impeachment, Trump did not have to as Fox became his “war room.”

(Tucker Carlson)

Stelter reviews the history of the Fox news channel delving into turning points in their approach to news.   In 1996 Rupert Murdoch provided Roger Ailes with a “boat load of cash” to develop a strong news channel to attract conservatives, sort of a “Limbaugh” approach for cable television is one example.  The election of Barack Obama became the radicalizing force is next, and finally in 2011, Ailes gave Trump a weekly phone-in slot on Fox and Friends.  Hannity would become a nightly attack ad for people who distrusted the nightly news. Guests on Hannity and other programs went outside the accepted norms of journalism.  In fact, Fox and Friends with their constant call-ins from Trump may be more important to Trump’s presidential launch than “The Apprentice.”  If one examines the “incestuous” relationship between Trump and Fox hosts one can see that once in office that Trump’s daily briefings seemed prepared by Fox as their commentary usually wound up in Trump’s tweets and then he would act upon them.

Stelter explores numerous dramas that have taken place internally at Fox.  The Meghan Kelly/Trump feud; the sexual harassment lawsuits against Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly; the machinations between Hannity and O’Reilly; the problem that Tucker Carlson presented as he was losing ad revenue;  attempts to keep Shep Smith which failed; the reasons why so many journalists remained at Fox and only a few walked out; issues within the Murdoch family as the two sons had diametrically different visions for the channel.  In terms of drama Carlson and Ingraham pursued it each evening with their message of cultural displacement of whites by immigrants and the loss of status of white Christian America.  Fox and Friends would supplant Trump’s morning intelligence briefing and it became the A.M. edition of Hannity.  But as disgraceful as it appeared it made sense as most Fox hosts were geared to an audience of one – Donald Trump. 

laura-ingraham
(Laura Ingraham)

If there are criticisms that need to be made regarding Stelter’s work is at times he becomes too emotional and his language regresses to match the Fox hosts he decries.  Further, he should have tried to approach Fox viewers and see what is so attractive to them about the information that they are being exposed to.  It is obvious that Fox is enticing to millions, but why?  Do viewers understand that they are being manipulated or in their heart of hearts believe and accept all the misinformation they digest?  Stelter glosses over answers to these questions.  Perhaps he could have examined this phenomena a bit more.

CNN’s Brian Stelter was confronted by a C-SPAN caller who told him the network is “dividing our nation." (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for CNN)

(CNN’s Brian Stelter)

After reading HOAX I emerged with a massive headache – a malady brought upon by Stelter’s description of the manipulation of fact and news by a media giant to the detriment of our democracy.  For Fox ratings and profits were the mantra and they would say and do anything that would reinforce that goal.  As the Trump presidency evolved Fox became more and more state run television, something that has never happened since television became a mainstay in American households.  Now that I have completed the book, I know what it is like to spend time in the Fox pro-Trump universe of misinformation.  As the election approaches, I would recommend that most Americans should read Stelter’s work and apply what they learn to their choice of candidate.


sean hannity trump vaping fox book
(Sean Hannity)

THE CITY OF SHADOWS by Michael Russell

Thomas Street Colourised by Pearse.

(Thomas Street, Dublin, Ireland, 1930s)

Michael Russell’s THE CITY OF SHADOWS is centered in Dublin, the Free City of Danzig, and Palestine in the 1930s.  Russell, a reader of English at Oxford, in addition to a television producer and writer has written an engrossing first novel.  The first of six books centers on Stefan Gillespie, a Detective Sergeant out of Dublin’s Pearse Street Garda Station. The series revolves around the murder of two individuals two years apart found in the mountains outside Dublin.  The first question to be asked is are the murders related, the answer is yes but not in the traditional sense.  The novel itself is tightly written and well-conceived story encompassing murder, love, and rising nationalism in Europe epitomized by Nazi Germany reflected in strong character portraits placed accurately within the context of historical events.

The story begins as Vincent Walsh is searching for a priest who he has fallen in love with.  He was to meet his lover after the Eucharist Congress at Phoenix Park in Dublin attended by over one million people and three hundred priests.  When the priest does not show, Walsh walks to Carolan’s, a gay bar near the site.  Shortly after arriving Irish Blueshirts who fashion themselves after Mussolini’s Black Shirts arrive which brings about the demise of Walsh.  The second component that is explained involves another priest, Father Francis Bryce who is having an affair with Susan Field.  The young lady becomes pregnant and is last scene at Dr. Hugo Keller’s office to undergo an abortion.  Something goes wrong and she is taken to the Convent of Our Lady of Charity of the Good Shepard which supposedly cares for unmarried pregnant woman where Mother Superior Eustacia, appalled that the young lady is Jewish pronounces her dead.

(Danzig, Poland, 1930s)

Gillespie is called in to investigate and immediately is confronted by machinations employed by Detective Jimmy Lynch and Inspector James Donaldson of the Irish Special Branch and Lieutenant John Cavendish of G2 Military intelligence.  Both men seemed to have ties to the abortion doctor in addition to the Blueshirts.  Gillespie is appalled as is Hannah Rosen, Field’s closest friend he arrives from Palestine to learn about and seek justice for her friend.  Rosen is aware that Field was having an affair with Father Francis Bryce, a college professor of philosophy who arranged the abortion with Dr. Kelly, then disappeared from Dublin.  Gillespie and Rosen come together to try and solve the murder on their own, but they may have bitten off more than they can handle.

The hypocrisy of the Catholic Church is on full display as the story evolves.  Priests seem to enjoy sexual relationships going against their vows in addition to those whose egos dominate their actions.  A good example is Father Anthony Carey who does not believe that Gillespie is raising his four year old son Tom as a good Catholic.  Gillespie whose wife Maeve had died two years earlier was Catholic and Gillespie is an atheist/Protestant, but the detective is doing the best he can with Tom living with his parents.  Father Carey is appalled and after a series of threats tries to have the Church take Tom away from his father to live with an uncle’s family.

Russell provides a vivid description of life in Dublin and the surrounding countryside.  The author integrates each character’s personal history allowing the reader to understand the context of each in the story line.  A good example of this approach is how Russell explains why Susan Field’s family left the Ukraine and its anti-Semitism as her grandfather Abraham traveled across Europe for three years before arriving in Dublin 1899.  Susan’s father, Brian a cantor at the Adelaide Road Synagogue will contact Gillespie seeking help to find out how his daughter died.

Street of Danzig in 1937 with Swastika banners
Swastika banners on the streets of Danzig (now Gdańsk) in 1937. Although Nazi Germany was yet to invade, the senate majority in the ‘Free State’ parliament were Germans with a Nazi allegiance.

Russell is on firm ground as his story progresses with certain historical events forming the background for the plot.  Whether discussing the history of the Irish Civil War, events in Palestine as Jews try to create their own state, or the Nazi drive to seize the Free State of Danzig Russell employs a strong knowledge base that allows him to introduce a number of important historical figures to make his story much more credible.  Figures such as Eamon de Valera, the first President of the Irish Free State; Joseph Goebbles, Nazi Propaganda Minister; Edward O’Rourke, the Bishop of Danzig; and Sean Lester, the League of Nations High Commissioner for Danzig; Arthur Geisler, President of the Free City of Danzig Senate; Albert Forster, Gauleiter of Danzig-West Prussia; Dr. Adolph Mahr, Director of the National Museum of Ireland and head of the Irish Nazi Party, along with a number of others are all portrayed accurately.  Fictional characters abound, the most important of which include Father Monsignor Robert Fitzpatrick, the head of the pro-Nazi Association of Catholic Strength, and Gillespie’s partner, Detective Garda Dessie MacMahon.

Russell provides the background for many of the historical controversies of the 1930s.  Religion, fascism, communism, the rise of Nazism, abortion, the division between urban and rural areas are among the topics explored.  His protagonist, Stefan Gillespie’s life is complex, particularly his budding relationship with Hannah Rosen, but Russell weaves a rich tapestry as he seems to compare the beauty of Ireland with the street of Dublin and the horrors of Nazism being played out in Danzig.  For a debut novel, Russell has done a fine job and I look forward to reading the second installment in the series,  THE CITY OF STRANGERS which transports the reader to New York in 1939 as World War II is about to break out.

View from front of Trinity College looking towards Bank of Ireland and diwn towards Westmoreland Street, Dublin Ireland History, Dublin, Vintage Ireland, Images Of Ireland, County Dublin, Eire, Dublin Street, Ireland Travel, Old London

(College Green, Dublin, Ireland, 1930s)

THE EVENING AND THE MORNING by Ken Follett

For a confessed bookaholic and fan of Ken Follet’s collective works what could be better than a new novel that is over 900 pages?  After having read and digested THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH, WORLD WITHOUT END, and A COLUMN OF FIRE I have long looked forward to Follet’s prequal to his Kingsbridge series, THE EVENING AND THE MORNING with great anticipation and I must confess I was not disappointed.  Set in England at the turn of the 11th century Follett, a master storyteller has conjured up a complex story of human greed, passion, slavery, clerical corruption, and political uncertainty.  The story commences from the east with a Viking raid on the village of Combe that results in devastation and loss for its inhabitants.

Follett’s new book continues the approach taken in PILLARS OF FIRE and other volumes in the Kingsbridge saga.  The reader is exposed to powerful personalities, some acceptable, others cruel and nasty. Of course, love and human emotion are factors and on full display. Even though the book takes place between 997 and 1007 AD competition, jealousy and other traits of the human condition are clear.  Follett describes what daily life was like in England and Normandy at the turn of the 11th century – the forests, castles, poor villages, ale houses, farms, whorehouses, and religious buildings.  The political machinations of the nobility and church figures dominate a good part of the plot.  During this historical period survival was key as most woman did not live past their thirties, many of which dying in childbirth, and men succumbing by their late forties.

England and her invaders in the century. 11th Century, Year 2, Coat Of Arms, Fashion History, Middle Ages, Vintage World Maps, British, England, Art

Follett immediately introduces a series of characters each with their own agenda and character flaws, some of which even have positive traits!  Follett is a master storyteller with an incredible ability to capture the reader’s attention only after a few pages.  Follet’s immediate focus is on a family that consisted of three brothers, Edgar, a ship builder and very bright, Erman, the eldest, and Eadbald both of which are common laborers with little skill.  The matriarch, Mildred has the final voice in family decisions since Pa succumbed during the Viking attack as did Edgar’s love, Sunni.  The family lost everything and is forced to accept working a rundown farm fifty miles away to survive.

Edgar emerges as one of the dominant characters that Follett creates along with a host of others.  Chief among them was another family with three brothers, Wilwulf, the ealdorman of Shiring, who held political power from the king, Wigelm the thane controls most of the forest and surrounding areas, and Wynstan, the Bishop of Shiring the leading figure in the corrupt church he rules, and of course, Gytha the deceitful mother who pulls strings behind the scene.  Follett, as in all of his novels is able to  create so many different threads and characters, weaving them together seamlessly in a story that eventually becomes clear. 

As the plot develops a number of other important individuals play important roles.  Aldred, a Monk concerned with books and learning who becomes involved in an investigation of the Bishop of Shiring, Lady Ragnhild, the daughter of Count Hubert of Cherbourg, known as Ragna who falls in love with Wilwulf when he visits Normandy to negotiate a treaty.  Ragna was kept in the dark about a number of important things after she marries Wilwulf and moves to England.  Two other people that appear over and over are Dreng, the owner of an ale house and his brother Degbert Baldhead, the Dean of Deng’s Ferry Minster and owner of numerous farms that are worked by tenant farmers and slaves.

Follett develops a number of plot lines that are important.  First, the plight of Edgar’s family following the Viking attacks.  Second, Aldred’s religious fervor and his suspicions concerning the minster in Deng’s Ferry.  Third, the relationship between Cherbourg and the English settlements in need of protection.  Fourth, the marriage of Wilwulf and Ragna.  Fifth, the corruption and deceit that seems to pervade every page.  Sixth, the machinations of church politics and the hypocrisy of monks, priests and bishops, a problem that would plague the church for centuries,  Lastly, the structure of England.  What is the relationship between a king, in this case Ethelred and the nobility who ignore his rulings?  What is the relationship between the Archbishop of Canterbury and a bishop who refuse to conform to the preaching’s of the church?  In the story that Follett conjures up we have Wilwulf the ealdorman of Shiring ignoring King Ethelred’s pronouncements, and Wynsan, the Bishop of Shiring ignoring the teachings of Elfric, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

MIDDLE AGES Collage Sheet with gryphon, unicorn and illuminations, by JUNKMILL Copyright Free Images, King Arthur, Digital Collage, Collage Sheet, Middle Ages, Renaissance, Medieval, Finding Yourself, Printables
(England during the Middle Ages)

Aside from the inherent political conflicts that exist in feudal England at the end of the dark ages Follett brings to the reader’s attention the issue of slavery.  In England during this period 10% of the population consists of slaves.  Among those classified as slaves are people in poverty who cannot provide for themselves, soldiers and ordinary people taken prisoner in war, or people punished for crimes.  These individuals consist mostly of people ages eleven to thirty who become servants, prostitutes, laborers, and any other activity their owners can think of.

As the story evolves plots seemed to be enveloped by subplots as Follett deftly springs numerous surprises on his readers.  Just when you think you know how things will play out; he shifts gears. Follett’s recreates a period fraught with the hazards, the harsh physical realities, the competing influences of politics and religion, detailed and convincing, providing a solid underpinning to the later installments of the Kingsbridge series. 

As Bill Sheehan points out in his review in the Washington Post that “Taken both individually and together, the Kingsbridge books are as comprehensive an account of the building of a civilization — with its laws, structures, customs and beliefs — as you are likely to encounter anywhere in popular fiction. Despite their daunting length, these novels are swift, accessible and written in a clear, uncluttered prose that has a distinctly contemporary feel. At times, the prose can feel a bit too contemporary, as when Ragna, ruminating on some conflict with her husband, wonders: “What was bugging him?” Mostly, though, Follett writes in a transparent style that rarely calls attention to itself, moving his outsized narratives steadily — and compulsively — forward.

Ken Follett with "Eisfieber" ("Whiteout").

While the Kingsbridge novels are in no way formulaic, they all rely on common narrative elements, such as multiple alternating story lines, a large cast of characters from all levels of society, the patient accumulation of precise period detail, and specific long-term goals, such as the building of a cathedral or, in “World Without End,” a bridge and hospital. But perhaps the key to Follett’s success is the way in which his gifts as a thriller writer have merged so seamlessly with the larger demands of historical fiction. Follett presents his worlds in granular detail, but the narratives never stand still. Something dramatic, appalling or enraging happens in virtually every chapter. Rape, murder, arson, infanticide and betrayals of every stripe follow one another in relentless succession. The result is a massive entertainment that illuminates an obscure corner of British history with intelligence and great narrative energy. THE EVENING AND THE MORNING is a most welcome addition to the Kingsbridge series. I hope it won’t be the last.”*  I agree wholeheartedly!

*Bill Sheehan, “Ken Follett’s PILLARS OF THE EARTH prequel is just as transporting – and lengthy – as his famous epic.” Washington Post, September 21, 2020.

Windsor Castle was built in the 11th century after the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror. King Edward III rebuilt the palace to  become "the most expensive secular building project of the entire Middle Ages in England". Edward's core design lasted through the Tudor period, during which Henry VIII and Elizabeth I made increasing use of the castle as a royal court and centre for diplomatic entertainment. Berkshire, England Stock Photo

(Berkshire, England, 11th century castle)