ALEXANDER HAMILTON: AMERICAN by Richard Brookhiser

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)

THE GODS OF GOTHAM by Lynsay Faye

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)

AGENTS OF INFLUENCE: A BRITISH CAMPAIGN, A CANADIAN SPY, AND THE SECRET PLOT TO BRING AMERICA INTO WORLD WAR II by Henry Hemming

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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 AGE OF ILLUSIONS: HOW AMERICA SQUANDERED ITS COLD WAR VICTORY by Andrew Bacevitch

(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)

BLACK WAVE: SAUDI ARABIA, IRAN, AND THE FORTY YEAR RIVALRY THAT UNRAVELED CULTURE, RELIGION, AND COLLECTIVE MEMORY by Kim Ghattas

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.

 

THE KING’S DECEPTION by Steve Berry

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(Queen Elizabeth I of England)

Every few months after reading a series of authors I always seem to come back to Steve Berry.  He is a superb purveyor of historical fiction that seems about 90% fact and 10% artistic license.  Picking up another Berry volume is like satisfying a fix for someone seeking a history lesson wrapped inside a taut mystery that involves complex, yet fascinating characters.  In my latest adventure, THE KING’S DECEPTION, Berry as usual does not disappoint as he transports the reader back to Tudor England with Henry VIII near death imparting an important secret to his sixth wife, Katherine Parr.  The thought that immediately comes to mind is what could this possibly have to do with Cotton Malone, a former Justice Department agent for the Magellan Billet, his son Gary, and a boy named Ian Dunne who as a favor to his former boss Stephanie Nelle has agreed to transport to London and turn him over to the Metropolitan Police.  The problem for Malone begins as soon as he lands in London both boys are kidnapped.

As with all of his books within the first hundred pages Berry has developed a number of conflicting plot lines that are very disparate, and one wonders how they can all come together.  As is his forte, Berry has created a series of tracks for the novel to rest.  First, is personal as Malone’s ex-wife Pam has recently told him that his son Gary is not his biological child.  Second,  Daedalus, a secret organization whose duty is “Domine, salvam fac Regnam,” which translated means, “Oh Lord, keep the queen safe.” What queen they serve is part of the mystery.  Third, a rogue CIA agent named Blake Antrim who has a professional and personal agenda that will shock Malone, the CIA and others.  Third, the upcoming release by Scotland Yard of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, a former Libyan intelligence officer convicted in 1988 of 270 counts of murder for bombing Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.  Fourth, what game is MI6, under the leadership of Sir Thomas Matthews playing.  Lastly, the roles of secondary characters like Kathleen Richards, an agent for London’s Serious Organized Crime Agency (England’s version of the FBI), Miss Mary, the owner of “Any Old Bookstore” in Piccadilly Square and her twin sister Tanya, and Farrow Curry, a CIA contract analyst who was murdered when he was close to breaking Robert Cecil, Elizabeth I and James I Chief Minister’s code hidden in his journal.

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(The Great Hall, Hampton Court Palace, England)

The United States was incensed that London refused to pressure Scotland to block the release of al-Megrahi and the CIA was trying to block the British from doing so.  The King’s Deception was the CIA plan to prevent his release.  As he brings all of these strands together, Berry integrates a great deal of historical information.  Berry returns us to the machinations of the Tudor Dynasty dating back to Henry VII carrying us forward through the House of Hanover and beyond.  As Berry builds the tension Malone faces a number of crises, one of which is very personal.  For the first time Malone must deal with his family and shows himself to be a caring father, a side we have not seen before.  As is the case in all of Berry’s books, Malone is always racing against the clock as the suspense surrounding events unfolds.  Further, only Steve Berry could create the tangled web that questions the legitimacy of Elizabeth I’s reign and its impact on English history.

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(Sir Robert Cecil, Elizabeth I and James I’s Chief Minister and Secretary of State)

Malone will uncover a series of documents relating to the Tudor Dynasty that could rock England.  After completing Berry’s eighth iteration of Cotton Malone I agree with Eileen Brady’s comments in Mystery Scene, “the documents also hint of a vast treasure hidden hundreds of years ago by the last of the Tudors. As they travel from London to Windsor Castle to the university town of Oxford, Berry gives the reader picture-perfect descriptions of the famous sights and infamous back alleys of England. The theme of birth, deception, and family binds all the divergent stories together to finish in an explosive ending.”  Each of Berry’s novels is crafted to be enjoyed on its own. If you haven’t read any of them yet, “this would be a delicious book to start with.”

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THE SPY WHO CHANGED HISTORY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF HOW THE SOVIET UNION WON THE RACE FOR AMERICA’S TOP SECRETS by Svetlana Lokhova

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(Soviet leader Joseph Stalin)

In her first book, THE SPY WHO CHANGED HISTORY: THE UNTOLD STORY OF HOW THE SOVIET UNION WON THE RACE FOR AMERICA’S TOP SECRETS Svetlana Lokhova argues that in the early 1930s Joseph Stalin came to the realization that if the Soviet Union was to survive drastic measures needed to be taken to improve the state of Soviet technology visa vie the west.  The Russian dictator stated that “We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries.  We must catch up in ten years.  Either we do it, or they will crush us.”  Stalin feared that large numbers of enemy aircraft could easily release poisonous gases over Soviet territory resulting in the death of millions.  The Soviet dictator’s solution was multifaceted; starve millions of peasants to death through collectivization to acquire hard currency to assist in Russia’s industrialization, show trials/purges/murder of those who opposed him, and the institution of a spy system that could steal secrets from the west, the United States in particular.  Lokhova chooses to focus on the last component of Stalin’s strategy by dispatching two intelligence officers, one an aviation specialist, the other a chemical specialist to attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to acquire aeronautics, chemical research and other relevant information and bring it back to the Soviet Union.

In her book, Lokhova makes the case that the success of this mission allowed the NKVD (later morphed into the KGB) to develop a dependable source of western technology, particularly in aviation that would allow it to defend the Soviet Union from its enemies and eventually defeat Nazi Germany.  This operation would form the basis of later espionage against the United States that would allow Moscow to reach an equilibrium with Washington as both sides would develop a process that some refer to as “mutual assured destruction” or MAD.  As this process unfolds Lokhova points out that the United States became the source of a great deal of nuclear technology that fueled both sides of the nuclear arms race.

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(Author, Svetlana Lokhova)

According to Lokhova the Soviets’ long science and technology (S & T) mission remained a secret for over eighty years as both sides in the arms race decided to maintain their secrets.  Relying on previously undiscovered Soviet-era documents among many sources Lokhova tells her story through its first spy, Stanislav Shumovsky, the network of agents he created, the contacts in American aviation industry, in addition to other spies and important figures in the Soviet aviation community.

The author offers a brief biography of each of the characters she develops focusing most of her attention on Shumovsky whose family had been uprooted during World War I from their Polish home and moved to Kharkov located in southern Ukraine.  He completed five years of secondary education and was a gifted linguist that eventually included English.  He was an excellent math and science student and after witnessing the plight of Russian workers and peasant joined the Red Army at the age of sixteen.  Lokhova describes the Russian Revolution and the bloody Civil War that followed and its impact on Shumovsky creating the perfect candidate to enter the intelligence field.  His mission was to attend MIT and digest a technical education that would assist him in developing a network of sources and spies that would provide the data that he sought.  His success was beyond anything his handlers could imagine.  He would build a network of contacts and agents in factories and research institutions across the United States  According to Lokhova he would mastermind the systematic acquisition of every aviation secret American industry had to offer.  He worked with top aircraft designers and test pilots and the information he provided to men like Andrey Tupolev, an expert in reverse engineering, the Soviets were able to copy and create their own version of American planes, weapons, and other technological achievements including later, the atomic bomb.

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(Stanislav Shumovsky)

Lokhova does a nice job explaining how and why the United States became the target of Russian industrial espionage. American corporations had mastered, at first, under the tutelage of Henry Ford the model of mass production, and the country itself was urbanized with a high standard of living.  Stalin and Felix Dzerzhinsky, the Soviet Intelligence Chief and Chairman of the Supreme Economic Council believed that the United States was the world’s leading technological innovator and a role model that should be targeted.  As it became clear that the Soviet Union could not industrialize with heavy industry without foreign expertise, and later the looming threat of Nazi Germany and Japan, Moscow had to obtain technology by stealing it.  Dzerzhinsky would die in 1926, but the die was cast for Stalin to manipulate the United States for Soviet technological needs.

The most interesting aspect of this process Lokhova points out is that most Americans have no clue the important role the United States played in Russian industrialization.  The author is extremely thorough in explaining the development of foreign operations by the NKVD and the role of Artur Artuzov.  In 1931, 75 Russian students arrived in the United States to attend elite universities; their vocations were varied including specially trained spies.  The largest percentage of students would attend MIT with Shumovsky.  Stalin’s goal was to emulate and surpass the United States, but to achieve this he needed educated engineers who would become Soviet societal leaders.  To achieve his goal the American education model would be copied.

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(Stalin congratulating his favorite pilot, Valery Chkalov)

Shumovsky’s story reads like an early episode from the television series, “The Americans.”  Easily fitting into American society, he oversaw the education and acculturation of his cohorts to life away from Russia.  They would blend into American society targeting young, idealistic, and naïve Americans at universities and corporations.  At MIT, Shumovsky was able to develop the industrial contacts in performing his mission – a camaraderie of scientists that allowed him to build his network. He would spot classmates like Norman Leslie Haight, a radio engineer whose specialty was bomb sights who would remain a Soviet source for decades.

Lokhova concentrates her story on Shumovsky, but she also introduces a number of intriguing characters like Ivan “Diesel” Trashutin, who attended MIT and studied diesel engineering who contributed more to the Soviet victory in WWII than any MIT alumnus, with designs for T-34 and T-72 tanks.  His task was facilitated when Stalin dismantled Soviet factories and moved them east of the Urals after the Nazis attacked in June 1941, resulting in tanks that would power the Soviet Army to victory in Berlin.  Other important individuals include Mikhail Cherniavsky, a chemical engineer and intelligence officer, who was a Trotskyite linked to trying to assassinate Stalin.  Ray Epstein Bennett, a Jewish socialist recruited to spy for the Soviet Directorate served in Shanghai, Afghanistan, and would become the tutor for MIT students – a Pygmalion Project.  Gaik Ovakimian, who the FBI labeled the “Wily Armenian,” acquired plans for the Atomic Bomb and the B-29 Super Fortress.  Lastly, Semyon Semyonov, another MIT student who Shumovsky mentored discovered which scientists were working on the Manhattan Project and managed to establish firm contacts with physicists close to Oppenheimer, among a number of others.

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(Soviet spies, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg)

The author does an exceptional job explaining the process of Soviet recruitment and the infrastructure of how it was implemented.  By the mid-1930s with the rise and threat of Nazi Germany recruitment was ramped up leading to the recruitment of Brooklyn College chemistry professor William Malisoff who brought Julius and Ethel Rosenberg into the fold.  Once Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union new avenues for intelligence gathering were created with what appears to be American cooperation as information was seized “in plain sight,” and relayed back to Moscow.   American naivete was apparent as the US embassy in the Soviet capitol had little or no security for decades and Stalin’s minions exploited the situation.

For Shumovsky, traditional spy operations were not enough to accomplish his mission.  The Soviet spy had an innate sense of how to create publicity and use it as a vehicle to improve American-Soviet relations which would lead to greater access to American corporations and their technology, i.e., Curtiss-Wright Aircraft, the largest company of its kind in the United States.  This would prove to be an effective strategy by ingratiating himself with aviation executives and engineers to obtain plans, research, and actual models.  A good example of how this played out was the flight of the Soviet ANT 25 over the North Pole with three pilots landing on the US Pacific Coast.  The three pilots would become heroes much like astronauts in the 1960s and 70s and were given access to practically any process or research they were interested in.

Lokhova’s approach is captivating as she draws out her story with the reader wondering how in detail the Russians accomplished their heists.  She answers this question and at times the narrative reads like a spy novel.  If there is a criticism of her work, it is at times her opinions do not necessarily match the historical record.  For example, she argues that the Great Purges of 1937 instituted by Stalin were caused by the Fascist victory in Spain.  According to Robert Conquest, a British historian and others the major reason was Stalin needed to blame individuals for the horrific results of collectivization that resulted in the starvation of millions and the need to protect himself from any opposition to his leadership.

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(Cambridge Five spy ring for the Soviet Union)

The advent of World War II brought about certain difficulties for Soviet intelligence.  The need for American planes in the Pacific after Pearl Harbor produced only leftovers for Moscow.  The upswing in the US economy because of the war left fewer targets to recruit.  Washington finally became security conscious.  The war resulted in in a dramatic increase in American patriotism.  Despite these difficulties, the Soviet Union was able to penetrate American and British security over the Manhattan Project employing the Cambridge Five in England, and the network and followers of Shumovsky to gather the necessary information, research, and plans for the atomic bomb.

According to Lokhova, Shumovsky’s success was his ability to adapt his methods to the changing circumstances and used America’s strengths and weaknesses and turn them to his advantage.  He was a talented student, a representative of a major aviation customer, and a skilled military advisor, skills which contributed to his success.  His successors would use his methods, and their contacts in the scientific community and factories brought the Soviet Union valuable intelligence on America’s developments in jets, rockets, and the atomic bomb.  It is fascinating that his accomplishments were pretty much conducted in “plain sight.”

Overall, Lokhova has written a fascinating account of Russian espionage and the role the United States played in the eventual success of the Soviet Union which would lead to the Cold War and the nuclear balance of power.  According to Frances Wilson in her Daily Telegraph review of June 24, 2018 entitled “The Spy who came into the lab – How the Soviets infiltrated MIT” it is interesting that certain elements in the Russian government tried to harass and discredit her to the point she was falsely accused  on “social media of being a Russian spy and of setting a ‘honey trap’ for Donald Trump’s former National Security advisor, General Michael Flynn.”  Despite the pressure she has been able to produce a groundbreaking account of Soviet espionage in the 1930s and 40s.  This is a remarkable book about amazing people and what is most astonishing is that our perception of the center of 20th century espionage has shifted “from Cambridge, England, to Cambridge Massachusetts.”

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(Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin)

HITLER: A GLOBAL BIOGRAPHY by Brendan Simms

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(Adolf Hitler)

At the outset of his new biography of Adolf Hitler, Brendan Simms points out that by 2000 over 120,000 books and articles have been written about the Nazi dictator.  The question then must be asked, why another?  Simms states in his introduction to HITLER: A GLOBAL BIOGRAPHY that conjecture concerning Hitler’s motivations that resulted in his rise to power, reorienting Germany toward Nazi domestic and foreign policy, and his ultimate defeat that have been examined since the 1950s by the likes of Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, Ian Kershaw, and more recently by Volker Ulrich and Peter Longerich and others needs to be reexamined.  Simms seeks to build on the works of others, integrating many of their viewpoints as he puts forth his own revisionist interpretation of his subject in the tradition of A.J.P. Taylor.

Simms is a political scientist and professor of international relations and his newest book is his first attempt at biography and though it is a comprehensive look at Hitler from World War One onward it does lack coverage and interpretation of his life before that period.  What Simms is concerned with are three interrelated new claims.  First, Hitler was primarily obsessed throughout his career with Anglo-American and global capitalism, not the Soviet Union and Bolshevism.  Second, Hitler held a negative view of the German people arguing that even when purged of Jews and other “Untermenschen” he reflected a sense of inferiority in comparing the “volk” with “Anglo-Saxons.”  Thirdly, historians have focused too much on Hitler’s negative view of eugenics regarding the Jews and other undesirables and not enough on what he saw as positive eugenics, which was designed to elevate the German people to that of his British and American rivals.  According to Simms, historians “have missed the extent to which Hitler was locked in a worldwide struggle not just against “world Jewry” but with the Anglo-Saxons.”  These claims or themes are hammered home by Simms on each and every page no matter the topic he is engaged in and it comes across as quite repetitive.  The book is extremely detailed and well thought out but could have been written in a more concise manner.

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To Simms’s credit he offers a great deal for the reader and other historians to consider and analyze and ultimately question.  One of Hitler’s core beliefs according to the author is that the reason the United States developed into superpower status was because of “living space.”  America had almost an entire continent to settle and when Native-Americans got in the way they were removed.  This large area provided an enormous supply of natural resources and areas to resettle millions of immigrants who arrived from Europe in the 19th and early 20th century.  For Hitler, it was German emigrants leaving the Fatherland who arrived in the United States who were greatly responsible for the American dream.  They brought skills that were needed ranging from farming, industrial labor, and their intellect.  By leaving Germany and emigrating across the Atlantic they left a void at home and an inferior population.  During World War One, Hitler became impressed with American soldiers in large part because they were made up of a significant number of Germans.  For Hitler, it became a civil war, German emigrants fighting against Germans who remained in the Fatherland which explains as the reason Germany lost the war.  This argument is carried forth throughout the 1920s and 30s leading to and including World War Two.

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(Results of Alloied fire bombing of Dresden)

Simms provides documentary evidence of Hitler’s beliefs through speeches, private conversations, and an analysis of MEIN KAMPF and THE SECOND BOOK which Hitler authored.  Simms provides numerous examples to support his claims as Hitler constantly worried about the power of the United States and during the late 1930s he wondered what approach Franklin D. Roosevelt would take as appeasers dominated English and French foreign policy.  In developing his strategy during World War Two, Simms argues that Hitler at the outset was not concerned with race and viewed the Jews as hostages to keep the United States out of the war and it was only after Washington signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941 that Hitler decided he needed a quick victory in the east and the implementation of the Final Solution.  Hitler feared that the Charter was similar to Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points during World War I which he believed was a propaganda victory that resulted in the Germany agreeing to end the fighting.  Further, to argue that race had little impact up until 1941 in the plight of European Jewry is a bit specious at best.  All one has to do is look at Hitler’s speeches and writings to realize that race was the core of his attitude toward Jews.  The 1935 Nuremberg Laws, Hitler’s constant comparison of the treatment of Jews and black colonial soldiers, Kristallnacht, Einsatzgruppen in Russia,  and numerous other examples reflect the Hitler’s obsession with race.

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Simms’s argument that the entrance of the United States into the spelled the death knell for Jews as he no longer needed them as hostages is hard to accept.  All one has to do explore the evolution of Hitler’s views on Jews from the writing of MEIN KAMPF throughout the 1930s to the unwritten order to eradicate European Jewry surrounding the Wannsee Conference, and further events to see that argument that if the United States had not entered the war, Jews might have lived is fallacious at best.

As far as the British are concerned, Simms’s Hitler fawns over the empire, its colonial policy, and the sturdiness and bravery of its people.  Hitler repeatedly tried to make peace or ally with England throughout the 1930s, the years leading up to World War Two, and the war itself.  His strategy as is argued by many was to invade the Soviet Union as a means of pressuring London into making peace.  This is not really new, but it is interesting to explore Simms’s presentation as he has culled an enormous amount of primary and secondary materials which are part of an exceptional compendium of sources and footnotes in presenting his arguments.

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(Allied bombing of Romanian oil fields)

Simms does present all of the salient facts regarding Hitler’s life and the course of German history between World War I and II.  The author presents a detailed account of Nazi Party politics from the 1920s through the assumption of power in 1933 and beyond, Hitler’s impact on German federalism and Bavaria in particular, German culture, the removal of any threats to Hitler’s power, i.e., Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s fears of the restoration of the Habsburg Monarchy, the machinations of Nazi foreign policy using the excuse of self-determination, and many other issues.  The difference is his approach. He seems to enjoy exploring Hitler’s thought patterns and how he reached his conclusions.  A good example is how he believed England would switch sides after being defeated and support the Nazis as the Austrian Empire had done with Prussia in 1866 after the Battle of Sadowa.  Another example is how Hitler viewed the Slavs in relation to Germany, much in the same way that the United States viewed Native-Americans.  Slavs were to be moved out of the Ukraine to create Lebensraum for Hitler and provide Germany with the breadbasket of the Soviet Union as well as natural resources as the removal of Native-Americans had for Washington.

Historians seem overly concerned with watershed dates.  For Simms it is the May, 1938 crisis over Czechoslovakia as anti-appeasement factions in the British Foreign Office and in MI6, aided by Czech and German social democrat exiles triggered a crisis in order to torpedo Neville Chamberlain’s policy of conciliation toward Germany and to mobilize resistance to Hitler.  It was claimed that Hitler had mobilized German forces and was planning an imminent attack.  This was not the case as an embarrassed Hitler retreated – the result would be the Munich Crisis and the ceding of the Sudetenland in September 1938 to assuage Hitler’s ego.  As a result of the crisis Hitler began to realize that a rapprochement with England was not likely and he would rush the Czechs completely by March 1939.  Hitler did make another attempt to seek a deal with London over a “rump” Poland after the Danzig crisis and the German invasion in September 1939, but they turned him down.  According to Simms, Hitler never forgave them, and the “blitz” or Battle of Britain was a direct result as was the invasion of Russian in June 1941 as a means of showing Churchill he was isolated and should make peace, not because they were Bolshevik as many have argued.  In fact, according to Simms, Hitler held a certain admiration for Stalin for the way he ruled and how his troops fought so fiercely against the Nazis.

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(Allied liberation of Auschwitz)

As to the idea that Nazism was socialism as Simms proports one must realize Hitler’s coopting of German “big business” for rearmament was designed as a drive to war, resulting in increased profits for Krupp and Thyssen and other industrialists rather than improving working conditions and wages for workers – this is not socialism.   According to Richard J. Evans in his review in The Guardian, on September 27, 2019, a great deal of what Simms argues is untenable, and though I agree with this assessment I would not go as far as his statement that Simms’s work should be ignored by serious students of the Nazi era as it is provocative and in parts interesting.  I would say though that what Simms argues should be taken with a grain of salt, but his work should not be dismissed out of hand.

Evans review article follows as it appeared in The Guardian, September 27, 2019.

Hitler by Brendan Simms and Hitler by Peter Longerich review – problematic portraits

Was Hitler obsessed with destroying capitalism? Did he drive policy ‘even down to the smallest detail’? Two new biographies fall into different traps

Richard J Evans

 

“Hitler was a socialist,” has become a mantra for the “alt-right” in the US as it seeks to discredit Democratic politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Dinesh D’Souza’s book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left expounded this claim at length in 2017, comparing points of the Nazi party’s 1920 programme with policies put forward by modern Democrats. So, anyone who claims to be a socialist is really a Nazi who wants to set the country on the road to totalitarianism, war and genocide. Obamacare is only the start; enslavement and death will be the end. It’s a claim that has spread through the Republican party and has been echoed by Donald Trump Jr.

Now it has found its way across the Atlantic in the form of Brendan Simms’s new book, the central argument of which is that “Hitler’s principal preoccupation throughout his career was Anglo-America and global capitalism, rather than the Soviet Union and Bolshevism”. Everything in his life can be traced back to this obsession. “Hitler wanted to establish what he considered racial unity in Germany by overcoming the capitalist order and working for the construction of a new classless society.” Throughout his career, “Hitler’s rhetoric” was “far more anti-capitalist than anti-communist”. Simms asserts “the centrality of the British Empire and the United States in the gestation of Mein Kampf”, just as he claims of Hitler’s long unpublished Second Book that “the main focus of the text was the overwhelming power of Anglo-America, and especially of the United States”.

Hitler has been the subject of a string of major biographies, from those by Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest to, most recently, Ian Kershaw and Volker Ullrich. But they have all, Simms writes, got him wrong: “The extent to which he was fighting a war against ‘international high finance’ and ‘plutocracy’ from start to finish has not been understood at all.” Now he has come along to set us all right.

There are good reasons, however, why the overwhelming consensus of historical scholarship has rejected any idea that Hitler was a socialist. Simms emphasises the violence of Nazi stormtroopers in the early 1930s against German conservatives rather than socialists and communists, but in fact the latter made up the overwhelming majority of the 200,000 or so opponents of Nazism who were thrown into concentration camps during Hitler’s first year in power. As for Mein Kampf, it was the threat of communism and socialism that dominated the political part of the text, in which Hitler expounded his belief that “the Bolshevisation of Germany … means the complete annihilation of the entire Christian-western culture”. In similar fashion the main focus of the Second Book was not the US, which is mentioned only on a handful of pages, but the need for “living-space” in eastern Europe and German claims to Italian South Tyrol.

The central planks in the socialist platform have always been the belief that capitalism oppresses the mass of the people and needs to be overthrown, or at least moderated and regulated in their interest. Simms claims that “what Hitler did very effectively” was “to nationalise German industrialists by making them instruments of his political will”. But this was not economic or financial control exercised in the interests of the people, nor did Hitler nationalise industry or the banks in any meaningful sense of the word. Rather, he set a political course for rearmament as part of his drive to war that pushed industrialists such as Thyssen and Krupp to devote ever more resources to arms production in the interests of increasing their profits. The result was heightened exploitation of the workers, as the overheating of war production forced them even before 1939 to work longer hours without extra pay. This was not socialism, whatever else it was.

Simms’s reduction of virtually all the major events in the history of the Third Reich to a product of anti-Americanism even extends to episodes such as the nationwide pogrom of the Reichskristallnacht in November 1938, when thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed and 30,000 Jewish men put into concentration camps. Apparently this was caused by “Roosevelt’s hostility to Hitler and his defence of the Jews”. The invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 was launched in order “to strike at Britain, and to deter the United States … Barbarossa was to be a campaign of conquest and annihilation, for reasons more to do with Anglo-America than the Soviet Union itself”. Even the Holocaust, we should not be surprised to learn, was “primarily driven … by his fear of Britain and the United States”.

All this is nonsense, and indeed, Simms is forced to contradict himself by the sheer weight of the evidence against his thesis. The invasion of the Soviet Union was, he concedes, “part of a much broader ideological war against Bolshevism”: “a struggle between two world views”, as Hitler put it. He admits that Hitler “was not completely opposed to all forms of capitalism”, only “unproductive” ones: in other words Jewish-owned capital, as with, for example, department store chains – he forced Jewish owners out but did not close them down. Interviewed by the Daily Express correspondent Sefton Delmer in 1931, Hitler said: “My job is to prevent the millions of German unemployed from coming under communist influence.” He did not even mention America in outlining his foreign policy aims to the journalist.

Time and again, Simms uses rhetorical sleight of hand to underscore his claim that the US was the main focus of Hitler’s foreign policy by referring to “Anglo-America” when he is in fact just talking about Britain. He quotes a proclamation from Hitler saying on New Year’s Day 1944 that the war was being fought against the “Bolshevik-plutocratic world conspirators and their Jewish wire-pullers”; a few lines later this has become in Simms’s words a struggle against “Anglo-American imperialism”, and all mention of the Bolsheviks has disappeared. Yet Hitler was quite clear about the issue: “Everything I do is directed against Russia,” he said.

Simms claims that Hitler was engaged in “a war of annihilation against Anglo-Saxons, the Jews and their Bolshevik puppets”. But there was no war of annihilation against “Anglo-Saxons”; indeed, it was striking that when in 1944-45 the camps were emptied as the Red Army advanced, British, American and French prisoners were relatively well treated, while the evacuation of Slavs and the few remaining Jews turned into death marches in which tens of thousands were murdered.

The military conduct of the war in Simms’s view was also directed against the US: even “the drive on Stalingrad, like the entire war, was primarily driven by the contest against Anglo-America”. But contrary to Simms’s denial of the fact, Stalingrad held a special significance for Hitler because of its name. Pursuing his claim to the centrality of “Anglo-America” in the Nazi war effort, Simms declares that the capitulation of axis forces in Tunisia in May 1943 “was a much greater disaster than Stalingrad, with well in excess of 130,000 Wehrmacht personnel taken prisoner, many more than had entered captivity” at Stalingrad. But these are phoney statistics. In fact, about the same number of German and allied troops were captured on both occasions (around 235,000). The real difference was in the numbers killed – some 50,000 or so in Tunisia, anything up to 750,000, more than 10 times as many, at Stalingrad. It was north Africa that was the sideshow, not Stalingrad, the effects of which on the strategy and morale of the Germans were shattering.

Hitler’s genocidal antisemitism was based on the paranoid belief that Jews were racially pre-programmed to engage in subversion and conspiracy, whether from the communist and socialist left or from capitalist “profiteering”. In the end, Simms hasn’t written a biography in any meaningful sense of the word, he’s written a tract that instrumentalises the past for present-day political purposes. As such, his book can be safely ignored by serious students of the Nazi era.

For a real biography by a genuine specialist on Nazi Germany, we have to turn to Peter Longerich’s book, ably translated from the German by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe. He makes it clear that Hitler was politicised by the “Jewish-Bolshevik” revolution in Munich in 1918-19, and from early on in his career courted business in search of funds; his 1932 speech to industrialists in Düsseldorf, which Simms dismisses as unimportant, was a turning point in this respect. As for socialism, Hitler simply defined it as “love for one’s nation” and used anticapitalist rhetoric cynically in an effort to win over the working classes to his cause. Longerich dismisses the idea, currently fashionable among German historians, that Hitler created a classless “People’s Community” after he came to power, rightly stressing that social divisions and inequalities continued unabated during the Third Reich. It was communism that he was obsessed with destroying, not the US, which is mentioned only once in the book before we get to page 700.

Longerich delivers some penetrating analyses of the documentary record and takes good account of such recent publications as the diaries of Alfred Rosenberg and Joseph Goebbels. Unfortunately, however, in focusing relentlessly on Hitler himself – his politics and his decision-making – he falls into the trap of ascribing virtually everything that happened in Nazi Germany to his will, portraying him as an all-powerful dictator who drove policy “even down to the smallest detail”. This is not new, of course; it’s a reversion to the historical perspectives of the 1950s, and it’s not borne out by the evidence.

Even according to Longerich’s own narrative, Goebbels, with a very few exceptions, was the driving force in cultural policy, Hjalmar Schacht in economics (at least until 1937), Heinrich Himmler in coercion and repression, Robert Ley in the creation of the “Strength Through Joy” scheme for workers’ leisure, and so on. Given Hitler’s chaotic working habits as described by Longerich, one should not expect otherwise. And on occasions such as the formulation of the Nuremberg race laws, Hitler is described in this book as reacting to events rather than shaping them. You don’t have to go to the opposite extreme of regarding Hitler’s policies as the product of structural pressures in the regime to realise that Longerich’s bold claims for Hitler’s responsibility for everything are overdone. He claims, for example, that Hitler’s willpower kept the Germans going to the bitter end of the war, but a mass of recent research shows there were many other reasons, from fear of the Gestapo and terror of the Red Army to strong allegiance to German national identity. In the end, therefore, neither of these books comes close to supplanting the standard modern biographies by Kershaw and Ullrich.

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THE UNWILLING by John Hart (to be published in June, 2020)

To begin I would like to thank the representative from St. Martin’s Press for contacting me and asking me to review John Hart’s latest novel, THE UNWILLING before publication.  I found the novel to be an exceptional read with an intricate storyline, interesting characters, and a series of themes that directly and indirectly touch a range of human emotions.  The book should measure up to Hart’s previous thrillers which have won numerous awards, particularly two consecutive Edgar Awards.

The evocative novel begins with the release of Jason French from prison after serving two and a half years that followed three tours of duty in Vietnam.  Jason has been linked to drugs, guns, and rumor has it he killed 29 people in the war and possibly two more while at Lanesworth State Prison.  Jason is a broken man who comes from a somewhat dysfunctional family with an older brother Robert, the family favorite killed at Ke Sanh, and a younger brother, Gibson or “Gibby” who idolizes his brothers but has been kept in a protective bubble by his parents, particularly by his mother who is still grieving the loss of her first son and shuns Jason.  William French, the father is a detective for the Charlotte Police Department and is doing his best to maintain some sort of normality and in the end save his family.  He loves his sons equally but was distraught over his inability to communicate with his middle son who he feels he no longer knows.  He and his wife try to keep Gibby away from his brother, creating further resentment driving them closer together.

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(Author, John Hart)

The powerful novel explores the depths of human depravity.  These depths are a function of many things, but foremost in Hart’s mind is the Vietnam War and how it affected Jason French and turned him into something his reflection in the mirror could never condone.  Further, the novel reflects a father who has lost one son and perhaps another because of the war and as the story progresses, he fears he is about to lose his youngest.

Hart’s plot in part pits two men who cannot overcome their demons.  One, called X is a wealthy psychopath scheduled to be executed in a few months.  X uses his wealth as a vehicle to dominate a corrupt prison on the inside and through his tentacle’s certain lives on the outside.  Second, Jason French, a man shattered by war and a family destroyed by the same war who does not recognize how deep his emotional issues are and how to obtain help.  While imprisoned Jason was manipulated by X and did something to him that wants revenge against him and his family.  He will arrange a murder that implicates Jason resulting in his return to prison and the control that X fosters.  Gibby believes his brother has been abandoned and tries to locate the killer and in doing so becomes caught in X’s web that caused the death of another woman that is linked to Gibby.

Hart has a very tight conversational writing style that allows him to tell the story mostly through Gibby as narrator.  He has the ability to drill down into the core of each character presenting their flaws and upside.  He knows exactly when to shift the focus from one character to another as the thriller evolves and allows his plot to play out maintaining a sharp focus on keeping the reader glued to the written page.  If I were to compare Hart’s work with another author, Pat Conroy comes to mind, but without the inherent southern prose as well as the intensity of Greg Iles.  Further, he has been compared to John Grisham and Scott Turow but for me he has taken the genre of crime fiction to a new level.  In the end the best way to describe John Hart’s writing is that he is a master storyteller.

PURGATORY RIDGE by William Kent Krueger

Giant waves crash into large cliffs on Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park during Wednesday's storm on the North Shore. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Giant waves crash into large cliffs on Lake Superior at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park during Wednesday’s storm on the North Shore. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

William Kent Krueger has written another exceptional thriller in his third Cork O’Conner novel, PURGATORY RIDGE with the main character seemingly having righted his marriage and filled the voids that emerged in previous mysteries.  As he has done in his other works, he has combined the beauty of nature in northern Minnesota, reservation life and economics, and of course a work of fiction that produces angst and fear.  Krueger is a master of novels that run on a number of tracks.  In the present iteration of Cork O’Conner, the conflict between lumber interests and environmentalists dominates.  Further, the death of a young man who drowned along with many others in a shipping accident on Lake Superior explains a great deal of what transpires.  The question that immediately comes to mind is how the plight of white pine trees  known as Our Grandfathers by local Native-Americans, the tragedy of the “Alfred M. Teasdale,” and an explosion at the Lindstrom Lumber Company all fit together.

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The puzzle that Krueger offers reflects the animosity between logging interests represented by Lindstrom Lumber and the actions of environmental groups in the courts, demonstrations, and at times violence.  In this instance the loggers are opposed by the “Army of the Earth,” and on another level the conflict involves the interest of those who make their living from the logging industry against those of the Anishinaabe Indians on the Iron Lake Reservation.

Krueger returns a number of important characters from previous novels one of which is Nancy Jo O’Conner, who is the lawyer  for the Anishinaabe Ojibwe in their fight against the loggers to save the white pine trees.  It appears that Aurora, the home of the O’Conner’s is on the eve of war and after the explosion at Lindstrom Lumber that killed Charlie Warren, the traditional chief of the Iron Ojibwe Indians, the death count has begun.  The conflict between “red” and “white” leaps off the pages and it is a continuation of the troubles that came to a head two years earlier over fishing rights that cost Cork O’Conner his job as sheriff.  Other returning characters include, Henry Merloux, the Anishinaabe medicine man who seems “all wise” and has known Cork his entire life.  Wally Shanno, the Tamarack County Sheriff,  Helmut Hanover, the editor of the Aurora Sentinel, whose nickname is “hell,”  and the O’Conner children and Aunt Rose.

New characters that take prominent roles include John Le Pere who was the only survivor aboard the “Alfred M. Teasdale” and witnessed the drowning of his brother Billy.  Wesley Bridger, a former Navy Seal who partners with Le Pere in trying to show negligence by the Fitzgerald Shipping Company and recover damages while explaining why the ship sank.  Joan Hamilton, an environmentalist known as “Joan of Arc of the Redwoods,” and her son Brent who belongs to the “Army of the Earth” who refer to themselves as Eco-Warriors.  Lastly, Grace Fitzgerald, author and poet who is married to Magnus Karl Lindstrom III the owner of Lindstrom Lumber whose father had been the owner of Fitzgerald shipping.

Le Pere’s grief is palatable and has shadowed his life for over fifteen years leading him to behavior that is the result of forces he cannot control when all he is seeking is justice.  The  O’Conner family will be dragged into the nastier aspect of the existing conflict resulting in the  family moving closer together.  Underlying family issues is whether Cork should run for reelection as Sheriff which Nancy Jo fears will rip apart the progress that has been made in restoring their relationship.  Krueger’s plot will come full circle before its conclusion that encompasses a number of flawed characters, but the prolonged tension of the story remains until the very end, an ending the reader will not be able to anticipate.  Krueger’s writing will not win any awards for fine prose, but it does maintain the reader’s interest throughout and does not disappoint as the Cork O’Conner series remains a hit.  The next installment is entitled, BLOOD HOLLOW.