THE BOOKWORM by Mitch Silver

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(Moscow State University)

Larissa Mendelova Klimt is a full professor of history at Moscow State University specializing in geopolitical history, a field that debunks traditional historical interpretations.  At the conclusion of her introductory class lecture a young “thug” confronts her with a shopping bag with six Dictaphone recordings dating back to World War II.  Since Klimt is about to complete her latest book, THE GREAT PATRIOTIC WAR she is seen as an expert and is offered a large sum of money to listen to the tapes and uncover a secret related to a book that Hitler had at his desk before he decided to invade the Soviet Union.  Klimt is the pivotal character in Mitch Silver’s second historical novel, THE BOOKWORM, which also happens to be Professor Klimt’s nickname.  Klimt’s personage is very important to the novel as her character interacts with her twin brother’s oil refinery work in Valdez, Alaska.  In addition, the discovery of an ulnar bone with handcuffs on its wrist at a London construction site which had been hit by a V-2 rocket in 1944, by a soon to be murdered worker named Davidson Gordon is difficult to explain.  Further, the presence of a leather case that had been attached to the buried bone heightens a sense of mystery.  At this point Silver has set elements of his plot that attracts the reader’s attention, particularly when the ulnar bone is discovered a man in a walker yells at a television set, “Fools! You’ve no idea what you’ve got.”

Many well-known historical figures will make their appearance; among them are Noel Coward, the British playwright, Anthony Blunt, who was outed as a Soviet spy after the war, the actress Marlene Dietrich, Ian Fleming, later of James Bond fame, and John F. Kennedy.  Silver’s develops a formula to present his counter-factual history.  His approach is to develop something that appears to be believable and blends it with something that has actually occurred.  British intelligence directs Blunt to prepare a forgery outlining a historical prophecy for Adolf Hitler.  Blunt develops a scheme were by a prophecy is given by Michel de Nostradamus and it is imprinted on the cover leaf of a bible.  The bible will be given to the German dictator and it calls for a German invasion in the east.  The hope was that Hitler would act on the prophecy and turn his attention away from England during the Battle of Britain.  This is an interesting scenario, a fit farfetched, but its outcome is something that Winston Churchill would have adopted immediately.

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(Hitler’s Wolf Lair)

Silver’s competing plot deals with an announcement by the United States of a major oil strike in the Alaskan Wilderness Reserve.  Lara’s twin brother and an American are working in Valdez at the end of the oil pipeline when they notice a problem with the texture of the oil.  The American either commits suicide or is murdered as they have fallen upon something much larger than they realized.  It appears that there is a race to gain drilling rights under the Arctic Circle.  Based on previous agreements the Russian claim rests on their energy rights on the Lomonosov Ridge under the Arctic Circle.  Fortunately for the Russians the American president is a “Trump like figure” who does not accept global warming and wants to open Alaska to commercial drilling.  The Russian leader offers the American president a deal; Moscow would surreptitiously supply the United States oil as a means of showing how successful the Alaska drilling was, and in return Washington would drop any opposition to Russian Arctic claims.  This would guarantee the reelection of the “Trump like figure” and allow him to pursue his goal of maintaining America’s dependence on fossil fuels.  The deal would last either four to eight years, and by that time the United States would be totally dependent on fossil fuels, and Russian oil.

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(Anthony Blunt)

These two plot lines seem to be very diverse and a number of questions arise; first, how do the plot lines intersect?  Second, what role does Professor Lara Klimt play in this process?  Third, was the bible real, and if it was where was it?  Lastly, how does Lara’s ex-husband, Viktor, a Russian intelligence officer fit into the story?  When these questions are finally answered this reader emerged unsatisfied.  The novel seemed to have great potential, but its ending is rather pedestrian.  The first half is intense and believable, however, the last half of the book leaves a lot to be desired as the interaction of certain characters produces an ending that cannot be considered dramatic.

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(Moscow State University)

 

 

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RISE AND KILL FIRST: SECRET HISTORY OF ISRAEL’S TARGET ASSASSINATIONS by Ronen Bergman

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(David Ben-Gurion, creator of Israeli intelligence services)

When the state of Israel achieved nationhood in 1948 it was seen as an ethical and moral experiment because of the role the Holocaust played in its creation, along with its dominant Jewish culture.  Residing in a geographical region that had nothing but hatred for the new state it would be difficult to expect Israel to maintain the high standards that were expected of it.  The difficulty would morph into a nation that had to protect itself from invasion, and once that was beaten back it had to deal with constant attacks across its borders.  As a result Israel would take on the character of other countries and adopt measures that ran counter to expectations.  The evolution of Israel into an intelligence and military power to meet the needs of its citizens is explored in detail in Ronen Bergman’s new book, RISE AND KILL FIRST: SECRET HISTORY OF ISRAEL’S TARGET ASSASSINATIONS.  Bergmann is an Israeli journalist who writes for Yedioth Ahronoth and has received the highest prize offered for journalism in Israel.  Bergman’s monograph begins with the end of the Second World War and continues through today. It is based on over 1,000 interviews, thousands of documents, and runs to about 650 pages.

What is clear from the outset is that Israeli leaders were firm believers in the Hammurabi Code of “an eye for an eye.”  This can be seen from the outset as Israel wanted to ethnically cleanse as many Palestinians as possible (Plan Dalet)), from towns in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  Bergman traces the creation of a “machine” which came about through the “marriage of guerrilla warfare and the military might of a technological powerhouse.”  Bergman explores the political leaders, operatives, methodology, and deliberations that resulted in many successes, but a number of important failures also.  One of the major themes of the book rests on the moral cost of this policy and how two separate legal systems developed in Israel; one for ordinary citizens, and one for the intelligence community and military establishment.  The template became a model for other countries, particularly the United States after 9/11 which mirrored Israeli intelligence gathering and assassination techniques.

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(Ariel Sharon, circa 1967)

Bergman does an excellent job explaining the Israeli rationalization for targeted killing.  He explores in depth the history that preceded its implementation, its legal justification, and the resulting bifurcation in Israeli society.  Since Israel suffers from a deficit of men and equipment when compared to its enemies, early on they decided to rely on internal security and intelligence gathering services for their survival.   The program began under Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion who effectively set up the extrajudicial system to carry out assassinations.  By 1949 Ben-Gurion created the Mossad (covert activities beyond the country’s borders)), along with AMAN (the military intelligence arm that supplies information to the IDF); and Shin Bet (responsible for internal intelligence, counterterror, and counterespionage).  These three services still remain the core of Israeli intelligence activities to this day.

There are a number of key events and individuals that are responsible for the evolution of Israeli tactics.  Israel faced “Fedayeen,” Arab terrorists led by an Egyptian, Mustafa Hafez, who crossed into Israel in great numbers after the War of Independence and killed numerous Israelis.  By 1956, the Suez War broke out and after the Gaza Strip was conquered Israeli intelligence came across Hafez’s list of operatives who had terrorized Israel for years.  Ben-Gurion ordered that everyone on the list should be killed and one by one operations were carried out.  This section of the book reads like a Daniel Silva novel.  From 1956-1967 attacks were drastically reduced as the Arabs realized the price they would pay from Israeli retribution.  However, the Egyptians began to employ German scientists to develop long range missiles.  Bergman provides a detailed chapter on the episode and one realizes that once a threat is perceived, Israel reacts.  In this case the assassination of German scientists, kidnappings, and recruiting certain scientists to be used against Egypt, i.e., Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s Operational Commander.

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(Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad)

The book encompasses more than a retelling of numerous targeted killings.  Bergman discusses a series of operations whose focal point was not assassination.  For example, the high jacking of an Iraq MIG-21 fighter by getting the pilot to defect, or allying with King Hassan II to spy on Arab leaders providing intelligence leading up to the Six Day War.  Further, throughout the 1950s and 60s Israel was preoccupied by Egyptian President Gamal Nasser and as a result Israeli intelligence missed the creation in 1964 of the Palestine Liberation Organization under Yasir Arafat and Abu Jihad.  After the 1967 War, the PLO launched numerous attacks against Israel.  As Israel attempted to assassinate Arafat, his popularity among Palestinians increased, and enlistments in the PLO rose dramatically as the Palestinian leader was seen as the embodiment of Palestinian nationalism.

Perhaps one of Bergman’s most interesting chapters, “Meir Dagan and His Expertise” the author describes how Israel dealt with this increasing threat.  It is here that we see assassination and killing implemented as standard policy.  The Israeli government unleashed Ariel Sharon who commanded Israel’s southern frontier.  By the end of 1969, Sharon created a new unit under Meir Dagan, and using intelligence gathered by the Shin Bet went into Gaza to murder Palestinian operatives and leaders.  After the PLO responded by slaughtering an Israeli family driving along the Gaza road, Shin Bet and IDF Special Forces wiped out terrorism in the Gaza Strip through 1972 by employing methods that went beyond Israeli domestic law.  This was effective until the Jordanian Civil War produced a new Palestinian terrorist group, Black September.

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(Results of of an Israeli missile target killing)

Bergman’s command of his material is superb, as his analysis down to the last detail.  He takes the reader into areas that no previous author has done.  Numerous operations are described including their conception and implementation.  Among the many that are discussed include the “Spring of Youth” operation that resulted in the death of three top PLO officials and 35 PFLP terrorists in Beirut in October, 1972, which netted documents that would lead to the destruction of the Fatah network in the West Bank, and the killing of all the assailants related to the 1972 Olympic Munich massacre by elements of Black September.  However as successful as the operation was it created tremendous hubris on the part of Israeli leaders leading them to believe the Arabs would not attack further.  This feeling of superiority resulted in rejection of Anwar Sadat’s peace overtures which led to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War.

The Salameh operation is described in detail and produced a number of surprising pieces of information.  For example, Salameh had been recruited by the CIA and was America’s back channel to Arafat.  Both parties agreed that the PLO would not launch attacks in the United States, and Salameh would be protected.  However, Israel viewed Salameh as the man who engineered the Olympic massacre and waited until January, 1979 to kill him with a car bomb in Beirut.  Another example was the Israeli raid on Entebbe that resulted in the rescue of most of the Israeli hostages that were imprisoned after an airliner high jacking that was flown to Kenya.  Bergman presents the planning of the raid, and once again the outcome was marked by Israeli hubris.

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(the assassination of an Iranian operative)

Abu Nidal presented a different problem for Israel after his terror group killed Israel’s ambassador to England, Shlomo Argov.  This was used as an excuse to invade Lebanon, when Israeli attacks led by Meir Dagan failed to provoke a PLO response, a move that Middle East expert, Robin Wright led to “Israel’s Vietnam.”  Bergman highlights the most important aspects of the war, especially the role played by Sharon.  The Israeli general had his own agenda in launching the attack; first, to redraw the map of the region with a Christian Lebanon and the movement of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to Jordan, second, his obsession with killing Arafat.  Both goals were not achieved, but what was achieved was raising Arafat’s profile in the Arab world as the Palestinians were forced to leave Lebanon in August, 1982, the emergence of a new terrorist group backed by Iran, Hezbollah, and the beginning of an eighteen year quagmire in Lebanon.  Sharon acted like a monarch, a law unto himself making him a detriment to Israel.  Sharon overshadowed Prime Minister Menachem Begin who receded into an emotional depression as the war continued, and was replaced as Prime Minister by Yitzchak Shamir.  Israel would continue its policy of targeted killing as the carnage of Munich, Maalot, Nahariya, and many others became Israel’s justification for murder and summary executions.  Lebanon made the situation even worse as there were no laws to restrain the Shin Bet from torturing prisoners and on many occasions killing them.

There are numerous other highlights in Bergman’s detailed narrative.  The Intifada that broke out in December, 1987 that caught the Palestinian leadership, Israeli government and intelligence officials totally flatfooted is a case in point as it eventually morphed into the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993.  The Intifada saw Israel double down on targeted killings as it sought to control the images being flashed each day in the media.  Israel’s main target was Abu Jihad, Arafat’s number two man and Bergman describes how he was hunted down, and at the same time missing an opportunity to also kill Mahmoud Abbas, the current president of the Palestinian Authority.  Bergman makes the important point that Abu Jihad, who was not as intransigent as many others in Gaza had been alive perhaps there might have been some movement towards ending the Intifada and perhaps “Hamas might not have been able to consolidate its position to dominate large parts of the Palestinian public.” (323)

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(Yasir Arafat)

As the Intifada continued the Shin Bet became very flexible in its approach to killings; employing disguise to trap suspects, demolished terrorist’s homes, and turning Palestinians into spies for Israel.  The most important of which was Adnan Yassin, a mid-level activist who dealt with numerous projects in PLO headquarters in Tunis.  Once Yassin was turned, he provided valuable information for over four years that helped prevent numerous attacks and contributed to a number of important targeted killings.  By 1992, Yassin was discovered and executed.

As Bergman develops his narrative he integrates the history of the region and the most important historical figures into his text.  None is more important than Saddam Hussein and his quest to acquire nuclear weapons.  Bergman digs deep and points out that the United States and France were currying Saddam’s favor because of his ongoing war with Iran in the 1980s.  It is surprising to note that the French built a nuclear reactor in Iraq and supplied him with the necessary technology to try and reach his goals.  This was due to the ego of Charles de Gaulle who resented Israel’s ignoring his advice in 1967 and from that time, France, a traditional ally  turned against the Jewish state.  The Mossad pursued the same approach it had used against Egyptian scientists and began killing those associated with Iraq’s program.  Bergman follows Israel’s military and intelligence planning that finally led to the Israeli destruction of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.

Another important individual that Israeli intelligence had to cope with was Ayatollah Khomeini whose movement overthrew Israel’s ally, Reza Pahlavi, the Iranian monarch in 1979.  Khomeini was seen as an existential threat to Israel and eventually fomented trouble throughout the region and helped create and support Hezbollah, “the Party of God” during the fighting in Lebanon.  This produced another cycle of violence with rockets and raids into northern Israel and Israeli target killings against Hezbollah leaders, particularly Hussein Abbas al-Mussawi who was responsible for many attacks against Israel.  He would be replaced by Hassan Nasrallah as Hezbollah’s leader in Lebanon.  Bergman points out that killing Mussawi may have been a mistake for Israel because he was much more liberal when it came to relations with Israel than Nasrallah who was more of a radical Shi’ite.

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(President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu-no love lost between these two!)

This process continued in dealing with Palestinian terrorism throughout the 1990s despite the Oslo Peace Accords.  Once again Bergman effectively deals with another cycle of violence.  In Gaza, Hamas was a major problem and was responsible for numerous suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.  Israel responded once again with an increase in targeted killings.  Despite the Oslo Accords, Arafat refused to cooperate with trying to control Hamas.  It would cost Prime Minister Shimon Peres his office and he would be replaced by Benjamin Netanyahu effectively ending the peace process.  Bergman points out that Hamas suicide attacks were designed to end the peace process, and with the arrival of Netanyahu as Prime Minister, they achieved their goal.

In the large number of operations that Bergman recounts he is careful to balance successes with failures, i.e., the attempt to kill Khaled Mashal, a Hamas leader in Amman totally backfired and cost Israel dearly.  Another would be the attempt to kill Hezbollah operative, Haldoun Haidar that resulted in a deadly ambush for the IDF.  These failures along with the ongoing threats from an enemy that used tactics that Israel had never grappled with before led to the reorganization of intelligence agencies under new leadership, a key of which was Ami Ayalon to head the Shin Bet and the introduction of new technology.  New surveillance techniques, integration of computer systems, a new approach to network analysis, the use of real-time intelligence, hardware and software designed to integrate different services and operational bodies led to a series of success of which the killing of the Adwallah brothers and capturing the Hamas military archive stands out.  The advances made by Shin-Bet was replicated throughout the entire country.  Bergman correctly argues if these changes had not been implemented it would have been even more difficult for Israel to deal with the Second Intifada that broke out in 2000.

Bergman discusses the changes in Israeli governments and its impact on “killing strategies.”  Netanyahu’s government was plagued by charges of corruption and an increase in suicide bombings, and by May 1999 was replaced by the Labor Party under Ehud Barak, who as a soldier had been a master of special operations.  Barak’s military lessons did not carry over to the world of politics and diplomacy.  He was able to withdraw the IDF from Lebanon, but failed in his approach to Arafat at Camp David in 2000.  This failure in conjunction with Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount helped touch off a second Intifada.  The increase in suicide bombings toppled Barak’s government and brought to power Sharon as Prime Minister leading to an all-out offensive against suicide bombers.  With no real strategy to confront events Israel turned its usual approach, increased assassinations.  When this failed Israel altered this strategy by going after much more low level targets employing advanced drones retrofitted with special targeting technology and missiles.  In addition, they began to acknowledge their responsibility for attacks and provided explanations for each.  Once the 9/11 attacks took place the Israeli leadership used the new climate in the world to legitimize its assassination policy to break the back of the Intifada.

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(Iranian diplomat Reza Najafi complaining about Israeli policy at the UN)

To his credit the author delves into discord within the intelligence community over certain actions.  Reflecting his objectivity Bergman discusses certain planned operations that brought about refusals on the part of certain participants to carry out orders when they believed there would be too much collateral damage.  The debates between higher ups in this process are also presented and it was rare that there was unanimity over a given plan.  The possible assassination of Sheik Yassin is a case in point because Israel’s legal justification for targeting anyone rests on the principle that a direct link between that person and a future terrorist attack was at hand.  Finally, in March, 2004 Yassin was killed, as was his successor Abd al-Aziz-Rantisi one month later.  Israel had instituted a new policy that political targets, in addition to operational targets were fair game because of the increase in suicide attacks that also included the use of women for the first time.  The suicide attacks finally ended with the death of Arafat and the coming to power of Mahmoud Abbas who finally cracked down on Hamas.

Bergman pays careful attention to the shifting balance of power in the Middle East as it pertains to Israeli targeting policies.  Yassin’s assassination was a turning point as he opposed any links with Iran, however once he was dead Hamas’ leadership agreed to work with Iran and the Teheran regime gained a strong foothold in Gaza.  At the same time new Syrian President Bashir Assad decided to ally with Iran producing a radical front of Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.  Israel’s response was twofold.  First, Sharon appointed Meir Dagan to totally rework Mossad which Bergman describes in detail, and secondly, have Israel’s intelligence services network with those of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco reflecting the Iranian common enemy.  The result was a string of targeted killings on the part of Israel.

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(Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin)

Israel has faced a number of threats throughout its history and no matter the obstacle it seems to land on its feet.  Over the last decade it has dealt with abducted soldiers that led to war in 2006 with Hezbollah, the creation of a Hamas state in Gaza after the split in the Palestinian community, the destruction of the Syrian nuclear reactor at Deir al-Zor in 2007, and the targeted assassination of Hezbollah leaders and Iranian nuclear scientists.  But these successes have created further hubris by reasoning that it did not have to engage diplomatically, just rely on its intelligence community and technology.  As in the past this hubris could lead to tragedy.  As Bergman concludes Israel has produced a “long string of tactical successes, but also strategic failures.”

Bergman’s presentation of intricate details and analysis of all aspects of Israel’s targeted killing policy has produced a special book.  His access to the major personalities involved, his documentation of numerous operations and their repercussions, and how his subject matter fits into the regional balance of power is beyond anything previously written and should be considered the standard work on the history of the Israeli intelligence community.

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(David Ben-Gurion)

MUNICH by Robert Harris

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(Chamberlain and Hitler at Munich, September, 1938)

For those who are familiar with the works of Robert Harris they are aware of how the author develops fictional characters that are integrated into important historical events.  He has the knack of developing individuals like Xavier March in FATHERLAND, George Piquart in AN OFFICER AND A SPY, Tom Jericho in ENIGMA, and Fluke Kelso in ARCHANGEL in presenting accurate scenarios that make one feel that these characters are real.  Harris is a master of historical fiction, but his new characters Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann in his latest novel, MUNICH are somewhat lacking in reaching the standard for fictional historical characters when compared to previous novels.

Whether one is familiar with J.W. Wheeler-Bennett’s MUNICH: PRELUDE TO TRAGEDY, David Faber’s MUNICH: 1938, APPEASEMENT AND WORLD WAR II, Giles MacDonogh’s 1938: HITLER’S GAMBLE, and Telford Taylor’s MUNICH: THE PRICE OF PEACE the best historical monographs on the Munich Conference, they will realize as they read Harris’ new novel how immersed the author is in his subject matter, and how accurate is his command of detail.  From the get go British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is an appeaser questioning why should England go to war for the Sudetenland and repeat the carnage of World War I.  Adolph Hitler is presented as an expansionist bent on Lebensraum (living space in the east) and achieving self-determination for all Germans, Benito Mussolini is a puffed up narcissist who resents being in the Fuhrer’s shadow, and Edouard Daladier is tied to Chamberlain’s coat tails and takes no initiative.

The novel’s plot rests on the assumption that Legat, a British Foreign Office functionary, and von Hartmann, a German bureaucrat will be able to change European history by their machinations during the four days of the Munich Conference.  The hope is that the German resistance can convince Chamberlain to stand up to Hitler which would allow the German army to support a coup against the Fuhrer.  The concept of the German army supporting a coup is debatable, but it is a feasible plot.  The problem with this approach is that the heightened tension that Harris tries to create does not really materialize.  I feel this way because I have read a good deal of the books on the topic that are recommended at the end of the book, and the fact that the results of Munich are well known.  Further the concept of “appeasement” and the term Munich are dirty words for American politicians also make the novel’s plot somewhat of a stretch to accept.

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(Mussolini, Hitler, Daladier, and Chamberlain at Munich)

To Harris’ credit he has a marvelous talent in providing intricate details as his characters communicate.  Be it a description of a Remington typewriter, the way an SS uniform is contoured, or how members of the British delegation appeared in rumpled suits his eye for the minute is amazing.  In fact one of the more interesting aspects of Harris’ approach is his ability to use the body language and facial expressions of his characters as a means of providing a window into their thinking.   The author also has the knack of introducing important primary materials integrated into his story.  Chamberlain’s speech to Parliament as he reports that Hitler has invited the four major powers to Munich to settle the Sudeten problem is a case in point.  Another example is the introduction of the November, 1937 Hossbach Memorandum that outlined Hitler’s goal of Lebensraum (living space) in the east, and his plans for future expansion through war. These are just two examples of how throughout the novel Harris relies as much as possible on primary sources.

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(Chamberlain speaking at an airport in London upon returning from Munich promising “peace in our time”)

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Harris’ presentation is his portrayal of Chamberlain’s raison d’tre in dealing with Hitler.  He does not see Chamberlain as an appeaser but a skillful negotiator who stalls for time as he gets Hitler to agree to a settlement with the Czechs over the Sudetenland, and also accepts the concept of a stronger Anglo-German approach to peace.  In fact in a recent interview (January 19, 2018) on NPR’s “Morning Edition” Harris argued that Chamberlain was the victor at Munich because the war was postponed for a year allowing the English to gain the support of the Dominions and the Empire as a whole, and provided time for the British military production to begin to catch up with Germany.  Further he argues Hitler never wanted to go to Munich, but once Mussolini introduced a conference to settle differences, the Fuhrer had no choice but to attend and forgo Operation Green, the seizure of the Sudetenland and Czechoslovakia as a whole.  Harris’ discussion raises the arguments of British historian A.J.P. Taylor whose 1961 book THE ORIGINS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR was greeted with disdain at the time of its publication.

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(satirical cartoon commenting on the Munich Conference)

For those with little or no knowledge of Munich the book will be a satisfying read, but for those a bit older with a knowledge of European history leading to the Second World War, the plot will be quite predictable.

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(Chamberlain and Hitler)

 

FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE by Michael Wolff

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(President Trump and Stephen Bannon)

By this time everyone in America has probably heard of Michael Wolff’s new book, FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE.  Wolff has appeared on every cable news or network program and ‘talking heads” couldn’t get enough of the material he presented.  The question remains is what affect will the book have, and what percentage of what is presented is accurate or factual.  What is clear is that Wolff has written a sometimes gossipy account of the first nine months of the Trump White House.  In fact, the first third of the book is an insider account with intimate details of the Trump family, the attack of Steve Bannon on left-wing liberalism, a chapter that tries to put Jarvanka (as Bannon describes Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner), in their respective places, and an attempt to explain what the roles are for Kellyanne Conway, Steven Miller, Hope Hicks, and a host of “supposed” Trump friends and advisors.  Trump himself comes across as a germ phobic megalomaniac, who like Louis XIV sees himself as the “Sun King,” in which his universe and acquaintances revolve around him.  The question one must ask after dealing with the “Muslim Ban,” the similarities between Trump and Kushner, an explanation of Bannon’s world view and other topics; can Wolff’s sources be relied upon?

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(Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump)

As one reads on you hope to emerge from what Kurt Vonnegut described as “cloud-cuckoo land.”  In Trump’s world his associates conducted business as usual.  Michael Flynn could accept money from the Turkish and Russian governments, Paul Manafort could make millions managing accounts in the Ukraine, and family members could proceed as usual because they never thought he could win.  Perhaps Wolff’s most interesting analogy was comparing Mel Brooks’ hit Broadway show “The Producers” to the Trump campaign.  In Brooks’ story the protagonists would write a script and attract people to over invest in the show, knowing it would be a failure and they would reap the profit – the problem would be if the show was a success!  The same is true for the Trump campaign, for the candidate, even if he lost, would make money as his brand would be accentuated.  Problems would only arise if he won.

As far as the organization in the White House, there was little during the first three months, if any.  Wolff best sums it up by quoting Katie Walsh, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, “Steve Bannon was running the Steve Bannon White House, Jared Kushner was running the Michael Bloomberg White House, and Reince Priebus was running the Paul Ryan White House,” (117)  each person was a polished leaker, and Trump was in the middle.  In fact there was so much leaking from within the Trump administration that it was probably the most transparent administration in history.

The Syrian chemical attack of April, 2017 is a case in point when dealing with White House dysfunction and decision making.  Trump, apart from his bragging of how intelligent he is does not read and has a very short attention span.  Since he has no knowledge of most issues when a crisis occurs that calls for his input that in of itself, is a crisis.  For Trump any decision that he arrives at rests on how it affects him personally, not what is best for the country or the American people as a whole.  When National Security advisor H. R. McMaster tried to advise the president concerning the actions of the Assad government, Wolff points out that what occurred was “an exercise in trying to tutor a recalcitrant and resentful student.” As Trump has stated, McMaster “bored the shit out of me.” (189)

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(General H.R. McMaster and President Trump)

One of the major questions that has arisen of late is whether Trump is a racist, a question that has been exacerbated by his recent remarks characterizing African and other regions of the world as “shitholes” (Freud would characterize Trump as stuck in the anal stage, age 2-4), in addition to remarks concerning white supremacists after the events in Charlottesville, Va.  Wolff discusses Trump’s racism in the context of antisemitism in a chapter entitled, “Goldman.”  Here Wolff encapsulates the Bannon (anti-Semite) and Kushner (orthodox Jew) battle to influence the president and establish their own power base.  According to Wolff, Henry Kissinger described the West Wing as “a war between Jews and non-Jews.”  Bannon ridicules Kushner’s Israel portfolio, and the sentiments are returned in the context of the racist alt-right.  This represent further evidence of dysfunction with this type of conflict just to get the ear of the president, an important component of decision making as Trump’s conclusions are in many cases based on the last person he has spoken with.

A major sub heading for Wolff is his biographical narrative that deals with Bannon, a man who sees himself as the protector of the nation’s soul.  Wolff follows Bannon from crisis to crisis, through lost influence and then a comeback, and his wars with Jarvanka and their supporters.  Bannon is central to the book as a source, as well as putting forth his own opinions.  In reference to the June, 2016 meeting between Don, Jr., Paul Manafort and company with the Russians, Bannon commented that “the chance that Don, Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero.”  Further, Bannon accused Don, Jr. of treason and being unpatriotic.  Bannon’s comments would eviscerate Don, Jr. saying “this was all about money laundering,” and “they’re going to crack Don, Jr. like an egg on national TV.” (255)  As far as Ivanka was concerned, Bannon referred to her as “dumb as a brick” and even called her “a fucking liar” in front of her father.  In Bannon’s mind he was setting up the firewall to protect Trump from the Russian investigation which was caused when Jarvanka recommended firing FBI Director James Come.  Wolff describes a war between Stephen Bannon and the First Family which could only end poorly for Bannon.

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(General John Kelly)

The problem with what Wolff describes is that it is difficult to believe that you couldn’t make this stuff up!  The discussion of H.R. McMaster trying to get Trump to make a decision on Afghanistan, the Anthony Scaramucci episode, Trump’s personal war with the hosts of “Morning Joe,” General John Kelly’s attempt to reign in the president and bring structure to the West Wing, the war of words between Trump and Kim Jung un, and an almost daily bombardment of chaos is a description of the reality that is currently the Trump presidency.

Wolff describes a president who has little interest in the detail that is needed to be president.  Much of what he tells us is not new and many of his judgements are quite vague, a strategy he probably adopted to protect himself from libel laws.  But taken as a whole, stripping away the gossip, Wolff’s narrative is very scary.  All one needs to see is what has happened since the book came out.  Bannon has been banished, the president’s loyalists have gone after Robert Mueller, and Trump’s launching a campaign to undermine the FBI and the Justice Department. Yesterday, we learned that Trump ordered the firing of Mueller last June, but the White House counsel refused to carry out the order and threatened to resign.  For me, each day is an adventure that produces further angst.  Hopefully in the near, as someone once said, “our long national nightmare [will soon] be over.”

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(President Trump and Stephen Bannon)

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: EDWARD LANSDALE AND THE TRAGEDY OF VIETNAM by Max Boot

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(Edward Lansdale)

The popularity of the new film, “The Post” has refocused the attention of many people on the PENTAGON PAPERS and the Vietnam War.  Daniel Ellsberg’s leak of the history of the war commissioned by then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to the New York Times created a crisis atmosphere that was settled by the Supreme Court.  In his latest book, THE ROAD NOT TAKEN: EDWARD LANSDALE AND THE TRAGEDY OF VIETNAM, Max Boot, a Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, revisits the war and the life of one of the most interesting figures associated with it.  Lansdale was a former advertising executive who strongly believed in capitalism and American democracy.  He would join the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, become an advisor and intelligence officer in the Philippines and South Vietnam, and possessed a vision of how to deal with communist advances during the Cold War.  His realpolitik rested on winning the loyalty of indigenous people through honesty, respect, and a willingness to work with and treat people with humanity.  Boot has written a superb biography of Lansdale who hoped to win the “hearts and minds” of people as opposed to acting as a typical colonial oppressor.

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(Lansdale with Ngo Dinh Diem)

Lansdale first made his reputation in the Philippines as he advised the Philippine army in defeating the Hukbalahap (Huk) Rebellion against then President Elpidio Quirino.  Lansdale’s work in the Philippines was a petri dish for his strategies, reputation, concept of nation-building, and counter-insurgency.  Working with the Secretary of National Defense, Ramon Magsaysay he was able to achieve one of the few American successes in nation-building after World War II as he orchestrated his rise to the presidency in 1953.  The problem for Lansdale was that he was unable to transfer the strategy and techniques that worked in the Philippines to Vietnam.

Boot begins his narrative with a discussion of Lansdale’s life and career before he was dispatched to the Philippines.  After spending roughly a quarter of the monograph on Lansdale’s counter-insurgency education in the Philippines, Boot moves on to his initial exposure to Vietnam and his early relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem.  As Boot proceeds he provides a detailed discussion of French colonialism until their disaster at Dienbienphu, and a short biography of Ho Chi Minh and his rise to leadership in the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

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Boot’s overriding theme is that had American policy makers, including presidents, cabinet members, bureaucrats, and other policy makers listened to Lansdale’s advice the course of the Vietnam War might have been different.  He does not say that North Vietnam would have been defeated, however the way the United States conducted the war would have been different and at least civilian deaths and American casualties would have been lessened a great deal, and perhaps the United States’ ignominious departure would not have taken place as it did.  For Boot the key was the removal and assassination of Diem from power in 1963 as there was no one who could take his place and what resulted was a series of coups by generals who had no political support outside of the military.  Diem may not have been the best of leaders, but at least he kept the Saigon government somewhat unified for almost a decade.  Boot’s thesis is sound and it is well supported through analysis and his access to materials that previous biographers did not have available.

Lansdale’s view of nation-building can best be summed up in the advice he offered Diem in June, 1954 when he stressed the need to bring the nationalist political parties in an anti-communist coalition, create public forums around the countryside where government representatives could hear from people, and immediately adopt a Philippine style constitution among many suggestions.  For Lansdale psy-ops, methods of mental and emotional manipulation and soft propaganda were the key to success, not bombing people back to the Stone Age.  Lansdale would take the time to learn about the countries he was assigned to and prepare in depth original analysis that were incomparable.  He argued that insurgencies arose from chaotic, impoverished conditions, and any success would only result from meeting the needs of the people by creating functioning state institutions.  Washington’s decision to withdraw Lansdale from Saigon in late 1956 and failing to replace him with someone who could have at least a benign influence on Diem was a major error.

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(Philippine President, Ramon Magsaysay)

Lansdale was a complex individual who may have been the model for characters in two Graham Greene novels, THE UGLY AMERICAN and THE QUIET AMERICAN.  Boot examines Lansdale’s character and private life in detail as he had access to recently opened government files, letters, and diaries from Lansdale’s children, in addition to the correspondence with Patrocinio Yapeinco Kelly (Pat Kelly), who was his mistress in the Philippines, and years later became his second wife.  Boot describes his relationship with many of the important historical figures of the period.  An important aspect is how Lansdale’s personality was an asset to his work throughout the 1950s, but once the Kennedy administration came to power his influence waned, especially since he and Robert McNamara did not see eye to eye.  Lansdale may have had the ability to get foreign leaders on his side, but he was not very effective in dealing with the bureaucracies in Washington who ignored his advice and pursued their own agendas.  It seems that only Lansdale had the skill and relationship with Diem to get him to reform.  Instead of appointing Lansdale as ambassador to South Vietnam, President Kennedy made him assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Special Operations.

Boot carries his analysis further as he explains how Lansdale’s second tour in South Vietnam between 1965 and 1968 did not go as well as he had hoped.  During the Johnson administration he would once again be marginalized and would leave Saigon as a “beaten man.”  Once again resentment from his many critics and his inability to work with people outside of his circle did him in.

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(Daniel Ellsberg)

Boot does an effective job introducing the major characters Lansdale had to deal with.  Each character from Alan Dulles, Ngueyen Cao Key, Ramon Magsaysay, Robert McNamara, Daniel Ellsberg, Ngo Dinh Nhu, to numerous others is presented through a short biography that is integrated into the narrative for the reader.  Boot is an excellent writer and has uncovered a great deal of new information.  Perhaps one of the most interesting chapters in the book entitled “Waiting for the Second Coming,” explores Lansdale’s second tour in South Vietnam and how Lansdale became irrelevant.  It is a shame because by 1966 “Lansdale was generally far more realistic in his assessment of the situation than Westmoreland, Lodge, and other senior officials. And less prone to trumpeting illusionary progress.” (500)  There are many other important chapters in the book including one dealing with Operation Mongoose, headed by Lansdale designed to eliminate Fidel Castro once he came to power in Cuba; material that highlighted Lansdale’s testimony in the Senate hearings into the CIA in the mid-1970s; in addition to a discussion of Lansdale’s relationship with Daniel Ellsberg.

What makes Boot’s contribution to the historiography of the Vietnam War important is his examination of events, personalities, and strategies through the world view of someone, who with hindsight, turned out to be quite accurate in his predictions.  Lansdale lived a fascinating life and his impact can still be seen in American counter-insurgency doctrine as applied in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Lansdale was a believer in “soft power,” not the “Westmoreland approach” as Philip Caputo puts in his memoir, A RUMOR OF WAR, “Our mission was not to win terrain or seize positions, but simply to kill: kill communists and to kill as many of them as possible.  Stack ‘em like cordwood.” (475)

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(Edward Lansdale)

HELLFIRE BOYS: THE BIRTH OF THE U.S. CHEMICAL WARFARE SERVICE AND THE RACE FOR THE WORLD’S DEADLIEST WEAPONS by Theo Emery

Title: Hellfire Boys: The Birth of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service and the Race for the World's Deadliest Weapons, Author: Theo Emery

At a time when we hear about weapons of mass destruction and a possible nuclear attack from North Korea it is interesting to contemplate the origins of such weaponry.  During World War I unbeknownst to most people living in the Spring Valley neighborhood of Washington, DC the United States Army in cooperation with American University set up a chemical proving ground on campus.  The area was known as “Death Valley” or “Arsenic Hill,” while soldiers referred to it as “Mustard Hill.”  The area was long forgotten until January, 1993 when a cache of chemical weapons was found on a construction site nearby.  Throughout the First World War this area was called the American University Experimental Station, augmented by the discoveries of January, 1993 and the overseas news dealing with the chemical attacks in Syria by the forces of Bashir Assad, and the fears raised by ISIS, government officials were prodded into action.  A new book by Theo Emery entitled, HELLFIRE BOYS: THE BIRTH OF THE U.S. CHEMICAL WARFARE SERVICE AND THE RACE FOR THE WORLD’S DEADLIEST WEAPONS investigates the American role in developing chemical warfare and its profound repercussions.

Emery begins by describing what is believed to be the first chemical attack during World War I.  It occurred on April 22, 1915 when the Germans launched their chemical canisters against British and French forces at the Battle of Ypres.  The author offers a vivid description of the attack and its effect on those caught in its gaseous haze.  The attack’s importance centers on the fact that it spawned a “chemical” arms race in a war that already had produced an unmeasurable amount of casualties and devastation, it soon became the “Chemist’s War.”  As Emery describes the development of chemical warfare he does the reader a great service by integrating his storyline into the larger picture of the war.

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America’s involvement in this arms race starts with the role of the US Bureau of Mines.  Headed by Vannoy Hartog Manning its charge was safety of miners, but also researching poisonous gases seeping from rock formations. From that beginning the United States engaged in an often rocky road to research, develop, and have ready for wartime use a number of toxic gases for the battlefield.  It began with a need for the production of millions of gas masks for troops and civilians.  For this factories, laboratories, along with enlisting the assistance of doctors to study the effects of the gas were put in place.  What emerges is a somewhat shaky partnership between the government, particularly the military, and the private sector, that eventually come to be called the “military-industrial complex” by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  The productive process to meet the German “gas” challenge would involve many different geographic locales across the United States with its headquarters at American University in Washington, D.C.

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(German spies during WWI)

Many important individuals are introduced by Emery accompanied by short biographical sketches.  Men like Vannoy Hartog Manning who headed the Bureau of Mines; George Burrell, in charge of laboratory research at the American University site; George A. Hulett, a Princeton Professor who sent Manning to study the battlefield situation and the role of gas as a weapon; Major-General William Luther Sibert, who would eventually be put in charge of the army’s gas program; Lt. Colonel Amos A. Fries, an engineer that became the head of “gas services,” and made the important discovery that the United States knew little about gas warfare as it entered the war.  In addition to these men General John J. Pershing plays a significant role as the American commander in Europe as does James B. Connant, in charge of developing the lethal American “mustard gas” program designed to combat what the Germans were bringing to the battlefield.  A number of interesting characters also emerge that include the German spy, Walter Scheele, who to avoid imprisonment worked with the Americans by offering his knowledge of German gas research; Winford Lee Lewis, a Northwestern chemistry professor studies how metal shells corrode from toxic chemicals that led to the creation of lewisite, America’s most toxic weapon; and Richmond M. Levering, an oilman from Indiana who had many dubious business dealings with the government, but was placed in charge of the captured German spy network in the United States.

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(James B. Conant, supervised the development of mustard gas)

Emery also devotes a great deal of coverage to the role of regular American troops.  Emery takes us to the trenches of Europe and the research facilities that were created.  In so doing the reader is exposed to an intricate description of what it was like to be caught in a chemical war. One of the most interesting characters is Harold J. Higgenbottom, an early recruit to the First Gas Regiment and through his eyes we see the battlefield in addition to the effects of gas warfare in the field.  Higgenbottom’s buddy, Thomas Jabine is also discussed as he too was one of the first to join the Gas Regiment, and as a chemist he was sent to Europe, but he was gassed near Charpentry in October, 1918 and spent the remainder of the war recovering.

What is important to realize is how unprepared the United States was to engage in a chemical war in Europe.  As “gases” became to be seen as offensive weapons and a major part of the military arsenal, Washington had to catch up, quickly.  In a rather haphazard way, Emery is very effective in analyzing the American approach to chemical warfare.  He offers an effective summation of the allied use of phosgene and chloropicrin gases that were used at the Battle of Arras by the British as the United States declared war on Germany in April, 1917.  Emery offers a vivid description of “Camp” American University from its building expansion, recruitment of chemists, organization, and constant growth.  Further, Emery explains how the government grew frustrated with the private sector and developed its own production facilities, i.e., production of gas masks and later mustard gas.  To the authors credit he explains each chemical and how it was developed, and applied in such a way that a chemistry novice like myself could understand.

One of the most vivid chapters in the book is entitled “Science and Horror,” where Emery describes the first encounters of US troops with German chemical attacks.  Again, through the eyes of Harold Higgenbottom we learn that part of the problem was the poor training and equipment that did little to offset German attacks.  American soldiers suffered ghastly attacks and in many cases they were left to suffer horrible deaths as they lay in the trenches.

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(WWI gas attack)

There was a great deal of bureaucratic infighting throughout the war between the Corps of Engineers, the US Army, and the Bureau of Mines.  Fries argued for a separate gas service as did General Pershing.  Numerous examples are offered as production was deemed to be unacceptable.  Finally on June 25, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson settled the matter by issuing an executive order placing the Research Division and the American University Experimental Station under the War Department.  All in all, some 2000 chemists were at work across the United States.  To justify this radical change in military strategy the US Army launched a massive publicity campaign to educate Americans on the importance of interjecting chemicals into warfare.  The Germans may have had a head start in chemical warfare but by June, 28, 1918 when President Wilson signed General Order 62 creating the Army Chemical Warfare Service on par with the Corps of Engineers the US stockpile had caught up, and would soon surpass the Germans.  It is interesting to note that by the summer of 1918 American commanders were recommending that 50% of all shells employed in combat have a chemical component.

The final section of the book is devoted to the immediate post-war period that focused on what government policy would be toward the use of chemical weapons, and educating the public that was kept in the dark during the war.  First, was the issue of disposal that led to sinking a great deal of the US stockpile in the Atlantic Ocean.    Environmental concerns really were not even imagined.  Along those lines many corporations vied for parts of the stockpile for their own industries and bidding and the transfer of chemicals to the private sector did take place.  Second, was the the debate led by Secretary of War Newton Baker who opposed the continuation of the Chemical Warfare Service.  The opposition was led by Lt. Colonel Fries who felt it was imperative to maintain stockpiles and continue production as a matter of national security.  Interestingly in 1925 the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous, or Other Gases, and Bacteriological Methods of Warfare was agreed to under the auspices of the League of Nations.  Even General Pershing favored it, but he was unable to convince the US Senate to ratify the treaty.  It took until January, 1975 for President Ford to sign the treaty that the Senate finally ratified almost fifty years later.

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Emery’s monograph is an important contribution to the field of WWI weaponry as it explains how and why the US integrated chemicals into its arsenal.  This change led the US and many other countries on the road to incorporating new chemical discoveries and their application to war.  All one has to do is listen to the news almost on a daily basis to understand how relevant Emery’s research is to today’s world, particularly when the work of chemists and other scientists that began in 1915 set the US and the world on a path that today is laden with chemical weapons.

Title: Hellfire Boys: The Birth of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service and the Race for the World's Deadliest Weapons, Author: Theo Emery

THE LAST DAYS OF NIGHT by Graham Moore

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(Edison’s light bulb)

Recently, an old friend recommended the book EMPIRES OF LIGHT: EDISON, TESLA, WESTINGHOUSE, AND THE RACE FOR ELECTRICITY by Jill JonnesWhen I looked it up I came across a wonderful historical novel that seemed to encompass the same material, THE LAST DAYS OF NIGHT by Graham Moore which took a somewhat different approach to the subject matter.  Today we live in a time when technological change is constantly fostering a transformation in our daily behavior and outlook. This change is unparalleled in our history and each day it seems as if another life altering innovation has taken pace.  Many of today’s discoveries have had, in some way, their origin in the late 19th century, described by Mark Twain as the “Gilded Age.”  It is that time period that is the stage for Graham Moore’s latest novel.   The book, which in part reads as a work of non-fiction opens as a poor Western Union man is electrocuted as he works to repair wiring located in front of a building on Broadway in Manhattan on May 11, 1888.  One of the witnesses to this unfortunate death is Paul Cravat, a lawyer, and a central character in Moore’s plot.  Later that day, Mr. Cravath was summoned to the offices of Thomas Edison, a man who for the previous six months was involved in litigation with Cravath’s only client.

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(George Westinghouse)

It seems that Mr. Cravath represented George Westinghouse, a rich engineer and manufacturing dynamo whose production facilities and laboratories were centered in Pittsburgh.  Westinghouse and Edison were involved in patent infringement lawsuits against each other, and Cravath a recent graduate of Columbia Law School and a new partner in the firm Carter, Hughes, and Cravath was dealing with a $1 billion suit Edison entered into against Westinghouse.  The issue came down to who had developed the better light bulb.  Westinghouse argued that he had not stolen anything from Edison’s product and had created a better bulb based on his own research.  The problem for Edison was that his bulb was only effective for short distance since it was powered by a direct current or DC, while Westinghouse was working with another scientist to power his bulb by alternating power or AC which produced light over greater distances.  If Edison was successful in his numerous lawsuits, numbering at least 312, he would then hold a “monopoly on light, as he would be seen as the inventor of the incandescent bulb, which no one else could manufacture.

The story produces a number of historical characters that Moore develops.  Of course we meet the power hungry (no pun intended) Thomas Edison whose financial and political influence dwarfs that of George Westinghouse.  Other important personages include Nikola Tesla, an eccentric Serbian immigrant whose scientific discoveries include furthering the distance that an AC electrical system can deliver.  Tesla’s lawyer, Lemuel Serrell who plays an important role as does Agnes Huntington, a Metropolitan Opera performer that Cravath finds alluring, J.P. Morgan, the richest man in America, Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, Cravath’s father Erastus who was not impressed with his son’s work and held to a strict moral code, Charles Batchelor, Edison’s right hand man, and New York City Police Commissioner, Fitz Porter.  By exploring these diverse historical characters Moore takes the reader inside New York society, cut throat industrial competition, and the corruption associated with the politics of the period.

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(Niklas Tesla)

The monologues that Moore presents are very informative as he explains the scientific breakthroughs that Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla produced.  As he does so the author seems to meditate on the values of the “Gilded Age.”  The role of power, money, and domination are all evaluated as well as a somewhat higher moral stance that does not bow to the pressure of achieving success.  To his credit, the author provides a detailed note at the end of the book that explains what is factual in the novel – most of the story – and what is a product of the author’s imagination.

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(J.P. Morgan)

In part, the novel reads like a mystery as a number of actions that emerge border on the criminal.  It seems as if certain characters will stop at nothing to achieve their goals.  The legalities of patent law are explained in full and the core of the novel rests on the idea that “Westinghouse created objects. Tesla created ideas, while Edison, was busy creating an empire.”  The result is that each approached “science, industry, and business” in incompatible ways. (105)  The book can also be seen as a morality parable, particularly when one reaches its conclusion.  A story that is the epitome of corporate intrigue, can also be seen as a battle against right and wrong.

Moore writes in a very engaging manner and blends facts with fiction in creating an excellent historical novel that students of the period and the general reader will find fascinating.

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(Edison and his light bulb)

LENIN: THE MAN, THE DICTATOR, AND THE MASTER OF TERROR by Victor Sebestyen

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(Vladimir I. Lenin)

For many years historians have laid the blame for the oppressive and authoritarian regime that took root in Russia following its revolution on Joseph Stalin.  Names like NKVD, GPU or banishment to Siberia, political purges were all associated with the Russian dictator.  However, the credit for the darkness that pervaded the former Soviet Union first must rest at the feet of Vladimir I. Lenin.  In 1973 Alexsandr S. Solzhenitsyn published the first volume of his GULAG ARCHIPELAGO, and the famous Russian dissident argued that the origin of Soviet terror and the police state belong to Lenin.  This argument has been accepted by historians and in the latest biography of Lenin since Robert Service’s excellent monograph, Victor Sebestyen’s LENIN: THE MAN, THE DICTATOR, AND THE MASTER OF TERROR has taken that argument to a new level.   According to Sebestyen, in his quest for power, Lenin “promised people anything and everything.  He offered simple solutions to complex problems.  He lied unashamedly.  He identified a scapegoat he could label ‘enemies of the people.’  He justified himself on the basis that winning meant everything…..Lenin was the godfather of what commentators a century after his time call post truth politics.”  Anyone who has paid attention to our current political climate can easily recognize practitioners of this authoritarian approach.

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(Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky)

Lenin’s greatest crime aside from creating the precursor of the NKVD, the Cheka or the Soviet secret police, is leaving a man like Stalin to assume the leadership of the Soviet Union upon his passing in 1924.  Lenin built a system that rested on the concept that political terror against any opposition was justified for the greater good.  It was perfected by Stalin, but the ideas were Lenin’s.  Sebestyen’s approach to his subject is a very personal one and he explores a number of issues in greater depth than previous books.  He delves deep into the relationship between Nadezhda K. Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife who was vital to her husband and the revolution.  She was in charge of regulating his explosive temper and at times erratic behavior.  Her role was to maintain his health and be a sounding board for his ideas and writing.  Next, the author explores Lenin’s relationship with his long time mistress, Inessa Armand.  For ten years before Lenin died they had an on-off love affair.  She was central to his emotional life, one of his closest aides, and was one of the best-known female socialists of her era.  The three, Lenin, Nadya, and Inessa formed a ménage etois that was accepted by the women involved who had their own strong relationship.

Further, what separates Sebestyen’s approach from others is how he constantly reaffirms that the tactics and system developed by Lenin dominated Soviet rule until 1989, and has reasserted itself in the last decade.  Lenin’s leadership traits seemed to have been handed down in succession from Stalin, in particular to Vladimir Putin.  Lenin set up the Cheka and over the decades be it the GPU, NKVD, KGB or currently the FSB its purpose did not change; “protect the Party and its leadership from any perceived threat of subversion and to dispense revolutionary justice.”

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(The Romanov royal family)

Not long ago Steve Bannon stated that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too.”  The concept of deconstructing government that forms the core of Bannon’s political agenda rings very closely to that of Lenin.  The parallels are clear and in Lenin’s case, underneath the superficial sophistication and personal charm he periodically put on display, he was capable of acts of appalling evil.  Whether his approval of the use of firing squads to eliminate the opposition soon after coming to power the winter of 1917-1918, or his attitude toward the death of Russian soldiers against the Germans, his refusal to distribute land to peasants as promised and the creation of the Kulak class of land owners who he destroyed, the mass starvation that took place, and Lenin’s response to this terror, were all sacrifices that were acceptable in order to achieve the larger goals of gaining and maintaining power.

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(Nadya Krupskaya)

Sebestyen effectively reviews the spreading of revolutionary fervor in Russia among the bourgeoisie dating back to the Decembrist uprisings of 1825, the assassination of Alexander II, and the arrival of Marxism.  The Marxist ideology did not really apply to Russia because of its peasant economy and majority.  Lenin, brilliantly argued that Russia did not need to have an Industrial Revolution based on the working class as Marx argued, but could redefine Russian needs and developed through many books and pamphlets the justification of a revolution based on the peasantry.  It is interesting to note that Lenin had no great respect for the working classes who he proposed to make the revolution before turning to the peasants.

Early on Lenin was radicalized by the Tsarist police’s murder of his brother Alexander (Sasha).  From that point on he would work to overthrow the Tsarist monarchy.  Though he was brought up in a bourgeois family and periodically lived on estates Lenin had nothing but disdain for the Romanov dynasty.  Sebestyen’s analysis of Lenin’s personality, the courtship of Nadya, life in exile, be it Siberia, London, Paris, Geneva, the creation of the Bolshevik party, the role of Germany, the revolution itself and the years following may be well known, but the author’s insights, sources, and analysis separate his monograph from others.

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(Inessa Armand)

Sebestyen’s examination of the role of newspapers in the revolution is important as he explains how the creation of Pravda and other outlets allowed Lenin to write editorials, and articles, and through a wide circulation was able to disseminate his ideas.  Lenin had the ability to correct others and have them adopt his views as if they were his own, and the ability to inspire optimism and these traits enabled him to disarm the opposition and rally support among the masses.  The use of newspapers, apart from Tsarist incompetence was major factor in creating the conditions for revolution.

The author pays a great deal of attention to fighting within the parties and the development of a between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.  The arguments between the factions were intense and brutal as Lenin did not suffer fools gladly when people disagreed with him.  Sebestyen also does a good job describing Nicholas II’s personality and reign.  The Tsar was a weak individual who was not cut out to sit on the Romanov throne.  “It is no exaggeration to say that every major decision Nicholas II took was wrong – from the choice of a wife, Alexandra, who compounded his own misjudgments, to his disastrous decisions on war and peace.”  It is fair to say that the Tsar did the most service in the cause of revolution!

Lenin believed from 1900 on that a war between the capitalist countries was inevitable.  When it finally came Russia was totally unprepared for a war of attrition.  Within two months 1.2 million men were killed, wounded, or missing.  This is a small sample of the disaster that would follow and led to the February abdication of the Tsar in favor of the Kerensky government and the final elevation of Lenin to power in October, 1917.  Sebestyen drills down deeply in presenting Lenin’s strategy and ability to overcome many obstacles as the revolution approached.  Once it did his willingness to work with the Germans to travel to Russia is brilliant as is his ability to overcome the opposition of Party members.  The chapters entitled; “The Sealed Train,” and “To Finland Station” are emblematic of Sebestyen’s assiduous research and master of historical detail as he describes the negotiations, reactions to the agreement with the Kaiser’s government, and its reception in Russia.  Sebestyen’s ability to integrate analysis into the flow of the narrative is an important aspect of his writing.  Another important component of Sebestyen’s style is the use of notes at the bottom of each page which are also a fountain of historical information and analysis.

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(Workers demonstrating during Russian Revolution)

It is clear that once the revolution took place Lenin laid the groundwork to rule by terror.  He was under no allusions when it came to the exercising of power to remain in control of the state.  Lenin’s arguments and promises to the masses and his political opposition immediately went by the wayside as he closed down press outlets, purged those who disagreed, set up the Cheka, and justified his actions to prevent counter-revolution.  At the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921, Lenin argued that “We do not promise any freedom, or any democracy,” he did not disappoint and neither did his successor, Joseph Stalin.

The major figures of this period of Russian history are all presented, examined, and placed in their historical context.  Whether Sebestyen is writing about Leon Trotsky, Georgy Plekhanov, Yuli Martov, Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, Yakov Sverdlov, Maxim Gorky, Nicholas II, Alexander Helphand (Parvus), a number of foreign diplomats and journalists, Joseph Stalin, and of course his wife and mistress we have a balanced account that lends to a greater understanding of the material presented.  Lenin is the key figure as he created the basis for a one man tyranny.  The terror that evolved was systematic and was not Stalin’s creation.

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A key to authoritarian rule was the creation of a “cult of personality.”  Stalin was an expert, Mao took it to even greater heights, but Lenin was the first.  After an assassination attempt where he was wounded three times, a “cult of Lenin” would emerge as he had survived.  This cult was used to rally support and further the Leninist agenda.

“The scholar Robert Service writes that “the forced labor camps, the one-party state…the prohibition of free and popular elections, the ban on internal party dissent; not one of them was to be invented by Stalin…Not for nothing did Stalin call himself Lenin’s disciple.”  But why blame Lenin and Stalin, the foundation and structure of the Russian police state had been established by Nicholas I in the 1820s.”* This is the theme of Sebestyen’s new biography of Lenin which is sure to become one of the standard works of one of the most important figures of the 20th century.

*Joffe, Joseph, “The First Totalitarian,” New York Times, October 19, 2017.

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(Vladimir I. Lenin)

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON: THE OSAGE MURDERS AND THE BIRTH OF THE FBI by David Grann

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(oil rigs in Osage County, OK)

From 1921 to 1926 a series of murders took place in Osage County, Oklahoma.  As the number of victims turned up more and more residents of the county became suspicious.  The history of these murders is recounted and analyzed in David Grann’s new book, KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON: THE OSAGE MURDERS AND THE BIRTH OF THE FBI.  Though the book appears to be a work of non-fiction, in reality it reads like a serial murder mystery, as it leads the reader through the different layers of the crimes that were committed.

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Grann begins his narrative by introducing a number of important people, then goes on to describe the background history of the Osage tribe that was stripped of their land between the Arkansas and Missouri Rivers, and forced on to a reservation in Kansas.  When white squatters stole many of their plots in the 1870s the government moved them again, this time to Oklahoma.  By 1877 there were no buffalo remaining and government policy shifted from containment of Native-Americans to assimilation.  The forced acculturation made the Osage adapt the white man’s clothing, names, and way of life.  The government instituted an allotment plan that was designed to destroy the communal way of life to make Native-Americans farmers on given plots of land.  The Osage were the last to accept this system when they negotiated an increase in acreage per family.  They were wise to include in the 1906 treaty a caveat that stated “that the oil, gas, and other minerals covered by the lands…are hereby reserved to the Osage Tribe.”  Lo and behold the land would contain the largest oil deposits in the United States, creating numerous “Red millionaires” as described by newspaper accounts  The problem was that in the early 1920s a series of murders of tribal residents began to occur.

Since the victims were “only Indians” the white power structure did not go full bore in their investigation of the developing “reign of terror.”  With a lack of forensics and other techniques the investigation really went nowhere prompting the tribe itself to fund further investigative work.  The number of people that were killed is open to question.  Grann puts the figure as around 24, but other historians believe it is significantly higher.  Many Native-American lived an ostentatious life style that only created further animosity against them.  The government instituted a “guardian system” to protect these incompetent individuals.  These guardians would become perpetrators of “theft, graft, and mercenary marriage” against the Osage.

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(Tom White and J. Edgar Hoover)

Grann’s story is a deep dive into who the victims were and why they were murdered.  Grann presents a series of important characters that are the key to events.  The Burkhardt family, including Ernest and Mollie emerge as extremely important when other family members are killed.  William Hale, who presents himself as a benefactor to the tribe, but in truth is rather duplicitous with his own agenda.  Tom White is appointed by J. Edgar Hoover, the newly appointed head of the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) to take over the investigation when the killings continue.  Of course there is J. Edgar Hoover and numerous other characters from criminals, prosecutors, lawyers, snitches and on and on.

Grann’s approach is based on meticulous research as he has combed the available primary materials.  Interviews, investigative documents, and newspaper accounts are all employed.  What emerges are crimes that had infected the state and local government of Oklahoma, particularly Osage County.  Be it the courts, the governor’s office, or county officials there were layers of crimes being committed in the name of a cover-up for the goal of fleecing Native-Americans of their oil money.  Grann heavily focuses on Tom White, offering his background in law enforcement and his approach to solving the murders.  He must navigate the closed society that exists that seems to want to cover-up any evidence and when potential witnesses began to disappear the case goes cold.  White also must deal with Hoover who sees the case as a means of increasing the reputation of his new agency.  Hoover wanted things done in a certain way and have his agents follow his approach to “scientific law enforcement.”  Those who worked outside his parameters soon found themselves unemployed.

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(Mollie, Lizzie, and Anna Burkhardt)

The core of the book involves tracing numerous murders of the Osage.  A few would be solved, but many, perhaps a few hundred were not.  Grann will use the last section of the book to describe his own investigation into some of these murders.  He will interview descendants of the victims and the conclusion is very clear that an unknown number of the Osage community were killed over the oil wealth to the point where it is described as “the blood cries out from the ground,” or the Osage seeking justice a generation or two later.  Grann delivers what appears to be a detective novel just as he did in his previous book, THE LOST CITY OF Z and he has produced a wonderful work of non-fiction as a follow up.  As David Eggers points out in New York Times review of the book,  by interviewing contemporary Osage tribe members Grann presents “a far deeper” and sickening conspiracy against the tribe throughout its history.  As Eggers states, “history is a merciless judge.”*

 

  • Dave Eggers, “Solving a Reign of Terror against Native Americans,” New York Times, April 28, 2017.

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(a typical farm with an oil rig in Osage County, OK)

THE GREAT HALIFAX EXPLOSION: A WORLD WAR I STORY OF TREACHERY, TRAGEDY, AND EXTRAORDINARY HEROISM by John U. Bacon

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(remnants of the north end of Halifax after the explosion)

John U. Bacon’s thoughtful and detailed approach in his new book THE GREAT HALIFAX EXPLOSION: A WORLD WAR I STORY OF TREACHERY, TRAGEDY, AND EXTRAORDINARY HEROISM results in one of the best “disaster” monographs in recent memory.  The author’s approach is based on empathy and what appears to be a personal commitment to write a clear, concise narrative that is meaningful as it covers all aspects of the catastrophe.  Bacon begins by laying out the crisis that came at 9:04 am on December 6, 1917, then retreats and provides a history of Halifax. Once you acquire a sense of the city and its geography, Bacon describes how two ships, the Mont Blanc, and the Imo seemed to come together to play a dangerous “game of chicken” in the Bedford Basin outside Halifax Harbor, a game that resulted in the deadliest man made explosion up until the bombing of Hiroshima.

The explosion must be seen in the context of World War I.  By the time of the collision the war had been ongoing for three years but it had reached a stalemate in the trenches.  Once Russia left the war, the Germans would turn their attention to the western front which created an increasing need for explosives to prevent any breakthrough.  The Mont Blanc was captained by Aime Joseph Marie Medec who had little time to familiarize himself with his vessel which would carry the largest cache of explosives ever loaded on to a ship – 62 tons of gun cotton, 246 tons of benzol, packed in 494 thin steel drums and stacked three and four barrels high, 250 tons of TNT, and 2366 tons of picric acid, a very unstable and poisonous chemical.  The cargo weighed almost 3000 tons, or 6 million pounds.  The plan was for the ship to be loaded in Gravesend Bay, Brooklyn, NY and travel up the east coast to Halifax where it would meet a convey for the voyage across the Atlantic.  This plan was chosen to offset the threat of German U-boats as convoys of allied ships was deemed the safest way to reach Europe.

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(the Mont Blanc and the Imo after they collided)

Bacon presents an accurate portrayal of events leading up to the war in Europe and how the war was fought.  Further, he describes the importance of Halifax Harbor to the overall war effort and the contributions made by Canadian soldiers from Halifax who fought in overseas.  Bacon choses a number of Haligonians (Halifax residents) who volunteered for the military and fought in the trenches.  Through the eyes of Ernest Barrs who fought and was wounded in Belgium at the battles of Ypres the reader gets a true portrait of what life was like for soldiers.  Barrs story is an amazing one in that after surviving for two years he is severely wounded.  The day of the explosion found him rehabbing outside of Halifax and because of his own medical issues and familiarization with medical techniques he joined a Dr. Elliott to help administer to Haligonian survivors in December, 1917.  Bacon introduces the reader to other families whose stories are traced from before the explosion, what happened during the explosion, and after.  You become familiar with the Orr, Driscoll, and Pattison families who lived in the Richmond neighborhood in the North End of the city which would be almost destroyed on December 6th.  Bacon describes family life, occupations, schooling and the interests of the children to the point where one feels that they know them personally.

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The tragedy that took place was completely avoidable.  Bacon explores the leadership and strategies employed by the captains and harbor pilots for both ships and concludes it was the fault of Captain Haakon From of the Imo.  The most fascinating chapter is called “A Game of Chicken” where Bacon describes the path of both ships, the Mont Blanc heading north to meet a convoy in Halifax, and the Imo traveling south toward New York to load supplies for a return to Europe.  The Imo was supposed to stay on western side of the Narrows and the Mont Blanc on the east.  The Imo would move to the center and refused to accommodate the Mont Blanc which was following the correct navigational protocol.  The Imo finally decided, too late, to move to the side it was assigned as Capt. Medec moved to the east to avoid a collision, but it hit the Imo.  With the cargo on the Mont Blanc, devastation could only result.  Bacon provides a blow by blow account up until 8:46 am when the Mont Blanc’s cargo ruptured. The result was the total destruction of the north end of the city, the death of almost 2000 people, 9000 wounded, and the loss of almost half the homes in Halifax.

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Bacon takes the reader through the mobilization of resources, the bravery of first responders, and the generosity and selflessness of the survivors who tried to help the victims and each other.  At the outset many believed it was a German attack. However, soon reality would set in allowing Bacon to compare the experience of trench warfare and the catastrophe that befell Halifax.  The shock and emotions today would be called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but at that time people did not know what they were dealing with.  The “instant refugees” wandered looking for parents, children, and other family members, for many to no avail.  Bacon returns to the families that he introduced earlier in the book and explains what they went through. Bacon goes on to describe the tsunami that resulted from the blast as well as the blizzard that arrived the next day in Halifax, furthering the suffering and hindering rescue and recovery attempts in a city that had 900 hospital beds remaining, with 9000 injured needing medical treatment.

A major theme of the narrative involves the historical relationship between Canada and the United States. For 141 years it seemed the United States worked to annex Canada provoking anger and fear on the part of our northern neighbors.  The Halifax explosion altered feelings between the two countries due to American support and generosity.  Many Haligonians were stunned by the massive relief effort that arrived from the United States, particularly the large number of doctors and nurses that resulted in setting up their own hospital to treat the victims.  A major result of this crisis was the cementing of Canadian-American relations, and an alliance that has stood the test of time up to the present.

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(the anatomy of the disaster)

Bacon’s account is extremely thorough based on letters, diaries, oral histories, and other archival material he consulted.  He describes how word of the disaster spread and how surrounding towns and communities provided doctors, nurses, soldiers, first responders, businessmen and others to assist as much as they could.  The people behaved in an amazing fashion, so much so that looting was not a problem.  Boston is singled out for their aid and assistance in a wonderful chapter describing the work of Massachusetts Governor Samuel W. McCall and Abraham C. Ratshesky (known as A.C.) who led Boston’s substantial relief effort.

The author follows the aftermath of the explosion taking the reader through the investigation and the long drawn out court proceeding over a period of years.  He concludes the narrative by bringing up to date information about the survivors and their families.  The book is a heart rendering account that is hard to put down, and highly recommended.

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(remnants of the Halifax pier #6)