THE EDUCATION OF AN IDEALIST by Samantha Power

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(Samantha Power at the United Nations)

Toward the end of my teaching career I had the opportunity of meeting Samantha Power and she proved to be a warm individual with a sardonic sense of humor.  The occasion was a Model Congress trip to Washington with over thirty teenagers who were role playing our legislative branch of government with over 1000 other students from all over the United States.  During our Saturday afternoon break we walked over to the White House and met with Ambassador Power in her office where she proceeded to spend a few hours with us reviewing the national security process in the Obama administration and engaged my students with the myriad of foreign policy issues then facing the United States.  The afternoon session is something that my students have still not forgotten and neither have I as Power took the time to try and educate a group of teenagers and make them aware of the importance of protecting American national security and the importance of promoting human rights worldwide.  Up until that time my familiarity with Power was as an academic having used her Pulitzer Prize winning book “A PROBLEM FROM HELL”: AMERICA IN THE AGE OF GENOCIDE as a class text, and CHASING THE FLAME: ONE MAN’S FIGHT TO SAVE THE WORLD, the poignant story of Sergio de Mello who worked for the United Nations to try and bring peace to Iraq, Bosnia, Cambodia among others before he was killed in Iraq.  Her latest effort is a personal memoir, THE EDUCATION OF AN IDEALIST where Power describes her life’s journey from immigrating from Ireland as a child, war correspondent, to presidential Cabinet official in a deeply personal way, but also providing incisive analysis of the issues she has dealt with during her career.

Power was raised in a loving but dysfunctional family.  Her mother was a doctor and father a dentist.  She received support from both parents, but her father’s alcoholism would ruin the marriage and form a cloud that hovered over Samantha’s childhood.  Despite her father’s addiction he was an attentive father who took her to Hartigan’s Pub on a regular basis where he spent time with her, but mostly she read her books.   Once her mother had enough, she emigrated to the United States when Samantha was nine leaving her father behind.  The situation created deep emotional issues for Power throughout her remaining childhood and adulthood which she explores in a deeply personal and at times sad manner that would impact her relationships with men until she met Cass Sunstein.  Power uses her memoir as sort of a catharsis as she explores her unresolved issues with “abandoning her father” who would later die from his disease at a young age.  Power deeply ponders if she had remained or at least had a closer relationship with her father might he have survived.  The guilt involved plagued her for years.

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(Power with President Obama)

The memoir explores many personal issues that makes the telling of her life story more human than most.  She engages the reader through her relationship issues with men and how her courtship with Cass Sunstein evolved and what finally achieving a secure family meant to her.  Her discussion of her pregnancy and the birth of her son Declan is a mirror to the type of mother she will become.  Her vignettes about breast feeding in the “old boys network” of the State Department is priceless as is her discussion of the “support group” that was developed by woman who served on the National Security Council is entertaining, but projects the reality of women whose career paths took them into a male stronghold.

Power’s future political views can be seen developing early on as she dealt with her school’s racial integration in Dekalb County, Georgia while in Middle School.  Her education would bring her to Yale and travels to Eastern Europe where she saw the effects of the rise of liberal democracy in Czechoslovakia and Poland, but not in Yugoslavia.  She would intern at the National Security Archive, a liberal NGO involved with Freedom of Information requests.  With the guidance of Mort Abramowitz, a former Ambassador to Thailand and Turkey, as well as Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research and Fred Cluny, a human rights activist, Power became a journalist where she witnessed the horrors of the Bosnian Civil War in 1993.  She encountered the siege of Sarajevo, the massacre at Srebrenica from her base in Zagreb, Croatia which greatly impacted her views on human rights and what could be done to prevent this type of ethnic cleansing from breaking out elsewhere.

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(Cass Sunstein and Samantha Power)

Her book “A PROBLEM FROM HELL: AMERICA AND THE AGE OF GENOCIDE altered her career trajectory and her life’s path.  She raised questions about the nature of individual responsibility in the face of injustice, as she calls “upstanders v. bystanders.”  Power interestingly points out that many critics have argued her monograph was a justification for the invasion of Iraq.  In reality she condemns the United States for doing nothing about the different genocides she has researched particularly when there were options that Washington could have chosen to lessen the impact of events that resulted in so many deaths.

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(Power with her son Declan and daughter Rian)

Power describes in detail her relationship with Barack Obama for whom she became a foreign policy fellow on his Senate staff in 2005.  She explores Obama’s rise to the presidency and her role as a staffer during the campaign and the pitfalls that resulted, i.e.; calling Hillary Clinton a “monster” which caused her temporary exile from the Obama team. During the Obama administration she would become the Human Rights expert on the National Security Council, worked closely with Ambassador Susan Rice at the United Nations, developed an office in charge of aiding Iraqi Refugees, and eventually replaced Rice at the United Nations.  In discussing all of her positions she delves into her frustrations of policies she was not able to impact, the National Security process within the Obama administration, and her successes and failures.

Important issues are dissected throughout parts of her book that deal with the Obama administration.  Power does a nice job providing the historical context of each crisis that the Obama administration was presented with.  Be it Libya, “genocide” controversy with Turkey,  Assad’s use of Sarin gas during the Syrian Civil War, or Putin’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and seizure of Crimea she is able to place contemporary crisis’ within a larger historical narrative. The issue of Libya is front and center as Colonel Muammar Qaddafi is overthrown and the ensuing violence would result in the death of US Ambassador Christopher Hill at Benghazi which created a firestorm set by Republicans.  Power lays out Obama’s thinking and belief that the US had led the movement that stopped the massacre of Libyan civilians and it was now Europe’s turn to carry the load.  He did not want to commit US troops and Power concludes there was probably little Washington could have done to prevent events that transpired following Qaddafi’s death. Of all the sections in the book it seems that the death at Benghazi are given short shrift.  I would have expected Power to offer further insights to what transpired and how the issue would dominate politics up until and throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.

Image result for images of syrian civil war(an image from the Syrian Civil War)

The Syrian Civil War probably did the most to damage the Obama administration’s reputation in the world and at home.  First, when learning of Assad’s use of chemical weapons Obama put forth his “Red Line” that if crossed would result in a military response by the United States.  Obama with reasons explained by Powers would backtrack and pursue Congressional approval for US air strikes which was not forthcoming.  In the end Vladimir Putin for his own reasons would agree to a UN Resolution to destroy a significant amount of Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons, but the damage was done, and Obama’s foreign policy became a further target for Republicans.  Power supports Obama’s rationale, but in retrospect she argues that the United States should have followed through and bombed Syrian targets designated by the Pentagon, and at least attempted to mobilize a group of countries to oversee a “no-fly zone.”  This would have provided some security for Syrian civilians, but with the numerous factions, the role of Russia, and the vagaries of war anything that might have been tried would not have ended the civil war.

Among other frustrations that Power had to work through professionally was the issue of the Armenian genocide that dates back to World War I.  As I write Turkish planes and troops are killing hundreds of Syrian Kurds and fostering a migration of thousands.  This is a pattern in Turkish history, and when the issue of the April 24, 2009 anniversary of the 1915 genocide of Armenians arose Power worked to include the word “genocide” as part of the American government’s characterization of the event.  Power describes how difficult it was to change American policy, from which she failed.  But at least there was a decision-making process, unlike the current administration when it decided to give Istanbul free rein to kill Armenians once again.

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(Power condemning the Russian incursion into Eastern Ukraine at the UN Security Council)

Perhaps the most egregious issue that Power dealt with was Ukraine.  In 2014 Putin’s Russia invaded Eastern Ukraine and seized the Crimea.  Power reviews the machinations behind the scenes at the United Nations and inside Obama’s National Security apparatus nicely but what is most fascinating is how she evokes some sympathy for Vitaly Churkin, the Russian Ambassador to the United Nations.  She explores how the ambassador tried to defend positions that he knew were totally indefensible.  At times she would surreptitiously meet with Churkin and try to reach an accommodation dealing with eastern Ukraine.  Churkin’s usual defense was that Putin was monitoring negotiations and his view was clear; if the western countries embraced a particular cause, then as if by reflex Moscow would pursue the opposite position. An excellent example came with the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenican genocide which Putin refused to label “genocide” in the Security Council.  Power would gain a measure of revenge when she worked to block Russia from occupying a seat on the Human Rights Council by one vote!

Overall, Power has delivered an exceptional memoir that reflects her humanity and honesty.  She puts forth her feelings for the reader to engage and comes across as a warm-hearted person who has overcome emotional baggage that she carried around for years.  This book is not your typical memoir and I commend it for its depth of analysis, insights into the human condition, and exploration of how difficult it is for America to lead in a world dealing with problems that Trumpist isolationism exacerbates resulting in a vacuum that Iran, Russia, and China are already beginning to fill.  Power’s work at the United Nations should be a model for an American Ambassador to the United Nations, for evidence review her work in dealing with the Ebola crisis in Africa.  It is not about being liberal or conservative it is about what is best for the United States and humanity in general, not a platform for racism and demeaning allies.

Thomas Friedman sums it up best in describing Power’s book,

It’s an unusual combination of autobiography, diplomatic history, moral argument and manual on how to breast-feed a child with one hand while talking to Secretary of State John Kerry on a cellphone with the other. The interweaving of Power’s personal story, family story, diplomatic history and moral arguments is executed seamlessly — and with unblinking honesty.

and,

When it comes to striking that right balance between idealism and realism, this book is basically a dialogue between the young, uncompromising, super idealistic Power — who cold-calls senior American officials at night at home to berate them for not doing more to stop the killing in Bosnia — and the more sober policymaker Power, who struggles to balance her idealism with realism, and who frets that she’s become one of those officials she despised.*

  • Thomas Friedman, “What Samantha Power Learned on the Job,” New York Times, September 10, 2019.
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APPEASEMENT: CHAMBERLAIN, HITLER, CHURCHILL, AND THE ROAD TO WAR by Tim Bouverie

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(Neville Chamberlain after returning from the Munich Conference)

In 1961 the controversial British historian, A.J.P. Taylor published THE ORIGINS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR arguing that the war was caused by the appeasement policies pursued by England and France toward Nazi Germany.  He further purported that Adolf Hitler was more of a traditional European statesman who easily could have been stopped in March 1936 at the Rhineland bridges had England and France had the will to do so.  This book created a firestorm in academic circles and over the years numerous historians have challenged Taylor’s conclusions. Among the first was J.W. Wheeler-Bennett’s MUNICH: PROLOGUE TO TRAGEDY followed later by Telford Taylor’s MUNICH: THE PRICE OF PEACE, Lynne Olson’s TROUBLESOME YOUNG MEN: THE REBELS WHO HELPED SAVE ENGLAND,  David Faber’s MUNICH THE 1938 APPEASEMENT CRISIS, and last year a fictional account was written by Robert Harris.  These books among many others lay out the counter argument to Taylor that even though Anglo-Franco appeasement was responsible for the war, Hitler would have stopped at nothing to achieve at a minimum domination of Europe.

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(Winston Churchill and Neville Chamberlain)

The latest entry into this debate is Tim Bouverie’s APPEASEMENT: CHAMBERLAIN, HITLER, CHURCHILL, AND THE ROAD TO WAR.  Bouverie, a former British journalist offers a fresh approach in analyzing London’s foreign policy throughout the 1930s leading to the Second World War.  The author excoriates British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his apologists who argue that he had little choice because of England’s lack of military preparation and fear of inflicting further damage to an already depressed economy.  Bouverie concludes that Chamberlain had decided even before he became Prime Minister that an accommodation with Hitler needed to be made in order to prevent revisiting the carnage of World War I.  With England’s position growing untenable in the Pacific due Japanese expansionism a rapprochement with Germany was a necessity.  Chamberlain would proceed to try to make deals with Benito Mussolini to pressure the Fuhrer, but in reality as his own writings and correspondence reflect he was bent on giving in to Hitler as shown in his reaction to the Anschluss with Austria, the drum beat by Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia for autonomy, the dismemberment of the only democracy in central Europe at the Munich Conference and thereafter, and finally over Danzig.  It was clear that the policies of Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, who Bouverie calls the “evangelicals of appeasement” would give away almost anything to achieve an Anglo-German Pact.

Bouverie does an excellent job developing the pacifist movement in England and the attitude of British elites toward Germany.  To the author’s credit he not only focuses on the major players in English politics during the period but others like Baron Lord Rothermere, his brother Lord Northcliffe, and Geoffrey Dawson who greatly impacted British public opinion through their newspaper empires.  In addition, Sir Robert Cecil, an ardent advocate of the League of Nations and the Peace Ballot in favor of collective security, Ernest Jenner, a banker, the historian Arnold Toynbee, former Labor leader George Lansbury, all whom received audiences with Hitler among others that the author discusses.  These individuals were able to mold public opinion and create further pressure on Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin who was replaced by  Chamberlain.

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(Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler at the Munich Conference)

Bouverie’s narrative is grounded in social and political history and makes exhaustive use personal papers, documentary collections, and the press.  He explains that England’s response to Hitler derives from a number of critical works such as John Maynard Keynes’ THE ECONOMIC CONSEQUENCES OF THE PEACE written in 1919 which pointed out the deficiencies in the Versailles Treaty.  Many in power in England saw the rise of Hitler as a manifestation of legitimate German grievances concerning the treaty, thus ameliorating Hitler’s “Diktat of Versailles” became a rallying cry for appeasers.  Those individuals include the British Ambassador to Germany, Neville Henderson; Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, and Sir Horace Wilson, the government’s Chief Industrial Advisor and Chamberlain’s alter ego.   Bouverie presents an incisive narrative concerning the raucous debate in British politics centering around rearmament, especially since Hitler was rearming Germany right under the nose of France and England undoing that clause of the treaty.  England would face reality and in 1934 agreed to a naval treaty with Germany allowing the Nazis a navy 35% of that of Great Britain (though at the time the treaty was signed Germany had already passed that threshold).

The author takes the reader through each major crisis that predated World War II.  Beginning with attempts at an Anglo-German Treaty recognizing Germany’s eastern borders and League membership; the German occupation of the Rhineland in March, 1936; the Anschluss with Austria in March, 1938; machinations against Czechoslovakia leading to the Munich Conference in September, 1938; the seizure of all of Czechoslovakia in March, 1939, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and the final crisis in Danzig that resulted in the invasion of Poland and the “Phony War” that followed.  In each instance Bouverie provides insights into the thought patterns of English politicians and why they did little or nothing to stop Hitler.  The author also explores the opposition to the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments, in particular Winston Churchill who found the warnings he had offered about Hitler since 1933 coming home to roost.  But it is clear that the “evangelical appeasers” faced no serious opposition or obstacles in Parliament.

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One of Bouverie’s best chapters deals with “Hitler’s Wonderland” reflecting British attitudes toward Germany in light of the Nuremburg Party rallies and the 1936 Olympics that took place in Berlin.  British elites like King Edward VIII, Charles Vane Tempest-Stewart, and the 7th Marquis of Londonderry all visited Germany a number of times and became the United Kingdom’s leading Hitler apologists.

Bouverie provides fascinating portraits of the periods leading characters.  His most important was his analysis of Chamberlain describing his intellectual self-assurance, a trait that would not allow him to consider the opinions and findings of others.  His arrogance would alienate Laborite’s as well as people in his own party.  This would prove a disaster as he tried to form governmental coalitions in 1939 and 1940.  In his defense Bouverie points out that Chamberlain had been a social reformer, but events did not allow him to pursue that interest.  As the former Chancellor of the Exchequer he realized England could not afford an arms race, so he tried to engage his countries enemies.  Chamberlain realized he could not rely on the United States, in large part because of his low opinion of Washington, believed that “careful diplomacy” would in the end be successful.  Bouverie is careful to point out that Chamberlain did not invent appeasement as British governments had been practicing it since the early 1920s, but it is Chamberlain who seems to have earned the mantle of the “great appeaser” because of Munich and beyond due to his innate stubbornness in dealing with those who disagreed with him.

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(Winston Churchill and Edward Wood, Lord Halifax)

Bouverie’s narrative allows the reader to eavesdrop on many interesting conversations and events.  Particularly fascinating was a lunch thrown by German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop at the German Embassy on March 11, 1938 with British politicians in attendance at the same time that Hitler demanded the resignation of Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg or suffer an invasion.  Also interesting is the verbal give and take between Chamberlain’s Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, a pro-German appeaser and his predecessor Anthony Eden who resigned over English recognition of Mussolini’s seizure of Abyssinia.  The give and take in the English cabinet after the Anschluss fearing Hitler’s next move is important as the evidence that Bouverie presents makes it clear that no one in Chamberlain’s government wanted to risk war over Czechoslovakia a country they believed had little to do with British national security. Lastly, Bouverie’s discussion of conversations between Henderson and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop as negotiations proceeded in August 1939 is priceless.

When war finally came, Bouverie notes that following the conquest of Poland, England and France declared war on Germany, but this was a rare case when war was declared but it was not fought until Hitler’s blitzkrieg entered France and the low countries in May 1940.   Finally, Tory anti-appeasement rebels will begin an all-out effort to get rid of Chamberlain in and Bouverie’s coverage of probably the most important parliamentary debate in English history is exemplary as it finally brought Winston Churchill to power.

Bouverie’s effort is very timely as Lynne Olson points out in her New York Times article, “Failure to Lead” (July 21, 2019).  Olson commends Bouverie for providing historical evidence as what will occur when a politician who has no knowledge of foreign policy, like Chamberlain imagines himself to be an expert and bypasses other branches of government to further his aims.  In addition, when one focuses only on negotiations with dictators and leaves their allies in the lurch……sound familiar?

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THE JEWS SHOULD KEEP QUIET: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, RABBI STEPHEN S. WISE, AND THE HOLOCAUST by Rafael Medoff

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One of the questions that has been foremost in the minds of Holocaust historians and the Jewish community since World War II centers around the actions and policies of  President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the Nazi agenda became clear resulting in millions of Jews perishing in the death camps.  In his latest book, THE JEWS SHOULD KEEP QUIET: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT, RABBI STEPHEN S. WISE, AND THE HOLOCAUST, Rafael Medoff, the founding director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies augments traditional documentation of the Holocaust with recently discovered materials that fosters a reassessment of Roosevelt’s actions.  Building on Wyman’s work, particularly his PAPER WALLS: AMERICA AND THE REFUGEE CRISIS 1938-1941, THE ABANDONMENT OF THE JEWS: AMERICA AND THE HLOCAUST, 1941-1945 , and his documentary, THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST, Medoff paints a very unflattering portrait of Roosevelt’s handling of the Jewish question during World War II along with his duplicitous treatment of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise and Jewish leadership during the war.

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(Historian, David S. Wyman)

This chapter in American immigration history is hard to ignore and Medoff’s work does a better job chronicling and analyzing US policy than previous historians in terms of Roosevelt’s private attitude toward Jews that motivated him to close America’s doors and shut down Jewish access to Ellis Island in the face of Nazi extermination.  The reader will be exposed to Roosevelt’s convictions as early as 1931 and it is obvious that Jewish leadership should have tempered expectations once the New York governor assumed the presidency.

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(President Franklin D. Roosevelt meeting with American Rabbis in March, 1943)

Medoff’s focus centers around Roosevelt’s relationship with the Jewish community in particular their titular leader Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, in addition to how the president’s State Department implemented an immigration policy that he totally supported.  What is clear is that Roosevelt played Wise like a fiddle.  The president described by numerous biographers and scholars as a “master manipulator” knew just what string to play upon in dealing with Wise in order to keep his true feelings about Roosevelt’s non-existent refugee policy out of the public eye.  The president would use dinner engagements, personal notes, oval office visits and other gestures to keep criticism to a minimum.  Medoff effectively argues that Roosevelt’s practice of “glad-handing” and making policy-related promises he had no intention of keeping was especially effective with Wise and Jewish leaders who were profoundly reluctant to press Roosevelt to follow through on his unfulfilled pledges. The dilemma for Jewish leadership was should they criticize a president whose domestic agenda they totally embraced.

Jews themselves realized their precarious position in American society.  High levels of anti-Semitism, accusations they were trying to drag the United States into war in Europe, and hardships from economic depression exacerbated Jewish concerns.  The publicity afforded Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist views and the anti-Semitic diatribes of Father Charles Coughlin who had over 3.5 million radio listeners unnerved the Jewish community.

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(Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long)

The examples of Roosevelt’s vague promises, lack of interest, political calculations, and outright apathy presented by Medoff are many.  Each is based on sound research, mostly appearing in other monographs, but there is a new element of seriousness and commitment in the author’s arguments.  This is not to say that Wise and his cohorts should not share some of the blame for the lack of an American response.  Wise’s “tendency to embrace the likeminded and exclude those whom he felt politically and religiously uncomfortable ultimately weakened his hand as a national Jewish leader.”  However, no matter Wise’s faults it was Roosevelt who must accept the blame for America’s lack of empathy and his own political calculations when confronted by the Nazi horrors.

Examples of Roosevelt’s actions are many.  His support of Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long who was in charge of the visa section of the State Department whose policy was to create as many obstructions as possible to thwart any attempt to lift barriers to Jewish immigration is clear in the documents.  Long’s strategy was clear, “put every obstacle in the way and require additional evidence to resort to various administrative devices which would postpone and postpone the grinding of the visas.”  In case after case the two men were on the same page to prevent any opportunity to allow numbers of Jews to enter the United States.  The possible use of the Virgin Islands as a haven for small numbers of Jews was rejected.  The ship, “The St. Louis” with 907 passengers was denied admission to the United States and turned back to Europe.  The Evian Conference in 1937 and the later Bermuda Conference of 1943 were farces to make it appear that something might be done when in fact nothing was offered.

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When evidence of the extermination of Jews was being disseminated to London and Washington, Roosevelt administration policy was to delay and delay in not confronting Germany for its atrocities until the United States entered World War II.  Even after Kristallnacht in 1938 any American comments left out any criticism of Germany as well as references to Hitler, Goebbels, and others by name.    When Gerhart Riegner, the World Jewish Congress representative in Switzerland cabled allied leaders in August 1942 providing evidence of the depth of Nazi atrocities, which was followed by a second telegram from Yitzchak and Recha Sternbuch rescue activists in Europe, in addition to reports from the Jewish Agency in Palestine the following month saw the State Department try and keep the information from Wise to prevent what the Roosevelt administration was learning from reaching the public.  In fact, it took eighty-one days for Assistant Secretary of State Sumner Wells to get back to Wise that confirmed his greatest fears.  This was part of a pattern pursued by the Roosevelt administration who took advantage of Wise’s fear that if he pushed too hard it would create an anti-Semitic backlash that Jews were trying to push their own wartime agenda.  More and more Wise feared he was seen as Roosevelt’s “court Jew,” and Medoff points out that the Rabbi had a habit of embellishing Roosevelt’s responses of support in saving the Jews and the tragedy that befell them.

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(Secretary of the Treasury Hans Morgenthau, Jr.)

Medoff leaves no stone unturned in delineating Roosevelt’s deceitfulness.  He describes numerous examples of Roosevelt’s opposition to the rescue of Jews; not enforcing immigration quotas; talking out of both sides of his mouth depending on his audience; refusing to reign in the State Department; refusing to support the admission of Jewish children, but had no difficulty allowing the admission of British children who were endangered by Nazi bombing; refusing to consider bombing Auschwitz and other concentration camps, while at the same time assisting the Polish Underground through the air;  creating obstacles for the creation of the War Refugee Board and then underfunding it, are among many actions taken or not taken by President Roosevelt.  Medoff also explores what may have been Roosevelt’s motivations as he points to his family’s societal views which were decidedly anti-Semitic.  The author points to numerous statements by Roosevelt bemoaning the mixture of Jewish and Asiatic blood with American blood.  He wanted these groups to be spread out across America to reduce their impact on American society. He saw America as a “Protestant country” with the Jews and people of other backgrounds present only based “on sufferance.”  With these types of beliefs, it is not surprising that he was disposed to oppose the admission of too many Jews during the war.

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(Peter Bergson)

Wise does not emerge unscathed by Medoff’s analysis.  The author points to Wise’s own ego issues brooking little or no opposition by Jews to his leadership in the Jewish community.  Examples include Hillel Silver or groups outside the Jewish community like Peter Bergson and his group that was much more effective in pressuring Roosevelt to support the War Rescue Board.  Wise spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with his opponents’ criticism, time that could have been spent fighting to rescue Jewish refugees and pressuring the president.  Medoff is quite correct in pointing out that Wise was a flawed leader with his own powerful ego much like Roosevelt and perhaps that is in large part why he was able to swallow his own principles and do the President’s bidding in controlling negative Jewish commentary and actions against his “friend in the White House.”

Some might argue that Medoff’s monograph is too polemical in spots, but to his credit he provides supporting documentation for his viewpoints, integrates a great deal of the comments made by Wise and Roosevelt, and he tries to integrate differing viewpoints.  All in all, Medoff has written a serious analysis and though he has reached what some might consider a scathing indictment of Roosevelt, in many instances his commentary is dead on.

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(Rabbi Steven S. Wise)

 

LINCOLN’S SPIES: THEIR SECRET WAR TO SAVE THE NATION by Douglas Waller

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(President Abraham Lincoln and General U.S. Grant)

It goes without saying that intelligence gathering during the American Civil War was an inexact science.  Information was derived from a myriad of sources that included; newspaper articles, railroad passengers and riders, free blacks, runaway slaves, deserters, prisoners of war, local farmers and other non-combatants along with the Union’s use of hot air balloons during the first half of the war.  This menagerie of sources produced a great deal of conflicting information that needed to be sifted through and analyzed.  The key information rested on how many troops each side possessed and their location.  The end result was a decision-making process that at times was flawed and battlefield decisions that rested on a weak foundation.  If one was to compare the intelligence strengths of the Union and the Confederacy, the northern spy network had major advantages and, in the end, would create an intelligence service that would later develop into an effective organization that contributed to victory.

Effective studies of Civil War spying are few in number and Douglas Waller’s new book LINCOLN’S SPIES: THEIR SECRET WAR TO SAVE THE NATION is a wonderful addition.  Waller has previously shown himself to be adept at dissecting important aspect of the history of American intelligence in his previous works.  DISCIPLES: THE WORLD WAR TWO MISSIONS OF THE CIA, DIRECTORS WHO FOUGHT FOR WILD BILL DONOVAN, and WILD BILL DONOVAN: THE SPY MASTER WHO CREATED THE OSS AND MODERN AMERICAN ESPIONAGE are all thoughtful, well researched monographs with a strong element of analysis.  Waller has now shifted his focus to the Civil War and those interested in early American intelligence gathering and techniques should be very satisfied with the latest contribution to the topic.

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(Allan Pinkerton)

Waller focuses on the Civil War’s Eastern Theater, arguing that a comprehensive history of all theaters of the war would require a minimum of three volumes.  His approach includes Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. because some of the largest, costliest, and significant battles of the war took place in those states.  Waller zeroes in on a number of important characters but his main focus is on Allan Pinkerton, the founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and a man whose ego knew no bounds and in the end was not a very effective head of Lincoln’s spy organization despite the reputation that he himself  cultivated.  Lafayette Baker is another individual who plays a significant role in Waller’s narrative.  Baker was a poorly educated aimless drifter who arrived in Washington after a rather questionable career as a detective in California.  He would eventually convince Secretary of War Edwin Stanton to employ him and set up a spy network for the military.  In the end the corruption, use of blackmail, coercion, and illegal means to extract information and bribes would lead to the end of Baker’s career as a wartime spy by 1864.  Next, Waller introduces the reader to George Sharpe, probably the most effective Union spy during the war whose intelligence was the most accurate and in the end after his network of detectives was able to assist General George Meade at Gettysburg would join with General Ulysses S. Grant in helping to achieve final victory.  With a background as a lawyer who inherited a great deal of money Sharpe never could conceive that he would become the war’s “preeminent spymaster.”  Lastly, Waller discusses the contributions of Elizabeth Van Law, a Richmond socialite who abhorred slavery and all the Confederacy stood for.  Using her “social contacts” inside the Confederate government she was able to tap into a great deal of useful information.  She would create the “Richmond Spy Ring” and was very helpful for the Union cause.  She provided accurate estimates of Confederate forces in and around Richmond, assistance for runaway slaves to reach Union lines, helped organize prison breaks, and hid political prisoners and those suspected of spying against the Confederacy.

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(Lafayette Baker)

Waller, a stickler for detail, provides mini biographies of all his characters particularly those who were involved with the aforementioned four figures.  His discussion of the course of the war and its major players, be it Generals Robert E. Lee, George McClellan, George Meade Joseph Hooker, Ulysses S. Grant, President Lincoln, Secretary of Defense Edwin M. Stanton, and Jefferson Davis among many others echoes the comments of earlier historians.  Waller excels in describing the differences and dislikes that led to competitions and downright hostility among allies especially Sharpe and Pinkerton; Baker and Pinkerton; Meade and Sharpe; Lincoln and McClellan; Meade and Grant among many presented.  The strategies and geographical and economic conflicts are presented in a cogent fashion and are easily understood by the general reader.

Perhaps Waller’s best chapters include his analysis of the contribution intelligence made to the Union victory at Gettysburg which along with Grant’s triumph at Vicksburg was the turning point in the war.  Another fascinating chapter deals with Allan Pinkerton and how poorly he ran his intelligence operation for Lincoln and how incompetent he was.  A key to finally defeating the Confederacy was Sharpe’s relationship with Grant that Waller explores in detail.  Their mutual respect for each other’s skills and capacity in their fields of expertise was the foundation of their personal alliance.  Lastly, and throughout the book Waller discusses Civil War spy craft and how it evolved into an effective tool for victory.

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(Elizabeth Van Lew)

According to Waller intelligence gathering during the war also pioneered what today is called “all-source intelligence” under the leadership of George Sharpe.  The result was “merging espionage, cavalry reconnaissance, and signal intercepts with prisoner, deserter, and refugee interrogations to produce reports on Confederate strength and movement.  The phone tapping, human collection, and aerial snooping today’s U.S. spy community engages in can be traced to the Civil War.  It’s no wonder that the CIA tasked analysts to study era’s tradecraft for lessons learned.” (417)

The human side of the war is on full display as the carnage was unimaginable up until that time.  The book does not present itself as a history the war, but just a component that contributed to the northern victory.  An aspect of the war that has not been given enough treatment by historians.  The book itself does a remarkable job focusing on the Eastern front of the war and I recommend it to the general reader as well as Civil War aficionados.

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BY GASLIGHT by Steven Price

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(Victorian London, 1880s)

When I approach a 700-page novel I do so with trepidation and expectation wondering if the effort will be worthwhile.  In the case of Steven Price’s BY GASLIGHT, a multi-generational biographical noir mostly set in late 19th century London one must conclude that Price has produced a fascinating story encapsulating a violent period in history with many original characters amongst actual historical figures.

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(William Pinkerton)

Price, a Canadian poet and novelist has written a marvelous story set in London, Civil War America, and South Africa spanning the 1860s through the late 1880s.  The plot line is in part a biography of William Pinkerton, the son of Allan Pinkerton, Civil War spy and founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the fictional Adam Foole, a man of questionable business interests that dates back to a diamond heist in Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1863.  Each man possesses an agenda that was formulated in the past.  For Pinkerton it is the hunt for a criminal his father never apprehended, an elusive thief named Edward Shade.  On the other hand, Foole is seeking  a woman he has not seen for over ten years and realizes he has always been deeply in love with her.  The novel focuses on how each man searches for answers and the relationship they develop.

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(Victorian London, 1880s)

As Price unwraps his story the tastes and sounds of London form a backdrop of poverty that centers on thieves, dock workers, and the general underclass that permeates London’s houses for children, sewers and hovels.  Historical periods are clear as the author alternates from the American Civil War with its brutality and vengeance to London in the 1880s infected with a criminal element and poverty that seems to dominate everyday life.  This is further highlighted by Price’s ear for Victorian London and its underworld slang.

Character development is effective, particularly that of Foole, Shade, Charlotte Rickett, John Shore, the Pinkertons, the Uttersons, among many others.  A great deal of research is evident from Price’s work reflected by its historical accuracy and the authenticity of its characters.

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The plot line moves slowly from the outset as each character is introduced.  The plot seems to center on Charlotte Rickett who from childhood was trained as a thief and a grifter in a London workhouse for indigent children.  She was rescued by a pseudo-uncle who furthered her education for a life of crime.  Charlotte’s life will take her to South Africa, India and back to London until her supposed death that resulted in dismemberment and mutilation.  Charlotte’s plight will become an obsession for Pinkerton and Foole.

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(Allan Pinkerton, Lincoln’s master spy during the Civil War who laid the ground work for later American spy agencies)

The novel highlights the horrors of the American Civil War and the poverty that dominates post 1873 Depression London.  Scotland Yard and the Pinkerton Agency are developed as a dam to prevent further criminality and murder.  Aside from Charlotte’s horrible death, the novel zeros in on the fate of Edward Shade, a shadowy character surrounded by myth who may not even have existed.  Rickett and Shade foster an alliance between Pinkerton and Foole that allows Price the opportunity to create numerous subplots as twists and turns abound in each chapter.

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According to Price in an interview with the Vancouver Sun, “I think of it as a novel about a detective, rather than a detective novel, ultimately Gaslight is about parents and children, and our inheritance of grief, and how we come to with the unfinished business of life.”  The course of the novel certainly reflects what Price wanted to achieve as each character is tied to their upbringing and how their socialization impacted the choices they made in later life.

Ian Weir writes in the Toronto Globe and Mail,

The narrative touches on themes relating to grief and loss, and the relationship of sons to fathers. There are nods as well to the nature of truth and storytelling, the unreliability of memory, and the conundrum of appearance and reality. But it is difficult to say what these add up to, in the end. The novel – for all of its force and ingenuity – struggles to reach beyond its own specifics.

But those specifics are splendid, nonetheless. And it is a tribute to Price’s skill and power that we never – well, almost never – pause to ask whether the novel really needed every last one of its nearly 750 exquisitely crafted pages.*

In creating the story, Price has written a book that is both challenging and rewarding for the reader due to its length, time periods that seem to turn on a dime, and its multiple characters.  If one works their way through, the time spent with BY GASLIGHT will be well worth it as Price has pulled out all the stops to capture the readers attention and maintain it for hours on end.

*Ian Weir, “Steven Price’s By Gaslight pulls out all the stops, Toronto Globe and Mail, August 19, 2016.

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(East End, London, 1880s)

THE LUDWIG CONSPIRACY by Oliver Potzsch

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(King Ludwig II of Bavaria)

King Ludwig II of Bavaria is one of the most enigmatic figures in world history.  Assuming the throne in 1845 at the age of nineteen the monarch known as “mad King Ludwig” or the “fairy-tale king whose castle, Schloss Neuschwanstein was the model for Walt Disney’s company logo died on June 14, 1886 probably by suicide, but the actual cause of death remains a mystery.  Novelist Oliver Potzsch makes Ludwig II the centerpiece of his novel, THE LUDWIG CONSPIRACY, a historical thriller that centers on an encoded diary of one of Ludwig’s confidantes and a love story that follows diverse historical periods.

If you are a fan of Robert Harris, Steve Berry, William Martin and others of the genre that alternates between the past and the present providing historical lessons and context as a means of solving a contemporary mystery, Potzsch’s effort should be right up your ally.  Employing Dan Brown’s vehicle of ciphers and codes, and in this case German legends and poetry as literary tropes, Potzsch returns the reader to late 19th century Bavaria as he develops his story.

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(Schloss Neuschwanstein Castle)

Potzsch is best known for his HANGMAN’S DAUGHTER series set in 17th century Bavaria, which is based on his ancestors, the Kuisls, a notorious dynasty of German executioners.  My favorite Potzsch book is THE CASTLE OF KINGS  set during the German Peasants Revolt of the 16th century which features an iconoclastic noblewoman with a flair for falconry.  Potzsch states he wrote the book to move away from torturing and killing and focus on castles, knights, secret chambers and hidden treasure .  In THE LUDWIG CONSPIRACY he delights his readers with a tale that deals with political machinations, monarchial intrigue involving Bismarckian Prussia and Bavaria under Ludwig II as he focuses on how the “mad monarch” may have died.

The format is a contemporary one in which Munich rare book seller, Steven Lukas becomes involved in a conspiracy related to Ludwig’s death when he becomes in possession of evidence that Ludwig may not have committed suicide.  As the story develops Lukacs becomes the target of the Cowled men, a secret order who are bent on proving that the monarch was in fact murdered.

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(Schloss Neuschwanstein Castle)

Ludwig’s life is an ostentatious spectacle in which he lived in his own dream world.  This approach to life saw him build castles as his raison d’etre for living but resulted in bankrupting the Bavarian treasury and produced numerous enemies among the Council of Ministers who are out to depose him by declaring him insane.  When he died on June 14, 1886 probably by suicide, a method we cannot totally confirm numerous questions arose surrounding his passing.

Potzsch once again has proven himself to be a master of the historical thriller as Lukacs must navigate his possession of evidence that Ludwig did not commit suicide and the Cowled Men who seek to retain and purify the king’s historical reputation.  The vehicle for Lukacs’ involvement is the discovery in his bookshop of the memoirs of Theodor Morat, the assistant to Doctor Max Schleiss Lowenfeld, royal physician to Ludwig that is hidden on a shelf in his establishment.  The memoirs are located in a wooden box and once discovered the novel gains speed as the bookseller is teamed with Dr. Sara Lengfeld, an art historian and detective.  The author creates a mystery anchored in reality, sophisticated plotting, and makes good use of a real historical puzzle that is equal to the Da Vinci code.

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(Ludwig II, later in life)

As with any historical fiction one wonders how much is factual.  In the present case it is accurate to state that when it comes to Ludwig’s death nothing can be definitively proven.  His death is wonderful fodder for conspiracy theorists and Potzsch includes a separate glossary that is meant for those who like to delve into that arena.  Numerous characters are included, some figments of the author’s mind and others actual historical figures.  Among the wonderful individuals that are created include Theodor Morat, Maria, a peasant girl who is a servant and confidante of Ludwig, Albert Zoller, an eccentric expert on the Bavarian monarch, Luise Manstein, the mad industrialist, and of course Lukacs and Lengfeld.  Among hitorical personages is Otto von Bismarck, Chancellor of the recently unified German state, the Cowled Men, and Ludwig himself.

All in all, Potzsch has written a fascinating yarn with a firm grounding in history.  It is a fascinating story that should satisfy conspiracy theorists, and historical fiction aficionados.  It is a book that is worth picking up when one wants to become engrossed in a story and watch their reading pastime fly by.

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RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE by Rebecca Erbelding

Image result for photo of fdr and henry morgenthau jr holocaust(President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.)

One of the most contentious debates pertaining to World War II deals with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in trying to mitigate the horrors of the Holocaust and the role of the American government in general. Many argue that Roosevelt was a political animal who based his position on the plight of world Jewry on political calculation and did little to offset Nazi terror; others argue that FDR did as much as possible based on conditions domestically and abroad.  Some authors reach the conclusion that FDR’s views were consistent throughout the war and according to historian, Richard Breitman he was “politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews-even given that he had no easy remedies for a specific Jewish tragedy in Europe.”  Many authors argue that “FDR avoided positions that might put at risk his broader goals of mobilizing anti-Nazi opposition and gaining freedom to act in foreign affairs,” for example dealing with the refugee crisis, the issue of Palestine, immigration, and organizing the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Historians stress the fear of domestic anti-Semitism, especially in the State Department; the inability of American Jews to present a united front; the role of the War Department; and presidential politics.  Overall, this is an important issue that dominates the headlines today; what is the “appropriate response of an American president to humanitarian crises abroad and at home?”

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(John Pehle, Head of the War Refugee Board)

The signature effort of the United States in dealing with the Holocaust and trying to mitigate Nazi deportations and saving Jews was the War Refugee Board which was created on January 16, 1944 which according to Rebecca Erbelding, an archivist and curator at the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s eye opening recent book,  RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE finally created an official government policy to rescue Jews.  Erbelding covers a great deal of material that has been mined previously by David Wyman, Richard Breitman, Henry Feingold, Martin Gilbert, Walter Laqueur and many others.  What separates her effort is her focus on American refugee policy from 1944 onward.  She mines over 19,000 documents dealing with the War Rescue Board as she displays the bureaucratic infighting, the ideological shifts, the out and out racism and anti-Semitism that existed in the State Department under the aegis of Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his minions like Breckenridge Long.  A number of heroes emerge from Erbelding’s narrative, the most important of which is John Pehle, the Assistant Secretary to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Roswell MacLelland who ran the War Refugee Board in Switzerland, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.

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(John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War, refused to consider bombing Nazi concentration camps)

The underlying theme of the monograph that has been portrayed by others was the bureaucratic war between the State and Treasury Departments over American immigration policy beginning in the 1930s.  By the summer of 1942 news of the ongoing massacre of European Jewry was known in Washington.  However, helping Jews escape Europe was never a priority for the American government nor its people.  Bigger problems loomed; the Great Depression, war in Europe, war in Asia, all stole the focus of most Americans.  Erbelding provides a nice synthesis dealing with the immigration battles throughout the 1920s and 30s that limited immigration under the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924.  She provides the link between anti-immigration sentiment that emerged during World War I, due in part as Daniel Okrent argues in his new book, THE GUARDED STATE to the role of eugenics, economic fears, and national security among other concerns.  By 1941 public opinion, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclivity to measure which way the political winds were blowing, anti-immigration sentiment in Congress, and out and out anti-Semitism in the State Department had already taken hold.

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(Secretary of State Cordell Hull)

By August 1942, Pehle concluded that it should be the role of the American government to try and save the Jews of Europe, and it was his responsibility as Director of Foreign Funds Control to do his best to achieve this momentous goal.  He was able to gain the cooperation of Morgenthau to liberalize the Treasury Department’s foreign funds policies to implement his strategy.  Erbelding spends a great deal of time narrating and analyzing how Pehle and his allies went about their task.  Pehle’s strategy focused on transferring funds to relief organizations that the State Department had blocked for two years; Gerhardt Riegner’s plan to save Jewish children, funding for the International Red Cross, assistance to the World Jewish Congress, assist underground movements, among many more.  Further, he created the protection of “paper,” issuing as many visas and passports with as much neutral power support as possible.  He instituted a licensing policy to satisfy the Nazis and their allies to consider releasing their captives.  He played a game of “charades” as a strategic approach to negotiations employing bluffs, lies or anything that might bring about the rescue of Hungarian Jews.  In addition, he was responsible for the creation of an Emergency Refugee Shelter in upstate New York, planting articles in newspaper and other publicity about the plight of refugees, and even went so far as trying to get the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to launder money through its Swedish headquarters.

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(Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Refugee Affairs, Breckenridge Long)

Pehle and his allies’ work did not stop with these strategies.  He worked assiduously to purchase and/or lease shipping for Jews, locating safe havens, and considered the most outrageous possibilities to save lives.  Erbelding delves into the Brand Mission which involved a Nazi attempt to ransom the Jews of Hungary.  Brand was a member of the Zionist Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest who was seen as a spy by the British who actually imprisoned him during negotiations with Adolf Eichmann.   The offer of Hungarian dictator Admiral Horthy to release Jews under his auspices, as well as the work of Raoul Wallenberg, Ira Hirschman and others was under Pehle’s purview.  As Erbelding correctly points out, the time and effort in most cases proved fruitless, but the War Rescue Board members at least tried.

Erbelding points to the British as a major roadblock because of its refusal to accept refugees in Palestine.  But London had company in creating obstacles or just plain refusal like Turkey, Spain, Portugal and others in trying to gain passage for Jews to safe havens.  They could all point to Roosevelt’s policies which after constant pressure from Jewish leaders and the State Department finally produced a declaration on March 24, 1944 warning Holocaust perpetrators and their axis allies of the punishment that awaited them once the war ended.  Pehle would employ that warning throughout Europe, but in most cases to no avail.

(Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, War Refugee Board Head, John Pehle)

Erbelding goes along with numerous others in arguing no matter how many Jews the War Rescue Board might have saved had it been created two years earlier the end of the war was the only solution to the Nazi terror.  Despite its late creation the Board did save lives, how many is open to conjecture.  But the work of people like Daly Mayer, Iver Olsen, Peter Bergson, Florence Hodel and many others cannot be discounted as the United States for the first and only time in its history worked to save lives and endeavor to employ humanitarian approach to a worldwide refugee problem.    If there is a lesson to garnered from Erbelding’s work it is that even in the midst of war, governments can achieve humanitarian successes. Perhaps the current administration should shelve its political agenda and consider what the War Refugee Board accomplished at the end of World War II and create a humanitarian approach to the refugee crisis it now confronts at its southern border.

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(President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.)

America and the Holocaust: Should the United States have done more? (a mini-course)

AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST: SHOULD THE UNITED STATES HAVE DONE MORE?

Steven Z. Freiberger, Ph.D.

szfreiberger@gmail.com

http://www.docs-books.com

One of the most contentious debates pertaining to World War II deals with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in trying to mitigate the horrors of the Holocaust. Many argue that Roosevelt was a political animal who based his position on the plight of world Jewry on political calculation and did little to offset Nazi terror; others argue that FDR did as much as possible based on conditions domestically and abroad.  Some authors reach the conclusion that FDR’s views were consistent throughout the war and he was “politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews-even given that he had no easy remedies for a specific Jewish tragedy in Europe.”  Many authors argue that “FDR avoided positions that might put at risk his broader goals of mobilizing anti-Nazi opposition and gaining freedom to act in foreign affairs,” for example dealing with the refugee crisis, the issue of Palestine, immigration, and organizing the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Authors often describe the fear of domestic anti-Semitism, especially in the State Department; the inability of American Jews to present a united front; the role of the War Department; and presidential politics.  Overall, this is an important issue that dominates the headlines today; what is the “appropriate response of an American president to humanitarian crises abroad and at home?”

Schedule:

September 9, 2019      Introduction and Background for American immigration policy leading up to World War II

September 16, 2019     The Rise of and Implementation of Nazism and its impact on Jews and American immigration policy

September 23, 2019     America and the Holocaust/Role of Franklin D. Roosevelt

October 7, 2019 Film: The American Experience: America and the Holocaust and discussion

Brief bibliography:

Beir, Robert L.; Josepher, Brian, ROOSEVELT AND THE HOLOCAUST

Breitman, Richard; Lichtman, Alan, FDR AND THE JEWS

Erbelding, Rebecca, RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE

Feingold, Henry, THE POLITICS OF RESCUE: THE ROOSEVELT ADMINISTRATION AND THE HOLOCAUST           1938-1945

Feingold, Henry, BEARING WITNESS: HOW AMERICA AND ITS JEWS RESPONDED TO THE HOLOCAUST

Gilbert, Martin, AUSCHWITZ AND THE ALLIES

Laqueur, Walter, THE TERRIBLE SECRET: THE SUPRESSION OF THE TRUTH ABOUT HITLER’S FINAL SOLUTION

Leff, Laurel, BURIED IN THE TIMES: THE HOLOCAUST AND AMERICA’S MOST IMPORTANT NEWSPAPER

Lipstadt, Deborah, BEYOND BELIEF: THE AMERICAN PRESS AND THE COMING OF THE HOLOCAUST 1933-1945

Morse, Arthur, WHILE SIX MILLION DIED

Neufeld, Michael; Berenbaum, Michael, Eds., THE BOMBING OF AUSCHWITZ: SHOULD THE ALLIES HAVE ATTEMPTED IT?

Okrent, Daniel, THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA

Rolde, Neil, BRECKENRIDGE LONG, AMERICAN EICHMANN??? AN ENQUIRY INTO THE CHARACTER OF THE MAN WHO DENIED VISAS TO THE JEWS

Rosen, Robert N., SAVING THE JEWS: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT AND THE HOLOCAUST

Rubinstein, William D. THE MYTH OF RESCUE: WHY THE DEMOCRACIES COULD NOT HAVE SAVED MORE JEWS FROM THE NAZIS

Shogan, Robert, PRELUDE TO Catastrophe: FDR’S JEWS AND THE MENACE OF NAZISM

Steinhouse, Carl, THE SHAMEFUL REFUSAL OF FDR’S STATE DEPARTMENT TO SAVE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF EUROPEAN JEWS FROM EXTERMINATION

Wallace, Gregory J. AMERICA’S SOUL IN THE BALANCE

Wasserstein, Bernard, BRITAIN AND THE JEWS OF EUROPE, 1949-1945

Wyman, David, THE ADANDONMENT OF THE JEWS: AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST 1941-1945

Wyman, David, PAPER WALLS: AMERICA AND THE REFUGEE CRISIS 1938-1941

THE UNWANTED: AMERICA, AUSCHWITZ, AND A VILLAGE CAUGHT IN BETWEEN by Michael Dobbs

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“A piece of paper with a stamp on it meant the difference between life and death for thousands and thousands of people,” wrote American journalist Dorothy Thompson after Kristallnacht in late 1938.  Truer words were never written.  For Jews trying to escape the Nazi terror as the Final Solution approached the only avenue of escape seemed to be emigration from Germany to the United States.  But as Michael Dobbs describes in his remarkable new book, THE UNWANTED: AMERICA AUSCHWITZ, AND A VILLAGE CAUGHT IN BETWEEN victims of Nazi deportation policies ran into a stone wall in trying to gain entrance into the United States.  Whether it was the stonewalling of the State Department, the leadership, or lack of thereof of Franklin Roosevelt, or plain apathy or anti-Semitism, Washington could have done a great deal more. As Dobbs points out, “the wheels of the U.S. bureaucracy continued to turn, disconnected from the tragic events that had set them in motion.”  It seemed obstacle after obstacle was increasingly instituted to make it more and more difficult for Jewish refugees to gain entrance into America and avoid “transport to the east.”

Dobbs’ focus is on the small village of Kippenheim in Baden in western Germany with a population of 144 Jews out of a total population of 1800.  The author follows the plight of a number of families who lived through the events of Kristallnacht in November of 1938 and realized that they must try and leave Germany.  The families, the Valfers, Wertheimers, and Wachenheimers, among a number that Dobbs concentrates had varied experiences.  All are subject to Nazi violence and torture in some measure.  All are torn from their homes and deported to camps in France, all make valiant attempts to leave Germany by dealing with the US immigration system, first with the consulate in Stuttgart, and the result is many will escape through Marseilles or other avenues and cross the Atlantic, go to Palestine, while others will perish in Auschwitz.  The book focuses on the period of late 1938 to the fall of 1942 when the Final Solution is in full motion.  The narrative is poignant and elicits a great deal of anger on the part of this reader as the story of the US State Department’s immigration policy under the aegis of Breckenridge Long the Assistant Secretary of State for immigration becomes crystal clear, and the lack of action and empathy on the part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt whose excuses for not acting in any meaningful way is fully described.

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(Wachenheimer family photo, circa 1938)

One of the most important questions remaining pertaining to the Holocaust is whether the United States could have done more to save lives be it bombing Auschwitz or allowing increased immigration.  In the recent past historian Richard Breitman focused on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s impact and David Wyman zeroed in on the US Department of State.  In both instances the president and the bureaucracy were found wanting.  In the case of Roosevelt political concerns about Neutrality legislation, fears of anti-Semitic backlash, enforcement of immigration law and isolationist elements in Congress along with his own inherent biases made it difficult for the President to come out in public and act.  As far as the State Department is concerned, they would enforce the restrictionist 1924 Johnson Act quotas that legally called for 27,370 Germans to immigrate to the US each year.  It is clear that in 1940-41 only 62.1% of the quota was filled, and the 1941-42 only 7.2% was filled – the period of greatest need for victims of the Baden deportations from 1938.  According to the historical record, officials in the State Department purposely created roadblocks to deny Jewish refugees admission to the United States, even women and children.

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(Breckenridge Long)

Dobbs empathetically describes in detail the damage, arrests, and fear in Kippenheim during Kristallnacht and uses the residents of the village as a microcosm of the overall crisis that Jews faced as the true intention of the Nazi regime came to the fore.  Dobbs explores the violence against the residents of Kippenheim and the attempts by families to try and emigrate to the US and the roadblocks they faced.  He delves into the State Department bureaucracy and how certain people created roadblocks to entry into America.  At times it seemed that some of these impediments could be overcome, but officials following orders from Washington created even more hoops to go through in order to obtain the necessary visas, or “more stamps” on further documentation which may not have been called for months before.  The consulate interview begins the process, but so many Jews wanted to emigrate there was a three year wait to begin the process.  The tragedy for many, like the Laflers is that when their numbers finally came up and the process for approval was gain, Freya and Hugo were already victims of the crematoria in Auschwitz.

Dobbs takes the reader through the transport of refugees from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs, through Marseilles and its poor living conditions, the bureaucratic run-a-around, and their final fate.  Vichy governmental collaboration with the Nazis led by Prime Minister Pierre Laval and French police is ever present.  The trauma of family members is plain as day as they deal with the daily attempts at survival and the highs and lows of believing they have the necessary paperwork to leave, and then have their hopes dashed by bureaucratic stalling, events like Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Russia.  Dobbs follows the families in detail based on assiduous research and interviews with survivors like Hedy Wachenheimer who at the age of fourteen became part of the Kindertransport program and left her parents to live with families in London, while eventually her parents would perish.

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(Kippenheim, Germany synagoge)

Perhaps the most poignant narrative describes Hedy’s visit to Germany and Kippenheim in particular after the war working for the US military and wearing a uniform, she must face people who harassed and demeaned her as a child.  Dobbs goes on to relate how people, both Jewish and non-Jewish worked to rebuild the synagogue in the village as a memorial to what occurred.  The process was long and difficult, but because of survivors like Kurt Maier and Mayor Willi Mathis the building was restored to its role as a true house of worship in 2003.

Dodd is to be commended for his effort in bringing to life the fate of the Kippenheim Jews, but more so at a time when immigration is such a hot controversial issue, perhaps politicians should review US immigration policy during WWII and contemplate whether at times history should force us as a people to open up our hearts, and let political partisanship recede into the background, at least for a short time.   At the outset of Dobbs ’narrative Hedy Wachenheimer rode from her home on her bicycle to school.  Upon arrival and seated in class for her lessons the usually gentle principal pointed at her and yelled, “Get out, you dirty Jew.”  This sounds like current political rallies and comments that tell “brown” people who are hear on legal visas and those legally seeking asylum to “get out and go home,” or ”send her home.”  Is this who we are as a people?

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(Boycott of Jewish Shops, Germany 1930s)

OUR MAN: RICHARD HOLBROOKE AND THE END OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY by George Packer

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(Richard Holbrooke)

Perhaps the most colorful and able diplomat in American history has been Richard Holbrooke.  The possessor of an irascible personality who was not the most popular individual with colleagues and presidents that he served but was a highly effective strategic thinker and negotiator with a number of important accomplishments to his credit.  The success that stands out the most is his work that produced the Dayton Accords in 1995 that brought closure somewhat to the civil war that raged in the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s.  But he should also be given credit for his work as Ambassador to the United Nations, Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs, and his last position as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan for which he gave his life.

Holbrooke exhibited a powerful ego that did not always play well with others be they friend or foe, but in the end,  he was at the center of American strategic thinking throughout a career that spanned the beginning of US involvement in Vietnam through our continuing imbroglio in Afghanistan.  A self-promotor who saw his work and ideas as the key to American success, Holbrooke was a dominating presence in the American foreign policy establishment for decades and is the subject of George Packer’s important new study, OUR MAN: RICHARD HOLBROOKE AND THE END OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY.

Holbrooke owned many personality flaws for which he paid dearly.  His drive would in part destroy two marriages and his closest friendships.  His character defects would cost him any chance of being chosen Secretary of State, a position he craved,  for which he was eminently qualified.  If he had the capacity of introspection and a dose of self-restraint, he could have accomplished anything.  However, if he was able to tone himself down, he would not have been true to himself which is the core of why he was successful.

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(Anthony Lake)

For George Packer, Holbrooke was the embodiment of the American Century (or half century!) which encompassed Holbrooke’s life.  He was part of the belief that the US could accomplish anything, be it the Marshall Plan, remake Vietnam, bring peace to Bosnia, or make something out of the quagmire that is Afghanistan.  For Holbrooke to be part of great events and decisions was his life blood and that is why it is important to tell his story.

In many ways Packer’s narrative is a conversation with the reader as he imparts practically all aspects of Holbrooke’s private and public life.  He takes us inside his subject’s marriages and family life, his intellectual development, travels throughout the world and the important individuals who were his compatriots or enemies, and his obsession to create a foreign policy that would embody the liberal internationalism that was so effective following World War II.  Packer makes assumptions about how conversant the reader is with post-war history as it relates to Holbrooke’s career and to his credit, he offers a great deal of background information to make the reader’s task easier.  Packer prepares character sketches of all the major personages that Holbrooke shared the stage with; be it Edward Lansdale, the CIA psy-ops guru; Averill Harriman, a mentor and benefactor; David Halberstam, the New York Times reporter; Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Hillary Clinton, presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama among many others.

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(Sarajevo, 1995)

Perhaps the most poignant relationship that Packer describes is that of Anthony Lake who was a close friend of Holbrooke in the early 1960s as they both entered the Foreign Service and served in Vietnam.  Packer follows their relationship and competition over the next five decades, they’re ups and downs on a personal level, policy disagreements all of which would ruin their friendship and turn them into bureaucratic enemies.  At times it feels like Packer has inserted Lake’s autobiography amidst the narrative as a means of comparing the two and providing insights into steps and positions Holbrooke might have taken which may have altered his career path.

Holbrooke’s Vietnam experience would stay with him throughout his career.  The military self-deception of Vietnam and the role of the national security establishment created doubts and reinforced the idea that Holbrooke himself knew what was best and would usually consider himself to be the smartest person in the room.  This is evident in Holbrooke’s writings which critique US policy as he integrates his personal life into the narrative.  Packer does an excellent job culling Holbrooke’s thoughts as he incorporates segments of his notebooks into his story.  When it came to Vietnam, Holbrooke was very astute as he saw the failure of the Strategic Hamlet program early on and that fighting the Viet Cong only from the air could only result in failure.  For Holbrooke the watershed date for the war was February, 1965 as the Pentagon issued an “evacuation order” for non-essential personnel and families as it brought an end “to the pretty colonial town of Saigon” and “was the beginning of sprawling US bases and B-52s and black market Marlboros and industrial scale-prostitution.”

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(Henry Kissinger)

Packer’s discussion of Kissinger and Brzezinski are fascinating.  Both men despised Holbrooke and the feelings were mutual.  When three egos as large as theirs the result had to be intellectual and verbal fireworks.  For what it is worth, Holbrooke felt Kissinger was a liar, amoral and a deeply cynical man with an overblown reputation who had contributed to the culture of Watergate and the events that followed.  Kissinger described Holbrooke as possessing minimal intelligence and “the most viperous character I know around town,” which was something coming from Kissinger.  Holbrooke saw Brzezinski as another Kissinger type who would destroy Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and seize control of President Carter’s foreign policy through his role as National Security Advisor.  Brzezinski’s hard line view of the Cold War was born out with Russia, but “he did help destroy the last pieces of any postwar consensus, bringing viciousness and deception into the heart of the government.”  Both men loved the spectacle of power and wielded it for its own sake, bringing Vance to tell Holbrooke, “I still cannot understand how the president was so taken with Zbig.  He is evil, a liar, and dangerous.”

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(Zbigniew Brzezinski)

Holbrooke’s greatest accomplishment was his work bringing a pseudo peace to Bosnia.  Packer delves into the Yugoslav civil war in great detail providing character studies of the major players and/or psychopaths from Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, Fanjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia, Alija Izetegovic, president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Radovan Karadzic, president of Republic Srpska, among many other “interesting individuals.”  Packer’s details of the Dayton negotiations are priceless and reflect Holbrooke’s doggedness and highlights the difficulties that he faced dealing with such diverse characters steeped in their own ethnic, religious, and nationalistic hatreds.  Packer describes Holbrooke’s negotiating tactics, ranging from bombasity, reasonable proposals, and Bismarckian type threats to achieve his goals.  In so doing he believed he was rectifying Bill Clinton’s disinterest, ignorance, or lack of gumption in dealing with the Balkans.  With the slaughter of Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, Holbrooke was able to rally Clinton, foster NATO action by our European allies, who had done nothing to that point to bomb and coerce the participants to the negotiating table and foster a diplomatic agreement.

Holbrook always believed he should be Secretary of State, but his personality and poor judgement would turn off Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama in addition to his colleagues in the diplomatic arena whether it was Cy Vance, Madeline Albright, Susan Rice and a host of others. The bureaucratic battles behind the scenes and some in public are present for all to see, many of which Holbrooke won, but many of which he lost.  It was only Hillary Clinton who saw the positives in using Holbrooke’s talents as she made him the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan which Packer discusses in great detail as Holbrooke worked to try and bring about negotiations with the Taliban and gain Pakistani cooperation.

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(Kati Marton, Holbrooke’s third wife)

Packer delves into the personal side of Holbrooke particularly his marriages which resulted in two divorces and a decades long marriage to Kati Marton, who was more than a match for Holbrook in terms of ego, self-centeredness, and their own special type of charm.  Holbrooke’s feelings are explored when he failed to achieve the positions he desired and Packer provides numerous insights into policy and personal decision-making that affected himself, his family, and the professionals around him.

Packer’s effort is to be applauded as he seems to have captured Holbrooke, warts and all in conducting research that included over 250 interviews, the liberal use of Holbrooke’s notebooks, and a strong knowledge of American post-World War II foreign policy.  But one must remember that Packer and Holbrook were friends who strongly believed in a liberal-internationalist approach to foreign policy that encompassed a strong humanitarian component.  The importance of the book cannot be in doubt as it rests on the major impact that Holbrooke had on the conduct of US foreign policy over four decades.

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