ROBIN by Dave Itzkoff

Image result for photo of Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

(From the film “Good Morning Vietnam”)

For years I showed the Robin Williams’ film “Good Morning Vietnam” to my history classes.  The movie reflected Williams’ genius, empathy, and commentary pertaining to a conflict that tore America apart.  I introduced the film because I wanted students to get a feel for a different aspect of the war which the character of Adrian Cronauer apply portrayed. Williams’ is also known for many other ground breaking and important films that include, “Dead Poets’ Society,” “Good Will Hunting,” “The Fisher King,” and the cartoon voiceover of “Áladdin,” along with a number that did not achieve recognition, but reflected Williams’ many talents.  Williams was a multifaceted individual whose onstage comedic insanity expressed a certain poignancy when one got passed the mask that the comedian presented to his audiences.  When he died in 2014 a cultural void was created which may never again be filled.  Williams was an insecure individual who found solace from rejection in childhood and other personal issues by developing voices, characters, and other coping strategies as he meandered through his early years.  Williams lived an unsettled life that would end in tragedy.   When he could no longer cope with medical issues that resulted from Lewy body dementia disorder he took his own life. The full scope of his career, personal life, and demons are fully explored in Dave Itzkoff’s wonderful new biography, ROBIN.

Image result for from the film Dead Poet Society photos

(From the film “Dead Poet Society”)

Itzkoff points out the key to Williams’ comedic genius was in an attic in the family home in the wealthy Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills.  The Williams’ family moved around a great deal as his father advanced his career as an auto executive.  Rob, his dad was a hard man to get close to until much later in his son’s life.  From his mother Williams’ learned that connections could be made with other people if one entertained them.  As a result Williams’ would spend hours developing his own world where toy soldiers dominated and he could develop scenarios, conversations, and different voices that would appear later in his career.  His childhood loneliness would fuel an amazing imagination, as he repeatedly moved and had to attend new schools and develop new acquaintances.

The narrative is peppered with Williams’ wit, sarcasm, and social commentary.  Whether Itzkoff is describing Williams’ participation in an improvisational acting class in college, his time at Julliard, quips and riffs with others on movie sets, or even remarks as his career declined and realized his body was abandoning him, we witness a man who moved at such a fast pace that the neurons in his brain were firing so fast that it was difficult to keep up with him.  The result was a new type of improvisational humor built on role models such as Jonathan Winters and Richard Pryor.  According to Itzkoff, Williams’ true gift was not his spontaneity, but the appearance of spontaneity.

Image result for photo of Robin Williams performing

(Williams, live at the Met)

There are a number of important components to the book, one of which were the reactions of other comedians to Williams’ work and the relationships that developed.  Williams’ friendship with Billy Crystal was perhaps the most meaningful to the point where they seemed as if they were brothers by another mother.  Larry Brezner, a talent agency executive describes him best as “like Holden Caulfield, a guy walking around with all of his nerve endings completely exposed.”  Perhaps the most moving aspect of Itzkoff’s work is his chronological development of Williams’ family life from his relationship and marriage to Valerie Velardi, his second marriage to Marsha Garce, to his final wife Susan Schneider, as well as his children, particularly his son Zak, and daughter Zelda.  Williams’ was addicted to comedy and it was his aphrodisiac, but like all addictive personalities, drugs and alcohol are temptations that seem to capture people.  Williams was no exception and ultimately he went into rehab, which cost him his second marriage, and later in life he would lapse again.  The poignant way Itzkoff presents this aspect of Williams’ life is more important and incisive than the movement from one film to another that encapsulates the comedian’s career.

Perhaps the most moving section of the book deals with Christopher Reeves, Williams’ friend since their time at Julliard who would suffer a devastating accident resulting in paralysis.  Williams’ cared for his friend for years on a face to face level as well as financially when medical costs seemed to spiral out of control.  The softness of Williams’ personality and gift is seen in the number of USO tours and shows between 9/11 and 2010 as he traveled to Afghanistan numerous times to engage the troops, people who he believed he owed a heartfelt debt towards for their bravery and sacrifice.

Image result for photo of Robin Williams performing for the troops

(Williams performing for the troops in Afghanistan)

Williams’ insecurity was always present no matter the heights that his career reached.  Be it an Academy, Grammy, Emmy, or other awards he was always worried that his career was coming to an end.  When he died it was a loss for all, because no one could present his brand of humor and acting talent as he.  Itzkoff has captured Williams’ with his successes as well as his warts, and has written a wonderful portrait for all of us to enjoy.

Image result for photo of Robin Williams in Good Morning Vietnam

(From the film “Good Morning Vietnam”)

Advertisements

WAR ON PEACE: THE END OF DIPLOMACY AND THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN INFLUENCE by Ronan Farrow

Image result for photo of the state department

The advent of the Trump presidency has wreaked havoc with the traditional American approach to foreign policy that has been in place roughly for the last seventy years.  Under the leadership of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the Foreign Service has been gutted as have the careers of life long diplomats leaving the United States with a lack of qualified personnel to conduct the daily work of the State Department, an essential component for an effective foreign policy.  This is in large part due to the paucity of regional experts, professional negotiators, and has resulted in the rising lack of trust in American foreign policy worldwide.  A case in point is the current American-North Korean nuclear talks and announced summit for June 12.  One day it is on, one day it has been cancelled, a process that should be based on months of preparation seems to be evolving around the whims and/or transactional nature of President Trump’s decision making.  Another example is the American withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal, with no thoughtful policy to replace it.  The appearance of Ronan Farrow’s new book, WAR ON PEACE: THE END OF DIPLOMACY AND THE DECLINE OF AMERICAN INFLUENCE comes at an important time in US diplomatic history as our reputation keeps declining worldwide due to the machinations of the Trump administration.  Farrow’s thesis is an important one as he argues that the decline in State Department influence and the diplomatic community in general did not begin with Trump, but has evolved over the last two decades and it is a bipartisan problem, not to be blamed on one party.

Image result for photo of trump and tillerson

(Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump)

Farrow’s thesis is very clear in that the reduction of the role of diplomats at the State Department was underway during the tenure of Secretary of State James Baker under President George H. W. Bush, continued under Bill Clinton as the need to achieve budget savings was paramount as we refocused on domestic economic issues.  During the 1990s the international affairs budget declined by 30% employing the end of the Cold War as a means of rationalizing the closing of consulates, embassies, and rolling important autonomous agencies into the State Department.  By the time of the Islamic State twenty years later many experts in that region and subject matter were gone.  After 9/11 the State Department was short staffed by 20%.  Those who remained were undertrained and under resourced at a time we were desperate for information and expertise which were nowhere to be found.

Farrow is correct in arguing that the Trump administration brought to a new extreme a trend that had gained momentum after 9/11.  With crisis around the world the US “cast civilian dialogue to the side, replacing the tools of diplomacy with direct, tactical deals between our military and foreign forces.”  In areas that diplomats formally where at the forefront in policy implementation, now they were not invited into the “room where it happened.”  “Around the world, uniformed officers increasingly handled negotiation, economic reconstruction, and infrastructure development for which we once had a devoted body of specialists.”  The United States has changed who they bring to the table, which also affects who the other side brings to negotiate.

Image result for photo of colin powell and condi rice

(Former Secretaries of State, Colin Powell and Condi Rice)

Restaffing under Secretary of State Colin Powell during George W. Bush’s presidency saw the repackaging of traditional State Department programs under the umbrella of “Overseas Contingency Operations” and counter terrorism.  Since 2001 the State Department has ceded a great deal of its authority to the Defense Department whose budget skyrocketed, while the budget at State declined.  As a result diplomats slipped into the periphery of the policy process especially in dealing with Iraq as Powell and his minions at State were squeezed to the sidelines by Vice President Dick Cheney who ran his own parallel National Security Council.  Interestingly, the process would continue under President Obama who liked to “micromanage” large swaths of American foreign policy.  Obama also favored military men as appointees, i.e.; Generals Jim Jones, David Petraeus, James Clapper, Douglas Lute to name a few.

Farrow’s book is an in depth discussion of how US foreign policy has been militarized over the last twenty years.  He discusses how this situation evolved, who the major players were and how they influenced policy.  Further, he explores how it has effected US foreign policy in the past, currently, and its outlook for the future, particularly when Washington leaves behind the capacity for diplomatic solutions as it confronts the complexities of settling the world’s problems.

Farrows is a wonderful story teller who draws on his own government experience and his ability to gain access to major policy makers – a case in point was his ability to interview every living Secretary of State including Rex Tillerson.  At the core of Farrows narrative is the time he spent with Richard Holbrooke who brokered the Dayton Accords to end the fighting in the Balkans in the 1990s, and was a special representative working on Afghanistan and Pakistan under President Obama.  Holbrooke was a driven man with an out sized ego but had a history of getting things done.  From his early career in Vietnam through his work at State with Hillary Clinton, who held the job he coveted.  Holbrooke saw many parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan.  First, we were defeated by a country adjacent to the conflict.  Secondly, we relied on a partner that was corrupt.  Lastly, we embraced a failed counterinsurgency policy at the behest of the military.  These are the types of views that at times made Holbrooke a pariah in government, but also a man with expertise and experience that was sorely needed.  His greatest problem that many historians have pointed out is that he was not very likeable.

Image result for john kerry and Iranian negotiations photo

(Nuclear talks with Iran)

During the Obama administration Holbrooke butted heads with most members of the National Security Council and the major figures at the Pentagon.  He worked assiduously to bring about negotiations with the Taliban to end the war in Afghanistan.  No matter how hard he tried he ran into a brick wall within the Obama administration.  Secretary of State Clinton would finally come around, but the military refused to partake, and lastly his biggest problem was that President Obama saw him as a relic of the past and just did not like him.

An important aspect of the book is devoted to the deterioration of American-Pakistani relations, particularly after the capture and killing of Osama Bin-Laden and the episode involving CIA operative Raymond Davis.  The lack of trust between the two governments was baked in to policy, but events in 2011 took them to a new level.  Farrow’s monograph makes for an excellent companion volume to that of Steve Coll’s recent DIRECTORATE S which is an in depth study of our relationship with Pakistan concentrating on the ISI.  Like Coll, Farrow hits the nail right on the head in that Pakistan reflected the difficulties of leaning on a military junta, which had no strategic alignment with the United States, particularly because of India.

Once Trump took over the “fears of militarization” Holbrooke had worried over had come to pass on a scale he could never have imagined.  Trump concentrated more power in the Pentagon, granting nearly total authority in areas of policy once orchestrated across multiple agencies.  The military made troops deployment decisions, they had the power to conduct raids, and set troop levels.  Diplomats were excluded from decision making in Afghanistan as 10 of 25 NSC positions were held by current or retired military officials, i.e., White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly; Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis; until recently National Security advisor H.R. McMaster among a number of other former or serving military in his cabinet.  However, one member of Trump’s military cadre is dead on, as Secretary of Defense Mattis has pointed out that “if you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”

Farrow zeroes in on US, Syria, Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, and policies toward Egypt and Columbia to support his thesis.  The US had a nasty policy of allying with warlords and dictators in these regions and negotiations were left to the military and the CIA.  Obama’s approach was simple; conduct proxy wars, he described our foreign military or militia allies as our partners who were doing the bidding of the United States.  Yemenis and Pakistanis could do our work, why send our own sons and daughters to do it was his mantra.  The Trump administration has continued this policy and closed the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan and has left the position of Assistant Secretary for Southern and Central Asia vacant – makes it difficult to engage in diplomacy/negotiations.  As in Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance and other warlord groups, the US approach in Somalia was similar.  First, we “contracted” the Ethiopian military in Eritrea to invade Somalia and allied with a number of warlords.  In both cases, military and intelligence solutions played out, but the US actively sabotaged opportunities for diplomacy and it resulted in a destabilizing effect “continents and cultures away.”  One wonders if American policy contributed to the growth of al-Shabaab in the region – for Farrow the answer is very clear.

Image result for photo of kim jong un

(North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un)

Farrow accurately lays out a vicious cycle; “American leadership no longer valued diplomats, which led to the kind of cuts that made diplomats less valuable.  Rinse, repeat.”  Farrow’s thesis is accurate, but at times perhaps overstated as in most administrations there are diplomatic successes (at this time we are waiting for North Korean negotiations – which all of a sudden has gone from a demand for total denuclearization to a getting to know you get together); Obama’s Iran Nuclear deal, Paris climate deal, opening relations with Cuba are all successes, despite Trump’s mission to destroy any accomplishments by the former president.  Farrow’s book is a warning that new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo should take to heart, if not all future negotiations will rest with people who have not studied the cultures and societies of the countries they would be dealing with.  Dean Acheson wrote PRESENT AT CREATION detailing his diplomatic career and the important events following World War II, I wonder what a diplomat might entitle a memoir looking back decades from now as to what is occurring.

Image result for photo of the state department

 

FROM COLD WAR TO HOT PEACE by Michael McFaul

Image result for photos of obama and putin together

(Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama)

Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has chosen a crucial moment in our relationship with Moscow to write his part memoir, narrative history, and analysis of what has transpired over the last twenty-five years between the United States and Russia.  Today, it appears that relations between the two countries deteriorates each day as Russian President Vladimir Putin pursues his agenda, and President Donald Trump does nothing about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.  However, McFaul argues in his new book, FROM COLD WAR TO HOT PEACE that by 2010 it appeared that American-Russian relations were improving as Presidents Barack Obama and Dimitri Medvedev had reached an important accord dealing with the reduction of nuclear weapons.  This optimism came to a quick close as Putin returned to the presidency after four years as Prime Minister.  The question must be raised – why did relations between Russia and the United States reach the depths of the Cold War seemingly overnight?

According to McFaul, the answer seems to lie in the reassertion of Russian power fostered by a new ideological conflict with the United States, one in which Putin’s autocratic government, “champions a new set of populist, nationalist, and conservative ideas antithetical to the liberal, international order anchored by the United States.”  This order is in decline as Russian military, economic, cyber, and informational capabilities have expanded.  Proxy wars in the Ukraine and Syria, and Russia’s audacious intervention into the 2016 election have created a situation that is not as dangerous as the worst moments of the Cold War, but certainly just as tense or more so.

Image result for photos of obama and putin together

(picture captures well the Obama-Putin relationship)

In trying to explain this massive shift in US-Russian relations, McFaul is uniquely qualified to provide insights.  McFaul is a scholar of Russian history at Stanford University, in the past he worked with NGO’s that tried to create democratic institutions in Russia, he was a member of Obama’s National Security Staff, and finally was Ambassador to Russia.  McFaul’s unparalleled knowledge and experience provide the background for his important new book.

McFaul provides insights from his early career as he worked as a “community organizer” in Russia for the National Democratic Institute, an American democracy promoting institution that assisted Democratic elements in Russia going back to 1991, to his later career as Ambassador to Russia.  In between he offers an intimate portrait of the attempted evolution of Russian autocracy toward democracy, the ins and outs of developing national security policy, and the intrusive nature of being an American ambassador in Russia.  Along the way McFaul examines his personal life, how his career impacted his family, and how they adapted to constant lifestyle changes.  His portrait is a combination of his own world view, the theoretical approach of an academic, and the bureaucratic world of diplomacy.  He conveniently offers the reader an escape hatch, stating the book is written in such a way that if certain parts become boring, he suggests that one could skip certain sections and not lose the continuity of the narrative.

Image result for photos of dmitry medvedev

(Russian President Dimitri Medvedev)

McFaul offers a series of meaningful observations throughout the book. For example, as the democracy movement took hold in Russia in 1991 under Boris Yeltsin, the Bush administration supported the more conservative Gorbachev.  Gorbachev would allow the Berlin Wall to come down, withdraw Soviet troops from Afghanistan, allowed the reunification of Germany, and did not oppose Operation Desert Storm against Iraq.  Despite this, Yeltsin garnered 60% of the popular vote, and Gorbachev position become mostly honorific. Another example is McFaul’s belief that the KGB was adamant that his work with the democracy NGO was a front for the CIA and helps explain Putin’s hatred of McFaul almost twenty years later.  Further, McFaul argues that the United States did not do enough to assist the Russian economy in 1993 and by not doing so contributed to the economic collapse which was then blamed on Russian proponents of democracy.

Image result for photo of michael mcfaul obama

(President Obama and former Ambassador to Russia and author, Michael McFaul)

Once the Obama administration took office in 2009 McFaul oversaw the new policy of a “reset” with Russia as a means of improving US security and economic objectives.   With President Medvedev in power strides were made, but even as progress occurred everyone was aware that Putin was still the “power behind the Russian throne.”  Throughout the book, no matter how intense the material becomes, McFaul does attempt to lighten the mood with humor and how his family was faring.  McFaul describes the almost tortuous detail that went into the preparation of American foreign policy, an approach that does not contrast well with President Trump’s “fly by the seat of his pants” approach.  Obama’s goal was to cooperate with Russia on issues of mutual interest, without downplaying our differences, a fine line to walk particularly after Russia invaded Georgia.

McFaul was always “in the room where it happened” in all the meetings between Obama and Medvedev, and later with Putin.  He was the “note taker” – the memorandum of conversation in all meetings and is a prime source that witnessed the collapse in relations.  Once Putin resumed the Presidency the contempt between him and Obama was readily apparent.  After Obama’s first meeting with Putin it was quite clear the “reset” with Russia was at an end.  Despite the downturn in relations Putin did go along with sanctions against Iran and UN action against Kaddafi in Libya.  But this cooperation was short lived when Kaddafi was captured and executed.  According to McFaul, the overthrow of Kaddafi was too much for Putin who argued he supported UN action to save the people of Benghazi, not regime change.

Image result for photo of russian troops in east ukraine

(Russian troops in eastern Ukraine)

Perhaps McFaul’s most important chapter is “Putin Needs an Enemy-America, Obama, and Me.”  The chapter offers the underpinning of Putin’s disdain for McFaul and the United States in general under Obama.  This disdain would foster Russian actions during the 2016 presidential election as Putin hoped to elect Donald Trump who would then alleviate Obama’s economic sanctions against Russia.  Putin’s hatred of McFaul was unprecedented in that it led to overt harassment, sometimes becoming physical, a media campaign against him personally to disparage everything about him including his sexuality, and being followed and spied upon constantly.  McFaul’s overall theme rests on the idea that American policymakers hoped that Putin’s anti-Americanism would recede after the 2012 Russian elections.  Surprisingly it did not as there was a strategic shift in the Kremlin’s orientation.  It was launched in response to Obama’s actions, his belief that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was responsible for demonstrations against his rule, but more importantly, to increase his personal popularity as a means of weakening his western oriented opponents.

For Putin, the United States was an enemy, not a partner, he saw Washington as a promotor of regime change everywhere, including Russia, and he blamed the United States for everything bad in the US and Russia.  McFaul’s insights seem dead on as we watch Putin’s support for Bashir Assad in Syria, and the regime in Teheran.  For Putin any regime change of an autocratic leader is a direct threat to him.  The United States continued to try and maintain some semblance of the “reset” as McFaul recounts, but this policy was doomed because of Putin’s hardened attitude.

Image result for photo of russian plane over syria

(Russian bombers deployed over Syria)

McFaul spends a great deal of time on the Syrian quagmire that rages on to this day.  McFaul criticizes the Obama administration for not pushing harder for Assad’s ouster in 2011.  We could have armed the moderate opposition in a serious way just as soon as the political standoff turned violent. Obama’s refusal to enforce the red line over chemical weapons made the US look weak and the president allowed himself to be played by Putin who supposedly got Assad to get rid of 98% of his chemical weapons.  We seemed to have overestimated Putin’s influence over Assad, however, for Moscow, Chechnya was the model where Putin supported Ramzan Kadyrov’s brutal tactics in order to remain in power.  We continue to witness this approach in Syria on a daily basis.

Image result for photo of putin and assad

(Syrian President Bashir Assad and Vladimir Putin)

According to McFaul, thirty years of improved Russian-American relations ended in 2010 in part because of balance of power politics, American actions, some of which were in error, and Russia’s inability to consolidate democracy, integrate itself into the west, and reorient its own domestic politics.  No matter the cause of the end of the “reset,” we must deal with the offshoot of that policy in the Ukraine, Syria, and Russian-Iranian relations.  McFaul left Moscow with a feeling of incompleteness as his life’s goal of improving relations had to be put on hold, and it interesting that McFaul left Russia at the same time Putin annexed Crimea and moved into eastern Ukraine.

McFaul’s monograph is an important contribution to the plethora of material that has tried to explain US-Russian relations over the past three decades.  McFaul’s approach is clear, scholarly, and personal and should answer the questions surrounding the down turn in US-Russian relations that began in 2010, and the implications of the Trump presidency as we try and cope with Putin’s continued aggressiveness against American domestic and foreign interests.

Image result for photos of obama and putin together

THE EMPEROR’S TOMB by Steve Berry

Image result for images of terra cotta soldiers

(Terracotta Warrior Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di)

Steve Berry’s sixth novel in his remarkable Cotton Malone series, THE EMPEROR’S TOMB has tremendous resonance in today’s geopolitical world.  For example, Chinese leader XI JinPing recently had his presidency extended for life.  Second, is the US, China, and Russian competition for energy resources and control of new land masses.  Third, the world geostrategic balance is being reoriented through the use of new technologies.  All of these contemporary issues are played out throughout Berry’s novel that opens with Malone, the former US Justice Department Special Agent for the Magellen Billet receiving a computer message from longtime ally, and possible romantic interest Cassiopeia Vitt, that she is in dire trouble and needs his help.  Since in the past she has rescued him, for Malone it was an easy decision to leave his retirement occupation as bookstore owner in Copenhagen to fly off and help her in Belgium and China.

Berry weaves an interesting web whereby Vitt has been asked by a Russian geochemist who lives in China, Lev Sokolov for assistance as his four year old son has been kidnapped.  Sokolov had left Russia years before against the wishes of Moscow to marry a Chinese national.  Sokolov fears his son has been stolen because of China’s one child policy as males are in such demand.  As you will see this is not the reason for the kidnapping, and Vitt immediately becomes involved in a Chinese plot to secure energy independence, and Beijing’s role in the world.  It seems that Sokolov was an expert in abiotic oil- oil that is not a fossil fuel but emanates from deep in the ground and as the ability to regenerate itself, making its supply infinite- “a primordial material the earth forms and excretes on a continual basis.”

Berry creates a number of fascinating characters to carry out his plot as he integrates Chinese history and philosophy to educate his reader.  Karl Tang is the Chinese Minister of Science and Technology and First Vice President of the People’s Republic of China, and second in power to the president.  Tang believes in the ancient authoritarian legalist philosophy pursued by Chinese Emperors for centuries and reinstituted by Mao Zedong.  Tang believes that any further Chinese democratization is against its cultural past.  Tang’s competition to succeed the aging Chinese president is Ni Yong who heads the Central Commission for Discipline of the People’s Republic.  Ni is a practitioner of Confucian values and is the antithesis of Tang when it comes to the exercise of power domestically and abroad.  Another interesting creation is Pau Wen, a rich Chinese emigre who left China, and was the former advisor to Mao, now living in Belgium.  It appears Wen is a leading member of the Brotherhood of the Ba, an organization of powerful eunuchs, who have historically influenced Chinese government policy through advice to the Emperor, a movement that seems allied with Tang.  For the United States the evolution of this power struggle is extremely important because should China gain total energy independence through abiotic oil, and Tang assumes the Chinese presidency, it would pursue an increasingly aggressive foreign policy.

Image result for image of mao zedong

(Mao Zedong)

The issue of achieving unfettered access to energy sources is a key to Tang’s realpolitik as it is today in China. China imports 60% of its oil from Africa, Latin America, and Russia as a means of avoiding becoming dependent on Mideast oil which is such a volatile source.  To this point China has survived by trading technology and financial aid to corrupted regimes to secure its energy needs.  If they were able to achieve energy self-sufficiency, Tang would press domination in the South China Sea, seize Taiwan and possibly Korea, and expand influence throughout South East Asia.  A key component to the plotline is the role of the tombs that house the Terra Cotta warriors in Shaanxi, China.  It seems that all the major characters have an interest in exploring a newly discovered area of the tomb and what may lay hidden could be the key to the future world balance of power.

Berry’s periodic summary of Chinese history is extremely important to the overall story providing context for events.  Berry has the ability to weave aspects of Chinese philosophy and technological advancement, i.e., discovery of salt, drilling techniques, oil, natural gas from previous centuries and how they impact events in the novel.  Berry’s mantra as in all of his books is to blend real historical events and discoveries with a counterfactual plot that approaches contemporary realism, this mantra is firmly met in THE EMPEROR’S TOMB.  As in all of his “Malone” novels, Berry offers a historical essay at the conclusion of the novel depicting what is actual history, and what is fiction in the author’s presentation – a valuable asset for the reader.

Image result for image of confucius

(Confucius)

Other characters who emerge important are Viktor Thomas, a Russian operative who seems to work for all sides in the novel at one time or another.  Ivan, a Russian agent, bent on stopping China’s power play, Jin Zhao, a geochemist who knew too much about abiotic oil and Tang’s plans.  Stephanie Nell, Malone’s old boss at the Magellen Billet appears throughout the plot as do Malone’s many skills that he nurtured throughout his career.  Malone is very distrustful of most individuals in the novel who all seem to have their own agendas which usually do not correspond with his.  What is different about this current rendition of the Malone saga is that there is a vocalization of his relationship with Vitt as each come to realize the importance of their feelings for each other.

THE EMPEROR’S TOMB contains the usual suspense, country hopping, historical education for the reader, strong plot development, and interesting characters that one comes to expect from a Berry novel.  At times the dialogue and background can become a bit long winded, but overall Berry has another success on his hand. If you are interested in continuing with the Malone saga, the next book in the series is the JEFFERSON KEY.

Image result for images of terra cotta soldiers

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL by Kent Anderson

Image result for photo of airborne vietnam

The Vietnam War which ended close to forty-four years ago seems to recede further and further into our collective memory as time moves on.  Over time this movement has been slowed by the appearance of numerous novels that depict the horrors of the war and its tortuous effect on those who fought in southeast Asia, and the civilians who suffered and died.  The best of these novels, many of which were written by former soldiers include; Philip Caputo’s A RUMOR OF WAR, Stephen Wright’s MEDITATIONS IN GREEN, Tim O’Brien’s THE THINGS THEY CARRIED, and more recently, Karl Marlantes’ MATTERHORN.  All of these works depict the insanity of war and the outright lies associated with America’s experience in Vietnam.  In considering this genre, Kent Anderson’s SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL should be added to the list as it witnesses the cruelty, duplicity, and disgust that soldiers experienced when they were supposedly fighting a war in defense of American national security.

From the outset, Anderson’s novel depicts the hypocrisy of the war as American troops get ready for a surprise presidential visit.  Further, he describes how American troops cross over into Laos to conduct a bomb assessment, a euphemism for a body count  after illegal B-52 strikes in a foreign country.  Anderson tells his story through the eyes of SGT Hanson, who enlisted in the army after three years of college, volunteered for Special Forces, completed a tour of duty in Vietnam, and then reenlisted for another tour when he could not readapt to civilian life.  Hanson is a fascinating character as he becomes a hardened combat veteran he continues to carry a book of Yeats’ poetry with him as he engages the enemy.

Image result for photo of airborne vietnam

(173rd Airborne)

The first quarter of the book introduces Hanson and his buddies and how they viewed their experience in Vietnam.  Anderson’s characters include, Hanson, the main protagonist; Quinn his buddy on both tours, a mean and violent individual who excels at gathering souvenirs from enemy bodies; Kitteridge, a senior supply NCO who built a profitable empire reallocating equipment away from their assigned destinations; Silver, a short and wiry individual who spoke fast and walked with a slight limp; Mr. Minh, a Montagnard tribal leader who studies of katha allowed him to make predictions that usually proved to be true; Lieutenant Andre, Hanson’s first field commander who enlisted while in law school; Warrant Officer Gierson, a pompous man from Texas who loved to hear his own voice, and lastly, the crazy SGT-MAJOR, who Hanson looked up to as a father figure and taught him how to stay alive.

One of the most important aspects of the book are Anderson’s observations about the war that comes across through the dialogue between characters.  One of the most haunting is how in America one witnesses children crying all the time, while in Vietnam, children never shed tears no matter how much horror they experience.  Another is how the Vietnamese try to Americanize themselves in order to please GIs and make a profit-by altering the looks of women making them appear more westernized, the type of music they choose, and the language they expressed. When GIs returned to the United States they were spat upon, cursed, and in general treated quite poorly, particularly Hanson who could not deal with this type of reception and decided he felt more comfortable and accepted in Vietnam.  What is very unsettling is the way Americans viewed their Vietnamese counterparts.  For men like Quinn, they were lazy and to be despised.  It reached the point that Americans only relied on themselves as they did not trust their Vietnamese allies to fight.  Further, they were aware of the hatred between the Montagnard tribesmen and the Vietnamese but saw the tribesmen as individuals who could be relied upon and they became true allies that could be trusted.

Image result for photo of airborne vietnam

An interesting aspect is the realization by American troops, Hanson, Quinn, and Silver in particular how it soon became clear that inflicting and overcoming pain, and the possession and disbursement of power were the keys to survival.  As Hanson experienced the war the real world made less and less sense to him, and the world of combat elevated his comfort level as he developed what he saw as a skill – the ability to kill, which reflected power.

Image result for pictures of green berets in Vietnam

The issue of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is front and center in the novel.  Even before Hanson arrives in the US after his first tour there is evidence of PTSD as he hides a Russian pistol he had taken off an NVA body.  His rationalization is that for “eighteen months he never went anywhere without a weapon, he was not going to start now.”  Hanson comes to realize that he is always angry and makes one wonder if it is the war that “pisses him off” or is it something deeper.  Once Hanson’s emotional state is laid bare Anderson returns to why Hanson enlisted in the first place and what it was it like to join the military.  The author’s discussion of induction and basic training is standard US Army harassment, humiliation, and demeaning of people for fresh troops to lose their individual identity and become more of a unit. Anyone who has experienced this preparation for combat will not be surprised or possibly disturbed by what they read.  It still seems that all drill instructors must have gone to the same school of language and psychological training that still rings in my ears almost fifty years later.  The racism, hatred and lack of empathy are standard practice and drove one GI to try and commit suicide, but for Hanson it created a mindset on how he would survive.  He decided that he did not want to go to war with bullies, sadists, and cowards.  As a result, he underwent training for the Green Berets and extended his tour.

Image result for pictures of green berets in Vietnam

Anderson’s novel presents a remarkable destruction of a person’s sense of self.  Hanson seemed to be a somewhat adjusted individual when he left college and joined the army.  As his military training and experiences evolved his personality began to deteriorate as he succumbs to the evil he witnessed, and his more empathetic traits receded into the background.  As Lt. Andre had stated the war held “no mistrials, no court of appeals, things are final.”  For Hanson his return to Vietnam for his second tour after his negative experience back home became his security blanket and it was reflected by his actions and comments.

The final episode Hanson experiences in Vietnam is right out of the films, Platoon and Apocalypse Now, reflecting the outright absurdity of war, and the callous way it was approached by the United States.  If that was Anderson’s message to his audience, he effectively transmits it.  The novel is a gripping look at Vietnam, its effect on those who fought it, and is a remarkable addition to those books that have come before it that have similar themes.

Image result for photo of airborne vietnam

A LITTLE WHITE DEATH by John Lawton

Image result for 1963 London Photos
(London, 1963…Rolling Stones)

The 1960s witnesses a social and sexual revolution throughout the western world.  England was no exception with the Profumo-Keeler Affair that eventually brought down Harold MacMillan’s Conservative Party and led to the Labour government’s rise to power in 1964.  The sexual revolution and the remnants of the Cuban Missile Crisis form the background of John Lawton’s novel A LITTLE WHITE DEATH.  The story is the third iteration of his Inspector Troy series set in New York, Moscow, but mostly London.  At the outset the reader is drawn to a Manhattan street where Clarissa, a pseudonym for Tosca, or whatever name she chose at the time, who was also the recent spouse of Inspector Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard.  Tosca meets Dr. Patrick Fitzgerald, and after a conversation about medical treatment for the American president she asks him to convey a letter to her husband who she has not seen for three years.

Inspector Troy has suffered through a rough patch in the novel.  He is exposed to sexual mores that he has never experienced before.  He must deal with his close friend and possible member of the Cambridge Five spy ring, Charles Leigh-Hunt, the suicide of his physician and the niece of his former boss and mentor, Stanley Onions, and cope with a medical leave that was caused by a bout with tuberculosis.

Image result for 1963 London Photos

(October 3, 1963, the Beatles in London)

immediately reintroduces Rod Troy, Frederick’s brother, and spokesman for the opposition Labour Party, as they continue to muse over the life of their father who had been a revolutionary in early twentieth century Russia but came to America in 1910 and left them a fortune upon his death.  They always wondered if he was a spy or a legitimate businessman.  Each would receive a telegram, Rod would be summoned to London as Hugh Gaitskell, ticketed to be the next Prime Minister is near death.  Troy receives a missive from Leigh-Hunt who he had not heard from since 1956 to meet him in Beirut.

Lawton offers a realistic portrayal of Beirut in a very pleasant manner.  He describes its history, political factions, and the tenuous nature of its government.  The author continues his habit of presenting literary references as he has in other novels with the mention of Hemingway, Graves, Greene, and especially Tolstoy who had a relationship with Troy’s grandfather and father.  Troy will meet Said Hussein in Beirut who will bring Troy up to snuff about his former “colleague” and possible spy and provide the airline tickets to travel to Moscow.  Troy would become the first member of his family to return to Moscow in 58 years.  Troy soon learns that Leigh-Hunt has been contacted by Tim Woodbridge, MP, Minister of State, and second in command at the Foreign Office informing him that after seven years the body of a Special Branch officer, Troy had killed in 1957 had turned up.  The British government wants Leigh-Hunt to return to England for the first time since the murder.  At the same time these conversations were occurring, both gentlemen were being surveilled by the KGB, even as Troy visited Tolstoy’s home.

July 22, 1963 Christine Keeler, a principal witnesses in the vice charges case against osteopath Dr. Stephen Ward.
(Christine Keeler)

The second plot centers on a “sexual procurement trial” in London involving Troy’s doctor, Patrick Fitzgerald and MP Time Wooldridge.  It seems that Fitzpatrick known as “Fitz” had a “den of iniquity” at his Uphill Manor in Sussex where woman below and above the legal age of sixteen engaged in orgies and other types of amusements with Fitz’s friends.  Even Troy visited at one time, which would come back to haunt him later on.  Lawton expounds on the wonders of the English social revolution through the dialogue between Troy and Leigh-Hunt.  It seems that they believed that World War II had bound society together with shared values, but by 1963 those values were fast changing.  The author focuses on the drugs and sex that are beginning to permeate English society as is reflected at Fitz’s Uphill Manor.  Woodbridge was not the only important figure to visit Uphill.  It seemed that Anton Tereshkov, who Troy remembered as Khrushchev’s “man” during his 1956 visit to London, was a constant visitor and with Troy’s visit to Moscow, the Scotland Yard inspector grew concerned.

Lawton introduces several interesting characters both real and fictitious.  The writer, Rebecca West appears and engages Troy in a wonderful conversation, as does Sir Harold Wilson and several historical figures.  As to the fictitious ones, Alex Troy, Frederick Troy’s nephew, a reporter for the family owned Sunday Post, the Fifitch sisters, Caro and Tara, residents of Uphill Manor, and keys to the prosecution court case; Clover Browne, a.k.a. Jackie, Stan Onions daughter; Moira Twelvetress, a prostitute who engages the prosecuting attorney at trial in a wonderful argument concerning the correct definition of prostitution, and a number of others.

Image result for pictures of john profumo
(John Profumo, Conservative politician and British War Minister)

Troy soon learns that he is being placed on medical leave by his doctor and is placed in a TB sanitorium.  Troy’s disease allows Lawton to contemplate the English health system and its relation to politics.  It would have been heresy for the brother of the number two man in the Foreign Office to be treated in a private facility, hence Troy was committed to a state institution.  Inside, Troy describes medical care and how it reflects the British social class system.

As British tabloids zone in on events at Uphill and the salacious trial of Woodbridge and Fitzgerald, Troy develops a moral conundrum as he had witnessed the mores on display at Uphill, and he wondered if he was out of place, or whether he really wanted to participate.  Lawton presents a trial transcript which is funny, demeaning, and sad all at the same time as the different characters are called to testify.  The prosecution must prove that the women at Uphill were prostitutes and paying off Fitz which leads to a fascinating array of examination and cross examination at the trial.  This along with the incompetence of Inspector Percy Flood of the Scotland Yard Vice Squad makes for an interesting investigation.  Lawton’s dialogue makes one wonder if the trial represented “the new England” putting the old on trial since it appeared a social revolution was in the making, or perhaps “old England” was putting the new on trial.

One of the women involved cannot be located and it is feared she was underage when she lived at Uphill.  As the trial ends it appears that a double suicide has taken place.  On the same day, Fitz, and the women who could not be located by the police commit what appears to be suicide.  For Troy, who convinced his life long friend and medical examiner, Dr. Ladislaw Gronkiewicz to declare him fit to return to work after four months in order for the cases be  to explored further.  Troy was not convinced that the deaths were suicides and he feared his Scotland Yard replacement would not investigate the cases, particularly when one of the victims was Stanley Onions’ granddaughter.  This launches Troy on dangerous journey to locate the killer or killers.  Where the culprits from inside Scotland Yard, MI5, or politicians who held grudges.  To learn who was responsible Troy relies on his masterful use of deductive logic and his refusal to trust those that others might think highly of.  At times difficult to follow the logic that Troy employs but by the end of the book the reader and Troy will be on the same page.

The question in my mind as I read on was how did Leigh-Hunt’s situation, the murder/suicides, and other aspects of the plot fit together.  Rest assured that they all do in true “Lawton” style.  The book itself is advertised as a spy and murder thriller, but in this case, though true, it is also a social commentary on early 1960s England and is enlightening for those who have forgotten what that period in English history was like.  For Troy, once the murders were solved, with British politics in an uproar, he had to deal with several suppressed emotions and move on with his life, a decision whose light of day must wait as Lawton’s next book, RIPTIDE (also known as BLUFFING MR. CHURCHILL) is a prequel to the Inspector Troy series.

Image result for 1963 London Photos
 (London, circa 1963)

OLD FLAMES by John Lawton

Image result for photo of london 1956
(Piccadilly Circus, London, 1956)

The year is 1956 and the Cold War is in full bloom when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visits England in an attempt to show the “softer” side of the Russian regime three years following Stalin’s death.  London is still recovering from the damage caused by German bombing from World War II and the Suez Crisis permeates the background of British politics.  This is the setting of John Lawton’s novel, OLD FLAMES, the second iteration of his Inspector Frederick Troy of Scotland Yard Series.  The novel opens with the escape of a female spy from Moscow, with the interesting name of “Major.”  She disappears from the story until midway through the plot when she reemerges in a very powerful manner.

Lawton’s protagonist is called to return from a three-week vacation and report to his London office.  It seems two members of the Special Branch have been killed in an automobile accident and Troy’s talents are needed to become part of the security detail for the upcoming visit of Marshal Nikolai Bulganin and Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev to London.  Troy has been chosen in part because of his Russian language skills, and his spy craft.  A number of fascinating characters appear throughout the novel.  Historical figures such as Prime Minister Anthony Eden, Winston Churchill, Gamal Abdul Nasser, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Cambridge Five, a number of other British officials, in addition to the aforementioned Russian leaders.  Lawton creates a series of fictional characters who carry the plot; Rodyon Troy, Frederick Troy’s brother who is the “shadow foreign minister” and member of the British Labour Party, Frederick’s sisters Masha and Sasha, Nikolai Troisty, Frederick’s uncle, Arnold Cockerell, furniture salesman or spy, Masha’s husband, Lawrence, the owner of the Sunday Post, Angus Pakenham, an accountant who was a RAF war hero who lost his leg trying to escape from Colditz, Inspector Norman Cobb of the Special Branch, a man most cannot tolerate,  most importantly, Larissa Dimitrovna Tosca, KGB, Fredrick’s former lover, spouse, among many identities.

Image result for photo of nikita khrushchev
(Soviet First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev)

Lawton provides a view of recent Russian history through the perceptive eyes of Frederick Troy (Troy).  Troy reminisces about his Russian roots as he traces the rise of Khrushchev’s rise to power as rumors abound concerning a speech that may have denounced Stalin.  Lawton’s command of history is top drawer as is exemplified by his commentary concerning Eden’s rise to 10 Downing Street, a position he trained for and was heir apparent for years until Churchill finally let loose of the reins.

The author’s command of Cold War jargon ie; the bomb is accurate as his description of Khrushchev’s uncouth behavior and folksy peasant persona.  The pompousness of British officials is unmistakable as Russian leaders are ferried around London. The accuracy is on further display with the description of the Russian First Secretary’s speech at a state dinner bringing up standard complaints relating to 1919, 1930s appeasement, and facing Hitler by themselves.  The British response is fairly even handed, but it will enrage the Soviet leader who storms out of the dinner setting a remarkable interchange between Khrushchev and Troy.  After leaving the dinner Troy will comply with the First Secretary’s request with an unofficial tour of London.  They will visit the underground, a number of pubs, and many sites.  It is a fascinating display of historical dialogue that is one of the most important components of the book as Lawton applies his expertise of artistic license and counter factual history.  Lawton’s portrayal of Khrushchev is rather sympathetic in light of his previous history dealing with collectivization under Stalin in the Ukraine and other crimes.  The Russian leader will conclude that the British people are somewhat “boring.”

Image result for photo of anthony eden
(British Prime Minister, Anthony Eden)

Troy’s own Russian background is explored in detail particularly the role of his father, a former Menshevik, who arrived in London in 1910 and purchased the Hertfordshire mansion, and left his family a significant amount of wealth after he died in 1943.  A major question for the Troy family is what role their father played in Russia and was he loyal to his new country or did he spy against England during World War II.

Lawton conveys the plight of the British people in the post war years very accurately throughout the book.  Repeated references to the German “blitz” in 1940 and the carnage to historical sites highlight the damage that remains in the mid-1950s in addition to the lack of food staples for the general population.  The problems of English “workman” are described in detail and the political debate between Conservative and Labour Party members over their plight is an ongoing theme.  As Lawton conveys his story his repeated references to film and literature are a wonderful addition.

There are a number of plot lines that swirl throughout the book that center on the role of Nikolai Troisty, Troy’s father’s younger brother who emigrated from Russia also in 1910 but though retired, was an expert on ships, planes, bombs, and rockets.  In addition, a British frogman died while examining the Russian ship that conveyed Russian leaders to London – what was his identity, and was he a British spy?  Where was Arnold Cockerell, who was either dead or just disappeared, or did Cockerell kill his auditor George Jessup?  What role does MI6 play in the Cockerell fiasco?   How do Russian spies and their actions influence events?  Further, the appearance of Lois Teale or perhaps her name was M/SGT Larissa Tosca, or a Russian spy named Dimitrovna who knew Troy in Berlin in 1948 and how they renewed their relationship in 1956.

Lawton’s command of history is mostly accurate as he presents Khrushchev’s February 20, 1956 speech to the 20th Communist Party Congress, known as the “Destalinization” speech that denounced the former Soviet dictator.  Lawton also discusses details of the developing Suez Crisis as it comes to a head.  In general, the author has his facts straight, but his chronology of events is a bit off. President Eisenhower had suspicions about the Sevres Agreement between England, France, and Israel, but the CIA was not certain of its applicability until the Israelis invaded at the end of September.  Eisenhower’s conversation with Rodyon before the attack is not totally supported by the documentary evidence, but the gist, especially the actions of the US Treasury Department and the American manipulation of the Conservative Party that replaced Eden with Harold MacMillan in mid-December after the British and French withdraw from Suez is accurate.

Lawton has composed an intriguing novel that reflects his amazing storytelling ability.  He tells a number of stories within the larger story and in the end, they come together in a fascinating and meaningful way. Troy is a somewhat broken man at the end of the novel, but Lawton has created a vacuum that will soon be filled.  There are eight books in the Inspector Troy series with A LITTLE WHITE DEATH the next in chronological order which has now moved up on my books to read.

Image result for photo of london 1956
(Coventry Street, London, 1956)

 

DREGS by Jorn Lier Horst

Image result for photos of Larvik, Norway

(Larvik, Norway)

William Wisting’s career as a law enforcement professional who became a Chief Inspector in the Criminal Investigation Department of Lavrik Police mirrors that of DREGS author Jorn Lier Horst.  The author, one of Norway’s most experienced crime fighters introduces Wisting as he is immediately called to a crime scene at a tourist beach south of Oslo where he is confronted by a training shoe with a severed foot inside that has washed along the shore.  What is disconcerting is that it is the second left footed training shoe with a human foot inside that has appeared in a six day period.

Wisting is an interesting character who has been a widow for three years and has begun a relationship with a woman named Suzanne.  He is the father of twins one of which is his daughter, Line, a journalist who plays a significant role in the novel.  Wisting is well respected and the type of law enforcement individual, unlike some colleagues, who shuns publicity.  He is very workmanlike in his approach to crime and follows the mantra that there are no coincidences when investigating.  Other important characters that Lier Horst develops include; Espen Mortensen, a young crime technician, Ebbe Slettaker, an oceanologist, Nils Hammer, the leader of the Narcotics Division, Torunn Borg, a female colleague, and Audun Vetti, the Assistant Chief of Police, an arrogant careerist who has difficulty making critical decisions.

Image result for photos of Larvik, Norway

Wisting and his colleagues are at a loss after examining missing person’s files from the previous year.  They have come up with a series of names, that at the outset lead nowhere, but after pursuing further examination there appear to be some interesting coincidences.  Torkel Lauritzen, a widower who suffered from the effects of a stroke had resided at the Stavern Nursing Home.  Otto Saga, a former Air Force officer who suffered from dementia also lived at the Stavern Nursing Home.  Sverre Lund, an old school teacher went missing after leaving his home, and Hanne Richter, a nursery teacher, and a diagnosed schizoid paranoiac has disappeared.

Lier Horst twists the plot by having Wisting’s journalist daughter, Line on an assignment that brings her to interview murderers who have served their time in prison.  Her goal is to investigate the impact of punishment on homicidal killers, believing that a milder use of coercion by the state could contribute to a more humane society.  Line’s second interview subject is Ken Ronny Hague who had killed a policeman in 1991.  The victim was the same age and an acquaintance of her father which brought back memories from when Line was eight years old.  When she learned of the case her father was dealing with, her boss informed her that her newspaper was sending a team to Lavrik to cover the missing “feet” story.

Related image

Lier Horst deftly works the poor care at the Stavern Nursing Home into the plot as patients and then a care giver from the home go missing.  Wisting grows very frustrated with the lack of progress in the investigation as “everything seemed so meaningless and improbable,” particularly as two more left footed training shoes with human feet float ashore.  A major break takes place when Hannah Richter tells Wisting she believes it was her sister that is one of the missing.  For Wisting the coincidences seemed to build as the house in which Hanne Richter lived before her disappearance was owned by Christian Hague, but he died three weeks before she disappeared.  Interestingly, his heir was his grandson, Ken Ronny Hague, the convicted cop killer who was interviewed by Wisting’s daughter.  What the reader is left with is the beginning of the unraveling of the spider’s web that the author has created.

It seemed that all the presumed dead or missing people knew each other.  They may have formed their own intelligence unit that feared for a Soviet invasion of Norway in 1970.  Wisting comes across a photo of five men, but only four of which can be identified.  After showing the photo to his father, Wisting learns the identity of the fifth man, Carsten Meyer, who had worked at the Norwegian Defense Department Research Institute.  From this point on it seems that the crime investigation should come together, but it does not and Wisting becomes even more frustrated as bodies, minus their left foot are uncovered by a mini-submarine employed by the police after the calculations of Ebbe Slettaker.

Lier Horst’s conclusion is somewhat predictable, but there is an element of surprise, particularly in the role played by Line.  Wisting is a practitioner of deductive logic and in the end he will figure it out.  Despite the plethora of bodies, the author keeps the bloodshed to a minimum, unlike many other practitioners of this genre.  Lier Horst has had a number of his novels translated into English, the next being CLOSED FOR WINTER.  If you enjoyed DREGS, you should try the next in the series, for me I have yet to decide.

Image result for photos of Larvik, Norway

(Larvik, Norway)

THE MARSHALL PLAN: DAWN OF THE COLD WAR by Benn Steil

Image result for photo of George C Marshall and Harry Truman

(President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall)

At a time when the President of the United States disparages the European Union and NATO, it is important to remember the role the Atlantic Alliance has played since the end of World War II.  President Trump can tweet and criticize these institutions all he wants, but you skirt their importance particularly in light of the policies pursued by Vladimir Putin and his nationalistic “Russia first” policies.  Perhaps the most important policy of the United States in the post-war world, which formed the bedrock of its foreign policy toward Europe, was the Marshall Plan.  The plan was conceived by the State Department under then Secretary of State, George C. Marshall as a vehicle to promote European recovery from World War II and foster unity against the Soviet Union, as by 1946 the wartime alliance was severed.  To understand how the Marshall Plan came about and its impact, an important lesson for all to learn, one should consult Benn Steil’s new book, THE MARSHALL PLAN: DAWN OF THE COLD WAR.

The book itself does more than present the ideological give and take within the American foreign policy establishment faced with the destruction in Europe after the war as it details negotiations with European counterparts, and presents Soviet opposition to the Marshall Plan in general, especially for Eastern European countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia.  Steil’s account is the most detailed and lengthy to date as it dives deep into the postwar “German problem,” Soviet actions in Eastern Europe, and finally the Berlin Blockade, culminating with the creation of NATO.  Steil presents the benefits of “soft power” as a foreign policy tool, something the current occupant of the White House should consider.

Image result for photo of george f kennan

(Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Head of State Department Policy Planning Staff, George F. Kennan)

As Harry S. Truman assumed the presidency a new dynamic was at work in American foreign policy.  Franklin Roosevelt mostly acted as his own Secretary of State, but Truman’s approach would be different as the State Department regained influence with the presence of George C. Marshall, George F. Kennan, Dean Acheson, William Clayton, and others.  As the war came to a close Stalin had tremendous expectations for the Soviet Union.  He witnessed a United Kingdom in decline as it would stop providing aid to Greece and Turkey by 1947.  It would also see its position erode within the Commonwealth especially in India and Palestine.  As the US quickly demobilized and Germany defeated, Stalin felt there would be little opposition in spreading the “Soviet blanket” over Eastern Europe and create the “buffer zone” he had spoken about so often during the war.

By 1946 it became clear that the wartime alliance was over with disagreements at the Council of Foreign Ministers meetings in dealing with Germany, reparations and other issues.  This produced George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram,” which stressed Russia’s expansionist nature, and within a few weeks Winston Churchill made his famous “Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri.  Steil stresses that Stalin was bent on pushing the United States to see how much he could get away with.  The Soviets would push and prod over issues and territories whereby US policymakers came to see western unity and recovery as the only viable alternative to a major military commitment in Europe.

Image result for images of dean acheson

(Secretary of State Dean Acheson)

Steil offers a dramatic description of Europe’s plight in the winter of 1947.  The destruction of homes and infrastructure, compounded by freezing temperatures led to starvation, frostbite, and death.  This situation provided the major impetus for American aid to Europe as communist parties in Italy and France seemed to be a threat, in addition to the civil war in Greece and troubles in Turkey.  Exacerbating the situation was the massive movement of ethnic minorities across borders, particularly as it related to Germany and Poland.  What became clear by 1947 that some sort of economic stabilization of Europe was the key to peace.

Steil correctly points to the evolution of Dean Acheson’s thinking toward Russia as a key to developing the Marshall Plan as his wartime sympathy toward Moscow changed when confronted by Soviet demands in the Mediterranean.  Acheson would become Marshall’s Chief of Staff and an Undersecretary of State, and along with George Kennan would outline his “containment” policy in his famous “X Article” in Foreign Affairs, and the announcement of the Truman Doctrine and aid to Greece and Turkey – the American approach to Soviet machinations had changed.

Image result for photo of russian foreign minister molotov

(Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov)

The key for European recovery was that the German economy had to be strong.  The old concept of “Mitteleuropa” remained a reality and US policymakers did their best to keep reparations manageable and allow German industry to rebuild, much to Stalin’s chagrin.  Steil zeroes in on the Moscow Conference of 1946 as the beginning of the Cold War as Marshall left the meetings believing that Stalin’s goal was to leave Europe in shambles, allowing him to pick up the pieces.  Marshall would later say that the impetus for the European Recovery Program, a.k.a. Marshall Plan was a direct result of Stalin’s attitude.

Steil’s analysis mirrors some of the arguments put forth by Michael Hogan in his book, THE MARSHALL PLAN in that the recovery program was not totally one of American largess and altruism, with no agenda of its own.  If Europe did not recover, then it could not buy American products leading to a downturn in the US economy.  Further, the resulting political, social, and economic dislocation would foster a piecemeal US aid approach which would drain US resources.  Hogan, more so than Steil concluded the US would allow France to recover some of its empire i.e., Southeast Asia as a means of gaining support for the Marshall Plan as well the integration of all three German zones.  European colonies were important to their recovery so the US receded from its anti-imperialist tone fostered by Roosevelt during the war.

Image result for photo of russian foreign minister molotov

(Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov and Joseph Stalin)

Steil explores two other key figures in depth without which the Marshall Plan may not have been developed and passed by Congress.  First, the work of Will Clayton who had run the Reconstruction Finance Corporation under the New Deal, and Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg.  Clayton was responsible for conveying the sense of urgency that the American public needed to hear and worked to foster a US plan to restore an equilibrium to the continent.  His greatest contribution was convincing people that the problems that existed in European countries were interrelated, and could only be solved through cooperation and a certain amount of integration.  Clayton was able to work through European and British opposition to American plans and in the end, along with his colleagues was successful.  Vandenberg stands out as the Republican Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who evolved from an isolationist to a grudging internationalist as he was greatly affected by wartime events and the condition of Europe after 1945.  He was able to gain passage of the European Recovery Act in his committee, bringing along fellow Republicans and gaining overall Senate approval.

Perhaps one of Steil’s best chapters analyzes the Soviet approach to Marshall’s Harvard Speech where he announced the recovery plan and their strategy to confront American aid.  Steil presents Stalin’s and Molotov’s thinking regarding whether to oppose Marshall’s offer, particularly as it related to Eastern European “satellites.”  Soviet ideology is at the forefront of the author’s approach and he provides a bird’s eye view into Kremlin thought processes.  In the end by refusing American aid, Stalin did the United States a favor because there was no way Congress would approve aid to the Soviet Union, and Communist demands would have been such that the US could not have afforded it.

Some have argued that when Molotov rejected American aid and cabled Eastern European allies not to discuss aid with the west on July 7, 1947 it marked the onset of the Cold War.  Further, by December, 1947 Soviet disinformation over Berlin and the collapse of the London Council of Foreign Ministers meeting, the CIA warned of the possibility that the Soviet Union might try to forcibly remove American troops from Berlin.  With the Russian clamp down on Czechoslovakia in early February, 1948 and the questionable death of its Foreign Minister Thomas Masaryk, Stalin had now seized a country that was not agreed to by the “Big Three” during the war.  Lastly, on March 5, 1948 England, France and the United States merged the three allied zones to create West Germany – the Cold War was on, making the success of the Marshall Plan an urgent necessity.

The major strength of Steil’s monograph is his ability to explain the bureaucracy that the Marshall Plan produced as it dispersed more than $13 billion in aid from 1948 to 1952.  He writes in an easily understandable style that allows the economics “layperson” the ability to understand complex mechanisms that were used to fuel the recovery of Western Europe.  Steil provides an in depth analysis as to whether the Marshall Plan actually was successful or not, and integrates the role the creation NATO had on this argument.  Though a military component was not in early American planning, the NATO alliance was finally seen as a security imperative and went hand in glove with the economic recovery of Europe.

Steil goes on to discuss the role of NATO today in light of its expansion eastward after 1991.  The Russians were under the assumption that the alliance would not encroach on its western borders.  As the alliance accepted former Soviet satellites into membership Russian leadership grew increasingly agitated exemplified by Vladimir Putin’s actions in Georgia, Crimea, and the Ukraine.  Many like to compare the current situation to the post World War II world, but there is a major difference; during the Truman administration there seemed to be a coherent strategy based on realism, accepting the Soviet sphere of influence.  Today, it appears there is no coherent strategy and a total lack of statesmanship – perhaps we need to relearn the lessons of the early Cold War period.

In summary, Steil has done a remarkable service for historians and those who want to understand Europe’s recovery following World War II.  Though at times, the author can become bogged down in statistics, his overall command of history, primary and secondary sources, and his ability to synthesize the ideas of the main individuals and economic theory lend itself to an important contribution to Cold War literature.

Image result for photo of George C Marshall and Harry Truman

(President Truman and SOS Marshall)

THE BISHOP’S PAWN by Steve Berry

Image result for photo of mlk assassination

(The Lorraine Motel, Memphis, TN, April 4, 1968 and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King)

For a retired historian picking up a Steve Berry novel is like revisiting an old friend.  Berry’s central character Harold Earl “Cotton” Malone, lawyer, former member of an elite Justice Department group, pilot, and naval officer, leads the reader through interesting plot lines within the context of fascinating historical palates.  In his latest iteration of Cotton Malone, Berry returns the reader to Malone’s early career by examining his first mission that dealt with the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Era.  We are exposed to a great deal of information that is not available in Berry’s other novels, and in THE BISHOP’S PAWN the author fills in the blanks that have existed throughout the series.  The subject of Berry’s latest effort is very timely as we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King at the hands of James Earle Ray.

Image result for photo of mlk assassination

(Rev. Jesse Jackson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Rev. Ralph Abernathy)

THE BISHOP’S PAWN is different from all other books in the Malone series.  Berry presents his story in the first person, something he has never done.  Usually Berry narrates his stories through multiple characters and viewpoints, but in this case the single narrator creates an inviting immediacy.  Further, it is a much more personal approach as we learn a great deal more about Malone’s background and his relationships, particularly with Stephanie Nelle, who would become his boss at the Magellan Billet, a special investigative unit within the Justice Department.  At the outset of the novel Nelle and Malone meet for the first time in a Jacksonville, Florida jail where Lt. Malone is being held as a suspect in a shooting while a member of the US Navy.  Nelle offers Malone his first mission as she had pegged him correctly in that he was bored as a JAG officer in the Navy and this afforded him an opportunity to prove himself in a more challenging environment.  Malone’s mission was to recover a waterproof box that contained what could be considered important historical files and a gold coin worth approximately $1 million in the area off Key West.  This would be a pattern which would mark their relationship for many years to come as Nelle did not present the entire story leaving out details that could place Malone in a very precarious position.

Berry introduces a number of interesting characters from Juan Lopez Valdez, former FBI, CIA and possibly linked to James Earle Ray; the Reverend Benjamin Foster, who was present at the Lorraine Motel, the night Dr. King was assassinated and was a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference; Coleen Perry, Rev. Foster’s daughter who is obsessed with the contents of the waterproof box and her father’s role in the civil rights movement; Tom Oliver, retired Deputy Director of the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover who was in charge of COINTELPRO, Hoover’s counter-intelligence program developed to target groups that he believed were threats – especially “Black Nationalist” groups that had to be “neutralized; and Jim Jansen, former FBI who is a major impediment to Malone’s mission.  These characters are all intertwined as the plot emerges – what is in the files in the waterproofed box?  What role did the FBI possibly play in the assassination of Dr. King?  How does the relationship between the FBI and the Justice Department fit?  What are the agendas of each major character, particularly, Nelle, Foster, and Oliver?

Image result for photo of mlk assassination

Berry’s grasp of history is at its usual high level.  His description of individuals, i.e., J. Edgar Hoover is quite accurate, especially his obsession with Dr. King and supposed communist influence over the Civil Rights Movement.  Further, some of the documents Berry integrates into the dialogue are straight out of FBI files that became available years after Dr. King’s death that lend credence to conspiracy theories that have made the rounds for decades.  It is clear that the FBI wants to eradicate any evidence that it was involved in the King assassination.  But the problem that emerges is that there are remnants of the FBI of the 1960s that still influence policy, as opposed to the more open new generation of FBI bureaucrats who have a different approach to historical accuracy.

As is the case in all of his novels, Berry offers a writer’s not at the conclusion of the story that highlights what is considered factual history and what the author has made up employing his artistic license.  The result is that Berry has created an intricate example of counterfactual history that may not be as farfetched as might appear at first glance.

Image result for photo of mlk assassination