THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ by Erik Larson

Standing out of the flames and smoke of surrounding blazing buildings, St Paul's Cathedral during the great fire raid in London.

(The bombing of London during the WWII “Blitz”)

Living at a time when leadership seems to be severely lacking with a president who enacts his personal agenda seemingly on a daily basis when people are dying is eye opening and ultimately a tragedy.  In times like this it is important to examine historical leadership that is grounded in fact and strength of personality.  Leadership during times of crisis is of the utmost importance be it a pandemic, wartime, economic or weather-related catastrophes.  The public needs to rely on someone to step up and provide honest and factual information with direction to mitigate people’s anxiety and provide hope for the future.  Examining the aerial atrocities committed by the Germans during World War II over London, Coventry and other English cities in late 1940 and early 1941 is a case in point.  Winston Churchill the newly appointed Prime Minister would rise to the occasion through his wisdom, wit, and force of personality and provide the British people a degree of solace.  Erik Larson’s latest book, THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE: A SAGA OF CHURCHILL, FAMILY, AND DEFIANCE DURING THE BLITZ successfully captures Churchill’s role and the courage of the British people in that moment and builds upon his series of historical narratives that ranges from hurricanes, murder in Edwardian London, a serial killer in Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in 1893, the sinking of the Lusitania, to the rise of the Nazis.

In his current work Larson explores “the year in which Churchill became Churchill, the cigar smoking bulldog we all think we know…and showed the world what courage and leadership looked like.”  Larson has produced a workmanlike synthesis of events, policies, and personalities of the time period though he does not add a great deal that is new for historians.  What Larson does accomplish is a synthesis of information and sources focusing on many individuals that seem to fall through the cracks in other historical monographs.

Wikimedia Commons

(Sir Winston Churchill)
Larson’s grasp of the most salient historical points is evident for all to see.  Churchill’s obsession with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s thoughts serves as a background to most of Churchill’s actions.  Churchill is fully aware that England cannot defeat the Nazis without American equipment and financing and finally their entrance into the war.  Larson describes the political and personal machinations of FDR and Churchill in traditional fashion as he labors through the Destroyer-Base Deal and Lend-Lease as the United States slowly become more and more of a belligerent.  Larson’s description of the visit of Harry Hopkins, perhaps FDR’s closest ally and friend to England for four weeks in January, 1941 is a case in point as Churchill rolled out the red carpet to flatter and convince Hopkins to support American aid to England and encourage the eventual entrance of the United States into the war.
Everyday English citizens are presented through their daily lives and travails as they confronted by the German “Blitz.”  In addition, Larson takes figures like “Jock” Colville, Churchill’s reluctant private secretary and drills down exploring aspects of their lives in detail.  In Colville’s case the unrequited love he pursues in the name of Gay Margesson, a student at Oxford, supplemented by his important role by Churchill’s side.  Others explored include Pamela Churchill who had the unfortunate task of being married to Churchill’s son Randolph, an alcoholic, gambler, and philanderer.  Mary Churchill, the prime Minister’s eighteen-year-old daughter provides an interesting perspective of an upper-class youth through her diary entries.  More importantly Larson pursues the role of Max Aiken, better known as Lord Beaverbrook, a newspaper magnate who performs miraculous work increasing British airplane production at the newly created Ministry of Aircraft Production as well as serving as Churchill’s closest friend and alter ego.  Frederick “Prof” Lindemann , an Oxford Physicist assesses the world with “scientific objectivity” who Churchill brought into government to deal with German technology and efforts to counter the damage it caused.  The marriage of Sir Harold Nicholson, Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister for Information and his marriage to the writer Vita Sackville-West receives a great deal of attention.  Churchill’s bodyguard Detective Inspector Walter Henry Thompson provides numerous nuggets of information.  Mass-Observation diarist Olivia Cockett chronicles many of the horrors resulting from the German onslaught.   There are of course portraits of the military types like Major-General Hastings “Pug” Ismay, the Military Chief of Staff and political figures such as Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, who is then shuffled off to Washington as ambassador to remove a political threat to the Prime Minister’s leadership.  Characters abound and Larson has the knack of providing just the right amount of detail to make them interesting in of themselves for the reader.

TIME Magazine Cover: Lord Beaverbrook -- Nov. 28, 1938

If Churchill was obsessed with FDR, Adolf Hitler was obsessed with Churchill.  In Larson’s accurate rendition of the Hitler-Churchill enmity, the Fuhrer did not want to go to war with England at first.  He wanted to negotiate a deal that would be somewhat satisfactory to Churchill to end England’s adversarial role toward Germany so he could concentrate on lebensraum, living space is the east against Russia.  When Churchill refused to comply, Hitler unleashed the German Luftwaffe led by Hermann Goring against England to knock them out of the war.  At times a cartoonish, despicable, and insidious figure, Goring did all he could to raze English cities like Coventry to create the terror that would force the English people to remove Churchill and replace him with a more pliable figure.  Hitler and Goring could never quite comprehend why Churchill refused to give up based on the physical and psychological damage they inflicted on the English people.  Larson provides a fascinating aside to Goring’s terror bombing of civilians in his ravenous pursuit of cultural artifacts anywhere he could steal them.  With Churchill’s obstinacy remaining constant, Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s Deputy Fuhrer hatches a plan to achieve peace with England. Larson does his best to break down the myths of Hess’ attempted flight to Scotland to try and negotiate England’s exit from the war delving into the latest material available.

Larson is successful in explaining Churchill’s historical significance as he describes his speeches and physical appearance throughout London and other areas refusing to kowtow to Nazi bullying and bombing.  He demonstrated “a striking trait: his knack for making people feel loftier, stronger, and above all, more courageous.…he gave forth a confidence and invincible will that called out everything that was brave and strong,”  as his voice became a reassuring wellspring of hope and resolve.  Churchill was an expert at mass psychology, and he knew just how to hearten his downtrodden people and lead them to ultimate victory, even as so many people lived in shelters that were crumbling or pursuing an existence in the London Underground.

Goering Lounging In Chair

(Hermann Goring, Head of the Luftwaffe)

Larson is successful in reaching his stated goal of “hunting for stories that often get left out of the massive biographies of Churchill, either because there’s no time to tell them or because they seem too frivolous.”  Larson writes with verve and the character formation of a novelist.  He seems to leave no rock unturned in seeking out the intimate lives of his characters so they can provide a feel for what England is experiencing between May 1940 and 1941.  He find’s vignettes that are a treasure.  For example, Churchill constantly critiques the writing of his Cabinet and military figures correcting grammar and demanding brevity.  Deeply personal aspects garner Larson’s attention exemplified by his comments on Churchill and Clementine’s life in the bedroom, which was separate and as far as intimate relations, it took place only upon an invitation from Clementine!

As with any historical monograph there are always suggestions for improvement.  According to Gerard DeGroot in his February 28, 2020 review in the Washington Post in Larson’s case it may be fair to argue that Churchill is given too much credit for saving England when English factories and workers produced the Spitfires and Hurricanes that consistently outperformed their German counterparts.  Further British workers, male and female were much better mobilized than in Germany.  In addition, the idea that England acted alone is an overstatement when the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish contributed greatly as did members of the vast empire including Canadians, Australians, Indians and South Africans who all did their part.  One also cannot forget the 145 Polish pilots who fought in the Battle of Britain, in addition to the 88 Czech, and 30 pilots  from Belgium.  One must also not forget that other parts of the United Kingdom were also bombed – cities like Glasgow, Cardiff, Belfast were also severely damaged.   Churchill needs to share the limelight a bit more than Larson offers.

Though Larson has not written the definitive account of Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister he has written an evocative description of what life was like for the English people during the period.  One cannot go wrong hunkering down with Larson’s narrative particularly at a time of extreme crisis and discomfort.  I was scheduled to hear Larson at the Music Hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire at the end of March, however due to the pandemic it was cancelled.  I fervently hope it can be rescheduled.

In the aftermath of a bombing raid, a bus lies in a crater in Balham, South London.
(London during the WWII “Blitz”)

THE RED LOTUS by Chris Bohjalian

Sunset at Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island in Vietnam

(Northern Vietnam)

Alexis Remnick met Austin Harper in her Emergency Room in a Manhattan hospital after he had been brought in with a gunshot wound in his bicep.  She cleaned the wound, stitched him up as a result their relationship began.  Alexis had been an ER doctor for three years in a NYC hospital but had never met Austin who was a development officer at the same hospital.  It was an environment in which she thrived as the adrenaline rush of the ER allowed her to overcome her own anxiety and depression that plagued her since she was a teenager when she engaged in “cutting.”  In the ER, her public person was transformed, and she became an expert doctor, while Austin was a bicycle junkie who had a past that Alexis, despite dating him for seven months, was unaware of.

This is how Chris Bohjalian, the author of 21 books, many of them New York Times bestsellers, and a number of which have been made into films, begins his latest novel, THE RED LOTUS which may be one of his best efforts to date.  At a time when the United States is being hit with a massive pandemic where predictions of death are currently between 100-240,000 people Bohjalian’s novel is scary to say the least.  Once he introduces the backstory Bohjalian immediately shifts the focus of his novel to Vietnam where Alexis is lying on the beach at a resort in Hoi An where she and Austin had traveled so Austin could pay homage to his father who was wounded and his uncle who had died in the Vietnam War.  Austin had left the bike touring group to travel a seventy-mile route to pay his respects and disappears.  Alexis’ texts and calls go unanswered as Austin has been kidnapped during his ride but left behind a lemon-yellow Psych energy gel and two chocolate flavored packets on the trail which Alexis and the group leaders came across as they searched for him to no avail.

Bohjalian writes with an intensity that produces an atmosphere that  seems as if could be cut with a knife.  One of the most disconcerting aspects of the novel is that rats play such a significant role.  Bohjalian is very careful by drawing the reader into what appears to be a love story for about one-third of the plot before he provides hints about where he is taking you.  There are energy gels, cuts on Harper’s fingertips, possible research labs in New York and Vietnam as things begin to come together.  The author has created a complex plot that in many ways deals with our current fears as one of the important characters alludes to the fact that all pandemics begin in some way with rats.  Bohjalian provides more information about rats that most readers would ever want to know.  Interestingly, North Korea becomes part of the larger picture as three people are murdered in a lab in Da Nang, of course involving rat research, while most of us are worried about “Dear Leader” and his quest for nuclear weapons!

The story of course is about human avarice and the mental sickness and greed that drives people.  Douglas Webber, a wealthy freelance travel writer and expert dart aficionado, Sally Gleason, Harper’s boss and Webber’s lover, Dr. Wilbur Sinclair, a viral/bacteria researcher at the hospital where Remnick, Harper, and Gleason are employed, Oscar Bolton, who replaces Harper as Webber’s minion, along with Bao and Giang and other thugs in Vietnam who form the cabal designed to inflict a pandemic and of course make a great deal of money.  One of the most interesting characters is Ken Sarafian, a retired New York City cop in his seventies who is forced to revisit his service in Vietnam and cope with the death of his daughter who recently died of cancer is hired by Remnick to investigate her boyfriend’s death.  His wit and quiet nature belie a though ex-cop who is advised not to take the case but becomes trapped by the decency of its cause.  Remnick can’t seem to let go and her questions and doubts lead her to uncover aspects of Harper’s death that don’t seem to fit which will make her safety very questionable as Webber grows suspicious.

Other important characters include, Capt. Nguyen Quang, a member of the Canh Sat Company Dong (CSCD) of the Da Nang Police Department’s mobile terrorism unit.  By integrating Quang and his cohorts Bohjalian provides insights into how Vietnamese professionals go about solving a criminal case that appears to be a threat to millions.  Toril Bjornstad, an FBI legal attaché stationed in the United States Embassy in Phnom Penn provides support and information to Remnick and Harper’s parents who just cannot accept the fact that their son was a liar and schemer who after a life of getting away with things has gotten himself in too deep.  The key to the novel is Remnick’s use of her ER medical skills that were developed to diagnose patients to uncover how and why Harper died.  As the plot evolves the ending might seem too predictable, until it wasn’t.

The story transverses Vietnam from Da Nang, Hanoi, and Ho Chi Minh City to New York and Washington, D.C.  At each stop important twists and turns occur as people keep dying.  Bohjalian is a master of the thriller with a nice human touch at times.   He doles out information very carefully be it about murder, its investigation, and research into rat behavior and the danger they represent.  He develops his characters with expertise and reflects a great deal of compassion for them.  He knows how to draw the reader along to the point where a seeming love story evolves into something much more dangerous and complex.  If you have enjoyed his previous books, his latest effort may top them all.

Map of Vietnam

Political Map of Vietnam

OPERATION CHASTISE: THE RAF’S MOST BRILLIANT ATTACK DURING WORLD WAR II by Max Hastings

Operation Chastise by Robert Taylor (Lancaster)

During World War II a debate raged among allied strategists as to how much civilians should be targeted to defeat the Nazis.  As the Germans wreaked havoc on civilian populations throughout Europe and the United Kingdom the defeat of Hitler’s henchmen was deemed a necessity no matter the cost.  Max Hastings, a British journalist and historian, the author of numerous volumes ranging from World War I, the Battle of Britain, World War II, Winston Churchill and Vietnam tackles the issue of civilian casualties in his latest effort, OPERATION CHASTISE: THE RAF’S MOST BRILLIANT ATTACK DURING WORLD WAR II.

By May 1943 the British had accomplished little against the Nazis when compared to the effort and suffering of the Soviet Union which was finally making its push from Stalingrad westward.  Further, Winston Churchill was under a great deal of pressure to produce victories to stir the English people.  The allied grand strategy to this point was cautious to allow their slow industrial buildup to take hold before making a stronger presence on the battlefield.  To this point their most significant action concerned the use of heavy bombers.  The British decided in October 1940 that instead of pursuing largely vain efforts to locate power plants, factories, and military installations the Royal Air Force (RAF) would bomb German cities which would continue until 1945 and the end of the war.  The C-in-C Bomber Command Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Harris believed that air attacks on Germany could render a land invasion of Europe as unnecessary.  Winston Churchill did not care for Harris, but he believed in his sense of purpose and his ability to create positive publicity, i.e., the thousand bomber raids” over Cologne in May-June 1940.  There were a number of skeptics concerning Harris’ approach to winning the war, but Harris’ publicity machine and ability to put out positive bombing figures made him an important component in RAF leadership.  By “by war’s end, Bomber Command was capable of reigning upon Hitler’s people in a single twenty-four-hour period as many bombs as the Luftwaffe dropped during the course of its entire 1940-41 blitz on Britain.”

Barnes Wallis

(Barnes Wallis)

It is at this point that Hastings introduces his main topic the bombing of German dams as a means of destroying Hitler’s Ruhr Valley industrial complex. The Ruhr and its industries accounted for 25% of Germany’s entire consumption, much of it derived from the Mohne reservoir.  Flooding the low-lying Ruhr Valley would render railways, bridges, pumping stations, and chemical plants inoperative.  The key figures that Hastings explores in depth are Barnes Wallis, an engineer who become the hero of Operation Chastise, the mission to destroy the Mohne Dam as well as others, as he was able to design and develop the immense bomb that could “bounce” along the water to breach the Mohne Dam.  Next, Guy Gibson who led the 617 Squadron of the RAF Bomber Command that would bomb the dams of north western Germany employing a revolutionary new weapon that required plans to fly at an extremely low level after conducting over 170 successful bombing missions over Germany.  Ralph Cochrane, Harris’ subordinate was in charge of the mission who was one of the RAF’s ablest senior officers who has been described as a “ruthless martinet.”  Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Portal, the head of the RAF believed in assaulting urban areas and was a prime mover behind Operation Chastise.  Arthur Collins, a scientific officer in Harmondsworth’s “Concrete Section” who proved to Wallis that “a relatively small charge might achieve a wholly disproportionate result if it was detonated sub-aqueously and close to the target, using a timer or a hydrostatic pistol: it could thus harness the power of the water mass to channel the force of the blast.”  Lastly, Sir Arthur Harris, the commander, who when pulled over by the military police at one time and was admonished that he could have killed someone, he responded “I kill thousands of people every night.”

Guy Penrose Gibson, VC.jpg

(Guy Gibson)

Hastings does a marvelous job explaining the scientific experimentation, the training of the pilots, the shifting of resources, the strategic planning of the operation, and the different personalities with their own agendas in detail.  By doing so  Hastings highlights his own expertise and command of the material, but also the ability to explain complex information and make it easily understood for the reader.

Hastings introduces numerous pilots, bomb aimers, navigators, wireless operators, and gunners that made up the core of the mission.  These men formed groups of seven for each Lancaster bomber that was sent into Germany the night of May 16, 1943.  Hastings narrative provides intimate portraits of the men and how they interacted and were organized.  The squadron reflected all social classes, but despite a degree of class consciousness they were able to form into workmanlike groups of young men most of whom were in their late teens and early twenties with a sprinkle of men in their thirties.  Among these individuals included are Richard Trevor-Roper, the Squadron Gunnery Leader and bomb aimer who at 27 was the oldest among the squadron; F/.SGT Len Sumpter, a bomb aimer was a shoe makers son who left school at 14; wireless operator Jack Guterman, a very literary young man faced with the decision to follow his pilot Bill Ottley from another command joined the 617th;  F/LT Joseph McCarthy, the only American pilot involved with Operation Chastise who grew up in the Bronx, NY; F/LT John “Hoppy” Hopgood, Gibson’s closest friend; F/LT David Shannon, an Australian pilot; and aircraft navigator Jock Rumbes a pilot washout who became an excellent navigator.  These and many others new by the nature of the mission flying at night at an altitude of under 100 feet over water that their chances of survival were limited and the result is that 52 of the 133 men involved in Operation Chastise would not return.  As Hastings points out, “the margin for error, both for successful attacks and survival was virtually zero.”

Mohne dam before and after 617 squadron's famous Dambuster raid

(Mohne Dam May 16-17, 1943)

 

Hastings provides a blow by blow account of Operation Chastise from its takeoff on May 16, 1943 describing the difficulty of lifting off the ground with such a heavy payload, flying under 500 feet in the air to avoid German radar and flak, the mindset and experiences of the 133 men during the long flight, the final successful delivery of Wallis’ “bouncing bombs,” and the severe losses in planes, five of which crashed before reaching the target area in addition to three more at the site out of nineteen in total that took off on May 16, and the 52 men that perished.  As Hastings correctly concludes, Operation Chastise was a huge extravagance and essentially a gamble, a piece of military theater, rather than serious strategy.  In the end the Mohne and Eder dams were breached causing flood waters that would kill  between 1400-1500 people, half of which were non-German forced laborers.  In addition, the Nazis suffered an undetermined amount of economic and production losses.

Operation Chastise was largely hidden from the public until 1955 when the film, “Dam Busters” was released.  Hastings follows upon the works of other historians like James Holland to describe the events and personalities surrounding the mission whose idea dated back to 1937 and presents it to an audience after conducting voluminous research and interviews over his long career as a war correspondent, journalist and historian.  With the inclusion of maps, charts, and photos Hastings effort has produces a wonderful addition to monographs that focus upon the lesser known operations conducted during World War II, but were extremely important as in this case it reflected the turning of the tide, a small and symbolic step towards the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany.

OPERATION CHASTISE

Operation Chastise was an attack on German dams carried out on 16–17 May 1943 by Royal Air Force No. 617 Squ

 

VICTIM 2117 by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Berlin street (Imago/Jürgen Ritter)

(Berlin, Germany)

The most despicable tragedy of the last decade has been Bashar al-Assad’s war on the Syrian people to retain power.  The actions of the Russian and Turkish governments have exacerbated the situation that has produced the death of over 400,000 people and created over 5,000,000 refugees.  In VICTIM 2117, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s latest work, the author introduces the Syrian catastrophe at Ayia Naba, a beach in Cyprus as 37 bodies have washed ashore having drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in an attempt to escape their home country.  At the same time there is an emotionally stunted young man who recently graduated high school named Alexander who lives in Copenhagen.  Alexander is a virtual gamer who claims 2080 wins and in his demented mind has added the 37 drowning victims he read about in the newspaper to his total, 2117.  This milestone now reached has set in motion Alexander’s plan to kill his parents and wreak havoc on the public.

 

(Jussi Adler-Olsen, author)

If this plot line was not enough, Adler-Olsen focuses on Joan Aiguader, a self-promoter and a struggling free-lance journalist for a newspaper in Barcelona who has hit rock bottom until he becomes interested in the increasing numbers of refugee drownings, particularly 37 in Cyprus.  Twisting his story line further Adler-Olsen zeroes in Assad, a member of Department Q of the Copenhagen Police  Department who has appeared in most of the author’s previous novels.  It seems that Assad has kept his past hidden from Carl Morck his superior in Department Q who believed that the man who had introduced himself ten years ago as “Hafez el-Assad, a Syrian refugee with green rubber gloves and a bucket by his feet.  But inside he was really Zaid al-Asadi: special forces soldier, language officer, Iraqi, and almost fluent Danish speaker.  The man was one hell of a gifted actor.”   Assad’s tortured past involves what transpired 16 years previously at the hands of a Sunni terrorist and former official under Saddam Hussein named Abdul Azim or Ghaalib, a man who had kidnapped Assad’s pregnant wife and two daughters who Assad believed were dead for all of those years.

For those familiar with Adler-Olsen’s previous novels, VICTIM 2117 will not disappoint.  For those who are reading his work for the first time you probably will become hooked as he has deftly created a story with resonance today as he intertwines a series of plotlines.  Apart from Assad and Morck a number of characters from previous novels appear, though VICTIM 2117 can stand alone.  Adler-Olsen takes the reader back to Fallujah in Iraq at a time when United Nations weapons inspectors are looking for Saddam’s Weapons of mass destruction (WMD).  Events that take place are part of Assad’s past but they tie into a great deal of contemporary evidence, particularly newspaper photos of Marwa, Assad’s wife, and daughter appearing alive as well as a photo of the body of Lely Kebaki, an old woman who had taken care of Assad’s family when he was a boy as they had to flee Iraq and Saddam.

Assad’s life before Department Q is quite revealing and he will be supported by Morck and company, Roe and Gordon, including the new Chief of Homicide, Marcus Jacobsen.  Adler-Olsen provides a tense novel with a number of twists and turns linking the past and the present.  Morck’s quick wit and sarcasm is on full display as is the commentary provided by his assistant Rose, a depressive personality who has returned to Department Q after an absence of two years.

Adler-Olsen may have been a juggler in a previous life because he is able to maintain a number of plots floating in the air, all at the same time.  VICTIM 2117 is a complex story that as you read on it is very difficult to put down as Assad tries to locate his arch enemy and rescue his family who he is afraid he will not recognize and conversely will not recognize him.  As the novel is about to come to fruition and you think the terror will subside, Adler-Olsen introduces another twist that will leave you hanging.  If the book is as satisfying as I believe you will probably want to consult Adler-Olsen’s previous seven books dealing with the adventures of Department Q.

APEIROGON: A NOVEL by Colum McCann

(Israeli settlers waving the flag at Palestinian demonstrators by the “separation wall”)

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has transpired for at least a century if one accepts the Balfour Declaration as its origin in 1917 and it developed into an ongoing struggle for its participants in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel.  After numerous wars, intifadas, and a daily application of violence the toll on all people has been horrendous.  With that as a background Colum McCann introduces his latest novel, APEIROGON an attempt to provide insight into suffering and the intangibles that allow this conflict to persist to this day.  According to the dictionary an apeirogon is “a polygon having an infinite number of sides and vertices” which fits the structure of McCann’s work.  The author describes his new book as “a hybrid novel with invention at its core, a work of storytelling, weaves together elements of speculation, memory, fact, and imagination” the core of which is the relationship between Rami Elhanan, a sixty-seven year old Israeli whose daughter, Smadar was killed in a 1997 suicide bombing in Jerusalem, and Bassam Aramin, a forty-eight year old Palestinian whose daughter, Abir was killed by an Israeli rubber bullet on the West Bank in 2007.  McCann’s inspiration to write the novel is the real-life friendship between Rami and Bassam, two men united in their grief and their life’s work was to tell the story of what happened to their daughters.  The book is labeled a novel but in reality, it is a combination of fiction and non-fiction whose events are recognizable to those who follow the region, though even what appears to be fiction can be categorized as real.

McCann employs birds as a symbolic means of describing the plight of the Palestinian and to a lesser extent the Israeli people.  The migratory birds who travel freely know no boundaries which is in sharp contrast to the limitation of movement for the Palestinian people who must navigate “the Wall” constructed by the Israeli government to separate the West Bank and Israel, the numerous military checkpoints that are employed by the Israeli government, and the Israeli policy of apartheid.

The retelling of Rami and Bassam’s life histories is poignant.  Rami fought in the 1973 Yom Kippur War is married with four children living in Jerusalem with a career as a graphic artist.  Bassam was a militant in his youth and at seventeen was imprisoned, beaten and tortured.  He would remain incarcerated for seven years and upon his release his life took a different turn as he pursued poetry, married and became the father of five children.  His family lived in the village of Anata which is located next to the Shu’fat refugee camp.

Israel is a society under constant surveillance either by the Mossad, military patrol, satellites, and blimps.  McCann effectively describes Rami’s dilemma as a person who has seen too much violence and believes that peace can only come through honest negotiations and compromise.  He “often felt that there were nine or ten Israelis inside him, fighting.  The conflicted one. The shamed one.  The enamored one.  The bereaved one.  The one who marveled at the blimp’s invention.  The one who knew the blimp was watching.  The one watching back.  The one who wanted to be watched.  The anarchist.  The protestor.  The one sick and tired of all the seeing.”  Bassam would go on to co-found Combatants for Peace which is used by McCann to delve into Israeli-Palestinian frustrations and hatred for the status quo as he explores the daily indignities that the Palestinian people experience.

Map of West Bank

McCann defines the effect of the Nakba on the Palestinian people, and the effect of the Holocaust on Israelis.  He compares the two and how they have similar meanings to their individual victims.  McCann integrates the history of the Holocaust and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict throughout.  The removal of Palestinians from their homes during the 1948 war, life in refugee camps along with a very disturbing description of Theresienstadt, and Smadar’s grandfather’s inability to discuss surviving the concentration camps for many decades comes to the fore.  Bassam will travel to England to enroll in Bradford University to earn an advanced degree in Holocaust studies.  He wanted to talk and learn about the use of the past as a means of justifying the present.  “About the helix of history, one moment bound to the next.  About where the past intersected with the future.”  For Bassam he needed clarity for the past, present, and the future.

Rami and Bassam met at a hotel picnic table where eight Israelis and three Palestinians were gathering for the Combatants for Peace.  Rami had founded his own organization Parents Circle and was curious when his son Elik had invited him to attend.  To be a member of the Circle one had to have lost a child, to be one of the bereaved.  This was the beginning of an important personal relationship as Rami and Bassam would learn to lean on each other in crisis’.

Numerous historical figures appear throughout McCann’s rendition of the Palestinian-Israeli crisis.  Biblical figures abound, Roman history is recounted, the 19th century explorer-philosopher, Sir Richard Burton, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Mohammad Ali, John Kerry, Yasir Arafat, Pablo Picasso, Philippe Petit, General Matti Peled, Smadar’s grandfather and peace advocate, and George Mitchell, the last person who was tasked to bring peace to the region.  McCann accurately describes the “smashed jigsaw” that Mitchell confronted that included PLO, JDL, LEHI, PFLP, ALA, PIJ, CPT, IWPS, ICAHD, AIC, AATW, EIJ, JTJ, ISM, AEI, NIF, ACRI, RHR, BDS, PACBI, BNC and the difficulty of deciding where to begin.

To compare the raw emotions that Rami and Bassam have dealt with is heart rendering.  But also, the realization by Rami that it is “a disaster to discover the humanity of your enemy, his nobility, because then he is not your enemy anymore, he just can’t be.”  As each has to deal with the Israeli bureaucracy and military as it tries to learn the plight of their daughters on the day they were murdered is heart wrenching.  It is symbolic of the time period in which we live.  Novels dealing with this topic are at times a product of events. In the 1990s with the Oslo Accords, novelists could be more upbeat, but today as each side has retreated into belligerent isolation with Donald Trump making a farce of the peace process it is not surprising what McCann delivers in his novel.  But the lesson that emerges is that “the only revenge is making peace.”

As Julie Orringer writes in her New York Times, February 24, 2020 review, “Apeirogon is an empathy engine, utterly collapsing the gulf between teller and listener.  By replicating the messy nonlinear passage of time, by dealing in unexpected juxtapositions that reveal latent truths, it allows us to inhabit the interiority of human beings who are not ourselves.  It achieves its aim by merging acts of imagination and extrapolation with historical fact.  But it’s indisputably a novel, and to my mind, an exceedingly important one.  It does far more than make an argument for peace; it is, itself, an agent of change.”

“I began to think, Rami tells us in his central chapter, that I had stumbled upon the most important question of them all:  What can you do personally, in order to try and help prevent this unbearable pain for others?

McCann has registered his answer, one so powerful that it impels us to find our own.”

The Separation Wall and the Sh'uafat Refugee Camp are seen following a snow storm, on February 20, 2015. Yotam Ronen / Activestills.org

(Separation wall between Israel and the West Bank)

NEPTUNE: THE ALLIED INVASION OF EUROPE AND THE D DAY LANDINGS by Craig L. Symonds

image__header__normandy-visit-the-omaha-beach-american-cemetery-memorial-in-colleville-sur-mer__croix-r-ale-goff-calvadostourismejpg

(American Cemetery at Normandy)

Last year there were a number of new books that appeared commemorating the 75th anniversary of the D Day landing in June 1944.  These books include COUNTDOWN TO D DAY: THE GERMAN PERSPECTIVE by Peter Margaratis, NORMANDY ’44: D DAY AND THE EPIC 77 DAY BATTLE FOR FRANCE by James Holland, SAND AND STEEL: D DAY AND THE LIBERATION OF FRANCE by Peter Caddick-Adams, THE FIRST WAVE:THE D DAY WARRIORS WHO LED THE WAY TO VICTORY IN WORLD WAR II by Alex Kershaw, and SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D DAY by Giles Milton.  Another important book appeared in 2014, Craig L. Symonds, NEPTUNE: THE ALLIED INVASION OF EUROPE AND THE D DAY LANDINGS.

Symonds the author of THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY, and LINCOLN AND HIS ADMIRALS does a remarkable job describing the preparation and implementation of allied plans for a cross channel invasion that culminated on June 6, 1944 in NEPTUNE: THE ALLIED INVASION OF EUROPE AND THE D DAY LANDINGS.  The book is broken down into two parts. First, Symonds explores the coming together of the British-American special relationship that begins following the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939, the role of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and the integration of allied planning for the invasion with the personalities of Dwight Eisenhower, George C. Marshall, Sir Alan Brooke, General Bernard Montgomery and a host of others.  The second half of the narrative delves into the placement of allied shipping and personnel in England and their preparation for the invasion, and the actual landings themselves culminating in the allied attempt to drive the Germans out of Cherbourg.  The book is heavily researched including interviews with survivors, archival material, and the leading secondary works.

Symonds takes the reader through all the major conferences and planning sessions that took place between 1941 (nine months before Pearl Harbor) and 1944 and breaks down the major issues from unity of command, the disagreement over which should take precedence a cross channel invasion or landing in the Mediterranean theater, the number of troops and shipping needed, what types of landing craft should be employed, and the actual timing of any invasion.  According to Symonds the key to D Day was Operation TORCH, the allied invasion of North Africa.  All the major issues that would emerge for a cross channel invasion were already present in preparing TORCH which would become a dress rehearsal for D Day – creating a multi-national force under one allied commander.  In the end TORCH was a success but it highlighted that a great deal of work needed to be done to prepare for Operation OVERLORD.

What makes Symonds narrative so compelling are the numerous insights he offers.  Especially interesting is his analysis of the cultural differences between British and American society that led to the low opinion that the British had of American soldiers, the American approach to war, and the attitude they felt Americans engendered. The British believed that they had been fighting for a number of years while the Americans may have produced their weaponry, shipping, and other necessities they did not have the combat experience and know how of British planners and soldiers.  On the other hand, Americans viewed the British as rather haughty, slow in preparation, and in part beholden to the United States.  Symonds explanation of the pros and cons of the Anglo-American relationship is very valuable and reflects how they were dependent upon each other.

File:General George C. Marshall, official military photo, 1946.JPEG

(General George C. Marshall)

What separates Symonds account from others is his focus on the different types of landing craft that were needed for OVERLORD, how each fit a particular need, the necessary ingenuity particularly on the part of the British, and the production process and schedules that were developed.  Symonds breaks down each type of landing craft and points out the differences of each, the training components, their positive aspects and design flaws, and overall, how important they were to the success of D Day.

Symonds explores the experiences of the soldiers who were dependent upon the landing craft as they departed the 171 launching sites dispersed around England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, their experiences in the channel, and what it was like to land on the Normandy beaches.  Symonds delves into production issues that forced a one-month postponement of OVERLORD in addition to the weather issues that would force a postponement of one day to launch the operation and forced Eisenhower to smoke even more cigarettes than normal!

Symonds is correct when he points out that despite the massive allied firepower the overall impact, particularly on Omaha Beach turned out to be less than hoped for.  “….the bombs fell too long, the rockets fell to short, and the naval gunfire was too brief.  Ashore, the Germans crouched down in their bomb proof shelters, many with concrete walls five feet thick, and they covered their ears, but none of the Allied ordnance penetrated their bunkers and pill boxes.”

Symonds is dead on in arguing that OVERLORD contained so many working parts with a timetable that made each element dependent on so many others.  As a result, early errors created a series of difficulties that threatened to ruin the invasion especially on Omaha Beach.  However, in the end what saved the day “was the ability of the men both afloat and ashore to adapt and adjust.”  Further, what saved the day for those dealing with the heavy German guns were the destroyers in the channel that maneuvered expertly and were able to rein hellfire on the well ensconced German pill boxes.  It was clear that even though Omaha Beach fell into allied hands the assault had not gone according to plan and Symonds describes the reasons for the failure.  It would take over 10,000 casualties, 3,000 of which occurred on Omaha Beach, a sum greater than the losses on all four of the other invasion beaches combined.

 

Symonds integrates the personal stories of the men who fought and died on D Day into the narrative.  Whether describing the men who climbed Pointe du Hoc to knock out heavy German artillery; the men who climbed the bluffs to the shock of the German gunners; Ensigns who found themselves in command of landing craft; or those who splashed in the water or crawled onto the beaches under withering German fire Symonds tells their stories in a clear fashion so one can get a feel for what these brave individuals experienced.

The book reads like a work of fiction in parts particularly as the author discusses the planning stage.  It morphs into more of a non-fictional work as he gets into the nitty gritty of the types of ships that were employed.  If there is a criticism to be made it is that Symonds approach seems a bit American-centered.   However, in the end this is an efficient work that is well written and should maintain reader interest.  I look forward to reading Symonds latest work WORLD WAR II AT SEA: A GLOBAL HISTORY soon.

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(American Cemetery at Normandy)

BOTTLE OF LIES: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE GENERIC DRUG BOOM by Katherine Eban

 

Ranbaxy building
(Ranbaxy plant in Mohali, India)

The other day I was chatting with my doctor and I mentioned to him that he should consider reading Katherine Eban’s recent book, BOTTLE OF LIES: THE INSIDE STORY OF THE GENERIC DRUG BOOM.  He was not familiar with the title but as we chatted about the role of India and China in reverse engineering American brand name medications his eyes lit up.  My physician is of Indian descent and he described to me what he witnessed when visiting India and the practices pursued by Indian generic drug manufacturers, particularly Ranbaxy.  He described disingenuous practices, fraud, corruption, the lack of government oversight and a myriad of illegal practices pursued by companies that went against the FDA’s best practices protocols.  Since 40% of all generic drugs are produced in India and 80% of the active ingredients in all drugs are produced in India and China his comments were eye opening and affirmed what Eban lays out in her investigative narrative of the generic drug industry and raised in my mind whether the new medication I was about to ingest was based on correct data and honest productive practices.  According to Eban, Americans should think twice when taking medications which puts people in a quandary – you need the medication, but can they be trusted?

The narrative that Eban has produced can best be described as “mind blowing.”  As one Dutch pharmaceutical executive described the generic industry as being similar to the meatpacking productive processes described by Upton Sinclair in his book, THE JUNGLE at the turn of the 20th century.  Eban delineates the gulf that exists between what regulations require of generic drug companies and how those companies operated.  Their goal is to minimize costs and maximize profits.  To achieve this companies circumvented regulations and resorted to fraud: “manipulating tests to achieve positive results and concealing or altering data to cover their tracks.  By making the drugs cheaply without regard to safeguards and then selling them into regulated and more costly Western markets, claiming that they had followed all necessary regulations, companies could reap enormous profits.”

FDA Building

The key figure in the first half of the narrative was Dinesh S. Thakur, who was employed by Bristol-Myers, Squibb in Hopewell, NJ where he ran a department that built robots and other automated products designed to make drug testing more efficient and reliable.  Thakur’s problems began when he decided to leave his position in the United States and took one at Ranbaxy Laboratories located in India.  Almost immediately Thakur witnessed extensive fraud and a lack of transparency at the company.  Within two years Thakur’s friend, Rashmi Barbhaiya who convinced him to accept a position at Ranbaxy left the company leaving Thakur to fend for himself.  The first issue was HIV medications for South Africa which had a number of defects and the company refused to recall them.  As time went on Thakur would soon learn that Ranbaxy faked over 50% of its dossiers to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); 100% for India; and 50% for Europe.  Thakur ordered a breakdown of every product, year by year of each dossier.  Ranbaxy used data as a fungible marketing tool without consideration for the impact its drugs had on patients.  “The company manipulated almost every aspect of the manufacturing process to quickly produce impressive looking data that would bolster its bottom line.”  Ranbaxy’s approach was to do whatever it could get away with the patients be damned.

Eban unravels the crimes and conspiracies involved in Ranbaxy’s approach to developing and producing generic drugs, layer by layer.  The company had no written protocols for investigating physician and patient complaints and viewed FDA regulations as an obstacle to be gamed.  When Dr. Kathy Spreen, Ranbaxy’s American Executive Director of Clinical Medicine uncovered the fraud dealing with Aids drugs she expressed her concerns to a company executive who responded, “Who Cares…It’s only blacks dying.”  When another friend of Thakur, Rajinder Kumar resigned because of company practices, Thakur was targeted by executives because of his complaints and when executives threatened him and his family, he also left the company. Eban’s focus on Thakur’s experiences reads like a crime novel.  He smuggled out damning evidence against the company and became a whistleblower for the FDA.  His life was a mess and his experience were chilling as he feared he would be outed, and his family would pay the price.

dinesh-thakur

(Dinesh S. Thakur)

The theme that dominates Eban’s narrative is that Ranbaxy’s approach to its manufacturing process, covering up its misbehavior, its dealings with the FDA, and the callousness of its executives was a recurring problem throughout the generic drug industry for decades.  A number of cases highlight this process.  First, executives would smuggle out brand named drugs from the United States in their luggage to be reverse engineered in India and then made up data to apply for the first time right of a generic to the FDA – executives became “drug mules!”  Second, plant inspections in India by the FDA were a game of cat and mouse.  There were no surprise visits by FDA personnel as part of the process, so Indian companies had weeks to prepare for visits, falsifying data, shredding negative data, and putting on a dog and pony show for investigators.  Eban describes numerous examples of this process at a series of Ranbaxy plants in India.  Third, and possibly the most egregious was the sale of a controlling interest in Ranbaxy to a Japanese company, Daiichi Sankyo.  The sale would provide $2 billion for Malvinder Singh, the company CEO and his brother.  However, as soon as the deal was completed Daiichi Sankyo learned that Ranbaxy was in trouble with the US Justice Department and the FDA as their products would no longer be approved for sale in the US until they could prove their products were not fraudulent.  Fourth, the sale of tainted heparin used for dialysis in the United States killing 31 Americans.  What emerged is that chemists were bribed, further data was falsified, the Ranbaxy pattern continued.  The last example, among many is Eban’s dive into FDA dealings with Ranbaxy over its attempt to gain approval of its version of Lipitor, atorvastatin.  Ranbaxy faked atorvastatin records before FDA investigators visited Paonta Sahib, the manufacturing site.  Eban presents company emails and FDA documentation proving that Ranbaxy was not to be trusted and in the end because of pressure by Congress which needed the lower price as the drug was considered an integral part of the new Affordable Care Act they gamed the system once again and gained approval.

Thakur is not the only one to experience the deceit of the Indian generic industry.  Eban describes how Dr. Harry Lever, a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist discovered that when his patients switched from brand name drugs to generics their health greatly deteriorated.  Dr. Randall Starling, a member of the Cleveland Clinic Heart Failure and Cardiac Transplant Medicine team uncovered that the generic version of tacrolimus, made by Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, an Indian company caused major issues with his transplant patients.  Eban’s discussion of Joe and Jerry Graedon who for over thirty years had a syndicated newspaper column and a patient advocate NPR program realized through their own research that FDA standards in approving generic medication were extremely flawed and eye opening.  All of these examples lead one to believe that the generic industry produces one horror show after another and the under funded and understaffed FDA with little access to the truth in India can not protect American patients, or for that matter foreign markets that Indian companies supply with medications.

Aside from Thakur there are a number of important personages in Eban’s expose and the one that stands out the most is Peter Baker.  In 2008 Baker joined the FDA and soon became its most important foreign investigator.  A no nonsense individual who thought nothing of jumping into a dumpster to find evidence of fraud and god knows what else as he became the bane of Ranbaxy and other companies’ existence.  His work in India and China, the threats he dealt with from foreign companies, and even opposition within the FDA who at times saw him as a “cowboy” probably resulted in saving countless lives.  Baker’s discoveries boggle the mind and provide unbelievable insights into the minds of foreign generic executives and their approach to the manufacturing process and the frauds they engaged in.

The further one reads Eban’s expose the more distressing the information becomes.  It seemed it was standard practice for the generic companies to make different versions of the same product, high quality drugs for the Western markets, and low-quality ones for lower income countries which was highlighted by Eban’s reportage of the drug Lipitor.  Eban’s work is very important and I found myself checking the labels on my own medication and where they were manufactured as I became immersed in the book producing a great deal of anxiety on my part.  It seems that what started in Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram as a campaign of Indian self-reliance had morphed into a pharmaceutical rescue mission for the world’s most unfortunate patients. It is obvious that Eban’s work is extremely one sided which can be seen as a criticism, but in reality, how could it be anything different based on her findings especially since her research is impeccable.  The book should have a label for patients on the cover because it will create extreme angst in anyone who reads it.

Statins: Different strengths of Atorvastatin, trade name Lipitor, made by Pfizer Stock Photo

 

ALEXANDER HAMILTON: AMERICAN by Richard Brookhiser

Many of you are probably familiar with Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton which was the basis for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton.”  The book is the ultimate source for the first Secretary of the Treasury, and it is a narrative that is hard to measure up to.  However, there are a number of important biographies of Hamilton, one of which is Richard Brookhiser’s ALEXANDER HAMILTON: AMERICAN, a compact volume that covers all the important aspects of Hamilton’s life in a very analytical fashion that can serve as a wonderful introduction to its subject.

Brookhiser presents Hamilton as the nation’s accountant who was able to create the bureaucratic infrastructure that allowed the new republic to survive and fostered the basis of our current economy.  Brookhiser identifies a number of threads that run through his narrative.  First, despite his background as an immigrant throughout his life Hamilton saw himself as an American and a nationalist.  Second, Hamilton maintained his identity as a New Yorker and more importantly he brought his home state to center stage rivaling Virginia and Boston in influence.  Thirdly, was Hamilton’s fondness for the military pushing for a standing army to be used in any opposition to governmental policy which created a great deal of partisanship.  Lastly, his role as a constitutional lawyer reflected in the cases he tried and his authorship of the majority of THE FEDERALIST PAPERS.  Brookhiser argues that Hamilton may have been the most important of the founding fathers, if not the most significant, he was certainly on par with James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

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(James Madison)

The author has the uncanny ability to distill large amounts of information and presenting the most important salient details and analysis in a concise and flowing prose.  For example, his discussion of the fighting in upstate New York during the revolution and the role of General Horatio Gates or how James Madison, once an ally evolved into one of Hamilton’s most important intellectual enemies.  Brookhiser does an excellent job comparing Hamilton to other historical characters that he dealt with during his lifetime, presenting the strengths and weaknesses of his main subject in addition to the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and a host of others.  Perhaps Brookhiser’s most important contribution to our knowledge of Hamilton is how he interacted with Washington and Jefferson.  Brookhiser compares the political philosophies of these figures in addition to how their philosophies conflicted.

Brookhiser devotes an entire chapter to Hamilton’s views about government, economics, and the future of the new republic.  Later, Hamilton was seen as a monarchist who admired the British system of government as well as their economic system particularly the role of the Bank of England.  In many instances Hamilton sought to replicate the best of what the British had to offer, a strong executive, and a three-year elective assembly that was similar to the eventual House of Representatives.  It is obvious from the narrative that the author admires his subject, but he does not shy away from certain blemishes in dealing with Hamilton’s character, for example his affair with Maria Reynolds and though he was blackmailed by her husband James he continued the affair before going public with what he had done.  In discussing Hamilton’s behavior in this episode and others, at times Brookhiser engages in pop psychology which is not a strength of the book.  A clear example is when he writes in reference to the Reynolds Affair that “some of Hamilton’s wrath at Jefferson and his other enemies may well have been displaced anger at his own betrayal and folly.”

Brookhiser makes the interesting point that Hamilton was the least experienced of Washington’s first cabinet.  Henry Knox, the Secretary of War had been a general during the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State had been ambassador to France, and Hamilton served on Washington’s staff as an aide during the Revolution and was a prolific writer.  The key was that Washington could be his own Secretary of War and State because of his vast experience in those areas, but he did not have the economic background to function without his Secretary of the Treasury.

Brookhiser dissects the Hamilton-Jefferson relationship and reaches the conclusion that members of Jefferson’s entourage believed that Hamilton did not have the right “to instruct the founding fathers, to ignore their fears, and to redesign their institutions” as he proceeded to develop an economic and political system that sought to mirror England and overturn their idyllic southern squire lifestyle.  The competition with Jefferson is fascinating as Brookhiser dives into the election of 1800 when Hamilton did all he could to elect his foe because of his fear of Aaron Burr.

3rd Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr

(Aaron Burr)

Some might argue that Brookhiser’s work is a bit esoteric as he includes chapters on Hamilton’s writing ability, the role of passion in his contemporaries in addition to a chapter dealing with political and societal rights.  Be that as it may, the book is very effective in conveying the partisan hatred that existed during Washington’s second administration.  Brookhiser delves into the debates dealing with the French Revolution and America’s supposed debt for what the French had done during the American Revolution.  The character study of Aaron Burr is dead on as well as how Hamilton approached his family.  Overall, Brookhiser provides a valuable, incisive portrait of Hamilton’s character as well as his impact on America’s survival.  It is a concise work that will allow the reader to digest a great deal of information if they do not want to tackle other longer works encompassing Hamilton’s life and career.

 (Library of Congress)

THE GODS OF GOTHAM by Lynsay Faye

Map of Broadway and Anne Over Time

(New York City in the 1840s)

I am always looking for realistic historical fiction, which is both accurate and creative.  It must reflect the time period it encompasses, and its fictional and non-fictional characters must be believable.  In the case of Lynsay Faye’s novel, THE GODS OF GOTHAM I was pleasantly surprised.  The book introduces Timothy and Valentine Wilde, two brothers that are as opposite as day and night.  Orphaned in childhood because of a fire they survived in New York City’s underworld in the 1820s and 30s.  Timothy will emerge as a strong individual who is hard working and honest, his brother Val will become what his brother describes as an alcoholic, drug addict, extortionist, thief, gambler, cheat, corrupt and violent, but he loves him in his own way.

Faye’s novel is the first of a trilogy involving Timothy Wilde as her main character.  After surviving a devastating fire in New York City in 1845, loosing everything Timothy rebuilds by accepting a position as a police officer in a department that was newly created because of what seemed to be daily murders on the city’s streets.   Wilde will make an excellent policeman as he is able to maximize his intuitive skills he learned as a bartender.  His brother Val becomes an officer on the force and the two of them make quite a combination as Val does not exhibit the same empathy and altruism of his brother.  Faye’s plot is fully integrated with the atmosphere in New York City in the 1840s.  The issues of Irish immigration, nativism, the corruption of city government, and the debauchery that runs rampant is background to what appears to be a mass murder of twenty two people, a number of which are children who appear to be Irish and are employed at Silkie Marsh’s brothel.

(Newspaper row (Park Row) in New York City in the 1840s)

Faye posses a superb knowledge of New York City politics, night life, characters endemic to the city, its culture, and its numerous ethnicities.  The odors of the city come across vividly to the reader and helps establish an ambiance that places one in a different time period.  Faye is able to capture the bigotry against Irish Catholics in a meaningful way from the outset of the novel, as she delves into the hatred for the Irish poor that saw over a million people leave their homes in Ireland because of the almost genocidal attitudes of the British government in the 1840s and their response to the potato blight and famine.  The corruption of ward politics is on full display reflected in the machinations of the Democratic Party and how its dispensed jobs and social services to the city’s inhabitants.  In fact, that patronage system is how Timothy and Valentine became policemen in the first place.

The new police department would be headed by Justice George Washington Matsell, a rather short, balding, large man who will surprise the reader with his cleverness and intellectual dexterity.  Other important characters include the reverend Underhill and his daughter Mercy, who Timothy will love no matter what behaviors she engages in.  Bird Daley, a precocious ten-year-old who witnesses the burial of most of the bodies and accidentally runs into Timothy on the street creating an interesting friendship.  Mrs. Boehm, a wonderful woman who makes end meet as a baker.  Dr. Peter Palsgrave whose actions will shock the reader.  Father Connor Sheehy of St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  Jacob Piest, a brilliant investigator.  Silkie Marsh, a madame who knows where all the secrets are buried, and numerous Irish immigrants and street toughs whose lives are in a constant battle for survival.

Faye has created an interesting juxtaposition between two brethren with different moral codes.  One a tool of a corrupt political system, the other a bit naive with a strong sense of right and wrong.  Faye has also captured the street vernacular that existed at the time and lends itself to the book’s authenticity.  The undercurrent that pervades the novel is carefully crafted and historically accurate as Chief Matsell and his force try and keep the bodies secret for fear that if the truth emerged and the murderer was Irish it could touch off violent riots that would result in the deaths of countless people.  In addition, if the murders took place under the auspices of the Democratic Party, the Whigs would replace them in power.  As you read the book one wonders who the possible serial killer might be.  Is it Valentine, perhaps a Protestant trying to create a situation that would send the Irish back across the Atlantic, or is it Silkie Marsh and her hired hands?  The end result will surprise you as Faye weaves a web that is difficult to dissect.

If you are a fan of Caleb Carr’s works or the film “Gangs of New York” the novel should whet your appetite and be very satisfying.  It is an unsettling read at times, but if you want a feel for a city that grew from about 60,000 in 1800 to half a million in just fifty years this book will offer many insights that can explain what such a demographic explosion could lead to.

 

Map of Broadway and Anne Over Time

(New York City in the 1840s)

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

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(Charles Lindbergh)

At a time when many Americans fear the impact of foreign interference in our elections, be it what the Russians did in 2016, or what may be in store for 2020 there is an excellent historical example of such a campaign on foreign soil that tried to sway Americans and help make entrance into World War II against Nazi Germany palatable.  The example I am alluding to is the subject of Henry Hemming’s new book, AGENTS OF INFLUENCE: A BRITISH CAMPAIGN, A CANADIAN SPY, AND THE SECRET PLOT TO BRING AMERICA INTO WORLD WAR II.

By June 11, 1940 a week after the British evacuation from Dunkirk allied shipping losses in the Atlantic had reached over 1,135,263 tons.  At the same time the German army outnumbered the British army 4.3 to 1.6 million.  In another month the Germans would launch the Luftwaffe against London in a “blitz” that would last almost a year.  The Churchill government faced long odds in overcoming the Nazi onslaught and the only hope to offset a disaster would be American entrance into the war, but in May 1940 only 7% of Americans favored doing so.  The British proceeded to send 700 crates of gold bullion along with a spy named William Stephenson to the United States. Interestingly, the author’s grandfather, Harold Hemming, a major in the Royal Artillery was a friend of the newly minted British spy, and along with his wife Alice would carry out a number of missions which included visiting American military bases and presenting a series of demonstrations revealing the intricacies of flash-spotting, a technique designed to locate German artillery, and lecturing soldiers what it was like to live in Nazi Germany.

Sir William Stephenson [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA141575]

(Sir William Stephenson)

Hemming does an excellent job recounting the business career that led Stephenson to be recruited by MI6 and chosen as Chief of Station with his main office in New York.  His task was to foster a climate that would allow Washington to declare war on Nazi Germany.  Hemming writes with an easy flair that allows the reader to become engrossed in how the British went about trying to surreptitiously convince the American people to favor entering the European war and pressuring their government to do so.  Stephenson’s task was not an easy one due to isolationist sentiment created by the Nye Commission which delved into the profits of munitions companies and other corporations from W.W.I., Neutrality legislation that hamstrung President Roosevelt, and a growing belief flamed by Charles Lindbergh that the British could not defeat Germany so it would be a waste for the US to enter the war.*

The British were not the only ones who were trying to manipulate American opinion.  Hans Thomsen, the German Charge d’affair in Washington was developing his own propaganda machine to keep the US out of the war, in addition to convincing a Montana Congressman and Senator to read pro-German material into the Congressional Record and using their congressional franking privilege to disseminate these views by mail to their constituents.  He was also able to bribe 50 Republican congressman, including New York’s influential legislator Hamilton Fish who attended the Republican National Convention to oppose entrance into the war.  “At the time the most extensive foreign intervention – direct intervention – ever in an American election campaign.”  Until Trump!

William J. "Wild Bill" Donovan, the Buffalo-born founder of the agency that preceded the CIA, won't have his name on Western New York's new veterans cemetery. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Strategic Services Society)

(General William J. Donovan)

Hemmings examines Lindbergh’s role in speaking out in favor of Nazi Germany very carefully tracing his views from the time of his son’s kidnapping and death.  Lindbergh would testify before Congress numerous times against legislation like the Destroyer-Base Deal and Lend-Lease both designed to assist the British navy whose merchant shipping was being shredded by Nazi submarines and the fact they were slowly going bankrupt.  The German embassy would mail Lindbergh’s speeches all across America to gain US domestic support.  Lindbergh would become the leading “isolationist” spokesperson in the country and a central figure in the “America First Committee” movement.

After describing what Stephenson was up against, including his own government who did not want to interfere in American politics as the 1940 election approached, the man in charge of British propaganda operations and returning refugees back to Europe as agents was ordered to hold back and not institute any radical plans.  Stephenson did have an ally, the British ambassador to the US, Lord Lothian who worked assiduously and ignored Foreign Office instructions to try and lobby Washington.  When Lothian died suddenly, Stephenson was left with Lord Halifax, a former Foreign Secretary and appeaser who Churchill sent to America to get him out of his cabinet.  Hemmings has unearthed a number of interesting commentaries presented throughout the book, for example, referring to Halifax as a “foxhunting aristocrat” who would not be well received in administration circles.

The Bow Tie Crowd.
Ian Fleming, 1958.

(Ian Fleming)

Once FDR is reelected in 1940 and he was able to get Lend-Lease passed it was clear that the president wanted to get the US into the war against Hitler’s forces.  He went so far as to have the US Navy patrol the North Atlantic hoping to create a casus belli to enter the war.  It was at this time that Stephenson, who had been put in charge of all MI6 activities in the western hemisphere, head the Special Operations Executive (SOE) nicknamed the “Ministry of Gentlemanly Warfare,” run MI5, British Passport Control and any propaganda dealing with the war effort, to take off the gloves and disregard his own Foreign Office.

An aspect that Hemming develops in full is the relationship of General William J. Donovan and Stephenson.  Donovan was a close friend of FDR and had the president’s ear.  Stephenson felt his relationship with the FBI did not deal with Nazi penetration enough and he sought to help develop a partner in the United States for MI6 in dealing with joint intelligence.  Stephenson worked to convince Donovan, who at first was skeptical, to pitch the idea to FDR.  Soon Donovan became Stephenson’s conduit to FDR leaving out J. Edgar Hoover.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the narrative is the role played by Wendell Willkie who ran for president against FDR in 1940.  Willkie spent most of the campaign as an “interventionist,” but under pressure from Republican isolationists he switched his position.  However, once he was defeated, he once again switched positions and became one of the administrations most important spokespersons favoring intervention.  Some have questioned why he changed positions.  Hemming points out that that FDR might have threatened to expose his long affair with Irita van Doren, but no matter the motivation he became what Secretary of State Cordell Hull characterized as a strategic weapon used by the administration to help the British.

Adolf Hitler : News Photo

(General Wilhelm Keitel, Hans Thomsen, and Adolf Hitler)

Adolph Berle, a long-time ally of FDR and in charge of US intelligence operations did not want to intervene to help the British and conducted a series of investigations into Stephenson’s growing spy network and he wanted to shut it down.  This provoked Stephenson into launching an all-out attack on American isolationists.  Hemming delineates Stephenson’s new strategy aside from spreading pro-British propaganda.  Agents were dispatched to infiltrate America First organizations as well as those in favor of intervention to create support for the British.  The best of his agents was Joseph Hirschberg who escaped Belgium before the Nazis arrived.  An orthodox Jew who lost most of his family in the death camps he was involved with assassinations and worked to subsidize “Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi League to Champion Human Rights.”  This was not the only organization Stephenson funded along with creating violent showdowns between protesters on both sides to drown out coverage of Lindbergh’s speeches in daily newspapers.  Another tactic employed was called “sibs,” meaning rumors from the Latin sibillare, to whisper.  The approach was simple, make up events, mostly anti-Nazi and have them investigated by newsmen and plant them in the media, for example, photos of Nazi atrocities, stories about the capture of German pilots behind enemy lines, convince shipping companies executives concerning German saboteurs, etc.  This became quite effective as agents would tell people things in “strictest confidence, that’s the best way to start a rumor.”  Another effective tactic was the creation, in conjunction with Donovan of a forgery unit under the auspices of a Hollywood screen writer, Eric Mashwitz outside Toronto designed to produce as many faked documents and news as possible.

A key for Stephenson and the Roosevelt administration was to directly link Berlin with spying on the United States.  Henry Hoke, a direct mail specialist stumbled on Thomsen’s franking scheme.  For Stephenson this was a direct link between the Nazis and isolationists.  Another hopeful episode was conjuring up a scheme that linked Berlin to a coup in Columbia involving forgeries and other strategies.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Hemmings discussion of Stephenson’s role in trying to create a mirror MI6 in the United States.  A number of interesting characters emerge, including Ian Fleming.  Stephenson did not give up on Donovan as the head of an American spy organization until he finally agreed to become the new Coordinator of Intelligence (COI).  The result is that the British had a tremendous impact on the creation of the OSS during the war, which would morph into the CIA in 1947.  Another fascinating component to the narrative is how Hemming lays out step by step how Stephenson developed his own organization that created the right atmosphere for Washington to enter the war in Europe; facilitated American aid to Great Britain; helped beat back and unearth the isolationists; and developing a conduit to FDR.

Perhaps the greatest error made by isolationists was a speech given by Lindbergh on September 11, 1941.  Lindbergh followed a speech given by FDR the same day involving the USS Greer which had engaged a Nazi submarine in the North Atlantic signaling the onset of a shooting war between Washington and Berlin.  Lindbergh’s address in Des Moines, IA  where he blamed the real “war agitators” as being the British, the Jews, and the Roosevelt administration.  He continued with a number of anti-Semitic remarks focusing on the price  Jews would pay should a civil war break out in the United States over entrance into the war, as well as a number of anti-Semitic tropes.  This led to a backlash against Lindbergh that his movement never recovered from.  Hemmings conclusion that Lindbergh was correct that there was someone or something behind the scenes was agitating for war, but it was Stephenson, not the Jews.

Title: A Man Called Intrepid: The Incredible True Story of the Master Spy Who Helped Win World War II, Author: William Stevenson

Hemmings picture of FDR’s actions is quite interesting.  Like Lincoln during the Civil War, the president can be accused of committing impeachable offenses.  In Hemmings view that conclusion fits FDR’s actions in securing Lend-Lease, the Destroyer-Base Deal, the American intelligence relationship with the British, instructing Donovan to setup public opinion polls to ascertain what the public thought of certain policies before they were instituted, and trying to foment incidents with the Germans that would make her declare war against the United States.  If these were not impeachable, at a minimum FDR was pushing the envelope.

Hemming has written a crisp and easily read description of how the British successfully influenced American policy leading up to WWII.  Stephenson’s work was the key as was his working relationship with Donovan and indirectly with FDR.  In addition, by December, 1941 polls reflected what Churchill and Roosevelt had hoped for, the American people were ready for war. If you are interested in the onerous debate and how public opinion was transformed by a foreign power this book is very timely.

*See Philip Roth’s novel THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA whose counterfactual story centers on the defeat of FDR in the 1940 election by Charles Lindbergh.

Charles Lindbergh And Spirit Of St Louis

(Charles Lindbergh)