Gondolas and vaporetto in Canal Grande, Venice-Italy Venice - Italy July 5, 2022. View of Grand Canal in Venice, Italy with vaporetto and gondolas navigating on water. City Stock Photo

(Venice, Italy)

Exceptional historical fiction should exhibit a number of important characteristics.  First, is the story believable.  Second, does it accurately blend historical fact with fictional characters in developing its plot?  Third, are there multiple storylines within the larger narrative that come together in a rational and seamless manner?  Lastly, the writing style that maintains the reader’s interest.  If this was a checklist for successful historical fiction then Steve Berry has met all the criteria in his Cotton Malone series.  Berry, along with his wife Elizabeth are founders of History Matters, an organization dedicated to historical preservation, and an emeritus member of the Smithsonian Libraries Advisory Board along with being a New York Times bestselling author.  Berry has written eighteen Cotton Malone Novels and to this point I am up to number ten, THE PATRIOT THREAT.  As in the previous nine Berry has written, Malone has been thrown into a situation where international threats dominate.  The book is fast-paced and should appeal to non-history buffs in addition to those who enjoy a complex mystery with many moving parts.

THE PATRIOT THREAT returns a number of characters from previous books.  Chief among them is Malone’s old boss from an elite intelligence division within the Justice Department called the Magellan Billet.  Stephanie Knell, his old boss contacts Malone who is retired and running a bookshop in Denmark and asks him to locate a rogue North Korean who may have acquired some top secret Treasury Department files that could be detrimental to American national security.

Berry begins his tale in the White House of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936 as former Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon is summoned.  Their conversation is contentious as both men despise each other, particularly when the Internal Revenue Service has found that Mellon has cheated on his taxes for over $ 3 million.  Mellon offers to donate the money that will result in the National Art Gallery to offset what he owes and as he leaves he presents FDR with a piece of paper with the picture of a newly printed dollar bill connected to make a pentagram.  What does it mean, and from this point Berry has peaked the reader’s interest to continue to read on.

North view of the Smithsonian Castle

(Smithsonian Museum, Washington, DC

Berry immediately takes the reader to Venice where Malone finds himself hanging from a helicopter in a situation that has gone out of control.  Berry then switches to Atlanta, GA at Magellan Billet Headquarters as Stephanie Nell discovers a breach in the security system, supposedly involving a Treasury official. 

Berry has created a number of scenarios that will cause the reader to wonder how they will all fit together.  The first involves Kim Yong Jin, a son of North Korea’s “Great Leader” who was first in the line of succession until what was viewed as an indiscretion removed him from the family hierarchy and forced him into exile.  His younger half-brother assumed his position as next in line to succeed his father.  Kim’s anger and jealousy knew no bounds.  He created a playboy image so he would not appear to be a threat, unbeknownst to his brother he was plotting to seize power.

The second scenario involves the American Secretary of the Treasury, Joseph Levy who is trying to recover department documents which he believes posed a significant threat to the US economy.  This pitted him against the Justice Department which employed the Magellan Billet.  The missing documents dealt in some way to the passage of the 16th amendment and the right of the federal government to collect income taxes.

The third scenario involves a historical character named Haym Salomon who loaned the American government $800,000 to finance the American Revolution and was never repaid.  The family tried for years to gain repayment, but they were never compensated.  In 1925 then Secretary of the Treasury blocked any payment, and probably took the Salomon repayment documents which showed that the family was owed close to $330 billion.  In 1937 FDR ordered an investigation over the validity of the claims and Mellon’s role.  In the end the Salomon family never received any repayment.

The fourth scenario centers on a self-published book by a tax cheat who had fled the United States during his tax evasion trial named Anan Wayne Howell, who wrote THE PATRIOT THREAT which lays out the argument against the 16th amendment.  The question is how does this all fit together and what role did Andrew Mellon and Franklin Roosevelt play in the process.

Malone’s role begins rather benignly.  Hired by Stephanie Knell to observe the transfer of $20 million to “Dear Leader,” the money is a target of his brother.  The situation deteriorates and Malone finds himself knee deep in something he doesn’t quite understand.

Berry provides many insights into life in North Korea.  The poverty, malnutrition, ill health, lack of electricity, lack of freedom is on full display.  Berry explores in detail through Hana Sung, Kim’s daughter, what life was like in North Korean labor camps where people are worked to death, executed, or both.  Life in the north is harrowing and anyone deemed a threat to the regime is immediately removed to a labor camp or is shot on the spot.

Berry poses an interesting question as to whether the federal income tax is legal.  In doing so he integrates historical characters like Haym Soloman, George Mason, Andrew Mellon, Robert Morgenthau, Franklin Roosevelt, and Philander Knox and a number of fictional ones.  The book is classic Berry leaving the reader to continually ponder what will be the next turn in the novel and how everything, no matter how disparate comes together.  The next novel in the series is THE 14TH COLONY which has a strong Cold War bent and involves the possibility of Canada as part of the United States.


Grand Canal in Venice Grand canal on sunny day in Venice, Italy Venice - Italy Stock Photo



(Alaskan wilderness)

We have all heard the expression, “like father like son.”  In the case of Connor Sullivan his approach is markedly different from his father Mark.  In his excellent debut thriller, SLEEPING BEAR: A THRILLER, Connor Sullivan has written a taut suspenseful story that describes the plight of the Gale family who live in Montana but find themselves in the midst of the remnants of the Cold War with Russia that dates to the former Soviet Union.  Mark Sullivan’s approach is different in that he develops true historical figures and events and morphs them into novel format as he did with Pino Lella, an Italian teenager who guides Jews escaping the Nazis across the Alps in his award winning BENEATH THE SCARLETT SKY, and Emil and Adeline Martel who must decide what do as the Nazis push their way into the Ukraine in his most recent novel, THE LAST GREEN VALLEY.  Both authors are wonderful story tellers who know how to lure the reader into their fictional web, but their techniques diverge as Mark relies on historical characters, and Conner recreates a tableau from the past, but his presentation is fictional.

Conner Sullivan’s debut focuses on the plight of Cassie Gale, a former Army Ranger, who has reached the depths of despair after she finds her husband Derrick after he hanged himself in the family barn.  Other issues have also influenced Cassie’s psychological downfall and she decides to travel to the Alaskan wilderness to try and get her “head on straight.”  While camping she is kidnapped and winds up in a Russian prison, a plight she cannot understand.  Cassie is not the only American who has been kidnapped in the same manner from the Alaskan terrain.  Paul Brady, a former chief Petty Officer on Seal Team Two suffers from PTSD from tours in Iraq and his attempt to solve his personal issues in Alaska also bring him to a Russian prison.  A third person, Billy French, a young environmentalist who had met Cassie north of Dawson City in the Yukon has also been taken by the Russians.

Cassie happens to be the daughter of Jim Gale, a former CIA operative whose family is unaware of his past and it is interesting how Sullivan creates a scenario that links his past and present through Russian General Viktor Aleksandrovich Sokolov, Chief of SVR Lines, the Illegal Directorate in the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service.  Sokolov is an eighty-one-year-old who has strong ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin and is a throwback to the old Soviet Union in charge of torture for the KGB.

As the novel unfolds each character’s role emerges and the plot becomes increasingly complex.  Sullivan does an excellent job presenting the bureaucratic in fighting in the Russian intelligence agencies, the lack of law enforcement in Alaska to help locate and rescue those that have gone missing, the inner workings of the Gale family, and the links between Russian spies in America that include Ned and Darlene Voight who have helped the Russians extract Americans from Alaska for over thirty years to be used for experiments by Captain Akulina Yermakova, a pseudo psychologist for the Russian GRU, int heir Science Directorate.

The question that eventually dominates the novel is what is the relationship between Sokolov and Gale, and what does Cassie and her sister Emily have to do with it.  A series of interesting characters are brought to the fore that include Sergeant Meredith Plant, six months pregnant, who oversees finding Cassie for the Alaska Bureau of Investigation.  Others include Max Tobeluk, a drunken Alaskan Public Service Officer in Eagle, Alaska, Ralph Condon of the Canadian Mounted Police, Peter Trask, Emily Gale’s husband, Maverick, Cassie’s ex-Marine guide dog who plays a major role, Eve Attla, a Han village elder who knows the people and region of the search better than anyone, Susan Carter, Director of the CIA, Prescott McGavran, Gale’s handler when he was known as Robert Gaines, Earl Monks, the FBI’s expert on locating missing persons in Alaska, among several others.

Sullivan writes with an intensity and determination that makes SLEEPING BEAR: A THRILLER the type of mystery that is difficult to put down.  Sullivan uses the captured Americans as victims of a sick Russian entertainment practice of pitting them against the dregs of the Russian Gulag in combat against each other as well as conducting medical experiments on those extracted from Alaska.  Higher ups wager on this “sport” and it contributes to the tenseness of the Navy Seals rescue mission.  Sullivan’s debut is the type of book you read from cover to cover during cold winter nights when you want to curl up with a book and not pay attention to the time!

Bowhunting the Alaskan Wilderness

(A bull moose with antlers in velvet stands knee deep in the colorful tundra of Denali National Park)

THE BORDER by Don Winslow

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(The US-Mexico border)

After completing THE FORCE, the second installment of Don Winslow’s THE POWER OF THE DOG trilogy that encompasses the narco-drug world that resides in Mexico, but also a symbiotic relationship with areas of the United States, I looked forward to seeing how his fictional account with elements of fact would resolve itself.  The concluding volume, THE BORDER has just been released and it will not disappoint as it maintains Winslow’s breadth of knowledge of the purveyors of the drug trade, the intricacies of how it operates, the violent battles among the cartels, the relationship between the Mexican and American governments, and how corruption and death pass back and forth over the Mexico-United States border, themes that seem to overlay each chapter.

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(Mexican border with El Paso, TX)

Art Keller is once again the main protagonist and he maintains his ability to make enemies among key characters in the cartels, as well as members of the American government whose job it is to create and enforce drug laws.  In THE FORCE Keller’s ability to create enemies reaches new heights as he manages to alienate his own Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the United States Senate, the Mexican drug cartels, and the President of the United States.  It seems Keller has triggered a scandal that results in an investigation that spreads from Mexican poppy fields to Wall Street, all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Keller has been fighting the drug war for decades, but his focus was across the border in Mexico.  When he shifts his strategy the war on drugs will be impacted inside the United States as it rolls up several interesting individuals.

The key event takes place in Guatemala on November 1, 2012 at a supposed peace conference involved rival cartels, the Zeta and Sinaloa.  However, instead of peace it turns into a bloody shootout that results in the death of the Zeta leadership, and Adan Barrera, the head of the Sinaloa cartel, a man whose history with Keller goes back decades and as delineated in the first two books of the trilogy.  Barrera’s death cannot be confirmed for over a year, but once it conclusive the question that dominates Keller’s mindset is who will replace him, how that individual or individuals will carry on the cartel’s drug empire, and what are the implications for a drug trade with the United States that sees the volume of drugs arriving in the United States expanding, and the resulting explosion of deaths from drug overdoses.

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(The wall that separates El Paso and Juarez)

Keller’s imprint on the events in Guatemala are a well-kept secret, an operation that was rogue within American drug enforcement, though it had the President’s approval.  Keller, who will be appointed the head of the DEA because of the machinations of Texas Senator Ben O’Brien wants to radically change the DEA’s approach but he must deal with Washington’s bureaucracy, an assistant head of the DEA who opposes him and wants his job, and a presidential candidate for the 2016 election who wreaks of Donald Trump.  Further, the prison system in the United States  has a privatization component, therefore if policy is changed it could cost people in high places billions.  For years the American approach was to try and deal with the drug problem inside of Mexico.  Since the Mexican government was in bed with the cartels, with Washington’s pseudo cooperation, in order to maintain political stability, it is not surprising that the DEA and other agencies made little headway.  Keller’s new strategy is to focus on what was occurring inside the United States which leads to numerous roadblocks and an approach that had not really been implemented previously.

As in all of Winslow’s books there are layers to the overall story, and THE BORDER is no different.  Once the cartels decide to shift their export focus to heroin resulting in a major increase in drug related deaths Keller decides to do something to curtail demand in the United States and make it unprofitable for Americans involved in the trade.  The key for Keller is how does the cartel launders its drug money which leads Keller’s investigation to Wall Street.  Keller’s work is further complicated by the upcoming presidential election, an operation designated “Agitator” that calls for an undercover agent penetrating America’s finance system at a high level, and trying to implement much of his strategy in secret, away from elements in the DEA and other agencies who have a separate agenda from what Keller is trying to achieve.

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(Don Winslow, author)

As Winslow unveils his diverse plot lines characters from previous books reappear, but he also creates new ones who have a major impact on the course of the novels.  First, Dr. Marisol Cisneros, badly wounded in a previous cartel attack and the love of Keller’s life; Ignacio Esparza, Barrera’s brother-in-law; Elena Sanchez Barrera, Adan’s sister; Sean Callan and his wife Nora, Sean a former hit man for Adan Barrera and Nora his mistress; Raphael Caro, a Sinaloa god father figure who wields a great deal of influence and other narco types from the two earlier books.  Next, we meet John Dennison, who might as well be Donald Trump, candidate for president; Jacob Lerner, the second coming of Jared Kushner who is Dennison’s son-in-law who has major real estate investment issues.  The cartel figures abound, Tito Ascension, known as El Mastin who at one time was head of Esparaza security and now heads the New Jalisco cartel; Belinda Vatos, La Fosfora, in charge of security for the Nunez faction of the Sinaloa cartel; Ricardo Nunez, the head of the Sinaloa cartel; “Little” Ric Nunez, Barrera’s godson who tries to step into his empty shoes; Damien Tapia and the Renterias brothers who also try to take advantage of Adan Barrera’s death; and Darius Darnell, a black ex-con who is trying to carve out his own nitch in the drug trade centered in New York.  Keller’s allies include; Hugo Hidalgo, the son of a murdered DEA agent and assistant to Keller; Brian Mullen and Bobby Cirello, NYPD detectives working on Operation Agitator; and Admiral Roberto Orduna, Mexican Special Forces, an ally of Keller.   Chandler Clairborne is a different type of character, white collar, a syndication broker for the Berkley Group, who has links to money laundering; and Denton Howard, assistant head of DEA who supports Dennison and wants Keller’s job, among many others who impact the story.

Winslow repeatedly brings out the inequities in the war on drugs and changes that are needed as a disproportionate number of poor Hispanics and African-Americans get ensnared by the mandatory minimums endemic to the legal system.  Winslow’s views are brought out through Keller’s appearance before a Senate Committee and other avenues.  The number one reason for the increase in the heroin trade that has reached epidemic proportions is the poverty in the United States that has moved from large urban areas to small towns and rural regions. Keller, a.ka. Winslow argues the real source of the opiate problem is on Wall Street.  Corporate America ships out shops overseas, closes factories, which destroys people’s hopes and dreams resulting in pain for significant numbers of Americans.  For Winslow what is the “difference between a hedge fund manager and a cartel boss?”

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Winslow provides numerous descriptions and insights into the narco culture as he describes family life, education, funerals etc.  He takes the reader inside the US prison system and explains the daily existence of inmates  and the socio-economic hierarchy that exists and how the cartels are run from prison and how the narco types outside the prison influence what happens behind its walls.  Winslow creates characters like, Jacqui as an example of how a little girl grows up to be an addict, providing gruesome details of her acquisition of and use of drugs.  This is played out in Staten Island, NY, not Mexico.  He also creates the characters of Nico Ramirez and Flor, a nine and ten-year-old who escape Guatemala and make their way through Mexico to the US border.   The entire political culture of the cartel’s places Keller in a double bind situation.  The Sinaloa cartel is the key to the heroin trade.  If he destroys the trade the Pax Sinaloa for Mexico will end resulting in chaos and instability in the daily lives of Mexicans.  However, if he does not destroy the trade, the heroin epidemic in the United States will continue to explode.  Further the US bureaucracy is split on how to deal with the situation; the CIA and State Department collude with the Mexican government in dealing with the drug trade, while the DEA, Justice Department want to take the cartels down.

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The back story that exists throughout the novel apart from Keller’s war against the cartels are the cartels themselves.  Once Adan Barrera is dead the wars to control the Mexican drug trade recommence and the results are brutal as individuals try to make a name for themselves, and others try to recapture reputations and territory that they had previously lost to Barrera’s cartel.

The degree of financial and moral depravity described by Winslow is beyond the pale.  The inroads of the cartels into American politics and power is how the author derives his title.  The financing of the drug trade was usually in Mexico, now it has crossed the border.  By reading Winslow’s trilogy, three books in quick succession made me feel I was partaking in a penetrating journey – a voyage to many dark places that produce horror, depravity, disgust, and shame.  But the trip is one of necessity as Winslow has educated the reader, and at the same time he has produced a narrative that is a compelling view of reality even though it is supposedly a work of fiction.

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(US-Mexico border [El Paso and Juarez])


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(The USS Indianapolis)

In 1932 the USS Indianapolis was christened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the flagship of the US Pacific Fleet.  In the summer of 1945 it was chosen to complete the most highly classified naval mission of the war by delivering two large cannisters of material that was needed to assemble the Atomic bomb that was to be dropped in Hiroshima to the Tinian Islands.  Four days after completing its mission it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk resulting in over 1193 men either going down with the ship or being thrown overboard with only 316 surviving.  The result was a national scandal as the government pursued its investigation and reached a conclusion that was both unfair and completely wrong.

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(Captain William McVay III of the USS Indianapolis)

Vincent and Vladic’s incremental approach in developing the story is very important as it allows the reader to understand the scope of the tragedy, the individuals involved, and the conclusions reached.  The authors delve into the background history of the ship’s actions during the war, mini-biographies of the personnel aboard the ship, and the military bureaucracy that was responsible of the ship’s manifest and orders that consume the first third of the book.

After getting to know the important characters in the drama Vincent and Vladic transition to the actual delivery of the weapon components and follows the Indianapolis as she transverses through the Philippine Sea.  Capt. McVay asked for a destroyer escort which was standard for this type of operation but was denied, in part because of availability, and in part because he was informed by Admiral Nimitz’s assistant chief of staff and operations officer James Carter that “things were very quiet…. [and] the Japs are on their last legs and there’s nothing to worry about.”  What Carter did not mention was that ULTRA intelligence came across the deployment of four Japanese submarines on offensive missions to the Philippine Sea.”  Later, Acting Commander of the Philippine Sea Front, Commodore Norman Gillette would characterize the same intelligence as a “recognized threat.”  In addition to presenting the American side of events, the authors follow Japanese preparations for the defense of the home islands, and zeroes in on Mochitsura Hashimoto, the Commander of the Japanese submarine I-58 which would sink the Indianapolis.

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(Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto of the Japanese submarine I58 that sank the Indianapolis)

The authors follow the movements of the Indianapolis and Hashimoto’s submarine the days and hours leading up to the attack.  Five minutes before midnight on July 30, six torpedoes were fired at the Indianapolis and three hit the ship. Parts of the book read as an adventure story as the authors review calculations dealing with location and speed as the possible target begins to become clearer and clearer.  After taking the reader through the attack and resulting sinking of the ship, the reader is presented with at times a quite graphic description of the plight of the sailors who died during the attack, those who jumped off the ship, and the others who abandoned ship under Capt. McVay’s orders.  This section of the monograph can be heart wrenching as the men fight for their survival.  The carnage and psychological impact of the attack is very disconcerting.  After enduring shark attacks, living with no water and little food they resorted to cannibalism, theft, murder, and suicide.  The conditions were appalling but others formed groups employing whatever could be salvaged from the ship to create islands of men linked together by netting, rafts, life jackets, or anything else that would float.  Apart from men who became delirious and suffered from hallucinations, others found their main enemies to be hunger, dehydration, and sharks who seemed to circle everywhere, and sadly, when it seemed that an individual might be saved a shark attack would take another life.

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The most chilling part of the narrative is the description of rescue operations that began on August 2nd.  At 11:18 am Lt. Wilbur Gwinn flying a routine patrol in a PBM Mariner noticed a huge oil slick below, and after careful observation noticed a 25-mile oil slick.  The spotting of the men below sends chills down the spine of readers as the authors details of the rescue as word spread that there were hundreds of men over an 80-mile area.  Sadly, many men would die even as rescue operations commenced as they had little reserve after four days in the water.  The question must be asked, when the Indianapolis went missing from July 30 onward no one was tracking the ship carefully to report that she had not arrived at her destination?  The navy would investigate and reach a conclusion that the authors would totally discredit.

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The last third of the book is devoted to the legal battle that surrounded who was responsible for the sinking of the Indianapolis and once the decision was reached the authors spend their time describing how a wrongful conviction was finally overturned.  The authors follow the investigation and different hearings and the final court martial and analyze the testimony, conclusions, and final reports that were issued.  They point out the inconsistencies and outright lies offered by certain naval officers as they tried to rest all the blame on Capt. McVay to cover their own “asses.”  In describing the conclusions reached by the navy Vincent and Vladic point out “what was not discussed was the string of intelligence and communication failures that led to something being amiss in the first place—failures of Carter, Gillette, and Naquin, as well as Vice Admiral Murray, a member of the court, were well aware.” (317)

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The authors dissect the report that called for McVay to be court martialed, especially the information that was left out.  For the navy brass that had two ships sunk in the waning moments of the war resulting in over 1000 casualties, someone had to be found responsible.  The materials presented reflect where the real blame should have fallen.  At Guam, failure to provide an escort for the Indianapolis.  Further, Guam took no action when Fleet Radio Unit Pacific intelligence indicated a Japanese submarine had sunk a vessel in the area that the Indianapolis was known to be present.  At Leyte, the Philippine Sea Frontier Organization failed to keep track of the Indianapolis and take action when the vessel failed to appear at its scheduled time when a Japanese submarine was located near its line of course.

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(70th reunion of USS Indianapolis survivors)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the weak defense put up by Navy Captain John Parmelee Cady who by this time had little interest in being a lawyer and was given little time to prepare a defense.  Cady’s approach is highlighted by the testimony submarine combat expert Captain Glynn Robert Donaho whose statement should have helped exonerate McVay, but did not.  The entire transcript of witness testimony is interesting particularly that of the man whose ship sank the Indianapolis, Mochitsura Hashimoto.  Other fascinating components of the book are some of the heroes involved in publicizing and working behind the scenes to bring about justice for the McVay family and those of the survivors and men lost at sea.  Chief among them was Commander William Toti who stood at the helm of the namesake submarine the Indianapolis.  Another is Hunter Scott, an eleven year old boy who worked assiduously on the history of the disaster and in the end testified before a Senate Committee.  Without their efforts and numerous others, one wonders if the degree of closure that was finally achieved would have come about.

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(Captain William Toti)

As one reads the narrative, you grow angrier and angrier at the US Navy for its malfeasance and outright culpability in ruining a man’s life and providing false information for the families of the victims of the disaster.  As the authors press on with their account the redemption that is finally earned it does not reduce the uncalled for actions of so many in the Navy and the US government. The authors do a nice job ferreting out those responsible, but that does not detract from the fact that the lies were seen as truth for decades.

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(The USS Indianapolis)


(William Donovan, the man who headed the Office of Strategic Services  during World War II)

At a time when people are concerned with government spying on its citizens, it is useful to examine how two world wars and the Cold War led to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Douglas Waller, a former correspondent for Time and Newsweek, and the author of WILD BILL DONOVAN: THE SPYMASTER WHO CREATED THE OSS AND MODERN AMERICAN ESPIONAGE has revisited the origins of the CIA by examining the men that William Donovan trained as intelligence operatives who went on to head America’s foremost spy agency.  In his new book, DISCIPLES: THE WORLD WAR II MISSIONS OF THE CIA DIRECTORS WHO FOUGHT FOR BILL DONOVAN, Waller follows the careers of Allen W. Dulles, William Casey, Richard Helms, and William Colby, and their interactions with Donovan as their careers  culminated in Langley, Va.  When I first picked up the book I was concerned that Waller would rehash a great deal of the same material he covered in his biography of Donovan.  To my satisfaction this is not the case.  There is some repetition, but the book can stand on its own merits as Waller has written a wonderful adventure story that weaves together the experiences of the “disciples.”  Based on archival material, the most prominent secondary sources, and pertinent memoirs the book is an excellent read for spy buffs and the general public.

Waller begins the book with short biographical sketches of each individual and the similarities in their backgrounds.  Waller points out that there was a common thread that ran through Dulles, Casey, Helms, and Colby.  Each was smart, intellectual, and “voracious readers, thoughtful, and creatures of reason….these were strong, decisive, supremely confident men of action, doers who believed they could shape history rather than let it control them.”  When one follows their careers Waller’s description appears extremely accurate.  Though their personalities differed; Dulles comes across with a much larger ego who rubbed many in power the wrong way; Casey, more of an introvert who worked behind the scenes and new how to navigate the bureaucratic morass of government; Helms and Colby, more adventurous and hands on, the result of which was they all would ascend the intelligence ladder at different rates to finally emerge as leaders in their own right.  All had important relationships with Donovan; some more testy, particularly Dulles who wanted Donovan’s job as head of the Organization of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, but in the end they worked together and laid the foundation for America’s post war intelligence operations.

(Allen W. Dulles, headed American intelligence operations against Germany during WWII and as CIA Director under Eisenhower launched numerous covert operations)

Waller traces the career of each of the disciples and what stands out is their roles during World War II.  Donovan was charged by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create an espionage operation during the war by choosing him as the Coordinator of Information, a position that would morph into the head of the OSS.  Waller examines the rise of Allen Dulles first, tracing his career from World War I, his experiences as a diplomat at Versailles, and his relationship with his brother, John Foster, and their law firm Sullivan and Cromwell.  Dulles emerges as a self-confident individual who sought total control of all operations. Posted to Berne, Switzerland during the war, Dulles developed important sources though he was at times over the top with his predictions.  On a number of occasions he resented Donovan, but in the end went along with his boss.  William Casey’s education as a spy began as a lawyer in the 1930s where he became an expert on the tax code dealing with War Department contracts.  This attracted Donovan interest and he would recruit Casey for the OSS in 1943.  Casey, an organizational expert was sent to London where he worked under David Bruce, and implemented a management style that would lead him to oversee intelligence assets and commando operations in France and Germany.  Richard Helms joined the navy after Pearl Harbor and worked on strategies to deal with German submarine warfare.  By 1943 he was forced into OSS Psyops and by the end of the war he was sent to London to organize operations in Germany for the post war period.  William Colby, the most liberal of the four and a supporter of FDR, studied in France in the late 1930s, witnessed the Spanish Civil War, and developed a hatred for communism.  He would become a commando during the war and showed tremendous physical courage behind enemy lines in France and Norway.

(Richard Helms after a career in intelligence dating back to WWII became CIA Director in the 1960s and was eventually fired by President Nixon)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how Waller introduces individuals who interacted with the OSS, and in particular the “disciples” during the war.  FBI Head, J. Edgar Hoover despised Donovan seeing him as a threat and unleashed his own agents to spy on the OSS.  We meet Julia Child, later known as “the cooking guru” for woman in the 1950s.  Along the way Arthur Goldberg emerges as a link to European labor movements, who would later serve on the Supreme Court.  British spymasters come and go throughout the book, particularly William Stephenson who at one time had an office next to Dulles in Rockefeller Center.  Fritz Kolbe, the OSS’ most important agent who allowed Dulles to penetrate the German Foreign Office in Berlin and whose work saved the lives of many allied soldiers takes a prominent role.  These and many other individuals and their own stories lend a great deal to Waller’s narrative.

(William Colby was a trained commando during World War II and parachuted into France and Norway who later became CIA Director under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford)

Waller does a nice job showing how the careers of the “disciples” intersected with Donovan during the war.  For example, Donovan’s visitations to commando training, witnessing Colby’s preparation for parachuting into France.  Dulles and Casey intersected as both were smuggling agents into France to link up with and supply the French resistance.  Casey was in charge of monitoring commando drops like Colby’s into France.  Casey also funneled Dulles’ intelligence reports to Washington, and in a number of cases felt that they were highly exaggerated. Helms finally left for London in early 1945 and was supposed to organize Dulles’ mission for Germany, but because of Hitler’s last ditch effort in France in the Ardennes, he never carried out the assignment and wound up with Casey overseeing agents in Germany.  In fact Casey and Helms shared an apartment in London at the time!   Colby and Casey would meet at General George S. Patton’s headquarters in September, 1944 as Casey became Donovan’s eyes in Europe and eventually would replace David Bruce as head of London operations, an appointment that Dulles greatly resented.  Donovan felt that Dulles was a poor administrator and lacked the leadership skills that Casey possessed.

Waller spends a great deal of time on the actions of American commandos behind German lines.  He describes Colby’s training in detail and takes the reader along with these men as they parachute into France and Germany, exhibiting courage and discipline as they try to reinforce the French resistance, and later gather intelligence in Germany to try and bring the conflict to a faster conclusion.  Waller also spends a great deal of time discussing the infighting among the “disciples” and their private lives.  By doing so the reader gains insights into each of these men and it helps explains how their post-World War II careers would evolve into directorships of the CIA.

The final section of Waller’s narrative focuses on American intelligence policies and actions during the Cold War as the OSS evolves into the CIA and focuses its attention on the communist threat.  Once President Truman forces Donovan into retirement Dulles takes over the newly created CIA and his reputation for mismanagement will result in what Blanch Wiesen Cook, in her book DECCLASSIFIED EISENHOWER, refers to as the “coup presidency.”  Dulles would launch covert operations in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, and the disastrous U-2 Incident, all resulting in his eventual downfall.  Dulles was succeeded by Helms, who unlike his predecessor believed in tight organizational control.  His mantra was “that there should be no surprises on his watch” and he was very popular within the agency.  Helms would be fired by Richard Nixon in part because he refused to cooperate with break-ins and cover ups associated with Watergate.  Colby’s tenure as director is most remembered for his testimony before the Church Committee in 1974 as leaked CIA documents called for congressional action.  Colby was the most politically liberal of all the “disciples” and this played a role in his cooperation with Congress which he was vilified for by Helms and Casey.  But, as Waller correctly points out his testimony probably saved the CIA from a wholesale reorganization that would have ruined its effectiveness.  The last of the “disciples,” William Casey took over the agency under Ronald Reagan and he tried to create the atmosphere that existed under his hero, William Donovan, who like his mentor “kept the door open to all ideas for operations, even the wacky ones.”  Casey wanted to recreate the can do culture of the OSS from WWII for the 1980s, focusing on the communist menace instead of the Nazis.  This would result in repeated machinations in dealing with Afghanistan, Central America, and the Iran-Contra scandal in particular.

(William Casey was a successful “spy master” during World War II who became CIA Director under Ronald Reagan)

Waller has written a fascinating account of the men who followed Donovan as leaders in American intelligence, and current implications for some of the policies they pursued.   Today we are faced with the ramifications of Edward Snowden’s leaks and issues over NSA and other surveillance.  It would be interesting to speculate how these gentlemen would respond to these issues.

(Major General William J. Donovan who led America’s intelligence operations during World War II)



Simon Winchester’s latest book, PACIFIC: SILICON CHIPS AND SURFBOARDS, CORAL REEFS AND ATOM BOMBS, BRUTAL DICTATORS, FADING EMPIRES, AND THE COMING COLLISION OF THE WORLD’S SUPERPOWERS reinforces why I am such a fan and admirer of this eclectic social scientist.  No matter what topic Mr. Winchester takes on he has the uncanny ability to unwind what is a standard interpretation or history of a well-known topic and ferret out little known details to make something that is quite interesting, fascinating.  The list of Winchester’s books are impressive, whether he is exploring the history of the Atlantic, the men responsible for the creation of the English Oxford Dictionary, the annihilation of the volcano island of Krakatoa, or the story of the geologist, William Smith and how he geologically mapped the underside of the earth, and many more, the reader emerges educated and entertained by a master story teller.

In his current venture, Winchester explores historical aspects of the Pacific Ocean or in contemporary parlance the Pacific Rim.  Winchester is a social scientist par excel lance, employing history, political science, geography, and geology as he explores his diverse topics.  Where else can a reader learn about such a conglomeration of stories?  He begins his journey by describing a flight over the Pacific beginning in Hawaii and immediately provides a history of the international dateline and the importance of this massive ocean on our daily lives.  The blue expanse of the Pacific dominates the planet and encompasses one-third of the earth’s surface and forty-five percent of the planet’s surface waters.  Despite its beauty and hidden treasures Winchester describes how the Pacific has been a dumping ground throughout modern history.  America and its allies have conducted nuclear tests in the Marshall and Gilbert Islands among other locations.  Biological testing has contaminated numerous islands and two million gallons of Agent Orange are stored near the Johnson Atoll Islands and rockets carrying atomic weapons have exploded in the region.  What has been created is an ecological nightmare in many places.  It is a shame as Winchester correctly points out that “the Pacific Ocean is the inland sea of tomorrow’s world,” much in the same way the Mediterranean Sea was in the Ancient world, and the Atlantic Ocean was for the modern world.  Therefore improving our knowledge of the ocean and preserving it as best we can is so important.

Winchester concentrates his narrative from 1950 to 2014 as he describes the Pacific Ocean as an “atomic ocean” because of all the nuclear testing.  The narrative of events that he presents in each chapter seem unrelated, but taken as a whole we witness an important history of the Pacific.  Winchester’s first self-contained chapter describes the story of the Bikini Islands and the effects of the testing of the hydrogen bomb.  He then moves on to the invention of the transistor radio in the 1960s and its impact on society.  Winchester then introduces us to the film Gidget as an introduction to the importance of surfing and the industry it spawned to the Pacific culture.  We next meet the “hermit kingdom” of North Korea and revisit the Pueblo Affair of 1968 and other incidents that make the Pyongyang government so dangerous, even today.  Those interested in Australia will visit her history and her evolution from a backward, racist society to a more enlightened one in the 1970s and its reversion to its former “Crocodile Dundee” reputation after 1989 as it can’t seem to make up its mind as to whether it wants to be a Pan Pacific version of Canada and the United States or a backward mulish and racist country that cannot decide if it wants to accept non-whites as immigrants for their country.  Another issue that is extremely important for Australia is its approach to its coral reefs that have been damaged and are threatened with disappearance sooner than scientists ever imagined.  As Winchester aptly points out, the Australian government must decide what is more important, mining interests or the natural ecology of its coastline.

(Mt. Pitubo eruption in the Philippines on June 15, 1991)

Winchester dissects weather patterns, natural resources, plant life, tectonic mayhem, ecology, i.e.; describing areas of the Pacific as “garbage gyres,” through various discoveries and how they affect us. Of course, no history of the Pacific could be complete without a discussion of China’s evolution into a major economic and military power and what that means for the future of the Pacific region and the planet in general.  This evolution is reported in pure Winchesteresque manner as the author relates the Mount Pitubo volcanic eruption in the Philippines on June 15, 1991, the second largest volcanic eruption of the last century, to the decline of the American naval presence in the Pacific to the emergence of the Chinese goal of projecting a deep blue water navy.  The eruption resulted in the loss of the Subic Bay Naval and Clark Airforce bases in the region and created a military vacuum that the Chinese have been eager to fill.  Winchester describes numerous examples of how the Chinese have projected their newly acquired naval power in the South China Sea, the Yellow Sea, and the East China Sea and what it has meant to its Asian neighbors and has resulted in a number of close encounters with American ships and planes.

(the author, Simon Winchester)

There are so many interesting and insightful tidbits that Winchester puts forth in the narrative, that readers of many different interests will be satiated.  The role of the Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs and President Truman’s decision to allow thermonuclear testing in the Pacific in 1950 and its implication for our world is most important.  Winchester’s descriptions of the Marshallese people and the destruction of their culture is never talked about by historians. As a young boy I used to listen to New York Yankee baseball games on a small Sony transistor radio under my pillow never thinking about how it got there.  The chapter on Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka and their discoveries that morphed into the Sony Corporation is fascinating as the consumer electronics industry that was born in Tokyo is detailed and finally explains what was hidden under my pillow for many baseball calendars.  With the transistor radio in hand Winchester moves on to the art of surfing.  Known as “wave gliding” for over a century Winchester describes how the release of an “unexceptional film” in conjunction with the discovery of new materials created the polyurethane surf board that took a Polynesian invention and transformed it into a worldwide sport and industry.  Perhaps one of the most important aspects of the book is Winchester’s discussion of the relationship between the creation of the 38trh parallel after World War II separating North and South Korea, the seizure of the USS Pueblo, and the sinking of the RMS Queen Elizabeth and how their intertwining leads the reader to the explanation of the end of the colonization of Hong Kong and its emergence under Chinese control in 1997.  The Alvin, a three person submersible is described as it allowed scientists from Woods Hole, MA to locate many of the most significant deep-seas structures and assisted in the undersea mapping of the Pacific’s mid-ocean range system causing armies of geophysicists to uncover amazing discoveries.  Along the way Winchester introduces us to many inventors, political figures, scientists, and everyday people that have impacted our daily lives, yet most of us will have never run across them.  These and many other aspects of the book, particularly Winchester’s discussion of the interplay between Polynesian culture and the west will provide hours of entertainment and thought for any reader.

Simon Winchester not only is an excellent social scientist, he is a wonderful stylist and his writing is very easy to digest as your eyes fly across the pages.  PACIFIC is a fascinating work of many social sciences and is the type of book that should produce a wide audience, I give it five stars!

THE ENDS OF THE EARTH by Robert Goddard

The Ends of the Earth

The journey of James Maxted (Max) begun in the first volume of Robert Goddard’s World Wide Trilogy continues in the third volume, THE ENDS OF THE EARTH. The focus shifts to Japan as Max is determined to bring his investigation of his father’s death, Sir Henry Maxted, a British diplomat to a conclusion.  In the first two installments we learn that Max does not accept the verdict of the Parisian police that his father had committed suicide and he is bent on restoring his father’s reputation and finally learn the truth.  Max is certain his father was murdered and everything seems to center on a failed Japanese nationalist attempt to assassinate the Russian Tsarevitch upon his visit to Tokyo in 1891.  The “Dark Ocean” is a Japanese nationalist organization that hoped to prevent any improvement in Russo-Japanese relations, as they were focused on Japanese expansion in the Far East.

Many of the characters from the previous novels reappear in THE ENDS OF THE EARTH; Sam Twentyman, Max’s engineer from World War I; Malory Hollander, an assistant to Schools Morahan; Horace Appleby, a British secret agent, and they with their allies confront the xenophobic Count Iwazu Tomura, a nationalist leader with his own murderous agenda as they try to block the sale of Frederick Lemmer’s spy network to the Japanese government.  As in the two earlier novels, the book possesses numerous twists and turns one would expect from a Goddard story.  Goddard’s description of the historical period is very accurate.  The infighting in the Japanese government over expansion and honor is a major theme.  The difficulties between Russia and Japan over the Far East would culminate in the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 and continue thereafter is accurate.  Goddard also creates a number of documents and letters that keep the reader abreast of what took place in the previous novels that allows the current volume to make sense.

The plot is very suspenseful as Max’s quest continues, but as the story evolves Max is presented with a number of situations that blindside him.  At times in the novel it appears that things are about to settle down, but Goddard will then introduce a new character or bring back an old one from the previous volumes to twist the plot even further.  Goddard seems to have a low opinion of human nature as most of his characters seem to be seeking some sort of revenge. Max’s goal is to find the letter that Jack Farngold, an old friend whose sister is married to Tomura had sent his father in 1917. The purpose of the letter was to warn him about Tomura and Lemmer, which would explain Sir Henry’s death.  As he proceeds Max will learn things about his past that are shocking and will force him to confront Tomura as he tries to uncover the mystery of his own birth.

Throughout the novel Goddard constantly provides hints from the perspective of 1919 of what to expect from Japan in the future.  Goddard’s knowledge of Japanese history and geography is an asset as he sets his scenes and allows the reader insights into Japanese culture and politics between 1891 and 1919.  The novel is very fast paced and at times I found myself jotting down who some of the characters were because they came and then disappeared at a rapid rate.  Despite the numerous characters and shifting plot lines, the novel is surprisingly easy to follow if one pays attention.  Despite a storyline seems to bring closure at the book’s end, in true Goddard fashion there are hints that some of these characters may reappear once again in the future. If you enjoyed THE WAYS OF THE WORLD and THE CORNERS OF THE WORLD, Goddard’s final installment will not disappoint.

The Ends of the Earth

IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE by Hampton Sides

Hampton Sides is a very engaging writer who has taken his readers through a number of diverse adventures.  Whether hunting down James Earl Ray for the assassination of Martin Luther King; detailing the mission of US Army Rangers in January 1945 behind Japanese lines in the Philippines; ; or exploring the role of Kit Carson in the American west, Sides has always been able to break down each topic to capture the attention of his readers.  His latest effort, IN THE KINGDOM OF ICE, is no exception as he tells the story of the USS Jeannette which set sail from San Francisco in July, 1879.  Sides describes the origins of the voyage and its place in navigational history and he produces what might be his finest book yet.

The narrative traces the development of the idea that there was a warm water path through the Arctic ice flows that would enable an expedition to reach the North Pole.  The story begins with the disappearance of the Polaris, a ship Captained by Charles Hall, that was sailing north off of Greenland in 1872 and the failed rescue mission that was attempted by the “Little Juniata,” a much smaller ship.  The rescue boat had traveled over 400 miles through large chunks of ice broken off icebergs and was Captained by George DeLong, an Annapolis graduate, who upon returning to New York explained to his wife Emma what he experienced and she realized that “the polar virus was in George’s blood to stay.” (10)    DeLong knew he was bitten by the “arctic fever,” and began to seek funding for a return trip to the Arctic region in search of a passage to the North Pole.  As Delong planned he came in contact with a number of important and colorful characters including James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the publisher, editor in chief and sole owner of the New York Herald, the largest and most influential newspaper in the world.  Bennett was also the third richest man in America and believed that newspapers should not merely report stories, but should create them.  His most famous involved sending a correspondent, Henry Stanley to Africa to locate Dr. David Livingstone, which took people by storm.  Bennett believed that an Arctic voyage would create even more interest and newspaper sales.  Another major figure was Professor August Heinrich Petermann, a German theoretician who concluded that the Open Polar Sea Theory was valid.  Petermann believed that “the ice pack as a whole forms a mobile belt on whose polar side the sea is more or less ice free.” (60)  Petermann also published numerous maps of the Arctic and Siberian region and was seen as the most reliable source of information for any polar excursion.  Much to DeLong’s chagrin later in the narrative, the German theorist’s ideas were all wrong resulting in disastrous consequences.  Once Bennett is convinced to finance a new voyage with DeLong in command the reader follows the preparation of a new vessel that is rechristened the Jeannette (named after Bennett’s estranged sister), the detailed planning, and the choosing and training of the crew.

As a back drop to the exploratory adventure, Sides reminds the reader of the major technical and scientific advances of the day by describing the 1876 Central Exposition in Philadelphia which was attended by the likes of George Eastman, Alexander Graham Bell, George Westinghouse, and Thomas Alva Edison (whose invention, arc lighting would be a total failure during the Jeannette’s voyage).  The author describes major new inventions and products including Heinz ketchup and Hires Root Beer as people came to observe from all over the world.  The US Navy, politicians and the business community all favored the expedition and it became a cause célèbre in the United States.

The ship departed San Francisco on July 8, 1879 under the command of George DeLong.  Its crew is made up of experts in all nautical fields and is very optimistic on departure.  As the USS Jeanette steamed north toward the Bering Strait, scientists and bureaucrats digested new data from ships returning from the Arctic region, and they discerned that Petermann’s ideas that DeLong was basing his path on did not exist.  “The portal DeLong was aiming for offered no real gate of entrance into the Arctic Ocean….the North Pacific Ocean, has practically speaking, no northern outlet; Bering Strait is but a cul de sac. (143)  By September, 1879, DeLong realized that the “thermometric gateway to the North Pole [was] a delusion and a snare.” (162). at this point on Sides describes how the Jeanette becomes imprisoned in the ice for almost a year, though because of the ice flow the ship does not remain stagnant.  The crew will remain in high spirits but ultimately when the ship is released from the ice the ship has to deal with loose chunks of ice and poor weather.  DeLong is not certain of his path and sends his chief engineer, George Melville on a dangerous reconnaissance mission when land is located.  While Melville is gone lead poison overtakes the crew.  By June, 1880 another ship is sent by the US Navy to learn what has happened to the Jeannette.   Captained by Calvin Hooper, with the naturalist John Muir as part of the crew, the USS Corwin is unsuccessful in locating the missing vessel.  Circumstances become dire for the Jeannette as it is encased in ice for another year and it finally will sink in June 1881.  The crew will escape and split up into three boats and make for Siberia to try and survive.

Sides is at his best as he describes the perilous journey as weather, unkind geography, and loneliness set in.  The author offers a unique and often amazing description of DeLong and his crew as they sail and trek across the ice, slush, and open water as they sought the Siberian land mass.  Details of the topography they dealt with, their physical strength and will power all place the reader among the crew as they tried to overcome the hand that Mother Nature had dealt them as each day became a separate battle for survival.  DeLong and his men were always up against the Arctic clock, when would the warm weather end?  By August 1881, DeLong had to burn the sleds that pulled his boats, making the remainder of their journey that more difficult.  By September 19, 1881 they were down to four days worth of provisions.  The remainder of the story is one of human will against the elements.  The three boats split up, never to be rejoined again.  DeLong sends his two best men ahead to try and reach a settlement to find aid.  It is when these two men reach Yakutsk, a Siberian village of 5000 people they are reunited with George Melville and a few men from the second boat.  It is with the aid of the Russian Governor-General, George Tchernieff who states that unlike today, “that Russia has your back.”  Melville launches an expedition to return to the ice to look for DeLong and his men and by March, 1882 he will uncover DeLong’s “ice journals,” maps, and other writings that were last dated in October, 1881.  Needless to say, shortly thereafter the bodies of these men were found.

The conclusion that Sides reaches is that courage and loyalty dominated the mission of the USS Jeannette under the leadership of Captain DeLong.  The capacity of George Melville’s commitment and identification with his captain and friend are compelling and explain his dogged determination to rescue DeLong and his crew once he reaches the safety of Yakutsk.  Sides goes on to describe Melville’s commitment to DeLong’s widow, Emma and the mission that he would carry to his grave.  Sides’ research and documentation is impeccable and there is little to question about his account as he has access to all of DeLong’s papers and other important materials.  He presents a work of history that reads like the best adventure fiction that I have read in a long time, and the book should spark interest for all who seek a story about the triumph and loss of the human spirit.