ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: AMERICA’S GRAND STRATEGIST by Justin Vaisse

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(Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s National Security Advisor)

When one thinks about the most influential people in the conduct of American foreign policy since World War II, the term the “Wise Men” comes to mind.  Historical figures like Dean Acheson, John J. McCloy, Charles Bohlen, Robert Lovett, George Kennan, and Averill Harriman helped direct US policy during the Cold War but by the 1960s a new foreign policy elite began to replace the establishment.  The opinions of the wise men were still consulted but a new generation of individuals emerged.  Contemplating the new elite, the name Henry Kissinger seems to be front and center as the dominating force under Presidents Nixon and Ford, but a person with a similar background story hovered in the wings, Zbigniew Brzezinski.  There are numerous biographies written about Kissinger, but up until today none of Brzezinski.  Justin Vaisse, who directs the policy planning staff in France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with a workmanlike translation by Catherine Porter has filled the void with the new biography, ZBIEGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: AMERICA’S GRAND STRATEGIST.

Vaisse’s book is more than a biography of his subject. It does review and assess Brzezinski’s private life as a traditional life story might do, but places its greatest emphasis an intellectual survey of President Carter’s National Security head’s ideas and how they affected his policies and America’s interests around the world.  The book is sure to be considered an important contribution to the literature that tries to explain and assess America’s strategy and impact in the foreign policy sphere during the Cold War, and is certain to be the most important book that encapsulates Brzezinski life’s work to date.

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(Brzezinski playing chess with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin at Camp David)

The author follows the trajectory of Brzezinski’s career from a rising academic at Harvard University to a distinguished professorship at Columbia, a career move that was in the end a disappointment at not gaining tenure in Cambridge, but more importantly it brought him into the New York foreign policy community nexus that led to his association with the Council of Foreign Relations and its publication arm, Foreign Affairs.  The late 1950s saw Brzezinski evaluating US policy through numerous articles and trying to gain access to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson offering ideas and policy recommendations which included some domestic insights.  By this time he realized that he did not want to rely on an academic career for his life’s work, but sought to have a major impact on actual policy and events. During the Johnson administration he became a member of the Policy Planning Staff and his views coincided with Johnson and McNamara’s on Vietnam.  He offered views on the Third World, East-West relations, and the importance of China which he grew interested in to broaden his reputation and not being pigeon holed as only a Sovietologist.  By 1968 the foreign policy establishment underwent change and Brzezinski was at the forefront as the new elite began to emerge.

Kissinger and Brzezinski were the masterminds of the new elite.  They knew how to build on the capital they had accumulated in academia, the media, society and politics, resulting in public visibility, networking, and political status as advisors to both Republicans and Democrats.  As Vaisse traces Kissinger’s career one can see early on, i.e., the 1968 presidential campaign, what a duplicitous egoist Kissinger had become.  As David Habersham described him. He was “a rootless operator in the modern superstate.”

 

Brzezinski’s ego was quite developed, but nowhere near his former colleague.  Brzezinski’s greatest asset was his intellectual brilliance.  By 1968 he had joined the Humphrey for president campaign as the main foreign policy strategist and advisor.  This association allowed him to be perceived as a universal expert as he helped form, along with David Rockefeller, the Trilateral Commission, taking residency in Japan for a year to enhance his portfolio, and warning Democratic Party leaders to be careful of the leftwing movement of the party that would result in the McGovern debacle.  By this time Brzezinski was an excellent tactician and part of his strength was his ability to build on his academic research to implement policy recommendations.

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(President Carter, Brzezinski, and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance)

The author dissects Brzezinski’s intellectual impact through his writing.  I remember reading the SOVIET BLOC:  UNITY AND CONFLICT years ago in graduate school, which he had revised to add a section on the developing Sino-Soviet conflict and its impact on US strategy.  In addition, his BETWEEN TWO AGES: AMERICA’S ROLE IN THE TECHNOCRATIC ERA argued that the Soviet Union was in gradual decline as it was missing the train of the technetronic change, where the US was coming aboard fully, which would allow Washington to meet the needs of the Third World.  Many have argued that Brzezinski’s views on the Soviet Union stemmed from his Polish heritage and Catholic faith.  But when one examines his views, it cannot be denied that his family history influenced his intellectual development, but his ideas and recommendations were too nuanced to be hemmed in by any obsession with Moscow.  His goal was to be objective and allow any perceived prejudices as an advisor to cloud and diminish his credibility.  Vaisee argues for the most part he was able to accomplish this despite being labeled by many as an anti-Soviet hawk.  A case in point is his view of Détente, negotiated by the Nixon administration in 1972, but by the time Brzezinski became President Carter’s National Security Advisor it was clear that Moscow was pushing the envelope in the Horn of Africa, Angola, and Cuba and he advised Carter to take a more adversarial position.  This brought him in conflict with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance who rejected this hard line approach, particularly when Brzezinski wanted to manipulate the “China Card” in dealing with the Soviet Union.

There are many aspects of the book that are fascinating.  These areas include a comparison of Kissinger and Brzezinski’s rise to prominence; Brzezinski’s excellent relationship with President Carter; whether Brzezinski can be considered a neo-conservative; and an analysis of Brzezinski’s predictions of a period of twenty years-discussing those that turned out to be accurate and those that did not.  What is clear is that Brzezinski’s view of the Cold War remained fairly consistent for decades.  He always favored the preservation of a strong military.  Second, the role of nationalisms and divisions within the communist bloc which led him to endorse policies that would exacerbate those issues, and finally, the role of ideology, which led him to support the actions of American radio broadcasts aimed across the Iron Curtain.

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Vaisse argues forcefully that Brzezinski worked hard to restore America’s leadership in the Third World, especially trying to reach an accommodation in the Middle East, normalize relations with Latin America, and push for a rearrangement in Southern Africa.  The Camp David Accords, the Panama Canal Treaty, the opening with China, and emphasis on human rights went a long way to achieve these goals.  Many point to the uneven policy with Iran that resulted in the overthrow of the Shah and the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Soviet Brigade in Cuba, and the Russian invasion of Afghanistan as Carter’s legacy.  But one must remember that American policy toward Iran was dysfunctional and based on a false premise dating back to the overthrow of Mohammad Mossedegh in 1953 which the Carter administration continued.  Further, many accused Brzezinski of creating a trap that lured the Russians into the quagmire of Afghanistan which in the end helped bring down the Soviet Union. Whatever the historical record, the collective memory that deals with the Carter administration’s foreign policy is the humiliation at the hands of Iran during the hostage crisis, and one of projected weakness overseas.

For those who argue that Brzezinski was responsible for starting the new Cold War after Détente failed, Vaisse points out that the Russian archives dealing with the period reflect that the Soviet leadership had “become sclerotic, and a prisoner almost of the institutional dynamics of their own system.”  In fact the disastrous decision to invade Afghanistan was made by a small group in the Politburo which ignored the opposition of the military, Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, and those in the embassy in Kabul.  As far as disagreements and controversy surrounding the Vance-Brzezinski relationship, the author provides details and analysis of their policy differences and its effect on overall American strategy.  The key for Vaisse is how President Carter managed their conflict and at times he could not make overall strategic judgements which led to confusion inside the administration and how our allies and adversaries perceived us.

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(Henry Kissinger)

The strength of Vaisse’s effort lies in his assiduous research and careful analysis of Brzezinski’s books and journal articles, be they purely academic or writings that targeted a more general audience.  The author examines all of his major books and opinions in journals and his conclusions and insights are based on this approach.  Vaisse does not get bogged down in family issues, but concentrates on career developments and why certain life decisions were made.  No matter what you think about the life and work of Brzezinski, one must agree that his impact on US foreign policy was just as, or almost as important as that of Kissinger, the difference being that Brzezinski stayed in the background more, though he was not shy about seeking the bright light of publicity at times.  For Vaisse the key to understanding Bzrezinski’s staying power was an enduring legacy of strategic vision and political independence which is evident throughout the book.  Apart from a somewhat trenchant style the book should be considered the preeminent work on Brzezinski and will be sought out by those interested in his life for years to come.

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

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

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(Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Nuclear talks with Iran)

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

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

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

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

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(North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un)

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

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FROM COLD WAR TO HOT PEACE by Michael McFaul

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(Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama)

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

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

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(picture captures well the Obama-Putin relationship)

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

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

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(Russian President Dimitri Medvedev)

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

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

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

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

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(Russian troops in eastern Ukraine)

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

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

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(Russian bombers deployed over Syria)

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

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(Syrian President Bashir Assad and Vladimir Putin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Secretary of State Dean Acheson)

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

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

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(Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov)

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

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

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(Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov and Joseph Stalin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(President Truman and SOS Marshall)

DIRECTORATE S: THE CIA AND AMERICA’S WARS IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN, 2001-2016 by Steve Coll

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(Bagram US Air Force Base, Afghanistan)

In 2004 Steve Coll earned his second Pulitzer Prize for GHOST WARS: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE CIA, AFGHANISTAN AND BIN LADEN, FROM THE SOVIET INVASION TO SEPTEMBER 10, 2001.  The book provided a reliable analytical approach as it explained what led to al-Qaeda’s rise amidst Afghanistan’s civil war which culminated with the attack on September 11th.  Coll’s new book DIRECTORATE S: THE CIA AND AMERICA’S SECRET WARS IN AFGHANISTAN AND PAKISTAN, 2001-2016 picks up where GHOST WARS leaves off and attempts to deal with a number of important questions pertaining to a war that caused the death of over 2400 soldiers and contractors with more than 20,000 wounded, many of which suffered life altering injuries.

In his latest volume Coll effectively explains how the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 fostered a revival of al-Qaeda and the eventually the Taliban, allied terrorist networks, and branches of ISIS.  Further, he examines the connection between American, Afghan, and Pakistani policies, and the failure to eliminate jihadi terrorism.  Coll concentrates on the CIA, ISI, and Afghan intelligence services in developing his analysis and narrative.  Coll interviewed over 500 people for the book, made numerous trips to the region, and has excellent command of the research provided by scores of journalists and scholars who have also written on aspects of the Afghan War, the roles of Pakistan, and the United States government.

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(Hamid Karzai, President, Afghanistan 2004-2014)

Coll’s harshest criticism rests with the Pakistani government and its duplicitous intelligence service that was obsessed with India.  The ISI (Inter Service Intelligence) was responsible for the creation of the Taliban going back to the 1990s.  Coll explains the relationship between the Taliban and ISI, the different agendas of each, and the most important personalities involved, from Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban, to Ashfaq Kayani, the head of the ISI, to Amrullah Saleh, the head of the Afghani N.D.S.  The ISI is broken down into different directorates and Coll concentrates on Directorate S which was the locus of Pakistan’s covert operation to aid the Taliban in Afghanistan, aid Kashmiri guerillas against India, and other violent Islamist radicals.  For Pakistan, the Taliban was their ace in the whole because from President Parvez Musharraf on down they believed that the US did not have the staying power to remain in Afghanistan. They needed to have a major player in the Afghanistan game, particularly after 2006 when the Taliban’s resurgence began and affect daily life in Kabul and other major Afghani cities.

Coll is also very critical of the United States.  These observations rest in a number of areas.  First, the refusal to commit the necessary ground forces to capture Osama Bin-Laden in December, 2001 when he was trapped in Tora Bora.  The CIA pleaded for 2-3,000 troops to help close off escape routes to Pakistan.  Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would not be moved and with President George W. Bush’s backing refused to “put boots on the ground.”  Second, it seemed almost immediately the US turned its attention to Iraq and its commitment and aid to the Kabul government receded, and reaffirmed that it did not want to get involved in nation-building in Afghanistan.  With no concrete plan for Afghanistan once the Taliban was removed, only a weak, corrupt government under Hamid Karzai would evolve.  Third, American intelligence failed in its lack of comprehension of Pakistani fears and motivations.  The US used economic and military aid to Pakistan as a means of gaining cooperation, but never really held the Islamabad government with their feet to the fire.  There was always a rationalization to back off; fear of the Islamist generals in the ISI, and reasoning that if the Pakistani army went after Taliban and other Islamists in North Waziristan full force, it would backfire on the regime.  Fourth, the US was caught off guard with the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan.  Fifth, the strategy pursued and willingness to accept collateral damage could only alienate Afghani citizens, and the treatment of jihadi prisoners just exacerbated existing tensions.  Many authors have pointed out these mistakes, but Coll offers a strong synthesis and explanation of these and other policy decisions made by Washington that others do not.

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(Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad of Iraq and envoy to President Karzai)

Coll’s approach is comprehensive and he integrates all the major characters into his narrative.  He provides background for each individual and their historical context.  The major players include CIA operatives, Station Chiefs, and agents present throughout the book.  Further, we are introduced to the various Taliban leaders and tacticians, those of al-Qaeda, and ISIS.  The American military’s planning, or lack of it, from General Tommy Franks to Donald Rumsfeld is presented.  The Pakistani leadership under Musharraf and a number of ISI generals are explored in detail and the reader is given an accurate picture of Pakistani goals, particularly those that did not line up with the United States.  Perhaps one of the most interesting characters introduced is Zalmay Khalilzad, who grew up in Afghanistan and knew Karzai from his early career.  He was multi-lingual and was able to work with the Afghani president.  He opposed American occupation plans for Iraq and his role was to “mentor” Karzai after he was elected in 2004.  Since the United States did not have an Afghan policy, Khalilzad had to make one up as he went along.  Bush would appoint Khalilzad as ambassador to Iraq in May, 2005, a time when the Taliban was reconstituting, a major error.

One of the major themes of the narrative was the lack of trust between Washington and Kabul.  The longer we remained the harder it became to bend the Afghans to our will.  As the United States went behind his back to cut deals to get things done, the more the somewhat paranoid Karzai would turn against us.  Karzai’s regime was corrupt and elections were questionable, but he was the only game in town for a long period of time.  Another major theme was the relationship between Washington and the Pakistani Army, which dominated all policy decisions.  As Andrew Bacevitch has pointed out; “pacifying Afghanistan was always going to pose a challenge.  Absent full-throated Pakistani collaboration, it would become next to impossible.”* The Pakistani military believed that Afghanistan was vital to its national security and would not do things that they felt would compromise that position, i.e.; close off its borders and not allow sanctuary to jihadists (when those jihadists could be used against India in Kashmir).  The US would provide aid and knew it was being had, but there was little they could do about it.

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(President Parvez Musharraf, Pakistan)

Coll makes a very important observations in dealing with Pakistan throughout the period. It was very difficult to interpret their policy goals because they seemed to shift often as Directorate S engaged a number of militant groups “for different purposes at different times.”  Decisions made to affect the tribal areas with radicals were made for defensive and tactical reasons to stop attacks on themselves or resupply areas.  Other times, the I.S.I. made deals for strategic reasons to influence Afghanistan or attack Indian targets.  This inability to understand what motivated Pakistan reflects Coll’s attempt to explain and present an objective view in dealing with their actions that seemed to be opposed to American interests.

America’s relationship with Pakistan went through a number of phases during this period.  Coll is correct as he describes each phase.  A case in point is 2008 as the Bush administration grew tired of what it perceived as ISI and Pakistani military duplicity.  As more attacks emanated from the Frontier regions, i.e.; truck bomb at the Danish Embassy in Kabul, the US decided to step up targeted assassinations, drone surveillance, and troops in North Waziristan.  The Pakistani’s were not happy, but they remained quiet; however, no reform of the ISI would be forthcoming.  The Pakistani government explained there were “good Taliban” and “bad Taliban” but could not differentiate between the two.  Pakistan as always had its own agenda, and if they did cooperate with the US, jihadists would attack, i.e., the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad.  For the ISI, Taliban radicals were still useful in destabilizing Afghanistan and providing recruits for Kashmir so there was no clear motivation to change.

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(General Ashfaq Kayani, Head of the ISI)

The next major phase that Coll discusses is how the new Obama administration grappled with Afghanistan and Pakistan.   From the outset a three pronged strategy was employed.  One, counterinsurgency based on the principle of clear-hold-transfer performed by ground troops.  Two, CIA run independent drone war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban hold up in Waziristan.  Three, a diplomatic strategy designed to talk with Mullah Omar’s lieutenants about peace.  The problem was very little of this was synchronized.  Coll is correct in that the dominant problem faced by the Obama administration in trying to achieve any progress with the war is best described as “triangular distrust.”  Karzai was afraid the US would make a deal with Pakistan behind his back – the Pakistanis, obsessed with India believed that Karzai was to close with New Dehli – Washington had little faith in Karzai’s corrupt regime, the ISI, and the Taliban.  Secretary of State Clinton was frustrated with Obama because the US did not have an “end of state vision” or a real Pakistan strategy or reconciliation strategy, just words and process, particularly after the failed bombing by a Pakistani trained terrorist in Times Square.  After Obama agreed to a surge of 30,000 troops, he also announced they would be withdrawn within 18 months which caused confusion as to US policy.  Coll describes it as “going in – while going out,” a policy designed for domestic consumption, but did not sit well with the Pentagon and US allies.  According to Coll Obama’s policy was “a system of parallel policies and priorities running on diverse premises.” (433)

Perhaps the most disturbing chapters dealt with the ”insider killing spree” by Afghan soldiers against Americans, be they soldiers, contractors, or civilians.  US authorities seemed at a loss to explain its constant increase because there was no precedent for this type of behavior in the history of modern counterinsurgency.  The Pentagon and State Department conducted a number of studies and investigations, but it became obvious that the US had overstayed its welcome as we were not only fighting the Taliban, seeking out al-Qaeda, but also fighting Karzai’s soldiers.  Studies finally concluded it was not cultural incompatibility that caused the killings, but defections to the Taliban who instructed defectors to kill NATO soldiers as proof of their sincerity as they switched sides.

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(Ambassador Richard Holbrooke and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton)

Overall “America failed to achieve its aims in Afghanistan for many reasons: underinvestment in development and security immediately after the Taliban’s fall; the drains on resources and the provocations caused by the US-led invasion of Iraq; corruption fed by NATO contracting and CIA deal making with strongmen; and military hubris at the highest levels of the Pentagon.”(667)  The end result there are about 9,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan with the increasing possibility that more will join them.

In 2001 President Bush announced Operation Enduring Freedom and vowed the United States would remain in Afghanistan until it finished the job, but 17 years later Vice-President Pence stated, “We’re here to stay….until freedom wins.”* If we examine the result of our blood, sweat, and tears, what we see is opium production on the rise in Taliban held areas, increasing corruption, a lack of effectiveness on the part of the government, and instability in Kabul.  Coll has written an excellent analysis of what went wrong with US policy, by mostly concentrating on the role of intelligence agencies operating in the region, many times at cross purposes.  Will this book impact American strategy, it seems not, based on President Trump’s commitment to send more troops.  If you would like a greater understanding of what went wrong consult Coll, but do so knowing what he states should make you angry.

*Andrew Bacevitch, “The Never-Ending War,” New York Times, February 18, 2018

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(Bagram US Air Force Base, Afghanistan)

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

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(Edward Lansdale)

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

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(Lansdale with Ngo Dinh Diem)

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

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

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

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

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(Philippine President, Ramon Magsaysay)

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

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

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(Daniel Ellsberg)

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

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

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(Edward Lansdale)

MY LAI: VIETNAM, 1968, AND THE DESCENT INTO DARKNESS by Howard Jones

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From the outset of his new book MY LAI: VIETNAM, 1968 AND THE DESCENT INTO DARKNESS notable historian Howard Jones argues that the massacre that took place on March 16, 1968 killing 504 Vietnamese villagers “laid bare the war, revealing that it was unwinnable and that, in the process of fighting for democracy and a way of life; America had lost its moral compass.”  .  When it comes to examining American opinion on My Lai one finds that it is split.  On the one hand, during his four month trial Lt. William Calley argued that he was innocent and that he was just following orders.  However, at the time Americans were polarized and the massacre fed opposition to the war, which addition to the Tet Offensive, the invasion of Cambodia, and the Kent State shootings helped unite Americans against the carnage in Southeast Asia and for many it had turned our young men into “baby killers.”  On the other hand, many saw Calley as a scapegoat for a war gone wrong, with a flawed military approach that hindered the prosecution of the war correctly.  Calley’s conviction would harden support for the war and no matter what one’s point of view is the fissures in American society were exacerbated by events at My Lai.

Jones is to be commended for attempting to produce the most balanced and accurate account of the massacre and its aftermath as possible.  He employs all the tools of a good historian by exploring all documentation available, secondary sources on the topic, interviews, and film to present a fair representation as to what happened.  As historians we are aware that total objectivity in reporting and analyzing historical events is almost an impossible task, but Jones comes very close in achieving his goal.  What sets Jones’ effort apart is the availability of Vietnamese accounts which are skillfully integrated into the narrative that were not available for authors who have previously engaged this topic.

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(Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, President Richard Nixon, Lt. William Calley)

Jones does an excellent job in setting the scene of the area known as “Pinksville” where the My Lai villages were located.  It is clear that events leading up to March 16th were fraught with booby traps, land mines, snipers, and other obstacles that resulted in the death of many soldiers.  Jones captures the mindset of men who were ordered to take part in the sweep that targeted the 48th Viet Cong Battalion that dominated the area.  Men were told that Vietnamese civilians would be absent in large part as they usually walked to the market in Quang Nai City, and that the Vietcong force would be double the size of the American units.  The instructions given to American troops by Captain Ernest Medina, Lt. Calley, and other higher ups was poorly conceived and left a number of gaps for troops to deal with.  Jones stresses the relationship between Medina and Calley as a major issue as Medina held a very low opinion of his Platoon commander and often humiliated him in front of the troops.  Jones further stresses the weak intelligence that was provided and orders that zeroed in on a “search and destroy” mission that applied to anything that could possibly be used by the Viet Cong (anything, including civilians who supported the VC).

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(Capt. Ernest Medina)

Jones describes what feels like a minute by minute account of the slaughter that took place.  The actions of certain soldiers receives greater attention as they were actively involved in the killings.  Jones has mined trial transcripts, Army reports, and interviews and with a historians eye for detail and lays out that happened on March 16, 1968 in a cogent fashion.  He explores the command structure, personalities involved, as well village life for Vietnamese peasants.  Captain Medina is center stage whose orders were to kill any Vietnamese present, because if they were in the villages they must be Viet Cong.  For Medina “search and destroy” meant burning the villages and killing its inhabitants.  Since the troops were told no civilians would be present, for the soldiers once the killing started it could not be controlled.  For Platoon One under Calley another component was his need to prove himself to Medina.  For Calley the way to impress Medina was the body count.  Taken with racism and fear infused in the men, and Calley’s psychological needs it was a disaster waiting to happen.

At times the reader will become sickened by what Jones describes.  Wanton murder, gang rapes, sadism are all present as Jones relates the actions of deprived men like SP4 Gary Roschevitz, PFC Robert T’Souva, PFC Paul Meadlo and numerous others, a list that is too long to reproduce.  Calley as the officer in charge saw himself as judge, jury, and executioner.  Eventually a number of men refused to continue to take part or refused from the outset.  Men became concerned as Stars and Stripes reporter Jay Robert and photographer Ronald Haberle were present and creating a record of events.

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(Helicopter gunner Lawrence Colburn)

One of the most important characters that Jones introduces is Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, a helicopter pilot who flew over the battlefield, landed and confronted the perpetrators, and even got into an argument with another officer that almost turned violent.  Once the massacre ended Thompson would report what he witnessed which takes the reader into the second part of the book entitled “Aftermath and Cover up” which is exactly what took place.  Jones does a good job following the trail of “investigations,” written reports, denials, and collusion that was designed to cover up the actions taken by those in charge.  Men like Colonel Frank Barker, Colonel Oran Henderson, and their commander Major General Samuel Koster are seen pursuing an investigation with blinders on.  First, trying to discredit Thompson; Second, obfuscating and fabricating as much as possible in the hopes that the evidence would not produce war crimes; lastly, arguing that 128 Viet Cong were killed, however it could never explain why only 3 weapons were captured, which made no sense and reflected their disparate reasoning.   Jones pinpoints the strategy used to white wash events and zeroes in on the lack of accountability taken by those in command from General William Westmoreland on down.

Perhaps the most important person in pursuing the truth was helicopter gunner Ronald Ridenhour who came in contact with PFC Charles “Butch” Gruver who was present at My Lai in April, 1968.  Gruver told Ridenhour what had happened which conformed to what he saw on the ground during a fly over of the region.  Ridenhour would continue to run into men who were at My Lai, but fearing retribution would wait a year before sending out a five page description of what really occurred to military, administrative, and congressional leaders.  This would finally lead to a series of contacts within the government, one of which was the Inspector General’s Office.  Colonel William Wilson was charged with investigating Ridenhour’s allegations.  Jones follows Wilson’s journey across the United States and as he interviewed a number of former soldiers who had been present on March 16, 1968.  Based on his information General Westmoreland directed Chief Warrant Officer Andre Feher of the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division to conduct an inquiry as to what happened in My Lai.  Jones reproduces important aspects of his conversations with Calley, Thompson, Meadlo and others as well as the Army’s attempt to keep the charges against Calley out of the media.

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Throughout the narrative Jones’ presentation is impeccable and it continues as he presents and analyzes the results of the Peers Commission which found that American troops had massacred between 175 and more than 400 Vietnamese civilians.  The commission blamed Major-General Samuel Koster for suppressing information, falsely testifying, and initiating a conspiracy to withhold facts.  Further, it found evidence that Medina and Calley were guilty of war crimes.

The role of the Nixon administration fits the pattern of illegal actions they were engaged in at the time.  Nixon personally became involved as he tried to discredit witnesses to the massacre and believed that Calley was “getting a bum rap.”  Nixon set up “Task-Force My Lai” under H.R. Haldeman to undermine negative press reports.  Nixon’s strategy was to reduce opposition to the war as My Lai was causing the opposite.  He would pressure Senator Mendel Rivers, who headed the Senate Arms Services Committee investigation to discredit witnesses, and the Sub-Committee headed by Senator F. Edward Herbert which zeroed in on Thompson and Colburn.

Jones follows the legal trail that led to a series of trials, though fewer than recommended.  Since many witnesses were unavailable or refused to cooperate, in addition to the defense argument that you could not convict someone for obeying an illegal order held sway making it very difficult to obtain convictions.  The result was that the Army dropped the charges against numerous individuals.  The trials that receive the most attention are those of Calley, Henderson, and Medina.  Jones has carefully examined the trial transcripts and reconstructed the courtroom scenes of each, in addition to the public and military reactions to the verdicts.  In Calley’s case many saw him as a scapegoat for a war no one wanted to fight.  For President Nixon, the verdict was superfluous as he decided to “commute” the sentence before it was even imposed.

Much of what Jones has written reads like a “Grisham” type novel as rape, murder, deceit are all on full display inside and outside the courtroom.  My Lai was the worst massacre in American military history and it deeply affected American politics and society for the years that followed.  One must ask the question was My Lai an aberration or one of many atrocities American troops engaged in.  The answer based on available evidence is no, as there are numerous examples of this type of behavior, but were not on the level of My Lai because of the numbers involved – over 500 dead, a result of the actions of at least 40 American soldiers.  Jones brings his study to a conclusion by talking about the lives of many soldiers including Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn, and many others and how it affected their lives following military service.  The conclusion that can be drawn is we still do not know why allows why people that appear to be normal commit such acts of horror.  Jones has written the penultimate book on My Lai and its historical implications and it should be read by all considering a military career and those civilians who are in charge of the military and are involved in the conduct of foreign policy.

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FAREWELL TO KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by Christina Lamb

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(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)

Christina Lamb begins her heartfelt memoir of 27 years of reporting from Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Washington in FAREWELL KABUL: FROM AFGHANISTAN TO A MORE DANGEROUS WORLD by describing the British withdrawal ceremony in Helmand province, Afghanistan that for her symbolized the transfer of power to the Afghan army.  It might have been a happy occasion, but for Lamb it reminded her of the numerous errors in British policy in the region, the 453 British soldiers who were killed, the hundreds who had lost limbs to roadside bombs, and those psychologically scarred for life.  Lamb also points to the tens of thousands of Afghans who had lost relatives, homes, and who had become refugees.  By October, 2014 England was ending its 4th war in Afghanistan dating back to the 19th century, but this was their longest and leadership was determined to remove all evidence that they were ever there.  What remained was a war that continues today, and it seems as if it has come full circle as there are current reports that the Russian government is supplying weapons to the Taliban, an organization who as mujahedeen had defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

Lamb presents an excellent history of a period of Anglo-American foreign policy that is wrought with mistakes, ignorance, and doing too little too late.  In so doing, Lamb discusses an exceptional amount of information and analysis interspersed with her personal observations of her tenure in southwest Asia.  She follows the story from the Soviet invasion of 1979, their ultimate defeat, the failure of the United States to maintain interest in the area, the rise of the Taliban, the American invasion, the tragedy of Iraq, the resurgence of the Taliban, the Mumbai attack, the killing of Bin-Laden, and the final withdrawal of American and NATO troops by 2014.  What is amazing is that Lamb seems to be everywhere that major events are transpiring.  Further, her “army” of contacts and sources make her writing indispensable to understand the history of the region.

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One of her most telling comments among many throughout her narrative is that the United States had spent more money in Afghanistan than it had on the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.  Lamb watched events in Afghanistan for over 13 years and wondered how a war could be fought when there was no real border with Pakistan, which provided the enemy with safe haven.  Further, she was incredulous when the United States fought a war on the “cheap,” committing few troops and soon becoming distracted by a new war in Iraq of its own making based on false information.  In addition, the US turned a blind eye to its “supposed” ally, Pakistan whose intelligence service, the ISI had created the Taliban and provided an escape route for Osama Bin-Laden when American Special Forces had him cornered in Tora Bora in December, 2001.  The entire operation and decision making can be summed up in one term, and I apologize if it insults some – a “cluster-fuck.”  Much of Lamb’s analysis reminds me of Francis Fitzgerald’s FIRE IN THE LAKE, as the United States seemed purposefully ignorant of the culture that they were up against and did little to rectify it until it was too late.

Throughout her memoir Lamb describes the beautiful landscapes that she experienced, be it the Hindu Kush or the flowers and beautiful kites of Kabul.  Despite all the tragedies that she witnessed she always seems to return to the joys that mother-nature afforded.  It seems to me the major tragedy was how the Bush administration brushed off all warnings concerning a possible al-Qaeda attack from CIA Director George Tenet, Richard Clarke, Clinton’s terror advisor, members of the Northern Alliance, and even from Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Bush advisors saw this as sour grapes since the Russians had been defeated in Afghanistan by Bin-Laden and Company and the result was 9/11.

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(Pakistani President Parvis Musharraf)

Lamb describes numerous characters who are germane to her story.  The first, is indicative of the myriad of types she ran across.  Wais Faizi, who managed the Mustafa Hotel and had lived in the United States, was known as “the Fonz of Kabul,” and drove around in a 1968 Chevy Camaro convertible.  More significant was her relationship with Hamid Karzai who at the outset warned that the ISI was funneling American aid money to the Taliban.  Lamb follows Karzai’s political career and his tenuous relationship with the United States and Pakistan throughout his presidency.  James Dobbins, the United States Special Negotiator for Afghanistan is introduced with his requests from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for 25,000 American troops to stabilize Afghanistan once the Taliban were on the run.  His response sets the theme for US policy – they were already planning for Iraq by December, 2001 and stated that “we don’t do police work.”  CIA operative Gary Bersten is another character that is symbolic of American negligence in response to 9/11.  Bersten was with a small group of special operatives working with Afghan tribal forces trying to root out al-Qaeda and Bin-Laden from Tora Bora.  He requested troops to seal the Afghani-Pakistan border to block their escape.  Rumsfeld and the Bush administration refused as General Tommy Franks was already gaming the coming war in Iraq.  A 2009 Senate report reinforced Bersten’s view that the United States had passed on killing Bin-Laden – we can only conjecture how history might have been altered had we not done so.

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(Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai)

Of course Lamb describes the duplicity of General Parvis Musharraf, the Pakistani leader who the US tried to convince to turn against the Taliban.  But he had his own difficulties with the Islamized leadership of his military and the ISI’s relationship with the Taliban.  Musharraf did his best to squeeze the United States and in the end both sides gained what it wanted.  Lamb’s explanations are clear, succinct, and easily understood with vignettes that are priceless, i.e., according to Undersecretary of Defense Richard Armitage on the topic of whether the Pakistanis could be trusted, “with Pakistan you get part of the story, never the whole story….How do you know when the Pakistanis are lying?  Their lips are moving.”

Lamb’s discussion of the ISI-Taliban relationship goes back to 1979 and is developed through the Taliban’s victory in 1994.  In a chapter entitled “Meeting Colonel Imam” Lamb lays out the history of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and the development and training of the Taliban under the leadership of Amir Sultan Tamar, a Brigadier General in the Pakistani army who had trained with American Special Forces in 1974.  Tamar reviewed the history of ISI control of the Afghan war against the Soviets and how they trained and armed the Islamic resistance.  The ISI pulled the wool over American eyes as they controlled weapon distribution and strategy against the Soviets until they forced them out in 1989.  The American role and naïveté is plain for all to see.  Once the Soviets left, and the US turned away from Afghanistan, the ISI and its Taliban allies would achieve power in Kabul.  Lamb’s analysis and depth of knowledge contribute to an understanding of how the US was duped by the Pakistanis in the 1980s, a process that would continue for decades.

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(Kabul, Afghanistan)

In reading Lamb’s memoir one can only become frustrated and angry.  She castigated British policy makers as on a number of occasions they placed their soldiers in untenable situations without the proper equipment.  Her discussion of Sangin, the world’s largest narco state, is unnerving and resulted in numerous deaths that could have been prevented.  Her comments at times are sarcastic and acerbic as she describes what was supposed to be the “post-Taliban world.”  Her access to Karzai allows her to pinpoint the problem that is Afghanistan; corruption, tribal rivalry, the lack of border control, and his relationship with Pakistani President Musharraf.  Lamb confronts Karzai repeatedly and receives the same tired answers dealing with security and trying to balance the different tribal interests.  The greatest problems seem to center on Islamic infiltration of the Pakistani military, and the radicalization of South Waziristan on the Pakistani border.  This created sanctuary and infiltration routes for the Taliban to return to Afghanistan.  By 2007 they had returned in full creating a renewed Afghani civil war.

Lamb zeroes in on the British role in Helmand province and the problem created by the drug trade. Helmand produces 95% of the opium smuggled into Europe.  Further, since the opium poppies grown by Afghani farmers are their only source of income it becomes almost impossible to make positive inroads because there is no substitute to support their families.  Lamb’s discussion of the interrelationship between the drug trade, the warlords, government corruption, the Taliban, and plight of the farmers is excellent.

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(Taliban fighter, Helmand Province)

One of the most poignant and aggravating chapters in the book deals with the murder of a young female poet, Nadia Anjuman by her husband.  Lamb uses her life story as a vehicle to describe the lives of women under the Taliban and Karzai regimes.  Using the Herat Literary Society to focus on the treatment of women, Lamb describes the lives of women from the lowliest wife, to a woman who created a factory to produce jam, to the only female prosecutor in Afghanistan, to an outspoken female member of parliament, all who lived in fear for their lives.  On paper it may have appeared that the plight of women improved once the Taliban was defeated, but today the reality is the opposite.

Lamb takes the reader through Afghan history since the 19th century by presenting an “assassination tour,” describing the deaths of most Afghani kings and presidents.  It is no wonder that Karzai is called the “mayor of Kabul.”  Violence in Afghanistan increased in 2006 as the Taliban began to adopt Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s tactics from Iraq – ieds, suicide bombers etc.  Lamb also provides repeated examples of Pakistani duplicity by allowing rocket attacks from its territory, supplying weapons and safe haven for the Taliban, and the two-faced approach of President Musharraf, despite receiving $100 million in aid per month.  The end result is 2.6 million Afghani refugees in Pakistan.  Dealing with Musharraf was surreal, almost an alternate reality as the US tried to influence his actions.  For the Pakistani president it was more important to keep his border with Afghanistan calm so he could concentrate on Kashmir and India.  The assassination of Benazir Bhutto fit the pattern of violence that was growing worse within Pakistan under Musharraf.  Her return in 2007 angered the Pakistani military who saw her as a political and economic threat, ultimately causing her death.  The military denied complicity, but all the evidence seems to lead to their leadership.

According to British General Martin Carlton-Smith, by 2008 the goal of ending the insurgency in Helmand was giving way to reducing it sufficiently in order for the Afghan army to take control in some manageable way.  London realized that the only solution was by negotiating with the Taliban.  A political settlement was the only way to bring peace as it had done in Northern Ireland.  For Lamb it was the first time higher ups had admitted the war could not be won militarily.  When these comments went public, taken in association with British withdrawal from Basra in Iraq in September, 2007, and major disagreements between the US and British commands, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates saw it as defeatism.

However, by 2008 the Taliban controlled two-thirds of Afghanistan and grew increasingly daring as they set their sights on Kabul with a series of devastating suicide bombings and assassinations.  Evidence emerged that attacks on the Indian embassy and the Kabul Serena Hotel were directed by Pakistani handlers.  A CIA investigation led to the Haqqani network in North Waziristan, a group with strong ties to the ISI.  With the attacks the US could no longer ignore what their Pakistani ally was perpetrating.  For Washington it served as a wake up for the reality that was Pakistan.

By 2009 Lamb was transferred to Washington as she was fascinated by the new Obama administration.  What followed was the disjointed policy of a president who wanted to end America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Obama was a conflicted president who had no desire to continue fighting.  He distrusted his military leadership and the feelings were reciprocated.  Lamb presents Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus and their larger than life personalities and strategies.  But the overriding concern was Obama’s view of wars that he had little interest in continuing.  In addition, Lamb is correct that the problem was not military but political, especially in Afghanistan where the government was the fifth most corrupt regime in the world and the people had no faith in “Karzai Incorporated.”  Petraeus knew early on that for counter-insurgency to work you needed local partners.  Instead he had Karzai and Musharraf’s successor, Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s widower.  Lamb concludes that Obama and Joe Biden, his Vice President were out of their league and despite agreeing to a surge of 30,000 troops he set a deadline for their return – telegraphing to the Taliban to hang on for two more years.  After accompanying Biden to Islamabad, US Senator Lindsay Graham summed it up best, “the whole fucking place is burning down here, pal!”

There is a sadness to Lamb’s account in that so many errors were made and so much duplicity existed as she encounters the myriad of factions that existed in the region.  By 2014 when her story ends things have grown increasingly worse, more so than they might have been before 9/11.  For Lamb, the region is like a magnet whose pull she could not escape.  Even when all seemed lost she is drawn to one final visit.  There have been many books written about events in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but Lamb‘s account must be placed very close to the top of the list, particularly because of her values and journalistic expertise.

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(author, Christina Lamb in Afghanistan)

ALEXANDER HAMILTON by Ron Chernow

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(Alexander Hamilton)

The popularity of the Broadway musical “Hamilton,” has rekindled interest in Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury.  I read the original when it was published and I found it to be an amazingly comprehensive study which included incisive analysis and a fairly objective approach to its subject.  Since I will be teaching a course entitled, “Hamilton: The Musical, Historically Accurate or Not” I decided to revisit Chernow’s work.   My opinion has not changed and I still find it to be the best study of Hamilton’s private and public life that includes the major events and issues that he experienced, discussions of his economic proposals and plans, evaluations of those who opposed him, and placing Hamilton in the proper historical context as the Founding Father most responsible for America’s economic development.  Since the publication of ALEXANDER HAMILTON, Chernow has written an excellent study of George Washington and should be considered one of America’s foremost biographers.

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Reading a biography of Hamilton is like reviewing the history of the republic from its inception through the duel with Aaron Burr, as Hamilton seems to be involved in every major event or issue from the revolution until his death.  What becomes clear is that without Hamilton’s ideas the United States government would be unrecognizable today, as we are the heirs of his vision of America.    Chernow’s Hamilton is a man obsessed with his background dating back to questions surrounding his birth in the West Indies, his social standing, and matters of honor.  All three would influence his decision-making and causes he would engage in.  In covering Hamilton’s upbringing, self-education, and employment as a clerk at a mercantile house when he was in his teens Chernow does an excellent job showing how these experiences would create the basis for the policies he implemented when he was in a position to do so later in life. The turning point in Hamilton’s life seems to take place on July 6, 1774 as he spoke to a crowd near King’s College where he was enrolled.  Hamilton favored a boycott of English goods, raged against unfair taxation, deplored the closing of Boston Harbor, and called for colonial unity.  In answering Samuel Seabury’s Tory viewpoints Hamilton’s writings made him an anti-Tory hero.

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(Elizabeth [Eliza] Hamilton)

Chernow effectively delves into Hamilton’s philosophical development during the lead up to the American Revolution and during its evolution.  Hamilton always seemed to worry about the long term effect of constant disorder, particularly among the uneducated masses.  He feared that increased freedom would lead to increased disorder, and thereby a lack of freedom.  This became Hamilton’s lifelong dilemma; how to straddle and resolve this contradiction – balancing liberty and order.  Hamilton’s inner intellectual struggle is nicely played out throughout the biography as Chernow integrates Hamilton’s writings through his published essays in newspapers, public speeches, and position papers prepared for Congress and George Washington.  Hamilton’s internal debate is enhanced through Chernow’s portrayal of Washington.  According to Chernow both agreed on the main issues and the author’s examination of how and why two founding fathers from disparate backgrounds got along so well.  Their relationship forms a major core of the narrative and we can see their mutual dependency. Washington needed Hamilton’s intellect and his total commitment to his beliefs, and Hamilton needed Washington’s personal and political support in dealing with the many enemies he would make, a number of which was due to his irascible personality and approach to getting things done.  Hamilton became Washington’s “pen,” as well as his alter ego.

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(George Washington)

All of the major figures of the American Revolution and the early republic are on full display as is Hamilton’s personal life.  John Adams, Aaron Burr, James Madison, Lafayette, John Laurence, and of course Thomas Jefferson all make their appearance with their own personal agendas.  Also developed is Hamilton’s personal life particularly his relationship with Elizabeth (Eliza) Schuyler, his wife and her sister Angelica who would marry John Church, an English businessman.  Some authors present Hamilton as a philanderer after his marriage to Eliza, and Chernow does not downplay this character fault, however, after his disastrous affair with Maria Reynolds between  1791 and 1792, and dealing with the blackmail of her husband James, it seems Hamilton had learned his lesson and from that point on he was a devoted father and husband.  The affair would be a cloud hanging over his head for the remainder of his life, particularly when his reputation was so important to him. Chernow conjectures that evidence of the affair once in the hands of his political enemies, may have cost him the presidency.

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(Thomas Jefferson)

Chernow is very incisive in his analysis of the politics of the period and the parochial interests of certain individuals.  For example, dealing with slavery which Hamilton ardently opposed due to witnessing the venal effects of the slave trade growing up in the West Indies.   Chernow condemns “the hypocritical critiques of his [Hamilton’s] allegedly aristocratic economic system [which] emanated from the most aristocratic southern slaveholders, who deflected attention from their own nefarious deeds by posing as populist champions and assailing the northern financial and mercantile interests aligned with Hamilton.” (211)  Hamilton’s role at the constitutional convention and preparation of the final document is fully discussed as is Hamilton’s commitment to do everything in his power to successfully implement the document when he was in public and private life.  Granted, Hamilton was able to expand the constitution when needed, by developing the concept of “implied powers,” but his loyalty to the constitution and his arguments in favor, particularly, the FEDERALIST PAPERS never wavered.

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(James Madison)

Chernow asks a very important question in that why did this period spawn such extraordinary men, especially when we compare them to the new administration in Washington.  The behind the scenes machinations at the Constitutional Convention, its ratification, Washington’s cabinet debates, and the political wrangling over Hamilton’s program for the assumption of debt, the national bank and other components of his plans for the young republic all receive extensive coverage.  Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the book is Chernow’s discussion of the development of the Federalist and Republican parties synonymous with Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  Chernow explores their writings, personal conversations, and the vitriol that existed between the two men.  Chernow’s portrayal of Jefferson is not a positive one seeing the author of the Declaration of Indolence and Secretary of State as a hypocrite in dealing with the problems of the young republic.  Chernow’s portrayal of the man who avoided the American Revolution with his posting to France, was rather cavalier when it came to shedding the blood of others, in addition to his sanctimonious views when it came to government and Hamilton’s economic program,  is not very flattering.  Chernow dives deep into the essays and communication between the two men, also bringing in Hamilton’s ally at the Constitutional Convention and co-author of the FEDERALIST PAPERS, James Madison into his discussion, concluding that fourth president and member of the “Virginia Dynasty” was a back stabber, and though brilliant in his own right, was a lackey of Jefferson.  Jefferson resented Hamilton’s encroachment into his sphere as the Secretary of the Treasury as he developed the Customs Service and the Coast Guard to protect American trade.  However, the issue that riled Jefferson the most was Hamilton’s opposition to honoring the 1778 alliance with France during its war with England, Spain, and Holland.  For Jefferson, Hamilton was a monarchist married to the English crown and economic system with pretentions of sitting on an American throne.

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(Angelica Schuyler Church)

In evaluating Hamilton, Chernow is spot on pointing out that many of Hamilton’s actions and behaviors demonstrated that beneath his invincible façade throughout his career he was still the hypersensitive boy from the West Indies.  His combativeness came from an obsession with matters of honor – a man of deep and, at times, ungovernable emotions; i.e.; involvement and threats dealing with duels, insulting remarks and commentary, and vindictive essays.

The role of Angelica Church, Hamilton’s sister-in-law is useful in discussing how politics and personal issues played out.  The questions of Hamilton’s relationship with her, and a possible affair is presented, as is her love for her brother-in-law.  Church who lived in England with her husband becomes a source of intelligence for Hamilton as men seemed enchanted with her, even Jefferson, who invited her to Monticello, seemed to fall for her.  The Jefferson that Chernow discusses is a lot different that of Dumas Malone or Jon Meacham.  He lives on credit and spends a great deal of money on his interests, whether wine, books, French furniture and as a result would leave his heirs to pay off his substantial debt.  Jefferson liked to present himself as above the fray, but he was down in the “mud” in dealing with the Constitution, the Genet Affair, the Jay Treaty and any other issue that could injure Hamilton.  What bothered Jefferson and Madison the most was that Hamilton’s economic program was setting precedents that would be difficult to undo in the future.  Hamilton acted speedily dealing with the debt from the revolution and making the United States a manufacturing power with a National Bank and other programs. What frightened them was that they saw a future that threatened their southern way of life.  To Chernow’s credit he does present Hamilton programs and rationale in detail, but he also develops the opposition’s point of view.  Today we think we are in the midst of one of the nastiest and bipartisan periods in American history, but it pales in comparison to what Hamilton had to deal with.

Whatever flaws one can detect in Hamilton’s private life and pursuit of power one must recognize his accomplishments.  When he left government service he could point to suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion, a flourishing financial base for the country and the economy in general, and had survived numerous investigations into his motives as Treasury Secretary and his private life.  “He prevailed in almost every major program he had sponsored – whether the bank, assumption, funding the public debt, the tax system, the Customs Service, or the Coast Guard – despite years of complaints and smears….Bankrupt when Hamilton took office, the United States now enjoyed a credit rating equal to that of any European nation.  He laid the groundwork for both liberal democracy and capitalism and helped to transform the role of president from a passive administrator to active policy maker….He demonstrated the use of government and helped weld the states irreversibly into one nation.” (481)

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Once out of power it seemed as if Hamilton was a “shadow” member of Washington’s administration, but once Adams became president the animus between the two emerges, in part because of Hamilton’s behavior behind the scenes during the 1796 election, the result of which was that his influence waned as he was shut out of decision making.  Adams’ hated Hamilton and some of his comments seem delusional.  In fact, much of his critique of Hamilton was so full of vindictiveness it could have emanated from the mouth or pen of Jefferson.  Hamilton made two major errors after he left Washington’s cabinet.  The first, publishing “The Reynolds Pamphlet” designed to clear his name and reputation.  But, in reality it just dragged his family through the mud once more and provided fodder for the Republican press.  His second error was his “intemperate indictment” of John Adams.  This reflected his “genius for the self-inflicted wound and was capable of marching blindly off a cliff—traits most pronounced in the late 1790s.” (619)  The end for Hamilton would come when he supported Jefferson for the presidency and worked behind the scenes to deny Burr, a man he totally distrusted the any higher office in the election of 1800.  Later, he would work behind the scenes to deny Burr the governorship of New York which would lead to a number of poor decisions of Hamilton’s part resulting in his death in a duel on July 11, 1804.  In this particular instance the strength of Chernow’s work can be seen as he places the events, communications and previous historiography under a microscope to set the scene for the reader to digest all aspects of what took place.

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(Aaron Burr)

Burr ended the life of one of the most important individuals in American history and Chernow must be commended for his story telling ability, analysis based on comprehensive research in preparing his award winning biography.  Overall, Chernow sets the record straight on many controversial occurrences and has provided an alternative view of Hamilton that adds to the debate concerning the founding fathers.  But once you have read Chernow’s biography one cannot disagree with David Brook’s comment in his 2004 New York Times book review; “so there is no Hamilton monument in Washington, but at least we have Ron Chernow’s moving and masterly ‘Alexander Hamilton,’ which is by far the best biography ever written about one man.” (“Creating Capitalism” NYT, April 25, 2004)

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THE TRUE FLAG: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, MARK TWAIN, AND THE BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE by Stephen Kinzer

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(Mark Twain)

Stephen Kinzer is a prolific writer and historian among whose books include ALL THE SHAH’S MEN an excellent study that explains the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution and the origins of our conflict with that country.  Other books; THE BROTHERS, a fascinating dual biography of Allen W. and John Foster Dulles, men who significantly impacted American intelligence gathering and foreign policy throughout the 1950s; and OVERTHROW, a study that explains how Washington conducted a series of coups from Hawaii to Iraq to install governments that it could control.  If there is a theme to Kinzer’s books it is that the United States has conducted a series of forays into foreign countries that reek of imperialism and have not turned out well.  His latest effort, THE TRUE FLAG: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, MARK TWAIN, AND THE BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE follows the same theme and tries to bring about an understanding of why and how the United States began its journey towards empire.

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(President Theodore Roosevelt)

From the outset Kinzer describes a conflicted American approach toward foreign policy.  It appears that Americans cannot make up their minds on which course to follow: Should we pursue imperialism or isolationism?  Do we want to guide the world or let every nation guide itself?  This inability to decide has played itself out from the end of the nineteenth century until today as we try and figure out what avenue to take following the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its ramifications.  Kinzer argues that “for generations every debate over foreign intervention has been repetition,” however, “all are pale shadows of the first one” that began in 1898 is developed in THE TRUE FLAG.  Kinzer zeroes in on one of the most far reaching debates in American history that was fostered by the Spanish American War, not the Second World War as most believe; should the United States intervene in foreign lands, a debate that is ever prescient today.

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(Henry Cabot Lodge)

Following the results of the war against Spain, the United States found itself in possession of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and was about to annex the Hawaiian islands, leading to a fever of empire among many Americans in and out of government.  Kinzer traces the political machinations that resulted in the new American Empire.  He also takes the reader behind the scenes that resulted in decisions that led to what President McKinley termed “benevolent assimilation” for the Philippines, or a more accurate description, a race war to subdue Filipino guerillas led by Emilio Aguinaldo.  Kinzer has full command of the history of the period politically, militarily, and economically.  He has extensive knowledge of the secondary and primary materials, and writes with a clear and snappy prose that maintains reader interest.

What separates Kinzer’s narrative and analysis from other studies dealing with this topic is his focus on the debate over American expansionism that created the Anti-Imperialist League to offset the arguments of the imperialists in and out of Congress.  He provides a blend of both arguments integrating a great many heated speeches and articles that the protagonists engaged in and produced, even describing a fist fight in the Senate between the senators from South Carolina over a vote that ratified the Treaty of Paris.  Kinzer focuses on a number of important historical characters that include; Theodore Roosevelt who used the Spanish-American War as a vehicle to advance politically; Henry Cabot Lodge, a strong believer in the “large policy” of imperialism as the Senator from Massachusetts; William Randolph Hearst whose newspaper helped incite the war, and would later turn against imperialism as he sought a political career; President William McKinley who supposedly received divine guidance to pursue his expansionist agenda; Mark Twain, writer and satirist who initially favored expansion, then became the “eviscerating bard” against empire; William Jennings Bryan, the “free silver” commoner from the Midwest who was defeated three times for the presidency; Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in America, but opposition to imperialism for him was almost a religious cause; and Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who fought in the Civil War and served as Secretary of the Interior among many important positions during his career.

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(Andrew Carnegie)

Perhaps the strongest aspect of Kinzer’s narrative discusses the two opportunities that Bryan had to stem the imperialist tide.  Bryan was an avid opponent of expansion from the moral perspective, but he would cave to political ambition on two occasions.  The first, during the debate in Congress over the Treaty of Paris which would cap America’s territorial aggrandizement from the war.  At the last minute Bryan decided to support the treaty and America’s possession of the Philippines.  Second, as the Democratic candidate for president in 1900 he refused to leave out his “free silver” plank from the convention platform and concentrate on the anti-imperialist message.  By not doing so he scared away eastern business opponents of expansion and a number of allies in the Democratic Party.  The result was the passage of the treaty and the reelection of McKinley.

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(President William McKinley)

Another fascinating aspect of the book is Kinzer’s treatment of Mark Twain.  Kinzer offers a detailed discussion of Twain’s arrival from Europe on October 15, 1900 in the midst of the imperialism debate and his transition to his anti-imperialism stance.  A number of Twain’s writings and comments are presented and analyzed and compared with those of Theodore Roosevelt, whose ascendancy to the presidency after McKinley is assassinated, effectively kills the Anti-Imperialism League.  Twain’s writings detail his disgust for events in the Philippines and the disaster that ensued.  Twain is presented along with other famous writers and poets whose anger at expansion and its results knew no bounds.   However, the work of Finley Peter Dunne and his Mr. Dooley character, written with an Irish workman’s accent is probably more important in that it reached the illiterate masses, while others appealed to the social and political elite.

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Kinzer’s narrative packs a great deal into 250 pages and it is a fast read.  However, do not   evaluate this book by its length because it presents an excellent synthesis and analysis of the important events, personalities, and policies of the 1898-1902 period as America debated if it should become an empire, the type of debate that was missing in the United States as we contemplated invading Iraq in 2003.  A war that we are still paying for today.  In the end many of the predictions set forth by the anti-imperialists have come to pass, just examine American foreign policy since the end of World War II.  We as Americans must answer the question: “Does intervention in other countries serve our national interest and constitute global stability, or does it undermine both?” (229)

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(Mark Twain)