ABYSS: THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS by Max Hastings

June 3, 1961:  Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, left, and U.S. President John F. Kennedy sit in the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Vienna, Austria, at the start of their historic talks. [AP/Wide World Photo]

(Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy)

Vladimir Putin’s ill-advised invasion of Ukraine last February has not produced the results that he expected.  As the battlefield situation has degenerated for Russian army due to the commitment of the Ukrainian people and its armed forces, along with western assistance the Kremlin has resorted to bombastic statements from the Russian autocrat concerning the use of nuclear weapons.  At this time there is no evidence by American intelligence that Moscow is preparing for that eventuality, however, we have learned the last few days that Russian commanders have discussed the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons.  The conflict seems to produce new enhanced rhetoric on a daily basis, and the world finds itself facing a situation not seen since the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 amidst the Cold War.

A map of Cuba annotated by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, displayed for the first time at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 13, 2005. Former President Kennedy wrote

(A map of Cuba annotated by former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, displayed for the first time at the John F. Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts, on July 13, 2005. Former President Kennedy wrote “Missile Sites” on the map and marked them with an X when he was first briefed by the CIA on the Cuban Missile Crisis on October 16, 1962.)

Since the possibility of nuclear war seems unfathomable the fears of many have put western intelligence agencies on high alert.  To understand how we might solve the current impasse it might be useful to turn to Max Hastings latest book, ABYSS: THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS, but one must remember Vladimir Putin is no Nikita Khrushchev.  The author of thirty books, most of which focus on topics related to World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam, Hastings is one of the most experienced and knowledgeable historians to tackle the confrontation that ended peacefully in 1962.

Hastings recounts the history of the crisis from the viewpoints of national leaders, Soviet officers, Cuban peasants, American pilots and British peacemakers.  Hastings, success as an author has always rested upon eyewitness interviews, archival work, tape recordings, and insightful analysis – his current work is no exception.  The positions, comments, and actions of President John F. Kennedy, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, and Fidel Castro among many other important personalities are on full display.

U.S. President John F. Kennedy speaks before reporters during a televised speech to the nation about the strategic blockade of Cuba, and his warning to the Soviet Union about missile sanctions, during the Cuban missile crisis, on October 24, 1962 in Washington, DC.

(President Kennedy addresses the American people on October 24, 1962)

Hastings offers a very thoughtful approach to the study of history while applying his immense analytical skills.  A major theme that Hastings carries throughout the narrative is that the American response to Soviet actions was based more on political considerations rather than threats to American national security.  America was not more vulnerable with missiles in Cuba because “both sides submarine-launched ballistic missiles were becoming ubiquitous realities in the oceans of the world.”  JFK is a controversial actor in the crisis according to historians.  Did he act to reassure his reelection in 1964 and burnish his anti-communist credentials  or was he the bulwark against an American military led by the Joint Chiefs of Staff with members such as General Curtis LeMay.  Hastings’ conclusion is clear, JFK was a towering and inspirational figure during the crisis contributing some of its most memorable rhetoric.

The author introduces his topic by immediately delving into the Bay of Pigs fiasco which earned JFK the enmity of the Pentagon by calling off any air strikes to support the invaders.  History has shown that the decision was correct and did not allow a possible crisis to spiral out of control.  The problem that emerged is that Khrushchev could not understand the president’s lack of action.  For the Soviet Premier, the president’s indecision and indecisiveness during the invasion confirmed that JFK was weak and rife for bullying as events a year later would reflect.

Hastings correctly argues that the Kennedy brothers became Castro haters due to the Bay of Pigs, an emotion they did not feel previously.  They felt humiliated  and became obsessed with Cuba as they sought revenge – hence Operation Mongoose to get rid of Castro which Robert Kennedy was put in charge of.  As the narrative unfolds a true portrait of Castro emerges.  He was considered a beloved politician in Cuba at the time but a poor administrator.  He had overthrown Cuban President Fulgencio Batista and at the outset was a hero for his countrymen.  However, the crisis highlighted a delusional individual who at times believed his own heightened rhetoric and whose actions scared Khrushchev.

A spy photo of a medium range ballistic missile base in San Cristobal, Cuba, with labels detailing various parts of the base, displayed October of 1962.

(A spy photo of a medium-range ballistic missile base in San Cristobal, Cuba, with labels detailing various parts of the base, displayed in October of 1962.)

Once the background historical events are pursued Hastings settles in presenting an almost daily account of the crisis.  The American response is presented through the actions of the Kennedy brothers, a series of advisors, the most important of which was Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, described as the “wizard of odds;” Chief of Staff, McGeorge Bundy; CIA head, John McCone; former ambassador to Moscow, Llewellyn Thompson; Maxwell Taylor, head of the Joint Chiefs; other members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a host of others.  The only foreign leader who demands a great deal of coverage in the narrative is British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan who comes across as an appeaser who believed in diplomacy, an approach much different from his Suez Crisis days, and held the view that England and Europe had lived for years under the threat of Russian nuclear attack and could not accept that  missiles in Cuba was a menace for the United States.  At times it appeared that JFK humored his British counterpart, but his respect for the man evaporated quickly.

In the Soviet Union, the crisis was caused, driven, and finally resolved because of the actions of Nikita Khrushchev, a man who survived Stalin’s purges and worked his way up the Kremlin bureaucracy.  Khrushchev was an opportunist who launched the crisis without considering what would happen if his plan faltered.  In foreign policy, it is quite clear that if you start something without a clear exit strategy it probably will result in disaster.  The Soviet leader’s major errors were confusing two objectives: the defense of Cuba, and his plan to project Soviet power and threaten the United States by extending the Kremlin’s reach into the American backyard.  Further, Khrushchev believed that the missiles could be hidden from American U2 flights and once the American election was over he would spring his surprise on Washington.  When things began to unravel, Khrushchev resorted to bullying and threats dealing with nuclear war or at least a move on West Berlin.  Khrushchev engaged in unbridled adventurism, and willingly took a risk that had little or no chance of success.

Hastings’ account is balanced as he also examines the role of important Soviet officials including Defense Minister, Rodion Malinovsky who prepared the strategy to place missiles in Cuba; Anastas Mikoyan, the First Deputy of the Soviet Council of Ministers; Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatoly Dobrynin; Alexandr Alekseev, the KGB station chief in Havana who had a close relationship with Castro; Andrei Gromyko, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and a number of others.

President John F. Kennedy meets with Air Force Maj. Richard Heyser, left, and Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, center, at the White House in Washington to discuss U-2 spy plane flights over Cuba.

(President John F. Kennedy meets with Air Force Maj. Richard Heyser, left, and Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, center, at the White House in Washington to discuss U-2 spy plane flights over Cuba.)

What sets Hastings’ account apart from other historians is his integration of the views of everyday individuals in the United States, the Soviet Union, and Cuba.  Cuban peasants, Russian workers, and American college students are all quoted as to their reactions and emotional state during the crisis.  The result is a perspective that is missing from other accounts and educates the reader as to the mindset of ordinary citizens who would pay the ultimate price if the crisis had gone sideways.

The diplomatic and military dance presented places the reader inside the ExCom Committee in Washington, the Presidium in Russia, and the seat of the Cuban government in Havana, and interactions with NATO allies.  We witness the strain on all participants, less so perhaps for Castro who seemed to seek martyrdom, and the delicate negotiations that led to a settlement.  All the tools were used to reach a settlement.  Backchannel talks, bringing in “the Wise Men” such as former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, individual conversations between ordinary citizens who had influence on their governments, the role of U Thant and the United Nations, the bombastic approach advocated by the US military, and the strategic analysis of each communication are all included.  Within this context, Hastings effectively delves into a number of controversial areas including the Kennedy brothers’ distrust of the Pentagon and at times fearing they would disobey his orders, and JFK’s role in combating Pentagon pressure to launch air strikes followed by an invasion to remove the missiles and overthrow Castro.

According to Hastings JFK’s major error was expecting Khrushchev to think and act like himself.  “He assumed that the Kremlin would be deterred from shipping offensive nuclear weapons by the strength of his own public and private warnings….and its own consciousness of the USSR’s nuclear weakness.”  The debate at the heart of the crisis was JFK’s need to convince the Russian leader that his actions in fact risked nuclear war, something Khrushchev was against.  He wanted to test American resolve, not cause a nuclear conflagration.

Cuban President Fidel Castro replies to President Kennedy's naval blockade via Cuban radio and television, on October 23, 1962.

(Cuban President Fidel Castro replies to President Kennedy’s naval blockade via Cuban radio and television, on October 23, 1962.)

Hastings corrects a number of myths associated with the crisis.  One of the most famous was the idea that on October 24, 1962, as Soviet ships approached the quarantine line the White House held its breath as to whether they could stay the course.  In reality no merchant ship carrying weapons or troops approached anywhere near the invisible line.  Soviet ships had reversed course the previous day, only one of which was closer than 500 miles.  This was due in large part because of the weakness American naval communications.  Another area that historians have overlooked was events in the Atlantic Ocean – particularly concerning were four Soviet submarines, one carrying a nuclear warhead.  Hastings explores this aspect of the crisis, and the reader can only cringe as to what Washington did not know and the slow communication process that existed throughout the crisis.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, second from right, confronts Soviet delegate Valerian Zorin, first on left, with a display of reconnaissance photographs during emergency session of the U.N. Security Council at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on October 25, 1962.

(U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, second from right, confronts Soviet delegate Valerian Zorin, first on left, with a display of reconnaissance photographs during emergency session of the U.N. Security Council at the United Nations headquarters in New York, on October 25, 1962.)

JFK had ample opportunity to resort to military action, but staid his hand despite pressure from members of the Joint Chiefs and others.  The president was the driver of debate and became more of an “analyst-in-chief.”  He pressed his colleagues to probe the implications of any actions the United States would take and offer reasonable solutions to end the crisis.  For JFK it seemed as if he was in a chess match with Khrushchev countering each of his moves and trying to offer him a way out of the crisis he precipitated.

JS Tennant in his review of ABYSS in The Guardian, October 16, 2022 points out that “In January this year, Russia’s deputy foreign minister threatened to deploy “military assets” to Cuba if the US continued to support Ukrainian sovereignty. As has become all too apparent in the past weeks, tactical nuclear missiles are still a threat, along with chemical weapons and supersonic missiles. It’s as if Russia’s desperate scramble to maintain influence will stop at nothing and, as Hastings points out, ‘the scope for a catastrophic miscalculation is as great now as it was in 1914 Europe or in the 1962 Caribbean.’ Abyss provides chastening lessons on how easily things can spiral out of control but also how catastrophe can be averted.”

The book has arrived at a propitious moment in history as once again there is a nuclear threat from the Kremlin.  One can only hope that our current crop of leaders will strive to avoid the worst with the same fervor of JFK and Khrushchev in October 1962.

President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev pose outside American Embassy in Vienna on June 3, 1961.

(June 3, 1961, Vienna Summit)

AMERICA AND IRAN: A HISTORY 1720 TO THE PRESENT by John Ghazvinian

The_Shah_of_Iran_and_President_Nixon_-_NARA_-_194301
(Reza Pahlavi Shah and Richard M. Nixon)

In a world where the war in Ukraine and economic sanctions dominate foreign policy discussions relations with Iran could have been pushed to the back burner instead they are now coming to the fore.  As the Russian army continues its bloody war against Ukrainian civilians, the need to sanction Moscow’s energy industry which finances its genocide is paramount.  The Biden administration is focusing on increasing the world’s supply of energy and to this end has reengaged with Iran after the Trump administration abrogated the Iran nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama administration. The odds of coming to a quick agreement with Iran is very low, in part because Russia was a signatory of the original agreement and Iran’s contorted history with the United States since the 1950s.  To understand the background to the American relationship with Iran which emphasizes the    viewpoints from Washington and Tehran John Ghazvinian, a former journalist, and currently the Director of the Middle East Center at the University of Pennsylvania has filled this major gap with his new book, AMERICA AND IRAN: A HISTORY 1720 TO THE PRESENT.  Written in a clear and concise style Ghazvinian provides insightful analysis, a deep understanding of the issues between Iran and the United States, and with a degree of subjectivity focuses on the motivations and actions of the major historical figures involved.

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(Ayatollah Khomeini)

In tackling the American-Iranian conundrum one comes across many watershed moments and dates be it the competition between England and Russia during the 19th century through World War II better known as “the Great Game,” the emergence of the United States filling the vacuum created by London’s withdrawal from the region, the American “love affair” with Reza Pahlavi Shah beginning with the 1953 coup against Mohammad Mosaddeq, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism spear headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the 1979 hostage situation, the Iran-Iraq War, and the overt and covert war between the two countries that continues to this day.  For scholars and the general public these issues are quite familiar, however, Ghazvinian brings a deft pen and immense knowledge in presenting a fresh approach to this historical relationship.

Ghazvinian goal was objectivity, hoping to avoid casting dispersions on either side, and dispensing with the ideological baggage that has encumbered past writings on the subject.  Despite this goal, periodically he falls into the trap of bias.  Having been born in Iran he conducted ten years of research and was allowed access to Iranian sources that were not available to most western scholars.  One of Ghazvinian’s major themes is that the United States and Iran, at least in the 18th and 19th centuries through the end of World War I could have been natural allies.  Decade after decade Iranian governments looked to the United States as a “third force” that could counteract the pressures of Britain and Russia.  Presenting the early American thoughts of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Iran perceived the United States as an anti-colonial power so there seemed to be a community of fate between the two countries that Ghazvinian successfully investigated.

(American hostages seized in Iran, 1979)

Ghazvinian explores America’s romanticized version of “Persophilia” and Washington’s impact on Iran through missionary work that provided hospitals, schools, and trade with Tehran.  It is clear that the United States, despite its interest in Iran was hindered by an amateurish group of “diplomats” who were sent to Tehran during the late 19th century to promote American interests.  Most had little or no foreign experience and they did little to foster a new relationship.  With the 1907 Anglo-Russian Agreement, Iran could no longer play off the two competing powers against each other so Tehran invited the United States to assume the role of counterbalancing the “new” allies to the point of inviting and allowing an American citizen who would become a hero to the Iranian people, W. Morgan Shuster to take control of Iran’s convoluted finances.  The author goes on to trace Iranian attitudes and hopes that were fostered by Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points and the concept of self-determination.

A second dominant theme that Ghazvinian introduces is Iran’s battle to achieve modernity and not being viewed as a backward desert kingdom that was more than a source of oil.  To that end it seemed that no matter who was the Shah this issue had to be dealt with which resulted in policies that provided wealth and a lifestyle for the Pahlavi Dynasty but poverty and ignorance for the masses.

The concept that historian J.C. Hurewitz developed dealing with the Middle East that regional actors “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity” applies to Iranian-American relations after World War II.  Ghazvinian skillfully explores the leadership of Mohammad Mosaddeq and his removal from power in 1953 by the CIA and as he does in a number of instances sets straight the historical record.  The issue for the United States was its fear of communism as is evidenced by the Russian refusal to withdraw from northern Iran in 1946.  Supposedly the stalemate was settled when Harry Truman issued an ultimatum to Moscow, which Ghazvinian points out that there was no record of such an ultimatum.  However, the fear of Russian expansion in the Persian Gulf drove American policy.  In addition to this fear of the Soviet Union, Washington had to deal with British arrogance and stupidity (repeatedly referring to Tehran as Persian pip-squeaks) in trying to establish a sound relationship with the Mosaddeq government.

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(Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq)

Mosaddeq was not a communist, he was an Iranian nationalist, but in the American diplomatic lexicon nationalist meant communist.  The result was that the Eisenhower administration ignored reports that Mosaddeq was “a Western educated aristocrat with no reason to be attracted to socialism or communism.”  Rather than listen to the advice of his own spies and bureaucrats,  Eisenhower supported a policy designed to undermine Mosaddeq’s government which would lead to his overthrow and assist the return of the Shah to Tehran where despite his autocratic and megalomaniac tendencies the US would support at various levels until his overthrow in 1979. 

Another major theme put forth by Ghazvinian is the role played by the 1953 coup in Iranian ideology.  From the end of World War II to the arrival of the Ayatollah Khomeini the Shah was faced with three domestic enemies that wanted to curb his power or overthrow his monarchy – the Iranian left made up of a diverse group of Marxists that leaned toward the Soviet Union, the religious establishment, and a coalition of secular liberals, democrats, and progressive nationalists.  Despite the diverse nature of the opposition, they all believed that the 1953 coup could be repeated at any time should the Shah’s reign end.  This belief forms the background to any American-Iranian negotiation, particularly the 1979 hostage situation.

Ghazvinian cleverly compares the attitudes of the different presidents towards the Shah.  For Eisenhower, named the “coup president” by historian Blanche Wiesen Cook, his policy was driven by the anti-communism of the Dulles brothers to provide the Shah with loans and military hardware.  Once John F. Kennedy assumed the oval office he put pressure on the Shah to reform his reign, but once he was assassinated the Shah was relieved since Lyndon Johnson was too busy with Vietnam and appreciated an anti-communist ally who would help control rising Arab nationalism and the Persian Gulf.  The key was Richard M. Nixon who developed a friendship with the Shah during the Eisenhower administration and with pressure from the likes of Henry Kissinger to honor any military requests that the Shah asked for resulted in billions for the American military-industrial complex and advanced weaponry for the Iranian army.  The result was a man who believed he had card blanche from the United States resulting in violent domestic opposition against the Shah in Iran.  Finally, Jimmy Carter’s human rights rhetoric scared the Shah, but he too would give in to the Shah’s demands until his overthrow.

(Iran-Iraq War)

Ghazvinian’s discussion of the rise of Khomeini and American ignorance concerning the proliferation of his ideas and support in Iran is well thought out.  From exile in Iraq and later Paris the United States made no attempt to understand the reasons behind Khomeini’s rise and the conditions of poverty and oppression that existed among the Iranian masses.  Washington’s blindness and tone deafness is highlighted by the appointment of former CIA Director Richard Helms as US Ambassador to Iran in 1973.

Once the Shah is overthrown Ghazvinian explains the different factions that existed in Iran and that it was not a foregone conclusion that Islamic fundamentalism would be victorious.  American intelligence underestimated Khomeini’s skill as a politician, not just a religious leader. The reader is exposed to intricate details about the creation of the Islamic Republic, the hostage situation, and the Iran-Iraq War which found the US playing a double game of supporting both sides.  This would lead to the Iran-Contra scandal that showed the duplicitous nature of the Reagan administration that should have ended the Reagan presidency.

Though Ghazvinian breezy history is immensely readable it becomes biased as he delves into the post 1988 Iranian-American relations.  The author discusses efforts by George H. W. Bush and Barack Obama to reset the relationship between Teheran and Washington ultimately to be thwarted by disinterest after the Soviet Union collapsed and the role of the Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu whose bombast was designed to block any Iranian-American rapprochement.  At times slipping into partiality, Ghazvinian downplays the bombast of the Iranian government and its avoidance of the nuclear issue, its role in Lebanon with its ally Hezbollah, and arming Hamas in the West Bank.  I realize the many  flaws and general stupidity of Bush’s neocon gang, but the soft presentation of Iran under Mahmoud Ahmadinjad also leaves a lot to be desired.

Despite some areas that could be developed further, Ghazvinian has produced a needed reappraisal of his subject and the quality of the writing makes the book an easy read for the general public which makes it a valuable contribution despite some shortcomings.

Richard Nixon, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi President Richard M. Nixon with The Shah of Iran, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi when he visited Washington on a state visit on
(The Shah of Iran and President Nixon)

NOT ONE INCH: AMERICA, RUSSIA, AND THE MAKING OF THE POST COLD WAR STALEMATE by M.E. Sarotte

File:President George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev pose for a photo during their meeting in Helsinki.jpg
(Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and President George H. Bush)

As I am writing I am listening to the horrific news emanating from Ukraine.  The Russian invasion that began on February 24, 2022, continues to produce atrocity after atrocity with no end in sight.  By launching his “special military operation,” Vladimir Putin has ended the post-Cold War settlement in Eastern Europe in pursuit of his fantasy of an ethno-nationalistic Pan Slavic empire for Russia as he tries to recreate the old Soviet Union.  His stated goal was to block the NATO threat embodied by Ukraine, a country that seeks to join the Atlantic Alliance for protection against Moscow.  Putin’s actions were based on his perceived weakness of NATO countries and their lack of unity.  The result, instead of pushing NATO away from his border, Putin has reinvigorated NATO and brought the west closer than it has been since World War II.  Sanctions against Russia, arming Ukraine, financial aid, intelligence sharing, and humanitarian aid are all designed to help Kyiv overcome Putin’s rage as the war has not gone as he had planned.  Based on the Russian President’s comments, who knows how far he will push his war of choice and how it will end.  The question is how did we get to this point?  What can be done to mitigate the situation?  Lastly, what weapons will Putin employ as he hints about tactical nuclear weapons and chemical and biological warfare if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy does not capitulate.

M.E. Sarotte, a history professor at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations has authored the perfect book to try and understand the background of the current crisis.  Her monograph, NOT ONE INCH: AMERICA, RUSSIA, AND THE MAKING OF THE POST COLD WAR STALEMATE is an excellent analysis of events, personalities, and decisions made by western European, American, and Russian leaders from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 through the resignation of Boris Yeltsin as Russian president replaced by Vladimir Putin.

(President Bill Clinton and Russian president Boris Yeltsin)

Sarotte develops a thoroughly researched book that revolves around options faced by the west once the Soviet Union collapsed.  The choice was clear; either they could enable the newly independent states of Central and Eastern Europe including the Baltic states to join NATO regardless of its impact on Russia or promote cooperation with Russia’s fragile new democracy.  The move that made the most sense would have slowed the decision making process and proceeding carefully considering Russian sensitivities.  The west created an incremental security partnership open to European and post-Soviet states alike.  Potential NATO members could gain experience in working with the west and eventually gain Article 5 protection.  However, Boris Yeltsin’s decision to shed the blood of opponents in Moscow and Chechnya, the rampant inflation in Russia as it tried to transition to a market economy, bloodshed in the Balkans, and domestic political changes in the United States as Republicans took over Congress pressured the Clinton administration to push for NATO expansion all impacted the course of NATO enlargement.  As all of this evolved Vladimir Putting was rising through the Russian bureaucracy.

In breaking down her analysis into three parts, Sarotte tackles the 1989-1992 period dominated by President George H. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.  Her focus is on the “promise” offered by Baker that “not one inch” of former Soviet territory would be subject to NATO expansion.  This formed the basis of the Russian position, and as events evolved the United States and its western allies saw loopholes in any agreement that would allow them to offer NATO membership to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary in the first wave of NATO membership and keep open the possibilities for further members including the Baltic states, Romania, and others.  Gorbachev who faced internal opposition, economic issues and other roadblocks to reform would face a coup and eventual replacement by Boris Yeltsin.

The second part of the narrative, 1993-1994 was dominated by the “Boris and Bill” show as Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin developed a strong working relationship which would eventually flounder due to events and decisions that ruined their camaraderie as the US pushed for rapid NATO enlargement.  By the third part of the book, 1995-1999 the situation in Kosovo, the failed Russian economy raped by oligarchs, and Yeltsin’s uneven and unpredictable personality heightened by his drunkenness would result in Moscow and Washington failing to create lasting cooperation in the thaw after the Cold war resulting in the rise of Putin and what the world would eventually face in Ukraine.

Late French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl stand hand in hand

(The odd couple: François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl link hands at the cemetery beside the battlefield of Verdun)

Sarotte covers all bases as she highlights negotiations between the west and Russia and delves into the motivations and policies of the main personalities.  As she draws the reader in she offers a number of insightful comments and vignettes.  Among the most interesting and almost laughable was the role played by the Lewinsky Affair and Clinton’s impeachment trial in finally expanding NATO in 1998.  Sarotte’s meticulous presentation of how German unification was achieved and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from East Germany are among her strongest sections of the book, particularly the role played by German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.  The nuclear problem was always present in the background.  Issues of Ukrainian nuclear weapons, the cost to destroy and relocate them, and Russia’s role were paramount.  In addition, the evolution of the situation in Ukraine is discussed further and Sarotte offers a number of historical keys that will play out and impact Kyiv which in the end will end up being invaded by Russia in 2014 in its seizure of Crimea and the recognition by Russia of two separate self-proclaimed republics in the Donbas region.

Sarotte’s work is impeccable, and I would recommend it strongly to anyone interested in a detailed presentation of the 1989-1999 period that resulted in the arrival of Vladimir Putin as the dominating figure in the Kremlin’s approach to the west and Russian expansion.  Sarotte delineates the lost opportunity for a more peaceful world with increased Russian, American and European cooperation and integration between 1989 and 1991.  Unfortunately, that opportunity has been lost and it will take many years for it to reappear, if ever.

Presidents Gorbachev and Bush hold a joint new conference at the White House to conclude the Summit meetings
(Gorbachev and Bush, Sr.)

HITLER’S AMERICAN GAMBLE: PEARL HARBOR AND GERMANY’S MARCH TO WAR by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman

The dates December 5 through the 7th, 1941 mark the parameters of the most consequential week of the 20th century or perhaps any other time in history.  It was during that week that the Soviet Union began a major counter offensive against the Nazis who were threatening Moscow, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Hitler declared war on the United States.  It was a perilous time for the British who had endured Dunkirk, the Luftwaffe’s blitz over London and other cities, fears of Japanese attacks against British held territories in Asia, and Churchill’s fear that the only thing that could save his island empire – the entrance of the United States into the war against Germany would not occur as Washington would now focus on Japan after Pearl Harbor.  The event that saved the British was the Nazi dictator’s declaration of war against the United States, an act that should be difficult to understand since Germany was already fighting a devastating two front war.

Historians have questioned for decades why Hitler would take on the United States when Germany faced so many obstacles.  The German alliance with Japan was defensive predicated on an attack on Japan which the events of December 7th made obsolete.  In analyzing Hitler’s decision making historians fall into two camps.  The first, Hitler was a nihilist who was driven by an egoistic personality in making numerous irrational decisions.  The second school of thought has ferreted out a semblance of strategic calculations in his decision making.  In his latest book, British historian Brendan Simms and his co-author Charlie Laderman entitled, HITLER’S AMERICAN GAMBLE: PEARL HARBOR AND GERMANY’S MARCH TO WAR support the latter analysis which is consistent with Simms’s 2019 biography of Hitler when he argued that Hitler was well aware of American power and war with the United States was inevitable therefore his decision was pre-emptive.

Whichever argument one accepts it is clear that Simms and Laderman have made a compelling case in analyzing Hitler’s thought process the first part of December 1941 which led him to declare war on America.  Along with this analysis, the authors dig deeply into the state of the war as of early December, the realpolitik practiced by Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and the key role played by the Japanese government.

lend-lease-routes

The authors have written a detailed description of the uncertainty that existed between December 5-12, 1941.  It seems as if the reader is present as decisions are made by the main participants hour by hour.  The blow by blow account is incisive and the results of Hitler’s decision to declare war on the United states would launch a global war.  The authors make a compelling case that before the onset of war the Japanese government did not trust Hitler as they feared the Nazi dictator would seize Vichy French colonies in Southeast Asia.  Simms and Laderman provide an accurate appraisal of the background history leading to December 7th.  They raise interesting points, many of which have been written about by previous historians. 

Lend Lease plays a significant role in the thinking of all the participants leading up to and after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The authors are clear and correct when they argue that the American aid policy infuriated Hitler.  For the Fuhrer it reinforced the connection in his mind that capitalism, Jews, and American policy were all part of a conspiracy against Germany.  From Hitler’s perspective American actions were driving Germany towards war against the United States.  For example, in March 1941 the American navy began to protect British convoys across the Atlantic.  In addition, the U.S. would expand its defensive zone all the way to Greenland and reinforce its Atlantic Fleet.  Lend Lease also played a key role in Hitler’s thinking even after December 7th.  The authors spend a great deal of time discussing how Churchill and Roosevelt believed that the Nazis pressured the Japanese to attack developing the hope that the Japanese attack would force an American declaration of war against Tokyo and forcing Washington to reduce its aid to England and the Soviet Union because of its own needs in the Pacific.  Hitler was under no illusion concerning US military production, but he would come to believe that the Nazis should strike before the American military-industrial complex could reach maximum production.

As Hitler contemplated declaring war against the United States, Churchill and the British government desperate for continued Lend Lease worried that the aid would be reduced because of US needs in East Asia.  Churchill was especially concerned because of the ongoing fighting in North Africa and the threat to the Suez Canal.  In fact, the authors point out that aid was stopped for a brief period as disagreement arose between Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and Lend Lease administrator Edward Stettinius. 

From the Japanese perspective they were unsure if they could rely on a German declaration of war.  The authors mine the commentary of Japanese leaders particularly Foreign Minister Shigenari Togo who did not trust that Germany would join the war against the United States.

Roosevelt was concerned about America Firsters and isolationists in Congress.  Both groups were willing to fight the Japanese but were against involvement in Europe as they refused to fight for what they perceived to be British colonial interests.  FDR walked a fine line and refused to meet with Churchill after December 7th as to not exacerbate domestic opposition.  Hitler’s declaration made it easier for Roosevelt to declare war on Germany and overcome isolationist opposition.

The Repulse and Prince of Wales Battleships: How They Sunk

(The sinking of the British battleships Repulse and The Prince of Wales December 10, 1941)

The coming Holocaust against European Jewry played a role in Hitler’s strategy.  The Nazi dictator saw the Jews of Europe as hostages to keep FDR from taking further action against Germany.  It did not stop the murderous horror taking place in eastern Europe but as long as the US did not enter the war the fate of western European Jewry would be postponed.  However, the authors argue effectively argue that once Hitler declared war against the United States, in his mind they were no longer a bargaining chip in dealing with Washington.  He was now free to conduct his Final Solution against western and central European Jews.

Churchill & Roosevelt. /Nprime Minister Winston Churchill And President Franklin D. Roosevelt Photographed During A Press Conference In
(Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt)

The authors astutely point out the role of racism in the war.  John W. Dower’s amazing study, WAR WITHOUT MERCY: RACE AND POWER IN THE PACIFIC WAR is the best study of the issue arguing that war in the Pacific was a racial war.  For Simms and Laderman the decision making process on the part of Anglo-American military planners was greatly influenced by their low opinion of Japanese military capability.  Leadership on both sides of the Atlantic could not fathom the idea that the Japanese had the ability to launch intricate attacks such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, Malaya, the Philippines, Guam, Singapore, Southeast Asia at the same time.  This type of thinking also resulted in disaster for the Royal Navy as Japanese bombers destroyed Force Z that included the sinking of the Repulse and the Prince of Wales.

Simms and Laderman do an excellent job delving into the calculations of the major participants in the coming war.  The significant issues apart from Hitler’s decision as to whether he should declare war on the United States included whether Stalin should declare war on Japan? How would England and the Soviet Union make up for the shortfall of Lend Lease aid in the immediate future?  How would FDR overcome domestic opposition to US participation in the European War and so on?

(Japanese envoys in Washington, DC December 1941)

The authors also do an admirable job integrating the opinions of people across the globe concerning the implications for Japanese actions in the Pacific.  People as diverse as the former mayor of Cologne Konrad Adenauer (and future German leader after WWII) to everyday citizens on the streets of Berlin, London, Leningrad, intellectuals in Poland tosoldiers on the eastern front.  For all the key was what would Hitler do – would he declare war on the United States and unleash a global war as Mussolini had warned or would he allow Japan to take on the American colossus themselves.

Overall, Simms and Laderman have written a thought provoking book that breaks down the December 5-12th 1941 period for three-fourths of their narrative that includes an important introduction that sets the scene for Hitler’s decisions and the implications that the decisions would have for the future of the war which would not end until August 1945.

UNCONDITIONAL: THE JAPANESE SURRENDER IN WORLD WAR II by Marc Gallicchio

Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, seated, signs the Japanese surrender document on the Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.

(Japanese surrender on USS Missouri after WWII)

The death of Franklin D. Roosevelt in April1945 vaulted the inexperienced Harry S. Truman into the Oval Office.  As Vice-President Truman was kept in the dark by Roosevelt on many issues including the Manhattan Project which would later result in dropping two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945.  However, before the Enola Gay released its first bomb, American policy to end the war in the Pacific rested upon the phrase “unconditional surrender” a term uttered by Roosevelt at the Casablanca Conference attended by Winston Churchill in January 1943.  The policy was employed to avoid any possibility that the defeated powers of Germany and Japan would later question whether they were defeated militarily as occurred following World War I.

The application of “unconditional surrender” to the Pacific Theater is the subject of Villanova Professor Marc Gallicchio’s latest monograph, UNCONDITIONAL: THE JAPANESE SURRENDER IN WORLD WAR II.  A major focus in Gallicchio’s narrative is the role of Truman and a cadre of individuals that includes Henry L. Stimson, Joseph C. Grew, James Forrestal, George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, Herbert Hoover, and numerous others in debating the policy of “unconditional surrender,” with an eye on the role of the Soviet Union, China, and Japan in the post war world.  Though Truman was a novice in foreign policy he held a number of strong views concerning uprooting Japan’s military and its ideology and replacing the imperial monarchy with a pro-western democracy.

File:TRUMAN 58-766-06.jpg
(President Harry S. Truman)

After the war, the United States would help with the reconstruction of Japan and impose a new constitution on the defeated country.  As Japan flourished she would become a staunch ally that stood firmly against the rise of communism in China and a supporter of Washington’s overall all policy for Asia.  The end result was that the United States avoided creating a revanchist regime in Tokyo.

A second major emphasis in Gallicchio’s presentation is how policy decisions evolved and the application of his own insightful analysis throughout. He reconstructs events and delves into the arguments of the major personalities that led to the Japanese surrender on the USS Missouri staged in Tokyo Bay in September 1945.

Gallicchio begins by explaining the origins and rationale for “unconditional surrender” as a means to reassure the Soviet Union that there would be no separate peace.  Russia would come to an agreement that once Germany was defeated they would shift troops to the Pacific and help end the war against Japan, but as in all cases in dealing with Joseph Stalin, Moscow had its own agenda for northeast China once the Japanese withdrew. 

Joseph Grew wwwnndbcompeople023000054858grew083201jpg
(Former US Ambassador to Japan, Joseph C. Grew)

Gallicchio exhibits an excellent command of the secondary and primary materials dealing with his topic and offers a concise application of the documentary evidence in developing his conclusions.  In addition, he considers the analysis offered by previous historians who have engaged the late World War II and early Cold War period.  For example, he reviews the Yalta and Potsdam Agreements in his treatment of the “Stalin Issue,” and how the World War II alliance of convenience unraveled despite Washington’s need for Soviet troops to help defeat the Japanese military.  Truman was very concerned that the US should try and defeat Japan as quickly as possible to avoid creating a vacuum in the region that could easily be filled by Moscow.  Aside from the cost of an American invasion of the Japanese home islands this was a major rationale for Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bombs to end the war as quickly as possible.

The author’s analysis includes a deep dive inside the Japanese military hierarchy, cabinet, and bureaucracy and summarizes the views of the different factions that emerged as it was confronted by America’s policies toward surrender and the future role of the Emperor.  Gallicchio spends a substantial amount of time discussing the peace faction that surrounded Emperor Hirohito as it tried to fend off the militarists who believed that if the war could be drawn out further, with Germany defeated domestic pressure in the United States would result in Washington’s acquiescence to a lesser policy than offered by complete surrender, military occupation, and retention of the Emperorship.  Further, the military believed that the Soviet Union could become a useful tool in pressuring the United States to alter its position, in addition to what they perceived as a weakening of the allied alliance.

refer to caption

(Portrait of Herbert Hoover)

A major strength of Gallicchio’s work is his exploration of the American home front as the war was ending.  Truman was under a great deal of pressure to end the war since Germany was defeated.  Public opinion polls pointed to the desire to bring the troops home and reconversion to a domestic economy and not allowing the Pentagon to dictate economic policy.

Gallicchio emphasizes the role of American code breaking as the United States collected a great deal of information through MAGIC decrypts of Japanese diplomatic messages and analysis of Japanese troop dispositions, which were processed through a military intelligence program code-named ULTRA.  These two sources tried to keep Washington one step ahead of Japan throughout most of the war.

Hirohito
(Japanese Emperor Hirohito)

Gallicchio is correct when he argues that the Potsdam Conference played a significant role as it became increasingly clear that there was little Washington could do to keep the Russians from seizing large parts of Manchuria, even if Japan was defeated before Soviet troops entered China.  However, it is during the conference that Truman learned of the successful test of the atomic bomb providing him with a major tool in dealing with Stalin and ending the war as rapidly as possible.  Truman was ill disposed to making any special guarantees to the Emperor who he believed was as much of a war criminal as Hitler and Mussolini.  But Truman also realized that he would need Hirohito to facilitate the surrender of Imperial troops.  In the end Truman would accept the Emperor as a glorified figurehead, hopefully avoiding a resurgence of Japanese nationalism in the future. 

Henry Stimson : News Photo
(Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson)

The end of the war did not end the debate over the “unconditional surrender“ policy.  Gallicchio dissects the revisionism put forth by those who blamed the policy of “unconditional surrender” for causing the problems in the immediate post war era that led to communist domination of Asia.  Gallicchio does an excellent job in his last complete chapter in presenting the arguments pro and con whether the Emperor was a peace candidate.  He also extrapolates that if the Truman administration had been willing to alter the policy and state that Washington had no intention to outlaw the monarchy the dropping of the atomic bomb would not have been necessary, the Soviet Union would not have entered China, and by 1949 Maoist forces would not have seized power in Beijing.  This revisionism is incorrect and reflects the inability of certain individuals including Herbert Hoover and Admiral William D. Leahy, Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff among others to accept the reality of the military-political situation within the Japanese establishment where the military dominated the government and in the case of Hirohito he did nothing to alter the conduct of Japanese forces throughout the Pacific.  Gallicchio continues his presentation by reviewing the historiography of his subject well into the mid-1990s and the cultural politics that ensued.

Gallicchio offers a tightly focused narrative that lays out the pros and cons of America’s policy of “unconditional surrender” in the Pacific at the end of World War II.  It is concisely written and stays on target with little or no meandering to other issues.  The book is a fresh look at the drama that unfolded at the end of the war and an important synthesis of what has been written before and encapsulates the important debates that led to the dropping of the atomic bombs and America’s occupation of Japan that ensued.

(Japanese surrender, USS Missouri, September 1945)

THE AMBASSADOR: JOSEPH P. KENNEDY AT THE COURT OF ST. JAMES, 1938-1940 by Susan Ronald

Portrait Of The Kennedy Family At Home
(The Kennedys)

Anyone familiar with the life of Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy is aware of the flaws in his character and life story.  These elements of his biography have been fully explored in studies like David Nasaw’s THE PATRIARCH: THE REMARKABLE LIFE AND TURBULENT TIMES OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, Richard J. Whalen’s THE FOUNDING FATHER: THE STORY OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s THE FITZGERALDS AND THE KENNEDYS: AN AMERICAN SAGA.  Kennedy’s life story is punctuated with “serial philandering,” a relationship with organized crime, his years as a Wall Street operator highlighted by repeated insider trading, lobotomizing his daughter Rosemary, an appeaser’s isolationist view of the world that led to his opposition to the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall plan, a cozy relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, and a world view that saw fascism as a means of overcoming a depressed economy and a means of combating communism.  All of these aspects of his life’s work have been dissected in the three previous works mentioned.

One area, his role as American Ambassador to the Court of St. James, a position where Nasaw describes Kennedy as the worst American diplomat serving US interests in England to have ever served across the Atlantic becomes the central theme of Susan Ronald’s latest book, THE AMBASSADOR: JOSEPH P. KENNEDY AT THE COURT OF ST.JAMES, 1938-1940.  In her monograph, Ronald explores the charges against Kennedy that he was an anti-Semite, a Hitlerite appeaser, an isolationist, and an admirer of what the Nazis achieved in Germany and reaches the same damning conclusions as previous historians.

The Kennedy family mystique has been carefully crafted for decades by family members and their acolytes.  However, Kennedy’s true belief that fascism was the inevitable wave of the future, leading him to consistently misrepresent American foreign policy as he intentionally ignored instructions from President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull as he substituted his own beliefs and opinions in place of those instructions.

john f kennedy father jfk

(In this 1938 file photo, John F. Kennedy, right, poses aboard an ocean liner with his father Joseph P. Kennedy, center, U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, and brother Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., left.) 

Ronald was born in the United States and later emigrated to Great Britain is the author of a number of historical works.  She has mined the riches of the British and American archives and has become very knowledgeable concerning the wealth of secondary materials that have been written on her subject.  Ronald has prepared a readable work for the general public and a bit less so for the professional historian since she does not really uncover anything that is new and repeats arguments and thesis put forth by others.  But to her credit the narrative offers a fresh synthesis concerning Kennedy’s work as ambassador as she mirrors a great deal of the work that has come before her new publication. Her views are supported by others that Kennedy lacked the “temperament, training, and willpower” to serve in his diplomatic post.

Ronald’s narrative concerns a man who by March 1940 had reached the pinnacle of his  career in public service and by October of that year he would return to the United States to seek revenge against Franklin Roosevelt who he believed treated him poorly as Ambassador, ignored his views on the coming war, and not supporting him in a manner that he felt his position warranted.  On numerous occasions Kennedy lectured the president and he would alienate the White Staff, members of the State Department, especially the Secretary of State, and the British diplomatic establishment and government.

Kennedy’s revenge centered around his support for the Republican nominee for president in 1940, Wendell Willkie, in part driven by his desire to run for president himself as a Democrat.  After Roosevelt’s election to a third term in November 1940 Kennedy dedicated himself to keeping the United States out of the war offering opinions that argued the US could not survive economically if she joined the conflict.

The Curious Relationship of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt
(Joseph P. Kennedy and President Franklin Roosevelt)

Kennedy was originally appointed Ambassador to Great Britain on February 18, 1938, as a reward for supporting Roosevelt’s candidacies for president in 1936 and earlier he was repaid for his support in 1932 as the head of the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission, a poor substitute for the office of Secretary of the Treasury which he coveted.  Kennedy had no experience as a diplomat and did not have a foreign policy background.  His driving ambition was to acquire wealth.  From his youth he believed he was discriminated against because of his Irish-Catholic roots creating a chip on his shoulder to achieve societal acceptance.  Once married his focus was to create a springboard for one of his sons to become president.  Based on Kennedy’s abrupt, opinionated, and “undiplomatic” personality he did not possess the skills to head such an important foreign posting.  Roosevelt was aware of Kennedy’s issues, and he wanted him out of the country where he believed he would cause less political trouble had he been chosen for a domestic position.

For Kennedy, the ambassadorship to a major Protestant country could help him improve his Bonafede which could assist him in running for president in 1940 as an Irish-Catholic. Kennedy was up against an administration whose members would have no use for him and resented his constant outspoken criticisms.  What was in Kennedy’s favor was the need to negotiate a Reciprocal Trade Agreement with the British.  New York Times reporter and Kennedy confidant, Arthur Krock pushed Roosevelt to appoint him by leaking an appointment before the decision was even made.

Once in England, Kennedy collaborated closely with British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain and supported his pro-fascist views and appeasement policies as he would do nothing to aggravate German Chancellor Adolf Hitler by preparing England for a war.  Ronald does a respectable job laying out the views of the English royal family and members of the government who came to despise Kennedy. A case in point was King George VI detestation of Kennedy who feared if he returned to the United States he would rile up isolations to the detriment of England.  Further, during the German aerial “Blitz” over London Kennedy acquired the nickname, “Jittery Joe” as he sequestered himself in a country estate and refused to inspect the damage that befell London. Overall, the British people viewed him as a coward.

She does equally well in describing Roosevelt’s true feelings toward Kennedy and tracing the highs and lows of their relationship.  Kennedy’s “uninhibited manipulation of the press, his speaking out against the president, and passing his own opinions for State Department policy” had ruled him out for Roosevelt’s support, particularly after Kennedy “dressed down” the president in a White House meeting on June 23, 1938.  In the end Roosevelt told Eleanor that “I never want to see that son of a bitch again as long as I live.”

The Curious Relationship of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt

(Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy in November, 1940)

Kennedy’s errors were myriad.  He never informed Roosevelt, Hull, or the State Department that English Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax had broken with Chamberlain over the appeasement of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in addition to Hitler.  Further, while in New York he informed German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on June 10, 1938, that he would try and mitigate American press reports that criticized Germany and would work to keep the US out of any European war.  Lastly, Kennedy’s anti-Semitic comments are legendary, particularly statements to Herbert von Dirksen, the German Ambassador in London.

Roosevelt and Hull would keep Kennedy out of the loop as much as possible because the last thing they wanted was for him to return home creating havoc as the administration worked to deal with an isolationist Congress and overturn Neutrality legislation.  Interestingly, the British would have been glad to send him packing as they grew tired of his bombastic statements, defeatism, particularly before and after Dunkirk, including criticisms that they referred to as “Kennedyianas.”

Overall, Ronald’s book is a mixed bag.  At times she delves into her topic as a true historian evaluating historical events, important characters and their motivations, and explaining British and American politics as the Germans moved closer to war.  Obviously, the key figure is Joseph P. Kennedy whose machinations were designed to further his own political career and those of his sons, and the needs of his family.  All the major figures of the period are on full display as are lesser ones.

It is the latter group that detracts from the narrative.  There are a two chapters that deal with British society as well as references to the “London social season,”  the types of china and cutlery used at dinner, the menus provided, the types of jewelry worn, estate/house decorations among many aspects of minutiae which after awhile become tedious and difficult to digest which detracts from her historical analysis.  Ronald’s approach in this area serves no purpose for the overall thesis she presents and most of it could be excluded resulting in a more compact work of history.  Ronald should pay less attention to the frivolities of British society and Kennedy family excursions and focus more on the critical issues that Kennedy’s tenure in England involved.

(Joseph and Rose Kennedy married in 1914 and had nine children together. Pictured above on a vacation to France in 1939 is (from left to right back row) Kathleen, Joe Jr, Rosemary, Rose , Edward (Ted), (left to right middle row) John (Jack), Eunice, Joseph Sr, Patricia, (left to right front row) Robert and Jean)

THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR by Craig Whitlock

(Former President Bush flashes a thumbs-up after declaring the end of major combat in Iraq aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier in 2003. He now says declaring mission accomplished was a mistake.)

In 1971 the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-3 decision, that the U.S. government had not met “the heavy burden of showing justification for the enforcement” of prior restraint. The Court ordered the immediate end of the injunctions against publication which led to the dissemination of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times.  The Pentagon Papers, officially titled Report of the Office of the Secretary of Defense Vietnam Task Force is a Defense Department history of the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967. Though Washington Post national security reporter Craig Whitlock’s new book, THE AFGHANISTAN PAPERS: A SECRET HISTORY OF THE WAR does not rise to the level of the Pentagon Papers according to the author it is based on “interviews with more than a 1,000 people who played a direct part in the war.  The Lessons Learned Interviews, oral histories and 59,000 Rumsfeld snowflakes comprise more than 10,000 pages of documents.  Unedited and unfiltered, they reveal the voices of people – from those who made policy in Washington to those who fought in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan – who knew the official version of the war being fed to the American people was untrue, or aggressively sanitized at best.” (xx)

The publication of Whitlock’s monograph coincides with the disjointed American withdrawal from Afghanistan the last few weeks.  The partisan debate that President Biden’s abrupt exit sparked creates the need for a more nuanced and objective analysis of the past 20 years since 9/11 and its is our good fortune as the war for America seems to have concluded a series of new historical monographs have emerged.  Apart from Whitlock’s book readers can choose from Carter Malkasian’s  THE AMERICAN WAR IN AFGHANISTAN: A HISTORY; David Loyn’s THE LONG WAR; Peter Bergen’s THE RISE AND FALL OF OSAMA BIN-LADIN; and Spencer Ackerman’s REIGN OF TERROR.  There are also a number of works that have been written over the last decade that one might consult.  The works of Steve Coll come to mind, GHOST WARS  and DIRECTORATE S; also important are Dexter Filkins’ THE FOREVER WAR; Anand Gopal’s NO GOOD MEN AMONG THE LIVING; and Lawrence Wright’s THE LOOMING TOWER.

A great deal of Whitlock’s commentary is similar to the observations of previous authors.  However, what separates Whitlock’s narrative, analysis, and insights is that they are based on documentation and interviews of key commanders, soldiers on the ground, government officials, and even important foreign players who had significant roles in the war.  Whitlock’s monograph is written in a concise and clear manner and his conclusions point to the disaster the war had become after removing the Taliban and al-Qaeda in 2002.  Whitlock astutely points out that military strategists are always taught to never start a war without having a plan to end it.  From the outset, the Bush administration never articulated how the war would be ended.  For years, the American people were told the war would be difficult but on an incremental basis we were always winning.  The happy talk of the Bush, Obama, and lastly the Trump administrations never measured up to events on the ground.

(Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and American troops in Afghanistan)

Most historians and journalists agree the swift early American success in 2002 turned out to be a curse as it gave the Bush administration the confidence to change policy from hunting terrorists to nation building.  Despite the arrogance of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the war turned against the Americans with this change in strategy, a dominant theme that Whitlock develops as it seemed periodically Washington would change strategies and commanders on a regular basis.  One of the major problems American troops faced was that they could not distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys.  For American troops Taliban and al-Qaeda were the same, a gross error in that the Taliban followed an extremist ideology and were Afghans, while al-Qaeda was made up of Arabs with a global presence who wanted to overthrow Middle Eastern autocrats allied with the United States.  By 2002 the United States was fighting an enemy that had nothing to do with 9/11 which was the stated purpose of the war.

The early success would deteriorate as the Bush administration shifted its focus to Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power.  Troops, supplies, and funding dissipated quickly as Whitlock quotes numerous individuals whose frustration with Rumsfeld and company for their lack of interest and refusal to provide the necessary equipment, troops, and funding to bolster the American effort in Afghanistan only providing the minimum level of support to keep the war going.

Whitlock organizes his narrative around American errors, the corruption of the Afghan government, and the refusal of American leadership to face the facts on the battlefield. Similar to the overall war strategy the nation-building campaign suffered from an obvious lack of goals and benchmarks.  The idea of imposing an American style democracy on a country with no foundation or history of the elements of that type of governmental system was idiotic from the outset and no matter what fantasy the Bush administration could cobble together preordained its failure.

Whitlock presents a number of important chapters chief among them is “Raising an Army from the Ashes” in which he describes the issues in constructing an army from scratch.  The entire episode portended the results witnessed a few weeks ago when a 300,000 man army collapsed and faded away when confronted by the Taliban.  Other chapters point to the basic complaint by officers and troops of the lack of preparation in understanding Afghan culture which led to many disastrous decisions.  Another key issue was the role of Pakistan which had its own agenda visa vie the Taliban and indirectly its fears of India.  By creating a sanctuary for the insurgency, it made the American task very difficult.  Whitlock’s insightful analysis mirrors that of Steve Coll’s DIRECTORATE S as it explains ISI duplicity and the fact that the Islamabad government knew how to play both ends against the middle to gain American financial and military support in return for very little.

afghanistan map explainer

American errors are numerous as recounted by Whitlock.  Flooding the country with money for projects that were not needed or absorbable was very detrimental to the American mission.  Support for Hamid Karzai and his corrupt regime, along with alliances with murderous warlords was self-defeating.  Trying to eradicate the opium trade was high minded, but with no alternate source of income Afghan farmers and warlords learned to manipulate the American strategy to reduce the drug trade was very problematical.

Whitlock introduces the major players in the war from Rumsfeld, Cheney, McChrystal, Petraeus,  Obama, and Trump with all of the flaws exhibited by their thinking that led to failure.  Whether implementing counterinsurgency, huge infrastructure projects, building inside enemy territory, and Petraeus’ strategy of being “hellbent at throwing money at problems” was doomed to failure.  The bottom line as Army Lt-General Douglas Lute, a Director of Operations for the Joint Staff at the Pentagon states is that “we were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan-we didn’t know what we were doing…What are we doing here?  We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking…There is a fundamental gap of understanding on the front end, overstated objectives, an overreliance on the military, and a lack of understanding of the resources necessary.” (110)

The Trump administration would run into the same roadblocks in trying to ameliorate the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.  Trump’s tough talk about “winning,” increased bombing that resulted in higher death counts for civilians, and more happy talk did not accomplish much.  It was clear once Trump’s promises “to deliver ‘clear cut victory’ had failed he ordered the state Department and Pentagon to engage in formal, face to face negotiations with the Taliban to find a way to extricate U.S. troops from Afghanistan without making it seem like a humiliating defeat.” (264) 

For over a  decade American policy makers and commanders  knew that a lasting military defeat of the Taliban was not in the cards as they were a Pashtun-led mass movement that represented a sizable portion of the population and continued to gain strength.  However, the Bush and Obama administrations made only half-hearted attempts to engage the Taliban, deferring to the Afghan government in the diplomatic process which they would paralyze.  The U.S. would squander attempts at a negotiated settlement in 2001 by excluding the Taliban from the Bonn Conference, three years later they did not take advantage of the democratic election of Hamid Karzai as president to implement the diplomatic process.  By 2009 the Obama administration took a hardline approach with its “reconciliation” requirements dooming any hope for talks to begin and progress as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other important policy makers believed that the Taliban would never desert al-Qaeda.

People arriving from Afghanistan make their way at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman [Abdul Khaliq Achakzai/Reuters]

(People arriving from Afghanistan make their way at the Friendship Gate crossing point at the Pakistan-Afghanistan border town of Chaman)

The Trump administration finally negotiated a deal whereby all U.S. troops would be withdrawn from Afghanistan by May 1, 2021.  Like his predecessors Trump failed to make good on his promise to prevail in Afghanistan or bring what he mocked as “the forever war” to completion.  Instead, he left an inheritance to Joe Biden who chose not to renege on Trump’s settlement with the Taliban to avoid further warfare.  This provoked a firestorm among conservative Republicans and veteran’s groups, many of which had argued against continuing the war for a number of years. Many have chosen to blame Biden for an abrupt withdrawal from Afghanistan and a Taliban victory, however that result was because of two decades of obfuscation and a war strategy that was doomed to failure once we turned our attention to Iraq and took our foot off the pedal that drove the war in Afghanistan..

No matter what successes were repeatedly announced publicly by the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations spokespersons, in private they knew that Afghan security forces showed little progress in safeguarding the country, the Taliban retained safe havens in Pakistan, and corruption pervaded Afghan governments alienating and angering people.  If there is one theme that dominates Whitlock’s analysis is that “U.S. leaders knew their war strategy was dysfunctional and privately doubted they could attain their objectives.  Yet they confidently told the public year after year that they were making progress and that victory—winning was over the horizon.” (277)  Whitlock makes it clear that “it was impossible to square negative trends with the optimistic public messaging about progress, so US officials kept the complete datasets confidential.” (205) 

After reading Whitlock’s book it is clear that the US mission in Afghanistan was doomed to failure once we turned to nation building.  Whitlock the first important synthesis of the most basic and essential elements that led to the American withdrawal.  For those who need a quick primer or a thoughtful approach to the conduct of the war, Whitlock’s monograph is critical for our understanding as to what went wrong.

On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant 'Mission Accomplished' banner+4

The infamous phrase was echoed by Trump (pictured at the White House on April 13)+

 (On May 1 2003, President George W. Bush stood on an aircraft carrier under a giant ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner, (left) a phrase echoed by Donald Trump (pictured at the White House on April 13, 2018)

REDLINE: THE UNRAVELING OF SYRIA AND AMERICA’S RACE TO DESTROY THE MOST DANGEROUS ARSENAL IN THE WORLD vy Joby Warrick

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with Yahoo News in this handout picture provided by SANA on Feb. 10, 2017.
(Syrian President Bashir Assad)

In his presidential memoir A PROMISED LAND Barack Obama does not reveal much about his thinking when it came to events in Syria other than that “our options were painfully limited…and Assad could count on Russia to veto any efforts we might make to impose international sanctions through the U.N. Security Council.”  This was the conundrum the US faced as it approached how to deal with the slaughter that was Syria since the Arab spring in 2011; a president who was seemingly obsessed with the fear Washington could be drawn into another war in the Middle East, and who if any of the rebel groups the US could rely on and not face blowback if Assad were overthrown.  Eventually President Obama announced his “red line” warning that if Assad continued to employ nerve agents in the Syrian civil war it would be a game changer for the US.  The warning that was issued on August 20, 2012 did not deter Assad and the American response was marginal at best.  With twenty-twenty hindsight this was one of the worst decisions the Obama administration made in relation to the carnage that was Syria and its results have been catastrophic.  In Obama’s defense had the US bombed Syria and taken out most of Assad’s chemical weapons would it have altered the war – we will never know.  The decision-making surrounding American “red line” policy its impact, and the attempt to destroy Assad’s chemical “stash” throughout 2014 is the subject of an informative new book RED LINE: THE UNRAVELING OF SYRIA AND AMERICA’S RACE TO DESTROY THE MOST DANGEROUS ARSENAL IN THE WORLD by Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post reporter Joby Warrick which takes a microscope to American decision-making and the diplomatic and military policies pursued to try and obviate the horrors that the Assad regime was perpetrating.

Warrick’s effort is more than a narrative history of events sprinkled with keen analysis of the players and policies involved, but more a true to life thriller with a cast of characters that includes world leaders, physicians, weapons hunters, spies, and a number of heroes and villains.  Warrick’s account begins with the introduction of a CIA spy whose nomenclature was Ayman, “the chemist,” a Syrian scientist who informed his handlers that Damascus had constructed an efficient manufacturing center with a network of laboratories that had produced 1300-1500 tons of binary sarin, VX, and mustard gas.  Warrick lays out the issue of nerve agents produced by Syria and its implication for US policy makers.  The author’s approach is methodical as he examines all areas that impacted the Syrian weapons cache and what the US should and could do to mitigate the problem.  Once Assad employed nerve agents dropping three canisters on the city of Sarageb held by rebels who fought for overthrowing the Syrian regime on April 29, 2013, President Obama response had done little to deter Damascus.

(Timothy Blades’ “Margarita Machine”)

By 2012 Syria had become the most dangerous place on earth and after the April 2013 attack the US and the UN began to work on providing evidence for Assad’s WMD crimes.  Warrick introduces a series of important characters into the narrative who are pivotal to his story.  UN Team Leader Ake Sellstrom, who had experience hunting WMD in Iraq in the 1990s was sent to Syria and found evidence that military grade sarin gas had been used.  The list includes Andrew C. Weber, the Pentagon’s Assistant Secretary for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs who feared that should Assad be overthrown his 1300 nerve agents could fall into the hands of the al Nusra Front and its ally al-Qaeda in Iraq (which would soon morph into the Islamic State). Timothy Blades, an ingenious individual who headed the US Civilian Chemical Biological Application and Risk Reduction team developed a process referred to as “hydrolysis” and the machinery to carry out the task of breaking down and making Assad’s nerve agents inert should the US come into possession of them.  Dr. Houssam Alnahhas, also known as “Chemical Hazem,” as he prepared areas of Syria for possible chemical attacks and worked to save victims of those attacks.  Samantha Powers, the US Ambassador to the United Nations who worked tirelessly to hold Assad responsible for the atrocities he ordered but she was up against Russian and Chinese vetoes, but her work cannot be ignored as she was able to create the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) under the auspices of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons headquartered in the Hague.  By 2017 JIM’s work continued as it investigated another Syrian nerve strike against the town of Khan Sheikhoun.  Lastly, Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS.  McGurk was the last American official to witness the Syrian conflict in its entirety,” from the earliest pro-democracy uprisings through the rise of ISIS; from the regime’s first experimental use of sarin to the dramatic; if incomplete, mission to destroy Syria’s stockpile; from the hopeful declaration that ‘Assad must go’ to the despairing reality of an entrenched Syrian dictatorship propped up by Russian and Iranian protector’s intent on reshaping the region in their own image.” (303) There are many other important players in the narrative, many of which must be given credit for the eventual destruction of much of Assad’s nerve WMD, and those who were a hinderance and supported Assad outright.

Warrick description of a UN investigation led by Sellstrom and Scott Cairns his Canadian Deputy reflected Syrian obstructionism.   However, while in Damascus their group witnessed the results of a chemical attack that killed at least 1400 in the Ghouta suburbs.  Warrick’s connections and knowledge allowed him to describe in detail the components of the WMD, its impact on the civilian population, Syrian governments obfuscation, and what the world was prepared to do about what was occurring in Syria.  Everyone points to the Obama administration for its almost “feckless” response to Assad’s actions.  Warrick correctly points out that the Obama administration in part placed itself in a bind in its response.  Obama, keen to avoid a major military commitment in the Middle East decided that he needed Congressional approval for any military response.  After the events in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001 there was little or no support in Congress.  Further, Germany’s Angela Merkel warned Obama that the US should not act and wait until the UN investigation had run its course.  In England, Prime Minister David Cameron could not convince Parliament to support military action, and lastly many feared what could happen to the UN team still in Syria.  Facing congressional humiliation Obama was saved in part by the Russians who agreed to force Assad to turn over his nerve agents to UN authorities.

(UN chemical weapons experts will use a battery of analytical techniques)

Warrick clearly explains how the deal came about and its implications for the future.  The Russians would go along with practically everything assuming that Blades’ “Margarita Machine” was a fantasy that could only fail thereby embarrassing the US.  Warrick’s account of how the “Blades’ Machine” was built, tested, and deployed is well conceived and easy to understand.  He follows the politics behind the strategy, the actual obstacles overcome particularly those set by the Syrians, and its ultimate deployment. This section of the book is perhaps the most important for the reader as Warrick builds the tension as if writing a novel that in the end would produce a mission at sea where the machines were bolted to the decks of the ship Cape Ray, deployed to the Mediterranean Sea to receive the nerve agents from the Syrian port of Latakia, run the nerve agents through Blades’ process, and then deliver the waste to cooperating countries.  Warrick employs a reporter’s eye to describe the political difficulties, delays, and roadblocks on the ground as the UN Mission tried to secure the nerve agents and even after the mission was a success one wonders how it was achieved.  For Blades and others, it came down to ingenuity, sheer guts, and a great deal of luck.

The entire process became a race to keep the nerve agents out of Islamist hands.  This became an even greater problem when on July 14, 2014, the day the ship sailed into the Mediterranean, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced from Mosul the creation of the Islamic Caliphate that stretched from Raqqa its capital in Central Syria deep into Iraq.  ISIS would miss out on Assad’s nerve agents, but began a developing a process of their own, particularly when Assad set the example by dropping barrel bombs loaded with chlorine gas which is less toxic than sarin on his subjects.

Samantha Power during Barack Obama’s first presidential election campaign, in 2008. Photograph: Hirolo Masuike/New York Times
(US UN Ambassador Samantha Power)

Graeme Wood is dead on when he writes in the February 19, 2021 edition of the Washington Post:  “Overwhelmingly, Warrick’s emphasis is where it should be, on Assad, for whom chemical weapons were a highly developed and strategic program of terror. “Syrians died every day from bullets, blast wounds, and shrapnel injuries,” Warrick writes, “but to exterminate human beings with chemicals, as though they were fleas and cockroaches” — this was “a different order of savagery.” Lacking any legitimate military purpose, Assad’s chemical weapons existed to terrorize civilian populations by killing as indiscriminately as possible. Eliminating his arsenal was therefore a top international priority.”

It is clear today that the Syrian Civil War continues to torture millions of Syrians in Syria and in refugee camps in the Middle East and Turkey.  While the US concentrated on ISIS for the next two years its policies would allow Russia and Hezbollah, Syria’s Iranian ally to route many of the rebels and keep Assad in power. According to Warrick Assad would engage in over 300 chemical attacks over the next four years.  It does not take a serious imagination to believe that Assad, who turned over tons of nerve agents to the UN kept a secret stash somewhere.  Once the Trump administration came aboard and abruptly ended aid to the rebels and abandoned our Kurdish allies to be destroyed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğanit it was obvious that Putin had won and Iran’s goal of a “land bridge” across the Levant was in reach – Assad had won.

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(US Special Envoy Brett McGuirk)

Warrick is to be commended for his research, clear and thoughtful writing, and describing for all to see what the truth is concerning Assad’s nerve gas war on his own people. Perhaps someday he and his enablers will be held accountable by the world community – but I doubt it.

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, pictured in December. His office said he would isolate at home with his wife for two weeks.
(Syrian President Bashir Assad)

THE MAN WHO RAN WASHINGTON: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES BAKER III by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

(Secretary of State James Baker III and President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1990)

Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for the New York Times and Susan Glasser, a staff writer for The New Yorker have written an engrossing biography of James Baker III, a man whose impact from 1976 through the election of 2000 can not be denied.  The book’s range is impressive as the authors describe a childhood under the thumb of a father whose nickname was “the Warden.” As an adult we witness the death of his wife from cancer at a young age and a remarriage that merged two families resulting in eight children, a number of which experienced numerous problems including drugs and alcohol.  Baker would give up the practice of law in Texas and move on to a political education in Washington, D.C. that produced lessons that stressed how to accumulate power and brook no opposition as he managed political campaigns, served as Chief of Staff to Ronald Reagan as well as Treasury Secretary, and Secretary of State under George H. W. Bush.  Based on his resume it is obvious why the authors titled their book, THE MAN WHO RAN WASHINGTON: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JAMES BAKER III.

Baker and Glasser employ the tools of investigative reporters in addition to those of a historian.  They have an excellent command of the written word and have the ability to present their narrative and analysis in a deeply thoughtful manner.  Baker is the author of books including DAYS OF FIRE: BUSH AND CHENEY IN THE WHITE HOUSE; THE BREACH: INSIDE THE IMPEACHMENT AND TRIAL OF WILLIAM JEEFERON CLINTON, and an excellent biography of Barack Obama entitled OBAMA: THE CALL OF HISTORY.  Glasser is the author of COVERING POLITICS IN POST TRUTH AMERICA,  and co-authored with Peter Baker, KREMLIN RISING: VLADIMIR PUTIN’S RUSSIA AND THE END OF REVOLUTION.  For those unfamiliar with the work of the author’s they are in for a treat.

Baker is one of the most consequential political figures of the last quarter of the 20th century.  He seems to have been involved in most issues and policy decisions of the period ranging from managing successful presidential campaigns, gaining passage of the Reagan tax cuts, the reunification of Germany, the end of the Soviet Union as we knew it, the removal of Saddam Hussein’s army from Kuwait, and heading the legal team that resulted in the election of George W. Bush as president in 2000.  Each of these topics is explored in depth as the authors delve into the personalities involved, their political agendas, and the historical impact of each decision as events played out. 

James and Mary Stuart Baker with their four boys in Houston in 1964.
(The Baker family before the death of his first wife)

Two themes that dominate the narrative and analysis is how Baker earned the nickname the “velvet hammer,” and his relationship with President George H.W. Bush.  The nickname itself as the authors develop is based on Baker’s approach to achieving power, control, and at times domination of any given situation.  He comes across as a smooth, sweet talking Texan, but in reality, he played hardball whenever he felt it was necessary.  He cut his teeth on the campaign trail, the in fighting that dominated the Reagan administration, and achieving legislative victories.  His approach in the domestic area can also be seen in his conduct of foreign policy as he sought to impose his will on those who opposed him and, in many cases, it seemed as if he was president, not the then occupant of the White House.

The second theme rests on Baker’s friendship with President Bush.  The two developed a decades long friendship from the time they met at a Houston Country Club in 1961.  Baker earned the imprimatur of Bush and when he spoke or negotiated everyone knew he was speaking for the President, or earlier the Vice-President.  The authors do an excellent job describing their relationship which rested on a similar outlook, a close personal bonding that witnessed numerous vacations together in addition to policy decisions.  Baker was artful in at times manipulating Bush to achieve his aims and periodically the president grew resentful of his friend to the point that Barbara Bush never really warmed up to Baker and at times did not trust him until later in life.

Baker did not become the ultimate insider because of any fervent ideology, though he described himself as a conservative Republican.  However, more so than anyone of his generation he figured out how to employ the levers of power.  Today, in an era of extreme partisanship, “deals” are seen as a sign of weakness, but for Baker compromise to achieve an end, diplomacy, and raw power were his mantra.  One of Baker’s talents rested on how he cultivated Congress and the press, which he did assiduously.  He realized that power was in part perception and he did more to create that perception than any of his peers.  


(Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev (L) and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in 1986 as they arrive in Iceland for talks with President Ronald Reagan)

As the Cold war concluded, Baker had the skill set that fit the era whether developing a close working relationship with Soviet Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze or initiating bureaucratic intrigue to achieve a domestic goal in the Reagan and Bush administrations.  When Baker made a promise, he earned the reputation of being able to deliver because of his relationship with Reagan and Bush and his own negotiating abilities. Never in American history did a president and Secretary of State enjoy a genuine friendship before entering office.  Baker learned to operate in a political environment by employing his skill set, a skill set that was highly successful and current politicians would do very well if they would emulate him as he is best described by the authors as the “un-Trump.”

As successful as Baker was as a political insider and practitioner of power the authors develop his family history which is not one that one should emulate. He left it to his second wife to take care of the family as he worked twelve hours a day on domestic issues and once, he became America’s chief diplomat traveling thousands of miles each year.  The children of both marriages had difficulties integrating and there were numerous conflicts which would lead to difficult issues that needed to be faced, and for the most part he was absent.

The authors develop numerous scenarios that reflect Baker’s talents as a politician and negotiator.  He believed that there was no way to achieve 100% of one’s goals in any negotiation and was happy to obtain 75% or any percentage that he believed would deliver most of what he hoped to achieve.  This can be seen during the Reagan administration when he outmaneuvered the likes of Alexander Haig and Edward Meese on numerous occasions, as he worked with Democrats to save Social Security when Republicans were obstinate, or negotiating the Reagan tax cut with Democratic Speaker Tip O’Neill.  In all areas Baker seemed to have a superb instinct at “self-preservation,” be it dealing with the stock market crash in October 1987, his reaction to the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, or leaving US Ambassador to Iraq April Glaspie out to dry in the lead up to war in the Persian Gulf in 1991.  The authors point out that Baker was a realist and argued against the ideologues in the Reagan administration particularly as it related to  policy in Central America as he did his best to avoid the stain of Iran-Contra, again his antenna knew when to back off or proceed with a certain policy – it seemed he always knew which way the wind was blowing. 

baker glasser
(The authors)

Baker’s pragmatic and realistic approach is also seen as he worked to allow Mikhail Gorbachev a semblance of comfort as his country was collapsing.  Baker realized that the Soviet President had to deal with his own hard liners in the Kremlin and as he was wont to do would make subtle agreements behind the scenes that never became public.  Baker had an extremely hard edge to him as the Israeli government realized after the United States and its coalition removed Iraqi troops from Kuwait in 1991.  Baker had used the promise of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians as a lure to convince Egypt, Syria, and Saudi Arabia to join his coalition against Saddam.  After the war Baker pressured Israeli Prime Minster Yitzchak Shamir, who he disliked intensely withholding promised funding and loans to finance the hundreds of thousand of Soviet Jews who were immigrating to Israel at the time.  The end result was the Madrid Peace Conference which later impacted the signing of the Oslo Accords. 

Baker long sought to be considered a statesman not just a fixer or dealmaker.  However, the authors argue that he had no grand plan domestically or in foreign policy, but he had the knack of bringing people together and finding pragmatic ways to paper over disagreements.  The end result, no matter what Baker engaged in, solutions resulted.  Part of this success rests with a group of individuals that Baker and Glasser label the “plug-in unit,” a small group of aids that worked with him in the Reagan and Bush administrations.  They included Margaret Tutwiler, who handled the press and Janet Mullins, Robert Zoellick and Robert Kimmitt who handled policy.  Interestingly, the authors point out that though they worked closely together for years, Baker showed no interest in them as people and maintained a personal distance even among his most loyal staff.

Baker’s achievements did not come without some “black eyes.”  Baker would work with Lee Atwater a Republican firebrand who did not find a dirty trick that did not interest him.  The authors stress his role in the Willie Horton commercials in the 1988 presidential campaign against Michael Dukakis and Baker seemed to have no problem with it, in addition to his failures in dealing with the breakup of Yugoslavia and the ethnic and religious violence that ensued.  His approach in 2000 is typical.  When Al Gore’s spokesperson Warren Christopher proposed that the two sides work out a solution, Baker’s position was clear, no negotiations, Bush was president according to the Supreme Court.

Baker and Glasser had unfettered access to Baker and many of the key characters from the period.  Their numerous interviews will not be repeated down the road by future historians, and their insider access and command of primary and secondary materials is evident.  The authors do not fall into the trap of hagiography and have written a superb book that is easily the seminal work on James Baker III, and probably will remain so for years to come.

George Bush with James Baker
(James Baker III and George Herbert Walker Bush)

SAVING FREEDOM: TRUMAN, THE COLD WAR, AND THE FIGHT FOR WESTERN CIVILIZATION by Joe Scarborough

(President Harry S. Truman)

A favorite question that was asked by pundits and historians in 1989 revolved around who was responsible for the bringing down of the Berlin Wall, and two years later the collapse of the Soviet Union.  President George H.W. Bush took credit for winning the Cold War, while others argued it was due to the Reagan presidency.  In his new book,  SAVING FREEDOM: TRUMAN, THE COLD WAR, AND THE FIGHTFOR WESTERN CIVILIZATION MSNBC “Morning Joe” host, Joe Scarborough argues that it was because of the policies implemented by President Harry S. Truman which allowed the United States to become the lone superpower in the early 1990s.

For those who are conversant with the events and personalities that dominated the foreign policy debate in the post-World War era Scarborough offers little that has not been written elsewhere.  However, to the author’s credit he tells an absorbing story that created the foundation of American foreign policy that lasted for over seven decades.

One of the books dominant themes is the idea that the United States should assume the mantle of world leadership because of the vacuum created by England’s financial distress and the socialist agenda of the Labour Party.  This concept was the anti-thesis of American foreign policy since the founding of the republic and George Washington’s “Farewell Address” that called for “no entangling alliances” and became the basis of American isolationism.  The Democratic Party had been open to world leadership dating to Woodrow Wilson’s concept of economic internationalism, but the 1920s saw a fundamental change brought about by Republican disengagement on the world stage.  Scarborough argues it took men like George C. Marshall, Dean Acheson, George Kennan, and Harry Truman to confront Soviet expansionism along with Republican senator Arthur Vandenberg for the United States to accept the challenge and implement a policy of containment rather than pre-war appeasement when confronted by a threatening autocracy.

Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, is greeted by Mrs. Acheson and President Truman as he arrived at Washington Airport from Europe.

(Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson shaking hands with President Truman)

Scarborough begins his argument with the situation that existed in Greece in 1946 and tries argues that aid to Greece and Turkey formed the basis of the Truman Doctrine discussed in the context of the history of American foreign relations.  In doing so, Scarborough, for me at least has written a rendition of “Foreign Policy for Dummies” as he provides a series of broad surveys of foreign policy issues in each chapter to explain events.  At times he goes a bit far exemplified by the unnecessary chapter dealing with Palestine.  Scarborough at times can be somewhat verbose as he frames situations, for example, “Soviet ambitions were set in motion.  Like a shark smelling blood in the ocean, Stalin was ready to move on British former colonies and clients.”  Further, Scarborough has the annoying habit at the conclusion of a number of chapters resorting to a false sense of drama by asking superficial questions, I assume to enhance a sense of foreboding.  I would suggest that he let the material playout, rather forcing the narrative.

As I read the book, I got the feeling that the monograph was overly interspersed with speeches, whether Truman on the stump trying to gain support for aid to Greece and Turkey, speeches by Senators and House members in their respective committees or on the floor of the Senate and House chambers, and witnesses called before Congressional committees.  At times I felt I was reading a book of speeches and dialogue linked by a narrative rather than a discussion that had great potential for insight and analysis.  Further, when one examines Scarborough’s sources, he provides extraordinarily little.  With no end notes or bibliography, he offers a short bibliographical essay that encompasses roughly sixteen secondary sources and the mention of the THE FOREIGN RELATIONS OF THE UNITED STATES (FRUS) series published by the State Department.  Further he should pay more attention to critical details like his discussion of  the Monroe Doctrine visa vie the Truman Doctrine as he leaves out the role of the British and their Foreign Secretary, George Canning.  He may argue that the Truman Doctrine was the successor to the Monroe Doctrine, but he forgets that at the turn of the century Theodore Roosevelt instituted the Roosevelt Corollary.

(Michigan Senator Arthur Vandenberg)

To Scarborough’s credit he writes in a noticeably clear and understandable prose.  His discussion of the debate in Congress, newspapers, and the personalities involved reflects a command of the historical material, and his coverage of political negotiations and the preparation of the American people for the passage of the Truman Doctrine and its significance is well done.    He stresses the reactionary and regressive nature of the Greek regime as an obstacle to obtaining Congressional aid and his analysis of Truman’s speech to Congress is dead on.  But again, at times he is prone to overstatement.  His key argument is strong that Truman engaged in one of the “greatest selling” jobs of any president as he convinced an isolationist leaning congress to support an internationalist policy.   

In the end we are left with a dichotomy; an incomplete narrative, but with a theme that seems to hold together in terms of the importance of the Truman Doctrine over the last seventy years or so.  If there is a lesson to be learned from Scarborough’s monograph it is the importance of pursuing bipartisan approaches to major foreign policy issues and that politicians need to weigh issues in relation to their effect on American national security, not political polls, commentary of pundits on cable news, or the demands of an autocratic leaning president.

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(Truman victorious in the 1948 presidetial election)