RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE by Rebecca Erbelding

Image result for photo of fdr and henry morgenthau jr holocaust(President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.)

One of the most contentious debates pertaining to World War II deals with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in trying to mitigate the horrors of the Holocaust and the role of the American government in general. Many argue that Roosevelt was a political animal who based his position on the plight of world Jewry on political calculation and did little to offset Nazi terror; others argue that FDR did as much as possible based on conditions domestically and abroad.  Some authors reach the conclusion that FDR’s views were consistent throughout the war and according to historian, Richard Breitman he was “politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews-even given that he had no easy remedies for a specific Jewish tragedy in Europe.”  Many authors argue that “FDR avoided positions that might put at risk his broader goals of mobilizing anti-Nazi opposition and gaining freedom to act in foreign affairs,” for example dealing with the refugee crisis, the issue of Palestine, immigration, and organizing the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Historians stress the fear of domestic anti-Semitism, especially in the State Department; the inability of American Jews to present a united front; the role of the War Department; and presidential politics.  Overall, this is an important issue that dominates the headlines today; what is the “appropriate response of an American president to humanitarian crises abroad and at home?”

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(John Pehle, Head of the War Refugee Board)

The signature effort of the United States in dealing with the Holocaust and trying to mitigate Nazi deportations and saving Jews was the War Refugee Board which was created on January 16, 1944 which according to Rebecca Erbelding, an archivist and curator at the U.S. Holocaust Museum’s eye opening recent book,  RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE finally created an official government policy to rescue Jews.  Erbelding covers a great deal of material that has been mined previously by David Wyman, Richard Breitman, Henry Feingold, Martin Gilbert, Walter Laqueur and many others.  What separates her effort is her focus on American refugee policy from 1944 onward.  She mines over 19,000 documents dealing with the War Rescue Board as she displays the bureaucratic infighting, the ideological shifts, the out and out racism and anti-Semitism that existed in the State Department under the aegis of Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his minions like Breckenridge Long.  A number of heroes emerge from Erbelding’s narrative, the most important of which is John Pehle, the Assistant Secretary to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Roswell MacLelland who ran the War Refugee Board in Switzerland, and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.

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(John J. McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War, refused to consider bombing Nazi concentration camps)

The underlying theme of the monograph that has been portrayed by others was the bureaucratic war between the State and Treasury Departments over American immigration policy beginning in the 1930s.  By the summer of 1942 news of the ongoing massacre of European Jewry was known in Washington.  However, helping Jews escape Europe was never a priority for the American government nor its people.  Bigger problems loomed; the Great Depression, war in Europe, war in Asia, all stole the focus of most Americans.  Erbelding provides a nice synthesis dealing with the immigration battles throughout the 1920s and 30s that limited immigration under the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924.  She provides the link between anti-immigration sentiment that emerged during World War I, due in part as Daniel Okrent argues in his new book, THE GUARDED STATE to the role of eugenics, economic fears, and national security among other concerns.  By 1941 public opinion, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proclivity to measure which way the political winds were blowing, anti-immigration sentiment in Congress, and out and out anti-Semitism in the State Department had already taken hold.

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(Secretary of State Cordell Hull)

By August 1942, Pehle concluded that it should be the role of the American government to try and save the Jews of Europe, and it was his responsibility as Director of Foreign Funds Control to do his best to achieve this momentous goal.  He was able to gain the cooperation of Morgenthau to liberalize the Treasury Department’s foreign funds policies to implement his strategy.  Erbelding spends a great deal of time narrating and analyzing how Pehle and his allies went about their task.  Pehle’s strategy focused on transferring funds to relief organizations that the State Department had blocked for two years; Gerhardt Riegner’s plan to save Jewish children, funding for the International Red Cross, assistance to the World Jewish Congress, assist underground movements, among many more.  Further, he created the protection of “paper,” issuing as many visas and passports with as much neutral power support as possible.  He instituted a licensing policy to satisfy the Nazis and their allies to consider releasing their captives.  He played a game of “charades” as a strategic approach to negotiations employing bluffs, lies or anything that might bring about the rescue of Hungarian Jews.  In addition, he was responsible for the creation of an Emergency Refugee Shelter in upstate New York, planting articles in newspaper and other publicity about the plight of refugees, and even went so far as trying to get the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company to launder money through its Swedish headquarters.

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(Assistant Secretary of State in charge of Refugee Affairs, Breckenridge Long)

Pehle and his allies’ work did not stop with these strategies.  He worked assiduously to purchase and/or lease shipping for Jews, locating safe havens, and considered the most outrageous possibilities to save lives.  Erbelding delves into the Brand Mission which involved a Nazi attempt to ransom the Jews of Hungary.  Brand was a member of the Zionist Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest who was seen as a spy by the British who actually imprisoned him during negotiations with Adolf Eichmann.   The offer of Hungarian dictator Admiral Horthy to release Jews under his auspices, as well as the work of Raoul Wallenberg, Ira Hirschman and others was under Pehle’s purview.  As Erbelding correctly points out, the time and effort in most cases proved fruitless, but the War Rescue Board members at least tried.

Erbelding points to the British as a major roadblock because of its refusal to accept refugees in Palestine.  But London had company in creating obstacles or just plain refusal like Turkey, Spain, Portugal and others in trying to gain passage for Jews to safe havens.  They could all point to Roosevelt’s policies which after constant pressure from Jewish leaders and the State Department finally produced a declaration on March 24, 1944 warning Holocaust perpetrators and their axis allies of the punishment that awaited them once the war ended.  Pehle would employ that warning throughout Europe, but in most cases to no avail.

(Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, War Refugee Board Head, John Pehle)

Erbelding goes along with numerous others in arguing no matter how many Jews the War Rescue Board might have saved had it been created two years earlier the end of the war was the only solution to the Nazi terror.  Despite its late creation the Board did save lives, how many is open to conjecture.  But the work of people like Daly Mayer, Iver Olsen, Peter Bergson, Florence Hodel and many others cannot be discounted as the United States for the first and only time in its history worked to save lives and endeavor to employ humanitarian approach to a worldwide refugee problem.    If there is a lesson to garnered from Erbelding’s work it is that even in the midst of war, governments can achieve humanitarian successes. Perhaps the current administration should shelve its political agenda and consider what the War Refugee Board accomplished at the end of World War II and create a humanitarian approach to the refugee crisis it now confronts at its southern border.

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(President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.)

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America and the Holocaust: Should the United States have done more? (a mini-course)

AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST: SHOULD THE UNITED STATES HAVE DONE MORE?

Steven Z. Freiberger, Ph.D.

szfreiberger@gmail.com

http://www.docs-books.com

One of the most contentious debates pertaining to World War II deals with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in trying to mitigate the horrors of the Holocaust. Many argue that Roosevelt was a political animal who based his position on the plight of world Jewry on political calculation and did little to offset Nazi terror; others argue that FDR did as much as possible based on conditions domestically and abroad.  Some authors reach the conclusion that FDR’s views were consistent throughout the war and he was “politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews-even given that he had no easy remedies for a specific Jewish tragedy in Europe.”  Many authors argue that “FDR avoided positions that might put at risk his broader goals of mobilizing anti-Nazi opposition and gaining freedom to act in foreign affairs,” for example dealing with the refugee crisis, the issue of Palestine, immigration, and organizing the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Authors often describe the fear of domestic anti-Semitism, especially in the State Department; the inability of American Jews to present a united front; the role of the War Department; and presidential politics.  Overall, this is an important issue that dominates the headlines today; what is the “appropriate response of an American president to humanitarian crises abroad and at home?”

Schedule:

September 9, 2019      Introduction and Background for American immigration policy leading up to World War II

September 16, 2019     The Rise of and Implementation of Nazism and its impact on Jews and American immigration policy

September 23, 2019     America and the Holocaust/Role of Franklin D. Roosevelt

October 7, 2019 Film: The American Experience: America and the Holocaust and discussion

Brief bibliography:

Beir, Robert L.; Josepher, Brian, ROOSEVELT AND THE HOLOCAUST

Breitman, Richard; Lichtman, Alan, FDR AND THE JEWS

Erbelding, Rebecca, RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE

Feingold, Henry, THE POLITICS OF RESCUE: THE ROOSEVELT ADMINISTRATION AND THE HOLOCAUST           1938-1945

Feingold, Henry, BEARING WITNESS: HOW AMERICA AND ITS JEWS RESPONDED TO THE HOLOCAUST

Gilbert, Martin, AUSCHWITZ AND THE ALLIES

Laqueur, Walter, THE TERRIBLE SECRET: THE SUPRESSION OF THE TRUTH ABOUT HITLER’S FINAL SOLUTION

Leff, Laurel, BURIED IN THE TIMES: THE HOLOCAUST AND AMERICA’S MOST IMPORTANT NEWSPAPER

Lipstadt, Deborah, BEYOND BELIEF: THE AMERICAN PRESS AND THE COMING OF THE HOLOCAUST 1933-1945

Morse, Arthur, WHILE SIX MILLION DIED

Neufeld, Michael; Berenbaum, Michael, Eds., THE BOMBING OF AUSCHWITZ: SHOULD THE ALLIES HAVE ATTEMPTED IT?

Okrent, Daniel, THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA

Rolde, Neil, BRECKENRIDGE LONG, AMERICAN EICHMANN??? AN ENQUIRY INTO THE CHARACTER OF THE MAN WHO DENIED VISAS TO THE JEWS

Rosen, Robert N., SAVING THE JEWS: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT AND THE HOLOCAUST

Rubinstein, William D. THE MYTH OF RESCUE: WHY THE DEMOCRACIES COULD NOT HAVE SAVED MORE JEWS FROM THE NAZIS

Shogan, Robert, PRELUDE TO Catastrophe: FDR’S JEWS AND THE MENACE OF NAZISM

Steinhouse, Carl, THE SHAMEFUL REFUSAL OF FDR’S STATE DEPARTMENT TO SAVE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF EUROPEAN JEWS FROM EXTERMINATION

Wallace, Gregory J. AMERICA’S SOUL IN THE BALANCE

Wasserstein, Bernard, BRITAIN AND THE JEWS OF EUROPE, 1949-1945

Wyman, David, THE ADANDONMENT OF THE JEWS: AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST 1941-1945

Wyman, David, PAPER WALLS: AMERICA AND THE REFUGEE CRISIS 1938-1941

THE UNWANTED: AMERICA, AUSCHWITZ, AND A VILLAGE CAUGHT IN BETWEEN by Michael Dobbs

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“A piece of paper with a stamp on it meant the difference between life and death for thousands and thousands of people,” wrote American journalist Dorothy Thompson after Kristallnacht in late 1938.  Truer words were never written.  For Jews trying to escape the Nazi terror as the Final Solution approached the only avenue of escape seemed to be emigration from Germany to the United States.  But as Michael Dobbs describes in his remarkable new book, THE UNWANTED: AMERICA AUSCHWITZ, AND A VILLAGE CAUGHT IN BETWEEN victims of Nazi deportation policies ran into a stone wall in trying to gain entrance into the United States.  Whether it was the stonewalling of the State Department, the leadership, or lack of thereof of Franklin Roosevelt, or plain apathy or anti-Semitism, Washington could have done a great deal more. As Dobbs points out, “the wheels of the U.S. bureaucracy continued to turn, disconnected from the tragic events that had set them in motion.”  It seemed obstacle after obstacle was increasingly instituted to make it more and more difficult for Jewish refugees to gain entrance into America and avoid “transport to the east.”

Dobbs’ focus is on the small village of Kippenheim in Baden in western Germany with a population of 144 Jews out of a total population of 1800.  The author follows the plight of a number of families who lived through the events of Kristallnacht in November of 1938 and realized that they must try and leave Germany.  The families, the Valfers, Wertheimers, and Wachenheimers, among a number that Dobbs concentrates had varied experiences.  All are subject to Nazi violence and torture in some measure.  All are torn from their homes and deported to camps in France, all make valiant attempts to leave Germany by dealing with the US immigration system, first with the consulate in Stuttgart, and the result is many will escape through Marseilles or other avenues and cross the Atlantic, go to Palestine, while others will perish in Auschwitz.  The book focuses on the period of late 1938 to the fall of 1942 when the Final Solution is in full motion.  The narrative is poignant and elicits a great deal of anger on the part of this reader as the story of the US State Department’s immigration policy under the aegis of Breckenridge Long the Assistant Secretary of State for immigration becomes crystal clear, and the lack of action and empathy on the part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt whose excuses for not acting in any meaningful way is fully described.

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(Wachenheimer family photo, circa 1938)

One of the most important questions remaining pertaining to the Holocaust is whether the United States could have done more to save lives be it bombing Auschwitz or allowing increased immigration.  In the recent past historian Richard Breitman focused on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s impact and David Wyman zeroed in on the US Department of State.  In both instances the president and the bureaucracy were found wanting.  In the case of Roosevelt political concerns about Neutrality legislation, fears of anti-Semitic backlash, enforcement of immigration law and isolationist elements in Congress along with his own inherent biases made it difficult for the President to come out in public and act.  As far as the State Department is concerned, they would enforce the restrictionist 1924 Johnson Act quotas that legally called for 27,370 Germans to immigrate to the US each year.  It is clear that in 1940-41 only 62.1% of the quota was filled, and the 1941-42 only 7.2% was filled – the period of greatest need for victims of the Baden deportations from 1938.  According to the historical record, officials in the State Department purposely created roadblocks to deny Jewish refugees admission to the United States, even women and children.

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(Breckenridge Long)

Dobbs empathetically describes in detail the damage, arrests, and fear in Kippenheim during Kristallnacht and uses the residents of the village as a microcosm of the overall crisis that Jews faced as the true intention of the Nazi regime came to the fore.  Dobbs explores the violence against the residents of Kippenheim and the attempts by families to try and emigrate to the US and the roadblocks they faced.  He delves into the State Department bureaucracy and how certain people created roadblocks to entry into America.  At times it seemed that some of these impediments could be overcome, but officials following orders from Washington created even more hoops to go through in order to obtain the necessary visas, or “more stamps” on further documentation which may not have been called for months before.  The consulate interview begins the process, but so many Jews wanted to emigrate there was a three year wait to begin the process.  The tragedy for many, like the Laflers is that when their numbers finally came up and the process for approval was gain, Freya and Hugo were already victims of the crematoria in Auschwitz.

Dobbs takes the reader through the transport of refugees from Baden to the internment camp of Gurs, through Marseilles and its poor living conditions, the bureaucratic run-a-around, and their final fate.  Vichy governmental collaboration with the Nazis led by Prime Minister Pierre Laval and French police is ever present.  The trauma of family members is plain as day as they deal with the daily attempts at survival and the highs and lows of believing they have the necessary paperwork to leave, and then have their hopes dashed by bureaucratic stalling, events like Pearl Harbor and the invasion of Russia.  Dobbs follows the families in detail based on assiduous research and interviews with survivors like Hedy Wachenheimer who at the age of fourteen became part of the Kindertransport program and left her parents to live with families in London, while eventually her parents would perish.

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(Kippenheim, Germany synagoge)

Perhaps the most poignant narrative describes Hedy’s visit to Germany and Kippenheim in particular after the war working for the US military and wearing a uniform, she must face people who harassed and demeaned her as a child.  Dobbs goes on to relate how people, both Jewish and non-Jewish worked to rebuild the synagogue in the village as a memorial to what occurred.  The process was long and difficult, but because of survivors like Kurt Maier and Mayor Willi Mathis the building was restored to its role as a true house of worship in 2003.

Dodd is to be commended for his effort in bringing to life the fate of the Kippenheim Jews, but more so at a time when immigration is such a hot controversial issue, perhaps politicians should review US immigration policy during WWII and contemplate whether at times history should force us as a people to open up our hearts, and let political partisanship recede into the background, at least for a short time.   At the outset of Dobbs ’narrative Hedy Wachenheimer rode from her home on her bicycle to school.  Upon arrival and seated in class for her lessons the usually gentle principal pointed at her and yelled, “Get out, you dirty Jew.”  This sounds like current political rallies and comments that tell “brown” people who are hear on legal visas and those legally seeking asylum to “get out and go home,” or ”send her home.”  Is this who we are as a people?

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(Boycott of Jewish Shops, Germany 1930s)

OUR MAN: RICHARD HOLBROOKE AND THE END OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY by George Packer

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(Richard Holbrooke)

Perhaps the most colorful and able diplomat in American history has been Richard Holbrooke.  The possessor of an irascible personality who was not the most popular individual with colleagues and presidents that he served but was a highly effective strategic thinker and negotiator with a number of important accomplishments to his credit.  The success that stands out the most is his work that produced the Dayton Accords in 1995 that brought closure somewhat to the civil war that raged in the former Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s.  But he should also be given credit for his work as Ambassador to the United Nations, Assistant Secretary for East Asian Affairs, and his last position as Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan for which he gave his life.

Holbrooke exhibited a powerful ego that did not always play well with others be they friend or foe, but in the end,  he was at the center of American strategic thinking throughout a career that spanned the beginning of US involvement in Vietnam through our continuing imbroglio in Afghanistan.  A self-promotor who saw his work and ideas as the key to American success, Holbrooke was a dominating presence in the American foreign policy establishment for decades and is the subject of George Packer’s important new study, OUR MAN: RICHARD HOLBROOKE AND THE END OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY.

Holbrooke owned many personality flaws for which he paid dearly.  His drive would in part destroy two marriages and his closest friendships.  His character defects would cost him any chance of being chosen Secretary of State, a position he craved,  for which he was eminently qualified.  If he had the capacity of introspection and a dose of self-restraint, he could have accomplished anything.  However, if he was able to tone himself down, he would not have been true to himself which is the core of why he was successful.

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(Anthony Lake)

For George Packer, Holbrooke was the embodiment of the American Century (or half century!) which encompassed Holbrooke’s life.  He was part of the belief that the US could accomplish anything, be it the Marshall Plan, remake Vietnam, bring peace to Bosnia, or make something out of the quagmire that is Afghanistan.  For Holbrooke to be part of great events and decisions was his life blood and that is why it is important to tell his story.

In many ways Packer’s narrative is a conversation with the reader as he imparts practically all aspects of Holbrooke’s private and public life.  He takes us inside his subject’s marriages and family life, his intellectual development, travels throughout the world and the important individuals who were his compatriots or enemies, and his obsession to create a foreign policy that would embody the liberal internationalism that was so effective following World War II.  Packer makes assumptions about how conversant the reader is with post-war history as it relates to Holbrooke’s career and to his credit, he offers a great deal of background information to make the reader’s task easier.  Packer prepares character sketches of all the major personages that Holbrooke shared the stage with; be it Edward Lansdale, the CIA psy-ops guru; Averill Harriman, a mentor and benefactor; David Halberstam, the New York Times reporter; Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Hillary Clinton, presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama among many others.

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(Sarajevo, 1995)

Perhaps the most poignant relationship that Packer describes is that of Anthony Lake who was a close friend of Holbrooke in the early 1960s as they both entered the Foreign Service and served in Vietnam.  Packer follows their relationship and competition over the next five decades, they’re ups and downs on a personal level, policy disagreements all of which would ruin their friendship and turn them into bureaucratic enemies.  At times it feels like Packer has inserted Lake’s autobiography amidst the narrative as a means of comparing the two and providing insights into steps and positions Holbrooke might have taken which may have altered his career path.

Holbrooke’s Vietnam experience would stay with him throughout his career.  The military self-deception of Vietnam and the role of the national security establishment created doubts and reinforced the idea that Holbrooke himself knew what was best and would usually consider himself to be the smartest person in the room.  This is evident in Holbrooke’s writings which critique US policy as he integrates his personal life into the narrative.  Packer does an excellent job culling Holbrooke’s thoughts as he incorporates segments of his notebooks into his story.  When it came to Vietnam, Holbrooke was very astute as he saw the failure of the Strategic Hamlet program early on and that fighting the Viet Cong only from the air could only result in failure.  For Holbrooke the watershed date for the war was February, 1965 as the Pentagon issued an “evacuation order” for non-essential personnel and families as it brought an end “to the pretty colonial town of Saigon” and “was the beginning of sprawling US bases and B-52s and black market Marlboros and industrial scale-prostitution.”

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(Henry Kissinger)

Packer’s discussion of Kissinger and Brzezinski are fascinating.  Both men despised Holbrooke and the feelings were mutual.  When three egos as large as theirs the result had to be intellectual and verbal fireworks.  For what it is worth, Holbrooke felt Kissinger was a liar, amoral and a deeply cynical man with an overblown reputation who had contributed to the culture of Watergate and the events that followed.  Kissinger described Holbrooke as possessing minimal intelligence and “the most viperous character I know around town,” which was something coming from Kissinger.  Holbrooke saw Brzezinski as another Kissinger type who would destroy Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and seize control of President Carter’s foreign policy through his role as National Security Advisor.  Brzezinski’s hard line view of the Cold War was born out with Russia, but “he did help destroy the last pieces of any postwar consensus, bringing viciousness and deception into the heart of the government.”  Both men loved the spectacle of power and wielded it for its own sake, bringing Vance to tell Holbrooke, “I still cannot understand how the president was so taken with Zbig.  He is evil, a liar, and dangerous.”

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(Zbigniew Brzezinski)

Holbrooke’s greatest accomplishment was his work bringing a pseudo peace to Bosnia.  Packer delves into the Yugoslav civil war in great detail providing character studies of the major players and/or psychopaths from Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia, Fanjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia, Alija Izetegovic, president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Radovan Karadzic, president of Republic Srpska, among many other “interesting individuals.”  Packer’s details of the Dayton negotiations are priceless and reflect Holbrooke’s doggedness and highlights the difficulties that he faced dealing with such diverse characters steeped in their own ethnic, religious, and nationalistic hatreds.  Packer describes Holbrooke’s negotiating tactics, ranging from bombasity, reasonable proposals, and Bismarckian type threats to achieve his goals.  In so doing he believed he was rectifying Bill Clinton’s disinterest, ignorance, or lack of gumption in dealing with the Balkans.  With the slaughter of Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, Holbrooke was able to rally Clinton, foster NATO action by our European allies, who had done nothing to that point to bomb and coerce the participants to the negotiating table and foster a diplomatic agreement.

Holbrook always believed he should be Secretary of State, but his personality and poor judgement would turn off Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama in addition to his colleagues in the diplomatic arena whether it was Cy Vance, Madeline Albright, Susan Rice and a host of others. The bureaucratic battles behind the scenes and some in public are present for all to see, many of which Holbrooke won, but many of which he lost.  It was only Hillary Clinton who saw the positives in using Holbrooke’s talents as she made him the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan which Packer discusses in great detail as Holbrooke worked to try and bring about negotiations with the Taliban and gain Pakistani cooperation.

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(Kati Marton, Holbrooke’s third wife)

Packer delves into the personal side of Holbrooke particularly his marriages which resulted in two divorces and a decades long marriage to Kati Marton, who was more than a match for Holbrook in terms of ego, self-centeredness, and their own special type of charm.  Holbrooke’s feelings are explored when he failed to achieve the positions he desired and Packer provides numerous insights into policy and personal decision-making that affected himself, his family, and the professionals around him.

Packer’s effort is to be applauded as he seems to have captured Holbrooke, warts and all in conducting research that included over 250 interviews, the liberal use of Holbrooke’s notebooks, and a strong knowledge of American post-World War II foreign policy.  But one must remember that Packer and Holbrook were friends who strongly believed in a liberal-internationalist approach to foreign policy that encompassed a strong humanitarian component.  The importance of the book cannot be in doubt as it rests on the major impact that Holbrooke had on the conduct of US foreign policy over four decades.

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D-DAY: THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY by Anthony Beevor

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(June 6, 1944, D-Day Landing)

Anthony Beevor is a prolific historian.  His works include; STALINGRAD, THE BATTLE OF ARNHEM, ARDENNES 1944, THE FALL OF BERLIN, 1945, THE BATTLE FOR SPAIN, and CRETE, 1941.  His works have achieved critical acclaim by military historians and the general public and one of his earlier books, D-DAY: THE BATTLE FOR NORMANDY written in 2009 is very timely today.   On June 6th the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the invasion will be held on the northern French coast and after reading Beevor’s account of the allied crossing of the English Channel one has to marvel at the logistical achievement and the courage of allied soldiers as they would land on the Normandy beaches and face the brunt of the Nazi military machine.  Beevor, a former commissioned officer in the British Army’s account encompasses more than just the invasion of Normandy which is covered in half the narrative, but the author continues with the breakout from Normandy, the opposition to Hitler and the July 1944 attempt on his life, the closing of the Falaise Gap through the liberation of Paris.  There are many books on D-Day from Cornelius Ryan’s classic, THE LONGEST DAY, Max Hasting’s OVERLORD,  the works of John Keegan, Carlo D’Este, and Stephen Ambrose, and the latest book on the topic, Giles Milton’s SOLDIER, SAILOR, FROGMAN, SPY, AIRMAN, GANGSTER, KILL OR DIE: HOW THE ALLIES WON ON D DAY all of which Beevor’s effort compares quite nicely.

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(Allies unloading at Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944)

Beevor’s approach is quite simple; provide the reader with the experience of being a witness to the daily decision making by allied strategists, and to a lesser extent what the Germans were planning.  He takes the reader inside the thoughts of SHAEF Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, Generals Omar T. Bradley, George S. Patton, Lt. General Sir Miles Dempsey, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, Field Marshall Sir Alan Brooke, among many others.  We are exposed to their opinions of each other as well as their approach to warfare.  There are many candid comments be it President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s and Eisenhower’s low opinion of French General Charles de Gaulle, or the views of American generals concerning the lack of progress due to Montgomery’s poor leadership.  Beevor’s comments are very insightful particularly labeling Montgomery as suffering from an Adlerian inferiority complex and his description of General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. is priceless.

Beevor begins his narrative with a careful analysis of the allied approach to launching D Day.  Weather evaluation became the key to success and when it was not cooperative it caused a one-day postponement.  Later, Eisenhower would be extremely thankful when 110-mile winds buffeted parts of the French coast on June 19, lasting to the 22nd which caused massive destruction and incalculable damage to the beaches which had been transitioned to a supply base and center for further action.  The resulting delay hampered the evacuation of casualties, hindered air operations, but the allies would recover and take the key port of Cherbourg by June 26th.

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The author is at his best when describing the preparation and resulting battlefield action.  His description of the preparation of the 82nd and 101st Airborne as they trained and were about to land behind German lines before the invasion commenced is fascinating.  Beevor focuses on the experience of soldiers in combat from facing German Panzer Tiger Tanks and 88 mm. artillery, actual paratroop jumps, the need to dig fox holes quickly, the “black humor” soldiers resorted to as a coping method, and the terrain they had to navigate, i.e.; the bocage or hedgerows that dominated the French landscape as allied troops broke out into the French countryside.  He concentrates on the obstacles that allied troops would face preparing for the landing as well as the fighting that resulted i.e., the weight of their packs and the amount of equipment that they carried.  For some over 100 pounds which made it difficult to wade in the Channel without drowning, jump out of airplanes, or marching to the next engagement with the Germans.

Beevor provides maps of the battlefield and statistics that make the reader in awe when thinking about what took place in June 1944.  Beevor’s intimate knowledge of daily occurrences reflects an inordinate amount of research from interviewing allied survivors of the war, immersing himself in the work of unit historians as battles took place, traveling to 12 countries and examining 30 archives, as well as consulting many primary and secondary materials.

Perhaps Beevor’s best chapters come early as he deals with what appear to be scenes from the film, “Saving Private Ryan” as he describes what occurred on Utah and Omaha Beaches.  Beevor provides numerous stories of bravery and fortitude as chaos reigned on Omaha Beach in particular; “a mass of junk, men, and materials,” as well as the damage inflicted by the proliferation of German land mines on the beaches.  His evaluations are extremely accurate as he states the British army was woefully unprepared for infantry-tank operations, and the poor preparation of the Germans which allowed the allies to remain on the beaches.  Beevor also spends a great deal of time dissecting the attempts to take the city of Caen and the final success in doing so.  He accurately points out that the initial failure to take the city created a rift between American and British commanders as it seemed they both had their own agendas.   Beevor’s evaluation of battlefield tactics are exceptional as well as the commanders involved.  He describes numerous lost opportunities on both sides pointing to the German ambush of British Cromwell tanks on June 14 at Hill 213 outside the village of Villars-Bocage.  In the end the RAF would flatten the village after earlier being greeted as liberators.

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The key to success was American organization as within a week after D Day, Omaha Beach “resembled Coney Island on a hot Sunday.”  The Omaha Beach command was made up of 20,000 soldiers, the bulk of which were from the 5th and 6th Engineer Brigades.  But there were many problems that arose as the battles proceeded.  What to do with German POWS, shoot them or send them back to England?  How to transport casualties at the same time transporting POWS on the same LSTs.  What approach should be taken to thwart Hitler’s savior, the V-1 rockets as they began to reign on London and the English shore line?  How should commanders deal with combat exhaustion, more commonly known today as shock or PTSD?  What allowances should be made because of troop shortages and the lack of training of replacements?

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(SHAEF Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Sir Bernard Montgomery, and General Omar Bradley)

Beevor is very concerned with the humanitarian aspects of the war.  The death of French civilians due to allied bombing is well covered as is the French resentment against the British who they blamed for most of the Allied bombing errors.  As Beevor points out the French villagers paid a hefty price for their liberation.  Speaking of bombing errors, Beevor recounts more incidents than I was aware of pertaining to allied friendly fire.  Be it American, British, Canadian, Polish or French soldiers they all paid a hefty price for pilot or intelligence errors throughout Beevor’s narrative.

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(Over 425,000 Allied and German soldiers were killed)

The German high command receives a thrashing from Beevor as he points out that they did not have a central command in France at the time of D Day.  They relied on a ridiculous system of sharing command between General Field Marshall Edwin Rommel and General Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt.  Hitler’s over reliance on his “Atlantic Wall” is covered in detail and his micro managing that only impeded the German war effort.  The frustration would boil over after Rundstedt is relieved of his command and a group of officers realize they are losing the war resulting in the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt of the Fuhrer.  Amazingly 20% of German forces in France in 1944 were made up of non-Germans, mostly Poles and Russians.

Beevor should be commended for showing his readers the heroism of the Soviet Army.  What the Russian people and soldiers experienced on the eastern front was horrendous, but Beevor is correct in arguing that Soviet propaganda put out by Stalin that Normandy was a side show to events in the east was wrong.  The battle for Normandy was comparable in its intensity to the fighting on the eastern front.  The Germans would suffer over 250,000 casualties during the 90 days of summer in 1944 and lost another 200,000 as POWS captured at a rate higher than on the eastern front.

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The last third of the book is spent on the rush to liberate Paris, which was not part of the original D Day plan.  Bevor takes the reader through a series of operations and what stands out is German doggedness, particularly the Waffen-SS’s refusal to make life for allied soldiers any easier and the vengeance they meted out to French civilians, Resistance fighters, and Jews.  Another aspect that dominates is Montgomery’s constant attempts to assuage his own ego by launching and/or suggesting certain operations which would be counterproductive.  Another final component deals with internal French issues be it how collaborators were treated, De Gaulle’s battle with the Communists and the role of the Resistance.  Beevor joins Max Hastings as producing one of the most thorough accounts of D-Day and it should be read by anyone seeking the experience of what occurred, the personalities involved, and its effect on civilians caught in the cauldron of total war.

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A COVERT ACTION: REAGAN, THE CIA, AND THE COLD WAR STRUGGLE IN POLAND by Seth G. Jones

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Today the Polish government is ruled by the Law and Justice Party (abbreviated to PiS).  It is a national-conservative, and Christian democratic party, currently the largest in the Polish parliament.  In the last two years the party which is extremely nationalistic, has created controversies on several fronts.  It is a country where hateful language is pervasive leading to the murder of the mayor of Gdansk, Pawel Adamowicz on January 13 of this year.   Last February the government passed a new amendment to the Law of Remembrance making it a crime to refer to Nazi concentration camps as “Polish,” further it threatens legal punishment for anyone who publicly implies Poles’ involvement in Nazi crimes against the Jews.  Further, a few days ago on January 27th, Polish far right nationalists gathered at the Auschwitz concentration camp to protest, at the same time as officials and survivors marking the 74th anniversary of the camp’s liberation in an annual ceremony.  Lastly, Poland’s “New Populism” has led the PiS to be more critical of the European Union as the country has become more nationalist and Euro skeptical.  Andrzej Duda, the PiS supported Polish president, recently referred to it as an imaginary community.  Today’s current version of Polish democracy and economic growth began in the 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed, rests on the success of the Solidarity movement of the 1980s.   However, one must return to early 1980s for one of the key reasons for Poland’s transformation from a Soviet satellite to a free country.  The events of the period is the subject of Seth G. Jones’ new book A COVERT ACTION: REAGAN, THE CIA, AND THE COLD WAR STRUGGLE IN POLAND which describes the little-known story of the CIA’s operations in Poland  which resulted in a major victory for western democracy which raises questions in the minds of many as to where the Polish government is taking its people domestically and the world stage and do the principles that so many believed in and fought for at the time still persist.

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(Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa)

Jones’ account of the events of the 1970s and 80s that spawned Solidarity, Poland’s flowering democratic movement, is concisely written, analytical, and reflects a great deal of research.  The narrative, in part, reads like a novel as events and movements  travel quickly and build upon each other.  Jones reviews the Cold War decisions that created Poland after World War II, from Yalta to the crackdowns against democracy in Poland in 1970, the strikes and demonstrations against Soviet domination, culminating in the Solidarity movements birth in Gdansk to the declaration of martial law by the Polish government in December 1981.  The usual historical characters from Joseph Stalin, Wladyslaw Gomulka, Edward Gierek, Jozef Klemp, appear to set the stage for the 1980s crisis.

Jones’ theme is clear-cut – his story is the CIA’s effort to strike at the heart of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe.  President Reagan wanted a clear break of Soviet control  and with his support the CIA built a program that took the Cold War to the Soviet’s backyard.  The program, code named, QRHELPFUL, was one of the “most successful American covert action programs ever developed, yet also one of its least well known and appreciated.  The CIA would provide money and resources to organize demonstrations, print opposition material, and conduct radio and video transmissions that boosted opposition support and morale while simultaneously eroded Soviet authority.”  In addition, it was also very cost effective as the total bill was about $20 million.

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(Polish Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski)

Jones develops chapters on the leading figures in one of the most important movements of the Cold War.  Chapters include those encompassing Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, a worker in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, Polish Prime Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski, Pope John II, President Ronald Reagan, CIA head William Casey, Richard Malzahn in charge of CIA covert operations against the Soviet Union, are all presented in detail and help explain the actions of each of these individuals. Lesser figures that include the United States’ most important spy, Lt. Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski of the Polish General Staff who fed Washington important documents pertaining to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact; assorted smugglers who were part of the ratline that smuggled printing equipment, money, and other sorts of aid that kept Solidarity alive are also discussed in detail.

Previously, historians have argued that Ronald Reagan imposed economic sanctions to thwart the repression of Solidarity and confront Soviet pressure on Warsaw.  Jones has dug deeper to find the full scope of America’s role in the crisis, particularly that of the CIA.  The author affords Reagan a great deal of credit because of his obsessive focus of defeating the Soviet Union, and along with-it communism.  Jones discussion of the evolution of American national security policy toward the Soviet Union through the prism of events in Poland are well thought out.  Jones presents the changes in National Security Decision Directives as the crisis in Poland evolved culminating in NSDD-75 written in 1983 reflecting American objectives of “reversing Soviet expansionism by competing on a sustained basis in all international arenas, promote change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system, and engage in negotiations with the Soviet Union which protect and enhance US interests.”  The US would apply a broad panoply of military, economic, and other instruments, including psychological ones with emphasis of Eastern Europe as the essential battleground.

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(President Ronald Reagan)

American policies including economic sanctions, blocking Poland’s needs from the International Monetary Fund, and other restrictions had a tremendous impact on a reeling Polish economy, but Washington’s most important role was conducted by the CIA.  William Casey was the catalyst for confronting the Soviet Union with “active measures” and covert operations which they argued had fallen by the wayside under the Carter administration.  For Casey and other members of the Reagan administration the Polish crisis presented the perfect opportunity to employ these methods.  After martial law was imposed the CIA developed sources in Sweden, West Germany, France, and Turkey to funnel needed equipment into Poland so Solidarity could continue to get its message out and keep the hopes of its members (over 10 million) alive.  Jones’ stories of people like Stanislaw Broda (code name, QRGUIDE) who was an important asset in press, books, papers, magazine distribution and trainer of printers, in addition to another fascinating character, Jerzy Giedroye, one of many Polish emigres in Paris who worked on dissident publications and their dissemination.

Jones is very perceptive, but at times overly sensitive to the position that Jaruzelski found himself.  The Polish Prime Minister was constantly caught in the middle by the repressive demands of the Soviet Union, especially Lenoid Brezhnev and his Kremlin cohorts, the economic sanctions of the United States, the demands put forth by Solidarity, and the desires of the Catholic Church.  Moscow repeatedly became frustrated with Jaruzelski as he refused to crack down on Solidarity further, though it must be said that with the imposition of martial law they carried out arrests, torture, disbandment, imprisonment, surveillance, and harassment of the independent trade union that was the beginning of an organized political opposition that spread throughout Poland and had support within the Catholic Church.  Jaruzelski realized if too much pressure was applied a full-scale civil war could ensue and he did want a Warsaw Pact invasion of Poland backed by the Soviet Union.  By 1983 when he concluded the Soviets would not resort to military invasion, he was relieved, but with the Papal visit to Poland in July 1983 and a Papal meeting with Walesa he was caught in a vise.

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(CIA Director William Casey)

In 1984 the situation grew worse as Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the chaplain for many Polish steel workers, a friend of Pope John II, and an outspoken critic of the Polish government whose commentary was received throughout Eastern Europe by Radio Free Europe was assassinated by the Polish SB (Secrete Police).  The result it provided the CIA the opportunity to perpetuate outrage against the Polish government and the Soviet Union allowing it to continue its global ideological propaganda war in support of Solidarity.

One of the most interest points of conjecture was the relationship between the Reagan administration and the Vatican.  Jones points out that some journalists have argued that there was a “Holy Alliance” between the two, but the author effectively refutes this line of thought that this was not the case as their views did not always correspond.  There were profound disagreements between the two sides over the maintenance of American sanctions against Poland, and the American goal of achieving some sort of regime change in Moscow in the long run.  When opportunities presented themselves to act in concert, i.e., smuggling goods and equipment into Poland, and support for a clandestine group of priests to assist Solidarity members.

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(1980, Lech Walesa addresses workers as they try to register Solidarity as a Trade Union with the Polish government)

The United States had to walk a fine line in its covert operations over Poland.  If the Soviet Union publicized proof over CIA actions it could have domestic implications only ten years after the Church Committee, in addition to how it would play in the international sphere.  The CIA was very clear in promoting “plausible deniability,” and Moscow, had strong suspicions as to what was occurring, but they could not nail down CIA actions.  The CIA was careful to avoid allocating any type of weapons for Solidarity, and stuck to propaganda equipment, money, and other necessary commodities.  By creating layer upon layer to obfuscate what they were doing they kept the KGB sufficiently in the dark.

Following Reagan’s reelection in 1984 the CIA with the complete support of the president embarked on a new strategy to assist Solidarity – the use of technology. In the 1980s television sets and VCRs proliferated in Poland despite the weakness in the economy.  The CIA provided technological training and equipment to take advantage to disseminate the message, i.e., clandestine programing, overriding government messaging.  The CIA leveraged the evolution in communications technology to infiltrate videocassettes, computers, floppy discs, and communication equipment using many of its traditional ratlines.  It must be kept in mind that throughout the struggle to assist Solidarity the CIA was not the only one offering aid and support.  Many subsidies were offered by the AFL-CIO and other organizations as well as several US government agencies apart from the intelligence community.

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(Pope John II visits Czestochowa, Poland in 1992)

Events outside Poland would soon have an impact on the issue of repression as Mikhail Gorbachev assumed power in the Soviet Union who would shortly realize the true state of the Soviet economy, and soon after the disaster that was Afghanistan.  In the United States, the Reagan administration was confronted by the Iran-Contra scandal, which eventually Reagan was able to put past him.  It was soon becoming obvious that the Soviet Union was in decline, and with a second Papal visit to Poland in June 1987 and an open-air mass in Gdansk where for the first time the Pope completely identified himself with Solidarity openly challenging the Jaruzelski regime, fostering the labor movements return.  When the Jaruzelski government raised prices in February 1988, the resulting strikes and demonstrations his government teetered on the edge.  Jones takes the reader through the final negotiations that brought democratic elections to Poland and the accession of Walesa to the presidency in 1990.

The key to Jones’ successful narrative was his command of primary material especially his melding of interviews with CIA principles and now unclassified documents into a fascinating account of the how-to of a covert action.  In conclusion, though Jones describes an amazing description of the fortitude of the Polish people against Soviet oppression, and the gains made since the collapse of the Russian regime, recent events lead one to question where the Polish government and society are evolving.  Is it a type of populism that discredits their past and reinvigorates the type of racism that plagued Poland for centuries, or is it something less sinister, but against the principles that Solidarity fought for?

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GRAND IMPROVISATION: AMERICA CONFRONTS THE BRITISH SUPER POWER, 1945-1957 by Derek Leebaert

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“Americans don’t do grand strategy.”

(Oliver Franks, British Ambassador to the United States, 1953)

From the outset of his new work, GRAND IMPROVISATION: AMERICA CONFRONTS THE BRITISH SUPER POWER, 1945-1957 Derek Leebaert puts forth the premise that the idea that the British were about to liquidate their empire because of financial and military weakness after World War II was fallacious.  Further, that the United States was fully prepared to assume the leadership of the west and would do so while creating an American led international order that we’ve lived with ever since was equally false.  Leebaert’s conclusions are boldly stated as he reevaluates the historical community that for the most part has disagreed with his assumptions over the years.  The author rests his case on assiduous research (just check the endnotes) and uncovering documents that have not been available or used previously.  Leebaert argues his case very carefully that American foreign policy in the post war era was very improvisational as it tried to develop a consistent policy to confront what it perceived be a world-wide communist surge.  Leebaert argues that it took at least until 1957 at the conclusion of the Suez Crisis for London to finally let go of their position as a first-rate power with a dominant empire, allowing the United States to fill the vacuum that it created.  No matter how strong Leebaert believes his argument to be I would point out that events in India, Pakistan, Palestine, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the creation of NATO, and the American loan of $3.75 billion all of which occurred before 1948 should raise a few questions concerning his conclusions.

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(British Prime Minister Winston Churchill)

Despite the assuredness with which Leebaert presents his case there are merits to his argument and the standard interpretation that has long been gospel deserves a rethinking.  His thesis rests on a series of documents that he has uncovered.  The most important of which is National Security Document 75 that was presented to President Truman on July 15, 1950.  Leebaert contends that this 40-page analysis has never been seen by historians and its conclusions are extremely important.  NSC 75’s purpose was to conduct an audit of the far-flung British Empire concentrating on its ability to meet its military commitments and determine how strong the United Kingdom really was, as men including John J. McCloy, Paul Nitze, David K. Bruce, and Lewis Douglas feared what would happen if the British Empire collapsed.   All important agencies in the American government took part in this analysis; the CIA, the Pentagon, the Treasury and State Departments and reached some very interesting judgments.  The document concluded that “the British Empire and Commonwealth” still had the capacity to meet its military obligations with an army of close to a million men.  Leebaert argues that “there had been no retreat that anyone could categorize, in contrast to adjustment, and no need was expected for replacement.  Nor could American energy and goodwill substitute for the British Empire’s experienced global presence.  As for the need to vastly expand US forces overseas, that wasn’t necessary.  Instead the United States should support its formidable ally, which included backing its reserve currency.” (234)  For Leebaert this document alone changes years of Cold War historiography.

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

Harold Evans points out in his October 18, New York Times review that Leebaert offers other persuasive points that mitigate any American take over from the British due to their perceived weakness.  First, British military and related industries produced higher proportions of wartime output than the United States well into the 1950s.  Second, Britain was ahead in life sciences, civil nuclear energy, and jet aviation than America.  Third, England maintained the largest military presence on the Rhine once the United States withdrew its forces at the end of the war.  Fourth, British intelligence outshone “American amateurs.”  This being the case Leebaert’s thesis has considerable merit, but there are areas that his thesis does not hold water, particularly that of the condition of the English economy, dollar reserves, and how British trade was affected by the weakness of the pound sterling.

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(British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin)

Leebaert’s revisionist approach centers on a few historical figures; some he tries to resurrect their reputations, others to bring them to the fore having been seemingly ignored previously.  The author’s portrayal of British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin is a key to his presentation.  As the leader of the Labour Party, Bevin held leftist anti-colonial beliefs, but once in power the realities of empire, economics, and politics brought about a marked change particularly as it involved the Middle East, London’s role in any attempt at a European federation, the devaluation of the pound sterling, the need to create an Anglo-American bond, and numerous other areas.  Leebaert goes out of his way to defend Bevin in several areas, especially charges that he was anti-Semitic in dealing with the situation in Palestine.  Other individuals discussed include John Wesley Snyder who had strong relationships with President Truman and Secretary of State Marshall, who as Secretary of the Treasury oversaw the transition of the US economy to peacetime and was the driving force behind the Marshall Plan.  The American Ambassador to Great Britain, Lewis Douglas also fits this category as does Commissioner General Malcom MacDonald, who oversaw British policy in the Pacific from his position in Singapore, the hub of British Pacific power.

Leebaert’s narrative includes the history of the major Cold War events of the 1945-1950.  His discussion of the situation in Greece and Turkey including Bevin and US Admiral Leahy’s bluffs in negotiations that resulted in the Truman Doctrine and $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey.  The Berlin Crisis, the Soviet murder of Jan Masaryk, Mao’s victory in China and what it meant for Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the Korean War are all presented in detail.

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(George of Kennan, Ambassador to Russia; Head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff)

Perhaps Leebaert’s favorite character in supporting his thesis is Walter Lippmann, the American journalist who had difficulty deciding whether the British were using the United States as a foil against the Soviet Union, or as a vehicle to fill any vacuums that might avail themselves should England retrench.  But eventually Lippmann concluded that Washington believed that the British Empire would contain the Soviet Union all by itself, not the actions of an empire that was about to fold and pass the torch to the United States.

Leebaert is not shy about putting certain historical figures on the carpet and shattering their reputations.  Chief among these people is George F. Kennan, who was Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Head of the State Department Policy Planning staff among his many diplomatic positions.  For Leebaert the idea that Kennan was a “giant of diplomacy” as he was described by Henry Kissinger is a misnomer to say the least.  He finds Kennan to be emotional, careless, impulsive, and “frequently amateurish.”  Further, he believes Kennan was often ignorant about certain areas, particularly the Middle East and Japan, and lacked a rudimentary knowledge of economics.  But for Leebaert this did not stop Kennan from offering his opinions and interfering in areas that he lacked any type of expertise.

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(British Commissioner General Malcom MacDonald)

The situation in Southeast Asia was crucial for the British as seen through the eyes of Malcom MacDonald.  He firmly believed that if Indochina fell Thailand would follow as would the British stronghold of Malaya.  British trade and investment would be cut and wouldn’t be able to strengthen their recovering European allies, thus ending any American hope of a self-reliant North-Atlantic partnership. According to Leebaert, it was imperative to get Washington to support Bao Dai as leader of Vietnam and MacDonald made the case to the Americans better than the French.  If nothing was done the entire area would be lost to the communists.  Leebaert interestingly points out that in the 1930s when it appeared, he might become Prime Minister some day he backed Neville Chamberlain at Munich, now in the early 1950s he did not want to be seen as an appeaser once again.

At the same time disaster was unfolding on the Korean peninsula and Washington kept calling for British troops to assist MacArthur’s forces at Pusan.  The Atlee government did not respond quickly, and with British recognition of Mao’s regime and continued trade with Beijing, along with its attitude toward Taiwan, resulting in fissures between the British and the United States.  With Bevin ill, Kenneth Younger, the Minister of State argued that London could not be spread too thin because they could not leave Iran, Suez, Malaya, or Hong Kong unguarded.  Interestingly, Leebaert points out at the time the only real Soviet military plan was geared against Tito’s Yugoslavia.  The difference between Washington and London was clear – the British had global concerns, the Americans were obsessed with Korea.  Finally, by the end of August 1950 London dispatched 1500 soldiers, a year later 20,000 Commonwealth soldiers would be involved in combat operations.

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(President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles)

Leebaert’s premise that the British would not forgo empire until the results of the Suez Crisis was a few years off.  By 1951 strong signals emerged that the empire was about to experience further decline with events in Iran and Egypt taking precedence.  If Islamists focused on anti-communism in these areas the British were safe, but when they began to turn their focus to nationalism London would be in trouble.  Domestically, Britain was also in difficulty as financial news was very dispiriting. Due to the Korean War and the US demand for industrial goods the total cost for imports shot up markedly.  This caused a balance of payments problem and the pound sterling plummeted once again.  The cold winter exacerbated the economy even further as another coal shortage took place.  It seemed that the British people had to deal with the rationing of certain items, but the defeated Germany did not.  Further, by 1952 Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya began to take their toll causing London to face another external challenge.

The British strategy toward the United States was to stress the anti-communism fear in dealing with Egypt and Iran.  In Egypt, King Farouk was a disaster and the British feared for the Suez Canal.  In Iran, the English fear centered around the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company which had been ripping off Teheran for decades.  An attempt to ameliorate the situation came to naught as the company was nationalized and eventually in 1953 the British and American staged a coup that overthrew the elected Prime Minister, Mohamed Mossadegh.  In Egypt nationalism would also become a major force that London could not contain resulting in the 1952 Free Officers Movement that brought to power Gamel Abdul Nasser.  In each instance Washington took on an even more important role, and some have argued that the CIA was complicit in fostering a change in the Egyptian government.  In addition, Dwight Eisenhower became president and John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State.  Despite newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s hope that the World War II relationship could be rekindled, Eisenhower saw the British as colonialists who were hindering US foreign policy, in addition the relationship between Dulles and British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden was at rock bottom.  It became increasingly clear that the Eisenhower administration wanted to avoid being perceived as acting in concert with Britain in dealing with colonial issues, except in the case of Iran which the United States is still paying for because of its actions.

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(British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden)

Regarding Indochina, the United States and England could not reach any demarche as regards the plight of the French visa vie the Vietminh, particularly as the battle of Dienbienphu played out.  Leebaert does an excellent job recounting the play by play between Dulles and Eden, Eisenhower and Churchill as the US and England saw their relations splintering as negotiations and the resulting recriminations proved fruitless. This inability to come together over Southeast Asia would have grave implications in other areas.

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(British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill)

In another region, the Eisenhower administration would embark on a strategy to create some sort of Middle East Defense Organization to hinder Soviet penetration.  This strategy, whether called a “Northern Tier” or the “Baghdad Pact” of Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran or other nomenclatures created difficulties with Britain who sought to use such an alliance as a vehicle to maintain their influence in the region, particularly in Jordan and Iraq.  British machinations would irritate Washington as Eden and company resented American pressure to withdraw from the Suez Canal Base and other issues.  The result would be an alliance between England, France, and Israel to topple Nasser in Egypt.  The alliance was misconceived and would evolve into a break between the United States and its Atlantic allies even to the effect of the Eisenhower administration working behind the scenes to topple the Eden government and bring about the Eisenhower Doctrine signaling that the British had lost its leadership position and was no longer considered a “major power.”

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(Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

I must point out that I have written my own monograph that deals with major aspects of Leebaert’s thesis, DAWN OVER SUEZ: THE RISE OF AMERICAN POWER IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1953-1957.  My own research concludes that the United States actively worked to replace Britain as the dominant force in the Middle East as early as May 1953 when John F. Dulles visited the region and came back appalled by British colonialism.  Leebaert leaves out a great deal in discussing the period; the role of the US in forcing Churchill into agreeing to the Heads of Agreement to withdraw from the Suez Canal Base; the failure of secret project Alpha and the Anderson Mission to bring about a rapprochement between Israel and Egypt and its implications for US policy; the disdain that the Americans viewed Eden, the extent of American ire at the British for undercutting their attempts at a Middle East Defense Organization by their actions in Iraq and Jordan; the role of US anger over the Suez invasion because it ruined  a coup set to take place in Syria; and the Eisenhower administrations machinations behind the scenes to remove Eden as Prime Minister to be replaced by Harold Macmillan.  In addition, the author makes a series of statements that are not supported by any citations; i.e.; Eisenhower’s support for finding a way to fund the Aswan Dam after Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal; attempts to poison Nasser etc.

Overall however, Leebaert has written a monograph that should raise many eyebrows for those who have accepted the Cold War narrative of the last six decades.  There are many instances where he raises questions, provides answers that force the reader to conclude that these issues should be reexamined considering his work.  At a time when the United States is struggling to implement a consistent worldview in the realm of foreign policy it is important for policy makers to consider the plight of the British Empire following World War II and how Washington’s inability  to confront world issues in a reasoned and measured way and develop a long term strategy fostered a pattern that has created many difficulties that continue to dog us today.

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ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: AMERICA’S GRAND STRATEGIST by Justin Vaisse

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Henry Kissinger)

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

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

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

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(Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and President Trump)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Nuclear talks with Iran)

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

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

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

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

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(North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un)

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

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FROM COLD WAR TO HOT PEACE by Michael McFaul

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(Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama)

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

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

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(picture captures well the Obama-Putin relationship)

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

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

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(Russian President Dimitri Medvedev)

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

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

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

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

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(Russian troops in eastern Ukraine)

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

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

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(Russian bombers deployed over Syria)

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

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(Syrian President Bashir Assad and Vladimir Putin)

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

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

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