FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Bob Woodward

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What is one to think of a book whose closing line is a quote from John Dowd, who resigned as President Trump’s lawyer in March 2018, that states “the president is a fucking liar.”  The book in question is FEAR: TRUMP IN THE WHITE HOUSE by Bob Woodward, and like his other books it is based on his own reporting, extensive interviewing, gathering information directly and indirectly from other publications and news accounts.  Woodward’s narrative covers the Trump presidential campaign through the resignation of Dowd, and presents, perhaps the most dysfunctional White House in American history.

Recently, the public has been bombarded with books dealing with the rise of the Trump presidency.  What sets Woodward’s monograph apart is the author’s reputation and history of access to sources that others do not employ.  The book presents an administration that Trump’s Chief of Staff, John Kelly describes as “crazy town,” and the former aide to the president, Rob Porter defines Trump as a “professional liar.”  Woodward’s command of the material is excellent and integrates all the characters discussed daily by cable news and the print media.  The plight of Reince Priebus, H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, Hope Hicks, and many others is present for all to see as they try and protect the president from himself.

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(Gary Cohn, Trump’s former top economic advisor)

From the start outset the narrative Woodward presents a scary scene as Trump wants to withdraw from the US-South Korean Trade Agreement, an action which could have grave national security consequences in dealing with Kim Jong Un and North Korea.  The situation is offset by the head of Trump’s Economic Council, Gary Cohn who steals the letter telling South Korean President Moon of his intentions from the president’s desk.  This type of behavior is just the tip of the ice berg as Woodward recounts the daily machinations of the West Wing.

Much of what Woodward writes has appeared in some form or another elsewhere for those who followed the 2016 election and the first 15 months of the Trump presidency.  For some the book may be repetitious, but Woodward has done an excellent job of integrating new material that he has uncovered with that of other accounts.  Woodward provides numerous tidbits that will make the reader wonder what is going on at the White House.  Gary Cohn plays a major role in trying to steer Trump toward economic policies that are sound and will not destroy trade with our allies, and China.  For Cohn, seen by his opponents in the administration as a New York Democrat and a “globalist,” believes that Trump had no basic understanding of how the US economy works.  Trump just wanted to print more money and had no concept of how the debt cycle worked.  For Trump, deficits worked as bankruptcies in his real estate businesses, and large deficits in the federal budget could work the same way – hence the massive tax cuts passed by Congress.

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(Peter Navarro)

Large swaths of FEAR are spent detailing tariff and trade issues.  For years Trump believed that China, South Korea and others had been taking advantage of the United States – as president he would rectify that situation.  Woodward provides interesting details dealing with the clash of Cohn with Peter Navarro, a Trump appointee over deficit spending.  Cohn lays out the arguments carefully for the president as if speaking to a ninth grader.  Ninety-nine percent of economists supported Cohn’s views dealing with NAFTA, the US-South Korean Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization etc.  Cohn prepared a short paper to explain his position, but Trump does not read and did not accept Cohn’s facts concerning the service sector of the US economy.  Cohn asked Trump why to do you have these views, Trump replied, “I’ve had these views for thirty years.”  Rob Porter who supported Cohn against Navarro and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross as they tried to explain the interrelationship between American trade policies and American national security.  They, along with Secretary of Defense, James Mattis argued in the case of South Korea that the US had 28,000 troops along the DMZ with North Korea which served as a tripwire for American defense.  Trump was obsessed with the $18 billion trade imbalance with South Korea and wanted Seoul to pay for the THAAD missile system designed to protect our ally, which also protected our troops.  In fact, Seoul did pay $8 billion of the $10 billion cost.   Cohn and Porter repeatedly rehashed their economic and national security arguments to no avail as Navarro and Ross refused to accept the concept that increased tariffs would result in a tax for American consumers.  Navarro and Ross argued that the tariff increase would help Trump with big businesses and unions and would be good for the 2018 midterm elections.  Cohn believed he “was banging his head against the wall,” though he would not resign until the massive tax cut for the upper classes would be implemented.  Cohn had his agenda and he would swallow the events of Charlottesville and Trump’s response, to push through the tax cuts.

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(Trump Chief of Staff, John Kelly and Rob Porter, former presidential aide)

Woodward spends a great deal of time examining the role of Rob Porter who was a restraining influence on Trump.  Once he left because he physically abused his ex-wife the leash on Trump became very loose.  Kelly and Tillerson tried to reign the president in, but both failed.  Tillerson was fired or quit, depending on who you believe, and Kelly remains at his post with little or no influence on the president.

Woodward reinforces the role of Jared and Ivanka Kushner who seemed to live in their own “silo.”  Woodward describes how Trump ordered the assassination of President Bashir Assad of Syria as he said, “let’s go in, let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” but was talked out of it.  Trump’s erratic behavior dominates the book from campaign rallies to Charlottesville, to reacting to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, his relationship with Steve Bannon, meetings with John Dowd, his theory that you must deny everything repeatedly no matter what the accusation and the facts are, his comments about Reince Priebus, H.R. McMaster and Rex Tillerson, etc.  Trump comes off as the ultimate narcissist, a behavior that continues to this day.

For Trump, real power was based on fear, and Woodward captures this emotion exceptionally well in the president.  Woodward writes in his breezy newspaper style and makes the book, no matter how disturbing, an easy read.

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HOUSE OF TRUMP HOUSE OF PUTIN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF DONALD TRUMP AND THE RUSSIAN MAFIA by Craig Unger

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(Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump)

When I began reading Craig Unger’s new book HOUSE OF TRUMP HOUSE OF PUTIN: THE UNTOLD STORY OF DONALD TRUMP AND THE RUSSIAN MAFIA, I did so with great anticipation.  Unger’s previous monographs, HOUSE OF SAUD HOUSE OF BUSH and THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF BUSH immediately captured my interest and developed themes that were strongly supported by documentary evidence and interviews.  In his newest effort, Unger has not totally measured up to preceding works.  First, if one has followed the news the last twelve months the material should be very familiar especially if one thinks about news accounts on cable television, newspaper articles, and exposes in magazines like The Atlantic.  Second, a good part of the book reads like excerpts from a Russian version of “Goodfellahs,” as Unger describes the development of Russian mob influence and wealth accumulation following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and tries to link Donald Trump to every Russian oligarch he has come across.  Third, the book promises to deliver the untold story of the Trump-Putin relationship, but it seems to rehash what is already in plain sight in the media.  Lastly, the book‘s focus is predominantly about the spread of the Russian mob, the rise of Putin and the Russian autocrat’s strategy to undermine the west, and though it presents a strong case for the Trump-Russian nexus Unger could have developed this component in greater depth.

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(Trump with Agas and Emin Agalarov)

Unger’s goal as outlined in his introduction is very bold and I thought that I was about to read a book that would replace Michael Isikoff’s and David Corn’s RUSSIAN ROULETTE as the preeminent work on Trump and his Russian connection.  Unger states he will tie Trump to 59 individuals with alleged ties to the Russian Mafia; the use of Trump’s brand to launder billions of Russian mob money; Trump’s providing an operational home to Russian oligarchs in Trump Tower; the significant role the Russian Mafia plays in the Russian government; Russian intelligence targeting of Trump as a possible source for over forty years; how the Russian mob used American groups such as K Street lobbyists to gain influence and intelligence; how Russia took advantage of Trump’s $4 billion debt to coopt him, whether willingly or unwillingly; a description of Trumps relationship with Russian mobsters like Felix Sater; and how Trump became an intelligence “asset” for the Russians.  This is quite an undertaking, a puzzle whose pieces do not always seem to fit, resulting in a narrative that too often does not make a concrete case. Everything Unger states may be accurate, but he does not present his arguments without raising a certain amount of doubt.   In Unger’s defense, at this point it would difficult for any author to write the definitive account of the Trump-Putin/Russian relationship.

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(Putin and Oleg Deripaska)

Unger develops his narrative on two parallel tracks.  First, he describes the development of the Russia Mafia (or Mob) and how they have made inroads in the United States and countries abroad.  He correctly points to the Jackson-Vanik Amendment in a 1974 Congressional Trade bill that called for allowing hundreds of thousands of Jews to leave Russia.  In doing so, the Kremlin let out many Jews, but also many criminals, rapists, and other unsavory characters.  Many of these Jews and their lesser types migrated to the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn and set up the “new Odessa” as they turned the neighborhood into a Russian enclave.  This provided an area for the Russian Mafia to dominate, set up businesses to launder money, and carry out extortion and other nefarious activities.  Unger goes on describe how the Russian Mafia plundered and came to control much of their country’s resources and corporations after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and followed the trajectory of Vladimir Putin’s career.  Unger will detail the actions taken by numerous individuals like Semion Mogilevich, the “brainy don” of the Russian mob, worth billions derived from illicit trade in weapons, women etc. and Serge Mikhalov, the head of the biggest crime gang in Russia, and how their relationships with Putin, who employed his own cunning, and manipulation of earlier politicians allowed him to develop his own personal kleptocracy.

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(Roman Abramovitch)

The second track follows Donald Trump’s career dating back into the early 1980s when he was a target of interest for Soviet intelligence.  The story is a familiar one as Unger takes us through Trump’s trips to Moscow in the mid-eighties and nineties as he tries to put together a deal for a Trump Tower in Moscow.  Unger describes how Trump went from debt of $4 billion due to the collapse of his casino empire in Atlantic City to solvency as he learned to trade on his name, and brilliantly made his own name a trademark that Russian oligarchs seem to crave in business deals and high rise condos (a problem in that it provided the Russian mob a place to launder about $1.5 billion as they used shell companies to pay for condo apartments throughout Trump’s real estate empire).  Trumps relationships with men like Felix Sater and others comes to the fore as more and more Trump develops relationships with Russian oligarchs for investment capital, and business projects.  The author tries to unscramble the web of relations surrounding Russian oligarchs and mobsters with ties to Putin and Trump throughout the book, and in many cases the links are solid, and in other cases less so, but the arcane world he is describing is really difficult to totally nail down.  Unger will then take these two tracks which encompasses about two thirds the book and turns to their nexus – how the Russians used their investment in Trump to interfere in the 2016 election, and reap the rewards of a Trump presidency.

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(Putin with his oligarch colleagues)

Perhaps in Unger’s strongest presentation he develops the concept of non-linear warfare as a Russian strategy to overturn western gains that included moving the Ukraine closer to the European Union.  For Putin, this was a red line that could not be allowed.  The key to this new approach as put forth by Vladislav Surkov and Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Russia was to create a false reality consisting of fake news and alternative facts for both within and without Russia.  Putin and his cohorts set out to destroy the truth and create a never ending conflict about perception that helped the Russian autocrat to control and manage his country.  Hybrid warfare and active measures were employed to weaken the U.S., Britain, NATO, and the European Union and roll back the gains they had made since the Cold War.  Money would be poured into pro-Russian parties in former Soviet states, as well supporting right wing candidates in the U.S. and Western Europe who wanted to dismantle the Western Alliance.  There were spies, hackers, and informational soldiers who carried out sophisticated attacks on social media.  The Russian Mafia was just one weapon in Russia’s arsenal.

Once the strategy was developed Russian intelligence zeroed in on Donald Trump who had years before established a relationship with the Russian mob.  The story of how Trump’s candidacy announced in June, 2015 gave Putin his candidate and allowed him to wreak the benefits of his penetration of K Street, white collar law firms, the Republican political establishment, and former justice and senatorial figures has been told elsewhere and Unger may strengthen details, but the overall storyline remains the same.  The Russian cyber warfare campaign against the U.S. and Hillary Clinton is now well known, but at the time the government did not seem to have a full grasp of what was actually occurring.

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(Tamir Sapir and Felix Sater)

Unger digs deep into the June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, analyzing who participated, and what agendas they represented.  It is clear that the Trump campaign was now in bed with the Russians, even if the Trump people did not realize how deep, or maybe they did.  Meetings between Trump officials and Russian diplomats and intelligence operatives abound in Unger’s account, as do the role of leaked emails receiving undo attention as opposed to warnings of Russian hacking and penetration of the American electoral process.  As disconcerting as Unger’s account is, we will have to wait until the Mueller investigations concludes to learn the truth.

In summation, Unger has done prodigious research into what is available, but much of what he uncovers is not new.  However, he has done a service by unraveling the role of Russian organized crime, the Putin regime, and its links to Donald Trump and his circle.

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ALEXANDER HAMILTON: A LIFE by Willard Sterne Randall

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(Alexander Hamilton)

If one wonders why a biography of Alexander Hamilton did not stir Lin-Manuel Miranda to write his Broadway musical before Ron Chernow’s bestselling work all you have to do is look at Willard Sterne Randall’s ALEXANDER HAMILTON: A LIFE written a year before Chernow’s monograph.  Randall’s effort is a clear narrative written by a traditional historian that lacks many of the details, insights on a personal level, and coverage of the most important aspects of Hamilton’s extraordinary life that Chernow presents.  Randall, who has written biographies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson before tackling his present subject seems most concerned with who was right about America, Jefferson, or Hamilton.  He concludes that Jefferson was correct for the 18th century, Hamilton, for more modern times.  Randall’s study is reliable and readable and mostly rests on primary materials.

Other than the depth of coverage that Randall provides my major criticism is how he attributes his material to sources.  His chapter endnotes are not complete and he makes it very difficult to ascertain where he gets his material.  There are too many examples of; “One family historian recently observed,” or, “As one historian put it,” or, “One historian’s description,” is annoying and not the way most historians present their sources.

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(Hercules Mulligan)

In terms of Hamilton’s private life, Randall seems certain that Hamilton and his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler Church were lovers.  His writing is crisp, but in terms of Hamilton family relations it is very speculative, particularly the description of Elizabeth Hamilton and her relationship with her husband.  In other areas Randall is on firmer ground.  His discussion of Hamilton’s early years where he was fueled by the writings of John Locke and accepted the ideas of “free will” as opposed to Calvinist dogma is excellent.  Randall concentrates on a number of individuals that have not been detailed by most historians.  The individual that most comes to mind is Hercules Mulligan, a merchant who initially served as Hamilton’s guardian when he arrived from the Caribbean.  Later, Mulligan would become a valuable spy against the British in New York during the American Revolution as well is becoming a peer of Hamilton, and one of his most important confidants.  Randall will also spend a great deal of time with the back and forth between Samuel Seabury’s “True Thoughts on the Proceedings of the Continental Congress” v. that of Hamilton’s “A Full Vindication,” which is important because it juxtaposes the loyalist and anti-loyalist positions visa vie the British, and the formulation of Hamilton’s basic political and economic philosophy.

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(George Washington)

Important areas that Randall reviews include the Washington-Hamilton relationship, where one can see how mutually dependent each would become on the other through the revolution and leading up to Washington’s presidency.  The machinations surrounding General Horatio Gates’ attempts to replace Washington during the revolution and actions taken by the general and his supporters after the revolution also receive important coverage.  Randall will dissect the needs of the Continental Army and spares no criticism in his comments on the incompetence of a number of members of the Continental Congress.  Randall stresses the importance of Hamilton’s relationship with John Laurence and the Marquis de Lafayette, particularly as it affected his actions during the revolution, and importantly, develops the ideological abyss that consumes Hamilton’s relationship with James Madison, especially after the Constitutional Convention.

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(Angelica Schuyler Church)

As opposed to other authors Randall does not provide a great deal of detail of Hamilton private life and career after Washington becomes president.  The majority of the book deals with Hamilton’s early life, the revolution, and the period leading up to and including the writing of the constitution.  Randall analyzes issues like the assumption of debt, the National Bank, the need for public credit in detail.  Further, he explores foreign policy implications of Hamilton’s domestic economic agenda, but does not develop the ideological and personal contradictions with Thomas Jefferson fully.  The relationship with Aaron Burr also does not receive the attention that it warrants because that relationship spanned Hamilton’s entire career.

To enhance the monograph Randall should have balanced Hamilton’s career and influence on historical events more evenly and not given short shrift to the Washington presidency where he served as Secretary of the Treasury and the events that occurred following his retirement from office.  Randall has written a useful biography of Hamilton, but in no way does it approach the level of Ron Chernow’s later effort.

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(Alexander Hamilton)

THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS by Jon Meacham

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(President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act)

Reading Jon Meacham’s latest historical work, THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS at the same time as the federal government is separating immigrant families into “relocation centers” reminiscent of Japanese internment camps during World War II is extremely disturbing.  It is not a stretch to label the Trump administration’s immigration policies as racist when one considers the language and comments of those like Steven Miller and company, especially the president.  However you describe the facilities that parents and children are separated and housed in together, it is un-American for the media and members of Congress to be barred from investigating what is going on behind those chain linked fences.  President Trump may tweet his racist rationalizations and comments that have little or no basis in fact all he wants, but what is clear is that he has a different agenda than the majority of the American people.

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(Thomas Jefferson)

Meacham’s overall thesis is that the current political turmoil we find ourselves in is not unprecedented and as a nation we have survived worse.  Let us hope that he is correct but after events like Charlottesville, talk of Mexican rapists, vicious attacks on anyone who disagrees with the administration, the Mueller investigation, the fecklessness of Congressional Republicans, and President Trump’s admiration for dictatorships around the world, at the same time as he is exhibiting disdain for America’s democratic allies, I fear that Mr. Meacham may be overly optimistic.

For those who have read Meacham’s works on Roosevelt and Churchill, Andrew Jackson, George H.W. Bush, and Thomas Jefferson his current effort should not disappoint.  Meacham’s monograph is well written and researched as are all his previous books.  He has the ability to expose the reader to a useful overview of American history that assists in our understanding of events. The author points out that he has not written his work because past presidents have always risen to the occasion, but because President Trump rarely, if ever does.  A major theme of the book is that America will usually choose the right path when encouraged from the top.

Meacham’s discussion of the historical roots of fear in our history are apropos as in today’s politics as President Trump seems to rest each statement and policy on ginning up his base through the application of fear.  We must remember that “fear divides, hope unifies.”  Meacham concentrates on the twin tragedies in our nation’s history, the subjugation of people of color, and the justification of policies that infringe upon the rights of citizens justified through the concept of the “expansion of liberty.”  The creation of the presidency by the Founding Fathers was “an act of faith in the future and an educated wager on human character.”  The problem is that throughout our history such hopes have not always been realized.

March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom
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After reviewing a number viewpoints dealing with the presidency, the ideas of Thomas Jefferson sum it up best; “in a government like ours it is the duty of the Chief-magistrate, in order to enable himself to do all the good which his station requires to endeavor, by all honorable means, to unite in himself the confidence of the whole people,” not just those who voted for him.

Meacham delves into the philosophical foundations of America’s creation in detail.  He explores the likes of John Locke, Adam Smith, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams concluding that the president is a reflection of the needs and wants of the American people.  The character and temperament of the Chief Executive are of paramount importance when trying to unite the general population behind a program that is supposed to meet the needs of all.  By discussing the approaches taken by men such as Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson it makes it difficult to accept the demeanor and character of the current occupant of the White House.

The author does an excellent job introducing each case study at the outset of each chapter.  He places events and characters in their proper historical context and allows the reader insights into the issue at hand, and creates continuity for the examples he puts forth.  This is evident in perhaps Meacham’s best chapters dealing with immigration and white nationalism.  He makes the important point that to understand the resurgence of white nationalism today, furthered by Trump’s “dog whistle” approach to race one must return to the immediate post-Civil War period and the failure of Reconstruction.  The parallels with the latter part of the 19th century, the 1920s, and today in terms of racial issues and hatred, are very discomforting.

Many white American feared a post slavery society in which emancipation led to equality, and they successfully ensured through lynching’s, denial of equal education and voting rights, that no such equality would come to pass.  Immigration has also been seen as a threat to white Americans as millions arrived between 1890 and 1910.  The reaction that produced the Ku Klux Klan is important to contemplate because some of the issues that prevailed in America are similar to today.  For the post-Civil War period that produced the first Klan, and the 1920s that produced the second Klan we witness massive industrialization and urbanization which transformed the old agrarian world.  The Klan promised racial solidarity and cultural certitude.  The issue of jobs, neighborhoods, religious rights, immigration all affected how Americans felt about the future, a future where whites believed that they were losing their country to non-whites.  The Klan and men like Huey Long and Father Coughlin in the 1930s gave their adherents a social and political program that spoke to their fears at the moment and to the “mythology of identity.”  The 1920s sought a wall against southern Europeans, today Trump wants a wall against Mexicans and Central America.

Perhaps the man who most epitomizes the tactics, character, and temperament of President Trump is Senator Joseph McCarthy.  While Trump wishes he had his own Roy Cohn, McCarthy actually had him.  Cohn, a New York lawyer who advised McCarthy and later worked with Trump describes McCarthy; “he was impatient, overly aggressive, and overly dramatic.  He acted on impulse.  He tended to sensationalize the evidence he had….He would neglect to do important homework and consequently, would on occasion, make challengeable statements.”  McCarthy was a master of the news cycle and probably the author of “fake news “as he dominated politics between 1950 and 1954, and caused so many who were accused as being soft on communists or communists themselves to lose their jobs and place in society, but as Meacham might argue we as a nation overcame his negative impact and moved on.  Since Cohn’s description fits Trump to a tee, hopefully once he is out of office the same thing will occur.

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The most important chapter in the book deals with Lyndon Johnson.  After not heeding the warning that he could lose the south for the Democratic Party for a generation he pushed through the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Further, Johnson, a white southerner led the fight that resulted in the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Johnson’s work reflected an unusual character and temperament that allowed him to beat back the George Wallace’s of the age and show what the true “soul of America” could be.  As he stated in his address to Congress on March 15, 1965, “For with a country as with a person, what is men profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”  Today, I wonder what the evangelical leadership thinks when they support Trump’s tweet and actions when they consult Jesus from the Gospel of St. Mark?

For Meacham, his book is one of optimism and hope arguing that after each period of reaction and racism it has been followed by elements of the good in our society.  He makes it sound like the business cycle and that it is inevitable that the evil purported by the Trump administration will eventually be replaced by what really made America great once he is out of office.  Meacham‘s work is an easy read, but do not mistake the substance that lies behind it.

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(President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1965 Voting Rights Act)

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Secretary of State Dean Acheson)

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

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

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(Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov)

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

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

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(Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov and Joseph Stalin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(President Truman and SOS Marshall)

RUSSIAN ROULETTE: THE INSIDE STORY OF PUTIN’S WAR ON AMERICA AND THE ELECTION OF DONALD TRUMP by Michael Isikoff and David Corn

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(Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump)

Each day it seems there is a new revelation related to Russian actions during the 2016 presidential election.  Today for example, the New York Times reported that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller has subpoenaed records of the Trump Organization to examine its relationship with Russia.  As the information keeps flowing in newspapers and cable TV, and having read COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN by Luke Harding, and FIRE AND FURY by Michael Wolff my head is spinning.  How does one connect all the dots to see if there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, and whether Trump is guilty of obstruction of justice?  David Corn and Michael Isikoff may have gone a long way in doing so in their just released book, RUSSIAN ROULETTE: THE INSIDE STORY OF PUTIN’S WAR ON AMERICA AND THE ELECTION OF DONALD TRUMP.  Both authors are investigative journalists and this is there second joint effort, the first being there well received, HUBRIS: THE INSIDE STORY OF SPIN, SCANDAL, and AND THE SELLING OF THE IRAQ WAR.

The arguments presented by Corn and Isikoff mirror those of others that have investigated Trump’s relationship with the Russians, simply put, “follow the money.”  According to the authors Trump has been obsessed with building a Trump Tower in Moscow for decades.  It seems it is the missing piece to his real estate empire and a segment of his ego, as he wanted to be known as a “global oligarch.”  Most recently the obsession manifested itself in 2013 at the Miss Universe Pageant that took place in Moscow.  For Trump to achieve his tower in Moscow he needed affirmation from Russian President Vladimir Putin.  During the beauty contest it seemed that Trump was on pins and needles as to whether the Russian leader would make an appearance.  The authors point to a number of Russian oligarchs and close Putin companions in showing who Trump tried partner with to build the tower, and others he had been involved with in the past.  A number of oligarchs emerge, one of which was Aras Agalarov, known as “Putin’s builder” who was Trump’s partner in the Miss Universe Pageant; in fact a letter of intent was signed between Agalarov and Trump to finance the tower but eventually fell through.

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(Flelix Sater and Donald Trump)

Another interesting character is Felix Sater, a Russian born, and one time felon with links to the Mafia and Russian organized crime who in the 2000s was a New York real estate developer who partnered with Trump with the Trump SoHo Hotel in lower Manhattan.  Further in 2010 he became a Trump advisor for a short period of time though during the presidential election campaign Trump denied knowing him or even what he looked like.  In effect, Sater was a go between Trump and the oligarchs.  By October, 2015 Trump signed a letter of Intent with I.C. Expert Investment to move forward with the Trump Tower venture.  Discussions about financing linked I.C. Expert Investment Company with Russian banks under US economic sanctions, including Sberbank, which cosponsored the 2013 beauty pageant in Moscow.  According to Sater another source for investment was VTB Bank, an institution partly owned by the Kremlin and also under US sanctions.  The result was that the Trump Organization was putting together a deal that could well depend on Russian financing from blacklisted banks linked to Putin’s regime.  In fact, Sater emailed Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer and “pit bull,” “I will get Putin on this program and will get Donald elected….Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it.  I will get all of Putin’s team to buy in on this. I will manage the process.” (81)  At the same time Trump was cozying up to Putin on MSNBC’s Morning Joe declaring Putin as a more effective leader than Obama, who had accomplished much more than the American president.  In 2008, Donald Trump, Jr. remarked; “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets….certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York…We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”  In 2014, Eric Trump, Trump’s second oldest son said, “his father’s business did not rely on US banks for financing golf resort projects….We have all the funding we need out of Russia.” (89)  Corn and Isikoff effectively delve into Trump’s Russian connections dating back years, and the only conclusion that can be drawn is that he was financially involved with Russian oligarchs and other unseeingly characters to the point that he still needed their assets to finance his projects.  The problem was that he needed Putin’s approval.

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(Sergei Magnitsky)

Corn and Isikoff lay out Putin’s worldview, in particular his attitude toward President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  The authors weave a fascinating portrait that links a number of important characters.  For example, when the Obama administration tried for a “reset” in Russian relations, Foreign Minister Lavrov requested that the US provide a visa for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire close to Putin, and a business partner of Paul Manafort, who had been engaged in all kinds of duplicitous economic and political shenanigans in the Ukraine that resulted millions for his businesses.  Putin himself was a Russian nationalist who wanted to restore Russia to its rightful place in the world.  He strongly resented US “unipolar power” particularly as practiced by overthrowing autocracy in Iraq and Libya.  Domestically, Putin felt that President Medvedev was too soft in dealing with Obama and announced in 2010 that he would run for President.  Russia headed for a political crisis in 2011 and Putin blamed Clinton for the pro-democracy demonstrations against his election, along with domestic criticism.  Putin’s resentment of Clinton would smolder for years, particularly as the State Department complained about the assassinations of Putin critics like Sergei Magnitsky which led to the Magnitsky Act in Congress geared against those who were responsible for his death.  Putin would accuse the US of destabilizing the Ukraine and would seize the Crimea forcing Obama into further economic sanctions.  By 2014, Putin would send troops into Ukraine.

Corn and Isikoff spend a great deal of time explaining how the American election was compromised by Russian interference in 2016.  They take a step by step approach which reads like a legal brief.  In 2013, General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of Russian Armed Forces wrote an article that argued that information warfare could be used to weaponize political divisions within another nation.  Instead of conventional warfare of the past, hackers and skilled propagandists trained to exploit existing rifts within the ranks of the adversary would be employed.   A US informant explained that these networks were extremely extensive “in Europe-Germany, Italy, France and the UK-and in the US….Russia has penetrated media organizations, lobbying firms, political parties, governments, and militaries in all these places.” (52)  The Obama administration decided not to do anything about it as it needed Putin’s support over the Iranian nuclear situation and events in Syria.

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(Julian Assange)

Corn and Isikoff’s information dealing with Russian Troll Farms is very concerning.  Company’s like the Russian Internet Research Agency employed hundreds of people who troll Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram stealing identities, creating false individuals and news praising Putin, denouncing Obama, and attacking the European Union.  Payments to these trolls was made by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a restaurateur oligarch known as Putin’s chef.  By 2015 there were repeated attacks against the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the State Department, and the White House.  Again, Obama believing he needed Putin on Iran and Syria, did nothing.  Interestingly, a Russian hacker named “Cozybear” had been inside the DNC network since July, 2015 and among the information stolen was their entire opposition research file on Donald Trump.  Cybersecurity experts surmised that APT 28, a Russian hacker tied to the GRU, Russian military intelligence had launched 19,000 separate attacks against the US between March 2015 and May 2016.

The FBI and US intelligence aware of these breaches kept warning the DNC and Clinton’s campaign as to the Russian penetration of their systems.  At first they could not find the breach, but finally when it was located they had difficulty closing it.  Their cyber assault would snare the top official in the Clinton campaign, John Podesta, and no one in the campaign had a clue.  Corn and Isikoff do an admirable job providing the links in the chain dealing with the hacking of the DNC and Clinton campaign, as well as their links to Russian intelligence.  They point to WikiLeaks and the attitude of Julian Assange toward Hillary Clinton and the US in general, and the numerous contacts between the Trump people and Russian intelligence.  The preliminaries to the June 9, 2016 meeting between Trump, yr. Manafort, Kushner, Goldstone and the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, her translator, a Agalarov executive implicated in Russian money laundering, and Rinat Akmetshin, a former Russian intelligence officer and lobbyist in Washington is carefully explored with the now infamous comment by Trump. Jr. before the meeting in response to possible information on Clinton, “If it’s what you say, I love it.”

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It is clear that George Papadopoulos, a Trump foreign policy advisor, who produced the comment by Steve Bannon, “how the fuck did he get on the list” of possible advisors, was fully engaged in trying to bring about a Trump-Putin meeting.  Papadopoulos’ “big mouth” in a bar as he bragged about his work to an Australian diplomat led eventually to his indictment by Robert Mueller.  Further, the buffoonish Carter Page went to Moscow to express his pro-Putin views with the permission of Trump campaign manager Cory Lewandowski – seen by Moscow as a signal from the Trump campaign.  It is clear that what motivated Putin in this game of political intelligence, and hacking, was to end the American sanctions imposed by the Obama administration.  For the Russian president it was simple, elect Trump who had hinted strongly he would be favorable, and as a secondary benefit gain his revenge against Hillary Clinton.  The question is why was Trump so favorable?  What did Putin have on Trump, and/or what promises were made if an acceptable outcome was reached?

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(Christopher Steele)

The answer to these questions becomes clearer when the authors discuss the Russian concept of kompromat, a strategy to obtain compromising material on people they want to manipulate employing blackmail and threats to achieve their goals.  A Russian tactic that dates back to the Cold War it is a major theme put forth by Corn and Isikoff who argue it probably applies to Trump dating back at least to 2013 and the Miss Universe Contest which is laid out in Christopher Steele’s “dossier,”  which contained the salacious information pertaining to Trump’s possible sexual escapades.  The authors explain how it was employed and it goes a long way to explain why Trump is so obsessed with the Mueller investigation as one can only wonder what Putin has on Trump.

Corn and Isikoff review details of the actual presidential campaign following their respective party conventions.  All the information that the public was bombarded with for months is present including the role of social media, particularly important today with the digital relationship between Facebook and Cambridge Analytica making news headlines and its relationship to the Trump campaign.  The authors analyze events to determine their impact on the election.  From Wikipedia’s 64,000 email dump, including John Podesta designed to protect Trump and hurt Clinton, i.e., the email release following the Access Hollywood tape etc.  The presidential debates are covered as was the ongoing indecision on the part of the Obama administration to educate the public that they had proof of Russian interference in the election and that an FBI investigation of Russian influence during the campaign was ongoing.  After a careful examination of the campaign the authors conclude that Julian Assange and Wikileaks were acting in concert with the Russians.  There were too many coincidents ranging from Roger Stone’s public comments to actual events to conclude otherwise.

The evidence produced by a wonder of investigative reporting makes RUSSIAN ROULETTE the most important book to emerge from the morass of the 2016 election to date.  If you are confused with the daily bombardment of information, Corn and Isikoff have done a service in putting it all together in a succinct and easy to read format.  What is scary is that I assume Mueller knows exactly what’s in this book, the characters, the disingenuous deals and behavior, the lies, and the mistakes, by those who should have known better.  It is no wonder that Trump engaged in the “Friday night massacre” a few days ago.

 

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FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE by Michael Wolff

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(President Trump and Stephen Bannon)

By this time everyone in America has probably heard of Michael Wolff’s new book, FIRE AND FURY: INSIDE THE TRUMP WHITE HOUSE.  Wolff has appeared on every cable news or network program and ‘talking heads” couldn’t get enough of the material he presented.  The question remains is what affect will the book have, and what percentage of what is presented is accurate or factual.  What is clear is that Wolff has written a sometimes gossipy account of the first nine months of the Trump White House.  In fact, the first third of the book is an insider account with intimate details of the Trump family, the attack of Steve Bannon on left-wing liberalism, a chapter that tries to put Jarvanka (as Bannon describes Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner), in their respective places, and an attempt to explain what the roles are for Kellyanne Conway, Steven Miller, Hope Hicks, and a host of “supposed” Trump friends and advisors.  Trump himself comes across as a germ phobic megalomaniac, who like Louis XIV sees himself as the “Sun King,” in which his universe and acquaintances revolve around him.  The question one must ask after dealing with the “Muslim Ban,” the similarities between Trump and Kushner, an explanation of Bannon’s world view and other topics; can Wolff’s sources be relied upon?

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(Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump)

As one reads on you hope to emerge from what Kurt Vonnegut described as “cloud-cuckoo land.”  In Trump’s world his associates conducted business as usual.  Michael Flynn could accept money from the Turkish and Russian governments, Paul Manafort could make millions managing accounts in the Ukraine, and family members could proceed as usual because they never thought he could win.  Perhaps Wolff’s most interesting analogy was comparing Mel Brooks’ hit Broadway show “The Producers” to the Trump campaign.  In Brooks’ story the protagonists would write a script and attract people to over invest in the show, knowing it would be a failure and they would reap the profit – the problem would be if the show was a success!  The same is true for the Trump campaign, for the candidate, even if he lost, would make money as his brand would be accentuated.  Problems would only arise if he won.

As far as the organization in the White House, there was little during the first three months, if any.  Wolff best sums it up by quoting Katie Walsh, White House Deputy Chief of Staff, “Steve Bannon was running the Steve Bannon White House, Jared Kushner was running the Michael Bloomberg White House, and Reince Priebus was running the Paul Ryan White House,” (117)  each person was a polished leaker, and Trump was in the middle.  In fact there was so much leaking from within the Trump administration that it was probably the most transparent administration in history.

The Syrian chemical attack of April, 2017 is a case in point when dealing with White House dysfunction and decision making.  Trump, apart from his bragging of how intelligent he is does not read and has a very short attention span.  Since he has no knowledge of most issues when a crisis occurs that calls for his input that in of itself, is a crisis.  For Trump any decision that he arrives at rests on how it affects him personally, not what is best for the country or the American people as a whole.  When National Security advisor H. R. McMaster tried to advise the president concerning the actions of the Assad government, Wolff points out that what occurred was “an exercise in trying to tutor a recalcitrant and resentful student.” As Trump has stated, McMaster “bored the shit out of me.” (189)

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(General H.R. McMaster and President Trump)

One of the major questions that has arisen of late is whether Trump is a racist, a question that has been exacerbated by his recent remarks characterizing African and other regions of the world as “shitholes” (Freud would characterize Trump as stuck in the anal stage, age 2-4), in addition to remarks concerning white supremacists after the events in Charlottesville, Va.  Wolff discusses Trump’s racism in the context of antisemitism in a chapter entitled, “Goldman.”  Here Wolff encapsulates the Bannon (anti-Semite) and Kushner (orthodox Jew) battle to influence the president and establish their own power base.  According to Wolff, Henry Kissinger described the West Wing as “a war between Jews and non-Jews.”  Bannon ridicules Kushner’s Israel portfolio, and the sentiments are returned in the context of the racist alt-right.  This represent further evidence of dysfunction with this type of conflict just to get the ear of the president, an important component of decision making as Trump’s conclusions are in many cases based on the last person he has spoken with.

A major sub heading for Wolff is his biographical narrative that deals with Bannon, a man who sees himself as the protector of the nation’s soul.  Wolff follows Bannon from crisis to crisis, through lost influence and then a comeback, and his wars with Jarvanka and their supporters.  Bannon is central to the book as a source, as well as putting forth his own opinions.  In reference to the June, 2016 meeting between Don, Jr., Paul Manafort and company with the Russians, Bannon commented that “the chance that Don, Jr. did not walk these jumos up to his father’s office on the twenty-sixth floor is zero.”  Further, Bannon accused Don, Jr. of treason and being unpatriotic.  Bannon’s comments would eviscerate Don, Jr. saying “this was all about money laundering,” and “they’re going to crack Don, Jr. like an egg on national TV.” (255)  As far as Ivanka was concerned, Bannon referred to her as “dumb as a brick” and even called her “a fucking liar” in front of her father.  In Bannon’s mind he was setting up the firewall to protect Trump from the Russian investigation which was caused when Jarvanka recommended firing FBI Director James Come.  Wolff describes a war between Stephen Bannon and the First Family which could only end poorly for Bannon.

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(General John Kelly)

The problem with what Wolff describes is that it is difficult to believe that you couldn’t make this stuff up!  The discussion of H.R. McMaster trying to get Trump to make a decision on Afghanistan, the Anthony Scaramucci episode, Trump’s personal war with the hosts of “Morning Joe,” General John Kelly’s attempt to reign in the president and bring structure to the West Wing, the war of words between Trump and Kim Jung un, and an almost daily bombardment of chaos is a description of the reality that is currently the Trump presidency.

Wolff describes a president who has little interest in the detail that is needed to be president.  Much of what he tells us is not new and many of his judgements are quite vague, a strategy he probably adopted to protect himself from libel laws.  But taken as a whole, stripping away the gossip, Wolff’s narrative is very scary.  All one needs to see is what has happened since the book came out.  Bannon has been banished, the president’s loyalists have gone after Robert Mueller, and Trump’s launching a campaign to undermine the FBI and the Justice Department. Yesterday, we learned that Trump ordered the firing of Mueller last June, but the White House counsel refused to carry out the order and threatened to resign.  For me, each day is an adventure that produces further angst.  Hopefully in the near, as someone once said, “our long national nightmare [will soon] be over.”

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(President Trump and Stephen Bannon)

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

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(Edward Lansdale)

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

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(Lansdale with Ngo Dinh Diem)

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

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

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

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

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(Philippine President, Ramon Magsaysay)

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

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

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(Daniel Ellsberg)

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

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

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(Edward Lansdale)

COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN by Luke Harding

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(the Kremlin, Moscow)

Each day it seems as if the American people are exposed to the drip, drip of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and the possible role played by the Trump campaign in collusion with the Putin government.  We hear about Christopher Steele’s “Dossier,” the link between Russian oligarchs and their ties to Putin, meetings with Trump officials, the role of Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign manager facing indictment, the flipping of a Trump foreign policy advisor to the Mueller investigation, and the latest, a deal between Michael Flynn, Trump’s former National Security advisor and the special prosecutor.  The latest twist seems to be conservative House Republicans calling for a Special Prosecutor to investigate the Special Prosecutor.  If names like Orbis, Fushion GPS, Gucifer 2.0, GRU, FSB, Sergey Kislyak, Carter Page, Robert Goldstone, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and numerous other names boggle the mind then you might want to consult Luke Harding, a foreign correspondent for the Guardian, new book, COLLUSION: SECRET MEETINGS, DIRTY MONEY, AND HOW RUSSIA HELPED DONALD TRUMP WIN.

For those who are skeptical about Trump’s role in either obstruction of justice, or outright collusion with Russia they should consult Harding’s monograph.  In fact, as the confusion that surrounds the collusion becomes clearer and clearer one might say that Harding has done us all a service by preparing a handbook of all the characters, motivations, crimes, disingenuous behavior, outright lies/falsehoods, and other aspects associated with the topic.  Harding digs deep using his many sources based on a career that saw him posted to New Delhi, Berlin and as the former bureau chief in Moscow from 2007 to 2011, as well as his contacts in Britain’s MI6 and SIS, as well as the American intelligence community.  Further he has followed and written about the likes of Paul Manafort and his machinations in the Ukraine for Viktor Yanukovych long before Trump announced his candidacy, and was also able to interview Christopher Steele.  What results is almost a legal brief that points to the guilt of the Trump campaign and the President in collaborating with Moscow, and doing all it could to deflect any investigation of what actually occurred.

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(Putin and Trump)

Harding begins by providing the background for the “Dossier,” authored by former British intelligence operative Christopher Steele.  The famous “Dossier” grew out of Steele’s assignment to uncover the Kremlin’s innermost secrets as they applied to Donald Trump.  Steele’s investigation argues a number of points that anyone who has followed this story in any detail has heard numerous times before;  from Trump’s public call for Putin to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, the Wikileaks leak of Clinton emails in June and October 2016, the hacking of Democratic and Republican National Committee computers, with only Democratic information leaked, Trump’s denigration of almost every politician domestic or worldwide, except for Putin who he constantly praises, the fact that Russian intelligence sources have been “cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least five years,” how Trump and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, claims that the FSB has compromised Trump through his past activities in Moscow sufficiently to be able to blackmail him, and a trail of money laundering and other acts that make one ask, what does Moscow have on Trump that he is afraid to criticize Putin, and constantly denies Russian involvement in the election, in addition to repeatedly interfering in the Mueller investigation?  All the answers to these questions are present in Harding’s narrative.

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(Christopher Steele)

The author takes the reader through the actions of Aras and Emin Agalarov, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Michael Flynn, Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and a host others along with a short biographical sketch of each.  We learn their role in the collusion through their interest and relationship with the Kremlin.  Harding explores Vladimir Putin’s motivations and goals as they relate to his hatred of Hillary Clinton, the desire to create chaos and doubt in the American electoral system, and most importantly gain a reduction or lifting of economic sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration due to Russian actions in the Crimea, Ukraine, and the 2016 election.  In Donald Trump, Putin found an American politician who could allow him to achieve these goals.  The question Harding raises is how do we establish the trail between the two men?  The answer he argues lies in following the money.

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(Carter Page)

The entire scenario would seem unbelievable if it hadn’t occurred.  Trump and his supporters can scream “fake news” all they want, but indictments are facts and Trump’s behavior throughout points to someone with something to hide.  Harding provides an in depth analysis of the Trump-Kremlin tie that dates back to 1987 when the KGB looked on the New York real estate developer as a meaningful target.  Harding traces Trump’s relationship with certain Kremlin linked officials, and oligarchs.  What emerges is a clear picture of how the Kremlin developed its relationship with Trump that would lead them to support his candidacy for president.  Harding explores the role of Donald Trump, Jr. and the infamous June, 2017 meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, former KGB officer Rinat Akhmetshin, and others who offered the president’s son dirt on Hillary Clinton.  At first, as in most cases with Trump associates, Trump, Jr. denied the meeting, then said it was about something else, then finally gave in and admitted he met with Russians and was favorable to receiving foreign dirt on Clinton.

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Harding follows his own advice and follows the flow of money.  Offshore shell companies, multiple bank accounts, tax havens, payoffs, Russian oligarchs, laundering of funds, money disguised as salary or real estate deals, the role of Deutsche Bank, Trump’s New York creditor are all included in Harding’s expose.   Harding relies a great deal on Steele’s research and conclusions and believes that roughly 70-90% of what is in the “Dossier” is true, that being the case, it is clear as to why Trump wants to shut down the Mueller investigation.  In fact, Harding provides so many plots and sub plots that at times it is hard to keep up with the flow of information, evidence, and characters discussed.  For the Trump people it appears that almost every day they have to put out some sort of brush fire that relates to the Mueller investigation be it the testimony of Donald Trump, Jr., Attorney General Jeff Sessions, or the investigative work of Congressional committees.  One thing that is clear from Harding’s investigative work – the Trump Organization has been laundering Russian money for years, and without Russian money the Trump Organization’s many financial issues would have proven disastrous.

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(Michael Flynn addressing the Republican National Convention)

Harding also explores the relationship between former FBI Director James Comey, the role of the Justice Department, and Trump’s attempts to bring Comey on board in dropping the investigation of Michael Flynn.  The author takes the reader through the Comey firing and its role in obstruction of justice which the president even admitted to NBC’s Lester Holt.  Harding has gone a long way in disentangling the web of Trump’s financial empire, a structure that appears to rest on a great deal of Russian state funds.

One wonders why certain Republicans have cooperated with Trump’s campaign of fake news and obstruction.  Perhaps it is the current tax bill that they are trying to ram through Congress might want to achieve corporate tax cuts and follow the orders of their donors.  Be that as it may, if you are interested in learning what Trump is afraid of you to consult Harding’s latest book.

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(the Kremlin, Moscow)

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

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

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

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

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

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(Capt. Ernest Medina)

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

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

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(Helicopter gunner Lawrence Colburn)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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