VALIENT AMBITION: GEORGE WASHINGTON, BENEDICT ARNOLD, AND THE FATE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION vy Nathaniel Philbrick

(Benedict Arnold and George Washington)

By May of 1780 the Continental Army under the command of George Washington had reached a point of no return.  According to Joseph Plumb Martin, the son of a minister from Milford, CT, and a soldier who seems to appear at most major Revolutionary War battles, “here was the army starved and naked.”  The situation had evolved because of the horrendous winter in Morristown, NJ, the lack of support and funding by the Continental Congress, and the weak infrastructure that plagued Washington’s army.  Most Americans were unaware how poorly the American military was outfitted and how the men were forced to live and fight under intolerable conditions for a good part of the American Revolution.  This theme is one of the many that Nathaniel Philbrick argues in his new book VALIENT AMBITION: GEORGE WASHINGTON, BENEDICT ARNOLD, AND THE FATE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION.  Those who are familiar with Philbrick’s earlier works like the MAYFLOWER AND IN THE HEART OF THE SEA will not be disappointed with his latest effort.  Philbrick continues his narrative works dealing with the American Revolution and has written another evocative and fascinating historical monograph that should be attractive to the general public and professional historians.  Philbrick’s approach rests on the exploration of the personalities, military capabilities, and the “valiant ambitions” of George Washington and Benedict Arnold.  In addition, Philbrick weaves into the narrative the economic hardships, societal relationships, and battlefield experiences of the lower classes who fought the war.

(The young Benedict Arnold)

The book builds up to a situation where one of Washington’s greatest generals came to decide that the cause to which he had given almost everything no longer deserved his loyalty.”  Of course that general is Benedict Arnold, a brilliant military tactician on land and sea, but also a person who possessed an ego that surpassed most people of his age.  His sense of entitlement knew no bounds and after his leg was shattered in battle and many of his investments did not bear fruit he contemplated how he could recoup much of his wealth that he claimed was lost in support of the revolution.  Further exacerbating his psyche was his infatuation and love for Peggy Shippen, whose father Edward was a wealthy loyalist and to win her hand in marriage he had to create the wealth that she had grown accustomed to.  Politics also played into Arnold’s bitterness toward the colonial government in that Joseph Reed, the President of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Executive Council and the most powerful man in the state launched an investigation into Arnold’s conduct as military governor of Philadelphia.  This would lead to Arnold’s trial which on top of previous episodes of fighting for his proper rank made Arnold ripe for treason.  Philbrick does a masterful job following Arnold’s path to becoming a spy and integrated many primary documents to highlight all aspects of Arnold’s overblown sense of his own importance and the resulting trial and court-martial.

(Peggy Shippen, the love of Benedict Arnold’s life!)

Philbrick effectively contrasts General Arnold with George Washington a man who did not measure up to Arnold as a military tactician, but was the type of individual who eventually would learn from his mistakes.  The Washington that Philbrick presents is a man who must fight his “inner demons” which were his naturally aggressive tendencies.  By the spring of 1777 Washington argued for a “War of Posts,” a defensive strategy that made perfect sense against the British.  However, he would repeatedly violate this strategy by assuming the offensive at Brandywine and Germantown which resulted in the British occupying Philadelphia for eight months.  As a result Washington finally learned to control his offensive instincts and do what was best for his army and country.  Washington had been placed in the untenable position by the Continental Congress that put him in command of the army to prosecute the war, but would not allow him to choose his own officers, on which he had to depend on most.  To his credit Washington realized the limitations that were placed on him were due to the politicization of the war and decided to deal with the situation as best he could.  On the hand Arnold was emotional and impulsive at times, but was a sound military thinker who, unlike his commander, had the ability to outthink his opposition and take advantage of the topography available to him.  I agree with Philbrick that Arnold’s “narcissistic arrogance that enabled him to face the gravest danger on the battlefield without a trace of fear had equipped him to be a first-rate traitor.”  It is interesting to note that had the Continental Congress headed Washington’s advice concerning Arnold’s promotion and seniority he might have gone down in history as one of the immortals, not someone who has been labeled a traitor.

Joseph Reed by Pierre Eugène du Simitière.jpg

(Joseph Reed, whose evaluation of Arnold was dead on!)

Philbrick’s narrative is not a complete history of the American Revolution, but he assimilates the most important battles into the narrative, the strategies employed by Generals Burgoyne, Howe, and others for the British, in addition to Generals Horatio Gates, Philip Schuyler and others for the Americans.  The book is enriched by the competition between these men, in particular Gates’ attempt to seize command of the army from Washington.  Further, the reader is exposed to sectional political machinations between the New England, Atlantic, and southern states that fostered much of the domestic and internal military hostility that existed during the fighting.  Philbrick is a meticulous researcher and this is reflected in his unique story telling ability and novelistic detail.  However, if there is an area that Philbrick could have developed further, it is the lack of interactions between Washington and Arnold, particularly during the first half of the book.   The author could have spent less time describing battle details, though highlighted with excellent maps, and devoted greater emphasis on the two main characters in the narrative, how they interacted with each other, and the ramifications of those interactions.

Philbrick reaches an interesting conclusion in that Arnold did the young nation a tremendous service through his treason.  During almost five years of fighting the Continental Congress was rather disjointed, rivalries between regions detracted from any hope of unity, and the military situation was poor.  Arnold’s treason galvanized the American people against him and created a sense of common purpose.  Though the people had come to revere George Washington as a hero, it was not sufficient to bring the people together, but now they had a despised villain to accomplish that goal.  The real enemy for the young nation was not Great Britain but those Americans who sought to undercut their fellow citizens’ commitment to one another.  Philbrick’s argument is rather interesting and a bit overstated, but he argues it quite well.  VALIENT AMBITION is a fascinating study and will make a wonderful addition to any library of the American Revolution.

(George Washington and Benedict Arnold)

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ALTER EGOS: HILLARY CLINTON, BARACK OBAMA, AND THE TWILIGHT STRUGGLE OVER AMERICAN POWER by Mark Landler

(President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton)

Following his victory in the 2008 presidential election Barack Obama chose Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State.  Many pundits conjectured as to why Obama made this selection.  They argued that he was following the path of Abraham Lincoln by placing his opponents in his cabinet so he could keep an eye on them and control any opposition.  This view is wonderfully presented in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s TEAM OF RIVALS: THE POLITICAL GENIUS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN, but one must ask could Goodwin’s thesis actually represent Obama’s motivation.  In his new book, ALTER EGOS: HILLARY CLINTON, BARACK OBAMA, AND THE TWILIGHT STRUGGLE OVER AMERICAN POWER Mark Landler, a New York Times reporter compares Obama and Clinton’s approach to the conduct of foreign policy and how it has affected America’s position in the world.  In do so Landler explores in detail their relationship on a personal, political, and ideological level.  Landler delves into the differences in their backgrounds that reflect how they came to be such powerful figures and why they pursue the realpolitik that each believes in.  In so doing we learn a great deal about each person and can speculate on why Obama chose what really can only be characterized as his political enemy throughout the 2008 campaign trail as his Secretary of State.  What is even more interesting is their differences that can be summed up very succinctly; for Obama the key to conducting a successful foreign policy was “Don’t do stupid shit,” for Clinton, “great nations need organizing principles…don’t do stupid stuff is not an organizing principle.”

Since we are in the midst of a presidential election and it appears that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee it is important to evaluate and understand her approach to foreign relations.  Landler does the American electorate a service as his book is a useful handbook in understanding and getting an idea how she would approach the major foreign policy issues that America currently faces should she assume the oval office.   By comparing her with Obama we gain important insights into her thinking and how she would implement her ideas.  It is clear during Obama’s first term that Clinton was the “house hawk” within his administration as she supported increases in troop deployments to Afghanistan which Obama reluctantly agreed to, but only with a set time limit; she wanted to leave a large residual force in Iraq after American withdrawal which Obama did not do; she favored funneling weapons to rebels in Syria fighting Assad as well as the creation of a no fly zone which Obama opposed; and lastly, she favored the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi and the bombing of Libya when he threatened to destroy Benghazi which Obama reluctantly agreed to.  Their difference are clear, Obama believes that the United States is too willing to commit to military force and intervene in foreign countries, a strategy that has been a failure and has led to a decline in America’s reputation worldwide, a reputation he promised to improve and has been partly successful with the opening to Cuba and the nuclear deal with Iran.  For Clinton the calculated employment of American military power is important in defending our national interests, and that our intervention does more good than harm, especially in exporting development programs and focusing on human rights.  Obama arrived on the scene as a counterrevolutionary bent on ending Bush’s wars and restoring America’s moral standing.  He no longer accepted the idea that the U.S. was the world’s undisputed “hegemon” and shunned the language of American exceptionalism.  Clinton has a much more conventional and political approach, “she is at heart a ‘situationist,’ somebody who reacts to problems piecemeal rather than fitting them into a larger doctrine.”  Her view is grounded in cold calculation with a textbook view of American exceptionalism.

(President Obama, an Illinois State Senator in 2002 speaking against the war in Iraq)

Landler describes the difficulties that Clinton had adapting to the Obama White House that is very centralized in decision-making and she had difficulty penetrating Obama’s clannish inner circle.  The author also does an excellent job explaining the main players in Hillaryland and the Obama world that include Obama’s whiz kids, Denis McDonough and Ben Rhodes, and Clinton’s staffers Jake Sullivan and Huma Abedin.  Since Obama was a self-confident president who had a tight grip on foreign policy, Clinton spent most of her time implementing the strategy set by the White House.  During the first two years of the Obama administration Clinton pursued a global rehabilitation tour to patch up the mess that Bush left.  During her second two years she did more of the heavy lifting on sensitive issues like Syria, Libya, Iran, China, and Israel which Landler dissects in detail.  From her UN women’s conference address in Beijing during her husband’s administration, her lackluster attempts at bringing peace between the Palestinians and Israel, developing and implementing sanctions against Iran, her support for the rebels in Syria, and the overthrow of Qaddafi, we get unique insights into Clinton’s approach to foreign policy.

The fundamental difference or fault line between Obama and Clinton was Clinton’s vote in favor of the invasion of Iraq on October 2, 2002, a vote that Obama opposed as a state senator in Illinois.  Landler does a marvelous job comparing their backgrounds and the influence of their personal experience on their worldview.  Obama’s divided heritage of Hawaii, Kenya, and especially Indonesia defined him from the outset.  For him Indonesia highlighted the ills of the oil companies, western development programs, and American power as it supported repressive military dictatorships to further its Cold War agenda.  Obama was an anti-colonialist and could put himself in the place of third world cultures in his decision-making.  Clinton on the other hand was rooted in Midwestern conservatism and her interests after law school was to try and alleviate poverty and defend the legal rights of children.  Landler is correct when he states that “Clinton viewed her country from the inside out; Obama from the outside in.”

(Special envoy Richard Holbrooke)

Landler presents a number of important chapters that provide numerous insights into the Obama-Clinton relationship.  Particularly important is the chapter that focuses on Richard Holbrooke, a career diplomat that dated back to Vietnam and ended with his death in 2010.  A swash buckling man who did not fit into the Obama mold was brilliant, self-promoting and usually very effective, i.e., the Dayton Accords in 1995 that ended the fighting in Bosnia.  He hoped as Clinton’s special envoy for Pakistan and Afghanistan to help mediate and bring some sort of closure to the conflict with the Taliban.  Holbrooke rubbed Obama the wrong way and was seen as the epitome of everything Obama rejected in a diplomat and Clinton who had a very strong relationship with Holbrooke going back many years spent a great deal of time putting out fires that he caused.  Another important chapter focuses on administration attempts to mediate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  For Clinton it was a no win situation for a person who represented New York in the Senate and planned to seek the presidency on her own.  Obama would force her to become engaged in the process along with special envoy, George Mitchell, and she spent a great deal of time trying to control the animosity between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  Landler’s discussion of the Obama-Netanyahu relationship is dead on as the Israeli Prime Minister and his right wing Likud supporters represented the colonialism that Obama despised.  For Netanyahu, his disdain for the president was equal in kind.  In dealing with the Middle East and the Arab Spring Clinton argued against abandoning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as she believed in the stability and loyalty to allies, Obama wanted to be “on the right side of history,” and in hindsight he was proven to be totally wrong.  These views are polar opposites and helps explain Obama and Clinton’s frustration with each other that form a major theme of Landler’s narrative.

Obama’s drone policy was another source of disagreement between the President and Secretary of State.  For Obama “targeted killings” was a better strategy that the commitment of massive numbers of American troops.  The primacy of employing drones is the key to understanding Obama’s foreign policy.  For Clinton regional stability, engagement, and the United States military is the key to a successful foreign policy.  As Vasil Nasr states, Obama believes that “we don’t need to invest in the Arab Spring.  We don’t need to worry about any of this; all we need to do is to kill terrorists.  It’s a different philosophy of foreign policy.  It’s surgical, it’s clinical, and it’s clean.”

Perhaps Landler’s best chapter deals with the evolution of Syrian policy.  Internally Clinton favored aid to the Syrian rebels which Obama opposed during the summer of 2012.  However, when Obama decided to walk back his position on the “Red Line” that if crossed by Assad through the use of chemical weapons, the US would respond with missile attacks.  Once this policy changed to seeking Congressional approval for any missile attack, the United States gave up any hope in shaping the battlefield in Syria which would be seized by others eventually leading to ISIS.  Obama needed Clinton’s support for this change.  Though privately Clinton opposed the move, publicly at her own political risk she supported the president.  This raises the question; how much difference was there in their approach to foreign policy?  It would appear that though there were differences, Clinton was a good team player, even out of office, though as the 2016 presidential campaign has evolved she has put some daylight between her and the president.  From Obama’s perspective, though he disagreed with his Secretary of State on a number of occasions he did succumb to her position on a series of issues, particularly Libya, which he came to regret.  The bottom line is clear, Clinton kept casting around for solutions for the Syrian Civil War, however unrealistic.  Obama believed that there were no solutions – at least none that could be imposed by the U.S. military.  Another example of how the two worked together was in dealing with Iran’s nuclear program.  They both agreed on the approach to be taken, a two track policy of pressure and engagement.  Clinton played the bad cop enlisting a coalition of countries to impose punishing sanctions while the President sent letters to the Supreme Leader and taped greetings to the Iranian people on the Persian New Year as the good cop!  But, once again they appeared to be working in lock step together.

(Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi in 2012)

The question proposed at the outset of this review was whether President Obama chose Hillary Clinton so he could keep her within the “tent” as Abraham Lincoln did.  After reading ALTER EGOS there is no concrete conclusion that one can arrive at.  Even at the end of Clinton’s term as Secretary of State two major diplomatic moves were made; the groundwork that would lead to a restoration of relations with Havana and an opening with Burma took place.  In both cases the President and Clinton were on the same page, therefore one must conclude that though there were some bumps in the road, publicly, Obama and Clinton pursued a similar agenda and  were mostly in agreement.  As a result, it would appear that they are more similar than different and that the “team of rivals” concept may not fit.  It seems the title ALTER EGOS could give way, perhaps to THE ODD COUPLE, a description that might be more appropriate.

(President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton)

THE GEORGETOWN SET: FRIENDS AND RIVALS IN COLD WAR WASHINGTON by Greg Herken

(Joseph and Stewart Alsop,  journalists who greatly impacted American foreign policy during the Cold War)

When one discusses the value of real estate one usually encounters the phrase “location, location, location.”  This could be the theme of Greg Herken’s THE GEORGETOWN SET: FRIENDS AND RIVALS IN COLD WAR WASHINGTON, a book centered on a Georgetown, Washington, D.C. neighborhood after World War II, whose residents included the Alsop brothers, Jack and Jaqueline Kennedy, Ben and Tony Bradlee, Allen and Clover Dulles, Dean and Alice Acheson, Philp and Katherine Graham, Averill and Marie Harriman, Frank and Polly Wisner among others.  Within the group you had a future president and Secretary of State, the head of the CIA and other operatives, two ambassadors to the Soviet Union, influential journalists, and the owner and editor of the Washington Post. The neighbors who were known as the “Georgetown Set,” were at the forefront of American policy as the Cold War began and evolved, as Dean Acheson entitled his memoirs, they were PRESENT AT CREATION, and a few of them lived to see the curtain fall on the conflict with the communist world.  These individuals were not only neighbors, for the most part, they were close friends.  They had attended the same boarding schools and universities and “believed that the United States had the power—and the moral obligation—to oppose tyranny and stand up of the world’s underdogs.”  They held a sense of duty and the belief in the “rightness of the country and its causes—which were, more often than not, their own.”

Unlike today, it was a time of consensus in foreign policy in dealing with the Soviet Union, partisanship was an afterthought.  The outset of the Cold War produced the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, Point Four, and NATO, but the mindset of these individuals would also lead to mistakes embodied in the disastrous coups of the Eisenhower era, the Bay of Pigs, and the Vietnam War.  Greg Herken tells the story of these influential people, how their ideas dominated American policy, and what the ramifications of that influence were.  The reader is exposed to intimate details and tremendous insights as these power brokers are examined, and it makes for a fascinating read.

(Katharine Graham, owner and editor of the Washington Post)

The narrative focuses on the most important foreign policy debates of the 20th century, where the residents of Georgetown aligned themselves, and how their views affected the success or failure of presidential decision making.  Once the Nazis and the Japanese were defeated in 1945, the foreign policy debate focused on the communist threat and the motives of the Soviet Union.  The debate was symbolized by George Kennan, who at one point was head of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department as well as stints as ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia; and Paul Nitze, former Secretary of the Navy, and author of NSC-68 which along with Kennan’s “X Article” formed the basis of American policy toward Russia for well into the 1980s.  The debate centered on “whether it was America’s moral example or material power that kept the Russians at bay” during the Cold War.   Many other individuals draw Herken’s discerning eye during the period, the most important of which were Joseph and Stewart Alsop, the journalism brothers who advised presidents, and helped articulate positions on Vietnam and Cuba that some would argue pushed our nation’s chief executives into making unwise policy choices.

At times the book reads like a biography of the Alsop brothers as Herken develops their careers as the centerpiece of the monograph.  Of the two, Joseph Alsop dominated their relationship and developed numerous sources within the national security apparatus in presidential administrations from Truman through Nixon.  Joseph Alsop had his own agenda and his columns created enough pressure on Lyndon Johnson that many believe forced him to consider Alsop’s readership when making decisions about Vietnam, a subject that Alsop seemed obsessed with and had difficulty accepting any information that contradicted what he believed.  The Alsops hosted numerous dinner parties that were used as conduits to different presidential administrations as conversations yielded information that turned up in their newspaper columns.  Herken almost makes the reader as if they are invited guests to the Sunday night gatherings among the “Georgetown Set” and at times the reader might feel like a “fly on the wall” as you witness history being made.  In addition to the Alsops, the inner sanctum of the Washington Post is laid bare as great events are reported.  We see the newspaper under the stewardship of Philip Graham at the outset of the Cold War until his suicide, when his wife Katharine takes the reigns of the paper and turns it into a strong competitor to the New York Times. Reporting on Watergate, My Lai and other issues reflected Katharine Graham’s growth as the head of a major newspaper and her dominant role in Washington politics.

(Frank Wisner II, the son of an OSS and CIA operative who developed and implemented numerous covert operations during the Cold War.  Wisner II developed his own diplomatic career and did not follow the career path of his father)

The book also centers on the evolution of the American intelligence community from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Herken focuses most of his attention on Allen W. Dulles, who worked under Wild Bill Donavan who headed the OSS, and would later head the CIA under President Eisenhower and for a short time under John F. Kennedy; and Frank Wisner, an OSS and CIA operative who was known for his outlandish covert plans, i.e.; trying to overthrow the government of Albania, dropping propaganda leaflets and intelligence operatives behind the “iron curtain” among many of his projects.  CIA involvement in Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, and Guatemala are dissected in detail and Herken correctly points to current issues that date back to Dulles, Wisner, and numerous other individuals in the intelligence community, and how they negatively affected American foreign policy for decades.

(President John F. Kenndy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy were frequent visitors in the “salons” of Georgetown)

The books serves as an important window into the lives of people who dominated the American foreign policy establishment throughout the Cold War.  Herken seems to assess all of the major decisions that were made during the period, as well as evaluating each of the characters presented and how their lives affected the course of American history.  Many of the individuals that Herken discusses are well known, but others are brought out of the shadows.  One of the most interesting aspects of the book is when Herken muses about the lives of the children of the “Georgetown Set,” and how the generation gap that developed in response to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s affected the next “Georgetown” generation.

Herken writes with flair and has exceptional command of his material and sources and has offered a unique approach to the causes and results of the Cold War that should satisfy academics as well as the general reader.

DISCIPLES: THE WORLD WAR II MISSIONS OF THE CIA DIRECTORS WHO FOUGHT FOR WILD BILL DONOVAN by Douglas Waller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

INFAMY: THE SHOCKING STORY of the JAPANESE INTERNMENT IN WORLD WAR II by Richard Reeves

(The message American Japanese were confronted with after Pearl Harbor)

At a time when Donald Trump harangues the American electorate with his views on prohibiting Muslims from entering the United States in reaction to the horrific attack in San Bernardino, CA we find the Republican candidate as well as political pundits pointing to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 which created “internment camps” for American Japanese during World War II.  If we are to accept what Trump says, then FDR’s actions set a precedent for going against the freedom of religion amendment to the United States Constitution.  With the repeated reference to the plight of American Japanese during the war on cable and network news it is propitious that veteran journalist and biographer, Richard Reeves’ latest book, Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese Internment in World War II has recently been published.  The story that Reeves unveils was not a shining moment for the United States, a moment that saw the US government wait decades to apologize for, and make somewhat of a restitution (in 1988 President Reagan signed a bill paying each living survivor of the camps $20,000).  Having visited the Heart Mountain Japanese Internment camp, located outside Cody, WY this past summer I find Reeves’ approach to his topic, providing a window into what life was like for the victims of America’s racist and xenophobic policy towards its own citizens extremely important.   The author bases the core of the book on the stories of the evacuated families who “were caught between those heroes and villians” who either used the situation for their own political or economic agendas or those whose values were repulsed, who spoke out against what was occurring.

(Japanese arriving at Heart Mountain, WY  internment camp in 1942)

From Reeves’ account the reader is introduced to a number of American Japanese families as they react to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the government’s actions against them.  First, they must deal with “white” anger that is visited upon them through violent acts and destruction of their property.  Second, after FDR issues the executive order, they are rounded up by the military and police and are sent to assembly camps for a few months until the government could build the camps that eventually would house 120, 313 inmates.  Reeves’ is correct as he develops the political process that led to the executive order, in that, as he did with America’s response to the Holocaust, FDR wanted to separate himself as much as possible from the final decision delegating responsibility to American military officials rather than taking a public role himself.  Once the ten camps were built between March and October, 1942, the inmates were moved and families had to live in barracks with no plumbing.  Reeves’ describes in detail the effect on American Japanese families; loss of dignity, loss of property, loss of self-identity, and of course loss of civil rights.  Reeves has mined memoirs, documents, and conducted numerous interviews in creating an accurate narrative of what actually happened in the camps, events leading up to internment, and what the inmates experienced following their release.

Reeves does a commendable job introducing the major political and military figures who were at the core of the story.  Lt. General John DeWitt, an army bureaucrat and former Civilian Conservation Corps organizer, a man untrained militarily for his position, but was the head of the western command of the US Army in December, 1941. DeWitt believed that “A Jap is a Jap…You can’t tell one Jap from another.”  According to Reeves, DeWitt was not an especially bright individual who usually parroted the last opinion he heard as his own.  His second in command was Captain Karl Bendetson, who changed the spelling of his last name to hide his Jewish roots, and developed the plan that would result in the internment program.  Other important individuals include California Attorney General and later Governor, Earl Warren whose racist ideas led him to support internment.  However, later in his career as Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court he oversaw Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, KA decision, and headed the most liberal court in American history.  Walter Lippmann, the well-known columnist whose column of February 13, 1942 pressured FDR to act as he argued if nothing was done a surprise domestic attack would occur as the enemy within was waiting for the critical moment to act.  Eleanor Roosevelt warned that Americans should not overreact and succumb to public hysteria.  Attorney General Francis Biddle who refused to implement the plan, Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes fought behind the scenes against the internment program, referring to them as “fancy-named concentration camps.”  Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson who agreed the action was unconstitutional but rationalized, as many other officials did, the camps were designed to protect American Japanese from the violence of vigilantes.  As Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy summed up, “If it is a question of safety of the country and the Constitution…why, the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.”

(The reality of internment for Japanese children)

What drove the policy was fear and greed.  Fear of a possible Japanese invasion of the West Coast, a fear that should have disappeared after the Battle of Midway in June, 1942 when the damage to the Japanese fleet was such that they could no longer threaten the West Coast.  A part from fear, was greed; as California businessmen, fisherman, and farmers resented their American Japanese, and as Reeves describes saw an opportunity to seize property and profits once internment began.  Greed also motivated regular citizens as American Japanese were forced to sell their property and possessions at ridiculously low prices when they were given only 48 hours to get ready, and were told they could only bring what they could carry.

The conditions at the outset were abhorrent as the government was not prepared to receive so many inmates.  At the outset they were sent to race tracks, fairgrounds, and livestock auction sites until camps could be built.  The description of the constant odor of horse manure and urine reflects how American Japanese citizens were treated.  The program was instituted to prevent a “fifth column” of Japanese from hurting the war effort, but as historians have found, none ever existed.  To the credit of the inmates they did their best to show what patriotic Americans they were by dutifully responding to government orders, and peacefully cooperating as they were being rounded up and dispatched to camps.  One of the most interesting facets of the book is Reeves’ description of how the inmates did their best to make a bad situation better as part of their contribution to the war effort.  They created a “small town” atmosphere in the camps by developing hospitals, schools, movie theaters, to improve their situation.  No matter how ill-treated the inmates were, they tried to respond positively and make as little trouble as possible.  There were dissenters, and Reeves describes the law suits and legal battles that led to Supreme Court to uphold the constitutionality of FDR’s order.  Even a civil libertarian justice like William O. Douglas supported internment.

Importantly, Reeves explores the role of the American Japanese who were either born in the US, the Nisei, and the Kibei, those born in the US, educated in Japan and had returned.  The US military had a tremendous need for Japanese linguists and the role American Japanese played in the war in the Pacific was extremely important.  The linguists were used as interrogators, “cave flushers,” (men who went into the caves that Japanese soldiers had hidden in during island warfare and tried to convince them to surrender), combat, and other areas.  Perhaps their most important contribution to the war effort was in military intelligence.  The Japanese government felt that their language was so difficult that it was impenetrable.  As a result their codes were halfheartedly developed allowing the US to break them resulting in the victory at Midway, the death of Pacific Commander Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, the man who developed the plan and carried out the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and a number of other important victories.  Historians agree with Reeves that the intelligence contributions of these American Japanese saved American lives and perhaps shortened the war.  Another major contribution by American Japanese was as soldiers as the war progressed.  By 1943 they were seen as a solution to some manpower issues and the government began to encourage enlistment and later a draft.   Inmates were hesitant because of how they and their families were treated, in addition to the loyalty oaths they were expected to sign.  In all, 25,778 Nisei served in the military during World War II, roughly 13,500 from the mainland and the remainder from Hawaii.  Of that figure 18, 143 received combat decorations.  Between the 442nd  Regimental Combat Team that excelled in northern Italy and France, success as pilots, and their intelligence work, they made an important contribution to the war effort despite how they were despised by so many.

Another area that stands out is Reeves’ discussion as to how the inmates reacted once they were finally released.  Many felt they had nowhere to go as they realized returning to their homes and businesses on the West Coast was very problematical.  Others, mostly elderly, did not want to leave because they had settled into camp life, and the fact that housing, food, and comradeship were provided, as over time they began to feel more secure.  As Reeves accurately perceives it became “assisted living” for many.  Reeves does a remarkable job describing the experiences of the inmates who tried to return to the West Coast after the war, finding their property was destroyed or stolen, and being brought face to face with the remnants of the racism that had led to their incarceration.  It is interesting to note that 88% of American Japanese lived on the West Coast before the war, and after the war it declined to 70%, in a sense following FDR’s goal that the former inmates would be scattered throughout the United States after the war to avoid trouble.

(US Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren)

It is important to note that six weeks after FDR’s reelection on December 18, 1944 the Supreme Court ruled that the government and the army acted constitutionally when it came to mass detention in the Korematsu case.   The day before the decision came down the government released everyone from the camps.  Interestingly, that decision had been reached a year before, but as usual for FDR, politics came first, and he would not allow the release until after his reelection.  The decision itself was predicated on a 6-3 vote supporting the mass incarceration.  Writing in dissent, Justice Frank Murphey wrote that the decision is a “legalization of racism, all residents of this nation are kin and in some way by blood and culture to a foreign land.  Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of a new civilization of the United States.  They must be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment and as entitled to all of the rights and freedoms granted by the Constitution…Such exclusion goes over the very brink of constitutional power and falls into the ugly abyss of racism.” Perhaps Donald Trump should read this dissenting opinion, and Reeves splendid book before spewing his seemingly constant racist remarks.

POWER WARS: INSIDE OBAMA’S POST -9/11 PRESIDENCY by Charlie Savage

(Obama administration National Security Meeting in the White House)

When Barrack Obama was elected president and assumed office in 2009 most people expected that there would be vast changes to America’s pursuit of the war on terror.  If one followed Obama’s rhetoric while serving in the state Senate in Illinois, the United States Senate, and during the 2008 presidential campaign one would probably have drawn the conclusion that once in office the Bush-Cheney policies following 9/11 would be in for drastic change, but according to New York Times reporter Charlie Savage’s new book POWER WARS: INSIDE OBAMA’S POST-9/11 PRESIDENCY that was not the case.  As Savage writes, “having promised change, the new president seemed to be delivering something more like a mere adjustment – a ‘right-sizing’ of America’s war on terror.”  Savage has done an incredible job using his sources inside the Bush and Obama administrations, along with his access to legal scholars throughout the United States in producing an extremely detailed account of how members of the Obama administration went about determining the legalities of its policies in dealing with the war on terror.  The result is a text that is a bit over 700 pages that is at times extremely dense and difficult to stay with.  However, if one does pursue the task of getting through the myriad of legal arguments that are presented you will become well informed about how the American legal system, and to a lesser extent international law, deals with the nuances of trying to create and justify a lawful approach in dealing with numerous aspects of defending our country against terrorism, but at the same time protecting civil liberties, and abiding by its commitment to the rule of law, the right process, and not being a carbon copy of the Bush administration. The result is a book that is as lawyerly as its subject matter, and not designed for the general reader.

(Former VP Dick Cheney, the author of many of the Bush administration’s war on terror policies)

The question must be asked, was Obama a legal hypocrite?  Before he took office Obama produced many flowery phrases in criticizing the methods employed by Bush and Cheney.  He spoke of the use of torture, the violation of the privacy of American citizens, and the illegalities of data and intelligence collection, but once in the White House he engaged in many of the same practices.  Extraordinary rendition, NSA surveillance, CIA drone strikes, and the lack of transparency were among the policy choices that Obama engaged in-this wasn’t even “Bush light,” it was more like something close to his evil twin, but with an intellectual justification for everything they did.

(Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber”)

The comparison with the Bush administration is well presented as Savage reviews the evolution of Cheney’s unitary view of presidential power going back to the 1970s and Watergate which produced a resurgence of congressional power.  Savage also traces the convoluted legal arguments that Bush-Cheney concocted to implement its national security agenda.  The key person was John Yoo, an important Justice Department official after 9/11 who argued in numerous secret memorandums that the “president, as commander-in-chief, had the constitutional authority to lawfully take actions that were seemingly prohibited by federal statues and treaties.”  The Bush administration was in the business of creating executive-power precedents i.e., wiretapping without warrants, withdrawing the United States from the ABM treaty with Russia unilaterally, setting aside the Geneva Convention in dealing with POWs in Afghanistan, and not seeking congressional approval for these actions even though Congress had ratified these treaties.  The Bush administration established military commissions to prosecute terrorist suspects outside the civilian court system and created theories, set precedents based on these theories, and acted on them defying statutory constraint.  Obama’s critiques against these policies were based on violations of civil liberties and the rule of law, since there was no legal process to support what they were doing.  The Bush administration, with Vice-President Cheney leading the way sought to limit Congress and the courts, increase government secrecy, and concentrate as much unchecked power in the upper levels of the executive branch as they could.  Many Obama supporters and administration members argued that some of Bush’s policies were in fact correct, but they needed legislative approval before they could be implemented.

(Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, and Jihadi propogandist killed by an American drone strike)

For Obama and his core of liberal legal appointees the failed “underwear bomber,” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger plane end route to Detroit Christmas day, 2009 dramatically altered their approach to the war on terror.  For the president he realized that a successful terror attack on American soil could destroy his entire domestic agenda, be it health care or the many programs Obama hoped to implement.  All of a sudden he had to live with the day by day security needs of the United States and keep its citizens safe.  This did not mean he would drop his lawyerly, overly cautious approach to policies, but in the end terrorism and the threat to the homeland was real, not a theoretical concern.  As Savage writes, Obama threatened to fire people if the missteps surrounding the incident were repeated.  “It’s strict liability now, he said, echoing George Bush’s “don’t ever let that happen again directive to Attorney General John Ashcroft soon after 9/11.”  As Jack Goldsmith writes in The New Rambler, Savage’s account of Obama’s continuity with Bush “breaks less new ground than does his reconstruction of the many ways in which it expanded the President’s war powers from the Bush baseline.”   For example, the drone strike program was expanded dramatically, in part because of the improved technology that did not exist under Bush, and its use in targeting four American citizens in Yemen, chief among them was the cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, who was an American citizen.  Savage does a nice job exploring al-Awlaki’s relationship to the “underwear bomber” as well as the legal debates within the administration to determine whether the US was justified in killing one of its own citizens without due process. The lawyerly approach reached the conclusion it was legal if the target was an imminent threat to the United States.  Scott Shane’s recent book, Objective Troy does an excellent job detailing this aspect of Savage’s work.

After the near miss on Christmas day Obama was faced with a great deal of Republican criticism.  Buoyed by the victory of Scott Brown in Massachusetts who won a special election for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat employing national security as his core message, Republicans in congress called for terrorism captives to be handled exclusively by the military.  According to Savage, all of a sudden Obama was attentive and deeply involved as he realized that terrorism could shape his presidency.  What follows is a series of detailed arguments within the Obama administration dealing with all aspects of terrorism policy from 2010 through 2014.  It seems that Savage does not miss any subject as it related to the war on terror.  The closing of Guantanamo comes up repeatedly, whether dealing with freeing inmates, closing the prison, adding new detainees etc.  The legalities of surveillance policy and the use of F.I.S.A. courts encompasses a significant amount of the text.  The debate as to whether captured detainees should be tried by military commissions as opposed to civilian courts is dealt with from the legal perspective as well as that of political partisanship.  The debate as to whether al-Shabaab, the Somalian Islamic terrorist organization was an associated force of al-Qaeda to justify targeting its members with drone strikes is fascinating.  The Snowden leaks makes for interesting reading as well as the Obama administration’s responses to them.  In reality Obama was less successful in reducing presidential power than he anticipated, and he often supported his own novel expansions of presidential powers.  When he needed to expand executive powers like going after ISIS with drone strikes in Libya, he did not feel constrained.

As a result Savage decides that Obama was less a transformative president after 9/11, but more so a transitional one.  As James Mann writes in the New York Times, Obama created a “lawyerly” administration that added “an additional layer of rules standards, and procedures to the unsettling premise that the United States was still at war and would, of necessity, remain so with no end in sight.”  I agree with Mann that this is the major theme that the reader should extract from all the legal theories and lawyerly language that Savage presents, if one can get plough through the tremendous amount of material that is reviewed and analyzed.

DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODYSSEY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH by Jon Meacham

(Presidents George Herbert Walker Bush, George W. Bush, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush)

With the rollout of Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Jon Meacham’s new book DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODYSSEY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH what emerged in the media was the elder Bush’s criticisms of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney’s poor service in the administration of his son.  Many pundits have questioned the senior Bush’s judgement since another son, Jeb is in the midst of his own presidential campaign.  Whatever motivated the senior Bush it has created a great deal of buzz around Meacham’s latest biography.  After successful histories of Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and the relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Meacham’s latest effort is not quite on the level of his previous work.  In Meacham’s defense it is difficult to write a critical biography of a subject that is still alive, and as time has separated him from his presidency he has become more popular than ever.  George H.W. Bush was a lifetime Republican who served in Congress, the head of the Republican National Committee, held a number of important jobs in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and later served as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President.  Always a loyal party man he never could quite gain the confidence of the conservative wing of his party.  He was always seen as a Rockefeller eastern liberal Republican and he constantly had to prove his bonafides to conservatives.  If he were a candidate for office today, Bush would be relegated to the junior varsity on the debate stage on many issues.  To Bush’s credit as Meacham points out repeatedly in his narrative, he embraced compromise in public life and engaged his foes in the passage of important legislation as he was willing to buck his own party to do what he believed was right.

(Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney; Bush 41 referred to them as “iron asses.”

After reading Meacham’s description of Bush’s childhood in Connecticut, Kennebunkport, and South Carolina it is obvious what former Texas Governor Anne Richards meant about Bush’s presidential candidacy in 1988, when she stated at the Democratic National Convention that “for eight straight years George Bush hasn’t displayed the slightest interest in anything we care about.  And now that he’s after a job that he can’t be appointed to, he’s like Columbus discovering America.  Poor George, he can’t help it-he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” (334-35) The Bush children of the 1930s were insulated from want, but they were raised to feel a sense of obligation to others.  According to Meacham, the Bush family code was to disguise one’s ambition, and hunger to win.  For years I had difficulty accepting Bush’s authenticity and sincerity as I watched him “flip flop” on issues in order to get elected in 1980 and 1988 and avoid the charge that he was an eastern establishment Republican.  I must admit that for over half of Meacham’s narrative I became somewhat convinced that my view was harsh after reading the intimate details of Bush’s patriotism leaving his privileged education to become a naval pilot during World War II and how he reacted and handled being shot down in the Pacific with the loss of his radioman and tail gunner.  We see Bush as the supporting husband taking care of a spouse dealing with depression. Further, we are privy to Bush as a father and family man dealing with the passing of his daughter Robin at the age of three from leukemia, witnessing a distraught person who exhibits the traits we would all hope to have in a similar situation.

(Bush 41 must like Meacham’s bioghraphy!)

The book comes across as a conversation between the author and the reader.  At times one gets the feeling that Meacham is interviewing the former president conveying Bush’s view of his life, issues, and historical perspectives.  We are exposed to the major events in American history from 1964 on as they are intertwined with Bush’s political career.  The weakness is that part of the narrative comes across as an extensive magazine article intertwined with a degree of analysis.  Meacham for the most part is content with explaining Bush’s motivations for his decisions without delving deeply enough into their ramifications.  A case in point is Bush’s vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but a few pages later we learn he voted for the 1968 Fair Housing Act, as if the later vote canceled out the weakness of character reflected in the first vote.  We read a great deal about Bush’s personality and his commitment to the family ethos as represented by his father, Prescott Bush, but not enough of what can be described as the “edginess of politics” and its cut throat nature.  As I read the first few hundred pages I wondered how such a “nice person” became such a duplicitous politician who would lie about his knowledge concerning the Iran-Contra deal (apart from the Nicaraguan aspect), the use of the Willie Horton commercial in 1988 and his alliance with the likes of Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, his reversals on abortion, taxes, and other issues to make him palatable to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate.  What I gathered from Meacham’s narrative is that Bush according to the family credo was that winning was most important, but that is covered up by a political pragmatism rather than following what the author presents as his core principles.

Meacham does a credible job discussing the major aspects of Bush’s career.  His successful run for the House of Representatives and defeat as he tries to win a Senate seat in the 1960s.  We learn of his stint as UN Ambassador under Richard Nixon, envoy to China, and CIA Head under Gerald Ford, highlighting the domestic and international machinations of each.  The reader is placed inside his campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the development of their working relationship since Ronald and Nancy Reagan did not think much of the Bushes at the outset.  Meacham constantly points to Bush’s winning personality as his key asset and we can see how effective he is in winning over the President and developing a strong personal relationship during the Reagan administrations. The reader has an insider’s view of the White House during the first Reagan administration and the role that Bush played.  Then, the second administration seems to disappear in the narrative except for a discussion of Iran-Contra and the duplicitous role played by Bush.  By 1988 Bush must earn his next governmental position, the presidency, something he seems to have sought since his entrance into politics in the 1960s, because there are no longer any appointments coming his way because of the networking that had rewarded him for decades in business and politics.

(Part of 1988 Presidential campaign ad devised by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes)

Meacham’s focus and analysis seems to take a sharper turn as he deals with the 1988 presidential campaign as he examines the mistaken choice Bush admits to in choosing Dan Quayle as his running mate.  We follow the campaign and the errors of the Dukakis team as we see the former Massachusetts governor foolishly riding in a tank in New Jersey and is forced to deal with the prison furlough program that brought about the Willie Horton ad.  Once elected, Meacham accurately explores Bush’s successes in foreign policy and the difficulties he faced in dealing with Congress over domestic legislation during his term in office.

I am very familiar with Bush’s personal belief that he thought that he should receive the major credit for winning the Cold War, and I am certain that believers in the Reagan cult would beg to differ.  However, Bush senior must be commended for the way he handled the fall of the Berlin Wall and the personal relationship he was able to develop with Mikhail Gorbachev that fostered arms control and a lessening of tensions between the former Cold War competitors.  Meacham takes us from the night the Wall was breached through the difficult diplomacy that resulted in the reunification of Germany.  Though the definitive account of those heady days have yet to be written, Meacham’s narrative praising Bush for his calm and steady approach to events and his diplomacy, particularly with the Soviet Union and NATO members forms an excellent summary.  Bush has the reputation of overseeing a strong foreign policy that resulted in his words, “a new world order,” where the bipolar Cold War was replaced by a new unipolar world.  This characterization can be easily argued, but Meacham chooses not to in the same way as he glances over the American invasion of Panama to replace Manuel Noriega.  Perhaps if he would have delved into the background relationship between the American national security establishment and the drug trafficking Panamanian dictator the reader would be provided a clearer picture.  Further, Meacham leaves out some important details in the run up to the American invasion of Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  The reader is provided with a detailed account of Bush’s handling of the crisis, but what is missing is an accurate description of the messages we sent to the Iraqi dictator at the end of July, 1990 right before the invasion.  To his credit, Meacham explores the meetings between Saddam and American Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie whose career took a strong hit after the invasion took place.  Perhaps if the administration would have laid out clearer instructions, Glaspie’s messages to Saddam would not have been so misinterpreted to the point where he believed that the United States would not remove his forces from Kuwait militarily.  Bush is to be credited with putting together an international coalition against Saddam, and unlike his son he realized the vacuum that would be created if American troops marched on Baghdad in March, 1991 and that once the predictable civil war between Shi’ites and Sunni would evolve, Iran would emerge as the true winner.  Another aspect that Meacham should have explored closely is the Bush family’s relationship with the Saudi royal family and what impact it had on American policy.  Craig Unger’s HOUSE OF BUSH HOUSE OF SAUD is worth consulting.

(George Herbert Walker Bush as Navy pilot during World War II)

Meacham correctly points out that Bush did have a domestic agenda as he repeatedly refers to Bush’s diaries to support the idea that the president wanted to improve the lives of everyday Americans.  His successes include a raising of educational standards and enhancements for the Head Start program, amendments to the Clean Air Act, and the Americans for Disability Act.  However, once Bush had to deal with economic policy as the American economy fell into recession he ran up against a conservative wall in Congress led by Newt Gingrich.  Once he decided to turn away from his famous “read my lips” promise when he won the Republican presidential nomination and agreed to raise federal taxes to deal with the budget crisis he just reaffirmed the belief of conservatives that he was not one of them.  Again, to Bush’s credit he put political pragmatism and his country ahead of those in his party who may have pursued the actions of the Ted Cruz’s of today.  Meacham hits the nail on the head when states that Bush “could mold an international coalition, but he could not convince his own party to back their president.” (448)

Meacham provides an in depth account of the 1992 presidential campaign and the rivalry with the egoistic Ross Perot that resulted in the election of Bill Clinton.  The author puts the reader on the debate stage as Bush stares too long at his watch and has difficulty remembering the price of hamburger.  For Bush it was very difficult for a member of the greatest generation to lose the presidency to someone who he then characterized as a “draft dodger.”  However, Meacham is correct in pointing out that the reason Bush lost the election was that he did not seem to be that committed to his own election victory.  Time and again Meacham pointed to Bush’s diaries that expressed doubts as to whether he should have run.

Once out of office, Bush could theoretically relax, reflect, and enjoy his family.  For the most part he did, but he was worried about the course of his son’s presidency and the tone set by Bush 43’s administration commentary.  Overall, Meacham received unparalleled access to Bush 41 on a personal level as well as the availability to his diaries and many of those who served his political career and administration.  Meacham has written what appears to be an authorized biography that will be well received, but could have been a bit more incisive and balanced.

(Presidents Bush 41 and 43)

1944: FDR AND THE YEAR THAT CHANGED HISTORY by Jay Winik

(The liberation of Dachau, April 29, 1945)

According to Jay Winik, the author of two bestselling works of history, APRIL, 1865 and THE GREAT UPHEAVAL, during World War II every three seconds someone died.  This should not be surprising based on the myriad of books that have been written about the war that fostered mass killing on a scale that had never been seen before.  The Nazis perpetuated the industrialization of death almost until they ran out of victims.  In the skies the combatants laid waste to civilian areas fostering terror and destruction unknown to mankind before the war.  It is with this backdrop that Winik tells the story of World War II focusing on the role of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s decision making and his inability or refusal to lift a finger to assist the victims of Hitler’s Final Solution until it was too late.  The book is entitled 1944: FDR AND THE YEAR THAT CHANGED HISTORY, but the title is misleading, because instead of focusing on the watershed year of 1944, the book seems to be a comprehensive synthesis of the wartime events that the author chooses to concentrate on.  Winik opens his narrative by describing the Teheran Conference of November, 1943 which most historians argue was the most important wartime conference as the major outline of post war decision making took place.  Here we meet Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, before Winik switches to the massive allied bombardment of Berlin that would shatter the faith of the German people in their government, as it could no longer protect them from the developing superiority of allied might.

(President Franklin D. Roosevelt who refused to pressure the State Department when he knew that they were blocking Jews from immigrating to the United States during WWII)

The author offers very little if anything that is new dealing with the war.  Its strength lies in its synthesis of the massive secondary literature that the war has produced.  Winik has mined a voluminous amount of material, but very little of it is primary and one must ask the question; what purpose does the book have if it adds little that is not already familiar for bibliophiles of the war?  I believe the author’s goal is to produce a general history of the conflict that allows the reader inside some of the most important decisions related to the war.  Winik writes in an engrossing manner that creates a narrative that is accurate with sound analysis of the major characters and events discussed.  The monograph is not presented in chronological order as the author organizes the book by concentrating on the period that surrounds the Teheran Conference of November, 1943 through D-Day and its immediate aftermath for the first 40% of the narrative, and then he shifts his focus on to the Final Solution that by D-Day was almost complete.  Most of the decisions involving major battles are discussed in depth ranging from D-Day, the invasions of North Africa and Sicily, to biographies of lesser known characters like, Rabbi Stephen Wise, a leader of the American Jewish community, but also a friend of FDR; Rudolph Vrba and Eduard Schulte who smuggled out evidence of the Holocaust as early as November 1942 and made their mission in life to notify the west what was transpiring in the concentration camps with the hope that it would prod the allies to take action to stop it, or at least, lessen its impact.

(Assistant Secretary of State Breckenridge Long who did all he could to prevent Jews from immigrating to the United States during WWII)

Much of the narrative deals with the history of Auschwitz and its devastating impact on European Jewry, and Roosevelt’s refusal to take any concrete action to mitigate what was occurring, despite the evidence that he was presented.  Winik delves deep into the policies of the State Department, which carried an air of anti-Semitism throughout the war.  The attitude of the likes of Breckenridge Long are discussed and how they openly sought to prevent any Jewish immigration to the United States.  When the issue of possibly bombing Auschwitz is raised we meet John J. McCloy who at first was in charge of rounding up Japanese-Americans and routing them to “relocation centers” in the United States, and is in charge of American strategic bombing in Europe who refuses to consider any air missions over Auschwitz arguing it was not feasible, when in fact allied planes were bombing in the region and had accidentally hit the camp in late 1944.  Roosevelt was a political animal and refused to use any of his political capital, no matter how much pressure to assist the Jews.  FDR was fully aware of what was taking place in the camps and did create some window dressing toward the end of the war with the creation of the War Refugees Board that did save lives, but had it been implemented two years earlier might have saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Much of Winik’s descriptions and analysis has been written before and he has the habit of discussing a particular topic with an overreliance on a particular secondary source.  A number of these works appear repeatedly, i.e.; Martin Gilbert’s Auschwitz and the Allies, David Wyman’s THE ABANDONMENT OF THE JEWS, Richard Breitman and Alan J. Lichtman’s FDR AND THE JEWS, James MacGregor Burns’ SOLDIER OF FREEDOM, and Ian Kershaw’s two volume biography of Hitler.  There are a number of areas where Winik’s sources have been replaced by more recent monographs of which he should be familiar, i.e., when discussing Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June, 1941 the main source seems to be Kershaw, but David Murphy’s WHAT STALIN KNEW, Andrew Roberts’ STALIN’S WARS, and Evan Mawdsley’s THUNDER IN THE EAST would have enhanced the discussion.  In addition, there are many instances when endnotes were not available, leaving the reader to wonder what they have just read is based on.

(John J. McCloy, in charge of strategic bombing in Europe at the end of the war who refused to allow American planes to bomb Auschwitz)

To Winik’s credit his integration of the state of FDR’s health throughout the book is very important.  We see a Roosevelt who is clearly dying at a time when many momentous decisions must be made, but the president feels that he was in office when the war began, and he must complete his task.  The effect of FDR’s health on decision making and the carrying out of policy has tremendous implications for the history of the time period.  One of the more interesting aspects of Winik’s approach to his subject matter is how he repeatedly assimilates the plight of the Jews with other facets of the war.  It seems that no matter the situation the author finds a way to link the Holocaust to other unfolding decisions and events, particularly during 1944 and after.  The author also does a superb job describing the human element in his narrative.  The plight and fears of deportees to Auschwitz, the anxiety of soldiers as they prepare for Operation Overlord, the chain smoking General Eisenhower as he awaits news of battles, and the fears and hopes of FDR on the eve of D-Day are enlightening and provide the reader tremendous insights into historical moments.

To sum up, if Winik’s goal was to write a general history of the Second World War, centering on the role of Franklin Roosevelt he is very successful as the book is readable and in many areas captivating for the reader.  If his goal was to add an important new interpretation of the wartime decision making centering on FDR and 1944 as the turning point in the war, I believe he has failed.  Overall, this is an excellent book for the general reader, but for those who are quite knowledgeable about World War II you might be disappointed.

OBJECTIVE TROY by Scott Shane

(Anwar al-Awlaki taken from his online magazine Inspire)

Scott Shane is a New York Times national security reporter whose new book OBJECTIVE TROY explores the evolution of the American use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) as its main weapon to counter Islamic terrorism.  After invading Afghanistan and Iraq and having both incursions turn out poorly the Obama administration came into office with the fervent belief to avoid further use of “boots on the ground” in any large number in the Middle East.  Events in the region did not necessarily cooperate with President Obama’s vision and threats from the region necessitated a shift in strategy.  The choice was rather simple; let the jihadists have their way and do nothing or reassert American troop strength.  A middle road emerged, that of applying drones to the shifting balance of power in the Middle East and Southwest Asia to decapitate the leadership of groups that threatened the United States in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen.  The implementation of the drone strategy successfully decimated al-Qaeda leadership in Pakistan, but the United States was confronted with a new enemy in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  One of the ramifications of this new geo-political threat was the emergence of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen educated in the United States and Yemen, who headed three separate mosques in America emerging as a radicalized jihadist who would be killed by a drone attack in 2011.

The book centers on whether the U.S. government has the constitutional right to assassinate an American citizen if it deems them a threat to its national security.  Shane explores the rise of al-Awlaki as a person who opposed the 9/11 attacks in 2001, seeing himself as a bridge between Islam and America.  However, by 2005, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, U.S. support for Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, and his stay in London where his students were much more radical than those in the United States, al-Awlaki grew increasingly radicalized and became a jihadi spokesperson who by 2007 was calling for attacks against the United States as he concluded that his religious beliefs and the ummah (community of believers in Islam) took precedence over his loyalty to his country.  After fleeing the United States because the FBI had learned he was not following his own moral code by engaging his sexual appetites he grew increasingly strident in calling for jihad against America.  Once he was linked to Nidal Hasan’s attack at Fort Hood, TX, and Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad’s attempt to blow up an airplane with 289 passengers as it approached Detroit’s Metro Airport at Christmas in 2009, the Obama White House realized what a threat he had become.  Further examination brought the realization in the Justice Department that it seemed no matter what the incident, be it 9/11, or other operations, Anwar al-Awlaki’s name seem to come up.  The question for President Obama was how to counter act the growing threat.

Shane explores the evolution of Obama’s thought process and the Justice Department’s reasoning as to the legality of killing an American citizen and the morality of killing by remote control.  He discusses Obama’s comments as a law professor, state senator, and United States Senator to formulate how to deal with extremism.  He approved of the attacks on al-Qaeda and the Taliban after 9/11, but was against President Bush’s detention, rendition, and interrogation program which he immediately eliminated upon assuming the presidency.  However he did not do away with the drone program.  Obama was not an ideologue as some on the right have painted him, but a ruthless pragmatist when it came to the use of drones.  Obama’s Justice Department’s finding concluded that al-Awlaki could be targeted because he posed “a continued and imminent threat” to American national security.

In 2008 al-Awlaki set up a web site that markedly expanded his exposure “as his Islamic teaching was kindling volatile emotions across the English speaking world.” (177)  His lectures appeared on You Tube and the Internet reaching everyone interested in his message, a message that was successful because of American actions in Iraq and Pakistan.  His further success was due to his command of English and his knowledge of Arabic sacred texts, along with his disarming informal way of speaking.  He employed the motivating power of religion with the universal quest of the young for identity as he created an attractive message for disaffected Muslims who saw him as their spokesperson, and many were willing to answer his call for jihad.

(Nidal Hassan, convicted FT. Hood,TX killer)

Perhaps al-Awlaki’s most successful propaganda tool was his creation of Inspire, an online magazine that was written in a breezy style to promote suicide bombings and other terror tactics.  Shane discusses its slick presentation and internet appeal providing instructions on how to make a bomb and calling for attacks against the west.  Shane goes on to discuss the effect Inspire had on jihadi recruitment, future attacks, and how the western intelligence community tried to figure out how to respond.

(Anwar al-Awlaki, killed by an American drone in 2011)

Shane does an exceptional job summarizing the constitutional arguments for and against the use of drones.  He also discusses the legal arguments that were pursued by Anwar’s father, Nasser al-Awlaki who went to federal court to try and get his son removed from the drone “kill list.”  Shane is very effective in discussing the legal nuances and reasoning whenever he brings up the constitutionality of whether an American citizen could become an assassination target by its government.

By 2010 AQAP was a greater threat to the United States than al-Qaeda.  With the links between the Detroit bomber and Fort Hood killings it was just a matter of time before the United States would kill al-Awlaki.  In the end al-Awlaki has probably had a greater impact on the Jihadi world in death than when he was alive.  His life, writings, and speeches continue to carry a great deal of influence on the web where he has an achieved a “prophetic martyrdom.”  All you have to do is point to the Boston Marathon bombers-the Tsarnaev brothers who learned how to make a bomb from a pressure cooker on al-Awlaki’s website.

(US drone firing a missile over Yemen)

Shane has written a very useful book that provides a great deal of insight into Obama and al-Awlaki and their approach to dealing with events in the Middle East.  Further, he has provided a strong narrative for the reader to understand the future legal implications of what Obama has done by targeting the Muslim preacher.  If there is a major criticism I can offer concerning the book it would be the illogical chronological approach that Shane presents.  Approaching al-Awlaki’s life by offering his middle years first, leads to repetition as he discusses the other stages of his development.  A straight chronology would have greatly benefited the reader in understanding the main subject of the book.  Apart from that, I recommend Objective Troy to anyone who wants to understand the constitutional, social media, and world political issues that confront the United States in a region that brought us the “Arab spring,” but continues to fall into chaos.

VENDETTA: BOBBY KENNEDY VERSUS JIMMY HOFFA by James Neff

(Robert F. Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa, 1957)

The title VENDETTA of James Neff’s new book that deals with Robert F. Kennedy’s quest to bring Jimmy Hoffa to justice is chilling from the perspective of how unions, organized crime, and businesses colluded to defraud union members, the government, and the general public.  Neff begins his story with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 that provoked a reaction from his brother Bobby, “there’s so much bitterness, and I thought they’d get one of us….I thought it would be me.” (6)  At the time Robert Kennedy was the Attorney General and was in the midst of his Justice Department’s prosecution of Hoffa for witness tampering, real estate, and pension fraud.  This would culminate in Hoffa’s conviction in early 1964 that ended a seven year journey for Robert Kennedy to bring the corrupt Teamster President to justice.  Despite the conviction, Kennedy remained unsettled because he could never be sure that Hoffa, who danced on his desk and shouted with glee when learning of the president’s assassination, was not behind his brother’s death.

Neff, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigations editor at the Seattle Times has written a comprehensive and engrossing history of the relationship between the Kennedy brothers and Jimmy Hoffa.  He explores all the major characters who were involved in that relationship and presents an objective and well written account of a very important aspect of American labor history.  Neff introduces both protagonists with short biographies of each and we learn that Robert Kennedy saw himself as a crusader against what he perceived to be labor injustice, and Jimmy Hoffa, who believed he was a victim of a class war by the rich Kennedy’s as he was convinced that he was unjustly persecuted for seven years until they finally nailed him.  During that time the author leads the reader through RFK’s appointment to the staff of the Senate Sub-Committee on Organized Crime headed by Alabama Senator John L. McClellan.  RFK’s brother was also a member of the committee and wanted to use it as a stepping stone to enhance his presidential credentials.  RFK zeroed in on the influence of organized crime and their infiltration of labor unions, and made Jimmy Hoffa his target as the epitome of what he was trying to prove that would hopefully lead to strong congressional legislation to weaken the criminal hold on American labor.  Neff describes an obsessed Robert Kennedy over a seven year period trying to prosecute Hoffa and put him behind bars.  Their conflict was epic and after a few committee hearings Hoffa was convinced he was being unjustly targeted which was the source of their personal vendetta.

(Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy during the Senate McClellan Committee hearings into organized crimes influence on labor unions)

Neff provides the reader with intricate details employing committee transcripts and analysis as the McClellan hearings evolve.  The reader is present in the Senate chambers and can easily grasp the hatred between the two men.  Neff discusses each character that is mentioned in detail whether it is Edward Bennett Williams, the suave and sophisticated Capitol Hill lawyer who defended Hoffa; Bernard Spindel, a New York veteran from World War II trained in electronics who developed advanced eavesdropping devices for Hoffa; Walter Sheridan, RFK’s alter ego at the Justice Department who led the prosecution of the union leader; to David Beck, the crooked Teamster President who preceded Hoffa.  These are just a few of the important players in the narrative, and Neff is able to weave many more into the story.  As you read on it appears that Neff has left no stone unturned in his research.  He explores legal strategy, mob participation, intimidation tactics, and the stretching of constitutional guarantees by the Justice Department.  Neff takes us into strategy sessions, Hoffa’s labor meetings, and Kennedy’s office as we learn how each component of the overall story will unfold.

Kennedy’s obsession led to the “Hoffa Strike Force” once his brother convinced him to become Attorney General.  It is here that Neff recounts conversations and other details as the hatred between Kennedy and Hoffa comes to a head.  We witness how slippery Hoffa was to prosecute and convict and for seven years Kennedy was almost at a loss as to his failure.  Hoffa was elected Teamster president and his overall influence and popularity among union members could not be broken.  One of the most interesting aspects of the book was the 1960 Presidential election.  Recounting Hoffa strategy to block John F. Kennedy’s nomination the underside of politics is in full view.  The use of union funds, members, and other assets were fully employed by Hoffa first in the Democratic primaries and then in the general election as the teamsters were deployed in full to bring about the election of Richard Nixon, who in true Nixonian fashion promised Hoffa to protect him from the Justice Department once he was elected.  Another fascinating part of the book is the limited role FBI Director Herbert Hoover played in RFK’s quest.  Hoover was more interested in his own agenda who was not averse to using his own intelligence against the Kennedy’s, particularly their sexual escapades.

(Part of Hoffa’s strategy to get the Justice Department off his back was to use his union truckers to get out the message he was being persecuted by Robert Kennedy)

Perhaps the most important section of the book involves how the Justice Department finally is able to convict Hoffa of jury tampering and pension fraud in 1964.  Using a former Hoffa ally as a plant in return for a plea deal, RFK’s people are able to surprise Hoffa during the first trial for witness tampering and destroy his defense.  Once convicted his next trial for pension fraud was easier to prosecute.  Attempts to appeal failed as the Supreme Court ruled against him and Hoffa would be imprisoned until pardoned by Nixon in 1971.   Hoffa would suffer the same fate as Robert Kennedy as he is murdered in a Detroit suburb in 1975, probably a mob hit, but to this day we are not sure since a body has never been found.

Neff’s skill as a narrative historian allows the reader to immerse themselves in the story and I will admit it was difficult to put down.  The book reads like a crime novel, but in reality it is the sordid history of the Teamsters Union over decades culminating in the reign of Jimmy Hoffa.  The book is an excellent read and numerous interesting and surprising things will emerge in what really can be categorized as a courtroom thriller.