THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS by David S. Brown

(Henry Adams)

What impact does one’s lineage have on the course of one’s life?  If you were born into a family where you are the great-grandson of a Founding Father, the grandson of a president, and the son of a Congressman and Minister to England one would assume you would have a great deal to live up to.  In the case of Henry Adams, an important contributor to the “Adams Dynasty” politics was not a passion as it was for those who preceded him, and he chose the path of journalism, historian, and author.  Adams lived a fascinating life based on his writing, travels, and the historical personage he was close to or came in contact with.  Adam’s journey is recounted in David S. Brown’s latest biography, THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS.

Adams excelled in a number of areas.  His reputation has been formulated in large part by his autobiography, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS where he warned Americans about unlimited immeasurable power that would be unleashed in the 20th century which won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in biography.  Adams’ other major work was his masterful HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES DURING THE ADMIMISTRATIONS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON AND JAMES MADISON, a nine volume compilation that historian Gary Wills calls “the non-fiction prose masterpiece of the 19th century in America.”  Brown’s biography captures the fullness of Adams’ remarkable life that encompassed many highs, as a political reformer, novelist, world and traveler.  It also encompassed a number of devastating lows which include a pressure packed family familiar that was familiar with depression, alcoholism, and suicide along with presenting an important window into 19th century American history.

Brown emphasizes Adams’ role as a transitional figure between colonial and modern America.  More specifically American history was moving toward “an imperial, industrial identity, one both increasingly beholden to technology and concerned with the fate of the white race. This is the context that the author believes Adams must be viewed in order to understand him.

The book itself is divided into two parts.  The first takes his life to 1885 and the suicide of his wife, Marian Hooper, called Clover.  In this section the reader is exposed to Adams’ impressions, Harvard and European education, and influences and pressure brought forth by his family resulting in the last of his generation of relations to achieve national recognition.  During this period his rural Quincy, MA background which he believed was superior to other parts of America, his bitter reaction to partisan politics, his attraction to a cosmopolitan Europe, and the development of his elitist outlook on life are all explored.  Following Clover’s death, Brown deftly examines a person who seemed to be set adrift resorting to constant travel, darkening meditations on capitalism’s quick expansion, and a propensity toward different personas, i.e., “Henry the 12th century Norman, the Tahitian prince, and the progress defying and denying conservative Christian anarchist.”  All of the masks that Adams’ personality presents point toward some quiet defiance of modernity, as all were primitive and skeptical of the coming age. 

According to Brown, this component of his personality defined his outlook and “at times threatened to distort his work, leading to caricature, doomsaying, and the uncritical elevation of those civilizations and peoples he often patronizingly regarded as anti-modern.” This aspect of his thought process opened to him an exceptionally wide range of ideas and yielded a complicated and insightful individual as any American thinker for his time period and beyond.  As Adams wrote in his autobiography, “by the unknowable, uncontrollable dynamo of industrial development; it is a world we have inherited, a cultural spirit we have yet to shake.”

(Marian (Clover) Hooper Adams on horseback, 1869)

Brown has a strong handle on the course of American history during Adams’ lifetime.  He effectively integrates important events and characters into the narrative and how they impacted Adams’ opinions, thought processes and actions.  An area that Brown spends a great deal of time is dealing with race and slavery in particular.  Brown makes the important connection between the “Lords of the Leash” and the “Lords of the Loom” as he describes the economically incestuous relationship between northern manufacturers and southern planters.  In Brown’s view Adams saw slaves/blacks as inferior to whites and held many of the same racial views of his time including men like Abraham Lincoln and William Seward.  The difference is that Adams’ views concerning ending slavery did not evolve as Lincoln and Seward’s did.  Henry held the seemingly New England Puritan view that opposed anything compromised, wicked, or wrong.  This is evident in his efforts during the Gilded Age to combat various forms of political, financial, and corporate corruption on the part of “Robber Barons” and their political cohorts.

Adams’ intellectual development was greatly influenced by the trends and political movements he observed before the Civil War.  As he evolved as a “thinker” he was exposed to events leading up to and including the ramifications of the Mexican War that led to the Compromise of 1850 and the slow progression toward war.  For Adams, the difference between north and south presented a dichotomy he found difficult.  The north represented education, free labor, piety, and industry, but he was also attracted to the south’s lack of institutional oversight, of church, state, and school, that pinched him at home in Quincy.  Despite this view of the south and a close friendship with Robert E. Lee’s son, Adams could not shake the divergent views when it came to slavery.  Throughout the pre and post-Civil War period Adams suffered from a failure to grasp the ethical struggle over slavery.  Many of his views were rather fanciful, i.e., the idea that the south would be defeated quickly, he saw Lincoln as a clumsy, rustic and too western etc.  The strength of Brown’s biography emerges as he discusses of Adams’ intellectual evolution as he went from a poor prognosticator to an eminent historian.

Adams’ education was a cacophony of differences.  Harvard for him was not a success as unfortunately he attended the Cambridge institution at a time when it was at the tail end of its older scholastic tradition.  When he graduated in 1858 Harvard was on the cusp of major curriculum changes and approaches to teaching science, economics, and politics.  Adams would travel to Germany to further his education outside the study of law that seemed to be his family’s traditional avocation.  He rejected the stringency of German university education but enjoyed traveling throughout Bismarck’s realm.  While in Europe he wrote a column for a Boston paper reflecting his love of travel particularly Italy where he was taken by the Italian movement toward unity and meeting Giuseppe Garibaldi and learning about Cavour.  While traveling Adams read Edward Gibbons’ THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and decided the Adams family needed a historian.

Charles Francis Adams

(Charles Francis Adams)

During the Civil War his father, Charles Francis Adams gave up his congressional seat to become the US Minister to England, Henry served as his secretary.  Their role was to make sure England did not afford the south diplomatic recognition and political and economic support.  After a slow start integrating into English society, Henry was able to adapt in large part because his own snobbish approach to people fit in with the English upper class.  Henry’s elitism plays a major role in Brown’s analysis of his subjects’ behavior and the evolution of his beliefs.  Upon returning to the US after the war it appeared the Adams’s were becoming more and more irrelevant which pushed Henry to leave Quincy for Washington and position himself as a political critic.  Obviously, the key issues of the day surrounded the plight of former slaves.

Brown’s insights into Adams views of race are insightful as he stresses Adams’ refusal to accept slavery’s corrosive and all pervading impact on America.  Brown is accurate when he argues that Adams narrow outlook reduced slavery to a  “repercussion-less fact, a wicked act now mercifully ended.”  In addition, he had an inability to see congressional reconstruction as a moral struggle rather than a political blunder reflecting his indifference to race.  He opposed the 15th amendment and feared Congress was overstepping its bounds, and he totally misjudged the south’s ferocity to reclaim what they saw was stolen from them.  Adams suffered from the delusion that a virtuous people was unfairly subjugated by a combination of Yankee carpetbaggers, black congressmen, and unscrupulous scalawags.  He had gone to Washington to free Congress from corrupt corporations and lobbyists but failed to appreciate America’s racial problems as” he lacked urgency, insight, or empathy.”

Adams was content to be a political outsider.  He viewed himself as a reformer despite the fact he clung to a patrician system that was on its way out.  He did recognize his personal aristocratic expectation of achieving political power was not going to pan out and resented the new social order that deprived him of this type of success from the monied men at the top to the immigrants at the bottom.  His anti-Semitism was ever present as he tended to blame Jews for the monied interests that appeared to dominate the American economy as it developed capitalist wealth which negatively impacted the American people.  Reflecting his elitism, Adams was the type of person who believed that few men or women were his equal, however his friends loved him, but he definitely was an acquired taste.

photograph of John Hay
(John Hay)

Brown does an exceptional job detailing Adams’ career as a writer and an intellectual.  He argues that Adams’ approach is diverse.  He can be considered one of the first “muckrakers” as coined by Theodore Roosevelt as he published a series of articles dealing with corruption during the Grant administration.  His “The New York Gold Conspiracy” zeroes in on Jay Gould and James Fiske’s attempt to corner the gold market.  In this and other articles he warns that a “rising plutocracy threatened to upend the republic.  Brown focuses on Adams’ more literary projects along with the personal drama surrounding the publication of each.  Novels like ESTHER and  DEMOCRACY reflect his talent as a satirist along with many personal details particularly his spouse Clover.  His greatest triumph came as a historian as his nine volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations reflected not only American history from 1800 to 1817 but also it places events in the United States in the context of European politics.  Brown points to the major criticism of the work in that Adams downplayed the impact of slavery and ignored its strong presence in the northern economy and society.  Further, women are hidden in the narrative with but a few mentions like Dolly Madison and Aaron Burr’s daughter Theodosia.  Adams’ focus is a dismissal of elitism and praises the contributions of non-elites for American society.  Following this history Adams continued his literary career with MONT-SAINT MICHEL AND CHARTRES, a meditative reflection on medieval culture.

Much of Brown’s approach as a biographer is his ability to analyze Adams’ personal writings and delving into a plethora of primary documents.  Further Brown’s portraits of Adams’ friends, allies, and enemies over his lifetime creates a coherent intellectual and political history of half of the 19th century.  Brown has created a land bridge through Henry Adams’ eyes that effectively connects the 19th and 20th centuries that his readers will benefit from.  But one must remember as Brown points out that Adams suffered a number of personal tragedies from the death of his sister Louise, the suicide of his wife that is reflected in his distinctive fatalism built upon an already “defensive and satirical exterior to stiffen.”

Henry Adams’ life is a historical duality in that he thought of himself as an 18th century man and argued for decades against corruption and searched for an antidote for Anglo-Saxon materialism.  However, despite his firm belief that capitalism could ruin the United States in the coming 20th century, he did little on a personal level to disavow his own wealth which allowed him to travel the world, purchase art works and other cultural artifacts, and benefit from the fruits of his societal position.

To sum up Brown has offered  a credible account of America’s transformation during one man’s lifetime, from a Republic where the Adams name was extremely consequential, to an industrialized monolith that had left the family behind.  As historian Amy Greenberg writes “it’s a tribute to Brown’s talent as a biographer that he enables the reader to feel empathy for a man who expressed so little for anyone else.”

The Education of Henry Adams by [Henry Adams]

ROBERT E. LEE AND ME: A SOUTHERNER’S RECKONING WITH THE MYTH OF A LOST CAUSE by Ty Seidule

Lee Park, Charlottesville, VA.jpg
(Robert E. Lee)

On January 6, 2021, the US Capitol was marred by an invasion of a mixture of Trumpists, military militias, white supremacists, and a collection of other conspiracy toting insurrectionists.  What was very disconcerting for me apart from the violence is how these individuals wrapped themselves in a flag – the Confederate flag.  During the Civil War, the Confederate flag never reached the Capitol, now 150 years later it was proudly carried by numerous thugs and treasonous persons who threatened to hang the Vice President and kill the Speaker of the House.  These events resonated with me further as I read retired Brigadier General Ty Seidule’s new book,  ROBERT E. LEE AND ME: A SOUTHERNOR’S RECKONING WITH THE MYTH OF A LOST CAUSE as he grapples with his personal history from growing up in the south and being acculturated with false premises that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights,  tariffs, economics, Lincoln’s racism, or government overreach.  Seidule takes the reader on his own journey of discovery as he passed through college, a thirty year career in the military, and finally as head of the History Department at West Point.  During that sojourn he came to realize that he was raised as a southern gentleman whose education and socialization was built around certain myths and outright lies concerning the causes of the Civil War.

Seidule’s voyage raises a number of disconcerting issues that are currently bedeviling the American body politic and society – the negation of facts.  Seidule gave a lecture that went viral in which he argued that the war between the states that resulted in more deaths than any war the United States has ever fought, but the Civil War saw Americans killing Americans.  The author argued that the war was fought over slavery.  The result was a nasty response through emails, letters, and personal comments, some of which were quite threatening.  Seidule was incredulous and proceeded to reexamine his life’s passage to try and examine how his historical research forced him to confront his past and explain how he has undergone his own reeducation.

Faculty at Washington and Lee University voted on Monday to remove Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s name from the school.
(Washington and Lee University)

Throughout the narrative Seidule is obsessed with facts and truth as he tries to understand how he was duped for so many years.  To understand the author’s past, it is important to delve into his hero worship of Robert E. Lee as a boy and later as a young man.  He saw Lee as a brilliant general even in defeat as he possessed a “noble aura” about him.   Even in defeat at Gettysburg Seidule saw “an opportunity to showcase Lee’s true character and his standing as a gentleman.”  Seidule later realized that the reason he idolized Lee and the Confederacy was because the culture in which he grew up worshipped Lee and as they  proclaimed their racism.  Lee was seen as the most dignified man in history, but Seidule would come to realize that “the United States fought against a rebel force that would not accept the results of a democratic election and chose armed rebellion.”

After carefully reviewing the most impactful books he read as a young man Seidule focuses on Margaret Mitchell’s GONE WITH THE WIND in trying to understand his own brainwashing.  Mitchell’s novel and David Selznick’s film of the same name created the lens that millions of people saw the Civil War and helped perpetuate the “Lost Cause myth.”  Despite their defeat Confederate leaders remained unrepentant.  Soon they would create a new narrative to justify racial control and white supremacy.  Seidule argues that “The Lost Cause became a movement, an ideology, a myth, even a civil religion that would unite first the white south and eventually the nation around the meaning of the Civil War.”  The Lost Cause produced a flawed memory; a lie that formed the ideological foundation for white supremacy, Jim Crow laws, which employed violence and terror to maintain a drastically unequal and segregated society.  The Lost Cause myth argued that white southerners fought for many reasons – protective tariffs, states’ rights, freedom, the agrarian dream, defense, etc. etc., but none of those who espoused the myth mentioned slavery.  The problem is that the facts all point to the Confederate states seceding to protect and expand their peculiar institution.

Paperback Gone With the Wind Book

The Lost Cause brings about secondary myths to support the overall argument.  First, the “obedient servant or happy slave myth,” living on a plantation they loved and that took care of them.  The reality was that the plantation was nothing more than a slave labor farm.  The second myth was that the southern cause was doomed from the outset because the Yankees had more money, material, and manpower – might over right.  A third myth is that Reconstruction was a failure as African Americans weren’t ready for freedom, the vote, or holding high office.  Seidule examines all aspects of the Lost Cause myth and debunks them all by presenting actual historical events and movements.  The Lost Cause would serve as the ideological underpinnings for a violently racist society.

Seidule admits that it took him decades to come to the realization that his entire educational, socialization, and cultural upbringing was based on a lie.  Seidule emerged from his “intellectual bubble” with the burden of guilt that he needed to undo. The narrative is a searing account of Seidule’s upbringing and education corrected by historical facts.  He transports the reader to Alexandria, Va., Walton County, Ga, and Lexington, Va. describing his own education juxtaposed against the places where he grew up and became a “southern gentleman.”  Seidule zeroes in Alexandria, Va.  and Walton, Ga. as his hometowns resorted to beatings, lynching’s, outright murder, the closing of public schools to avoid integration, and denying African Americans the right to vote even in cities and towns where they were the majority all designed to maintain the white supremacist south.  But the author never knew about the history of these places and in a number of instances things that transpired during his lifetime. 

West Point Military Academy on the Hudson River in New York State Stock Photo

(West Point, NY)

However, as Seidule attended college at Washington and Lee University and was exposed to research and goes through a period of self-condemnation as to how he could have been so ignorant.  He unearths numerous racist actions and events following the Civil War and Reconstruction well into the 20th century.  After examining the history of Alexandria and Walton County he could reach only one conclusion – both homes were part of the southern racial police state which was an integral part of creating and maintaining a white supremacist culture in the south.  Seidule integrates numerous historical examples of the violence perpetrated against African Americans and how little the white power structure responded despite Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Ka., the 1964 Civil Rights Act, President Truman’s Civil Rights Commission, etc. 

Seidule blends his own ignorance of racism and violence with historical facts throughout his life’s journey.  The most fascinating recounting deals with Robert E. Lee’s role at Washington and Lee University and how he was elevated to deity status in the universities chapel and mausoleum all designed to focus on the education of a Christian gentlemen for students and viewing Lee as the godlike embodiment of what student strove to become.  All aspects of the university through the 1980s were endemic to the belief in the myths surrounding the Civil War.  Once Seidule came to realize the truth he engaged in a self-imposed guilt by trying to cleanse his own past and educate others as to how the Lost Cause myth came about and how to rectify it.

Seidule’s frustrations are many as he recounts how ten US Army forts are named after southern officers who fought and committed treason against their country, fostered supremacist racial beliefs, owned slaves and worked to deny African Americans the rights guaranteed in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the constitution after the Civil War.  Names like Braxton Bragg, John Brown Gordon, A.P.  Hill, George Pickett, Leonides Polk, Henry L. Benning, John Bell Hood, Pierre Gustav Toutant Beauregard, and of course Robert E. Lee, all men who fought and committed treason to preserve slavery as they killed American soldiers, but their names remain on the signage as you enter these posts, despite the current legislation to try and remove them from military installations.  Even as Seidule experienced his own military career he was confronted with the Confederate myths in the US Army.  Once he began to teach military history at West Point, he did his best to set the historical record straight, particularly how and why portraits and monuments to Lee proliferated at West Point in the 20th century.  He passionately believes the only way to correct the past was to try and make sure the Lost Cause myth did not infect his grandchildren – the tool that needed to be relied upon is historical knowledge. The past does not have to control us, especially if we understand it.

COL-SEIDULE-Picture-400x600 Colonel Ty Seidule To Give Constitution Day Lecture September 17
(The Author)

Once must commend the author’s journey of discovery and attempts to rectify his past.  My only criticism is that at times the narrative is somewhat repetitive, but his overall argument that Lee is guilty of treason in support of a racist regime is dead on.  His story is a microcosm of a larger portrait that has imbued the south for over 150 years.  If by some “miracle” instead of reducing the study of history and government at educational institutions, we would fund and increase opportunities for more classes the divide that infects America today might be lessened.  But, with terms like “fake news,” conspiracy theories involving 9/11, arguing that wildfires are caused by Jewish laser beams, Sandy Hook and Parkland murders did not occur, and QAnon members in the House of Representatives who refuse to give up their weapons on the House floor – as a result I am not encouraged.

One final thought.  Seidule states that the Confederacy was formed in reaction to the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.  They would go on to fight a war because they felt the election would destroy slavery.  From this war sprang the Lost Cause myth, a form of “fake news.”  Today we have a segment of the population that believes that the election of Joe Biden was stolen from them and it resulted in conspiracy theories that led to the attack on the capitol. What did the opponents of the 1860 and 2020 election results have in common – White Supremacy.

The Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Va., was at the center of a violent rally this past weekend.
(Statue of Robert E. Lee, Charlotesville, Va.)

A PROMISED LAND by Barack Obama

President Barack Obama waves at the conclusion of his news conference in the briefing room of the White House, Dec. 16, 2016, in Washington, D.C.

(President Barack Obama waves at the conclusion of his news conference in the briefing room of the White House, Dec. 16, 2016, in Washington, D.C.)

After listening to a 46 minute incoherent rant last night by Donald Trump about how the election was stolen from him and other conspiracy theories I was pleased to sit down in a quiet corner of my study and engage Barack Obama’s new memoir, A PROMISED LAND.  The comparison between Trump and Obama is alarming as one man uses (ed) the presidency as if were a vehicle for wealth accumulation and as a means of destroying anyone who disagreed with him, while the other, whether you agreed with him or not was sincere about carrying out his constitutional duties as chief executive in a reasonable manner.

Obama has written an engaging memoir that encompasses his early years to his life in Chicago, his early political career, and the first three years of his presidency through the killing of Osama Bin-Ladin.  It is clearly written and reflects a great deal of thought, a remarkable knowledge of history, and personal detail which is missing from most presidential memoirs.  Over the years I have read all the existing presidential memoirs since Harry Truman’s two volume contribution and would argue for breadth of detail, insightful analysis, candor, and substance, Obama’s memoir should be on the top of the list as he avoids much of the trenchant narrative that his predecessors engaged in.

Obama’s narrative has three major components.  First, the personal.  Obama is incredibly open about the effect of his political career on his marriage and children.  Further, he has no compunction about hiding his feelings about the likes Mitch McConnell, Stanley McCrystal,  Hillary Clinton, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Ted Kennedy, David Axelrod and countless others.  Second, reflecting his broad historical knowledge he provides introductions, in addition to lessons for each issue he is confronted with be it the 2008 financial crisis, Iran’s nuclear program, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, trying to deal with Vladimir Putin, pandemics, among the many problems he faced on a daily basis.  Lastly, the core of any presidential memoir is his political career, relations with other politicians, and trying to gain passage of important legislation, i.e.; the Affordable Care Act, immigration reform, and regulating financial institutions. 

Michelle Obama podcast Barack Obama

(Michelle and Barack Obama)

In all areas he explains his decision-making process as he attempted to solve the problems America faced on a daily basis.  A case in point was his approach to troop levels in Afghanistan when he assumed the presidency.  The Pentagon favored the “McCrystal Plan” that called for a 40,000 troop increase that would bring troop levels to over 100,000 and would probably keep America in Afghanistan long after an Obama presidency ended, even if he served two terms.  Obama as he does in most cases breaks down how he worked with Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to reach a compromise of 17,000 men but setting a controversial withdrawal date for American forces.  But no matter what issue Obama discusses be it the inherited economic crisis, rethinking the U.S.’s place in the world, racist resentment lurks below, and its stench rises into sharper focus seemingly in each chapter.

Obama’s writing and approach is not perfect and he like others tends to get bogged down in details, but he has the ability to integrate personal observations on a host of issues and personalities that most readers should find on one level, charming, but also quite interesting.  Obama conveys his views very carefully and succinctly as he opens a window to his private life and presidency.  At the forefront is his relationship with his wife Michelle.  He is very honest about the role she played in his career and sacrificing a great deal personally as she took over direction of their two daughters.  She was against his pursuit of a political career, though she provided her full support.  But it is clear from her own memoir that she despised politics.  It is also clear throughout the narrative that Obama agonized over how his political career and the presidency in particular affected his family, but it did not derail his belief that he could change America for the better and bridge the partisan divide, a belief that reflects his naivete in dealing with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Hillary Clinton and President Obama are seen in this 2012 photo.

(Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama)

Of the many important subjects that Obama addresses a number stand out which remain problematical to this day.  It seems that at every turn the Republicans led by Senator Mitch McConnell and John Boehner that their goal was to make sure he was a one term president.  These feelings on the part of Republicans in general were based on the need to maintain power, but in Obama’s case it had racial overtones.  The Professor Louis Gates affair that resulted in the infamous “beer summit” at the White House is very reflective of the racial issue.  Obama tried to downplay the arrest of Gates, a Harvard professor who was placed in handcuffs as he tried to enter his own home.  But when Obama supported his friend the criticism of the president by the conservative right was heightened.  What is crystal clear was that as a Republican you were not supposed to cooperate with Obama and if you did it would negatively affect your political career.  Obama would comment on conservatives’ reactions to him in many cases as “have they lost their minds.”

The 2008 financial crisis, that produced the TARP legislation at the end of the Bush administration, the Recovery Act, and the auto industry bailout are dealt with in detail.  Dealing with the crisis before he assumed office and immediately after his inauguration it reflects Obama’s deference to the quality of his cabinet and advisers.  He weighed all recommendations and relied heavily on the likes of Tim Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury and others.  He clearly explains the machinations of bankers, hedge fund managers, and others that brought the United States and many of its citizens to financial disaster and in many cases, particularly among minorities and other segments of society who to this day have not totally recovered.  Obama takes the reader inside the George W. Bush administration cabinet room as well as his own as attempts at legislating an end to the crisis – very eye opening.

Obama’s commentary on foreign policy issues is a blend of hard nose realism and baseless hope.  Dealing with Russia easily comes to mind.  When Vladimir Putin stepped aside and allowed Dimitry Medvedev to assume power in Russia, Obama felt he might have a partner in his “Russian reset.”  Though fully aware that Putin was pulling the strings from behind he clung to the idea that progress could be made.  His description of his first summit with Putin who in a rather forceful manner harangued the American delegation about American slights toward Russia and the damage the NATO expansion, the financial crisis, and constant human rights complaints which the Russian leader believed humiliated his country.  This should have opened Obama’s eyes as he experienced the “real Putin” and developed a firmer response toward the  Russian autocrat.

President Obama leads a Cabinet meeting in the Cabinet room

(The Obama Cabinet)

Relations with Iran attract a great deal of attention, as does his approach toward the Shi’ite government in Iraq under Nuri al-Maliki, the corrupt regime of Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan, the disingenuous Pakistani government, and relations with Angela Merkel of Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, and English Prime Minister David Cameron.  Obama’s remarks are priceless as he provides details dealing with all of these issues and relationships.  Clearly, he was taken aback in a number of situations, particularly the awarding of the Nobel Prize which he himself knew he really had done nothing to earn other than not being George Bush and becoming the first black American president.  His comment is revealing; “for what?”

On the domestic front Obama expresses a vibe of disbelief as he tried to develop legislation on a number of important topics.  In dealing with the financial crisis Wall Street and banking reform was called for which in the end would result in Dodd-Frank, which for many did not go far enough.  Environmental problems festered and getting republicans to accept climate change was a big ask which of course negated any comprehensive legislation to regulate corporations and lobbyists.  However, as some progress was made, the Deep Water Horizon Spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico changed everyone’s focus.  In what some have called “Obama’s Katrina” the president takes the reader inside the government and BP’s attempts at ameliorating the situation.  As Obama states, each day seemed to bring a new crisis, many of which his administration was not prepared for.

situation room obama biden clinton osama raid
US President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, receive an update on Operation Neptune’s Spear, a mission against Osama bin Laden, in one of the conference rooms of the Situation Room of the White House, May 1, 2011. 

Aside from a narrative focused on policy and personalities, Obama makes an interesting point in discussing his own upbringing in Indonesia, Hawaii, and frequent visits to Kenya, and how it affected his later approach to problem solving.  His background was one of diversity and his approach to foreign policy and domestic decisions dealing with minorities and poverty bear this out.  Perhaps Obama’s background helps explains his appearance of being aloof and “cool,” traits that seemed to alienate anyone who disagreed with him be it on the left or right of the political spectrum. 

Overall, Obama’s massive memoir, which has another volume which will be released at some point in the future is an exercise in choosing topics that he felt comfortable examining leaving out certain aspects of his presidency that may not cast a favorable light.  For example, there was a 700% increase in drone strikes in Pakistan which receives little mention.  Obama’s approach to the Arab spring and his chaotic policy toward Libya merits greater discussion.  Under Obama administration policies deportation of immigrants rose markedly as did the prosecution of government whistle blowers.  These issues are important, but in comparison to the coverage that Obama provides they do not detract from my view of the importance of this memoir and for many setting the political record straight.  For Obama it appears that if he laid out his thinking in sufficient detail, along with the constellation of obstacles and constraints he faced, any reasonable American will understand why he governed as he did.  No matter how much he may internalize this belief our current political environment reflects that his premise is wrong.

An excerpt of former President Barack Obama's upcoming memoir "A Promised Land" was released Monday by the New Yorker.

(An excerpt of former President Barack Obama’s upcoming memoir “A Promised Land” was released Monday by the New Yorker.)

HOAX: DONALD TRUMP, FOX NEWS, AND THE DANGEROUS DISTORTION OF TRUTH by Brian Stelter


Sean Hannity
(Sean Hannity)

Never in the history of American politics has a national news organization been an extension of a political party or president.  This may seem to be a harsh observation but when one examines President Donald Trump’s twitter feed, public statements, or speeches it appears at times to reflect what is presented on Fox News.  If one were to listen to the commentary of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Lou Dobbs, or the hosts of Fox and Friends among many others one can only imagine if the president is parroting them, or they are parroting him.  Amidst a pandemic that has killed over 206,000 Americans President Trump spends a good part of his day watching Fox News.  Since we live in such precarious times it would be interesting to know how this situation evolved, whether it is in fact true, and what are the implications for American democracy.  Thankfully, CNN’s Reliable Sources anchor, Brian Stelter’s new book, HOAX: DONALD TRUMP, FOX NEWS, AND THE DANGEROUS DISTORTION OF TRUTH has taken on this task.

The title of Stelter’s book, HOAX is very apropos.  It’s Donald Trump’s new favorite word.  He fears Covid-19 makes him look weak, something his ego cannot accept.  Instead of fulfilling his constitutional duty to protect the American people he categorizes the pandemic as a hoax, with Sean Hannity as his chief enabler, some referring to him as Trump‘s “shadow chief of staff.”  Stelter aptly describes how is early 2020, Trump and Hannity engaged in their usual feedback loop which had life and death consequences as they downplayed the coronavirus to the detriment of the American public.  Hannity “fed misinformation to Trump and Trump fed misinformation right back to Hannity.”  The two men brought out the worst in each other as it appeared that Trump programmed Hannity’s show with his constant call-ins during prime time and it often appeared that Hannity produced Trump’s presidency.  Hannity would become apart from granting sycophantic interviews and concocted conspiracies but a daily sounding board for the president.

(Rupert Murdoch)

The concept of a feedback loop is one of Stelter’s primary themes as he displays examples of it throughout the book that reinforce his arguments.  Whether dealing with Fox and Friends’ hosts, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham the loop seems fully functional.  A few examples.  When Congressman Elijah Cummings’ House committee was investigating how the Trump administration was treating migrants, all of a sudden Fox programming was reinforcing and supporting Trumps’ tweets – “The Battle for Baltimore,”  as Trump referred to Cummings’ district as “a disgusting rat infested mess that no human being would want to live there.”  Fox opinion hosts employed constant repetition as they did with trying to clean up Trump’s mess after his courting of white supremacists during and after the Charlottesville debacle, or how Fox went after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez after she was elected to Congress in 2018, or the caravans that were invading America through Mexico before the 2018 Congressional elections, or Trump’s defense during the impeachment process or the Mueller investigation; or Trump’s belief that the crowd at his inauguration was much larger than Obama’s; or how a debunked conspiracy theory that a Democratic National Committee staffer was murdered for leaking campaign emails; or the false claim that Ukraine, not Russia, was interfering in the 2016 election; and of course the current coronavirus highlighted by hydroxychloroquine– the list goes on and on.

Fox’s approach raises the question are they really a news station or just entertainment and “brain washing” for the extreme right in America.  Rupert Murdoch has created an exceptionally profitable business model that thrives on deceit, lies, personal attacks, while reinforcing an alternative reality as opposed to fact and truth.  Stelter describes numerous personality issues at Fox, but more importantly he presents the schism that exist(ed) as the more traditional news types like Brett Baier, Chris Wallace and Shep Smith had to deal with the outrageous commentary of the Fox and Friends hosts, Steve Doocy, Brian Kilmeade and Ainsley Earhardt;  Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham.  Finally, in October 2019, Smith had enough and resigned because of disagreements with Carlson over Fox coverage of the impeachment process.  The reality for Trump is that unlike President Bill Clinton who created a “war room” to deal with impeachment, Trump did not have to as Fox became his “war room.”

(Tucker Carlson)

Stelter reviews the history of the Fox news channel delving into turning points in their approach to news.   In 1996 Rupert Murdoch provided Roger Ailes with a “boat load of cash” to develop a strong news channel to attract conservatives, sort of a “Limbaugh” approach for cable television is one example.  The election of Barack Obama became the radicalizing force is next, and finally in 2011, Ailes gave Trump a weekly phone-in slot on Fox and Friends.  Hannity would become a nightly attack ad for people who distrusted the nightly news. Guests on Hannity and other programs went outside the accepted norms of journalism.  In fact, Fox and Friends with their constant call-ins from Trump may be more important to Trump’s presidential launch than “The Apprentice.”  If one examines the “incestuous” relationship between Trump and Fox hosts one can see that once in office that Trump’s daily briefings seemed prepared by Fox as their commentary usually wound up in Trump’s tweets and then he would act upon them.

Stelter explores numerous dramas that have taken place internally at Fox.  The Meghan Kelly/Trump feud; the sexual harassment lawsuits against Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly; the machinations between Hannity and O’Reilly; the problem that Tucker Carlson presented as he was losing ad revenue;  attempts to keep Shep Smith which failed; the reasons why so many journalists remained at Fox and only a few walked out; issues within the Murdoch family as the two sons had diametrically different visions for the channel.  In terms of drama Carlson and Ingraham pursued it each evening with their message of cultural displacement of whites by immigrants and the loss of status of white Christian America.  Fox and Friends would supplant Trump’s morning intelligence briefing and it became the A.M. edition of Hannity.  But as disgraceful as it appeared it made sense as most Fox hosts were geared to an audience of one – Donald Trump. 

laura-ingraham
(Laura Ingraham)

If there are criticisms that need to be made regarding Stelter’s work is at times he becomes too emotional and his language regresses to match the Fox hosts he decries.  Further, he should have tried to approach Fox viewers and see what is so attractive to them about the information that they are being exposed to.  It is obvious that Fox is enticing to millions, but why?  Do viewers understand that they are being manipulated or in their heart of hearts believe and accept all the misinformation they digest?  Stelter glosses over answers to these questions.  Perhaps he could have examined this phenomena a bit more.

CNN’s Brian Stelter was confronted by a C-SPAN caller who told him the network is “dividing our nation." (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for CNN)

(CNN’s Brian Stelter)

After reading HOAX I emerged with a massive headache – a malady brought upon by Stelter’s description of the manipulation of fact and news by a media giant to the detriment of our democracy.  For Fox ratings and profits were the mantra and they would say and do anything that would reinforce that goal.  As the Trump presidency evolved Fox became more and more state run television, something that has never happened since television became a mainstay in American households.  Now that I have completed the book, I know what it is like to spend time in the Fox pro-Trump universe of misinformation.  As the election approaches, I would recommend that most Americans should read Stelter’s work and apply what they learn to their choice of candidate.


sean hannity trump vaping fox book
(Sean Hannity)

HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE by Jon Meacham

Martin Luther King Jr. with John Lewis at Mass Meeting in Nashville

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., center right, is escorted into a mass meeting at Fisk University along with Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee chair John Lewis, left, and Lester Mckinnie, center, in Nashville, Tenn., in 1964.Bettmann Archive/Getty ImagesJuly 21, 

When John R. Lewis died recently, part of America’s conscience passed with him.  With all the turbulence, chaos, lies, and antipathy toward race that is endemic to the Trump administration it makes every day difficult.  A case in point was yesterday in Kenosha, WI when Trump refused to acknowledge the shooting of Jacob Blake by police and his subsequent paralysis or his support for Kyle Rittenhouse, the seventeen year old AR-15 carrying killer of two men.  For me this has led to despair as I do not see a way out of America’s current condition with a “serial igniter” when it comes to race. Trump and his acolytes blame everyone but their own policies and rhetoric for where we are as a country, and one can only imagine what will become of our racial divide should he be reelected.

Watching and listening to the outpouring of respect for Lewis by the American people because of his message of non-violence and hope for the next generation was always reassuring, but now he is gone.  However, the texture of his life’s work is on full display in Jon Meacham’s latest work, HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE.  Mecham’s latest is not a full scale biography like his previous subjects, Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and George H.W. Bush, but a more nuanced rendering of the development of Lewis’ personal theology and his contribution to the American Civil Rights Movement dating to the 1950s.  Mecham’s new book is somewhat a sequel to his wonderful book THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR A BETTER ANGELS where he expresses an optimism for America’s future that I believe has been shattered by events in Portland, Kenosha, and the rise of the alt-right white supremacist movement in this country.  We are bombarded each day by bifurcated politics and have lost the leadership of a great man. 

martin luther king jr
Martin Luther King, Jr. 

In true Meacham fashion his newest narrative history relies on extensive research and the application of incisive analysis as the keystone to his examination of Lewis’ life work.  Mecham points out his goal was to present an appreciative account of the major moments of Lewis’ life in the Civil Rights Movement, “of the theological understanding he brought to the struggle and the utility of that vision as America enters the third decade of the twenty-first century amid division and fear.”  Mecham’s opening chapter entitled “Overture” returns the dying Lewis suffering from pancreatic cancer to Selma, AL last March to celebrate the events of fifty-five years ago at the Edmund Pettis Bridge where he was almost beaten to death by a white mob supported by police which frames the stage for his remarkable life’s work and accomplishments, but also his optimism and love in the face of hatred.

For Lewis growing up in the segregated world of Troy, AL the church become his comfort and restorative zone and from an incredibly young age he fashioned himself as a preacher.  He possessed a great imagination and quickening faith from biblical themes of resurrection, of exile, and deliverance shaped and suffused Lewis’ life from its earliest days.  Even as a boy he would preach to his “congregation of chickens” located in his “chicken coop”who he would minister to each day.  He would experience the vividness of the Jim Crow order and its segregation realizing how evil it was from an early age.  Once he was exposed to an integrated society at his Uncle’s home in Buffalo, he realized how difficult it was to reconcile the teachings of Jesus and segregation.

The watershed moment(s) of his life was his exposure and later meeting with Dr. Martin Luther King.  For the first time King’s words introduced a vision of “non-violence, religiously inspired protest, to a way of seeing the world in terms of bringing the temporal in tune with the timeless.”  Lewis was not concerned with the streets of heaven, but the streets of Montgomery and the way black and poor people were treated.

Stokely Carmichael speaking at Garfield High School, Seattle, 1967

There were a number of individuals who influenced Lewis’ intellectual development.  Apart from Dr. King, the “social gospel” concepts of Walter Rauschenbusch, the strategy of non-violence of Reverend James M. Lawson, along with the murder of Emmett Till, and the work of Rosa Parks all impacted him greatly.  Mecham does a workman like job weaving Lewis’ upbringing and later life within the context of American history.  His intellectual and emotional development applied to upheavals in America are clearly explored and provides a roadmap into what Lewis thought and what type of man he would become.

Lewis saw integration as a key step forward toward bringing the world into a closer tune with the gospel.  Meacham allows the reader to accompany Lewis on his life’s journey including experiencing the approach of peaceful protest met by violence, arrest and imprisonment in Nashville, TN, Oak Hill, SC, Jackson, MS, and Birmingham and Montgomery, AL. in the mid to late 1950s.  Along the way we meet the Reverend Ralph Abernathy of Birmingham’s First Baptist church, James farmer of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Medgar Evers, Field Secretary for the NAACP before his murder by Klansmen in Jackson, Diane Nash, a key organizer of sit-ins and Freedom Rides, and of course the likes of Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Conner, George Corley Wallace, and John Patterson.  There were also those that did not go along with Lewis’ “Beloved Community.”  Men like Stokely Carmichael who believed that systemic racism would not be defeated by non-violence – he favored radical action after the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights bill that led to Lewis’ removal as Chair of the SNCC; and Malcom X who favored a more militant approach and denigrated some of Lewis’ ideas, though later on they came much closer to each other’s ideals.

The Missing Malcolm X

Malcom X

Meacham presents a balanced approach integrating theology, socio-economics, and political components that Lewis brought to the Civil Rights Movement providing insights into what made Lewis tick and made him such a social and political force of nature. 1963 would be a watershed for Lewis’ development and the Civil Rights Movement.  Meacham provides intricate details of events surrounding protests in Birmingham and Jackson culminating in the March on Washington on August 28th of that year where Lewis at age twenty-one was the youngest speaker.  At the age of twenty-three after his participation in the Freedom Rides and a stint at Parchman Farm, the notorious Mississippi prison, Lewis was elected Chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  SNCC led the growing militancy of the Civil Rights Movement provoking violent resistance against their cause that pushed a reluctant federal government to embrace the cause of Black rights.  By 1965, the Johnson administration gained the passage of legislation prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations and voting destroying the legal foundations of Jim Crow.  1965 was also the year that Lewis suffered a fractured skull at the hands of the Alabama State Police at the Edmund Pettis Bridge as they marched for voting rights in Selma, AL, an event known as Bloody Sunday.  SNCC leadership would pass from Lewis to Stokely Carmichael in 1966 whose Black Power slogan was the antithesis of Lewis’ vision of a nationwide integrated community. But the SNCC would flounder due to FBI harassment and internal disagreements and passed from the scene by the late 1960s.  By 1968 Lewis would join Robert Kennedy’s presidential campaign and after Kennedy’s assassination he would go on to be elected to Congress where he would serve for more than thirty years.

Much of Meacham’s work relies heavily on Lewis’ memoir, WALKING IN THE WIND and as the author points out he did not set out to write a full scale biography.  Meacham reminds readers that if they wanted a full scale biography they must wait until Rutgers historian David Greenberg completes his own work.  But in the interim, Meacham’s work should hold the fort for those with an interest in a remarkable man.

John Lewis. Courtesy High Museum.

(John R. Lewis, booked for one of his many arrests)

THE HARD HAT RIOT: NIXON, NEW YORK CITY, AND THE DAWN OF THE WHITE WORKING CLASS REVOLUTION by David Paul Kuhn

Construction workers and antiwar protesters scuffled near Broad and Wall Sts. in May, 1970. (John Rooney/AP)
Construction workers and antiwar protesters scuffled near Broad and Wall Sts. in May, 1970. (John Rooney/AP)

For me, the first week of May 1970 was one of extreme personal conflict.  On May 4th, the nation witnessed the death of four Kent State student at the hands of the Ohio National Guard.  On May 8th New York City Mayor, John V. Lindsay ordered the lowering of the American flag to half staff at City Hall which provoked construction workers working on the World Trade Center and other sites in lower Manhattan to continue rioting that began on Wall and Broad Streets by attacking students, “hippies,” or anyone who looked like they disagreed with them.  Pace College, at which I was a student became a target that continued the violence that construction workers had been perpetuating for what seemed like for hours.  At Pace students were beaten, many to unconsciousness, chased into dorms, student centers and even the subways menaced by pipes, wrenches, and fists as the NYPD looked on in quiet amusement.  Later that night I learned that my United States Army Reserve unit stationed at St. John’s University in Queens, NY had been activated to deal with anti-war demonstrators.  The next day I found myself in riot gear, no longer a demonstrator, but a soldier ordered to defend our armory against students.  These events have receded from my generation’s memory but have been rekindled by David Paul Kuhn’s superb new study, THE HARD HAT RIOT: NIXON, NEW YORK CITY, AND THE DAWN OF THE WHITE WORKING CLASS REVOLUTION.

News Release Image

(Pace University today, known as Pace College in May, 1970 when hard hats broke through these doors…..)

At a time when we have a president who raps himself in law and order as Richard Nixon did in the late 1960s and early 1970s basing his support on the white working class it is useful to turn the page and explore when this group which had been part of the Democratic Party coalition since the New Deal switched to the GOP.  Nixon was able to move the Republican Party from the “blue bloods” to the “blue collar” manipulating opposition to the war in Vietnam creating a new play book that is still be employed today – a focus on race, class, and ethnic hatred.  Kuhn correctly points out that 1968 was the “biggest year for students since 1848 – the year of student led revolutions in Europe.”  Kuhn builds upon the occupation of Columbia University led by SDS militants to explain the radicalization of college students across America, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago as well as the Moratorium movement against the war.

Kuhn effectively explains the rise of a counter movement to those who opposed the war and the corporations and politicians who supported it.  He explores how blue-collar workers, many of whom fought in World War II and Korea, came to see college students as children of privilege, who had the socio-economic advantages that they did not have.  The war itself was being fought in the majority by children of blue-collar workers who were patriotic and believed in fighting against the communist threat.  Construction workers were the epitome of the blue-collar class as events unfolded in early May and they “saw privileged kids venting rage on working class guys trying to maintain order.”  For Kuhn what transpired was a developing class war which he carefully argues.

(Richard Nixon with his hard hat!)

Kuhn does a good job explaining historical events including the various movements that were against the war.  His analysis is important because it places the shootings at Kent State and events that followed in their historical context.  One of the most important issues was the decline of manufacturing in northern cities like New York which under Mayor Lindsay, the darling of progressives accelerated with increased immigration from Puerto Rico, and migration of southern blacks.  New York, like other cities would suffer from “white flight,” as education declined, crime and air pollution increased.  The plight of urban areas became part of the deindustrialization of America.  At this time, I was a high school student and experienced a subway strike, a garbage strike, and a teacher’s strike all within a 12-24 month period.  I witnessed muggings, racial unrest, and increased crime in my Brooklyn neighborhood, all fodder for Nixon’s “law and order campaigns” in 1968 and 1972.

The decline of New York City is carefully explained, and Kuhn disagrees with the argument that it was due to “white flight” as he points out  that blacks were trying to migrate to the suburbs in as much as whites.  As a result, the city became a haven for white collar jobs, but its labor force was blue collar.  Many historians argue that Nixon developed a “southern strategy,” but Kuhn argues that it was more of a “Middle America” strategy focusing on events and policies that hurt “the Silent Majority” in the middle of the country.  The anti-war movement, poverty, urban unrest, all led to class conflict which Nixon was able to exploit.  People saw upper class rich kids demonstrating while they suffered economically.  The result Middle America represented by blue-collar workers found their voice in Richard Nixon as opposed to John Lindsay, who represented the elitist liberal establishment.

(New York Mayor John V. Lindsay in 1965)

In all, most soldiers who fought in Vietnam were whites with blue-collar or poorer backgrounds.  This led to more affluent whites being less likely to serve and die in Vietnam.  The military had traditionally offered a pathway to societal respect, Vietnam killed that.  In examining the rise of John Lindsay in New York it is clear his appeal was based on social class in terms of poverty, racism, and the anti-war movement making him the darling of the New Left.  The problem was that “high minded sympathy did not extend to the city’s [white] blue collar workers.”  The result was the creation of a disaffected blue collar working class that would explode in early May.

Kuhn exhibits a firm grasp of labor and immigration history and how they affected the development of New York from the 1840s onward. In his discussion, Kuhn emphasizes socio-economic status, ethnicity, race, and religion.  As the decades passed especially after World War II, blue collar workers categorized elites as looking down on them and  “saw hypocrites telling them to bear burdens that others benefited from more and had not yet answered for, or would not, or could not afford to ever face, and yet still stood on soapboxes and morally judged them.”

Lindsay just exacerbated blue collar anger with his support for the anti-war movement and praising demonstrators in his speeches.  Lindsay’s New York was part of the tense emotions that Kuhn captures that existed across America.  With fire bombings on campuses, demonstrations, and riots in reaction to Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia producing incendiary rhetoric on the part of the President in a  country that was a tinderbox.

When May 7, 1970 arrived with the funeral of Jeffrey Miller, one of the four students killed at Kent State  it was clear trouble was afoot as protestors and construction workers skirmished on Wall Street and rumors persisted that these workers were planning to teach these “kids” a lesson.  This would come to fruition the next day and forms the core of Kuhn’s narrative.

Kuhn relies on NYPD archives which include 324 interviews that were conducted after the events of May 8th.  What was clear is that the police tended to ignore the rioting and violence perpetuated by construction workers against students and anyone who appeared as if they supported them.  He is able to piece together a coherent narrative of the mayhem that  transpired on Wall Street, Broadway, culminating at City Hall Park and Pace College.  The demonstrators believed in the false assumption that police were there to protect them.  I myself witnessed repeated beatings while police turned away.  If I were to compare my memory of events at City Hall and Pace, they dove tail completely with Kuhn’s description.  Kuhn is to be commended for delving into the archives and recreating what can only be described as construction workers run amuck, beating people, many indiscriminately for hours while New York’s finest, even when people pleaded with them to intervene, did extraordinarily little.

An area of interest for me is the investigation that took place after the rioting and what emerged.  It is clear from Kuhn’s presentation that the NYPD’s probe of its own department buried evidence of police malfeasance and minimized witness consensus.  It contained numerous rationalizations for their lack of law enforcement.  It blamed what transpired on “understaffing, the instigating students, the limited range of handheld radios, the unprecedented nature of the confrontation.”  Further, the NYPD found no evidence that labor leaders planned the riot, and that it caught fire based on hard hats being antagonized by “hippies.”  Kuhn concludes that the hard hat “tantrum” was essentially spontaneous and not, as some believed, part of some grand conspiracy.

The biggest winner from the events of May 8 – 20 was Richard M. Nixon.  The hard hats would become part of his base, poached away from the Democrats.  The GOP, the party of big business was now making inroads with labor.  One of Kuhn’s most important themes deals with blue collar activism which buoyed Nixon by the end of the summer, 1970.  Patrick Buchanan, then one of his advisors argued that Democratic swing voters were law and order believers, conservative on social issues like busing, crime, affirmative action, but progressive on domestic issues, i.e., Medicare, social security.  Buchanan successfully argued that if the Republicans held the political center, they would win big in 1972, which turned out to be the case.  Union heads like George Meany and Peter Brennan swung their support to Nixon as the hard hat riot created the initial bond between a Republican president and Democratic union members that continued under Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, and formed the base of support for Donald Trump.

Kuhn has written a masterful and riveting study.  At times repetitive, particularly when describing the hard hat riot, but this should be overlooked when evaluating the overall depth and quality of Kuhn’s narrative.  Kuhn has written the seminal work on the topic which should stand the test of time.  If you are seeking an explanation for class conflict that evolved decades later into an issue exploited by Donald Trump in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to win the White House, Kuhn’s research and ultimate outcome should open your eyes.

RUSH: REVOLUTION, MADNESS, AND THE VISIONARY DOCTOR WHO BECAME A FOUNDING FATHER by Stephen Fried

Meet the Doctor Who Convinced America to Sober Up

Meet Benjamin Rush, father of the temperance movement, signer of the Declaration of Independence

Benjamin Rush

When we think of the Founding Fathers and heroes of the American Revolution the names that are mentioned include George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, John and Samuel Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison, among others.  Rarely if ever does the name Benjamin Rush enter the conversation.  However, in Stephen Fried’s new biography RUSH: REVOLUTION, MADNESS, AND THE VISIONARY DOCTOR WHO BECAME A FOUNDING FATHER, the author presents a truly Renaissance individual who impacted the era in which he lived on multiple levels including science, politics, sociology, psychology, and other aspects of intellectual life.  The question must be asked why such a brilliant scientist and political thinker who influenced many of his contemporaries in countless ways has not been the subject of greater historical research.

Fried has filled that gap with an absorbing portrait and attempts to answer the question by arguing that Rush may have known too much about his fellow revolutionaries and physicians who made him privy to many of their deepest thoughts.  After his death in 1813, Adams and Jefferson, along with his family members suppressed his writings resulting in the diminution of his legacy.  According to Fried he would become the “footnote founder, a second-tier founder.”

Stephen Fried at the statue of Benjamin Rush at Dickinson College (Photo: Carl Socolow)

 

No matter where Rush falls in the pantheon of the Founding Fathers after reading Fried’s work it is clear he was an exceptional historical figure who impacted many aspects of American society and politics during his lifetime.  From his education as a physician, his polemical writings, his role during the revolution, the people he developed relationships with, his impact after the revolution in dealing with mental illness, and raising the level of the health of Americans Rush’s life is worthy of exploration.  Fried begins with his medical education stressing the methods available in the 1760s.  The study of anatomy and the compounding of medicines created a baseline in which to compare what existed and the improvements that would develop as Rush’s career evolved.  His mentors, Doctors John Morgan and Willian Shippen are important in that they provided Rush with knowledge of techniques and diagnostics which laid the ground work for what George Washington would complain, “those damn physicians” who later could not get along because of their egos causing a great deal of trouble during the revolution and after.  From the outset Rush’s approach to medicine, i.e., dissection, obstetrics, and midwifery at the time were controversial and provoked a great deal of opposition.  As Fried lays out the development of Rush’s belief system it was clear he was his own man and was not shy about putting his opinions in letters and pamphlets and rarely backed away from his approach to medicine or politics.

The strength of Fried’s approach rests on integrating Rush’s writings/opinions from his diaries, journals, letters, and common place books into the narrative.  Fried uses this material providing intimate details of Rush’s most important relationships during a lifetime in which he developed  with John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, and a host of medical contemporaries.  Rush was a prolific writer and soon employed “the pamphlet” as his major tool in letting the public know his opinions, many of which rubbed people the wrong way.  One of his first pamphlets reflects his dilettantish nature published in the early 1770s, “Sermons to Gentlemen on Temperance and Exercise,” in addition to publishing his views as a Philadelphian concerning the English tax on tea which would lead directly to the Boston Tea Party, and his influence and editing of Thomas Paine’s COMMON SENSE.  Rush would dabble in all types of subjects, but his underlying coda was to improve society, but from his own perspective.  Eventually he would be a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Admission ticket, Benjamin Rush's lectures on chemistry, 1769

Fried’s narrative recounts the course of the American Revolution in a clear and concise manner.  There is nothing that is presented that previous historians have not mined.  What sets Fried’s work apart is the role played by Rush in attending the medical needs of the colonists even crossing the Delaware with Washington.  Rush witnessed the horrors of 18th century warfare firsthand and he used what he experienced as a basis for a platform to improve medical care through diagnosis, technique, medicines, and the creation of military hospitals.  Rush tended to rub people the wrong way with his writing and commentary, a flaw that got him into trouble with many people including his commentary about Washington’s leadership.

Rush had no compunction about criticizing his mentors particularly Dr. William Shippen leadership as Chief Physician and Inspector-General during the revolution.  Historians have pointed out the lack of food, clothing, and pay that colonial soldiers had to cope with.  Fried takes it further by exploring the weaknesses of medical care for soldiers.  Rush would finally resign from Washington’s army in 1778, but many of his ideas about hospital care were implemented.  Later Rush would testify at Shippen’s court-martial against Washington’s advice, but he would be acquitted by one vote.

Fried does not overlook Rush’s private life.  He would not marry until the age of thirty because of the advice of his mother.  He would marry Julia Stockton who was sixteen, but they had a long life together and were deeply in love.  The marriage would produce thirteen pregnancies, but unfortunately only six children would live to adulthood.  He was a good father and provider, but as with most men during the period he was away from home at least half the time until the 1781-1786 period were, he devoted himself to his family and medical practice.

Fried describes Rush’s political role in detail particularly after the American Revolution.  He had been a delegate to the Second Continental Congress and later would be a delegate to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention which would ratify the Constitution in 1787. Rush also became involved in the issue of slavery.  He would become an abolitionist; despite the fact he did own one slave who he would free in 1793 and he argued profusely concerning the inhumanity of the “peculiar institution.”  Another of his pet peeves was the lack of a comprehensive educational system in Pennsylvania and after the new nation was ratified.  He worked assiduously to include women, blacks and immigrants in his program and helped create what would become Dickinson College and Franklin and Marshall later on in addition to improving medical curricula at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

Benjamin Franklin
(Benjamin Franklin)

But what Rush is most noted for was his attempts at improving care for his patients.  He would serve in numerous capacities during his medical career and once gain rubbed many the wrong way.  His work with the mentally ill is key as he found their treatment abhorrent and studied numerous cases to determine a better way of treatment.  He published a number of pamphlets outlining his ideas that included how best to raise the level of mental health care and arguing that mental illness was a disease to be treated and that patient care was important and they should not be locked away in basements chained to the wall.  He would be involved in creating the University of Pennsylvania Hospital and helped create the first American Medical society and would soon oversee the care of the mentally ill.  Perhaps Fried’s most incisive chapter deals with Rush’s handling of the 1793 yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia which killed with “biblical proportions.”  Employing Rush’s letters to his wife Julia the reader is exposed to the depth of the tragedy that unfolded.  Rush favored a more extreme treatment of victims which provoked a great deal of controversy with his colleagues.  It is interesting how a politically partisan approach to treatment took place.  Doctors who had Federalist leanings tended to oppose Rush’s methods, while Democratic-Republicans tended to support Rush (sound familiar!).  Fried delves into the effect of the disease on Rush’s family, friends, and cohorts and the reader is provided insights into the approach taken toward an epidemic in the early 1790s.

John Adams, circa 1790.
(President John Adams)

Fried spends a great deal of time examining Rush’s later years which were dominated by his correspondence with John Adams who he was able to convince to reconcile with Thomas Jefferson.  Further his writing remained prolific particularly in relation to his work with the mentally ill working to improve their treatment and living conditions and continuing his lectures at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.  Rush was always looking to improve the quality of life of his patients and with the deterioration of his son John’s mental health he redoubled his efforts in the areas of alcoholism and mental stability.

Fried has written a comprehensive and fascinating biography raising the historical profile of Benjamin Rush for a twenty first century audience.  Rush was a flawed character whose comments and writings often got him in trouble, but as Fried points out repeatedly his motives were usually pure, and his goal was to raise the level of many aspects of society.  Fried has created the most comprehensive work to date on Rush, but also has uncovered a treasure trove of documentary sources that can be mined by future historians.

 

THE GREAT INFLUENZA: THE EPIC STORY OF THE DEADLIEST PLAGUE IN HISTORY by John Barry

As I sit at my desk and examine the latest Covid-19 statistics and fantasize about what might have occurred had the Trump administration carried out its constitutional duties to care for American citizens instead of fomenting a civil war against democratic governors and denying their role in the current pandemic I am appalled and overwhelmed.  At this moment there are 927,000 cases of people testing positive for the virus in the United States out of 2,790,000 worldwide.  The death rate is 52,400 in the U.S. out of 196,000 worldwide, and each day we add thousands to the total.  Words like mitigation, social distancing, ventilators, and numerous others have entered our everyday vocabulary.  The questions that pervade the news are when we will “open up” the country? what happens if we do it too fast? and what will happen if each state goes its own way?  Writer and philosopher George Santayana is credited for stating that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  In our current circumstances it would be best for those in charge of leading us through the crisis to heed Santayana’s words.  All one has to do is turn the clock back one hundred years to learn certain lessons.  Those lessons are portrayed based on excellent historical research in John Barry’s 2004 book, THE GREAT INFLUENZA: THE EPIC STORY OF THE DEADLIEST PLAGUE IN HISTORY.  A pandemic that “likely caused at least fifty million deaths worldwide, and possibly as many as one hundred million.”

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(President Woodrow Wilson)

Barry immediately caught my attention with his opening section that dealt with the state of the American medical infrastructure, readiness, and state of mind in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Barry’s discussion of American medical schools and their lack of standards, i.e., it was not necessary to have a college degree, once admitted no work on actual human bodies, and engaging in no laboratory science is eye opening in addition to being appalling.  In the late 19th century the United States lagged behind the rest of the world in the study of life sciences and medicine.  The inability of American medical schools to accept science as part of the curriculum is shocking.  American physicians would travel to Europe, Germany in particular to study laboratory science and the advances that existed in record numbers and returned to implement what they learned in American classrooms and setting up laboratories.  The key development was the launching of Johns Hopkins in 1876 and their medical school in 1893, along with their hiring of Daniel Gilman as the school’s president, and William Henry Welch who studied in Europe to head the medical school, a man who would become the most influential scientist in the world.

Hopkins would begin the transformation of American medicine as they employed Welch’s reputation to hire the best physicians and researchers in the world and developed a laboratory research component.  In a sense Dr. Welch was the Dr. Fauchi of his era!  The other important development that Barry delves into is the role of the Rockefeller Foundation whose donations led to the creation of the Rockefeller Institute in 1901.  The Institute would be headed by Simon Flexner, a protégé of Welch. Flexner had a large vision; “in his own work, he had what Welch lacked: the ability to ask a large question and frame it in ways that made answering it achievable.”  The Institute developed a small affiliated hospital to investigate disease, where patients would pay no fees but only those suffering from diseases that could be studied were admitted.  Flexner saw the hospital as a testing ground for ideas generated by laboratory scientists.  Further, Flexner used Hopkins as a model medical school and was also able to attract philanthropic funds to deserving institutions.  Those institutions were weeded out as medical schools were ranked based on how well they prepared their students to practice.  As a result, those schools that did not measure up dropped their medical schools and others either reformed their approach or faded away. The next important reform on Welch’s agenda was the creation of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, which was scheduled to open October 1, 1918, toward the end of World War I.

William H. Welch
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Barry correctly develops the role of World War I in fostering the worldwide influenza pandemic.  Evidence seems to suggest that the virus originated in Haskell County, Kansas.  By January/February 1918 Dr. Loring Milner who had treated influenza throughout his checkered career noticed a much more virulent type that was killing people and it completely overwhelmed him.  New cases declined in the spring but would reemerge later in the year.  With the American entrance into World War I in April 1917 one of the training centers was Camp Funston, part of the Fort Riley Reservation, located about 250 miles from Haskell County.  On March 4, 1918, a soldier was diagnosed with influenza at Camp Funston, three weeks later there were 1100 cases – the problem is that there was a great deal of traffic flow between Haskell County and Camp Funston.  These soldiers would carry the flu virus with them as they were assigned to units that then traveled to Europe.

Barry points to a great deal of disturbing statistical information for the reader to digest.  He examines the history of warfare and concludes that more soldiers died from disease than wounds suffered in combat.  In the Spanish-American War more men died of disease in a 6:1 ratio than on the battlefield.  The US lost more personnel to disease 63,114 than to combat 53,402, largely due to the influenza epidemic of 1918.  If one includes the overall US losses to influenza it is roughly 675,000.  In terms of combat losses, the American military was in no condition to deal with an epidemic with 776 doctors in the military out of an overall total of 140,000 for the entire country.  Lastly, influenza-related deaths reflected that one in 67 American soldiers in the army died of influenza and its complications, nearly all in a ten-week period beginning in mid-September 1918.  It was a disease that targeted those in the prime of their lives as opposed to the old and weak.

The ramp up to prepare for WWI created a situation that made the possibility for an epidemic in the US extremely plausible.  In an important chapter, “Tinderbox,” Barry focuses on the number of physicians who were needed overseas leaving the US short of physicians to care for civilians, and those that remained stateside were mostly over 45 and trained in the older methods that were not very effective.  Further, by the fall of 1918 research laboratories could only function on a reduced scale.  Research was cut back and focused on the war, on poison gas or defending against it, on preventing infection of wounds, on ways to prevent diseases that incapacitated troops like typhus.  Laboratory animals were unavailable, and the war sucked into itself technicians and young researchers.  As a result, the US was at a disadvantage in fighting the flu epidemic from the get-go.

Barry dissects the impact of politics on the spread of the flu and combating it in detail.  The role of machine politics in New York and Philadelphia are cases in point.  In Tammany Hall, the New York Health Department was purged replacing qualified people with patronage weakening the response to the virus.  In Philadelphia State Senator Edwin Vane’s political machine and the response of Public Health Director William Krusen were a disaster.  The Liberty Loan parade on September 28, 1918 is a case in point.  Health officials advised against it, but Krusen who did little in preparation to mitigate the disease allowed it to take place with disastrous results.  The Liberty Loan parade is emblematic of the role of President Woodrow Wilson.  His administration was obsessed with morale and did everything they could to keep news of the epidemic from the public.  Between J. Edgar Hoover’s new internal security agency in the Justice Department, and George Creel’s Committee on Information prosecutions increased markedly as anyone seen as a security threat was arrested, i.e., Eugene Debs who ran for president in 1912 and Congressman Victor Berger were incarcerated.  Newspapers did not report accurate information and a good percentage of the public was left in the dark.

(Oswald Avery)

The horrific details of the epidemic appear in a number of chapters from its impact on the treatment and deaths of soldiers in various army encampments, i.e., Camp Devens in Massachusetts and the Philadelphia Naval Yard.  The impact on civilians is described as is the attempts by scientists to combat the disease.  The work of William H. Park, Chief of the Laboratory Division of the New York City Health Department and his deputy Anna Williams in what was considered the best laboratory in the country is explored in detail as was the work of Paul Lewis who earlier proved that polio was a viral disease and centered his research at his lab in Philadelphia, and Oswalt Avery from the Rockefeller Institute.  The overriding issue for all of these scientists is that of time and the need for speed which meant they had to forgo the usual protocols and approach to research which of course caused many problems.

Barry does not neglect the scientific details of research.  He describes in detail how viruses were determined, explores previous research dealing with pneumonia, typhus, malaria etc. as a means of introducing the reader to what scientists were up against and their approach.  Barry assumes the reader knows nothing as he treats the reader to mini lectures in microbiology, immunology, and epidemiology.  There are a few chapters that engage in this material and for a “biology novice” like myself it became  much to detailed particularly the various types of bacteria, other aspects of lab research, and as a result the book comes across as very text bookish.

Barry’s work is important and should be consulted by public health officials and members of the Trump administration to learn lessons that seem to have bypassed them today.  Though the flu epidemic was a hundred years ago certain aspects provide important lessons – it comes in waves and Covid-19 will return in some degree in the fall and possibly well past.  Ignoring the past is akin to signing a death warrant for many.  Barry has done a service for the American people and though the book was written in 2004 it provides many important guidelines and is  a very effective piece of historical research.

THE AGE OF ILLUSIONS: HOW AMERICA SQUANDERED ITS COLD WAR VICTORY by Andrew Bacevitch

(The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November, 1989)

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s I enjoyed a sense of security knowing where to focus my fears and angst.  The Soviet Union was the enemy and policymakers developed the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) that carried us through threats like the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Fast forward to 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and 1991 when the Soviet Union disintegrated, and my security blanket was gone – the Cold War was over.  In what President George H.W. Bush referred to as the unipower world, Americans now have to decide who the enemy was, since it was hard to imagine a world without one.

Andrew Bacevitch in his latest book, THE AGE OF ILLUSIONS: HOW AMERICA SQUANDERED ITS COLD WAR VICTORY examines the post-Cold War period as American policymakers struggled with which direction US foreign policy should go.  Bacevitch a retired army officer and graduate of West Point, in addition to being a professor emeritus from Boston University concludes that the path chosen carried a certain amount of hubris that led to numerous errors squandering our supposed victory that began when Boris Yeltsin faced down a coup attempt by elements in the Kremlin that could not accept defeat.

Former President George H.W. Bush smiles during the second day of the Republican National Convention at the Xcel Center in St. Paul, Minnesota. Photo by Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

(President George H. W. Bush promised a New World Order)

 

According to Bacevitch the United States chose the path of globalization or unrestricted corporate capitalism designed to create maximum wealth.  Second, it fostered global leadership, or hegemony and empire.  Third, we called for freedom, emphasizing autonomy.  Lastly, presidential supremacy as the prerogatives of the legislative branch declined.  In making his case, Bacevitch provides historical context for each and integrates a comparison of his own career with that of Donald Trump.  In so doing Bacevitch seeks to explain how someone like Trump could be elected president and he will argue it could have been predicted based on events that took place in 1992 and after. For Bacevitch the villains who are responsible for basically continuing America’s path after the Cold War are the elites who pushed  a consensus that raised expectations, and when they went unfulfilled, outraged voters turned to Donald Trump.

The election of 1992 is a watershed in American history as President George H.W. Bush despite overseeing the end of the Cold War, prevailing against Iraq in the Persian Gulf War, gaining an 89% approval rating, and promised a “New World Order,” lost his reelection bid to Bill Clinton.  The election produced three insurgencies that directly relate to the election of 2016.  Former Nixon speech writer and newspaper columnist Patrick Buchanan, and millionaire H. Ross Perot were both verbal “bomb throwers” who represented an “America First” approach to foreign policy and a populist economic message.  Buchanan gave Bush a scare in the New Hampshire primary and Perot garnered 19% of the vote in the election.  The third member of this insurgency was actually Hillary Clinton who worked to do away with white male domination in society as she put it, a vote for Bill Clinton was “two for the price of one.”  Her battles in the White House reflect how Republicans, and right-wing political elements feared her.

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Bacevitch’s analysis throughout the narrative is based sound logic and a very perceptive view of American society and the conduct of foreign policy.  He takes the reader through the historically impactful ideas of Alfred Mahan, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Rudyard Kipling who explained the need for American expansion and nationalism.  In his discussion of “thinkers,” he points to Francis Fukuyama who created a secular ideology to justify American hubris in the 1990s and after.  Bacevitch also delves into the 1940-1992 period offering analogies that make a great deal of sense as he explains how the US emerged from WWII as the dominant power in the world, but shortly thereafter the Soviet Union became an ideological and military threat.

THE FREE TRADE ACCORD; Nafta: Something to Offend Everyone

Credit…The New York Times Archives

As one becomes immersed in Bacevitch’s narrative you begin to question the path the United States chose.  The expectations of the American economy after the Cold War was extremely bullish.  Globalization was seen as the key element to achieving economic domination and the spread of American values.  Global leadership was seen as policing this new American economic empire and a vastly increased military budget would fund the military who would police the world and enforce American hegemony.  As Colin Powell has written, “Our arms should be second to none.”  As the US led the way in techno-warfare a large conventional force was no longer needed.  Bacevitch discusses the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).  “It purported to describe the culmination of a long evolutionary march to perfection.  Globalization promised to reduce uncertainties that had plagued operation of the market.  In a similar manner, the RMA was expected to reduce—and perhaps even eliminate—uncertainties that had long plagued the conduct of war and had made it such a risky proposition.  The nation that seized the opportunities it presented would enjoy decisive advantages over any and all adversaries.”  The problem with techno-militarism is that “smart bombs,” drones and other “toys” are not as precise and predictable as policy makers are convinced of.  Washington also engaged in a “kulturkampf” as it tried to spread its values creating a backlash seemingly everywhere it went.

This approach led the United States to the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, the support of numerous repressive dictatorships, a war in Afghanistan that continues today, and other policies that today is making the United States a pariah among its allies and a joke in relation to Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China.  Bacevitch sums up the post-Cold War period very nicely, “the spirit of the post-Cold War era prioritized self-actualization and self-indulgence over self-sacrifice.”

Bacevitch saves his most trenchant remarks as he places the last three presidents under a microscope and renders the following judgements that make a great deal of sense.  By the time Bill Clinton left the White House white males still ruled Washington, Wall Street and Hollywood still saw further power to be garnered and making money was king.  Gays could neither marry nor serve in the military.  Checks on corporate capitalism all but disappeared. Americans learned to take war in stride observing from a comfortable distance with the volunteer army that targeted a miniscule part of the population.

 

(President George W. Bush shortly after his “Mission Accomplished Speech”

Under George Bush, the central theme of his administration was war, a complement to globalization and another means of bringing the world in line with American goals.  Clinton may have dabbled in war, but Bush went at it whole “hog.”  The Bush Doctrine argued after 9/11 that American prerogatives where beyond reproach.  American values were universal, and compliance was almost compulsory as resistance was futile.  When the US went to war, they did it with a sense of righteousness that was hard to fathom.  We saw ourselves as the global peacemaker, but in reality, we categorized them, i.e.; “axis of evil” rather than engage them.  Finally, Bush saw himself as a unitary executive and the world order that the Washington constructed was preordained.

Barrack Obama did not fair much better in Bacevitch’s estimation as he paved the way for a powerful backlash resulting in the election of Trump.  He saved globalized neo-liberalism with his $787,000,000 bailout.  His administration never reassessed globalization as a policy that caused the “great recession.”  After Bush’s failures, Obama gave using the military a new lease on life.  Obama vowed to win the war in Afghanistan and even promoted an Iraqi type of “surge” that was unsuccessful.  Hostilities continued in Iraq, civil war decimated Syria and part of Obama’s legacy was the continuation of wars.  Under Obama, the concept of “forever wars” took hold.  “Hope and change,” became “more of the same.”  He did become a cultural warrior celebrating diversity, empowering women, and exploring the variable nature of identity, but over all his administration was a missed opportunity.

One may disagree with Bacevitch’s assessment of the last few decades, but one must really think hard about the following.  The wars that continue are working class wars with a volunteer army that the elites have little to do with.  Globalization accelerated the de-industrialization of America as we exported more jobs than we created.  The disparity in wealth and income is abhorrent as 43 million people are below the poverty level, credit card debt is $8377 per household, and most retirees have just $5000 in savings.  After the Trump tax cut of 2018, the 1% keeps more and more of its wealth.  In this situation it is understandable that economic populism has run rampant.

Bacevitch has written a very thought-provoking book that demands that we reexamine our pre-2016 policies to understand what has been transpiring in American foreign policy since Trump assumed the presidency.  If the book has a weakness it is that Bacevitch’s criticisms are seemingly correct, but he never offers an alternative to what he criticizes.

(The inauguration of Barrack Obama as President)

Though the book appears to be a work that focuses on American foreign policy, it also shines a light on American social and cultural history.  A chapter entitled, “Al, Fred, and Homer’s America – and Mine!” provides insights into American society in the late 1940s and 50s through movies and social class issues.  There are constant references to literary works, the dismantling of our industrial base and how unwinnable wars tore apart our social fabric that bound all elements of society together.  The references to cultural tools is used as a vehicle to explain in part the partisan divide that developed in our country and in the end all of these references be it to John Updike’s character, Harry Angstrom or others rests on the author’s belief that the United States had an opportunity to alter its path.  However we chose not to and let the mistakes of the last 40 years continue to the point that even Trump with all his criticism and bombast about allies and wars has committed even more troops to the Middle East, and funded the techno-military component of the Defense budget to the maximum.  Bacevitch is a harsh critic and does not hold back, but it would be nice to know exactly what policy changes he would make.

(The Fall of the Berlin Wall, November, 1989)

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

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(Ellis Island, NY)

Recently I learned that the Trump administration finally concluded a tariff deal with Mexico which had a number of components related to illegal immigration into the United States.  Apart from Trump’s stupefying rhetoric surrounding his “wall” and other asinine comments like, “why are we having so many people from these shithole countries come here,” immigration and race have become litmus tests for certain politicians.  This political atmosphere in the United States makes Daniel Okrent’s new book, THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS, AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA an important contribution to the background history of our current views of people who are trying to escape tyranny and poverty and come to the United States.  Okrent focuses on what he describes as the “perverse form of ‘science’ [that] gave respectability to the drastic limits Imposed on the number of Jews, Italians, Greeks, Poles, and various other eastern or southern Europeans seeking to come to America between 1924 and 1965.”  It is during this period that some of the arguments and attitudes concerning immigration were formed that still impact us today.

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(Massachusetts Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge)

Okrent’s narrative is scary as it points to the pseudo-science and ignorance employed from the late 19th century that is still exists today.  His history of the eugenics movement and its role in passing the Johnson-Reed  Act of 1924 is very disconcerting as it reflects the racism and bigotry that dominated American thought throughout the period, including historical figures ranging from Margaret Sanger to Woodrow Wilson.  Okrent points out that the key to the development of these ideas was the growing belief that the United States was being overrun by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who brought certain traits and attitudes that would blend negatively with the American population.  As millions poured into the United States between 1890 and 1910 politicians like Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the epitome of Brahmin superiority led the fight to keep these people from entering the United States through legislation that featured literacy tests and other obstacles.  This movement which fostered the Immigration Restrictive League (IRL) which came about in 1894 rested on the works of other Boston types who would come up short in passing their agenda until after World War I.  Once the war ended fears of these immigrants centered on labor union unrest, political radicalism, and racial conflict.  In the end it was Senator Albert Johnson with the assistance of eugenics and anti-immigration elements who was able to gain the passage of restrictive legislation in 1924 that would stem the tide.

In providing a general history of the eugenics movement and its marriage to immigration restriction from 1890 onward, Okrent zeroes in on the development of their convoluted ideas and the diverse personalities who came to be at the forefront of the movement.  A number of individuals emerge that moved the process forward.  In addition to politicians like Lodge who stoked American xenophobia from the 1890s onward as he took on the role of evangelist and propagandist from anti-immigration forces, Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson also became proponents of many of the racial theories related to Hungarians, Italians, Jews, Poles and others that were propagated.

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(Charles Davenport)

What is fascinating is how people bought into these ideas and concepts of racial breeding and how the United States was committing “racial suicide” by allowing these ethnic groups to enter. Okrent’s narrative provides a who’s who of those who advocated the selective breeding of human populations to improve their genetic composition.  Okrent reviews the ideas of Francis Galton who coined the term eugenics in 1883, Charles Darwin, the French anti-Semite Count Arthur de Gobineau, Houston Stewart Chamberlain a proponent of Aryan superiority, and William Z. Ripley, all popular authors in the late 19th century.

Okrent takes it further as he traces the further development of these ideas through the works and ideas of Charles Davenport, a prominent biologist and leading spokesperson for the eugenics movement who set up his “racial laboratory” in Cold Harbor, NY, funded at the outset by Mary Harriman, the heir to the railroad fortune.  In addition, +he focuses on James H. Pattern, an effective congressional lobbyist for the IRL;  Edward A. Ross, the author of THE OLD WORLD AND THE NEW that merged eugenics and xenophobia doubling down on the inferiority of Slavs;  Madison Grant, zoologist, lawyer and author of THE RACIAL BASIS OF EUROPEAN HISTORY;  Henry Goddard’s famed Kallikak study convinced thirty states to pass legislation to impose forced sterilization on the “feebleminded;” and lastly Harry H. Laughlin who directed the Eugenics Records Office who advocated for the “involuntary sterilization of defectives.”

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(Harry Laughlin)

What is even more disconcerting is the list of the pillars of society Okrent uncovers that supported these ideas.  The reputable publishing company, Charles A. Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins helped publish the works of a coterie of eugenicists that included Lothrop Stoddard’s THE RISING TIDE OF COLOR AGAINST WHITE WORLD SUPEREMACY, that became a best seller and went through fifteen reprints (interestingly Scribner’s published Okrent’s history).  Samuel Gompers the head of the American Federation of Labor.  The Saturday Evening Posts editor  George Horace Lorimer published stories of the pariahs that threatened American society, even Eleanor Roosevelt, reflecting her aristocratic origins held negative racial views until she grew more intellectually mature and worldly.

Okrent’s work is punctuated with documentary excerpts of the work of prominent eugenicists and their opponents.  He has drilled down in his analysis of their “quackery” and has a firm handle on his source material.  The narrative is excellent considering the topic, particularly how the Johnson-Reed Act became law, especially Johnson and company manipulated census and immigration figures to create quotas and the resulting impact on American history for decades to the detriment of millions. Historian, Linda Gordon writes; “previous immigration restrictions targeted particular groups — notably people from Asia — but this comprehensive law aimed not just to limit immigration but to preserve white Protestant dominance in America. It assigned a quota to each nation, ranging from 51,000 for Germany to 2,000 for Russia to 1,100 for the entire African continent.” (New York Times, “The Last Time a Wall Went Up to Keep Out Immigrants,” by Linda Gordon, May 20, 2019)

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(Fairfield H. Osborn)

What is shocking throughout the book is Okrent’s ability to explore the ideology of eugenics providing primary evidence of their views.  For example, Fairfield H. Osborn, paleontologist and teacher of Mary Harriman told delegates to the National Immigration Conference held in New York City in 1923 that army testing of soldiers during World War I showed 6,346,856 immigrants were “inferior or very inferior.”  He commented further that “if the army tests served to show clearly to our people the lack of intelligence in our country, and the degrees of intelligence of different races who are coming to us [then] I believe those tests were worth what the war cost, even in human life.”  Erwin Baur, Eugen Fischer, and Fritz Lenz, the authors of the definitive text on German eugenics, HUMAN HEREDITY AND RACE HYGIENE argued further that the “Nordic race marches in the vanguard of mankind.”  Interestingly in 1924 Adolf Hitler, then an inmate at Landsberg Prison in Bavaria found the book useful “jailhouse reading.” (322)

The title of Okrent’s narrative, THE GUARDED GATE was inspired by an 1895 poem by the Boston patrician Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a leading restrictionist. Aldrich would have none of Emma Lazarus’s words, chiseled into the Statue of Liberty, welcoming “the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.” Writing in a mode more like Donald Trump, Aldrich warned:

Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,

And through them passes a wild motley throng ...

O Liberty, white Goddess! Is it well

To leave the gates unguarded? (Washington Post, “When the Government Used Bad Science to Restrict Immigration,” by David Hollinger, May 24, 2019)

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(Maxwell Perkins)

Okrent has taken on an important historical topic as George Santayana has warned “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  It took the rise and fall of Nazi Germany discredit eugenics in the United States, but even in 1952 with the McCarran-Walter Act Washington continued to show its preference for people from northwestern Europe.  It would take until 1965 to drop that preference.  With a president who calls for the immigration of whites from countries like Norway as opposed to Hispanic types one must wonder where American immigration is headed for today – is race still the major qualification?

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