THE TRUE FLAG: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, MARK TWAIN, AND THE BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE by Stephen Kinzer

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(Mark Twain)

Stephen Kinzer is a prolific writer and historian among whose books include ALL THE SHAH’S MEN an excellent study that explains the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution and the origins of our conflict with that country.  Other books; THE BROTHERS, a fascinating dual biography of Allen W. and John Foster Dulles, men who significantly impacted American intelligence gathering and foreign policy throughout the 1950s; and OVERTHROW, a study that explains how Washington conducted a series of coups from Hawaii to Iraq to install governments that it could control.  If there is a theme to Kinzer’s books it is that the United States has conducted a series of forays into foreign countries that reek of imperialism and have not turned out well.  His latest effort, THE TRUE FLAG: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, MARK TWAIN, AND THE BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE follows the same theme and tries to bring about an understanding of why and how the United States began its journey towards empire.

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(President Theodore Roosevelt)

From the outset Kinzer describes a conflicted American approach toward foreign policy.  It appears that Americans cannot make up their minds on which course to follow: Should we pursue imperialism or isolationism?  Do we want to guide the world or let every nation guide itself?  This inability to decide has played itself out from the end of the nineteenth century until today as we try and figure out what avenue to take following the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its ramifications.  Kinzer argues that “for generations every debate over foreign intervention has been repetition,” however, “all are pale shadows of the first one” that began in 1898 is developed in THE TRUE FLAG.  Kinzer zeroes in on one of the most far reaching debates in American history that was fostered by the Spanish American War, not the Second World War as most believe; should the United States intervene in foreign lands, a debate that is ever prescient today.

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(Henry Cabot Lodge)

Following the results of the war against Spain, the United States found itself in possession of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and was about to annex the Hawaiian islands, leading to a fever of empire among many Americans in and out of government.  Kinzer traces the political machinations that resulted in the new American Empire.  He also takes the reader behind the scenes that resulted in decisions that led to what President McKinley termed “benevolent assimilation” for the Philippines, or a more accurate description, a race war to subdue Filipino guerillas led by Emilio Aguinaldo.  Kinzer has full command of the history of the period politically, militarily, and economically.  He has extensive knowledge of the secondary and primary materials, and writes with a clear and snappy prose that maintains reader interest.

What separates Kinzer’s narrative and analysis from other studies dealing with this topic is his focus on the debate over American expansionism that created the Anti-Imperialist League to offset the arguments of the imperialists in and out of Congress.  He provides a blend of both arguments integrating a great many heated speeches and articles that the protagonists engaged in and produced, even describing a fist fight in the Senate between the senators from South Carolina over a vote that ratified the Treaty of Paris.  Kinzer focuses on a number of important historical characters that include; Theodore Roosevelt who used the Spanish-American War as a vehicle to advance politically; Henry Cabot Lodge, a strong believer in the “large policy” of imperialism as the Senator from Massachusetts; William Randolph Hearst whose newspaper helped incite the war, and would later turn against imperialism as he sought a political career; President William McKinley who supposedly received divine guidance to pursue his expansionist agenda; Mark Twain, writer and satirist who initially favored expansion, then became the “eviscerating bard” against empire; William Jennings Bryan, the “free silver” commoner from the Midwest who was defeated three times for the presidency; Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in America, but opposition to imperialism for him was almost a religious cause; and Carl Schurz, a German immigrant who fought in the Civil War and served as Secretary of the Interior among many important positions during his career.

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(Andrew Carnegie)

Perhaps the strongest aspect of Kinzer’s narrative discusses the two opportunities that Bryan had to stem the imperialist tide.  Bryan was an avid opponent of expansion from the moral perspective, but he would cave to political ambition on two occasions.  The first, during the debate in Congress over the Treaty of Paris which would cap America’s territorial aggrandizement from the war.  At the last minute Bryan decided to support the treaty and America’s possession of the Philippines.  Second, as the Democratic candidate for president in 1900 he refused to leave out his “free silver” plank from the convention platform and concentrate on the anti-imperialist message.  By not doing so he scared away eastern business opponents of expansion and a number of allies in the Democratic Party.  The result was the passage of the treaty and the reelection of McKinley.

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(President William McKinley)

Another fascinating aspect of the book is Kinzer’s treatment of Mark Twain.  Kinzer offers a detailed discussion of Twain’s arrival from Europe on October 15, 1900 in the midst of the imperialism debate and his transition to his anti-imperialism stance.  A number of Twain’s writings and comments are presented and analyzed and compared with those of Theodore Roosevelt, whose ascendancy to the presidency after McKinley is assassinated, effectively kills the Anti-Imperialism League.  Twain’s writings detail his disgust for events in the Philippines and the disaster that ensued.  Twain is presented along with other famous writers and poets whose anger at expansion and its results knew no bounds.   However, the work of Finley Peter Dunne and his Mr. Dooley character, written with an Irish workman’s accent is probably more important in that it reached the illiterate masses, while others appealed to the social and political elite.

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Kinzer’s narrative packs a great deal into 250 pages and it is a fast read.  However, do not   evaluate this book by its length because it presents an excellent synthesis and analysis of the important events, personalities, and policies of the 1898-1902 period as America debated if it should become an empire, the type of debate that was missing in the United States as we contemplated invading Iraq in 2003.  A war that we are still paying for today.  In the end many of the predictions set forth by the anti-imperialists have come to pass, just examine American foreign policy since the end of World War II.  We as Americans must answer the question: “Does intervention in other countries serve our national interest and constitute global stability, or does it undermine both?” (229)

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(Mark Twain)

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ONCE IN A GREAT CITY: A DETROIT STORY by David Maraniss

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(Ford Rotunda, Dearborn, MI)

David Maraniss’ ONCE IN A GREAT CITY: A DETROIT STORY is almost a love story or at the very least an ode to a city that has slowly fallen from the heights it had reached in the 1950s.  Maraniss focuses on the 1962-1964 period when the city was about to confront white flight to suburbia, the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the ever present issue of racism.  Maraniss who is an excellent writer whose works include sports biographies of Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente, the foremost study of Bill Clinton’s pre-presidential years, a wonderful book on Vietnam and the anti-war movement among a number of others.  Maraniss takes on the city of his birth, an urban colossus held together by the automobile industry and manufacturing after World War II that is in the midst of a severe decline.  The decaying city is like a boxer who has been knocked down and is trying desperately to get off the canvas.  In 1962 a reform mayor, Jerome Cavanaugh comes to office and launches a courageous campaign to root out racism in the city’s police force.  Others including Walter Reuther, the powerful head of the United Automobile Workers Union, who saw segregation through the lens of the Cold War and a threat to increasing progressive unionism worldwide is examined.  Reuther was a man of action who tried to create programs and investment to rekindle Detroit’s glory.  It was an uphill fight, and a timely story as today, Detroit, now much smaller and with a more varied economic approach is still trying to rise from the ashes.

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(the founder of Motown Records, Berry Gordy, Jr.)

Maraniss begins in a symbolic fashion as he describes two events that took place on November 9, 1962.  First, the fire that destroyed most of the Ford Rotunda one of the city’s most important symbols – America’s love affair with the automobile, never to be rebuilt.   Secondly, the police and federal agents raid of the Gotham Hotel, the center of black culture for many years, to break up a significant gambling racquet, and as a result the hotel was demolished in the name of urban renewal, or as others remarked “negro removal!”

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The book conveys a number of interesting biographical sketches of important individuals of the period.  Maraniss ranges from the automobile industry concentrating on Ford, and the music industry zeroing in on Motown and the empire Berry Gordy, Jr. built providing the reader the feel of the mid-1960s.  The reader is also exposed to the grimy side of Detroit as Police Commissioner George Edwards goes after the mob and its gambling ties to the city.  His investigation, along with the FBI establishes links to National Football League players and the Giacalone mob family that involves Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras who will be suspended from playing, and eventually through a sting he arrests Tony Giacalone.   Mayor Jerome Cavanagh, a JFK liberal and his quest to bring the summer Olympic Games to Detroit in 1968 is discussed in detail as he tries to implement his progressive agenda.

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(Henry Ford II)

Maraniss used the rise of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas as a template to explain why Detroit was at the perfect storm to develop the Motown sound.  From the availability of pianos to middle class black families, the migration from the south of gospel and blues as people came in search of jobs during World War II, the reach of Grinnell’s, the music store that made affordable instruments available, the luck and proximity of random talents like Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and Smokey Robinson living so close to each other during childhood, and the music education provided by Detroit public school teachers.  The role of the Reverend Clarence La Vaugh Franklin is analyzed as he moved from being a theatrical circuit preacher around the country to that of a civil rights leader in Detroit as he organizes a civil rights march, “the Walk to Freedom” in Detroit supported by Reuther and the UAW among others. The march was highlighted by an address by Martin Luther King, and it was at this Detroit rally that he laid the basis for his “I had a Dream Speech” given later that summer in Washington.  Overall, the black community throughout the time frame of the book is beset by a power struggle and division as Franklin is not able to maintain the unity of the rally and Reverend Albert Cleague moves toward a black liberation theology bent on dealing with the problems faced in Detroit.  Cleague will go so far as inviting Malcom X to speak to his supporters providing evidence of the total rift that existed as King was derided, and that there was no way to close the factionalism that emerged.

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(Lee Iacocca)

Maraniss also explores the relationship between Lee Iacocca, the head of Ford and J.Walter Thompson, the advertising firm that was to modernize Ford’s image as 1963 approached.  The campaign would be headed by William D. Laurie, the head of the agency in Detroit and the epitome of the “Mad Men” mystique.  The project was T-5, and after the bust called the Edsel, Iacocca needed a success.  The success would become the Ford “Mustang,” whose development Maraniss details concentrating on the relationship between Henry Ford II and Iacocca.  Maraniss also conveys the importance of Ford and Walter Reuther focusing on their ability to negotiate and reach agreements that allowed workers to think of themselves as middle class as they received pensions, health insurance, and wages connected to an inflation index.  The work of these two men was important to the labor peace of the mid-sixties and their impact was throughout the industrial universe.

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(1965 Ford Mustang)

Perhaps the most evocative topic is that of the development of Motown and the music industry and how it was spawned.  Concentrating on the Gordy family and its contributions, Maraniss focuses on Berry Gordy, Jr. and the Motown review, a stage show of some of the future stars of music including Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.  The review left Detroit on a 56 day tour on the day the United States instituted its embargo of Cuba during the missile crisis of October, 1962.  Maraniss effectively transforms the trip into a discussion of race in America as the group experiences segregation throughout its journey.  Traveling all over the Midwest, south, and winding up in New York City Maraniss integrates the black migration north for jobs beginning in the 1930s, the reaction of whites who felt they were taking their jobs, race based actions by white police forces, and the violence of black youth.  Racial fearmongering was a dominant theme and the issues that were prevalent during and after World War II were ever present as the tour wound on while the Civil Rights Movement was in full gear.   What emerges from the tour is that music is another Detroit export that impacted America second only to the auto industry.

Maraniss is careful to point out at a time when Detroit was booming a Wayne State University study in February, 1963 predicted the collapse of the city as it declared bankruptcy in 2013.  The study pointed to the reduction of the city’s population from 1,670,414 in 1960 to a projected 1,259,515 in 1970.  It also highlighted the white flight to the suburbs as blacks made up 28.9% of the city’s population in 1960 and a projected 44.4% in 1970.  The result of which would be a population whose tax base could not pay for its needs as by 2013 the population would be 688,000.  But what is fascinating at the time of the report automobiles were selling at record levels and the city was selling itself as the home for the 1968 Summer Olympic Games.

“By the close of Mr. Maraniss’ book, dreams of hosting the Olympics have been scuttled; urban renewal has uprooted many traditional, predominantly black neighborhoods; police reforms that might lead to greater racial harmony have stalled; and efforts to transform the city through Model Cities and War on Poverty programs have run aground, fueling tensions that would explode in the 1967 riot.” (NYT, September 14, 2015)   A riot that would kill 43 people, injure another 1189, result in 7200 arrests, with the destruction of over 2000 buildings.

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(the symbol of Detroit today, an abandoned building)

If you want to relive the essence of the mid-1960s, Maraniss’ new book, with its emphasis on Motown, the Ford Motor Company, race relations and the civil rights movement, politics and much more is an excellent synthesis of the period.  It reflects Maraniss’ approach to narrative history, impeccable research and mastery of topic that will not disappoint.  Read it and enjoy.

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BLOOD IN THE WATER: THE ATTICA PRISON UPRISING OF 1971 AND ITS LEGACY by Heather Ann Thompson

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On September 9, 1971 the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York forced its way into newspaper headlines across the United States.  On that day roughly 1300 prisoners took control of the facility in response to years of mistreatment and harassment.  In American history there have been many violent protests that have led to the death or wounding of those who took part.  Whether they involved Native-Americans, Vietnam anti-war demonstrators, organized labor, or Afro-Americans the causes and results of these events were documented and analyzed carefully by historians.  In the case of Attica, where 40 individuals, prisoners and hostages were killed and hundreds wounded, government officials placed immediate road blocks to thwart an objective investigation.  Government officials did not want the truth to come out, particularly New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and his administration because of errors in judgement and outright incompetence when hundreds of poorly trained New York State troopers and prison guards were sent into the facility with shotguns blazing.  The Rockefeller administration immediately put out misinformation about what occurred, particularly when autopsies showed that the hostages were killed by indiscriminate gun fire, and not by prisoners.  Coroners were pressured to bury the truth as were other officials who disagreed with prison administrators and Rockefeller and his cohorts. It took many years to overcome the opposition to releasing what actually took place.  Finally historian Heather Ann Thompson in her comprehensive history, BLOOD IN THE WATER: THE ATTICA PRISON UPRISING OF 1971 AND ITS LEGACY has addressed all the major issues and individuals involved through her doggedness and refusal to accept no for an answer as she rummaged, researched, filed numerous freedom of information requests, interviewed participants and survivors in her quest to uncover the truth.

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(Bodies and wounded hostages and prisoners after New York State troopers and Correctional guards stormed the prison)

According to Thompson the gap in the historiography pertaining to Attica existed because of the obstruction by those who knew what really occurred and were concerned with the backlash that would result if the truth came to the fore.  Part of that truth were the conditions that existed in Attica as well as many other prisons nationwide.  Thompson describes a system overseen by Attica’s Superintendent Vincent Mancusi that suffered from overcrowding, lack of medical care, poor training of correctional officers, using prisoners as free labor to the tune of $12 million per year, no visitation for common law families, which effected one quarter of the inmate population, a capricious and arbitrary parole system, censorship of reading material and letters, medical experiments, and an overall atmosphere of racism.  The prison itself was built in 1930 and by 1971 its facilities had never been updated to accommodate an increasing number of prisoners whose racial makeup was no longer predominantly white, and the crimes they were incarcerated for did not fit the patina of the 1930s.

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(Prisoners  vote on whether to accept demands of prison officials after riots)

Thompson’s book is very disturbing and the events of September, 1971 were greatly affected by the political climate of the 1960s. At that time politicians moved toward “law and order” planks as demonstrated by the Nixon administration in 1968 and as the 1972 election moved closer.  The “law and order” approach greatly affected the funding and operation of America’s prisons.  As politicians in the north and south saw crime as the greatest problem in society, they decided to wage war against it.  This would lead to the imprisonment of more inmates than in any country in the world.  In New York state Governor Rockefeller, known as a “liberal Republican saw Nixon’s crime agenda as an impediment to his own quest for the presidency.  By 1970 he began to change his image to a more conservative politician who was tough on crime.

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(the remnants of Yard D after the prison was retaken by troopers and guards)

An uprising at the state prison at Auburn, NY was a precursor to events at Attica.  What occurred at Auburn should have served as a wakeup for New York State Prison Commissioner Russell Oswald to investigate inmate grievances, because prisoner reform advocates, New York ACLU lawyers and others were becoming very involved and wanted to investigate prisoner complaints.  The prison population was younger and more politically aware than previous generations.  Members of the Black Panthers, Young Lords, Black Muslims, and Weather Underground placed an emphasis on acquiring knowledge as they worked for improved educational programs.  For them, knowledge meant power and it was used to convince prisoners that what occurred to them on the inside mirrored what was occurring in the outside world.  From that perspective Thompson is correct that Attica was a prison that was about to explode in September, 1971.

The first half of the narrative concentrates on prisoner frustration concerning their treatment and the lack of response by prison officials to their concerns, the seizure of the facility by inmates, the negotiations that were conducted to try and resolve the situation, and the final storming of the facility by New York State troopers and correctional officers.  In so doing Thompson provides intimate details of every important aspect of the crisis.  Thompson takes the reader inside the lives of inmates, negotiators, administrators, correctional officers taken hostage, and individuals brought in from the outside to try and alleviate the situation.  In each section Thompson introduces important individuals to highlight what was about to be covered.  A few of the most powerful are portraits of Michael Smith, a correctional officer who is severely wounded by gunfire; Tom Wicker, a New York Times reporter who was brought in as an observer; Tony Strollo, a New York State trooper whose brother Frank was a correctional officer inside the facility; Elizabeth Fink, a lawyer who defended the prisoners and tried to gain compensation for them and their families; and Malcom Bell, an investigative lawyer who turned whistleblower against the state.   The reader will witness the motives that laid behind the actions of the major participants and how it influenced their behavior.  Thompson leaves no rock unturned as she explores every aspect of her story and reaches the conclusion the massacre that takes place at Attica did not have to happen, but for Rockefeller’s selfish concern for his political career and the party line that “black revolutionaries” and outside agitators were responsible for the uprising, the lack of training provided for the New York State Police for this type of operation, and the seeming stubbornness and vindictiveness of prison officials and many correctional officers in dealing with a situation that had gotten totally out of hand.

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(New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller who refused to entertain prisoner demands)

The second half of the narrative encompasses the attempts to cover-up the truth by the Rockefeller administration and statewide prison officials, the brutal treatment of prisoners by correctional officers following the retaking of the prison, the attempts by inmate families, and families of correctional officers (hostages) that were killed to learn the truth.  The obfuscation, misinformation, direct interference to learning the truth, and outright lies dominate the experience of anyone who disagreed with the findings that the leaders of the cover-up who feared what would happen should the truth emerge dominates the narrative.  The atmosphere that the different investigative commissions operated under created a very difficult situation as Thompson is correct in pointing out that “the nation’s most powerful politicians viewed Attica as part and parcel of a revolutionary plot to destabilize the nation as a whole would have profound consequences for how officials, both state and federal, handled official investigations.” (267)  A further impediment to learning the truth were the actions taken by Governor Rockefeller, his staff, prison officials, New York State Police officials and correctional officers to corroborate their stories to make sure they would achieve the outcome they desired from any investigation.

Thompson examines each investigation and then goes on to the legal effort by the families involved to learn the truth and gain compensation and better treatment for those who perished and those who survived.  Overall, it took three years for the state to bring inmates to trial for the uprising.  The most common theme dealt with those who were prosecuted, those who was not, the coercion of inmates to testify, and the uneven field that was created for prisoner defense lawyers.  As Malcom Bell, a lawyer recruited to Special Prosecutor Anthony Simonetti’s team pointed out when he became a “whistle blower” after experiencing the abuses of the prosecution, “it struck [me] as odd that so much effort was going into prosecuting prisoners from Attica when the officers had killed ten times as many people as the inmates had.” (403)  Bell tried to gain support for his findings, even writing a report for Hugh Carey, then the recently elected governor of New York.  After waiting months Bell grew tired and contacted Tom Wicker and the story ran in the New York Times  creating a firestorm.   The overall approach was clear, the prosecution of inmates was of the utmost importance and the case against law enforcement was a much lower priority.  What followed was an investigation of the investigation and perhaps Thompson’s best chapter.

Thompson discusses the prosecution of the prisoners in a very clear and concise manner.  The key conviction that Simonetti’s team sought was the murderer of corrections officer William Quinn.  The Quinn case as with other prosecution cases produced witnesses that were not very credible.  Most had not even been at the scene of the supposed crimes, they had been coerced into testifying, or they were promised early parole, reduced sentences, or total release.  Prejudiced judges in the first two cases gained convictions but once Bell became a whistle blower prosecution tactics began to change particularly when going after New York State police officials where increasing evidence that they interfered with the collection of materials and issued orders designed to protect troopers and themselves emerged.  Men in Simonetti’s office were fully aware that the top brass in the NYSP were hiding and destroying evidence.  Bell grew angrier and sent numerous letter to Simonetti pressuring him to go after State Police officials like Lt. Colonel George Infante, Captain Henry Williams, and Major John Monahan, but the Special Prosecutor chose to ignore Bell’s requests over and over.

The theme of culpability for the Attica uprisings pervades Thompson’s narrative, and like a fish that rots from the head down we see the interference and strategy of the Rockefeller administration throughout.  By the time a number of these cases finally reached trial, Nelson Rockefeller was undergoing Congressional hearings to be approved as Vice President once Richard Nixon resigned.  Angela Davis made the correct comparison when she pleaded before the committee not to approve Rockefeller.  Here was a man who refused any empathy toward the prisoners.  He would not go to the prison, he would not grant any paroles or pardons.  However, President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for his crimes, why couldn’t the Governor of New York do a little of the same?

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(New York Attorney General Louis Lefkowitz

Thompson completes her history of Attica by exploring the long road taken by inmates to seek redress in the New York State courts.  Led by attorney Elizabeth Fink they fought for years to overcome a new round of legal stalling and machinations as inmates, and families of inmates who had passed away fought “the system.”  As in other parts of the narrative Thompson provide minute details as the years passed until the trial of prison administrators in the early 1990s.  Partially successful the next battle would be over monetary damages to the inmates.  Fink led the former prisoners through the labyrinth that was the New York court system and finally in 2000, almost thirty years later a settlement was reached.  This created tension with the families of the forgotten hostages who received nothing from the state despite promises.  They would begin their own war to receive compensation that was somewhat successful, but just as with the prisoner settlement New York State refused to grant them an apology or any admission of wrongdoing for the massacre at Attica.

Reading Thompson’s study can be exhausting due to the detail and the emotion in which the author presents her material.  However, she has done a wondrous job of research and picking apart the documentation that she uncovered.  For those who lived through the Attica uprising you will be amazed at what Thompson has uncovered.  If you are younger and have never heard or thought about Attica and prison reform this book will be a revelation.

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JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: MILITANT SPIRIT by James Traub

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(John Quincy Adams, the 6th President of the United States)

At a time when most Americans believe they are witnessing the most divisive political campaign they have ever experienced, they need only to turn the clock back to the 1828 presidential campaign when Andrew Jackson, angry because he believed the previous election had been stolen because of a “corrupt bargain” between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, launched a nasty and personal attack against Adams as early as his inauguration resulting in Jackson’s eventual victory.  This political clash is just one component of James Traub’s excellent new biography, JOHN QUINCY ADAMS: MILITANT SPIRIT.  Adam’s the son of our second president was a rather enigmatic and recalcitrant figure who seemed to always answer to principle, not political expediency.  His diplomatic career consisted of ministerial posts in the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, England, as well as serving as Secretary of State.  His political offices included the Massachusetts State Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Presidency.  Adams’ life is a compendium of late 18th and 19th century events where he usually was a focal point in any important situation.  This amazing career is skillfully portrayed by Traub as he dissects his subjects’ life and concludes that despite numerous achievements and failures, he never wavered from the moral convictions instilled in him by his parents, John and Abigail Adams.

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(Abigail and John Adams, John Quincy’s parents)

The success of Traub’s effort lies in mining the 15,000 pages of Adams’ journal that he kept over his entire life.  The fact that the journal has been digitized allows the author easy access and assisted in creating a window into his subject’s mind that is fascinating.  Traub explores every aspect of Adams’ life, especially his close relationship with both of his parents.  The reader can eavesdrop on conversations between the father and son where we see why Adams’ became the man he did.  Not quite a reincarnation of his father, but strikingly similar.  Many of the letters and conversations between mother and son are also available and we are exposed to the rigid moral principles and advice that Abigail offered. The type of father Adams’ became later in life is directly related to his own upbringing as he pursued the same method of childrearing as his parents.  As far as his relationship with his wife Louisa it does not measure up to the closeness between John and Abigail Adams.  He was a distant husband and Louisa and John Quincy spent many years apart.

At a very young age he “followed a set of standards, moral, and intellectual, to which people should be held, and he found much of the world wanting,” particularly women.  The pressure on Adams because of his parents was immense and this led to feelings of guilt and depressive episodes.  Many times he felt conflicted as he passed back and forth between aspiration and resignation.  Traub has the knack of interweaving Adams’ private life with his career in an interesting fashion.  We get a glimpse of all aspects of Adams be it in the family, years of diplomacy overseas, and his political career.  Traub’s careful devotion to detail creates an accurate portrayal of life on the family farm in Quincy, MA, Washington, DC, or the many countries that he served as a diplomat.

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(Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams who would outlive him by four years)

Adams was a much more pragmatic politician for his time and tried to stay away from rigid ideologues.  For example, he refused to join the Federalists in their attacks on Thomas Jefferson, a man he admired, and supported the purchase of Louisiana because for Adams, unlike today, country came first, not political partisanship.  Adams even supported Jefferson’s Embargo Acts (1807) when the New England region that he represented opposed it.  As Traub states “he would become an honorable outcast like his father.”

Traub does a masterful job explaining how Louisa endured her domineering husband.  The author’s narrative reflects a great deal of empathy toward Louisa as she tries to live apart from her sons for long periods of time while her husband was posted overseas.  This in conjunction to the many disappointments the couple endured, from separation, countless miscarriages, and the death of their daughter Louisa, and their two sons John and George, but as their marriage endured John Quincy and Louisa would grow somewhat closer.

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(Charles Francis Adams, the son of John Quincy that was most similar to his father)

Traub delves into all aspects of Adams’ diplomatic career.  His most important postings dealt with negotiations to end the War of 1812, as minister to England, and his work in St. Petersburg as he established a close and friendly relationship with Alexander I which proved very important during the period of Napoleon’s defeat and the establishment of the Holy Alliance.  Adams’ stint as Secretary of State is covered completely and the chapter devoted to negotiations with the British and concerns over the rise of Republics in the former Spanish colonies that led to the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 is one of Traub’s best.

Adams’ journal contains copious details of negotiations, social observations, and acute analysis.  Adams’ mindset, particularly as it related to the intellectual underpinnings of his foreign policy is incisive.  What emerges is a man whose belief system is somewhere between a realist and an idealist who spent his entire career trying to enhance American prestige and territory while avoiding what he considered reckless adventures, i.e.; recognition of Spanish Republics, whether to invade Cuba, the seizure of West Florida among others.  The intellectual core of Adams’ belief system rested on “the crucial distinction he made between freedom as a donation or grant from a sovereign and freedom as an act of mutual acknowledgement among equals.  This was America’s gift to mankind—a gift [that Adams] hoped to spread across the globe.”

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(Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States and a political foil to John Quincy)

Traub correctly points out that Adams’ was not a politician and would not seek office and do the necessary lobbying and cajoling to gain support for his own candidacy, and after assuming the presidency, to gain support for his legislative goals, particularly that of internal improvement and creating an infrastructure linking the expanding country.  The machinations involving the 1824 and 1828 presidential elections, his relationship with men like Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Andrew Jackson, and especially his term as president can best summed up by the British historian George Dangerfield, here was “a rather conspicuous example of a great man in the wrong place, at the wrong time with the right motives and a tragic inability to make himself understood.”

Adams’ later career is presented in a clear and concise manner as he enters the House of Representatives, the only president to do so.  For Adams the issue of slavery was paramount and he saw the problem of states’ rights over tariffs as nothing more than a cover for the “peculiar institution.”  In the 1840s Adams found himself in the midst of many heated debates dealing with slavery.  At times he refused to label himself as an abolitionist, and would argue before the Supreme Court representing the men who had seized the slave ship, Amistad.  Further, he would become a thorn in the side of states’ rights supporters of slavery in the House of Representatives by repeatedly arguing against the “gag rule,” introducing petitions against slavery, and defending himself as attempts to censure him for his opposition to the “slavocracy” were introduced.  Adams would become a man without a party as he would support no faction in the House and found a unique role for himself, “the solitary vote of conscience.”

John Quincy Adams was the last link to the founding generation which in part makes his life so important.  In addition, he is also the last link between the creation of the United States and its near destruction by Civil War.  In a sense Traub argues that Adams’ time in the oval office was an unsuccessful interlude in a remarkable career that saw principle over expediency as the guiding light of one of the most remarkable figures in American history.  For Adams, no matter what the situation, Washington’s message in his Farewell Address to remain neutral abroad, achieve unity at home, and create the consolidation of the continent were his guiding principles and Traub does an excellent job explaining how his subject went about trying to achieve them.

Image result for photos of john quincy adams

(John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States)

67 SHOTS: KENT STATE AND THE END OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE by Howard Means

(Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller, May 4, 1970-the most iconic photo of the tragedy)

On May 4th, 1970, 28 people died in actions related to the war in Vietnam; 24 on the actual battlefield, and 4 on the campus of Kent State University.  My memories of that day are quite clear as I was a student at Pace University in New York City.  A day or two later I joined a demonstration against the war as Mayor John Lindsay ordered the flag at City Hall Park to be flown at half-staff in remembrance of the 4 student who died at Kent State.  Almost immediately construction workers who were working on the World Trade Center site marched up Broadway beating anyone who seemed to be against the war, while New York City’s finest did nothing to stop them.  The next day my US Army Reserve unit was activated on the St. John’s University campus in Queens to deal with demonstrations.  My experience reflects the split in American society at the time and the total deterioration that existed between generations, and the attitude of many toward the Nixon administration.  Howard Means’ new book 67 SHOTS: KENT STATE AND THE END OF AMERICAN INNOCENCE captures that time period as he reevaluates events leading up to the shootings, the actual shootings themselves, and how people reacted and moved forward following the resulting casualties.

(National Guard use of tear gas on May 4, 1970 at Kent State)

The climate at Kent State was heated long before President Richard Nixon went on television on April 30, 1970 to announce the American “incursion” into Cambodia to root out North Vietnamese sanctuaries that were used to attack American troops.  This announcement exacerbated tensions between the administration and the anti-war movement that was labeled as “bums” by Nixon and his Vice President Spiro T. Agnew.  Means was able to reconstruct events at Kent State through numerous interviews of many of the actual participants as well as conducting research at Kent State’s archive.  This allowed Means to weave his narrative encompassing the actions of students and members of the National Guard and try and determine whether the Guardsmen were under enough of a threat to open fire on the students, or did the climate that existed on campus from May 1-4 make the tragedy inevitable.

Tension on campus was brought to a head when students burned down the ROTC building on May 2nd, and later that day the National Guard was summoned by Governor James Rhodes and deployed on campus.  One of the most important questions that Means explores was why was the Guard was called upon when it lacked the training in crowd control, and the use of M1 rifles, when the Ohio Highway Patrol was trained and ready to intervene.  Means places a great deal of the blame for events on Governor James Rhodes who was running for the US Senate against Congressman Robert Taft, Jr. and wanted to strike a tough persona to enhance his election bid as he stated on the morning of 5/3 when things seemed to be calming down, that he “would eradicate the disease of student unrest, not merely treat the symptoms.”

(National Guard shoot a Kent State student, May 4, 1970)

The inevitability of a crisis at Kent State resulted from disparate forces-the high spirits of the student body (about 4,000 of 21,000 students who participated in the demonstrations), the spring like weather, the war in Vietnam, Nixon’s Cambodia speech, campus radicalism (about 300 students), the exhortations of Jerry Rubin, local anxiety, the generational divide, and growing tensions between the town and the university.  Means argues effectively that outside agitators were not responsible for May 4th, as events were fostered by Kent State’s student body.  Supporters of the National Guard argue that SDS was responsible for organizing students which was not true.  Means presents a frame by frame picture of May 4th and concludes that the shootings did not have to take place.  The National Guard spokespersons argued that there was a snipper who threatened the soldiers, but there was no evidence that one existed.  Further, the students did not rush the soldiers who claimed their lives were in danger.  The problem throughout the crisis was the lack of communication and coordination between the National Guard, the university, and town officials.  Means based his conclusions on evaluating the statements of the main participants and the interviews he conducted over many years.  For Means it is clear that the National Guard was not protecting itself from “imminent danger, instead, there seems to have been a strange mix of intentionality, horrific judgement, terrible luck, preventability and inevitability.”  The generation gap, the Age of Aquarius, all came together on May 4, 1970.

(The 4 students killed at Kent State)

Means describes the moods of students and guardsmen and the shock and outrage that followed the shootings.  He points to the heroes, like Major Don Manley of the Ohio Highway Patrol who convinced the National Guard commander, General Robert Canterbury to allow faculty marshals additional time to convince students to disperse, before further damage could be done.  Other heroes include Geology professor Glenn Frank, a former marine who convinced students to leave when the National Guard reformed and were getting ready to fire again.  However, most townspeople and guardsmen felt that the students brought the shootings on themselves and they got what they deserved.  It is amazing that the actual firing took 13 seconds to unleash 67 bullets!

Means does an excellent job describing the actions and statements of the Nixon administration as well as taking the reader into the White House.  He argues that Nixon became unmoored by events at Kent State that led to his famous 2:00am visit to the Lincoln Memorial to engage young people.  Means also examines the culpability of all the major players in this drama; from university president, Robert White; Kent mayor, Leroy Satron; Governor James Rhodes, and National Guard Commander Robert Canterbury and his officers.  Means explores the legal actions that followed and the Scranton Commission that investigated the shootings.  What emerges is that the death of 4 students and 9 wounded should not have occurred.  It was due to poor training, a lack of communication, and a political climate that was on edge.  Means has written a well-documented account of events and for anyone interested in one of the most iconic tragedies of the Vietnam era, this book is well worth consulting.

(Mary Ann Vecchio leaning over the body of Jeffrey Miller, May 4, 1970)

GOING TO EXTREMES by Joe McGinniss

Recently I was in a bookstore in Anchorage, Alaska and came across a book by Joe McGinniss entitled, GOING TO EXTREMES. Having read his THE SELLING OF THE PRESIDENT 1968 about the attempt to repackage Richard Nixon for the 1968 presidential campaign, and CRUEL DOUBT which centers on a society murder in a small North Carolina town in 1988, I was intrigued.  After reading the introduction to the new edition written in 2010, as the original was published in 1981, I learned that McGinniss had thanked Sarah Palin for the inspiration to revisit Alaska after the 2008 Republican Convention and how the state had impacted him in the mid-1970s.  The book itself is part memoir, geographical guide, and history of the 49th state that was admitted to the United States sixteen years before what McGinniss describes in his own thought provoking and humorous style as the transformation of Alaska due to the domination of “big oil.”

A few weeks ago while standing below a section of the Alaska pipeline outside Fairbanks I learned that 85% of the state’s revenue is a result of oil and that each Alaskan resident receives a check for $2-3,000 a year as a tax rebate depending on the whims of politicians and oil production.  The money pays college tuition and numerous other costs for Alaska’s citizens and one cannot imagine where Alaska would be today without the money stream from “big oil.” McGinniss’ main motivation in visiting Alaska in 1975 was to experience the awesome beauty of its primal wilderness and mountains, for what he feared might be the last days of the last frontier America would ever have.

(Denali, over 20,000 feet above sea level, the highest peak in North America)

McGinniss would spend a year traveling and living among the native Eskimos and local citizens trying to get to the core of what it meant to be an Alaskan native, and those characters who settled in Alaska by choice for many diverse and unusual reasons.  The book describes a state that in many parts seems to be a world where things remain just as they had been forty or four hundred years before.  However, with the political and economic pressures fostered by the Alaskan pipeline they were about to change radically as I witnessed on my recent visit a few weeks ago.

The reader accompanies the author as he crosses the state from an amazing trek through the Brooks Range as he describes the Oolah Pass, part of the Continental Divide not between east and west, but the Arctic Divide.  Below this point water flowed south, emptying into the Pacific Ocean.  Beyond the Pass it drained into the Arctic Ocean!  We meet many fascinating characters who lived in the wilderness, towns, villages, and cities, from the state capitol in Juneau which cannot be reached by road, to Barrow which lies 330 miles above the Arctic Circle in the north, Seward in the south, and Denali* in the center.  Alaska’s topography make it a necessity for people to have pilot’s license if they are to survive the state’s rugged terrain, and in fact one out of every six residents do.  The need for air transport also serves as a time machine as you fly from Anchorage to Fairbanks to the north and on to coastal areas that seem fifty years behind.

(Oolah Pass, the Arctic Divide)

McGinniss spends a great deal of time exploring the impact of western technology and the coming of the white culture.  It has had a particularly devastating effect on younger Eskimos who were not set in the ways of the older generation.  What emerges is that Eskimo culture is being destroyed as they confront the Americanization of Alaska brought on by the wealth produced by the oil pipeline.  They are migrating to cities in great number seeking welfare aid, taking jobs on the pipeline earning money that they have no clue on how to deal with, or trying to survive in their villages.

In his trek throughout state, McGinniss meets a cavalcade of individuals unique in character and possess outlandish life stories that seem to culminate in Alaska.  World War II veterans abound, Grateful “Deadheads,” policemen from Denver, former businessmen and educators, writers, bureaucrats, and many who are recently divorced and trying to put their lives back together.  Others are seeking freedom, adventure, or just to get rich quick from the oil boom.  We meet people who arrive from Seattle on a barge in what appears to be a “hippie coup” of a small village as they take over the radio station, newspaper, and school library.  The descriptions and stories abound like Duncan Pyle, a former bestselling Canadian author who for a time was the Chairman of the Language Department at the Inupiat University of the Arctic, a university housed in a shack.  As Olive Cook who grew up in Bethel which is located at the confluence of the Bering Sea and the Yukon River who left for a job in Washington, D.C., but she could never reconcile her Eskimo culture and white technological society.  We also meet Eddie the Basque, a pipefitter from Idaho who hoped to make enough money from the pipeline to retire, however, by the time he arrived the pipeline was almost completed.

(The Alaska Oil Pipeline outside Fairbanks)

It seems that everyone that the author meets left the lower forty eight states for Alaska without any knowledge of what they were getting themselves into.  A case in point is Tom and Marie Brennan who left newspaper jobs in Worcester, MA and set out in their International Harvester Travel All pulling a houseboat on wheels.  After traveling 5000 miles they eventually reached Anchorage were they got jobs on the Anchorage Times and witness the spectacular growth of Alaska’s largest city, and Tom, who escaped Massachusetts, would soon become the Public relations Head for Atlantic Richfield and the oil pipeline!

McGinniss’ description of Fairbanks is as if it did not exist on earth, “but on a distant planet; a planet that was much farther from the sun.”  In fact, many of the author’s descriptions have that out of the earth’s universe feel to it as Alaska is not like any other area in our union, particularly the winters.  Many stark descriptions of the landscape are offered, but despite these comments, the sheer beauty of Alaska’s bareness comes through, from the Kahiltna Glacier 7200 feet above sea level which is the staging area for hikers to climb Denali or the Yukon River that flows from the Bering Sea all the way across Alaska into Canada.

GOING TO EXTREMES is a unique look at our 49th state, a view that is hard to accept for many natives because of the way their lives have changed.  However, for the Alaska novice like myself in conjunction with my recent visit it was eye opening what the oil boom has done to the state and its people.  Whether you are a conservationist, an individual who believes in the development of Alaska’s natural resources, or someone who wishes that the government would just leave Alaskans alone there is something worthwhile to be taken from McGinniss’ narrative.

*The name of the highest mountain in North America became a subject of dispute in 1975, when the Alaska Legislature asked the U.S. federal government to officially change its name from Mount McKinley to Denali. The mountain had been unofficially named Mount McKinley in 1896 by a gold prospector, and officially by the United States government in 1917 to commemorate William McKinley, who was president of the United States from 1897 until his assassination in 1901. (Wikipedia)

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

(Benedict Arnold and George Washington)

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

(The young Benedict Arnold)

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

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

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

Joseph Reed by Pierre Eugène du Simitière.jpg

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

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

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

(George Washington and Benedict Arnold)

CHASING THE LAST LAUGH: MARK TWAIN’S RAUCOUS AND REDEMPTIVE ROUND-THE-WORLD COMEDY TOUR by Richard Zacks

(Mark Twain)

In 1896 Mark Twain faced a debt of $79,704.80 to assorted creditors with his publishing firm Charles L. Wilson and Company and his investment in a new style of typesetting as being his most egregious.  The debt was substantial and would calculate to roughly $2,220,474.90 in today’s dollars.  This large amount served as the motivating force behind Twain’s round-the-world stand-up comedy tour between 1895 and 1896.  In the appendix of Richard Zacks’s new book, CHASING THE LAST LAUGH: MARK TWAIN’S RAUCOUS AND REDEMPTIVE ROUND-THE WORLD COMEDY TOUR Twain’s debts are listed individually and one gets the feeling that this iconic and brilliant observer of the human condition was a rather poor investor.   Twain would travel across the American west, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, India, Ceylon, and South Africa in an attempt to take his fees and eradicate as much of the debt as possible.  This global journey which at times reads like a Rick Steeves travelogue is described in delicious detail by Richard Zacks who allows Twain’s own words, recorded in letters, newspaper accounts, and his own notebooks tell the story of their journey.  The journey concluded in England where he wrote a travel book about his experiences in another attempt to reduce his debt.

(Mark Twain and Olivia Livey Twain and their daughters, Susy, Clara, and Jean)

Twain who hated to perform on stage was America’s highest paid author and one of America’s biggest investment losers.  He would perform 122 nights in 71 different cities, in addition to spending 98 nights at sea of which he was afflicted with a myriad of illnesses including repeated bouts with painful carbuncles during his tour as he used a number of pre-modern and modern conveyances to earn enough money to “talk his way out of hell and humiliation” of losing his entire fortune and a good part of his wife Livy, a coal heiress’ wealth also.

Zacks describes the initial success of his publishing company publishing the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and other works, but this profitability succumbed to embezzlement, poor choices of publications, and the death of Henry Ward Beecher before he could complete his memoirs.  Compounding Twain’s problem was that the United States was in the gripe of the Depression of 1893 creating the fear that Twain could not only loose his publishing house, but also the copyrights to his writings, his life’s blood.  Twain also faced loses on Wall Street after sinking money into inventions that proved to be expensive failures.

Zacks does a nice job reviewing Twain’s financial machinations and his relationship with H.H. Rogers, a partner in Standard Oil who befriended the insolvent author and tried to “bring Mr. Clemens” to some sort of financial solvency, the key to which was declaring bankruptcy for his publishing company, and transferring his copyrights and other assets to his wife Olivia Livy as a means of hanging on to his life’s work.

After spending the first part of the book describing Twain’s financial travails Zacks prepare what appears to be an annotated travelogue of Twain, his wife Olivia and their daughter Clara as they work their way across the western United States and board ship for Australia and beyond.  Twain’s humiliation was complete before he left on his journey as the New York State Supreme Court pronounced a judgement against him of $31, 986, and Twain grew ill from the idea that he was a pauper and thanked god that no laws against the indigent existed in the Empire State.  Once the journey commences Zacks does a commendable job integrating Twain’s written material and comments into the narrative as he performs on tour.*  Twain grew stressed when certain audiences expected a comedy routine as opposed to his normal literary and societal aspects of his presentations.  Though negative comments and reviews were few and he was broadly praised throughout, Twain was very sensitive to criticism though his approach of just “chatting” with his audiences as technique was very successful.  Throughout the journey Twain grew depressed he would never be able to repay his debts, but his wife Livy and Rogers were able to temper his feelings and control his finances.

The best description of Twain during his journey was offered by Carlyle Smythe, his agent in India, he states that Twain is “a sedate savant who has been seduced from the path of high seriousness by a fatal sense of the ridiculous.”  When the arduous tour finally came to an end, Twain was overjoyed stating “that the slavery of it….is so exacting and so infernal’ and hoped never to experience it again.

 

(Mark Twain and his benefactor, H.H. Rogers)

Twain’s observations throughout the book are interesting as his comments range from the ecology of Australia, the wonders of India, especially their “colorful costumes,” to the Anglo-Boer conflict raging in South Africa.  What is surprising is that Twain, known in the United States as an anti-imperialist had nothing but praise for the British Empire, particularly as it related to India causing him to be blind to the oppressions and the humiliations of English rule.  To Twain’s credit he did comment negatively concerning the machinations of Cecil Rhodes and British policy in South Africa.  The book also served as a form of therapy for Twain when his daughter Susy died of spinal meningitis in the United States while he was writing and he could not be with her or attend the funeral.  He castigated himself for creating the debt that forced the family to separate for the world tour to earn enough money to rectify the family’s financial situation.

Overall the book makes for a fascinating read about one of America’s most important humorists and literary figures and zeroes in on the trials and tribulations that Twain and his family suffered very late in his career.  Twain was able to overcome his debt situation thanks to his good friend H. H. Rogers, an executive for Standard Oil, and in the end pay he would pay off all of his debts and live a life free of financial worries.

*For those interested in researching Twain’s life in detail the University of California press has published over 2000 pages of Twain’s daily dictations written between 1907 and 1909 encompassing his entire life in the form of an autobiography.  The three volumes are edited by Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith and are the first comprehensive edition of all Mark Twain’s work fully annotated by the editors of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California.

(Mark Twain)

CHASING THE LAST LAUGH: MARK TWAIN’S RAUCOUS AND REDEMPTIVE ROUND-THE-WORLD COMEDY TOUR by Richard Zacks

(Mark Twain)

In 1896 Mark Twain faced a debt of $79,704.80 to assorted creditors with his publishing firm Charles L. Wilson and Company and his investment in a new style of typesetting as being his most egregious.  The debt was substantial and would calculate to roughly $2,220,474.90 in today’s dollars.  This large amount served as the motivating force behind Twain’s round-the-world-stand-up comedy tour between 1895 and 1896.  In the appendix of Richard Zacks’ new book, CHASING THE LAST LAUGH: MARK TWAIN’S RAUCOUS AND REDEMPTIVE ROUND-THE WORLD COMEDY TOUR Twain’s debts are listed individually and one gets the feeling that this iconic and brilliant observer of the human condition was a rather poor investor.   Twain would travel across the American west, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, India, Ceylon, and South Africa in an attempt to take his fees and eradicate as much of the debt as possible.  This global journey which at times reads like a Rick Steeves travelogue is described in delicious detail by Richard Zacks who allows Twain’s own words, recorded in letters, newspaper accounts, and his own notebooks tell the story of their journey.  The journey concluded in England where he wrote a travel book about his experiences in another attempt to reduce his debt.

Twain who hated to perform on stage was America’s highest paid author and one of America’s biggest investment losers.  He would perform 122 nights in 71 different cities, in addition to spending 98 nights at sea of which he was afflicted with a myriad of illnesses including repeated bouts with painful carbuncles during his tour as he used a number of pre-modern and modern conveyances to earn enough money to “talk his way out of hell and humiliation” of losing his entire fortune and a good part of his wife Livy, a coal heiress’ wealth also.

Zacks describes the initial success of his publishing company publishing the memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant and other works, but this profitability succumbed to embezzlement, poor choices of publications, and the death of Henry Ward Beecher before he could complete his memoirs.  Compounding Twain’s problem was that the United States was in the gripe of the Depression of 1893 creating the fear that Twain could not only loose his publishing house, but also the copyrights to his writings, his life’s blood.  Twain also faced loses on Wall Street after sinking money into inventions that proved to be expensive failures.

Zacks does a nice job reviewing Twain’s financial machinations and his relationship with H.H. Rogers, a partner in Standard Oil who befriended the insolvent author and tried to “bring Mr. Clemens” to some sort of financial solvency, the key to which was declaring bankruptcy for his publishing company, and transferring his copyrights and other assets to his wife Olivia Livy as a means of hanging on to his life’s work.

 

(Mark Twain, Olivia Livy Twain and their three daughters, Clara, Jean, and Susy)

After spending the first part of the book describing Twain’s financial travails Zacks prepare what appears to be an annotated travelogue of Twain, his wife Olivia and their daughter Clara as they work their way across the western United States and board ship for Australia and beyond.  Twain’s humiliation was complete before he left on his journey as the New York State Supreme Court pronounced a judgement against him of $31, 986, and Twain grew ill from the idea that he was a pauper and thanked god that no laws against the indigent existed in the Empire State.  Once the journey commences Zacks does a commendable job integrating Twain’s written material and comments into the narrative as he performs on tour.*  Twain grew stressed when certain audiences expected a comedy routine as opposed to his normal literary and societal aspects of his presentations.  Though negative comments and reviews were few and he was broadly praised throughout, Twain was very sensitive to criticism though his approach of just “chatting” with his audiences as technique was very successful.  Throughout the journey Twain grew depressed he would never be able to repay his debts, but his wife Livy and Rogers were able to temper his feelings and control his finances.

The best description of Twain during his journey was offered by Carlyle Smythe, his agent in India, he states that Twain is “a sedate savant who has been seduced from the path of high seriousness by a fatal sense of the ridiculous.”  When the arduous tour finally came to an end, Twain was overjoyed stating “that the slavery of it….is so exacting and so infernal’ and hoped never to experience it again.

 

(Mark Twain and his friend and benefactor, H.H. Rogers)

Twain’s observations throughout the book are interesting as his comments range from the ecology of Australia, the wonders of India, especially their “colorful costumes,” to the Anglo-Boer conflict raging in South Africa.  What is surprising is that Twain, known in the United States as an anti-imperialist had nothing but praise for the British Empire, particularly as it related to India causing him to be blind to the oppressions and the humiliations of English rule.  To Twain’s credit he did comment negatively concerning the machinations of Cecil Rhodes and British policy in South Africa.  The book also served as a form of therapy for Twain when his daughter Susy died of spinal meningitis in the United States while he was writing and he could not be with her or attend the funeral.  He castigated himself for creating the debt that forced the family to separate for the world tour to earn enough money to rectify the family’s financial situation.

Overall the book makes for a fascinating read about one of America’s most important humorists and literary figures and zeroes in on the trials and tribulations that Twain and his family suffered very late in his career.  Twain was able to overcome his debt situation thanks to his good friend H. H. Rogers, an executive for Standard Oil, and in the end pay he would pay off all of his debts and live a life free of financial worries.

*For those interested in researching Twain’s life in detail the University of California press has published over 2000 pages of Twain’s daily dictations written between 1907 and 1909 encompassing his entire life in the form of an autobiography.  The three volumes are edited by Benjamin Griffin and Harriet Elinor Smith and are the first comprehensive edition of all Mark Twain’s work fully annotated by the editors of the Mark Twain Project at the University of California.

(Mark Twain)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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