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

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(Edward Lansdale)

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

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(Lansdale with Ngo Dinh Diem)

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

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

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

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

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(Philippine President, Ramon Magsaysay)

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

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

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(Daniel Ellsberg)

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

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

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(Edward Lansdale)
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LENIN: THE MAN, THE DICTATOR, AND THE MASTER OF TERROR by Victor Sebestyen

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(Vladimir I. Lenin)

For many years historians have laid the blame for the oppressive and authoritarian regime that took root in Russia following its revolution on Joseph Stalin.  Names like NKVD, GPU or banishment to Siberia, political purges were all associated with the Russian dictator.  However, the credit for the darkness that pervaded the former Soviet Union first must rest at the feet of Vladimir I. Lenin.  In 1973 Alexsandr S. Solzhenitsyn published the first volume of his GULAG ARCHIPELAGO, and the famous Russian dissident argued that the origin of Soviet terror and the police state belong to Lenin.  This argument has been accepted by historians and in the latest biography of Lenin since Robert Service’s excellent monograph, Victor Sebestyen’s LENIN: THE MAN, THE DICTATOR, AND THE MASTER OF TERROR has taken that argument to a new level.   According to Sebestyen, in his quest for power, Lenin “promised people anything and everything.  He offered simple solutions to complex problems.  He lied unashamedly.  He identified a scapegoat he could label ‘enemies of the people.’  He justified himself on the basis that winning meant everything…..Lenin was the godfather of what commentators a century after his time call post truth politics.”  Anyone who has paid attention to our current political climate can easily recognize practitioners of this authoritarian approach.

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(Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky)

Lenin’s greatest crime aside from creating the precursor of the NKVD, the Cheka or the Soviet secret police, is leaving a man like Stalin to assume the leadership of the Soviet Union upon his passing in 1924.  Lenin built a system that rested on the concept that political terror against any opposition was justified for the greater good.  It was perfected by Stalin, but the ideas were Lenin’s.  Sebestyen’s approach to his subject is a very personal one and he explores a number of issues in greater depth than previous books.  He delves deep into the relationship between Nadezhda K. Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife who was vital to her husband and the revolution.  She was in charge of regulating his explosive temper and at times erratic behavior.  Her role was to maintain his health and be a sounding board for his ideas and writing.  Next, the author explores Lenin’s relationship with his long time mistress, Inessa Armand.  For ten years before Lenin died they had an on-off love affair.  She was central to his emotional life, one of his closest aides, and was one of the best-known female socialists of her era.  The three, Lenin, Nadya, and Inessa formed a ménage etois that was accepted by the women involved who had their own strong relationship.

Further, what separates Sebestyen’s approach from others is how he constantly reaffirms that the tactics and system developed by Lenin dominated Soviet rule until 1989, and has reasserted itself in the last decade.  Lenin’s leadership traits seemed to have been handed down in succession from Stalin, in particular to Vladimir Putin.  Lenin set up the Cheka and over the decades be it the GPU, NKVD, KGB or currently the FSB its purpose did not change; “protect the Party and its leadership from any perceived threat of subversion and to dispense revolutionary justice.”

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(The Romanov royal family)

Not long ago Steve Bannon stated that “Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too.”  The concept of deconstructing government that forms the core of Bannon’s political agenda rings very closely to that of Lenin.  The parallels are clear and in Lenin’s case, underneath the superficial sophistication and personal charm he periodically put on display, he was capable of acts of appalling evil.  Whether his approval of the use of firing squads to eliminate the opposition soon after coming to power the winter of 1917-1918, or his attitude toward the death of Russian soldiers against the Germans, his refusal to distribute land to peasants as promised and the creation of the Kulak class of land owners who he destroyed, the mass starvation that took place, and Lenin’s response to this terror, were all sacrifices that were acceptable in order to achieve the larger goals of gaining and maintaining power.

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(Nadya Krupskaya)

Sebestyen effectively reviews the spreading of revolutionary fervor in Russia among the bourgeoisie dating back to the Decembrist uprisings of 1825, the assassination of Alexander II, and the arrival of Marxism.  The Marxist ideology did not really apply to Russia because of its peasant economy and majority.  Lenin, brilliantly argued that Russia did not need to have an Industrial Revolution based on the working class as Marx argued, but could redefine Russian needs and developed through many books and pamphlets the justification of a revolution based on the peasantry.  It is interesting to note that Lenin had no great respect for the working classes who he proposed to make the revolution before turning to the peasants.

Early on Lenin was radicalized by the Tsarist police’s murder of his brother Alexander (Sasha).  From that point on he would work to overthrow the Tsarist monarchy.  Though he was brought up in a bourgeois family and periodically lived on estates Lenin had nothing but disdain for the Romanov dynasty.  Sebestyen’s analysis of Lenin’s personality, the courtship of Nadya, life in exile, be it Siberia, London, Paris, Geneva, the creation of the Bolshevik party, the role of Germany, the revolution itself and the years following may be well known, but the author’s insights, sources, and analysis separate his monograph from others.

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(Inessa Armand)

Sebestyen’s examination of the role of newspapers in the revolution is important as he explains how the creation of Pravda and other outlets allowed Lenin to write editorials, and articles, and through a wide circulation was able to disseminate his ideas.  Lenin had the ability to correct others and have them adopt his views as if they were his own, and the ability to inspire optimism and these traits enabled him to disarm the opposition and rally support among the masses.  The use of newspapers, apart from Tsarist incompetence was major factor in creating the conditions for revolution.

The author pays a great deal of attention to fighting within the parties and the development of a between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.  The arguments between the factions were intense and brutal as Lenin did not suffer fools gladly when people disagreed with him.  Sebestyen also does a good job describing Nicholas II’s personality and reign.  The Tsar was a weak individual who was not cut out to sit on the Romanov throne.  “It is no exaggeration to say that every major decision Nicholas II took was wrong – from the choice of a wife, Alexandra, who compounded his own misjudgments, to his disastrous decisions on war and peace.”  It is fair to say that the Tsar did the most service in the cause of revolution!

Lenin believed from 1900 on that a war between the capitalist countries was inevitable.  When it finally came Russia was totally unprepared for a war of attrition.  Within two months 1.2 million men were killed, wounded, or missing.  This is a small sample of the disaster that would follow and led to the February abdication of the Tsar in favor of the Kerensky government and the final elevation of Lenin to power in October, 1917.  Sebestyen drills down deeply in presenting Lenin’s strategy and ability to overcome many obstacles as the revolution approached.  Once it did his willingness to work with the Germans to travel to Russia is brilliant as is his ability to overcome the opposition of Party members.  The chapters entitled; “The Sealed Train,” and “To Finland Station” are emblematic of Sebestyen’s assiduous research and master of historical detail as he describes the negotiations, reactions to the agreement with the Kaiser’s government, and its reception in Russia.  Sebestyen’s ability to integrate analysis into the flow of the narrative is an important aspect of his writing.  Another important component of Sebestyen’s style is the use of notes at the bottom of each page which are also a fountain of historical information and analysis.

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(Workers demonstrating during Russian Revolution)

It is clear that once the revolution took place Lenin laid the groundwork to rule by terror.  He was under no allusions when it came to the exercising of power to remain in control of the state.  Lenin’s arguments and promises to the masses and his political opposition immediately went by the wayside as he closed down press outlets, purged those who disagreed, set up the Cheka, and justified his actions to prevent counter-revolution.  At the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921, Lenin argued that “We do not promise any freedom, or any democracy,” he did not disappoint and neither did his successor, Joseph Stalin.

The major figures of this period of Russian history are all presented, examined, and placed in their historical context.  Whether Sebestyen is writing about Leon Trotsky, Georgy Plekhanov, Yuli Martov, Lev Kamenev, Grigory Zinoviev, Yakov Sverdlov, Maxim Gorky, Nicholas II, Alexander Helphand (Parvus), a number of foreign diplomats and journalists, Joseph Stalin, and of course his wife and mistress we have a balanced account that lends to a greater understanding of the material presented.  Lenin is the key figure as he created the basis for a one man tyranny.  The terror that evolved was systematic and was not Stalin’s creation.

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A key to authoritarian rule was the creation of a “cult of personality.”  Stalin was an expert, Mao took it to even greater heights, but Lenin was the first.  After an assassination attempt where he was wounded three times, a “cult of Lenin” would emerge as he had survived.  This cult was used to rally support and further the Leninist agenda.

“The scholar Robert Service writes that “the forced labor camps, the one-party state…the prohibition of free and popular elections, the ban on internal party dissent; not one of them was to be invented by Stalin…Not for nothing did Stalin call himself Lenin’s disciple.”  But why blame Lenin and Stalin, the foundation and structure of the Russian police state had been established by Nicholas I in the 1820s.”* This is the theme of Sebestyen’s new biography of Lenin which is sure to become one of the standard works of one of the most important figures of the 20th century.

*Joffe, Joseph, “The First Totalitarian,” New York Times, October 19, 2017.

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(Vladimir I. Lenin)

GRANT by Ron Chernow

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Recently Ron Chernow was asked on the CBS morning news program if his new biography, GRANT could become a Broadway musical as his previous book HAMILTON had.  His response was clearly no, but he left open the possibility of a movie.  Whatever the case, Chernow has written the most comprehensive biography of the man credited with changing the course of, and winning the Civil War, then went on to support Lincoln’s reconstruction program, and assumed the presidency.  The book is quite long, to the point that Chernow dedicated the book to his readers, as he stated in a New York Times interview he himself would have difficulty dealing with the length of his own books.  As far as a film is concerned it is easy to contemplate such a complex life story that experienced numerous successes and failures.  Before the Civil War his private life was riddled with failed businesses and depression.  He had to deal with a father-in-law who thought very little of him, and a father who was rather intrusive.  Troubled by alcoholism he would lead the North to victory over the Confederacy, was a proponent of civil rights for freed slaves, and guided the United States through the perilous years following the Civil War.

Every high school student is taught that there was a great deal of corruption linked to the Grant administration, but in truth noting ever involved him on a personal level.  The historiography dealing with Grant’s life and career beginning with William A. Dunning at the turn of the twentieth century has been rather negative, but Chernow’s effort has continued the new strain of thought reflected in recent biographies by Ronald C. White and Jean Edward Smith who argue that Grant was a great military leader and a better president than he has been given credit for.

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Chernow’s portrait of GRANT is all consuming beginning with a boyhood that witnesses a grandstanding father and a stubbornly private son.  Along with his over-bearing father, Grant had to cope with a painfully retiring mother resulting in a young man who kept a world of buried feelings locked inside, a trait he would carry his entire life.  Chernow follows his subject through his formative years and West Point until his marriage to Julia Dent, a southern woman who lived on a plantation.  Since the Grants were rabid abolitionists it created tremendous pressure on the young couple, particularly Ulysses who could never measure up in terms of wealth to his father-in-law.

Chernow is a wonderful writer of narrative history, but he also centers on the motivations and consequences of people’s actions.  Employing his analytical skills to Grant’s intellectual development in dealing with American expansion during and following the Mexican War, and the problem of Texas we witness a man who realizes early on that the war incited by President James K. Polk could only exacerbate domestic tension by adding territories that the south would try and turn into slave states.  Grant’s pre-presidential views are in a constant state of evolution; whether dealing with military strategy during the Civil War, his dealings with Union generals such as George McClellan, William T. Sherman, Philip Sheridan, and Henry Halleck; how to deal with the problem of “contraband” slaves and whether they should be employed by Union armies against the south; what approach to take against Robert E. Lee; and his developing relationship with Abraham Lincoln.

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Chernow’s Grant has a facile mind who was able to control his emotions and weigh his decisions.  Grant realized that his reputation was one that stressed his problem with alcohol and the fact that casualties under his command were very high.  Chernow spends a great deal of time dealing with the alcohol issue and concludes that Grant was the type of drunk who could control when to start and stop drinking.  The evidence presented reflects the belief that Grant never drank during periods involving the preparation of and actual combat.  The stress of battle needed an outlet, and when Julia was not around or his Chief of Staff John Rawlins was not present to manage him, Grant did resort to alcohol.  As far as casualties were concerned, Grant unlike McClellan and George C. Meade did not pursue an offensive approach to war.   Once Grant experienced success in the western theater, particularly at Vicksburg, his relationship with Lincoln was solidified as the president finally found a general who wanted to destroy the Confederate army, and not just concentrate on acquiring territory.  Another major point that Chernow develops is that historians tend to concentrate on the Army of the Potomac and events in the east, with Grant’s life story the west comes into focus particularly its strategic value during the Civil War.

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(Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)

Grant’s relationship with Lincoln was the key to victory.  The strength of their bond can be seen with all the “presidential talk” surrounding Grant as the war wound down as he assured Lincoln he had no presidential aspirations.  In dealing with the social issues that emerged with the Emancipation Proclamation we witness the further evolution of Grant’s thinking as he proposed what would come to be known as the Freedman’s Bureau to take care of freed slaves.  Lincoln’s assassination hit Grant very hard, as he lost his partner in trying to bring the south back into the union without the former Confederates loosing total face.  Once Lincoln was gone, Grant as General in Chief had to deal with Andrew Johnson, an avowed racist who went to war with radical Republicans in Congress.  By wars end the “erstwhile goods clerk” from Galena, Illinois was in command of over one million men which could compete with any army in the world.  For Grant that army would be reduced appreciatively, but was to be used to control southern rejectionists who committed numerous atrocities against freed blacks, and wanted to reinstitute the status quo ante bellum.

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(General William T. Sherman)

Chernow provides a historically accurate portrayal of the Reconstruction period.  Beginning with the presidency of Andrew Johnson the author dwells on the former Tennessee governor’s blatant racism and goal of restoring Confederate ideals as soon as possible.  Grant, then General in Chief and temporary Secretary of War with Johnson’s suspension of Edwin M. Stanton challenged the new president on issues ranging from the Freedman’s Bureau, constitutional amendments, racist inspired riots and murder in Memphis and New Orleans, and the impeachment process.  It is clear from Chernow’s analysis that Grant became the foremost protector of persecuted blacks in the south as his disgust with Johnson continually increased.  With this process his world view moved closer to Radical Republicans.  Grant believed that Johnson “had subverted the will of Congress in a way that bordered on treason.”(589)  Grant grew very uncomfortable as he found himself in the middle between Johnson and the Radical Republicans over the interpretation of the Tenure of Office Act.  For Grant military rule in the south should be terminated as soon as possible, but also believed that withdrawal should take place without sacrificing the welfare of blacks.

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(General Philip Sheridan)

It came as no surprise that Grant was easily elected to the presidency, a job he never really sought, but once in office seemed to enjoy.  The problem was that Grant tended to view rich businessmen through rose colored glasses leading to weak and corrupt appointees.  Grant, who during the war had a knack for choosing superb talent proved to have lost that skill as president.  Men like Jay Gould and John Fiske tried to corner the gold market; Orville Babcock spied for whisky distillers within the administration along with General John McDonald, the Supervisor for Internal Revenue in Arkansas and Missouri; Secretary of War William M. Belknap made money selling trading posts that provided goods to Native-Americans; and of course the Credit Mobilier – all personified the looser morals of the Gilded Age which greatly detracted from his presidency.  Grant was a victim of the disease of patronage as he repeatedly handed out positions to family and friends.  Many of his problems resulted from the lack of a true civil service system.

In his defense, Chernow argues that Grant was the first president to oversee a continental economy which led to the rise of big business, particularly the expansion of railroads that required government assistance providing fresh opportunities for graft.  “With the federal government bound up in new moneymaking activities, there arose a gigantic grab for filthy lucre that affected statehouses as well and saturated the political system with corruption.”(645)  Grant had to cope with a strong Congress whose powers had been amplified as the death of Lincoln and the actions of Johnson greatly reduced the power of the Executive branch.  Overall, Grant’s problem was that after the Civil War the Republican Party evolved from a party of abolitionism to a more business oriented one.

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(General John A. Rawlins)

Chernow stresses the role of John Rawlins in helping Grant become the hero of the Civil War, but with his death a vacuum was created that no one could fill.  Without Rawlins to help Grant control his drinking problems, act as a sounding board for decisions, and choosing the proper person for a position, it became easier for people to take advantage of Grant.  The result was once Rawlins died, Grant’s presidency became a victim of “crafty, cynical politicians for whom the credulous Grant was no match.”  Later in life Grant would admit his character flaws and blamed himself for choosing and working with individuals that helped contribute to the negative view of his presidency.

Despite the corruption that hovered around the Grant presidency there are areas to admire.  During his administration Grant faced a clandestine Civil War in the south.  Remnants of the Confederacy morphed into the Klu Klux Klan and other racist groups that reigned murder and violence against blacks or any whites who supported them.  Grant used the newly created Department of Justice and the military to prosecute offenders and safeguard possible victims.  Though he could not totally eradicate the violence and hatred by 1872 he had destroyed the Klan in the south.  However, by his second administration acts of violence against blacks in Louisiana, South Carolina, and Mississippi increased culminating in the Colfax massacre and others.  When Grant sought to use federal troops to protect black voting rights he ran into northern opposition that had grown tired of Reconstruction.

Another area that Grant should be commended for was the negotiations resulting in the Treaty of Washington that settled the “Alabama claims” issue with the British dating back to the Civil War.   As a result Anglo-American cooperation would replace years of controversy and ill-feelings.  Further, it allowed for the influx of British capital which greatly enhanced American industrial development.

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(Grant working on his memoirs right before he died)

It is interesting to note the current manipulation of the “Civil War Monuments Issue” by politicians in light of Chernow’s analysis.  The author explains Grant’s resentments against those who argued that he was only successful because of superior resources and men as opposed to the strategy he employed in defeating Lee’s army.  Further, it vexed him that after the Civil War “the North denigrated its generals while southern generals were idealized.”  Grant remarked that Southern generals were [seen as] models of chivalry and valor—our generals were venal, incompetent and course…Everything our opponents did was perfect.  Lee was a demigod, Jackson was a demigod, while our generals were brutal butchers.” (516)  Grant is probably turning over in his grave today as statues of the treasonous Lee are used as a vehicle to exploit the feelings of many individuals who still refuse to honor the 13th,14th,  and 15th  amendments to the Constitution.

Chernow’s work is masterful, well written, and the epitome of how history should be presented.  Chernow does not miss a beat; from Grant’s military career, family life, battle to overcome alcoholism, to the trust in mankind that led to so many financial losses.  If you have the time, GRANT is a major commitment, but if you choose to accept the challenge of engaging a book that weighs between two and three pounds you will not be disappointed.

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STANTON: LINCOLN’S WAR SECRETARY by Walter Stahr

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

When one thinks of impactful figures in American history few would come up with the name, Edwin M. Stanton.  However, without Stanton the North would have had a much more difficult time defeating the South in the Civil War, the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated someone else would have had to step forward to round up the conspirators and capture John Wilkes Booth and Jefferson Davis, and perhaps Andrew Johnson might not have been brought before the Senate for an impeachment trial.  Lincoln’s Secretary of War is the subject of Walter Stahr’s latest biography, STANTON: LINCOLN’S WAR SECRETARY, a smartly written, intimate, and incisive portrait of Stanton’s role in the Civil War and American history in general.  As he did in his previous biographies of John Jay and William Seward, Stahr has mined the available sources reaffirming many of the standard opinions of his subject, but also evaluating new sources and developing new perspectives.

Born in Steubenville, Ohio in 1814 Stanton was raised near the dividing line between the slave and non-slave states of Virginia and Ohio in a period when abolitionism was beginning to take root.  Stanton would attend Kenyon College, but never graduate.  He went on to study law under the auspices of a Steubenville attorney, Daniel Collier and began his practice of law in the spring of 1837.  Soon Judge Benjamin Tappan, a staunch Democrat would become his law partner and mentor.  At this point in time Stanton grew increasingly interested in politics in large part due to the depression that would last over five years.  Stanton’s involvement in Democratic Party politics increased and he was soon elected Prosecutor for Harrison County, Ohio.  Judge Tappan would soon be appointed to the US Senate and Stanton was well on his way as a partisan Democrat developing a “no holds barred” approach to politics.

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(Stanton and Lincoln’s cabinet)

Stahr has full command of primary materials as he repeatedly points out what documents pertaining to Stanton’s views were available and those that were missing.  This allows him to compare diverse viewpoints and sources to determine what Stanton actually wrote, said, or acted upon during his law and political career.  Stahr attacks the many myths associated with Stanton and he does his best to straighten out discrepancies in the historical record.  In Stahr’s study we follow the evolution of Stanton from an important member of the Ohio Democratic Party to becoming the cornerstone of Lincoln’s Republican administration.  During this later process, in particular, we witness the liberalization of Stanton’s views dealing with race.

Stanton’s personal life was wrought with tragedy leading to a strong sense of religiosity.  As a boy he would lose his father, a brother would commit suicide, and a sister would pass at a young age.  Further, in March, 1844 he would lose his first wife to tuberculosis and during the war years he would lose his infant son James.  These experiences made him appear decidedly older than he actually was.

Stahr correctly stresses that though he was known for his service to a Republican president, Stanton was a staunch Democrat who had supported Martin Van Buren as President, and later James K. Polk’s annexationist policies.  Though he had a very low opinion of James Buchanan whose presidency directly preceded the Civil War, he did not think that highly of Abraham Lincoln either during the pre-war period.

An area that Stahr should have developed much further were Stanton’s views on race and abolitionism.  The author seems to skirt these issues and based on his later beliefs an earlier intellectual roadmap for Stanton’s thinking is warranted.  In Stahr’s defense,  he does give the appropriate amount of attention to Stanton’s views and handling of the use of blacks as soldiers in the union army and what prerequisites it demanded and how it would be implemented, especially the Freedman’s Bureau.  Further, the care and treatment of former slaves is examined and the reader gains a more complete picture of where Stanton stood on these issues especially constitutional amendments.   Stahr does spend an inordinate amount of time detailing Stanton’s legal career, seemingly case by case ranging from the Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge case arguing that the bridge blocked commerce on the Ohio River designated for Pittsburgh, to land cases in California, patent claims, labor riots, medical body-snatching, death from duels, and electoral chicanery.  Stanton would argue many cases before the Supreme Court, and many thought he was the leading lawyer of the period.

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(Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, January, 1863)

One of the strengths of Stahr’s effort are his descriptions of American society, culture, and geography in areas in which Stanton lived and influenced.  Stahr provides numerous insights particularly concerning California in the 1850s where he argued numerous land claims, and Washington DC before, during, and after the Civil War.

Stahr stresses how Stanton seems to always claim the moral higher ground no matter the situation.  It is difficult to sustain that approach by supporting the weak President Buchanan and the corruption that surrounded him.  Stanton became a member of the Buchanan administration because of his legal work and with a few months remaining in office Buchannan appointed Stanton Attorney-General.  The most important issue that was at hand was whether to supply Fort Sumter after South Carolina seceded.  Buchanan’s cabinet was split by secessionists and those loyal to the union, and Stanton did his best to stiffen Buchanan’s back and get him to support resupply.  Once out of office Stanton’s view of cabinet meetings stressed positions that Republicans would support as a means of strengthening his position with Lincoln.  Stahr is on firm ground as he argues that Stanton’s view of Lincoln at this time was not much better than Buchanan.  Stahr quotes Stanton’s letter to Buchanan after Lincoln assumes office, “the imbecility of this administration.… [is]…. a national disgrace never to be forgotten….as the result of Lincoln’s ‘running the machine’ for five months.”  Stanton’s bonifides are also to be questioned as he was close with General George McClellan and seemed to share the same views.  It appeared too many inside and outside the press that they were “confidential friends.”  Simon Cameron as Secretary of War advocated arming slaves which McClellan abhorred.  With Congress upset over the course of the war by January, 1862 it should not have come as a surprise that Cameron would be fired.  What was surprising is that Lincoln chose Stanton as his replacement.

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Stahr is accurate in his assessment that Lincoln chose Stanton because of his organizational ability, his workaholic approach, and his ability to get things done.  Critics, particularly the northern democratic press pointed to Stanton’s extensive use of military commissions that tried civilians for military offenses, suspension of habeas corpus, and cutting telegraph privileges to opposing newspapers.  These criticisms of Stanton must be weighed against the crucible of war since the Militia and Conscription Acts did deprive numerous individuals’ due process and civil rights.  But one caveat to Stanton’s record on civil rights were the virulent attacks on the Secretary of War which a good part of the time were unmerciful.

Stahr does a workmanlike job reporting on the McClellan-Lincoln/Stanton imbroglio.  McClellan’s ego is explored in detail and the author makes excellent use of the available correspondence.  Stahr performs equally as well in detailing Stanton’s relationship with other generals including; Grant, Sherman, Hooker, Halleck, Meade, and Burnside.  The Stanton-Lincoln relationship is analyzed and the author like many historians before him concludes that personalities and demeanors may have been opposite in many cases, but as A.E. Johnson, Stanton’s private secretary wrote “they supplemented each other’s nature, and they fully recognized the fact that they were necessary to each other.”

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Stahr does a commendable job revisiting the Andrew Johnson-Edwin Stanton relationship and the deterioration that led to Johnson’s trial in the Senate.  As with other examples in the book this aspect is well documented and the “large” personalities and issues involved are careful dissected.  The result is that Stahr has captured the essence of Stanton as a man who could be deceitful, arbitrary, capricious, as well as vindictive.  However, he was a superb Secretary of War who galvanized Union forces as well as President Lincoln with his energy, organizational skills, ability to learn and adapt, and overwhelming will to defeat the south.  Stahr characterizes Stanton as the “Implementer of Emancipation,” as opposed to the “Great Emancipator,” that was Lincoln.  But for all intents and purposes Stanton must be seen as the equal to Lincoln and Grant in earning accolades for their work during the Civil War.

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES: LOU GEHRIG , GARY COOPER AND THE MAKING OF A CLASSIC by Richard Sandomir

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(Lou Gehrig)

After reading Richard Sandomir’s THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES: LOU GEHRIG, GARY COOPER AND THE MAKING OF A CLASSIC I cannot decide whether I have read a sports book, or a critique of how the film “Pride of the Yankees” was created and finalized.  I guess Sandomir has elements of both, but I wish he would have chosen one path rather than moving back and forth between the two approaches.  The book itself is informative and presents a number of surprising and interesting details of how Samuel Goldwyn, Eleanor Gehrig and others went about the conception of the script, how it was be transferred to the screen, and the diverse group of people who were involved.

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(Gary Cooper in the film, “Pride of the Yankees” making Gehrig’s farewell speech)

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(Lou Gehrig making his Farewell Speech at Yankee Stadium on July 4, 1939)

Sandomir provides background on all the major characters.  We witness the courtship
and marriage of Lou and Eleanor Gehrig and the stresses in their marriage.  The main problem was that Lou was a “mama’s boy” and he had difficulty separating from his mother.  Eleanor describes her marriage as a triangle between her, her husband, and her mother-in-law.  This difficulty would continue after Lou’s death as his mother sued to contest Lou’s will.  A great deal of biographical information is presented dealing with Gary Cooper and Theresa Wright the stars of the movie which are interesting and a number of career insights are brought forward.  Samuel Goldwyn whose studio produced the film is presented as a man who cared mostly about profits from his film.  He did have a soft spot for Gehrig, particularly after Gehrig’s July 4, 1939, “I am the luckiest man in the world” speech given at Yankee Stadium shortly before he died of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).

For Goldwyn the story revolved around patriotism and capturing a shy, decent, selfless, and sincere individual who possessed the character traits of what the American male stood for.  The year 1942 when the film was released is very important.  World War II was not going well, and Goldwyn saw the film as a means of entertainment, profit, but also providing American society an uplifting experience.  The story about a man who was struck down in the prime of his life by an insidious disease is heartwarming.  Gehrig’s own response reflects a brave individual who could be held up as a role model for the World War II generation.  What makes Sandomir’s new book, and Goldwyn’s film so effective is that they are able to translate Gehrig’s life through the prism of film and how that film has preserved his legendary career and his personal integrity for seventy-five years.

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(Lou and Eleanor Gehrig)

The chapter on teaching Gary Cooper to become a “passable” baseball player was one of the most interesting in the book.  Sandomir does a fine job introducing former major leaguers like Lefty O’Doul and Babe Herman, baseball stars in their own right, and how they went about teaching Cooper how to appear realistic as a player on film.  The author provides surprising detail on how this was accomplished.  Especially interesting in the discussion on how the right handed Cooper could play the left handed Gehrig.  The analysis of how film techniques i.e., camera reversals-Cooper would run to third, but on film he ran to first, or uniform names and numbers were reversed were especially interesting.

Sandomir is correct in arguing that the film itself has created a conundrum in that it is difficult to ascertain what is real in terms of Gehrig’s life story and what is a Hollywood creation.  It is fascinating that Goldwyn, Cooper, and others knew very little, if anything about baseball and yet they created a classic film on the sport.  For Goldwyn baseball was tangential to how he wanted the film presented.  The film was to be about Gehrig and Goldwyn “craved commercial success, not fidelity to a sport he had no affinity for.”  Goldwyn’s main problem was one of authenticity-how would the film convince its audience that what they were viewing was historical accurate.  Goldwyn’s staff employs artistic license repeatedly raising questions as to how effective the film was in replicating the truth.

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(Gehrig and Babe Ruth following his Farewell Speech)

A major issue is whether Sandomir delves into issues he uncovers as an investigative reporter or are they dealt with in a superficial manner, for example, Eleanor’s relationship with Lou’s mother; the Gehrig-Ruth relationship; the Gehrig marriage; and the background for each character in the film.  The feeling emerges that this is more of a sports book about Gehrig’s life and how a film was made to glorify it, rather than a study of filmmaking that lacked the cultural and social components of the period.  Sandomir is correct in arguing that in the end “the film left people to accept the truths that were created, which did not stick too many of the facts.”

The book is a comprehensive study of Gehrig’s life on film and the problems that arose from that undertaking.  However, at times the book lacks flow as it becomes somewhat tedious as the author seems to over analyze each aspect of the film, i.e.; chapters dealing with Gehrig’s Farewell Speech, and training Gary Cooper to replicate Gehrig.  If you are interested in this topic I would suggest viewing the film before reading Sandomir’s narrative.  It would create context for the reader and might produce a more positive result once the book is digested.

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(Lou Gehrig)

BENEATH A SCARLET SKY by Mark Sullivan

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(Italian Resistance in Milan during WWII)

Northern Italy, Milan in particular is the setting for Mark Sullivan’s new novel, BENEATH THE SCARLET SKY.  Sullivan tells us that he has written a historical recreation as opposed to a history of the 1944-1945 period.  For the reader the book is considered a novel, but what makes it unique it is also a biography of Pino Lella, who at the age of seventeen, unbeknownst to him was about to become an Italian hero.  Since there is a paucity of primary materials Sullivan has created a work of fiction that reads like a historical monograph, as at times he is forced to employ his imagination to fill the void when the historical record does not exist.  Sullivan came across the story of Lella’s life quite by accident and once he learned of it he spent years conducting research, and was able to interview his subject and his relatives.  The author follows Lella’s life throughout the war, when it suddenly changes as the allies begin to bomb Milan and his family’s home is destroyed.  From that point on a young man growing up at seventeen, grows old by the age of eighteen.

Sullivan’s portrayal is detailed and describes an amazing life story.  Lella’s existence before the allied bombing in June, 1943 consisted of fantasies about girls, listening to jazz on the BBC, and wondering when the Americans would liberate Milan.  After the bombing began Lella is recruited by Cardinal Shuster and Father Re to help bring refugees to freedom across the Alps to Switzerland.  Despite his age, Lella was an experienced mountain climber and Father Re physically prepared him for the demanding task.  After explaining the plight of Jews in Italy Father Re convinced Lella of the importance of his mission.  Lella’s treks across the mountains coincided with allied advances up the Italian boot, as Sullivan does an excellent job transcribing military events in Italy throughout the novel.  The author effectively conveys the danger of Lella’s mountain crossings in a realistic manner describing the many obstacles he faced, i.e., snow, ice, avalanches, steep cliffs, a part from dodging the SS, Italian partisans and bandits.  These experiences help explain how he grew into manhood so quickly.

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(Mussolini’s Black Shirts marching through Milan)

Conveying hundreds of refugees across the mountain to safety would be enough to make Lella a hero.  But, after seven months his parents ordered him to join the German army as a way of avoiding being sent to the Russian front.  As luck would have it he is spotted by General Hans Leyers, the number two Nazi figure in Italy and is drafted to be his driver.  Lella is again recruited this time by the Italian resistance to become an allied spy because of his access to the most powerful man in Italy.  Lella was quite successful as a translator and driver for Leyers and was able to provide important information to the Italian resistance who forwarded that information to the Allied High Command.  Lella grew to hate Leyers as he witnessed the forced labor, more accurately use of slaves to assist the Wehrmacht.  Lella nicknames Leyers the “Pharaoh’s Slave Master.”  He also was exposed to numerous killings of innocent people, particularly Jews, with many women and children as victims.

Within this story of heroism Sullivan integrates the love story between Lella and a women named Anna.  Their relationship is comingled with Lella’s spy craft as she is the maid to Leyers’ mistress.  It is a wonderful time for Lella and Anna as their relationship blossoms in the midst of war.  Sullivan’s description reads like a fictional love story, but in reality it is an obsession by two people for each other as a fantasy and diversion from the war.  The reality of war is that Leyers, in addition to the murder of innocent people by the thousands, is stealing food and supplies from the Italian people for his troops and leaving Italy to starve.  Events in Italy grew worse as the Allied High Command kept withdrawing men and supplies and sending them to France in preparation for the Normandy invasion.

Lella’s difficulties with Leyers was important, but even more so that he was torn as Italian was set against Italian as Partisans and Fascists had their own civil war that grew more intense as the conflict began to come to a conclusion.  There are a number of poignant scenes as Lella’s own brother Mimo, a resistance fighter accuses him of being a Nazi.  As the war comes to an end Lella must defend himself as many thought he had cooperated with the Germans.  Few knew he was a spy.

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(The body of Benito Mussolini and his mistress hung by Partisans in April, 1945)

Sullivan uses the liberation of Auschwitz as affirmation for what Lella believes he has witnessed.  More and more he felt revulsion for working with Leyers even though his work was so important to the allies.  As the war comes to an end it becomes difficult to determine who was a partisan fighter and who was a traitor.  Sullivan vividly portrays the consequences of this difficulty which will have disastrous implications for Lella.

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Sullivan presents the entire Lella family and what they went through during the war.  Michele, Lella’s father, Aunt Greta, and Uncle Albert play important roles in the resistance and find their personal lives are impacted greatly by their work.  Let me reiterate the book is fiction, but not really.  It is written in a simple and conversational style but we get the full effect of Lella’s bravery and heroism.  He will pay an enormous price for his work and it will take him a number of years following the war to heal his emotional scars.

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(Liberation of Milan)

Sullivan offers a useful epilogue to his story that follows the main characters throughout the post war era.  What is most disturbing is how the United States will coopt Nazis like Leyers and use them during the Cold War allowing them to escape punishment for their deeds.  BENEATH THE SCARLET SKY is a well-conceived novel that has the ring of truth throughout, and an amazing story of heroism that had been buried for many years after the war.

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(The Italian Resistance in Milan during WWII)

 

 

AL FRANKEN: GIANT OF THE SENATE by Al Franken

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(After)

Senator Paul Simon, left, adjusts comedian Al Franken's bow tie on June 5, 1991, as they rehearse for a Citizen Action dinner honoring Simon at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C.

(Before)

In the current political climate with congressional hearings, a special prosecutor, and a chief executive who demands fealty as if he were a godfather it was good to read a political manifesto in the form of biography that drips with sarcasm and humor.  When one thinks of Al Franken, Saturday Night Live (SNL) comes to mind, and the “serious” laughter his writings, i.e., RUSH LIMBAUGH IS A BIG FAT IDIOT, and appearances produced.  His new autobiography is in the same vein as he uses his life story as a clarion call for a progressive agenda and a fight against alternative news and/or reality and the lies that are perpetrated regularly by certain politicians and supposed news outlets.

AL FRANKEN: GIANT OF THE SENATE describes the evolution of a belief system that began at an early age, particularly as a young teen reacting to Lyndon Johnson’s work to get the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed into law.  From that point on we witness Franken’s intellectual growth using his comedic sense through high school, college, a career on SNL, and a second career in the United States Senate.  As Franken matures emotionally and politically his commitment to a progressive agenda for the American people (as well as Minnesota!) emerges.  But make no mistake for Franken to be successful he had to suppress his public humor to avoid political pitfalls

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(Senator Franken on a USO tour in Afghanistan)

The key event in his career was the death of Minnesota Senator Paul Wellstone; his mentor, teacher, and intellectual role model.  For Wellstone “politics was about improving people’s lives.”  Franken presents a wonderful chapter encompassing Wellstone’s life’s work and positive goals for the American people.  Franken explains the type of person he was and how he was influenced by his progressive agenda.  Once Wellstone and his family are killed in a plane crash he was replaced in the Senate by Republican Norm Coleman who stated “I am a 99% improvement over Paul Wellstone.”  For Al Franken it was “game on.”  Franken believed in Wellstone’s core, that “we all do better, when we all do better,” a mantra that Franken has worked for since his time in the Senate.

Franken explores in detail his campaign against Norm Coleman.  Faced with Republican obfuscation, distortion, and outright lies Franken was welcomed to the wonderful world of what he calls the “Dehumorizer,” or how his opponent would do or say anything about his opponent’s past and present be it fact or fiction, in the 2008 campaign, mostly fiction.  Franken would defeat Coleman by 312 votes, but it took over eight months to finally join his Senate colleagues as Coleman’s team dragged the results through the courts and in the end never really conceded.  Fast forward, eight years later Franken was elected by a 10% margin.  It is interesting how the Obama people did little to assist Franken, no matter what he did even Democrats could not wrap their heads around a former SNL comic becoming a serious politician.

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(Franken on SNL)

The most interesting aspects of Franken’s story rests on the legislative process which is bound in hyprocracy by both major parties, though perhaps a bit more by Republicans.  He cites a number of examples dealing with the 2009 Stimulus package which finally passed despite Republican opposition which led to a slower recovery than was necessary.  This allowed Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell to blame the slow recovery on President Obama.  This is the same Senator who stated once Obama was elected in 2009 that it was his primary purpose to make sure that the new president would not achieve any successes.  It is also fascinating that certain congresspersons who voted against the stimulus took credit for it when it created benefits for their own districts.

Franken takes the reader behind the scenes as the Senate votes on legislation.  In particular a “disclosure bill” designed to offset the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United.  The cavalier attitude of a number of Republicans is offered in their own words, of course funded by the Koch Brothers and their “Federalist agenda.”  Franken goes on to eviscerate Texas Senator Ted Cruz in a chapter entitled “Sophistry.”  Franken is proud of the fact that he hates a colleague who in two short months managed to turn almost his entire party against him.  As is Franken’s methodology throughout the book his comments are sardonic, humorous, and sarcastic, but below the surface the Senator from Minnesota is seething.

A major theme of the book is a clarion call for Democrats to turn out and remove Republicans from power.  If it is not done soon, Franken argues President Trump will continue to dismantle the achievements that Obama was able to attain.  Franken tries to be upbeat throughout as he rests on his comedic talent.  But, after watching the Senate Intelligence Hearings and Trump’s response congressional hearings televised on what seems to be a daily basis, a special prosecutor, and a chief executive who demands fealty as if he was “the godfather” it was good to read an uplifting political manifesto in the form of a biography that the past few days we all must be careful because what we are witnessing cannot be good for our country, which seems to be what motivates Franken each day-what is good for our country.

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THE JERSEY BROTHERS: A MISSING NAVAL OFFICER IN THE PACIFIC AND HIS FAMILY’S QUEST TO BRING HIM HOME by Sally Mott Freeman

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(US soldiers after liberation from Japanese POW camp outside Manila)

Sally Mott Freeman’s first book, THE JERSEY BROTHERS: A MISSING NAVAL OFFICER IN THE PACIFIC AND HIS FAMILY’S QUEST TO BRING HIM HOME is an interesting study in family dynamics and how military strategy and policy was implemented during World War II.  The somewhat dysfunctional family is made up of its matriarch Helen Cross, her second husband Arthur, and their three sons and one daughter.  The story revolves around the experiences of the sons, the first two of which are children of Helen and her first husband.  The sons are Benny Mott, an officer on the USS Enterprise, a graduate of Annapolis, who witnessed a great deal of action during four years of combat duty in the Pacific; William (Bill) Mott, also a graduate of Annapolis, plagued by weak eye sight who winds up as the head of the White House Map Room where he observes and distributes war information to the Franklin D. Roosevelt and military leaders; lastly, Barton Cross, the son of Helen and Arthur who does not measure up to the Annapolis type, enlists and becomes a prisoner of war taken by the Japanese in the Philippines.

By carefully examining the Mott/Cross family, Freeman is able to analyze its dynamic, in addition to the strategy pursued in the Pacific War.  Her approach is unique and provides an alternative means of studying the plight of American POWs in the Pacific, the politics in Washington and General Douglas MacArthur’s command, how military decisions were reached, and the Anglo-American relationship.  However important the war is, it is the family that dominates the story.  Helen is an overprotective mother who obsesses over her third son, Barton who she views as evidence of a strong marriage after her first was a failure.  Barton is the favorite, and the pressure from his mother at times is overbearing.  Her other sons seek her love and attention and make do with how she parses it out.  What is fascinating is that the two elder brothers do not seem to resent their younger brother and will do anything to support him. The key element in the narrative is how family members react to the seizure of Barton by the Japanese and how they go about coping with wartime information that is directly related to his situation.  The entire family is concerned with what Barton is going through and how they can assist him, and perhaps facilitate his quest for freedom.

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Helen’s psyche is on everyone’s mind throughout the book.  Helen is the type of “helicopter” parent who will write the commandant of Annapolis as Barton withdraws from that institution, she will also write President Roosevelt, and military commanders.  Further, when Bill learns of the treatment of the POWs from a number of escapees, he withholds the information from his mother as long as he can, not to upset her.

The strength of the book is how Freeman alternates chapters taking the reader back and forth from the USS Enterprise through the experiences of Benny as it leaves Pearl Harbor, participates on the “Doolittle Raid” on Tokyo, finds itself in the midst of the Battle of Midway,  the Battle of Guadalcanal, and the taking of Saipan.  Next, we are taken inside the White House as Bill witnesses the decisions being made that effect the conduct of the war, or later when he becomes the Flag Officer aboard the USS Rocky Mount.  The plight of American POWs is described in detail including the Bataan Death March, and a number of other forced marches as American soldiers are moved from one prison cite to the next.   What is particularly disturbing is how unmarked Japanese ships transporting US POWs were sunk by American planes during the last year of the war.  In addition, Freeman focuses on the inhuman treatment of the POWs and how they reacted, and why some survived.  Another strength is her discussion of the planning and actual invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two battles that did not go the way military authorities had hoped.  Heavy casualties were predicted, but not to the level that eventually resulted.  In part the problem was the Japanese use of Kamikaze pilots that invasion planners could find no solution to counteract.

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(The Jersey Brothers left to right; Barton Cross, Benny Mott, Bill Mott)

The major wartime personalities are integrated throughout.  MacArthur is dealt with in detail. Admiral “Bull” Halsey, a man who was beloved by his men and was a strategic genius.  President Roosevelt is presented as at times a warm and sympathetic leader, but also a harsh decision maker dealing with the realities of war.  Other important characters include Admiral Richmond Kelley Turner who commanded the Joint Expeditionary Task Force, known as Operation Forager designed to defeat Japan in 1944, a command and strategy larger than and as complex as the Normandy invasion; Steve Mellnick and William Dyees who escaped the Davao Penal Colony and along with Filipino guerillas sought to launch a rescue mission of the 2000 POWs left behind, as well as a host of other major historical figures.

Importantly, Freeman goes into depth in presenting the jurisdictional battles between the army and navy for control of the Pacific Theater which was rooted in the struggle between Admiral Nimitz and General MacArthur.  MacArthur does not fare well in the narrative as Freeman portrays the Pacific Army Commander as a self-serving egoist who only cared about his own place in history.  This characterization is quite accurate especially when discussing the strategy to invade the Japanese home islands, which MacArthur favored, or employ a blockade and massive bombing to save the lives of American GIs.  It seemed whenever anything did not go as planned, instead of accepting any responsibility, MacArthur blamed the Navy.

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(Later in his career William Mott’s promotion!)

What is clear throughout the book is that Bill did his utmost to try and learn the plight of his brother.  He traveled, wrote letters, and pressed friends, all in an attempt to learn the truth.  The author, Bill’s daughter makes excellent use of the memories of family members, in addition to diaries and other documents.  She has mined a tremendous amount of material and it is reflected in her strong narrative.  Her investigation into what happened to her uncle provides insights into how families were forced to deal with their missing sons, and for far too many the grief that followed.  Overall the book paints a fascinating portrait of a family’s plight during World War II.  It may get bogged down in family details at the outset, but once Freeman takes up the wartime experiences of Helen’s three sons the reader will become immersed in the detail and the heroic nature of what they experience and the actions they take.  The Cross/Mott brothers, were truly “a band of brothers,” and Freeman’s efforts reflect a strong effort for a first book!

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(American GIs after liberation from a Japanese POW camp near Manila)

WAR OF TWO: ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AARON BURR AND THE DUEL THAT STUNNED A NATION by John Sedgwick

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If you are looking for a comparative biography of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr I would avoid John Sedgwick’s WAR OF TWO: ALEXANDER HAMILTON, AARON BURR AND THE DUEL THAT STUNNED A NATION.  I would turn to Ron Chernow’s magisterial work on Hamilton and Nancy Isenberg’s excellent life of Burr.  To his credit Sedgwick makes no pretensions to have produced similar all-encompassing works, and states that his goal was to prepare a more personal and intimate portrait of Hamilton and Burr as they careened through the late 18th and early 19th centuries toward their eventual collision.  There is a great deal that is attractive in Sedgwick’s work, but his seeming obsession with his subject’s attitudes and actions toward women detracts from some substantive insights.  There is much that can be praised, but careless errors abound.  I guess the reader should keep in mind that Sedgwick is a novelist, which is reflected in his prose, and not a trained historian.

The title of the book is an apt description of the end of the Hamilton-Burr relationship that dated back to the American Revolution.  Sedgwick’s goal is to present an analysis and history of the two men and determine why their relationship soured.  Sedgwick’s quest is to determine the turning point that pushed them on to the dueling field in Weehawken, New Jersey in 1804.

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(Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, “Hamilton: The Musical”)

It is ironic that two men who had much in common ended up with such antipathy for each other.  On the one hand Hamilton was particularly vocal about his disdain for Burr that seemed to originate in the election of 1792 and continued as he successfully contributed to Burr’s failed quest for the presidency and the governorship of New York State.  Or perhaps it was Burr’s defeat of Hamilton’s father-in-law, Philip Schuyler for his New York Senate seat.  In either case it appeared that Burr could swallow Hamilton’s demeaning and insulting comments for over a decade, but once Hamilton blocked him from the New York governorship in 1804, it was the last straw, especially due to Hamilton’s remarks at an Albany dinner at the home of Judge John Tayler.  Also in attendance was Dr. Charles D. Cooper who passed along Hamilton’s remarks to the editor of the New York Post, William Coleman.  Once Hamilton’s words reached the public, Burr was pushed over the edge.

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(The Duel)

Sedgwick recounts the most important aspects of the Hamilton-Burr association, mostly in a somewhat superficial manner.  Beginning with their upbringing and the fact that both grew up without parents, Burr, an orphan; Hamilton the son of an illegitimate pairing abandoned by his father, with a mother who was jailed for illicit behavior and passed away when Hamilton was a boy.  What sets Sedgwick’s narrative apart is the attention he offers to certain aspects of their lives that other biographers do not.  A case in point are Sedgwick’s ruminations concerning Burr’s attraction to women and resulting sex life, and Hamilton’s true lineage.  Sedgwick seems to hold a fascination with the sex lives of both men, noting the many affairs in which they were involved that are explored in detail.  As a novelist I guess he is drawn to tawdry aspects of his story and spends an inordinate amount of time on Hamilton’s idiotic pursuit of Maria Reynolds and the ruination of Hamilton’s career.

As previously mentioned, Sedgwick is prone to a number of historical errors.  As the eminent historian Gordon Woods points out;

He has Benjamin Franklin in Paris negotiating the peace all by himself.  He mistakenly           makes John Adams the minister to France when in fact Adams was never minister and was only a member of a peace commission.  He says that President Washington pardoned the rebels in Shay’s Rebellion when in fact it was Massachusetts governor John Hancock.  He has Washington selecting Hamilton to make the a ‘grand summation’ of the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention ‘at the end’ of the meeting, when actually Hamilton gave his six-hour speech on June 18 near the beginning, and it was not a summation at all but an effort to make the Virginia plan seem more moderate.  He says the Senate decided to call the chief executive the president, when actually it was the House of Representatives that overturned the more monarchial title suggested by the Senate.  (”Federalists on Broadway,” New York Review of Books, January 14, 2016)

I guess the reader should keep in mind that Sedgwick is a novelist, and at times is also prone to overstatement and hyperbole; for example, “When Laurens died, it was as if the true Hamilton died too.”

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Sedgwick mostly alternates chapters between his two protagonists as he compares his subjects.  Burr is described as a man who was always short of money or in debt, charged the highest lawyer fees he could obtain, engaged in land speculation, and never committed to a position unless it could benefit him – a man without an ideology.  Hamilton, on the other hand maintained a consistent ideology and was not obsessed with wealth, though he was concerning his reputation and social station.  Sedgwick explores the marriages of both men in detail with Burr deeply in love with Theodosia, a widow of a British soldier he had had an affair with and was ten years his senior.  It was more of an intellectual relationship than a physical one and despite his meanderings he worshiped her.  Hamilton who suffered from his own peccadilloes, loved the “matronly” “Betsy,” but she was more of a traditional wife with womanly skills, and not a feminist.  Sedgwick also spends time comparing their approach to fatherhood.  Though away a great deal of the time Burr adored his daughter, also named Theodosia who was educated as if she was a male.  Hamilton was a good father who was thrilled with his large “brood” and was very involved in the lives of his children.

My concern with Sedgwick’s approach is that he does not provide enough information when he introduces a topic and fails to provide the necessary historical context for the many scenes he introduces.  For the novice his presentation is inviting, but I imagine too many times it is confusing.  Further, the author seems to spend more time on inconsequential aspects of the story rather than the more important events that surround his subjects.  A case in point is that he spends more time on why Federalists did not shake hands with each other, or even touch each other, than discussing the development and importance of Hamilton’s National Bank.  In addition, Sedgwick’s approach to citations is somewhat cavalier.  He presents a rationale for the approach he takes and it seems like a cop out.  Stating that the existence of Google provides the best sourcing for readers, Sedgwick does provide a short paragraph for each chapter reflecting a few main sources to let the reader know where the information originated.  Since he states that he used a myriad of sources it could not have overly taxed him to provide the proper affirmation.espite these shortcomings Sedgwick does provide some interesting insights particularly Washington’s disdain for Burr who he saw as arrogant, untrustworthy, unsoldierly, and one who would not conform.   Another is his remarks pertaining to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison’s view of Burr that he would do for them in the political world what Philip Freneau did in the newspapers by backing him for the Senate from New York State.  It was designed to “drive Hamilton to a frenzy of irritation, causing him to bring about his own ruin with no further help from them.”  Sedgwick is also insightful as he explores Burr’s machinations as vice president, after the duel with Hamilton, and his plot to create his own western empire.

Overall, Sedgwick’s work can be categorized as entertaining and as a stylized historical narrative the book seems to be a success, but as a work of history, it is rather weak.

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JEFFERSON AND HAMILTON: THE RIVALRY THAT FORGED A NATION by John Ferling

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(Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson)

Before John Ferling delves into the background, philosophies, and careers of his subjects in his JEFFERSON AND HAMILTON: THE RIVALRY THAT FORGED A NATION he exposes the reader to a meditation on how the third president and the first Secretary of the Treasury have been evaluated by successive generations.  At the outset Jefferson was seen more favorably as he was deemed to be a democratic populist who defended the liberties of all, while Hamilton was viewed as the spokesperson for the rich upper class or “monarchical party.”  This characterization existed through most of the 19th century as Jeffersonian agrarianism fought off the evolution of industrialization.  Men like Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan claimed Jefferson’s mantle, while Theodore Roosevelt and his adherents at the turn of the 20th century believed in Hamilton’s vision of American power, influence, and economic interests.  By the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jefferson’s legacy reemerges with the onset and effects of the Great Depression which was laid at the feet of “monied interests.”  Following World War II and the onset of the Cold War Hamilton was seen as the “patron saint” of the political right wing, and his service on behalf of the financial sector and free market economy is applauded.  Jefferson’s reputation was decried during the Civil Rights era and by time Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency many saw him as a hypocrite because of his stance on slavery and his vision for America suffered.  With the advent of neo-conservatism, Hamilton’s insights were more generally accepted and he was described as a creative genius.  It is interesting to contemplate the new Trump administration’s stance on the two founding fathers since they came to power based on a populist economic message.  It will be fascinating to speculate and somewhat scary to observe the evolution of the new regime in Washington.

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(George Washington)

It is obvious that Ferling has mined a significant amount of the voluminous secondary sources that exist on his subjects.  He offers a strong synopsis of their early years and provides penetrating insights into their future characters.  However, his discussion of Jefferson is presented in greater depth, in part because of the paucity of material related to Hamilton’s early years.  Further, his objectivity can also be questioned as it is apparent that he holds Jefferson in greater esteem than Hamilton.  Ferling claims to be more impressed with Hamilton than he thought he would be.  Though he admires Hamilton’s intellect and achievements, the narrative, despite pointing out a number of Jefferson’s flaws is decidedly in favor of “the Sage of Monticello.”

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(photo of Jefferson’s home at Monticello)

Jefferson comes across as self-absorbed in his private life as opposed to his public career before the American Revolution, particularly up to 1774 as he worked on his law career, married into a monied family, and served in the Virginia House of Burgesses.  His writing were sharp, clear, and radical, but only from a Virginian’s perspective.  Jefferson was more radical that most Virginians and interestingly his views dovetailed more with the north.  As Jefferson wrote in a meditative and philosophical manner, at the same time Hamilton’s approach was slash and burn.  His no holds barred approach would never change, be it answering Samuel Seabury or Aaron Burr.  What separated Hamilton’s writing from others is that he predicted why and how England would lose a war with the colonies.  Hamilton avoided criticizing George III and did not call for independence, as he blamed English ministers for the coming conflict, and therefore argued for reconciliation.

Ferling writes with a smooth prose that allows the reader to glide over his words, words that are full of insight and analysis.  Ferling’s comments are very measured throughout the narrative and his approach allows the reader to make up their own minds on the subjects at hand.  For example, Ferling holds Jefferson in high esteem, but he does not shirk from describing his self- indulgent nature as is seen when he describes Jefferson’s contribution to the Revolutionary War effort, his accumulation of debt because of his consumerism, his refusal to serve in Congress, the hypocrisy related to his future plans for slavery, and the life style when he lived in Monticello and Paris.  Ferling does balance his presentation by arguing that Jefferson’s non-military contributions to the revolution are as important as his “scripture,” the Declaration of Independence which crystallized the founding ideas of the new country by trying to diminish the power of the “patrician order” and laid the foundation of a truly republican government.  As for Hamilton no one had to goad him into service or exhibit courage.  However, Ferling does explore Hamilton’s motivations as he tries to overcome his family roots and achieve notoriety and success.  For Hamilton, it just seemed as his life progressed there was always a rich and powerful sponsor that helped him move forward.

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(The Continental Congress)

Ferling tells the story of the American Revolution through the movements of Hamilton and George Washington.  Strategy is analyzed, personalities are explored, and the importance of Hamilton-Washington relationship is presented front and center.  Ferling makes the excellent point that Washington was very concerned about the quality of intellect in the Congress at Philadelphia.  Washington kept pointing out the weak financial state of the government that existed due to its inflated currency and speculation that threatened victory.  The Adams and Franklins that populated the original Congress were gone by 1781, leaving few men of ability; provoking Washington to say, “where are Jefferson and others in this time of need.”  A comment that may have been born of Washington’s close relationship with Hamilton.

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(John Adams)

Hamilton strongly believed that the major problem that the war effort confronted was its lack of a strong central power in government.  Hamilton came to the conclusion that “Europe will save us despite ourselves.”  Hamilton urged people to call for a Constitutional Convention to rectify the situation that had resulted in a military stalemate and create a National Bank in order to finance the war.  Hamilton also called for the use of black soldiers in order to defeat the British. Ferling reviews Hamilton’s writings and agrees with Ron Chernow’s magisterial study that Hamilton was developing his ideas and concepts that he would later apply to governing when he became Treasury Secretary.

Ferling’s approach to Jefferson’s two terms as governor of Virginia is very diplomatic.  He criticizes him for taking until 1779 to agree to serve, but has empathy for Jefferson as he tries to figure out how to defend Virginia from a British invasion, but also assist South Carolina from the attack.  In evaluating Jefferson as governor one might say he did try and rally his home state through leadership other than just employing his quill.  Ferling reviews the reasons for Jefferson’s abandoning his capital when the British threatened.  For the author Jefferson did “dilly dally” over his personal needs, and should have taken the warning of invasion more seriously.  Jefferson comes across as self-centered and it took a great deal of pressure to get him to act.  Overall, Jefferson’s governorship would become a political albatross around his neck until he could escape America and pursue his diplomatic mission in Europe that allowed him to avoid the post-revolution political fray as the new government gained its footing.

Ferling offers a number of important insights concerning the founding fathers that challenges the historical imagery that has surrounded them.  One of the most important is his exploration of Hamilton’ true feelings toward Washington, as he argues that Hamilton did not really care for his commander.  Hamilton’s feelings are colored by his frustration of not gaining a command, a path he believed was a necessity for post-war success.  He resented Washington for keeping him as his aide de camp and viewed his commander as “ill-humored….coarse and sometimes petty, vain, ill-tempered, inconsiderate, insecure, inelegant, and unoriginal in his thinking.”  But, Hamilton realized that Washington was honest and honorable and essential to the American cause that required a “fabricated Washington” for the American people to believe in.  Hamilton would eventually resign and Washington would finally appoint him to a command at Yorktown that sealed his reputation for bravery and leadership.  In stark contrast at the end of the war, Jefferson faced an investigation of his leadership as governor of Virginia.

Ferling’s treatment of the Washington-Hamilton relationship is enhanced because of the knowledge gained writing an excellent biography of Washington, THE ASCENT OF GEORGE WASHINGTON: THE HIDDEN POLITICAL GENIUS OF AN AMERICAN ICON.  This was apparent after the revolution when the issues of military back pay and pensions threatened to become a military revolt.  Both he and Hamilton agreed on the need to develop a program to pay off the government’s debt, but it did not stop Washington from seeing “menacing qualities in Hamilton that nudged him to assure that his former aide remained a loyal follower, not an enemy.”

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(James Madison)

The fundamental difference between Jefferson and Hamilton was clear early on.  Jefferson stressed the expansion of individual freedom and independence.  Hamilton emphasized the wellbeing of the nation.  Ferling is correct in arguing that “Jefferson had become a revolutionary largely in the hope of securing, enlarging, and sustaining personal liberties. Hamilton’s experience in the Revolutionary War led him to believe that liberty could never exist unless the nation was strong and secure.”  These world views would color their heated relationship for years.

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(Salley Hemmings)

Ferling’s chapter on Jefferson’s life in Paris is important in gaining an understanding of his belief system and interaction with others.  The author’s description of his relationship with the John and Abagail Adams is very poignant in light of their later political feuds.  Jefferson’s loneliness is apparent as he still had not recovered from the death of his wife Martha.  Ferling explores the Maria Cosway affair and his budding relationship with Sally Hemmings as a means of explaining how desperate Jefferson was to fill the void in his life.  A part from personal issues, Ferling describes Jefferson’s views that encompassed his love for the French people, disdain for absolutism and monarchy, including his support for the events of 1789.  What is key is that the philosophy that Jefferson crossed the Atlantic with was reinforced in France and are an accurate guide as to how he would resume his public career once he returned to the United States.

While Jefferson was off in Paris, Hamilton was involved with the Constitutional Convention that replaced the Articles of Confederation.  For Hamilton the government’s indebtedness was the most important issue and the problem that he faced was that “while virtually every delegate came prepared to increase the powers of the national government at the expense of the states, none was willing to jeopardize the vital interests of his state.”  Hamilton’s philosophy became widely known from this process as Ferling describes how Hamilton pulled back the curtain that concealed the thoughts of conservative Americans.  They had not dreamed of sweeping social or political change.  For them, a powerful nation state should be created that would allow men of finance to be free from the shackles of England to invest, make money, and secure their wealth.  For Hamilton, inequality was just the nature of things and he was not inclined to remedy these disparities.  He was an elite who wanted to preserve his status and this anti-democratic belief would be the core of his thought for the remainder of his life.  Hamilton did work to gain passage of the new Constitution by taking on a high percentage of the burden to prepare THE FEDERALIST PAPERS, and once he became Secretary of the Treasury he was able to implement his plans to preserve and develop the new nation.  Ideas such as a National Bank, Assumption of debt by the government, building the Coast Guard, and contributing to a strong executive branch of government were all were major contributions that historians believe were Hamilton’s greatest achievements as our government and economy today follow the principles he developed.

The period following the inauguration of Washington reflects the true disdain that Jefferson and Hamilton felt for each other.  On issue after issue their disagreements reflected their hostility toward one another.  Ferling does a remarkable job explaining the basis for their disagreements and describes the political repercussions.  Today we dread the level of political partisanship, but when one looks back at the nastiness of the 1790s, one might argue that we are somewhat tame today in comparison.  The author provides wonderful anecdotes that reflect the chasm between the two men.  For example, during a visit to Jefferson’s residence in New York, Hamilton pointed to three pictures on the wall and asked who their subjects were.  Jefferson responded; “Bacon, Locke, and Newton” three of the greatest men of history.  Hamilton retorted that the greatest man in history was Julius Caesar.

Ferling seems to sympathize with Jefferson in that he believed that once the assumption of debt issue was settled in return for moving the capitol to the Potomac River region that there would be a few areas of disagreement.  However, once Hamilton launched the rest of his economic program Jefferson claimed to have been deceived.  It is unlikely that Jefferson was that naïve.  But once the Whiskey Tax, the National Bank, and Hamilton’s plan for manufacturing became public, Jefferson was pushed over the edge as he feared that the United States would be turned into a monarchical state that replicated England. As the war in Europe expanded with England joining the alliance against France, foreign policy would enter the equation with the Genet Affair and Jay Treaty that would further exacerbate tensions between Jefferson and Hamilton.

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(Aaron Burr)

The partisanship was further reflected in newspapers, one for each side that became the mouthpieces of the two men.  Hamilton and Jefferson’s cohort, James Madison would publish numerous essays that skewered their opponents.  Jefferson’s misreading of Washington’s views contributed to the problem in that he believed the president had an open mind.  Jefferson did his best to besmirch Hamilton in the eyes of Washington by providing as many damaging documents as he could.   However, Washington blamed Jefferson for the rise of the nasty political factionalism that had developed, in addition to the fact that the president supported Hamilton’s economic program and vision for the future.  Jefferson’s hatred of Hamilton is best seen in Jefferson’s comment to Washington, “Hamilton was a man whose history, from the moment at which history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the country which had not only received him and given him his bread, but its honors.”

Ferling carries the narrative through the end of Washington’s presidency, the Adams administration and the election of 1800.  What is clear in the last third of the book is that Ferling maintains a soft spot for Jefferson and doesn’t miss an opportunity to disparage Hamilton.  Once Hamilton became a private citizen he could not let go of influencing events easily.  He became more of a schemer to implement his grandiose ideas and his “Federalist agenda.”  Ferling’s narrative reduces Hamilton to an individual who worked behind the scenes to manipulate governmental policy, individual opinion, and events to achieve his nefarious goals.  A case in point is the election of 1800 where Hamilton worked overtly and covertly to undermine Adams’ reelection through pamphlets, newspaper articles, speeches, and private conversations defeat Adams.  In the end he would throw his support to Jefferson to block Aaron Burr as the election came to a vote in the House of Representatives.  Ferling believes that Hamilton suffered from a flawed temperament that dominated his actions which resulted in the end of the Federalist Party as he let his ego get in the way of the changing political culture that had developed.  As far as Jefferson is concerned he is raised to a level of respectability that does not exist in the first half of the book.  Jefferson may have cut a deal with the Federalists to gain the Presidency, but Ferling rationalizes that by doing so he saved the union.

It is interesting that one of the early songs in the musical “Hamilton,” “I am not going to throw away my shot,” it’s star, Lin-Manuel Miranda describes a man who would never give up an opportunity, however as Ferling describes the duel scene with Burr, that is exactly what he did.  Perhaps as Ron Chernow suggests, Hamilton had enough, and it was a respectable way of committing suicide.   Whatever one thinks of these two men, their impact on the creation of the republic, and the legacy that exits today,  it is important to remember the time period in which they lived, and how fervently they believed in their ideals and how they tried to do what they deemed best for the new nation.  Ferling’s book is a strong comparative study and it provides a true understanding of how America began and provides strong clues of what it was about to become.

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(Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson)