Abraham Lincoln

In many ways Jon Meacham is the conscience of America.  The Vanderbilt historian and author has a very optimistic view of the American people and his appearances on MSNBC and other programs is usually upbeat when it comes to the future of the United States.  This viewpoint is readily apparent in a number of his books, including THE SOUL OF AMERICA: THE BATTLE FOR OUR BETTER ANGELS where he discusses turning points in American history and how we have overcome numerous issues including partisanship.  Meacham is a prolific author whose books include FRANKLIN AND WINSTON: AN INTIMATE PORTRAIT OF AN EPIC FRIENDSHIP, AMERICAN GOSPEL: GOD, THE FOUNDING FATHERS AND THE MAKING OF THE NATION, AMERICAN LION: ANDREW JACKSON IN THE WHITE HOUSE, HIS TRUTH IS MARCHING ON: JOHN LEWIS AND THE POWER OF HOPE, and DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODDESSY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH.  All books are well written with a degree of empathy for his subjects which is the case with his latest effort, AND THERE WAS LIGHT: ABRAHAM LINCOLN AND AMERICA’S STRUGGLE which tells the story of our 16th president from his birth on the Kentucky frontier to his leadership during the Civil War through his assassination.  For Meacham, Lincoln’s life illustrates the ways and means of politics in a democracy, the roots and durability of racism, and the capacity of conscience to shape events.

Meacham’s Lincoln is a humane and empathetic individual who must overcome personal tragedy and his own demons.  The death of two children, a depressive personality, and a spouse who caused trouble repeatedly must be dealt with as he tries to maintain the union and reunify his country.  Lincoln did not shy away from complex decisions whether dealing with politics, military personnel, or wartime strategy.  He was a firm believer in Jeffersonian equality and the constitution.  He was not averse to making compromises to maintain the union and a democratic form of government.  The idea that the federal government could not end slavery in states where it existed but could prevent its expansion into new territories was deeply ingrained in him.  According to poet and editor James Russell Lowell who wrote in 1864, for Lincoln it was more convenient to say the least, to have a country left without a constitution, than a constitution without a country.”

1862. Allan Pinkerton, President Lincoln, and Maj. Gen. John A. McClernand at Antietam.

(Lincoln at the battle of Antietam)

Meacham’s account of Lincoln’s treatment of slavery is heavily laden with theological arguments and experiences which Lincoln argued was his own enslavement by his overbearing father who forced him to labor and forgo education, to the exposure to reverends preaching against slavery during his boyhood.  Meacham develops anti and pro-slavery ideology throughout the narrative and concludes that Lincoln did not believe in racial equality, favored the colonization of slaves to areas outside the United States, but overall, he could not tolerate individuals being owned by another and having to labor for someone not of his choosing.

The narrative carefully recounts Lincoln’s evolution concerning the slave issue relying on his religious and political development.  Lincoln was a man of compromise in all areas, but not concerning the maintenance of the union.  Meacham reviews the most important debates, events, and movements of the period and offers a dissection of Lincoln’s thought processes and how he finally reached the conclusion in 1862 that after trying everything to appease the south and keep the states as one to announce the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Lincoln only served one term in Congress, but it was an important education.  He learned a great deal about slavery coming into contact with southern members of the House of Representatives, opposing racist legislation, and the need of compromise, not conquest in order to make meaningful change.  Lincoln repeatedly turned to the “Founders” for inspiration and if one examines his speeches it is a combination of religious belief and political pragmatism.  As Lincoln stated in 1861, “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” 

This is an image of Lincoln, Grant, Lee, and Davis.

(Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee)

According to historian Richard Carwardine, “the fatalist and activist were thus infused in Lincoln.”  He was a dichotomy.  He articulated his moral commitment against slavery and his willingness to leave a white dominated society intact.  For him racial prejudice among whites was at such a level that the practical course was to acknowledge and accommodate it.

There are countless interesting aspects of Lincoln’s life that Meacham introduces.  One of the most surprising is his obsession concerning his own birth – was he illegitimate?  Did policy decisions emanate from his own inferiority about his own birth that summoned temporal and divine help, as he tried to put the national family back together when his own family origin was in doubt? 

Meacham does an excellent job reviewing events leading to the Civil War, the course of the war, and the ultimate victory of the north which cost Lincoln his life.  The author concludes that in most aspects of his narrative race is the central cause of the conflict as even if he would free the slaves northern racists were on par with those in the south – the only difference was they did not want to enslave them, but they could not accept that they were equal.

AND THERE WAS LIGHT is not a traditional biography of our 16th president.  It is more a conversation with an eminent historian who examines the intellectual development of his subject while at the same time placing him in the context of the world he lived in and the difficult choices that he made.  Meacham offers an account that is worldly and spiritual, and carefully tailored to suit our conflict-ridden times.  Meacham alludes to the present with examples from the past.  A case in point is Vice President John Breckinridge’s courageous decision to carry out the electoral college faithfully in February 1861 as Mike Pence did in 2021.  Further Lincoln promised to accept the results of the 1864 election, even if he lost, Donald Trump and Kari Lake are you listening?  Lastly, Lincoln’s support for absentee voting for soldiers, unlike Trump’s call to outlaw the process.  Lincoln faced a White supremacists national minority chafing against Jeffersonian ideals which Lincoln was committed to.  With January 6th and further threats of violence Meacham tries to use Lincoln as an example of leadership in somewhat similar times. 

The book is thoroughly researched and highly readable written by a craftsman of the English language.  The book as are his other works is relevant for today as Meacham writes, “ A president who led a divided country in which an implacable minority gave no quarter in a clash over power, race, identity, money, and faith has much to teach us in a twenty-first century moment of polarization, passionate disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.  For while Lincoln cannot be wrenched from the context of his particular times, his story illuminates the ways and means of politics, the marshaling of power in a democracy, the durability of racism, and the capacity of conscience to help shape events.”

refer to caption


FBI director J Edgar Hoover aims machine gun

(Long arm of the law: J Edgar Hoover in 1936)

J. Edgar Hoover is considered one of the most controversial figures in 20th century American history.  His reign as FBI head is fraught with controversy and certain peculiarities associated with Hoover on a personal level.  Though Hoover believed the federal government could accomplish great things, his view of the American people was rather narrow, and he felt that minorities and supposed communists did not belong to the American fabric.   He held a strong racist streak and demanded total loyalty and conformity from those who served under him.  He was probably the most powerful government employee of his era serving eight presidents during his reign at the FBI, remaining in power, decade after decade, employing the tools of government to create a private empire unrivaled in American history.

Hoover used his office as a vehicle of intimidation for those he saw as enemies, either personal or governmental, and embodied conservative values ranging from anticommunism to white supremacy to a crusading interpretation of Christianity.  If he were in power today he would fit right in with the MAGA crowd that dominates the rightwing of the Republican party.  Since there has not been a major biographical reassessment of Hoover’s life and role in government in decades, Beverly Gage’s new work, G-MAN: J. EDGAR HOOVER AND THE MAKING OF THE AMERICAN CENTURY fills an important void.

Gage, a professor of American history at Yale University has written an almost encyclopedic  biography of Hoover exploring his personal, ideological, and political development.  The keys to his personality are examined very carefully along with his personal life.  Cage delves into the myths surrounding Hoover and develops sound conclusions based on fact and research not conjecture.  The book should become the go to source on Hoover due to Cage’s research, writing style, and analysis and she should be commended for her effort.

Author image by Kathleen Cei. G-Man cover by Penguin Random House.

Author, Beverly Cage

Cage’s approach focuses on how Hoover tried to twist events to fit his preconceived view of people and movements, particularly those that dealt with civil rights and what Hoover believed was the jurisdiction of the FBI.  Cage’s narrative explores Hoover’s attitudes and role in numerous situations involving the deprivation of civil rights for certain groups especially minorities.  Early in his career the focus is on Hoover’s role in the Palmer raids after World War I.  Here Hoover laid down certain principles regarding leftist politics in American society.  These principles were followed throughout his career and are prevalent in the Roosevelt administrations approach to organized crime in the 1930s, the internment of the Japanese during World War II, and the second Red Scare that emerged after the war.  Though Hoover supposedly believed in following certain FBI protocols designed to follow law, it did not stop him from developing counterintelligence programs like SOLO and COINTELPRO that implemented misinformation, surveillance, wiretapping, and intimidation among his strategies.  This approach dominated the post-World War II period as the FBI was involved in the prosecution of the Hollywood Ten, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Alger Hiss, and others who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.  If Hoover smelled a link of some sort with communism, particularly the CPUSA, the FBI head was like a bloodhound until he was able to put his targets away.

The case that stands out is Hoover’s pursuit of Martin Luther King, his strategy in dealing with southern violence against blacks in the 1950s, and his treatment of Freedom Riders and other civil rights actions in the 1960s.  Cage correctly points out that at times Hoover could appear to be working with King and his movement, but his hatred for the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was all consuming.  Hoover was obsessed with bringing King down and he employed COINTELPRO techniques to achieve his goals as he tried to prove that Dr. King was a communist with links to the Soviet Union and was a threat to American national security.

It is clear from Cage’s portrayal that Hoover was a racist and she does a commendable job tracing his views back to his upbringing in Washington, DC, then a segregated city, his attendance at George Washington University, and his participation in Kappa Alpha, a southern fraternity which highlighted segregationist and other racist views.  Kappa Alpha played an important role in how Hoover filled positions at the FBI, and the perfect agent for Hoover was part of the fraternity who attended George Washington University Law School and other similarities to the FBI Head’s own background.  This in large part explains how FBI personnel approached many civil rights issues.

Clyde Tolson and J. Edgar Hoover.

(Clyde Tolson and J. Edgar Hoover never openly acknowledged a sexual or romantic relationship)

Cage investigates Hoover’s relationship with each president he served.  A number of surprising things emerged.  Hoover had a very unique relationship with FDR.  Historians usually describe the New Deal leader as a progressive, however his approach to civil rights in many cases was in line with Hoover and they come across as allies in a number of situations according to Cage.  Hoover’s relationship with Harry Truman was poor and Cage quotes a number of derogatory comments by Hoover pertaining to the man from Missouri.  Hoover greatly enjoyed working with Dwight Eisenhower, in large part because his good friend and ideological soulmate Richard Nixon was Vice President.  Hoover’s relationship with the Kennedy’s was fraught with negativity due to the actions of Attorney General Robert Kennedy who he despised.  As far as John F. Kennedy is concerned, Hoover thought very little of him and was not beyond using intelligence he gathered against the president to remain as head of the FBI.  Lyndon Johnson and Hoover got along well, except for Civil Rights legislation, but they had been friends and neighbors going back to the 1930s.  Richard Nixon was a special case.  They were very close friends and Hoover shared intimate information with him.  By 1968 they became more than friends but political allies as Nixon was trying to resurrect his presidential ambitions and Hoover was fighting off calls for his retirement after the King and Robert Kennedy assassinations.  Once Nixon became President Hoover was ecstatic as his “red baiting” past lined up well with the new occupant of the White House. 

One of the most fascinating aspects of Cage’s narrative is her discussion of the image and policies Hoover projected.  His belief in “gentlemen” law enforcement types like lawyers and accountants as opposed to officers with guns.  His credo concerning agents with guns would change as time went on and crime and violence dominated American society in the 1930s and after World war II.  Hoover’s goal of a professional bureaucracy dealing with crime would be altered and Cage does a wonderful job integrating Hoover’s policies with that of the larger society.  Apart from the political implications that surrounded Hoover’s tenure in office, Cage delves into social and cultural aspects that affected FBI policies.  A prime example is how Hoover appointed his close friend Clyde Tolson to head up the public relations office at the FBI to promote certain policies and images.  For Hoover, Tolson’s job was to promote Hoover as the moral leader of the country, though when one digs deeply as Cage has done, hypocrisy was more Hoover’s calling card.  The Tolson-Hoover relationship is explored in detail, keeping away from any salacious stories and sticking to opinions that rely mostly on facts and not conjecture.

J Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon

(FBI director J Edgar Hoover with Richard Nixon in 1968).

Cage stresses Hoover’s popularity among politicians and the American people that lasted for decades.  As she summarizes the course of Hoover’s career she correctly argues that “If the period from 1924-1945 had been one of institution building – and of constructing Hoover’s national reputation – the period from 1945-1959 was when he learned to wield power as an independent political force, no longer subordinate to other man’s agendas.”  Despite his role in the Red Scare, McCarthyism, the rise of Castro, and his actions in dealing with southern white racism his popularity seemed to increase.

One of the more interesting chapters entitled “Atomic Drama” explores the period when the Soviet Union successfully tested the atomic bomb, the Chinese Communists were victorious, North Korea attacked the south, and Russian spies infiltrated Britain’s MI6.  Cage offers portraits of Elizabeth Bentley, Kim Philby and others and digs into the poor relationship between Hoover and British intelligence which had a very low opinion of the FBI head.  This chapter also includes a step by step analysis of how the Soviets infiltrated the Manhattan Project and how the Harry Gold network was uncovered which led to the trials mentioned earlier.

1953 was a watershed year for Hoover’s career with the arrival of Eisenhower in the White House and the weakening of Joseph McCarthy on the American political scene.  From this point on it appears that American presidents were wary of the intelligence Hoover had accumulated over the decades, i.e.; JFK’s sexual liaisons, anyone who might have even the most minute link to communism and on and on.

The breadth of Cage’s research is on full display throughout the narrative.  She did not stop with traditional areas of historical research and includes the application of other social sciences.  A case in point was her discussion of Hoover’s possible homosexuality in the midst of the “Lavender Scare” (that coincided with the post-World War II Red Scare) and integrates the ideas of psychoanalyst Karen Horney’s work in trying to understand a number of Hoover’s motives and inner guilt to the point that Hoover pushed for and gained legislation keeping suspected homosexuals from being employed by the federal government.

Martin Luther King, Jr., J. Edgar G. Hoover       (AP)

(Martin Luther King….J. Edgar Hoover)

What is interesting is that Hoover’s career began red baiting the left after World War I, going after supposed anarchists, members of the Communist party and others.   The result was the Palmer raids and intolerance toward immigrants.  Hoover’s work came full circle in the late 1960s and early 1970s  as he went after the evolving “New Left,” and instituted elements of COINTELPRO against Martin Luther King and groups like the SDS, SCLC, and the Black Panthers.  Clearly Hoover’s career had evolved 360 degrees.

Cage is very succinct in her analysis and her attention to detail is amazing.  She concludes that Hoover finally had difficulties in the 1960s as “he departed more and more from his vision of the FBI as a professional, apolitical institution and a bastion of upright, objective government men.  The contradictions that he had negotiated for so long – between liberalism and conservatism, between his faith in apolitical governance and his commitment to an ideological cause – finally collapsed in on themselves.  So did the American consensus that had once sustained him….He began the 1960s widely celebrated as the nation’s greatest living public servant.  He ended it as one of the country’s most polarizing and controversial men.”  No matter what your opinion of Hoover might be after reading Cage’s excellent work, it is clear that his impact in most areas of American society for over five decades cannot be denied.   Jennifer Szalai conclusion put forth in her ­New York Times review of November 19, 2022, is dead on in that “this is a humanizing biography, but I wouldn’t call it a sympathetic one — as Gage shows, Hoover accrued too much power and racked up too many abuses for him to be worthy of that. What she provides instead is an acknowledgment of the complexities that made Hoover who he was, while also charting the turbulent currents that eventually swept him aside. Today, the once mightiest of G-men “has few admirers and almost nobody willing to claim his legacy,” she writes, “even within the F.B.I.”

(FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is seen in his Washington office, May 20, 1963. The 1971 burglary of one of the bureau’s offices revealed the agency’s domestic surveillance program).


Samuel Adams

(Samuel Adams)

What criteria should be used to determine if a person can be labeled a “founding father?”  We all know that John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and a host of others qualify, however each has their own foibles and when examined they may detract from their reputations.  Do other members of the American Revolutionary generation qualify?  If so, whom?  In Stacy Schiff’s latest work, THE REVOLUTIONARY SAMUEL ADAMS the author makes the case for the cousin of John Adams to join this elite company.  Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winner is also the author of THE WITCHES OF SALEM, 1692, A GREAT IMPROVISATION: FRANKLIN, FRANCE, AND THE BIRTH OF AMERICA, and biographies of Cleopatra, Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, and Saint-Exupery.  Schiff  explores the birth of the American Revolution in Boston and the artful and elusive instigator and master of misinformation whose contributions made it all happen – Samuel Adams.

Adam Gopnik in his review of Schiff’s work in The New Yorker, October 31, 2022, characterizes Adams’ role in the revolution as almost invisible, “but his fingerprints are everywhere.  He shaped every significant episode in the New England run up to war.  Yet how he did it, or with what confederates, or even with what purpose – did he believe in American independence from the start, or was it forced on him by the wave of events, as it was on others? – is muddied by an absence of diaries or letters or even many firsthand accounts.”  It is a credit to Schiff that lacking documentary evidence she constructs her book “from a pleasant tapestry of incident and inference.  She has a fine eye for the significant detail and knows how to compose that lovely thing the comic-comprehensive catalogue.”

After reading Schiff’s narrative it is clear that Samuel Adams should be labeled the “instigator-in-chief” of the American Revolution.  Adams was an opportunist, a purveyor of half-truths, but in the end truly idealistic.  Schiff explores Adams’ role in the American political theater of the day as he “employed unreliable rumormongering, slanted news writing, misleading symbolism, even viral meme-sharing” – all of which was evident from the outset of his revolutionary role.  He inaugurated the American tradition of show-business politics but was also a realist realizing that his goals could not be achieved without colonial unity.


(British Governor Thomas Hutchinson)

Schiff’s focus centers on a few major events and significant personalities.  The author does an exceptional job in these areas as she dissects the Land Bank Committee, the Stamp Act, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, and the growth of the Committees of Correspondence, and what transpired at Lexington and Concord.  As far as individuals, she sets Adams against Governor Thomas Hutchinson and General Thomas Gage who also served as Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Other influential figures include Dr. James Warren, John Dickinson, Thomas Paine, James Otis, John Adams, Thomas Cushing, John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin.

Schiff’s approach is chronological as she follows Adams’ actions from 1751 through the onset of revolution.  It is not a traditional biography as Schiff zeroes in on Adams’ “words” and his ability to rile the British and bring about an inclusive colonial network that pushed against Britain’s attempt to control the colonies and use them as a “monetary source” in order to pay for its large debt dating to the French and Indian War. 

Adams’ radicalization stems from the 1751 Land Bank Committee whose currency policies and trade imbalance increased the debts of many Boston residents including Samuel Adams.  Adams would develop the Boston Gazette in order to disseminate his views as a result, and ironically he was appointed a tax collector in 1758.  In her discussion Schiff provides an excellent description of pre-revolutionary Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in general.

Up until 1764 Adams personal situation consisted of debt, loss of family, the collapse of his malt business, fighting with creditors, etc.  But 1764 would become a watershed year in his career as an agitator for less British control of the colonies because of the imposition of the Sugar Act as London sought increased revenues from colonies undergoing tremendous economic growth.  That summer Schiff points out that Adams marriage to Elizabeth Wells was as significant as British actions as her ambitions and strengths mirrored those of her husband.

Schiff’s insightful commentary is on full display with the issuance of the Stamp Act in 1765 as Adams argued that London’s actions actually benefitted the colonies as it awoke in them their desire for the rights and privileges of Englishmen and helped unite the colonies.  Further, it would spawn the creation of the Sons of Liberty.

Throughout, Schiff develops the back and forth between Adams and Hutchinson.  The British governor believed that Adams was the devil and was responsible for everything that went wrong during his reign from the destruction of his house to the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor.  The author provides the letters, articles, and speeches of each highlighting her extensive research.  Schiff also does admirable job delving into personalities, viewpoints, and actions of members of the Massachusetts Legislature and their overall relationship with the crown. Governor Francis Bernard, who preceded Hutchinson in office, Otis, Adams, Cushing, Hancock, and the role of others are all stressed.

John Singleton Copley Art Print featuring the painting General Thomas Gage by John Singleton Copley

(British General and Governor Thomas Gage)

Schiff concentrates on Boston and all the major events that took place in the city, but also how these events affected Philadelphia and New York including their response.  Adams’ most important creation may have been the Committees of Correspondence which can be considered an 18th century “twitter” which allowed the colonies to communicate with each other and be kept up to date with the latest news and movements or as one reviewer described as “a patriot espionage network.”  Adam’s action helped unify the colonies, with major help from London whose imposition of the Townshend Acts which imposed new taxes on paper, paint, nails, and tea in 1767, the Quartering Act which stated colonists had to house British troops, British troops firing on Boston citizens in 1770, the Port Act, and blockading Boston after the Tea Party in 1773 made Adam’s task that much easier.

Periodically, Schiff shifts her focus to Adam’s writing style and strategy.  Words came easily to Adams, who could “turn a small grievance into an unpardonable insult before others had arrived at the end of a sentence.”  It was the golden age of the printed word with six newspapers in Boston alone.  One of Adam’s most effective tools was the use of “pseudonyms” be it Vindex, Candius, A Chatterer, A Son of Liberty, over thirty in all which was quite successful and allowed Adams to seem as if he were everywhere.  Other tools in the toolbox included lies, facts, imagery, comments by royalists, and of course his creativity, i.e.; exploiting vocabulary by applying words such as inalienable and unconstitutional.

Schiff’s research provides a roadmap into Adam’s thoughts.  She dissects his arguments and admires his ability to create havoc and develop support for his cause throughout the colonies against London.  In each instance she explains the actions and opinions of major events as they develop and how the important personalities coped with them.  One of Schiff’s strengths is her ability to discuss the role of each player in any situation.  A case in point is whether the Boston Tea Party would have occurred without his leadership.

John Hancock

(John Hancock)

It is clear from Schiff’s narrative that Samuel Adams was the prime mover in prodding the colonists from loyalty to rebelliousness against England in less than a decade.  The text deals very little with Adam’s pre-revolutionary career and post-revolutionary life zeroing in on a 15 year period from 1764 on.  As historian Amy Greenburg writes in her October 22, 2022, New York Times Review, arguing that lessening Adam’s role in the revolution was a mistake and “Stacy Schiff redresses this oversight by celebrating the man who “wired a continent for rebellion.” There is a lot to admire about this rabble-rouser. He was utterly incorruptible; colonial authorities tried to buy him off with public office (“the time-honored method”), but Adams could be neither bribed nor intimidated. He cared nothing for personal gain, and, in his own words, gloried “in being what the world calls a poor man.” He was deeply idealistic, had great personal equanimity and was a gifted orator. He promoted public education for women long before it was fashionable. He was a tender father to his two children and, although his financial mismanagement forced his wife into manual labor while he was at the Second Continental Congress, he was also a loving husband. Readers are reminded more than once that Adams abhorred slavery, and when offered the gift of an enslaved woman, he insisted that she be freed before joining his household. Schiff paints a vivid portrait of a demagogue who was also a decorous man of ideals, acknowledging Adams’s innovative, extralegal activities as well as his personal virtues.” After digesting Schiff’s arguments, It is clear that Samuel Adams deserves to be labeled as part of that august group of “founders.”

Samuel Adams (1722-1803)

(Samuel Adams)

MR PUTIN: OPERATIVE IN THE KREMLIN by Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy

Vladimir Putin news:
(Vladimir Putin through the ages!)

As of today, Ukrainian forces have launched a successful counter-offensive against Russia in the northeastern part of the country and have liberated the key city of Izyum and have had success throughout the Kharkiv region.  For the first time there may be rumblings in Moscow concerning how the war is evolving – the question is how Vladimir Putin will respond.  An excellent source to consult is Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy’s thorough study MR. PUTIN: OPERATIVE IN THE KREMLIN.  The book was originally published in 2013 and updated shortly after the Russian seizure and annexation of Crimea in 2014.  The authors dispel certain misconceptions about Putin and offer an analysis of where Putin’s ideas originate, how he perceives the outside world, and how far he is willing to go.  Though the book is seven years old its conclusions are very prescient and offers a psychological, political, diplomatic, and economic approach to try and understand Putin and in many cases their observations have been quite accurate.

Hill and Gaddy have written a perceptive account of what Putin really wants for Russia and how it could possibly be undone.  As David Hearst writes in The Guardian, May 2013;  “The many sources of the system he has created are amply and brilliantly clarified in this book. Mr Putin, Operative in the Kremlin (note the mister, not comrade) is a readable and informed portrait painted by two students of Russian history who had, at various times in their careers, a front-row view. Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution academic, spent 2006-9 as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the US National Intelligence Council. The economist Clifford Gaddy once advised the Russian finance ministry on regional tax and has investigated how Putin’s financial dealings relate to his KGB past.” 

Vladimir Putin news:
(Vladimir Putin, age 8)

From the outset the authors argue there is very little information regarding Putin that is “definitive, confirmable, or reliable.”  However, there are observations that seem appropriate.  First, Putin has shaped his overall fate.  Second, there is little documentary evidence to support the idea of Putin’s extensive wealth.  Even if Putin did enrich himself, the authors argue they do not believe that “a quest for personal wealth is primarily what drives him.”  Third, Putin likes to employ misinformation and contradictory information to create an image that is unknowable and unpredictable, and therefore dangerous – keep people guessing and fear what he might do.  Fourth, Putin likes to stage a number of outfits and scenarios to portray himself as the ultimate Russian action man, capable of dealing with every eventuality.  Each outfit and scenario are designed to pay a degree of respect for certain goals and validates their place in Russian society and history.  The authors present numerous examples to support these observations.

r/ANormalDayInRussia - Putin with his daughters and wife, early 90's
(Putin with his wife and daughters in the early 1990s)

The key to the analysis presented rests on the authors breaking down Putin’s six identities which explain his actions from his rise to power, reinvigorating the Russian economy in the 2000-2012 period, controlling the oligarchs, returning to the presidency in 2013, to an aggressive foreign policy in dealing with Georgia, Ukraine and the west in general designed to restore Russia’s rightful place in the world balance of power.  These identities are; Statist, History Man, Survivalist, Outsider, Free Marketeer, and Case Officer.  After explaining the context of each in a succinct and thoughtful manner the authors have provided important perceptions and insights into what Putin thinks and why he does what he does. 

The 1990s, a period of chaos, corruption, and economic decline form the basis of the Statist, History Man, and Survivalist identities, and Putin’s personal narrative.  The next three identities the Outsider, Free Marketeer, and Case Officer are more personal.  The authors center on Putin growing up in a working class neighborhood of Leningrad, a city which survived the Nazi siege, starvation, and 750,000 deaths, a situation which greatly impacted Putin’s psychological and emotional development.  Further, the authors point to Putin’s years in the KGB at home and abroad, particularly his 1985-1989 years in Dresden where he missed Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and  perestroika and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Importantly, the authors develop Putin’s post-Soviet St. Petersburg activities as a participant in local government and in a series of below-the-radar positions in the Kremlin in the late 1990s allowing him to develop  a unique combination of skills and experiences that propelled him to the presidency in 1999-2000.  But, overall, Putin’s persona was as an Outsider as he was outside of Russia or ensconced in St. Petersburg away from policy makers in Moscow.

Putin old and young

An excellent example of how the authors analysis works is to point to Putin’s world view through his speeches.  The first, March 18, 2014, and the speech he made yesterday on September 21, 2022.  Remarkably, both speeches support the conclusion that Putin’s perception of the outside world has not changed in eight years and probably from previous decades.  The March 2014 speech came on the heels of the Russian annexation of Crimea a belief that he was restoring  Russia’s position as a great power and world civilization.  This was part of the Statist role for Putin in addition to that of the History Man internationally as he staked out a place for the Russian people in the great sweep of global history and has rewritten the narrative of Russia’s interactions with the outside world.  He has acted as a Survivalist who sets out to ensure that Russia can protect itself against all external threats, by preparing and deploying “every reserve or resource-even history itself-in the state’s defense.  The author’s insights are on the mark as they argue, “the operative in the Kremlin has projected himself abroad by drawing on his firsthand experiences and insights as an Outsider and the Free Marketeer, and by applying the professional tools of the Case Officer.”

(Judo training)

Putin’s rationale for his invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea, and the current invasion of Ukraine are all similar.  The European Union is a stalking horse for the West, the expansion of NATO, and western opposition to Russian actions are all designed to destroy Russia from within and without.  Putin believes that containing Russia has been a western priority since the 1700s and continues in the case of Ukraine.  Putin’s speech yesterday is a rerun arguing that Russia only pursues defensive actions to counteract western support for Ukraine.  Threats of nuclear war, calling up 300,000 reservists to complete his “special operation” emanate from the same place in Putin’s psyche.

Putin’s disenchantment with the United states developed from 1999.  The importance of NATO bombing of Yugoslavia over Kosovo in 1999 deeply impacted Putin.  He saw it as a threat to Slavs and highlighted Russian weakness and distrust of the west.  Putin claims that he tried to improve relations with the United States by helping after 9/11 and the war against al-Qaeda.  But he was put off by the Bush administration who invaded Iraq, pulled out of nuclear arms treaties, allowed for Baltic states becoming NATO members, all reflecting America’s lack of respect for Russia.  Putin’s true feelings emerge publicly in his 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference where he lambasted the United States where he stressed how NATO actions were an American provocation that reduced the level of trust Russia had toward the west.  Even when the Obama administration sought a reset with Russia, Congress passed the Sergei Magnitsky Act which imposed sanctions against Russian officials who were complicit in the death of the crusading lawyer, further Putin was angered by US actions in Libya and Syria.

The authors correctly argue that the invasion of Georgia was a dress rehearsal for events that would take place in Ukraine in December 2013.  With Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing to Moscow in February 2014 after refusing to move closer to the European Union and joining Putin’s Eurasian Union protestors took to the streets in Kyiv’s Maidan (Independence) Square – the Russian autocrat would have visions of Dresden in December 1989.  Putin’s assessment of developments was seen through the lens of his experiences in Dresden in 1989 when East Germany fell without a fight as did the Soviet Union upending Moscow’s position in Europe destroying the entire Soviet bloc.  In Putin’s mind if Ukrainian protests were allowed to continue then Kyiv would push toward the European Union and eventually NATO membership circumventing his economic plans for the east. 

Vladimir Putin pictures over the years.

Putin believed Western and European leaders encouraged protestors and the opposition and once again the United States and its EU allies had overthrown a regime without firing a shot.  Since Putin strongly believed that “Ukrainians and Russians were not just fraternal peoples: there were one single, united people” events were devastating to Moscow’s goals.  Putin reached into his Case Officer’s bag of tricks to punish Ukraine – cutting off $10 billion worth of trade, turning off the energy spigot, demanding Kyiv pay off its debts to Russia, the usual misinformation surrounding Ukraine’s role in World War II, and played on the fears of ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.   Based on events and Putin’s raison d’etre it is not surprising that Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, and subsequently invaded all of Ukraine eight years later.

The concise analysis and extensive research based on academic and government experience and delving into Putin’s speeches and writings serve the authors well in developing their narrative.  It is clear from their analysis that Putin believes his personal destiny is that of the Russian state and its past – for him it provides legitimacy.  This is Putin the Statist as he rejects autocracy and claims Russia is a “sovereign democracy.”  In addition, Putin wraps himself in the Orthodox church, and the collective people of Russia – nationalism.  Putin hates social upheaval and identifies himself as a Survivalist as he and his parents survived World War II in Leningrad.  The Survivalist moniker is very apt when one examines Putin’s life.  First, his childhood and the politics in St. Petersburg.  Second, his career as Deputy Mayor when he bungled the food crisis in St. Petersburg.  Third, the chronic food shortages throughout the 1990s.  Fourth, dealing with the economic crisis of 2008-2010. 

There are many more examples, but in all cases he emerged intact politically with a strengthened ego.  He learned new strategies particularly how to manipulate Russian natural resources to achieve his goals, something he continues to do today by cutting off energy supplies to Western Europe as a means of changing the course of the war in Ukraine.  Putin’s Survivalist actions comport with historian, Masha Gessen’s analysis in that he is proud of his “thuggish” reputation, and it is central to his public persona dating back to his childhood “courtyard culture,” and “outsider” status, i.e.., treatment of Chechnya in 1999,  today’s Ukraine, blackmailing oligarchs to submit to his will etc.

  • New Russian President Vladimir Putin takes the presidential oath on the Constitution of the Russian Federation in Moscow's Kremlin Palace on May 7, 2000. Former president Boris Yeltsin looks on during the inauguration ceremony after having resigned on December 31, 1999.(
  • New Russian President Vladimir Putin takes the presidential oath on the Constitution of the Russian Federation in Moscow’s Kremlin Palace on May 7, 2000. Former president Boris Yeltsin looks on during the inauguration ceremony after having resigned on December 31, 1999.AFP/AFP/Getty Images) (Below, Anatoli Sobchak and Putin)
  • Vladimir Putin, then St. Petersburg deputy mayor, standing with former mayor Anatoly Sobchak in 1994. Putin helped orchestrate Sobchak's escape to Paris when he was under criminal investigation in 1997.

If there is an area that the authors could have made clearer is when they get bogged down in the minutia of Putin’s approach to the Russian economy and industrial production.  Putin’s mantra is “strategic planning,” a concept he plagiarized from the works of David Cleland and William King’s book, STRATEGIC PLANNING AND POLICY which he lifted to write his supposed “dissertation.”  Either way the author’s final analysis is spot on – the strategic model Putin has put in place cannot work.  Putin runs Russia like a corporation, Russia, Inc., but it is a country.  Putin sees himself as a CEO, but he can never be fired.  The system he has created is built on mistrust and all decisions run through Putin as he does not accept anything but total loyalty.  People are bought off, but not in the traditional way.  First they are compromised, and loyalty is created through blackmail – Putin as Case officer! 

Corruption is the glue that keeps Putin’s informal system afloat.  With no strategic reserve of qualified people, Putin just moves people around to keep them guessing and under his control.  This hyper personalized system is a failure, and the Russian people are paying the price.  Russia has come full circle.  With his misinformation onslaught in 2013-14 (the rhetoric is similar to today) Putin managed to move Russia psychologically back to the 1980s and the Cold War with perceptions, threat, and fears of an American attack.  By engaging in this type of former KGB head and Soviet president Yuri Andropov thinking, Putin has moved Russia closer to the world view of the 1980s more than outside observers realized.  Putin’s Russia is a very different country from the 1990s and the west in general.

The book should be read by anyone seeking to understand Putin’s modus operandi, what he hopes to achieve, and the threat he presents to those who favor the rule of some type of “international accommodation,” (notice I did not say law!)  Interestingly, the section where the authors allude to future Putin actions and rationales as of today seem quite accurate.

July caused global shortages

Vladimir Putin at the plenary session of the 2022 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok


Sigmund Freud (1856 –1939), medical doctor, neuropathologist and founder of psychoanalysis.  
(Sigmund Freud)

There are numerous biographies of Sigmund Freud, the best ones I have read include Peter Gay’s FREUD: A LIFE FOR OUR TIMES, Joel Whitebrook’s FREUD: AN INTELLECTUAL BIOGRAPHY, and an earlier work, Ronald W. Clark’s FREUD: THE MAN AND THE CAUSE.  The latest monograph SAVING FREUD: THE RESCUERS WHO BROUGHT HIM TO FREEDOM by Andrew Nagorski is not a complete biography but one that focuses on how Freud and fifteen of his followers managed to escape Austria in 1938 as Hitler and his Nazis achieved their Anschluss with Austria triggering a wave of anti-Semitic violence.  While Nagorski provides biographical details of Freud’s life, his main thrust is the years leading up to World War II.  Nagorski tells an engrossing tale of how there was little margin for error for Freud as he escaped Nazi persecution.

Nagorski a former Newsweek correspondent has written a number of excellent works dealing with 1930s and World II, including HITLERLAND: AMERICAN EYEWITNESSES TO THE NAZI RISE TO POWER, THE NAZI HUNTERS, 1941: THE YEAR GERMANY LOST THE WAR, and THE GREATEST BATTLE: STALIN, HITLER AND THE DESPARATE STRUGGLE FOR MOSCOW THAT CHANGED THE COURSE OF WORLD WAR II.  In all instances Nagorski’s works reflect superb command of his material based on extensive research of secondary and primary materials, including significant interviews with his subject’s contemporaries and descendants.  His latest effort is no exception.

(Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna)

When the Nazis took over Austria Freud was eighty two years old having spent most of his life in Vienna.  The founder of psychoanalysis found himself in the middle of an unfolding nightmare.  Many have asked why Freud and his family did not leave Vienna earlier as the Nazi handwriting was on the wall and early on it was relatively easy to do so.  After his apartment and publishing house were attacked, his daughter Anna’s arrest and interrogation by the Gestapo, Freud still hoped to ride out the storm expecting “that a normal rhythm would be restored, and honest men permitted to go on their ways without fear.”  Struggling with cancer, Freud was in denial knowing that he had little time left and did not want to go through the upheaval of relocating.  It would take an ad hoc rescue squad to arrange his escape from Vienna that included sixteen people, made up of family members and his doctor and family.

If it were not a true story Freud’s escape to live out his last fifteen months in London would make a superb spy novel.  After presenting useful biographical chapters where Nagorski focused on the development of Freudian theories, he concentrated on his relationships with contemporaries like Carl Jung and Ernest Jones.  This was important to Freud because as he  developed a psychiatric following he worried they were dominated by Jews.  Freud was very concerned that his life’s work was becoming a target for anti-Semites who screamed it was a “Jew science.”  Freud would cultivate promising non-Jewish psychoanalysts as Nagorski points out his relationships with Carl Jung and Ernest Jones were partly fostered because they were  Christians.  Of the two, Jones would become a lifelong friend and colleague and would play a prominent role in Freud’s escape from Austria in 1938.

Ernest Jones Photo
(Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones)

Nagorski delves deeply into the Freud-Jung relationship which at one point saw Freud anoint his friend the heir to his leadership in the psychoanalytic community.  As time progressed Freud’s opinion of Jung declined believing he had become a man of “mystical tendencies” that prevented a clear scientific approach to his work.  Further he believed Jung had developed a “confused mind,” and may have had anti-Semitic tendencies.  By 1914 their break was complete.

Nagorski provides an important window into what Vienna experienced before, during and after World War I in addition to the 1920s leading to the eventual Anschluss with Germany in 1938.  He delves into the intellectual and cultural life of the city and the important personalities involved.  An additional  key to Nagorski’s narrative is how the lives and beliefs of Freud’s “rescue squad” evolved.  The most important seems to be Ernest Jones, the Englishman who became Freud’s closest friend, biographer, and a psychoanalyst in his own right.  Others include William C. Bullit, an American journalist and ambassador to Russia and France who developed an important relationship with Freud.  Both men despised President Woodrow Wilson seeing him as an egotistical personality whose actions at the Versailles Conference they opposed.  In addition, they co-wrote a psychohistory of the former president which was not published until 1967 long after Freud’s death.  Marie Bonaparte, a former patient of Freud’s plays a significant role as Napoleon’s great grandniece who had many important contacts and funds to help finance Freud’s escape and like many of his patients went on to be a psychotherapist in her own right.  Dr. Max Schur, Freud’s doctor during the last decade of his life and a man who kept him on an even keel.  Anton Sauerwald, a Nazi trustee in charge of dealing with the Freud family after the Anschluss was a rather mysterious character.  Lastly, and most importantly Freud’s daughter Anna, who became his lifelong caretaker and developed her own career in psychiatry focusing on the mental health of children.  All pursued interesting lives and the mini biographies presented enhance Nagorski’s narrative.

Marie Bonaparte, © IMAGNO/Sigm.Freud Priv.Stiftung
(Marie Bonaparte)

Most people are unaware of Freud’s disdain for the United States.  He visited America in 1909 and was taken aback by American materialism and lack of intellect.  As noted previously he opposed the policies of Woodrow Wilson, and he would not consider the United States as a place to emigrate after the Anschluss.  Nagorski points out that Freud was a German nationalist whose predictions pertaining to World War I were off base.  He believed it would be devastating to both sides, but for him it became more bloody and destructive than anyone could have imagined.  Freud came to realize the consequences of the war and was rather prophetic in his comments based on events in the 1930s.

William C. Bullitt
(William C. Bullit)

Rachel Newcomb in her September 2, 2022 , Washington Post review of Nagorski’s work addresses why it took Freud so long to agree to leave Austria arguing, “Freud continued to believe that Austria would maintain its independence from Germany, right up until March 1938, when Hitler made his final push into Vienna, cheered on by a mob of rabid supporters. Gangs ransacked Jewish businesses, including the psychoanalytic publishing house managed by Freud’s son Martin, while brownshirts paid a visit to the Freud household and had to be bribed the equivalent of $840 to leave them alone. Yet Freud continued to refuse his colleagues’ entreaties to leave. Suffering from cancer of the jaw, acquired from a habit of smoking 20 cigars a day, he was already in his 80s and knew he did not have much time left. When asked later why he had delayed his departure so long, his daughter Anna Freud blamed his illness as well as his inability to “imagine any ‘new life’ elsewhere. What he knew was that there were only a few grains of sand left in the clock — and that would be that.” But once Anna was arrested and interrogated by the Gestapo, Freud realized that to ensure her future, he would have to leave Austria.” 

(Dr. Max Schur)

Newcomb is correct in her analysis and nicely sums up the overall impact of the book writing, “readers looking for an in-depth exploration of the tenets of psychoanalysis will not find that here, but SAVING FREUD contains just enough about the central themes of Freud’s professional life to give a sense of his impact on the discipline he is largely credited with inventing. Unlike other, more critical biographies, the Freud that emerges from these pages is warm, avuncular and excessively fond of Anna, who he knew would carry on his legacy. The narrative pace and Nagorski’s fluid writing give this book the character of an adventure story. It is an engrossing but sobering read that reminds us how many others without the resources of the Freud family had no similar options to make an exodus.”

Sigmund Freud
(Sigmund Freud)


(Russian President Vladimir Putin)

The preparation and writing of biography are truly an art form which Philip Short the author of works on Pol Pot and Mao Zedong has mastered.  In his latest effort, PUTIN; HIS LIFE AND TIMES he has written another important biography of his subject based on intensive research drawing on almost two hundred interviews conducted over eight years in Russia, the United States and Europe and on source material in over a dozen languages.  The publication of PUTIN: HIS LIFE AND TIMES comes at a propitious moment in history with the events that are transpiring in Ukraine as the Russian autocrat has placed the world on edge with his illegal invasion that has played havoc with the world price of energy and supply of grain and other foodstuffs, in addition to the destruction and casualties inflicted on Ukraine.  At the present moment this war of attrition does not appear to be anywhere near a conclusion as Putin is adamant that Ukraine is not a country and is part of what he hopes to be a reconstituted Russian Empire.  Short has done a service for anyone trying to understand Putin’s actions as he delves deeply into his personal life, career, how he rose to power, why he pursues the policies that affect the Russian people in addition to those living outside of Russia and evaluating what the reign of this autocrat will be like in the future.

Short’s work builds on Steven Lee Myers THE NEW TSAR: THE RISE AND REIGN OF VLADIMIR PUTIN published in 2015 in addition to the works of Masha Gessen, Fiona Hill, Robert Service, Catherine Belton, among others.  Short’s work is the most important biography of the Russian autocrat written to this point and presents a comprehensive picture of Russia during Putin’s life in addition to integrating the roles of prominent figures such as Boris Yeltsin, Anatoly Sobchak, Alexei Navalny, a host of Russian oligarchs, and Russian politicians and military personalities. As the narrative gains steam it is clear that Short believes that the United States is in large part responsible for what Russia has become and how Putin has evolved into an autocrat who controls all the levers of power in the Kremlin.

A class photo of Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, circa 1960.
(Putin, circa, 1960)

The biography begins with a discussion of the political situation in Russia in 1999.  Boris Yeltsin who has survived two heart attacks and surgery was under attack for corruption and a myriad of other fraudulent actions.  With the presidential election set for March 2000, Short speculates whether the FSB launched a series of false flag terrorist attacks in Russia which were blamed on Chechen terrorists to deflect criticism away from Yeltsin.  After careful analysis, Short concludes it was Chechens and not the FSB.  The prologue that Short sets forth has implications later as Putin is a candidate for the presidency and attacks continue with Putin’s opponents questioning a possible role for the FSB.  In addition, once Putin is in office, the tactics used by the FSB will be questioned in Chechen terrorist attacks at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow that killed 125 Russians, and the Breslan School massacre that resulted in 335 dead hostages, 186 of which were children.  These attacks and the FSB response received great media coverage which Putin disdained leading to a crackdown on the media and eventual state control of television and newspapers in Russia shortly thereafter.

What separates Short’s work from others is that he tackles many of the myths associated with Putin – as it is hard to discern myth from reality.  He mentions alternatives, then what appears to be the truth.  For example, the death of Putin’s brother during infancy in Leningrad during World War II, the role of possible FSB attacks in 1999 to create support for Boris Yeltsin, Putin’s enormous wealth, reasons behind Russian aggression against Ukraine etc. 

Short’s presentation of Putin’s childhood is important as he does so without the psychobabble that a number of writer’s conjecture.  Putin had attention issues in school and was a very aggressive child who would never back off from a fight.  Putin was home schooled for his early education and had difficulty adapting to formal schooling once enrolled.  It is important to remember that Putin was raised in Leningrad, a city that suffered over 750,000 deaths at the hands of the Nazis who starved the city resulting in extreme cannibalism as the city was blockaded for over two and a half years.  You do not have to be a practitioner of psychology to understand the impact of growing up in an environment that was still in recovery in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  This approach is part of Short’s attempt to place Putin’s life story in the context of Russian history.  Putin’s early teen years witnessed the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the deposing of Nikita Khrushchev, replaced by Leonid Brezhnev and the impact on his life should not be discounted.

(The Putins)

As a boy Putin always wanted to be different and when not behaving as a hooligan he seemed to be an introvert, keeping his distance and thoughts to himself.  These traits come to the fore later when he assumes certain roles in Russian politics, governmental positions, head of the FSB, and then President of Russia.  He would learn to be social when needed, but this was not his forte. 

Putin was always enamored with the life of a spy as he was a risk taker by nature and would try to volunteer for the KGB as a teenager.  His path was clear as KGB minders had their eye on him and he was offered a position in 1975 as a Junior Lieutenant.  At the time Yuri Andropov was the head of the KGB and believed in “stamping out dissent,” who wanted to derail the west’s ability to weaken the Soviet Union – a mantra Putin would follow his entire career.  Short’s description of how Putin was recruited, trained, and integrated into Russian counterintelligence was indicative of the author’s point of view and how he had unearthed essential details that contributed to his narrative.  Short raises an important question – did the KGB create Putin or were his character traits already in place before he was recruited?  His character fit the kind of work the KGB did.  He liked to stay in the background and observe others, and not attract attention to himself.  He was disciplined and pragmatic and was able to concentrate on whatever the priority was at the moment, and never let his emotions dictate his behavior or thought pattern. 

putin sobchak
(Anatoly Subchak and Putin)

The watershed moment for Putin as he has stated many times was his KGB posting in Dresden and watching helplessly as the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989 with no guidance from Moscow.  This would create a formative memory that proved to Putin the overriding importance of maintaining a strong state and the dangers that an angry population could pose to a previously entrenched regime.

The most important figure in Putin’s rise to power was Anatoly Sobchak, a former law Professor at Leningrad State University, a liberal reformer in parliament, who became mayor of the second largest city in Russia.  In 1990, Putin was assigned by the KGB assigned to surveil Sobchak as an assistant vice-rector at the university.  As Putin gained Sobach’s trust he was placed in charge of trade negotiations which were highlighted by barter deals that allowed him to enrich his KGB colleagues and set a pattern as to how Putin would operate in the future.  Most importantly, Putin’s relationship with the KGB and organized crime in the city was a training ground and a source of compatriots when he himself assumed power later on.   During this time period the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev that saw Boris Yeltsin emerge as a hero, according to Short, saw Putin’s as playing a “none role” in these events.  But Putin had learned how to make himself indispensable which is a major reason for his success.

A key chapter that Short offers is entitled, “The Gray Cardinal” which delineates the corruption and crime that was endemic in St. Petersburg in the 1990s.  The borderline between the criminal world and legitimate business was tenuous at best.  To conduct business bribery was a standard practice and it was a situation that benefited Putin greatly based on his position, though in an ode to objectivity Short argues that many anecdotes of Putin accepting bribes are fabricated.  In this, among many other cases Short gives Putin the benefit of the doubt.  Putin learned a great deal from Sobchak, and it provided him with an education for him to apply later.

apho via Getty Images)

Grozny, Russia besieged by the Russian army in August, 1996.
(Fighting in Chechnya)

The concept of “Near Abroad” was key for Putin’s foreign policy ideology developed while being in charge of foreign affairs under Sobchak.  He began thinking about the former Soviet republics, particularly Ukraine, the key to “Near Abroad” which he felt precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union when it declared its independence.  He could not accept that Crimea, the home of the Black Sea fleet, was gone, 1.8 million Russians lived in Crimea, in addition to the massive debt that Ukraine owed Moscow gnawed at him.  These beliefs would stay with Putin, and we can see the results today with the current war of attrition.  While serving in St. Petersburg Putin’s ideas about NATO, relations with the west, Russia as a bridge between Europe and Asia, the need for a strong centralized government which would unify the country were all reinforced.  By the time he assumed the presidency in 2000 his mantra was set. 

Putin’s assumption of the presidency is spelled out by luck, skill, and the ability to ingratiate himself after Sobchak’s political career ended with Boris Yeltsin.  Short dives deeply into this process and in the end Putin provided a need that Yeltsin craved, loyalty to Yeltsin as well as his family.  Putin would rise in importance in Yeltsin’s eyes over a five year period culminating in his appointment as the head of the FSB and shortly thereafter as Prime Minister.  Once he was head of the FSB in 1998 he would purge the organization and bring in his cronies from St. Petersburg.  When Yeltsin decided not to run for president in 2000 he chose Putin as the candidate to replace him.  Yeltsin decided not to run because the war in Chechnya was not going well, charges of corruption abounded, and he knew Putin would protect him.  What Short does not discuss was how the Yeltsin family was caught up in the corruption and how Putin’s perceived loyalty would protect them.

A Georgian man cries as he holds the body of a loved one after a Russian bombardment on August 9 in Gori, Georgia, near the border of the breakaway region of South Ossetia.
(Russian invasion of Georgia, 2008)

Once in power Putin had to deal with Chechnya which he did in a way we have come accustomed to as we watch events in Ukraine.  He would botch the Kursk submarine disaster as well as terrorist attacks within Russia.  He would learn that public information needed to be regulated leading to state seizure of media and television.  Putin would learn from his errors to a point but his overriding beliefs that anything that made Russia look weak was a boon for the west.

In presenting Putin, Short tries in most cases to see events from Putin’s viewpoint.  He is correct that the arrival of the Bush administration in Washington presented an excellent opportunity to improve post-Cold War relations with the United States.  It is clear that Short believes that Bush blew an important opportunity particularly after 9/11 with the policies he chose.

Short is very careful to juxtapose Putin’s points of view on a myriad of topics relating to the Bush’s foreign policy between 2000-2004.  At first Putin offered a number of fig leaves to the Bush administration and in return Bush made his “look into his soul” remark that many thought went overboard.  After 9/11 Putin threw his support behind the United States by sharing intelligence, military over flights, and bases in Central Asia.  Putin saw the US as an ally in the war on terror but felt his overtures were not being reciprocated as Bush canceled the ABM treaty which Putin abhorred; the US invaded Iraq when Russian intelligence which had a decades long relationship with Saddam knew better than the CIA that WMD no longer existed in Iraq.  Issues of NATO expansion, anger that the US and the west did not see the war on terror extending to Chechnya, and hawks in Washington carrying on as if the Cold War was total victory.  Further the US insisted on military bases in Poland and the Czech Republic and in 2008 the west recognized the independence of Kosovo. 

Russian special forces without identifying insignia seized key government buildings in Crimea in late February 2014.
(Russian seizure of Crimea, 2014)

By Bush’s second administration relations deteriorated even further as Gazeprom cut energy deliveries to Ukraine, the 2006 assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in London, and the Bush Doctrine which states that America can treat all countries that support terrorists against the U.S. as enemies. It also asserted the right that the U.S. can take preemptive action against nations that it felt might pose terrorist threats.  Russia’s response was clear in Putin’s message at the Munich Security Conference as he railed against American unilateralism and the pursuit of global domination.  Russia’s position economically improved as oil prices had increased markedly allowing Moscow to pay off its foreign debt depriving the west of leverage resulting in Putin’s popularity rising to 70% – it is no wonder that from this point on Putin felt the US was his enemy and became increasingly aggressive leading to the 2008 invasion of Georgia.

Putin admitted Russia lost the Cold War and resented the Americans lording it over them.  Events in Ukraine, particularly the Orange Revolution where Putin believed the west prevented Kremlin-backed candidate Viktor Yanukovych from stealing the Ukrainian presidency and made possible the election of his reformist rival, Viktor Yushchenko angered the Russian autocrat.  Further, Putin was exorcised over American interference in Gazprom’s attempt to take over Yuganskneftegaz, the main production complex for the Yukos oil company which he believed showed how far American tentacles could reach.  What was clear was that by 2008 the rift between Russia and the US was too deep to heal.

Short is clear that Putin’s mindset is fraught with errors and lies, but it is important for him to criticize Putin further and not blame the US and the west for many of the choices Putin made.    Short does present the American viewpoint surrounding violations of human rights and support for anti-democratic regimes abroad as well as in Moscow, the clampdown on the Russian media, the failure to curb corruption, and atrocities in Chechnya, and the American defeat of the Taliban, a gain for Russian security.  However, one gets the feeling that no matter what course of action Putin pursued it was the fault of the West for the deterioration of relations with Russia.

(George W. Bush and Putin)

At times Short goes overboard in trying to attain objectivity.  He argues that “Russia was no longer trying to export its ideology and value system.  Instead, America was.”  Perhaps, but Short should examine Russian actions toward Georgia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine, and Ukraine as a whole before he makes such statements.  According to Short, the expansion of NATO by the west is responsible for Putin’s aggressive foreign policy in large part because of broken promises in the first Bush administration.  However, it is clear from Putin’s own words that the greatest tragedy of the twentieth century was the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and his goal is to restore the Russian imperial system – this is Putin’s ideology and that has led to the invasions chronicled above.

Even in discussing the source and amount of Putin’s wealth, Short takes his objectivity a bit too far as he cannot accept any evidence like the Panama Papers or Paradise Papers that document the scale of multibillion dollar corruption that exists in Russia.  Despite the fact that Putin oversees a system whereby Russian oligarchs hold large sums of money with strong connections to Putin, in addition to billions in offshore accounts reserved for the Russian autocrat, Short refuses to believe any evidence that is contrary to his own mindset.

‘Putin understood exactly what was being said’ … Presidents Obama and Putin in Normandy, France, 2014.
(President Obama and Putin)

Short commentary on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not as well developed as his narrative was completed as the war was beginning.  I agree with Angela Stent’s comments in her Washington Post review that “Short correctly identifies two of Putin’s major mistakes when he invaded Ukraine. First was his failure to understand that Ukrainians and Russians are distinct Slavic nations, both with a powerful sense of national identity, and that people defending their homeland have an advantage over those seeking to conquer it. His second mistake was to overestimate the capabilities of the Russian military, which was unable to take Kyiv in the first days of the war. Perhaps because he concluded this book before the full scope of Russian atrocities was known, he implies that Russia is acting differently in Ukraine than it did in Chechnya or Syria, where it destroyed Grozny and Aleppo. So far Russia has leveled MariupolSeverodonetsk and parts of other cities, turning them to rubble, and has indiscriminately targeted civilians.”*

Despite Short’s approach to historical objectivity which seems to lean against the West and the United States and accepting Putin’s rationale for certain actions he has authored an important book that should be read carefully and dissected by the reader.  But we should remember what New York Times reporter Peter Baker states that Short absolves Putin of several crimes especially, his explanation for his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.**  I wonder whether he is watching the same war that plays out on the news each evening as I am.

*Angela Stent, “A Biography that Gives Vladimir Putin the Benefit of the Doubt,” Washington Post, July 22, 2022.

** Peter Baker, “Who is Vladimir Putin,” New York Times, August 1, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin — Stock Photo, Image


(Rickey Henderson after he broke Lou Brock’s alltime base stealing record)

There are few more talented and interesting characters in baseball history than the enigmatic Rickey Henderson.  Be it his personality or ego which dominated a number of clubhouses or his play on the baseball diamond one accurate description emerges, unchallenged talent and a desire to be the greatest or one of the greatest in baseball history.  Henderson set the record for the most stolen baseball in a season, the most career runs scored, walks, the most lead off home runs, 3000 hits, earning a series of gold gloves and was a force in of himself.  All of these accomplishments are captured by Howard Bryant in his latest book, RICKEY: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL, which is an apt title for his biography.  Bryant has written a number of deeply researched and insightful books dealing with baseball and racism in American society.  His JUICING THE GAME: DRUGS, POWER, AND THE FIGHT FOR THE SOUL OF MAJOR LEAGUE BASEBALL is a superb recounting and expose dealing with the steroid era in baseball; SHUT OUT: A STORY OF RACE AND BASEBALL IN BOSTON zeroes in on the Yawkey family and their role in making the Red Sox one of the most racist franchises in baseball history; FULL DISSIDENCE: NOTES FROM AN UNEVEN PLAYING FIELD uses baseball as a meditation on the idea that we are living in a post-racial America which he easily destroys; and  THE HERO: A LIFE OF HENRY AARON which explores the life story of a different type of person and player than Henderson.  Unlike Henderson, Aaron was not as flamboyant or controversial and was beloved for his dedication to his craft and “played baseball the right way,” not rubbing his peers the wrong way despite his talent and on field performance.  In his latest effort, Bryant has prepared an intimate portrait of “the man of steal” discussing all aspects of his background, career, and life after many of his skills had eroded.  What emerges is a very complex portrait of a man who thrilled baseball fans on a daily basis for over two decades.

As in all of his books Bryant places his subject in the context of the civil rights movement and racism in sports.  RICKEY is no exception as he presents Henderson’s early  life story within the framework of white backlash against integration as he grew up in Pine Bluffs, AK, 45 minutes from Little Rock amidst the “Crisis at Central High School” in 1957 to Oakland, CA which became central to the black exodus from the south following World War II – in a sense the city was the black Ellis Island.  In 1940 Oakland was 2.8% black and by 1950 81% of blacks living in the city were born in the south and followed the concept of “chain migration.”  Bryant’s approach is a thoughtful one as he recounts why so many blacks migrated to Oakland.  The lure of jobs at the docks and defense industry as World War II commenced became a lifeline for southern blacks to escape violence, murder, lynching’s and all the “accoutrements” of living in the racist south.  It is fascinating to realize the baseball talent that accrued to Oakland as southern black families arrived.  Hall of Fame sports figures such as Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Joe Morgan, Curt Flood, Bill Russell, and Paul Silas all seemed to have the same migration background.

MLB Photos Archive
(New York Yankee manager, Billy Martin)

Bryant’s methodology toward sports biography is different than most.  His portrayals are steeped in American history, especially white racism, the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, and the forces in American society and uses Oakland as a microcosm for white racism and the plight of the black community.  It should not be a surprise that the Black Panther Movement of the 1960s and leaders such as Bobby Seale and Huey Newton hailed from Oakland.  In the 1940s and 50s Oakland was 90% segregated and it is in this climate that the 10 year old Rickey Henderson arrived from Arkansas in 1969.

Bryant carefully traces Rickey’s early years and his path to the major leagues.  Along the way we meet important personages like Charles O. Finley, the controversial and innovative owner of the Oakland A’s, Billy Martin, the abusive, racist, and brilliant manager of the team, Mike Norris, a pitcher who became Rickey’s best friend along with numerous characters that dominated baseball during Rickey’s career.  Rickey was all about himself – what was his worth, and his overall goal of becoming the greatest base stealer of all time breaking Ty Cobb and Lou Brock’s records.

Rickey’s life story reflects the lack of education due to segregation to the point that Henderson never really learned how to read in school as with many black athlete’s teachers would pass them on despite not mastering basic reading and writing skills as long as they could perform on the field or the arena.  Bryant explains this is why Rickey refused certain obligations knowing he could not read well and feared embarrassment and humiliation.  “Rickey speaks,” or “Rickey being Rickey” was a reputation he acquired in large part because of his own inferiority when it came to private interaction or activities involving public speaking or reading. 

Oakland Athletics
(Mike Norris)

According to Bryant Rickey burned to be great, but he was often a singular character, someone set apart from the rest.  He was not one of the guys in the clubhouse and he showed none of the deference veterans expected.  His lack of reverence was possibly a by-product of football being his number one choice as an athlete.  Another reason was his belief in his own ability.  He did not walk into the clubhouse in awe of everything baseball as many young players did.  Thirdly, Rickey never forgot the day he was drafted and who was drafted ahead of him.  He was chosen in the 4th round and believed he was a $100,000 ballplayer, not the $10,000 he signed for.

Billy Martin played an outsized role in Rickey’s development.  Perhaps because they both hailed from Oakland and had a similar view of baseball they would get along except that Martin was a control freak who refused to give Rickey the “green light” to steal at will.  Everything needed Martin’s approval, but it was under his managerial tenure that Rickey excelled and would break numerous records, which brought about Rickey’s resentment as his manager took a great deal of credit for his accomplishments.  In the end it did not matter who his manager was, Rickey was fueled by his obsession with greatness.

Rickey Henderson Field Dedication
(Rickey Henderson, his wife Pamela and their children)

Importantly, Bryant discusses Rickey’s “crouch” in the batter’s box which reduced his strike zone leading to increasing numbers of walks and steals as it forced pitchers to throw directly into his power.  Outfielder Billy Sample described Rickey’s strike zone as that “of a matchbox.” Opposing players, umpires, particularly pitchers and catchers complained in vain, and Bryant’s vignettes are priceless.  Rickey’s “style” made catchers look bad, increasing their hostility toward Rickey.  When he slid into home they hit him hard, when pitchers tried to pick him off first basemen would slap on a tag to make him feel as uncomfortable as possible – but nothing stopped him.  Rickey’s reputation as a “hot dog,” i.e., the development of his “snatch catch” was part of what he termed his “styling” something he had done since he was a kid, but according to Bryant many reporters evaluated his performance with a racial tone.

Bryant deftly places Henderson’s career and personality in the milieu of baseball history and carefully compares and contrasts him with others, contemporary and in the past.  Stories about Joe DiMaggio, Lou Brock, Willie Wilson provide insights into Rickey’s approach to baseball and his amazing accomplishments.  Different from others in his approach to his sport Rickey seemed to me in his own world.  He would talk to himself in the batter’s box, he would stroll slowly to the plate, and had so many eccentric habits that a Yankee executive, Woody Woodward described him by saying, “I’ve never seen a guy look so fast in slow motion.”

FILE - Oakland Athletics pitcher Dave Stewart celebrates the team's 6-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays in Game 5 of baseball's AL Championship Series on Oct. 12, 1992, in Oakland, Calif. Stewart is still waiting for his number retirement ceremony. Stewart, now 65, found out in August 2019 the club planned to retire his No. 34 jersey, then it didnt happen during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season or last year. The former World Series MVP and four-time 20-game winner posted on his Twitter account this week some frustration with his hometown team. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)
(Dave Stewart)

For Rickey, the “unwritten rules of baseball” should never have been written!  He went by a different drummer where his personal statistics were paramount.  Bryant compares Rickey’s accomplishments with contemporaries like Tim Raines, Willie Wilson and James Lofton and despite their success they came up short.   Rickey always measured himself against the accomplishments of others, particularly those he felt were a threat and these three individuals appear repeatedly in Bryant’s narrative.

At times Bryant digresses but does a wonderful job discussing Rickey’s relationship with managers such as Tony La Russa, who always believed and still does that he is the smartest man in the room, Buck Showalter, his New York Yankee manager who was considered a hard nosed manager, Bobby Valentine, the New York Mets Manager who Rickey held in disdain.  Of course, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner appears, Dave Stewart, one of his closest friends, Jose Canseco, a home run hitter who Rickey saw as a buffoon, Reggie Jackson, a teammate in Oakland with an outsized ego, and Don Mattingly, a Yankee teammate who he admired among many portraits that are depicted. Bryant’s work is extremely entertaining and satisfying.  It is well written as all of Bryant’s books and provides evidence for Rickey’s place in baseball history.  The book is a great read just for all the “Rickey stories” and “Rickeyisms” he quotes.  As his career evolved his reputation changed from a self-absorbed record seeker who in his late thirties became a beloved person whose feats and numbers spoke for themselves.  Playing at a time when players were beginning to flex their  legal muscle entering the age of free agency as owners could no longer control them for life, Rickey’s performance on the diamond cannot be challenged.  An excellent read.

** FILE ** In this May 1, 1991, file photo, Oakland Athletics' Rickey Henderson celebrates and raises third base after setting the all-time stolen base record during the Athletics' baseball game in Oakland, Calif., against the New York Yankees. The stolen base was Henderson's 939th, moving him past Lou Brock. Henderson was voted into baseball's Hall of Fame on Monday, Jan. 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg, File)


Abraham Lincoln on Nov. 8, 1863. Photo by Alexander Gardner/LOC/Creative Commons
(Abraham Lincoln)

To date over 16,000 books have been written on Abraham Lincoln, so why another?  In the current case, John Avlon a former Daily Beast editor, author of serious studies of political centrism, and a current CNN analyst has authored LINCOLN AND THE FIGHT FOR PEACE AND FREEDOM which takes a unique approach toward our 16th president.  The book focuses on the six weeks from Lincoln’s second inauguration through his assassination as the Civil War finally concluded and the war over the peace had begun.  According to Avlon, Lincoln evolved into the conciliator-in-chief in his approach to the south and was vehemently against a punitive peace.  Lincoln sought to reunite the country through empathy, understanding, humility and a deep belief that in order to bring the country together after four years of war and over 600,000 casualties a reconstruction policy must be implemented that was perceptive of the needs and beliefs of the former enemy and bring about a coalescing of moderate political elements to block the extremists that remained on both sides of the political spectrum.  For Avlon Lincoln’s approach to winning the peace would serve as a model for future post war negotiations, for example General Lucius Clay’s approach toward Germany after World War II to prevent the revanchism that took place after World War I.

Today our politicians are engaged in a form of political partisanship which at times places our nation at the precipice of civil war.  No matter the issue; protecting children from the ravages of a failed gun control debate, overturning Roe v. Wade, the refusal to accept the results of a fair and free democratic election, the denial of voting rights, and numerous other issues makes it clear that something is broken in our political system.  The question that confronts the American electorate is whether politicians, with their lust for power are so dug in their positions that the odds of any reconciliation between Democrats and Republicans, with extreme elements in both parties appears unlikely in the near future.

Ulysses S. Grant
(Ulysses S. Grant)

In the state that we find our political discourse, John Avlon raised the banner of Abraham Lincoln to serve as a role model as to how we can fix, or at least reorient our body politic.  Avlon begins his narrative on April 4, 1865, as the Civil War winds down with Lincoln’s visit to Richmond, Va. the capital of the defeated Confederacy. Unaccompanied by a large number of troops or any celebratory instruments the president walked the streets of the city with his son Tad greeting former enemy soldiers and citizens with compassion, humor, and kindness.  Lincoln’s mantra was to heal the nation and not erase the history of the war – history required learning the right lessons, so we would not be condemned to repeat them.  He was committed to stopping the cycle of violence, changing his focus from winning the war, to winning the peace.

Lincoln’s world view centered on three ”indispensable conditions:” no ceasefire before surrender, the restoration of the union, and the end of slavery for all time.  “Everything else was negotiable.  Lincoln wanted a hard war to be followed by a soft peace; but there would be no compromise on these core principles.”  For Lincoln winning the peace meant if you failed to do so you would have lost the war.  Lincoln worked without a historical parallel to guide him.  He would establish a new model of leadership focused on reconciliation that would make a long and just peace possible – unconditional surrender followed by a magnanimous peace.  Even though he would be assassinated five days after Robert E. Lee surrendered, in the last six weeks of his life that included his second inaugural address he articulated a clear vision that he hoped would result in a peaceful reunification of his country, “with malice toward none; with charity for all.”


(Tad Lincoln)

The fight for peace needed to be waged with the intensity that rivals war in order for the United States to be redeemed and serve as a beacon of universal freedom.  To achieve this “unconditional surrender” was sacrosanct.  Lincoln needed to eradicate the cause of the war – slavery and ensuring the rebels accepted a decisive defeat.  Lincoln wanted a constitutional amendment ending slavery before the end of the war as he was fully aware that once the war concluded Congress would not have the courage to do so.  “The 13th amendment was the political expression of unconditional surrender: there would be no retreat from the end of slavery.”

Avlon has written a highly readable account of how Lincoln hoped to achieve his goals dealing with a recalcitrant Congress and elements in the Confederacy who did not want to admit defeat.  He takes the reader through the history of the final six weeks of Lincoln’s presidency step by step culminating in his assassination at Ford’s theater.  Lincoln’s core beliefs can be summed up in the Biblical construct of the “golden rule,” a combination of common sense and the moral imagination to dislodge deeply ingrained prejudice.

Frederick Douglass
(Frederick Douglass)

Avlon has the uncanny ability to apply his phrasing to portray Lincoln’s soul be it a visit to City Point, Va. to reach out to wounded Confederate soldiers to his tearful and heart felt reaction to the carnage of war when he visited battlefields.  Avlon is able to convey the substance of Lincoln on a personal and public level as he grappled with bringing the war to a conclusion and at the same time set the foundation of lasting peace through reconciliation and understanding.  At times it seems Lincoln may have been too lenient, but Avlon points to certain non-negotiable issues where the president’s back was stiffened where he refused to give in.  As Lincoln biographer and historian Allen Guelzo writes it is “Lincoln who tells the African American soldiers of the Black 29th Connecticut that ‘you are now as free as I am,’ and if they meet any Southerners who claim to not know that you are free, take the sword and the bayonet and teach them that you are; for God created all men free, giving to each the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”*

I agree with Guelzo’s analysis of Avlon’s overall theme in that “As much as Avlon is convinced that Lincoln’s “commitment to reconciliation retains the force of revelation,” “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace” is short on the exact content of that revelation for the postwar years. Frederick Douglass insisted in 1866 that “Mr. Lincoln would have been in favor of the enfranchisement of the colored race,” and Avlon is not wrong to see Lincoln favoring a reinvention of the South as a small-scale manufacturing economy to replace the plantation oligarchy that triggered the war. But Lincoln played his political cards so close to the chest that, beyond this, it is unclear exactly what directions he thought Reconstruction should take. It is still less clear whether even he would have been successful (had he survived the assassin’s bullet) in pulling any of it off in just the three years that remained to him in his second term.”

General Robert E. Lee, Mathew B. Brady (American, born Ireland, 1823?–1896 New York), Albumen silver print from glass negative
(Robert E. Lee)

Avlon possesses a tremendous faith in the words and actions of Abraham Lincoln during his lifetime and how they resonated in the last third of the 19th century through the end of World War II.  As historian Ted Widmer writes, “Lincoln offers a boost of confidence at a time when our history, instead of uniting us, has become yet another battleground. With insight, he chooses familiar and lesser-known Lincoln phrases to remind readers how much we still have to learn from our 16th president. His book also offers an extra dividend, coming as it does in the midst of Ukraine’s agony. Avlon closes with the final sentences of the second inaugural address, and its hope that we can “achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” As Lincoln understood, the work of democracy at home is indispensable to the work of peace abroad. It is reassuring to have the case for each restated so cogently.”**

*Allen C. Guelzo, “A Lincoln for Our Polarized Times,” New York Times, February 15, 2022.

**Ted Widmer, “Lessons from Lincoln’s Leadership at the Close of the Civil War,” Washington Post, April 15, 2022.

Abraham Lincoln in a portrait by Matthew Brady, taken in December 1861.


Portrait of Marquis de Lafayette
(Marquis de Lafayette)

While on one of my 5 1/2 mile walks the other day the music from the Broadway show “Hamilton” reverberated in my ear buds.  After having taught a course trying to discern the historical accuracy of the musical with numerous references to the Marquis de Lafayette I decided to digest Mike Duncan’s latest work, HERO OF TWO WORLDS: THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE IN THE AGES OF REVOLUTION. Since 2013 Duncan has recorded about 150 hours for his podcast Revolutions, a chronological blow by blow account of ten historical revolutions between the 17th and early 20th centuries and in his new book he expands upon three seasons of his podcast.   In terms of historical depth and important insights I found Duncan’s work satisfying and at times insightful.  If one compares Lafayette’s character in the musical to his actual life, apart from artistic license there is an acceptable degree of accuracy in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s work if one delves into the lyrics surrounding the American Revolution.  However, Lafayette’s life story is more than his key role in the American Revolution and his relationship with George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and John Laurens as he was a focal part in the Age of Revolution that encompassed the latter part of the 18th century and the first third of the 19th.

It is an understatement to say that Lafayette lived a remarkable life.  In Duncan’s somewhat hagiographic approach to biography the hero of the American Revolution is presented in a mostly positive lens, sprinkled in with a few errors and foibles that Lafayette succumbed to.  The key to understanding the time period in which Lafayette lived is to familiarize the reader with the socio-economic and political structure of pre-revolutionary France.  Duncan avails himself of every opportunity to explain the three estate structure of the French political system highlighted by the fact that the first two estates which made up most of the wealth of the French kingdom could not be taxed.  Instead of the nobles carrying their fair share of the tax burden, the monarchy relied upon taxing the third estate made up of laborer’s, peasants, educators, and the petit bourgeoisie to make up the budget shortfall as the monarchy edged toward bankruptcy.  However, before Duncan turns to events in France he explores Lafayette’s early years that culminated in a major-generalship in the Continental Army under General Washington by age 24.

Louis XVI
(French King Louis XVI)

Duncan is very perceptive in his approach to Lafayette’s upbringing and educational training.  He was left fatherless as his father was killed in battle in 1759. By 1770 his mother had passed, and Lafayette inherited a great deal of wealth as a member of the lower nobility.  The key for the then teenager was his marriage into the de Noailles family where his father-in-law turned his education away from the countryside and book learning to a military career and the life of a privileged nobleman.  Lafayette rejected this career plan and based on his diaries and his letters to his wife Adrienne which Duncan integrates throughout the narrative vowed to make a name for himself and pursue what he believed should become a just society.

Duncan argues that the summer of 1775 was the turning point for Lafayette as he seemed to latch on to the ideas of “liberty, equality, and the rights of man” probably developed while he was exposed to Freemasonry and his Masonic brethren.  After learning about the Battles of Lexington and Concord across the Atlantic he secured a position on a list of French officers who were sent to the English colonies to assist the revolutionaries as a means of revenge for the Treaty of Paris of 1763 which resulted in defeat for France at the end of the Seven Years War by the British.  Duncan does an admirable job explaining the French characters that were key to aiding the revolutionaries, men like the French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, Count of Vergennes and Pierre Beaumarchais, an arms trader and financier who helped finance and supply weapons and other materials that fueled French assistance.

Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, French School 18th century copy.jpg
(Adrienne, the Marquis de Lafayette’s wife)

Perhaps the most interesting relationship that Duncan develops is between Washington and Lafayette.  At first the Colonial commander was not impressed with Lafayette seeing him as another privileged French general who strutted around and knew little about military tactics and commanding men.  However, after the Battle of Brandywine in 1777 Lafayette proved himself in battle with his ability to improvise his command and his remarkable bravery which at times bordered on personal recklessness.  Soon Washington would become a surrogate father for the newly minted French general and he a “son” to his commander.

Duncan reviews the most important aspects of the American Revolution, the political and military factions it spawned, and the most important characters involved.  Written in a workman like manner there is little that is new here as the author rehashes Lafayette’s positive contributions, his own wealth, leadership, and connections with the French government to lobby support for greater French support which culminated in the British defeat.

(Napoleon Bonaparte)

Duncan does not neglect Lafayette’s weakness as a father and husband.  While he off seeking glory and developing a heroic persona he left his wife and children, one of which dies while he was away in America.  Duncan is correct by emphasizing his wife Adrienne’s love for her husband but also her sense of abandonment and loneliness. 

Lafayette’s experience in America reinforced his views about the corruptibility of the nobility and their lack of social consciousness.  As he evolved into a social reformer he overlooked the hypocrisy of his compatriots in America concerning slavery as he adopted  abolitionism, worked for prison reform, religious freedom, freedom of speech and the press all in the name of the betterment of the masses.  Later as the French Revolution reached its pinnacle he would prepare a list of reforms called the Declaration of Rights of Man which he offered the new National Assembly in1788 which would become the basis of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen a year later.  Over a five year period after the Treaty of Paris with England in 1783, Lafayette transitioned from an adventurous soldier to a liberal benefactor of humanity, particularly starving peasants, oppressed Protestants, and enslaved Africans.

Duncan’s insights into Lafayette’s precarious position as the French Revolution approached are important as he delves into his attempts to follow a middle course.  He remained loyal to Louis XVI as long as the king did not go back on promises to implement reforms particularly when the king was forced to leave Versailles for Paris once the revolution took hold.  Lafayette was appointed the commanding general of the 30,000 man National Guard to protect the city from violence and any threats that might prevent the writing of a constitution.  To many, particularly on the left, men like Jean-Paul Marat, Camille Desmoulins and George Danton he was a tool of the monarchy.  However ultra-royalists saw him as working to undermine the nobility as he worked for a constitutional monarchy. As Lafayette tried to hold the center he seemed to offend everyone.

[Washington and Jefferson] Look on This Picture, and On This
(George Washington and Thomas Jefferson)

Eventually as the French Revolution turned increasingly violent with the Reign of Terror, Lafayette fled to Austria and was treated as a dangerous revolutionary and would be imprisoned for five years. Duncan carefully crafts Lafayette’s plight as a prisoner under the auspices of Francis I, the Habsburg Emperor.  He would spend the last year in the Austrian prison at Olmutz enduring horrible conditions.  Towards the end of his imprisonment, he would be joined by his wife Adrienne and three daughters who would suffer along with their husband and father.  Finally, as the French rebuilt their military might to counter the English, Prussian, and Austrian armies they would free Lafayette when a young Napoleon Bonaparte liberated the prison.  By 1814 he would reenter the political fray as the Bourbon restoration after the Congress of Vienna turned reactionary.  He would be instrumental in the overthrow of the Bourbon Dynasty in 1830 that placed Louis-Phillipe on the throne, but the new monarch would only disappoint him.

Duncan does an admirable job reflecting on Lafayette’s career and the causes he was drawn to.  Duncan is up front when discussing his subjects’ limitations seeing him as a man dominated by an overwhelming amount of energy, but he lacked the intelligence of many of his important contemporaries.  It is clear that Lafayette’s lack of personal ambition was key as it limited his ability to engage in the cutthroat politics of France during his lifetime, and the hero worship that he was graced with never really matched concrete accomplishments once the gains of 1789 were made.

File:Franz Xaver Winterhalter King Louis Philippe.jpg
(Louis Philippe)

Overall, Duncan is a masterful historical storyteller who has made an important contribution to the literature that surrounds Lafayette’s life.  He dissects all of the major aspects of his personal life and career, and one could only conclude that Lafayette lived a remarkable life that saw him engage in important aspects of two of the three most important revolutions in history (the Russian Revolution being the third) of what British historian, Eric Hobsbawm has labeled the “Age of Revolution.”

Lafayette : stock illustration
(Marquis de Lafayette)


Portrait Of The Kennedy Family At Home
(The Kennedys)

Anyone familiar with the life of Joseph P. Kennedy, the father of John, Robert, and Edward Kennedy is aware of the flaws in his character and life story.  These elements of his biography have been fully explored in studies like David Nasaw’s THE PATRIARCH: THE REMARKABLE LIFE AND TURBULENT TIMES OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, Richard J. Whalen’s THE FOUNDING FATHER: THE STORY OF JOSEPH P. KENNEDY, and Doris Kearns Goodwin’s THE FITZGERALDS AND THE KENNEDYS: AN AMERICAN SAGA.  Kennedy’s life story is punctuated with “serial philandering,” a relationship with organized crime, his years as a Wall Street operator highlighted by repeated insider trading, lobotomizing his daughter Rosemary, an appeaser’s isolationist view of the world that led to his opposition to the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall plan, a cozy relationship with J. Edgar Hoover, and a world view that saw fascism as a means of overcoming a depressed economy and a means of combating communism.  All of these aspects of his life’s work have been dissected in the three previous works mentioned.

One area, his role as American Ambassador to the Court of St. James, a position where Nasaw describes Kennedy as the worst American diplomat serving US interests in England to have ever served across the Atlantic becomes the central theme of Susan Ronald’s latest book, THE AMBASSADOR: JOSEPH P. KENNEDY AT THE COURT OF ST.JAMES, 1938-1940.  In her monograph, Ronald explores the charges against Kennedy that he was an anti-Semite, a Hitlerite appeaser, an isolationist, and an admirer of what the Nazis achieved in Germany and reaches the same damning conclusions as previous historians.

The Kennedy family mystique has been carefully crafted for decades by family members and their acolytes.  However, Kennedy’s true belief that fascism was the inevitable wave of the future, leading him to consistently misrepresent American foreign policy as he intentionally ignored instructions from President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull as he substituted his own beliefs and opinions in place of those instructions.

john f kennedy father jfk

(In this 1938 file photo, John F. Kennedy, right, poses aboard an ocean liner with his father Joseph P. Kennedy, center, U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain, and brother Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., left.) 

Ronald was born in the United States and later emigrated to Great Britain is the author of a number of historical works.  She has mined the riches of the British and American archives and has become very knowledgeable concerning the wealth of secondary materials that have been written on her subject.  Ronald has prepared a readable work for the general public and a bit less so for the professional historian since she does not really uncover anything that is new and repeats arguments and thesis put forth by others.  But to her credit the narrative offers a fresh synthesis concerning Kennedy’s work as ambassador as she mirrors a great deal of the work that has come before her new publication. Her views are supported by others that Kennedy lacked the “temperament, training, and willpower” to serve in his diplomatic post.

Ronald’s narrative concerns a man who by March 1940 had reached the pinnacle of his  career in public service and by October of that year he would return to the United States to seek revenge against Franklin Roosevelt who he believed treated him poorly as Ambassador, ignored his views on the coming war, and not supporting him in a manner that he felt his position warranted.  On numerous occasions Kennedy lectured the president and he would alienate the White Staff, members of the State Department, especially the Secretary of State, and the British diplomatic establishment and government.

Kennedy’s revenge centered around his support for the Republican nominee for president in 1940, Wendell Willkie, in part driven by his desire to run for president himself as a Democrat.  After Roosevelt’s election to a third term in November 1940 Kennedy dedicated himself to keeping the United States out of the war offering opinions that argued the US could not survive economically if she joined the conflict.

The Curious Relationship of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt
(Joseph P. Kennedy and President Franklin Roosevelt)

Kennedy was originally appointed Ambassador to Great Britain on February 18, 1938, as a reward for supporting Roosevelt’s candidacies for president in 1936 and earlier he was repaid for his support in 1932 as the head of the newly created Securities and Exchange Commission, a poor substitute for the office of Secretary of the Treasury which he coveted.  Kennedy had no experience as a diplomat and did not have a foreign policy background.  His driving ambition was to acquire wealth.  From his youth he believed he was discriminated against because of his Irish-Catholic roots creating a chip on his shoulder to achieve societal acceptance.  Once married his focus was to create a springboard for one of his sons to become president.  Based on Kennedy’s abrupt, opinionated, and “undiplomatic” personality he did not possess the skills to head such an important foreign posting.  Roosevelt was aware of Kennedy’s issues, and he wanted him out of the country where he believed he would cause less political trouble had he been chosen for a domestic position.

For Kennedy, the ambassadorship to a major Protestant country could help him improve his Bonafede which could assist him in running for president in 1940 as an Irish-Catholic. Kennedy was up against an administration whose members would have no use for him and resented his constant outspoken criticisms.  What was in Kennedy’s favor was the need to negotiate a Reciprocal Trade Agreement with the British.  New York Times reporter and Kennedy confidant, Arthur Krock pushed Roosevelt to appoint him by leaking an appointment before the decision was even made.

Once in England, Kennedy collaborated closely with British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain and supported his pro-fascist views and appeasement policies as he would do nothing to aggravate German Chancellor Adolf Hitler by preparing England for a war.  Ronald does a respectable job laying out the views of the English royal family and members of the government who came to despise Kennedy. A case in point was King George VI detestation of Kennedy who feared if he returned to the United States he would rile up isolations to the detriment of England.  Further, during the German aerial “Blitz” over London Kennedy acquired the nickname, “Jittery Joe” as he sequestered himself in a country estate and refused to inspect the damage that befell London. Overall, the British people viewed him as a coward.

She does equally well in describing Roosevelt’s true feelings toward Kennedy and tracing the highs and lows of their relationship.  Kennedy’s “uninhibited manipulation of the press, his speaking out against the president, and passing his own opinions for State Department policy” had ruled him out for Roosevelt’s support, particularly after Kennedy “dressed down” the president in a White House meeting on June 23, 1938.  In the end Roosevelt told Eleanor that “I never want to see that son of a bitch again as long as I live.”

The Curious Relationship of Joseph Kennedy, Sr. and Franklin D. Roosevelt

(Rose and Joseph P. Kennedy in November, 1940)

Kennedy’s errors were myriad.  He never informed Roosevelt, Hull, or the State Department that English Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax had broken with Chamberlain over the appeasement of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in addition to Hitler.  Further, while in New York he informed German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on June 10, 1938, that he would try and mitigate American press reports that criticized Germany and would work to keep the US out of any European war.  Lastly, Kennedy’s anti-Semitic comments are legendary, particularly statements to Herbert von Dirksen, the German Ambassador in London.

Roosevelt and Hull would keep Kennedy out of the loop as much as possible because the last thing they wanted was for him to return home creating havoc as the administration worked to deal with an isolationist Congress and overturn Neutrality legislation.  Interestingly, the British would have been glad to send him packing as they grew tired of his bombastic statements, defeatism, particularly before and after Dunkirk, including criticisms that they referred to as “Kennedyianas.”

Overall, Ronald’s book is a mixed bag.  At times she delves into her topic as a true historian evaluating historical events, important characters and their motivations, and explaining British and American politics as the Germans moved closer to war.  Obviously, the key figure is Joseph P. Kennedy whose machinations were designed to further his own political career and those of his sons, and the needs of his family.  All the major figures of the period are on full display as are lesser ones.

It is the latter group that detracts from the narrative.  There are a two chapters that deal with British society as well as references to the “London social season,”  the types of china and cutlery used at dinner, the menus provided, the types of jewelry worn, estate/house decorations among many aspects of minutiae which after awhile become tedious and difficult to digest which detracts from her historical analysis.  Ronald’s approach in this area serves no purpose for the overall thesis she presents and most of it could be excluded resulting in a more compact work of history.  Ronald should pay less attention to the frivolities of British society and Kennedy family excursions and focus more on the critical issues that Kennedy’s tenure in England involved.

(Joseph and Rose Kennedy married in 1914 and had nine children together. Pictured above on a vacation to France in 1939 is (from left to right back row) Kathleen, Joe Jr, Rosemary, Rose , Edward (Ted), (left to right middle row) John (Jack), Eunice, Joseph Sr, Patricia, (left to right front row) Robert and Jean)