THE SABOTEUR: THE ARISTOCRAT WHO BECAME FRANCE’S MOST DARING ANTI-NAZI COMMANDO by Paul Kix

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It is very rare when a work of non-fiction approaches a work of fiction.  For a book to tell a story that is true, but keeps you riveted as if it were a spy novel, is special.  Such is the case with Paul Kix’s first book, THE SABOTEUR: THE ARISTOCRAT WHO BECAME FRANCE’S MOST DARING ANTI-NAZI COMMANDO which tells the story and exploits of Robert de Rochefoucauld, the scion of a rich French family who at the age of sixteen escaped to England, to be educated as a soldier, spy, and safe cracker in the service of British intelligence during World War II.  He would return to France to organize Resistance cells to harass, bomb, and kill Germans, and at the same time save as many of his countrymen that was possible.

Rochefoucauld, henceforth Robert’s life lends itself to an amazing biography of a man who joined the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) at the age of seventeen, underwent extensive training, and worked with the French Resistance from 1943 to the end of the war.  He was part of a group that parachuted behind German lines to assist the allied landing at Normandy by sabotaging German railroads, munitions dumps, and the harassment of German soldiers.  For those who question the role of the SOE and the Resistance, General Dwight D. Eisenhower summarized their effectiveness as he later estimated that “after D-Day it was the equivalent of fifteen extra divisions, or up to 375,000 soldiers.”

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The shame and humiliation felt by the La Rochefoucauld family after the French capitulation to the Germans in June, 1940 became a burden as the family had to escape south to their grandmother’s Maille estate, at the same time as their father, Olivier was taken to a German POW camp.  Kix provides the reader with just enough of the historical material to place Robert and his compatriot’s actions in their historical context, particularly stressing the motivations for their decision making.  Robert’s first major decision was to leave the family and try and make his way to London after listening for months to radio broadcasts by General Charles de Gaulle.  Robert felt that family honor rested upon his shoulders and grew angrier by the day when faced with the capitulation of his countrymen.  By the time he turned nineteen he was anonymously denounced as a supporter of de Gaulle and against collaboration.  He left his family immediately from their estate in Saissons taking with him a false identity to try and get to Paris and on to London to join the Free French.  Kix will describe in detail Robert’s harrowing journey across the Pyrenes assisted by the fact that he had a French-Canadian passport as he traveled through Vichy France.

If there is a theme to Kix’s biography apart from Robert’s bravery in the face of capture and torture, it would be how he led a charmed existence throughout the war.  Whether it was the assistance of British officials, French farmers, Resistance members, local merchants, and others or just plain luck, Robert was able to usually be successful in his operations.  Upon arriving in London and meeting with de Gaulle who suggested his decision was correct in joining the SOE, Robert’s career as a saboteur begins.  Kix takes the reader through the vigorous and often dangerous training that included how to deal with torture, safe cracking, parachuting, killing with one’s hands, explosives, as well as physical preparation.  Perhaps one of Kix’s best chapters is his description of how the British developed asymmetrical warfare, a strategy that was implemented by Neville Chamberlain right before he was replaced by Winston Churchill as Prime Minister.  Churchill’s own life story as a guerilla fighter and observer of asymmetrical strategy played into his increasing support and equipping the SOE with weapons, planes, and money despite opposition from the British air force.  This would be the first time the British engaged in subversion and sabotage against the enemy overseas, and Winston “loved it.”

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(British SOE fighters)

Kix describes in detail many of Robert’s important missions.  During his first mission he parachuted into central France behind German lines as a nineteen year old and set up a training cell for the French Resistance who were surprised by his age and ability to equip them.  Soon his bravery and tenacity would gain their respect.  Kix details of these experiences are so exact, much of which is based on Robert’s memoirs and interviews with family members that the reader can feel as if they are alongside of him during his experiences. The success of the Resistance prods the Germans to bring in the SD/Gestapo and the Abwehr resulting in numerous arrests and executions in the winter of 1943 (over 500 by the war’s end).  Robert will be captured and sentenced to death on March 20, 1944 after months of torture by Dr. Karl Haas in the notorious Auxerre prison.  Robert’s application of his training as explained by Kix reflects his resolve and ability to escape.  Kix provides an effective approach in highlighting what it was like to be a Resistance fighter during the war, in fact over 75,000 were killed by 1945.

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(French Resistance fighters)

Kix describes the progression of Resistance successes through 1944 and another wonderful chapter narrating how Robert organized another SOE cell and with his men were dropped behind enemy lines on June 7, 1944.  The cell coordinated its rebellious acts with the Resistance and inflicted tremendous damage against the Nazis.  Unfortunately, Robert was captured again, but was rescued in a hail of bullets.  Perhaps Robert’s greatest escape took place when he was recaptured and sent to the notorious prison at Ft. Du Ha with its reputation for torture under the aegis of Frederick Dohse a member of SD-IV that cleared the Resistance from southwest France.  After contemplating suicide he devised a plan that resulted in walking right out of the prison’s front gate!

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(General Charles de Gaulle)

Robert’s last mission perhaps was his most dangerous.  After Paris was liberated the haughty de Gaulle refused to give the Resistance fighters credit for their effort.  He demanded they be dispersed, and if they wanted to continue to fight they had to join the Free French Army, which 200,000 did, including Robert.  His final operation was to blow up a German artillery casement on a beach in southern France.   His superiors reluctantly approved his plan which in the end was successful.  Robert’s war came to an end when he stepped on a mine and injured his knee which resulted in a slight limp for the remainder of his life.

Kix explores the contentiousness in French society in the decades that followed the war.  In fact, only 2% of Frenchmen actually fought, and about 20% were collaborationist.  These figures reflect the fissures in French society as postwar trials and some executions resulted.  Though Kix has not written a long narrative, it covers a great deal of material and presented with an eye for what is most historically important.  If you want to gain a sense of what it was like to resist the Germans during the war and its impact on family and the larger French society it is worth consulting.

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(de Rochefoucauld training French Resistance soldiers)

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THE GHOST: THE SECRET LIFE OF CIA SPYMASTER JAMES JESUS ANGLETON by Jefferson Morley

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(James J. Angleton)

When one thinks of the history of the CIA the names that readily come to mind are “Wild” Bill Donavan, Allen W. Dulles, and a host of others.  One name that sometimes remains in the shadows is James J. Angleton.  Of these men it is safe to say that Angleton probably affected American national security the most between the onset of the Cold War and the investigation into CIA activities that permeated the mid to late 1970s. Angleton’s life and intelligence career is the subject of Jefferson Morley’s new study, THE GHOST: THE SECRET LIFE OF CIA SPYMASTER JAMES JESUS ANGLETON that successfully answers the questions: Was Angleton a defender of the republic? Did he become the embodiment of double government? Was he an avatar of the emerging “deep state?”  For Morley the answer to these question seems to be an emphatic, yes.

Morley’s monograph is not a complete biography, but more of a work of synthesis that briefly explores Angleton’s background then delves into the affect that the spymaster had on American foreign and intelligence policies.  As one explores his life the author uncovers numerous policy decisions and actions taken by Angleton that on the surface seem controversial and once implemented evolve into the dominant policy of the emerging national security state.  In examining certain aspects of US intelligence history we can see Angleton’s imprint and historical importance.  Morley’s analysis reflects his influence in many ways.  First, his relationship with Kim Philby, the British spy who served as his mentor and teacher as Angleton became consumed with counterintelligence after the World War II.  Philby along with Norman Pearson educated Angleton on the ins and outs of the German spy system called ULTRA where he learned how deception could shape the battlefield of powerful nations at war.  The Angleton-Philby friendship is important because the Englishman, along with Guy Burgess and Donald McClean were part of the Cambridge five who spied for the Soviet Union for years.  The greatest shock in Angleton’s life was learning Philby’s true identity and how he facilitated his spy craft.

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(Russian spy, Kim Philby)

The second area that most people are not aware of is Angleton’s culpability in recruiting and protecting the freedom of former Nazis after the war, i.e., Eugene Dollman, a translator for Hitler and Mussolini and Walter Rauff who was responsible for the death of over 250,000 Jews during the war.  A third area that might surprise some is Angleton’s role in developing the CIA experimentation and use of LSD as a tool in compelling suspected spies to tell the truth.  The program known as MKULTRA encompassed a wide range of experiments to control the workings of the human mind in the name of national security.  As a result a number of people died and many others had their lives ruined.  Once Dwight D. Eisenhower assumed the presidency and appointed Allen W. Dulles as the head of the CIA, Angleton’s influence increased markedly.  Angleton was able to convince Dulles, an old friend and compatriot of the need to develop a staff of people who were knowledgeable and understood the KGB and its methods.  This was designed to oversee covert operations and protect against Soviet penetration of the US government and the CIA.  As a result we have Angleton’s fourth area of importance, the development of his own clandestine service within the CIA – his own empire.  Furthering his influence, Angleton was able to convince FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to cooperate by sharing domestic counterintelligence dealing with the Soviet Union.  If this was not enough Angleton developed LINGUAL, a program in concert with the FBI’s COINTELPRO operation to illegally open the mail bound for the Soviet Union.  It was through this program that Morley effectively introduces the reader to Lee Harvey Oswald and Angleton’s knowledge and possible culpability in the Kennedy assassination.

One of the criticisms, if in fact it can be considered as such is that Morley presents these aspects of Angleton’s career in a cursory way for the first half of the book.   As a shorter work I guess this is acceptable, but I would have liked the author to engage in the type of exploration of motive and effect as he did with Angleton’s role in covering up the Kennedy assassination investigation.  In the fifth and most important area Morley examines Angleton’s investigation of Oswald from 1959 to 1963, from his defection to the Soviet Union and return to the United States, his affiliation with pro-Fidel Castro organizations, his visits to the Cuban embassy in Mexico City, a hotbed of pro-Castro activity, and where Oswald wound up in September, 1963.  After the assassination Angleton gave the impression he knew very little about Oswald before November 22, 1963, when in fact his staff had monitored his movements for years and his special investigations provided him with numerous reports of Oswald’s travels.  Obviously this led to an epic counter-intelligence failure.  One of Angleton’s major roles was tracking defectors and he received three FBI reports on the intelligence function of the Cuban embassy in Mexico City the two months leading to Kennedy’s death, but he would never speak publicly about this.  We are all aware of the CIA conspiracy theories concerning the Kennedy assassination because of their anger over the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile crisis, anger that Angleton shared.

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(Moments before the Kennedy assassination, November 22, 1963, Dallas, TX)

Angleton’s power was at its apex during the investigation into the Kennedy assassination which happened on his watch.  In perhaps his best chapter, Morley describes how Angleton managed to wind up in charge of the CIA’s investigation of Oswald.  During the Kennedy administration, Angleton’s staff knew more about the obscure and “unimportant” Lee Harvey Oswald than anyone in the US government.  After Kennedy’s death, Angleton would orchestrate the cover-up of what the CIA knew and engaged in obstruction of justice as he did not want anyone to find out that he had been investigating Oswald for years.  In addition, Angleton hid the knowledge that Castro probably knew of the CIA’s recruitment of Rolando Cubela to assassinate the Cuban dictator – in a sense Castro got Kennedy, before Kennedy got him.  Angleton should have been fired for malfeasance; instead he would remain in a position of supreme power for another ten years.  Despite that power, Angleton would be beleaguered by Kennedy’s death and would spend his time putting out fires when others came forth with new information, fires that ruined careers, resulted in the seizure of personal material, and a few questionable deaths.

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(Lee Harvey Oswald)

There are numerous other areas of Angleton’s shadowy work and influence.  As he grew up and was educated he held many anti-Semitic views, but would come to realize the importance of Israel’s intelligence community.  Almost from the foundation of the Jewish state, Angleton developed a strong relationship with the Mossad and Shin Bet, Israeli intelligence agencies that would benefit both countries, as they shared intelligence, weaponry, and other information geared against the Soviet Union and the Arab world.  Two useful examples are KKMOUNTAIN which resulted in millions in annual cash payments to the Mossad and in return the Israelis authorized their agents to act as American surrogates throughout North Africa, and Angleton’s surreptitious support for the Israeli development of a nuclear weapons program.  Further, Angleton assisted Israel during the 1967 War and helped whitewash the investigation into the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty.  In fact one high ranking Israeli intelligence official described Angleton as a Zionist and the Jewish state almost seemed like his second home.

One of the major themes that Mosley develops throughout the book is how the suspicious mole hunter that Angleton had become throughout his career grew more and more paranoid by the late 1960s.  Angleton’s conspiracy theories about the Soviet Union and the KGB provoked questioning within the CIA, but as long as Richard Helms, his old friend and compatriot was DCIA he was safe.  Angleton’s paranoia ruined many careers of innocent people and he eventually lost the support of J. Edgar Hoover.  One thing was clear, as Angleton grew old he became more obsessive about Russian infiltration and spying, and to his dying day believed that the Soviet Union had a mole inside the CIA for decades.

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Angleton’s role in domestic surveillance is one that lives on today with the NSA and other aspects of the Patriot Act.  In the 1960s as the anti-war movement and a black insurgency were seen as threats, Helms and Angleton set up a new intelligence collection program – Operation CHAOS.  It would infiltrate the anti-war movement, index the names of over 300,000 Americans, and create files on 7200 people.  As more and more domestic violence took place President Nixon resorted the Huston Plan which emerged three years later during Watergate, a plan that was the brainchild of Angleton.  The plan called for a dramatic expansion of domestic intelligence collection and Nixon lifted any restrictions that might get in its way.  Nixon would have to shut down the Huston Plan months later because of the opposition of Attorney General John Mitchell, and J. Edgar Hoover, but Angleton continued to oversee its operation.

The reelection of Richard Nixon in 1972 witnessed the firing of Helms which signaled a bad time was coming.  Without Helms as cover Angleton would have to deal with William Colby as the new DCIA, a man he had been in conflict with for years.  Colby understood that the CIA had to adapt to the new realities in American politics and society in the 1970s, something Angleton could not.  Colby would suspend a number of surveillance programs and limit others.  Angleton also made an enemy out of Henry Kissinger as he seemed to have misread intelligence pertaining to the Arab attack that launched the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  Despite these problems, Angleton remained obsessed with Russian deception operations and even argued that British Prime Minister Harold Wilson was a Soviet agent.  Once the Nixon tapes were released, the domestic role of the CIA and Angleton in particular came into plain view.  This would lead to Seymour Hirsh’s expose in the New York Times, and the formation of the Senate Church Committee which would attack and question Angleton’s beliefs and life’s work.

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(CIA Director William Colby)

Morley tells Angleton’s story in a concise and lucid manner with numerous important observations.  His research and analysis, particularly in the second half of the book are top drawer.  For those who worry about civil rights and the abuse of power, Angleton’s life is a lesson that should be studied by all, as his career is emblematic of what some would describe as the “deep state.”

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

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(Edward Lansdale)

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

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(Lansdale with Ngo Dinh Diem)

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

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

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

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

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(Philippine President, Ramon Magsaysay)

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

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

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(Daniel Ellsberg)

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

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

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(Edward Lansdale)

LENIN: THE MAN, THE DICTATOR, AND THE MASTER OF TERROR by Victor Sebestyen

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(Vladimir I. Lenin)

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

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(Joseph Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky)

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

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

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(The Romanov royal family)

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

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(Nadya Krupskaya)

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

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

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(Inessa Armand)

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

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

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

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(Workers demonstrating during Russian Revolution)

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

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

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

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

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

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(Vladimir I. Lenin)

GRANT by Ron Chernow

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

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

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

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

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

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(Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)

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

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(General William T. Sherman)

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

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(General Philip Sheridan)

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

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

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(General John A. Rawlins)

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

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

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

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(Grant working on his memoirs right before he died)

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

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

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STANTON: LINCOLN’S WAR SECRETARY by Walter Stahr

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

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

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

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(Stanton and Lincoln’s cabinet)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Edwin M. Stanton)

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

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(Lou Gehrig)

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

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

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

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

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

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(Lou and Eleanor Gehrig)

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

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

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(Gehrig and Babe Ruth following his Farewell Speech)

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

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

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(Lou Gehrig)

BENEATH A SCARLET SKY by Mark Sullivan

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(Italian Resistance in Milan during WWII)

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

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

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(Mussolini’s Black Shirts marching through Milan)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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(Liberation of Milan)

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

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(The Italian Resistance in Milan during WWII)

 

 

AL FRANKEN: GIANT OF THE SENATE by Al Franken

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(After)

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

(Before)

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

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

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(Senator Franken on a USO tour in Afghanistan)

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

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

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(Franken on SNL)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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