HANNS AND RUDOLF: THE TRUE STORY OF THE GERMAN JEW WHO TRACKED DOWN AND CAUGHT THE KOMMANDANT OF AUSCHWITZ by Thomas Harding

Rudolf Höß crop.jpg

(Rudolf Hoss)

After World War II a small coterie of individuals morphed into Nazi hunters.  From Simon Wiesenthal to agents of the Israeli Mossad their mission was to capture and bring the Nazi perpetrators to justice.  This has produced numerous books about their exploits in the form of memoirs, narratives about the role of governments, and certain individuals.  Of these individuals many remain unknown and little has been written.  Thomas Harding introduces us to Hanns Alexander, a German refugee and British serving officer who should be considered part of the pantheon of Nazi Hunters in his book HANNS AND RUDOLF: THE TRUE STORY OF THE GERMAN JEW WHO TRACKED DOWN AND CAUGHT THE KOMMANDANT OF AUSCHWITZ.

The format chosen by the author is a series of alternating chapters telling the life stories of the two men, at times in detail, and at times in a more cursory manner.  Beginning with Rudolf Hoss, the future Kommandant of Auschwitz we learn about a dismal childhood and a bigoted and fanatical father, along with a distant mother.  Hoss would enlist in the army at the age of fourteen during World War I serving mostly in Iraq and Palestine.  After the war Hoss would join the Freikorps which were irregular German military volunteer units that existed from the 18th to the early 20th centuries, which effectively fought as mercenary or private armies.   The Freikorps fought against communists in Latvia and also joined in the so-called Kapp Putsch. The Kapp Putsch was a right-wing coup that sought to end the Weimar Republic in March 1920. The revolt resulted in failure.  Hoss was also involved with the Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923 which resulted in his imprisonment and being charged with murdering a “right wing” traitor.

By 1928, Hoss was released from prison and became enamored by Adolf Hitler. He married and hoped for an idyllic rural lifestyle.  Hoss would join the Atamanen League  under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler in Bavaria.  Himmler took Hoss under his wing and by 1933 he joined the SS and became a supervisor at Dachau and developed what Dachau Kommandant, Theodor Eicke called an “attitude of hatred.”  By 1936 he was promoted to SS-LT and became part of the camp administration and began his bifurcated life of rural family life and the demands of concentration camp work.  By 1938 he was transferred to Sachsenhausen to be adjutant to the camp Kommandant, Hermann Baranowski.

Harding carefully recreates Hoss’ slow rise up the Nazi camp bureaucracy and at each step his responsibilities would increase.  By 1940 he was the Kommandant at Sachsenhausen and by April of that year he was tasked to oversee the construction of Auschwitz overcoming numerous obstacles to build the camp.  Due to a lack of food and sanitation Hoss adopted the drastic methods used at Dachau and Sachsenhausen including euthanizing thousands, mass shootings with burials in huge ditches, starvation, etc.  In the summer of 1941 Himmler informed Hoss about the Final Solution and between 1940 and 1944 he would witness the arrival of 1.3 million prisoners at Auschwitz.  Of these some 1.1 million that perished, 1 million were Jews.  Auschwitz had over 1 thousand guards and at any given time held 80,000 prisoners.  After a short assignment to straighten out Sachsenhausen he returned to Auschwitz in May 1944 to oversee “Aktion Hoss,” the extermination of Hungarian Jewry.  Within a year Hoss’ world fell apart and he realized he had to escape leaving his family in Flensburg took assuming the identity of a dead German sailor and hoped to disappear.

 

 Hanns Alexander

(Hanns Alexander)

 

Hanns Alexander came from a not especially religious upper-class Jewish family in Berlin where his father, a physician built a successful medical practice.  Throughout his childhood he was surrounded by Berlin’s most successful and powerful people and his father was one of the city’s foremost physicians.  As long as the Weimar Republic survived the Alexander family did well.  Hanns and his twin brother Paul were precocious boys who even into adulthood loved to play pranks.  However, their world began to come undone with the rise of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s assumption of the German Chancellorship in 1933.  Slowly the noose was tightened around the family as Dr. Alexander’s medical practice was gutted by Nazi racial laws and they witnessed the actions of bullies and thugs on Berlin’s street against Jews.  Dr. Alexander, like many assimilated Jews believed the violence was temporary and it would soon pass, and normality would resume.  Much to his chagrin this was not the case and the family left Berlin in a piece meal fashion for England.

On a visit to London to see his daughter and grandchild in 1936 Dr. Alexander learned he was on a Gestapo list and sought refuge in England.  Later in the year with the Olympics being publicized emigration laws were eased and the twins Hanns, and Paul, 19 years old left Germany, followed months later by their mother.  With the arrival of war in 1939 both boys decided to enlist but since they were German refugees, they were part of a large group that was suspected of possibly being spies.  It took Hanns months to prove he was not and in December 1939 he joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps created to make use of thousands of German refugees against Hitler.  Training was mostly non-military and his assignment consisted of manual labor in support of the army.  He would be sent to France and was part of the 300,000 British soldiers who were saved at Dunkirk.  Hanns realized the only way he would be treated with respect was to become an officer. And in January 1943 he was accepted as part of the Officer Cadet Training Unit and after real training landed at Normandy in June 1944.  His role was to translate for the interrogation of captured German officers.

<p>The <a href="/narrative/9934/en">defendants</a> listen as the prosecution begins introducing documents at the <a href="/narrative/9366/en">International Military Tribunal</a> trial of war criminals at Nuremberg. November 22, 1945.</p>

(The Nuremberg Trials)

It is at this point, about two-thirds into the narrative the book takes an especially important turn as Harding finally deals with Hanns’ work as a “Nazi hunter.”  If there is a major criticism of Harding’s work is that he spends too much time providing the comparative background of his major characters and not enough dealing with events following the defeat of the Nazis, in an addition to a number of historical issues and editing.  First, he relies too heavily on Hoss’ prison memoir composed in Poland as he awaited trial.  As historian David Cesarani points out in a The Independent, 4 October 2013 book review there are numerous examples of Hoss’ jumbled approach to historical detail, not to mention his deliberate attempt to shift blame.  Further his reliance on Gustav Gilbert and Leon Goldensohn’s psychological profile  seems to soft peddle Hoss’ ideological formation, training, and socialization of the SS.  Harding states that Dachau was the first concentration camp, not so, it was first built as a camp for political prisoners and a model for what later camps would become.  Harding also states that Auschwitz was located in “rural isolation,” in fact it was a busy town next to a major railroad junction.  Harding’s description of Zykon B gas (it was not an insecticide but used to exterminate lice on clothing) and its application in showers is another misstatement as it was not “poured out of false shower heads,” when it resulted in death from pellets dropped into a tube or onto the chamber floor through an opening.

The key for Hanns was translating for the interrogation of Josef Kramer, Hoss’ former adjutant.  His trial in September 1945, “The Belsen trial of Josef Kramer and 44 others” became a dry run for the Nuremberg Trials.  Following Kramer’s conviction Hanns received permission to hunt for uncaptured war criminals.  He was promoted to Captain and was now a fully-fledged British war crimes investigator, not just a German refugee who helped with translations.

According to John Le Carrie, Hanns’ hunt for Hoss reads like a spy novel.  True, as the last 50 pages plus traces Hanns’ pursuit of Hoss, even though the reader is completely aware of how the story will end, Rudolf Hoss hanging from the gallows in 1947.  Harding follows Hoss’ movements, contact with his family, his final capture, interrogation, as a witness at the Nuremberg Trials,  and trial in Poland in detail and forms the most important aspect of the narrative.  In addition, Hanns Alexander happens to be the authors great-uncle and he devoted six years of research to finally tell his story, an important one, but one that could have been organized better with improved editing.

 

 Rudolf Hoss

(Rudolf Hoss)

MAGNIFICO: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND VIOLENT TIMES OF LORENZO DE’ MEDICI by Miles J. Unger

Lorenzo de Medici.jpg

For the last few nights, my wife and I have binged Netflix’s Medici series.*  It brought me back to Garrett Mattingly’s classic, RENAISSANCE DIPLOMACY which argued that the relationship and machinations between Italian city-states was a microcosm of the 20th century in terms of actions resulting in numerous wars and plots.  It piqued my interest in one of the most important figures of the Renaissance, Lorenzo de’ Medici the subject of Miles J. Unger’s superb biography,  MAGNIFICO: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND VIOLENT TIMES OF LORENZO DE’ MEDICI which argues that the Florentine leader was able to navigate the Italian city-states and Papal states surviving Papal, domestic Florentine, and other external plots by a Pope, a king, and a duke by employing his charm and diplomatic skill augmented by the occasional use of violence to preside over Florence, a city-state that supported and exhibited artistic brilliance in addition to the squalor of the city’s poor.

Unger describes a city of contrasts pitting artistic beauty and poverty.  The author is correct to apply this dichotomy to the life, character and policies implemented by Lorenzo.  In Unger’s sweeping account supported by assiduous research enhanced by numerous notes that add detail to the narrative we witness a figure who strides alongside the most important historical figures of the period throughout Europe.  According to Unger the success of the Medici family rested in large part on the way “each member of the family worked for a common goal, demonstrating a unity of purpose not always present among ruling dynasties, where jealousy and competition are more important than fraternal affection.”

Clarice the wife of Lorenzo de Medici Mona Lisa, Artwork, Queens, Europe, Characters, House, Lorenzo De' Medici, Art Work, Work Of Art
(Clarice, wife of Lorenzo de’ Medici)

Unger takes the reader to the court of Cosimo de ’Medici, the family patriarch who built the bank and trade that the family fortune and influence rested upon.  He follows with a description of his weak son, Piero, who trained Lorenzo for leadership almost from birth.  Lorenzo and his predecessors ruled a city-state that was not the most powerful on the Italian peninsula, but it abounded in artists and craftsmen coveted by foreign courts.  By exporting Florentine culture Lorenzo tried to achieve through “the dazzle of art what they could not hope to win through the strength of arms.  Throughout his reign his support of the work of Botticelli, Leonardo, and Michelangelo abound.  In addition, the intellectual pursuits of men like Pico Della Mirandola.

Unger’s commitment to detail and the ambiance of Florence and the Papal court is an important component of the narrative.  Whether he is describing the celebration of the beginning of Lorenzo’s reign, marriage negotiations, the dynastic rivalries that resulted in the Pazzi conspiracy, the hatred between dynastic families, wars with Pope Sixtus IV, and the rise of Savonarola among many topics Unger has the ability to explain the complex and maintain the hold of the reader.  Unger delves into the byzantine nature of Italian alliances and politics carefully.  He correctly points out how Lorenzo could foster an alliance between Milan under the Sforza’s, Naples, and Florence to offset the disingenuous behavior of the Pope in order to secure Florentine banking and trade interests.  Important personalities abound be it external enemies like Pope Sixtus IV, his nephew Girolamo Riorio, and Archbishop Francesco Salviati, and others including Girolamo Savonarola and Niccolò Machiavelli.

Giuliano de' Medici (left) and Lorenzo de' Medici. Portraits by Botticelli and an unknown artist

(The de’ Medici brothers Guliano and Lorenzo)

Sixtus’ family came from poverty and he saw the papacy as a vehicle to create wealth and prestige for the Riarios and della Rovere, as it seems that the Medici were always an impediment to his goals.  The Pazzi family also produced a number of important individuals that Lorenzo had to manipulate to survive.  The hatred of Jacabo de’ Pazzi and his nephew Francesco de’ Pazzi is well known for their involvement in the conspiracy that resulted in the death of Lorenzo’s younger brother and confidante Giuliano and Unger unwraps the plot and its participants and the end result of destroying the Pazzi family and its wealth.

Unger possesses a strong command of the shifting alliances that led Lorenzo to thwart Sixtus IV’s plans.  A key chapter deals with Girolamo Riario’s attempt to manipulate the King of Naples to destroy the de ‘Medici which saw Lorenzo outsmarting him in saving Florence.  This supports Unger’s major theme that Lorenzo was confronted by one crisis after another.  Apart from external crisis he had to cope with internal opposition within the Florentine ruling council, the Signoria which the de’ Medici tended to dominate.  Revolts, conspiracies, and other actions seem to be a daily occurrence that Lorenzo had to overcome.  Despite all that Lorenzo had to confront he effectively weaved a web that he employed to balance his own sense of duty and pleasure.  For Lorenzo, his personal need for intellectual enlightenment, reflected by men at court, art and literature, and his duty to Florence were in conflict throughout the narrative.  The way Lorenzo navigated these pressures reflects his talent and his genius.

Unger does not neglect Lorenzo’s personal life.  The important role played by his mother Lucrezia, his wife Clarice, his children, cousins, and advisors is on full display.  The use of family members for diplomatic gain is a tool examined carefully.   Lorenzo was a patron of the arts and a creative figure in his own right.  He was able to help foster a flowering of art, architecture, literature, and intellectual life that is considered unparalleled in history.

POPE SIXTUS IV: Pope Sixtus IV is known for both the great steps taken under his rule to rebuild Rome and his great corruption. Pope Sixtus IV instituted nepotism as a way of life in Rome, and ran the Papacy as a family operation. Italian Renaissance, Renaissance Art, Miguel Angel, Sistine Chapel, Religious Images, Historical Art, Old Master, Kirchen, Lorenzo De' Medici
(Pope Sixtus IV)

The book is not an exercise in hagiography as Unger examines Medici finances and corruption in detail producing the money manipulation that Lorenzo engaged in to support his obsession with art and architecture, pay off his internal and external enemies, and construct alliances among his many triumphs.  To his credit Lorenzo did siphon off funds to assist the poor, but one cannot overestimate his manipulation of Florentine wealth as very questionable.  It is important to keep in mind the age in which Lorenzo lived before judging him too harshly.  It was a period of tyranny dominated by despots in which one could argue that he stood above all including men like Paul II, Sixtus IV, and Innocent VII.

The key to Unger’s success is research that includes government records, historical accounts, diaries, and Lorenzo’s own memoirs, letters, and poems.  The end result is scholarship, analysis, and an amazing eye for detail which will be difficult for Lorenzo’s next biographer to surpass.  One must be cognizant of the fact that it took only two years following Lorenzo’s death for the system he developed too unravel as his son Piero, ill-trained, and ill-tempered, was unable to stop its disintegration.  It was not surprising because only one man, his father had the depth of personality and skills to maintain it.

*Let us just say that the Netflix series stretches the bounds of historical accuracy!

Lorenzo de Medici.jpg

 

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

Meet the Doctor Who Convinced America to Sober Up

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

Benjamin Rush

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Franklin
(Benjamin Franklin)

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

John Adams, circa 1790.
(President John Adams)

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

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

 

PELOSI by Molly Ball

With some enthusiastic assistance from her grandchildren, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California smiles as she casts her vote for herself to be speaker of the House on the first day of the 116th Congress, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The term chutzpah can be interpreted in only one way – a great deal of nerve or other words I cannot use!  In the present case it is the perfect description of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi particularly following the completion of Donald Trump’s State of the Union message last January when she ripped up the speech as it was riddled with lies in front of an audience of millions of Americans.  Opponents of Pelosi castigated her actions, but they forget it was preceded by Trump’s refusal to engage in the traditional handshake with the Speaker before the speech.  Why did Pelosi react in such a manner?  The answer to this question is imbedded   in who she is as a person and a professional and forms the core of Molly Ball’s new book, PELOSI.

Ball’s crisp writing style makes PELOSI an easy biography to read as in part Pelosi missed the woman’s movement of the early 1960s as she married and raised five children.  She would be considered the “almost picture perfect” mother as she trained her brood with Catholic family values as each child was given certain tasks and responsibilities within the family.  Once her children were of school age, we see the beginning of a career that begins with fund raising from her home.  Ball points out that the seminal moment in Pelosi’s career came when San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto placed her on the city’s Library Commission which exposed her to the give and take of local politics.

 

Ball carefully traces Pelosi’s rise from a housewife to a congressional victory in 1986 highlighting two skills that remain her strengths to this day, fund raising and organizational acumen.  Ball describes Pelosi as “ballsy, confrontational, even bitchy.”  Further Ball states that once Pelosi was freed from family responsibilities at age forty-seven, she pursued her congressional work with “a maniacal level of energy.”  Ball provides a window into the Congressional process upon Pelosi’s arrival, especially the denigration of women and her role in altering traditional male views of women who served in Congress.  The white male power structure dominated Congress epitomized by conservative Democratic  Pennsylvania Representative John “Jack” Murtha.  On the surface it would appear that the “San Francisco liberal” and the hard-nosed Vietnam veteran would have little in common.  But as Ball effectively develops their relationship it is clear that without Murtha’s mentorship and support Pelosi’s career may have taken a different path.

Pelosi was a tenacious legislator and supporter of human rights as was evident in her view of China after Tiananmen Square.  She was always skeptical about trusting President Clinton and when she tried to tie China’s human rights policies to most favored nation trading status, she thought she had Clinton’s support.  When Clinton sold her out, she screamed “corporate sellout,” and never trusted Clinton again.

Ball is dead on in zeroing in on Newt Gingrich and his responsibility in creating the toxicity that exists in politics today.  Gingrich’s goal was to block any legislative successes for Clinton and interjected words like, “sick, pathetic, liars, anti-flag, traitors, radicals, corrupt to describe Democrats.  When Republicans decided to demonize Pelosi, her response was “I’m shaking in my boots, that is so pathetic, tell them, C’Mon.”  She proved to the Republican leadership that unlike Richard Gephardt, the congressman Pelosi replaced as House Democratic Leader that she was no pushover and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert found her inflexibility and hyperattention to detail galling.  Pelosi’s approach throughout her career no matter what position she held in the House was to out work and know more about legislation, her caucus, and any other aspect of her work than any of her colleagues – making her indispensable for any legislative success, Democratic or Republican.  She would take advantage of GOP policy failures be it Bush’s invasion of Iraq and its failures, the Katrina debacle, or Bush’s attempts to privatize Social Security.

061215_pelosi_obama_ap.jpg

Ball encapsulates Pelosi by quoting her, “I get up, eat nails for breakfast, put on a suit of armor and go into battle.”  Ball states that the suit of armor she created, an extreme and steely toughness that dismissed any hint of vulnerability, would keep her safe.”  She would reign in Bush after the 2006 election after six years of being run over by the GOP and by 2008 when she became Speaker one would have thought working with a new administration would produce a collegial relationship, but it did not.

In perhaps her best chapters Ball explores the Pelosi-Obama dynamic which was not very smooth in large part because Obama always sought consensus and believed he could always peel off a segment of GOP support, whereas Pelosi had learned not to trust the GOP leadership and its right wing caucus and all she cared about was winning and delivering on what she believed to be the policies that a majority of Americans wanted.  She tried to educate Obama whose “intellectual arrogance” and the attitude of many in his administration won out.  The Obama people came to believe that Pelosi at times was more of a hinderance than an asset.  Republicans would demonize both, but more so Pelosi over the Affordable Health Care Act, Climate legislations, stimulus, or a grand bargain than the president.  From Obama’s perspective she gave him cover.

Ball does an excellent job taking the reader inside negotiations to solve America’s problems.  Her reporting concerning Pelosi’s attempts to achieve a withdrawal date from Iraq, or the TARP bill to deal with the 2008 economic meltdown are two cases in point.  In both instances Pelosi exhibited her tenacity, control over her caucus (which the GOP could never master), and legislative dexterity to achieve her goals. Ball provides a perceptive analysis how Republicans were able to play Obama, who did not follow Pelosi’s warnings in legislative battles, particularly health care and taxes.  As Ball points out, you only get one chance to make a first impression and Obama blew it with his stimulus package, a pattern that would continue throughout his administration particularly after the 2010 congressional shellacking which the GOP learned to block everything they could and give Obama no legislative victories. Despite losing 63 seats, Pelosi rededicated herself and became more tenacious than ever.

Political cheer

(Nancy Pelosi and her family)

Overall, Pelosi is a practitioner of retail politics learned at the feet of her father who was Mayor of Baltimore and later a Congressman.  She is superb at arm twisting, raising money, and knowing when and how to cut a deal even if it means angering members of her caucus.  But despite rubbing certain members the wrong way even females over aspects of abortion she has earned the respect from most of her opponents.

Donald Trump is the perfect adversary for Pelosi.  He is a narcissist, thoughtless, uninterested in issues or its details with no sense of tactics or strategy.  He may have been a reality TV star, but Pelosi presents a different type of reality the “avatar of a feminist political future.”  Ball quotes Amy Klobuchar’s famous observation:  “If you think a woman can’t beat Trump, Nancy Pelosi does it every single day.”  Ball’s presentation of the Pelosi-Trump relationship is clear and pulls no punches as she discusses their hostility toward each other even though some of it has been papered over as Pelosi held back her caucus during the Mueller investigation until the Ukraine matter led her to finally support impeachment.

As we confront the Coronavirus and seem stalled at any further stimulus money for the states., hospitals, and PPE, it would be interesting to see what would happen if traditional retail politics could be employed instead of Mitch McConnell’s refusal to engage in anything meaningful other than securing lifetime conservative judges.  Ball’s work is based on her excellent reporting and interviews and despite a bit of hagiography the book is an interesting personality and political study that is a fascinating read.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi made her feelings clear about Donald Trump's speech.

 House speaker Nancy Pelosi made her feelings clear about Donald Trump’s speech.

EVERY DROP OF BLOOD: THE MOMENTOUS SECOND INAUGURATION OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN by Edward Achorn

A scene in front of the East front of the U.S. Capitol is seen during President Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, 1865, just six weeks before his assassination.  (AP Photo/File)

(Lincoln’s Second Inauguration Address)

Recently I read Ted Widmer’s new book LINCOLN ON THE VERGE: THIRTEEN DAYS TO WASHINGTON.  In Widmer’s narrative he explores a number of Abraham Lincoln’s most important speeches given during his odyssey across America to his first inauguration in 1861.  When I came across Edward Achorn’s equally new book EVERY DROP OF BLOOD: THE MOMENTOUS SECOND INAUGURATION OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN I expected the author to focus more on Lincoln’s iconic speech in March 1865.  Much to my disappointment the book focuses on events, personalities, and the politics surrounding Lincoln’s effort in addition to a narrative that focuses in minute detail on the prevailing attitudes that existed in Washington for the twenty four hour period leading to the speech and the state of the city during that time as opposed to Lincoln’s development of the speech.  I was also somewhat disappointed in that much of what Achorn has to say has been reviewed by countless historians offering little that is new apart from spending about fourteen pages on the speech itself.

From the outset Achorn sets the scene for the inauguration introducing a number of important historical characters and their past and future roles in American history.  Achorn’s description of the new Vice President Andrew Johnson portends the future political warfare that would almost lead to his removal from office after Lincoln’s assassination.  Another important personage we are introduced to is Samuel P. Chase, the then Secretary of the Treasury whose political ambitions were fueled by his daughter Kate Sprague who was married to a senator from Rhode Island.  Chase had never gotten over the fact that Lincoln achieved the presidency and he did not, an office he coveted.  Lincoln deftly handles Chase’s machinations and nominates him as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to remove him as a political threat.  Achorn dives into the many conspiracies and rumors designed to unsettle Lincoln and his advisors and its impact on the city from the start.

Whitman at about fifty

(Walt Whitman)

It seems Achorn leaves no aspect of this short period in our history unturned.  He describes the atmosphere in the streets, the mud that people had to deal with, and even a discourse on the proliferation of prostitution in the city describing “Hooker’s Division” as the ladies of the night and soldiers who served in General Joseph Hooker’s army.  The discussion of the role of Frederick Douglass is important as it reflects his disappointment in Lincoln who he refers to as the “white man’s president.  John Wilkes Booth political views and attitude toward race are explored as is a plot to kidnap Lincoln.

Achorn possesses a fluid writing style and the ability to focus on the character traits of the figures he speaks about and is able to create a word picture in the reader’s mind of those under discussion.  His description of the poet Walt Whitman who became a special New York Times correspondent for the inauguration is wonderful, as he is seen as a “the big hairy, rambunctious buffalo of a man” as a case in point as is Alexander Gardner, a photographer who eventually took over Matthew Brady’s Washington office who “looked solid, boxy, unblinking as his machine.”  Gardner had created a sensation with his pictures from the Antietam battlefield and took the last photo of Lincoln with his enigmatic smile for posterity.  Lastly, the description of Lincoln , so reported by a British journalist as a man with “long bony arms and legs, which somehow, seem to always be in the way” and “nose and ears which have been taken by mistake from a head of twice the size,” is entertaining but also inciteful to how these figures were perceived by contemporaries.

Frederick Douglass

Achorn provides a series of mini biographies embedded in the narrative.  Portraits of Frederick Douglass, Samuel P. Chase, Stephen Douglas, William Henry Seward, General William T. Sherman, and Mary Todd Lincoln are among a number of historical figures that are examined that provide insight into their politics and beliefs.  All are significant and pursue actions that are historically significant, though some more than others.

Perhaps Achorn’s best chapter revolves around Lincoln’s political style and his evolution as a wordsmith pointing out that his folksy way of communicating brought disdain from certain segments of society, newspaper reporters, and politicians.  Achorn is correct as he points out that over time Lincoln’s speeches developed a plain-speaking succinct style people, including those just listed and literary types grew to appreciate as the president’s words impacted the general public in such a positive fashion.

Abraham Lincoln, portrait photograph, Alexander Gardner, 1863 Stock Photo

(Photo by Alexander Gardner)

Apart from these portraits Achorn allows the reader to gain a feel for what Washington, DC was like in March 1865.  At times, the narrative reads like a travelogue that can be somewhat overwhelming as the author seems to describe each social event, the amount of mud in the streets, the lack of city infrastructure, and the availability of housing.  Diverse groups of people who are attending are described in detail, in addition to the racial implications of the city’s composition.

If you are looking for a good synopsis of events surrounding Lincoln’s second inauguration and an analysis of the last days of the Civil War, Achorn’s effort should prove satisfying despite the fact that Achorn seems to drag out his story of a twenty-four hour period over the entire book, often pursuing digressions and flashbacks.    Just be aware if you are looking for a book that is an intellectual analysis of the speech akin to Gary Wills’ LINCOLN AT GETTYSBURG, you will be disappointed.

Transcript of President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (1865)

Fellow Countrymen

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the enerergies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil-war. All dreaded it — all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war — seeking to dissole the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern half part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said f[our] three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”

A scene in front of the East front of the U.S. Capitol is seen during President Abraham Lincoln's second inauguration, 1865, just six weeks before his assassination.  (AP Photo/File)

(Lincoln’s Second Inauguration Address)

LINCOLN ON THE VERGE: THIRTEEN DAYS TO WASHINGTON by Ted Widmer

The French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville described America as enduring a “quadrennial crisis” every four years as it held its presidential elections.  The 1860 election was an exception because the artificial passions that were easily stoked reached unheard of levels.  de Tocqueville remarked that “a self-absorbed president, catering to the ‘worst caprices’ of his supporters, could easily distract their attention from plodding matters of governance, and whip their enthusiasm into a frenzy, especially if he divided his supporters and his critics into hostile camps.”  He spoke of “feverish obsessions” and warned “the potential for lasting damage was always lurking.” As the ominous warnings came to fruition in the Civil War in 1861, today we stand on another ominous precipice as the 2020 election approaches.  de Tocqueville’s view of America is as plausible today as it was in the 19th century as even a pandemic and how to deal with it has strong partisan overtones and we find that people are storming the offices of governors with AR-15 weapons.  With the current state of our politics in the background it is useful to examine the pre-inaugural period that witnessed Abraham Lincoln’s journey from Springfield, IL to Washington, D.C. after the election of 1860 wonderfully presented in Ted Widmer’s new book, LINCOLN ON THE VERGE: THIRTEEN DAYS TO WASHINGTON.

Lincoln’s Whistle-Stop Trip to Washington

On the way to his inauguration, President-elect Lincoln met many of his supporters and narrowly avoided an assassination attempt

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One might ask why do we need another book about Abraham Lincoln, but to Widmer’s credit he has unearthed a great deal in his research and by focusing on Lincoln’s thirteen day odyssey he does so in a manner that other authors should envy as his narrative is like a flower that has  buds leading to numerous diversions for Widmer to relate to other aspects of American history.  In a recent CBS television interview Widmer as he does in his book argued that Lincoln’s election was the key to reaffirm the democratic process in America and its continuation as the core of our government.  Widmer argues further that the United States was the democratic model for the world and if it did not preserve its democratic principles the rest of the world would not have developed as it did, particularly in the 20th century and who knows how events would have transpired.  Widmer develops other important themes that in a general way are very pertinent.  The south had enjoyed an idyllic existence with a free labor system as the basis of its plantation economy or “cotton kingdom.”  It did not develop the industrial infrastructure as the north and would soon feel threatened not only by its fear of the emancipation of slaves, but by the growth of the west as evidenced by the new census, which if admitted to the union as free states would result in the loss of its control of Congress.  The north’s industrial development particularly the expansion of the railroads was the main threat.  The railroads provided the transportation network that was making the steamboat almost obsolete and provided the vehicle for the demographic explosion west of the Mississippi to the west coast.

Widmer makes a number of salient points that reflect southern anxiety.  For the first sixty-one years of the Republic slaveholders held the presidency.  For forty-one of those years a slaveholder was Speaker of the House.  For fifty-two years the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee was a slaveholder.  Eighteen out of thirty-one members of the Supreme Court were southerners, despite the fact that 80% of cases that reached the court originated in the north.  Lastly, most military officers and Attorney-Generals hailed from the south – no wonder the economic, political, and social changes that were evolving in the 1850s produced so much anxiety below the Mason-Dixon line.

Dorothea Dix (1802-1887) Stock Photo

(Dorothea Dix)

Widmer writes with exceptional verve and excitement as he describes Lincoln’s journey to assume the presidency.  A journey that had been preceded by Lincoln’s strategy of silence during the campaign which now would be drastically altered.  Widmer has the ability to focus on his main task, how Lincoln avoided violence and a possible assassination as he passed through eight states.  But, at the same time he fills in the background history of a particular whistle stop and its relationship to Lincoln’s life and career.  A case in point is Lincoln’s arrival in Cincinnati, known as the “Queen City,” as well as “Porkopolis” because of its pork industry (which would give rise to Proctor and Gamble in the 1840s!) which Widmer argues was a key to Lincoln assuming the presidency and the North’s ultimate victory in the Civil War. Sitting across on the other side of the Ohio River sat Kentucky with its myriad of political interests making Cincinnati influential in formulating the attitudes of many Kentuckians.  Being a border state Lincoln feared that if Kentucky seceded, they would soon be followed by Maryland and Missouri which immediately would have threated the capitol and Lincoln’s assumption of the presidency.

Even before Lincoln left Springfield to travel to Washington rumors and conspiracy theories abounded.  Lincoln received numerous threats on his life as he was seen by the south as the embodiment of evil and the ultimate threat to their way of life.  As Lincoln traveled toward Washington his friends and cohorts wondered how they could protect him.  Thanks to the early warnings of Dorothea Dix who had traveled through the south during the secessionist craze learning of a number of conspiracy theories concerning a possible southern seizure of Washington and the depth of hatred for Lincoln in Maryland.   She informed Samuel Felton, the President of the Philadelphia, Wilmington, and Baltimore Railroad of the possible coup who then contacted General Winfield Scott, and Alan Pinkerton who would deploy eight detectives, among of which was Kate Warne.  Warne brilliantly acted the part of a recently arrived Alabaman, which produced a large amount of gossip from southern women, she would also frequent southern saloons trawling for information.  This led to a treasure trove of information for Pinkerton’s spies and created an undercurrent of gloom as Lincoln’s odyssey made its way toward the nation’s capital amidst possible assassination plots to take place when Lincoln passed through Baltimore.

Widmer does a wonderful job linking Lincoln’s journey to future historical figures.  For example, the sixteen-year-old Thomas A. Edison, the sixteen-year-old  Benjamin Harrison,  William Howard Taft, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, all future presidents in addition to John D. Rockefeller all who witnessed Lincoln’s odyssey.

Photo of Allan Pinkerton

(Alan Pinkerton)

The journey was dominated by political calculations as at each whistle stop Lincoln would make a speech designed for the audience that came to see him by the thousands. Lincoln went further than any president had gone before in addressing the American people.  It appeared as if he was having direct conversations with voters and with newspaper and the telegraph, he was able to reach people across America and make a Lincoln presidency more real.  Despite Lincoln’s exhaustion he eventually came to relish the relationship he was establishing with his constituents.  Lincoln would experience many ups and down during his journey which at times was compounded by his bouts with depression highlighted by the fact he was almost certain that he left Springfield he would never return alive.

As Lincoln traveled from city, hamlet, and village he had to navigate the political minefields of each location.  None was more problematical than Albany and New York, NY which had been under democratic control for decades under the stewardship of Tammany Hall and Boss Tweed.  Lincoln’s coat takes elected a Republican governor which would only exacerbate the problem as  Fernando Wood, the unstable mayor of New York City leaned toward the south and argued for an autonomous zone for his city.  Widmer also does a fine job comparing another political minefield as he follows the odyssey of Jefferson Davis, the newly elected president of the Confederacy.  Widmer follows Davis’ sojourn from his plantation in Mississippi to the new capitol in Montgomery, AL comparing his executive actions and powers with those lacking in Lincoln who had a  ways to go in getting his administration up and running as he tried to survive and reach Washington.

Widmer deftly measures Lincoln up against other historical figures throughout the narrative.  His favorite is George Washington who had his own partisan and foreign policy travails who Lincoln studied particularly his “Farwell Address” and how he dealt with enemies within his own administration.  It seems that Widmer is able to choose a historical personage from each city that Lincoln visited and compare the future president with that individual on a personal level and the historical context of each.

Kate Warne

(Kate Warne)

Lincoln gave numerous speeches throughout his travels which were roundly critiqued at the time.  Widmer does the same but singles out his addresses in Philadelphia as perhaps his most important.  When Lincoln arrived in Philadelphia, he immediately grasped its iconic importance in American history as is evidenced by his references to the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” supposition and the work of the founders in the city.  For Lincoln, the city and its shrines were sacred, a message he put forth during each speech.  Lincoln focused on a “sincere heart” and the holiness and sacred walls of Independence Hall.  It was if he were experiencing his own “Great Awakening.”  His speeches raised the level of his bond with the union he vowed to protect as he restored the radical promise inherent in the Declaration of Independence.    As Widmer continuously reminds us, throughout his visit to “the city of brotherly love” he received numerous messages of hatred concerning plots that were unfolding in Baltimore which clouded the president-elect’s visit.

Widmer ends his superb narrative after tracing his deception that frustrated the potential assassins surrounding Baltimore by reversing Lincoln’s odyssey, this time departing Washington for Springfield in late April and early May 1865.  Widmer has written an excellent account superseding most if not all books on the topic, but also, he has completed a narrative that should join other classics written about the fallen president.

“I don’t think it’s ever been done, what we’re doing tonight, here, and I think it’s great for the American people to see,” President Trump told the Fox News interviewers on Sunday.

(Trump at Lincoln Memorial, May 3, 2020)

ALEXANDER HAMILTON: AMERICAN by Richard Brookhiser

Many of you are probably familiar with Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton which was the basis for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton.”  The book is the ultimate source for the first Secretary of the Treasury, and it is a narrative that is hard to measure up to.  However, there are a number of important biographies of Hamilton, one of which is Richard Brookhiser’s ALEXANDER HAMILTON: AMERICAN, a compact volume that covers all the important aspects of Hamilton’s life in a very analytical fashion that can serve as a wonderful introduction to its subject.

Brookhiser presents Hamilton as the nation’s accountant who was able to create the bureaucratic infrastructure that allowed the new republic to survive and fostered the basis of our current economy.  Brookhiser identifies a number of threads that run through his narrative.  First, despite his background as an immigrant throughout his life Hamilton saw himself as an American and a nationalist.  Second, Hamilton maintained his identity as a New Yorker and more importantly he brought his home state to center stage rivaling Virginia and Boston in influence.  Thirdly, was Hamilton’s fondness for the military pushing for a standing army to be used in any opposition to governmental policy which created a great deal of partisanship.  Lastly, his role as a constitutional lawyer reflected in the cases he tried and his authorship of the majority of THE FEDERALIST PAPERS.  Brookhiser argues that Hamilton may have been the most important of the founding fathers, if not the most significant, he was certainly on par with James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

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(James Madison)

The author has the uncanny ability to distill large amounts of information and presenting the most important salient details and analysis in a concise and flowing prose.  For example, his discussion of the fighting in upstate New York during the revolution and the role of General Horatio Gates or how James Madison, once an ally evolved into one of Hamilton’s most important intellectual enemies.  Brookhiser does an excellent job comparing Hamilton to other historical characters that he dealt with during his lifetime, presenting the strengths and weaknesses of his main subject in addition to the likes of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and a host of others.  Perhaps Brookhiser’s most important contribution to our knowledge of Hamilton is how he interacted with Washington and Jefferson.  Brookhiser compares the political philosophies of these figures in addition to how their philosophies conflicted.

Brookhiser devotes an entire chapter to Hamilton’s views about government, economics, and the future of the new republic.  Later, Hamilton was seen as a monarchist who admired the British system of government as well as their economic system particularly the role of the Bank of England.  In many instances Hamilton sought to replicate the best of what the British had to offer, a strong executive, and a three-year elective assembly that was similar to the eventual House of Representatives.  It is obvious from the narrative that the author admires his subject, but he does not shy away from certain blemishes in dealing with Hamilton’s character, for example his affair with Maria Reynolds and though he was blackmailed by her husband James he continued the affair before going public with what he had done.  In discussing Hamilton’s behavior in this episode and others, at times Brookhiser engages in pop psychology which is not a strength of the book.  A clear example is when he writes in reference to the Reynolds Affair that “some of Hamilton’s wrath at Jefferson and his other enemies may well have been displaced anger at his own betrayal and folly.”

Brookhiser makes the interesting point that Hamilton was the least experienced of Washington’s first cabinet.  Henry Knox, the Secretary of War had been a general during the Revolution, Thomas Jefferson, the Secretary of State had been ambassador to France, and Hamilton served on Washington’s staff as an aide during the Revolution and was a prolific writer.  The key was that Washington could be his own Secretary of War and State because of his vast experience in those areas, but he did not have the economic background to function without his Secretary of the Treasury.

Brookhiser dissects the Hamilton-Jefferson relationship and reaches the conclusion that members of Jefferson’s entourage believed that Hamilton did not have the right “to instruct the founding fathers, to ignore their fears, and to redesign their institutions” as he proceeded to develop an economic and political system that sought to mirror England and overturn their idyllic southern squire lifestyle.  The competition with Jefferson is fascinating as Brookhiser dives into the election of 1800 when Hamilton did all he could to elect his foe because of his fear of Aaron Burr.

3rd Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr

(Aaron Burr)

Some might argue that Brookhiser’s work is a bit esoteric as he includes chapters on Hamilton’s writing ability, the role of passion in his contemporaries in addition to a chapter dealing with political and societal rights.  Be that as it may, the book is very effective in conveying the partisan hatred that existed during Washington’s second administration.  Brookhiser delves into the debates dealing with the French Revolution and America’s supposed debt for what the French had done during the American Revolution.  The character study of Aaron Burr is dead on as well as how Hamilton approached his family.  Overall, Brookhiser provides a valuable, incisive portrait of Hamilton’s character as well as his impact on America’s survival.  It is a concise work that will allow the reader to digest a great deal of information if they do not want to tackle other longer works encompassing Hamilton’s life and career.

 (Library of Congress)

HITLER: A GLOBAL BIOGRAPHY by Brendan Simms

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(Adolf Hitler)

At the outset of his new biography of Adolf Hitler, Brendan Simms points out that by 2000 over 120,000 books and articles have been written about the Nazi dictator.  The question then must be asked, why another?  Simms states in his introduction to HITLER: A GLOBAL BIOGRAPHY that conjecture concerning Hitler’s motivations that resulted in his rise to power, reorienting Germany toward Nazi domestic and foreign policy, and his ultimate defeat that have been examined since the 1950s by the likes of Alan Bullock, Joachim Fest, Ian Kershaw, and more recently by Volker Ulrich and Peter Longerich and others needs to be reexamined.  Simms seeks to build on the works of others, integrating many of their viewpoints as he puts forth his own revisionist interpretation of his subject in the tradition of A.J.P. Taylor.

Simms is a political scientist and professor of international relations and his newest book is his first attempt at biography and though it is a comprehensive look at Hitler from World War One onward it does lack coverage and interpretation of his life before that period.  What Simms is concerned with are three interrelated new claims.  First, Hitler was primarily obsessed throughout his career with Anglo-American and global capitalism, not the Soviet Union and Bolshevism.  Second, Hitler held a negative view of the German people arguing that even when purged of Jews and other “Untermenschen” he reflected a sense of inferiority in comparing the “volk” with “Anglo-Saxons.”  Thirdly, historians have focused too much on Hitler’s negative view of eugenics regarding the Jews and other undesirables and not enough on what he saw as positive eugenics, which was designed to elevate the German people to that of his British and American rivals.  According to Simms, historians “have missed the extent to which Hitler was locked in a worldwide struggle not just against “world Jewry” but with the Anglo-Saxons.”  These claims or themes are hammered home by Simms on each and every page no matter the topic he is engaged in and it comes across as quite repetitive.  The book is extremely detailed and well thought out but could have been written in a more concise manner.

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To Simms’s credit he offers a great deal for the reader and other historians to consider and analyze and ultimately question.  One of Hitler’s core beliefs according to the author is that the reason the United States developed into superpower status was because of “living space.”  America had almost an entire continent to settle and when Native-Americans got in the way they were removed.  This large area provided an enormous supply of natural resources and areas to resettle millions of immigrants who arrived from Europe in the 19th and early 20th century.  For Hitler, it was German emigrants leaving the Fatherland who arrived in the United States who were greatly responsible for the American dream.  They brought skills that were needed ranging from farming, industrial labor, and their intellect.  By leaving Germany and emigrating across the Atlantic they left a void at home and an inferior population.  During World War One, Hitler became impressed with American soldiers in large part because they were made up of a significant number of Germans.  For Hitler, it became a civil war, German emigrants fighting against Germans who remained in the Fatherland which explains as the reason Germany lost the war.  This argument is carried forth throughout the 1920s and 30s leading to and including World War Two.

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(Results of Alloied fire bombing of Dresden)

Simms provides documentary evidence of Hitler’s beliefs through speeches, private conversations, and an analysis of MEIN KAMPF and THE SECOND BOOK which Hitler authored.  Simms provides numerous examples to support his claims as Hitler constantly worried about the power of the United States and during the late 1930s he wondered what approach Franklin D. Roosevelt would take as appeasers dominated English and French foreign policy.  In developing his strategy during World War Two, Simms argues that Hitler at the outset was not concerned with race and viewed the Jews as hostages to keep the United States out of the war and it was only after Washington signed the Atlantic Charter in 1941 that Hitler decided he needed a quick victory in the east and the implementation of the Final Solution.  Hitler feared that the Charter was similar to Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points during World War I which he believed was a propaganda victory that resulted in the Germany agreeing to end the fighting.  Further, to argue that race had little impact up until 1941 in the plight of European Jewry is a bit specious at best.  All one has to do is look at Hitler’s speeches and writings to realize that race was the core of his attitude toward Jews.  The 1935 Nuremberg Laws, Hitler’s constant comparison of the treatment of Jews and black colonial soldiers, Kristallnacht, Einsatzgruppen in Russia,  and numerous other examples reflect the Hitler’s obsession with race.

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Simms’s argument that the entrance of the United States into the spelled the death knell for Jews as he no longer needed them as hostages is hard to accept.  All one has to do explore the evolution of Hitler’s views on Jews from the writing of MEIN KAMPF throughout the 1930s to the unwritten order to eradicate European Jewry surrounding the Wannsee Conference, and further events to see that argument that if the United States had not entered the war, Jews might have lived is fallacious at best.

As far as the British are concerned, Simms’s Hitler fawns over the empire, its colonial policy, and the sturdiness and bravery of its people.  Hitler repeatedly tried to make peace or ally with England throughout the 1930s, the years leading up to World War Two, and the war itself.  His strategy as is argued by many was to invade the Soviet Union as a means of pressuring London into making peace.  This is not really new, but it is interesting to explore Simms’s presentation as he has culled an enormous amount of primary and secondary materials which are part of an exceptional compendium of sources and footnotes in presenting his arguments.

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(Allied bombing of Romanian oil fields)

Simms does present all of the salient facts regarding Hitler’s life and the course of German history between World War I and II.  The author presents a detailed account of Nazi Party politics from the 1920s through the assumption of power in 1933 and beyond, Hitler’s impact on German federalism and Bavaria in particular, German culture, the removal of any threats to Hitler’s power, i.e., Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s fears of the restoration of the Habsburg Monarchy, the machinations of Nazi foreign policy using the excuse of self-determination, and many other issues.  The difference is his approach. He seems to enjoy exploring Hitler’s thought patterns and how he reached his conclusions.  A good example is how he believed England would switch sides after being defeated and support the Nazis as the Austrian Empire had done with Prussia in 1866 after the Battle of Sadowa.  Another example is how Hitler viewed the Slavs in relation to Germany, much in the same way that the United States viewed Native-Americans.  Slavs were to be moved out of the Ukraine to create Lebensraum for Hitler and provide Germany with the breadbasket of the Soviet Union as well as natural resources as the removal of Native-Americans had for Washington.

Historians seem overly concerned with watershed dates.  For Simms it is the May, 1938 crisis over Czechoslovakia as anti-appeasement factions in the British Foreign Office and in MI6, aided by Czech and German social democrat exiles triggered a crisis in order to torpedo Neville Chamberlain’s policy of conciliation toward Germany and to mobilize resistance to Hitler.  It was claimed that Hitler had mobilized German forces and was planning an imminent attack.  This was not the case as an embarrassed Hitler retreated – the result would be the Munich Crisis and the ceding of the Sudetenland in September 1938 to assuage Hitler’s ego.  As a result of the crisis Hitler began to realize that a rapprochement with England was not likely and he would rush the Czechs completely by March 1939.  Hitler did make another attempt to seek a deal with London over a “rump” Poland after the Danzig crisis and the German invasion in September 1939, but they turned him down.  According to Simms, Hitler never forgave them, and the “blitz” or Battle of Britain was a direct result as was the invasion of Russian in June 1941 as a means of showing Churchill he was isolated and should make peace, not because they were Bolshevik as many have argued.  In fact, according to Simms, Hitler held a certain admiration for Stalin for the way he ruled and how his troops fought so fiercely against the Nazis.

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(Allied liberation of Auschwitz)

As to the idea that Nazism was socialism as Simms proports one must realize Hitler’s coopting of German “big business” for rearmament was designed as a drive to war, resulting in increased profits for Krupp and Thyssen and other industrialists rather than improving working conditions and wages for workers – this is not socialism.   According to Richard J. Evans in his review in The Guardian, on September 27, 2019, a great deal of what Simms argues is untenable, and though I agree with this assessment I would not go as far as his statement that Simms’s work should be ignored by serious students of the Nazi era as it is provocative and in parts interesting.  I would say though that what Simms argues should be taken with a grain of salt, but his work should not be dismissed out of hand.

Evans review article follows as it appeared in The Guardian, September 27, 2019.

Hitler by Brendan Simms and Hitler by Peter Longerich review – problematic portraits

Was Hitler obsessed with destroying capitalism? Did he drive policy ‘even down to the smallest detail’? Two new biographies fall into different traps

Richard J Evans

 

“Hitler was a socialist,” has become a mantra for the “alt-right” in the US as it seeks to discredit Democratic politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Dinesh D’Souza’s book The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left expounded this claim at length in 2017, comparing points of the Nazi party’s 1920 programme with policies put forward by modern Democrats. So, anyone who claims to be a socialist is really a Nazi who wants to set the country on the road to totalitarianism, war and genocide. Obamacare is only the start; enslavement and death will be the end. It’s a claim that has spread through the Republican party and has been echoed by Donald Trump Jr.

Now it has found its way across the Atlantic in the form of Brendan Simms’s new book, the central argument of which is that “Hitler’s principal preoccupation throughout his career was Anglo-America and global capitalism, rather than the Soviet Union and Bolshevism”. Everything in his life can be traced back to this obsession. “Hitler wanted to establish what he considered racial unity in Germany by overcoming the capitalist order and working for the construction of a new classless society.” Throughout his career, “Hitler’s rhetoric” was “far more anti-capitalist than anti-communist”. Simms asserts “the centrality of the British Empire and the United States in the gestation of Mein Kampf”, just as he claims of Hitler’s long unpublished Second Book that “the main focus of the text was the overwhelming power of Anglo-America, and especially of the United States”.

Hitler has been the subject of a string of major biographies, from those by Alan Bullock and Joachim Fest to, most recently, Ian Kershaw and Volker Ullrich. But they have all, Simms writes, got him wrong: “The extent to which he was fighting a war against ‘international high finance’ and ‘plutocracy’ from start to finish has not been understood at all.” Now he has come along to set us all right.

There are good reasons, however, why the overwhelming consensus of historical scholarship has rejected any idea that Hitler was a socialist. Simms emphasises the violence of Nazi stormtroopers in the early 1930s against German conservatives rather than socialists and communists, but in fact the latter made up the overwhelming majority of the 200,000 or so opponents of Nazism who were thrown into concentration camps during Hitler’s first year in power. As for Mein Kampf, it was the threat of communism and socialism that dominated the political part of the text, in which Hitler expounded his belief that “the Bolshevisation of Germany … means the complete annihilation of the entire Christian-western culture”. In similar fashion the main focus of the Second Book was not the US, which is mentioned only on a handful of pages, but the need for “living-space” in eastern Europe and German claims to Italian South Tyrol.

The central planks in the socialist platform have always been the belief that capitalism oppresses the mass of the people and needs to be overthrown, or at least moderated and regulated in their interest. Simms claims that “what Hitler did very effectively” was “to nationalise German industrialists by making them instruments of his political will”. But this was not economic or financial control exercised in the interests of the people, nor did Hitler nationalise industry or the banks in any meaningful sense of the word. Rather, he set a political course for rearmament as part of his drive to war that pushed industrialists such as Thyssen and Krupp to devote ever more resources to arms production in the interests of increasing their profits. The result was heightened exploitation of the workers, as the overheating of war production forced them even before 1939 to work longer hours without extra pay. This was not socialism, whatever else it was.

Simms’s reduction of virtually all the major events in the history of the Third Reich to a product of anti-Americanism even extends to episodes such as the nationwide pogrom of the Reichskristallnacht in November 1938, when thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues were destroyed and 30,000 Jewish men put into concentration camps. Apparently this was caused by “Roosevelt’s hostility to Hitler and his defence of the Jews”. The invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 was launched in order “to strike at Britain, and to deter the United States … Barbarossa was to be a campaign of conquest and annihilation, for reasons more to do with Anglo-America than the Soviet Union itself”. Even the Holocaust, we should not be surprised to learn, was “primarily driven … by his fear of Britain and the United States”.

All this is nonsense, and indeed, Simms is forced to contradict himself by the sheer weight of the evidence against his thesis. The invasion of the Soviet Union was, he concedes, “part of a much broader ideological war against Bolshevism”: “a struggle between two world views”, as Hitler put it. He admits that Hitler “was not completely opposed to all forms of capitalism”, only “unproductive” ones: in other words Jewish-owned capital, as with, for example, department store chains – he forced Jewish owners out but did not close them down. Interviewed by the Daily Express correspondent Sefton Delmer in 1931, Hitler said: “My job is to prevent the millions of German unemployed from coming under communist influence.” He did not even mention America in outlining his foreign policy aims to the journalist.

Time and again, Simms uses rhetorical sleight of hand to underscore his claim that the US was the main focus of Hitler’s foreign policy by referring to “Anglo-America” when he is in fact just talking about Britain. He quotes a proclamation from Hitler saying on New Year’s Day 1944 that the war was being fought against the “Bolshevik-plutocratic world conspirators and their Jewish wire-pullers”; a few lines later this has become in Simms’s words a struggle against “Anglo-American imperialism”, and all mention of the Bolsheviks has disappeared. Yet Hitler was quite clear about the issue: “Everything I do is directed against Russia,” he said.

Simms claims that Hitler was engaged in “a war of annihilation against Anglo-Saxons, the Jews and their Bolshevik puppets”. But there was no war of annihilation against “Anglo-Saxons”; indeed, it was striking that when in 1944-45 the camps were emptied as the Red Army advanced, British, American and French prisoners were relatively well treated, while the evacuation of Slavs and the few remaining Jews turned into death marches in which tens of thousands were murdered.

The military conduct of the war in Simms’s view was also directed against the US: even “the drive on Stalingrad, like the entire war, was primarily driven by the contest against Anglo-America”. But contrary to Simms’s denial of the fact, Stalingrad held a special significance for Hitler because of its name. Pursuing his claim to the centrality of “Anglo-America” in the Nazi war effort, Simms declares that the capitulation of axis forces in Tunisia in May 1943 “was a much greater disaster than Stalingrad, with well in excess of 130,000 Wehrmacht personnel taken prisoner, many more than had entered captivity” at Stalingrad. But these are phoney statistics. In fact, about the same number of German and allied troops were captured on both occasions (around 235,000). The real difference was in the numbers killed – some 50,000 or so in Tunisia, anything up to 750,000, more than 10 times as many, at Stalingrad. It was north Africa that was the sideshow, not Stalingrad, the effects of which on the strategy and morale of the Germans were shattering.

Hitler’s genocidal antisemitism was based on the paranoid belief that Jews were racially pre-programmed to engage in subversion and conspiracy, whether from the communist and socialist left or from capitalist “profiteering”. In the end, Simms hasn’t written a biography in any meaningful sense of the word, he’s written a tract that instrumentalises the past for present-day political purposes. As such, his book can be safely ignored by serious students of the Nazi era.

For a real biography by a genuine specialist on Nazi Germany, we have to turn to Peter Longerich’s book, ably translated from the German by Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe. He makes it clear that Hitler was politicised by the “Jewish-Bolshevik” revolution in Munich in 1918-19, and from early on in his career courted business in search of funds; his 1932 speech to industrialists in Düsseldorf, which Simms dismisses as unimportant, was a turning point in this respect. As for socialism, Hitler simply defined it as “love for one’s nation” and used anticapitalist rhetoric cynically in an effort to win over the working classes to his cause. Longerich dismisses the idea, currently fashionable among German historians, that Hitler created a classless “People’s Community” after he came to power, rightly stressing that social divisions and inequalities continued unabated during the Third Reich. It was communism that he was obsessed with destroying, not the US, which is mentioned only once in the book before we get to page 700.

Longerich delivers some penetrating analyses of the documentary record and takes good account of such recent publications as the diaries of Alfred Rosenberg and Joseph Goebbels. Unfortunately, however, in focusing relentlessly on Hitler himself – his politics and his decision-making – he falls into the trap of ascribing virtually everything that happened in Nazi Germany to his will, portraying him as an all-powerful dictator who drove policy “even down to the smallest detail”. This is not new, of course; it’s a reversion to the historical perspectives of the 1950s, and it’s not borne out by the evidence.

Even according to Longerich’s own narrative, Goebbels, with a very few exceptions, was the driving force in cultural policy, Hjalmar Schacht in economics (at least until 1937), Heinrich Himmler in coercion and repression, Robert Ley in the creation of the “Strength Through Joy” scheme for workers’ leisure, and so on. Given Hitler’s chaotic working habits as described by Longerich, one should not expect otherwise. And on occasions such as the formulation of the Nuremberg race laws, Hitler is described in this book as reacting to events rather than shaping them. You don’t have to go to the opposite extreme of regarding Hitler’s policies as the product of structural pressures in the regime to realise that Longerich’s bold claims for Hitler’s responsibility for everything are overdone. He claims, for example, that Hitler’s willpower kept the Germans going to the bitter end of the war, but a mass of recent research shows there were many other reasons, from fear of the Gestapo and terror of the Red Army to strong allegiance to German national identity. In the end, therefore, neither of these books comes close to supplanting the standard modern biographies by Kershaw and Ullrich.

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POISONER IN CHIEF: SIDNEY GOTTLIEB AND THE CIA SEARCH FOR MIND CONTROL by Stephen Kinzer

Sidney Gottlieb, Sept. 21, 1977.
(Sidney Gottlieb, circa 1977)

Stephen Kinzer’s latest book, POISONER IN CHIEF: SIDNEY GOTTLIEB AND THE CIA SEARCH FOR MIND CONTROL is a very troubling and disconcerting book.  The fact that the United States government sanctioned a program designed to conduct what the author terms, “brain warfare” highlights a policy that allowed for torture, the use of chemicals to develop control of people’s thoughts, murder, and the disintegration of people and their quality of life making one want to question what these bureaucrats, the military, and the intelligence community as well as the president were thinking.  Those who are familiar with Kinzer’s previous works, THE BROTHERS,  a duel biography of the John Foster and Allen W. Dulles; ALL THE SHAH’S MEN, which describes the errors of American policy toward Iran and the overthrow of the Shah; BITTER FRUIT, an analysis of the CIA coup in Guatemala in 1954;  OVERTHROW, a history of CIA coups including Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, among the author’s nine books will recognize his fluid writing style, impeccable research, and pointed analysis.  In his current effort all of these qualities are readily apparent and apart from a certain amount of disgust by what they are reading you will find the book an exceptional expose.

Kinzer’s deep dive into the lethal and unscrupulous world of “brain warfare” must be seen in the context of time period that he discusses.  The United States found itself in the midst of the developing Cold War with the Soviet Union with intelligence focusing on Russian research into mind control.  With Soviet aggressiveness in Eastern Europe and beyond, the rise of Communist China, the Korean War, and the domestic ramifications of McCarthyism the mindset of the American military, intelligence organizations, and politicians were open to anything that could keen up and surpass the Communist bloc in any area that was deemed a threat to American national security.

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(Allen W. Dulles)

The story originates with World War II with German and Japanese scientists researching how people’s thoughts could be controlled and how chemical and biological weapons could be employed against civilians and soldiers.  At the outset the book focuses on how the American government handled enemy scientists following the war, particularly “Operation Paperclip,” a program to integrate captured scientists and flip them to provide their expertise and research for the United States – see Anne Jacobsen’s OPERATION PAPERCLIP and books by Ben Macintyre for a detailed description.  Many of the scientists were guilty of crimes against humanity during the war, but that did not stop what policy makers believed to be a matter of extreme importance.

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(Richard Helms)

Once Kinzer provides the origins of the programs developed he delves into the life of Sidney Gottlieb, a rather ordinary individual from the Bronx whose interest growing up included biology and chemistry which eventually led to a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin  where he would meet Ira Baldwin who would recruit him and become his boss which eventually placed Gottlieb in charge of America’s mind control program beginning with research into the application of mind altering drugs including LSD, and the title, “Poisoner-in-Chief.”

Kinzer finds Gottlieb to be a free spirit who cultivated spirituality and wanted to be close to nature as he chose a personal voyage that was remarkably unconventional.  At work he did the same; “rejecting the limits that circumscribed more conventional minds and daring to follow his endlessly fertile imagination.  This approach allowed him to conduct research into numerous areas all designed to see if a person’s thoughts and behavior could be reoriented in a way that would benefit American national security.  Kinzer will build his narrative  block upon block of the infrastructure that the CIA created to conduct its brain research.  Beginning with Operation Bluebird in 1951, which was designed to be a broad and comprehensive, involving domestic and overseas activity including “safe houses” all over the world to conduct experiments. Later the program was renamed Artichoke which would take it to the next level, and finally MK-ULTRA which would harness chemicals, biological agents, assassination, torture, and sensory deprivation in order to carry out the mission.

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(Frank Olson)

Kinzer describes in detail the scientists and doctors involved, with particular focus on Gottlieb; the roles of CIA head Allen W. Dulles and his second in command, Richard Helms; the experiments themselves conducted with “expendables” who were likely prisoners, unsuspecting foreigners and American citizens, coopted doctors and scientists,  as well as CIA employees. The impact on people’s lives is explored in detail and in the case of Frank Olson, a scientist who had an expertise in the distribution of airborne biological germs, was involved in research who began to question his role winds up jumping out of the thirteenth floor window of a New York hotel shortly after he was given a drink laced with LSD that he was unaware of.  The programs described by Kinzer are hard to fathom and the fact that no one was held accountable is even more upsetting.

Those involved in the programs believed they were all that stood in the way between their country and devastation.  Kinzer has benefited from the Freedom of Information process, numerous interviews by participants and victims, in addition to other types of research.  His conclusions are damning and if one follows the chain of command it was President Dwight D. Eisenhower who approved experiments and the program in general.  It took the failure of the Bay of Pigs to cost Allen W. Dulles his position and later the Watergate break in which linked Gottlieb’s research and inventions to bring about a degree of change and congressional investigations.

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This resulted in the end of Gottlieb’s career as President Gerald R. Ford appointed the Rockefeller Commission to investigate actions taken by the CIA outside its charter in 1974 and finally the Church Committee hearings.  The problem for investigators was that Gottlieb had destroyed a great deal of the evidence of CIA murders, plots, and research and the 1950s and 60s.  Further, President Ford did not want too much information to enter the public realm as the Rockefeller Commission result was not as damning as it could have been.  In the end Gottlieb  would testify anonymously before Congress, but with a “grant of immunity” which protected him from prosecution.  It is interesting that by the early 1960s after years of relentless MK-ULTRA experiments Gottlieb reached the conclusion that there was no way to take control of another’s mind.

The author introduces a number of interesting and important characters into his narrative.  The saga of Frank Olson is important as it took years for the truth about his death to emerge.  George Hunter White a sadistic narcotics officer who opened a “national security whorehouse” to carry out his activities.  Dr. Carl Pfeiffer of Emory University, one of a number of psychiatrists who worked with the CIA.  John Mulholland, a magician who would write THE OFFICIAL CIA MANUAL OF TRICKERY AND DECEPTION.  Dr. Ewen Cameron of McGill University who conducted experiments at the Allen Memorial Institute in Montreal.   Whitey Bulger, the Boston mobster was a victim of one of Pfeiffer’s drug experiments.  Dr. Harold Abramson, a New York allergist who shared almost total knowledge of MK-ULTRA with Gottlieb.  John Marks, the author of THE SEARCH FOR THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE.  The work of these individuals and others was very impactful for Gottlieb’s work, but in the end,  it will be for naught.

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(Sidney Gottlieb)

Kinzer’s research brings out a number of fascinating tidbits.  First, Gottlieb developed the cyanide capsule that Francis Gary Powers was supposed to use when his U-2 plane was shot down over Russia.  Two, Gottlieb delivered and developed the poison the CIA was to use to assassinate Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1960.  Third, Gottlieb helped develop poisons designed to kill Fidel Castro.  Lastly, the drug that Gottlieb and his associates hoped would allow them to control humanity had the opposite effect.  The LSD experiments and their results would fuel a generational revolt unlike any in American history as they were popularized by the likes of Ken Kesey, the author of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOS NEST, the poet Allen Ginsberg, and Harvard professor Timothy Leary.

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Kinzer’s description and summary of results pertaining to “brainwashing” experimentation and implementation brings to the fore the paranoia of the 1950s and 60s.  It is an important book as it shows how the government can engage in processes that violate the civil rights of Americans as well as foreigners on their own soil, in addition to the numerous deaths that took place.  It remains astounding that Gottlieb’s successors would resort to other types of illegal activities like waterboarding in addition to other techniques from an earlier period, again in the name of national security.  Detention centers and CIA “black sites” for rendition of prisoners, the Phoenix Program in Vietnam,  Guantanamo Bay etc. are all legacies of Gottlieb’s work.  Kinzer takes the reader to some very interesting places both inside and outside the human psych with Sidney Gottlieb as our guide, but in the end his contribution to our knowledge of the period is greatly enhanced and it makes for an amazing read.

Sidney Gottlieb, Sept. 21, 1977.
(Sidney Gottlieb, 1977)

SCHLESINGER: THE IMPERIAL HISTORIAN by Richard Aldous

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(President John F. Kennedy and Arthur M. Schlesinger)

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary a “gadfly” is a person who stimulates or annoys other people especially by persistent criticism.”  According to Richard Aldous, in his new biography, SCHLESINGER: THE IMPERIAL HISTORIAN, the definition fits Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s role as Special Assistant to the President during the Kennedy administration.  Aldous’ work is the first full-length biography of Schlesinger and he successfully grapples with a number of questions as his narrative unfolds.  First, was Schlesinger a great and important historian, a model of how academics and public service can mix?  Second,  was he a popularizer and court historian held captive to the establishment that nurtured his career?  After reading Aldous’ monograph there is no conclusive answer and elements of each question make up Schlesinger’s academic career at Harvard, as well as a speech writer and advisor to President Kennedy.  However, Aldous ably balances his subject’s talent as a writer of historical monographs and speeches with a clear acknowledgement of his shortcomings as a political analyst and aide.

My interest in Schlesinger dates back to a debate between Schlesinger and William F. Buckley, the editor of the National Review and the preeminent voice of conservatism during his lifetime.  I was a college senior and witnessed their give and take as I watched how Buckley goaded Schlesinger as the spokesperson for a liberal internationalist foreign policy as well as social engineering.  My memory points to an academic who had difficulty keeping up with Buckley and the scenes described by Aldous in the book provides further evidence as to how Buckley would get under Schlesinger’s skin.

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(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr.)

Aldous’ work describes a young man who was guided by his father, Arthur M. Schlesinger, a Harvard professor and distinguished historian.  Along with his father, Harvard connections would guide Schlesinger through the world of academia as well as other aspects of his life, for example, his work with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) at the end of the war.  When Schlesinger felt uncomfortable in a position, his Harvard connections and relationships would ease him into a more favorable position.  Aldous explores the evolution of Schlesinger’s intellectual and ideological development very carefully honing in on the influence of his father, his attachment to Adlai Stevenson who twice ran unsuccessfully for president, a diverse group of Harvard academics like John Kenneth Galbraith and others, and the lessons learned as he tried to navigate his role in the Kennedy administration where he was seen as part of the liberal establishment in what was really a conservative leaning presidency.

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(Kennedy speech writer, Theodore Sorenson)

From the outset we see the young Schlesinger using his father as a role model.  Once he made the decision to attend Harvard and use “Jr.” as part of his legal name he was inevitably seem as “the sorcerer’s apprentice” in relation to his father.  Schlesinger would achieve early academic success with the publication of ORESTES BROWNSON: A PILGRIMS PROGRESS a book about  a convert who attempted unsuccessfully to liberalize and Americanize the Catholic Church. But the work that placed him on the academic ladder was his AGE OF JACKSON published in 1945 which moved away from Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” by emphasizing the national character of the western frontier that included urban workers, small farmers, and intellectuals in the Northeast.  Schlesinger would present Jacksonianism as a forerunner of the Progressive Era and the New Deal in attempting to restrain the power of the business community.

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Aldous’ work is in part an intellectual history as he follows the thesis of a number of important historians who came to the fore in the 1930s who impacted Schlesinger’s work.  At the end of World War II, Schlesinger’s academic bonafede’s would be enhanced with the completion of his seminal work THE VITAL CENTER which defends liberal democracy and a state-regulated market economy against the totalitarianism of communism and fascism.   As Schlesinger has written, “it is the very process of democracy itself, not perfect ends, which forms the bulwark against totalitarianism.”  The book that Schlesinger is most noted for is his chronicle of the Kennedy administration, A THOUSAND DAYS which earned him the nickname as the “court historian” for the abbreviated presidency.  As Aldous points out the book was to be a “legacy project” for Jacqueline Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and the book that resulted, completed a year after the assassination, “endures as a masterly portrait of a man that its author believed had been the perfect leader for a nation in the nuclear age and the zenith of its prosperity and global sway.”*

Aldous has prepared a thoroughly researched work with many insights into Schlesinger’s personal life, academic career, and public role. He introduces numerous stories and individuals that enhance the narrative. His competition with Theodore Sorenson during the Kennedy administration is a case in point as the two men vied for the primary role as the president’s speech writer.  Sorenson emerges as somewhat of a control freak who resented Schlesinger and did his best to make him as irrelevant as possible.  Another prominent individual that Schlesinger held in low opinion was Secretary of State Dean Rusk who he viewed as weak, lacking a backbone in debating issues and formulating policy. The publication of the first three volumes of the AGE OF ROOSEVELT which was supposed to run five volumes is a turning point for Schlesinger as he crystalized the war between liberalism and business-dominated conservatism, and ultimately the collapse of faith in business led to the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt.  Aldous effectively dissects the published three volumes which were all published by 1957.

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During that time Schlesinger worked to elect Adlai Stevenson as president as one of his major speech writers and advisors.  The relationship between the two men occupies a great deal of the narrative as the Kennedy people eventually saw Stevenson as weak and too liberal.  In fact, Aldous points out that Schlesinger was tasked to control Stevenson’s high moral tone during the Cuban Missile Crisis and make sure he was strong enough against the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council.  Schlesinger’s main problem in the Kennedy administration was his links to Stevenson’s presidential runs and the fact that conservatives within the administration saw him as a liberal in the mold of the eastern establishment.  Despite this, Schlesinger developed a good personal and working relationship with Kennedy even though he believed there were too many conservatives and Republicans in the administration.  He did have a great deal of access to Kennedy as the president enjoyed their discussions of history and ideas and wanted to be remembered as a great president and therefore, he thought it was wise to have in attendance a great historian as he saw Schlesinger as having a keen mind who drew parallels between events of the day and past historical events and figures.

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During the Kennedy administration Schlesinger fulfilled his role as a gadfly.  As a Special Assistant to the President he had no specific role and tended to delve into areas of interest as well as those assigned to him.  His views on the planning and outcome of the Bay of Pigs fiasco were dead on and Kennedy would ask him to analyze how the CIA and decision-making in general could be reformed or improved.  During the Berlin Crisis he advocated giving Khrushchev an out as not to humiliate him and possibly cause a war. He was involved in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty debate but was kept to the side except for his role as “keeper of the UN Ambassador” during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Schlesinger had limited interest in Southeast Asia and opted out on the issue of Vietnam which are an indication of the limitations of his role as special advisor without any particular portfolio.  If there is a weakness in Aldous coverage is his short shrift in discussing the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and the legislation that emanated from the Kennedy administration and other domestic issues that Schlesinger prepared speeches for.  But overall, Schlesinger’s role in the administration was impactful and somewhat influential, despite the fact it took him a long time to learn how to navigate the positives and pitfalls of a public career.

It is unfortunate that Aldous rushes through Schlesinger’s last four decades, devoting little space to works such as THE IMPERIAL PRESIDENCY, CYCLES IN AMERICAN HISTORY, THE DISUNITING OF AMERICA and his biography of Robert Kennedy.  In doing so “he misses the opportunity to examine how Schlesinger’s gradual loss of intellectual influence mirrored the crisis of American liberalism itself.”*  Despite this shortcoming, Aldous has written the preeminent biography of a fascinating career.

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(Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. and President John F. Kennedy)

*Michael Kazin, “A Liberal Historian’s Imprint on Mid-Century America,” New York Times, November 2, 2017.