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

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

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

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

Vladimir Putin news:
(Vladimir Putin, age 8)

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

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

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

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

Putin old and young

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

putin-FE03-main
(Judo training)

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

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

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

Vladimir Putin pictures over the years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July caused global shortages

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

SAVING FREUD: THE RESCUERS WHO BROUGHT HIM TO FREEDOM by Andrew Nagorski

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

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

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

(Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna)

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

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

Ernest Jones Photo
(Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones)

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

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

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

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

William C. Bullitt
(William C. Bullit)

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

(Dr. Max Schur)

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

Sigmund Freud
(Sigmund Freud)

PUTIN: HIS LIFE AND TIMES by Philip Short

RUSSIA-POLITICS-SPORT-OLY-PUTIN
(Russian President Vladimir Putin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

семья
(The Putins)

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

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

putin sobchak
(Anatoly Subchak and Putin)

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

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

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

apho via Getty Images)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RU-BUSH
(George W. Bush and Putin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin — Stock Photo, Image

RICKEY: THE LIFE AND LEGEND OF AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL by Howard Bryant

rickey-henderson-getty3.jpg
(Rickey Henderson after he broke Lou Brock’s alltime base stealing record)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oakland Athletics
(Mike Norris)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LINCOLN AND THE FIGHT FOR PEACE AND FREEDOM by John Avlon

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

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

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

Ulysses S. Grant
(Ulysses S. Grant)

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

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

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(Tad Lincoln)

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

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

Frederick Douglass
(Frederick Douglass)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HERO OF TWO WORLDS: THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE IN THE AGES OF REVOLUTION by Mike Duncan

Portrait of Marquis de Lafayette
(Marquis de Lafayette)

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

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

Louis XVI
(French King Louis XVI)

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

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

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

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

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

Napoleon
(Napoleon Bonaparte)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lafayette : stock illustration
(Marquis de Lafayette)

THE AMBASSADOR: JOSEPH P. KENNEDY AT THE COURT OF ST. JAMES, 1938-1940 by Susan Ronald

Portrait Of The Kennedy Family At Home
(The Kennedys)

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

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

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

john f kennedy father jfk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE BOMER MAFIA: A DREAM, A TEMPTATION, AND THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR by Malcom Gladwell


Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(Colonel Curtis LeMay officially congratulates a bomber crew of the 306th Bomb Group in front of their B-17 Flying Fortress at Chelveston Airfield, England, June 2, 1943)

For the last few years, the historiography of allied bombing during World War II has undergone much greater scrutiny.  The death and destruction of civilians and their property has been labeled as unethical and immoral as cities such as Hamburg, Dresden, Tokyo and of course German bombing of allied cities experienced a level of violence that was unprecedented when compared to the pre-World War II era.  The role of technology in the process cannot be downplayed without which the carnage of war would not have reached the levels it did.  Malcom Gladwell, the spirited writer for The New Yorker normally explores the realm of social psychology, but in his latest work, THE BOMBER MAFIA: A DREAM, A TEMPTATION, AND THE LONGEST NIGHT OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR he turns his focus on to a group known as the “Bomber Mafia” that argued for a new type of bombing during wartime.   The group was made up of generals who went against the standard view of warfare put forth by the U.S. Army and Navy and broke away from the ideology of the Army Air Corps and set up the Army Air Corps Tactical School at Maxwell Field in Montgomery, Alabama.  Gladwell’s focus is on four generals particularly the much maligned Air Force General Curtis LeMay who led and designed American air power that culminated in the firebombing destruction of German and Japanese cities.

Gladwell creates the juxtaposition of Air Force General Haywood Hansell who tried to win the war in the Pacific Theater through precision bombing of Japan.  According to Gladwell this strategy was unsuccessful and gave way to LeMay’s approach whose goal was to win the war against Japan as soon as possible by saturating Tokyo with napalm bombs which would result in the death of over 100,000 people in just a few hours and went on to firebomb other Japanese cities killing thousands of civilians that held no strategic value.  Gladwell concludes that LeMay’s approach followed by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the war and set the United States and Japan on the road to peace and prosperity much quicker than  had Washington pursued a more conventional approach to warfare into 1946 that would have killed millions of Japanese civilians and who knows how many American soldiers.

Firebombing Tokyo coffee or die
(The devastatiopon suffered by Tokyo March 9, 1945)

Gladwell’s work can be considered anti-revisionist or the new revisionism as without mentioning the likes of Gar Alperovitz’s ATOMIC DIPLOMACY, he purports that the United States pursued their strategy to end the war quickly and was not sending a message that would spark the Cold War.  Gladwell’s fascination with “bombing” during World War II stems from his childhood in London where his father recounted the horrors brought on by the German Luftwaffe over the English capitol and other cities.  As Gladwell mines his topic, he includes portraits of the most important characters involved.  Men like General Haywood Hansell; General Lauris Norstad who fired Hansell; General Curtis Le May; General Ira Eaker, the head of the 8th Air Force bombers stationed in England;  Frederick Lindemann, a friend of Churchill who helped alter the British Prime Minister’s view of strategic bombing; RAF Marshall Arthur Harris, who doggedly opposed the new American approach to bombing; Louis Fieser, a Harvard chemistry professor, who is credited with developing a Dupont chemical along with E.B. Hershberg and created an incendiary gel known as napalm; and perhaps the most important person in the process, Carl L. Norden, the inventor of the “bombsight” that allowed true precision bombing are all explored among a number of others.  Gladwell is correct when he argues that the firing of Hansell in Guam on January 6, 1945 set the United States on a strategic road that still reverberates today.

Gladwell states his goal in writing the book was to present what led up to the firing of Hansell, what changes were made, and how the shift in US strategy had implications for the war itself and the future conduct of warfare.  For Gladwell, “THE BOMBER MAFIA is a case study in how dreams go awry.”  A strategy designed to save lives during wartime in the end did not result in the goals set out by this group of Air Force Generals.   Instead, a Dutch genius and his home made computer who developed the 55 pound bombsight; a “band of brothers” in Alabama; a British psychopath; and pyromaniacal chemists in basement labs at Harvard were responsible for the creation of a weapon that still affects us on a daily basis.

Gladwell begins by explaining how difficult it is to successfully hit a target on the ground from thousands of feet in the air.  The key to solving this conundrum was the work of Carl Norden who began working on his bombsight in the 1920s.  After its development it would take six months to be trained on the Norden bombsight and if it were a success these powerful men thought we would no longer need to leave young men dead on the battlefield or lay waste to entire cities.  War would be made “precise and quick and almost bloodless.  Almost.”

Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(Brig. Gen. Thomas Power, right, senior officer on the March 10 attack on Tokyo by more than 300 B-29s, talks to Maj. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, second from left, 21st Bomber Command commander, and Brig. Gen. Lauris Norstad, far left, 20th Air Force Chief of Staff, after returning from the attack that burned out huge areas of the Japanese capital)

The Bomber Mafia’s mantra was “high altitude.  Daylight.  Precision bombing.”  These men had a radical mind set much different than the army and navy and passionately believed that they were pursuing a revolutionary goal.  Gladwell explores this group with deft, but not overwhelming detail and to lighten the reader a bit he provides priceless descriptions of a number of characters.  The nicknames he provides labeling Arthur Harris as “Butcher Harris,” Carl Norden as “old man dynamite,” a devoted Christian who believed he was saving lives, Haywood Hansell was called possum, and Curtis LeMay was described as “brutal” by Robert McNamara as all provide insights to the type of people that Gladwell describes.

One of the major strengths of Gladwell’s narrative is how he integrates historical experts, World War II aviators, and comments by other participants providing the reader with greater insight than most into the thinking of the major characters.  These characters would be successful in their mission to end the war early but by 1943 they had hit a wall as disagreements with the British, missions that failed to live up to expectations, and inter-service rivalries played a role.  What is interesting is that LeMay was not part of the “Bomber Mafia” circle.  He was drawn to practical challenges and doctrine left him cold.

Maj. Gen. Hansell

(Major General Haywood Hansell)

Gladwell’s digressions are entertaining but also educational as he pontificates on weather technology, cloud formations and wind over Japan, along with descriptions of certain chemicals and their strengths and weaknesses.  One of those chemicals would lead to the development of napalm a discovery that probably did more to end the war than Norden’s bombsight.  Napalm was chosen by LeMay as the key component in devastating Japan and ending the war quickly.  Once he took over the 21st Bomber Command from Hansell in January 1945 he would soon realize the difficulties that Hansell faced and the obstacles in directing precision bombing against Japanese industrial capacity on the mainland.  LeMay changed American bombing strategy by adopting a low flying approach that was the antithesis of the Bomber Mafia’s methodology.  Gladwell’s chapter “It’s All Ashes” is an incisive look at how LeMay’s personality and modus operandi would lead to the events of the night of March 9, 1945.  Gladwell describes LeMay as suppressing his own nerves and fears as he focuses on the mission that ultimately dropped 1,665 tons of napalm on Tokyo over a three hour period burning everything for sixteen square miles and the death of over 100,000 people.  LeMay’s planes would continue to wreak havoc, death, and devastation on 67 Japanese cities killing at least 500,000 or perhaps 1,000,000 people before the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  After the atomic explosions LeMay continued to bomb Japanese cities as he believed the nuclear attacks were superfluous as the hard work had already been done.  One can debate the necessity for this type of devastation, but Gladwell is correct in arguing that it was so effective that it must be given credit for shortening the war.

In summation it is clear Gladwell has written an informative and important new slant on World War II bombing and I agree with historian, Diana Preston’s conclusions in her April 23, 2021 review in the Washington Post, “Gladwell does however confront us with difficult questions: “Ask yourself — What would I have done?” he suggests at one point. In so doing he has produced a thought-provoking, accessible account of how people respond to difficult choices in difficult times. Albert Einstein once warned that “our technology has exceeded our humanity.” Gladwell suggests that, given their concern not to cross a moral line, the Bomber Mafia would have approved of modern technical innovations like the B-2 stealth bomber, capable of precision strikes on military targets while minimizing civilian casualties. Yet ingenuity and conscience always sit uneasily in warfare, and Einstein’s warning should not be forgotten.”  But in the end Gladwell is correct as high altitude precision bombing soon replaced firebombing – “Curtis LeMay won the battle.  Haywood Hansell won the war.”

Curtis LeMay coffee or die
(B29s flying over Tokyo, March 9, 1945)

THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS by David S. Brown

(Henry Adams)

What impact does one’s lineage have on the course of one’s life?  If you were born into a family where you are the great-grandson of a Founding Father, the grandson of a president, and the son of a Congressman and Minister to England one would assume you would have a great deal to live up to.  In the case of Henry Adams, an important contributor to the “Adams Dynasty” politics was not a passion as it was for those who preceded him, and he chose the path of journalism, historian, and author.  Adams lived a fascinating life based on his writing, travels, and the historical personage he was close to or came in contact with.  Adam’s journey is recounted in David S. Brown’s latest biography, THE LAST AMERICAN ARISTOCRAT: THE BRILLIANT LIFE AND IMPROBABLE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS.

Adams excelled in a number of areas.  His reputation has been formulated in large part by his autobiography, THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS where he warned Americans about unlimited immeasurable power that would be unleashed in the 20th century which won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in biography.  Adams’ other major work was his masterful HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES DURING THE ADMIMISTRATIONS OF THOMAS JEFFERSON AND JAMES MADISON, a nine volume compilation that historian Gary Wills calls “the non-fiction prose masterpiece of the 19th century in America.”  Brown’s biography captures the fullness of Adams’ remarkable life that encompassed many highs, as a political reformer, novelist, world and traveler.  It also encompassed a number of devastating lows which include a pressure packed family familiar that was familiar with depression, alcoholism, and suicide along with presenting an important window into 19th century American history.

Brown emphasizes Adams’ role as a transitional figure between colonial and modern America.  More specifically American history was moving toward “an imperial, industrial identity, one both increasingly beholden to technology and concerned with the fate of the white race. This is the context that the author believes Adams must be viewed in order to understand him.

The book itself is divided into two parts.  The first takes his life to 1885 and the suicide of his wife, Marian Hooper, called Clover.  In this section the reader is exposed to Adams’ impressions, Harvard and European education, and influences and pressure brought forth by his family resulting in the last of his generation of relations to achieve national recognition.  During this period his rural Quincy, MA background which he believed was superior to other parts of America, his bitter reaction to partisan politics, his attraction to a cosmopolitan Europe, and the development of his elitist outlook on life are all explored.  Following Clover’s death, Brown deftly examines a person who seemed to be set adrift resorting to constant travel, darkening meditations on capitalism’s quick expansion, and a propensity toward different personas, i.e., “Henry the 12th century Norman, the Tahitian prince, and the progress defying and denying conservative Christian anarchist.”  All of the masks that Adams’ personality presents point toward some quiet defiance of modernity, as all were primitive and skeptical of the coming age. 

According to Brown, this component of his personality defined his outlook and “at times threatened to distort his work, leading to caricature, doomsaying, and the uncritical elevation of those civilizations and peoples he often patronizingly regarded as anti-modern.” This aspect of his thought process opened to him an exceptionally wide range of ideas and yielded a complicated and insightful individual as any American thinker for his time period and beyond.  As Adams wrote in his autobiography, “by the unknowable, uncontrollable dynamo of industrial development; it is a world we have inherited, a cultural spirit we have yet to shake.”

(Marian (Clover) Hooper Adams on horseback, 1869)

Brown has a strong handle on the course of American history during Adams’ lifetime.  He effectively integrates important events and characters into the narrative and how they impacted Adams’ opinions, thought processes and actions.  An area that Brown spends a great deal of time is dealing with race and slavery in particular.  Brown makes the important connection between the “Lords of the Leash” and the “Lords of the Loom” as he describes the economically incestuous relationship between northern manufacturers and southern planters.  In Brown’s view Adams saw slaves/blacks as inferior to whites and held many of the same racial views of his time including men like Abraham Lincoln and William Seward.  The difference is that Adams’ views concerning ending slavery did not evolve as Lincoln and Seward’s did.  Henry held the seemingly New England Puritan view that opposed anything compromised, wicked, or wrong.  This is evident in his efforts during the Gilded Age to combat various forms of political, financial, and corporate corruption on the part of “Robber Barons” and their political cohorts.

Adams’ intellectual development was greatly influenced by the trends and political movements he observed before the Civil War.  As he evolved as a “thinker” he was exposed to events leading up to and including the ramifications of the Mexican War that led to the Compromise of 1850 and the slow progression toward war.  For Adams, the difference between north and south presented a dichotomy he found difficult.  The north represented education, free labor, piety, and industry, but he was also attracted to the south’s lack of institutional oversight, of church, state, and school, that pinched him at home in Quincy.  Despite this view of the south and a close friendship with Robert E. Lee’s son, Adams could not shake the divergent views when it came to slavery.  Throughout the pre and post-Civil War period Adams suffered from a failure to grasp the ethical struggle over slavery.  Many of his views were rather fanciful, i.e., the idea that the south would be defeated quickly, he saw Lincoln as a clumsy, rustic and too western etc.  The strength of Brown’s biography emerges as he discusses of Adams’ intellectual evolution as he went from a poor prognosticator to an eminent historian.

Adams’ education was a cacophony of differences.  Harvard for him was not a success as unfortunately he attended the Cambridge institution at a time when it was at the tail end of its older scholastic tradition.  When he graduated in 1858 Harvard was on the cusp of major curriculum changes and approaches to teaching science, economics, and politics.  Adams would travel to Germany to further his education outside the study of law that seemed to be his family’s traditional avocation.  He rejected the stringency of German university education but enjoyed traveling throughout Bismarck’s realm.  While in Europe he wrote a column for a Boston paper reflecting his love of travel particularly Italy where he was taken by the Italian movement toward unity and meeting Giuseppe Garibaldi and learning about Cavour.  While traveling Adams read Edward Gibbons’ THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE and decided the Adams family needed a historian.

Charles Francis Adams

(Charles Francis Adams)

During the Civil War his father, Charles Francis Adams gave up his congressional seat to become the US Minister to England, Henry served as his secretary.  Their role was to make sure England did not afford the south diplomatic recognition and political and economic support.  After a slow start integrating into English society, Henry was able to adapt in large part because his own snobbish approach to people fit in with the English upper class.  Henry’s elitism plays a major role in Brown’s analysis of his subjects’ behavior and the evolution of his beliefs.  Upon returning to the US after the war it appeared the Adams’s were becoming more and more irrelevant which pushed Henry to leave Quincy for Washington and position himself as a political critic.  Obviously, the key issues of the day surrounded the plight of former slaves.

Brown’s insights into Adams views of race are insightful as he stresses Adams’ refusal to accept slavery’s corrosive and all pervading impact on America.  Brown is accurate when he argues that Adams narrow outlook reduced slavery to a  “repercussion-less fact, a wicked act now mercifully ended.”  In addition, he had an inability to see congressional reconstruction as a moral struggle rather than a political blunder reflecting his indifference to race.  He opposed the 15th amendment and feared Congress was overstepping its bounds, and he totally misjudged the south’s ferocity to reclaim what they saw was stolen from them.  Adams suffered from the delusion that a virtuous people was unfairly subjugated by a combination of Yankee carpetbaggers, black congressmen, and unscrupulous scalawags.  He had gone to Washington to free Congress from corrupt corporations and lobbyists but failed to appreciate America’s racial problems as” he lacked urgency, insight, or empathy.”

Adams was content to be a political outsider.  He viewed himself as a reformer despite the fact he clung to a patrician system that was on its way out.  He did recognize his personal aristocratic expectation of achieving political power was not going to pan out and resented the new social order that deprived him of this type of success from the monied men at the top to the immigrants at the bottom.  His anti-Semitism was ever present as he tended to blame Jews for the monied interests that appeared to dominate the American economy as it developed capitalist wealth which negatively impacted the American people.  Reflecting his elitism, Adams was the type of person who believed that few men or women were his equal, however his friends loved him, but he definitely was an acquired taste.

photograph of John Hay
(John Hay)

Brown does an exceptional job detailing Adams’ career as a writer and an intellectual.  He argues that Adams’ approach is diverse.  He can be considered one of the first “muckrakers” as coined by Theodore Roosevelt as he published a series of articles dealing with corruption during the Grant administration.  His “The New York Gold Conspiracy” zeroes in on Jay Gould and James Fiske’s attempt to corner the gold market.  In this and other articles he warns that a “rising plutocracy threatened to upend the republic.  Brown focuses on Adams’ more literary projects along with the personal drama surrounding the publication of each.  Novels like ESTHER and  DEMOCRACY reflect his talent as a satirist along with many personal details particularly his spouse Clover.  His greatest triumph came as a historian as his nine volume history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations reflected not only American history from 1800 to 1817 but also it places events in the United States in the context of European politics.  Brown points to the major criticism of the work in that Adams downplayed the impact of slavery and ignored its strong presence in the northern economy and society.  Further, women are hidden in the narrative with but a few mentions like Dolly Madison and Aaron Burr’s daughter Theodosia.  Adams’ focus is a dismissal of elitism and praises the contributions of non-elites for American society.  Following this history Adams continued his literary career with MONT-SAINT MICHEL AND CHARTRES, a meditative reflection on medieval culture.

Much of Brown’s approach as a biographer is his ability to analyze Adams’ personal writings and delving into a plethora of primary documents.  Further Brown’s portraits of Adams’ friends, allies, and enemies over his lifetime creates a coherent intellectual and political history of half of the 19th century.  Brown has created a land bridge through Henry Adams’ eyes that effectively connects the 19th and 20th centuries that his readers will benefit from.  But one must remember as Brown points out that Adams suffered a number of personal tragedies from the death of his sister Louise, the suicide of his wife that is reflected in his distinctive fatalism built upon an already “defensive and satirical exterior to stiffen.”

Henry Adams’ life is a historical duality in that he thought of himself as an 18th century man and argued for decades against corruption and searched for an antidote for Anglo-Saxon materialism.  However, despite his firm belief that capitalism could ruin the United States in the coming 20th century, he did little on a personal level to disavow his own wealth which allowed him to travel the world, purchase art works and other cultural artifacts, and benefit from the fruits of his societal position.

To sum up Brown has offered  a credible account of America’s transformation during one man’s lifetime, from a Republic where the Adams name was extremely consequential, to an industrialized monolith that had left the family behind.  As historian Amy Greenberg writes “it’s a tribute to Brown’s talent as a biographer that he enables the reader to feel empathy for a man who expressed so little for anyone else.”

The Education of Henry Adams by [Henry Adams]

THE BORGIAS: THE HIDDEN HISTORY by G. J. Meyer

(Cesare Borgia)

One of the most fascinating families in history are the Borjas/Borgias; a family that produced a series of controversial characters from Pope Alexander VI, Cesare, and Lucrezia.  The story that encompasses the Spanish family that would dominate the Italian Renaissance is said to involve barbarity, rape, misinformation, political and religious machinations, and possibly incest.  The questions surrounding the family have baffled historians for centuries and it appears that much of their reputation can fall into the category of myths.  Historian, G. J. Meyer has taken on the task of unraveling these myths in his family biography, THE BORGIAS: THE HIDDEN HISTORY as he argues that the Borgia problem began in the early 16th century as Reformation propagandists depicted the papacy in less than positive terms and blamed the Borgias for every conceivable crime.  Meyer’s approach is to ask, “long neglected questions” and a refusal to accept judgements that appear to have little basis in fact, and when evidence is missing not to accept the “ugliest hypothetical explanation of a puzzling event.”  The author’s goal is clear, to try and “lift the Borgia story out of the realm of fable and turning it into history.”

The book is more than a family biography but more so a history of the Papacy focusing on the Holy See dating back to the 13th century and its development into a powerful pseudo monarchy and the opposition it wrought, i.e., the Babylonian Captivity, Avignon Papacy, Conciliar Movement, through the rise of Savonarola in the late 15th century.   Meyers main protagonist is Rodrigo Borgia as he slowly rose through the Vatican bureaucracy serving four Popes and finally assuming the Holy office as Alexander VI, and later in the narrative Cesare Borgia.  Meyer reviews the history of Renaissance Europe and the Papacy for the first quarter of the book pointing out the political dysfunction that existed in the Italian peninsula and its environs that existed before Alexander VI assumed the Papacy.  The groundwork for the corruption and power politics of the region is carefully played out focusing on Popes Callixtus III, Pius II, Paul II, Sixtus IV Innocent VIII along with the likes of the della Rovere, Orsini and Colonna families.  The use of nepotism, poisoning and other tools make the period known for its culture one of grief and blood.

Meyer does a workmanlike job of intertwining mini-history chapters in the narrative to explain certain issues and individuals in greater depth for the reader.  Chapters dealing with the evolution of the role of the College of Cardinals, the creation of the Papacy, the role of condottieri-mercenaries,  Cesare Borgia, and  the role of Portugal in the Age of Discovery are among the best.  Meyer develops a number of important themes throughout the work including the power struggle that existed between the Papacy and the College of Cardinals over limiting Papal power with the Conciliar Movement that was not that far in the rear view mirror for individuals who wanted to create their own power base.  Another important theme involves what historian Garret Mattingly refers to as “Renaissance Diplomacy” as the conduct of negotiations, warfare, and settlements is discussed in depth particularly marriage diplomacy, the ever shifting alliances that seemed to change almost on a daily basis in Italy, and the results that were fostered on the battlefield.  Particularly important is the role Rodrigo Borgia played in the unification of the Spanish monarchy under Ferdinand and Isabella, the French invasion of Italy led by a rather interesting character, Charles VIII in 1494, and how Florence, Venice, Milan, the Papal States, and Naples tried to repeatedly overturn any existing geo-strategic balance.

Pope Alexander VI
(Pope Alexander VI)

Meyer’s writing style is conducive to unraveling all of the machinations just mentioned.  He possesses a firm grasp of events and personalities and his narrative and analysis to not fall into the trap of repeating myths that have stood the test of time.  One of the areas that Meyer explores are the supposed children of Alexander VI, Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Jorge.  After delving deeply coming dynastic history, previous historical writings etc. Meyer concludes they were not Alexander’s children, but nephews and nieces.  According to Meyer their father was Alexander’s own nephew Guillen Ramon Lanzol de Borja. 

Meyer’s writing is effective as he focuses on the dynastic issues surrounding Naples which centers around Spanish, French, and other claims to the kingdom.  Meyer spends a great deal of time describing Charles VIII invasion of Italy whose main goal was the Neapolitan throne and removing Alexander VI concludes that the French monarch’s great adventure changed nothing and everything as Naples remained in possession of the House of Aragon and under the protection of Spain.  Florence remained a client of France.  Alexander was not deposed, and a council of the church was not convened.  Another strength of the narrative focuses on Friar Girolamo Savonarola who would eventually fail due to his narcissism and ego but until he did, he helped bring about the end of de Medici rule in Florence and was seen as a grave threat to Alexander VI.

lucrezia borgia
(Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia)

Meyer’s depiction of the shifting European/Italian balance of power is of major importance to the narrative as the Italian City-States, Spain, France and the Ottoman Empire all have their own agendas that affect each other either dynastically or the need for “raw power.”  The sections that deal with the Turkish threat to Italy and Europe in general are key.  Popes and monarchs called for crusades against Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II who threatened Venice, Milan and other areas of Italy and are treated carefully and enrich the story Meyer is trying to tell.

Meyer’s recapitulation of the succession to the French throne following the death Charles VIII is an important example that highlights dynastic dysfunction during the period.  It involves the assumption of the throne by Louis XII and the marriage diplomacy involving Louis XII who needed a divorce from Alexander so he could remarry and that of Cesare Borgia who had his eyes on a French princess and a group of properties who sought to exploit.  In the end Louis XII got his wish, but Cesare had to settle for a lesser woman!

(Nicolo Machiavelli)

It takes Meyer until the last fifty pages of the book to focus on Lucrezia Borgia and the rumors surrounding her reputation following her marriage annulment to Giovanni Sforza.  The rumors about her private proclivities be they sex, power, or corruption may or not be true according to Meyer which is emblematic of his approach to the many myths he tackles.  First, he states in no uncertain terms that a certain myth is false, presents arguments and material to support his view, then seems to back track and accept that it is hard to tell if the myth is false or not.  A useful example involves Alexander VI’s goal of marrying Lucrezia to the son of Duke Ercoled d’este of Ferrara.

Meyer ends his narrative by describing the final down fall of Cesare Borgia.  After spending chapters recounting how he became a dominant figure in Italian power politics and gaining substantial wealth and influence he recounts that the death of Alexander VI, his benefactor in 1503 signals the beginning of his downfall.  Once Alexander is gone it becomes a feeding frenzy by Cesare’s enemies to take back properties and states he has stolen and acquire his wealth.  He will eventually become a fugitive from his many enemies and will finally die in battle which Meyer argues was somewhat of a suicide as he realizes that he would have to spend the reminder of his life as a prisoner, particularly as Cardinal della Rovere who hated the Borgias finally assumed the Papacy as Julius II.

There is so much in the narrative in terms of dynasties and personalities the book requires a careful read and it would assist the reader if they had some knowledge of the period.  But taken as a whole is a useful effort, that is surprisingly readable, particularly for those who have watched the Showtime cable series, “The Borgias” which when compared to Meyer’s depiction does not hold a great deal of historical truth.  Meyer’s claims to have written the hidden history of the Borgias, but in reality, one must ask; has he changed much of what has been written before?

Portrait of Cesare Borgia “Le Duc Valentin” kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC, formerly thought to be after a painting by Correggio, now often attributed to Dosso Dossi, 1517-1519.:

(Cesare Borgia)