A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA by Joshua Kurlantzick

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(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)

The majority of Americans of my generation are aware of the Vietnam War that resulted in the death of 58,315 soldiers and a 153,303 wounded, with the loss of between 1.1 to 3.2 million Vietnamese.  Further, they are aware of American bombing of Cambodia and various military incursions that helped bring about Pol Pot and the “Killing Fields,” that resulted in the genocide of over 3 million Cambodians.  However, that same generation was probably not aware of the civil war that raged in Laos and the American role in that conflict that witnessed 15-20 air sorties a day against that small Southeast Asian country between 1960 and 1968, that was raised to 300 sorties a day once Richard Nixon took office, resulting in the death of over 200,000 Laotians and 700 Americans.

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By January 1961 Laos appeared to be on the precipice of falling to communism.  Bill Lair, a ten year CIA operative flew up to the central highlands to inaugurate a bold plan labeled, Operation Momentum.  The plan called for the operation and training of Hmong tribesmen, led by Vang Pao, an anti-communist officer in the Laotian army who would lead these men against the Pathet Lao who were supported by North Vietnam.  The civil war in Laos had been raging on and off since the French were vanquished by North Vietnam in 1954, and Laos was declared a neutral country by the Geneva Convention of that year.  Even though Laos was a small country the Eisenhower administration, firm believers in the domino theory, and that a pro-western state in Laos could serve as a buffer between Vietnam and Thailand, an American ally.  Further, Laos would make it easier for the US to assist South Vietnamese forces that could help bleed Hanoi’s troops as they continued to fight the Vientiane government, and lastly it would block any communist threat to India and Southwest Asia.  Joshua Kurlantzick’s new book, A GREAT PLACE TO HAVE A WAR: AMERICA IN LAOS AND THE BIRTH OF A MILITARY CIA chronicles Operation Momentum and its impact on the region and the implications for American strategy to deal with communism for decades.  In addition, it raises the specter of a CIA run war through para military operators, something that continues today.

Operation Momentum was the first secret covert run war by the CIA in American history.   Laos provided the CIA with the opportunity to increase the agency’s powers.   According to Kurlantzick, it saw the Laotian situation as an inexpensive war in terms of money and lives to create a template for proxy wars around the world as presidents looked for ways to continue the Cold War without going to Congress for funding or involving American troops.  For the CIA, after Laos, paramilitary operations would become an essential part of the agency’s mission.

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(North Vietnamese troops fighting South Vietnamese troops on Laotian territory)

Kurlantzick presents a balanced and interesting narrative as he provides the background history that led to the Laotian civil war involving the Royal Laotian Army, smaller armies of different Laotian tribes, Vang Pao’s 30,000 strong Hmong army, North Vietnamese troops, and American bombing and supplying and training of anti-communist forces.  As the narrative is developed the reader is introduced to a number of important characters.  First of which is Bill Lair, a career CIA operative who believed the key to helping the fight for democracy in Indochina was to allow the Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese to do their own fighting.  The US could assist them with equipment and training, but should not be out front and appear to replace the French as a colonial power.  Lair and his CIA cohorts were thrilled with the success of Vang Pao’s army in that they finally found an indigenous force that would take it to the communists.  Pao was a loose cannon, but Lair knew how to control him.  This relationship was successful until Washington decided to expand its operations in Laos and Vietnam under leadership of Ted Shackley who arrived as CIA Laos Station Chief in July 1966.  Lair was against an increased ground war with massive bombing as he correctly believed that it would be unsuccessful in interdicting North Vietnam’s supply efforts to South Vietnam through Laos.  The author’s presentation of Lair’s story is invaluable in understanding what transpires in Laos until he resigns from the CIA in August 1968.  Once Lair resigns no one can control Vang Pao, and his forces who pursue a reckless strategy that has grave consequences.

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(North Vietnamese troops moving supplies through Laos to South Vietnam)

Other important figures that Kurlantzick introduces are Tony Poe, a career soldier who trained and recruited Hmong tribesmen going back to 1961.  After Lair resigned he developed his own 10,000 man force made up of an amalgam of tribes who he could not hold together because tribal ethnic conflict and as a result were not an effective fighting force.  Perhaps the most important character in this drama was Ambassador William Sullivan, an American Foreign Service career officer who was Ambassador to Laos between 1964 and 1969.  Sullivan was sent to Laos to organize the war against the Pathet Lao and became the first American ambassador to run a war from his office.  Sullivan reigned in the CIA and made all operatives report to him what their plan of action was.  He would approve, and even choose targets for the war, something no ambassador had ever done before.  If someone did not comply, because of his relationships in Washington, they would be transferred out.  Once Shackley came aboard, Sullivan supported an expansion of the war and a massive increase in bombing which was further expanded once Richard Nixon entered the White House, as Nixon had his own realpolitik for Indochina involving Communist China, and the Soviet Union in achieving the withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam.

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(William Lair, CIA operative in Laos after he retired)

Kurlantzick tells a fascinating story that at times reads like fiction.  There is some repetition of information, and a few factual errors, i.e.; the Viet Minh did not sign the 1954 Geneva Accords, and according to historian Fredrik Logevall, he misstates the number of American military advisors in Vietnam at the time of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and he offers no evidence that Kennedy “repeatedly told aides he would not tolerate the loss of South Vietnam during his presidency. (Fredrik Logevall, “Laos: America’s Lesser Known Human Political Disaster in Southeast Asia,” Washington Post, February 2, 2017)

The most disturbing aspect of the war that Kurlantzick brings out has to do with the surreptitious American bombing of Laos.  According to the author by 1969 the United States had dropped more bombs on Laos than it had on Japan during World War II.  Further, by “1973, when the bombing campaign ended, America had launched 580,000 bombing runs in Laos.  A high percentage of these bombs were antipersonnel or fragmentation bombs—which exploded into hundreds of small, deadly metal pellets on impact—antipersonnel mines, and bombs that caused widespread fires.” (177)  Kurlantzick uses the massive bombing of the Plan of Jars during the summer of 1969 to highlight the devastation that resulted in the deaths and maiming of Laotian civilians.  The overall bombing campaign killed civilians in disproportionate numbers and what is even more damning was the American policy of dropping excess ordinance over Laos when they could not find targets in North Vietnam and did not want to return to Thai bases with undropped bombs.  In addition, Kurlantzick describes how Laos was used as a training site for bomber targeting and the indiscriminate dropping of bombs to be rid of them.  America’s disdain for the Laotians can also be seen in the Paris peace talks with North Vietnam as Henry Kissinger and company sacrificed its Laotian allies in order to achieve a semblance of peace with Hanoi.  By the time the Americans left Saigon, a similar withdrawal occurred in Vientiane, as by 1973 Washington had washed its hands of its former ally with devastating consequences for the tens of thousands of refugees and the poor people left behind.

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(William Sullivan, American Ambassador to Laos, and later to Iran)

Despite the fact that it appears that Operation Momentum was a failure when the Pathet Lao was victorious, the CIA saw it as an unqualified success.  The CIA argued that the operation occupied over 70,000 North Vietnamese troops who might otherwise have fought Americans.  Further, it allowed the CIA to develop its war fighting skills to the point where paramilitary operations equaled intelligence gathering as its joint mission.  The paramilitary component could be seen during the Reagan years in arming the mujahedin against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, and arming and training of the Contras to fight against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  After 9/11 paramilitary operations seem to have become the center of CIA activities.  Today these operations are involved in Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, Syria, and Pakistan.  Whether through drone attacks under the aegis of the war on terror or training and supplying weapons, Operation Momentum created the CIA template for its paramilitary wars in the 21st century.

Kurlantzick offers a well-researched narrative that helps fill the vacuum of historical monographs pertaining to the war in Laos.  Recently, we were reminded of the cost of that war when Barak Obama became the first American president to visit Laos and announced an increased funding to clean up unexploded ordnance that is still plaguing the Laotian countryside.  Kurlantzick has written an important book that fills in a number of gaps when one thinks back to the events in Southeast Asia between 1960 and 1975 which sadly younger generations seem to be ignorant of.

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(anti-communist Hmong tribe soldiers in Laos, 1961)

1956: THE WORLD IN REVOLT by Simon Hall

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(Montgomery, Alabama bus segregation, 1956)

During my forty two year teaching career my students repeatedly complained when I used the term “watershed date” in class.  There are certain dates in history that deserve that characterization, i.e.; 1648 the dividing line between the Medieval and the modern, 1789 the year of revolution and of course 1989 the collapse of the Soviet Union, among many others.  Often historians seem to come up with new dates, arguing its historical significance, and in Simon Hall’s new book 1956: THE WORLD IN REVOLT, the author chooses a year that probably qualifies as a “watershed date.”  The year 1956 witnessed a number of important events that include the Suez War, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, the Polish uprising, the Algerian Civil War, Nikita Khrushchev’s destalinization speech, the independence of Ghana, and important events in South Africa, Cuba among many others.  Trying to write a complete history of all of these events is a daunting task that for Hall, falls a little bit short.  The author makes a valiant attempt by introducing the main characters through biographical sketches and goes on to explain what has occurred and why it is important.  The problem for Hall is carrying out his theme of anti-colonialism and the rise of independence movements, while trying to effectively link them all together globally, a truly difficult task.

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(Algerian Civil War independence movement)

Today we acknowledge the sixtieth anniversary of the Suez War and the Hungarian Revolution with a number of new books appearing particularly monographs by Michael Doran and Alex von Tunzelmann, which are narrower in focus than Hall’s work.  The author teaches at the University of Leeds and has published a number of works on civil rights and the protest movements of 1960s.  Hall sees 1956 through a much wider lens in which the European powers refused to fully relinquish their imperial ambitions, the so called “people’s democracies” of eastern Europe were confronted  by further Soviet oppression, and in the United States and South Africa white supremacists tried their best to retain racial control.  The book is broken down into a series of chapters that seem to jump from one topic to another with a closing paragraph that tries to create continuity with the next chapter.  This technique is very informative from a narrative perspective, but linking the history of Rock n’ Roll to civil rights and independence movements is a bit of a stretch.  At times this technique does work as the Algerian Civil War impacted other colonial struggles in Cyprus, Ghana and other areas.

Hall devotes a great deal of time to the Suez Crisis that resulted in war at the end of October into November 1956.  His narrative is spot on but he does not add anything new to historical analysis.  His discussion of Gamal Abdul Nasser, Guy Mollet, Anthony Eden, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and David Ben-Gurion are accurate and provide insights into how the drama unfolded and was settled.  Hall relates Suez to events in Poland and Hungary as the war provided cover for the Soviets to crush descent in its satellites.  It was able to avert a military incursion of Poland through threats, and in Hungary the Soviet army crushed the revolution with tanks and infantry.  Hall introduces Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Wladislaw Gomulka, Imre Nagy, and the workers and intellectuals who stood up for their principles as best they could. These events were fostered by Khrushchev’s February 20, 1956 Speech to the Soviet Party Congress where he denounced Stalin and his “cult of personality” and argued that countries could take a different path to socialism.  The Soviets let the genie of freedom out of the bottle and throughout the Soviet bloc people began to call for greater rights.  As events in Hungary showed the forces of freedom went too far for Soviet tastes.   As Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn stated “the October Revolution created a world communist movement, the Twentieth Congress destroyed it.” (381)

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(Hungarian people demonstrating against Soviet oppression knock down statue of Joseph Stalin in Budapest)

Hall makes many astute comments in the narrative.  His discussion of the strategy employed behind the scenes during the Montgomery bus boycott and the leadership of Martin Luther King and how he relates the strategy of non-violence pursued by civil rights leaders in America and its impact on events in Africa and Asia are important.  The strategies and ideology of the white supremacists blaming calls of integration and greater civil rights for all citizens as a communist plot, just played into the hands of Soviet propaganda as it was crushing the citizens of Budapest with tanks.  Hall is perhaps at his best when discussing the origin and the course of the Algerian Civil War. His explanation of how one million European settlers living in Algeria dominated a Muslim population of over nine million reflects the basic problem.  Of these one million Europeans, about 12,000 owned most of the industry, media and fertile land in Algeria.  Hall explains the creation of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) and describes its leadership and strategy as the bloody civil war that Alistair Horne calls the “A Savage War of Peace” in his excellent study of the conflict progresses from its origin in November 1954 and would not end until 1962.

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(Nelson Mandela, imprisoned in South Africa, 1956)

Hall’s final chapter is very timely as he describes the rise of Fidel Castro and his 26 July movement.  It is especially relevant today as this morning we learned that Fidel passed away at the age of ninety.  Hall explores Fidel’s rise and how he created his movement with his brother Raul, Che Guevara and eighty Marxist guerillas, and why it was so successful, in addition to its impact in the western hemisphere and Africa.

Overall, the book is extremely well written, though it relies too often on secondary sources.  If you are looking for a general history of world events with a global perspective that seems to come together in the mid-1950s that impacts Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas for decades, then Hall’s effort might prove a satisfactory read.

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(Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, 1956)

BLOOD AND SAND: SUEZ, HUNGARY, AND EISENHOWER’S CAMPAIGN FOR PEACE by Alex von Tunzelmann

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(Map of the Suez Canal)

Last week was the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Suez Crisis as well as the Soviet invasion of Hungary.  Both events had a tremendous impact on the geo-strategic balance in the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  The Eisenhower administration was confronted by overlapping crises that brought the United States in opposition to its allies England and France at a time when it seemed to President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John F. Dulles that allied actions in Suez had provided cover for Soviet tanks to roll in to Budapest.  The interfacing of these two crises is the subject of Alex von Tunzelmann’s new book, BLOOD AND SAND: SUEZ, HUNGARY, AND EISENHOWER’S CAMPAIGN FOR PEACE.  Von Tunzelmann has a unique approach to her narrative and analysis as she chooses certain dates leading up to the crisis, from October 22 to November 6, 1956 and within each date she explains events and delves into the background history of the issues that are raised.  In so doing she effectively examines how decisions were reached by the major actors, and the impact of how those decisions influenced the contemporary world order. The only drawback to this approach is that a sense of chronology is sometimes lost, and with so much taking place across the Middle East and Eastern Europe it can be confusing for the general reader.

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(British Foreign Secretary and then Prime Minister during Suez, Sir Anthony Eden)

Von Tunzelmann begins by providing the history that led up to British control of the Suez Canal.  She goes on to examine the major players in the conflict; Anthony Eden, British Foreign Secretary and later Prime Minister who despised Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser and basically “wanted him dead” as he blamed him for all of England’s ills, domestic and foreign. President Dwight Eisenhower, who had grown tired of British colonialism and its impact on American foreign policy, and provided the guidelines that Secretary of State Dulles implemented.  Gamal Abdul Nasser, the Egyptian President who rose to power in 1954 and was bent on achieving the removal of the British from the Suez Canal Base, and spreading his Pan Arabist ideology throughout the region.  It is fascinating as the author delves into the role of the CIA in Egypt and the relationship between Kermit Roosevelt, the author of the 1953 Iranian coup, and Miles Copeland with Nasser taking the reader into an area than is usually forbidden.  Other profiles are provided including Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, French President Guy Mollet, Imre Nagy, the leader of Hungary, and the troika that controlled the Kremlin.

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(French President Guy Mollet)

Each country had its own agenda.  In England neo-imperialist forces believed that “if they could no longer dominate colonies openly, they must try to foster a secret British Empire club….a powerful hidden empire of money and control,” this was apart from the “Commonwealth.” (23)  This was the overall strategy that revolved around access and transportation of oil.  An example of Von Tunzelmann’s approach is her March 1, 1956 section where she concentrates on Jordan’s King Hussein’s firing of John Glubb Pasha, a British serving officer who headed the Arab Legion.  For Eden, Nasser was the cause and his actions were a roadblock to achieve a Middle Eastern defense pact (Baghdad Pact), and Jordanian membership.  Eradicating Nasser became Eden’s life’s mission.  In her discussion of March, 1956 the author raises the role of American policy, but she only mentions in passing American attempts to bring about peace between Israel and Egypt, i.e.; Project Alpha and the Anderson Mission.  She presents a number of reasons why the US withdrew its offer to fund the Aswan Dam project on July 19, 1956, forgoing that Washington had already decided as early as March 28, 1956 that Nasser was an impediment to peace and the US launched Operation Omega designed to take Nasser down a peg or two, and once the presidential election was over more drastic action could be taken.  For the French, Mollet blamed Nasser for all Paris’ difficulties in Algeria.  When FLN leader Ahmed Ben Bella, a World War II hero in France left for Cairo it confirmed that Nasser was providing Ben Bella weapons and a safe exile.  To the author’s credit throughout the narrative she whittles down all of the information in expert fashion and she sums up the interests of all concerned as the crisis approaches.

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Von Tunzelmann provides many interesting details as she delves into individual motivations.  For Ben-Gurion, the Straits of Tiran were the key.  Many have speculated why Israel would ally with England under the Sevres Agreement, a country that had been a thorn in the side of Jews for decades.  The key was an oil pipeline that was to be built from the southern Israeli port of Eilat to Ashkelon in the north (Trans Israel pipeline or Tipline) that would bring Iranian oil to Europe.  In 1957, Israel brokered a deal with Iran, and the Suez Canal, by then under Egyptian control, would be bypassed.  This deal would also make the Jewish state a strategic ally of Europe.

The most important parts of the narrative deal with the October 23-24, 1956 dates.  It is during those few days that Von Tunzelmann provides intimate details of the negotiations between Israel, France and England at Servres.  All the important players from Eden, whose health is explored in relation to his decision-making; Ben-Gurion, who exemplifies  what she calls “muscular Judaism,” who wanted a preventive war before the Egyptians could absorb Soviet weapons; Guy Mollet, who agrees with Israel and promises aid in building a nuclear reactor for the Jewish state, and others.  Within each chapter Von Tunzelmann switches to the machinations involving events in Hungary and how precarious the situation has become.  As machinations were taking place Von Tunzelmann describes events that are evolving in Hungary.   With demonstrations against Soviet encroachment in Poland and the visit of the Soviet leadership to Warsaw to make sure that the Poles remained in the Russian orbit, the aura of revolution was in the air and it spread to neighboring Hungary.  With mass demonstrations led by Hungarian students, workers, and intellectuals, Moscow dispatched the head of the KGB, Ivan Seroy.  Von Tunzelmann examines the thinking of Soviet leadership, the role of Imre Nagy, hardly a revolutionary, but a reformist acceptable to the people, as the situation reaches a breaking point.  Finally, on October 24, 1956 Soviet troops and tanks roll into Budapest sparking further demonstrations allowing an excuse for Russian forces to crush the demonstrators.  The end results vary from 60-80 killed and 100-150 seriously wounded.  The proximity of Soviet actions with the Israeli invasion of the 29th would make Eisenhower apoplectic, in part because the CIA had a coup set to go in effect in Syria on the same day as the Israel attack.Image result for photo of Ben-Gurion and Nasser

(President Eisenhower and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

One of the most conjectured part of this period is whether the United States was aware of the Sevres conspiracy and what was the role of the CIA.  Von Tunzelmann approach to these questions is fair and plausible.  After reviewing the available documentation she reaches the conclusion that Allen W. Dulles, the Head of the CIA, who destroyed his documentation knew about the plot in advance and kept the president in the dark because if Eisenhower had known he might have pressured England and France to call it off.  The CIA had so much invested in Nasser, with the relationship fostered by Miles Copeland and Kermit Roosevelt that they wanted to protect him, in fact according to the author the CIA warned Nasser that the British wanted to kill him.  According to Israeli historian and later politician, Michael Bar-Zohar the CIA was fully aware of what was going on and Allen Dulles informed his brother of the conspiracy.  For the CIA “plausible deniability” was the key.  Whatever the case it is clear that crucial information was withheld from Eisenhower.  However, the president was fully aware of the Anglo-American plot to overthrow Syrian leader Shukri al-Kuwatty, who was developing closer ties with the Soviet Union.  Explaining CIA and MI6 machinations is one of the strongest aspects of Von Tunzelmann’s work.  Reading about the British obsession to kill Nasser, reminded me how Washington pursued Fidel Castro few years later.

At the same time she discusses Suez, Von Tunzelmann shifts to Hungary and analyzes Moscow’s hesitancy to invade.  Her portrayal of Imre Nagy’s difficulty in controlling the uprising is solid as the demonstrations spirals out of control inside and outside of Budapest.  However, once Imre Nagy decides to withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Pact and claims neutrality for his country it is a forgone conclusion in the Kremlin that despite some hesitation they must invade.  The Suez situation provided Moscow with excellent cover at the United Nations.  As the French and British dithered in delivering their forces to Egypt, Moscow became emboldened.  Von Tunzelmann does an excellent job following communications between Dulles and Eisenhower on the American side, Mollet and Pineau for the French, Eden and the Foreign Office, and within Imre Nagy’s circle in Budapest, as it is clear in the eyes of Washington that the allies really have made a mess of things.  The author’s insights and command of the material are remarkable and her new book stands with Keith Kyles’ SUEZ as the most important work on the topic.  What enhances her effort is her ability to compare events in Suez and Hungary during the first week of November shifting back and forth reflecting how each crisis was dealt with, and how the final outcome in part depended on the evolution of each crisis.

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(Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with Israeli Foreign Secretary Golda Meir)

One of the major aspects of the Suez Crises that many books do not deal with which BLOOD AND SAND discusses is that once war was unleashed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict could only be exacerbated.  Israeli actions in Gaza stayed with those who were displaced and suffered and it would contribute to the hatred that remains today.  Once the crisis played itself out and Eisenhower forced the British and French to withdraw from Egyptian territory in early November, using oil and currency pressure; threatening the Israelis, who finally withdrew in March, 1957, it seemed that American standing in the Arab world would improve.  However, the United States gave away the opportunity to furthering relations in the Arab world with the introduction of the Eisenhower Doctrine which was geared against the communist threat.  Von Tunzelmann makes the case that Eisenhower was the hero of Suez, but within a few years his doctrine led to dispatching US troops to Lebanon and the overthrow of the Iraqi government.  By 1958 the Arab world began to view the United States through the same colonialist lens that they evaluated England and France, tarnishing the image of Eisenhower as the hero of Suez.

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(Map of the Suez Canal)

IKE’S GAMBLE: AMERICA’S RISE TO DOMINANCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST by Michael Doran

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(President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

Today we witness a Middle East in crisis.  In Iraq, ISIS remains a power though the current operation to reconquer Mosul could be the beginning of the end of the supposed caliphate.  Syria is a humanitarian disaster as Russia and Iran continue to prop up Bashir Assad and keep him in power.  As the Syrian Civil War continues, war in Yemen involving Saudi Arabia, an American strategic ally evolves further.  The seeming winner in this juxtaposition of events is Iran which has taken advantage of the American invasion of Iraq, and how the region has since unraveled.  Once ISIS is removed from Iraq it will be interesting to see how Kurdish, Shiite, and Sunni factions “might” try to reconstitute their country.  It seems an afterthought to this untenable situation that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict featuring Hamas, an intransigent Israeli government, and Hezbollah in the north has somewhat faded into the background.  As we contemplate the morass that is the current Middle East it is interesting to return to the by gone days of the region in the 1950s when Arab nationalism/Pan Arabism was in vogue as opposed to the religious ideological road blocks of today.  In IKE”S GAMBLE: AMERICA’S RISE TO DOMINANCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST, senior director of the National Security Council under George W. Bush, Michael Doran has revisited an American strategy to deal with the myriad of problems then in the region, that laid the foundation for America’s role in the area that we continue to grapple with today.

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(President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles)

According to Doran when President Dwight D. Eisenhower assumed the presidency, he and his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles decided to offer the president as “an honest broker” in the Middle East to try and settle intra-Arab, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.  The term “honest broker” is an interesting one unless you think of it as a realpolitik based on power politics designed to drive the British from the region and replace it with American influence and control.  In 1952, Egypt had undergone a revolution and replaced King Farouk’s government with one based on a “Free Officers Movement” dominated by Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser, an Egyptian nationalist and believer in uniting the Arab world under Egyptian leadership.  The British position in the region was tenuous, despite the presence of 100,000 troops at their Suez Canal base.  Their Hashemite allies in Jordan and Iraq feared what was termed as “Nasserism,” the Arab-Israeli conflict was punctuated with “Fedayeen” attacks against Israel, and retaliation by the Jewish state all served to make the region a powder keg.  For incoming President Eisenhower he was concerned with dealing with a region that was ripe for communist expansion in the guise of anti-colonialism.  Dulles learned firsthand about these tensions when he visited the region in May, 1953 and upon his return he and the president decided on a strategy to remove the British from their Suez base by brokering a treaty that was accomplished by October, 1954, and trying to settle issues between Egypt and Israel that were getting out of hand.  For the British it was a series of frustrations with the Eisenhower administration that dominated.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill refused to pass leadership of the Conservative party to Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden despite a stroke that left him partially paralyzed on his left side as he would not give in to Egyptian demands and sacrifice the last remaining bulwark of the British Empire.  For the United States their ties to British and French imperialism and the closeness of American-Israeli relations were seen as preventing any progress in the Middle East toward peace.  This resulted in a policy which set as its goal supporting Nasser in the belief he would cooperate with the United States once a treaty with Israel was arrived at, the end result of which for the Eisenhower administration would be his leadership and gaining the support of the Arab states for a Middle East Defense Organization designed to block Soviet penetration of the region.  The United States would woo Nasser with economic aid and promises of military largesse for over four years, a policy that would fail as the Egyptian president was able to dupe his American counterparts.

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(British Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden)

With the above as background, Doran begins to unravel events that resulted in the 1956 Suez War that he describes as Eisenhower’s gamble, a gamble which ended in failure.  Doran takes us through the intricacies of Anglo-Egyptian negotiations over the Suez Canal base and the American role in pressuring London to give in to most of Nasser’s demands.  He follows that up with a rather long discussion of the “Northern Tier,” an American policy of developing an alternative to a Middle East Defense Organization.  The “tier” involved Pakistan and Turkey and theoretically other nations would be added.  Doran argues that Nasser’s opposition to the pact and his hatred of Iraqi leader Nuri al-Said, his goal of receiving Soviet arms, and deceiving the United States were all tied together reflecting how Nasser manipulated Washington.  Relying on one secondary source to bind all of this together Doran believes that he has gone where no other historian has gone.  This is part of his rather condescending approach to historians who have previously studied this topic.  On more than one occasion Doran starts out by stating, “most historians have failed to understand how significant….,” or “failed to realize,” in this case the importance of the Turco-Iraqi Pact, or in presenting the role of Eisenhower and Dulles in the Heads of Agreement negotiations dealing with the Suez Canal base, and the role of Jordan in Nasser’s plan to seize the leadership in the Arab world.  I would point out that instead of repeated self-serving comments, the author should reflect some objectivity for those who have written previously on the background to the Suez crisis.

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(Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion)

Doran also has a habit of twisting facts to suit his arguments.  A case in point is a memo prepared by Dulles in 1958 looking back on issues that led to Suez.  In the memo that Doran uses to support his narrative the Secretary of State argues there was little the United States could do to move Israel from its entrenched positions because of the influence of Jews domestically and internationally.  If this was so, how come Eisenhower pressured Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with threats in March, 1957 to gain Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai?  Further he claims that the Soviet Union, “while consistently hinting to the Arab states that it will agree to dismember Israel, has never actually come out with a statement of support.”  If that is correct what do we make of Soviet threats concerning the use of nuclear weapons after Israel, France, and Britain implemented the Sevres conspiracy and attacked Egypt at the end of October, 1956?

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I do agree with Doran that Washington’s “blind pursuit of an illusionary Arab-Israeli peace” strengthened Nasser’s position in the Arab world, at the same time he was trying to undermine the western position in the region.  Nasser deceived the State Department, raising the hopes for peace through the secret Alpha Plan.  The Egyptian leaders stalling tactics and disingenuousness would continue until the Eisenhower administration would call Nasser’s bluff following the Anderson peace mission in early 1956, a mission that would lead to the Omega plan designed to pressure Nasser to be more accommodating.  Doran points out that the new plan was designed to deal with Nasser and achieve behavioral change, not regime change.  I would point out that the document also alluded to strong action particularly if a soft covert approach did not work as Dulles’ March 28, 1956 memo stated that “planning should be undertaken at once with a view to possibly more drastic action in the event that the above courses of action do not have the desired effect.”*   For Eisenhower, whose frustration with Nasser finally took effect there were suggestions that a strong move against the Egyptian president would have to wait until after the American presidential election in November.

Doran continues his narrative by taking the reader through the immediate causes of the Suez War, the machinations that occurred after the Israeli invasion, and the final withdrawal of Israeli, French, and British troops from Sinai.  The author then goes on to discuss the anti-colonial purity of the Eisenhower administration which was short lived with the announcement of the Eisenhower Doctrine in January, 1957, designed to protect Arab states from communist encroachment.  The reality was total failure of American policy with the overthrow of the Iraqi government and the dispatch of American marines to Lebanon.  In addition, the goal of turning the Saudi monarchy into a substitute for Nasser as an Arab leader that would bring about a coalescing of Arab states in support of U.S. policy in the region never transpired.  In the end I would agree with Doran that Ike’s gamble did more harm than good and by 1958 resulted in the president questioning his policies that led to the 1956 war and beyond.  These musings by Eisenhower and the counterfactual scenarios presented by the author are interesting, but it does not change the fact that the team of Eisenhower and Dulles did create a popular Arab leader who was able to create strong Pan Arabist sentiment in the Middle East and left the United States with two weak allies in Jordan and Lebanon.  Further, they created a “doctrine” for the Middle East that was viewed in the Arab world as the same type of colonialism that had been previously practiced by England and France.  Doran completes his narrative by admonishing American policy makers that we should be careful not to make the same errors today that we made in the height of the Cold War.

*Steven Z. Freiberger. DAWN OVER SUEZ: THE RISE OF AMERICAN POWER IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1953-1957 (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1992), p. 149.

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(President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

THE GENERAL VS. THE PRESIDENT: MAC ARTHUR AND TRUMAN AT THE BRINK OF NUCLEAR WAR by H.W. Brands

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(General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman at the Wake Island Conference, October 15, 1950)

On June 25, 1950 North Korea unleashed an attack against its southern neighbor that set off a war that resulted in 36,914 American casualties.  Many Americans are aware of the role of General Douglas MacArthur in the conflict, in particular his brilliant, but risky landing at Inchon that beat back the North Korean attack, and later in the war pursuing a strategy that led to Chinese intervention.  MacArthur’s actions were very controversial and once the Chinese crossed the Yalu River with over 100,000 troops and the military situation deteriorated, America’s allies grew concerned when MacArthur suggested the use of atomic weapons against the Chinese.  President Harry S. Truman did his best to reign in his commander to no avail and most historians believe that MacArthur overstepped his authority and allowed his strong belief system guide his actions.  Others like the British historian Robert Harvey and the American historian Arthur Herman believe the situation was much more nuanced.  The topic has again been explored in H.W. Brands new book, THE GENERAL VS. THE PRESIDENT: MACARTHUR AND TRUMAN AT THE BRINK OF NUCLEAR WAR.  Brands position is very clear that Truman’s firing of MacArthur was a “bold stroke” that may have headed off a much wider war with the Chinese.

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(US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson)

Brands juxtaposes two personalities with totally different backgrounds and agendas.  Truman, reelected president in his own right in 1948 stood up to Stalin after World War II implementing the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, and stood fast over Berlin as he pursued the policy of containment of the Soviet Union.  With the North Korean attack he was able to blunt their progress until the Chinese crossed the Yalu River in force, but he was faced with a commander who wanted to employ nuclear weapons to send a message to the communist world.  On the other hand, MacArthur, the “all knowing general” who held politicians in contempt, especially a “novice” president like Truman.  MacArthur saw himself as having saved the Pacific in World War II, rebuilt postwar Japan, and now believed he had the communists right where he wanted them, but a feckless president stood in his way.  Brands does his best to explain the issues between the two men in the context of the Cold War in which they lived.  Brands has written a general history of their relationship and its ultimate outcome, but does not really add anything new that has not been uncovered by previous works on the topic.

Brands smooth narrative style, refined through the many books he has written is present throughout.  Brands is a master story teller who is able to present his narrative and analysis in a concise fashion that the general reader should enjoy, which at times will also satisfy an academic audience.  A case in point is how MacArthur gained the support of the Japanese people as he totally reoriented their society away from the militaristic emperor worship to a nation based on liberal democracy.  In the constitution he prepared he did away with all pre-war institutions, except the emperor, that had dominated Japan and resulted in World War II.  Further evidence of this approach can be seen as Brands reviews Truman’s career that spans his election to the Senate in 1940, his assumption of the presidency in 1945, and Cold War events to the onset of the Korean War.  Brands effectively relies on Truman’s correspondence with his daughter Margaret who served as a remarkable conduit into his thoughts and concerns.

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(General Matthew Ridgeway who took over command in Korea after MacArthur was relieved)

A major strength of the book are the character studies that are presented.  Discussions of people like Secretary of State Dean Acheson, a rather arrogant individual; General Omar T. Bradley, whose insights into Truman and MacArthur’s personalities are fascinating; General Matthew Ridgeway, a hero at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II whose leadership helped turn around the military balance in Korea; and Marguerite Higgins, a wartime correspondent add to the narrative.  Other strengths of the book include Brands’ description of the plight and final breakout of US Marines at the Chosin Reservoir and their two week trek battling the elements which were more dangerous than the Chinese communists to reach Hamhung.  Brands coverage of Truman and MacArthur rationalizations when confronted by Congress and the press is eye opening in trying to gain insights into their dysfunctional relationship after the Chinese communists crossed the Yalu into North Korea.  MacArthur’s statements at this time concerning administration restraints in dealing with bombing Chinese airfields in Manchuria and other issues is very similar to his rhetoric leaked to the American press after Matthew Ridgeway’s forces saved MacArthur’s reputation in April, 1951.  Brands coverage of Truman and the Joint Chiefs of Staff finally reaching the conclusion to relieve MacArthur of his command points to the final realization that MacArthur’s insubordination and egocentrism could no longer be tolerated.  Especially enlightening was the inclusion of a great deal of the testimony of MacArthur and Secretary of Defense George C. Marshall before Congress following MacArthur’s dismissal. However, the report of the hearings would have been enhanced if excerpts of Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s testimony had also been included.   This along with the geopolitical analysis of the region and domestic politics in the United States that included the role of Chiang Kai-Shek, Republicans in Congress, and the coming 1952 presidential election are all important pieces in understanding the war and its domestic implications.

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(President elect Dwight Eisenhower visits South Korea after his election)

Despite the strengths of the book there are a number of areas that could be improved.  The bibliography is rather sparse and the endnotes could be enhanced.  In the area of analysis, Brands chooses to deal with a number of major issues in a rather superficial manner.  His exploration of Soviet motives behind the North Korean attack is weak.  His excuse that the Russians were protesting the seating of Formosa over mainland China in the UN Security Council as the reason for their absence to block an American/UN force to stop the North Korean advance does not go far enough.  Is it possible that Moscow tried to draw the United States into the conflict in the hope it would cause difficulties with the Chinese at a time when the Sino-Soviet split was emerging is a main motivation?  Brands covers all the major topics that come under the umbrella of his overall subject, but he needs to dig down further, or just state up front that he is preparing a general history of the topic, then the reader will not expect more.  For example, the Wake Island meeting between Truman and MacArthur covers the basics.   Further, he does not drill down far enough when discussing events that led up to the Chinese overrunning UN forces in November, 1950.  To his credit he does list the signs of possible Chinese actions that MacArthur missed, but he needs to explore the reaction of America’s allies further, as well as the interaction between MacArthur and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Overall, Brands has written a very readable account of the Truman-MacArthur relationship in the context of the Cold War.  I would agree with Francis P. Sempa’s view published in the New York Journal of Books* that Brands does not present a very clear legacy of the Korean War in terms of future American foreign policy.  Truman wanted to have a “police action” or “limited war,” in Korea, MacArthur sought total victory, something the United States has achieved only once since World War II in the first Gulf War in 1990-91, but failed to accomplish in Vietnam, and currently in Iraq and Afghanistan.  There are a number of lessons that could have been discussed that relate to future American foreign policy, an important area, which Brands chooses to ignore.

*http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/general-vs-president

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(General Douglas MacArthur and President Harry Truman at the Wake Island Conference, October 15, 1950)

THE GEORGETOWN SET: FRIENDS AND RIVALS IN COLD WAR WASHINGTON by Greg Herken

(Joseph and Stewart Alsop,  journalists who greatly impacted American foreign policy during the Cold War)

When one discusses the value of real estate one usually encounters the phrase “location, location, location.”  This could be the theme of Greg Herken’s THE GEORGETOWN SET: FRIENDS AND RIVALS IN COLD WAR WASHINGTON, a book centered on a Georgetown, Washington, D.C. neighborhood after World War II, whose residents included the Alsop brothers, Jack and Jaqueline Kennedy, Ben and Tony Bradlee, Allen and Clover Dulles, Dean and Alice Acheson, Philp and Katherine Graham, Averill and Marie Harriman, Frank and Polly Wisner among others.  Within the group you had a future president and Secretary of State, the head of the CIA and other operatives, two ambassadors to the Soviet Union, influential journalists, and the owner and editor of the Washington Post. The neighbors who were known as the “Georgetown Set,” were at the forefront of American policy as the Cold War began and evolved, as Dean Acheson entitled his memoirs, they were PRESENT AT CREATION, and a few of them lived to see the curtain fall on the conflict with the communist world.  These individuals were not only neighbors, for the most part, they were close friends.  They had attended the same boarding schools and universities and “believed that the United States had the power—and the moral obligation—to oppose tyranny and stand up of the world’s underdogs.”  They held a sense of duty and the belief in the “rightness of the country and its causes—which were, more often than not, their own.”

Unlike today, it was a time of consensus in foreign policy in dealing with the Soviet Union, partisanship was an afterthought.  The outset of the Cold War produced the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, Point Four, and NATO, but the mindset of these individuals would also lead to mistakes embodied in the disastrous coups of the Eisenhower era, the Bay of Pigs, and the Vietnam War.  Greg Herken tells the story of these influential people, how their ideas dominated American policy, and what the ramifications of that influence were.  The reader is exposed to intimate details and tremendous insights as these power brokers are examined, and it makes for a fascinating read.

(Katharine Graham, owner and editor of the Washington Post)

The narrative focuses on the most important foreign policy debates of the 20th century, where the residents of Georgetown aligned themselves, and how their views affected the success or failure of presidential decision making.  Once the Nazis and the Japanese were defeated in 1945, the foreign policy debate focused on the communist threat and the motives of the Soviet Union.  The debate was symbolized by George Kennan, who at one point was head of the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department as well as stints as ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia; and Paul Nitze, former Secretary of the Navy, and author of NSC-68 which along with Kennan’s “X Article” formed the basis of American policy toward Russia for well into the 1980s.  The debate centered on “whether it was America’s moral example or material power that kept the Russians at bay” during the Cold War.   Many other individuals draw Herken’s discerning eye during the period, the most important of which were Joseph and Stewart Alsop, the journalism brothers who advised presidents, and helped articulate positions on Vietnam and Cuba that some would argue pushed our nation’s chief executives into making unwise policy choices.

At times the book reads like a biography of the Alsop brothers as Herken develops their careers as the centerpiece of the monograph.  Of the two, Joseph Alsop dominated their relationship and developed numerous sources within the national security apparatus in presidential administrations from Truman through Nixon.  Joseph Alsop had his own agenda and his columns created enough pressure on Lyndon Johnson that many believe forced him to consider Alsop’s readership when making decisions about Vietnam, a subject that Alsop seemed obsessed with and had difficulty accepting any information that contradicted what he believed.  The Alsops hosted numerous dinner parties that were used as conduits to different presidential administrations as conversations yielded information that turned up in their newspaper columns.  Herken almost makes the reader as if they are invited guests to the Sunday night gatherings among the “Georgetown Set” and at times the reader might feel like a “fly on the wall” as you witness history being made.  In addition to the Alsops, the inner sanctum of the Washington Post is laid bare as great events are reported.  We see the newspaper under the stewardship of Philip Graham at the outset of the Cold War until his suicide, when his wife Katharine takes the reigns of the paper and turns it into a strong competitor to the New York Times. Reporting on Watergate, My Lai and other issues reflected Katharine Graham’s growth as the head of a major newspaper and her dominant role in Washington politics.

(Frank Wisner II, the son of an OSS and CIA operative who developed and implemented numerous covert operations during the Cold War.  Wisner II developed his own diplomatic career and did not follow the career path of his father)

The book also centers on the evolution of the American intelligence community from the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Herken focuses most of his attention on Allen W. Dulles, who worked under Wild Bill Donavan who headed the OSS, and would later head the CIA under President Eisenhower and for a short time under John F. Kennedy; and Frank Wisner, an OSS and CIA operative who was known for his outlandish covert plans, i.e.; trying to overthrow the government of Albania, dropping propaganda leaflets and intelligence operatives behind the “iron curtain” among many of his projects.  CIA involvement in Vietnam, Iran, Cuba, and Guatemala are dissected in detail and Herken correctly points to current issues that date back to Dulles, Wisner, and numerous other individuals in the intelligence community, and how they negatively affected American foreign policy for decades.

(President John F. Kenndy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy were frequent visitors in the “salons” of Georgetown)

The books serves as an important window into the lives of people who dominated the American foreign policy establishment throughout the Cold War.  Herken seems to assess all of the major decisions that were made during the period, as well as evaluating each of the characters presented and how their lives affected the course of American history.  Many of the individuals that Herken discusses are well known, but others are brought out of the shadows.  One of the most interesting aspects of the book is when Herken muses about the lives of the children of the “Georgetown Set,” and how the generation gap that developed in response to the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s affected the next “Georgetown” generation.

Herken writes with flair and has exceptional command of his material and sources and has offered a unique approach to the causes and results of the Cold War that should satisfy academics as well as the general reader.

THE CHURCHILL FACTOR: HOW ONE MAN MADE HISTORY by Boris Johnson

(English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, August 27, 1941)

If you are looking for a personal, breezy hagiography of Winston Churchill then Boris Johnson’s THE CHURCHILL FACTOR: HOW ONE MAN MADE HISTORY will be of interest.  Johnson’s effort is not a traditional biography of the former occupant of 10 Downing Street, but a manifesto imploring the reader to consider the genius and greatness of Churchill.  Johnson is concerned that as time has passed fewer and fewer of the non-World War II generation have forgotten or are not aware of Churchill’s accomplishments as he states at the outset “we are losing those who can remember the sound of his voice, and I worry that we are in danger….of forgetting the scale of what he did.”  For the author, World War II would have been lost, if not for Churchill, and he further argues that the resident of Chartwell House and Blenheim Palace saved civilization and proved that one man can change history.

Johnson’s writing is very entertaining.  His phrasing is both humorous and poignant, i.e., “the French were possessed of an origami army! They just keep folding with almost magical speed.”  In his description of Churchill, he looked “like some burley and hung over butler from the set of Downton Abbey.  However, aside from the humor presented, Johnson has a serious purpose as he seems to want to align himself with Churchill as a means of furthering his own political career.  The question is what do we make of Johnson’s THE CHURCHILL FACTOR?  Many who are familiar with Johnson’s career can foresee this Member of Parliament, mayor of London, former editor of The Spectator, and columnist for the Daily Telegraph pursuing the leadership of the Conservative Party, and at some point attaining the position of Prime Minister.  By manipulating Churchill’s legacy as a comparison to certain aspects of his own life, Johnson may have hit upon a vehicle for his own political ascendency.  Johnson suggests certain similarities with his hero, but then upon reflection he negates them, but for those who are familiar with the British political system, Johnson’s ambitions are clear.

Johnson’s thesis rests on rehabilitating the less savory aspects of Churchill’s personality and politics, at the same time presenting him as the genius who saved the world from Nazism.  Johnson strongly suggests when reviewing the political choices that existed in England as the Dunkirk rescue was ongoing in May, 1940 there was no alternative to Churchill.  Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax were both appeasers and wanted to make a separate peace with Germany.  Johnson reviews Churchill’s career as a journalist, soldier, and social reformer to reflect on his preparation for taking on Hitler, and does not find him wanting in any area.  The author tackles the opposition to Churchill within the Conservative party and why he was a lightning rod for his opponents.  Johnson explains why he was so despised by many head on.  He argues that Churchill, like his father Randolph, suffered from a lack of party loyalty and we see that both followed their own path when it came to shifting parties and then returning to the conservative fold.  In addition, Churchill helped bring on ill will by always being a self-promoter and political opportunist.  Churchill made a number of errors during World War I and later, in his career.   The following come to mind: the fiasco at Antwerp in October, 1914, and Gallipoli in September, 1915 that forced many to question his ability as a military strategist when he was First Lord of their Admiralty. Further, Churchill’s ill-fated plan to block the Bolshevik victory in Russia after World War I, as well as fighting to prevent Indian self-government where not well thought out.  Lastly, Churchill’s support for Edward VIII’s desire for a divorce and forfeiture of his throne angered many conservative back benchers.

(Churchill’s March 5, 1946 “Iron Curtain Speech” at Westminster College, Fulton, MO)

Johnson presents Churchill’s bonifedes as a military leader by spending a good amount of time reflecting on Churchill’s bravery.  He discusses Churchill’s love of planes and desire to develop an air force.  He reviews his combat experience in the Sudan, the Boer War, India and the trenches of World War I.  He concludes that Churchill’s own personal bravery allowed him to ask whether other candidates in 1940 had the experience and demeanor to lead England against the Nazis.  Johnson also tackles some of the negative charges against Churchill.  For Johnson, Churchill is a social reformer in the context of being a capitalist and a free trader.  He argues that next to his mentor, Lloyd George, Churchill had great concern for workers and the lower classes.  For Churchill, workers were the bedrock of the British Empire and without them the empire would collapse.  Johnson points to Churchill’s championing of Labour exchanges, a Trade Board Bill to enforce minimum wages for certain jobs, unemployment insurance with worker, government and employer contributions, a 20% tax on land sales in order to fund progressive programs and redistribute wealth.  Churchill was concerned that if the needs of the workers were not met, unrest could “scuttle” British power overseas.  One might argue that Churchill was somewhat of a hypocrite based on some of his racist and imperialist goals, Johnson would say that he was nothing more than being politically pragmatic.  Perhaps Churchill’s “compassionate conservatism” was years ahead of George W. Bush.

The author rests much of his argument on Churchill’s amazing work ethic and the motor of his exceptional brain.  Johnson offers a great deal of evidence to support his claim, i.e., Churchill’s prodigious writing that earned him a Nobel Peace Prize for Literature at the age of seventy-five.  Churchill’s work developing tank technology during World War I, his role in creating the boundaries for the Middle East, the partition of Ireland, and diplomacy during World War II to save England from the Nazis and rallying his own people.   Lastly, the use of his personal charm to “drag” the United States into World War II.  Once out of power Churchill sought to warn the west about Stalinist expansionism.  His “Iron Curtain” speech in 1946 made public his concerns, but Churchill had internally warned his cabinet and FDR at least a year earlier.  As in the 1930s when he warned about Nazism, as World War II came to a close he was seen as a war mongerer by many.  Despite the fact that he was correct in both cases, this did not help him politically at home or in his relationship with President Truman, as he was soon out of office.  Once he returned to power in 1951, and with the death of Stalin in 1953, Churchill worked for a summit of the great powers as he was deathly afraid of a thermonuclear war.  Though he did not achieve his goal, after he left office for good in 1955, a four power summit did take place.  For Johnson, in the end, Churchill’s ideas prevailed, from his speech in Fulton, MO in 1946 to the final collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989.  Churchill had called for rapprochement between France and Germany, and a united Europe all of which was eventually achieved.

(Cairo Conference, 1921, Churchill is on the left, Gertrude Bell in the center, and T.E. Lawrence on the right)

One of the major blemishes that exists in dealing with Churchill’s career lies in the sands of the Middle East.  As Colonial Secretary he had to undue the negative results of the Hussein-McMahon Correspondence, the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the Balfour Declaration all issued during World War I making very contradictory promises that Johnson describes as “Britain sold the same camel three times.”  The story of the Cairo Conference and Churchill’s influence on the creation of Iraq, Transjordan, Syria, and Palestine has been told many times, but even Johnson must acknowledge that what Churchill had created, though it lasted for decades was bound to come a cropper.  Further Churchill’s optimism concerning Jewish-Palestinian relations was ill-conceived.  Johnson, as his want, does not blame Churchill, but the selfishness of both sides, particularly the lack of Arab leadership, a rationalization to deflect away from Churchill anything the author finds unacceptable.     Despite his errors the author proposes that Churchill, even in old age, was a man ahead of his times, and based on his amazing career who is to say that Johnson was wrong.

(Potsdam Conference, July, 1945, Churchill, Truman, and Stalin)

Perhaps the major criticism one can offer is how the author presents his material.  I for one enjoy objective biography, not subjective hero worship, particularly when there are so many instances of a lack of source material to support the author’s conclusions.  However, if one is interested in a fast read encompassing Churchill’s entire career, Johnson’s effort could prove to be intellectually challenging, and entertaining.

DISCIPLES: THE WORLD WAR II MISSIONS OF THE CIA DIRECTORS WHO FOUGHT FOR WILD BILL DONOVAN by Douglas Waller

(William Donovan, the man who headed the Office of Strategic Services  during World War II)

At a time when people are concerned with government spying on its citizens, it is useful to examine how two world wars and the Cold War led to the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency.  Douglas Waller, a former correspondent for Time and Newsweek, and the author of WILD BILL DONOVAN: THE SPYMASTER WHO CREATED THE OSS AND MODERN AMERICAN ESPIONAGE has revisited the origins of the CIA by examining the men that William Donovan trained as intelligence operatives who went on to head America’s foremost spy agency.  In his new book, DISCIPLES: THE WORLD WAR II MISSIONS OF THE CIA DIRECTORS WHO FOUGHT FOR BILL DONOVAN, Waller follows the careers of Allen W. Dulles, William Casey, Richard Helms, and William Colby, and their interactions with Donovan as their careers  culminated in Langley, Va.  When I first picked up the book I was concerned that Waller would rehash a great deal of the same material he covered in his biography of Donovan.  To my satisfaction this is not the case.  There is some repetition, but the book can stand on its own merits as Waller has written a wonderful adventure story that weaves together the experiences of the “disciples.”  Based on archival material, the most prominent secondary sources, and pertinent memoirs the book is an excellent read for spy buffs and the general public.

Waller begins the book with short biographical sketches of each individual and the similarities in their backgrounds.  Waller points out that there was a common thread that ran through Dulles, Casey, Helms, and Colby.  Each was smart, intellectual, and “voracious readers, thoughtful, and creatures of reason….these were strong, decisive, supremely confident men of action, doers who believed they could shape history rather than let it control them.”  When one follows their careers Waller’s description appears extremely accurate.  Though their personalities differed; Dulles comes across with a much larger ego who rubbed many in power the wrong way; Casey, more of an introvert who worked behind the scenes and new how to navigate the bureaucratic morass of government; Helms and Colby, more adventurous and hands on, the result of which was they all would ascend the intelligence ladder at different rates to finally emerge as leaders in their own right.  All had important relationships with Donovan; some more testy, particularly Dulles who wanted Donovan’s job as head of the Organization of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, but in the end they worked together and laid the foundation for America’s post war intelligence operations.

(Allen W. Dulles, headed American intelligence operations against Germany during WWII and as CIA Director under Eisenhower launched numerous covert operations)

Waller traces the career of each of the disciples and what stands out is their roles during World War II.  Donovan was charged by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to create an espionage operation during the war by choosing him as the Coordinator of Information, a position that would morph into the head of the OSS.  Waller examines the rise of Allen Dulles first, tracing his career from World War I, his experiences as a diplomat at Versailles, and his relationship with his brother, John Foster, and their law firm Sullivan and Cromwell.  Dulles emerges as a self-confident individual who sought total control of all operations. Posted to Berne, Switzerland during the war, Dulles developed important sources though he was at times over the top with his predictions.  On a number of occasions he resented Donovan, but in the end went along with his boss.  William Casey’s education as a spy began as a lawyer in the 1930s where he became an expert on the tax code dealing with War Department contracts.  This attracted Donovan interest and he would recruit Casey for the OSS in 1943.  Casey, an organizational expert was sent to London where he worked under David Bruce, and implemented a management style that would lead him to oversee intelligence assets and commando operations in France and Germany.  Richard Helms joined the navy after Pearl Harbor and worked on strategies to deal with German submarine warfare.  By 1943 he was forced into OSS Psyops and by the end of the war he was sent to London to organize operations in Germany for the post war period.  William Colby, the most liberal of the four and a supporter of FDR, studied in France in the late 1930s, witnessed the Spanish Civil War, and developed a hatred for communism.  He would become a commando during the war and showed tremendous physical courage behind enemy lines in France and Norway.

(Richard Helms after a career in intelligence dating back to WWII became CIA Director in the 1960s and was eventually fired by President Nixon)

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is how Waller introduces individuals who interacted with the OSS, and in particular the “disciples” during the war.  FBI Head, J. Edgar Hoover despised Donovan seeing him as a threat and unleashed his own agents to spy on the OSS.  We meet Julia Child, later known as “the cooking guru” for woman in the 1950s.  Along the way Arthur Goldberg emerges as a link to European labor movements, who would later serve on the Supreme Court.  British spymasters come and go throughout the book, particularly William Stephenson who at one time had an office next to Dulles in Rockefeller Center.  Fritz Kolbe, the OSS’ most important agent who allowed Dulles to penetrate the German Foreign Office in Berlin and whose work saved the lives of many allied soldiers takes a prominent role.  These and many other individuals and their own stories lend a great deal to Waller’s narrative.

(William Colby was a trained commando during World War II and parachuted into France and Norway who later became CIA Director under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford)

Waller does a nice job showing how the careers of the “disciples” intersected with Donovan during the war.  For example, Donovan’s visitations to commando training, witnessing Colby’s preparation for parachuting into France.  Dulles and Casey intersected as both were smuggling agents into France to link up with and supply the French resistance.  Casey was in charge of monitoring commando drops like Colby’s into France.  Casey also funneled Dulles’ intelligence reports to Washington, and in a number of cases felt that they were highly exaggerated. Helms finally left for London in early 1945 and was supposed to organize Dulles’ mission for Germany, but because of Hitler’s last ditch effort in France in the Ardennes, he never carried out the assignment and wound up with Casey overseeing agents in Germany.  In fact Casey and Helms shared an apartment in London at the time!   Colby and Casey would meet at General George S. Patton’s headquarters in September, 1944 as Casey became Donovan’s eyes in Europe and eventually would replace David Bruce as head of London operations, an appointment that Dulles greatly resented.  Donovan felt that Dulles was a poor administrator and lacked the leadership skills that Casey possessed.

Waller spends a great deal of time on the actions of American commandos behind German lines.  He describes Colby’s training in detail and takes the reader along with these men as they parachute into France and Germany, exhibiting courage and discipline as they try to reinforce the French resistance, and later gather intelligence in Germany to try and bring the conflict to a faster conclusion.  Waller also spends a great deal of time discussing the infighting among the “disciples” and their private lives.  By doing so the reader gains insights into each of these men and it helps explains how their post-World War II careers would evolve into directorships of the CIA.

The final section of Waller’s narrative focuses on American intelligence policies and actions during the Cold War as the OSS evolves into the CIA and focuses its attention on the communist threat.  Once President Truman forces Donovan into retirement Dulles takes over the newly created CIA and his reputation for mismanagement will result in what Blanch Wiesen Cook, in her book DECCLASSIFIED EISENHOWER, refers to as the “coup presidency.”  Dulles would launch covert operations in Iran, Guatemala, Cuba, and the disastrous U-2 Incident, all resulting in his eventual downfall.  Dulles was succeeded by Helms, who unlike his predecessor believed in tight organizational control.  His mantra was “that there should be no surprises on his watch” and he was very popular within the agency.  Helms would be fired by Richard Nixon in part because he refused to cooperate with break-ins and cover ups associated with Watergate.  Colby’s tenure as director is most remembered for his testimony before the Church Committee in 1974 as leaked CIA documents called for congressional action.  Colby was the most politically liberal of all the “disciples” and this played a role in his cooperation with Congress which he was vilified for by Helms and Casey.  But, as Waller correctly points out his testimony probably saved the CIA from a wholesale reorganization that would have ruined its effectiveness.  The last of the “disciples,” William Casey took over the agency under Ronald Reagan and he tried to create the atmosphere that existed under his hero, William Donovan, who like his mentor “kept the door open to all ideas for operations, even the wacky ones.”  Casey wanted to recreate the can do culture of the OSS from WWII for the 1980s, focusing on the communist menace instead of the Nazis.  This would result in repeated machinations in dealing with Afghanistan, Central America, and the Iran-Contra scandal in particular.

(William Casey was a successful “spy master” during World War II who became CIA Director under Ronald Reagan)

Waller has written a fascinating account of the men who followed Donovan as leaders in American intelligence, and current implications for some of the policies they pursued.   Today we are faced with the ramifications of Edward Snowden’s leaks and issues over NSA and other surveillance.  It would be interesting to speculate how these gentlemen would respond to these issues.

(Major General William J. Donovan who led America’s intelligence operations during World War II)

 

DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODYSSEY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH by Jon Meacham

(Presidents George Herbert Walker Bush, George W. Bush, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush)

With the rollout of Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Jon Meacham’s new book DESTINY AND POWER: THE AMERICAN ODYSSEY OF GEORGE HERBERT WALKER BUSH what emerged in the media was the elder Bush’s criticisms of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney’s poor service in the administration of his son.  Many pundits have questioned the senior Bush’s judgement since another son, Jeb is in the midst of his own presidential campaign.  Whatever motivated the senior Bush it has created a great deal of buzz around Meacham’s latest biography.  After successful histories of Andrew Jackson, Thomas Jefferson, and the relationship between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Meacham’s latest effort is not quite on the level of his previous work.  In Meacham’s defense it is difficult to write a critical biography of a subject that is still alive, and as time has separated him from his presidency he has become more popular than ever.  George H.W. Bush was a lifetime Republican who served in Congress, the head of the Republican National Committee, held a number of important jobs in the Nixon and Ford administrations, and later served as Ronald Reagan’s Vice President.  Always a loyal party man he never could quite gain the confidence of the conservative wing of his party.  He was always seen as a Rockefeller eastern liberal Republican and he constantly had to prove his bonafides to conservatives.  If he were a candidate for office today, Bush would be relegated to the junior varsity on the debate stage on many issues.  To Bush’s credit as Meacham points out repeatedly in his narrative, he embraced compromise in public life and engaged his foes in the passage of important legislation as he was willing to buck his own party to do what he believed was right.

(Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney; Bush 41 referred to them as “iron asses.”

After reading Meacham’s description of Bush’s childhood in Connecticut, Kennebunkport, and South Carolina it is obvious what former Texas Governor Anne Richards meant about Bush’s presidential candidacy in 1988, when she stated at the Democratic National Convention that “for eight straight years George Bush hasn’t displayed the slightest interest in anything we care about.  And now that he’s after a job that he can’t be appointed to, he’s like Columbus discovering America.  Poor George, he can’t help it-he was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” (334-35) The Bush children of the 1930s were insulated from want, but they were raised to feel a sense of obligation to others.  According to Meacham, the Bush family code was to disguise one’s ambition, and hunger to win.  For years I had difficulty accepting Bush’s authenticity and sincerity as I watched him “flip flop” on issues in order to get elected in 1980 and 1988 and avoid the charge that he was an eastern establishment Republican.  I must admit that for over half of Meacham’s narrative I became somewhat convinced that my view was harsh after reading the intimate details of Bush’s patriotism leaving his privileged education to become a naval pilot during World War II and how he reacted and handled being shot down in the Pacific with the loss of his radioman and tail gunner.  We see Bush as the supporting husband taking care of a spouse dealing with depression. Further, we are privy to Bush as a father and family man dealing with the passing of his daughter Robin at the age of three from leukemia, witnessing a distraught person who exhibits the traits we would all hope to have in a similar situation.

(Bush 41 must like Meacham’s bioghraphy!)

The book comes across as a conversation between the author and the reader.  At times one gets the feeling that Meacham is interviewing the former president conveying Bush’s view of his life, issues, and historical perspectives.  We are exposed to the major events in American history from 1964 on as they are intertwined with Bush’s political career.  The weakness is that part of the narrative comes across as an extensive magazine article intertwined with a degree of analysis.  Meacham for the most part is content with explaining Bush’s motivations for his decisions without delving deeply enough into their ramifications.  A case in point is Bush’s vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but a few pages later we learn he voted for the 1968 Fair Housing Act, as if the later vote canceled out the weakness of character reflected in the first vote.  We read a great deal about Bush’s personality and his commitment to the family ethos as represented by his father, Prescott Bush, but not enough of what can be described as the “edginess of politics” and its cut throat nature.  As I read the first few hundred pages I wondered how such a “nice person” became such a duplicitous politician who would lie about his knowledge concerning the Iran-Contra deal (apart from the Nicaraguan aspect), the use of the Willie Horton commercial in 1988 and his alliance with the likes of Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes, his reversals on abortion, taxes, and other issues to make him palatable to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate.  What I gathered from Meacham’s narrative is that Bush according to the family credo was that winning was most important, but that is covered up by a political pragmatism rather than following what the author presents as his core principles.

Meacham does a credible job discussing the major aspects of Bush’s career.  His successful run for the House of Representatives and defeat as he tries to win a Senate seat in the 1960s.  We learn of his stint as UN Ambassador under Richard Nixon, envoy to China, and CIA Head under Gerald Ford, highlighting the domestic and international machinations of each.  The reader is placed inside his campaign against Ronald Reagan in 1980 and the development of their working relationship since Ronald and Nancy Reagan did not think much of the Bushes at the outset.  Meacham constantly points to Bush’s winning personality as his key asset and we can see how effective he is in winning over the President and developing a strong personal relationship during the Reagan administrations. The reader has an insider’s view of the White House during the first Reagan administration and the role that Bush played.  Then, the second administration seems to disappear in the narrative except for a discussion of Iran-Contra and the duplicitous role played by Bush.  By 1988 Bush must earn his next governmental position, the presidency, something he seems to have sought since his entrance into politics in the 1960s, because there are no longer any appointments coming his way because of the networking that had rewarded him for decades in business and politics.

(Part of 1988 Presidential campaign ad devised by Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes)

Meacham’s focus and analysis seems to take a sharper turn as he deals with the 1988 presidential campaign as he examines the mistaken choice Bush admits to in choosing Dan Quayle as his running mate.  We follow the campaign and the errors of the Dukakis team as we see the former Massachusetts governor foolishly riding in a tank in New Jersey and is forced to deal with the prison furlough program that brought about the Willie Horton ad.  Once elected, Meacham accurately explores Bush’s successes in foreign policy and the difficulties he faced in dealing with Congress over domestic legislation during his term in office.

I am very familiar with Bush’s personal belief that he thought that he should receive the major credit for winning the Cold War, and I am certain that believers in the Reagan cult would beg to differ.  However, Bush senior must be commended for the way he handled the fall of the Berlin Wall and the personal relationship he was able to develop with Mikhail Gorbachev that fostered arms control and a lessening of tensions between the former Cold War competitors.  Meacham takes us from the night the Wall was breached through the difficult diplomacy that resulted in the reunification of Germany.  Though the definitive account of those heady days have yet to be written, Meacham’s narrative praising Bush for his calm and steady approach to events and his diplomacy, particularly with the Soviet Union and NATO members forms an excellent summary.  Bush has the reputation of overseeing a strong foreign policy that resulted in his words, “a new world order,” where the bipolar Cold War was replaced by a new unipolar world.  This characterization can be easily argued, but Meacham chooses not to in the same way as he glances over the American invasion of Panama to replace Manuel Noriega.  Perhaps if he would have delved into the background relationship between the American national security establishment and the drug trafficking Panamanian dictator the reader would be provided a clearer picture.  Further, Meacham leaves out some important details in the run up to the American invasion of Iraq after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.  The reader is provided with a detailed account of Bush’s handling of the crisis, but what is missing is an accurate description of the messages we sent to the Iraqi dictator at the end of July, 1990 right before the invasion.  To his credit, Meacham explores the meetings between Saddam and American Ambassador to Iraq, April Glaspie whose career took a strong hit after the invasion took place.  Perhaps if the administration would have laid out clearer instructions, Glaspie’s messages to Saddam would not have been so misinterpreted to the point where he believed that the United States would not remove his forces from Kuwait militarily.  Bush is to be credited with putting together an international coalition against Saddam, and unlike his son he realized the vacuum that would be created if American troops marched on Baghdad in March, 1991 and that once the predictable civil war between Shi’ites and Sunni would evolve, Iran would emerge as the true winner.  Another aspect that Meacham should have explored closely is the Bush family’s relationship with the Saudi royal family and what impact it had on American policy.  Craig Unger’s HOUSE OF BUSH HOUSE OF SAUD is worth consulting.

(George Herbert Walker Bush as Navy pilot during World War II)

Meacham correctly points out that Bush did have a domestic agenda as he repeatedly refers to Bush’s diaries to support the idea that the president wanted to improve the lives of everyday Americans.  His successes include a raising of educational standards and enhancements for the Head Start program, amendments to the Clean Air Act, and the Americans for Disability Act.  However, once Bush had to deal with economic policy as the American economy fell into recession he ran up against a conservative wall in Congress led by Newt Gingrich.  Once he decided to turn away from his famous “read my lips” promise when he won the Republican presidential nomination and agreed to raise federal taxes to deal with the budget crisis he just reaffirmed the belief of conservatives that he was not one of them.  Again, to Bush’s credit he put political pragmatism and his country ahead of those in his party who may have pursued the actions of the Ted Cruz’s of today.  Meacham hits the nail on the head when states that Bush “could mold an international coalition, but he could not convince his own party to back their president.” (448)

Meacham provides an in depth account of the 1992 presidential campaign and the rivalry with the egoistic Ross Perot that resulted in the election of Bill Clinton.  The author puts the reader on the debate stage as Bush stares too long at his watch and has difficulty remembering the price of hamburger.  For Bush it was very difficult for a member of the greatest generation to lose the presidency to someone who he then characterized as a “draft dodger.”  However, Meacham is correct in pointing out that the reason Bush lost the election was that he did not seem to be that committed to his own election victory.  Time and again Meacham pointed to Bush’s diaries that expressed doubts as to whether he should have run.

Once out of office, Bush could theoretically relax, reflect, and enjoy his family.  For the most part he did, but he was worried about the course of his son’s presidency and the tone set by Bush 43’s administration commentary.  Overall, Meacham received unparalleled access to Bush 41 on a personal level as well as the availability to his diaries and many of those who served his political career and administration.  Meacham has written what appears to be an authorized biography that will be well received, but could have been a bit more incisive and balanced.

(Presidents Bush 41 and 43)

THE BLOOD TELEGRAM: NIXON, KISSINGER AND A FORGOTTEN GENOCIDE by Gary J. Bass

(the architects of American foreign policy from 1969-1974, Richard M. Nixon and Henry Kissinger)

When one considers the foreign policy pursued by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger decisions related to Southeast Asia and relations with the People’s Republic of China and the Soviet Union come to mind.  In discussing Southeast Asia, the strategy pursued to end the war in Vietnam is front and center resulting in revisiting the “supposed” plan to end the war known as “Vietnamization” that emerged during the 1968 presidential campaign.  This promise to end the war was nothing more than the withdrawal of American troops and replacing them on the front lines with South Vietnamese soldiers and increasing American bombing.  As we know this policy also led to the illegal bombing of Cambodia and the “search” for North Vietnam’s headquarters in that war torn country.  The Nixon/Kissinger strategy resulted in prolonging the war in Vietnam and the facilitation of the rise of the murderous Pol Pot regime in Pnom Penh and the genocide of the Cambodian people.  Along with the foreign policy issues it resulted in domestic unrest symbolized by the deaths at Kent State, and illegal actions taken by Kissinger against his own staff to plug information leaks.  This was not the finest hour for American diplomacy, however once we turn to the 1971 opening with the People’s Republic of China and the Shanghai Communique of 1972, and the pursuit of linkage and Détente with the Soviet Union the Nixon/Kissinger realpolitik takes on a different hue.

When analyzing the Nixon/Kissinger approach to foreign affairs many seem to forget events in Southwest Asia, in particular, March 25, 1971 when the Pakistan army began its ruthless crackdown on Bengalis throughout East Pakistan in what today is called Bangladesh, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands and ten million refugees.  Some would argue that the Nixon administration were following their Cold War calculations in arming the Pakistani army as the president and his national security advisor held India, a Soviet ally at the time in great disdain.  With Pakistan’s military dictator, General Agha Muhammad Yahya Khan helping to set up the opening with China the Nixon administration was not about to criticize Pakistan’s crackdown in Dacca, East Pakistan.  What resulted was an onslaught that lasted months rivaling other genocides like Rwanda and Bosnia.  While the United States was not involved directly in these two examples, in East Pakistan American culpability was high as it was supporting the murderous Pakistani regime with weapons and equipment.  Estimates range up to 500,000 deaths and reflects the moral bankruptcy of the Nixon administration.  Fortunately, Gary Bass has written THE BLOOD TELEGRAM: NIXON, KISSINGER AND A FORGOTTEN GENOCIDE to remind us of what transpired.

Archer Blood was the United States’ counsel general in Dacca and he and his staff witnessed one of the worst atrocities of the Cold War and documented its horrific detail by informing the higher-ups at the State Department.  Despite the on the scene reporting of events, officials led by Nixon and Kissinger chose to ignore what was occurring and did little to ameliorate the situation.  What Bass has written is a detailed account of events and Archer Blood’s attempt to raise the consciousness of an administration that in many cases had none.  In his review of Bass’ book in The Wall Street Journal on September 20, 2013, a former chairman of Dow Jones and Company, Peter R. Kann argued that the atrocities that resulted from Pakistani actions in East Pakistan were unacceptable, but necessary because the Islamabad government headed by Agha Muhammad Yahya Kahn was the conduit between the United States and Communist China that would culminate in President Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972.  For Kann and his ilk, it seemed it was acceptable to sacrifice the Bengali people in the hundreds of thousands to proffer an agreement that theoretically helped extricate the United States from Vietnam, deal a diplomatic blow to the Soviet Union, and undo twenty two years of American non-recognition of Communist China.

(Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi)

After reading Gary Bass’ excellent account of events this is an analysis that is hard to accept.  Bass lays out the lack of ethnic and religious viability that resulted from the 1947 partition of India that created East and West Pakistan and their Muslim and Hindu populations.  He explores the events that led to the West Pakistani invasion of the East in March, 1971 as elections brought the victory of the Bengali Awami League under the leadership of Sheik Mujib-ur-Rahman, who incidentally were very favorable to the United States.  Since it appeared that Mujib, a Bengali Hindu might form a government and replace Yahya, the Pakistani military could not sit back.  When the Islamabad government backed away from the election results Bengali nationalists and the Awami League began to demonstrate and it appeared that East Bengal might secede from Pakistan.  Negotiations failed and on March 25, 1971, the Pakistani military under Yahya’s orders launched an attack against the 75,000,000 Pakistani citizens in the East.  The results were horrific.  By September over five million refugees poured into India and thousands of Hindus were killed, many were targeted and tortured and it appeared the disaster that resulted from the 1947 partition was repeating itself.

Bass’ narrative is an indictment of the conduct of foreign policy pursued by Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon.  Archer Blood and his cohorts in the American consulate in Dacca reported accurate description of the mass killings by West Pakistani troops in the east, particularly Hindus, who made up only 16-17% of the population, but were 90% of the refugees.  Blood’s “selective genocide” telegram spoke of the genocide against the Hindu population and recommended that the United States pressure Yahya’s forces to disengage from the killings and atrocities and use American economic aid and weapons as a wedge to gain compliance.  Blood and Scott Butcher his junior political officer couldn’t believe the “silence” that emanated from Washington to their reports.  For Kissinger and Nixon, Blood and Butcher represented the “bleeding heart liberals” who inhabited the State Department.  Bass describes in detail, using White House tapes and other documentation to provide the reader with a window into the Kissinger/Nixon mindset.  For Kissinger, Blood was a “maniac” who would destroy his plans to open relations with China.  Nixon refused to pressure Yahya since he was relaying correspondence between Chinese Premier Zhou En-Lai that would lead to an invitation for Nixon to visit China.  Archer’s continued correspondence and support within the State Department angered Kissinger and Secretary of State William Rogers and led to Archer’s departure from Dacca and the ruining of his diplomatic career.

(Pakistani President Agha Muhammad Yahya Kahn and President Richard M. Nixon)

The crux of the issue was that the United States was supplying the weaponry that the Pakistani government was using to crush any Bengali opposition in East Pakistan.  American F86 Sabre jet fighters, M-24 Chaffee tanks and jeeps mounted with machine guns were the weapons of choice for the Islamabad dictatorship.  In fact 50-80% of Pakistani military equipment was supplied by the United States.  The American response to the carnage was a resounding “no” to pressuring Yahya.  American intelligence and State Department analysis led by Harold Saunders and others predicted that there was no way that Yahya’s forces could prevent a Bengali victory in the emerging civil war and that the country would break apart in creating the new country of Bangladesh.  This evidence fell on deaf ears at the White House.

Bass does a commendable job exploring the role of India and its Prime Minister Indira Gandhi throughout the crisis which would eventually result in war.  Gandhi tried to couch events in terms of the humanitarian needs of the Bengali people.  However, Bass assiduous exploration of Indian documents reflects Indian plans for war against Pakistan early on in the crisis.  Bass quotes the leading figures in Gandhi’s national security establishment in reaching his conclusions.  Though India was the world’s largest democracy, Kissinger and Nixon despised Gandhi and held a marked antipathy toward India that bordered on racism.  They both held a high opinion of Yahya, so any rapprochement with Gandhi was a non-starter.  Gandhi’s opinion of Nixon was in kind and there meetings where stilted at best.

Bass’ descriptions of the atrocities committed by both sides is heart rendering.  His portraits of the leading historical figures and reporters provides background information that enhance the readers understanding of events.  Bass’ discussion of the split within the State Department is fascinating as the American Ambassador to Islamabad James Farland castigated Archer, while Kenneth Keating, the American Ambassador to India supported the American consul.  Everyone stationed in Dacca supported Archer, but those in Washington were pressured to toe the Kissinger line.

As Bass correctly points out the world’s response to events was also enlightening.  India, a country with its own issues of poverty and disease was ill equipped to deal with the influx of millions of refugees.  The outbreak of cholera killed 6000 people each day and the response of the United Nations and the world community was weak at best.  One must remember that events were occurring in the midst of the Cold War where the Soviet Union was a supporter of India, Communist China and the United States stood behind Pakistan, and India and Pakistan saw each other as the devil incarnate.  One must also remember that Pakistan and India had fought a war in 1965, and China and the Soviet Union had fought a nasty border skirmish in 1969.  Any diplomatic or military moves that might have been taken must be seen in this context.  In addition, India found itself supporting the secession of what would become Bangladesh from Pakistan, at the same time it was crushing its own Kashmiri secessionist movement in Kashmir.  History makes for some interesting dilemmas!  According to Bass, as the refugee crisis deepened by September, 1971 war between India and Pakistan became inevitable.

The Kissinger-Nixon strategy of denial of what was occurring in East Pakistan is a fantasy as a September, 1971 CIA report argued that over 200,000 had been killed and that an ongoing “ethnic campaign” showed that almost 90% of the almost 10 million refugees flooding into India were Hindus.  These figures were also verified by a Pakistani general so the administrations “supposed” ignorance was a fabrication.  As the situation became dire, Indira Gandhi had already decided on war, but postponed a final decision until winter arrived which would block any intervention by China.  Bass does an exceptional job describing the diplomatic maneuvering between the Soviet Union as it signed a Treaty of Friendship with India, the Nixon administrations belated attempts to get Yahya to control his military, and to its credit Nixon did increase economic aid for the refugees to the tune of almost $250 million.

The most fascinating aspect to the crisis as war approached was the dialogue between India and the United States.  Nixon was obsessed that a war between India and Pakistan could ruin his opening to China.  In fact, Kissinger suggested that the United States ask China to move troops to the Indian border to send a strong message not to attack Pakistan.  The meetings between Gandhi and Nixon in Washington in November, 1971 reflected the disdain the two leaders felt for each other.  The Nixon tapes highlight the President’s characterization of Gandhi as that “old bitch,” and the Indian Prime Minister’s view of the Nixon was reciprocated.

Bass describes the Pakistani attack on December 3, 1971 (India had planned to attack the next day), the conduct of the war, and the resulting diplomacy and what is clear from the book and its impeccable sources is that if the Nixon administration had handled Yahya differently, the crisis that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh might have evolved differently.  War may have ultimately ensued, but did 250-500,000 people have to die, along with the creation of over 10,000,000 refugees before full scale combat ensued?

This episode in American diplomacy seems to have been forgotten, but Gary Bass’ fine book brings it to light and forces one to question the cavalier attitude Kissinger and Nixon felt for the people of southwest Asia typified by the president’s characterization of Pakistan as “they’re just a bunch of brown goddamn Moslems.” (216)  The tactics employed by Kissinger and Nixon to try and bend India’s will to US interests during the war were appalling as Nixon gave the Soviet Union deadlines, encouraged the Chinese to scare India, and dispatching the USS Enterprise task force into the Gulf of Bengal.  When Pakistani forces suffered the loss of equipment in large quantities, Nixon answered Yahya’s request for arms by gaining the support of the Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan to transfer US equipment to Pakistan.  With shades of the future Iran-Contra travesty over Nicaragua, the US promised to replace the equipment once the war ended despite the fact that it was illegal.  As the war was finally brought to a conclusion, the vindictive Nixon reemerged as he wanted to punish India, liberals domestically, and anyone who had opposed his policies during the previous ten months.  Once a ceasefire was a foregone conclusion, Nixon said, “I’d like to do it in a certain way that pisses on the Indians.” (319)  Bass’ book is based on exemplary primary research and should be considered the most complete work on the events in southwest Asia in 1971, and should attract anyone interested in a largely forgotten topic that has not gotten its due.

(Nixon and Kissinger in the Oval Office)