DEFIANT: THE POWs WHO ENDURED VIETNAM’S MOST INFAMOUS PRISON, THE WOMEN WHO FOUGHT FOR THEM, AND THE ONE WHO NEVER RETURNED by Alvin Townley

(a cell in the Hanoi Hilton, Hoa Lo Prison)

For those individuals who were in awe of Laura Hillenbrand’s description of the imprisonment of Louis Zamperini in her book UNBROKEN, the emotions that you experienced will be repeated many times over should you choose to read Alvin Townley’s new book DEFIANT: THE POWS WHO ENDURED VIETNAM’S MOST INFAMOUS PRISON, THE WOMEN WHO FOUGHT FOR THEM AND THE ONE WHO NEVER RETURNED.   Townley recreates the experiences of America’s POWs from the Vietnam War.  Instead of presenting a general account that encompasses all POWs, Townley focuses on eleven men, who became known as the “Alcatraz eleven,” ten of whom returned from their ordeal and one who did not.  The author takes you inside the North Vietnamese prison system during the war as we follow each individual from their training, their war experiences, culminating in their being shot down over North Vietnam and their capture and imprisonment.  The men were imprisoned and tortured by their captors and the story Townley relates is one of the human spirit overcoming the most unimaginable events that one might create in one’s imagination.  Jerry Coffee, one of the POWs summarized their feelings in conversation with James Stockdale, the ranking leader of the “Alcatraz eleven” by quoting from the poem “Invictus:”

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul. (259)

From the outset of the book Townley addresses the controversies that surround America’s involvement in Vietnam.  Through the eyes of Commander James Stockdale we experience the chaos of August 4, 1964 and the reported North Vietnamese attacks on the USS Turner Joy and USS Maddox.  Stockdale witnessed events in the cockpit of his F-8 Crusader and saw little evidence of the attack on the USS Maddox.  These events were manipulated by President Lyndon Johnson to force through Congress the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (passed the Senate 98-2) and put the United States on a course that would result in the quagmire of Vietnam.  Townley does an excellent job integrating the political and military events that took place throughout the incarceration of the POWs.  The author provides analysis and cause and effect decisions that affected the men.  The Johnson administration’s policy of having the families of the downed fliers “keep quiet” did not allay the daily anxiety faced by the spouses and ended in the formation of the League of Wives of American Vietnam Prisoners of War in 1967 under the leadership of Sybil Stockdale and Louise Mulligan.  The role of the wives is integral to the story that is recounted as these woman refused to accept government stonewalling.  Finally, at the end of the Johnson administration they took it upon themselves to educate and bring to the attention of the American people the plight of their husbands.  With the election of Richard Nixon they found an administration that was more open to their requests. Though manipulated at times for domestic and diplomatic reasons, the actions of the US government changed and it carried over to the prisons in and around Hanoi and engendered a change in the torture policy pursued by Camp authorities employed against their husbands.

The book provides moving description of the torture that the POWs experienced.  The North Vietnamese government’s “Enemy Proselytizing Department’s” goal was to gain information from the POWs that could be used as propaganda against the United States.  When individual POWs were brought individually for interrogation they tried to follow the four rules of conduct that the prisoners developed under the leadership of Stockdale.  When they refused to speak, using the Geneva Convention as a shield they were told by their captors that “you are not a prisoner of war…Your government has not declared war upon the Vietnamese people.  You must answer my questions.  You are protected by no international law.” (55) Their rationale was that the POWs were criminals and that justified the application of torture.  Townley goes into intimate detail describing the torture techniques and their affect on the men.  All eleven were broken mentally and physically at one time or another and gave in to their captors demands.  This provoked tremendous guilt on the part of the POWs as they felt they had let their country and comrades down.  Part of the reason they were able to survive the demeaning conditions and mental and physical cruelty they suffered was the bond that was fostered under the leadership senior officers.   These officers helped develop a communication system within the prison through the use of a code employed during the Korean War.  One of the captives, Captain Carlyle “Smitty” Harris had overheard the use of a five by five alphabetic grid during an Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape School he attended before he was deployed, and helped educate the others in its use.  The communication network relied on tapping and other ingenious methods to keep as many prisoners in the loop as possible.  The North Vietnamese officials tried repeatedly to end all communication by torturing the men but were never able to shut it down.  The ability to communicate provided the men companionship and sanity throughout their ordeal and reflects the amazing resourcefulness they developed in captivity.

Townley discusses all eleven POWs but focuses the most on senior officers, Commanders James Stockdale and Jeremiah Denton.  By 1966 the North Vietnamese camp authorities told them “to choose the path of cooperation and lenient treatment or the path of resistance and punishment; they sought to separate the potentially cooperative from the stubbornly intransigent.” (113)  all eleven men chose the path of “resistance and punishment” and paid dearly for their decisions.  In a sense as the POWs pursued their intransigent attitude they became role models for each other and they looked at each other as positive examples which allowed them to cope with all attempts to break them physically and mentally.

In October, 1967 the men left the “Hanoi Hilton” and were transferred to a former French citadel one mile away.  The conditions were brutal, the torture increased, and many were subjected to further isolation; this prison was nicknames, Alcatraz.  The rhythm of captivity was ongoing, for example, a POW would be asked to write an apology or condemnation of American policy.  The POW would refuse and then he would be subjected to the most gruesome torture techniques.  Finally, the POW would succumb to write whatever he was ordered to.  This would continue in Alcatraz over and over for all eleven captives.  The only let up took place was when Ho Chi Minh died on September 2, 1969 and was replaced by Le Duan in the North Vietnamese hierarchy.  In addition to Ho’s death, Sybil Stockdale and Louise Mulligan’s organizational pressure on the Nixon administration led to a press conference were the US government finally went public with the information they had on prisoner treatment.  As a result in December, 1970, for the first time, Hanoi released the names of 368 POWs. (301)  Though torture was rare in the final years of captivity, the affects of imprisonment remained.

(homecoming, February, 1973)

As the negotiations in Paris finally bared fruit the men were released and returned to their families in February, 1973.  The question that dominated my thinking as I read Townley’s account was how these men survived their experience, some as many as eight years in captivity.  According to James Stockdale it was not his training, “rather [it was] his mind, the faith shared among prisoners, and the love of family, who now awaited his imminent return had kept him alive during the horrid term of imprisonment.” (348)   Upon their release Townley artfully brings the reader to the tarmac as the POWs arrive home to meet their spouses and children, some of whom they did not know since they were babies when they left.  As you read the authors description of the reunions it is very difficult to maintain dry eyes.  This is a book that should be read by all as not to forget the 58,000 deaths and over 300,000 wounded that the Vietnam War caused, as well as the trials that our current military families have suffered in the two wars that the United States has fought since 2001.

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THE MASTER OF RAIN by Tom Bradby

(Shanghai, circa 1926)

Set in Shanghai in 1926, Tom Bradby’s first novel published in the United States begins with the murder of a Russian girl in her apartment.  The murder is a brutal one and the investigation that follows lures the reader into the seamier side of Shanghai at a time when China is splintered between the Guomindang, under the leadership of Chang Kai-Shek; the emerging Chinese Communist Party led by Mao Zedong; and the various European interests that date back to the unequal treaties of the 19th century.  THE MASTER OF RAIN, a title chosen for its relationship to a Chinese legend is a suspenseful novel that contains countless twists and turns that continue to the last page of the epilogue.  The story centers on Richard Field who left Scotland to join the International Settlement police force in Shanghai.  Field is an idealist who will soon learn the cruelties and corruption that make up daily life in the city.  Field will investigate the murder of Lena Orlov and will be drawn into a situation that he could never have fathomed when he arrived in China.

As the plot unfolds the reader is given an accurate portrayal of the political and economic situation in China in the mid-1920s.  The undercurrent of the civil war between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party is ever present.  Historical figures such as Michael Borodin, Chiang Kai-Shek, and Mao Zedong make cameo appearances to lend authenticity to the story.  The underworld of Shanghai is controlled by Lu Huang, a Chinese version of Al Capone in association with various westerners.  Lu possesses people as if they were objects, and controls the opium trade in conjunction with western elements, and all aspects of the city’s governing body including the police through graft and murder.

There are a number of interesting relationships that are developed throughout the novel.  Field falls in love with one of Lu’s “possessions,” another Russian girl, Natasha Medvedev and the reader follows the ebb and flow of their interactions.  Caprisi, a detective who works with Field, who arrived in China from Chicago, forms an interesting partnership with Field as he tries to protect him from himself and deal with his own demons.  Throughout the story Field tries to maintain his idealism, but when confronted by the drug trade, prostitution, and political corruption, he has to finally make his own deal with the devil as the book comes to a close.  The cast of colorful characters is well developed as the plot line keeps shifting and at times the reader is not sure where the story is leading.  After following the social and political undercurrent described in THE MASTER OF RAIN it is not surprising that following World War II, China would be taken over by the Communist Party.  The period Bradby writes about reflects how little westerners valued the lives of the Chinese people and how they were exploited for over a century.

THE BULLY PULPIT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF JOURNALISM by Doris Kearns Goodwin

One of the most important friendships in American History was the relationship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.  They had a strong bond that lasted for years and then over a short period of time their friendship began to sour resulting in a schism in the Republican Party that caused them to lose the presidential election of 1912 to the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.  Many historians have reached numerous conclusions as to why Teddy and Will went from being the best of friends to political enemies.  In her new book, THE BULLY PULPIT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT, WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT, AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF JOURNALISM, Pulitzer Prize winning historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin goes beyond the issue of friendship between Roosevelt and Taft and has written three books in one that she masterfully integrates as she presents her narrative.  First, the reader is offered a detailed biography of Theodore Roosevelt, next we are exposed to detailed biography of William Howard Taft, and lastly, and most importantly Goodwin explores the world of investigative journalism, what Roosevelt eventually referred to as the “muckrakers,” primarily through a history of McClure’s Magazine and their well known stable of journalists.  Goodwin does a remarkable job synthesizing a vast amount of material as she merges the lives of S.S. McClure, Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, William Allen White, Lincoln Steffens, and others throughout her narrative.  The main strength of the book is her argument that it was the influence of these investigative journalists that fostered the Progressive reform era at the turn of the twentieth century.  She argues further that Roosevelt’s colorful personality and drive allowed him to develop reciprocal relationships with these writers that fostered public pressure on a small group of conservative Senate Republicans that brought about the reforms of the Roosevelt era. Goodwin writes, “this generation of gifted reporters ushered in a new generation of investigative reporting that allowed Theodore Roosevelt to turn the presidency into the ‘bully pulpit’ to achieve reform.” (xiii)  On the other hand, Taft’s personality and laid back approach to politics did not allow him to achieve the same type of working relationships with the press and he lost the ability to codify and expand upon Roosevelt’s legacy, “underscoring the pivotal importance of the ‘bully pulpit’ in presidential leadership.” (xiv)  In the background, Goodwin tells the story of the friendship between these two men and why it did not survive the political theater of the day.

The narrative begins with the standard biographical information of both men.  In terms of Roosevelt there is nothing that is really new as this story has been well mined by the likes of Kathleen Dalton, Edmund Morris, Henry Pringle and others.  The information on Taft is more interesting in that fewer biographies of the twenty-seventh president have been written.  In terms of Goodwin’s thesis what is important at the outset is how she compares the personality traits of the two men as they mature as individuals and politicians.  We learn that as a child Roosevelt was a fragile and sickly and developed “a fierce determination to escape an invalid’s fate [that] led him to transform his body and timid demeanor through strenuous work.  Taft, on the other hand, blessed from birth with robust health, would allow his physical strength and energy to gradually dissipate over the years into a state of obesity.” (34)  At Harvard, Roosevelt was a “slender young man with side-whiskers, eyeglasses, and bright red cheeks.  While Taft’s sturdy physique, genial disposition, and emphatic manner won immediate popularity at Yale.” (42) On  the one hand was an individual who suffered from a  inferiority complex who would work his entire life striving for superiority to overcome this self-perception, while Taft developed into a secure person who he was self-aware and accepted his limitations.  According to Goodwin, these traits explain a great deal about the course of their careers and their successes and failures.

Goodwin’s frequent verbatim entries into her narrative allow the reader to feel as if they are experiencing life with Roosevelt and Taft.  Both men had the good fortune of growing up as favored children in close knit families.  Where Taft “developed an accommodating disposition to please a giving father who cajoled him to do better,” Roosevelt “forever idolized a dead father who cajoled him to do more and do better.” (48)  The correspondence that Goodwin includes between these sons and their fathers provide interesting insights into their formative years and development of their personalities.  Roosevelt learned early on in his career as a New York State Assemblyman the value of the press as he sought a journalistic alliance when he went after a corrupt judge who was a puppet of financier Jay Gould, and learned about poverty from touring tenements with Samuel Gompers.  The assembly and his stint as New York City Police Commissioner provided Roosevelt with an important education, as opposed to Taft who shunned the very spotlight that the future Rough Rider craved.  Taft favored to fight his battles from the inside, trusting logic, reason, and facts.  Taft always tried to avoid controversy, and would hardly ever compromise his principles as he tried to balance the rights of labor with the rights of capital as a superior court judge.

As both men evolved in their careers Goodwin relates the deeply personal details of their personal lives.  Goodwin does a nice job exploring Roosevelt’s emotional trauma whether dealing with the deaths of his father, mother, or his first wife Alice.  Goodwin provides intimate details reflecting a side of Roosevelt that was not open to the public.  His “recourtship” and marriage of his childhood friend, Edith Carow is especially enlightening as Roosevelt had pledged never to remarry, and reflect the author’s insights and handling of their rekindled relationship, a topic that seems missing from most biographies of Roosevelt.  For Taft, the love of his life was Nellie Herron who after their marriage would be the driving force behind her husband’s career.  At each level ranging from his role as Solicitor-General, a judgeship on the Federal 6th Circuit District Court, Governor-Generalship of the Philippines, as Secretary of War and then his presidential campaigns, Nellie was his most trusted advisor and confidante.  Later, when she suffers a stroke and is incapacitated, Taft will make a series of mistakes that greatly affect his career.

As Goodwin breezes along with the narrative through Roosevelt’s presidency, coverage is not equally distributed.  The emphasis of the first half of the book is on Roosevelt, followed by significant sections on investigative journalists, and the remainder on Taft.  From my perspective I would have liked more emphasis to have been placed on the journalistic component of the story because Goodwin brings a great detail of refreshing new material to the fore.  Her discussion of S.S. McClure, the founder of the magazine of that name is wonderful.  Throughout the book the reader is presented with an egomaniac, who suffers from manic-depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but despite these “limitations,” the man is a literary genius.  McClure travels the world to find writers for his new publication with emphasis on the literary, but also investigative articles that will propel a new generation of writers to the American reading public that will foster careers allowing them entrance into the corridors of power, particularly that of Theodore Roosevelt, and engender a tremendous amount of influence as they prepare articles that support major legislative reforms.  The private lives of Tarbell, Baker, Steffens and White are chronicled as well as their personal relationship which created a family-like atmosphere at McClure’s.  Ida Tarbell’s research and writings dealing with trusts, especially John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil, and examination of the tariff structure in the United States are thoughtful and set the stage for Roosevelt’s reputation as a trust buster and a proponent of lower tariffs.  John Stannard Baker’s investigation into labor practices and political corruption are the basis for labor legislation and a movement to reform representative democracy.  Lincoln Steffens’ SHAME OF THE CITIES educates the American public about political bossism and corruption on the state and local level.  William Allen White served as Roosevelt’s eyes and ears in the Midwest from his perch as editor of the Emporia Gazette headquartered in the small town of Emporia, Kansas. Lastly, Upton Sinclair, who was not part of the McClure’s team, novel, THE JUNGLE sent a message to congress about conditions in the meat-packing industry that culminated in the creation of the Food and Drug Administration and regulation of the meat-packing industry, and Jacob Riis, also not part of the McClure’s family educated Roosevelt on the role of poverty in the United States.  In all cases Roosevelt established a relationship with these journalists, inviting them to the White House, sharing speeches with them in advance, and gaining their confidence that he proof read some of their articles.  This relationship, along with the publicity that McClure’s and other magazines engendered created a climate whereby the Republican conservatives in the Senate who were tied to different industrial trusts eventually had to compromise and give in. As a result Goodwin’s conclusion as to the historical importance of this group of writers cannot be underestimated.

Much of the book is focused on domestic issues but certain important foreign policy problems receive coverage.  The traditional story of the Spanish-American War and Roosevelt’s role are related and its affect on the Rough Rider’s growing political profile.  As a result of the war the United States acquired control of the Philippines and it is here that Taft reenters the picture as Governor-General of the archipelago.  It is at this juncture of his career that Taft is happiest.  He enjoys the everyday intricacies of governing and he treats the Filipino people as fairly as possible when compared to the imperialists in the United States.  It is interesting to compare Taft’s views on race with that of the social Darwinists views of Roosevelt.  Once he is recalled by Roosevelt, who succeeded to the presidency following the McKinley assassination, Taft delays his departure as long as he can until he takes over as Secretary of War.  The other major foreign policy issue that the Roosevelt administration is known for is the building of the Panama Canal, or as Roosevelt stated, “I stole it!”  Here Goodwin offers a perfunctory approach, but there is little to add to David McCullough’s THE PATHWAY BETWEEN THE SEAS.

The best way to compare how Roosevelt and Taft approached reform and used the levers of presidential power is to compare a few of the many problems that Goodwin explores in depth.  The best place to begin is to develop a definition of what progressive reform was in the eyes of Roosevelt which Goodwin does not do.  For Roosevelt all trusts were not bad, and conservation was not radical environmentalism.  In Robert Wiebe’s BUSINESS AND REFORM AND THE SEARCH FOR ORDER we learn that Roosevelt believed in the concept of “efficiency.”  If a trust was deemed to be efficient and benefited the American people and they abided by certain government strictures, Roosevelt saw no reason to go after them.  As far as conservation, Roosevelt wanted to conserve America’s land and resources for future generations, but he also allowed their development, if done in a practical manner, and benefited society as a whole.  It is interesting that most progressives were not wide eyed radicals, but mostly middle class individuals who wanted to grow the American economy for the benefit of all.  In examining Roosevelt’s anti-trust suit against the Northern Securities Company, the Beef Trust, and Standard Oil, we see an executive who uses the levers of power and the publicity generated by his investigative journalist compatriots.  In gaining passage of his reform program which turned the 59th Congress into one of the most productive in American history Roosevelt had to overcome the opposition of a small group of Republican conservative senators who could block any legislation, sound familiar!  Roosevelt fed information to Ray Stannard Baker who wrote a six part series for McClure’s, entitled, “The Railroads on Trial.”  Goodwin provides interesting excerpts of their correspondence and the information that passed between the two was essential in creating a bill to set maximum rates railroad companies could charge.  After wheeling and dealing, the Hepburn Act emerged that allowed the Interstate Commerce Commission to set maximum rates.  After reading THE JUNGLE by Upton Sinclair, Roosevelt sent investigators to Chicago, which in the end resulted in the Meat Inspection Act.  Finally, Roosevelt met with Mark Sullivan the author of a series of articles for Collier’s Magazine that described the contents of the food Americans consumed as well as industrial practices in their preparation, the result was the Pure Food and Drug Act.  As in most cases, Roosevelt would use the “bully pulpit” to gain public support for his reform legislation.  As Goodwin describes further, it was not uncommon for the president to travel across the country by railroad to educate the American public and gain their support.

In comparing Roosevelt’s approach with that of Taft after he assumed the presidency there are two glaring examples that reflect poorly on the Ohio native.   The tariff issue has dogged most presidents throughout American history.  Taft was seen as a conservative Republican who was tied to eastern corporate interests.  Taft himself wanted to lower the tariff on certain items and make it easier for the Philippines to export goods to the United States.  Taft’s approach was to gain support for legislation through personal relationships rather than “the big stick through the press.”  During the 1908 presidential campaign Taft promised tariff reform.  When Ida Tarbell wrote a series of articles explaining how high tariffs plagued the poor Taft was in a political corner.  Much like President Obama he had recalcitrant conservatives to deal with, particularly Speaker of the House Joseph Cannon.  Taft feeling he had no choice decided to support Cannon as he believed it would be very difficult to oust him from the Speaker’s chair.  The Payne-Aldrich Tariff that emerged did little to satisfy Republican insurgents who had enough with the conservative minority in Congress.  If that was not bad enough Taft’s public declaration after meeting with Cannon that the “conservative leadership’s promise to prepare an honest and thorough revision of the tariff” made him optimistic for the future reflected how weak he appeared. “Perhaps it was inevitable that Taft’s temperament-his aversion to dissension and preference for personal persuasion-would ultimately lead him to work within the system rather than mobilize external pressure from the “bully pulpit.” (588)

Another example of Taft’s political implosion in relation to his relationship with Roosevelt took place while the former president was traveling in Africa.  Gifford Pinchot, the Director of the Forest Service was a close friend of Roosevelt and shared his conservation views.  When Taft became president he replaced John Garfield as Secretary of the Interior with Richard Ballinger.  The first dust up occurred because when Roosevelt left the White House he had withdrawn 1.5 million acres of federal land along sixteen rivers in western states to prevent corporate takeovers of the land as the railroad and oil industry had done.  Upon taking office, Ballinger who was a former corporate lawyer restored the land to the public domain leading Pinchot to publicly condemn the action that he felt would result in the creation of a “waterpower trust.”  Next, Ballinger allowed a Seattle syndicate access to 5000 acres of Alaskan land for development.  It turned out that the spokesperson for the syndicate was tied to coal interests and before he was appointed as Interior Secretary Ballinger had been their legal counsel.  Goodwin explores this situation in her usual detail and points out that Ballinger may have done nothing wrong, but insurgents led by Pinchot never forgave Taft for firing John Garfield and a political scandal ensued culminating in a nasty congressional investigation.  Whether this was a true scandal is irrelevant because of the way Taft handled it.  When Louis Brandeis the attorney for the Pinchot forces learned that certain documents were predated by the Attorney General all was lost.  Taft should have fired Ballinger, but instead kept him on even after the investigation.  Goodwin is correct in stating, “The bitter struggle had consumed the attention of the country for more than a year.  Reformers’ faith in the president, already weakened by the tariff struggle, had plummeted.”  (627)  Once Roosevelt was brought up to date by Pinchot as to what had occurred the Roosevelt-Taft relationship was at the tipping point.  What would push it over the edge was the Taft administration’s filing of an anti-trust suit against U.S. Steel.   With Roosevelt’s return to the United States and his embankment on a sixteen week tour of the west, a progressive-conservative split in the Republican Party was at hand.

The U.S. Steel issue angered Roosevelt because during the Panic of 1907 it was the work of J.P. Morgan in agreement with the then president that if Morgan assisted the government his company would not be the target of an anti-trust suit.  This led to accusations and counter accusations headlined in newspapers across the United States between Roosevelt and Taft forces.  By 1912 the Republican Party rupture was complete.  Goodwin provides in depth analysis and details of the split that led Roosevelt to challenge Taft for the Republican nomination, and failing that, forming the Bull Moose Party that led to the election of Woodrow Wilson.  The campaign was extremely nasty and one could never imagine that the two former presidents would ever rekindle their relationship.  Goodwin does their relationship justice as she describes the emotional reunion before Roosevelt’s death.  In 1921, President Harding nominated Taft as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a position he longed for his entire career.

Goodwin’s final analysis of their Roosevelt-Taft relationship is accurate.  When she states in closing that the “two men had strikingly different temperaments [but] their opposing qualities actually proved complimentary, allowing them to forge a powerful camaraderie and rare collaboration” that during Roosevelt’s presidency brought progressive reform to the nation.  Under Taft, that legacy may seem to have been tarnished, but there were many progressive reforms that seem to have slipped past the public’s awareness.  After reading Goodwin’s encyclopedic narrative my opinion of Roosevelt remains the same, a man driven by a large ego who was responding to unconscious needs that revert back to his earlier life.  For Taft my view has changed; he was exceptionally competent in many areas, and though limited by his own personality and loyalty to what he perceived to be constitutionally correct emerges as the larger man (not physically!) than his lifelong friend.  Goodwin has mined an enormous amount of material as she has done in all her books.  If you are interested in exploring an age in American history that is rich in substance and contains many interesting characters then sit back and enjoy Goodwin’s latest work.

THE MONUMENTS MEN by Robert M. Edsel

One of the hidden stories of World War II was the work of a group of American soldiers and their allies who worked tirelessly to save, track down, and recover the cultural treasures stolen by the Nazis. Most of these individuals were a part of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section (MFAA) of the United States Army during the war. At a time when Hollywood is releasing a major film on their work in a few weeks I can only hope that the portrayal of these unselfish and hard working people measures up to Robert M. Edsel’s THE MONUMENTS MEN, which chronicles their amazing accomplishments. Edsel tells the story of nine individuals who are representative of the 350 Monument Men who were part of the American effort to save the world’s cultural heritage from the Nazis. These individuals include their recognized leader Lieutenant George Stout, Second Lieutenant James J. Rorimer who was able to locate massive amounts of seized works of art, Rose Valland, a French woman who worked with the resistance whose knowledge of what was seized in France was encyclopedic, Captain Robert Posey, Captain Walter Hancock, and Jacques Jaujard, the director of the French National Museum. Obviously there are many other heroes, but Edsel concentrates on those mentioned. As the war progressed the Germans would steal massive amounts of art as they conquered each nation. They looted museums, archives, churches, homes, in the name of the Thousand Year Reich. By the end of the war the Allies “discovered over 1000 repositories in southern Germany alone, containing millions of works of art and other cultural treasures.” The members of the MFAA worked diligently to locate, preserve, and return their findings to their countries of origin. These included “church bells, stained glass, religious items, municipal records, manuscripts, books, libraries, wine, gold, diamonds, and even insect collections.” (400) Nazi theft was based on Adolf Hitler’s dream to make Berlin, the new Rome; and his birthplace, Linz, Austria the new Aachen of European culture. The goal of his minions was to build and stock his Fuhrermuseum by pillaging the museums and private art collections throughout Europe.

Edsel tells the story of the Monument Men by interspersing Nazi documents and letters from these men home to their families throughout the narrative. What we learn early on is that Nazi leaders from Hitler on down, especially Hermann Goring and Alfred Rosenberg issued orders, not only for entire collections, but specific paintings that they wanted for themselves. These men were in charge of the ransacking of Europe and were in competition with each other and other Nazi officials to acquire as much of Europe’s cultural heritage as they could. The chapter that describes the German seizure of Michelangelo’s Madonna provides insight into how the Nazis operated as they continued to steal and loot art treasures even after the war had turned against them.

Edsel does an excellent job personalizing the stories of each of the Monument Men he writes about. The MFAA were not an army unit, but groups of individuals who worked together on a daily basis. These men were scattered throughout the American army, with individuals being attached to different army groups, i.e.; Robert Posey, from rural Alabama was attached to Patton’s Third Army; James Rorimer, a rising curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, was attached to the United States Seventh Army. These men were given a broad mission to locate and preserve as much of Europe’s treasures as they could as they fanned out into France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany. When Walker Hancock, a sculptor from St. Louis entered Chartres he found the cathedral almost destroyed by the Germans. Hancock and a demolitions expert were able to locate twenty-two sets of explosives and defuse them to save as much of the cathedral as possible. We follow George Stout, an expert in the then obscure field of art restoration as he helps locate a Dutch mountainside tunnel at Maastricht that served as a Nazi Repository for the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam. Included in this repository was Rembrandt’s Night Watch. Edsel provides an interesting description how the Louvre Museum was emptied before the war by French officials. The Mona Lisa was taken out on a stretcher and transported by ambulance. However once the Germans took Paris in June, 1940, Hitler who believed he was entitled to the spoils of war, and his henchmen went to “great lengths to establish new laws and procedures to ‘legalize’ the looting activities that would follow.” (117) the Germans took whatever treasure they desired and Hitler wanted to use these art objects as collateral in negotiations.

Edsel recounts the difficulties the Monument Men faced in carrying out their mission. They had no central office to report to and a structure in place to supply them. They did not possess any useful communications equipment and seemed at times to operate in a vacuum. Cameras would seem to have been a necessity, but very few were available and none were new. Transportation was a nightmare as no vehicles were assigned to them, though one of them was able to abscond with a Volkswagen mini-bus, whose engine was shot and did not have a windshield! When the landing at Normandy took place it took weeks and sometimes few months for all of them to cross the English Channel into France. Their work was not considered a priority for many officers and they had no one in the rear echelon to plead their case. Despite these challenges they were able to do a remarkable job that Edsel describes in detail.

Perhaps the most interesting relationship that existed was between Rose Vallard and James Rorimer. Vallard was a curator at the Louvre who was in charge of the Jeu de Paume, a structure that was built as an indoor tennis court by Napoleon III, but had been converted to exhibition space for foreign contemporary art. During the war the Nazis used the Jeu de Paume “as their clearinghouse for the spoils of France. For four years, the private collections of French citizens, especially Jews, moved through its galleries like water flowing downhill to the Reich.” (177) It was a very efficient operation and Vallard observed it all. She made copious notes about what was taken, where things were stored, and how objects were transported, including their destination. Vallard had ties to the French Resistance, particularly her friend and compatriot, Jacques Jaujard. James Rorimer was assigned to Paris and developed a relationship with Vallard. It took time to build trust between the two, as Vallard who was the key to recovering vast amounts of art, was suspicious of everyone. Once they were able to gain respect for each other Vallard’s work enabled Rorimer to locate 175 repositories alone in the territory of the Seventh Army, as well as numerous others, including the cache at Mad Ludwig II of Bavaria’s castle at Neuschwanstein.

The stories that Edsel tells in many cases are unbelievable. When Robert Posey suffers from an impacted wisdom tooth a little boy in Trier refers him to a dentist. The dentist takes care of the tooth but tells him about his son, an art scholar. He brings Posey and his partner PVT 1st Class Lincoln Kistein, a legendary cultural impresario from New York, to meet his son who turns out to be Dr. Hermann Bunjes one of Goring’s top art officials. The information they glean eventually brings them to Altaussee salt mines outside Saltzburg that stored more than 1,687 paintings in addition to Michelangelo’s Bruges Madonna. The stories are endless as Edsel follows these men on their recovery missions, brings the reader inside the American command under Eisenhower as they come across the Buchenwald concentration camp, and describes how paintings by Rembrandt, Raphael, and Van Eyck etc. are recovered.

Despite the superb work of the Monument Men during and after the war many examples of Europe’s cultural heritage, whether from museums or taken from private collections, remain lost. In the 1990s there was a renewed interest in this subject and periodically we hear about paintings found in attics or basements, and law suits to adjudicate these findings determining the rightful owners after fifty years or more. It took a long time for these men to gain recognition from the American military and public for their work. Edsel’s research along with the upcoming film should foster this process even further. Though most of these men have been recognized posthumously, Edsel deserves a tremendous amount of credit for bringing their work to our attention.