AMAZON UNBOUND: JEFF BEZOS AND THE INVENTION OF A GLOBAL EMPIRE by Brad Stone

Amazon headquarters located in Silicon Valley Jan 24, 2020 Sunnyvale / CA / USA - Amazon headquarters located in Silicon Valley, San Francisco bay area Amazon.com Stock Photo

Remember when Amazon first came online in 1995, they would discount books by 33-40%.  This pricing lasted for a good 10-15 years then the discounts were reduced under the theory that once they conditioned you as a customer, they could slowly increase their profit margins.  After a year of Covid-19 restrictions Amazon’s popularity and bottom line boomed as people were sequestered at home.  Today the discount on books is usually 10-15%, and sometimes less, reflecting Amazon’s commitment to the bottom line.  Only speaking of book pricing, but I have noticed similar trends with other products.  The question is how we arrived at the present juncture, who is responsible, what are the historic trends when it comes to Amazon, and lastly what role has Jeff Bezos played in the process.  These questions are answered in full along with a partial biographical portrait of Bezos and how he built Amazon into the most dominant consumer source in the world and a company worth $1.76 trillion today in Brad Stone’s new book, AMAZON UNBOUND: JEFF BEZOS AND THE INVENTION OF A GLOBAL EMPIRE.

Stone, the senior executive editor of global technology at Bloomberg News has written an in depth account of Amazon’s phenomenal growth from 2010 through 2021 focusing on the managerial style of Jeff Bezos and his incredible ability to support, develop, and implement projects that would be worth billions.  Stone also digs deeply into the culture at Amazon and its mantra of putting the customer first, however, that “bumper sticker” is disingenuous as its record of employee safety, philanthropy, and demanding a certain belief system from executives and others reflects.

WIRED25 Summit: WIRED Celebrates 25th Anniversary With Tech Icons Of The Past & Future
(Jeff Bezos)

Bezos’ genius and overbearing personality are on full display in Stone’s account.  According to the author the watershed year for Amazon’s overwhelming dominance in multiple markets with varied products is 2010.  From its inception through 2010 Amazon was not a very profitable company, but the infrastructure groundwork for what Bezos was able to achieve was in place.  Stone covers every facet of the Amazon experience and how it developed into the economic behemoth it is today.  Stone delves into the development of Alexa, Kindle, Amazon Go, Amazon Web Services, Amazon Prime, Amazon Prime Video, Amazon advertising, the creation of Fulfillment Centers, its success in India, development of third party sellers, and the purchase of Whole Foods and the Washington Post in detail.

Bezos was the driving force behind Amazon’s technology innovations harnessing artificial intelligence, robotics, and other ingenious developments.  However, his management style pushed his engineers to the breaking point in many instances and his nasty commentary when not happy at meetings are legend.  Bezos could be “remorseless with those that did not meet his exacting standards, but he seemed to have an unusual wellspring of patience for those who practiced the challenging act of invention.”  Bezos gets a great deal of the credit for the Amazon experience and success, but he had tremendous executive talent and engineers to work with.  Stone explores the work of people such as Dilip Kumar, Greg Hart, Andy Jassy, Dave Clark, Jeff Wilke, Stephanie Landry among many others.  Bezos and his deputies believed that algorithms could do the job better and faster than people.  In many ways it explains the insensitivity that exists at Amazon toward certain employees especially in Fulfillment centers. 

Amazon's Newest Robotics Fulfillment Center Holds Grand Opening In Orlando : News Photo
(Amazon Fulfillment Center)

According to Stone the ultimate goal was turning Amazon’s retail business into a self-service technology platform that could generate cash with a minimum amount of human intervention.  In accomplishing their mission, a number of negatives emerge.  Stone’s research uncovers a male dominated culture at Amazon reflected in the lack of women in upper echelon positions.  Women complained about the working environment and deals made with the likes of Harvey Weinstein, Woody Allen, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Tomba, and Ray Price all for naught.  Female anger emerged at the same time the “Metoo” movement gathered momentum as sexual inuendo, jokes, touching etc. came to the fore.  Casting a net around Amazon working conditions and treatment of employees also does not enhance the company’s reputation.  The use of robotics at Fulfillment Centers created repetitive motion/health issues; pressure on workers to gather products quickly and package them; worker performance was monitored  by tyrannical invisible robots, poor benefits and low pay, periodically firing people at the lowest level of the employee chain, in addition to the constant threat of termination, all take the luster off of Amazon’s workplace propaganda.  Further, Bezos and company are very anti-union and went out of their way to expand in areas, i.e.; airplane procurement and location which were also anti-union.  During the pandemic when Amazon’s work force passed one million and its annual earnings exceeded $380 billion as sales rose by 37%, the company pursued a virulently anti-union policy.  A way to sum this up is that the monograph highlights genius, innovation, and greed.

Stone is not a stylist, but he has the ability to explain a great deal of technical jargon in a very easy manner.  Whether explaining the role of artificial intelligence in the creation of Alexa or Amazon Go the reader can easily comprehend the arguments presented at executive conferences and meetings, particularly those of engineers.  Stone explores numerous topics aside from the development of new products or strategies that in the end created billions in sales and profits.  A key part of his discussion is not to reinforce the role of retail in Amazon’s success but focus on “Cloud Computing” which generated the revenue to fuel Amazon’s supercharged expansion.  As Mark Levinson points out in his review in the Washington Post, “with cloud computing, an organization can rent computers, programmers and security experts from an external provider such as Amazon instead of maintaining its own data centers. Amazon pioneered cloud computing in the early 2000s, and by the 2010s it was easily the market leader.  Bezos divined that finding new uses for Amazon’s burgeoning cloud infrastructure was the key to the company’s future.”

Bloomberg's Best Photos 2014 : News Photo
(Amazon workers)

Stone’s discussion of the location process for a second headquarters when difficulties developed in Seattle with the city government and the ability to expand facilities is eye opening reflecting Amazon’s insensitivity toward local government.  In addition, the chapter on Amazon Web Services which became the most profitable component of the company is key as was the formation of their own advertising strategy and the creation of an airplane fleet and purchase of delivery vans to bring about next day delivery.

The Amazon story is one of amazement.  How could one company become so powerful economically and culturally as most people seem to consult Amazon on a daily basis, even before the onset of Covid-19 which would allow Amazon to expand exponentially as people had few alternatives to acquire products they needed while they quarantined.  By the end of 2020 “Amazon boasted a $1.6 trillion market cap and Jeff Bezos was worth more than $190 billion.  His wealth had increased more than 70% during the pandemic…a breathtaking achievement.”  Stone stresses that the key aspect of how this was achieved was Bezos’ management style as his underlings knew if the boss had an idea, it was their job to bring it to fruition which in most cases they did.  To his credit Stone has laid out the Amazon success story for the general public, but also its warts.  Though at times the narrative gets bogged down in details it is worth the read if you wonder when you “click” how did it come to that action by your finger for everything you need.

THE LOST BOYS OF MONTAUK: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WIND BLOWN, FOUR MEN WHO VANISHED AT SEA AND THE SURVIVORS THEY LEFT BEHIND by Amanda M. Fairbanks

Montauk Lighthouse and beach - Stock Photo - Images
(Montauk Light House, Montauk, Long Island)

Today Montauk, NY located on the eastern tip of Long Island finds itself in the middle of a major transition.  First, it is a vacation/tourist spot with million dollar homes and easy access to the Atlantic Ocean, Block Island Sound, and numerous freshwater ponds.  Second, are the locals who try to maintain the quaintness and hope to prevent the “Hamptonization” of their town.  It is a struggle as the commercial fishing boats still ply the waters that surround the area, but also it is exposed to more and more people who either settled in year round because of Covid-19 which allowed them to work virtually from anywhere, or others who used their second homes to escape the pandemic that overwhelmed New York City.

In her new book, THE LOST BOYS OF MONTAUK: THE TRUE STORY OF THE WIND BLOWN, FOUR MEN WHO VANISHED AT SEA, AND THE SURVIVORS THEY LEFT BEHIND, Amanda M. Fairbanks, a former reporter for the East Hampton Star and New York Times creates a history of the Montauk region as she presents the lives of Michael Stedman, David Connick, Michael Vigliant, and Scott Clarke who perished at sea on March 29, 1984, and the ramifications of those deaths for those left behind.  Fairbanks examines  the profound shift of Montauk from a working class village. “a drinking town, with a fishing problem,” to a playground for the wealthy.  In addition, the author explores why a fishing accident forty years ago still resonates so strongly in the minds of locals.

MONTAUK, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 13, 2013: Montauk Lost at Sea Memorial by the Montauk Point Lighthouse at the edge of Long Island, New York. 

MONTAUK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13, 2013: Montauk Lost at Sea Memorial by the Montauk Point Lighthouse at the edge of Stock Photo

The book is a heartwarming and judicious account of the accident, what led up to it, how the different personalities involved interacted, and the implications for the future for survivors.  The motivating force in the story is Mike Stedman, a young man who was married to the water.  Whether he was surfing, running a party boat, or becoming a commercial fisherman, Mike was an intense individual who seemed to know what he wanted and did not want anything to get in his way.  His goal in life was to own his own boat and stop working for others, and in 1982 he purchased the “Wind Blown,” a commercial boat out of Freeport, TX.  His wife Mary felt bad karma from the outset, and many believed that the boat which had three previous owners and suffered mechanical difficulties on the trip back from Texas, was not seaworthy enough to engage in commercial shipping in the North Atlantic.

The crew of the Wind Blown formed a brotherhood despite their varied backgrounds economically and socially.  Michael V. and Scott C. were young deckhands from a hardscrabble background while Michael S., and Dave C. came from a privileged background.  Mike and Dave bonded easily as they shared poor relationships with their straight laced fathers and just wanted to be part of the water which their parents could not accept.  The four men worked as a team, many times to exhaustion as bringing in tilefish was very lucrative in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  Fairbanks does a marvelous job explaining the rigorous life of commercial fishermen and its impact on their families.

On March 28, 1984, the National Hurricane Service in New York posted a gale warning, later it issued a winter storm warning as the Montauk Light House reported wind gusts of over 100 mph.  The Wind Blown which had been out to sea for a few days headed back to Montauk and ran into a full blown nor’easter, the worst since 1962.  In describing how the crisis transpired, the author relied on extensive research that included interviews with family members, friends, and local townspeople.  What was clear is that the four young men were well liked and respected throughout the community.  This was highlighted by many contributions that helped pay for the search and rescue operations performed by private groups once the Coast Guard had pronounced that the ship and men had vanished.


(Mary and Mike Stedman and their first child, Chris, in about 1974)

Fairbanks integrates a study of the socio-cultural nature of the region, even providing a history of the tilefish’s migratory patterns and the money it brought to commercial fisherman.  She also focuses on the Maidstone Club and its history to highlight the economic dichotomy that existed as well as racism and anti-Semitism.  It was a club the Connick’s belonged to and it was the epitome of “old money.”  Fairbanks provides insights into many of the characters who spent most of their lives in Montauk and its environs.  Most were fisherman, bar owners, surf shop owners and the like who formed a special bond who resented many of the interlopers that began to pour into Montauk.  Throughout one must keep in mind that Montauk is the largest commercial harbor in New York State.  Its home to the greatest sports fishing on the east coast – species such as shark, tuna, and marlin proliferate at certain times of the year which attracted many outsiders.

The issue of closure for survivors is an important theme that Fairbanks develops.  It is a very complex situation emotionally when no bodies were located, though parts of the Wind Blown and its crews’ personal effects were found.  The Coast Guard did conduct a full five day search that included the Air National Guard and the US Navy. Twenty fishing boats, five planes, and three helicopters scoured the 25,000 square miles of ocean between Block Island and the Delaware coast to no avail. Once completed the privately funded search continued for another ten days, but is that enough for closure?  For many to this day the snuffing out of four promising young lives is still hard to accept.

To Fairbanks’ credit unlike other books on boating disasters she focuses more on the living than the dead.  She also is able to seamlessly integrate the cultural upheavals of the 60s and 70s and the impact on the crew and their families, in addition to the rift between townies and the weekend set from New York.  Fairbanks writes that she “wanted to understand how tragedies become imprinted in our memories, how trauma and grief wend their way through generations and become a kind of inheritance bequeathed to our descendants.”  If this was her goal, she has accomplished it with a well written and poignant book that exhibits a great deal of love, but tremendous sorrow and grief.

Historic American Lighthouses - Montauk New York
(Montauk Light House, Montauk, Long Island)

HITLER’S JEWISH SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF NAZI RACIAL LAWS AND MEN OF JEWISH DESCENT IN THE GERMAN MILITARY by Bryan Mark Rigg

r/Colorization - Werner Goldberg as 'Ideal German Soldier' (from Berliner Tageblatt, 1939) Mischling ancestry
(Werner Goldberg, a Mischlinge seen as the ideal Aryan soldier)

For years I taught Holocaust history and showed my students the film “Europa, Europa” based on the life of Slomo Perel, a story about a young Jewish boy who joins the Hitler Youth and winds up in the Wehrmacht as a means of avoiding persecution and death.  I often wondered how many other young Jews did the same and fought for the Nazi regime.  The answer to that question is clearly laid out in Bryan Mark Rigg’s study, HITLER’S JEWISH SOLDIERS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF NAZI RACIAL LAWS AND MEN OF JEWISH DESCENT IN THE GERMAN MILITARY.

Mischlinge is defined as “half caste, mongrel or hybrid,” the key term that permeates Rigg’s narrative and the vehicle used to categorize half and quarter Jews as designated by the Nazis after the Nuremberg Blood Laws of 1935.  According to Rigg perhaps 150,000 Mischlinge served in the German military  and Adolf Hitler played a central role in the process. 

As Rigg develops his narrative a number of things become clear.  The Nazi reaction to racial laws was not consistent and, in many cases, appeared hypocritical as many Nazis including Hermann Goring, Head of the Luftwaffe did not conform to racial laws.  Many military officials believed that half and quarter Jews were experienced and excellent soldiers who they would need in combat and found Hitler’s anti-Semitism to be irrelevant to the Wehrmacht.  The war was paramount and the use of Mischlinge at least up until the invasion of Russia in June 1941 was the primary concern of German generals.  Following the summer of 1941 more and more Mischlinge would be thrown out of the Wehrmacht and deported to die in Hitler’s ovens as Martin Bormann, a rabid anti-Semite who opposed the concept of the Mischlinge serving in the German military would become Hitler’s secretary and right hand man.

wehrmacht soldier with grenade
(Wehrmacht soldier)

Riggs is determined to explain that the lack of uniformity on the part of Nazis toward Mischlinge was very confusing for these half and quarter Jews and created an Eriksonian identity crisis as they suffered from extreme role confusion.  Many realized that the only way to survive was to enlist or be drafted into the Wehrmacht and prove themselves to be brave and outstanding soldiers.  They believed that this could save their families in addition to themselves.  Many tried to shed their Jewishness as soon as society allowed and others who fought for Austria and Germany in World War I  believed that the assimilation they achieved through their service would assist them.  In the end this approach did not save most from death, though a large number did survive some through luck, some through perseverance and playing the Nazi system ingeniously, and lastly, some received special exemptions from Hitler himself who was intimately involved in categorizing people reflecting his obsession over racial policy.

Riggs approach to his topic does not lead to a smoothly written monograph.  In fact, it reads like a well cited dissertation as he relates countless examples of individuals within the Wehrmacht, the Nazi hierarchy, and Jewish citizens who were greatly affected by Nazi racial policy and the categorization of the Mischlinge.  Riggs stresses the confusion felt by Nazi leadership as the Mischlinge were part German and could be a significant asset in the war.  But Hitler despised most of them as he saw them as invisible and with the ability to infect the Aryan with their inferior blood.

For the Mischlinge themselves they would be deprived of citizenship, the rights to sleep with Aryans, university education, etc.  The racial laws forced Mischlinge to dramatically alter their lifestyle “causing many to live without confidence.”  The result was numerous divorces as people tried to protect themselves, children disowned, and many grandparents rejecting their grandchildren.  In this instance Riggs needs to provide more than anecdotal evidence in discussing how families were destroyed and how individuals came to terms with their loss of identity.

For the Nazis it was very difficult to identify Mischlinge and further they did not have the necessary resources to accomplish the task.  Riggs does provide a historical breakdown of the number of Jews that had fought in the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and other conflicts to arrive at his 150,000 figure which seems accurate.  For the Mischlinge most were unaware they were even Jewish until after 1933.

Riggs effort is well researched.  He provided voluminous foot notes, a strong bibliography, in addition to interviewing over 400 Mischlinge and their relatives, and received access to many of their personal records, both in their possession and government archives. 

Dr. Bryan Mark Rigg
Dr. Bryan Mark Rigg

Despite the valuable information that Riggs provides the title of the book is misleading as historian Richard J. Evans argues that the monograph is not about Jews as is commonly understood, but about Mischlinge or people that were categorized as half or quarter Jews, many of which were unaware that they were Jews in the first place.  These people were neither Jewish by their own identity, religious law, or even Nazi law.  The book’s title is a teaser because it appears to the uninformed that the book is about Jews in the Wehrmacht which is not accurate and many of these Mischlinge were anti-Semites themselves.  Interestingly as historian Jeremy Noakes argues less than 10% of half Jews saw themselves as Jewish, and only 1.2% of quarter Jews considered themselves as Jewish.  Riggs had an opportunity to explore the nature of Jewish identity beyond Nazi definitions, but he chooses to forgo that opportunity.  Further, Riggs relates that with few exceptions, none of the men he interviewed had any idea of the abuse and massacres that occurred as the Nazis tried to exterminate German and European Jewry.  Riggs concludes that “like most other Germans, many Mischlinge knew about deportation, but did not equate them with systematic murder.”  Further, Mischling serving in the Wehrmacht did not understand  what was happening to their loved ones.  Most claimed they learned what happened to their relatives after the war.

Riggs is successful in digging up a great deal of fascinating detail, but he does not really add to the historiography of Nazi Germany except for Hitler’s obsession with minute points of racial doctrine and how that concern was translated and executed by Wehrmacht leadership and German soldiers in general.  I agree with  David J. Fine in his H-Net Review in the Humanities and Social Sciences of July 2004 that the book “will be of interest to students of the Wehrmacht and Nazi racial policy, [but] it falls short of exploring the bigger questions of the role of Jews in supporting the Nazi state or of German soldiers’ acknowledgement of their role as perpetrators in the Holocaust.”

(L-R: Werner Goldberg, Bernhard Rogge, and Erhard Milch, half-Jews in Hitler’s army)

WHEN AMERICA STOPPED BEING GREAT: A HISTORY OF THE PRESENT by Nick Bryant

  • American Flag 4x6 ft : Longest Lasting US Flag Made from Nylon - Embroidered Stars - Sewn Stripes - UV Protection Perfect for Outdoors! USA Flag

During the past year, the United States has undergone a series of events that have accelerated our partisan divide and portends serious problems in the near future unless we can overcome our differences. Election conspiracy theorists and deniers, the January 6th attack on the capitol by insurrectionists, the continuation of gun violence, police actions, voter suppression legislation, cancel culture are just a few of the issues contributing to our political, social, and economic insanity.  If this is not enough, we still are in the midst of a pandemic with 30-40% of the population refusing to be vaccinated.  Former President Trump reigns in Mar-a-Lago as a potentate receiving his minions pouring out his venom, lies, and conspiracy theories and one must ask, OMG how did we get here?

Perhaps BBC New York correspondent Nick Bryant provides some of the answers in his new book; WHEN AMERICA STOPPED BEING GREAT: A HISTORY OF THE PRESENT.  I find it intriguing that someone from across the Atlantic seems to have greater insight  into our situation than the majority of Americans arguing that “Ronald Reagan was one of the Founding Fathers of America’s modern day polarization.”  Bryant develops his theme by explaining that Reagan and the arrival of his right wing supporters who loved his anti-government persona along with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act began the road to our current polarization.  Barry Goldwater’s loss in 1964 gave birth to the Republican’s southern strategy as white voters grew afraid because of the fast pace of racial reform.  The situation was further exacerbated by the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Immigration and Nationalities Act which expanded voting to minorities and ended white preferences for those entering the United States and enhanced the “browning of America.”  The events surrounding the elections of 1976 and 1980 set the stage for the election of Ronald Reagan a man who relied on his acting ability, stage management, sense of humor, and ability to communicate to win over the American electorate.

See how Ronald Reagan combatted communism and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War
(President Ronald Reagan)

It was Ronald Reagan who became our first movie star president and developed the theme of “Let’s Make America Great Again” paving the way for Trump to become the first reality TV star to enter the White House and refine Reagan’s message.  The difference between the two was that Reagan’s personality was uplifting while Trump’s emitted a nastiness never seen before in the Oval Office.  In a sense Reagan was Trump’s role model except he lacked the vindictiveness and abusive behavior that the former president exhibited over his term in office.  According to Bryant Reagan created the choreographed presidency with evocative scripting, polished production values, an eye for the dramatic photo-op, and a variety of show-like mix of spectacle, entertainment and gags.  The problem was that Reagan was intellectually incurious, ill informed, and overly reliant on cue cards resulting in a flawed blueprint that showed that the president could achieve historical greatness without even mastering the basics of the job.  Americans felt comfortable with Reagan’s manner and presentation unaware of the lack of depth behind the scenes – sound familiar?

The Reagan era witnessed a massive increase in wealth and consumerism – “Greed is Good!” became the epitome of Reaganism.  To prove his point Bryant does an excellent job referencing the the culture of the 1980s through film, television which reaffirms the results of Reagan era policies.  Further he explores Trump’s role during the decade and concludes quite correctly that he became the poster child of a profit obsessed society highlighted by garishness, ego, and a sense of entitlement.  But Bryant is clear Reagan is responsible for the anti-government sentiment that has proliferated over the last twenty years and he is also correct that if one digs down into Reagan’s record the result would be Reagan would probably be primaried today if he ran for office by the Trumpers!

George HW Bush
(President George H. W. Bush)

Despite the fact that Trump/Reagan seemed to dominate large segments of the book there are a number of important specific reasons that Bryant relies upon to make his arguments.  Key among them is the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the Immigration and Nationalities Act that have been mentioned.  All deal with the racial divide in America which is a dominant reason for the lack are bipartisanship in Congress which is the main reason for the decline in America’s reputation worldwide and the fracturing of American society.  1991 stands out because of the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles which clearly proved that no one of color would receive fair treatment under the American justice system. This was a warning at a time that the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist, as the US saw itself as the dominant and most respected country in the world.  But from this point it was all downhill.

The arrival of Newt Gingrich is another major cause for the developing dysfunction in US politics.  Bryant follows Gingrich’s career, ideology, and actions that led to his Speakership of the House.  Gingrich’s slash and burn mentality designed to create roadblocks for any democratic legislation along with his nasty confrontational style accomplished his goal of making the Republican party an opposition party and did away with any consensus in Congress.  The resulting grid lock that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment, shutting down the government, among many other actions slowly eroded our democracy.  Bryant does an excellent job connecting the political dots in bringing Gingrich to the Speakership as the Democrats rejected John Tower as Defense Secretary to be replaced by Dick Cheney whose leadership position in the House went to Gingrich launching the Georgia lawmaker to create his mayhem.

Bill Clinton
(President William Jefferson Clinton)

1992 would be the watershed election as it reflected the racism and anti-Semitism of Pat Buchanan wrapped in his ethno-nationalism.  The election of Clinton would normalize presidential bad behavior, and gave us Ross Perot whose populist lure of nativism, nationalism, and protectionism which would dominate politics in 2016.  This nativism would lead to the Oklahoma City bombing, American failure in Mogadishu, Bosnia and Rwanda further eroding America’s reputation in the world.  It appeared despite the economic growth of the 1990s the US was self-destructing.

Bryant presents cogent answers to the question raised in the title of his book.  He zeros in on the role 9/11, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent disaster in that country and Afghanistan, and the 2008 economic disaster that still reverberates with American voters as those who were responsible were never punished and the government bailed out the “too big to fail” banks.  This would lead to the Tea Party and further divided the American polity.  Events overseas roiled America’s allies particularly the occurances surrounding Abu Ghraib, torture at black sites conducting by CIA operatives and others, and the situation at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.  All of this was occurring as Vladimir Putin pursued a revanchist policy in Russia. Angry over NATO expansion into Eastern Europe, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the state of Russian influence in the world he would take advantage of America’s continued slide in worldwide influence.  Putin’s task was facilitated by George Bush’s “Axis of Evil speech,” President Obama’s decision to allow President Bashir Assad to cross his “red line” in Syria, President Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria, all of which gave Russia an opening in the Middle East, Crimea, Georgia, and eastern Ukraine which Putin took advantage.

Foreign policy bears a great deal of responsibility for America’s decline but also domestic policy.  Globalization is seen by American workers in the “Rust Belt” which produced NAFTA as a major reason for their loss of their livelihood.  Between 2001 and 2013 over 65,000 factories closed in the United States costing over 5,000,000 jobs which would provide the seed bed for Trump’s support.  Trump would play on white resentment against trade policy, immigration, and cultural issues to ingratiate himself with the Rust Belt revolt against robots (automation that cost jobs) to gain the presidency.  This white-working class revolt heated by US corporate tax policies would further inflame the US electorate.

Learn how the September 11th terrorist attacks and the Iraq War defined George W. Bush's presidency
(President George W. Bush)

Bryant does a good job developing themes that are difficult to disagree with, but he also produces vignettes that reflect American hypocrisy, i.e., Gingrich’s affair with a congressional aide, Bob Livingstone his replacement as Speaker was exposed by Hustler magazine for his own affair, and Dennis Hastert, his replacement was later exposed as a child molester – all while trying to impeach and ruin Bill Clinton!  Another surrounds the Bush administration’s actions in dealing with or not dealing with Hurricane Katrina, and his approach to the 2008 economic crisis.

Bryant’s dissection of each presidential administration seems fair and accurate.  “No drama Obama” receives his due apart from his defunct Syrian policy.  By not addressing income inequality in America, lining up with Wall Street not main street, and trying to achieve consensus with a Republican Party that totally rejected him in large part because of race all contributed to a weak presidency which his “aloof” cerebral manner just exacerbated.  This produced the election of 2010 which saw an increase in of 63 Republican seats in the House and 8 Senate seats.  The argument is sound that perhaps Obama was doomed because of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s policy of making Obama a one term president which he is continuing with Joe Biden, but an attempt to confront McConnell’s tactics should have been more forceful.

5x7 President Barack Obama Official PHOTO Portrait White House image 0

(President Barrack Obama)

Bryant does not disappoint in his examination of the Trump presidency.  The analysis of Trump’s personality and actions line up with numerous books that have been written since 2017 that explains Trump’s “American carnage.”  “Like Reagan’s and Obama’s, this was a hugely symbolic presidency., but whereas the Gipper signified resurgence and Obama embodied renewal, Trump represented revenge.”  Trump greatly accelerated the world’s negative view of the United States.  Though nationalists and right wing authoritarian leaders made Trump weak at the knees his policies of: withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal; withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership; withdrawal from the Paris climate accord; his fawning over Vladimir Putin; use of a wrecking ball to the Atlantic alliance; his denigration of allied leaders;  withdrawal from Syria; his bromance with Kim Jong-un; praising Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman who ordered the death of a Washington Post reporter; trade wars; suspending US funding for the World Health Organization in the middle of a pandemic all resulted in America’s moral reputation worldwide coming close to an abyss which of course China benefited from along with other presidential actions.  A Pew research poll gave Putin a higher international approval rating than Trump 33-29%, and Xi Jinping was at 28%!

On the domestic front Trump even raised the polarization level during a pandemic, i.e.; mask debate, anti-vaxers, holding virus spreading events etc.  While Trump fiddled, minorities burned, or died at an unacceptable rate when compared to whites.  Lacking health insurance and economic resources Trump just caste people adrift.  Misinformation and conspiracy theories reinforced by the 2020 election outcome, the George Floyd murder by a Minneapolis policemen heightened support for the Black Lives Matter Movement all of which contributed to the rift between the “red” United States and “blue” United States making people overseas wonder how the richest country on earth has made such a mess of things resulting in its precipitous decline over the last twenty years.

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump gestures during a campaign rally at the Henderson Pavilion on Oct. 5, 2016, in Henderson, N.V. Trump is campaigning ahead of the second presidential debate coming up on October 9 with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
(President Donald J. Trump)

But as Bryant makes clear, Trump is not the only reason America stopped being great, it was a process that began with Vietnam, racial issues of the 1960s, and the evolution of personalities and events over fifty years that saw Pax Americana last for a noticeably short period despite the claims of George H. W. Bush in 1991.  The United States is confronted with a public health crisis that disproportionately affects people of color, an economic shock that disproportionately affects people of color, and civil unrest caused by police brutality that obviously disproportionately affects people of color.  The United States according to Bryant is a shattered mirror being held up to a fractured country.

 Bryant’s overall approach produces a tightly argued narrative that I would challenge anyone to disagree with.  It is thoughtful, based on personal experience, and relies on facts and reality, which for some is difficult to accept.

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THE LAST MILLION: EUROPE’S DISPLACED PERSONS FROM WORLD WAR TO COLD WAR by David Nasaw

. ?????: ??????? ????? ??????? ????????? . between 1945 and 1950. Unknown 69 People in Grugliasco dp camp Stock Photo
(Post war DP Camp at Grugliasco)

Today we find that immigration reform and related issues like DACA and a southern border wall are at the forefront of our election debate aside from Covid-19.  Immigration has been a very controversial issue throughout American history and one of the most contentious involved what to do with the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons that were a result of Nazi racial policy and their conduct during World War II.  By the end of 1945 roughly one million displaced persons remained in Germany: Jews, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, among other groups who refused to return to their home countries or had no homes to return to.  This group labeled the “Last Million” by author David Nasaw in his latest book, THE LAST MILLION: EUROPE’S DISPLACED PERSONS FROM WORLD WAR TO COLD WAR follows these individuals from three to five years as they lived in displaced person’s camps and temporary homelands in exile divided by their nationalities.  Nasaw’s effort is masterful as he offers a comprehensive study of this postwar displacement and statelessness.  Nasaw, twice a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in biography for his monographs on Andrew Carnegie and William Randolph Hearst, and a superb biography of Joseph P. Kennedy might just win the Pulitzer with his current effort.

Ernest Bevin : News Photo
(British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin)

Nasaw’s narrative is accompanied by useful analysis concerning the plight, condition, and future hopes of the Displaced persons (DPs).  He delves into a myriad of aspects concerning the “Last Million,” including life inside the refugee camps ranging from issues like cultural nationalism to medical care.  Further, the politics and big power competition is on full display as are the domestic concerns of countries confronted with DPs issues.  Nasaw does an exceptional job of integrating the views of numerous historical experts like Tim Snyder, Valdis O. Lumans, Ytzkak Arad, Christopher Dieckmann and numerous others, documentary materials, the experiences of survivors,  memoirs and other writings of refugees.  Nasaw also produces documentary excerpts to allow the reader to get a feel for what the DPs were experiencing.  Nasaw’s use of personal histories of the DPs is an important contribution and forms an important background for the story he tells.  The depth of Nasaw’s research is reflected in the voluminous footnotes and extensive bibliography that he mines to support his conclusions

Nasaw pursues a chronological approach beginning with the end of World War II which one reporter described Germany as “history’s greatest hobo jungle” and another described the situation as “wars living wreckage – living, moving, pallid wreckage.”  This was the environment that over a million people found themselves following the war after close to four million people returned home. For Nasaw his monograph is the story of these displaced Eastern Europeans who once the war ended refused to go home or had no homes to return to.  “It is the story of their confinement in refugee camps for up to five years after the war ended.” 

In describing the plight of these displaced persons Nasaw develops a number of important themes that are fully explored and analyzed.  First, the “Last Million” saw their fate in the hands of the allies.  The United States and England believed that Eastern Europeans whose lands had been annexed or occupied by the Soviet Union had the right to delay or refuse repatriation and the international community had the duty to care for them.  This led to disagreements and confrontation with Moscow as Stalin wanted all displaced persons who originated from the Soviet Union and areas annexed before and during the war to be repatriated willingly or through force.  When thousands refused repatriation, Stalin tried to create havoc. 

This photo shows Chief of Staff General George C Marshall at his headquarters in the War Department located in the Washington office

General George Catlett Marshall Chief of staff of the United States at his desk in the war department circa 1942

(US Secretary of State George C. Marshall)

Second, after a year of trying to get people to return to the country of origin and the obstinate refusal of the “Last Million” to return home, the Americans and the British decided that repatriation having failed, they would have to be resettled in new homes and homelands outside Germany.  This would involve the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) and its replacement the International Relief Organization (IRO) whose mandate would become resettlement, not repatriation.  Many Latvians, Lithuanians, Estonians and Ukrainians and almost all Jews refused to return home creating many issues; from dealing with the opposition of the Soviet Union, and the desire of Jews to go to Palestine despite England’s refusal to allow them to do so. This would result in numerous commissions to investigate the situation as well as domestic political machinations and pressure.

Third, IRO member nations accepted the resettlement of Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox Christians, but refused to do so for the 200-250,000 Jews who remained trapped in camps in the American zone while pressure was put on England to allow them to settle in Palestine.  The British looked at the situation from a power politics lens seeking to mollify the Arabs, protect the oil, foil Soviet attempts to expand into the Middle East, and maintain as much of their empire as possible.

Fourth, President Harry Truman worked to pressure the British over Palestine and Congress to allow Jews and other refugees to enter the United States.  He would lose the battle on both counts as the British were bent on kowtowing to the Arabs and midwestern Republicans refused to alter the 1924 Johnson Act as they argued that Jews were associated with communism and Soviet agents would be smuggled into the United States if “the gates were opened.”  Truman would continue to push his agenda of allowing 100,000 Jews to enter Palestine, and eventually supported the partition of Palestine and the recognition of the state of Israel in May 1948 despite British pressure and caustic commentary.

Fifth, many refugees were former Nazis or collaborators, and it became difficult to separate them out from non-criminal elements.  By 1946 it was becoming increasingly clear that 10-30% of the Volksdeutsche (people whose language and culture had German origins but who did not hold German citizenship) in the camps were pro-Nazi and favored Germany over Russia.  Many of the Baltic people and Western Ukrainians had committed war crimes and now they were trying to blend in.  No matter who these people were, it was decided against forced repatriation.  Two other aspects were also at play; first the United States was in a race to allow former Nazis who had skill sets needed in the developing Cold War visa vie the Soviet Union; second, in the end thousands of former Nazis and their collaborators were allowed into the United States, Australia, England, Brazil and Argentina in part to offset labor shortages.

Harry S. Truman
(President Harry S. Truman)

Sixth, the role of the American military who were placed in charge of the refugee camps was exceedingly difficult.  A prime issue was how to treat the Holocaust survivors -should they be housed and dealt with separately from other refugees like the Volksdeutche  and others who were POWS and Germans returning home.  This provoked a great deal of debate internationally as Washington, and London finally decided that the experience of the Jews was such that they needed special treatment after the US Army refused to do so.

Lastly, the concept of anti-Semitism was rampant even after the war which pervades the narrative.  It was clear in US congressional debate over refugee legislation on the part of southern Democrats and northern senators like Republican Chapman Revercomb of West Virginia.  On June 25, 1948 President Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act which mostly excluded Jews.  It allowed thousands of Volksdeutsche into the United States, many of which were Nazi collaborators, ie; Waffen-SS members, Auxiliary Police that worked with the SS, etc.  In Poland violence against Jews killed 2000, the most devastating occurred in during the Kielce pogrom.  It can also be seen in the policies pursued by the US military and commentary by the likes of General George Patton, and some of the policies pursued by UNRRA, the IRO, and the British government.

Nasaw explores many important individuals, and issues, placing them in the correct historical context.  He devotes a great deal of space to the Palestine impasse highlighting his narrative with a description of the Harrison Report, the work of the IRO, the voyage of the Exodus 1947 and other aspects of this difficult situation.  Nasaw also spends a great deal of time explaining the goals of each country and ethnic group that is involved with the DPs.  It seems that each country and nationality and/or ethnic group had their own agenda that often conflicted with another country or organization which the author hashes out and tries to explain the ramifications for decisions that were reached.  The actions of the Soviet Union before the Nazis invaded is key for Nasaw as Moscow annexed the Baltic states which will become a major sticking point after the war.

[Aglasterhausen / United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA): children]
(UNRRA caring for Last Million’s children)

Nasaw does not add much to the horrors that the Jews experienced during the war.  Building upon the work of Nikolaus Wachsmann, Nasaw focuses on slave labor for the Nazi infrastructure.  Even as the war was coming to an end the Nazis rounded up thousands of concentration camp survivors and POWS to build a Nazi infrastructure underground and in the mountains to prolong the war and allow the development of new weapons.  This would result in working people to death through labor with the same result as extermination camps.

One of the strengths of Nasaw’s work is his ability to make sense out of this complex and bewildering moment.  As Adina Hoffman points out in her review in the September 15, 2020 New York Times Nasaw “clarifies without oversimplifying” and his ability to “maneuver with skill between the nitty-grittiest of diplomatic (and congressional, military, personal) details and the so-called Big Picture.”  The question remains how could such a situation evolve?  The answer is complicated and Nasaw does a remarkable job summing up events and decision-making in a scrupulous manner.  The book itself is one of the most important written on the topic and Nasaw’s flowing writing style makes it much easier for the reader to digest.

Open original Scanned Items
(Post WWII DP Camp)

AMERICAN DIRT by Jeanine Cummins

(Acapulco)

For those of you who have had your eyes opened by Don Winslow’s trilogy dealing with the Mexican drug cartels you will not be disappointed by Jeanine Cummins’ new book AMERICAN DIRT.  Cummins offers a number of motivations in writing her novel.  Chief among them is that there are numerous books that depict the underside and violence of the drug cartels which contribute to the worst stereotypes involving Mexico.  Cummins on the other hand wants to deal with the flipside of that narrative, describing the experiences of ordinary people who for their own personal reasons must leave their families and past lives to escape northward.  How does a woman manage to escape a place like Acapulco where the story begins and take her child to an unknown destination facing possible horrors that they have only heard about in passing?  For Cummins, these stories have been overlooked, but she argues that all migrants need a voice as they are people with needs, dreams just like others and she intends to give them a platform.

Cummins begins her novel by metaphorically hitting her readers with a blunt object.  It makes the reader sit up and pay close attention and continue to read about another senseless killing that the Mexican police have no intention of solving.  The opening scenes deal with a mass revenge killing of sixteen people that Lydia and her eight year old son Luca must hid in the corner of a bathtub in order to escape.  Immediately, Lydia realizes that her husband, mother, aunt, and cousins are dead and that she and her son must leave as fast as possible before they are next because she knows who the killer is, though is unsure why her family is victimized.

Lydia first met the man who ordered the massacre in the bookstore she owned in Acapulco.  One day, Javier Crespo Fuentes, known as La Lechuza, enters the store and after browsing the stacks he chooses a number of items that are Lydia’s favorites.  After chatting it appears that they share a love of books and over the next few weeks he visits the store, buys more books, shares his poetry, and Lydia believes they have developed a close friendship.   Lydia’s husband, Sebastian Perez Delgado is a reporter who specializes in unmasking Mexican cartels and in this case unbeknownst to Lydia he has written an article about the head of Los Jardineros, Lydia’s new friend.  Once she learns who Fuentes is and the carnage and death, he has wrought she is conflicted.  First, she denies her friend is involved and then once the murder of her family takes place, she realizes she and Luca must run.

US-Mexico international border: Layers of Concertina are added to existing barrier infrastructure along the U.S. - Mexico border near Nogales, AZ, on February 4, 2019. See more information below. Stock Photo
(Nogales, TX and Mexican border)

Despite what she has been through Lydia’s approach to Fuentes is puzzling as she tries to balance her family’s needs with the truth, and the fact that Fuentes has fallen in love with her. The question is why she tortures herself emotionally after all that has occurred, a question the novel really does not address.  Half-way through the story Lydia learns why she and her son have become fugitives from Fuentes’ cartel and his contacts across Mexico.  From this point on it dawns on Lydia that she and Luca are the target of a nationwide search where police, social services, and other governmental institutions are in the pocket of the cartels.

Cummins graphically recounts Lydia and Luca’s journey as they leave Acapulco employing La Bestia, cargo trains, as they ride on top of the cars along with hundreds of other migrants from all over Central America and Mexico who are trying for a new life in the United States.  Cummins has produced a gripping story that in many ways is unconventional as she tells it from the viewpoint of the migrant experience.  Lydia suffers from a great deal of guilt as she sees herself as responsible for the death of her family and now all she can do revolves around saving Luca.  For years she pitied migrants, now she had become one.  Cummins’ portrayal is fraught with danger as Lydia and Luca must jump on to moving trains from overpasses, travel at night by themselves, and deal with “supposed” government migrant agents who are really predators who want to sell young girls and woman into sex slavery, rob them of their few possessions, and if they are of no use kill them.

The author creates a number of moving and important characters.  Soledad and Rebeca are beautiful sixteen and fourteen years old running from the dangers of Honduras who join with Lydia and Luca to form a quasi-family.  Along the way there are a number of people who help them, a doctor, priests, and peasant families all assist.  But there is danger around every corner.  The goal for Lydia and Luca is to reach an uncle in Denver, for Soledad and Rebeca they have an uncle in Maryland – however reaching those destinations seems almost impossible as they run into a number of nefarious characters along with those who want to help.  The question is who do you trust?

The US-Mexico border fence outside Lukeville, Arizona. Volunteers are said to have found hundreds of water gallons vandalised in a patch of Sonoran desert.

(The US-Mexico border fence outside Lukeville, Arizona. )

Cummins shifts the stories chronology a number of times to facilitate providing the background history of each of the main characters past.  As she does what takes place at the outset of the novel makes more and more sense, even in a convoluted way.  But the question must be asked, does the author reach her goal of making the reader aware of what is going on at our southern border, through the eyes of those who desperately want to escape their homeland for a better and safer life – that answer must be yes.*

*I would recommend Lauren Groff’s review of the book, “American Dirt Plunges Readers Into the Border Crisis,” New York Times, March 6, 2020 for an excellent analysis of what Cummins’ wanted to achieve and if she was able to do so.  It follows below:

‘American Dirt’ Plunges Readers Into the Border Crisis

By Lauren Groff

  • Published Jan. 19, 2020Updated March 6, 2020
  •  
  • AMERICAN DIRT
    By Jeanine Cummins

A few pages into reading Jeanine Cummins’s third novel, “American Dirt,” I found myself so terrified that I had to pace my house. The novel opens into a tense and vivid scene in Acapulco, the massacre of an entire Mexican family during a quinceañera cookout. The only survivors are a mother and her 8-year-old son, who must flee the narcos who spend the rest of the book hunting them down. When the boy’s mother tackles him so they can hide behind a shower wall in a bathroom, he bites his lip and a drop of blood splatters on the ground.

“Footsteps in the kitchen. The intermittent rattle of bullets in the house. Mami turns her head and notices, vivid against the tile floor, the lone spot of Luca’s blood, illuminated by the slant of light from the window. Luca feels her breath snag in her chest. The house is quiet now. The hallway that ends at the door of this bathroom is carpeted. Mami tugs her shirtsleeve over her hand, and Luca watches in horror as she leans away from him, toward that telltale splatter of blood. She runs her sleeve over it, leaving behind only a faint smear, and then pitches back to him just as the man in the hallway uses the butt of his AK-47 to nudge the door the rest of the way open.”

As the anxiety-riddled mother of an 8-year-old — as a person who has nightmares after every report of a mass shooting — I felt this scene in the marrow of my bones.

But another, different, fear had also crept in as I was reading: I was sure I was the wrong person to review this book. I could never speak to the accuracy of the book’s representation of Mexican culture or the plights of migrants; I have never been Mexican or a migrant. In contemporary literary circles, there is a serious and legitimate sensitivity to people writing about heritages that are not their own because, at its worst, this practice perpetuates the evils of colonization, stealing the stories of oppressed people for the profit of the dominant. I was further sunk into anxiety when I discovered that, although Cummins does have a personal stake in stories of migration, she herself is neither Mexican nor a migrant.

Yet the narrative is so swift, I don’t think I could have stopped reading. I kept turning the pages, following Lydia and Luca, the mother and son, as they flee through Mexico, gathering a misfit band of other migrants. We learn that Lydia had been a bookstore owner, the wife of a journalist who infuriated the wrong people, and Luca a tiny prodigy of geography. They are hunted by Los Jardineros, the cartel that killed Lydia’s family. They are robbed by corrupt police officers. They learn how to ride La Bestia, the train on which hundreds of migrants die every year. They ultimately find themselves in Nogales, where they must cross the desert by foot at night with a coyote to arrive in the United States. Their painful and thirsty hours in the desert haunt me still.

I have been trained by my education, reading and practice of literary fiction to believe that good novels have some titration of key elements: obvious joy in language, some form of humor, characters who feel real because they have the strangenesses and stories and motivations of actual people, shifting layers of moral complexity and, ultimately, the subversion of a reader’s expectations or worldview. The world of “American Dirt” is too urgent for humor or for much character development beyond Lydia’s own. There is a single clear moral voice entirely on the side of the migrants, because the book’s purpose is fiercely polemical, which I would have understood even without the author’s note in which Cummins writes that she intended “to honor the hundreds of thousands of stories we may never get to hear,” so that people who are not migrants can “remember: These people are people.” Polemical fiction is not made to subvert expectations or to question the invisible architecture of the world; polemical fiction is designed to make its readers act in a way that corresponds to the writer’s vision.

All of this is to say that “American Dirt” contains few of the aspects that I have long believed are necessary for successful literary fiction; yet if it did have them, this novel wouldn’t be nearly as propulsive as it is. The book’s simple language immerses the reader immediately and breathlessly in the terror and difficulty of Lydia and Luca’s flight. The uncomplicated moral universe allows us to read it as a thriller with real-life stakes. The novel’s polemical architecture gives a single very forceful and efficient drive to the narrative. And the greatest animating spirit of the novel is the love between Lydia and Luca: It shines its blazing light on all the desperate migrants and feels true and lived.

“American Dirt” seems deeply aware of the discrepancies in power between the desperate people it describes, and both the writer who created it and the reader intended to receive it; the book offers itself as testament to the fact Cummins has worked to decrease this power differential. The major objection to cultural appropriation has always been about the abuse of power: inadequate research, halfhearted imagination and a lack of respect, the privileged assumption of the right to speak on behalf of people who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. In her afterword, Cummins relates that she did tremendous research, traveling extensively, interviewing many people, sitting with her material in utter seriousness for four years. Still, writers like Myriam Gurba have brought up concerns with the novel, saying that it trucks in stereotypes of Mexico as a place of danger while the United States is always envisioned as a place of safety, that these stereotypes could inadvertently give fuel to the far right in their contempt for Mexicans. At the same time, other Mexican-American and Latina writers are speaking out in support of the book, people like Sandra Cisneros, Julia Alvarez and Erika Sánchez.

It’s true that because this book’s aims are polemical, its intended audience is clearly not the migrants described in it, who — having already lived its harrowing experience — would have no need to relive it in fiction. “American Dirt” is written for people like me, those native to the United States who are worried about what is happening at our southern border but who have never felt the migrants’ fear and desperation in their own bodies. This novel is aimed at people who have loved a child and who would fight with everything they have to see that child be allowed a good future. Cummins’s stated intention is not to speak for migrants but to speak while standing next to them, loudly enough to be heard by people who don’t want to hear.

Fiction is the art of delicately sketching the internal lives of others, of richly and believably projecting readers into lives not their own. Writers can and should write about anything that speaks urgently to them, but they should put their work into the world only if they’re able to pull off their intentions responsibly. In the end, I find myself deeply ambivalent. Perhaps this book is an act of cultural imperialism; at the same time, weeks after finishing it, the novel remains alive in me. When I think of the migrants at the border, suffering and desperate, I think of Lydia and Luca, and feel something close to bodily pain. “American Dirt” was written with good intentions, and like all deeply felt books, it calls its imagined ghosts into the reader’s real flesh.

Lauren Groff’s most recent book is “Florida,” a story collection.

AMERICAN DIRT
By Jeanine Cummins
383 pp. Flatiron Books. $27.99.

Aerial view of Acapulco, Mexico An aerial view of Acapulco, Mexico.  rr Acapulco Stock Photo
(Acapulco)

INSIDE THE ARCHIVE OF AN LSD RESEARCHER WITH TIES TO THE CIA’S MKULTRA MIND CONTROL PROJECT by Tom O’Neill, Dan Piepenbring INTERCEPT, Nobvember 24, 2019

I found this article this morning.  It follows my review of yesterday, POISONER IN CHIEF by Stephen Kinzer

ON THE NIGHT of July 4, 1954, San Antonio, Texas, was shaken by the rape and murder of a 3-year-old girl. The man accused of these crimes was Jimmy Shaver, an airman at the nearby Lackland Air Force Base with no criminal record. Shaver claimed to have lost his memory of the incident.

The victim, 3-year-old Chere Jo Horton, had disappeared around midnight outside the Air Force Base, where her parents had left her in the parking lot outside a bar; she played with her brother while they had a drink inside. When they noticed her missing, they formed a search party.

Within an hour, the group came upon a car parked next to a gravel pit; Chere’s underwear was hanging from one of the car’s doors. Shaver wandered out of the darkness. He was shirtless, covered in blood and scratches. Making no attempt to escape, he let the search party walk him to the edge of the highway. Bystanders described him as “dazed” and in a “trance-like” state.

“What’s going on here?” he asked. He didn’t seem drunk, but he couldn’t say where he was, how’d he gotten there, or whose blood was all over him. Meanwhile, the search party found Horton’s body in the gravel pit. Her neck was broken, her legs had been torn open, and she’d been raped.

Deputies arrested Shaver. At 29, he was recently remarried with two children and no history of violence. He’d been at the same bar Horton had been abducted from, but he’d left with a friend, who told police that neither of them was drunk, though Shaver had seemed high on something. Before deputies could take Shaver to the county jail, a constable from another precinct arrived with orders from military police to assume custody of him.

Around four that morning, an air force marshal questioned Shaver and two doctors examined him, agreeing he wasn’t drunk. One later testified that he “probably was not normal … he was very composed outside, which I did not expect him to be under these circumstances.” He was released to the county jail and booked for rape and murder.

Investigators interrogated Shaver through the morning. When his wife came to visit, he didn’t recognize her. He gave his first statement at 10:30 a.m., adamant that another man was responsible: He could summon an image of a stranger with blond hair and tattoos. After the air force marshal returned to the jailhouse, however, Shaver signed a second statement taking full responsibility. Though he still didn’t remember anything, he reasoned, he must have done it.

Two months later, in September, Shaver’s memories still hadn’t returned. The commander of the base hospital, Col. Robert S. Bray, ordered a psychiatric evaluation, to be performed by Dr. Louis Jolyon West, the head of psychiatric services at the air base. It fell to West to decide if Shaver had been legally sane at the time of the murder.

Shaver spent the next two weeks under West’s supervision. They returned to the scene of the crime, trying to jog his memory. Later, West hypnotized Shaver and gave him an injection of sodium pentothal, or “truth serum,” to see if he could clear his amnesia.

While Shaver was under, according to testimony, he recalled the events of that night. He confessed to killing Horton. She’d brought out repressed memories of his cousin, “Beth Rainboat,” who’d sexually abused him as a child. Shaver had started drinking at home that night when he “had visions of God, who whispered into his ear to seek out and kill the evil girl Beth.”

While Shaver was under hypnosis, he confessed to killing the young girl. At trial, he maintained his innocence.

At the trial, West made only a minimal effort to exonerate Shaver. The airman was found guilty. Though an appeals court later ruled that he’d had an unfair trial, he was convicted again in the retrial. In 1958, on his 33rd birthday, he was executed by the electric chair. He maintained his innocence the whole time.

The trial, which hinged on Shaver’s testimony, might have ended differently had the jury known about West’s past. According to newly surfaced papers from West’s archives, the psychiatrist had some of the clearest, most nefarious ties of any scientist to the CIA’s Project MKUltra. West’s files — especially his correspondence with the CIA’s longtime poisons expert, Sidney Gottlieb — shed new light on one of the most infamous projects in the agency’s history. Likely comprising more than 149 subprojects and at least 185 researchers working at institutions across America and Canada, MKUltra was, as the New York Times put it, “a secret twenty-five year, twenty-five million dollar effort by the CIA to learn how to control the human mind.” Its experiments violated international laws, not to mention the agency’s charter, which forbids domestic activity.

At the trial, West maintained that Shaver had suffered a bout of temporary insanity on the night of Chere Jo Horton’s killing, but he argued that Shaver was “quite sane now.” In the courtroom, Shaver didn’t look that way. One newspaper account said he “sat through the strenuous sessions like a man in a trance,” saying nothing, never rising to stretch or smoke, though he was a known chain-smoker.

Large portions of West’s truth serum interview with Shaver were read into the court record. The doctor had used leading questions to walk the entranced Shaver through the crime. “Tell me about when you took your clothes off, Jimmy,” he’d said. The transcript of the interview, which survived among West’s papers, also showed West trying to prove that Shaver had repressed memories: “Jimmy, do you remember when something like this happened before?” Or: “After you took her clothes off, what did you do?”

“I never did take her clothes off,” Shaver said.

The interview was divided into thirds, and the middle third hadn’t been recorded. When the transcript picked up, it said: “Shaver is crying. He has been confronted with all the facts repeatedly.”

West asked, “Now you remember it all, don’t you, Jimmy?”

“Yes, sir,” Shaver replied.

Though lawyers scrutinized Shaver’s medical history, little mention was made of the base hospital where West’s archived letters indicate he had conducted his MKUltra experiments. Shaver had suffered from migraines so debilitating that he’d dunk his head in a bucket of ice water when he felt one coming on. His condition was severe enough that the Air Force had recommended him for a two-year experimental program. The doctor who’d attempted to recruit him was not named in court records or transcripts.

On the stand, West said he’d never gotten around to seeing whether Shaver had been treated in the experimental program. Lackland officials told me there was no record of him in their master index of patients. But, curiously, according to the base’s archivist, all the records for patients in 1954 had been maintained, with one exception: the file for last names beginning with “Sa” through “St” had vanished.

Dr. Louis Jolyon West in San Francisco, Calif., in 1976.

 

Photo: Lawrence Schiller/Polaris Communications/Getty Images

West’s professional fascination with LSD was practically as old as the drug itself. For several decades, he was one of an elite cadre of scientists using it in top-secret research. Lysergic acid diethylamide was synthesized in 1938 by chemists at Switzerland’s Sandoz Industries, but it was not introduced as a pharmaceutical until 1947. In the fifties, when the CIA began to experiment on humans with it, it was a new substance. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss scientist who’d discovered its hallucinogenic qualities in 1943, described it as a “sacred drug” that gestured toward “the mystical experience of a deeper, comprehensive reality.”

In the ’50s, even before hippies embraced the drug, “Very few people took LSD without having somebody being a ‘trip leader,’” Charles Fischer, a drug researcher, told me. The suggestibility from LSD was akin to that associated with hypnosis; West had studied the two in tandem. “You can tell somebody to hurt somebody, but you call it something else,” Fischer explained. “Hammer the nail into the wood, and the wood, perhaps, is a human being.”

West seems to have used chemicals liberally in his medical practice, and his tactics left an indelible mark on the psychiatrists who worked with him. One of them, Gilbert Rose, was so baffled by the Shaver case that he went on to write a play about it.

“In my 50 years in the profession, that was the most dramatic moment ever — when he clapped his hands to his face and remembered killing the girl,” Rose said in 2002 of Shaver and the truth serum interview. But Rose was shocked when I told him that West had hypnotized Shaver in addition to giving him sodium pentothal. Hypnotism, he said, was not part of the protocol for the interview.

He’d also never known how West had found out about the case right away.

“We were involved from the first day,” Rose recalled. “Jolly phoned me the morning of the murder. He initiated it.”

West claimed he was in the courtroom the day Shaver was sentenced to death. Around this time, he became vehemently opposed to capital punishment. Did he know his experiments might’ve led to the execution of an innocent man and the death of a child? If his correspondence with CIA head of MKUltra Gottlieb — predating the crime by just a year — had been presented at trial, would the outcome have been the same?

ALMOST AS SOON as they had access to it, government scientists saw LSD as a potential Cold War miracle drug. Full-fledged U.S. research into LSD began soon after the end of World War II, when American intelligence learned that the USSR was developing a program to influence human behavior through drugs and hypnosis. The United States believed that Soviets could extract information from people without their knowledge, program them to make false confessions, and perhaps persuade them to kill on command.

In 1949, the CIA, then in its infancy, launched Project Bluebird, a mind-control program that tested drugs on American citizens — most in federal penitentiaries or on military bases — who didn’t even know about, let alone consent to, the battery of procedures they underwent.

Their abuse found further justification in 1952, when, in Korea, captured American pilots admitted on national radio that they’d sprayed the Korean countryside with illegal biological weapons. It was a confession so beyond the pale that the CIA blamed communists: The POWs must have been “brainwashed.” The word, a literal translation of the Chinese “xi nao,” didn’t appear in English before 1950. It articulated a set of fears that had coalesced in postwar America: that a new class of chemicals could rewire and automate the human mind.

“You can tell somebody to hurt somebody, but you call it something else,” Fischer explained. “Hammer the nail into the wood, and the wood, perhaps, is a human being.”

When the American POWs returned, the Army brought in a team of scientists to “deprogram” them. Among those scientists was West. Born in Brooklyn in 1924, he had enlisted in the Air Force during World War II, eventually rising to the rank of colonel. His friends called him “Jolly,” for his middle name, impressive girth, and oversized personality. When he got out, he researched methods of controlling human behavior at Cornell University. He would later claim to have studied 83 prisoners of war, 56 of whom had been forced to make false confessions. He and his colleagues were credited with reintegrating the POWs into Western society and, maybe more important, getting them to renounce their claims about having used biological weapons.

West’s success with the POWs gained him entrance into the upper echelons of the intelligence community. Gottlieb, the poisons expert who headed the chemical division of the CIA’s Technical Services Staff, along with Richard Helms, the CIA’s chief of operations for the Directorate of Plans had convinced the agency’s then-director, Allen Dulles, that mind control ops were the future. Initially, the agency wanted only to prevent further potential brainwashing by the Soviets. But the defensive program became an offensive one. Operation Bluebird morphed into Operation Artichoke, a search for an all-purpose truth serum.

In a speech at Princeton University, Dulles warned that communist spies could turn the American mind into “a phonograph playing a disc put on its spindle by an outside genius.” Just days after those remarks, on April 13, 1953, he officially set Project MKUltra in motion.

Little is known about the program. After Watergate, Helms (who by that time was CIA director) ordered Gottlieb to destroy all MKUltra papers; in January 1973, the Technical Services staff shredded countless documents describing the use of hallucinogens.

In the mid-1970s, after the Times revealed the existence of MKUltra on its front page, the government launched three separate investigations, all of which were hobbled by the CIA’s destruction of its files:Vice President Nelson Rockefeller’s Commission on CIA Activities within the United States (1975); Senator Frank Church’s Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (1975-6); and Senators Edward Kennedy and Daniel Inouye’s joint Senate Select Committee hearings on Project MKUltra, the CIA’s Program of Research in Behavioral Modification (1977). When records were available, they were redacted; when witnesses were summoned to testify before Congress, they were forgetful.

We do know the project’s broadest goal was “to influence human behavior.” Under its umbrella were at least 149 subprojects, many involving research on unwitting participants. Gottlieb, whose aptitude and amorality earned him the nickname the “Black Sorcerer,” developed gadgetry straight out of schlocky sci-fi: high-potency stink bombs, swizzle sticks laced with drugs, exploding seashells, poisoned toothpaste. Having persuaded an Indianapolis pharmaceutical company to replicate the Swiss formula for LSD, the CIA had a limitless domestic supply of its favorite new drug. The agency hoped to produce couriers who could embed hidden messages in their brains, to implant false memories and remove true ones in people without their awareness, to convert groups to opposing ideologies, and more. The loftiest objective was the creation of hypno-programmed assassins.

The most sensitive work was conducted far from Langley — farmed out to scientists at colleges, hospitals, prisons, and military bases all over the United States and Canada. The CIA gave these scientists aliases, funneled money to them, and instructed them on how to conceal their research from prying eyes, including those of their unknowing subjects.

Their work encompassed everything from electronic brain stimulation to sensory deprivation to “induced pain” and “psychosis.” They sought ways to cause heart attacks, severe twitching, and intense cluster headaches. If drugs didn’t do the trick, they’d try to master ESP, ultrasonic vibrations, and radiation poisoning. One project tried to harness the power of magnetic fields.

MKUltra was so highly classified that when John McCone succeeded Dulles as CIA director late in 1961, he was not informed of its existence until 1963. Fewer than half a dozen agency brass were aware of it at any period during its 20-year history.

WEST HEADED THE psychiatry department at UCLA and the school’s renowned neuroscience center until his retirement in 1988. One day, among a batch of research papers on hypnosis in West’s archives there, I found letters between West and his CIA handler, “Sherman Grifford” — the cover name, according to John Marks’s “The Search for the Manchurian Candidate,” for Sidney Gottlieb. West, who had once written to a magazine editor that he had “never worked for the CIA,” had in fact worked closely with the agency’s “Black Sorcerer” himself.

The letters picked up midstream, with no prologue or preliminaries. The first was dated June 11, 1953, a mere two months after MKUltra started, when West was chief of the psychiatric service at the air base at Lackland.

Who would the guinea pigs be? West listed four groups: basic airmen, volunteers, patients, and “others, possibly including prisoners in the local stockade.”

Addressing Gottlieb as “S.G.,” West outlined the experiments he proposed to perform using a combination of psychotropic drugs and hypnosis. He began with a plan to discover “the degree to which information can be extracted from presumably unwilling subjects (through hypnosis alone or in combination with certain drugs), possibly with subsequent amnesia for the interrogation and/or alteration of the subject’s recollection of the information he formerly knew.” Another item proposed honing “techniques for implanting false information into particular subjects … or for inducing in them specific mental disorders.” He hoped to create “couriers” who would carry “a long and complex message” embedded secretly in their minds, and to study “the induction of trance-states by drugs.” His list lined up perfectly with the goals of MKUltra.

“Needless to say,” West added, the experiments “must eventually be put to test in practical trials in the field.” To this end, he asked Gottlieb for “some sort of carte blanche.”

Who would the guinea pigs be? He listed four groups: basic airmen, volunteers, patients, and “others, possibly including prisoners in the local stockade.” Only the volunteers would be paid. The others could be unwilling, and, though it wasn’t spelled out, unwitting. It would be easier to preserve his secrecy if he were “inducing specific mental disorders” in people who already exhibited them. “Certain patients requiring hypnosis in therapy, or suffering from dissociative disorders (trances, fugues, amnesias, etc.) might lend themselves to our experiments.” Official investigations into MKUltra yielded little information about its subjects, but West’s letter suggests that the program cast a wide net.

Gottlieb’s reply came on letterhead from “Chemrophyl Associates,” a front company he used to correspond with MKUltra subcontractors. “My Good Friend,” he wrote, “I had been wondering whether your apparent rapid and comprehensive grasp of our problems could possibly be real. … you have indeed developed an admirably accurate picture of exactly what we are after. For this I am deeply grateful.”

Gottlieb saluted his new recruit: “We have gained quite an asset in the relationship we are developing with you.”

West returned the camaraderie: “It makes me very happy to realize that you consider me ‘an asset,’” he replied. “Surely there is no more vital undertaking conceivable in these times.”

IN 1954, around the same time as Chere Jo Horton’s murder, West began to split his time between Lackland and the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine, where he would lead the psychiatry department.

West had told his prospective employer that his Lackland duties were “purely clinical” and that he’d “been doing no research, classified or otherwise” — and he asked the board of directors at Oklahoma for permission to accept money from the Geschickter Fund for Medical Research, which he called “a non-profit private research foundation.” In fact, as the CIA later acknowledged, Geschickter was another of Gottlieb’s fictions, a shell organization enabling him.

In 1956, West reported back to the CIA that the experiments he’d begun in 1953 had at last come to fruition. In a 1956 paper titled “The Psychophysiological Studies of Hypnosis and Suggestibility,” he claimed to have achieved the impossible: He knew how to replace “true memories” with “false ones” in human beings without their knowledge. Without detailing specific incidents, he put it in layman’s terms: “It has been found to be feasible to take the memory of a definite event in the life of an individual and, through hypnotic suggestion, bring about the subsequent conscious recall to the effect that this event never actually took place, but that a different (fictional) event actually did occur.” He’d done it, he claimed, by administering “new drugs” effective in “speeding the induction of the hypnotic state and in deepening the trance that can be produced in given subjects.”

At the National Security Archives in D.C., I found the version of “The Psychophysiological Studies of Hypnosis and Suggestibility” that the CIA turned over to Senators Kennedy and Inouye in 1977. West’s name and affiliation were redacted, as expected. But the CIA’s version was also shorter, and watered down in comparison. West’s document was 14 pages. This one was five, including a cover page. Most glaringly, there was no mention of West’s triumphant accomplishment, the replacement of “the memory of a definite event in the life of an individual” with a “fictional event.”

One passage, not in West’s original, claims the CIA never used LSD in studies at all: “The effects of [LSD and other drugs] upon the production, maintenance, and manifestations of disassociated states has never been studied.”

West, of course, had studied those effects for years. But when it came to elaborating on his findings about implanting memories and controlling thoughts, even in the paper found in West’s own files, he offered few details. He seems to have been in a rudimentary phase of his research. Acid, he wrote, made people more difficult to hypnotize; it was better to pair hypnosis with long bouts of isolation and sleep deprivation. Using hypnotic suggestion, he claimed, “a person can be told that it is now a year later and during the course of this year many changes have taken place…so that it is now acceptable for him to discuss matters that he previously felt he should not discuss…An individual who insists he desires to do one thing will reveal that secretly he wishes just the opposite.”

Had the CIA doctored West’s original document to mislead the Senate committee? And if so, why would the agency have gone to so much trouble to hide experimental findings that weren’t ultimately all that revealing? Agency officials claimed the program had been a colossal failure, leading to mocking headlines like the “The Gang That Couldn’t Spray Straight.” Perhaps the agency wanted the world to assume that MKUltra was a bust, and to forget the whole thing.

THE CIA SEEMS to have pared MKUltra back in the mid-’60s, according to congressional testimony and surviving financial records, but Jolly West’s government-funded research continued apace. Late in the fall of 1966, West arrived in San Francisco to study hippies and LSD. Tall, broad, and crew cut, with an all-American look in keeping with his military past, he cobbled together a new wardrobe and started skipping haircuts. He secured a government grant and took a yearlong sabbatical from the University of Oklahoma, nominally to pursue a fellowship at Stanford, although that school had no record of his participation in a program there.

When he arrived in Haight-Ashbury, West was the only scientist in the world who’d predicted the emergence of potentially violent “LSD cults” such as Charles Manson’s Family. In a 1967 psychiatry textbook, West had contributed a chapter called “Hallucinogens,” warning students of a “remarkable substance” percolating through college campuses and into cities. LSD was known to leave users “unusually susceptible and emotionally labile.” It appealed to alienated kids who would crave “shared forbidden activity in a group setting to provide a sense of belonging.”

Acid, he wrote, made people more difficult to hypnotize; it was better to pair hypnosis with long bouts of isolation and sleep deprivation.

Another of his papers, 1965’s “Dangers of Hypnosis,” foresaw the rise of dangerous groups led by “crackpots” who hypnotized their followers into violent criminality. He cited two cases: a double murder in Copenhagen committed by a hypno-programmed man, and a “military offense” induced experimentally at an undisclosed U.S. Army base. (It’s not at all clear that the latter referred to Shaver’s killing of Chere Jo Horton.)

He’d also supervised a study in Oklahoma City, in which he’d hired informants to infiltrate teenage gangs and engender “a fundamental change” in “basic moral, religious or political matters.” The title of the project was “Mass Conversion,” and it had been funded by Gottlieb.

In the Haight, West arranged for the use of a crumbling Victorian house on Frederick Street, where he set up what he described as a “laboratory disguised as a hippie crash pad.” The “pad” opened in June 1967, at the dawn of the summer of love. He installed six graduate students in the “pad,” telling them to “dress like hippies” and “lure” itinerant kids into the apartment. Passersby were welcome to do as they pleased and stay as long as they liked, as long as they didn’t mind grad students taking notes on their behavior.

According to records in West’s files, his “crash pad” was funded by the Foundations Fund for Research in Psychiatry, Inc., which had bankrolled a number of his other projects, too, across decades and institutions. Dr. Gordon Deckert, West’s successor as chair at the University of Oklahoma, told me that he found papers in West’s desk that revealed that the Foundations Fund was a front for the CIA.

This wouldn’t have been the agency’s first “disguised laboratory” in San Francisco. A few years earlier, the evocatively titled Operation Midnight Climax had seen CIA operatives open at least three Bay Area safe houses disguised as upscale bordellos, kitted out with one-way mirrors and kinky photographs. A spy named George Hunter White and his colleagues hired prostitutes to entice prospective johns to the homes, where the men were served cocktails laced with acid. The goal was to see if LSD, paired with sex, could be used to coax sensitive information from the men. White later wrote to his CIA handler, “I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun.”

At the Haight-Ashbury pad, though, West’s motives were vague. No one seemed to have a firm grasp of the project’s purpose — not even those involved in it. The grad students hired to staff West’s “crash pad” lab were assigned to keep diaries of their work. In unguarded moments, nearly all of these students admitted that something didn’t add up. They weren’t sure what they were supposed to be doing, or why West was there. And often he wasn’t there.

One of the diaries in West’s files belonged to a Stanford psychology grad student who lived at the pad that summer. The experience was aimless to the point of worthlessness, she wrote. When “crashers” showed up, “no one made much of a point of finding out about [them].” More often, hippies failed to show up at all, since many of them apparently looked on the pad with suspicion. “What the hell is Jolly doing, it is like a zoo,” the student fumed. “Is he studying us or them?”

When West made one of his rare appearances, he was dressed like a “silly hippie”; sometimes he brought friends to the house. Their general attitude, she wrote, “was that this was a good opportunity to have fun. … They spent a good deal of the time stoned.” She added, “I feel like no one is being honest and straight and the whole thing is a gigantic put on. … What is he trying to prove? He is interested in drugs, that is clear. What else?”

IN DECEMBER 1974, MKUltra finally came to light in a terrific flash of headlines and intrigue. Seymour Hersh reported it on the front page of the Times: “Huge C.I.A. Operation Reported in U.S. Against Antiwar Forces.” The three government investigations that followed — the Rockefeller Commission, Church Committee, and the Kennedy-Inouye Select Committee hearings — looked into illegal domestic activities of various federal intelligence agencies, including wiretapping, mail opening, and unwitting drug testing of U.S. citizens.

The Church Committee’s final report unveiled a 1957 internal evaluation of MKUltra by the CIA’s inspector general. “Precautions must be taken,” the document warned, “to conceal these activities from the American public in general. The knowledge that the agency is engaging in unethical and illicit activities would have serious repercussions.” A 1963 review from the inspector general put it even more gravely: “A final phase of the testing of MKUltra products places the rights and interests of U.S. citizens in jeopardy.”

The Church Committee found that MKUltra had caused the deaths of at least two American citizens. One was a psychiatric patient who’d been injected with a synthetic mescaline derivative. The other was Frank Olson, a military-contracted scientist who’d been unwittingly dosed with LSD at a small agency gathering in the backwoods of Maryland presided over by Gottlieb himself. Olson fell into an irreparable depression afterward, which led him to hurl himself out the window of a New York City hotel where agents had brought him for “treatment.” (Continued investigation by Olson’s son, Eric — dramatized by Errol Morris in the series “Wormwood” — strongly suggests that the CIA arranged for the agents to fake his suicide, throwing him out of the window because they feared he would blow the whistle on MKUltra and the military’s use of biological weapons in the Korean War.)

The news of Olson’s death shocked a nation already reeling from Watergate, and now less inclined than ever to trust its institutions. The government tried to quell the controversy by passing new regulations on human experimentation. Gottlieb’s destruction of the MKUltra files was investigated by the Justice Department in 1976, but, according to the Times, “quietly dropped.” Gottlieb had testified before the Senate in 1977 only under the condition that he received criminal immunity.

The Senate demanded the formation of a federal program to locate the victims of MKUltra experiments, and to pursue criminal charges against the perpetrators. That program never coalesced. Surviving records named 80 institutions, including 44 universities and colleges, and 185 researchers, among them Louis Jolyon West. The Times identified West as one of less than a dozen suspected scientists who’d secretly participated in MKUltra under academic cover.

Yet not one researcher was ever federally investigated, nor were any victims ever notified. Despite the outrage of congressional leaders and more than three years of headlines about the brutalities of the program, no one — not the “Black Sorcerer” Sidney Gottlieb, nor senior CIA official Richard Helms, nor Jolly West — suffered any legal consequences.

This article is an adapted excerpt from “Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.”

America and the Holocaust: Should the United States have done more? (a mini-course)

AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST: SHOULD THE UNITED STATES HAVE DONE MORE?

Steven Z. Freiberger, Ph.D.

szfreiberger@gmail.com

http://www.docs-books.com

One of the most contentious debates pertaining to World War II deals with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s role in trying to mitigate the horrors of the Holocaust. Many argue that Roosevelt was a political animal who based his position on the plight of world Jewry on political calculation and did little to offset Nazi terror; others argue that FDR did as much as possible based on conditions domestically and abroad.  Some authors reach the conclusion that FDR’s views were consistent throughout the war and he was “politically and emotionally stingy when it came to the plight of the Jews-even given that he had no easy remedies for a specific Jewish tragedy in Europe.”  Many authors argue that “FDR avoided positions that might put at risk his broader goals of mobilizing anti-Nazi opposition and gaining freedom to act in foreign affairs,” for example dealing with the refugee crisis, the issue of Palestine, immigration, and organizing the defeat of Nazi Germany.  Authors often describe the fear of domestic anti-Semitism, especially in the State Department; the inability of American Jews to present a united front; the role of the War Department; and presidential politics.  Overall, this is an important issue that dominates the headlines today; what is the “appropriate response of an American president to humanitarian crises abroad and at home?”

Schedule:

September 9, 2019      Introduction and Background for American immigration policy leading up to World War II

September 16, 2019     The Rise of and Implementation of Nazism and its impact on Jews and American immigration policy

September 23, 2019     America and the Holocaust/Role of Franklin D. Roosevelt

October 7, 2019 Film: The American Experience: America and the Holocaust and discussion

Brief bibliography:

Beir, Robert L.; Josepher, Brian, ROOSEVELT AND THE HOLOCAUST

Breitman, Richard; Lichtman, Alan, FDR AND THE JEWS

Erbelding, Rebecca, RESCUE BOARD: THE UNTOLD STORY OF AMERICA’S EFFORTS TO SAVE THE JEWS OF EUROPE

Feingold, Henry, THE POLITICS OF RESCUE: THE ROOSEVELT ADMINISTRATION AND THE HOLOCAUST           1938-1945

Feingold, Henry, BEARING WITNESS: HOW AMERICA AND ITS JEWS RESPONDED TO THE HOLOCAUST

Gilbert, Martin, AUSCHWITZ AND THE ALLIES

Laqueur, Walter, THE TERRIBLE SECRET: THE SUPRESSION OF THE TRUTH ABOUT HITLER’S FINAL SOLUTION

Leff, Laurel, BURIED IN THE TIMES: THE HOLOCAUST AND AMERICA’S MOST IMPORTANT NEWSPAPER

Lipstadt, Deborah, BEYOND BELIEF: THE AMERICAN PRESS AND THE COMING OF THE HOLOCAUST 1933-1945

Morse, Arthur, WHILE SIX MILLION DIED

Neufeld, Michael; Berenbaum, Michael, Eds., THE BOMBING OF AUSCHWITZ: SHOULD THE ALLIES HAVE ATTEMPTED IT?

Okrent, Daniel, THE GUARDED GATE: BIGOTRY, EUGENICS, AND THE LAW THAT KEPT TWO GENERATIONS OF JEWS, ITALIANS AND OTHER EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS OUT OF AMERICA

Rolde, Neil, BRECKENRIDGE LONG, AMERICAN EICHMANN??? AN ENQUIRY INTO THE CHARACTER OF THE MAN WHO DENIED VISAS TO THE JEWS

Rosen, Robert N., SAVING THE JEWS: FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT AND THE HOLOCAUST

Rubinstein, William D. THE MYTH OF RESCUE: WHY THE DEMOCRACIES COULD NOT HAVE SAVED MORE JEWS FROM THE NAZIS

Shogan, Robert, PRELUDE TO Catastrophe: FDR’S JEWS AND THE MENACE OF NAZISM

Steinhouse, Carl, THE SHAMEFUL REFUSAL OF FDR’S STATE DEPARTMENT TO SAVE TENS OF THOUSANDS OF EUROPEAN JEWS FROM EXTERMINATION

Wallace, Gregory J. AMERICA’S SOUL IN THE BALANCE

Wasserstein, Bernard, BRITAIN AND THE JEWS OF EUROPE, 1949-1945

Wyman, David, THE ADANDONMENT OF THE JEWS: AMERICA AND THE HOLOCAUST 1941-1945

Wyman, David, PAPER WALLS: AMERICA AND THE REFUGEE CRISIS 1938-1941

GRAND IMPROVISATION: AMERICA CONFRONTS THE BRITISH SUPER POWER, 1945-1957 by Derek Leebaert

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“Americans don’t do grand strategy.”

(Oliver Franks, British Ambassador to the United States, 1953)

From the outset of his new work, GRAND IMPROVISATION: AMERICA CONFRONTS THE BRITISH SUPER POWER, 1945-1957 Derek Leebaert puts forth the premise that the idea that the British were about to liquidate their empire because of financial and military weakness after World War II was fallacious.  Further, that the United States was fully prepared to assume the leadership of the west and would do so while creating an American led international order that we’ve lived with ever since was equally false.  Leebaert’s conclusions are boldly stated as he reevaluates the historical community that for the most part has disagreed with his assumptions over the years.  The author rests his case on assiduous research (just check the endnotes) and uncovering documents that have not been available or used previously.  Leebaert argues his case very carefully that American foreign policy in the post war era was very improvisational as it tried to develop a consistent policy to confront what it perceived be a world-wide communist surge.  Leebaert argues that it took at least until 1957 at the conclusion of the Suez Crisis for London to finally let go of their position as a first-rate power with a dominant empire, allowing the United States to fill the vacuum that it created.  No matter how strong Leebaert believes his argument to be I would point out that events in India, Pakistan, Palestine, the Marshall Plan, the Truman Doctrine, the creation of NATO, and the American loan of $3.75 billion all of which occurred before 1948 should raise a few questions concerning his conclusions.

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(British Prime Minister Winston Churchill)

Despite the assuredness with which Leebaert presents his case there are merits to his argument and the standard interpretation that has long been gospel deserves a rethinking.  His thesis rests on a series of documents that he has uncovered.  The most important of which is National Security Document 75 that was presented to President Truman on July 15, 1950.  Leebaert contends that this 40-page analysis has never been seen by historians and its conclusions are extremely important.  NSC 75’s purpose was to conduct an audit of the far-flung British Empire concentrating on its ability to meet its military commitments and determine how strong the United Kingdom really was, as men including John J. McCloy, Paul Nitze, David K. Bruce, and Lewis Douglas feared what would happen if the British Empire collapsed.   All important agencies in the American government took part in this analysis; the CIA, the Pentagon, the Treasury and State Departments and reached some very interesting judgments.  The document concluded that “the British Empire and Commonwealth” still had the capacity to meet its military obligations with an army of close to a million men.  Leebaert argues that “there had been no retreat that anyone could categorize, in contrast to adjustment, and no need was expected for replacement.  Nor could American energy and goodwill substitute for the British Empire’s experienced global presence.  As for the need to vastly expand US forces overseas, that wasn’t necessary.  Instead the United States should support its formidable ally, which included backing its reserve currency.” (234)  For Leebaert this document alone changes years of Cold War historiography.

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(President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of State George C. Marshall)

Harold Evans points out in his October 18, New York Times review that Leebaert offers other persuasive points that mitigate any American take over from the British due to their perceived weakness.  First, British military and related industries produced higher proportions of wartime output than the United States well into the 1950s.  Second, Britain was ahead in life sciences, civil nuclear energy, and jet aviation than America.  Third, England maintained the largest military presence on the Rhine once the United States withdrew its forces at the end of the war.  Fourth, British intelligence outshone “American amateurs.”  This being the case Leebaert’s thesis has considerable merit, but there are areas that his thesis does not hold water, particularly that of the condition of the English economy, dollar reserves, and how British trade was affected by the weakness of the pound sterling.

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(British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin)

Leebaert’s revisionist approach centers on a few historical figures; some he tries to resurrect their reputations, others to bring them to the fore having been seemingly ignored previously.  The author’s portrayal of British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin is a key to his presentation.  As the leader of the Labour Party, Bevin held leftist anti-colonial beliefs, but once in power the realities of empire, economics, and politics brought about a marked change particularly as it involved the Middle East, London’s role in any attempt at a European federation, the devaluation of the pound sterling, the need to create an Anglo-American bond, and numerous other areas.  Leebaert goes out of his way to defend Bevin in several areas, especially charges that he was anti-Semitic in dealing with the situation in Palestine.  Other individuals discussed include John Wesley Snyder who had strong relationships with President Truman and Secretary of State Marshall, who as Secretary of the Treasury oversaw the transition of the US economy to peacetime and was the driving force behind the Marshall Plan.  The American Ambassador to Great Britain, Lewis Douglas also fits this category as does Commissioner General Malcom MacDonald, who oversaw British policy in the Pacific from his position in Singapore, the hub of British Pacific power.

Leebaert’s narrative includes the history of the major Cold War events of the 1945-1950.  His discussion of the situation in Greece and Turkey including Bevin and US Admiral Leahy’s bluffs in negotiations that resulted in the Truman Doctrine and $400 million in aid to Greece and Turkey.  The Berlin Crisis, the Soviet murder of Jan Masaryk, Mao’s victory in China and what it meant for Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the Korean War are all presented in detail.

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(George of Kennan, Ambassador to Russia; Head of the State Department Policy Planning Staff)

Perhaps Leebaert’s favorite character in supporting his thesis is Walter Lippmann, the American journalist who had difficulty deciding whether the British were using the United States as a foil against the Soviet Union, or as a vehicle to fill any vacuums that might avail themselves should England retrench.  But eventually Lippmann concluded that Washington believed that the British Empire would contain the Soviet Union all by itself, not the actions of an empire that was about to fold and pass the torch to the United States.

Leebaert is not shy about putting certain historical figures on the carpet and shattering their reputations.  Chief among these people is George F. Kennan, who was Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Head of the State Department Policy Planning staff among his many diplomatic positions.  For Leebaert the idea that Kennan was a “giant of diplomacy” as he was described by Henry Kissinger is a misnomer to say the least.  He finds Kennan to be emotional, careless, impulsive, and “frequently amateurish.”  Further, he believes Kennan was often ignorant about certain areas, particularly the Middle East and Japan, and lacked a rudimentary knowledge of economics.  But for Leebaert this did not stop Kennan from offering his opinions and interfering in areas that he lacked any type of expertise.

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(British Commissioner General Malcom MacDonald)

The situation in Southeast Asia was crucial for the British as seen through the eyes of Malcom MacDonald.  He firmly believed that if Indochina fell Thailand would follow as would the British stronghold of Malaya.  British trade and investment would be cut and wouldn’t be able to strengthen their recovering European allies, thus ending any American hope of a self-reliant North-Atlantic partnership. According to Leebaert, it was imperative to get Washington to support Bao Dai as leader of Vietnam and MacDonald made the case to the Americans better than the French.  If nothing was done the entire area would be lost to the communists.  Leebaert interestingly points out that in the 1930s when it appeared, he might become Prime Minister some day he backed Neville Chamberlain at Munich, now in the early 1950s he did not want to be seen as an appeaser once again.

At the same time disaster was unfolding on the Korean peninsula and Washington kept calling for British troops to assist MacArthur’s forces at Pusan.  The Atlee government did not respond quickly, and with British recognition of Mao’s regime and continued trade with Beijing, along with its attitude toward Taiwan, resulting in fissures between the British and the United States.  With Bevin ill, Kenneth Younger, the Minister of State argued that London could not be spread too thin because they could not leave Iran, Suez, Malaya, or Hong Kong unguarded.  Interestingly, Leebaert points out at the time the only real Soviet military plan was geared against Tito’s Yugoslavia.  The difference between Washington and London was clear – the British had global concerns, the Americans were obsessed with Korea.  Finally, by the end of August 1950 London dispatched 1500 soldiers, a year later 20,000 Commonwealth soldiers would be involved in combat operations.

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

Leebaert’s premise that the British would not forgo empire until the results of the Suez Crisis was a few years off.  By 1951 strong signals emerged that the empire was about to experience further decline with events in Iran and Egypt taking precedence.  If Islamists focused on anti-communism in these areas the British were safe, but when they began to turn their focus to nationalism London would be in trouble.  Domestically, Britain was also in difficulty as financial news was very dispiriting. Due to the Korean War and the US demand for industrial goods the total cost for imports shot up markedly.  This caused a balance of payments problem and the pound sterling plummeted once again.  The cold winter exacerbated the economy even further as another coal shortage took place.  It seemed that the British people had to deal with the rationing of certain items, but the defeated Germany did not.  Further, by 1952 Mau Mau uprisings in Kenya began to take their toll causing London to face another external challenge.

The British strategy toward the United States was to stress the anti-communism fear in dealing with Egypt and Iran.  In Egypt, King Farouk was a disaster and the British feared for the Suez Canal.  In Iran, the English fear centered around the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company which had been ripping off Teheran for decades.  An attempt to ameliorate the situation came to naught as the company was nationalized and eventually in 1953 the British and American staged a coup that overthrew the elected Prime Minister, Mohamed Mossadegh.  In Egypt nationalism would also become a major force that London could not contain resulting in the 1952 Free Officers Movement that brought to power Gamel Abdul Nasser.  In each instance Washington took on an even more important role, and some have argued that the CIA was complicit in fostering a change in the Egyptian government.  In addition, Dwight Eisenhower became president and John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State.  Despite newly elected Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s hope that the World War II relationship could be rekindled, Eisenhower saw the British as colonialists who were hindering US foreign policy, in addition the relationship between Dulles and British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden was at rock bottom.  It became increasingly clear that the Eisenhower administration wanted to avoid being perceived as acting in concert with Britain in dealing with colonial issues, except in the case of Iran which the United States is still paying for because of its actions.

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(British Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden)

Regarding Indochina, the United States and England could not reach any demarche as regards the plight of the French visa vie the Vietminh, particularly as the battle of Dienbienphu played out.  Leebaert does an excellent job recounting the play by play between Dulles and Eden, Eisenhower and Churchill as the US and England saw their relations splintering as negotiations and the resulting recriminations proved fruitless. This inability to come together over Southeast Asia would have grave implications in other areas.

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(British Foreign Secretary Sir Anthony Eden and Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill)

In another region, the Eisenhower administration would embark on a strategy to create some sort of Middle East Defense Organization to hinder Soviet penetration.  This strategy, whether called a “Northern Tier” or the “Baghdad Pact” of Turkey, Pakistan, and Iran or other nomenclatures created difficulties with Britain who sought to use such an alliance as a vehicle to maintain their influence in the region, particularly in Jordan and Iraq.  British machinations would irritate Washington as Eden and company resented American pressure to withdraw from the Suez Canal Base and other issues.  The result would be an alliance between England, France, and Israel to topple Nasser in Egypt.  The alliance was misconceived and would evolve into a break between the United States and its Atlantic allies even to the effect of the Eisenhower administration working behind the scenes to topple the Eden government and bring about the Eisenhower Doctrine signaling that the British had lost its leadership position and was no longer considered a “major power.”

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(Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser)

I must point out that I have written my own monograph that deals with major aspects of Leebaert’s thesis, DAWN OVER SUEZ: THE RISE OF AMERICAN POWER IN THE MIDDLE EAST 1953-1957.  My own research concludes that the United States actively worked to replace Britain as the dominant force in the Middle East as early as May 1953 when John F. Dulles visited the region and came back appalled by British colonialism.  Leebaert leaves out a great deal in discussing the period; the role of the US in forcing Churchill into agreeing to the Heads of Agreement to withdraw from the Suez Canal Base; the failure of secret project Alpha and the Anderson Mission to bring about a rapprochement between Israel and Egypt and its implications for US policy; the disdain that the Americans viewed Eden, the extent of American ire at the British for undercutting their attempts at a Middle East Defense Organization by their actions in Iraq and Jordan; the role of US anger over the Suez invasion because it ruined  a coup set to take place in Syria; and the Eisenhower administrations machinations behind the scenes to remove Eden as Prime Minister to be replaced by Harold Macmillan.  In addition, the author makes a series of statements that are not supported by any citations; i.e.; Eisenhower’s support for finding a way to fund the Aswan Dam after Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal; attempts to poison Nasser etc.

Overall however, Leebaert has written a monograph that should raise many eyebrows for those who have accepted the Cold War narrative of the last six decades.  There are many instances where he raises questions, provides answers that force the reader to conclude that these issues should be reexamined considering his work.  At a time when the United States is struggling to implement a consistent worldview in the realm of foreign policy it is important for policy makers to consider the plight of the British Empire following World War II and how Washington’s inability  to confront world issues in a reasoned and measured way and develop a long term strategy fostered a pattern that has created many difficulties that continue to dog us today.

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TRUMP SUCCUMBS TO THE DIRECTORATE OF DICTATORSHIP (as opposed to the “Axis of Evil!)

 

I have been studying the balance of power in the Middle East since 1967. That being said, I believe I have some perspective as to what is in play in the region and how it affects American national security. Trump’s decision by tweet yesterday can only be seen as based on total ignorance(he probably thinks Lebanon is the city in Pennsylvania) and one has to wonder how the Directorate of Dictatorship, Putin, Assad, and Erdogan factor into the move. To say Trump is Putin’s “poodle” goes without saying, but to abandon our Kurdish allies who have fought and died to defeat ISIS is sad and extremely consequential. Historically, we have “screwed/abandoned” the Kurds before be it in dealing with Saddam Hussein or other parties, but because the Turks hate the PKK we have to kowtow to our supposed NATO ally. If any evidence is needed to see how Trump feels about his Turkish bro just look at how General Flynn tried to gain the extradition of Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who Erdogan blames for the coup against him, to Ankara.

Maybe I am reading too much into this. Perhaps it is Trump being Trump as he tries to remove the Russia probe, the disbanding of his foundation by the state of New York, and the parade of his former associates before the legal system and flipping from the headlines. By pulling troops out of Syria he somewhat removes his domestic legal problems from newspaper bylines as Pentagon officials, foreign policy experts, and even Republicans speak out against his inability to comprehend the needs of US national security. Trump can send two thousand troops to the southern border to meet the non-existent caravans of “drug runners and rapists” (by the way we don’t hear much about this since the midterm elections except when a seven year old girl dies), but we cannot maintain our presence in Syria to prevent a resurgence of ISIS. Trump has declared victory, I seem to remember another American president did the same thing on an air craft carrier a number of years ago.

Who is the winner here – very simple; The Directorate of Dictatorship, and by the way I believe the Iranians are having a chuckle. Who are the losers? American allies, the Kurdish people, and in the long run the American people.

Putin backs Trump’s move to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, says Islamic State dealt ‘serious blows’


Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during his annual news conference in Moscow on December 20, 2018. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

December 20 at 7:45 AM

 Russian President Vladimir Putin praised President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, describing the American presence there as illegitimate and the Islamic State as largely defeated on the ground.

Putin told journalists at his annual year-end news conference that the Islamic State has suffered “serious blows” in Syria.

“On this, Donald is right. I agree with him,” Putin said.

Trump said Wednesday that the Islamic State has been defeated in Syria, although analysts say the militant group remains a deadly force. Russia — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful ally — turned the tide in the civil war in Assad’s favor and has maintained its military presence there.

Moments after Putin’s statement, Trump tweeted about his decision to withdraw troops. He noted the presence of Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces, also enemies of the Islamic State, and said the United States was doing their work for them.

“Time for others to finally fight,” he said in a follow up tweet.

Days before Trump announces victory over ISIS, officials were preparing for a long engagement

The Trump administration is planning to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria immediately. The president tweeted Dec. 19 that the U.S. had defeated ISIS in Syria. 

 

Putin said the U.S. troop deployment to Syria, by contrast, was illegitimate because neither Assad’s government nor the United Nations had approved the U.S. mission.

“If the United States decided to withdraw its force, then this would be proper,” Putin said.

Russia has been negotiating a political settlement to the civil war in Syria with Assad, neighboring Turkey and Russia’s ally Iran. The presence of U.S. troops was not helpful for achieving such a settlement, Putin said.

He cautioned, however, that Russia was not yet seeing signs of a U.S. troop withdrawal.

“The United States has been in Afghanistan already for 17 years, and almost every year they say they’re withdrawing their troops,” Putin said.

INF Treaty walked U.S., Russia back from a Cold War nuclear showdown

The United States’ plan to scrap this Cold War treaty raises fears of another nuclear arms buildup. 

Putin also — again — took Trump’s side in defending his 2016 election victory, which critics say was tainted by Russian interference (which Russia denies). He drew a parallel to Britain, where politicians are in a bitter fight over how to implement the referendum vote in 2016 to exit the European Union.

The result, Putin suggested, was a crisis of democracy across the West. Western officials say that fomenting such a crisis is in fact the goal of Russian propaganda and influence efforts in Europe and the United States.

“People don’t want to acknowledge this victory — isn’t that disrespect for the voters?” Putin said of Trump’s success in the 2016 election. “Or in Britain, Brexit passed and no one wants to implement it. They’re not accepting the results of elections. Democratic procedures are being weakened, they’re being destroyed.”

Putin was tougher on Trump on the issue of arms control. He said there are currently no negotiations with the United States on extending a soon-to-expire nuclear arms control treaty, raising the risk of a situation that would be “very bad for humanity.”

The New START treaty limits the numbers of nuclear warheads deployed by Russia and the United States, and it is set to expire in 2021.

“There are no negotiations on extending it,” Putin said at the wide-ranging news conference. “It’s not interesting or not needed — fine then.”

Putin has long sought to bring the United States to the table on nuclear arms control talks. Analysts say that is in part because it is one of the only international issues on which Moscow and Washington can face each other as equals.

But Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton, have expressed skepticism of the existing arms control architecture. Trump has already announced plans to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which bans the United States and Russia from having missiles with a range between 300 and 3,500 miles.

With the likely demise of the INF Treaty, New START would be the last major agreement limiting the world’s two biggest nuclear arsenals. If New START expires, “we will ensure our security,” Putin said. “We know how to do it. But this is very bad for humanity because it leads us to a very dangerous line.”