Title: Hellfire Boys: The Birth of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service and the Race for the World's Deadliest Weapons, Author: Theo Emery

At a time when we hear about weapons of mass destruction and a possible nuclear attack from North Korea it is interesting to contemplate the origins of such weaponry.  During World War I unbeknownst to most people living in the Spring Valley neighborhood of Washington, DC the United States Army in cooperation with American University set up a chemical proving ground on campus.  The area was known as “Death Valley” or “Arsenic Hill,” while soldiers referred to it as “Mustard Hill.”  The area was long forgotten until January, 1993 when a cache of chemical weapons was found on a construction site nearby.  Throughout the First World War this area was called the American University Experimental Station, augmented by the discoveries of January, 1993 and the overseas news dealing with the chemical attacks in Syria by the forces of Bashir Assad, and the fears raised by ISIS, government officials were prodded into action.  A new book by Theo Emery entitled, HELLFIRE BOYS: THE BIRTH OF THE U.S. CHEMICAL WARFARE SERVICE AND THE RACE FOR THE WORLD’S DEADLIEST WEAPONS investigates the American role in developing chemical warfare and its profound repercussions.

Emery begins by describing what is believed to be the first chemical attack during World War I.  It occurred on April 22, 1915 when the Germans launched their chemical canisters against British and French forces at the Battle of Ypres.  The author offers a vivid description of the attack and its effect on those caught in its gaseous haze.  The attack’s importance centers on the fact that it spawned a “chemical” arms race in a war that already had produced an unmeasurable amount of casualties and devastation, it soon became the “Chemist’s War.”  As Emery describes the development of chemical warfare he does the reader a great service by integrating his storyline into the larger picture of the war.

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America’s involvement in this arms race starts with the role of the US Bureau of Mines.  Headed by Vannoy Hartog Manning its charge was safety of miners, but also researching poisonous gases seeping from rock formations. From that beginning the United States engaged in an often rocky road to research, develop, and have ready for wartime use a number of toxic gases for the battlefield.  It began with a need for the production of millions of gas masks for troops and civilians.  For this factories, laboratories, along with enlisting the assistance of doctors to study the effects of the gas were put in place.  What emerges is a somewhat shaky partnership between the government, particularly the military, and the private sector, that eventually come to be called the “military-industrial complex” by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.  The productive process to meet the German “gas” challenge would involve many different geographic locales across the United States with its headquarters at American University in Washington, D.C.

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(German spies during WWI)

Many important individuals are introduced by Emery accompanied by short biographical sketches.  Men like Vannoy Hartog Manning who headed the Bureau of Mines; George Burrell, in charge of laboratory research at the American University site; George A. Hulett, a Princeton Professor who sent Manning to study the battlefield situation and the role of gas as a weapon; Major-General William Luther Sibert, who would eventually be put in charge of the army’s gas program; Lt. Colonel Amos A. Fries, an engineer that became the head of “gas services,” and made the important discovery that the United States knew little about gas warfare as it entered the war.  In addition to these men General John J. Pershing plays a significant role as the American commander in Europe as does James B. Connant, in charge of developing the lethal American “mustard gas” program designed to combat what the Germans were bringing to the battlefield.  A number of interesting characters also emerge that include the German spy, Walter Scheele, who to avoid imprisonment worked with the Americans by offering his knowledge of German gas research; Winford Lee Lewis, a Northwestern chemistry professor studies how metal shells corrode from toxic chemicals that led to the creation of lewisite, America’s most toxic weapon; and Richmond M. Levering, an oilman from Indiana who had many dubious business dealings with the government, but was placed in charge of the captured German spy network in the United States.

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(James B. Conant, supervised the development of mustard gas)

Emery also devotes a great deal of coverage to the role of regular American troops.  Emery takes us to the trenches of Europe and the research facilities that were created.  In so doing the reader is exposed to an intricate description of what it was like to be caught in a chemical war. One of the most interesting characters is Harold J. Higgenbottom, an early recruit to the First Gas Regiment and through his eyes we see the battlefield in addition to the effects of gas warfare in the field.  Higgenbottom’s buddy, Thomas Jabine is also discussed as he too was one of the first to join the Gas Regiment, and as a chemist he was sent to Europe, but he was gassed near Charpentry in October, 1918 and spent the remainder of the war recovering.

What is important to realize is how unprepared the United States was to engage in a chemical war in Europe.  As “gases” became to be seen as offensive weapons and a major part of the military arsenal, Washington had to catch up, quickly.  In a rather haphazard way, Emery is very effective in analyzing the American approach to chemical warfare.  He offers an effective summation of the allied use of phosgene and chloropicrin gases that were used at the Battle of Arras by the British as the United States declared war on Germany in April, 1917.  Emery offers a vivid description of “Camp” American University from its building expansion, recruitment of chemists, organization, and constant growth.  Further, Emery explains how the government grew frustrated with the private sector and developed its own production facilities, i.e., production of gas masks and later mustard gas.  To the authors credit he explains each chemical and how it was developed, and applied in such a way that a chemistry novice like myself could understand.

One of the most vivid chapters in the book is entitled “Science and Horror,” where Emery describes the first encounters of US troops with German chemical attacks.  Again, through the eyes of Harold Higgenbottom we learn that part of the problem was the poor training and equipment that did little to offset German attacks.  American soldiers suffered ghastly attacks and in many cases they were left to suffer horrible deaths as they lay in the trenches.

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(WWI gas attack)

There was a great deal of bureaucratic infighting throughout the war between the Corps of Engineers, the US Army, and the Bureau of Mines.  Fries argued for a separate gas service as did General Pershing.  Numerous examples are offered as production was deemed to be unacceptable.  Finally on June 25, 1918, President Woodrow Wilson settled the matter by issuing an executive order placing the Research Division and the American University Experimental Station under the War Department.  All in all, some 2000 chemists were at work across the United States.  To justify this radical change in military strategy the US Army launched a massive publicity campaign to educate Americans on the importance of interjecting chemicals into warfare.  The Germans may have had a head start in chemical warfare but by June, 28, 1918 when President Wilson signed General Order 62 creating the Army Chemical Warfare Service on par with the Corps of Engineers the US stockpile had caught up, and would soon surpass the Germans.  It is interesting to note that by the summer of 1918 American commanders were recommending that 50% of all shells employed in combat have a chemical component.

The final section of the book is devoted to the immediate post-war period that focused on what government policy would be toward the use of chemical weapons, and educating the public that was kept in the dark during the war.  First, was the issue of disposal that led to sinking a great deal of the US stockpile in the Atlantic Ocean.    Environmental concerns really were not even imagined.  Along those lines many corporations vied for parts of the stockpile for their own industries and bidding and the transfer of chemicals to the private sector did take place.  Second, was the the debate led by Secretary of War Newton Baker who opposed the continuation of the Chemical Warfare Service.  The opposition was led by Lt. Colonel Fries who felt it was imperative to maintain stockpiles and continue production as a matter of national security.  Interestingly in 1925 the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous, or Other Gases, and Bacteriological Methods of Warfare was agreed to under the auspices of the League of Nations.  Even General Pershing favored it, but he was unable to convince the US Senate to ratify the treaty.  It took until January, 1975 for President Ford to sign the treaty that the Senate finally ratified almost fifty years later.

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Emery’s monograph is an important contribution to the field of WWI weaponry as it explains how and why the US integrated chemicals into its arsenal.  This change led the US and many other countries on the road to incorporating new chemical discoveries and their application to war.  All one has to do is listen to the news almost on a daily basis to understand how relevant Emery’s research is to today’s world, particularly when the work of chemists and other scientists that began in 1915 set the US and the world on a path that today is laden with chemical weapons.

Title: Hellfire Boys: The Birth of the U.S. Chemical Warfare Service and the Race for the World's Deadliest Weapons, Author: Theo Emery

The Desert Queen – A Film by Werner Herzog

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(The Real Gertrude Bell)

Just watched Werner Herzog’s 2014 film, the “Desert Queen” staring Nicole Kidman as Gertrude Bell whose impact over British policy in the Middle East during and after World War I was quite impactful.  Hers was a rich life that reflected her work as a historian, archeologist, and later as a politician or pseudo diplomat.  The film is rather slow moving and dull in spots, however the cinematography is nicely portrayed.  The scenes with Churchill and T.E. Lawrence were poorly done, though we do get a sense of their egos.  Devoting over half the film to Bell’s love life as opposed to her research and work with the Bedouin and her influence over British policy is a misuse of time and “the Desert Queen’s” gifts.  Nicole Kidman masks a strong effort to accurately portray Bell, but overall the film could have learned a lesson from David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia,” though Herzog’s musical score does measure up.

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(Picture is replicated in film, with Churchill, Bell and company)

One watches the film, and follows Bell/Kidman travel the desert and after two hours, she finally meets with the Sharif of Mecca’s son’s Faisal and Abdullah and she sees them as future kings.  Though true, this could have been presented in a bit more greater depth, though their pet falcons were a nice touch.  If one is looking to learn about Gertrude Bell and I would steer toward two books, GERTRUDE BELL: QUEEN OF THE DESERT, SHAPER OF NATIONS by Georgina Bell, and DESERT QUEEN: THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF GERTRUDE BELL: ADVENTURER, ADVISOR TO KINGS, AND ALLY OF LAWRENCE OF ARABIA by Janet Wallach.

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(Gertrude Bell)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


BEHIND THE LINES by Jeffrey B. Miller

The centennial anniversary of World War I produced numerous evaluations of the conflict that brought horrific technology to the battlefield and left Europe totally reconfigured and created the ground work for World War II, and the disintegration of the Middle East today.  Among the many new books that appeared in 2014 most dealt with the economic, political, and diplomatic components that drove Europe to war in August, 1914, its conduct, and its final conclusion.  Few have explored the humanitarian aspects of the war, but this growing genre has produced a number of important works among them is Jeffrey B. Miller’s BEHIND THE LINES, a well-researched and thoughtful narrative designed to acquaint his audience with the Americans who went to Belgium after it was occupied by the Germans and contributed to the effort to save untold millions from starvation.

Miller examines the role of the Commission on Relief in Belgium (CRB) that was established in October, 1914 to import food and ensure its distribution for those in need throughout occupied Belgium.  Before the war Belgium was the most highly industrialized and densely populated country in Europe, with a ratio of 652 people per square mile, while in England it was 374 people per square mile.   It was a country that was dependent upon food imports for its survival and because of its industrialized base was able to export enough products to more than offset the cost of its food imports.  Once the war commenced German wanton acts of destruction and the British naval blockade left Belgium in dire straits.  Among the many individuals that Miller discusses who tried to alleviate the growing threat of starvation was the American mining engineer, Herbert Hoover, a man saddled with the great depression of 1929 as his epitaph.  Miller presents a much different picture of Hoover as he discusses a person driven to alleviate hunger by developing the organizational structure that would feed over nine million people in Belgium during the war.  Hoover’s use of newspapers to pressure allied governments was ingenious as newspapers never seemed to run out of Belgian stories, and Hoover never seemed to run out of stories to supply them!   Hoover would develop the CRB and deploy American college students, then studying at Oxford throughout Belgium to assist in the development of a mechanism to acquire, ship, and distribute foodstuffs where they were needed.  The CRB eventually secured over $1 billion to purchase food and developed a global logistical system to feed millions.  Many of the delegates as they were called risked their lives in the process and Miller’s narrative reflects their historical importance as many thought they were signing up for a six week donation of their time during winter break in December, 1914, but in reality their stint was much longer and impactful than they realized when they left London for Rotterdam.

(Belgian anti-German propaganda in 1914)

The impact of the CRB on the world was profound as Dr. Brandon Little argues in the book’s Forward.  First, it demonstrated that humanitarian countermeasures could be developed in a time of total war.  Second, it awakened hope among the suffering people.  Third, the success of the Americans in delivering aid reinforced the belief by Americans in their own exceptionalism.  Fourth, the CRB became the conceptual seed for the creation of other international humanitarian agencies.  Lastly, the CRB provided a novel approach to an overwhelming wartime problem.

The personal stories of those who made the CRB possible has not been widely circulated, but now after carefully mining the available historical record, including those of his grandparents who were CRB workers, Miller has provided a vivid account of those involved.  What emerges is proof that the United States became deeply involved in World War I long before Congress declared war against Germany in April, 1917.  Miller provides evidence that the US became involved almost at the outset of the fighting and he concentrates on the unsung heroes like E.E. Hunt, an American freelance journalist who witnessed the carnage of the war and joined the CRB and greatly facilitated its work in the city of Antwerp which was bombarded hourly by the Germans before it finally succumbed.  Others that Miller explores in depth include the work of the autocratic Herbert Hoover who believed that to efficiently meet its tasks the CRB needed to be centrally organized and directed.  Miller spends a great deal of time examining the bureaucratic infighting among the French Belgian, and American relief agencies and the different personalities involved as they tried to meet the needs of the Belgian people.  David T. Nelson, an American Rhodes scholar was the first delegate that joined the CRB who walked into Belgium with only the clothes on his back.  Erica Bunge and her banking family are explored in detail as is the work of Eugene van Doren, a Belgian businessman, and Abbe Vincent de Moor, a Catholic priest who published an underground newspaper in Brussels and spied for the British secret service.  Miller integrates the lives of many other participants be it CRB delegates, French businessman who wanted to assist in the process, politicians, military leaders in providing a unique insight into what it took to offset the German occupation and feed millions.

(German soldiers execute Belgian civilians in August, 1914)

Miller provides an excellent description of the plight of civilians during the German bombardment of Antwerp.  He details the disappointment in the lack of British and French aid and the inability of the Belgium military to stem the tide of the German shelling.  Interestingly, once the occupation of Belgium is complete, the British government was split over whether to provide aid to Belgium.  The military opposed it, with men like Winston Churchill, Lord Kitchener, and Secretary of the Exchequer David Lloyd George arguing that it was Germany’s responsibility to feed the people as the occupying power and fearing that any aid would be seized by the German military.  They argued further that “Belgian starvation would create such havoc that the German s would have to pull troops from the western front to maintain order.” (337) Others like Prime Minister Herbert Asquith reluctantly favored aid.  The Germans would argue that it was the British blockade that was responsible for the starvation problem and they were willing to cooperate with the allies if and when aid was provided.  Other interesting aspects of the book included Hoover’s use of publicity in the United States and England to gain support for his efforts as newspapers and other propaganda tools were employed as a constant conduit to the world of the plight of Belgium.  Miller reiterates the problem faced in disbursing relief in that if it was not provided quickly enough the Belgian people might revolt forcing the Germans to crack down even further and worsening an already desperate situation.  Miller contrasts the major cities involved in the relief effort.  He compares life in Antwerp, which was severely damaged by German bombardment, and Brussels, that allowed the Germans to take over peacefully to avoid being destroyed.  Miller also describes life in Rotterdam which was the main transshipment port for aid arriving from England and the United States.  The lives of people in these cities were vastly different and for its people their quality of life was based on decisions made by politicians who had little leeway in making choices.  Lastly, Miller’s brief biographies of the major historical figures and their actions, as well as his thorough descriptions of the work of the American “Rhodes Scholar and non-Rhodes Scholar delegates” to the CRB are insightful and informative and allow the reader to truly understand the conditions under which they worked and the successes they achieved.

The book is well written but does present a challenge at times to the reader.  The edition that I read had pagination issues that for a time made it difficult to read the book.  In addition, at times Miller becomes overly engrossed in the bureaucratic infighting that seems to be a constant issue.  Periodically, the author gets bogged down in his description of the minutiae that each relief committee is engaged in.  Lastly, I would suggest that a more comprehensive citation system be used for those who are interested in the sources that were consulted to assist the reader.  However, these shortcomings do not in any way take away from the work that Miller has done in publicizing the American effort to assist the Belgian people during World War I.  Miller believes that he has only scratched the surface of his subject and plans two more volumes that the reader can look forward to as the author continues his exploration of the humanitarian role as the calender turns to 1915.

(German troops cross the Belgium border in August 1914)


(President Woodrow Wilson and Colonel Edward House, campaigning in 1912)

One of the most tragic endings to any presidency in American history is that of Woodrow Wilson.  Elected twice the former president of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey continued progressive reform that had marked the earlier administrations of Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft.  In addition, Wilson guided the United States through the Great War and developed a plan to make it “the war to end all wars.”  However, Wilson suffered a stroke while trying to sell his postwar plan to the American people as he battled to overcome partisan congressional opposition to the League of Nations and never regained the emotional balance to compromise with his detractors.  In the end Wilson became a bitter man and the fight over the League of Nations overshadowed the positive impact his presidency had on American history.  During Wilson’s administration a “counselor” emerged who had no official title or rank but has often been labeled as Wilson’s “silent partner.”  This individual helped shepherd through Wilson’s domestic agenda through congress, but he remained in the background throughout that process.  It was in the arena of foreign affairs that he became known to the general public.  The man, Edward House was a wealthy Texas politician and businessman who was fascinated by the organizational side of politics, rather than the achievement political power in of itself.  Nicknamed the “Colonel” based on an honorary National Guard rank the governor of Texas bestowed upon him, Colonel House became one of the most powerful and controversial presidential advisers in history.  Until now the literature on House lacked a comprehensive and masterful biography, with the publication of Charles E. Neu’s COLONEL HOUSE: A BIOGRAPHY OF WOODROW WILSON’S SILENT PARTNER that void has been filled.

Neu has written a biography that should remain the definitive source on Colonel House for years to come.  The book is based on assiduous research that includes the leading secondary works on all aspects of American history that House was a part of.  It took Neu years to research and write and it is reflected in the primary materials he examined, particularly the over 3000 page diary that House prepared on a daily basis until 1921 when the Versailles Conference ended.  Neu points out that throughout his life that House was most interested in the “process rather than the substance of politics, fascinated with tactics and personalities.” (11)  As he worked his way through Texas politics he created what he referred to as “our crowd,” a group of advisors and sycophants who would remain with him throughout his career.  In his relationship with Wilson he took on many tasks that the President found distasteful.  Wilson, whom was not a warm individual saw in House an individual that possessed the capacity for human relations that he lacked and relied upon his “counselor” to smooth the way for legislation as well as diplomatic relationships.  One would think that Wilson and House would have spent a great deal of time together during the course of their friendship, but Neu reveals that most of their communication was by letter and telephone.  Fortunately House’s diaries have provided historians a record of their warm feelings for each other that today might be categorized as a “bromance!”

(President Wilson and his cabinet)

Neu correctly develops the theme that House’s greatest contribution to his relationship with the president was his assessment of European events as he repeatedly traveled to Europe between 1913 and 1917 as the United States tried to navigate a policy of neutrality during World War I.  House became the key to American mediation efforts, though his judgment was often clouded by his enamourment with England and its Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey and the policies of Lloyd George.  Wilson relied on House as his “personal emissary” but at times House missed the larger historical forces that shaped the policies of the European powers as the war continued.  House’s relationship began with Wilson in 1911 as he grew tired of the policies offered by the Republican Party.  For a number of years through the prism of Texas and national politics he searched for a progressive Democrat who was electable.  The search brought him in contact with Governor Wilson of New Jersey and their relationship blossomed.  With the disarray in the Republican Party in 1912 whoever secured the Democratic nomination was likely to be elected president.  Neu provides a detailed summary of the 1912 election and correctly concludes that it was “one of the most intense campaigns on both a personal and intellectual level that has ever occurred in American political history.” (66)  After the election House had to reinvent himself from the Texas politician who focused on the acquisition of power, relying on personal loyalty, patronage and the manipulation of the system to an advisor dealing with a progressive agenda.  House made the conversion easily and his relationship with Wilson would continue to blossom until the president’s first wife passed away.

 (President Woodrow Wilson, his second wife, Edith Bolling Galt, and Colonel Edward House)

Wilson’s relationship and remarriage to Edith Bolling Galt in 1915 altered Wilson’s relationship with House.  What amazed me was the intimate relationship the two men shared until Wilson remarried.  Neu includes numerous excerpts from letters the two sent to each other in the narrative and the sincerity and emotional nature of their correspondence reflects how dependent they were on each other, i.e., on Christmas day, 1914 Wilson and House exchanged telegrams.  “I wish, I could see brought into your life some happiness and blessing equal to those you have brought into mine by your wonderful friendship.  You have kept faith and strength in me.”  House replied, “Your message has made the day a happy one for me.  May God’s blessings fall upon you and yours abundantly during the coming years.” (164)   Once Edith Galt, a controlling woman entered the picture the relationship between the two men would suffer.  Neu conjectures that despite Wilson’s efforts, Galt was not inclined to share her love for him with another person and her attitude from the start toward House was negative, as she told the president that “I know I am wrong but I can’t help feeling he is not a very strong character….he does look like a weak vessel and I think that he writes like one very often.” (201)   Galt’s relationship with House would be glossed over by her husband but it would never be the same.  Neu does a remarkable job cataloguing the relationship throughout the war and the peace process and concludes that once Wilson suffered a stroke in 1919 her influence on the president was detrimental to the country as she reinforced his negativity that was in part caused by his illness.

Neu does an exceptional job describing the diplomatic and military events dealing with World War I.  He deftly examines the major political and military characters involved and makes numerous insightful comments.  He integrates House’s role in mediation efforts and policy decisions nicely and correctly concludes that in most situations House had an overblown sense of his own importance and influence that at times led to inaccurate reports back to Washington.  This inflated estimate of himself, in part was the fault of Wilson who had a habit of dispatching House on his European missions with only vague instructions and carelessly monitored his negotiations.   Neu has an excellent command over the details of House’s ventures overseas be it to mediate the war before US entrance or managing the allied coalition once the US became a combatant.  A case in point was House’s mediation effort after Wilson was reelected in 1916.  Neu’s analysis of London and Berlin seem very credible and he seems to have mastered the military and political nuances in each capital.  In Berlin, Generals Ludendorff and von Hindenburg views on strategy and implementation of U-boat warfare and the declining influence of Chancellor Bethmann Hollweg are accurately presented by the author.  Neu goes on to state that House’s evaluation of Lloyd George and Arthur Balfour led him to believe that he understood the war better than the president.  House also believed that Wilson was not preparing the country for war, which he believed was inevitable, also setting him apart from the president.  Despite these differences it appears that House had Wilson’s full support as he had him prepare for a post war peace conference which would take place after Germany’s defeat

(Colonel Edward House, Secretary of State Robert Lansing, President Woodrow Wilson)

Neu’s knowledge of war events is especially useful as he places the Wilson-House relationship in the context of events overseas.  Whether discussing the diplomacy dealing with Germany’s U-boat policy, events in Russia as the Czarist regime collapses, the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or the policy of unconditional surrender the author’s narrative is impeccable.  Once the war ends Neu spends a great deal of time on the evolution of the negotiations in Paris and points out the errors that were made.  First, having the conference in Versailles instead of a neutral site like Geneva; having Wilson as the head of the American delegation, and not bringing a prominent Republican as a member of the American commission.  All these errors that House relayed to Wilson are discussed and their negative effect on the final outcome embodied in the Treaty of Versailles are examined.  Wilson’s stubbornness and inflexibility are ever present, but so is House’s inability to convey an accurate portrayal of what was to be expected before negotiations began.  The relationship between the two men would not survive the conference as House was not given a prominent role in the day to day diplomacy as Wilson put him in charge of writing a constitution for the future League of Nations.  However, when Wilson returned to the United States to deal with Republican opposition to the League, House’s role in territorial negotiations is enhanced.  However once Wilson returned to Paris he felt that while he was away that House overly accommodated the French and Italians violating the principle of self-determination.  This heightened their disagreements over policy and House’s illusions about his own effectiveness resulted in his failure to carry out some of Wilson’s wishes embodied in the Fourteen Points, “succumbing to Clemenceau’s flattery and his own conviction that he was the master of the negotiating process.” (422)

Apart from the sections on diplomacy and war, Neu examines many important relationships and personal views of the major historical figures that House dealt with.  House’s relationship to other key administration figures is explored especially Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who both Wilson and House lacked respect for and his replacement, Robert Lansing who was seen as weak and whose opinions were repeatedly bypassed.  Both the President and House had little use for US ambassador to England, Walter Hines Page and the feelings were mutual.  House’s use of the term “love” in describing his opinion of French President Georges Clemenceau and English Foreign Secretary Edward Grey reflects a lack of objectivity that is very bothersome.  In addition, House’s views of Jews comes across as very anti-Semitic as he speaks about Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and Bernard Baruch, who skills Wilson employed in organizing the United States domestically for war.  Military figures such as General John J. Pershing, Sir Alexander Haig, and General Joseph Joffre are all explored.  American politicians like Henry Cabot Lodge, Warren G. Harding, John W. Davis and many others are also painted by Neu’s historical brush as the politics of peace and presidential campaigns are rendered in detail.

(President Woodrow Wilson visiting London in February, 1918)

Once the issues of the war are settled, Neu describes House’s career and retirement in the last section of the book.  What is most interesting is House’s obsession with his place in history and he how he established a warm working relationship with Yale University historian Charles Seymour who would edit his private papers into four volumes.  As House grew older he repeatedly reexamined the break with Wilson, accepting no responsibility he blamed it on Edith Galt and her coterie of advisors that surrounded the stricken president.  The book may come across as encyclopedic to some readers, but Neu’s ability to turn a phrase and write clear and concise sentences will allow the novice historian to enjoy the results of years of the author’s work in creating a superb biography of one of the most important figures in 20th century American political history.  The key to Neu’s success is that he lets House’s record as a private advisor and diplomat tell its own story and the reader can judge for themselves how important House may have been to the era in which he lived.


(Images from the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo in 1995)

For the past few years numerous books have been published dealing with aspects of the First World War. The plethora of books is due to the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that touched off events that resulted in the “war to end all wars.”  Tim Butcher’s THE TRIGGER is part of slew of new publications, but it is not a traditional discussion of the causes of the war and who was most responsible for the debacle that followed.  Butcher’s book is hard to categorize.  It is part travelogue through the battlefields of the Yugoslavian Civil War that dominated the 1990s in the Balkans.  It is also a book that tries to explain how the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist named Gavrilo Princip resulted in the death of millions of people between 1914 and 1918 might be related to the slaughter that took place in Bosnia between 1992-1996.  The subtitle of the book, “Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War,” hints at what the author was trying to achieve.  By presenting a pseudo biography of Princip and following his route from his village in Serbia to Sarajevo the author uncovers new information that previous biographers and historians of World War I failed to uncover.  The reader is placed in a position to understand the events that led to the assassination, and by walking Princip’s route we get an insight as to how the events of 1914 still affected the Balkan region through the 1990s when Butcher was a journalist in the region.  As the author follows in Princip’s footsteps he relives the tragic events of the 1990s he witnessed, and in writing THE TRIGGER, Butcher provides a rare glimpse into mind set of Princip as well as Serbian nationalists who conducted the genocide that was Srebrenica in 1995.  The first of two strands in the narrative are Butcher’s journey that culminates with the Bosnian Serb massacre at Srebrenica that finally brought in NATO forces leading to peace talks resulting in the Dayton Accords.  The second strand sees Butcher describe Princip’s assassination of Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, the hunt for co-conspirators, the trial that followed, and the death of Princip in 1918.

What make Butcher’s work so fascinating are the important insights he brings to the table.  The author was a foreign correspondent who covered the war from 1994 onward and sees his role in part to remind people how the events of World War I are still responsible for much of today’s world conflict.  Butcher points out that most histories of the war cover the same ground, and he decided by returning to Bosnia he could follow Princip’s path, “trekking where he trekked, from village to village…..explore the Balkan towns and cities where he studied, worked and travelled, and….piece together as far as possible the setting and detail of the assassination, his influences and motivations.” (20)  To a large degree Butcher is able to meet his own criteria in creating an interesting narrative that should keep the reader fully absorbed from first page to last.

Butcher’s journey led him through the forbidden mountainous areas that were home to bears, wolves, and a significant number of unexploded mines from the Yugoslav Civil War.  Butcher was familiar with the areas he traveled because of his journalistic work in the 1990s and he marched onward with the assistance of his guide Arne Hecimovic, a man who spent his teenage years translating for reporters during the civil war.  The journey began in the small Serbian village of Obljaj where Princip was born and preceded across Serbia into Bosnia, a return to Belgrade and a later march to Sarajevo.  As Butcher describes the journey he integrates the relevant history that affected the region.  The author goes back into Ottoman history and describes their rule in the Balkans, as the Ottoman Empire becomes “the sick man of Europe” in the 19th century, Butcher continues by addressing the significance of the 1878 Treaty of Berlin that created Serbia and which many historians argue put Europe on the road to war.  Butcher describes the decade that preceded World War I highlighting the dynastic issues relating to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 by the Habsburgs, the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 all in the context of the development of Princip’s sense of growing nationalism.  We see how nationalism became a disease in the 20th century and the damage it caused.  Once Yugoslavia is created after the Treaty of Versailles it is obvious the only way to keep the new nation together is with an iron fist.  We witness the fracturing of Yugoslavia as it is ripped apart by the Nazis who play divide and conquer splitting the catholic Croat population from the eastern orthodox Serbs, and Muslims who are remnants of Ottoman rule.  Following the war Jozip Broz Tito and his communist partisans who had liberated his country from the Nazis assumes power and applies a high degree of force to keep his nation together until his death in 1980.  From that point on it seems inevitable that the ethnic rivalries and hatreds that were subsumed for years overwhelms any sense of Yugoslav unity and in 1991 the road to civil war and the violence that tore apart the Balkans is under way.

What I found most interesting about the book was Butcher’s discussion of Princip’s belief system.  Historians have painted him as a Serbian nationalist who operated under the nationalist group, the Black Hand.  After significant research Butcher comes to the conclusion that Princip was a “not predominately committed to Serb nationalism.  His greater goal was freeing all Slavs, not just ethnic Slavs like himself,” his belief system centered around the greater Yugoslav ideal of defeating Austro-Hungarian colonialism, not just from Bosnia, but also “from areas to the north where other south Slavs – Croats and the Slovenes – were under the same occupation.” (247-8) Princip belonged to Mlada Bosna, a group that was not typical of nationalist movements in the Balkans in that they were “more romantic, inclusive” and believed in a political model that was far different from the “individual nationalist models of Serbs or the Croats.” (250)  Princip saw the poverty and that the basic feudal system remained under the Habsburg Empire and he wanted to free the southern Slavs from their control.

As Butcher’s travels take him through the route employed by Princip he revisits the civil war he covered.  He constantly comes across unmarked graves, underground bunkers, earthworks, and the destruction that was endemic to the fighting.  Butcher explains the shifting alliances that existed in the 1990s; Bosnian Serbs against Bosnian Croats allied with Bosnian Muslims.  Then the Croats and Moslems allow their historical hatred to reemerge and the Serbs watch the former allies tear each other apart.  Some of the earliest examples of ethnic cleansing take place between the Croats and Muslims in 1993.  Interestingly, by the spring of 1994, after pressure from the international community they renew their alliance and concentrate their venom against the Serbs.

Throughout his journey Butcher interviewed people and their families from all sides of the conflict, in Obljaj, the Milne’s family provided the Serb viewpoint; in Glamoc, the Zdravko family story recounts the experiences of the Croats; and two Imans, Kemal Tokmic and Muzafer Latic present the Muslim view as they fish with Butcher in the mountains near Bugojono.  In all the reader is exposed to the grievances and history of each side. One of Butcher’s goals is to relate how the events of 1914 affected the 1990s civil war and beyond.  The description of Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansing in Banja Luka is informative and maddening as western politicians stood by one of the worst atrocities of the Bosnian War.  The ethnic cleansing, death camps, genocide that were perpetuated against the Bosnian Muslims throughout the fighting “inadvertently provided Islamic militants with a rallying cry used to justify later acts of terrorism.” (143) The nationalism that was responsible for June 28, 1914 reemerged with a vengeance during World War II, and exploded in the 1990s when the “hard fist” of Tito’s reign was gone.  As an aside I wonder how many remnants of Islamic fighters remain who may still be involved in Iraq and Syria as of this writing. The last quarter of the book is devoted to a detailed description of Princip and his co-conspirators planning and carrying out the assassination of the Archduke.  What is interesting is Butcher’s reconstruction of some of Princip’s pre-trial interrogation, trial transcripts, and psychiatric evaluation to determine his modus Vivendi.  It comes down to his hatred of the Habsburg monarchy, his detestation of the poverty he and his fellow Slavs were forced to live in, and his own self-perception of weakness.

(Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie moments before they are killed, June 28, 1914)

Another fascinating aspect of the book is Butcher’s recreation of the commemorative march, called the “Mars Mira or Peace March.”  After the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo was near an end in 1995, thousands of Bosnian Muslims were forced to make an escape from the city to avoid extermination by the Serbs.  In addition to the genocide at Srebrenica, Serbs also overran Sarajevo and targeted Muslim males for extinction.  The only means of escape was a 50 mile march from the city through a path protected by forest.  Butcher interviewed Dzile Omerovic, a Bosnian Muslim survivor of the march who said, “It was like being trapped in hell, I know no other word for it.”  Omerovic suffers from PTSD, as he continued to repeat how he should have done more to save others.  While Butcher took part in the “Mars Mira” in 2012, he came across numerous mass graves and workers who continue to try to match the unearthed corpses, body parts, and bones to make to identify victims in order for families to finally come to closure.  For Butcher in 2012 he realized he was “dancing on graves.” (223)  Thinking back to 1996 Butcher presents a passage that reminded me of the Cambodian “killing fields” of the 1970s as he found himself stepping out of his jeep  a year after the fall of Srebrenica to find himself in a field where “all around lay skulls, vertebrae, femurs, rotting scrapes of clothes, footwear and a few personal possessions.  So thick lay the bones on the ground that when I returned to the jeep, I remember the back wheels lurching over a ribcage, but from nowhere a man appeared carrying a shotgun and told me to leave.  I still feel guilty for panicking that day, for fleeing the crime scene, relying on the presumption that it would one day be found by war-crimes investigators and the human remains properly identified.” (230)

(Bosnian Muslims victims of Bosnian Serb ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav Civil War)

The book is an informative read and a testament to the author’s commitment to seek out historical truths.  It is loaded with personal vignettes that are striking in their authenticity and emotion.  If you are interested in placing World War I in proper perspective as it relates to the last 100 years, THE TRIGGER should be of much interest.

For a list of recent books on World War I consult the list below that should be reviewed at www.docs-books.com in the future.






THE WAR THAT ENDED PEACE: THE ROAD TO 1914 by Margaret MacMillan

JULY 1914: COUNTDOWN TO WAR by Sean McMeekin



One of the best books on Princip and the outbreak of war is the classic,  ROAD TO SARAJEVO by Vladimir Dedijer published in 1966.