Lincoln's Virtues by William Lee Miller

miller_lincolns.jpgIt turns out that raising your first child, taking a bar exam, starting a new job, and moving into a new house can take a hefty chunk out of one's free time. Other than the month of May, when we moved, I have been able to keep up with my reading at a decent pace. But clearly the blogging has fallen completely by the wayside. I had harbored ambitions of going back and writing reviews of all the books read this year that have gone unreviewed, but reality has set in and compromises made.

In July, I read both volumes of William Lee Miller's unusual biography of Abraham Lincoln; Lincoln's Virtues taking its subject to the cusp of the presidency, with the aptly titled President Lincoln completing the story. Though there is ample justification for thinking that nothing new can be said of our greatest president, new titles continue to roll off the presses, with last year's bicentennial an especially prolific year. There is clearly a market that supports this Lincolnphilia (and occasional unhinged Lincolnphobia) and I have done my small part. In recent years I have read Lincoln biographies by David Herbert Donald and Richard Carwardine, as well as Doris Kearns Goodwin's history of Lincoln's Team of Rivals, with Donald's book the best of a very competitive field.

While Donald's Lincoln retains my recommendation for a single volume life of the Railsplitter, Miller's effort offers an interesting complement. Like Goodwin, who illuminates Lincoln's political skill through his relationship with his powerful cabinet, Miller offers a distinct lens through which Lincoln's life takes on greater dimension. His focus, telegraphed by subtitling Lincoln's Virtues as an "ethical biography," is on the moral aspect of Lincoln's character and its evolution:

The place and moment and lineage of his birth, and the events of his time, were given, beyond all choosing, as for any man or woman; but within those limits there were many choosings. There was, alongside the elements of necessity, the reality of freedom, and therefore of moral choice. It is the purpose of this book to examine some of the shaping moral choices made by Abraham Lincoln as he rose to power, and perhaps simultaneously to suggest something about moral life in the American democracy for which he would become such an eloquent spokesman, so worthy an exemplar, and so potent a symbol.

Miller is quite explicit in his admiration of Lincoln, but this is no mere hagiography. Instead, Lincoln's moral greatness is the thesis which Miller sets out to prove, through a close examination of Lincoln's life and writings. Miller leaves no stone unturned in analyzing Lincoln's childhood and the circumstances under which he met the world, as well as his budding legal and political career in the then-frontier state of Illinois. The young Lincoln faces moral choices on numerous fronts, and Miller explores everything from Lincoln's childhood sympathy for animals to his merciful sparing of an Indian chief during his brief tenure in the Illinois Militia. His opposition to the Mexican-American war (during his sole congressional term) proved a pivotal and controversial moment:

That this was a genuine conviction we may surely discern particularly from his earnest private letters, as we will see in a moment. He took the floor to challenge the president with an awareness of the bellicosity and eagle-screaming expansionism of his home district and state, bluntly express by the state's senior senator, Stephen A. Douglas. He must therefore have known that it would cost him politically. If all this be true, might we not begin to discern in Lincoln's speeches (for all their excess) the fain suggestion of the beginnings of a hint of something like a Profile in Courage?

But of course the abiding moral controversy of Lincoln's time was that of slavery, and the noxious web of disputes that the existence of slavery entailed. Miller provides a convincing presentation of Lincoln's longstanding fundamental opposition to slavery, but this only raises further questions about the morality of the practical compromises Lincoln would have to make throughout his career, and the ways in which he would square his opposition to slavery with the other values he held dear, such as the rule of law and the sanctity of the Union. How, for example, to understand Lincoln's lack of opposition to fugitive slave laws?

Because he believed in abiding by the law and the Constitution as he understood it, because there were obligations under the original agreement among the states, because the current objectionable law was the result of a bargain in which each side got something, because therefore it was, however distasteful, his duty, Lincoln did not oppose a Fugitive Slave Law. As an emerging political leader and shaper of opinion in 1854-1860, and as President of a war-torn nation in 1861-1865, he would always oppose slavery strongly--but within the law, under the Constitution, affirming the continuing bond of the Union.

Lincoln is an unusually excellent subject for this sort of analysis, not just for the monumental nature of the times in which he lived, but because of the tremendous written record he left behind. Lincoln was one of the few gifted writers to have graced the nation's highest office. Miller is at his best in textual analysis, particularly when parsing the variations in evolving drafts of a document and mining these changes for insight into the author's thinking. But if Miller can be complimented on the exhaustive nature of his examination, he can also be questioned for assuming a moral dimension to sometimes trivial occurrences.

This is a secondary biography, without doubt. The extended grappling with the moral dimension of Lincoln's life presumes a substantial familiarity with the underlying narrative, and one would be well-advised to start with David Donald's classic or Ronald White's latest. But once one knows that Lincoln lived in great times and did great things, it remains important to understand why he did those things, and why the doing of those things was worthy of admiration.

It is unsatisfying to simple presume some fundamental goodness on Lincoln's part; he was a man, not a god. He made choices, and it is those choices that bore moral weight. It was Lincoln's struggle to make the right choices that made his life truly great, and thus worth all the time and effort that we still devote to understanding him.

Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

montefiore_young.jpgI had only lukewarm things to say about Simon Sebag Montefiore's biography, Stalin, which I felt took a far too gossipy approach to the regime of one of the world's most malevolent mass murderers. Rather than explore and analyze the mechanics of the Great Terror or Stalin's plans for collectivization, Montefiore gave detailed accounts of dinner parties and vacations. So it may come as a surprise that I even picked up his second book on the dictator, Young Stalin, but I was handed a copy by my father, who enjoyed it, and figured I would give it a try. It is a superior book to its predecessor, even though it self-consciously takes the same approach, for which Montefiore has clearly heard criticism:

I make no apology that my two books are tightly focused on the intimate and secret, political and personal lives of Stalin and the small circle that ultimately came to create and rule the Soviet Union until the 1960s. Ideology must be our foundation as it was for the Bolsheviks, but the new archives show that the personalities and patronage of a miniscule oligarchy were the essence of politics under Lenin and Stalin...

I suspect that what Montefiore really decided was to exalt any previously unrelated details, trivial as they may be, at the expense of a thorough analysis of his subject. Fair enough, that's his choice, but in a 700 page book like Stalin, he should have been able to capture both. The problem is exacerbated by the gap between the two books; Stalin essentially opens with the suicide of Stalin's second wife in 1932, and yet Young Stalin ends with the October Revolution of 1917. Thus one can read both of Montefiore's volumes on Stalin, well over a thousand pages, and have not the slightest knowledge of his role in the Russian Civil War, the creation of the Soviet Union, or the power struggle after Lenin's demise. This boggles my mind.

That said, I will say that his approach works better when focused solely on Stalin's early years, in a book that runs half the length of the previous one. This is a timeframe in which the personal is the natural focus, and even the political side of Stalin's life at this point is largely a function of the people with whom he associates. His youthful acquaintances read like a list of mid-century Soviet heavies: Ordzhonikidze, Kalinin, Molotov, Voroshilov.

Perhaps most remarkable is the revelation that in many ways, the young Stalin was no more than a mafioso with ideological motivations. Sure, the money was going to Lenin, and Stalin seemed to be a true believer in the Bolshevik cause, but much of he did to further that cause amounted to no more than a series of violent felonies:

"On the initiative and orders of Stalin," said one of his top gangsters, Bachua Kupriashvili, a permanent gang of brigands was now assembled. "Our tasks were procuring arms, organizing prison escapes, holding up banks and arsenals, and kill traitors." Stalin commissioned Tsintsadze to set up "the Technical Group or the Bolshevik Expropriators Club, it was soon known by another nickname--Duzhina, the Group, or just Outfit."

Soso [Stalin's childhood nickname] strained his ingenuity to raise cash for Lenin, travelling widely to Novorossiisk on the Black Sea, and Vladikavkaz, in Ossetia. In Tiflis, he ordered schools and the seminary to deliver cash from their teachers while he discreetly prepated the Outfit for his gangster rackets.

The story of young Stalin is the story of the rise of the Bolsheviks, but also the teetering last years of the Romanov empire. It is a sign of the preposterous short-sighted weakness of the Tsarist regime that despite numerous arrests and exiles, Stalin was inevitably able to raise enough funds to bribe his way back. Only his final Siberian banishment, to the edges of the North Pole, is sufficiently secluded to ensure he completed his term:

If Stalin called Kostino "an ill-fated place," Kureika was a freezing hellhole, the sort of place where a man could believe himself utterly forgotten and even lose his sanity: its desolate solitude and obligatory self-containment were to remain with Stalin throughout his life.

I still think that those interested in Stalin are best served starting with what Montefiore terms "an exhaustive narrative history;" the two he recommends are by Robert Conquest and Robert Service. It seems unlikely that many readers would be more interested in Stalin's love life or taste in movies than in his role as Soviet dictator. But for those who have such tastes, or have already read a more traditional biography and are looking for some added spice, Montefiore's account of Stalin's early years should be just the ticket.

The Third Reich at War by Richard Evans

evans_war.jpgOver the past week I have been reviewing the recently-completed three volume history of the Third Reich written by British historian Richard Evans. In The Coming of the Third Reich (review here), Evans traced the developments leading to Hitler's appointment as chancellor and the Nazi consolidation of power in 1933. In The Third Reich in Power (review here), he explored the years of Nazi governance which were inexorably oriented toward the conquest of Europe. And in the third and final volume, The Third Reich at War, Evans analyzes the years of armed conflict which opened with the invasion of Poland and ended with the total destruction of the Nazi regime. In his preface, Evans acknowledges the challenges of this effort; after all, there are entire volumes dedicated solely to the war, entire volumes dedicated solely to the Holocaust, and yet Evans must cover both these topics while telling the story of domestic Germany itself and the people who led it:

The central focus of this book is on Germany and the Germans; it is not a history of the Second World War, not even of the Second World War in Europe. Nevertheless, of course, it its necessary to narrate the progress of the war, and to deal with the Germans' administration of the parts of Europe they conquered... At the heart of German history in the war years lies the mass murder of millions of Jews in what the Nazis called 'the final solution of the Jewish question in Europe'... Nevertheless, it is important to reiterate that this book is a history of Nazi Germany in all its aspects; it is not in the first place a history of the extermination of the Jews, any more than it is a history of the Second World War, though both play an essential role in it.

Like the previous volumes, Evans' narrative follows a blended thematic/chronological arc, in which he focuses on particular areas such as racial policy or economics while simultaneously moving progressively forward in time. The book opens with the invasion of Poland, an invasion which set the stage not just for the extension of German military might, but the application of Nazi ideologies about racial purification:

In Poland the Nazis' policies of racial suppression and extermination were applied in full for the first time, in a gigantic experiment that would later be repeated on an even large scale in other parts of Eastern Europe. German rule in Poland was ruthlessly and exclusively designed to further what the Nazis perceived as Germany's interests, including Germany's racial interests. The deliberate reduction of Poland to a state of nature, the boundless exploitation of its resources, the radical degradation of everyday life, the arbitrary exercise of unfettered power, the violent expulsion of Poles from their homes - all of this opened the way to the application of unbridled terror against Poland's Jews.

Of course the early years of the war go rather well for the Germans, with quick success in Poland followed by the conquest of the Benelux countries and then the shockingly rapid defeat of France. But what goes up must inevitably come down:

The conquest of France marked the highest point of Hitler's popularity in Germany between 1933 and 1945. People confidently expected that Britain would now sue for peace, and that the war would be over by the end of the summer. Yet the problem of what to do next was not a simple one. Moreover, Hitler's attitude to the British was fundamentally ambivalent. On the one hand, he admired the British Empire, which in the 9130s and 1940s was the world's largest, still covering an enormous area of the globe; and he regarded the English as 'Anglo-Saxon' cousins of the Germans, who in the end would be impelled by the logic of racial destiny to make common cause with them. On the other hand, he realized there were powerful forces in British politics that regarded Germany under his leadership as a profound threat to the Empire that had to be stopped at all costs.

Of course the planned invasion never comes to fruition, the Luftwaffe having failed to gain air superiority in the Battle of Britain. Hitler's next move was to launch a massive offensive against the Soviet Union, opening up an Eastern Front which changed the face of the war. "[A]t least two-thirds of the German armed forces were always engaged on the Eastern Front. More people fought and died on and behind the Eastern Front than in all the other theatres of war in 1939-45 put together, including the Far East."

With the war afoot, and massive numbers of foreign Jews coming under German control, the Nazis began to implement what was deemed "The Final Solution" to Europe's Jewish population, with the 1942 Wannsee Conference initiating the main phase of wholesale deportation, resettlement, and slaughter. Evans goes into exhaustive, sometimes horrific detail about the Nazi genocide machine:

[T]he extermination programme was directed and pushed on repeatedly from the center, above lal by Hitler's continual rhetorical attacks on the Jews in the second half of 1931, repeated on other occasions as the Jews loomed in his mind as a threat once more. There was no single decision, implemented in a rationalistic, bureaucratic way; rather, the extermination programme emerged in a process lasting several months, in which Nazi propaganda created a genocidal mentality that spurred Himmler and other leading Nazis to push forward with the killing of Jews on an ever-wider scale.

Evans devotes further chapters to the German wartime economy, which ironically became more and more dependent on imported foreign labor as able-bodied German men were chewed up by the war effort. The Germans also were not shy about appropriating the resources of the conquered countries, both in large-scale confiscations of bulk supplies and raw materials and daily small-scale looting by individual soldiers. But despite the best efforts of Nazi leaders like Albert Speer and the limitless ruthlessness of Nazi exploitation, it was a doomed effort:

When taken together with the looting and forced requisitioning of vast amounts of foodstuffs, raw materials, arms and equipment, and industrial produce from occupied countries, with the expropriation of Europe's Jews, with the unequal tax, tariff and exchange relations between the Reich and the nations under its sway, and with the continual purchase by ordinary German soldiers of goods of all kinds at an advantageous rate, the mobilization of foreign labour made an enormous contribution to the German war economy. Probably as much as a quarter of the revenues of the Reich was generated by conquest in one way or another.

Yet even this was insufficient to boost the German war economy enough to enable it to compete with the overwhelming economic strength of the USA, the Soviet Union and the British Empire combined. No amount of rationalization, efficiency drives and labour mobilization would have worked in the long run. The German military successes of the first two years of the war depended to a large extent on the element of surprise, on speed and swiftness and the use of unfamiliar tactics against an unprepared enemy. Once this element was lost, so too were the chances of victory.

Despite its many strengths, this final volume of Evans' masterful trilogy is somewhat the lesser of its two predecessors. Part of this is due simply to the less original nature of the work, as the war years in Germany have received significantly more historical coverage than those that came before. Further, while Evans makes clear in his preface that he does not intend to offer a general military history, there are many times when the text suffers for insufficient explication of the international wartime context. Most of what happened in Germany's domestic sphere from 1939-1945 was inevitably driven by what was happening in the military sphere. This is an easy enough issue to address by coming to Evans' trilogy with a background in World War II history, or by reading a military history alongside Evans' books. Nevertheless, the result is a somewhat diminished comprehensiveness from that achieved in the first two volumes.

Men's Style by Russell Smith

smith_mens.jpgAs fascinating and splendid a book as Bernhard Roetzel's Gentleman is (review here), it was in many ways a better history of men's fashion than a practical guide. Nothing wrong with that, but someone starting at square one like me needs a bit more basic, a compendium of the elementary rights and wrongs in menswear. There are a number of competitive entries in this niche, and I can recommend both The Handbook of Style from the editors of Esquire and the Men's Style Manual from the editor of Details.

Another entry in the growing field comes from Canadian journalist Russell Smith, who wrote a fashion column for The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto. With his 2005 publication of Men's Style: The Thinking Man's Guide to Dress, Smith compiled his years of fashion knowledge and observation in a slim hardcover volume, opening with an essay on why men's fashion matters:

Outside those dark twenty-odd years in the middle of the last century, sophistication was always masculine. Even in the 1950s, it was considered manly to be well-groomed. Consider Cary Grant, the romantic hero of 1950s Hollywood. He was clean-shaven and wore elegant suits; he knew about what wine to drink with fish and how to mix a martini. Nor is there anything new about pampering: the ritual of the hot shave in a barbershop was a deeply masculine convention right into the 19880s.

More importantly, the privileging of the natural over the artificial is philosophically unjustified. It leads to repressive thinking. For there is nothing inherently morally impure about the artificial. Art and artifice come from the same root - ars, artis; skill, practice. Skill is a particularly human value. Art is a uniquely human activity. All art is artificial.

Smith's coverage is comprehensive, with chapters devoted to shoes, suits, jackets, shirts, ties, hardware, formal wear, casual, underwear, outerwear, scent, and hair. This is advice oriented to the practical. The chapter on shoes covers such questions as "Which with What," "Colours," "Shoes with Formal Wear," and "How Many Do I Need?"

Nowhere is your taste and social background so neatly summarized as in your choice of shoe. It is the single most important part of your image, the root from which your projected self grows. Large numbers of single women judge prospective male partners rapidly and solely by looking at their feet.

Shoes are the only item of clothing on which you really must spend a great deal of money. It is not really important for the rest of your ensemble. An inexpensive but modishly cut suit can fool TV cameras and fashion journalists alike; an H&M shirt is perfectly hip during its six-month lifespan; a twenty-dollar tie from Wal-Mart is still pure silk. But cheap shoes always look bad. Cheap shoes will also wear out. Good shoes can be resoled almost infinitely and will obviate shoe-buying for ten years. From a purely financial standpoint, you cannot afford cheap shoes.

And if nothing else, I can credit Smith with guiding me to my new scent:

For those who want the dad association without the flimsiness, a more sophisticated manly-spicy-leathery scent - an upscale Old Spice - Hermes's Rocabar, a deep and heavy aroma that connotes men's clubs and cigars. This too has a remarkable effect on women, who - in my informal survey - unfailingly call it "manly."

A few things keep this book merely in the realm of the good rather than the great. First of all, unlike virtually all other men's fashion guides, this one is wholly lacking in photographs, color or otherwise. There are nice sketches here and there to illustrate particular passages, but with a topic as visually oriented as fashion, the lack of photographs is a significant impediment.

More problematic is that much of what Smith offers, for better or worse, is just his opinion. That is certainly his right, he is clearly an accomplished fellow with a great deal of experience in fashion... but there are many passages that struck me as rather too single-minded. The preface on why fashion matters is almost absurdly defensive, and there is some advice that I simply can't classify as even arguably correct (e.g. his one "flamboyant" recommendation is a pair of traditional Dutch clogs, which he advises must be purchased in Europe). Still, there is much here that is simply beneath the likes of Roetzel and Flusser, and thus worthwhile for those of starting from scratch.

The Third Reich in Power by Richard Evans

evans_power.jpgOn Wednesday I discussed the first volume in Richard Evans' trilogy on the Third Reich, which traced the coming of the Nazi regime from the post-1848 German confederation to the consolidation of Nazi control after Hitler's accession to the chancellorship in 1933. In the second volume, titled The Third Reich in Power, Evans covered the years of Nazi governance prior to the outbreak of war, from 1933 until 1939. The book is divided into thematic sections, covering topics such as "policing and repression, culture and propaganda, religion and education, the economy, society and everyday life, racial policy and antisemitism, and foreign policy." Within these areas, each in some way reflecting the Nazi expectation and preparation for international armed conflict, Evans seeks to reach a basic understanding of how and why the Nazi regime functioned as it did:

In one area after another, the contradictions and inner irrationalities of the regime emerge; the Nazis' headlong rush to war contained the seeds of the Third Reich's eventual destruction. How and why this should be so is one of the major questions that runs through this book and binds its separate parts together. So too do many further questions: about the extent to which the Third Reich won over the German people; the degree to which Hitler, rather than broader systematic factors inherent in the structure of the Third Reich as a whole, drove policy onwards; the possibilities of opposition, resistance, dissent or even non-conformity to the dictates of National Socialism under a dictatorship that claimed the total allegiance of all its citizens; the nature of the Third Reich's relationship with modernity; the way in which its policies in different areas resembled, or differed from, those pursued elsewhere in Europe and beyond during the 1930s; and much more besides.

Evans opens the book with a section titled "The Police State," and in particular the bloody episode that has come to be known as the "Night of the Long Knives." In a tactic not unlike Michael Corleone's murder of the heads of the Five Families, Hitler decided to purge the leaders of the Brownshirt SA, to eliminate potential rivals and consolidate his control over all forces of violence in the country. Hitler's lieutenants also took the opportunity to eliminate many of the conservative politicians who had survived previous actions against Social Democrats and Communists:

Striding up and down the room in a white tunic, white boots, and grey-blue trousers, Goring ordered the storming of the Vice-Chancellery. Entering with an armed SS unit, Gestapo agents gunned down Papen's secretary Herbert von Bose on the spot. The Vice-Chancellors' ideological guru Edgar Jung, arrested on 25 June, was also shot; his body was dumped unceremoniously in a ditch. Papen himself escaped death; he was too prominent a figure to be shot down in cold blood. The assassination of two of his closest associates had to be warning enough. Papen was confined to his home for the time being, under guar, while Hitler pondered what to do with him.

Other pillars of the conservative establishment did not fare so well.

This is, of course, just the beginning of Nazi repression, which would soon seek to ferret out anyone with the slightest connection to so-called enemies of the people. This included members of any party of the left, with hundreds of Communists tried and executed at virtual show trials. This period also sees the beginning of what Evans terms the "instruments of terror," most notably the growing sophistication of the Nazi system of camps for political prisoners:

By February 1936, Hitler had approved a reorientation of the whole system, in which Himmler's SS and Gestapo were charged not only with preventing any resurgence of resistance from former Communists and Social Democrats, but also - now that the workers' resistance had been effectively crushed - with purging the German race of undesirable elements. These consisted above all of habitual criminals, asocials and more generally deviants from the idea and practice of the normal healthy member of the German racial community. Jews, so far, did not form a separate category: the aim was to purge the German race, as Hitler and Himmler understood it, of undesirable and degenerate elements. Thus the composition of the camp population now began to change, and the numbers of inmates began to increase again.

This meant that when the time came to focus on Jews, Himmler's SS was well-practiced at the art of systematic elimination. Physical isolation of obvious undesirables was only one piece of Hitler's effort to purify the German people. But in order to accomplish many of his aims, Hitler recognized that he needed to harness the power of the masses, to build real, or seemingly real, public support for his actions. Here entered Joseph Goebbels:

On 25 March [1933], Goebbels defined the Ministry's task as the 'spiritual mobilization' of the German people in a permanent re-creation of the spirit of popular enthusiasm that had, so the Nazis claimed, galvanized the German people on the outbreak of war in 1914... Goebbels' Ministry, staffed by young, committed ideologues, sought not just to present the regime and its policies in a positive light, but to generate the impression that the entire German people enthusiastically endorsed everything it did. Of all the things that made the Third Reich a modern dictatorship, its incessant demand for popular legitimation was one of the most striking. The regime put itself almost from the very start in a state of permanent plebiscitary consultation of the masses. It went to immense trouble to ensure that every aspect of this consultation delivered a resounding and virtually unanimous endorsement of its actions, its policies, and above all, its Leader. Even if it knew, as it must have done, that this endorsement was in reality far from genuine, the mere appearance of constantly renewed mass enthusiasm for the Third Reich and hysterical mass adulation of its Leader would surely have an effect in persuading many otherwise skeptical or neutral Germans to swim with the tide of popular opinion. It would also intimidate opponents of the regime into silence and inaction by persuading them that their aim of gaining the support of their fellow citizens was a hopelessly unrealistic one.

As Evans relates, the Nazi knack for manipulation knew no bounds, reaching into the visual arts, music, even religion. Above all else, the Nazis sought a unified, purified Germany, and that left no room for freedom of expression or freedom of faith. As Hitler became more confident in the strength of his position, he was able to expand his attacks into areas previously thought untouchable. Thus the origins of the famous poem "First they came...," in which Pastor Martin Niemoller reflects upon the fact that after the Nazis had targeted the Communists and the trade unionists and the Jews, they came after the church as well, seeking to Nazify religion itself and create a unified German church.

The Nazi reach extended deep into the economy as well, from the construction of the Autobahn to suppression of the employment of women outside the home to the ambitious goal of German economic self-sufficiency without the need for foreign imports, the Nazis even went so far as to set a "Four Year Plan" for coordinating the country's economic revitalization. Hitler himself got personally involved, encouraging and coordinating the creation of a small-car that could be owned with pride by every German family:

Although no production models came off the assembly-line during the Third Reich, the car stood the test of time: renamed the Volkswagen, or People's Car, after the war, and popularly known as the 'beetle' from the rounded shape Hitler gave it in his original design, it became one of the world's most popular passenger vehicles in the second half of the twentieth century.

Not content to plan just the German economy, the Nazis sought to develop a common German community, which would wipe away the various hostilities that had fractured the country during the Weimar years. While much was accomplished by the forced removal of so-called undesirable elements, a positive effort at building a shared German identity was also vigorously proclaimed. Yet Evans finds that for the most part, this was just more empty Nazi rhetoric. Aside from a few successes such as Strength Through Joy, which was effectively a state-run tourist bureau and travel agency for the masses, the reality was that very little had changed in the German social order:

Nazism did not try to turn the clock back, for all its talk of reinstating the hierarchies and values of a mythical Germanic past. As we have seen, the groups who hoped for a restoration of old social barriers and hierarchies were as disappointed as were those who looked to the Third Reich to carry out a radical redistribution of land and wealth.

In the final two sections, Evans tackles the two topics most dear to the Fuhrer's heart and intricately linked therein: racial purification and war. In his discussion of the Nazi racial agenda, Evans lays out the horrific progression that led from the sterilization of the mentally ill (or those so-classified, whether ill or not) and physically handicapped to the outright murder of these groups, the encouragement of marriage and reproduction by the appropriately pure German couples, the targeting of Gypsies and homosexuals for imprisonment and death, and finally the systematic evolution of the persecution of the Nazis' most reviled enemy:

One minority in German society, however, appeared to the Nazis as something entirely different: not a tiresome burden, but a vast threat, not merely idle, or inferior, or degenerate - although Nazi ideology held them to be all these things too - but actively subversive, engaged in a massive conspiracy to undermine and destroy everything German, a conspiracy moreover that was not just organized from within the country, but operated on a worldwide basis. This minority, no more than 1 per cent of the population, was the Jewish community in Germany.

What is perhaps most striking about Evans account of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, in the pre-years before it became purely a matter of wholesale murder, is what a gradual, organized and concerted effort was made. It was not merely a matter of the Nazis taking power and throwing the Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. It was two years before the Nuremberg Laws were promulgated, followed by several years in which the primary method of abuse was economic, as Jewish businesses were the subject of Aryanization. The slow, methodical nature of this pre-war oppression was such that by March 1938, just a few years before Jews would be shot en masse or shipped off to camps and gassed, " a new law on Jewish cultural associations deprived them of their previous status as public corporations with effect from the previous first of January, thus removing an important legal protection and opening them up to increased taxation." At the same time, the Nazi leadership commenced a series of "speeches, laws, decrees and police raids [that] signalled clearly to the Nazi Party rank and file that it was time to take violent action on the streets once more," culminating in the Kristallnacht in November 1938.

In the final chapters, Evans charts the march to war that has been looming behind every other policy and program pursued by the Nazi regime. Hitler and his lieutenants had to pursue a dual strategy, combining just the right about of aggression to achieve their ambitious ends without triggering war before sufficient rearmament had occurred. The Nazis were methodical as usual, gradually walking back various restrictions placed upon them by the Treaty of Versailles, allying themselves with Mussiolini and then Franco to break out of diplomatic and military isolation, and finally pursuing the now-familiar path through Austria, Czechoslovakia, and, as the book ends, Poland. Less familiar than the disappointments of international appeasement are the apprehensions felt by the German masses that war was looming, a war that many feared after the destruction of the First World War:

Social Democratic agents reported widespread anxiety about the consequences of the invasion of Czecho-Slovakia, not least because it could not be justified as the rescue of a German minority from oppression despite the fact that Goebbel's propaganda claimed that the Czechs had been abusing the German minority in their midst... Among the middle classes, there was a widespread feeling that it did not really matter so long as war was avoided.

As it happens, Hitler's popularity was just further strengthened by the continual appeasement, giving the German people confidence that they had a leader who could do no wrong, a trust that was seemingly well-placed in the early months after war broke out. But as would soon be apparent, even Hitler had his limits, and the German people would suffer for it. Evans explores the war years in the third and final volume of his trilogy, which I will turn to on Tuesday.

Gentleman by Bernhard Roetzel

roetzel_gentleman.jpgAs it finally began to dawn on me that I would shortly be leaving the military life for a civilian job at a big law firm, I had the startling realization that I would actually have to think about what I was going to wear to work every day. Now I have worked, briefly, in a law firm before, and during my time as a summer associate and six months as an associate between law school and my start on active duty, I wore the basic dress shirt with slacks combo that has come to be classed as "business casual" in most cities. But after four years of wearing camouflage pajamas, I have started to get excited about the concept of men's fashion, of actually getting dressed up for work every day.

To aid in my beginner's fashion education, I sought guidance from a pair of excellent online message boards: Ask Andy About Clothes and Style Forum. Sure the folks who post can be a bit snooty, but these are people who spend their free time discussing men's fashion; it is to be expected. From my lurking on these forums, I noticed repeated references to two particular books: Dressing the Man by Alan Flusser and Gentleman by Bernhard Roetzel. A quick search of the Borders website suggested there was a copy of Gentleman at my local bookstore, so I raced over to get my hands on it.

The first thing I noticed is what a large, beautiful book this is. In his foreword, Roetzel states that the book "seeks to kindle a sense of enthusiasm for quality, elegance, and traditional craftsmanship." And assuredly it does; it kindled my sense of enthusiasm for quality, elegant, well-crafted books! Measuring a full ten inches tall and almost eight and a half wide, Gentleman nearly falls into the coffee table category. Every page features large color photos well-matched to the text and the layout is impeccable. It is simply a lovely book to behold.

But what of the contents? Gentleman is at once both a guide to men's fashion and a history of it. Roetzel clearly believes it important for his readers not simply to memorize a set of rules, but to understand how men's clothing has come to where it is today. This means understanding the historical origins as well as the methods and locations of manufacture. Thus in the chapter on "The Shirt," Roetzel examines collar shapes and how to fold a shirt, but also has a fourteen-image pictorial on how a custom-made shirt is created, and a two-page spread on the hand-sewn shirt manufacturers of Naples. The chapter on "The Suirt" has a guide to patterns & fabrics, but also a three-page pictorial on a custom-made suit from Gieves and Hawkes, and two-pages dedicated to Beckenstein Men's Fabrics in New York:

When the pants of a suit were worn out, Beckenstein fashioned a new pair from the same or at least very similar material - in other words, pants and jacket were matched. The life of a suit could be considerably extended in this way since the pants, which were subject to far more wear and tear than the jacket, could simply be replaced. This service was only possible thanks to Beckenstein's vast stock of fabrics, which meant that the right match could usually be found even for very old suits.

In his 300-plus pages, Roetzel covers everything from facial hair to waxed jackets to walking canes, so there is surely something here for everyone. It will not all be to one's taste; much of what is discussed would irreparably stretch most of our wallets, and there is some advice that seems rather dubious (e.g. the section on how cigarettes are cool), but all in all this is a wonderful read (or gift) for anyone interested in classic men's fashion.

The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard Evans

evans_coming.jpgNo country better symbolizes the mysteries and intrigues of the twentieth-century, the ebbs and flow of science and faith, despotism and democracy, peace and war, than Germany. This is a nation that was ruled by a hereditary king at the start of the century, followed by a stillborn democracy, then a vicious dictatorship, and then split for nearly half-a-century between a western industrial democracy and a Soviet-puppet police state before emerging in the 1990s as a mature member of the international community and a leader in European unity. A country that was at the center of the century's two world wars, an unprecedented genocide, and yet produced some of the century's greatest artistic and technological achievements.

Of all these governmental iterations, the most horrendously exceptional must surely be the Nazi regime that ruled from 1933 until 1945. That such a violent, reductionist party could come to power in one of the most economically, culturally and scientifically advanced nations in the world continues to boggle the mind. For several decades, the standard popular work on the subject has been William Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer was an American reporter working in Germany in the years leading up to World War II, and published his history in 1960 to great success in America. His thesis, that Nazism was a natural result of the German character for obedience and servitude, was not as widely accepted, particularly in academic circles.

Nevertheless, it has taken more than four decades for a worthy contender to emerge to rival Shirer's achievement. The chair of the history department at Cambridge University, Richard Evans, had been a scholar of modern Germany since the early years of a career that reaches back into the 1960s; but his focus on the Nazi era in particular did not emerge until much later, and his decision to publish a general history on the subject was sparked in part by his employment as an expert witness for the defense in the widely publicized libel suit brought by Holocaust denier David Irving:

[O]ne of the major surprises of the work we did on the case was the discovery that many aspects of the subjects we were dealing with were still surprisingly ill-documented. Another, just as important, was that there was no wide-ranging, detailed overall account of the broader historical context of Nazi policies towards the Jews in the general history of the Third Reich itself, despite the existence of many excellent accounts of those policies in a narrower framework.

Thus while Evans complements Shirer's "journalist's eye for the telling detail and the illuminating incident," he notes that it was "universally panned by professional historians" and simply failed to grasp with the scholarship on the Nazi regime that was available in 1960, let alone that which has emerged in the half-century since. Evans is similarly critical of scholarship in the decades since which have attempted to reduce the Nazi era to a Marxist analysis of class warfare, or to whitewash the responsibility of the German people by exalting their "unpolitical" nature, or to categorize the Nazis as just one example of a totalitarian phenomenon which occurred in countries across the globe.

Thus Evans decided to embark on what was to become a comprehensive trilogy on the German Third Reich: one volume focused on German history leading up to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933; another volume exploring the Nazi state as it consolidated its might before the outbreak of war; and the final volume devoted to the regime from the World War II. In the first and best volume, titled The Coming of the Third Reich, Evans sought to explore the basic questions which have puzzled scholars and citizens alike for several generations:

How was it that an advanced and highly cultured nation such as Germany could give in to the brutal force of National Socialism so quickly and so easily? Why was there such little serious resistance to the Nazi takeover? How could an insignificant party of the radical right rise to power with such dramatic suddenness? Why did so many Germans fail to perceive the potentially disastrous consequences of ignoring the violent, racist and murderous nature of the Nazi movement?

Evans opens his history with an excursion through German history beginning with the failed Revolution of 1848, in which a variety of liberal advances were eventually largely suppressed or reversed by a conservative backlash. This leads to the era of Bismarck, and in Evans' portrayal Bismarck emerges as an ambitious yet ambiguous figure, who felt "contempt for liberalism, socialism, parliamentarism, egalitarianism and many other aspects of the modern world," whose "domination over German politics in the second half of the nineteenth century was brutal, arrogant, complete," and yet whose "technique was to calculate the way events were going, then take advantage of them for his own purposes." In other words, Bismarck was to take advantage of existing trends, to "navigat[e] the ship of state along the stream of time," rather to simply direct it from above. As such, it is important for Evans to look at the underlying direction of German society, from the consolidation into the German Empire (e.g. the Second Reich) in 1871 to the rise of the Prussian military aristocracy, to the growing assaults on Catholicism, socialism, and other perceived enemies of the German state, and the resulting fragmentation of German society:

Thus Germany before 1914 had not two mainstream political parties but six - the Social Democrats, the two liberal parties, the two groups of Conservatives, and the Centre Party, reflecting among other things the multiple divisions of German society, by region, religion, and social class.

If the nineteenth-century laid the foundations of later events in German society, it was the shocking defeat in World War I and its troubling aftermath that laid the battle lines most clearly. It is commonly understood that German humiliation and resentment toward the peace terms demanded at Versailles were a key ingredient in the Nazi's eventual rise, but this a rather abstract conception that fails to grapple with the intervening decade and a half that connects the two events. Evans does not argue that the terms of peace treaty were necessarily harsh or unfair; instead he focuses on the virtually unhinged German reaction:

Given the extent of what Germans had expected to gain in the event of victory, it might have been expected that they would have realized what they stood to lose in the event of defeat. But no one was prepared for the peace terms to which Germany was forced to agree in the Armistice of 11 November 1918... These provisions were almost universally felt in Germany as an unjustified national humiliation. Resentment was hugely increased by the actions taken, above all by the French, to enforce them. The harshness of the Armistice terms was thrown into sharp relief by the fact that many Germans refused to believe that their armed forces had actually been defeated. Very quickly, aided and abetted by senior army officers themselves, a fateful myth gained currency among large sections of public opinion in the centre and on the right of the political spectrum... many people began to believe that the army had only been defeated because... it had been stabbed in the back by its enemies at home.

The "stab in the back" theory would eventually become the Nazi's favorite basis for violent oppression of any group or individual they deemed potentially dangerous to the German state, particularly as the prospect of another war approached in the late 1930s. Evans spends several subsequent chapters exploring the "failure of democracy" we now call the Weimar Republic, which was disliked by many on both ends of the political spectrum, never gaining the popular legitimacy it would have needed to survive that turbulent economic and political era:

The conflicts that rent Weimar were more than merely political or economic. Their visceral quality derived much from the fact that they were not just fought in parliaments and elections, but permeated every aspect of life... People arguably suffered from an excess of political engagement and political commitment. One indication of this could be found in the extremely high turnout rates at elections - no less than 80 per cent of the electorate in most contests. Elections met with none of the indifference that is allegedly the sign of a mature democracy. On the contrary, during election campaigns in many parts of Germany every spare inch of outside walls and advertising columns seemed to be covered with posters, every window hung with banners, every building festooned with the colours of one political party or another.

With temperatures running so high, it is no surprise that these years saw a particularly robust and nasty proliferation of partisan press, attacks on the arts and any movement associated with modernity (feminism, socialism, etc), the rise of various youth movements aimed at indoctrinating future members of particular ideologies at the earliest possible age, and other signs that Germany society was fragmenting into virtual domestic warfare. In these chapters, Evans excels at demonstrating how various events in these pivotal years laid the groundwork for Nazi power without any of the key power brokers ever having such an intention. The rising violence on the streets, the curbs on civil liberties, the flouting of the rule of law, many of these trends were provoked or promoted by those who had little self-interest in the rise of a group like the Nazis, or little conception of the possibility of just such an outcome:

The slide away from parliamentary democracy into an authoritarian state ruling without the full and equal participation of the parties or the legislatures had already begun under Bruning. It had been massively and deliberately accelerated by Papen. After Papen, there was no going back. A power vacuum had been created in Germany which the Reichstag and the parties had no chance of filling.... In such a situation, only force was likely to succeed.

The growing popularity of the Nazis, reflected most disturbingly at the polls, is portrayed as largely a protest vote rather than any widespread commitment to the Nazi platform. After all, the Nazi platform was virtually non-existent. It was a movement birthed in hate and racism, burgeoned by anger and resentment and trafficking in rhetorical excess:

In the increasingly desperate situation of 1930, the Nazis managed to project an image of strong, decisive action, dynamism, energy and youth that wholly eluded the propaganda efforts by other parties to project their leaders as the Bismarcks of the future. All this was achieved through powerful, simple slogans and images, frenetic, manic activity, marches, rallies, demonstration, speeches, posters, placards and the like, which underlined the Nazis' claim to be far more than a political party: they were a movement, sweeping up the German people and carrying them unstoppably to a better future. What the Nazis did not offer, however, were concrete solutions to German's problems, least of all in the area where they were most needed, in economy and society.... Voters were not really looking for anything very concrete from the Nazi Party in 1930. They were, instead, protesting against the failure of the Weimar Republic... Many middle-class voters coped with Nazi violence and thuggery on the streets by writing it off as the product of excessive youthful ardour and energy. But it was far more than that, as they were soon to discover for themselves.

In the end, Evans points to several major factors for explaining the Nazi rise: the Depression, which doomed the nascent Weimar Republic; the crude appeal of the dynamic Nazi movement and its charismatic leader; and the significant overlap between Nazi rhetoric and the political ideologies of the other major German political parties, which had increasingly shifted to the right. Evans also takes care to distinguish two distinct phases of the Nazi rise to power: the political rise which resulted in Hitler's appointment as chancellor in January 1933, and the seizure of power marked by the Reichstag Fire Decree, the Enabling Act, the abolition of elections, and a variety of other measures wholly flouting any sense of obligation to a rule of law. Of course the Nazi revolution was not confined to the political realms, with dramatic measures taken in the academic, artistic, religious, and economic spheres as well:

Now the Nazis would set about constructing a racial utopia, in which a pure-bred nation of heroes would prepare as rapidly and as thoroughly as possible for the ultimate test of Germany racial superiority: a war in which they would crush and destroy their enemies, and establish a new European order that would eventually come to dominate the world. By the summer of 1933 the ground had been cleared for the construction of a dictatorship the like of which had never yet been seen. The Third Reich was born: in the next phase of its existence, it was to rush headlong into a dynamic and increasingly intolerant maturity.

Evans explores that phase in the second volume of his trilogy, which I will discuss on Friday.

Empire Express by David Haward Bain

bain_empire.jpgFor Christmas in 2002, my law school roommate gave me a copy of Stephen Ambrose's memoirs, titled To America. He structured the book to trace American history through the series of pivotal events to which he had devoted at least one of the many books he published in his career. Thus the chapters on Lewis & Clark (covered in his Undaunted Courage), World War II (D-Day, Citizen Soldiers, Band of Brothers), and Dwight Eisenhower (Eisenhower).

One of the most interesting chapters in the book was that devoted to the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. Ambrose spoke compellingly of his love of railroads, and offered a brief but fervent defense of those who led the effort to build the grand road. My father is a serious lover of trains, I have fond memories of taking the commuter rail to see my grandparents in Skokie, and the six years I lived in Utah left me with a standing fascination with the American West. So I was greatly taken in by this brief account. Ambrose explored the topic more fully in his 2000 book, Nothing Like It in the World, but the book received rather mediocre reviews. Instead I turned, after a mere six year interlude, to David Haward Bain's lengthier, much lauded, Empire Express, which opens with the story of Asa Whitney, one of several forlorn visionaries of the cross-country railroad:

The importance of such a route was incalculable, [Whitney] said. Military forces could be concentrated at any point east or west in eight days or less. A naval station near the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon, "with a comparatively small navy, would command the Pacific, the South Atlantic, and Indian oceans, and the China seas." Using a combined rail and steamship route between New York and China, which would require only third days, the products of American factories could be exchange for Asia's rarities. Compare this to the round-trip sailing distance between New York and China (nearly thirty-thousand miles, requiring up to three hundred days). World commerce would be revolutionized, with Whitney's Pacific route its channel. Each state and every town "would receive its just proportion of influence and benefits," he wrote, "compared with its vicinity to, or facility to communicate with, any of the rivers, canals, or railroads crossed by this great road."

After decades of having such ambitions met by total government inaction, after a series of Congressional battles pitting unholy alliances of parochial congressman and business interests against one another, the bill authorizing the building of the railroad was finally signed by Lincoln on July 1, 1862. This landmark event allegedly prompted Theodore Judah, Whitney's successor as engineering visionary, to telegraph his colleagues, "We have drawn the elephant, now let us see if we can harness him up."

It was quite an elephant--exciting, ferocious, possibly ungovernable--dubious in many respects to the public interest and formidable both in spelling out the burden on the nation and in the rights and responsibilities of the railroad builders. At a time when the resources of the federal government were taxes to the limit, with McClellan's Army of the Potomac retreating on the peninsula, with the president having desperately replaced a poseur with a paper-pusher by naming Henry W. Halleck as new general-in-chief, the people were now committed, with this act, to do what had eluded them for nearly twenty years. Some twenty million acres of public land, and a $60 million loan, at least, were to be handed over to groups of obscure businessmen, most of whom had yet to prove themselves.

The focus of the book is on the railroad's construction and little else. This is a blessing and a curse; it allows Bain to keep his story centered, without the many possible distractions of the Civil War years, and to go into great detail about everything from supply shortages to corporate machinations. But it seems odd to fill 700 pages of text without a greater sense of context; there are scattered references to the war, to the social, economic, and political pressures that ebbed and flowed, to the whiskey towns that sprung up alongside. But only rarely did I ever really feel the context, get a real sense of when and where in America's history these events were taking place. Strangely enough, one of the book's few historical markers was Mormon leader Brigham Young, whose nascent religious colony is ideally located to reap the benefits of the cross-country race:

When Samuel Reed obtained an audience with Brigham Young, the Mormon leader was eager to discuss obtaining good-paying work for his faithful. In the valley there had been, memorably, plagues of crickets and grasshoppers, but now, with the Saints' empire firmly established and blooming, there were locusts; for three years running the farmers' crops had been affected. What surplus there was of hay, oats, and potatoes, Young knew, they would sell to the railroaders. Moreover, as and original shareholder in the Union Pacific, he savored the trains' approach, still blissfully convinced that the Pacific Railroad could never avoid running through the City of the Saints. Reed had been instructed to be non-committal on which way the railroad would turn upon reaching Ogden.

One of the book's other shortcomings, to my mind, is the paucity of maps. There are only 8 maps interspersed through the many hundred pages, and while they provide a basic sense of the geography in question, they were inadequate overall. There were numerous occasions when a passage begged for a visual accompaniment, and even if I flipped fifty pages backward or forward to the closest map, it rarely fit the bill. This was particularly true late in the book, when the race between Union Pacific and Central Pacific was being fought as much in the survey maps registered at the Department of the Interior in D.C. as on the construction line.

It also would have been most helpful to have something of a cast of characters, or at least a basic visual depiction of the corporate hierarchies of the UP and CP. Particularly since the tales of these men's unbridled avarice and zeal are key motivating engines behind the railroad's construction. It can become difficult to figure out which side of the race Bain is discussing at any particular time, especially when he is focused on the corporate fundraising, infighting, or political maneuvering. Since he frequently switches from one to the next with little more than a line break, it would have been helpful to have a management structure to refer to in order to keep all the names straight.

With those caveats, this is still a laudable effort by Bain. If at times a bit confusing or narrowly focused, Empire Express provides a thorough account of one of the great feats of 19th-century American ambition, greed, labor, and technological achievement.

The Vintage Guide to Classical Music by Jan Swafford

swafford_vintage.jpgOne of the many marvels of classical music is the symbiosis of efforts from three different actors: the composer who writes the music, the performer who plays it, and the listener who hears it. This is not a universal characteristic of classical music (Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms were all accomplished concert keyboardists), though it became nearly so as the composer/performer archetype went out of vogue in the last century. And it is not unique to classical music as compared to other genres; some musicians have made a lot of money playing music written by other people, and I've long been a fan of "covers" in rock and folk (see e.g., the Cry Cry Cry album). Nevertheless, I think there is something special about the mechanics of this phenomenon in the classical genre, where an enthusiastic contemporary listener can be exposed to multiple interpretations of the same written piece of music, each synthesizing an entirely new experience every time it is played.

As my collection of recordings has slowly expanded, I've put together a simple page displaying the covers of each album I own. A quick perusal of the first few rows reveals that I have already crossed that line from novice to enthusiast (or obsessive) demarcated by owning multiple recordings of the same piece, in this case Bach's Cello Suites and Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin. As works for solo instruments, these lend themselves especially well to the varieties of style and technique of the different performers. But even in the most heavily-orchestrated symphonies or choral works, there is plenty of room for interpretation by different conductors, by different orchestras, or even by the same conductor at different stages of his career (Herbert von Karajan famously recorded no less than four complete cycles of Beethoven's symphonies; one each in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s).

A second-order benefit of this aspect of classical music is that it greatly increases the number of subjects to which I can devote my literary appetite. To help me navigate the thousands of classical recording options available today, I've consulted several sources, including The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music and The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection. But that leaves a great deal to learn about the artists themselves, both the composers and the performers. Of the latter, I've spent an embarrassing number of hours reading Wikipedia biographies of the great violinists and pianists of the past century. For the composers, and the developmental arc of the Western classical tradition, I turned to Jan Swafford's The Vintage Guide to Classical Music:

I don't claim that the life of a composer tells you everything about his music. There are technical factors, too, that I touch on to the extent appropriate in a nontechnical book. I do claim, however, that a composer's life, personality, and milieu tell you as much about his music as anything else does. Haydn wrote over a hundred symphonies as compared to Beethoven's nine, because for various reasons a symphony for Haydn was a less weighty matter than it was for Beethoven. What symphonies were to Beethoven, operas were to Mozart; in both cases, they were the most ambitious of their works and what they preferred to be writing most of the time, As we move through the years we'll find that each new generation tends to raise the ante of its forebears: the achievements of Beethoven prepared the way for Wagner's exalted notion of the artist, which led in turn to the still-more-exalted ideas of Mahler and Schoenberg. Meanwhile, that train of thought--involving the near deification of the artist--contributed to Stravinsky's disgust with the whole Romantic apparatus. While these historical developments did involve technical concerns, they were social, political, economic, and personal as well, so they fall within the scope of this book.

Swafford takes a strictly chronological approach to his subject, opening with the Middle Ages and proceeding through the major composers of each of five subsequent periods: Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Twentieth Century. The basic template for each composer is a brief introduction, followed by a biography, an outline of their music development (and how it fits into those that came before and after), and finally his recommendations for introductory works by that composer. Interspersed through the text are a series of sidebars in which Swafford provides an introduction to important musical topics, such "Consonance and Dissonance," "Fugue and Canon," and "Sonata Form," in a way that does not require the reader to have any existing technical proficiency:

What we call sonata form indicates a general way of organizing shorter pieces or individual movements of longer pieces... It can be found in numerous genres--symphony, string quartet, and sacred choral works, to name a few. Most commonly, first movements of instrumental pieces are organized according to sonata form.... In the classical instrumental works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, key changes became dramatic events, often signaled by thematic, rhythmic, and textural contrasts. To rationalize this new variety, composers of the period developed some habits of musical syntax and long-range organization which worked so well that they pervaded Western music for over a century. It was these habits that were later abstracted and dubbed "sonata form."

In addition to these sidebars, Swafford also provides a twenty-page glossary of musical terms, covering everything from "a capella" to "glissando" to "woodwind instruments." In his vignettes of the various composers, he makes an effort to indicate the changes in the lifestyles and social status of composers, from the sponsorship of church and court in the Baroque to greater independence with success dependent on popular approval (resulting either in mass fame or utter obscurity) to the almost anti-social alienation of some movements in the 20th-century. Particularly enlightening are Swafford's insights into the evolution of classical music in the context of broader artistic movements; composers, after all, were influenced and inspired by the same economic, social, and political events as other artists, as well as by those artists themselves. Take, for example, the explosive premiere of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps:

That evening in the spring of 1913 was the symbolic beginning, with a bang, of twentieth-century music. In fact, Schoenberg's Pierrot luniaire had made an equally important beginning the year before in Berlin. But Schoenberg did not have the glamour of the Ballets Russes backing up his revolution, and Paris in those years was the epicenter of the new in the arts. So in history books if only partly in reality, Le Sacre begins musical Modernism. It shook the Western tradition to its foundations; it made Stravinsky the champion of the avant-garde and the bete noire of traditionalists. He was seen as the musical counterpart of his friend Picasso, the Cubist and Primitivist. Just under a year following its tumultuous premiere, after the first concert performance of Le Sacre, Stravinsky was paraded through the streets of Paris on the shoulders of a cheering crowd. Around the world, the same pattern was enacted: violent rejection at the early hearings, soon followed by enthusiasm. By the thirties, the work was famous--and safe--enough to accompany animated dinosaurs in Walt Disney's Fantasia (Stravinsky was outraged but helpless to stop it).

The book is not perfect; for one, I question spending more pages on the 20th-century than any other period, with composers such as Ives, Webern and Shostakovich getting equal or greater attention than Mendelssohn, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky. Swafford pleads as an excuse that the passage of time has yet to measure the relative worth of more recent composers, but that seems all the better reason to spend more time on those whose work has already passed that test. I also would have appreciated a greater number of musical sidebars, to further bridge the gap between those with musical training and those without. Nit-picking aside, this is an excellent introduction for those who lack a musical background but want to complement their listening with a basic understanding of the history and lives behind the music.

The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz

wilentz_rise.jpgThe past decade has seen a major revival of interest in America's revolutionary and founding era, demonstrated most prominently by the success of works by popular historians like David McCullough (John Adams, 1776) and Joseph Ellis (Founding Brothers, American Creation). And the Civil War publishing mill has not shown many signs of slowing down, with dozens of new books about America's internecine conflict hitting the shelves every year. Yet the half-century or so that falls between these events has traditionally received only a fraction of this attention, with most texts about the founding era ending at or before Jefferson's first inauguration, and most concerning the Civil War starting, at the earliest, with the Compromise of 1850 or the Kansas-Nebraska Act. To the extent any consideration is given to this period, it is usually devoted solely to the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

Two authors have, in the past several years, made valiant contributions to correct this deficiency. To cover the period from 1815-1848 for the slowly-expanding Oxford History of the United States, UCLA Professor Daniel Walker Howe wrote What Hath God Wrought, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History last year. Taking on a slightly more expansive timeframe, if narrower subject matter, was Princeton Professor Sean Wilentz, who published The Rise of American Democracy in 2005 with the apt subtitle "Jefferon to Lincoln." The Founding Fathers considered "democracy" an epithet, yet fifty years later a visiting Frenchman would achieve widespread success with two volumes titled De la démocratie en Amérique. That evolution is Wilentz' subject:

The changes were astonishing, but neither inevitable nor providential. American democracy did not rise like the sun at its natural hour in history. Its often troubled ascent was the outcome of human conflicts, accomodations, and unforeseen events, and the results could well have been very different than they were. The difficulties and contingencies made the events all the more remarkable. A momentous rupture occurred between Thomas Jeferson's time and Abraham Lincoln's that created the lineaments of modern democratic politics.

The early chapters of Wilentz' book are the most familiar, charting the revolutionary period, the early outbursts of populist strife (like Shays' Rebellion), and the growing breach during the Washington administration between Hamilton on the one hand, and Jefferson and Madison on the other. This breach erupted into near-open warfare during the Adams administration, culminating in the first truly contested presidential election for the young republic:

Jefferson's "revolution of 1800" did leave open some major questions about the democratization of American politics. The egalitarian fundamentals of his appeal, along with the democratic electioneering efforts undertaken by his supporters, surpassed anything seen before in national affairs. The Republicans' absorption of the techniques and the constituency of the city democracy... had created both a Republican infrastructure of newspapers, public events, and loyal operatives, and a national colaition of planters, yeoman, and urban workingmen allied against a Federalist monocracy...

Yet Federalism was far from dead, at least in the northern states. And the Republican coalition of city and country democrats, built in part ouf of the elements of the Democratic-Republican societies, was still commanded by Virginian gentry slaveholders. Traditional political arrangements, conducted by elected officials -- gentlemen for the most part, well removed from the voters -- still largely determined national political affairs. It remained far from clear that the patrician Republican leaders considered partisan popular politics -- described by Jefferson as recently as 1789 as "the last degradation of a free and moral agent" -- as anything more than an unfortunate and temporary expedient to ward off monocracy.

Indeed, the next two decades seem, from a distance, to have been a time of political drift. The quarter-century of rule by the Virgnia dynasty was notable not for its ideological purity, but for the various ways in which the Republicans had to compromise on so many of their ideals, like their supposed hatred of a national bank (the Second Bank of the United States was charted the Madison administration). The once-insurgent Republicans came to be seen as the party of privilege and inertia, exemplified most strikingly (if inaccurately) by the supposed "corrupt bargain" which saw John Quincy Adams appoint Henry Clay as Secretary of State after he won the 1824 presidential election in the House of Representatives (Clay was Speaker of the House).

Thereafter, the largest vehicle for expanding democracy became the flawed Jackson Democracy. Organized as a movement of reform to eliminate a perceived recrudescence of privilege, the Jacksonians combined the evolving city and country democracies into a national political force. They also created a new kind of political party, more egalitarian in its institutions and its ideals than any that had preceded it, unabashed in its disciplined pursuit of power, dedicated to securing the sovereignty that, as its chief architect Martin Van Buren observed, "belongs inalienably to the people."

...Yet the Jacksonians were hardly consistent egalitarians, nor did they encompass all of the democratic impulses that were breaking out in the 1830s. Above all, in order to preserve the spirit of the Missouri Compromise and their party's intersectional unity, the Jacksonians joined in the attack on the radical abolitionists and bent over backward to placate southern outrage, short of disunion, at attacks on slavery.

Indeed, the only major example of the Democratic leadership standing up to the south was the 1828 Nullification Crisis, which foreshadowed the extremist doctrine gaining sympathy in southern circles. Otherwise virtually every major event, from the "Compromise" of 1850, to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, to the Lecompton Constitution, to the Dred Scott decision, signified an effort to placate or substantiate southern sectionalism. Wilentz makes repeated references to the major constitutional defect which contributed to this outsized southern power: the Three-Fiths Compromise, which ensured that even as the country as a whole became more democratic, the South was overrepresented in the House of Represntatives and thus the Electoral College. But as the decades past, the ability for the political parties to withstand these centrifugal forces diminished, such that by 1860 they were either destroyed or irreparably divided:

Two factors -- the expansionist pursuit of Jefferson's empire of liberty, and the extraordinary continued growth of plantation slavery thanks to the cotten revolution -- upset the Democratic and Whig Parties that had formed by 1840, and hastened the growth of the antagonistic northern and southern democracies. Americans experienced the crack-up primarily as a political crisis, about whether slavery would be allowed to interfere with democratic rights -- or, alternatively, whether northern tyranny would be allowed to interfere with southern democracy. Over those questions, which encompassed clashes over northern free labor and southern slavery, the political system began falling apart in the mid-1840s.

From here the story becomes familiar again, particularly to those who have read any of the major Civil War histories (like James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom, reviewed here) or one of the great Lincoln biographies of the past several years (like Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, reviewed here). Northern outrage at the 1850s' series of surrenders to the South, the perfection of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian electoral strategies by the infant Republican Party, and the fatal sectional division of the Democratic Party lead to Lincoln's election, secession, and civil war.

Wilentz's review of America's political history from Jefferson to Lincoln is undoubtedly thorough. If anything, too thorough, as it becomes rather difficult to follow the state-by-state analysis he conducts at various stages of the book, despite the colorful names of the antagonists (e.g. Locofocos). And those looking for a broader scope, touching on social, cultural, economic, military, or other historical forces, will be largely disappointed. Wilentz touches on these elements only insofar as they inform the political sphere. Still, a useful book for those who seek a fuller understanding of the development of this country's political system and the relationship between the government and the people.

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

diamond_guns.jpgA simple glance around the modern world makes it clear that some continents, some peoples, have seen greater success, at least insofar as success is measured in terms of material wealth and territorial conquest. Europeans, and their descendants, have by and large achieved the highest levels of financial, technological, and political "progress," and have successfully supplemented native populations on several continents (North and South America, Australia). In the past week, I have already reviewed two books which in some part reflect the recent aftermath of the centuries of European ascent (Robert Fisk's The Great War for Civilisation, reviewed here, and Alistair Horne's A Savage War of Peace, reviewed here).

Most people probably take this reality for granted, without wondering much why history took that particular course. Others who have considered the question have relied upon facile attributions to supposed cultural or racial advantages for Europeans vis-a-vis the rest of humanity. In his controversial, Pulitzer Prize-winning 1997 book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, UCLA professor Jared Diamond aimed to answer this immense question, offering his own provocative thesis:

We all know that history has proceeded very differently for peoples from different parts of the globe. In the 13,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age, some parts of the world developed literate industrial societies with metal tools, other parts developed only nonliterate farming societies, and still others retained societies of hunter gatherers with stone tools. Those historical inequalities have cast long shadows on the modern world, because the literate societies with metal tools have conquered or exterminated the other societies. While those differences constitute the most basic fact of world history, the reasons for them remain uncertain and controversial...

Authors are regularly asked by journalists to summarize a long book in one sentence. For this book, here is such a sentence: "History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples' environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves."

Diamond explains that the desire to investigate this phenomenon arose during his field research in New Guinea, the large island north of Australia that remains home to an incredibly diverse number of tribal and linguistic groups (accounting for more than 1,000 of the world's ~6,000 surviving languages). While there, he was asked by one of his New Guinean friends why it was Europeans who had come to his land, and brought all sorts of advanced tools and products, and not the other way around. Diamond was intuitively skeptical of any explanation based on innate intellectual differences, based in part of the lack of any robust studies demonstrating such difference, and in part on his own observations of the intelligence of New Guinea's native population.

Recognizing immediately that a broad cross-disciplinary approach would be necessary to approach this question, Diamond found himself well-situated. The child of a physician and a linguist, Diamond studied physiology and biophysics at Harvard and Cambridge, pursued an interest in the ornithology of New Guinea, and developed an expertise on environmental history. His Wikipedia biography claims fluency in twelve languages, and prior to Guns, Germs, and Steel, he had published works in the fields of ecology, ornithology, human evolution, and human sexuality. Throughout the book, Diamond uses a variety of well-documented historical examples to define, test, and then illustrate his thesis, from New Guinea to . In his effort to redefine human history as a science, he draws from the fields of archaeology, linguistics, botany, zoology, sociology, geology, chemistry, biology, and more. As stated in his thesis, he believes environmental factors to be the prime mover in the broad course of human history, and he identifies four in particular:

The first set consists of the continental differences in the wild plant and animal species available as starting materials for domestication. That's because food production was critical for the accumulation of food surpluses that could feed non-food-producing specialists, and for the buildup of large populations enjoying a military advantage through mere numbers even before they had developed any technological or political advantage. For both of those reasons, all developments of economically complex, socially stratified, politically centralized societies beyond the level of small nascent chiefdoms were based on food production.

But most wild animal and plant species have proved unsuitable for domestication: food production has been based on relatively few species of livestock and crops. It turns out that the number of wild candidate species for domestication varied greatly among the continents... As a result, Africa ended up biologically somewhat less endowed than the much larger Eurasia, the Americas still less so, and Australia even less so...

The early chapters devoted to food production are amongst the most interesting in the book, which might not seem intuitively obvious. I myself was a bit skeptical as to how much attention I could pay to the domestication of wheat and so on. But Diamond's exploration of the junction between random mutation, natural selection, and human intervention through selective breeding is surprisingly compelling. Even more so is his discussion of the world's wildlife, and the factors which make some large mammals (e.g. cattle, sheep) more susceptible to domestication than others (e.g. lions, rhinos). That the distribution of domestication-prone animals so greatly favored Eurasia is one of the most striking revelations in Diamond's book.

[A] second set of factors consists of those affecting rates of diffusion and migration, which differed greatly among continents. They were most rapid in Eurasia, because of its east-west major axis and its relatively modest ecological and geographical barriers. The reasoning is straightforward for movements of crops and livestock, which depend strongly on climate and hence on latitude. But similar reasoning also applies to the diffusion of technological innovations, insofar as they are best suited without modification to specific environments. Diffusion was slower in Africa and especially in the Americas, because of those continents' north-south major axes and geographic and ecological barriers.

The best examples Diamond provides of this phenomenon lay in the contrast between Eurasia and the Americas. Consider the tremendous contacts made between the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, Europe, and China. And these contacts were not all one-way. Though evidence exists for the earliest food production arising in the Fertile Crescent, successive millennia would see innovations headed both east and west. In the Americas, however, even the great civilizations of Peru and Mesoamerica, the Incas and Aztecs, failed to engage in any analogous cultural or technological exchange. As Diamond laments, the Native Americans were never able to link up the one large domestic animal, the llama of the Andes, with that vital innovation, the wheel.

Related to these factors affecting diffusion within continents is a third set of factors influencing diffusion between continents, which may also help build up a local pool of domesticates and technology. Ease of intercontinental diffusion has varied, because some continents are more isolated than others. Within the last 6,000 years it has been easiest from Eurasia to sub-Saharan Africa, supplying most of Africa's species of livestock. But interhemispheric diffusion made no contribution to Native America's complex societies, isolated from Eurasia at low latitudes by broad oceans, and at high latitudes by geography and by a climate suitable just for hunting-gathering. To Aboriginal Australia, isolated form Eurasia by the water barriers of the Indonesian Archipelago, Eurasia's sole proven contribution was the dingo.

The chapters charting the course of intercontinental diffusion were some of the most difficult for me to work through, whether focused on the Austronesian movement through Southeast Asia or the Bantu expansion through sub-Saharan Africa. Much of the evidence for these progressions is found either in archaeological analysis of pottery or linguistic scrutiny of common words. Comprehensive? Yes. Convincing? Certainly. But this is the only place where the narrative really drags. One exception, rooted solely in the bizarre nature of the case, is the migration of Austronesian peoples all the way from their likely origins in Indonesia all the way across the Indian Ocean to the African island of Madagascar, eventually resulting in a remarkably complex demography.

The fourth and last set of factors consists of continental differences in area or total population size. A larger area or population means more potential inventors, more competing societies, more innovations available to adopt--and more pressure to adopt and retain innovations, because societies failing to do so will tend to be eliminated by competing societies. That fate befell African pygmies and many other hunter-gatherer populations displaced by farmers. Conversely, it also befell the stubborn, conservative Greenland Norse farmers, replaced by Eskimo hunter-gatherers whose subsistence methods and technology were far superior to those of the Norse under Greenland conditions. Among the world's landmasses, area and the number of competing societies were largest for Eurasia, much smaller for Australia and New Guinea and especially for Tasmania. The Americas, despite their large aggregate area, were fragmented by geography and ecology and functioned effectively as several poorly connected smaller continents.

In addition to the geological realities described above, Diamond also places heavy emphasis on various positive-feedback loops. Food production and population size are the most notable of these. Though unable to ascertain definitively which is the chicken and which the egg, it is clear that the surpluses of sustenance created by food production will support a larger population than hunting and gathering alone. Not only can this larger population then produce more food, it can spare manpower for other uses, such as professional warfare, politics, and science, which will expand the community's power and its capacity for further innovation. And so on.

Guns, Germs, and Steel was widely-read and quite controversial upon publication, and it has remained so in the years since. A quick glance at the book's Wikipedia page gives a decent summary of the various lines of criticism that have been leveled in Professor Diamond's direction, some directed at the substance of his thesis, some focused on particular gaps or weaknesses in his arguments. Some are attributable to the nature of the book, which consists of a mere 400-odd pages of non-technical prose; this ensured a wide audience, but Diamond himself admits the difficulty of purporting to examine 13,000 years of global human history in so few pages.

That said, what Diamond accomplishes in his 400-odd pages is rather impressive. He takes his reader on a rewarding survey of the chronological and geographic scope of human civilization, with fascinating insights gained from fields as diverse as agriculture and linguistics and examples from every inhabited continent. Diamond explicitly intended the book to be provocative, and in his final chapter he advocates for a more scientific approach to the field of human history. At the very least, Guns, Germs, and Steel forcefully demonstrates how vital an appreciation of ecology, biology, and the other sciences is for understanding, if not justifying, the course of our civilization.

A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne

horne_savage.jpgThe Algerian War of Independence must surely be the most fascinating war that I knew nothing about. Certainly, I knew that Algeria used to be a part of France. I've read Albert Camus' The Plague and The Stranger, after all. But I had no idea that the separation of Algeria from France was so bloody, so destructive, and so riveting. Fortunately, this remarkable episode in history has been captured by one of our best historians, Alistair Horne.

Written in 1977, fifteen years after the end of the war, A Savage War of Peace tells the story of the birth of one nation, the near-collapse of another, and a combustible mix of colonialism, nationalism, Cold War politics and civil-military relations. Many of the characters are simply larger than life, from the Algerian guerrilla leaders to the French paratrooper colonels to France's own indispensable man: Charles de Gaulle. In the original preface to the book, Horne explained the importance of the conflict:

To Algeria it brought birth. But, during that war, more was involved than simply the issue of whether nine million Muslims should gain their independence or not. Not merely one but several "revolutions" were taking place on a variety of distinct levels; there was, inter alia, a profound social revolution going on within the framework of Algerian Muslim society; and, on the French side, "revolutions" first by the army and later by the OAS against the political authority of France. Finally, there was the tug-of-war for the soul of Algeria as fought externally on the rostrum of the United Nations and the platforms of the Third World, and in the councils of both Western and Eastern blocs.

One of the most surprising aspects of the war was how threatening it was to France itself. One might reasonably think that the greatest danger posed to a colonial power by a war of independence is the loss of the colony. But the Algerian war presented almost surreal potential for destruction to the mother country:

I also happened to be in France on two other occasions when events in Algeria threatened the very existence of the Republic--in May 1958 and again in April 1961, the latter the most dangerous of all when ancient Sherman tanks were rolled out on to the Concorde to guard against a possible airborne coup mounted from Algiers...The war in Algeria (which lasted nearly eight years--almost twice as long as the "Great War' of 1914-18) toppled six French prime ministers and the Fourth Republic itself. It came close to bringing down General de Gaulle and his Fifth Republic and confronted metropolitan France with the threat of civil war.

How could this be? The mighty nation of France, survivor of two world wars, laid low by a rebellion in North Africa? To gain some sense of how this came to pass, Horne takes us through a whirlwind tour of French Algeria, from the landing of an expeditionary force in 1830, to the 1848 French constitution which converted Algeria from colony to part of France proper, to the 1865 decree which guaranteed full nationality for European colonists (the so-called Pieds-Noirs), but made citizenship for Muslims based on the intolerable condition that they renounce the authority of their religious courts. The entire Algerian relationship was anomalous, even amongst French colonial possessions:

At the top, Algeria - since it had been annexed as an integral part of France - was governed through the French Ministry of the Interior. This was in sharp contrast to its closely related Maghreb neighbours, over whom France established only "protectorates" during the nineteenth century and which were consequently dealt with by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

This policy made sense only insofar as Algeria was to be considered as much a part of France as Normandy or Provence, and it is worth comparing what relatively peaceful transitions both Morocco and Tunisia made from French colonies to independent nations. But how seriously could anyone take this idea, when 90% of the population were non-citizen Algerian Muslims? Quite a few people, as it turned out. The two communities, pied-noir and Muslim, tenuously co-existed, with the Europeans enjoying absurdly unfair privileges in governance and commerce. This system was clearly unfair, never more so than when Algerian Muslims who fought for France in World War II returned to their homeland to find they were still to be treated as second-class citizens:

[W]hen, early in 1943, a Muslim delegation approached the Free French leader, General Giraud, with a petition of reforms, they were headed off with "I don't care about reforms, I want soldiers first." And indeed, Algeria did provide France with soldiers - as in the First World War: magnificent Tirailleurs and Spahis, to whom General Juin was heavily indebted for his victorious progress through the grinding Italian campaign. These Algerian soldiers at the front were either largely unaware of, or had their backs turned upon, the turmoil brewing at home - until Sétif. But the camaraderie of the battle-front, their contact with the more privileged British and American troops, as well as the training they received, were things not to be lightly forgotten.

The 1945 Sétif_massacre, an account of which opens Horne's book, resulted in more than 6,000 Algerian deaths and marked the birth of the nationalist movements which would break into open rebellion in 1954. There was not one unified movement, and the story of the internal politics and violence within the revolutionary movement receives due attention throughout the book. Of particular note for comparison to other recent revolutionary movements was the tension between the FLN leaders in exile and those who were doing the actual fighting, the "exterior" and "interior":

In the first instance the row was over the continued failure of the external delegation to provide the arms demanded by the "interior". An angry exchange of correspondence in April 1956 culminated with this insulting ultimatum to Ben Bella: "If you cannot do anything for us outside, come back and die with us. Come and fight. Otherwise consider yourselves as traitors!"

An array of military and economic measures were deployed by the French in the early years of the war, alternately trying to use the carrot to ease Muslim complaints while deploying the stick to destroy or deter insurgent violence. The leaders of the FLN recognized the principle of guerrilla warfare that "a resort to blind terrorism provoke the forces of law and order into an equally blind repression, which in turn would lead to a backlash by the hitherto uncommitted, polarise the situation into two extreme camps and make impossible any dialogue of compromise by eradicating the "soft centre". The FLN took this step on the outskirts of the city of Philippeville, where the violence deployed was almost unspeakable:

It was not until two o'clock that a forest guard managed by a miracle to dodge ambushes and bring the news to Philippeville on foot; and still another hour and a half elapsed before a para detachment could reach the village. An appalling sight greeted them. In houses literally awash with blood, European mothers were found with their throats slit and their bellies slashed open by bill-hooks. Children had suffered the same fate, and infants in arms had had their brains dashed out against the wall. Four families had been wiped down to the last member; only six who had barricaded themselves in a house in the centre of the village and had held out with sporting rifles and revolvers had escaped unscathed. Men returning from the mine had been ambushed in their cars and hacked to pieces. Altogether thirty-seven Europeans had died, including ten children under fifteen, and another thirteen had been left for dead.

This horrendous violence would recur again and again, driving both sides to unthinkable acts of brutality. The French military and police would stoop to the types of torture from which their society had so recently suffered under German occupation, and in the waning days of the war the pieds-noirs would form their own bands of vigilantes to rain terror upon Muslim civilians. All of which worked to the FLN's ends, to eliminate the so-called "Third Force," the interlocuteurs valables with which the French government would seek to compromise, rather than concede to the unbending demands for independence levied by the militants.

The situation was complicated immensely by the pied-noir problem. Not only could the French not simply abandon the million-plus citizens residing in Algeria, but those citizens had voting rights and thus representatives in the French government. And in the pathetically fragmented post-war Fourth Republic, the pied-noir caucus could swing a vote of confidence and bring down a government. This instability was intolerable to the military, which saw it is an impediment to victory, thus leading to the May 1958 in which the Algerian-based paratroopers effectively threatened to invade Paris and overthrow the government if Charles de Gaulle were not brought back to power:

On the morning of the 27th the crisis reached its peak. Parisians looked up nervously at every plane overhead; Simone de Beauvoir had Freudian nightmares about a python dropping on her form the sky; and in the Ministry of the Interior Jules Moch received an intelligence report that "Resurrection" was now scheduled to take place on the following night. He ordered his C.R.S. force to prepare to defend government buildings. Meanwhile, young para officers were arriving in the capital in civilian clothes, carrying suspiciously heavy suitcases. Among their targets was the kidnapping of Jules Moch himself, and with them - on his own mission - came Lagaillarde. Then, early in the afternoon, de Gaulle - apparently as a result of the mounting pressures upon him - issued a communique announcing that he had begun the "regular process" of forming a legitimate republican government, and condemning any threat to public order.

This would not be the last, nor the most dangerous of the attempted military coups. It was amazing to me to read how close the government of France, which today we celebrate as a stable member of the sisterhood of democracies, came so close on several occasions to being overthrown by its own military. But Horne, while not defending this treason, does attempt to provide some perspective:

To understand what to other Western minds may seem incomprehensible and shocking, the disaffection within the French army which was to culminate in full-scale revolt in less than eighteen months' time, one needs to consider the stresses imposed by French history beyond merely the unbroken chain of humiliation that stretched from 1940 up to the Algerian war. Since the execution of Louis XVI in 1793, the French army had been subject to the First Republic, the Directory, the Consulate, the First Empire, the First and Second Restorations, the "Bourgeois Monarchy" of Louis-Phillipe, the Second Republic, the Second Empire, the Commune, the Third Republic, Petain's Vichy and de Gaulle's Free French Committee, the Fourth Republic, and now the Fifth Republic. Each change of regime had contributed fresh division within the army, and added new confusion as to where loyalties were ultimately due - a compound of experience shared by no other army in the world (outside, perhaps, Latin America).

Indeed, the only even remotely comparable analogy I could muster in modern American civil-military relations was the open disregard shown for President Truman by General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War, resulting in MacArthur's prompt dismissal from command and (eventual) widespread consensus that the general had gone too far. As far as I can remember, there were no colonels in the airborne divisions plotting to jump into D.C. to force a regime change.

Ultimately, this was a war the French could probably never win. The era of colonialism was coming to an end, and whatever distinctions the French saw between Algeria and their other former colonies, the rest of the world was unsympathetic. The Algerian rebels played a stellar game of shuttle diplomacy, eventually getting support or at least neutrality out of the Americans, the Chinese, and the Soviets (no mean feat in the early 1960s!). They had the numbers, they had the willingness to resort to terrible acts of violence, and they were not playing for the short-term. The FLN knew that they could simply outlast the French, and in the end they were right.

Horne's book has gained a new following since the start of the Iraqi insurgency, coming back into print in 2006. The new cover advertises that it is "on the reading list of President Bush and the US military," and it was apparently recommended to the then-President by no less than Henry Kissinger (whose authorized biographer is, wait for it, Alistair Horne). Now certainly it is on the reading list of some in the US military, yours truly for starters, but I'm not entirely sure the book holds anything but bad news for America.

In the first place, I'm not entirely sure how apt the analogy is. Yes, the Algerian war for independence can be described as an insurgency. But this is a land that had been considered part of France proper, at least by the French, for well over a century. By the time of Algeria's independence in 1962, there were a million pieds-noirs, with full French citizenship and voting rights, born and raised in Algeria. Yet even overlooking the vast differences between the situations, what about the Algerian experience is instructive for America? The war took down the very structure of French government, inspired two military coup attempts, resulted in almost total political defeat for France (despite tremendous military success once the resources were finally committed), the mass migration of the pieds-noirs, the slaughter of France's erstwhile Algerian allies, and the eventual disintegration in Algerian civil society leading to a full-blown civil war beginning in 1991. Not a lot there to be happy about, though it does make for a great read.

The Great War for Civilisation by Robert Fisk

fisk_great.jpgAs tragically widespread as violence was in the 20th-century, surely no geographic region saw a greater share of warfare and dislocation than the Middle East. From the breakup of the Ottoman Empire, through the turmoil of the dying days of colonial occupation, to the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflagration, the three Iraqi wars of the past three decades, and so on, not a year has gone by without some form of revolutionary, civil, or interstate armed conflict in the region. The very fact that I, an American soldier, am writing this book review from a U.S. military base in the country of Kuwait, is a further testament to the continuing volatility of the Birthplace of Three Religions.

No journalist, and probably no person of any occupation, has experienced more of these conflicts in the last thirty years than Robert Fisk. A Beirut-based British reporter employed by The Times as Middle East correspondent from 1976, in its pre-Rupert Murdoch days, and by The Independent since 1989, Fisk has covered nearly every episode of regional strife since the start of the Lebanese Civil War. In 2006, Fisk collects his three decades of reporting into an expansive thousand-page survey of modern conflicts in the Middle East, titled The Great War of Civilisation. Largely a narrative compilation of Fisk's years of reporting, the book also provides some historical background to each of the violent episodes he recounts, tying the chaos in the Middle East to the disastrous post-World War I peace settlement in Paris, which carved up the region into European colonial mandates and set the stage for a century of clashes:

My father was a soldier of the Great War, fighting in the trenches of France because of a shot fired in a city he'd never heard of called Sarajevo. And when he died thirteen years ago at the age of ninety-three, I inherited his campaign medals. One of them depicted a winged victory and on the observe side are engraved the words: "The Great War for Civilisation."

After the allied victory of 1918, at the end of my father's war, the victors divided up the lands of their former enemies. In the space of just seventeen months, they created the borders of Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and most of the Middle East. And I have spent my entire career--in Belfast and Sarajevo, in Beirut and Baghdad--watching the people within those borders burn.

In his lengthy career in the Middle East, Fisk was on-hand for the aforementioned, long-running Lebanese Civil War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iranian Revolution, the Iran-Iraq War, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the First and Second Palestinian Intifadas, the Algerian Civil War, the Persian Gulf War and the subsequent failed Shia uprising, the aftermath of 9/11, and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. All of these conflicts, and more, fill one or more chapters in The Great War of Civilisation. Early in the book, Fisk lays out his journalistic philosophy, which frankly it would be nice to see adopted by a few more of the obsequious hacks currently posing as reporters:

I suppose, in the end, we journalists try--or should try--to be the first impartial witnesses to history. If we have any reason for our existence, the least must be our ability to report history as it happens so that no one can say: "We didn't know--no one told us." Amira Hass, the brilliant Israeli journalist on Ha'aretz newspaper whose reports on the occupied Palestinian territories have outshone anything written by non-Israeli reporters, discussed this with me more than two years ago. I was insisting that we had a vocation to write the first pages of history but she interrupted me. "No, Robert, you're wrong," she said. "Our job is to monitor the centres of power." And I think, in the end, that is the best definition of journalism I have heard: to challenge authority--all authority--especially so when governments and politicians take us to war, when they have decided that they will kill and others will die.

The beauty of Fisk's book rests in both the depth and breadth of his personal experience in that territory. Thus the chapters of this book offer a new perspective for most readers on two fronts: first, he goes places most reporters don't, and thus tells stories they can't tell. The easiest, and most famous, examples are his three interviews with Osama Bin Laden from 1993 to 1997. But the pages of The Great War of Civilisation also find him sneaking back into Afghanistan after the Taliban took power, confronting Boeing executives with the fragment of a Hellfire missile the Israelis shot into a Lebanese ambulance, and a particularly harrowing experience riding a Russian Army column making its way toward Jalalabad:

There was little evidence of the ambushed convoy in front save for the feet of a dead man being hurriedly pushed into a Soviet army van near Charikar and a great swath of crimson and pink slush that spread for several yards down one side of the road. The highway grew more icy at sundown, but we drove faster. As we journeyed on into the night, the headlights of our 147 trucks running like diamonds over the snow behind us, I was gently handed a Kalashnikov rifle with a full clip of ammunition. A soldier snapped off the safety catch and told me to watch through the window. I had no desire to hold this gun, even less to shoot at Afghan guerrillas, but if we were attacked again--if the Afghans had come right up to the truck as they had done many times on these convoys--they would assume I was a Russian. They would not ask all members of the National Union of Journalists to stand aside before gunning down the soldiers.

I have never since held a weapon in wartime and I hope I never shall again. I have always cursed the journalists who wear military costumes and don helmets and play soldiers with a gun at their hip, greying over the line between reporter and combatant, making our lives ever more dangerous as armies and militias come to regard us as an extension of their enemies, a potential combatant, a military target. But I had not volunteered to travel with the Soviet army. I was not--as that repulsive expression would have it in later wars--"embedded." I was as much their prisoner as their guest. As the weeks went by, Afghans learned to climb aboard the Soviet convoy lorries after dark and knife their occupants. I knew that my taking a rifle--even though I never used it--would produce a reaction from the great and the good in journalism, and it seemed better to admit the reality than to delete this from the narrative. If I was riding shotgun for the Soviet army, then that was the truth of it.

The second front on which Fisk offers most readers, at least most American readers, a different perspective is his critical take on Israel's behavior vis-a-vis Palestine and Lebanon. In Europe, there is tolerance for a broad diversity of public opinion on the Israel/Palestine situation. In the United States, not so much. It is getting better, but it is still difficult to express much public opposition to actions by the Israeli state without incurring the wrath of the pro-Israel lobby. Whatever the right answer, if there is one, I think there is at least a need for a wider range of discussion on the topic than is currently prevalent in America's public dialogue about Israel. Though there are those out there who would tar Fisk as an anti-Semite because of his views, I think he fits solidly within the range of reasonable opinion. I do not agree with all of it, but that's not the point. He made me think hard about Israel and Palestine in a way that few authors have:

When Palestinians massacre Israelis, we regard them as evil men. When Israelis slaughter Palestinians, America and other Western nations find it expedient to regard these crimes as tragedies, misunderstandings, or the work of individual madmen. Palestinians--in the generic, all-embracing sense of the word--are held to account for these terrible deeds. Israel is not. Thus, over the years, a strange confusion has emerged in the Western response to Israeli misdeeds, a reaction that is ultimately as damaging to Israel as it is to the West itself. When Israeli soldiers or settlers murder Palestinians, they are semantically distanced from their country.

Fisk has been a popular target of conservative journalists and bloggers, particularly after his vocal opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, even being the namesake of the dubious verb "fisking," or critiquing a written work one line at a time. If there is one substantive criticism I have of Fisk's book, it is the frequent negative references to the Bush administration and the Iraq War he sprinkles throughout the book. Though I certainly share much of his anger and frustration at the unnecessary bloodshed, some of the attacks seem gratuitously out of place with the surrounding narrative. That said, the book was probably mostly written in 2005, when the U.S. effort in Iraq was at its nadir, and Fisk does have exactly the pedigree to provide the sort of historical perspective that was so disastrously lacking in the White House and Pentagon under Bush and Rumsfeld:

Bush spoke of the tens of thousands of opponents of Saddam Hussein who had been arrested and imprisoned and summarily executed and tortured--"all of these horrors concealed from the world by the apparatus of a totalitarian state--but there was no mention that these same beatings and burnings and electric shocks and mutilations and rapes were being readily perpetrated when America was on very good terms with Iraq before 1990, when the Pentagon was sending intelligence information to Saddam to help him kill more Iranians. Indeed, one of the most telling aspects of the Bush speech was that all the sins of which he specifically accused the Iraqis--a good many undoubtedly true--began in the crucial year of 1991. There was no reference to Saddam's flouting of UN resolutions when the Americans were helping him. There were a few reminders by Bush of the gas attacks against Iran--without mentioning that this very same Iran was no supposed to be part of the "axis of evil."

The only other aspect of the book that might frustrate those who read it with an open mind is that it feels, at times, episodic. In three consecutive chapters, Fisk moves from the Iran-Iraq War, to his father's participation in World War I, to the Armenian holocaust. There's a natural reason for this: Fisk is a journalist, and each chapter essentially covers the period of time in which Fisk was reporting from that country. And certainly by the end of the 1000+ pages of text, any reader will be tremendously better informed on the modern Middle East than before. But this tome is not intended to be a comprehensive contemporary history of the region, so there are a number of loose ends, which Fisk, probably called away to cover yet another outbreak of violence in the region, was unable to tie up. Nevertheless, an incredible book from a man who has put his body and soul into telling the stories of a land where the reign of violence and suffering has been undeterred by the tolling of a new century.

Khrushchev by William Taubman

taubman_khrushchev.jpgIt is often difficult for the successors of powerful leaders to escape the shadows of those they follow. In the American experience, think of John Adams, Andrew Johnson, or Harry Truman. Outside of America, look at John Major or Thabo Mbeki. There are any number of reasons for this: perhaps the predecessor was governing on the basis of a personal popularity unavailable to the next guy, or his power enabled him to ignore a pending crises that erupted after he left office, or perhaps he himself was the source of the trouble.

And of course the more powerful the leader, the more popular and dominant his reign, the greater the struggle for the next in line. It is hard to think of an example, in the 20th-century at least, of a man who had more governmental authority vested in his person and personality than Joseph Stalin. Of course not only did the Soviet Union not have a constitutional line of succession in place upon his unexpected death, Stalin had spent the past several decades periodically purging anyone who gained enough power to be viewed as an heir apparent. Thus the emergence of the man who eventually surfaced as Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, was not grounded in precedent or consensus.

As historian William Taubman notes in the opening lines of his 2004 biography, Khrushchev, what "many Westerners, and not a few Russians" recall about the former Soviet leader is that he was a "crude, ill-educated clown who banged his shoe at the United Nations." Those with a bit more memory of the Cold War might also remember that it was Khrushchev who went eyeball-to-eyeball with JFK during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and, as Dean Rusk put it, "the other guy blinked." Taubman argues that the truth about Stalin's successor was a bit more abstruse:

[T]he short, thick-set man with small, piercing eyes, protruding ears, and apparently unquenchable energy wasn't a Soviet joke even though he figures in so many of them. Rather, he was a complex man whose story combines triumph and tragedy for his country as well as himself.

Complicit in Stalinist crimes, Khrushchev attempted to de-Stalinize the Soviet Union. His daring but bumbling attempt to reform communism began the long, erratic process of putting a human face (initially his own) on an inhumane system. Not only did he help prepare the way for Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin a quarter of a century later, but Khrushchev's failure to set a stable and prosperous new course for his country anticipated the setbacks that would thwart their attempts at reform.

Born in a small Russian village in 1894, there was little about Khrushchev's youth to lead one to believe he would rise to rule one of the world's two superpowers:

Beginning at age six or seven, village boys fetched water and wood and tagged along with their fathers to work in fields. At eight or nine they tended cattle or sheep, and by thirteen they worked alongside their fathers from dawn to dusk... We have no photograph of Nikita as a boy, but it is not hard to imagine an energetic towhead, wearing only a long peasant shirt until age six or seven, then rough, crude trousers home-sewn out of flax or wool. He recalled going barefoot as a boy from spring until late fall.

Moved to the Ukraine during his childhood, Khrushchev became political during the Revolution, and he served as a political commissar in the Red Army during the Russian Civil War. He then began his march up the ranks of the Communist Party, serving as director of a mine he had previously worked at and then a series of progressively greater party positions. Khrushchev came under the tutelage of Lazar Kaganovich, then head of the party in Ukraine, further enhancing his rise. But it was to be in the 1930s that Khrushchev's career would take its greatest strides, a decade otherwise marked primarily by massive suffering amongst the Russian people and vicious party purges by Stalin:

Between 1939 and 1938 Khrushchev's career rocketed upward: May 1930, head of the Industrial Academy's party cell; January 1931, party boss of the Bauman District, in which the academy was located; followed six months later by the same job in Krasnopresnensky, the capital's largest and most important borough; January 1932, number two man in the Moscow party organization itself; January 1934, Moscow city party boss and member of the party Central Committee; early 1935, party chief of Moscow province too, a region about the size of England and Wales with a population of eleven million people. Even in an era of extraordinary upward mobility, Khrushchev's was stunning. Yet during the same decade in which he reached the heights, his country experienced nothing short of a holocaust.

The details of Stalin's purges, and the disastrous consequences of his policies for the rural masses, are well-covered by Taubman, largely tracking the story of paranoiac bloodletting described in Simon Sebag Montefiore's recent biography of the dictator, Stalin (reviewed here). Khrushchev was able to ride out some of the bloodiest episodes from his safe perch in Ukraine, where he was made party head in early 1938. He was to stay in the West into World War II, accompanying the invasion forces into Poland in 1939 and was later present in Stalingrad during the infamous siege:

Khrushchev served as chief political commissar (although that term itself was no longer used after 1941) on a series of crucial fronts. Military councils of which he was a member consisted of the front commander, the chief of staff for the area, and the top political officer. The latter's responsibility was equal to the commander's; no order could be issued without his signature. Actually, many commanders wanted only formal equality, preferring that their commissars concentrate on keeping up morale and lobbying with the Kremlin for supplies and reinforcements. However, Khrushchev wanted a voice in operational matters, and as a member of the ruling Politburo he got it.

Khrushchev emerged from the war as a member of the Soviet elite, but was still not viewed as a likely successor to the top spot. And in fact, after Stalin's sudden death in 1953 power was quickly seized by the butcher Beria, whose sadistic reign as security chief had involved numerous personal acts of rape, torture, and murder. Whether out of personal ambition or self-preservation, the other aspirants to the throne briefly united to oust Beria, at which point Malenkov was seen as the leading figure, only to be outmaneuvered by Khrushchev in late 1953 and early 1954. Khrushchev solidified his power over the next several years, culminating in his decision to make the famous "Secret Speech" in which he sought to justify his rise and his proposals by denouncing Stalin's cult of personality and those who had enabled it (naturally ignoring or minimizing his own part):

Khrushchev's speech denouncing Stalin was the bravest and most reckless thing he ever did. The Soviet regime never fully recovered, and neither did he. Before he spoke, Malenkov and Molotov seemed defeated politically. Just to make sure, he had stacked the congress with his supporters and strengthened his position in the Central Committee. He was now first among supposed equals, perfectly positioned eventually to expel his rivals from the party.

The remainder of Khrushchev's decade or so of power is punctuated by a series of high-risk, high-reward endeavors. His triumphs included the success of the Soviet space program, the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, and his visit to the United States. Notably less triumphant were the violent crackdown on the 1956 Hungarian revolution, the disintegration of relations between the Soviet Union and China, the support for building the Berlin Wall, the repeated failure to meet his lofty economic goals, and the near-catastrophic decision to place nuclear missiles in Cuba:

Khrushchev had not thought things through or prepared backup plans for various contingencies. He badly misjudged the American response, improvised madly when he was found out, and was fortunate the crisis ended as safely as it did... [These actions] reflect Khrushchev's domestic and personal position in 1962: besieged by troubles; increasingly irritated as setbacks mounted; determined to prove himself (to himself as well as to his colleagues); ready to lash out and take risks to regain the initiative. In that sense the Cuban missiles were a cure-all, a cure-all that cured nothing.

In many ways, Khrushchev was doomed from the start. It would have taken the most extraordinary of leaders to follow in the footsteps of a personality like Stalin and achieve success without doubling-down on the repression of the past. Khrushchev largely managed to avoid the worst excesses of the Stalinist instinct, but this left him with one less tool to suppress the various forces unleashed by the dictator's demise. He seemed to have a greater personal tendency toward freedom than Stalin (he could hardly have less, I suppose), but with a faltering economy beneath him and potential rivals surrounding him, he was in a rather difficult situation.

Fundamentally, Khrushchev did not have what it takes to be that extraordinary leader. In some ways what made him so interesting was simply how unexpected his success was, and the tumultuous nature of the times in which he presided on the world stage. But the aspects of his personality that made his rivals constantly underestimate him, particularly his lack of education and his crudity, were in the end true obstacles to his success. He did not have a strategic perspective, or a methodical mind. He often reacted impulsively, and he valued bombastic rhetoric over pragmatic planning. His development as a leader was also limited not just by his personal characteristics, but the nature of the system in which he rose. And that was a reality that would hamper the parade of successors whose tenures would be even more ignominious than the "crude, ill-educated clown who banged his shoe at the United Nations."

The Search for Modern China by Jonathan Spence

spence_search.jpgFor the entire lifetime of my generation and the one before, China has appeared to outsiders to have been a relatively stable political entity, run by a communist regime in Beijing with a massive army, enormous homogeneous population, and great hostility toward the West. Certainly there has been internal turmoil from time to time, but nothing that would seem to betray that this is a country that for most of its history has been torn asunder by civil war or blanketed by foreign conquest, with constantly shifting borders, devastating natural disasters, and weak central governance.

The complexity of China's history, as well as its expanse, prove formidable to anyone seeking even a basic comprehension. I had to listen twice to the entire 18-hour Teaching Company lecture series on Chinese history, titled "From Yao to Mao," before I even felt like I understood the rudiments.

The last dynasty to rule China, termed the Qing Dynasty, was actually led by the Manchu people, who invaded and conquered the preceding Ming Dynasty in 1644. Like India, China spent much of its recent history under foreign rule. The Qing, which would last until overthrown by the Xinhai Revolution in 1911, oversaw a tumultuous period in Chinese history as the Manchu consolidated power, fought off the remnants of Ming loyalists, and in the 19th-century, tried to cope with with the pressures of foreign interests. The forces which led to the collapse of the dynasty ensured several decades of chaos in the aftermath, until the Communists, in the wake of Japan's defeat in World War II, were able to drive the Nationalist forces out to Taiwan in 1949 and establish the People's Republic of China which is with us to this day. In The Search for Modern China, Yale professor Jonathan Spence covers this entire period from the late Ming until the book's publication in 1990, engaging in "an ongoing search" for a China that he does not think yet exists:

I understand a "modern" nation to be one that is both integrated and receptive, fairly sure of its own identity yet able to join others on equal terms in the quest for new markets, new technologies, new ideas. If it is used in this poen sense, we should have no difficulty in seeing "modern" as a concept that shifts with the times as human life unfolds, instead of simply relegating the sense of "modern" to our own contemporary world while consigning the past to the "traditional" and the future to the "postmodern." I like to think that there were modern countries--in the above sense--in A.D. 1600 or earlier, as at any moment in the centuries thereafter. Yet at no time in that span, nor at the end of the twentieth century, has China been convincingly one of them.

Spence takes a straight chronological approach to the narrative, providing a thorough look at the political and economic life of the last four hundred years of Chinese history, with occasional asides devoted to religious or cultural issues. Spence moves relatively briskly through the 17th and 18th centuries, as the Qing take power and then consolidate their gains. The pace slows as external forces introduce new pressures to the country, with ramifications that echo into contemporary times:

China's Confucian-trained scholars were aware of the moral and economic pressures on their society in the early nineteenth century. Drawing on the intellectual tradition in which they had been raised, they proposed administrative and educational reforms, warned about the rapidly rising population, and urged greater fairness in the distribution of wealth. Some also pointed to the social inequities separating men and women, and pleaded for greater sensitivity toward the status of women in daily life.

The spread of opium addiction posed a particularly complex social dilemma. Scholars, officials, and the emperor himself were torn over whether to legalize the drug or ban it absolutely. At the same time, massive British investments in the drug's manufacture and distribution, and the critical part that opium revenues played in Britain's international balance-of-payments strategy, made the opium trade a central facet of that nation's foreign policy. The Qing, believing the problem to be a domestic one, decided to ban the drug. The British responded with force of arms. Defeating the Qing, they imposed a treaty in 1842 that fundamentally altered the structure of Qing relations with foreign powers, and ended the long cycle of history in which China's rulers had imposed effective controls over all foreigners resident on their soil.

Indeed, the relationship between China and the Western powers took on a very unique shape. It was not carved up or colonized like Africa, the Middle East, or the Indian subcontinent. And yet its sovereignty was utterly ignored in the treaties and treatment that followed the Opium Wars. The consequences for the Qing government were catastrophic, and indeed it is some wonder that the dynasty held on as long as it did. Not only did the foreign intervention cast doubt on the strength and solidity of the ruling dynasty, it raised questions about the direction of Chinese society and its ability to keep up with the social and technological advances of the outside world:

This new foreign presence in China coincided with--and doubtless contributed to--new waves of domestic turbulence. Uprisings against the Qing had been growing in frequency during the later eighteenth century. The widening social dislocations of the nineteenth century brought even greater unrest, until in mid-century four major rebellions erupted, at least two of which--the Taiping and Nian--had the potential to overthrow the dynasty... Only an extraordinary series of military campaigns led by Confucian-trained scholars who put their loyalty to traditional Chinese values above all else, and were determined to perpetuate the prevailing social, educational, and family systems, enabled the Qing dynasty to survive.

And survive it did, at least through the first decade of the 20th-century, which still only takes us a third of the way through Spence's book. Almost five hundred pages are devoted to the period between 1911 and 1990, and it is remarkable the political transformations China experienced in that time frame. The aftermath of the Qing's fall is sometimes depicted as the rise of the Republic of China under Sun Yat-Sen, but it would be more apt to describe the first decade as a chaotic reversion to warlord rule:

The national finances were in disarray, with a depleted treasury in Peking and little money coming in from the provinces. Groups of scholars and bureaucrats had expressed a wide range of dissatisfactions with the defunct regime, and this discontent now had to be addressed. The army troops occupying Peking were numerous but hard to control, of doubtful loyalty, and liable to mutiny or desertion if their pay fell too long in arrears. Natural disasters had devastated the countryside, causing ruined harvests and starvation, and creating masses of refugees just when financial shortages made it difficult for local governments to offer famine relief. Many supporters of the defeated ruling house remained loyal and could be the focus for future trouble. Foreign pressure was intense, the possibility of invasion imminent. In the macroregions of central, western, and southern China, there was a strong chance that independent separatist regimes would emerge, further weakening central authority.

What follows from there is relatively familiar to students of history. Though ostensibly an Allied Power during World War I, the Chinese were ignored and mistreated by the Big Four at Versailles, watching formerly-German holdings handed over to the Japanese rather than back to the Chinese themselves. Over the next several decades the nationalist Kuomintang and the Communists violently compete for power, sometimes uniting in opposition to foreign aggressors (mainly Japan), but largely at each other's throats until the Communists win out in 1949, driving Chiang Kai-Shek and his followers to the island of Taiwan. The subsequent decades of Communist rule demonstrated that many of the problems besetting the Qing dynasty and its predecessors were not to go away quickly, and China's relations with the world remained extraordinarily complicated in the Cold War era.

Spence keeps a critical eye on the regime, highlighting the extremes of suffering that some of Mao's ideas produced and tracking the rise and fall (and sometimes resurrection) of Mao's colleagues and proteges. His narrative never gets stuck in muddy details, yet nor does it shy away from relying on charts and statistics when needed. He also ably roots the events of the last 50 years in the preceding centuries, lending a much-needed coherence to Chinese history that shorter, narrower works cannot provide.

The Search for Modern China ends with the notorious crackdown on the 1989 Tienanmen Square protests, an event that embodied all the ambiguities of China's pseudo-embrace of modernity. Amidst a wave of economic reforms pushed by Deng Xiaoping came a desire for similar progress on the political and cultural fronts. Like so many times before, the Chinese leadership first showed encouragement or at least ambivalence, only to respond with crushing force once they came to fear the direction the blossoming movement was taking. Unlike the Soviet leadership, which (eventually) accepted its own demise rather than send troops against its own people, China has shown no such hesitation. And in the two decades since the crackdown, the disparities between economic freedom and political and cultural oppression have continued apace, despite lingering hopes in the West that economic exchange will force open the doors to liberal democracy. As defined by Spence in his opening pages, the search for "modern China" continues.

The Korean War by Max Hastings

hastings_korean.jpgThe Korean War is oft-dubbed the Forgotten War, as it has routinely been overshadowed in both academic and popular culture by the worldwide conflict that preceded it and the Vietnamese quagmire that followed. Mention the Korean War to most Americans and the only reference they'll have, if any, is probably M*A*S*H. Yet this was a brutal war between two major powers (U.S. and China) and their indigenous allies with casualties leading into the millions, the first major military engagement between the still nebulous spheres of Western and Communist hegemony, and the closest the world has come to seeing nuclear war aside from the Cuban Missile Crisis. In his 1987 book, The Korean War, Max Hastings also argues persuasively that Korea deserves attention not just for the costs and ramifications of the war itself, but for how portentous it was of America's future mishaps in Southeast Asia:

Above all, perhaps, Korea merits close consideration as a military rehearsal for the subsequent disaster in Vietnam. So many of the ingredients of the Indochina tragedy were already visible a decade or two earlier in Korea: the political difficulty of sustaining an unpopular and autocratic regime; the problems of creating a credible local army in a corrupt society; the fateful cost of underestimating the power of an Asian Communist army. For all the undoubted benefits of air superiority and close support, Korea vividly displayed the difficulties of using air power effectively against a primitive economy, a peasant army. The war also demonstrated the problem of deploying a highly mechanized Western army in broken country against a lightly equipped foe... Yet because it proved possible finally to stabilize the battle in Korea on terms which allowed the United Nations--or more realistically, the United States--to deploy its vast firepower from fixed positions, to defeat the advance of the massed Communist armies, many of the lessons of Korea were misunderstood, or not learned at all.

And in time, the entire conflict would lapse into the recesses of history. It was easier for most Americans to simply move on than to face some rather upsetting facts: that we had been caught by surprise by the invasion; that our military had been allowed to deteriorate and was thus ill-prepared for war; that our choice to make a stand in Korea was haphazardly made and lacking in strategic war aims; that the American soldier performed poorly in the early stages of the war; and that all the might of the American war machine could not push the combined Chinese and North Korean enemy much past the 38th parallel without incurring casualties that our political will could not endure.

Thus a story that has many of the makings of great history, from the justice in repelling an aggressive invader to the dramatic see-saw nature of the front lines to Douglas MacArthur's last gasp of genius at Inchon before his inglorious fall, has been largely underexamined by those unwilling to grapple with a war that defies easy understanding or categorization. Hastings sought to "make at least a modest contribution toward remedying the omission" with his book, which opens with the dramatic tragedy of Task Force Smith, the first Americans to engage with the marauding Communist forces, who found themselves outnumbered, outgunned, and outmaneuvered by the enemy:

The official figures show that Task Force Smith had suffered 155 casualties in the action at Osan. By the time they returned, they discovered that any shortcomings in their own unit's performance on July 5 had already been outstripped by far less honorable, indeed positively shameful, humilitations suffered by other elements of the American 24th Division in its first days of war, as the North Korean invaders swept all before them on their bloody procession south down the peninsula. And all this flowed, inexorably, from the sudden decision of the United States to commit itself to the least expected of wars, in the least predicted of places, under the most unfavorable possible military conditions. Had the men of Task Force Smith, on the road south of Suwon, known that they were striking the first armed flow for that new force in world order, the United Nations, it might have made their confused, unhappy, almost pathetic little battle on July 5 seem more dignified. On the other hand, it might have made it appear more incomprehensible than ever.

With the Soviet Union boycotting the U.N. so long as Chiang Kai-Shek controlled the Chinese seat, the U.S. and its allies were able to push through resolutions endorsing the use of force to repel the North Korean attack. With allied forces driven back and hanging on to a tiny corner of southeast Korea surrounding Pusan, the stage was set for the type of dramatic action that the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers was made for:

For all its undisputed Korean provenance, the name of Inchon possesses a wonderfully resonant American quality. It summons a vision of military genius undulled by time, undiminished by more recent memories of Asian defeat. Inchon remains a monument to "can do," to improvisation and risk-taking on a magnificent scale, above all to the spirit of Douglas MacArthur. So much must be said elsewhere in these pages about American misfortunes in Korea, about grievous command misjudgments and soldierly shortcomings, that there is little danger here of overblowing the trumpet. The amphibious landings of September 15, 1950, were MacArthur's masterstroke. In a world in which nursery justice decided military affairs, Operation Chromite would have won the war for the United States.

And yet the operation was almost too successful. With the Communist forces in disarray, MacArthur was not the only one who got wrapped up in delusions of grandeur. It seemed inevitable to continue the counteroffensive beyond the status quo ante bellum at the 38th parallel in an effort to utterly defeat the North Korean regime and re-unify the peninsula. Yet little thought was given to how the Chinese might feel about the massive American army that was soon approaching their country's borders, particularly after the U.S. had deployed the Seventh Fleet into the Taiwan Strait. Instead, American intelligence focused on the Soviet passivity, assuming the Chinese would never act alone. They were wrong:

Westerners, and Americans in particular, sometime made the mistake of allowing their scorn for propagandist rhetoric... to blind them to the very real Chinese fear of encirclement. Throughout the Korean War, Washington persistently sought the communist ideological logic behind Chinese actions. It might have been more profitable to consider instead historic Chinese nationalist logic. Korea had provided the springboard for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria only a generation before. As the Americans drove north after smashing Kim Il Sung's armies in September 1950, Peking was appalled by the imminent prospect of an American imperialist army on the Yalu.

And thus starting in November 1950, the U.N. forces found themselves driven from the cusps of victory by hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers, many of them hardened veterans of their recent civil war. By January 1951, the Chinese and North Koreans had again advanced south of the 38th parallel, recapturing Seoul along the way. Though General Matthew Ridgway would eventually lead allied forces back across the parallel, the entrance of the Chinese in such smashing fashion signaled the end of any possibility other than a negotiated settlement. That the war would last a further two years without any significant change, with thousands more dying while the diplomats postured and prevaricated, is one of the great tragedies of the war and is reminiscent of the utter wastefulness of the First World War:

From time to time the planners in Washington and Tokyo conceived grand initiatives for airborne drops or amphibious landings behind the enemy flank, designed dramatically to concentrate Peking's minds upon the negotiating table... The confidence of many American commanders in their ability to smash the Chinese line and reach the Yalu once more, if the leashes were slipped and the UN armies plunged all out for victory, remained a source of deep frustration. But the political realities ensured that their hopes were stillborn. The American public was weary of Korea. It was narrowly possible to sustain America's national will for the defense of a line across the peninsula until a compromise was reached, for avoiding the concession of defeat to the Communists. But the political consequences of any action involving many thousands of casualties--as an all-out offensive must--were intolerable.

The author's British perspective is both an asset and a handicap. He is able to provide insights to the international sense of the war that a U.S.-centric author might overlook, particularly regarding their fears of MacArthur and America's apparent nonchalance about the threatened use of nuclear weapons. The British contributions to the war effort also demonstrate how quickly that country stepped into the role of loyal U.S. ally, even as their domestic economy shuddered under the costs of rearmament. Devoting an entire chapter to the Imjin River battle, however, while of great interest to Hastings' countrymen, seems out of proportion to the single sentence mentions of Heartbreak Ridge and Bloody Ridge. For all his discussions of the British Commonwealth Division, one might be surprised to learn that the U.S. had twenty-five men on the peninsula for each Commonwealth soldier. And while much of his criticisms of the average American foot soldier are surely valid, Hastings' reliance on the condescending remembrances of British veterans to substantiate these criticisms is more parochial than persuasive (and not remedied by reference to the few anecdotal American sources he collected on the subject).

Through most of the text, Hastings employs a technique similar to Stephen Ambrose's volumes on World War II, relying largely on "oral interviews with participants in the Korean War and those familiar with its diplomatic and political aspects" to construct a narrative of the war. For those who love Ambrose's style, and there are legions, this will seem an ideal way to learn about the Korean War. But as much as I enjoyed the flavor provided by the first-hand accounts in Ambrose's books, particularly Band of Brothers, I can't say I find history by anecdote a particularly helpful way to understand military conflicts of this scope, let alone the geopolitical causes and consequences. Instead, the reliance on extended quotations tends to result in a disjointed narrative rather lacking in overall coherence and substantive analysis. To his credit, Hastings admits up front that he does not purport to write a comprehensive history. So this is not a bad place to start for those, like myself, wholly lacking in prior reading on the Korean War, but not satisfactory as a sole source for rescuing this conflict from its near-universal neglect.

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

chernow_hamilton.jpgThe resurgence of interest in America's revolutionary history over the past several decades has led to some adjustments in our founding fathers' historical reputations. David McCullough's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of John Adams, and the recent HBO mini-series adaptation of it, have greatly increased popular appreciation of our second president. The controversies over Thomas Jefferson's ownership of slaves and his relationship with Sally Hemings continue to draw great attention, with Annette Gordon-Reed taking home a National Book Award just this last year for her biography of the Hemings family.

And then there is Alexander Hamilton, hatred of whom was one of the few things John Adams and Thomas Jefferson could agree on at the close of the 18th-century. Hamilton is recognizable to most Americans as either the victim of Aaron Burr's fatal shot or the face on the $10 bill. But even amongst students of American history, there has been relatively little appreciation for Hamilton's role as a leader of the founding generation. In part this was a consequence of his untimely death, leaving decades thereafter for Adams, Jefferson, and their supporters to consecrate for history the least generous interpretations of Hamilton's actions, ideas, and policies. While Hamilton's nationalist and industrialist views won out in the long term, they were unpopular in the early 19th-century dominated by Jefferson and his successors in the Virginia dynasty. But if history proved Hamilton right, it largely failed to give him credit:

Hamilton was the supreme double threat among the founding fathers, at once thinker and doer, sparkling theoretician and masterful executive... If Jefferson provided the essential poetry of American political discourse, Hamilton established the prose of American statecraft. No other founder articulated such a clear and prescient vision of America's future political, military, and economic strength or crafted such ingenious mechanisms to bind the nation together.

With the 2004 publication of Alexander Hamiltion, Ron Chernow has done his part to set the record straight. A seasoned veteran of financial biography after authoring well-received books about John Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, and the Warburg family, Chernow makes his first venture into the 18th-century with the one founding father who truly understand the economic promise of America and the role that public finance could play in fulfilling that promise. Hamilton was also the only leading founder who was not an American by birth. Hamilton's political enemies made sure that history remembered Hamilton's origins as an illegitimate child in the West Indies. The truth, of course, is more complicated, and Chernow has done revelatory work in piecing together the childhood that Hamilton was so reticent to speak of:

By the time Rachel met James Hamilton for sure in St. Kitts in the early 1750s, a certain symmetry had shaped their lives. They were both scarred by early setbacks, had suffered a vertiginous descent in social standing, and had grappled with the terrors of downward economic mobility. Each would have been excluded from the more rarefied society of the British West Indies and tempted to choose a mate from the limited population of working whites. Their liaison was the sort of match that could easily produce a son hypersensitive about class and status and painfully conscious that social hierarchies ruled the world.

The man who would one day be villainized as the puppet of aristocracy and money interests was born in the Caribbean backwaters, abandoned and orphaned in his youth, and earned his way to America on the sheer prodigious potential observed by those around him. While a student at King's College (now Columbia), he became involved in the political movement that gave rise to the revolution. Hamilton sought military service and so excelled as a young artillery officer that he caught the attention of America's leading soldier:

According to Hamilton's son, it was at Harlem Heights that Washington first recognized Hamilton's unique organizational gifts, as he watched him supervise the building of an earthwork. It was also at Harlem Heights that Hamilton's company first came under the direct command of Washington, who "entered into conversation with him, invited him to his tent, and received an impression of his military talent," wrote John C. Hamilton. It was yet another striking example of the instantaneous rapport that this young man seemed to develop with even the most seasoned officers.

Invited to join Washington's staff, Hamilton would quickly rise from mere aide or secretary to effectively function as Washington's chief of staff for much of the war. Though the relationship was not always smooth, particular when Hamilton started bristling for a field command, it would last for several decades and see Hamilton serve not just as one of Washington's cabinet members, but the most important. Just as he became the virtual chief of Washington's wartime staff, he would become the virtual prime minister of Washington's administration.

One reason that Hamilton gets so little popular credit for his role in creating our government is that his greatest influence was in areas least understood by Americans. Every schoolchild learns about the Revolutionary War, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; thus George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson get their due. Most high school and college students will have some exposure to a civics curriculum, exploring the three branches of government, the checks and balances, and the like. Very few who do not seek degrees in economics will have much exposure to the origins of our public finance or political economy. And yet this was perhaps Hamilton's most lasting gift to the nation, prodigiously captured in his 1789 Report on Public Credit:

Had Hamilton stuck to dry financial matters, his Report on Public Credit would never have attained such historic renown. Instead, he presented a detailed blueprint of the government's fiscal machinery, wrapped in a broad political and economic vision... Hamilton argued that the security of liberty and property were inseparable and that governments should honor their debt because contracts formed the basis of public and private morality... The proper handling of government debt would permit America to borrow at affordable interest rates and would also act as a tonic to the economy... America was a young country rich in opportunity. It lacked only liquid capital, and government debt could supply that gaping deficiency.

Hamilton was unrivaled as a founding father in his ability to contribute to both the political and economic origins of the American government. Hamilton was also virtually unique amongst that generation's leaders as a staunch abolitionist (in his late years Franklin would join the movement), and Chernow makes an interesting point regarding the second-order effects resulting from the shielding of the slavery question from public debate:

The bipartisan decision to shelve the slavery issue had profound repercussions for Hamilton's economic measures, for it spared the southern economy from criticism. In the 1790s, America's critical energies were trained exclusively on the northern economy and the financial and manufacturing system devised by Hamilton. This became immediately apparent in the heated debate over his funding system, which allowed southern slaveholders to proclaim that northern financiers were the evil ones and that slaveholders were the virtuous populists, upright men of the soil. It was testimony to the political genius of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that they diverted attention from the grisly realities of southern slavery by casting a lurid spotlight on Hamilton's system as the paramount embodiment of evil.

If that sounds like a backhanded complement to Jefferson and Madison, that's because it is. It is hard to come out of Chernow's account with particular esteem for either man. Madison seems somewhat more principled, at least never working through proxies or attacking the very administration he was purportedly serving. Between this account and McCullough's biography of John Adams, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that for some years in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Jefferson behaved very poorly and seemed consumed by delusional, if sincere, conspiratorial ideas regarding Britain, Alexander Hamilton, and their oppression of revolutionary France.

Chernow has done a remarkable job putting Hamilton back into his proper place in the pantheon of American heroes. He does not sidestep Hamilton's many faults, from his disastrous affair that ended in extortion and public scandal, to his wrong-headed pamphlet attacking John Adams just before the 1800 election, to his obsession with reputation and honor that ultimately resulted in his own death. But Chernow does effectively defend his subject from the lazy attacks made by so many in the last two hundred years, that he was "a slavish pawn of the British Crown, a closet monarchist, a Machiavellian intriguer, a would-be Caesar." Instead, by the end of the seven hundred-odd pages, there is no question that Hamilton "was the messenger from a future that we now inhabit," "the uncontested visionary in anticipating the shape and powers of the federal government," and that "we are indisputably the heirs to Hamilton's America, and to repudiate his legacy is, in many ways, to repudiate the modern world."

The Glorious Cause by Robert Middlekauff

middlekauff_glorious.jpgOne difficulty for any historian tackling the American Revolution is determining the chronological scope of the story they seek to tell. By different measures, the start of the Revolution can be traced to the Albany Congress, the aftermath of the French-Indian War, the Stamp Act crisis, the Boston Massacre, the Boston Tea Party, the start of the Continental Congress, or the shots fired at Lexington and Concord. Likewise, the close of the Revolution can be dated to Cornwallis' surrender at Yorktown, the Treaty of Paris, or the ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

Even once the historian has determined the chronological limits of his study, he still must decide how expansive or narrow a view to take of those tumultuous years. Some authors, like Gordon Wood or Bernard Bailyn, focus particularly on political ideology and process. Others look at the economics of the time, or cultural or religious issues. There was a war, after all, so military historians get in on the action as well. John Ferling had so much to say that he devoted separate volumes to the political and the military aspects of the era.

Robert Middlekauff did not have that choice. His assignment was to write one volume that covered the broadest Revolutionary timeline commonly accepted, stretching from 1763 until 1789, and address everything from the political and military to the economic, social, and religious. And all in one volume. This was, after all, the first book published in the star-crossed Oxford History of the United States, with its commitment to providing the definitive account for a general audience in a series of volumes, each covering several decades of American history.

Middlekauff's contribution shows all the many strengths, as well as the weaknesses, of this approach. The Glorious Cause, as an entry in the Oxford series, should be able to serve as a single volume history of the period, covering the various historical disciplines, and yet be accessible to a general audience. At this lofty, difficult task, the book largely succeeds. While venturing boldly into political theory, battle plans, economic interests, and religious motivations, and at no point does Middlekauff step too deeply into academic esoterica.

And yet while Middlekauff's text does not presume its readers have deep prior awareness of the era, it has plenty to offer those who do. I have read more than a dozen books covering the Revolutionary period, including John Ferling's superb A Leap in the Dark (review here), so I came to Middlekauff's book with a decent base of knowledge. I found especially informative his coverage of two influences that were not much discussed in other books I have read. The first is the religious history of the colonies:

Although Americans entered the revolt against Britain in several ways, their religion proved important in all of them, important even to the lukewarm and the indifferent. It did because, more than anything else in America, religion shaped culture. And different as the colonies were, they possessed a common culture - values, ideals, a way of looking at and responding to the world - which held them together in the crisis of upheaval and war... beneath the surface their similarities were even more striking - a governance so dominated by laymen as to constitute a congregational democracy, a clergy much weaker than its European analogue, and a religious life marked by attenuated liturgies and an emphasis on individual experience.

On the other side of the Atlanta, Middlekauff provides a fascinating outline of English politics in the latter half of the 17th century:

George III was twenty-two when he ascended the throne in 1760. For the next few years he clung to his prejudices and to Bute with a tenacity that reflected his and Bute's miscomprehension of the political world. He would reform their world, he thought, and make virtue his real consort. Factional politics, which were of course based on interest, not ideology, revolted him - and he would somehow change them. If this dream soon disappeared in disappointment, the king's rigidity did not, and though he learned to play the game - at times with remarkable skill - his early mistakes and his attachment to Bute bred a suspicion in Parliament that introduced a dozen years of instability to his government.

Indeed, the book's strongest sections all occur during the lead-up to the war, exploring the diverse motivating forces in both Britain and the colonies, and the mechanisms by which these forces rapidly shifted the focus of the debate from the scope of Parliament's power to the very legitimacy of that institution vis-a-vis America. Middlekauff also offers a very capable account of the military aspects of the conflict, including not just the blow-by-blow details of the battles, but looking behind-the-scenes at the more mundane (yet equally important) aspects of war: manpower, supply, transportation.

The military account occupies the middle section of the book, from the start of hostilities to the entrance of the French, with a pair of chapters ("Inside the campaigns" and "Outside the campaigns") respectively dedicated to an intricate look at the daily life of soldiers and civilians during wartime, followed by Yorktown and the Treaty of Paris. In order to keep this narrative flowing, however, Middlekauff chose to delay a thorough discussion of the evolution of the political debates until after the close of his military chapters. Thus Middlekauff's discussion of the Articles of Confederation, written in 1777 and ratified in 1781, is awkwardly placed after the war's end in 1783. And after hundreds of pages of military history, Middlekauff compresses into just 80 pages the entire political upheaval of the 1780s, ending in the ratification of the Constitution.

Considering that other titles intended for the Oxford series were apparently rejected for being too narrowly focused (on economics, for instance), it is reasonable to wonder whether Middlekauff intended to write a military history, or to end his narrative in 1783, but felt compelled to tack on some discussion of the Constitution to pad the political history and bring the chronology to 1789. What he provides is adequate, but seems disconnected to the rest of the text and certainly not as thorough as his analysis of the first two decades after 1763. If one is strictly limited to a single volume on the Revolution, The Glorious Cause is a perfectly good choice. But outside of the constraints of a college syllabus, why limit one's reading on this fascinating era to just one book?

The Smartest Guys in the Room by Bethany McLean & Peter Elkind

mclean_smartest.jpgAs sordid a tale of ego and excess as the RJR Nabisco buyout appears in Barbarians at the Gate (review here), at least there does not seem to have been anything illegal going on. Unethical, perhaps. Greedy, undoubtedly. The battle of megalomaniacs is what makes the saga so interesting twenty years later. But at the end of the day RJR and Nabisco still exist (though in decidedly different forms), they still have employees, and their shareholders were not left completely out in the woods.

None of this can be said for Enron, which essentially spontaneously combusted via bankruptcy in late 2001, and managed to take venerable Big Five accounting firm Arthur Andersen along with it into the oblivion of business history. The story of Enron's "amazing rise and scandalous fall" has been the subject of several books, including Kurt Eichenwald's Conspiracy of Fools. First on the scene were a pair of Fortune writers, Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind; McLean had reported on Enron for the magazine and had been amongst the first journalists to turn a more critical eye toward the company, as early as March 2001 (still years after folks should have noticed what a boondoggle it was). They published The Smartest Guys in the Room in October 2003, less than two years after the company went bankrupt. Two years later the book was made into a documentary by the same name.

The story begins near the end, with the January 2002 suicide of Cliff Baxter, a senior Enron executive who had resigned the previous May. He had also been one of the closest friends of former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, who was still making the case that Enron was a victim, not a villain, in the recent turmoil:

More than anyone else, Skilling had come to personify the Enron scandal. Part of it was his audacious refusal, in the face of a dozen separate investigations, to run for cover. Alone among Enron's top executives summoned before a circuslike series of congressional hearings, Skilling had ignored his lawyers' advice to take the Fifth and defiantly spoke his piece. The legislators were convinced that Skilling had abruptly resigned as CEO of the company--just four months before Enron went belly up--because he knew the game was over. But Skilling wouldn't have any of it... "Enron was a great company," Skilling repeatedly declared. And indeed that's how it seemed almost until the moment it filed the largest bankruptcy claim in U.S. history.

The Smartest Guys in the Room is not just the story of Enron's fall. Rather, it takes the long journey all the way from the start, with a young Kenneth Lay cutting his teeth in the natural gas business, finally rising to the top of Houston Natural Gas in 1984. Convinced that deregulation of the natural gas industry was imminent, "Lay operated on one theory: get big fast." Fortune shined upon him in the figure of InterNorth, an Omaha-based pipeline company that offered to purchase Lay's company. Lay and his negotiation team obliged, "letting" InterNorth buy Houston Natural Gas, with a couple catches: they would have to pay a 50% premium on the current stock price, and Lay would have to take over the combined company within 18 months. Not a bad deal for Lay, though it got even better when Lay bullied the InterNorth CEO out almost immediately, with the help of consultants from McKinsey (including a young man named Jeff Skilling). Slowly but surely, Lay began to purge the InterNorth faction, install his own men, and even come up with a new name for the company:

After four months of research, the New York consulting firm Lay had hired had settled on Enteron in time for the merged business's first annual meeting, in the spring of 1986. But then the Wall Street Journal reported that Enteron was a term for the alimentary canal (the digestive tract), turning the name into a laughingstock. Though it meant reprinting 75,000 covers that had already been printed for the new annual report, the board convened an emergency meeting and went with a runner-up on the list: Enron.

Of course, it would only be 15 years before the name Enron itself became a laughingstock. As McLean and Elkind trace the rise of Enron, we see the entrance of major players like Skilling, Rebecca Mark (who ascends to lead the disastrous international division before resigning in disgrace... with $80M in cashed-in stock options), and financial "wizard" Andrew Fastow. Several themes quickly emerge: Enron executives think they are smarter than everyone else, believe they are entitled to live off the company's expense accounts, and have virtually no idea how to run a successful business. Take Mark's international division for example:

What one former international executive calls the "fatal flaw" in the business was the compensation structure. Developers got bonuses on a project-by-project basis. The developers would calculate the present value of all the expected future cash flow from a project. This was also the model the banks used to lend money. When the project reached financial close--that is, when the banks lent money but before a single pipe was laid or foundation was poured--they were paid.

No wonder the developers were so eager to move on to the next deal; they had no financial incentive to follow through on the one they'd just completed... It was crazy.. under this new pay arrangement, the only thing that matter was making the deal happen. The more deals Enron International did, and the bigger they were, the richer the developers got. The system encouraged international executives to gamble without risk. The deeper problem, one that emerged in later years, was that no one was held responsible for the operation of a project, yet it was the operation that produced the real money.

Yet preposterous as this was, it was not illegal. It was simply the sort of unbelievably bad decision-making that would normally scare off Wall Street and drive a company into bankruptcy. And yet Enron was just hitting its stride, and had years of double-digit growth ahead of it (McLean and Elkind have to sheepishly admit that Fortune named Enron the most innovative company six years in a row). How did that happen? It turns out that Skilling, incompetent though he might be at, you know, producing anything of value, was a master at manipulating Wall Street. He understood that financial analysts thrived on a company's financial data, its accounting. So that's where the growth and profits had to be. On paper:

Invariably, as the quarter drew to a close, Enron's top executives would realize they were going to fall short of the number they'd promised Wall Street. At most companies, when this happens, the CEO and chief financial officer make an announcement ahead of time, warning analysts and investors that they're going to miss their number. In other words, the reality of the business drives the process of dealing with Wall Street. Not at Enron. Enron's reality began and ended with hitting the target. And so, when the the realization took place that the company was falling short, its executives undertook a desperate scramble to fill the holes in the company's earnings. At Enron, that's what they called earnings shortfalls--"holes."

At first, a lot of the holes could be filled by accelerating deals, often conceding major negotiating points simply to get the papers signed before the quarter ended. But the bad business decisions kept adding up, and the holes kept getting begin. And thus the reliance on the number crunchers increased, until Enron was leaning "heavily on mark-to-market accounting to help reach its earning goals." In its simplest terms, the way Enron used this accounting method was so to immediately book on paper all of the earnings it expected to earn from a deal as soon as the deal was signed. Thus a 10-year deal projected to be worth $40M per year signed in 2001 could be counted as $400M in earnings in 2001 rather than as the money actually flowed in. The obvious problem is that such projections could be, and at Enron were, heavily manipulated; rosier projections equals bigger earnings. This would be somewhat alleviated if Enron had treated its anticipated losses in the same way, booking anticipated losses immediately even if the losses would not be realized all at once. But Enron never did that. Projected earnings were booked immediately, anticipates losses ignored forever:

At the end of each quarter, for example, Enron was supposed to write off its dead deals. To review what needed to be booked, [Enron Chief Accounting Officer Richard] Causey met individually with the heads of the origination groups. At one meeting, an executive recalled, Causey kept coming back to a dead deal and asking: Was it possible the deal was still alive?

Finally the executive took the hint--and the deal was declared undead. Enron deferred the hit for another quarter. "You did it once, it smelled bad," says the executive. "You did it again, it didn't smell as bad."

Causey is now in federal prison for securities fraud. But even his valiant efforts could only go on for so long before financial analysts noticed that things were not adding up. Of course, they would only notice if all this accounting were taking place on Enron's corporate balance sheet. And this is where Andy Fastow really shined:

[I]f it's impossible to mark the moment Enron crossed the line, it's not hard at all to know who led the way. That was Andrew Fastow, the company's chief financial officer... Fastow became Enron's Wizard of Oz, creating a giant illusion of steady and increasing prosperity. Fastow and his team were the financial masterminds, helping Enron bridge the gap between the reality of its business and the picture Skilling and Lay wanted to present to the world. He and his group created off-balance-sheet vehicles, complex financing structures, and deals so bewildering that few people can understand them even now. Fastow's fiefdom, called Global Finance, was, as Churchill said about the Soviet Union, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that was Enron's string of successively higher earnings.

Of course, eventually the whole thing unraveled. Many of Fastow's financial maneuvers were premised on the constant rise of Enron's stock price. As soon as a few short sellers and journalists started poking around in early 2001, and the stock prices stagnated and then dropped, it was mere months before the whole scheme collapsed. And with that collapse went thousands of jobs and tens of billions of dollars in vanished investments.

With good reason, McLean and Elkind end their narrative with the bankruptcy filing. At the time of the book's publication, the first wave of indictments had already been handed down to the likes of Lay and Fastow, but the authors had no way of knowing how these relatively novel prosecutions would turn out. It was months later that Fastow decided to enter his guilty plea and cooperate against his former colleagues in exchange for leniency for himself and his wife. Lay's trial would not take place until early 2006, when he and co-defendant Skilling would both be convicted of most of the numerous counts of conspiracy, false statements, securities fraud and insider trading lodged against them. Lay would die before his sentencing hearing, thus requiring the judge to vacate the convictions. Skilling was sentenced to more than 24 years and a $45M fine, but earlier this year the 5th Circuit ordered a new sentencing hearing while upholding the convictions. He's still looking at a likely double-digit term of confinement. Ironically, Fastow, probably the most personally culpable for the house of cards that came tumbling down in late 2001, was so cooperative that prosecutors lobbied the judge on his behalf; he'll be released in December 2011. Funny how those things work out.

It is also interesting to note the many parallel forces there were enabling the Enron scheme ten years ago and then the credit and subprime mortgage structure whose collapse rocked the markets last year. McLean and Elkind devote an entire chapter, titled "Everybody Loves Enron," to all the external forces that knowingly or negligently conspired to assist Enron's undeserved rise. Most obviously, the accountants were in on it. The banks and financial analysts were too busy getting rich off consulting fees to risk asking any questions about what in the world Enron actually did ("There was simply too much investment-banking business at stake not to have a screaming buy on the stock... the Chinese Wall had long since broken down, and during the bull market, analysts became increasingly instrumental in helping their firms land banking business.") The credit agencies' hands were dirty too:

[I]nstead of acting as the ultimate watchdog, the credit analysts unwittingly served the opposite purpose: they gave all the other market participants a false sense of security. Stock analysts and investors alike took solace in the fact that the credit analysts gave Enron an investment-grade rating... Thus did the responsibility to truly analyze Enron land nowhere. And thus the stock continued its climb.

Sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it? This too would almost be funny, if it was not so infuriatingly sad.

Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough & John Helyar

burrough_barbarians.jpgIt is not uncommon to see great works of fiction reprinted in anniversary editions celebrating either the date of publication or the centennial birthday of the author. See, for instance, the "50th Anniversary Editions" of On the Road and Lord of the Flies, or the "Steinbeck Centennial Collection." It is something else entirely, though, to see a hardcover anniversary reprint of a nonfiction title issued decades after the book's original publication. And with good reason: most nonfiction does not age well. Usually either the subject matter is no longer topical, or the underlying research has been surpassed by more recent scholarship.

Thus it is worth noticing when a nonfiction book does get the anniversary treatment. A title like The Joy of Cooking, which recently celebrated its 75th anniversary, is somewhat exempt from the obsolescence of most nonfiction titles, not that this diminishes the enduring popularity of that book. However, it is hard to think of a genre more prone to near-immediate outmoding than business current events. Just think, Charles Morris book on last year's credit crisis actually had to be retitled from The Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown when it came out in paperback, as it was so quickly overcome by events.

That is a long way of saying that Barbarians at the Gates has a decent case behind its cover's claim to being the "Best Business Story of Our Time," based solely on the fact that it was republished in hardcover last year to mark the 20th anniversary of the leveraged buyout of RJR Nabisco. As the authors state:

When we wrote Barbarians at the Gate in 1989, it was a book about current events; now it's history. Some books age better than others. We'd like to think Barbarians has aged well. The book is still used in major business schools to teach any number of topics, from ethics to investment banking. In 1993 it was made into a movie on HBO. In 2002, fourteen years after its heyday, the RJR fight was dramatized once again in a documentary film on the History Channel.

I think there are several reasons for the book's lasting success. First, and most unfortunately, the subject matter has remained frighteningly topical. Sure, the details of the RJR Nabisco battle are no longer in the news, but the book's tales of conference room machismo and high-dollar financial manipulations have been seen again and again in the years since (perhaps most spectacularly in the saga of Enron, on which I will say more in my upcoming review of The Smartest Guys in the Room).

Second, though the book was written just a year or so after the events it describes, there is little chance of better research coming along; the authors, both reporters at The Wall Street Journal at the time, snagged in-depth interviews with seemingly every key player in the saga, providing a vivid behind-the-scenes perspective. They were able to reconstruct pivotal conversations based on the accounts of multiple participants, just like a fly on the wall. Finally and fundamentally, this is just a uniquely fascinating story with larger-than-life characters, and the authors tell it fabulously. They successfully meshed their thorough research with a suspenseful narrative normally reserved for works of fiction:

It was the night before the company's regular October board meeting, normally an occasion for the directors to dine informally with their chief executive, Ross Johnson, and get an update on corporate affairs delivered in Johnson's unique freewheeling style. But tonight the atmosphere was markedly different. Johnson had called every director and urged him or her to attend the dinner, which wasn't usually mandatory. Only a few knew what loomed before them; the others could only guess.

This board meeting, in which Johnson would propose to lead a leveraged buyout of the company he headed, is depicted in the book's opening chapter, though it takes nearly two hundred pages for the narrative to catch up. Johnson is at the heart of the story; leveraged buyouts, after all, normally depended on the cooperation of management in assisting the investment group in cutting costs, spinning off unprofitable businesses, and thus generating the huge profits expected from an LBO. Johnson's story is extraordinary on its own, depicting the Canadian businessman's late bloom and then meteoric rise, twice merging the smaller company he led (first Standard Brands, then Nabisco) into a larger company and then rising to the head of the combined operation.

But once the LBO gets rolling, Johnson largely loses control of the situation, with the arrival on the scene of Henry Kravis. Kravis, the self-proclaimed master of LBOs, did not like the notion that the largest LBO in history would take place without him. The majority of the book depicts the fight between Kravis' group and the management group to win the board's approval of their offer. This battle features all the worst of what American business has to offer: uncontrolled ambition, greed, preposterously immense egos:

While Cohen and Kravis glared over their coffee cups, Johnson decided to take matters into his own hands. He simply had to know if the Kravis bid was real and, if so , what it means for his management group. Johnson was nothing if not a quick read: He could tell Cohen was less than enthusiastic about sharing the deal of his life with Kravis. Both times Cohen and Kravis had spoken they had gotten into spit fights. Maybe it made sense to try some kind of partnership with Kravis. The only way to find out for sure, he reasoned, was to meet with Kravis himself.

But the time for handling such matters one-on-one had passed, and soon the story is one of rooms filled with bankers and lawyers, alternately negotiating the smallest details in a press release or coming up with financial projections to justify another couple billion dollars in their offer. In the end, of course, Kravis won. At least in the short term; by the late 1990s his firm divested its holding "with humble returns." Johnson, on the other hand, had resigned as CEO shortly after his group lost the bidding, walking away with a golden parachute worth $53 million. Still, as the authors point out in their new foreword, that "once-outrageous" amount seems practically "parsimonious" in light of the sums taken by today's CEOs, who can pull that much down in a yearly bonus. Or the amounts earned (read: stolen) by the folks at Enron. But more on them later in the week.

India by John Keay

keay_india.jpgOf the world's great ancient civilizations, the one about which I have been most ignorant is surely India. While I have read several books on Greece and Rome and listened to Teaching Company courses on China, Egypt, and the Near East, my exposure to Indian history has been more or less limited to repeated viewings of Richard Attenborough's biopic, Gandhi. In an effort to correct this, I purchased India, John Keay's one-volume history of the subcontinent from pre-history to present, though it has taken me several years to finally get around to reading it.

In the first lines of the introduction, Keay establishes that one reason for the difficulty in exploring ancient Indian history is the "poverty of available sources," which make "one of the world's longest histories also one of its more patchy." Keay describes the breakthroughs in recent decades, particularly in archaeology and linguistics, that have provided a fuller outline of early Indian civilization. Nevertheless, the several chapters which explore the Harappan and Vedic cultures and so-called "Epic India" remain rather speculative. Further, though the archaeological and linguistic analyses may be the best available, Keay's presentation is rather tedious. Along with the inherent difficulty in comprehending these geographically and chronologically distant civilizations, this makes for a sluggish beginning.

Truth be told, Keay's narrative is flat throughout the book. Things pick up a bit once the chronology comes "Out of the Myth-Smoke" with the Magadha and Maurya empires. With the rise of Buddhism and its accompanying source texts, as well as greater contact with the West (most notably Alexander the Great's incursion to the edges of India in the late 4th-century BC), the people, places, and dates of ancient India become more readily ascertainable:

In 1837, following years of conjecture and study by numerous other 'Orientalists', James Prinsep, the assay-master at the British mint in Calcutta, made what remains the single most important discovery in the unraveling of India's ancient history. From inscriptions in an unknown script found on the sotne railings of the great Buddhist stupa at Sanchi, he managed to identify two letters of the alphabet... Armed with his insight into the likely language, plus much of the alphabet, Prinsep proceeded to make the first ever translations from the neat 'pin-man' script now known as Ashoka Brahmi... Henceforth called Edicts, rather than Commandments, the inscriptions clearly announced themselves as the directives of a single sovereign. 'Thus speaks Devanampiya Piyadassi' was how most began.'

And thus historians began to piece together the history of Ashoka, most successful of the Mauryan emperors and regarded today as one of India's greatest rulers. The story of Ashoka and his successors is one of the best sections of the book, but it does not last. Unfortunately, in the era of the Middle Kingdoms, filling the 1500 years between the Mauryans and the rise of the Mughals, I spent much of the time just trying to identify the different regions of India that Keay was referring to as he muscled through the dozens of kingdoms and dynasties that competed for power.

Keay has a bad habit of alternating the use of a region's historical name with the name of a modern Indian political subdivision, adding to the confusion since neither of these is familiar to most Western readers. There are a decent number of maps, but I still found myself constantly trying to discern where the events being described were occurring, and more than once found myself on the entirely wrong side of the continent. Perhaps I am asking too much, and it is my ignorance rather than any defect in the book that is the cause of such difficulty. But I'm not so sure. The book does, after all, purport to be an authoritative one-volume history of the subcontinent. If there is inadequate time spent explaining and identifying the geographic regions up front, I think that is a valid basis for criticism.

Keay's treatment of India in the second millennium A.D. is nothing if not thorough. He traces in detail the rise and fall of dozens of regional and national governments, from the sultans of Delhi to the great Mughal Empire straight through the British Raj to independence and partition.

The dynamic of the Mughal political economy was as much about troops as money. Military leaders financed their activities by engaging in entrepreneurial ventures, and entrepreneurs secured their investments by supporting military venture.s Thus, even before war broke out with the French in the 1740s, the English Company, through its employees, was already indirectly involved in the hire and maintenance of troops by neighboring zamindars and revenue collectors... Most were recruited locally, many being from the Indo-Portuguese community. But Indian troops, known as 'peons' or 'sepoys (sipahis, soldiers), were also hired, there being a ready pool of professional soldiers - Marathas, Deccanis, Afghans, rajputs, Baksaris (from Awadh) - which Mughal rule had left stranded, and often unpaid, throughout the subcontinent. The existence of this market in troops, like that of the market in offices and revenue farms, positively invited European participation.

As India emerges under the Mughals as both a player and an object on the international scene, it is easier to understand the context of the history Keay is describing. Overall, Keay's book is a frustrating, rewarding endeavor. I spent much of the book moderately confused, and it took several weeks to struggle through, but at the end I felt substantially more familiar with the subject matter. Perhaps this is the inevitable nature of a one-volume text on the Indian subcontinent, which has seen more than its share of sweeping religious, military, and political turmoil in its four millennia of human civilization.

The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery

flannery_weather.jpgEfforts to understand the climate change debate are often sidetracked by an inability to grasp the scientific principles at play and by partisan substitution of ideology for evidence. Al Gore did tremendous work in An Inconvenient Truth, using visual imagery to establish for the masses the basic idea that our world is changing, that change is occurring with unnatural speed, and that much of this change can be tied to human causes.

But Al Gore is, for some, a divisive figure. A substantial portion of the population thinks he won the presidential election in 2000. An even larger portion probably wishes he had. And for all his erudition, he is not a scientist. So with due credit to his efforts, there is still room for others to play a pivotal role in educating us about climate change and what we can do about it.

Tim Flannery stepped into that role with his 2005 book, The Weather Makers. Flannery, an Australian scientist and environmental activist, previously published previous on the ecological history of Australia, and the ecological history of the United States. In The Weather Makers, he turned his focus to the topic of climate change, and in numerous short chapters, endeavors to tackle everything from the basics of climatology, the dangerous warning signs we've seen in past decades, the methods of prediction and what those models predict, the recent history of climate politics, and potential solutions for solving the crisis:

One thing that I hear again and again as I discuss climate change with friends, family, and colleagues is that it is something that may affect humanity in decades to come but is no immediate threat to us. I'm far from certain that that is true, and I'm not sure it is even relevant. If serious change or the effects of serious change are decades away, that is just a long tomorrow. Whenever my family gathers for a special event, the true scale of climate change is never far from my mind. My mother, who was born during the Great Depression--when motor vehicles and electric light were still novelties--positively glows in the company of her grandchildren, some of whom are not yet ten. To see them together is to see a chain of the deepest love that spans 150 years, for those grandchildren will not reach my mother's present age until late this century. To me, to her, and to their parents, their welfare is every bit as important as our own. On a broader scale, 70 percent of all people alive today will still be alive in 2050, so climate change affects almost every family on this planet.

Flannery treats every aspect of his sobering text with an even-hand. He does not villanize those whose scientific or political opinions clash with his own. He notes areas of scientific disagreement, he gives space to the proposals made by those who deny or diminish the dangers of climate change. He acknowledges the possible need for nuclear power and suggests that the continued use of fossil fuel for airline travel is not only necessary, but maybe even beneficial (due to possible cooling effects from the contrails made by airplane exhaust). Throughout the text, Flannery does not shy away from the shocking, but he never descends into sensationalism or spite.

One unique aspect of the book is that Flannery devotes at least as much attention to the policy failures in his native land as those in the United States. This is a perspective lacking in the U.S. debate, which per the recently-departed Bush administration's general outlook on the world, tended to devolve into an "us vs. them" mindset. If the U.S. refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol is rightly infamous, it is possibly trumped by the Australians' behavior: after bullying the small Pacific island countries most threatened by climate change, and wrestling concessions allowing it to expand its own CO2 production, Australia still refused to sign the treaty. An indication that Americans are not alone in our dangerous backwardness, though as leaders in innovation and initiative we should still be ashamed not to be at the tip of the spear.

Unfortunately the several years since Flannery published The Weather Makers have failed to yield much visible progress in the war on climate change. Though the presidential campaign last year involved a great deal of renewable energy rhetoric, the legislating progress is a different game entirely. Just last week, eight Democratic senators signed a letter stating their opposition to using the budget process to sidestep anticipated Republican filibusters on climate change legislation. At the same time in Copenhagen, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was releasing a disturbing report:

The world is facing an increasing risk of "irreversible" climate shifts because worst-case scenarios warned of two years ago are being realized, an international panel of scientists has warned.

Temperatures, sea levels, acid levels in oceans and ice sheets were already moving "beyond the patterns of natural variability within which our society and economy have developed and thrived," scientists said in a report released Thursday.

This is particularly upsetting in light of the rather conservative nature of the IPCC. As Flannery describes it, because the panel operates by consensus and includes members from the petrostates and heel-draggers like the U.S., China and Australia, IPCC reports are "lowest-common-denominator science." But that also means that "If the IPCC says something, you had better believe it--and then allow for the likelihood that things are far worse than its says they are." It is hard to imagine how that could be.

Andrew Carnegie by David Nasaw

nasaw_carnegie.jpgAndrew Carnegie was a man of many paradoxes. He was a giant in business, yet stood but 5 feet tall at the most. Audacious and ruthlessly oblivious of other perspectives in his professional life, he waited until his mother was dead to get married so as not to make her feel abandoned. Though he reached the pinnacle of industrial capitalism, he was more interested in being known as a man of letters and ideas than a man of wealth. He relentlessly pursued profits at the expense of his employees' salaries, jobs, and health and his competition's survival, and then spent his long retirement giving the money away.

In his 2006 biography of the philanthropic steelmaker, Andrew Carnegie, David Nasaw attempts to capture and consider these dueling aspects of Carnegie's personality, which reflect the transitional nature of his times:

Andrew Carnegie was a critical agent in the triumph of industrial capitalism surrounding the turn of the twentieth century. That much is undeniable. But the source materials I have uncovered do not support the telling of a heroic narrative of an industrialist who brought sanity and rationality to an immature capitalism plagued by runaway competition, ruthless speculation, and insider corruption. Nor do they support the recitation of another muckraking expose of Gilded Age criminality. The history of industrial consolidation and incorporation is too complex to be encapsulated in Whiggish narratives of progress or post-Edenic tales of declension, decline, and fall.

Carnegie himself credited his success not to any innate skill or divine selection, but to more or less being in the right place and the right time. He was born in the fall of 1835 in Dunfermline, Scotland, a town known then, as now, for its textile industry. His father was a skilled linen weaver who lacked either the ingenuity or the initiative to be successful at his trade, leaving Carnegie's mother to devise small business opportunities to support the family. They departed Scotland in 1848, settling in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, with family members who had preceded them. With the family impoverished, young "Andra" entered the work force at age 13. In short order, he was the main breadwinner:

There was something about the lad that inspired older Scottish men to entrust him with responsibilities he was not quite ready for. The Carnegies had relocated to an American manufacturing city filled with enterprising, upward-rising Scotsmen, ready and able to help out young landsmen. Andra's stint as a bobbin boy for Mr. Blackstock had barely begun when another Scottish expatriate manufacturer, John Hay, offered him a position for two dollars a week, almost double his wages.

Less than a year later Carnegie would move to a telegraph company where he worked as a messenger, then operator, before making the fateful move over to local office of the Pennsylvania Railroad, an association he would maintain for the duration of his career. Starting as a telegraph operator, secretary, and chief assistant to the superintendent, within a few years he was superintendent himself. The 1850s and 1860s were a great time to be in the railroad business, particularly when a railroad executive could invest in the very companies that were building or using the expanding railroad network:

In 1862 Carnegie invited Jacob Linville, the Pennsylvania's chief bridge engineer, and John Piper and Aaron Shiffler, also engineers, to join him, Scott, and Thomson in organizing a new company to build iron railroad bridges in Pittsburgh. The new company, Piper & Shiffler, was a fine example of nineteenth-century crony capitalism. Carnegie would oversee operations and finances from Pittsburgh. Scott and Thomson, who remained silent partners in the enterprise, would make sure the new company received lucrative contracts for iron bridges from the Pennsylvania and its affiliated companies. As he had become the modus operandi of their investment partnership, Carnegie held Scott's stock in his own name. Thomson's shares were put in his wife's name. Linville's participation in the company was also kept secret as, with Scott and Thomson, he remained an employee of the railroad.

The money Carnegie earns in such endeavors is immediately reinvested into new projects, a habit that Carnegie would carry with him into the steel business when he made the move in the early 1870s to put "all my eggs in one basket." Foreseeing the demand for steel railroad lines, Carnegie used his connections and insight in the railroad industry and his continual investment in better technology to claim for himself an enormous share of the booming steel business. He brought vertical integration to the business as well, buying the coke sources needed for steel production and building his own railroads to lower transportation costs. By the time he sold his various enterprises to the newly-created U.S. Steel behemoth, he was by some estimates the second-richest man who had ever lived.

Nasaw does not gloss over the costs the Carnegie empire imposed on its work force and competition. Ever obsessed with reducing costs and boosting profits, Carnegie successfully drove unions out of his steel and iron works, most spectacularly at Homestead in 1892. Nor does he glorify Carnegie the man. Carnegie was remarkably ego-centric, as surely most billionaires are (that's surely part of how one becomes a billionaire), yet needed affection from all quarters:

For all he had accomplished, Carnegie remained, at heart, the undersized outsider with the funny accent who had been uprooted from his home at age thirteen... In his adopted land, he was the intimate of a president in Washington, an ex-president in Princeton, mayors, governors, senators, and cabinet members, as well as Samuel Clemens, America's most famous writer... In Britain, his circle of acquaintances was, if anything, larger, grander, and more regal still. He had conquered every personal, corporate, political, and ancestral foe... It was not enough. His insecurities about class and status were legion. Now approaching seventy, and if not the richest, then surely one of the richest men in the world, he still sought out and gloried in the approval and recognition of his contemporaries.

Carnegie was also an unabashed name-dropper, "wanted to be known and honored not simply for what he had accomplished, but for the company he kept," and yet greatly overestimated the value others placed on his opinion. This was true in business, as demonstrated by his disastrous falling out with Henry Clay Frick, but even more so once Carnegie turned his attention to the cause of world peace. He hounded politicians on both sides of the Atlantic relentlessly in his quixotic, if noble, effort to bind the world's great powers to treaties of arbitration. It is somewhat sad to see him humored by these politicians merely because they desire his campaign contributions. It is even more tragic to see his lengthy quest for peace and his everlasting optimism rewarded by the outbreak of perhaps the most senseless and bloody war to date:

On November 25, 1914, he celebrated his seventy-ninth birthday as always by inviting reporters to his library for an extended conversation. He repeated as he had the year before that "the longer I live on this earth the more of a heaven it becomes to me," but he also "admitted that the war had shaken his proverbial optimism about the goodness of the world."

The main flaw of Nasaw's book is that it is simply too long. Or more to that point, it is bloated with details of vacations and other aspects of Carnegie's personal life that fail to shed light on the man or hold any inherent interest. Particularly painful are the many pages detailing the epistolary courtship between Carnegie and his eventual wife, Louise. I don't mean to seem unduly harsh, as surely most love letters are of little interest for those uninvolved. But the text really bogs down during the seven years it takes for Carnegie to make the leap into marriage. Part of the problem is that Carnegie, for all his fame and all his money, spent the majority of his long life in semi-retirement. He traveled, he read, he wrote, he entertained. Not the makings of a great narrative.

Some of the 800 pages would have been better spent exploring in more detail the various philanthropic endeavors that Carnegie's money has funded. Nasaw does a decent job mentioning the origins of organizations including the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Carnegie Corporation, the Carnegie Institute, the New York public libraries, and Carnegie Mellon University. But he gives the barest hints of the achievements made by these groups in the nine decades since his death. Surely an epilogue, at the very least, could have provided such details. If the donation of his tremendous wealth was the "most important goal [Carnegie] had set himself," the paths his money traveled are certainly worth exploring.

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

goodwin_team.jpgAs early as May of last year, there was widespread discussion of then-Senator Barack Obama's admiration of President Abraham Lincoln and his choice to assemble a cabinet containing his main rivals for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. Obama made public reference to a "wonderful book" by Doris Kearns Goodwin titled Team of Rivals, which covered just that topic.

In comparing President Obama's cabinet choices to the story Goodwin tells in Team of Rivals, commentators tended to focus on the initial selection of major rivals to key posts. In 1860, the nomination was widely expected to go to a senator from New York, only to have the throne usurped by a dark horse insurgent from Illinois, who then won the presidency and appointed his New York rival as Secretary of State. Sounds familiar, right?

But this is not really the thesis of Goodwin's text. Lincoln is not to be admired simply because he surrounded himself with powerful adversaries, though this distinguished him from his less secure predecessors (and successors). Instead, Lincoln's "political genius was not simply his ability to gather the best men of the country around him, but to impress upon them his own purpose, perception, and resolution at every juncture." The marvel of this accomplishment is that in the years leading up to Lincoln's nomination (and for some time after), each of the men who would serve such vital roles in his administration could point to a more illustrious career than their counterpart from Illinois:

[T]he three other contenders for the nomination were household names in Republican circles. William Henry Seward had been a celebrated senator from New York for more than a decade and governor of his state for two terms before he went to Washington. Ohio's Salmon P. Chase, too, had been both senator and governor, and had played a central role in the formation of the national Republican Party. Edward Bates was a widely respected elder statesman, a delegate to the convention that had framed the Missouri Constitution, and a former congressman whose opinion on national matters were still widely sought.

And yet Lincoln won the nomination. In part this was because he was the common denominator who did not alienate any faction. But even this positioning was attributable to a more important factor: Lincoln was simply the most skilled politician of the group, a trait that would be made manifest in the coming months. First, Lincoln had to unify the nascent Republican Party, which was an amalgamation of anti-slavery Democrats, Whigs, and Know-Nothings. And his reward for succeeding and obtaining the presidency? The imminent dissolution of the Union:

For Lincoln, who would not take office until March 4, it was a time of mounting anxiety and frustration. He strongly believed, he told John Nicolay, that the government possessed "both the authority and the power to maintain its own integrity," but there was little he could do until he held the reins of power. While he was "indefatigable in his efforts to arrive at the fullest comprehension of the present situation of public affair," relying not simply on the newspapers he devoured but on "faithful researches for precedents, analogies, authorities, etc." it was hard to stand by while his country was disintegrating. He declared at one point that he would be willing to reduce his own life span by "a period of years" equal to the anxious months separating his election and the inauguration.

As James McPherson made clear in Battle Cry of Freedom, keeping the border states from seceding was of the utmost importance to the success of the Union war effort. Threading this needle was a task tailor-made for Lincoln. He was uniquely able to balance the radicals in his own party with the conservatives and the northern Democrats, and to assuage the healthy egos of his many generals. Only after suffering the insolence of McLellan (who is just as loathsome in Goodwin's portrayal as in McPherson's) and the incompetence of Burnside and Hooker would Lincoln find, in Ulysses Grant, the general he deserved:

When a visitor asked one day about the prospects of the army under Grant, Lincoln's face lit up "with that peculiar smile which he always puts on when about to tell a good story." The question, he said, "reminds me of a little anecdote about the automaton chessplayer, which many years ago astonished the world by its skill in that game. After a while the automaton was challenged by a celebrated player, who, to hise great chagrin, was beaten twice by the machine. At the end of the second game, the player, significantly pointing his finger at the automaton, exclaimed in a very decided tone. 'There's a man in it!'" That, he explained, referring to Grant, was "the secret" to the army's fortunes.

As if Lincoln did not have enough trouble from those outside his cabinet, he continuously strove to maintain the balance within it. He was given particularly trouble by Chase, who never gave up his obsessive quest for the presidency (including attempts to stoke a grassroots bid for the nomination in 1864), and Montgomery Blair, who, with his family, came into constant conflict with Chase and his allies. In the end, Lincoln would solve the problem by easing both men out of his cabinet. Magnanimous to the last, Lincoln would eventually appoint Chase to the Chief Justiceship of the Supreme Court.

The book suffers from a bit of a split identity. At first blush, it endeavors to tell the stories of all four of the rivals. The early chapters detail each man's rise to fame, and the back cover even calls it a "multiple biography." One unfortunate similarity amongst the men, reflecting the realities of 19th-century health, is that each suffered tragic family losses: Lincoln lost two children, Chase had survived three daughters and three wives by the age of 44, the eight Bates children who survived to adulthood were outnumbered by the nine who did not, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton's grief after losing his wife and daughter "verged on insanity." Beyond the tragedies, Goodwin also covers in substantial detail (too much, perhaps) the social lives and rivalries of the cabinet members and their wives and daughters.

Yet Goodwin's main focus is on Lincoln, and the cabinet is relevant only as part of her effort to demonstrate Lincoln's management prowess. At this she certainly succeeds, but it comes at the cost of giving pretty short shrift to the work done by Lincoln's subordinates. We really only see their efforts insofar as they come into conflict with Lincoln or each other, and do not get a satisfactory sense of each man's performance in the key roles they fulfilled. Nevertheless, Goodwin has added to our sense of Lincoln the political virtuoso, who not only inspired the soldiers and the citizens, but transformed rivalries among the great men of his time into loyal dedication to their leader.

Battle Cry of Freedom by James McPherson

mcpherson_battle.jpgNo historical event can rival the American Civil War for volume of inspired literature except, perhaps, the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Every year, every month even, sees the publication of further works on the causes, the consequences, the battles, the generals, and so on. For the Civil War-obsessed, and there are certainly plenty among us, this is delightful. But for those of us whose interest is at present more restrained, it is daunting.

Those seeking a single volume are often directed to James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom as the place to start (and perhaps finish) an exploration of America's bloodiest conflict. McPherson's effort, which is subtitled "The Civil War Era," opens with an overview of mid-19th century America, covering the social, religious and political realms of the antebellum era. It then turns to the Mexican-American War and the discovery of gold in California, and does not reach the fateful shots at Fort Sumter for nearly 300 pages. McPherson considers these events, and the resulting westward expansion of U.S. territory and settlement, as pivotal in forcing the issue of slavery back to the forefront after nearly three decades of cease-fire following the Missouri Compromise:

This triumph of Manifest Destiny may have reminded some Americans of Ralph Waldo Emerson's prophecy that "the United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down in turn. Mexico will poison us." He was right. The poison was slavery. Jefferson's Empire for Liberty had become mostly an empire for slavery. Territorial acquisitions since the Revolution had added the slave states of Louisiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas to the republic, while only Iowa, just admitted in 1846, had increased the ranks of free states. Many northerners feared a similar future for this new southwestern empire. They condemned the war as part of a "slave power conspiracy" to expand the peculiar institution.

This fear provoked even non-abolitionists, like young Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, who did not believe the federal government could interfere with slavery in the southern States but were adamant that it be kept out of the federal territories. It was, as they saw it, the Founding Fathers' intention to restrict slavery to its then-existing limits where it would die a gradual, natural death. This new effort at westward expansion threatened to extend the life of the peculiar institution. It wasn't the only effort, either, as some in the South saw the annexation of Cuba as a natural expansion that would further strengthen the slaveholders' position:

Their champion was a handsome, charismatic Cuban soldier of fortune named Narciso Lopez who had fled to New York in 1848 after Spanish officials foiled his attempt to foment an uprising of Cuban planters. Lopez recruited an army of several hundred adventurers, Mexican War veterans, and Cuban exiles for an invasion of the island. He asked Jefferson Davis to lead the expedition. The senator demurred and recommend his friend Robert E. Lee, who considered it but politely declined. Lopez thereupon took command himself, but the Taylor administration got wind of the enterprise and sent a naval force to seize Lopez's ships and block his departure in September 1849.

McPherson covers the expanding violence in Kansas, the fall of the Whigs and the rise of the Republicans, and the Lincoln-Douglas rivalry in Illinois. The election of Lincoln is itself enough to provoke secession by the most rebellious states in the Deep South, and the subsequent violence at Fort Sumter and mobilization of Northern troops sees Virginia leading the mid-South out of the Union as well. One of McPherson's best chapters is titled "Facing Both Ways: The Upper South's Dilemma" in which he discusses Virginia's secession and then looks at each of the four border states in turn:

In the four border states the proportion of slaves and slaveowners was less than half what it was in the eleven states that seceded. But the triumph of unionism in these states was not easy and the outcome (except in Delaware) by no means certain. Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri contained large and resolute secessionist minorities. A slight twist in the chain of events might have enabled this faction to prevail in any of these states. Much was at stake in this contest. The three states would have added 45 percent to the white population and military manpower of the Confederacy, 80 percent to its manufacturing capacity, and nearly 40 percent to its supply of horses and mules. Fort almost five hundred miles the Ohio river flows along the northern border of Kentucky, providing a defensive barrier or an avenue of invasion, depending on which side could control and fortify it. Two of the Ohio's navigable tributaries, the Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, penetrate through Kentucky into the heart of Tennessee and northern Alabama. Little wonder that Lincoln was reported to have said that while he hoped to have God on his side, he must have Kentucky.

Indeed, the North's early triumphs would all take place in the western theater, while the execrable George McClellan wasted a year and thousands of lives in his timid Virginia campaign. In his narrative of the war, McPherson touches on all the major military campaigns and battles, but never neglects to return his focus to the seats of power in Washington and Richmond. Of particular interest were the passages focus on Jefferson Davis' administration, such as the difficulties faced by the Confederacy in mobilizing a coherent, unified war effort after founding itself on a doctrine of state's rights:

Conscription dramatized a fundamental paradox in the Confederate war effort: the need for Hamiltonian means to achieve Jeffersonian ends. Pure Jeffersonians could not accept this. The most outspoken of them, Joseph Brown of Georgia, denounced the draft as a "dangerous usurpation by Congress of the reserved rights of the States... at war with all the principles for which Georgia entered into the revolution."

McPherson repeatedly demonstrates how the political sphere was often driven by failure or success in the field (e.g. the capture of Atlanta undermined the 1864 Democratic peace platform in the North), and yet on other occasions the efforts in the field were driven by political considerations (such as difficulty in removing a well-connected general). He also covers the evolution of Northern opinion on slavery, emancipation, and arming free blacks (unthinkable in 1861 but widely accepted by war's end) and the ongoing Southern efforts to gain recognition by Britain and France:

[I]ssues of ideology and sentiment played a secondary role in determining Britain's foreign policy. A veteran of a half-century in British politics, Palmerston was an exponent of Realpolitik. When pro-southern members of Parliament launched a drive in the summer of 1862 for British recognition of the Confederacy, Palmerston profess not to see the point. The South, he wrote, would not be "a bit more independent for our saying so unless we followed up our Declaration by taking Part with them in the war." Few in Britain were ready for that.

The book ends at the war's conclusion, prior to Reconstruction, the passage of the 14th Amendment, the readmission of the slave states, and so on. This was a conscious choice by McPherson and/or his editor, as Battle Cry of Freedom is but one entry in the gradually emerging Oxford History of the United States. McPherson explicitly leaves several issues for the subsequent volume in the series, which at this moment, twenty years later, is still neither published nor even announced.

As advertised, this is surely the essential one-volume history of the war and its causes, covering in sufficient detail both the political and military aspects of the conflict. But it is just one volume, and the 600 pages devoted to the war itself pale in comparison to, say, the 3000 or so in Shelby Foote's three-volume epic. The analysis of the causes of the war, while efficient, is relatively cursory when compared to a full volume like David Potter's The Impending Crisis. Those seeking a detailed operational history of the battles will have to look elsewhere, as even the epic battle at Gettysburg is allotted fewer than a dozen pages. Better yet, read this book first to get a fresh sense of the whole scope of the war, then seek out Foote or Stephen Sears for a closer look at military operations.

Eisenhower by Carlo D'Este

deste_eisenhower.jpgDwight Eisenhower's elevation to the peak of the Allied forces in World War II was absurdly rapid. The only contemporary rise that even compares is Harry Truman's 3-month ascent from Missouri's junior senate seat to the Oval Office. Eisenhower spent sixteen long years as a major in the inter-war Army before gaining promotion to lieutenant colonel in 1936. Then, in less than four years between 1941 and 1944, he rose from lieutenant colonel to five-star general.

Strange though it may seem, Carlo D'Este's Eisenhower, subtitled "A Soldier's Life," is actually more interesting in the 300 pages before the U.S. entry into World War II. Though the book ends with the close of the war in Europe in 1945, excluding his tenure as chief of staff, NATO commander, and his two-term presidency, the narrative begins with Eisenhower's first ancestor in America, Hans Nicholas Eisenhauer, "who emigrated from Germany's Rhineland to Pennsylvania in 1741." Raised in rather impoverished circumstances with his vivacious mother, emotionally detached father, and five brothers, Eisenhower managed to live a picturesque childhood:

Whenever he was not in school or working, young Eisenhower could be found sipping a sundae at Case's Department Store, riding precariously on the handlebars of a friend's bicycle, wading or fishing in nearby Mud Creek, shooting rabbits, general horseplay, engaging in fisticuffs, or competing in all manner of sports. There was little his boyhood in Abilene had to offer that Dwight Eisenhower did not take part in during an untroubled youth. The Eisenhowers could not afford toys, but with David's encouragement his sons became adept at manufacturing their own from whatever materials were handy. Camping and boating were all part of a life filled with activities, as were acrobatics and balancing acts in the family barn--often futile attempts to defy the laws of gravity that usually cost little more than numerous bumps, bruises, cuts, and scrapes.

Desirous of a college education (and an opportunity to continue playing football and baseball) but cognizant of his family's financial limitations, Eisenhower sought and received an appointment to West Point. A member of the class of 1915, Eisenhower would graduate into a world at war and an American army in disrepair. Despite a professed desire to lead troops in combat (like George Patton and Harry Truman), Eisenhower would spend World War I in staff and training positions, with a particular emphasis on the newly-established tank units:

Eisenhower's hopes were dashed when he was informed that instead of leading the 301st [Tank Battalion] to France, he was being reassigned to command a temporary military garrison adjacent to the Gettysburg battlefield: Camp Colt. Eisenhower's organizational abilities had convinced his superiors that he was more valuable training troops. The curse of being a successful troop trainer had struck again, and "My mood was black," he said. His new assignment was a perfect example of the military axiom "For the good of the service."

In the inter-war years, the Army would severely contract, cut salaries, and promote at a glacial pace (hence Eisenhower's sixteen years as a major). Yet Eisenhower endured. He would later be criticized by many as a bureaucrat who rose to power on his ability to play politics and gain the patronage of powerful men. Whatever the merits of this judgment, it is certainly true that Eisenhower's assignments brought him into close contact with a veritable who's who of Army heavyweights. After World War I he worked for General John Pershing on the American Battle Monuments Commission. Later, Eisenhower would spend most of the 1930s working for General Douglas MacArthur, as an aide to the Chief of Staff and then in the Philippines. Finally, and most importantly, he had been marked down for future success by General George C. Marshall; when the darkening clouds in Europe convinced the Army Chief of Staff he needed an officer with some specific skills, Eisenhower was his man:

In 1942 hardly anyone in the U.S. Army had in intimate knowledge, much less an understanding, of industrial mobilization. One of the few exceptions was Eisenhower, thanks to his extensive investigation of the subject during his service in the War Department a decade earlier. This experience would not only be of immense importance in the coming months but would greatly enhance his role as one of the most important figures on Marshall's staff.

The 400-odd pages that follow cover Eisenhower's role in the European war, from command of the operations in North Africa, the invasions of Sicily and Italy, to D-Day and the continental war. This is a decent operational history of the war, and I guess that's what passes for a biography of the Supreme Allied Commander. He was strikingly distant from any tactical decisions, let alone combat itself. Most of his days seem to have been filled by balancing the egos of the various commanders and politicians. Not to understate the skill and patience this required, when one considers the egos he was dealing with (Churchill, de Gaulle, Montgomery, Patton, Bradley, to name the most famous). But it does not make for great reading. Every so often a major strategic decision will be made, followed by a dozen iterations of ego-soothing while the troops are actually fighting; rinse and repeat:

In early August [1944], Eisenhower's unending "war" with Winston Churchill over the Riviera landings reached a crescendo. Although the date for the landings was barely more than a week off, Eisenhower still had a major fight on his hands with Churchill, who arrived at Shellburst for discussions on August 7. All was calm at lunch as the prime minister delighted in feeding milk to Eisenhower's resident pet, a black kitten named Shaef. But the discussion under the canvas tent turned serious when Churchill employed American battle tactics in an attempt to wear Eisenhower down. The arguments raged for some six hours. The more Churchill cajoled and pleaded, the more strongly Eisenhower resisted. Noted Butcher, "Ike said no, continued saying no all afternoon, and ended saying no in every form of the English language at his command... he was practically limp when the PM departed," with the last words on the subject yet to be heard. Exhausted but unbowed Eisenhower felt secure in the knowledge that he had the full backing of Marshall, King, and Arnold, and--most important of all--Roosevelt.

Perhaps Eisenhower's greatest accomplishment was maintaining the allied relationship with Britain, a proud empire in very rapid decline, while recognizing that by 1944 the former colonies had become undeniably supreme. Numerous military giants feature significantly in the narrative, particularly Patton, Montgomery, and Bradley. While D'Este is entitled to make known his opinions about which generals have been underrated (Montgomery) or overrated (Bradley), in so doing he is taking issue with the unstated judgments of past historians. For those not well-versed in the war's historiography, these passages may seem rather tangential or at least unnecessarily argumentative.

D'Este is not blind to Eisenhower's missteps. He fault the supreme commander for an inability to relieve commanders far after their incompetence or disloyalty has been made manifest. He does not dissuade one from the notion that Eisenhower's stature and survival had as much to do with being the common denominator acceptable to both the British and the U.S. rather than any brilliance in his own right (in fact, it may be the lack of individual military genius that made him more palatable than the eccentrics like Patton and Montgomery). And amongst other specific episodes of weakness, he highlights Eisenhower's decision to approve the execution of Eddie Slovik for desertion, the first such penalty since the Civil War:

When Eisenhower was interviewed in 1963 by historian Bruce Catton, his recollection of the event bore the hallmarks of a faulty memory. Claiming he had sent his judge advocate general to offer Slovik an olive branch if he would express remorse and return to his unit, Eisenhower described Slovik as "one of these guardhouse lawyers who refused to believe he'd ever be executed."

Slovik had actually written Eisenhower a hearfelt personal plea to spare his life, and would willingly have complied with an offer to return to duty. It has not been established if Eisenhower ever saw Slovik's letter, but what is clear is that no one from SHAEF was ever sent to the 28th Division before Slovik's execution on January 31, 1945, in the courtyard of a villa in the town of Ste-Marie-aux-Mines, deep in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace.

D'Este relies on a broad array of sources, and provides 100 pages worth of extensive endnotes. I was troubled, however, by an in-text citation to "controversial historian David Irving." By "controversial," one can only assume D'Este is referring to Irving's many years as the academic face of Holocaust denial. That Irving has so publicly and perversely derailed from historical reality does not necessarily invalidate the early work that D'Este cites, which suggested that "Allied brass were more interested in preserving their reputation than in defeating the Germans," but surely D'Este could find sources for this claim who have not been so widely discredited as historians.

Also troubling was D'Este's handling of the perpetual rumors surrounding Eisenhower's wartime relationship with his driver, Kay Summersby. Truth be told, I don't much care what the relationship was, and would not have missed the issue if D'Este had chosen to ignore it. But what he did instead was worse; he attempts to exonerate Ike, staying that the rumors were "unproved" and that an affair "could not possibly have been hidden." That is all well and good, but D'Este returns to these rumors at least a half-dozen times during the remainder of the book, noting the effect it had on Mamie, stating that Eisenhower was "oblivious to any all adverse reaction to her presence, however inappropriate it was at times," and admitting that "it was common knowledge among war correspondents that something was going on between them." By brushing aside the rumors, only to repeat them ad nauseam, D'Este does no favors to his subject or his text.

More annoying yet is D'Este's obsession with Eisenhower's cigarette smoking, which he mentions at least 8 or 9 times. D'Este suggests that this contributed to health problems later in life, which I have no reason to doubt. But it is a strange aspect to linger on considering that D'Este's text ends in 1945, almost a quarter-century before Eisenhower's death. It is perhaps a symptom of D'Este's inability or unwillingness to offer insights into Eisenhower's inner world that he harps so repeatedly on the man's visible habits.

Truman by David McCullough

mccullough_truman.jpgHarry Truman assumed the office of President of the United States on April 12, 1945. In the four months that followed, Truman would oversee the surrender of Nazi Germany, negotiate with Stalin and Churchill at Potsdam, and authorize the use of atomic bombs against Japan. This dramatic beginning was a harbinger of things to come. In his nearly 8 years in office, Truman's administration led the U.S. into the United Nations and NATO, restored Western Europe through the Marshall Plan, recognized the State of Israel, and resisted Communist aggression via the Truman Doctrine, the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War. And that was just in the foreign policy arena.

Truman is widely regarded as one of the unlikeliest of American presidents, considering the humbleness of his Missouri farmland origins. David McCullough's Truman does nothing to assuage that notion. I was astonished, however, to realize that Truman was born in 1884, just two years later than Franklin Roosevelt. After all, as he was in such better health than FDR at the time of the latter's death, and lived nearly three decades longer than his predecessor, it seemed logical that Truman be a much younger man. That the two men were nearly the same age amplifies what different worlds they came from, and what different paths they took to the presidency. While Roosevelt was a child of privilege, wanting for little and attending the best schools money could buy (Groton, Harvard, Columbia Law), Truman had a slightly different upbringing. While never suffering the poverty of young Dwight Eisenhower, his family saw its share of setbacks:

John Truman's run of luck on wheat futures had ended. He began losing heavily that same summer of 1901, and to recover his losses kept risking more and more until he had gambled away nearly everything he and Matt owned--as much as $40,000 in cash, stocks, and personal property, including 160 acres of prime land on Blue Ridge given to Matt by her father.

The situation could not have been much worse. At age fifty-one, John Truman was wiped out. The Waldo Avenue house had to be sold. For a while the family lived in another part of town, trying to keep up appearances, but eventually they had to pack and leave Independence altogether. They moved to a modest neighborhood in Kansas City, where John took a job for wages, something no Truman had done before.

Perhaps even more striking than these disparate origins are the experiences Roosevelt and Truman had in World War I. Though the war was a pivotal event in each man's life, they served in wildly different circumstances. Roosevelt left his seat as a New York state senator to serve as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the number two man in what was then a cabinet-level department (the creation of the unified Department of Defense would be one of Truman's achievements as President). Truman, by contrast, was an artillery battery commander who saw combat in France:

West of Cheppy the battery moved into a peach orchard. Harry and one of his lieutenants, Leslie Zemer, Sergeant Kelley, and Corporal William O'Hare went out ahead to establish an observation post, stringing a telephone line and advancing, unknowingly, several hundred yards beyond the infantry. About dusk, from the crest of a hill, Harry saw an American plane drop a flare off to the west, then turning his field glasses on the spot, saw a German battery pulling into position on the left flank, across a small river in front of the 28th Division, which was beyond his own assigned sector. Standing orders were to fire only at enemy batteries facing the 35th Division. Harry decided to disregard that.

While Roosevelt did battle with the bosses at Tammany Hall early in his career (before seeking reconciliation to further his statewide ambitions), Truman was a machine man from the get-go. The Kansas City political scene was dominated by Tom Pendergast, and it was through the Pendergasts that Truman obtained a position as a county judge (akin to a county commissioner, not a judicial magistrate). But if Truman gained the post through the political machine, he did not consider the job a mechanism for corruption or graft. Truman believed in rewarding party loyalists, and would continue the practice throughout his career (suffering great criticism during his presidency), but he believed first and foremost in honestly and efficiently promoting the welfare of his constituents:

It was as though all he had absorbed in his readings in the history of the Romans, the memory of the model of Caesar's bridge, the experience of countless misadventures by automobile since the days of the old Stafford, the memory of the roads he had seen in France, not to say his own experience with the farm roads in and about Grandview and the father who had literally died as a result of his determination to maintain them properly, converged now in one grand constructive vision. He would build the best roads in the state, if not the country, he vowed, and see they were built honestly.

Truman would drive from town to town to get the bond passed for these public works, setting the precedent for future campaigns in which his own hard work and personal touch would lead him to victory. Elected to the Senate in 1934 after Pendergast's first three choices turned him down, and re-elected after a divisive Democratic primary, Truman would make a name for himself as the chairman of a committee investigating allegations of fraud, waste, and abuse in military spending. During his tenure as chairman, Truman demonstrated his personal integrity and evenhandedness, his willingness to speak truth to power, and his ability to work in a bipartisan fashion:

At Truman's insistence any member of the Senate was welcome to sit in and take part in the hearings. When presiding, he seemed invariably well prepared and in charge, yet he seldom dominated. Instead, he would go out of his way to let other senators hold the stage. No one could remember congressional hearings being handled with such straightforwardness and intelligence. As in his earlier railroad investigations, witnesses were shown every courtesy, given more than ample time to present their case. There was no browbeating of witnesses, no unseemly outbursts tolerated on the part of anybody... Yet Truman could be tough, persistent, in a way that took many observers by surprise. It was a side of the man they had not known.

The selection of Truman as the Vice-Presidential candidate in 1944 was so complex and dramatic a event as to merit an entire book on its own. It was widely understood (if less openly discussed) that Roosevelt's poor health meant the second spot on the ticket was more important than usual:

Seeing the President after his return to the White House, Ed Flynn was so alarmed by his appearance that he urged Mrs. Roosevelt to use her influence to keep him from running again. "I felt," Flynn later said, "that he would never survive his term." Ed Pauley would say that his own determination to unseat Wallace came strictly from the conviction that Wallace was "not a fit man to be President... and by my belief, on the basis of continuing observation, that President Roosevelt would not live much longer." George Allen, remembering these critical months just before the 1944 convention, wrote that every one of the group "realized that the man nominated to run with Roosevelt would in all probability be the next President..."

And after just seven weeks on the job, Truman would be elevated to the highest office (leaving the vice presidency vacant for nearly four years). The highs and lows of Truman's presidency are thoroughly explored by McCullough, and as the list enumerated above suggests, it was hugely eventful. The account of Truman's re-election campaign, including the famous whistle-stop tour, is particularly satisfying considering the smug presumptuousness of his Republican opponents. And I had no idea that Truman vacated the White House for almost his entire second term while the building was renovated, including total demolition and reconstruction of the interior.

Perhaps the most welcome chapter of the book comes at the end. Considering the unfortunate fate of so many of America's great presidents, who either died in office (Lincoln, Roosevelt) or shortly thereafter (Washington, Wilson), it was wonderful to learn that Truman shared a long, happy retirement with his wife. Though nearly impoverished after decades of public service, the sale of the family farm and other endeavors secured a pleasant, if modest, lifestyle. They traveled widely, became grandparents, and Truman devoted himself to his presidential library:

Largest and most generous of the town's gestures, and must the most appreciated by Truman, was the donation of a town park north of the Square as a site for his library. He could not have been more pleased. Independence would be a far more appropriate location than Grandview and more accessible. Slover Park, a quiet, picturesque 13-acre knoll, was just beyond U.S. Highway 24... only a mile from 219 North Delaware, nothing at all for a good walker.

McCullough was awarded the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Biography for Truman (he would win again in 2002 for John Adams), and it is undoubtedly one of the best works of nonfiction I've had the pleasure to read. Though Truman weighs in at a hefty 992 pages, the rhythmic fluency of McCullough's prose makes for effortless reading. There is no question this book is a project, but it is one well worth tackling.

John Marshall by Jean Edward Smith

smith_marshall.jpgIf Franklin Roosevelt is the undisputed champion of federal power in the last century, his 19th-century counterpart is surely John Marshall. It is fitting then, that a decade before Jean Edward Smith wrote his magisterial FDR (reviewed here), he devoted his scholarly attention to Marshall, the fourth, and greatest, Chief Justice of the United States.

Law students spend a disproportionate amount of their time reading the Supreme Court opinions of Marshall, which set not only the framework of commercial and constitutional law, but also determined the power and purview of the federal judiciary as well as the hotly-contested relationship between the federal and state governments. His decisions read like a laundry list of legal landmarks: Marbury v. Madison, Fletcher v. Peck, McCullouch v. Maryland, Dartmouth College v. Woodward, and Gibbons v. Ogden, just to name a few.

It was of some surprise then, to find that more than half of the 524 pages in Smith's John Marshall are dedicated to his life before taking the bench. Despite his youth relative to other Founding Fathers, Marshall managed to have a hand in most important events in our country's early life. The eldest of Thomas Marshall's fifteen children, his childhood was largely comfortable, though not luxurious. His father worked as a surveyor for Lord Fairfax (as did George Washington) and sought success in the west, eventually settling in the Kentucky frontier, then part of Virginia. Thomas had experience in the state militia, and when the Virginia convention authorized minutemen battalions in 1775, he was appointed as the Culpeper battalion's major. His son followed, and was commissioned a first lieutenant. When war came, both men saw their share of action, starting with an early skirmish in December 1775 at Norfolk:

"The alarm was immediately given," Marshall reported, "and, as is the practice with raw troops, the bravest [of the Americans] rushed to the works, where, regardless of order, they kept up a heavy fire on the front of the British column." At the same time, Colonel Stevens led the Culpeper riflemen onto some high ground to the left of the causeway, from which they sent a withering cross fire into the grenadiers' flank. Marshall's father, Major Thomas Marshall, assumed overall command of the troops at the breastworks; Lieutenant John Marshall was with the riflemen on the flank. Colonel Woodford subsequently reported to the Virginia convention that "perhaps a hotter fire never happened, or a greater carnage, for the number of troops" engaged.

The Marshalls also saw action at Brandywine and Germantown, and spent that famous winter at Valley Forge. John Marshall's experiences in the war, and the resulting attachments he felt to the nation, convinced him of the need for a strong federal government. After the war, Marshall studied law at the College of William and Mary, built a nascent legal practice in Richmond, and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates. As the newly independent country struggled under the limitations of the Articles of Confederation, Marshall supported the Constitutional Convention's effort to strengthen the union:

His pragmatic nature resisted the adoption of a large number of a priori principles, but on four issues his views were firm. He believed in a strong central government, the supremacy of the constitution, the necessity for an independent judiciary, and the unalienable right to possess, enjoy, and augment private property. Marshall's views were consistent with the major currents of eighteenth century American thought. Locke, Blackstone, Hume, and Montesquieu--the writers most often cited in postcolonial America--stressed that the purpose of government was to protect private rights, especially the right to property, and that the tyranny of the majority was as much to be feared as the tyranny of the crown.

As the states began to consider the newly proposed Constitution, it became clear that Virginia would play the deciding role. By the time the question came to Virginia, eight states had ratified. One more was needed, and all eyes looked to the Old Dominion. Marshall maneuvered to ensure a convention was called, and that the enabling motion did not explicitly authorize amendments (as favored by anti-federalists like Patrick Henry, knowing it would scuttle the whole project if each state offered its own changes). An all-star cast was called to Richmond: Marshall, Henry, James Madison, James Monroe, George Mason, George Wythe, Edmund Pendleton, and more. From the start, the outcome was uncertain:

Opposite Henry, James Madison anchored the nationalist end of the spectrum. His tough-minded, interest-based view of politics defined the central thrust of the Constitution. "Let ambition counter ambition," he wrote in Federalist 51, and his advocacy of ratification without amendments was uncompromising. "The question on which the proposed Constitution must turn," he wrote to Edmund Pendleton, "is the simple one whether the Union shall or shall not be continued. There is in my opinion no middle ground to be taken." Marshall, who admired both Henry and Madison, captured the essence of their historic confrontation. Patrick Henry was much more than an orator, said Marshall. He was "a learned lawyer, a most accurate thinker, and a profound reasoner. If I were called uopn to say who of all the men I have known had the greatest power to convince, I should say Mr. Madison, while Mr. Henry had without doubt the greatest power to persuade."

Even in the crowd of luminaries, Marshall's incisive legal reasoning proved noteworthy; it may be that the nationalist views he would espouse from the bench got finely-honed during arguments with this company of giants. The federalists won, if only just (ratification passed 89-79), at which point Marshall was appointed to a committee charged with preparing proposed amendments. These "became the bases for the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendments to the Constitution." Despite the heat and vigor with which the debate was joined, Marshall managed to remain on good terms with his political opponents, a skill he retained and put to good use throughout his career. In fact, he would even join forces with Henry as co-counsel on several high profile cases in the years ahead.

Marshall returned to the Richmond bar and quickly rose to prominence as one of the commonwealth's finest solicitors. The 1790s were a tumultuous time, and the legal arena was no different. A new country faces new issues and requires new precedents. The Virginia bar was beset with disputes, with cases especially numerous regarding land titles, debt repayments, and admiralty seizures. He remained politically active, and was amongst the most notable supporters of John Adams' policy of moderate neutrality (attacked by both Jefferson's Republicans and Hamilton's High Federalists). As a result of the high esteem in which Marshall was held, he was designated as one of the three peace emissaries sent to France to attempt to prevent open war, the mission that resulted in the infamous XYZ Affair. Marshall would subsequently serve in Congress and as Secretary of State before being nominated to the Supreme Court by the lame-duck Adams after John Jay declined to re-take the office:

Adam's decision came as a surprise, especially to Marshall. In retrospect, however, the choice appears inevitable. Apart from his devotion to the president, Marshall was one of the few Federalists to command the respect of both parties and one of the few who would bring to the Court both legislative and executive experience. He had represented the United States abroad with distinction, and, with the possible exception of Adams himself, no Federalist stood higher in public esteem. In addition, Marshall's legal skills were superb. His analytical mind and his pragmatic bent had made him one of Adams's most trusted colleagues, and his personal integrity was unchallenged.

Smith spends the latter half of the book examining in great detail the 34 years of Marshall's famed chief justiceship. He covers the shifting make-up of the court and the recurring struggle with radical Republicans to establish the independence of the judiciary. He also highlights the collegial atmosphere promoted by Marshall, resulting in a new practice of issuing an "Opinion of the Court" (usually unanimous and usually authored by Marshall) rather than individual, seriatim opinions. This practice continued through Marshall's tenure even as Republican executives filled the court with their own nominees (a great frustration to Jefferson, not dissimilar to that felt by Republican presidents in our own time). Smith also does a tremendous job discussing each term's important cases. He provides both the factual and procedural background to the key cases, examines the legal issues at stake, the arguments presented by counsel, and parses the court's opinions. Smith has a knack for discussing sophisticated legal issues in a layperson-friendly manner, a skill he also rightly credits Marshall with mastering.

One of the book's few real weaknesses is the dearth of information about Marshall's non-professional life, a stark contrast with Smith's thorough treatment of Roosevelt. Marshall appears to have been a devoted husband, particularly considering his wife's long years of invalidity, but there are few insights beyond that. This does not appear to be Smith's fault, however. Unlike many of his contemporaries who left prodigious records to be mined by historians, Marshall "saved none of his letters or memoranda and systematically destroyed his files at regular intervals."

If such records had survived, there is no doubt Smith would have cited them. As with FDR, Smith has demonstrated his scholarly chops with extensive endnotes (151 pages for 524 pages of text) and a 30-page bibliography. Smith put this research to good use, crafting a biography worthy of American's finest jurist. Marshall deserves a place in history for his non-judicial accomplishments; for his efforts on the bench he belongs on the shortlist of those most responsible for the nation's survival, growth, and prosperity.

FDR by Jean Edward Smith

smith_fdr.jpgAs we struggle through the most difficult economic situation in decades, with a new president swept into office on promises of economic renewal, many have seen parallels in another presidency that began in troubled times, that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. For some this is a source of hope, as Roosevelt is considered one of the greatest of presidents, and the country he found in trouble he left as the most powerful nation on Earth. For others this is a source of fear, since a repeat of Roosevelt's political genius could ensure decades of Democratic dominance in Washington. The latter possibility has already caused the partisan hacks to start making outlandish claims, such as that the New Deal didn't work. Nice try.

Either way, FDR's reputation is at present nearly coterminous with the New Deal (even though the last pieces of New Deal legislation were passed ten years before he died in office); a few folks might also remember he played a bit role in World War II. While covering these well-traveled aspects of Roosevelt's presidency in great detail , Jean Edward Smith's recent biography, titled simply FDR, also demonstrates that Roosevelt's life before the presidency prepared him well for the challenges he would face in the White House.

His was undoubtedly a life of great privilege, with fortunes abounding amongst both the Roosevelts and the Delanos (his mother Sara's inherited Delano fortune would provide him financial support even into adulthood). He excelled at both Groton and Harvard, where he rose to be editor-in-chief of the Crimson. Like so many other aimless post-grads, his next stop was law school, at Columbia. He took the bar exam during his third year, passed, and promptly dropped out. Those were different times.

His political journey started early, winning election to the New York State Senate in 1910 at the tender age of twenty-eight. Roosevelt ran on an anti-corruption platform, targeting the boss mentality in both parties and gaining few friends in Tammany Hall, a relationship he would see fit to mend later as his ambitions grew. Setting a pattern that would recur throughout his career, including his campaigns for governor of New York and the presidency, FDR won the office through pure personal exertion and charisma:

For four exhausting weeks, Franklin, Connell, and Hawkey spent day after day on the dusty back roads of Dutchess, Putnam, and Columbia counties, giving the same speeches as often as ten times a day. They spoke from the porches of general stores, atop hay wagons, in dairy barns, at village crossroads, sometimes standing on the backseat of the old Maxwell itself--any place where a group of farmers could be brought together. "I think I worked harder with Franklin than I ever have in my life," said Hawkey afterward.

FDR was having the time of his life. Nothing seemed to lessen his enthusiasm for jumping into a crow, pumping hands, and making friends. He was "a top-notch salesman," a Hyde Park housepainter, Tom Leonard, remembered. "He wouldn't immediately enter into the topic of policies when he met a group. He would approach them as a friend and would lead up to that... with that smile of his."

After throwing his support behind Woodrow Wilson's presidential campaign, FDR was rewarded with an appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, the number two job in the department. This was at a time when the Navy department was a cabinet level department, before it and the Department of War were submerged into the Department of Defense in 1947. It was also a job previously held by FDR's cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, on his own path to the White House:

Roosevelt's duties as assistant secretary were not defined by statute. Traditionally, the secretary of the Navy worked with the president on policy matters, dealt with Congress, and watched over the fleet. The assistant secretary handled the Navy's business affairs, rode herd on the bureaus, supervised civilian personnel, and negotiated contracts. But, as FDR said, "I get my fingers into just about everything and there's no law against it." When TR had occupied the post, he had taken advantage of Secretary John D. Long's one-day absence from the department to flash the historic signal to Commodore Dewey to move against the Spanish fleet in the Philippines, and Franklin, whenever Daniels was away, enjoyed twitting reporters about potential parallels. "There's another Roosevelt on the job today," he would say with a grin. "You remember what happened the last time a Roosevelt occupied a similar position?"

Smith argues that this experience made Roosevelt the best prepared commander-in-chief, after Washington and Grant, as he "understood how the services operated and did not hesitate to assert presidential authority." It is no surprise that the supremely confident Roosevelt never doubted his primacy in such matters, but it is also worth noting his tremendous success in choosing his staff. Unlike Lincoln, whose greatness as president is certainly not derived from his choices in military personnel, FDR's picks were virtually flawless:

FDR did not second-guess or micromanage the military. More than any president before or since, he was uniquely able to select outstanding military leaders and give them sufficient discretion to do their jobs. Leahy, Marshall, King, and Arnold made a cohesive team at the highest level, and they handled their individual service responsibilities superbly. In the Pacific, Roosevelt turned to MacArthur over War Department objections, and he named Nimitz to command the fleet despite the lukewarm enthusiasm of more senior admirals. Eisenhower ranked 252nd on the Army list when Marshall chose him to head the North African invasion, and he was still well down when FDR tapped him as supreme commander.

This is a positive biography, but it is not hagiography. Smith notes a number of notable blunders on FDR's part, particularly his "wrong-headed" court-packing plan, his "catastrophic" slashing of federal spending in 1937, his "ill-considered in intervention in Democratic senatorial primaries in 1938," and his "petulant" treatment of Charles de Gaulle. Smith handles the president's personal life with a deft touch. He writes with candor about the problems in his marriage, the other women in his life, and the lapses in parenting which left the Roosevelt children struggling in the shadows (each of the boys would have multiple marriages, some as many as five). But if the portrayal is candid, it is not sensational. Smith does not claim such matters are outside the scope of his study, nor does he think these weaknesses should take center stage in a life filled with such success. It is a commendable balance.

Smith's book is well-written and comprehensive. It covers the key personal, political, and military events of Roosevelt's life, quotes liberally from primary sources to give a first-person sense to the history, and offers warm but judicious praise for one of America's great leaders. Smith has clearly done his research, as evidenced both by the extensive detail of the text and by the 153 pages of endnotes and the 35-page bibliography. I've got two other recent Roosevelt biographies on tap, by Conrad Black and H.W. Brands, but it will take a tremendous work to surpass what Smith has produced.

At several points in the text, the ordeals through which Roosevelt and our nation navigated were so great that I shed an unembarrassed tear at the boldness and bravery demonstrated therein. A testament to both Smith and his subject, who literally worked himself to death in the service of his country.

The Peloponnesian War by Donald Kagan

kagan_peloponnesian.jpgThe ancient Greeks are much heralded for their groundbreaking efforts in poetry and philosophy, in drama and democracy. Accompanying these achievements was significant turbulence and turmoil in the constantly competing Greek city-states. The great rivalry, of course, was that between Athens and Sparta, and their greatest conflict came in the latter half of the 5th century B.C., known to us as the Peloponnesian War. Much of our knowledge about the conflict comes from an Athenian general named Thucydides, whose History of the Peloponnesian War has survived as a seminal work of military and political history.

Thucydides is revered as a historian, with his proclaimed focus on a factual account supported by first-hand evidence, omitting the sort of geographic and cultural tangents with which his predecessor, Herodotus, peppered his histories. Nevertheless, as Thucydides was himself personally involved in the historical events he purports to describe, there is good cause to question his objectivity. And as he died several years before the war concluded, there has always been a need to supplement his work for a full telling of the conflict. The most recent effort was conducted by Donald Kagan, a professor of history at Yale, whose four-volume analysis of the Peloponnesian War is highly regarded. In 2003, Kagan distilled his decades of study into a single volume appropriate for a more general audience, The Peloponnesian War. In the introduction to this text, Kagan explains the need for scholarship beyond what Thucydides left us:

The works of other ancient writers and contemporary inscriptions discovered and studied in the last two centuries have filled gaps and have sometimes raised questions about the story as Thucydides tells it... any satisfactory history of the war also demands a critical look at Thucydides himself. His was an extraordinary and original mind, and more than any other historian in antiquity he placed the highest value on accuracy and objectivity. We must not forget, however, that he was also a human being with human emotions and foibles. In the original Greek his style is often very compressed and difficult to understand, so that any translation is by necessity an interpretation. The very fact that he was a participant in the events, moreover, influenced his judgments in ways that must be prudently evaluated. Simply accepting his interpretations uncritically would be as limiting as accepting without question Winston Churchill's histories and his understanding of the two world wars in which he played so important a role.

With that, Kagan sets the tone of the book's necessary reliance on Thucydides' landmark text. It is treated with dignity but not deference, and where other texts conflict with Thucydides' account, or where the analysis simply does not seem right, Kagan is not afraid to disagree with the ancient master. Kagan is considered a leading neoconservative, his sons Robert and Frederick are very active in that movement, Thucydides' text is often trumpeted by neocons, and thus I approached this book with some trepidation. However, Kagan promises in the introduction that he has "avoided making comparisons between events in [the Peloponnesian War] and those in later history, although many leap to mind." Kagan makes good on that promise, a credit to his ability to bifurcate his politics from his scholarship.

The start of the Peloponnesian War is usually dated to 431 B.C., but tensions between Athens and Sparta had been building for some time. Kagan opens his book with a thorough discussion of the half-century preceding the war, including the nature of Spartan and Athenian politics and the rival "leagues" they led:

Pragmatism, not theory, provided the interpretive principle within the [Peloponnesian] alliance. The Sparts helped their allies when it was to their advantage or unavoidable, compelling others to join in a conflict whenever it was necessary and possible. The entire alliance met only when the Spartans chose, and we hear of few such gatherings. The rules that chiefly counted were imposed by military, political, or geographical circumstances, and they reveal three informal categories of allies. One consisted of states that were small enough and close enough to Sparta as to be easily controlled... States in the second category.. were stronger, or more remote, or both, but not so powerful and distant as to escape ultimate punishment if it was merited. Thebes and Corinth were the only states in the third group, states so far removed and mighty in their own right that their conduct of foreign policy was rarely subordinated to Spartan interests.

As this last group suggests, Sparta and Athens were not in complete control of the members of their alliances, and like Europe in 1914, it was conflict amongst the junior partners that eventually dragged their patrons into open war. Kagan offers a straight chronological narrative of the war, pausing occasionally to consider the backgrounds of the constantly changing military and political leaders, the diplomatic intrigues, the mood on the home front, and the war aims of the various belligerents.

Of particular note was the Spartan war claim that they were fighting to free the Greeks whose membership in Athens' Delian League has them subordinate and tributary. Yet when Athens proved more resistant than Sparta anticipated, and the war descended into stalemate, the Spartans cut a deal with an unlikely source, Persia. Operating under the notion that an "enemy of my enemy is my friend," the Spartans allied themselves with a foreign power that just decades before had been attempted to invade and conquer the Greek mainland. The terms of Persian assistance demanded Sparta sacrifice Greek cities in the eastern Mediterranean, the very Greeks whose liberation Sparta touted, to the rule of Persia's king:

The Spartan leaders, therefore, negotiated a new treaty with Tissaphernes at Caunus in February. Like the earlier agreements it contained a nonaggression clause, reference to Persian financial support, and a commitment to wage war and make peace in common, but the differences in this most recent version were crucial. It was to be a formal treaty requiring ratification by both home governments. King Darius himself must have approved the first clause that reads: "All the territory of the King that is in Asia shall belong to the King; and about his own territory the King may decide whatever he wishes." For all the grandiosity of the claim, it abandons all reference to the European lands included in the earlier agreements, a concession to the complaints made by Lichas. There can be no mistake, however, about Darius's' claim to sole domination of Asia.

Worthy of praise are the abundant maps scattered throughout the text at relevant points (29 maps in 37 chapters). These prove helpful in identifying the rotating cast of city-states and judging the wisdom or folly of Athenian or Spartan action in that area. The action shifts from fields as distant as Sicily and the Daradnelles, covering the breadth of Greek influence in the Mediterranean, and good maps are essential.

This was an extraordinarily long war, lasting upwards of three decades, and it becomes difficult to keep track of all the city-states and generals involved. Kagan does an admirable job providing clarity throughout this 500-page text, but eventually it does begin to feel repetitive, the battles begin to blend together, and it seems the end of the war will never come. When it does come it is rather anticlimactic. There is no dramatic sacking of Athens; rather the famed walls are torn down voluntarily after some diplomatic maneuverings saved the city from destruction. Before long Athens is back on its feet ("they had regained many of their former allies and restored their power to the point where it is possible to speak of a 'Second Athenian Empire'"), while it is Sparta that finds itself suffering from the hubris of empire:

To be sure, the Spartans had become the dominant force in Greece, but their victory brought no repose and much trouble. Within a few years they were compelled to abandon their empire and its tribute, but not before enough money had flowed into Sparta that its traditional discipline and institutions were undermined. Soon the Spartiates had to contend with internal conspiracies that threatened their constitution and their very existence. Abroad, they had to fight a major war against a coalition of former allies and former enemies that held them in check within the Peloponnesus, and from which they were able to emerge intact only through the intervention of Persia. For a short time they clung to a kind of hegemony over their fellow Greeks, but only so long as the Persian king wanted them to do so. Within three decades of their great victory the Spartans were defeated by the Thebans in a major land battle, and their power was destroyed.

A victorious hegemon that tries but fails to install its own form of government in conquered states? There are surely modern analogies that come to mind, but like Kagan I will restrain myself.

Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore

montefiore_stalin.jpgJosef Stalin liked picnics and gardening. He was an avid patron of the arts, paying particular attention to literature and cinema. He liked to vacation on the Black Sea coast with friends and lovers. And he was, by the way, a paranoiac monster responsible for the death of millions. Such is the image cast by Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin, published in 2003 and based largely upon newly available archival material and author interviews.

The book opens with a fateful dinner party in 1932, after which Stalin's second wife would (apparently) commit suicide in their Kremlin apartment; her death was announced officially as an illness, and many contend she was murdered by Stalin. Montefiore marks this night as a significant turning point in the evolution of Stalin's psychology, and thus the shape of Soviet government, a controversial assertion that seems to ignore how hotly contested the basic facts surrounding that night remain. Nevertheless, Montefiore aptly recognizes that as late as the early 1930s, Stalin had yet to emerge with the dictatorial powers he would display later in his reign. He remained constrained by the independently powerful men who surrounded him, such as Kirov, Mikoyan, Viroshilov, and Ordzhonikidze, whose own rivalries and suspicions would eventually play right into Stalin's hands. By then he was already positioning to consolidate power in his own person:

He was a self-creation. A man who invents his name, birthday, nationality, education and his entire past, in order to change history and play the role of leader, is likely to end up in a mental institution, unless he embraces, by will, luck, and skill, the movement and the moment that can overturn the natural order of things. Stalin was such a man. The movement was the Bolshevik Party; his moment, the decay of the Russian monarchy. After Stalin's death, it was fashionable to regard him as an aberration but this was to rewrite history as crudely as Stalin did himself. Stalin's success was not an accident. No one alive was more suited to the conspiratorial intrigues, theoretical runes, murderous dogmatism and inhuman sternness of Lenin's Party. It is hard to find a better synthesis between a man and a movement than the ideal marriage between Stalin and Bolshevism: he was a mirror of its virtues and its faults.

Montefiore focuses heavily upon the personal lives of Stalin and the "magnates" who surrounded him, offering detailed accounts of their vacations, their health, their social gatherings and their families. There is a tremendously incestuous aspect to their circle, with a multitude of ongoing affairs. The wives, sisters, mistresses often take center stage in the book, playing important social and political function in their own right. And as in so many authoritarian regimes, the bubble these elites inhabited was starkly distinct from the lived experience of the Soviet masses:

The peasants ate dogs, horses, rotten potatoes, the bark of trees, anything they could find," observed one witness, Fedor Belov, while on 21 December 1931, Stalin celebrated his birthday at Zubalovo. "I remember visiting that house with Kilment on birthdays and recall the hospitality of Joseph Vissarionovich. Songs, dances, yes, yes, dances. All were dancing as they could!" wrote the diarist Ekaterina Voroshilova, Jewish wife of the Defence Commissar, herself a revolutionary, once Yenukidze's mistress and now a fattening housewife.

Stalin demonstrated great love for the arts, but here too his megalomania shines through. He would personally scrutinize the latest novels and plays, acting as editor and co-author. He was also a one-man MPAA, personally viewing each film before it could be released for public consumption:

"For us," Lenin had said, "the most important of all the arts is cinema," the art form of the new society. Stalin personally controlled a "Soviet Hollywood" through the State Film Board, run by Boris Shumiatsky with whom he had been in exile. Stalin did not merely interfere in movies, he minutely supervised the directors and films down to their scripts: his archive reveals how he even helped write the songs. He talked about films with his entourage and passed every film before it was shown to the public, becoming his own supreme censor.

Stalin's passion would redound to the benefit of some artists, who were protected from the regime's worst excesses by Stalin's favor. Stalin "could tolerate whimsical maestros: Bulgakov and Pasternak were never arrested," though their work was suppressed.

Less fortunate were those whom Stalin deemed a threat to his consolidation of power. He eliminated many during the Great Terror of 1937-38, which Montefiore discusses not from an omniscient perspective detailing Stalin's crimes, but from within the mechanisms of power. As throughout the book, this tragic episode is told via the machinations within the regime, where the rapid rise of Lavrenti Beria to replace Terror-architect Yezhov embodies Stalin's constant cyclical efforts to clean out rivals and install a new elite obligated to him alone:

Stalin gently told Yezhov that he needed some help in running the NKVD and asked him to choose someone. Yezhov requested Malenkov but Stalin wanted to keep him in the Central Committee so someone, probably Kaganovich, proposed Beria. Stalin may have wanted a Caucasian, perhaps convinced that the cut-throat traditions of the mountains--blood feuds, vendettas and secret murders--suited the position. Beria was a natural, the only First Secretary who personally tortured his victims. The blackjack--the zhguti--and the truncheon--the dubenka--were his favorite toys. He was hated by many of the Old Bolsheviks and family members around the Leader. With the whispering, plotting, and vengeful Beria at his side, Stalin felt able to destroy his own polluted, intimate world.

Montefiore has written a strange book; it covers neither the entire chronology of Stalin's life nor the political and economic philosophy for which he is most notorious. Instead it focuses almost entirely on an unexpectedly intimate portrait of the dictator and his minions in their prime. There is a decided sense of horror at realizing that these Soviet butchers had active social lives, that some were devoted husbands, warm fathers. Montefiore's myopic approach forces needed attention on oft-overlooked aspects of elite Soviet life, but it does so at tremendous cost.

Montefiore clearly assumes the reader will have a substantial working knowledge of the Russian Revolution and the Russian Civil War, as he covers neither with any substance. The same goes for Marxist philosophy and its peculiar Soviet iteration. There are casual mentions of collectivization and Five Year Plans, but no explanation for the causes or consequences of these programs. Montefiore enumerates in great detail the political cannibalism within the Soviet elite, but offers no substantive analysis of why Stalin operated in this way or why the elite tolerated it. Simply put, the book neglects to satisfactorily put Stalin in his place and times, an astonishing failure for a book that runs nearly 700 pages.

Standard Operating Procedure by Philip Gourevitch

gourevitch_standard.jpgThe devastation wrought upon America's rule of law by the Bush administration had tremendous consequences for all aspects of government policy. Many of the abuses in the domestic sphere were covered by Eric Lichtblau's book, Bush's Law, which I discussed last week. In that book, Lichtblau mentioned the role played by John Yoo and the Office of the Legal Counsel in crafting absurdly expansive legal opinions regarding the scope of executive power, the most infamous being the "Torture Memo." News of that memo, drafted in August 2002, broke just a few weeks after 60 Minutes ran a story reporting news of alleged detainee abuse at an Iraqi prison just west of Baghdad.

We now know, despite years of attempted obfuscation by the administration, that these two events were inextricably linked. In 2008, Philip Gourevitch published a book about the prison, Standard Operating Procedure, based in part on interviews done for Errol Morris' documentary of the same name. Early in the book, he efficiently laid out the trail of recklessness that connected the torture memo to Guantanamo Bay to Abu Ghraib, resulting in an utter absence of cognizable constraints on prison authorities:

In the course of a month five different versions of the interrogation rules--the three unsigned drafts, and the two official policies--had been put into circulation at Abu Ghraib. Some of the changes along the way were substantial, but they were never explicitly identified. You had to scrutinize the succeeding documents side by side to detect all their differences, and they all looked enough alike that you could easily assume you'd already read one when you'd actually read the other... [T]he confusion about the law among those who were laying it down for Abu Ghraib suggested that the interrogation rules were not really rules but a kind of guess work, and that they invited exceptions, which certainly fit with the fact that interrogators were being allowed--even encouraged--to do so much that wasn't in their handbook, so much that was even restricted at Gitmo, so much they were not trained to do.

After establishing the responsibility of those who set the stage for the Abu Ghraib disaster, Gourevitch spends most of the book recounting the events as experienced by the soldiers who participated in or witnessed the abuse. Rather than offer a straightforward historical or journalistic treatment, Gourevitch has paralleled Morris' film and drafted what might best be termed a literary documentary. The words of the participants' are given priority, with Gourevitch adding context from the bird's eye view:

Real or unreal, participant or bystander, degrader or degraded, overstimulated or numbed out--[Specialist Sabrina] Harman may have meant no harm, but she seemed to understand that in the malignant circumstances of the MI block that hardly made her benign. Unable or unwilling to reconcile her most disturbing and her most appealing actions and reactions, she sought her equilibrium in equivocation. When she wrote of "both sides of me," she said, "It was military and civilian--the tough side and the non-tough side. You battle out which one is stronger. You're trained to be tough. I was right out of basic, and you're just trained to do what you're told, and to not let things affect you. You're supposed to set all emotions aside, because this is war. I think it's almost impossible. It is emotional."

Gourevitch made an interesting choice not to include any of the photographs in the book, explaining that "much of what matters most about Abu Ghraib was never photographed" and the "photographs have a place in the story, but they are not the story, and in would be untruthful here to submit once again to their frame." Instead, Gourevitch repeatedly pauses the narrative to offer a contextual interpretation of the more infamous photographs, discussing what the photographs do and do not reveal, why they were taken, and the powers and limits of the medium itself. Consider the photos of Private First Class Lynndie England holding a tie-down strap looped around the neck of a prisoner (nicknamed Gus) crawling on his knees:

The composition of the third photograph is the same, but England is in motion, taking a step toward the camera, and making eye contact with it. Gus's face is finally visible, and his eyes are eerie--rolled back in his head, flashing white. On the plastic chair by the cell door, a previously unidentifiable object can be seen to be a megaphone of the sort used for yelling at prisoners to keep them awake. This is the best-lit and the least-staged-looking of the three pictures, and therefore the most disturbing; it creates the impression that England is taking Gus for a stroll on a leash and has just run into [Specialist Megan] Ambuhl on her way. But it was a crop of the second photograph, showing only England and Gus, that was first leaked to the press and seen around the world, becoming almost overnight one of the most recognizable images of our time, and making England an iconic figure of American disgrace: "leash girl."

The MPs assigned to Abu Ghraib come across as hopelessly out of their element, untrained, unprepared, and most perniciously, unled. There is no sign of leadership, that most heralded of Army values, amongst any of the officers or NCOs who had any involvement:

Do these soldiers sound like they're just making excuses? Didn't some of them take liberties, and go to extremes--didn't they treat suggestions as orders, and then interpret them as they pleased--when they might instead have shown compassion? Yes. But what happened to command responsibility? There would have been no liberties to be taken, and no extremes to go to, if anybody had wanted to keep the MPs in check. Nobody wanted to because at Abu Ghraib lawlessness was the law.

Of particular personal note is the absence of leadership by the Judge Advocates who served as legal advisers to the relevant commands, including COL Marc Warren, who was subsequently denied a promotion to Brigadier General when his nomination was blocked in a Senate committee. That was also notable because it was among the few tangible consequences for senior leadership:

[N]o soldier above the rank of sergeant ever served jail time. No civilian interrogators ever faced legal proceedings. Nobody was ever charged with torture, or war crimes, or any violation of the Geneva Conventions. Nobody ever faced charges for keeping prisoners naked or shackled. Nobody ever faced charges for holding prisoners as hostages. Nobody ever faced charges for incarcerating children who were accused of no crime and posed no known security threat.

And so on. If the photographs had not been taken, or then not been turned over, or then not been leaked, we might not even know as much as we do. As much attention as Gourevitch pays to telling the story of the photographs, it is disappointing that he does not follow them much beyond their initial public disclosure. In a short epilogue titled "After," he outlines the criminal investigation and the eventual administrative and criminal actions brought against various participants. But he fails to tell the enduring story of the photographs; how they were published, by whom, how they were understood or misunderstood, and what reactions they generated. A full account of Abu Ghraib must contend with this aftermath.

That said, Standard Operating Procedure is an unusual but worthwhile entry into the literature on the Iraq War and the administration that started it. It brings a great deal of context and consideration to the traumatic events that took place in Abu Ghraib, and may even induce sympathy for some of the soldiers who took part. No such sympathy arises, however, for the administration that put them there, and that consciously created the anything-goes atmosphere that had its starkest realization in Saddam Hussein's favorite prison.

Bush's Law by Eric Lichtblau

lichtblau_bushs.jpgHaving just finished a lengthy book on the birth of the American Republic, which was in many ways the modern birth of civil liberties, I thought it might be interesting to read a book that covered as close to the opposite topic as possible. It came down to a biography of Joseph Stalin, or the story of the Bush administration's law enforcement and intelligence gathering policy in the years since 9/11. The ironic dichotomy of the latter carried the day.

The last few years have not been kind to the Bush administration, with the president entering uncharted waters for sustained unpopularity. That's only fair, after all, since for the last eight years the Bush administration has not been kind to this country. Several former administration officials recently claimed that Hurricane Katrina was the 'tipping point' that turned the tide against the president. I am sure there is some evidence to support this, and perhaps for many that was the blunder that finally laid bare the administration's incompetence. Along the way, however, there was plenty to suggest that there was more than mere incompetence at work. There was intentional malfeasance as well.

From the perspective of an attorney like myself, in law school from 2002-2005, a former intern at the ACLU, the most destructive efforts were those aimed at America's rule of law, the fundamental understanding that everyone in this nation, including the President of the United States, are subordinate to the laws of the land. This basic premise, thought to be widely accepted in the post-Watergate era, turned out to be anathema to this administration.

We still do not all the ways that the White House chose to circumvent or subvert existing law in its twisted theories of unfettered executive power. But for what we do know, we owe a debt of gratitude to the reporters who have zealously investigated and disclosed the numerous policies and programs that the Bush administration sought to keep secret. These are men and women who work long hours under great pressure for little pay, and they were rewarded by this administration by having their credentials pulled, being labeled as traitors, and threatened with imprisonment. At the center of much of this controversy was Eric Lichtblau of The New York Times, who co-authored a bombshell article in December 2005 revealing the NSA's warrantless wiretapping of domestic targets (and won the Pulitzer Prize for it).

Early last year, Lichtblau published Bush's Law, which details a range of post-9/11 efforts by the Bush administration to expand the reach of executive power, from the 2001 roundups by immigration officials to the NSA wiretap program to the collection of international banking transaction data:

This war would require different tactics, different tools, and a different mindset in what would amount to the most radical remaking of America's notion of justice in generations. What Woodrow Wilson did in going after the socialists and anarchists, what J. Edgar Hoover did in going after communists, what Bobby Kennedy did in going after organized crime mob figures, Bush and his inner circle would now do in training the sights of the American government on those suspected of aiding the enemy known as al Qaeda. There was a new ethos at work, and it relied at its core on smashing walls-walls that had failed to stop the enemy from storming the country on 9/11; walls that had been erected in a bygone "don't tread on me" era to protect the American people from the powerful reach of its own government. Now, counterterrorism agents from the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the FBI would be allowed to go places and do things they had never done before in the quest to stop the next attack. Lawyer would give legal sanction to covert programs and secret interrogation tactics unimaginable just a few months earlier. And the drift net of government would sweep up thousands of suspects--some real, many imagined--in its tide. The walls had come crashing down.

Lichtblau peppers these tales with the anecdotal richness characteristic of journalism and the authoritative insider view offered by Lichtblau's numerous well-placed sources. He does not offer a binary portrait of administration officials or Republicans as universally evil or unprincipled. In fact, the only officials who come across as utterly contemptible are rather deserving: John Yoo, whose legal work in the service of torture is only the tip of the iceberg of damage he did to to America's rule of law; and Alberto Gonzales, the ultimate yes-man, whose enabling of the administration's overreach extended from his days as White House counsel doing end-runs around the DoJ to his time in charge of that department as it became the laughingstock of the political and legal world until his resignation in disgrace (the man is apparently unemployable). The most infamous example being his trip to the hospital room of Attorney General John Ashcroft in an attempt to overturn a decision by Acting Attorney General James Comey (another story Lichtblau broke):

Ashcroft, weakened and drugged up, lifted his head from the pillow. In language that both Comey and Gonzales regarded as remarkably lucid, he outlined his concerns about the legality of the surveillance program, paralleling many of the same issues Comey had briefed him on the week before. He made clear that he shared those concerns. "I've been told it would be improvident for me to sign," he told Gonzales. "But that doesn't matter," he said, "because I'm not the attorney general." Gesturing to Comey next to him, he said: "There is the attorney general." Ashcroft put his head back down on the pillow. He looked so ill that [OLC chief Jack] Goldsmith figured he was going to die right there on the spot; it was, Goldsmith said later, "the most amazing scene I've ever witnessed."

While detailing the incredible audacity of henchmen like Alberto Gonzales, Lichtblau also tells the story of those in the administration who resisted such overreaching. Ashcroft and Comey's dramatic standoff with Gonzales is the most famous example, but there are many others. Like James Ziglar, the INS commissioner (and self-described "Goldwater conservative") who on 9/11, with fires will still burning at Ground Zero, had the courage to raise red flags about proposals to make door-to-door sweeps and arrests in heavily Muslim neighborhoods and would later vigorously oppose the FBI's no-release policy regarding prisoners detained on immigration violations.

In addition to providing coverage over the numerous abuses of power, Lichtblau also sheds significant light on his experience as a journalist covering those abuses. The book is 20% autobiography, and in this case it's a perfect mix. Lichtblau was on the razor's edge with his reporting, and drew tremendous ire from the administration and its conservative allies. In the book, Lichtblau provides great details about the behind-the-scenes battle to get the NSA wiretapping story published. Contra conservative tirades, the Times editors actively debated whether to print the story:

A week before the election in November 2004, we had a draft of a story in hand that laid out the NSA program and the legal and operational concerns about it. The editors debated whether to run it--and if so, when. The Times had just run an explosive story about the Bush administration's failure to guard munitions in Baghdad, a story that critics on the right had lambasted as a last-minute ploy to hurt Bush. In fact, the timing of the Baghdad story had nothing to do with the election, and Keller made clear to us that if the NSA story was ready to go before the election, it would run before the election too... The problem was that he didn't think the story was ready. He had questions, including the central one: whether, as the administration so urgently insisted, the story would harm national security if it were published.

It is a troubling counter factual to ponder, whether public knowledge of this spy program might have tipped the scales of the election. As it turned out, the newspaper would end up holding the story for over a year, giving the administration repeated opportunities to establish why the story should not run. It was only after Lichtblau's co-author threatened to publish the story in his upcoming book that the story got back on track, and only when the administration seemed poised to once again abuse its power, this time directed at the paper itself, that the story actually ran:

I learned, almost in passing, that the administration had apparently discussed seeking a Pentagon Papers-type injunction against the paper to stop the publication of the NSA story. Senior administration officials had reviewed the legal options for possibly seeking an injunction, but they had not moved on it. The tidbit was a bombshell. Few episodes in the history of the Times, or for that matter in all of journalism, had left as indelible a mark as the courtroom battle over the Pentagon Papers. The case had proven perhaps the ultimate test of the tense balance between the government's claims of national security and the public's right to know, and the Supreme Court had clearly tipped the scales on the side of the press.

Now, we were learning that the Bush administration had dusted off a Nixon-era tactic to consider coming after us again... By the time word about the injunction had been relayed to the editors in New York some hours later, it had an effect I hadn't envisioned. The editors had already run out of patience with the White House and were ready to move ahead with the story, but talk of an injunction helped seal the decision. We had a tool that wasn't available three decades earlier during the Pentagon Papers clash--the Internet--and the paper wanted to use it to our advantage... The editors figured that once we had notified the administration of our intention to publish the story, a court injunction might, in theory, be able to shut down the presses in the hours it took to get an edition print and on the streets. But there was no way to stop the near-instant ability to post a story on the Internet.

Indeed, the story's publication rocked the political world. President Bush went on television the next morning for an unapologetic confirmation of his extra-legal endeavors (he claimed the only thing illegal was the leak to the media). The ramifications of the disclosure of this and other Bush policies are felt right to the present, with President-elect Obama's appointees' views on the limits of executive power of immediate concern (things are looking good).

Lichtblau's book is a fast, fascinating read. He carries the accessibility of his journalism into long form, and manages to effectively tell two intertwined stories: the growing abuse of executive power by the Bush administration after 9/11, both in theory and practice, and the journalistic efforts to uncover these abuses and expose them to public scrutiny. Those predisposed to think that Lichtblau should have been tried for treason and executed will be unimpressed, but this is a remarkably even-handed account of a sad saga in the annals of American government.

A Leap in the Dark by John Ferling

ferling_leap.jpgThe revolution by the American colonies against their mother country and the subsequent founding of the first modern republic is a story highly ingrained into the American psyche. It a tale told repeatedly throughout our education and publicly celebrated on the fourth day of July each year. The standard version follows a Whiggish path of predestined progress toward independence and liberty: the oppressed colonists quickly unite in their opposition to taxation without representation, ally with French comrades to inflict defeat upon the British Army, and then harness an unparalleled burst of political genius that results in the sacred document that united us as a nation, the Constitution.

Trouble is, of course, things were a wee bit more complicated. The country was often deeply divided, from failed efforts to coordinate colonial defenses before the French and Indian War all the way to the hotly contested election of 1800. There are any number of excellent books that have illuminated elements along this time line (such as Edmund & Helen Morgan's The Stamp Act Crisis or Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrick's The Age of Federalism), but John Ferling has done something special with A Leap in the Dark, published in 2003. In a single volume he has provided a cohesive account of the American political tumult in the half-century from Benjamin Franklin's first efforts at colonial cooperation in Albany to Thomas Jefferson's inauguration as president:

Each step was uncertain and chancy. The success of the American Revolution was far from inevitable. Years were required to forge an effective opposition to British imperial policies, and that was followed by a protracted war to bring about separation from the empire. Militarily, of course, an American victory was not assured. That has been well remembered by subsequent generations. However, the labyrinthian political struggles that accompanied the war and persisted in its aftermath have been long forgotten, save by a few scholars.

I could spend hours discussing all the insights and intrigues raised in Ferling's book, but I'll limit myself to one (in addition to what I discussed last week), concerning the considerable role that American elites played in the revolutionary struggle. We take for granted the intellectual and political talent of our Founding Fathers. It is actually somewhat counter-intuitive that these hugely successful men of the day, from Washington to Franklin to Adams and so on, would be so willing to turn upside down a world that had treated them so well. This was no mere peasant's rebellion; it was led by men who had achieved great success under the existing system. What explains their involvement? Ferling has some ideas:

Upwardly mobile young men in the colonies had always known that they faced limitations on their ability to rise simply because they were colonists. American politicians would never sit in Parliament or hold a ministerial post. A colonist might be an Indian agent who conducted diplomacy in a borderland wigwam, but he would never be a diplomat posted in the fashionable courts of Europe. Similarly, every aspiring colonist knew that the doors were shut to him in the highest places in the British judiciary, church, and armed forces. John Adams was on the money when he remarked that the most an enterprising young man in Massachusetts could hope for was to someday own an expensive carriage, be a colonel in the militia, and sit in the upper house of the provincial assembly.

Consider one such personage's view of colonial life from the heights at Mount Vernon:

Rich and powerful as he was, Washington could exert no authority over many things that truly mattered to him. Too many crucial issues were decided in London, where the interests of the mother country outweighed those of provincials. On substantive matters, the colonists too often were treated as dependents who were meant to serve the parent state, not compete with it. Colonel Washington, who had clawed his way to the top of Virginia's society through enormous sacrifice and risk, bridled at the thought of being considered second-rate by anyone. It had galled him during the late war that, although a colonel in a colonial army, he had been outranked by every officer who held a royal commission, even the most callow and lowly redcoat lieutenant.

This certainly clouds the simple picture some paint of an egalitarian "Spirit of the Revolution" trumped by conservative reactionaries in the Constitution of 1787. Make no mistake, there was an unparalleled outpouring of patriotic, republican verve during the war against Britain. And Ferling provides ample evidence of forces at work in the 1780s to reign it what some had come to see as "democratic excesses." But he also establishes that the powerful colonial elites had many interests of their own aligned with independence in 1776, and this should be remembered when considering how it came to be that America's native aristocracy led the revolution.

Though A Leap in the Dark reads with the ease of popular history, Ferling has demonstrated his academic chops. At several points in the book he raises an issue of scholarly disagreement (such as whether colonial radicals intentionally provoked the Boston Massacre), explains the competing views, and offers a well-grounded opinion of his own. I appreciate a historian who renders his reasoned judgment but acknowledges conflicting sentiment. The endnotes he provides are stellar, running 44 pages and including abundant primary citations as well as secondary sources for further reading.

The only complaint I can muster about the book is that in order to cover 50 years in 500 pages, some important episodes get less attention. This is particularly true of the Revolution itself, as Ferling never veers far off the political scene into the military details of the conflict. Thank goodness he devoted his most recent title, 2007's Almost a Miracle, entirely to the war.

1812 by Walter Borneman

borneman_1812.jpgThe War of 1812 is little remembered and even less understood. Those that have any inkling at all are probably able to identify no more than that the war involved the burning of our capital by the British, the inspiration for "The Star Spangled Banner," and Andrew Jackson's victory at New Orleans after the peace treaty had been signed.

There is good reason for our common ignorance: the terms of the treaty that ended the war explicitly returned the belligerents to status quo ante bellum. The casualties of battle were relatively low, particularly compared to the epic scale seen in the contemporary Napoleonic theater. Much of the action took place in the frontiers of Canada or in single ship duels at sea; the exceptions (New Orleans, Washington, D.C.) are those best remembered. And the issues that had Americans (literally) up in arms are as forgotten as the war:

[T]he United States had quite a list of grievances against its former sovereign: impressment of American sailors, provocation of Indian unrest on its frontiers, and the outright seizure of its commercial ships. Taken individually, each might have been enough to demand a course of war. Taken collectively, and fanned by Henry Clay and his Canada-hungry war hawks, to some Americans they most certainly were--no matter how militarily unprepared the United States might be.

Borneman had done a service to popular American history by targeting our lesser-studied wars. Several years after publishing 1812, he would follow up with The French and Indian War; I have now read them both. Each represents popular history at its best and worst; the value resides in providing a gateway for those, deterred by academic history, who want to gain some familiarity with the past in an easy-to-read, easy-to-understand format. Borneman's conversational style offers few obstacles to readers more accustomed to the latest best-selling mystery or thriller, and he distills the basic historical consensus about the war into just a hair over 300 pages. He covers the who, what, when and where of each battle, with particular success regarding the naval engagements. Even for those of us looking for more, it's not a bad way to get one's feet wet on an unfamiliar subject (I followed Borneman's The French and Indian War with William Fowler's superior Empires at War, saving Fred Anderson's magisterial Crucible of War for last).

To accomplish this task, however, Borneman sacrifices the context and detail that a deeper study would provide. He had done no original research, cites few primary sources, and has no fresh insights to offer on any of the war's causes, events, or consequences. There is virtually no discussion of the domestic political scene in either America or Britain, beyond a simplistic division between New Englanders and "the Virginia dynasty." There are a few asides about American relations with France and Russia, but little mention of the history of our international or diplomatic relations after the Revolution. The events of the Napoleonic Wars are only described in the most minimal detail necessary to explain why Britain was alternately more or less distracted from prosecuting the war in America. The importance of the impressment issue is identified, but its history little explained. Borneman makes numerous references to the shores of Tripoli in describing the experience of America's naval officers, but offers not even the slightest explanation of what happened there. And on and on, leaving little more than a narrative recitation of facts.

The subtitle of the book is "The War That Forged a Nation," a nod to the apparent requirement in modern popular history that the subject of any book must have utterly changed the world in some vital way (whether it be a war or a fish). Borneman fails to support this contention with much evidence. If anything, the war revealed a plethora of parochially-minded state and local officials; militias often refused to cross borders to take part in military actions and rumors swirled that New Englanders were debating neutrality, nullification, and even secession. Borneman seems to recognize the thinness of the subtitle's claim; thus it is only in the last page or two that he even addresses it. When he does so, it is with no more than his own bare assertions, and a few quotes from those whose self-interest was served by trumpeting the war's importance. It is hard to forget that within two generations, citizens of the supposedly "forged nation" would be slaughtering each other on the battlefield.

The inescapable fact is this was a boring war with limited consequences. Since Borneman was unable or unwilling to expand the scope of his history beyond the war's narrow confines, it is little surprise he ended up writing a rather dull book. Having read and admired his latest book, Polk, I know he can do better.

The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan

pollan_omnivores.jpgAt the beginning of his unlikely bestseller, Michael Pollan makes the case that Americans have lost touch with what was once the most basic decision humans faced: what should I eat? Though a seemingly simple question, Pollan recognizes Americans find the choice more perplexing than ever. He traces his own epiphany about "our national eating disorder" to the rise of the low-carb diets that somehow managed to banish bread, a staple food around the globe for thousands of years, from our national table:

So violent a change in a culture's eating habits is surely the sign of a national eating disorder. Certainly it would never have happened in a culture in possession of deeply rooted traditions surrounding food and eating. But then, such a culture would not feel the need for its most august legislative body to ever deliberate the nation's "dietary goals"--or, for that matter, to wage political battle every few years over the precise design of an official government graphic called the "food pyramid." A country with a stable culture of food would not shell out millions for the quackery (or common sense) of a new diet book every January. It would not be susceptible to the pendulum swings of food scares or fads, to the apotheosis every few years of one newly discovered nutrient and the demonization of another. It would not be apt to confuse protein bars and food supplements with meals or breakfast cereals with medicines. It probably would not eat a fifth of its meals in cars or feed fully a third of its children at a fast-food outlet every day. And it surely would not be nearly so fat.

In tackling this question, The Omnivore's Dilemma traces three different food chains: "the industrial, the organic, and the hunter-gatherer." The first third of the book is by far the best, and the most disturbing. Pollan introduces us to corporate farming, and to the reality that in America, that means corn:

Corn is what feeds the steer that becomes the steak. Corn feeds the chicken and the pig, the turkey and the lamb, the catfish and the tilapia and, increasingly, even the salmon, a carnivore by nature that the fish farmers are reengineering to tolerate corn. The eggs are made of corn. The milk and cheese and yogurt, which once came from dairy cows that grazed on grass, now typically come from Holsteins that spend their working lives indoors tethered to machines, eating corn.

In subsequent chapters, Pollan explores in depth the science of corn, the economics of the corn industry, the politics of corn, and the historical interaction of these elements that has led to the plant's triumph. Suffice it to say that this section of the book is so infuriating and so provocative that my colleagues are getting pretty tired of sharing meals with a guy who keeps pointing to everything at the table and shouting "That's corn, too!"

In the middle third, Pollan looks at alternative methods of farming. His account of his stay at Joel Salatin's Polyface Farms (dedicated to "management-intensive grazing") is fascinating, but his look at organic farming (and the co-opting of that term) was neither as compelling nor as consequential as the exploration of king corn. The final third, in which Pollan relates his efforts to hunt boar and gather wild mushrooms, develops an intimate tone some may favor, but it struck me as a fanciful conceit that said more about Pollan and his eccentric California friends than it did about the virtues or vices of the American diet.

The chapter I was most interested in, that devoted to the ethics of eating meat, was the chapter that most disappointed me. Pollan deserves credit for tackling the issue, and he starts well enough, with a respectful outline of the arguments put forth by Peter Singer in Animal Liberation. Unfortunately, Pollan cannot mask an antipathy for vegetarianism, or at least the people who practice it (as a vegetarian I am "nothing if not self-respecting" and will "burden you with my obligatory compromises and ethical distinctions"). And Pollan has a tendency to sidestep the issue with reductionist anecdotes:

I looked into the black eye of the chicken and, thankfully, saw nothing, not a flicker of fear. Holding his head in my right hand, I drew the knife down the left side of the chicken's neck.

Set aside the presumptive personification that fear or suffering must manifest itself in the eyes of an animal, or that we would recognize it if we saw it; how is this persuasive in any way? To invoke the argument from marginal cases, the power of which Pollan readily acknowledges, why should we take any more comfort from the trusting eyes of a chicken or cow about to be slaughtered than we would the trusting eyes of an infant child, or the mentally ill or handicapped?

To close the chapter, Pollan takes refuge in this nonsense a second time, relating the ever-so-clever (and almost certainly fictional) account offered by Joel Salatin of a man who rides up with a PETA bumper sticker on his car, explains that he decided he could only eat meat again if he killed it himself, slits a chicken's throat, watches it die, and sees "that the animal did not look at him accusingly." One wonders, did Isaac look accusingly at Abraham?

To be fair to Pollan, he does acknowledge the horror of what America does to its animals:

Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do. Tail docking and sow crates and beak clipping would disappear overnight, and the days of slaughtering four hundred head of cattle an hour would promptly come to an end--for who could stand the sight? Yes, meat would get more expensive. We'd probably eat a lot less of it, too, but maybe when we did eat animals we'd eat them with the consciousness, ceremony, and respect they deserve.

All well and good, but Pollan is still taking the easy way out. He was so swept away by his experience at Polyface Farms, with its more mindful method of slaughter, that he sidesteps the actual choice facing individual Americans. If as a country we were able to decide to revolutionize the way our animals are raised and killed, all farms could be like Polyface. There would be less meat, it would be more expensive, but much of the evil in the process would be eliminated.

That choice is not before us today, however, and likely never will be. Instead, all each of us can do (unless we happen to live very close to Polyface Farms), is choose between eating meat produced as it is now, in all its brutality, or not eating meat at all. For several years, that's been an easy choice for me, and this book only made it easier. As Milan Kundera said in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Man­kind's true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.

How we treat animals is not just a matter of diet, it is a matter of how we comport ourselves in the world. Pollan might have done well to explore that connection.

Einstein by Walter Isaacson

isaacson_einstein.jpgThere are some individuals from history whose legacy looms so large that it has become detached from its underlying basis. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a symbol of civil rights even for those who can't link him to the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Mother Theresa is a symbol of charity even for those who can't identify the city or country in which she ministered (Calcutta, India). Albert Einstein is a symbol of scientific genius even for those who don't know his Nobel Prize was awarded for "discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect," not for his theories of special and general relativity. I don't say this to be judgmental; I'm not in any way immune to this effect. That's why I so highly value a good biography of these larger-than-life figures, and that's why I was so excited to see that Walter Isaacson had published Einstein.

Isaacson has made a little niche for himself telling the life stories of diverse individuals whose achievements have been obscured by their symbolism, publishing Kissinger in 1992 and Benjamin Franklin in 2003; I found the latter superior to the efforts by Edmund Morgan and Gordon Wood (no mean feat).

The science-related books I most enjoy are those that succeed in taking on the challenge of presenting complex science to a popular audience. And it does not get more complex than modern physics. That's part of why Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb is such a masterpiece; he turned a story fundamentally about nuclear physics and technological innovation into a gripping human narrative. Isaacson has similar success with Einstein; he does not shy away from extended discussions of the state of pre-Einstein physics, the triumphs Einstein achieved (especially those in his Annus Mirabilis), or the early work in quantum mechanics that would rile Einstein until the end of his life ("God does not play dice").

Isaacson does not gloss over the less flattering aspects of Einstein's life, particularly in his roles as a husband and father. He essentially abandons his first wife and their children, engages in numerous adulterous affairs, before marrying again. Still, this is a life to be wondered at. Unable to obtain any sort of academic job after graduating college, he is a clerk in the Swiss patent office when he makes his major breakthroughs in 1905, working mostly at night. He worked primarily from intellectual principles, favoring thought experiments above all else:

Some scientific theories depend primarily on induction: analyzing a lot of experimental findings and then finding theories that explain the empirical patterns. Others depend more on deduction: starting with elegant principles and postulates that are embraced as holy and then deducing the consequences from them. All scientists blend both approaches to differing degrees. Einstein had a good feel for experimental findings, and he used this knowledge to find certain fixed points upon which he could construct a theory. But his emphasis was primarily on the deductive approach.

To explain why Einstein was essentially able to simply think his way toward a revolution in physics, Isaacson emphasizes his knack for "questioning conventional wisdom, challenging authority, and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane." Einstein also had a professed love for simplicity, believing to the end that it was possible to create a single theory that would resolve the tensions inherent in modern physics:

While others continued to develop quantum mechanics, undaunted by the uncertainties at its core, Einstein persevered in his lonelier quest for a more complete explanation of the universe--a unified field theory that would tie together electricity and magnetism and gravity and quantum mechanics.

Indeed, he would pursue this until his dying day, without success. In so doing, the erstwhile revolutionary would be cast as a stubborn conservative by the younger generation that used his innovations as a launching pad into the new field of quantum mechanics. Einstein himself recognized the irony: "To punish me for my contempt of authority, Fate has made me an authority myself."

Beyond science and his personal life, Isaacson also explores the breadth of Einstein's personality: his evolving religious beliefs (essentially deistic, and strongly critical of atheism), his geographic flight from Germany (and back, and away again), his pacifism and the modifications made in the shadow of Hitler, his growing commitment to Zionism (he was offered, and declined, the presidency of Israel after Chaim Weizmann's death), his tangential involvement with the development of the nuclear bomb, and his support for a supranational government to safeguard (impose?) world peace. A thorough, and thoroughly enjoyable book about one of modernity's genuine heroes.

Supercapitalism by Robert Reich

reich_supercapitalism.jpgFew members of the Democratic intelligentsia have both the liberal credentials and the government experience comparable to that of Robert Reich. He was a member of both the Carter and Clinton administrations, serving in Clinton's cabinet as a notable progressive voice in a team of centrists. His 2004 book, Reason, which I explored in a series of posts (1, 2, 3) was a road map for liberals to regain the political high ground on morality, economics, and patriotism, and much of what he wrote has proved successful in the past two federal elections.

So when Robert Reich writes a book on the clash between capitalism and democracy, it is worth paying attention. In Supercapitalism, published last year, Reich traces the changing face of capitalism in the late twentieth century, from the stable (if stagnant) oligarchical post-war manufacturing economy to the modern slash and burn Wall Street/Walmart economy, fueled by an unquenchable thirst for low prices and high profit margins. He deems the older system democratic capitalism, the new system supercapitalism. As the names suggest, Reich believes the rise of uber-capitalism, accompanied by both tremendous economic growth and rising inequality, has severely undermined the power of the political sphere:

Democracy means more than a process of free and fair elections. Democracy, in my view, is a system for accomplishing what can only be achieved by citizens joining together with other citizens--to determine the rules of the game whose outcomes express the common good... Yet democracy is struggling to perform these basic functions. As inequality has widened, the means America once used to temper it--progressive income taxes, good public schools, trade unions that bargain for higher wages--have eroded. As the risks of sudden loss of job or income have grown, the social safety net has become less reliable. More of us lack health insurance. As a nation, we seem incapable of doing what is required of us to reduce climate change... In all these respects, democracy has been unable to take effective action, or even articulate the tradeoffs and sacrifices doing so would entail.

Capitalism has become more responsive to what we want as individual purchasers of goods, but democracy has grown less responsive to what we want together as citizens.. The last several decades have involved a shift of power away from us in our capacities as citizens and towards us as consumer and investors.

Reich describes an era he deems "The Not Quite Golden Age," in which "a unique blending of capitalism and democracy" took hold in the United States in the thirty years after World War II, combining "a hugely productive economic system with a broadly responsive and widely admired political system."The features of democratic capitalism included independent regulatory agencies that "would assure companies a steady flow of profits and customers a steady price," complicity by a few huge corporations that preferred steady, stable profits with little competition, top executives who viewed themselves as "corporate statesmen" charged with "balancing the claims of stockholders, employees, and the American public," and powerful unions that would negotiate good wages and lucrative fringe benefits like health care and pensions. The economic prosperity of the 1950s, with the rise of the middle class, growing economic equality, and vast stability, seemed to validate the system.

There was parallel action in the political sphere, in which politicians "paid careful attention to local elites--small business that comprised the local chamber of commerce, for example, and to national organizations whose members were active in local chapters, such as the American Legion, the Farm Bureau, and union branches." This responsiveness to civic society was accompanied by government empowerment of "new centers of economic power that offset the power of the giant companies," including labor unions, farm cooperatives, and retail chains; this was dubbed "countervailing power" by John Kenneth Galbraith. It did not last:

Since the late 1970s, a fundamental change has occurred in democratic capitalism in America, and that change has rippled outward to the rest of the world. Capitalism has triumphed, and not simply as an ideology. The structure of the American--and much of the world's--economy has shifted toward far more competitive markets. Power has shifted to consumers and investors.

Meanwhile, the democratic aspects of capitalism have declined. The institutions that undertook formal and informal negotiations to spread the wealth, stabilize jobs and communities, and establish equitable rules of the game--giant oligopolies, large labor unions, regulatory agencies, and legislatures responsive to local Main Streets and communities--have been eclipsed. Corporations now have little choice but to relentlessly pursue profits. Corporate statesman have vanished.

Reich argues that the change was not caused by inflation, or the oil embargo, or Reagan's tax cuts, or deregulation, or globalization, or greed, or corruption, or countless other theories, which he calls "nonsense." While some of these played a role (particularly deregulation and globalization), they fail to explain why the change occurred when it did or why it took place in Europe and Japan as well as America. Reich suggests that the "real explanation involves the way technologies have empowered consumers and investors to get better and better deals--and how these deals, in turn, have sucked relative equality and stablity, as well as other social values, out of the system." In particular, he emphasizes the lowering of barriers to entry by new, smaller businesses, the advances in container shipping dramatically dropping the costs of international transport and increased specialization in production. The resulting competition, with no price controls or limits on competition, drove prices down; consumers will always take their business wherever the price is lowest.

At roughly the same time, "savers turned into investors, and investors turned active." They were no longer content with healthy, stable interest-bearing savings accounts. Instead, they began to put money into stocks, with mutual funds and pension funds in particular wielding enormous influence:

To lure or keep these collections of shareholders, CEOs had to do everything possible to raise the value of their companies' shares. They had no choice but to focus ever more intently on creating "shareholder value."

Thus we have have a simultaneous push for lower prices and higher profits; that means everything in between gets squeezed, and the results are always pretty: rising income inequality, job instability, market volatility, and lots of uninsured. In a particularly thought-provoking chapter, Reich argues that Americans really have no one to blame but themselves for the rise of supercapitalism. As consumers and investors, we support and benefit from a system that emphasizes low prices at the store/gas pump/dealership without foregoing high returns on our IRA/401(k) investments.

Reich takes a closer look at Wal-Mart, the target of much anti-corporate venom, and claims the company is simply being responsive to the market pressures that we as consumers and investors are placing upon it. He discusses the mercenary behavior of corporate executives, and suggests they if they are not doing anything illegal, they are doing only what the drive for profits demands. Not the sort of thing one might expect from Robert Reich. That's what makes it so provocative. At the same time, Reich recognizes that the citizen in many of us is troubled by these side effects of supercapitalism. Yet the consumer-investor seems to always win. Reich explains that:

[M]arkets have become hugely efficient at responding to individual desires for better deals, but are quite bad at responding to goals we would like to achieve together. While Wal-Mart and Wall Street aggregate consumer and investor demands into formidable power blocs, the institutions that used to aggregate citizen values have declined.

This includes regulatory agencies, labor unions, and local civic associations. In their absence, individual citizens are powerless to make much difference, and are unlikely to even try knowing they will be making personal sacrifices for little social gain. Instead, Reich argues that we must enact "laws and regulations that make our purchases and investments a social choice as well as a personal one." Examples he points to include laws that promote labor organizing, a transfer tax on stock sales to slow day trading, extended unemployment insurance, fair trade treaties, a more progressive income tax, and universal health care.

Reich recognizes the difficulty such an agenda faces in an era where the democratic process has become dominated by lobbying groups. He dedicates a whole chapter to exploring the history of lobbying, demonstrating that the fast majority of Capitol Hill (as well as courtroom) battles are not consumers vs. corporations, but corporations vs. other corporations. The insurance company vs. the pharmaceutical company; the telephone company vs. the cable company, and so on. What Reich details is that corporations have recognized that Washington is just another battlefield; politics is just capitalism by other means. In an environment where every penny counts, getting a good contract, a good regulation, or a good law out of Washington can make the difference. So investing in a Washington operation is just good business.

What the confluence of money and politics has done is made the government less responsive to our interests as citizens, rather than responsive to our interests as consumers and investors, something the corporations are already doing. Nevertheless, Reich dismisses the non-legal pressures that many have sought to place upon corporations. He examines the movement for "corporate social responsibility" and concludes it is a mere diversion, allowing corporations to get morale points for taking actions that were already in their interest:

All these steps may be worthwhile but they are not undertaken because they are socially responsible. They're done to reduce costs. To credit these corporations with being "socially responsible" is to stretch the terms to mean anything a company might do to increase profits if, in doing so, it also happens to have some beneficent impact on the rest of society.

Furthermore, with the emphasis on low prices and high profits, Reich argues that supercapitalism actually prevents companies from being socially responsible, because "[c]ompetition is so intense that most corporations cannot accomplish social ends without imposing a cost on their consumers or investors--who would then seek and find better deals elsewhere." Reich goes further, and suggests that current law makes it illegal for corporate executives to be beneficent with their shareholders' money. In the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami, President Bush boasted about the generosity of American CEOs; Reich says not so fast:

The assembled CEOs had not been generous--they had not contributed their own money. They had donated their shareholders' money. Presumably they had done so in the belief that their shareholders would benefit from the public relations value such contributions added to the firms' bottom lines. Otherwise, these CEOs would have violated their fiduciary duties and risked having their shareholders switch to other companies that didn't give away their money. Shareholders do not invest in firms expecting their money will be used for charitable purposes. They invest to earn high returns.

Reich derides the growing proclivity of politicians to use "public shaming" as a tactic for fighting bad corporate behavior. He goes through a series of examples, from oil companies with record profits to Yahoo and Google's cooperation with Chinese authorities, and argues that not only is this tactice ineffective, and a ppor substitute for legislation, it is fundamentally misguided:

Corporate executives are not authorized by anyone--least of all by their consumers or investors--to balance profits against the public good. Nor do they have any expertise in making such calculations. That's why we live in a democracy, in which government is supposed to represent the public in drawing such lines.

There's a lot here to argue with, and Reich certainly offers more descriptions of what is wrong than prescriptions for how to fix it. He also wrote this book before the last year's parade of corporate failures and government buy-ins/bailouts, which further entwine the fates of our democracy and our economy. But this is provocative stuff, much of it the sort of thing a liberal would expect from the Wall Street Journal and dismiss accordingly. He dismisses many of the tactics that liberal groups have been emphasizing in recent years, and promotes some that liberals might never consider (e.g. eliminating the corporate income tax to destroy the fiction of the corporation as a person). To see it come from Reich, and to read his justifications and purposes in urging just innovations as an end to the corporate income tax, is certainly eye-opening, and enough to put the ideas on the table for discussion.

The Conscience of a Liberal by Paul Krugman

krugman_conscience.jpgYesterday I discussed the chapter of Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal dedicated to his political and economic argument for prioritizing health care reform. This chapter comes near the end, and serves as Krugman's plan for reinvigorating and validating America's belief in liberal ideology. This is essential in light of the thesis of the book, which Krugman recognized might be "economic heresy;" that politics and government policy drive economic reality:

Can the political environment really be that decisive in determining economic inequality?... [W]hen economists, startled by rising inequality, began looking at the origins of middle-class America, they discovered to their surprise that the transition from the inequality of the Gilded Age to the relative equality of the postwar era wasn't a gradual evolution. Instead, America's postwar middle-class society was created.

The second and third chapters of the book trace this history, from what Krugman deems "The Long Gilded Age" from the 1870s until the New Deal, "a period defined above all by persistently high levels of economic inequality." Krugman then points to the great contrast posed by the 1950s, when economic equality was at its height; the poor were less poor, the rich were less rich. It was, Krugman argues, "The Great Compression." It was the era of the middle-class. Krugman argues that this was not driven simply by some natural market forces, as was originally believed:

The Long Gilded Age, they thought, was a stage through which the country had to pass; the middle-class society that followed, they believed, was the natural, inevitable happy end state of the process of economic development. But by the mid-1980s it was clear that the story wasn't over, that inequality was rising again.

While some continued to offer market-based explanations for these trends, Krugman looks elsewhere. He argues that "the Great Compression is a powerful antidote to fatalism, a demonstration that political reform can create a more equitable distribution of income--and, in the process, create a healthier climate for democracy." He goes through a variety of factors, including government support for unionization and rules established by the National War Labor Board, all quickly establishing an increased economic equality that remained stable for decades.

Krugman also demonstrates that once Republicans became resigned to the survival of the New Deal, with Truman's victory in 1948, politics became less acrimonious, with room for conservatives in the Democratic Party and liberals in the Republican Party (evidenced by significant overlap between the voting patterns of the centrists in each party, unheard of today).

Of course, if government policy can effectuate a dramatic rise in economic equality, it can also engineer the opposite. Much of the remainder of Krugman's book explores just that story: the rise of movement conservatives, their exploitation of cultural issues to distract voters as they tried to dismantle the New Deal, and the resulting return of vast economic inequality.

Krugman brings up Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, which I discussed last week. Unlike Frank, however, Krugman does not believe movement conservatives rode to power exclusively by converting working-class voters on cultural issues. Though he admits he was "bowled over" when he first read it, Krugman suggests that "voting has become more, not less, class-based over time, which is just what you'd expect given the change in the nature of the Republican Party."

Still, something has allowed movement conservatism to win elections despite policies that should have been unpopular with a majority of the voters. So let's talk about the noneconomic issues that conservatives have exploited, starting with the issue that Frank oddly didn't mention in that glorious rant: race.

Krugman discusses at length the racial component of the so-called "culture wars," and makes a convincing argument that movement conservative outrage over states' rights, welfare, and crime was little more than a series of dog-whistles to tap into conscious or subconscious racial biases and thus successfully sever the New Deal coalition between Southern whites and the rest of the Democratic Party. He also explores the role of the Red Scare, and the "Rambofication" of the Vietnam War, which retroactively claimed the American soldier had been stabbed in the back by weak-kneed liberals back home.

Fortunately, this movement has gone too far, played the race card and the culture war too often. What the 2006 mid-terms suggested, and the recent election has confirmed, is that America can no longer be scared into voting against its self-interest. As Krugman details, the Iraq War has cost the Republicans their credibility on national security. The country is growing less white, and whites are growing less racist. And Americans' views on homosexuality, women's rights, and other culture war issues are becoming increasingly liberal, particularly among the younger demographics. Thus we see the GOP increasingly marginalized as a regional party. No longer are Southern whites the base upon which to build a larger conservative coalition; instead, the lunatics have taken over the asylum.

Krugman's book is an exceptional effort at demonstrating the influence that political decisions can have on economic realities, charting the history of how that influence was wielded by liberals and conservatives in the 20th century, and suggesting a way forward for liberal ideology through progressive politics. Krugman proudly states that "Liberals are those who believe in institutions that limit inequality and injustice. Progressives are those who participate, explicitly, or implicitly, in a political coalition that defends and tries to enlarge those institutions." We are witnessing the rise of both.

What's the Matter With Kansas? by Thomas Frank

frank_whats.jpgThe recent election dramatically renewed my interest in politics, an interest that had been relatively dormant for quite some time. Even when I was attuned to the political world, it was usually limited to a breaking news, current events level of attention. But the recent campaign season had me wanting to dig deeper, think harder about politics in this country. That's why I am about four years late in reading Thomas Frank's What's the Matter With Kansas?, which made big waves in the lead-up to President Bush's re-election. A native of Kansas, Frank's basic quest in the book was to understand how working class people from the heartland, once the radical supporters of John Brown and 19th-century leftist populism, became reliable Republican voters.

His thesis is that Republican politicians perfected the art of cultural warfare, convincing white, working class Americans to vote their outrage about sex, drugs, and rock & roll (and abortion, gay marriage, school prayer, evolution, etc) above their economic self-interest. In the mean time, Democratic politicians ceded the leftist economic agenda in favor of pro-business centrism, thus giving working class people no economic reason to favor Democrats any longer. Thus the Wall Street Republicans obtain working class votes, proceed to cut their own taxes and lower economic regulations that favor their own interests, and suffer no harm at the ballot box:

For decades Americans have experienced a populist uprising that only benefits the people it is supposed to be targeting. In Kansas we merely see an extreme version of this mysterious situation. The angry workers, mighty in their numbers, are marching irresistibly against the arrogant. They are shaking their fists at the sons of privilege. They are laughing at the dainty affectations of the Leawood toffs. They are massing at the gates of Mission Hills, hoisting the black flag, and while the millionaires tremble in their mansions, they are bellowing out their terrifying demands. "We are here," they scream, "to cut your taxes."

Frank also addresses the conundrum of why these working class voters harbor no resentment that, in addition to their economic interests being flushed, they also seem to make no progress on the cultural front. After all, in the long view, how much progress has been made in the restoration of school prayer, the end of legal abortion, and the suppression of gay rights? Virtually none. Yet they keep giving their vote to the Wall Street Republicans:

As culture war, the backlash was born to lose. Its goal is not to win cultural battles but to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly. Indignation is the great aesthetic principle of backlash culture; voicing the fury of the imposed-upon is to the backlash what the guitar solo is to heavy metal. Indignation is the privileged emotion, the magic moment that brings a consciousness of rightness and a determination to persist.

Can there be a better example of this than the late campaign of Senator McCain and Governor Palin? These two brought the reductionist culture wars to a new level, and Palin virtually personifies the concept of indignant anti-intellectualism. It is Christians that are oppressed, Real America that is under attack, and it is some hazy, mysterious, socialist, effeminate, arugula-loving liberal elite that is to blame.

The book's strength lies in Frank's anecdotal journeys through the modern Kansas landscape, such as the travails of once-proudly unionized Wichita, or the rise of conservative Republicans like Sam Brownback and the battle between these "Cons" and the "Mods," the old-school Republicans of the country-club variety. But these anecdotes are all Frank really offers to support his thesis. You won't see any charts in this book, no detailed statistical analysis. At the time it was published, though, the thesis was ready made for Democrats frustrated at a series of unsuccessful elections, and it gained even greater currency with Bush's re-election, attributed by some to Karl Rove's leveraging of anger about gay marriage into Republican votes in Ohio.

Frank's critics, however, say he simply has his facts wrong, and that as nice as the story sounds anecdotally, it doesn't hold up empirically. At the forefront has been Princeton political science professor Larry Bartels, whose lengthy rebuttal challenged a number of Frank's conclusions. Bartels raised the issue again this spring, in the context of Barack Obama's comments about bitter voters clinging to guns and religion (a seeming endorsement of the Frank thesis):

It is true that American voters attach significantly more weight to social issues than they did 20 years ago. It is also true that church attendance has become a stronger predictor of voting behavior. But both of those changes are concentrated primarily among people who are affluent and well educated, not among the working class.

Mr. Obama's comments are supposed to be significant because of the popular perception that rural, working-class voters have abandoned the Democratic Party in recent decades and that the only way for Democrats to win them back is to cater to their cultural concerns. The reality is that John Kerry received a slender plurality of their votes in 2004, while John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, in the close elections of 1960 and 1968, lost them narrowly.

Mr. Obama should do as well or better among these voters if he is the Democratic candidate in November. If he doesn't, it won't be because he has offended the tender sensitivities of small-town Americans. It will be because he has embraced a misleading stereotype of who they are and what they care about.

Well the President-elect certainly won a resounding victory, doing better than any Democratic candidate since LBJ. So who was right? If Frank's thesis is correct, than Obama's victory requires some explanation of how this Democrat turned things around. One possibility is that Obama's victory does not reflect gained support amongst the white working class, but simply the decreasing importance of that bloc with the growth of minority voters and Obama's overwhelming youth appeal. Another possibility is that the economic crisis was severe enough to shock voters back toward their own self-interest, and caused Democrats to re-embrace the economic rhetoric that had been abandoned by the centrists. The latter is Frank's own thesis, which he published in an editorial the day after the election:

Acknowledging class was always difficult for "New Democrats" -- it was second-wave, it was divisive -- but 2008 made retro politics cool again. Watching the Dow get hacked down, seeing the investment banking industry collapse, hearing about the lavish rewards won by the corporate officers who brought this ruin down on us -- all these things combined to make a certain Depressionesque fury the unavoidable flavor of the year. When your mortgage is under water and your neighbors are being laid off, the need to take up the sword against arrogant stem-cell scientists becomes considerably less urgent.

He also suggests that McCain and Palin's over-the-top red meat appeal may have been counterproductive ("a flamboyant pantomime, grotesquely exaggerated in each of its parts"), though whether it has done permanent damage to the tactic is yet to be seen.

The other possibility, of course, is that Frank was wrong in the first place, that Democrats don't have a particular problem with the white working class, and that Obama's sweeping victory demonstrates his across the board appeal, unrestrained by the particular quirks of the Frank focus group. It will likely take a few more election cycles before we can make any kind of firm conclusions. Any single campaign has too many variables, from the quality of the candidates to the campaigns they ran to the question of incumbent effects, and on and on. But I'm sure Frank and/or Bartels will be back with more, soon enough.

The Trillion Dollar Meltdown by Charles Morris

morris_trillion.jpgYesterday I discussed Kevin Phillips' Bad Money, which was the first book on finance I turned to after the shock of this fall's crises on Wall Street. While the book had its strengths, it was really a regurgitation of Phillips' theories of American politics and economics as previously examined in several other books he has written, with a single chapter on securitization added in to tie his theories to current events. That chapter succinctly summarized the problem, but did not delve deep enough into the causes and consequences for my satisfaction.

The next book I turned to was Charles Morris' The Trillion Dollar Meltdown. Like Phillips' text, this was written in the aftermath of the credit crisis of summer 2007. But while it predates the bailout of Bear Stearns to the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, Morris' book provides such a cogent analysis of the underlying currents of the crisis that those who read it when published in March were surely not surprised by the events that followed.

Morris starts the book with a chapter titled "The Death of Liberalism," in which he gives a brief outline (including a reference to Kevin Phillips' The Emerging Republican Majority) of the decline of Keynesian liberalism, with "its central premise... that an economic intelligentsia could reliably employ government lever to achieve specific outcomes in the real world." In its place comes the rise of Milton Friedman's monetarism:

Monetarists taught that the supply of money was the product of the stock of money--just the sum of spendable coins, bills, checking accounts, etc.--times its turnover rate, or its velocity. Friedman's historical research showed that velocity was roughly constant, so government policy need concern itself only with the money stock.

As such, government regulation of anything other than the amount of money in the system was unnecessary at best, and more likely counterproductive. So the monetarists would have us believe. Morris takes us through the supposed triumph of the free-market after a sharp 1978 capital gains tax cut (which conservatives credit with the rise of venture capitalist investment; Morris says it was the growth of pension funds in the 70s) and Reagan's elimination of oil price controls (which conservatives credit with the fall in oil prices; Morris says it was the market doing its job over the course of the previous decade through efficiency gains and a recession). This faith in the free market was bolstered by a blinkered view of the economic gains made in the 1980s and 1990s, ignoring the lessons learned from the end of the leveraged-buyouts and the S&L crisis.

Morris lays out this history as an extended introduction to the new types of "investment technologies" that were largely responsible for a variety of economic crises from the late 1980s to late 1990s:

The new "quants" could carve up and reassemble old-fashioned asset classes so they were custom-fit to investor needs. Large-volume computerized trading could exploit tiny changes in stock prices or interest rates. Very broad new classes of complex, structured investment instruments revolutionized wholesale banking. All the new technologies and strategies harbored dangerous flaws that tended to reveal themselves only at points of great stress. Bigger, better, even more far-reaching versions of these strategies have now, in 2008, placed the entire global economy at risk.

Morris details the three "practice runs" that fit this model, from the 1987 stock market crash (portfolio insurance) to the 1994 mortgage crisis (collateralized mortgage obligations) to the 1998 collapse of Long-Term Capital Management (mathematical arbitrage models). Morris explains what ties all three crises together:

In the first place, all three of the crises developed in market pockets that were mostly outside the oversight of federal authorities. The relentless deregulation drive that started during the Reagan administration steadily shifted lending activities to the purview of nonregulated entities, until by 2006, only about a quarter of all lending occurred in regulated sectors, down from about 80 percent twenty years before...

A second fault line is a worsening of the "Agency" problem--or the problem of ensuring that an employee, a contractor, or a company performing a service doesn't act against your interest... But the new generation of mortgage banks sells off mortgages in weeks or months, brokers are usually compensated strictly from the fees they generate, and they often work with a customer entirely by e-mail or phone... As financial machinery fragments, Agency problems abound; in the brave new world of absolute markets, it is not only dangerously naive to trust your mortgage broker, but based on recent scandals in college tuition lending, even your student aid counselor...

Finally, a third dangerous trend is the increased dominance of investment decisions by mathematical constructs. The mathematics of big portfolios analogizes price movements to models of heat diffusion and the motions of gas molecules, in which uncountable randomized micro-interactions lead to highly predictable macro-results... But the analogies break down in times of stress.... Humans hate losing money more than they like making it. Humans are subject to fads. even the most sophisticated traders exhibit herding behavior... In other words, as all three of this chapter's crises suggest, in real financial markets, air molecules have a disturbing knack for clumping on one side of the room.

In the following chapter, Morris indicts Alan Greenspan's insistence on keeping the funds rate low (in fact, cutting it further to 1.00% for a full year) even after the second quarter of 2003 showed strong growth that would continue through 2004. He also goes after Greenspan's "resolute insistence on focusing only on consumer price inflation, while ignoring signs of rampant inflation in the price of assets, especially houses and bonds of all kinds." This became known as the "Greenspan Put," in which the Fed cuts interest rates any time the financial sector screws up and sends us toward recession: "No matter what goes wrong, the Fed will rescue you by creating enough cheap money to buy you out of your troubles."

With that in mind, Morris tackles the housing boom of 2000-2005. Unlike most housing booms, which are caused by demographic shifts (either increased birth rates, immigration, or mobility), Morris posits that the "2000s real estate bubble may be one of those rare beasts conjured into the world solely by financiers." But how did they do it?

Since houses are so leveraged, their prices are hypersensitive to changes in interest rates. As long-term rates trended steadily downward in the second half of the 1990s, the big banks plunged headlong into the refinancing, or "refi," business. It took a couple of years for consumers to catch on--extracting money from your house was an exotic concept. Banks mount lavish advertising campaigns to stoke their enthusiasm. Refis jumped from $14 billion in 1995 to nearly a quarter-trillion in 2005, the great majority of them resulting in higher loan amounts. Lower interest rates let you borrow more for the same monthly payment, pay off your old loan, and buy a new car with the difference.

That explains how consumers got on board, but that leaves the question of how banks got involved. Morris goes through the litany: automated credit scoring, automated underwriting allowing higher loan-to-income ratios, trimmed-back documentation requirements, and the advent of "devices to make housing more available to marginal credits" like ARMs, piggyback loans, and subprime loans. As we all know, this story does not end well:

As of the end of 2007, the industry borders on catastrophe. The housing boom is over: The widely followed Case-Shiller index of home resales shows that real home prices have fallen steadily throughout 2007. (As late as 2006, the forecasting consensus was that house prices never fall.) Delinquencies have been rising rapidly and, given the very low quality of recent-vintage loans, can only accelerate... Lender bankruptcies, with their attendant legal tangles, are spreading among the industry's erstwhile roman-candle growth stars.

All of this I can understand. This is relatively straightforward bad business practice, taking advantage of cheap money and loose regulations to pump up fees and commissions. But it also seems like a manageable problem. As Morris says, "[s]ubprime and similarly risky mortgages... still account for no more than 15 to 20 percent of all outstanding mortgages. Even assuming a high rate of delinquencies within that group, in the context of a $12 trillion economy, it looks like small potatoes." Exactly. Which is why it came as such a shock to me when this housing crisis started tearing down the giants of Wall Street.

To understand that "takes us to the heart of the giant credit bubble that we have so willy-nilly constructed." Morris outlines the creation of commercial mortgage-backed securities, followed by asset-backed securities for any asset that could be valued, and then collateralized debt obligations. The capstone to all this ingenuity, however, was the credit default swap:

To take a simple case: Suppose US Bank decides it is underexposed to credits in Southeast Asia. The old way to fix that was to buy some Asian bank branches or partner with a local bank. A credit default swap short-circuits the process. For a fee, US Bank will guarantee against any losses on a loan portfolio held by Asia Bank and will receive the interest and fees on those loans. Asia Bank will continue to service the loans, so its local customers will see no change, but Asia Bank, in Street jargon, will have purchased insurance for its risk portfolio, freeing up regulatory capital for business expansion.

Note the distinction of "regulatory capital," which refers to capital which is subject to a variety of government regulations. But the reason credit default swaps are called swaps, rather than insurance (which is what they are), is because insurance is highly regulated. Swaps are not. So all of this is going on with little or no supervision. To make matters worse, the only people who were asked to put their stamp of approval were the credit agencies:

The public may think of them as detached arbiters of security quality, like a financial Supreme Court. In fact, they were building booming, diversified, high-margin business. Between 2002 and 2006, for instance, Moody's doubled its revenue and more than tripled its stock price. Their core customers, however, were the big banks and investment banks, and since CDO bond ratings were usually heavily negotiated, it seems clear that the agencies slanted their ratings to please their clients.

The result of all this was to essentially take a tangible set of questionable debts (residential mortgages), repeatedly repackage them in dozens of complicated securities, the riskiest tranche of which the hedge funds would stake out absurdly leveraged positions (e.g. for every dollar of its own capital, the fund invests four more borrowed from one of its prime broker banks; in a risky tranche, this can multiple exponentially). Then, to get some protection from this risk, the banks and hedge funds sell each other credit default swaps and are on the hook for each other's risk; but since its not insurance, it does not have to be reported the same way.

In a sense, everybody's money was tied up in the same small subset of extremely risky loans; this led to great profits in the boom times, and the near destruction of the industry in the bust. Morris saw what was coming, and laid out a variety of end-game scenarios, including recession, and a credit meltdown, For those who read this book in March 2008, the events that followed were surely little surprised. Lehmann Brothers did not go bankrupt just because homeowners were not repaying the loans Lehmann Brothers made to them (though its ownership of subprime lender BNC Mortgage exacerbated the underlying problem). It went bankrupt because it left itself overexposed to large positions in subprime and other lower-rated mortgage tranches when securitizing the underlying mortgages (e.g. it kept the riskiest pieces for itself and sold the rest) and was tremendously over-leveraged, even beyond healthy levels of Wall Street leverage.

The only question is where it all stops. Morris points out a variety of issues still unresolved today, including credit card debt and credit default swaps. He also discusses other underlying problems facing the U.S. economy as it tries to stabilize and recover, including the "dramatic shift of taxable incomes toward the wealthiest people" over the past 25 years and the continued socialization of Wall Street risk. In a brief chapter entitled "Recovering Balance," he emphasizes the need for renewed regulation, and interestingly, the need for an overhaul of our health care system. These are little more than bullet points at the end of the book, but Morris hits the right tone, which is that if nothing else the current crisis requires "coming face-to-face with the past quarter-century's ruling ideology that expanding public resources is always wrong."

On a side note: in a twisted bit of irony, the events of this year were so cataclysmic that when Morris' book is published in paperback in February 2009, it will be titled The Two-Trillion Dollar Meltdown.

Bad Money by Kevin Phillips

phillips_bad.jpgWhen the turmoil in the financial sector exploded into full blown crisis with the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September, I found myself disturbingly unfamiliar with the basic subject matter of the ensuing debate. I had a basic understanding of the mortgage market, and knew enough about subprime loans and ARMs to have secured a 30-year fixed rate when we bought our condo. I also had a wealth of anecdotal information from my father in southern California about the skyrocketing home prices and the absurd practices of his neighbors, who were perpetually re-financing in order to put in pools or buy new cars with the equity from these inflated values.

But the terms "collateralized debt obligation" and "credit default swap" were meaningless to me. There was a time when I paid much closer attention to the financial world, but it has been a few years. It seems, though, that even if I had been paying attention, I might not have understood these subjects. They are essentially designed not to be understood. Because as soon as people started paying close enough attention, and realized what was going on, the bottom fell out.

Fortunately (and unfortunately), there were already a few books out that touched on this subject matter with a more popular audience in mind. Fortunately because I had something other than Wikipedia to rely on. Unfortunately because the reason these books had been published was that the crisis really first hit in July 2007 with the collapse of two Bear Sterans hedge funds (which I somehow failed to really notice). This gave book publishers enough time to get books into print by the spring. Yet federal regulators apparently did not act with similar speed; every step in the crisis that has unfolded since them seems to have caught them off guard, from the bailout of Bear Stearns to the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

The first book I turned to was Bad Money by Kevin Phillips. Phillips has made a name for himself over the years for his prophetic analysis of American politics. His rise to prominence came with his 1969 book, The Emerging Republican Majority, which many believe foresaw the rise of Reagan and the conservative realignment (which appears to be over as of November 4, 2008). At that time, Phillips was a major Republican strategist, but over the years he has moved dramatically away from the party. Along the way, he has expanded the scope of his writing to include a focus on the interaction of money and politics, in such books as The Politics of Rich and Poor, Wealth and Democracy and most recently, American Theocracy, in which Phillips discussed the dangerous confluence of expanding debt, financial misbehavior, and the rising cost of oil.

In Bad Money, Phillips opens with a chapter on the rise of financial services and the decline of manufacturing in the U.S. economy. He starts there because it is only once we understand that financial services now account for 20% of America's GDP can we understand how deeply invested we have become in the success of this industry, how reliant we are on it for stability, and thus how important it is that it be properly regulated. This is not something most people understand, and Phillips suggests that government leaders want it this way; that's how they reassured us that a crisis on Wall Street need not become a crisis on Main Street, and thus little regulation was necessary. We know now how wrong that notion was.

Phillips digs deeper into the rise of financial services and suggests that this growth was systematically encouraged by Washington, by what he calls "financial mercantilism." By this, Phillips means the bailouts and socialization of credit risk going back almost three decades, from the 1984 rescue of Continental Illinois through the saving and loans crisis to the Mexican peso rescue to Long-Term Capital Management to the interest rate cuts of the early 2000s (Phillips' book came out too early to include this fall's mother of all bailouts):

After the financial markets' narrow escape in the stock market crash of 1987, some kind of high-level decisions seems to have been reached in Washington to loosely institutionalize a rescue mechanism for the stock market akin to that pursued on an ad hoc basis (by the Fed and the U.S. Treasury) to safeguard major U.S. banks from exposure to domestic and foreign loan and currency crises. Thus the coinage of the phrase "financial mercantilism." For Washington to have made such a tentative choice in 1988 was momentous. Finance became the chosen sector of the U.S. economy--the one that would be protected and promoted because it was too important to fail. Manufacturing would receive no such help, however excited members of Congress might get from time to time.

And it does not appear that the traumas of 2008 have changed anything yet. Just look at the disparate reactions from Republican leaders to the crisis on Wall Street and in the auto industry. The former merits a $700b bailout, the latter can't even get $25b.

Phillips follows this with a chapter on "Bullnomics" in which he reflects on the way that Americans have been manipulated to support an economic system that offers vast rewards to the elite and little for anything else. He touches on such things as the manipulation of the consumer price index and the rise of the prosperity gospel, in which religious Americans are taught that God wants them to be materially rich.

In Chapter 4, Phillips hits the subject I'd been looking for: securitization, which is defined simply as "the process of taking an illiquid asset, or group of assets, and through financial engineering, transforming them into a security." It is through the repeated packaging and re-packaging of assets, particularly houses bought via subprime or exotic loans, that what might have been a troubling housing crisis came to nearly destroy the entire U.S. financial industry:

Instead of being kept on firm ledgers, mortgage loans could be stripped of risk by a derivative contract, or in most circumstances old off in a mortgage-backed security or structured CDO. The money received could be used for another loan or mortgage, then again--and again. Lending limitations became nonlimitations. However, as volume swelled, loan- and mortage-making standards dropped. Enticements to sign up marginal borrowers--through the "exotic" forms of mortgages little used boefore--took on an ever-larger role.

The growing disconnect between the broker writing the mortage and the hedge fund that would end up owning a leveraged piece of a CDO that contained the mortgage, destroyed the traditional incentives by which mortgages were made, e.g. a bank only lent money it reasonably expected would be repaid with sufficient interest. Phillips goes through a number of root causes for this phenomena, including the declining importance of depository institutions in the face of mutual funds, hedge funds, security brokers and others, all of which did business largely outside existing government regulations:

Small wonder that.. buyers worldwide found themselves with structured products that lacked (1) opacity and responsible description, (2) disinterested and careful credit ratings, (3) reliable markets to which they could be marked, and (4) practical testing under major credit-crisis conditions. Manufacturers negligent in these ways would be facing large fines or even jail terms.

This securitization process led to a downward spiral in the housing market, with the expansion of easy money and subprime loans, all of which were packaged up into complex CDOs and split a dozen ways so that no one knew how much anything was worth. When people finally started paying attention after the collapse of Bear Stearns, well... check your 401(k).

In the remainder of the book, Phillips reiterates his belief that American reliance on oil will prove to be a crippling failure in this century, with analogies to the decline of the inabilities of the Dutch Empire (reliant on wind and water) and the British Empire (reliant on coal) to adapt to new energy technologies. He further laments the weakness of the dollar, its vulnerability to foreign manipulation, and its dependence on being the principal currency for pricing oil, before a concluding chapter exploring the possibilities that we are seeing the initial signs of the United States as an empire in decline.

The major weakness of the book is that beyond the short chapter on securitization, this is just a regurgitation of what Phillips has already written. His analogy to the Dutch and British empires goes back at least as far as The Politics of Rich and Poor, which he published in 1990. The focus on the rise of the financial sector echoes that of Wealth and Democracy, the discussion of dynastic politics was covered in American Dynasty, and the chapter on peak oil and the dollar-oil nexus is straight out of American Theocracy. So while this serves as a decent first-line introduction to these topics, Phillips himself has recognized that each deserves a book of its own. Tomorrow, I will discuss a short text that serves as a better introduction to the financial crisis itself, Charles Morris' The Trillion Dollar Meltdown.

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, III

obama_audacity.jpgFor the past several days I have been discussing President-Elect Obama's 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope. On Friday I focused on the first half of the text, and yesterday I discussed the chapters on faith and race. Today I want to finish with the last two chapters of this extraordinary book, which cover foreign policy and family.

This seems a strange way to end the book. Certainly each is an important topic, and there is no requirement that each chapter flow easily into the next. But the initial sense that these chapters don't fit next to one another is misplaced. Look at what they tell us about this man, our next President. He is a Democrat who knows Democrats can own foreign policy, that, "We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy." And he is a loving husband and father, who understands why America needs to be safe and strong, not for the sake of power, but for the sake of preserving the American dream that has been our motivating force for centuries. He is a man comfortable in his own skin, who knows why he sought the position he just won.

Obama opens the chapter on foreign policy with a lengthy discussion of his experience as a child in Indonesia, followed by a brief outline of the country's history since that time. Combined with having a Kenyan-born father, it seems fair to suggest that Obama has the most personal connection to the world beyond our shores than previous occupants of the Oval Office. He uses American involvement in Indonesia as a start point for analyzing the isolationist/expansionist/internationalist cycles that our foreign policy has experienced since the country's founding.

As the campaign debates over Iran and "preconditions' made clear, Obama is in favor of expanding the use of high-level diplomacy far beyond what the current administration pursued for most of the past eight years. And his rhetoric on Iraq has been consistent: it was a mistake to go there and we need to figure out a responsible way to leave. He pulls no punches in the book, calling the invasion "a strategic blunder" and squarely rejecting the Bush doctrine:

[W]e have the right to take unilateral military action to eliminate an imminent threat to our security--so long as an imminent threat is understood to be a nation, group, or individual that is actively preparing to strike U.S. targets... and has or will have the means to do so in the immediate future. Al Qaeda qualifies under this standard, and we can and should carry out preemptive strikes against them wherever we can. Iraq under Saddam Hussein did not meet this standard.

It was really amazing to see how over the course of 2008, the Bush administration slowly began to adopt so many of the Obama foreign policy positions. Obama favored talks with Iran and North Korea, and we had talks in North Korea. Obama favored striking into Pakistan against high-value Al Qaeda targets, and we struck into Pakistan. Obama pushed for a firm timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq, and we negotiated a timeline. Now comes word that Obama's election has already created progress in Iraq:

Iraqi Shiite politicians are indicating that they will move faster toward a new security agreement about American troops, and a Bush administration official said he believed that Iraqiscould ratify the agreement as early as the middle of this month.

"Before, the Iraqis were thinking that if they sign the pact, there will be no respect for the schedule of troop withdrawal by Dec. 31, 2011," said Hadi al-Ameri, a powerful member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a major Shiite party. "If Republicans were still there, there would be no respect for this timetable. This is a positive step to have the same theory about the timetable as Mr. Obama."

What a change for foreigners to believe in the good faith of the American President.

In the final chapter of his book, Obama turns inward once again, to the family that has been his sustaining force these past few strenuous years. He recounts how he met and fell in love with the beautiful, powerful woman who would be his wife, how he was welcomed into her extended family, conventional in a way he'd never enjoyed in his own. He segues from their experience to the nationwide shift toward dual-income households where both parents work, often because they have to, and this is having an effect on their children. But he rejects the notion that this implies less care for the children, pointing out that there are sacrifices either way:

[F]or the average American woman the decision to work isn't simply a matter of changing attitudes. It's a matter of making ends meet... for most families, having Mom stay at home means living in a less-safe neighborhood and enrolling their children in a less-competitive school. That's not a choice most Americans are willing to make. Instead they do the best they can under the circumstances, knowing that the type of household they grew up in.. has become much, much harder to sustain.

He reflects on the hardships his own career ambitions placed on Michelle, and is sufficiently self-aware to recognize that she was the one who make adjustments. He also recognizes that as professionals, they had more flexible schedules than most, "enough income to cover all the services that help ease the pressures of two-earner parenthood," and a semi-retired mother-in-law to babysit. Since these luxuries are unavailable to most Americans, however, he recognizes that additional support is needed. An opportunity for government, not to solve the problem, but to assist those who are working diligently to better themselves and their families:

[I]f we're serious about family values, then we can put policies in place that make the juggling of work and parenting a little bit easier. We could start by making high-quality day care affordable for every family that needs it. In contrast to most European countries, day care in the United States is a haphazard affair. Improved day-care licensing and training, an expansion of the federal and state child tax credits, and sliding-scale subsidies to families that need them all could provide both middle-class and low-income parents some peace of mind during the workday--and benefit employers through reduced absenteeism.

He has further proposals centered on investments in education, flexible work schedules and mandated paid family leave (the U.S. stands nearly alone among wealthy nations in its failure to provide this benefit). What is striking about all his ideas is that they do not presume that government should be a big brother, dictating the terms and conditions of parenting. They presume that government should be more like that semi-retired mother-in-law, giving that extra bit of support that gives parents the time and energy to fulfill their own plans to raise successful children.

Again, a truly extraordinary book. I'm eager to see these ideas put into action.

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, II

audacity2.jpgOn Friday I discussed the first half of President-Elect Obama's 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, which I read in the week before the election in order to better understand the man I would be voting for, and reinvigorate my passion for seeing him in the White House. The early chapters of the book lay out his vision of the political process, the purposes of government, and the supremacy of the Constitution. The middle of the book is dominated by his now familiar domestic policy agenda, focusing on education, energy, and economics.

Obama follows these chapters with a focus on two traditional minefields for Democrats: faith and race. It is in these areas that he has probably shown the greatest innovation. He has demonstrated the possibilities of common ground and the power of a progressive agenda on these issues in a way that no other Democrat, even those who are great leaders on policy matters, has been able to achieve. First, his focus on faith, which was a major area in which his campaign deliberately departed from those of Kerry and Gore:

When we abandon the field of religious discourse--when we ignore the debate about what it means to be a good Christian or Muslim or Jew; when we discuss religion only in the negative sense of where or how it should not be practiced, rather than in the positive sense of what it tells us about our obligations toward one another; when we shy away from religious venues and religious broadcasts because we assume that we will be unwelcome--others will fill the vacuum. And those who do are likely to be those with the most insular views of faith, or who cynically use religion to justify partisan ends.

More fundamentally, the discomfort of some progressives with any hint of religiosity has often inhibited us from effectively addressing issues in moral terms. Some of the problem is rhetorical: Scrub language of all religious content and we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice. Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address without reference to "the judgments of the Lord," or King's "I Have a Dream" speech without reference to "all of God's children." Their summoning of a higher truth helped inspire what had seemed impossible and move the nation to embrace a common destiny.

He goes on to emphasize that the "failure as progressives to tap into the moral l underpinnings of the nation is not just rhetorical," but "may also lead us to discount the role that values and culture play in addressing some of our most urgent social problems." Like Robert Reich, Obama believes that the mantle of public morality is one that can be harnessed to advance the progressive agenda.

His perspective on race, discussed so eloquently in his speech last March, is explored at length via anecdotes about his childhood, his campaigns in Illinois, and his observations of modern American life. Though some of the discussion centers on aspects unique to African-Americans, for the most part Obama is explicitly inclusive of the growing Hispanic community in his exploration of the continuing racial divide, and the inequality that accompanies it. He somehow anticipates the campaign John McCain would come to run in the last two weeks of the election, in which the implication would be made that the black candidate wanted to take white money and "spread the wealth" to minorities, and rejects this dichotomy out of hand:

These days, what ails working-class and middle-class blacks and Latinos is not fundamentally different from what ails their white counterparts: downsizing, outsourcing, automation, wage stagnation, the dismantling of employer-based health-care and pension plans, and schools that fail to teach young people the skills they need to complete in a global economy. And what would help minority workers are the same things that would help white workers: the opportunity to earn a living wage, the education and training that lead to such jobs, labor laws and tax laws that restore some balance to the distribution of the nation's wealth, and health-care, child care, and retirement systems that working people can count on.

By emphasizing solutions that do not rely on racial preferences, even though they might dramatically benefit the minority community, Obama removes the racial wedge that conservatives have relied on for so long. He also speaks with authority in his admonition of minority communities that have failed to do everything in their own power to improve their lot:

We should agree that the responsibility to close the gap can't come from government alone; minorities, individually and collectively, have responsibilities as well. Many of the social or cultural factors that negatively affect black people, for example, simply mirror in exaggerated forms problems that afflict America as a whole: too much television (the average black household has the television on more than eleven hours per day), too much consumption of poisons (blacks smoke more and eat more fast food), and a lack of emphasis on educational achievement.

Then there's the collapse of the two-parent black household, a phenomenon that is occurring at such an alarming rate when compared to the rest of American society that what was once a difference in degree has become a difference in kind, a phenomenon that reflects a casualness toward sex and child rearing among black men that renders children more vulnerable--and for which there is simply no excuse.

Like Nixon going to China, this is the sort of stuff that even the most trusted white politicians simply cannot say; for all the talk of Bill Clinton as the "first black president," he could never have made headway on the deterioration of black fatherhood. But Obama is not conceding to the conservative smear that lazy blacks are responsible for their own misfortune. He recognizes systemic disadvantages and has reasonable proposals for how government can give a hand up:

Strategies like an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit that helps all low-wage workers can make an enormous difference in the lives of these women and their children. But if we're serious about breaking the cycle of intergenerational poverty, then man of these women will need some extra help with the basics that those living outside the inner city take for granted. They need more police and more effective policing in their neighborhoods, to provide them and their children some semblance of personal security. They need access to community-based health center that emphasize prevention--including reproductive health care, nutritional counseling, and in some case treatment for substance abuse. They need a radical transformation of the schools their children attend, and access to affordable child care that will allow them to hold a full-time job or pursue their education.

By combining a recognition that minority communities bear a great responsibility for self-improvement and agreement that the welfare reform of the 1990s was a valid first-step, Obama has the credibility to establish that demands on the community must be matched by social programs that create the environment in which self-improvement can take place. There is just no sense in talking about minority parents taking a greater role in their children's education when they are working two jobs. How much blame can be placed on a young black or Hispanic child for dropping out of a school that could not meet basic educational standards?

The very fact of Obama's victory in this election is an opportunity to turn a page, and write a new chapter. But it is only an opportunity, not a fait accompli. And while the President-Elect must lead, he can't be the only leader. The rest of us need to shoulder our share of the burden.

The last two chapters of the book are dichotomous, focusing on foreign policy and then family, but they demonstrate in their own ways the professional and personal strengths of our next President. I'll wrap up that discussion tomorrow.

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama, I

audacity.jpgThough I had been supporting his candidacy for months, and felt pretty comfortable with my knowledge of his positions, before actually casting my ballot for Barack Obama on Tuesday I thought it would be nice to actually read his own words. So I started The Audacity of Hope, which he published in October 2006. At the time, he had been a U.S. Senator for 20 months, and had a bright future ahead of him.

The publication of this book would, in fact, fast-forward that future, and play a role in his decision to run for President, as we've learned from Evan Thomas' new account in Newsweek. One of the early backers of his candidacy was D.C. powerhouse attorney Gregory Craig, a former aide to Senator Kennedy and personal lawyer to President Clinton:

Craig read Obama's book "The Audacity of Hope," which, Craig said, "floored me," and later chanced to ride with Obama on the Washington shuttle. He read Obama's earlier autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," and was "blown away," he recalled. "In my judgment, he showed more insight and maturity than Bill Clinton at the age of 60 in terms of understanding himself." In November 2006, Craig sat next to George Stevens, an old friend of the Robert Kennedy clan, at another Obama speech. Stevens leaned over to Craig and said, "What do you think of this guy for president? I haven't heard anybody like this since Bobby Kennedy." Craig instantly replied, "Sign me up." Stevens and Craig approached Obama coming out of the speech and asked, "What are you doing in 2008?" Obama gave them a big grin and said, "Oh, man, it wasn't that good."

Well, I don't know about the speech he gave that day, but this book is that good. It is easily the best writing I have ever seen from a politician, and probably the best political writing from any source. Obama has a rare talent for sounding both intelligent and genuine; he addresses the issues, but gives his perspective roots in his personal experience. His ability and willingness to reflect on his own mistakes and weaknesses is something normally seen only in retired politician looking back on his career, not rising stars looking for the next step up:

I am new enough on the national political scene that I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views. As such, I am bound to disappoint some, if not all, of them. Which perhaps indicates a second, more intimate theme to this book--namely, how I, or anybody in public office, can avoid the pitfalls of fame, the hunger to please, the fear of loos, and thereby retain that kernel of truth, that singular voice within each of us that reminds us of our deepest commitments.

Recently, one of the reporters covering Capitol Hill stopped me on the way to my office and mentioned that she had enjoyed reading my first book. "I wonder," she said, "if you can be that interesting in the next one you write." By which she meant, I wonder if you can be honest now that you are a U.S. senator.

I wonder, too, sometimes.

If the rest of the book is any indication, he could. Or at least to a vastly greater extent than we've come to expect from our politicians. Much of what he writes seems familiar now. After all, his first chapter is a discussion of the partisan rancor that has consumed Congress for the past decade and a half, and the need to end the "trivialization of politics." And having just read Robert Reich's Reason, I couldn't help but hear echoes of that text as well. Consider seize the mantle of public morality, and compare it to Obama's discussion of values:

I think Democrats are wrong to run away from a debate about values, as wrong as those conservatives who see values only as a wedge to pry loose working-class voters from the Democratic base. It is the language of values that people use to map their world. It is what can inspire them to take action, and move them beyond their isolation... [T]he broader question of shared values--the standards and principles that the majority of Americans deem important in their lives and in the life of the country--should be the heart of our politics, the cornerstone of any meaningful debate about budgets and projects, regulations and policies.

Reich argued that the values argument could be made effectively against the culture of corporate greed and corruption, and Obama agrees, pointing out that "conservatives should at least be wiling to speak out against unseemly behavior in corporate boardrooms with the same moral force, the same sense of outrage, that they direct against dirty rap lyrics." What Reich and Obama share is a confidence that liberal ideas are not just right, but worthy of being lauded in public rhetoric.

Obama is also particularly skilled at pointing out conservative straw-man attacks, explaining why they are wrong, and then re-framing the discussion to demonstrate the strength of his own position. One of the standard Republican lines of attack for decades has been that liberals are fans of big government and believe that government can solve all your problems. John McCain tried to use this line of attack at various times, particularly in response to the health care question at the second debate. But Obama has figured out the perfect response. First, he points out that he does not, in fact, believe that government can solve every problem. He triumphs, for example, the importance of family in educating children. He then re-frames the discussion:

Like many conservatives, I believe in the power of culture to determine both individual success and social cohesion, and I believe we ignore cultural factors at our peril. But I also believe that our government can play a role in shaping that culture for the better--or for the worse.

This message, that while government can not solve all our problems, it can solve some of them and help with others, is resonating at this moment for good reason. The country is bearing the burden of eight years of excessive deregulation and governmental indifference to issues that beg for collective action: health care, renewable energy, the environment. So to have a presidential candidate tell us that government can help, and will help... well you saw the election results.

Another strength that Obama's candidacy brought, of special importance to those of us with legal minds, is his deep understanding and respect for the Constitution. A former law professor, Obama speaks with great conviction about the importance of that document in our civic life, a welcome change after an administration that seemed to view it as, at best, an obstacle. Obama dedicates the entire third chapter of his book to this topic, and he covers a range of issues from the filibuster to strict constructionism, finally stating his own preference for "Justice Breyer's view of the Constitution--that it is not a static but rather a living document, and must be read in the context of an ever-changing world." Sure, I love this; that's my position as well. But what is really moving to me is to have a man in the Oval Office who can think so intelligently about what these positions mean:

It's not just absolute power that the Founders sought to prevent. Implicit in its structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or "ism," any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course, or drive both majorities and minorities into the cruelties of the Inquisition, the pogrom, the gulag, or the jihad. The Founder may have trusted in God, but true to the Enlightenment spirit, they also trusted in the minds and senses that God had given them.

Obama follows with chapters exploring the nature of modern politics and the meaning of opportunity and how to expand it through investments in education, science, and energy. Much of what he lays out in these chapters took real form in his campaign: his refusal to take money from lobbyists or PACs, the democratizing of fundraising through small online donors, and his repeated emphasis on investment in schools, research, and renewable sources of energy. The midsection of this book, written and published in 2006 before his candidacy was even announced, remain the core of Obama's policy proposals.

In the last third of the book, Obama tackles several of the most difficult topics for any Democratic politician: faith, race, and national security. More on this Monday.

Liberals and Patriotism; Reason by Robert Reich

reich_reason.jpgElection years always stimulate increased popular interest in politics. But the presence of daily polling and instant analysis via blogs, both of which I have been obsessing over, can too easily direct our attention to the campaign process, the horse race, at the expense of the public policy issues at stake. This is made apparent by the dramatic decline in public attention to politics once the legislating begins, accompanied by a parallel decline in media coverage.

I'm guilty as well. I did not even pay much attention to the election until the night of the Iowa caucuses. I assumed that Senator Clinton was going to win the Democratic primary, and then the election, in a walk. What a difference a caucus can make. I opened up my wallet for Senator Obama that night, and have been more or less glued to the Internet since. I refresh my favorite political blogs with sufficient frequency to raise concerns about the survival of my F5 key. But this is mostly instant gratification, micro-data from polls and pundits on the campaign, not on our public policy. The campaign Senator McCain has chosen to run has only further diminished the visibility of key issues on the campaign trail.

I decided to take matters into my own hands, in the way I always do when I want more information: I started looking for books. I sought out big picture texts on the liberal agenda, and was directed to Robert Reich's Reason, Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal, and of course, Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope. On specific policy areas, I picked up David Cay Johnston's Perfectly Legal, Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy, and Chris Mooney's The Republic War on Science. For some help on understanding what led to the current financial crisis and the reactions to it, I bought Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine, Charles Morris' The Trillion Dollar Meltdown, and Kevin Phillips' Bad Money.

So a big batch of books was headed my way, and I started with the first that arrived. Robert Reich, who maintains his own blog, became friendly with Bill Clinton during their time together at Oxford as Rhodes Scholars, and then joined Bill and Hillary at Yale Law School. Many years later, he would serve as Secretary of Labor in Clinton's first administration, and emerged as a leading liberal voice in a decidedly centrist cabinet. In the years since he left office, he has continued promoting liberal values and politics in his prolific writing, including his 2004 book, Reason.

I have already discussed Reich's take on the rise of "radical conservatives," his argument that liberals should not shy from discussions of public morality, and his elucidation of the liberal path to economic prosperity. The final prong of Reich's liberal rebuttal to the radical conservative ("Radcon") agenda is another hot current events topic: patriotism. He starts by exposing the superficial nature of the patriotism that conservatism encourages:

The Radcon version of patriotism requires no real sacrifice by most Americans. And it asks nothing of the more fortunate members of our society. Radcons don't link patriotism to a citizen's duty to pay his fair share of taxes to support the nation. And they don't think patriotism requires that all citizens serve the nation. Theirs is a shallow patriotism that derives its emotional force from disdaining foreign cultures and confronting foreign opponents. As such, it imperils the future security of America and the world...

Can there be any doubt that this is exactly the type of patriotism that conservatives have been pushing for the last eight years? And the trend continues. Let's take a look at the events of just the last week. Last Tuesday, at fundraiser in North Carolina, Sarah Palin said:

We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.

Sure, sure. Never mind those people in the big cities. You know, the ones that terrorists like to attack. Suffice it to say that these comments were so ill-received that even Palin felt it necessary to apologize. But take a moment to look beyond the denigrating offensiveness, and try and find some actual meaning to what she is saying. What can she possibly mean by the "real America" or the "pro-America areas" of this country? It is this same vapid patriotism that Reich was referring to.

Perhaps to give Palin some covering fire, Republican congressmen have produced their own variations on this theme. I have already covered Rep. Michele Bachmann's rant on Hardball last Friday, when she told Chris Matthews, "I wish the American media would take a great look at the views of the people in Congress and find out: Are they pro-America or anti-America?" Bachmann was rewarded for this hate-fest via hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to her opponent and a DCCC influx of an additional $1 million to boot her from her seat. After initially denying she ever made the recorded, televised comments, Bachmann now regrets going on the show, where she claims "a trap was laid."

Just when it couldn't get any weirder, we got word that while introducing John McCain at a rally on Saturday, North Carolina Rep. Robin Hayes told the audience that "liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God." That's not the weird part (after all, this language has been par for the course); this is:

The comments were first reported by the New York Observer. When Politico linked to the Observer story on Monday evening, Hayes' spokeswoman Amanda Little called and denied the report. Observer reporter Jason Horowitz told Politico he stood firmly behind the story. Politico left the quote in The Crypt blog but added the Hayes denial.

On Tuesday, two more reporters and two other witnesses confirmed the quote, but Little continued to deny it, calling the story "irresponsible journalism." Little said she had just as many sources who would deny it, including Hayes' staff and Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who spoke before Hayes.

But then Politico obtained an audio file of the Hayes quote from radio reporter Lisa Miller of WFAE. Little backed down, saying that Hayes must have misspoken.

Seriously. Check the original blog post to see the blow-by-blow updates. It is downright embarrassing. Of course, now that Hayes concedes that he made the statement, he claims "there is no doubt that it came out completely the wrong way." Hate speech can be tricky that way.

Apparently feeling left out, John McCain got in on the act on Tuesday. After flubbing an attack on John Murtha by actually agreeing that Western Pennsylvania is "racist," he made a feeble recovery attempt:

That's right, "Western Pennsylvania is the most patriotic, most god-loving, most patriotic part of America." Take that Eastern Pennsylvania! And the rest of America!

But seriously, there is good news in all of this. Palin had to apologize. Bachmann's comments were seen as so outrageous that her opponent now has $2 million to spend in two weeks, and she was forced to walk back her statement. Hayes, under intense media scrutiny, had to explain away a statement he has probably made a dozen times before.

What does this tell you? That there is another kind of patriotism out there, one that goes far beyond the shallow jingoism spouted by these conservatives. And it is a patriotism that resonates with the electorate, and can be harnessed. As Reich put it:

Liberals should embrace patriotism--not the negative and imperialistic version the Radcons are peddling, but a positive patriotism that's better suited to our time: a patriotism that's based on love of America, but not contempt for what's not America; that cherishes our civil liberties and our democratic right to dissent; that understands that our national security depends as much on America's leadership and moral authority in the world as it does on our military might; and that emphasizes what we owe one another as members of the same society.

Any of this sound familiar? If you had your television tuned to one of the major networks or cable news stations on August 28, 2008, it should:

We are the party of Roosevelt. We are the party of Kennedy. So don't tell me that Democrats won't defend this country. Don't tell me that Democrats won't keep us safe. The Bush-McCain foreign policy has squandered the legacy that generations of Americans -- Democrats and Republicans - have built, and we are here to restore that legacy.

As Commander-in-Chief, I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm's way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home.

I will end this war in Iraq responsibly, and finish the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. I will rebuild our military to meet future conflicts. But I will also renew the tough, direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and curb Russian aggression. I will build new partnerships to defeat the threats of the 21st century: terrorism and nuclear proliferation; poverty and genocide; climate change and disease. And I will restore our moral standing, so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future.

These are the policies I will pursue. And in the weeks ahead, I look forward to debating them with John McCain.

But what I will not do is suggest that the Senator takes his positions for political purposes. Because one of the things that we have to change in our politics is the idea that people cannot disagree without challenging each other's character and patriotism.

The times are too serious, the stakes are too high for this same partisan playbook. So let us agree that patriotism has no party. I love this country, and so do you, and so does John McCain. The men and women who serve in our battlefields may be Democrats and Republicans and Independents, but they have fought together and bled together and some died together under the same proud flag. They have not served a Red America or a Blue America - they have served the United States of America.

So I've got news for you, John McCain. We all put our country first.

And Obama has kept hitting back at the most recent ugliness from the Republicans. Take a look at this Dana Milbank piece from yesterday's Washington Post about Obama's rally in Richmond (note Milbank's mockery of the "Joe the Plumber" meme):

"There are no real parts of the country and fake parts of the country," he told 12,000 supporters. "There are no pro-America parts of the country and anti-America parts of the country. We all love this country, no matter where we live or where we come from. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, city dweller, farm dwellers, it doesn't matter. We're all together."

In recent elections, Democrats were cowed by challenges to their patriotism. But the crowd in Richmond, confident of an Obama victory, brushed off the Palin insult with laughter, a survey of the first row in the arena revealed.

"I'm a terrorist," said Kathleen the Food Vendor.

"We're probably communists," added John the Other Food Vendor, sitting with Kathleen. "I've been hating America ever since I was a young man."

"I was a baby terrorist," offered Terrence the Unemployed Guy.

Obama wasted little time getting to the "careless, outrageous comments" of McCain. "That's what you do when you are out of ideas, out of touch, and you're running out of time." He then had some fun with McCain's Joe-the-Plumber offensive: "He's not fighting for Joe the Plumber; he's fighting for Joe the Hedge Fund Manager." Eventually, he arrived at Palin's "pro-America" charge.

"There are patriots who supported this war in Iraq; there are patriots who opposed it," he said. "There are patriots who believe in Democratic policies and those who believe in Republican policies. The men and women from Virginia and all across this country who serve on our battlefields, some are Democrats, some are Republicans, some are independents, but they have fought together and bled together, and some died together under the same proud flag."

In the heart of real America, the crowd gave Obama a cheer that did not seem at all phony.

Amen to that. With Reich's book and Senator Obama's campaign, Democrats are reclaiming the meaning of patriotism that has been hijacked by conservative rhetoric for too long.

The Story of Britain by Rebecca Fraser

fraser_story.jpgWhether it be a childhood love of Disney's Robin Hood, America's "special relationship" with the former mother country, or an appreciation for the brilliance of their historians, I share many people's interest in the history of England. After World War II and the ancient Egytians, English history seems the most likely subject of a History Channel feature. The Tudor dynasty comes in for special attention, with documentaries like The Six Wives of Henry VIII joined by Hollywood productions such as The Other Boleyn Girl and Showtime's The Tudors.

Over the years I have accumulated several works on specific aspects of British history, including Martin Gilbert's one-volume Churchill and Alison Weir's Henry VIII. Still, it seemed best to look for a survey that could provide a foundational understanding of history on the island. Fortunately, I came across Rebecca Fraser's recent narrative history, The Story of Britain.

Fraser is the daughter of Antonia Fraser, herself the author of numerous histories and novels, and Hugh Fraser a Conservative MP until his death. The two were nearly killed in 1975 by an IRA bomb planted under their car (while Caroline Kennedy was staying at their home), and several years later Antonia left Hugh to begin an affair with her current husband, Nobel-laureate Harold Pinter. Quite a family.

The Story of Britain is a thick book, nearly 800 pages, stretching "From the Romans to the Present." It is divided into sections by dynasty, and into chapters by monarch. Monarchs with particularly eventful or lengthy reigns, like George III and Victoria, even get sub-chapters. It is a straight chronological narrative, and the declared "aim of this history is to attempt to return to those old rules of 'who, when, what, how," with "no apology for re-telling some of the nation's best-loved stories, though the facts on which they rest may be dubious to say the least." That's one way to preface a history, but at least she's honest.

The first thirty pages are devoted to the Romans, first led ashore (but not much further) by Julius Caesar, before the rise of the Anglo-Saxons under Ethelbert of Kent. Very interesting details on the constant pressure applied by Viking aggression throughout this period:

There were three kinds of Vikings and they moved in three separate directions. While the Swedish Vikings swept east in their thousands under their chief Rurik to found the Kievan Rus or first Russian state, the Norwegian Vikings sailed west and founded Greenland. Two centuries later, about the year 1000, they would discover North America, putting in at what is now New England, which they called Vinland. They sailed down the west coast of Scotland and across to Ireland, where they founded Viking cities like Dublin and Cork and laid waste almost all the wealthy monasteries in the north of the country...

The third kind of Viking, known as the 'inner line,' concentrated their unwelcome attentions on the southern coast of England and the north coast of continental Europe. These Vikings were Danes from Denmark, whose ancestors had moved into the districts left empty by the Angles when they went to England in the fifth century... From merely being coastal raisers, who in a sense could be lived with, the Vikings of the mid-ninth century started to spend the winter in the countries they raided, showing their utter contempt for the local community.

This was happening through Europe. By the latter half of the 9th century, the Vikings "took up more or less permanent quarters on the Rhine, the Scheldt, the Somme, the Seine, the Loire and the Garonne." They reached Morocco and laid siege to Constantinople. Their domination of England was only ended by the heroic leadership of Alfred the Great, a prince of Wessex. Anglo-Saxon rule would continue, more or less, until William the Conqueror led his troops across the English Channel in the Norman invasion of 1066Norman invasion of 1066. This began the shift of English attention away from the North Sea and the Scandinavians, and toward the continent. English interests in France would expand further during the reign of one of England's greatest kings, William's great-grandson, Henry II, which lasted from 1154-1189:

Henry II was not a man any baron would wish to trifle with. Not only was was he in the fierce, energetic mould of the Norman kings and possessed of a powerful personality, thanks to his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitane he also ruled the whole of western France from the Loire to Pyrenees on the borders of Spain, as well as Normandy and Anjou, inherited from his mother and his father respectively... The new king of England was thus the greatest monarch in western Europe.

This from an island nation that a century earlier had paid scant attention to its continental neighbors. As the centuries pass, and the internecine battles that mark medieval English history continued to erupt, Fraser does an exceptional job providing sufficient background to the various players, and sufficient detail to understand the rise and fall of various factions. This becomes particularly complicated during the Wars of the Roses. Any work of English political history demands decent genealogical tables, and Fraser provides nine pages worth, starting with Alfred's grandfather Egbert, all the way down to Elizabeth II's great-niece, Margarita Armstrong-Jones.

The civil wars between powerful regions and families that characterized the reigns of Lancastrian and Yorkist monarchs give way to religious factionionalism after Henry VIII's break with Rome, leading most significantly to the English Civil War and the rise of Oliver Cromwell. The defeat of Cromwell's successors and the subsequent Restoration of the throne did not end religious conflict on the island, but the major scene of strife shifts first to the power struggle between the throne and Parliament, and then finally to the party politics that characterize modern democratic government. Fraser covers it all in great detail.

The work is not without faults. There are neither footnotes nor endnotes, and a mere 3 page list of suggestions for "Further Reading." This is almost entirely a political history, and is thus confined for most of the first 500 pages to the crown and the recurring battles over succession. There is little coverage of the social and cultural history of the British, little discussion of music, art, science or philosophy, and the references to religion are confined to religion's influence on the state or as an impetus for war. The appearance of Robert Walpole and the subsequent rise of the office of prime minister, moves the focus, but only to follow the shift of political power. The coverage of 20th-century Britain has more breadth, though even this seems concurrent with the expansion of the state itself.

This is also England-centric history. Fraser fails to give Wales, Scotland, or Ireland anywhere near their due attention. They are largely ignored except for when they are either rebelling or being conquered. That may be more excusable for Ireland, at least insofar as much of it is now independent of Britain. But Scotland and Wales have been part of Britain for hundreds of years, and there is worthy history in those regions beyond the occasional military or political conflict. This is hardly the end of the world; after all, I've got Magnus Magnusson's Scotland and R.F. Foster's Modern Ireland to cover that history. But those looking for one-volume covering the whole history of the Isles might be disappointed.

The Winds of Change by Eugene Linden

linden_winds.jpgAt the end of the last century, Jared Diamond provoked a great deal of debate with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which he argued that the success of a civilization (and particularly European civilization) is not based on cultural or racial superiority, but environmental factors that are largely out of human control. Even if Diamond is correct (I have no basis for taking sides, as I have yet to read what I'm sure will be a fascinating text), it is no surprise that many were taken aback by a theory that removes so much credit for worldly success from human agency. It would rather undermine the power and purpose of most work previously done by political scientists, economists, and anthropologists.

In The Winds of Change, Eugene Linden posits another element he thinks has received insufficient attention as an influence of human civilization: rapid climate change. He argues that "[e]merging evidence suggests that climate may well be a serial killer of colonies and even civilizations," but notes that this notion has met considerable resistance from the academic establishment:

Many historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists dispute the role of climate as a factor in history. John Steinberg, the UCLA archaeologist, put this reaction succinctly: "Most archaeologists are anthropologists at heart, and most anthropologists hate the assertion that human are not in control of their destiny."

For every example of a historical collapse coincident with a dramatic shift in climate, there is an archaeologist or historian who will argue that technological, cultural, political, or economic factors were more important. In the course of this book, I will try to fairly represent these counterarguments. Climate history if still a very young field.

Indeed, Linden makes clear that most of the meaningful work has been done in just the last couple decades, as the technology has advanced to allow analysis of the climate record with sufficient specificity to connect it to human history. These advances have led Linden and others to two conclusions. The first is that climate change can occur much more quickly than previously believed:

The 1990s saw an extraordinarily rapid advance in the understanding of past climates, and this advance in understanding the past precipitated a dramatic shift in the paradigm of how climate changes. As Peter deMenocal puts it, "When I began my Ph.D. in 1986, the conventional wisdom was that it took one thousand years to end an ice age. By the time I finished in 1991, that figure had been reduced by an order of magnitude to one hundred years. Just two years later, Richard Alley showed that climate could change from warm to glacial conditions in two to five years."

Linden's second conclusion is that rapid climate change has been a significant factor in the decline of several colonies and civilizations in human history. In the book's initial chapters, Linden walks through a series of examples where he thinks this has occurred. The first, and most speculative, was a dramatic cooling 8,200 years ago, just "as tribes in the Levant began to build the first protocities, develop agriculture, and organize themselves into complex societies." Linden, backed by the arguments of Harvard archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef, suggests this "cold event stopped this process in its tracks, interrupting the progress of the first stirrings of civilization," not to be restarted in full until the rise of the first Mesopotamian civilizations, three thousand years later.

There is more evidence to support Linden's argument that the downfall of the Akkadian civilization can be traced to rapid climate change. In addition to the Greenland ice core which has served as one of the foundational pieces of evidence in the field, "dozens of other records have surfaced or been developed that confirm that 2200 B.C. was a period of drought in the Middle East and dramatic climate change around the world." This date is key, because it connects to the abandonment of one of the Akkadian's great cities, Tell Leilan:

One day, when workers were constructing a wall in part of the acropolis, work simply stopped. Half-dressed blocks were abandoned; other materials were left scattered about. Workmen had dropped what they were working on and left in a hurry.

What were they fleeing? Invaders? A plague? Most probably they were fleeing starvation. Those left behind did not fare very well. Excavations reveal a very large spike in infant burials in the years after 2200 B.C. Building that wall was possibly the last act of construction in Tell Leilan for the next three hundred years.

Other chapters are devoted to the fall of the Mayans and the Norse abandonment of their colonies on Greenland. After these historical examples, Linden offers a neat venture into the nature of the scientific process, with one chapter devoted to ice and one to mud (with interesting tidbits about scientist's competitive loyalty to their own source material). Unfortunately, Linden tends to repeat himself quite a bit. He offers bits of evidence as new information in late chapters, apparently forgetting he had already discussed the same data. It's a bit annoying considering the book has less than 300 pages.

One other minor irritation has to do with Linden's calendar scheme. He can't seem to decide whether to use the Christian calendar (500 B.C.) or simply date things from the time the book was written (2500 B.P.). Even worse, he sometimes changes back and forth. On a single page describing the fall of the Akkadian Empire, he dates the abandonment of Tell Leilan to "4200 B.P.," "2200 B.C.," and "4,200 years ago." He even confuses himself, at one point listing "4200 B.C." as the relevant date. It's not that I particularly care which dating system he uses, though the "before present" system seems silly as it requires the reader to know when the book was written. I just want a little consistency.

After an extended discussion of El Niño (including a startlingly connection to 19th century famines in India), Linden turns to present-day climate change, what he calls "The Elephant in the Room." He begins with a riff on the ebb and flow of public opinion over the past two decades, in contrast to the growing unanimity in scientific circles. He has particular ire for the media's portrayal of climate issues:

The standard climate-change template for the national media usually begins with a peg--a collapsing ice shelf, a heat wave, retreating glaciers, devastating hurricanes--and then offers a scientist who ties the event to a warming globe. The story usually includes a recapitulation of the basic science (which eats up a good deal of the story), a bit on the many unknowns of future climate changes, and then gives the naysayers a chance to dispute the notion that climate change is a threat... With so much space given over to the rudimentary science and venting by naysayers, the public was left with the impression that there was active debate about the threat long after the scientific community reached consensus.

Sounds a lot like the way the media has been treating the current election, right? Start with an event, say, John McCain lying about something. Give a Democrat a chance to discuss it, give a Republican a chance to obfuscate, deplore the ugly state of modern campaigning, then fail completely to point out that John McCain was, in fact, lying. The profession is, in John Marshall's terms, fundamentally corrupt.

Still, as valid as Linden's 40 page discussion of the global warming crisis may be, it is an awkward fit at the end of this book. While he does connect the crisis to current research being done concerning the possible shutdown of thermohaline circulation, it feels like an extended editorial on the author's frustration with the public and politicians. Well-founded frustration, sure, but the first 200 pages of the book were an introduction to scientific theories regarding rapid climate change and historical examples that had no roots in human activity. So while human activity is surely dramatically influencing the current climate at present, Linden's book actually seems to demonstrate how catastrophically our climate can change without any help from us.

The Demon Under the Microscope by Thomas Hager

hager_demon.jpgIn my review of Molly Crosby's disappointing The American Plague that a good medical history weaves together scientific discovery, social history, and biography. Crosby's book fell flat because she focused too heavily on the social history at the expense of a decent exploration of the science.

In The Demon Under the Microscope, Thomas Hager does not make that mistake. His book explores not one particular illness, but the search for a drug that might treat the wide range of bacterial diseases that were taking hundreds of thousands of lives each year. This search, which would lead to the development of the world's first antibiotics, sulfa drugs, was spurred by the frustration of World War I doctors who saw thousands of soldiers die of wound infection:

[E]ven the most heroic and seemingly successful surgeries could go completely wrong a few days later. A soldier could wake one morning to find his carefully closed incisions, which had been fine the day before, now swollen, red, and painful. The edges, perhaps, had started to split open. Sometimes a foul-smelling, dark liquid oozed out. The skin around the wound began to take on a "curious half-jellified, half-mummified look," as one physician described it. These were cases of what military physicians feared most in their postoperative cases: Gasbrand, the Germans called it. Gas gangrene. The doctors knew what caused Gasbrand--an infection by bacteria--and they knew how it progressed... There was nothing much that could be done... Once gas gangrene was under way, the bacteria almost always won. Some patients fought it, railing and ranting for a day or two. Then they usually gave up, went silent and pale, temperature dropping, lips bluish. A day or two later, they quietly died of "green-black gangrene," one historian wrote," which emptied surgical wards into the graveyard."

One German doctor in particular, Gerhard Domagk, led the search and he is the main (but not only) protagonist of the story. Domagk's medical studies were interrupted by World War I, during which he would be wounded and serve as a medic on the Eastern Front, experiencing first-hand the destructive power of bacterial infection described above. After the war, he finished his medical degree, and after several stints in academic research positions, went to work for Bayer as the head of their new chemical drug research program. Hager gives a brief business history of the German chemical industry (including Bayer), which rose on the production of dyes; it was medicinal use of these dyes, pioneered by Paul Erlich, that Domagk was exploring at Bayer.

Indeed, the prominent role that Germany plays in the story leads to a variety of subplots. Crosby's book on yellow fever emphasized the backwards nature of medical education in 19th-century America, particularly as compared to that in Europe. This was part of a larger systemic difference in scientific academia, and the Germans were the innovators:

Until World War I broke the German monopoly on chemistry, no matter where you were in the world, you could not consider yourself a chemist (or much of a physicist, for that matter) until you first spent time in Germany studying with a master. Scientists from around the world flocked to Germany and came home to remake their own colleges. Johns Hopkins, founded in 1876, was the first German-model school in the United States, the first "research university." Hopkins introduced many German-style innovations into American education: undergraduate "majors" instead of a generic liberal arts degree; small seminars with their give-and-take with a professor in addition to lectures; an emphasis on original faculty research, especially in the sciences; "doctoral" degrees awarded to students once they had shown their own ability for independent and innovative inquiry. Soon virtually every major university in the United State was doing what Hopkins did, instituting polices that had been in place in Germany for a generation.

Not only was there a difference in the academic structure, there was also an interesting contrast regarding the perceived legitimacy of industrial scientific research vis a vis academica:

Doing science for a corporation was disdained by most academic scientists, who believed that only in a university setting or perhaps a government laboratory could a scientist follow the trial of pure knowledge, unsullied by commercial concerns. In Germany, however, the situation was different. German science had become the best in the world because German schools were among the best in the world, and German schools tended to have productive relationships with German industry.

If it sounds like there was a particularly close relationship between academia, industry, and the state, remember this was Imperial and then Nazi Germany. There are, no surprise, multiple Nazi connections to the story. Hager examines the folding of Bayer into the infamous German chemical conglomerate I.G. Farben, which would make substantial use of slave labor at Auschwitz during World War II, and produced the poison gas used by the Nazis to massacre Jews. He digs into the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, who died from bacterial infection a week after a grenade explosion sent shrapnel deep into his body. According to Hager, allegations of insufficient use of sulfa as a treatment by Karl Gebhardt, Heinrich Himmler's personal physician, spurred medical experimentation on female prisoners at Ravensbruck. Gebhardt was executed after standing trial at Nuremberg. The Nazi regime even set its sights on Domagk, briefly imprisoning him for the audacity of replying politely to notification that he'd been awarded the 1939 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

While this exploration of political and social history of the era is fascinating, Hager's real success lay in the medical aspects of the story. Though multiple bacterial diseases are mentioned, it is those caused by streptoccus that are most prominently featured:

Strep was every doctor's nightmare. The organisms could be found everywhere, in dirt and dust, in the human nose, on the skin, and in the throat. Most strains of strep were harmless. But a few were deadly, and when they got into the wrong place--beneath the skin, through a wound, into the blood--they could cause at least fifteen different human diseases, each so different from each other that in the 1920s researchers had still not untangled them. The worst strains of strep could secrete three poisons, wipe out red blood cells, raise fevers, eat through tissue, fight their way through the body's natural defenses, and create a bewildering variety of different diseases as they went. A strep-infected scratch could lead to the burning rash of erysipelas, the old St. Anthony's Fire; a bit deeper it became cellulitis, a potentially fatal infection of the subcutaneous tissue; if it got into the bloodstream, it cause septicemia, a blood infection; in the spinal fluid, meningitis.

Not to mention it was responsible for scarlet fever, some forms of pneumonia, and one of the most potent forms of septicemia, childbed fever:

In the 1920s the paradigm for obstetrics--a field that primarily male physicians had finally taken over, during the previous three centuries, from primarily female midwives--was that of illness. "Pregnancy is a disease of nine months' duration," one physician had quipped; another advised, "It is best to consider every labor case as a severe operation." Their remarks underscored the pessimism of caregivers who lost many new mothers after childbirth. The process of birth included a natural wound, deep in the mother's body, where the placenta detached from the uterus... New mothers--especially those in maternity wards--risked a disease called cildbed fever, endemic in many hospitals, that killed tens of thousand of women every year... [S]tudies showed that childbed fever was caused by the same strains of Sreptococcus that had been found in soldiers... the primary cause of wound infections.

After thus reviewing the wide variety of diseases that prompted the search for some way to fight back, Hager returns to Domagk's laboratory at Bayer, where repeated manipulations of dyes led to the almost accidental addition of sulfur to the mix, with great results: the world's first antibiotic drug, Prontosil. Though it would take many months, and the intervention of French scientists seeking their own version of the drug, it was eventually discovered that the healing agent was not the dye but the sulfur, a cheap and abundant resource. This led to an explosion in sulfur-based drugs, and the American experience with these sulfur drugs revealed quite a bit about the state of pharmaceuticals at that time:

Almost any drug, as long as it was not a narcotic, could be sold without a prescription. There was no requirement that labels list all ingredients, proper dosages, or side effects... Patent medicines in the early part of the twentieth century were as firmly established a part of American culture as jazz or baseball. Americans were accustomed to medicating themselves, deciding on their own treatments, and buying their own drugs. It went against the grain to have some doctor or federal agency telling Americans how to cure themselves.

Manufacturers in this field jealously guarded secret recipes and sold their products directly to the public through massive advertising campaigns. They were masters of ballyhoo, filling every newspaper and papering every town with claims for the most amazing cures attributed to concoctions often brewed from the most worthless ingredients.

Efforts had been made early in President Roosevelt's presidency to update the old law, but they had failed in the face of lobbyists, manufacturers, and advertisers. One concoction would change everything and lead to a total transformation in American food and drug law, setting the model for the world. This drug, called Elixir Sulfanilamide, was not wholly worthless. It did, after all, contain sulfanilamide. Unfortunately, sulfanilamide was difficult to dissolve in water, so the chemist who created the elixir decided to mix it with diethylene glycol, which is just as poisonous as it sounds. More than 100 deaths later, Congress passed the 1938 Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which laid the foundation for modern food and drug regulation as we know it.

Hager has succeeded admirably in crafting a history that plumbs the scientific aspects of illness and medicine, ties these to the political, military, and social history of the early twentieth-century, and does justice to those who suffered, those who slaved, and those who succeeded in advancing the art and science of healing.

The American Plague by Molly Crosby

crosby_american.jpgAccounts of mankind's endless effort to combat disease are fascinating to me. A good medical history weaves together the scientific discovery of the illness, the social history of its effect on humanity, and the biography of the men and women who devote their lives to fighting it. Several months ago I read David Oshinsky's Polio, which traces the race to a vaccine between Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, and enjoyed it greatly.

In The American Plague, Molly Crosby traces the history of another viral disease, yellow fever. Though little known by most Americans today, this is a disease with symptoms horrific enough to match anything else nature has thrown at us:

It hit suddenly in the form of a piercing headache and painful sensitivity to light, like looking into a white sun. At that point, the patient could still hope that it was not yellow fever, maybe just a headache from the heart. But the pain worsened, crippling movement and burning the skin. The fever rose to 104, maybe 105 degrees, and bones felt as though they had been cracked. The kidneys stopped functioning, poisoning the body. Abdominal cramps began in the final days of illness as the patient vomited black blood brought on my internal hemorrhaging. The victim became a palate of hideous color: Red blood ran from the gums, eyes and nose. The tongue swelled, turning purple. Black vomit roiled. And the skin grew a deep gold, the whites of the eyes turning brilliant yellow.

It doesn't get much nastier than that. Crosby devotes the early chapters of the book to one of the largest modern outbreaks of yellow fever, the 1878 epidemic in Memphis, Tennessee:

The city collapsed, hemorrhaging its population, its income, its viability. Trains pulled away, leaving people weeping beside the tracks, their last chance at escape gone as the final train cars rolled to a start. A morbid calmness fell over Memphis, so still and quiet as to be serene if one didn't know it was simply the pallor of death. In July of that year, the city boasted a population of 47,000. By September, 19,000 remained and 17,000 of them had yellow fever.

Crosby then shifts her focus to Cuba, twenty years later, and the bulk of the remaining pages are devoted to the efforts led by Army doctor Walter Reed to isolate the causes of yellow fever. The disease had hit the American military hard during the Spanish-American War, and Reed was dispatched to Cuba to lead a team to investigate the disease.

As Walter Reed's group began to narrow their focus to the mosquito as a likely vector for the disease, they needed experimental data to support this hypothesis. It had been twenty years since Dr. Carlos Finlay was widely mocked for his mosquito theory, and in the interim a bacterial theory of yellow fever had gained support. Crosby devotes a short chapter to vivisection, human experimentation, and the antivivisectionist movement, and later provides some context about the young men, mostly soldiers, who answered the Yellow Fever Commission's call for volunteers:

In modern times, it's hard to understand the mentality that would lead a soldier into knowingly risking his life for the purpose of medicine. Soldiers are trained to fight and defend; if any illness befalls them, it's considered a cruel and unjust turn of events. But prior to World War II and the introduction of penicillin, soldiers lost their loves to disease far more than bullets. From the time of the American Revolution through World War I, a soldier knew his odds of dying from dysentery, cholera, typhoid, smallpox, influenza, or yellow fever were greater than those on the battlefield, so volunteering for human experiments might not seem as much of a psychological departure as it would today. After all, a soldier's duty is to defense, and many men felt that the greatest threat to the American people lay not in enemy warships or troops, but in disease.

In the Commission's work, there were two parallel experiments. The first was to prove that mosquitoes were the carriers of yellow fever; the second was to prove that simple, unsanitary filth could not spread the disease. The latter would end once and for all the bacterial theory. The first experiment involved, obviously enough, having infected mosquitoes bite the volunteers. The circumstances under which the second experiment was conducted, though posing no risk of a yellow fever infection to the volunteers (or so Reed correctly believed), was immensely unpleasant in its own right:

A single stove stood in the one-room house, and it kept the temperature inside somewhere between 90 and 100 degrees at all times. Impenetrable to light or air, the small room felt like a furnace. The three men began breaking open the crates and boxes left in the center of the room. As they opened the first trunk, the odor was so pungent that the men ran outdoors, hands over their mouths, to keep from retching. After a few minutes, the three men returned and finished unpacking boxes full of soiled sheets, covered in vomit, sweat and feces from the yellow fever ward. They dressed in the filthy clothing that had been worn by dying patients, they covered their cots in sheets stained with black vomit, and then they spent the next twenty nights the same way.

This horrific experience was endured by multiple trios, but not a single one ever developed yellow fever, providing "irrefutable proof that yellow fever could not be transmitted by 'germs,' infected clothing or air." When the mosquito trials succeeded in infecting numerous volunteers (and killing Jesse Lazear, one of Reed's three colleagues on the Commission), the riddle was solved.

Crosby devotes the last section of the book to the century since Walter Reed's efforts. The good news includes the development of a vaccine. The bad news is that the vaccine is no longer included in many vaccine schedules, and the World Health Organization estimates that 30,000 per year still die from the disease in Africa and South America, and the rest of the world "must still be considered at risk for yellow fever epidemics."

The problem with The American Plague is it is not the book Crosby really wanted to write. A resident of Memphis, it is apparent that the local history explored in the first chunk of the book is her true passion. She goes into great detail about city life, and the doctor, nurses, and citizens who lived and died during the 1878 epidemic. Even the verbose subtitle of the book highlights "the epidemic that shaped our history."

As a result, the subsequent shift to Cuba is jarring. Her take on the Yellow Fever Commission's operation is really just a series of short biographies strung into a narrative. Like she does in the Memphis section, Crosby spends far more time on the people than the disease, and there is no significant effort to explore the scientific and medical underpinnings of the Commission's efforts. The final section, which purports to takes the story to the present day, is a mere 25 pages. Barely five pages are devoted to the development of the vaccine, a few references to the continuing presence of yellow fever in Africa and South America, and then, you guessed it, an epilogue that returns to Memphis for a discussion of the long-term effects on that city.

Crosby has written an excellent long article on the 1878 yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, with a shallow hundred page detour to Cuba tacked on to pad the page length. The narrative is breezy, and the details about Memphis are legitimately interesting, but those seeking a serious scientific history of yellow fever will want to look elsewhere.

Crescent & Star by Stephen Kinzer

kinzer_crescent.jpgStanding as it does at the crossroads of continents, Anatolia has been witness to the rise and fall of many of the world's great empires: the Akkadians, the Achaemenid Persians, the Greeks of Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Byzantines, and finally the Ottoman Turks. Despite Anatolia's strong historical ties to the Greek world (it was the birthplace of Homer and Herodotus), the long reign of the Ottoman Empire turned the region away from Europe, and the area suffered under the long stagnation of Ottoman rule, ending only with the dissolution and partitioning of the empire after World War I. A Turkish nationalist movement rose in opposition to the partitioning of Anatolia itself, and was led to victory in the Turkish War of Independence by a military officer named Mustafa Kemal, who would eventually take the surname Atatürk, father of the Turks.

After founding the Turkish Republic, Atatürk served as president for fifteen years. He embarked on a full scale reform of the state based on an Enlightenment-based ideology that promoted secularism, modernity, and democracy. He abolished the Ottoman caliphate, granted women full political rights, and replaced religious law with secular penal and civil codes.

Three-quarters of a century later, Atatürk's ideology still serves as the foundation for Turkish political life, and he himself is worshiped as a near-deity. In 2001 (less than two weeks after 9/11), Stephen Kinzer published Crescent & Star, an exploration of how Atatürk's ideology has been implemented by his successors. After five years as The New York Times bureau chief in Istanbul, Kinzer reports that while the Turkish people have made tremendous progress, their leaders have not kept pace:

If Atatürk could return to see what has become of his nation, he undoubtedly would be astonished at how far it has come. Muddy villages have become bustling cities and cow paths have become superhighways... People are educated, self-confident and eager to build a nation that embodies the ideals of democracy and human rights.

The ruling elite, however, refuses to embrace this new nation or even admit it exists. Military commanders, prosecutors, security officers, narrow-minded bureaucrats, lapdog newspaper editors, rigidly conservative politicians and other members of this sclerotic cadre remain psychologically trapped in the 1920s... They not only ignore but actively resist intensifying pressure from educated, worldly Turks who want their country to break free of its shackles and complete its march toward the democracy that was Atatürk's dream.

This is the thesis of Kinzer's short book, which mixes equal parts first-person journalism with more traditional historical analysis, and Kinzer repeats it ad nauseam. If the elites will fully embrace Western-style democracy, Kinzer insists, "Turkey will astonish the world by becoming the most audaciously successful nation of the twenty-first century." Unfortunately, the depth of his analysis does not support this prescription.

Kinzer does best when fulfilling his natural role as journalist, particularly in the brief interludes he calls meze (after the Turkish small dish). In these pages, Kinzer provides the flavor and scent of modern Turkey, reporting on the drinking cafes called meyhane, the archaeological excavations of Troy , and his own brief imprisonment after encountering an army roadblock while on assignment in Kurdish areas of eastern Turkey:

Despite my growing concern, I could not help smiling when I saw that two lines of soldiers, a total of twenty-four men, had been assembled to oversee my arrival. Never had any military body taken me so seriously.

Under the watchful eyes of these recruits, I was brought down a set of steps to the subterranean jail. I knew that because I was a foreigner, nothing too serious would happen to me. Nonetheless, while descending that concrete staircase I could not help thinking of the many unfortunate Kurds, guilty and innocent, who must have been dragged down here on their way to brutal abuse.

The book also serves as a basic introduction to the major issues in modern Turkish history: the struggle between secularism and Islam, the Kurdish question, the official denial of the Armenian genocide, the tensions with Greece, and the 1999 earthquake. Unfortunately, on each of these topics you will have to take Kinzer's word for it. There are no footnotes, endnotes, or even the most basic bibliography. Each subject is, in Kinzer's hands, turned into another example of how the Turkish political leadership has failed. Not to fear, however, Kinzer knows just what to do. The close of each chapter includes some variation of "Turkey must..." or "The state must..." followed by a prescriptive platitude trumpeting the purity of Western-style freedom and democracy.

When faced with the dissonance of admiring a people, but recognizing the tremendous shortcomings of their government, Kinzer chooses simply to assert that the government is detached from their own people. Kinzer blames the flimsy characters that have served as Turkey's political leaders, but not the people who elected them, or the intellectual and cultural elites who might offer themselves as substitutes. He seems to recognize that the various military coups over the years were good things (even the soft coup of 1997), yet simply asserts, with no supporting analysis, that such oversight is no longer necessary.

Kinzer clearly loves Turkey, and the Turkish people. And when he sticks to his first-person accounts of Turkish daily life, it is not hard to see why. Unfortunately, the book's depiction of contemporary issues in Turkey is marred by his distracting and ill-supported condescension. Kinzer's journalistic vignettes are worthwhile, but there must be a better introduction to modern Turkish history.

1948 by Benny Morris

morris_1948.jpgBack in 2006 I read two books on the Arab-Israeli wars: Michael Oren's Six Days of War and Abraham Rabinovich's The Yom Kippur War. Oren's was the superior book, because he succeeded in not just analyzing the military conflict, but in establishing the context for the Six-Day War on two fronts: its place in 1967's global politics, and in Arab-Israeli history.

Integral to an understanding of that history is a familiarity with the 1948 War, which set the stage for everything that happened in the decades since. Though I read and enjoyed Martin Gilbert's Israel as a teenager, my knowledge of Israel's War of Independence has remained rather simplistic: Jews immigrate to Palestine, fight British, British turn the issue over to the United Nations, U.N. plans partition, Israel declares statehood, Arab nations invade, Israel defeats them.

Since so many of the present debates over Israeli/Palestinian issues can be traced back to the events of the late 1940s, most books written about that era exhibit the deep biases of their authors. I have avoided them for that reason. In his new book, 1948, Benny Morris has managed to present a remarkably even-handed account of the conflict.

Morris starts the book with a historical background that traces developments under the last years of the Ottoman Empire and the interwar rule by the British. This era see a dramatic rise in Jewish immigration and the Zionist movement, encouraged by the Balfour Declaration in 1917 suggesting British government support for a Jewish state. Subsequent attempts by the British to appease both their Arab allies and the growing Jewish population only resulted in the Mandate inhabitants taking turns attacking the British. Arab unrest culminated in a massive revolt from 1936-1939. This episode also marked the beginning of a pattern of Arab self-destruction. In response to the violence, the British offered to retract the Balfour declaration, promising a unified Palestinian state within ten years with severely curtailed Jewish immigration; the Palestinian Arabs "maganed to pluck defeat from the jaws of victory" by rejecting this and demanding "full cessation of Jewish immigration, immediate British withdrawal, and immediate independence." Instead, they got nothing out of the three years of violence, except for the near total destruction of their political class:

The Arab Revolt thus ended in unmitigated defeat for the Palestinians Somewhere between three thousand and six thousand of their political and military activists had been killed, with many thousands more either driven into exile or jailed; the leadership of the Palestine Arab national movement was decimated, exiled, or jailed; and a deep chasm, characterized by blood feuds, divided the society's elite families... The Palestinians had also suffered serious economic harm, through both the general strike and British repression. They had prematurely expended their military power against the wrong enemy and had been dealt a mortal blow in advance of the battle with the real enemy, Zionism. The damage to their war effort in 1947-1948 was incalculable.

In contrast, Morris traces the urgent efforts by the Yishuv to prepare for the coming conflict by building workable political, military, and civic institutions, and circumventing limits on immigration and the arms trade. Thus when the Jews escalate their attacks on the British after World War II, "the British cabinet decided to wash its hands of Palestine and dump the problem in the lap of the United Nations." As the British prepare to leave, the Yishuv already has in place the framework of a functioning government. From here, Morris divides the conflict into two main phases: a civil war between Jews and Palestinian Arabs from November 1947 (after the U.N. approved its partition plan) until May 1948 (when the British Mandate ended), and the international conflict which began with the Pan-Arab invasion on 15 May 1948.

Morris lays out the self-interested nature of the Arab nations that invaded after the British withdrawal. The Jordanians had particularly grand ambitions. Rather than even pretend to take up the cause of Palestinian statehood, Jordan had sought to simply substitute themselves and expand their territory through secret negotiations with the Yishuv:

[W]hen partion reemerged at the end of [World War II] as a possible solution to the Palestine conundrum, Abdullah... saw his chance. Of course, he sought a partition not between the Jews and the Palestine Arabs, but between the Jews and himself... The Palestine Arabs, crushed by Britian in 1936-39 and still weak, could be ignored. Palestine or parts of it could be fused with Transjordan--if only there was agreement with Britian and the Jews, respectively Abdullah's political-military patron and his powerful neighbors.

Though no agreement was reached, this ambition informed Abdullah's war goals, and explain why he aimed to merely occupy the portions of the Arab-occupied West Bank that his troops would take with little resistance after crossing the Jordan. The other Arab states took note of this selfish move and adjusted their war plans accordingly. This universal self-interest would prevent any semblance of a unified strategy between the Arab forces:

[I]n the days before and after 15 May the war plan had changed in essence from a united effort to conquer large parts of the nascent Jewish state, and perhaps destroy it, into an uncoordinated multilateral land grab. As a collective, the Arab states still wished and hoped to destroy Israel--and, had their armies encountered no serious resistance, would, without doubt, have proceeded to take all of Palestine, including Tel Aviv and Haifa. But, in the circumstances, their invasion now aimed at seriously injuring the Yishuv and conquering some of its territory while occupying all or most of the areas earmarked for Palestinian Arab statehood.

Although the Arab leaders vaguely alluded to a duty to "save the Palestinians," none of them seriously contemplated the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state... all, to one degree or another, care little about Palestinian goals, their rhetoric notwithstanding.

This would set the stage for six decades of Arab monarchs and dictators using the Palestinians as a rallying cry to further their own interests and distract their citizens from focusing their anger on internal issues. Contrast this with the fate of hundreds of thousands of Jews displaced from Arab nations (from Morocco to Iraq) by violence after 1947:

Israel's leaders, already in 1948, by way of rebuffing Arab efforts to achieve repatriation of the Palestinian refugees, pointed out that what had taken place was a double exodus, or an unplanned "exchange of population," more or less of equal numbers, with a similar massive loss of property affecting both the Palestinian refugees and the Jewish refugees... The Jewish refugee problem quickly disappeared as Israel absorbed them; the Palestinian refugee problem persisted (and persists), as the Arab states largely failed to absorb their refugees, leaving many of them stateless and languishing in refugee camps and living on international charity.

Unfortunately, Morris' anaylsis of political history and its effect on the war grows shallow and infrequent as the book progresses. Once the Arab invasion begins, Morris' recitation of military encounters is both exhaustive and exhausting, taking up better than 200 pages for six months of fighting. There are so many raids and battles, so many hills and villages, so many battalions and brigades that it becomes nearly impossible to digest. The maps are either too focused or too broad, and thus unable to convey both the tactical and the strategic progress of the war.

Morris devotes insufficient attention to the larger political machinations at work, whether on the global stage, or at the regional level. His narrative occasionally hints at these issues, such as the start of the Cold War, the tensions between Britain and America, and the inter-Arab rivalries (where were the Saudis?). But they are only mentioned when they happen to interrupt the flow of military events, like when the threat of British intervention prevents Israel from cutting off the remaining Egyptian troops in the Gaza Strip.

Morris certainly provided a detailed examination of the military aspects of the conflict. He is to be congratulated on the balanced portrait he provides of Israeli and Arab behavior in the war; even in the discussion of wartime atrocities, or the expulsion of refugees, he provides a sober and sympathetic analysis that incorporates each side's perspective. He simply missed an opportunity to apply his even-handed approach to the bigger picture.

Polk by Walter Borneman

borneman_polk.jpgWhile Walter McDougall's Promised Land, Crusader State was not entirely successful as a survey of American foreign policy, his chapter on Manifest Destiny alerted me to an amazing bit of history of which I was previously unaware: President James K. Polk, in just one term, presided over the American territorial expansion into what became Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oregon, and Washington.

I was aware of the general scope of the expansion, but not the condensed time frame. And I probably could have identified Polk with the Mexican-American War if a game of Trivial Pursuit forced the question. But that is about it for the era between Jackson and Lincoln. With my curiosity piqued, and a 40% off coupon for Borders in my hand, I bought Polk, Walter Borneman's new biography of our eleventh President.

Early last year I read Borneman's The French and Indian War, and found it to be a serviceable but superficial survey of that conflict (for a better short history, try William Fowler's Empires at War). I am happy to report that his latest book is far superior, and is the best short presidential biography I have read.

As Borneman mentions late in the book, Polk's historical reputation in the past fifty years has been rather positive. Each time someone tries to rank the Presidents, Polk falls somewhere between 8th and 14th. Not too shabby when you've got Lincoln, Washington, Roosevelt and Jefferson out in front. In evaluating his presidency, I think two things stand out as particularly striking: first, during his first campaign he committed himself to one term, and he stood by that commitment; second, he laid out very explicit goals for that one term, and he achieved them. The self-imposed term limit was in part a political maneuver:

In later years, a pledge by a candidate that he would seek only one term as president would become almost unthinkable, but in 1844, there was both political pressure and precedent to make such a statement. The Whigs had long called for a one-term presidency, not only because it fit Henry Clay's vision of limited executive government but also because it was a rallying cry against the prospects of eight years of another Jackson

William Henry Harrison made the pledge in his inaugural, then promptly died. Polk chose to make the pledge in his letter accepting the Democratic nomination and "[t]hus, in a single paragraph, Polk neatly neutralized Henry Clay and his Whigs on the issue of a one-term presidency." There is no telling how much difference this made, but it is worth noting that Polk essentially won the presidency when a mere 5,000 vote plurality in New York got him its 36 crucial electoral votes. Borneman makes clear that this was not an empty campaign promise for Polk, however:

Indeed, despite Polk's arduous pursuit of the presidency throughout his political career, there is no evidence to suggest that ever contemplated reversing his one-term pledge. As in so many other things, James K. Polk determined a course and stuck with it.

One reason he may not have wavered was that "the four main objectives of his presidency had been realized." And these were not broad, abstract objectives. According to George Bancroft, Polk's contemporary, cabinet member, and future historian, Polk held a meeting shortly after taking the oath of office, and laid out the concrete goals of his presidency:

If Bancroft's memory was correct, Polk "raised his hand high in the air and bringing it down with force on his thigh" confided to Bancroft the "four great measures" of his administration. First, with Texas at last on the road to statehood, the "joint occupation" of Oregon had to be settled with Great Britain. Second, with the flanks of Oregon and Texas secure, the continent must be rounded out by the acquisition of California and "a large district on the coast." Third, the tariff, so onerous to the southern states, must be reduced to a revenue basis, and last, an independent treasury, immune from the banking schemes of recent years, must be established.

He succeeded in each ambition. And while he is most remembered for success in the expansionist foreign policy goals, and the war fought to achieve them, all four achievements stand out as remarkable considering the tremendous party and sectional divides shaking the country. It is fortunate for Polk that he achieved what he wanted within his single term. Pledge or no pledge, his health had deteriorated so much during his presidency that he was to die just 103 days after leaving office, the shortest post-presidency in American history. He would not live to see slavery, an issue underlying much of the domestic political conflict in his own time, tear the country asunder.

While Polk is naturally the focus of the book, Borneman does endeavor to paint a broader picture of the political landscape that preceded and succeeded Polk's rise to power. In so doing, he covers a period of American political history that has remained a mystery to most Americans, myself included. Borneman shares an anecdote about the gaps in his own knowledge that many of us can relate to:

By my third-grade year, my grandfather was tutoring me in the presidents of the United States, as well as the starting lineup of the Cleveland Indians. The presidential list was shorter then -- when you got to Eisenhower, you were finished -- but I had particular trouble with the eight names between Andrew Jackson and Abraham Lincoln. Martin Van Buren was easy enough, and I could remember William Henry Harrison. But who came next?

Patiently, Grandpa repeated the names and had me recite them in a particular cadence: Tyler, Polk, Taylor -- pause -- Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan. It wasn't long before I could rattle them off with barely a pause, but for years, the men behind the names were to me what they have remained to many people: a blur. Interestingly enough, however, most of these men interacted with each other for decades during one of the most turbulent yet dynamic eras of American history.

This is where Borneman really excels. In order to make sense of Polk's career, Borneman tries to sort out the chaos that was antebellum politics. In so doing he gives vivid sketches of the old power brokers like John Quincy Adams and Polk's mentor, Andrew Jackson, Polk's contemporary competitors like John Calhoun and Henry Clay, and the long list of those who had ambitions to succeed him. This list included everyone from his generals (Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott) to his cabinet (James Buchanan).

Borneman's book is a perfect length at 360 pages; while there could have been more analysis of westward migration, or the war with Mexico, or the brewing turmoil of abolitionism, these are topics best left for separate volumes. Borneman covers them adequately for purposes of discussing Polk's presidency. And the book is not just a biography of one president; it is a solid introduction to the political history of the times.

Promised Land, Crusader State by Walter McDougall

mcdougall_promised.jpgAfter finishing John Lewis Gaddis' recent history The Cold War, I thought it might be worth become familiar with American foreign policy on a larger scale. I devoted a good portion of my undergraduate studies to international relations at the theoretical level, with my first semester attendance at Stanley Hoffman's "Ethics and International Relations" being a pivotal moment in my academic (and professional) future.

The next semester I took courses on "The Causes and Prevention of War," "Terrorist Movements in International Relations" (from Louise Richardson, soon to be principal of St. Andrews), and "Sino-US Relations" . After that, the Core Program, the requirements of my concentration, and general curiosity led me further afield from the international relations realm. So while I am conversant in the basic theory (think Michael Walzer), I have some gaps to fill on the history.

I decided to start with Walter McDougall's Promised Land, Crusader State, since it purported to be a "reinterpretation of the traditions that have shaped U.S. foreign policy from 1776 to the present," and it sought to do so in just 222 pages. I also thought it important that McDougall wrote the book in 1997; this gave him a few years of distance from the tumultuous decline of the Soviet bloc, but came before the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many books written since those events are in some respects attempting to examine how these recent episodes, especially the invasion of Iraq, fit (or don't fit) into a historical survey of America's place in the world; see, e.g. Robert Kaplan's Dangerous Nation or Niall Ferguson's Colossus. I am hoping that the Oxford History of the United States' upcoming entry on foreign policy, From Colony to Superpower by George Herring, avoids this trap. The early reviews are stellar.

Unfortunately, McDougall's book is an uneven affair. He chooses a strange pseudo-religious framing technique, telegraphed by the title itself. McDougall divides the text into what he calls the "Old Testament" and "New Testament" of American foreign policy. Yet this is not a text about how American faith, or the religious establishment, influenced American foreign policy. There are a few references to this phenomena: the early belief that America was a "holy land," and the motivation for the brief imperialist efforts in the last decade of the 19th century. But that is about it; there is no organized analysis of the growth or decline of religious influence, or the differences of opinion between the various American sects. Indeed, the aspect of recent American foreign policy that most obviously begs for analysis of religious influence (both Christian and Jewish) is the nation's strong support for Israel, yet this gets but a single glancing reference near the end of the text (see Mearsheimer and Walt for that debate).

Moving to the substance of this framework he has chosen, McDougall sets out what he deems to be the eight traditions of American diplomacy:

Our Old Testament
  1. Liberty, or Exceptionalism (so called)
  2. Unilateralism, or Isolationism (so called)
  3. The American System, or Monroe Doctrine (so called)
  4. Expansionism, or Manifest Destiny (so called)

Our New Testament

  1. Progressive Imperialism
  2. Wilsonianism, or Liberal Internationalism (so called)
  3. Containment
  4. Global Meliorism

It is obvious from the list that McDougall is skeptical of the conventional wisdom about several of these traditions. He argues, for instance, that while there is a tradition of Expansionism, Manifest Destiny was a symptom (not a cause) of this tradition, since "American expansion in all its forms long predated the Manifest Destiny craze and continued long after it died." Similar caveats are explored in each of the "Old Testament" traditions.

McDougall is at his strongest in these first four chapters, laying out the basis for American creation and consolidation of its continental and then hemispheric power. The second chapter is particularly interesting; McDougall makes clear that America never had a tradition of "isolating" itself by ignoring global events:

Let us dispense with the term altogether and substitute for it a word that really describes the second great tradition in America foreign relations: Unilateralism. It was a natural, even inevitable corollary of the first American tradition, for if the essence of Exceptionalism was Liberty at home, the essence of Unilateralism was to be at Liberty to make foreign policy independent of the "toils of European ambition." Unilateralism never meant that the United States should, or for that matter could, sequester itself or pursue an ostrich-like policy toward all foreign countries. It simply meant, as Hamilton and Jefferson both underscored, that the self-evident course for the United States was to avoid permanent, entangling alliances and to remain neutral in Europe's wars except when our Liberty -- the first hallowed tradition -- was at risk.

McDougall's analysis becomes much weaker when he turns to the so-called "New Testament" traditions. In these chapters, he has two objectives: to define the tradition, and to show how it was related to the four "Old Testament" traditions. Despite this expanded ambition, McDougall constrains these chapters to the same length as the earlier ones. As a result, both of his objectives remain unsatisfied; the explications of "Progressive Imperialism" and "Wilsonianism" are thin, and McDougall moves too fast through his historical examples to leave sufficient space to connect these traditions to those that came before.

The book is especially uneven when it gets to Vietnam; McDougall saves it for the end, and the "Global Meliorism" chapter almost drowns in pages of minutiae on U.S. efforts in Indochina. This is unfortunate, because it is also the chapter where McDougall directs the strongest criticism toward America's foreign policy. McDougall attacks the basic presumption that America is capable of spreading its values around the world, and the related conviction that America would be righteous in doing so if it could:

The causal connection between poverty and oppression on the one hand, and war and revolution on the other, seems plausible, but obviously not all poor or authoritarian countries threaten their neighbors, any more than all poor people become criminals. In addition, labels like "poor" and "oppressed," "rich" and "free" are so relative as to be practically meaningless. So is the label "democracy." If it just means elections, majority rule, or government by consent of the governed, there is nothing inherently decent about it. Dictators often command overwhelming support. Democracies can trample on human rights and the rule of law. Nor can we assume that all nations prefer democracy, however defined, or are moving toward the same destination. Indeed, to diagnose and prescribe remedies for all other people on earth is nothing less than to mirror the Bolsheviks, who claimed to believe that scientific law was moving the world toward Communism, but acted as though history needed their "help."

Unlike the other chapters, where McDougall regards the diplomatic traditions as misunderstood, this tradition he deems fundamentally misguided. In the late 1990s, many or most would agree. American efforts in Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia had been widely criticized, particularly by President Clinton's political opponents in the Republican Party. Based on my attendance in the classes I listed above, particularly with Stanley Hoffman, I was a strong supporter of these humanitarian interventions; in fact, the campaign in Kosovo was what convinced me to join the military. I decided that it was unjust to believe in humanitarian intervention but not be willing to put on the uniform and take part.

McDougall and I were blissfully ignorant that the rise of neoconservatives in the Republican Party would soon turns this dichotomy on its head, leading this country into a crusading invasion of Iraq; in promoting future avoidance of the "Global Meliorism" he bemoans, McDougall considered it obvious that:

[N]o international bureaucracy, much less a single nation, however powerful and idealistic, can substitute itself for the healthy nationalism of an alien people. Almost everyone agrees, for instance, that Saddam Husein is bad for his country. But can Americans be better Iraqis than Iraqis themselves, or presume to tell the Chinese how to be better Chinese? If we try, we can only be poorer Americans.

Fast-forward to the present day. American remains knee-deep in rebuilding Iraqi society five years after toppling Saddam (after justifying the invasion on every premise other than humanitarian intervention), and our president feels obliged to condemn the Chinese for their human rights abuses on the eve of his Olympic trip to their country. McDougall's prescription for American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era has not been heeded. While some will argue that "9/11 changed everything," I doubt McDougall would agree. The invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, after all, fit his vision of a Unilateralist response (we were helped by allies, but our strategy was not dictated by alliances) on behalf of Liberty at home. It is only with the sideways slide into adventurism in Iraq, based on misguided visions of spreading democracy and freedom abroad, that the lessons of the 20th century were forgotten.

The Cold War by John Lewis Gaddis

gaddis_cold.jpgFor decades, Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis has been one of the leading historians of the Cold War. My curiosity was piqued then, in 2006, when he produced The Cold War, a relatively compact overview of the era. The fifteen years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union seemed to be just enough time to start taking a more detached historical look back.

Insofar as I am an American born in the 20th Century who just finished reading a history of Russia, much of the ground Gaddis covers felt very familiar. This should be no surprise, since Gaddis' view of the Cold War has been informing conventional wisdom (and his students at Yale) for decades. And despite the passage of time, including the events of 9/11, Gaddis' latest text does not stray much from a traditional analysis of the era. In this case, I think that is a good thing.

Unlike Philip Longworth, who strangely tries to pinpoint America's exclusion of the Soviet Union from the Marshall Plan as the point of no return that triggered the Cold War, Gaddis explores the much deeper and more complex roots of the conflict. First, he points to several World War II-related issues that divided the Allies: the delayed opening of a second front on the continent and the possibility that the Soviet Union would reach a separate peace with Germany; the need to reconcile professed Anglo-American ideals of self-determination with Stalin's territorial demands in Eastern Europe; the occupation of defeated enemies; and the atomic bomb.

Gaddis then turns to a series of security dilemmas, which he defines as:

[S]ituations in which one state acts to make itself safer, but in doing so diminishes the security of one or more other states, which in turn try to repair the damage through measures that diminish the security of the first state. The result is an ever-deepening whirlpool of distrust from which even the best-intentioned and most far-sighted leaders find it difficult to extricate themselves: their suspicions become self-reinforcing.

Because the Anglo-American relationship with the Soviet Union had fallen into this pattern well before World War II ended, it is difficult to say precisely when the Cold War began.

Nonetheless, Gaddis goes on to discuss several post-war situations which fit the definition above: the continued presence of Soviet troops in Iran and Stalin's desire for territorial control of the Turkish straits; the Soviet refusal to participate in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which prompted George Kennan's "Long Telegram" and led to the U.S. policy of containment; and the subsequent formulation of the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine as the good cop/bad cop implementation of the new policy.

The best chapter in the book is the one least focused on the United States and the Soviet Union. In Chapter IV, title "The Emergence of Autonomy," Gaddis turns his attention to the rest of the world. He first devotes several pages to the origins of the so-called "non-aligned" countries which tried to steer a third course. Gaddis then turns to the various satellite states, and emphasizes that it was often these governments that determined the actions of their superpower sponsors, and not the other way around:

"Non-alignment" was not the only weapon available to small powers seeking to expand their autonomy while living in the shadow of superpowers: so too was the possibility of collapse... Korea's history after the Korean War provides a clear example. [Syngman Rhee's] most effective argument was that if the United States did not support him--and the repressive regime he was imposing on South Korea--that country would collapse, and the Americans would be in far worse shape on the Korean peninsula than if they had swallowed their scruples and assisted him.

The Soviet Union, it is now clear, had a similar experience with Kim Il-sung in North Korea. He was allowed to build a Stalinist state, with its own cult of personality centered on himself, at just the time when Khruschev was condemning such perversions of Marxism-Leninism elsewhere. The country became, as a result, increasingly isolated, authoritarian--and yet totally dependent on economic and military support from the rest of the communist world... Both Washington and Moscow therefore wound up supporting Korean allies who were embarrassments to them.

And who would, of course, end up dragging both the Americans and the Soviets (not to mention the Chinese) into the first hot war of the Cold War era.

One topic I was surprised to find missing from Gaddis' history was the effect of the Cold War on the domestic policy of the United States. In particular, I think it is interesting to consider what impact the Cold War had on the Civil Rights Movement in America. In his stellar From Jim Crow to Civil Rights (and the class he taught at UVA on constitutional history), law professor Michael Klarman demonstrates how intertwined the history of the Cold War and the history of civil rights were:

The importance of the Cold War imperative for racial change is hard to overstate and probably difficult to fully appreciate in our post-Cold War era... Most of the era's domestic issues -- the role of religion in public life, whether to build interstate highways, the public school curriculum (especially once the Soviets beat the Americans into space) -- were debated in Cold War terms. In such an environment, supporting racial reform because of its international implications was perfectly natural.

One cannot be certain, but the Cold War imperative for racial change seems to have been more than just rhetoric. The State Department, not known as a bastion of racial progressivism, strongly urged racial reform for Cold War reasons. In 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson defended the president's controversial order desegregating the military on the ground that segregation violated democratic principles and was "damaging to our country's reputation with millions of people around the world." The Cold War imperative was front and center when the administration began filing civil rights briefs in the late 1940s. Eisenhower and Kennedy, neither of whom was personally or politically inclined to support genuine racial reform, found Cold War arguments among the most convincing for ending segregation.

Though not the most noble motive for supporting civil rights, this attitude does highlight one of the clearly positive effects that the Cold War had on American society. In the competition to win the hearts and minds of the non-aligned populations of the world, America sought to better its race relations. It worked to close the most significant gap between American rhetoric and American reality. I am not suggesting, nor was Klarman, that the Cold War is the main (or even a relatively major) cause of the gains made by the Civil Rights Movement. Klarman spends dozens of pages analyzing other influential social and political trends. But this demonstrates just how deep an influence the Cold War had in domestic American policy, and Gaddis would have done well to devote some attention to it.

Still, The Cold War is a solid survey of the international side of the conflict, and will serve a particularly valuable role as the era fades deeper into the recesses of history.

Russia by Philip Longworth

longworth_russia.jpgIt was a sad coincidence that I was in the midst of reading a history of Russia when I heard that Alexander Solzhenitsyn had died. I had just finished the chapter on the decline of the Romanov empire when I decided to take a break and have some dinner. While I waited for the stove to heat up, I checked the news online and saw the story. When I returned to Philip Longworth's Russia, it was not more than fifty pages before Solzhenitsyn's name popped up.

And he was mentioned in an interesting context. Longworth listed him as one of the "few" dissidents in the Soviet Union, where "there was no sign of serious discontent." This comes at the start of an extended analysis on how surprising the rapid disintegration of the Soviet Union was, considering how well-functioning it appeared to be:

As late as the 1970s and even in the 1980s there was no obvious indication of impending disaster. Indeed, the auguries read well. The Soviet Union was as mighty in weaponry as its only rival; surprising as it may seem, its population was as contented as that of the United States; and there was hardly a ripple of dissidence or nationalism anywhere in the Empire.

Surprising indeed, and consider me unconvinced by Longworth's thin sourcing. It may or may not be true, I am not a Russia expert, but this defense of life in the Soviet Union comes near the end of a book in which Longworth seeks to either minimize or rebut many of the great sins committed by the various Russian empires and its rulers.

Discussing Ivan the Terrible, he states that while "Ivan was indeed responsible for terrible massacres," so were the Spanish conquistadors, Lorenzo de' Medici, Louis XI, and Queen Mary. As such, Longworth argues that Ivan should not "be judged outside the context of his own turbulent and violent times." Perhaps, though it is only a few paragraphs later that Longworth concedes that the "murder of Ivan's opponents and suspected opponents had begun in 1563... In effect Ivan was given carte blanche to punish those who disobeyed him and anyone he considered a traitor -- without the formality of a trial." Never fear, however:

The purge was not the whim of a half-crazed paranoiac, which is the line of one popular genre of literature about Ivan. His plan was to eliminate opposition to his exercise of autocracy, which he deemed essential if Russia were to fulfill its imperial potential.

If Longworth is just rebutting the specific claim of mental illness, that is one thing; though is it worth mentioning that Ivan "killed his own eldest son in a fit of rage." But to suggest that Ivan cannot be condemned for his bloody reign either because everyone else was doing it, or because it was justified by his autocratic ambition seems far too sweeping a pardon for Ivan's behavior. Longworth seems almost eager to justify the death and destruction:

Advantage was also gained from Ivan's massacres, for they had helped to complete the revolution in landholding begun by the Tsar's predecessors.

As long as there was a reason, I guess. Longworth is similarly blasé about anti-semitism in Russia and Russian pogroms against Jews. For the most part he simply fails to discuss these issues. When he does, he is quick to make clear that it was not Russia's fault:

Hostility to Jews had been imported into Russia, as into every other Christian country, with the writings of the Church Fathers. Yet Russians themselves were no more anti-Semitic than other European peoples, and less so than many... Anti-Semitism in the Empire was for the most part characteristic of certain subject peoples rather than the Russians themselves, having been entrenched for centuries among Ukrainians, Balts, and Poles.

And there you have basically the only paragraph in the whole book about the treatment of Jews. Don't look for "pogrom" in the index, you won't find it. The only mention of pogroms is the Khmelnytsky Uprising in which Cossacks and Ukrainians killed tens of thousands of Jews. Only the briefest reference to the Pale of Settlement, and none about Tsar Alexander III's May Laws, setting harshly discriminatory policies against Jews, the expulsion from Kiev, or the Kishinev pogrom.

Longworth glosses over other Russian missteps as well. Thus the discussion of World War I moves quickly from a brief mention that Nicholas II made "a series of questionable appointments and decisions" to the fighting itself. Longworth makes no reference to Russia's pre-war support for Serbia or its full mobilization order, which many credit with triggering the broader conflict. I am not suggesting that Russia was more responsible that Austria-Hungary, or Germany, or Serbia itself, but the omission seems notable in light of Longworth's diligence in analyzing the causes of other Russian wars, such as the Crimean War and World War II.

It came as no surprise then, after this perpetual defense of Russia, that Longworth places the blame for the Cold War squarely on the shoulders of the West. According to Longworth, the Cold War was not caused by disagreement over how Europe should be governed (though he is quick to point out that "Stalin stuck to the letter of his agreement with the Western Powers), or even the ideological tensions between capitalism and communism:

[T]he Cold War could have been avoided even after Churchill's 'Iron Curtain' speech of March 1946. The curtain fell only over a year later, when the Marshall Aid programme was introduced to help Western European countries to recover from the war. Its terms had been designed to be unacceptable to the Soviet Union and its followers... So, when the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia applied for Marshall Aid, and learned that as beneficiaries they would be subject to public American scrutiny on a collective basis, like all other beneficiaries, they withdrew. It was, after all, unthinkable that the Power which had done most to defeat the common enemy should be exposed to what was tantamount to public humiliation.

The Marshall Plan was undoubtedly a major tool in the United States' new policy of containment. But to suggest that this caused the Cold War, rather than to acknowledge it was a weapon in the already-burgeoning conflict, is just silly. Longworth is laughably suggesting that the terms of the Marshall Plan, and the Soviet Union's inability to get cash for itself, were more responsible for the Cold War than the underlying post-war political tensions in Europe and the ideological divide between the American sphere and the Soviet one. I'll have more on this soon, as I've just started John Lewis Gaddis' recent The Cold War. Suffice it to say he tells a different story.

Longworth is also forgiving of the flaws of Vladimir Putin's early reign. He acknowledges that Putin's polices "were certainly authoritarian, but they were not directed towards a restoration of an all-encompassing state sector nor to the suppression of democracy as some suggested." You see, it was the good kind of authoritarianism. The best line:

In December 2003 Putin won an overwhelming endorsement from the electorate. Managed democracy was working. It might not meet the highest standards of constitutional politics, but was no worse a travesty than the American presidential election of 2000 had been.

Wow. Now I am no defender of Bush v. Gore. I thought it was awful law then, I think it is awful law now. But I think it bears no equivalence to an election where the incumbent wins 71% of the vote in the absence of free speech or a free press.

Perhaps it is I who have approached the book with a slanted perspective; after all, I am an American descended from Polish Jews. And perhaps Longworth is struggling against a perceived Russophobia that he feels compelled to combat at every turn. But the angle taken is so constantly pro-Russian, and so poorly sourced at exactly these pivotal moments, that it comes across more like whitewashing than a legitimate defense.

This posture is unfortunate in light of the book's overall strength (which I would have preferred to be able to emphasize), and costs Russia a full star in my rating. Longworth covers a tremendous period of time, from the 9th century to the present, and does so at a modest, measured pace. He generally does well in identifying the key actors and events, though the book definitely presumes a modest familiarity with European history.

From the start, Longworth consciously focuses heavily on the political and military history of the Russian state/empire. There is little discussion of social or cultural issues. Religion is only discussed insofar as the Orthodox church played a political role in Russia, or when the faith of particular groups affected their loyalties either toward or away from Moscow. But this is a 300-page book, and it accomplishes what it needed to, aside from the bias described above; I've got Figes and Service to fill in the details. If Longworth had just stuck to the facts, he would have succeeded admirably.

A Modern History of Japan by Andrew Gordon

gordon_modern.jpgWhen I was twelve years old, I participated in a student exchange program in Japan. I lived with a Japanese family for two weeks, went to school with the children, and visited Tokyo, Mount Fuji, and some very cool Shinto shrines. My lifelong fascination with Asia, and Japan in particular, originated from this trip. It was my first international travel, and it opened my eyes to how different, and how similar, the rest of the world is.

My interest in Asia has been largely contained to the cultural realm. I am a big fan of Asian cinema (from Kurosawa to Stephen Chow), went through a brief (but intense) anime phase, and have been deeply involved in Zen Buddhism since college. My historical knowledge of the region is must more limited. I got a heavy dose of Chinese history from the Teaching Company's "From Mao to Yao: 5000 Years of Chinese History" which I listed to during my commutes to Fort Benning last year, and a basic overview of contemporary China from Jasper Becker's very flawed The Chinese.

Japan's history remained more of a mystery to me. My knowledge of World War II gave me some sense of Japan's military history, at least in the post-Pearl Harbor years, but the rest was unknown. To remedy this, I purchased two books: Marius Jansen's very thick The Making of Modern Japan and Andrew Gordon's slimmer A Modern History of Japan. The books cover the same chronological period, from the rise of the Tokugawa shogunate around 1600 to the present day. While Jansen spends 333 pages getting to the Meiji Restoration, Gordon is there on page 61; Gordon seemed the better place to start.

I have previously discussed one of Gordon's major themes: the rise of Japanese nationalism and how it was shaped by tensions with the West after the Opening of Japan. As the turn of the century came and went, Japanese nationalism took a particularly militant turn, with wars against China, Russia, and the annexation of Korea in just a fifteen-year span.

While some blame must be laid on the West for the imperialist example it set, internal developments in Japan were of great significance. Furthermore, the rapid transformation of Japan in the late nineteenth century, from an isolated island to a world power, created new and exacerbated existing social, economic, and political tensions:

Three related projects of Japan's modernizing elite provided the context for the unexpectedly turbulent politics of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the drive for empire, the industrial revolution, and policies of nation-building.

Imperialism shaped domestic politics in large part because it was expensive... As the government mobilized people behind wars it unwittingly fostered the belief that the wishes of the people, whose commitment and sacrifice made empire possible, should be respected in the political process.

The rise of industrial capitalism in late nineteenth-century Japan brought on a related set of politically important changes... Industrialization then produced a growing class of wage laborers, skilled male workers as well as female textile workers. These people tended to cluster in the cities, especially Tokyo and Osaka. They played key roles in political agitations of the early twentieth century.

The impact of nation-building programs on politics was also profound... Electoral politics encouraged a vigorous partisan press, political parties, and other practices of democratic political systems: speech meetings and rallies, speaking tours and demonstrations. By the 1890s, hundred of legal, open political rallies were convened each year in major cities. This was something new in Japanese history.

Unfortunately, Japan's democratic institutions were budding at the same time its imperialist ambitions were rising, ensuring inevitable tensions between a heightened security environment and the instability of democratic politics. This instability increased dramatically in the early twentieth century, with the rise of popular protest movements (from socialists and feminists to hard-liners clamoring for expanded military aims) and violent riots on a nearly annual basis.

The domestic and international realms were further altered by the First World War, which brought dramatic gains to Japanese industry after Asia was largely cut off from European traders. These gains were temporary, however, and Japan's economy struggled in the late 1920s, only to be compounded by worldwide depression at the end of the decade. In the face of such trauma, the Japanese opted for stability and security:

[B]eginning with the years from 1929 to 1932, a combination of shocks--economic depression, intense social conflict, military expansion, and the assassination of prime ministers and leading capitalists--transformed Japan's political system. By the end of the 1930s, independent political parties, business associations, producer cooperatives, labor unions, and tenant unions were replaced by a series of state-controlled mass bodies intended to mobilize the nation for its "holy war" with China and bring harmony and order at home.

It is impossible to overstate just how much Japan's experience of World War II was primarily a conflict with China, not a conflict with the United States, contra the U.S.-centric view of the world. Thus many Japanese historians date the start of the "Fifteen-Year War" to the Manchurian Incident of 1931, which led to full-scale warfare with China by 1937. Animosity with the United States was an ancillary consequence of Japanese aggression on the continent:

Tensions between the United States and Japan had been building for some time. Throughout the 1930s, the Americans supported Chinese self-determination with strong words, but they had committed no significant resources to the Nationalists... But in July 1939, hoping to send a signal of resolve that would deter Japanese expansion, Roosevelt broke off the Japanese-American commercial treaty. This step freed the United States to place an embargo on exports to Japan, if deemed necessary.

It was deemed necessary after the Japanese used its Nazi alliance to gain Vichy France's permission to enter Indochina. When Japan fully occupied the peninsula in July 1941, the U.S. escalated its embargo and, with international cooperation, cut off Japan's foreign oil supplies. The Japanese responded at Pearl Harbor, of course, followed by the Pacific War, the atomic bombs, and the occupation of Japan. Gordon makes an interesting point regarding the long-term consequences of Japanese aggression within Asia:

Initial hopes among Indonesians, Filipinos, and Vietnamese that Japan would forcefully promote national liberation were betrayed. Even so, the brief interlude of Japanese control had an important long-run impact. Independence movements organized during the war, whether with inconsistent Japanese aid or in the face of Japanese repression, survived into the postwar era. They ultimately doomed the continuing hopes of the French, Dutch, and British for a return to the prewar system of colonial control.

Quite a bit of irony there. Militant Japanese nationalism was initially inspired by their experience at the hand of Western imperialists, led the Japanese on their own doomed conquest throughout the continent, but still ended up crippling the Western colonies in Asia. This is a particularly intriguing consequence knowing what we know about the subsequent history of the Indochine peninsula.

There are revelations like this scattered throughout Gordon's text, which gives an effective overview of modern Japan. These gems are often overwhelmed, however, by his semi-encyclopedic approach to the revolving cast of politicians, business leaders, and bureaucrats, and the movements they led. Fortunately there is a good index, as well as appendices listing the prime ministers as well as the post-1945 Diet elections.

Covering 400 years in 300 pages necessitates a quick chronological pace, but Gordon sometimes moves so swiftly that it is difficult to catch the thread of his analysis. While he does well to expedite the discussion of World War II, which is well covered elsewhere, I would have welcomed a better foundation of Sino-Japanese relations over the years, and a deeper investigation into the role (real and perceived) of the Emperor of Japan. In addition, Gordon's attention to religion tends to focus on the shifting balance of power between Buddhism and Shintoism, rather than the substance of those faiths and how they influenced the Japanese people and their leaders.

A good place to start for those interested in recent Japanese history, but I look forward to the depth of Jansen's book.

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

philbrick_mayflower.jpgIf Jamestown wants to be as famous as Plymouth, a top priority ought to be finding better authors to write about the place. While James Horn's A Land As God Made It was servicable at best, Nathaniel Philbrick has added another solid entry to his growing library of sea-related titles with his latest book, Mayflower.

Perhaps the biggest distinction between the two books, and one of the latter's greatest strengths, is that Philbrick takes his history from the initial gatherings of Separatists in England all the way through the conclusion of King Philip's War. Perhaps the chronology simply lends itself better to a narrative arc than the Jamestown story, but where Horn's book abruptly ends with the dissolution of the Virginia Company, Philbrick gives a full view of how the Pilgrims' settlement fit into the full seventeenth-century history of the New England colonies:

[T]he story of the Pilgrims does not end with the First Thanksgiving. When we look to how the Pilgrims and their children maintained more than fifty years of peace with the Wampanoags and how that peace suddenly erupted into one of the deadliest wars ever fought on American soil, the history of Plymouth Colony becomes something altogether new, rich, troubling, and complex.

It becomes clear from the first encounters with Massasoit that peace between the colonists and the Wampanoag was heavily contingent on the personalities involved, and it is no surprise when the tensions that lurked throughout the text boil over into open warfare after Massasoit's death. While Philbrick does not describe the war as inevitable, his examination of internal machinations of both the English and the Native Americans makes clear that peaceful coexistence was fragile from the start.

In particular, the portrait he paints of Massasoit, his son, Metacomet (Philip), and other leaders suggests sophisticated political, diplomatic, and military thinking on the part of the Native Americans, who could see the growing threat of colonialism and reacted accordingly. Their choices were not without flaws: their growing dependence on military resources that only Europeans could provide (guns and ammunition) gave the British an advantage when war broke out. Philbrick suggests, however, that but for the Mohawk alliance with the British, the natives might have secured the support of the French and won that war, a remarkable counter-factual. Of course, disunity between native tribes would prove to be a major enabling factor in their slaughter at the hands of Europeans and Americans for two centuries thereafter.

While Mayflower is a decidedly popular history (with a decidedly misleading name, since the transatlantic voyage only takes up 10 pages of the book), it defies the common defects of the genre, with analysis that digs at least a few inches beneath the surface and a solid 80 pages of notes and biblography. Philbrick has a pleasant if unspectacular style, a few notches above staid academics but not the equal of McCullough or Ellis.

Recommended for fans of Philbrick's other books and those interested in colonial New England history.

World War I Project

Last fall I began a small project to get my head around the First World War of 1914-1918, to understand as best I could the reasons it began, continued, and ended in the way it did. I was inspired by a lingering interest from a course I took on the subject from Professor Charles Maier at Harvard, as well as a recognition that many modern conflicts, from Israel/Palestine to the Balkans to Iraq, have roots in the outcome of the Great War. I decided to focus my reading on military history, with a bit of fiction (such as Erich Maria Remarque's classic All Quiet on the Western Front and Pat Barker's recent Regeneration trilogy) sprinkled in to add some literary flavor amongst the scholarly tomes.

strachan_first.jpgThe first book I read was Hew Strachan's The First World War, and I can not deny being rather disappointed with it. I was drawn to Strachan because he is currently working on a three-volume history of the war commissioned by Oxford University Press, and I can think of no greater endorsement than that. Unfortunately, his one-volume work is not a distillation of the unfinished three-volume history, but an accompaniment to a ten-part BBC mini-series. As such, the book is divided into ten chapters, each of which tracks one of the episodes (e.g. "Blockade" and "Revolution"). The (literally) episodic nature of the book makes for quick and interesting reading, but only at the most superficial level. There is little sense of the connections between why the war began, how it was fought, who led the belligerents, and what the populace was thinking and doing. Major political and military leaders rapidly appear and disappear, and there is no sense of flow, either thematically or chronologically. It is barely adequate as a first exposure to major themes of the war, but the time spent reading it is better invested elsewhere.

keegan_first.jpgBy elsewhere, I mean John Keegan's equally well-titled The First World War, which I think is a much better general introduction to the war. Keegan's reputation as a military historian precedes him, although in recent years he may have become too prolific for his own good. His history of World War I is decently thorough, though Keegan's is most definitely a military history, and thus lacks an emphasis on political and cultural influences. Keegan is at his best when discussing military strategy and his battle narratives are the best of the books I've read. The people involved fare less well, whether it be the politicians and generals or the factory workers and foot soldiers. Keegan simply does not devote enough space on the pages to the motivations and perspectives of the individuals who made up the belligerent nations. Nor does he follow-up on the war's consequences, either in the short-term or the long-term. When the artillery stops, so does the book. Keegan's work is much stronger in its discussion of the Western Front than any other theater, a flaw I thought endemic to all British authors until I got to David Stevenson. Overall, however, at the close of the book the reader understands why the war started, how it was fought, and why the Allies won. For most readers, that is enough.

stevenson_cataclysm.jpgFor those who want more, Stevenson's Cataclysm: The First World War as Political Tragedy is undoubtedly the best book of the three, but the richness of detail also makes it dense and complex. The scope of the work is broad in theme, reaching political, military, social, and economic considerations, and time, starting well before August 1914 and devoting the last 100 pages to the legacy of the war. The book is also thick in detail, and I found the discussion of domestic political maneuvering within each country particularly well-done, as well as the diplomatic history of the alliances (especially that between Germany and Austria-Hungary). Stevenson does an excellent job covering all the belligerents, often taking each in turn while discussing a specific theme such as munition production or mobilization of female workers.

Stevenson divided his book into four parts: Outbreak, Escalation, Outcome, and Legacy. The initial chapters on the beginning of the war do not repeat the old grade-school theme that the war was an accidental consequence of reckless alliances, but instead make clear that the start of the war was the product of intentional choices by belligerents on both sides (but especially the aggression of Austria-Hungary) and the misperception that the war would end quickly. The second and thirt parts are the meat of the book, and Stevenson is at his best when discussing why the war did not end quickly, and why the belligerents chose to continue despite the catastrophic bloodshed. He does well to discuss the war aims of each belligerent, how they were initially formulated, influenced by domestic politics, evolved as the war progressed, remained utterly incompatible well into 1918, and materialised into a disastrous peace treaty that left an awful legacy.

It is that legacy which drew me to read about World War I in the first place, so I think Stevenson's emphasis on it makes his work all the more appealing. It also leaves me with at least one more history to read, Margaret MacMillan's Paris 1919, which focuses on the peace negotiations themselves. While Stevenson does an excellent job summarizing the conflicting interests that Wilson, Clemenceau, and Lloyd George brought to the table, and the ways they manipulated each other, I think a more full understanding of the negotiations and the treaties will be a nice finish to the project. I'm going to give myself a few weeks to read elsewhere (I'm about to start my U.S. history project), but I do want to return to World War I for at least one more book. I'm sure at some point I'll want to read histories to devoted to a single nation or a single battle, but for now I've been largely satisfied by these general histories.