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.

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 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.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Three Men in Colonial Pennsylvania

signers.jpgOne of the themes John Ferling establishes in A Leap in the Dark, his history of America's political evolution from 1754-1801, is that during this period there was a constantly recurring cycle of friction between the more radical elements willing to push into uncharted waters and those supporting the status quo:

The title of this book was taken from a line in a newspaper essay written in 1776 by a Pennsylvanian who opposed American independence. To separate from the mother country, he cautioned, was to make "a leap in the dark," to jump into an uncertain future. Time and again in the course of the half century spanned by this book, political activists confronted the reality that their actions would catapult them onto amorphous terrain. In every instance, there were those who were ready to take the chance. Always, too, there were those who resisted approaching the abyss that would be ushered in by breaking with the past.

Especially interesting is that amidst this series of "leaps in the dark" that Ferling describes, it was often the very same people who stood at the revolutionary vanguard at one such moment, only to lead the conservation reaction at the next (or vice versa). Three men closely connected to each other in colonial Pennsylvania politics provide a nice illustration: Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, and Joseph Galloway.

After retiring as an enormously successful businessman, Franklin had turned his attention to politics. In particular, he became a strong opponent of the proprietors who ran the Pennsylvania colony, and he wanted the English crown to convert Pennsylvania into a crown charter and rule it directly. He was joined in this movement, dubbed the Assembly Party, by Galloway, who rose to become Speaker of the Pennsylvania House from 1766-1774. As a result, they sought royal favor even amidst growing rumblings of colonial discontent after the passage of the Townshend Acts:

Continuing to adhere to the quest for royalization, the Assembly Party immediately took essentially the same stance it had taken two years before: Pennsylvanians should shoulder a portion of the empire's economic burden, Parliament's taxes would be slight, and if they proved to be onerous, London would happily accede to the province's "dutiful remonstrance" to reduce the level of taxation. Once again, too, Galloway and his party sought to block Philadelphia's participation in a trade embargo.

Dickinson had been leading the opposition to royalization as head of the Proprietary Party, and he was also amongst the first to rail against Parliament's efforts to tax the colonies. As early as the winter of 1768, he was publishing newspaper articles articulating the radical argument that Parliament lacked the constitutional power to impose any tax whatsoever upon the colonies. In the wake of the Townshend Acts, Dickinson and his party "won acclaim as the fervent defenders of American Rights" and "the Assembly Party suffered heavy losses in its urban working-class base."

Flash forward a few years. Unlike Galloway, Franklin had seen the writing on the wall in time and signaled his support for the embargo before he could be forever tarnished as a Loyalist. From his perch in London, he attempted to reach compromises on behalf of the colonies, but eventually he perceived that the growing breach between the colonies and the mother country was irreparable and he returned home. Meanwhile, Galloway attended the First Continental Congress and proposed a Plan of Union involving an American Parliament that would share a mutual veto with its British counterpart; the plan was only narrowly defeated by a vote of six colonies to five, the high water mark for Loyalists in the Congress.

A last-second addition to Pennsylvania's delegation at the Second Continental Congress, Franklin was among the earliest convinced that war and independence were inevitable. Dickinson, the early agitator, was now leading the conciliatory wing of the Congress; he was convinced that the colonies' dispute was with Parliament, not the British Crown. It was he who wrote the last-ditch Olive Branch Petition, appealing to King George to intervene and mediate the dispute. He opposed the Declaration of Independence, which passed unanimously only because Dickinson and another conciliatory Pennsylvania delegate absented themselves the day of the vote. He never signed it.

Franklin, of course, served as one of America's leading lights at home and abroad. Dickinson continued to pursue conflicted positions: serving as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention for a country whose independence he had opposed; defending the Jay Treaty in 1796, but denouncing Federalist belligerence toward France in 1798. Galloway retired from politics when the war began, only to volunteer to serve as British police commissioner of occupied Philadelphia and then flee to London in 1778. He would die there in exile, informed by Pennsylvania that he would stand trial for crimes during the occupation if he returned.

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 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.

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.

British Historians = World's Best?

Since it is nearly impossible to imagine most American newspapers running a feature article on the popularity of our professional historians (or anything about historians at all), I am almost embarrassed to link to this article from Britain's Sunday Times asserting the superiority of British historians:

British historians are writing more fluently than ever, and with authority, on subjects people want to read about. Furthermore, with the decline in university funding, they are more professional and commercially orientated than they used to be. A decade ago, few academic historians had agents; now all the powerhouse agencies have a small but lucrative clutch of professional historians whose books they know they can sell worldwide.

I love British historians, and own many of the titles listed in the article, including Ian Kershaw's two-volume Hitler, Antony Beevor's The Battle for Spain, and Christopher Clark's Iron Kingdom. I will read almost anything written by Martin Gilbert or John Keegan (absent from the article as non-academics). I also recently read the excellent Lincoln written by Richard Carwardine, a professor at Oxford; British historians are skilled at examining their former colonies as well (in fact, Carwardine's book won the Lincoln Prize).

In contrast, think about the most talented Americans: Gordon Wood or James McPherson or David Kennedy. It is very tempting to generalize that the best American historians write about America, while the best British historians write about the world.

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.

The Rise of Japanese Nationalism

sumo.jpgAn interesting theme of A History of Modern Japan is the rise of Japanese nationalism. Not just the jingoistic variety of the 1930s, but the basic sense of nationhood that most of us take for granted. For example, one of America's heroic national myths is that a country of immigrants became a melting pot where we are all Americans first, overcoming our differences. In this post-colonial world, we have seen numerous countries struggle with the tension between nationalism and arbitrarily-drawn borders: think of the break-up of Yugoslavia or the violence in Iraq. We usually attribute this difficulty to the problem of merging such disparate racial/ethnic/religious groups under one umbrella.

It comes as a surprise then that a country like Japan, an island that has had a basically stable, homogeneous population for centuries, did not develop a true national identity until well into the 19th century. In discussing the "unequal treaties," imposed on Japan by the Western powers (like the Opium War treaties in China), Andrew Gordon emphasizes that the humiliation felt by the Japanese did not stem from deeply-felt nationalism:

[I]t would be misleading to conclude simply that these treaties trampled a preexisting national pride and sovereignty. Rather, from the early 1800s through the 1860s, the very process of dealing with the pushy barbarians created modern Japanese nationalism. Among shogunal officials, in daimyo castles, and in the private academies where politically concerned samurai debated history and policy, a new conception took hold of "Japan" as a single nation, to be defended and governed as such."

What this suggests is that national identity is only necessary, or even useful, in an oppositional relationship. It only makes sense to prioritize our status as Americans when our primary comparison is with non-Americans. Thus the revolutionary-era America sees most former colonists identifying strongly with their individual states rather than the new nation, and antebellum tensions inspired the Yankee and Dixie labels.

So long as Japan remained relatively isolated and free of foreign exposure, there was little need to define oneself as Japanese. Japanese as opposed to what? For the same reason, there was no need to explore what it even meant to be Japanese. It was much more important to identify with one's daimyo, the local feudal ruler. Only with the humiliation of the treaties, and the need to come to terms with this treatment at the hands of foreigners, did the Japanese become Japanese and start thinking about what that meant:

Beginning in the mid-1880s, a drive to preserve or revive a so-called traditional Japanese culture emerged in a mood of confrontation with Western-oriented reformers... As this happened, many older cultural forms were dramatically reshaped. Later generations came to view these as "traditional" and typically Japanese. In the process they articulated new concepts of "Japanese-ness." The Noh theater, for example, survived in part because government officials promoted it as a Japanese parallel to Western opera... Modern martial arts such as judo, sports such as sumo wrestling, and arts such as the cultivation of bonsai plants were both transformed in practice and took on symbolic meaning as emblems of Japanese-ness for the first time."

It is safe to say that these efforts were successful: Noh theater, sumo wrestling, and bonsai plants continue to be strongly symbolic of Japanese culture to this day. Of course, the character of this rising Japanese nationalism was not entirely benign. As the Japanese bridled against the influence of the colonial Western powers, many Japanese came to believe that Japan should not just be free of Western influence, but strong enough to emulate their imperialism:

[T]he Meiji rulers accepted a geopolitical logic that led inexorably toward either empire or subordination, with no middle ground possible. They saw the non-Western world being carved up into colonial possessions by the strong states of the West. They decided that Japan had no choice but to secure its independence by emulating the imperialists... As this doctrine took root in a world of competing powers, it contained a built-in logic of escalation. Conceivably Japanese leaders could have defended national independence and prosperity in Asia by promoting trade and emigration with both neighbors and distant nations, without seeking an imperial advantage. But no leaders believed this was possible. The behavior of other powers hardly encouraged them to change their minds.

While this does not justify the Japanese aggression to come, it raises interesting questions about the West's culpability in setting such poor precedents in its treatment of the world. How else should the Japanese have seen the interaction of nation-states other than through the ruler/ruled paradigm with which the Western powers divided up the world? As they developed their own sense of racial superiority vis-a-vis the rest of Asia, why shouldn't they take up the Japanese Man's Burden and dominate their inferior neighbors on the continent? Little surprise then that this is just what happened in the coming decades.

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.

A Land As God Made It - James Horn

horn_land.jpgIn his recent book, A Land As God Made It, James Horn attempts to reestablish the primacy of the Jamestown settlement as the true birth place of America, fighting back the Puritan Pilgrims whose Thanksgiving tale has risen to dominance in popular legend (which Horn attributes to pro-New England sentiment in a post-revolutionary world). Horn's text lacks much of the nuance that made Alan Taylor's American Colonies such a superb read. But Horn does well enough to bring to life the natives whose alternating cooperation and hostility largely controlled the fate of the colony.

Horn also does well in his main aim to restore some of the luster of Jamestown that has been lost through historical memory of the colony as a miserable failure. In many, perhaps most ways, it was a failure. Unbelievable percentages of people died, as many as 5 out of 6 of the first several thousand colonists. Relations with Native Americans, originally intended to center on Christian conversion, devolved to bitter violence. It took years to finally discover tobacco as a potential cash crop, and even this was not enough to prevent the dissolution of the Virginia Company. But, as Horn points out, Virginia succeeded anyway. The path blazed by the early colonists was taken up by the crown and, as we know with hindsight, Virginia emerges as a key colony for (and then against) England.

Where Horn disappoints, surprisingly enough, is in his treatment of the English. If his book was intended to set the record straight about Jamestown's true place in American history, it is a bit confusing that he spends so much time talking about John Smith. While Smith is undoubtedly a pivotal character, popular legend already focuses almost exclusively on Smith and Pocahantas, to the detriment of the larger story.

Horn seems to fall into this trap as well, spending so much time on Smith and his adventures that I was shocked halfway through the book to find that Smith had spent a mere 30 months in Virginia before being injured and shipped back to England. Smith is a larger-than-life character, and his actions make for excellent story-telling. But that is why he is already famous. More important, at least to this reader, are the actions of those that accompanied Smith, opposed him, and succeeded him.

While many of these men make their way into the narrative, such as John Ratcliffe, John Rolfe, and George Somers, they all seem like mere supporting actors in a tale about Smith. Even after Smith is back in England and entirely disconnected from the Jamestown narrative, Horn continues to track Smith. While Smith's authorship of books about the New World were undoubtedly important to contemporary and historical knowledge about Virginia, it seems disproportionate in such a slender volume to give Smith so much ink.

Not recommended. For colonial completists only.

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.

Ancient Mesopotamia and Gilgamesh

unknown_gilgameshKnowing how much I enjoyed the Teaching Company's lectures on ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and Chinese history, my wife recently bought me Between the Rivers: The History of Ancient Mesopotamia, an 18-hour lecture series taught by Professor Alexis Q. Castor of Franklin & Marshall College.

I have been listening to the course for the past two weeks during my commute, and admit to being amazed at my ignorance of the area. This is, after all, one of the birthplaces of human civilization, not to mention the present day focus of a great deal of our foreign policy and political debate. The rivers that the course title speaks of are the Tigris and Euphrates, and of course the land in between encompasses the greater part of modern Iraq. It was also home to the Babylonian, Assyrian and Persian Empires, just to name a few.

How I have gone so long being so ignorant is a mystery to me, particularly as I normally regard my interest in world history as strong in breadth, if not necessarily depth. Yet Mesopotamia seems to have slipped between the cracks, neither entering the realm of fantasy and lore that would have reached me as a child, like Egypt, nor providing a sufficiently direct connection to Europe to have surfaced in my studies of government and philosophy, like Greece or Rome. No doubt much of this can be blamed on the Eurocentrism of my education, with Mesopotamia categorized as "Eastern" and thus foreign and thus not integral to an understanding of the modern Europe-created globe.

Whatever the reason, if my ignorance about Mesopotamia is not unique, it is a shame. The introductory lecture of "Between the Rivers" uses the 2003 looting of the Iraq Museum, and key items in the museum's collection, as a starting point for introducing the diverse cultural and political history of the region. Several lectures are spent introducing the historical and contempotary methods used to uncover the archaeological record, and then Professor Castor proceeds on a thorough chronological political history, interrupted by thematic lectures focusing on social and cultural aspects such as "Food and Drink" and "Poetry and Literature."

One of the lectures that struck a chord discussed The Epic of Gilgamesh, and it seemed an ideal time to finally read the ancient epic, which is also the first book in The New Lifetime Reading Plan. Written more than a millenium before Homer's Greek epics, Gilgamesh falls just on the legend side of the legend/myth divide, the protagonist ostensibly a historical king of Uruk (though with divine parentage).

The epic has aged rather well in the four thousand-odd years since the earliest versions were written. It is the tale of a larger-than-life king who wreaks havoc on his city until his passions are channeled into his friendship with Enkidu, a tamed beast of a man created to be Gilgamesh's companion. Their adventures, Enkidu's death, and the quest by Gilgamesh for the secret of immortality resonate on an immediate level as literature, and as an influence on the subsequent four millenia of story-telling, especially Homer's journey epic, The Odyssey and the Old Testament's story of Noah's Ark.

I read the Stephen Mitchell "version" (Mitchell does not call it a translation since he can not read Akkadian, instead basing his work on other English translations). It is widely recommended for first time readers of the epic, as Mitchell simplifies much of the repetition and fills in gaps found in literal translations, while giving a poet's touch to the verse. His aggressive editing is controversial in academic circles, and I do plan to read a more scholarly translation eventually, but I think the liberties he took were benign and made the poem more accesible.

Less appreciated, however, was the partisan tone of his introduction, which insisted on reading the Mesopotamian epic as a warning against the current misadventures in Iraq (e.g. Gilgamesh and Enkidu are punished for their unjust "pre-emptive" strike on Humbaba, just as the U.S. is paying for its invasion of Iraq). The lessons of the epic, such as the dangers of hubris, the importance of friendship, and the inevitability of death, are all quite strong enough to make an impact without Mitchell's tenuous parallels to current events. The epic was just as powerful and meaningful before March 20, 2003 as it is today.

The Sky is Falling

While doing some archival research for one of my professors (gathering contemporary newspaper reactions to the Dred Scott case), I came across a marvelous editorial in the April 16, 1857 edition of the Washington Union, which was an organ of the Buchanan administration. Some choice extracts:

Men seem determined to sound the profoundest depths of things in heaven, on the earth, and in the waters under the earth. But in this process many of them have adopted very questionable rules. What was heretofore considered settled, or taken for granted, as rules and principles of human action, are utterly discarded and thrown aside...

Mormonism, abolitionism, free-soilism, spiritual rappings, women's rights, socialism, free-loveism and know-nothingism, have sprung up from this corrupt state of political profligacy and religious infidelity, and are now, by their combined efforts, madly bent on ruling or ruining the country. No true patriot, no sober-minded Christian, no good man, no peace-loving orderly citizen, can look upon this state of things without a sentiment of the deepest anxiety, and a feeling of the most profound disgust.

There you have it.

The Age of Wisdom

I've been considering the idea of someday trying to read the Encylcopedia Britannica. So I was looking at their website when I came across this curious advertised detail:

Many new and revised articles cover subjects relative to today's world, such as "Ecoterrorism," "Botox," and "The Williams Sisters."

Maybe I should rethink that idea.

General and Lieutenant Eisenhower

Another humorous anecdote from Ambrose's D-Day:

A week [after graduating from West Point], 2nd Lt. John Eisenhower joined Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower in London (Marshall arranged it). He stayed three weeks before going to Infantry School at Fort Benning. John's West Point obsessions came to play immediately on his arrival in London; walking with his father at SHAEF HQ, he asked in great earnestness, "If we should meet an officer who ranks above me but below you, how do we handle this? Should I salute first and when they return my salute, do you return theirs?" The supreme commander snorted, then said: "John, there isn't an officer in this theater who doesn't rank above you and below me."

Funny, and true.

Churchill and King George VI

Amidst preparation for one of the greatest military operations the world has ever seen comes this amusing anecdote, relayed by Stephen Ambrose in D-Day:

Eisenhower was visited by Churchill, who was coming to the supreme commander to beg a favor. He wanted to go along on the invasion, on HMS Belfast... As Eisenhower related the story, "I told him he couldn't do it. I was in command of this operation and I wasn't going to risk losing him. He was worth too much to the Allied cause.

"He thought a moment and said, 'You have the operational command of all forces, but you are not responsible administratively for the makeup of the crews.'

"And I said, 'Yes, that's right.'

"He said, 'Well, then I can sign on as a member of the crew of one of His Majesty's ships, and there's nothing you can do about it.'

"I said, 'That's correct. But, Prime Minister, you will make my burden a lot heavier if you do it.'"

Churchill said he was going to do it anyway. Eisenhower had his chief of staff, General Smith, call King George VI to explain the problem. The king told Smith, "You boys leave Winston to me." He called Churchill to say, "Well, as long as you feel that it is desirable to go along, I think it is my duty to go along with you." Churchill gave up.

King George VI = 1, Churchill = 0.