Book Reviews

Literature

Adams, Henry. Democracy: An American Novel.

Al Aswany, Alaa. The Yacoubian Building.

Grass, Gunter. Crabwalk.

Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged.

History

Anbinder, Tyler G. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s.

Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts..

Biddiscombe, Perry. Werwolf!: The History of the National Socialist Guerrilla Movement 1944-1946.

Harris, Norman Dwight. The History of Negro Servitude in Illinois and of the Slavery Agitation in That State, 1719-1864.

Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier.

Roberts, Gene and Klibanoff, Hank. The Race Beat.

Current Affairs

Bamford, James. A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies.

Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone.

Goldwater, Barry M. The Conscience of a Conservative.

Grimes, Sandra and Jean Vertefeuille. Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed.

Hirsch, James S. Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam.

Kessler, Ronald. Moscow Station: How the KGB Penetrated the American Embassy.

Education

Franek, Robert. The Best 351 Colleges, 2004 Edition.

Princeton Review. Complete Book of Colleges, 2004 Edition

Yale Daily News Staff. The Insider's Guide to the Colleges, 2013.

Popular fiction

Berry, Steve. The Romanov Prophecy.


* * * *


Literature

Adams, Henry. Democracy: An American Novel. Plume (1983). See Amazon

"I must know whether America is right or wrong," reviewed May 25, 2005

Henry Adams, the direct descendent of two presidents, published his novel, Democracy, anonymously in 1880. About one hundred years had passed since the launching of the great American political experiment and through his novel Adams takes stock of its results.

The novel also seems to be a catharsis for Adams, an internal monologue explaining to himself why, burdened by society's considerable expectations and helped by powerful family connections, he eschews a career in elective politics.

Adams speaks through the novel's protagonist, Mrs. Lightfoot Lee, and sometimes through Mr. Nathan Gore, a literary man. Other personages are caricatures, representing types of people, such as the obvious Mr. Hartbeest Schneidekoupon, a rich, amateur politician, whose German last name means "coupon clipper," a nineteenth-century term for the idle rich. Old World diplomats, duty-bound officials, skirt chasers, sanctimonious reformers and down-in-the-dirt politicians are Mrs. Lee's and Mr. Gore's foils as they visit Washington to examine the engine room of democracy.

Corruption, the role of money in politics and the ignorance of powerful politicians give Adams concern for the health of the American political system. These concerns are woven throughout the novel's action. "Surely something can be done to check corruption. Are we for ever to be at the mercy of thieves and ruffians? Is respectable government impossible in a democracy?" asks Adams through Mrs. Lee. In light of these obvious defects, Adams wonders if America's great experiment is right or wrong.

Adams' picture of 1880 Washington politics contrasts starkly with the noble principles debated by the country's founders and enshrined in its founding documents. Today's politicians, according to Adams, only give lip service to principles. Lofty ideas are only useful when they help you get what you want. Politics has become a bazaar, where money reigns. As Senator Ratcliffe, a corrupt Washington power broker, states: "Public men ... cannot be dressing themselves to-day in Washington's old clothes. If Washington were President now, he would have to learn our ways or lose his next election."

While a foreign diplomat who claims intimate knowledge with world corruption predicts that Washington will in one-hundred years become the world's most corrupt city, Adams doesn't despair for democracy. As Nathan Gore states: "I grant it is an experiment, but it is the only direction society can take that is worth its taking; .... Every other possible step is backward, and I do not care to repeat the past." Adams concludes, however, that as a man for whom principles are important, he's not suited for a career in elective politics.

While Adams' novel was written about one hundred years after the United States' founding, another hundred years has passed. Adams was a knowledgeable and perceptive political observer of his time. A reader might pause to ask: What's changed? Are Adams' observations still relevant? Is his somewhat subdued enthusiasm for democracy still grounds for optimism? Is every other possible step backward?


Al Aswany, Alaa. The Yacoubian Building. Humphrey Davies (Translator), New York: Harper Perennial, 2004.

"Who are today's Egyptians?" reviewed February 1, 2007

Built by the doyen of Egypt's Armenian community in 1934, the Yacoubian Building was designed by an Italian firm in "the high classical European style," with Greek decorations, Latin inscription and a German elevator. A foreign building in the heart of Cairo that expresses metaphorically Alaa Al Aswany's modern Egypt -- a blend of competing foreign and Egyptian traditions.

As modern Egypt changes, so do some of the building's residents. European-educated, post-colonial aristocrats give way to military officials; they, to socialists from Nasser's regime; and they, to heartless, business and crime tycoons. (There's not a clear distinction between these last two groups.) The Yacoubian Building's roof houses poor Egyptians, those meant to serve the insiders and who desperately struggle to survive without selling their souls. Remnants of past groups remain to interact with newcomers, thus creating a microcosm of modern Egypt.

The author tells his story, which is set at about the time of the first Gulf War, in bits and pieces, making a mosaic from brief incidents in the lives of about a dozen main personalities. As the novel progresses, the characters develop richly. The action, at times melodramatic, moves quickly and ties the reader to following the characters' fates.

Al Aswany views darkly the role of religion in modern Egypt. Islamic fundamentalism, portrayed as especially attractive to Egyptians excluded from society by their poor origins, aims at a theocracy. "They want to submit God's Law to the People's Assembly so that the honorable representatives may decide whether God's law is worthy of application or not!" complains indignantly a fundamentalist sheikh to students. That's a sentiment shared by many fervently religious people who reject a state's power when it contradicts their beliefs. In modern Egypt, however, such religious movements are brutally repressed.

The novel's more moderate Islamic sheikhs bless whatever those in power want, be it an abortion or sending troops to the first Gulf War, and the Islamic characters often invoke God as a self-serving justification for immoral ends or out of superstitious fears. A Christian Copt fares no better, continually calling to the Virgin Mary while hatching shady business arrangements. Religion and hypocrisy are entwined.

Al Aswany appears to believe that it makes no sense to distinguish Egyptian from foreign influences‚Äö the book's major theme. Egypt has for thousands of years assimilated foreign ideas. Islam and Christianity are just as foreign to Egypt as more recent European educations. These influences are, by themselves, neither good nor bad.

Ultimately Al Aswany finds good and evil, mixed in varying amounts, inherent in individuals, not in their social rank, religion or nationality. It's not hard to loathe his worst characters, such as the sexually predatory owner of a shirt store or the wealthy businessman. Other negative characters evoke more pity.

The novel's denouement occurs with the marriage of the foreign-educated, elderly Egyptian playboy, who lives from inherited wealth, to the young, poor Egyptian girl from the building's roof community. He had lived in Paris, but returned home; she desperately wants to leave Egypt. Modern Egypt cannot turn inward in building its future, neither should it be a slave to any particular foreign influence.

[The film. Director Marwan Hamed directed a film based on Al Aswany's book in 2006. Original film in Arabic with French subtitles.

Politicians have long feared film and television more than books. Quite possibly this fear explains the film's significant changes in the story.

Al Aswany's novel gives a one-dimensional explanation of homosexuality. The principal gay character, a newspaper editor, becomes homosexual when he is neglected as a child by his father and seduced by a household servant. (As Aristotle pondered the prime mover, one might ask who the original homosexual was.)

While the movie correctly portrays this explanation, it neglects the book's more sympathetic depiction of the homosexual's predicament in Islamic society. Moreover, whereas the movie suggests that the editor embarks on a life of seducing vulnerable men (poor and corrupted by red wine), the book describes the relationship between the editor and his lover quite ambiguously. Love seems present. Finally, the movie murders the gay editor by a stranger he picks up, whereas the book murders him by his gay lover who is tortured with deeply religious beliefs. That's quite a difference and one that movie censors might have helped create.

When faced with another controversial subject, the movie again caves in. It drops entirely the scene of a pliable sheikh providing religious cover for an abortion sought by a prominent businessman.

Finally, one of the book's major themes, the confluence of foreign influences in modern Egypt, is quite abstract and seems too difficult for the movie to articulate.]


Grass, Gunter. Crabwalk. Krishna Winston (Translator), Harvest Books (2004).See Amazon

"History and human suffering," reviewed January 18, 2006

Scuttling sideward or backward, pincers poised, crabs walk defensively. After the collapse of the Third Reich, Germans have, according to Grass, crabwalked through time. Moving about with their feeble crab eyes, post-war Germans see their recent past poorly and defensively. Crabwalk addresses how a people, either while living under a brutal regime that created widespread suffering or as inheritors of that regime's legacy, struggle to come to terms with the past.

Although he focuses on Nazi Germany, Grass would equally apply his observations to other national catastrophes, such as those created by Stalin, Mao or Hideki Tojo. Thus he uses the worldwide web to emphasize how evil permeates all human societies.

Grass inserts himself into his narrative as a publisher asking Paul Pokriefke, an unaccomplished journalist, to write about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Paul's pregnant mother was on board the "Gustloff," a German ship carrying thousands of other war refugees, mostly women and children, as well as young sailors and military nurses, when the enemy torpedoed it. Almost all on board perished. Paul's mother survived, giving birth on the rescue ship. The Gustloff's sinking symbolizes the Third Reich's destruction and becomes a metaphor for Germany's wartime suffering.

Grass uses the Pokriefke family to illustrate how different German generations have struggled to accept their country's history. As the novella progresses, the characters crabwalk and reveal their shallow understanding of the Third Reich's history.

Tulla Pokriefke, Paul's mother, personifies wartime Germany, choosing to follow strong political personalities. She comically mixes up ideologies, with personal survival as her priority. In one moment, she asserts in high-German such superficial traditional German values as cleanliness, punctuality and industriousness, but suddenly switches to low-German to reveal an ingrained instinct to think in racist categories. She's incapable of understanding the larger consequences of her thoughts.

Paul, from the early post-war generation, vacillates among acceptable post-war political beliefs, left and right, with no real commitment or understanding shown for any of them. His politics spring from penance, not reflection. Paul would like to be the foundling rescued from the shipwreck, the history-less child whose mother and father will never be known. Everything German remains tainted. No probing questions about the past are asked, it's just rejected.

Konrad, Paul's son, is enthralled with Nazi Germany, demanding that its monuments be restored as legitimate historical relics. He doesn't want to reject his German past, so he becomes obsessed with historical research, collecting statistics and mountains of trivial facts. It's a dehumanized history of outward details. He exhibits what Grass calls a "versachtlicher Hass," or reified hate. (The translator's rendering of "matter-of-fact hate" misses the mark.) Konrad's view of history excludes any human suffering.

A lesser writer would have stumbled in creating characters that represent abstract principles, but still should to live and breathe. Grass develops his main characters admirably.

Grass' storyline is complex and is set in motion by the actions of three fanatics. Wilhelm Gustloff is a fervent Nazi organizer in Switzerland. He is assassinated by David Frankfurter, a Zionist. Hitler names a luxury cruise ship after Gustloff and the ship is later torpedoed by a Soviet submarine commander, Alexander Marinesko. (See at right memorial plaque indicating Captain Marinesko's apartment in Kronshtat, Russia.) Grass expresses his discomfort with obsessed people: "I've never felt comfortable with people who stare at one spot until it smolders, smokes, bursts into flame." The actions of these three people exert powerful forces upon the Pokriefke family, making them seem small in comparison.

The story shuttles effectively back and forth in time, ending at the trial and sentencing of Konrad Pokriefke. The reader's attention is held by Grass' ability to reveal engagingly new facets of his main characters and his ability to evoke a curiosity about what makes these characters act the way they do.

Grass' conclusion evokes at once optimism and pessimism: that while some people may overcome their historical blindness, there remain others who will quickly take their place. To me that seemed a sober way of insisting that confronting the unpleasant lessons of human brutality will be ongoing.


Rand, Ayn. Atlas Shrugged. New York: Plume, 1999

"A Critique of the U.S.S.R. Economy," reviewed November 14, 2012

Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, published in 1957, continues to receive attention by prominent American political figures, such as Paul Ryan and Alan Greenspan, who cite this work as having shaped their thinking. These readers insist that Rand offers insights into the American political system, although that's not at all her focus.

Alisa Zinov'yevna Rosenbaum was born and educated in Russia and took the pseudonym Ayn Rand shortly before emigrating to the United States. Soviet Russia provided her with rich subject matter, and her writings in the United States show that she closely followed subsequent Soviet events for years after she left the U.S.S.R.

In Atlas Shrugged Ayn Rand describes an America in which the political machinations of government bureaucrats and their allied, rent-seeking businessmen thwart the energies of demiurge-like industrialists, "springing from Jupiter's head," who are largely responsible for the country's wealth creation. Taggart Transcontinental Railroad, brilliantly managed by an innovative businesswoman, Dagny Taggart, provides Americans with an efficient transportation system undreamed of only a generation ago; yet, government bureaucrats destroy it and unleash tremendous suffering on the country.

No mention is made of any situation similar to that experienced by my immigrant great-great grandfather, Frank Klepsch, whose life was destroyed in 1890 by a major American railroad tycoon, Daniel Chase Corbin. When building his new railroad, Mr. Corbin wanted to blast new roadway as quickly and cheaply as possible. He chose not to cover the blasting areas with costly logs to reduce throwing off rocks. As a result, a rock blasted by Corbin's excavation crashed through the roof of Klepsch's house and killed him. The well-heeled Mr. Corbin compensated Mrs. Klepsch only after dragging out the judicial proceedings, losing two appeals to the Washington Supreme Court and facing a contempt of court charge (Spokane Daily Chronicle, January 24, 1898). Rand provides no indication that her imaginary American captains of industry ever violated the norms of decency when creating new products or services.

To view Rand's book as an American story would, however, be mistaken. She isn't describing America, although her novel's action takes place there; she's describing the Soviet Union. On the surface her book seems to ask: How would the United States look if the Bolsheviks took over? Actually Rand focuses on how the Bolsheviks destroyed Russia. That's understandable, for she spent her formative years there and saw the destruction first hand.

Rand's description of America is one-dimensional, lacking in historical and cultural depth. The successful American economy is just a prop to highlight the lunacy of Bolshevik economic management. Rand shows no awareness of the Hamiltonian and Jeffersonian tensions in U.S. public policy. Should government fund internal improvements? How should we understand the general welfare clause? How are state and federal regulatory powers delimited? The generous federal land grants that undoubtedly would have helped fund the Taggart railroad receive no mention. No mention is made of the background to trust busting or establishing federal regulatory agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration or the Security and Exchange Commission.

Rand doesn't need a deeper understanding of the United States, for Atlas Shrugged is a running critique of the folly of Soviet economic thought, from War Communism to the New Economic Policy to the imposition of rigid central planning. The novel is far removed from any social critique of the United States.

Atlas Shrugged's style and its author's voice strongly mirror Soviet socialist realism from the 1920s, in particular Feodor Gladkov, who wrote one of the first socialist realist works, Cement, which appeared one year before Rand emigrated. Both Rand's and Gladkov's characters frequently step forward, out of the action, to deliver brief, slightly didactic political monologues and, once having delivered their speeches, they return to the flow of the action. Gladkov, of course, champions revolutionary Russia; Rand debunks it. The writings of both authors challenged the conventional sexual mores of their times, and both created strong female characters who reject monogamous marriages. Rand's personal life resembled her writings, for she maintained a prolonged romantic relationship with one of her followers, Nathan Blumenthal (Nathaniel Branden) during her marriage to Frank O'Connor.

Rand's characterization of how Soviet Russia's disastrous economic policies ultimately led to a repressive Stalinist regime upset a small group of American Soviet sympathizers, but her characterization of the U.S.S.R. is well-informed. Innovation proved an almost insoluble problem for Soviet planners and Rand, perhaps drawing on Joseph Schumpeter's writings, makes innovation the focal point of her critique of the U.S.S.R. economy. The novel's entrepreneurs invent new revolutionary technologies, Rearden's steel and Galt's motor, or support their use, Dagny Taggart's new railroad rails. These new technologies are immediately opposed by other business leaders and the government. In the Soviet Union inventors went from being the saviors of five year planning to scapegoats for economic failures, or false-inventors as they became known in the press. Even Soviet military inventors weren't spared, as Solzhenitsyn poignantly described in his novel, First Circle.

When Rand's character Wesley Mouch, a former lobbyist who heads the U.S. State Planning Agency (called Gosplan in the Soviet Union), issues Directive Number 10-289, an emergency measure "to protect the people's security, to achieve full equality and total stability," he draws directly on the text of the 1931 Soviet Law On Inventions. Point three of Mouch's directive converts all patents into Gift Certificates, which are voluntary transfers to the state of an inventor's property rights. The Soviet government called them inventor's certificates, and Rand wryly terms them a "gift," recognizing the intense political pressure to give their inventions to the state that Soviet inventors felt.

Anyone familiar with Soviet history will immediately identify related Soviet historical events and institutions that Rand transports to American soil: show trials featuring engineers as wreckers, an entirely centralized state system of funding science, the Workers' and Peasants' Inspectorate meddling, NKVD surveillance, the tolkach or industrial deal-maker, a state-controlled press and rampant bartering on the economy's edges to name just a few.

In addition to her critique of the Soviet economy, Rand puts her finger on a larger question: how is it that so many Russians buckled under Soviet power? Why did so many Communist Party members cooperate in the show trials, admitting to crimes they did not commit? How were so many Soviet citizens co-opted into serving the brutal Stalinist regime? Rand illustrates this dilemma in Dr. Stadler's (the regime's chief scientist) speech in which he gives credit for his scientific success to "our great leader," a clear reference to the toadying typical of the Stalin era.

Rand argues that Soviet political leaders cleverly exploited human sentiments to gain control over people and set a clever trap. People were "held in bondage by means of their desire to live, by means of their energy drained in forced labor, by means of their ability to feed their masters, by means of the hostage system, of their love for their children or wives or friends - by means of love, ability and pleasure as the fodder for threats and bait for extortion, with love tied to fear, ability to punishment, ambition to confiscation, with blackmail as law, with escape from pain, not quest for pleasure, as the only incentive to effort and the only reward of achievement - men held enslaved by means of whatever living power they possessed and whatever joy they found in life."

Rand's heroes avoid this trap, but they do so in a manner reminiscent of a deus ex machina. Faced with increased political pressure to collaborate, Rand's heroes one by one exile themselves to a mysterious location. They refuse to collaborate convinced that the state will collapse without them and they can return triumphant. Unfortunately the heroes' characters remain largely undeveloped, and the reader remains in the dark about why these few people can resist a tyrannical state. The reader remains equally in the dark about who has this gift of resistance and whether it can be taught.

This reader was left uneasy by a conclusion that depended on a small group of people who, unlike everybody else, knew the true story. Isn't that how it all started in Russia?

History

Anbinder, Tyler G. Nativism and Slavery: The Northern Know Nothings and the Politics of the 1850s. Oxford University Press, (1994).

See Amazon

"Protestantism defined American society," reviewed May 25, 2005

A new American political party, the Know Nothing party, appeared during the 1850s. Tyler Anbinder explores this party's sudden rise and fall in the northern United States. He offers the reader a meticulously-researched, clearly written book.

Anbinder's research draws primarily on original Know Nothing documents (not easily found, given the party's penchant for secrecy), local news accounts, manuscripts, and monographs on individual state Know Nothing parties. He admirably ties together the information from these sources into a coherent picture of general Know Nothing principles and an analysis of their impact on state and national politics.

Know Nothingism arose as North-South sectional stress marks appeared in the two major U.S. political parties, Democrat and Whig, and as growing Catholic immigration provoked century-old religious suspicions among American Protestants. Anbinder describes how political victories first occurred when Know Nothings backed Democratic or Whig candidates who promised to follow a nativist agenda. Afterwards, Know Nothings began fielding their own candidates, often winning the elections. The party failed, however, to repeat these successes at the national level.

This national-level failure, according to Anbinder, was partly a result of circumstances. Political events (the Kansas Nebraska Act, the caning of Senator Sumner and the "sack" of Lawrence, Kansas) hardened the fervently moral, anti-slavery views of many members. The anti-slavery issue began to dominate internal party politics, trumping nativism, and made compromise with more moderate and southern Know Nothings unworkable. As the Know Nothing party tried to move to the national level, its disgruntled members began to migrate to the newly-formed Republican party, which proved more adept at political maneuvering.

Anbinder's discussion of Know Nothing principles makes fascinating reading. Although nativist, or anti-immigrant, sentiments motivated its founding members, Anbinder reveals that these sentiments were deeply rooted in its members' devout Protestant religious beliefs. Know Nothings believed that "Protestantism defined American society," a much narrower vision of America than that commonly expressed by some of today's politically-active Protestant figures, who only wish to exclude non-Judeo-Christian believers from high-level offices in the United States.

Increased Catholic immigration, especially Irish, evoked the fervent Protestant Know Nothings' anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant views. In addition, the nineteenth-century Protestant fervor of the Know Nothings aroused their northern members to restrict voting rights for new immigrants, oppose the immorality of slavery, agitate for temperance legislation, champion political morality, demand restrictions on Catholic Church property and insist on using the King James Bible in public schools.

For the Know Nothings, America was not just a Christian nation, but a Protestant one. They imagined themselves fighting for the soul of the nation; yet, strangely their burning moral issues no longer move crowds. A civil war, fought by Protestant, Catholic and Jewish soldiers, ended slavery. We worry about immigrants, but not their religions. A Constitutional amendment ended the temperance experiment, and there seems to be no mandate to return to prohibition. Most Americans are likely unaware of the different versions of the Bible. We hear little today about the Pope telling Catholics how to vote and more about direct political interference from some of today's Protestant clergy.

Learning about Know Nothingism in 19th century American politics provides an excellent perspective from which to ponder today's discussions about religion in politics and restricting immigration. Anbinder gives us an excellent picture of Know Nothingism. It's up to the reader to do the rest.


Aptheker, Herbert. American Negro Slave Revolts. International Publishers (1983)

See Amazon

"200 years of slave insurrections," reviewed August 31, 2001

The author provides a "narrative of the numerous plots and rebellions that persistently rocked American slave society for over two centuries" (p.367). In so doing he hopes to dispel the generally accepted notion that the response of the American Negro to his bondage "was one of passivity and docility" (p.374). Behind this notion of docility lies the belief that African-American slaves were well treated by their masters, generally contented with their lot, and inferior to whites. Jefferson Davis asserted this notion of docility on January 10, 1861 in the United States Senate in "Declaring that he found the speculations as to whether 'our servants' would rebel or not 'exceedingly offensive' he went on to assert: 'Governments have tampered with slaves; bad men have gone among the ignorant and credulous people, and incited them to murder and arson; but of themselves - moving by themselves - I say history does not chronicle a case of Negro insurrection. (p.105)."

Herbert Aptheker's meticulous documentation of hundreds of cases of slave resistance, which often resulted in the death or grisly punishment of the slaves, easily refutes statements denying African-American discontent and rebelliousness. His collection of materials is quite remarkable, for slave state newspapers censored most accounts of insurrections. "The particulars, we are constrained to observe, must be withheld for the present, from motives of precaution (p.158)" typically wrote one Virginia newspaper. To achieve his narrative, Aptheker drew upon "government archives, personal letters (sometimes published in distant newspapers), journals, diaries, and court records (p.159)." The Aptheker book should be a standard reference work for anyone exploring this topic.

In arranging his materials, the author first discusses slave insurrection according to major themes, and then he describes the insurrections in chronological order. This reader sometimes felt overwhelmed with example after example of insurrection, especially when they were treated chronologically.

The thematic chapters on: "The Fear of Rebellion", "The Machinery of Control", and "Exaggeration, Distortion, Censorship" were particularly rich in materials that highlighted the American slave society's predicament. Many slave owners had valiantly fought in the Revolutionary war and championed republican principles. Yet, slave ownership was driving them away from these same principles by requiring them to place increasing limitations on free assembly, free speech, a free press and jury trials. Slave society began to live in a general siege atmosphere, especially after the Haitian revolution. Aptheker quotes one Virginian on the possibility of a slave insurrection; "I wish I could maintain, with truth ... that it was a small danger, but it is a great danger, it is a danger which has increased, is increasing, and must be diminished, or it must come to its regular catastrophe (p. 49)". In such a growing atmosphere of fear, the white inhabitants of the slave society felt themselves increasingly threatened and moved to curtail civil liberties. Abolitionist ideas could be "infectious" and possessing an abolitionist document was a crime. Free Negroes could not travel to other states without losing their right to return home, and they could not possess weapons. Vigilance committees began to replace the police and court systems. Slavery was no longer a topic that could be openly discussed by citizens. It would appear that removing the topic from discussion had the unfortunate consequence of undermining the republican institutions necessary for managing social change.

Aptheker's narrative is replete with fascinating historical tidbits. He carefully documents how religious instruction was aimed "to inculcate meekness and docility" in slaves (pp. 56-59) and quotes from a white preacher's sermon to slaves on why whippings, called "corrections", should be suffered patiently. The preacher goes to great lengths to demonstrate how any whipping is merited and concludes: "But suppose that even this was not the case - a case hardly to be imagined - and that you have by no means, known or unknown, deserved the correction you suffered; there is great comfort in it, that if you bear it patiently, and leave your case in the hands of God, He will reward you for it in heaven, and the punishment you suffered unjustly here shall turn to your exceeding glory hereafter. (p.57)". Another item describes John C. Calhoun's concerns about the loyalty of federal troops if they are called upon to suppress a slave revolt. The Secretaries of the Navy and Army were required to report on the numbers of Negroes, free or slave, in the U.S. military. Here it was reported that a regulation "forbade over one-twentieth of a ship's crew to be Negro (p.68)."

Woven throughout Aptheker's narrative are numerous references to maroons, or fugitive slaves who live in relatively inaccessible, generally swampy, areas and periodically prey on local residents. "Reports, no doubt greatly exaggerated, were current that two or three thousand Negroes were hiding in the Great Dismal Swamp ... (pp.307-308)." I suspect that assessing the relative prevalence of maroon activity is problematical and to his credit Aptheker carefully avoids such speculation. Aptheker simply cites maroon activity as further evidence of general slave discontent. I found less convincing Aptheker's attempt to identify periods of greater or lesser slave insurrectional activity, but this analysis is not crucial to the book's narrative. For example, while Aptheker uses this analysis to establish a causal link between increasing insurrectional activity and periods of economic stress, common sense might do just as well.

This reader admits to having approached this book with some reservations and a bias. Herbert Aptheker was an active member of the US Communist Party for a number of years. Quite a few years ago I completed a serious graduate school course in Marxist-Leninist thought, which required me to read all of the important original documents of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. I find it difficult to imagine that an intelligent person can read these materials and still become a Marxist-Leninist. I would like to think Dr. Aptheker was too busy doing his path breaking historical research to read all of the Communist classics. His American Negro Slave Revolts contains none of the turgid prose and convoluted theorizing that I associate with Marxist historians. We're spared discourses on the labor theory of value, class struggle, increasing concentration of capital, etc. As for its accuracy, I confess that I didn't check his footnotes. Curiously, I don't see this work widely cited. I wonder how many American historians are afraid to cite a Communist work, even when it's good research.


Biddiscombe, Perry. Werwolf!: The History of the National Socialist Guerrilla Movement 1944-1946 University of Toronto Press (1998)

See Amazon

"Nazi Werwolves and Iraq," reviewed September 3, 2003

Perry Biddiscombe asserts that historians have overlooked the extent of Nazi partisan warfare during and after World War II. With meticulous research and drawing on U.S., German, French, British and some Soviet sources, the author admirably fills in this void by piecing together an account of Nazi resistance. He focuses on the Nazi Werwolf diversionary groups, part of the SS-Police establishment and closely linked to the Hitler Youth corps. These groups were established to engage in partisan resistance to the invading Allied forces.

Biddiscombe describes their organizational, ideological and social character and follows their development inside a Nazi bureaucracy beset with turf wars and personality clashes. Noting that "the Nazi Reich was hardly a unified totalitarian state, but rather a feudal patchwork of rival fiefs," he adds a geographic element to his analysis, highlighting the regional differences among the werewolf groups within Germany and the differences found in groups outside German territory.

The Nazi resistance or partisan movement began in 1944 as the Allies began to dislodge the German army from occupied territories. Biddiscombe draws on detailed archival materials to describe how support for a resistance movement came from a variety of competing interests within the Third Reich. First established as part of Himmler's SS, then coupled with the Hitler Youth, the Werwolf groups were subsequently dominated by the military who saw their usefulness in slowing the Allied advance. In analyzing the active role of the Werwolf in partisan resistance, the author presents many detailed descriptions of attacks on Allied soldiers and collaborating Germans (sniping, decapitation wires, assassinations, poisonings, etc.) and sabotage actions. He documents a few cases involving children as young as 9 or 10 years old (p.62 and p.64) and many conducted by teenagers (pp.59 ff.).

At times the author's analysis distinguishes between Werwolf attacks and partisan resistance that occurred before and after the German surrender, but generally this distinction remains in the background. This distinction deserves greater prominence. While some fighting has continued after the formal end to many wars, most stops soon thereafter. (Fighting continued only briefly in Texas after Lee's surrender and President Johnson's declaration that the civil war was over.) Continued and vigorous post-surrender partisan activity in Germany would have revealed a significant residual pro-Nazi German sentiment and resulted in a much more difficult occupation.

Biddiscombe at one point characterizes post-surrender resistance as "minor" (p.275). He labels post-war Werwolfs as "desperadoes" (p.151) and describes them as fanatics living in forest huts (p.80). He also cites U.S. Army intelligence that characterized partisans as "nomad bands" (p.197), judged them as less serious threats than the attacks by foreign slave laborers (p.152) and considered their sabotage and subversive activities to be insignificant (p. 115). Finally, he notes that: "the Americans and British concluded, even in the summer of 1945, that, as a nationwide network, the original Werwolf was irrevocably destroyed, and that it no longer posed a threat to the occupation." (p.51)

It would appear that the defense of home and family from outside invaders united large, disparate groups of Germans, while post-war partisan actions only attracted relatively few fanatics and/or thugs. A plan to mount post-war resistance, the Axmann Plan, never worked. In tallying up the Allied soldiers killed by partisan activities after the surrender, this reader found fewer than several dozen. It appears that when the war was over, so was the most of the resistance.

Bidiscombe's book on German resistance and the Allied occupation has received some notice by people searching for historical parallels to the current US military occupation of Iraq. Hitler and Saddam Husein as personifications of evil make such comparisons seductive. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and National Security Advisor Rice evoked this theme in their 25 August 2003 speeches before the 104th National Convention of the VFW. While one hopes that our national leaders bring an historical perspective to their actions, it appears that they have chosen to read Biddiscombe's book, not to learn from history, but to manipulate it for their own ends. Biddiscombe's book should, however, cause one to reflect on the current US situation in Iraq.

First, General Eisenhower and his staff devoted considerable effort during the war to developing a post-war occupation strategy, not all of it consistent with international law. (pp. 252-254) Second, the occupation of Germany was a direct result of German military aggression and followed a formal surrender by German authorities. Germans knew that Germany had started the war. Third, the successful occupation of Germany occurred after it was entirely surrounded by hostile forces. There were no open borders with countries opposing the Allied occupation, unlike Iraq, which borders Iran and Syria. Fourth, the Nazi Party's extermination of the Jews left only Protestants and Catholics, two Christian sects that hadn't been at war in Germany for over 200 years. The ethnic (Kurds and Iraqis) and religious (Sunni and Shiite) tensions in Iraq continued to erupt throughout the twentieth century. Finally, the partisan resistance to Allied occupation quickly faded at the end of the war. Continued Iraqi resistance quite likely points, in part, to simmering ethnic and religious tensions.

These historical differences show the magnitude of the problems facing the current U.S. military occupation of Iraq.

If nation building by military force is now an accepted tenet of U.S. foreign policy, this book should provide valuable historical background for the U.S. officer corps and the enlisted personnel called upon to implement that policy. It would also be useful for citizens who wish to understand better some of on-the-ground issues that would be faced by their military occupation forces.


Harris, Norman Dwight. The History of Negro Servitude in Illinois and of the Slavery Agitation in That State, 1719-1864. Greenwood Press Reprint (1969).

See Amazon

"Slavery and racism in the Land of Lincoln," reviewed September 4, 2003

Today, Lincoln looms so great in our minds for his key role in ending U.S. slavery that we tend to ignore his home state's history of slavery and racism. Harris' almost 100-year old book soberly examines this history. He documents how African-Americans lived in Illinois as slaves, indentured servants or second-class citizens throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries. The book reflects the author's youthful enthusiasm, his unflinching belief in African-American civil rights.

The book is structured chronologically in thirteen chapters, which can be grouped: Illinois before statehood, early statehood, the rise of abolitionism, and the incorporation of abolitionist thought into mainstream Illinois politics.

The treatment of African-Americans in Illinois is by no means a minor story in the state's history. African-Americans were among the largest early 18th century immigrant groups to what today is Illinois. "When the Illinois Country passed into the hands of the English (1763), its total population was about three thousand. Of these a large portion - about nine hundred - were Negro slaves." (p.4)

Harris carefully describes how a hodgepodge of laws maintained slavery in territorial Illinois. Congress, through the Ordinance of 1787 had prohibited slavery in the Illinois Country, but de facto slavery continued through a grandfathering of prior enslavements and a system of long-term indenturing. According to the law, indenture periods were to be strictly limited and the servants afterwards freed. Harris combs Illinois county records to show, however, that the laws were often ignored, with many African-Americans indentured for long periods that effectively kept them in slavery. (pp. 11-13) He notes that a Code, modeled on the Slave Codes, governed the rights of such indentured servants and that newspapers carried frequent notices about runaways. "No matter under what name the farmers held their negroes ... the fact still remained that slavery still existed in the Territory of Illinois as completely as in any of the Southern States." (p.15)

When Illinois gained statehood, its 1818 state constitution rejected slavery, but preserved indenturing. The U.S. Congress found this compromise acceptable. Harris' review of state constitutional convention materials shows a politically strong proslavery group. "Black Laws," severely restricting the rights of free blacks, quickly followed statehood, as did an effort by proslavery groups to call another constitutional convention to reconsider legalizing slavery. Harris' account of the vote on the convention, through a careful reading of newspapers and personal correspondence, paints a picture of rough and ready politics, which included a mob's setting fire to the State House.

Efforts to make Illinois a slave state failed. Still, Harris describes how difficult it was for African-Americans to live in "free" Illinois. After reviewing county records and interviewing former slave owners, Harris concludes that Illinois' peculiar institution, indentured servitude, lasted to 1845. His review of court cases involving indentured servants also supports this conclusion. (pp. 99-123) The court cases paint a sordid picture, with arguments raging over the whipping, buying, selling, and inheriting of servants and their children.

While indentured servitude was being phased out, severe restrictions on African-American civil rights and opportunities continued. Harris judges these restrictions harshly and even suggests that "the almost unbearable position of the free colored people in the State, and the barbarous practice of kidnapping all unattached negroes" might have made slavery preferable to being a free black in Illinois. Harris weaves details from county records, newspapers and personal testimonies to bring alive past cases of Illinois kidnappings and Underground Railroad events, lending considerable credence to his depiction of the regrettable plight of African-Americans in Illinois.

The mob violence leading to the death of abolitionist publisher Elijah Lovejoy is a well-known blot on Illinois history. Harris paints a sympathetic portrait of Lovejoy, describing how he never wavered in his repeated attempts to print antislavery materials, even when threatened by mobs. Clearly many Illinois citizens believed that freedom of the press did not extend to discussions about slavery.

The entry abolitionism into mainstream Illinois politics comprises half of the book. Harris passionately embraces the cause of abolitionism, championing the activities of the Illinois Antislavery Society. Growing anti-slavery sentiment in Illinois is depicted as a victory for good and reason, and Harris spends much time documenting, county by county, the personal commitment made by Illinois' abolitionists.

Voters opposed direct competition with slave labor, that is, any extension of slavery to the territories. At the same time, they cared little for total abolition or for granting African-Americans political equality in Illinois. Thus, it appears that Illinois abolitionist sermons affected voters much less than Harris is willing to admit.

While anti-slavery sentiment was growing, Illinois' African-American community continued to live in a hostile social environment. Harris documents this hostility in his final chapter. First, while debating Lincoln, Douglas engaged in race baiting: "Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free Negro colony in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send 100,000 emancipated slaves into Illinois to become citizens and voters on equality with yourselves?" (p. 216, footnote 2) If yes, Douglas proffered, then vote for Lincoln. Douglas won. Second, during the Civil War, an Illinois Constitutional convention overwhelmingly supported prohibiting African-Americans from settling, voting or holding an office in the state. (pp 238- 239) Third, " ... until 1872 the Legislature has persisted in recognizing the public schools as institutions for white children only." (p. 229) Finally, Harris notes violence against African-Americans: "Carterville, for example, where five negroes were shot down in the streets three years ago," (p. 242, footnote 5) and a "lynching at Danville in July, 1903." (p243, footnote 1).

Almost 100 years ago Harris concluded his book stating: "How and when it (the negro question) will be solved no one can tell, but solved it must be before peace and concord can prevail throughout this State and this Country." At first, one might feel a sense of dismay that race problems continue. Yet, after reading his book, which showed how deeply rooted racism was in Illinois society, maybe it isn't surprising after all.


Montefiore, Simon Sebag. Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Knopf (2004).

See Amazon

"An essay on human fear," reviewed June 9, 2004

"The injury that is to be done to a man ought to be of such a kind that one does not stand in fear of revenge." That's what Nicolo Machiavelli advised 16th century rulers in The Prince and he further evoked the subject of fear, devoting a chapter to the question of whether it's better for a ruler to be feared or loved by his subjects. Machiavelli had a glimmering that people quickly bend to fear and that rulers could take advantage of this weakness.

Joseph Stalin proves to be history's real master of fear. He understood how fear paralyzes people. His use of fear makes Machiavelli's guidance tentative, weak and quaintly squeamish.

Montefiore's biography of Stalin describes how the Soviet dictator mastered the political use of fear in ways never imagined by Machiavelli. No longer should we view Stalin as a paranoid. Bolshevism proved a useful ideology for acquiring and justifying the power Stalin needed to create fear. He sought to unleash total fear. His actions aimed at this end, not at counteracting imagined threats.

Montefiore promises to go "beyond the traditional explanations of Stalin as `enigma,' `madman,' or `Satanic genius' (to create) a more understandable and intimate character." He succeeds admirably. Previous descriptions of Stalin necessarily relied on rather limited sources, many of which centered on the Soviet press. Stalin became a rather wooden Communist Party leader, obsessing over ideological fine points and hunting down heresies. Montefiore's Stalin is flesh and blood, preying on human weakness. Seeking to dominate people by fear, he meted out torture, death and prison to nameless workers, peasants, family members, friends, generals, intellectuals, bodyguards and secret policemen. The author deftly weaves together vignettes gleaned from diaries, newly available archival materials, recently published Russian memoirs, and interviews to create breathing portrayals of the victims and their tormenters.

Stalin: the Court of the Red Tsar is organized chronologically, with a heavy emphasis given to the 1930s and 40s. Montefiore conducts a tour of the major events of Stalin's life, both private, such as the suicide of his second wife, and political. Mercifully the book contains a "List of Characters," a quick look-up reference to the members of Stalin's court. It's an invaluable crutch. The list's groupings are revealing of the author's focus: family, allies, generals, enemies and former allies, and engineers of the human soul. In describing Stalin's life, Montefiore adds the color of the surrounding internecine feuds, court marriages, drunken orgies, warped personalities and family scandals.

Books of this scope often raise puzzling questions. In July 1936 the penultimate draft of the new Soviet Constitution contained no reference to a People's Commissariat for Defense Production; yet, only several weeks later, the new Constitution created this organization. In the same month the Spanish Civil War broke out and the Soviet Union was indirectly warring against Nazi Germany. Stalin must have pondered war with Hitler, a rabid anti-Bolshevik, for quite some time. Facing war, Stalin unleashed a wave of total fear, murdering old friends, fellow revolutionaries, generals and regional party officials. None of the new Russian sources, however, reveals anything substantial about Stalin's thoughts on Nazi Germany prior to July 1936. Was this subject never whispered about among his cronies? In this reader's mind, that's a strange gap that at least deserves some explanation.

Another puzzle is the immediate post-war period. Montefiore tersely admits, "the post-war years remain the murkiest of Stalin's reign" (p. 537). It would be instructive to hear his views on what are the remaining historical puzzles and what blocks our way to gaining a better understanding of them.

Montefiore's revelations of how Stalin mastered people with fear should be unsettling to all of us. We should recognize our universal susceptibility to such control. This biography gives us insights far beyond Russia's history. Stalin, unchecked by moral and legal institutions, exploited a deep human instinct. One wonders how strong our democratic institutions would be against a leader so skillful in playing on human fear.


Orwell, George. The Road to Wigan Pier London (1937)

"Orwell's Socialism," reviewed December 19, 2013

Time's passage has obscured some of Orwell's messages in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). The international events of that time have faded in our memory, making difficult an appreciation Orwell's expressed urgency, rooted in his reaction to seeing masses of unemployed from the Great Depression and the simultaneous rise of fascism, the latter, in his view, a threat to world peace and to workers' movements.

In the first half of his book Orwell reflects on what he experienced while living with British coal miners. This section follows on an earlier work, Down and Out in Paris and London, in which he experienced poverty while living with beggars and street people. Orwell provides a series of portraits depicting the living conditions of British coal miners, giving first hand, graphic descriptions along with detailed statistical data he collected on wages, square footage of living space, medical care and sanitary conditions. He also goes underground to see the mines and working conditions of the miners.

At one point Orwell exclaims: "Words are such feeble things. What is the use of a brief phrase like 'roof leaks' or 'four beds for eight people'? It is the kind of thing your eye slides over, registering nothing. And yet what a wealth of misery it can cover!" Orwell is no sentimentalist, however, and writes, "Of course the squalor of these people's houses is sometimes their own fault. Even if you live in a back to back house and have four children and a total income of thirty-two and sixpence a week from the P.A.C., there is no need to have unemptied chamberpots standing about in your living-room."

Orwell describes some British government programs that created public housing projects and a social safety net. He also catalogues British taxpayers' objections to these programs and this reader sensed how little has changed in today's public discussions of welfare spending. Orwell, too, casts a critical eye on the British public welfare programs, but less on the money and more on how they erode individual liberty. Commenting on the requirement that British citizens must submit to delousing before moving into new public housing and with his eye on personal dignity, Orwell quips, "Bugs are bad, but a state of affairs in which men will allow themselves to be dipped like sheep is worse."

The second half of Orwell's book contains his thoughts on why socialism failed to attract broad British public support. Current political propaganda has distorted Orwell's vocabulary, making socialism, which he fervently defends, into an obscenity or label to be pinned on an opponent so as to end any further discussion. Orwell would marvel at how successful the propaganda campaign against socialism has been over the past seventy years, a success which complicates a present-day reader's task. Many of today's readers fail to understand that socialism comes in many flavors and are unaware that it can have little to do with Marxism or Communism. These distinctions are crucial to understanding Orwell's argumentation.

In Orwell's view society urgently needed socialism, for he doubted if Britain could otherwise thwart Hitler's, Mussolini's and Japan's fascism. Events proved Orwell wrong, for Britain joined with other countries in World War II to defeat fascism without having to embrace full-fledged socialism. Quite possibly Orwell's loathing of British capitalism led him to underestimate its ability to unite the country and he engaged in wishful thinking about its demise.

Orwell, as were many socialists of his time, was a staunch anti-Communist and showed little patience for Marxism. Orwell evidently took Marx at his word and saw Marxism as a roadmap to a totalitarian state, much as what happened in the Soviet Union. Many British Marxists became contortionists in their efforts to make Marxism and its Soviet offshoot palatable to British workers, but Orwell didn't buy any of it. He dubbed Bolshevik commissars as "half gangster, half gramophone." He skewered the tedious academic squabbles among British Marxists, writing: ". . when I read their books, I get the impression that, to them, the whole Socialist movement is no more than a kind of exciting heresy-hunt--a leaping to and fro of frenzied witch-doctors to the beat of tom-toms and the tune of 'Fee fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of a right-wing deviationist!'" He dubs "those three mysterious entities, thesis, antithesis" as a "pea-and-thimble trick."

While Marxists wanted violent revolution and despised bourgeois representative governments, Orwell espoused working within the current British constitutional monarchy. Socialism for Orwell was about sharing wealth, and he would probably approve of Huey Long's Share the Wealth speeches made at about the same time Orwell's book was published, for Long, too, advocated reform via the ballot box rather than revolution. Orwell dubbed capitalism as evil or robbery and asserted, " . . anyone who uses his brain knows perfectly well that this [improving the lot of British coal miners] is within the range of possibility. The world, potentially at least, is immensely rich; develop it as it might be developed, and we could all live like princes, supposing that we wanted to."

Orwell believed that capitalists were robbing many middle class British, not just manual laborers. Middle class people found good jobs harder to get and Orwell hoped that low wages would unite British citizens in opposing Britain's unequal distribution of wealth. Yet, such a coming together wasn't happening, in fact much the opposite. "The average thinking person nowadays is not merely not a Socialist, he is actively hostile to Socialism. This must be due chiefly to mistaken methods of propaganda," Orwell thought. In explaining why socialists failed to get their message out, he delivers a blistering critique of the cranks he encounters at socialist meetings and their political ineptness. "As with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents," he snapped.

Orwell, rejecting the Marxist belief that socialism was historically inevitable, paints a gloomy alternative scenario. "Industrialism, once it rises above a fairly low level, must lead to some form of collectivism. Not necessarily to Socialism, of course; conceivably it might lead to the Slave-State of which Fascism is a kind of prophecy," he asserted. He further added, "It is usual to speak of the Fascist objective as the 'beehive state', which does a grave injustice to bees. A world of rabbits ruled by stoats would be nearer the mark."

People's behavior inspired Orwell's thinking and he observed people closely, going down coal mines to see the miners, living with street people and fighting a war in the front lines. Orwell concluded that most individuals were passive, a "slave of mysterious authority" convinced "that 'they' will never allow him to do this, that, and the other." In short, a few weasels ruled the many rabbits. Only educated people, or as Orwell called them, "people who could pronounce their aitches," effected social change, but they faced powerful resistance from the weasels.

Orwell offers no detailed picture of a socialist future; he only states that "socialism means justice and common decency." He sees nothing wrong with the working man's vision of the socialist future as the "present society with the worst abuses left out, and with interest centering round the same things as at present--family life, the pub, football, and local politics." That's hardly a revolutionary credo.

Orwell demonstrates a curious ambivalence to the machine age; he recognizes that humankind will now face a continuous stream of new machines, but views this trend as a threat to an individual's freedom and the quality of life. "[W]e can actually _feel_ the tendency of the machine to make a fully human life impossible," he writes.

Part of Orwell's opposition to machinery seems in part rooted in a conventional socialist outlook, believing that when capitalists create machines, they use them to leverage their power over employees. Costly machines make employees entirely dependent on their capitalist bosses and powerless in bargaining for better wages. In this vein Orwell writes,"the effect of industrialism is to make it impossible for anyone to be self-supporting even for a moment."

Orwell's critique of the machine age differs from conventional socialism by emphasizing non-economic, quality of life effects. The dehumanizing nature of machines is an historical triviality for Marx, but a central issue for Orwell, one he later featured in his best-known work, 1984. According to Orwell, machines undermine a person's freedom, render physical efforts unnecessary and interfere with experiencing nature. "[T]he logical end of mechanical progress is to reduce the human being to something resembling a brain in a bottle," Orwell states.

If that's the case, how then would machines differ under socialism, especially when according to Orwell, and many other socialists, "the rate of mechanical progress will be much more rapid once Socialism is established?" Here one suspects that Orwell sometimes wears socialist blinders. He seems reluctant to admit that any beneficial new technologies can spring from a profit motive. Orwell argues that new technologies are born covered with the sin of capitalism, but is a microchip inherently capitalist? Would it never have been created under socialism? Or is it how a society uses new machinery that matters? Orwell doesn't say.

Orwell's opposition to machinery seems connected to his reverence for nature. While he avoids direct Luddite-like criticisms, he places great importance on an individual's opportunity to experience nature. He proposes giving "every unemployed man a patch of ground and free tools if he chose to apply for them." Such a policy is not economic, but one tied to freedom and independence.

In his later essay, Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, Orwell develops his reverence for nature in more detail, explaining how the enjoyment of nature is key to individual liberty:

"Is it wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird's song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle?. . .At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can't stop you enjoying it. . . . The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it."

Orwell doesn't see socialism as a system that should oppress a citizen in favor of some collective good, but one that should celebrate the dignity of each individual.


Roberts, Gene and Klibanoff, Hank. The Race Beat. Alfred A. Knopf (2006).

"I think the people of Mississippi ought to come to Chicago to learn to hate." -- M.L. King, Jr., while marching in Gage Park, Chicago.

Reviewed 9 January 2007

Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff have written a detailed, highly readable account of how the news media covered America's civil rights movement, The Race Beat. The authors tell their story chronologically, beginning with the impact of the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision on the South. It's a drama with a cast of hundreds - journalists, politicians, civil rights activists, police and irate citizens. Pithy biographical sketches tell us about the principal actors.

The book aims to increase the reader's understanding of the inner workings of the American press - How does media management decide on coverage? What kind of backgrounds do journalists have? How well do journalists hold to their code of ethics in practice? It also vividly chronicles the behind-the-scenes maneuverings of politicians, police and civil rights activists when facing media coverage.

Through Roberts and Klibanoff's descriptions of major civil rights confrontations - Birmingham, Oxford, Selma, Greensboro, and Chicago - we hear racist mobs growling and screaming profanities; we see veins bulging as mob members spit on and club their fellow Americans. The mobs' outrage focuses on African-Americans, who demand to vote, use public accommodations, attend all schools and universities and sit where they want in public transportation. The mobs create an atmosphere of fear that dissuades other Americans from becoming involved.

While the book focuses on press issues, my mind wandered at times to larger questions: Where did all of this hate come from? It's an abstract hate directed at unknown individuals. What drives people to hate others so passionately and yet so abstractly?

The authors center their story on an observation made by a Swedish economist and politician, Gunnar Myrdal, that publicity on the lack of civil rights for Negroes would turn public opinion against segregation in the South and against the Negroes' limited rights elsewhere. Americans, he believed, have an ingrained sense of fairness. As the civil rights movement unfolded, the American press would provide that kind of publicity.

Quite possibly the charge of press bias or the castigation of the press as "liberal media" first gained prominence when segregationists criticized the media coverage of the civil rights movement. As Roberts and Klibanoff document, "liberal media" was a code word for any press account supporting racial integration, putting the South in a bad light or treating African-Americans as equals. In addition to hurling this blanket accusation, pro-segregationists sought to end open press coverage by tapping journalists' phones, spying, and orchestrating violence and jailing. After all, for many in the South and elsewhere, racial integration was directly linked to Communism.

Roberts and Klibanoff's meticulous research uncovers case after case of journalistic bias in the pro-segregation media's civil rights coverage -- foregoing or burying important stories about civil rights actions, refusing to interview African-Americans or to air segments of TV programs featuring them, rejecting any investigative journalism into civil rights issues and drafting sophomoric, racially-loaded headlines. An example of the latter was the Clarion-Ledger's (Jackson, Mississippi) photo of litter on the ground after M. L. King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech with the caption, "Washington is Clean Again with Negro Trash Removed."

The book movingly discusses how southern editors and publishers dealt with the civil rights movement, torn by their regional and professional loyalties. Standing head and shoulders above the crowd is Ralph McGill, editor and publisher of the Atlanta Constitution. McGill's writing showed a deep love of the South, but little patience with educated Southerners who played to the mob.

McGill also criticized fellow journalists who sought objectivity at the expense of truth. The book's authors described his view as follows: "If a public figure said something that was untrue or mischaracterized a situation, McGill felt, most newspapers wouldn't report the falsity unless the reporter could get someone else to point it out. And that if someone else stretched the truth, McGill said, newspapers devoted to blind objectivity found themselves in a bind, printing two falsities."

Today, the criticism of media balance continues to haunt editors and publishers. Roberts and Klibanoff's provocative examination of this issue during the civil rights era adds a useful perspective. When Harper's magazine sought to counter the segregationists' accusations that the national or northern media ignored their viewpoints, it offered Tom Waring, Jr., the segregationist editor at Charleston's News and Courier, the opportunity to write an "unemotional, sober statement, motivated by good will and useable as a starting point for rational discussion."

What Harper's editors misunderstood, and perhaps what is misunderstood in today's discussions, is that some issues aren't rational. According to Waring, Negroes were primitive, disease-ridden, immoral, disorderly and intellectually crippled. Moreover, he believed that Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren, an Eisenhower appointee, was under the influence of Communists. Today, editors aren't fretting over giving equal space to theories of racial superiority. Why were they then? What shouldn't they be fretting about today? What are today's irrational issues?

One question Roberts and Klibanoff do not address is: why did a significant race beat only exist in a few Negro newspapers prior to 1954? They hint throughout their book that controversy and violence draw media attention. Did civil rights become newsworthy only when violence reached a certain level? If so, what does that tell us about our press and ourselves?

The Race Beat provides a gripping history of the civil rights movement. It also offers the reader much more. Its narrative should provoke reflection about: how fear and hate can paralyze our republic's institutions; how, almost 200 years after the drafting of our constitution, we still struggled to achieve a broad understanding of its principles; and as Ralph McGill showed in his life and writings, how educated citizens have a special obligation to challenge those people who seek to exploit hate and fear.


Current Affairs

Bamford, James. A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies. Anchor (2005)

See Amazon

"Views from the trenches of America's intelligence agencies," reviewed January 27, 2006

A critical reader should ask: "How does Mr. Bamford, an outsider, know details about highly-classified discussions and documents?" He previously wrote two solid works on the highly-secretive NSA, the organization for code breaking and intercepting communications. This book draws on his network of contacts within the NSA and CIA. "But how did he get access to people inside the U.S. intelligence community and why would they talk to him about sensitive issues?"

Perhaps trust plays a large part in Bamford's access. His writings have possibly earned him the intelligence community's trust to present a relatively objective picture of events. We'll never know Bamford's secret to gaining access, nor how representative his contacts are. A reader would do well to keep this issue in mind while following his story.

The book's title is its thesis. The United States had no real cause for invading Iraq. Our declared reasons - seizing Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and striking a blow against Al Qaeda - were just a pretext, a ruse used to conceal the true purpose.

For Bamford, oil plays no role in going to war against Iraq, nor does 9/11. He cites former Secretary of Treasury O'Neill's account of a January 30, 2001 cabinet meeting to establish that the Bush Administration's interest in invading Iraq predated 9/11. For President Bush, Saddam Hussein's attempted assassination of his father proved that the dictator represented a danger to our country. In addition, a small group of rabidly pro-Israel officials in the U.S. Defense Department wanted a war to revolutionize Mid-East politics and protect Israel.

Would Americans believe that an assassination plot against an ex-president represents an imminent danger to their country? Would they support an abstract foreign policy goal aimed principally at improving Israeli security? President Bush and a small group of pro-Israel zealots were convinced they wouldn't; so, according to Bamford, they created a pretext for war.

This thesis is not new. Pieces of it, as well as much of Bamford's account of 9/11 recounted in the book's first hundred pages, have made it into our public discussion of the war. So why read the book? What does Bamford add to the discussion?

While Bamford repeats many familiar facts and assertions about why U.S. troops were sent to Iraq, he also weaves new materials from intelligence insiders to buttress his thesis. He especially uses interviews with mid- to lower-level intelligence officials, many of whom are now retired. Much of the material uncovered is critical of senior management, especially at the CIA, whose leadership is presented as bending too easily to political pressure. Other material aims at mid-level CIA officials whose personal ambition overwhelms their work and undermines the agency's goals. Readers should judge for themselves how well he makes his case.

Several other aspects of Bamford's book caught my attention.

First, buried within his story is an appeal for young, patriotic Americans to develop skills desperately needed by the U.S. intelligence community. According to Bamford, acquiring the basic language and cultural skills useful in intelligence work requires 3 to 8 years. That's not easily done in a retraining program. He also suggests that U.S. clandestine services need a drastic overhaul, dropping their macho, "I dare you to jump out of a plane," approach. Several times Bamford notes that John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban member, penetrated Al Qaeda; George Tenet, spending hundreds of millions and running thousands of spies, couldn't.

Second, Bamford briefly describes the network of bunkers set up during the cold war to shelter U.S. government officials. His details were new to me. What struck me was how these bunkers seemed foremost aimed at protecting people rather than institutions. Our republic was founded on the notion that the rule of law and democratic institutions are far more important than any one individual. While the tragic death of a leader is to be lamented, more important is that our institutions survive so that leaders can be legitimately replaced. As George Tenet was purported to say, "Never take yourself too seriously."

Finally, Bamford teases with some casual comments about controversial issues. He notes that the CIA was already given the authority to engage in renditions under President Clinton (pp. 205-206) and that torture sometimes produces important intelligence information (pp. 137-138).

This book was not edited as tightly as earlier ones. The "dodgy dossier" humorously becomes the "doggie dossier" and William McKinley is oddly cited as George Bush's alter ego. Still, it's engagingly written and there's plenty of material here for readers to reflect upon.


Chandrasekaran, Rajiv. Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Reviewed April 29, 2007

"For making music, you must have the knack
 And ears more musical than yours ...
 And you, my friends, no matter your positions, 
 Will never be musicians!" Krylov's Fables, Quartet

F.U.B.A.R. - that's certainly what American WWII veterans would be muttering if observing today's Iraq, but they'd probably invent juicier expressions. U.S. mismanagement during WWII pales in comparison to what's happening today in Iraq.

By now little doubt should remain that the U.S. post-war occupation of Iraq is a failure. Honest debate remains about the chances of salvaging it.

The Washington Post's Rajiv Chandrasekaran's detailed account of U.S. government post-war planning and mismanagement strongly suggests that it can't be salvaged. Using the American fortified occupation compound, the Green Zone, as a reference point and symbol, the author catalogues numerous tragic missteps that have led to the failure. Little of today's discussion on how to win Iraq grapples with the problems the author raises.

Chandrasekaran identifies several major problem areas: crippling internecine warfare within the U.S. government, catastrophic personnel selection, unrealistic budgeting and corrupt American contractors.

According to the author "desk wars" dominated post-war policy making and execution. Government agencies fought to exclude each other, or in the case of the Defense Department, even to exclude competing offices within the Defense establishment, from a role in setting post-war Iraq policy. This reader suspects that much of this internal warring stems from bloated budgets -- simply too many defense and foreign policy staff with too little to do. It also reflects how many of those officials, largely in the Pentagon driving the decision to go to war, studiously avoided debates, even with other prominent Republican foreign affairs experts. Consultations with Senator Richard Lugar, the Republican Head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, were avoided and thus he figures nowhere in the book. Internal government bickering and parochialism seriously undercut the effectiveness of post-war U.S. programs.

Like the would-be musicians in Krylov's fable Quartet, U.S. post-war reconstruction experts seemed singularly ill suited to the job of rebuilding Iraq. Chandrasekaran mentions the dearth of regional specialists and Arabic speakers, but more surprising is his revelation of how senior U.S. managers consistently undervalued real technical expertise. Prima donnas like Bernie Kerik are sent to reorganize the Iraqi police. Bremer's economics czar, Peter McPherson, knew supply-side economics, but had no real business experience. Ex-ambassadors enter and exit the scene constantly. The government rarely found the right person for the job, but rather it tapped trusted generalists whose outstanding qualifications centered on party loyalty. In the former Soviet Union a party card was crucial for promotion to a responsible position; the White House, Rumsfeld and Bremer also used Republican loyalty tests when staffing the Iraq effort.

Third, according to Chandrasekaran, the Republican Party consistently underestimated the level of effort and cost of the post-war occupation. Where the Germans needed 8,000 specialists to work on reforming East German industry, Republicans thought they could get by with a dozen people working on a shoestring. Never mind that these same U.S. experts demonstrated an appalling parochialism and, hunkered down in the Green Zone bubble, remained largely oblivious to how Iraqis lived and thought.

Finally, Chandrasekaran reports on considerable corruption. While many no-bid contracts were technically legal and justified by Republicans as emergency measures, the author questions their ethical basis. He also cites instances of clearly illegal corruption, such as the use of shell companies to inflate invoices in cost-plus contracts. Nowhere, however, does the reader learn the fate of those individuals involved in these allegedly criminal activities.

One senses that Republican mismanagement continues, so the reader is left with the impression that Chandrasekaran would likely favor a withdrawal. Today, little news comes from Iraq about American rebuilding efforts. Even if experts are now being given the nod over political hacks, the lack of security probably prevents their effectiveness. It's also doubtful that continued funding will be available for reconstruction, especially if it is to come at the expense of other Defense Department spending.

With little having changed, Rajiv Chandrasekaran's book suggests that the American post-war building of Iraq will end in failure. Hard-nosed realists might do well to think through what the impact of such a failure will be.


Goldwater, Barry M. The Conscience of a Conservative

See Amazon

"Who are today's Conservatives? What would Barry think?," reviewed January 23, 2003

"The challenge to Conservatives today is quite simply to demonstrate the bearing of a proven philosophy on the problems of our own time," notes Barry Goldwater in his introduction. The problems from 1960 that Mr. Goldwater chose as topics for his book were: States' Rights, Civil Rights, Freedom for the Farmer, Freedom for Labor, Taxes and Spending, The Welfare State, Education and the Soviet Menace.

His thoughts later became political gospel for conservative activists and a measuring stick against which politicians were held to see if they were truly conservative. One such prominent conservative activist, Phyllis Schlafly, stated: "It is hard to overestimate the importance of Barry Goldwater to the conservative movement. If there hadn't been a Barry Goldwater, there wouldn't have been a Ronald Reagan."

A closer look at what Mr. Goldwater wrote in 1960 convinces one that he would still have plenty to say today. His barbs would target both Democrats and Republicans. Perhaps it's discovering the barbs he would have tossed at today's Republicans that makes reading this book full of surprises.

States' rights formed a cornerstone to Barry Goldwater's conservative thought. Although the States' rights to permit slavery were ended by war and constitutional amendment, Goldwater saw no such restrictions on a state's right to keep racially segregated schools. Simply put: "no powers regarding education were given the federal government" and "it has never been seriously argued ... that the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment intended to alter the Constitutional scheme with regard to education. ... I therefore support all efforts by the States ... to preserve their rightful powers over education." (p.35) The Bush Administration supports a court challenge to the University of Michigan's policy of giving African Americans racial preferences in admissions. Mr. Goldwater would shout "NO" to this interference. You can't have it both ways: supporting States' rights when they result in segregated schools, and opposing them when they result in greater African American enrolments.

Goldwater further proclaimed: "federal intervention in education is unconstitutional" and "the alleged need for federal funds (for education) has never been convincingly demonstrated." (p. 79) It's doubtful if Barry Goldwater would have supported the Bush Administration's much touted educational initiative, the "No Child Left Behind Act," which involves the federal government in policy-making and funding.

Forty years ago Barry Goldwater led the conservative attack on federal tax and related spending policies. Faced with the Bush Administration's tax cuts and its disregard for ensuing deficits, Barry would be fuming. He wrote: "While there is something to be said for the proposition that spending will never be reduced so long as there is money in the federal treasury, I believe that as a practical matter spending cuts must come before tax cuts. If we reduce taxes before firm, principled decisions are made about expenditures, we will court deficit spending and the inflationary effects that invariably follow." (p. 65)

Finally, Goldwater called for "prompt and final termination of the farm subsidy program." (p. 43) He considered it unconstitutional. Last May President Bush boosted U.S. crop and dairy subsidies by 67 percent by signing a $51.7 billion farm law.

Mr. Goldwater's analysis of the Soviet menace also makes fascinating reading in our post-Soviet world.

First, he opposed the U.S. halt to nuclear testing. Tests were "needed to develop tactical nuclear weapons for possible use in limited wars" (p. 112). Barry Goldwater believed that limited nuclear wars were almost inevitable, for they provided our only answer to superior Communist conventional military power. Moreover, the U.S. government was tricked into halting tests. "Our government was originally pushed into suspending tests by Communist-induced hysteria on the subject of radio-active fallout." (p.113). I'm sure Mr. Goldwater would be among the first to rejoice that his worst fears were wrong.

Second, Barry Goldwater opposed our official exchange programs with the Soviet Union, even though they received major support in some Republican circles (Eisenhower, Nixon and Kissenger). Exchanges would lull Americans into accepting Communism and reduce our willingness to make sacrifices to halt Communist expansion. (p.108) I think, however, it can now be argued that these exchange programs played a major role in undermining the Soviet Union by creating a core of internal opposition. Many Soviet citizens who saw the West first hand on official exchanges later risked the "knock on the door" in opposing Communism. They are the unsung individuals who "won" the Cold War. Ironically, Mr. Goldwater's vocal opposition to these exchange programs probably made it easier to gain support for them within the Soviet bureaucracy.

Upon finishing Mr. Goldwater's book, it appears to me that Conservatives are still being challenged to "demonstrate the bearing of a proven philosophy" today, especially to many Republicans. On turning the last page, I was left wondering, if the Bush Administration fails so many of Goldwater's litmus tests for Conservatism, who are the Conservatives today?


Grimes, Sandra and Jean Vertefeuille. Circle of Treason: A CIA Account of Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2012

see Amazon

"... and what about the 28 Marine guards?," reviewed Dec. 19, 2013

The authors dedicate their book to the dozen or so mostly KGB officials who switched sides during the Cold War to work for the United States and who were betrayed by Aldrich Ames, a CIA employee who also switched sides and began working for the KGB.

In June 1985, shortly after he started to spy for the Soviet Union, Ames delivered to the Soviet embassy in Washington his "big dump," files revealing the identities of Soviet officials working for the CIA. That act led to: KGB firing squads, mutual KGB and CIA deceptions (efforts to mislead each other), dangles (agents of one side pretending to want to defect to the other side), the overhaul of U.S. embassy Moscow's secure communications, the sending home of all twenty-eight Marines guarding the embassy, new strict compartmentation by Washington counterintelligence officials and a temporary ending of electronic communications between CIA HQ and the field.

As the authors make clear throughout their narrative, little should be taken at face value in the world of espionage. After receiving the "big dump," the KGB needed to verify the accuracy of Ames' materials. False accusations, if acted upon as true, would wreak havoc. The KGB's problems didn't stop there, for once the KGB confirmed the accuracy of the materials, it needed to punish its traitors without endangering its new source, Ames, who they hoped would continue to provide valuable information.

The authors' narrative is straightforward. After recounting the case histories of CIA's lost Soviet "assets" (i.e., Soviet citizens who worked for the CIA), the authors describe how a small group of dedicated counterintelligence officials worked to uncover Ames' treachery. CIA officials focused their hunt on two major possibilities: either CIA communications were compromised or a mole was present (i.e., a CIA employee was working for the Soviets).

Technology-based spying comes easiest to the U.S. intelligence community, and CIA specialists, together with the NSA, immediately focused their attention on examining the Moscow embassy's communications equipment. The authors' depiction of these efforts is somewhat limited, perhaps revealing either their lack of involvement or censorship by CIA officials. Such a high-priority, money-is-no-object technical effort was likely wrapped up within a year, probably by the late fall of 1986 when the CIA and FBI created their special task forces.

While CIA's countermeasures reduced Ames' access to information and thus CIA's losses, Ames remained in place. Once the CIA's communications equipment passed the inspection by experts, attention was concentrated on hunting down the mole. The authors present a blow-by-blow account of this hunt with counterintelligence officials painstakingly sifting piles of data to narrow their focus on only a handful of CIA employees, one of whom was Ames, out of over 100 possible individuals. It's a good picture of the unglamorous drudgework that makes up much intelligence analysis. In the end it was these officials' perseverance, combined with some new information, which brought the hunt to a close.

This reader wonders why the book paid so little attention to one Moscow-related episode, widely reported in the press at the time: the Marine guard scandal. The authors state in their preface that the book stems "from a project conceived by the Agency to tell its side of the Ames story." Why did the CIA push to expel all twenty-eight Marine guards from the Moscow embassy long after concluding that its secure communications remained uncompromised? Some CIA actions undertaken while hunting Ames roughed up innocent bystanders and it appears that the CIA would rather leave them out of the story.

According to the authors the KGB hoped to keep the CIA distracted, examining communications equipment, by sending false reports via a Mister X and other KGB sources. It's hard to believe that the CIA sat idly by and didn't seek to mislead the KGB at the same time. In mid-1987, almost two years after beginning the tests of its communications equipment, the CIA likely deemed the equipment safe; yet it feigned doubts to keep the Soviets in the dark. The Naval Investigative Service interrogations of the Marine guards were allowed to continue and favored journalists (e.g., Ronald Kessler and William Easton) were given spicy, sensational inside information to spread their story.

Twenty-eight Marine guards were summarily sent home, with their careers under a cloud, in an action that bears the marks of a classic intelligence deception. A harsh thirty-year sentence was meted out to one Marine, Sgt. Clayton Lonetree, who had violated regulations and passed relatively insignificant information to the Soviets.

My suspicions of a CIA rough tactics are heightened by my own unpleasant experience with heavy-handed treatment by CIA counterintelligence officials in mid-1986. I was assigned to the Moscow embassy in mid-1986, but CIA counterintelligence officials canceled my assignment in a clumsy and highly unpleasant way.

In this reader's view, the book's depiction of the victims of Ames' treachery is too narrow and focuses mainly on the lost Soviet assets, not on innocent bystanders outside of the intelligence community. These stories are probably unknown to the authors who worked in a strict need-to-know and highly-compartmented environment, but they illustrate further the widespread destruction caused by Ames' actions.


Hirsch, James S. Two Souls Indivisible: The Friendship That Saved Two POWs in Vietnam. Houghton Mifflin (2004).

See Amazon

"Torture and POWs," reviewed July 6, 2004

James Hirsch has written an inspirational account of two American POWs, Fred Cherry, an African-American fighter-bomber pilot, and Porter Halyburton, a southern white jet navigator. Both were shot down flying missions over North Vietnam and spent seven-plus years in prison camps. The author weaves considerable biographical material on the two servicemen into descriptions of their capture, interrogations, torture and harsh prison conditions. The book draws on extensive interviews with the two flyers, their families, fellow POWs, other military colleagues and close friends.

The narrative depicts how POWs struggled to maintain dignity, sense of honor to the U.S. military and mutual support in the face of cruel treatment by North Vietnamese captors. This reader has for years wondered what POWs endured while imprisoned. No longer, for this book presents graphic descriptions of horrible prison conditions and physical and psychological torture. Anyone with strong views on the Vietnam War, pro or con, would find this book engaging.

The discussions of Vietnamese torture and abuse of American servicemen make distressing reading in light of revelations about U.S. mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantnamo and the legal justifications for it offered by some U.S. government officials. At times the Vietnamese denied POW status to captured Americans. When Major Cherry refused to answer questions in his first interrogation and showed his Geneva Convention card outlining his rights as a prisoner, his Vietnamese interrogator barked, "Forget about it. You're a criminal." (p.33)

People have tortured each other for thousands of years. Sometimes torturers sought military advantage; other times, enforcement of religious beliefs; or they simply needed to dominate. Gravensteen Castle's torture museum (Ghent, Belgium) contains an array of medieval Europe's crueler torture instruments, a sober reminder of how deeply ingrained human cruelty is.

This long history of torture might easily engender cynicism about the Geneva Conventions or any other rules attempting to restrain human cruelty. The drafters of the U.S. Constitution, however, displayed optimism, banning "cruel and unusual punishment."

According to Hirsch, U.S. POWs evinced similar optimism. Major Cherry recounts his relief that a uniformed Vietnamese was in charge of his capture, for "he assumed that a soldier, even a Communist, was more likely to respect a prisoner of war. According to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 - which North Vietnam had signed - POWs were to be treated humanely." (p.30) Halyburton's wife, a POW activist, optimistically declared: "All we ask is that North Vietnam adhere to the conditions of the Geneva Conventions, that they identify the prisoners they hold, and they protect them from abuse. That's all we ask." (p.210)

Hirsch cautiously avoids raising any "coulda shoulda wouldas" of the Vietnam War. That's not his story. Yet, the narrative makes clear that support for the Vietnam War was an important psychological need of the POWs and many other combatants. How else to make it through still another day of torture or fighting thousands of miles from home? That psychological need, however, can hardly become the justification for any war. The U.S. political system demands extreme prudence of its leadership when engaging troops and a thorough debate of the issues. Hirsch's book poignantly reminds readers how U.S. troops ultimately bear the consequences of war-making decisions.

The issue of race figures prominently in the book. Porter Halyburton, a southern white officer, must confront the views he absorbed from a racially segregated society when he cares for Major Fred Cherry, an African-American POW and his cellmate. Major Cherry, in turn, must bury years of racial insults and slights. The account of how both men ultimately bridge this racial divide is truly a message of hope.

This reader winced, however, at the description of Halyburton's overcoming his segregationist upbringing as being the moment when "Cherry had ceased being black." (p.133) It's not clear if this is Halyburton's or Hirsch's expression. Perhaps the words didn't come out right. Still, it would have been more satisfying in this reader's mind to hear Halyburton exclaim that he, Halyburton, had ceased being white.


Kessler, Ronald. Moscow Station: How the KGB Penetrated the American Embassy. (Scribner: 1989)

See Amazon

"Did KGB use Marine scandal to protect Ames and Hanssen?," reviewed June 19, 2001

A must read for espionage buffs. Aldrige Ames and Robert Hanssen appear destined for a high ranking among twentieth century American traitors, and Kessler unwittingly wrote an essential book for anyone attempting to understand how hard the KGB worked to keep them hidden. Don't expect great literature, though; it's low-quality muckraking. The style mixes clumsy soap opera schmalz with wooden detective story descriptions. In describing Sergeant Lonetree's entrapment by a female KGB agent, Kessler writes: "Her soft, gray eyes seemed to hold the promise of all the love he missed as a child." (page 114) We also learn that the KGB is housed in "forbidding headquarters".

Kessler's thesis is clear: "In the end, it was NSA that found the chilling evidence - the sinister devices in the CPU (the Communications Program Unit, or metal shack housing the embassy's secure communications equipment) that showed that the KGB had penetrated the code room and had been able to read all of the embassy's communications." This evidence was "Corroborated by secret information from defectors and a rash of executions of CIA assets." (page 18) Wait a minute! Hasn't the US government since blamed Ames and Hanssen for the executions of CIA assets? A close read of Kessler's text shows that the CIA and NSA never agreed that the code room was bugged. Kessler simply calls that a cover up. (page 254) Now that we know about the spying of Ames and Hanssen, which was discovered after the book was written, it seems that the CIA and NSA were right, and Kessler was wrong.

The Ames and Hanssen revelations make Kessler's willingness to assign guilt so quickly seem vicious and petty. Kessler's bad guys -- usually State Department officials and the Marine guards -- now appear to be victims of circumstances. The American Ambassador in Moscow, Arthur Hartman, leads the list of Kessler's bad guys. Kessler forces him into the mould of a B-grade movie caricature of an effete, bumbling diplomat. "The thought of going without a Soviet driver for his Mercedes made Ambassador Hartmann shudder." (page 12) "Hartman's preference for Soviet employees over Americans played nicely into the KGB's hands." (page 114) Regional Security Officer Klingenmaier comes off no better: "Klingenmaier had no backbone." (page 84) Kessler skewers the CIA for tolerating an atmosphere at the American embassy that was conducive to treason and the Naval Investigative Services for failing to convict the guilty Marines. Kessler's Epilogue, which was meant to spark the reader's outrage that guilty parties went unpunished, now reads like a list of American careers, mostly those of the Marine guards, ruined by the treachery of Ames and Hanssen.

In this light, the defection of Vitaliy Yurchenko becomes a fascinating moment. Yurchenko was "the highest-ranking KGB officer ever to defect", and he revealed to the US the identities of 12 people spying for the USSR, including the Americans Edward Lee Howard and Ronald W. Pelton. He also informed the CIA that its secure communications in the Moscow embassy had been compromised. Then, Yurchenko redefected back to the USSR. (Kessler blames CIA bungling for the redefection.) At the same time another KGB defector informed the CIA that Marine security guards had been successfully recruited. It now seems reasonable to conclude that Yurchenko defected to spread disinformation about compromised embassy communications as a way of distracting attention from Ames and Hanssen. After all, the Soviets still needed to arrest their own spies and take countermeasures against the US actions revealed by Ames and Hanssen. The Marine guard scandal seems part of this well-planned KGB ruse. Kessler's book spreads this KGB disinformation. Why? Was he working for "US", trying to convince the Soviets that U.S. security agencies bought the Soviet story while they hunted for moles. Or, was he working for "THEM"? Once again the espionage world becomes smoke and mirrors. My guess is that he just sought to cash in on the scandal.


Education

Franek, Robert. The Best 351 Colleges, 2004 Edition. Princeton Review (2003)

See Amazon

"Stonewalled by the college industry or too passive?," reviewed October 13, 2003

Editor John Katzman restates in this year's foreword how colleges and universities stonewalled some of his data requests: "We couldn't get any answers to these questions from many colleges. In fact, we couldn't get any answers to any questions from some schools. ... Until the schools demystify the admissions process, this book is your best bet." That's chutzpah.

Publishing industry representatives participate in the common data set initiative (see www.commondataset.org). Why can't they pressure colleges and universities to release their data? Furthermore, many of the 351 top schools are public institutions and subject to state Freedom of Information Acts. The college guidebook industry needs to become more assertive.

As it is, drawing on the common data set for most of its hard data, this guide resembles most other available college guides. No better, no worse. It provides some impressionistic information under the general rubric "students speak out," but putting this anecdotal information into any meaningful context is almost impossible.

Totally absent is score information from tests taken by students in college, such as the Medical College Admissions Test, Law School Admissions Test, Graduate Record Examinations, or Graduate Management Admissions Test; yet, these scores would seem to reflect college achievement. This guide only lists information on test scores taken by entering high school students (for example, the SAT I, ACT, etc.).

Little evident use is made of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). All freshmen and seniors at participating schools must take the survey, which questions students about their classroom experience, study habits and homework assignments, and asks them to evaluate the quality of education they receive. Unlike standardized tests, the survey depends entirely on subjective responses, and no attempt is made to assess what is actually learned in the classroom. Granted most schools try to hide NSSE information, but a proactive publishing industry should be able to obtain it.

College guidebook publishers seem content to generate public interest by upgrading and downgrading schools in their rankings. They expend minimal resources in seeking new information or attempting new ways of viewing how well colleges and universities educate. That's a shame, for they shortchange the American consumer who is being asked to spend increasingly large sums, often going into debt for years, on higher educational services.


Princeton Review. Complete Book of Colleges, 2004 Edition (College Admissions Guides). Princeton Review (2003).

See Amazon

"Year after year the same information," reviewed October 13, 2003

The Complete Book of Colleges presents, in encyclopedic fashion, a vast array of details on colleges and universities. It also judges the quality of schools, designating some of them as among the 351 best. However, to learn more about what makes a school one of the best, the reader must buy an additional Princeton Review book.

This guide resembles most other available college guides and these similarities are not accidental. All of today's college guides gather their most important information from the same source: the common data set (see Common Data Set Initiative). Originally established to standardize and ease the distribution of college information, the common data set now seems to function as a barrier to original efforts to evaluate American colleges and universities.

The Princeton Review touts its guide as "the best place to begin, fine-tune and execute the search for your perfect college." Given that everybody uses the same data, that claim seems a little dubious and resembles advertising campaigns by soap manufacturers desperately trying to differentiate almost identical products.

The publishing industry's sloth is glaringly evident in their failure to pressure colleges and universities to provide important test score information left out of the common data set. Industry representatives participate in the common data set initiative; yet, their role appears completely passive.

This guide only lists information on test scores taken by entering high school students (for example, the SAT I, ACT, etc.). No score information is reported for tests taken by students in college, such as the Medical College Admissions Test, Law School Admissions Test, Graduate Record Examinations, or Graduate Management Admissions Test; yet, these scores would seem to reflect better college achievement. Further, no attempt is made to compare high school and college test results.

It appears that little use is made of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). The survey arose from a general dissatisfaction among educators with magazine rankings. All freshmen and seniors at participating schools must take the survey, which questions students about their classroom experience, study habits and homework assignments, and asks them to evaluate the quality of education they receive. Unlike standardized tests, the survey depends entirely on subjective responses, and no attempt is made to assess what is actually learned in the classroom. Granted most schools try to hide NSSE information, but a proactive publishing industry should be able to obtain it.

If the Princeton Review published information on college test scores or the NSSE, it would live up to its claim of being "the first place to begin." Until then, it's just another guidebook publishing pretty much the same information that every other guidebook publishes.

Yale Daily News Staff. The Insider's Guide to the Colleges, 2013: Students on Campus Tell You What You Really Want to Know.

See Amazon

"What You Really Want to Know," reviewed October 30, 2012

The preface reveals this book's approach: choose information from the Common Data Set, standardized information released by all higher ed schools, and marry it with short essays that draw on the experiences of current undergraduates. It's a low cost approach. The data are free and the outsourced essays require only good editors who can crack the whip on deadlines and polish the prose.

Does it deliver on the cover's promise? Does it "tell you what you really want to know?" That's harder to judge, for the essays vary significantly in quality and aim at students, not parents. Access to beer is a recurring topic. Prospective students might find the book most useful prior to a campus visit.

This and other college guides fail to do innovative work that would help consumers better compare schools. Such work requires going beyond the Common Data Set and pushing schools to reveal information that they'd prefer to hide or downplay. So what's missing? What do I really want to know?

What are my chances of being unable to enroll in specific courses? Colleges have computerized their course selection process and should be able to provide detailed data on which courses are difficult or next to impossible to enroll in. The Amherst College essay notes: "Some students, however, are frustrated by the difficulties of registering for courses taught by Amherst's 'celebrity professors' ..." Too bad there aren't some overall statistics. This issue is probably more critical at large state universities where one reads that students often have to tack on a fifth year because they had difficulty in getting the courses they wanted.

What's the campus security situation? The Clery Act forced colleges to report on campus crime. As the recent scandals at Penn State and Amherst have shown, college administrations view crime as a PR nightmare and have a natural inclination to underreport. Guidebook editors would provide a valuable service to push for better reporting and to publicize those statistics that do exist. You won't find them in this and other guidebooks. A savvy student or parent can learn about campus crime by using "clery" when searching college websites. Maybe the links to these reports can be added to the summary data section.

How do a college's students perform on the standardized exams for professional school? Some students begin undergraduate school intending to continue their education afterwards in law, medical, business or graduate school. No guidebooks provide any information on how a college's students perform on the LSAT, MCAT, GMAT or GRE. Savvy students or parents might ask about these scores during a campus visit, but don't expect an answer. Again the guidebook industry could perform a valuable service by pushing for these data.


Popular fiction

Berry, Steve. The Romanov Prophecy. Fawcett, (2005)

See Amazon

"The Proof that Wasn't," reviewed February 1, 2006

"Write what you know" is advice often offered to writers. Steve Berry should have heeded that advice. He doesn't speak Russian, nor does he know much about Russia.

His incorrect Russian was like a fingernail dragging across a chalkboard through the whole novel. Instead of Nikolskiy prospect, we get Nikolskaya. A babushka becomes a bobushka. And he dresses a Russian policeman in a woman's hat or "shlapa," which is actually written shlyapa. That's hardly an exhaustive list. Orleg (did he mean Oleg?) eats his bliny like an American, using syrup, rather than tvarog and jam.

Not that Berry's English is all that powerful. "And other than the man in the archives, whom he'd thought might be watching ..." Whom? Who would do just fine. Unleashing his creativity to write in a staccato, hard-boiled style, Berry pens: "He spent at least nine weeks a year traveling the world on expeditions. Canadian caribou and geese. Asian pheasant and wild sheep. European red stag and fox. ...." I don't think semi-colons would spoil the canvas here.

Don't expect any psychological depth from Berry's characters. Insights on what makes his characters tick appear as afterthoughts, plopped down on paper. Chapter 18 ends with: "Just like his father." Clunk. Evil-doer Hayes stands on a hill overlooking Moscow where "the Kremlin cathedrals peaked through a cold haze like tombstones in a fog." Is Hayes sensing his own death? He doesn't appear to be. So what's the reader to make of this image? Don't dig deeply. My guess is that it's only a doodad to give the work the semblance of the profound thought and observation expected in good literature.

Believability is an important quality of fiction. Berry lost all believability when he wrote that DNA testing confirmed that Michael Thorn was directly descended from the Russian Tsar Nicholas. He stated that Michael's "genetic structure matched Nicholas's exactly, even containing the same mutation scientists had found when Nicholas's bones were identified in 1994."

In the case Berry refers to, scientists tested mitochondrial DNA, which is only passed down the female line. Michael's mother got her mitochondrial DNA from her mother. Her mother got hers from her mother, etc.

If Michael Thorn's mitochondrial DNA matches Nicholas's, then Michael Thorn's mother is related to a female in Nicholas's mother's family.

Yet, that can't be. Berry states that Michael Thorn's mother, a Russian refugee living in America, was "Russian born to noble blood." Nicholas's mother's family is Danish. Thus, the results of the DNA test actually mean that Michael Thorn is not the Tsar. When science speaks, Berry's story disappears. That's just plain sloppy writing and editing.

Berry seems to have developed a recipe: take a foreign vacation, find colorful sights, take copious notes for descriptions, salt and pepper with foreign words, boil down local history to Cliff Notes sketches and attach them to scenery, simmer with a stock plot, and voila!

Home