Category Archives: 4-Star Reviews

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant by Ronald C. White

Another in a series of books attempting to restore the life and career of Ulysses S. Grant into proper historical perspective. Undoubtedly the most popular man in America at the time of his death in 1885, his reputation has taken a beating in the years since the end of Reconstruction. Due to a combination of Northern exhaustion after 15 years of Civil War and Reconstruction, and a purposeful campaign by Southern historians and heritage groups looking to recast the war as anything other than a fight to retain the institution of slavery, many myths about Grant have taken hold in popular imagination.

Ronald C. White, in American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant, has given us a very accessible, and personal, biography of Grant that puts to rest many of the myths about him that have gained a foothold in popular memory since his death. He also provides what I consider to be one of the best reviews of Grant’s Presidency that has so far been published; one that puts it into proper historical context given the many challenges he faced after the disastrous Johnson years.

At the moment of his death on July 23, 1885, Ulysses S. Grant was arguably the most revered man in America. He had shepherded the Union war effort to ultimate victory, had completed two terms as President, which, if not spectacularly successful in hindsight, had done little to diminish his popularity, and he had riveted the nation with his heroic struggle against time, as he raced to complete his memoirs before the ravages of throat cancer took his life. Those memoirs, completed only five days before his death, are the widely acknowledged gold standard among military autobiographies, and their popularity restored the Grant family fortune. The country went into deep and prolonged mourning after his death, with 1.5 million people attending his New York funeral. Despite this though, By the end of the 19th century, Grant’s reputation had undergone a large, and largely negative, change.

Ask the average person today what they know about Ulysses S. Grant and you are as likely to hear that he was a “butcher” and a “drunk,” as you are to hear he was the preeminent military figure of the Civil war whose skill and strategic genius saved the union. As with most myths however, the truth is far more complicated. And in the case of Grant, they are almost universally incorrect. White does a very good job of separating fact from fiction with regards to these myths.

One of the most pernicious of these myths surrounds Grant’s alleged drinking problem. It is supposedly the cause of his forced resignation from the Army, and was at the root of any setback he experienced throughout the war. Grant didn’t discipline his troops after the initial victory at Belmont, so he must have been drinking. Grant wasn’t prepared for Albert Sidney Johnston’s attach at Shiloh, so he must have been drinking. Grant unwisely ordered a last assault at Cold Harbor, so he must have been drinking. And on and on and on…

Politics too played a part. Rumors that Grant had resigned from the Army in 1854 because of his drinking allowed rival Generals, usually those annoyed that Grant’s success was getting in the way of their glory, to raise the specter that he had fallen off the wagon and should be replaced, with the usual recommendation being that the replacement should be the one making the charge.

White deals with these rumors in a very effective way. Rather than devoting a whole chapter on the topic, which to me has the effect of elevating their credibility, he simply deals with them within the timeline of the narrative. He does not assert Grant did not drink – he clearly did – he simply notes there is no convincing evidence that Grant routinely drank to excess, or that his drinking had any effect on his military performance. Contemporary evidence, other than repeated rumors, are almost non-existent. Every person sent to Grant’s command to investigate these rumors, reported back they had no basis in fact. So the reality then, as White shows, is that while Grant was not a teetotaler, he did not have a serious drinking problem. And there is not a scrap of evidence drinking ever had an effect on his performance during the war.

Another persistent myth about Grant relates to his military skill. Southerners, eager to elevate their participation in the war as a heroic struggle against a marauding north intent on trampling rights guaranteed them in the Constitution, had to come up with ways to explain their defeat that didn’t involve admitting any fault with their (lost) cause. From this sprang first, the assertion that Southern soldiers were superior to the northern counterparts. Whereas they portrayed themselves as selfless warriors merely looking to defend hearth and home, Northern troops were depicted as the lackeys of money grubbers looking to strip the South of its wealth, or, as so eloquently put by Shelby Foote, Confederates believed “one Southern soldier was worth ten Yankee hirelings.” Ironically, an argument could persuasively be made that the reality was exactly the opposite. Confederate soldiers were fighting so the landed gentry could maintain their way of life, one that depended on slavery. It was the North that was fighting for a concept – “Union.”

The second, and possibly the most important part of this effort to recast the war, was the importance of demonstrating the superiority of Confederate Generals. The post war south wanted heroes to latch on to. They had to be portrayed as honorable men, fighting for a righteous cause. They also had to find an explanation for their defeat other than the superiority of their northern counterparts. This was particularly true with their most idolized figure – Robert E. Lee.
Southerners dealt with these needs in two ways. First, they asserted the only way the North could have defeated the South was through brute force and overwhelming numbers. At no point, they asserted, were southern generals outmatched, or southern troops outfought. They simply lacked the resources needed to win. Secondly, in order to elevate the character of their hero Lee, they had to deflate that of the man who defeated him – Ulysses S. Grant.

White doesn’t deal extensively in what ifs related to the manpower argument. The South certainly had the resources it needed to win the war had it employed an effective strategy. It didn’t. He does debunk the notion that Grant was victorious solely through the application of overwhelming force. After all, the North had that same advantage from the beginning of the war, and were not able to defeat Lee. Only when an able General, one who understood the strategies needed to overwhelm Lee, took command, were they able to win. The fact is, as White shows, northern troops were equally as brave and skilled as their southern counterparts; and Grant was superior to Lee, particularly as a strategic thinker. Lee was myopically focused on the eastern theater, while Grant viewed the conflict as a nationwide one. Where Lee cared little for what happened in the west, Grant realized that success there made victory in the east more attainable.

White does a very effective job debunking most of the negative assertions about Grants military ability. He does not do this by ignoring Grant’s failures (e.g. Cold Harbor), or by denigrating the ability of Robert E. Lee. He presents an effective, though not ground breaking review of Grant’s efforts up to his elevation as General in Chief, and provides a very fair analysis of events after that point.

The only conclusion that can plausibly be drawn from available evidence is that Grant, far from being a butcher of men, was in fact a skilled tactician and strategist, who made effective use of his resources. He put in place an effective strategy for winning the war, and executed it with considerable skill. Robert E. Lee did present the toughest resistance Grant had come up against during the war, but Grant was more than equal to the task. His casualty rates during the Overland Campaign were appalling of course, but that was the expected result of the type of fighting needed to bludgeon the South into submission. Always on the attack Grant was guaranteed to suffer more casualties. But as a percentage of his Army they were no worse than Lee’s. And if one looks at the entire war, Grant lost considerably fewer men while in command than Lee did.

Following Lee’s surrender, Grant’s role changed. He entered the political realm, first as General in Chief under the volatile Andrew Johnson, then as interim Secretary of War, and finally as President. White provides an excellent review of this time, far better than most biographies of Grant which tend to rush through this period.

For many years, Grant has ranked near the bottom of the list of effective Presidents. But in recent years, as historians have begun to take a more dispassionate look at his two terms, that ranking has improved. White does what many biographers have not, examined his Presidency in the context of the challenges he faced.

As President, after two year of conflict under Andrew Johnson who aided the South as it tried to reassert white dominance, Grant faced a daunting task. Not only was he trying to repair the country, he was trying to protect the rights of newly freed slaves. Ambivalent about slavery before the war, Grant became a staunch supporter of full citizenship for former slaves after it.

He made significant progress pushing back the Ku Klux Klan, and successfully navigated the rough political waters that went along with military reconstruction in the South. Many assert, including I think the author, that Grant should be considered the first Civil Rights President. Strong evidence for this includes the views of Frederick Douglass, who had a tepid opinion of Lincoln’s efforts on behalf of blacks, but strongly support Grant’s. The support of Jewish leaders as well, who were insulted by Grant’s infamous General Order #11 in 1862 that singled out Jewish traders for condemnation, but who came around to view him as an ally, is another piece of evidence in favor of that view. And not only was he a proponent of full rights for African Americans, but he tried to install a liberal policy regarding Native Americans, believing the government had trampled on their rights.

As events eventually overtook the country, and weariness after 15 years of war and the conflict of Reconstruction set in, much of what Grant did and tried to do, was rolled back by subsequent administrations. It would be nearly a century before blacks were able to get restored to them anything close to their full rights again. But, Grant’s efforts here were noble, and were for a time successful. He deserves credit for that.

Grant also had to deal with several economic issues during his administration. Early in his first term, wealthy speculators Jay Gould and James Fisk tried to corner the gold market. Grant intervened to stop them just in time, the result of which was Black Friday, a panic that led to months of financial devastation. White argues Grant’s quick action should be credited. While that is true, I think he goes too far in absolving Grant here. He either didn’t realize or didn’t want to realize, that he was being used by Gould and Fisk. Had he been more diligent, he might have been able to terminate their machinations without the subsequent panic.

White also gives Grant too much credit for the way he dealt with the depression of 1873. The crisis, which was the result of over speculation in railroad stock, led Grant to further contract the money supply in order to prevent over inflation. White implies this was the correct move in that it kept inflation from getting out of hand. However, at the same time it caused interest rates to rise, which hurt those in debt (as Grant acknowledged and agonized over), and severely limited the amount of money available to companies with growth plans. Those actions probably prolonged the downturn.

White compares Grant’s steady, no nonsense reaction to the crisis to Franklin Roosevelt’s reaction to the Great Depression of the 1930s, as he tried to cheer lead the economy into action, which White implies was a less effective strategy. This is not a good comparison. Grant’s reaction was to the immediate crisis as it occurred, while FDR’s was to an economy that had been in depression for three years, and which had sapped the countries will. A more apt comparison would have been to Hoover, whose reaction was much the same as Grant’s, a refusal to apply stimulus, thus prolonging the crisis.

White also deals effectively with the numerous scandals that occurred during Grant’s two terms. Seemingly unable to believe anyone he had known and trusted could act duplicitously, he was slow to remove corrupt officials, and remained loyal to those taking advantage of their relationship with him for far too long. Grant was personally incorruptible, but was seemingly blind to corruption around him until it instigated a crisis. This is the reason Grant is ranked as a middling President rather than an above average one.

Overall I think anyone with an interest in Ulysses S. Grant would enjoy this book immensely. It is generally fair (with the exceptions I noted), and effectively deals with the many myths surrounding Grant and his career. He does a nice job of tying Grant’s life as a boy and student at West Point to his later action as General and President. He does a nice job of recounting Grant’s career, and his service in both Mexico and in the Civil War. He provides a very lucid account of Grant’s Presidency that puts it into the context of the challenges he faced. He also gives a great account of Grant’s world tour after his White House years, and a very moving one of his final death struggle.

Most importantly, it is very well written

There are flaws, some of which I noted. He was at times quick to give Grant the benefit of the doubt in cases where there was an equally plausible counter argument. He also seemed to take great pains to portray Grant as a devout Christian. He was a believer of course, but I don’t think religion played a particularly important role in his life. And finally I think he gave Grant too much credit for his reactions to the gold crisis in 1869 and the depression of 1873.

Still, highly recommended!

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

 

Ready Player One is included in the Young Adult section on Amazon.com. In many ways this is an appropriate categorization. Most of the book takes place inside a video game, and the main characters are teenagers with dialog that reflects that fact. However, like the Harry Potter books, there is plenty here for adults to get excited over, especially for those of us who came of age during the 1980s, an era most young people would have little familiarity with. The  themes implied in the story including the dangers that arise in an information culture, globalism, corporate power, and an exploration of the “real,” vs the “virtual.” None of these are exclusively the concerns of the young.

The story centers on Wade Owen Watts, who in the real world of 2044 America, lives with his alcoholic aunt, and her abusive boyfriend. They live in Oklahoma City in  a trailer home, part of the “stacks,” literally stacks of trailers and mobile home welded together into multi story structures. Like most of humanity however, Wade spends the vast majority of his time in the “OASIS,” or “Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation”, a massive, immersive virtual space that doubles as both an MMORPG (Massive Multiple Player Online Role Playing Game) and a virtual society in which people live, work and even go to school. Wade attends High School from within the OASIS. Currency traded in the OASIS is the most stable and valuable, and while in the “real” world society still functions, it is sliding into a corporate run dystopia.

Within the OASIS people are identified by their avatars, alternate identities which each person creates to reflect how they would like to be seen by others. Wade Watts is known Parzival, and his best friend as Aetch. Along the way we are introduced to Art3mis, Daito and Shaito, and several others. These identities may or may not track closely with their real world personalities.
The story surrounds the death of one of the inventors of OASIS, James Donovan Halliday. In many ways modeled on Howard Hughes, Halliday and his partner Ogden Morrow (avatar Og), invented OASIS and formed the company that operates it, “Gregarious Simulation Systems.” After his death, rather than leave his wealth and company to a specific person, it is revealed he immersed within OASIS a game, a quest to find an Easter Egg, the finder of which would inherit Morrow’s riches, thus becoming one of the most powerful people in the world. Those who took up the challenge became known as Gunters (short for Egg Hunters).  Besides the individual players, and groups known as clans that formed to find the egg, another corporation, IOI (Innoative Online Industries) also joins the hunt. IOI is one of those classically evil corporations, using its vast resources to try and rule the world; in this case, by inheriting the riches of their main rival. Along the way they have no compunction about using bribery, coercion, kidnapping and murder to achieve their ends.

I won’t go further as I do not want to give away any important plot elements. The book is being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg.

For folks like me, mid fifties with a nostalgia for the 1980s, Ready Player One is a feast. It is infused with the pop culture of that decade. References to classic video games (Pac Man, Tempest, Joust etc), music, movies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, War Games etc),and literature, form the clues and the simulated tasks Gunters must follow to find the egg. Like Steam Punk, it is an interesting and unique way to fuse past and future. For those younger folks unfamiliar with the origin of video games it is a fun way to connect that continuum – Pong to OASIS.

Besides being an fun and entertaining story, it also forces one to ponder the possible effects of increased reliance on virtual reality. Are they really the same as some assert, merely being different ways to stimulate the same areas of the brain? Or, does it represent a real threat as people become more isolated from each other? Or, does it bring people closer together as people virtually interact with others they never would have met in the real world. What are its implications as a few large corporations take over the industry, and become in many ways, more powerful than the government we elect to lead us? The author doesn’t really answer these questions, though the ending implies which way he is leaning.

This book was really a lot of fun. It was well written. The author has a gift for teenage dialogue, as I can attest being the father of a recent teenager myself. He does a great job keeping the story going and infusing suspense at just the right times. He has successfully fused a very entertaining and accessible story with larger questions about the future of human interaction within a virtual world. I am anxious to see what Steven Spielberg does with the film version.

Highly recommended!


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4.0 rating

ImpeachmentImpeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction by Hans Trefousse

Andrew Johnson is one of the most enigmatic and controversial presidents in American history. Depending on one’s perspective and place in time he was either the man responsible for the failure of Reconstruction in the south, or, the man who helped avoid a race war by steering a moderate course between advocates for full civil and political rights for African Americans and those that wanted to keep them in as close to a state of slavery as possible. Johnson has been the subject of many books, by many of the leading scholars of the Reconstruction era, including Eric Foner, who, for my money, is at the top of this list. Each looks at Johnson in different ways, interpreting his actions and the motivation behind them from different points of view. In one respect they all agree, Andrew Johnson was in inveterate racist whose racism shaped his views of Reconstruction and the proper role of the freedmen in the post-Civil War South.

In his book Impeachment of a President: Andrew Johnson, the Blacks, and Reconstruction, Hans Trefousse has produced an extensive and, in my opinion, unique view of Johnson and his presidency. He views Johnson’s motivations from the dual perspectives of Jacksonianism and racism, a perspective I haven’t seen before, and don’t entirely agree with. Trefousse acknowledges, as most scholars do, that Johnson’s intense racism made it impossible for him to “sympathize in any way with policies furthering racial equality. (Trefousse, 5) However, Trefousse departs from conventional wisdom which views Johnson as “inept and stubborn,” by concluding he was in fact sincere in his beliefs and a skillful, uncompromising tactical politician.

Andrew Johnson viewed himself as a “Jackson Democrat.” This implied, among other things, a belief in white superiority, a classical states rights view of the constitution, a rejection of secession as one of those rights, a bottom up view of politics including an often intense distrust of large monied interests, and like Jackson himself, a willingness to stubbornly stand one’s ground in defense of his beliefs, trusting in eventual vindication by the American people. Trefousse does not dig into Johnson’s motivations for his dislike of the slavocracy before the war, something that would not be a characteristic of a Jackson Democrat, but he does ascribe the others to him, and uses them to explain Johnson’s actions throughout reconstruction, especially in relation to the efforts to impeach him.

Andrew Johnson, “like Andrew Jackson, conceived of an America ruled by whites.” (Trefousse, 4) As guaranteed in the constitution, Johnson was devoted to democracy and viewed it as a precious gift. But, in his view the constitution was “written by white men, [and] he believed that its benefits were reserved for whites.” (Trefousse, 4) As Trefousse points out, evidence for this racism is abundant, ranging from disgust at seeing black troops stationed in Tennessee while he was its wartime governor, to his denunciation of the Reconstruction Bill of 1867 he described as a “measure to treat the suffering people of the South under foot ‘top protect niggers’,” to his annoyance at seeing predominantly black laborers working on the White House lawn. (Trefousse, 4) The primary expression of Johnson’s racism during this period however, was his stubborn determination to minimize the role of black’s in Reconstruction, and to maintain the domination of the white race. In furtherance of that goal, all through the Reconstruction period, Johnson acted on these racist principles, taking actions which he believed would maintain white domination in the reconstructed south, including his May 29, 1865 Proclamation of Amnesty which “inaugurated and extremely liberal policy of pardoning ex-Confederates,” and his call for white southerners to hold conventions for the purpose of organizing new state governments, thus disregarding demands for black suffrage. (Trefousse, 11) His racism would not allow a policy of land distribution to freedmen. As Trefousse observes, had Johnson wanted to “maintain the dominance of the white race… [he]…could not permit the transfer of land to the freedmen.” (Trefousse, 15) Consequently he established a policy of returning confiscated land to their Confederate owners in an effort to deny freedmen the opportunity to become landholders. In early 1866 Johnson vetoed the Freedmen’s Bureau bill, primarily for racist reasons, and in 1867 he vetoed the Civil Rights bill partially for constitutional reasons, but also because “it offended his racial sensibilities since it proposed to outlaw all discrimination between the races.” (Trefousse, 26) And, in 1866 he opposed passage of the fourteenth amendment to the constitution whose moderate purpose was to insure the equal treatment of all citizens under state law. As with the Civil Rights bill, Johnson objected partially on substantive grounds, but also because it gave rights to blacks which he did not believe they should have. In taking these uncompromising stands, Johnson passed up numerous opportunities to compromise with moderate and conservative Republicans that may have enhanced his political position. Instead, he chose to stand his ground, certain “that history and his country would ultimately recognize the purity of his actions.” (Trefousse, 6) Instead, while he was President, “[Andrew Johnson] would utilize the entire resources of his high office to keep the South a white man’s country.” (Trefousse, 29)

While racism was the primary reason for Johnson’s opposition to the equitable treatment of freedmen, it was not the only one. Another, Trefousse argues, was that Johnson, like Andrew Jackson, was devoted to an indissoluble Union and to the Constitution. He held a classic states rights position as did Jackson ascribing to the individual states sovereignty in most matters. He drew the line at state nullification of federal law and secession, neither of which he believed were sanctioned by the Constitution. This explains his loyalty to the Union; a view at odds with the majority of his former constituents in Tennessee. It also partially explains a number of his actions during Reconstruction including his veto of the Freedman’s Bureau bill, the Civil Rights bill, and his opposition to the fourteenth amendment. All of these actions Trefousse argues, were based on Johnson’s view of the proper role of the federal government; specifically, his belief that the constitution did not give the federal government power to define the terms of suffrage in the various states. It was also evident in the way Johnson worked to minimize the effects of military Reconstruction, replacing generals who were viewed as too radical. It was perhaps most dramatically demonstrated by his challenge to the Tenure of Office Act. Designed to restrict Johnson’s control of federal patronage, the act forbade the dismissal of any Presidential appointee still in the term of their appointment without Congressional approval. Johnson, anxious to rid himself of Secretary of War Stanton, and in an apparent desire to test the act’s constitutionality, removed him from office, setting up a confrontation with Congress. Republicans in the House of Representatives, who had been looking for an excuse to Impeach Johnson, used his violation of this act to do so. After shameful and unethical behavior on both sides, Johnson was ultimately acquitted by one vote in the Senate.

Where Trefousse departs from many other historians’ analysis of Johnson’s actions during this period, is in his interpretation of Johnson’s apparent stubbornness in the face of Republican pressure. Usually dismissed as the actions of a vindictive and recalcitrant politician, Johnson’s unwillingness to go along with Republican reconstruction efforts were actually politically calculated to achieve a very specific result. Every action he took, from purposely alienating his own ostensible allies by refusing to compromise on even the most moderate attempts to give basic civil and political liberties to freedmen, to risking impeachment over his violation of the Tenure of Office Act, was calculated, argues Trefousse, “to accomplish his own goals – to thwart Radical Reconstruction and maintain white supremacy in the South, “policies he truly believed would eventually be seen by history as correct.

At times it seems Trefousee has a sneaking admiration for Johnson. This is understandable. Certainty can be an appealing quality in a politician – at least initially. However, from the tenor and tone of the book as a whole, particularly in his extensive discussion of Johnson’s racism, Trefousse does not appear to have a high opinion of Johnson as a statesman. It is certainly clear he believes Johnson’s behavior during the Reconstruction period was harmful to the country. He notes more than once that because of the eclipse of the Southern ruling class, had Johnson acted more decisively, overcoming his racist attitudes, that “it would have been comparatively simple to enfranchise at least some of the Negroes in the former Confederacy,” (Trefousse, 7) Andrew Johnson was a Jacksonian living in a post-Jacksonian world and was unable to view things any other way.

 

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

Ragefororder



In A Rage for Order: Black-White Relations in the American South Since Emancipation, Joel Williamson takes a unique look at southern racial violence, noting that “one of the great ironies of American history…[is that]…when the nation freed the slaves, it also freed racism.” (Williamson, 78) This resulted he argues, in physical and cultural segregation, and the unleashing of some of the most sadistic racial violence seen since the end of the Civil War.

Williamson begins his work with a brief review of the rise of slavery in America, noting the strenuous efforts southern whites made to make a place for blacks in their economy by trying to find a place for them in every aspect of southern life. One result of this was the creation of the Sambo image, a construction whites invented depicting slaves as “simple, docile, and manageable.” (Williamson, 15) He describes an almost Focaultian power discourse he calls the “organic society,” where whites could not “prescribe and enforce a precise role upon black people without prescribing and enforcing a precise role upon themselves.” (Williamson, 17)

The heart of A Rage of Order however is Williamson’s discussion of the evolution of white racial attitudes in the south after emancipation, particularly the interplay of three southern white “mentalities” which he uses to describe “intellectual atmosphere[s] of a distinctive, clearly identifiable quality.” (Williamson, 70) These mentalities, which became prominent at different times were: “Liberal,” which was strongest in the 1880s and argued that black potential was as yet unknown, but was encouraged by the strides blacks made under white leadership during reconstruction; “Conservative,” which had probably started in the 1830s and was the default mentality of most white southerners, always there, but would adapt into other mentalities to insure its survival. Conservatives held that blacks were innately inferior, and in order to help them survive it aimed at defining their place in American society; and “Radical,” the most violent and insidious of the mentalities, held that blacks, no longer under the yoke of slavery, would regress to their “natural state of savagery and bestiality.” (Williamson, 71) Radicalism, which was mostly responsible for the extreme violence and racism against blacks, included forced segregation, disenfranchisement, and the use of lunching and riots as acceptable political tools, was most prominent between 1897 and 1907. Williamson’s devotes most of this work to the effects of this radicalism and how conservatism responded to it.

The rise of radicalism is not easily explained. Williamson believes an effort by northern politicians, including some Democrats, to make a place for blacks in government, fears of the reintroduction of reconstruction, and economic and political upheavals characterized by replacement of the plantation economy by tenant farming and industrialization, were all contributing factors. Based on the amount of space he devotes to it however, it appears Williamson believes the primary cause was the interplay of economics and the Victorian model of gender roles. This Victorian sensibility cast men as the breadwinner and women as the protector of hearth and home. Unable to provide for their families during bad times, men could at least protect their women from the outrages of the “black beast rapist.” This despicable construction was the result of the deliberately fabricated Radical view of black retrogression. In this view, “the most significant and awful manifestation of [this] black retrogression was an increasing frequency of assaults on white women and girls by black men.” (Williamson, 84)

Williamson uses a number of biographical essays as a way to demonstrate the manifestation of these mentalities. He includes essays on Booker T. Washington, who took an accommodationist approach to race relations, and W.E.B. DuBois, who did not. Most interesting, but ultimately the least convincing, were biographies of three prominent radicals: Rebecca Latimer Felton, Benjamin Ryan Tillman, and Tom Dixon. In each case, Williamson tries argues for a psychological explanation for their turn to radicalism. For Rebecca Latimer Felton, author, feminist, and U.S. Senator (for one day), it was disgust at her prescribed role in Victorian society. For Benjamin Ryan Tillman, it was the paranoia that arose as his daughters came of age and his memories of plantation life as an adolescent surrounded by slaves. And for Tom Dixon, the author of The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman on which the movie The Birth of a Nation was based, it was the psychological resentment he held for his father and grandmother, and the role they played forcing his mother into an underage marriage. Implicit in the sketches of Felton and Tillman, and more explicitly in that of Dixon, is the notion that the psychological condition represented by these three was also present in millions of other southern radicals. Though interesting, it is a leap to extrapolate from these case studies a wide spread psychological explanation for radicalism in the south, particularly in the absence of any other evidence.

At times Williamson takes a somewhat sympathetic view of Conservatives and their reaction to Radicalism. He admires the way it presented a pliable public face, going along with many of the radical proposals, including segregation and disenfranchisement, waiting for the day when radicalism would subside. As such, Conservatism was nearly indestructible. Overall I found Williamson’s arguments to be fairly persuasive. The interplay of the three “mentalities” he describes, and the role of Victorian gender identification in the rise of Radicalism, was convincing. His assertion that psychology can be used to explain the rise of Radicalism for millions of southerners was unpersuasive. I also found his explanation for the decline of Radicalism, that Radicals realized blacks were not dying off or retrogressing as they predicted, unpersuasive. It seems to me by 1915 when Williamson dates the end of Radicalism, they had achieved all of their goals – segregation, disenfranchisement, and state sanction for violence. There was simply no longer a reason to maintain it, and so Conservatism again became dominant.

This book is impressively sourced, using primary and secondary sources as well as newspapers and manuscripts. It is easy to read with few lapses in the narrative.

 

 

 

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

gerstle



Virtually every issue we deal with as a country is, at its base, influenced by our view of national identity, and the nature of citizenship. Many authors have looked at this topic from a number of different perspectives. Gary Gilroy in Black Atlantic gave us a transnational view of black identity which transcended the borders of the nation-state.  Benedict Anderson in Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism talks about imagined communities bound together by limited borders and a belief in shared experience.  Prasenjit Duara in Historicizing National Identity challenges us to look at nationalism using alternate views of time and space. Lizbeth Cohen in A Consumers’ Republic looks at the evolution of American national identity with consumerism as the central focus.  Aiwha Ong in Flexible Citizenship takes a critical look at the view Americans have of what constitutes good citizenship and how that manifests itself in the way instruments of governmentality interacts with new immigrants, and Gary Gerstle, in the book I will be reviewing here, American Crucible: Race and Nation in the Twentieth Century, views civic and racial nationalism as the defining paradigm with which to look at the evolution of American citizenship.

Policies aimed at Immigration and social policy, drug and law enforcement, affirmative action, welfare policy, foreign policy and many other issues all can be traced to the ways we view citizenship and the struggle to maintain a uniquely American identity. Gary Gerstle has given us a uniquely valuable tool for looking at American nationalism and the meaning of citizenship, encompassing many of the theories proposed by the above authors, but looking at it through the dual lens of racial and civic nationalism. Gerstle structures his book using well known historical figures to illustrate his point, particularly in the person former president Theodore Roosevelt. In Gerstle’s narrative it is from this point that subsequent events can be referenced.

For Gerstle civic nationalism is ably represented by the views of historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. who, endorsing Israel Zangwill’s view of America as “God’s Crucible, where all races of Europe are melting and reforming!” (Gerstle, 3), relocated this transformative power not in God, “but in the nations core political ideals, in the American belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings, in every individual’s inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and a democratic government that derives its legitimacy from the people’s consent.” (Gerstle, 4) Since these principles were enshrined in the founding documents Gerstle notes that Schlesinger and others have “argued that they have marked something distinctive about the American people and their polity.” (Gerstle, 4) Mitigating the benefits of civic nationalism in Gerstle’s view is a racial nationalism that “conceives of America in ethno-racial terms, as people held together, as people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government.” (Gerstle, 4) Gerstle notes that like civic nationalism, racial nationalism was also inscribed in our founding documents, particularly in the Constitution, which acknowledged the enslavement of Africans through its extension of the transatlantic slave trade, and definition of slaves as less than fully human via the 3/5 clause.

The mixture of these two types of nationalism has driven American governmental policy from 1890 through to the present. By looking at the inherent tensions between these two views in the lives of significant American leaders, from Theodore Roosevelt through to Bill Clinton, Gerstle is able to personalize and focus his analysis of how the intermixture of the two resulted in a surprisingly strong and uniquely American national identity. This identity, in his view, lasted until the 1960s when the civil rights movement and Vietnam War began the disintegration of this “imagined community,” into more granular identities of ethnicity, gender and class. Overlapping this is the effect of immigration policy and war on this mix mixture of racial and civic nationalism.

Gerstle identifies Theodore Roosevelt as the embodiment of this tension between civic and racial nationalism, the mixture of which allowed him to pursue progressive social and economic policies that benefited a significant portion of the population. Throughout the book Gerstle uses TR as the point of reference in his analysis of later developments. This is an effective device that gives the reader an easily understandable base to return to in order to put later events into context. At times he is a little over enthusiastic, as when he offers an opinion as to what Roosevelt would have thought of later developments. I’m not a fan of this kind of hypothetical speculation. While understand the purpose is to personalize the comparison in order to make it more easily accessible to the reader, I think a think a simple comparison to Roosevelt’s views and actions would have been more effective.

Theodore Roosevelt’s views as to what would make the American archetype had two components. First was his idealization of the rugged individualist; he idolized the Indian fighter, the frontiersman, and the cowboy. “The harsh wilderness,” he believed, “stripped people of their Old World ranks and privileges.” (Gerstle, 24) The harsh environment of the frontier produced conditions of rough equality and mutual dependence, and from this “a democratic ethos emerged.” (Gerstle, 24) Echoing Aiwha Ong’s views on the American view of an ideal citizen, Roosevelt believed that “self-reliance was perhaps the most important ingredient of success.” (Gerstle, 24)

The second component of Roosevelt’s idealized American archetype involved his view on racial hybridity. Theodore Roosevelt believed a controlled mixing of races would produce this ideal. “For Roosevelt the explanation for the rise of democracy…rested ultimately on the racial superiority of the English-speaking peoples.” (Gerstle, 24) He excluded non-Europeans from this mixture, believing that certain racial groups – eastern and southern European, Asian, and African – did not have the ability to function in a democratic society. Later on however, he began to soften his objection to the inclusion of eastern and southern Europeans, deciding they were a worthy addition to the mixture Roosevelt also came to respect the Japanese people and believed they too could be included.

In addition to his views on racial mixing and the importance of rugged individualism, Roosevelt was passionately devoted to civic nationalism. Quoting Michael Ignatieff, Gerstle describes Roosevelt as “someone who imagined the nation as a community of equal, rights-bearing citizens united in patriotic attachment to a shared set of political practices and values.”  (Gerstle, 45) This at times produced contradictions between his actions and statements. Most notable was the way he treated the reputation of black cavalryman who had fought in the Spanish-American War. Immediately after the war he was effusive in his praise for their valor, but as time went by he began to denigrate and downplay their contribution. Thus, for all practical purposes “Roosevelt’s national community was open to anyone would could claim European origins or ancestry.” (Gerstle, 45) It certainly excluded African-Americans. In this and other examples, Roosevelt’s notions of the superiority of European racial stock conflicted with his views on civic nationalism. It was this type of conflict that Gerstle argues, has characterized American national identity since then.

Gerstle’s admiration for Theodore Roosevelt is clear. He concludes his analysis by noting that Roosevelt’s “civic nationalism was capacious and democratic.” (Gerstle, 79) He notes that Roosevelt wanted to open the country to all European immigrants, “even those who had come from the ‘inferior’ peoples of southern and eastern Europe.” (Gerstle, 79) He also notes that Roosevelt’s views on the role of government in the economy changed; abandoning the notion that individuals could, through simple hard work and dedication raise themselves out of poverty, he embraced the need for an activist government that protected the rights of disadvantaged peoples. The only price for this was that immigrants had to “jettison their Old World cultures and assimilate fully into American life.” (Gerstle, 79) Though these views would not carry him to the White House in 1912, Gerstle notes, his “program became the template upon which the twentieth-century liberalism took shape.” (Gerstle, 79)

Chapters four through six in many ways are the most interesting in this book. In them, Gerstle explores how the tensions between racial and civic nationalism manifest themselves in governmental policy. In particular, Gerstle focuses on immigration policy and war as the areas where this tension is seen most clearly. In this view war offers a way for the country to test itself, and to fight for its most important values. It also, as Theodore Roosevelt believed, reinvigorated the racial mixing he believed was necessary to keeping the nation vital. Immigration policy on the other hand, made visible who should and should not be eligible for citizenship. Thus, while Woodrow Wilson’s “peace without victory” policy flowed from civic nationalism, the military was still segregated. After the “war to end all wars,” America went through a period of severe immigration restriction, effectively barring southern and eastern Europeans and Asians, based on the belief that people from those regions were not fit to become American citizens. In the case of the Japanese the fear was the opposite, with many believing they were equal and possibly superior to Americans of strictly European descent. Since they could “be neither assimilated nor made subservient, they had to be excluded altogether from America.” (Gerstle, 112) Gerstle argues these restrictive immigration policies had the effect of stabilizing racial tensions in the country to the point that when Franklin Roosevelt assumed office there was very little attention paid to this aspect of nationalism. It was assumed most immigrants had achieved the desired “American-ness.” It also goes without saying, while racial tensions subsided as a public issue, it did not mean that racism and inequality were no longer a problem. In many ways this calm interim made later conflict more inevitable, and more violent.

More important however, was FDR’s reaction to the economic downturn of the Great Depression. Instead of merely restoring the morale of the nation after assuming office, he undertook an “experiment in state building without precedent.” (Gerstle, 128) Gerstle speculates that FDR was able to enact much of what Theodore Roosevelt had attempted because of the lessening of the tensions between civic and racial nationalistic impulses. Most important was the massive government intervention in the economy, which TR believed was necessary to secure the “social rights” of all citizens. Gerstle argues that FDR was successful in this. FDR also shared TR’s views on racial hybridity, though without the animus for supposedly inferior racial groups. And, like TR, Franklin Roosevelt was a “fervent nationalist who conceived of the nation as an entity nobler than any particular class, region, or interest.” (Gerstle, 132) With American entry into World War II civic nationalism reached an acme that has not been repeated since, even during the cold war. In a reaction to racial purity as practiced by the Nazi’s, America reveled in their diversity. But, as with the aftermath of World War I, racial nationalism rose from its pre-war slumber. Restrictions were again placed on immigration allegedly due to the number of refugees entering America, and with the segregation again of African American troops, the conflict between racial and civic nationalism was again on display.

Gerstle sees the cold war years that followed World War II as the last period in which the tension between racial and civic nationalism as maintaining the American “imagined community.” The threat of communism and fear of home-grown radicals served as the pretext for an increase of civic nationalism, even though in this case it served to deny some civil liberties. The U.S. again severely restricted immigration as Italian and Jewish immigrants were particularly discriminated against.

Finally he documents the deconstruction of “Rooseveltian Nationalism” with the start of the civil rights movement, and with America’s humiliation in Vietnam. Gerstle argues that racial groups who had once strived to achieve “whiteness,” were now abandoning an American nationalism in favor of ethnic or class identification. “The nationalist crisis occurred primarily in the realm of ideology, culture, and institutions. Many people who resided in America no longer imagined that they belonged to the same national community of that they shared a common set of ideals. The bonds of nationhood had weakened, and the Rooseveltian program of nation building that had created those bonds in the first place had been repudiated. A nationalist era that had begun in the early decades of the twentieth century had come to a stunning end.” (Gerstle, 345) He ends with speculation on how civic nationalism could be revived without the baggage that racial nationalism brought with it. In this he is skeptical, believing America will either opt for the “resurgence of a strong, solidaristic, and exclusionary national identity of the sort that has existed in the past; or, in the interests of tolerance and diversity, we will continue to opt for a weaker identity.” (Gerstle, 373)

In the end, Gerstle is fearful we will never recapture our civic nationalism without the baggage of racial nationalism, or we will become so tolerant and diverse that our national unity will be permanently weakened. In this I disagree. In my opinion it is not racial nationalism we need fear, but rather a religious one. In my experience racial identity, spawned by discrimination and racism, does not entirely divorce those adopting it from a desire for civic nationalism. The tolerance Gerstle fears, will not permanently result in a country of separate tribal identities, rather, it will reduce the need for division based on them. Tolerance and diversity implies an acceptance of differences that is the opposite of racism. Since it is that racism that spawned this racial tribalism in the first place, as the racism ebbs, so will the perceived need to identify more strongly by race than by nationality. My real fear is we are moving toward a religious nationalism, one that induces people to identify more strongly with a religious identification than a national one. Can anyone see what has been going on in Kentucky the last several weeks and not wonder if this is the case?

Increasingly, we see public policy, and the worth of public officials, being judged based upon their adherence to a religious credo. Over the last twenty years we have seen attempts to modify the constitution to discriminate against gays, to codify a religious view of how women control their bodies, to guarantee prayer in the schools, to codify expressions of religious belief in our national oaths, and to submit scientific curriculums to religious interpretations. All of this testifies to this fear. Our political campaigns have become dominated by this as well. As a presidential candidate John F. Kennedy was pressured to reassure the American public that his religious beliefs would not influence public policy. Forty-four years later, in 2004, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry was pressured to reassure the American public that his religious beliefs would influence public policy, particularly in relation to reproductive rights. Things have only accelerated since then with candidates increasingly asserting religious law comes before civil law.

While I disagree with his fear of racial identity, in terms of format and style I have rarely had such a pleasant read. Gerstle’s narrative is lively and flows easily from topic to topic. His use of well-known historical figures (TR, FDR, Wilson etc.) as touchpoints is very effective. He made very good use of his sources, though at times neglected to cite statements made that clearly required it. Also, as I mentioned earlier, projecting what dead people would think about specific modern events was unnecessary.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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LetUsHavePeace



Ulysses S. Grant is perhaps one of the most misunderstood, caricatured, and in my opinion, underestimated figures in American History. Mostly recalled in popular memory as an alcoholic who bumbled his way to victory through luck and superior numbers, he is barely recalled as a two-term President of the United States. Were it not for his portrait on the fifty-dollar bill I am not sure even that recollection would be preserved. Grant has also fared poorly with historical biographers over the years. While his defeated foe, Robert E. Lee, has been nearly canonized since his surrender at Appomattox, Grant’s accomplishments have often been belittled and marginalized, most recently, and most effectively, by William McFeely in his Pulitzer Prize winning book Grant: A Biography. Recently however, there has been a turnaround in Grant’s fortunes among historians. Recent works by Geoffrey Perret, Jean Edward Smith, and Brooks Simpson, along with the efforts of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant editor John Y. Simon, have forced a reevaluation of Grant’s career. While not fawning these books have in my opinion restored Grant to his properly viewed role in American history; as a flawed man, a military genius and, along with Lincoln, the savior of the Union.[1] Even his Presidency, generally viewed as a failure, has received a second, more critical look by some authors, and while no revision could credibly term his two terms in the White House as a success, it is now being viewed more soberly and carefully in context with the overall political climate of the time.

Most works dealing with the career of Ulysses S. Grant look at his military and political careers as separate and distinct from one another with “Appomattox as the dividing line.”[2] While Grant’s military career often gets mixed reviews, even his harshest critics view Appomattox as his finest hour. After this however, the preponderance of the literature has taken an overwhelmingly negative view of Grant’s political career. There are a number of reasons for this, many having to do with the later effort by southern historians to obfuscate slavery’s role as a catalyst for the war. This is not the subject of this review however; suffice it to say the historical view of Grant’s career in my opinion, does not reflect reality. Brooks Simpson in his book Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War & Reconstruction, 1861 – 1868, takes on this prevailing view in two ways: first by removing what he views as an artificial distinction between Grant’s military and political careers, and second by taking a more positive view of Grant’s political efforts both during the Civil War and in the early years of Reconstruction.

Simpson argues that Grant’s overwhelming success as a General and a statesman was directly attributable to his political acumen during and after the war. For Simpson, Grant was “both a warrior and a statesman from 1861 to 1868.”[3] Grant viewed the war and Reconstruction as part of the “same long struggle to preserve the union, destroy slavery, and establish a durable peace.”[4] Embodying Clausewitz’s maxim that “war is merely the continuation of policy by other means,” Grant, Simpson argues, broadened its meaning by understanding the end of hostilities did not mean the end of the struggle.[5] “If the Civil War was politics by other means, “ Simpson notes, “then Reconstruction was in some sense a continuation of the struggle to achieve through political means the aims for which the war was fought.”[6]

While not a military biography, Simpson devotes about one-third of his book to describing Grant’s efforts during the war. He attributes Grant’s success not only to exceptional military and leadership skills, but also to his political acumen in dealing with government policy makers; accommodating and adopting the war aims set by them. He does this most effectively by following Grant’s evolving notion of the purposes for the war and how those notions roughly paralleled those of his superiors, particularly President Lincoln. Much like Lincoln, Grant started with one overriding concern in mind, that of saving the union. Whatever their personal inclinations, the question of whether slavery survived was secondary to that goal. Soon after the fall of Fort Sumter, Grant made clear his views in a letter to his father-in-law in which he stated his belief that given the clear aggression of the South he could see no outcome but “the doom of slavery.”[7] He went on to say however that the “North do not want, nor will they want, to interfere with the institution.”[8]

Grant also reflected the dominant northern view that the war would be a short affair; as he stated in a letter to his wife after the victory at Fort Donelson, he did not see “how the rebellion is to be sustained.”[9] With this in mind Grant believed it was important not to do anything that would hinder a quick reconciliation with the South, and his orders to subordinates reflected that mindset. He strictly controlled the behavior of Union troops towards civilians, prohibiting foraging as he made his way through Missouri in 1861, because it was “apt to make open enemies where they would not otherwise exist.”[10] His views on the question of fugitive slaves reflected the confusion in policy represented by the refusal of Congress to renew the Johnson-Crittenden resolutions limiting war aims to reconciliation only. He scrupulously tried to adhere to federal policy no matter how confusing by using some slaves as laborers and returning others to their owners based the interpretation of federal policy applied in each case. After the blood bath at Shiloh and the subsequent increase in Confederate guerrilla activity Grant, like his superiors in Washington, discarded the notion there would be a quick end to the war. Abandoning the limited warfare they had been waging in hopes of enticing the South into reconciliation, the Union army, including Grant started a no holds barred campaign to force southern capitulation. Grant’s success here is well known and is not detailed by Simpson. Suffice it to say Grant went on to force the surrender of three Confederate Armies, was elevated to the command of all Federal troops, and eventually accepted the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, effectively ending the military phase of the struggle.

As views in Washington towards slavery evolved, so did Grant’s. In 1862 President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation freeing all slaves in states then in rebellion. Grant wholeheartedly endorsed this policy as the quickest and surest way to weaken the Confederacy. Later, Grant supported Lincoln’s decision to allow enlistment of black troops into the Union Army. During the Vicksburg campaign Grant received reports that black troops under his command had seen their first action at Miliken’s Bend. Grant in a note appended to his battle report commented they “had been most gallant and doubted not but with good officers they will be good troops.”[11]

During the debate over whether to promote him to Lieutenant General, a rank not held in he U.S. Army since George Washington, Simpson observes Grant again displayed a sophisticated political sense. There were concerns among some that Grant was beginning to think of himself a rival to Lincoln in the election of 1864. In a bit legerdemain worthy of any experienced politician, Grant let it be known through back channels that he was in no way interested in running for President, “particularly so long as there is a possibility of having Mr. Lincoln re-elected.”[12] Thus assured, Grant was awarded his third star and command of all Union forces.

Finally, as Simpson and many other historians (including those generally critical of Grant) have pointed out, Grant displayed the touch of a statesman and a finely tuned political ear for what was needed to heal the country in offering generous terms to Robert E. Lee and the surrendering Army of Northern Virginia. In keeping with Lincoln’s wish to “let ’em up easy,” Grant offered effective immunity for all confederate soldiers, up to and including Lee himself, and allowed Confederate troops to keep their personal baggage, horses and weapons. Simpson calls this “politics with a vengeance.”[13] Grant, he notes, was “executing a fait accompli, [making] sure that there were would be no future reprisals of treason trials.”[14] It is a credit to his political sense according to Simpson, that Grant knew exactly what President Lincoln would wish for in a surrender agreement.

As unique a treatment of Grant’s military career as SImpson has given us, the real strength of his book lies in his description of Grant’s attempt to navigate the political terrain in which he found himself between Appomattox and his ascendancy to the White House. It became obvious to Grant soon after Lee’s surrender that as commander of all U.S. forces he would be forced to play a significant role in the nation’s subsequent reconstruction. To that end Grant believed it was his duty to try and support President Johnson as much as possible, little realizing at the time what that would entail.

Simpson skillfully describes Grant’s role during the administration of Andrew Johnson. Grant initially tried to restrain what he viewed as Johnson’s excessive enthusiasm for punishing Confederate leaders. He genuinely tried to work with the President in order to help facilitate a peaceful Reconstruction, only breaking with the President when he tried to appropriate Grant’s popularity in his ongoing conflict with Edwin M. Stanton. Finally, Grant made a complete intellectual and political break with Johnson, adopting a more radical position regarding Reconstruction and the treatment of freedmen. In this description, which does not break any new factual ground, Simpson has revealed to us a Grant who skillfully maneuvered his way through this dangerously political period, and came out the other side as President of the United States.

Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865, there was good reason to worry about the ascendancy of Andreas Johnson to the Presidency. A wartime Democrat with a well-known vindictive streak, there were genuine fears that he would seek retribution against those in the South responsible for initiating the war. This was confirmed in Grant’s eyes by the vehement reaction of Johnson to the surrender terms granted to Joseph Johnston’s Confederate Army of the Tennessee by General Sherman. Grant also thought them too generous, but was appalled at the treatment of Sherman by Johnson and other leaders. Not long afterward Grant found himself threatening resignation if Johnson moved forward with his plan to punish Confederate leaders, including those protected, in Grant’s view, by the Appomattox accords. So, as Simpson points out within two months of Appomattox Grant found himself mediating between the excessive leniency of Sherman and Johnson’s “desire for vengeance.” All grant desired was “peace and cooperation in rebuilding a nation that would realize Lincoln’s desire ‘to see all the people of the United States enter again upon the full privileges of citizenship with equality among all'”[15]

As the restoration process progressed and in his attempts to support the President, Simpson reveals a Grant who much like in his initial views of the war’s likely duration, displayed a naivete about what would be required to reconcile the country. He believed, as did many others, that a quick conciliation was best so the best course of action would be to do nothing that would not excessively insult the sensibilities of southerners. To that end he urged the quick pardon of Confederate military leaders, a rapid demobilization of the Army, and attempted to remove black soldiers from any situation in which they might come into contact with Southern civilians. In Grant’s view according to Simpson, the “best way to reduce friction, no matter the cause, was to control black behavior, for to place additional restraints on whites would antagonize them, prolonging sectional division.”[16] Later, in another effort to work with Johnson, Grant agreed to tour the South and report on his findings. Realizing Johnson was using him to counteract damaging reports submitted by Carl Schurz, Grant nevertheless attempted to produce a fair and evenhanded report. Producing a much more moderate report than Schurz’s, it was at this time according to Simpson, that Grant began to revise his thinking regarding Southern attitudes towards the freedmen and the need to move from reconciliation to protection. As time passed, and Grant received reports of recalcitrance in the part of Southern whites to accept the civil rights of freedmen. Grant was moving inexorably to a far more radical view of Reconstruction.

Meanwhile, reflecting his innate racism, President Johnson was moving further away from his ostensible Republican allies in Congress in an attempt to assure the South remained under white control. To that end he eased the way for former Confederate leaders to obtain pardons, he vetoed the freedman’s bureau and civil rights bills, and he opposed passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Grant opposed Johnson on these issues, but remained silent either out of a sense or propriety or as a way to position himself for the 1868 Republican nomination for President. Likely it was a bit of both. Finally, Johnson tried to co-opt Grant by involving him in the attempt to depose Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Johnson suspended Stanton and appointed Grant as caretaker in accordance with the Tenure of Office Act which required Congressional approval before any Senate confirmed cabinet officer could be terminated. Later, when he tried to remove Stanton permanently in violation of that act, Grant resigned and handed the office back to Stanton in accordance with the Tenure of Office Act. This was the final break with Johnson and induced Grant to take a more public role in opposition to his Reconstruction policies. Grant certainly viewed it as a matter of honor; to preserve the principals for which the army had fought which meant not only reconciliation but now included protection of the rights of former slaves. No doubt politics was also on his mind as well, as it was obvious the political wind was blowing in favor of the Radical Republicans. After the unsuccessful attempt to remove Johnson from office and as the appeal of Radical Republicanism began to wane in the North, Grant became the only viable option for Republicans in the 1868 election. And so, contrary to his wishes, but believing it was the only way to preserve the fruits of Union victory, Grant was elected President of the United States. Simpson’s view of Grant’s reticence is not universally shared. William Gillette in Retreat From Reconstruction takes the contrary view, that Grant was more ambitious for political power than is typically thought. I do believe Grant was bitten, at least a bit, by the Presidential bug. In my view no one can be willing to put themselves through the rigors demanded by the office, and not have some confidence they are best for the job. However, I have no doubt Grant was sincere in his belief that it was necessary for him to accept the nomination in order to preserve the gains won during the war. Certainly no one, other than former slaves, had a bigger stake in making sure that happened.

Overall I enjoyed this book very much. Though not breaking any new ground factually as evidenced by his heavy reliance on previously published sources, Simpson has successfully re-oriented the way we look at Grant’s military and political careers. By removing the artificial dividing line between the military and political portions of his career, Simpson has elevated in my eyes the political skills of Grant. By realizing his success on the battlefield was directly attributable to his ability to effectively relate with his superiors in Washington, Grant is revealed to us as a sophisticated and successful political player. Simpson also shows us that Grant, despite his inability to counteract Johnson’s lawyerly arguments regarding issues on which they conflicted, was able to effectively maneuver his way through the minefields of postwar Reconstruction politics, and ultimately end up as President of the United States.

This book did have its weaknesses. Believing as I do, that Simpson is attempting to give us a more positive view of Grant’s skills, I believe it was a mistake not to include his Presidency as part of his treatment. It is this period for which Grant is most criticized by historians. Second, I believe more attention should have been given to Grant’s military success, That is the period for which Grant is most often praised by historians so perhaps should have been viewed in a little more detail. Finally, although I did enjoy the book, I am one of those that has always had an interest in Grant so I am not overly concerned by the stylistic nature of the work. However, most readers with either no previous interest or only a passing interest in Grant would I believe, find this a dry read.

 

[1]Smith Jean Edward, Grant (New York, Simon and Schuster, 2001), Simpson, Brooks D., Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1863 (New York, Houghton Miflin Company, 2000), Perret, Geoffrey, Ulysses S. Grant: Soldier & President (New York, Random House, 1997). Of the three authors the work by Smith comes closest to hagiography. It takes an almost uncritical look at Grant through all phases of his life, often glossing over areas where Grant could legitimately be criticized. Perret’s book makes no secret of its attempt to counteract McFeely’s analysis of Grant. Unfortunately it is plagued with errors, misstating the date of the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, the date of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and the Battle of Chickamauga to name a few, which tend to undermine its credibility. Of the three I found Simpson’s work the most balanced while still giving a largely positive view of grant’s life and career.

[2] Brooks D. Simpson, Let Us Have Peace: Ulysses S. Grant and the Politics of War and Reconstruction, 1861-1868 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1991), page xiii

[3] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. xiv

[4] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. xiv

[5] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. xv

[6] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. xv

[7] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 11

[8] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 11. This of course parallels Lincoln’s famous statement on the question of emancipation made more than a year earlier when he said “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slaves I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”

[9] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 23

[10] Brig. Gen U.S. Grant to Col. R.J. Oglesby, November 3, 1861, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.

[11]Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p.20

[12] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p.54

[13] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 84

[14] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p.55

[15] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 108

[16] Simpson, Let Us Have Peace, p. 118

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Martian



I decided to read this book after hearing so much about the upcoming movie based on it, the previews of which look very encouraging. Usually when I am getting ready to read a book I do a little research into the author and the process by which they came to write it. In this case the back story about how the book was written was almost as compelling as the book itself; but not quite. Aimed squarely at the “science geek, Big Bang Theory watching, Neil de Grasse Tyson worshiping” demographic, this book is a straight ahead thrill ride from beginning to end.

The story of how The Martian became a best selling book and future blockbuster movie is one every budding author dreams of. Andy Weir spent three years, on his own, researching the science behind the story he envisioned. Having been rejected by publishing houses in the past,  he instead began posting complete chapters on his blog for anyone to read. As he accumulated fans they encouraged him to self-publish on Amazon so they could download it to their e-readers.This he did, selling the book for $.99 and watched as It promptly shoot straight to the top of the Amazon Sci-fi bestseller list. Eventually Crown Books acquired the publication rights, the movie rights were sold to 20th Century Fox, acclaimed movie director Ridley Scott agreed to direct it, and in two months the dream of every novel writer will come true for Andy Weir as he sees his work brought to the big screen in what is likely to be one of the blockbuster movies of 2015.

As interesting as the back story is however, it wouldn’t have been possible if the book wasn’t as entertaining as it is. The story is uncomplicated. Sometime in the near future the third manned expedition to Mars is in progress. Early on in the thirty day mission all appears well until a violent dust storm arises while the crew is outside their habitat unit. For safety reasons the decision is made to abandon the expedition and return to Earth. Astronaut Mark Watney is struck by flying debris and his suit depressurizes. Believing he is dead, Watney’s crew mates take off for the trip back to Earth. As anyone who has seen the movie preview knows however, Watney was not killed but only rendered unconscious. His suit was able to compensate for the loss of air long enough for him to make it back to the habitat unit. With no rescue possible for four years and with only a months worth of supplies available, Watney realizes he is going to have to utilize his skills as a botanist and engineer to survive. In other words, in Watney’s colorful words, he is going to “science the shit out of this.” And this is the real thrust of the story.

All of the main plot points in The Martian; that Watney is stranded, that he figures a way to survive, that he is eventually able to make contact with Earth and his crew mates, and that NASA works to try and get him home earlier, are all readily deducible from the movie trailer. No, the real plot, and what keeps this story moving along is how all of this happens; how Mark Watney and NASA, using only frickin science (as my son would say), work to get Mark Watney home. No magical creatures, no last minute alien intervention, no appeals to the power of love, only hardcore science in this story! The story is not the destination; the story is the journey.

As entertaining as it is this book is not perfect. Not a whole lot of character development involved; Watney clearly has a sense of humor, but not much introspection on his part. Some of it is a bit hackneyed and some well worn cliche’s make an unwelcome appearance. And while the science for the most part is spot on as far as I can tell, there are a few mistakes. Most notable is the storm that traps Watney in the first place. It is portrayed as a massive hurricane like storm, knocking equipment everywhere and threatening the stability of the lander the crew will depend on to return to their larger spacecraft in orbit. In reality the Martian atmosphere is so thin compared to Earth’s a storm would feel like a gentle breeze to the astronauts, and so could not possibly cause the damage portrayed. There were a few other spots where it appeared the science was at least being stretched a bit as well. There are also a few contrivances, such as the location of the expedition on Mars (needed for a later plot device), and the fact that Watney had the exact training needed to survive on Mars (botany and engineering).

Still thought, these are flaws that can be easily excused because the story is so well formed, and carries you along so intensely that you cannot help but get carried away in the adventure.

 

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

Mantle of Command



President Franklin Delano Roosevelt is the subject of innumerable biographies, in fact I would venture to guess no President save Abraham Lincoln has been the subject of more. Yet with so many available there seem to be precious few that take a truly in depth look at his role as Commander in Chief. Happily, renowned historian and biographer Nigel Hamilton has rectified that situation with the publication in 2014 of The Mantle of Command: FDR at War, 1941 – 1942. A practically flawless work, I was disappointed  it only covered part of FDR’s time as Commander in Chief. I truly wish he would take on the rest of FDR’s tenure, but fear that task will have to be left for another.

The Mantle of Command takes us from FDR’s initial meetings with Winston Churchill in 1941 that resulted in the Atlantic Charter, through to the landings of American and British troops in French northwest Africa (Morocco and Tunisia) as part of operation Torch in November of 1942. Hamilton quotes copiously from letters, diaries and other primary sources to give us a very thorough, chronological look at this period of FDR’s tenure as Commander in Chief. Though detailed, the prose is never boring.

A number of things struck me as I read this; far to many to go through in a short review, though four stood out. First, the overall take away is that this period represented the ascendancy of the United States as the dominant world power, while at the same time it heralded the end of  Great Britain as an empire. Both FDR and Winston Churchill recognized this (though Churchill took a bit longer), and played their roles accordingly. Second, Hamilton is clearly impressed with FDR’s abilities as Commander in Chief. Time after time, whether he was dealing with prima donnas such as George Patton and Douglas MacArthur over command responsibilities, or with opposition from his military chiefs and Secretary of War over Operation Torch, FDR, in Hamilton’s view, knew exactly how much pressure to apply and when to apply it. Third, in contrast to his positive view of FDR’s military leadership, Hamilton (a British subject himself), is surprisingly hard on Churchill’s judgement, faulting him for serious British setbacks early in the war, and for his hard headed attitude towards Indian Independence.  And lastly, I was particularly pleased with the extensive use of German and Japanese primary sources, including diaries and letters. It really provided a great juxtaposition to accounts of Allied opinion during this period.

Prior to its entry into WWII the United States was essentially isolationist. After World War I it had drawn down its armed forces to the point where it’s army was approximately the size of Portugal’s. The United States Congress was in many ways  dominated by an isolationist sentiment, and men as prominent as Charles Lindbergh were promoting a xenophobic isolationism even as it became obvious United States entry into the growing conflict was going to be required. FDR, who understood earlier than most that the United States would be drawn into war, recognized and adapted to this reality. As Hamilton portrays it Roosevelt’s political instincts were so spot on he knew exactly how far the country would be willing to go and when. He also knew how to present increased U.S. involvement in a way the public could understand and support. One example of this of course, was the Lend Lease program the U.S. initiated in March 1941 (prior to the events recounted in this book). Roosevelt, recognizing Britain, Free France, and China could not hope to hold out against Germany and Japan without aid, but cognizant of the country’s isolationist mood, devised a way to deliver that aid without it appearing as though it was entering the war. He was able to present it as a defensive measure; by loaning military equipment to those who were fighting our enemies the U.S. could stay out of the fighting. Once the crisis passed, intact equipment would be returned, and the U.S. would be reimbursed for equipment that had been destroyed. He sold this plan in a way every person could understand, by relating it to their own lives. In a December 1940 press conference Roosevelt used the following illustration to demonstrate why the country and Congress should support Lend Lease:

Suppose my neighbor’s home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him to put out his fire. Now, what do I do? I don’t say to him before that operation, “Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it.” What is the transaction that goes on? I don’t want $15–I want my garden hose back after the fire is over. All right. If it goes through the fire all right, intact, without any damage to it, he gives it back to me and thanks me very much for the use of it. But suppose it gets smashed up–holes in it–during the fire; we don’t have to have too much formality about it, but I say to him, “I was glad to lend you that hose; I see I can’t use it any more, it’s all smashed up.” He says, “How many feet of it were there?” I tell him, “There were 150 feet of it.” He says, “All right, I will replace it.” Now, if I get a nice garden hose back, I am in pretty good shape.

A February 1941  Gallup poll showed Roosevelt’s campaign for passage had worked, with a Lend Lease proposal receiving the support of 54% of Americans, and it was passed by Congress a month later. Ten months later Lend Lease would would take its place as part of a larger American effort when the empire of Japan declared war on the United States.

augusta

President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill aboard the U.S.S. Augusta, August 9, 1941

On August 7, 1941, four months before American entry into WWII,  a U.S. naval ship, the Northampton class heavy cruiser U.S.S. Augusta slipped into Placentia Bay, Newfoundland. Aboard was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt there to meet in secret with the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill. Though they had met earlier during WWI, this was the first face to face meeting of the two. On August 9th, the H.M.S. Prince of Wales arrived with Churchill aboard. Each had different goals for this first meeting. Great Britain, having been the target of an intense and destructive air campaign  by the German Luftwaffe, was eager for the United States to enter the war as soon as possible. Roosevelt, recognizing the U.S. was not yet ready for this, nevertheless wanted to signal to the country that the United States sympathized with Britain’s plight and opposed Nazi Germany. Given these parameters, Roosevelt suggested development of a set of principles that would guide allied nations after the war. The “Atlantic Charter” agreed to by FDR and Churchill included pledges not to seek territorial gains, to seek lowering of international trade barriers, to work for establishment of global economic cooperation and advancement of social welfare, for freedom of the seas, for the right of all nations to self determination, and to work toward a world free from want and fear. This agreement  became the basis for many subsequent agreements including establishment of the United Nations. Like Lend Lease, it was FDR’s way of moving the United States ever closer to a formal wartime alliance with Great Britain without actually crossing that line and incurring the wrath of politically powerful isolationists. For Great Britain it represented a step toward bringing the United States into the war as a full combatant, and for the Axis powers it signaled an escalation of the war; one they would regret encouraging.

On December 7th, 1941 airplanes of the empire of Japan attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Killing or wounding 5,381 Americans, this attack, and the declaration of war four days later by Germany on the United States, signaled the end of America’s role as a mere bit player on the world stage. From this time forward the U.S. would assume it’s position as the dominant economic and military power in the world, a position it has yet to relinquish. Britain on the other hand, would take its place as the junior partner in this alliance.

Due to poor leadership at all levels British forces were defeated in Malaya and Singapore, the latter surrendering without showing much resistance. Japanese Naval sorties into the Indian Ocean panicked the British, forcing them to move their fleet from Ceylon to Kenya, and although they had shown courage and grit during the Battle of Britain, they had not been able to mount any kind of effective counter to German expansion. Meanwhile after the devastation of Pearl Harbor and the loss of the Philippines, the United States achieved a strategic victory over the Japanese Navy at Coral Sea, and completed a decisive one at Midway Island, sinking four Japanese aircraft carriers. Domestically, it’s full productive capacity brought to bear, the U.S. was producing war materiel at an astounding rate, and the military services were rapidly adding manpower. Since it was providing the bulk of the men and materiel for the allied war effort (with the exception of the U.S.S.R.), it was understood the U.S. would be the dominant partner in this relationship. And to his credit, Winston Churchill understood and adapted to this reality, eventually. However, as Nigel Hamilton shows, Churchill’s leadership abilities were rightly called into question during this period.

Winston Churchill was an enigmatic man; courageous, stalwart and indefatigable. At the same time he could be stubborn, myopic, and a control freak. As Hamilton describes it, his admirable qualities kept Britain strong and defiant during the Battle of Britain. He was the rock around which the Allied effort eventually grew. But it was his less admirable qualities that were largely responsible for early British setbacks. His stubbornness in not recognizing the futility of trying to restore the British empire, and his poor choice of subordinates resulting in unnecessary tensions between British and American staff officers being two of the most important examples. As British defeats mounted in southeast Asia and North Africa and as the Japanese fleet moved into the Indian ocean fostering fears of an attack on India,  Churchill appeared stubbornly determined to preserve the prewar structure of the British Empire. As Japan moved into the Indian Ocean FDR encouraged Churchill to begin independence negotiations with Indian leaders. Aside from his belief that India deserved independence as a matter of right consistent with the Atlantic Charter, it would also secure a  Indian commitment to fighting off the Japanese. A delegation headed by Sir Stafford Cripps was dispatched to India to negotiate a devolution of power to Indian authorities in exchange for Indian Army support in the war. Churchill subordinates, probably acting with his tacit approval, purposely undermined the negotiations. Fortunately Japanese defeats at Coral Sea and Midway diverted their attention away from the Indian peninsula. Later, after the decision was made to mount the first joint offensive in North Africa rather than attempt a cross channel invasion of France, Churchill, acting on the advice of subordinates, including Lord Louis Mountbatten, mounted an ill conceived raid at Dieppe on the French coast. It was a disaster, with nearly half of  British troops engaged being killed, wounded or captured. With these setbacks, lapses in judgement, stubbornness, and reliance on poorly chosen subordinates, it was only Churchill’s willingness to accede to U.S. leadership, and his position as the face of resistance to Nazi Germany that allowed him to stave off attempts to bring down his government.

Hamilton devotes a significant portion of the book to the decision by Britain and America to make northwest Africa the site of its first offensive. As he presents it, the success of Operation Torch is most attributable to FDR’s political and strategic genius. Pressure on the United States and Britain to mount a cross channel offensive as soon as possible grew as 1941 ended. The U.S. Joint Chiefs including Chief of Staff  George Marshall along with Secretary of War Henry Stimson, were pressing for just such an attack. Winston Churchill realized early on this would be a monumental mistake. U.S. troops had yet to experience combat and would be unlikely to stand up to seasoned German troops, the allies had yet to mobilize the men and materiel they would need for such an attack, and the Germans had heavily fortified the most obvious points of attack at Caen and Cherbourg. FDR, after initially appearing to favor such an invasion, came around to Churchill’s view and advocated for French northwest Africa as the site of the first offensive.  Convincing his own staff to go along despite their convictions it would only divert needed materiel from an eventual cross channel attack, and would probably fail on its own merits, was a stellar example of FDR’s ability to know where and when to press an advantage. Allowing his subordinates to make their case freely, he held firm. Eventually, in frustration they advocated moving the primary theater of operations from Europe to the Pacific. Calling their bluff, FDR asked them to provide him the detailed plans they must have been relying on to make such a bold suggestion. Unable to do so since they had impetuously made the suggestion out of frustration, they eventually fell in line with the President. The invasion proceeded and Operation Torch was a success.

Finally, I was very impressed by Hamilton’s use of primary sources from Axis leaders. Most significant of these was the diary of Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels. While many of his entries can be termed whistling past the graveyard, some were very incisive as to the mindset of Allied leaders, the potential success of an Allied invasion of the French coast, and as regards Operation Torch. It provided a very interesting counterpoint to the views of Allied leaders.

Overall I think this is one of the best FDR biographies I have every read. The detail was incredible, the arguments he makes regarding FDR’s skill as a political leader are detailed and very persuasive. The prose is well formed and extremely easy to follow despite the enormous amount of information being thrown at you, Other than my disappointment that it ends with 1942 and that it does not appear Hamilton will be producing another volume, I have nothing but praise for this book.

 

 

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My Rating:
4.0 rating

GodNotGreat



Once again I am forced to begin a review with a note that I find the title of one of Christopher Hitchens’ books to be unnecessarily provocative. In this case I recognize the title God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything will turn many people away who might have otherwise considered reading this book. That is too bad, for while the title is off-putting the case Hitchens makes for his assertion that religion is often the primary resistance point holding back progress is pretty persuasive. Like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, Hitchens uses an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the relevant religious texts, the arguments used to support them and of the science that has largely disproved their assertions, to make a compelling argument that adherence to religious belief has retarded human progress over the last two millennia. Hitchens sums this up in a prelude to a chapter debunking the final argument religious apologists use to argue against an atheist world view, that atheism is at the root of some of the most violent and repressive regimes in human history. He writes:

“If I cannot definitively prove that the usefulness of religion is in the past, and that its foundational books are transparent fables, and that it is a man-made imposition and that it has been an enemy of science and inquiry, and that it has subsisted largely on lies and fear, and been the accomplice of ignorance and guilt as well as of slavery, genocide, racism, and tyranny, I can most certainly claim that religion is now fully aware or the ever-mounting evidence, concerning the origins or the cosmos and the origin of species, which consigns it to marginality if not irrelevance.”

I need to pause here to reassure my religious friends. This book is looking at religion in the largest sense possible, as an overall philosophical and theological construct that for a large number of people controls their actions. I have numerous friends whom I admire very much who are motivated to do good things by their belief in God. Hitchens recognizes this too using Martin Luther King as an example. So while I would argue that the divine being they believe in has nothing to do with the good works they do, their belief in that being certainly does. If religion as practiced by these folks was the norm rather than the exception, Christopher Hitchens would not have written this book. Unfortunately, as history shows, this is not the case.

The foundational texts of the three great monotheistic religions, rather than being the divine word of a supreme being, were attempts by frightened and ignorant people, living over 2,000 years ago, to try and come to terms with the world around them. Lacking access to the store of knowledge and the technology which can now be brought to bear on this quest, people did the best they could. Hitchens does a very good job of explaining how adherence to these texts long after they have been debunked has caused, in many cases, devastating harm not only to those who adhere to them, but the rest of us as well.

In the United States this is obvious in the way religious institutions, aided and abetted by fundamentalists in positions of power, have tried to retard critical action on protections for the environment, promotion of scientific education, and public welfare for the needy among us. Adhering to a view of the world that includes the notion that the earth was created 6,000 years ago, they deny the obvious truth of the dangers of climate change; firm in their conviction that man was created during the original 6 days of creation, they deny  the truth of evolution, and are convinced the Bible spells out how the earth will end with their ultimate redemption. The result is a lack of concern for those deemed not worthy of that redemption or for the preservation of the earth itself.

Some Christians attempt to reconcile faith and science by offering alternate interpretations of the founding documents, rejecting those portions that are obviously false. Hitchens derides these attempts as another way in which some try to reconcile the irreconcilable. As he notes “[religion]…would not exist in the first place if humanity had not been afraid of the weather, the dark, the plague, the eclipse, and all manner of other things now easily explicable.” It is hard to argue with this, though I have absolutely no doubt that those who try are sincere in their beliefs.

He continues in this vein throughout the book, detailing areas where adherence to religious doctrine retards progress in medicine, education, human relations and world peace. He asks, for example, if there is any doubt whether Israelis and Arabs would have resolved their differences by now had it not been for the injection of fundamentalist religious belief into considerations of land distribution, governmental structure, representation, defense arrangements and economic relations. He makes none of these arguments in an intellectual vacuum.

He  acknowledges, for example, that all of this is relative in that some faith systems are more pernicious and dangerous at various times in history than others, and as noted above,  also admits religious belief does animate some to do good works, though at the same time arguing this is despite doctrine and not because of it. And he acknowledges religious belief will never disappear as long as humans are unwilling to come to terms with what that means, particularly abandoning the comfortable fiction of eternal life.

In the final chapter of this book, Hitchens takes on the “Maginot Line” religious apologists use in their arguments against atheism, that being that some of the cruelest and most repressive regimes in world history were the direct result of an atheistic world view, including: the Soviet Union; China; Nazi Germany; North Korea; and Pol Pot’s Cambodia. He demolishes this argument in a number of ways. First, he debunks the notion that Nazi Germany was in fact an atheistic regime, as Hitler often couched his rantings with explicitly Christian references. Second, he notes none of these regimes were founded as a result of atheism. In fact this second point is key; each of them attempted to replace existing religious belief with hero worship of a “Supreme Leader” in order to better control the masses. In other words, one functional religion that might have been a threat to the powerful, was replaced by a second functional religion designed to support the powerful.

Can one witness the worship of the Supreme Leader in North Korea, where the Presidency is held in perpetuity by the dead Kim Il Sung, and still deny the truth of this observation? Lastly, he notes Atheism is not a belief system, but simply the lack of belief in any kind of supernatural, or supreme being. It also implies a reliance on reason and scientific truth that none of these dictatorships possesses.

As I said in a previous review I am not an unqualified fan of Christopher Hitchens. I think he was unnecessarily rude and provocative at times, I think his views of American politics and culture was juvenile and often ill informed, and when he was wrong he could be spectacularly wrong, as in his support of the Iraq war. Overall though I cannot say this book is not highly persuasive. I went into it expecting to agree with his arguments so that may have tainted my view, but those views were reinforced by what I read. Again, though, I want to emphasize, this is not a condemnation of all religious people. In fact it is not a condemnation of the majority of those who count themselves as among the faithful. Rather, it is a condemnation of belief systems that routinely induce people who believe in their inerrancy to cause evil in the world.

This book does have value for believers. As new generations mature into adulthood studies show they are tending towards atheism and agnosticism. The criticisms of faith Hitchens discusses will have to be dealt with in a coherent and intellectually honest way by faith leaders if they want to have any hope of competing for their allegiance.

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4.0 rating

Lusitania



As I was reading this book a theory of quantum physics I once heard about sprang to mind (well at least one that I saw on an episode of Star Trek). This theory asserts  that everything that can occur, does occur. The thousands of decisions we make, and the events that occur outside of our control each initiates a new stream of events independent of and parallel to every other. So, for example, in some parallel timeline, the Lusitania didn’t sink, the United States didn’t enter WWI, a negotiated peace between Britain and Germany was completed, and a little known corporal named Adolph Hitler didn’t experience the humiliation of defeat that would impel him to seek revenge. Thus, tens of millions of innocent people were not slaughtered  in a subsequent World War. All of this changed because of some small, inconsequential difference in the timeline of events that eventually resulted in the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. Those events, are the subject of this fine book.

In Dead Wake: The Last Voyage of the Lusitania, Erik Larson (author of the wonderful Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America), has done a masterful job of elucidating the many small, sometimes inconsequential occurrences that  ultimately resulted in the sinking, by a German U-Boat, of the cruise liner RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915. A change in any one of those events might have resulted in it’s timely and uneventful arrival at its destination of Liverpool, England. Instead, the ship was torpedoed and sunk in only 18 minutes, resulting in the deaths of 1,198 of its 1,959 passengers and crew. The Lusitania was one of the largest and fastest cruise liners of its time. It could carry over 2,000 passengers from New York to Liverpool in only four days at its top speed of 25 knots. It was believed that traveling at such speeds made the ship virtually immune to the type of attack that eventually sunk her. As it turned out however the timing of events, not speed, would doom the Lusitania.

The overriding event of course was the World War that had started 9 months earlier. Britain was at war with Germany. In order to more rapidly negate British supremacy on the sea, Germany began a course of brutal and often indiscriminate submarine warfare. At first confined to British shipping, including both warships and merchant vessels destined for England, Germany eventually expanded its campaign to include all merchant shipping and to ships of neutral nations that were sailing to and from the British Isles. German submarine commanders, out of communications range with their superiors, were  forced to act independently while on patrol, and had wide discretion as to what targets they attacked. They were also given immunity from punishment for mistakenly sinking ships German leaders had ostensibly exempted from attack; one of the many independent decisions that resulted in the sinking of the Lusitania…and ultimately in the entry of the United States into WWI.

Larson’s style of narrative writing almost requires the reader not to have detailed knowledge of the subject he is writing about. Were I to describe, in detail,  the individual occurrences that ultimately resulted in the sinking of the Lusitania it would completely ruin the book for anyone who had yet to read it…so, I won’t.

Anyone who has read Erik Larson knows however, that while his books are non-fiction he uses a fictional style, with a narrative that makes it feel  like you are traveling along an intellectual spiral coil. You start at the outermost part of the coil with bits of disparate and seemingly unrelated pieces of information given, and as you travel inward  more and more information is given, until you reach the center when everything comes together in one exciting, climactic event. By the end you’ve forgotten you already knew how it would turn out. And you especially realize how a change in even one event or decision made along the way might have resulted in a completely different, and far more benign ending to the journey. Masterful!

Bundesarchiv_DVM_10_Bild-23-61-17,_Untergang_der_'Lusitania'

Painting depicting the 1915 sinking of the RMS Lusitania

Larson also does a superb job with the back stories of the many people who found themselves caught up in the Lusitania sinking, from the many passengers who left a record of their story, to the officials of the Cunard line that owned the ship, to the government of the United States whose reaction to the sinking eventually resulted in its entry into WWI, to President Wilson who was distracted by the death of his first wife and marriage to his second, and to the offices of the British Naval and Intelligence services who evidence suggests may have left Lusitania unprotected in order to provoke American entry into the war. He also provides riveting details of the U-Boat that sank the Lusitania and its commander Walther Schwieger. All of this comes together in an almost seamless narrative.

I had very few problems with this book. If I was forced to complain about anything it would be that he occasionally provided a bit too much detail which sometimes had the effect of interrupting the narrative. Also, his extended discussion of Woodrow Wilson’s courtship of Edith Galt felt disconnected to the rest of the story. These are minor criticisms however. One has to admire the skill it takes to make the story of a historical event with such a well known outcome, so suspenseful.

Highly Recommended!

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Current Bucket Status

Currently Reading: The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey

Current Audio Book: The Free State of Jones by Victoria Bynum

On Deck: Dream City: Race, Power, and the Decline of Washington, D.C. by Harry Jaffe and Tom Sherwood

In the Bullpen: Summer for the Gods: The Scopes trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion by Edward J. Larson

Last Read: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline


From Bucket Authors


New Bucket Books

An Astronauts Guide to Life on Earth by Col. Chris Hadfield

The Case Against the Supreme Court by Erwin Chemerinsky

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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