Category Archives: World History
As someone who has studied American history almost exclusively, I found Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by Benedict Anderson to be a refreshing and highly readable look at the cultural origins of, and theoretical explanations for, the rise of nationalism. Though often referencing histories and cultures with which I am unfamiliar, Anderson does a nice job of explaining their relevance to the overall theory he is trying to explain, in a way that doesn’t require extensive, or even passing knowledge of their origins. Perhaps as a result of my relatively limited experience with the histories of cultures outside of the United States, I found some of his conclusions relative to how American historical experience bolstered his arguments, to be somewhat questionable. Most specifically, his rejection of Tom Nairn’s view that nationalist movements have been popular in character and have made an effort to “induct the lower classes into political life,” is contrary to most of what I have read. (Anderson, 48) I also had some difficulty with his description of the American failure to absorb Canada and the existence of an independent Texas Republic, as examples of a comparative failure to form an English-wide-America, and with his simplistic description of the American Civil War as a simple contradiction of economies between North and South. Lastly, though I largely agree with his assertion that nationalism did not arise from “self-consciously held political ideologies,” I would argue that in the case of the United States this might be underestimated.
Anderson divides his book using three broad themes. First, he posits a definition of nationalism in which he introduces his theory of an “imagined community.” Second, he describes the cultural origins of nationalism as the result not of “self-consciously held political ideologies,” but as cultural systems that came earlier, specifically, religious community and the dynastic realm. It was the breakdown of these communities, along with a changed perception of the character of time and space, Anderson argues, that opened the door to the rise of nationalism. Lastly, he describes the confluence of events that gave rise to nationalism, how it became modernized and was replicated, and how it manifested itself at different times and in different regions.
Anderson has developed his theory of the rise of nationalism as an answer to three paradoxes that he describes as having “perplexed” other theorists of nationalism. These are, the “objective” modernity of nations as historians see them versus their antiquity as seen by nationalists, the concept of nationality as a socio-cultural concept versus the surety of its “concrete manifestations,” and the political power of nationalism versus its philosophical incoherence. (Anderson, 5) In part, to explain these paradoxes, Anderson proposes the following definition of nation: “it is an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” (Anderson, 6) Nations are imagined because its citizens will never know the vast majority of their fellows, it is limited because it exists within finite boundaries, and it is sovereign because it was born “in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.” (Anderson, 7) Within time and space the nation’s members view themselves as part of a broad community, moving together through time.
Anderson describes nationalism in relation to its antecedents – religious community and dynastic realm. He argues it is the breakdown of these that provided the opening for nationalism to rise. He also Religious communities were bound together through the use of symbols and sacred texts. A universal understanding of the sacredness of their language as mediated by the intelligentsia gave cohesion to religious communities. Exploration of the non-European world and the loss of confidence in the uniqueness of this sacred language explains, in part, the gradual breakdown of these religious communities. Concomitant with this were changes in the nature of the dynastic realm. These were characterized by centers of power, specifically in the person of a monarch. By definition, these communities were “porous” and indistinct. By the 17th century, the legitimacy of these dynastic monarchies came into question in Western Europe. In addition to this breakdown Anderson also contends the rise in popularity of the novel and newspapers caused conceptions of time and space to change. Rather than time being simultaneous, or as he describes it, in “messianic time,” the idea that everyone in society was moving forward as a community through calendrical time became dominant.
Preceding the rise of nationalism was the interaction between capitalism and communication, specifically the printing press. Anderson argues capitalism was important because the explosion in print distribution abetted the revolution in the use of vernacular languages. This provided a path for the use of language as a way to centralize political and governmental administration. Print languages created a unified way to conduct trade and communicate, thus altering and widening the conception of community.
While extraordinarily important in Anderson’s thesis this confluence of capitalism and print did not in and of itself lead to the rise of nationalism. One must also look at the formation of creole communities in the new world, and why they formed conceptions of their own nation-ness before it took hold in Europe. He defines creole nations as those created and led by people who shared a language with those against whom they fought to gain their independence. He concentrates primarily on those nations formed in opposition to the Spanish empire, with some discussion of the American break with Great Britain. He attributes this rise of nation-ness to a number of factors: the attempts at control by the “metropole” gave rise to an “us vs. them” mentality; the spread of ideas related to the enlightenment; the “willingness of the comfortable classes to sacrifice themselves; the improvement in trans-Atlantic communications; and the rise of the newspaper which “implied [a] refraction of even ‘world events’ into a specific imagined world of vernacular readers; and also an idea of steady, solid simultaneity through time.” (Anderson, 52, 63)
Anderson then observes that with the successful formation of nation-states in the new world came the beginning of an era of nationalist expansion in Europe. Specifically, the widespread distribution of print media and the growing strength and particularization of vernacular languages allowed these proto-nations to replicate or “modularize” the example of new world liberation to complete their own nationalist formation.
Anderson takes issue with the views of Tom Nairn, who, in a Marxist critique of nationalism, argues that “nationalist movements have been invariably populist in outlook and sought to induct lower classes into political life.” (Anderson, 48) Rather, Anderson contends, in many proto-nations it was the fear of lower-class mobilization, “to wit, Indian, or Negro-slave uprisings,” that spurred the drive for independence, (Anderson, 48) Most of his examples here involve nations attempting to break away from the domination of Madrid. However, he also uses the United States as an example of this, pointing out “that many of the leaders of the independence movement in the Thirteen Colonies were slave-owning agrarian magnates…who in the 1770s were enraged by the loyalist governor’s proclamation freeing those slaves who broke wi6th their seditious masters.” (Anderson, 49) As I know little of the independence movements in Central and South America I will not dispute Anderson’s contentions with regards those nations, however, as it relates to American independence I do question the definition of the lower-classes as simply Indians and Negro-slaves. Certainly they were at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder, however, there was an entire class of yeoman farmer and mechanic who I would consider lower class. Howard Zinn (author of A People’s History of the United States) would disagree. He views this class as a proto middle class, designed, in part, to buffer the wealthy from the demands of the lower class. While a conventional interpretation of the American Revolution notes the common cause the wealthy and lower classes made to defeat the British – an interpretation I agree with – Anderson and Zinn would likely argue they were making common cause to protect their economic interests on the backs of the poor who ended up doing most of the fighting. There is some truth in this, although studies specifically looking at the motivations of the militia and Continental Army find it tracks very closely to the rhetoric extolling liberty and freedom that is the conventional wisdom.
Ultimately Spain was unable to establish a Spanish-wide community in the new world, largely due to limitations of technology and an inability to control a region so large. Anderson uses the failure of the United States to assimilate Canada, and the temporary existence of an Independent Texas Republic as evidence the United States was unable to create an English-American wide community parallel to the Spanish failure. I question his conclusion here. The failure of America to assimilate Canada was not the result of the backwardness of capitalism or a lack of “technology in relation to the Administrative outreach of the empire.” (Anderson, 63) The American failure to assimilate Canada was a largely a military one, combined with a lack of will. Had Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Quebec in 1775 been successful – as it nearly was – Canada would very likely be part of the United State today. Had the United States had the political will to commit the resources necessary to wage a true war against the British in Canada in 1812 it is not inconceivable at least part of Canada would have been ceded to the United States as part of a peace settlement. The limits of “administrative outreach” are belied by the subsequent expansion to the Pacific, and the successful war against Mexico. Anderson also uses the example of the American Civil War to further support his point regarding the limits of the “bonds of nationalism.” (Anderson, 64) He argues that the combined effects of rapid expansion and economic differences resulted in this conflict. Again, I question this assertion. The issue of slavery was primary. Had it not been there is no evidence this rupture would have occurred. The conflict over slavery had economic aspects certainly, particularly in the debate over the relative merits of a free-labor vs. slave-labor economy. And there were certainly issues related to the rapid expansion of the country, but these were primarily political and related to the expansion of the slave power into western territories. None but the most rabid southern nationalist actually desired the break. It was only the perceived (not actual) inflexibility of those opposed to the expansion of slavery west that induced them to feel otherwise. I really don’t think Anderson made a particularly compelling case for the limits of capitalism and the deleterious effects of “administrative stretch” using the United States as an example of it.
Lastly, while I agree with his rejection of “self-consciously held political ideologies” as a cause for the rise of nationalism, I do think he might have pointed to the experience of the United States as an exception that proves the rule. Much of the rhetoric surrounding the break with Great Britain was cloaked in ideology. Notions of liberty and republicanism were central to involving all classes in the effort. The success of Thomas Paine’s publications and the use of slogans such as “taxation without representation,” show that at least at a popular level, ideology was an important ingredient in the rise of American nationalism. Now, Zinn and Nairn would likely argue these assertions of fealty to liberty and freedom were propaganda designed to lull the masses into compliance. That it was ironic that a country fighting for natural rights would still deny them to most of the population even after independence is not lost on me. However, as an explanation for the rise of nationalism it really does not matter what the reality of these assertions were, it only mattered what people believed they were. And there is ample evidence Americans of all classes internalized them, and still internalize them as the (often shallow) regard American’s have for the popular notion of the founding shows.
Overall this is really compelling reading. Like the work of Gary Gerstle in American Crucible, this really makes you look at nationalism in ways that challenge common conceptions. With the exceptions I noted above I found Anderson’s thesis very persuasive. Once read there is little chance you will read any account of America’s founding and growth in the same light.
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!
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.
One thing you can always say about David McCullough’s books; you are always going to find the story interesting no matter what the topic. Though his works rarely break new interpretive ground, no one working in the field of History today tells a story better. As I’ve said before he could make refrigerator repair read like the most monumental event in American History. And, in addition to an excellent narrative style McCullough’s sourcing is impeccable. Through his extensive use of primary sources, letters and diaries primarily, he gives his works a very “in the now” feeling, and his newest work, The Wright Brothers, provides no exception to this rule.
While it would be fair to characterize this book as a biography, the bulk of the text is devoted to the years when Wilbur and Orville Wright worked on developing the first machine capable of powered flight. Relatively little attention is paid to their childhoods or to the time after they became the preeminent builders of flying machines. This latter period actually featured some very trying times for Orville Wright that also had profound consequences for the advancement of aircraft technology in the United States.
Wilbur and Orville Wright are usually characterized as two humble, small town bicycle sellers who took up aeronautics as a hobby and by sheer luck stumbled on the formula for powered flight. In fact the story is much different. While neither had much formal education both were serious about academic pursuits, becoming very talented, self taught engineers. Both were well read with extremely curious minds that led them to become conversant on a wide range of subjects. They were also exceptional businessmen. In the late 1800s when the craze for bicycles was at its peak they opened their own shop, at first selling and repairing models sold by other companies, and later producing a line of their own design. In this they were very successful, using part of their profits to subsidize their growing interest in flight.
That interest was apparently piqued in the 1890s probably by the accounts in the newspapers of glider flights by among others Otto Lilienthal who was killed during one of his flights. After much study and through the encouragement of Octave Chanute, a Chicago engineer with an interest in flight, the Wright’s began working seriously on the problem of control. That a glider could be propelled forward was well known, and several had taken “flight” on gliders over the years. Controlling the flight path of these gliders however, particularly the ability to turn, bank, and control the landing, were problems that had yet to be solved.
Birds of course have solved that problem, wheeling and turning in the sky at will. Men for generations have dreamed about flying like the birds do. How birds fly, and in particular how they controlled their direction is what ultimately gave the Wright’s the idea for “wing warping” to control their flying machines. They noted that birds tended to turn up or down their wing tips which allowed them to turn in a controlled manner. They decided to incorporate a version of this into their glider and later airplane designs. Through a series of guide wires and pulleys, controlled by body movement (like turning on a bicycle), they were eventually able to design gliders in which it was possible for a practiced pilot to achieve controlled turns, to bank in the wind, and to come to a controlled landing. This set them on a path to finally achieve what men have dreamed about for millennia…controlled human flight.
The rest of the story is fairly well known. After a series of test glider flights conducted in Kitty Hawk, NC the Wrights designed and built a powered aircraft. Utilizing an 11 horse power engine powering two rear facing propellers they were able to finally achieve sustained powered flight on December 17, 1903. Unlike modern planes these early models were unable to gain enough ground speed to get themselves in the air. They were propelled along a single rail initially by two men running alongside, and later by a dropped weight system that foreshadowed the catapults used on modern aircraft carriers. Over the next 10 years they continued to refine their designs, building planes that could travel faster, farther and higher. They eventually signed contracts with the United States government and a company in France to sell their planes. They applied for and received a patent on their wing warping technology. ANd they became wealthy.
There were bumps along the way of course. There was the continuous stream of claims by others to have actually achieved the first flight. None of these have come close to being proven. They were subject to the doubts and skepticism of rivals who refused to believe two upstart Americans could have solved such a complex problem. On September 17, 1908 during one of several demonstration flights Orville Wright made for the United States Army, and with a passenger aboard, his Flyer crashed, nose diving into the ground from about 100 feet. The crash killed the passenger, Captain Thomas Seflridge, who became the first fatality in world history from an airplane crash, and Orville was severely wounded with a broken pelvis, broken leg and rib fractures. It took several months before he was able to resume his work. During all of this the Wrights never wavered from their conviction to advance the quality of their flyers, and to protect the proprietary claim of their wing warping system against those that tried to incorporate it into their designs without permission. It was this latter effort that caused enormous problems for Orville Wright in later years, and actually retarded the advancement of flight technology in the United States for several years, allowing the French to overtake it as the leading manufacturer of flying machines.
Wilbur Wright died in 1912 of Typhoid fever at the age of 45. Orville continued on with the business, assuming the Presidency of the Wright Company. For the next several years Wright was in court, accusing several airplane makers of using the patented wing warping technology without permission or license. Many of these lawsuits were eventually settled in the Wright Company’s favor, but it took so long that advances in the technology were put on hold until they were resolved. Other countries began to overtake the United States in the manufacture and design of aircraft.
Orville eventually merged the company with Martin Aircraft company, which subsequently became the Wright Aeronautical Company, which in turn merged with the Curtiss Aeroplane Company to form the Curtiss-Wright Corporation which is still in business today. Ironically, Glenn Curtiss, a noted aviation pioneer and founder of the Curtiss Company was one of those sued by the Wrights.
Orville Wright finally died in 1948, having lived into the era of supersonic flight. All in all a very remarkable story that is not wholly appreciated today.
I have few criticisms of this book. McCullough is a master manipulator. He is expert at using selected incidents to build tension before a dramatic and uplifting conclusion. As with some of his other works on American history he is out to tell an uplifting American story, so he spends very little time on things that might detract from that, such as the patent battles and Orville’s later shameful shunning of his sister. These are mentioned of course, but very little detail is provided.
If you are familiar with McCullough you know what you are in for. And what you are in for is a master story teller at his peak!
I tried to read this book several years ago and did not get very far, largely because I had no grounding in European history, but also because most of the people and place names are French which I find very difficult to follow. Recently I decided to give it another try however, partially because I had done more reading about European history and thought I would be better able to understand the historical and geographical references, but also because I had access to the audio format of the book which I thought might make it easier to deal with the French language aspects. I was right. This is a fascinating and extremely well written look at what is referred to as the “Crisis of the Late Middles Ages” that encompasses events occurring during the 14th and 15th centuries in Europe. These events set back centuries of progress, devastated local economies and killed off nearly half its population.
Starting with the little ice age in 1314, and encompassing the Black Death which killed up to half the population of Europe, the Hundred Years War between England and France, and the Schism in in the Catholic church, Europe suffered through over one-hundred years of demographic and religious upheaval, and economic collapse. It was a period characterized by popular uprisings among the bourgeois and peasants in France, England and Switzerland, by devastation wrought by brigandage, nearly constant warfare between England and France and the shifting loyalties of the nobility in both countries, devastating antisemitism, and the last gasps of crusade against the enemies of Christianity.
Barbara Tuchman recounts all of this using one French noble as the focus of her narrative. Enguerrand de Coucy VII, the Lord of Coucy was a French noble who seemed to be involved in nearly all of the momentous events that took place during this period. Largely loyal to the various French sovereigns that inhabited that throne during his lifetime, he nevertheless became the son-in-law of Kind Edward III of England after marrying his daughter Isabella. Named the Earl of Bedford by King Edward, de Coucy was granted estates and land in England, thus demonstrating the often shifting loyalties of the nobility during this period. de Coucy finally died as the result of hardships endured as the captive of Bayezid I, Sultan of the Ottoman empire who defeated crusaders sent to drive them out of Bulgaria at the Battle of Nicopolis.
Using Froissart’s Chroicles , considered the best account of the Hundred Years War and of the chivalric culture in England and France as one of her main sources, Tuchman is able to distill what has to be fairly sparse and often contradictory documentation, into a very coherent narrative. Ultimately she demonstrates the vacuity of this chivalric ethic, which emphasized bravery, piety and nobility. When presented with the opportunity to either enrich themselves monetarily or by the acquisition of power, or to honor the chivalric code, nobles invariably chose the former option.
My favorite parts of the book were sections that dealt as much as was possible with available sources, the ways different sections of society lived their day to day lives, how they conducted business, ate, worshiped, reproduced, and dealt with illness and death. On the other hand, the narrative describing the battles that took place between various factions during the Hundred Years War became kind of tedious for me, not because they were not well written, but because while each was perhaps interesting on its own terms, the nature of this war was such that they did not really push the story on to an ultimate conclusion. In the end the war just sort of petered out. I also found the sections detailing the Papal schism to be fascinating.
Tuchman is perhaps more well known for her definitive account of the lead up to World War I, The Guns of August, a book I have yet to read. If that book is as clear and forceful as this one I definitely have something to look forward to.
More great beach reading from Nathaniel Philbrick. This time he tackles a now mostly forgotten expedition known as the United States Exploring Expedition (or US. Ex. Ex.) which took place between 1838 and 1842. Led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes the expedition consisted of six ships whose charge was to explore and survey the Pacific Ocean. Consisting of Navy officers and seaman, and a corps of scientists, the expedition was one of the most successful in terms of discovery, in American history. Included among its many accomplishments are the charting of the coastline of Antarctica for the first time, becoming the first expedition to reach and map the Fiji islands, charting the area surrounding the Columbia River in Oregon whose ownership was a matter of dispute between Great Britain and the United States, climbing both the Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa volcanoes in Hawaii, and by providing the first accurate explanations for the formation of the coral atolls that dot the South Pacific. They encountered numerous indigenous peoples throughout their journey, and cataloged and took samples of enough flora and fauna to fill a museum, and indeed it was one of the first collections added to the new Smithsonian Institution. Despite this enviable record of success however the expedition is all but forgotten now.
Philbrick’s purpose for the book is twofold; first to bring the accomplishments of this expedition back into the U.S. canon of human exploration, and second, to provide a narrative that explains why it’s accomplishments have been so overlooked. The expedition itself had adventures worthy of anything one might find in a Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling or Daniel Defoe novel – including angry cannibals. All of this is expertly dealt with by Philbrick whose writing is always clear and compelling. He brings something else to this work though, something that I thought was a bit lacking in his other books, and that is a real talent for illuminating the personalities of those involved in the events he describes. This is fortuitous as it was these personalities that were at the root of the expeditions later obscurity. I’m not going to go further than that because I don’t want to accidentally reveal any spoilers, for while this is primarily a book of history, it reads like a great adventure!
A very enjoyable book written by a Pulitzer Prize award winner. It explores the relationship – both professional and personal – between the two most important leaders of the twentieth century, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. This is not a full biography of either man, nor is it a history of WWII. While you will get elements of both in this book, the sole focus is their relationship.
Making heavy use of primary sources, including newly analyzed diaries of Lucy Mercer Rutherford and the papers of Pamela Harriman, Meacham paints a very vivid portrait of the two men and the nature of their relationship. In many ways they were very similar in their upbringing and outlook on the world. Both idolized their flawed and somewhat aloof fathers, both were born into privilege and were later accused of betraying their class, both were strong willed and were excellent communicators, both depended heavily on their spouses (though in different ways), and both viewed the future optimistically. Their relationship was intimate but complex, with each playing a role defined largely based on the political goal each needed to reach.
From the start Churchill was the suitor and Roosevelt the courted. While Britain held out against the Nazis alone for nearly an entire year Churchill worked to convince Roosevelt of the need for American help. As the leader of a country not in imminent danger, Roosevelt had to deal with the strongly isolationist sentiment dominant in the U.S. at this time. As Churchill pushed him Roosevelt worked to get England the help it needed without getting too far ahead of public opinion; preparing the country for what he was convinced would be the necessity of American involvement. In both cases incredible political instincts and a talent for persuasiveness moved each towards their respective goal.
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on the U.S., Roosevelt and Churchill formed a relationship that became the most formidable alliance of two leaders in world history. In terms of their political relationship, Roosevelt continued to be the dominant partner. The United States had the men and material to wage the kind of fight that was going to be necessary to defeat the Axis powers. Churchill was still often in the position of having to woo Roosevelt to a course of action he believed most beneficial. While Churchill spent nearly 120 days in North America during the war, Roosevelt never visited England. On the other hand, Churchill was the face of resistance to Naziism, his charisma and courage in the face of overwhelming odds focused attention on the dangers of a world dominated by despotism.
On a personal level , their relationship had developed into what some have called a “love affair,” with each having a deep affection and admiration for the other. It is this relationship that is the primary theme of this book and what is most riveting about it.
There is little new information presented, except the details provided Lucy Rutherford’s diaries and Pamela Harriman’s papers. It’s the focus on the relationship itself that is unique here. It is very easy to be cynical nowadays, with public expressions by politicians of friendship dismissed as smoke and mirrors. In this case however those expressions were genuine, and it was the relationship that developed that allowed this alliance to literally save the world from despotism!
Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David is a really well written and exciting account of the thirteen days these three leaders spent at Camp David hammering out one of the most significant agreements in human history – the Camp David Accords. The description of the personalities of the three men was the most fascinating part of the story, most particularly how their backgrounds motivated them and informed the way the approached these negotiations. It really brought into relief how damaging an adherence to dogmatic religious belief can be, but also how an enlightened religious outlook can bring about great change.
Begin, the most truculent of the three, and the most dogmatically religious, on several occasions, threatened to scuttle negotiations over what most would be consider relatively minor points, but which for him were a point of religious pride. Carter, used his religion as a way to give him strength during the negotiations which nearly broke down virtually every day, and which only succeeded due to the force of his intellect and persistence. Sadat viewed himself as a man of destiny who had been born for this moment. It was this conviction that kept him from walking out of negotiations with Begin who he had grown to despise.
The author expertly weaves the biographies of the three men, along with other major players throughout the narrative. It is through these biographies that one comes to understand the intractability of the problems plaguing the middle east. That Carter was able to pull this off was nearly miraculous, and I think underrated now as an example of Presidential leadership.
I actually don’t want to get into too much detail here because though the outcome is well known, how they got there is fascinating and reads like a thriller in Wright’s capable hands – so I will leave it there. Highly Recommended!!!
Sadly, my background in European history is quite deficient, so much of what was in this book I had to reread a couple of times. Even still, this is a really engrossing book; extremely well written, deftly organized, and very readable even to folks like me who have little grounding in European history (especially Italian history).
It’s a sad story of a little Jewish boy (Edgardo Mortara) taken from his parents by the Catholic church because the child had supposedly been baptized by the family’s Catholic servant, and their efforts to get him back. It is told against the backdrop of the turmoil surrounding the unification of Italy and backlash against Papal temporal rule in the middle part of the nineteenth century.
It highlights very well the discrimination practiced against Jews – particularly by the Catholic church – presaging what would happen to them in the 1940s.