The death of Idi Amin Dada on August 16, 2003, caused a stir of emotions in Uganda, the country he once ruled with an iron fist. His name is infamous and the crimes of his regime are endless. He ranks high among the worst dictators in world history and is a case study of the rampant abuse of power by a malevolent tyrant. Actor Forest Whitaker brilliantly played the late dictator in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland. The film was fictionalized in part, but Whitaker capture the essence of Amin’s character and his performance was nothing short of phenomenal. The real Idi Amin was far worse as we know and there is a chance that the true number of the crimes committed by him and his henchmen will never be known. The fates of hundreds of Ugandans remain a mystery with no sense of closure in sight. Nearly four decades have passed since Amin fled into exile but he is a permanent part of Ugandan history. In this book by journalist Andrew Rice, we take a different look at the Amin regime, not through his life but through the lives of those who served him. The lives and stories intersect around the murder of Eliphaz Laki, the former county chief of Ibanda, Mbarara. In 1972, he was apprehended by Amin’s enforcers, led by Yusuf Gowon, assisted and abetted by Nasur Gille and Mohamed Anyure. His murder was covered up until his son Duncan returned to his native country in a quest to find his father’s killers. Duncan emigrated to the United States, settling in New Jersey with his wife. Their union produced four children and Laki supports his family as a lawyer. But the laws of the United States are different from Uganda as we see in the book. This is his story and a step back into time as we revisit the Protectorate of Uganda under the all watchful eye of Amin.
Before you open this book, I recommend that you remove any pre-conceived notions about Uganda. Personally, I found that after reading this book, there was much about the African nation that I did not know. In contrast to the picture of Africa being a land of savages, the truth is that colonialism, tribalism and corruption combined to eliminate any semblance of a properly functioning society. As Rice follows Duncan on his mission to bring his father’s killers to justice, the complex web of jealousy and suspicion ignited by Amin’s paranoia becomes evidently clear. Tragically, what could have been a great country, seemed to regress upon finally gaining its independence. In the book, as each character is introduce, Rice retraces their history, explaining in detail why they’re relevant to the current story. Expectedly, former leader Milton Obote appears throughout the story as he and Amin end up on a collision course for control of the country. The book develops into a history lesson on Ugandan politics and is a social study of the issues that continue to plague it today. It should be pointed out that the book is not a biography of Amin. In fact, as Rice points out, Amin’s early life is highly obscure and his exact date of birth was never been attained. The focus instead is on Duncan’s investigation with the help of a local investigator, Alfred Orijado. Their investigation leads them to the three suspects who are arrested and interrogated before signing confessions explaining their role in Eliphaz Laki’s death. And similar to the former Nazi officials, the Nuremberg defense once again rears its ugly head.
The trial eventually reveals the many flaws in the Uganda system while highlighting the progress that had been made administratively under the direction of former President Yoweri Museveni. Along with Amin and Milton Obote, Museveni is a permanent fixture in Ugandan history with the distinction of having served thirty-one years as the ruler of Ugandan. He has been called a dictator and if he should move to change the law to exempt him from retiring at the mandatory age of seventy-five, the accusations will hold more weight. Nonetheless, he is a walking piece of history at the age of seventy-one, having witnessed Uganda’s darkest times first hand. His prominence is slowly slipping as younger Ugandans look towards a brighter future with change in a new direction.
Westerners may find it hard to relate to the events in the book. For those of us lucky enough to have grown up in the United States, a civil war is unknown to us personally and something we have read about in textbooks. But for immigrants from Uganda who remember Amin’s reign, the terror remains with them every day reminding them of how tragic their lives once were. And while the ending is not what the reader may expect, the book is invaluable is showing what life was like in Uganda during that era. In death, Amin has joined the ranks of Hitler, Stalin, Lenin and other dictators whose dark legacies continue to haunt the nations they once ruled. Uganda continues to heal and the story of Eliphaz and Duncan Laki, is just one of thousands to be told about the maniacal Idi Amin Dada.
The Dyatlov Pass incident has reemerged as one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the world. On January 23, 1959, ten hikers set out on an expedition to Otorten Mountain in the Norther Ural Mountain range. One member of the group turned back and the remaining nine met their deaths at the Kholat Syakhl (Dead Mountain) under mysterious circumstances. Several theories have been put forth to explain what happened on the night of February 1-2, 1959, but each explanation seems to cast more doubt over the official explanation. There is a strong possibility that we may never know the truth about the incident but we do have a fairly accurate picture of the hiker’s last trip up until their deaths. Author Keith McCloskey has written several books and takes on the Dyatlov Pass in this investigative account of the mystery that puzzled investigators and sent chills down the spines of those who have studied the case.
While researching the book, McCloskey visited the Ural region and reviewed old case files and reports from other strange occurrences in the Ural region. There is no “smoking gun” here but where the book excels is the exploration of the theories that exists about their final moments. He leaves nothing to chance and considers everything in the effort to put together the most accurate picture of what really happened. And the result is a good look at the incident that is as equally well-researched and written as Donnie Eichar’s Dead Mountain: The Untold Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident , released in October, 2013. Eichar also traveled to the former Soviet Union, befriending Yuri Kuntsevich, the head of the Dyatlov Foundation. Eichar does not present a “smoking gun” either but touches more on the personal side of the hikers. In fact, he met with Igor Dyatlov’s younger and only surviving sister and spoke to the tenth hiker, Yuri Yudin in person. Sadly, as McCloskey reports, Yudin died on April 27, 2013 and his final resting place is with his old friends.
Conspiracy theorist will be tempted to get caught up in the boundless theories that persist about the case. But McCloskey does a good job of separating actual possibilities from ideas that are nothing short of ridiculous. He addresses the concept of infrasound and one story in particular stands out, the “revelation” by Shimon Davidenko, who claims to have been the tenth hiker in the group. He claimed other things as well but it is highly unlikely that he is being completely truthful as the book reveals. When thinking about the incident, the word strange comes to mind quickly but is actually an understatement. Many bizarre events took place following the deaths of the hikers that have never been fully explained. And with many of the individuals involved in the search and subsequent investigation now being deceased, many of their beliefs and possible secrets are gone forever. Lead investigator Lev Ivanov, went to his grave convinced of a paranormal event. Was he correct or suffering from an overactive imagination? Perhaps we will never know. McCloskey and Eichar have done a great service to the memory of the hikers in preserving their memories through these two excellent books on a real life haunting. And as time goes on, I believe that the case will draw more interest and possibly result in classified Soviet files being released at some point. If you love a good mystery and have an interest in Soviet history, this is a great read to add to your library.
If you find yourself drawn into the case and want to learn more about the author of the incident, McCloskey has given several audio interviews online. One in particular that I did enjoy listening to, is a question and answer session that was published on February 15, 2017 by YouTube member DK Zealand. Below is the video for viewing purposes.
On January 23, 1959, Igor Dyatlov (1936-1959) and several of his classmates at the Ural Polytechnic Institute in the City of Sverdlosky, board a train as they commence their hiking expedition to the Otorten Mountain in the Northern Urals in Siberia. On February 12, they are expected to return from their trip but there is no sing of the explorers, some of whom are as young as twenty years of age. Eight days later, a formal search team is put together to find the missing hikers. Over the next several weeks, their remains are found and returned back home. Lev Ivanov is assigned to investigate their deaths and to this day, the official explanation is that they died due to some “unknown force”. The incident that has become known as the Dyatlov Pass, remains one of history’s darkest mysteries. Donnie Eichar, a film producer and author revisits the incident in this chilling look into a mind-boggling event that is nothing short of surreal.
As part of his research, Eichar traveled to Russia and re-traced the hikers route with the help of several knowledgeable individuals such as Yuri Kuntsevich, the leader of the Dyatlov Foundation. Leaving his girlfriend and infant son behind, Eichar exhausted his savings and pushed his body to the limit in the Siberian extreme as he searched for answers to a historical event that gains a greater aura of mystique as the years continue to go by. At first glance, some readers may be tempted to think that the book contains a smoking gun. In fact, it does not and nowhere in the book does Eichar insinuate such. What is contained in the book is a timeline of the events and a reconstruction of each day according to their journals and what investigators learned after their deaths. Towards the end of the book, he does put forth a plausible explanation as to what could have happened to them on February 2.
Rumors have surrounded the case for decades. And due to the puzzling locations at which the bodies were found and the post-mortem examinations, many trouble facts arose that caused more confusion for even seasoned investigators. Eichar lays out all of the most exclaimed theories behind their deaths, refuting each one with the evidence on hand. And through his own work he brings our attention to the concept of infrasound or low-frequency sound. The phenomenon can be caused by environmental factors such as wind, storms and even earthquakes. The revelation that some of the hikers had suffered internal blunt force trauma and had been exposed to high levels of radiation compounds the difficulty in solving the case. The theory is not an official explanation but is highly plausible and puts the event in a whole new light.
We may never know what happened to those nine hikers on the night of February 2, 1959, but today, many years later, we have enough evidence and testimony to know what whatever did cause their deaths, was something they were completely unprepared for. Eichar has done his part to bring the truth about their deaths closer to light. This is an interesting read about an even more interesting unsolved mystery.
And the Money Kept Rolling In (and Out) Wall Street, the IMF, and the Bankrupting of Argentina-Paul Blustein
On Tuesday, June 27, 2017, Argentine President Mauricio Macri of Argentina and Michelle Bachelet of Chile met in Santiago, Chile to discuss a trade agreement between the two South American nations. A trade agreement would be a boost to the economies of both nations and help the Argentine economy recover from years of devaluation of the peso and loans on which the country was forced to default. In three weeks I will revisit the Argentine Republic, landing in Buenos Aires, appropriately called the “Paris of South America”. As of today, the exchange rate between the United States Dollar and Argentine Peso is $1=16.4ARS. The peso continues to struggle to regain its value as the Macri administration continues its mission to reform the economy. Incredibly, between the late 1800s and 1930, Argentina was one of the richest nations on earth and boasted a high rate of exports. Changing world markets and political instability plunged the nation in dark times as the grip of Juan Perón (1895-1974) tightened over Argentina giving birth to the Peronist party. Even today, his influence and that of the late Evan Peron (1919-1952) continue to be felt in Argentine society.
Students of Argentine history will often ask the question, why did Argentina end up in a financial collapse in 2001? Paul Blustein (1951- ) tackles this questions and provides answers to help us understand how and why it happened. Blustein is former writer for the Washington Post and has written about economics for more than 35 years. It was during a post in Buenos Aires that he began the project that became this phenomenal book that tells the story of what proved to be the inevitable. As part of his research, he interviewed dozens of individuals who were direct participants in the events in the book and others knowledgeable about what really happened. And what he explains in the book is eye-opening and prophetic not just for Argentina but for every country across the globe that has to confront a rising deficit and possible financial collapse.
On April 1, 1991, Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo (1946- ) adopted the convertibility system which fixed the exchange rate at $1=1ARS. The new policy initially proved to be a blessing for the Argentine economy, allowing citizens to improve their quality of life, invest, improve savings and travel abroad. But behind the scenes the government was struggling to reign in spending and raise enough taxes to maintain the newly placed system which required banks to keep an equal amount of U.S. Dollars to Argentine Pesos. A pesos crisis in Mexico and changing world markets, set the ball in motion for what was to come in the next decade. As Argentina grappled with a looming financial disaster, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) became a prime player in the effort to save its economy. The Fund, created in 1944 in New Hampshire, engaged in protracted negotiations with Argentina to save the Republic even in the face of financial mismanagement and a severe inability to stimulate economic growth. The two would eventually reach an agreement that showed signs of being the saving grace needed to save the nation. Despite IMF intervention, a second agreement would be reached before the long feared collapsed occurred dropping the value of the peso completely. In fact, things got so bad that President Fernando De La Rúa (1937- ) escaped by helicopter after resigning along with Cavallo, who had previously instituted a zero deficit policy and enacted the corralito, the infamous rule that capped the amount of money citizens could withdraw from their bank accounts sending the public into a rage.
With the whole world watching, Argentina sank deeper into financial distress but in recent years has enjoyed a streak of years of political stability. Its economy still has a long way to go to reach pre-2000 levels and time will tell if the Macri administration can fully rebuild the country’s bank accounts while avoiding another financial catastrophe. For those in control, the lessons of the past will need to be remembered moving forward. What I did like deeply about this book is that not only does Blustein tell us the story but he helps us understand how the IMF works and the value of currency. And no matter where you live, your country has the potential to suffer the same fate as the Argentines if adequate controls are not placed on spending and taxation. For those seeking to understand the crisis that crippled Argentina, this is a good place to start. I highly recommend supplementing Blustein’s compendium with Luis Alberto Romero’s A History of Argentina in the Twentieth Century. Both books will give the reader tremendous insight of a country that has to be seen in person to be appreciated.
Dorothy, “An Amoral and Dangerous Woman”: The Murder of E. Howard Hunt’s Wife – Watergate’s Darkest Secret
On January 23, 2007, E. Howard Hunt died in Miami, Florida at the age of 88. Hunt is best remembered for his conviction as a result of his role in the Watergate scandal that helped end the presidency of Richard M. Nixon. Hunt was also a prime suspect in the murder of John F. Kennedy. His son St. John, spoke with his father prior to his death and their discussion is referred to as his deathbed confession about what he knew about the events in Dallas, Texas. In the years following his death, truths about his role in the Central Intelligence Agency and the events in Dallas disproving his claim to be just a ‘bench warmer” in the crime. Next to Hunt throughout the Watergate crisis was his first wife Dorothy who perished when United Flight 553 crashed on December 8, 1972 as it approached Chicago Midway Airport to make its landing. The NTSB attributed the crash to pilot error but researchers have long suspected sabotage in the crash and have alluded to a long number of disturbing facts surrounding the crash. On the surface, it seems to be just a tragic accident that killed a housewife en route to visit acquaintances. But upon deeper examination of the crash and her life as revealed by her son in this book, the real story of the life of Dorothy Hunt is nearly as intriguing as that of her husband.
St. John Hunt has made himself known in JFK assassination circles. His prior book. Bond of Secrecy: My Life with CIA Spy and Watergate Conspirator E. Howard Hunt, looks into the life of his father and the effects of his profession on their family. Here, the focus is on his mother and her untimely demise. No stranger to the world of covert operations, Dorothy also has a past with intelligence work, having been station in Europe on more than one occasion. Her marriage to the blossoming operative Hunt, was a bond between two intelligence assets deeply involved the back channels of Washington and tied to a president facing a dark fate.
The early parts of their lives reads like a great novel; two young adults, meet, fall in love, start a family and move from one country to the next as their father is reassigned from one post to another. Enter Watergate and the scandal that turned their lives upside down. It is at this point in the book that the rug is pulled right out from under our feet and the dark side of Richard Nixon and Washington politics is revealed. Those old enough to remember Watergate will not be surprised in what is contained in this book. In fact, the book is not a complete source on the investigation as St. John himself points out. This is purely what he saw his parents go through as his father faced criminal prosecution and the impact his mother’s dad had on his life and those of his siblings. What is evidently clear from taped conversations at the Nixon White House and St. John’s account, is that his father’s legal defense was being paid for by Nixon and the money was also intended to keep Hunt quiet. Following her death, Hunt ended up being convicted and served thirty-three months in prison for his role in the Watergate scandal.
The lives of St. John and his siblings would never be the same again. Fallout from Watergate and the loss of their mother caused splits between siblings as each struggled to put their lives back together and come to terms with what they had been through. I do not believe they will ever get over what happened but have learned to cope with it on a daily basis. It is clear that St. John, the first son of the family had a special bond with his mother. The heartache and grief he experienced is evident in the pages of this book. And through his words, her memory continues to live on.
At the conclusion of the book, there is a section on the crash itself and the investigation by Sherman Skolnick (1930-2006), a noted conspiracy theorist and activist who challenged the NTSB’s position of pilot error. This part of the book is an added bonus and reveals a ton of incredible and troubling information about the crash. And what was once believed to be an open and shut case is revealed to be far more complicated and sinister. While it is not inconclusively proven that Dorothy Hunt died as a result of homicide, there are dozens of deeply disturbing facts about the incident that should have raised the eyebrows of anyone investigating the crime. And next to 9/11, it is the only case I can think of where the FBI preempted an investigation by the NTSB, removing key evidence from the scene while preventing emergency personnel from completing their assigned tasks. The complete story of what really happened that day may never be known but what we do know is that many strange things were occurring that had nothing to do with pilot error.
JFK Assassination researchers may be looking for a smoking gun but it will not be found here. In fact, not much about Dallas is discussed. In St. John’s defense, that was not the purpose of the book. His intention was to bring his mother’s story to light which he succeeds in doing. And although he did get some factual information wrong, the story is still a good read about a family caught up in one of the greatest crimes in American political history.
Today, sixty-four years after his death in, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) remains one of the most polarizing and studied figures of the 20th century. As the leader of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, he enforced the legendary Red Army as it fought off a German onslaught and helped the Allies put an end to Germany’s Third Reich. Following the war, tensions between the United States and the USSR escalated giving birth to the Cold War. In 1991, the USSR collapsed and today Russia is under the control of Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly one of the world’s most controversial figures. Stalin’s reign may seem to be in Russia’s distant past but it was less than one hundred years ago that Stalin ruled with an iron fist, striking fear into the hearts of not only his enemies but those closest to him. Rumors have surfaced over the years regarding everything including his love life, health, mental state and bungled policies. But who was the real Joseph Stalin? Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Gori, Georgia on December 18, 1878 to Besarion “Beso” Jughashvili (1850-1909) and Ketevan “Keke” Geladze (1858-1937), few could have imagined that the young child would grow up to rule an entire nation. His life in later years became mysterious to those inside and outside of Russia. Misconceptions and falsehoods have spread, causing even more confusion about the truth. Stephen Kotkin has takes on the late leader’s life in a multi-part definitive biography that is simply outstanding.
Kotkin’s compendium is extensive, totaling over seven hundred pages of text. And from what I have seen, the second volume, due to be released in November, 2017 will be slightly larger. But contained within the pages of this book, is the incredible story of the life of Joseph Stalin from his birth until the year 1928. The book was exhaustively researched and at times, is heavy on historical figures, places and dates. At first it may seem challenging to keep track but as the book goes on the, the figures reappear to remind us of their importance. The beauty in the book is that Kotkin deeply examines all situations that require explanation. And in his writing, he is neither for or against Stalin. He simply shows us his life and who he was, based on his own statements, transcripts of Party Congresses and documents that have survived from the era. For history lovers, this is nearly heaven on earth. History textbooks tell some of the story of the Russian Revolution, but here we have an inside look into the movement that catapulted Stalin, Vladimir Lenin (1877-1924) and Leon “Lev” Trotsky (1879-1940) to eternal fame and later condemnation. The subsequent Russian Polish War and escalation of tensions between Russian and it’s allies Germany and Britain following Lenin’s death, highlight the fractured foreign policy enacted employed by the Bolshevik party.
As Kotkin showcases, Stalin’s rise to power was based on fear, intimidation and deception. Even those closest to him, never truly knew what he was thinking or how to approach him at times. His first wife Yekaterina “Kato” Svanidze (1885-1907) died only a year into their marriage but his second wife Nadya Alliluyeva (1901-1932) witnessed first hand his unpredictable nature and abrasive moods. And for those that were enemies, they often face exile in Siberia, where Stalin himself was once confined to during the First World War. Trotsky, Grigory Zionviev (1883-1936) and Lev Kamenev (1883-1936) would find this out firsthand. His NEP or “New Economic Policy” was supposed to be the plan that saved Russian but instead propelled it towards disorganized collectivization intended to balance the economy as Stalin moved further to the left. But as we see in the book, the Bolsheviks had steep learning curves in many areas. The results of their shortcomings are tragic having resulted in the deaths of over seven million people. Famine spread like a virus forcing many to eat things unmentionable and unimaginable. And throughout the crisis that arise, Stalin comes off as a cold machine unaffected by anything and driven by ideology. As we re-live the past through Kotkin’s words, we see the deep level of seriousness and vindictiveness that composed the former Soviet dictator.
Stalin took with him to the grave, answers to many questions that have puzzled researchers for years. And although we have documents that have been graciously preserved, some parts of his life are lost for good. Perhaps some day in the future, more information about him may be discovered but with Kotkin’s work, we have the first part of what could be the best biography of Stalin to date. It is one of history greatest stories and filled with historical figures such as Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), Maria Spiridonova (1884-1941), Fanya Kaplan (1890-1918), Gavilro Princip (1894-1918) and Nicholas II (1868-1918) among others. Students of Russian history have been presented with a gift in this book and I am sure it will find its way to the bookshelves of many.
Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas” – Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin
Although this blog is for book reviews, I felt it necessary to write this post about a series on Netflix that captured my attention and emotions. On a recommendation from a friend, I decided to watch 13 Reasons Why, the phenomenal show that explores the life of a teenager girl who commits suicide and the lives of those around her. The powerful messages in the show resonate long after its conclusion, an influx of emotions and revelations that brought me to tears. The creators of the show have stated that they believe this show has the power to change the world. Having finished it, I concur wholeheartedly. There are those who will watch the show and feel that the characters, in particular Hannah, might be “too sensitive” or “fragile”. The reality is the events that happen in the show have occurred for generations but were rarely ever discussed. It has been common practice to sweep things under the rug and pretend as if they do not exist. We as a society know far better.
The story begins with Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a sophomore who receives a box of cassettes from his deceased friend, Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford) who has recently committed suicide. She recorded the tapes before her death and each tape is dedicated to an individual she encountered that is in some way responsible for her death. As Clay listens to the tapes, we are introduced to the main characters and the roles they played in the web of deceit and suspicion that has engulfed their school. The adults are largely clueless to what happens at the school and even the administrators are a loss as to why Hannah has taken her own life. But as the story progresses, we see the signs were all there and no one picked up on her plight. Her parents have sued the school and refused a paltry settlement. Each of the students known to associate with her are subpoenaed for depositions and give their side of the story. The severity of the lawsuit and the internal demons that plague the characters, cause them to unravel as each seeks to protect their own imagine while reconciling their feelings of guilt in another student’s demise. In death, Hannah is vindicated and the full story finally comes to light. due to the efforts of Clay, the lawyers and Tony, who serves as Clay’s guardian angel per Hannah’s instructions. In life, there are Hannah’s all over this world who suffer in silence and make the ultimate decision to end their lives. Our hope is that we can reach them before it is too late.
When he realizes how he failed to help Hannah, Clay makes a statement that is deep and is literally the problem throughout the show. He says “I cost a girl her life because I was afraid to love her”. As scary as it may sound, we all know or have known someone who could have been Hannah. The face may be different but the struggles can be similar. If there is anything we can learn from the story, it is that we should show and tell the people close to us that we love them when we can and be there for them in their time of need. Tomorrow is never guaranteed and as we see in the show, we never know what a person is going through.
All of us have faced bullies before in the schoolyard, in the neighborhood or even at work. But what took place in the show went far beyond bullying and is a reflection on the problems that continue to plague society. Behavior that is atrocious and inappropriate cannot be excused for kids being kids, boys being boys or just “locker room talk.” The women who are victims of sexual assault and harassment could be our sisters, mothers, aunts, nieces, cousins, spouses and friends. And for those of us who are parents, this could be your daughter. I do not have any children of my own, but if I did have a daughter, I would make it my duty to make sure that she knows the ugliness that people are crafty at hiding. But more importantly, listen to her and watch for signs that she is in trouble and reaching out. Often, we do not realize what once was until it is too late and hindsight is always 20/20. But perhaps we can adjust our vision to see what is right in front of us.
Hannah’s tragedy is fictional, but she represents what some of us will go through in life. Her life ended in a most tragic manner before she had a chance to fully live. And although she is a fictional character, that does not take away from the messages that the filmmakers and stars of the show are conveying to us. Robert F. Kennedy once said that tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not by which to live. If you have yet to watch this show, do so and I guarantee it will reach you in ways you never imagined.
Suicide is never an issue to be taken lightly. If you or anyone you know has had thoughts about suicide or made an attempt to end their life, please be aware that there is help available. You do not have to keep everything inside, reach out and speak to someone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They are available seven days a week, twenty four hours a day for anyone that needs help.
America is often referred to as the land of opportunity for anyone wishing to start a new life far away from home. Since the days of Amerigo Vespucci, the territory we now call the United States has been a primary destination for world travelers. In recent years, legislation regarding immigration has been an important topic which provokes fierce debate. Every country has its issues with immigration and none has a perfect regarding the same. However America has been the place where millions of immigrants have made a new home. The late John F. Kennedy, formerly the Thirty-Fifth President of the United States, left us with many writings, interviews and speeches before his untimely death in Dallas, Texas. His sharp wit, uncanny foresight and fierce independence catapulted him to the top of the list of Americans whose names live on forever. As the descendants of Irish settlers from Ireland escaping the potato famine, his family came to America in search of a new life. Their journey was long and their assimilation into a new society rough, with prejudice and xenophobia forming substantial obstacles to peace and happiness. Their plight was never forgotten and is told again in this short but engaging book that clarifies his position that America truly is a nation of immigrants.
Today it is hard for many of us to comprehend that the America as we know it is less than three hundred years old. In fact, my hometown of New York City did not come into existence until 1898. The stories of Ellis Island are legend in American history with tales of immigrants from places such as Ireland, Italy, Germany at The Netherlands. But as Kennedy beautifully explains, America owes its diversity to immigrants from all over. He starts off by giving a brief history of the creation of America before going into the influx of newcomers and their cultures and traditions that they introduced to the American experience. As I read the book, I thought to myself that although it was written in 1958 and published posthumously in 1964 after his death, his words are still relevant today. Currently, America finds itself in the midst of a bitter political climate. Immigration remains a hotly contested topic with the lives of millions of people living in the United States at stake. But as we move forward and consider how to approach immigration, it is wise for us to reminder JFK’s words that immigrants are responsible for the building of our country.
One of the tragedies of America’s development, pointed out by Kennedy in the book, is the backlash and discrimination faced by newly arrived immigrants. Every group of people has had to face discrimination fueled by bigotry and xenophobia. Regrettably, those who engage in such acts easily forget that all of our ancestors come from foreign land. Furthermore, the disenfranchisement of the Native Americans, Aborigines and struggle of the African and Hispanic-American and dark periods and a stain on the American conscience. The more I read his words and listen to his speeches, the more I am concerned that they are more important today. And his death on November 22, 1963, is still one of America’s darkest moments. My father who will turn sixty-five this year, still recalls with vivid detail, the day that Kennedy died. And as I listen to him talk, I can feel and see the sense of loss that engulfs him.
St. Augustine remarked that “the world is a book, those who do not travel read only a page”. Truer words have rarely been spoken. For some of us, it is not merely travel, but a completely new change in life requiring moving from the place known as home to a new land thousands of miles away. Those of us who have always lived in once place may find it difficult to appreciate the struggle many face as they try to make a new life in the United States. But as we go about our daily routines and encounter those who are different, it is imperative that we remember this deeply moving compendium and its words by the late John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
Today, the People’s Republic of China continues to feel the effects of the policies of it most popular leader, the late Mao Zedong (1893-1976). Known as Chairman Mao, his successful campaign against the Nationalist led by Chiang Kai-Shek (1887-1975) set the stage for the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Mao ruled the nation until his death on September 9, 1976 at the age of eighty-two. During his tenure he came a controversial figure and is credited with causing millions of deaths through the failed policies of collectivization and the infamous “Great Leap Forward.” The aura of promise and hope that surrounded the commencement of his administration subsided as millions of Chinese endured long periods of poverty and famine while Mao enjoyed unlimited perks through his role as Chairman. Propaganda is a power tool used by the darkest of dictators to enforce their will on the masses of people they wish to control. An official story of triumph supported by an unwavering commitment to the revolution by ordinary men and women, helped cast an illusion of a progressive new China, modeled on its Soviet counterpart. In reality, the story is far different and in some cases, horrific as can been seen in this study of the early years of the Chinese Revolution by Dutch historian Frank Dikötter. (1961-)
Chairman Mao is widely regarded as one of the greatest leaders in world history. His image can still be found on walls throughout mainland China and his name is still mentioned in articles about the country he ruled even today. Following the communist victory over Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces and the establishment of the new republic, the left-wing government under Mao instituted radical changes to transform the nation’s economy and enforce its rigid ideology. Behind the parades and strong rhetoric of a society that helps everyone, were bare truths far uglier and more sinister than anyone could have imagined. And as we learn in this book, the revolution was nearly a complete failure in all regards.
Carefully reconstructing the past, Dikötter takes us back in time to experience life as an ordinary citizen in the new Mao controlled China. And what we see is a regime that encourages suspicion, deceit, paranoia, fear and destitution. For decades following his death, there were many aspects of Mao’s regime that had remained puzzling. His former doctor, Liu Zhisui (1920-1995) published his memoirs entitled The Private Life of Chairman Mao which gave readers an invaluable look into Mao’s personal life, the ugly truths that formed basis of Mao’s plans for the country and the treacherous atmosphere that had engulfed his cabinet. Dikötter makes reference to the late doctor recalling his words on several occasions throughout the book. Both works help to paint the most accurate picture of what Mad had in mind as he made many decisions, some of which nearly brought about the destruction of China.
As a communist nation, China had been closely aligned with the Soviet Union, then under the leadership of the infamous Joseph Stalin (1878-1953). Mao and Stalin formed a partnership based on Marxist-Leninist beliefs and shared opponents; Chiang Kai-Shek and the United States. The animosity between the parties peaked in 1949 resulting in the defeat of the Nationalists but the war was far from over. Here, we revisit the events leading up to the Korean War, the conflict that permanently changed the relationship between China, Korea, Russia and the United States. Mao’s actions and beliefs prior to and during the war are examined providing answers to questions surrounding China’s entry into the conflict.
The true tragedy in the book however, is the fate suffered by millions of Chinese under Mao’s rule. The book ends before the implementation of the Great Leap Forward but the events that transpire serve as premonitions of the disaster that had yet to come. The policy of collectivization combined with the infusion of suspicion of “right-leaning” civilians, created a system of dysfunction that eroded the trust of the people in the government and among each other. Their life savings and property gone, once well-off Chinese were reduced to peasantry, forced to work for next to nothing on a diet rationed by government bean counters. Today it is mind-boggling to think that such a system even existed. But it did and the effects of it were nothing short of devastating and left a dark stain on Mao’s legacy. The atrocious conditions in which people were forced to live is beyond comprehension and highlights the inefficiency and lack of knowledge and planning that plagued the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Today China is a world superpower but Mao’s legacy and ghost still haunt the nation as a reminder of a not too distant past in which China came to the brink of total collapse under a ruler focused more on his political enemies than the well-being of his own people.
For those who seek to learn more about Chairman Mao and the Chinese Revolution, Dikötter’s compendium is an excellent place to start.
On August 1, 1966, the citizens of Austin, Texas woke up to yet another brutally hot summer day. The heat was typical for the summer season but that day would be remembered for more than just the temperature. At 11:35 a.m., Charles Whitman (1941-1966), a former United States Marine and student at the University of Texas, ascended to the observation deck of the UT Tower and unleashed a deadly shooting assault on suspecting civilians below. In ninety-six minutes, Whitman murdered fourteen people and wounded at least thirty-one before he was shot and killed by responding law enforcement officers Houston McCloy and Ramiro Martinez who were joined by civilian Allen Crum. The shooting left the city shocked and ushered in a new concept in American history; the mass shooting spree.
Post-mortem, it was discovered that Whitman has a pecan sized tumor in his brain but whether it played in role in his actions of that day has not been conclusively determined. However there is strong evidence to believe that it did not as summarized concisely by Gary M. Lavergne (1955-) in this chilling account of Whitman’s life and his grisly crimes. The long standing question is why did Whitman do it? The truth shall never be known and went with Whitman to his grave. What we do know is that he carefully planned every step, in particular the murders of his mother Margaret and wife Katherine. Their deaths, combined with the rampage on the afternoon on August 1, left many who knew him in a state of bewilderment. The key to understanding a criminal is to study their past. Lavergne recounts Whitman’s life as we search to familiarize ourselves with Charles J. Whitman.
The book is thoroughly researched and reaches deep inside the dark side of Whitman’s mind. His childhood is explored and the system of chaos that ensued at home takes center stage as Whitman and his father become arch enemies. The elder Whitman could easily be the antagonist in the book but at no point does Lavergne attempt to cast blame on him for any of the actions of that day. He is spectator and so are we, to a father and son relationship driven by dysfunction and destined for destruction. And in a cruel twist of fate, the elder Whitman would outlive his wife and all three of his sons. Lavergne personally interviewed C.A. Whitman and even years after the tragedy he still came off as a most peculiar figure.
As we make our way to August 1 in the book, the suspense builds up and is enhanced by Whitman’s actions which are nothing sort of bizarre. Lavergne pulls no punches and all of the grisly details are relayed to the reader. And quite frankly, the remainder of the book is not for the faint at heart. The story approaches the verge of descending deeper into what could only be called hell on earth. With vivid detail and a play-by-play style of writing, Lavergne replays the events of that day in its entirety bringing the past alive. In fact, during the book, I found myself overcome with chills. Whitman’s ability to kill in cold blood and his deviously calculating mind have placed him high in the annals of American crime. However, his story would not be complete without the inclusion of the courageous officers who risked their own lives to put an end to the carnage. Lavergne has done a great service to former Austin Police Officers Houston McCoy (1940-2012) , Ramiro Martinez (1937-) and Billy Speed (1943-1966). None of them could have imagined that day would turn out as it did. And for Speed, he could not have imagined that it would be his last day on earth. In this book and the story of Whitman, their names live on.
In 1975, MGM Television aired The Deadly Tower starring Kurt Russell as Charles Whitman. Russell does a good job of portraying Whitman but regrettably, the producers of the film took several liberties that are in no way accurate to the real life story. Regardless, the film stands as the big screen adaptation of Whitman’s murder spree. Since that dreadful day in Austin more than fifty years ago, there have been other mass shootings in the United States that have cause nationwide grief and renewed the debate about the gun laws in America. The names of Columbine, Orlando and Sandy Hook have become embedded in the minds of Americans as reminders of the deadly consequences of mentally unstable and hateful individuals in the possession of weapons designed to kill. In the future, it is hoped that our response to such acts are swift and effective. The Austin police department found itself unable to accurate respond to a previously unknown threat on American soil. As we moved forward, it is imperative that history does not repeat itself. This is the story of Charles J. Whitman and one of America’s darkest days.