Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine-Anne Applebaum

Ukraine

When Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) died on March 5, 1953, the Soviet Union embarked on a change of course under its new leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971).  While the majority of government policy remained in effect, a “thawing” took place where the old ways of Stalin were slowly repealed. However, many secrets remained buried as the Politburo sought to maintain its public facade of a progression under communist ideology.   Among those secrets was the deadly famine that engulfed the Ukraine between the years of 1932-1933.   In history courses, the famine is not discussed and it remained a hidden secret to the west for decades after it ended.   The death count stands at a minimum of three million people.  The true number may never be known.   But what is certain is that the famine was no accident and the product of disastrous and delusional planning from Moscow.

Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author, dives into the tragedy of the Ukraine famine head first with an accurate and riveting account of how and why the famine developed.   But before the reader can understand the famine, it is first necessary to understand the complicated history between Russian and the Ukraine.  It is a history of violence, distrust and the animosity was on full display in 2014 when Russian military units invaded the small nation.   Russia, has never relented in its quest to reclaim the Ukraine, once part of the U.S.S.R.  The history of Ukraine in the story at hand begins with the Russian Revolution of 1917.  The new found political spirit did not end in Russia but crossed the border into the Ukraine as Ukrainian Bolsheviks launched their own cultural revolution.   The culture, language, laws and traditions of the Ukraine were blacklisted and criminalized as the Bolsheviks sought to erase all traces of the Ukrainian way of life.  Their seizure of the country set the stage for the deadly path of destruction the Soviet government would later embark on.

What I noticed as I read through the book was how much of a premonition the famine was for later communist governments that made the same mistakes. Stalin’s policy of collectivization, embraced by both Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro, was an utter failure just as it was in the latter mentioned regimes.  Moscow’s refusal to change the policy, even in the face of reports coming back from the field, is horrific and ultimately mind-boggling.  Malnutrition, distrust, resentment and crime evolved out of the doomed policy and reduced the people of Ukraine to a mass of bodies pushed to the extreme.  Millions did not survive and for those who did, they carried the mental and emotional scars from a famine that could have been handled if not for a ruler dogged by paranoia and drunk on power.

Applebaum tells the story the way it should be told with the reasons and methods used to rid the Ukraine of those intellectuals who had the potential to lead it in a new direction.  The smear campaigns and murders approved by the OGPU, predecessor to the KGB and FSB, removed anyone who Moscow believed to be a threat to its supreme rule.  The common people, often referred to as the kulaks, suffered immensely and trust between neighbors and acquaintances became rarer than a solid meal.  Like puppets on strings, Moscow played with the lives of millions of Ukrainians, doomed by their culture and religion as antisemitism and anti-Ukraine sentiments prevailed.

Today there are many sources of information about the famine that was once firmly hidden behind strategically placed propaganda.  But not everyone was fooled. In fact, Nazi Germany was firmly aware of it as it invaded Ukrainian territory during World War II.   The German occupation is a topic for another book as Applebaum mentions but it highlights the despair and hopelessness that Ukrainians found their selves subjugated to. Following the war, things were far from improving and it would not be until the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev that the truth began to come to light.  His policy of glasnost, helped repeal the curtain of secrecy in the Soviet archives.   The door became slightly ajar but authors such as Anne Applebaum have now kicked it wide open with the full story of one of the world’s deadliest famines.  This book is key to understanding the tragedy and the tense relationship between Russia and the Ukraine.

ISBN-10: 0385538855
ISBN-13: 978-0385538855

Before Night Falls-Reinaldo Arenas

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The Cuban Revolutionary war has been viewed through different lenses, typically dependent upon which side of history the viewer falls on.  Fidel Castro’s march through Havana after the exit of Fulgencia Batista was paraded as the era of change that Cuba needed in order to break out from Yankee imperialism and the iron grip of organized crime.  The charismatic and bearded leader introduced a new pride in Cubans with promises of true revolution and equality for all.  Today, nearly sixty years later, we know that did not happen and the true number of people persecuted under his rule may never be known.  Reinaldo Arenas (1943-1990) was just one of thousands of exiles who were able to leave the island they called home to escape relentless persecution because of their sexuality and literary beliefs.  And when he took his own life on December 7, 1990,  an end came to a short but painful life in which he never truly found peace.  Before his death he made it a goal to complete this autobiography as a sort of farewell gift to those who knew him or his work.  His death was no accident and Arenas explains himself that he will in fact leave this world as his choosing.  Twenty-seven years have passed since his death but his story is remarkable even today.  The book was adapted into a screenplay  by Julian Schnabel and the film starred Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp.  Both are great actors but as good as the film may be, the only person who told Arenas’ story the best was Arenas himself.

The author begins the book by taking us back to his childhood in Cuba, in particular his village of Holguín where he was born into a village of poverty where he and his closest siblings had no shoes and sometimes ate the earth.  The descriptions of the poverty that could be found in his village are shocking but an accurate portrayal of life in small villages just decades ago.   At a young age, he realizes he is a homosexual and his sexual orientation will be a major factor in almost all of the events that take place throughout the rest of his life.  They are also central to everything in the book.   Stories of the persecution of homosexuals in Cuba under the Castro government are well-known but those outside of Cuba may not know just how much.   In a society where all were supposed to be equal, the blatant harassment and discrimination of gay men and women contradicted the revolutionary ideology.  Nevertheless, from Arenas’ words, it does seem at times as if homosexuality was as common as heterosexuality.  His encounters with men are spontaneous, dangerous and also numerous. And his descriptions of his encounters and what he witnesses are graphic and not for readers that are uneasy with explicit sexual dialogue.

As a writer, Arenas also possessed another quality which made him an enemy of the state.  He explains himself that Castro does not like writers, either those for or against the government and the suppression of  free thought, speech and works of literature is present everywhere as big brother cracks down in Orwellian style manifested in the classic 1984.  Informants, mail-opening and surveillance were tools of the trade as ordinary citizens lived under a microscope where everyone was suspected of being counter-revolutionary and forced to live on meager rations with nearly no income.  In fact, their lives stood in stark contrast to the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by Castro and his subordinates.  In short, it was the classic totalitarian state despite of the image projected by the Castro regime.  Cuban exiles will readily agree with this but even in Cuba, there are those who believed in Castro and still do.  The debate will go on for an eternity.

Arenas realizes that his sexual orientation and writing have made him a target and he knows it is just a matter of time before the authorities come for him.   They do and his incarceration in Cuban jails makes up the central part of the book.  His descriptions of life in Cuban prisons defy belief and it is a miracle that anyone survives.  Towards the end of the book, he admits that he never fully healed from prison and that no one ever does.  But he remains strong in the face of adversity as authorities do their best to break his spirit and turn him into informant.  When he finally puts prison behind him, he troubles are over as he has to earn a living but is known to the State and known in society as part of a group of people who are often ostracized. He knows he must get out of Cuba, but the questions remains as to how he will do it.  A chance event in Peru changes his life and the lives of thousands of other Cubans and when he finally steps foot on U.S. soil, the next phase of his life begins but not long before it tragically ends.

Although this is Arenas’ autobiography, he tells the story of the lives of many people close to him, all struggling to find peace and happiness in a society which represses anything an everything.   Scene and scene of debauchery and tragedy play out by characters just short of despair. Their stories and Arenas’ life reveal the facade behind the triumphant revolution which replaced on dictator with another who was at times even more brutal towards his own citizens.   In a cruel twist of fate, Castro outlived Arenas and many other Cuban exiles depriving them of the chance to see Cuba after Castro.  The future will tell if Cuba will every truly be free but as the nation moves towards that goal, then it is best served to remember the stories of those who have suffered and Arenas who through his words, one of Cuba’s loudest voices.

ISBN-10: 0140157654
ISBN-13: 978-0140157659

Darkest Hour: John Alite: Former Mafia Enforcer for John Gotti & The Gambino Crime Family -John Alite, S.C. Pike and Kayla Robichaux

AliteThere is something about the Italian-American crime syndicate that continues to fascinate American culture.  The larger than life characters that appeared on television and in newspapers have been immortalized in movies and documentaries.  Their close-knit organization which we have come to know as the Mafia,  became as American as apple pie.  Violence, money, sex and power become staples of the gangster’s life.   Many of them die before their time as the street life inevitably catches up with them.  John Alite knows this all too well.  The former hit man for the late Gambino Family boss John Gotti (1940-2002), served several years in prison after being extradited from Brazil in 2006.  He later agreed to testify against a former associate which reduced his sentence.  In 2017 he was released from supervised parole.

When I saw this book on Amazon it immediately grabbed my attention.  As a New York City native, I vividly remember the time when the Mafia controlled nearly every industry in the city with an iron grip that was broken main by the RICO Act.  Alite was in a unique position similar to another associate who also agreed to help prosecutors, Sammy “The Bull” Gravano.  The better days of the Mafia are long past but the memories of its reign of terror remain firmly fixed in the minds of many. From the beginning, Alite’s story pulls the reader in and mainly because unlike Gotti, he his not of Italian heritage. In fact, his family comes from Albania.  And his childhood is composed of a three-generation family, an environment in which I myself grew up in.   Those familiar with Eastern Europe will recognized the profound differences between Italian and Albanian culture.   What helps make Alite’s story interesting are the dynamics between family members and the struggle by his parents and grandparents as they adjusted to a new country with a language they had to learn later in life.  To enforce the point, phrases of Albanian spoken by Alite’s parents and grandparents are peppered throughout the story.  And it is clear that his Albanian heritage was and is a source of pride.   However, every story has an antagonist and Alite’s is no different.

I should point out right now that this book is part one in what will surely be either a two or three book series.   This story is strictly about his childhood and his slowly descent into rebelliousness and a life of crime.  But perhaps, no other relationship was as critical in this development than that between him and his father Meti (Matthew).  This is the crux of the book and Alite pointedly states that it was his father’s teachings that made it easy for him to end up in the life of crime later in his life.  Today it would be considered abuse but back then, what went on at home often stayed at home.   Under their roof existed a tyrant whose life was complicated and stressful and unfortunately led to outbursts of violence that affected each person in their own way.  But ironically, love also exists at home but it is carefully guarded by some and shown in different ways.  The fondness Alite had for his grandparents is endearing and an example of the importance of the bond that should exist between multiple generations.  The old country lives with the new country in a land with completely rules and customs.  An in a climactic scene between Alite and his father, we see the different ways of life come to a head in what could only be described as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

The story takes place in the Woodhaven section of Queens, New York.   Readers that are from Queens or familiar with the neighborhood and era will nod in agreement at some of the things he recounts.  Queens truly is the borough of immigrants and for this Albanian family it would prove to be a blessing and a curse for their young boys.  The budding baseball player and boxer sometimes crippled with epileptic seizures grows fast and tough on the streets of Queens. At the conclusion of the book, he has begun to embark on the path that would lead him into the clutches of the Gambino Crime Family where the stakes are higher and the activities and conspirators far more deadly. If the writers continue on the path set in this first part, the second will be an even better read.

ASIN: B078NHPS3S
ISBN-10: 0997159189
ISBN-13: 978-0997159189

 

 

 

The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton-Jefferson Morley

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He was arguably the most feared and secretive intelligence officer to have worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.  And although he left the agency in 1974, his name still conjures up images of the cold warrior with nerves of steel, engulfed in the world of counterintelligence and determined to protect the United States at all costs. Formally he was known as James Jesus Angleton (1917-1987), but to author Jefferson Morley, he is referred to as the ghost. The title fits appropriately for the secret life of the late CIA spymaster was one which Hollywood could never replicate on screen.  By all accounts, his personality was outwardly unassuming, but behind the horn rimmed glasses, was an operative that ate, slept and breathed counterintelligence.

This project began in 1994 and the amount of research Morley has invested is impressive.   Angleton did not leave behind diaries or personal writings, he was far too cloak and dagger for that  He did however, testify before Congress as the CIA’s domestic mail spying program came under fire after being revealed by the press.  The spymaster escaped without prosecution but his career at the agency was effectively finished.  He would remain hidden in the shadows but still involved in the field until his death on May 11, 1987.   The mystery surrounding Angleton helps to keep him in the public light, but what is it about him that is so fascinating?

Morley has composed a solid biography of Angleton, but there is still much about his life that has probably been lost to history.  Angleton himself said that he would take things to his grave and I have no doubt that many secrets were buried with him.  And next to Allen Dulles, Dick Helms, Bill Harvey, Cord Meyer and the many legendary officers once part of the OSS, Angleton stood as a gatekeeper to the trove of the Agency’s dark secrets.  And throughout his life he was involved with a cast of characters who made their names famous as operatives of the agency that John F. Kennedy once threatened to scatter into a thousand pieces.   As he moves up the ladder and increases his power, his secretiveness and paranoia grows at an exponential rate.  His hunt for Soviet moles would prove to be one of the final nails in the coffin of his career and nearly crippled the CIA.  But was he too paranoid or did he know more than he let on?

There is so much about Angleton’s life that remains a mystery.   He was a family man, but his wife and children barely factor into the story.  Instead, the book is filled with CIA intrigue, informants, double agents and political gambles in Washington.   And sadly, it seemed that when no enemies existed, they were manufactured to suit personal agendas.  And for Angleton, this might have been an underlying cause of his later obsession of moles within the government. But such was Angleton’s mind, the maze with false exits, traps and more riddles than answers.  The man whom Morley calls “the ghost”, led a life which did not give away secrets and prevented even the most prying eyes from gaining too much insight.  It may have been by design or just an extension of the counterintelligence legend’s way of operating.

To say that Angleton’s life was incredible would be a severe understatement.  In fact, throughout every major event that takes place, the CIA seems to be close by and his  actions regarding some are bizarre and even disturbing.   Although detested by many, scared of by others and mind boggling to subordinates, he endeared himself to more than one president and those relationships gave rise to many questions surrounding his actions following JFK’s murder, RFK’s murder and the murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer.

By the time he died, his CIA life was far behind him but the saying goes that you never really leave the agency.  For James J. Angleton, the agency was his life and in a taped interview with Thames TV in 1975, he stated pointedly that he regretted nothing.  I have no reason to doubt him and after reading this book I believe that you will also feel the same way.  But as I read the book, I could see that in more than one way his life was quite tragic.  As Morley explains, secret intelligence work was his life, but what suffered in the process was his personal life and in some cases his health.  In a tragic fate, the love he would give to the CIA would not come to him from his family. Even to them he remained the elusive ghost.

Readers who are familiar with the stories from the cold-war CIA era will know many of the facts revealed in the book.   We have heard the names before and their actions are now well-known.  But I do think that the section on Lee Harvey Oswald is telling and adds yet another question to the mystery of Kennedy’s murder.  When asked about the assassination, Angleton reportedly said ” a mansion has many rooms, I was not privy to who struck John”.   Exactly what he meant we will probably never know.  But what is clear is that Angleton possessed knowledge of many things that most Americans would prefer not to know.

I cannot imagine that writing a book on a secret CIA operative is an easy task.  But Morley’s account of Angleton’s life is a solid work and will be appreciated by historians.  Love him or hate him, there is no denying Angleton’s legacy, fame and infamy in the annals of the history of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Deception is a state of mind–and the mind of the state.”– James J. Angleton

ISBN-10: 1250080614
ISBN-13: 978-1250080615

 

 

 

This Kind of War: The Classic Military History of the Korean War-T.R. Fehrenbach

rokIt is sometimes called the forgotten war, the conflict which remains in the background as World War I, World War II and Vietnam take center stage as the wars that defined the United States Military and U.S. foreign policy.  Unbeknownst to many Americans, the Korean war never officially ended.  An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 bringing a halt to the firing from all sides. But the armistice did not permanently resolve the conflict and to this day the 38th parallel, instituted after World War II, remains as the dividing line between the Communist North and the Democratic South.  Recently, U.S. President Donald J. Trump attended a peace summit with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un.   Washington claimed the summit a success but only time will tell if the Korean War will officially come to an end and peace is finally obtained.  For veterans of the conflict, feelings run deep and mixed thoughts on the summit are bound to exist.  Two years ago, a veteran of the war close to my family died after several years of declining health.  Curiously, he never spoke of the war, preferring to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself for more than 50 years.   And as he went to his grave, he took with him, knowledge of the war and memories that most people would never want to have.  But the questions still remain, what caused the conflict and why did war wage for three years? Furthermore, why did the fighting eventually cease?

Author T.R. Fehrenbach (1925-2013) served in the Korean War and was later head of the Texas Historical Commission.  In 1963, this book was published, ten years after the fighting had ceased.  His memories are crisp and the reporting second to none.  He takes us back in time as history comes alive, letting us step inside the war beginning those fateful days in June, 1950 when the North Korea People’s Army invaded its southern neighbor.  Under the direction of Kim Ill Sung (1912-1994),  North Korea initiated the opening salvo in a war that claimed over two million lives.   News of the invasion sent shock waves through Washington and President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was faced with a decision that would change the course of history.  On June 30, 1950, he ordered ground troops into South Korea to assist the Republic of Korea Armed Forces (ROK).  At the time no one could have imagined what lay in store.

From the beginning the story pulls the reader in as Fehrenbach recounts the Japanese occupation of Korea and the long-lasting effects of Japanese rule on Korean society. In fact, to this day, influences of Japanese culture can still be found in Korea.  Following the falls of the Japanese Army in World War II, Korea found itself in a position to chart a new course.  But similar to Germany and Japan, the country became a pawn in the chess match between the United States and the Soviet Union.  Unsure of what to do with South  Korea, the nation remained in a vulnerable position until the North made its move.  And once the fighting began, the speed picked up and refused to die down.  North Korean and U.N. forces lead by the United States, engaged in deadly combat that saw casualties climb exponentially on both sides.  but what was clear from the beginning as we see in the book, is that Korea was an entirely new type of conflict for America.

Savage is the adjective that comes to mind to describe the fighting between opposing nations and ideologies.  Beyond brutal, the Korean conflict was akin to hell on earth for all of its participants.  And just when we think that the war might swing in the favor of the U.N. forces, the war takes a darker and more dramatic turn as the People’s Republic of China enters the fray changing the scope and the rules of the Korean War.  At the time China enters the story, the fighting has already claimed thousands of casualties.  But it is at this point that the battle reaches a higher and more deadly level.  Quite frankly, the world stood on the verge of the next holocaust.   Today we know that did not happen.  But why? America had the troops and the money to fund the war but what was it that held back the United States from entering into a full-scale ground assault?  The answers are here and this is the crux of the book.  Following World War II, American attitudes towards war began to change and Korea was the first testing ground for the gaining influence of politics over armed conflict.

What I liked most about the book is that aside from the statistics of casualties and the descriptions of the deaths that occur in the book and POW internment camps is that Fehrenbach explains how and why events progressed as they did and also why Washington was committed to fighting on a limited scale.  The fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was still fresh in the minds of nations across the world.  President Truman gave the order to drop the bombs and I believe no one doubted his willingness to use them again if necessary.   Whether he would have eventually given the order is unknown as his time in office came to an end and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower succeeded him.  But for the new president, the conflict still raged and opinion towards the war had become negative.  And while peace did come during his term, the body count climbed up until the very last day.

The story of the Korean War is one that is rarely mentioned in textbooks and never discussed today.   But this book by Fehrenbach truly is a classic study of the war.   In a meticulous and chronological order, he tells the story from start to finish and along the way, incorporates relevant parts of American society and world history into the story.   Although not a “textbook” in the classic sense, the book very well could be for it gives a concise explanation for the causes and effects of the war and how it was eventually resolved. If you are interesting in expanding your knowledge of the Korean War, this is the perfect place to start.

ISBN-13: 978-1574883343
ISBN-10: 1574883348
ISBN-13: 978-0028811130
ISBN-10: 0028811135
ASIN: B00J3EU6IK

The Best and the Brightest-David Halberstam with a New Introduction by the Author

20180619_235509I have often wondered why my uncle and many other veterans that I have met, were sent to Vietnam.   He and others never speak of the war, choosing instead to internalize their memories and feelings.  But from the few things about being Vietnam that my uncle has told me,  I cannot image what it was like to be fighting a war in a jungle 13,000 miles away from home. Today he is seventy-two years old and his memories of Vietnam are as sharp today as they were when he left the country to return home.  And there is a part of him that still remains in Vietnam, never to leave its soil.    He is one of five-hundred thousand Americans that served in a war that claimed fifty-eight thousand lives.

The reasons for America’s involvement in Indochina have been muddled and in some cases omitted from discussions.   Secrecy became the standard method of communication in more than one administration in Washington as the United States became deeper involved in a conflict with no end goal in sight.  Daniel Ellsberg gained fame and infamy when he revealed the top-secret Pentagon Papers to the country.   The New York Times later published a review of the documents and today it is available in the form of a book titled The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War.  The book is enlightening and contains a trove of information regarding how and why decisions were being made in the White House as control of the government passed through several presidents.  Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) published his own memoir of the war, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam.  The book has its fans and critics. McNamara has often been blamed for the war and the vitriol towards him was so strong that in later years he declined to talk about the conflict.   True, he was a participant in the events leading up to the war, but many other players had a hand in the game which became deadlier as time went on.  To understand their roles and the policies enacted, it is necessary to revisit the  complete history of U.S. foreign policy in Indochina.  David Halberstam (1934-2007), author of The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy, conducted his own research into the war’s origins and the result was this New York Times bestseller that is nothing short of mind-boggling.

Halberstam admits that he knew Ellsberg and in fact, he reviewed the Pentagon Papers as he wrote the book.  In addition he conducted hundreds of interviews but was careful not to reveal any of their names.  When Ellsberg was indicted and had to stand trial, Halberstam was subpoenaed to give testimony, unaware then of how Ellsberg came into possession of the documents.  But what started out as a look at the life of  former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996), grew into this definitive account of the reasons for the Vietnam War.

The book follows a carefully guided timeline and the story of Vietnam begins in China before moving on to Korea and eventually Southeast Asia.  These parts are critical for they set the stage for foreign policy decisions in the years that followed and explain many of the mistakes that were made.  As President Eisenhower winds down his time in office, a new young Catholic Democrat gripped parts of the country as he declared himself the next person to occupy the White House.  By the time John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) took office, the road to Vietnam had already been paved.  It is at this point in the book where the pace picks up and never slows down.   The concept of the best and the brightest came to Halberstam as he thought of a phrase for Kennedy’s cabinet of intellectuals who were set on reshaping Washington in the image they believed was right to push the country forward.  One by one he introduces us to all of the characters that have a role in the story, tracing their origins and helping us to understand how they reached their positions in the government.  Some of them are as mysterious as the country’s then paranoia about communism taking over the world.  But as they come together, something still is not quite right and Vietnam becomes the issue that will not go away.  And for the thirty-three months Kennedy was in office, the American involvement would grow in Indochina but the nation had not yet entered a war.   The growing crisis however, had begun to cause a rift in the White House and the deception employed by those loyal to the military and war hawks is eye-raising and chilling.  I also believe that it helps explain Kennedy’s murder in November, 1963. We can only guess what would have happened if he had lived.  There are those who strongly believe we would have withdrawn from Vietnam. I believe that is what would have happened, probably sooner rather than later.  But Kennedy was gone and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, inherited the nightmare of Vietnam.

As Johnson settles in to being the new Commander-In-Chief,  Indochina becomes a thorn in his side and he becomes conflicted with the decisions he will eventually make.  This part of the book is the crux and the key to the final push by the military for a war.  Many of Kennedy’s cabinet members continued to stay and at first worked under Johnson.  But as time passed and the ugly truths about Vietnam came back from Saigon, they would fade out as Johnson led the nation down the path of escalation.  Halberstam is a masterful story-teller and the scenes he recreates from his research are spellbinding.  Nearly everyone in the book is now deceased but as I read the book I could not help but to scratch my head at their decisions and actions.   The warning signs of Vietnam loomed ominously large but tragically were ignored or discounted.   Washington suffered from a tragic twist of fate: although it had the best and the brightest in Washington, they still made mistakes that literally made little sense. And that is a central theme in the book. The war’s architects were all brilliant individuals with endless accolades yet they failed to understand what was considered to be a peasant nation far away from home. Many of them would suffer in one way or another.  For Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam eventually became the final nail in the coffin that sealed his chances at reelection.

During the reading of the book, I also noticed at how Halberstam explained the actions of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong.  In order to understand why Vietnam became a stalemate, it is not just necessary to understand the failures of Washington, but the strategy of Ho Chih Minh and the generals under him.  The small peasant nation took on a colossus and refused to give up. And the battles of  Vietnam changed warfare and showed the world what many believed to be impossible.  Arrogance and in some cases, racist beliefs laid at the base of some foreign policy decisions regarding the war.  History has a strange way of repeating itself and the repeated warnings from the French fell on deaf ears as American troops landed in a place many of them knew nothing about.  Looking back with hindsight, the critical failures are clearly evident and although Halberstam shows us how we became involved in Vietnam,  we are still baffled about why.  How could so many minds filled with so much knowledge make such rudimentary and baseless decisions?   The answers are here in this book in the form of official cables that withheld information, overzealous military advisors, an unstable South Vietnamese government, National Security Action Memos and the idea that the United States could solve any of the world’s problems.   This book is a must-read for those who are interested in the history of the Vietnam War.

ISBN-10: 0449908704
ISBN-13: 978-0449908709

Open Veins In Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent-Eduardo Galeano with a Foreword by Isabel Allende

galeanoLatin America is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.   The Iguazu Falls, Andes Mountains and Patagonia attract millions of visitors annually.  The beauty of these and other sites across Latin America stand in stark contrast to the poverty that can be found outside of major cities and sometimes within.  In between major railway stations and ports exist slums that remind us of the severely uneven distribution of wealth throughout the continent.  Speaking from personal experience, most Americans would be shocked at living conditions that still exist in Latin America to this day.   But why does a continent with a history that goes back several hundred years  and is home to beautiful people, beautiful languages, great foods and beautiful scenes of nature, continue to suffer from poverty, corruption and exploitation.

The key to understanding the current state of these and other Latin American affairs, is to revisit its history.  Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) has done just that in this eye-opening and best-selling study of Latin American history that was first published in 1971.   The edition that is the subject of this review was re-published in 1997, and contains a foreword by Isabel Allende,  a cousin of the late Chilean President Salvador Allende (1908-1973).   On September 11, 1973, Allende died on a self-inflicted gunshot wound as opposition forces engaged in a CIA-backed overthrow of the government.  Isabel currently lives in California and is a naturalized United States Citizen.

Galeano starts by revisiting how Latin America came into existence from a continent of indigenous people to one in which Spanish is the dominant language.  The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean marked a distinctive change in the course of world history and although he never set foot in North America,  Columbus is still considered by many to be the person that discovered what is today the United States. In recent years however, the holiday of Columbus Day has been replaced by Indigenous People’s Day or in others not acknowledged.  In Central and South America, the arrival of the Spanish explorers would have a profound impact and set the stage for plunder, murder and exploitation that engulfed the continent.   Next to Columbus are the stories of Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519) and Pedro de Valdivia (1497-1553), explorers who would spend their last days in South America.    And as Galeano re-tells their stories, the reader might want to make notes of names, dates and places as the story comes together like a puzzle.

While the tragedy of exploitation and violence played out, not all voices were content with Spanish domination and the extermination of South America’s inhabitants.  Tupac Amaru (1545-1572) and Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) also appear in the book and it would be safe to say that an author would find it impossible to discuss Latin American history without recounting their extraordinary and short lives.   However their efforts proved to be ineffective against the rush of colonization that dominated the southern hemisphere.  And it is at this point in the book that Galeano turns up the heat as we learn how natural resources became a gold mine and and the populations of the Carribean, Central American and South American nearly disappeared as a result of warfare, famine and disease.  World superpowers sank their teeth into the Latin American cash machine and have never let go.

The grip of foreign control has proven to have disastrous effects on politics, producing revolutions and widespread practice of the coup d’état.   Leaders who leaned left and sought to reclaim industries exploited by foreign corporations were quickly dealt with through American foreign policy.   Those who did play the game were rewarded and tolerated through the Good Neighbor Policy and other shady practices.  The climate of distrust and violent overthrow of the government has never left Latin America.  The current events in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Argentina are prime examples of the volatile political climate that continues to exist.  And all the while, foreign corporations continue to reap enormous profits as they move around offices and politicians like pieces on a chess board.

Galeano provides a staggering amount of information in the book which is sure to shock the reader.   But this book is key to understanding why Latin America has developed so many third-world countries. It would be easy to blame those countries for their own failures.  But what we know is that after a colonizer has left the colonized, it is immensely difficult for those nations to find a permanent path of success.  This was beautifully explained by Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) in his classic The Wretched of the Earth.   The future is bleak for many Latin American nations as inflation rises and the IMF becomes more reluctant to give out loans.  Poverty continues to increase giving rise to protests, crime and strikes.  What we see today is a manifestation of what Galeano calls “five hundred years of the pillage of a continent”.

If you have never traveled through Latin America, I implore you to do so at least once.  I firmly believe that there are many great things that are unfamiliar to those who live in the northern hemisphere. I have had the privilege of visiting  Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.  Chile is next on the list.  Through my travels, I have met many people who have become a permanent part of my life and I am eternally grateful for having met them.   Galeano died on April 13, 2015 after a battle with lung cancer but he left behind important works and this masterpiece which has been translated into more than twelve languages.  This book has proven to be the companion guide every person needs in order to understand many of things that will be seen in Latin America, including the current presence of open veins.

ISBN-10: 0853459916

ISBN-13: 978-0853459910

Traveling Soul: The Life of Curtis Mayfield-Todd Mayfield with Travis Atria

curtisHis voice was unlike any other I have ever heard.  My grandparents, aunts and uncles played his music regularly and his songs are recognized as part of the soundtrack to the continuing movement for equality carried on through Black Americans.   His hits We’re A Winner and Keep on Pushing are some of most iconic songs from that era and a testament to the skill and passion of the late Curtis Lee Mayfield (1942-1999).   Along with his group, the Impressions, Mayfield helped redefine music as we have come to know it.  His soundtrack for Super Fly is legendary and next to Isaac Hayes, the music therein was the cream of the crop for the Blaxploitation films that became the norm for African-American stars. And although he has been gone for nearly nineteen years, his music sounds as if it were recorded yesterday.  On the surface, the beard, eccentric clothing, glasses and guitar tuned to F sharp gave the image of a musician larger than life.  But how much of his personal life do we, his fans, know? And what was the real Curtis Mayfield like?

Todd Mayfield is one of the late star’s ten children and together with Travis Atria, he tells the story of his father’s life.  Early in the book, Mayfield points out that to date, there is no biography that captures the full story.  Well that is until now.  Drawing on family history, music records, interviews with those who knew his father and his own recollections of his time with his dad, Mayfield has written the definitive biography of his father’s life that ended at only fifty-seven years of age.  I am sure that many rarely known facts are revealed in the book and the information about Curtom records and Curtis’ working relationships with other stars of that era are great material for music fans with a thirst for knowledge. On a personal note, I wonder what would have happened if Donny Hathaway had worked more with him but both are no longer around to give their thoughts.  The book is also a look back at the racial climate that blanketed the United States during the era of Jim Crow and even after the Civil Rights Movement and the later Civil Rights Act of 1964.  These events weighed heavily on Curtis and throughout the book we see how he deals with the injustice he witnesses while making hit music that would outlive him and nearly all of the greatest leaders during that time.

Although the biography is written by Curtis’ son, there is no strong bias either for or against him. In fact, Todd does a remarkable job of pointing out his father’s flaws and the times where he took the wrong path in life.  The love he had for his father is undeniable but as he points out in the book, Curtis could charm anyone but at the same time be one of the coldest people you could meet.  And like all musical genius, there is that fine line between genius and insanity. As a songwriter, Curtis composed some of music’s biggest hits, many of which are still in rotation today.  I think that if people knew just how many songs he wrote during his career, they would be speechless.  But for all of his highs, there also lows, some of which are regrettable.

I imagine that for Todd, it must have been difficult to reveal some of his father’s worst traits that remained hidden behind a carefully molded public facade. But I believe that in order to write the story of his father’s life as it should be told, he could not have done it any other way.   Drugs, domestic violence, infidelity, paranoia and selfishness were some of the many parts of Curtis, a multi-dimensional figure whose genius at music was at odds with his aloofness and vindictiveness as a husband and father.  But like all great stars, the world sometimes appears through a different lens revealing a lifestyle that is foreign to the average person.  Tours, albums, studio sessions, family demands and personal insecurities are the staples of every great artist’s life and Mayfield was no different.

Interestingly, as I made my way through the book, at times I loved Curtis and at other times was scratching my head in disbelief.  I was shocked at some of the antics he pulled and the violence that took place.  But regardless, I never lost my fondness for the man whose music I play when I am in the need for some good music that reaches deep down into the soul.  And while I wish some parts of the story did not exist, it was imperative to remember that underneath everything, he was a human being with his flaws.   As the story moves to Wingate Field in Brooklyn, there is bad omen that hangs over the book. By this point his life, Curtis had slowly begun his downward spiral and the freak accident that took place on August 13, 1990, changed his life and music forever.  The remaining years of his time on earth as told here by Todd, was heartbreaking to read. However, in spite of everything that happened to him, Curtis never lost his spirit and his positive outlook was nothing short of inspiring.  Sadly, he did not live to see his children move up in the world and keep on pushing or his grandchildren, but he left a legacy that will remain with his family and fans for life.  This is the story of the life of Curtis Lee Mayfield.

ISBN-10: 1613736797
ISBN-13: 978-1613736791

Seven Days in May-Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, II

20180528_191957Many of us believe that it could never happen here and that the United States is too stable and developed for the military to even attempt a coup.  The suggestion would be dismissed instantly by those who believe such things happen in Third World nations.  But what if it did happen in the United States? And how would the plot develop?  Fletcher Knebel (1911-1993) and Charles W. Bailey, II (1929-2012) put their minds together as they pondered these questions and others resulting in this masterpiece, Seven Days in May.  According to legend, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) liked the book so much that he allowed director John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) to use the White House grounds while creating the film of the same name that was released in 1964 starring Burt Lancaster (1913-1994) and Kirk Douglas (1916-).  Kennedy did not live to see the film and his assassination was more than the writers could have imagined as they created this book.

The story is set in the 1970s and the main character is Marine Colonel Martin J. “Jiggs” Casey who begins to notice strange occurrences within the U.S. military which give the impression of the development of a dark and sinister plot that reaches all the way up the chain of command to the White House.  The President, Jordan Lyman, has recently agreed to a nuclear weapons treaty with the Soviet Union.  The military brass is beyond infuriated and a majority of the American public views the treaty as a bad idea.  And while his approval rating has plummeted, Lyman is unfazed and believes he is doing the right thing.  After a joint chiefs meeting in which Casey comes into possession of a scrap of paper left by another office, he decides to go directly to the White House to warn the Lyman of what he believes a plot to remove him from office.  And from this point on, the book picks up pace and never slows down.

Unbeknownst to Casey, Lyman had been concerned with several strange events which occurred before their meeting.   As the parts begin to fuse together, the full nature of the comes down on the oval office like a sledgehammer.  Lyman realizes what is at stake and realizes he must act fast.  His first step is to put together his team of Senator Ray Clark, Secret Service Chief Art Corwin,  White House Appointment Secretary Paul Girard,  lawyer Chris Todd and Col. Casey to construct their counter-attack.  The plot to remove Lyman is the work of  U.S. US Air Force General James Mattoon Scott, Senator Fred Prentice, Colonel Ben Murdock, Colonel John Broderick and Air Force General Hardesty,  The teams have been decided, the stage has been set and before seven days have passed, a showdown will take place but the question is who will win the race against time?

Having read the book it is not hard to see why it was a success and caught the attention of Hollywood.  It is a thriller that keeps readers on edge of their seats as they turn the page to see what happens next.  The story reads like a film and contains all of the necessary elements.  A secret U.S. air base, mysterious death, clandestine meetings and right media combine as a credible threat to the security of the United States.  And as I read through the book, I kept asking myself could this happen in America?  And are we as a nation so secure in our belief in the constitution that we could never fathom a coup taking place on American soil?  As seen in the book, the plot developed at the highest levels of government and even then many high-ranking officials were unaware of the ECOMCON project, secret base and the transport maneuvers which NORAD had no knowledge of.  Compartmentalization is evident but the game turns into a chess match and the oval office has some of the best players in the game.

President Lyman comes through as a hero in the book especially when presented with damning evidence of transgressions in General Scott’s personal life.   And even when faced with one staggering blow after the next, he never waves in his ability to see things in political terms.  And while that can sometimes be a handicap, the president is a shrewd leader whose goal is to preserve the constitution and stop the conspirators in their tracks.  He is supported not only by his team but by others who believe in preserving the government from any type of attack and those who support his presidency. And what at first seems like a big jigsaw puzzle scattered across the country, comes together revealing what had been thought of as unimaginable.

As a reader of mainly non-fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed this book which provided a change from my normal pursuit of historical information.  The pace is just right and as a person who loves history, the references to past presidents and events gives the book even more a feel of authenticity.   Each of the characters are interesting on their own but fit into the story precisely.  But this is a story that I hope remains a work of fiction and not a premonition of things to come.  Much has changed since this book was published but the reality is that every president has enemies and foreign is not always looked up favorably at home.  But what is paramount is that the president remains in control of the country at all times and if needed, by all means available.  This may be fiction, but we shall find ourselves in dark times if there ever is a real life version of Seven Days in May.

ISBN-10: 0060124350
ISBN-13: 978-0060124359

Derrick Witness

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