Why The Vietnam War?: Nuclear Bombs and Nation Building in Southeast Asia, 1945-1961 – Michael Swanson

swansonFifteen days from now, the fifty-eight anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s (1917-1963) murder will be upon us. His death continues to remind America of a lost opportunity and leader taken before his time. His presidency inspires debate to this day with some believing that he brought the country dangerously close to nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Others feel that he had yet to reach his full potential as a leader. The truth is far more complicated and both sides often omit the difficulties Kennedy faced behind the scenes from those within his own administration. After the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion which led to Kennedy firing top officials of the Central Intelligence Agency,  he then found himself under pressure to intervene in the nation of Laos. Again, Kennedy resisted, drawing the ire of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Cold-War hawks in Washington. But the hawks were determined and saw Vietnam as the next battlefield to confront “Soviet influence”.  But the question that has always haunted this nation is why did we get involved in Vietnam? What threat did North Vietnam pose to the United States even though it is more than thirteen thousand miles away from American soil? My uncle who served in Vietnam has only spoken of his experiences a handful of times. He keeps the war suppressed in his memory and does his best to stay secluded during July 4th celebrations as the fireworks remind him of being in combat. I often wondered if he has asked himself why he was deployed thousands of miles away from home to a country some Americans did not know existed prior to the conflict. Michael Swanson asked himself about Vietnam and has explored the war  paying close attention to its origins and this book is the first of what will be a multi volume set about America’s involvement in Southeast Asia.

Swanson quickly establishes that the Vietnam War started sixteen years earlier than 1961. In fact, the war has its origins in the ascension of North Vietnam to power in the wake of World War II. The evacuation of Japanese military personnel created a power vacuum that allowed the North Vietnamese to take control and establish its headquarters in Hanoi. Washington was paying close attention to the developments and the rise of Ho Chih Minh (1890-1969).  He was known as Uncle Ho and proved to be a charismatic figure as well as an icon for millions of Vietnamese who strongly favored an independent Vietnam, free of French colonial rule. And this is what policy makers in Washington failed to realize. However, there were those on the ground who saw Ho Chih Minh’s potential and the futility of French attempts to reclaim Indochina. In the book, we learn the name of former Lieutenant Colonel Archimedes Patti (1913-1998), a former Office of Strategic Services officer who emerges as the voice of reason no one wanted to hear. Patti warned officials back in Washington of what he saw firsthand but sadly, his reports were shelved. And when reflecting back on the war, Patti stated:

“Ho Chi Minh was on a silver platter in 1945,” remembered Archimedes Patti, “we had him. He was willing to, to be a democratic republic, if nothing else. Socialist yes, but a democratic republican.

I recall a Vietnam veteran years ago telling me that he couldn’t understand why America got involved after seeing the French evacuate. He was drafted at 19 and has always maintained that Vietnam was one of the scariest experiences in his life. His question was valid. Why did we take the place of the French and why did we help them in the first place? The author pieces together the story to show Washington’s early involvement in French affairs and I could only shake my head at what he reveals. But there is always more than meets the eye. Swanson knows this and proceeds to explain what was taking place back in Washington that paved the way for such disastrous foreign policy. In fact, he bluntly states that after World War II:

“The United States, however, sought to control societies in order to improve them, in order to incorporate them into the modern capitalist world order through nation building. But becoming an empire changed the United States forever, and led it to fight a disastrous war in Vietnam.” 

When John F. Kennedy took office, he had to have known the difficulties he faced from what his predecessor Dwight E. Eisenhower (1890-1969) called the military industrial complex. However, what Kennedy may not have known is that America’s involvement in Vietnam did not start with Eisenhower but with another president, Harry S. Truman (1884-1972). This part of the story came as a surprise because the focus on Truman’s actions in office are often related to World War II and the National Security Act of 1947. But it does make sense that his role is revisited as Vietnam began to draw Washington’s attention not long after the Japanese surrender. I could not help when reading the story that had Truman decided not to get involved in Vietnam, world history might have taken a different course. As the story moves forward, Eisenhower’s administration passes with Vietnam remaining a French issue. It remains dormant until, when the intelligence community and military found itself irate over the president’s refusal to support military intervention across the globe. And it is here that the Vietnam story heats up and Swanson takes us deep inside Kennedy’s administration to explain the true reasons for military engagement in Southeast Asia.

Kennedy had sought to prevent Americans from getting engulfed in a ground war in Vietnam. Swanson captures the essence of the story here and I strongly recommend John Newman’s JFK & Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue and the Struggle for Power which discusses JFK’s battles with his own cabinet and the Joint Chiefs over escalation. Newman leaves no doubt that Kennedy knew Vietnam was a deathtrap for American forces. But war hawks were not ready to admit it and as Swanson shows, a power struggle did in fact take place with a majority of people pushing Kennedy to approve troops and the president pushing back against them. Readers will express surprise at the actions of  those working “for” the president.  Kennedy was struggling to maintain control over his own administration.  Readers with an interest in his assassination will find this aspect of the story highly relevant.

Vietnam veterans known dark truths about the war that many would prefer not to know. Swanson’s job here was not to pacify anyone but to explain why Vietnam happened. And in order to understand the war, it is crucial to understand the importance to Washington of South Vietnam and its former leader Ngo Dinh Diem (1901-1963). Admittedly, there is much about his life I am still learning of, but I now have a better understanding of the truth in regard to South Vietnam and why personnel stationed in the country were sounding the alarm bells to those in power in Washington. And what I read resulted in anger at those who knew the issues in South Vietnam and the low chance of success. Frankly, Washington knew it could not win in Vietnam without a massive commitment of troops and the use of nuclear weapons. But the public backlash at those two concepts would have been political suicide so America had to operate in a limited capacity. But the pressure to invade never let up and as the story moves forward, the stage is set for a showdown between Kennedy and the military industrial complex. However, the book ends before the tragic fates of Diem and Kennedy play out. As Swanson explains, that will be the focus of the next part in the series. But he does summarize the story contained within with this statement that sent chills down my spine:

“The more hawkish members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff viewed Southeast Asia as simply part of a conflict with China over who would control the entire region. When they advocated intervention in Laos in 1961 their plans were for a regional conflict that carried with it a ladder of escalation, the final step of which was an atomic attack on China if they retaliated, one in which they thought they could break the back of Red China.” 

Kennedy himself said it best when he observed: “These brass hats have one great advantage, if we … do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.” We can only speculate as to what would have transpired had he lived.  I personally believe that the Vietnam War would have never happened. Kennedy was determined to resist the military and dismantle the Central Intelligence Agency but the events in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, changed that permanently. His successor Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) had different plans for Vietnam, and they included the flexing of American military muscle that claimed the lives of  fifty-eight thousand Americans and over one million Vietnamese. It remains the war that America did not win.  And there thousands of veterans alive today still carrying the scars from that war. If you want to know why the Vietnam War happened, this is a good place to start.

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B08FHBS17K

John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster: The True Story of the Lawyer Who Defended One of the Most Evil Serial Killers in History – Sam L. Amirante and Danny Broderick

gacy On May 19, 1994, American serial killer John Wayne Gacy (1942-1994) was executed by lethal injection at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet, Ill, after being convicted of multiple murder charges. It is  believed by some people that there were more victims of Gacy that have never been identified. The truth went to the grave with Gacy but what is on the record are the thirty-three homicides attributed to Gacy during his reign of terror. His attorney, Sam Amirante, had just started his own private defense practice when Gacy sought him out for legal representation. Amirante could not have known that his first client would catapult him into the public spotlight in ways none one could have imagined. This is the story of how it happened and how Amirante’s life changed while he defended one of America’s deadliest serial killers.

I previously reviewed the book by former prosecutor Terry Sullivan titled Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders that focused on the efforts by law enforcement and the district attorney to build a case against Gacy. It is an interesting look into how the murder investigation developed and the impact it had on police and the people of Illinois. Amirante’s book is equally as effective but views the case from the other side. Essentially, how do you defend a monster who has just told you about murders that he has committed? After getting himself drunk, Gacy arrived at Amirante’s office for a pre-arranged visit and confessed to his lawyers that he had committed multiple murders, leaving Amirante and his partner speechless. It soon becomes clear that insanity is the only defense. But how do you defend a man who does not think there is anything mentally wrong with himself? There was no “blueprint” in dealing with a client like John Wayne Gacy and Amirante had been given an impossible task. But to his credit, he mounted a defense in the face of enormous evidence that proved Gacy’s guilt, in particular the human remains found in the crawl space underneath his house. Readers may wonder how Amirante was able to do his job knowing that thirty-three men lost their lives at the hands of Gacy. The answer is quite simple and Amirante delivers the explanation showing his belief in the legal system he swore an oath to uphold:

“It’s much easier to hate the bad guy than it is to support the hard reality that if we are to continue to enjoy our freedoms, if our Constitution is to survive, it has to be supported in all circumstances, even when to do so seems hard.” 

Whether he believed Gacy would be found innocent by reason of insanity is not entirely clear. In fact, Amirante explains on multiple occasions throughout the book how the evidence helped seal Gacy’s fate. And in a twist of fate, it was a small photo receipt belonging to Nissan Pharmacy Kim Byers was found in Gacy’s house that unraveled the murder mysteries. And though the receipt belonged to someone who was still alive, it established that Robert Jerome Piest (1963-1978) had been in Gacy’s house. The fallout from that discovery eventually led to Gacy’s arrest and showed America the dark side of human nature.  According to people who knew him, Gacy was well-liked, successful and viewed as a family-oriented person. Neighbors could not believe that the man they said hello to, had been murdering young men and burying them underneath his home and dumping other remains in nearby rivers. But the evidence did not lie and with Gacy’s statements, jurors found it fairly easy to convict him. But to his credit, Amirante was a shrewd lawyer and wins small victories through the trial. Law students and those interested in legal practice will appreciate his explanations of the criminal defense system and the strategies used to save Gacy’s life, if possible.

Amirante does not attempt to exonerate Gacy for his behavior. But he did believe that Gacy suffered from some level issue of mental disability. But his client’s ability to compartmentalize various aspects of his life made defending John Wayne Gacy an insurmountable task. And even when he was convicted of the murders, Gacy was mentally somewhere else. A sentence of capital punishment was handed out, but Gacy appeared to be indifferent to his own fate. As Amirante explains:

“Only one person in the room was dry-eyed, only one. John Wayne Gacy stood at the defense table, bewildered and lost.”

There are mysteries of Gacy’s life that are lost to history.  He is no longer here to explain his past actions in further detail. That may be a good thing as his past deeds are some of the most macabre in American history. Despite his atrocious crimes, he was entitled to due process, a component guaranteed under the laws of this nation. Amirante knew his client was a monster, but he had a job to do as a defense lawyer.  And in this book, he does it admirably, even at great personal sacrifice. His family went through quite an ordeal as detailed in the book and it should not be overlooked by readers, how difficult it must have been for him to defend his client.  To Amirante’s disappointment, Gacy was convicted by a jury of his peers, and I believe rightfully so. Serial killers will always be with us but that should never deter us from understanding how they are created in the hopes that future killers can be prevented. John Wayne Gacy will remain a case study in homicidal rage and a killer that continues to haunt America.  We may not like the legal system at times and might prefer the court of public opinion, but if we believe in the constitution, then even the worst of us are innocent until proven guilty.  This book is a prime example of an attorney who deeply believes in the American legal system and performed a task that many would have avoided. Good read.

“There are two reasons that will cause good men to abandon their long-standing, dearly held morals, values, and principles and revert to more primitive, barbaric practices to resolve conflict. That is when their hearts are filled with anger or when their hearts are filled with fear.” 

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B005HJ9MOE

Nothing Left to Prove: A Law Enforcement Memoir – Danny R. Smith

SmithA friend whom I have known since elementary school recently finished twenty years with the New York City Police Department. Though eligible for retirement, he continues to serve the city where he was born. I and other friends have never failed to remind him to be careful on the dangerous streets of New York. Long hours, dangerous criminals and bureaucratic obstacles can sometimes make being a police officer a difficult and thankless job. And when I watch the hit show The First 48, I am  always amazed at the skills of homicide detectives as they solve crimes in cities across America. Danny R. Smith served as a homicide detective in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department for seven out of the twenty-years he reported for duty. This is his story as part of law enforcement in the City of Angels. 

The book begins with Smith revisiting the day when he knew that the time had come for him to make his exit from the force. The scene he arrives upon is macabre, but we learn towards the end of the book when he explains the full details surrounding the discovery, that the reason for the find is far simpler and less sinister. However, Smith had reached his breaking point but in order for us to understand why, we have to go back in time to the beginning of the wild ride he took during two decades of service. Expectedly, he explains how he joined the Sheriff’s Department and the path he took to homicide. And it is at that part of the book that the story heats up. As we follow him from one case to the next, the dark side of Southern California comes into vivid focus. But the book is far more than just a former officer’s tales of war on the streets. In the mix of murders, burglaries and other crimes, Smith shows us his personal life and the struggles he endures due to injuries on the job and the mental challenges that come with daily exposure to the deadly side of humanity. It will be hard for any reader not to appreciate the enormous sacrifices made by the people in law enforcement. 

As expected, there are dark moments in the book, but Smith also adds the right amount of humor at times to take the edge off. And what he shows is that the life of a homicide detective is anything but orthodox.  His journeys took him across the United States in pursuit of fugitives who could not escape justice. And the stories he tells of transporting prisoners back across the country are both humorous and interesting. The lengths to which detectives go to capture a suspect are eye opening. But not all suspects are apprehended and crimes do remain unsolved as we see in the book. But it is not for lack of effort.  Smith was a first-class detective who was thoroughly committed to his job and the people of Los Angeles. 

The riots in Los Angeles after the acquittal of police officers charged with beating motorist Rodney King (1965-2012) remain fresh in the minds of all who remember them. I remember watching the aftermath play out on television as Los Angeles went up in flames.  Smith was on the ground and discusses the riots highlighting how dangerous the situation was. But during his career, he experienced the loss of fellow officers.  Each death hits home for Smith and he remembers his fallen officers with grace and how it affected those who continued to do the job. And the harsh reality that the show must go on is apparent as more calls come in for Los Angeles’ finest. The hours are long and the work is dangerous, and I can only imagine the number of stories that did not make it into the book.  Smith’s eyes have seen things that can haunt a person for a long time or make them smile on occasion. 

Smith was as seasoned as detectives come but even he could not avoid fate.  The physical and mental toll of being a police officer comes into focus as the job wears him down over time.  And as the book moves closer to the conclusion, the writing is on the wall. Smith was reaching his end, but I personally did not want the book to finish.  His memories had me glued to the screen and I hated to put the Kindle down.  I can now see why the book has a five-star rating on Amazon. This incredible memoir is perfect for anyone who is interested in the life of a police officer/homicide detective. Smith is now retired but he will forever be a part of Los Angeles history. 

“For those who haven’t been there, know that the great majority of cops are kind and caring souls, driven to the profession with the desire to help others, to protect the weak from bullies and predators, and to stand up for those who are unable to stand up for themselves. We sacrifice holidays and special occasions and sometimes much, much more, to make a difference in our communities. To make a difference in your communities.”

Danny R. Smith 

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B09FGWT2WV

Manson in His Own Words – Charles Manson with Nuel Emmons

 

Emmons The name Charles Milles Manson (1934-2017) is among the most notorious in American history.  During August 8-10, 1969, followers of Manson committed a series of gruesome murders that shocked the country and revealed the dark side of human nature.  Though Manson never committed any of the murders himself, he helped coordinate their efforts and provided the encouragement needed for the heinous deeds to be carried out.  Among the victims was Folger’s coffee heir Abigail Folger (1943-1969) and actress Sharon Marie Tate Polanski (1943-1969). Initially, law enforcement was mystified by the crimes, but a break came in the case through the boasting and subsequent confession of Susan Atkins (1948-2009) who was being held on murder charges in the death of Gary Hinman (1934-1969).  Her statements and evidence gathered by investigators lead directly to Manson and others involved.  Manson received a death sentence for his role in the crimes, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison after the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972. He remained in prison until his death on November 19, 2017.  The general consensus is that Manson was the epitome of evil but who was he behind the scenes?  And how did he have such a hold over so many people?  Was Manson and evil genius or a fraud one would expect to find in the fictional Oz?  Nuel Emmons asked himself similar questions and decided to find out for himself by visiting Manson in prison.  And the result is this book which gives Manson a platform to speak for himself.  

Books of this nature are always subject to controversy because the debate will arise as to how much is the speaker’s own words and what percentage of the book was revised or added by editors.  Emmons explains that he knew Manson from prison where he had served time for a variety of crimes.  By the time he interviewed Manson he had put his own criminal life behind him.  What is clear is that Emmons did visit Manson and had served time with him so there is no reason for me to doubt that he spent considerable time with him.  I am certain that some parts of the manuscript were cleaned up by Emmons and the publishers, but I also believe that Manson did provide a significant amount of the information found in the book. And what I read stands in stark contrast to the image of Manson found in pop-culture. 

Manson begins with his childhood which has been discussed countless times.  An absent father and dysfunctional mother-son relationship set him down the wrong path from an early age and his experiences at the Indiana School for Boys shattered the remaining innocence found in children and young adults.  I warn readers that this part of the book is not easy to read.  We will probably never know the whole truth about Manson’s experiences there, but they did change his outlook in life.  Marriage and fatherhood enter the story and I learned a few things about Manson that I was unaware of before.  But as I read through the book, I began to see how he was failed by those closest to him and those in positions of power who could have changed his life.  He evolves as a creation and reflection of our society.

It is not long in the story before Manson begins to pick up fellow drifters and build a following.  After obtaining a van from a pastor whose daughter he had eyes on, his journey across America kicks into high gear.  And one by one, newcomers enter his circle and begin to follow “Charlie” anywhere he decides.  The word cult might be too strong to describe the situation, but Manson could have easily accumulated the number of followers that believed in figures such as David Koresh (1959-1993) and James Warren “Jim” Jones (1931-1978).  But the question still remains, why did they follow Manson?  From what is found in the book, it is apparent that Manson is no genius and in fact, he points out his failures more than once.  Of course, there are times where Manson makes himself out to be a good Samaritan but even that is up for debate.  His selfishness and lack of direction in life set the stage for his followers to do his bidding even at the expense of their own freedom and the tragic loss of life that came later.   His flock began to see him as almost godlike but the dysfunction brewing under the surface soon rises to the top. The use of narcotics combined with black market money-making schemes soon places Manson in tough positions and the actions of followers Charles “Tex” Watson and Susan Atkins initiated the downward spiral that culminated with the Tate-Labianca murders.  

Manson tries to absolve him of guilt in the Gary Hinman debacle but personally I was not convinced.  But he does admit that he could have prevented the Tate-Labianca murders but chose to do nothing.  And his rational for his followers’ actions is just mind boggling but does reaffirm that widespread belief that Manson was out of his mind.  But perhaps the darkest part of the book is his reaction to all of the murders.  This should remove all doubt that there was a “softer” side to Charles Manson.  This part of the book falls in line with the man we know from the media.  Emmons largely stays behind the scenes as Manson is talking but he does make this statement towards the end which I believe accurately sums up the myth of Charles Manson: 

“The “God” he perhaps was to his followers was turned into a monster for the rest of us. Yet Manson has no superhuman powers, neither divine nor demonic. The image of “the most dangerous man alive” bears little resemblance to the man I have been visiting these past seven years. Perhaps the myth of Charles Manson satisfied our hunger for sensationalism, but certainly it also absolved us of the darker side of the humanity we share with him.”

Charles Manson is gone forever but his ghost and past deeds will remain with us for an eternity.  This is an interesting look at figure who was once believed to be the most dangerous man in America.  Whether that was true or not is up to you. 

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B004I6DD56

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History – S.C. Gwynne

QuanahIf you have had the chance to view a map of North American Indian tribes prior to the formation of the United States, you may have been just as surprised as I was to see how many were in existence. The story of North America’s early inhabitants known simply as Native Americans, is deeply complex and ultimately tragic.  In 2016, 20th Century Fox released Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant in which Leonardo DiCaprio assumed the role of real-life fur trapper and trader Hugh Glass (1783-1833). The film is hauntingly beautiful with a musical score that adds the right touch of emotion and suspense.  Parts of the story are fictionalized but it is largely based on true events.  The movie accurately portrayed life in North America in the early 1800s as the United States was continuing to expand well into Native American territories.  The violence on screen is shocking but also an accurate depiction of the savageness in the battles that did occur.  What is not shown in the film are the wars that had been taking place between tribes.  The absence of widespread hegemony between tribes meant that territory was of the utmost importance and the threat of attack from enemies was constant.  Some tribes were known to be more dangerous than others and none were as deadly and feared as the Comanches.  Their large numbers and presence across large portions of land in the western half of North America made them a threat to anyone who ventured into parts unknown.  In this spellbinding book, author S.C. Gwynne tells the incredible story of the Comanche Indians’ rise and fall, and the life story of their last big chief, Quanah Parker (1845-1911). 

Before I proceed, I must warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart.  It is an unfiltered look into North America’s violent past and shatters any illusions about white settlers being welcomed with open arms by natives eager to accept the white man’s way of life.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  The Comanches had no intention of living the “white way” and were content with their lives.   And anyone who threatened that way of life or intruded upon it was fair game.  The Comanches commenced raids upon white settlements and against other tribes, pillaging, and plundering.  Readers sensitive to descriptions of violence will find some parts of the story difficult to accept.  In 1836, the Parker family found themselves victims of the Comanches and during a raid, a nine-year-old girl named Cynthia Ann Parker (1827-1871) was kidnapped with her brother John Richard Parker (1830-1915) and integrated into the Comanche tribe.  And as Gwynne explains, this act ignited a four-decade war between whites and the Comanches.  And during those forty years, there was bloodshed, heartbreak and a Civil War that changed American history.  The Comanches could not have known at the time that the young girl would have more of an impact on the future of their tribe than anyone knew.  Gwynne drives home the point with this explanation: 

“The kidnapping of a blue-eyed, nine-year-old Cynthia Ann in 1836 marked the start of the white man’s forty-year war with the Comanches, in which Quanah would play a leading role. In one sense, the Parkers are the beginning and end of the Comanches in U.S. history.” 

As a primer to the main story, Gwynne provides thorough explanations regarding other tribes important to the story and the involvement of Mexico.  The image of life that comes into focus is of one that was short and brutally hard.  The introduction of diseases to native tribes decimated populations. Today, smallpox and cholera are well understood and prevented but in the early 1800s they were deadly killers.  And those unfamiliar to these viruses almost always faced a certain death.   As I read the book, I found myself speechless at times due to the descriptions of daily life.  From one day to the next, nothing was guaranteed and the threat of violence from other tribes and bandits was always on the mind of many.  And it is imperative to recall that at the time Parker was taken in May 1836, there were only twenty-four states in the Union.  Territory west and north was unorganized and further south, the land was part of Mexico.  Comanches fiercely roamed these territories and even made raids into what is now the State of Texas.  And it is here that the story heats up as the Parker family is torn apart during the Fort Parker Massacre.  Some readers might wonder if Washington should have expected such an attack.  The truth is that there was much Washington did not know and  Texas had been placed in a precarious position as Gwynne explains in this passage: 

“Texas was thus left alone, broke and militarily punchless, for ten years to confront two implacable enemies: Mexico on the south, and the Comanche nation on the west and north. The fledgling country would never know peace. Mexican incursions persisted; the city of San Antonio was captured twice by large Mexican armies in 1842.” 

The harsh reality is that Washington had no clear answer for the Indians and things in Texas were about to take a deadlier turn.  The tragedy of the Parkers deeply concerned Texans and Washington but they were not the only settlers that suffered. Gwynne includes accounts of other settlers who met dark fates as they ventured into unknown territory. Raiding, pillaging, rape and scalping were the tools of the trade and the Comanches did not hesitate to use them.  Because of the horrific acts of sexual violence, parents might want to use discretion should they decide to purchase this book for minors.  What I learned about the Comanche raids on the settles and other tribes, is interesting for it shows the acrimony that existed between the natives, and it also explains why the U.S. Government had no choice but to find a way to turn the tide in the conflict with the Indians.  

Following the massacre, the book is essentially two stories in one.  The mission to find Cynthia and John Parker comes into focus but finding them would not be easy.  And it is not until the entry of former Texas Governor Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross (1838-1898) into the story that major success occurs.   Finding the Parkers was a priority but dealing with the Comanches and other Indians became priority number one.  In the process, thousands of men died at the hands of the Comanches.  Troops and even the Texas Rangers had never faced a similar enemy and were at times lost in their approach.  To drive home the point about the power behind the Comanches, Gwynne sums up their dominance and states that:

” Comanches fought entirely on horseback and in a way no soldier or citizen in North America had ever seen.”  

Battles between whites and the natives increase in frequency and some notable figures appear whose names are cemented in American history such as Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson (1809-1868), Samuel Colt (1914-1862) and John Coffee Hays (1817-1883).  Carson and Hays learned first-hand that the United States was not prepared to do battle with the Indias.  Their opponents possessed skills and knowledge of the terrain that white settlers had not yet obtained.  However, Colt invents an equalizer in the form of a weapon that became synonymous with the wild west.  And as technology improves, the natives soon find themselves struggling for survival.  Further, the United States later employed a powerful asset named Ranald S. McKenzie (1840-1889) who has largely faded into history.  His story and later acquaintance with Quanah Parker are discussed here and provide an interesting back drop to the main story being told.  McKenzie became integral to the battle against the Comanches but never gained the fame and recognition one would expect.  His own tragic life story is revisited bringing home the horrors of war.  Cynthia Parker does reappear in the story and her life is equally as tragic and also surreal.  Her marriage to former Comanche Chief Pete Nacona (1820-1964) and their children was highly unusual and at the time that knowledge came to light, a majority of people could not believe it.  But this is her story which includes separation from her birth family and integration on the Comanche nation which she remained loyal to for the rest of her life.   Her son Quanah becomes the focus of the remaining parts of the book as he assumes the mantel over a tribe facing its own demise.  But Quanah is not a fool and makes a surprising decision that had an enormous impact on the Comanches.  His actions were not isolated but taken typically after all other options had been exhausted.  It could be said that his actions sealed the fate for the Comanches. 

It is easy to see the Comanches as bloodthirsty savages, but Gwynne is careful not to make that mistake.  In fact, he does make himself clear that multiple factors were at play that led to the Fort Parker Massacre and conflict with the American Government.  And there was horrific acts of violence committed by all asides.  Ignorance of the native tribes and territorial boundaries undoubtedly added to the tensions that simmered.  The Comanches wanted to live their way of life on land they believed was theirs. Their ancestors had lived on the land and they believed it was theirs for life. They were fine with their existence and did not desire to become “civilized”.  White settlers and government officials often made the mistake of seeing the natives as “savages’ that needed to convert to Christianity and the ways of  the white man. But what they did not understand is that the natives had no concept of that, nor did they want to.  The Comanches committed unspeakable acts upon many but as shocking as it for me as New Yorker in 2021 to understand, for them it was life as they knew it.  Violence played itself out over and over again across this continent and it was accepted by many and employed by others. It is unsettling but it is also part of the history that created the country I call home.  S.C. Gwynne has done an incredible job here and this book is excellent.  It may be hard to read at times, but this is the story of the Comanches that Americans should know. 

ASIN:‎ B003KN3MDG

Billy the Kid: An Autobiography – Daniel A. Edwards

kidI vividly recall the first time I saw the 1988 Hollywood film Young Guns in which Emilio Estevez played the role of William H. Bonney also known as Bill the Kid (1859-1881).  The film was sensational and for many years it was the sole source I had for what Bonney’s life was like.  Of course, as a kid I was naive to the way Hollywood works and the liberties that filmmakers take. Today, I know that the story of Billy the Kid is far less glamorous.  And while it is true that the Kid did commit several murders, he was not a psychopathic killer or reckless outlaw.  Researchers have done their best to set the record straight about the Kid’s violent life.  Daniel A. Edwards has thrown his hat into the mix and in this intriguing book, he examines the claim of William “Brushy Bill” Roberts (1879-1950) that he is Billy the Kid and had not been shot by Pat Garrett (1850-1908) on July 14, 1881, in Fort Sumner, New Mexico.  Brushy’s claim was quite bold, and he has been written off by some as a crackpot.  By all accounts, Brushy was born in 1879 and if so, his claim to be the Kid holds no weight due to the fact that it is generally accepted that the Kid was born in 1859, twenty years earlier.  However, Roberts did have knowledge of important events that was not widely known in an era before the internet, social media, and the ease of access to information we have today.  His claims are eye catching but is he really the Kid? There is much in the book that could lead readers in either direction.  I came away with mixed feelings. 

In all fairness, Edwards is aware that Brushy’s claims were quite extraordinary.  Anyone claiming to be Billy the Kid must have known what would come with that revelation.  Further, after the Kid’s death, he was still being placed on wanted posters across the southwest.  The Kid had earned a reputation as a gunslinger and was certainly known to the region.  I do find it a little hard to believe that Roberts was able to slip away from Garrett’s trap and continue to live under the radar as he claims.  But on the other hand, how did Robert know such critical information not widely available?  Edwards does his best to rectify the matter and I do believe he presents a compelling case that  Garrett might have shot the wrong man in 1881.  His attempt to prove Roberts was the Kid does not come off as strong and at times is a little difficult to believe. 

The author does provide a good explanation of the Kid’s early life based off of what is known.   Historians have never had extensive material to use, and details of the Kid’s childhood are sketchy.  The exact month and day of the Kid’s birth are unknown and likely lost to history as record keeping then was not as efficient or present as it is now. What is clear is that the Kid did not live an ordinary life and moved frequently during his childhood.  The film was correct about his closeness to John Tunstall (1853-1878) and his participation in the Lincoln County Wars.  Edwards revisits the feud providing a clear and concise narrative that does not glorify the Kid nor demonize him.  I did take notice of the figures that wore badges at the time.  And I believe this is a critical part of the Kid’s story that explains some of his actions.  Today it might be hard to picture corrupt lawmen, but it was uncommon in Billy’s time and money talked.  This is not an excuse for murder but rather it allows the reader to understand the climate in which the Kid and others deemed to be “outlaws” lived in.  It was called the “wild west” for good reason. 

The crux of the book is the alleged murder of the Kid by Garrett.  I believe there is strong evidence that Garrett may have shot the wrong person that night.  The official story of the Kid’s death comes from one major source: Garrett himself.  His description is at odds with the Kid we learn of in the book.   Added to this are statements by several individuals who were very firm in their belief that Garrett did not kill Billy that night. These statements include sworn affidavits in which the affiants also swear to seeing the Kid in person years after his alleged death. I have no reason to suspect that they were not being honest but is it possible that the Kid did survive but that Roberts was not him?  I think it is very possible and that many details about the Kid’s life and death will never be known.  It is an issue that has stirred researchers into action for decades but this article might be of  interest to those who read this book.  The article clears up a few things that are discussed in the book, in particular the absence of a death record for the Kid.   The reason for the absence of the document is actually quite simple and makes perfect sense as per the article. 

I believe that Edwards had an impossible task in proving without a doubt that Roberts was the Kid. But where he succeeds is in casting doubt on a story that has been widely accepted for over one hundred years.   Of course, Garrett may have shot the Kid that night and his story tells exactly what happened.  There is the chance that Garrett was mistaken due to the darkness in the room.   Sadly, DNA examination is not possible as the Kid’s resting place was washed away in a flood in 1904.   There is a tomb at Fort Sumner cemetery today which might contain some of his remains.  But without exhumation it will be impossible to know. 

In death, Billy the Kid became an American icon and a symbol of the old west. The fascination with his life continues but the reality is that the Kid was one of many men who carried and used a gun in an era filled with lawlessness.  There were other gunslingers, some just as dangerous as or even deadlier than the Kid.  I am sure that a good number met their fates at the gallows.  The Kid would have joined them had he not been handy with a pistol.   He took lives but lived in a world that operated on violence and corruption.  We are forced to asked if the Kid a cold-blooded killer or product of his environment? You be the judge.  The story presented here in interesting and will raise eyebrows but is it accurate?  And did Billy the Kid die at the hands of Pat Garrett?  Edwards leaves it up to you to decide.  

ASIN: B00P44T42M

Trumbo: A Biography of the Oscar-Winning Screenwriter Who Broke the Hollywood Blacklist – Bruce Cook

Trumbo2On March 9, 1954, CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) prepared for a scheduled broadcast of the television program “See it Now“.   In that episode he confronted the growing menace of the witch hunt for suspected communists in America. During the show, he stated that “no one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices”.  Viewers were aware that he was referring to Sen. Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957), whose hunt for communists had destroyed countless lives and reputations. Anyone even suspected of having communist affiliation was surveilled and, in some cases, forced to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee.   One witness was the screenwriter James Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) who was blacklisted for his political beliefs and affiliations.  The blacklisting of suspected leftist ended decades ago but Trumbo has remained forgotten, but during his era, he was one of the most sought-after screenwriters in Hollywood.  In 2015, the biopic Trumbo was released with actor Bryan Cranston in the lead role.  The film received high reviews and earned Cranston an Academy Award.  What may surprise some is that one source of information for the movie is this biography of Trumbo written by Bruce Cook (1932-2003).   The book was originally published in 1977 but has been re-published with a foreword by screenwriter John McNamara.

I have not seen the film and did not know what to expect when starting this book.  That was a good thing as it allowed me read Cook’s story without any pre-conceived ideas about who Trumbo was.  My ignorance of his contributions to the silver screen speaks volumes about his ordeal which is contained in the pages of this well-written and treasured biography.  Cook sat down with Trumbo towards the end of the writer’s life as he was battling lung cancer.  However, the book contains not just Trumbo’s words but is filled with interviews of those who knew him best, including his widow Cleo Trumbo (1916-2009).  Through their words, the personal life of Dalton Trumbo takes shape.  The late painter Charles White (1918-1979) talked with Cook and had this to say about his old friend:

“There are only two ways to relate to Dalton. You either love him or you hate him. Picasso is like that. Chaplin is, too. There are people in Hollywood, a lot of them, who hate Dalton.”

Trumbo’s life was anything but orthodox.  His childhood is revisited through the memories of siblings and friends.   His parents Orus (1876-1926) and Maud Trumbo (1885-1967) are pivotal figures in the story, and each influenced young Dalton.  But Maud remained a crucial figure in his life until her death at the age of eighty-three.  Orus exits the story early due to a series of events that clearly affected his son Dalton and his daughters.  However, what Orus could not have known when he moved the family from Colorado to California, was that Dalton would find a place in an industry most people can only dream of.  Some might argue that Trumbo was made for Hollywood and as Cook explains, his entry into screenwriting was not entirely by chance.  In fact, what I learned about Trumbo’s early life make his entry into the film industry more understandable.  But that is not to say that there were not obstacles along the way.   What can be seen in the book is that the young Trumbo was quite the character and through anecdotes and research, the incredible tale is revealed with fitting detail.

The crux of the book is unquestionably the Hollywood blacklist.  Cook goes into the matter but not simply to re-hash what has already been explained elsewhere but to focus on Trumbo’s actions and why he took the positions that he did.  Trumbo could have chosen not to associate with leftists and maintain his place among the Hollywood elite, at least publicly.  But he chose the path that was right for him, and never wavered in his beliefs.   And as his widow Cleo tells cook, Trumbo never gave up once he had an idea in his mind.  Yes, despite the harsh criticism and blacklisting by Hollywood, Trumbo was not an extremist by any means.  He was driven for sure, but not an anarchist determined to rage against the machine.   However, he was a firm believer in freedom of expression and constitutional rights. And to reinforce that image of Trumbo, Cook includes snippets of his testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (“HUAC”) and parts of a letter he wrote to a friend who had taken issue with a statement he made to the media.  Prior witness testimony to the HUAC had set the stage for a showdown when Trumbo made his appearance and Cook explains that:

“Except for Lawson, Dalton Trumbo was probably the Committee’s least cooperative and most “unfriendly” witness. He came to the stand on October 28, 1947, at ten-thirty A.M., just one day after Lawson had caused such an uproar in the caucus room. Trumbo was met by hostility from Chairman J. Parnell Thomas, and he gave as good as he got.” 

His statements and refusal to answer various questions resulted in a contempt of Congress conviction.  Trumbo served his time at the federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky and upon his release, resumed his career as one of Hollywood’s most gifted writers.  The blacklisting of public figures was still in full force and Trumbo resorted to slick maneuvers and loopholes to continue screenwriting.   Some readers may be surprised to learn of Trumbo’s extensive involvement in several blockbuster films that are considered all-time greats.  Frankly, Trumbo was all over the place lending his talent to a respectable number of filmmakers who needed the expertise of the master.  It is a shame that Trumbo was prohibited from openly working in Hollywood when he had not committed any punishable offense prior to his congressional appearance.  But the “red scare” was in full force, and it did not take much to see a career ruined completely.

Eventually the blacklisting crumbles and those who once could not find work openly in Hollywood begin to resurface and move on with their lives and careers.  For Trumbo, recognition for his talents would take many years to become legacy.  But this book and the biopic have vindicated him as a brilliant screenwriter who suffered immensely for seeing things a separate way.  His story is a reminder of the dangers that come with baseless rumors and unfounded persecution.  Hollywood had a mend to make when it came to the blacklist, and it did right some wrongs.  As the book closes, Cook leaves us with this fitting note:

“But at last they did. In a kind of collective and symbolic act of contrition, the officers and board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on May 5, 1975, awarded replica number 1665 of the “copyrighted statuette, commonly known as ‘Oscar,’ as an Award for the Motion Picture Story—The Brave One (1956).” It has Dalton Trumbo’s name on it. That made it official: the blacklist, now acknowledged, was behind them all. Trumbo had done his job. He died a little over a year later on September 10, 1976.” 

If you want to know more about the life of Dalton Trumbo, this is a good place to start.

ASIN:‎ B00US1STWC

Catching the Wind: Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Hour, 1932-1975 – Neal Gabler

GablerWhen most of us hear the word “Kennedy” we immediately think of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968).  Although he was in office only for one thousand days, John F. Kennedy set into motion numerous plans, many of which became reality during the administration of his successor Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973).  Kennedy was a gifted orator and skilled politician but struggled to move legislation through Congress.  Johnson lacked the flair and polish of the Kennedys, but he was a master politician and he excelled in the one area that is crucial to presidential success: the Senate.   The Kennedys knew that to move the Senate, the old guard would have to be removed one by one.  And do that meant putting younger senators in office with moderate and liberal views.  As part of this plan, the youngest of the Kennedy clan, Edward M. Kennedy (1932-2009) followed his brothers into politics and made the Senate his home.  And though he never became president or even vice-president, Edward M. Kennedy or “Teddy” helped changed the course of American history during the forty-seven years he served in the U.S. Senate.  In this first volume of a two-part biography, author Neal Gabler explores Edward Kennedy’s life from his birth in 1932 until the year 1975. 

I do warn readers that the book is a behemoth and not light reading. However, the author’s writing style keeps the narrative flowing smoothly and it never feels like a standard delivery of biographical facts.  Instead, Gabler makes the book feel like a journey and in many aspects, it is, but the journey of Edward Kennedy from an aspiring athlete to a U.S. Senator who would have a profound impact on crucial legislation.  And while there is a wealth of interesting information about Kennedy himself, the author takes us back in time to an era when America was undergoing significant social change.  The early part of the book rightly focuses on the Kennedy household and the dynamics as play between parents Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. (1888-1968), Rose F. Kennedy (1890-1995) and their nine children.  Readers who are looking for a book that provides a good analysis of the Kennedy family will find this to be what they are searching for.  True, it is Teddy’s story but without telling the Kennedy story, there is no way to fully recall his life.  Behind the cameras, speeches and glamour, the Kennedys had their issues like thousands of other families.  And that part of the story is why the book is so good. Through Gabler’s words, they become more relatable as they go through trials, tribulations, and tragic deaths of siblings.  Behind the money, there was an enormous amount of grief, insecurities, and family secrets.  Teddy comes of age and his life would a mix of many things known all too well to the Kennedy family. 

Kennedy was the youngest of the family but in time he became one of the most important. His early life is interesting and Gabler left no stone unturned.  Some of the information is widely known but there are some tidbits of information that even season readers will appreciate. Inevitably politics comes in play and as Jack once said about his own entry in politics: “It was like being drafted,” Jack said. “My father wanted his eldest son in politics. ‘Wanted’ isn’t the right word. He demanded it.”  Teddy’s battle ground would be back home in Boston against the McCormack family.  This early battle in Kennedy’s political career is crucial for many reasons but served as his starting point to a career in the U.S. Government.  And to give readers an idea of just how important and bitter the feud was, Gabler states: 

“There was no love lost between the McCormacks and the Kennedys. If the Kennedys boiled with resentment at the Protestant establishment, the McCormacks boiled with resentment at the lace-curtain Irish Kennedys. In the hurly-burly of Boston Irish politics, the two clans had fought over the Democratic State Committee in 1956, when Jack attempted a takeover to reform the state party and John McCormack counterattacked.” 

Of course, we know that Kennedy was eventually elected to the U.S. Senate, and it is here that the book picks up in pace. With Jack in the White House and Bobby in charge of the Justice Department, Washington was under the thumb of what author David Halberstam (1934-2007) called “the best and the brightest”. But while his older brothers were battling the Soviet Union, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and right-wing elements within their own party and the Republican party, Teddy was sharpening his skills as a Senator determined to move America forward.  But his plan would not be easy and there were setbacks along the way. But Teddy never gives up and his determination to his causes epitomizes the true meaning of committed.   He would have help in the form of legendary figures in Senate history such as the liberal leader Mike Mansfield (1903-2001) (D-MT) and segregationist James Eastland (1904-1986) (D-MS).  Some readers may be wondering how a figure like Eastland could have helped Kennedy.  That is explained in the book and what transpires highlights the unusual alliances needed at times to get bills passed. 

In any Kennedy story, there are always the elephants in the room in the form of Jack and Bobby’s murders.   The events in Dallas and Los Angeles nearly shattered Kennedy completely.  Compounded with his grief was the state of his wife Joan, who struggled with her own demons which are discussed in the book.   Further, Ted Jr.’s health issues are one more piece of the puzzle that became Teddy’s life.   Another person might have given up on everything, but Teddy Kennedy did not and could not.  Kennedys don’t lose as they have always maintained.  Regardless of how strong he was, Teddy was not immune to demons as well and his personal struggles are also discussed. Gabler pulls no punches in revealing the darkest aspects of his life and revisits Teddy’s brushes with death.   And things become very dark when Kennedy decides to visit Chappaquiddick.  

On July 18,1969, Kennedy was visiting Chappaquiddick to attend a small meeting that included former members of Robert Kennedy’s campaign staff.  At some point during the night, he decided to leave and agreed to give a lift to former Kennedy staffer Mary Jo Kopechne (1940-1969).  While crossing the Dike Bridge, the vehicle went over the side and plunged into the murky waters below. Kennedy survived but Kopechne did not.  Her death and the aftermath would haunt Kennedy for the rest of his days.  There are many stories about Chappaquiddick but was Kennedy negligent that night?  Was he too intoxicated to drive?  And was he romantically involved with Kopechne?  Gabler tackles each question and I leave it up to readers to decide what they believe is the definitive version of the Chappaquiddick story.   Readers who are interested in Kopechne’s life might enjoy Georgetta Potoksi and William Nelson’s Our Mary Jo, which is a short but delightful book about a remarkable young woman that died too young. Whatever one believes, the tragedy made it certain that Kennedy would never be president.  And it had also drawn the eye of the most paranoid man to ever hold of the office of the presidency, Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).   I had no idea how bitter the rivalry was between Nixon and the Kennedy family.   Gabler quickly clears that up with this summary of Nixon’s rage: 

“It was incontestable that a disproportionate amount of Nixon’s underhandedness and abuse of power had been directed at Ted Kennedy, and it was even arguable that Nixon’s so-called dirty tricks were hatched by his attempts to destroy Ted after Chappaquiddick, leading to Nixon’s later subversions of democracy.” 

To say that the two loathed each other would be an understatement.  Teddy does not show his disdain as much, but Nixon’s obsession knew no bounds and his willingness to subvert democracy to punish rivals us what contributed to his downfall.  The Watergate saga and Teddy’s battles in the Senate to press the White House play out in the book and it is spellbinding.  I now understand more why older relatives used to say that Nixon had to go.  But before he did, he did his best to punish Ted Kennedy for his own insecurities and shortcomings, one of which was undoubtedly his loss to Jack Kennedy in the 1960 election.  Quite frankly, Nixon was a very dark person, and it becomes clear who Ted Kennedy was so determined to prevent him from reaching the White House.   Although that effort failed, Nixon did their work for them by engaging in behavior both illegal and unprecedented. His resignation still stands as one of the most shocking moments in American history.  His successor Gerald R. Ford (1913-2006) enters the picture and seems to be the breath of fresh air needed after Nixon’s dark reign.  But Ford pardons Nixon which sends shockwaves through Washington.  Kennedy is among the many senators appalled by the act as Nixon’s crimes were still fresh in the public’s consciousness.  The book finishes with Kennedy returning to his home state of Massachusetts to do battle over the issue of integration.  Readers sensitive to descriptions of racial discrimination may find this part of the book difficult to go through.  Personally, I had no illusions about integration and my father has told me stories of the nightmare it was for him, my uncles and others sent to all-white schools in accordance with federal law.  But the venom with which the Irish in Boston react to integration is disturbing and a reminder that America is not that far removed from a time when racial violence and prejudice were unrestrained.   That is not to say that it does not exist currently.  We all know discrimination is a problem not just in America but in every country on earth.  But I do believe that Robert Kennedy had the right mindset when he would quote Aeschylus whose quest to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world” is as important now as it was then.   Ted Kennedy embodied those words through his time in the Senate which will continue in the next installment of this exceptional biography.  I cannot wait for the second volume. Highly recommended.  

As a bonus, I strongly recommend that readers fascinated with the 1960s and America’s political landscape during that time, should take a good look at Richard Goodwin’s (1913-2018) Remembering America: A Voice from the Sixties, which is an invaluable look into the biggest political moments during that decade. 

ASIN:‎ B085BW13XF