Michael Collins: The Lost Leader – Margery Forester


The story of Northern Ireland is long and complicated yet it cannot be told without mention of many key figures who played critical roles in the modern day status of country.   Among these figures is the former Chairman of the Provisional Government of the Irish Free State Michael Collins (1890-1922). He played a direct role in the treaty of 1921 that partitioned the country and preserved Ulster Province for British Rule.  In less than a year he was assassinated at the age of thirty-one.  He lived a short life but within that time had risen to the top rank of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (“IRB”) as the movement for independence from Britain gained momentum. In later years, tensions between Protestants and Catholics would erupt into the Troubles which claimed the lives of more than three thousand people and placed the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) in the crosshairs of 10 Downing Street. However, the IRA can be seen as a continuation of the struggle in which Collins was involved for a free Irish Republic. This is the story of his life by author Margery Forester

The book was first published in 1971 and later updated in 1991, several years before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.  And although peace was mostly achieved, the Crown still remains in place across Ulster Province with Derry or Londonderry as it sometimes called, being the ground zero for tensions that simmer below the surface. Republicans remain vigilant in the hopes that one day Ireland will be completely free of British rule. Nationalists remain loyal to the Union Jack flag and see British rule as essential.  If Michael Collins were alive today, he would undoubtedly push for British removal, a goal he had set for himself before his untimely death. In discussions I have had with others regarding the conflict in Northern Ireland, many people are unaware of who Collins was and why he was important.  For those and others in the same position, this is the book that tells his story in a way that all readers will appreciate.  I have written about Collins before, in my review of Tim Pat Coogan’s The Twelve Apostles: Michael Collins, the Squad and Ireland’s Fight for Freedom.  The book is outstanding in its own right but it is not a biography of Collins, simply his work during the rise of the Irish Free State and his crew of hitmen who carried out deeds in the name of the Republican cause.  But there is far more to his story, which we learn very quickly here.

When Michael Collins was born on October 16, 1890, his parents John and Mary Ann could have never imagined that their son would one day lead the resistance to British rule in Ireland. By the time Collins reached adulthood, both parents had died and did not get to see their son’s rise in power nor his tragic demise. He hailed from the town of Woodfield, Sam’s Cross but would make a name for himself in Dublin and London. But before we get to that point, we learn about Collins’ early life in Woodfield as the youngest child in a very large family. The early part of the book does read like a typical biography. Unquestionably, the story picks up pace when Collins joins the Irish Republican Brotherhood in November, 1909. From that point on, all bets are off as the IRB is determined t make its presence felt in across Ireland and in London.

Readers who are well-read in Irish history known the story regarding the 1916 uprising in Dublin and its surrounding areas. Forester does discuss it here but does not go into extensive detail. For those who are interested in the uprising itself, I do recommend Tim Pat Coogan’s 1916: The Easter Rising, which explores the revolt in extensive detail. Here, the author focuses mainly on Collins’ role but makes mention of fallen figures James Connolly (1868-1916), Patrick Henry Pearse (1879-1916) and Tom Clarke (1858-1916). The uprising did not end in the removal of the Crown but it should have been a warning to London of the mayhem that would come in later years as the “Irish question” proved to difficult to answer. The IRB was just getting started and Collins found himself in the middle of the fight for a free Ireland. But the road ahead would be difficult, far more so than even Collins could have thought. The author keeps the suspense at just the right pace as the stakes are raised and the reality of extreme violence becomes hauntingly real.

As the book progresses we learn a lot about Collins’ nature and his reception by those around him. Supportive, abrasive, off-putting and patriotic to the core, he was mixed bag of emotions and you could not always be sure what you would get. However, his commitment to Ireland never waivered. But one event changed the tide of the struggle and placed Collins on the most wanted list. On January 21, 1921, Redmond was shot and killed on his way home from work. He had been assigned to lead the Dublin Metropolitan Police and his murder earned Collins an infamous reputation. As Forester explains:

On the same day, 25 January, a putative offer was made of £10,000 for ‘the body, dead or alive, of Michael Collins

There would be no turning back and Collins rose to the occasion, ready to take on London in his capacity as an IRB member. The story picks up pace as negotiations are in progress for a treaty between Britain and the Republicans for an Irish Republic that will ward off an inevitable bloody war.

The Republican movement continued to gain momentum but sadly, some would be lost along the way. The death of Terence MacSwiney (1879-1920) is one that would repeated several times over years later and would result in Bobby Sands (1954-1981) becoming an immortal hero in Republican history. However, even with McSwiney’s death, London still seemed not to grasp the severity of the matter and the IRB’s determination. Negotiations became increasingly stressful but on December 6, 1921, a formal treaty was signed and the Irish Free State was born. But for Republicans, the war both internally and against Britain was far from over. It is this part of the book that shows the sharp differences of opinion Collins faced as he helped negotiate a treaty that gave the Republic of Ireland a sense of real power. Things became so tense that Collins even wrote directly to Winston Churchill (1874-1965) to preserve the treaty in place and avert a rebellion by the non-treaty faction of the IRB. Parts of his letters are included here to show the urgency with which Collins voiced his concerns. The later seizure of the Four Courts by anti-treaty IRB members is widely considered the first significant break from the mainline IRB position. Its aftermath and the damaged done internally to the IRB are both sad and regrettable. And even worse, it would manifest itself later in Collins’ final moments.

Arthur Griffith (1871-1922), the founder of (1871-1922) and former president of Dáil Éireann, died on August 12, 1922. As Collins walked in the procession, he had a encounter with a religious figure who gave him this warning as relayed by Forester:

Dr. Fogarty, the Bishop of Killaloe, spoke to Collins as he stood alone, gazing long at the grave of his friend. ‘Michael, you should be prepared—you may be the next.’ Collins turned. ‘I know’, he said simply. When the long, slow ceremony to Glasnevin was over, with its strain on men unused to processional marching, Michael sighed with relief. ‘I hope nobody takes it into his head to die for another twelve months’, he said.

Twelve days later, Collins would meet his fate and with his death, came a wave of grief to the Republican cause. Bu the movement continued and the memory of Collins remains firmly in place even today. He will always be one of the most iconic figures in Irish history as well as controversial. By all accounts he could be a rough person to be around but no one questioned his commitment to the cause. And provided here is a thorough examination of his life, his beliefs and how far he was willing to go to achieve a united Ireland.

Give us the future, we’ve had enough of your past. Give us back our country, to live in, to grow in, to love” – Michael Collins


Illiberal India: Gauri Lankesh and the Age of Unreason – Chidanand Rajghatta

LankeshI saw this book in my list of recommendations but did not know the face on the cover.  However, the high rating caused my interest to raise and I decided to see why it is so highly rated.  The name Gauri Lankesh (1962-2017) did not sound familiar but I thought to myself that she must have been someone unique to have a memoir written about her life by ex-husband Chidanand Rajghatta.  As he explains, they had been divorced for more than twenty-five years but had remained close friends to the day she died.  On September 5, 2017, Lankesh was shot and killed at her home in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, Bangalore. She was fifty-five years old.  Her death marked a very dark turn in the ongoing battle between extremism and rationalism. And as Rajghatta points out throughout the book, Lankesh was never one to hold her tongue.  She stood by her beliefs and gave her life for what she believed in.  This book is his tribute to his former wife, close friend and pioneer for a more tolerate and diverse India. 

India truly is one of the most fascinating countries on earth and I do believe many of us fail to appreciate just how diverse it is. There are hundreds if not thousands of languages and faiths spread across the country sometimes with large variations in practices. Growing up, the people I encountered here in New York from India subscribed to the Hindu belief system. Former classmates whose families had emigrated from India explained as best they could what Hinduism was. As a result, my friends and I had to come to associate Hinduism with India and remained unaware that it is only one of the many system of belief. Now that I have aged, I see how much we did not know and I am proud to say that I am no longer young enough to know everything. Hinduism is indeed a fascination belief system and the author addresses the confusion surrounding Hinduism, relaying it in layman’s terms with this statement:

“Hinduism itself is not considered a dogmatic religion and not strictly a religion of any one book. Some would say it is not even a religion but a loose set of beliefs constructed around many books—the Vedas, the Puranas, the Bhagavad Gita (which is a part of the Mahabharata) and the Ramayana.” 

Here, the author steps deep inside the topic of faith in India, allowing us to see how extremist and rationalist have been set on a collision course that shows no signs of changing direction. And while I read through the book, I began to see that there is much about religion in India that I still did not yet know. However, the author did not write a book solely on that topic but rather an account of his memories of Gauri. Religion is central to the story but certainly not its basis. Readers who are not well versed in Indian may find the discussion on faith to be slightly overwhelming. The main focus is on Lingayatism, a Shaivite Hindu tradition which both the author and Lankesh know intimately. However, neither are religious and the author admits that he is in fact agnostic. And others who are a part of the story are of the same mindset and even atheistic. This may surprise some readers who expect to find dedication to a strict belief system but I feel that the book shows without question that within India, faith has no set standard.

By the author’s account, Gauri Lankesh was truly one of a kind. And it is admirable that the two remained friends for so many years after divorcing. But it does show that what existed between was genuine love, not necessarily entirely romantic, but simply between one person and another. Rajghatta truly misses her and her rhetoric which even he had to admit was nothing short of challenging. I felt that this statement about her sets the tone for the book:

“Gauri Lankesh was disputatious to a fault. I should know. We argued relentlessly, mostly good-naturedly, in our exuberant youth when India was so full of promise and problems, as it still is. But she was also a large-hearted and fair-minded woman, a trait that extended our friendship beyond marriage.”

It is not always common to receive such words of praise from a former spouse but it is a testament to her influence on those who knew her best. As Rajghatta gets into the story, what develops is a picture of a changing India once known as a place for liberal and progressive expression, into one that does not tolerate dissent from ideology. Lankesh was appalled at this shift and throughout her life crusaded against fundamentalism taking over Indian society. She paid the ultimate price but her spirit shall always remain present. Disturbingly, her death was one in a series of murders of those who spoke out against the shift to the religious right. The murders are brutal and following the deaths of each, Rajghatta and Gauri ponder what is happening to the India they called home. Gauri never left India but Rajghatta moved to the United States in the years that followed their divorce. And when taking a look at India, he makes this keen observation:

“A word about the title: as an Indian who has worked abroad for nearly twenty-five years, I’ve often felt it is only when you reside outside India you understand India better. Distance lends perspective. Living in India tends to desensitise us to both its good and bad.”

To help us understand the sharp divisions surrounding faith, Rajghatta focuses on the scriptures that have formed part of Indian culture. The most famous are the Ramayana and Mahabharata. He discusses them but not in extensive detail as that would have required another and much longer book. But they are relevant to the story at hand so that we can see their influence of dogma and its development. I believe that it may help readers to look up each book independently for further reading as there is a good story to be found within both.

What I liked the most about the book is that it did not read like a standard biography but felt more like a discussion about a friendship that was unique. It is clear that Gauri Lankesh was unorthodox in mainstream India (she never had children and abhorred religious customs) and because of her free spirit nature, she had earned the wrath of those committed to fundamentalism. She continued the Lankesh Patrike, the publication that was created by her father P. Lankesh and backed legislation opposed to funamentalist expansion. Her position was not an easy one to take but her courage shines brightly in the memories of Rajghatta. As India continues to change, we can only wonder which direction it will go and what Lankesh would think if she were still alive. Those in the west may not know her story but I do recommend this book to learn who she was and why she matters in India. Further, it should remind Americans of the value in freedom and why extremist ideology poses a constant threat to our way of life. Lankesh is gone but her work is far from done and others are proudly carrying the torch.

In old India, it was a badge of honour to be called a radical, a liberal, a progressive—labels that conveyed a readiness to shed one’s selfish concerns to fight for a better world. Today, they are words of abuse and any action that questions the status quo or seeks to alter it can be deemed extremist, or worse, anti-national.” – Chidanand Rajghatta

Highly recommended.




Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War: An Oral History – Wallace Terry

bloodsThe last time I saw my Uncle William in person, we discussed a range a topics, one of which was his discharge from the military in the 1960s.  During a routine physical, it was discovered that he had suffered damage to hearing in one of his ears due to being too close to the 50 caliber machine gun while on patrol in Vietnam.  As a result, his balance and coordination began to suffer and he was declared not fit for active duty.  He accepted the discharge and found work with the postal service before moving on to the private sector. Over the years he has only talked about Vietnam on a handful of occasions and the stories were typically very brief.  He never went into too much detail but there are couple of stories that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. His experiences are similar to those other other black veterans of the Vietnam War whose struggles have not received the full attention that they undoubtedly deserve.  Wallace Terry (1938-2003) was a journalist and oral historian who conducted interviews with dozens of veterans and chose twenty of them which are the focus of this book.  It is a detailed look at the life of black soldiers in a war that remains a dark memory in American history. 

Today when we look back at Vietnam, we can clearly see how and why multiple administrations made miscalculations in their approaches to Indochina. Washington never seemed to have clear objective and the threat of communist expansion never materialized into the global threat that the west had long feared. In fact, the story of Vietnam is an example of paranoia and ego, both of which led to the deaths of more than 58,000 American soldiers and over one million Vietnamese deaths. Had Vietnam been a “conventional” war, the attack would have been focused directly on Hanoi with swift and brutal assault. But American military forces found themselves constricted in what was permitted as the People’s Army of Vietnam (“NVA”) and National Liberation Front of Southern Vietnam or FNL (“Viet Cong”) stepped up attacks on American forces. Washington wanted to end a war that was not supposed to be a war. And as one vet in the book puts it:

I come to realize really that the purpose of the war was something more than any of the men who were fighting realized at the time. It was like a power play. And the people in charge kept getting overcommitted, overextended, and just didn’t know how to pull out. No matter how patriotic we was fighting it, we was like cannon fodder. And I will always be thinkin’ that way until the government shows me how we benefited from it.”

Specialist 4 Haywood T. “The Kid” Kirkland (Ari Sesu Merretazon) Washington, D.C. Recoilless Rifleman 25th Infantry Division 4th Infantry Division U.S. Army Duc Pho May 1967–April 1968

The veterans are frank in their assessment of the war. And Terry does not intervene in the book but gave the veterans a platform to speak their minds. Some of the stories are nothing short of horrific and I warn readers sensitive to descriptions of violence to use discretion. Most of the veterans came home still physically intact but some were not so lucky. They suffered devastating or life long injuries that constantly reminded them of Vietnam. While reading the book I thought of the late Ronald Stinson of Brooklyn, New York, who was a family friend for many years and a Vietnam veteran. Ron, as we called him, had suffered a shrapnel wound to the face and always kept tissues on hand because his left eye constantly teared up many years after serving. He had a personality that we all loved and even many years later, his death still hurts. All of the veterans in the book paid a heavy price either physically or mentally and in some cases, both. I found this quote to be a direct and accruate summation of the black experience in Vietnam:

Readers will be searching the elephant in the room and the soldiers do discuss race and how it played a part of their experience. At a time when the Civil Rights Movement was in high gear and the reality of the war began to hit home, it was inevitable that the soldiers would have to contend with it as they tried to stay alive in a war that none of them wanted. And even when they left Vietnam, they face another war at home just to be accepted as human beings and not to be judged on account of their dark skin. Their experiences is a double tragedy of the Vietnam War.

As I read through the account of Haywood Kirkland, I jumped in my seat. Readers who have seen the Hughes Brothers’ film Dead Presidents will instantly recognize where the filmmakers got their inspiration. In fact, the movie is based on the book itself but Kirkland’s account is clearly the basis for the fictional “Anthony Curtis” played by actor Lorenz Tate. The film is done well although it the levels of profanity and violence are high. However, it does capture the frustration of many black veterans returning home to America after the war. However, while in country, the stakes were high and blacks knew they had to have each other’s backs as the ugliness of American society made its away more than thirteen thousand miles away as the Confederate Flag and outright hostility served to undercut the morale needed for a successful claim and the military’s claims of being ‘integrated”. As Terry explains:

They spoke loudest against the discrimination they encountered on the battlefield in decorations, promotion and duty assignments. They chose not to overlook the racial insults, cross-burnings and Confederate flags of their white comrades. They called for unity among black brothers on the battlefield to protest these indignities and provide mutual support. And they called themselves “Bloods.”

In spite of the racial tensions back at base, there are positive moments in the book through life long friendships formed between veterans of all backgrounds, some of whom had never seen a black of hispanic person before being drafted into the military. And many veterans are clear to point out that whatever issues they had back at base fell to the side once out nn patrol as they had to be a cohesive unit to survive each day. And over time, many came to respect each other through their performances on the battlefield and close living proximity.

Some of the stories are heartbreaking and it is clear those veterans were never the same again. But the question that comes to mind is anyone who serves in combat ever the “same” again? From all of the Vietnam War veterans I have met throughout my life, i have learned that the war stays with them. The twenty black veterans who speak in this book, allow us a special inside look into the war from an often neglected perspective. Their eyes saw combat but their vision was impacted by the issue of race while facing death in the jungles of Vietnam and back in Ameerica, the country they called home. Their experiences include not just violence and death, but children out of wedlock, permanent physica and mental scars, and even criminal activity. Through them, we can see the very dark side of war. As I read through the book, I came across the following quote that perfectly explains what the vast majority of black soldiers experienced in Vietnam:

I don’t think you can call Vietnam a success story for the young blacks who served there. A few stayed in service and did very well. But those who experienced the racism in a war we lost wear a scar. Vietnam left a scar on them that won’t go away. The black soldier paid a special price.”

Lieutenant Commander William S. Norman Norfolk, Virginia Airborne Controller U.S.S. Ranger November 1963–May 1964 Airborne Controller U.S.S. Coral Sea January 1965–July 1965 Combat Warfare Officer Commander, Carrier Division 3 September 1969–June 1970 U.S. Navy Yankee Station South China Sea

There are dozens of books written about Vietnam and many films that showed the war from various perspectives. However, none come close to capturing the black experience as well as this book does. If you want to hear directly from black veterans of the Vietnam War and do not personally know anyone who served, this is the book for you. And even if you do know a black veteran who did serve in Vietnam, this book is a good source of information that will help you understand what that former soldier heard and saw during a conflict that haunts America to this day. Excellent read and highly recommended.



The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy-David Halberstam

51jzkyhnbul-_sx322_bo1204203200_In the midst of what can only be described as a vitriol filled political climate, I decided to revisit this short but insightful book by the best-selling author David Halberstam (1934-2007), about the political transformation of the late Robert F. Kennedy (D-NY) (1925-1968). In 1968, the Vietnam War had become a nightmare for the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) and calls for a change in American policy were growing louder.  On the domestic front, social unrest began to peak as blacks and other minorities became increasingly frustrated with the lack of advancement in society that the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 and Great Society had failed to deliver. While blacks had equal rights under federal law, opportunity was still highly elusive.  Johnson’s opponent, Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) represented a shift to the right that alarmed those of the left and even moderate voters. And while Nixon did get elected, it took a series of events in 1968 to make that possible.  And nearly all of them involved Robert Kennedy.

Today, Kennedy is a hero to the liberal voters and the poster boy for what liberalism is supposed to be.  Curiously, it was not a label he would have given to himself and in younger years he was more the conservative side.  But by the time he won the California primary on that fateful June night in 1968, he had morphed into a different candidate whose vision was becoming embraced by a growing numbers of American, many of them younger voters disillusioned by Washington.  Kennedy has begun to embrace his new popularity and Halberstam captures the change in this short remark:

“Kennedy, once a conservative, then an unannounced and reluctant liberal whose credentials were regularly challenged by more orthodox liberals, was by 1967 pursuing a course of increasing radicalism-proffering more radical ideas and taking on, from people like Lowenstein, more radical advice.” 

We learn in the book that initially Kennedy was reluctant to enter the presidential race and was essentially talked into it by many people.  Some thought he should wait until 1972 but others felt that just as 1960 was his brother Jack’s time, 1968 was the year for Bobby to retake the throne from Johnson and secure it from the hands of Nixon.  Eventually Bobby caved and as the campaign picked up steam, Halberstam was there along the way to capture the hits and misses while providing an expert analysis of where the campaign had scored and where it had miscalculated.  And what we see is the evolution of a figure in American political history that has no comparison.

Readers in search of a biography of Kennedy will not find it here and should instead take a look at Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.’s Robert Kennedy and His Times, which is a intimate and extensive account of Kennedy’s life.  The 1968 battle for president is the focus and Kennedy is the latecomer who completely changes the game.  Lyndon Johnson’s decision to suddenly withdraw his name for consideration remains one of the most shocking presidential moments in American history.  Whether he did it because of Kennedy’s intention to run we may never know for sure but there is a high probability that the announcement by Kennedy did play a part in Johnson’s final decision.  Halberstam explores the issue here and while he believed that Johnson did step down instead of facing Kennedy, it is also clear that by 1968, the Johnson Administration was in rough shape.  And although he was still popular across America, Johnson did not have the aura that surrounded Bobby.

With Johnson cast to a minor role, the book shifts focus on to the battle between Bobby and Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005). It is here that we see the true transformation of Bobby as he goes to head to head with a seasoned politician whom some thought to be the successor to Lyndon Johnson.  Bobby comes in armed with familiar faces still loyal to fallen brother Jack and the Kennedy name.  McCarthy is no lightweight and the battle heats up quickly.  Halberstam does a masterful job of reporting first hand but when necessary, letting the figures speak for themselves through public statements and off-hand quotes in the heat of the moment. It is a step back in time when America was at a crossroads as a war and civil rights were the most important and most dividing issues in households across the country.

The issue of race is found throughout the book and it is no secret that Kennedy became a fierce defender of civil rights in later years. He was outspoken in his criticism of the American way of life that had treated blacks negatively for too many years. And while this stance did cost him politically in some regions, it also earned him the support of millions of others. Halberstam brings the past to live as we see just how tense America had become in the 1960s as young men died in Vietnam, racial violence escalated and prominent figures were gunned down.  As my dad always says “the 60s were scary son”.

A truly tragic part of the book is the realization that America is still fighting some of the same battles today domestically.  Social unrest and civil rights have not gone away as we have seen this year.  But I do believe that we can correct course and point out country in the right direction.  Kennedy also believed this and was determined to see this happen had he been elected.  Sadly, he did not live long enough and his murder remains one of the darkest moments in American history.  The book ends before his murder but Halberstam writes more than enough to capture Kennedy’s unfinished odyssey.  Robert Kennedy once said that Kennedy once said that tragedy was a tool for the living to learn from, not by which to live. I carry those words with me always as a reminder that we do have to be the change we wish to see.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0394450256
ISBN-13: 978-0394450254

Bowie: The Biography – Wendy Leigh

20201006_091423On January 11, 2016, the music legend David Bowie (1947-2016) died peacefully at his home with his family by his side following a nearly two year battle with cancer.  His passing deeply affected fans and he is fondly remembered as one of the most eccentric stars in music history.  His high profile marriage to former model Iman,  is one of the visions most recalled by fans of the late star.  But prior to finding his soulmate in Iman, David Bowie had crafted a persona over the course of several decades and to say that it was a wild ride would be an understatement. Author Wendy Leigh takes a look at his life in this biography that is sure to keep you asking for more.

Anyone who has followed Bowie’s career, knows very well that his life was anything but unorthodox. But how much do you know about his early life? Admittedly, my knowlege of his early life was quite limited. I knew he hailed from England but his family life prior to moving to the United States remained obscure. On a whim, my mother gave me this book to feed my appetite for books and warned me ahead of time that it was on the wild side. However, it is David Bowie and I think I would have been fooling myself to believe anything else. He was never interested in being ordinary and throughout his life, made an impression on everyone who came close to him. But the very personal David Bowie was complex and sometimes misunderstood by those who knew him best. Here, Leigh attempts to decode Bowie to show us what happened in his life to help create the larger than life figure we saw on-stage.

Readers should be aware that there is heavy emphasis on sex and drugs in the book.  Franky, this story is not for children.  From an early age, Bowie learns to experiment with sex and the list of partners he accumulates as the book progresses is nothing short of staggering. Some of the names are well-known while others are central to Bowie’s inner circle. Regardless of their level of fame, they are all part of the surreal world of intimacy surrounding the young David Bowie. If you have any aversion to sexual innuendo and unfiltered comments, then you might want to reconsider this story.  However, if you push forward, understand that Bowie embraced sex in many forms. His drug use is also a big part of the story and even Bowie himself knew he had a problem.  He kicked his habit later in life and even stopped drinking following his marriage to Iman. But the young Bowie was a large consumer of a very strong narcotic that has found itself the center of attention in many Hollywood parties.  And that addiction would lead to a life of sheer craziness that walked hand in hand with an surreal personality.

Incredibly, I noticed in the book that for all of David’s antics, nearly all of the people in his life remained devoted to him through thick and then.  There was Corinne “Coco” Schwab, his personal assistant of more than forty years, Ken Pitt (1922-2019) his publicist and of course, Mick Jaggger, a long-time close friend. Life with David Bowie was anything but normal and each plays their role to varying degrees.  Some of the stories are touching while others are out of control.  And the issue of infidelity rears its ugly head on both sides and David and Angie struggle to stay together.  Their escapades just might have put Caligua (31 August 12 – 24 January 41 A.D.) to shame. But such was the life of stars during that time and for David Bowie, he was being the person he wanted to be for better or worse.

Controversy always follows the most eccentric stars and for David it certainly did.  Accusations of being a Nazi sympathizer hounded him and his move to Berlin only fueled speculation.  But publicly, he never showed any signs of anti-Semitism or support for racial supremacy. In fact, he was well-known for his preference for black women.  And that would culiminate in his marriage to Iman that produced a daughter Alexandria. David could make statements to raise eyebrows but he never intended on being “normal”.  He saw life through a different set of eyes and his persona was what mattered in public.

The book is filled with wild escapades and those on the more prudish sight might recoil.  However,  he does come full circle and towards the end of the book, he has made the odyssey from a young explorer of sexuality to devoted husband and father whose passion for music never wavers.  I did notice that the section regarding his later years was shorter than the rest of the book and I would have like to have seen more material included on his later years.  The book was published in 2014, two years before his death so there is no information regarding his cancer diagnosis and the long battle that ensued. Regardless, I do believe that the book is a great introduction to the life of David Robert Jones, known to the world infinitely as David Bowie.

ISBN-10 : 9781476767079

ISBN-13 : 978-1476767079

1984- George Orwell

2015-04-28_14301947431This weekend, I took advantage of some free time this weekend to revisit this classic book by the late author George Orwell (1903-1950). I had been thinking about it for some time as I watched news to remain aware of the continuing Covid-19 pandemic and developments in China, in particular Beijing’s efforts to place Hong Kong firmly in its grip.  North Korea increased tensions with South Korea by termination diplomatic relations and destroying the joint liaison office used for meetings between world powers and Pyongyang. The world seems to be at the brink of anarchy as right-wing figures rise to power and in the process take their nations in a different course away from progressivism.  In some nations, the state becomes the face of nation and party rules over the individual.  Essentially, in the years since this book was written, we have seen the rise of what Orwell called Big Brother. 

When he wrote this book in 1949, I do not believe that Orwell had any idea that this book would become the blueprint for the totalitarian police states we see in existence today.  This book became so popular that not only is it assigned reading for many students but it was also adapted for the silver screen in 1984 by Michael Radford.  The film of the same name was released on March 22, 1985 and starred John Hurt and the late Richard Burton.  Since that time, it has remained a masterpiece about the watchful eyes of the government and is often cited during discussions about invasion of privacy and overreach by the government.

The main character is Winston Smith, a party worker in the Records Department within the Ministry of Truth, whose job it is to re-write the past according to Big Brother’s doctrine. He is married but separated from his wife Katherine who appears briefly in the story and always in the past. He suffers from an ulcer that will not heal and spends his days re-writing the past using the new language Newspeak.  He has no life outside of the party and his daily existence is a repetition of the prior day.  Winston does his job with no emotion and deep down he does not believe in Big Brother.  His co-workers Syme and Parsons tow the party line and make every effort to show allegiance to the state. 

By chance, Winston meets a young lady in the department named Julia.  At first she is elusive but the two eventually become close, too close for comfort according to Big Brother.  They seek refuge at the residence of Mr. Charrington and believe their meetings are discreet.  Both are committed in their belief that Big Brother is a fraud and that their way of life cannot continue to exist in that form.  The pair are called into the office of a party higher-up named O’Brien and in his presence they confess their true feelings. O’Brien invites them to the Brotherhood and they leave with strict instructions as to how to move forward. But the main requirement is that they read the book by Emmanuel Goldstein, the radical figure who remains the target of the “Two Minutes of Hate” program aimed at discrediting his reputation.  Winston eventually gets his hands on the book and during a tryst with Julia, begins to read the book to her. But unbeknownst to them, things were about to take a dark turn for the worst and Big Brother was about to make his presence felt. 

The final part of the book is without question the best.  As O’Brien’s true role becomes clear, the reality of Big Brother’s endgame becomes hauntingly clear.  The party’s slogan that War in Peace, Freedom is Slavery and Ignorance is Strength, are reinforced sadistically by O’Brien.  His goal is get Winston to see what Big Brother truly is but to do that he must break him down and rebuild again.  Today we would call it “re-education” as it was known in Communist China, North Vietnam and other state-controlled nations.  The full party doctrine comes flowing out of O’Brien’s mouth and there is one line in particular that sums up the party’s stance: 

Individually, no member of the Party owns anything, except petty personal belongings. Collectively, the Party owns everything in Oceania, because it controls everything and disposes of the products as it thinks fit.”

Winston still struggles to understand what Big Brother really is and resists submitting to O’Brien’s will. But he soon begins to break down and O’Brien delivers this mental blow which is the crux of the police state:

“Does Big Brother exist?” “Of course he exists. The Party exists. Big Brother is the embodiment of the Party.” “Does he exist in the same way as I exist?” “You do not exist,” said O’Brien.

The genius of the book is that we don’t know exactly who the master controller is for there is no one person that assumes the title.  Rather, it is a cohesive system of observation and persecution that reminds the citizens of the loss of their rights, freedoms and privacy.  As technology advances and the control of society is increased, we can look back to Orwell’s timeless literary work as a premonition of what is to come. Some countries have already adopted what is contained within these pages. North Korea instantly comes to mind. Orwell’s classic is also the reason why those of us who live in democracies should cherish the freedoms that we do have because if we do not, we may find ourselves ending up like Winston and Julia.

ISBN-10: 1943138435
ISBN-13: 978-1943138432


The Nazis Next Door: How America Became a Safe Haven for Hitler’s Men – Eric Lichtblau

nazisSeventy-five years have passed since Germany suffered defeat in World War II. Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) escaped justice by shooting himself with a pistol after watching Evan Braun (1912-1945) succumb to the ingestion of a poison laced capsule. Allied forces had hoped to put Hitler on trial for the whole word to see but the Austrian menace had no desire to fall into their hands.  While the hunt was on for other high-ranking Nazi officials, a secret operation was underway to bring hundreds of Hitler’s former conspirators to the United States as Washington began to prepare for the Cold War against the Soviet Union.  The mission was given the name Operation Paperclip and during its existence, some of the most notorious figures of the Third Reich were given a free pass to America and welcomed with open arms. Author Annie Jacobsen thoroughly examined the secret plan in her best-selling book Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America.  The book is eye-opening and shocking, however it is far from the full story.  In fact, there were are more former Nazis hiding in America during and after World War II, sometimes right in plain sight.  Eric Lichtblau revisits the stories of the Nazis next door. 

The tone of the book is set early as we go back in time to a meeting with former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Allen Dulles (1893-1969) and Nazi General Karl Wolff (1900-1984) in which Wolff offers his services in getting Germany to surrender. The working relationship established that night was only the beginning of a long and dark association between the United States Government and the Third Reich’s former henchmen. Today, the thought of such a think taking place is bound to cause repulsion. But as World War II came to a close, Washington was focused on Moscow and was willing to take any help it could get in fighting off the threat of communism. And this paranoia of a red scare, encouraged officials to make deals with devils who had once taken part in the deaths of thousands of prisoners in concentration camps across Europe as the Final Solution began to take shape and German soldiers embarked on a rampage across the continent.

Here, the focus is on a select few former Nazis of high importance. And while there were probably hundreds of former guards and Wehrmacht soldiers who entered the United States, it would have been impossible for the author to have included all of their stories here. However, the select group of figures that we do learn of, are a fitting representation of the true horrors that came about through Nazi terror. The list is short but the story of each brings the past to life when Jews and other ethnic groups were being systematically murdered in mass numbers. Of the more prominent names, there is Dr. Hubertus Strughold (1898-1986) who was appointed Chief Scientist at the Aerospace Medical Division of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The former nightmare to imprisoned Jews was given passage to America where he lived out a comfortable life and evaded Nazi hunters determined to see him face justice. We also learn of Hermine Braunsteiner (1919-1999) who slipped out of Germany and eventually settled in my hometown of New York City in Maspeth, Queens. Their names and places of residence are largely forgotten today and had it not been for zealous federal investigators, their former lives may have never been revealed, allowing them to live the quiet and peaceful life they denied to thousands of others as they inflicted death and destruction of those they deemed undesirable.

The amount of research that it took to complete this book is undoubtedly staggering. It is an incredible story chock full of crucial information that remains relevant even today, seven decades after the war. Further, although much time has passed since Germany’s surrender, there may be some former Nazis still living on American soil, having blended into society with their Nazi past carefully hidden. However, those in power in the CIA and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) were fully aware of the Nazis coming into America. But the coming war against Moscow outweighed any concerns about former Nazi death dealers. The brazen willingness to accept these dark figures is on display in the book and the statements made by even the most revered heroes in American history might cause the mouths of readers to drop in amazement. In particular, the words of former Gen. George S. Patton (1885-1945) sent a chill down my spine and made me question if the goal was to eradicate Hitler and his group of racists demons or simply to prove that America could win against Germany while turning a blind eye to anti-Semitism.

I have no doubt that many readers will find themselves stewing over the incredulous deals made with the Nazis. These secrets initially remained carefully hidden from the public light but eventually word got out and when it did, red-faced officials in the government knew they had a problem. A young independent hunter of Nazis named Charles R. Allen, Jr. (1924-2004) kick-started the movement to cleanse America of Third Reich conspirators. And while he was not a law enforcement officer or prosecutor, his actions which are covered here in the book highlight the intense passion with which he and others would employ in tracking down the enforcers of death. As the shock over America’s recruitment of Nazis began to dissipate and the truth about these figures came to light, the movement to hunt them down grew far more intense. And as the story here moves forward, prosecutors and politicians join together in the search for the former Nazis. Former Congresswoman Elizabeth Holtzman enters the story and takes charge against the Nazi menace lurking under the surface. She is joined by crusaders from the Justice Department who make it their life’s mission to track the former murderers down. And the result is an account that is riveting for its highs and also for its lows as the Justice Deparment scores victories and suffers a humiliating defeat as in the case of John Demjanjuk (1920-2012). The story is contained within and it is sure to leave readers speechless.

Just when you think the story is done, the author has even more to provide. And in addition to the stories of Nazis in America, Lichtblau also sheds light on the close working relationship between American intelligence and former Nazis still living on Germany soil whom the U.S. felt could be useful in gathering intelligence on the growing Soviet threat. The Nazi hunters left no stone unturned including many in other countries, even as far away as Lithuania as Justice Department investigator searched for any evidence he could find on Aleksandras Lileikis (1907-2000) who was eventually deported to Lithuania in 1996. It was clear to all who were paying attention, that Nazis were not safe anywhere and the Justice Department’s Nazi division was determined to see their targets face justice. Incredibly, not all in Washington were on board and the Nazi hunters faced opposition sometimes in the most unexpected places. Former Assistant to the President for Communications Pat Buchanan, served in the administration of Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and his actions that are highlighted in the story should leave any upstanding American hot under the collar. As I read the book, I found myself staring in disbelief at what I was reading. It makes one wonder just how committed some were in seeing the Nazis pay for their past crimes. And Buchanan was not alone. The Nazis even garnered support in their neighborhoods from other immigrants displaced from Europe and others in high positions of power. The truth is dark, disturbing and ugly, and will surely leave readers with more questions than answers.

We may never know how many former Nazis found a new life in America. Some may still be alive and living right under our noses. They will more than likely pass on quietly with the truth of their former lives and occupations carefully guarded secrets. But the truth about how many of them came to America is discussed here in a book that everyone can find value in. It is a painful reminder of the lengths to which America was willing to go in the Cold War against the Soviet Union and global domination.


Lincoln Assassinated!! The Firsthand Story of the Murder, Manhunt, Trial and Mourning: A Library of America Special Publication – Harol Holzer

LincolnThe assassination of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), remains a pivotal moment in American history when the nation was truly at a crossroads.  A brutal civil war had just ended and millions of former slaves found themselves unsure of their future post-bondage.  The former Confederacy was left in shambles and the Radical Republicans were intent on reconstructing the south in the model of the Union as a whole.  Lincoln, was either loved or hated depending on who you asked. In the Confederacy, there was no love lost when he was murdered and as Jefferson Davis (1809-1889) bluntly stated: “Well, General, I don’t know; if it were to be done at all, it were better that it were well done; and if the same had been done to Andy Johnson, the beast, and to Secretary Stanton, the job would then be complete.”  Investigators had tried to link Davis to the assassination but the former Confederate leader was never tried or convicted for Lincoln’s murder. The crime cast a dark cloud over the nation and millions of American went into mourning at the loss of the fallen leader.  Author Harold Holzer takes us back in time as we re-live the murder and events that followed as they happened in 1865.

The author opens with a brief description of events at Ford’s Theater as Lincoln and his wife Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) watched the play Our American Cousin. Around 10:15 p.m, a stage actor named John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865) fired a single shot sending a derringer bullet barreling into the back of Lincoln’s head, mortally wounding him and changing American history. The assassin made a quick escape as he jumped down to the stage and uttered the infamous words “sic semper tyrannus”. Pandemonium ensued as doctors and guards rushed to Lincoln’s side. But doctors quickly realized that the president was beyond help. He was moved to the dwelling of William A. Petersen and at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, Lincoln succumbed to his wounds. The shocking murder of the president sent shockwaves across the city and nation but before long, authorities knew the identity of the man they were looking forward and his conspirators including Lewis Powell (1844-1865) who had also attacked Secretary of State William Seward (1801-1872). The chain of events comes roaring back to life through cables to Washington, newspaper articles and statements from witnesses and the even the officer who shot and fatally wounded Booth, Sgt. Boston Corbett (1832-1894), whose own life story is beyond puzzling.

At the beginning of the chapter’s the author provides relevant information to help the reader keep things in context but lets the writer of the letter or article presented do the talking. A majority of the statements are from those who knew Lincoln and loved him while at least who are from Southern sympatizers who rejoiced at the news of his death. Their statements are also included and some readers may find themselves filling with anger at the words. Remarkably, even those who had once mocked Lincoln, found the appropriate words of endearment for the fallen president. Journalists and politicians alike make amends in the book while offering their words to Lincoln’s memory. Today it may be hard for some to appreciate how loved Lincoln was by many during his time even in spite of his detractors. Included in the book is this statement by historian George Bancroft (1800-1891) that truly captures the majority of opinions at the time:

How shall the nation most completely show its sorrow at Mr. Lincoln’s death? How shall it best honor his memory? There can be but one answer. He was struck down when he was highest in its service, and in strict conformity with duty was engaged in carrying out principles affecting its life, its good name, and its relations to the cause of freedom and the progress of mankind. Grief must take the character of action, and breathe itself forth in the assertion of the policy to which he fell a victim. The standard which he held in his hand must be uplifted again higher and more firmly than before, and must be carried on to triumph. – George Bancroft (1800-1891)

What I did notice in many of the statements provided is that the issue of slavery always remained prevalent. Some speakers addressed it head on while others included as an addition to their main point. But what is clear in the book is that the issue continued to be a hot topic of discussion with many wondering how the United States would move forward with millions of freed black men and women. Reconstruction was the goal of Lincoln and his associates in Congress but their efforts would be undermined by Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson (1808-1865) who narrowly escaped impeachment in 1868.

The constitution was weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of prominent figures who sought to carry on Lincoln’s legacy and make America’s black population a legitimate part of the American experience. But first, Lincoln’s funeral needed to be held and sadly, even with him lying in state and on his way to the grave, blacks would feel the wrath of discrimination as they were initially barred from the funeral procession. It truly is mind-boggling but did actually happen and the criticism leveled at the Common Council in New York City is included as well. The order was defied and reversed but left a sour taste in the mouths of blacks who had already experienced their share of indignations at the hands of bigots. Outrage ran so high that even the Secretary of War Edward Stanton (1814-1869) stepped in and personally ordered that blacks be permitted to march in the funeral procession. As I read this part of the book, I shook my head in disbelief. But this was America in 1865.

The amount of speakers who appear in the book is extensive and include Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and Confederate Vice-President Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883) whose statements in tribute to Lincoln may surprise some readers. As to how sincere Stephens was in his words regarding slavery, we shall never truly know. However, he did show Lincoln the utmost respect in death even if they were at odds during the war and made the following proclamation:

Indulge me a moment upon this subject of the institution of slavery, so called, in the Southern States. Well, Mr. President and Mr. Speaker, it was not an unmitigated evil. It was not, thus much I can say, without its compensations. It is my purpose now, however, to bury, not to praise, to laud, “nor aught extenuate.” – Alexander H. Stephens (1812-1883)

The above quote is just a sample of the extensive amount of statements in the book that are crucial in American history. They are voices in history who were guiding the republic as America split in half and nearly destroyed itself. Lincoln sought to preserve the Union and had preferred to avoid conflict but was left with no choice but to wage war. The conflict had been a long and brutal campaign but the president had his eyes set on the future and how to move America forward. But on April 14, 1865, an assassin’s bullet put an end to his goals. The world would see a similar event take place in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. Old Abe as he was sometimes called is fondly remember as the first Republican President and an astute politician who came from a simple background in Kentucky. And at the time of his death, he stood ready to move America forward. His death was a profound loss to the nation and that sorrow is captured here perfectly. As I read the book I felt as if I stepped back in time and had been provided with a ring side seat as a president was mourned and the hunt for an assassin was on.

The focus remains mostly on Lincoln but Holzer does discuss the arrests and fates of the conspirators Lewis Powell, David Herold (1842-1865), George Azterodt (1835-1965), John Surratt (1844-1916), Mary Surratt (1823-1865) and Dr. Samuel Mudd (1833-1883). Of the group, Powell, Herold, Atzerodt and Mary Surratt were sentenced to death and she became the first woman in American history to be executed. The group mounted their defenses and the statements by their attorneys are included as part of the author’s discussion on the investigation and convictions that followed. The attempts by defense lawyers were admirable if not also quite ludicrous. Authorities had the guilty parties and left no stone unturned as they hunted Lincoln’s killers. It was a conspiracy in the making from the beginning and the trail of evidence is presented out in the book. However, neither at that time or in the years that followed, has there been any evidence conclusively linking anyone in the Confederacy’s highest level of government to the crime.

America continues to grapple with race and equality but we have the tools and the will to continue the goal of improvement life for all. And as we embark on our path for true equality we can look back at the life and death Abraham Lincoln as a reminder of just how far we have come as a nation and where we should want to go. Old Abe’s ghost will always be with us and he will continue to be lauded as one of the greatest presidents in Unites States history. Great book.


He Was My Chief: The Memoirs of Adolf Hitler’s Secretary – Christa Schroeder

Christa Recently, I reviewed the memoir of Traudl Junge (1920-2002) who served as one of Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) secretaries during World War II.  Her book, Hitler’s Last Secretary is highly regarded as an intimate account of what Hitler was like behind closed doors. Hers is not the only book written by those who knew Hitler personally but it is undoubtedly one of the most interesting. Another secretary, Christa Schroeder (1908-1984), compiled this memoir about her life under Hitler during the war.  And although the book does not reveal anything groundbreaking, it is interesting in its own right. 

In comparison to Junge’s account, Schroeder’s also focuses on Hitler but takes a slightly different path in discussions about his association with various women whether friends or more intimate such as the case with Eva Braun (1912-1945). Some may be tempted to write off what she says about Braun as irrelevant gossip but I think she included it because of how Braun eventually became part of Hitler’s story. Schroeder points out in the book that before the end of the war, most people had no idea who Braun was. Hitler never publicly acknowledge being acquainted with any woman and always said that he belonged to Germany. His destiny as he saw it, was to lead the nation on a path of domination over Europe and if possible, the rest of the world. However, even Hitler had a softer side and it is clearly evident here. One subject that does come up which is still not completely understood is the suicide of his niece Angela Maria “Geli” Raubal (1908-1931). Her death just might be the critical piece of the puzzle in understanding Hitler’s future interactions with the opposite sex.

We do learn from Schroeder, that Hitler had a quite unusual relationship with his family. Today we would call it estranged and the author elaborates on the matter as follows:

“Hitler had no sense of family. His sister Paula was quite a few years younger than he was. She was a quiet, shy child and he had no great opinion of her. It may have been for the difference in their ages that he shut her out of his life. Paula lived in Vienna until the end of the Second World War, and then in Berchtesgaden until her death.”

I took notice of the irony that the most powerful man in Nazi Germany who professed never ending love for the fatherland, barely associated with his own family members. The revelation sets the stage for a Wizard of Oz type scenario in which we see the man behind the curtain. And the picture that is formed is of a person who was often at odds with nearly everything in society except his dog Blondie, beloved apple pie desserts and world domination.

Traudl Junge’s memoir is far more extensive mainly for the reason that she decided to include her life before Hitler in the book. Schroeder takes a different approach and makes no mention of childhood or life in Germany prior to joining Hitler. Readers that might be expecting a discussion of the rise of the Nazi party and Germany life prior to 1933, will not find much of it here. However, she does keep the narrative streamlined and the focus remains of the man who was her chief. She points of notable descriptions of his physique and mannerisms, some of which have been discusses elsewhere. Hitler’s trembling left hand enters the story as well as the role of the physician Theodor Morell (1886-1948). High-ranking members of the Reich and physicians were leery of Morrell and even went as far to advise Hitler of his physician’s ineptitude. Schroeder points out that:

“Dr. Brandt and Dr. Hasselbach explained to Hitler that the trembling of his left hand and gradual loss of vision were the result of the poisons in the anti-flatulence pills and that it was irresponsible of Dr. Morell to have made them freely available to be eaten like sweets.”

The subject of Hitler’s reliance on drugs is well-documented and it is widely known that before his famous meeting with Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) on July 20, 1944, Hitler had received one of Morrell’s “cocktails”. It is reported that Hitler raved non-stop for several hours. The chief was a physical and nervous wreck but remained determined to see a German victory even in the face of a clear defeat. Schroeder makes note of his changing mood and the atmosphere as the tide of the war changed and the Allies made steady progress towards Berlin. And in what could be described as surreal, the band played on.

Schroeder was given orders by Hitler to leave the bunker on April 20, 1945, and did not see what transpired in the bunker as the situation became dire and those who could leave did. Hitler refused to leave and Schroeder recalls Hitler phoning the secretaries as they were packing to depart. In the twelve years she worked for him, this was the only time that she recalled him ever using the phone to contact his secretaries. It was clear at this point that Berlin was beyond hope. Schroeder did not make it out of Germany but was instead taken into custody by Allied forces in May, 1945. On May 22, 1945, she was interviewed by Erich Albrecht, an officer of the US Counter-Intelligence Corp and the transcript is provided at the end of the book. There are no smoking guns in her answers but what I did notice was missing from the entire book was a discussion about the infamous Final Solution.

Christa Schroeder makes no mention of the Final Solution. There are no references to any camps. Unlike Traudl Junge who does acknowledge that they should have known what happening to the Jews, Schroeder says nothing. I do find it incredibly hard to believe that as Hitler’s secretary, she was unaware of what was happening to the Jews across Germany. While her position at one of Hitler’s secretaries would have isolated her from many things, the Final Solution was not a state secret. There were those who knew and many of them indeed. We will never know exactly how much she knew as she took with her to the grave, all knowledge she had about her years working for Hitler. Had she made a statement on the Final Solution and showed remorse, I believe that this book would be of more value. Sure, the book reveals a lot about Hitler but it stays completely away from his darkest fantasy, the idea of racial purity and the removal of all non-Aryan people from German society. It seems as if Germany’s darkest deed during the war was not important enough to merit even a comment in the author’s words. Schroeder is long gone but I am inclined to believe that she knew far more than she was willing to admit to and preferred to keep things close to the chest.

The number of books written about Adolf Hitler are numerous with some having much higher value than others naturally. Christa Schroeder’s account joins that group and while there is much value in what she says, there are also many questions regarding what she did not say.




Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis With a Foreword by Authur Schlesinger, Jr. – Robert F. Kennedy

rfkI have had many discussions with my father wherein he recalled his memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962.  He explained with vivid detail how he and his classmates had to take part in daily air raid drills due to the increasing threat of a nuclear holocaust.  The discovery by U.S. intelligence of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil, accelerated what was already a tense conflict. Today we refer to it as the Cold War but there were many things taking place that were anything but cold. And as former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara remarked in Errol Morris’ Fog of War,  “hell it was a hot war!”.  The stakes for the survival of the human race had been raised as high as possible and the very possibility of extinction by nuclear weapons became hauntingly real.  The public story is that at the last minute, the Soviets gave orders for naval vessels to reverse course away from Cuba and the U.S. weapons ready to be used. However, behind the scenes on both sides, there was much taking place that remained hidden from public light for years to come. Former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) kept a journal of the thirteen days that gripped the world as his brother, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963,) navigated a crisis that the world had never before seen.  Presented here are the portions he completed up to 1967.  In June, 1968, Robert Kennedy would himself be assassinated and never had the chance to revise and add on to what is written here.

The book is short and to be fair, we will never know if Kennedy had intended on adding more to his memoir. But I do feel that there is enough material here to give readers and play-by-play recap of how things developed and the why the Kennedy Administration did or did take certain actions. As a bonus, there is beautiful foreword by Author Schlesinger, Jr., (1917-2007). I do believe that it might be necessary to read the view with the understanding that we have the benefit of hindsight, something unavailable as Moscow kept up its intentions to test the young Irish Catholic American President. However, Jack Kennedy kept cool and leaned heavily on his advisors but he was not prone to blindly following advice and knew fully just how much was at stake. On both the American side and the Soviet side, hardliners were pushing for a first strike which would have set off a chain reaction and led to nuclear Armageddon. Robert understood the pressure his brother faced from Cold War warriors who hated anything Soviet and wanted to see the downfall on the U.S.S.R. Jack had come to vet his military advisors more closely after the Bay of Pigs disaster and when contemplating the advice of the joint chiefs, he makes this telling remark as relayed by Robert:

During the missile crisis Kennedy courteously and consistently rejected the Joint Chiefs’ bellicose recommendations. “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor,” he said. “If we…do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.

Throughout history, the Soviets have been portrayed as the aggressors in the conflict, who were determined to get as close to U.S. soil as possible. The installation of the missiles in Cuba with the blessing of Prime Minister Fidel Castro (1926-2016), set off a diplomatic fury and the gears at the Pentagon began to grind hard. In response to the growing Soviet threat, President Kennedy opted for a blockade over direct military action out of concerns for a chain reaction series of events that would quickly spiral out of control. On the Soviet side, there were people who wanted to avert nuclear war, primarily former Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971). The channels of communication between Jack Kennedy and Khrushchev show two men determined to avoid the unthinkable. And each was facing backlash from his own administration. The two were literally pulling at each end of the same rope. They were aided in their efforts by skilled diplomats who were eager to meet the Americans halfway. Bobby’s meeting with Anatoly Dobrynin (1919-2010) on October 27 might have been the final act that helped two nations avoid the apocalypse. There are several accounts as to the whole discussion that took place. Undoubtedly some of it is lost to history and both Kennedy and Dobrynin are deceased. However, regardless of what exactly was said, we do know that the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey was a key component in keeping the dialogue open between the two nations.

When Soviet ships reversed course, the world breathed a sigh of relief. In Washington, President Kennedy was adamant that no word of the back channel agreements be made public nor should there be any gloating about the resolution of the crisis. However, it was in fact a masterful display of diplomacy on both sides and continues to serve as a case study for the threat of nuclear war. I do wish that Robert Kennedy had lived to revise and add to his memoir of the crisis. His position as attorney general as Jack Kennedy’s younger brother, placed him in a very unique position with regards to the development of the crisis. His recollections here lay everything out for the reader to follow as the Kennedy Administration handled a crisis that threatened the planet. There are possibly many other secrets that remain hidden from the official narrative but we do have enough material to form a very significant picture of what did happen and why. Robert Kennedy’s memoir is an invaluable piece of the puzzle. Good read.