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

Nicaragua, 1961-1990 Volume 1: The Downfall of the Somosa Dictatorship – David Francois

FrancoisIn June 1987, Lt. Col. Oliver North (Ret.) gave testimony in front of the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition and the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Sales with Iran.  The hearings had cast a dark cloud over Washington and the administration of President Ronald W. Reagan (1911-2004) doubled down on anything that could be conceived as illegal pursuant to United States law.  I can still recall the shock on my father’s face when the news of the scandal broke across media outlets.  The two of us watched the nightly news to learn more about a situation that had danger written all over it.  Those who remember the Iran-Contra affair most likely have images in their minds of North testifying in his military dress before Congress.  Details of the Reagan administration’s covert plans became unraveled but the full truth about the affair remained elusive for many years.  The sale of weapons to foreign nations did not surprise me at all and military hardware has always been big business.  But what did catch my attention was the atmosphere in Central America, a region that suffered extensively due to Washington’s support of dictatorships thirsty for blood and determined to crack down on all opposition. 

Over the years I have made the acquaintance of men and women who fled El Salvador at the height of the nation’s civil war. And the stories they have told me have remain firmly entrenched in my mind as examples of how much suffering occurred to innocent people who were forced to leave the only home they had ever known.  In Nicaragua, revolution and turmoil had taken place as the Sandinista National Liberation Front successfully forced the Somoza regime to flee into exile.  The victory by the Sandinistas caused anger and embarrassment in Washington which was determined not to let the leftist remove the puppet government it preferred.  However, the people of Nicaragua had other plans and wanted a new direction for their country.  This book is the story of how the Somoza dictatorship met its end in Nicaragua.  

The author provides a good explanation on the history of Nicaragua dating back to the era of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506).  As the story moves into the 1800s, affairs in Central American begin to heat up.  Foreign governments begin to take notice of the small Central American nation and intervened in the nation’s affairs.  I was quite amazed at how involved both the United States and Britain became in the country’s policies but soon realized it was a premonition of what would follow.   A revolution in 1912 resulted in the arrival of U.S. Marines in Nicaragua and the occupation lasted until 1933.  But the local population had no desire to live under Washington’s rule at any time and a young revolutionary named Augusto César Sandino (1895-1934) was intent on seeing his country liberated from imperialist domination.  Francois tells the story with the right amount of suspense and keeps the pace flowing at the right speed to move the book forward.   It soon becomes apparent that Sandino’s time is limited, and it is not long before Nicaragua is taken over by Anastasio Somoza García (1896-1956) who placed the country in a vice grip with the assistance of his sons Anastasio Somoza Debayle (1925-1980) and Luis Somoza Debayle (1922-1967).  And for nearly fifty years they ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist and made it their personal kingdom.  But as the author explains, the revolutionaries were far from done. In fact, the Somozas had only increased the determination of the opposition to remove the family from power. 

American readers might be surprised to learn of the enormous amount of assistance Somoza received from Washington.  The United States was aware of Somoza’s tyranny yet continued to supply arms and money to the regime.  The eye-opening details provided here are bound to cause anger and shock and will cause others to wonder if “freedom” was really part of American foreign policy.  Opposition forces were continuing to mount against Somoza, and it may be challenging to keep track of the the groups that were formed.  A table of the acronyms used by the groups is included at the beginning of the book by Francois and will be helpful during the story.  The group that emerges as the main opposition force is the Sandinista National Liberation (FSLN) formed by Carlos Fonseca (1936-1976), Tomás Borge (1930-2012) and Silvio Mayorga (1934-1967).   On the side of Somoza, the Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua (GN) steps up to the plate to do battle with the FSLN and the war that breaks out is nothing short of brutal.  At this point, the story heats up significantly and readers will not want to stop reading as the suspense continues to build.  Francois’ narration of the events resurrects the past with vivid detail. 

Similar to other conflicts, Nicaragua’s war was not as cut and dry as one may have believed. In fact, the country essentially became a battleground between the right and left with Washington deeply concerned about Soviet and Chinese influence.  And as we see in the story, Beijing was fully aware of the events in Nicaragua and attempted to get into the mix.  Even Israel enters the story, and this part of the book is mind bending. Francois proves that there are many dark secrets to every conflict.  As the two sides are locked in a deadly battle, Somoza begins to lose popular support.  The initial descent of the Somoza regime into oblivion takes center stage and Francois takes us through the series of events that not only gave the Sandinistas the upper hand but also saw the disappearance of support from Washington.  At this part of the book, I had to step back for a minute and digest what I was reading.   The abrupt change in policy from Washington is a move we have seen in other places where death and destruction have taken place.  Somoza was once the darling of the U.S. policy in Central America but soon learns that when Washington no longer wants or needs your services, the cold from being hung out to dry can be chilling. 

The end for the regime finally came in July 1979 and for the administration of President James E. Carter, Jr., Somoza’s removal was long overdue. However, the new president had his hands full and the situation in nearby El Salvador was heating up.  In Nicaragua, the long road taken by the opposition had ended and the country faced a new and uncertain future.  Francois explains it best with this statement: 

“The date 19 July 1979 marked a turning point in the history of Nicaragua and the FSLN. Not only had a powerful dictatorship that reigned over the country for nearly 40 years, with the support of the US, ended, but the long and patient fight started by the Sandinistas in the early 1960s finally came to fruition.” 

The Carter administration continued its policy of reigning in dictators in Central America yet failed to completely achieve its goal.  In January 1981, a former actor and one-time Governor of California took office and his policy towards Central America and the “threat” of Soviet influence helped plunge Central America further into chaos.  Congress initially had no idea just how deadly things had become but it soon learned and what was revealed remains one the darkest moments in U.S. foreign policy.  And the key to understanding those events is the story here about the Somoza downfall that had ramifications which spread across Latin America. 

Readers who find this book to highly informative will appreciate Raymond Bonner’s Weakness and Deceit: America’s and El Salvador’s Dirty War and Malcolm Byrne’s Iran Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power.  Both are exceptional accounts of America’s involvement in Central American affairs.  Francois has a winner here and I am eagerly anticipating volume two.   

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B07RPBY857

The Six Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East – Guy Larson

larson

On May 14, 1948, Israel was formally declared an independent state with David Ben Gurion (1886-1973) being appointed as the first prime minister. Over the objection of both diplomats and officials in the military, the administration of President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) gave its support that same day. This historical event set in motion a chain of events that has resulted in a political and social divide across the Middle East that culminated with the Six-Day War in June 1967 in which Israeli armed forces launch strategic and coordinated attacks against several Arab nations. The conflict was brief but it changed the Middle East and heightened tensions between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors. Prior to the conflict tensions had been brewing between Israel and the Arab world with war hawks on both sides pushing for military action. But the questions remains, was the war preventable? And what exactly did happen to kick off the battle that last only six days? Author Guy Laron addresses those questions and many others in this spellbinding investigative account in the battle that broke the Middle East.

Though I continue to learn the history of the Middle East, I sometimes feel that there is much about the region lost to the west. American intervention in Middle Eastern affairs was at times sorely misguided as I learned in the book. The story of the war begins many years prior to 1967 and Laron assembles the pieces of the puzzle. And to dissuade readers from any idea that the war was a “total victory” he explains somberly that:

“The Six-Day War seemingly ended in one of the swiftest victories in modern history; in reality, the new post-1967 lines created new war zones, especially along the Suez Canal, where the warring sides were conducting a six-year trench warfare, which ended only with a bold assault by the Syrians and the Egyptians in 1973.”

Essentially, the conflict produced a domino effect that has never been resolved. The author provides a thorough and informative discussion on Middle Eastern history but only as far back as needed to set up the remainder of the book. And the country that takes center stage is the nation of Egypt under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970). This part of the story I found highly fascinating due to the discussion regarding Egypt’s relationship with the United States. Similar to Vietnam, decisions made in Washington could have changed history had another course of action been taken with regards to foreign policy. I felt a chill run down my spine as I learned of the deterioration in relations between Nasser and Washington. The refusal to support Egypt’s goal of becoming a major player on the world stage is regrettable and I believe it is a lost moment that quite possibly could have altered the course of history. Readers may find themselves staring in disbelief at the treatment Egypt received from its American ally. Nasser himself also felt the chill and realized that Egypt could not depend on Washington in the long run.

On the other side of the spectrum, the relationship between Washington and Israel is scrutinized allowing readers to learn of the actions behind the scene that help propel Israel towards the military campaign in 1967. Similar to Egypt, war hawks had been read for some time to launch an offensive against the Arab nations. Despite the pressure in place by hawks, the call for attack had been resisted by the fairly moderate Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (1895-1969) who was not overly anxious to ignite a major conflict in the Middle East. Further, Washington had refrained from giving its support while signaling it would not interfere. America was playing both sides while at the same time keeping its eye on the Soviet Union whose entry into world affairs was always a concern. Although the conflict was not an extension of the Cold War, its presence can be felt at times. And the picture that emerges in the book is one of multiple parties all playing their own games while a major conflict hangs in the balance.

Behind the scenes, the discussions between Washington and Israel were not as fluid as one may believe. In fact, more than once, the allocation of funds had been reduced and two presidents had threatened to severely reduce financial aid should war break out. As the mantle passes from Truman to Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969), the tone from Washington becomes sterner. Eisenhower had seen the effects of war up close was had no desire to take part in the ignition of a major conflict. His successor, John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) had even less desire and made it clear that Israel was to take part in the nuclear arms reduction plan his administration had set in place. This part of the book caught my attention because it is a part of the Kennedy presidency that receives very little attention. Prior to his death in November 1963, Kennedy had been applying pressure on Ben Gurion to open the Dimona nuclear facility for inspection. Israel had stalled forcing Kennedy to threaten to reduce financial aid in an attempt to get Tel Aviv to fall in line with his arms reductions plan. To illustrate just how heated the issue became, Laron explains that:

“Kennedy persisted and in mid-May 1963 sent Ben-Gurion his toughest letter yet, making clear that he would not budge and allow an Israeli nuclear bomb to jeopardize his administration’s campaign against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. A month after receiving that letter, Ben-Gurion stepped down as prime minister.”

After Kennedy’s death, the Dimona reactor never became an issue and the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) had his eyes and thoughts focused elsewhere, in particular the growing crisis in Vietnam. There are no conspiracy theories in the book about Kennedy’s murder but the issue of Dimona is a crucial part in understanding who would have benefited from Kennedy’s removal. I leave it to the reader to take it from there.

The story picks up in pace under Johnson’s administration. Tel Aviv realized that the new president was not following Kennedy’s course on several major issues. One of them was the growing tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Indochina had begun to consume Johnson who was also pushing forward on the domestic front with his Great Society programs. However, his actions with regards to weapons hardware across the Middle East are equally as surprising as the events surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin. I could not believe what I was reading and wondered to myself what Washington’s endgame really was because it helped set the stage for what was to come in 1967. It soon becomes apparent that Israel has more freedom to carry out its own plans under Johnson’s watch. And the incident involving the USS Liberty still remains one of the more puzzling of that year. Laron does not go into the story extensively but does mention the attack. Egypt also fared differently under Johnson but certainly not in the way it would have desired. In fact, Laron explains that:

“As for Nasser, he seemed to have realized that the game was no longer worth the candle. Eisenhower and Kennedy had allowed Egypt to pay for US wheat with its own currency, which it could print at will. Johnson, however, insisted on Egypt paying in dollars, which it lacked due to its severe economic situation.”

Johnson was in no rush to nor had the desire to appease the Arab world. His main goal was the defeat of Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) and the North Vietnamese government. Tel Aviv is keenly aware of this and plans are set into motion for the ultimate offensive. But was the attack a surprise? Laron reveals a lot of interesting facts about Egyptian operations prior to the conflict that produce more questions than answers. Further, the most crippling part of the Egyptian defense network comes across as one of the simplest components that should have been addressed but was not. Had it been, the war might have ended differently or never have taken place. The glaring inadequacy reveals fundamentally different aspects between Israeli and Egyptian society that highlights the importance of military intelligence.

More than fifty years have passed since the Six-Day War but its effects are still being felt today across the Middle East. The Gaza Strip remains a hotbed for clashes and only time will tell if true peace and a solution will become a reality. Anyone seeking to understand the region will find this book to be invaluable. It is a step back in time during a decade when political upheaval was occurring around the globe. War and conflict were constant reminders of the savageness of man that would have to be addressed for future generations. However old wounds must be addressed and allowed to heal before humanity can truly move forward. This book is a definitive account of the Six-Day War and its profound effect on the Middle East. Highly recommended.

ASIN‏: B01NAZJWSK

How the Other Half Lives (Iluustrated): Studies Among the Tenements of New York – Jacob A. Riis

riisA few weeks ago, my family had its first gathering in nearly two years.  The even took place at Jacob A. Riis Park in Queens, New York.  As I walked the boardwalk next to the beach, I wondered how many people there knew the story of Jacob A. Riis (1849-1914) for whom the park is named. In 1890 this book by Riis was published and more than one hundred years later is stands as a  crucial piece of writing about the island of Manhattan.  At the time Riis wrote the book, the City of New York had yet to be incorporated.  That occurred eight years later on January 1, 1898.  His focus here is on the tenements in lower Manhattan and the different ethnic groups that inhabited the area.  And though New York has changed significantly in the years since Riis wrote this book, the gap between the wealthy and poor still remains wide.

Riis personally visited the tenements and made his observations regarding the people who called the them home.  And what he reveals is not entirely shocking but should serve as a reminder that before the skyscrapers rose across Manhattan, many parts of the island were home to families on all income levels and poverty was more common that some may think.  And in the area that was once known as the Five Points, life was tougher and deadlier.  The pictures that emerge from Riis’ work show two different worlds that exist in the same city.  The wealthy lived comfortably further uptown but, in the tenements, it was hell on earth.  In the tenements we find immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Poland, China, and various other places from which they departed.  All were in search of a better life in America but found themselves at the bottom of the social ladder where they were joined there by black Americans who had struggled to fit into American society in the wake of the Civil War and the failed Reconstruction Acts.  Riis gets up close and personal with each group and leaves us his thoughts which are sure to raise eyebrows.

I do warn readers that the author uses coarse language at times and his references to some groups and areas would never make it past a publisher’s desk today.   More than once I winced at his use of such terms as “Chinaman” and “Jewtown”.   But I also realize that in 1890 this style of writing was perfectly acceptable.  And despite the terms he chooses for certain discussions, Riis’ goal of shedding light on how the other half lived is thoroughly accomplished.  And the illustrations that are included help to reinforce the message he is delivering.  Today it might seem unreal that such conditions existed in New York, but they did, and the tenements were beyond deplorable.  Disease, hunger, crime, and despair could be found all over, and many met early deaths trying to survive in the depths of hell.  Their stories are consolidated here through Riis’ storytelling that is engaging and will keep readers tuned in and rooting for the underdog.  Riis is also rooting for them as well and fully understand the challenges they face.  To make that point clear he explains to the reader that:

“The poorest immigrant comes here with the purpose and ambition to better himself and, given half a chance, might be reasonably expected to make the most of it. To the false plea that he prefers the squalid homes in which his kind are housed there could be no better answer. The truth is, his half chance has too long been wanting, and for the bad result he has been unjustly blamed.”

Those words are still true today.  Readers who are also history buffs may recall that only eight years prior to the publication of this book, Congress had passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which was signed into law by President Chester A. Arthur. The legislation prohibited Chinese laborers from emigrating to the United States and remains one of America’s darkest legacies with regards to immigration and the Chinese-American experience.  I am sure Riis was cognizant of that fact and fully understood how and why the Chinese neighborhoods developed into what they became.  I found him to be fair for the most part in his descriptions of the tenements but there were times where his words are slightly menacing.  But interestingly, Riis is aware of it and mentions it on occasion as he explains the various areas of the tenements.   However, there is one group for which he seems to be far harsher upon than others: the Arab/Bohemian.  I cannot say why his words about the Bohemians were as sharp as they were, but his criticism of the group is significant in the book.  Sadly, even today America’s Muslims are not always fully understood and anti-Arab discrimination is still an issue within our borders.  In all fairness, Riis never goes as far to mercilessly bash them or try to incite violence upon them.  But I do feel that perhaps he was a little too critical of an immigrant group that has strived for acceptance.

There are many redeeming moments in the book and Riis does make sure to point the great things about the various ethnic groups.  And that is what is so striking about the book.  His casual use of terms and descriptions could be taken as slightly bigoted, but he never fails to give praise where praise is due.  And when it comes to the Negro population, he is brutally honest in the treatment blacks had received in America and how their lives have suffered because of it.  I could feel while reading the book that his time in the tenements allowed him to understand the challenges immigrants faced as arrived in America.  Faced with a new culture, new language, and exposure to ethnic groups they may have only heard about, immigrants in New York during the 1800s did what was needed to survive and for many, life in the tenements was their daily reality.  Lower Manhattan looks different today but at one time the Five Points was a battle zone and life was not guaranteed.  It was here that the other half lived.  Riis, however, was optimistic and makes this statement that I feel exemplifies at least one thing New York City will always be known for:

“New York is, I firmly believe, the most charitable city in the world. Nowhere is there so eager a readiness to help, when it is known that help is worthily wanted; nowhere are such armies of devoted workers, nowhere such abundance of means ready to the hand of those who know the need and how rightly to supply it. Its poverty, its slums, and its suffering are the result of unprecedented growth with the consequent disorder and crowding, and the common penalty of metropolitan greatness.” 

Some readers may find the book to be difficult at times due to Riis’ descriptions of the tenements.  He spares very few details, but I believe that was the effect he wanted when he wrote the book.  The tenements were not a place of happiness but of hopelessness and uncertainty.  New York City is known as the melting pot and the label is accurate, but it is imperative to remember that the melting pot we have come to know has its own dark past and for hundreds of immigrants arriving in Manhattan during the 1800s, life was not a glorious as many had hoped.  These are their lives brought to life by Jacob Riis in this book that is and forever shall be part of American history.

“Long ago it was said that “one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.” That was true then. It did not know because it did not care. The half that was on top cared little for the struggles, and less for the fate of those who were underneath, so long as it was able to hold them there and keep its own seat.” – Jacob A. Riis

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B0796FFTQ4

RFK: His Words For Our Times – Robert F. Kennedy, C. Richard Allen and Edwin O. Guthman

20210724_203834In 1968, the race for the next President of the United States intensified as sitting President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) issued a public statement that he did not want, nor would he accept the nomination for his party’s candidate for the oval office.  The announcement stunned the nation and took the election in a much different direction.  The late David Halberstam (1934-2007) had been following the campaign of former Attorney General and then Senator Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968)(D-NY).  As he observed Kennedy’s evolution into a powerhouse figure, he noted that “Robert Kennedy was in many ways the most interesting figure in American politics, not only because he was a Kennedy, not only because so much of his education had taken place in the public eye—it could be traced by putting together film clips of this decade—but primarily because he was a transitional figure in a transitional year.”  Kennedy was riding a wave of popularity and had resurrected the image of Camelot that was assigned to the presidency of his older brother John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). But Bobby, as he was known, was not Jack and had seen many things that his brother did not live to experience.  His eyes had been opened to the growing gap between wealthy and poor, black, and white, and right and left. He sought to bridge those gaps and had a vision to change America. Sadly, he too was cut down by an assassin’s bullet on June 5, 1968.   His death marked the end to what Halberstam had called his unfinished odyssey. 

Each time I read about Kennedy, I find myself discovering more of his statements, speeches, and ideas.  And what is deeply intriguing is that he was the icon of liberals across America but early in his political career he undoubtedly aligned more with conservatives.  That changed with the arrival of the civil rights movement and the gritty violence that played out on the streets of America as the country moved closer to the brink of anarchy.   Kennedy was highly observant as the chief of the Justice Department and later as a senator from my home state.  Editors C. Richard Allen and Edwin O. Guthman have compiled selected speeches and comments by him and memories by those who knew him into this book that provides the platform for Kennedy to speak to us in his own words.  And if we pay close attention, we can see that there is a wealth of thought-provoking words by the fallen figure. 

John F. Kennedy is regarded as one of the most gifted orators in history.  Even today I still listen to his speeches in particular his address at American University on June 10, 1963, which is referred to historically as the “peace speech”.  His inaugural address in January 1961 is perhaps the greatest in American history.  And directive to Americans that they “ask not what your country can do for-ask what you can do for your country” are still profound over half a century later.  Though he did not possess the charm of his older sibling, Robert Kennedy was a profound speaker in his own right and the speeches he gave show his preciseness for words and the direct approach to matters which became his trademark. He minced no words and did not hesitate to act when needed.  Some referred to him as “ruthless Bobby” but statements by those who knew him and the anecdotes in this book show that he was also extremely compassionate.   Further, he was also guided by the ancient Greek author Aeschylus’ words “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world“.  Kennedy believed in America and never wavered in his goal to see society change so that all Americans regardless of race could live in peace and prosper.   The speeches he gave on the plight of black Americans and the apartheid system in South America are what needed to be said.  Frankly, he had no fear in going to places where other politicians did not dare to go.  In all fairness, Lyndon Johnson had made his own visit to Appalachia and instituted policies to help the poor through his “Great Society” platform, but Kennedy was willing to take it one step further and there is no doubt that he would have used the powers of the presidency to focus on America’s disenfranchised citizens.

I purchased the paperback but do think for anyone who wants to take notes, the Kindle version is a much better option.  Of course, the speeches included here can be found elsewhere but I found this book to be the right collection of material for anyone who wants to get an idea of where Kennedy came from and where he intended to go.   And as we move forward, we can always come back to his words here as a reference guide so that we do not continue to make the mistakes of the past.  Kennedy is long gone physically but he lives on in spirit as an integral part of the American experience.

“Freedom means not only the opportunity to know but the will to know. That will can make for understanding and tolerance, and to ultimately friendship and peace.” – Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) 

ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0062834142
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0062834140

Smuggler’s End: The Life and Death of Barry Seal – Del Hahn

sealAmericans in my age range and older will easily recall Nancy Reagan’s (1921-2016) advice to “just say no” to drugs.  At the time, America had become fully engulfed in a deadly war against the rising trafficking and use of narcotics.  The federal government continued to increase spending each year in the effort to combat drugs in America but regardless of the approach, the drugs kept coming and brought with them lengthy jail sentences, murder, and scores of addicts.  However, the drugs did not arrive without help.  Drug traffickers quickly realized that the growing market for cocaine and other hard drugs also produced large amounts of money.  Drug routes began to sprout up all over the planet as traffickers continued to find ways to elude authorities.  Stories of their exploits are plenty.  And I believe everyone knows the names of the major drug kingpins such as Pablo Escobar (1949-1993) and Joaquin Guzman known as “El Chapo”.   The bosses made the deals, but the groundwork was left to those willing to risk death and capture in a market worth billions of dollars.  Among these fearless individuals was Adler Berriman “Barry” Seal (1939-1986).  Fans of the Netflix show Narcos might recall Seal’s demise in season one.  The scene is graphic but is also a fairly accurate depiction of Seal’s final moments.  But what is missing from the show is Seal’s full background and his descent into the criminal underworld.  Rumors have persisted that Seal was working for the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) or other secret parts of the U.S. Government. But is there any truth to that?  Author Del Hahn was an agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) and worked in the Baton Rouge field office at the time Seal was under active investigation.  In this informative and gripping book, Hahn provides what may be the most accurate account of Seal’s tragic life.

Prior to reading the book, I had a fair amount of knowledge regarding Seal.  Movie buffs will recall that Tom Cruise played Seal in the 2017 film American Made.   The movie is pure Hollywood and its allegation that Seal was “recruited” by the CIA are nothing short of misleading. Hahn explores the issue at length and explains what did take place at the Mena Intermountain Airport in Mena, Arkansas as Seal was preparing to depart for a trip to South America.  Officially, the CIA has stated that Seal never worked for their agency even though it did have a presence at the airport.  Seal himself never said that he worked for the CIA.  But what is more important in the story at hand is Seal’s downfall and his work for the Drug Enforcement Agency (“DEA”).   However, before we reach that part of the book, Hahn provides a good biography of Seal, showing the twists and turns along the way even before he becomes involved in trafficking narcotics.  It is clear that Seal’s life was anything but ordinary even from an early age.   Further, I could see that Seal was an incredibly talented and articulate individual.  Readers might be surprised to learn how early he became involved in the field of aviation.  To say that flying was in his blood might be an understatement.  It will be recalled by some that he began working for Trans World Airlines (“TWA”) in 1967.   Although he was eventually terminated, he had established himself as a good pilot whose aircraft was the Boeing 707.   After leaving TWA, Seal found a new source of income in the world of smuggling.  But cocaine was not his first choice as Hahn explains as he shows the path Seal took from one drug to another.  In some instances, Seal was at the right place at the right time and around the right people.

Similar to other players in the drug game, incarceration is never far away, and Seal found himself in trouble with the law on several occasions.  But it was a major bust in an undercover sting operation by multiple law enforcement agencies that finally derailed the smuggler’s gravy train.  This is the part of the book where the story takes a sharp turn down a darker path.  At this point, Seal is fully engulfed in the cocaine business and associating with figures from the most notorious drug cartels in history.  Faced with a stiff prison sentence and additional time in other pending cases, Seal makes a life changing decision and becomes more acquainted with the DEA that some may realize.  The legal drama heightens the suspense in the story and Hahn does a solid job of putting everything in the simplest terms possible to help the story flow easily.  I personally picked up a couple of things about the Title III Wiretap law and the Brady Rule which put things into a more clarified context.  Law students and readers with an interest in criminal procedure will appreciate this part of the book.  A sub-story to the legal drama is that the author refutes some of the more outlandish rumors about Seal’s alleged “work” for the CIA or any other intelligence agency through the explanation of the wiretaps.   He also puts to rest any rumors about Seal’s connections to politicians in Washington.   Hahn states frankly that:

“Mena/CIA conspiracy buffs should take note that during the entire time the Title III wiretap was in operation, there were no conversations intercepted between Seal, Terry Kent Reed, Bill Clinton, Lt. Col. Oliver North, or any representative of the CIA.”

The real story is not as sensational as some may wish but it is crazy enough on its own to keep readers glued to the pages of this book.  Seal was a larger-than-life character with a love for the darker side of society.  And he learned that in the drug game, no one can be trusted.

We know that Seal died in February 1986 but is what we see on Narcos the full explanation?  Hahn also discusses how and why Seal was gunned down.  And as I read the account of the events leading up to his death, I shook my head at the fate in store for Seal who has no idea that he has become a pawn in a much larger and deadlier game.  As the 1980s progresses, Central America becomes a hotspot and the Reagan Administration becomes deeply involved in the war in El Salvador, events in Nicaragua and affairs in Honduras.  Ret. Lt. Col. Oliver North also makes an appearance and provides the author with a statement that I believe should help put an end to the Seal mystique.  North may be viewed suspiciously as some due to the Iran Contra affair but that is a discussion for another time. The focus here is on Barry Seal and North clears up any possible rumors about his alleged association with the notorious smuggler.

Throughout the book, not once does any information surface that Seal was anything other than a drug trafficker who got caught in an undercover operation and decided to work for the U.S. Government to help his own cause. That decision came with a heavy price, and he could not have known he was on a collision course with fate. His death while tragic, did nothing to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States. And Seal himself stated more than once that the narcotics could not be stopped by the war on drugs. Today we know that he was correct in his assessment.  Seal may have been romanticized on screen, but the truth about his life is far more bitter and less glorious.  If you want to know exactly who Barry Seal was and what really happened behind the scenes during the war on drugs, this is a must read.

ASIN: B01DJQWDJW