Month: November 2019

HueyRecently, I had been revisiting material regarding pivotal moments in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.  My focus became trained on the Black Panther Party, led by the late Huey P. Newton (1942-1989) and Bobby Seale.  The Party has been viewed in both positive and negative lights depending on the view of the person assessing its rise and effect on American society.  Newton, who later earned a Ph.D., was a charismatic and gifted orator who in turn used those skills in the form of the written word.  His autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide‘, became a classic and is widely praised by those committed to revolution both in the United States and abroad.   The book was mainly an autobiography that follows Newton from his early life Louisiana to the City of Oakland, California, where he would make his name famous and infamous.   To Die for the People takes a different approach and contains no autobiography by Newton. Instead, what we find, is a collection of selected writings and speeches by Huey, showcasing his intellect as he tackles the issues of race, class, gender and even homosexuality as they relate to the movement to which he committed his life.

The book is shorter than Revolutionary Suicide but packs a punch on its own that is powerful yet dynamic enough to reach readers from all walks of life.  Early in the book,  the Party’s 10 Point Program is included as a reference. The program serves as the basis for what follows in Huey’s words that are frank and accurate.   Most of the writings come from the period of 1968 – 1971, when the Vietnam War was still raging and the Civil Rights Movement was still moving ahead in the midst of deadly political turmoil in the United States.  Hauntingly, we can still apply his words to events that take place even today.

Newton possessed a sharp analytical mind and here he breaks down many topics and assigns terms to the concepts to make them even clearer to the reader.  I thought the discussion regarding Revolutionary Nationalism and Reactionary Nationalism was highly interesting and profound in many ways.  Anyone who’s read Newtown or heard him speak, knows that he sometimes had a flair for dramatics.  However, here he is focused and determined.   There is no room for distractions, Huey is breaking things down one portion at a time.  And the he is done, it is very clear why the book is called To Die for the People.

The Party itself is also a focus of the book. Huey does not shy away from trying to understand where the Party went wrong and what is truly needed for revolution to be successful.   He touches on subjects that have proven to be an issue within the movement such as ego, different goals, religion and even the LGBT movement.  He rightly understood that unity could transcend cultural and class lines.  It could also transcend international borders.   For Huey, the revolution here was in direct relation to revolutions everywhere and this is explained under what he refers to as revolutionary intercommunalism. To Huey, the world had to undergo revolution in order to rid itself of the grip of what he feels is the largest empire on earth: The United States.

Some readers may be apprehensive about Newton’s feelings about the United States.  But I believe that in order to understand what he means, it is necessary to view it through a much different lens.  At no point in the book, does Newton say he harbors ill will towards his own country.  But what he is saying is that the actions of a select group of people have resulted in foreign policy that has helped to destabilize and nearly destroy nations worldwide.  His words were later confirmed when the CIA was forced to admit many dark secrets of covert assassinations programs and plans to move against many governments abroad.

I was curious to see what he had to say about the Party itself and he provides some insight into the falling out with Eldridge Cleaver (1935-1998) and the actions of Stokely Carmichael (1941-1998).  These sections highlight the unfortunate incidents that served to undermine the movement and the message of the Panthers.  Huey is quite frank and his accusation against Carmichael might surprise some readers.   There is no truth to them as far as I know but there are undoubtedly many secrets that are taken to the grave.  And sadly, neither Huey, Eldridge or Stokely are alive to discuss what really did happen.  Regardless, each played a critical role in the movement and Newton recognized this as both became affiliated with the Panthers.

As sort of a bonus, Huey’s review of the Melvin Van Peebles film ‘Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song’, released in 1971.   The independent film touches on many social issues regarding Black Americans and is not the usual run of the mill production from its era.  Newton was impressed with the film and goes into detail about why he felt it was so important to Black America and his belief in the genius of Melvin Van Peebles.  If you have seen the film, you may agree with Newton or challenge some or all of his observations. Regardless, I think all can agree that the film will certainly never be forgotten by those who were part of the movement in a time where strong Black characters were needed across the country.

It has been over thirty years since Newton was gunned down on an Oakland street corner, but his wisdom, words and persona remain integral to any discussions of the Civil Rights Movement and the events in California during the 1960s.  I can only imagine what Huey would think today with regards to the current political climate and recent events across the globe.  I am sure that he would have much to say and write about where society is going wrong.   I do not know if he envisioned his premature death when he wrote but it does seem as if he knew his words would still be relevant nearly fifty years later.

ISBN-10: 0872865290
ISBN-13: 978-0872865297

Civil Rights Movement

IshikawaWhen I read the synopsis for this book, I was a bit surprised.  Stories by defectors from North Korea are not uncommon, but the name of the author caused my interest to rise.  The surname is clearly Japanese but the connection to North Korea was the part that pulled me in.  Masaji Ishikawa was born in Japan to a Japanese mother and Korean father.  In 1959, the Japanese Red Cross Society and the Korean Red Cross Society secretly negotiated a “Return Agreement”, allowing any native born North Koreans living in Japan to return to their homeland.  The General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, then initiated a repatriation campaign which reached the Ishikawa family.  His father was convinced by the league to return to North Korea in 1960, the family moved to North Korea under the illusion of a bright and prosperous future.

Soon after their arrival, the Ishikawas soon realize that North Korea is no paradise.  In fact, it was a far cry form life in Japan and over the next thirty years, they would endure trials and tribulations that will cause the reader to recoil in shock at the extent to which humans can degrade each other.  In Japan, life was good and although the family was not wealthy, they lived a stable and middle class lifestyle.  In North Korea, the facade easily cracks and the Ishikawas are now just another family in the communist regime under Kim ll Sung  (1912-1994).  The rhetoric is strong and the propaganda endless.  The people are taught that American invaders could attack at any minute and one must use Juche to become a good party member.   Young Masaji is forced to navigate this new world as a foreigner who does not speak Korean and is routinely called derogatory terms for Japanese returnees.  This was the reality that many Japanese faced while living as minorities in North Korea.

I have read other books about defectors from North Korea but this one stands out.  The author reveals life in the country and all of its gritty reality.   There are no moments of joy. In fact, as Ishikawa points out on several occassions, it is like being in hell and the misery with which the people live will undoubtedly shock some readers.  While the tanks rolled in Pyongyang and the Dear Leader gave his speeches attacking the West, the people lived a much different reality.  To readers who live in a western culture, there will be many things that make no sense at all. However, Ishikawa discusses this and explains very frankly how and why North Koreans believe what they do.   His observations about the North Korean mindset and the actions of Pyongyang are keen and an inside look into the fallacy of the Dear Leader.

One question I have always wondered to myself is if things were so rough, how did the population continue?  Ishikawa reflects on this as well.  His personal life took many twists and turns before his defection, including marriage and fatherhood.  He discusses the many challenges of bringing a child into the world and then finding support to raise a new family.  His plight and that of others who had the misfortune of coming down with an illness, highlight the climate of distrust and deception created by Pyongyang.  Human nature is on full display in the book, at times in its its ugliest form.  The actions of neighbors and those who are part of the system are a reflection of the deep social dysfunction that plagued a country in which people were simply trying to survive.  The State was succeeding with its divide and conquer technique working perfectly.

On July 8, 1994, Kim II Sung died and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-il (1947-2011).  At this point in the book, things take an even sharper turn.  What was already hell becomes Dante’s inferno.   Ishikawa recalls the descent into further misery for many Koreans as food became even more scarce, work non-existent and fear more prevalent.  Mentally he is at the breaking point and soon makes a decision that changes his life and those of his family forever.  He makes the difficult decision to defect but knows that it is a one way ticket with no such thing as returning to visit.  He is a father and husband about to leave his family behind in a country sealed off from the rest of the world.  But he is also determined to escape misery and certain death in North Korea, and his journey to return to Japan is nothing short of miraculous.  Readers will find this part of the book uplifting and confirmation that at times, hope and faith are indispensable.  Ishikawa’s story is incredible and I believe that anyone can find many things to learn in this short but appreciated memoir.

ASIN: B06XKRKFZL

Biographies

 

91zChcroMlL._SR500,500_If you have visited the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, then you know very well why it is called the “Island of Enchantment”.   It has a mystical feel to it and attracts thousands of tourist everyday.   The presence of the United States is found across the island, reminding the visitor of the territory’s status as a commonwealth.  Regardless, Old San Juan is like a step back in time several hundred years earlier as European explorers under the command of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) make their way to the new world.  The history of Puerto Rico is often misunderstood or unknown.  The American occupation and the  events that followed still ring fresh in the minds of Puerto Ricans both on the island and across the continental United States.  But for a large number of people, the history of Puerto Rico prior to American intervention is often a mystery.  This book by Rudolph Adams Van Middeldyk addresses that very topic, providing a true history of how Puerto Rico came into existence and why it ended up in the possession of the United States.

The story begins in 1493 as Columbus and his entourage makes another journey to the Caribbean at the service of the Spanish monarchy.  Gold, spices and human labor are on the list of items to obtain as Spain seeks to expand its global influence.  However, Columbus had bigger plans and does not stay on the island long. In fact, he is only mentioned early in the story before departing for Hispaniola where he would establish Santo Domingo.  Other figures take prominence such as Juan Ponce de León (1474-1521), whom the town in the southern part of the island is named after.  There are many players active in the story, each with their own agenda and claim to a stake in a part of the new territory.  Ponce establishes a capital named Capárra from which he served the Spanish Government.  But his tenure is short lived as Columbus’ son Diego (1479-1526) embraces chicanery and Ponce decides to continue exploring resulting in his discovery of new territory that he names Florida.

Ponce’s actions are literally the tip of the iceberg.  As the new settlers move in, the fate of the island population is sealed.  Murder, rape, pillage disease mixed into a deadly brew that systematically erased the native population, some of which had already been enslaved and sent to Europe. Here we learn of the tragic story of the Boriquén population which does not exist today.  They are often referred to as the Tainos, which apparently is a name that might have been given to them by the Europeans.  The Caribs are also mentioned in the book providing a better understanding of their culture and the clash between the natives and the explorers.   The natives do stand idly by  waiting to be extinguished. Revolts take place and the author details them in the book.

Spain had become alarmed by what was happening to the native population and dispatched the Jerome Friars to attend to the island. Ordinances were passed to protect the natives’ lives and prevent their eradication but too much had taken place for too long. When the Friars arrived, the island was split in two with capitals in the north and south.  The southern capital of San German and its dark fate are discussed here in depth.  Visitors to modern day San German will take high interest in this part of the book.   Needless to say, it is quite a story and shows how close Puerto Rico came to being under the rule of several different empires.

Similar to the West Indies and South America, the French, British and Dutch empires all make an appearance as they steal territory from one another in an attempt at world domination.  The story of the British is perhaps the most famous and as an American, it is entrenched in the history of the place I call home. However, the focus here is on Puerto Rico and the number of foreign invasions are simply mind-boggling.  And it is a near miracle the the island eventually became a commonwealth of the United States and not territory of a number of nations.  The author discusses in detail each invasion for the reader to digest.

In September, 2017, Hurricane Maria barreled through the Caribbean and damaged Puerto Rico extensively.  Hurricanes are nothing new for the region and the number of those that have occurred over the past several hundred years are staggering.  Middeldyk provides a timeline for the major hurricanes that took place after the founding of Puerto Rico up until the time of U.S. intervention.  History truly does have a way of repeating itself.

Towards the end of the book, I did feel as if the author had strayed a bit off topic.  He asserts his own beliefs about the characteristics of some groups which could be viewed as prejudiced.  I did feel as if he made several judgments which were quite broad and unfounded.  However, the book was published in 1903, a time in which diversity and acceptance were nearly unheard of.   I do believe that the book has enough value to be of interest without that part included.  But we do not have the ability to go back in time and change his mind.

If you are looking for a quick primer on the history of Puerto Rico prior to commonwealth status, then this book is a good addition. The information is straight forward and clearly presented.   And maybe after finishing the book, you will see why Puerto Ricans say “Yo soy Boricua!”

ASIN: B079R846RP

Latin America

baurA few days ago I was browsing recommendations on Amazon and came across this book whose title caught my attention. I have not read anything on Nazi Germany in quite some time so I decided to take a closer look.  I was unaware of Hans Baur (1897-1995) and his relationship with Adolf Hitler (1889-1945).  As the Fuhrer’s pilot, I knew Baur would have very intimate knowledge of Hitler’s life behind the scenes and the book does not disappoint.  However, it should be noted that it is really Baur’s story with Hitler filling many of the pages for obvious reasons.  The story is interesting but I could not help feel that Baur left many things out.  Readers may also feel the same way for reasons that will be discussed below.

Baur begins with his early life but quickly moves forward to his career as a pilot.  It is apparent from the start that he was a very gifted aviator with an extraordinary career.  His recollections about the early days of aviation are fascinating and will remind the reader that flying today is exponentially safer than it once was.   He does not go into too much technical detail but just enough so that anyone can follow along.  He even discusses some monumental moments in aviation including the founding of the German airline Lufthansa.  From a historical standpoint, it is a good summary of the development of air travel in Europe. But by no means is it the only source of information and Baur never implies as much.  He was a devoted pilot and you can feel his love of aviation in his words.  With hundreds of thousand of air miles, the future for him was bright but his entire life changed when he was summoned to appear before Adolf Hitler.

It will be no surprise that at this point in the book, the story picks up pace sharply.  Hitler is no ordinary passenger, but instead the Fuhrer who ruled Germany and began a world war.  Curiously, the image of Hitler given by Baur is in stark contrast to the man who plotted to take over Europe and gave the go ahead for the Final Solution. The Hitler we see here comes across as an affable uncle type character who dotes on his close acquaintances and their children.  In Baur’s defense, his time with Hitler was mainly spent in the air and in private conversation.  And according to his words, Hitler did not discuss future plans for the war with him, typically resulting in Baur finding out major news at the very last minute from someone else working for the Fuhrer.

Because the book is about the Third Reich, there is the elephant in the room regarding the treatment of the Jews.  Baur barely discusses it and only brings it up once in the book.  Without Baur here to answer for himself, it is nearly impossible to say what he believed about Jewish people.   At no point in the book does he display any antisemitism but it is possible that even if he did have those feelings, he would not have stated such in his memoirs.  I was honestly mystified about this and felt that if he was against the Final Solution, he would have made a statement clarifying his position.  But that is simply my opinion.  0Most likely, he had very good reasons to avoid discussing the Final Solution.   This may not satisfy some readers but I caution that the book is still good regardless.

His inside position in Hitler’s circle gave him unrestricted access nearly everywhere and he interacted with all of the major figures of the Reich.  Hermann Goering (1893-1946) and Rudolf Hess (1894-1987) are frequent flyers with Baur, whose criticisms of Goering are quite amusing.  But what is more incredible is that he was present at nearly every major moment in the history of the Reich.  And although he had no military power or responsibilities in planning aerial missions against the Allies, he was a keen observer of the reality facing Germany as it started to become clear that the war would be lost.  Baur is frank in his assessments of those around him and the German war effort.  He confirms what historians have written for years and what many Germans began to realize as the Allies started to make gains and bomb in broad daylight.

In April, 1945, the Allies began to close in on Berlin.  Hitler knew the end was near and had buried himself inside his bunker.  Baur stayed with him until the very end, resisting Hitler’s efforts to send him off.  He provides a detailed account of the final days with Hitler and what happened inside the bunker.  The information he provides can be crossed-referenced and readers will find that it matches with the descriptions given by other authors. However, I believe that the entire dialogue between Baur and Hitler is not provided anywhere else.  As I read this part of the book, I found myself in disbelief at some of the scenes that play out even as the Red Army is only hundreds of yards away.   They are surreal and caused me to wonder if those involved believed they were in a film and waiting for the director to yell cut.

Following Hitler’s death, Baur escapes with several others before falling into Soviet Hands.  The last part of the book is about his time as a prisoner of war being held in Russia.  It was clearly a rough experience and he explains in detail all that happened.  His title and rank resulted in never ending questions and Soviet officers maintained disbelief that he had no knowledge the Reich’s war plans.  After ten hard years, he was released and returned to Germany in a homecoming.  I leave it up to readers to decide whether he was a hero or a war criminal guilty by association.  Yet it is also possible that he was simply Hitler’s pilot.

ASIN: B00FOGG0ZE

Biographies World War II

jspeierForty-one years ago, over nine hundred men, women and children died at the People’s Temple compound in Jonestown, Guyana.  Their charismatic and paranoid leader, Jim Jones (1931-1978), died of a gunshot wound to the head, avoiding the lethal liquid concoction given to a majority of his followers. Disturbingly, many of the deaths were not in fact suicide, but outright murder.  Children and infants were forced to ingest the deadly brew that took their lives in a matter of minutes.  The events of November 18, 1978, concluded the final tragic chapter in Jones’ tyrannical reign.

Earlier in the day on November 18, Congressman Leo Ryan (1925-1978) and a group composed of staff and reporters, were preparing to leave the Jonestown compound with defectors that had come to despise Jones and his lunacy.  Many Temple members knew early on that something was not right about Jones and his continuing descent into madness raised their suspicions and confirmed their belief that they had to leave before it was too late. As the group prepared to board the plane for the short flight to capital of Georgetown, shots rang out on the air strip.  Five people, including Ryan were killed and nine others would seriously wounded.  Among them was Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D-California).  She sustained five bullet wounds but miraculously survived the attack.   Her experience at the Jonestown and the death of Ryan, compelled her to enter a life of politics.  This is her story of Jim Jones, U.S. Politics and all that life has to offer.

I should point out that the book is not solely about Jonestown. In fact, the events there compose only a section in the book.  Readers looking for a more focused discussion Jones and his following will like Tim Reiterman’s Raven: The Untold Story of Rev. Jim Jones and His People. This is primarily a biography but undoubtedly, the attack permanently changed her life, leaving her with physical and emotional scars will never completely heal.   Her early life is typical of the average American girl growing up in the 1950s.  But as she gets older, she comes into her own as a teenager and decides to apply for a position on Ryan’s staff.  To her surprise she is accepted and embarks on a path that would take her all the way to Washington, D.C.

Jones eventually enters the picture as Ryan becomes more concerned with reports filtering in from those desperate to leave Jonestown and others who have already departed.   Jones’ decision to move the People’s Temple, allowed him to evade the eyes of reporters, law enforcement and elected officials. Its remote location in the jungles,  added a valued layer of secrecy that prevent prying eyes from observing Temple activities.  Ryan is determined to see Jonestown for himself and Speier is right by his side to provide legal advice and offer support to those who are determined to leave.  The group eventually arrives in Guyana but is forced to wait several days before being allowed into Jonestown.  Once they are admitted, Speier quickly realizes that there is a dark cloud hovering over the compound and that her group is in grave danger if they continue to stay.  Ryan had seen enough to know that Jonestown was not what Jones had claimed it to be.  The congressman was attacked himself while conducting interviews with various Temple members.  The group’s departure, scheduled for November 18, came a little too late; Jones had made his final descent into the depths of hell.

She recalls the story of her will to survive and the grueling medical treatment she received during her recovery.   Her path was a long process, requiring multiple surgeries and extensive therapy .  However, she never quits and incredibly jumps into politics not long after being discharged from the hospital.  The damage caused by the bullets was extensive and physically she found her herself challenged, but she does her best during her campaigns and success eventually came over time.  All of the highs and lows are discussed, showing the tenacity and devotion of Speier to effecting real change in America.

And as if Jonestown was not enough, her private life is also a roller coaster ride and to say that she has been through a lot would be a severe understatement.  At times, I was literally in shock at everything she has had to endure, even after being shot several times.  Perhaps another person would have broken down for good but Speier does not give up and keeps moving forward even in the face of unrelenting adversity.  Her drive and determination will certainly inspire every reader.  And by the end of the book, you might find yourself in awe of her unwavering spirit and commitment to her beliefs.

The book is a bit short and I wish it had been longer. But in this case, it is quality over quantity.   I truly enjoyed reading it and have a new found understanding and respect for Congresswoman Speier.   Highly recommended.

ASIN: B07GPBS6T2

Biographies

CroonI was browsing through recommendations on Amazon when this book caught my attention.  As one would expect, the words Civil War stuck on the cover.  However, the name LeRoy Wiley Gresham (1847-1865) did not sound familiar at all.  My interest peaked and I decided to see why the book had earned a five star rating.  And to say that it is a hidden gem would be an understatement. It is indeed special and the author did a remarkable job of putting it all together.

Janet Elizabeth Croon admits early in the book that she had no idea who Gresham was.  I would wager that a majority of Americans are unaware of him as well. He was never mentioned in any of the history books I studied while in school. Nor is he mentioned in literature regarding the Civil War.  But I firmly believe that this journal is one of the most overlooked accounts of the war from the point of view of the Confederacy.  The story is told from the Gresham family home in Macon, Georgia.  LeRoy is what we would call an invalid, having survived a dangerous accident in 1856 in which his left leg was severely broken by a falling chimney. Following the injury, he developed a dangerous and persistent cough in addition to other symptoms that were later diagnosed as tuberculosis, also known as the “white plague”.  LeRoy is never told of the diagnosis and the journal was written by a young man who did not think death was coming for him until his very last moments.

Readers will notice instantly that Gresham is highly articulate for a young man of his age.  It becomes obvious early on that his mobility is limited and he does not get out often.  However, he is a keen observer of the news and those around him.   His awareness and understanding of the raging conflict between the Union and Confederacy speaks volumes about his level of maturity.   And although he was not always correct in some of his observations, that can partly be attributed to faulty reporting in a time before social media and live news broadcasts.  In fact, news moved so slowly at times, that it could be an entire day or two before information reached its final destination.  Regardless, LeRoy follows the war closely, offering detailed insight into the war’s progression.

As I read through the journal, I did notice that most of his days were actually quite eventful with relatives and friends coming and going constantly.  Games are played,  the weather detailed, various foods eaten and plenty of conversation takes place.   Sadly though, LeRoy’s illness does not let up and he comments on his own physical condition nearly every day.  Readers have the benefit of the doubt in knowing what was wrong with him but he was unaware of his terminal diagnosis.  He mentions old medicinal treatments common during the time and some of the names will be foreign to some readers.  The reports of the war’s battles may also be unfamiliar to those that are not Civil War buffs. But the author provides a ton of invaluable footnotes at the end of the chapter to explain almost everything contained in the journal for each year.  Without these footnotes, the journal would have assuredly been a far more challenging read.

As a Black person, I could not ignore the “elephant in the room”.  LeRoy’s family were slave owners and supporters of the Confederacy under Jefferson Davis (1808-1889). As I started the book, I did feel a bit of uneasiness about what I would find.  I did not find anything extreme in the journal but I did notice he was not averse to using racial terminology that was commonplace at the time, in particular for a slave owning family.  However, he does not lace his journals with it and refers to family slaves by their first names in describing the day’s events.   But I was under no illusions that he believed in the abolitionist movement.  LeRoy believed in the Confederacy and was no fan of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), but as the journal progressed, I did notice a few changes in his beliefs that will cause the reader to take notice.   And had he lived, perhaps his views might have changed over the course of time.

The journal only covers between 1860 and 1865, so we do not know all of the details regarding the accident that caused him to break his left leg .  The author explains the accident but LeRoy does not talk of his leg much in the journal. In fact, his back is the main focus in addition to his hacking cough and the abscesses that would plague him as the tuberculosis raged through his body eventually reaching his spine.   As a bonus in the book, the author was able to get a doctor to examine what was known of LeRoy’s medical history, the medications he was taking and the care he received to render the most likely diagnosis.  At the end of the book, the doctor takes a very detailed look at the medications which explain even further exactly what LeRoy’s condition was and why he would have been given them.  Reading the journal did make me grateful for modern medicine.

I strongly advise and recommend that anyone interested in the Civil War to read this book.  It is by no means an authoritative source on the war but it is a very intimate look at the conflict through a very different set of eyes.

ASIN: B07D6QQT77

American History

SalmIn 1955, Warner Brothers released ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ starring the late film icon James Dean (1931-1955).  And though the film cemented Dean’s legacy in Hollywood, the actor tragically died the month before the film’s release in a violent car crash while en route to Salinas, California.  In death, Dean became the poster boy for the new sense of rebellion sweeping across America.  In the film, he was joined by actress Natalie Wood (1938-1981) who played the role of Judy and Sal Mineo (1939-1976) in the role of Plato.  The film was a hit and is considered a classic.  The enormous success enhanced the careers of the three stars and Mineo quickly became one of Hollywood’s hottest new stars.  The Italian kid from the Bronx had arrived with charming good looks and acting skills to match.   For the next twenty-one years, he would leave his mark on Hollywood and television before his tragic departure on February 12, 1976.  In just thirty-seven years, he had lived what could be considered for some, a lifetime.   I knew of Mineo before reading this book but there was much about his life that I was completely unaware of.  This book came up as a recommendation and I decided to see for myself, why Mineo is still revered.

Author Michael Gregg Michaud presents the story of Mineo’s life, based on meetings with his former lovers, friends and interviews Mineo gave during his career.  The story begins in the borough of the Bronx in New York City where Salvatore, Sr. and Josephine Mineo welcome their youngest son Salvatore, Jr. into the world on January 10, 1932.  As we see in the book, from an early age Mineo was a performer and it was destined that he would later make it to Hollywood.   But before the film industry came calling, he was a young kid in an immigrant family trying to make ends meet in the city that never sleeps.  Michaud takes us back in time to the early 1930s post-depression.  The Mineo family story highlights the challenge faced by many immigrants making a life in America then and even today.  The struggles and successes of Salvatore, Sr., are a prime example of the attainability of the American Dream.   He and his wife do whatever they can for their children and Sal would need and benefit from their never ending support.

The story moves along as a typical biography until Sal is offered a role on Broadway at the age of eleven.  As the roles start to come in, the pace of the book picks up as we follow Sal along his path to stardom. Guided by his mother Josephine, he climbed up the ladder to stardom.  Michaud wisely inserts Sal’s own words which gives the appearance that he is telling the story along with Michaud.   The book does not come off as simply a collection of facts.   By the time Sal made to Hollywood, his life took twists and turns that no one could have ever anticipated.  Michaud covers it all brilliantly and tells Sal’s story in a way that keeps the pace of the book moving just right and at no point did my attention wane nor did I ever feel that Michaud had strayed off track.  The book is focused and stays on point.

One surprise that I did find in the book was the topic of Mineo’s sexuality, of which I had very little prior knowledge.   The revelations are eye-opening and even shocking considering the time period in which Mineo lived. However, he was undoubtedly a free spirit and Michaud captures it in the story.  Readers that are more on the reserved side with regards with sex might find the book a bit of challenge to read.  While there are no graphic details of sex provided, it does feature prominently as Sal matures in manhood.  The idea of normal becomes subjective and it is up to the reader form their own opinion about Sal’s adventures.  I can say that as I read the book I was reminded of the novel ‘Giovanni’s Room‘ by James Baldwin (1924-1987). The author here offers no personal opinion and rightfully remains neutral.  He is simply telling Mineo’s story and does it  showing both the star’s bright side and also his dark side.

As to be expected,  other Hollywood stars make an appearance in the book including Yul Brynner (1920-1985),  Jill Haworth (1945-2011) and Don Johnson.   The story begins in the Bronx, but as Sal moves through life, we follow him to California, France and even London as he searches for the next big project.  There are highs and lows, which show just how difficult it can be in Hollywood to stay relevant.  Michaud addresses Sal’s inability to get work through the words of those who knew Sal best and Mineo’s words on why he believed Hollywood was not knocking on his door.   Today we call it typecasting and it is a vicious cycle many actors work hard to avoid.

As we approach 1976,  you can feel that something is about to change in Sal’s life.  His casting in ‘P.S. Your Cat is Dead‘ after two prior auditions brightened his spirits. On February 12, that spirit was dimmed when the lives of Sal Mineo and Lionel Williams intersected and changed history.  Michaud discusses the crime, the investigation and the trial that followed.  However, it is not an exhausted analysis of the legal proceedings but rather a summary of what happened after Sal’s death with regards to the law and his family.   The encounters between Sal’s family and Courtney Burr are tense and telling.  Mineo was quite open about his sexuality and Burr had an intimate role in Sal’s life.  But incredibly, Mineo was never officially “out of the closet” .  And he was not the only star with a voracious sexual appetite as many of us know.  The tales of Hollywood sexual scandals are endless.  And I think back to my father who has always said “they don’t call it tinsel town for nothing son”.  Sal was free, open and lived with no regrets.  That is a lot more than many of us can say for our own lives at times.

Michael G. Michaud has written what I believe is the definitive biography of Sal Mineo.  It is an incredible story with a sad ending.   A star was taken too soon but this book ensures that along with his films and television appearances, that Sal Mineo is never forgotten.  Had he lived, we can only guess as to where his career would have taken him.  But regardless, he was and is still considered one of the greats from a pivotal time in the history of Hollywood.  He is gone but certainly not forgotten. Great book.

ASIN: B003F3PMN4

Biographies

Newman JFK Vietnam March 29, 2019, marked the forty-six anniversary of the departure of the last remaining United States troops in South Vietnam.  Two years after their departure,on April 30, 1975, Siagon fell to North Vietnamese forces as Hanoi tightened its grip around the country.  By the time the war ended, fifty-eight thousand American soldiers had lost their lives in Vietnam.  North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong losses were estimated to be well over one million.  Civilian deaths were even higher in number but despite the large numbers of casualties, North Vietnam refused to surrender and was determined to achieve reunification.  The withdrawal of American troops was a sobering reality and cold hard truth:  the American effort in Southeast Asia had not succeeded.   To this day, there are many people who still wonder how and why the United States became entangled in Vietnam.   The defeat of French forces at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 should have served as a reminder that military might is not always a guarantee of success.  In January, 1960, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) took office and from the beginning of his administration until his death, the issue of Vietnam continued to fester like an open sore. Kennedy died before he could implement any further plans regarding Vietnam and took many secrets with him to his grave.  But declassified documents and political memoirs shed much light on what was really happening in his administration as it grappled to combat the growing Viet Cong menace.

Author John M. Newman is currently in the middle of a multi-volume set regarding Kennedy’s murder. I have reviewed three of them so far and eagerly await the publication of the next volume.  The books are incredible and the amount of information Newman provides is nothing short of staggering.  But as we see here, he a long time player in the game and in 1992, this masterpiece was released.  If you have seen the film ‘JFK’ by Oliver Stone, you will recall the scene where Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) meets the character who calls himself “X” (Donald Sutherland).   What many viewers may not know is that Newman helped Stone create those scenes.  His research served as the basis for the dialogue between the two as X enlightens Garrison to many dark secrets surrounding Kennedy’s plans on Vietnam.  The scenes are moving but do not come close to telling the entire story.  This book however, does that and more and should be on the bookshelf of any reader who has an interest in the Vietnam War and in particular, its origins.

Newman takes us back to 1961 as the Kennedy Administration is recovering in the wake of the Bay of Pigs debacle.  The seeds of distrust had been sown and when the Joint Chiefs of Staff began to press him on Laos, Kennedy was wise to the game.  But the generals had a backup plan and if Kennedy would not go into Laos, then Vietnam was next on the list.  However, the generals had a tough road ahead and knew that the young president would not give in easily to their demands.  As a result a pattern of deception developed and before long Kennedy and his own administration were at odds over American foreign policy in Saigon.   The depth of that deception will surely surprise many and still has me shaking my head in disbelief.   I had been aware of many facts in the book but Newman brings even more to light.

The book is exhaustively researched and the information contained within it will cause shock and anger.  But what I liked the most about the book is while Newman makes the case for what Kennedy was thinking about Vietnam at the time of his death, he is also frank about where Kennedy made mistakes that helped contribute to an already precarious situation.  In all fairness to Kennedy, he never had the opportunity to defend himself regarding his decisions on Vietnam.  But the paper trial he left behind, shows definitive actions he took and intended to take as he grappled with South Vietnam and a cabinet that had split down the middle.

The key to understanding how the deception started is to understand how intelligence was being gathered in Southeast Asia.  Newman breaks down the various divisions in military command and the role of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  Kennedy’s advisors are also on the hook and the actions of several of them add even more shock value to an already incredibly eye-opening account.  The realization that members of  his administration were deeply divided and at odds with each other, hovers like a dark cloud over the story as the crisis in South Vietnam unfolds.  All of the members of his administration are now deceased and we can only wonder as to why they committed some of the actions that they did.

No book about Vietnam would be complete without a discussion of Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu.  Both played a critical role in the development of the war and Newman provides a thorough explanation as to why the brothers were important to American success in Vietnam and where they went terribly wrong. The coup that resulted in their deaths, changed the course of history and gave the war a new face.  A few weeks after their assassinations, Kennedy himself was assassinated.  And although there is no proven link between the two events, actions of several figures in high positions in the time period between the two murders are quite suspicious and will surely cause readers to take notice.

As I read through the book, I paid particular attention to the National Security Action Memos (NSAMs) signed by Kennedy regarding his policy on Vietnam.  They speak volumes and should paint a clearer picture of the forces he was up against.   National Security Actions Memos 55, 56, 57 and 111 are pivotal for they directly addressed many of the pressing issues Kennedy was facing at home and abroad.  The author discusses each so that the reader can easily understand the many nefarious elements that had been influencing foreign policy in some of the most scrupulous of ways.  I

Seasoned readers might be wondering where Lyndon Johnson (1908-1973) fits into the story.  His role is covered here and the suspicious actions on his part are paid close attention to.  The war escalated greatly under his administration but we can only wonder how much Johnson knew and Kennedy did not.  Newman does not discuss any Kennedy assassination theories or give any attention to any suggestions of LBJ being complicit in the crime.  But what he does show is that the vice president certainly had an agenda of his own and it would be shown after the events in Dallas.  National Security Action Memo 263 is one of the book’s most critical moments and readers should pay extremely close attention to this part of the story that highlights the stark differences between the late and sitting presidents and their views on the raging conflict in South Vietnam.

A common question I have heard from Vietnam veterans and others who lived through the war is why were Americans being sent 13,000 miles away from home to fight a war against a country many of them had never heard of?   It is a critical question and I believe that Newman has many of the answers they seek.  By no means is the book a complete account of the war. In fact, I believe a better overall account of the entire conflict would the best-selling ” The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War“.   The authors there discussed Kennedy’s administration but concluded that they could not say for sure what Kennedy would have done regarding Vietnam due to his assassination in Dallas.  Newman takes it further and I believe that he clears up much of the mystery surrounding Kennedy’s record on Southeast Asia.

Many years have passed since the Vietnam War ended but for millions of veterans, the wounds and dark memories remain.  Some were sent to Vietnam not yet twenty years of age to a foreign country in which death was prevalent.  They watched their friends die in gruesome manners and were exposed to the horrors of war in a conflict that did not seem to have an endgame.  North Vietnam and the Viet Cong showed Washington that it would not be an “easy” war.  Hanoi was determined to succeed in unifying the country and no amount of United States pressure or troops would change that mission.  In the end, Hanoi did succeed and America was left to wonder what went wrong.   As we move forward as a nation, let us not forget the tragedy of Vietnam which serves as an example of the dangers of misguided and intentionally deceitful foreign policy that changes nations and history.  Newman absolutely nailed the subject in this incredible book that will surely satisfy anyone who decides to open it up.

ASIN: B01N7YNXQ6

Vietnam War