The Plot to Seize the White House: The Shocking True Story of the Conspiracy to Overthrow F.D.R. – Jules Archer & Anne Cipriano Venzon

White houseThe first time I read Charles W. Bailey, II (1929-2012) and Fletcher Knebel’s (1911-1993) ‘Seven Days in May‘, I understood why it was so important and why it was one of President John F. Kennedy’s (1917-1963) favorite books. The plot of the story is simple: a conspiracy is hatched to overthrow the sitting president of the United States. In 1964, Paramount Pictures released the film of the same name starring Burt Lancaster (1913-1994) and Kirk Douglas (1916-2020) with director John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) at the helm. The book and film were works of fiction but thirty years prior to the film’s release, there was a plot to remove the sitting president of seize control of the government. Jules Archer and Anne Cipriano Venzon researched the unbelievable and chilling story in this book that sheds light on a little-known part of American history. And at the center of the story is legendary United States Marine Corps General Smedley D. Butler (1881-1940).

In 1933, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) tightened his grip over Germany and began to plot its course for world domination. Across the Atlantic few believed that he would ignite a war that remains the deadliest conflict in the history of mankind. As the Third Reich made its presence felt, it soon became clear that the Nazi menace was nothing to ignore. Despite the outbreak of war, the United States held firm on its isolationist stance and the Neutrality Acts passed by Congress limited the president’s ability to send aid to European allies. For President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945), the Great Depression and European war proved to be the biggest challenges to his time in office. And failing health provided the ammunition needed by his detractors who believed that Roosevelt would not live to finish his time in government. Sadly, they were proven right on April 12, 1945.

The first question I had for myself when I started reading the book was why Butler? I knew he had become anti-war in later years and had even published a book called ‘War is a Racket‘ in which he exposes the monetary interests behind armed conflict. As the book progresses, it becomes clear why Butler was their choice and the biography included by the authors provides a fair amount of information about his life and rise in the military ranks. Further, the respect he earned from current and former soldiers made him the ideal choice. And to understand why Butler was so respected, one only needs to read of his accomplishments which are discussed here. I found myself both in awe and speechless learning of his commitment to the Marines and belief in morale. To be clear, Butler harbored no ill-will towards Roosevelt and was a pacifist by nature. That, however, did not stop him from suiting up when the Marines were needed.

Following his retirement from the Marines, Butler became a sought-after speaker across the country and beloved by the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization. In the story, we soon learn the names of Gerald C. McGuire and Bob Doyle of the American Legion, who approached Butler with incentives to join their plot in taking over the government, but the seasoned marine was suspicious from the start. Having worked for a time in the Department of Public Safety in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Butler was no stranger to criminal activity. Still, without evidence he knew he could not go public with allegations of a plot to attack to the United States Government. Further he knew the people who approached him had powerful backers and could not be trusted. But after a meeting with Philadelphia Record writer Paul Comly French (1890-1956), Butler decided that the plot needed to be exposed and went before the Special Committee on Un-American Activities to tell what he knew. Portions of his testimony (both public and sealed) are included here and reveal how serious the threat was to the democracy of the United States. And though no one was ever prosecuted because of what the committee learned, it did raise awareness of the importance of preserving our democratic institutions.

The list of conspirators revealed as part of the plot is surreal and may have been a case of sensationalism by McGuire. However, the amount of money behind the plot, as Butler learns, could only have come from wealthy figures. Readers will be surprised to learn of the connection between former New York State Governor Alfred E. “Al” Smith (1873-1944), and ring-wing figures, who were opposed to Roosevelt and his New Deal policies. In time America would see the rise of other organizations such as the John Birch Society and the Minutemen, and the contributors to these various ring-wing parties revealed dark truths about power in America. Regarding one group, the authors explain:

“Heavy contributors to the American Liberty League included the Pitcairn family (Pittsburgh Plate Glass), Andrew W. Mellon Associates, Rockefeller Associates, E. F. Hutton Associates, William S. Knudsen (General Motors), and the Pew family (Sun Oil Associates). J. Howard Pew, longtime friend and supporter of Robert Welch, who later founded the John Birch Society, was a generous patron, along with other members of the Pew family, of extremist right-wing causes. Other directors of the league included Al Smith and John J. Raskob.” 

Butler’s refusal to go along with the plot surely led to its demise but had they approached another figure, things may have turned out differently. At the 1930s moved forward, the signs that war would break out became vividly clear and on September 1, 1939, all doubts were removed with the Nazi invasion of Poland. Butler held firm on non-intervention and at the time of his death, the United States had no legal grounds to enter the war. That all changed on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor. Butler did not live to see that attack but if he had, I have no doubt that he would have supported America defending itself from Japanese aggression. His years of service and experiences in combat had left him with dark memories of the horrible injuries sustained by soldiers on the battlefield. He had become anti-war but was never anti-American, and any threat to the democracy of the United States was an attack on the principles he believed in. His courage in exposing what could have been an earth-shattering event, should not be lost to history. In closing out the book, the authors have this to say about Butler:

“If we remember Major General Smedley Darlington Butler for nothing else, we owe him an eternal debt of gratitude for spurning the chance to become dictator of the United States—and for making damned sure no one else did either.”

History is full of untold stories and that is one reason I enjoy it as much as I do. This story may not be well-known nor remembered but it should never be forgotten. Highly recommended.

ASIN:‎ B00VKI49X0

The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World – A.J. Baime

TrumanOn January 15, 1953, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) gave his farewell address after serving as the Thirty-Third President of the United States. He had taken office on April 12, 1945, after the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945). At the time of Roosevelt’s death, allied forces were pushing further into German territory to bring the Third Reich to its knees. In the Pacific, the war against Japan continued to rage but in less than six months, it too surrendered after the devastation left by two atomic bombs. In the first four months that Truman was in office, the entire world changed in ways no one could have imagined. Had Roosevelt lived, the war might have ended differently, and domestically, America might have moved forward at a different pace. He did not live to see his post-war plans come to light and for Truman, the title of president was thrust into his lap. He had never wanted the presidency but due to circumstance, he had become what author A.J. Baime calls the accidental president.

In contrast to a standard biography, the focus of the book is on the four months between Truman taking office and the surrender of Japan. The story begins with Roosevelt’s last day alive. Following his death, all eyes become fixed on Truman who is largely unknown to the American people. Washington insiders knew of his background but even within those circles, he was somewhat of a mystery. His unassuming look and plain-spoken Midwest nature made him appear as just another person in the room. But little did anyone know that the next president would usher in a new era in warfare and set the course for future domestic programs and U.S. foreign policy.

Before entering the lengthy discussion of the war and Truman’s role in it, Baime provides a short biography about his early life in Independence, Missouri, and his entry into politics that culminates with his arrival in Washington. One aspect that stood out is Truman’s military service in World War I which is often not discussed. I believe his experiences in combat surely helped his ability to make decisions during World War II. After we learn of Truman’s unusual entry into politics and nomination for vice-president, the author shifts gears and takes us right into the war with a heavy focus on Japan where the U.S. Air Force is conducting firebombing raids under the legendary and controversial General Curtis E. LeMay (1906-1990). Despite the fierce allied attacks, Japan would not surrender but in Europe, the Third Reich was on life support. Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) dream of a master Aryan nation spread across continents had collapsed and the tyrant himself was hiding in his bunker. The Red Army was closing in and the German people knew that retribution from the Soviets was not something any of them wanted to experience. On April 30, 1945, Hitler met his demise and escaped punishment at Nuremberg. Washington breathed a sigh of relief at the German defeat but knew that Soviet leader Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) could not be fully trusted. The seeds of the Cold War had been firmly planted as World War II reached its shocking and brutal conclusion. With Germany no longer a threat, the story moves to the war in the Pacific where allied forces are determined to crush the Japanese military.

As the book progresses, it really splits into two stories; the race to finish the bomb and the negotiations at the Potsdam, Cecilienhof conference between Truman, Stalin, and British leader Winston Churchill (1874-1965). The debate over whether Truman should have used the bomb will continue but the author does a good job of showing what was being discussed behind the scenes. Truman knew the decision he had to make was unlike anything a president had faced before. He also knew that he would be judged throughout history for it. Baime summarizes Truman’s historical recognition with this accurate statement:

“Truman is remembered first and foremost for his decision to employ atomic weapons—Little Boy and Fat Man, the only two nuclear bombs ever used against human targets. More than seventy years later, this decision remains almost certainly the most controversial that any president has ever made.” 

However, the war with Japan needed a conclusion, and allied forces had already begun to plan the full-scale invasion of the island on November 1, 1945. The bomb was the ace up Truman’s sleeve, but until a test was conducted, questions surrounding its efficacy remained. All of that changed on July 16, 1945, in Los Alamos, New Mexico when the first successful test was conducted and the outcome of World War II began to take shape.

Remarkably, throughout the reports of carnage, the tension surrounding the bomb program, and interactions with the Soviets, Truman always comes across as incredibly calm. And what we see is that for a man who was the accidental president, he rose to the occasion and showed no hesitation when action was required. The power of the bomb was not lost on Truman or others with knowledge of its existence. Lead scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967) also makes an appearance in the story as the full gravity of the bomb’s creation comes down on all of them. No one knows for certain exactly when Truman decided to use the bomb and as Baime explains, there is no written record of it. Eventually, the moment in the book we know is coming arrives on August 6 when the city of Hiroshima receives the first atomic bomb. Three days later, Nagasaki suffered similar devastation which finally convinced the Japanese Emperor Shōwa (Hirohito) (1901-1989) that to continue the war would mean Japan’s ultimate destruction.

Finally, the war was over but the destruction and death that ensued were permanently seared into the memories of all who witnesses man’s savagery. Truman personally observed Berlin for himself and the experience is revisited in the book. Survivors of the nuclear bombs provide additional feedback regarding the immediate impact of the detonation. Their words provided a chilling effect to the introduction of atomic weapons. Back in America, Truman’s popularity soared and the little-known senator from Missouri became an American hero. This stands in stark contrast to his wife Bess (1885-1982) whose disdain and avoidance of the public spotlight are also part of the story. The book concludes after the formal surrender of Japan but Baime provides an epilogue that takes a closer look at Truman’s time in office following the war. He never again reached the level of popularity that he enjoyed during the war era but he remains one of the most important leaders in world history. Few knew who he was when took control of Washington on April 12, 1945, but in just fourth months, he cemented his legacy and showed that even an accident president can be just what the country needs.

 “No President could ever hope to lead our country, or to sustain the burdens of this office, save as the people helped with their support. I have had that help–you have given me that support–on all our great essential undertakings to build the free world’s strength and keep the peace. Those are the big things. Those are the things we have done together. For that I shall be grateful, always.” – Harry S. Truman, January 15, 1953

ASIN: B01MQVT9TG

Geronimo – Robert M. Utley

geronimoOn September 4, 1886, Apache warrior Geronimo (1829-1909) surrendered for the last time to United States military personnel. The famous warrior had eluded capture for years as the American Indian Wars took place across North America. In the years following his death, Geronimo has become a pop-culture icon whose name holds a permanent place in the American lexicon. The irony is that this famous warrior was never a chief in his time and was not driven by fame. In fact, his personal story is darker and more tragic than any Hollywood production. Voltaire (1694-1778) once said that “to the living we owe respect but to the dead we owe only the truth”. Author Robert M. Utley is a former chief historian for the National Park Service and researched Geronimo’s life to dispel rumors and bring to life unknown facts. The result is this biography that is crucial to understanding the creation of the United States of America and the Native American experience.

The story revolves around the Chiricahua tribe of the Apache Indians. I previously reviewed S.C. Gwynne’s “Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History”, a book I strongly recommend. It is book is not easy to read at times due to the graphic descriptions of Comanche raids and the battles with American troops and frankly, it is not for the faint at heart. Utley’s book is far tamer but does explore the battles but focuses heavily on Geronimo’s story and his ability to elude capture before finally surrendering in 1886.  But make no mistake, this story is full of surprising information, battle descriptions and policy decisions in Washington as administrations struggled to resolve the “Indian” issue.

Surprisingly, Geronimo does not come across as a hero nor a villain. The author explains that he was simply an Apache warrior who was admired, feared, loathed and not without his own faults. To prove this point, Utley conducted an extensive amount of research that is woven beautifully together as Geronimo’s life comes into focus. And the key to understanding his position as an Apache enforcer is the section in the book that focuses on the Mexican raids against Apache settlements. The tragedy that befell Geronimo sets the stage for the warrior who emerges as a significant threat to American expansion and eternal enemy of the Mexican nation.

Expectedly, Geronimo is not the only famous figure in the book. In fact, the author provides a thorough discussion on another Apache warrior who holds a claim to fame: Cochise (1805-1874). He is joined in the book by Mangas Coloradas (1793-1863) and Juh (1825-1883). Both chiefs and Geronimo’s cousin Juh had an enormous impact on Geronimo and their roles in the story cannot be understated. Cochise is significant in another way which may surprise readers. Throughout his early life, Geronimo remained obscure but as the American Indian War heated up, he could no longer hide in the shadows. However, the battles had devastating consequences for the Apache. As Utley explains:

“During Geronimo’s heyday, the entire Chiricahua tribe numbered about three thousand people, so in the relatively small local groups most people tended to know one another. By 1886, when Geronimo surrendered, the tribe had declined by about 80 percent, mainly the result of warfare.” 

Additionally, the introduction of alcohol had unforeseen circumstances in store for the Apache and other Native American tribes. The battle with substance abuse sadly continues to this day on reservations. The episodes explained by the author leave no doubt that addiction of any kind can result in severe personal and societal damage. In this case, the community structure itself was under attack and it is one part of Geronimo’s life that will capture readers’ attention. Despite warfare and substance abuse, the warriors in the book did believe in the family structure, Geronimo included. He followed this creed wholeheartedly and I honestly lost track of the number of his wives. Today such practices would be viewed with disdain in America but for Native American tribes during those times, it was commonplace.

After Geronimo surrenders, the book takes another turn due to the inhumane conditions in Indigenous camps. The removal of Native tribes is well-documented, and the “Trail of Tears” stands out as a commonly referenced example. There is forced removal in this story and the reality of American camps becomes horrifically clear in the book. Conditions became so decrepit that officials in the government began to sound the alarm. And this is the other tragedy in the story. Far removed from the land they knew, without the foods they ate, the community structure that kept them safe and the looming threat of execution, Indian tribes soon found themselves in danger of extinction. As for Geronimo, the last twenty years of his life paled in comparison to his youth on the open plains of North America. And though he never saw himself as an iconic figure, his life and name are permanently fixed in the annals of American history.

If you are interested in Apache history and the story of Geronimo, this book is must-read. I cannot predict how you will view him, but it is safe to say that his story and that of the Apache are lessons that should never be forgotten. This is American history and truths about what really happened as our nation evolved.

“For Geronimo, my book rejects both extremes—thug and hero—and reveals that, within the constraints of Apache culture, he was a human being with many strengths and many flaws.”

ASIN: B009T3C88Q

The Haldeman Diaries: Inside the Nixon White House – H.R. Haldeman

HaldermanOn August 8, 1974, President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) resigned from his position as the thirty-seventh Commander-In-Chief. In the months preceding his announcement, the Watergate scandal investigation had gained significant traction and Nixon faced the possibility of impeachment. The nation watched in shock and silence as Nixon gave his speech. It marked the first and only time in history that a United States President had resigned from office. In the decades that followed, scores of books, articles, and documentaries have been published regarding the Watergate affair. I strongly recommend Fred Emery’s “Watergate: The Corruption of American Politics and the Fall of Richard Nixon“. It is a fascinating account of the scandal and the fallout that ensued. Within Nixon’s inner circle was his Chief of Staff Harry Robbins “Bob” Haldeman (1926-1993), known simply as H.R. Haldeman. The former insider served eighteen months at the Lompoc, California Federal minimum-security facility after being convicted on one count of obstruction of justice and three counts of lying under oath. During his time in Washington, Haldeman kept a meticulous daily diary that he intended to publish following his release from prison. However, he passed suddenly on November 12, 1993, at his home in Santa Barbara, California. But all hope was not lost. His widow Joanne continued her husband’s goal and worked extensively to have them published. They are presented here in this book that deserves a rightful place in the annals of historical non-fiction.

Haldeman’s ability to keep a daily diary in addition to his tasks during the day is astonishing. Anyone who has worked in Washington will tell that every day is a roller coaster ride of appointments, statements, problems, and success. As Chief of Staff, Haldeman faced the brunt of these problems and was one of the few people that Nixon trusted the most. However, Joanna points out early in the book that the two were not close friends. In fact, throughout the book, it is clear that no one in the administration really knew the real Richard Nixon. But that did not deter his cabinet from doing their best to serve the White House in whichever way necessary. The daily diary entries are primarily short snippets of the day’s events. Readers will notice the change in the length of the notes after Haldeman switches to a dictation machine. The notes become extensive but if we follow closely, we are provided a rare look into Nixon’s White House.

This book is not an examination of Nixon himself or an attempt to discern why he took certain actions. In fact, Nixon changed his mind on things daily. Haldeman made notes of what he saw, heard, and did with his own observations added. The hotbed issues of the time are sprinkled throughout the story. Vietnam and Civil Rights are the biggest concerns with the latter being the issue that Nixon never fully understood. Interestingly, Nixon does not oppose civil rights but his ideas on how to achieve it come off as misguided. And his obsession with the Kennedy family reveals the lingering insecurities he could never move past. I also took note of the discord within his administration, mostly centered around National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger and Secretary of State William P. Rogers (1913-2001). The Vice-President Spiro T. Agnew (1918-1996) is not mentioned as much as I would have thought but Haldeman does refer to the scandal that led to his resignation.

As I read the book, there were times where I was not exactly sure what to make of Nixon. Undoubtedly, he was not a liberal and appealed to more conversative voters. But he was not far right either and makes multiple statements about both political parties that will surprise readers. And had he succeeded with his own vision for the future of American politics, the political landscape as we know it today would be quite different. Nixon was a shrewd politician, seasoned by his years in the Senate and in the White House. He understood the political spectrum and how to exploit openings. But his paranoia and failure to grasp changes in society helped contribute to his downfall.

Nothing in the diaries comes off as explosive until June 17-18, 1972, when the White House learns of the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Office Building in Washington, D.C. As one would expect, the book picks up in pace with the Nixon Administration taking action to contain the story and limit its exposure, even if that meant obstruction of justice. Haldeman writes himself that obstruction might be necessary. It is not clear from the diaries if he knew of the operation beforehand, but he did support and take part in covering up evidence of Nixon’s complicity. His nickname “Iron Chancellor” did not come about without reason. As I read his notes, I understood Haldeman’s position. His job was to protect the president at all costs. Nixon was aware of his devotion and initially resisted pressure to make Haldeman resign. However, the Watergate scandal was becoming a major threat and far from the small issue that it was originally thought to be by Nixon and former President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) whom Nixon consulted on various issues. This too may surprise readers.

I believe we may never know who the real Richard Nixon was. There is no simple explanation to describe him. His administration did pull the country to the right, but he also had ideas that would be embraced by the left today. He has been called a bigot, but he also supported integration and equality. He wanted to end the war in Vietnam, but approved bombing raids in Cambodia. He campaigned on law and order but strongly believed in female judges. He never fully trusted the State Department though it is critical to an administration. He is a conservative icon, yet he signed into law the act that created the Environment Protection Agency. The mystery may be what Nixon wanted to leave behind. Haldeman’s job was not to figure him out but to do the best job possible as chief of staff. In this area he succeeded, and Joanna includes this statement by the late president about his assistant whom people called an “S.O.B.”:

“I have known Bob Haldeman to be a man of rare intelligence, strength, integrity, and courage … He played an indispensable role in turbulent times as our Administration undertook a broad range of initiatives at home and abroad.” – Richard M. Nixon

If you are curious about the administration or Richard Nixon and the actions behind the scenes, this book which contains the personal diary of H.R. Haldeman is must-read. Highly recommended.

ASIN: B01NCYX17R

The Wrong Carlos: Anatomy of a Wrongful Execution – James S. Liebman and the Columbia Deluna Project

carlosOn the evening of February 4, 1983, twenty-four-year-old Wanda Lopez arrived at the Sigmor Shamrock gas station in Corpus Christi, Texas, to begin her shift as a gas station attendant. She never finished that shift. After noticing a suspicious male brandishing a knife, Lopez called police not once but twice before she was savagely attacked and fatally wounded. In less than one hour, police arrested twenty-year-old Carlos Deluna and charged him with the murder. Deluna entered a plea of not guilty and chose to stand trial where he was convicted and later sentenced to death. On December 7, 1989, he was executed at the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville. Prosecutors had secured a conviction and put forth the notion that justice had been served in the State of Texas. However, Deluna maintained his innocence from the start and stated more than once that he knew who did kill Lopez. The name “Carlos Hernandez” became an area of interest, yet officials claimed that no such person existed, nor had he been incarcerated in Texas. But were they telling the truth? And was justice served in Deluna’s execution? James S. Liebman and the Columbia Deluna Project examined the Lopez murder and the fate of Carlos Deluna to uncover what really happened and find the truth behind a dark story that will send chills down the spine of readers.

Before reading this book, I was not familiar with Carlos Deluna or the murder of Wanda Lopez. But that quickly changed as I began to read this unsettling and thought-provoking account of the justice system failing to deliver due process. The book focuses on the Lopez murder early on as expected. From the start, the crime itself makes no sense and we learn early that a couple of the witnesses whom the police questioned remained haunted by that night. And their admissions regarding what they saw or thought they saw that night, set the stage for the saga to come, and presents the basis for doubt of Deluna’s guilt. After presenting the subsequent statements of witnesses to the crime, the authors take us back to that night in February 1983 when Wanda Lopez lived her last moments. Readers sensitive to graphic descriptions of violence and crime scenes may find this part of the book difficult. However, the scene and actions of forensic investigators will have enormous consequences later in the story, when the authors review the collection of vital evidence.

Deluna was assigned legal counsel and the job of defending him fell on Hector De Peña and James Lawrence. De Peña had no experience in defending a capital murder defendant, but Lawrence was an experienced trial lawyer. To their credit, De Peña and Lawrence do their best to mount a defense but come across naive to the determination of prosecutors to see their client convicted and sentenced to death. Despite the State’s imposing presence, De Peña and Lawrence also made mistakes in defending their client. Deluna insisted all along that he was innocent and was adamant that Carlos Hernandez was the man responsible for Lopez’s death, yet it seemed as if no one took him seriously. But just who was Carlos Hernandez and was he as dangerous as Deluna stated?

I have read accounts of countless murder suspects, but few come across as deadly and cold-blooded as Carlos Hernandez. Frankly, the man was pure evil and his propensity for violence towards women is chilling and on full display in the book. He is undoubtedly the darkest figure in the story but incredibly, he was well-known to law enforcement and had committed offenses before and after Lopez’s murder. And as readers will learn, prosecutors were aware of his existence but made no attempt to present him in Deluna’s trial. Deluna’s counsel failed to follow leads that might have taken them to Hernandez. As someone who works in the legal field, I found myself staring in disbelief at the legal practice conducted by the prosecution and defense. And I kept asking myself why a man like Carlos Hernandez was allowed back on the streets of Texas when authorities knew how dangerous he was? And why did Deluna’s lawyers fail to call witnesses who could have provided the jurors with vital information about Deluna’s personal issues and Hernandez’s existence?

I warn readers that Hernandez is a dark figure, but the mini biography provided by the authors does provide explanations as to why he became a monster. To say that his family was dysfunctional would be an understatement. As for Deluna, the authors also provide a biographical sketch of him, and his back story explains his own path in life. Surprisingly, the two men both named Carlos were not strangers to each other and it is this part of the story that seemed to be lost on all counsel. As I read, I kept scratching my head at the missed opportunities to locate Carlos Hernandez and put an end to the mystery. And considering the multitude of crimes that Hernandez committed and his own admissions, it does make one wonder how he evaded punishment so many times. There was more to his story than the State wanted defense counsel to discover. The authors provide another crucial piece of evidence in their assessment that directly addresses the eyewitness testimony: side-by-side photos of both men. When I saw the photo of both men side-by-side, I could not tell them apart and would have picked “the wrong Carlos” myself. Without the aid of DNA technology, eyewitness testimony and forensic evidence were the tools of the trade, and the police made a mess of both.

Earlier I mentioned that the crime scene and actions of investigators had an enormous impact on the trial. The way it impacted the trial is explained by the authors who pay close attention to the handling of evidence and the failure to preserve clues that could have proven conclusively the guilt or innocence of the correct person. If you have watched any modern-day crime show such as “The First 48”, then you know the collection of evidence is the primary concern of investigators. Readers will find themselves aghast as the actions of crime scene investigators. I could not believe what I was reading. If new detectives need a case study on what not to do, it can be found here. Though they did not know it at the time, the actions of investigators helped seal the fate of Carlos Deluna.

It becomes clear in the book that Deluna is headed for conviction. The deck is stacked against him. Following the guilty conviction, the next phase of determining whether he should die was a foregone conclusion. However, he and his family never gave up and exhausted the appeals process to secure his freedom. Yet again, Deluna had legal counsel who neither prepared the case appropriately nor sought to find the mysterious Carlos Hernandez who was hiding in plain sight. The book is both spellbinding and overwhelming. And to think that his happened in America where we are entitled to due process is upsetting. If Carlos Deluna was not a poor man of Mexican heritage but a rich man of another background, he might be alive today. And Carlos Hernandez would have found himself on death row.

Admittedly, Carlos Deluna was no angel and had been in trouble with the law himself before Lopez’s murder. However, his cognitive and emotional issues were neglected throughout his life and resulted in him finding companionship with people who only knew violence and dysfunction. Today Deluna would have at his disposal programs and counseling to help with his issues but in 1983 in a poor part of Texas, help was almost non-existent and slow cognitive development was stigmatized. I never met Carlos Deluna, but I now know his story. Despite everything he went through, he left his family with these words that show a man resigned to his fate and adamant about his innocence:

“I want to say I hold no grudges. I hate no one. I love my family. Tell everyone on death row to keep the faith and don’t give up. —Last words of Carlos DeLuna, December 7, 1989, as recorded by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.” – Carlos Deluna

This is the story of Carlos Deluna, Carlos Hernandez, and a murder in Corpus Christi, Texas that shows how society and the criminal justice system failed those they were designed to protect.

ASIN:‎ B00KV1KP9O

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

Flashbacks: A Twenty-Year Diary of Article Writing – John A. Williams

JohnWhen I saw this book on sale, I felt a small sense of embarrassment because I did not know who John A. Williams (1925-2015) was.  While it is true that he would be considered “before my time”, voices from the past are often as important as those of today. And any person that spends twenty years writing articles must have a significant number of experiences to reflect on. I gave in to my curiosity and decided to make the purchase. I can honestly say that I received more than I bargained for and have a newfound appreciation the late journalist. To be clear, the book is not an autobiography but more of a recollection of his most vivid memories about his early life, breaking into journalism and the numerous larger than life figures he had the chance to interview and, in some cases, form friendships with.  Writers can tell you that composing an article is not always a simple as it seems and financially, it is not a way to get rich quick. In fact, the author removes all illusions of grandeur when he says:

“I’ve written all that time and if I’ve ever come to one single, positive conclusion it is that writing articles is no sane way for a man to make his living. Article Writing Highway is littered with wrecks, maimed and dead.”

Despite his gloomy summation of his trade, Williams wrote extensively, and his talents did pay the bills. But riches were never his goal and at no time in the book does he allude to fortune as his motive.   He explains how he got into journalism in a time when Black Americans were prohibited from entering and being served at many establishments across America.  Jim Crow was alive and strong and those fighting against it knew that it would die a slow death resisting all opposition to the very end.  Williams did not let that deter him and travels domestically and abroad from one assignment to the next.  And along the way, he observes things about America that even those who lived within its borders may not have seen.  Those memories are presented in an engaging format and Williams pulls no punches in his assessment of the land of the free.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to Williams’ writings about the lives of figures who have their places in history such as Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), Charles “Bird” Parker, Jr. (1920-1955) and Malcolm X (1925-1965). Readers familiar with all three will know their stories but the section on Parker is deeply moving and disturbing as the late musician’s short and tragic life comes into focus.  In just thirty-five years, Bird grew into the man who changed jazz forever and after his death, his former bandmate named Miles Davis (1926-1991) changed jazz again.  Williams did conduct interviews with some of the subjects and his discussions with artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) and writer Chester Himes (1909-1984) offer a frank analysis on the situation in America at that time.  Some might argue that the same discussions are being held today.  I can say that the past truly is prologue.

Some readers may find the sections about his travels across America to be quite shocking. But it is imperative to remember that much of it took place before and around the passing of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964.  The landmark legislation had been passed but America did not change overnight.  As Williams drove from one state to the next, the threat of death is never far away, and he had some very hair-raising encounters while on the road. And the treatment he received at various establishments is nothing short of shameful.  Those parts of his story will cause some to wonder how that type of behavior had been normalized in a nation that prided itself on democracy, liberty, and freedom.  Williams was only one person, but his trials and tribulations were common to minorities who had come to realize that civil and equality could wait no more.

As I read the book, he reminded me of James Baldwin in the way he discusses America.  Baldwin had visibility due to his status as a published author and activist. Williams may not have had the same level of popularity, but his observations of daily life are right out of the Baldwin play book.  And like Baldwin, he loved America dearly despite his experiences in the military and later as a traveling journalist.  He remains optimistic for true change in America and the society we see today has come a long way.  There is still more work to be done but I am sure that if Williams were alive today, he would remind us that those much younger than he cannot imagine what life was like during his time.  This book is a cold and hard look at the real America and how life was for millions of its invisible citizens.

ASIN : B01AJ7Z0CQ