Power to the People: The World of the Black Panthers – Stephen Shames and Bobby Seale

ShamesIn his renowned book titled ‘Revolutionary Suicide’, Huey P. Newton (1942-1989) began by saying “the first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man”. The prophetic words are haunting for many members and affiliates of the Black Panther Party met untimely deaths or were forced to flee the United States and live in exile. However, the Black Panther Party for Self Defense became part of history and when Bobby Seale and Newton created the organization in 1966, the created something that changed the way Black Americans viewed themselves. The image that comes to mind when one speaks of the Panthers are young black men with leather jackets and rifles. But behind the imposing public facade, the Panthers were brilliant community organizers and had a vision for Black Americans that could have changed the United States. Photographer Stephen Shames began to cover Panther rallies and eventually followed their progression. This book, co-authored with Seale, gives former members of the party a platform to explain their actions and decisions, in a time when America was amid social upheaval.

Instead of a standard account of the party’s creation, rise and demise, the authors here present a collection of interviews that touch on all aspects of the party’s existence. And to my surprise, I learned a few things I did not previously know. The beauty in the book is that readers can see the passion and hard work behind the scenes that motivated the Panthers to help the community. Party members were surely a mixed bag of characters, but at its core, the group and its affiliated chapters were committed to uplifting Black Americans and helping them to become self-sufficient so that they too could live the American dream. But what stood out to me nearly immediately was the age of the members. In fact, Ericka Huggins explains that: “one thing that people don’t understand about the Black Panther Party is that the median age of a party member in 1969 was nineteen years old“. Today we would say they were just kids but in 1966, those kids became adults and were determined to make their mark.

Readers familiar with the history of the party will know of the free-breakfast program which incredibly was deemed a threat by former Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) director J. Edgar Hoover (1924-1972). It is no secret that Hoover feared and loathed civil rights organizations whom he felt had “communist” influence. And the introduction of the infamous COINTEL program succeeded in breaking up the Panthers but at an inflated cost to the FBI and Hoover’s image in later years. But as I read the book, I was curious about other programs that Panthers initiated not just in Oakland, California, but across America. What I learned was impressive and surprising. One event that stands out is that shortly before his death, Fred Hampton (1948-1969) had reached an agreement with Jeff Fort, leader of the Black P. Stones gang in Chicago that would have struck fear in Washington, D.C. But due to Hampton’s assassination on December 4, 1969, the agreement died out. These events were recreated in the 2021 film ‘Judas and the Black Messiah‘, starring Daniel Kaluuyah as Hampton and LaKeith Stanfield as William O’Neal (1949-1990), the FBI informant who played a crucial role in Hampton’s demise. As the book progressed, it became even clearer to me why the Panthers were feared. It was not so much due to the presence of firearms but rather the knowledge and pride being instilled in Black Americans which was sorely needed following the murder of Malcolm X (1925-1965). Seale himself has said that had Malcolm not been murdered, the Black Panther Party would have never been created.

Eventually, the party began to disintegrate under the strain of infiltration by FBI informants which instilled paranoia and distrust among party members. The fallout is discussed by the participants, but the book is not an examination of why the party failed. It is chiefly a collection of memories, both good and bad. Among the more tragic parts is the death of George Jackson (1941-1971) on August 21, 1971, while incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California. The book ends before Newtown’s own death in 1989 but there is a discussion of the Panthers’ legacy and the situation in America which should be of concern to everyone regardless of their background. The Panthers no longer exist as the group they were once known as, but their presence and importance cannot be overlooked. And contained within this book are voices from the people that were there, risking their lives to give all power to the people.


The War State: The Cold War Origins of the Military Industrial Complex and the Power Elite – Michael Swanson

SwansonOn January 17, 1961, United States President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) gave his farewell address to the nation as it prepared to inaugurate the incoming president, John F. Kennedy (1917-1963). During his address, Eisenhower warned of the “military industrial complex” and its influence over foreign policy. Four years later, America was on the path to war in Vietnam. Following World War II, the world felt relieved as the fighting ended and the planet began the lengthy process of rebuilding what had been lost. But what was not seen at the time publicly, were the growing hostilities between Washington and Moscow which began to form the nexus of the Cold War. But an important question is why did the Cold War take place? While it is true that it was not a traditional war in that troops were on the ground fighting, the world came close to the brink of nuclear war and had those weapons been used, I might not be sitting here today writing this blog post. Today, the United States military is both feared and admired, and the national defense budget for the year 2023 stands at eight hundred eight-six billion dollars. The figure is shocking, but it was not always this way. In fact, the national defense budget was far smaller as presidents sought to reduce military spending and focus on other domestic programs. But at some point, that changed and the money going towards America’s defense took on a life of its own. Author Michael Swanson explains the reasons why in this book that explores the Cold War’s origins, the military industrial complex and the powerful figures behind the scenes that influenced Capitol Hill and the White House as America locked it sights on the Soviet Union and exerting the United States’ influence around the world.

The author provides a primer early in the book to set the stage for the coming discussion, focusing on the financial costs of both World War I and World War II. While reading this section, I made note of a fact he provides about the collection of income tax that will surprise readers. As the second world war raged, American officials were eager to bring the war to a conclusion and prevent more casualties. Their wishes were granted in the form of two bombs that mankind had never seen before. But there were also other effects of the bomb that did not relate directly to its ability to cause destruction. In Moscow, all eyes focused on Japan as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) knew that things between the two nations had changed forever. As Swanson puts it:

“The detonation of the atomic bomb on Japan marked the beginning of the Cold War, because it posed an existential threat to the Soviet Union.”

In America, the Soviet Union was also seen as an existential threat to the nation’s safety. However, the country lacked an effective method of gathering intelligence. That all changed during the administration of Harry S. Truman (1884-1972), informally known as the “accidental president”. Truman held concerns about a Soviet arms buildup and knew that it would increase its weapons arsenal. He had to act and approved two key events that changed American foreign policy permanently. On September 18, 1947, Truman signed into law the National Security Act which paved the way for the creation of the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”). But he was not done there and as relayed by the author:

“Harry Truman ordered a reappraisal of national security policy. Completed on April 14, 1950, this report, titled National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68), became one of the most important documents of the Cold War. It set the stage for a massive arms race and advocated intervention throughout the entire world.”

Frankly, the arms race was on, and every president after Truman would have to fight elements within their own government as fears of a “Red invasion” and “nuclear holocaust” spread across America. Radicals in the American government were convinced that there was a “missile gap” and that more weapons were needed. As Eisenhower enters the story, the pace of the book picks up due to the Cold War becoming a reality. In fact, the conflict forms the bulk of the book which finishes before the debacle in Vietnam. Eisenhower was a famed Allied commander during World War II and seen behind the scenes as an effective leader who preferred to move in silence when possible. But he was not naive to the growing influence of the military and powerful figures in Washington who wanted America to flex its military muscle. Today it seems surreal, but it is important to remember that during this time, there were people who deeply believed a pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union was warranted and that war would eventually come no matter what. Eerily, they accepted the fact that millions of people in both countries would perish in less than an hour during a nuclear exchange. The unbelievable story is told here again, and readers will shake their heads in disbelief. But the story reaches an even higher level of insanity when America elected its first Irish-Catholic president.

John F. Kennedy remains highly popular to this day although he only served one thousand days in office before his murder in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. But during his time in office, multiple crisis brought the United States and Soviet Union close to all-out war. He had inherited the Cold War and a Russian adversary named Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971). And the pawn in the chess match between America and the Soviet Union was the small island of Cuba which came close to being the starting point for the next world war. Swanson revisits the two events that placed everyone on high alert:  The Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Readers familiar with both will read this section slightly faster but as someone who had read multiple books on the subject, Swanson version is also good. In fact, I found it to be a very condensed version that is easy to follow without reducing the suspense needed to convey the seriousness surrounding both historical events. As for Kennedy and Khruschev, both men found themselves in a similar position within their governments and shared the same vision for peace. However, both also had to contend with the fact that hardliners in their governments were eager for conflict and might go to any lengths to make it a reality. The author’s discussion of the final weekend in October 1962 will show the concern on both sides about a coup to remove people from positions of power. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and nuclear war did not happen. But in Washington, that was not enough for the military industrial complex, and Southeast Asia was placed on its radar. Kennedy died before finalizing his plans for Indochina but his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) made it clear that he would not reduce America’s presence and by the time the war ended in 1975, fifty-eight thousand American troops died in Vietnam. But that is a story for another time and another book.

Readers may be tempted to wonder why this story is important today if the Cold War is over. Well, the reason is that defense spending has never been reduced and continues to increase. But we must ask why? Which nation is an existential threat to America today? This section by Swanson towards the end of the book sums up the thinking that almost caused a third world war with nuclear weapons perfectly:

“In the 1950s, air force General Curtis LeMay said he had the ability to order SAC bombers to attack the Soviet Union and destroy all of its war-making capabilities “without losing a man to their defenses.” Americans were completely safe, but they lived in constant fear.”

The past is always prologue, and though the Soviet Union no longer exist, the ideological differences between Russia and America remain. But peace should be the goal and there is enough room on the planet for us all if we place value on our lives which are not guaranteed. This is a good discussion about American history and the dark directions the nation took under misguided fanatical warriors who warmly embraced what could have been Armageddon.

“Cold War? Hell, it was a hot war!” – Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) (The Fog of War, Sony Pictures 2003)


The Trafficantes, Godfathers from Tampa, Florida: The Mafia, the CIA and the JFK Assassination – Ron Chepesiuk


The official story put forth by the Warren Commission is that President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was shot and killed by Lee Harvey Oswald (1939-1963) who fired three shots from the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963. However, Oswald’s guilt has long been in doubt and in 1976, the House Select Committee on Assassinations found a “probable conspiracy” in Kennedy’s murder. Some believe that the conspirators included members of the Italian American Mafia, notably mob bosses Santo Trafficante, Jr. (1914-1987) of Florida and Carlos Marcello (1910-1993) of New Orleans, Louisiana. We know for certain that Oswald was at the Book Depository as the assassination happened. However, events that played out following the shooting in Dealey Plaza indicated a darker and more sinister climate of danger that awaited Kennedy as he stepped off Air Force One at Love Field that morning. It is no secret that mobsters were not fans of Kennedy or his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1929-1968). But did the mob have the power to kill the president? Author Ron Chepesiuk explores this question and more in this short book about the Trafficante family and the role the mob may have played in Kennedy’s death.

Believers of the lone gunman theory will not entertain any theories about the mob, CIA, or others. And for good reason. If we do believe the mob was involved, then a conspiracy exists. However, the mob did have motive, and that aspect is addressed in the book. But before we get to the Kennedy assassination, the author primes us with background information on Trafficante and his father Santo Trafficante, Sr. (1886-1954) who were the undisputed rulers of the Tampa underworld. The book is not an extensive biography of the father or son but provides basic information to understand who they were. But what is of more interest are the connections between them and other underworld figures, and this is where the plot thickens.

Because the book is short, there is a lot of information that is highly condensed. Readers may benefit from other material on the Kennedy assassination, and I always recommend the late Jim Maars’ (1943-2017) ‘Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy‘ which provides a thorough analysis of the shooting in Dealey Plaza, the death of Dallas Police Officer J.D. Tippit (1924-1963) and numerous other components of the crime that will send chills down your spine.  Chepesiuk’s story is solely on the Mafia, but he does mention other players when necessary.  However, the story here remains centered around the Trafficantes, Marcello and the nexus of underworld crime figures who welded power in America. There are no “smoking guns”, but I did notice that anyone expected to appear before the House Select Committee on Assassinations seemed to meet a sudden death. Appearances are made in the story by Chicago mobster Salvatore “Sam” Giacana (1908-1975) and mobster Johnny Roselli (1905-1976). Their stories are surreal, especially Giancana’s direct link to Kennedy.

It is impossible to discuss the mob’s anger at Kennedy without acknowledging the impact of former Cuban President Fidel Castro (1926-2016). Prior to the Cuban Revolution, the Mafia had turned Cuba into a cash machine and playground for Americans looking for a quick getaway to have fun. Former Cuban President Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973) had allowed the mob open reign but on January 1, 1959, that all changed as Castro marched triumphantly down the streets of Havana. Mobsters who had the means to do so, left as soon as they could. But Trafficante Jr. had an interesting experience in Cuba which I had forgotten about. It is telling of what Castro through of the mob and sets the stage for the future alliance between the CIA, Mafia, and disgruntled Cuban exiles. Castro was serious and the only way the mob could enjoy Cuba was if the bearded leader were gone. This is the beginning of a dark rabbit hole which we cannot go into here. But the author gives us an idea of the sinister partnerships that existed for “mutual benefit”.

There is one more section of the book I want to address, as no discussion of Kennedy’s murder can be held without addressing the dark presence of Jack Ruby (1911-1967), whose actions that weekend following the assassination were strange to say the least. The Warren Commission insisted that Oswald and Ruby did not know each other. But is that the truth? As seen in the book there is compelling evidence that they did know each other, and I recommend readers watch the documentary ‘Rush to Judgment‘ by the late Mark Lane (1924-2016) who published the book of the same name.  Ruby’s mob connections cannot be ignored, and the author weaves them into the story at hand showing that powerful figures were watching Oswald.

The truth about Kennedy’s murder may never be known. And if it is, maybe not in my lifetime as author Anthony Summers says in his book regarding the murder.  Thousands of pages of records are still classified, and as time passes, those with knowledge of what did happen will pass on taking what they know with them to the grave. But I do believe that we have enough information to know that Oswald was only a small piece in a larger puzzle. The mob certainly wanted Kennedy gone and benefited from his death. It had the money and power, but to a certain extent. Removing a president from office is a concerted effort dependent on compartmentalization, a concept the Mafia knew well. The list of Kennedy’s enemies was long, and his death was nothing short of regime change. The mob was only one enemy, and its role is still up for debate. But what Chepesiuk shows is that the mob had a personal stake in seeing Kennedy eliminated. For a good understanding of the powerful crime figures who had turned sour on Kennedy, this is an informative read.


Imperfect Union: How Jessie and John Frémont Mapped the West, Invented Celebrity, and Helped Cause the Civil War -Steve Inskeep


If you live in San Francisco or have visited the “City by the Bay”, I believe you will agree that views of the Golden Gate Bridge are nothing short of breathtaking. It is an iconic structure that is easily recognized as a symbol of the Golden State. But I confess that I never asked myself where the name Golden Gate came from. Two weeks about, this recommendation showed up in my feed. I did not know who John Charles Frémont (1813-1890) nor his wife Jessie Ann Benton Frémont (1824-1902). But the title of the book caught my attention, and I knew I had to make the purchase.  And having finished the book, I can say that not only was it a fulfilling read but also a story I should have learned years ago. In this informative and eye-opening book, author Steve Inskeep takes up back in time when America was still a young nation embracing expansionism into parts unknown and the life story an accomplished yet tragic explorer whose actions and experiences helped to write new chapters in the history of the United States.

Naturally, I wondered why I had never heard of John Frémont and his journeys west. I had a sobering realization that there is a great deal of American history that remains to be told.  John is the pivotal figure in the book and Inskeep provides an early recap of his early life and that of his wife Jessie, whose father, Senator Thomas Hart Benton (1782-1858) plays a significant role in both of their lives as the story progresses. Story picks up in pace as John begins the first of several expeditions that changed his life and the United States. Readers will take notice of the extensive periods of time that pass between the times John and Jessie are together. It may be hard for young readers to envision but in an era before modern forms of communication, letters were the only option. Frankly, there are parts of the story in which Jessie does not know where her husband is. We do as readers but putting myself in her place helped me to understand how rough life was in the early 1800s. Further, the extensive journeys are not for the faint at heart, as Inskeep shows with his descriptions of the harsh condition faced by Fremont and his parties. Adding to the suspense is the fact that Frémont was venturing into territory that did not belong to the United States. The stakes are high, not just for John but for others, including the famous Kit Carson (1809-1868) whose friendship with Frémont is on display as the two venture further west confronting the elements and the unknown.  Their excursions did not go unnoticed and as White American explorers continued to move west, tensions increased with Native Americans and Mexico who claimed a majority of what is today the State of California, igniting a major conflict which the author revisits to examine Frémont’s role. At home was Jessie, but as we learn in the book, she was not the type of woman to sit still and has her journey from start to finish which is also of interest for its moments of grief and reunions with John who she never ceased to love.  It can be argued that Jessie could have become a celebrity “First Lady” had Frémont been elected.

The annexation of territory outside of America’s border was ugly and the author does not hide this fact. The Mexican American War was a turning point in North American history and by its end, California’s fate had been changed permanently. Frémont has a significant role on the side of the United States, yet comically, he finds himself the target of military justice upon the war’s conclusion which saw him appointed as the first Governor of California. But U.S. President James K. Polk (1795-1849) who valued the officer’s successes and talents. Others also took notice, including a group of politicians who had recently formed the Republican Party. Running heavily on the platform against the expansion of slavery and if possible, its elimination, the Republicans struck fear across the South where slavery was a way of life. And it is this part of the book that explains the author’s contention that the Frémonts helped cause the American Civil War.

Of course, Frémont was not the proximate cause of the conflict but the expanding union which began to include more slavery-free states, raised eyebrows in the South. Surprisingly, I was not aware that Frémont was the first Republican candidate for president. The incredible story is contained here, and it is a valuable history lesson. Following Frémont’s rise to fame, his star slowly fades away as a new candidate named Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) rises in the Republican Party and captures the White House in 1860. The South had already been on edge due to the Republican’s support for the abolition of slavery or the stop of its expansion. But a major trigger for the coming war can be found in how the Republicans won the election. This alone should have been a warning to the South that a conflict with the North would never be quick and easy. Sadly, the war did come and though Frémont was in Europe for a time, upon returning to America he suited up again for the Union Army as America was at war with itself.  The Confederacy eventually suffered defeat but for Frémont, he would never again have the fame he once had. And before Lincoln’s assassination, the two clashed over Frémont’s fiercely independent nature. The details are within and caused me to ponder if Frémont carried bitterness toward Lincoln for becoming president. Inskeep does not explore that idea and it is up to readers to draw their own conclusions. The latter part of his life is uneventful but also heartbreaking for we see a man who is restless and in need of action true to his character. There is no happy conclusion for Frémont nor for Jessie. But unlike her husband, she made the best of her later years, and even published several books during her lifetime. John’s final days are sad, but he did live a life full of incredible experiences that are part of America’s legacy. And any time I visit San Francisco, I will stand at the Golden Gate with an understanding of how and why it all came to be.


Taking Hawaii: How Thirteen Honolulu Businessmen Overthrew the Queen of Hawaii in 1893, With a Bluff – Stephen Dando-Collins

I am consistently amazed to learn history that is not taught in classrooms. I do not always question why but acknowledge that topics my teachers discussed were sometimes lacking in detail through no fault of their own. In fact, much of what we learn in life takes place outside of the classroom. That applies here to this book that examines the annexation of Hawaii in 1893.  The State became a hotbed topic during the 2008 Presidential Election due to it being the birthplace of Democratic nominee Barack H. Obama. Conspiracy theories ran amuck, and the consensus was that Hawaii was not legally United States Territory and thus the candidate should not have been elected to office.  The reality is that Hawaii was officially declared a state in 1959, two years before Obama was born. However, the story of Hawaii is one of intrigue, heartbreak and unofficial foreign policy that serves as an eerie premonition of future actions abroad by the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”).

When I saw the cover of the book, my interest peaked but I quickly realized that I did not have solid understanding of how Hawaii came into possession by the United States.  I knew the only thing to do was start reading. And I soon learned that the author had a significant story awaiting readers.  The book begins with a fascinating history of Hawaii itself, focusing on the Polynesian roots of its inhabitants and the society they created which would be upended by the arrival of unfamiliar faces. The arrival of European explorers marked the first stage in the downfall of the monarchy that ruled Hawaiian society.  But what Americans might not know be aware of is the role of the British in Hawaii’s history. This part of the story is interesting and raises the question of what if America had followed Britain’s example. As the story moves forward, the monarchy which had regained control over the Hawaii, changes leadership multiple times and the arrival of foreign businessmen brings trouble to the doorstep of the last monarch, Queen Liliuokalani (1838-1917).  Surprisingly, it is easy to overlook that Hawaii was not a target of the United States Government. In fact, the White House had no official policy of annexation. But there were individuals in the government who had their eyes set on the islands.  The author explains that,

“As far back as 1853, US Secretary of State William Learned Marcy had said of the Hawaiian Islands, ‘It seems to be inevitable that they must come under the control of this government.”

The events that transpire in the book, which are re-created with exceptional detail, highlight the covert operation in place that is carried out with unbelievable gall. However, the road to overthrowing the Queen was not without its issues which the author also points out. Eventually the Queen’s overthrow comes into focus and how it plays out is surreal.  The title says, “with a bluff”. It most certainly was, and the fact that it succeeded left me speechless. However, the blame for the coup should also be placed on those within the monarchy who failed the Queen and others who failed to take action that would have derailed the conspirators’ plans. Back in Washington, President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) soon realizes what has happened in Hawaii and its implications for U.S. foreign policy. The dramatic fallout is captured including Cleveland’s own struggles with a financial panic and divided Congress. Despite strong annexation sentiment, there were officials in Washington deeply concerned about what happened. The seriousness of the plotters’ actions should not be overlooked. In fact, Congress did get involved and we learn that:

‘James Blount had found that Queen Liliuokalani had been overthrown as the result of a conspiracy between US ambassador John L. Stevens and the members of the Committee of Safety, and that Captain Wiltse had landed US forces in Hawaii with the intention of influencing the outcome of the coup staged by the annexationists against the legitimate and lawful Hawaiian Government.’ 

But the plotters were not about to let Hawaii go and used any opportunity to their advantage to keep possession of Hawaii, including stalling tactics. To their surprise, the native people did not give in easily and did take a stand, however, in the end, Hawaii’s fate had been sealed. A bloodless coup had been executed and the people of Hawaii would never go back to their ancestral ways. And if there was any hope of as last-minute reprieve by Washington, this act put the final nail in that coffin:

“The joint resolution for the annexation of Hawaii passed the Senate on June 15, and the House on July 6. On July 7, 1898, President McKinley signed into law the Newlands Joint Resolution for the annexation of Hawaii.”

And with that, the history of Hawaii was changed for good. On August 21, 1959, Hawaii was admitted to the Union as the 50th State, marking the end of the road that the annexation faction had envisioned in 1893. But they could never erase the dark history that came with annexation which the author here has exhaustively researched and presented for our understanding and education. This is the history you may not learn in school, but it is a part of American history every citizen should know. The amount of detail is extensive, but the book is an excellent account of a pivotal moment in world history. Hawaii may be the site today of military bases and vacation resorts, but the islands also contain an ancient history that is sacred and important.


The Deal of the Century: The Breakup of AT&T – Steve Coll

at&tAnyone who uses a mobile cellular device has undoubtedly experienced the issue of a dropped call. Upon resumption of the call, one party will typically ask the other who their service provider is. The choices of mobile service providers today are plenty but prior to 1982, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company controlled phone service across America (“AT&T”). But all that changed when a small communications company challenged AT&T’s rule and set int motion a chain of events that resulted in the breakup of the communications giant, paving the way for the diversity in service providers we have today. Author Steve Coll tells the unbelievable story here in a book that beautifully captures a crucial event in American history.

This book was in my list of recommendations, and when I noticed it the title instantly grabbed my attention due to me being a mobile subscriber of AT&T, Inc. And when I think back to my childhood, my family were also subscribers of AT&T. None of us questioned why but would agree today that we never had issues with phone service. But if AT&T was so good, why was it broken up? Well, a small company called MCI Communications (“MCI”) decided that it wanted to get into the communications field and had no choice but to impose on AT&T’s territory. The tech giant balked at first, but officials at the Federal Communications Commission had other ideas and approved MCI’s request to go into business. But there was a catch, and as Coll explains:

“When the FCC authorized MCI to go into business, over the strenuous objections of AT&T’s Washington lobbyists, the commission told AT&T that it had to allow MCI to interconnect with the basic phone network. But the commission didn’t tell AT&T how much it should charge MCI for connections, or how fast AT&T should install MCI’s lines, or how AT&T should calculate its own costs when determining an interconnection price for MCI.” 

The leasing agreement worked on the surface, but MCI’s William G. McGowan (1927-1992) was far from finished and on March 6, 1974, MCI filed an anti-trust suit against AT&T. Several years later in 1978, the two parties entered the ENFIA Agreement about the leased lines, but the lawsuit had also provided the framework needed by the U.S. Department of Justice in its own lawsuit to end AT&T’s dominance. But the tech giant did not go away quietly and had the best lawyers it could afford. And they were ready for battle when the Government filed suit in what became United States v. American Tel. and Tel. Co., 552 F. Supp. 131 (D.D.C. 1983). The first judge assigned to the case passes away and it is re-assigned to the late Judge Harold H. Greene (1923-2000) whose summary judgment opinion changed telecommunications in the United States. But before we reach that point, the author provides a crash course of litigation and discovery that those in the legal field will appreciate. The snippets of courtroom discussions and conversations revisited between the parties reveal the complexities litigators face in intricate litigation. And behind the scenes on each side, things were unpredictable as well. One area that stands out is the confusion at the U.S. Department of Justice. Before the case is over, several attorneys take the lead, each with a distinctive style. And at times, it seems as if no one on the Government’s side is on the same page, particularly when the parties begin settlement negotiations. However, while the two sides were revisiting strategy, politics in America were changing the course of nation and a former Hollywood star was soon on his way to the White House.

About halfway through the story, the narrative changes with the incoming administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004). At first, I thought it was strange that his administration would play a role in the story but as the book progresses, the reasons behind the importance of the AT&T case become clear. One issue regarding national security gives credence to the Government’s intrusion. But strangely, Reagan never takes the lead in the matter, nor does he get involved but instead leaves the matter to others. Coll points out this characteristic of Reagan’s time in office with this keen observation:

“The advantage of Reagan’s style was that on many issues, that consensus led to unity and strong, positive leadership within the administration. The disadvantage was that the President had a slim grasp of the questions being deliberated by his counselors and was thus unable to intervene when, as was the case early that summer, debate on a particular issue became skewed by personality clashes, turf wars, and internal White House politics.” 

Frankly, Reagan is a non-factor throughout the story, but cabinet officials take far stronger positions. At the Justice Department, a settlement remains a priority, but the attorneys remain committed to trial and seeing the case through. The agreement reached with AT&T in 1956 was seen as a slap on wrist and attorneys were determined not to let it happen again. AT&T’s attorneys resort to filing a summary judgment motion but even as the two sides engaged motion practice, they all remained oblivious to decisions in Washington, one of which pulls the rug out from under your feet:

“Neither Greene nor the majority of attorneys trying the case was aware on that September morning that a nearly irrevocable decision not to drop U.S. v. AT&T had already been made by the White House.” 

The White House had left AT&T to defend itself and was not going to step in. But settlement negotiations proved to be successful, and the case was eventually dismissed. And that settlement awakened the sleeping giant known as Congress. Coll explains what happened when the settlement went through and how its terms shaped modern telecommunications. And surprisingly MCI suffered an adverse effect from legislation that should have been to its benefit. Today, the matter of U.S. v. AT&T is history rarely discussed. But the decision of Judge Greene, the settlement reached and the actions by Congress, changed the telecommunications industry for good. The United States Government has commenced anti-trust litigation countless times and will surely use it in the future. But the breakup of AT&T will remain one of its most important cases. Highly recommended.

ASIN:‎ B071D53HV8

Before the Fires: An Oral History of African American Life in the Bronx from the 1930s to the 1960s Before the Fires – Mark Naison and Bob Gumbs

BronxThe Bronx, New York is known as the birthplace of hip-hop music and the home of the New York Yankees. It is also a melting pot and home to immigrants from all parts of the world. And the history of the Bronx is as storied as the people who call him home. During the 1970s, New York City had ventured into its darkest days with the threat of bankruptcy and crime rate nothing short of astronomical. In the Bronx, an epidemic of fires emerged but not solely due to arson. In fact, arson played a minor role in the plague of fires that struck the Bronx. Regardless of how and why the fires started, the tragedies altered the Bronx landscape and left its people wondering where things went wrong. However, life in the Bronx was not always as perilous. Authors Mark Naison and Bob Gumbs conducted interviews with former residents of the Bronx to learn what life was like before the fires and drugs devastated communities.

Most of the people interviewed are Black Americans but there is one interview with a former resident who was white. The participants range in age and occupation, but all called the Bronx home, with a heavy focus on the Morrisania section. Among the speakers are a relative of jazz legend Thelonious Monk (1917-1982) and the sister of NBA legend Nathaniel “Tiny” Archibald. Their stories are interesting but there are numerous interviews in the book which are highly informative. What struck me as I read is the diversity that existed in the Bronx at a time when racial segregation in America was legal and enforced. In fact, the Bronx during the 1930s to the 1960s could serve as the blueprint for the United Nations. Speaker after speaker comment on the diversity they saw in a neighborhood home to Jews, Irish, Italian, Blacks, and anyone else who needed a place to live. Of course, there were racial issues on occasion and the presence of gangs cannot be overlooked. Names such as the Slicksters, Savage Nomads and Fordham Baldies are cemented in New York City gang lore. The dark elements of life in the Bronx are discussed but the speakers are unanimous in the position that the racial violence found in American South was unknown to the Bronx. That is not to imply that everything was perfect. In fact, during those times Crotona Park and Arthur Avenue were off limits to blacks as is discussed by more than one speaker. And though white flight did occur, the speakers also fondly remember their white neighbors with whom they created memories to last a lifetime.

There is a dark side to the interviews and that takes the form of heroin which floods New York City and turns the Bronx into a nightmare. The rise in drug addiction is the most difficult of the stories in which it is mentioned. Thankfully, none of the speakers suffered from addiction but they recall how they saw their neighborhoods change as drugs flooded the streets. The stories are heartbreaking and an eerie premonition of the current opioid crisis in America. Fentanyl has the possibility to repeat the events in the Bronx a thousand times over across America, and in some places it has already started. The influx of heroin resulted in the exodus of long-term residents resulting in a change in demographics, income level and quality of life. However, today the vacant lots are gone, and the fires in the 1970s ancient history to the younger crowd. But there was a time when the Bronx hit rock bottom and was one of the worst parts of New York City. My borough of Brooklyn had its own issues and in East New York, we were able to relate to the Bronx as we too saw the influx of drugs and escalation of violence that turned the streets into war zones.

Another thing I noticed as I read the stories was the sense of community that once existed. The Morrisania section was its own world with close bonds and unlocked front doors. The image that I formed in my head is far removed from the reality of life in the Bronx today where doors must be locked. The carefree environment discussed by the speakers sounds too good to be true, but it was a different time with different mindsets. The loss of community and the indifference on the streets today is puzzling to the older residents as can be seen in the interviews. The Bronx they knew is long gone, having been replaced by new tenants whose experiences and lives have taken different paths to the city that never sleeps. However, New York and America by large was built by immigrants and that is also evident in the interviews.  The men and women interviewed in the book had been away from the Bronx for extensive periods of time, but they are all clear about their love for the borough known informally on the streets by its nickname “the Boogie Down Bronx”. If you like New York City history, this will pleasantly surprise you.

ASIN: B01J86B22Q

Iwo Jima: World War II Veterans Remember the Greatest Battle of the Pacific – Larry Smith

iwoIn the 1989 film ‘Born on the Fourth of July‘ by Oliver Stone, there is a scene in which the Marine Corps. recruiter (Tom Berenger) is speaking to high school student Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise) and his high school class. To boost interest, Berenger calls out the names of the battles that defined the United States Marine Corps. The list is extensive and impressive but to this day, the deadliest battle in the history of the Marines is Iwo Jima. Between February 19, 1945, and March 26, 1945, the Marines suffered thousands of casualties as they secured the island which translates into “sulfur island” in English. The battle is also famous for the image captured of Marines and Corpsman raising the American flag as they pushed forward against Japanese resistance. Despite the high casualty rate, thousands of Marines survived Iwo Jima and returned home. But they never forgot the sights, sounds and smells from the fierce battles being fought as the world was at war. Larry Smith talked to veterans of Iwo Jima and has compiled those interviews into this book that provided the retired Marines with a platform to tell readers what they remember from the battle that claimed lives and left others with dark and haunting memories.

Sadly, the Marines in the book who fought on Iwo Jima are deceased and the number of surviving World War II veterans decreases each year. Their voices are silent, but their stories are powerful and will leave readers with a sense of gratitude and shock. The battlefield and injury descriptions are graphic in nature, and discretion is advised. Further, the scenes that are relived are nothing short of hell on earth and highlight the deadly environment waiting for arriving Marines. I also found myself shocked at the age of the young Marines at Iwo Jima. More than one in the book was not old enough to buy alcohol but found himself shipped off to the Pacific where the Japanese were waiting. Military commanders knew that it would be costly to take Iwo Jima, but the number of casualties suffered is staggering and the author specifies that

“On the first day alone the Marines suffered 2,420 casualties, including more than 500 killed.” 

The number of casualties increased exponentially on both sides of the conflict as the battle raged. Eventually the Marines began to gain ground and reached the top of Mt. Suribachi. It was there that the American flag was raised more than once. The emotional scenes were captured on camera and the second image of the Marines hoisting the stars and stripes remains one of the most popular images in American history. But there is more to the story of the flag than one might suspect. In the book, Marines who were there speak on the matter, clearing up any confusion or misinformation that has persisted over time. Readers who are interested in a more thorough discussion of the event will appreciate ‘Flags of Our Fathers‘, by James Bradley and Ron Powers. Bradley’s father John “Doc” Bradley (1923-1994) was a Navy Corpsman and one of the soldiers captured in the iconic second photo taken on February 23, 1945. As we learn in the book, seeing the American flag being raised was a tremendous boost to morale. The pride felt by Marines tasked with taking the island is best captured by former soldier Chuck Lindberg who reminisced:

 “It was a great patriotic feeling, this chill that runs through you. . . . My proudest moment of my time in the Marines was raising the American flag on Iwo Jima. My feeling of being a Marine is I served with the finest, and I feel proud every day that I can tell somebody that.

That sentiment is echoed by others who survived combat on Iwo Jima. On the Japanese side of the conflict, losses were equally devastating, and it became clear that Japan could not win against the Allies. Reasons for the Japanese defeat are not discussed here but the speakers do recall how they felt when they learned that the atomic bombs had been dropped resulting in Japan’s surrender. Unbelievably, it would take four more years to remove the last Japanese soldiers from the island. Every war has its mysteries and World War II is no different. The biggest unsolved mystery in this book is the fate of Japanese Imperial Army General Tadamichi Kuribayashi (1891-1945). I previously was not aware of his demise but am inclined to believe that the Japanese troops knew what happened to their fallen commander. A surprising discovery explained in the book provides information that explains the general’s thoughts that were almost lost to history. While researching the book, Smith made the acquaintance of Colonel John W. Ripley, USMC (Ret.) who did not serve in World War II but did serve in the Vietnam War and became a military historian of Iwo Jima. The issue of the general’s last known location was a source of interest during and after the war but as Ripley explains, 

“ The thing which is the most irrefutable evidence of all is that Kuribayashi’s body , which was a hot item , was never found . Every single body involved in that last attack was not necessarily identified , but they knew it wasn’t Kuribayashi . Every single one . Because they were looking for him . And he wasn’t there . Period . So that is the premier fact that refutes his involvement in that battle .”

As I read the book, I thought of my great-grandfather who served in Europe during the war. As a black infantry soldier, I am sure he had his share of unfortunate experiences. But he served his country and never spoke negatively of America, nor did he discuss what he saw in combat. In the story at hand, black Marines do play a role as the speakers explained but at the time, segregation existed in the armed forces and on Iwo Jima that also applied. However, as we learn from the Marines in the book, blacks played pivotal roles in the American victory and the burial of deceased Marines whose remains were later retrieved from the island after Japan’s defeat. Smith even had a discussion with Thomas McPhatter, a black Marine who provides a needed perspective on the black experience in the Pacific. I personally learned for the first time from the author that regarding the African American experience, 

Between fifteen hundred and two thousand blacks served on Iwo. Each Marine division had a regimental service battalion or field depot staffed by black marines, not to be confused with the Army DUKW drivers.

I thought to myself that had more black Marines been accepted and deployed, the battle on Iwo Jima might have ended sooner and very differently. De-segregation of the military continued in the years following World War II, but its existence placed America in a difficult position of attempting to deliver freedom around the world whiles struggling to enforce it at home. Despite resistance and discrimination, blacks continued to serve in the military and do so today. This is in no way detracts from the heroic efforts of the Marines of all backgrounds who fought on the island. Their experiences and success in turning the tide of the Pacific war remains firmly entrenched in the annals of military history. 

Readers might ask themselves why Iwo Jima was important. That question is answered in the book as the speakers and the author explain its significance. to success in the Pacific. The number of casualties was undoubtedly high, but without occupation of Iwo Jima, the Allied effort to force Japan’s surrender might have taken longer and the full-scale invasion of Japan on November 1, 1945, could have become a reality. President Harry S. Truman‘s decision to drop the bomb ended the war in the Pacific and brought feelings of relief to the Marines and other military personnel who remained at their posts in the Pacific. V-J Day brought World War II to a close, but history cannot forget mankind’s deadliest conflict. These are the stories of the Marines who served on Iwo Jima in the battle that further defined the Marine Corps. and sealed Japan’s fate.



We Could Not Fail: The First African Americans in the Space Program – Richard Paul and Steven Moss

nasaOn January 28, 1986, Americans watched in horror as the Space Shuttle Challenger suffered a catastrophic rupture in its rocket booster shortly after liftoff. Among the seven crew members who perished was Ronald McNair (1950-1986) and African American astronaut who had joined a diverse crew of individuals who were making history. As a student, I remember being in awe of McNair and the mission he was on. Naturally, my fellow students and I also had an affinity for Christa McAuliffe (1948-1986) a schoolteacher whose hometown was watching that day as well. To millions of young black children, McNair was a remarkable sight, but he was not the first to break NASA’s color barrier. In fact, NASA had begun to integrate the space program decades before, during the administration of President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), whose initiative to travel to the moon led to NASA changing itself and playing a significant role in the Civil Rights Movement.

When I first started to read the book, I was not sure what to expect but admittedly, I did not associate the cover with the movement for civil rights. However, I knew that what I was about to learn would provide me with knowledge of the men and women who have not been given credit for their journeys in life that undoubtedly had obstacles along the way. Readers may ask why the story of NASA’s role in the movement is unknown. Until I read this book, I was not aware of the agency’s importance. The authors are also cognizant of this and pull no punches in stating that:

“NASA’s role in southern desegregation remains an unwritten and almost forgotten chapter in the history of the space program.”

I believe this to be an understatement and cannot recall any of my history books mentioning this. But such is the beauty of reading; there are always new things to learn. The story focuses on the American South where Jim Crow was at the height of its power. The Kennedy Administration could not ignore the growing social unrest in America but faced challenges in Southern States and their representatives in Congress who were openly hostile to the thought of minorities having equal rights under the law. However, former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) did not shy away from difficult tasks and when “ruthless Bobby” was needed, he delivered. Space exploration was not on the administration’s primary agenda but once it became clear that the program could be a vehicle to drive forward integration, all hands were on deck. And soon NASA found places to operate its growing program in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Texas. The goal was admirable but even NASA learned that the South was unlike any place in America.

On March 6, 1961, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, which was a multi-part order that set into motion important procedures. The most crucial was the creation of the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, known by its acronym PCEEO. Upon the creation of this committee, civil rights activist and government agencies committed to dismantling segregation kicked into high gear and the space program itself became a prime target. As the story shifts its focus to the South, the complicated position of NASA and its black employees takes shape. The recruitment of blacks did commence but the South was not ready to change, which created a strange paradox across the region. NASA struggled to attract qualified candidates due to the South’s infamous reputation. Added to this unusual operation was the role of Werner Von Braun (1912-1977), the former Nazi party official and director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The irony that a former member of Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) Third Reich became a key figure in the movement for civil rights and integration will not be lost on readers. The authors are even more frank in their assessment when they remark,

“The word “ironic” does not begin to capture what it meant that a man tasked with implementing a program of racial equality had once worked for Hitler. Von Braun had used the slave labor of concentration camp inmates to build the V2 rockets that fell on London and elsewhere. Yet this was the man tasked with correcting the legacy of slavery in Alabama.”

Mark Twain (1835-1910) had it right when he remarked that “truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; truth isn’t“. But in a time when society was changing rapidly and alliances were needed, the unlikely became reality. However, that is not to say that the introduction of Black Americans into the space program was without its setbacks. The new recruits arrived to find that NASA as an agency was responsive to federal law but changing the culture within NASA required more time and determination. That did not deter the men in this book whose names are part of history such as Julius Montgomery (1929-2020), Clyde Foster (1931-2017) and Theodis Ray (1942-2021). In Washington, the White House was watching the progress at NASA and remained committed to seeing it succeed. But as the authors show, not everyone within the administration was on the same page. The bitter rivalry between Robert Kennedy and future President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) again rears its ugly head. Following John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Johnson continued the movement towards integration, and he was able to succeed in the senate in comparison to Kennedy, whose civil rights bill had not gained any significant traction. Johnson’s reputation as a master politician is on full display.

Outside of NASA facilities, the movement continued, and the authors also discuss what was happening on the ground as marches, sit-ins and strikes took place in the hotbed of segregation. The scenes are disheartening and readers sensitive to the subject matter may want to use discretion. The events are well-documented but revisiting them here is as unsettling today as they were then. However, the emphasize the seriousness of the change NASA was attempting to bring to the South, the authors had to show the threat of death that existed for blacks who dared to challenge the system and the deplorable living conditions of blacks trapped under Jim Crow. There were successes but also tragedies as we see in the book. And like places in which conflict has occurred, there was a talent and brain drain out of the South, which is another part of the movement that is not discussed.

Through location, NASA found itself co-existing with a growing movement that was not going to slow down. The agency did act on occasion but as we see in the book, there were also missed opportunities. The NASA effort was not perfect, but the agency did have success and it did help change the social climate in America. The story is not as popular, but it is equally as important as any in history. Moving forward I hope to see more young men and women from all backgrounds take interest in the space program. Tools of untapped talent exist everywhere, and NASA learned this surely but slowly during the 1960s. Today America is a different place, but in the future, younger generations will be required to carry the torch. As we look for those future engineers, astronauts, and important personnel, this book will remind us that they can be found in the most unexpected of places. Highly recommended.


The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 – Garrett M. Graff

graffThis past Sunday marked the twenty-first anniversary of the September 11th attacks which claimed the lives of 2,996 people. The mood in New York City was somber, with rain and dark clouds all day. However, that did not stop anyone from remembering the tragedies on September 11, 2001, a day that changed America. Friends are always surprised to learn that I have never visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. As a New Yorker who was in Manhattan on the day of the attacks, and watched the events unfold from an office window, I will always have my memories of that sad day. But my reluctance to visit the museum has never prevented me from reading and hearing stories from people who were at the World Trade Center and survived. Undoubtedly, there are survivors who have never told their stories, choosing not to re-live the events of that day. Thousands of others did go on the record and their words have been preserved so that the history of 9/11 can continue to be told to future generations. Author Garrett M. Graff has compiled hundreds of statements from survivors, Bush Administration officials, NYC officials, military personnel and first responders, and has turned them into this oral history of the attacks.

Because the book is an oral history, there is no standard narration. The author does provide relevant information when needed but otherwise, the speakers tell us what happened as the day progressed. They range from former President George W. Bush to office workers at the World Trade Center complex. To be clear, Bush does not give an interview but what is included are snippets from the speeches he gave to the country on the evening of the attacks. Readers may feel that the approach is disjointed at first because the statements provided by the speakers are short but also long enough to give you relevant information. And the format works beautifully because it allows them to add small pieces to the bigger picture. And what emerges are unbelievable stories of luck, courage, heartbreak, and fate. You will experience a range of emotions and in the epilogue, the author discloses that even he became emotional while authoring the book. But he pressed forward, and the result is a masterpiece that belongs in the vast archive of materials about the 9/11 attacks.

Readers will notice that there are four stories in the book, one for each phase of the attacks that morning. They began in New York when the North Tower was struck at 8:46 a.m. At first, it was thought that a horrible accident had taken place but when a plane struck the South Tower, it was clear that America was under attack. Surprisingly, the response to the threats did not move at the speed at which one would hope. In fact, the confusion and chaos within America’s air defense network is clear in the book. Fighter pilots were forced to take flight in time spans they would never see under normal conditions. And what the pilots reveal about how prepared they were, and the reality of confronting Flight 93 will give you chills.

There are no smoking guns in the stories and the alleged hijackers are rarely mentioned but there is a wealth of information in the book about what took place behind the scenes within the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the hijacked airliners and Air Force One which found itself the only plane in the sky as officials shut down America’s air space. As I read the book, I noted that the sobering reality of that day is that no one imagined that type of scenario. Former New York Fire Department Commissioner Thomas Van Essen, who watched the deaths of hundreds of firefighters, first responders and civilians has stated that “nothing could have ever really prepared us for what happened—or how fast the events would unfold“.  All hell broke loose in Manhattan and the horrors of the battle to survive at the World Trade Center as told by the survivors is haunting. I felt chills reading of the last moments from trapped workers on floor about the crash location and the breakdown in communication that could have saved lives. At the helm was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his statements also show how chaotic the day had become. 9/11 was a day that no one thought could ever happen but there were warnings that something was brewing and that an Islamic fundamentalist had America in his crosshairs.

Prior to the attacks of 9/11, the name Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011) was unknown to the public. But there were officials in Washington who knew of him and his plan to destroy America. The author does not explore whether Bin Laden was guilty and how planning was executed or any connections between the alleged suspects. He leaves that to the speakers who do state that they believed Bin Laden was behind the attacks. Aboard Air Force One, President Bush was briefed throughout the day and the former administration officials who appear in the book clarify any theories about his alleged “strange behavior” that day. The main concern was always Bush’s safety due to the belief that the president himself was a target. Action was swift and the Secret Service was taking any chances. The cabinet’s departure from Florida and decision to land at Barksdale Air Force Base are revisited in vivid detail and the suspense unfolds like Hollywood but this is what happened, and there was no script that day. People had jobs to be done and they went into action to the best of their abilities. The number of heroes in the book is staggering and chance encounters proved to be a matter of life or death.

The day after 9/11 I remember the feeling in New York City that what had transpired the day before could not have been real. It felt as if we were trapped in a horrible nightmare that would not end. We wanted to go back to Monday September 10 and keep that day going instead. But as weeks turned into months and crews continued with the cleanup of debris and identification of remains, the dark and unsettling truth that America was not immune to attack became clear. The country had changed, and the threat of terror became the number one priority. Children coming of age today will only know the attacks through multimedia but for older generations, 9/11 remains vividly clear. And we have authors such as Garrett M. Graff to thank for the books that preserve the history of the attacks that impacted the United States and the world. This oral history of that day is a treasure and a literary work that is a gift that keeps on giving.

ASIN:‎ B07P5H18W6