Category Archives: Investigative Report
Aviation is truly one of the world’s modern marvels. To say that it has made the world smaller is an understatement. There is something mystical and surreal about moving through the air at 39,000 feet, at speeds in excess of 500mph. Every flyer knows that there are inherent dangers when we take to the skies. Pilots are incredibly skilled and make the experience seem like magic to those of us in the cabin. And air travel is safer today that at any point in history but there many tragedies over the years that we have learned from in order to make air travel as safe as possible. Seasoned pilots will tell you that the early days of aviation were quite dangerous and flying literally was like rolling the dice. On January 16, 1942, movie star Carole Lombard (1908-1942) was a passenger on TWA Flight 3, a flight that began in New York and had a final destination of Burbank, California. Most of the trip was routine, but a sudden change of events in Las Vegas, changed the course of history and resulted in one of the deadliest aviation accidents of the 1940s. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed full speed into Mt. Potosi, causing the aircraft to disintegrate upon impact. There were no survivors.
The official cause of the disaster is still a mystery. At the time, flight data recorders and cockpit voice recorders did not exist in the form that they do now. The pilot, Wayne Clark Williams and co-pilot Stillman-Morgan Atherton Gillette, took what they knew with them to the grave. For decades, the case remained dormant but author Robert Matzen brings the past back to life in this gripping account of the life of Carole Lombard, her husband and legendary film star William Clark Gable (1901-1960) and the plane crash that shocked a nation. Matzen has visited the crash site which is still littered with debris and other grisly finds. He has reviewed thousand of pages of records including FBI files and official investigation records by the Civil Aeronautics Board (1939-1985). And what he has compiled is a thorough investigative report into the accident that rob Hollywood of one of its brightest stars.
Flight 3’s demise of the crux of the book but the author also tells the story of Lombard’s life, from her humble beginnings in Fort Wayne, Indiana to her success in Hollywood during the golden age. Matzen leaves no stone unearthed, revealing the very private side of Lombard’s life, replete with romances, tragedy and and a near-death experience many years before she met her fate on Flight 3. The author captures the aura of the golden era in Hollywood, a time unlike anything the world had seen previously. Some of the greatest names in Hollywood history appear in the story, coming into and going out of Lombard’s life as she moves through Hollywood’s upper echelon. She eventually crossed paths with Gable and Matzen provides an inside look into their marriage and the changes that took place in their lives after tying the knot. Hollywood has dark secrets and stars sometimes come with many shortcomings carefully guarded behind a thoughtfully crafted facade. Matzen looks past that showing the very human side of both. The result is an honest an intimate portrait of two stars at the height of their careers whose relationship was on borrowed time.
Matzen wrote the book in a slightly different style. In the first half of the book, the chapters alternate between Lombard’s life story and the reaction to the crash itself. Towards the middle of the book, the seam is merged and the story moves forward as emergency personnel formulate plans to visit the crash site and recover what they can. Readers sensitive to graphic descriptions of accidents may find this part of the book difficult to get through. The accident was nothing short of devastating. As Matzen explained the violent nature of the collision, I felt a chill go down my spine. I was also speechless as I read descriptions of the carnage that awaited personnel as they made their way to the crash site. At the end of the book, there are photographs included which help to give the reader a visual image of the crash site. Pictures sometimes do speak a thousand words.
Clark Gable remains one of Hollywood’s most iconic stars. But what the public did not see was the struggle he waged in the wake of his wife’s death. Matzen discusses Gable’s life after the crash and up until his death in 1960 at the age of fifty-nine. Apart from the crash, this part of the book is also a tough read. We witness the emotional and physical descent by Gable as he struggles to move on in life following the loss of Lombard whom he affectionately referred to as “Ma”. His sorrow is strong and his life was never the same again. The author focuses on his emotional state and his surprising decision to enlist in the military during World War II. Gable is a man apart and fans of the late star will find this part of the book to be equally heartbreaking.
As the book moves towards its conclusion, the author gives us yet another surprise with regards to the crash of Flight 2793 on November 8, 2007. The Cessna was a T182t single-engine aircraft piloted by Civil Air Patrol. Col. Ed Lewis and copilot Dion DeCamp. Shortly after takeoff, the plane crashed directly into the same mountain as TWA Flight 3. The coincidence was beyond creepy but did both flights crash for the same reason? And why did two planes, piloted by experienced captains slam full speed into a mountain that by all accounts, should have been seen? Matzen provides a very thorough and likely explanation for Flight 3’s crash and reveals interesting facts about 2793’s final moments. Perhaps the final truth will never be known about each flight but we do have an abundance of information about both crashes. They each highlight the dangers of flying at night without proper visual aids and pre-flight planning. May the souls on board of each rest in peace.
Before reading this book, I was not aware of Flight 3 and the sad ending to the life of Carole Lombard. The book came as a recommendation on Amazon and for some reason the cover pulled me in. It was truly a fascinating read and the pace of the book never let up. Matzen has done an outstanding job. Highly recommended.
If you want to learn more about TWA Flight 3, researcher Mike McComb has an informative post on the tragedy titled January 16, 1942: Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA), Douglas DC-3 (NC1946) Potosi Mountain, NV. The post includes more photographs of Mt. Potosi, the crew and some of the passengers. If you like this book, you will find the website to be highly informative and just as thought provoking as Matzen’s work.
The cover of this book is bound to cause many to do a double take. The crossing out of the word black is far from subtle, but anyone who is familiar with the late Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory (1932-2017), will know that subtlety was not in his character. He was known as a star comedian for many years but he was also a civil rights activist, nutrition guru, social critic, writer and occasional actor. His death marked the passing of a icon whose sharp wit and frankness earned him the respect of his peers and people across the nation. Published after his death, this book takes a look at the official history of African Americans that Americans have been told for more than a century. Gregory makes it clear early in the book that American History and Black History are one in the same. It is a valid point and for African Americans, the United States is the only home that many have ever known. The history that has been taught in classrooms across America continues to be re-examined in the pursuit of the truth by historians and independent researchers. The gift of the internet has allowed truth-seekers to reach audiences of monumental sizes as we step back in time to learn what really did happen with regards to pivotal events that shaped the modern day United States.
Gregory starts early in the book, beginning after America becomes a newly formed nation and step by step, he provides us with an outline of the events that took place to clarify what has been written in error. Admittedly, Gregory has been viewed as a conspiracy theorist and in some parts of the book, a few statements give credence to that. Sadly, we do not have the ability to ask him to elaborate on those statements. I did find a few comments to be in need of further verification. But the overall message of the book remains strong and Gregory presents an abundance of valid points. For those who have accepted the history presented in school textbooks, Gregory might come off as out of his mind. But if we pay careful attention to his words, he does speak a lot of truth but in a way where we can analyze things on our own and do further research. In his defense, he never claims to be the end all source for historical information. However, he was a prominent fixture in the civil rights movement and friends with an endless number of historical figures who were directly involved in the movement. He provides plenty of anecdotes about many stars such as Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), Michael Jackson (1958-2000) and Malcolm X (1925-1965).
The pace of the book is fast but steady and Gregory makes sure not to spend too much time on one subject. He discusses each topic just long enough to provided the reader with a clear picture of past events. And while I do feel that it would have been great if he had gone into more detail, that would have required a much larger book. His focus here, is plant enough seeds of doubt so that we continue to do research on our own and learn the truth about history. Gregory was brilliant both as a comedian and social critic. Part of what made him such a memorable figure was his ability to shock his audience. He pulls no punches here and makes it clear that he intends to clarify the many lies that have been told for too long.
Some of us will read this book and come away with the belief that Gregory is more of a conspiracy theorist than many thought. He does make some statements that could be conspiracy theory oriented but he never strays too far off course or makes statements that are beyond outlandish. But I stress again that this book is not the final word on historical events. The book is a good start for those who have long questioned what they have been taught. Black Americans will question their own history in a country that has a dark past with racial discrimination. Black actors, athletes, musicians, activists and authors struggled with the system of Jim Crow and acceptance in mainstream American society. But as Gregory shows us, they all had tremendous courage and he uses their stories to prove his point that Black Americans are not helpless, but strong people whose history has been ignored for far too long. As a Black American, Gregory caused me to re-examined things that I learned years ago in my own search for truth. I did learn a few things I did not know before and for other things, I have more topics to research in-depth. I never had the opportunity to meet Dick Gregory but I had seen him in interviews on several occasions. He is no longer with us but his voice remains as prominent and relevant as ever. And this posthumous release is a further testament to his colorful and influence intellect that provokes thought and reflection. Good read.
Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 – Steve Coll
On the morning of February 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef and a team of terrorist drove a bomb laden van into the basement of the World Trade Center complex in New York City. As I watched the news from across the river in Brooklyn that morning, I felt a sense of shock and vulnerability. America had been attacked. When Ramzi Yousef was captured and extradited to New York to stand trial, many New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief. The Hon. Kevin Duffy sentenced Yousef to life with no parole plus an additional 240 years which he is currently serving at the ADX Florence Supermax facility in Fremont County, Colorado. Eight years later on September 11, 2001, America was attacked again when terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and the final aircraft outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The response from Washington was swift and a show of force nearly unparalleled in modern times. The mission to capture those responsible and root out terrorists, led to Afghanistan, a land-locked country in South-Central Asia. Images of U.S. troops and the enemy Taliban flashed across news screens as reports of successes in the mission to root out terror were triumphantly proclaimed. To many Americans, Afghanistan was another far away place across the world where people lived in ways that seemed to be from ancient times, going against “American ideals”. Today, Afghanistan is nearly completely forgotten by the American public. There has been no news about what America’s current role is and plans to withdraw American forces have been cast aside as yet another victim of the focus on what has become reality television politics. The story of Afghanistan and its importance to world history is often misunderstood and in some cases not even recognized. But there is far more that meets the eye and author Steve Coll explores this topic in this New York Times bestseller that tells the full story what did happen in Afghanistan between the Soviet Invasion and the deadly attacks on September 11, 2001.
If you asked a person on the street today why we are in Afghanistan, I firmly believe that many could not give a plausible answer. Washington has no official position on it. But what is striking is that for decades, U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan was either anti-soviet, anti-Taliban and in other cases, non-existent. Coll revisits each and examines the subject in detail so that we can understand how and why the U.S. attitude towards Afghanistan continued to shift. The book is primarily focused on the Soviet-Afghan war between 1979 and 1989. The conflict drew the attention and participation of multiple countries including Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The Central Intelligence Agency served as the main force to funnel information back to Washington and the United States found itself supporting the Mujadhideen rebels against the Soviet backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. The rebels’ cause earned them support from other young radicals including a very young Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011) who reappears later in the book as an arch-nemesis of the United States. The Soviet-Afghan war served as the last major conflict of the Cold War before the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, history took a very different course for many reason as the author shows. And slowly Afghanistan became a pawn in a much larger chess match between more powerful and sophisticated nations.
The figures that appear in the book are numerous and keeping track of all of them is a bit tedious. But each is critical to the story at hand including the late Senator from Texas, Charles Wilson (D) (1933-2010), Mullah Mohammed Omar (1960-2013) and former Pakistan Premier Benazir Bhutto (1957-2007). All of the figures are central to the complicated web woven in the Middle East as Sharia Law clashed with modernity and oil pipelines became the target of several governments. Coll connects all of the dots in a writing style that makes the story very easy to follow. The revelations in the book dis-spell many rumors and confirm others. The volatile nature of politics in the region is on full display as each leader walks a tightrope while in office. The rise of Sharia Law and anti-modernity beliefs began to turn the tide in the Middle East from welcomed support from the west to disdain for the western way of life. Radicalism is born and as Coll moves through the second half the book, we see how Islamic extremism gained its footing while Washington was asleep at the wheel.
Osama Bin Laden held a spot on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list for several years until his death. Even today, he is still considered one of the world’s deadliest terrorist although he did not carry out the acts himself. But as we see in the book, he was charismatic, dedicated and blessed with enormous wealth as a result of his father’s high successful and respected construction firm. He became a central figure in the new war against the west which would be waged by a new wave of committed soldiers with nothing to fear. Incredibly, while this was taking place, the response by Washington was bewildering. However, not everyone was oblivious to the sudden rise of Bin Laden and there were many officials who sounded the alarm as to what they saw as the next major threat to America. That threat manifested itself horrifically in September, 2001.
Undoubtedly, each reader will take something different away from the book. But I do believe that every reader will be confused to say the least as to what was really happening in Washington and lack of information provided to American citizens. As I read the book, I shook my head at times in disbelief. Today we can look back and ask what if Washington had stopped Bin Laden when it had the chance? Why did Washington fail to acknowledge the warning signs from the intelligence community? Some answers we may never fully know but through Steve Coll, we have plenty of explanations that will suffice for many. For those interested in learning the true story of the Soviet-Afghan war and America’s foreign policy in relation to the region, this book is a must read.
Several years ago, I visited Dublin to finally see Ireland for myself. And while I admit that I was not swayed by the Irish breakfast, there were many other things about Dublin that made up for the first morning and I left Dublin with a sense of warmth and humbleness. During my visit, I stopped by the General Post Office (“GPO”) to send out a few postcards. As I stood on line with other tourists, I marveled at the beauty of the building. After some time, I and the other customers departed and went our separate ways. But I do not believe that many of us on line that day, recalled or were aware of the historical significance of the post office. On April 24, 1916, members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood (“IRB”), staged an uprising across Dublin to force an end to the rule of the British Crown (“the Crown”) across Ireland. The GPO was one of many occupied buildings but is recognized as “ground zero” for the various seizures that occurred. The events of that day have become known as the Easter Rising and contained within the pages of this book, is the story from start to finish by author Tim Pat Coogan.
Recently I have covered a couple of books on “the troubles” in Northern Ireland’s Ulster Province. Each makes reference to the 1916 uprising but are primarily focused on the Irish Republican Army (“IRA”). I knew that at some point I would need to examine the Easter Rising and this book did not disappoint. It came as a recommendation on Amazon and I purchased it rather quickly. Having finished the book, I can firmly state that Coogan created an invaluable tool to learn the truth about the long and violent struggle by Republicans for a united Ireland.
Reviews on Amazon.com are generally positive with the only drawback being that the book is geared towards readers with a good amount of knowledge of Ireland’s history. I do concur that the book is not an easy read but I do believe that readers who choose to explore this book already have a strong interest in the subject matter and will be somewhat familiar with the events at the GPO. Regardless of the reader’s knowledge, it is an enjoyable read. Coogan sets the right pace from early on and the book picks up speed as we move closer to the deadly climax.
While the book is focused on the uprising, there is far more to the story than meets the eye. In fact, not only do we learn about Coogan’s life growing up in Ireland, we also learn about the social conditions for most Irish men and women. Life in Ireland was hard, famine was real and being Catholic was a cardinal sin. London had meddled in Irish affairs for several hundred years and calls for a United Ireland grew exponentially. Protestant rule was enforced through gerrymandering and outright discrimination. For Republicans, there was only thing to do and that was to force the Crown out of Ireland. To some, it was the only hope of an Ireland in which poverty was gone, religion did not divide society and the whole country was united as one.
Through Coogan’s work, I have come to learn the names of the Republican martyrs who whose legacies live on. The names of Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) and James Connolly (1868-1916), among others, are now etched into my memory. The uprising proved to be their downfall but in death they have become revered as the fathers of the Irish Republic. Coogan provides samples of Pearse’s written correspondence to family members and short speeches he gave prior to this death, giving the reader a better idea as to who he was and his ultimate goal for Ireland. To the Crown, the IRB was a group of agitators whose actions were insubordinate, treasonous and outright disrespectful. And to some Irish, particularly those of the Protestant faith, it was further confirmation that they were vindicated in their distrust and rejection of Catholics. London took the position that the rebellion had to be resolved and Britain retaliated sharply. Ironically, the crackdown by the Crown had many unintended effects that changed the course of Irish history. Readers will find this part of the book highly interesting.
Coogan created what is with without a doubt, a definitive account of the Easter Rising. There are many characters involved and certainly a lot of information to process. But I think that readers who have the patience and interest to make it through the book will find that it is well worth the effort. The troubles in Northern Ireland could reignite at any time and the war between the Republicans and the Crown could once again become full scale. Inevitably, foreign nations will intervene and try to broker peace. But in order for peace to prevail, all involved must understand what is truly at stake and why each side has the strong convictions that they do. For those that live outside of Ireland, it may be necessary to first go back and learn the truth about the Crown’s presence in Ireland and the birth of the effort of Republicans to see it come to an end.
The conflict in Northern Ireland between pro-British Protestants and Republic Catholics, is the longest running feud to date. The planned exit by England from the European Union has resulted in suspense and apprehension throughout the rest of the United Kingdom. The Irish have undoubtedly been watching closely as any movement by England will have a ripple effect that will eventually reach their shores. Belfast remains a major tourist attraction in the north, similar to its southern counterpart Dublin, and receives millions of visitors each year. History buffs may recall that Belfast is the city in which Harland and Wolff built the world-famous RMS Titanic for the White Star Line. But behind the fame of the doomed ocean liner, lies a dark side that has taken more lives than anyone could have ever imagined. Belfast and Londonberry (“Derry”) have served as the battlegrounds for the deadly war between Nationalists and Republicans forces. Across Ulster province, six of the nine counties are protected by the British Crown (“the Crown”) and unofficially by the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defense Association. The Irish Republican Army (“IRA”) stands firm as the opposition force founded to defend the minority Catholic population from what they believe to be the refusal of the Crown to let Ireland become a united country. Kevin Toolis is a journalist and screenwriter born in Edinburgh, Scotland to Irish parents. In this eye-opening and chilling book, he travels back to the country of his ancestors, seeking to understand what drives the men and women of the IRA.
I believe that anyone interested in this book probably has a fair amount of knowledge regarding the IRA and “the troubles” as they are known by the Irish. Toolis does not simply relay their well-known attacks but instead seeks to understand the mindset and conviction of those who have taken the pledge to see the Crown removed from Irish soil. He interviewed many high-ranking members, some of whom are now deceased such as Martin McGuinnness (1950-2017), families of fallen IRA members and even those on the other side of the conflict. And what he has come away with will shock readers who live outside of Ireland and are not of Irish ancestry. To outsiders, the conflict seems surreal and the deaths of so many beyond needless. It is a conflict that has no restrictions on violence and the ideology that fuels both sides is as strong as any found throughout the world. However, as I read the book, I did find myself aghast at the ease in which so many accepted jail and death as part of the plan. As the author shows, to nearly all of the figures, taking up the IRA flag is seen as an act of honor, even if it means certain death and/or prison time. It is a thought process that neither I nor many readers outside of the United Kingdom will be able to associate with. But for those that remain in Northern Ireland, the troubles have never gone away.
The author provides a clear and thorough explanation for the origins of the conflict and the imposition of the Crown more than 400 years ago when Oliver Cromwell led the Crown in the War of Three Kingdoms, setting the stage for British rule. As the book moves along, we are introduced to the IRA through polarizing and deadly figures. The uprising of 1916 by Patrick Pearse (1879-1916) marked a new era in the Republic of Ireland. His life and last moments are revisited here, showing the reader the level of conviction behind the Republican cause. The IRA has been home to a large number of larger-than-life characters including the late Bobby Sands (1954-1981), whose hunger strike and death at HM Prison Maze, Long Kesh earned the IRA a major publicity coup against the administration of Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). Sands’ legacy and spirit are alive and well as a martyr in the cause for a united republic. Toolis moves through IRA circles with bravado and fear, knowing full well just how dangerous the interviewees were. But his journalist background, allowed him to continue his research as he descended deeper into the IRA’s soul.
The book is far more than just a collection of missions carried out by the IRA. Here we learn the names and personal stories of several figures who became popular and infamous in IRA lore. Some were heroes, others informers and the rest, tragically became casualties of war. Regardless of their roles, each has their own story to tell about their life in Ireland and whey they feel that the Crown should no longer remain in power in the north. One thing that did stand out is that in nearly every story, a common theme is terrible poverty and discrimination as a result of the majority Protestant rule. In fact, not one person in the book that Toolis interviewed, came from a family of extreme wealth. The opposite was more often than not true, and their prospects in life were grim. But the IRA and the dream of a united Ireland, was enough to lure many into committing acts intended to drive the British away once and for all. Frankie Ryan, Mairéad Farrell (1957-1988), Sean Savage (1965-1988), Daniel McCann(1957-1988), Joseph MacManus and Patricia Black (1972-1991) are just some of the names listed in the long register of IRA members who died tragically on behalf of the IRA. Their goal to force the Crown to leave Ireland has not materialized but the IRA continues to stick to its core mission.
At first glance, it is easy to write off the voices in this book as delusional militants whose numbers were never any match for the Crown of the British military. The six counties in Ulster province are still under the Crown but the IRA is recognized world-wide as the Catholic voice across the north. As I read the stories of the figures being interviewed, I continued to ask myself if there was any possibility that they could have taken a different path in life. For some, it almost seems that they were destined to join the IRA. In fact, as a few explain, it is what they grew up with and a part of life that became accepted. But those of us looking from the outside in may ask is the heartache and death truly worth it? Those part of the IRA will undoubtedly say yes it is. Even those that have been forced to bury siblings and even children, remain committed to the IRA’s cause: a British-free and unified Republic of Ireland.
Those who decide to read the book through pure fascination with the violence and gore that occurs will miss the point of the book. What Toolis has done is to allow us to see how and why young men and women who could have led ordinary and long lives, made the decision to join a cause that many of them knew from the beginning would result in prison and death. Their rationale for answering the call to arms and joining the IRA will provoke a range of reaction in readers. Some of us will be empathetic while others may dismiss them as nothing more than rebel hearts. But regardless of our own personal opinions, these are their stories and the reasons behind their decisions and actions. We do not have to agree with them but we can make the effort to understand their position. Furthermore, we are forced to ask ourselves what we would do in their place.
The British side of the question is not left out and the Crown does make an impact in the story through counter-intelligence missions spearheaded by MI5 and the Special Air Service (“SAS”), police action through the Royal Ulster Constabulary and informers within the IRA’s ranks. Deadly games of espionage, double-agents and collateral damage, turned Northern Ireland and even London in battlegrounds to force change to 10 Downing Street’s foreign policy toward its Irish neighbors.
Today there is a form of peace in Ireland but the Provisional IRA, which split for the traditional IRA in 1969, continues to operate. Time will tell if peace will continue or if the troubles will once again be re-ignited. As Britain struggles to find a suitable exit from the European Union, many eyes are on Ireland and the fears abound of the possible deadly impact of London’s final decision. There may indeed come a day when the Crown is finally removed from Irish soil and the dream of a united Irish Republic becomes reality. Protestants will have to make life changing decisions and for some that might include the use of violence. We can only hope that cooler heads prevail and a British exit from Ireland will be done in an orderly and peaceful fashion. But until that day comes, the IRA remains a force to be reckoned with and a voice for an oppressed minority seeking to change social conditions that have caused thousands of deaths. They are supported throughout Ireland and even here in the United States. But if peace will have a chance of prevailing through a long term solution, we must first understand those that have served and died in their commitment to the IRA. Some of those incredible and heartbreaking stories are captured here by Kevin Toolis in this breathtaking journey into the heart of the IRA.
The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy: Mikhail Gorbachev and the Collapse of the USSR (The New Cold War History) – Chris Miller
On December 26, 1991, the world watched in shock as the Union of Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) dissolved, splitting the once mighty Soviet Union into fifteen separate nations. I vividly remember watching the news broadcasts and seeing the flag of the Soviet Union lowered for the last time. It was the end of an era highlighted by the Cold War in which Washington and Moscow viewed each other as a threat to world peace. Paranoia, suspicion and espionage propelled the two to the brink of nuclear war on several occasions. In October, 1962, the world watched in gut-wrenching suspense as the Cuban Missile Crisis heated up and threatened to be the spark that ignited the next world war. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971) found their selves in a situation that could have resulted in the physical destruction of half the planet within a matter of minutes. Diplomacy eventually prevailed through the use of back door channels encouraged by the realization of figures in both governments that the looming showdown would produce no winners. Tensions between the two super powers cooled but never full subsided and as the dissolution of the USSR played out on television, Washington closely monitored the events while re-examining its global position as Russia emerged from the post-Soviet empire as the country to watch. Twenty-eight years later, the USSR is still recalled as one of the greatest powers in history. Its fall was earth shattering and left so many wondering, how and why did it happen?
Author Chris Miller is an Assistant Professor of International History at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. And here in this investigative report into the struggle to save the Soviet economy, he explores and explains why the USSR met its demise. The story is focused on the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev who is the head of an empire that is struggling financially. Failed Marxist policies and hard-liner policies have become anchors that are weighing the USSR down heavily. Its neighbor China, has found a solution that has allowed it to move away from the policies of Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) known as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Under a new leader, Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997), China chartered a new course that allowed more economic freedom to ignite the nation’s struggling economy. While never fully leaving its Marxist ideology, China does in fact go through an economic rebirth and in the process becomes part of the “Asian Tigers”, joining Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore. In the USSR many eyes were watching and Miller perfectly explains the resurgence of the Asian markets and how they have grown into the financial hubs they are today. But this story is about the USSR which found itself in a similar position as China and sought to emulate the success of its left-leaning ally.
As the author wades deeper in the scenes taking place in the Kremlin, we become witnesses to the struggle Gorbachev became engulfed in with his own government. Incredulously, he was not allowed to see the USSR’s budget nor was he privy to significant information held by the Soviet Army and the Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (KGB). The hold over the country by the military and intelligence apparatus is strikingly clear and highlights the uphill battle that Gorbachev was forced to fight as he struggled to save the economy.
It is said that old habits die a hard death and in the case of the USSR, this was painfully true. Miller shows the stubbornness of the old guard who clung to ideology in order to maintain the status quo even as the country slid closer to implosion. The arguments that are put forth against Gorbachev are at some points mind-boggling and mind-numbing. Little by little, Gorbachev becomes a man on his own whose radical ideas fly in the face of what the hard-liners believed to be true Marxism. Unwilling to waver from their commitment to the memories of Karl Marx (1880-1883) and Fredrich Engels (1820-1895), they oppose Gorbachev at nearly every turn and the USSR becomes an empire at war with itself. To the west much of this was hidden until the very last-minute, but to those inside the USSR, signs that all was not well had been growing for decades. But officials in high positions continued to cling to the hope that the economy could miraculously be revived. Realists knew otherwise but life in the Soviet Union did not permit dissension. And those who went against the system sometimes paid the ultimate price. One of the true ironies in the book is the parallel between Gorbachev and the father of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924).
At times the story is beyond shocking but the author’s clarity in explaining the mistakes consistently being made behind the scenes, is a concise step-by-step guide to show the inevitable fate that awaited Moscow. Gorbachev probably did not realize just how fierce opposition would be but when the failed coup took place in August, 1991, the realization that the left and right had lost their minds must have been crystal clear. The nation could not survive another period reminiscent of the era of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and the meltdown at Chernobyl was still fresh in the memories of many. To the Soviet Republics, these were more examples of Moscow’s growing incompetence and the urgency for independence. The Soviet Republics would play their own part in the fall of the USSR but for the most part, Moscow continued to make many mistakes on its own. Tragically, the Soviet Union could have and should have saved itself, but failed to take action that would have spared it from certain doom.
Today, the Soviet Union is an afterthought for many of us and for the younger generation, a relic of a time that existed before they were born. But we should never forget the role the USSR played in the events that changed world history over the past one hundred years. It no longer exist, but the ghosts of the former Soviet Union continue to haunt many. An empire that should have continued to dominate half a continent collapsed under its own weight and for reasons that will surprise and shock many readers. This is a relevant and informative account of the final years of the once mighty Soviet Union.
On February 13, 1961, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965) placed a call to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) and informed him that Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961), the first Prime Minister of the Independent Democratic Republic of the Congo, had been murdered a month earlier. The moment that Kennedy took the call was captured by a photographer and the image shows him with his hand covering his face in shock. The picture truly does speak a thousand words and Kennedy’s dismay resonated with millions of people around the world.
To a growing following, Lumumba represented hope for a new course to be charted by the continent of Africa. The Congo would lead the way and help other African nations achieve independence and change the world. As the leader of the Mouvement National Congolais (MNC), he stood at the front of the growing movement for independence which occurred on June 30, 1960. Nearly immediately after his historic election as Prime Minister, his enemies began plotting his elimination. Brussels became increasingly alarmed as its grip over the Congo became weaker with each day that passed. And before long, the decision to remove Lumumba became a priority for Belgium and other nations afraid of the rising Congolese star. In less than one year, he was dead and all hopes for a new Congo were shattered beyond repair. There are some people in the Congo who have never moved on from his murder. To this day, Lumumba remains a martyr in the African struggle for liberation from imperialism.
The first question to be answered is why was the Congo such a desirable location? Leo Zeilig has the answer to that question and many others. He explores the Congo’s past and in particular the actions of Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904) and Dunlop Rubber. Their actions set the stage for the brutal Belgian occupation that ruled the Congo with an iron grip. Racism was a founding principle and enforced through strict segregation. It was into this world that Lumumba was born on July 2, 1925 in Onalua, located in the territory of Katako-Kombe. From the beginning, his life was anything but ordinary.
Zeilig did a masterful job at presenting Lumumba’s story so that we can see his development into an adolescent and then young man, forced to navigate a racist society whose goal was to reap enormous profits at the expense of Congolese men and women, often viewed by their occupiers as “savages”. Lumumba’s path to politics took many turns along the way and his personal life nearly rivaled his political life in intrigue. Zeilig pulls no punches, revealing any facades and clarifying any myths that might exist. Several wives, multiple children and a burning passion for knowledge were just some of the many sides to Lumumba’s life.
The book picks up speed after the election and granting of independence. Unsurprisingly, the Congo was plagued by tribal divisions which would later become problematic for any chance of unity. Those familiar with the events of that time will know very well the names of Joseph Kasa Vubu (1915-1969) and Moise Tshombe (1919-1969). Each would play a role in the removal of Lumumba and what is revealed will surely leave the reader in shock. Behind the facade of a coalition government, a deadly game of chess ensued, pitting critical figures against each other as the country slipped closer and closer to all out civil war in the wake of the Belgian exodus. Zeilig covers all angles and puts the pieces together as multiple nations soon join in the call for Lumumba’s removal. It is hard to put into the words how much of a threat he truly was to western powers. But Lumumba made several missteps along the way that helped open the door for the actions that resulted in his demise.
Suspense builds in the story and the effort to removal Lumumba kicks into high gear. The young leader is not unaware of opposing forces but believes he has the will of people behind him. One of the true ironies of his tragic story is that his fate was partly a result of the simmering Cold War between Washington and Moscow. His efforts at diplomacy are eerily similar to those of Ho Chih Minh and other revolutionary leaders who reached out to Washington and received no response. We can only ask what if questions today and ponder how things might have turned out different had President Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969) given Lumumba the courtesy of a meeting. The actions of Washington pushed many nations toward the Soviet Union, which welcomed the new allies as it attempted to expand its reach beyond the Soviet Republics. In hindsight, we can see with clarity the many errors made by all involved as they sought to outsmart each other in a game of cat and mouse that could have reached catastrophic levels.
The author builds the tension just right as the pending doom in Lumumba’s life steadily approaches. I could not help feel overcome by a feeling of dread as I read through the sections leading up to the assassination. The writing was on the wall and I felt myself wanting to tell Lumumba to move faster and leave even quicker. However, his fate came to pass on January 17, 1961 in the town of Elisabethville. Unbeknownst at the time, his savage death was a premonition of the future chaos that engulfed the continent and highlighted that moment as the day when the Congo was lost.
I had always wondered what happened to his children and Zeilig followed up with them as he researched this book. Their experience during and after his death, adds another level of tragedy to an already gripping story. They join the long list of victims who have suffered following the murder of the person who Zeilig rightfully calls Africa’s lost leader. Lumumba’s story is told beautifully by Zeilig and stands out as a firm biography. This is the life and death of the late Patrice Émery Lumumba.
A subway ride through the underground portion of the New York City Transit system can reveal far more than most might anticipate. And if you find yourself on a train passing through lower Manhattan, you might pick up images of abandoned stations or long-lost passages through the windows of the subway car, forgotten with time as relics of the City’s storied past. The system itself is truly is a modern marvel that continues to be renovated and upgraded. But there are still many parts that remain hidden, known only to workers of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and possibly others who have dwelled in prohibited areas far removed from the sight of strap-hangers. In the 1980s, the City saw a rise is the number of people living beneath the sidewalks, in crevices, tubes and tunnels buried far below the surface. The total number of underground dwellers will most-likely never be known. But their existence is a telling sign of the extremes some people go to when living on the streets. Jennifer Toth, stepped into this world, largely unknown even to those that live in New York City. Some may call her foolish and others may feel that she was courageous. I believe that she had a mix of many things as she covered the lives of those she met as she explored a completely unknown and different world that could only seem to exist in fiction.
There is a section in the book where one city worker describes the dwellers as a CHUD or Cannibalistic Underground Humanoid Dweller. The name sounds ridiculous but was probably taken from the 1984 B-grade horror film of the same name directed by Douglas Cheek and starring the late John Heard (1946-2017) and a young Daniel Stern. In the film, a court injunction has prevented the removal of radioactive material currently sitting under New York City. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) is unable to transport the material out of the City. The homeless soon become exposed to the toxic sludge and are transformed into cannibalistic monsters that come above ground at night to hunt. Highly imaginative and campy, the film is a fun ride for those who are aficionados of 1980s horror films and the movie holds a place in my own collection. The majority of the film is purely imagination but the people who lived underground was quite close to reality. And in this book, Jennifer Toth shows what the movie did not explore for obvious reasons.
Some of the people she interviewed for the book gave their real names while others preferred a pseudonym. Geographically, their locations were spread out across the city with the majority of the scenes taking place below Penn and Grand Central Stations. Seville, Black, Brenda, Blade and Bernard are just some of the many dwellers that Toth encountered in the course of her research. Other figures who cast a darker tone are mentioned briefly in passing sections. Shockingly, some of them came from good homes, graduated from college and possessed advanced degrees. Abuse, drugs and dysfunction at home proved to be the common link between many of them and fueled their decision to go underground where it was “safe” from above. In the interviews they are highly articulate, aware of their surroundings and should be productive members of society. And even more surprising, some of them preferred to live underground. But there also exist, another group of people, who ended up underground as an escape from lives that could be classified as hell on earth.
Each person has their own reason for moving underground but what emerges in the book, is an underground network of tunnels, caves and passageways akin to a city of its own where surface dwellers are not welcome and those who come down below are seen with the highest level of suspicion. It is a world many of us could never imagine living in, let alone raising a child in as can been seen in the book. The descriptions of the tunnels are graphic and those with a weak stomach will need a strong resolve to make it through some chapters. Life underground is gritty, dirty and beyond dangerous. It is not for the faint at heart. But miraculously, Toth was never seriously injured while conducting the interviews. She may have had someone watching over her combined with an unusual amount of good luck or perhaps she did on the one thing that many above ground could never do for the people below and that is to simply listen. Whether some of them embellished their tales is a strong possibility. Drug addiction and mental health issues are largely prevalent in many of them and could possibly have played a role in the accounts that they give. But what is accurate is the former existence of a large number of underground dwellers beneath the City.
The book was completed in 1993 and to my knowledge, there is no follow-up to the story nor would I expect there to be. Her experience with Blade as detailed towards the end of the book is beyond enough to make anyone think twice about returning. Some of the characters may still be alive today while others may have left the tunnels or died along the way. In recent years, I cannot recall any discussion of the mole people and most of them have probably been relocated by City officials as the tunnels were cleaned up and the underground squatters permanently removed. Some of them may still live underground, firmly hidden from prying eyes, but the number is probably far lower than the 1990s when the epidemic reached its height.
The book is revealing and sure to leave many readers in a state of shock. New Yorkers unaware of the mole people of the 1980s and 1990s will find this book to be eye-opening about the city they call home. The book shows the ability of humans to adapt to nearly anything and the lengths people will go to in their efforts to survive. This is a haunting look at life in a city beneath a city.
On March 13, 2018, Dr. William Hunter came home to find his eleven-year old son Tom and housekeeper Shirlee Sherman lying in pools of blood after having been brutally murdered by an unknown assailant. Police soon arrived on the scene and detectives began their investigation into two homicides that unnerved the quiet suburban enclave. Five years later on May 14, 2013, doctors Roger and Mary Brumback were shot and killed in their West Omaha home. The brutality of the murders shocked even the most seasoned investigators and left many wondering what how one person could commit such a grisly crime. Detectives Derek Mois and Scott Warner became the lead investigators and continued to examine the two murders, looking for any clues that would lead them to a suspect. A crucial link was soon discovered between the two victims and led investigators to take a closer look at the Department of Pathology at Creighton University.
Hunter and Brumback both worked at the famed institution and knew each other very well. As detectives began to learn more about the lives of the two doctors and their common employer, the more they realized that the killer must be someone they knew, who had a deadly vendetta against anyone who worked at Creighton. Authorities culled the personal files of all current and former employees, looking for anyone who might fit the profile of the killer at large. The records were voluminous but Sgt. Mike Ratliff soon found a folder that caught his attention and stood out from the rest. He brought it Mois’ attention believing that this was the person that detectives need to focus on. The name on the file was Dr. Anthony J. Garcia and the events that followed would develop into one of the Nebraska’s most infamous crimes and place Garcia on Nebraska’s death row.
Outside of Nebraska, Garcia’s story received limited coverage and if not for this book, his story might continue to go largely unknown. But authors Henry J. Cordes and Todd Cooper have ensured that Garcia will always live in infamy as a homicidal maniac that took the lives of four innocent people and may have killed more had he not been apprehended. Old-school detective work done by the book, proved to be the key factor that broke the case wide open. But there is more to the story than what has been reported officially. This is the true inside story of the effort to catch Omaha’s worst nightmare. Detectives raced against the clock as it became chillingly clear that anyone who worked with or above Garcia at Creighton might soon be a target.
The book reads like a good crime thriller and I found myself deeply immersed in the book, not wanting to put it down at all. The book is about two hundred fifty-eight pages and goes by quickly. But contained in the book is a story that is beyond shocking. Some may wonder how could that happen in Omaha of all places? Murder knows no bounds and location is irrelevant. What is relevant, is the mindset of those who have the ability and willingness to kill, possessed by what is in this case, called pathological rage.
Omaha natives may choose to pass on this book, as they have probably seen news reports on their locals stations from the time of Garcia’s arrest until his conviction and sentencing. For those outside of Omaha, this story of murder in the heartland, will cause you to rethink who we think to be capable of murder and who we assume to be the least likely to harm us. In fact, as Dr. Hunter points out in the book, he never suspected that Garcia was involved. Perhaps if their had been a suspect with whom Hunter had a far more explosive relationship, the doctor may have zeroed in on a possible suspect even quicker than authorities. And while he did give Garcia’s name to investigators, he made it clear that he did not think Garcia was a threat. The benefit of hindsight allows us to look in the past and see the critical clues that were missed but at the time, all involved went by what was solid evidence that would actually lead to a thorough and conclusive investigation.
True crime aficionados will welcome this thriller to their libraries and undoubtedly will be asking for more at the book’s conclusion. To be clear, the story is not a glorification of Garcia or his crimes. In fact, the book has the opposite effect and the barbarity of Garcia’s actions him home with profound force. But what is paramount is that we understand the motives and thought process behind pathological killers to understand what lies behind their decisions and actions. Murder is certainly not a new idea and has been part of society since the creation of humans. And while we cannot prevent all murders, perhaps we do stand a chance in preventing another killer like Dr. Anthony Garcia.
Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster – Adam Higginbotham
In the early morning hours of April 26, 1986, engineers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine, began the process of conducting a test of Reactor No. 4. Unwilling to postpone the test another year, engineers pushed forward under questionable circumstances that proved to have deadly consequences. Within minutes, disaster struck as a thunderous roar and cataclysmic explosion were felt and heard throughout the facility. The eruption of the reactor resulted in a complete implosion and the propulsion of a radioactive dust cloud into the atmosphere. Instantly, Soviet officials set in motion an official coverup of the disaster in an attempt to keep the news of the reactor’s meltdown from reaching western news outlets. On the surface, the Politburo maintained the image of business as usual, but behind the scenes it was pandemonium. In the days and weeks that followed, the people of Pripyat looked death in the face as the reality of the nuclear fallout become terrifyingly clear. Within days, cross-winds moving across Europe carried the dust cloud across several countries, setting off alarm bells as radiation dosimeters showed readings that were literally off the charts. Before long, it became clear that a nuclear disaster had occurred and the most likely source was somewhere in the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities pulled out all the stops in denying anything was amiss but the truth began to leak out and forced Moscow to make troubling admissions. These events an those that followed have become known as the Chernobyl disaster and that story is told here again by author Adam Higginbotham who tells what is perhaps, the full story behind the world’s worst nuclear disaster.
More than thirty years have passed since the tragedy at Chernobyl and the names of those who responded to the emergency have faded over time. Some of them are still alive but many others are no longer here, having joined the long list of victims who lost their lives from exposure to radiation in the wake of the meltdown. Their stories are told here, showing the many sides of a tragedy that shocked the world. And by the end of the book, their names will become seared into the reader’s memory as the key figures that are forever tied to the legacy of Chernobyl. The author has done a great service in keeping their memories alive and in the process ensures that they are never forgotten as time passes and the world continues to move forward.
The amount of research that went into this book is staggering and Higginbotham was able to personally interview several individuals including the former director of Chernobyl, Viktor Brukhanov, who has publicly stated that officials covered-up the disaster for twenty years. Brukhanov was not there the night of the test but his position as director resulted in his conviction for negligence and a ten-year prison sentence of which he served five. His conviction was one of several obtained by officials as scapegoats became the focus of Moscow. The reality is that the meltdown was the result of a series of events that Higginbotham explores in detail leading up to that fateful night. And the true story is simply astounding.
Undoubtedly, the disaster itself is the focus of the story but the book is also a step back into the closed-door mindset of the USSR and its iron grip over the Soviet Republics. The policies of Mikhail Gorbachev were put to the test as old-school hardliners battled younger party members who saw the world through a different lens. Communism, the Cold War, deception and gross negligence all play a role in the story and will cause readers to stare in disbelief. Those of us who are old enough to remember the events as they played out will recall the events that transpired as news of the meltdown trickled out of the USSR. But as Higginbotham shows, the information that became known to western nations was only part of the story. And even former International Atomic Energy Agency director Hans Blix, did not know the full extent of the damage. Figures put forward by Moscow were often intentionally skewed in an effort to downplay the severity of the reactor’s destruction. The Politburo was determined to restrict as much information as possible and the fierce battles between party members highlights the system of dysfunction that existed, partly based on the belief in Soviet superiority over its U.S. counterpart.
From start to finish, I found myself glued to the book as the story continued to unfold. And although I vividly remember the story as it broke in 1986, I learned a significant amount of new information in the book. To help the reader, Higginbotham provides detailed explanations regarding radiation exposure which are crucial to understanding the severity of the recovery effort and the physical deterioration of those who directly participated in saving the plant. None of the workers and responders were able to completely recover and struggled in later years with failing health and painfully slow deaths. Thousands of men, women and children were exposed to radiation but the full number is probably far higher than Soviet officials were ever willing to admit. Incredibly, officials resisted calls to evacuate Pripyat, believing such an act would be an admission that the situation was grave. But as the truth became clear, officials were left with no choice and forced to evacuate the city which remains abandoned to this day.
Chernobyl has become the poster child for disasters involving nuclear disasters with its Ferris wheel and main building become bone-chilling landmarks from the city that is uninhabitable. Pripyat has become so embedded in pop culture that it served as the setting for one of the chapters in the hit game Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Today, there are those who visit Pripyat as explorers curious to see the fallout of a nuclear disaster in person. And while the fourth reactor has been encased since 1986 in a protective shell to contain radiation, the surrounding areas still contains various amounts of contamination. Images and videos from visitors, show the dark and desolate landscape of a once thriving city. The sadness with which residents left Pripyat is captured by the author showing the multiple effects of the fallout, even to those who had not been exposed to lethal dosages of radiation.
Engineers have made significant advancements in safety procedures used to secure nuclear facilities. Nuclear power, when used correctly, is considered a clean technology. It emits no carbon dioxide in the atmosphere but a meltdown as shown here, would have devastating consequences. The average person has little reason to think about nuclear power, but less than forty years ago, the horror of a nuclear meltdown became frighteningly real and forced every nation that uses nuclear power to rethink its course going forward. The danger of another Chernobyl has not left us and a meltdown could once again happen at some point in the future. But I believe that if we remember the story of Chernobyl, re-told beautifully in this excellent compendium by Higginbotham, then we do have a high chance of preventing another Chernobyl before it has a chance to happen.
Towards the end of the book, the author also shows how the effects of Chernobyl played a role in the disintegration of the USSR as the Soviet Republics moved for independence. Ukraine’s struggle is well-known and to this day, Russia has continually tried to exert its influence over its smaller-sized neighbor. Chernobyl revealed a significant crack in the official facade of Soviet invincibility and changed the way the world viewed nuclear power. Those who want to know what really happened on the night of April 25, 1986, and in the months that followed, will find the answers they seek and more here in this well-written and highly informative account of an event that should never be forgotten.