Category Archives: Investigative Report
There are many questions about the origin of man, the human race has yet to find conclusive answers for. We know that ancient civilizations existed and flourished before some mysteriously ceased to exist. Relics, structures and writings have survived giving us clues about their lives. Of all of the ancient civilizations, the most inspiring and sought after remains Ancient Egypt. The pyramids and Sphinx are marvels that have puzzled engineers for thousands of years. Without the benefit of blueprints, we can only offer guesses as to how and why the structures were created. But from the temples, mummies and monuments that have survived, it is evidently clear that ingenuity was one of its greatest traits. Africa has been cited as the cradle of civilization, serving as the home to the oldest tribes known to man. The Christian Bible and Hollywood have done their part in bringing the stories to life, and in the process put Ancient Egypt on center stage. The Pharaoh Ramses II in The Ten Commandments, beautifully played by the great Yul Brynner, has become a commonly accepted image of the real life Ramses II. But how accurate was Brynner to his real life counterpart? And what did the Ancient Egyptians look like? It is tempting to think of them based on those we see in Egypt today. But we should know that history often includes many surprising facts, some which we may have never guessed without revisiting the past. Cheikh Anta Diop (1923-1986), of Diourbel, Senegal, was a noted historian and anthropologist, who studied the origin of the human race and in his eye-opening account, he seeks to find the truth about the role of Black Africans in the origin of civilization.
Any reader considering this book must be able to clear his/her mind of images today of the continent of Africa. Not only are the images typically disheartening, but they have no resemblance to the time period of which Diop is speaking. Here we go back in time thousands of years when Egypt was the most powerful nation of earth and home to knowledge sought by truth seekers from afar. Among these was Herodotus, credited as the first historian of the modern world. The famed scholar recorded a journal of his travels and with regards to the Egyptians, made note of their negro appearance. But Diop does not stop there and revisits the words of other scholars who visited the ancient kingdom and saw with their own eyes, the Egyptians and Ethiopians described by many of them as Negroes.
Some may be asking what is the point of proving that the Egyptians were negro? That is a very good question and I do believe the book speaks for itself. But I will say that the reason is that for thousands of years, the negro has been viewed as substandard and Africa has historically been viewed as a land of savages that needed “culture”. Those who study history will readily know how imperialism wreaked havoc across the continent as tribes were decimated while Christianity and Islam fought for converts. The late Harry S. Truman once said “the only new thing in this world is the history you do not yet know”. True words indeed. What is key to keep mind while reading this book is that history has for too long, been written to make those of color look inferior. But truth typically reveals much different pictures. For those readers who are African or Black American, you may find this book hits close to home. Personally, it confirmed many things I learned in high school regarding African culture. But sadly, across most history textbooks, you will be hard pressed to find these facts. Every Easter, The Ten Commandments is played on television. The film is a cinematic masterpiece regardless of what one believes about Christ, and the performances by Charlton Heston (1923-2008) and Yul Brynner (1920-1985) made the film legendary. But the film ignores the truth about the Ancient Egyptians and the role of Africans in the origin of civilization. The revelations in the book in no way seek to negate the contributions to society of Ancient Greece, Germany, the Sumerians or Mesopotamia. But the crux is that nearly all of these societies took their cues from the Egyptians who were much different from what many of us have believed for thousands of years as history was redacted or re-written.
The book is not an attempt to disparage other nations. Diop seeks only to highlight the truth which has been hiding in plain sight. And the artifacts, hieroglyphics and statues he uses in the book give credence to his words. Without question, he proves that there was more to the Ancient Egyptians than many have been willing to acknowledge. It might be worthwhile to brush up on world history, in particular the periods before Christ to keep up with Diop. His scholar background resulted in the book being on the heavy side with dates and names. A chart might be necessary for those readers who intend to continue down this path of research. Nevertheless, any reader can follow along and understand the concept of the book. Admittedly, there are many things about Ancient Egypt that we may never answer and Diop does not profess to have all of them. How and why the pyramids were built is still a mystery. We may never known how Egyptian architects made exact measurements without the aid of modern technology. Notably, in our lives today, we have many things that come from them that have been retained over time. In short, we owe our lives to them for they are our ancestors along with the Aztecs, Mayans and other ancient civilizations that possessed incredible knowledge and customs which still amaze us today.
The civil war the engulfed the small Central American nation of El Salvador from 1980-1992 caused the deaths of over 75, 000 people. The violence, heartache and oppression felt by millions of El Salvadorans has reverberated over the years as a reminder of dark times for the country known as the “Pulgarcito” (Tom Thumb of the Americas). The conflict forced millions of people to flee, many of them settling in the United States. For those that remained, they faced years of more turmoil but also slow and steady healing. The nation still has a long way to go and for the youth, there is much to tell about growing up in one of the most violent countries in the world.
Jim Winship is a Professor of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewate and was once a Fulbright Scholar in El Salvador and Colombia. By his own admission, he has traveled to El Salvador well over a dozen times. It has become a second home for him and his fondness for the country is evident in his words. This book by Winship takes a different approach to El Salvador and in comparison to Joseph Frazier’s El Salvador Could Be Like That, the story here is about the youth of the country and what it means to come of age in a place without many sources of hope. The book is set in two parts, the first tells the history of El Salvador, introducing or re-introducing facts to the reader. I believe many Americans will be surprised at some of the things that can be found in the book. And I will go a step further and say that there may be some people who could place the small country on a map. To some, it is an afterthought or just another Latin American nation plagued by corruption and violence. But to take a such narrow-minded view disregards the complicate and tragic history between El Salvador and the United States. In fact, El Salvador’s existence for the last forty years is directly related to U.S. foreign policy. The truths are uncomfortable but necessary in understanding the decline of a beautiful country with some of the nicest people who I have met.
The second half of the book moves on to the stories of young people who have grown up in El Salvador, some of them through the civil war. This is the crux of the book and drives home the author’s points about coming of age in El Salvador. The words are sharp and the stories moving, leaving readers to question what they thought they knew. Person after person, we learn of the despair and income inequality faced by young men and women making life in El Salvador perilous. Unsurprisingly, nearly a third of El Salvadorans live in the United States. Some are legal, others illegal, but they all have their stories of how and why they left the only home they knew. Some will go back either on their own accord or by deportation. What they will bring back to their home nation could be a blessing or a curse. As Winship relays in the book, the deportations carried about the U.S. Government helped set the stage for one of the largest crime waves in El Salvador’s history. And that same crime wave is now spreading across American cities. I believe many readers will shake their head in bewilderment at the revelations in that section. The old adage holds true that we do reap what we sow.
No book about El Salvador would be complete without a discussion about violence there. Winship discusses this to give readers an honest analysis of violent crime. Latin America is a hotbed of revolution and has been for over a century. The late Simón Bolívar once said “when tyranny becomes law, rebellion is right”. Across the continents of Central and South America, violent protests and removals of presidents sometimes by military force, have etched into the fabric of the many nations found on both continents, a lingering distrust of government and vicious cycles of corruption that may never be broken. Whether El Salvador can leave both of these in the past completely, remains to be seen. The future for some is bleak but others never give up. And one day they may reach their goals of prosperity, health and happiness. But their stories will always remind of days past when there was no shining light.
The images that were published in Jet magazine of Emmett Till’s (1941-1955) mutilated corpse still cause readers and viewers on the internet to recoil in shock. With their graphic detail and macabre detail, the pictures of Till’s face become burned into the memory of anyone who has seen them. The story of Till’s murder at fourteen years of age because of allegedly “whistling or cat-calling a white woman” is a dark reminder of the ugly history of racism that prevailed in American culture. Today such a crime is unimaginable, but in 1955 it was not only very real but also encouraged by rabid racists with a vendetta against people of color. In January, 2017, Carolyn Bryant Donham, the woman at the center of the Till story, allegedly admitted that her claims were false. Regardless, the mere thought of such an act was more than enough to get a Black American lynched at that time and Till became one more victim on a long list of senseless murders carried out by maniacs emboldened by racist ideology. Till’s murder was creepy, appalling and downright shocking but another part of the story which is just as dark is the execution of his father Louis Till (1922-1944) by the Unites States Army in Civitavecchia, Italy, after being convicted of being part of the rape of two Italian women, one of whom was murdered during the crime. Till never gave any statements about his innocence nor did he confirm his guilt but the army had what it needed and he fell victim to the hangman’s noose taking any facts with him to his grave. After his death, details of the execution were withheld from his widow Mamie but were revealed ten years later. His final resting place is at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery and Memorial in Fère-en-Tardenois, France.
The thought that both father and son were executed because of perceived slights against white women is chilling and it is impossible to escape the aspect of race. Two young Black men accused of having committed crimes against white females could not and would not be permitted to survive. Their deaths are reminder of the misguided belief of the pursuit and dominance over white females by black males. Sadly, it is a misconception that still exist to this day. But what exactly did happen in Civitavecchia? Undoubtedly a crime did take place and most likely by the hands of U.S. servicemen. But there is always the requirement of conclusive evidence and in this case, there is much we do not know. But author John Edgar Wideman decided to take another look at Till’s case, even requesting and receiving a copy of the military’s case file by way of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). In the book he does not include the entire file and moves between excerpts of it and his own story which is recounts as he writes about Till. The style of writing might confuse some readers but I believe Wideman presented it that way because of the parallels between his life and Emmett’s. In fact, I would go as far as to say that Wideman is presenting to the reader an idea of the struggle of many Black American families during a time of fierce racial prejudice. But the focus of the book is on Louis Till and it is here that I think it falls just short of hitting its mark.
Wideman’s personal story is highly interesting and he does a great job of showing the plight of Black families in America during his and Emmett Till’s childhood. But I think that more of the Louis Till file should have been presented. He concludes that he could not save Till from either prison or the hangman but from the portions of the file that he does include in the book, it is clear that reasonable doubt exist as to whether Till actually did the crime. And this is where the book should have reached its pinnacle. But this does not happen and the book’s slightly abrupt ending makes the reader yearn for more or some sort of closure. Sadly it never comes. And we are left to wonder about what actions, if any, Till did take on that night. In Wideman’s defense, the Army’s file had no index and was disorganized. I would not be surprised if some portions of it were removed or lost over the passage of time, making a definite conclusion beyond the reach of anyone today. None of figures involved with the case are alive preventing us from having the benefit of spoken words from those that were there. We are left to rely on the case file and our own beliefs. But I think one area where Wideman may have succeeded is igniting interest in Louis Till’s case in those that have read this book. I believe that there is more the Till’s case than we currently know and some day, another independent investigator may uncover the truth about his conviction and execution.
The book is a good read and just enough to get an idea of what did happen to Louis Till. But I believe it could have been much more effective with the inclusion of more of the file and some sort of definite conclusion even if it were the author’s belief. I do not know if Wideman will publish another book on the file but time will tell. For those looking to know more about Till’s sad and tragic life, this is a good resource to have.
At the height of 1930s era crime and depression, criminals that under normal circumstances would be looked upon with scorn, became larger than life iconic figures whose daring bank robberies and shootouts with policy became stuff of legend. The brazen thefts in the middle of broad daylight accomplished with the use of the Thompson Sub-machine Gun (Tommy Gun) and the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR) catapulted America into a new and deadlier form of crime. In response, the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972) stepped into the foray and within a one-year stretch, arrested or executed America’s most wanted. At the top of this list was the late John Herbert Dillinger (1903-1934).
John Beineke has captured the outlaw’s life in this straight to the point biography of his life of crime and sudden death. It is neither praise or vindication of Dillinger but a look at the life of the legendary figure. The story begins in Indiana, Dillinger’s home state. After the death of his mother, the young boy slowly makes his way into a life in crime resulting in stint at Indiana State Prison after a conviction for robbery and assault. Paroled nine years later, it would be the last time that Dillinger served time in prison. In fact, he vowed never to return to a prison cell, a vow he kept until his final moments. But what is it about Dillinger that captivates people even today? In 2009, director Michael Mann brought Dillinger’s life to the big screen again, enlisting Johnny Depp in the starring role. The film was released under the title Public Enemies, and also portrayed the FBI’s pursuit of Lester Gillis, a.k.a George “Babyface” Nelson (1908-1934) and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd (1904-1934). Christian Bale stars as FBI Agent Melvin Purvis (1903-1960), tasked with capturing the outlaws at all costs. The film was solid and with an all-star cast, Mann recreates the feel of depression era America.
Here, Dillinger is the star and he has his own supporting cast of criminals, each of whom would meet their own violent ends. To say that Dillinger’s life was extraordinary would be an understatement. As we learn in the book, not only did he excel in knocking over banks, but no jail could seemingly contain him and incredibly, he often hid from authorities in plain sight. It is literally a story that no filmmaker could write. The pace of the book picks up early and it never slows down. And with each heist, Dillinger becomes more infamous to authorities and more a folk hero to thousands of Americans who believed the banks were the real enemies, profiting off the misery of the average citizen. In comparison to some biographies, mundane information is excluded leaving the reader with the facts peppered with occasional sub-stories between the major characters. Politics inevitably enters the story as America grapples with a rising crime wave and Washington reconsiders the tenure of the FBI’s longest-serving director whose job might have ended if not for the apprehension of Dillinger and others.
Less than one hundred years ago, John Dillinger used Midwestern banks as his own personal ATM. His escapades filled newspapers, filled with tales of crimes by fellow outlaws such as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Pretty Boy Flood and part-time accomplice, Baby Face Nelson, who enters and leaves this story on multiple occasions before parting ways with Dillinger for good not long before both would be gunned down. Today such a crime spree is unthinkable but in Dillinger’s era, a time before two-way radios, cellphones and social media, bank robberies and shootouts with cops were common occurrences. Beinecke has taken us back in time to relive the decade that Dillinger made a name for himself. Curiously, although the end of his story is widely known, the story still pulls the reader in with its engaging descriptions of the Dillinger gang’s exploits and graphic descriptions of the deaths that occurred as a result. The outlaws will always be romanticized in American culture. In fact, they are as American as apple pie. Dillinger has been dead for more than eighty years but if you research depression era gangsters, his name will appear on every single list. He lives on in infamy and is idolized by some as a rebel who fought against the corrupt banking establishment as a modern-day Robin Hood. To the FBI, he was a public enemy whose capture was more important than anything else. In the end, they would get their man but not before Dillinger left his mark and became part of history.
On May 23, 1934, citizens across America tuned into news broadcasts coming from Bienville Parish, Louisiana that outlaws Clyde Barrow (1909-1934) and Bonnie Parker (1910-1934) had been shot and killed by law enforcement officials after a carefully laid trap to snare the wanted fugitives. Their deaths bring an end to crime spree that left several police officers dead and put the couple on the list of America’s most wanted. At the time of their deaths, both were under the age of twenty-five and their story has been both romanticized and distorted in films and books. The film taken of their car following the shooting can easily be found online. It is a chilling piece of a postmortem recording with Bonnie’s body sitting limp inside the front passenger side seat still clutching the partially eaten sandwich she had ordered for breakfast that morning. In death, they would become part of American lore from an era in which banks were robbed, V-8 engines ruled the road and the middle of the country was home to nearly every outlaw known to authorities. But who were the real Bonnie and Clyde? And how much of their story is truth and how much is fiction?
Author Jeff Guinn has investigated these questions and others as he presents to us the untold truth of the story of the couple. The story beings and takes place mostly in Texas with West Dallas serving as home base for both of them. But their life of crime spread out across several states, earning them the wrath of law men determined to see their demise. Without questions, their exploits are what attracts people to them. Like Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd (1904-1934) and George “Baby Face” Nelson (1908-1934), Bonnie and Clyde are poster figures produced in a time in which the depression was in full swing, cars were easy to still, guns plenty and an organization known as the FBI was developing under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972). The past seems distant but it was less than one hundred years ago when these notorious figures traversed America on paths of destruction before meeting violent ends. But to understand these figures, it is necessary to understand their lives and this is where Guinn excels in revealing the truth to the story of Parker and Barrow.
The tendency we have when examining a person’s life is to seek a moment that explains their evolution to a new level of greatness or infamy. But with Parker and Barrow, it was not so much a moment but a series of events in each of their lives that led to the development of the most dangerous couple in American history. And what Guinn tells us might surprise readers expecting to find tragic childhoods for both. In fact, although poverty was an issue in rural Texas, both the Parkers and Barrows found ways to make ends meet and maintained strong bonds with the couple until the time of their deaths. Barrow’s mother Cumie, is perhaps the most pitiable for throughout her life she never stops loving her son. Bonnie’s mother Emma, is cut of the same cloth, never-ceasing to love her daughter even as she sinks deeper into a life of crime. And through Guinn’s words, they appear not just as violent outlaws, but as a couple deeply in love, dependent on each other and unable to keep their families’ hearts from breaking. Theirs’ is a tale of tragedy and violence that could not possibly end with redemption and a second chance.
In addition to presenting their story, Guinn clears up many erroneously reported facts, setting the record straight once and for all. In an era before television, the internet and social media, word of mouth spread quick and with each crime, Parker and Barrow grew into larger than life characters that put fear in the hearts of anyone they crossed. Clyde is rightfully credited as the leader of the Barrow Gang and the reason for Bonnie’s descent into a life of crime. But to understand the dark mind of Clyde Barrow, a visit to his past, in particular his time at Eastham prison, is necessary for his transformation from small time crook to feared outlaw begins there. That section of the book, like the shootouts with authorities, may not be an easy read for some. The descriptions are graphic leaving no stone unearthed so that the reader can fully understand the presence of death that was formed and remained with the Barrow Gang. The full nature of their murder spree and their willingness to gun down law enforcement officials was a times shocking and at other times jaw-dropping. In fact, as I read the book, I felt as if I were transplanted back in time looking over the shoulders of the gang as they slept in cars, traveled back roads a high-speed and allowed their minds to become filled with delusions of grandeur about a life together in tranquility after their life of mayhem was over.
The book is well-researched and well-written. Much has been written and said about the duo over the past seventy years but Guinn’s book stands as a complete and unbiased account from start to finish of the lives and deaths of Bonnie and Clyde. From the day I started it, I could not put it down as I was pulled into a masterpiece about two of America’s most dangerous and idolized historical figures.
It is sometimes called the forgotten war, the conflict which remains in the background as World War I, World War II and Vietnam take center stage as the wars that defined the United States Military and U.S. foreign policy. Unbeknownst to many Americans, the Korean war never officially ended. An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953 bringing a halt to the firing from all sides. But the armistice did not permanently resolve the conflict and to this day the 38th parallel, instituted after World War II, remains as the dividing line between the Communist North and the Democratic South. Recently, U.S. President Donald J. Trump attended a peace summit with the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un. Washington claimed the summit a success but only time will tell if the Korean War will officially come to an end and peace is finally obtained. For veterans of the conflict, feelings run deep and mixed thoughts on the summit are bound to exist. Two years ago, a veteran of the war close to my family died after several years of declining health. Curiously, he never spoke of the war, preferring to keep his thoughts and feelings to himself for more than 50 years. And as he went to his grave, he took with him, knowledge of the war and memories that most people would never want to have. But the questions still remain, what caused the conflict and why did war wage for three years? Furthermore, why did the fighting eventually cease?
Author T.R. Fehrenbach (1925-2013) served in the Korean War and was later head of the Texas Historical Commission. In 1963, this book was published, ten years after the fighting had ceased. His memories are crisp and the reporting second to none. He takes us back in time as history comes alive, letting us step inside the war beginning those fateful days in June, 1950 when the North Korea People’s Army invaded its southern neighbor. Under the direction of Kim Ill Sung (1912-1994), North Korea initiated the opening salvo in a war that claimed over two million lives. News of the invasion sent shock waves through Washington and President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was faced with a decision that would change the course of history. On June 30, 1950, he ordered ground troops into South Korea to assist the Republic of Korea Armed Forces (ROK). At the time no one could have imagined what lay in store.
From the beginning the story pulls the reader in as Fehrenbach recounts the Japanese occupation of Korea and the long-lasting effects of Japanese rule on Korean society. In fact, to this day, influences of Japanese culture can still be found in Korea. Following the falls of the Japanese Army in World War II, Korea found itself in a position to chart a new course. But similar to Germany and Japan, the country became a pawn in the chess match between the United States and the Soviet Union. Unsure of what to do with South Korea, the nation remained in a vulnerable position until the North made its move. And once the fighting began, the speed picked up and refused to die down. North Korean and U.N. forces lead by the United States, engaged in deadly combat that saw casualties climb exponentially on both sides. but what was clear from the beginning as we see in the book, is that Korea was an entirely new type of conflict for America.
Savage is the adjective that comes to mind to describe the fighting between opposing nations and ideologies. Beyond brutal, the Korean conflict was akin to hell on earth for all of its participants. And just when we think that the war might swing in the favor of the U.N. forces, the war takes a darker and more dramatic turn as the People’s Republic of China enters the fray changing the scope and the rules of the Korean War. At the time China enters the story, the fighting has already claimed thousands of casualties. But it is at this point that the battle reaches a higher and more deadly level. Quite frankly, the world stood on the verge of the next holocaust. Today we know that did not happen. But why? America had the troops and the money to fund the war but what was it that held back the United States from entering into a full-scale ground assault? The answers are here and this is the crux of the book. Following World War II, American attitudes towards war began to change and Korea was the first testing ground for the gaining influence of politics over armed conflict.
What I liked most about the book is that aside from the statistics of casualties and the descriptions of the deaths that occur in the book and POW internment camps is that Fehrenbach explains how and why events progressed as they did and also why Washington was committed to fighting on a limited scale. The fallout from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was still fresh in the minds of nations across the world. President Truman gave the order to drop the bombs and I believe no one doubted his willingness to use them again if necessary. Whether he would have eventually given the order is unknown as his time in office came to an end and Gen. Dwight Eisenhower succeeded him. But for the new president, the conflict still raged and opinion towards the war had become negative. And while peace did come during his term, the body count climbed up until the very last day.
The story of the Korean War is one that is rarely mentioned in textbooks and never discussed today. But this book by Fehrenbach truly is a classic study of the war. In a meticulous and chronological order, he tells the story from start to finish and along the way, incorporates relevant parts of American society and world history into the story. Although not a “textbook” in the classic sense, the book very well could be for it gives a concise explanation for the causes and effects of the war and how it was eventually resolved. If you are interesting in expanding your knowledge of the Korean War, this is the perfect place to start.
I have often wondered why my uncle and many other veterans that I have met, were sent to Vietnam. He and others never speak of the war, choosing instead to internalize their memories and feelings. But from the few things about being Vietnam that my uncle has told me, I cannot image what it was like to be fighting a war in a jungle 13,000 miles away from home. Today he is seventy-two years old and his memories of Vietnam are as sharp today as they were when he left the country to return home. And there is a part of him that still remains in Vietnam, never to leave its soil. He is one of five-hundred thousand Americans that served in a war that claimed fifty-eight thousand lives.
The reasons for America’s involvement in Indochina have been muddled and in some cases omitted from discussions. Secrecy became the standard method of communication in more than one administration in Washington as the United States became deeper involved in a conflict with no end goal in sight. Daniel Ellsberg gained fame and infamy when he revealed the top-secret Pentagon Papers to the country. The New York Times later published a review of the documents and today it is available in the form of a book titled The Pentagon Papers: The Secret History of the Vietnam War. The book is enlightening and contains a trove of information regarding how and why decisions were being made in the White House as control of the government passed through several presidents. Former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara (1916-2009) published his own memoir of the war, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. The book has its fans and critics. McNamara has often been blamed for the war and the vitriol towards him was so strong that in later years he declined to talk about the conflict. True, he was a participant in the events leading up to the war, but many other players had a hand in the game which became deadlier as time went on. To understand their roles and the policies enacted, it is necessary to revisit the complete history of U.S. foreign policy in Indochina. David Halberstam (1934-2007), author of The Unfinished Odyssey of Robert F. Kennedy, conducted his own research into the war’s origins and the result was this New York Times bestseller that is nothing short of mind-boggling.
Halberstam admits that he knew Ellsberg and in fact, he reviewed the Pentagon Papers as he wrote the book. In addition he conducted hundreds of interviews but was careful not to reveal any of their names. When Ellsberg was indicted and had to stand trial, Halberstam was subpoenaed to give testimony, unaware then of how Ellsberg came into possession of the documents. But what started out as a look at the life of former National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy (1919-1996), grew into this definitive account of the reasons for the Vietnam War.
The book follows a carefully guided timeline and the story of Vietnam begins in China before moving on to Korea and eventually Southeast Asia. These parts are critical for they set the stage for foreign policy decisions in the years that followed and explain many of the mistakes that were made. As President Eisenhower winds down his time in office, a new young Catholic Democrat gripped parts of the country as he declared himself the next person to occupy the White House. By the time John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) took office, the road to Vietnam had already been paved. It is at this point in the book where the pace picks up and never slows down. The concept of the best and the brightest came to Halberstam as he thought of a phrase for Kennedy’s cabinet of intellectuals who were set on reshaping Washington in the image they believed was right to push the country forward. One by one he introduces us to all of the characters that have a role in the story, tracing their origins and helping us to understand how they reached their positions in the government. Some of them are as mysterious as the country’s then paranoia about communism taking over the world. But as they come together, something still is not quite right and Vietnam becomes the issue that will not go away. And for the thirty-three months Kennedy was in office, the American involvement would grow in Indochina but the nation had not yet entered a war. The growing crisis however, had begun to cause a rift in the White House and the deception employed by those loyal to the military and war hawks is eye-raising and chilling. I also believe that it helps explain Kennedy’s murder in November, 1963. We can only guess what would have happened if he had lived. There are those who strongly believe we would have withdrawn from Vietnam. I believe that is what would have happened, probably sooner rather than later. But Kennedy was gone and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, inherited the nightmare of Vietnam.
As Johnson settles in to being the new Commander-In-Chief, Indochina becomes a thorn in his side and he becomes conflicted with the decisions he will eventually make. This part of the book is the crux and the key to the final push by the military for a war. Many of Kennedy’s cabinet members continued to stay and at first worked under Johnson. But as time passed and the ugly truths about Vietnam came back from Saigon, they would fade out as Johnson led the nation down the path of escalation. Halberstam is a masterful story-teller and the scenes he recreates from his research are spellbinding. Nearly everyone in the book is now deceased but as I read the book I could not help but to scratch my head at their decisions and actions. The warning signs of Vietnam loomed ominously large but tragically were ignored or discounted. Washington suffered from a tragic twist of fate: although it had the best and the brightest in Washington, they still made mistakes that literally made little sense. And that is a central theme in the book. The war’s architects were all brilliant individuals with endless accolades yet they failed to understand what was considered to be a peasant nation far away from home. Many of them would suffer in one way or another. For Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam eventually became the final nail in the coffin that sealed his chances at reelection.
During the reading of the book, I also noticed at how Halberstam explained the actions of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and Vietcong. In order to understand why Vietnam became a stalemate, it is not just necessary to understand the failures of Washington, but the strategy of Ho Chih Minh and the generals under him. The small peasant nation took on a colossus and refused to give up. And the battles of Vietnam changed warfare and showed the world what many believed to be impossible. Arrogance and in some cases, racist beliefs laid at the base of some foreign policy decisions regarding the war. History has a strange way of repeating itself and the repeated warnings from the French fell on deaf ears as American troops landed in a place many of them knew nothing about. Looking back with hindsight, the critical failures are clearly evident and although Halberstam shows us how we became involved in Vietnam, we are still baffled about why. How could so many minds filled with so much knowledge make such rudimentary and baseless decisions? The answers are here in this book in the form of official cables that withheld information, overzealous military advisors, an unstable South Vietnamese government, National Security Action Memos and the idea that the United States could solve any of the world’s problems. This book is a must-read for those who are interested in the history of the Vietnam War.
Open Veins In Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent-Eduardo Galeano with a Foreword by Isabel Allende
Latin America is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. The Iguazu Falls, Andes Mountains and Patagonia attract millions of visitors annually. The beauty of these and other sites across Latin America stand in stark contrast to the poverty that can be found outside of major cities and sometimes within. In between major railway stations and ports exist slums that remind us of the severely uneven distribution of wealth throughout the continent. Speaking from personal experience, most Americans would be shocked at living conditions that still exist in Latin America to this day. But why does a continent with a history that goes back several hundred years and is home to beautiful people, beautiful languages, great foods and beautiful scenes of nature, continue to suffer from poverty, corruption and exploitation.
The key to understanding the current state of these and other Latin American affairs, is to revisit its history. Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) has done just that in this eye-opening and best-selling study of Latin American history that was first published in 1971. The edition that is the subject of this review was re-published in 1997, and contains a foreword by Isabel Allende, a cousin of the late Chilean President Salvador Allende (1908-1973). On September 11, 1973, Allende died on a self-inflicted gunshot wound as opposition forces engaged in a CIA-backed overthrow of the government. Isabel currently lives in California and is a naturalized United States Citizen.
Galeano starts by revisiting how Latin America came into existence from a continent of indigenous people to one in which Spanish is the dominant language. The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean marked a distinctive change in the course of world history and although he never set foot in North America, Columbus is still considered by many to be the person that discovered what is today the United States. In recent years however, the holiday of Columbus Day has been replaced by Indigenous People’s Day or in others not acknowledged. In Central and South America, the arrival of the Spanish explorers would have a profound impact and set the stage for plunder, murder and exploitation that engulfed the continent. Next to Columbus are the stories of Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519) and Pedro de Valdivia (1497-1553), explorers who would spend their last days in South America. And as Galeano re-tells their stories, the reader might want to make notes of names, dates and places as the story comes together like a puzzle.
While the tragedy of exploitation and violence played out, not all voices were content with Spanish domination and the extermination of South America’s inhabitants. Tupac Amaru (1545-1572) and Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) also appear in the book and it would be safe to say that an author would find it impossible to discuss Latin American history without recounting their extraordinary and short lives. However their efforts proved to be ineffective against the rush of colonization that dominated the southern hemisphere. And it is at this point in the book that Galeano turns up the heat as we learn how natural resources became a gold mine and and the populations of the Carribean, Central American and South American nearly disappeared as a result of warfare, famine and disease. World superpowers sank their teeth into the Latin American cash machine and have never let go.
The grip of foreign control has proven to have disastrous effects on politics, producing revolutions and widespread practice of the coup d’état. Leaders who leaned left and sought to reclaim industries exploited by foreign corporations were quickly dealt with through American foreign policy. Those who did play the game were rewarded and tolerated through the Good Neighbor Policy and other shady practices. The climate of distrust and violent overthrow of the government has never left Latin America. The current events in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Argentina are prime examples of the volatile political climate that continues to exist. And all the while, foreign corporations continue to reap enormous profits as they move around offices and politicians like pieces on a chess board.
Galeano provides a staggering amount of information in the book which is sure to shock the reader. But this book is key to understanding why Latin America has developed so many third-world countries. It would be easy to blame those countries for their own failures. But what we know is that after a colonizer has left the colonized, it is immensely difficult for those nations to find a permanent path of success. This was beautifully explained by Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) in his classic The Wretched of the Earth. The future is bleak for many Latin American nations as inflation rises and the IMF becomes more reluctant to give out loans. Poverty continues to increase giving rise to protests, crime and strikes. What we see today is a manifestation of what Galeano calls “five hundred years of the pillage of a continent”.
If you have never traveled through Latin America, I implore you to do so at least once. I firmly believe that there are many great things that are unfamiliar to those who live in the northern hemisphere. I have had the privilege of visiting Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. Chile is next on the list. Through my travels, I have met many people who have become a permanent part of my life and I am eternally grateful for having met them. Galeano died on April 13, 2015 after a battle with lung cancer but he left behind important works and this masterpiece which has been translated into more than twelve languages. This book has proven to be the companion guide every person needs in order to understand many of things that will be seen in Latin America, including the current presence of open veins.
Every summer, my parents make their annual visit to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center in Ledyard, Connecticut to continue learning about the Pequot Indian tribe who lived in what is now the State of Connecticut. They are one of the many tribes that called North America home prior to the arrival of European settlers and the creation of the United States. Today, they can be found largely on reservations having been forced off of the only lands they knew to make way for a country that had liberated itself from British colonization. Far too often, their plight is ignored and history books have traditionally re-written the history of the foundation of the United States of America. This book by the late Dorris Alexander “Dee” Brown (1908-2002) challenges everything we thought we knew about our country and the scores of people often referred to simply as “the Indians”.
Hollywood has played a large part in the historical view by many of the Native Americans, the enemies of White Cowboys as depicted in Westerns and other television programs of the past. John Wayne is admired by many as the icon of the American West. The Native Americans, considered to be savages, uncivilized and dangerous became the object of the wrath of bloodthirsty soldiers filled with an ideology that could classified as genocide today. The true story was carefully and deceptively hidden from public light but it has come out in more recent times. And as the Native Americans and Indians of the Caribbean are shown in a more positive light, more of the truth will come to the surface. Several cities here in America have now replaced the holiday of Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day. Columbus was only a small part of the story and he never set foot on North American soil. But the actions of the municipalities were for the right reasons and I believe in time, more cities will follow suit.
In the wake of the American Revolution, a new nation was born with the desire to obtain as much land as possible under the guise of “Manifest Destiny” and its actions changed the course of history and nearly exterminated the continent’s native inhabitants. I am sure you have heard many of the names that became legends; Tecumseh (1768-1813), Sitting Bull( 1831-1890), Geronimo (1829-1909), Crazy Horse (d. 1877) and Cochise (d.1874). These leaders are revered in Native American history but are only small parts of a much larger and deadlier picture. Their lives crossed paths with American soldiers whose names have become both famous and infamous such as Kit Carson (1869-1868) and General George Armstrong Custer (1839-1876) whose last stand is sometimes fodder for situations in which a positive outcome is highly unlikely. The battles that took place across the plains of North America reveal a violent struggle as two opposing of forces sought to maintain their own ways of life. For the Native Americans, their goal was to live as they always had and not like the invaders who annexed territory and brought disease, starvation and death. For the American soldiers, the Indians were savages who needed to learn the White man’s way of life and give their hearts to Christianity. The two systems were never compatible but Washington refused to accept any deals that would preserve Native American land. The methods used to forcibly remove the natives are some of the darkest moments in American history.
It is imperative to keep in mind while reading the book that America did not yet have 50 states. In fact, the reader has to pay close attention to the location descriptions to form a picture of the region in which these events take place. In comparison to clearly marked state boundaries today, land then was sometimes loosely divided among tribes with recognized boundaries by each side. I do recommend having a map of Native American tribes while reading the book to gain a more accurate image. Brown also adds small bonuses at the beginning of each chapters as he highlights the most important events that occurred. Readers may find that they have bookmarked random facts that have nothing to do with the story at hand but are useful information to retain.
I warn the reader that the book is not always easy to read. The graphic descriptions of the atrocities committed in battle and the fate of the Native Americans are a rude awakening to any ideas about a graceful creation of America where the settlers and Indians worked side by side and everyone was friends. This is the unfiltered truth and to say it is ugly would be an understatement. Those of you who are of Native-American heritage will be familiar with the tragedies that befell your ancestors. For others, in particular Americans, this book is a chance to fully understand how violence played a crucial role in the development of what is now a superpower. We are unable to turn back the hands of time and change the course of history but what we can do moving forward is to acknowledge the tragic story of North America’s forgotten residents.
I firmly believe that this book, which was written in 1970, should be read by students in every history class across the country. These are the stories that you will not find in textbooks that seeks to portray the history of this nation in the most positive light possible. Interestingly, Native Americans are present in many of us today. Millions of American have their blood running through their veins. That heritage has sadly been forgotten or in some cases ignored. But it is never too late to learn about those who gave up so much so that we are able to enjoy the privileges afforded to us. Their lives have never been the same and their heritage was nearly destroyed. I hope that one day they too find the peace of mind that they have sought for so long. And the next time you think about wearing a Native American costume for a party, this book might make you think twice. This is the dark and ugly history of America and the mission to eradicate the Native Americans.
When I think back on the history classes I attended in elementary school, high school and then college, I remember that it seemed as if it took forever to go through any topic. And that says a lot for someone like myself who has always loved the subject and still does. For most people, history is beyond mind-numbing and often revisits events in the past to which most people do not give a second thought. But as we are often reminded through history, we need to know our past in order to reach our future. In comparison to the history of Europe, Asia and other parts of the world, the United States is a very young nation that has been in existence less than three hundred years. Incredibly, in that short amount of time on the world stage, some of the most memorable events in modern history have taken place in North America and had reverberating effects across the planet. If we were to study American in its entirety, that would be a course that would last a couple of years at least. But what happens when you cram that history into a book that is three hundred nine pages long?
James West Davidson has done just that in this book appropriately titled A Little History of the United States. Perhaps the word little is a misrepresentation here for there is nothing “little” about the material contained within the pages of the book. The author straps us in and takes on a ride through time to revisit the beginning of America and the path to becoming a world superpower. Critics might think that they already know the material in the book. While it is true that many of the events will be known to history buffs and those that paid close attention in class, there is a wealth of information that is useful to others and might even be unknown to even those who are well-read. And as a bonus, a refresher never hurts. None of the information in the book is ground breaking and can be found in other places but what Davidson has done is to compress all of those sources into one book that touches on all of the major events in American history. But the genius of the book is that it is not written in textbook format but rather a story that just keeps going and getting more interesting as we move closer to the present.
Now that I think more about it, the book could be considered a cliff note for U.S. history. There is never too much information on one topic but just enough to give the reader the basic facts and a picture of what happened and why. Those who have interest in certain topics will surely find other material to satisfy their thirst for knowledge. I firmly believe Davidson was aware of this when he wrote the book and might even expect that to be the case. At one point, he mentions that he could not have included everything on one particular topic for the book would have been several volumes long. I agree wholeheartedly. Putting that aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and the pace at which he keeps the reader is just right to make it through the book without any trace of boredom setting in.
As an American citizen, I am amazed at how much history of my own country that I am still learning. I think the same could be said about many of my fellow citizens. Harry Truman once said “the only new thing in the world is the history you do not yet know”. No matter how much we do learn, I feel that there will always be something that we have no knowledge of. But we have the aid of books like this to help us on our journey. Every student of American history should have this as a supplement to all of their primary books. For now, sit back, relax and treat yourself to a little history of the United States.