Donovan: America’s Master Spy – Richard Dunlop

DonovanIn December 1963, one month after the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963), former President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) authored an op-ed piece in the December 22, 1963, edition of the Washington Post about the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and its role in America. While reflecting on what the CIA had become, he stated “there is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.” The agency had been established through the National Security Act of 1947 which was intended to both centralize and simplify national defense and the intelligence apparatus. Five years before the National Security Act was signed into law, President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) had also addressed the need for foreign intelligence and through Executive Order 9128 on July 13, 1942, he formally established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). And to lead the new agency, he turned to former director of the Coordination of Information (COI), the legendary William Joseph “Wild Bill” Donovan (1883-1959). Though he was never director of the CIA, Donovan is credited as being the father of intelligence. Author Richard Dunlop examines Donovan’s life in this intriguing biography and historical account of how the intelligence community came to exist.

Dunlop provides a thorough discussion of Donovan’s early life in Buffalo, New York, and it soon becomes clear that Donovan is a person of action and determination. His life changes with the start of World War I, a conflict in which Donovan would play a direct role as soldier in the U.S. Army. His exploits on the battlefield and recognition by others give credence to the name Wild Bill as readers will learn. Following his service in the military, Donovan returned home to resume his law practice. But as he would see, fate had other ideas for his life. After being appointed U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, Donovan became a rising star in Washington circles as a prosecutor with an impeccable record. But unbeknownst to American citizens, a dark cloud was forming over Europe in the form of a young Austrian name Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and his political party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (N.S.D.A.P.). As the Nazi threat became real, Washington realized that it needed information about Europe and the truth about its future. Donovan had foreseen things to come and as Dunlop explains:

“Donovan was convinced in the late 1920s that Poland would be the first European nation to be torn apart by the next war in Europe.”

As part of his duties as a traveling businessman, Donovan came face to face with individuals who later played crucial roles in World War II. One meeting in Berchtesgaden will catch the attention of readers. America did not formally enter the war until December 1941 but prior to that the White House was deeply concerned with the events unfolding. Roosevelt knew that America could not ignore the conflict. And this action he took as explained by Dunlop set the stage for the future of intelligence:

“On July 11, 1941, President Roosevelt established the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI), making Donovan its chief. When the COI was transformed into the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1942, Donovan continued as America’s wartime intelligence master.” 

On the surface it was just what America needed but as the author shows, not everyone was on board with a central agency. Readers with an affection for U.S. history will know that no one escaped the wrath of former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972). The tension between the two is on full display and exemplifies Hoover’s thirst for power and obsession with controlling every aspect of gathering intelligence both domestically and abroad. To say that Hoover was displeased with the new intelligence agencies would be an understatement. And his threats to the Republican party that he would release damaging information is a move all too familiar. I found this passage by the author regarding events after the attack at Pearl Harbor to be a perfect example of the disdain held by Hoover towards any type of intelligence apparatus:

“On Tuesday, December 9, Roosevelt ordered Donovan to coordinate all North American intelligence agencies, including the recalcitrant FBI. The lesson of Pearl Harbor was fresh in his mind: The welter of conflicting intelligence agencies had contributed to the tragic unpreparedness in the Pacific. But when J. Edgar Hoover refused to cooperate with Donovan, Roosevelt backed off and on December 23 lamely reaffirmed the authority of the FBI.” 

Hoover could not control the war and regardless of his personal ambitions, the war mandated a different approach to intelligence and Donovan was the man Roosevelt and Truman turned to. Dunlop discusses the triumphs of the OSS but does not fall into the trap of going into too much detail. There is sufficient information to provide readers with an understanding of its importance without taking the story away from Donovan who is the central figure. And while leading the OSS, he provided the blueprint for the CIA. His agents came from all social classes and the OSS conducted missions that were unbelievable. Donovan was far ahead of his time and realized that intelligence was a vital component if America were to remain secure and powerful.

Following the defeat of Germany, Italy and Japan, the days of the OSS were numbered. However, Donovan knew that his work and that of others following his path was far from over. Truman knew that intelligence was vital and that there was no turning back. Another war was possible, and America could not afford to be caught off guard. Donovan’s importance cannot be overstated, and his legacy is captured with the author’s remark that:

“When on September 18, 1947, almost two years to the day after his OSS had been abolished, the Congress authorized the Central Intelligence Agency, Donovan was delighted. The new CIA in most important respects followed the blueprint that he had submitted to Franklin Roosevelt three years before.” 

In the wake of the dissolution of the OSS, Donovan returned to his private life but remained connected to the intelligence community, issuing warnings and advice. His statement about Vietnamese icon Ho Chih Minh (1890-1969) and his communist organization sent chills down my spine. When Donovan died on February 8, 1959, America lost one of its greatest intelligence assets. The former intelligence chief was far from perfect and the information about his personal life stands in contrast to his professional life. Tragedy, marital issues, and time away from home, took their toll on Donovan at times. But he never wavered in his service to America. This book by Dunlop is an important story that needed to be told about a man who helped change American history.

ASIN: B00I2G6RJM

The Queen: The Forgotten Life Behind an American Myth – Josh Levin

LevinIn 2019 the Urban Institute conducted an analysis of the welfare system in the United States. It found that at least fifty-nine million Americans were on some form of public assistance mostly obtained through six major welfare programs in the country. The people in need of assistance will vary but the image that was once presented to the public stands in stark contrast to reality. In his first run for office of the president, California Governor Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) (R-CA) used the welfare system as part of his program to appeal to conservative voters. Unbeknownst to voters, Reagan had set his focus on a woman in Chicago who would later be called the “Welfare Queen”. The truth is not as glamorous and far more bizarre but that did not deter Reagan from using the case of Linda Taylor (1926-2002) who represented all that was wrong with the system in his eyes. His first campaign for president failed but he mounted a second campaign that culminated with the defeat of sitting President James E. “Jimmy” Carter in 1980. By then Taylor was an afterthought but her life was far from over. In fact, as Josh Levin shows in this biography, her life was full of mystery, tragedy, and dark moments.

The book begins with the demise of a woman named Patricia Parks on the night of June 15, 1975. The cause of death is unfortunate but common. But what raised suspicion is the woman who was last seen with her, Linda Taylor. And through Levin’s re-telling of Taylor’s life story, this was one of multiple instances in which she had proximity to a person before their unexpected death. To be fair, Taylor was never charged with any murder. She was placed under investigation more than once, and those charges related directly to her abuse of the welfare system. The unbelievable story is told here in a book that refutes stereotypes, discusses the issue of race, and exposes the faults in the public assistance system. 

Prior to reading the book, I was not aware of Taylor’s personal life. I had placed the book on my wish list and realized recently that I had yet to explore it. It is not a standard biography in the sense that there’s a straightforward chronological history. The reason, as Levin shows, is that parts of her life are unknown with little records available to piece together her past. However, do does an incredible job of tracing her family history that takes us to the Deep South where the town of Cullman, Alabama, a placed once called “Sundown Town” for reasons explained in the story. Readers familiar with the South will know what it implies. Taylor was born Martha Louise White and from the beginning, Jim Crow and racial discrimination became daily realities. Martha’s arrival proves to be a complicated issue and as we see later in the book in court testimony, the family found itself immersed in a scandal. The facts are revealed by her uncle Hubert Mooney, whose frank talk will make readers recoil. Today such talk would never be permitted in a courtroom, but 1964 was quite a different time in America. Admittedly, keeping track of the family members and Linda’s movements as a child is challenging but through no fault of the author. The family itself is far from intact and adept at keeping secrets. The instability at home and treatment by relatives does provide insight into how Taylor later came to view herself and the world she was navigating. 

As I read the book, I did feel compassion for her and cannot imagine the humiliation she had to endure. However, I could not ignore her dark side that drew the inquiry of state investigators and law enforcement. Further, her exploitation of the welfare system which allowed her a life of luxury, and her relentless attempts at taking advantage of others’ misfortune, showed that Taylor had learned to master deceit as she used fake names, addresses and misled state agencies. The story within is simply spellbinding and it seemed as if no one could completely unravel the mystery of Linda Taylor. The sad stories of her former husbands and children she claimed are examples of the emotional and mental damage she caused as she continued her life of deception. The story of one son, Paul, will surely catch the attention of readers. And when the situation came, Taylor also used those closest to her to become conspirators in her plans. As Levin shows, Taylor once went this far in her scheme: 

“Taylor had used the alias Sandra Brownlee—her daughter’s name—to steal public aid money. A month after Judge Mark Jones gave the older woman three to seven years, Sandra herself would plead guilty to receiving illegal welfare payments from the State of Illinois.” 

Investigators eventually do catch up with her but like a thief in the night, Taylor skipped out of town more than once, becoming a fugitive. And while on the run, more victims turned up as Linda continued to find ways to exploit unsuspecting people who took in the newcomer with kindness. The story of James and Mildred Markham left me speechless. And I had to remind myself that this is not fiction. Taylor had no remorse and resorted to extreme measures to continue her lifestyle. However, time was running out and in 1994, the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida finally put an end to her reign of terror. Though she did not serve prison time, she had become a shell of her former self, and the rest of the book follows her decline. We can only guess as to how disabled Taylor truly was but those who took care of her in her final years confirmed that she was indeed declining rapidly. Levin explored the concept she was faking her disability and went as far as questioning staff members at the mental hospital who were willing to speak. The end came for Taylor on April 18, 2002, at the age of seventy-six. By the time Taylor had passed, she was forgotten and the concept of welfare queen a talking point of the bygone Reagan era. But as Levin shows, her life story is one that serves as a textbook case of the importance of a stable home, guidance from those with our best interests at heart, and a legal system that enforces checks and balances. There is more to Taylor’s life that we will never learn of, but Josh Levin has captured her life for an eternity in this book that is full of suspense from start to finish. Highly recommended. 

If you like this book, Levin also authored an article for Slate Magazine titled “The Welfare Queen“, which was published on December 19, 2013. It is full of information and photos match names with faces, and even includes a statement from Reagan in October 1976. It is the perfect complement to this solid account of Taylor’s life and exploits. 

ASIN:‎ B07H2BJYBH

Our Team: The Epic Story of Four Men and the World Series That Changed Baseball – Luke Epplin

epplinIn 2012 Warner Bros. Pictures released the film ’42’ which tells the story of how Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson (1919-1972) broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball (“MLB”). The late film star Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) starred as Robinson in the biopic and delivered a phenomenal performance. Robinson did break the color barrier, but he was not the only player to do so at that time. In Cleveland, Ohio, Indians owner William Louis “Bill” Veeck (1914-1986) was determined on further integrating baseball and set his eyes on the Negro Leagues as a pool for untapped talent. Soon enough, he had purchased the rights to Lawrence Eugene “Larry” Doby (1923-2003). The Indians subsequently signed Negro League pitcher Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige (1906-1982) who joined the ranks and became another teammate of the team’s ace, Robert William Andrew “Bob” Feller (1918-2010).

The integration of America’s past-time was a ground-breaking event but not without its difficulty. Racial discrimination affected every aspect of life in America. Like Robinson, Doby and Paige were forced to endure unrelenting racial abuse and indignations. In the years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Jim Crow legislation and unwritten segregation rules permeated throughout America and as we see in this story, fame and success did not offer any recourse to routine humiliation. Further, the on-field triumphs and adulation from fans, stood in contrast to life outside of the stadium. Across the ocean in Europe, America had fought a war against the Axis Powers in the name of democracy and freedom. But for Doby, Paige and millions of Black Americans, those concepts were nowhere to be found back in the United States.

Anyone who believes in human rights, liberty, and the laws of this nation, will be enraged at times while reading this book. I personally found myself incensed at what they players had to endure simply to exist. However, the book does have brighter moments and it is a moving account of how change was made and an inside look into the lives of those who made it happen. The beauty of Epplin’s work is that the reader does not need to possess prior knowledge of MLB history. In fact, it is written in such a way that the reader can quickly learn about the players who will change history. I did know of Doby, Paige, and of course Robinson, but was not as aware of Bob Feller’s role in the story. Feller was not in a management position but was a prodigy himself at times in competition with Saige. There did exist a mutual respect between the two and the battles in proving who’s the better pitcher give the story the suspense that helps make it an enjoyable read. The most interesting figure in the book is undoubtedly Veeck, whose personal life also suffered through this period as readers will learn as the book progresses. Integration was his primary goal, and he knew it would not be pretty. Epplin captures his determination perfectly here:

“Undoubtedly there would be blowback, but Veeck was prepared to weather it. “The only thing blocking [integration] was no law, it was just a gentlemen’s agreement,” he later said. “And I was no gentleman.”

Adjusting to life in the big league was not an easy feat and the athletes still had to combat racism even within their own team. The author touches that subject too, showing the difficulties for owners who realized the talent to be found among other ethnic groups. Despite the backlash, Veeck was successful, and the Indians were aided by their new acquisitions who began to develop a fan base. In the film ’42’, there is a scene where Robinson is talking to Wesley Branch Rickey (1881-1965) and ready to quit. Rickey refuses to let him walk and explains that outside the stadium there are white children mimicking Robinson’s routine before stepping to the plate. Doby and Paige soon became fan favorites. It is true that America still had a long way to go in dismantling the racial codes in effect, but as star athletes, these brave souls were doing their part to help make that reality.

Doby is quoted throughout the book but as Epplin explains he had a reserved and humble personality. In comparison, Paige had no issue making his opinions known and reveled in being able to catch people off-guard. Interestingly, the two stars were not as close as one might expect, and Doby makes a statement that reveals the differences in opinions towards the realities they were facing. I cannot say which man was right but do recognize that the enormous pressure they were under, combined with hostile environments, required coping mechanisms. Thankfully, there is no substance abuse in the book, but I cannot imagine that they did not have moments in which they questioned why they were on that team and not back in the Negro Leagues where they had acceptance. Younger readers will learn a great deal about the difficulties faced by Black Americans when traveling across the United States. Lack of accommodations, quality meals and the threat of violence never abated. A road trip could have easily become a matter of life and death.

There are no episodes of violence directly towards the players in the book and each of them lived well beyond 1947. But despite their roles in a history making year, MLB continued to drag its feet in diversifying the league. As Epplin points out:

“The Yankees fielded all-white lineups until 1955, the Detroit Tigers until 1958. The Red Sox held out until the bitter end, refusing to promote a Black player until 1959, Doby’s last year in the league.”

Eventually the players retired but they left their legacies intact. 1947 might seem like ancient history today but we must remember that it was less than eighty years ago but since that time, America has changed significantly and today MLB is home to players of all backgrounds. Athletes now earn unbelievable salaries and enjoy fame on levels once unheard of. This would not be possible without the sacrifices made by Doby, Paige and other minority athletes who risked their lives by breaking the color lines. If you are fan of MLB history or even American history, there is a wealth of information in this book. Should you read it, be prepared to have feelings of anger, suspense, and pride. This book is not just the story of baseball but that of the United States. Highly recommended.

ASIN: B07WCJL4HB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN:‎ B00VKI49X0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN: B01MQVT9TG

Geronimo – Robert M. Utley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN: B009T3C88Q

The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1922-1945 – William Sherian Allen

AllenSeventy-seven years ago, allied forces defeated Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) Third Reich and the Axis powers, bringing an end to World War II. In the years following Germany’s defeat, historians have authored books, filmmakers have published documentaries and social media provides endless content about the man who ignited a world conflict. In the wake of the war, outspoken critics of the Third Reich were vindicated in their belief that Hitler would cause Germany’s destruction. He nearly succeeded and following the nation’s surrender on May 7, 1945, the German people faced the cruel reality that their country was in ruins, they were widely despised and faced years of rebuilding, de-Nazification and coming to terms with what had been done in their name. As we have sought to understand the aura of Hitler and his ascension to the position of Chancellor, sharp focus was needed on how and why the Nazis were able to take over Germany. Author William Sherian Allen decided to focus on the town of Northeim to examine the Nazi seizure of power. Northeim lies in the Lower Saxony area of Germany and between the years 1922-1945, the Nazis executed their plan to take over Germany one town at a time. This is the story of how it was done.

Prior to reading this book I did not know the story of Northeim but there are countless stories from the war that have yet to be told or discovered. World War II will continue to produce more material even as it fades further into the past. This story of Northeim helps capture the rise and fall of the Third Reich. After World War I, the Treaty of Versailles had forced Germany to relinquish territory, recognize Poland as an independent nation and crippled the country with brutal financial penalties, the result of which was widespread poverty and anger. Northeimers were not immune to this, and its residents wanted a better life but as we see in the book, it was not at first a Nazi stronghold, but the Third Reich was determined to leave no stone unturned. Hitler knew that touching on German resentment towards the treaty’s penalties would play into Nazification efforts. The signatories of the first treaty could not have known that twenty years later Germany would once again destabilize the world. As I read the book, I noticed that Northeim was not the prime territory for indoctrination yet the resistance to Nazism was non-existent. And as for any resistance that did exist, the Nazis had tools at their disposal to eliminate all opposition.

The most interesting part of the story is that the Nazi takeover was not as violent as one would expect. In fact, subversion and deception were the primary tools employed. But the Nazis did break down critical social institutions that obstructed their path of total domination. The suppression of free speech, free press and religion are on full display. However, the Nazis could have not succeeded without local help. And this is where the story becomes even more interesting, and it features two central figures, Wilhelm Spannaus and Ernst Girmann (1896-1969). Spannaus was a bookstore owner who had aligned himself with the N.S.D.A.P. but never comes across as a hardcore Nazi. In fact, the undesirable aspects of the Third Reich would not have earned his approval. Officials knew Spannaus would never conduct their plan to the satisfaction needed and turned to Girmann who took his fanaticism to astonishing heights. Girmann was more than willing to carry out the Nazi ideology and bring Northeim under the grip of Berlin. The step-by-step seizure by the Third Reich took time but was successful and as Allen remarks:

“The single biggest factor in this process was the destruction of formal society in Northeim. What social cohesion there was in the town existed in the club life, and this was destroyed in the early months of Nazi rule.”

By 1933, Hitler had become Chancellor and anyone who second guessed the outspoken Austrian, paid full attention to the recent changes in Germany society. The old way of life for Germans and the democracy they believed existed, vanished instantly. Once the Nazi propaganda and dictatorial machine started, there was no turning back and Northeim soon found himself under the boot of Nazism. The process of indoctrination kicks into high gear and the Nazis begin to target the areas that need it the most. Sherian captures the impact of the changes with this observation:

“More than any other institution in Northeim, the schools became active instruments of Nazism.”

The Nazis attacked every segment of society and with Girmann in control, Northeim was doomed from the start. Early in the war, Germans were optimistic that the war would be short but in June 1942, that all changed with Hitler’s decision to invade the Soviet Union which helped seal Germany’s fate. By 1944, the Allied effort had touched Northeim directly resulting in death and destruction. Readers will find themselves in disbelief at Girmann’s actions as defeat is imminent. His actions call into question the ideas of honor and courage in Nazi Germany. Northeim was eventually liberated, and the town began to repair itself and purge the remnants of the Nazi menace. And one of the people they turned to is Spannaus. Northeim comes full circle at this point in the book.

I should point out that the story here is not about the Final Solution or why Germany lost the war. Allen’s focus is on the Third Reich’s control of Northeim and its existence as a Nazi stronghold. Undoubtedly similar methods were employed across Germany as Hitler turned up the heat domestically and abroad. And had he not been defeated, what we see in Northeim might have taken place in parts unknown. Students of World War II and history buffs will find this to be an interesting account of Northeim’s experience during the war and life in the Third Reich. It is also a blueprint for how to resist future dictators from executing the same. Highly recommended.

“What was needed in Northeim to stop the Nazis was a political coalition of the decent people, regardless of party, to recognize that—whatever it promised—Nazism was an indecent thing. That such a coalition never developed was the main reason the Nazis got into power.”

ASIN: B09NN71DC8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN: B01NCYX17R

The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World – John Carlos with Dave Zirin and Cornel West

carlosOn October 16, 1968, U.S. track and field runner John Carlos ascended the podium to accept his bronze medal following the 200m race. His teammate and gold medal winner Tommie Smith joined him on the podium and as the United States anthem played in the stadium, the pair raised their fists in solidarity with the growing movement for civil rights in America. Silver medal winner and Australian native Peter Norman (1942-2006) showed his support for the American duo by wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge. The image of them standing with their fists raised remains one of the most powerful pictures of the Civil Rights Movement. However, behind the scenes, the fallout from their gesture was immense and even Norman, who was not American, suffered tremendously. This is the story of John Carlos in his words, which explains the events leading up to the pivotal moment in world history and his life which has been anything but ordinary. 

Huey P. Newtown (1942-1989) famously remarked that “the first lesson a revolutionary must learn is that he is a doomed man“. The statement is dark but accurate. For John Carlos, the moment he decided to raise his fist was also the moment that he invited the turmoil that comes with taking a public stand. But prior to that earth shattering moment, he had been an advocate for equality and the stage for Mexico had been set years prior in my hometown of New York City. I did not know Carlos was a New Yorker so one can expect that I was pleasantly surprised. As I read his account of his early life and the struggles his family faced in their housing complex, I found myself gaining more respect for him, as a person not afraid to tackle problems head on. To be fair, there are sections in the book where Carlos himself admits that he was wrong and should have put more thought into his actions. And his father, to whom he was remarkably close, provided a source of guidance that was needed at times. Carlos was also close to his mother, whom he deeply loved and still holds in high regard. I enjoyed reading about his family life and felt that I understood him and why he became a voice for change.

Carlos dabbles in athletics until he finds his calling in running, which incredibly, was not his first choice. That might shock readers, I know it surprised me. But once he starts running, he never stopped, and that path took him from New York City, to Texas, and all the way to Mexico City, where the story picks up in pace for obvious reasons. However, Carlos reveals critical information about the Olympic Project for Human Rights and its original plan for the games. Also, the story takes another turn when famed Olympian Jesse Owens (1913-1980) enters the story. I had no prior knowledge of these events before reading the book and was shocked to learn of the friction backstage. But Owens is not the villain, and his own story is one of triumph and tragedy. And even Carlos realizes that Owens could not escape the ideology that he helped shatter in Berlin as Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) watched in disbelief. 

After the Olympic medal ceremony, Carlos knew that he would have to return to the United States but had no idea of how bad the repercussions would be for exposing America on the world stage. Any illusions of returning to America as champion of equality were quickly shattered as he and Tommie Smith became public enemies. Peter Norman also had to face his fate upon returning to Australia. His story is equally heartbreaking but on a positive note, Norman was vindicated in recent years and today he is seen as a hero and in 2012, Australia’s governing body posthumously apologized to him for not being sent to the 1972 Munich Olympics, despite qualifying. The hardships these athletes endured were surreal and it should come as no surprise that Norman’s final years were filled with dark days. Smith and Carlos had their own trials and tribulations. As the book progresses, Carlos reveals his personal struggles with employment, marriage, injury, fatherhood, and the social pressures that came because of being a recognized activist. But there are bright moments and though he was down on occasion he was never out. Thankfully, Carlos is alive today and has overcome challenging times that could have caused another man to lose the plot. 

Whether we believe that athletes should make political statements, his story is important and an example of what happens when you take a stand for something you believe in. Carlos himself is aware of the criticism that athletes face when taking on politics but never wavered in his goal to make change. The argument over when and where to make political statements will never end but there are times where they need to be made regardless of who the speaker is. In 1968, John Carlos knew he and Tommie Smith were the ones to make their statement, but they could have never imagined that their actions before a sellout crowd in Mexico City would change the course of history. 

ASIN: B005MJDRL8

Indira Gandhi – Meena Agarwal

IndiraFew places are as fascinating as the nation of India. Its constitution officially recognizes twenty-two languages. English continues to serve as a critical method of communication in the business sector. Natives will proudly tell you that India is one of the most diverse countries in the world. Yet, despite the diversity, social issues such as poverty, corruption, and overpopulation are a reminder that India’s long struggle for success is far from over. Recently I was reading only and came across the name of Indira Gandhi (1917-1984), the former prime minister who was assassinated on October 31, 1984. Her father, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), served as the nation’s first prime minister after India gained its independence in 1947. Both father and daughter left behind legacies that remain with India to this day.

The death of Indira Gandhi sent shockwaves across the world. The nightly news broadcast covered the crime in detail and readers who are too young to remember the events can find videos on YouTube that provide a step back in time before breaking news went viral on the internet. As I thought of Indira Gandhi, I realized that my knowledge of her personal life needed an adjustment. I purchased this book by author Meena Agarwal who provides a good primer for an examination of the late leader’s life. There are more extensive books to be found about Gandhi, but this biography is just what is needed by readers searching for a concise account of the historic figure.

I did notice that the book is short at around one hundred seventy-six pages, which is short compared to most biographies of political leaders than can easily stretch to nearly one thousand pages. Nonetheless, the information contained in the book is more than sufficient to provide readers with a fair amount of knowledge about who Gandhi was and why she is important in India’s history. The recap of her early life was the right amount of information needed for the story we read. The author does not go into every minute detail but explains the crucial events in her life that changed India’s history and world history. The deaths of her mother Kamala Nehru (1889-1936) and prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri (1904-1966) changed her life forever with the latter placing her in the position to become India’s first and only female prime minister.

Gandhi’s time in office was not perfect by any means. Though she was progressive in her thinking, there were mistakes along the way. But what I found is that she genuinely loved India and despite the mounting opposition to her administration, she continued to move forward when possible. But as the book progresses, it becomes clear that the opposition is not only growing but becoming more extreme. And their rage culminated with the events at the Golden Temple, the holiest site in Amritsar, Punjab, for followers of the Sikh faith.

Between June 1 and June 10, 1984, Indian security forces conducted Operation Blue Start to remove Damdami Taksal, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, and their followers from the buildings of the Golden Temple. The operation was successful but in the eyes of devout Sikhs, Gandhi had committed a mortal sin. She was not oblivious to the tensions caused by the mission and sought to soothe them. But the seed had been planted and her opponents began to plot her demise. The author revisits the events surrounding Operation Blue Star and the time leading up to October 31, 1984, Gandhi’s last day on earth. The murder and its aftermath as discussed but she does not go into extensive detail about the legal proceedings and results. One assassin was killed immediately after Gandhi’s murder, thus escaping the justice system.

Following the assassination, the story winds down but the author is far from done. She pays homage to Gandhi by including quotes and short statements which show her devotion to India. Some might say she was ahead of time and others may say she was taken before her time. I would argue that both are fair assessments. Indira Gandhi survived heartache on multiple occasions. The losses of her mother Kamala, husband Feroze Gandhi (1912-1960), and son Sanjay Gandhi (1946-1980), were always with her as reminders of the unexpected twists and turns that come in life. She will forever be remembered as a trailblazing woman in world politics. And as India continues to examine itself to improve, Gandhi’s legacy is a reminder of what was and what is possible moving forward.

“The meaning of independence is not only to have one’s own government, but its true meaning is that we should be able to take decisions ourselves. These decisions may be wrong, but they should be our decisions, they should be the decisions of India” – Indira Gandhi

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B06W55L1ZV