Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present – Harriet A. Washington

20200907_235936It is not often that I need a moment to myself after finishing a book but alas, it has happened once again.  Prior to reading this breathtaking and riveting book by author Harriet A. Washington, I last found myself at a loss for words after finishing David E. Stannard’s  American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World.  As I explained in that posting, the book was so unsettling that I needed a drink and a moment of silence afterwards.  That process was repeated upon completion of this book which is bound to jolt anyone who decides to voyeur within.  The title alone is enough to catch a person’s attention but I believe it only tells part of the story that is to be found within the pages of this book. Quite frankly, the full story is far darker and disturbing.  However, it is history as it was in all of its ugliest and rawest form.  When viewed in that context, the requirement of facing it head on becomes readily apparent if we are truly intent on fixing the disparities in health care between people of different ethnic backgrounds. In fact, in the epilogue, the author makes it clear that although the book does not paint a flattering picture of history, it is still necessary for blacks to seek medical care and participate in the health care industry as their lives depend on it.

Washington opens the story with a discussion of Dr. James Marion Sims (1813-1883) whose attempts to treat the condition of vesicovaginal fistula set the theme for the story to follow. I warn readers that the first half of book will sound like something out of a horror film.  The issue of slavery does come up and is directly relevant to the story at hand. Furthermore, what the author reveals, should put an end to any discussion of one slave having a better life than the other.  The full barbarity of the system of slavery is on full display, supported by physicians who were supposed to preserve life.  Readers who are sensitive to this subject matter may want to use discretion when deciding whether or not to read this book.  Once you begin the story, it is ride that moves full speed ahead and the author pulls no punches.  Sims emerges quickly as a controversial figure whose legacy is summed up by Washington clearly when she states:

James Marion Sims is an important figure in the history of experimentation with African Americans because he so well embodies the dual face of American medicine to which racial health disparities owe so much.”

The doctor is only one of a long list of physicians remembered as pioneers. But as can be seen in the book, they also had a darker side which led to them committing even darker acts at the expense of blacks and others considered to be inferior or undesirable. Racial ideology cloaked under the banner of eugenics, resulted in some of the most atrocious events I have ever read about. Washington does not mince words and some of what she reveals might be hard to take even for the most stoic readers. Some of the darkest components of racism come back to life, showing American history without the glory. This truth is ugly and upsetting, and is bound to anger and appall. Today, such actions would be unthinkable and rightly subject to criminal prosecution but in the 1800s, this did not happen and the we can see in the book must how widespread the belief in black inferiority truly was, which allowed doctors to put into practice thoughts that are completely insane.

Any discussion of American medical experiments would be incomplete without commenting on the Tuskegee Experiment. The story is included here and Washington does an excellent job of summarizing what did happen and clearing up misconceptions that have festered for too many years. It is an honest and thorough discussion of a medical experiment that went terribly wrong and carefully hid the truth for those taking part as test subjects. It remains one of the darkest chapters in American history but it far from the only one. In fact, there were others and Washington takes us down memory lane so that we can see just how disturbing these events truly were. As I read through the book, I found myself aghast not only at the bizarre thoughts of physicians such as being able to negroes white, but at the unnecessary procedures that were carried out under the guise of black patients not feeling pain the way whites do. These parts of the book are a reminder of how primitive medicine was less than two hundred years ago. They are also a reminder of how far we still have to go in eliminating the disparities that exist in our health care system that have been fueled by bias for far too long.

Some readers may be triggered by this book for it pulls back the curtain on what we have been told was a storied medical history that placed America at the forefront of scientific advancement. In prior years, Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) was seen as a champton of reproductive responsibility as the founder of Planned Parenthood. Yet Sanger also had a dark side and her true goals were left out of official narratives. Washington takes another look at Sanger and readers will either be surprised or vindicated in their beliefs about her. What is adamantly clear is that the times in which she lived , certainly contributed to her views which today seems nothing short of draconian. She was part of a growing eugenics movement, perfected in Nazi Germany and nearly replicated many times over after World War II. Concentration camps were replaced by medical laboratories and covert plans enacted by intelligence agencies including American’s own Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Operation Big City is a name I was unfamiliar with but its purpose which has never been confirmed by the CIA, should make the hair stand up on the back of anyone’s neck. If it really did happen, then it speaks volumes about America’s darkest secrets. And for readers who cannot imagine the U.S. Government being involved in anything nefarious domestically, I do recommend that research Operation Northwoods, which was presented to President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a pretext for an invasion of Cuba.

To say that there is a wealth of information in this book would be a severe understatement. Readers should be prepared to have their minds blown. Just when you think that the story might be winding down it picks up even more of a pace as the revelations keep coming. And as they do, it should be perfectly clear why Black Americans are distrustful of the medical field and tend to received less medical care than their white counterparts. And that is really Washington’s goal. She is showing us how and why blacks came to view the medical field as harbingers of death and destruction. Civil rights and basic human decency were nowhere to be found as doctors were left to their own devices with free reign to wreak havoc on the bodies and minds of black people.

I want to reiterate that this book is not an easy read and there is no happy ending. Much of it is haunting and reveals a very dark side of human nature that some of us may be shocked to learn of. These are the events in history that were never included in history books. It is America’s history and a legacy of medicine gone horribly wrong. The endless number of victims is staggering and some are still alive today. This book is a testament to their struggles and the long road out of the darkness upon which we are still traveling. And may Washington’s work stand as compendium of a key component of the African-American experience in America.

“I challenge us to change, because as Charles Darwin once observed, “It is not the strongest species that will survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” – Harriet A. Washington

ISBN-10 : 076791547X
ISBN-13 : 978-0767915472

To Move the World: JFK’s Quest for Peace – Jeffrey D. Sachs

jfkPeace is a state of being that mankind constantly seeks to achieve even as tensions flare between nations making the threat of armed and nuclear conflict a very real possibility.  The detonation of the bombs over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, changed modern warfare permanently.  Man had entered the nuclear weapon era and the fear of complete annihilation reached even the most hardened leaders of the free world.  In the wake of World War II, the United States and Soviet Union took center stage in the battle for global supremacy.  The Cold War ushered in a new level of caution as Washington and Moscow became increasing distrustful of each other. 

In January, 1960, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1917-1963) was elected over Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) in one the slimmest election margins in United States history.  The young Irish-Catholic president had pulled off a stunning victory in a race that seemed destined to be decided in Nixon’s favor. Upon assuming office, Kennedy inherited the successes and failures of his predecessor, retired General Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969).  Moscow watched the election with keen interest and tested the new president in ways he could have never imagined. Under the command of Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971), the Soviet Union became determined to continue the spread of its communist ideology and confront American whenever and wherever necessary.  In October, 1962, tensions reached an all-time high when the world came to the brink of nuclear war. For thirteen days, the world watched with fear as the two superpowers threatened the planet with extinction.   Crisis was averted by back-channel communication between the two nations and the commitment of both Khrushchev and Kennedy to avoid total destruction.  The Cuban-Missile Crisis changed Kennedy’s view on U.S. foreign policy and he became determined to avoid a similar situation in the future.  And he had begun to visualize his quest for peace. Author Jeffrey Sachs takes a close look at Kennedy’s in this short yet remarkable account of a time in world history that will be studied for years to come.

Kennedy constantly walked a tight rope in dealing with foreign powers and satisfying domestic opponents as home. His determination not to be seen as a dovish president, had taken him down a path in which Cold War warriors exerted their influence with the final objective of refuting Soviet expansion by force if necessary. It should be noted that the book is not an examination of the Cold War but rather it places its focus on Kennedy himself and the decisions he made when faced with the threat of catastrophe. Of course, the author addresses the most important events during his short time in office which came to a tragic conclusion on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. The assassination itself is not discussed in detail for obvious reasons. The focus here remains throughout on Kennedy’s plan for peace which he put into action through a series of events that were quite bold for his time. And although he did not live to see many of his ideas come to pass, he did lay the groundwork for many things, most importantly the Civil Rights Act which would signed into law by his successor Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) on July 2, 1964. Kennedy was not only concerned about world peace but was highly aware of domestic issues at home that centered on the issue of race in America. In recalling Kennedy’s words, Sachs writes:

“The heart of the question, said Kennedy, was this: If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?” 

Peace became Kennedy’s dominant focus and his actions n the later half of his administration showed his commitment to seeing the world truly change. Whether through his appeals to the United Nations or the creation of the Alliance for Progress, Kennedy was putting his plan into action to see change materialize. But he also understood that peace does not happen overnight. In fact, Sachs explains Kennedy’s vision perfectly in this statement:

“Kennedy’s third precept was that peace is a process, a series of step-by-step confidence-building measures. He recognized that moves by one side lead to moves by the other. A situation of high distrust necessitated a series of confidence-building steps.” 

Had he lived, I believe that President Kennedy would have continued his plan of peace and that America would not have remained in Vietnam. He fully understood that the world was heading down a dangerous path and sought to reverse course before mankind destroyed itself. His assasination changed America and to this day, his murder haunts this nation as a reminder of what could have been. However, in just a few short years, he set into a motion a number of events. His commitment to true peace is sometimes overlooked or not fully understood. Here, Jeffrey Sachs explains it all perfectly so that readers can see what Kennedy wanted to accomplish and how he planned to do it. And as a bonus, the author includes text from Kennedy’s speech at American University on July 10, 1963 which is considered by many, including myself, to be his finest. And the fact that he was murdered only five months later, speaks volumes about how much of a threat the young president was to what Eisenhower called the military industrial complex.

I do admit that Kenney’s administration as not perfect and at the beginning of his tenure, he made a series of missteps that increased tensions between America and opponents abroad. But his removal of holdovers from previous administrations, finally allowed him to chart his true course. And by the time he was ready to speak at American University, he had become a seasoned leader who understood that not everyone can be pleased. There are times when being president means doing what is best even if it may be unpopular. And to fully drive home where Kennedy’s thoughts lay in the months before his death, we can turn to this snippet of his speech before that graduation class:

“What kind of a peace do we seek? Not a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war. Not the peace of the grave or the security of the slave. I am talking about genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, and the kind that enables men and nations to grow, and to hope, and build a better life for their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women, not merely peace in our time but peace in all time.” 

John F. Kennedy has been dead for more than fifty years but his legacy remains with us. There are many what if questions surrounding his death and what it meant to the United States. However, he left behind quite a bit of ideas and material for us to study, understand and learn from. One of the most important was his desire to move the world in his quest for peace.


Into The Blast – The True Story of D.B. Cooper – Skipp Porteous, Robert Blevins and Geoff Nelder (Editor)

PorteousOn November 24, 1971, Northwest Airlines Flight 305 departed from Portland International Airport with a destination of Seattle, Washington. Among the passengers was a middle man who gave the ticket agent the name “Dan Cooper”.  Minutes after takeoff he handed a note to a stewardess Flo Schaffner a note that he had a bomb in his briefcase.   To prove his point, he had the suspicious flight attendant sit down next to him and opened the case for her viewing.  Upon realizing that Cooper could in fact destroy the aircraft, authorities were alerted that a hijacking was taking place.  After refueling in Seattle, the plane took off again but with $200,000 aboard as per Cooper’s instructions. Once airborne, Cooper had flight attendant Tina Mucklow show him how to operate the aft stairwell on the Boeing 727.   Shortly after 8:00 p.m., the warning light went off in the cabin indicating that the aft stairwell had been deployed.  When the plane landed in Reno, Nevada, Cooper was nowhere to be found.  And to this day, his whereabouts are unknown. Or are they? And had D.B. Cooper been hiding in plain sight while the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) struggled to solve the case?  Authors Skipp Porteous and Robert Blevins decided to examine the D.B. Cooper mystery and what they found is sure to catch the eye of even the most ardent supporters of the theory that the hijacker died after jumping from the aircraft.

The premise of the book is set early: the authors feel that they have solid reasons to believe that D.B. Cooper was Northwest Airlines employee Kenneth Peter Christiansen (1926-1994). And while they stop short of saying conclusively that Christiansen was in fact Cooper, they provide a significant amount of information about Christiansen and the investigation itself that leaves us with even more questions about what really did happen to Dan Cooper. It should be noted that there are no conspiracy theories here, just old fashioned investigative work, filled with sleeping in cars, long miles on the road aided by coffee and the tenacity to keep moving forward several decades after the hijacking. The authors make every attempt to cross-reference what they learn as their investigation moves forward. It is an incredible story that is certainly not over.

A biography of Christiansen is included but contains only the most relevant facts about his life as they relate to the investigation. In particular, focus is placed on his employment with Northwest Airlines and just how unpredictable a steady salary was for a flight attendant in small airline in the 1970s. The precarious nature of his choice of occupation surely is not enough for confirmation of guilt. However, his background in the military and as a mechanic should have made him a person of interest at the least. Curiously, the FBI never interviewed any employees of the airline. And as can be seen in the book, at least one of the people interviewed had suspicions that Christiansen might have been involved.

The similarities between Cooper and Christiansen are striking and the authors sum up their belief with this simple yet direct statement:

“If Kenny Christiansen were alive today, he would have difficulty explaining to a jury where he got all the money to do the things he did in the months following the taking of Flight 305. Christiansen, I discovered, had one life before the hijacking and another one afterward.” 

In addition to Christiansen there are several people who enter the story that knew him personally. The FBI agent who was assigned to the case also gives his thoughts on the case but makes it clear that he is no longer involved. But of all of the figures in the book, none is as shadowy as Mike Watson (real name Bernie Geestman). And the information provided by his former wife Katy (real name Margie Geestman) reveal some very dark actions by Geestman whom the authors believe was Cooper’s accomplice. Added to the mix are the interviews of Dawn Androsko (Bernie Geestman’s sister) and Helen Jones. And what each has to say about Christiansen actually leads more credence to the authors’ theory. And while they always stop short of declaring for a fact that Christiansen is D.B. Cooper, the more they uncover, the more it seems that it most certainly was the case.

In January, 2011, the History Channel premiered Episode 6, Season 1 of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded which explored the Christiansen story. The episode is based largely on the book and can be found on YouTube here. It is a good episode and brings the crux of the book to light. The authors discuss the filming of the show and all that goes into a television production. We also see that the History Channel does not slack when it comes to fact finding. And while the show does not find concrete proof of the two men being one in the same, it is highly convincing and a great watch.

Undoubtedly there are many mysterious surrounding Dan Cooper that are lost to history. But the authors here make a compelling case against the man they believed pulled off on the history’s greatest capers that has earned a permanent place in American pop culture. This is the story of Dan Cooper, Kenneth Christiansen and an aircraft passenger’s jump into the blast.


Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own – Eddie S. Glaude, Jr.

s-l640Within the past several years I have found myself becoming more and more familiar with the life and legacy of James Baldwin (1924-1987).  And I have come to realize that while he is widely appreciated as an author, he is at the same time, underrated as a voice of reason with regards to the country he called home.  Curiously, Baldwin spent many years of his life in Europe, finding solace and residency in France and Turkey.  However, his life outside of the United States allowed him to view America from the eyes of a foreigner.  That position gave him a unique opportunity to view America through the lens of a microscope where all of its social ills were readily visible.  In his time he was seen as a trouble maker and rabble rouser due to his outspokenness and sadly because of his sexual orientation.  But to focus on his frank dialogue and homosexuality would be misjudgment of his true genius.  Baldwin possessed an uncanny ability to dissect American society and highlight where the nation was going wrong.  Today America is at a crossroads with a looming presidential election in a nation fiercely divided and deeply polarized.   Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. takes another look at James Baldwin, who comes back to life as a voice of reason during which are certainly difficult times.

While the book is about Baldwin, it is not a biography of his life. Readers who are in search of a thorough account of his from start to finish might enjoy David Leeming’s David Leeming: A Biography,  which is an excellent read and a fitting biography.  Glaude takes a different approach to Baldwin’s legacy and although the book is shorter than I would have like, contained within is a thought provoking discussion of race in America.  A possible knee-jerk reaction might be to write Baldwin off as a race baiter who always complained about America.  However, Baldwin always made it clear that he loved his home country.  In fact, one of his more famous quotes is:

I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually

To be fair, Baldwin never said at any time that he held any hatred towards America. And even when he died in December, 1987 while in France, the United States was still his home. Glaude’s goal here is take a look at Baldwin’s thoughts and apply them to the current day social and political climate in America. If we pay close attention, we can see clearly that Baldwin was ahead of his time and warned America repeatedly of what we are seeing today. While reading the book, a section regarding Malcolm X (1925-1965) jumped out at me and caused me to sit in deep thought. Malcolm who was a close friend of Baldwin and is buried at the same cemetery remarked: “Malcolm X, in town by happenstance, dropped in to hear Jimmy hold forth. “Whenever I hear that this little brother is going to speak in any town where I am,” he said, “I always make a point of going to listen, because I learn something”. As far as I know, there were very few people for whom Malcolm X would put off all prior engagements to see at a speaker’s podium. The quote shows the influence Baldwin had over even the most prominent of civil rights figures.

As Glaude tells the story, he also relates his own movements as he researched the book which included a visit to the Deep South and even the ruins of what was Baldwin’s home in France. He also went as far to visit Baldwin’s grave at Ferncliff cemetery. Quite frankly, he left no stone unturned in his quest to understand Baldwin’s evolution as writer and social activist. When he died, James Baldwin left behind many lessons for us to learn from. Glaude has taken these lessons and applied them to his focus on Donald J. Trump and the polarization of America. The truth that he reveals is what we all need to hear but I am afraid that both supporters of Trump and his opponents may overlook the author’s points as the battle between the left and right continues to intensify in all of its ugliness.

The author sets the tone with a simple premise: America is built on a lie. That idea is driven home in a short few words: “the willingness of so many of our fellows to toss aside any semblance of commitment to democracy—to embrace cruel and hateful policies—exposes the idea of America as an outright lie“. However, exactly what that lie is shows how long many of us have been living in denial either intentionally or unwittingly. The idea is certainly disheartening to think about but if we digest Glaude’s words, we can see that he not only makes an excellent point but also that there is truth to his words. Further, his goal is not the destruction or repudiation of America but an honest attempt to allow us as a nation to see how we have reached this point and can “begin again”. Baldwin called it a New Jerusalem. Personally, I do not have a name for it but would simply say that we are in a position to make true change in this country but only if we pay attention to our complicated and sometimes violent past.

One of the beautiful parts of the book is that while we revisit Baldwin’s words, we also revisit crucial times in American history viewed through the late author’s eyes. Undoubtedly, these events helped shaped the thoughts and literary works that Baldwin composed during his life. Even while in France, America was never far from his mind and he would return on occasion to see what was becoming of the country that was his home. He had taken part in and supported the Civil Rights Movement only to see so many friends die early deaths. The elections of Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) and Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) reaffirmed Baldwin’s view that America was turning its back on true change. And with November right around the corner, Americans now face a similar situation. The question is where do we go from here?

I admit that the book may cause some readers to feel ill at ease but that is exactly the point. Glaude does not want us to feel complacent. In fact, it is the opposite. The warning bells have been sounded and this book is an attempt to catch our attention so that we can see how history is once again attempting to repeat itself. Former President Barack Obama once said that what we see today did not start with Donald Trump. It certainly goes much deeper than that. The author lays much of it at the feet of Reagan, from whom Trump seems to have taken many of his tactics. Of course Reagan had more finesses and was less crass than Trump but equally effective at reaching his desired base of voters. And the “us versus them” mentality continues to erode at our social fabric. One of Glaude’s strongest statements is the following which we should all stop to consider:

In the end, Americans will have to decide whether or not this country will remain racist. To make that decision, we will have to avoid the trap of placing the burden of our national sins on the shoulders of Donald Trump. We need to look inward. Trump is us. Or better, Trump is you.”

I honestly believe that this book should be more widely read before this year’s election. Whether you are Republican, Democrat or even Independent, there are many lessons to be learned here. The goal here is not to shame anyone or “save white people” as Baldwin once said during the turbulent 1960s. Glaude believes as do I that it will take all of us to improve America and correct its ills. However, if we continue to deny its past then we can never correct course. Baldwin was keenly aware of this and for that reason he was constantly reminding America of where it was going wrong with the hope that it would take a new path towards his vision of a New Jerusalem. With his words we can be the change we wish to see in this country and understand how addressing our past can truly improve our future.


The Battle for God – Karen Armstrong


Though there are hundreds if not thousands of religions in the world, the primary focus here is on Christianity, Judaism and Islam, which are considered the world’s largest monotheisitc faiths. Although Hinduism is one of the world’s oldest religions, it is polytheistic and it is not organized in the exact same manner as the others. God, Yahweh and Allah take center stage in a book that it sure to provoke deep thought about how we view the concepts of the supernatural and life after death. I want to point out that at no time does the author degrade any of the religions discussed within. Her goal is not to slander but to show the inner struggles within each as opposing forces battle for the direction of their faith. It is imperative to keep this in mind to see the true value in what she has written.

During what are certainly usual times, many of us have turned to faith to cope with the dreadful news surrounding Covid-19. The virus has changed our lives in ways we could have never imagined and in these times, faith is one of the few things that some people have left. Whether it is Jesus, Allah, Yahweh or another God, belief in the higher power has proven to be a clutch as fears of the unknown settle in. Depending on where and to whom you were born, your faith may be Christianity, Islam, Judaism or one of hundreds of religions and denomination. Regardless of what you faith is, we can all agree that next to politics, religion is one of those topics that can bring people together in peace or drive them apart with anger and rage. And even within a culture, disputes about religion are bound to surface as fundamentalism and modernity clash head to head. Author Karen Armstrong has taken a closer look at the passionate struggle between fundamentalist and secular forces in what she appropriately calls the battle for God.

I do warn readers that the author moves between three religions as the book progresses and the changes may seem abrupt to some. But what is taking place is actually three discussions woven into one main account. Putting that aside, there is a wealth of information in the book and a rock solid presentation of how religion became a battleground between opposing points of view. And to entice us early on, Armstrong does give us a telling clue:

This statement sets the stage for what is to come and it is a roller coaster ride in which we see how widely practice religions have virtually taken two different tracks of development as society continues to evolve. To help us understand the divisions, Armstrong takes us back in time to when fundamentalism was normal and modernity was an unknown concentp. But as humanity moved forward and science became a larger influence in society, the fundamentalist began to feel that their way of belief was in imminent danger of extinction and those who considered themselves true believers were willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to protect their faith, even resorting to acts of violence. The emergence and proclamations by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) only increased the fundamentalists’ paranoia and as we see in the book, they believed that the writing was on the wall.

Readers may find themselves taking a significant amount of notes. As the story moves between the three faiths, it is easy to get sidetracked and I did find myselfpreferring to read the book when I had periods of near absolute silence. Names of historical figures are peppered throughout the story. Some are easily recognizable while others may be known for the first time to the reader. However, they all have a role to play as the West and Middle East become hotbeds for religious extremists. I will refrain from listing too many names here because the amount of figures who enter the story is quite large. But I will say that Armstrong presents deeply interesting discussions of how religion has developed in the United States, home to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant simply known as a WASP and in the Middle East where Shiite and Sunni Islam became the dominant forms of Islam. And her analysis of events leading up to the assassination of Anwar Sadat (1918-1981) and the Iranian Revolution are just right for anyone seeking a condensed explanation of how radical Islam has gained so much power. And as one would expect, the story of Iran includes an in-depth focus on Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini known to the west as Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-1989). However, I do feel that the most eye-opening part of the book is the discussion of Zionism versus Orthodox Judaism in Israel. I personally found myself glued to this section as I learned more about Zionism and how Israel is actually two belief systems in a nation that also grapples with continuing tensions with its Palestinian neighbors. There is certainly more than meets the eye. In fact, some readers may be surprised to see what Armstrong says about the early relationship between Jews and Muslims.

One of the most popular concepts of American democracy is the separation between church and state. Armstrong touches on this as the religious right that has become a significant force in American culture. it is fascinating and older readers will recall the nearly earth shattering revelations of Tamm Faye and Jim Bakker. And who can forget the video of Jimmy Swaggart crying on national television? Their escapades and the constant battle between Christian fundamentalism and secular society continues to this day as televangelists grace the airwaves reminding us of our need to repent. What Joel Osteen and Crefo Dollar are able to do, follows but also exceeds the prominence of televangelist Oral Roberts (1918-2009). And as technology continues to improve, the battle between opposing forces within Christianity will continue to do battle for the God they believe in.

After finishing the book, I took a moment of silence to sit and digest all that I had read. And while I do know there is far more to the story than could have been included here, the book is simply amazing. I do feel that everyone can find value in it regardless of who God they believe in. Armstrong never attempts to sway anyone from belief. But the value she does provide is that she takes a neutral view at the inner struggle from an analytical standpoint as any good author would. Those who are religious will need to be able to read it with an open mind for it is not so much a challenge to faith but an examination of it. And that examination is needed as fundamentalism shows no sign of going away. But we could ask, should fundamentalism have no place at all in society? A knee-jerk reaction would say no but upon closer inspection, through Armstrong’s words, we see that those in power did not seek to abolish fundamentalism but rather find a way to placate all as reasonably possible. But what we also see is that fundamentalism eventually took a dark and even deadly turn inspite of concessions as adherence to the scripture took priority over liberal freedoms.



The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream – Patrick Radden Keefe

RaddenIn the early morning hours of June 6, 1993, a shipping vessel named the Golden Venture ran aground at Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York.  National Park Service officers began to inspect the incident and noticed human figures jumping over the sides of the boat and scurrying out of the light.  It soon became clear that the ship was carrying human cargo, more specifically, Chinese men and women being smuggled into the United States. The next day, my parents, brother and I watched the news broadcasts in shock.  But what none of us realized was that the smuggling of human beings into the country had been taking place right under our noses. However, my father who was undoubtedly the most street savvy out of the group remarked that people have been smuggled into the United States for years.  But looking back, I do not believe that even he knew the scope of the operation.  Patrick Radden Keefe, the author of the phenomenal Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Irelandjourneyed into the Chinese underworld and explored the complicated network of international human smuggling. And what he found is a story that will surely be remembered for years to come.

Readers may be surprised to hear that the Golden Venture incident is only part of the full  story. It is however, the culmination of a series of critical events that take place over the course of the book.  The story begins in Chinatown where a Chinese immigrant from the Shengmei in Fujian Province named Cheng Chui Ping (1949-2014) and her husband Cheung Yick Tak operate a variety story and other small business ventures.  On the street she was known as Big Sister Ping, the woman to whom all went if they also hailed from  Fujian.  As a native New Yorker, I admit that I did have some embarrassment at my lack of knowledge of the importance of Fujian and Chinese immigration to the United States.  Reefe provides some very interesting information and I was surprised to learn that even Chinatown was split and may be split today, between different demographics within the Chinese community itself. Further, he provides a very thorough discussion on the history of Chinese immigration in America, and makes sure to include the good, the bad and the even the regrettable.  Readers who are interested in learning more about the Asian American experience will highly appreciate Roger Daniels’ Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850, which is invaluable in understanding Chinese and Japanese immigration to America.

As the book progresses, Sister Ping emerges as a titan in the New York Chinese-American community, providing an invaluable link between new immigrants to America and their native homeland. The money comes pouring and smuggling proves to be a highly lucrative business, with uninterested authorities oblivious to a vast network operating freely across several continents.  With the arrival of Fujianese immigrants also came the darker underworld controlled by the tongs, the gangs that preyed on Chinese businesses and in some cases, turned Lower Manhattan into a shooting gallery.   The central Fuk Ching tong figure is Guo Liang Qi who is known simply as Ah Kay. This simple and unassuming immigrant becomes one of the most important figures in the book and permanently intertwined in the story of Big Sister Ping.

The discovery of the Golden Venture left many Americans scratching their heads.  But surprisingly, not everyone was in shock. In fact, Reefe shows that Washington knew far more about Chinese smuggling than it led the American people to believe.  And in New York City, officials with the Immigration and Naturalization Service were well acquainted with Sister Ping, who surprisingly, had been previously apprehended near Buffalo, New York.  The authorities and Ping engage in a cat and mouse game in which the smugglers know the authorities are watching but unable to make any significant headway.  But all of that changes after the “Beeper Store” murders which placed Ah Kay high on the list of most wanted fugitives.  The grisly fallout from the murders at the store and the inhumane deaths occurring at the hands of smugglers started to awaken the sleeping giant and soon, people in high places within the U.S. Government began to take notice of the growing Chinese underground smuggling ring. And by the time of Ping’s demise, even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had its hand in the jar.  But incredibly, official policy in Washington seemed to facilitate the very thing that many sought to eliminate.  Actions by the administration of George H. W. Bush (1924-2018) are examined in detail and will leave some readers shaking their heads at what could be described as an incredible lack of foresight.

One part of the story that stands out is the sort or revolving door aspect to the early arrests that take place of Sister Ping, Yick Tak and others.  Few stay in custody for long and eventually make their way back to Chinatown.  The author leaves it up to the readers to decide how they were able to manage such feats but I believe that those closely following the story will quickly put two and two together. Some secrets of Ping’s first arrest and that of her husband are carefully hidden from public light. However, they are only a small part of a story that becomes far more disturbing as the focus moves from New York to the South China Sea and Southeast Asia where Ping is continuing to operate after exiting stage left from New York.  The events that take place in the South China Sea are crucial to the journey of the Golden Venture, originally known as the Tong Sern.  At this point in the book, it becomes clear how the Golden Venture’s final journey began to take shape and the doom that awaited the men and women on board.

After running aground, the passengers aboard the Golden Venture were in for yet another journey, this one through the United States immigration system.  At this point in the book, the story takes yet another turn as Washington finds itself in a tough predicament.  I had always wondered what happened to the people on the Golden Venture and could not recall what became of them.  While I did remember that they were detained as illegal aliens, I was not aware of their ordeal after surviving the journey across the seas.  I am sure that readers may be divided on the Government’s response in this situation.  Some may argue that there was no perfect way to deal with the survivors while others may feel they should have been deported immediately.  What is clear is that they became a political football that landed into the lap of President William Jefferson Clinton.   Ultimately, Clinton makes a final decision that one would assume solved the plight of the passengers.  However, that is not the case and Reefe follows their journeys across America in the country that would become a new home for some of them.   A few of the stories are uplifting and others not so much.  But each highlights the lengths to which people will go for a new life in America. And Reefe does an excellent job of driving home that point.

Sister Ping figures prominently throughout the book and her final capture is straight out of the playbook of Interpol.  However, how she was eventually captured does provoke deep thought and produces even deeper questions.   Mysteriously, records pertaining to the case of her husband Yick Tak, who was arrested shortly before Ping for the second time, remained sealed.  However, her subsequent trial and conviction are explained by the author and even includes snippets of Ping’s bizarre rants in the courtroom.   The fall of big sister was fast and furious but she was only one in a large network of smugglers who see big money to be made by helping those in achieving their dreams of moving to the United States.  To the very last moment, Ping remained defiant and some statements she makes will cause readers to wonder if one person can be that out of touch with reality.   On August 24, 2014, Ping died at the Federal Medical Center Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. She was sixty-five years old and left behind a legacy that remains intact to those who have come from Fujian and made a new home in America.  But to authorities, her arrest and downfall was a sweet victory following years of investigative work and tragic discoveries of other failed ventures destined for the shores of America.  She may be gone but to a large number of immigrants she will always be known as Big Sister Ping.  And this is the story of the Snakehead, the underground network that opened the eyes of many to the paths taken by those who risk life and death to live the American dream.


Killer Clown: The John Wayne Gacy Murders – Terry Sullivan and Peter T. Maiken

SullivanOn December 11, 1978, Robert Jerome Piest (1963-1978) was finishing up his shift at Nisson Pharmacy when an older man approached him with the offer of a job in his contracting company. Piest told his mother Elizabeth that he would only be a few minutes. That was last time anyone saw Robert Piest alive.  Police would soon learn that the older gentlemen observed conversing with Piest was a local named John Wayne Gacy (1942-1994), a well-respected but peculiar figure who owned a company named PDM Contractors. Gacy initially denied any knowledge of Piest or his whereabouts that night but detectives felt that he was certainly hiding something.  Although he was only a person of interest at that time, none of the detectives could have known then that in only two years, the worst serial killer in American history would be convicted of multiple counts of murder.  Terry Sullivan was Supervisor of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Third District office and here he teamed up with Peter Maiken (1934-2006) to bring us the inside story of the effort to bring John Wayne Gacy to justice.

I believe that it goes without saying but I will say here that readers should use discretion when deciding whether to read this book. The subject is sensitive and anyone who knows even slightest bit of information regarding John Wayne Gacy, knows that the story does not have a happy ending.  In fact, it is dark, disturbing and one of the most extreme true crime stories that you will ever read.  But that is also what makes it so appealing.  However, if you are not able to read descriptions of violent acts that result in death and post-mortem examinations, then you may want to give this book a pass.  But if you prefer true crime and have questions about Gacy’s story, then you have essentially hit pay dirt.  The book is a good as it gets and from start to finish, and is a roller coaster ride that will leave readers speechless.

Similar to most serial killers, Gacy was described as successful, charming and sociable.  His charm is on full display as he engages with a cat and mouse game with the police officers assigned to tail him as a person of interest.  Undoubtedly, much of what she says and does if overly flattering but the seductiveness of his charm when turned on is apparent and gives the book an even darker chill as the descriptions of his crimes come to light.  In an almost Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde routine, John would be friendly, overly helpful and a town role model but the darker John, cruised the streets at night, turning his city into his hunting grounds in which young men were fair game.  And between 1972 and 1978, he engaged in a reign of terror that took the lives of at thirty young men.

The book certainly reads like a true crime story and Sullivan moves us along in chronological order.  But it is interesting to see how the officers on the case and the district attorney’s office worked together to develop their file on Gacy, whom they all suspected of being in involved with the disappearance of Robert Piest.  However, as we see in the book, authorities had no idea at that time, that Gacy was hiding far darker deeds.  As their file grew, detectives began to learn more about Gacy and his criminal past which included a sodomy conviction and prison time at Anamosa State Penitentiary. Detectives began to take note of odd things at Gacy’s house, most importantly personal  items that did not belong to him and a rancid odor emanating from the kitchen and bathroom area.  After obtaining a second search warrant to search Gacy’s house,  detectives and forensic personnel made a grisly discovery that changed American history.  Coincidentally, Gacy had paid a visit to his attorneys’ office and what he would tell them left both men shaking.  The walls were closing in on Gacy and after he was in custody, the true nature of the horror detectives had uncovered became strikingly real.

It was clear to all involved that Gacy had in fact murdered a staggering amount of people, but detectives were also faced with the task of identifying the remains found and finally solving disappearances that had authorities baffled.   And although the crimes are horrific, what is really spine chilling is the casual manner in which Gacy discusses his actions.  He recalls each crime as if it was part of his regular routine and no big deal.  This alone should remove all doubt as to just how cold and calculating Gacy truly was. At some parts of the book, I found myself staring in disbelief at what I was reading.  While I knew of Gacy’s actions, there is a wealth of information that might be new information for some readers.   The story is simply mind-blowing and far better than any documentary I have seen.

After Gacy was firmly in custody, prosecutors then had to come up with a strategy to secure a conviction in a court of law.  Their case was built around Robert Piest but Gacy faced multiple charges of homicide.  And while no one doubted that he had killed, including his own lawyers, the defense’s case rested upon the insanity defense.  This is the crux of the legal action and Sullivan shows the opposing points of view between the prosecution’s experts and the defense’s experts.  As someone who works in the legal field, I am keenly aware of the important of expert witness testimony and how it can make or break a case.  And reading their testimony here, sometimes made the hair on my neck stand up not because of any graphic descriptions but because their words would decide whether Gacy would go to a mental hospital and possibly be released or whether he would meet his maker on death row.  Today we have the hindsight of 20/20 vision and know Gacy’s fate.  But at that time, there was a good possibility that an insanity defense just might work and Sullivan expresses his concern as he discusses the expert testimony.  It is a good analysis of trial procedure in what was unquestionably a high profile case.

Sullivan and his squad of prosecutors eventually prevailed and the final moments in their crusade for justice are captured in the book and show just how much effort went into preparing the case against Gacy.  And for prosecutors, securing a sentence of death was the “icing on the cake”.  On May 10, 1994, John Gacy was executed at the Stateville Correctional Center, near Joliet, Illinois.  But surprisingly, the story was not yet over.  In fact, Sullivan provides a discussion on DNA evidence examined in 2011 that brought even more closure to the families of Gacy’s victims.  Perhaps we may never know the full number of victims and their locations. Gacy took many secrets with him to the grave but he was wrong about one thing, clowns do not always get away with murder.


The Emperor: Downfall of an Autocrat – Ryszard Kapuscinski

HaileOn August 27, 1975, news reports began to emerge that Tafari Makonnen, known to the world as Haile Selassie I (1892-1975), had died at the Jubliee Palace in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.  The man who ruled Ethiopia for forty-four years and who had served as the icon of the Rastafarian movement was eighty-three years old. Selaisse had lived his final years in exile after being deposed in a coup that took place in September, 1974.   The world-renown leader was a larger than life figure although he only stood 5’2″.  He was recognized on the world stage and helped Ethiopia modernize itself as the wave of independence swept over the African continent in the 1960s.  However, his reign was not free of controversy and Selassie was viewed by some as a greedy tyrant who used his position of power to enrich himself and those closest to him.   Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007) was a Polish journalist who traveled to Ethiopia and interviewed former members of Selassie’s administration. This book is a collection of what they remember from their time in office with regards to the emperor’s daily routine, his achievements and also his downfall.

The book is quite short but it does pack a powerful punch.  Observations by those who were closest to him paint an interesting picture of the diminutive giant.  But his size provided no indication of his shrewdness and ability to orchestrate an entire government.  Selassie controlled the entire country and this quote by a former subordinate drives home the point:

“not only did the Emperor decide on all promotions, but he also communicated each one personally. He alone. He filled the posts at the summit of the hierarchy, and also its lower and middle levels. He appointed the postmasters, headmasters of schools, police constables, all the most ordinary office employees, estate managers, brewery directors, managers of hospitals and hotels—and, let me say it again, he chose them personally.”

Quite frankly, at this time in history, Haile Selassie was Ethiopia.  And like the man behind the curtain the Wizard of Oz, there is much to his personal side that reveals how unconventional and unpredictable he truly was.  I caution readers that the book is not an autobiography.  The author does provide background information when needed but overall, the story focuses on the interviews he conducted with Selassie’s former confederates.

By far, nearly all who are interviewed hold Selassie in high regard and none really have a harsh word to say about him.  I found myself wondering if Selassie was a messiah that truly did perform wonders without fail or if it was a case of blind allegiance. They are quick to point the positive changes in Ethiopian society but the narrative changes with the premier of Jonathan Dimbleby’s Ethiopia: The Unknown Famine on British television. I decided to take a look at it myself and was aghast at what I saw.  The footage is raw and shocking, and I warn potential viewers that it will also be upsetting.  What is seen in the video stands in stark contrast to the image of Selassie that we have come to know over time. But voices within Ethiopia at the time were also sounding the alarm about the famine and they came from an ironic source.

One speakers whose name remains unknown like the others, discusses his son who has studied abroad like many other Ethiopian students who traveled abroad as representatives of their country.  These same students who had been sent to foreign countries to become better educated would later play a decisive role in the future of Ethiopia and in Selassie’s reign as ruler.  His son has returned to Ethiopia and what he sees, has led him down the path of no return. He tells his father:

“Father,” says Hailu, “this is the beginning of the end for all of you. We cannot live like this any longer. This death up north and the lies of the court have covered us with shame. The country is drowning in corruption, people are dying of hunger, ignorance, and barbarity everywhere. We feel ashamed of this country. And yet we have no other country, we have to dig it out of the mud ourselves. Your Palace has compromised us before the world, and such a Palace can no longer exist. We know that there is unrest in the army and unrest in the city, and now we cannot back down.”

Selassie did not yet know it, but this was the beginning of the end. He had survived one coup previously, but this non-violent coup would seal his fate.  Its development and execution are discussed by speaker, one of whom in particular is quite frank about how the contrasting images of two separate Ethiopias was allowed ot exist for so long.  No stone is left unturned and in the end, Selassie’s image and legacy would receive staggering blows as the world learn of Ethiopia’s horrible secrets.  However, in spite of what was seen and revealed, Selassie has retained his place in world history as the champion of Ethiopia who stood up to Italy and inspired hope within the people.  However, his administration also neglected basic facets of a health and progressive society, leading to widespread poverty, famine and senseless deaths.   In the end, they would contribute to the downfall of an autocrat.


The Only Living Witness – Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth

20200726_120134On January 24, 1989, the executioner on Florida State Prison’s stepped forward to exercise his duty in carrying out orders of the state.  But this was no ordinary execution. In fact, it was one that no one would ever forget. At 7:16 a.m., Dr. Frank Kilgo declared the prisoner deceased and his announcement provided the conclusion to the final chapter in the life of American serial killer Theodore Robert “Ted” Bundy (1946-1989).  During his incarceration, Stephen G. Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth conducted a series of interviews with Bundy in an attempt to understand thoughts and motives, and to clear up mysteries surrounding his crimes. The result is this intimate look at Bundy through the eyes of the authors who came face to face with a killer who is firmly entrenched in the annals of American criminal history.

It should be noted that the book is not a biography of Bundy.  And although the authors do discuss Bundy’s early life first in Vermont and then later in Tacoma, Washington, the story focuses mainly on his crimes and movements between the 1974 of teenager Lynda Healy and his arrest in Pensacola, Florida on February 15, 1978.  I believe that it goes without saying that the book is not for everyone. Those sensitive to descriptions of violence and the subject matter presented should use discretion.  To be expected, the authors provide details of each crime but at no point is the story reduced to a gore fest. In fact, the graphic details serve mainly as a supplement to the main story and are used when needed to emphasize the true scale of Bundy’s horrific actions.  The purpose of the authors here was not simply to tell what Bundy did but to really explore the man behind the atrocities.  Society has always been fascinated in learning the driving factors behind serial killers.  Bundy is firmly at the top of list and in the future, I am sure that his life will be revisited by law enforcement, forensic psychologists and those who simply have a strong interest in true crime.

The book was originally published in 1983 and updated in 2012.  This explains the Kindle version having comments about his execution which did not occur until 1989, six years after the first version was published. Putting that aside, the story is essentially the same and true crime lovers will be hooked instantly once the book starts.  Michaud begins the by giving a recap of how he and Aynesworth became acquainted with Bundy and the similarities between the lives of Bundy and himself.  The dark part of the story begins with the disappearance of Lynda Healy on January 31, 1974.  Over the next few months, several more women disappeared without a trace and police were left scrambling to understand what happened and why.  The northwestern part of America did not yet know it, but it was the starting place for the cross-country murder spree by the man witnesses said was called “Ted” and who drove a Volkswagen Beetle.

To say that Bundy was a loose cannon is a severe understatement. However, like most serial killers, he was extremely charming and even those closest to him could not imagine him being the monster authorities said he was.  In fact, this quote by former associate Larry Diamond, sums up how most of the people who knew Bundy felt about him:

One who remembered Ted cutting a handsome figure that summer is Larry Diamond. “Frankly,” Diamond told me, “he represented what it was that all young males anywhere ever wanted to be. He held that image. I wanted that image, and because of that I was jealous of him. I think half the people in the office were jealous of him. The males — and all of the women — were taken by him, down to the crease in his trousers. If there was any flaw in him it was that he was almost too perfect.”

This description reaffirms that serial killers cannot be identified simply by sight.  They often blend in with society are extremely charming and well-liked.  But under the surface lies a raging monster that preys on the innocent and finds satisfaction through acts of violence and murder.  Bundy fit the profile of the All-American male and very well could have been elected to a high position of power anywhere in the United States.  And that is part of what makes this story so chilling.  In spite of what has been said about him, his IQ was fairly average but he did possess sharp intellect and the gift of persuasion which is on full display in the relationships with several girlfriends and in particular Carole Boone who married Bundy while he was on death row. The detachment Bundy displays from the crimes he committed in his discussions with Michaud and Aynesworth is both chilling and revealing.  His ability to compartmentalize and then rationalize what could be describe as normal human acts as opposed to the dark rages within, highlight the mental dysfunction within his mind.  And his insistence on discussing the crimes in the third person adds another layer of bizarre behavior to the long list of his quirks.

In August, 1975, Bundy’s luck began to run out when he was arrested in Utah.  Soon, it was learned that the mysterious figure from out of state had tried to kidnap Carol DaRonch, the only living witness to Bundy’s insanity.  However, before facing justice in Utah, a series of events in Colorado took place that convinced authorities that the prosecution of Ted Bundy was priority number one.  The section about Colorado will have some readers staring in disbelief. Today, the thought of Bundy pulling the escapades that he did seems unthinkable, but in the 1970s, America was a very different place and the man called Ted was still largely unknown in the days before social media and the internet.  From Colorado, he stopped in Chicago before heading to Florida where he would reach the end of the road.

On January 15, 1978, several women were attacked at Florida State University’s Chi Omega Sorority house. Two were killed and the survivors were left with devastating mental and physical injuries.  The description of the attacks relayed here is nothing short of barbaric.  The events of that night became known as the Chi Omega Murders and in time, the world would learn that Ted was nothing short of a nightmare.  But before he was finished, Tallahassee, Florida would also suffer the Ted Bundy experience and the case of Kimberly Leach should leave readers with no doubt that Bundy needed to be taken off the streets.  After his arrest in Pensacola, authorities had no idea who they were dealing with.  Bundy had refused to reveal his name, undoubtedly due to the charges in several states.  But he finally caves and as authorities in others states learn that America’s most wanted killer is in custody, the walls began to close in on Bundy.  But ironically, it is at this part of the book that the story becomes even more bizarre with turns and twists that are simply surreal.  Between arguing with his own lawyers, acting pro se and making unsolicited outburst during proceedings, it seemed as if he did not truly understand the gravity of his situation.  And even at various points in the book, he makes several decisions that even the most common criminal would know not to make. And considering that he was a law student, it is even more bewildering that he commits the blunders that he does. But I believe that they show just how unhinged and detached from reality Bundy truly was.

There is a good discussion of the trial in Florida but it is quite condensed. I think it was a good decision by editors as it would have resulted in the book draggin out for too long.  The authors do provide just enough for readers to get an idea of what was taking place between as Bundy’s defense began to crumble.  Readers who are interested in the trial and in Bundy’s own words may find the Netflix docuseries Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, highly enjoyable.  Although it is not the end all source for information on Bundy, there is a wealth of information on Bundy’s thoughts and crimes.  However, this account by Michaud and Aynesworth is  a good starting point for understand the life and crimes of Ted Bundy.

ISBN-10: 0451127528
ISBN-13: 978-0451127525

On Desperate Ground: The Marines at The Reservoir, the Korean War’s Greatest Battle – Hampton Sides

slidesOn June 8, 2020, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korean Government) cut all lines of communications with the Republic of Korea (South Korean Government). Eight days later, an explosion destroyed the joint liaison building which had been used to host meetings between the two governments. The bombing was instantly seen as an act of aggression by North Korea and prompted a sharp response from its South Korean counterpart. Fears of an armed conflict gripped neighborhood countries as tensions continued to rise. Many eyes in both China and the United States were watching for the events very well could have led to the re-ignition of the Korean War (1950-1953), a conflict that never officially ended. I am constantly amazed at the expressions of surprise people display upon learning this fact. It seems surreal but the fact is that the Korean is still an “open” conflict that is only contained by the 39th Parallel and the watchful eyes of several foreign countries over North and South Korea. The war itself is often reserved for military buffs and overshadowed by both World War II and the Vietnam War. However, the reality is that the conflict in Korea nearly evolved in World War III. Author Hampton Sides is here to tell us about the role of the United States Marines and their experience in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.

When the North Korean army under the command of Kim Il-Sung (1912-1994) invaded South Korea on June 25, 1950, the United States came to the aid of its ally and engaged the North Korean army in fierce combat. As the conflict intensified, President Harry S. Truman (1884-1982) turned to the legendary Gen. Douglas McArthur (1880-1964) to assess the situation in Korea. Assured that the North Koreans could not win and would beaten back shortly, Truman breathed a sigh of relief. McArthur in turn, looked to the military to handle the growing need for combat troops. And the time had come for the United States Marine Corps to show what it was made of.  Under the direction of Gen. Oliver Prince Smith (1893-1977), the First Marine Division was dispatched to aid South Korea and push the North Koreans back to Pyongyang. The landing by the First Marine Division and steady advance of infantry soldiers had nearly everyone convinced that Korea would be a short campaign that would barely last several months. But America soon learned that there was more to meet the eye and the People’s Republic of China under Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976) would leave its mark on Korean soil and the minds of the Marines who survived hell on earth.

Several individuals in the Marines’ chain of command were confident that the Marines would face little resistance as they marched across Korea. General Edward Mallory “Ned” Almond (1892-1979) as among them and pressed his subordinate Gen. Smith to advance and continue pushing the North Koreans back all the way to their capital city.  Almond makes several appearances in the story and on occasion proves to be nearly as dangerous as the Koreans the Marines were fighting.  The mission starts off well until the Marines make a shocking discovery and learn that the Chinese military has come to the aid of the North Koreans.   The realization that China had now entered the conflict sent shockwaves through Washington. It was seen as the biggest intelligence failure in recent memory. But was it really a failure? Hampton Sides explores the issue and what he explains just might cause some readers to shake their heads in disbelief.

The conflict that had started out as a fast moving campaign had now turned into a diplomatic and military nightmare on both sides. Marines found themselves embroiled in fierce combat and began to realize that their mission was by no means “simple”. The tide had now turned and Korea became a hotbed of savage combat. The battles scenes come back to life in the book and we are provided with a ring-side seat as the Marines are forced to fight opposing troops and a winter climate that nearly renders them completely immobile. The words of the veterans who lived through the war are included here and it can easily be seen that many years later, they are still the proud Marines they were in the early 1950s.

General Smith knew that the conflict would rage longer than Washington wanted and decided that the base of operations would be located in Hagaru, the only space in the Reservoir that could accommodate an airstrip which would desperately needed to bring in supplies, troops and evacuate casualties. The Marines had been given their orders to push forward into the Chosin Reservoir and destroy the enemy.  And in the process, hundreds of young Marines were sent to a place of no return.  Waiting in the distance for them was Mao’s Red Army whose only goal was to kill Americans.  The Marines’ entry into the depths of the Reservoir and actions of Mao’s army are the focus for the second half of the book in which we see the Marines faced with tough decisions with very little time as wave upon wave of Chinese soldiers advanced on American posts. The fighting is savage and some of the soldiers we meet do not ride off into the sunset. Their ordeal is a sobering reminder that war is hell, Marines fight and they also die. However, the threat of death does not stand in their way and they come to life when needed in a nightmare that must seemed like a welcoming party for entry into Valhalla.

Commanders at X Corps soon realize that the Reservoir is a natural trap and the Chinese have severed key arteries that facilitate the movement of troops and supplies. The Marines are literally surrounded and must get out of the Reservoir. But the task is easier said than done and time is of the essence. The final part of the book is devoted to the controlled and strategic withdrawal by the Marines back to South Korea. And this is by far, the most uplifting part of the story as the battle-hardened troops rotate back to South Korea in route to the United States. But none of them would ever forget the Reservoir and how it became a death trap for the Marines taking on the communist threat from North Korea and China.

There are those who feel that the Reservoir was nothing short of a debacle. While it is true that the Marines suffered heavy losses, Mao’s Red Army fared just as bad if not worse. The battle is important not because of a win or loss but the psychological effect it had on the troops that served and in popular opinion. The full story can be found inside in this book which will surely delight students of history that have always wanted to learn more about an often forgotten war in America’s past. Highly recommended.