Three Days in Moscow: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of the Soviet Empire – Bret Baier

BaierReaders old enough to remember the Soviet Union will recall the shock and disbelief that came with the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) flag being lowered for the last time on December 25, 1991. The “Cold War” had come to an end, but a long road lay ahead between the United States and Russia in coming to terms with each other’s way of life. On May 29, 1988, United States President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) and First Lady Nancy Reagan (1921-2016) arrived in Moscow for a three-day summit with  Soviet General  Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa (1932-1999). It has been held as a triumph in American foreign policy and as an example of strong leadership. In less than three years, the Soviet Union dissolved, and Reagan was vindicated in his predictions of its demise. During the summit, Reagan spoke to the people of the Soviet Union at Moscow University and to this day it stands as a breathtaking moment in world history. But as always, there is more than meets the eye. Fox News host Bret Baier revisits the summit in this book about three days that impacted world history.

Before I continue, I do have to acknowledge that the book may be viewed with skepticism depending on the reader’s political beliefs. Further, it is no secret that Reagan has long been the icon for conservatives. Ironically, he was once a liberal Democrat and as Baier explains, Regan’s parents had no tolerance for ignorance or bigotry. Exactly how Reagan became a conservative is not the point of the book and a full biography of him will better suit readers searching for that information. Baier does provide a short biography of Reagan tracing his roots in Tampico, Illinois, and the path he took to become Governor of California and the Republican candidate who unseated President James “Jimmy” Carter. The story picks up in pace once Reagan is sworn into office and moves into the White House. The chill in the air between the Carters and Reagans is evident in the book but a small part of the bigger picture. To anyone paying close attention, it was evident that all was not well within the Soviet Union. In fact, Baier correctly points out that:

“By the time of the Moscow summit, that fact was evident to everyone, including the Soviets themselves. Yes, they remained a world power. Yes, their arsenal of weapons was still great. But beneath the surface, the economy was in free fall, its citizenry was restless; the architect of perestroika was breaking down the remaining barriers. Reagan’s prediction was coming true, as he, if not others, had always known it would.” 

Reagan did believe that the Soviet Union would fall but it should be noted that problems within the U.S.S.R. had been mounting for years, even before Reagan took office. Further, the fall of the Soviet empire is far more extensive and complicated than presented on the surface here. I vividly recall Reagan’s statement telling Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”. The Berlin Wall did fall, and it was a significant turning point in both German and world history. But even that goodwill gesture caused in part by weakening Soviet influence was not enough to stave off the inevitable. Gorbachev knew that trouble was brewing but also faced opposition within his own ranks. However, he had developed a strong relationship with Reagan and that is the crux of the book.

The visit by the Reagans had a profound effect on the Soviet Union and it was an extraordinary act by a U.S. President. Baier takes us deep behind the scenes as the two leaders seek to come to an understanding of key issues. As I read the book, I could see their relationship developing slowly but surely. It is a prime example of how people from diverse backgrounds can find common ground. That is not to say that all went well. In fact, in the book, we see more than one situation where the two leaders remain on opposite ends of a rope with each refusing to give ground. And the first ladies did not have a warm or jovial relationship themselves. Reagan and Gorbachev were leaders of the two most powerful governments on earth and needless to say the stakes were high. Before the book’s conclusion, Reagan leaves office and is succeeded by George H.W. Bush (1924-2018) who developed his own relationship and different relationship with Gorbachev. When Reagan leaves the White House for the last time, the sadness in Washington and in Moscow can be felt through the author’s words. Reagan emerges as a leader that is hard not to like. Of course, the Soviet story was far from over and Gorbachev had to defend himself from party members determined to see his downfall. Baier discusses how close the Soviet General Secretary came to being removed from office and the roles of Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007) and a young intelligence officer named Vladimir Putin who currently has the world watching his every move.

Undoubtedly, Reagan comes across beautifully in the book and I did notice that the darker moments of his president are discussed briefly. The Iran Contra scandal and Sandinista affair in Nicaragua are mentioned but Baier touches only the surface of those matters. The seriousness of each is not felt in the story at hand but I do implore readers to further research those topics to get a full understanding of Reagan’s presidency. To be fair, no administration is perfect, but the people of Central America will surely give you an interesting opinion of the Reagan era. His policies had a profound impact on Latin America that continues to be felt to this day. In the United States, the legacy of the jovial actor turned politician is permanently embedded in the Republican party’s core and he remains an icon of conservative values. If her were alive today, I am not sure if he would recognize what the GOP has become and I believe he would be both shocked and dismayed at world events. The world is a far different place today but the importance of this time in world history captured by Baier cannot be understated. In three days, Ronald Reagan accomplished what decades of U.S. foreign policy failed to do, he captured the attention and minds of the Soviet people. Readers with a thirst for historical information on U.S. and Russian relations will appreciate this book.

ASIN: B072LL4ZN2

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

Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis: The First Battle in America’s War with Militant Islam – Mark Bowden

AyatollaOn November 4, 1979, university students seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran and detained more than fifty U.S. Government employees. Though some were later released, the majority remained behind for four hundred forty-four days in what is known as the Iran Hostage Crisis. In 1953, Mohammad Mosaddegh (1882-1967) and the National Front Party gained political power in opposition to Mohammad Reza Shah (1919-1980). A twice elected member of Parliament, Mossadegh emerged as a popular figure but within days of the Shah’s exile in August of that year, Mossadegh was removed in a coup sponsored by the British Government and the United States. Mossadegh’s removal and the Shah’s return, inflamed tensions and in November 1979, Iranians decided that America must go. This is the story of the hostage crisis from start to finish in an account that provides a thorough discussion of America’s foreign policy mistakes and Iran’s inner struggle between traditionalism and modernity.

It is not necessary to have extensive knowledge of Iran’s history or the Shah’s life. However, I strongly recommend Stephen Kinzer’s “All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror“. The book is an excellent compendium of the coup that removed Mossadegh from power and allowed the despised Shah to return to his former throne. Bowden does provide background information on Iran throughout the book when needed for readers as the story progresses. But first, the author revisits the night of November 4 when all hell broke loose. Like a Hollywood thriller, the movements behind the scenes of embassy employees who realized that something was wrong outside the building take center stage and when the world came through that the embassy had been breached, contingency plans went into effect. The shredding of documents, securing weapons and other protocols highlight the urgency that ensued. We also learn the names of the main figures who are the focus of the story that is developing. Readers may be surprised to learn that the angry Iranians outside are young students and not Islamic radicals. Their goal was to remove American influence from Iran’s affairs. But what they failed to see is that they had become pawns in a chess match. As Bowden states:

“The revolution was shaping up as a struggle between leftist nationalists who wanted a secular, socialist-style democracy and young Islamists like these who wanted something the world had not yet seen, an Islamic Republic.”

The students did not expect to hold the embassy for long but as time progressed, the situation had grown from the seizure of a building to an international crisis between Tehran and Washington. Inside the embassy, employees are shielded from the outside world and current events in America. In Washington, D.C., President James “Jimmy” Carter is struggling with how to resolve the crisis. War was the last thing anyone wanted but Carter knew action must be taken and gave the order to attempt a rescue mission and protect his chances of reelection. He was facing the popular actor turned politician Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) whose appeal to conservatives and war hawks could not be ignored. The planning of the military operation and why it failed are thoroughly explored in the book, and I found myself both inspired and dismayed at what I learned. However, I did not find fault with anyone and realized that officials did what they could with the best intentions they had. Sometimes things do not go as planned. To save face, Washington admitted to the plan and even took steps regarding the Shah’s future to no avail, and the fallout provided the ammunition needed by the man who was determined to reshape Iran into a true Islamic kingdom, Sayyid Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini (Ayatollah Khomeini) (1902-1989). Though he is a minor figure in the book, his influence cannot be underestimated. And this is what the students had not anticipated. Bowden keenly observes that:

“The postrevolutionary struggle was between the victors: the nationalists and the Islamists. They had united to throw out the shah but were now locked in a struggle to shape the new Iran.”

Islamic clerics seized the opportunity provided by the siege to implement their vision or Iran’s future. Their vision was that of a true Islamic Republic incompatible with the customs of the West. To this day, Iran is locked in a struggle between the two. The most bewildering part of the story is that halfway through the crisis, it becomes clear that the students did not have a long-term plan. The movement they initiated had morphed into a new cause over which they had no control. Unsurprisingly, some students had abandoned the movement, but others remained. And even Iranian leaders had little enthusiasm for a situation that was embarrassing the country and inflaming tensions with Washington. Their ineffectiveness at resolving the crisis is a clue into the stronghold by radicals who had infiltrated the government and the siege at the embassy. As to why this happened, I draw focus to this statement by the author that sets the tone for the story:

“Revolution gives ordinary people the false belief that they can remake not just themselves, their country, and the whole wide world but human nature itself. That such grand designs always fail, that human nature is immutable, that everyone’s idea of perfection is different—these truths are all for a time forgotten.” 

Readers will observe that opinions and goals for Iran varies among the students. There are hardliners in the group and pacifists who do not want war with America but to see Iran free of any foreign influence. Their interactions with the hostages are invaluable for providing insight into the thought process behind the actions in Tehran. But the beauty of this book is the hostages themselves. Instead of them simply appearing as U.S. personnel, each hostage is given a platform in the book so that readers learn their life story, why they came to Iran and how they manage being held captive by revolutionaries who do not have a complete revolution. I warn readers that there are moments in the book that will produce anger and rage at the treatment Americans received while detained in Tehran. Though none are murdered, they were not immune to harsh interrogations and torture. There are dozens of employees in the story and keeping track of the names is challenging at first but as I read, their names became embedded in my memory making the story easier to follow. Several are now deceased, but Bowden memorializes them in this account that will live on. But as I read the book, I asked myself why the embassy remained open after the Shah fled for the final time. We may never know, and I have no doubt that the hostages asked themselves the same question.

Eventually the remaining hostages were released on January 20, 1981. Carter had been defeated at the polls and America prepared for a new president who had a different vision for the United States. Iran remained locked in the struggle between nationalist and fundamentalist which continues today. The final exodus from Tehran is the most emotional part of the book. And I could feel through Bowden’s words, the sense of relief and joy they must have felt as their aircraft left Iranian airspace. They were free physically but mentally their ordeal was far from over. In the book’s epilogue Bowden provides a follow-up on the former hostages. Their comments on their ordeal and Iran are invaluable and thought-provoking and regardless of where they are currently, none of them will ever forget their time as a hostage in Tehran. I appreciated their stories and what they learned from their time in Tehran. And to say that foreign service employees make enormous sacrifices would be an understatement.

I cannot overstate how much I appreciated this book. It is a tool to understand the mistakes of the past so that they are not repeated in the future. This is world history and a good look at a crisis that could have initiated another world war. The threat of terror still exists today but we can only hope that men and women working abroad in service of America are advised and protected from those threats. Forty-two years have passed since the siege but the lessons from it can still be applied today. I close out with this quote that perfectly explains the hostages’ experience:

“The Americans taken prisoner on November 4, 1979, did not know if they would ever come home. Every day they lived with the threat of trial and execution, of becoming victims of Iranian political violence or an American rescue attempt. They lived with the arrogance of Islamist certainty, which prompts otherwise decent men to acts of unflinching cruelty. My goal was to reconstruct their experience as they lived it. The men and women held hostage in Iran survived nearly fifteen months of unrelenting fear. They were the first victims of the inaptly named “war on terror.”” 

ASIN: B008UX8GH8

Dark Victory: Ronald Regan, MCA and the Mob – Dan E. Moldea

MoldeaOf America’s forty-six presidents that have served in office, few are as popular as Ronald Reagan (1911-2004).  The 40th President of the United States is remembered for his time in Hollywood, his term as Governor of California and a presidential administration that had its share of controversy.  The Iran-Contra scandal remains inextricably linked to Reagan and is a stark reminder of U.S. foreign policy gone wrong.  The fallout in Central America from Washington’s influence and interference can still be felt to this day.  Reagan is long gone from office and deceased since 2004.  However, his name can still be found in conversations about politics in America, when discussing conservatism and the decline of Soviet influence across the globe.  Although known to be a fierce conservative, Reagan was able to use his actor’s skills to conceal this from the public.  But historians know all too well that there was dark side to the life of Reagan before and during his time in office.  Journalist Dan Moldea takes another look at Reagan, paying close attention to his time in Hollywood as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), its dealings with the Music Corporation of America (MCA) and the Italian American mafia.

I should point out that the book is not intended to be a full analysis of Reagan’s role as president.  And although Moldea does discuss Reagan’s time as president towards the end of the book, the focus remains on the early days of Hollywood and radio, where the mafia had infiltrated studios and strong-arm tactics by independent companies had become accepted behavior.  To remove all doubt that the book has a “happy ending”, Moldea lays out the premise early on:

“These records show that Reagan, the president of SAG and an FBI informant against Hollywood communists, was the subject of a federal grand jury investigation whose focus was Reagan’s possible role in a suspected conspiracy between MCA and the actors’ union. According to Justice Department documents, government prosecutors had concluded that decisions made by SAG while under Reagan’s leadership became “the central fact of MCA’s whole rise to power.”

After establishing the premise, the author discusses the formation of multiple corporations that became titans in radio and later in the film industry.  The formation of MCA is explained and that of the SAG where Reagan would find a home through his first wife Jane Wyman (1917-2007).  The information provided by Moldea is just what history buffs will be looking for.  And what he explains highlights just how far film and radio have come.  But in the 1920s, television was still in its infant stages and for the average artist, radio was the place to be.  In the 1930s, film started to gain in popularity and in 1933, the Screen Actors Guild was formed to give artists protection from what was clearly a racket. The ramifications of the organization’s creation are explained by Moldea and the information will aide readers later in the book as the U.S. Department of Justice sets its sights on film and radio.  Following his discharge from the military after World War II, Reagan soon found his calling in film and his marriage to Jane Wyman opened the doors to successful careers on the silver screen and in government, in ways that may not be fully understood.  As the book shows, there were many suspicious actions taken by Reagan as director of the SAG with regards to the Music Corporation of America, known to be affiliated with gangsters and other powerful figures not against breaking all rules.  The most infamous to whom we are introduced is a lawyer named Sidney Korshak (1907-1996), believed to be one of the most powerful men in Hollywood during his time.  Korshak is just one of many dark figures in the book that includes mobsters Alphonse “Al” Capone (1899-1947) and Johnny Roselli (1905-1976).  Moldea leaves no stone un-turned as he explores the many dark connections between Reagan and a whole cast of shadowy characters.

The crux of the case for Reagan’s implied dark dealings comes in the form of an unrestricted waiver given to MCA, permitting it to retain artists and other stars without conditions normally enforced by the SAG.  Whether Reagan himself decided to do so may be lost to history but the action was so unusual that it attracted the attention of the anti-trust division of the Department of Justice.  Regan himself gave testimony and readers might find it be questionable to say the least.  The relevant portions of his statements are included so that the words come directly from Reagan himself.  It is left to readers to decide what Reagan may or may not have left out.  And while there is a lot of smoke, some may feel that there is no fire or “smoking gun”. But what is clear is that what transpired between the SAG and MCA was anything but ordinary.  The true story might be even more surprising and suspicious than the one Moldea has told here.

During his time in office, Reagan became the star for conservatism and his administration shifted the nation towards the right politically.  One of the reasons for his conservatism is explained here and it was something I was not previously aware of.  Further, the story here shows again that the administration of John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) was more of a threat to those with hidden agendas than people realize.  While campaigning, Reagan called for getting tough on crime and fixing America’s cities.  He once stood in the burning rubble of the South Bronx and told residents that he was trying to help them, but he could not do anything unless he was elected.  Well, he was elected and his goals to fix America and get tough on crime did not go exactly as most voters thought. In fact, there were actions by his administration that stood in stark contrast to the good-natured poster boy image that the former actor portrayed publicly.  Moldea is even more blunt his assessment:

“The Reagan administration then severely curtailed the investigative and enforcement abilities of the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Internal Revenue Service, and the Justice Department’s Strike Forces Against Organized Crime—as part of its program to get the government off the backs of the people. The administration also attempted but failed to dismantle the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms of the Treasury Department, which had been extremely effective in the war against organized crime but had been opposed by the Reagan-allied National Rifle Association.”

Older readers may agree or disagree with the statement, but I do think Moldea is fairly accurate in his assessment.  I strongly advise those who find this to be a good read to also purchase Malcolm Byrne’s Iran Contra: Regan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power, which is an excellent analysis of the hostage for arms matter and money transfer to rebels in Central America.  It can be argued that no administration is without its scandals or embarrassing moments and that is true.  However, the depth of the scandals is what typically sets them apart.  In the case of Ronald Reagan, we are forced to confront two vastly different images of his life.  The public image of the easy going, jolly natured Commander-In-Chief is still widely accepted. But to independent journalists and researchers, the private Ronald Reagan kept many dark secrets.  Some undoubtedly went with him to the grave but others have been revealed as we can see here in this intriguing account by Dan Moldea.

ASIN : B01MV2ZDXN

Iran Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power – Malcolm Byrne

contra1I still remember the video footage taken during the live testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver North (Ret.), as Congress sought to unravel  interconnected covert operations that revolved around Iran, Israel and Nicaragua. North appeared on television in full military dress, earing the sympathy and admiration of a large segment of American citizens.  There were some who felt he should have been incarcerated and that his actions were a dishonor to the very uniform he had on.   Regrettably, his testimony did little to help fully understand what had really taken place.  And even my father who follows politics and news religiously did not fully understand what had taken place.  What was clear, is that the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) had engaged in questionable and possibly illegal activities that sent shockwaves of panic through Reagan’s cabinet and raised alarm bells on Capitol Hill.  As more information came to light, the media began to call it the Iran-Contra scandal and even today, it is still known by that description.  It remains one of the darkest moments of Reagan’s time in office.  Author Malcolm Byrne revisits the Iran-Contra scandal to tell the full truth about how and why it developed, and the actions of a president abusing the powers of the Oval Office. 

If you have decided to read this book, I am sure that there is a good chance that you are already familiar with the Iran-Contra scandal. But even if you are not, the story will still be of interest and easy to follow. The story begins by revisiting the events of October 5, 1986, when a C-123 plane carrying arms for the contras fighting the Sandinista government is shot down while over Nicaraguan airspace.  Several days later, a revelation on Iranian television sent Washington in panic mode.  Nearly everyone began to question the actions of Reagan and his cabinet.  The full story was carefully hidden from the public through omissions and in some cases, deception.   Here we have the whole account and Byrne take us on quite a ride as he peels back the layers of obfuscation employed by key officials close to the President.

Although prior knowledge of the events that gave way to the scandal is not necessary, I do believe that it will help if the reader has some prior knowledge of the political climate of Central America and the Middle East during the time period in which the scandal took place.  In fact, the histories of Nicaragua, Honduras, Israel, El Salvador an Iran are all relevant to the information that Byrne is presenting to the reader.   The fear of a communist expansion under the thumb of the Soviet Union, continued to shape U.S. foreign policy following World War II.  The rise of left-leaning and popular figures across Latin America had caused Washington to pay close attention and subvert several governments through the Central Intelligence Agency.  Central America became the next battle ground and as Byrne shows, Reagan intended to pull out all of the stops.

There are many acronyms in the book due to the complexity of Washington’s design with regards to intelligence and foreign policy.  Several departments play a role in the story and Byrne keeps track of them all, keeping the story flowing smoothly.  Chapters one through twelve alternate between Iran and Nicaragua. It was a good decision by the author, for it allows the reader to focus one part of the story before going to the next and then back again.  The two tracks eventually merge but not before Byrne provides a ton of staggering and shocking information.  When the tracks do merge, the book takes another turn as Reagan’s cabinet goes into damage control and the full weight of Congress comes down on his administration.

The hearings and testimony are summarized here so readers should not expect full transcripts but only snippets of the most critical statements.   In fact, the section regarding the hearings and prosecutions by the Department of Justice do not make up a large portion of the book.  The majority is devoted to the developments in Central American and the Middle East.  But that in no way diminishes the importance of the later chapters and they are just as surprising as the rest of the book.

One section in the book that caught my attention was the discussion about Reagan’s health.  Putting aside the attempted assassination in 1981, there were other health issues that arose during his presidency that caused many to question whether he was fit for office.  His actions and later testimony provide evidence that the conditions he later suffered from, had began to manifest as early as the 1980s. Byrne does not give Reagan a pass because of this but is equally mystified at how he was able to function.  He also makes a compelling point regarding Reagan’s mental state and his interactions with subordinates. It is certainly food for thought about the 40th President of the United States.

America has always said that it does not negotiate with terrorist.   On the surface it sounds tough and gives off the impression that the United States can take as hardline of a stance as anyone else.  However,  the events described in this book, challenge that position and Byrne’s research shows that negotiation became as common as public denials.  For many Americans, the scandal is an afterthought.  Reagan died in 2004 and the suriving members from his cabinet who are still alive had faded out of the public light, well into their later years in age.  However, I do believe that the story is still important in light of the recent events regarding the administration of Donald J. Trump.  Impeachment and investigations are two words that give rise to fear and concern but the founding fathers knew early on that such a system of governing was needed if the United States would truly be a democracy.  Future presidents may also want to read this book so that they too are never accused of abuse of power.

This account of the Iran-Contra scandal lays it all out for the reader to digest. It is an incredible and unnerving story about the very dark side of United States foreign policy.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0700625909
ISBN-13: 978-0700625901

Weakness and Deceit: America and El Salvador’s Dirty War – Raymond Bonner

BonnerFor the first time in a long time, I found myself emotional and angry as I finished this book about the relationship between the United States and the military dictatorship in El Salvador during the small Central American nation’s civil war in the 1980s.  I had expected the book to be a tough read and contain many facts that would be both uncomfortable and upsetting.  But I admit that I was not prepared for what I learned.  This is not the first book I have read or reviewed regarding  El Salvador.  There are many  other books that are very good but take different approaches to the subject matter.  It might be fair to say that the other books were a primer for what I was to learn here in this mind-blowing and deeply troubling book by Raymond Bonner, a former Marine who served in Vietnam and current staff writer for the New York Times.

Younger Americans will most likely have no recollection of the civil war that claimed the lives of thousands of El Salvadorans.   A friend of mine was born in El Salvador and has told me the story of her family’s departure from the country as government troops surrounding their town.  They found refuge in New York before making a home in New Jersey.  Although she has never spoken in too much detail about El Salvador, I am sure there are many memories that she has kept to herself from a time in her youth where death was certain but life was not.   Those who are old enough to remember the war in El Salvador and the actions both the Carter and Reagan Administrations, will find this book to be a thorough account of what really did happen as America became more entrenched in the affairs of Central America.

To help the reader understand politics in El Salvador, Bonner provides a brief history of the nation, including the settlement of the Pipil Indians and the Spanish colonization which has had long term effects on El Salvadoran society.  Coffee became a prized possession and still remains on the nation’s top exports.  The plantations, known to the locals as “fincas“, became a hot commodity and later actions by the wealthy upper class backed by ruling officials, set the stage for the adversarial relationship between the peasants and the Government that late reached deadly proportions.  The 1932 massacre or “matanza“, is discussed as well, so that readers can understand the long history of repression.

On October 15, 1979, President General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena (1924-2017) was overthrown in a military backed coup that marked a turning point for El Salvador and set the country down a dark path that still reverberates today.  At this point in the book, the pace picks up considerably.  The administration of Jimmy Carter found itself unsure on how to proceed with El Salvador, a nation of no strategic importance for the United States.  Fears of a left-leaning administration permeated the in Washington resulting in policy mistakes that later came back to haunt the United States.  Through Bonner’s work we can see how the mistakes developed but more importantly, why.  Relying on now declassified cables, other documents released to the public and his time in the country, a clearer picture of what did and did not happen has begun to take shape.  And it is a deeply troubling picture of ineptitude and complicity.   Or some might simply call it weakness.

On January 21, 1980, Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) took office as the 40th President of the United States and as Bonner show, events in El Salvador took an even darker turn that might cause some readers to revolt in disgust.  I warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart and what is revealed during the administration of Ronald Reagan forced me to question all that I knew about El Salvador.  To be clear, there are no happy endings here but instead, the dark truth about events in El Salvador including the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980) and churchwomen Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan in December, 1980.   The heinous act was portrayed in the 1986 film ‘Salvador‘ by Oliver Stone, starring James Woods and Jim Belushi.  in 1989, the film ‘Romero‘ was released starring the late Raul Julia (1940-1994) as the late Archbishop Romero. Both films are powerful but there is far more to the story as told here.

It goes without saying that on all sides there were multiple players and it was no different in Washington and San Salvador.  The actions of the military commanders are horrific but what I found to  be even more disturbing as I read through the book, were the actions of many in Washington, including elected officials, cabinet members and officials in the State Department.  Misrepresentations and outright lies to the American public and Congress, coupled with covert plans to sent military aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, which became ground zero in Washington’s battle against the left in Central America.  These actions are what would be called deceit.  That deception resulted in repeated tragedies that claimed the lives of thousands of people through failed U.S. policy that failed to fully understand El Salvador, Central America and the truth about the influence of communism.   The red scare was alive and well and Washington’s justifications for its actions are misguided and repulsive.   In the book, the paranoia surrounding it is eerily reminiscent of the mantra endorsed by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (1907-1957).  Bonner provides snippets of public states and cables to drive home the message so that it is loud and clear.

Surprisingly, to date there has never been a full investigation into Washington’s actions in El Salvador.  And as the gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 (composed of a significant number of deportees from the United States) continue to tear the country apart, investigations into individuals of prior administrations are almost certain to never happen.  Many in Washington have made it a point to forget El Salvador but for the its people, the memories of the civil war will never fade.  This is their story, told by Raymond Bonner, of hope and disappointment, supplemented by death and terror under a military backed by America and determined to maintain its grip by any means necessary.

ASIN: B01FGHJ5MK