Thirteen Days: A Memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis With a Foreword by Authur Schlesinger, Jr. – Robert F. Kennedy

rfkI have had many discussions with my father wherein he recalled his memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis in October, 1962.  He explained with vivid detail how he and his classmates had to take part in daily air raid drills due to the increasing threat of a nuclear holocaust.  The discovery by U.S. intelligence of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil, accelerated what was already a tense conflict. Today we refer to it as the Cold War but there were many things taking place that were anything but cold. And as former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara remarked in Errol Morris’ Fog of War,  “hell it was a hot war!”.  The stakes for the survival of the human race had been raised as high as possible and the very possibility of extinction by nuclear weapons became hauntingly real.  The public story is that at the last minute, the Soviets gave orders for naval vessels to reverse course away from Cuba and the U.S. weapons ready to be used. However, behind the scenes on both sides, there was much taking place that remained hidden from public light for years to come. Former Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1925-1968) kept a journal of the thirteen days that gripped the world as his brother, President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963,) navigated a crisis that the world had never before seen.  Presented here are the portions he completed up to 1967.  In June, 1968, Robert Kennedy would himself be assassinated and never had the chance to revise and add on to what is written here.  

The book is short and to be fair, we will never know if Kennedy had intended on adding more to his memoir. But I do feel that there is enough material here to give readers and play-by-play recap of how things developed and the why the Kennedy Administration did or did take certain actions. As a bonus, there is beautiful foreword by Author Schlesinger, Jr., (1917-2007). I do believe that it might be necessary to read the view with the understanding that we have the benefit of hindsight, something unavailable as Moscow kept up its intentions to test the young Irish Catholic American President. However, Jack Kennedy kept cool and leaned heavily on his advisors but he was not prone to blindly following advice and knew fully just how much was at stake. On both the American side and the Soviet side, hardliners were pushing for a first strike which would have set off a chain reaction and led to nuclear Armageddon. Robert understood the pressure his brother faced from Cold War warriors who hated anything Soviet and wanted to see the downfall on the U.S.S.R. Jack had come to vet his military advisors more closely after the Bay of Pigs disaster and when contemplating the advice of the joint chiefs, he makes this telling remark as relayed by Robert:

During the missile crisis Kennedy courteously and consistently rejected the Joint Chiefs’ bellicose recommendations. “These brass hats have one great advantage in their favor,” he said. “If we…do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.

Page 12 | Location 117-120

Throughout history, the Soviets have been portrayed as the aggressors in the conflict, who were determined to get as close to U.S. soil as possible. The installation of the missiles in Cuba with the blessing of Prime Minister Fidel Castro (1926-2016), set off a diplomatic fury and the gears at the Pentagon began to grind hard. In response to the growing Soviet threat, President Kennedy opted for a blockade over direct military action out of concerns for a chain reaction series of events that would quickly spiral out of control. On the Soviet side, there were people who wanted to avert nuclear war, primarily former Premier Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971). The channels of communication between Jack Kennedy and Khrushchev show two men determined to avoid the unthinkable. And each was facing backlash from his own administration. The two were literally pulling at each end of the same rope. They were aided in their efforts by skilled diplomats who were eager to meet the Americans halfway. Bobby’s meeting with Anatoly Dobrynin (1919-2010) on October 27 might have been the final act that helped two nations avoid the apocalypse. There are several accounts as to the whole discussion that took place. Undoubtedly some of it is lost to history and both Kennedy and Dobrynin are deceased. However, regardless of what exactly was said, we do know that the removal of U.S. missiles from Turkey was a key component in keeping the dialogue open between the two nations.

When Soviet ships reversed course, the world breathed a sigh of relief. In Washington, President Kennedy was adamant that no word of the back channel agreements be made public nor should there be any gloating about the resolution of the crisis. However, it was in fact a masterful display of diplomacy on both sides and continues to serve as a case study for the threat of nuclear war. I do wish that Robert Kennedy had lived to revise and add to his memoir of the crisis. His position as attorney general as Jack Kennedy’s younger brother, placed him in a very unique position with regards to the development of the crisis. His recollections here lay everything out for the reader to follow as the Kennedy Administration handled a crisis that threatened the planet. There are possibly many other secrets that remain hidden from the official narrative but we do have enough material to form a very significant picture of what did happen and why. Robert Kennedy’s memoir is an invaluable piece of the puzzle. Good read.

ASIN : B004W9CWAQ

American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World – David E. Stannard

StannardEarlier this week, my boss mentioned during a Zoom office meeting that Columbus Day needed to be re-examined.  He had learned of many dark aspects of Christopher Columbus’ (1451-1506) arrival in the Caribbean.  The movement to end the celebration of Columbus’ life has gained considerable traction over the past several years.  Some states in America have renamed the Columbus Day to  “Indigenous People’s Day”, in honor of the Native Americans who sufferend immensly at the hands of Spanish and other European explorers.  It is a sound recommendation and one that may even happen here in New York City as it becomes harder for people to ignore the disturbing actions by Columbus and his group of marauders.  Many of us learned in school that he was the man who “discovered America”.  But is that what really happened?  An uncontested fact is that Columbus never set foot on North American soil, making the claim of discovering America misleading.  And we know today after many years of neglect by mainstream media, is that indigenous populations were decimated when exposed to the new visitors from abroad.   The true story however, goes far beyond Columbus, who was just one of many bloodthirsty religious fanatics who favored violence over peaceful assimilation.  David E. Stannard revisits the Columbus story in this eye-opening and chilling account that resulted in a stiff drink and a long moment of silence after I had finished reading.

I need to point out from the start that this book is not for the faint at heart.  If you are easily upset by graphic descriptions of barbaric actions, then this book may not be for you.  It is dark, chilling and beyond tragic.  And that is exactly why the way history is taught in the United States is in need of change.  Although the cover of the book gives the impression that the story is solely about Columbus, there is actually far more included in the book regarding the arrival of Spanish and English explorers whose wave of destruction spread across North America, the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

One question that has always typically been asked about the Americas is how long did the native population live there?  It is a good question and Stannard does provide a discussion about the original inhabitants of the Americas.  And what he says might suprise some readers.  I found the topic of Berengia to be highly interesting. The Berengia theory for human migration into the Americas is plausbible and the Bering Land Bridge which no longer exist, gives credence to the author’s point.  However, what is clear is that what we call the Americas had been populated by anicent civilizations thousands of years ago.  Creationists may believe differently but to completely diregard the science at hand would be highly unfortunate as the author provides a thorough discussion of humanity’s existence.

The story picks up pace as the Spanish arrive in the New World.  in August of 1492,  Columbus and his crew wasted no time in implementing their program of terror upon the natives.  The violence is nothing short of gratuitous and disease proved to be just a deadly.  The combination of the two as detailed in the book, had long reaching and long-term effects from which the Americas have never fully recovered.  And in case defenders of Columbus and other explorers point to disease as the major killer, Stannard has this to say:

However, by focusing almost entirely on disease, by displacing responsibility for the mass killing onto an army of invading microbes, contemporary authors increasingly have created the impression that the eradication of those tens of millions of people was inadvertent—a sad, but both inevitable and “unintended consequence” of human migration and progress.

The names of the tribes that suffered so much destruction are voluminous and I learned the name of several that I had no prior knowledge of.  Their names are almost endless and I am sure that only a fraction of the true number of indigenous tribes that called the Americas home are covered here.  In North America alone there were hundreds of tribes, some of which are now extinct including the Canarsie, who have a neighborhood and high school dedicated in their honor right here in my hometown of Brooklyn, New York.  Sadly, most do not know the true story of the Canarise but this book certainly does provide an idea.

Aside from the grim account at hand, Stannard takes yet another approach and explores the reasons behind the Spanish exploration across the ocean.  The true reason for Columbus’ voyage should cause readers to take notice about how much he knew about navigation and the position of the Spain in the European hierarchy.  Putting that aside, there is a much darker aspect to the Spanish missions and this is where religion enters the story.   Many of us know of the Crusades and the horrors of Christianity but in regards to Columbus, there is far more than meets the eye.  The mind-boggling details are included in Stannard’s account revealing yet another side of Columbus that will make many stare in disbelief at the words they are reading.   And if that is not enough, there were yet other reasons for the Spanish conquest and the end result left me shaking my head.

Halfway through the book I felt as if I needed a break but pressed on as I knew there was much more to learn about extermination of Native Americans in what is today called the United States.  Stannard keeps the discussion streamlines but does mention the Trial of Tears and Wounded Knee.  Each of those topics would require a separate book to fully go into the stories behind the tragedies.  The purpose here is to show the different ideologies behind Spanish and British actions in the Americas which both led to the same result for native populations.  The atrocities committed against Native Americans by the United States Government aare beyond upsetting and amount of gore found in recollections of the events might cause some readers to revolt in disgust.  Quite frankly, the European arrival in North America was just as deadly as the Spanish pillaging of Central and South America.  Each empire had its own reasons but for both, religious ideology, finanical motives and beliefs in racial superiority resulted in what Stannard believes to be the worst genocide in world history.   In fact, he states pointedly:  “the destruction of the Indians of the Americas was, far and away, the most massive act of genocide in the history of the world

After I finished the book, I had to sit in silence for a while to digest what I had just taken in.  Columbus’ actions were not a surprise to me as I had already known of his dark legacy.  What I did not know were the names of the numerous forgotten tribes of the Americas who no longer exist today.  The systematic destruction and eradication of their lives and culture is indefensible and nothing short of genocide, sexual exploitation and the plundering of territory inhabited by others whose way of life was completely changed by new faces upon their shores. If this book does only thing, I hope that is to shatter the myth of the new settlers in the Americas arriving with open arms and becoming fast friends with the native peoples.   Revisiting the past is often painful and reveals many disturbing facts that we would rather not know.  But if we are to have a frank and honest discussion about the people we have long called “heroic” and trailblazing” then all of their deeds should be open to examination.  This book is masterfully written, haunting but yet eerily relevant even today.

ASIN: B004TFXREI

Operation Condor: The History of the Notorious Intelligence Operations Supported by the United States to Combat Communists across South America – Charles River Editors

CondorHistory has many dark secrets that some have wished remained hidden from the official record so that the history that has been portrayed remains sanitized and above reproach.  But it is also said that what you do in the dark always comes to light.  In the wake of the coup that saw the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende (1908-1973) on September 11, 1973, the country was placed in a vice grip by his successor, Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006), who commenced a program of retribution against enemies, activist and those “suspected” of being part of the opposition to the new government.  His regime was marred by human rights violations for which he was arrested by British Police in England on October 17, 1998.  Pinochet was extradited back to his native Chile but never stood trial for his actions.  He died on December 10, 2006 of congestive heart failure and pulmonary edema. His death marked the end of legal action to bring him to justice but it did not stop the prosecution of others who were complicit in the horrific actions that took place in the aftermath of the coup.  Researchers continued to investigate Pinochet’s actions and those of fellow dictators in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.  During one such expedition in Paraguay, a trove of documents were uncovered that shed light on a joint program created by several neighboring countries to track down those deemed enemies of the state with the purpose of execution.  The program is known as Operation Condor and here Charles River Editors provides a concise summary of how and why the program came into existence.

For those who are unfamiliar with Operation Condor, the book’s contents may come as a significant shock.  I think readers may benefit from also taking a look at Peter Kornbluh’s ‘The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability‘, which provides a detailed explanation of Pinochet’s rise to power and the crimes against humanity that occurred under his reign.   It is not necessary to read that book in order to enjoy this one but Kornbluh’s book is complemented by what is found here.  And while Kornbluh’s book focuses mainly on Pinochet, this book is centered on Operation Condor itself.   To set the stage for the gritty details of the operation, the author explains the dictatorships that were found in the nations that formed Operation Condor.  A brief explanation of the regimes of Argentina’s  Juan Perón (1895-1974) and Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner (1912-2006) and provided as examples.  The two rulers are just a sample of the many dictatorships that became common to Latin American during the 1960s and 1970s as the term “the disappeared” became part of the Latin American lexicon.

This book is dark and the descriptions of actions carried out by operatives of the program may be tough for some readers to accept.  The actions of American operative Michael Townley and the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) are also discussed and sheds light on a very dark time in United States foreign policy as Washington courted and accepted right-wing tyrants determined to keep their nations classified as banana republics. Power, greed and violence were the trifecta that spread fear and mayhem across several continents as political opponents and voices against the government were murdered in cold blood sometimes on foreign soil.  Pinochet remained firmly at the center and his intelligence apparatus Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (“DINA”) served as nucleus for the death sowed as operatives spared no expense or destination to carry out acts of violence.   The attacks were brazen and shocking, and caused Washington to finally take notice.  Undoubtedly, there are many more secrets buried in files locked tightly away in the archives of several countries.  But the truth about Operation Condor remains public for the world to see.

We have heard the saying that the past is prologue.  Latin America has been plagued by dictatorships, fraudulent elections, corruption and murder.  It remains to be seen if the region that is full of beautiful scenery, people and cultures will move forward and correct the wrongs that have been done in the past. As it does, it remains critical to remember the dark legacy of Augusto Pinochet and Operation Condor.

ASIN: B07QY6CTNZ

The Forgotten 500: The Untold Story of the Men Who Risked All for the Greatest Rescue Mission of World War II – Gregory A. Freeman

20200215_203354A colleague gave me this book as a gift during the holiday season, mainly due to his knowledge of my fondness for history.  I quickly made a mental note to give it a read in the near future.  When I saw the title, I was slightly puzzled at the term “The Forgotten 500”.  I have read books on World War II but none mentioned any 500 forgotten soldiers.  Upon closer inspection, I soon began to realize why I had not heard the story.  At the time the mission  occurred, it was carefully hidden by the State Department and Office of Strategic Services who did not wish to jeopardize the lives of any remaining U.S. soldiers still trapped behind enemy lines. Further, in the years that followed, the the story faded into the annals of military history regarding the second world war. Even my father, who is an ardent World War II buff, has never mentioned this story.  Our next discussion will certainly be interesting.

So who exactly were the forgotten 500?  Well, the story takes place in Yugoslavia, where American, British and French airmen have been provided refuge by the local men and women who are fiercely anti-Nazi after Adolf Hitler ordered the Germany Wehrmacht to occupy their country.  The airmen had been sent out on bombing missions to eliminate the German fuel supply lines in Ploesti, Romania.  Berlin knew the value of the supply lines and carefully mounted anti-aircraft batteries around the supply stations in anticipation of Allied attacks.  American crews were typically successful in attacking the lines but suffered heavy damage to aircraft and high number of casualties.  Those who abandoned ship upon orders of the pilot, typically landed in the Yugoslavian countryside and were quickly taken in by peasants and farmers.  This is the story of their survival behind enemy lines 0and the incredible mission to rescue them from German occupied territory.

Today, many of the soldiers who served in World War II are deceased and they took with them to their graves, many untold stories of heroism and heartbreak during the war.  Their names are only remembered by those who knew them closely and for the forgotten 500, the same story would apply if not for this book.  The role of Yugoslavia in World War II is underrepresented in the larger narrative of the conflict.  By 1992, it had broken apart in the wake of a bitter civil war that saw the loss of over two-hundred thousand lives.  Tensions between Serbians, Croatians and other ethnic groups had reached a tipping point in 1989 and could no longer be contained.  in 1995, peace was formally restored but to this day, tensions continue to simmer underneath the surface.  Several decades prior, Yugoslavia was seen a prized possession by both Germany and the Soviet Union and the invasion by German forces served as an impediment to its full independence.   As a result, the people came to the aid of downed airmen and protected them fiercely in spite of the looming German military.

The author introduces us in the beginning of the book to the airmen who have been assigned the task of attacking Ploesti.  Each mission is doomed from the start, forcing all on board to grab their parachutes and jump to whatever fate lies ahead.  Miraculously, they are each found by the locals, embraced and given shelter.   However, as more Allied planes fall victim to German weaponry, it soon becomes evident that the large number of airmen will have to find a way out of the country and back to Italy, where American bases have been established.  The only problem is that the area is surrounded by German troops who will surely notice a major extraction mission.  Washington knows it must do something but is pressed for ideas. The Office of Strategic Services enters the picture and the story changes gears completely.

The author does a fantastic job of providing enough back story to set the stage for the eventual rescue mission.  To understand the situation in Yugoslavia, he provides a thorough discussion of the struggle for power between Adolf Hitler (1889-1945), Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) and Washington over the the small Baltic nation.  Inside the country, German forces are opposed by the Communist Josip Tito (1892-1980) and pro-western Draza Mihailovich (1893-1946).  Tito and Mihailovich are engaged in their own power struggle but determined to defeat the Nazi menace.  However, there were other events and agendas taking place outside of Yugoslavia that dictated the course of the war and came to haunt Winston Churchill (1874-1965), who later called Yugoslavia his biggest mistake of the war.  The three-way dance that ensued and the deception that occurred are covered here and will undoubtedly surprise many.  I found myself shaking my head at the series of mis-steps by Allied forces that seemed to be unaware of Stalin’s true and barely hidden agenda.

Those familiar with World War II history will know about the role of the Office of Strategic Services, under the direction of its first director, the legendary William Donovan (1883-1959).  The agency boasted such recruits as future Central Intelligence Director Allen Dulles (1893-1969) and celebrity chef Julia Child (1912-2004).  Today it might seem surprising that even civilians were recruited by intelligence agencies but during World War II, all bets were off.  The OSS dad a job to do and as we see in the book, they were determined not to fail.  Donovan’s ability to get President Franklin Roosevelt (1882-1945) to agree to the mission is one of the best anecdotes in the book and shows how urgent it became to rescue the stranded airmen.

The approval of Donovan’s request set into a motion a series of events that brought together several different departments and two governments in an effort to pull of a rescue mission that no one had ever attempted before.  The logistics are all covered in the book showing the high amount of risk that came with it.  The margin for error was virtually non-existent but the people involved rose to the call of duty and this part of the book is uplifting and also high on suspense. One mistake could result in falling into German hands and an international diplomatic nightmare.  But surprisingly not everyone was on the same page and the smaller battle between Washington and London is beyond surreal.  It is a story you do have to read to believe.

Following the mission, the airmen return to civilian life but are dismayed to see how the international game of chess continues to be played.  Tito’s rise and Mihailovich’s demise are some of the darker moments in the book. The airmen voice their disapproval with the official narrative and Freeman retraces their steps showing their never-ending commitment to honoring the legacy of their Yugoslavian hosts.  At the end of the book, he provides an update on the airmen, some of whom were alive at the time the book was published in 2008.  Now that twelve years have passed, I do not believe that they are still living but their memory is preserved eternally in this story that is simply unbelievable.  For all of you World War II buffs, this book is a must have. Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0451224957
ISBN-13: 978-0451224958

Asian America: Chinese and Japanese in the United States Since 1850 – Roger Daniels

20200118_220256President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) is known primarily from his time in the White House and untimely death but many forget that he was also an accomplished writer.  In the well-received “A Nation of Immigrants“,  he gives his take on how immigration built the nation known as America.  Images of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty will surely come to the minds of readers who decided to read Kennedy’s work.  However, there is more to the immigrant story in America and often forgotten are the many other groups who have emigrated to the land of opportunity.  Roger Daniels decided to take a further look into the Chinese and Japanese experience in America and what he found may surprise many of us.

The story begins in 1849 as California becomes ground zero for the gold rush.   We learn right away that over 300,000 Chinese came to America to work in mines and in other trades, such as building cross-continental railroads.  By 1882, the gold rush was over, the railroads had been nearly completed and hundreds of thousands of Chinese now found themselves out of work.  They were far away from China in a new country that did not rush to embrace them. In fact, what happened after the gold rush opened my eyes to the Asian experience in America and revealed many dark parts of American history.

This book could easily be added as required reading in high school classroom and in a college syllabus.  It reads like a textbook but the exception is that is has not been heavily sanitized. Daniels had no intention of sugar coating anything and the facts that are presented here are beyond sobering. Paranoia, suspicion and fear of a “yellow invasion”, gave birth to some of the most discriminatory laws passed in United States history.   Beginning with the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1870 and the later Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the anti-Chinese movement gained in momentum and threatened the very existence of Chinese-Americans. Similarly, Japanese immigrants who arrived to America by way of Hawaii, soon found that their new home was not so welcoming.  The anti-Chinese movement soon became part of larger anti-Asian sentiment spreading across the United States.  And contrary to what we may think about Asian immigration, the Pacific played an even more important role than the Atlantic.  Exactly how is explained in detail by Daniels.

As the world found itself embroiled in two world wars, the Chinese and Japanese in America were struggling simply for recognition as human beings.  California remained the battle ground in the struggle between natives and new immigrants from the Far East.  San Francisco was the scene of some of the most absurd moments in the book and will cause readers today to wonder at how such inhumane treatment of others  was tolerated and endorsed in the late 1800s into the early 1900s.  The Alien Land Act of 1913 is a prime example of  some of the draconian laws passed to disenfranchise America’s Asian citizens.  However, in spite of outright racist treatment and propaganda, the Chinese and Japanese remained firm in their belief of the American dream.  World War II became the moment where life for the Japanese in America was turned upside down and would test the patriotism of even the most ardent believers in the United States.

The book is not a full examination of the Japanese internment in camps during the war. However, Daniels does a thorough job of explaining how the program developed, what President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) knew and the effect it had on the Japanese mindset both during and following the war.  High focused is placed on the Japanese American Citizens League, which played an integral role in the affairs of Japanese Americans in many ways, some of which will surprise some.  However, its importance cannot be understated.  What I did find to be mind-boggling was that the U.S. Military never had a deep suspicion on a whole of Japanese Americans taking up arms in defense of Toyko, but the media and politicians clearly had a different agenda.

Today, the treatment revealed in the book would cause shock and outrage.  I have many friends whose families originate throughout Asia.  They are as American as I am but the thought of legislation being passed to bar them from citizenship, prevent them from assimilating in society or to prevent them from even entering the country,  is beyond horrifying.   However, this was the reality for thousands of Chinese and Japanese in the United States before the passage of civil rights bills and Supreme Court decisions that struck down bans of segregation and interracial marriage.  America has come a long way but there is still work to be done.

While reading Daniel’s words, I could not help but to feel that some of the divisive rhetoric employed by politicians then is also heard now.  Fears of “invasion” and “threats to our way of life” permeated beliefs in the 1800s and 1900s, resulting in regrettable treatment of Chinese and Japanese Americans.  And in some cases, that rhetoric proved to be deadly.  That same danger exist today.  If we are to continue to move forward, then we must remember that less than one hundred and fifty years ago, anyone who was not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, found that life in America was a contradiction to the belief that all men are created equal.  If we fail to remember the past, we are doomed to repeat it. I truly hope we do not.  Roger Daniels has given us a guide to study and learn from so that we do make the same mistakes. Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0295970189
ISBN-13: 978-0295970189

The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America – Shelby Steele

20200118_133748When I saw this book on Amazon, I was a skeptical as to what I found find inside of it. However, the nearly five star reviews convinced me to inspect it a bit further.  I took the plunge and ordered it to see exactly what Shelby Steele had to say about race, a topic that continues to either unite or divide people in America.  The phrase “content of our character” is known to many of us.  It was the pivotal moment of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s (1929-1968) “I Have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963.  Fifty-seven years have passed since that monumental moment in American history and the question remains, do we judge each other on the content of our character? Further, have we progressed as a society or is America still the same place it was when Jim Crow made life miserable for millions of black Americans and others who emigrated to the United States in search of opportunity?

The book was published in 1991, making it twenty-nine years old. At first, I wondered if the material would have any relevance to current day America.  To my surprise and satisfaction, Shelby’s message is still relevant today.  He does not place blame on white Americans or absolve them of guilt or responsibility for America’s past sins. Instead, his focus is on black America and the message he conveys is an attempt to introduce a different dialogue about race.  Skeptics will be tempted to write him off as someone who has animosity towards his own upbringing. That is not the case and at no point in the book does Steele express any type of regret or dissatisfaction about his own ethnicity. His goal is to show that American has progressed when it comes to race and for black Americans to truly live the American dream, there are things that have to change. First and foremost is the role race plays in all of our lives for better or worse.

As I read through the book, I could not help but to think of John McWhorten’s “Losing the Race: Self Sabotage in Black America“, which explores some of the same issues as Steele does here. In fact, McWhorten references Steele on several occasions as he discusses the concepts of victimology, separatism and anti-intellectualism.  Steeled does focus on each but does not distinctly define them as McWhorten does.  His discussion about an identity formed out of being a victim stands out as an observation that warrants much further discussion and is exactly what McWhorten believes in his equally moving book.

By his own admission, Steel is what would be considered to be middle class.  He is successful but not extremely wealthy, a father of children he loves and in what will be a surprise to some, married to a white woman.  However, he cannot and does not refute his race and explains the tightrope that black middle class Americans walk on daily.  As a black American, I firmly believe that education is key to moving up in life and pursuing values that will help me to assimilate into mainstream America.  Yet should I also accept and embody the concept that no matter what I do, I am still regulated to a lower standard of living because my skin is dark?  That is the question black Americans will find themselves confronted with while reading this book.  Today, there are black CEOs, governors, attorney generals, vice-presidents, movie stars, pilots, etc.   Steele believes that black Americans have and continue to advance in society.  And while he does not ignore the fact that racism exist, our successes and failures cannot always be attributed to it.

Of course, there is the elephant in the room in the form of affirmative action, a subject that almost always results in heated discussion. Steele does not shy away from the matter and his words are similar to McWhorten’s beliefs as well.  The idea behind affirmative action was rooted in the right principles.  However, moving forward decades later, does it hurt black people more than it helps? Further, by accepting someone with lower qualifications solely on the basis of their race, do we inadvertently discriminate against others well qualified on the basis of their skin being white? Surely, the question does not have a simple answer but I do believe, as do Steel and McWhorten, that the system of affirmative action needs to be reevaluated to see if in fact, it has really made the change that it was intended to be.

By no means does Steele provide the final word on the subject of race. As we all know, discrimination still exist. But I do think the material is gold and provides a wealth of food for thought with regards to race and the advancement of black Americans.  Former President Barack Obama ran his campaign on a simple slogan, “yes we can”.   I believe as does Steele, that black Americans can and will succeed but only after accepting hard truths that can reshape our minds and provide a new vision for long term success.  And as we move forward, we shall seek to be judged solely on the content of our character.

ISBN-10: 006097415X
ISBN-13: 978-0060974152

My People The Sioux – Luther Standing Bear

lutherIn the state of South Dakota, the Pine Ridge Reservation is home to the descendants of the Oglala Sioux Native American tribe.  The children of Pine Ridge aspire to enroll in the Red Cloud High School with hopes of attending college.  Many of their parent, suffer from alcoholism, a plague that has followed the Oglala Sioux since their first encounter with white settlers in the early 1800s.  Poverty and discrimination have resulted in depression and despair which has yet to be fully addressed.  The true story of the Native American experience remains misunderstood and in some cases neglected. They current day Oglala are the descendants of indigenous people whose home was a North American continent in which life was simple yet effective with  languages largely unwritten and passed down through oral teaching.  The Sioux were only one of hundreds of tribes, some of whom are now extinct such as the Canarsie Indians.  Chief Luther Standing Bear (1868-1939) was born in Rosebud, South Dakota into the Oglala Sioux tribe and this is his story of his life and his people.

I found this enjoyable autobiography on Amazon while browsing through recommendations. I have always been curious about Native American history and the title quickly caught my attention.  This story begins in Rosebud, South Dakota during Standing Bear’s childhood.  Life is simple for the Sioux and he takes us through the motions, explaining daily life and the many customs practiced by their tribe.  There is a good amount of information about the Sioux and their approach to life.  Readers today may find some things strange but it is imperative to remember that this was a community that had no exposure at that time, to modern technology.

Life for the Sioux changes as the United States Government increases its policy of expansionism and begins to seize land home to native tribes.  The new settlers introduce the Sioux to new foods and customs, and his descriptions about them are eye-opening and highlight the stark difference in culture between the two groups.   But over time, the two groups become more acquainted with each other and the white settlers become determined to give the Sioux a formal education. Standing Bear enrolls the Carlisle Indian School under the direction of Captain Pratt who becomes one of the most important figures in his life as we read the book.   And it is at this point, that his life is never the same and his path of education would take him places he never imagined.  He adopted the English first name of Luther and it remained with him for the rest of his life.

As Standing Bear increases his knowledge and his expertise of the English language, he is accepted to work in a store owned by former United States Postmaster General John Wanamaker (1838-1922) which changes his view of the world and he soon realize that he must do what is possible to help his people the Sioux. He makes the tough decision to return to his home, with the intention of using his education and teaching skills to improve life for the Sioux.  But the story soon take takes yet another turn as he meets and marries Nellie De Cory with whom he would father several children.  And it is not long before opportunity comes knocking again and soon husband, wife and child are off to London as part of the traveling Buffalo Bill Show.  He recalls life in England and how he and fellow tribesmen adjusted to show business on the road in a foreign country.  Throughout all, he is the undisputed leader who lives an exemplary lifestyle founded on principle.  His heritage as a Sioux is of the utmost importance and the words of his father are never far from his mind throughout the book.

Upon his return to the United States, his life takes a series of turns, and his next destination was California, headquarters for the motion picture industry.  He finds work in Hollywood for a short time as an actor but quickly realizes that no one understands how to accurately portray Indians on screen. The non-existent presence of authentic Indians in motion pictures is not lost on him and he informs us at the book’s closing that he is planning on opening an Indian Employment Agency to help other Native Americans find work.  However, his ultimate goal was to help other Indians make the transition from the plains to the white man’s world. Their world is foreign to us but Standing Bear knows this and his purpose here is to help you understand and appreciate the Sioux. On February 20, 1939, Standing Bear died from complications of the flue while filming ‘Union Pacific’ directed by Cecil B. DeMille (1881-1959).  He was seventy-years old and had lived an extraordinary life as described within the pages of this book.

ASIN: B074TP7THN

From Deep Woods to Civilization – Charles Alexander Eastman

eastmanThe history of Native Americans was for many years, untold and in some cases omitted.  the trail of tears is just one example of the systematic process of relocation enforced by the United States Government as America continued to expand.  The natives were seen as uncivilized in comparison to their American and European counterparts.  The natives would readily say their lives were uncomplicated and simple.  Many resisted the influence of soldiers on their land and fought to the death to preserve their homes.  Others did not resist and accepted the lifestyle and religion of the white man. Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman (1858-1939) was one of those who migrated from one world to another and in this short but interesting autobiography, he recalls his life and his path from the deep woods to civilization.

Eastman was a member of the Sioux tribe in Minnesota and explains his early life in Minnesota.  From the beginning, he mentions the relationship between the Sioux Indians and white settlers.  And while there are a few acts of violence discussed, the book does not contain a lot of text devoted to it. In fact, his story is mainly about his development as a person.  There are White Americans who enter the story, but in a peaceful role and their actions help propel him to his next destination.  That is not to say that all in the book is glorious and without incident.  In fact, Eastman is fully aware of the plight of Sioux people and the deceit used by the American government in prior agreements with Native American tribes.  There are a couple of people who are not exactly “friendly” but in the end do him no harm.

About midway through the book, he makes the fateful decision to go to Dartmouth College.  And it is here that his life changes completely.  In time he met and married Elaine Goodale and the couple would go on to have six children.  The book ends before the fourth child is born but not before he accomplishes many things first as a doctor and then later as a representative on behalf of private business before the Indian Bureau, the President, and Congress. His time in Washington, afforded him the opportunity to meet several presidents and scores of congressmen. His observations about Washington are still relevant today.

Eastman possessed a very radical and freethinking mind for his era.   His ability to have empathy and see things from all sides is on display and I found myself nodding in agreement at many of his thoughts.  As an Indian and American, he was forced to navigate two worlds yet he never forgets his position in either.  And that is a true mark of maturity and character.   I have yet to read the other books he has published but have now added them to the list. Good read.

ASIN: B007X18D9O

Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies – Dick Gregory

GregoryThe cover of this book is bound to cause many to do a double take.  The crossing out of the word black is far from subtle, but anyone who is familiar with the late Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory (1932-2017), will know that subtlety was not in his character.  He was known as a star comedian for many years but he was also a civil rights activist, nutrition guru, social critic, writer and occasional actor. His death marked the passing of a icon whose sharp wit and frankness earned him the respect of his peers and people across the nation.  Published after his death, this book takes a look at the official history of African Americans that Americans have been told for more than a century.  Gregory makes it clear early in the book that American History and Black History are one in the same.  It is a valid point and for African Americans, the United States is the only home that many have ever known.  The history that has been taught in classrooms across America continues to be re-examined in the pursuit of the truth by historians and independent researchers.  The gift of the internet has allowed truth-seekers to reach audiences of monumental sizes as we step back in time to learn what really did happen with regards to pivotal events that shaped the modern day United States.

Gregory starts early in the book,  beginning after America becomes a newly formed nation and step by step, he provides us with an outline of the events that took place to clarify what has been written in error.  Admittedly, Gregory has been viewed as a conspiracy theorist and in some parts of the book, a few statements give credence to that.  Sadly, we do not have the ability to ask him to elaborate on those statements.  I did find a few comments to be in need of further verification.  But the overall message of the book remains strong and Gregory presents an abundance of valid points.   For those who have accepted the history presented in school textbooks, Gregory might come off as out of his mind.  But if we pay careful attention to his words, he does speak a lot of truth but in a way where we can analyze things on our own and do further research.  In his defense, he never claims to be the end all source for historical information.  However, he was a prominent fixture in the civil rights movement and friends with an endless number of historical figures who were directly involved in the movement. He provides plenty of anecdotes about many stars such as Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), Michael Jackson (1958-2000) and Malcolm X (1925-1965).

The pace of the book is fast but steady and Gregory makes sure not to spend too much time on one subject.  He discusses each topic just long enough to  provided the reader with a clear picture of past events.  And while I do feel that it would have been great if he had gone into more detail, that would have required a much larger book.  His focus here, is plant enough seeds of doubt so that we continue to do research on our own and learn the truth about history.  Gregory was brilliant both as a comedian and social critic. Part of what made him such a memorable figure was his ability to shock his audience.  He pulls no punches here and makes it clear that he intends to clarify the many lies that have been told for too long.

Some of us will read this book and come away with the belief that Gregory is more of a conspiracy theorist than many thought.  He does make some statements that could be conspiracy theory oriented but he never strays too far off course or makes statements that are beyond outlandish.  But I stress again that this book is not the final word on historical events.  The book is a good start for those who have long questioned what they have been taught.  Black Americans will question their own history in a country that has a dark past with racial discrimination.  Black actors, athletes, musicians, activists and authors struggled with the system of Jim Crow and acceptance in mainstream American society.  But as Gregory shows us, they all had tremendous courage and he uses their stories to prove his point that Black Americans are not helpless, but strong people whose history has been ignored for far too long.  As a Black American, Gregory caused me to re-examined things that I learned years ago in my own search for truth.   I did learn a few things I did not know before and for other things, I have more topics to research in-depth.  I never had the opportunity to meet Dick Gregory but I had seen him in interviews on several occasions.  He is no longer with us but his voice remains as prominent and relevant as ever.  And this posthumous release is a further testament to his colorful and influence intellect that provokes thought and reflection. Good read.

ASIN: B07F13CFFH

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 – Steve Coll

Ghost WarsOn the morning of February 26, 1993, Ramzi Yousef and a team of terrorist drove a bomb laden van into the basement of the World Trade Center complex in New York City.   As I watched the news from across the river in Brooklyn that morning, I felt a sense of shock and vulnerability.  America had been attacked.  When Ramzi Yousef was captured and extradited to New York to stand trial, many New Yorkers breathed a sigh of relief.  The Hon. Kevin Duffy sentenced Yousef to life with no parole plus an additional 240 years which he is currently serving at the ADX Florence Supermax facility in Fremont County, Colorado.  Eight years later on September 11, 2001, America was attacked again when terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners, crashing two into the World Trade Center, one into the Pentagon and the final aircraft outside of Shanksville, Pennsylvania.  The response from Washington was swift and a show of force nearly unparalleled in modern times. The mission to capture those responsible and root out terrorists, led to Afghanistan, a land-locked country in South-Central Asia.  Images of U.S. troops and the enemy Taliban flashed across news screens as reports of successes in the mission to root out terror were triumphantly proclaimed.  To many Americans, Afghanistan was another far away place across the world where people lived in ways that seemed to be from ancient times, going against “American ideals”.  Today, Afghanistan is nearly completely forgotten by the American public.  There has been no news about what America’s current role is and plans to withdraw American forces have been cast aside as yet another victim of the focus on what has become reality television politics.  The story of Afghanistan and its importance to world history is often misunderstood and in some cases not even recognized.  But there is far more that meets the eye and author Steve Coll explores this topic in this New York Times bestseller that tells the full story what did happen in Afghanistan between the Soviet Invasion and the deadly attacks on September 11, 2001.

If you asked a person on the street today why we are in Afghanistan, I firmly believe that many could not give a plausible answer.  Washington has no official position on it.   But what is striking is that for decades, U.S. foreign policy towards Afghanistan was either anti-soviet, anti-Taliban and in other cases, non-existent.   Coll revisits each and examines the subject in detail so that we can understand how and why the U.S. attitude towards Afghanistan continued to shift.   The book is primarily focused on the Soviet-Afghan war between 1979 and 1989.  The conflict drew the attention and participation of multiple countries including Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.  The Central Intelligence Agency served as the main force to funnel information back to Washington and the United States found itself supporting the Mujadhideen rebels against the Soviet backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.   The rebels’ cause earned them support from other young radicals including a very young Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011) who reappears later in the book as an arch-nemesis of the United States.  The Soviet-Afghan war served as the last major conflict of the Cold War before the dissolution of the USSR in 1991.  Following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, history took a very different course for many reason as the author shows.  And slowly Afghanistan became a pawn in a much larger chess match between more powerful and sophisticated nations.

The figures that appear in the book are numerous and keeping track of all of them is a bit tedious.  But each is critical to the story at hand including the late Senator from Texas, Charles Wilson (D) (1933-2010), Mullah Mohammed Omar (1960-2013) and former Pakistan Premier Benazir Bhutto (1957-2007).   All of the figures are central to the complicated web woven in the Middle East as Sharia Law clashed with modernity and oil pipelines became the target of several governments. Coll connects all of the dots in a writing style that makes the story very easy to follow.  The revelations in the book dis-spell many rumors and confirm others.  The volatile nature of politics in the region is on full display as each leader walks a tightrope while in office.  The rise of Sharia Law and anti-modernity beliefs began to turn the tide in the Middle East from welcomed support from the west to disdain for the western way of life.  Radicalism is born and as Coll moves through the second half the book, we see how Islamic extremism gained its footing while Washington was asleep at the wheel.

Osama Bin Laden held a spot on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list for several years until his death.   Even today, he is still considered one of the world’s deadliest terrorist although he did not carry out the acts himself.  But as we see in the book, he was charismatic, dedicated and blessed with enormous wealth as a result of his father’s high successful and respected construction firm.  He became a central figure in the new war against the west which would be waged by a new wave of committed soldiers with nothing to fear.  Incredibly, while this was taking place, the response by Washington was bewildering.  However, not everyone was oblivious to the sudden rise of Bin Laden and there were many officials who sounded the alarm as to what they saw as the next major threat to America.  That threat manifested itself horrifically in September, 2001.

Undoubtedly,  each reader will take something different away from the book.  But I do believe that every reader will be confused to say the least as to what was really happening in Washington and lack of information provided to American citizens. As I read the book, I shook my head at times in disbelief.   Today we can look back and ask what if Washington had stopped Bin Laden when it had the chance?  Why did Washington fail to acknowledge the warning signs from the intelligence community?   Some answers we may never fully know but through Steve Coll, we have plenty of explanations that will suffice for many.   For those interested in learning the true story of the Soviet-Afghan war and America’s foreign policy in relation to the region, this book is a must read.

ISBN-10: 0143034669
ISBN-13: 978-0143034667