Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History – S.C. Gwynne

QuanahIf you have had the chance to view a map of North American Indian tribes prior to the formation of the United States, you may have been just as surprised as I was to see how many were in existence. The story of North America’s early inhabitants known simply as Native Americans, is deeply complex and ultimately tragic.  In 2016, 20th Century Fox released Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant in which Leonardo DiCaprio assumed the role of real-life fur trapper and trader Hugh Glass (1783-1833). The film is hauntingly beautiful with a musical score that adds the right touch of emotion and suspense.  Parts of the story are fictionalized but it is largely based on true events.  The movie accurately portrayed life in North America in the early 1800s as the United States was continuing to expand well into Native American territories.  The violence on screen is shocking but also an accurate depiction of the savageness in the battles that did occur.  What is not shown in the film are the wars that had been taking place between tribes.  The absence of widespread hegemony between tribes meant that territory was of the utmost importance and the threat of attack from enemies was constant.  Some tribes were known to be more dangerous than others and none were as deadly and feared as the Comanches.  Their large numbers and presence across large portions of land in the western half of North America made them a threat to anyone who ventured into parts unknown.  In this spellbinding book, author S.C. Gwynne tells the incredible story of the Comanche Indians’ rise and fall, and the life story of their last big chief, Quanah Parker (1845-1911). 

Before I proceed, I must warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart.  It is an unfiltered look into North America’s violent past and shatters any illusions about white settlers being welcomed with open arms by natives eager to accept the white man’s way of life.  In fact, it was quite the opposite.  The Comanches had no intention of living the “white way” and were content with their lives.   And anyone who threatened that way of life or intruded upon it was fair game.  The Comanches commenced raids upon white settlements and against other tribes, pillaging, and plundering.  Readers sensitive to descriptions of violence will find some parts of the story difficult to accept.  In 1836, the Parker family found themselves victims of the Comanches and during a raid, a nine-year-old girl named Cynthia Ann Parker (1827-1871) was kidnapped with her brother John Richard Parker (1830-1915) and integrated into the Comanche tribe.  And as Gwynne explains, this act ignited a four-decade war between whites and the Comanches.  And during those forty years, there was bloodshed, heartbreak and a Civil War that changed American history.  The Comanches could not have known at the time that the young girl would have more of an impact on the future of their tribe than anyone knew.  Gwynne drives home the point with this explanation: 

“The kidnapping of a blue-eyed, nine-year-old Cynthia Ann in 1836 marked the start of the white man’s forty-year war with the Comanches, in which Quanah would play a leading role. In one sense, the Parkers are the beginning and end of the Comanches in U.S. history.” 

As a primer to the main story, Gwynne provides thorough explanations regarding other tribes important to the story and the involvement of Mexico.  The image of life that comes into focus is of one that was short and brutally hard.  The introduction of diseases to native tribes decimated populations. Today, smallpox and cholera are well understood and prevented but in the early 1800s they were deadly killers.  And those unfamiliar to these viruses almost always faced a certain death.   As I read the book, I found myself speechless at times due to the descriptions of daily life.  From one day to the next, nothing was guaranteed and the threat of violence from other tribes and bandits was always on the mind of many.  And it is imperative to recall that at the time Parker was taken in May 1836, there were only twenty-four states in the Union.  Territory west and north was unorganized and further south, the land was part of Mexico.  Comanches fiercely roamed these territories and even made raids into what is now the State of Texas.  And it is here that the story heats up as the Parker family is torn apart during the Fort Parker Massacre.  Some readers might wonder if Washington should have expected such an attack.  The truth is that there was much Washington did not know and  Texas had been placed in a precarious position as Gwynne explains in this passage: 

“Texas was thus left alone, broke and militarily punchless, for ten years to confront two implacable enemies: Mexico on the south, and the Comanche nation on the west and north. The fledgling country would never know peace. Mexican incursions persisted; the city of San Antonio was captured twice by large Mexican armies in 1842.” 

The harsh reality is that Washington had no clear answer for the Indians and things in Texas were about to take a deadlier turn.  The tragedy of the Parkers deeply concerned Texans and Washington but they were not the only settlers that suffered. Gwynne includes accounts of other settlers who met dark fates as they ventured into unknown territory. Raiding, pillaging, rape and scalping were the tools of the trade and the Comanches did not hesitate to use them.  Because of the horrific acts of sexual violence, parents might want to use discretion should they decide to purchase this book for minors.  What I learned about the Comanche raids on the settles and other tribes, is interesting for it shows the acrimony that existed between the natives, and it also explains why the U.S. Government had no choice but to find a way to turn the tide in the conflict with the Indians.  

Following the massacre, the book is essentially two stories in one.  The mission to find Cynthia and John Parker comes into focus but finding them would not be easy.  And it is not until the entry of former Texas Governor Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross (1838-1898) into the story that major success occurs.   Finding the Parkers was a priority but dealing with the Comanches and other Indians became priority number one.  In the process, thousands of men died at the hands of the Comanches.  Troops and even the Texas Rangers had never faced a similar enemy and were at times lost in their approach.  To drive home the point about the power behind the Comanches, Gwynne sums up their dominance and states that:

” Comanches fought entirely on horseback and in a way no soldier or citizen in North America had ever seen.”  

Battles between whites and the natives increase in frequency and some notable figures appear whose names are cemented in American history such as Christopher Houston “Kit” Carson (1809-1868), Samuel Colt (1914-1862) and John Coffee Hays (1817-1883).  Carson and Hays learned first-hand that the United States was not prepared to do battle with the Indias.  Their opponents possessed skills and knowledge of the terrain that white settlers had not yet obtained.  However, Colt invents an equalizer in the form of a weapon that became synonymous with the wild west.  And as technology improves, the natives soon find themselves struggling for survival.  Further, the United States later employed a powerful asset named Ranald S. McKenzie (1840-1889) who has largely faded into history.  His story and later acquaintance with Quanah Parker are discussed here and provide an interesting back drop to the main story being told.  McKenzie became integral to the battle against the Comanches but never gained the fame and recognition one would expect.  His own tragic life story is revisited bringing home the horrors of war.  Cynthia Parker does reappear in the story and her life is equally as tragic and also surreal.  Her marriage to former Comanche Chief Pete Nacona (1820-1964) and their children was highly unusual and at the time that knowledge came to light, a majority of people could not believe it.  But this is her story which includes separation from her birth family and integration on the Comanche nation which she remained loyal to for the rest of her life.   Her son Quanah becomes the focus of the remaining parts of the book as he assumes the mantel over a tribe facing its own demise.  But Quanah is not a fool and makes a surprising decision that had an enormous impact on the Comanches.  His actions were not isolated but taken typically after all other options had been exhausted.  It could be said that his actions sealed the fate for the Comanches. 

It is easy to see the Comanches as bloodthirsty savages, but Gwynne is careful not to make that mistake.  In fact, he does make himself clear that multiple factors were at play that led to the Fort Parker Massacre and conflict with the American Government.  And there was horrific acts of violence committed by all asides.  Ignorance of the native tribes and territorial boundaries undoubtedly added to the tensions that simmered.  The Comanches wanted to live their way of life on land they believed was theirs. Their ancestors had lived on the land and they believed it was theirs for life. They were fine with their existence and did not desire to become “civilized”.  White settlers and government officials often made the mistake of seeing the natives as “savages’ that needed to convert to Christianity and the ways of  the white man. But what they did not understand is that the natives had no concept of that, nor did they want to.  The Comanches committed unspeakable acts upon many but as shocking as it for me as New Yorker in 2021 to understand, for them it was life as they knew it.  Violence played itself out over and over again across this continent and it was accepted by many and employed by others. It is unsettling but it is also part of the history that created the country I call home.  S.C. Gwynne has done an incredible job here and this book is excellent.  It may be hard to read at times, but this is the story of the Comanches that Americans should know. 

ASIN:‎ B003KN3MDG

Nicaragua, 1961-1990 Volume 1: The Downfall of the Somosa Dictatorship – David Francois

FrancoisIn June 1987, Lt. Col. Oliver North (Ret.) gave testimony in front of the Senate Select Committee on Secret Military Assistance to Iran and the Nicaraguan Opposition and the House Select Committee to Investigate Covert Arms Sales with Iran.  The hearings had cast a dark cloud over Washington and the administration of President Ronald W. Reagan (1911-2004) doubled down on anything that could be conceived as illegal pursuant to United States law.  I can still recall the shock on my father’s face when the news of the scandal broke across media outlets.  The two of us watched the nightly news to learn more about a situation that had danger written all over it.  Those who remember the Iran-Contra affair most likely have images in their minds of North testifying in his military dress before Congress.  Details of the Reagan administration’s covert plans became unraveled but the full truth about the affair remained elusive for many years.  The sale of weapons to foreign nations did not surprise me at all and military hardware has always been big business.  But what did catch my attention was the atmosphere in Central America, a region that suffered extensively due to Washington’s support of dictatorships thirsty for blood and determined to crack down on all opposition. 

Over the years I have made the acquaintance of men and women who fled El Salvador at the height of the nation’s civil war. And the stories they have told me have remain firmly entrenched in my mind as examples of how much suffering occurred to innocent people who were forced to leave the only home they had ever known.  In Nicaragua, revolution and turmoil had taken place as the Sandinista National Liberation Front successfully forced the Somoza regime to flee into exile.  The victory by the Sandinistas caused anger and embarrassment in Washington which was determined not to let the leftist remove the puppet government it preferred.  However, the people of Nicaragua had other plans and wanted a new direction for their country.  This book is the story of how the Somoza dictatorship met its end in Nicaragua.  

The author provides a good explanation on the history of Nicaragua dating back to the era of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506).  As the story moves into the 1800s, affairs in Central American begin to heat up.  Foreign governments begin to take notice of the small Central American nation and intervened in the nation’s affairs.  I was quite amazed at how involved both the United States and Britain became in the country’s policies but soon realized it was a premonition of what would follow.   A revolution in 1912 resulted in the arrival of U.S. Marines in Nicaragua and the occupation lasted until 1933.  But the local population had no desire to live under Washington’s rule at any time and a young revolutionary named Augusto César Sandino (1895-1934) was intent on seeing his country liberated from imperialist domination.  Francois tells the story with the right amount of suspense and keeps the pace flowing at the right speed to move the book forward.   It soon becomes apparent that Sandino’s time is limited, and it is not long before Nicaragua is taken over by Anastasio Somoza García (1896-1956) who placed the country in a vice grip with the assistance of his sons Anastasio Somoza Debayle (1925-1980) and Luis Somoza Debayle (1922-1967).  And for nearly fifty years they ruled Nicaragua with an iron fist and made it their personal kingdom.  But as the author explains, the revolutionaries were far from done. In fact, the Somozas had only increased the determination of the opposition to remove the family from power. 

American readers might be surprised to learn of the enormous amount of assistance Somoza received from Washington.  The United States was aware of Somoza’s tyranny yet continued to supply arms and money to the regime.  The eye-opening details provided here are bound to cause anger and shock and will cause others to wonder if “freedom” was really part of American foreign policy.  Opposition forces were continuing to mount against Somoza, and it may be challenging to keep track of the the groups that were formed.  A table of the acronyms used by the groups is included at the beginning of the book by Francois and will be helpful during the story.  The group that emerges as the main opposition force is the Sandinista National Liberation (FSLN) formed by Carlos Fonseca (1936-1976), Tomás Borge (1930-2012) and Silvio Mayorga (1934-1967).   On the side of Somoza, the Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua (GN) steps up to the plate to do battle with the FSLN and the war that breaks out is nothing short of brutal.  At this point, the story heats up significantly and readers will not want to stop reading as the suspense continues to build.  Francois’ narration of the events resurrects the past with vivid detail. 

Similar to other conflicts, Nicaragua’s war was not as cut and dry as one may have believed. In fact, the country essentially became a battleground between the right and left with Washington deeply concerned about Soviet and Chinese influence.  And as we see in the story, Beijing was fully aware of the events in Nicaragua and attempted to get into the mix.  Even Israel enters the story, and this part of the book is mind bending. Francois proves that there are many dark secrets to every conflict.  As the two sides are locked in a deadly battle, Somoza begins to lose popular support.  The initial descent of the Somoza regime into oblivion takes center stage and Francois takes us through the series of events that not only gave the Sandinistas the upper hand but also saw the disappearance of support from Washington.  At this part of the book, I had to step back for a minute and digest what I was reading.   The abrupt change in policy from Washington is a move we have seen in other places where death and destruction have taken place.  Somoza was once the darling of the U.S. policy in Central America but soon learns that when Washington no longer wants or needs your services, the cold from being hung out to dry can be chilling. 

The end for the regime finally came in July 1979 and for the administration of President James E. Carter, Jr., Somoza’s removal was long overdue. However, the new president had his hands full and the situation in nearby El Salvador was heating up.  In Nicaragua, the long road taken by the opposition had ended and the country faced a new and uncertain future.  Francois explains it best with this statement: 

“The date 19 July 1979 marked a turning point in the history of Nicaragua and the FSLN. Not only had a powerful dictatorship that reigned over the country for nearly 40 years, with the support of the US, ended, but the long and patient fight started by the Sandinistas in the early 1960s finally came to fruition.” 

The Carter administration continued its policy of reigning in dictators in Central America yet failed to completely achieve its goal.  In January 1981, a former actor and one-time Governor of California took office and his policy towards Central America and the “threat” of Soviet influence helped plunge Central America further into chaos.  Congress initially had no idea just how deadly things had become but it soon learned and what was revealed remains one the darkest moments in U.S. foreign policy.  And the key to understanding those events is the story here about the Somoza downfall that had ramifications which spread across Latin America. 

Readers who find this book to highly informative will appreciate Raymond Bonner’s Weakness and Deceit: America’s and El Salvador’s Dirty War and Malcolm Byrne’s Iran Contra: Reagan’s Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power.  Both are exceptional accounts of America’s involvement in Central American affairs.  Francois has a winner here and I am eagerly anticipating volume two.   

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B07RPBY857

The Six Day War: The Breaking of the Middle East – Guy Larson

larson

On May 14, 1948, Israel was formally declared an independent state with David Ben Gurion (1886-1973) being appointed as the first prime minister. Over the objection of both diplomats and officials in the military, the administration of President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) gave its support that same day. This historical event set in motion a chain of events that has resulted in a political and social divide across the Middle East that culminated with the Six-Day War in June 1967 in which Israeli armed forces launch strategic and coordinated attacks against several Arab nations. The conflict was brief but it changed the Middle East and heightened tensions between Israel and many of its Arab neighbors. Prior to the conflict tensions had been brewing between Israel and the Arab world with war hawks on both sides pushing for military action. But the questions remains, was the war preventable? And what exactly did happen to kick off the battle that last only six days? Author Guy Laron addresses those questions and many others in this spellbinding investigative account in the battle that broke the Middle East.

Though I continue to learn the history of the Middle East, I sometimes feel that there is much about the region lost to the west. American intervention in Middle Eastern affairs was at times sorely misguided as I learned in the book. The story of the war begins many years prior to 1967 and Laron assembles the pieces of the puzzle. And to dissuade readers from any idea that the war was a “total victory” he explains somberly that:

“The Six-Day War seemingly ended in one of the swiftest victories in modern history; in reality, the new post-1967 lines created new war zones, especially along the Suez Canal, where the warring sides were conducting a six-year trench warfare, which ended only with a bold assault by the Syrians and the Egyptians in 1973.”

Essentially, the conflict produced a domino effect that has never been resolved. The author provides a thorough and informative discussion on Middle Eastern history but only as far back as needed to set up the remainder of the book. And the country that takes center stage is the nation of Egypt under the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970). This part of the story I found highly fascinating due to the discussion regarding Egypt’s relationship with the United States. Similar to Vietnam, decisions made in Washington could have changed history had another course of action been taken with regards to foreign policy. I felt a chill run down my spine as I learned of the deterioration in relations between Nasser and Washington. The refusal to support Egypt’s goal of becoming a major player on the world stage is regrettable and I believe it is a lost moment that quite possibly could have altered the course of history. Readers may find themselves staring in disbelief at the treatment Egypt received from its American ally. Nasser himself also felt the chill and realized that Egypt could not depend on Washington in the long run.

On the other side of the spectrum, the relationship between Washington and Israel is scrutinized allowing readers to learn of the actions behind the scene that help propel Israel towards the military campaign in 1967. Similar to Egypt, war hawks had been read for some time to launch an offensive against the Arab nations. Despite the pressure in place by hawks, the call for attack had been resisted by the fairly moderate Prime Minister Levi Eshkol (1895-1969) who was not overly anxious to ignite a major conflict in the Middle East. Further, Washington had refrained from giving its support while signaling it would not interfere. America was playing both sides while at the same time keeping its eye on the Soviet Union whose entry into world affairs was always a concern. Although the conflict was not an extension of the Cold War, its presence can be felt at times. And the picture that emerges in the book is one of multiple parties all playing their own games while a major conflict hangs in the balance.

Behind the scenes, the discussions between Washington and Israel were not as fluid as one may believe. In fact, more than once, the allocation of funds had been reduced and two presidents had threatened to severely reduce financial aid should war break out. As the mantle passes from Truman to Dwight Eisenhower (1890-1969), the tone from Washington becomes sterner. Eisenhower had seen the effects of war up close was had no desire to take part in the ignition of a major conflict. His successor, John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) had even less desire and made it clear that Israel was to take part in the nuclear arms reduction plan his administration had set in place. This part of the book caught my attention because it is a part of the Kennedy presidency that receives very little attention. Prior to his death in November 1963, Kennedy had been applying pressure on Ben Gurion to open the Dimona nuclear facility for inspection. Israel had stalled forcing Kennedy to threaten to reduce financial aid in an attempt to get Tel Aviv to fall in line with his arms reductions plan. To illustrate just how heated the issue became, Laron explains that:

“Kennedy persisted and in mid-May 1963 sent Ben-Gurion his toughest letter yet, making clear that he would not budge and allow an Israeli nuclear bomb to jeopardize his administration’s campaign against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. A month after receiving that letter, Ben-Gurion stepped down as prime minister.”

After Kennedy’s death, the Dimona reactor never became an issue and the new president, Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-1973) had his eyes and thoughts focused elsewhere, in particular the growing crisis in Vietnam. There are no conspiracy theories in the book about Kennedy’s murder but the issue of Dimona is a crucial part in understanding who would have benefited from Kennedy’s removal. I leave it to the reader to take it from there.

The story picks up in pace under Johnson’s administration. Tel Aviv realized that the new president was not following Kennedy’s course on several major issues. One of them was the growing tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Indochina had begun to consume Johnson who was also pushing forward on the domestic front with his Great Society programs. However, his actions with regards to weapons hardware across the Middle East are equally as surprising as the events surrounding the Gulf of Tonkin. I could not believe what I was reading and wondered to myself what Washington’s endgame really was because it helped set the stage for what was to come in 1967. It soon becomes apparent that Israel has more freedom to carry out its own plans under Johnson’s watch. And the incident involving the USS Liberty still remains one of the more puzzling of that year. Laron does not go into the story extensively but does mention the attack. Egypt also fared differently under Johnson but certainly not in the way it would have desired. In fact, Laron explains that:

“As for Nasser, he seemed to have realized that the game was no longer worth the candle. Eisenhower and Kennedy had allowed Egypt to pay for US wheat with its own currency, which it could print at will. Johnson, however, insisted on Egypt paying in dollars, which it lacked due to its severe economic situation.”

Johnson was in no rush to nor had the desire to appease the Arab world. His main goal was the defeat of Ho Chi Minh (1890-1969) and the North Vietnamese government. Tel Aviv is keenly aware of this and plans are set into motion for the ultimate offensive. But was the attack a surprise? Laron reveals a lot of interesting facts about Egyptian operations prior to the conflict that produce more questions than answers. Further, the most crippling part of the Egyptian defense network comes across as one of the simplest components that should have been addressed but was not. Had it been, the war might have ended differently or never have taken place. The glaring inadequacy reveals fundamentally different aspects between Israeli and Egyptian society that highlights the importance of military intelligence.

More than fifty years have passed since the Six-Day War but its effects are still being felt today across the Middle East. The Gaza Strip remains a hotbed for clashes and only time will tell if true peace and a solution will become a reality. Anyone seeking to understand the region will find this book to be invaluable. It is a step back in time during a decade when political upheaval was occurring around the globe. War and conflict were constant reminders of the savageness of man that would have to be addressed for future generations. However old wounds must be addressed and allowed to heal before humanity can truly move forward. This book is a definitive account of the Six-Day War and its profound effect on the Middle East. Highly recommended.

ASIN‏: B01NAZJWSK

The Water is Wide: A Memoir – Pat Conroy

conroyWhile reviewing my list of books to read, I did a double take as I read the title of this memoir by Pat Conroy.  I had added it for a reason yet at the time, I could not recall why.  But I put that aside and decided that there is no time like the present and it might be a hidden gem.  It turns out that I was right in my assessment.   However, I was not prepared for the incredible story within by Pat Conroy (1945-2016) that sheds light on the lives of those who have been forgotten even in the most powerful nation on earth.   I knew that the story centered around education but of course, teaching is never as simple as writing on a blackboard.  In fact, what is revealed in the book should remove all doubt that teaching is by any means as easy task. Some of us are naturally gifted to handle a classroom full of students, each with their own peculiar personality.  In many ways, the teacher is conductor working the orchestra to fine tune all the instruments and produce a symphony that is pleasing to the ears. Conroy is the conductor here and what he accomplished on Yamacraw Island, South Carolina, will leave you sad, angry, and happy at the same time. 

As I started reading the book, I asked myself where on earth is Yamacraw Island?  The name is fictitious, but the land mass is known as Daufuskie Island which is located off the southeastern coast of South Carolina, close to Savannah, Georgia.  It is only accessible by ferry or barge and has a population of less than one thousand people at any given time.  The island has a rich history and is part of the region once home to the Gullah, African Americans who resided on the island and the nearby islands in South Carolina and Georgia.  I had to take a break and look up the Gullah people as I did not know much about them. But Conroy points readers in the right direction: 

“The island blacks of South Carolina are famous among linguists for their Gullah dialect. Experts have studied this patois for years and they have written several books on the subject. It is a combination of an African dialect and English; some even claim that remnants of Elizabethan English survive among the Gullah people.” 

After doing some research, I came back to the book with a better understanding of the environment awaiting Conroy as he begins his teaching assignment on the island.  Readers interested in the Gullah culture will find that this article contains a wealth of information.  After arriving for his assignment with the blessing of Dr. Piedmont, Conroy is given a baptism by fire and soon learns that life of Yamacraw is unlike his comfortable existence in Beaufort and other parts of the South. Further, it will challenge his idea of blacks, largely formed by his middle-class background.  The author is brutally honest and even discusses his own prejudice against blacks that had been cultivated in his youth.  His transformation throughout the book is remarkable and it is fair to say that the kids of Yamacraw left their mark on him. Conroy also leaves his mark on the island which becomes evident as Piedmont seeks his departure from the school.  The people in the book grew on me as well but there are many disturbing issues that come to the surface in the story as Conroy learns that he is really one of the very few people who cares about the island and its inhabitants. 

The book is set in the 1960s and in the South, bringing the issue of race to the forefront.  Race is everywhere in the story as one might expect and even those who try to appear as upstanding citizens are not free of bias that is shockingly horrific at times. The casual use of racial epithets and deranged ideas of communist hippies invading the island might make some readers recoil in disbelief and anger.  Conroy feels the rage increasing within and after one unsettling experience, he remarks: 

“Christ must do a lot of puking when he reflects upon the good works done in his name.” 

As a Black American, I was not surprised at the attitudes in the book and even today there are people who strongly feel that way.  But Conroy and others critical to the story, go above and beyond to change the lives of those students in any way possible.  And although he stayed on the island just a couple of years, what he accomplishes is more than had been done previously even though the school is part of the larger Beaufort public school district.  His work was not easy and on more than one occasion he crosses swords with Mrs. Brown who earns the wrath of the students.  But surprisingly, some of the biggest challenges come from the natives themselves and not the administration in Beaufort.  The author soon learns that he is embarking on difficult journey to break through a wall surrounding a culture that those outside of Yamacraw would never understand.  Superstition, illiteracy, and the fear of whites make his job increasingly difficult as he implements an unorthodox program to help the students learn basic arithmetic, geography, reading and writing.  The most basic skills a student should have are lacking and Conroy is in disbelief at how far behind the kids really are. All throughout the story, the backwardness of the island becomes hauntingly clear and changes his perception of the entire school system:

“Something was dawning on me then, an idea that seemed monstrous and unspeakable. I was beginning to think that the schools in Beaufort were glutted with black kids who did not know where to search for their behinds, who were so appallingly ignorant that their minds rotted in their skulls, and that the schools merely served as daytime detention camps for thousands of children who would never extract anything from a book, except a page to blow their noses or wipe their butts.”

The story is impossible to read without experiencing a range of emotions. But there are some beautiful moments such as their trip off the island for Halloween and the second excursion for a fair. The children absolutely love the experience and Conroy had opened their eyes to the world outside of Yamacraw.  And the main characters among the children are charismatic in their own right.   Mary is one of Conroy’s favorites next to Saul who is always interacting with the teacher whom they call “Mr. Conrack”.  They are beautiful souls who have been failed by those closest to them and a school system that had no intention on improving their education which was virtually non-existent.   When I finished the book, I wished that Conroy had written an epilogue that would have explained what did happen to the kids on the island. Some may have never moved away from it while others may have made the decision to see the rest of America and the world.  If they have read this book, the memories of “Mr. Conrack” and his efforts to give them an education must surely bring back a flood of memories, some of which are quite painful.  But if there is any solace to be found, it is that Conroy has put on the record, just how bad the education system in America was for many blacks living in areas that were neglected horribly. 

The New York Times listed the book as a best-seller, and it is not hard to see why. It truly is an incredible story even if it seems unreal at times.  However, Conroy reveals that in the United States, the “American Dream” is a myth for those whom society has forgotten about.  And the account here can serve as an example of educational policies that are dismal failures.  If you are looking for a good book about American society that explores a social issue which still rears its head, this is must-read. 

ASIN : B003XKN65U

Flashbacks: A Twenty-Year Diary of Article Writing – John A. Williams

JohnWhen I saw this book on sale, I felt a small sense of embarrassment because I did not know who John A. Williams (1925-2015) was.  While it is true that he would be considered “before my time”, voices from the past are often as important as those of today. And any person that spends twenty years writing articles must have a significant number of experiences to reflect on. I gave in to my curiosity and decided to make the purchase. I can honestly say that I received more than I bargained for and have a newfound appreciation the late journalist. To be clear, the book is not an autobiography but more of a recollection of his most vivid memories about his early life, breaking into journalism and the numerous larger than life figures he had the chance to interview and, in some cases, form friendships with.  Writers can tell you that composing an article is not always a simple as it seems and financially, it is not a way to get rich quick. In fact, the author removes all illusions of grandeur when he says:

“I’ve written all that time and if I’ve ever come to one single, positive conclusion it is that writing articles is no sane way for a man to make his living. Article Writing Highway is littered with wrecks, maimed and dead.”

Despite his gloomy summation of his trade, Williams wrote extensively, and his talents did pay the bills. But riches were never his goal and at no time in the book does he allude to fortune as his motive.   He explains how he got into journalism in a time when Black Americans were prohibited from entering and being served at many establishments across America.  Jim Crow was alive and strong and those fighting against it knew that it would die a slow death resisting all opposition to the very end.  Williams did not let that deter him and travels domestically and abroad from one assignment to the next.  And along the way, he observes things about America that even those who lived within its borders may not have seen.  Those memories are presented in an engaging format and Williams pulls no punches in his assessment of the land of the free.

A significant portion of the book is devoted to Williams’ writings about the lives of figures who have their places in history such as Marcus Garvey (1887-1940), Charles “Bird” Parker, Jr. (1920-1955) and Malcolm X (1925-1965). Readers familiar with all three will know their stories but the section on Parker is deeply moving and disturbing as the late musician’s short and tragic life comes into focus.  In just thirty-five years, Bird grew into the man who changed jazz forever and after his death, his former bandmate named Miles Davis (1926-1991) changed jazz again.  Williams did conduct interviews with some of the subjects and his discussions with artist Romare Bearden (1911-1988) and writer Chester Himes (1909-1984) offer a frank analysis on the situation in America at that time.  Some might argue that the same discussions are being held today.  I can say that the past truly is prologue.

Some readers may find the sections about his travels across America to be quite shocking. But it is imperative to remember that much of it took place before and around the passing of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964.  The landmark legislation had been passed but America did not change overnight.  As Williams drove from one state to the next, the threat of death is never far away, and he had some very hair-raising encounters while on the road. And the treatment he received at various establishments is nothing short of shameful.  Those parts of his story will cause some to wonder how that type of behavior had been normalized in a nation that prided itself on democracy, liberty, and freedom.  Williams was only one person, but his trials and tribulations were common to minorities who had come to realize that civil and equality could wait no more.

As I read the book, he reminded me of James Baldwin in the way he discusses America.  Baldwin had visibility due to his status as a published author and activist. Williams may not have had the same level of popularity, but his observations of daily life are right out of the Baldwin play book.  And like Baldwin, he loved America dearly despite his experiences in the military and later as a traveling journalist.  He remains optimistic for true change in America and the society we see today has come a long way.  There is still more work to be done but I am sure that if Williams were alive today, he would remind us that those much younger than he cannot imagine what life was like during his time.  This book is a cold and hard look at the real America and how life was for millions of its invisible citizens.

ASIN : B01AJ7Z0CQ

Conversations with Lorraine Hansberry (Literary Conversations Series) – Mollie Godfrey

LorraineIt truly is amazing that a person can learn so much about the future by examining the past. In America, there are parts of our nation’s history that people find difficult to control.  Race is at the top of the list and continues to find itself the topic of discussions as the country grapples with instances of systematic discrimination and overt acts by individuals.  However, America is also a very great nation that has the courage to critically examine itself.  The problems we have are not new but instead, more attention is now being paid to them.  And I honestly believe that to remedy those issues, we must continue to look at the past for it provides many valuable lessons from which we can learn.  I picked up this book because 1) I have been a fan of Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) for many years and 2) I knew that the book would contain a wealth of highly intellectual discussions about American society that have relevance, even today.   And I can say unquestionably that this short book is a good look at Hansberry’s brilliant mind that was able to dissect America in ways that sets the stage for meaningful dialogue and change.  

The title may give the impression that it is a one-on-one session with Hansberry but in fact, it is a collection of interviews and articles she wrote during the height of her fame.  Some interviews were recorded for television and the audio for the discussion with Studs Turkel (1912-2008) in particular, can be found on YouTube.  Further, she is sometimes a participant in group discussions that include a range of voices such as James Baldwin (1924-1987) and Langston Hughes (1902-1967).  When they are all together, you can feel the energy in the text and each speaker shines in their assessment of being a Negro author and the social climate in America.   Baldwin shines bright as always and his words are hauntingly accurate of the America he loved and sought to change during his lifetime.  Those who are in the process of writing themselves will absolutely love the group discussion.  But the focus here is on Lorraine and she is given her own platform so to speak to share her thoughts which are numerous and enlightening.  What I found to be highly appealing is her ability to reveal herself in a way that instantly makes you feel as if you know her well.  While I read through the book, I picked up a few things that I was not aware of before that added to the Hansberry story which truly is remarkable.  And considering that she is now recognized as a great playwright, this quote might surprise some readers: 

“I was not a particularly bright student. I had some popularity, and a premature desire, probably irritating, to be accepted in my circle on my terms. My dormitory years, which numbered only two at the University of Wisconsin, were spent in heated discussion on everything from politics to the nature of art, and I was typically impatient at people who couldn’t see the truth- as I saw it. It must have been a horror”

There are a couple of discussions where her role is quite minor.  Whether they should have been included or not is not for me to say but I did find myself hoping that Hansberry would have more to say.   But, putting that aside, I was more than satisfied with the statements and written words that came from Hansberry herself.  If I had to find a crux in the book, it would definitely be her play A Raisin in the Sun, which is still one of the longest running plays in Broadway history.  And in 2014, I had the honor of seeing Denzel Washington live as he took on the role of Walter Lee Younger. He was truly remarkable and captured the essence of Walter just as Sidney Poitier did many years ago.  Here, she explains the back story to the play and her intentions when creating what became a masterpiece.  And make no mistake, getting the play to Broadway was a feat.  And surprisingly, it almost did not happen.  In fact, what eventually came to be did so because of encouragement to become a dramatist by her former husband Robert B. Nemiroff (1929-1991), who preserved her works after her death.  As Lorraine speaks, it can be seen just how simple of a person she was at times.  She never comes across as superficial, egotistical or unrelatable.  In fact, as she speaks, you cannot help but to like her even more.  Physically she stood roughly five feet tall but, in this book, she is certainly larger than life.  And when it comes to the Civil Rights Movement, she is spot on in her observations and honestly believed in peace.  The constant struggle for civil rights was exhausting and this quote sums up the frustration and sense of depression that many found within it: 

“The most shocking aspect of the whole thing”, Miss Hansberry concluded, ” is the waist of our youth – when they should be in school, or working, or just having fun, instead of having to ride Freedom buses, be subject to police brutality, go to jail, to get rights that should be unquestioned.”  

The “Movement” as it is sometimes called, forced America to look in the mirror and make amends for a long and brutal history.  Today in 2021, we are still confronting many dark aspects of our past, but the future truly is bright. America is changing again, and I always hope for the better. Hansberry, along with Baldwin, believed that in the future, America could be a place where anyone could live freely.  And although she did not live to see just how far society has come, I believe that if she were alive, she would be both optimistic and dismayed at some of the things we see taking place. As someone who experienced racial violence firsthand, she knew all too well of the dangers that come with extremism.  Throughout her life, she always believed that it was those dangers that caused her father’s demise.  When discussing her past, she is frank about his last days: 

“My father left the South as a young man, and then he went back there and got himself and education. He was a wonderful and very special kind of man. He died in 1945, at the age of fifty-one, of a cerebral hemorrhage, supposedly, but American racism helped kill him. He died in Mexico, where he was making preparations to move all of us out of the United States”

The family remained in the United States after his death and Lorraine soon found a home in New York City. And that move changed her life forever and resulted in the abundance of material she left behind.  Her tragic and untimely death at only age thirty-four, silenced one of the movement’s strongest voices. However, the movement will never end for any of us regardless of what we look like or where we come from.  The oppression of one human being by another is a constant blemish on mankind but it does not deter us from continuing to do right by each other and set examples for future generations. And no matter many years pass by, Lorraine’s voice will be as loud then as it is here and was many years ago.  

ISBN-10 : 1496829646
ISBN-13 : 978-1496829641

 

William L. Shirer: Twentieth Century Journey: The Start, 1904–1930; The Nightmare Years, 1930–1940; A Native’s Return, 1945–1988 – William L. Shirer

shirer Quite some time has passed since my last post, mainly due to work matters and my being fully invested in finishing the book that is the subject of this review.  Originally, I had planned on reading this three-part autobiography by William L. Shirer (1904-1993) one book at a time but Amazon also offers them combined and I decided to take the plunge.  Shirer  is by far, one of my favorite authors and there was no way I could pass this one up.  Some of you may be familiar with him and recall that he is best known for his time as a CBS correspondent stationed in Nazi Germany during Adolf Hitler’s (1889-1945) rise to power. Upon returning to the United States, he moved to radio full time and lived the rest of his years as an author of historical non-fiction that has stood the test of time. 

At the onset, I did not fully appreciate the length of the material.  And to say that the e-book is a long would be an understatement.  But contained within is an incredible story by one of America’s greatest witnesses to history.  Up first is volume one called “The Start” and his story begins in the Midwest in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on February 04, 1904, shortly after the turn of the century.  America was a very different place and Shirer is a master storyteller who brings the distant past back to life, allowing us to re-live what it was like in a time before cars, planes and the modern technology we take for granted daily.  As Shirer tells his story, he reveals something about his family’s ancestry that would later be a source of irony in the book. To be more specific, Shirer explains: 

“The family name originally was Scheurer, a fairly common name in the German Black Forest region. Some time during the trek west it was Anglicized to Shirer. My grandfather attached no importance to the change, explaining to me once, when I asked him, that it was done mainly because the town officials and tradesmen mistakenly kept writing it the way they thought it sounded, and it was simpler to go along with them.” 

In a twist of fate, the author of German stock, would make his name famous by reporting on the atrocities of the Third Reich in his family’s fatherland.  But Germany was not his first destination as a foreign news correspondence. In fact, Germany was not even on his list of places to be stationed.  How and why he left the United States to work in Europe is fully explained and it is clear that from a young age, Shirer’s life was destined to be anything but ordinary.  It surely was a complex fate and Shirer sums up the turn of events in this passage: 

“I had come over to Europe for two months. As it turned out, I would remain there to live and work for two decades, experiencing and chronicling the remaining years of an uneasy peace, the decline of the democracies, the rise of the dictatorships, turmoil, upheaval, violence, savage repression, and finally war.” 

Shirer did return to the United States early in his career, but a meeting with Robert Rutherford “Colonel” McCormick (1880-1955) of the Chicago Tribune turned out to be more than he could ever expected and set him down the path that would take him back to Europe and finally Berlin, where he would witness the rise of Nazi Germany.  The first volume is a good and Shirer’s memories of his time in Europe wherein he convalesced with some of the greatest writers and stars are interesting.  Among the many stars who make an appearance are literary greats Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951), Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) and Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961).  Shirer is like a human recorder, observing everything and brining the past back to life through his words.  It becomes clear that Europe is a second home and a place more familiar to him than the United States.  And though he would eventually return home, the reader will begin to see that Europe is the place where the best is yet to come and his to Germany in the second volume called “The Nightmare Years”, is where we see the William Shirer that most of us will be familiar with.  

In the second volume, Berlin takes center stage as Hitler is ramping up the Germany war machine as part of his master plan to dominate Europe. But first, he moves to annex neighboring countries without the use of force and Shirer revisits each episode to explain how Hitler pulled off those feats and why no one moved to stop him.  It will make some readers wonder whether World War II could have been prevented as early as 1938. Hitler seized on the inaction of Britain and France, setting his sights on Poland. But this time, people did step in and the world went to war.  Shirer, who had left the Chicago Tribune in a weird series of events that is discussed in the book, was hired by legendary broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (1908-1965) to become the CBS Correspondent in Berlin. This change of fate placed Shirer at the scene of the crimes so to speak as the Nazi regime plotted and schemed its way to become a looming threat across an entire continent. 

His interactions with the German officials are particularly amusing and reveal the façade presented to ordinary Germanys by the Nazis who had assured them that Germany did not want war with anyone.  Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) makes repeated appearances throughout the story and the full extent of his delusion is on display.  Shirer gives his analysis of Goebbels and the other characters in Hitler’s inner circle whose names are infamous in world history.  I believe Oscar Wilde had it right when he said “the world is a stage, but the play is badly cast”.  However, in Nazi Germany, the cast was not only but deadly to anyone deemed inferior or Jewish.  Shirer does not go into the issue of the concentration camps extensively and I believe to do so would have required a different book. But he does bring up the matter later on during the Nuremberg trials. This part of the story is focused on the rise, menace and fall of Nazi Germany but in a highly compressed format.  Also, Shirer and his family left Germany in 1940, five years before the Germany military surrendered to Allied forces. His return home and life after war are covered extensive in volume three titled “A Native’s Return”. 

Upon returning home, Shirer starts the process of becoming re-acclimated with his native land. I do not believe he ever imagined how his life would change as he re-settled in America.  He found a place on radio but his relationship with Murrow takes a strange turn and Shirer goes through the entire story of his departure from CBS. I have not heard Murrow’s side if he ever put it in writing or gave statements orally.  But, the influence of former CBS president William S. Paley (1901-1990) is clearly evident and cast a dark cloud over the events as they play out.  But Shirer does not stay down for long and moves through life facing adversity head on.  And one decision in 1954, changed his life and reputation forever. It was then that he decided to write his masterpiece, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany, a book that remains among my favorites.  What I found surprising through Shirer’s words is that originally, no one wanted to publish the book.  It sounds mind-boggling today but I can understand that in 1954, a book over 1,000 pages was not an easy sell and still is not.  But in writing that book, Shirer created the definitive account of the Third SS Reich.  

Following the success of the book, Shirer embark on another project about the French defeat in World War II, a book which I have added to my list.  That book’s creation and reception are explained and shows the extent of knowledge Shirer possessed with regards to the war.  As the third volume progresses, he offers his continuing commentary on historical events in American history from Watergate to the Iran-Contra scandal.  And his frankly discusses his personal problems including the relationship with his wife Tess and his heart problems in later years.  Incredibly, Shirer never stops moving and even fulfils is dream of seeing Russia.  A good recap of that trip is also included in Shirer’s signature writing style.  As the third volume winds down, Shirer provides an overview of his life and those of his closest friends who all meet their own ending in various ways.  It truly is an incredible story of a journey through a century that changed our world.  As an American, he was placed in a unique position observe the world and as a final reflection, Shirer closes the three-part series with this quote that I personally can relate to for a number of reasons: 

“It was a complex fate, maybe, as Henry James said, to be an American and one, I realize, not especially admired by some in other countries and other cultures, who perceived us as “the ugly Americans.” Still, as I wrote in the last line of the general introduction, I am glad it was mine.” – William L. Shirer 

B08L9JTCYQ

A Promised Land – Barack Obama

20210101_134744I believe that we can all agree that 2020 was a year unlike any other in modern history.  The coronavirus, officially known as Covid-19, brought the world to a grinding halt and disrupted our lives in ways we could have never imagined.  Here in the United States, we saw the pandemic take hold, social unrest erupt and the election of Joe Biden, Jr., as the next President of the United States of America. His swearing in on January 20, will mark the final stage in the transition between administrations. For some, it signals the return of politics largely void of the more extreme rhetoric that has gripped the country in recent years.  Former President Barack Obama, will undoubtedly be called on for support and advice.  I have often thought back to the Obama administration and the decisions that were made on a range of issues. But in particular, I have become even more interested in what life is really like as the Commander-In-Chief.   This book, by the 44th President of the United States is exactly what I had been looking for. Not only does it provide an insider’s view into life within the White House, it is also a sobering account of life as a politician.  There are highs and lows with a lot in between.  

The book is in part an autobiography, with Obama reflecting on his childhood in both Hawaii and Indonesia.  However, the more mundane aspects of his life story are not included.  In fact, his early life is fairly compressed into a small section of the book.  The story picks up the pace when he meets his future wife Michelle, at the law firm of Sidley & Austin in Chicago, IL.  And this description of his first impression of her is one of the highlights in the book: 

Michelle Lavaughn Robinson was already practicing will when we met. She was 25 years old and an associate at Sidley & Austin, the Chicago law firm where I worked the summer after my first year of law school. She was tall, beautiful, funny, outgoing, generous and wickedly smart-and I was smitten almost from the second I saw her.

For Michelle, the story is a little different as she explains in her own book Becoming, which has become one of my favorites for its honesty and ease at which it can put an interested reader.  Curiously, when I have asked my own parents of how they came together, their versions also slightly differ.  Perhaps it is the passage of time or the way in which men and women view their shared history that results in varying versions of the romance between them.  Regardless, the required component of love that is built upon a strong foundation, can be found here and the journey they embark on with two daughters, is nothing short of incredible. 

What I found to be appealing about the book is that Obama does not avoid discussing his own mistakes, transgressions and administrative policies that did not work out.  And like other world leaders, he experienced self-doubt, not in a prohibitive way but as a young politician questioning whether he can make his mark against established political juggernauts.  With the benefit of hindsight, we know today that fate was on his side.  The campaign and the election itself are covered with particular detail paid to the mission his team faced in getting most of America to vote for a largely unknown bi-racial candidate with a Muslim name.  The story reveals a lot about America while showing how far we have come and how far we still have to go.  I am aware that those who do not like the former president will have their opinions formed before reading the book if they choose to do so. And others will have the opposite mindset and possibly be blinded to his faults due to their admiration of him.  Regardless of your political affiliation, if you decide to read this book, you must do so with an open mind.  

Although I remember clearly when he was elected, I still found myself reading with suspense as the primary results came in followed by the general election.  In the wake of his victory, he begins to put together his cabinet and this part of the book will be of high interest to those who are curious as to how presidents assemble their teams.  It is an exhaustive process and the amount of tasks that have to be completed the by the new Commander-In-Chief are staggering.  Personally, the Obamas’ lives are changed forever for better and worse.  He discusses this aspect as well, with high focus on the lack of privacy afforded to a high profile public official.  Further, his ethnicity put him under a more focused microscope and for right-wing figures, he was the perfect target for all that they believed was wrong with America. However, it is clear that deep down, he is a human being like the rest of us who loves action films, a pickup game of basketball and spending time with his family.  It will be easy to see why so many voters felt that they could relate to him on a personal level.  And I found one section of the book in which current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) gives him this advice on being president: 

“Mister President”, Nancy said to me on one call, “I tell my members that what you managed to do in such a short time is historic. I’m just so very proud, really. But right now, the public doesn’t know what you accomplished. They don’t know how awful the Republicans are behaving, just trying to block you and everything. And voters aren’t going to know if you aren’t willing to tell them” 

At times during his presidency, it seemed as Washington was about to go off the rails. But, before that could happen, the country was in dire shape due to a recession in 2008. Obama explains what awaited him as he came into office and how his cabinet tackled the looming financial crisis.  Some readers may be shocked to learn just how close the nation came to financial collapse and why that threat exist today as a pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the American and world’s economies, which are inextricably linked as readers will see.  As Commander-in-Chief, Obama travels the globe and provides us with keen observations of a host of world figures, some of whom remain in power today.  And on the domestic front, the battle with House and Senate Republicans takes center stage with Senator Mitchell McConnell, Jr. (R-KY) filling the role of the antagonist in the story.   Obama never portrays McConnell as being evil and recognizes that the senator from Kentucky is a seasoned veteran of politics.  Also, he makes it a point to keep the focus on legislation and avoids personal attacks and scrutiny of the personal lives of those opposing him.  I felt that this approach was correct and provided the book with the touch of class needed for it be well-received.  Although he is honest about his feelings with regards to their actions, he also acknowledges their strengths and accomplishments.  

Some readers might be expecting a long discussion regarding the current president but Obama only dedicates a short section to Trump, which focuses mainly on the birther conspiracy that gained traction during his first term.  Interestingly, Obama points out something in Trump’s actions that readers will pick up on as they move through that section.  It will make one wonder whether Trump really believes what he says or is simply a master at manipulation and riding the waves of conservative sentiments. 

Towards the end of the book, Obama moves on to the Middle East and the final mission to locate and eliminate Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011).  The reasons for greenlighting the mission and how it developed are explained and left to readers to decide whether it was the right call.   What is clear is that by all accounts, it was the success that had been hoped for.  And while it did not eliminate Islamic terror, it did satisfy one promise he made before getting elected that if he had Bin Laden in the cross-hairs, he would authorize the mission. The book closes after the Bin Laden raid and I had expected more to follow regarding his second term in office. However, if he had included a discussion of the next four years, the book would have grown to a staggering amount of pages and tuned even the most die-hard readers off.  Perhaps there will be another book but only time will tell.  However, for the present time, we have this memoir of a ground-breaking time in United States history. 

ISBN-10: 1524763160
ISBN-13: 978-1524763169

 

 

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.

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