Berlin Diary: The Journal of a Foreign Correspondent 1934-1941 – William L. Shirer

Shirer

In December 1941, CBS News Foreign Correspondent William L. Shirer (1904-1993) sailed from Europe for the final time as World War II claimed lives and destroyed cities. At the time of his departure, World War II was heading into its second year but several months ahead of the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor and the entry of the United States into the conflict. The journalist said goodbye to a continent to which he had devoted fifteen years of his life. Upon his return, he assembled his diary, carefully hidden from the Gestapo and Nazi Germany officials and turned them into this account of what he witnessed as Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) embarked on a path of world domination and plunged the world into its deadliest conflict.  And the result is an eye-opening account of life behind the carefully crafted world image that Nazis put forth to keep the prying eyes of powerful nations averted as the Wehrmacht plundered its way across western Europe.

Shirer may be recognized by readers for his other phenomenal work on the Nazi regime, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany‘, a masterpiece of writing that remains on my shelf and list of favorite books to this day. I strongly recommend it to readers in search of a thorough history of Nazi Germany.  Here, the story is focused on life in Germany as the Nazis took hold of the country. At the start of the book, Hitler has already been made Chancellor, so there is little in the journal about the transfer of power from President Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934) or the Reichstag Fire. The focus is on daily life in Berlin and the sobering Nazi conditions placed on the Reich’s citizens. As an American journalist, Shirer was allowed close access to the notorious figures of the Reich from President and Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe Hermann Göring (1893-1946), Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (1897-1945) and the notorious Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945). Shirer did cross paths with Hitler and witnessed his speeches, but there was no formal interview that Shirer would have referred to had it existed. Regardless of his location and situation within the Reich, he witnesses the truth behind the Reich that contrasted with what Hitler was saying to the German people.

Germany’s rearmament was a direct violation of the Treaty of Versailles, but Hitler had no intentions on adhering to the sanctions and rules placed upon the Fatherland. Western powers were slow to react to the Germany build-up but on the ground, Shirer was able to see how popular Hitler was becoming and the preparations for conflict like no other. He makes notes about German life from the peculiar behavior on the streets and Germans he knows personally. There are bits of humor in the observations yet the dark cloud on the horizon continues to approach. And in the weeks before the Germany invasion of Poland on September 1,1939, the suspense continued to build as Shirer shows in the daily entries. But there are two incidents in the notes that require a comment. The appeasement at Munich, widely seen as the last chance to stop Hitler’s plan is discussed and Shirer’s disbelief at the British actions towards Hitler’s aggression was shared by the author of this post. Former U.S. President John F. Kennedy (1917-1963) once wrote about this in his classic ‘Why England Slept‘, a valuable book about the failure to confront the Austrian menace in Berlin. The other entry in the journal relates to the German advancement on the Rhineland in 1936. What he notes in his journal about the missed opportunity to stop Hitler is one of the war’s most puzzling events. The comments by German officers following the de-escalation on the Rhine highlight the ability of the Germans to bluff their way through as Hitler consolidated power and seized territory.

The journal entries pick up in intensity as the threat of war increases. And like a runaway train, we know that it is coming but nothing can stop it, and the shock felt by Shirer as a correspondent on the ground is captured by his words written after the Germany invasion of Poland. From this point on, the diary takes an entirely different course as the Nazi machine kicks into high gear and then plateaus. England is the “antagonist” in the story according to Hitler, and a sizeable portion of the entries are related to the off and on-again discussions with London about “peace”, though Hitler had no desire to let England survive. The showdown between England and Germany intensifies and soon the Royal Air Force began to hit targets within the Fatherland. Experienced German pilots were aware that England would not be easily defeated, and that Germany had its weaknesses which made winning a world war impossible. As a journalist, Shirer was intent on publishing all news about the German war front both good and bad. However, censorship was in full effect and throughout the story, there are countless battles between the author and German officials who inspected incoming and outgoing communications. The propaganda war waged by the Reich was nothing short of absurd. But it worked within Germany’s borders. Shirer takes note of this and gives insight into German mindset that explains why the people gave Hitler the power he desired. And these observations could have only come from a correspondent in the field watching the events as they happened.

There are occasions in the book where Shirer leaves Germany and travels to other European nations but most of the entries are from Berlin where the promise of a quick war rings hollow as England puts up more of a fight than expected. And the realization that Germany is not invincible begins to dawn on the German people who create crude jokes to describe Third Reich leadership. In the distance is the looming threat of American involvement, about which Shirer makes a premonitory statement that later came to fruition. Hitler also knew it would happen and pre-emptively signed agreements with Japan and Italy, realizing that America would never surrender to German domination. Nonetheless, Shirer accurately sizes up Germany’s sealed fate and the insanity of Adolf Hitler. The final entry in the book provides a fitting conclusion to an unbelievable story. As Shirer watches Europe fade in the distance aboard the vessel that will begin his journey back to America he remarks:

“For a time I stood against the rail watching the lights recede on a Europe in which I had spent all fifteen of my adult years, which had given me all of my experience and what little knowledge I had. It had been a long time, but they had been happy years, personally, and for all people in Europe they had had meaning and borne hope until the war came and the Nazi blight and the hatred and the fraud and the political gangsterism and the murder and the massacre and the incredible intolerance and all the suffering and the starving and cold and the thud of a bomb blowing the people in a house to pieces, the thud of all the bombs blasting man’s hope and decency.”

A year after Shirer returned to the United States, Japan attacked the Pearl Harbor Naval base bringing America into the deadliest war in history. For the next five years the world remained at war in a conflict between democracy and tyranny. In the end, a dictator lay dead and nations in ruins. The threat of dictatorship will never subside and to protect society from the dangers of tyranny, we must remember how it was done. This is the inside story of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler’s hold over Germany.

ISBN-10:‎ 0883659220
ISBN-13:‎ 978-0883659229

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 – Garrett M. Graff

graffThis past Sunday marked the twenty-first anniversary of the September 11th attacks which claimed the lives of 2,996 people. The mood in New York City was somber, with rain and dark clouds all day. However, that did not stop anyone from remembering the tragedies on September 11, 2001, a day that changed America. Friends are always surprised to learn that I have never visited the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. As a New Yorker who was in Manhattan on the day of the attacks, and watched the events unfold from an office window, I will always have my memories of that sad day. But my reluctance to visit the museum has never prevented me from reading and hearing stories from people who were at the World Trade Center and survived. Undoubtedly, there are survivors who have never told their stories, choosing not to re-live the events of that day. Thousands of others did go on the record and their words have been preserved so that the history of 9/11 can continue to be told to future generations. Author Garrett M. Graff has compiled hundreds of statements from survivors, Bush Administration officials, NYC officials, military personnel and first responders, and has turned them into this oral history of the attacks.

Because the book is an oral history, there is no standard narration. The author does provide relevant information when needed but otherwise, the speakers tell us what happened as the day progressed. They range from former President George W. Bush to office workers at the World Trade Center complex. To be clear, Bush does not give an interview but what is included are snippets from the speeches he gave to the country on the evening of the attacks. Readers may feel that the approach is disjointed at first because the statements provided by the speakers are short but also long enough to give you relevant information. And the format works beautifully because it allows them to add small pieces to the bigger picture. And what emerges are unbelievable stories of luck, courage, heartbreak, and fate. You will experience a range of emotions and in the epilogue, the author discloses that even he became emotional while authoring the book. But he pressed forward, and the result is a masterpiece that belongs in the vast archive of materials about the 9/11 attacks.

Readers will notice that there are four stories in the book, one for each phase of the attacks that morning. They began in New York when the North Tower was struck at 8:46 a.m. At first, it was thought that a horrible accident had taken place but when a plane struck the South Tower, it was clear that America was under attack. Surprisingly, the response to the threats did not move at the speed at which one would hope. In fact, the confusion and chaos within America’s air defense network is clear in the book. Fighter pilots were forced to take flight in time spans they would never see under normal conditions. And what the pilots reveal about how prepared they were, and the reality of confronting Flight 93 will give you chills.

There are no smoking guns in the stories and the alleged hijackers are rarely mentioned but there is a wealth of information in the book about what took place behind the scenes within the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, the hijacked airliners and Air Force One which found itself the only plane in the sky as officials shut down America’s air space. As I read the book, I noted that the sobering reality of that day is that no one imagined that type of scenario. Former New York Fire Department Commissioner Thomas Van Essen, who watched the deaths of hundreds of firefighters, first responders and civilians has stated that “nothing could have ever really prepared us for what happened—or how fast the events would unfold“.  All hell broke loose in Manhattan and the horrors of the battle to survive at the World Trade Center as told by the survivors is haunting. I felt chills reading of the last moments from trapped workers on floor about the crash location and the breakdown in communication that could have saved lives. At the helm was Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his statements also show how chaotic the day had become. 9/11 was a day that no one thought could ever happen but there were warnings that something was brewing and that an Islamic fundamentalist had America in his crosshairs.

Prior to the attacks of 9/11, the name Osama Bin Laden (1957-2011) was unknown to the public. But there were officials in Washington who knew of him and his plan to destroy America. The author does not explore whether Bin Laden was guilty and how planning was executed or any connections between the alleged suspects. He leaves that to the speakers who do state that they believed Bin Laden was behind the attacks. Aboard Air Force One, President Bush was briefed throughout the day and the former administration officials who appear in the book clarify any theories about his alleged “strange behavior” that day. The main concern was always Bush’s safety due to the belief that the president himself was a target. Action was swift and the Secret Service was taking any chances. The cabinet’s departure from Florida and decision to land at Barksdale Air Force Base are revisited in vivid detail and the suspense unfolds like Hollywood but this is what happened, and there was no script that day. People had jobs to be done and they went into action to the best of their abilities. The number of heroes in the book is staggering and chance encounters proved to be a matter of life or death.

The day after 9/11 I remember the feeling in New York City that what had transpired the day before could not have been real. It felt as if we were trapped in a horrible nightmare that would not end. We wanted to go back to Monday September 10 and keep that day going instead. But as weeks turned into months and crews continued with the cleanup of debris and identification of remains, the dark and unsettling truth that America was not immune to attack became clear. The country had changed, and the threat of terror became the number one priority. Children coming of age today will only know the attacks through multimedia but for older generations, 9/11 remains vividly clear. And we have authors such as Garrett M. Graff to thank for the books that preserve the history of the attacks that impacted the United States and the world. This oral history of that day is a treasure and a literary work that is a gift that keeps on giving.

ASIN:‎ B07P5H18W6

A Great Sacrifice: Northern Black Soldiers, Their Families, and the Experience of Civil War – James G. Mendez

MendezThe more I learn about history, the more I realize how much of it is not taught in schools. I recall learning about the Civil War but in limited discussions. And I fondly remember the 1989 film Glory featuring Matthew Broderick, Morgan Freeman, and Denzel Washington. The story of black soldiers in the Civil War needed to be shown but of course, there is far more to the story. Here, author James G. Mendez discusses the experiences of the Civil War’s black soldiers and their families during a time when America was being pulled apart at the seams. And what he shows is that there is far more to the story of the Civil War than one might expect.

When I saw this book in my list of recommendations, it immediately caught my attention. I knew beforehand that it would not be an easy read and my suspicion was correct. And though the story is not all tragedy and heartbreak, it is rife with examples of the grueling hardships black troops faced in the Union Army during the war as they fought for their freedom and the lives of millions of Black Americans.  But before the author arrives at the point of the induction of black troops, he first provides a discussion of the social climate in America which constantly denied African Americans basic rights. Frankly, life was brutally hard for blacks and as the author shows, basic rights were a dream for them. Readers might be shocked to see that states considered to be “liberal” or “blue” today have their own dark history including New York, my home state. Mendez pulls no punches and shows that even in the North, blacks still faced enormous hurdles, and support for the war effort varied and was not unified behind the idea of eradicating slavery. In fact, the author’s work shows that attitudes towards slavery were varied and unpredictable. However, the abolitionists were determined to see its demise.

I once told a friend that black history is American history. I say this because you cannot separate the two. And as can be seen in the book, the efforts of Black Americans have been crucial in the history of this nation. In regard to combat, Mendez explains:

“Blacks fought, both as slaves and free men, in every American war, including the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Mexican-American War. They fought bravely and received accolades from prominent American leaders such as Andrew Jackson, who acknowledged after the Battle of New Orleans (December 1814 to January 1815) that black soldiers played a major role in his victory.” 

Despite the contributions of blacks, resistance to black troops during the Civil War was strong and commonplace. Readers will be disheartened and surprised to learn of the attitude towards using black troops held by those in power in across states in the Union and in the army itself. Delaware in particular will stand out to readers in the book. As the war progressed, it became apparent that the Union Army needed manpower and eventually, the idea of using black troops became a reality due to the actions of Governor John A. Andrew (1818-1867) of Massachusetts. His vision and the developments that ensued will provide readers with a firm foundation as the story of the Northern Black troops kicks into high gear.

As one would expect, the arrival of black troops did not always go smoothly and the harsh reality the new soldiers faced is discussed. And their opponents were not solely those wearing a uniform. In fact, I learned for the first time about the deadly race riots in Detroit and New York City that were horrifying. The shocking events and impact on the troops’ morale is a crucial point in the book for it shows the difficult place black troops found themselves in. How did they have the courage and will to fight for a country that denied them basic rights? In the face of severe hostility and violence, blacks continued to enlist in the Union Army. And to put the importance of their service into perspective, Mendez provides key statistics:

“Nearly 200,000 black soldiers served in the Civil War—178,975 in the army and the remainder in the navy. Out of the total number in the army, 32,723 were from the North.” 

On the battlefield, black troops fought and died alongside white soldiers but even in death they and their families continued to suffer indignations. Not only was the pay between whites and blacks unequal but for black families, obtaining benefits for a loved one’s death could be impossible. The sad and complicated story of the unequal pay matter is one of the darkest parts of the book, yet it makes the story of the troops even more remarkable. The military and Congress did eventually address the matter, but the timing will leave readers mystified.

In the film Glory, the battle scenes are graphic, and it is known that the savagery in which battles were fought was not for the faint at heart. However, I learned here that soldiers often died due to conditions that would not be fatal today and the leading causes of their deaths may surprise you. Of course, what the author reveals does make sense in hindsight but is still shocking. Further, those who survived returned with their scars and trauma. Survivors of the war include Charles R. Douglass (1844-1920), the son of abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). His story is a prime example of the extensive damage the war inflicted upon its participants.

Eventually, the war reaches its bloody climax, and the Confederacy is forced to concede defeat. But the Union mission was far from over. Black troops were needed more than ever and how they were used after the South’s defeat is, yet another example of the difficulties faced by them before, during, and after the war. But what stands out here is that the reality of black troops being gatekeepers of the South was a recipe for a disaster and doomed from the start. The intricacies of the Union’s post-war actions and failures by Washington are additional tragedies that afflicted black troops and the country, inadvertently paving the way for the rise of Jim Crow. This book is not about the Reconstruction Acts, but Mendez does mention the actions of President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) who clashed with Radical Republicans as the latter sought to rebuild the South completely.

I wish this book had been available and required reading when I was a student years ago. There is a wealth of information contained here often neglected or possibly unknown. America has come a long way since the Civil War, but the conflict continues to haunt the nation as the issues of race and equality remain at the forefront. In comparison to the 1800s, life for Americans is vastly different. But let us not forget that between 1861 and 1865, America was at war with itself, and joining the effort were its black residents fighting for their lives and the freedom of future generations.

ASIN:‎ B07BHQ6XKM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN: B072LL4ZN2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASIN: B008UX8GH8

Survival in the Killing Fields – Haing S. Ngor

ngorOn March 25, 1985, the 57th Academy Awards ceremony was held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles. During the ceremony, the category of best supporting actor was called, and the winner was Haing S. Ngor (1940-1996), a doctor born and raised in Cambodia, who had survived the Khmer Rouge dictatorship under the notorious Pol Pot (1925-1998). Ngor had starred as Cambodian journalist Dith Pran (1942-2008) in the 1984 film The Killing Fields starring Sam Waterston, John Malkovich, and Craig T. Nelson. The movie is tough to watch due to its sensitive subject matter but also an important work of art that captured a time in world history when a revolution nearly destroyed an entire nation permanently.

I was familiar with the Khmer Rouge before starting the book and I have seen the film more than once. I have also read Loung Ung’s First They Killed My Father, a gripping account of life under the Khmer Rouge. Her story was adapted for the big screen and in 2017, Netflix released the film of the same name directed by Angelina Jolie. Though there are some modifications to the story in the film, it is follows the book fairly closely and shows how Cambodian society was turned upside down during the tyranny of the Khmer Rouge. Ngor is even more blunt in how life changed for Cambodians:

“The truth was that under the communists the country was much worse off than it had ever been during my lifetime. We had no electricity. No clocks or automobiles. No modern medicines. No schools. No religious worship. Very little food. And we lived in constant fear of the soldiers.”

The book begins with Ngor remembering his early life and fragile relationship with his father. A volatile temper and determination to resist anything he felt was unfair, resulted in Ngor going through a series of inconvenient situations, including one with his father that placed their relationship under great strain. However, he eventually graduates from medical school and begins to practice medicine. Life as a doctor is good and at home, his wife Huoy performs the traditional duties of a wife in Cambodian society. On April 17, 1975, their lives were changed permanently when Pol Pot and his revolutionaries seized control of Cambodia under the guise of rebuilding society. Millions of Cambodians had no idea what would come next as the extremists dismantled society piece by piece. To give the reader an idea of how extreme their ideloogy was, Ngor explains that:

“The Khmer Rouge wanted a complete change of society, from top to bottom. Gone was everything that had governed our lives in the old times. Lon Nol was gone, airlifted to America before the fall; Sihanouk was gone, his fate a mystery. The monks were gone.” 

Following the takeover, families were uprooted and forced to move, typically to distant parts of the country to engage in heavy manual labor. Famine, inhumane treatment, and lack of crucial resources gave rise to disease, hunger, and death in work camps across the country. Ngor himself suffered illness on more than one occasion as he explains in the book. Had it not been for his medical training which he kept secret for reasons also disclosed in the book, he surely would have perished. The aid of his wife Huoy was invaluable and she served as his guardian angel on more than one occasion. But her fate and that of those around them, are among the difficult moments in the book. And when not facing death from hunger or disease, workers were reminded through vicious and bloodthirsty guards that Angkar was  watching. This system of surveillance gave men and women incentive to spy on each other and tell what they saw, even if it meant death to those accused. Ngor becomes a first-hand witness to the brutal system of torture that Angkar notoriously used to break the spirit of those needing “reformation”.

As time progressed, cracks in the surface began to show and Ngor realizes that the regime is slowly falling apart. The Khmer Rouge’s idea of transforming society was a complete failure and in its attempt to flex its muscle, it had angered the North Vietnamese Government which soon made it a goal to deal with Cambodia. In April 1979, the Vietnamese invaded and put an end to the reign of the Khmer Rouge. But for Ngor and millions of his fellow citizens, the occupation by Vietnam did not end their ordeal overnight. Cambodia had been freed of one communist government only to be replaced by another. Those who were able realized the only option was to cross the border into Thailand. The journey was not easy and bandits along the way were just as ruthless as the Khmer Rouge if not worse at times. But in Thailand, the full weight of his ordeal comes crashing down when he reflects that:

“By 1979 Cambodia was utterly destroyed. Next door in Thailand were paved roads, beautiful temples and more rice than the people could eat. As a refugee, the more I saw of Thailand, the angrier I became. It was the anger of a man who finds out he has been lied to all his life.” 

After arriving in Thailand, Ngor slowly puts his life together and through a series of chance encounters, he befriends John Crowley of the Joint Volunteer Agency who paves the way for his next journey to the United States where he is joined by his adopted niece Sophia. His entry into America was rough at first but it is clear from the start that in comparison to the Cambodia he had left behind, America was a brand new and welcomed experience. And luck was on his side again when he was scouted and picked to star in the Killing Fields. His performance and win at the Oscars transformed Ngor into a celebrity but the experiences in Cambodia remained fresh in his mind and a heavy burden to bear. Ngor never ceased to labor on behalf of those still in Cambodia who never wanted to see another Khmer Rouge takeover. IN spite of his fame and success, Ngor remained haunted by what he saw and experienced. He reminds the reader that the Khmer Rouge destroyed nearly every part of Cambodian society. And I believe that this sombering statement bythe author sums up the experiences of those held under the iron grip of the Khmer Rouge:

“The Cambodian holocaust ripped through our lives, tossing us randomly, leaving none of us the way we were. You can blame who you want, the outside powers for interfering, or our own internal flaws like corruption and kum, but when the talking is over we still do not know why it had to happen. The country is still in ruins, millions have died and those of us who survived are not done with our grieving.”  

The book closes with more reflection by Ngor of Cambodia and his life in America. By this time, Sophia had moved out and the two had not spoken. In the epilogue, we learn more of their relationship and future interactions. Also, more information is provided about Ngor’s return to Cambodia, his business dealings and difficulties in life while living in Los Angeles. After finishing Ngor’s heartbreaking account of his life, readers will need to prepare for another difficult part in the book: Ngor’s final days.

On February 25, 1996, Ngor was returning home when he drove past three Asian street gang members. The trio was high on crack cocaine and saw him as their next target to score more cash. It is believed that after asking for his money and other valuables, the thieves also wanted a chain he wore which contained a locket holding a picture of his late wife Huoy. Ngor undoubtedly would have refused, and readers will understand why after finishing his story. Prosecutors stated that shots were fired and Ngor fell to the pavement gasping for air. He died on the scene at the age of fifty-five. It should be noted that the killers did not take Ngor’s car or money, leading people to believe that the killing was related to his past in Cambodia. It is difficult to say but there is one clue provided in the epilogue related to the political climate in Cambodia at the time that might explain who would have wanted him dead. We may never know the real motive for his death, but the shooter was sentenced to life in prison and his accomplices each received a sentence of twenty-five years to life.

In the future when I watch The Killing Fields again, I will now have a deeper appreciation for Ngor’s performance. I wish I had known more about him upon viewing the film for the first time. However, my lack of knowledge regarding his personal life does not detract from the viewing experience. The film is haunting as it should be to show viewers the danger of poisonous rhetoric. Voltaire had it right when he wrote that “any one who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices“. Haing S. Ngor was witness to one of history’s greatest crimes and lived to tell the tale of Cambodia’s darkest days. And even today, this book can server as reminder of the dangers that come with extremism and importance of addressing extreme ideology before it is too late.

ASIN ‏ : ‎ B019NFEM42

My Bondage and My Freedom – Frederick Douglass

Douglass The history of America is dark at times, and those moments have been omitted or neglected for many years. However, they are crucial to understanding how and why the United States developed into the nation that it is today. As an American, I am constantly seeking to understand my own country and clarify the myths that have propagated with regards to its past. I am learning uncomfortable truths, but they have not diminished the love that I have for America. In the history of this country, the name of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) remains a reminder of the institution of slavery that degraded human beings, served as the backbone of an economic system, and led America towards a civil war. Douglass was born into the slave system and became a free man as an adult. This is his story of his time in bondage, freedom from oppression and evolution into a public speaker.

The story begins with Douglass’s early years at the home of his grandparents. He had not understood that he was born into slavery and had no concept of it. But that soon changed when he was taken to meet his siblings whom he had never met. They reside on a plantation owned by former Maryland Governor Edward Lloyd (1779-1834). And it was here that Douglass came to know the horrors of the slave system for the first time. His observation about the lack of connection to his siblings reveals a devastating effect of slavery. Douglass points out that:

“The practice of separating children from their mother, and hiring the latter out at distances too great to admit of their meeting, except at long intervals, is a marked feature of the cruelty and barbarity of the slave system. But it is in harmony with the grand aim of slavery, which, always and everywhere, is to reduce man to a level with the brute. It is a successful method of obliterating from the mind and heart of the slave, all just ideas of the sacredness of the family, as an institution.” 

The family is the backbone for our journey through life and Douglass understood the tragedy that developed from its destruction. His words are tough to read at times and the cruelty he endures did not always come at the hands of slaveowners or overseers. In fact, the actions of his Aunt Katy are equally deplorable and the two of them never established a close bond. Douglass’ mother does enter the story but briefly and for reasons the reader will find disgust in. However, her life and role are also an example of slavery’s goal in breaking down the will and spirit of those caught in its grip. There is, however, something that Douglass points out which is interesting about slavery itself. During his time in bondage, he observed the lives of blacks and whites, and this statement regarding what he saw is interesting:

“I knew of blacks who were not slaves; I knew of whites who were not slaveholders; and I knew of persons who were nearly white, who were slaves. Color, therefore, was a very unsatisfactory basis for slavery.”

Racism was undeniably a contributing factor for enslavement, but revenue was the driving factor. The system of slavery did not see individuals, but property to be used until it was no longer useful.  The effects upon human chattel were disregarded by those in power. But slaves were not content with remaining in bondage, and it was not long before rebellions erupted across slave-owning territories. The names of John Brown (1800-1859), Denmark Vesey (1767-1822) and Nathaniel “Nat” Turner (1800-1831) stand out among the scores of men and women determined to destroy the system of slavery. Their actions were not lost on Douglass who keenly observed that rebellions would increase as the enslaved sought their natural born right to be free. As Douglass ages, he becomes more aware of the changing sentiment in America and the undercurrent of emotions by those in bondage and their allies in the abolitionist movement. As Douglass states himself:

“The insurrection of Nathaniel Turner had been quelled, but the alarm and terror had not subsided. The cholera was on its way, and the thought was present, that God was angry with the white people because of their slaveholding wickedness, and, therefore, his judgments were abroad in the land.”

I warn readers that his experiences on Lloyd’s plantation are not for the faint at heart. The degradation he endures should spark the fire of anger in anyone who reads this book. I found myself becoming emotional as I read his words and I cannot imagine the humiliation inflicted upon him and others who lived on the plantation. And what is interesting is that the plantation was not located in the deep south but in the State of Maryland. And his life became even more difficult when he was given to Capt. Thomas Auld, a former Army Commander during the War of 1812. Auld quickly becomes the darkest figure in the book and his cruelty towards Douglass is abhorrent. He was determined to break Douglass down and nearly succeeded completely as readers will learn in the book. However, the relationship between Douglass and Auld’s wife Lucretia offsets the darker moments. During his time with Auld, Douglass grows into a strapping young man and becomes determined to escape slavery at all costs. He first refuses to be beaten and after learning to read, began to understand how slavery functions at its core and why illiteracy is a necessary component to keep slaves in line. Once he learns the truth, his path to freedom comes into full focus. However, Douglass never fully reveals how he escaped from Maryland, likely to protect those who had assisted him. He does discuss how he became a free man once in the North but is also careful in that regard.

Following his escape from Maryland, he arrives in New York City but for a short amount of time before moving on to New Bedford, Massachusetts. And although slavery had been abolished in Massachusetts in 1781, Douglass soon learns that prejudice is not solely a product of the South. As he explains, he had his fair share of humiliation in the North as well. However, he was now free and despite the treatment by whites, he continued to evolve and mature. And his spirit becomes unbreakable. He also learns that he has the gift of oration and soon explores that talent to its fullest extent. Today he is regarded as one of the most popular voices of his time but regrettably, none of us will ever have the pleasure of hearing him speak in person. The story takes yet another turn when he is invited to visit several countries in Europe. It is this part of the book in which Douglass learns important truths about America while away from its shores. And what he explains to the reader are supported by the statements from jazz musician Miles Davis (1926-1991), whose experiences in France had opened his eyes to the dysfunction in America. Upon his return to the United States, Douglass was seasoned and armed with a better understanding of the world and the changes needed at home. He devoted the rest of his life the abolitionist movement and in 1877, he was confirmed as United States Marshal for the District of Columbia after being selected by President Rutherford B. Hayes (1822-1893). In later years, he attempted a run for president and held several posts in the U.S. Government. On February 20, 1895, Douglass died at the age of seventy-seven at his home in Washington, D.C. His wife Helen Pitts Douglass (1838-1903) lived several more years until her own death at the age of sixty-five.

I cannot overstate the importance of this work and why it is such a critical read. His story was the exception and not the normal course of action for thousands of enslaved people. He also revealed the contrast between the northern and southern parts of America, paying close attention to the prejudice against people of color across the nation. Frankly, life for Black people was short, humiliating and void of hope at times. However, Douglass and others like him, refused to live out their lives in bondage and were determined to gain their freedom even if it meant death. He is and always will be an icon for those who are oppressed and yearning for freedom.

The soul that is within me no man can degrade.” – Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

A People’s History of the Civil War: Struggles for the Meaning of Freedom – David Williams

Williams

I may have stated this before, but I absolutely love history. However, I have come to realize that there is much about my own country that I still need to learn. Of all the subjects that remains often misunderstood and debated is the American Civil War.  There is the common belief that the war about ending slavery but to others it was a case of “Northern aggression”. The truth is that there were multiple reasons for the war and not solely because of one above the others. But I do believe that Major Gen. Smedley Butler (1881-1940) was correct when he said, “war is a racket”. The realization that conflict has a monetary value unsettles the mind and spirit. The truth is rarely pleasant but always required to set the record straight. Author David Williams does just that in this remarkable account of the conflict that tore America apart. It can be argued that the Civil War is still affecting American society. I agree to an extent but for us to understand how and why, a full understanding of America and the war is needed. We can start at the beginning with the issue of slavery which is labeled as the major reason for the war. The image of the Confederacy and “Deep South” was one of abundant slave owners and plantations across the region. But as a I learned here, that was not always the case. In fact, what Williams shows is that the South was nowhere near as coherent as one might think. Nor was the number of slave owner and plantations in existence as one might suspect. As I read the book, I was quite surprised to learn of the reality behind the slave owning South and how it affected morale and pride during the war. 

Slavery was a critical issue the country faced as tensions continued to rise. Abolitionist were determined to see it fall and rebellions such as the one led by John Brown (1800-1859) caused pro-slavery parties in the South to take notice. The election of Abraham Lincoln installed fear in the hearts of Southerners, some of whom were certain that he would “take their slaves away”.  Washington was aware of abolitionists efforts but what was the real role of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1965)? Apologists have long sought to absolve Lincoln for many things that do not portray him in the most positive light. What can be seen in the book is that Lincoln’s actions and beliefs did not always fall in line with the iconized version presented in history books. In fact, Frederick Douglass was more explicit in his view of the President following Lincoln’s re-election: 

Though they had succeeded in keeping McClellan out of the White House, Radicals were not enthusiastic about giving Lincoln a second term. “When there was any shadow of a hope,” wrote Frederick Douglass, “that a man of a more decided anti-slavery conviction and policy could be elected, I was not for Mr. Lincoln.”

There is far more to Lincoln’s role revealed in the book and readers may be surprised. His plan for free Blacks will certainly cause readers to pause. However, his role in the conflict can neither be overstated or understated. He was a crucial part of the Union effort that ended in victory. And his actions, regardless of true motives, did help end the system of human slavery in the United States.  

Once the war begins, the course of battle is anything but predictable. However, the author reveals interesting facts about the Confederacy and its ability to achieve victory. When President Barack Obama won his second term, there was calls for “secession” by those unable to accept his re-election. To any rational individual, it was clear that would not happen. But what did happen when Southern States left the Union after Lincoln’s re-election? And what was the final straw that pushed them over the edge? The answers to those questions can be found within and the author also discusses another motive for secession that businesspeople in the North recognized and refused to accept. It soon becomes clear in the book, that slavery is only one of many reasons for the South declaring its independence.

One of the best parts of the book is the discussion about life in the Confederacy. I strongly recommend readers look at Janet Elizabeth Croon’s “The War Outside My Window: The Civil War Diary of LeRoy Wiley Gresham 1860-1865″, which is an excellent read about life in a Southern family that supports the Confederate effort. Far from the united South we may have been led to believe, there was much taking place in the Confederacy that was far from encouraging. And as the author points out: 

By 1864, President Davis publicly lamented that two-thirds of Confederate soldiers were absent, most of them without leave

In the North, things were also not as unified, and the image of the “liberal” North is directly challenged by William’s work. Frankly, though the North was free territory, racial harmony was a myth and social conditions could be just as bad as the South. Blacks were free but still lived like slaves. Interestingly, even before Union victory, members in Congress began to think of how Blacks could be enfranchised. Their efforts and those of the Radical Republicans are highlighted to show the missed opportunities that presented themselves to a country at a crossroads and in need of change. Lincoln’s actions and those of his successor Andrew Johnson (1908-1875), left much to be desired. 

Surprisingly, what is left out of discussions about the Civil War are the true feelings of Southerners who have been painted with the broad brush of being “sympathizers” to the Confederacy’s mission. The truth is far more complicated and fare less glamorous. In fact, life for poor whites in the Confederacy was not much better and the dark reality is brought to life in the story told here. Desertion was a major problem but there were other factors at play that made the desirability of serving under Davis’ army plummet.  Further, battlefield conditions, life as a solider and death for any number of reasons made it clear that war is hell, and no one should take part. To drive home this point, I refer to this section in the book by the author who relays that” 

“In The Impending Crisis of the South, published in 1857, Helper argued vigorously that the “lords of the lash are not only absolute masters of the blacks . . . but they are also the oracles and arbiters of all non-slaveholding whites, whose freedom is merely nominal.”

As the war raged on, casualties began to rise from injuries and other conditions that brought death and destruction. Over six-hundred thousand men died in the American Civil War and the manners in which they perished were often barbaric and tragic. The author thoroughly examines the unsettling aspect of the soldier’s experience which included injuries in combat, inadequate clothing and supplies, famine, infections, viruses, and the lack of advanced medical knowledge. In short, life in the 1800s was rough and even rougher if you were an enlistee fighting in a savage conflict deemed to be a “rich man’s war”. Williams’ book should remove any notion of a valiant effort. On both sides, brutality was common, and desertion remained an issue throughout the war.  And the induction of both slaves and Native Americans into the war was not because those in power had a “change of heart”. The real reasons are far more sobering. The Native American experience has been discussed by other authors and their removal from their lands remains one of the darkest aspects of America’s creation. The experience of the Indian tribes is also discussed here in relation to the war and readers will shake their heads in disgusts and disbelief. 

After I finished the book, I had a moment of silence wherein I allowed myself to digest everything I had read. I had learned of things never presented to me before in any classroom that I can recall. American history is often difficult to accept because the image of America is designed to lift one’s spirits. And while there are aspects of life in the United States that are wonderful, our nation’s history contains dark moments. And it is imperative that we learn the truth so that they never again take place. This book is an invaluable resource for anyone interested in the truth regarding the American Civil War. Highly recommended. 

History is the sum total of things that could have been avoided” -Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967) 

ASIN: ‎B007OWQN7Q

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