I read Juan Reinaldo Sanchez's The Double Life of Fidel Castro: My 17 Years As Personal Bodyguard to El Líder Máximo (2015), which has been translated from the original Spanish (it was published in France). Coming from someone who was very close to Fidel, it provides a look into his personal life. As such, it's an entertaining and informative glimpse into Fidel's inner circle.
I kept thinking "L'état, c'est moi," in the sense that there is no line between his resources and the state treasury. He found a nice island, then ordered a massive amount of work to be done so he could travel there by helicopter, have people direct him to the fish, then help him catch them. He created a cow pasture in a building so he could do experiments to breed the best milk-producer. Is it crazy or extravagant? Either way, he did whatever he wanted, no matter the cost.
It can veer toward the gossipy. I'm not particularly interested in how Fidel juggled various women, for example. At the same time, it is interested to think about why his numerous children were not groomed for politics. Some of the gossip is funny, as when Sánchez walked around a North Korean hotel with a drunken Fidel trying to find him a softer mattress.
Sánchez seems to contradict the idea that the KGB built the Cuban intelligence apparatus. Sánchez talks about all the new exercises and plans he personally made, but did Cuba's security become famous through Cuban efforts alone? He suggests this on p. 104, scoffing at the KGB as low quality and saying Cuba took its model from the U.S., Israel, France, and Great Britain. None of those countries, of course, would've done any training.
Sánchez says he started to feel disillusioned after overhearing a conversation in 1988 confirming that Fidel Castro was directing a cocaine operation in the United States. Not long after, Castro executed several top lieutenants (especially Arnaldo Ochoa) for participation in an operation he claimed to know nothing about. All that has been reported before many times before, but Sánchez provides an insider's view. He also claims that Ochoa's death pushed Raúl Castro to drink so heavily that his wife feared he might be suicidal, and that Sánchez overheard Fidel reassure his brother that he wouldn't suffer Ochoa's fate. Sánchez was imprisoned for two years and tortured when members of his family emigrated, which put him under suspicion. He finally managed to leave Cuba in 2008.
One final point, from a research perspective. According to Sánchez, Fidel Castro saved voluminous files, from his daily calendar to recordings he made in meetings and phone calls. Given how extensive they are, is it likely they will all be destroyed? If not, once there is a transition we'll be reading some more very interesting books. ...more
I read Chris DeRose's The Presidents' War: Six American Presidents and the Civil War That Divided Them (2014). I like the idea behind the book, because I had never really thought about how former presidents related to the civil war (as in, we need to think more about how John Tyler was a traitor). While entertaining, in my opinion the book falls short for two reasons.
First, there is no framework or main argument to make things hang together. There is no exploration of how ex-presidents function in the United States, or precisely how the civil war shaped that. In the absence of a main argument, we just have a description of presidents and former presidents doing things. Further, as I read I realized there was another theme that DeRose depicts but never acknowledges, which is Abraham Lincoln's genius in ignoring former presidents. Indeed, DeRose periodically mentions how Lincoln assuredly received such and such letter from Fillmore or whomever, but didn't respond.
This is important because the former presidents had all kicked the can of slavery down the road in one way or another, and Lincoln was the first to refuse the same response. Lincoln was so much more farsighted than the others that he knew their advice would likely be bad. Making this the central theme of the book would've provided much greater clarity to the narrative.
Second, the book feels rushed. Major events get skipped over, so the narrative moves from John Tyler not feeling well to a funeral. He died somewhere in there of something but it never actually gets mentioned. Sometimes battlefield description are detailed and sometimes not, without any clear sense of why. Then the book ends very abruptly. I was left with the impression that DeRose had this neat idea and just wanted to get it into print as quickly as possible. This impression was reinforced by the acknowledgments, which indicate DeRose first go the idea in 2012, and the book came out in June 2014.
That said, it's well-written and still fun to read how the ex-presidents dealt with/felt about the civil war. ...more
I read Fred Kaplan's John Quincy Adams: American Visionary and greatly enjoyed it. It's very well written, and my main minor quibble is that he veers too often toward finding lessons for the present day. At the very end, Kaplan admits what is obvious after reading the book:
The opposition that he met, his successes, and his failures are part of the torn fabric of public discourse in early-twenty-first century America (p. 583).
This goes a bit far, especially since the book clearly sees him as a victim in this torn fabric. If anything, we see that U.S. politics have forever been characterized by nastiness so were torn from birth. What we also see is a man who dished it out as well as he took it. He was highly--even amazingly--moral but also incredibly uptight and prone to being thin-skinned. He was very introspective, writing voluminously in his diary (which constitutes the core source for the book) and he spent a lot of time thinking about how to dish it out (e.g. we learn about how much he detested Thomas Jefferson). Even if we agree with his causes, such as abolition, we should not see him as a victim.
Kaplan wants to show JQA as a writer and as a visionary for what the United States should become, particularly in terms of a unified country without slavery. In this he does an excellent job. JQA was widely read and even wrote poetry that was occasionally published. He was eloquent and loved public speaking, sometimes for several hours at a time.
gine someone with more lifelong dedication to public service. John Adams brought him abroad at a young age and he learned multiple languages that soon would serve him in diplomatic posts. Kaplan shows how these positions were often tedious--early 19th century Russia was not a place you wanted to be during winter. But JQA was there for several years. He later served as Secretary of State, President, and then was elected to the House of Representatives. Perhaps appropriately, he literally died in the House....more
Despite its hyperbolic subtitle, Malcolm Byrne's Iran-Contra: Reagan's Scandal and the Unchecked Abuse of Presidential Power (2014) is a carefully constructed and highly detailed account of the Iran-Contra scandal, using both newly declassified documents (the author is Deputy Director at the National Security Archive) and interviews. It's not a fast read, but it's a very good one. The core contribution is to cement the answer to the classic Watergate question, "What did the president know, and when did he know it?" The answer for Ronald Reagan was "A lot, and early on, then he lied about it."
The overriding factor was Reagan's fervent desire to free the hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon and his utter disinterest in whether the actions--selling arms to the Iranians for their help, then using proceeds to fund the Contras in Nicaragua--aimed at doing so were legal. It becomes clear that he never expressed doubt about legality. He pushed for action and wanted results, so everyone took that as permission, even though they even would write that it was all illegal. Byrne notes concerns about Reagan's mental state, but also shows how Reagan kept up with key details and kept pushing. Basically, if policy was intended to free hostages, then for Reagan by definition it was legal.
Others knew better, but didn't stop anything because the president wanted this done. Once it became clear the illegal activities would become public, they started lying and destroying documents like crazy. As John Poindexter described this destruction, "I decided that it would be politically embarrassing to the President at this point because it would substantiate what was being alleged...and so I decided to destroy it" (p. 269). When asked about his lying under oath to Congress, Oliver North said, "I knew it wasn't right not to tell the truth on those things but I didn't think it was unlawful" (pp. 314-315).
North took Reagan's desires and ran with them, usually amateurishly. Sadly, he was well liked and respected (at the hearings later, one staffer testified and even entered a poem into the record about how he was thankful Ollie North walked the earth!) so had wide latitude. North, meanwhile, was a born liar. As soon as he helped get the entire project off the ground, he lied to anyone and everyone about anything, large and small. He literally lied constantly.
George H.W. Bush (who as VP was present at many of the same meetings as Reagan) lied as well, and initially pretended he didn't have a diary, which had a lot of damaging information. Ironically, in his diary he criticized Secretary of State George Shultz for keeping a diary. Then on Christmas Eve 1992, very soon before he left office, he pardoned six key participants, which also had the convenient effect of preventing any more testimony from emerging that would incriminate him.
A notable point of the book is how little anyone knew about Nicaragua, or Central America generally. And they didn't care. When Costa Rican President Oscar Arias started blocking Contra activity in his country, North wrote that "Boy needs to be straightened out by heavyweights" (p. 232). Iran-Contra is fundamentally about illegal actions in the executive branch, but it's also about U.S.-Latin American relations. The only reason North focused so much on Nicaragua was that Reagan (and all his aides) had a distorted, paternalistic, and simplistic view of what was happening there.
Byrne makes clear that only a small fraction of relevant documents have seen the light of day. This is a topic that will deservedly keep producing new analyses, and don't be surprised if they show even more how deeply President Reagan and many of his officials were aware and supportive of illegal activity. ...more
Pulitzer Prize winner James Risen's Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (2014) is an angry book, and you'll get annoyed--you'd better get annoyed--reading it. The book's core message can be summed up as follows:
"A decade of fear-mongering has brought power and wealth to those who have been the most skillful at hyping the terrorist threat" (p. 203).
The post-9/11 period, and especially the Iraq War, has destroyed many thousands of lives, greatly damaged the civil liberties of average Americans, all the while making many criminals, snake oil salesmen and shysters rich. It's this last point that Risen probes in particular, using investigative journalism to show how the U.S. government showered billions of dollars with almost no oversight to anyone who could lend support to the Global War on Terror.
He shows how we get "unsmiling men with shaved heads" and a testosterone-pumped sense of self-righteousness who are empowered to push people around in the name of national security. Abroad these same kinds of men torture and kill. Resistance will bring you threats and/or imprisonment. Meanwhile, the government has stripped away rights and spies on everyone without restriction.
He write about how the American Psychological Association abets torture to maintain government contracts; architects focus on security for the same reason; people work for shady private contractors because they're showered in cash from the US government; self-proclaimed terrorist experts go on TV spouting on about threats and thereby get contracting gigs; and we all dutifully do absurd things like meekly take off our shoes in order to get on airplanes. Talk back and you'll get arrested. Spread the truth and you will find, as Risen has, that the government will come after you.
Profiteering is nothing new, but the Bush Administration took it to entirely new criminal heights. Unfortunately, since then it doesn't matter who controls the White House or Congress--it goes on unchecked. And that's the really depressing conclusion of the book.
This is a well-written but ultimately very simple book that mostly just repeats what we hear all the time. Her argument is that we like to pretend we'This is a well-written but ultimately very simple book that mostly just repeats what we hear all the time. Her argument is that we like to pretend we're not wrong all the time when we are, and that we should embrace wrongness as optimism. I might try a really hard task and tell myself I can do it, even though it's entirely possible I can't. But that's good because it keeps me trying. And I suppose one day we'll be wrong about being wrong, and then succeed.
There are a lot of interesting examples but it doesn't get much deeper than that. I like the basic premise, but a good essay on the topic would do....more
I read Leogrande and Kornbluh's fantastic book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana (2014). It is really well researched and just fascinating to read.
My 10 year old daughter has a hamster, which gets into her little wheel and runs like crazy. Sometimes she even gets on top of the wheel and runs like she's on a treadmill. The poor thing never gets anywhere, but keeps trying, or at least there is the illusion of trying. So goes U.S.-Cuban relations.
Thus, one remarkable point of this book is that many different go-betweens--reporters, business leaders, exiles, diplomats, you name it--have spent countless hours traveling and talking, with very little to show for it. Sure, there are periodic breakthroughs, but the core sticking points remain equally sticky after 50+ years. As Robert Gates once remarked after a meeting, "The initiative had been worthwhile, but had failed utterly" (p. 184). But they keep trying. Each chapter starts to sound amazingly similar even though the names change (for obvious reasons they do so much more frequently on the U.S. side).
Talks have floundered in large part because both sides consider the preconditions too steep. In the 1970s, Cuba would not abandon Africa. Meanwhile, the U.S. would not abandon the embargo. More recently, Cuba would not hold elections while the U.S. still would not abandon the embargo. The U.S. wanted compensation for nationalized property, but Cuba would only discuss that if there was compensation for damages wrought by the embargo and exile attacks.
One great feature of the book is its judicious tone. Leogrande and Kornbluh don't often take sides--they just dig deep into the historical record. The book cries out, though, for a framework. For example, I am not convinced about Fidel Castro's commitment to negotiations. Sometimes, as in 1975, he happily blew off months of talks. We need a better grip on his own goals to know when he wanted advancement, when he didn't, and how far he really wanted them to go. The U.S. was committed to negotiations only to the extent that they required concessions solely from Cuba. So at what times was a positive outcome even possible or likely? Conceptually, what should we realistically expect?
And just now, we have a U.S. official saying maybe we can negotiate, but Cuba needs to take more steps first. The more things change......more
You definitely get the feel of the authors' passion in this book, which makes it worthwhile, but I wouldn't call it gripping. It will also be hard toYou definitely get the feel of the authors' passion in this book, which makes it worthwhile, but I wouldn't call it gripping. It will also be hard to follow if you are not already pretty well versed in the history of contemporary African political conflict....more
I read Richard Blanco's For All Of Us, One Today, which is a short memoir of the 2012 Inaugural Poet. I came away with two impressions. One, he's a great poet. His poem América, for example, is too cool. Second, what a nice guy. He's committed to expressing what it means to be American and an immigrant, with an unjaded wonder.
As he grapples with writing an inaugural poem, he asks himself if he truly loves America:
I discovered that yes, I truly loved America, but not with a blind love or blind patriotism. Rather, with a love that's much like loving another person, a love that demands effort, asks us to give and take and forgive and constantly examine promises spoken and unspoken (p. 32).
What a great way to describe "love of country," which otherwise is too often a blind thing.
What I also liked was how his Cuban family revered poets, yet Americans don't. He notes how in school he never anything by a living poet. I saw myself there because I am not really into poetry, perhaps mostly because I don't have any exposure....more
I read Christopher Read's War and Revolution in Russia, 1914-1922. I've been periodically reading about WWI when I have a chance given the centennial. The book is a synthesis and tries to place the revolution more in the context of WWI.
Funny thing, I really enjoyed it but got hung up a bit on chapter one. Among other things it included an in-text Wikipedia reference and this sentence: "Perhaps if the horror that was about to be unleashed had been more widely understood more would have been done to prevent it" (p. 20). Well, yes.
Get past that, though, and you have a nicely written, concise book that is widely accessible to people like me who do not know the literature. What you see first is the amazing incompetence of the Tsar. I wish Read might have said a little more why he thinks the Tsar believed the war was necessary, considering that the quick Russian mobilization was an important factor in pushing the war along.
Then the Tsar just resigns abruptly and Russia suffers a first period of uncertainty while the Bolsheviks figure out what to do. Reading Vladimir Lenin's writings in that context shows how much his theory was just responding to events, so that his "truths" changed all the time as deemed necessary. Events and necessity drove theory. One thing I hadn't really known was that immediately after the Tsar was deposed, popular support for the war remained high. It took a while for the Bolsheviks to change that view.
Finally, the Bolsheviks begin to consolidate power after the October Revolution and Lenin discards his previous truths, then adopts new ones that center on oppression, repression, and centralism. It's a good read, even though it's a serious downer to think about what came next. ...more
I read Rory Carroll's Comandante: Hugo Chávez's Venezuela (2013) and enjoyed it. Carroll is a well-known journalist who reported from Venezuela for the Guardian from 2006-2012, and disliked by the left. Basically, if you think Venezuela is a thriving laboratory of revolution, you will hate the book. If you feel that Venezuela has tremendous promise that Hugo Chávez failed to harness, you will find it well-written and interesting, particularly because of his interviews. If you follow Venezuelan politics, it won't be new but you get a little deeper.
The book consists of vignettes with his interviews, which then serve to frame his larger point of a well-meaning revolution ripped apart by personalization of power, palace intrigue, and old fashioned cronyism. Carroll shows why Chávez was (and is) so beloved, the problems of personalization, and how utterly incompetent the opposition has been. Even the coup mongers screwed up. As one person who supported the 2002 coup put it, describing Pedro Carmona: "We won, or thought we had won. But then we made a terrible mistake. We picked that fucking dwarf" (p. 79). That encapsulates the basic sentiments of the radical opposition--failure to understand why Chávez was popular, or how even to attract support. Angry but clueless.
Carroll denies that Chávez was a dictator, and comes up with a counter-argument, namely that Chávez was so concerned about elections that he neglected details. Aló Presidente gave him a platform for votes but he didn't follow up. Lots of talking, no walking. He needed to win so badly that substance faded out while crime, insecurity, shortages, etc. soared. Those issues become the backdrop to judging the long-term success of the revolution....more
I read Margaret MacMillan's The War That Ended Peace (2013) and I was disappointed. As far as I can tell, it does not add to our understanding of why World War I started. Instead, it advances the vague argument that no one thought it would happen, then it happened because people did stuff.
It's a long book, so is filled with anecdotes--to be fair, many of them interesting--about how people didn't think war would happen even though we all know now it was about to erupt. But what annoyed me again and again were the brief and entirely superficial comparisons to the current day. They are so superficial that I assume some editor forced them in.
So when there is discussion of new powers, then she adds a single sentence to say she hopes the U.S. and China will handle things well, or with communication she mentions trying to deal with social media. Or she compares Nicholas II to Saddam Hussein because they both like uniforms (p. 275).
Meanwhile, the Tsar does stuff, the British do stuff, the Kaiser does stuff, etc. Which stuff was more important? We aren't told. Whose decisions were most critical? We aren't told. Which country did the most decisive stuff? We aren't told.
The book ends with "There are so many questions and as many answers again" (p. 645). That's true only if you don't engage the existing literature and think about which answers make more sense than others....more
Rob Ruck's Raceball is an entertaining look at the development of black and Latino participation in baseball. He traces this from the Negro Leagues to Cuba to Mexican leagues the academies in the Dominican Republic. For baseball history, it's a great read--lots of interesting tidbits and interviews. Analytically, it falls a bit short.
The subtitle of the book is "How the Major Leagues Colonized the Black and Latin Game." This is obviously provocative and ends up more complicated than that. The essence of his argument about the Negro Leagues was that MLB integration destroyed them, which over time decreased African American interest in baseball. This stands in clear tension to the fact that African Americans were trying very hard to integrate. In other words, this isn't simply one agent acting upon another. As Ruck notes, Jackie Robinson is now considered a national hero--hardly an accomplice in colonization.
The part on Mexico was my favorite, not only for the stories but for the outcome, which unfortunately is less unanalyzed. A fight to attract American players in the 1940s eventually led to MLB agreeing to pay for Mexican players they wanted. That led to strong Mexican leagues, but Ruck jumps straight to Fernando Valenzuela without examining how Mexico succeeded so well.
The book ends with the suggestion that somehow MLB will destroy Latin American baseball: "And if it's lost, the last, best piece of baseball's soul may go with it" (p. 235). Sounds dire, but it comes soon after an interview with Juan Marichal--an icon of both MLB and the DR--says he thinks the Dominican academies are great. So how do we square that?
For a book that emphasizes three Latin American countries, one drawback is that there are virtually no Spanish-language sources at all--books, newspapers, documents, etc. (so that a chapter called "Viva Mexico!" relies on the NYT and WaPo) That is a major drawback for the thesis because it removes the Latin American voice from the equation--to what degree did they believe they were being colonized, or that the experience was negative in some form?...more
I read Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century. The reviews by economists intrigue me (Tyler Cowen, who wrote his own critical review in Foreign Affairs) links to a lot of them, which is useful). The book seems to have generated a lot of heat within the discipline itself. Most seem really annoyed by him:
"Piketty’s further policy views come in two chapters to which the reader is bound to arrive, after almost five hundred pages, a bit worn out. These reveal him to be neither radical nor neoliberal, nor even distinctively European. Despite having made some disparaging remarks early on about the savagery of the United States, it turns out that Thomas Piketty is a garden-variety social welfare democrat in the mold, largely, of the American New Deal."
He does return throughout the book to criticisms of economics as a field, arguing it is so centered on empirical models that content is ignored (the same argument, it must be said, goes on within political science). So the reciprocal antipathy isn't any big surprise.
Others are haughtily dismissive. One example is here:
"The book is aimed at thoughtful non-specialists who don't know about all the cognitive illusions in the public finance literature."
Ah, that is me. I am smart but not as smart as him. Sorry for being reasonably smart but ignorant. Let me offer some ignorant thoughts.
1. This is a powerful argument that touched a big nerve. Critics are too tempted to attach ideology to it as a way to dismiss the argument. But I would say the massively defensive reaction demonstrates why we need such a conversation in this country. It's worthwhile for that alone, really. What he argues that if inherited wealth becomes dominant, then democracy will suffer and violent responses become more likely. When the rate of return on capital is high and growth is low, unrest becomes more likely. At the same time, I agree with reviewers who say he doesn't pursue that correlation enough--he mentions it multiple times but does not go into detail.
2. The debate over data doesn't refute Piketty. It just makes the conversation more interesting. In particular, it's a good thing to argue whether it's a problem to focus so much on labor income when so many people rely on more than that. People may not inherit wealth but they are vested in different types of retirement plans, for example, along with social security. Yet if people's wages are relatively low, they have little to contribute to those plans.
3. All the controversy about his policy prescriptions miss an important point--a core part of his argument is that we have the power to change things, which means we should talk about it. With regard to inequality, "There have been many twists and turns and certainly no irrepressible, regular tendency toward a 'natural' equilibrium'" (p. 274). And, incidentally, there are plenty of responses that are not Marxist! On the other hand, global catastrophe also changes inequality--the rich people who started World War I weren't aware of that at the time.
4. His policy prescriptions, such as the global tax, should be seen as the beginning of a conversation rather than the end. He makes it very clear he considers it utopian, as a reference point. Further, he also argues that making government a lot bigger isn't the answer because that creates organizational problems--not exactly a Marxist viewpoint. ...more
I bought Dirk Hayhurst's new book, Bigger Than the Game, as soon as it came out because I knew I'd like it. This is the third book in a baseball trilogy and the previous two were fascinating and funny.
This one is no different, but it's actually much less about playing baseball than about dealing with baseball. It starts with the self-inflicted shoulder injury (lifting too much weight) he got in the offseason after 2009 and how he dealt with injury during the entire 2010 season. That included depression, using pills to make himself sleep and get numbed, having people know about his first book, a run-in with an arrogant teammate who did not like him writing and talking to the media, and rehab (with a cameo by wrestler Triple H).
Baseball is a conservative game in many ways--players have their codes, things are done this particular way, and you must not rock the boat. The mere idea of letting people see inside scares baseball players, and seeing inside is what Hayhurst does. He goes off about the player who kept confronting him (different reviews speculate differently, but he may just be an amalgam) as well as a few others, in large because he's not respecting the game and instead is trying to be bigger than baseball, which is a sin.
In some way all of his books are about his efforts to figure himself out. You get the impression that he was finally getting there at the end of this one. He thought hard about what baseball means and how he should fit into it. He learned how not to care about others' perception of his role in it. Like many other entertainers--such professional wrestlers--the fans see you as a commodity and not as a person. Players buy into the image, which feeds their self-image and self-worth.
Everyday dumbasses get on the internet and debate your worth like you're a fucking commodity. But instead of trying to say we're not a commodity, we just want to be the most valuable commodity possible. Everyone wants to be the hyped, processed, nostalgia-injected product instead of being an actual fucking person (p. 125).
The player who didn't like him hated the fact that Hayhurst might puncture the bubble they live in and value so highly--just chatting too often with the team's own media person (who in many ways helps nurture the image!) was crossing the line. As he points out, though, this is already slowly changing. Glacially yes, but social media is here now and not going away. Way too few baseball players write real books but reality is spilling out in bits and pieces.
And like the rest of the books, it's funny and self deprecating. As he said to his book agent:
"My style is being honest about failing in a game that everyone thinks you're a winner in simply by playing" (p. 232).
I'm guilty of that feeling, and like how Hayhurst has made me think more broadly. If you're a baseball fan, you should check out all three....more
I read Heidi Tinsman's Buying into the Regime: Grapes and Consumption in Cold War Chile and the United States (2014) to review for Journal of Interdisciplinary History. I don't know when that will come out, but here is a small taste. It analyzes what became a strong connection between the two countries based on grape exports and what I like in particular is that Tinsman consciously avoids easy answers and simplifications, which makes it a worthy contribution to the already large literature on Cold War Chile. There are a lot of contradictions and contrasts:
Academics from the United States are part of the contrasts. The Chilean grape industry grew substantially under the market-driven economy of the military government, but existed in the first place because of the state-driven policies of the Eduardo Frei and Salvador Allende administrations. Universities in the United States played important roles in both, as researchers from the University of California at Davis gave extensive agricultural assistance in the 1960s and Chilean economists from the University of Chicago created the policy architecture for the grapes to be exported in the 1970s and beyond.
As Tinsman points out, consumption was central to the historical development of the grape export industry and the long-term responses to it. Depending on your vantage point, eating (or choosing not to eat) grapes could denote support for a government, opposition to a government, general nationalism, protest over a repressive global economic system, support for labor and/or recognition of the human costs of feeding the United States. Those perspectives shift if you are a Chilean or if you are a U.S. citizen, and if you are eating fruit from Chile or from the United States....more
I read David Fromkin's Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914? which was an impulse buy in a Washington DC used bookstore some months ago.
World War I is mindblowing. You can draw causal lines to such disparate things as women's suffrage, Adolf Hitler, the Cold War, class consciousness, the Soviet Union, and more. Yet it started in such a small way, a minor aristocrat--not even widely known--murdered by a young radical. It was a seemingly isolated incident that did not immediately alarm diplomats.
This book is a nice general history that looks at every country and major players, often coming back to General Helmuth von Moltke, chief of the General Staff. Like a number of other German elites, he wanted war because he thought Germany would fade in influence without a pre-emptive strike against Russia in particular. He fought as hard as he could against dialogue.
Fromkin says the key to understanding war's outbreak is to see it as two wars. Everyone wonders how a little dispute between Austria and Serbia could suck in the world, but it was only the pretext. Germany wanted to declare war on Russia but needed to make it seem that Russia was attacking first. The archduke's assassination served that purpose. Austria wanted to wipe Serbia off the map, and Germany (especiallu Moltke) wagered that Russia would step in to protect Serbia.
Basically, the Germans wanted a European war and they got it. Be careful what you wish for....more
Jay Sexton's The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth Century America (2011) is a good synthesis of the history of the most famous doctrine in U.S.-Latin American relations. It's not exactly new, though I can't think how you would manage to say something genuinely new about it (I wonder, have any hitherto unknown archives yielded any new insights in years?). It's more about what angle to take.
One thing he does that I found interesting was to discuss how policy makers in the U.S. changed their views of the doctrine over time. The nineteenth century version was different from the twentieth because of shifting circumstances. At the time of its formulation, there was fear not only of geopolitical threat but also of the country breaking apart. By Roosevelt's time imperialism was in full force and the United States was well past the civil war.
He emphasizes the contradictory nature of the doctrine, since it was both anti-colonial and fundamentally imperialist. This didn't bother anyone in the United States, because based on our exceptionalism our tutelage was a positive force while the Old World offered outdated and unwanted models.
Reading the book might help understand why it's hard to believe John Kerry when in November 2013 he said the Monroe Doctrine was over.
I'll be including it as a recommended reading for the historical chapter of my U.S.-Latin America textbook. ...more
Stephen Kinzer is no fan of Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles. We already knew that from his previous books, which examine overthrow of one kind or another. His new book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and the Their Secret Cold War looks at the men more specifically to show how they were architects of a style of foreign policy that, though in many ways unsuccessful, became a model for the Cold War and even the post Cold War.
It's a very good read, though I must say I enjoyed the first half much more than the second. The first explores the Duller brothers in depth, whereas the second goes into more detail in specific operations, such as Iran, Cuba, Guatemala, Indonesia, and the Congo. In those the brothers fade a bit from the narrative, though of course they are hovering around. Kinzer relies on secondary sources but the stories themselves are already very well known. The second half also touches quickly on psychological assessment, JFK assassination conspiracies, and other sorts of speculation that detract from the book.
The sad thing is that, though Kinzer explain clearly how so many of the Dulles brothers' interventions were in long run detrimental to the United States, there is little recognition of that now. I wish very much that there was public discussion of how overthrowing Mossadegh, for example, led us to where we are today, and how they thought only in the very short term. But there isn't. Instead, we talk about intervening in Iran again!
The point, then, is that consciously or not, U.S. policy makers have drunk deeply of the Dulles Kool Aid. The U.S. is exceptional (and Christian) and therefore needs to act as policeman; there is no need to understand the country you're attacking/undermining; short-term victory over your "enemy" (however defined) is all that matters. The Dulles brothers have never really gone away....more
Bill Bryson's One Summer: America, 1927 is a good read only because it was written by Bill Bryson. By this I mean it really has no stated point but that's OK because it's funny and sarcastic. Strangely missing from the lengthy prologue is any explanation about why he wrote it.
Beyond his writing, what made me connect to the book was its unrelenting insistence that the grand, glorious and glamorous 1920s, the heyday of which was 1927, was in so many ways either no better than now or much, much worse. That appealed to me since one of my pet peeves is hearing the pining for the good old days of fake nostalgia. You will not come away feeling nostalgic after reading this book. I have no idea whether this was his intent.
It is roughly chronological, though there is inevitable jumping, chock full of vignettes. That made it perfect for tweeting, which I did in the several days it took for me to read it.
The upshot is that America in 1927 was a place where people followed sensationalistic murder stories with excited interest while ignoring real news about other countries; where athletes were revered despite the fact that many of them were terrible human beings; where racism, anti-Semitism, and gender discrimination were rampant and often celebrated; where mindless desire for profit soon led to disaster; and where corruption was widespread.
There were good things, of course. Charles Lindbergh showed how much aviation could achieve, though he himself was odd, anti-Semitic, and pro-eugenics. Movie and television technology led to all kinds of innovation. So it wasn't all bad.
So don't read it if you want a recreation of F. Scott Fitzgeraldish Jazz Age images (incidentally, in 1927 he was on the decline and practically begging for jobs) but if you want to think about how far we have or haven't come as a country, then it's well worth it....more
Eric Pettis' Just A Minor Perspective was the perfect light, short book I needed around finals. It is his account for low-A short season baseball in Williamsport. In many ways it's about becoming a small cog in a very big machine, and becoming a set of numbers rather than a person. Even the numbers are hard to parse--he made the All Star team and his stats are good (the book ends on a high note) but he has not played since 2011. Baseball is just not a very forgiving profession.
He takes it all in, the college player suddenly thrust into professional sports, and is quite perceptive and funny. He was humbled by the draft (where he was first ignored and then picked very late) and remained level-headed, despite the grind and constant PBJs:
Even though we were assured by our trainer that "it's actually good pregame meal," my intestines didn't always agree. But humans are made to adapt, even it if is to peanut butter and jelly.
Why is it that pitchers, especially relievers, seem to have the most writing talent and eye for the funny and unusual? These are fun books but it would be great to see some more variety--don't tell me there isn't some smart catcher or power hitter. ...more
I read Jeanne Marie Laskas' Hidden America, which is a series of vignettes about people who make our lives go but are "hidden." A general theme is how much pride they take in their work, even though they recognize they're hidden. It's an interesting book--very quick read--but a mixed bag.
Coal miners: from this chapter you would think they are all relatively wealthy and happy. She mentions that coal is central to electricity but does not explain the process or how the workers view themselves in that process.
Undocumented blueberry pickers: good chapter but these days they are much less "hidden" than they used to be.
Cheerleaders: weird chapter. She veers between admiring and making fun of them, and could there be any profession less "hidden"?
Air traffic controllers: interesting chapter that basically becomes a critique of unions. I kept thinking of Pushing Tin.
Gun dealer: this is just about the opposite of "hidden." As with cheerleaders, she seems to alternate between mocking gun culture and enjoying it.
Beef ranchers: definitely more hidden, but a superficial chapter where you learn little, though I must admit I didn't know anything about bull semen.
Arctic oil rig: this was a great chapter--how we get oil for virtually everything we use from a desolate place and who the people are working there was fascinating.
Trucker driver: very sad chapter, in large part because it comes back to the death of the author's elderly parents. The "hidden" America of truck drivers gets a bit obscured.
Landfill: fascinating chapter. Where our trash goes and who deals with it is definitely hidden.
If you like books in this genre, I would suggest Gabriel Thompson's Working in the Shadows, which is much more nuanced and he actually does the work to better understand it....more
I read Josef Joffe's The Myth of America's Decline, in large part because it intersected with my view of U.S. policy toward Latin America. What Joffe argues, pretty convincingly in my opinion, is that there are waves of declinism--the USSR was going to overtake us, then Japan, then Europe, and now China--but they all concentrate on very short-term, unsustainable signs. People gleefully argued the USSR and Japan would overtake the U.S. precisely as they were falling apart. Overall, it is true that the U.S. does not simply dominate the world, but it is still overwhelmingly the strongest power.
What I find fascinating, and Joffe does not get into it much, is that declinism transcends ideology. Those on the left (such as it is in the United States) applaud it as a sign of international equality while the right deplore it as a sign of weakness. But they agree it is happening--exactly why is never clear, though politicians routinely pick up on it and exploit fear.
With regard to U.S. policy, it relates to my post about the Monroe Doctrine not being dead. Not being dominant is not the same as being in decline. The election of leftists and the creation of a few Venezuelan-funded international organizations is not the same as a new international order. At the very least it is premature to declare it. Which is more likely in ten years: a strong and effective UNASUR or an economically and militarily influential United States?
The book reads very smoothly, chock full of literary and cultural references (even a footnote dedicated to "Parker Lewis Can't Lose"!) though it could've been a lot shorter as there is plenty of repetition. It is also very boosterish about international capitalism (and wary of Barack Obama) without asking any questions about the long-term effects of growing inequality. But he does a nice job of poking at conventional wisdom.
Allison Hoover Bartlett's The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is a breezy, enjoyable story about John Gilkey, who was caught stealing large numbers of rare books in stores around the Bay Area. What set him apart from your basic thief is that he had no profit motive. He just wanted to be seen as an educated, well-read man. He based many purchases on the Modern Library top 100 books, which he felt were a mark of sophistication.
He went in and out for prison both for theft, credit card fraud, and for writing bad checks, and was bizarrely amoral. He wasn't rich and could never own these books, so of course he had to steal them. Those dealers owed him! They were charging so much for these books, and he wanted them. How else would he get them? In all the interviews, he seems geniunely unable to see that he is doing anything wrong.
It's a glimpse into bibliomania. Since they were stolen, he could never really display them or show them to anyone else. Somehow just having them was enough. But eventually a dealer got on his trail and pursued him with the help of the police. One lesson from the book is not to mess with rare book dealers. They mean business....more
I happened to pick up John Dinges' Our Man in Panama, a 1990 book about Manuel Noriega's rise to power. The invasion itself is mentioned only briefly at the end, which was fine with me. What's more interesting is how the situation developed.
It is a reminder of how weird that invasion was. The U.S. government was split any number of ways about Noriega and only toward the very end did anyone consider him an "enemy." Even then, many still didn't. For the most part, he was the friendly leader who helped the DEA (including, ironically, the arrest and extradition of someone who later testified against him) and helped the Contras. He was a team player. That he was corrupt was no big deal--everyone was corrupt. Omar Torrijos had established the system that Noriega inherited. Noriega's own addition was drug trafficking, which the U.S. had first officially noticed in the early 1970s.
Dinges goes through all the evidence with care, showing how deeply involved Noriega was in the drug trade and how brutal he could be. As he notes, and it's still true now, no one feels sorry for him as he had almost no redeeming qualities. But going straight to invasion essentially for personal reasons is still amazingly disproportionate. Using similar criteria elsewhere, we'd be involved in even more wars than we are now....more
I've read a number of books on North Korea, and they are all harrowing but essentially similar. The population internalizes the cult of personality and suffers. Blaine Harden's Escape From Camp 14 provides a different and even more terrifying angle to the horror that is North Korea.
Shin In Geun was born in a prison camp. That meant no one even bothered to tell him about Kim il Sung or his offspring because he was too low on the caste chain to bother. His role in life was to work and die young. His parents did not know each other but were prisoners who came together for marriage (meaning sex, since there was no love, companionship, or much else attached to marriage) as reward for good work. He grew to hate them and by snitching was even responsible for his mother's death, an action that haunted him later, but all he knew was the regime's demand that you inform on others, especially your family. Shin did not even know the existence of such feelings as love, hope, gratitude, or trust. They are still very difficult for him to internalize.
You cannot even conceive of escape until you know there is anything to escape to. Chance encounters with two other prisoners at different times opened his eyes, and he embarked on a plan that had only an infinitesimal chance of succeeding. Amazingly it did. Ultimately he saw "freedom" mostly in terms of being able to eat regularly.
What made this book unique for me was to consider how difficult it is for this young man--since he is still young--to figure out how to live outside North Korea. For all defectors, paranoia is an instinct, but Shin has to learn emotions that 99.99% of the human population experiences at a very young age. It is frustrating to read of a government consciously inflicting such pain, but even more frustrating when you start trying to think about what could realistically be done in response....more
I read Kristina Mani's Democratization and Military Transformation in Argentina and Chile (2011) to review for Perspectives on Politics. That review will be much longer than this one. The journal requests (orders?) that submitting my review confirms that it "has not appeared nor will appear elsewhere in published form." I hit "publish" when I blog but I don't tend to think of this as really publishing. I also don't think that readers of the journal will glaze over when it comes to them because they've already read this review on my blog. That is especially the case because I am about to send it to the editor but it will not appear in print for some time.
But I digress.
It's a worthwhile book that succeeds quite well in creating a framework to understand the rivalry between Argentina and Chile by connecting domestic and foreign policies. And although I have some quibbles about how it can apply more broadly in the region, it is thought provoking in that regard, which I appreciate (and I tried to make sure they were quibbles rather than complaints that she hadn't written the book I would want, which is painfully common in reviews). Two key paragraphs from my review:
Mani’s tracing of the intricate process of confidence building is excellent. Given how harmonious relations are now, it is perhaps too easy to forget that 35 years ago Argentina and Chile came very close to war, after decades of distrust and disagreement over South Atlantic boundaries. Armed conflict was averted only after international mediation, most notably from the Vatican. After the end of military rule, civilian leaders saw international military cooperation as an integral component of an overall strategy of democratizing civil-military relations. Democratically elected presidents therefore pushed hard to make internationalism a reality. Mani carefully traces the decision-making process in each country as newly elected leaders dealt simultaneously with potential international conflict and domestic resistance.
And on broader applicability:
Mani very briefly contrasts the Chile-Argentina success with the continued controversies Chile has with Bolivia and Peru. In Bolivia and Peru, we might reasonably argue there are empowered veto players (a high level of nationalism) and low regime costs (the authoritarian era is far in the past) yet both governments are increasingly resorting to the International Court of Justice for disputes with Chile, which implies “impulsive internationalism” rather than a “impulsive statist-nationalist” strategy. What this might suggest is that the “regime cost” variable may not be as relevant as time goes on. The Bolivian military left power in 1982 and although the era of dictatorship was traumatic, by now there is no real fear of regression. However, Mani’s model argues that low regime costs should correlate with a statist-nationalist response.
If you study civil-military relations or international security in Latin America, you should check it out. I hope First Forum Press (part of Lynne Rienner) publishes a paperback version to make it more accessible. Otherwise you will have to go to a university library or shell out $55. Such is academic publishing at times. ...more
Joseph B. Frazier's El Salvador Could Be Like That is a memoir by a former Associated Press reporter who covered the country during the civil war. Its value lay in Frazier's descriptions of the people and how both everyday life and politics functioned "on the ground," with what I think is a balanced voice, pointing out inconsistencies or outright lies on both sides (though of course the lion's share of the violence was perpetrated by the right). Some of it gruesome, and all of it is sad. It was no easy job for reporters, who were attacked and, of course, lied to.
We gnawed through mountains of spin and did the best we could. There remained for a short time a 1950s-style naivete that told us if the U.S. government was telling us something, it must be true. The facts on the ground quickly educated us otherwise (p. 14).
It is mostly chronological but tends to bounce around a bit (with funny additions like Surfer Bob, a guy from Florida who came to El Salvador for the surfing and then stayed). I noticed that Tim, who writes at Tim's El Salvador Blog, had recently reviewed it and thought the structure made it more important to have some background. I think that's true, but if you're interested in El Salvador and/or the era it's worth a look....more