So, it's a coffee table book, maybe I should have lower expectations.
This isn't really 'history' - it's more a very general narrative framing of a whoSo, it's a coffee table book, maybe I should have lower expectations.
This isn't really 'history' - it's more a very general narrative framing of a whole period of history in the most monotone and dry storytelling possible. It's reminiscent of a war veteran who details his payroll processing and meals, and can't focus on the battles, the drama, the excitement.
The book tries to make up for its school textbook style writing with vivid photographs, but several are either out of place, or I found out later, had been flipped in the negative for one reason or another. There's a picture at Yalta in the book, with the big three seated, and it just looked off, and sure enough they had flipped it. This is a minor thing, but it represents a certain textbook-dishonesty to the many controversies of the topic.
There aren't moderates on questions like Alger Hiss. You either believe he was a spy, or that he was an innocent man who suffered a great injustice. There's no middle ground on the Rosenbergs, either. As well, there are many who have no middle ground for Communism: you either believed or worked to their ends, or you were in opposition and ultimately doing the work of the capitalists. Communism was an idea, and ideas can't be easily conquered. The Cold War was the geopolitical and physical manifestation of these competing systems, these competing ideas, and there were no moderates. You either helped Moscow, or Washington.
What was missing in this book, and in its parent product of the CNN documentary, was more explanation and exposition about these ideas and their competing nature. The philosophy of the various systems are almost subsumed in the minutiae of almost silly anecdotes strewn throughout the book. It also ignores the question of how many died in the Soviet system, both from executions and as possibly official starvation/famine policy.
The book covers that which are 'safe' topics, free from major political divisiveness today. So you don't get much about the Holomodor, except to say that "the West didn't know!" Which isn't true. And you get passing references to the Gulag system, and I don't believe Kolyma is referenced once. The KGB is documented, but its roots in the Cheka from the very start of the regime are very lightly touched. Was Allende executed or did he kill himself? The book suggests the former but briefly says the latter is also possible.
The topic is enormous, and perhaps any book of this sort is going to take some criticism no matter what. But there were so many opportunities to annotate some of their simplifications with just another sentence of context, to explain a controversy, or at least just admit to the reader that some of these issues have vicious opinions on both sides decades later. ...more
I was really hoping this book would be more interesting, but it was very wanting. A friend described it to me as "Rosenberg bitching about petty officI was really hoping this book would be more interesting, but it was very wanting. A friend described it to me as "Rosenberg bitching about petty office politics from the 1920s and 1930s" and that pretty well sums it up.
It's interesting that, as a political theory, national socialism stands as a one-time-experiment. Unlike fascism, communism, totalitarianism in general, or a simple military dictatorship, this form is almost formless. It has no empirical expression other than its test run in Germany from 1933-1945, yet its intellectual backbone is said to have been formed by Rosenberg. Yet in these memoirs, there is precious little about political theory and much about his disdain for Goebbels and Bormann. It causes one to wonder whether there was any fundamental philosophy behind the country and movement other than leader worship.
As a student of history, this book doesn't offer much. As one interested in political philosophy, this book will not deliver much. It goes into some detail about Rosenberg's personal life, though admittedly not much. It gives a somewhat catty assessment of various individuals, which perhaps has some value. For the most part, though, this book feels indulgent and vapid. It's settling scores with people who, even by 1946, were already dead. It captures pointless details about personalities who are long gone.
Rosenberg, staring down the hangman's noose in 1946, would have been wiser to spend his time defining more the contours of the political theory he tried to craft. With the exception of the last chapter that reads like a basic primer in constitutional republicanism, it has little to nothing to offer. Skip the drama, this memoir isn't worth it.
A notorious individual who could have written an epic work, it's not worth the trouble....more
This is Tony Hiss's second book about his father. No doubt he's had a lifetime spent in the shadow of the Hiss trial, and it has caused him to have soThis is Tony Hiss's second book about his father. No doubt he's had a lifetime spent in the shadow of the Hiss trial, and it has caused him to have some profound and poignant insights not only about his famous father, but also about having one's entire life spent with the association.
There are some great anecdotes in this book that were almost surreal. The story of Alger, working in the Lewisberg, PA prison, when a fellow inmate who is reading a book about FDR and Harry Hopkins, is able to ask Hiss what the men were really like. There are the little notations in Hiss's file that he would be capable of much greater work within the prison, but that 'external pressures' would not allow such an assignment. The story of Hiss's post-prison employment, selling various retail items, able to make sales not from his skills but due to cashing in, in some small petty way, on his notoriety to keep his family afloat, was similarly a strong admission.
But these anecdotes are hard to come by in a 244 page tome. It felt as though Tony was omitting much, or not capable of capturing and sharing many of the other anecdotes that would have revealed more about this infamous man.
And that's perhaps the most powerful opportunity for this book: humanizing Alger. The historical Hiss is such a plain character, a blank slate that people can either project their fears about Communist subversion, their belief that the elites in the country might be dishonest dealers, that a series of national setbacks could be explained to subversion rather than mistakes or geopolitics, that he becomes a way for Cold War anxieties to start their culture war.
Hiss was, in many ways, the start to a cultural Cold War, the catalyzing agent for McCarthy, and a powerful indictment of the New Deal. Tony Hiss acknowledges the events that the Hiss trial set in motion, but he doesn't capture, at all, the reasons why the Hiss trial was important, or any more important or relevant than a variety of other spy trials or accusations of treason.
The answer is partially from Hiss's pedigree as a Harvard man, first Secretary General of the United Nations, his social connections which included Supreme Court members, Secretaries of State, and various executive-level officials, but also his obvious grooming to become something greater. He was well-placed to become an even-greater agent of history and was stopped at a critical moment, the moment before he gained entry to the elites who are never prosecuted and never punished. Hiss was still, despite his many accomplishments, one of the masses who had not yet ascended into the ruling class.
The failure to fully capture the backward-looking issues related to the Hiss trial is also matched by a certain myopia in the author in the present during his father's life, and the future legacy his father will have.
The assessment of the present needed more stories about the father, told to reveal who he is. Chambers and even current authors about Hiss such as Christina Shelton, who are decidedly anti-Hiss, have all described him as a very 'gentle' man. His letters as reproduced by the son include some of that, but aren't fully explanatory to that end. The book includes no full-text letters between husband and wife, even though those were also within the trunk of correspondence unearthed by the son.
There is, to the greatest extent of any topic, lots of personal detail between father and son, and a great deal of reflection by the son. This has the perhaps unintentional feeling of grief and angst by the son for the father. The book was written three years after Alger's death at age 92 in 1996. Much of this detail wasn't revealing or of much interest to the reader, they felt like somewhat indulgent inclusions.
Modern books have become serious confessionals, and this book is slightly older than that more modern trend, but such a tone and style given the topic, would have been very powerful. When you're a Hiss, you're clearly held to a different standard, and exposing all the warts and wrinkles of the man would have shown the readers a reality that, more than anything, would have felt like honest hidden truth, if the results of the trial are to be disbelieved.
Perhaps that's the most powerful takeaway from the text, that this topic, given its nature of espionage, deceit and power politics, cannot be resolved or even well handled by someone whose emotional attachment to the topic is so intertwined with their identity, and who has literally lived this controversy their entire life. As yet another example, the book completely brushes past the question of his parent's divorce four years after leaving Lewisberg. It's resolved as saying that they likely both looked at one another as having captured the struggles they had both been through together, that they had been through too much together and decided to part amicably. While perhaps true, it feels like misdirection. It feels like a saccharine read of the reasons why two people came apart. It was an important part of the lives of the three most important people in the book, and it was given barely a paragraph.
There's also the occasional attempt to subtly exonerate his father, almost in a passive aggressive style. Tony Hiss obviously knows that everyone wants to know whether he thinks Alger could possibly be guilty, or if he ever said anything to solve this detective story once and for all, so he peppers his writing, consciously or not, with overt comments meant to influence the reader. There's a few dismissive comments about Allen Weinstein's "Perjury" which was an academic's review of the Hiss case, resulting in Weinstein's conclusion that Hiss was guilty. There are several comments about Whittaker Chambers, referencing his homosexual period as well as his style being an obsessive nut connected to Hiss. As someone who has read "Witness" - I found his comments to be hard to square with the quality of the contents of Chambers' work. This has the effect of never really facing Chambers' real accusations against his father, you can't distill an 808 page book by your father's main antagonist, who was recognized by the President of the US as the main intellectual influence on his life, with a dismissive sentence or two. It deserved more, a lot more. Certain "Witness" operated as a certain social albatross around their family, a way for the accusations to not simply die with the news cycle in 1948, but to exist throughout time, connected philosophically not just to anti-Communism, but to Americana itself. Having Hiss reconcile the contents of Witness was a necessary response and answer, and how Witness affected their family's prison time and time thereafter was another necessary component of this book that was missing.
But the great omission was something he hinted at but never fully fleshed out: the question not of whether Alger Hiss was innocent or guilty, but rather why everyone assumes he's guilty, and what impact his legacy would have if he were ever proven innocent. This is what left me thinking about this case for days and weeks as I slowly consumed this book, why had I always naturally assumed Hiss's guilt, and what would it mean if such a man were innocent as charged. In modern life we don't take any accusations at face value: OJ *might* be innocent. Bill Clinton *might* be innocent. But we're used to accusations generally proven right over time, especially public political ones like this. When things become this large of a media storm, usually there's at least a kernel of truth to the charge. Other books on Hiss resolve this by pointing to diplomatic cables and historical archives that are, frankly, notoriously unreliable. We assume Hiss's guilt because of something about the man that speaks to not only our own fears and anxieties, but also something about him. His face looks like someone with something to hide. He looks conniving. His placement and resume looks like someone who was ambitious for a purpose. There was some fatal flaw within the New Deal, perhaps in steamrolling opposition, perhaps in pursuing change at a pace that outstripped the public's patience, but Hiss became the manifestation for those problems and it exploded upon him.
The scope and scale of Hiss's espionage, if true, is one issue. But his continued placement as a historical icon suggests he represents something much greater. The Rosenbergs gave atomic secrets that changed geopolitics permanently. Hiss at Yalta may have done the same through power diplomacy, but it's never been proven. The scope of his treason is always abstract and oblique.
But what if the man were innocent. What if his life were run through the news cycle and spit out, unable to be defended by the elites, unable to get a review by the Supreme Court for which he once clerked. What if a man who was at the highest levels of power, was made powerless by a rogue accusation by a man who could have fabricated it all. What if a man could rise to the top through adversity, only to have it all taken from him because his name was in a laundry list of 150 supposed subversives - why did Alger take all of the blame, why was he not immune to the consequences as all the others were?
How different would the Hiss story be if the man spent his life burdened by the falsehood he could never answer, he could never resolve, he could never reconcile? Tony Hiss knows his father was innocent and gives us little gems into his life, but fails to capture that theory with its placement within American society and to really explore all that it means.
Great concept, mixed execution, needed more pruning.
There are a few great ideas in this book, such as that a man shouldn't strive to be a good man simply as a moral question, but also be great at beingThere are a few great ideas in this book, such as that a man shouldn't strive to be a good man simply as a moral question, but also be great at being a man and helping to define what those qualities are.
This book starts a powerful internal conversation in any man, about whether he measures up to whom he wants to be in life, what he wants to be, and how he ought to interact with other men. In short, the book, albeit short, conversationally directs men to seize this moment and ask whether they are true to their souls but also to their anatomy. Men are different, they are meant to be different, and yet most decide to be mediocre.
The writing benefits from avoiding highminded philosophy, but it is certainly missing a few more anchors of examples or powerful moments. There are some great ideas, but not moments of great writing, or of clarity of prose that dwells within a man. The book is a brief thought, a moment of reflection for a man, and not a treatise. It offers no real answers on how to live as a man, though it does well to point out great defects in most modern answers.
The most memorable thing from this book is the "Bonobo Masturbation Society" thesis, which says that easy lives, easy sexual access for men, leads them to empty lives where they are traitors to their fellow apes as well as themselves. Donovan makes the case that we should be more like chimps, predatory, competitive, and great at working as a team.
The power of that example wasn't sufficient to carry the rest of the book however, and more examples and more power throughout would have benefited the book greatly.
Every man should read this book because it starts the self-doubt and questioning necessary to jumpstart other important questions. In that sense, it serves as an excellent primer....more
Needed a stronger editor, could have been about 50% of what's present in the book. Lots of unnecessary detail.
There's a ton of background on the subjeNeeded a stronger editor, could have been about 50% of what's present in the book. Lots of unnecessary detail.
There's a ton of background on the subject in this book where the main excitement of the story: the flight from justice, is really buried in the last chapter.
Some great explanatory journalism in here, such as what 'freebasing' cocaine really is, and how the subject, Larry Lavin, grew the drug trade from college to the streets, while maintaining heavy growth.
There's a great explanation of the shady deals that Lavin is lead into by his financial advisor, but not necessarily a lot of depth into the transactions themselves. Bowden tells you of the various schemes they were bought into: a failing arena that they later try to burn for the insurance money, a record company that's mostly a sham, a limo company, but there's certainly more depth to those companies that isn't covered. We get a lot of personalities and a crazy amount of detail about how various people were feeling at various points, but some more about the actual activities of the laundering companies would have been interesting.
Overall, a great read, and excellent investigative journalism.
Three stars only because it can be very dense and hard to get through at some parts due to the excessive detail. It feels like one of Bowden's early books (1987), whereas by his later books like Black Hawk Down, Killing Pablo, Road Work, he's infinitely more polished and punchy as a writer. Still a great read....more