For the majority of 2020, China dominated mainstream media. News stories about the COVID-19 pandemic, quarantines, travel bans, and subsequent blame placed for the outbreak of the disease led the nightly news and filled our social media timelines. China’s economy was growing at a blistering pace, but the export of a deadly contagion was not expected by many. Neighboring countries like North and South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan quickly implemented their own quarantines and placed restrictions on Chinese products, resulting in seismic disruptions in the global supply chain. Distrust between the nations reached an all-time high. This distrust, however, was not a novel feeling. There has been animosity and suspicion between China, the Koreas, and Japan for generations. The history is long, complicated, and would take too many articles to completely deconstruct.
Despite the historical density, Michael Booth’s book, ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain‘ chronicles his personal journey of trying to understand these animosities. He travels between the nations, visiting historic landmarks, and gains a grassroots interpretation of a volatile geopolitical landscape. Apart from other history books, Booth doesn’t constantly throw specific dates or statistics at the reader. Instead he takes a tourist approach at the complex relationships, asking basic questions that many should ask themselves: Why have the three countries economies changed so drastically? What are the implications of a united Korean peninsula? Why are some offended by the Yasukuni shrine, but others revere its significance? Should we be worried if Japan is able to militarize again? Will China extinguish democratic sovereignty in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Taiwan? Booth’s opening phrase, taken from a Chinese proverb, ‘Two tigers cannot share the same mountain’ is a succinct opening to this international dilemma.
Booth travels by taxi, train, ferry, and car through various points of interest on his journey through the three nations. Writers, journalists, and academic scholars are his primary interviewees, but he has the occasional interaction with someone off the street that expands the grassroots feeling. He spends times interacting with expatriate communities in each country, where they deliver their interpretation of preceding histories and what it means for relationships between their birth and host countries. Major tension stems from the turn of the 20th century when Western colonial powers were waning in the Far East, resulting in a political power vacuum. Japan filled this void quickly by defeating the Russian Empire in 1905, which expanded their control over Korea, and placed the Chinese in precarious situations. In the late 1930s, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria resulted in massive loss of human life and arguably started World War II (Booth doesn’t believe it began on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland; it started in the Far East with Japan and I agree with him). The atrocities of World War II are, for many of Booth’s interviewees, the foundation for modern-day geopolitical animosity and grudges between people. War crimes, biological warfare, the atomic bomb; everything changed the balance of power when the war ended.
Booth does a phenomenal job explaining the complex dichotomies in direct terms. Not necessarily boiling them down because the details are incredibly important, but by showing how everyday people understand how their countries have changed over the past 70 years. He interviews a Chinese man who built his own museum dedicated to Unit 731, a weapons research department that performed lethal human experimentation on military and civilian prisoners. He states that many Chinese people today consume one of two stories; the official state version taught in school, or the heavily dramatized versions in popular entertainment. This disparity is not only limited to China because of its strict state control of the media, but is found in South Korea and Japan as well. Booth argues that accurate historical education is imperative to understanding the struggles between the Asian nations. That narrative can be distorted however, and that’s a real fear to Booth.
Apologies are another major trend in ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain’. This is especially common in the section on South Korea and Japan. For most of its history, Korea was subjugated by Japan or the Mongols. Japan is seen as the major perpetrator, especially during World War II. Comfort women and forced conscription into the Japanese Imperial Army were sticking points for the Koreans, who have been demanding official apologies from the Japanese government. While there have been public statements addressing the issue, Japan has somewhat skirted the issue or alleviate the Korean activists right up to the cusp of an apology. Older South Koreans understood the sacrifices their generations made, but Booth notes that not many of the newer generation understand that history though. Younger South Koreans put their energy into cosmetics, internet cafes, smartphones, and visiting Haesindang Park (the ‘Penis Park’; yes, that’s an actual place. Google it at your own peril). Booth highlights the importance of apologies in each section because as modern nations begin issuing official apologies for past grievances or war crimes, some are still encounter difficulties reconciling their history because the people remained divided. This is was the most poignant lesson that Booth recounts because we as U.S. citizens have our own historical demons with the subjugation and massacring of Native Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Yasukuni Shine is another point of contention between the three nations. In a nutshell. this Shinto shrine serves as a war memorial for all deceased Japanese servicemembers. In these names are those convicted of war crimes, including fourteen Class A war criminals convicted of ordering or carrying out atrocities. Japanese prime ministers have visited the shrine over the decades, which Korea and China have deemed offensive and controversies have even affected the Emperor of Japan’s actions. No emperor has visited the shrine since 1975, but this doesn’t prevent members of Japanese far-right political parties who advocate for Japan’s re-militarization. A portion of Japanese people still deny that any war crimes were committed during World War II and this leaves many Koreans and Chinese frustrated and unable to pursue future reconciliation. Throughout his interviews in Japan, Booth’s introspection kept returning to the importance of historical education. How could these nations rebuild their prestige and standing with one another if their younger generations denied what their ancestors did?
Overall, ‘Three Tigers, One Mountain‘ was a compelling and enlightening read. Booth’s combination of the grassroots history with the broader historical narrative really demonstrates how the course of history affects individual people. Some people will continue to have a burning hatred for another nation, while another embraces another cultural more than their own. All of it boils down to a well-rounded, properly informed education according to Booth. I couldn’t agree more. The ideology of one generation is undoubtedly shaped by another. If proper historical dialogue is replaced by negation and denialism, what can we expect to achieve in terms of global cooperation and cultural understanding? I take the grim view that tensions in the Far East will continue to simmer unless there’s a concerted effort for the nations to face their sordid histories and find a path to reconciliation. Otherwise, the three tigers will keeping circling one another until they all decide to pounce and see which emerges the sole survivor.
Do you ever daydream about what you’d accomplish with endless funds? Would you buy that new car you always wanted? Embark on a month long vacation to the tropics? Eat a hamburger at every establishment listed on ‘Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives’? All of these are admirable, but consider this: all that wealth wasn’t enough and it was your gift bestowed by God to make money. Your sole purpose was generating profit for you, your company, and family. If you thought this, then you share a kindred soul with one of the richest men in history: Jakob Fugger.
Greg Steinmetz’s book, ‘The Richest Man Who Ever Lived: The Lifeand Times of Jacob Fugger’ recounts the founding and influence of the powerful Fugger merchant family. At a time when large capitalist enterprises and industrial monopolies were the norm in European economies, Fugger singlehandedly cornered the copper and silver market. His business network reached into several royal households and the Vatican. Merchants, bankers, and businessmen followed his advice and bowed to his financial acumen, believing that he really did turn anything into gold. Steinmetz’s research pulls from a vast archive and the Fugger family papers that have survived for nearly six hundred years. That’s right; Jakob Fugger isn’t your 20th century mogul or Elon Musk style tech entrepreneur. He was 2% of Europe’s GDP in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Steinmetz unveils the humble origins of the Fugger family and the ascent into the wealthy echelons of society. His grandfather, Hans, was a lowly peasant who moved to Augsburg and entered the textile trade. Textiles was a powerful industry in Europe and its proximity to Italy which produced many of the necessary dyes for colors created a rich market in Germany. The Fugger children and grandchildren worked in various capacities in the merchant business, but others were encouraged to pursue studying theology and become priests. Jakob was one of them, but by the age of fourteen, he was pursuing business interests on the family’s behalf in Venice. The formative Venice years were invaluable to Jakob as he learned the value of building networks, investments, new enterprises, accounting, and honoring contracts. After returning from Venice, Fugger sought out new ventures in Central Europe and his greatest windfall occurred with mining. Through a series of deals with Hapsburg nobility, he secured rights to silver and copper mines throughout Austria. The mines made the Fuggers rich beyond comprehension. When Jakob died in 1525, the vast majority of copper and silver used for minting coins and commercial use came from his vast mines.
Material wealth was only part of the Fugger fortune. The family was closely allied with the Hapsburg royal household and were early supporters of their claims to titles of nobility. They provided many of the contracts and rights for the Fuggers to operate in their territories and given Jakob’s ability to raise funds, the Hapsburgs came to rely on him for loans and credit. Whenever the Hapsburgs needed funds to raise armies or influence elections, they went to Jakob. Border disputes or problems with the Catholic Church? The Fugger network had agents strategically placed in key positions that allowed them to resolve disagreements. Nothing was without its cost and Fugger routinely made a profit from different ventures. Steinmetz took no shortcuts in emphasizing the relationship between the Fuggers and Hapsburgs. Banking and nobility were tailor made for each other during the Renaissance and Jakob certainly capitalized on this political network.
Steinmetz makes another salient point in his analysis of Jakob Fugger and the merchant family. Fugger was traditionally seen as the poorest family member who made his fortune from nothing, but that’s far from the truth. His father and grandfather made important in-roads with the textile industry and built valuable relationships with German and Italian markets. His mother, Barbara Basinger, managed the Fugger bank following the death of his father Jakob the Elder. She was just as shrewd and enterprising as her husband and sons. She exponentially increased the size of the family fortunes and by her death, she left vast inheritances and dowries for her children. Steinmetz’s study of the family relations sheds light on the centrality that the business had with the Fuggers. Outside members worked as agents or informants throughout Europe, but the Fuggers alone were the only ones who managed the money and allowed to learn the art of accounting. Traditional historians emphasized the importance of Jakob, but he wasn’t a one man operation; the extended family made it all happen with him.
Fugger’s profit-generating skills weren’t entirely for selfish reasons though. Steinmetz recounts the Fuggers’ generosity with local churches and impoverished citizens, all of which was motivated by his devout Roman Catholic faith. Originally destined for the life of a priest, Fugger donated large sums of money to St. Anna’s Church and paid the salaries of many parish priests. In 1512, a chapel designed by Renaissance artists Albrecht Dürer, Hans Burgkmair, Jörg Breu the Elder and Hans Daucher was dedicated to the Fuggers and later a mausoleum for Fugger brothers Ulrich and Georg. The most iconic fixture of Fugger’s legacy was the Fuggerei. In 1518, Jakob established a trust funding the building and maintenance of a large social housing complex for struggling laborers. These apartments had modern features for the time, complete with private kitchens and bedrooms, all within an enclosed community where residents lived under a specific set of rules. Rent was set at one guilder and residents were to pray for the Fugger family several times a day. The Fuggerei exists today with the same rent of one guilder (equal to 0.88 euro) and houses around 150 people.
‘The Richest Man Who Ever Lived’ is a perfect book for those who enjoy reading about larger-than-life personalities and biographies of influential people. Medievalists would appreciate the historical research and contextual evidence Steinmetz uses throughout the text. In conclusion, ‘The Richest Man Who Ever Lived‘ is a fitting testament to a man who if he went bankrupt, could have singlehandedly sent Europe back to the Dark Ages just as they were entering the enlightening Renaissance.
Let’s be blunt: warfare changes constantly. Weapons alone don’t change, but so do the intangible aspects; political pressure, foreign policy, and public opinion. The head of state or government has a body of advisors debating the merits of military intervention and national security. Over time, these advisors have evolved to reflect the social mores and political climate both nationally and internationally. The world became increasingly complex following the Second World War with the rise of Communism as a world power, European colonies achieving independence, and the dawn of nuclear power. Previous conventions on isolationism were no longer applicable. Under the Truman Administration, a council made up of foreign policy and military experts congregated to form the first version of what would become the U.S. National Security Council. The 1947 National Security Act formalized its existence and for the past 70 years, the NSC has guided the White House on making monumental decisions on handling foreign threats and maintaining U.S. hegemony during the Cold War and beyond.
John Gans’ book, White House Warriors, analyzes the history and political impact of the NSC, plus the central characters who have dominated the council. In tandem with this work, Gans draws comparisons between the nature of the NSC and global affairs that have necessitated military intervention. The progression of the Cold War and accompanying proxy wars within have shaped the NSC’s people and policies. White House Warriors delivers a stark picture of how the Executive Branch extends its power on foreign affairs through the State Department and military position with the backing of the Joint Chiefs and Secretary of Defense. The reader could interpret Gans’ work in multiple ways as a result. Has the NSC exponentially increased the President’s power to use military force without Congress? Does the National Security Advisor have too much power? Should the NSC be dismantled? These questions and more can be asked by you and have been by policy experts, Congress, Chief-of-Staffs, and the President themselves.
The American-Soviet alliance collapsed in the aftermath of WWII and executive policy on Communism couldn’t be controlled by the State Department. The late President Franklin Roosevelt exhibited a hands-on, yet discombobulated approach for directing the war effort which predictably was a source of consternation for the War Department. In an effort to consolidate national security matters in line with foreign policy, the NSC was formed under the National Security Act of 1947, along with the Department of Defense. Gans writes that in the beginning, personality clashes and vague jurisdiction lines between the military and state were a bane of daily function. Advisors and detailed military staff officers came and went so quickly, some didn’t even bother to learn names unless they sat in meetings with the President. Both Truman and Eisenhower only partially consulted the NSC during the Korean War, but they were largely treated as a secondary appendage because final decisions were made by the President or the Joint Chiefs.
To say that the Cold War molded NSC practice is a massive understatement. Political and diplomatic landscapes were in severe flux. What that meant was flexible responses by the Executive branch needed to be considered. John F. Kennedy’s NSC instigated the leap from haphazard consulting to critical infrastructure. The ‘bright young men’ were indicative of Kennedy’s plan to combat Communism by all necessary means, including military action. Without going to Congress for funding or having debates with his Cabinet, Kennedy molded the NSC to reflect the best minds who could give the best argument supporting the President’s views. Early U.S. involvement in Vietnam was a crucial test for the NSC since it challenged conventional military thinking and required a combined approach of diplomatic, political, and military action. Its during the Vietnam period, Gans notes the rising influence of the singular National Security Adviser. The head of the NSC was an executive secretary, but that role morphed into the advisor we see today. As the war effort and increasing government bureaucracy strained organization and communication efforts, the Advisor’s duty was to be the principal aide to the President on national security matters and direct the NSC on policy meetings. Under Henry Kissinger’s six year tenure, the role of advisor was augmented into a fixed position that sought to bring bureaucracy under control and handle principle matters solely by one person. The council had transformed from a collaborative body to an advisor with an army of staffers.
Between the Ford and Reagan Administrations, the NSC underwent more organizational shuffling and reprioritized focus from the Soviet Union to the Middle East. Terrorist attacks, kidnappings, and attacks on US embassies were prevalent. However, for much of the 1970s and 1980s, the NSC and the Department of Defense dealt with what was coined ‘Vietnam syndrome’. There was great reluctance from many in the military, State Department, and the Joint Chiefs to commit ground troops in another international incident following the debacle of the Vietnam War. Instead, emphasis was placed on shuttle diplomacy and finding ways to subvert enemy activity, but not directly engage them in conventional combat. This was an eye-opening section in Gans’ book as it illustrates how many of the policies we implemented in the Middle East today stem from many of the NSC’s decisions in the 1980s. The Iran-Contra scandal tarnished the NSC and forced them into another organizational restructuring. Gans’ final section focuses on the ongoing War on Terror and how the NSC still faces many of the same challenges that existed since the Vietnam War. In many ways both conflicts were categorized as insurgencies, but U.S. military establishments wanted to reject that label in Iraq and Afghanistan, for fear of conjuring up old Vietnam wounds. Gans examines the deployment and transition of US forces in the Middle East and the implications for national security when the insurgency escalated.
In the end, White House Warriors is provocative and enlightening by showing how the council fluctuates nearly as much as the presidency itself. High stakes decisions on national security are made nearly every day, but decisions are not made by the President alone. The body of advisors to the President is massive and they take time to deliberate on the best possible course of action. The NSC has the power to change the course of conflicts, but they navigate through public opinion as much as the President does. Not every military intervention is cut and dry like the Gulf War or Bosnian War and NSC staffers incorporate countless facets of a scenario that can seem unending. Despite these obstacles, the NSC still serves a vital function to the U.S. and the world in assessing threats to peace and global stability.
Utter chaos. Left behind. Hellish destruction. No hope. Thousands of South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers lived in perpetual agony of whether or not Americans would rescue them from the approaching North Vietnamese Army (NVA). The ensuing battle would be catastrophic if Communists and remnants of the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) fought in the streets of Saigon. Meanwhile, fragile agreements, empty promises, and diplomatic false flags swirled around the globe in negotiating a compromise to save what was left of South Vietnam. To say that there were miscommunications and misunderstandings between parties is a definitively gross understatement. Between October 1972 and April 1975, a CIA analyst worked furiously on deciphering North Vietnamese plans while navigating a labyrinth of bureaucratic stonewalling and intelligence mismanagement. Despite signals of non-negotiable settlements and an almost willful denial of reality by senior leaders, Frank Snepp and others did their best to rescue at-risk Vietnamese civilians and military personnel. In 1977, Frank Snepp published ‘Decent Interval‘ chronicling the events leading up to Saigon’s collapse in 1975 and giving stark, graphic details of how competing military and political ideas created a quagmire of biblical proportions. Controversy surrounded Snepp’s book from the beginning as the CIA sued him over breach of contract, ultimately leading to a Supreme Court decision (United States vs. Frank W. Snepp, III). Despite losing his case, Snepp’s testimony sheds light on the tarnished integrity of CIA and U.S. political actions in South Vietnam. ‘Decent Interval‘ is, therefore, essential reading for anyone desiring to know what transpired in the last days of the Vietnam War.
Before delving into specific features of the book, the title phrase ‘decent interval’ references a theory that the Nixon Administration orchestrated plans to allow for a peaceful withdrawal from South Vietnam and avoid a military defeat. The Republic of Vietnam could not survive according to sources in the administration, including National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, stating:
‘Our terms would eventually destroy him.’ [‘Him’ referring to South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu]
Presidential, political, military, and Vietnamese scholars debate this practice and while Kissinger denied the ‘decent interval’ concept, the fact remains that while the United States remained committed to South Vietnam in public, a mirage of hope prevailed privately that many Vietnamese clung to but never came to fruition. President Nixon privately pledged to Thieu that if his country was ever threatened again by North Vietnam, U.S. air power would retaliate with full force. Following Nixon’s resignation from the Watergate scandal, Communists reasoning on U.S. re-intervention changed overnight. Without Nixon or the hope of an aerial defense, the NVA could launch a final assault on the south and finally reunify the country. The south’s fate was essentially sealed. Snepp’s accounting chronicles the events and people who took part.
Frank Snepp (featured in Ken Burns’ documentary series The Vietnam War and the film Last Days in Vietnam) separates the book into sections; the bloody cease-fire of 1973, the piecemeal conquering of South Vietnam, and the final two days of Saigon’s life. The book reads as a play-by-play recalling actions with startling detail of various CIA, State Department, military, and civilian agency operations. In many ways, Snepp wrote the most complex after-action report one could ask for about the Fall of Saigon. The reader can expect to see familiar names reappear consistently and recognize the increasing anxiety as the enemy inched closer to victory. From the outset, ‘Decent Interval‘ sets a bleak tone on what the CIA did during the Vietnam War. This extends to the challenges faced by the Defense Attaché Office (DAO), the State Department, and the United States Information Agency (USIA). Intelligence gathered by CIA sources and surveillance of the South Vietnamese government painted a bleak picture of the ARVN’s capability to combat a serious invasion from the north. A principle actor who exerted disastrous influence was U.S. Ambassador Graham Martin. Martin entered South Vietnam in June 1973 with the goal of retaining South Vietnamese independence by any means necessary. He was a resolute old guard Cold Warrior determined to keep U.S. aid flowing. As Snepp repeats throughout the book, Martin was more concerned with conforming information and news to his worldview rather than taking facts to heart from trusted sources. His relationship with the media was not stellar either. These facets proved fatal for the South Vietnamese and remaining Americans who became increasingly frustrated with the Ambassadors’ actions. Snepp doesn’t kid gloves in his critique of Martin’s intransigence. Martin refused to even cut down a tamarind tree in the Embassy courtyard to allow for helicopter liftoffs; stating that it would hurt morale and incite panic. By that point, frenzied crowds of frightened Vietnamese should have signaled the oncoming doom. Saving the tamarind tree was akin to throwing furniture off the sinking Titanic.
Critiques about President Thieu’s regime were also harsh and the South Vietnamese army struggled to hold onto to key points in the country. Snepp describes his task to escort Thieu out of the country following his resignation. The unceremonious departure (and potential smuggling of valuables in his luggage) illustrates how reading the writing on the wall came too late. Leaders tried desperately to mount defenses on their own, but over-reliance on the U.S was an Achille’s heel after 1973. The ARVN was plagued with corruption, low morale, and with the evaporation of U.S. financial and military aid, they ran out of money and bullets. That same corruption extended to the government where competing factions constantly jockeyed for power. Disagreements became part of the everyday narrative in South Vietnam, but now with Communists only days away from unifying the country, they assumed larger importance with political settlements. Thieu’s military leadership emphasized a ‘light at the top, heavy at the bottom’ strategy where northern provinces bordering North Vietnam were abandoned in order to reinforce more populous centers in the south. The result was mass panic and confusion as Americans still in those provinces struggled to coordinate evacuations and destroy classified information. Disheartening reports about the collapse of ARVN divisions and hit-and-run tactics by the Viet Cong flooded into Saigon, forcing more Embassy staff to prepare for the worst. Snepp cites the DAO’s Colonel Bill Legro as a principle architect for the Saigon evacuation. Pre-arranged rendezvous points around the city would pick up Americans with proper credentials. South Vietnamese, through a mash-up of bribery and American largess, thrusted themselves into the evacuation even if official policy did not include them. Ambassador Martin and for some time, Thomas Polgar, CIA Station Chief, held out hope for a negotiated settlement arbitrated by the Soviet Union and China. As Snepp describes it, the CIA and U.S. Embassy botched a great deal of the evacuation prep work due to misconceptions on intelligence validity.
Snepp evaluates the actions of many people in the last days of South Vietnam. Throughout the book, his criticisms Thomas Polgar increase exponentially over his handling and interpretations of intelligence sources. For a brief time, Polgar shared similar views as Martin concerning a negotiated settlement with the Communists (a tip from Hungarian associates in the ICCS [International Commission of Control and Supervision]). As time progressed and NVA forces captured Xuan Loc and cut communications out of Saigon, hopes of negotiation evaporated into nothingness. Hovering over the Embassy was the political front centered on the U.S. Congress who had the final say on authorizing military and aid funds to South Vietnam. Martin, Kissinger, and others desperately needed Congress to act. If South Vietnam were to fall, Congress, not the White House, State Department, or CIA, should take the blame. Snepp interprets Congressional machinations and their impacts in the broader context of how the U.S. handled foreign relations with South Vietnam. If the U.S. government was unwilling to move proactively in warding off a disaster, people on the ground needed to act swiftly.
April 1975. The month and year where all hell broke lose in Saigon. ‘Decent Interval‘ is only half of the book’s title, but the latter aptly describes the landscape: ‘An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam‘. No one who wasn’t there couldn’t have described it as vividly as Snepp did. Between April 6 and April 29, the NVA hit major points around Saigon, including Tan Son Nhut Air Base and Vung Tau. Evacuation plans were still in disarray as senior leaders argued over how many personnel should be lifted out and when. Americans needed to be rescued, but determining at-risk Vietnamese was problematic and time consuming. Peace was still a far-flung hope, but Snepp cites this the principle obstacle in coordinating a withdrawal:
“My imbroglio with Polgar left me bitter and frightened. As long as he and Martin refused to accept the inevitability of a Communist assault, it seemed likely they would continued to subordinate the evacuation effort to their peace gambit. In my anxiety I resolved to try to signal to Washington once again (as I had earlier through Moose and Miessner) how far off-trach I though they were.”
‘Snepp, Decent Interval, ‘Worst Case’, pg. 369
Snepp intimately recalls how he and his colleagues worked outside the system and broke convention to get desperate Vietnamese out of the country. Some whom they knew personally. These chapters and sections make ‘Decent Interval‘ a heart-wrenching read. One is immediately placed in the hot, humid, and bullet ridden Saigon city blocks. Snepp intricately weaves descriptions of civilians facing harsh decisions and finding creative ways to escape the country. Americans with proper credentials were collected at pre-arranged rendezvous points, but many Vietnamese were left behind upon realizing that they would be left behind. On April 29 1975, the North Vietnamese initiated the assault on Saigon. Intelligence reports drafted by Snepp revealed how the Communists were determined to drive onto the city and claim it by Ho Chi Minh’s birthday on May 19th. Cargo ships, commercial airplanes, and military airlifts were swamped with frightened civilians carrying their life possessions. The Ford Administration emphasized evacuating all Americans and their Vietnamese dependents, which resulted in an explosion of Americans claiming ‘dependents’. Since no official evacuation order was implemented due to hopes of a settlement, the best way to describe the scenario was haphazard. The worst description was a shit-show. Operation Frequent Wind, the official military directed evacuation, was initiated the day before, but without guidance from Ambassador Martin or the DAO, the military airlift had to improvise flying in helicopters and ferrying them out to Task Force 76 fleet in the South China Sea. CIA pilots and civilian contractors flying their own helicopters rescued Americans and at-risk Vietnamese as well. The famous image of a CIA officer helping civilians up a narrow ladder on top of 22 Gia Long Street into an Air America chopper was a defining image of the Fall of Saigon. Polgar by this point radically changed his view on the military situation. He scrambled to save personal Vietnamese friends and destroyed classified information. Incinerators ran around the clock destroying burn bags filled with shredded documents. His final cable to Washington D.C. resonated with historic implications:
“It has been a long and hard fight and we have lost…This experience unique in the history of the United States does not signal necessarily the demise of the United States as a world power. The severity of the defeat and the circumstances of it, however, would seem to call for a reassessment of the policies of niggardly half measures which have characterized much of our participation here despite the commitment of manpower and resources which were certainly generous. Those who fail to learn from history are forced to repeat it. Les us hope that we will not have another Vietnam experience and that we have learned our lesson.”
Saigon. Signing off.
Final Message of CIA Station Chief Thomas Polgar, April 29th 1975.
Late into the evening of April 29th, Snepp and the last of the CIA personnel made their way to the embassy roof helicopter pad, boarded a CH-47, and swiftly flew out to sea, landing on the USS Denver. Below them were throngs of civilians clamoring for salvation. Time and again they were reassured that helicopters would pick them up, but they were empty promises as only Americans were evacuated. Within 24 hours of landing on the USS Denver, Snepp finally heard the news he knew was coming; Saigon capitulated and was renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
Personally, this massive tome was startling. Snepp’s inside accounts and direct knowledge of Communist operations made me re-think a few things. First, what I was taught in my U.S. and the Vietnam War class in undergraduate was severely watered down and glossed over the finer points of Kissinger’s double-dealing, the sheer stupidity of Graham Martin, and the South Vietnamese government’s practically non-existent democratic institutions. The enormously perplexing situation inside the U.S. Embassy makes no wonder of why evacuation plans were constantly outdated or rendered useless. Above all, Snepp laments for the thousands of left behind Vietnamese who worked for the U.S. and faced prison, re-education, and execution by the Communists. In testimonies before Congress, Martin claimed that the evacuation was an astounding achievement of American planning and execution. Snepp disagreed:
‘Some legislators, however, were not so sure. Although none disputed the difficulties the Ambassador had faced, there lingered widespread suspicion that he had brought a great many of them on himself. Far from expediting the evacuation during the first weeks of April, he had, it seemed, helped to stall if off-partly by fostering the notion (with Kissinger and Weyand’s help) that one more aid appropriation might avert disaster…Even then it was less Martin’s ingenuity than the imagination and initiative of subordinate staffers that kept the operation rolling along. Without General Smith’s “inspirations” there probably would have been no evacuations at all…the improvisatory and haphazard nature of the evacuation of course had its cost.’
Every bit of intelligence pointed to a non-negotiable Communist victory. Hanoi would not suffer compromise under any circumstances. Why couldn’t Kissinger, Martin, or Polgar understand this notion? Why wait until the last minute to make a crucial decision on saving lives? Snepp points to far flung hopes for negotiated settlements through Soviet channels and constant pressure for Congressional appropriations to foreign aid. Following Watergate and the passage of the War Powers Act, senators and representatives were unwilling to approve any more aid. Reluctance after years of anti-war protests pushed Congress and the White House to focus on domestic issues such as inflation, unemployment, and foreign relations in the Middle East. No one cared for Vietnam any longer.
‘Decent Interval‘ was an exploration of the mind for any concerned person living in Saigon on April 30th 1975. In later testimonies, Snepp laments the loss of so many Vietnamese who weren’t evacuated. In a way this book memorializes the Vietnamese left behind in the U.S. Embassy. Rescued families were the lucky ones and would always remember the time as ‘Black April’ in their life. ‘Decent Interval‘ set a new bar for my own understanding of the Vietnam War. At great personal sacrifice, Snepp brought to light what many Americans tried to forget and still try to today; so much went wrong with the evacuation of Saigon. Had it not been for a brave, enterprising people, so many more would have lost their lives.
Frozen corpses and mangled machinery litter the cratered, snowy ground of the Chosin Reservoir. The freezing weather inflicts frostbite while harassing enemy troops sporadically attack the moving column of U.S., U.N., and South Korean troops. Eight months after the start of hostilities, Communist and United Nations forces see-sawed across the peninsula, circling back to the beginning with almost no discernable gains to show for the deaths of thousands and peace negotiations at an impasse. This was the Korean War in microcosm.
The Korean War is routinely overlooked in historical research. That sentiment is repeated constantly in the history community followed by some supporting evidence [It immediately followed World War II which takes the lion’s share of attention, there were no obvious gains for the United States, and it ended with a stalemate]. Despite the research shortcomings and shortsightedness of examining the war’s origins and aftermath, the historical legacy of the Korean War has global ramifications today. The modern North Korean state was born from the conflict and many Koreans remember the inhuman tragedy that befell their families. North and South Koreas are prime examples of nations born from a 20th century conflict that was left unresolved and a people divided. Military, geopolitical, and social disagreements forged in the cauldron of the Cold War precipitated the conflict that Korean War experts agree was the first limited war between the two powers of Western Democracy and Communism.
‘Korea: The Limited War‘ by David Rees delivers a thoroughly researched narrative on the conflict’s various features; ranging from military tactics, domestic political battles, geopolitical ideologies, and personal struggles of people and soldiers making sense of the violence. Rees places the Korean War in the larger scope of the emerging East-West rivalry. He introduces the argument of how authoritarian regimes and democracies can maintain the due course of negotiation and not resort to nuclear destruction. However, Rees also implies that the realities of limited war in the wider scope of practical foreign policy (realpolitik) were always unobtainable in the Cold War. As a result, Korea became a test case in the diplomatic policy of containment. Both democratic and communist countries claimed their moral and societal superiority and through their intransigence, allowed violence to continue as armies savaged each other. During the armistice talks at Panmunjom, Communist and U.N. forces attacked, retreated, regrouped, and attacked again for two years until the armistice was signed in 1953. Rees’ research makes clear that differing views between the U.S. military and political establishment impacted their goals in Korea and the pursuit for peace. Military strategist and RAND fellow Bernard Brodie summarized this duality:
“No doubt the cardinal error as we see it today was the halting of our offensive at the moment when the Communists first indicated an interest in opening armistice negotiations. This error, attributable to our political rather than our military leadership, had nothing to do with our desire to keep the war limited . . . We paid bitterly for that error in the great prolongation of negotiations, the unsatisfactory terms of the settlement, and above all in the disillusionment and distaste which the American people developed as the main emotional residue of their experience with limited war.“
Bernard Brodie, ‘Strategy in the Missile Age’
Rees’ manuscript is separated into three sections symbolizing the three phases of the conflict: the North Korean war, Chinese intervention, and the war for peace. Within these sections he meticulously examines the military, political, and diplomatic arenas that produced the conditions for a limited war. The Communist specter looming over the Far East was of great concern to the Truman administration, but they were unclear on how to approach the situation without it exacerbating into World War III. The Korean peninsula was divided at the 38th Parallel following the end of World War II to establish zones (similar to postwar Germany) and as a result, two Korean states emerged; Chinese and Soviet backed Communist North Korea led by Kim Il-Sung and U.S. backed South Korea led by Syngman Rhee. U.S. forces stationed in the south were woefully unprepared against the Korean People’s Army (North Korean military) and within weeks of the initial invasion in June 1950, the Communists were on the brink of completing their goals. The intervention of General Douglas MacArthur and the United Nations halted that catastrophe and by November 1950, U.S. and U.N combined forces overtook much of North Korea, pushing to the Yalu River.
The famous Thanksgiving, November 27th 1950, marked the Chinese entrance into the Korean War. Communist forces launched repeated attacks on all fronts against the U.N., recapturing many places only weeks ago were held by Western forces. Territory would hardly change for the next two years as the U.N. and Communist armies savaged one another on a static front. All the while, senior commanders negotiated an armistice at Panmunjom. Two years of on-again, off-again talks that produced nebulous achievements at best. Meanwhile, turmoil between President Truman, the Joint Chiefs, and General Douglas MacArthur reached their peak on April 11, 1951 when Truman relieved MacArthur from command of U.N. forces, all U.S. forces, and dismissed him from duty. For months the general advocated for widening the war in order to crush the possibility of a Chinese invasion, but reassured Truman that the Chinese would not undertake it themselves. Those words and the subsequent march of 300,000 of the People’s Volunteer Army (PVA) broke MacArthur’s credibility and was recalled to Washington. Rees argues that the disagreements in military-civilian policy constantly left the negotiators empty-handed. The United States’ commitment to limited war waned as troops were deployed to hold an objective that was ill-defined. Politically this attrition strategy would never work, especially as Truman’s approval rating dropped to its lowest at 28% and Republicans made substantial gains in Congress and Eisenhower was elected president in 1952. The battles between celebrity and public personalities are a long running theme in Rees’ research because they are contributory in interpreting how people viewed the Cold War and what they believed was best policy.
Rees’ research ventures beyond the battlefield and incorporates broader themes of East-West geopolitical tension. A key point in understanding how the United States became involved in Korea were the interpretations of postwar global affairs in conquered nations. With the U.S. as a new world power in contrast to the Soviet Union, encouraging revolution through indirect means was necessary in keeping the two powers from direct confrontation; nuclear annihilation as the end result. The Soviet Union supported the Communist Party in North Korea, but kept at arms length for not being the root cause of deteriorating relations. China, however, threw their complete support and committed hundreds of thousands of troops. The international ‘police action’ as coined by President Truman was also a test for the new United Nations in exercising communal power by intervening on the peninsula and identifying aggressors. The U.N. recognized China as an aggressor which stirred debate on how to handle a country who became a world power nearly overnight. Rees includes some international focus, such as Great Britain, but that perspective is primarily reserved for the United Nations. Reducing down from the geopolitics to domestic policy, Rees skillfully presents the growing anxiety of the American public and the incremental steps taken by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to only defend, not conquer. Omar Bradley even stated at one point while reviewing plans for amphibious landings on North Korean islands; ‘We don’t want any more enemy real estate.’ Containment was the goal, but as long as armistice negotiations failed, the killing continued.
Rees highlights another crucial aspect of the Korean War; POWs. Tens of thousands of U.N., Chinese, and Korean prisoners were held captive and were the lynchpin of armistice negotiations. An elaborate system of repatriation through neutral countries was drawn up primarily by the Communists. This was done as a psychological tactic because during the incarceration of U.N. soldiers, they underwent ‘re-education’ and ‘interrogation’ by Chinese and North Korean agents. It was believed that if POWs understood the merits of Communism and corruptions of the Western countries, they would be more sympathetic to the Revolution. Propaganda was a powerful tool during the conflict that Communists utilized to the best of their ability. Themes like wholesale slaughter, capitalist motivations, and the use of biological warfare were promoted by China to show how Western powers were committing war crimes. Several USAF pilots and crews submitted confessions admitting that they dropped ordnance like ‘cholera and typhus’ bombs on Korean villages. These confessions were later discovered to be forced extractions signed under torture, but that narrative survives today in North Korea, using it as cause for war against America. This scheme of prisoner repatriation retains particular prominence in Rees’ text because it contributed significantly to the prolonging of hostilities on the front lines.
Just like the World War II generation, those who served and fought in Korea are dying in larger numbers every day. With that, the direct memory and impact of the conflict diminishes and what remains is the ongoing geopolitical dialogue. ‘Korea: The Limited War‘ was published in 1964, but the lessons it teaches remain ever relevant when we conduct ourselves in a limited war. We are susceptible to think that the conflict doesn’t extend beyond the set borders, but the origins of said conflict exist beyond them and understanding and confronting issues before they explode on the battlefield are crucial. Like Rees claims, we must have a unified approach in dealing with an opponent whose motives could have worldwide implications. If we applied that lesson to our foreign policy, who knows if we might have become involved in Vietnam.
Civil War historiography is saturated with biographies, retellings of grandiose military campaigns, and the political struggles to end the moral scourge of slavery in the United States. Civil War historians produce mountains of research on the causes, role of slavery, political debates in the high echelons of Washington D.C., military technology, evolving societal roles, and much more. Entire libraries can be filled with only Civil War publications. The most common knowledge of the Civil War is focused on what happened in the Eastern United States; great battles like Gettysburg, Antietam, Chancellorsville, and Atlanta dominate the narrative. People imagine long battle lines filled with muskets, powder smoke, and huge colorful flags as soldiers shoot and melee each other until they capitulate. Smaller battles like Pea Ridge, Wilson’s Creek, and Prairie Grove are enshrined as well, mostly through the regional and local histories that preserve them so well. But what about the battles further west? The ones beyond the Great Plains and into the rugged territories of the American West? As pioneers moved west in search of new opportunities, federal laws were loosely enforced, making the territories of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah scenes of sporadic, but intense violence. Armies numbered in the hundreds, not thousands. Here in the West were untapped resources and a connection to the Pacific Ocean. Federal outposts and troops stationed there were more for protecting settlers from local Indian tribes; ill-equipped to halt an invasion of regular troops. The leaders of the Confederacy believed that if they could conquer and incorporate the western territories, they would have access to enormous wealth and be one step closer of having a nation stretch between the two oceans.
Ray Colton’s ‘The Civil War in the Western Territories‘ chronicles the events of the New Mexico Campaign led by C.S.A. Brigadier General Henry Hopkins Sibley, battles against Indian nations, and how the war shaped the western territories. Colton shines in delivering a detailed narrative filled with primary sources of military leaders, government dispatches, and personal diaries of enlisted men and pioneers. Where Colton lacks however is placing the conflict within the larger context of the American Civil War. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln and C.S.A President Jefferson Davis were both heavily invested in the outcome of their army’s campaigns, but expanding on these implications of a successful Confederate invasion could have enriched the understanding of the reader’s idea of the West’s criticality. Despite this, Colton breaks down the narrative into specific stages of how the western conflict unraveled:
Battles between the Union and Confederate armies.
Skirmishes and attacks between the U.S. Army and local Indians
The political and social impacts of the New Mexico Campaign
To provide some background on why the Confederacy endorsed an invasion into the U.S. territories, the plan had the potential to tip the balance of power on the continent. Jefferson Davis, his cabinet, and generals argued that the vast mineral wealth (particularly gold and silver in Colorado and New Mexico), access to the Pacific Ocean, and military pressure to divert Union troops away from the Eastern Theater were the major benefits. Confederate leaders also hoped that the Apaches and Paiutes would indirectly assist them in occupying Union troops while their own troops captured towns, forts, and supply lines.
Lt. Col. Edward Canby, Union commander of the Department of New Mexico, got wind of the coming invasion and on July 23rd, 1861 (two days after the First Battle of Bull Run, the first major engagement of the Civil War) Lt. Col. John Baylor and the Texas 2nd Mounted Rifles entered the New Mexico Territory. From here, Colton does a phenomenal job of writing a line-by-line description of the two sides chasing and slashing at one another. The writing sometimes takes on a commentary feel as Colton infuses the action with personal writings from the commanders and soldiers. The Confederates from the beginning had the advantage. Union troops scattered between Fort Craig and Fort Fillmore struggled against the larger column of Southern troops. Baylor seized the town of Mesilla and following a successful repulsion of Union attacks, Baylor proclaimed the Confederate Arizona Territory on August 1, 1861. While Union commanders struggled to regroup from the loss at Bull Run, Confederate commanders were expanding the boundaries of the Confederacy.
Between August 1861 and February 1862, Baylor’s Texans skirmished with Union forces in the surrounding lands outside Mesilla. Small Confederate victories (small in numbers of casualties) inched the Southerners further west. Meanwhile, Lt. Col. Canby was hastily assembling his army to push the Confederates out of Arizona and New Mexico when in February 1862, Gen. Sibley’s column entered the territory. Their forces came to ahead first at the Battle of Valverde where Sibley was victorious, but Union cavalry broke Confederate supply lines and captured many of the wagons and pack animals. Rather than engage Canby again, Sibley kept moving north to Santa Fe and Mesilla were supplies were waiting. On March 26, 1862 the two armies met again in the Battle of Glorieta Pass. For two days the armies savaged one another in a back-and-forth melee and sporadic fighting in numerous spots made it difficult to determine the frontline. Sibley needed a victory here; Union control of the West and the Rocky Mountains could be broken and the Confederacy would stretch unobstructed to the Pacific coast. Despite their desperate situation, Union troops defeated the southerners, forcing them back to Santa Fe. This loss, coupled with the approaching California Column (a volunteer outfit of infantry and cavalry regiments) proved too much for the Confederate Army of New Mexico. By August 1862, the last of Gen. Sibley’s outfit staggered back across the Rio Grande into Texas and the Confederate flags were torn down and replaced with the Star Spangled Banner.
Colton doesn’t overlook what happened next in the story of the Western Territories. Even though the Confederates were purged from Arizona and New Mexico, Union forces in the region took to the next task; protecting settlers and subduing local Native American tribes. Almost half of the book’s text is dedicated to this subject since for the remainder of the Civil War and beyond, whites constantly clashed with Indians and it was the Army’s primary duty to intervene. The gravity of the invasion was not lost on many of the Native American warriors. The two armies attacking each other was an opportunity to strike back. Apaches, Kiowas, Comanches, and more increased the regularity of their raids on white settlements. Kit Carson was tasked to lead a detachment of Union cavalry to retaliate against Indians throughout New Mexico and from these fights came more stories to add to his almost legendary status. Volunteers from the California Column also engaged various tribes and white civilians contributed as much as was possible to stop the raids.
Colorado saw the majority of the Indian fighting. Arapaho, Cheyenne, and Utes attacked settlements across Colorado and inflicted substantial damage on the local economies. Calls for more troops and peace talks abounded between Colorado and Washington D.C. The violence climaxed on November 29, 1864. Despite repeated warnings to not engage the Cheyenne however, Col. John Chivington of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry swooped down on an encampment near the Big Sandy Creek and proceeded to kill everyone [Chivington fought at the Battle of Glorieta Pass and spent another two months attacking Confederates in New Mexico]. The chief, Black Kettle, had flown a U.S. and white flag from his lodge showing that he was following the terms of peace and to deter any more U.S. soldiers from attacking. Chivington ignored this display, resulting in the Sand Creek Massacre. Colton pulls no punches in outlining the lead-up and fallout from the massacre. While overshadowed by the greater specter of civil war, unforgettable atrocities against Native Americans were committed during the years of unchecked violence.
The third section of Colton’s book examines how western territories adapted politically during the Civil War, such as Arizona and New Mexico coping with secessionists and re-incorporation into the Union. Loyalty and allegiance oaths are the over-arching theme since a majority of settlers were seen as anti-government and susceptible to causing havoc. For one group, their relationship with the U.S. government, but opposition to slavery, made their role in the Civil War more critical than historians initially give them credit. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and its president Brigham Young built their new Zion near the Great Salt Lake in Utah. A vital mail route, the Overland Trail, ran through the territory and throughout the war’s duration, Union troops remained stationed near Salt Lake with the mission of protecting the route. Brigham Young and the church were not wholly convinced of their altruistic mission, given their checkered history with state and federal governments. However, the church’s condemnation of slavery was crucial as many Union supporters thought that they would also join the Confederacy; on the assumption that Utah would want to safeguard the institution of polygamy. New territorial governors and political appointees to the Utah territory were constantly at odds with Brigham Young and their Mormon constituents. This exacerbated an already volatile situation with Union troops camped not far from Salt Lake City. Governor John Dawson vetoed a bill authorizing delegates to a constitutional convention (which would have led to statehood) was just one of the many political conflicts unfolding in Utah. One accusation made against Brigham Young was the depreciation of the national currency and using a new metals standard. These political tensions almost came to a head when federal troops drilled for a potential occupation of Utah. By 1864, General Irvin McDowell ordered all federal troops to leave the Salt Lake area and remove themselves from interfering in any legislation or economic ventures in Utah. Protecting the Overland Mail Route was their first and only duty. A serious armed conflict with the potential of creating another internal split in the West was averted and the Church looked forward to more years of peace.
‘The Civil War in the Western Territories‘ was a strong, well-researched manuscript, but lacked in some greater contextual research. Colton makes no exception when evaluating the importance of the Trans-Mississippi Theater. Despite that, there are only a few references in establishing connections between the Eastern and Western Theaters. If there is documentation that generals like U.S. Grant, William T. Sherman, James Longstreet, or Albert Sidney Johnston, were actively watching and taking events in New Mexico into account, that would have increased the geographical importance of the Western Territories. When researching the American Civil War, we must remember to take all theaters and battles into account with their role, position, and relevance in the wider conflict. What if Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah elected to join the Confederacy? What if Gen. Sibley punched a hole through to the Pacific? These questions were being asking in 1861 and so we ought to ask them today.
Music has conveyed messages throughout history, sometimes in novel and ingenious ways. In 2015, the critically acclaimed musical ‘Hamilton‘ debuted on Broadway and took the entertainment world by storm. For approximately two-and-a-half hours, the life of one of the United States’ most prolific writer, statesman, politician, and public servant was thrust into the spotlight and viewed like never before. Critics from the artistic and academic communities exhausted their energies reviewing the powerful impact of the music, lyrics, and imagery that chronicled the rise, reign, and legacy of Alexander Hamilton. Lin-Manuel Miranda commented that while on vacation, he obtained a copy of the Hamilton biography by the historian Ron Chernow and within a short time, Miranda contemplated on how Hamilton’s life could be conveyed through song. The end result? A musical that set a new golden standard for Broadway.
Alexander Hamilton didn’t deserve to languish in historical obscurity following his meteoric rise and infamous end according to Chernow. In the meticulous biography ‘Alexander Hamilton’, the reader plunges into the chaotic colonial life of the Caribbean, the American Revolution, and the formative years of the early United States republic. As any historian of the period can tell you, these were tumultuous times for the country as people wrestled to capitalize on their newfound freedoms and political leaders dueled in the most vicious partisan rhetoric. All the while, leaders are trying to make their democratic experiment flourish with Europe standing as witness. ‘Alexander Hamilton’ blends the biographical with the historical and interspersed with facts are eloquent asides showing Hamilton’s humanity and enigmatic personality. Chernow’s crusade into debunking the myths sheds light on the man who arguably saved the country’s financial institutions and defended the Constitution to his dying breath.
Hamilton’s celebrity life was a far cry from his origins. Chernow’s labor intensive research on Caribbean primary sources explores Hamilton’s ancestry between his mother, Rachel Faucette, and father James A. Hamilton. His mother’s life was hellish and inflated charges of infidelity and bigamy branded her children as bastards; a mark that Hamilton would zealously conceal throughout life. At first he tried to build some form of paternal relationship with James, but contact between the two men degraded until nothing was left to be said between them. His illegitimate origins extends to his birthday; it’s unsure whether he was born in 1755 or 1757. Chernow and other historians speculate that he changed his age to be accepted into college and the armed forces. What we do know is that from the moment he could walk and talk, he possessed a fiery drive to learn, apply, and improve his station and the world around him. The idyllic tropical life in the Caribbean was a glossy facade on the brutal world of slave labor and class stratification that defined Hamilton’s views on slavery, individual rights, and the importance of commerce. He criticized merchant ship captains for not providing adequate protection against pirates during his job as a shipping clerk (talk about confrontational). When reading about his childhood, it’s hard not to weep at the harsh predicaments of his mother or tricksters that conned their way through Hamilton’s family. This is one origin story that gets overlooked in the traditional historiography of America’s Founding Fathers, but one we should take to heart as it defined the man who shot right to the top. With a little help from his friends, Hamilton received the funds to travel to Boston and made his way to New York to become a new man.
New York became the center of Hamilton’s new world and quickly took advantage of his newfound surroundings. Enrolled at King’s College, he acquainted himself with members of the Sons of Liberty and other supporters of the American Revolution. The spirit of revolution presented a dual-blade personal controversy for Hamilton: he believed in the honorable causes of representative government, denounced unfair taxation, and liberty for all, but unfettered mob mentality and anarchistic violence would destroy the very same causes he championed. Hamilton internalized this belief and defined his course of action with the future establishment of the U.S. Constitution and the Treasury Department. There had to be order, not mayhem, for democracy to function.
What many people forget in traditional historiography was that Hamilton served as the right hand man of George Washington during the Revolution. Chernow covers Hamilton’s military service in exacting detail by elevating the importance of Hamilton’s writing and eloquence in addressing the Continental Congress. Washington’s army suffered from chronic shortages of food, ammunition, clothing, and Hamilton drafted letter after letter urging for the desperately needed supplies. Chernow spends a majority of the Revolution chapters focusing on this special kinship between Washington and Hamilton, but the conflict produced other valuable friendships with figures such as the Marquis de Lafayette, John Laurens, John Jay, and Aaron Burr. For the duration of his position in Washington’s general staff, Hamilton begged for a field command; leading his own troops into honorable, battlefield glory. He was finally given command over a handful of battalions during the final Siege of Yorktown in 1781 and witnessed the collapse of the British army and General Cornwallis’ surrender. In the famous John Trumbull painting of Cornwallis’ surrender, on the right, standing to the far left in the line of officers is Hamilton clutching his sword, and looking on as the British file out past the combined French and U.S. officers. Now that the nation fought victoriously for independence, now began the task of building a government. A task that Alexander Hamilton eagerly confronted.
Before reviewing the mammoth chapters encompassing Hamilton’s role in the Constitutional Convention, tenure in the Treasury Department, and illustrious private law practice, it’s important to mention the personal relationships that Hamilton developed, including his wife, Eliza, and sister-in-law, Angelica. When one watches the Hamilton musical, initial thoughts analyzing the connection between Angelica and Alexander lead to the conviction they pursued an affair; they would never be satisfied. Chernow argues repeatedly that while they had an intimate connection, it never ventured into the physical realm. Contemporary gossip spread a plethora of rumors that they were lovers, but Chernow makes a compelling argument that only maintained ‘a friendship of unusual ardor.’ Hamilton’s unquestionable love was Elizabeth Schuyler. Their relationship began during his service on Washington’s staff and he was so taken with her that its said that he forgot the password back to the officers quarters. Their courtship lasted roughly a year and they married on December 14, 1780. For the nomadic Hamilton, Chernow marks this celebration as a major turning point in his life. With the loss of paternal and maternal figures, home abandonment, and the constant reminder of his illegitimate heritage, there was always uncertainty over where he belonged. From that day forward, Hamilton felt grounded with a family, with security, and finally starting his own dynasty. Eliza shared much of Hamilton’s personality; a powerful drive for knowledge and love for helping others. Their marriage was a bedrock that buoyed them through sad times and Chernow makes it clear through vast correspondence and personal documents that Eliza and Hamilton’s affection never wavered throughout their 24 years together.
‘Alexander Hamilton’ certainly combs every facet of the subject’s life in a manner that if reviewed in every way here, this post would go on for another 20,000 words. In summation, it behooves to say that Hamilton never stayed put or calmed himself in any fashion. After returning to New York in 1783, he began a private law practice defending remaining Loyalist and Tories who had their properties violated during the war. A year later he founded the Bank of New York, then restored King’s College now renamed Columbia College and all the while, he orchestrated plans to convene the Constitutional Convention and push for restructuring the country’s finances and reinvigorate commerce and legal justice. The chapters analyzing Hamilton’s time at the Constitutional Convention are not only physically immense, but historically also. A majority of anti-Hamilton rhetoric that swirled around his life and well after his death accused him of being a closet monarchist; a person who wanted a powerful tyrant in control of the government and individual rights were trampled. After all, he argued cases before the New York Supreme Court on behalf of Tories and created quasi-aristocratic institutions (the Bank of New York and the fraternal military order, the Society of the Cincinnati). Plus his views on having a President-for-Life and Senators-for-Life only lent credence to this monarchist speculation. Rather than debunk these accusation, Chernow makes a slightly different approach; rather than vilify the haters, he deconstructs Hamilton’s statements and places them in the larger context of how divisions between supporters of central government emerged. There was no denying what Hamilton said, but his intentions were seen through in building a strong governing body where rights were guaranteed by the government. He wanted people to be held accountable for their actions in public office, but seemed to favor it more as a personal choice rather than face investigation and criticism from other departments and branches.
Despite some reservations with the proposed Constitution, Hamilton embarked on the massive writing campaign that modern historians claim was the key to ratifying the document; the Federalist Papers. Hamilton’s exemplary skills as a writer and orator are unchallenged according to Chernow and he cites it magnificently in this book. The power or argument and persuasion were the tools to achieve great respect, power, and achievement for Hamilton and many of his contemporaries would extol his writing prowess. When he produced fifty-one essays for the Federalist Papers, Chernow frames the works not only as a testament of Hamilton’s skills, but as a cunning approach to win over undecided supporters and subsequently dismantle the previous confederation that proved too weak to handle the demands of a central government. The impact of Hamilton’s literary skills resonate within the early years of the United States and much of his writing is still cited today for arguing cases with the federal government, including the Federalist Papers.
As the first Secretary of the Treasury Department appointed by George Washington, Hamilton inherited a country in financial shambles. Farms and businesses were lost during the Revolution, state debts ballooned, back pay for the military was halted, and each state suffered from inflation affecting their respective currencies. Here is where traditional historiography on Hamilton’s achievements with the federal government emerges; even Chernow admits this is where the history is recorded, but not all of it was spared from the continual vitriol that Hamilton’s opponents spewed at him. Here we see the machine-link energy characterized him as a relentless public servant using government to improve the lives of the people: establishing public credit, creating the National Bank, the U.S. Mint, and the Revenue Cutter Service (known today as the U.S. Coast Guard). His proclamations, Reports on Public Credit, Report on a National Bank, and Report of Manufactures, shaped economic policy by covering topics from public debt to designing gold coins. Not every proposal Hamilton put forth received ringing endorsements however. His revenue plan including a whiskey tax was poorly received, resulting in the Whiskey Rebellion. This crisis was significant not only for asserting government control on domestic economic issues, but for strengthening Hamilton’s friendship with President Washington. Since their army days, Washington and Hamilton were close friends, almost serving as a counterbalance to each other’s shortcomings as Chernow describes. This was critical for Hamilton as he positioned himself in close proximity to great political power and economic influence. That same closeness made him the target of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the Democratic-Republican acolytes. Partisan politics between the two men festered into the national audience and their rivalry became one of the most well-documented contests in early U.S. political history. What Chernow provides in addition to the insights of the Hamilton-Jefferson rivalry is how Hamilton was able to balance the weight of public scrutiny with his personal realm and commit to his children and Eliza. Despite always working and writing like he’s running out of time, he always made time for his family. ‘Alexander Hamilton’ describes not only his accolades and political victories, but the darker stains contrasting his impeccable public face.
In 1791, Hamilton and a woman named Maria Reynolds began an illicit affair that lasted for six years and when it became publicly known, it was the first sex scandal that the country faced from its new government. The biography’s chapters outlining the affair are a combination of searching for reasons behind why it started and how it affected Hamilton’s public and private life. For someone like Hamilton, Chernow recognized the contrary behavior that seems out of place for his character and personality. Hamilton prided himself on acting justly to both man’s and God’s laws, so why did this affair happen? What we know from the research is that Hamilton succumbed to his own frailty for women in dire situations and that Maria was engaged in a long-term extortion racket with her husband James (Yes, she was a married woman, making the scandal all the more, scandalous). Chernow speculates that once James realized potential blow-back if the story became public, receiving ‘loans’ from Hamilton was too good of an opportunity to connect with a high-profile figure. Years later when Hamilton faced charges of speculation and misuse of his federal office, he revealed the affair by showing his checkbook of payments to James Reynolds instead of financial speculators his enemies had hoped to find. To preempt any more rumors, enter the Reynolds Pamphlet; a hundred page booklet that detailed the entire affair. Eliza forgave Alexander, but it took years and the Democratic-Republicans used the affair as political fodder at every opportunity.
Washington’s departure from office did not end Hamilton’s influence in the Cabinet. President John Adams heavily resented the fact that his department heads were under Hamilton’s sway, shuttling his ideas through Adams’ administration policy. Timothy Pickering and James McHenry felt the full force of Adams’ wrath at discovering this ideological betrayal by sacking them both. Chernow examines the 1796-1800 time period by delivering analogous comparisons between British and French sentiments in the United States. Opposing views on fulfilling promises made during the American Revolution to the French; who were now engaged in their own albeit bloodier, more anarchistic revolution, intensified partisan divisions in the U.S. government. These splits are eloquently analyzed by Chernow to show how Hamilton began to slip from being the political prodigy and slump into a more reserved status of an elder politician and shadow adviser. His writing skills never wavered, but Chernow recognizes that Hamilton’s infinite enery reserves were running low (his eldest son Philip was killed in a duel in 1801, facilitating depression that Chernow claims Hamitlon never fully recovered from). The crisis in American government devolved into bitter political partisanship and Hamilton was no exception when it came to expressing his ire for both Democratic-Republicans and his own Federalist party. By the 1800 election, Hamilton endorsed Thomas Jefferson for President, disavowing Aaron Burr as the greater evil; someone who held no solid principles and exploited situations for personal and political gain.
Burr reappears throughout the biography as this counterbalance to Chernow’s Hamilton. Whereas Hamilton was outwardly expressive and courted challenges in public, Burr shied away from confrontation in many respects, but always felt that others challenged and belittled him. Contemporary readers might classify him with an INFJ personality type. He and Hamilton both served in the Continental Army, practiced law, and partnered with him on numerous public works in New York. The antagonism however lay with their interpretation of federal government power. Burr’s machinations with New York politics made him a prominent figure, but Chernow revives many of the same suspicions that Hamilton and other Federalists harbored about him. There were accusations of subverting legal codes, using public works for personal gain, and in general just acting dishonorably (see the Manhattan Company water controversy). Popular historical legend tells that Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel following Burr’s loss to Thomas Jefferson, but in Chernow’s writing, the more likely tipping point occurred during the New York 1804 gubernatorial election. The two men already had their public disputes beginning in 1800 while Burr engaged in the first public election campaign and conversations in New York political society alleged that Hamilton consistently degraded him, resulting in his loss. This makes sense as Burr had been ousted from the White House by President Jefferson and all his remaining political capital in his home state was expended. Burr found himself without prospects for almost any political office now.
The fateful duel ignited an internal conflict within Hamilton unlike anything he ever experienced. He abhorred the dueling ritual since his son Philip was killed in one years earlier. His family’s welfare was put at risk because of the possibility of his death. However, Chernow recognized that Hamilton felt honor bound to address the infraction and he couldn’t argue the fact that he made negative remarks about Burr long before the 1804 election. One the fateful day of July 11, 1804, the two men left Manhattan for Weehawken New Jersey with their seconds (witnesses) and a physician. Differing accounts as to who shot first have survived through the generations (maybe the inspiration for Han Solo in the Mos Eisley Cantina?) and historians, including Chernow, have argued this point over who had the most to gain from the duel. Did Burr know that Hamilton would throw away his shot, thus giving him time to aim precisely? Did Hamilton grossly miss and that’s when Burr took his shot? Witnesses agree that both men shot, but others disagree on the time lapse between each. Personal writings by the duelists illustrate their own desires for shooting; Burr was blatant in his desire to shoot to kill, but Hamilton was more complex in his stated beliefs and intentions. It’s really up to the interpretation of the reader; Chernow delivers a compelling argument that Hamilton agreed to the duel to address attacks on his honor, but he couldn’t overcome the sin of murder. Hamilton was carried back to New York where he died the on July 12, 1804.
The biography’s physical size is itself a testament to the precise, detailed, and all-encompassing research that Chernow delivers on the life of one of country’s most accomplished, self-made men. Whether you examine ‘Alexander Hamilton’ from a political, economic, or biographical lens, there was no doubt that this American autodidact shaped government theory, set legal and economic precedence, and saw the American Revolution within himself; a young, scrappy, and hungry force meant for a greatness.
In war, you must know your enemy. Understand how they think, what motivates them, how they fight, and test their resolve to fight for the cause. In the Vietnam War, that was the question that eluded the military intelligence community from the jungle battlefield up to the marbled halls of the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). What many astute American intelligence officers who spent extensive time in the field realized is this wasn’t at all like their father’s war. Traditional ways of identifying the enemy and fighting them on the front lines were not like that in Vietnam. Identifying the enemy’s psychology and rooting out the subversive forces that sustained their cause had to be understood and eliminated. Captain Stuart Herrington, an Army intelligence officer, volunteered to serve in South Vietnam to track down and eliminate Vietcong (VC) suspects. Throughout South Vietnam where the VC operated, they ran a shadow government to counter the Republic of Vietnam (RVN) and the Thieu administration. Permanent security would never be achieved while this shadow government existed and so the CIA launched a new program to counter this: Phoenix.
‘Stalking the Vietcong: Inside Operation Phoenix: A Personal Account‘ recounts Herrington’s experience in the Phoenix Program and the challenges he and his Vietnamese counterparts faced in the early 1970s as the U.S. military presence reduced significantly. I know that almost all of my book reviews so far have revolved around the Vietnam War, but this was a subject that I’ve had a lot of personal interest in since the intrigue of a CIA program compels me to learn as much as possible (at least what has been declassified). The moment this book arrived, I picked it up and plowed through half the book in just a short amount of time.
Phoenix Program shoulder patch (never officially worn or issued by the CIA or U.S. Armed Forces)
Beginning in 1966 and following the Tet Offensive in February 1968, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), believed that the countrywide attacks had depleted the manpower and resources of the VC to near extinction. The pacification efforts of the South Vietnamese government was making only marginal progress in ‘winning the hearts and minds’ of the people who were growing increasingly anti-American. What MACV needed was intelligence on the VC; how they operated, where they were located, who were members, and how they got support from the locals. The VC relied on sympathetic populations to bring them supplies, intel, and more followers to the Communist Party. With that, they built an enormous and intricate support network that enabled them to move freely throughout South Vietnam. A shadow government of tax collectors, village chiefs, militia, couriers, spies, assassins, and political officers were right under the U.S. Army’s noses. Nelson Brickham, a CIA officer, submitted a plan to gather intelligence and compelling the enemy to defect from the Communists. Counterinsurgency and assassination would remove the rest if they couldn’t be turned. The Phoenix Program was born.
The idea behind Phoenix was centered on how to remove the support network that sustained North Vietnamese forces in South Vietnam that came down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main road that brought manpower and supplies down south. In order to operate, they relied heavily on the VC infrastructure and so the program targeted those cadres. By removing this apparatus, the U.S. could end Communist activity in the south and seriously weaken North Vietnam’s battlefield position. Americans served mainly in an advisory capacity which consisted of analyzing intelligence and consulting with Vietnamese counterparts such as the Military Security Service (MSS) the ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) and the National Police Force. Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs) handled daily operations of locating, capturing, interrogating, and eliminating targets.
A Provincial Reconnaissance Unit deploys on Go Noi Island near Danang. PRUs were overseen by American advisors like Capt. Herrington. (Frederick J. Vogel Collection at the Archives Branch, Marine Corps History Division, 1969)
Herrington initially wasn’t assigned to Vietnam. His first overseas assignment was West Germany and back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a posting in Germany was the luckiest draw an officer or enlisted personnel could make. After completing his tour though, Herrington didn’t remain a civilian for long and after only a few months, he returned to the Army and found himself travelling the opposite direction; to the Pacific and to Vietnam. What he witnessed after a few days in country set the standard of how he saw his and the United States’ role in Vietnam, and everything going wrong in the struggle against the Communists.
‘Stalking the Vietcong‘ unquestionably reads like a spy novel as the book’s back cover states. Herrington lived in a country where violence and death was a daily occurrence, as common as eating breakfast and tying bootlaces. People lived dual lives with dual identities and determining one’s loyalty was a Herculean task. Herrington, like other American advisors, were overwhelmingly frustrated in their duties as they dealt with incompetent and corrupt South Vietnamese officials. Lax security and a general unwillingness to do anything that placed them in danger gave the enemy unrestricted movement; all the while the South Vietnamese produced rosy reports on how secure their provinces were. Reports versus reality signified the everyday stress placed on U.S. intelligence efforts. A handful of Herrington’s superiors wanted to do all the Phoenix work themselves and leave the Vietnamese out, but the truth was when the U.S. left, the Vietnamese wouldn’t be up to the task and succumb to the Communists. Herrington reflected on this frustration:
“…I had been disturbed by Colonel Weissinger’s impatient demand that if the Vietnamese were not up to the task of eliminating the Vietcong organization, we Americans should do it for them. I believed firmly that one of the major shortcomings of our overall approach in Vietnam had been the tendency to do things ourselves rather than to train the Vietnamese to do them…I went to Hau Nghia determined not to make this mistake, but wound up ill equipped to cope with the frustrations of advisory duty…”
‘ ‘A Model Revolutionary Village’
Whether your position on the American presence in South Vietnam is positive or negative, ‘Stalking the Vietcong‘ infuses a personal account of one of the most dramatized and scrutinized chapters of the Vietnam War. Academic studies and government reports highlight Phoenix’s atrocities on human lives; torture by beatings, electrocution, waterboarding, and summary executions were damned by the public as war crimes. Herrington doesn’t revel in these acts as a means to an end in defeating the VC, but he pushes for a different path. Persuasion and rallying defectors through humane treatment was the best way to win the support of Communist defectors. Herrington focuses on three captives that he relied on for information: Nyugen van Phich, Hai Tiet, and Do van Lanh. Each had a different position in the VC organization, but they all provided valuable information in their roles, purpose, and how VC operations worked in the south. Their stories were incredibly insightful and integral. If every VC prisoner was cooperated with the Americans like they did, who knows how they war might have ended. There might still be a Republic of Vietnam and Saigon would not have been named Ho Chi Minh City. Stories of enthusiastic and strong-willed South Vietnamese officers like Colonel Thanh dissolve the notion that the ARVN, MSS, and National Police Force were full of incompetent officers. They wanted the American’s help and did their job to best of their abilities.
A Vietcong prisoner awaits interrogation at the A-109 Special Forces Detachment in Thuong Duc, 25 km west of Da Nang (Photographs of American Military Activities, ca. 1918 – ca. 1981, Record Group 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 – 1985, National Archives and Records Administration)
Accounts of brutal torture were not the norm, but they weren’t an aberration either. Some PRUs and South Vietnamese used the Phoenix Program as a cover for personal vendettas. A single accusation or suspicion of a individual with Communist sympathies made them a target, whether or not they were a VC. Phoenix’s targeting was only as good as the intelligence upon which it was based and that varied widely. Of over 20,000 Vietnamese who were executed, estimates as high as 50% claim that victims were innocent.
Herrington claims in ‘Stalking the Vietcong‘ that these violent methods were not his own. He dissuaded those from getting violent with their prisoners, but there were those who had no scruples:
“Were mistakes made, and did abuses occur? Yes, if what I witnessed was representative. Some Phoenix cadre did commit excesses against the peasantry in the name of the anti-Communist campaign. The provincial reconnaissance unit in Hau Nghia was infamous for this during the early part of my tour. I once saw four of them decide that a nineteen year old girl was lying about something and subject her to repeated near suffocation with a rubber poncho in a cruel and vain attempt to force her to talk. That was the last time we entrusted that unit with such operations. What I saw that day shocked me, though it was the exception rather than the rule.”
”Nam was a Bummer’
Overall, ‘Stalking the Vietcong‘ was informative and personable in a way that made the Vietnam War a more human and noble endeavor from an individual perspective. Capt. Herrington maintained an attitude of optimism in helping turn the Communists to the American side, but still recognized the systemic frustrations and pitfalls. He gave his diagnosis of the wider problem and had his own remedy, but this view was not shared by the America public by 1973 when he returned to the United States. They wanted to get out and leave the South Vietnamese to their own devices. Unfortunately, this sealed the South’s fate as they had no proper procedure in place and still suffered from personnel problems such as corruption. Combined with the rapidly deteriorating Vietnamese economy, the Republic of Vietnam collapsed just two years later. The Fall of Saigon was witnessed around the world, but Capt. Herrington did more than watch; he helped evacuate South Vietnamese officers and their families then boarded a helicopter at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon on April 29th, 1975 and headed out to sea.
Antarctica is an unforgiving environment and that’s describing it generously. The serene landscape of ice and snow covers perilous dangers that can end a person’s life in a fraction of a second. During the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, prominent figures like Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton embarked on grand expeditions to explore the continent’s interior, take detailed geographic and scientific notes, and to reach as far south as possible. Through three arduous expeditions, Shackleton’s leadership skills kept his men alive in the harsh environment and encouraged them to endeavor through the hardships and onto their ultimate goals. Succeeding generations of explorers emulated his leadership style, including a British Army officer in the Special Air Service, Henry Worsley. Grann’s latest book ‘The White Darkness‘ chronicles the story of determined explorers at different points in history, marrying their narratives together in a story of survival, endurance, and personal achievement. These characters not only pushed the limits of the physical and psychological, but the boundaries of the human spirit to venture into the unknown. We tend to follow in the paths of those who came before us, hoping that we learn valuable historical lessons. Worsley did so when walking down the literal path of his idol, Shackleton, and did so to test the mettle of his own character.
The Transantarctic Mountains, one of the major geographic landmarks on many polar expeditions to the South Pole (photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation)
Henry Worsley’s fascination with polar exploration and Ernest Shackleton in particular began in his youth after reading ‘The Heart of the Antarctic‘, Shackleton’s account of the Nimrod Expedition documenting the attempt to reach the South Pole. Worsley’s passion for polar exploration followed him through his Army career where he continually read about his idol, Shackleton.
‘The White Darkness’ interlaces Worsely’s story with that of the Nimrod and the Imperian Trans-Antarctic expeditions led by Shackleton. In this narrative, Grann acknowledged the leadership skills that Shackleton became known for that kept his crew alive in the harsh environment. While some thought his methods unorthodox at the time, Shackleton’s quick thinking kept morale high and encourage the expedition to continue. Despite overwhelming odds, Shackleton brought victory to his crew.
Eric Marshall, Frank Wild and Ernest Shackleton at the southernmost point of 88 degrees 23’s, only 97 nautical miles from the South Pole (photo courtesy of the Nimrod Expedition)
Henry Worsley emulated Shackleton throughout his Army service and as years went by he thought constantly of embarking on his own polar expedition and in 2003, he resolved to do just that after visiting Shackleton’s grave in South Georgia. A call to action sounded in soul and he knew that all the risks that he’d face just as all the explorers of the Heroic Age had done decades ago. He would have his own polar adventure.
From that moment, Grann delved into the extensive planning, training, and preparation that Worsley and other Antarctica enthusiasts conducted to be ready for embarking on their journey. Two companions, William Gow and Henry Adams, participated in smaller treks across Greenland and gained valuable experience and after five years of research, fundraising, and physical preparation, they began the first leg of their journey in Punta Arenas, Chile in October 2008 to outfit themselves and then head for the Ross Ice Shelf.
The Ross Ice Shelf (photo courtesy of the National Science Foundation)
In the midst of their journey, the men came across a wooden hut that served as Shackleton’s winter quarters in 1908 (restored by a conservation group). At that moment, Worsley was standing at a crossroads in history; he he was, conducting his own polar expedition, while standing in the very spot his idol lived in his own expedition a hundred years prior. The emotional burden weighed heavily upon Worsley as he remembered the Shackleton motto: ‘By Endurance, We Conquer.’ Antarctica threw nearly every natural obstacle at the three-man team; freezing temperatures, high winds, blinding snowstorms, and the seemingly endless horizon that hypnotized their gaze into a cold hell. They persevered through it all; reading, playing poker, and formed a new club, the Antarctica Malt Whiskey Appreciation Society, were just some ways to cope with the harsh journey. Falling through a crevasse or prolonged exposure to the cold were just some of the constant dangers. Sixty-six days later on January 18th, Henry Worsley, William Gow, and Henry Adams reached the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, touching the brass globe marking the South Pole; they had conquered Antarctica.
‘The White Darkness‘ doesn’t end with this adventure. The real pull that Grann gives the readers is Worsley’s continuing endurance to go a little further. To answer the call of ‘the little voices’ and trek across Antarctica again and again. To refrain from recounting over and over the contents, ‘The White Darkness’ is both a biographical account of Worsley’s polar achievements and the history of what pulls people into the white void of the South Pole. We want to endure because as humans we’re afraid of failure. That notion haunted Worsley, Gow, Adams, Shackleton, and many others. Just when we think we’re looking down into the crevasse, waiting for our demise, we resolve to pick back up and go a little further.
Worsley, Gow, and Adams at the South Pole, coming further than Shackleton a hundred years prior.
The Holocaust was without a doubt one of the darkest moments in world history. Systematic murder, genocide, and the closest that humanity has come to exterminating an entire group of people. The Nazis ‘Final Solution’ of removing the Jewish influence from the European continent orchestrated by some of the most reviled men in history remains as a solemn reminder of how a heinous ideology can poison a national consciousness. Countless scholars, historians, and academics have written about the Holocaust’s significance. To many, the gruesome details of such a genocide are hard to internalize, even with visiting the concentration camp sites in Central Europe. Cartoonist and author Art Spiegelman took a unique approach in recounting his parents’ Holocaust saga; a graphic novel.
‘Maus‘ combines an intricate story of Art’s parents Vladek and Anja survival during the Holocaust and a present narrative where Art listens to the experience from his father, framing the ‘Maus‘ story. The most significant aspect of ‘Maus‘ is the anthropomorphic characters. They’re all drawn as specific animals; Jews as mice, Germans as cats, Americans as dogs, Poles as pigs, French as frogs, etc. The ethnic and racial comparisons between the animals and people seems straightforward on the surface; Germans are hunting Jews like cats hunt mice and are defeated by dogs, representing the Americans, but the metaphor delves much deeper than that. Transforming the characters into animals rather than drawing them as human was meant to illustrate the absurd notion of dividing people along racial lines. Others have argued that there’s not consistency to the metaphor as some characters that would be identified as one race are drawn as another. Racial division is a complex theme in ‘Maus‘ as readers could debate which was the more accurate depiction or whether it is necessary at all.
Art Spiegelman’s artwork and interpretation of characters as animals is a signature feature of the book
‘Maus‘ is definitely not for the faint of heart. Graphic scenes resurrect the Holocaust’s brutality in historical accuracy that is tinged with biographical influence. We often hear the official histories and narratives surrounding World War II history, but to hear it from someone who was there adds another level of chilling horror. ‘Maus’ certainly does grab your attention on many levels.
‘Maus‘ is split into two parts, ‘My Father Bleeds History’ and ‘Here My Troubles Began’. The story chronicles Vladek’s life before the war, his family’s survival in the Polish ghettos, and the brutal imprisonment at both the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps. The happy reunion between Valdek and Anja concludes the book on a grand cathartic note, the perseverance of hope against the clutches of death. What this book offers in place of the traditional historical research is the deeply personal connection between the author and subject; father and son. Interspersed with the father’s Holocaust survival are their various feuds on different subjects. Art makes it apparent that the most difficult part of his childhood was growing up with a father whose Holocaust experience altered his personality and habits. But then again, who wouldn’t have changed after going through what millions of Jews and other prisoners did in World War II.
One theme that stands out with ‘Maus‘ is the interpretation of race. Circling back to the characters depicted as animals, Art Spiegelman’s rendering sparks continuous debate over how racial division has been seen throughout history. The complexity inherent with race that groups like the Nazis perpetuated was reducing it down to its simplest terms. They saw people like the Jews as completely inferior to them and professed their own superiority. By categorizing enemies of the state in this way, the foundations of genocide were laid and persecution went unabated. I first read ‘Maus‘ in college and when the professor asked us about the different meanings behind why the characters were drawn as they were, she posed the question ‘what if the author meant to show that dividing people along racial lines was a stupid practice?’ We conjured our own responses, but there was no general consensus. The most significant theme was the most open-ended; there is never a clear-cut understanding of how or why people see race in different facets. Only that history records it for our posterity.
The entrance to Auschwitz I and the infamous gate ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ (Work Sets You Free)
While not your typical academic interpretation of the Holocaust, ‘Maus‘ is certainly a must-have in the avid reader’s library. Just don’t try to read it all at once; the art alone is enough to make you set it down, walk away, and say to yourself, ‘Wow, I can’t believe humanity was capable of such evil, and how anyone lived to tell their story.’