November 29, 2017

The woman codebreaker who caught gangsters and Nazi spies

woman codebreaker: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason FagoneThe Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When Richard Nixon asked Chou En-Lai in 1972 about the impact of the French Revolution, the Chinese Premier famously said, “It’s too early to tell.” That terse response is generally understood to illustrate the Chinese ability to take the long view of history. But it might be more accurate to regard it as reflecting the constraints on those who write history. Historians can only work with available records: there is no history without documentary evidence. And sometimes decades, even centuries pass before the most crucial evidence comes to light.

In fact, ironically, the exchange between Nixon and Chou reflects a misunderstanding that drives the point home even more strongly: they were both referring to the events of 1968, not 1789. Only now, much later, once a diplomat present at the scene clarified the exchange, can historians accurately interpret what the two men meant.

There are few areas in which the unavailability of documentary evidence has been more telling than in the history of espionage in the 20th century. Only in recent years have the archives of the CIA, the KGB, MI6, the NSA, and other leading intelligence agencies opened widely enough for us to understand what really took place in the world of espionage in World War II and the Cold War. (Doubtless, some explosive documents are still locked away and won’t surface until later in this century, if ever.) And there is no more dramatic example of how what has passed for history has misled us than what we have been taught about the FBI’s role in counterespionage in the 1920s and 30s (combating rumrunners and smugglers) and in the 1940s (catching Nazi spies).

Working with recently declassified files from the World War II era as well as long-ignored archival records and contemporary press reports and interviews, journalist Jason Fagone has brought to light at last the astonishing story of Elizebeth Smith Friedman and her husband, William Friedman. (Yes, her first name is spelled with three e’s.) As Fagone shows in his beautifully written story of this surpassingly brilliant couple, The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies, the Friedmans may well have been the most important 20th-century American codebreakers, and quite possibly the best and most successful in the world.

William Friedman is celebrated in cryptology circles as the man who broke the Japanese military code called Purple. “MAGIC became the top-secret moniker for these Japanese decryptions . . . MAGIC led directly to bombs falling on imperial ships at Midway,” the turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Fagone notes, “Today historians of cryptology believe that in terms of sheer, sweaty brilliance, the breaking of Purple is a feat on par with Alan Turing’s epiphanies about how to organize successful attacks on German Enigma codes.” However, independently, before the US and Britain’s Bletchley Park were collaborating on the effort, Elizebeth Friedman broke not one but three different types of Enigma machines. Fagone makes abundantly clear that the two were at least equal in ability. In fact Elizebeth may have been just a bit smarter. (William always insisted she was.)

“William Friedman is . . . widely considered to be the father of the National Security Agency,” Fagone writes. But both he and Elizebeth came to loathe the practices of the agency not long after its formation in 1952. It’s very likely they would be scandalized by the indiscriminate collection of information about civilians by today’s NSA.

As Fagone notes, “Elizebeth and William Friedman unscrambled thousands of messages spanning two world wars, prying loose secrets about smuggling networks, gangsters, organized crime, foreign armies, and fascism. They also invented new techniques that transformed the science of secret writing, known as cryptology.” Although today Elizebeth isn’t nearly as famous as her husband, that was by no means always the case. During the 1930s, she become a celebrity for her work against rumrunners and other smugglers and gangsters during the Depression. The public attention halted when she was enlisted by the Coast Guard for a top-secret effort to identify the extensive Nazi spy network in South America—work at which she and her team were extraordinarily successful. Their efforts led to the dismantling of the Nazi network well before the end of the war. However, J. Edgar Hoover claimed the success for the FBI, ignoring their efforts, and he was able to get away with it because he had become so powerful. “It’s not quite true that history is written by the winners,” Fagone writes. “It’s written by the best publicists on the winning team.”

The Woman Who Smashed Codes is an astonishing story that simply has to be read to be believed. His principal subject, Elizebeth Friedman, was an extraordinary woman he refers to more than once as a genius. (The evidence is there.) And Fagone writes the tale with often-elegant, metaphorical prose. He calls the book a love story, but it is of course far more than that

The same declassification of secret files that allowed Jason Fagone to write The Woman Who Smashed Codes has led to the publication of several other recent books about women in espionage. The most prominent of these was Code Girls: The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II by Liza Mundy.

Check out my post, 17 good nonfiction books about espionage, for other books that illuminate the business of spying. You might also be interested in My 10 favorite espionage novels, or in 17 nonfiction books that illuminate the World War II era.

June 2, 2017

The astonishing story of Hedy Lamarr, Hollywood star and inventor

Hedy LamarrOn “Science Friday” (June 2, 2017), which I heard on my local NPR station, KQED, host Ira Flatow interviewed author Richard Rhodes and Diane Kruger about Hedy Lamarr. Rhodes wrote the book reviewed here. Kruger will star in a film and TV mini-series based on Lamarr’s life. Because of the increased interest in that amazing woman, I’m re-posting my review of the book.  

Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, by Richard Rhodes

@@@ (3 out of 5)

A quarter-century ago Richard Rhodes won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction for a masterful history, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and he has received numerous plaudits in the years since, both for nonfiction and fiction. But I don’t see any prizes in his future for this half-hearted little effort.

There’s nothing lacking in the material. It’s relatively well-known that Hedy Lamarr, a stunning film superstar of MGM’s Golden Age in the 1930s and 1940s, invented a secret weapon for the United States during World War II. However, the story—her extraordinary background, her flamboyant collaborator, and the the U.S. Navy’s ham-fisted response to their invention—was largely lost in obscurity and official secrecy until Richard Rhodes took it upon himself to write it up. I turned to the book with great anticipation—and was hugely disappointed.

The story is astonishing even in outline.

A famously beautiful young Austrian woman named Hedwig Kiesler, daughter of a successful Viennese banker, found her incipient stage and film career interrupted when she married one of the richest men in Austria, a munitions manufacturer who happily participated in rearming Nazi Germany and supporting the most extreme of his country’s anti-Semitic Right-Wing politicians. (Hedy—she used the short form of her first name even then—was Jewish, though she hid that fact throughout her life, and her children learned about it only once she died.)

Before she escaped from her first marriage, Hedy silently sat in on dinners and informal gatherings organized by her husband and attended by high-ranking Nazi generals and admirals. With an amazingly retentive memory, she fled with detailed knowledge of the Nazis’ most advanced weaponry—without her husband suspecting a thing, because to him she herself was just an object.

Soon after fleeing Vienna disguised as one of her maids in 1937, the year of the Anschluss with Germany, Hedy was recruited to MGM by Louis B. Mayer. Once in Hollywood, renamed Hedy Lamarr and dubbed “the most beautiful girl in the world” by Mayer (though others had previously tagged her with the phrase), she quickly became a major star. Although none of her films were especially memorable, they were successes at the box office and kept her in the limelight for many years.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to nearly everyone who knew her in Hollywood, Hedy continued her life-long passion for inventing in her spare time. Once war had broken out in Europe, she devised a concept for a naval super-weapon—a torpedo guided by wireless radio, unlike the wired torpedoes then in widespread use. Together with her collaborator, George Antheil, an avante-garde composer whose concerts had sometimes caused riots in Paris and New York, Hedy offered the weapon to the U.S. government late in 1940.

Hedy had dropped out of high school to play a part on the Vienna stage, and she was neither a reader nor an intellectual of any stripe. However, she was clearly brilliant. The profound innovation she devised (with practical help from Antheil) was a system to make it impossible for enemies to jam the radio transmissions from the ship to the torpedo. This innovation, first called frequency hopping and much later spread spectrum, “enabled the development of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, the majority of cordless phones now sold in the US, and myriad other lesser-known niche products. The Global Positioning System (GPS) uses spread spectrum. So does the U.S. military’s $41 billion MILSATCOM satellite communications network. Wireless local area networks (wLANS) use spread spectrum, as do wireless cash registers, bar-code readers, restaurant menu pads, and home control systems.” Rhodes goes on for line after line, citing a plethora of additional applications of this seminal technology. In short, Hedy’s was one of those rarest of inventions that opened up vast new landscapes of possibility for engineers for many decades to come.

So, given the obvious appeal of the weapon she and Antheil had devised, one might think that the U.S. Navy, offered the patent in 1944 after seemingly endless vetting by a series of government scientists and engineers, would immediately put it into production. But no—the Navy classified the file top secret and stuck it in a filing cabinet. It was only discovered nearly 20 years later when an engineer working on a military contract chased down a rumor about Hedy’s invention, turned up the file, and began putting it to practical use.

A more nimble writer than Rhodes might have turned this story into a blockbuster. But sadly Rhodes devoted more space to the ups and downs of George Antheil’s career than to Hedy’s, and he goes on for page after tedious page about the mechanics of the wireless system, making the invention itself the principal character. Years ago, Tracy Kidder managed that beautifully in Soul of a New Machine. Perhaps as yet more information comes to light about this remarkable tale, Kidder or someone of comparable talent will do justice to one of the most remarkable women of the 20th Century.

If you enjoy reading biography, consider checking out my post 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed.

October 18, 2016

Software success, philanthropy, and bipolar disorder

bipolar disorderA Truck Full of Money: One Man’s Quest to Recover from Great Success by Tracy Kidder

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Most business biographies are about heroes. Though their stories may be leavened by references to the negative side of their character, the overall effect is overwhelmingly positive. Not so with Tracy Kidder’s even-handed new account of a successful software entrepreneur, A Truck Full of Money. Kidder doesn’t skimp on the man’s business successes. There were several. But he devotes nearly as much time to the many failures — and to his psychiatric problems. It’s a remarkable tale.

A software entrepreneur who isn’t a billionaire

Kidder’s subject is Paul English. Unlike the best-known people in his field, such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, English has never made billions. Not even one billion. But by everyday standards — mine, and presumably yours, too — he became fabulously rich. At one point his fortune totaled about $120 million. That’s not even enough to buy and maintain a mid-sized LearJet. Poor guy, right? And unlike creative geniuses such as Steve Jobs, English didn’t make his money from brilliant inventions of his own. (You do know that Gates and Zuckerberg didn’t either, don’t you?)

A rare combination of talents

It turns out, in Kidder’s telling, that Paul English possessed that rare combination of extraordinary talent as a programmer and the ability to inspire and manage teams of equally brilliant people. His big success story was Kayak, a travel site unlike Expedia and Travelocity in that its purpose is not to sell users anything. A few years before 2004, when English cofounded Kayak, he had made a much smaller fortune when he sold an earlier company on the cusp of the dot-com crash.

A brutally honest account of bipolar disorder

If you’re involved in the high-tech business, you might find most rewarding the story of English’s progression from one job to another — until he finally got really lucky. For the general reader, though, Kidder’s no-holds-barred account of his subject’s experience with bipolar disorder stands out. There’s no sense summing up that story here. If the subject interests you, read this book. Kidder does a terrific job of conveying the pain English has suffered — and the problems his disorder caused for him in business. By the way, English insisted that Kidder tell the whole story with complete honesty.

One egregious error

Kidder committed one egregious error in A Truck Full of Money. In a passage about the history of the software industry, he writes: “In the 1960s, IBM created a complex operating system called DOS and all but gave it away — to Microsoft, then a small company.” There are several problems with this assertion. First, IBM did not create DOS. It was the product of a small software firm in Seattle that was one of Microsoft’s rivals. Second, DOS was written for personal computers, which weren’t developed until the 1970s. Third, Microsoft wasn’t around in the 1960s, either. The company was founded in 1975. Fourth, nobody gave DOS away. Bill Gates bought it for a pittance, and negotiated an extraordinarily one-sided royalty contract with IBM that became the cornerstone of his immense wealth. This is the sort of bonehead error I would never expect from Tracy Kidder. I’m genuinely surprised he didn’t hire a fact-checker.

About the author

The list of published American nonfiction authors is staggeringly long, but only a handful of outstanding writers among them are actively working today. Tracy Kidder is unquestionably one of them. In 1982 he won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for The Soul of a New Machine, an intimate look at the engineering of what was then one of the most ingenious and bestselling computers in the industry. A Truck Full of Money, his twelfth book, returns him to the high-tech industry after more than three decades of revolutionary changes.

If you enjoy reading biography, consider checking out my post 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed.

October 11, 2016

A balanced new biography of Bobby Kennedy

bobby kennedyBobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon by Larry Tye

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

During his years in the public eye in the 1950s and 60s, Bobby Kennedy was as controversial a figure as anyone else in American history. Millions despised him because he worked for Senator Joseph McCarthy. Millions more loathed him for his role in supporting the civil rights movement. Yet other Americans lionized him as the uncompromising liberal he was viewed as in the final years of his life. Little wonder that most biographers have veered either sharply left or sharply right in painting a portrait of this endlessly complex man. In Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon, journalist Larry Tye steers a careful middle course. The result is a balanced and insightful biography of one of the most significant figures on the American stage in the mid-twentieth century.

The man known as RFK

Today, the man known as RFK is closely identified with his brother, President John F. Kennedy, who has cast a much longer shadow over American history. As Tye makes abundantly clear, the two were different in a great many ways: in age, stature, temperament, and political perspective. JFK was eight years older and three inches taller — Bobby was considered the runt of the large Kennedy litter — and the younger man bore grudges for decades. His older brother was far more pragmatic and much less prone to anger.

As an adult, managing Jack’s first race for the U.S. Senate in 1952, Bobby gained a reputation as “ruthless” that stayed with him for the remainder of his life. Tye insists that the label was misplaced. “Bobby was as intelligent as Jack, although less of an intellectual; Jack had Bobby’s toughness, although he was better at disguising it.” And Tye reveals Bobby to have been an inspiring boss at the Justice Department, a caring father and wife whom he loved passionately, and genuinely compassionate with the disadvantaged people he met along the campaign trail. Still, Bobby was notorious for the abiding hatred he possessed for a long list of enemies, including J. Edgar Hoover, Joe McCarthy’s pit bull Roy Cohn, Jimmy Hoffa, and Lyndon Johnson. However, much of his reputation for ruthlessness stemmed from his willingness to follow evidence of wrongdoing even among his friends. “During his three years as attorney general, his office prosecuted two congressmen, three state supreme court justices, five mayors, two chiefs of police, and three sheriffs — all Democrats.”

Bobby Kennedy’s evolution from Right to Left

Now, nearly half a century after Kennedy’s death, many of the passions have cooled, and long-secret archives have been opened. It’s now possible to view the man’s life in greater perspective. Biographer and journalist Larry Tye has accomplished just that, steering a steady course between the extremes in Bobby Kennedy: The Making of a Liberal Icon. As the title suggests, Tye’s theme is Kennedy’s evolution under fire as his brother’s campaign manager, anti-Communist zealot, no-holds-barred Senate investigator, Attorney General, U.S. Senator, and, finally, presidential candidate. Beginning public life identified with the Right, he came to its end less than two decades later as the bright new hope of the Left.

Bobby Kennedy is not easy to pigeonhole

Notwithstanding Kennedy’s popularity with the Left in 1968, it would be a mistake to pigeonhole him as a liberal. True, he was fiercely committed to ending poverty in America, and he had emerged as a champion of civil rights for African-Americans, albeit slowly and reluctantly. However, like his brother, RFK would have been horrified if asked to support the sort of policies advanced in 2016 by Senator Bernie Sanders. He was, if anything, pro-business, fiercely anti-Communist, a fervent supporter of the Cold War, and committed to economic policies that today might well be considered conservative.

Skip this if you know the history

In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was poised for election to the White House when an assassin’s bullet cut him down at the age of 42. His victory was by no means assured, but he had just won the California primary and seemed on track to a showdown with Vice President Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic Convention. Given the intense popular hatred for the Vietnam War and Humphrey’s continuing support for Lyndon Johnson’s policies, it’s clear that the contest would have gone down to the wire, at the very least. Instead, as history shows, Humphrey emerged with the nomination bloodied by the tumultuous events that surrounded the 1968 convention. Had Kennedy won the nomination instead, or had Humphrey won in a fair fight, it seems highly likely that Richard Nixon would have gone down to defeat. Even heavily handicapped as he was, Humphrey came exceedingly close to winning.

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 34 great biographies I’ve reviewed.

About the author

Boston journalist Larry Tye is the author of seven nonfiction books, three of which are biographies. His previous subjects were Edward L. Bernays, the father of public relations, and the legendary Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige.


April 21, 2016

The man who trained Cesar Chavez in community organizing

community organizingAmerica’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century by Gabriel Thompson

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When the topic of community organizing comes up, a single name comes quickly to mind: Saul Alinsky. Alinsky is often cited as the founder of the field, having made his name through a hugely successful campaign on the South Side of Chicago in the 1940s. Two books he wrote, Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971), cemented his reputation nationwide. During my own brief experience as a community organizer in the late 1970s, Alinsky’s methodology dominated the field, largely through his writings. Yet another man, working in the fields of California, much closer to me in Berkeley, was compiling a record to rival and perhaps surpass Alinsky’s. He is the subject of an excellent new biography, America’s Social Arsonist: Fred Ross and Grassroots Organizing in the Twentieth Century.

Community organizing in rural California

After brief periods as a teacher and social worker, Fred Ross found his way into community organizing through a series of posts with the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration. As the manager of relief programs in a series of migrant camps set up to house the “Okies” made famous in John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Ross became familiar with poverty at its worst. During World War II, Ross worked for the War Relocation Authority, which managed the relocation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps throughout the West. “In Cleveland,” as the Los Angeles Times pointed out in its obituary, “he was credited with persuading defense plant owners to hire [thousands of] Japanese-Americans, who were then freed from the camps to work.”

Following the war, Ross played a leading role in establishing the Community Service Organization (CSO) in South Los Angeles. Under his direction, the CSO registered the thousands of Latino voters who were instrumental in electing Edward Roybal as the first Hispanic to serve on the powerful L. A. City Council. With a vision much larger than local politics in L.A., Ross then set out to take the CSO statewide — and, he hoped, ultimately nationwide. However, that effort foundered once Ross and the organizers working with him left for other towns. Local CSO chapters, typically led by working class Mexican-Americans such as farmworkers, quickly fell under the sway of Latino professionals and business owners. These more affluent officials were unwilling to support the radical policies that the organization had been founded to pursue.

Enter Cesar Chavez

Though organizing CSO chapters brought Ross to the towns and cities of California, his passion centered on the plight of the Mexican and Mexican-American farmworkers who made California agriculture the envy of the world. When he met a twenty-five-year-old named Cesar Chavez in San Jose in 1952, Ross’ career began to shift away from urban California to the fields where thousands of poverty-stricken men, women, and children picked the fruits and vegetables that made the state’s powerful growers and packers wealthy. Chavez and Ross began a decades-long collaboration that led in 1958 to the establishment of what became the United Farm Workers union (founded by Chavez and Dolores Huerta). As Thompson writes, “When they met, Chavez would later say, Ross had been ‘about the last person I wanted to see. Then he started talking — and changed my life.'” Ross, the consummate organizer, remained steadfastly in the background through the many years of their work together.

Today, the United Farm Workers (UFW) is a faint shadow of the powerful union it was from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Much of the blame for the union’s decline must be laid at Chavez’ feet: he was a brilliant leader but a disastrous manager. “At one point,” Thompson points out, “when asked to name the people who reported directly to him, Chavez stopped counting at fifty-eight.” This number is an order of magnitude greater than what business experts call the “span of control.” Then, in 1976, against almost universal opposition from everyone around him, Chavez insisted on forcing a measure to be placed on the California statewide ballot to permit organizers to enter the fields so they could talk to farmworkers. When the measure failed by a vote of two-to-one, Chavez began the first of several purges of union staff, demonstrating a pattern of behavior that can only be called paranoid. (Thompson didn’t use the term; that’s my interpretation.) Chavez also brought a destructive cult called Synanon into the union, with predictably disastrous results. One of Chavez’ colleagues explained to all who would listen: “Cesar’s gone nuts.'” The union’s power quickly deteriorated, and eventually the UFW retreated from the fields and became essentially a lobbying organization. Today it relies on direct mail rather than farmworkers’ dues.

A balanced portrait of a man

America’s Social Arsonist paints a picture of a supremely talented and driven man with a litany of personal faults. He was intolerant of those he trained who lacked his passionate commitment to organizing, and many disliked him as a result. (As Thompson notes, “As an on organizer, Ross was endlessly patient. As a trainer of organizers, however, he could be merciless . . .”) Twice married and the father of three children, Ross was rarely at home. Though he was indifferent to the discomfort of poverty, that was not always the case with the members of his family. Only his younger son, Fred Ross Jr., came to know him, and only because he began working with his father in organizing at the age of sixteen. (Fred Jr. has himself become a world-class organizer. As Executive Director of Neighbor to Neighbor in the 1980s, he led a campaign around the country that helped persuade Congress to cut off U.S. aid to right-wing forces in Central America.)

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed, of which this book is one.

About the author

Gabriel Thompson is an Oakland journalist who writes about labor and immigration. America’s Social Arsonist is his fourth book.

April 8, 2016

Jonas Salk: the doctor who cured polio and saved millions

jonas salkJonas Salk: A Life by Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs

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No one born after about 1950 is likely to have any living memory of the abject fear that seized hold of the American psyche under the annual threat of polio. But I remember.

Early in the 1950s, as polio steadily grew more prevalent with every succeeding summer, I grew from childhood into adolescence, prime years for susceptibility to what was more properly (though misleadingly) called infantile paralysis. Most of my friends chafed under the near-hysteria of their parents, but my father was a doctor: there was no hysteria in our household. Instead, I was quickly spirited out of town to rural summer camps where polio was rare.

Then, with hope rising as a result of increasingly more optimistic field tests beginning in 1953, headlines around the world finally blared in the spring of 1955, “Polio is Defeated!” A young doctor, barely more than forty years old, had developed a safe and effective vaccine with financial support exclusively from what was popularly known as the March of Dimes. (That organization was very different from its successor today, which focuses on premature birth and birth defects.) Salk become an instant global star. In many communities, the celebrations that ensued rivaled those that capped the victories in World War II. The doctor’s now well-known name was Jonas Salk. Now, Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, both a physician and a biographer, has written what may be the definitive story of the man’s life. It’s an outstanding piece of work, and an eye-opener.

The polio wars: Jonas Salk vs. Albert Sabin

Salk’s vaccine, technically a “killed virus vaccine” administered by injection, came into existence only because Salk used an unconventional approach and doggedly persevered in his research despite the loud protestations of other virologists. Most prominent among the chorus of naysayers was Albert Sabin, a rival researcher whose oral “live virus vaccine” against polio came into wide use only in the 1960s. Even after an enormous field test proved Salk’s vaccine to be both safe and effective, Sabin and others continued to insist loudly that a killed virus vaccine was dangerous and should not be administered. This led the FDA to call a temporary halt to the administration of the vaccine. Later, it also came to be reflected in the adoption by the U.S. government of the oral vaccine as the sole option offered in the United States. For a number of years, the Salk variant was no longer even manufactured in the U.S.

Nonetheless, from 1955 until 1961, Salk’s vaccine reduced the incidence of polio in the United States by ninety-seven percent. In Sweden and Finland, where it was fully adopted, the vaccine totally eliminated polio. Despite this near-flawless record Sabin and others continued to object to the use of Salk’s formulation. When Sabin’s rival vaccine was put into wide use, dozens of Americans eventually contracted paralytic polio as a result, exactly as Salk had predicted. Only years later, once Salk had perfected a more advanced formulation of the killed virus vaccine, was it offered as an option in the United States.

Sabin never acknowledged in any way the damage his vaccine had done, and for the rest of his life continued to undermine Salk in scientific circles, as did a number of other prominent researchers. Though idolized in the press and among the public, Salk was virtually a pariah in the scientific community, at least in part because the press had made him a celebrity. (Clearly, his unpopularity within the scientific establishment was also a result of his insistence on working in his own way, without regard for others’ views.) He was essentially blackballed in the Nobel committee and was never admitted to membership in the prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

Influenza, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS

Polio was only one of several diseases Jonas Salk investigated. Barely out of medical school, he and his mentor produced the first influenza vaccine in 1938. His search for a cure for MS showed great promise in the eyes of neurologists, who found his contributions significant, but was denigrated by many of the same virologists who seemed to disapprove of everything he did. Unfortunately, that research ended prematurely when his patron at the National MS Society suddenly died. Salk had many talents, but fundraising wasn’t one of them.

Then, in the 1980s, Salk played a major role in research on AIDS. Early on, he took upon himself to negotiate a compromise between the French and American doctors who both claimed to have first identified HIV. It took two years but finally he succeeded, making possible collaborations that might well otherwise have been out of the question. Then he turned his attention to the development of a vaccine against HIV. Once again, his work was bitterly criticized — because he insisted on taking an unconventional approach. The prevailing wisdom was that a vaccine could only be developed on the basis of one portion of the HIV molecule; Salk insisted on using the whole molecule, which subjected him to ridicule for having ignored recent advances in medical research. However, he was proven right again. Initial trials of his vaccine showed promise and those developed by his critics utterly failed, but the criticism didn’t stop. It never stopped. (No successful AIDS vaccine has ever been developed, despite many promising starts. Research has focused largely on treatment to slow or prevent the progression of the disease.) Sabin continued to bad-mouth Salk at every opportunity — at scientific conferences, in science journals, and in Congressional testimony — until the end of his life. Salk’s forbearance, and his refusal to answer Sabin in kind, was legendary.

Founding the Salk Institute

He didn’t want to name it after himself. The scientific research center he founded in La Jolla, California, in 1960, came to be named the Salk Institute only because the principal  fundraiser insisted that he could only raise the necessary money if Salk’s name were attached. In fact, throughout his life, Salk was generally soft-spoken, self-effacing, and unpretentious. He was horrified that the polio vaccine he developed came to be known popularly as the “Salk vaccine.” Whenever possible, he shunned publicity; unfortunately, that was rarely possible.

Salk was, in a word, a nice guy. Expecting him to be cold and uncaring, his teachers in medical school and, later, in his residency discovered that he was solicitous and sensitive in his dealings with patients. And he almost never replied in kind to any of the criticism directed toward him in the scientific community. However, his personal life was marred in several ways: his single-minded devotion to his work caused him to neglect his wife and three sons, and, later in life, before and during his second marriage, he appears to have had numerous affairs.

If you enjoy reading biography, please take a look at 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed.

About the author

Charlotte DeCroes Jacobs, M.D., is an Emerita Professor of Medicine at Stanford. There, she engaged in cancer research and served as Director of the Clinical Cancer Center.  Jonas Salk is her second medical biography, following Henry Kaplan and the Story of Hodgkin’s Disease. An award-winner both for her work in medicine as well as her writing, Jacobs has also been honored for her acting and singing.

March 29, 2016

The remarkable life of David Brower

David BrowerDavid Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement by Tom Turner

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

At the corner of Allston Way and Oxford Street in downtown Berkeley, directly across from the campus of the University of California, sits the David Brower Center. Opened in 2009, the Brower Center bills itself as “A center for the environmental movement.” The four-story, Platinum LEED-certified building houses an art gallery, a small auditorium, and some thirty nonprofit organizations, most of them engaged in addressing environmental issues. But who was this man, David Brower? It seems unlikely that more than a fraction of Berkeley residents today could identify him.

Who was David Brower?

If there is a Berkeley native other than David Brower who has achieved more and had a greater impact on the world, I can’t imagine who that might be, and I’ve lived here for nearly fifty years. Brower died at the age of eighty-eight on the cusp of the twenty-first century. During the decades when he was a prominent figure in the news, he was frequently cited as the voice of the environmental movement, at once its most impassioned and articulate spokesperson and the architect of several influential environmental organizations, chiefly the Sierra Club.

Anyone who knew Dave Brower, as I did (slightly), will quickly concede that the man had his faults. Even his long-suffering wife, Anne Hus Brower, was outspoken in acknowledging them. Tom Turner’s new biography, David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement, freely describes those faults, even though the author was a long-time associate and friend of his subject. There are some who might claim that the faults outweigh his accomplishments — I’ve met a few such people — but most environmental activists who know of Brower’s career would argue strenuously that that is not the case. David Brower was a genius. He was a seminal figure in the history of humankind’s effort to right our balance with nature. Turner’s biography artfully gives the man his due without sugar-coating the story.

A life filled with controversy

In the course of his eighty-eight years, David Brower was a pioneering mountaineer with more than seventy first ascents, a decorated officer in the Tenth Mountain Division of the U.S. Army in World War II, the first executive director of the Sierra Club, the editor and publisher of numerous large-format books extolling nature, founder of Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and Earth Island Institute, and the principal subject of an influential book, Encounters With the Archdruid, by the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction author John McPhee. He is perhaps best known for spearheading the successful, high-profile campaign to save the Grand Canyon — and for having been publicly fired by the Sierra Club board of directors. Turner describes every one of these events in Brower’s life with sensitivity, acknowledging the complaints of Brower’s critics along the way when they were germane.

Brower was famously impatient with process. Turner quotes him as saying, “‘Process is that which gets between where you are and where to want to be.'” He was a rule-breaker and resisted authority. At a time when books played a much larger role in forming public opinion than they do today, he devoted much of his time and budget to publishing what he termed “exhibit-format” (large) books that matched world-class photography with elegant prose. Brower’s plans for most of those books met strong resistance from within the Club.

As Turner notes, “The Sierra Club had clearly become the publishing arm of the conservation movement; that role would continue and expand as long as Brower was running the show.” Turner credits the books with attracting tens of thousands of new members to the Club. Many thousands of others signed up in response to the full-page ads Brower had placed in the nation’s leading newspapers to publicize the environmental campaigns of the day. He was a pioneer in this practice, working with a San Francisco advertising firm and chiefly with the company’s gifted writer, Jerry Mander. One headline famously asked during the campaign to save the Grand Canyon from two dams proposed to be built there: “SHOULD WE ALSO FLOOD THE SISTINE CHAPEL SO TOURISTS CAN GET NEARER THE CEILING?” The words are probably Mander’s, but the sentiment is entirely consistent with Brower’s devilish sense of humor. In the final analysis, Turner suggests, “Brower’s main role in the Sierra Club and afterward was as nature’s publicist.”

About the author

After holding a job on his staff at the Sierra Club, Tom Turner worked with David Brower at Friends of the Earth for seventeen years (1969-86), editing its widely read newsletter, Not Man Apart. Since that time he has served as a staff writer and editor for Oakland-based Earthjustice, for which he writes a popular blog. Turner lives in Berkeley.

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed, of which this book is one.


March 15, 2016

A superb biography of George Armstrong Custer

custerCuster’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America by T. J. Stiles

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for History

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When we learned American history in school, a few easily identifiable names stuck in our memory. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, of course. Thomas Jefferson, FDR, and John F. Kennedy, probably (though Kennedy was after I’d left for college). But high on the list is one man who was never president, and in fact never rose above the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army: George Armstrong Custer. What became almost universally known as Custer’s Last Stand has taken the place among the iconic events in our country’s history. Unfortunately, as we’ve learned to expect, the history we were spoon-fed in our public schools about both the event and the man was oversimplified, at best. As the brilliant biographer T. J. Stiles demonstrates in Custer’s Trials, the life led by Custer before the massacre at Little Big Horn in 1876 was, if anything, far more significant than his death.

Custer at war

Custer was a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army cavalry not long out of West Point when the Civil War broke out in 1861. After an uncomfortable stint in the Balloon Corps, conducting reconnaissance missions over enemy lines, Custer managed to ingratiate himself with General George McClellan, Commander of the Army of the Potomac. He was quickly given a position on the general ‘s staff and promoted to captain.

Soon afterward, Custer went into battle as a cavalry officer. It was not long before he proved himself to be an outstanding leader in battle, charging forward toward the enemy, often far ahead of his men, and wielding his saber with lethal effect. He distinguished himself so brilliantly in combat that he was promoted to the temporary rank of brigadier general and given command of a brigade consisting of some 2,000 soldiers. He was twenty-three years old. The press came to call him the “Boy General of the Golden Locks.”

As leadership of the army shifted from the hopelessly cautious McClellan to one general, then another, Custer continued to shine on the battlefield. “There he was at ease.” Eventually, when Ulysses S. Grant took command of the Army, Custer became a favorite of Grant’s own favored subordinate, Philip Sheridan. Working under Sheridan’s tutelage, Custer played a major role in turning back the Confederate advance in the Shenandoah Valley, closing off the Confederate Army’s path to the north and thus hastening the end of the war.

Throughout this time, Custer continued to endanger himself to an extreme degree leading from the front. Bullets (spent from having been fired from a great distance) literally bounced off him, and the horses he rode died while he survived battle. One one occasion, he “had three horses shot from underneath him in a single day,” on another “losing two horses killed beneath him within fifteen minutes of each other.” An attack led by Custer killed General J.E.B. Stuart, one of the stars of the Confederate Army and a cherished friend of Robert E. Lee. It was for exploits like these that Custer was promoted to the rank of major general (though the rank was a temporary, “brevet” promotion.) He became one of the most recognized heroes of the Civil War, celebrated in newspapers and magazines across the North. The fame he gained made it possible for him to become a professional magazine writer in later years, to supplement his meager salary from the Army.

A man of his time

Stiles writes, “Custer became an icon because he embodied the times in a heightened, dramatic way.” A graduate of West Point, he experienced the country’s first professional education. As an officer in the Army, which “pioneered the organizational society in America,” he became proficient in bureaucratic infighting. Custer was an eminently political general (though he blundered dramatically on more than one occasion). In the years following the war, he gravitated toward New York in a futile search for a fortune, where he cozied up to the gamblers and charlatans who dominated Wall Street. Assigned to a series of frontier forts, Custer became emblematic of the genocidal wars against Native Americans. And he “epitomized the transitional nature of this moment, as America transformed into an organizational society.”

The trials

Stiles bookends his biography with accounts of the two courts-martial Custer faced in his short career (the “Trials” of the title). At West Point, he was prosecuted for cheating and dismissed from the army in 1861, shortly before the outbreak of war. “Then he was reinstated. Out of dozens who were dismissed, he was the only one to be saved. He had no idea why.” (He graduated last in his class.) Stiles attributes this to Custer’s extraordinary good luck, which saved his career — and his life — on many later occasions.

In 1867, following his heroic performance in the Civil War, he faced prosecution again for a long list of charges, including absence without leave (AWOL), marching his troops to exhaustion and his horses to their deaths, and commandeering “two ambulances and four mules for his own use.” Following his conviction that year, the appeals process commenced, eventually ending up on the desk of General Grant, who was still in command of the Army. Custer had served Grant with great distinction in the war, but the president nonetheless announced that what others thought was a harsh sentence he thought was too light. Presumably because Grant was distracted by the turbulent politics that led to his nomination for president, Custer’s sentence was never carried out.

The man, not the legend

Like his father, Custer was a conservative Democrat who “embraced Southern extremism” despite his upbringing in Michigan. He was an outspoken racist. During the height of the war, when a lull in the fighting allowed, he frequently fraternized with Confederate officers whom he had known at West Point. After the Civil War, when he was assigned to police the South for violations of Reconstruction, he routinely turned a blind eye toward the continued exploitation and brutalization of former slaves. He actively played politics, opposing the Radical Republican forces in Congress that backed Reconstruction and campaigning for his hero, George McClellan, in the 1868 presidential election against Ulysses Grant.

The hero-general who captivated the public imagination during the Civil War became a tyrant when shifted to command troops on the frontier. He may have been responsible for an atrocity. In the war, the soldiers serving under him had idolized Custer; on the frontier, his poor treatment of subordinates led to “plots against Custer’s life. . .  Families took up the crusade against him.” In fact, as Stiles seems to suggest, Custer’s catastrophic defeat at the Little Big Horn may have come about because the subordinate officers commanding several companies of his troops deliberately failed to come to his rescue. However, as Stiles points out, the most obvious reason for the massacre that ended Custer’s life was that “the army lost largely because the Indians won.”

Custer was also addicted to gambling at cards and horse races. Stiles writes, “As an army officer, he always felt short of money. He breathed it in and out without ever accumulating any.” The gambling made this worse, of course. Custer’s long-suffering wife was the primary victim.

Stiles also emphasizes Custer’s duplicity with women. For an extended time, he romanced one young woman while more seriously pursuing the woman he eventually married. During their marriage, especially once he had been assigned to the frontier, he slept with other women. Stiles extensively quotes letters and diary entries by his wife, Libbie Bacon Custer, illustrating the strain in their marriage.

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed, of which this book is one.

About the author

T. J. Stiles‘ masterful biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, The First Tycoon, won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction. Custer’s Trials is the third of the biographies he has written about some of the leading figures of the mid- to late-nineteenth century. His first was Jesse James: The Last Rebel of the Civil War. Stiles lives in Berkeley, California. Fittingly, Custer’s Trials has been nominated for a 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography.

This book is included in my list of The 10 best books of 2016.

March 8, 2016

When America’s secret government ran amok

secret governmentThe Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government by David Talbot

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

If you’re familiar with mid-twentieth century American history, you’ll know the name Allen Dulles (1893-1969), who served as the director of the CIA through the tense years of the Eisenhower Administration and remained in office until John F. Kennedy fired him in 1961. Now, investigative journalist David Talbot has written an eye-opening new biography of the man.

The historical record reveals a great deal about Dulles’ career in espionage, highlighting his central role in the overthrow of the Iranian and Guatemalan governments in 1953 and 54, in the notorious MKULTRA program that administered mind-altering drugs to unwitting subjects in at least seven countries, and in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. Recently, The Brothers, Stephen Kinzer’s dual biography of Dulles and his older brother, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, also spotlighted the two men’s unsavory roles in funneling American capital to help build Hitler’s Germany and in the CIA’s attempts to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Sukarno in Indonesia, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Patrice Lumumba in the Congo, and Fidel Castro in Cuba.

Now, Talbot has delved more deeply into the record and taken a far more critical look at Dulles’ career in The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government. The picture that emerges is shattering.

The most powerful men in America

During the seven years that Allen Dulles served as CIA director while his big brother was Secretary of State (1953-59), the two held sway virtually unchallenged at the helm of U.S. foreign policy. From the outset, Dwight Eisenhower was a disengaged President, favoring the golf course over the White House, and in the second term of his administration he was sidelined even more frequently by serious illness. These were the years of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s alcohol-fueled rampage through the U.S. government, when rabid anti-Communism infected the military, academia, and the news media as well as government, and the reactionary John Birch Society built a nationwide network of chapters with more than 100,000 members. Foster Dulles’ nuclear brinksmanship was the order of the day. And his younger brother was left free to pursue his own course at the CIA, free from scrutiny or moral scruples. In many ways, the two were the most powerful men in America. Talbot sums up the case in stark terms: “In the name of defending the free world from Communist tyranny, they would impose an American reign on the world enforced by nuclear terror and cloak-and-dagger brutality.”

The untold story of Allen Dulles

From the perspective of more than half a century, now that once-classified records are gradually being opened, it’s difficult not to conclude that Allen Dulles’ virtually unchallenged reign at the CIA was an unparalleled disaster. Previously published books and articles have brought a number of extremely unflattering revelations to light. To my knowledge, though, only David Talbot has put all the pieces together in The Devil’s Chessboard:

  • Dulles and his brother Foster didn’t just help their law clients finance the Third Reich. Though they publicly disavowed the Nazi regime shortly before war broke out, they helped high-ranking German officials to launder looted funds through Switzerland throughout and after World War II. (Dulles headed the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS office in Bern during the war, so he was in a perfect position to continue to help his former clients and their German partners.) Talbot notes: “Dulles was more in step with many Nazi leaders than he was with President Roosevelt.”
  • In the final stages of the war, Dulles defied Allied strategic policy and direct orders from Roosevelt. He negotiated a separate surrender of Nazi forces in Italy with the high-ranking SS general who ran the Gestapo there. When Italian partisans began closing in on the general’s hideout, Dulles organized a rescue mission. The general he snatched from the clutches of the Resistance was Heinrich “Himmler’s top troubleshooter, [who] frequently intervened to ensure the smooth efficiency of the extermination process,” the Nazis’ “Final Solution.” Nonetheless, Dulles repeatedly took action to prevent him from prosecution at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. As Talbot reports, “Supreme Court Justice Arthur Goldberg, who as a young lawyer served with Allen in the OSS, later declared that both Dulleses were guilty of treason.”
  • The general was far from the only Nazi official whom Dulles saved from justice. Using OSS staff members who reported to him, Dulles helped smuggle an untold number of Nazi criminals to South America, the United States, and elsewhere around the world through the so-called “ratlines” established by ODESSA, the secret organization of former SS officers. He also took part in the OSS’ Operation Paperclip, the notorious clandestine operation under which the U.S. smuggled more than fifteen hundred German scientists, engineers, and technicians to the United States to work in rocketry, biological and chemical weapons, and other fields. Many of the scientists were committed Nazis, some of them war criminals. And Dulles personally engineered the extraction of Reinhard Gehlen, the SS general who ran military intelligence for the Nazis on the Eastern Front. Gehlen, too, would have been in the dock at Nuremberg were it not for Dulles’ protection. He arranged for the Nazi spy to establish an anti-Soviet espionage network for the U.S., employing a large number of other Nazis; later, with Dulles’ support, Gehlen took over the new West German intelligence agency.
  • Still under Dulles’ leadership in April 1961, the CIA colluded with right-wing French officers in a plot to assassinate Charles de Gaulle. The plot had been organized by the OAS, the secret paramilitary organization that attempted to prevent Algeria’s independence from France. As Talbot notes, “Allen Dulles was once again making his own [foreign] policy, this time in France.” The plot was thwarted only after President Kennedy personally warned de Gaulle’s ambassador to the U.S. that the CIA might be involved. Kennedy ordered U.S. base commanders in France to disguise the landing strips where the OAS might land its planes from Algeria, and de Gaulle mobilized the French citizenry to oppose the conspirators through strikes and other actions.

But these (and a great many other) crimes pale in comparison with Dulles’ role in the Bay of Pigs disaster and in the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that followed his termination by President Kennedy. Much of what Talbot writes about this period brings new evidence into the light of day.

The secret government meets resistance

Under President Eisenhower, the CIA directed by Allen Dulles operated with little oversight. Though the president was uncomfortable after the fact with some of the agency’s more egregious operations, he did nothing to rein in Dulles. Even the director’s brother, the Secretary of State, often found himself in the dark. Few in Congress were aware of the extent to which the CIA was manipulating events around the world. The agency operated in such secrecy that it’s possible some members of Congress didn’t even know of its existence. But the insular existence of the CIA under Dulles’ direction began to unravel following the election of John F. Kennedy.

It’s well known that the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion was planned during the final years of Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency and that the newly elected president only reluctantly allowed it to continue. It’s also widely believed that the invasion failed because President Kennedy refused to authorize air cover for the dissident CIA-trained Cubans of the invading force. However, as Talbot reveals, the truth is far different from the popular belief. Even an internal investigation by the CIA brought many of the facts to light. “It is now clear that the CIA’s Bay of Pigs expedition was not simply doomed to fail, it was meant to fail. And its failure was designed to trigger the real action — an all-out, U.S. military invasion of the island.” Dulles fully expected that his hard-line allies who ran the Pentagon and staffed the National Security Council would force the new president to approve the action. Kennedy’s refusal to do so caused the distrust for him within the military and the CIA to harden into hatred. Their opposition to him grew even more bitter when he fired Dulles a few months later.

The secret government strikes back

Talbot explains, “Dulles had been deposed, but his reign continued.” He remained a darling of the establishment press, especially Henry Luce’s magazine empire and The New York Times, and the largely unchanged leadership of the CIA held frequent meetings with Dulles in his Georgetown home. Kennedy blundered by appointing Dulles ally John McCone to succeed him and leaving most of the agency’s leadership in place. Dulles’ acolytes, Richard Helms and James Jesus Angleton, continued to dominate the CIA. Operations continued in secret, outside the oversight of the White House. As Talbot makes clear, “it was a mood of hatred and rage.” In this explosive atmosphere, Kennedy’s decision to lower the tension over Cuba following the near-catastrophe of the Cuban Missile Crisis proved fatal. “This marked the fateful turning point when the rabid, CIA-sponsored activity that had been aimed at Castro shifted its focus to Kennedy.”

In Part Three of The Devil’s Chessboard, about one-third of the book, Talbot concentrates on the evidence about CIA involvement in the assassination of JFK. Much of what he reports is based on his own interviews and on documents that came to light only decades after the event. He writes, “Those resolute voices in American public life that continue to deny the existence of a conspiracy to kill President Kennedy argue that ‘someone would have talked.’ This line of reasoning is often used by journalists who have made no effort themselves to closely inspect the growing body of evidence and have not undertaken any of their own investigative reporting . . . The official version of the Kennedy assassination — despite its myriad improbabilities, which have only grown more inconceivable with time — remains firmly embedded in the media consciousness, as unquestioned as the law of gravity. In fact, many people have talked during the past half of a century — including some directly connected to the plot against Kennedy.”

There is now abundant evidence that high-ranking CIA officials orchestrated the murder and the cover-up that followed. Dulles himself appears to have been fully informed. Talbot reveals much of what is now known about the plot in The Devil’s Chessboard. Corroborating evidence has been published elsewhere, most notably in another remarkable book, Mary’s Mosaic, published in 2012. Two other books I’ve recently reviewed, Top Secret America and National Security and Double Government, probe the consequences of the secret government that Allen Dulles conjured into being.

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed. You might also be interested in seeing my post, “17 good nonfiction books about espionage.” This book is one of the 17. Also, this book is included in my list of The 10 best books of 2016.

Enjoy reading general nonfiction? Here is my list of The 10 most memorable nonfiction books of the decade.

About the author

David Talbot is best known as the founder and editor-in-chief of the online magazine Salon. The Devil’s Chessboard is the fourth of the nonfiction books he has written in recent years after he left work as a reporter for newspapers and magazines.


January 12, 2016

Malcolm X, reconsidered in the context of his time

Malcolm XMalcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Fifty years ago, a 39-year-old man named Malcolm Little was murdered by a team of five assassins in a ballroom in New York City. The shocking event took place in front of a crowd of four hundred people. As news of his murder spread around the world, millions grieved while thousands of FBI and CIA agents and New York City police officers joined the leaders of a Chicago-based religious cult in celebration.

Who killed Malcolm X?

The murdered man was best known as Malcolm X. The cult he had recently left in protest was the Nation of Islam, familiar to the public as the Black Muslims. In the years since that event, considerable evidence has surfaced that the assassination was carried out at the behest of Black Muslim leaders and employed killers from a Black Muslim mosque in New Jersey — and that the FBI and the NYPD were at least familiar with the plans in advance, if in fact they didn’t actively participate through numerous informers they’d both planted in the audience.

“Martin and Malcolm”

In later years, Malcolm X came to be thought of by millions of African-Americans as a martyr, his name linked to that of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who was assassinated three years later: they would speak of “Martin and Malcolm” in the same breath. Why? How would the murder of a single man cause such widespread and divergent reactions? Historian Manning Marable’s probing new biography of the man, Malcolm X, sets out to answer these questions. If, in the end, the questions linger, it seems unfair to lay the blame on the biographer. Better to recognize the contradictions, inconsistencies, and ever-shifting views of the man best known as Malcolm X: that is the subject of Marable’s biography.

Correcting the errors of Autobiography of Malcolm X

Toward the end of 1965, a book by Alex Haley hit the bookstores: The Autobiography of Malcolm X. In all the time since, Haley’s book has sold more than six million copies worldwide. Though based on many hours of face-to-face interviews with Malcolm, it was later established that the book was flawed in two substantial ways: Malcolm exaggerated aspects of his earlier life for dramatic effect — he was not above doing this when he spoke in public — and the author distorted Malcolm’s views to conform more closely with his own. Haley was solidly middle-class, a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard and a liberal Republican. Malcolm was a veteran of ghetto streets, prison, and, for most of his public career, a Black nationalist. It’s still surprising that the two managed to collaborate over the course of several years.

With access to the mature views of Malcolm’s contemporaries and colleagues and to recently declassified materials, Marable’s biography contradicts the Autobiography in a number of ways. It’s fitting that Marable, an academic historian, would write to correct the errors of a popular writer.

A man of inconsistencies and contradictions

Marable implies, both in his title and in the text, that Malcolm pursued a path of “reinvention” virtually throughout his life — a steady evolution that took him from the streets of the Detroit ghetto to the peak of international renown. This is misleading in three important ways.

First, while there is some truth to Marable’s charitable interpretation, it’s clear that he never outgrew some of the mean and nasty characteristics of his early life. He was both a misogynist and an anti-Semite. He often treated his wife, Betty, with contempt, and he made a habit of absenting their home almost immediately after each of the four daughters born to the couple before his death. And, despite his avowed adoption of the Islamic creed that all humanity is a single race and all live under a single God, he continued to make ugly anti-Jewish statements both in private and in public throughout his life.

Second, Malcolm’s evolution was anything but steady. After years of obvious signs, he became aware that Elijah Muhammad was victimizing the young female secretaries he recruited into his Chicago headquarters — he fathered at least four or five illegitimate children — and that Elijah and his family were milking the Black Muslim movement for riches while even senior officials such as Malcolm were forced to live in penury. Anyone might reasonably conclude that such a man couldn’t possibly be the “Messenger of Allah,” but Malcolm stubbornly continued to refer to Elijah Muhammad with reverence long after these revelations had become clear to everyone in the uppermost ranks of the movement.

Third, it’s clear from a close reading of Marable’s biography that Malcolm often contradicted himself, saying one thing to one audience and something quite different to a second, adjusting his message for maximum effect. For example, on several occasions brought to light in the book, Malcolm made a powerful statement in favor of integration to a live audience or in an interview, but days or even hours later reverted to talk urging African-Americans to “take up the gun.”

Marable’s argument to counter this view of his subject strikes me as rationalization: “that there were ‘two Malcolm Xs’ — one who advocated violence when he was a Black Muslim, and a second who espoused nonviolent change — is absolutely wrong. To Malcolm, armed self-defense was never equated with violence for its own sake.” It’s disingenuous to argue that even Elijah Muhammad advocated “violence for its own sake,” and to think that “armed self-defense” would lead to anything but violence is naive.

Malcolm X possessed extraordinary leadership abilities. He was a truly gifted orator and charismatic to fault. No doubt, too, he was brilliant, if largely uneducated. It’s understandable that people starved for heroes might turn to him as an iconic liberation figure. However, history has clouded the reality, and the truth about his life is clearly more complicated than his advocates would like it to be. I can only be hoped that all those colleges and universities that assign The Autobiography of Malcolm X as required reading will also insist that students read Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

For links to my reviews of other excellent biographies, go to 35 great biographies I’ve reviewed, of which this book is one.

About the author

Manning Marable was an American professor of public affairs, history, and African-American Studies at Columbia University. He died in 2011. Malcolm X was one of fourteen nonfiction books he wrote.

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