January 3, 2018

Mao, Truman, and the birth of Modern China

A Force So Swift by Kevin PerainoA Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949 by Kevin Peraino

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Most history books paint the past in broad strokes, covering dozens or hundreds of years. Yet some of the most engaging works drill down into the events of a particular time or place. Kevin Peraino has brilliantly used that approach in A Force So Swift: Mao, Truman, and the Birth of Modern China, 1949. By focusing on the events of a single year, and concentrating on just ten key individual players in the drama, Peraino has brought back to life the complex circumstances surrounding one of the seminal events of the 20th Century. In Peraino’s hands, the emergence of the People’s Republic of China comes across as though it might have occurred yesterday.

And this is not dry history that can be forgotten. As Peraino notes, “Anxious Chinese officials see today’s American policy as a sequel to the containment strategy hatched in 1949.”

1949 was a fateful year in many ways. The year witnessed the growth of the Red Scare, the formation of NATO, the opening run of Death of a Salesman, the resignation and suicide of Defense Secretary James Forrestal, the formation of the Council of Europe, the trials of Alger Hiss, the publication of 1984, the first test of a nuclear bomb by the Soviet Union, and the formation of East and West Germany. Every one of these events figures in the background of Peraino’s chronicle of the year.

I was barely conscious of the wider world in 1949. After all, I was just eight years old. But every one of the ten individuals Peraino follows through that fateful year conjures up memories for me. Admittedly, my reading of history has a lot to do with that. But all ten of the people profiled in A Force So Swift were active for years after 1949, and I became familiar with them as the years went by. Peraino’s book helps me understand them better.

The cast of characters in A Force So Swift includes Mao Zedong, Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Chiang Kai-Shek, Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, Josef Stalin, and Douglas MacArthur, every one of whom is familiar to anyone who reads history. Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, Congressman Walter Judd (R-Minnesota), and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin all played oversized roles in the events of 1949 but are less well known today. Johnson and Judd were central figures in the China Lobby that pressured Truman. Bevin engineered Britain’s recognition of Red China in defiance of US wishes.

The central drama illuminated in A Force So Swift is the clash between Acheson and the China Lobby led by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek for President Truman’s attention. The debate centered on whether the United States should continue to support the Nationalist forces led by Chiang Kai-Shek as they fell apart in the face of continuing Communist victories. Acheson was firmly opposed. Throughout the year, Truman leaned toward Acheson’s position, but saying no became progressively more difficult as the year unfolded. (“To court Mao or to confront him? Truman did not really want to do either.”) The public relations campaign whipped up by the China Lobby was ferocious, and political pressure from Congress and the Pentagon was daunting. (“The congressional leadership was unanimously opposed to formally halting shipments” of money and arms to Chiang.) Even before Mao declared the formation of the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949, Acheson and Truman were convinced Red China was a fait accompli, and they hoped that by refraining from overt attacks on Mao’s forces that a split would eventually emerge between China and the Soviet Union. Their opponents refused to accept reality. History shows Truman and Acheson were correct.

“Ultimately the legacy of 1949,” Peraino writes, “in some cases, despite Acheson’s best efforts, had included thirty years of nonrecognition of Communist China, a decades-long U.S. commitment to Taiwan, and the wars in Korea and Vietnam.”

Kevin Peraino is an American journalist who has written for many leading publications. He is a visiting scholar at New York University. A Force So Swift is his second book.

For my reviews of other books on US-China relations, see A revealing history of U.S.-China relationsCompetition between the U.S. and China through the lens of geopolitics, and “Who lost China?” Nobody.

To learn more about the world we have inherited, check out 61 nonfiction books about history reviewed here. This book is on that list.

If you enjoy reading history, check out New perspectives on world history.

For your convenience, you’ll find here all the nonfiction books reviewed on this blog in 2017.

November 22, 2017

Troublemakers: the people who put Silicon Valley on the map

Troublemakers by Leslie BerlinTroublemakers by Leslie BerlinTroublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age by Leslie Berlin

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Any casual reader whose knowledge about Silicon Valley comes from the headlines or the news online might get the impression that Steve Jobs and the Google and Facebook guys invented the place. Obviously, this is far from true. But even more serious coverage tends to focus on a handful of high-profile individuals who have played outsize roles in the development of the high-tech industry. Stanford historian Leslie Berlin sets the record straight with her engrossing new book, Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age. 

Troublemakers chronicles a critical period in the Valley’s history (1969-76). Those seven years witnessed “the most significant and diverse burst of technological innovation of the past 150 years . . . Five major industries were born: personal computing, video games, advanced semiconductor logic, modern venture capital, and biotechnology.”

“Innovation is a team sport,” Berlin writes in the introduction to her book. She makes clear that her intention is to tell the stories of more than just the usual suspects. “Troublemakers . . . feature[s] some of the most famous names in Silicon Valley history, while also profiling seven other individuals in depth.” More famous people such as Steve Jobs and Larry Page make brief appearances. Berlin’s account highlights:

  • Bob Taylor, who led the creation of the rudimentary computer network at the Pentagon, in a sense “inventing” the Internet;
  • Mike Markkula, the man who made it possible for Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak to launch and build Apple;
  • Sandra Kurtzig, a software pioneer who was “the first woman to take a technology company public;”
  • Bob Swanson, a cofounder of Genentech;
  • Al Alcorn, who designed the video game Pong that launched the game giant Atari; and
  • Niels Riemer, the man who patented recombinant DNA for Stanford University, thus kickstarting the biotech industry.

Every one of these seven people could be the subject of their own biography. Berlin brings their stories to life through one-on-one interviews—all but Bob Taylor and Bob Swanson are still alive—while placing their accomplishments into the context of their time and place. As a professional historian specializing in this region—Berlin is Project Historian for the Silicon Valley Archives at Stanford University—she deftly meshes personal accounts by her subjects with extensive archival research.

To my mind, the most impressive of these seven individuals is Bob Taylor. As a key player at ARPA (the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, now called DARPA) in the 1960s, he helped lay the foundation for the Internet. Later, in the 1970s, as the director of computer science research at Xerox’s PARC (Palo Alto Research Center), he assembled what was widely considered the most talented group of computer scientists anywhere in the world—and possibly the most talented ever brought together anywhere. These extraordinary men (and a handful of women) created the Alto, the world’s first personal computer with a graphic user interface (GUI), mouse, windows, and networking ability. It’s astonishing to most observers that the Xerox Corporation failed to commercialize the Alto. Only years later did Apple’s Macintosh begin to approach the capabilities of the Alto. (A former key player at PARC thought of the early Mac as a toy.)

You might also be interested in several other reviews I’ve posted: “The new Steve Jobs biography is terrific!,” “Confessions of a Silicon Valley techie,” “The iPhone: the world’s most profitable product?,” and “35 great biographies I’ve reviewed.” And if you enjoy reading history, check out New perspectives on world history.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017. This book is one of them.

November 7, 2017

This book will challenge everything you know about ancient history

Against the Grain by James C. ScottAgainst the Grain by James C. ScottAgainst the Grain by James C. Scott

Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott

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Historians of the ancient world have been telling us for centuries that from about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago larger and larger human communities formed in places like the Fertile Crescent, South China, the Indus River Valley of today’s western India and Pakistan, and Central America. To secure enough food once their population had grown to a level unsustainable by hunting and gathering, those communities turned to agriculture. Food surpluses, seized by local rulers, enabled the establishment of the empires that dominated the world.

However, as modern scholarship has shown, little of that is true. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott tells a somewhat different story that will challenge everything you’ve been taught about ancient history.

For example, by about 10,000 BCE, small human communities had begun to form, domesticating plants and animals, irrigating crops, and growing some of their own food while obtaining the rest from the land around them. In other words, humans were tilling the soil thousands of years before the first empires even began to form. Even “[s]lavery was not invented by the state. Various forms of enslavement individual and communal, were widely practiced among nonstate peoples.” However, “civilized societies” perpetuated and expanded the institution. “As Adam Hochschild observed, as late as 1800 roughly three-quarters of the world’s population could be said to be living in bondage.”

The conventional view that life grew gradually better once states and then empires (“civilization”) had begun to take shape is simply wrong. Archaeological evidence has shown that people lived longer and healthier lives as hunter-gatherers. Their diet was more varied, and they suffered fewer diseases. They grew taller and lived longer. They worked far less time to secure food, fuel, and other resources than farmers engaged in backbreaking work tilling wheat, barley, rice, millet, or other grain crops. (Why the emphasis on grain? Because only with predictable and measurable grain crops could elites collect taxes.)

Early human communities were, as Scott asserts, “multispecies resettlement camps.” Both humans and animals clumped together in ever-larger numbers. Because of the crowding, epidemic disease became common among both people and animals. Infant mortality soared. Domesticated animals steadily became smaller than the wild species from which they originated. Humans, too, grew shorter and died earlier, partly from a diet almost exclusively limited to grain and partly from the effects of disease. “[V]irtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand. They were, in a strong sense, a ‘civilizational effect.’”

“[A]n even-handed species history would give the state a far more modest role than it is normally accorded,” Scott notes. The earliest states were fragile, ephemeral constructs that frequently fell to the ravages of disease or marauding pastoralists. They were “minuscule affairs both demographically and geographically. They were a mere smudge on the map of the ancient world and not much more than a rounding error in a total global population estimated at roughly twenty-five million in the year 2,000 BCE . . . Even at the height of the Roman and early Han ‘superstates,’ the area of their effective control would have been stunningly modest.” Nonetheless, historians typically focus on states and empires (since written records make history possible, and writing came into use only in settled communities). But it was not until about 1,600 CE that established states encompassed most human populations—in other words, fewer than 500 years ago. For many thousands of years before then, hunter-gatherers and pastoralists greatly outnumbered the grain-growers who lived in cities.

Against the Grain is full of surprises. What I’ve cited above is only a smattering of the book’s revelations.

Here’s another: Fire was first harnessed by hominids 400,000 years ago, long before we human beings appeared on the scene. Scott regards fire as the most consequential tool in human history. Fire made cooking possible. In turn, cooking “allows Homo sapiens to eat far less food and expend far fewer calories extracting nutrition from it . . . It allowed early man to gather and eat a far wider range of foods than before”—and archaeological evidence shows this is associated with the increasing size of our brains.

Reading Against the Grain is likely to upend your understanding of ancient history. But it’s tough going. I found myself rushing to the dictionary on virtually every other page. Scott uses words that I would swear have never seen the light of day anywhere else but obscure academic papers and technical dictionaries.

James C. Scott confesses in his preface that he is “an amateur” historian but “a card-carrying political scientist and an anthropologist and environmentalist by courtesy.” Against the Grain offers a multidisciplinary approach to ancient history—what elsewhere is called “Big History.” Although Scott primarily turns his attention to Mesopotamia, where the first states appear to have been established, he extends his arguments to all the other regions where “civilization” first emerged.

If you’re intrigued by this new, multidisciplinary approach to history, you’ll enjoy seeing my post, Great books on Big History: New perspectives on world history.

To learn more about the world we have inherited, check out 61 nonfiction books about history reviewed here. This book is on that list.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

October 4, 2017

Conspiracy theories, fake news, and other delusions in American history

conspiracy theories - Fantasyland - Kurt AndersenFantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen

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You will be amazed. In Kurt Andersen‘s shocking 500-year survey of US history, Fantasyland, you’ll learn just how truly exceptional America is—and not in a good way.

Who is responsible for “fake news?”

If you think only Donald Trump, Fox News, anonymous online pundits, and Russian hackers have a monopoly on “fake news,” guess again. Andersen relates countless incidents of purportedly true accounts of satanic cults, multiple personality disorder, recovered memory, vaccines causing autism, and other once-pervasive delusions on ABC and NBC News and other mainstream media over the years. Even that paragon of accurate journalism, The New York Times, has fallen prey to such nonsense from time to time. Is it any wonder, then, that ludicrous conspiracy theories should multiply on the World Wide Web, where any nut can say anything anonymously without fear of contradiction?

Who spreads conspiracy theories?

Equating The New York Times with Breitbart and Russian hackers as purveyors of fake news would be highly misleading. Andersen doesn’t do that. As he notes in another context, “There are different degrees of egregious.” However, he is clear that “fake news” and conspiracy theories are by no means limited to the so-called “Trump voters” pilloried by professional journalists and commentators.

Huge numbers of other Americans have left the realm of rationalism for Fantasyland. Consider Scientology, the antivaccine movement, hysteria about GMO food, alien abductions, homeopathy, and the national missing-children panic of the early 1980s. None of these delusions and conspiracy theories are solely identified with any class, region, or race. And popular New Age gurus such as Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra, and Eckhart Tolle, all of whom sometimes spout nonsense, have not attracted notably large followings among the creationist set. Similarly, Oprah, Dr. Oz, Bill Maher, and other popular show business celebrities have promoted delusional beliefs. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously noted, “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Unfortunately, as Andersen makes abundantly clear, far too few Americans take that sentiment seriously—and, in that respect, the United States stands out clearly in comparison with all other developed nations.

The religious roots of America’s infatuation with fantasy

Andersen’s account begins early in the sixteenth century with the establishment of English colonies in present-day Virginia and Massachusetts. In both cases, conventional wisdom has it that the search for religious freedom drove early colonists to American shores. That’s only partly true, and only in the case of New England. Andersen explains that the primary motivations for all the earliest European expeditions were visions of gold and the Northwest Passage. And the Puritans—they only later called themselves Pilgrims—who landed south of Boston were in no way motivated by religious “freedom.” They had set out to establish a theocracy intolerant of any religious practices that departed even slightly from the rigid prescriptions of their faith.

However, in Protestantism, with its view that “every man [is] his own priest,” there lurked a fatal flaw in its commitment to conformity: if “every man” was “his own priest,” what was to stop them from inventing their own religions? In fact, as American history clearly shows, that is precisely what has happened over the five centuries since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. Beginning not long after the landing at Plymouth Rock with Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, Americans have demonstrated unending creativity in devising variations, often radical variations, on Christianity, from Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the numberless evangelical Protestant denominations.

In every case, these new belief systems rested on fantasy. And there, Andersen argues, lies the rub. Most Americans seem willing to suspend disbelief to worship on the basis of precepts any self-respecting science fiction writer would reject as improbable. (If you think I’m exaggerating, read The Book of Mormon as written by Joseph Smith, or Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by by Lawrence Wright.) Interestingly, Andersen cites studies by scholars at Yale and the University of Chicago that found “the single strongest driver of conspiracy belief [is] belief in end-time prophecies.”

Andersen frequently cites findings from public opinion surveys to telling effect. “Nearly all American Christians believe that Heaven (85 percent) and Hell (70 percent) are actual places,” he writes. Focusing on “the solid majority of Protestants, he adds that “at least a quarter of Americans . . . are sure ‘the Bible is the actual word of God . . . to be taken literally, word for word.'” And “more than a third of all Americans . . . believe that God regularly grants them and their fellow charismatics magical powers—to speak in tongues, heal the sick, cast out demons, and so on.” Elsewhere, Andersen notes, “According to Pew, 58 percent of evangelicals believe that Jesus will return no later than the year 2050. (And only 17 percent of all Americans said they thought He definitely wasn’t coming back during the next thirty-three years.)” With such beliefs so widely held, fake news and “alternative facts” can be no surprise.

The problem is far broader than fanciful religious beliefs

Fantasyland is far from limited to the religious sources of Americans’ predisposition to fantasy. Andersen regards shopping malls, planned communities, Civil War reenactment and Renaissance Faires, fantasy sports, theme restaurants, People magazine, cosmetic surgery, pro wrestling, computer games, reality TV, and Disney theme parks as other signposts of our infatuation with the unreal and the impossible. It’s difficult to argue with this on a strictly logical basis. Andersen makes the case. Yet I find it a stretch too far to imply that such phenomena are in any way equivalent to fantasies such as widespread voter fraud, hysteria about vaccines, and the pernicious practices of Scientology, all of which have real-world consequences and sometimes lead to physical harm and even death. However, Andersen implies that, because of conditioning by these seemingly inconsequential realities, Americans are peculiarly susceptible to dangerous conspiracy theories.

Another author examined America’s religious history in an excellent recently published book. I reviewed One Nation, Under Gods by Peter Manseau at America’s surprising religious history in a highly readable book. Earlier, I had reviewed two other books with insight about American history: Corruption in America by Zephyr Teachout (Citizens United, bribery, and corruption in America) and Republican Gomorrah by Max Blumenthal (When religion dominated the views of American conservatives). And if you enjoy reading history, check out New perspectives on world history.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017. This book is one of them.

September 20, 2017

America’s surprising religious history in a highly readable book

religious history - One Nation Under Gods by Peter ManseauOne Nation Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau

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If you’ve wondered how anyone could insist that the United States is a “Christian nation” when so many other faiths are practiced within our borders—and so many Americans shun religion entirely—you should enjoy One Nation Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau. In fact, if you yourself believe that claim, it’s even more important that you read this surprising and revealing book. One Nation Under Gods is an ideal companion volume to Howard Zinn’s classic secular history, A People’s History of the United States. Together, the two books provide a well-rounded picture of American history as it really happened, not as we were taught it in high school.

And the perspective advanced in One Nation, Under Gods is mirrored in the news: “Last week, in a report entitled America’s Changing Religious Identity, the nonpartisan research organization Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) concluded that white Christians were now a minority in the US population. Soon, white people as a whole will be, too.”

Surprises galore in America’s religious history

In One Nation Under Gods, Manseau surveys the country’s religious history from the arrival of the Conquistadores and the Puritans to Scientology, the Right-Wing evangelicals, and New Age cults of recent years. To illustrate each of the major belief systems that have flourished (and sometimes faded away) over the centuries, Manseau offers a lively sketch of each faith’s earliest practitioner, or in cases such as the Mormon Church, the founder.

One Nation Under Gods is full of surprises.

  • For instance, did you know that a North African Muslim explored large swaths of what is today the United States nearly a century before the fabled landing at Plymouth Rock—and did so far more extensively than his Spanish Christian masters?
  • That twenty percent of the African slaves brought to America were Muslims?
  • That the theology espoused by Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, was derived in significant part from the oracular vision of an Iroquois leader named Handsome Lake?
  • That many of America’s leading intellectuals of the nineteenth century—Emerson, Longfellow, Thoreau, Melville, Whitman—were heavily influenced by a traveling Hindu lecturer and the sacred writing of the Hindu faith?
  • Or that the first woman prosecuted as a witch in Salem was a Caribbean Indian woman named Tituba whose practice of her traditional religion induced two young girls in a preacher’s household to imitate her “heathen” practices? (Tituba escaped the gallows. The two girls didn’t.)

I certainly knew none of these things. And these examples merely scratch the surface of the revelations in Manseau’s delightful book. I suspect you’ll learn a lot, too.

Religious intolerance in American history

The central theme in One Nation Under Gods is the extraordinary diversity of religious beliefs that have captivated Americans over the centuries. Manseau provides abundant evidence that religious diversity was a reality from the earliest days of English settlement in America, giving the lie to the rigid conformity demanded by Puritan preachers in seventeenth-century New England. Names familiar to any religious scholar—Anne Hutchison and Roger Williams, for example—represented only an early stage in the splintering of the Puritan faith. As settlement moved further into the wilderness, more and more distant from the churches of the towns, the lure of Christian faith grew ever dimmer.

However, it might as well be said that the book is a study of religious intolerance in our history. From John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the leaders of whichever version of the Christian faith held sway at any one time went to great lengths to stamp out competing belief systems. (Manseau demonstrates that both anti-Chinese and anti-Japanese anger was based at least in large part on intolerance of the Buddhist religion.) The dogmatism of today’s Right-Wing evangelicals who demand “prayer in the schools” is only one manifestation of this history.

About the author

Peter Manseau is the religion curator at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History in Washington, DC. One Nation Under Gods is his fourth book.

You might also enjoy my reviews of two books about Scientology. One is at Scientology revealed in a definitive investigative report. The other: Inside Scientology: set up your own religion, and make a billion dollars. I also reviewed another excellent book of religious history in America: Joseph Smith: the remarkable man who founded the Mormon Church. And if you enjoy reading history, check out New perspectives on world history.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

September 12, 2017

Historical perspective on “the vast Right-Wing conspiracy”

Book exploring the "Right-Wing conspiracy"Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America by Nancy MacLean

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In Dark Money, New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer exposed the dominant role of what Bernie Sanders calls “the billionaire class” behind the rise of the Radical Right in America—what then-First Lady Hillary Clinton famously called “the vast Right-Wing conspiracy.” In Democracy in Chains, Duke University professor Nancy MacLean probes the historical roots of the radical libertarian ideology they profess. Together, the two books deepen our understanding of the misleadingly-named “conservative” movement that has come to dominate American politics in the second decade of the 21st century.

The historical roots of today’s “conservative” movement

MacLean’s argument is essentially simple. Dig down to the intellectual roots of today’s Radical Right, she asserts, and you’ll find John C. Calhoun‘s spirited defense of slavery in the 19th century and Harry Byrd‘s campaign of massive resistance to desegregation in the 1950s and 60s. Contemporary “conservatives” don’t acknowledge the racist roots of their ideology in the “states’ rights” arguments of the past. They advocate “economic liberty” grounded in a “free market,” citing the work of Right-Wing economists Ludwig von Mises, Friedich A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman. While acknowledging the influence of these and other intellectuals on what has come to be called the conservative movement, MacLean persuasively argues that instead the principal figure in the evolution of the ideas at the core of today’s Radical is a lesser-known Nobel Prize-winning economist, James M. Buchanan.

“The vast Right-Wing conspiracy”

In a detailed exploration of Buchanan’s work at a succession of Right-Wing campuses, chiefly the University of Virginia and George Mason University, MacLean points to his decades-long partnership with Charles Koch and other ultra-wealthy donors as the central thread in the ascendancy of the Right. “In the eventual merger of Koch’s money and managerial talent and the Buchanan team’s decades of work monomaniacally identifying how the populace became more powerful than the propertied,” she writes, “a fifth column movement would come into being, the likes of which no nation had ever seen.” She characterizes her account as “the utterly chilling story of the ideological origins of the single most powerful and least understood threat to democracy today: the attempt by the billionaire-backed radical right to undo democratic governance . . . a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and national levels, back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.” This movement’s hidden agenda—and it has been consciously hidden for many years—is to end public education, abolish Social Security and Medicare, close down the U.S. Postal Service, repeal minimum wage laws and prohibitions against child labor, eliminate foreign aid, close the Environmental Protection Agency, and eventually end taxes and government regulation of any kind. In other words, given the stealth nature of this radical libertarian movement, Hillary Clinton was right on-target when she called it a “vast Right-Wing conspiracy.” But why has so much time and money gone into this effort? Buchanan had a simple answer to that question: “‘Why must the rich be made to suffer?'”

Criticism of Democracy in Chains

Given MacLean’s obviously negative perspective on these developments, it’s no surprise that her book has been bitterly criticized by commentators on the Right. For  example, one critic, writing in the Washington Post, referred to “dubious claims” in MacLean’s account, challenging the importance she ascribes to Buchanan’s work and the relevance of the resistance to desegregation in 1950s Virginia. Others have questioned her scholarship. Judging from what I’ve seen, I’m not convinced that these critics have actually read MacLean’s book.

What “economic liberty” really means

Buchanan espoused “public choice theory.” In his view, which won him the Nobel, democracy inevitably leads to overspending because the majority continually forces politicians to fund new government services. The taxes required to fund these services constrain the “economic liberty” of wealthy people and corporations. Buchanan’s intellectual descendants call these privileged people and their business enterprises “makers,” as opposed to the rest of us, who are “takers.”

MacLean observes in her conclusion that “There is another, biting irony to note: the goal of this cause is not, in the end, to shrink big government, as its rhetoric implies. Quite the contrary: the interpretation of the Constitution [they seek] to impose would give federal courts vast new powers to strike down measures desired by voters and passed by their duly elected representatives at all levels—and would require greatly expanded police powers to control the resultant popular anger.”

Reviews of related books

My review of Jane Mayer’s Dark Money is here: How the Koch brothers are revolutionizing American politics. You might also be interested in Robert Reich explains how to make capitalism work for the middle class. And, for another take on the origins of today’s Right-Wing movement, see my review of Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism, by Kathryn S. Olmsted. It’s at How today’s conservatism grew in the cotton fields of California. And if you enjoy reading history, check out New perspectives on world history.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

June 13, 2017

13 good recent books about American foreign policy

good recent booksIn recent years I’ve read and reviewed 13 nonfiction books published in the 21st Century about aspects of American foreign policy. I’m listing them here, in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each title is linked to my longer review.

The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide, by Gary J. Bass

Though little known outside the realm of specialists, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger collaborated with the Pakistani government in murdering hundreds of thousands of people in 1971 in what today is Bangladesh. Their complicity in that genocidal event has finally come to light in Gary J. Bass’ outstanding work of modern history, The Blood Telegram. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, makes effective use of newly opened secret archives and other primary sources as well as interviews with many of the surviving players in the drama.

The Imperial Cruise: A Secret History of Empire and War, by James Bradley

Racist attitudes were so prevalent and unchallenged in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century that the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—the founder of anthropology in the country—could observe, “The Aryan family represents the central stream of progress, because it produced the highest type of mankind, and because it has proved its intrinsic superiority by gradually assuming control of the earth.” In hindsight, then, it should be no surprise that such celebrated figures as President Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, would speak openly about America’s “destiny” to dominate Asia and the Pacific, imposing the benefits of Aryan civilization on the “Pacific niggers” (their term for Filipinos) and “Chinks.” This is the persistent theme of best-selling author James Bradley’s portrayal of Roosevelt and Taft in The Imperial Cruise.

The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia, by James Bradley

James Bradley argues in The China Mirage that cultural and historical ignorance, political miscalculation, bitter bureaucratic infighting, and media manipulation led not just to U.S. involvement in World War II but, by extension, in the wars in Korea and Vietnam as well. Bradley regards all three wars as having been unnecessary. While his argument may be overextended, the book is filled with fascinating accounts of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the China Lobby, the rise of the Soong family to power in China, the origins of the oil embargo that triggered Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Chinese Revolution.

The Twilight War: The Secret History of America’s Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran, by David Crist

When it comes to Iran, the purveyors of news have done an especially poor job of keeping us informed. As David Crist makes clear in this illuminating report on the three decades of conflict, tension, miscalculation, and profound misunderstanding that have characterized our two countries’ relationship, we have indeed engaged in what can only be described as war for several extended periods. And when I say war, I mean soldiers, sailors, and air force pilots shooting at one another, laying mines, launching missiles at ships and ground facilities, and generally forcing one or both of the two governments to decide between escalation and retreat. The book is full of surprises.

Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, by Adam Hochschild

Though the U.S., Great Britain, and France all withheld support for the Spanish Republic, three other leading powers of the day plunged into the conflict with enthusiasm: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini regarded the war in Spain as a dress rehearsal for the larger conflict to follow. Their lavish support for Generalissimo Franco in the form of airplanes, tanks, rifles, artillery, and some 100,000 soldiers and airmen was decisive (80,000 from Italy, 19,000 from Germany, in addition to 20,000 from Portugal). Only the USSR faced off against the Nazis and Fascists, supplying weapons and ammunition, and its support was a mixed blessing: Stalin sold Spain ancient weapons at inflated prices. He also dispatched hardline political commissars to weed out anyone who didn’t rigidly follow the Party line, and their ruthless behavior was surely a factor in the defeat of the Republic. Some 2,500 American volunteers and a passel of American reporters (including many famous names) waded into the midst of this maelstrom. Adam Hochschild does a brilliant job bringing the era and the people of the time back to life.

The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire, by Stephen Kinzer

Award-winning journalist Stephen Kinzer draws our attention to the principal figures in the two factions that lined up in opposition to each other before the Spanish-American War. What might be termed the imperialist faction was led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, then-New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, and publisher William Randolph Hearst. These three men were largely responsible for pushing the United States into war with Spain. Former U.S. Senator and Union Army general Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, former President Grover Cleveland, and later Andrew Carnegie led the opposition. Mark Twain came to the debate belatedly, becoming the most recognizable voice of the anti-imperialist movement once Roosevelt was in the White House. Superficial histories of the years just before and after the turn of the 20th Century give the impression that America’s drive to war with Spain and the seizure of its overseas colonies was irresistible and inevitable. Kinzer makes abundantly clear that this was not the case.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

In the years 1933-41, a passion for isolationism and growing anti-Semitism gripped the American psyche, keeping President Roosevelt from speaking out against the growth of Nazism and the ever-tightening vise of oppression and violence directed at Germany’s tiny Jewish minority (about one percent of the population). In the Garden of Beasts, a finely-crafted and exhaustively researched little book, casts a considerable amount of light on the reasons underlying this shameful episode in American history. It’s the story of Professor William Dodd and his family, beginning in the year 1933 when Roosevelt appointed him Ambassador to Germany. In an admirably restrained manner, Erik Larson portrays their initial sympathy and support for the Nazi regime, turning gradually to revulsion and leading eventually to Dodd’s becoming one of the most prominent anti-Nazi lecturers in the United States.

A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent, by Robert W. Merry

It seems exceedingly unlikely that President James K. Polk would come to many minds as an example of the most important men who have served in the office. Yet a very strong case could be made that Polk’s single four-year term (1845-49) was, indeed, among the most consequential times in U.S. history—and that Polk himself was the prime mover. Robert W. Merry powerfully advances that argument in A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. It was Polk who transformed the United States into a continental power. Earlier presidents—Thomas Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase), James Monroe (acquisition of Florida), Andrew Johnson (purchase of Alaska), and William McKinley (Gadsden Purchase)—indeed added considerable swaths of territory to the nation. But James K. Polk added all the rest, including nearly all the Southwest and all the Northwest of today’s United States. He led the country into a brutal, lopsided war with Mexico and negotiated with England over the northwest boundary of the U.S.

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present, by John Pomfret

Some Americans seem to have the impression that the U.S. relationship with China began in 1972 when Richard Nixon flew to Beijing. In The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, journalist and long-time Beijing resident John Pomfret puts this mistaken impression decisively to rest. In truth, the destinies of the two countries have been closely linked for more than a century—and began when the U.S. shed its identity as a British colony in 1776. As Pomfret writes, “America’s first fortunes were made in the China trade from 1783 until the early 1800s.” And American missionaries began arriving in the 1830s. Pomfret surveys the two-and-a-half centuries that have elapsed since English-turned-American traders first visited China. In fact, trade between the U.S. and China is one of the dominant themes of Pomfret’s analysis. Two other themes emerge clearly in The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: the disproportionately large role played by American Protestant missionaries, and the importance of U.S. influence both in building China’s educational system and in educating millions of Chinese in American universities. This is a fascinating book about a topic that few Americans understand clearly.

The Money Makers: How Roosevelt and Keynes Ended the Depression, Defeated Fascism, and Secured a Prosperous Peace, by Eric Rauchway

Call it selective memory: we tend to forget that the survival of our democratic system was by no means assured on March 4, 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn in as president. With the country paralyzed by twenty-five percent unemployment, shuttered factories, insolvent banks, and rapidly falling prices for farm commodities and consumer goods alike, both Communism on the Left and fascism on the Right were rapidly gaining adherents. It was far from clear that a catastrophic clash of the extremes could be prevented. Contemporary events in Europe suggested that even the best-educated and most sophisticated societies could all too easily turn dangerously radical: barely more than a month earlier, Hitler had been named Chancellor of Germany. In The Money Makers, historian Eric Rauchway reviews the economic policies that FDR deployed to rescue the nation from a similar fate, steering the country on a moderate course through the years of the Depression and the world war that followed.

Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America’s Secret Campaign Asainst Al Qaeda, by Eric Schmitt and Thom Shanker

One of democracy’s most remarkable characteristics is the sheer volume of closely guarded information that can be reported and published without resulting in jail time or torture for the authors. Counterstrike, a remarkable bit of longitudinal reporting by two veterans of the New York Times, brings to light a host of insights and behind-the-scene details about America’s decade-long campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates and imitators. The principal theme of Counterstrike is how in the course of the past decade “the government’s force of professional counterterrorism analysts has grown from a group small enough to know each other’s phone numbers to a vast army linked by supercomputers processing thousands of bits of data in nanoseconds.” And, by no means incidentally, spending tens of billions of dollars in the process. However, the overarching theme of Counterstrike is the gradual maturation of American counterterrorist policy in the opening decade of the 21st Century, shifting gradually from one bent simply on using brute force to kill or capture terrorists to a much more sophisticated and broad-based policy of deterrence drawn from the playbook of the Cold War.

Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, by Nick Turse

The sheer scope of the Vietnam War was far greater than that of the U.S. military efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 10 times as many Americans died in Vietnam than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Even more significantly, some 3.8 million Vietnamese died in that conflict, according to the best available estimate, while Iraqi and Afghan casualties are measured in hundreds of thousands. In Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse exposes the grim reality of the U.S. role in that war: the infamous My Lai Massacre was merely one of thousands of incidents in which American troops indiscriminately killed Vietnamese civilians.

1944: FDR and the Year That Changed History, by Jay Winik

Hitler and the SS became truly frenzied about exterminating the Jews of Europe only in the final stages of the war, when it was obvious to anyone (except perhaps Hitler himself) that Nazi Germany had lost. In 1944, Jay Winik brings to light how the U.S. State Department, many of whose officials were overtly anti-Semitic, took deliberate steps to sabotage any action by FDR’s White House to save at least some of the Jews. Winik recounts this story in excruciating detail: “the State Department was now using the machinery of government to prevent, rather than facilitate, the rescue of the Jews,” he writes. “The fear seemed to be, not that the Jews would be marched to their deaths, but that they would be sent to the Allied nations.” The Department has the blood of more than a million people staining its already sad record of amorality.

Historical background

From the earliest days of the republic, the United States has been deeply engaged with other countries, despite George Washington’s famous admonition in his Farewell Address not to “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition.” (Contrary to accepted opinion, he didn’t use the term foreign entanglements.) France intervened in the American Revolution—in fact, our country might well not have gained its independence otherwise. During the presidencies of Washington and John Adams, New England merchantmen carried on a lively trade with China. When Jefferson was in office, he sent the U.S. Navy and a detachment of Marines to battle the Barbary Pirates. In 1812-14, during the administration of James Madison, the U.S. was at war with Great Britain—again. Later that decade, under the presidency of James Monroe, American troops under the command of General Andrew Jackson seized key settlements in Florida, forcing Spain to cede the territory to the U.S. Throughout the 19th Century, the U.S. Army and American settlers collaborated in a continuing campaign to annex the territory of more than 600 Indian nations. In mid-century, when James K. Polk lived in the White House, the U.S. grabbed more than 500,000 square miles of territory from Mexico. The trade in cotton with Great Britain made many Southerners rich and provided them with a “justification” to enslave African-Americans by the millions. During the latter half of the 19th Century, foreign investment in American railroads, the bonds of state governments, and manufacturing played a central role in financing the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The country was “the world’s largest recipient of foreign capital,” and thus the world’s greatest debtor nation. Then William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt ushered in the age of American imperialism—and the country has never since stopped entangling itself in foreign affairs, despite recurring bouts of isolationism.

If you enjoy reading history, check out New perspectives on world history.

May 23, 2017

The case that helped put the FBI on the map

FBIKillers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

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When Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World, an estimated 50 million people lived in the Hemisphere. Somewhere between seven and 18 million of them inhabited North America. By 1890, the population of indigenous people in the United States had been reduced to 248,000. Countless millions had died, primarily as the result of epidemic disease carried by European, and later American, settlers. By the 20th Century, hundreds of native communities eked out a minimal existence in and near the reservations where they had been forced to move.

“The wealthiest people per capita in the world”

In most respects, the Osage Nation was typical of the more than 600 North American Indian “tribes.” Once numbering tens or hundreds of thousands, the Osage were masters of a vast territory spanning what are now the states of Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. Recurrent smallpox epidemics and waves of settlers dramatically reduced their numbers and forced them from the first reservation they were allocated in Kansas early in the 19th Century. Following a treaty in 1870, the survivors were forced to move into a new reservation in north-central Oklahoma that is their current home. They purchased the land, deliberately selecting an arid, hilly area unsuitable for farming in hopes that white men wouldn’t take it away from them.

In 1907, a brilliant chief negotiated an agreement with the U.S. government allowing the Osage to retain all mineral rights, even if the land itself were sold. Soon afterward, oil was discovered there. The reservation sat on “some of the largest oil deposits in the United States.” By the 1920s, some three thousand Osage—a third of the number 70 years earlier—had become fabulously wealthy. “In 1923 alone, the tribe took in more than $30 million [in royalties], the equivalent today of more than $400 million. The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world.”

Corruption, sponsored by the federal government

Killers of the Flower Moon by New Yorker staff writer David Grann reveals the consequences of this new wealth. Many Osage spent their money ostentatiously, attracting thieves, con men, and profiteers to the reservation; some white men married Osage women in what seemed an obvious ploy to gain control of their wealth. In 1921, a new federal law was passed requiring “any Osage of half or more Indian ancestry to be appointed a guardian until proving ‘competency.’ Minors with less than half Osage ancestry were required to have guardians appointed, even if their parents were living.” Prominent local white men such as lawyers, bankers, businessmen, and ranchers were appointed as guardians. The scene was set for corruption. “One government study estimated that before 1925 guardians had pilfered at least $8 million directly from the restricted accounts of their Osage wards.” But even that massive thievery didn’t satisfy the local powers-that-be.

Two dozen murders in four years, none of them solved

In 1921, two Osage unrelated to each other were found murdered, and more than 20 others followed by 1925. Investigations by the local sheriff were bungled badly. “Virtually no evidence had been preserved from the various crime scenes.” Private eyes brought in to investigate failed to discover the killers. A local lawyer obtained documentary evidence pointing to at least one of the murderers, but both he and the man who had given him the documents were themselves murdered; the documents disappeared.

Enter the FBI

Pleas from the Osage council to Washington for federal intervention finally bore fruit in 1925. The Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI) under its newly appointed director, J. Edgar Hoover, dispatched a team of investigators headed by a former Texas Ranger named Tom White, who proved to be a perfect choice. Incorruptible, dogged, and knowledgeable about the new “scientific” methods of policing, White uncovered a conspiracy led by a “domineering cattleman” named William K. Hale, who was known locally as the “King of the Osage Hills.” Hale and two nephews, both of them married to Osage women, were clearly responsible for at least four murders. White put them on trial—and encountered a “litany of dead witnesses,” crooked doctors and undertakers, witness tampering, manufactured evidence, and a local jury’s reluctance to convict a white man of murdering an Indian. Only in a second trial the following year did he succeed in gaining a conviction for Hale, one of his nephews, and an accomplice.

More murders than ever revealed

In researching the “Osage Reign of Terror” eight decades later, Grann came across claims again and again that the 24 murders that brought in the FBI only hinted at the scope of the killing. Through exhaustive digging in archival records, he turned up evidence that the murders had begun at least three years before 1921 and lasted for six years after 1925. “Scholars and investigators who have since looked into the murders believe that the Osage death toll was in the scores, if not the hundreds.” Grann ends this deeply engrossing and troubling book quoting Cain after he killed Abel: “The blood cries out from the ground.”

Killers of the Flower Moon is David Grann’s second book. The first, a New York Times bestseller, was The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, a fascinating book I reviewed here. And if you enjoy reading history, check out New perspectives on world history.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

February 21, 2017

A revealing history of U.S.-China relations

U.S.-China relationsThe Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present by John Pomfret

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Some Americans seem to have the impression that the U.S. relationship with China began in 1972 when Richard Nixon flew to Beijing. In The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, journalist and long-time Beijing resident John Pomfret puts this mistaken impression decisively to rest. In truth, the destinies of the two countries have been closely linked for more than a century—and began when the U.S. shed its identity as a British colony in 1776. As Pomfret writes, “America’s first fortunes were made in the China trade from 1783 until the early 1800s.” And American missionaries began arriving in the 1830s.

The world’s wealthiest nation

Few Americans are aware that in 1800 China was the world’s wealthiest nation. Its factories produced one-third of all the world’s goods. The world’s wealthiest businessman was a Chinese trader. And a single Chinese city—Guangzhou (formerly Canton)—harbored a population of one million people. That was the equivalent of one-fourth of the U.S. population. Though China’s relative position in the world economy declined rapidly in the course of the 19th century, the country still loomed large in the eyes of American business and represented the number one target of the fast-growing evangelistic faiths that dominated religion in the U.S.

The central importance of bilateral trade

Pomfret surveys the two-and-a-half centuries that have elapsed since English-turned-American traders first visited China. In fact, trade between the U.S. and China is one of the dominant themes of that history. Many great American fortunes were built on the opium trade, which dominated bilateral commerce throughout the 19th century. In more recent years, beginning in earnest in the 1980s in the wake of Deng Xiao-Peng’s economic reforms, trade has loomed large in the economies of both countries. Today, of course, the U.S. exports more than $100 billion annually to China—and imports $400 billion. “America has been China’s top trading partner since the 1990s,” Pomfret writes. “China surpassed Canada to become America’s top partner in 2015.”

Missionaries and education in U.S.-China relations

Two other themes emerge clearly in The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: the disproportionately large role played by American Protestant missionaries, and the importance of U.S. influence both in building China’s educational system and in educating millions of Chinese in American universities. As Pomfret writes, “During the heyday of American missionary activity from the late nineteenth through the early twentieth century, Americans funded a majority of China’s colleges and high schools and scores of . . . YMCA and YWCA centers as well as agricultural extensions, charities, and research institutes.” Even today, privileged young Chinese commonly seek out higher education in the U.S. Pomfret: “From Deng Xiaoping on, every Communist leader has sent at least one of his children to the US to study, including the Harvard-educated daughter of the current president, Xi Jinping.”

Throughout most of the 20th century, American-educated Chinese played outsized roles in their country’s history. In the closing years of the 19th century and the first several decades of the 20th, most of those who attended American colleges and universities were Protestants. The range of their studies was as broad as that of American students. In more recent decades, a large proportion of Chinese students in the United States have obtained degrees in science and engineering. As a result, they have helped China attain ever-growing prominence in the sciences. And those who have chosen to remain in the U.S. have played a role in building the American high-tech sector far out of proportion to their share of the population.

An intimate relationship despite outward hostility

Pomfret emphasizes that the current hostility between the U.S. and China is largely a recent phenomenon. Until the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949, the U.S. was generally held in high regard in China despite episodes such as the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1901 when American troops invaded China. While Britain, Germany, France, Russia, and Japan repeatedly carved out portions of Chinese cities where their own laws applied, the anti-colonial U.S. rarely collaborated. This helped Americans gain a reputation as friendy and respectful by comparison.  American support for Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist government, the U.S. role in the Korean War, and the Communist Chinese government’s need to elevate a single foreign enemy as a scapegoat were principally responsible for souring the relationship. Outwardly, the two countries have been hostile in recent decades. However, in reality, the relationship in recent years has been more intimate than ever.

The high regard in which most Chinese held Americans was not reciprocated. America’s attitude toward China and the Chinese was dominated by racism throughout much of the last two-and-a-half centuries. It’s well known that immigrant Chinese laborers played a major role in building the transcontinental railroad, less widely recognized that the same was true of the Western mining industry. Yet, as Pomfret notes, the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 to combat the so-called Yellow Peril “resulted in an epidemic of mass roundups, expulsions, arson, and murder that spread from California to Colorado, from Washington state to the South. The scattered violence of the 1870s turned into a systematic purge.” The law was not repealed until 1943. “The vast federal bureaucracy designed to limit immigration to America,” Pomfret explains, “was originally created not in response to Mexicans [and now Muslims], but to the Chinese.”

A lively account of U.S.-China relations

Pomfret’s account of U.S.-China relations is lively. Working chronologically, he paints sketchy portraits of many of the fascinating characters who have dominated this still unfolding drama. All the familiar names are there, of course—from the Dowager Empress Cixi, Sun Yat-Sen, and Mao Tse-Tung to Pearl Buck, John Dewey, and Richard Nixon—but most of the people who played major roles are unfamiliar to American readers. There are a lot of them: The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom consists of 700 pages of densely written text.

There are many surprises in the book. For me, the biggest of these was the revelation that, contrary to generally accepted scholarly opinion, the Chinese resistance to the Japanese was not led by Mao’s Communists but by the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-Shek. The Red Army rarely engaged the Japanese, while the Nationalists lost hundreds of thousands of troops doing so. Another surprise was to learn that Barbara Tuchman’s laudatory biography of U.S. General Joseph (“Vinegar Joe”) Stillwell was based in large part on misinformation. Pomfret documents the general’s repeated strategic and tactical errors in “advising” Chiang Kai-Shek. Pomfret concludes that “Tuchman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning work on Joseph Stilwell was magisterial but deeply unfair.”

The title of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom reflects the English translation of the names by which the two countries are sometimes rendered in Mandarin. “The Beautiful Country,” of course, refers to the United States, as it was regarded by many Chinese visitors beginning in the 19th century.

About the author

John Pomfret speaks, reads, and writes Mandarin as well as several European languages. In an Afterword, he writes “As a reporter for the Associated Press, I was tossed out of China in 1989 following the June Fourth massacre. The government accused me of being one of the ‘black hands’ behind the protests. Later, as the China bureau chief for the Washington Post, I had my share of run-ins with China’s security services . . .” He researched The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom as a Fulbright senior scholar in China.

To learn more about the world we have inherited, check out 61 nonfiction books about history reviewed here. This book is one of the top 10 on that list.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

February 8, 2017

The origins of the American empire

American empireThe True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire by Stephen Kinzer

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In The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire, award-winning journalist and author Stephen Kinzer recalls the four-year period 1898-1902, when the United States made its debut as a world power. The central event in this story was the U.S. seizure of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines and the annexation of Hawaii, all in 1898.

The central question in U.S. foreign policy

Drawing on the newspapers and magazines of the times and on historical archives, Kinzer recalls the debates surrounding these events in colorful detail. His stated aim is to examine the central question of U.S. foreign policy: “Should we defend our freedom, or turn inward and ignore growing threats? Put differently: Should we charge violently into faraway lands, or allow others to work out their own destinies?” Kinzer’s thesis is that American entry into war with Spain in 1898 marked the crucial turning point in this debate. That brief, inglorious conflict represented the advent of the U.S. as a world power.

Mark Twain vs. Teddy Roosevelt?

To bring focus to his story, the author casts a spotlight on the debate between President Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain. The book’s subtitle frames this picture. As Kinzer writes, the two were “deliciously matched. Their views on life, freedom, duty, and the nature of human happiness could not have been further apart . . . Roosevelt considered colonialism a form of ‘Christian charity.’ Twain pictured Christendom as ‘a majestic matron in flowing robes drenched with blood.’” Unfortunately, the emphasis on these two men is misleading. Others played much larger roles in the crucial years of 1898-1900 than Twain did. He came into the picture later, as Kinzer himself clearly explains.

The two sides of the debate

Kinzer draws our attention to the principal figures in the two factions that lined up before the Spanish-American War. What might be termed the imperialist faction was led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, then New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, and publisher William Randolph Hearst. These three men were largely responsible for pushing the United States into war with Spain. Former U.S. Senator and Union Army general Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, former President Grover Cleveland, and later Andrew Carnegie led the opposition. Mark Twain came to the debate belatedly, becoming the most recognizable voice of the anti-imperialist movement once Roosevelt was in the White House.

Kinzer depicts Teddy Roosevelt as bloodthirsty and racist to the core. In the 1890s, “Roosevelt racked his brain to find a possible enemy. ‘I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.’ he wrote in 1895.” Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst gave him the war he craved, Lodge from his seat in the U.S. Senate and Hearst by manipulating public opinion through his influential newspaper chain. As Kinzer makes clear, Lodge was the driving force in Roosevelt’s career. It was he who persuaded President McKinley to name the young New Yorker assistant secretary of the Navy, then gained him the nomination as Governor of New York, and later maneuvered him into the Vice Presidency. From there, of course, Roosevelt succeeded to the Presidency upon McKinley’s assassination in 1901. Lodge viewed Roosevelt as his agent to lead the nation onto the world stage. The two men were in touch on a daily basis throughout these crucial years.

The Anti-Imperialist League

Superficial histories of the years just before and after the turn of the 20th century give the impression that America’s drive to war with Spain and the seizure of its overseas colonies was irresistible and inevitable. Undoubtedly, “[t]his was the most popular war in American history . . . Americans had their first taste of overseas conquest, and they loved it.” But the sentiment was hardly universal. An Anti-Imperialist League spread nationwide from its base in New England, led by Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, and Grover Cleveland. As Kinzer shows, the force these men represented was powerful. Debate erupted nationwide and greatly intensified as the U.S. grabbed the Philippines and went to war with its independence movement. In the U.S. Senate, the treaty to approve the acquisition of the Philippines was debated furiously for months and was only approved by the narrowest of margins—and then only because William Jennings Bryan changed sides at the last minute, swaying several Senators to switch and robbing the opponents of the treaty of a likely victory.

When did the U.S. become an imperialist nation?

Most Americans date the beginning of what has come to be called the American empire to the Spanish-American War of 1898, as Kinzer does in his book. At any rate, that’s the story we’re taught as children. Truth to tell, however, the United States has been an imperialist nation (in the contemporary sense of the term) since the origins of our republic. Thomas Jefferson famously purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, doubling the size of the young nation. Then-General Andrew Jackson ousted the Spanish from Florida in 1818. James K. Polk led the U.S. into war with Mexico in 1846, adding an additional one-third to our territory and extending our reach to the Pacific Ocean. And none of this acknowledges our country’s genocidal wars against the Native American peoples who had lived on this land for at least 12,000 years before Europeans arrived. If these actions don’t constitute imperialism, the term means little. From time to time Kinzer quotes individuals who acknowledged this during those crucial years, so he doesn’t entirely overlook this history. But he fails to emphasize what surely is the most significant evidence that the foreign policy debate he writes about did not emerge whole in 1898.

For your convenience, I’ve listed all 36 nonfiction books reviewed here in 2017.

And if you enjoy reading history, check out New perspectives on world history.

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