January 31, 2018

A brilliant, muIti-dimensional picture of Indonesia today

Indonesia, Etc. by Elizabeth PisaniIndonesia Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani

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If you’re like most Americans, chances are you know little or nothing about Indonesia. Yet that island nation is the world’s fourth largest by population (after China, India, and the USA) and fifteenth largest by land area (just after Mexico). It also is home to the world’s largest population of Muslims. Indonesia consists of “a string of 13,466 islands inhabited by people from over 360 ethnic groups, who between them speak 719 languages.” If armchair exploring appeals to you, then you’ll love Indonesia Etc., Elizabeth Pisani‘s memoir of her 13-month journey through what she terms “the improbable nation.”

No run-of-the-mill travel writer

Pisani is no run-of-the-mill travel writer. She lived in Indonesia for three years as a reporter for Reuters (1988-91) and returned for another four-year stay a decade later after training as an epidemiologist specializing in AIDS. (Today, Pisani runs a public-health consultancy in London.) It’s clear from context in the book that she is fluent and comfortable in the lingua franca of the islands, Indonesian. Equally important, Pisani is one tough lady. Even as a youngster, I wouldn’t have dreamed of subjecting myself to the rigors of her 13-month odyssey.

Colorful and engaging anecdotes

Indonesia Etc. is full of colorful and engaging anecdotes of the sort that will be familiar to anyone who has traveled extensively in the Third World. There is, for example, a hilarious tale of a Crocodile Whisperer, a shaman who presented himself as able to persuade the crocodiles in one region to identify and shun the one beast in their midst that had eaten a local woman. In other tales, Pisani recounts her experiences wearing the wrong batik design to the coronation of a local sultan and with a Koran-reading contest. “Koran-reading contests are as popular in Indonesia as visits by Manchester United’s touring team.”

Then there was her effort to travel from small island to another. “‘Is there a schedule for the boat to Lonthor?’ I yelled across to the boatmen. ‘Of course!’ they yelled back. ‘When do you leave?’ I bellowed. ‘When the boat is full!’ came the reply.”

Pisani emphasizes again and again the warm hospitality and sense of humor she encountered everywhere in Indonesia. After casual meetings on boats or buses, local people unhesitatingly invited her to live with them in their homes and share their food for days on end. Just imagine that happening in New York or Los Angeles!

Indonesia’s blood-soaked history

In Indonesia Etc., Pisani delves deeply into the history, politics, and economics of Indonesia. Amid her tales of days spent in tiny settlements or on leaky, slow-moving boats from island to island, she explores the history of this extraordinarily diverse and rich nation. Most of the time since the country gained independence from the Dutch in 1945 Indonesia has been dominated by two men whose legacies remain evident to the present day: Sukarno (1945-67) and Suharto (1968-98). Pisani recounts their years with rich detail about the tumultuous times during which they presided over the nation.

One event stands out: the massacre that brought Suharto to power. In the course of three years, at least half a million, and as many as three million Communists, ethnic Chinese, and alleged leftists were brutally murdered. Hundreds of thousands more were raped, driven from their homes, or saw their businesses destroyed.

As Pisani writes, “The carnage wiped out a whole generation of socially committed activists and pulled up the roots from which they might regrow. It crippled the development of political debate and made Indonesian citizens wary of political allegiance.” For decades afterward, the Indonesian military ran rampant through the breakaway provinces of East Timor and Aceh as well as other regions that sought independence for themselves.

Indonesia today: one of the world’s most decentralized nations

From Pisani’s perspective, Sukarno and Suharto followed radically divergent political paths. Sukarno moved to centralize government, imposing rigid control from the country’s most populous island (Java) on the rest of the country and launching a satellite to carry news in the Indonesian language throughout the archipelago. Suharto initiated decentralization, devolving power onto local government.

“At a stroke,” Pisani writes, “the world’s fourth most populous nation and one of its most centralized burst apart to become one of its most decentralized. The centre still takes care of defence, fiscal policy, foreign relations, religious affairs, justice and planning. But everything else—health, education, investment policy, fisheries and a whole lot more—was handed over to close to 300 district ‘governments,’ whose only experience of governing had, until then, been to follow orders from Jakarta.”

In myriad ways, Pisani shows how the move to decentralization has been a disaster for Indonesia. When she wrote her book in 2012, the number of district governments had grown to 509, virtually every one of them a fiefdom for the local elite and rife with corruption. (“‘Papua’s wealth used to be stolen by Jakarta. Now it’s stolen by the Papuan elite.'”) Yet, as Pisani takes pains to point out, “No other nation has welded so much difference together into so generally peaceable a whole in the space of less than seventy years.”

Indonesia’s endemic corruption

As the author explains, “A small fraction of jobs in the bureaucracy are awarded based on competitive exams. But most of the jobs that are not given out to political supporters get sold . . . The minister in charge of the ‘state apparatus’ recently said that 95 percent of Indonesia’s 4.7 million civil servants didn’t have the skills they needed to do their jobs.” Many Indonesians attribute their country’s endemic corruption to the legacy of Dutch colonialism. Compared to the English, the Dutch provided few educational opportunities for their subjects. However, Indonesia has been independent for seven decades. Blaming colonialism is a bit of a stretch.

An “improbable nation?”

Pisani subtitles her book Exploring the Improbable Nation. She makes clear that Indonesia’s unmatched diversity, island geography, and complex history could well have resulted in many different countries rather than one. There’s no disputing this. However, to a somewhat lesser degree, the same might be said of many of the European countries that are generally regarded as the most stable and logical nation-states in the world: Italy, Germany, France, Spain, even England. Dig beneath the surface in any one of these countries, and you’ll find the nation-building that occurred in centuries past was anything but an inevitable outcome. All these countries are rife with regional differences in culture, history, and even language. To be sure, the regional differences are by no means as stark as they are in Indonesia, but it would be a mistake to assume that the emergence of these countries as unitary political units was foreordained.

Clearly, Indonesia’s geography is a decisive factor in setting its course in the world. For insight about how geography determines destiny, see my review of Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall (A thought-provoking look at geopolitics) and The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate by Robert D. Kaplan (From Robert D. Kaplan, a thought-provoking view of world politics).

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

January 24, 2018

A conservative explains how Donald Trump corrupts democracy

Donald Trump corrupts democracy: Trumpocracy by David FrumTrumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic by David Frum

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“Trumpocracy has left Americans less safe against foreign dangers, has diverted their money from its proper purposes to improper pockets, has worked to bias law enforcement in favor of the powerful, and has sought to intimidate media lest they report things the public most needs to know.” Thus David Frum sets the stage to explain how Donald Trump undermines democracy in his new book, Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.

If there is any surprise in this line of argument, it lies in the identity of its author. David Frum is a card-carrying conservative, or neoconservative, if you prefer the current jargon. He wrote speeches for George W. Bush and served as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. (He is now a senior editor at The Atlantic and a CNN commentator.) What sets Frum apart from today’s kneejerk “conservatives” is that he has been in the Never Trump camp since the New York developer turned reality TV star declared his campaign for the White House.

In Trumpocracy, Frum methodically surveys the damage Donald Trump and his minions have been inflicting on the American people ever since November 6, 2016. For example, in a chapter entitled “Plunder,” he details the blatant corruption that is enriching Trump and his family. (Frum notes that “the United States ranked a not exactly reassuring eighteenth on Transparency International’s corruption index, behind Hong Kong and Belgium.”) But the author doesn’t place all the blame on Donald Trump personally. “The man inside the oval center did not act alone. He held his power with the connivance of others. They executed his orders and empowered his whims for crass and cowardly reasons of their own: partisanship, ambition, greed for gain, eagerness for attention, ideological zeal, careerist conformity, or—in the worst cases—malicious glee in the wreck of things they could never have built themselves.”

Frum is clearly convinced (as am I) that Donald Trump is in the White House “in some considerable part by clandestine help from Russia.” Like Guardian reporter Luke Harding in another recent book, Collusion, Frum believes the evidence clearly shows that the Trump campaign collaborated with Russian officials operating on behalf of President Vladimir Putin. And he deplores the shameless efforts by Right-Wing media as well as the White House to discredit those who are attempting to uncover the truth about the collusion. For instance, he quotes a pro-Trump author speaking on CNN: “‘There’s no violation of law if, in fact, the campaign colluded with Russia, whatever that means.'” Come again? How is collusion in this context not treasonous?

Curiously (for a conservative), Frum appears to be troubled by the near-total dominance of the Republican Party in today’s political scene—and the underhanded tactics used to achieve it. “Republicans entered the 2016 cycle controlling all elected branches of government in half the states in the country, their best showing since the 1920s. Democrats controlled only seven states, their worst showing since Reconstruction.” Frum notes with concern that voter suppression has played a major role in this trend. However, he doesn’t mention gerrymandering, which has doubtless been an equally important factor.

Frum also examines the damage to US foreign policy and our country’s reputation around the world. He writes, “[Trump] never understood that America’s power arose not only from its own wealth and its own military force, but from its centrality to a network of friends and allies.” The author is also deeply concerned about the multiple attacks from Trump and his staff on the national security agencies. He fears the possibility that the FBI, the CIA, and the other intelligence agencies—as well as the Pentagon—may drift into the habit of keeping future Presidents isolated and acting essentially on their own.

As other commentators have done, Frum explores the rise in support for violent white-nationalist groups as a result of Donald Trump’s campaign and his time in the White House. But of even greater concern is the much broader trend toward the politics of resentment. “The phrase ‘white privilege’ transitioned from the academy into common speech in the Obama years—at exactly the moment that millions of white Americans were experiencing the worst social trauma since the Great Depression.” Not only did Trump capitalize on that development; as well all know, he is driving the wedge even deeper between whites and people of color.

There is little in Trumpocracy that is truly new. We’ve learned most of these lessons from others over the past two years. Frum’s contribution is to compile the facts and the analysis into one thin volume—and carefully document every assertion. By contrast with other recent books about the Trump Era, one-quarter of Frum’s book consists of notes. The result is a case against Donald Trump that is difficult to refute.

During the past year, I’ve reviewed several other books about Donald Trump and his unlikely rise to the presidency. These included:

For a longer list, see 9 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy.

You might also be interested in 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.

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

January 18, 2018

Fire and Fury review: Exposing the chaos in the Trump White House

Fire and Fury review of Michael Wolff's bookFire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House by Michael Wolff

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If you deplore Donald Trump’s racism, misogyny, meanness, stupidity, narcissism, and recklessness, and the sheer incompetence of his White House, as I do, and if there is a malicious streak in you, as there is in me, you may love Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. It’s difficult to imagine any account of the goings-on in Donald Trump’s White House that would paint a darker picture of this worst of all Presidents and the servile minions around him. Fire and Fury is scathing.

Other reviewers have panned this book

However, far better writers than I have reviewed this book and found it wanting. Here, for example, is Masha Gessen writing in The New Yorker (January 7, 2008): “The President of the United States is a deranged liar who surrounds himself with sycophants. He is also functionally illiterate and intellectually unsound. He is manifestly unfit for the job. Who knew? Everybody did. So why has a poorly written book containing this information, padded with much tedious detail, become an overnight sensation, a runaway best-seller, and the topic of every other political column, podcast, and dinner conversation? It seems we are in bigger trouble with reality perception than we might have realized . . . That ‘Fire and Fury’ can occupy so much of the public-conversation space degrades our sense of reality further, while creating the illusion of affirming it.”

In a similarly unflattering review in the San Francisco Chronicle (January 9, 2018), Book Review Editor John McMurtry describes Fire and Fury as “a few hundred pages of gossipy, anecdote-heavy accounts that paint a highly unfavorable portrait of a deeply unpopular president . . . Of course, as with any satisfying dish that has you craving more, the book, with all its accounts of petty and profanity-infused backstabbing, can ultimately leave you with the feeling of having consumed one too many of Trump’s beloved cheeseburgers.”

Despite the bad reporting, a terrible truth emerges

It’s difficult to disagree with any of this. Surely, Fire and Fury is a product of very bad reporting. But strip away the flimsy analysis, the nasty innuendo, the unattributed zingers, and the opinionated diatribe, and you’re left with an indictment of Donald Trump that is still likely to shock anyone who is not immersed 24 hours a day in the seething cauldron of political news. The picture that emerges from even a skeptical reading of Fire and Fury is horrific. Everything I had come to believe about Donald Trump has been confirmed: Our president is an impulsive man of limited intelligence, a racist, a sexual predator, a pathological liar, and an unrelenting narcissist who almost never listens and never accepts criticism.

What I learned from Fire and Fury

Still, I learned a few things from Fire and Fury:

  • Donald Trump never wanted to be president, and he was stunned when he won. His campaign was a brand-building exercise—a way for him to make a lot more money. “He would come out of this campaign, Trump assured [former Fox News chairman Roger] Ailes, with a far more powerful brand and untold opportunities. ‘This is bigger than I ever dreamed of,’ he told Ailes in a conversation a week before the election. ‘I don’t think about losing because it isn’t losing. We’ve totally won.’”
  • Practically everyone on the White House staff, including his daughter and son-in-law, treat Trump like a willful two-year-old. Almost nobody ever says no to him. Those rare occasions when anyone does so trigger tantrums and vicious backbiting from the president. He even badmouths his daughter and son-in-law.

All this may be old hat to you, if you obsessively follow the daily news. I don’t.

How did Michael Wolff ever get access? 

I find it astonishing that anyone in a senior position in the White House, much less the president himself, would allow a man with Michael Wolff’s reputation as a scandal-monger to set foot in the place, let alone hang out with them for eighteen months. But Edward Helmore has an explanation (The Guardian, January 14, 2018): “After writing relatively positive profiles of Trump and Bannon for the Hollywood Reporter, Wolff joined the parade of job-seekers and ring-kissers at Trump Tower in the weeks after the astonishing election result. ‘I said to the president, “I’d love to come down and be an observer at the White House.” That’s when he thought I was asking for a job. I said, “No, no. I might want to write a book.” His face fell. He was completely uninterested. So I pressed a little. I’d really like to do it. So it was, “Yah, yah. OK sure.”’”

What’s missing from Wolff’s reporting

One more thing about the book: in any serious effort at political analysis or reporting, it’s customary to include notes, usually extensive ones, about the sources of the author’s information. There are no notes in Fire and Fury. Nor does Wolff date the conversations he reports having had or learned about. This is exceedingly sloppy reporting.

And here’s a taste of how Wolff’s peers in journalism look at him. “It’s unsurprising that, as a former colleague delicately puts it, ‘people really can’t stand Michael.’” So wrote Michelle Cottle in the New Republic more than a decade ago (August 29, 2004). She continued: “What is surprising is how much of the animus seems unrelated to the content of his commentary. On a meta level, Wolff is resented for not playing by the rules of his chosen profession. He has a reputation for busting embargoes and burning sources by putting off-the-record comments on the record.”

About the author

From Wikipedia: “Michael Wolff is an American author, essayist, and journalist, and a regular columnist and contributor to USA TodayThe Hollywood Reporter, and the UK edition of GQ. He has received two National Magazine Awards, a Mirror Award, and has authored seven books.” (Do you wonder how he managed to win those awards? I do.)

One of Wolff’s earlier books, Burn Rate, chronicled his effort in the 1990s to become a multimillionaire on the Internet. The book was panned by many reviewers, just as has been the case with Fire and Fury. And those reviews suggest there’s nothing new in Wolff’s style or approach to his subjects. Here, for example, is Katie Hafner, writing about Burn Rate in the New York Times (July 26, 1998): “Wolff spares no feelings. He casts such an unforgiving eye on the people around him that his tone often smacks of vendetta. He depicts his cohorts as fakes and blowhards, arrogant and clueless. He is locked in a hate-hate relationship with one of his main investors, who Wolff believes is out to double-cross him. Wolff portrays his partner as a wealthy, simpering venture capitalist wannabe, and makes disagreeable sport of deceiving him. It is this dark figure who eventually strips Wolff of control of his own company.”

During the past year, I’ve reviewed several other books about Donald Trump and his unlikely rise to the presidency. One was Guardian reporter Luke Harding’s book, Collusion, along with the so-called Steele Dossier, which I posted at Collusion exposed, but is there more? Is Donald Trump a Russian agent? Another was Devil’s Bargain by Joshua Green, reviewed at How Steve Bannon sold the alt-right to Donald Trump and made history. I also reviewed Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’ revealing book, Shattered, about Why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election. In fact, this is one of 9 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy. You might also be interested in 35 excellent nonfiction books about politics.

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

January 10, 2018

Janesville book review: The human cost of the Great Recession

Janesville book review: Janesville by Amy GoldsteinJanesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein

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Amy Goldstein frames her insightful new book, Janesville, as An American Story. By following the fortunes of a half-dozen families in Janesville, Wisconsin, Goldstein dramatizes the impact of the Great Recession of 2008 in the years following the closure of a large Chevrolet factory. The recession officially ended in June 2009, but Goldstein eloquently shows that the pain it inflicted on the people of Janesville has lasted to this day. This is, indeed, an American story. Particulars aside, what took place in Janesville beginning in 2008 happened throughout the United States.

A microscopic look at the human cost of the Great Recession

Goldstein’s approach is microscopic. She uses statistics sparingly and rarely places the town’s experience in the larger, national context. “The work that vanished—as many as nine thousand people lost their jobs in and near this county seat in 2008 and 2009—was among 8.8 million jobs washed away in the United States by what came to be known as the Great Recession.” But Goldstein doesn’t write as an economist or a pundit. She writes with empathy and understanding about the plight of individual human beings. The result is an intimate look at the painful choices the recession (and globalization) have forced on so many of the families of a once-prosperous town.

By now, the recession has passed. The unemployment rate in Janesville, once well over 10%, stands at the current national average of 4.1%. But for many of the 3,000 workers who lost their jobs when General Motors shuttered its Janesville plant on December 23, 2008, life has never been the same since. And for some it will never again offer the comfortable existence that GM’s $28-an-hour wages afforded them. The evidence of this decline lies in the sharp rise in home foreclosures, the sudden emergence of homeless kids, the huge decline in receipts for the United Way, and the doubling of the suicide rate in Janesville’s Rock County.

Lessons to be learned from Janesville

I take three lessons from my reading of Goldstein’s book.

  1. The author notes that “The evidence is thin that job training in the United States is an effective way to lead laid-off workers back into solid employment.” In fact, the specific accounts she relates in Janesville suggest the opposite. There, even the most ambitious and carefully planned job-training efforts failed to lead even half of its graduates to paying work. To say this is discouraging is a sad understatement. Consider the human cost of this error in policy planning. What is the alternative other than the approach favored in Scandinavia? There, extremely generous unemployment benefits help families sustain a comfortable lifestyle until improved economic conditions create enough new jobs.
  2. Following the GM layoff two days before Christmas, 2008, thousands of Janesville families lost more than a comfortable income. As the months without new jobs stretched into years, the unemployed workers and their families often found themselves depending on handouts of food. And the psychological problems weighed even more heavily in many families: shame, depression, conflicts over money, even suicide. Even when both the wife and husband found work again, they never earned even close to the living wages their union jobs had paid them. To my mind, the lesson here is simple. The people of Janesville and of our country as a whole are paying an enormous price for the decades-long decline of the trade union movement.
  3. Goldstein writes about how “the city was splitting into its two Janesvilles, separated by political outlook and economic circumstance.” She cites anecdotes and observations by local officials about the bitterness and polarization that became so evident in the years following the end of the recession. I take this as evidence of the poisonous effect of economic inequality. That trend, projected onto the national stage, surely helps explain how an ill-prepared, narcissistic demagogue could have been elected President of the United States in 2016.

My own experience in the Rust Belt

I grew up in Lima, Ohio in the 1950s before rust began to take hold in the heartland. Lima was then a prosperous industrial town. The community boasted a Sohio oil refinery, an Ohio Steel plant, a Ford Motor factory, a Westinghouse small motor plant, a plastics manufacturer, the Baldwin-Lima-Hamilton locomotive works, and a Superior Coach factory—and those are just the ones I remember after more than half a century. About 50,000 people lived in town then. The current population is around 37,000. Of all the manufacturers that once operated in Lima, what remain today are only the Ford Motor plant and the refinery, now owned by a Canadian company. The town’s biggest employer by far is St. Rita’s Hospital with 3,000 employees.

On my last visit to Lima a decade ago, I found a town that barely resembled the place where I lived until I turned 18. I have no personal knowledge of the struggles faced by so many people in town as the factories shut down, one after another, but I’m certain their experiences were similar in many ways to those of the people of Janesville.

Amy Goldstein, a staff writer for 30 years at The Washington Post, shared the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. Janesville: An American Story is her first book.

This is one of the books included in my post 10 enlightening books about poverty in America.

For my reviews of other good books about business and the economy, see 29 good books about business history.

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

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.

December 27, 2017

The Doomsday Machine: Daniel Ellsberg’s dramatic second act

The Doomsday Machine by Daniel EllsbergThe Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg

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In the closing scene of the classic 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Major T. J. “King” Kong straddles a nuclear bomb as it soars down onto the Soviet Union while the World War II hit song We’ll Meet Again blares in the background. Major Kong is the commander of a B-52 bomber sent to attack the USSR by the deranged general Jack D. Ripper—and the protocol will not permit the President of the United States to recall the plane. When the bomb explodes, it will trigger a Doomsday Machine installed by the Soviet military, dispersing a radioactive cloud of deadly Cobalt-Thorium G all across the earth and wiping out all human and animal life.

The “nuclear football” is a sham

Daniel Ellsberg, then a high-level consultant to the US military on nuclear war, viewed the film when it was newly released. He was profoundly shocked. He and a friend who worked with him thought Dr. Strangelove was “essentially a documentary.” Somehow, the film’s creator, Stanley Kubrick, had guessed one of the US government’s most closely-held secrets. Despite all the media attention to the “nuclear football” containing the codes to unleash a nuclear war, and the government’s insistence that only the President had access to those codes, it was indeed possible for a local commander to attack the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. Beginning with President Eisenhower, an unknown number of military officers—certainly, more than a dozen; perhaps several dozen—have had their fingers on the nuclear button as well. Eisenhower had delegated that ability to his theater commanders, and they in turn had passed it down the line. Ellsberg even met an Air Force major commanding a small US airbase in Korea who could have started a nuclear war simply because he assumed the USSR had attacked American bases when atmospheric disturbance cut off communications.

The Doomsday Machine is alive and well

In fact, Ellsberg reveals, that level of delegation of control to military officers in the field has been the case throughout the sixty-year history of the nuclear standoff between the US and Russia. The potential still exists for a devastating nuclear exchange to be set off through miscommunication, miscalculation, or an unstable military commander. And Ellsberg makes the case in his shocking new memoir, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, that such an exchange would inevitably result in nuclear winter. This phenomenon, repeatedly confirmed by scientists, would extinguish virtually all complex life on Planet Earth by shutting off sunlight, causing harvests to fail, and subjecting billions of human beings and animals to “near-universal starvation within a year or two”—if they survive the fires and the fallout. Effectively, then, both nuclear superpowers had—and still have—the capability to end the human project with what amounts to a Doomsday Machine.

Dan Ellsberg’s dramatic second act

Ellsberg has been studying nuclear war since the late 1950s, when he began a long career as a high-level government consultant to the military. Of course, he is far better known for his courage in releasing the Pentagon Papers in 1971, after several years of work on the Vietnam War. However, in The Doomsday Machine, he explains that he had collected a huge stockpile of official documents about nuclear war that he fully intended to release in the same manner once the reception for the Pentagon Papers had run its course.

“From the fall of 1969 to leaving the RAND Corporation in August 1970,” Ellsberg writes, “I copied everything in the Top Secret safe in my office—of which the seven thousand pages of the Pentagon Papers were only a fraction . . . perhaps fifteen thousand pages in all.” (For many years, Ellsberg had “classified access several levels above Top Secret.”) Sadly, all but the Pentagon Papers were lost in an abortive effort to hide them. But much of that lost material has since been declassified. Now, based on his own extensive notes, research on the issue over six decades, and declassified files from the 1950s and 60s, Ellsberg is belatedly fulfilling his promise to bring the enduring nuclear threat to the forefront.

Startling revelations in The Doomsday Machine

The Doomsday Machine is full of deeply disturbing revelations. The book sometimes reads like a thriller, as Ellsberg describes his mounting horror and revulsion over the discoveries he made over the years. Here are just a few of the most shocking:

  • The United States is poised to deliver a preemptive nuclear first strike. “Deterring a surprise Soviet nuclear attack—or responding to such an attack—has never been the only or even the primary purpose of our nuclear plans and preparations . . . Though officially denied, preemptive ‘launch on warning’ (LOW) . . . has always been at the heart of our strategic alert.”
  • The United States is far from alone in delegating nuclear war-making capability to field officers. “How many fingers are on Pakistani nuclear buttons? Probably not even the president of Pakistan knows reliably.”
  • “The strategic nuclear system is more prone to false alarms, accidents, and unauthorized launches than the public (and even most high officials) has ever been aware.”
  • For decades after the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1950s, US nuclear weapons were targeted at thousands of cities in both Russia and China—and our country’s nuclear war doctrine held that every weapon in the arsenal would be released all at once in the event of war . . . on both countries.
  • If you’re old enough, or read enough history, you might remember the “missile gap” that played a part in elevating John F. Kennedy to the White House. Of course, there was no gap, as was revealed not far into Kennedy’s short stay there. But Ellsberg reveals that the actual number of Soviet nuclear weapons at the time was not hundreds but . . .  four. The US then had forty. (Today, there are nearly 15,000 nuclear warheads stockpiled around the world; the US and Russia account for 93 percent of them.)
  • If you were an adult during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, as I was, you’re surely aware that the world came extremely close to nuclear armageddon. Ellsberg reveals, however, that the chances of war were even greater than was known for many years after the fact. Four nuclear-armed Soviet submarines were in the Caribbean—and one came perilously close to detonating a nuclear torpedo that would have destroyed US Navy ships in the vicinity. Only the chance intervention of a single man on that submarine prevented that catastrophe, which would unquestionably have caused the US military to unleash a first strike on the USSR and China. And that event took place two days after the world believed the crisis had been resolved by agreement between Kennedy and Khrushchev.

In Part Two of The Doomsday Machine, Ellsberg probes the origins of the notion that attacking cities was acceptable. It’s a fascinating account of the history of airpower, from the use of planes for reconnaissance in World War I to strategic bombing in World War II. Though less dramatic than his earlier revelations about nuclear war, Ellsberg’s explanation of how the US and Britain came to justify the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden is deeply distressing. This experience laid the foundation for the use of the atomic bomb over Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and makes clear how “there was no moral agonizing at all among Truman’s civilian or military advisors about the prospect of using the atom bomb on a city.” Yet “seven of the eight officers of five-star rank in the U.S. Armed Forces in 1945 believed the bomb was not necessary to avert [an] invasion” of Japan.

We still live under the nuclear hammer. “Two systems still risk doomsday,” Ellsberg concludes. “Both are still on hair-trigger alert that makes their joint existence unstable.”

If this review doesn’t worry you enough, you might take a look at my post, My 6 favorite dystopian novels.

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

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

December 20, 2017

Collusion exposed, but is there more? Is Donald Trump a Russian agent?

Collusion exposed: Collusion by Luke HardingCollusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win by Luke Harding

The Steele Dossier: Trump Intelligence Allegations by Christopher Steele

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If the question in the above headline strikes you as over the top, you might feel differently after reading the Steele Dossier and Collusion. In the book, Guardian reporter Luke Harding analyzes and comments on the dossier, adding his own, independent findings. Even if you follow the day-to-day news closely, you’re unlikely to be aware of the full extent of the evidence against Donald Trump and his campaign for the White House. Certainly, I wasn’t. Much of what Harding writes in Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win has been revealed before. But the picture in the aggregate is devastating. The case against Trump, members of his family, business partners, friends, and staff members is far more wide-ranging than initial reports suggested. The Watergate scandal pales by comparison. Collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government is only a small piece of the picture.

Before you dismiss the questions in my headline as overblown, please note what I mean by the term “agent.” That label is often mistakenly taken to mean a paid employee of an intelligence service. More properly, an agent (or “asset”) is someone who assists an employee of an intelligence service (called an “officer”) by providing sensitive information, or by helping the officer in some other way. Agents are not necessarily conscious of their role, and they may not receive compensation in any form. Agents may be either foreign nationals or share the officer’s nationality.

Here’s the gist of what I’ve concluded from reading Harding’s book as well as the Steele Dossier:

  1. There is no doubt that Donald Trump has been acting as an agent of Russian intelligence for many years, starting long before he ran for President. In multiple ways, he has acted in support of Russian foreign policy to the detriment of the United States. Trump’s moves to deepen the divisions within the American public and undermine our foreign policy by alienating US allies and advancing Russian strategic aims are far more serious crimes than his campaign’s collusion with the Russians.
  2. There is a prima facie case for collusion between the Trump campaign and the government of Russia, as Robert Mueller has no doubt discovered. What’s unknown at this point is whether Donald Trump was actively aware of the collusion, although it seems impossible to believe that he wasn’t.
  3. Trump’s crimes involving Russia long predate his run for the White House. Through his real estate activities, he has laundered tens of millions of dollars, and maybe much more, for Russian gangsters and the Russian-government-allied superrich called “oligarchs.” It appears likely that Russian money has bailed Trump out on more than one occasion.
  4. Hillary Clinton lost the Presidency for many reasons, not the least of them her own poorly run campaign, Republican vote suppression, and the vicious 25-year-crusade conducted against her by the Right. However, despite these factors, it’s entirely possible that she would have won anyway had it not been for Russian intervention. Remember: she won the popular vote, only losing a few key states by a margin in the tens of thousands of votes.
  5. It appears that Donald Trump is vulnerable to blackmail by Vladimir Putin both because of his illegal financial activities and because of sexual misconduct caught on film or videotape by Russian intelligence. Admittedly, the allegations in the Steele Dossier about sexual perversion have not been proven. They may never be. However, given Trump’s contemptuous behavior toward women and the enduring practices of Russian intelligence to bug the hotel rooms of prominent visitors, these charges seem all too credible. In any case, the Putin regime has reportedly opted not to release the damaging evidence it possesses about Trump’s misbehavior—probably for reasons that are now abundantly obvious.

You might wonder how these tragic circumstances could have come about, but it’s not really all that complicated. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross section of a lot of our assets. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Donald Trump Jr., made those comments in a speech at a real estate conference in Moscow in 2008. And Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6 from 1999 to 2004, told Britain’s Prospect magazine in an interview on April 17, 2017: “What lingers for Trump may be what deals—on what terms—he did after the financial crisis of 2008 to borrow Russian money when others in the West would not lend to him.” The New Yorker has published numerous articles on Trump’s scandalous financial affairs involving Russia and the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan.

Neither Collusion nor the Steele Dossier is a work of great literary merit. The Dossier is written in the inimitable style of bureaucratic memos (although it is far more readable than most). And Harding’s book was clearly rushed into print with minimal if any editorial oversight. Both works feature large casts of characters with long Russian names. It’s sometimes difficult to follow the thread of the story. In fact, there are so many threads to this story that you could weave a blanket out of them. Robert Mueller has his work cut out for him.

Luke Harding is a foreign correspondent for The Guardian. He reported from Russian from 2007 to 2011, when he was deported for writing critically about Vladimir Putin. He calls Russia a “mafia state,” the title of his book about his experiences in Russia. Harding is also the author of The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man

Christopher Steele worked for MI6 (Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service) for more than twenty years before cofounding the private intelligence firm Orbis Business Intelligence. He has become known to the public as the author of the so-called Steele Dossier—a compilation of 17 memos he wrote for US clients between June 20 and December 13, 2016. The 35-page Steele Dossier may be found here. (Or Google “Trump Intelligence Allegations.”)

You might also be interested in reading my posts, Donald Trump: populism, or fascism? and How Steve Bannon sold the alt-right to Donald Trump and made history. In fact, this is one of 9 books about Donald Trump and his impact on American democracy.

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

December 13, 2017

Debunking the popular myths about genetics

Popular myths: A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford

A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes by Adam Rutherford

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There is no gene for evil. Black people have no genetic predisposition to excel at sports. Tay-Sachs is not a Jewish disease. Native Americans are not genetically predisposed to alcoholism. And, of course, there is no such thing as a “race” in genetics. These are a few of the many axes Adam Rutherford grinds in his ambitious new book, A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes.

Rutherford’s book consists of two parts. Part One, “How We Came to Be,” lives up to the title for the most part. He outlines the emergence of Homo sapiens as the sole survivor of several human species. (All members of the genus Homo are human. This includes Neanderthals, Denisovans, Homo erectus, and an as yet unknown number of other species.) Using the latest findings from genetic research, the author traces the movements of various human populations over 200,000 years since the first anatomically modern human walked the Earth. Rutherford emphasizes that the patterns of migration were far more complex than earlier studies have led us to believe—and interbreeding among human species far more extensive.

In Part Two, “Who We Are Now,” Rutherford departs from the promise of the title to survey the findings of genetic research about some of the many popular misconceptions about race and genetics. Here are a few highlights:

  • Are African-Americans uniquely well-suited to play basketball? Not so, he writes. “The Dutch are the tallest people on average on Earth, and I have little doubt that if there were similar numbers of Dutch people as there are Americans, and basketball were as culturally important and ubiquitous, then they would produce teams as good as the LA Lakers.”
  • Do some people commit awful crimes because their genes program them to do so? “No one will ever find a gene for ‘evil,’ or for beauty, or for musical genius, or for scientific genius, because they don’t exist. DNA is not destiny.”
  • What about that “Jewish disease” Tay-Sachs? “Tay-Sachs . . . is seen at roughly the same frequency in Cajuns in Louisiana, and French Canadians in Quebec. There is no such thing as a Jewish disease, because Jews are not a genetically distinct group of people.”

What about race? The visible differences between, say, East Asians and Africans suggest that races are real, don’t they? Well, no. Not at all. As Rutherford makes clear, “certain genetic groupings do roughly correspond to geography. But not exclusively, and not essentially.” There is, in fact, no such thing as “race” in genetics. “Eighty-five percent of human variation, according to the genetic differences in blood groups,” Rutherford writes, “was seen in the same racial groups. Of the remaining 15 percent, only 8 percent accounted for differences between one racial group and another.” In other words, those visible differences among the races are trivial from a genetic perspective. The genetic differences among any two Africans from different parts of the continent are almost certainly greater than the differences between either of them and a pale, blond, blue-eyed Scandinavian. This should be obvious to anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of genetics, Rutherford suggests. When Homo sapiens began migrating out of Africa and radiating around the world, only small groups left the motherland. The genetic diversity among them was immeasurably smaller than that of the much larger numbers they left behind.

The author explains at length that the Human Genome Project did not decode the whole genome. In fact, more than 98 percent of the three billion letters on the genome do not encode for proteins, which is the primary function of genes. These non-coding letters have been given the unfortunate and misleading name of “junk DNA.” Many do have discernible and important functions. But the function of most junk DNA is not understood.

Scientists are in the very earliest stages of tapping the power of genetics to address disease. As of now, “the number of diseases that have been eradicated as a result of our knowing the genome? Zero. The number of diseases that have been cured as a result of gene therapy? Zero.” The Human Genome Project was a beginning, not an end. Today, “DNA is used routinely in the diagnosis of dozens of cancers, of heart arrhythmias, in identifying the causes of thousands of diseases too rare to have historically warranted major research projects.” But science today is merely scratching the surface of this potential.

Rutherford clearly knows his stuff. But he’s far from infallible. He’s dismissive of linguistic studies that inform our understanding of prehistorical migration patterns. Why? He doesn’t explain. He’s inconsistent about the number of years when Homo sapiens first entered the Americas, citing numbers all the way from 12,000 years to more than 24,000. He refers on numerous occasions to findings from the for-profit companies 23andme and BritainsDNA, both of which provide genetic profiles to individuals for a price. But he fails to mention the National Geographic Genographic Project, which predates them both and now encompasses genetic records from more than 800,000 people. And he first states that individuals from different species can’t mate and produce fertile offspring, then fails to explain how Homo sapiens and Neanderthals together produced so many of the rest of us.

British geneticist and broadcaster Adam Rutherford is a former editor of the journal Nature. He hosts the BBC Radio 4 program Inside Science.

If books like this are of interest to you, please check out my post, Science history and science explained in 33 excellent popular books.

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

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

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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 19 good nonfiction books about World War II (plus 10 novels).

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