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75 readable and revealing historical novels

historical novels - all the light we cannot see - anthony doerr

Though I read a great deal of historical fiction, I gravitate toward certain topics, as you can see in the list below of the 75 historical novels I’ve, read, enjoyed, and reviewed over the past seven years. My favorite subjects are European history, including many historical spy novels; World War II; American history, especially political history; and Asian and African history.

You’ll also find that several authors show up multiple times: Geraldine Brooks, Thomas Fallon, Olen Steinhauer, Alan Furst, and Joseph Kanon—in the last three cases, because of especially insightful series they’ve written.

I’ve grouped the 75 novels below in the categories indicated above. Within each category, the books are listed in alphabetical order of the authors’ last names. (For a much longer list of historical novels categorized by country, click here.)

World War II

The human cost of World War II (Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave)

A deeply affecting novel of the Holocaust (The German Girl, by Armando Lucas Correa)

In an alternate history, the Nazis occupy England (SS-GB, by Len Deighton)

This novel richly deserves the Pulitzer Prize it won (All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr)

An extraordinary World War II spy story grounded in historical fact (The Best of Our Spies, by Alex Gerlis)

A deeply affecting novel of the French Resistance (The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah)

A brilliant novel explores life in Nazi Europe (The Glass Room, by Simon Mawer)

A well-written novel about British espionage in World War II (Tightrope, by Simon Mawer)

A brilliant novel of the Warsaw Ghetto (The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepherd)

US politics

Who wields the real power in Washington, DC? (Echo House, by Ward Just)

A terrific political history novel (Dewey Defeats Truman, by Thomas Mallon)

America’s third Red Scare (Fellow Travelers, by Thomas Mallon)

Ronald Reagan deconstructed in a new Thomas Mallon novel (Finale: A Novel of the Reagan Years, by Thomas Mallon)

Watergate through a novelist’s eyes (Watergate, by Thomas Mallon)

Was politics during the Great Depression really like this? (All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren)

American history

Isabel Allende’s triumphant new novel spans the Western Hemisphere (Maya’s Notebook, by Isabel Allende)

James Bond, lies within lies, and coming of age in the 1960s (True Believers, by Kurt Andersen)

Revisiting black humor (not Black humor) (Sneaky People, by Thomas Berger)

In Colonial America, the first Native American goes to Harvard (Caleb’s Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks)

The untold tale of the absent father in “Little Women” (March, by Geraldine Brooks)

Hired killers, the California Gold Rush, and lots of surprises (The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt)

Unforgettable characters in 19th century San Francisco (Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue)

A hilarious tale of Colonial America by two history professors (Blindspot, by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore)

Love, disease, and self-deception: the life of Typhoid Mary (Fever: A Novel of Typhoid Mary, by Mary Beth Keane)

Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and the Red Scare (The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver)

Suspenseful historical fiction that’s hard to put down (World Gone By, by Dennis Lehane)

A thoughtful, action-packed crime story (Live by Night – Coughlin #2, by Dennis Lehane)

American history, laughing all the way (The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride)

A clever detective novel set in Colonial America (The Constable’s Tale: A Novel of Colonial America, by Donald Smith)

She was the country’s first female deputy sheriff (Girl Waits With Gun, by Amy Stewart)

Sex, drugs, and revolution: Berkeley in the 70s (All Our Yesterdays, by Erik Tarloff)


European history

Geraldine Brooks’ outstanding novel about England and the Plague (Year of Wonders, by Geraldine Brooks)

The strange story of the Sarajevo Hagadah (People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks)

A gripping historical thriller (The Devils of Cardona, by Matthew Carr)

A suspenseful tale of Holocaust survivors in post-war London (The List, by Martin Fletcher)

Cicero, witness to history (Dictator – Ancient Rome Trilogy #3, by Robert Harris)

The Dreyfus Affair, reenacted in a suspenseful spy novel (An Officer and a Spy, by Robert Harris)

Ancient Rome, before the fall (Conspirata – Ancient Rome Trilogy #2, by Robert Harris)

The IRA, the KGB, MI5, and the Corsican mob all conflict (Touch the Devil – Liam Devlin #2, by Harry Patterson writing as Jack Higgins)

An engrossing novel about Irish terrorists’ real-life attempt to kill Margaret Thatcher (High Dive, by Jonathan Lee)

A searing inquiry into life during the Chechnyan War (A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra)

A beautifully written tale of love, courage, and faith (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell)

A fully satisfying murder mystery set in post-war Europe (The Bridge of Sighs (Ruthenia Quintet #1), by Olen Steinhauer)

An historical thriller set under Communism in Eastern Europe (The Confession – Ruthenia Quintet #2, by Olen Steinhauer)

Inside the mind’s eye of Eastern European Communism in the 1960s (36 Yalta Boulevard – Ruthenia Quintet #3, by Olen Steinhauer)

Love, betrayal, and terrorism behind the Iron Curtain (Liberation Movements – Ruthenia Quintet #4, by Olen Steinhauer)

A powerful tale of life in Eastern Europe during the fall of Communism (Victory Square – Ruthenia Quintet #5, by Olen Steinhauer)


European espionage history

Still a lively read among classic spy novels (A Coffin for Dimitrios, by Eric Ambler)

Niccolo Machiavelli, private eye (The Malice of Fortune, by Michael Ennis)

Alan Furst’s superb novel, “Spies of the Balkans” (Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst)

At the dawn of World War II, a Hollywood film star in an espionage novel (Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst)

Arms merchants and spies in a thriller set during the Spanish Civil War (Midnight in Europe, by Alan Furst)

Vive la Resistance! (A Hero of France, by Alan Furst)

One of the best espionage novels of recent years (Kingdom of Shadows, by Alan Furst)

A brilliant novel of the French Resistance (Red Gold, by Alan Furst)

Romance intrigue and betrayal in post-World War II Istanbul (Istanbul Passage, by Joseph Kanon)

A Nazi-hunter in post-war Venice in a suspenseful novel of intrigue (Alibi, by Joseph Kanon)

From Joseph Kanon, one of the best of today’s spy novels (Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon)

An author of spy novels to rival John Le Carre (The Prodigal Spy, by Joseph Kanon)

German emigres in Hollywood in a captivating historical novel (Stardust, by Joseph Kanon)


Asian history

A brilliant novel that spans a thousand years of Chinese history (The Incarnations, by Susan Barker)

A biblical story, brilliantly retold (The Secret Chord: A Novel, by Geraldine Brooks)

A superb historical novel about the opium trade by Amitav Ghosh (Sea of Poppies – Ibis Trilogy #1)

A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War (River of Smoke – Ibis Trilogy #2, by Amitav Ghosh)

An outstanding Indian novelist looks at the Opium War (Flood of Fire – Ibis Trilogy #3, by Amitav Ghosh)

Khaled Hosseini in Berkeley, in person and in print (And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini)

A haunting tale of love and loss spanning India and America (The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri)

Sheer reading pleasure, with a dollop of magic, in a historical novel (The Oracle of Stamboul, by Michael David Lukas)

A superb novel digs for roots in Israel’s modern history (The Debba, by Avner Mandelman)

The human toll of social change (The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee)

The Vietnam War through Vietnamese eyes (The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen)

Inside the fight for Israeli independence (City of Secrets, by Stewart O’Nan)


African history

Love, loss, and war in post-independence Africa (Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie)

A brilliant novel of love, hope, and the Rwanda genocide (Running the Rift, by Naomi Benaron)

African Roots through African eyes (Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi)

An historical novel set in East Africa early in the 20th Century (Assegai, by Wilbur Smith)


November 1, 2016

“Who lost China?” Nobody.

Who lost China?The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia by James Bradley

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

One of the conspiracy theories popular on the Far Right is that Franklin D. Roosevelt engineered the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to ensnare the US in World War II. Like so many Right-Wing fantasies, this story is nearly 180 degrees distant from the truth. (OK, many Left-Wing fantasies are, too.)

The power of the China Lobby

As James Bradley makes clear in The China Mirage: The Hidden History of American Disaster in Asia, FDR steadfastly resisted the aggressive, well-funded campaign of the China Lobby to force the U.S. government to embargo oil sales to Japan in the late 1930s. However, when the President was out of town for a week to meet with Winston Churchill early in 1941, future Secretary of State Dean Acheson and other powerful bureaucrats affiliated with the China Lobby contrived to put the embargo in place against Roosevelt’s express wishes. It was that action which triggered Japan’s decision to bomb Pearl Harbor and attack the Dutch West Indies (now Indonesia) to secure an alternative source of oil.

FDR and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, had insisted at every turn that cutting off oil to the Empire of Japan would force the Japanese military to strike out southward. Inevitably, they calculated, had they agreed to an embargo, the US would have been drawn into war in the Pacific at the same time as the country was gearing up to take on the fight against the Nazis in Europe. While they didn’t discount the possibility of war with Japan even without an oil embargo, their hope was that it could at least be postponed for long enough for the Allies to prevail in Europe.

Three unnecessary US wars in the Pacific

These circumstances describe one of the principal conclusions that Bradley has taken from his study of US policy toward Asia in the twentieth century. The China Mirage argues that cultural and historical ignorance, political miscalculation, bitter bureaucratic infighting, and media manipulation led not just to US 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.

The China Lobby

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act became law. As a result, nearly all Americans — including the country’s most senior officeholders — shared profound ignorance of Chinese reality. Bradley traces the roots of this ignorance to two sources: the wishful thinking of the many US Protestant missionaries sent to China in the last half of the nineteenth century, and a lavish public relations campaign on behalf of the Chinese government in the 1930s. The government, nominally headed by the self-styled Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, was in fact run by the wealthy and powerful Soong family, which headed a network of warlords and criminal gangs. Mayling Soong was Chiang’s wife; her older sister, Ailing, was the head of the family and directed affairs from behind the scenes. Ailing’s husband and brother held the two top positions in Chiang’s civilian government.

According to Harry Truman, later evidence showed that the Soong family had stolen $750 million of the $3.5 billion in American aid the Chinese government received to support its nonexistent war against Japan. Henry Luce apparently knew none of this; in fact, he knew practically nothing about conditions in China, other than what Chiang and his wife told him. Nonetheless, Luce used his powerful magazines, Time, Life, and Fortune, and his newsreel, The March of Time, to propagate the myth that Chiang was a democratic hero leading a heroic resistance against Japanese aggression. To spread the message further, and to lobby Congress and the White House, Luce and the Chiang-Soong syndicate created the China Lobby, which remained a dominant force in American foreign policy from the early 1930s to the 1960s.

The China Mirage

Compounding the challenge for American policymakers were the preconceived notions that dominated the thinking of key actors in the drama. Luce was the son of a Protestant missionary in China and carried with him throughout his life the conviction that Christianity and American values would spread throughout the vast expanse of the Chinese heartland and turn the country into America’s best friend in the world. To bring this about, all the US needed to do was help Chiang Kai-Shek defeat the Japanese. Similarly, FDR drank in a similar fantasy about China on the knee of his beloved grandfather, Warren Delano, who had gained not just one but two immense fortunes smuggling opium into China. These delusional beliefs constituted what Bradley calls The China Mirage. Since Chiang and the Soong family represented the pro-American China of their dreams, they easily swallowed the Generalissimo’s claim that he was fighting the fast-spreading Japanese invasion. In reality, Chiang avoided every opportunity to confront the Japanese. He was hoarding his resources for what he hoped would be a decisive civil war with Mao Zedong and his Communist forces — after the Americans chased away the Japanese. That was China’s, or at least Chiang’s, “American Mirage.”

“Who lost China?”

Another favorite topic on America’s Radical Right is the question posed by Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1949: “Who lost China?” McCarthy and his allies, notably including Richard Nixon and the luminaries of the China Lobby, such as Mayling Soong, Henry Luce, Henry L. Stimson, and Dean Acheson, argued that the US hadn’t tried hard enough to support Chiang Kai-Shek. In the course of pursuing this question, McCarthy, Nixon, and Luce singled out a small group of men known as the Old China Hands.

This was a handful of Chinese-speaking experts deployed by the State Department  in China during World War II who conveyed to Washington a very different story than that told by the Chiang-Soong government. To anyone with eyes open in the Chinese hinterland, where the Old China Hands were deployed, the truth was blatantly obvious. Chiang was not fighting the Japanese, he and his government were boundlessly corrupt, and Mao was attracting followers by the tens of millions among the peasantry because Chiang’s troops plundered their homes at every opportunity. Mao was growing stronger militarily with every passing month while Chiang’s soldiers were deserting in large numbers. But virtually no one in Washington, DC, wanted to hear such things — and the men who were reporting them were later singled out by McCarthy and the China Lobby as those responsible for “losing China.”

Did America bungle US-China relations?

Sadly, one of the central themes in reports from the Old China Hands was Mao’s eagerness to collaborate with the US, not just to receive weapons but to obtain American capital to rebuild the shattered Chinese cities after the war. On numerous occasions throughout the 1940s, Mao pleaded with State Department and Pentagon officials in China to arrange a meeting for him with the White House. Naturally, any knee-jerk anti-Communist, even today, is likely to look at such statements as lies and manipulation. To those Americans with hours of direct, face-to-face experience with Mao himself, and months of experience living with his army, the requests seemed obviously heartfelt. Despite the misconception in Washington that Mao was a puppet of Stalin, the two men in fact despised each other. Mao was extremely eager to avoid dependence on the Soviet Union.

Grounding his argument in these facts, Bradley implies that the US might have spurned Chiang and the Soongs and allied itself instead with Mao. This, he seems to be suggesting, could have ended the war with Japan years sooner, avoided the worst of the Chinese civil war, and shifted the People’s Republic of China from its alliance with the Soviet Union and into the hands of the US. However, given the depth and persistence of anti-Communist hysteria in America that long predated the Second World War, all this seems highly improbable to me. I’m confident that both FDR and Harry Truman fully understood this. Supporting Mao would have been political anathema to the American public. Even had there been no China Lobby, I strongly suspect that Chinese history would have unfolded in much the same way as it did.

Thomas Mallon on America’s third Red Scare

red scareFellow Travelers by Thomas Mallon

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Only American history majors are likely to be aware that America’s first Red Scare was sparked in 1886 by the Haymarket affair in Chicago — a demonstration by workers calling for an eight-hour day which led to widespread persecution of men, usually foreign-born, who were perceived as anarchists. Thirty-three years later a wave of anarchist bombings in the wake of World War I induced Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer to recruit a 23-year-old named J. Edgar Hoover to locate and deport hundreds of anarchists, Communists, and other assorted leftists. Dial the clock forward nearly another thirty years to the anti-Communist frenzy following World War II that rose to a crescendo in the 1950s with the histrionic hearings presided over by Wisconsin Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy. Thomas Mallon’s novel, Fellow Travelers, skillfully recreates the mood prevailing in Washington, DC, during McCarthy’s witch-hunt, placing fictional characters in solidly researched historic circumstances.

America’s third Red Scare

To appreciate Mallon’s tour de force to the fullest, you might need to be in my age cohort (yes, north of 70). Reading Fellow Travelers was a lot like old home week for me: the book is filled with references to the federal officials, celebrities, and signature events of the 1950s. Since Thomas Mallon was born only in 1951 and would have been just nine years old when the decade ended, it’s safe to assume that he had to do a great deal of reading and research to recreate the flavor of those times.

It’s well known that McCarthy and his collaborators — as well as those who knuckled under to their strong-arm tactics — targeted not just Communists but anyone left of center, including outspoken liberals, progressive, and unaffiliated socialists. Anyone who resisted the Red Scare was placed in McCarthy’s cross-hairs and frequently lost their jobs as a result. Among them were not only officials in the State Department and the Army and Hollywood personalities, all of whom have received a great deal of attention, but also teachers and administrators on campuses throughout the country and employees in private companies as well. It’s less well known that gay men, too, were driven out of their jobs as “security risks,” presumably because they were vulnerable to blackmail. (Whether lesbians were also targeted is unclear in the context of this gay love story, and I have no personal knowledge to answer the question). The McCarthy years were one of the darkest periods in American history.

A gay love story set against the background of the Red Scare

Fallon deftly weaves together two themes in Fellow Travelers: the rise and fall of Joseph McCarthy and the love between two men, one of them a senior government official. There’s irony — perhaps what might be called a double entendre — in the title as a result, as the two central characters were “fellow” travelers on the unconventional path they’d chosen.

About the author

Thomas Mallon is the author of seven nonfiction books and eight novels as well as numerous magazine articles, critical essays, and reviews. I’ve previously reviewed his two most recent novels, Watergate and Finale (about the final years of Ronald Reagan’s administration). Both were outstanding works of political fiction.

If this book intrigues you, check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels. This novel is included.

The American role in the Spanish Civil War

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

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

A few weeks ago I read and reviewed Richard Rhodes’ Hell and Good Company: The Spanish Civil War and the World It Made, which was published last year. More recently, Adam Hochschild tackled the same material in a book published this year. It’s the book that Rhodes tried and failed to write. It’s called Spain in Our Hearts. I found it to be an outstanding and deeply moving tale of an event that has received far too little attention by historians. (Amazon lists just 334 history books involving the civil war as compared with 114,985 for World War II.)

The Spanish Civil War through American eyes

To write this important new book, Hochschild pored through the letters, diaries, and newspaper dispatches written by Americans who served in the war. These men (and a few women) served as either soldiers in what came to be called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, as doctors or nurses serving them and other soldiers of the embattled Republic, or as reporters who fed the American press with on-the-scene accounts of the fighting. Hochschild covers the war from its origins to its conclusion, reliving the signature battles of the war: Jarama, Ebro River, Guadalajara, Brunete, Teruel, and, of course, the notorious fire-bombing of Guernica and the epic siege of Madrid. At the time, all these names were widely recognizable to the newspaper-reading American public. As Hochschild reports, “While the fighting lasted, from mid-1936 to early 1939, the New York Times ran more than 1,000 front-page headlines about the war in Spain . . .” And that span of time encompassed fewer than 1,000 days.

Hochschild brings back to life both those whose names are instantly recognizable as well as many who have been long forgotten. Reporters and writers such as Herbert Matthews, Virginia Cowles, Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, George Orwell, and Louis Fischer. Physicians, nurses, and ambulance drivers including Dr. Edward Barsky, Jim Neugass, Toby Jensky, Marion Merriman, and Ellen Blair. Combatants such as Bob Merriman, Alvah Bessie, Charles Orr, Milton Wolfe, and Pat Gurney. (A few of these people were British or Canadian, the rest American.) Every one of these individuals rises, vividly, from the pages of Spain in Our Hearts, touched by Hochschild’s remarkable talent to bring the past to life. This is popular history at its best.

Nearly all the Americans who took part in the Spanish Civil War sided with the Republic — not just the 2,500 volunteers who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. With only one prominent exception reported by Hochschild all the American and British reporters betrayed their sympathy to the cause through their articles, diaries, and books, sometimes disingenuously slanting their reporting to favor the Republic. (The exception was a New York Times reporter who followed the Nationalist side. He consistently whitewashed the atrocities of Franco’s forces and even made a propaganda broadcast for the insurgency. After the war he was hired as Spain’s American lobbyist.)

Americans were by no means alone in fighting for the Republic. Those 2,500 men constituted a small portion of the 35,000 to 40,000 “men from more than 50 countries [who] would fight in five International Brigades.” A great many of these volunteers — including three-quarters of the “Lincolns” — were Communists or what were familiarly known then as “fellow travelers.” For some, their experience in Spain was disillusioning, as they witnessed the imprisonment and execution of colleagues who strayed from the Stalinist party line. After all, the purges and the show trials were at their peak in the Soviet Union during the years of this war, claiming an estimated total of between 600,000 and 1.2 million casualties.

A civil war fought and lost by foreign powers

It may be difficult for Americans these days to understand the depth of isolationist feeling that gripped the United States before the Second World War. This sentiment continued a long history of attempts, usually successful, to keep the US out of what George Washington famously called “foreign entanglements.” When the country entered World War I at the behest of President Woodrow Wilson, that proved to be an aberration. Wilson’s failure to gain Congressional support for the League of Nations proves that point. It should be no surprise, then, that FDR and the right-wingers in his State Department refused to support the heroic resistance of the Spanish Republic to Francisco Franco’s Fascist insurgency. FDR was sympathetic to the cause but unable to take action, and he later regarded his failure to do so as a “grave mistake.”

Though the US, Great Britain, and France all withheld support for the 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 hard-line 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. Though what ifs in history are uncertain at best, it’s not unreasonable to speculate that the war might have gone differently had the Western powers responded in counterpoint to the Axis nations. From the perspective of history, the failure of the US government to permit arms sales to the Republic played a more significant role in the war by far than the participation of 2,500 volunteer soldiers and a handful of brilliant reporters.

Neither side was without blame

Many of the horrors that became emblematic of World War II first saw the light of day in the Spanish Civil War. Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy used the conflict to test new weapons systems and battle tactics, such as dive-bombers, carpet-bombing, mass rape, and the wholesale slaughter of prisoners and civilians. For example, as Hochschild notes, “massacres happened everywhere, whether the advancing Nationalist forces met resistance or not. . . In the northern province of Navarre, one out of every ten Popular Front voters were summarily executed.” As one of Franco’s generals explained, “‘It is necessary to spread terror.'”

However, the forces of the Republic were hardly without blame. Hochschild explains: more than 49,000 civilians were killed in Republican territory during the war . . . [though a] far larger number of people were murdered in Nationalist-controlled Spain: some 150,000, with at least 20,000 more executions after the war.”

Two big stories the reporters missed

Hochschild notes, quizzically, that “the glamorous collection of foreign correspondents” reporting from Republican Spain entirely missed the debut of one of Hitler’s most fearsome weapons: the dive-bomber, which terrorized Republican troops and civilians alike. However, the greatest journalistic failure of the war was the lack of news on the home front about the American who may have played as large a role in helping Franco win the war as Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. He was the Norwegian-born oilman, Torkild Rieber, who ran Texaco and supplied the Nationalists with the fuel that ran their trucks, tanks, and planes — and did so on credit and without charging for the cost of transporting the oil from Texas to Spain on the company’s ships. As Hochschild notes, “this lifeline from Texaco ensured that Franco could continue to wage war.” Following Torkild’s lead, other US oil companies began supplying the Nationalists. His behavior was blatantly illegal, but he escaped prosecution with little more than a modest fine for supplying credit to a nation at war.

Hochschild also dwells at length on another aspect of the war that has received far too little attention, not just at the time but in the decades after the fall of the Republic. Following a tradition nearly unique to Spain, the country’s powerful anarcho-syndicalists undertook a utopian experiment in the midst of the war — an experiment that brought them into violent conflict with the Communists who came to dominate the Republican government as the war progressed. Anarchists seized control of farms and factories and organized military units without distinctions of rank. “Although the Spanish Revolution took place amid one of the largest concentrations of foreign correspondents on earth, they virtually never wrote about it,” Hochschild writes. “The fact that a utopian social revolution might have been an impractical and romantic dream even in peacetime, and was surely an impossible one when fighting a terrible war, made it no less worth reporting.”

About the author

Adam Hochschild is the author of four outstanding books that have helped me understand today’s events in the light of history. I read both King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa and Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire’s Slaves before I began posting reviews. Five years ago I read and reviewed his fascinating history of the resistance to World War I, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918. Spain in Our Hearts is the most recent of his eight books. On Hochschild’s Wikipedia page, there’s a list of 15 literary awards he’s won for his work. All well deserved, I’m sure.


The Vietnam War through Vietnamese eyes

51+9XXZaW7L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_The Sympathizer: A Novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Viet Thanh Nguyen’s remarkable debut novel, The Sympathizer, has won a slew of literary awards, including the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was also a finalist for a number of other prestigious awards and has been named a Best Book of the Year on more than twenty lists, including those of the New York Times Book Review, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post. If there is such a thing as a Great Vietnamese Novel, as there is supposedly a Great American Novel, this book would certainly be a candidate.

Vietnam in the 1970s

The Sympathizer opens in April 1975 as troops of the North Vietnamese army and the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong) are closing in on Saigon. The remnants of the American mission and many thousands of South Vietnamese officials and other collaborators are frantically fighting to claim the few remaining spaces on American airplanes available for the evacuation. In the midst of this chaos we meet the narrator, a captain in the South Vietnamese army. He introduces himself this way in the opening line of his account: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” He is, in fact, the Sympathizer of the title — a secret agent of the NLF actually living in the home of the General who commands the South Vietnamese security police, the Special Branch. He is  Eurasian, the son of a French priest and a poor Vietnamese woman, and regularly receives abuse as a result.

A spook’s confession

The novel, structured as a confession to an unnamed Commandant and the “faceless Commissar” above him, follows the narrator through the next several years as he flees Saigon with the General and takes up a double life in Southern California, reporting to his handler in Vietnam on the activities of the immigrant Vietnamese community and the General’s plans to resume the war from afar. We can only guess why he is writing a confession.

The narrator’s handler is his boyhood friend, Man, who is a senior Communist cadre. At the age of fourteen, he, Man, and a third boy, Bon, swore a blood oath to be loyal friends forever. Now, more than a decade later, the three men represent radically different responses to the American invasion, as Bon has been a loyal South Vietnamese soldier —  and a participant in the CIA’s notorious Phoenix Program.

A vivid portrait of the Vietnam War

“We were not a people who charged into war at the beck and call of bugle or trumpet,” the narrator writes. “No, we fought to the tunes of love songs, for we were the Italians of Asia.” He also writes, “Even if they found themselves in Heaven, our countrymen would find occasion to remark that it was not as warm as Hell.” And this: “We were too poor for air-conditioning, but heat stroke was simply another way of expressing religious fortitude.” With trenchant observations and humor such as this, Nguyen delves deeply into the Vietnamese psyche as he spins out his account of the war with merciless detail.

One of the defining events of the narrator’s story is the work he does as a consultant on a Hollywood film reminiscent of Apocalypse Now. The references are unmistakable, and Nguyen makes the association clear in his acknowledgments, where he cites numerous sources about Francis Ford Coppola and his signature film. Nguyen clearly is not a big fan. He writes, alluding to the production, “this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination).”

Nguyen makes clear in the closing pages of his novel, he’s no fan of the victorious Vietnamese government, either. Nor does the author, or at least his alter ego, the narrator, admire the United States, as we may already have deduced: “nothing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.”

Clearly, despite all the awards, this is not a book that will find favor among the commentators on Fox News.

About the author

Viet Thanh Nguyen was four years old in 1975, when the novel opens. He is an Associate Professor of English, American Studies, and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California and the author of two nonfiction books as well as a number of short stories. The Sympathizer is his first novel.

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

April 4, 2016

FDR, the gold standard, and the Great Depression

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

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

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.

Saving capitalism

Today, it’s widely accepted among everybody except those on the extreme Right that Roosevelt succeeded in “saving capitalism.” Most historians give the credit to New Deal policies such as the Works Progress Administration, Social Security, and the Agricultural Adjustment Act — more generally, what economists call fiscal policy, which entails spending government funds to achieve social ends. Indeed, Roosevelt did use deficit spending through these and many other programs, and huge numbers of Americans gained desperately needed jobs or income subsidies. However, it’s recognized now (as Roosevelt himself did at the time) that the funds devoted to these programs were far from enough to turn the economy around. Rauchway asserts that it was not fiscal policy but monetary policy that played the larger role.

At the outset of the famous first “100 days” of the New Deal, Roosevelt took two bold steps: declaring a bank holiday to put a lid on bank failures — and taking the United States off the gold standard. Rauchway makes a strong case that the latter was the decisive action, not just because it stemmed deflation, allowing prices to rise for the benefit of business and consumers alike, but also because it allowed the United States to exert leadership in restoring world trade.

The only major weakness in Rauchway’s argument is that he gives equal credit for this policy shift to John Maynard Keynes; other economists, perhaps influenced by Keynes but important in their own right, helped persuade Roosevelt to take the dollar off the gold standard. In any case, Roosevelt didn’t need much, if any, persuading, as Rauchway makes clear.

Keynes’ direct role in steering American economic policy didn’t become critical until midway through World War II, when he faced off with New Deal economist Harry Dexter White as head of Britain’s economic negotiating team. The two men were central, even decisive, in shaping the agreement that emerged from the Bretton Woods Conference, which gave birth to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Though these two new institutions may not have been immediately significant to the extent that Rauchway contends — other historians indicate that their true importance didn’t emerge until years later — there is little doubt that the IMF and the World Bank played large roles in extending the prosperity that came on the heels of World War II.

Taking Keynes’ later role into account, which helped pave the way for these developments, it might be appropriate to include him in the book’s subtitle along with FDR. However, it could be argued that two other men — Henry Morgenthau, Jr., and Harry Dexter White — also merit inclusion. Rauchway’s account assigns that prominence to them, the subtitle notwithstanding. The resulting run-on sentence might have been more than a little awkward, though.

The gold standard, deflation, and class war

From the earliest days of American history, the conflict between debtors and creditors has dominated our economic life. In the modern world, creditors, for the most part, have been bondholders; despite the media focus on the stock market, the bond market is nearly twice as large. Bonds are predominantly held by rich people and banks. Debtors are all the rest of us. Though we don’t directly pay the interest that accrues to bondholders, our taxes and the prices we pay for goods and services do make them possible.

Naturally, bondholders would like very much to receive their interest payment in dollars that are worth more than when they bought the bonds. That happens under deflation, which lowers prices and thus increases the value of the dollar because it buys more. Bondholders grow richer; consumers grow poorer in a vicious cycle, losing their jobs because businesses fold since they can no longer make a profit with prices so much lower. As prices fall further, people have even less money to spend because more businesses have folded. And so forth.

When FDR took office, deflation was rampant and threatened to spiral out of control. In Europe, where that had taken place, deflation played a major role in enabling the rise of Nazism and fascism. There, and increasingly in the United States, movements on the political extremes quickly grew as the pain of deflation increased. Despite the obvious threat that this instability implied, Wall Street bankers and the Republican Party cried out nearly in unison that the country should be put back on the gold standard lest runaway inflation take hold. (The most extreme of them have never ceased making the same demand.)

Like John Maynard Keynes but only a handful of other economists at the time, Roosevelt understood that the gold standard was the key to sustaining deflation. Since every dollar had to be backed by gold, the amount of money in circulation was limited because gold was so scarce and the government’s hoard of the yellow metal was no longer increasing. (That had taken place during the major gold discoveries of the nineteenth century; in the twentieth, only European payments for World War I debts brought gold to the United States, but those payments had long since halted as the Depression got underway.) It was abundantly clear that only if enough money circulated through the economy could prosperity be restored. To increase the money supply and defeat deflation, FDR would have to take the dollar off the gold standard. It was that action which enabled the Roosevelt Administration to engage in the limited deficit spending that the political environment allowed. Even more important, delinking the dollar from gold permitted prices to rise domestically — and world trade to increase as Roosevelt and Keynes maneuvered major European countries into parallel policies.

About the author

Eric Rauchway teaches history at the University of California, Davis. He specializes in the Progressive Era and the New Deal. An earlier book, published in 2008, The Great Depression and the New Deal, covered some of the same territory. Rauchway holds a Ph.D. from Stanford. The Money Makers is his fifth book.


North Korea is not (quite) the country you thought it was

51z1w3sfF5L._SX335_BO1,204,203,200_A review of North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors, by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Practically everything you know about North Korea is wrong. That, at least, is the inescapable conclusion to take from reading Daniel Tudor and James Pearson’s new book, North Korea Confidential.

I exaggerate, of course. North Korea is, without question, one of the poorest countries in the world. It’s ruled by a brutal dictatorship that operates a system of political prisons that would do Josef Stalin proud. It’s a nuclear power and given to saber-rattling. And one family, the Kims, is the country’s ruling dynasty, now in its third generation.

Though all that, and more, is, indeed, true, Tudor and Pearson draw on extensive research to demonstrate that the impression we Westerners get from the news media is still highly misleading. The North Korean people are not slogan-chanting automatons enslaved to adulation for Kim Jong Un (their “Dear Leader,” or “Great Leader,” or whatever else he might be calling himself). Kim Jong Un is not a lunatic; his father or grandfather weren’t, either. Nor is he the sole, undisputed leader of the nation; “he has inherited a system [created by his father] in which one rather shadowy organization may possess more power than he does.” North Korea is not a Communist country, nor has it been for nearly two decades. And there is virtually NO chance that the country will collapse, the victim of its own considerable internal contradictions.

In chapters devoted to the market economy; leisure time; the power struggle at the top; crime and punishment; clothes, fashion, and trends; communications, and the country’s social class structure, Tudor and Pearson paint a picture of a complex society struggling with the conflicts of the mid-twentieth century while the outside world labors to drag it into the twenty-first.

Here’s the gist of the message in North Korea Confidential: ever since the tragic famine that overtook North Korea in the mid-1990s, the desperate urge for survival has led people at all levels of society to build a rudimentary market system that has become the foundation of the country’s economy. The famine was so severe and far-reaching — costing at least hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives –in a country whose population now stands at just twenty-four million — that the government was unable to continue distributing food, as it had ever since Kim Il Sung industrialized the country in the years following the Korean War. Once the distribution of free food was disrupted, the North Korean people found ways to grow their own food, or forage for it, and to sell or exchange food for other necessities in homegrown markets that sprang up in defiance of the Party and the government. And those markets have grown in importance to the point where the gray economy may overshadow the official one.

Equally important, the famine undermined respect for the Kim dynasty’s government. Though vocal criticism of their leadership is still rare (and viciously punished), people demonstrate their independence in a variety of ways: they seek out DVDs and thumb drives containing South Korean and Chinese music, films, and TV shows (and even an occasional American movie); they listen to South Korean, Chinese, and US-sponsored radio for news of the outside world; they dress in ways that defy the Party’s severe guidelines; they travel without permits from town to town and sometimes across the Chinese border; and, increasingly, they are gaining access to the Internet despite the government’s efforts to make that impossible. (More than ten percent of the population now own cell phones.) Whenever they’re caught flouting the rules in these or many other ways, they are almost always able to bribe their way out of the draconian punishment the law dictates.

In truth, there are hints of much of this in the news about North Korea. Yet I’d never before read of the multimillionaires among the Pyongyang elite, or of the estimated $20 billion fortune accumulated by the Kim family. I knew that the country maintains one of the world’s largest armies, but I was unaware that soldiers are more often put to work as free labor on construction and other projects rather than trained for combat. I had surmised that, as in any country, connections to people in power would provide a layer of protection from victimization by the police, but I learned that cash — outright, blatant bribery — is a daily fact of life. I knew that historically “even family members would sometimes inform on each other, either out of fear or the belief that it was the ‘right’ thing to do,” but not that “[t]his is certainly no longer the case.” The regime may still have the power to maintain its hold on the country, but — after the famine — ordinary citizens no longer are inclined to show their respect to authority, even to the Kim family.

All in all, North Korea Confidential provides a useful counterbalance to the one-dimensional pictures we tend to hear from most defectors and occasional dissidents and from the news and analysis that looks at the country from the top down rather than the bottom up.

Daniel Tudor and James Pearson are both British journalists. Tudor formerly worked in Seoul, Korea, as the local correspondent for The Economist. Pearson, also an old Korea hand, currently writes a blog for Thomson Reuters.




Betrayal is in the eye of the beholder

betrayalA review of A Map of Betrayal, by Ha Jin

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

Who is the betrayed, and who the betrayer? It’s clear from the outset that there’s plenty of blame to spread around in this deeply engaging novel about a Chinese mole in the CIA.

Gary (nee Weimin) Shang is a young secret agent for Mao Tse-Tung’s Communists in the culminating days of the Revolution. A graduate of prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, sometimes referred to as China’s Harvard, he is singled out by his handlers to infiltrate an American intelligence unit in Shanghai which later moves to Okinawa, then to suburban Washington, DC, and is finally absorbed into the CIA itself. Despite begging his handlers at every turn to permit him to return to his wife and children in rural China, Shang is progressively more and more generously rewarded as he rises through the ranks through three decades. He marries an American woman and fathers a daughter, the principal narrator of the novel. The tale is told decades following Shang’s unmasking and conviction of espionage, in first-person chapters narrated by his Chinese-American daughter alternating with third-person accounts of Shang’s life through the decades.

The author, Ha Jin, experienced first-hand the tumultuous events portrayed in A Map of Betrayal, having lived his first three decades in China. His depiction of the Great Leap Forward and the tragic famine that followed, the Cultural Revolution, and the internecine warfare within the Chinese Communist Party during and after Mao’s final years is the stuff history is made of. By placing his protagonist at the center of US-China relations during the 1960s and 70s, Jin tells the little-known story of the touch-and-go relationship of the two aggressive world powers with a knowing touch, showing an understanding of the complex dynamics at work on both sides.

A Map of Betrayal is not a cookie-cutter spy novel. The suspense (not knowing) is subtle, and the action moves forward at a deliberative pace. In the end, the book is fully satisfying for its insight into the complex human dynamics at play in any difficult relationship — and what relationship isn’t?

Jin Xuefei, who writes under the pen name Ha Jin, joined the People’s Liberation Army during the Cultural Revolution, leaving at age nineteen for university studies. A decade later, he was on a scholarship at Brandeis University when the Chinese government violently suppressed the student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The incident moved him to emigrate and to write in English “to preserve the integrity of his work.” The author of numerous novels and volumes of poetry and short stories, he has won a passel of literary awards, including the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. He currently teaches at Boston University.


Leon Trotsky, Diego Rivera, and the Red Scare

Leon TrotskyThe Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When years ago I read The Poisonwood Bible, I was flummoxed by its power and beauty. It was clear to me that Barbara Kingsolver possessed a fierce talent not just as a storyteller but also as a wordsmith and a reporter. Her vivid prose brought into high relief the tragic reality of life in the 1960s in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo. Much later I read (and reviewed) Kingsolver’s recent novel, Flight Behavior, a meditation on the impact of climate change that underlies a tale of life and love in the author’s native Appalachia. Though less compelling than Poisonwood, Flight Behavior was brilliant in its own way.

All of which is why I was so taken aback when I had difficulty getting into The Lacuna, Kingsolver’s intensely political historical novel of the Mexican Revolution, the Depression in the US, and the anti-Communist frenzy following World War II. On my first try, I set the book aside, finding its open chapters confusing. Then I tried again, no doubt in a more receptive mood, and I fell in love with the work. I found I simply couldn’t resist the insight Kingsolver brings to her work. Here, for example, is a snippet of dialogue from the mouth of a minor character in the novel, commenting on the Red Scare:

“You force people to stop asking questions, and before you know it they have auctioned off the question mark, or sold it for scrap. No boldness. No good ideas for fixing what’s broken in the land. Because if you happen to mention it’s broken, you are automatically disqualified.”

By the way, how is that so different from the Know-Nothing attitudes holding sway today in the United States Congress?

The protagonist of The Lacuna is Harrison Shepherd, a writer of best-selling historical romance novels set in the empires of the Aztecs and the Maya. Born shortly after World War I, son of a minor American federal official and a desperate Mexican woman who sees him as a mealticket, Shepherd crosses borders to become a first-hand witness to the Bonus Army march and encampment in Washington under Herbert Hoover, the rise to fame of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, the assassination of Leon Trotsky, and the slow, painful unfolding of the Red Scare that seized hold of the United States in the early years of the Cold War.

The Lacuna is crammed with unforgettable portraits of historic figures. Chief among them are Diego Rivera and his on-again, off-again wife, Frida Kahlo, who fairly leap off the page with the passion that drove them to artistic heights. The dialogue between Kahlo and the protagonist, Harrison Shepherd, is among the most lively and engaging I’ve ever read anywhere (yes, even including Elmore Leonard). Kingsolver’s equally brilliant rendering of the artists’ houseguest, “Leon” (Lev Davidovich) Trotsky, is alone worth the price of this extraordinary book.

Better than anything else I’ve ever read, The Lacuna depicts the desperation of the Depression years, the topsy-turvy uncertainties of the Mexican Revolution, and the insanity of the anti-Communist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and 50s. That’s a lot to cram between the covers of a single novel.

If this book intrigues you, check out 75 readable and revealing historical novels. This novel is included.

August 14, 2014

Nixon, Kissinger, and the genocide history has ignored

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

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

When Americans today think of Richard Nixon, four or five episodes in his public life usually come to mind: Watergate, the Cambodia invasion, the opening to China, his TV debates with John F. Kennedy, and, perhaps, his kitchen confrontation with Nikita Khrushchev when still Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president. Nixon’s frantic efforts to sanitize his record — including ten books he wrote after resigning from the presidency — and the cult of secrecy that envelops the US government have obscured another history-changing episode: his and Henry Kissinger’s inexcusable collaboration in murdering hundreds of thousands of people in 1971 in what today is Bangladesh.

Nixon and Kissinger 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.

Acting out of spite toward Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi (whom they loathed) and disdain for all Indians in general (whom they dismissed as liars) as well as inexplicable regard for Pakistan’s brutal (and reportedly stupid) military dictator Yahya Kahn, Nixon and Kissinger forced the US government into taking sides between the two bitter enemies. They actively supported the Pakistani military’s genocidal campaign in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) to suppress the popular democratic movement that had won a huge election majority there.

Despite continuing resistance from the Foreign Service, the State Department hierarchy, and sometimes the Pentagon and the White House staff as well, the two men shipped arms and ammunition to the Pakistani army again and again as it marched throughout East Pakistan, murdering at least 300,000 Bengalis (most of them Hindus) and forcing ten million of them across the border into India as refugees.

Their support for Yahya was so single-minded that Nixon and Kissinger revealed highly classified information to the Chinese leadership in hopes of persuading them to move troops to the Indian border to disrupt Indian plans to halt the genocide. Even worse, considering the Soviet Union to be India’s faithful ally, they warned the USSR to back off, running a real risk of nuclear confrontation. The whole sad business finally ended only when India attacked and trounced the Pakistani army, freeing the East Bengals to establish an independent Bangladesh.

If Bangladesh to you is merely a faraway place where thousands die in collapsing garment factories, you may need a brief lesson in the geopolitics of 1971 to understand just how important these actions were. Anti-communist rhetoric was still the order of the day in Washington, especially under Richard Nixon, who’d made his career on the backs of liberals he accused of softness on Communism. In Moscow, Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin called the shots, and Mao Tse-Tung was still very much in control of China, his Cultural Revolution engulfing the country.

Partly out of his own instincts and partly under the tutelage of Henry Kissinger, then the head of his National Security Council, Nixon looked on the world cold-bloodedly through the lens of the 19th century concept of the “balance of power.” Since the USSR and China were then at odds, having fought a series of border skirmishes, it behooved the USA to drive an even deeper wedge between them. Hence, Nixon’s opening to China, still a closely-held secret while the events in East Pakistan began to unfold. Similarly, since India relied on the Soviet Union for arms — the US would sell her none — then it was convenient for Nixon and Kissinger to support any move by Pakistan. In any case they liked its dictator far more on a personal level than the elected prime minister of the world’s largest democracy. A contributing factor was Yahya Kahn’s personal role in facilitating the now-famous dialogue involving Nixon, Kissinger, Mao, and Chinese Foreign Secretary Chou En-Lai, serving as their go-between.

Geopolitics aside, what is most troubling about this episode is the extent to which Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s mean-spirited personalities dominated their policies — dismissing out of hand as Indian propaganda repeated warnings from their own Foreign Service about the use of American arms in Pakistan’s genocidal campaign, trash-talking about every Indian leader involved in the events, and shrugging off warnings from the State Department, the Pentagon, and even their own White House that they were breaking US law.

You might also like to take a look at 14 of the best recent nonfiction books.


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