Tag Archives for " History "
Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Historians of the ancient world have been telling us for centuries that from about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago larger and larger human communities formed in places like the Fertile Crescent, South China, the Indus River Valley of today’s western India and Pakistan, and Central America. To secure enough food once their population had grown to a level unsustainable by hunting and gathering, those communities turned to agriculture. Food surpluses, seized by local rulers, enabled the establishment of the empires that dominated the world.
However, as modern scholarship has shown, little of that is true. Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States by James C. Scott tells a somewhat different story that will challenge everything you’ve been taught about ancient history.
For example, by about 10,000 BCE, small human communities had begun to form, domesticating plants and animals, irrigating crops, and growing some of their own food while obtaining the rest from the land around them. In other words, humans were tilling the soil thousands of years before the first empires even began to form. Even “[s]lavery was not invented by the state. Various forms of enslavement individual and communal, were widely practiced among nonstate peoples.” However, “civilized societies” perpetuated and expanded the institution. “As Adam Hochschild observed, as late as 1800 roughly three-quarters of the world’s population could be said to be living in bondage.”
The conventional view that life grew gradually better once states and then empires (“civilization”) had begun to take shape is simply wrong. Archaeological evidence has shown that people lived longer and healthier lives as hunter-gatherers. Their diet was more varied, and they suffered fewer diseases. They grew taller and lived longer. They worked far less time to secure food, fuel, and other resources than farmers engaged in backbreaking work tilling wheat, barley, rice, millet, or other grain crops. (Why the emphasis on grain? Because only with predictable and measurable grain crops could elites collect taxes.)
Early human communities were, as Scott asserts, “multispecies resettlement camps.” Both humans and animals clumped together in ever-larger numbers. Because of the crowding, epidemic disease became common among both people and animals. Infant mortality soared. Domesticated animals steadily became smaller than the wild species from which they originated. Humans, too, grew shorter and died earlier, partly from a diet almost exclusively limited to grain and partly from the effects of disease. “[V]irtually all the infectious diseases due to microorganisms specifically adapted to Homo sapiens came into existence only in the past ten thousand years, many of them perhaps only in the past five thousand. They were, in a strong sense, a ‘civilizational effect.’”
“[A]n even-handed species history would give the state a far more modest role than it is normally accorded,” Scott notes. The earliest states were fragile, ephemeral constructs that frequently fell to the ravages of disease or marauding pastoralists. They were “minuscule affairs both demographically and geographically. They were a mere smudge on the map of the ancient world and not much more than a rounding error in a total global population estimated at roughly twenty-five million in the year 2,000 BCE . . . Even at the height of the Roman and early Han ‘superstates,’ the area of their effective control would have been stunningly modest.” Nonetheless, historians typically focus on states and empires (since written records make history possible, and writing came into use only in settled communities). But it was not until about 1,600 CE that established states encompassed most human populations—in other words, fewer than 500 years ago. For many thousands of years before then, hunter-gatherers and pastoralists greatly outnumbered the grain-growers who lived in cities.
Against the Grain is full of surprises. What I’ve cited above is only a smattering of the book’s revelations.
Here’s another: Fire was first harnessed by hominids 400,000 years ago, long before we human beings appeared on the scene. Scott regards fire as the most consequential tool in human history. Fire made cooking possible. In turn, cooking “allows Homo sapiens to eat far less food and expend far fewer calories extracting nutrition from it . . . It allowed early man to gather and eat a far wider range of foods than before”—and archaeological evidence shows this is associated with the increasing size of our brains.
Reading Against the Grain is likely to upend your understanding of ancient history. But it’s tough going. I found myself rushing to the dictionary on virtually every other page. Scott uses words that I would swear have never seen the light of day anywhere else but obscure academic papers and technical dictionaries.
James C. Scott confesses in his preface that he is “an amateur” historian but “a card-carrying political scientist and an anthropologist and environmentalist by courtesy.” Against the Grain offers a multidisciplinary approach to ancient history—what elsewhere is called “Big History.” Although Scott primarily turns his attention to Mesopotamia, where the first states appear to have been established, he extends his arguments to all the other regions where “civilization” first emerged.
If you’re intrigued by this new, multidisciplinary approach to history, you’ll enjoy seeing my post, 8 great books on Big History: New perspectives on world history.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
The brilliant Indian author Amitav Ghosh is one of India’s greatest gifts to readers the world over. His deeply affecting historical novels relate the history of South Asia in fascinating detail, reflecting years of intensive research, both on-site and archival. Anchored securely in time and place, Ghosh’s characters virtually leap off the page. They’re hard to forget.
The Glass Palace is a case in point. The novel sprawls across more than a century of Burma’s history, from the British invasion of northern Burma in 1885 until 1999. The story opens in the Mandalay neighborhood surrounding the residence and seat of government of Burma’s last king, Thebaw Min. In the palatial surroundings of his palace, Thebaw awaits the arrival of British troops who have moved up from the south to incorporate the kingdom as a whole in their empire. With little ceremony, he, his ruthless queen, and their daughters are hustled down the Irawaddy to Rangoon. Then they are bundled onto a ship and sent to a small town on India’s west coast. There, Thebaw lived out his days in exile.
The central characters are Rajkumar Raha and Dolly, a handmaid to the Second Princess. She is ten years old as the novel opens. Dolly is “a timid, undemonstrative child with enormous eyes and a dancer’s pliable body and supple limbs.” Rajkumar, who is just one year older, is a poverty-stricken orphan stranded in Mandalay by the captain of the ship he had crewed. When the two are briefly thrown together in the chaos surrounding the British invasion, Rajkumar instantly falls in love with Dolly. He remains smitten for many years until they meet again near the residence of the exiled king in India.
Though the focus in The Glass Palace is the history of Burma, the conflict at the core of the tale is the three-way tension between the Burmese, the British, and the Indian businessmen such as Rajkumar became as an adult. It’s essential to the story to note that two-thirds of the troops in the British invasion force were Indian as well, a great many of them Sikhs from the Punjab. The story leaps from 1885 to 1905 to 1914 to 1941 to the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, through four generations of the descendants of Rajkumar, Dolly, and their close friends. The key chapters devoted to the Second World War in Burma and Malaya are especially affecting. If, like me, you had no prior knowledge of Burma’s history, you’re sure to get a vivid picture of the events that most deeply shaped its evolution before the 21st century.
In addition to the Burmese King and Queen, there are several other historical figures that enter into this story: Mahatma Gandhi; Subhas Chandra Bose, the right-wing extremist who led the Indian National Army against the British in the Second World War; General Aung San, Burma’s independence leader, who was assassinated before taking office as president; and Aung San’s daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, who now serves as the country’s preeminent elected leader.
The Glass Palace was published in 2000. Amitav Ghosh is better known for his later Ibis Trilogy. I reviewed all three novels by this extraordinary Indian author at A superb historical novel about the opium trade by Amitav Ghosh (Sea of Poppies, 2008), A brilliant Indian novel about the first Opium War (River of Smoke, 2011), and An outstanding Indian novelist looks at the Opium War (Flood of Fire, 2015). And for a long list of other historical novels I’ve enjoyed, go to 75 readable and revealing historical novels.
Astronomy. Epidemiology. Lexicography. Microbiology. These are among the thirty different scientific fields discussed and explained in the thirty-three excellent books about science that I’ve read and reviewed. I’m listing them here in alphabetical order by the fields’ names. Each is linked to my review. (If a link comes up short, just go to www.malwarwickonbooks.com and search for the title.)
Animal Husbandry: Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer
Astronomy: Beyond: Our Future in Space, by Chris Impey
Atmospheric Science: Caesar’s Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us, by Sam Kean
Gastroenterology: Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, by Mary Roach
General Science: A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson
Medical Research: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot
Military Science: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War, by Mary Roach
Personality Psychology: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain
Psychiatry: NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, by Steve Silberman
@@ (2 out of 5)
I’m a big fan of satire. For instance, I love Christopher Buckley‘s books. Some of them make me laugh almost nonstop. But there’s nothing worse than a satirical tale that. Just. Isn’t. Funny. Unfortunately, that’s what I found in Bellwether by Connie Willis. Apparently, Willis wrote the novel to satirize scientists and corporate bureaucracy. But the characters and their behavior are over the top. To call them outrageous might be a compliment. A little restraint would have gone a long way.
So, how did I get sucked into reading this book in the first place, much less read it all the way to the end? Connie Willis is an extraordinarily talented science fiction and fantasy author. She has won eleven Hugo Awards and seven Nebula Awards—more major awards than any other writer in the field. Years ago, I was greatly impressed by her 1992 Nebula Award-winner about time travel, Doomsday Book. And the cover of Bellwether characterizes her (justifiably) as “one of science fiction’s best writers.” Unaccountably, Bellwether, published five years after Doomsday Book, was itself nominated for a Nebula Award. Suffice it to say that if I had been voting—I’m a long-time member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, though no longer a voting member—I would have gone for something much more in line with my idea of science fiction. Bellwether doesn’t cut it.
The novel’s protagonist is one Sandra Foster. She calls herself a scientist and engages in lots of mathematical calculations to prove it. She is analyzing fads and fashions for the unimaginatively named HiTek Company, presumably in an effort to discover how fads start and “how scientific discoveries come about.” (The connection between these two lines of inquiry is not obvious to me.) Management (capital “M”)—a person, not a category—of HiTek is interested in her work, she believes, because he is eager to learn how to start fads himself. Sandy is plagued by the rudeness and incompetence of the “interdepartmental assistant” who misdelivers mail, starts ugly rumors, and refuses to take on routine assignments such as photocopying. Compounding problems for Sandy, Management is obsessed with impossibly long forms on paper, which are impossible to understand, and with the latest acronym-laden management theory, which changes every few days. As I said, the story is over the top. But the situation becomes even more intolerable when Management decides that the entire scientific staff must bear down in an effort to win the prestigious, million-dollar Niebnitz Grant.
Each chapter in Bellwether begins with a brief description of one or another fad that has captivated humanity through the ages, from the hula hoop to quality circles, miniature golf, hot pants, coonskin caps, chain letters, and many more. Some of this material is interesting. But there’s entirely too much of it.
Eventually, Sandy teams up with a researcher in chaos theory named Bennett O’Reilly. Absurdly, Ben is attempting to learn what sets chaotic conditions in motion, apparently believing there must be some logic in a complex system. Will Sandy and Ben fall in love? Will they win the Niebnitz Grant? You shouldn’t have to read this book to figure it out.
For a successful effort at satire, see Self-help gurus get their comeuppance from Christopher Buckley or Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel of politics and diplomacy today.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Donald Trump has been in the White House for six months as I write. His approval rating today (July 25, 2017) stands at 38.9%, according to an average of national polls on Nate Silver’s widely read blog, FiveThirtyEight. His disapproval rating is nearly 20 points higher. These numbers establish him as the most unpopular president since World War II as measured six months into his term (although Gerald Ford came close because of his pardon of Richard Nixon). Meanwhile, Trump’s major initiatives—the ban on Islamic refugees, the plan to build a border wall and make Mexico pay for it, the pledge to spend $1 trillion on rebuilding infrastructure, and the effort to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act—have all failed to gain traction so far. Given all that, combined with his proclivity to lash out in fury at friend and foe alike, Donald Trump has become the Republican Party’s worst nightmare (not to mention the rest of us)..
The new book Devil’s Bargain: Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, and the Storming of the Presidency by BloombergBusinesweek senior national correspondent Joshua Green attempts to explain both why the notoriously self-promoting developer and reality-TV star came to be in the White House—and why his presidency is failing. The case Green makes, singling out alt-right provocateur Steve Bannon for a large measure of the responsibility, is persuasive if not entirely convincing. He writes, “Trump needed him. Practically alone among his advisers, Bannon had had an unshakable faith that the billionaire reality-TV star could prevail—and a plan to get him there.” At another point, Green notes that “Trump wouldn’t be president if it weren’t for Bannon.” However, whenever an analyst looks for a single explanation for a complex historical event, it’s always best to view it with a skeptical eye. History is rarely so easily explained. If there is anything close to a single explanation for the chaos, incompetence, and amoral behavior in the White House, it lies in the singular personality of Donald Trump himself.
In Devil’s Bargain, Green weaves together three stories: the unfolding of Trump’s presidential campaign before Steve Bannon took charge during its last two months; how Bannon came to hold the extremist beliefs he professes; and how the relationship between Trump and Bannon grew, matured, and eventually cooled. The focus is on the election campaign, with an insider’s description of the Trump campaign on election night, November 8, 2016, opening and closing the book. Green writes well, star journalist that he is. Though a good deal of what he writes has come to light in press reports during the past year and a half, Green tells the tale well. It’s full of personal observations that could only have come from the players themselves.
In a recent post, Why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election, I reviewed Shattered, two other journalists’ take on the election, but from the perspective of the Clinton campaign. Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes found the explanation for Clinton’s loss in the character and the conduct of the candidate herself. By contrast, Green leans toward viewing Steve Bannon as primarily responsible for Trump’s victory. Just as Allen and Barnes overlooked the four decades of the country’s steady drift rightward, Green seems to underestimate the role Donald Trump himself in winning the presidency. It’s clear to me that Trump possesses limited intelligence, but he is unquestionably shrewd and manifests unusually sharp political instincts (even if he doesn’t often follow them as president).
In Green’s view, Bannon believes most of what he professes. He seems to think that Trump believes very little of what he says. For example, Green observes that when Trump met Bannon, “his views changed. Trump took up Bannon’s populist nationalism.” At another point he notes, “Trump ran against the Republican Party, Wall Street, and Paul Ryan, but then took up their agenda.” Certainly, Trump’s views have flip-flopped again and again, and Green documents many specific instances in which Trump clearly took a stand on an issue strictly because it helped advance his campaign. But Green overlooks the pattern of Trump’s virtually nonstop lying. It’s difficult to tell whether the erstwhile reality-TV star believes in anything at all other than his own importance.
Devil’s Bargain may not be the last word on one of the most important presidential elections in American history. But in the absence of anything even more authoritative, it’s an excellent beginning.
Given my interest in US politics, it will be no surprise that Devil’s Bargain and Shattered are not the only books I’ve read about the contemporary political scene. For my review of another, John Judis’ The Populist Explosion, see Donald Trump: populism, or fascism? Two others are at How the Koch brothers are revolutionizing American politics and Al Franken’s memoir is revealing, insightful—and funny.
In recent years I’ve read and reviewed 13 nonfiction books published in the 21st Century about aspects of American foreign policy. I’m listing them here, in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Each title is linked to my longer review.
Though little known outside the realm of specialists, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger collaborated with the Pakistani government in murdering hundreds of thousands of people in 1971 in what today is Bangladesh. Their complicity in that genocidal event has finally come to light in Gary J. Bass’ outstanding work of modern history, The Blood Telegram. Bass, a professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University, makes effective use of newly opened secret archives and other primary sources as well as interviews with many of the surviving players in the drama.
Racist attitudes were so prevalent and unchallenged in the U.S. at the turn of the 20th Century that the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—the founder of anthropology in the country—could observe, “The Aryan family represents the central stream of progress, because it produced the highest type of mankind, and because it has proved its intrinsic superiority by gradually assuming control of the earth.” In hindsight, then, it should be no surprise that such celebrated figures as President Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Howard Taft, would speak openly about America’s “destiny” to dominate Asia and the Pacific, imposing the benefits of Aryan civilization on the “Pacific niggers” (their term for Filipinos) and “Chinks.” This is the persistent theme of best-selling author James Bradley’s portrayal of Roosevelt and Taft in The Imperial Cruise.
James Bradley argues in The China Mirage that cultural and historical ignorance, political miscalculation, bitter bureaucratic infighting, and media manipulation led not just to U.S. involvement in World War II but, by extension, in the wars in Korea and Vietnam as well. Bradley regards all three wars as having been unnecessary. While his argument may be overextended, the book is filled with fascinating accounts of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the China Lobby, the rise of the Soong family to power in China, the origins of the oil embargo that triggered Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Chinese Revolution.
When it comes to Iran, the purveyors of news have done an especially poor job of keeping us informed. As David Crist makes clear in this illuminating report on the three decades of conflict, tension, miscalculation, and profound misunderstanding that have characterized our two countries’ relationship, we have indeed engaged in what can only be described as war for several extended periods. And when I say war, I mean soldiers, sailors, and air force pilots shooting at one another, laying mines, launching missiles at ships and ground facilities, and generally forcing one or both of the two governments to decide between escalation and retreat. The book is full of surprises.
Though the U.S., Great Britain, and France all withheld support for the Spanish Republic, three other leading powers of the day plunged into the conflict with enthusiasm: Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini regarded the war in Spain as a dress rehearsal for the larger conflict to follow. Their lavish support for Generalissimo Franco in the form of airplanes, tanks, rifles, artillery, and some 100,000 soldiers and airmen was decisive (80,000 from Italy, 19,000 from Germany, in addition to 20,000 from Portugal). Only the USSR faced off against the Nazis and Fascists, supplying weapons and ammunition, and its support was a mixed blessing: Stalin sold Spain ancient weapons at inflated prices. He also dispatched hardline political commissars to weed out anyone who didn’t rigidly follow the Party line, and their ruthless behavior was surely a factor in the defeat of the Republic. Some 2,500 American volunteers and a passel of American reporters (including many famous names) waded into the midst of this maelstrom. Adam Hochschild does a brilliant job bringing the era and the people of the time back to life.
Award-winning journalist Stephen Kinzer draws our attention to the principal figures in the two factions that lined up in opposition to each other before the Spanish-American War. What might be termed the imperialist faction was led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, then-New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, and publisher William Randolph Hearst. These three men were largely responsible for pushing the United States into war with Spain. Former U.S. Senator and Union Army general Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, former President Grover Cleveland, and later Andrew Carnegie led the opposition. Mark Twain came to the debate belatedly, becoming the most recognizable voice of the anti-imperialist movement once Roosevelt was in the White House. Superficial histories of the years just before and after the turn of the 20th Century give the impression that America’s drive to war with Spain and the seizure of its overseas colonies was irresistible and inevitable. Kinzer makes abundantly clear that this was not the case.
In the years 1933-41, a passion for isolationism and growing anti-Semitism gripped the American psyche, keeping President Roosevelt from speaking out against the growth of Nazism and the ever-tightening vise of oppression and violence directed at Germany’s tiny Jewish minority (about one percent of the population). In the Garden of Beasts, a finely-crafted and exhaustively researched little book, casts a considerable amount of light on the reasons underlying this shameful episode in American history. It’s the story of Professor William Dodd and his family, beginning in the year 1933 when Roosevelt appointed him Ambassador to Germany. In an admirably restrained manner, Erik Larson portrays their initial sympathy and support for the Nazi regime, turning gradually to revulsion and leading eventually to Dodd’s becoming one of the most prominent anti-Nazi lecturers in the United States.
It seems exceedingly unlikely that President James K. Polk would come to many minds as an example of the most important men who have served in the office. Yet a very strong case could be made that Polk’s single four-year term (1845-49) was, indeed, among the most consequential times in U.S. history—and that Polk himself was the prime mover. Robert W. Merry powerfully advances that argument in A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War, and the Conquest of the American Continent. It was Polk who transformed the United States into a continental power. Earlier presidents—Thomas Jefferson (Louisiana Purchase), James Monroe (acquisition of Florida), Andrew Johnson (purchase of Alaska), and William McKinley (Gadsden Purchase)—indeed added considerable swaths of territory to the nation. But James K. Polk added all the rest, including nearly all the Southwest and all the Northwest of today’s United States. He led the country into a brutal, lopsided war with Mexico and negotiated with England over the northwest boundary of the U.S.
Some Americans seem to have the impression that the U.S. relationship with China began in 1972 when Richard Nixon flew to Beijing. In The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom, journalist and long-time Beijing resident John Pomfret puts this mistaken impression decisively to rest. In truth, the destinies of the two countries have been closely linked for more than a century—and began when the U.S. shed its identity as a British colony in 1776. As Pomfret writes, “America’s first fortunes were made in the China trade from 1783 until the early 1800s.” And American missionaries began arriving in the 1830s. Pomfret surveys the two-and-a-half centuries that have elapsed since English-turned-American traders first visited China. In fact, trade between the U.S. and China is one of the dominant themes of Pomfret’s analysis. Two other themes emerge clearly in The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: the disproportionately large role played by American Protestant missionaries, and the importance of U.S. influence both in building China’s educational system and in educating millions of Chinese in American universities. This is a fascinating book about a topic that few Americans understand clearly.
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.
One of democracy’s most remarkable characteristics is the sheer volume of closely guarded information that can be reported and published without resulting in jail time or torture for the authors. Counterstrike, a remarkable bit of longitudinal reporting by two veterans of the New York Times, brings to light a host of insights and behind-the-scene details about America’s decade-long campaign against Al Qaeda and its affiliates and imitators. The principal theme of Counterstrike is how in the course of the past decade “the government’s force of professional counterterrorism analysts has grown from a group small enough to know each other’s phone numbers to a vast army linked by supercomputers processing thousands of bits of data in nanoseconds.” And, by no means incidentally, spending tens of billions of dollars in the process. However, the overarching theme of Counterstrike is the gradual maturation of American counterterrorist policy in the opening decade of the 21st Century, shifting gradually from one bent simply on using brute force to kill or capture terrorists to a much more sophisticated and broad-based policy of deterrence drawn from the playbook of the Cold War.
The sheer scope of the Vietnam War was far greater than that of the U.S. military efforts in Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 10 times as many Americans died in Vietnam than in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Even more significantly, some 3.8 million Vietnamese died in that conflict, according to the best available estimate, while Iraqi and Afghan casualties are measured in hundreds of thousands. In Kill Anything That Moves, Nick Turse exposes the grim reality of the U.S. role in that war: the infamous My Lai Massacre was merely one of thousands of incidents in which American troops indiscriminately killed Vietnamese civilians.
Hitler and the SS became truly frenzied about exterminating the Jews of Europe only in the final stages of the war, when it was obvious to anyone (except perhaps Hitler himself) that Nazi Germany had lost. In 1944, Jay Winik brings to light how the U.S. State Department, many of whose officials were overtly anti-Semitic, took deliberate steps to sabotage any action by FDR’s White House to save at least some of the Jews. Winik recounts this story in excruciating detail: “the State Department was now using the machinery of government to prevent, rather than facilitate, the rescue of the Jews,” he writes. “The fear seemed to be, not that the Jews would be marched to their deaths, but that they would be sent to the Allied nations.” The Department has the blood of more than a million people staining its already sad record of amorality.
From the earliest days of the republic, the United States has been deeply engaged with other countries, despite George Washington’s famous admonition in his Farewell Address not to “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition.” (Contrary to accepted opinion, he didn’t use the term foreign entanglements.) France intervened in the American Revolution—in fact, our country might well not have gained its independence otherwise. During the presidencies of Washington and John Adams, New England merchantmen carried on a lively trade with China. When Jefferson was in office, he sent the U.S. Navy and a detachment of Marines to battle the Barbary Pirates. In 1812-14, during the administration of James Madison, the U.S. was at war with Great Britain—again. Later that decade, under the presidency of James Monroe, American troops under the command of General Andrew Jackson seized key settlements in Florida, forcing Spain to cede the territory to the U.S. Throughout the 19th Century, the U.S. Army and American settlers collaborated in a continuing campaign to annex the territory of more than 600 Indian nations. In mid-century, when James K. Polk lived in the White House, the U.S. grabbed more than 500,000 square miles of territory from Mexico. The trade in cotton with Great Britain made many Southerners rich and provided them with a “justification” to enslave African-Americans by the millions. During the latter half of the 19th Century, foreign investment in American railroads, the bonds of state governments, and manufacturing played a central role in financing the Industrial Revolution in the United States. The country was “the world’s largest recipient of foreign capital,” and thus the world’s greatest debtor nation. Then William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt ushered in the age of American imperialism—and the country has never since stopped entangling itself in foreign affairs, despite recurring bouts of isolationism.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
In the literature of alternate history, Nazi Germany often wins World War II. Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Fatherland by Robert Harris, and Jo Walton’s Farthing Trilogy (Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown, all reviewed here) are prominent examples. There are many others, of which the one I’ve read most recently is SS-GB by the British thriller writer Len Deighton.
It’s November 1941. World War II ended in Europe on February 19 when Great Britain surrendered to Nazi Germany. A puppet Prime Minister has replaced Winston Churchill, who is imprisoned in Germany. King George VI is being held in the Tower of London. Jews have been rounded up and sent “to the notorious concentration camp at Wenlock Edge.” A curfew is in effect in London. Rationing is severe throughout the occupied zone. Thousands of British soldiers are being held in POW camps or in forced labor camps on the Continent. Everywhere, there are “signs of battle damage unrepaired from the street fighting of the previous winter. Shell craters, and heaped rubble, were marked only by yellow tapes, soiled and drooping between roughly made stakes.”
At Scotland Yard, Detective Superintendent Douglas Archer reports to SS General Fritz Kellerman, “whose police powers extended over the whole country.” The Superintendent is “Archer of the Yard,” “the Sherlock Holmes of the 1940s.” He’s the country’s most famous detective because of his success in closing several high-profile murder cases. Archer and “the other half of the murder team,” Sergeant Harry Woods, are investigating a mysterious murder when they receive word that an SS Colonel is coming from Germany under express orders from Reichsfürer Heinrich Himmler to take over the case. Archer will now report to the new man, Dr. Oskar Huth. Huth lives up to the reputation of the SS for arrogance and ruthlessness. As the story advances, the murder case becomes fraught with connections to high-level intrigue. Archer, Huth, and Kellerman warily circle around each other in a high-stakes game that puts all their careers—and their lives—at risk.
Meanwhile, Resistance to the German occupation is growing. As one woman remarks to Archer, “‘In the towns it’s just bombs and murdering German soldiers. In the country districts there are bigger groups, who ambush German motorized patrols . . . ‘” But Resistance is underway at a much higher level: senior British officials in the puppet government are plotting to release the King from the Tower and spirit him off to the United States, where he can lead an eventual effort to bring the Nazis to account. Archer discovers that his seemingly straightforward murder investigation is closely related to this plot—and he becomes deeply involved in the dangerous action that follows.
Not only did Deighton live through World War II as a teenager—he was born in 1929—he thoroughly researched this topic. SS-GB is alternate history of the first rank.
Len Deighton is often ranked with John le Carre and Ian Fleming in the pantheon of spy novelists. His most familiar books include The Ipcress File, Funeral in Berlin, and the Samson series (Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match, and subsequent novels). At this writing, he is 88 years old.
Less than three decades ago an American historian named David Christian who was teaching at an Australian university at the time launched a new approach to world history. His unique take on the subject took the discipline far beyond the limits of the written word. Calling it Big History, Christian started his new course at the beginning of time itself: the Big Bang.
Christian enlisted guest lecturers from the fields of astrophysics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, biology, and other scientific fields. Incorporating their specialized knowledge into his comprehensive survey of Big History, Christian summed up what is known about the birth of the universe, the emergence of stars, the formation of the Earth, the turbulent formation and shifting of the continents, and the painfully slow advent of the most primitive, single-celled life. From this perspective, the several million years since humans first emerged, much less the 5,000 years of recorded history, must be seen as only the latest and briefest chapter in a story that will continue for billions of years longer.
Since Christian’s inspired initiative, others have flocked to the new discipline. A body of Big History literature has begun to emerge. The best-known contribution to the new discipline is Jared Diamond’s bestselling book, Guns, Germs, and Steel. But others have made notable contributions as well, adding insight and perspective to our understanding of our place in the universe.
Below I’ve listed eight books I’ve read and reviewed in my own venture into Big History. Not all span the life of the universe. But they all survey world history with the broad strokes that characterize this fresh approach to understanding how the past affects today’s world. They’re listed in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names, and all are linked to my reviews. I recommend them all. I also recommend the 48-lecture course David Christian recorded for The Great Courses. It’s titled Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity. This is world history as it should be taught.
The geologist who explained to us how the dinosaurs went extinct ventures outside his academic bailiwick to track the story of the Earth from its earliest antecedents in the Big Bang to the emergence of homo sapiens as the dominant form of life on the planet. Emphasizing geological events throughout, he illustrates how radical changes in the natural environment have shaped the course of human events—and the very nature of our bodies themselves.
While David Christian leaned on colleagues in the sciences to carry the story for its first 13.65 billion years, Cynthia Stokes Brown took it all on herself. With a good deal of simplification but relatively few obvious errors, she surveys the prehistorical past with great skill. For anyone who thinks history is the story of wars and generals and presidents, Big History is a worthy remedy.
It’s easy to get the impression that science has answered all the big questions and is spending more and more time and money focusing on the little ones. Read Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, and you will quickly be disabused of that illusion. Truth to tell, the human race is still abysmally ignorant of some of the most fundamental matters that determine how, why, and where we live.
Published 20 years ago, Diamond’s thesis is the only persuasive argument I’ve ever encountered for the huge wealth gap between the “West” and the “developing” nations of the Global South. He finds the roots of the problem in the history of the last 13,000 years. This is one of the most important books of the last half-century.
Harari sees history as divided by three broad-brush “revolutions”: the Cognitive Revolution, about 70,000 years ago, when Homo sapiens acquired the gift of speech and began to walk out of Africa; the Agricultural Revolution, which began around 10,000 years ago and ushered in a new world of towns, cities, empires, and a fast-growing human population; and the Scientific Revolution, only about 500 years old, which has shaped the world as we know it today. Big History, indeed.
Forget just about everything you learned in school about the peoples who lived in the Western Hemisphere before 1492—and about the land, too. It turns out that yesterday’s historians, anthropologists, paleontologists, and ecologists got it pretty much all wrong. Latter-day investigations in all these fields have turned up persuasive evidence that the Americas before Columbus were far more heavily populated, the leading civilizations far more sophisticated, and their origins far further back in time than earlier generations of scholars had suspected.
Chances are, you’re aware that the potato originated in Peru and smallpox in Africa, and that both species crossed the Atlantic shortly after Columbus. You probably know, too, that the potato later became a staple in many European countries and that smallpox decimated the native population of the Americas. However, what you may not know is how profound was the impact on the course of history of the much more extensive exchange of animals, plants, minerals, and microorganisms from the Old World to and from the New. Historians call this phenomenon the Columbian Exchange. From the perspective of Big History, this event was one of the most significant phenomena of the last 13,000 years.
Five years after Jared Diamond’s path-breaking book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, historian and archeologist Ian Morris laid out his own, more comprehensive view of the course of human history, reaching back 15,000 years and venturing into the 22nd Century. While many historians still engaged in the stale debate about whether “Great Men” or social forces are dominant in world history, Diamond and Morris convincingly laid out the case for the greater influence of the larger context in which human history takes place, delving into biology, sociology, and archaeology as well as history itself.
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In The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire, award-winning journalist and author Stephen Kinzer recalls the four-year period 1898-1902, when the United States made its debut as a world power. The central event in this story was the U.S. seizure of Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines and the annexation of Hawaii, all in 1898.
Drawing on the newspapers and magazines of the times and on historical archives, Kinzer recalls the debates surrounding these events in colorful detail. His stated aim is to examine the central question of U.S. foreign policy: “Should we defend our freedom, or turn inward and ignore growing threats? Put differently: Should we charge violently into faraway lands, or allow others to work out their own destinies?” Kinzer’s thesis is that American entry into war with Spain in 1898 marked the crucial turning point in this debate. That brief, inglorious conflict represented the advent of the U.S. as a world power.
To bring focus to his story, the author casts a spotlight on the debate between President Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain. The book’s subtitle frames this picture. As Kinzer writes, the two were “deliciously matched. Their views on life, freedom, duty, and the nature of human happiness could not have been further apart . . . Roosevelt considered colonialism a form of ‘Christian charity.’ Twain pictured Christendom as ‘a majestic matron in flowing robes drenched with blood.’” Unfortunately, the emphasis on these two men is misleading. Others played much larger roles in the crucial years of 1898-1900 than Twain did. He came into the picture later, as Kinzer himself clearly explains.
Kinzer draws our attention to the principal figures in the two factions that lined up before the Spanish-American War. What might be termed the imperialist faction was led by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, then New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt, and publisher William Randolph Hearst. These three men were largely responsible for pushing the United States into war with Spain. Former U.S. Senator and Union Army general Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, former President Grover Cleveland, and later Andrew Carnegie led the opposition. Mark Twain came to the debate belatedly, becoming the most recognizable voice of the anti-imperialist movement once Roosevelt was in the White House.
Kinzer depicts Teddy Roosevelt as bloodthirsty and racist to the core. In the 1890s, “Roosevelt racked his brain to find a possible enemy. ‘I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one.’ he wrote in 1895.” Henry Cabot Lodge and William Randolph Hearst gave him the war he craved, Lodge from his seat in the U.S. Senate and Hearst by manipulating public opinion through his influential newspaper chain. As Kinzer makes clear, Lodge was the driving force in Roosevelt’s career. It was he who persuaded President McKinley to name the young New Yorker assistant secretary of the Navy, then gained him the nomination as Governor of New York, and later maneuvered him into the Vice Presidency. From there, of course, Roosevelt succeeded to the Presidency upon McKinley’s assassination in 1901. Lodge viewed Roosevelt as his agent to lead the nation onto the world stage. The two men were in touch on a daily basis throughout these crucial years.
Superficial histories of the years just before and after the turn of the 20th century give the impression that America’s drive to war with Spain and the seizure of its overseas colonies was irresistible and inevitable. Undoubtedly, “[t]his was the most popular war in American history . . . Americans had their first taste of overseas conquest, and they loved it.” But the sentiment was hardly universal. An Anti-Imperialist League spread nationwide from its base in New England, led by Carl Schurz, William Jennings Bryan, and Grover Cleveland. As Kinzer shows, the force these men represented was powerful. Debate erupted nationwide and greatly intensified as the U.S. grabbed the Philippines and went to war with its independence movement. In the U.S. Senate, the treaty to approve the acquisition of the Philippines was debated furiously for months and was only approved by the narrowest of margins—and then only because William Jennings Bryan changed sides at the last minute, swaying several Senators to switch and robbing the opponents of the treaty of a likely victory.
Most Americans date the beginning of what has come to be called the American empire to the Spanish-American War of 1898, as Kinzer does in his book. At any rate, that’s the story we’re taught as children. Truth to tell, however, the United States has been an imperialist nation (in the contemporary sense of the term) since the origins of our republic. Thomas Jefferson famously purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, doubling the size of the young nation. Then-General Andrew Jackson ousted the Spanish from Florida in 1818. James K. Polk led the U.S. into war with Mexico in 1846, adding an additional one-third to our territory and extending our reach to the Pacific Ocean. And none of this acknowledges our country’s genocidal wars against the Native American peoples who had lived on this land for at least 12,000 years before Europeans arrived. If these actions don’t constitute imperialism, the term means little. From time to time Kinzer quotes individuals who acknowledged this during those crucial years, so he doesn’t entirely overlook this history. But he fails to emphasize what surely is the most significant evidence that the foreign policy debate he writes about did not emerge whole in 1898.
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Here is Britain’s World War II as viewed through the perspective of five young people. Their varied and often cruel experiences stand in for the evil and disruption of the war that comes to upend all their lives. The action unfolds month by month from September 1939, when Britain enters the war, through June 1942. The larger events that come to dominate their lives are the London Blitz, the evacuation of British children from London to the countryside, the Nazi Blitzkrieg advance into northern France, the devastation of Allied shipping by Germany’s U-boats, and the siege of Malta, where British forces are trapped under siege from the German and Italian air forces.
Mary North rushes to volunteer for war service less than an hour after war is declared on Germany. She is 18, the daughter of a Conservative Member of Parliament who is angling for a place in the Cabinet. Expecting a glamorous role in intelligence, Mary is assigned instead as a schoolteacher for a classroom of children about to be evacuated to the countryside. She takes on the job with enthusiasm, quickly developing an unorthodox approach to teaching that engages the children.
One of Mary’s pupils, Zachary Lee, proves especially rebellious. He’s 11, an African-American whose father plays the leading role in a London minstrel show. Mary soon learns Zachary is severely dyslexic, though the term isn’t yet in use. She develops a special relationship with him in the face of the racist abuse he suffers every day. Determined to help nonetheless, she sets out to teach him to read and write despite his disability.
Tom Shaw, 23, decides to give the war a pass. He holds an administrative role in the ministry of education. When Mary is fired from her teaching job because she has befriended her students rather than acted in the dictatorial manner expected of her, she finds her way to Tom to demand another class to teach. It’s not long before they fall into bed together.
Meanwhile, Mary’s best friend, Hilda Appleby, wants only to find a husband. She is much less pretty than Mary and is constantly complaining that Mary steals the men she’s set her eyes on. This issue takes center stage when Tom and Mary bring Hilda together with Tom’s flatmate, Alistair Heath. Hilda falls for him, but Alistair has eyes only for Mary. Hilda’s jealousy strains her friendship with Mary.
All these relationships sound utterly conventional and uninteresting when described in shorthand, as I’ve done above. But there’s nothing conventional about the circumstances, which soon twist and warp their young lives. The Blitz and the Siege of Malta loom especially large, and none of their lives is ever the same. And there’s nothing the least bit tedious about the story as Chris Cleave tells it. His narrative style is captivating. The dialogue sparkles brightly, brimming over with wit. Especially in the early chapters I found myself laughing out loud as I came to fall in love with these finely drawn characters.
This is the history of World War II through a microscope, beautifully rendered.
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven is the fourth of Chris Cleave‘s novels. His first, Incendiary, was published in 20 countries and won major awards. My review is here. He is also the author of Little Bee, which appeared on US bestseller lists for months. Cleave is a columnist for the Guardian newspaper.