January 11, 1755 – Birthdate of Alexander Hamilton & Review of “Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged A Nation” by John Ferling

John Ferling, a respected scholar of the American Revolution, sets forth the ideological differences between two of our most influential Founding Fathers, Jefferson and Hamilton, and recounts the poisonous enmity between them that arose as a result. The story is relevant even today, since the bitter partisan divide America is now experiencing is quite similar to that which threatened to tear apart the fabric of the country apart in its infancy.


Ferling provides a more dispassionate (i.e., less hagiographic) portrait of the two men than many recent biographies. He is quite good at laying out the philosophies of these two great thinkers, and showing how much they both contributed to the tenor and construction of the new nation. Nevertheless, when it comes to dissecting the personal characteristics of the two men, Ferling goes easier on the shortcomings of Jefferson than he does on Hamilton, even making Hamilton sound a bit like he verged on insanity toward the end of his life.

Hamilton was certainly more volatile and impulsive than Jefferson, but the actions instigated by each of them ended up mirroring the other’s. The main difference, in my view, was that Hamilton was more open about his feelings and actions than Jefferson; Jefferson’s behaviors could be just as egregious, but he cleverly operated almost exclusively behind the scenes, using sycophantic lackeys to do his dirty work (most notably: Virginia Congressman William Branch Giles, newspaperman Philip Freneau, and future presidents James Madison and James Monroe). As Ron Chernow observed in his 2004 magisterial biography Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson was a “proficient political ventriloquist” who was “skilled at using proxies while keeping his own lips tightly sealed.” He used other men to hound Hamilton and discredit him, through whatever combination of truth and lies were necessary to accomplish that goal.

In spite of all the time and effort spent by each of these men in attacking the other, they also managed to make major contributions to the establishment of the American Republic. It was largely thanks to Hamilton that the nation was able to grow strong enough to overcome the defects it suffered when bound only by the Articles of Confederation. But Hamilton’s vision included the possibility of a nationstate bound to a plutocracy.

As for Jefferson, it was his radical egalitarian vision (at least in theory) that put into words the dream of equality of opportunity that still inspires those seeking freedom from oppression. (Nevertheless, no matter what interpretation later generations made of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson was a racist who “believed that blacks were slow, lazy, oversexed, less capable than whites of reasoning, and on the whole an inferior race.” They were, however, suitable for sexual exploitation. Although he claimed he wanted to abolish slavery, he did not want blacks, once freed, to remain in the country.)

Library of Congress photo of the only surviving fragment of the broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap and sent on July 6, 1776, to George Washington by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Library of Congress photo of the only surviving fragment of the broadside of the Declaration of Independence printed by John Dunlap and sent on July 6, 1776, to George Washington by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.

Ferling devotes some space to trying to explain Jefferson’s hypocritical divide between his professions about slavery and the actions he did, or rather, did not, take. Like other historians, Ferling makes a number of excuses for Jefferson. He does, however, admit that Jefferson absolutely would not consider emancipation without expatriation of freedmen and that “he refused to denounce the spread of slavery, and in private he made it clear that if the Union was torn asunder over the issue, he would stand with the South in defense of slavery.” Still, Ferling suggests that Jefferson was no worse than Washington, writing: “Like Washington, Jefferson made a conscious decision to keep others enslaved so that he might live the sumptuous life.”

But there were crucial differences between Washington and Jefferson on slavery. Washington, even Ferling admits, stated that if the Union broke up, he would move to the North and side with them, not with his home state of Virginia. Ferling does not go into Washington’s position on slavery in depth, presumably because it is beyond the purview of the book. But Washington not only struggled more with how to deal with slavery during his life, but would have freed his slaves at or before his death if he had been able to do so. Under the dower laws of the time, many of his slaves either belonged to Martha, or were married to slaves belonging to Martha. He refused to break up slave families, and Martha had no inclination to free her slaves. (After her husband died however, the slaves, who knew that Washington arranged for them to be freed when Martha died, were looking a little too happy for Martha’s comfort level, and she became uneasy that they would try to advance the date of her death. After a year, therefore, she freed them herself.) In contradistinction, Jefferson stipulated that only five of his slaves be freed even upon his death (all of them were from the Hemings family).

George and Martha Washington portraits. George and Martha Washington, from unfinished painting by Gilbert Stuart

George and Martha Washington portraits. George and Martha Washington, from unfinished painting by Gilbert Stuart

Regarding the invective and undermining engaged in by each man against the other, it is my distinct impression that Jefferson was the more venomous of the two, and did the most damage. His tactics, however, allowed him to escape the judgment of his fellows (and of history) more unscathed than did Hamilton.

Evaluation: Ferling breaks no new historical ground, but he is a spritely writer about an endlessly fascinating subject. He gives a much more balanced view of Jefferson than many other biographers, and does an excellent job in condensing and illuminating the political philosophies of Jefferson and Hamilton. If you are interested in the contributions of these two powerful and formidable men to the American project, this book makes a great introduction.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Bloomsbury Press, 2013


Review of “1864: Lincoln at the Gates of History” by Charles Bracelen Flood

This terrific contribution to Lincolniana manages to convey reverence for Lincoln without falling into the tempting trap of hagiography that so often characterizes books on Lincoln. Furthermore, although it’s a story familiar to many, Flood tells it in a most entertaining way, from a refreshingly objective perspective.

Flood has said in interviews that he believes there are only two years in American history that are absolutely critical, pivotal years: The first was 1776 and the second was 1864. This last full year of Lincoln’s life wrenched the President and the public from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other: for a while it looked like the North had lost the Civil War, as disasters and dead bodies mounted on the battlefields. Then Sherman took Atlanta followed by Savannah, and Sheridan tamed and reclaimed the Shenandoah Valley. Similarly, Lincoln’s prospects for winning a second term went from absolutely zero to overwhelmingly positive. And throughout this entire whip ride, Lincoln was manipulating everything and everybody he could, behind the scenes.

Abraham Lincoln, February, 1864

A little background: the Civil War started just five weeks after Lincoln’s first inauguration on March 4, 1861. By 1864, close to a million Union soldiers faced 700,000 Confederates. Also by that year, some quarter million Union soldiers were already lost from all causes. In addition, more than 100,000 had deserted.

Politics in the North was mainly divided into four camps: the “conservative” Republicans who supported Lincoln’s approach; the “Radicals” who thought Lincoln was too conciliatory toward the South; the “Peace Democrats” who wanted immediate peace negotiations and compromise with the South; and the “War Democrats” who were willing to keep fighting but did not care about the status of the slaves.

1864 was the year of some huge battles, including the Wilderness Campaign and Cold Harbor, in Virginia. The stories Flood tells about these battles are just awe-inspiring, even if you’ve heard them before! In one instance, Lee rode up in front of his troops to spur them on, and it took three men to wrestle him back to safety. Sheridan too, at Cedar Creek, rallied his retreating men when he “soared above the barricade on his massive black horse, landing in an open area. Wheeling [his horse] Rienzi around where his soldiers could see him for a hundred yards in either direction, he bellowed, “‘Men, by God, we’ll whip ‘em yet! We’ll sleep in our old tents tonight!” And they did. In Cold Harbor, one soldier wrote in his diary: “June 3. Cold Harbor. I was killed.” The diary was found on his body. In mid-July, when D.C. was in danger of attack by the Confederates and Grant’s army was far away, some 2,800 wounded solders left their hospital beds to march to Fort Stevens, north of Washington. As Flood reports, “Many limped and most had bandages somewhere on their bodies, but they all carried muskets.”

Philip Sheridan

Lincoln’s desire to get reelected was never far from his mind, and even influenced his war strategy. (It was more than just a “desire” – he felt no one else was capable of being elected who wanted to keep the Union intact.) Benjamin Butler was deemed to be an incompetent general, but Lincoln wanted him kept busy in the field, because it was thought he might head up his own campaign for the presidency. So Butler amassed failure after failure, with yet more lives lost. Grant wanted to get rid of him, but he knew Lincoln wanted him handled with kid gloves. Finally they compromised; Butler was sent off “to await further orders” (which of course never came). (Lincoln first tried to co-opt Butler by sending someone to offer him the vice presidency. Butler laughingly replied that “I would not quit the field to be Vice-President, even with himself as President, unless he will give me…[assurances] that he will die or resign within three months after his inauguration.”)

Benjamin Butler

Salmon Chase, the Secretary of the Treasury, was another potential threat to Lincoln’s reelection. Chase, favored by many Radical Republicans, saw the election results of 1860 (in which he also ran) as a hideous mistake, and hid his thirst to be president from no one. Chase was contemptuous of Lincoln. Although Lincoln’s origins were humble, Lincoln the man was nothing of the kind when it came to his sense of intellectual superiority, and he didn’t hesitate to let others know this. Chase burned with resentment over the presumption of such a bumpkin! As for Lincoln, he wasn’t so fond of Chase either, but thought he would do a good job at Treasury. More importantly, however, for Lincoln, with Chase serving in the Cabinet, it would be too awkward for him to come right out and challenge in the 1864 presidential election the man it was his duty to serve.

Salmon Chase

At the Republican convention in June, Flood gives evidence that Lincoln himself desired, and worked for (surreptitiously), the nomination of Andrew Johnson as his vice-presidential candidate. Johnson, a Democrat from Tennessee, was the only senator from the states that seceded who remained loyal to the Union. Lincoln felt his nomination would have powerful symbolic importance. In one sense his selection would be a concession to the South and evidence of the rewards of staying in the Union. In another, it would be “something of a political offensive into the South to parallel the military advances.” And finally, Lincoln thought that to nominate a Southerner who was a Union loyalist would prove to England and France (in danger of recognizing the Confederacy as a separate country) that America as one country was still viable.

Andrew Johnson

Most people know that during the War, Lincoln suspended habeas corpus. (Habeas corpus, or the Great Writ, is the legal procedure by which prisoners can challenge the legality their detention; it was designed as a protection against the government from holding people indefinitely without showing cause.) But the extent to which his administration had people jailed questionably is not as well known. Not all of the people who landed in prison had engaged in “seditious” behaviors. Sometimes, however, the extra vigilance was justified. The Confederate Secret Service, operating in Canada, came up with a number of plots to destabilize the North. Confederate sympathizers in the North also worked against the government. One notable plan Lincoln discovered in 1864 involved a conspiracy by a secret organization to stage an armed insurrection, taking Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri out of the Union in a second secession. This “Northwestern Confederacy” would then hopefully attract membership by Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, and Kansas. Then, they would form a partnership with the South.

With all his problems of state, Lincoln had trials on the home front as well. Mary had become more and more unstable since the death of their second son Willie in 1862. She eased her anxiety by having séances conducted in the White House, and by compulsive shopping, once buying 400 pairs of gloves in three months. She also bought several shawls for $650 each and a cashmere for $1,000. Meanwhile Lincoln wore the same ratty, ill-fitting suit every day, and carried out affairs of state in worn carpet slippers. He did not give money to Mary for her shopping; rather, she “appropriated” it from other funds. As an example, in return for splitting half the money with her, she got the Superintendent of the White House grounds to come up with fake receipts for flowers, trees, bushes, and equipment. Soon she expanded her scam into the White House kitchen.

Mary Todd Lincoln

Meanwhile in the South…. In November of 1864, on the day Lincoln was getting reelected, Jefferson Davis was proposing to buy 40,000 slaves from their owners, so they could fight in the army … to help preserve slavery. …

A final note on Lincoln’s last full year: On Christmas Eve, his friend Orville Browning convinced Lincoln to go in on a cotton deal that might have made Lincoln a million dollars. The gray trade in cotton and tobacco had proceeded throughout the war; it was in the interest of both sides to ignore it. Lincoln just had to writes passes for the middlemen to go back and forth to the South unharmed through Union lines. Flood said it was “legal but perhaps an unethical conflict of interest,” and it probably would have been a huge scandal had it gone through. Ironically, when Lee evacuated Richmond three months later, he burned the warehouses that were to provide goods for the deal, so it was never consummated.

Orville Browning

Flood’s Lincoln is not a saint. Rather, he is a real human being who is not only inordinately compassionate and patient, but also a brilliant and savvy manager who compromised his standards when necessary to achieve his goals.

Evaluation: Even if you aren’t a maniacal fan of Lincoln and the Civil War as I am, I can’t imagine not enjoying this book. Flood is as fully readable as Doris Kearns Goodwin, but where Goodwin falls short in objective reporting, Flood excels.

Rating: 4.7/5

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2009

Review of “Shooting at the Stars: The Christmas Truce of 1914” by John Hendrix

I think this fictionalized account of the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 does an excellent job of summarizing for kids not only the background of World War I but some of the moral and philosophical issues of war.

Charlie is a young British soldier who writes home to his mom to tell her about the impromptu truce and Christmas celebration that day between British and German soldiers. On that day, the soldiers entrenched along the French-Belgian border met in the center of “No Man’s Land” between the two armies. They each buried their dead, and then found themselves wishing each other Merry Christmas. Before long, they were exchanging food and gifts.

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They even started playing a game of football with an empty biscuit tin as the ball. [An actual match was played between the 133rd Royal Saxon Regiment of Germany and Scottish troops, with the Germans winning the match 3 to 2.]


At the end of the day the Major appeared and was furious at the men, ordering them to be ready to fire on the German trenches when he returned. Charlie writes his mother:

“…I suspect our side will spend the rest of the night aiming high above their trench, shooting at the stars.”

The book concludes with an Author’s Note, glossary, bibliography, and even an index, highly unusual in a picture book.


The author, who is also the illustrator (and one with many, many awards), has create a hybrid of children’s book and graphic novel, which will appeal to the older group of children to whom this book is directed (the recommended age group is 8–12) as well as to adults. The epistolary style also contributes to the graphic-novel feel. The text mixes hand-lettering with standard text blocks, and the palette switches from luminous nighttime scenes done in blues, aquas and teals to more trench-and mud-appropriate colors for the daytime scenes.

Evaluation: This is an excellent book that will show kids the “human” side of war, and help raise up many discussion questions about war generally.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Abrams Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Abrams, 2014

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Review of “The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine” by Ben Ehrenrich

Ben Ehrenreich is a writer and journalist who spent three years in the West Bank, staying with Palestinian families and listening to their stories, which he shares in this important book.


We are into painting with broad brushes these days. For many people, Palestinian means terrorist, in spite of the small proportion of these men, women, and children who actually merit the label. But thanks in large part to the media, the equation of “Palestinian” with “terrorist” has eroded sympathy for their truly horrific plight.

Tragically, the Israeli government also does not distinguish between the two. In the summer of 2014, for example, during Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” in Gaza, the UN reported that at least 2,104 Palestinians died at the hands of the Israeli army, including 1,462 civilians, of whom 495 were children and 253 women. An Israeli government official told the BBC, however, that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) had killed 1,000 “terrorists” during the assault.

Whether the occasion is a peaceful protest over land appropriation, the recitation of a protest poem by a little girl whose best friend was killed by soldiers, or little boys throwing rocks in defense of their villages, the Palestinians are considered legitimate targets for tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and sometimes live bullets, imprisonment without charges, house raids, land grabs, and numerous measures to make their lives difficult, such as the closure of schools and hospitals.

What the Israelis have done to the Palestinians is unconscionable.

Unfortunately, the fact that “Israeli” is also conflated with “Jew” doesn’t help get a discussion going. How the Israelis act has little to do with the life of a Jewish grocer in France, or with a Jewish daycare or synagogue in the United States. As the Executive Director of Jewish Voice for Peace recently wrote in an opinion piece for “The Washington Post”:

“It’s not discrimination to hold a state accountable for its violations of international law and human rights abuses. The state of Israel is not the same as the Jewish people.”

Nor does it help that Israel was set up (largely by Britain) as a place for Jews to go to escape the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe because no other country wanted to take them. [In the U.S., between 1933 and 1945 the United States took in only 132,000 Jewish refugees, only ten percent of the quota allowed by law, because of anti-Semitism in the State Department, in Congress, and among the public. Even children were denied sanctuary, on the theory that, as the wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration said at a party, they would all grow up to be ugly adults.]

But the British even restricted Jewish immigration to Palestine. Still, enough came to create a conflict with the people already residing on the very small piece of land.


No matter the difficulties of talking about it, though, ignoring the situation will only keep the fires burning in the Middle East and hurt us all. What happened to Jews before cannot justify what is happening to Palestinians now. But the rise once again of right-wing, exclusionary movements around the world (including inside the state of Israel) makes it hard to believe in a solution that will benefit all sides. More awareness is at least a step in the right direction.

Evaluation: Read this book and weep, for the cruelty that has begat cruelty, and the lack of easy answers. I wanted to stop reading, because it was so painful to hear. But that’s not the right answer. If you take away nothing from this book but the very complex nature of the issues in the Middle East, that will be a start. And maybe that understanding can lead someday to the salvation of people who have suffered for so long.

The author writes in his preface:

“I do believe that this book is a work of optimism, and of hope . . . because even in their despair, with no reason to hope, people continue to resist. I cannot think of many other reasons to be proud of being human, but that one is enough.”

The hardcover book includes a list of Dramatis Personae, a glossary of Arabic terms, maps, photos, and extensive footnotes.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardback by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

This book is read by the author, who did an excellent job. Some authors have no skill for a dramatic presentation of their work, but Ehrenreich manages to convey passion, despair, respect for his subjects, and hope for a better world in spite of everything.

Rating: 4/5

Published unabridged on 10 CDs (12.5 listening hours) by Penguin Audio, a member of Penguin Random House, 2016

Review of “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America” by Paul Tough

This book describes a radical approach to the problem of educating underprivileged students, and the one endorsed by President Obama: The Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ).

The author, who covered the project’s first five years for the New York Times Magazine, thoroughly documents the nature of poverty in black America to give readers a sense of what founder HCZ Founder Geoffrey Canada was up against. While this book is rigorously researched, it does not read like a sociological treatise. Rather, it is engrossing and engaging, and has you rooting not only for Geoffrey Canada but also for the people of Harlem who so generously shared their struggles with the author.

In 1999, Geoffrey Canada began planning a poverty-fighting project that would cover the twenty-four-block zone of central Harlem (eventually expanded to a ninety-seven block area) with the biggest problems: crushing poverty, unemployment, crime, high homicide rates, young single parents, bad schools, and children who were for the most part doomed to failure.

The statistics of the HCZ were grim. More than 60% of children lived below the poverty line, and three-quarters of them scored below grade level in reading and math. Tough writes:

The average white family in Manhattan with children under five … had an annual income of $284,000, while their black counterparts made an average of $31,000. Growing up in New York wasn’t just an uneven playing field anymore. It was like two separate sporting events.”

Canada’s idea was to create a safety net for these children, to save them from more poverty, from prisons, or even an early death. He started with a third grade, and was shocked and overwhelmed to see all the parents who swamped the auditorium in Harlem for the first lottery drawing to reserve a space in “The Promise Academy.” One of the most stirring passages in this book is the speech made by a friend of Canada’s, the Reverend Alfonso Wyatt, to these Harlem parents:

I want to tell you something that maybe you don’t know. … The people who run prisons in this country are looking at our third-graders. They look at their test scores each year to begin to predict how many prison cells will be needed twenty years from now. … And so I want the people in this house to tell them: You will not have our children!… ‘Let me hear somebody say it,’ Wyatt called out, and he led the crowd in a chant: ‘You! Will! Not! Have! Our! Children!’”

Canada wanted these kids to have the same chances as the kids in Manhattan. But his goal was daunting. Researchers found the dysfunction of ghetto families to be the result of generations of discrimination, isolation, and cultural decay. As a result, ghetto residents tend not to qualify for many jobs in the modern economy that require high levels of education and technical expertise, and the lethal vortex of poverty continues to hold them in its grasp.

Most importantly from Canada’s standpoint, decades of study reveal that the difference in academic achievement begins very early – before kindergarten! Tough reports:

By middle school, the gap between avid readers and reluctant readers has grown into a chasm.”

Much of the gap stems from the depth of exposure to language: not only is the number of words the child hears important, but the kind of words and statements (“encouragements” versus “discouragements”) as well.

Cognitive skills have a complement in non-cognitive skills (also lacking in the poor) that also confer advantages in both education and in the job market. These include: the confidence to deal with institutions, authorities, and situations; patience; persistence; ability to follow instructions; ability to delay gratification; and the sense of entitlement that comes from positive parental involvement in both children’s education and in activities and recreations. Training for both kinds of skills is an integral part of The Promise Academy.

Canada with Students from the Promise Academy

In sum, to change the trajectory of a poor child in an inner-city neighborhood, research shows you need to do the following:

1. intervene early in the child’s life
2. continue to intervene throughout adolescence
3. give him extra time in school and extra support outside of school
4. involve his parents if possible but be prepared to compensate for their absence
5. focus on improving his cognitive skills but also nurture his non-cognitive, social, and emotional skills

Finding that advantages as well as disadvantages accumulate, Canada decided – when he was finally able to expand – to begin his program with a “Baby College” for prospective parents. From there, kids went to the Three-Year-Old Journey, then Harlem Gems prekindergarten, and then on to the Promise Academy. Canada called this the conveyor-belt approach:

“The way Canada sees it, the middle-class children he wants Harlem’s kids to compete with are surrounded by a cocoon of support – educational support, emotional support, medical support – that starts at birth and never stops.”

Geoffrey Canada

He describes his project’s aims using a basic principle of Newtonian physics: what he wants to do is build enough positive momentum so that kids can escape the downward spiral of poverty in Harlem and reach “escape velocity.” What he does not want to do, however – and here is how he differs from KIPP – is to strip the kids of the good aspects of their black or Spanish cultures. Rather, he wants to “contaminate” Harlem with positives and combine the best of both worlds. [The Knowledge is Power Program or KIPP is a nationwide network of free open-enrollment college-preparatory schools in under-resourced communities throughout the United States. KIPP schools are usually established under state charter school laws.]

Canada emphasizes that one could say the desire to help the poor has nothing to do with “morality.” In fact, he avers, is in the country’s best interest to help these kids: it will save money on the costs of social programs for the poor, and add tax money from more workers.

Fittingly, the book ends with the creed that the students of the Promise Academy recite:

I promise to always dream out loud, to lift my head and be proud. And never end up a face in the crowd.”

Note: As of the author’s writing in June, 2009, Congress had not approved the White House’s request for planning grants to go to community-based non-profits interested in applying to start a Promise Neighborhood.

Evaluation: I have always been interested in the enduring problem of poverty, as well as the challenges of education. If either or both of these subjects interest you, I believe you will find this book quite rewarding.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008

November 30, 1874 – Birth of Winston Churchill & Review of “Hero of The Empire” by Candice Millard

This book, subtitled “The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill” is a history of Winston Churchill’s early life, with a focus on the years 1899-1900. It was during this time that Churchill traveled as a journalist to the Boer War in South Africa, ended up a prisoner, and effected a daring escape.


Churchill believed that he was destined for power and fame. In fact, his self-confidence and belief in his special destiny were quite remarkable. It is true he came from a powerful family; his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, had served as Secretary of State for India and later Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House of Commons. His mother, Jennie Churchill, was considered to be one of the most beautiful and influential women of her time. But the extent of Churchill’s belief in his singularity was still astounding. As just one of many examples, while taking part in 1897 Siege of Malakand in colonial British India’s North West Frontier Province, he wrote his mother he wasn’t worried about bullets: “I do not believe the Gods would create so potent a being as myself for so prosaic an ending.”

Churchill in 1899 (age 24)

Churchill in 1899 (age 24)

What he wanted most though, was to gain a reputation for personal courage, and by all accounts, he consistently acquitted himself well in that respect. As Millard writes: “Although Churchill had been called many things – opportunist, braggart, blowhard – no one had ever questioned his bravery.” He didn’t have much of a chance to evince it however until the Second Boer War broke out in South Africa in October of 1899.

The Boers had lived in the region relatively unmolested until they discovered diamonds and gold. The area was previously occupied by the San, Khoikhoi, Xhosa, and Zulu peoples. When the Dutch and German Huguenots arrived, later known collectively as Boers, their diseases wiped out a large number of the natives. The whites thought the surviving native people only suitable for slavery. The British had outlawed slavery; although they believed whites to be superior to darker races, and that these darker races might merit abuse and social scorn, they drew the line at enslaving them outright.

South Africa at the time of the Second Boer War

South Africa at the time of the Second Boer War

But the Boers persisted in doing what they wanted, and thus the British became convinced that the “insolent” Boers must be curbed. Churchill in particular had argued that “war was the only answer.” [Whether the British umbrage was over the outrage of slavery or over the outrage that the Boers, rather than the British, had control of the gold and diamonds is not entirely clarified. It seems as if it were a bit of both.]

When Churchill arrived in South Africa, he gushed over the land: “All Nature smiles, and here at last is a land where white men may rule and prosper.” Although, as Millard points out, “the white men Churchill had in mind for ruling and prospering in South Africa were certainly not the Boers . . . “

Nevertheless, she reports:

. . . the [Boers] had had the same rush of desire and deep sense of entitlement when they first laid eyes on Natal. Since the earliest days of the war, both the Boers and the British had held an unshakable belief in the righteousness of their cause and the unworthiness of their enemy. Neither group, however, had given a moment’s thought or would have cared if they had, to the fact that the land over which they were fighting did not belong to either one of them.”

On November 15, 1899, a month after Churchill arrived in South Africa, champing at the bit to see action, he joined a reconnaissance mission on an armored train. Louis Botha and his Boers successfully attacked the train, and took some sixty captives, including Churchill.

General Louis Botha

General Louis Botha

Although the officers, with Churchill among them, were housed in surprisingly good accommodations, Churchill could not bear not being the master of his own fate, and became obsessed with escaping. He was supposed to be a part of a group of three escapees, but after Churchill climbed over the fence, the others had no opportunity to join him. Thus he was on his own, with hardly any food and not much of a plan.

In spite of these negative odds, the incredible luck he had always experienced continued to favor him, and the author details how Churchill traversed the 300 miles from Pretoria to freedom in what is now Mozambique. She manages to outline the journey in a way that is full of suspense and excitement, even though we know the outcome.

Churchill's Wanted Poster

Churchill’s Wanted Poster

Discussion: It’s hard to warm up to Churchill. He was spoiled and full of a sense of entitlement, both from being born to a rich noble family and just from being a white male. He insisted that whites were “a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race,” and thus believed deeply and ardently in Britain’s right to rule over others. His confidence and “chutzpah” knew few bounds.

Yet he also had many admirable qualities, and this book in particular highlights his fortitude, and how he proved himself to be “resilient, resourceful and, even in the face of extreme danger, utterly unruffled.” The book also provides a good analysis of the situation in South Africa and the Second Boer War.

The hardcover edition includes maps and photos.

Evaluation: This is a very entertaining, informative, and perhaps lesser-known (at least in the U.S.) story about someone considered to be one of the great leaders of the 20th Century.

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Doubleday, a division of Penguin Random House, 2016

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Simon Vance performs up to his usual impeccable standards, and is especially convincing when he speaks in the voice of Winston Churchill.

Published unabridged on 8 CDs (10 1/2 listening hours) by Penguin Random House, 2016

Review of “Ike: An American Hero” by Michael Korda

Subtitled “An American Hero,” Michael Korda’s Ike is a tribute to an exceptionally good, if not great, American general and president. Dwight Eisenhower’s reputation suffered from several setbacks in his second term as president and from the way John F. Kennedy’s campaign negatively characterized the eight years of his presidency. Korda’s book is an attempt to undo some of the unfavorable impressions about Eisenhower prevalent in America today. He offers no new scholarship, but rather a readable paean to a man who was a hero before the word came to mean simply “one who has survived.”

Korda’s coverage of Eisenhower is a bit quirky. In a 722 page book, he devotes only two chapters and about 68 pages to the eight years of the presidency, while spending eleven chapters and over 500 pages on World War II. Korda can’t resist retelling the familiar story of the relationships and interactions among Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin although Eisenhower played only a very minor part in that drama.

Korda’s treatment of Eisenhower’s early career is enlightening. He was a good but not distinguished student at West Point, from which he was graduated in 1915 when Europe, but not yet the United States, was at war. He proved to be such an exceptional trainer of men and student of logistics and equipment that he was considered too valuable an asset to be sent to Europe for any of the fighting. Shortly after WWI, he accompanied a cavalcade of army vehicles to drive all the way across the United States, a feat that had never been accomplished before. [This trip made such a deep impression on him that later he spearheaded the effort to build the nation’s cross-country highway system.] He became a close friend of George Patton and studied armored infantry tactics with him. Patton and Ike actually took apart a French tank (the state of the art at the time) and put it back together. Later, he was assigned to the Philippines and spent five years reporting directly to Douglas MacArthur (where, as Eisenhower explained, he learned “dramatics”). MacArthur later characterized Ike as “one of his best clerks.”

Eisenhower’s organizational talents caught the eye of General George C. Marshall, who picked him to head the American effort in the European theater in WWII. Marshall’s confidence that Ike could come up with a plan, turn chaos into order, and win the confidence of the British was rewarded by exceptional performance.

General George C. Marshall

General George C. Marshall

Before the war, Ike had never commanded combat troops. His first major assignment in the war was to lead the largest amphibious invasion (into North Africa) ever undertaken to date. The attack was ultimately successful, but Ike was severely criticized for moving too slowly in some ways. Interestingly, Roosevelt wanted the attack to begin before the 1942 elections, but he deferred to Ike’s judgment that the attack would not be ready until four days after the elections.

His next assignment was as Supreme Commander of both British and American forces for the invasion of Normandy. Ike made the decision to go ahead despite risky weather reports. He also opted to use airborne troops to a great extent despite the high casualty rate they were bound to and did incur. Ike battled to get control of the air forces of the US and the UK, which wanted to continue bombing German cities rather than support the invasion force.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower visits paratroopers in England on June 5, 1944, moments before the troops boarded transport planes bound for Normandy and the June 6 D-Day invasion. (AP Photo/File)

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower visits paratroopers in England on June 5, 1944, moments before the troops boarded transport planes bound for Normandy and the June 6 D-Day invasion. (AP Photo/File)

His greatest challenge in managing the war after establishing a Normandy bridgehead was allocation of force. He had to manage prima donna commanders like British Field Commander Gen. Bernard Montgomery and American General George Patton, both of whom wanted as much glory as could be had. Montgomery and other British generals wanted a single powerful thrust through northern Germany to take the Ruhr and then Berlin before the Soviets could get there. Ike demanded a broad frontal assault, which he believed would wear the Germans down with the superior numbers and production of the Allies. Ike prevailed over both the British and the Germans, although British historians have tried to argue that his strategy was inferior and ultimately prolonged the war.

Monty and the British wanted to push on to Berlin despite the fact that the Yalta agreements had assigned that role to the Soviets. Ike ruled that the Western Allies would leave that to the Russians, thus saving many lives in the rest of the Allied Forces.

Ike’s greatest talent as a general seems to have been his ability to elicit cooperation among parties with diverse interests. He was able to control Montgomery, even though they detested each other. It should be noted that nearly all American generals grew to detest Monty. Ike also was able to get significant cooperation and even some affection from De Gaulle, despite Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s intention to exclude him from the decision making process.

Montgomery and Eisenhower

Montgomery and Eisenhower

Ike finished WWII as one of the most popular personas in the world, and was considered a cinch to win the presidency once he decided for which party he would run. He waited one election, biding his time as Chief of Staff of the Army and then president of Columbia University.

Korda’s book is disappointing in its coverage of Ike’s presidency. He is particularly weak in his coverage of the Suez crisis of 1956, spending more time glorifying the action of the Israeli army than discussing what happened. He even gives the impression that Nasser was disgraced by those events rather than becoming the leader of the Arab world. In fact, Nasser’s fall was postponed until the 1967 war.

Korda credits Ike with being a wise leader in civil rights, sending the 101st Airborne Division to Arkansas to forcibly integrate the schools. Ike would not rely on the National Guard, which probably harbored segregationist sympathies. He believed in the use of force only when it could be applied overwhelmingly.

Korda also gives Ike credit as the inspiration for the interstate highway system (partially a result of his first cross country car trip with the army) and for his balanced appraisal of America’s defense needs. For example, he was not very concerned about the alleged “missile gap,” and he pushed the development of the B-52.

Korda sums up Ike’s strengths as:

. . . the ability to use and apply simple common sense to large and complicated problems. Also like Roosevelt, he had a genius for seeing the big picture, and no reluctance to make major decisions or to accept full responsibility for them. Above all, he knew the difference between right and wrong, and tried to apply that knowledge to politics and diplomacy without preaching or boasting of any inherent, superior morality.”


Korda’s book brings the personality of the man to life. Ike’s presidency and the era of American over which he presided deserve a fuller explication.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Harper, 2007