Review of “Assault in Norway: Sabotaging the Nazi Nuclear Program” by Thomas Gallagher

In 1943 and 1944, a couple of amazing raids by Norwegian volunteers removed the supply of heavy water – used by the Germans to develop nuclear weapons – from the Norsk Hydro plant at Vemork, Norway.

Heavy water differs from ordinary water in that the former is made with hydrogen isotopes, each of which has a neutron in addition to the proton in its nucleus. This isotope is called deuterium and is uncommon in nature. Heavy water acts as a moderator for nuclear fission, thus making possible the production of atomic bombs. It is difficult to manufacture, and at that time, there was only one plant in the world capable of making it in significant quantities: Norsk Hydro. When the Germans occupied Norway in 1940, they took over the plant. But the success of the intrepid saboteurs eliminated any chance for the Germans to develop a nuclear bomb before the Americans.

Gallagher provides a play-by-play of the sabotage efforts, from the insertion of the operatives onto the barren wastes of ice and snow in Norway, to the destruction of the remaining barrels of heavy water two years later.

You follow the small team as they learn to stomach reindeer eyeballs to survive; as they climb the snow-and-ice-covered walls of a sheer 600-foot gorge to wire the factory with explosives (and then climb back down); as one of them literally races from six Germans on skis, out-skis all but one, and then stands stock-still as the German empties his Lugar from forty-feet (but into the sun, so he misses). And that’s only a few highlights of this incredible adventure.

Vemork Hydroelectric Plant at Rjukan, Norway in 1935. The front building was the Norsk Hydro hydrogen production plant

Evaluation: The beginning might seem a bit slow as you are introduced to the volunteers, and as they wait for the weather to be favorable. But persevere: you won’t be disappointed! By the end, this gripping story will seem like the action-packed opening scene in the movie “True Lies,” and you will be hanging on the edge of your seat! James Bond has nothing on these guys, except maybe a taste for martinis rather than reindeer parts.

Rating: 3/5 for the beginning; 6/5 for the second half

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1975

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October 16, 1854 – Lincoln Speaks at Peoria

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed on May 30, 1854, was “one of the most explosive congressional statutes of American history” according to Lewis Lehrman, whose book Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point focuses on Lincoln’s reaction to this legislation. The act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which restricted slavery to territory south of the 36 degrees and 30 minutes parallel) and mandated that “popular sovereignty” would decide whether Kansas and Nebraska would come into the Union as slave or free states.

Judge Stephen Douglas, Senator from Illinois, had pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act as part of a quid pro quo with Southerners so he could get a transcontinental railroad built along a northern route. Had he failed, Attorney Abraham Lincoln might never have gotten back into politics, having “retired” from that pursuit after finding that his success didn’t match his ambition.

Lincoln and Douglas

Lincoln and Douglas

But Lincoln could not sit by and let the great moral wrong, as he saw it, of the extension of slavery prevail. He hated slavery, and he loved the Union, and thought that the Kansas-Nebraska Act threatened to destroy the latter by extending the former. Separation into two nations was not an option for Lincoln. He believed, as Lehrman explains, “if the American Union were divided between slave states and free states, the extinction of slavery in the South would become implausible.” Thus he began his crusade to save “the last best hope of earth.”

The speech he made at Peoria, Illinois on October 16, 1854, running over three hours, is considered to be the most seminal in Lincoln’s career, containing most of the ideas that informed his politics and presidency ever after. Because of the importance of this speech; the respect it is accorded by historians; and the rhetoric that would be later refined and reiterated by Lincoln in other platforms, Lehrman undertook a detailed analysis of this speech along with its historical antecedents. He follows his analysis with a reproduction of the speech in full. The book is repetitive, but the complexity of the arguments made by Lincoln and Douglas merits multiple approaches from different angles.

Lincoln was trying to establish a civil religion, with the Founding Fathers as the Patriarchs and the Declaration of Independence as scripture. The underlying principle of this religion was that “all men are created equal.” Lincoln acknowledged that the Founders had difficulty executing policies fully reflecting their loathing of slavery in light of the compromises necessary for union, but argued that their words and enactments signaled the intent that slavery should “wither away” as soon as possible.

Lincoln contended that the Founders “meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence. …” In other words, the purpose of law is to establish normative standards, and act as a bridge, from that which is, to that which ought to be. This philosophy was reified in the Declaration of Independence.

At Peoria, Lincoln laid out his objections to slavery from historical, moral, logical, and political perspectives. Lehrman emphasizes Lincoln’s moral arguments, but Lincoln wasn’t exactly addressing an audience of abolitionists. Fortunately, Lincoln had more than one arrow in his quiver.

First he cited the actions taken by the Founders that proved they wanted slavery to die out (such as the ban against slave trading and the forbidding of slavery in the new Northwest Territories). He asserted that “the argument of ‘necessity’ was the only argument they ever admitted in favor of slavery.”

Next he rebutted the legitimacy of the claim that popular sovereignty was justified [on the slavery issue] by the founding principle of “consent of the governed.” Popular sovereignty for Kansas and Nebraska meant that the people themselves in those territories could decide whether or not to allow slavery. Lincoln noted that blacks certainly wouldn’t give such consent. And aren’t blacks men? Lincoln maintained that whites couldn’t possibly think slaves were not men and only property; else why would “this vast amount of property [free black men] be running about without owners? We do not see horses or free cattle running at large.”

Abraham Lincoln, 1854

Furthermore, he charged, the ostensible neutrality [Lincoln called it “declared indifference”] of popular sovereignty merely hides “covert real zeal for the spread of slavery,” and establishes “no right principle of action but self-interest.” By way of explanation, he denied that whites would necessarily opt not to take advantage of free slave labor if given the opportunity, or that blacks would have the wherewithal to defend themselves from the practice. (The previous week in Bloomington Lincoln averred that Southern slaveholders were neither better nor worse than the Northerners: “If we were situated as they are, we should act no better than they…. We never ought to lose sight of this fact in discussing the subject.”)

He also reminded his audience that slave states got extra votes in Congress from having slaves, with their influence double that of the number of their free citizens. (In order to ascertain the number of Representatives and presidential electors a state could have, five slaves were counted as equal to three whites.) Not only did this confer disproportionate power on the South, but it also thereby reduced each vote of free white men in the North by half! “It is an absolute truth,” he said, “that there is no voter in any slave State, but who has more legal power in the government, than any voter in any free State.” Lincoln wryly observed that “whether I shall be a whole man, or only, the half of one, in comparison with others, is a question in which I am somewhat concerned…” This de facto result of slavery, he charged, was just not fair.

He emphasized that the rest of the world looked to America as a beacon of liberty, but “our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust.” He advocated that voters help “turn slavery from its claims of ’moral right,’ back upon its existing legal rights, and its arguments of ‘necessity’” so that “we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.”

This book is not an easy account of the ideological contours of Lincoln’s thought. It requires hard work on the part of the reader. In return, however, you are rewarded with a much deeper understanding of the passions that drove Lincoln and that shaped his policies in the critical years in which he guided our Ship of State.

Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point by Lewis E. Lehrman published by Stackpole Books, 2008

Book Review of “A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East” by David Fromkin

A Peace to End All Peace by David Fromkin provides an excellent glimpse at the mind-boggling complexity of international relations. This is a history of the creation of the modern Middle East, and the interrelationships among all the interested parties. Most of the transactions read like my very favorite joke from The Joys of Yiddish:

The two traveling salesmen, competitors in selling notions, spied each other on the platform. “Hello, Liebowitz.” “Hello, Posner.” Silence. “So – where are you going?” asked Liebowitz. “To Minsk,” said Posner. Silence. “Listen, Posner,” sighed Liebowitz, who was a very bright shaygets [in this sense: clever lad; rascal], “when you say you’re going to Minsk, you want me to think you’re going to Pinsk. But I happen to know that you ARE going to Minsk – so why are you lying?!!”

Multiply the idea conveyed in the joke by adding in all the players for the Middle East: Britain, France, Russia, Turkey, Arabs (with rival clans), Jews (with varying ideologies), the United States, Italy, and so on. You need a constantly readjusted flow chart to ascertain who is on which side and whose side the other side thinks the other side is on!

This masterful narrative focuses on the restructuring of the modern Middle East between the years 1914-1922: the fabrication of Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia by Britain, the setting of the frontiers of Syria and Lebanon by France, and the creation of the borders of Armenia and Azerbaijan by Russia. Fromkin contends that the conflicts that unsettle the region today are largely a result of the presumptuous manipulation of peoples and places by the imperialist ambitions of the Triple Entente.

The first prize to be divvied up was the Ottoman Empire. Even before the war, secret pacts divided the “Sick Man of Europe” among the allies in anticipation of its seemingly inevitable demise. But one of Britain’s largest mistakes was underestimating the Turks, both as military actors and as a people capable of self-determination, in part because of racism.

The Middle East in 1923

The Middle East in 1923

Another racist current coloring events was a pervasive anti-Semitism among the British governing classes. It caused them to believe that Jews were conspiring with the Germans, the Turks, and the Russians for power. (Although many Bolsheviks were born into the Jewish religion, they could be identified as Jews in “racial” terms only.) As Fromkin notes, “The Foreign Office believed that the Jewish communities in America and, above all, Russia, wielded great power.” This led them to bizarre misunderstandings of the motives and goals of their adversaries, and to policy formation geared toward an accommodation of the non-existent Jewish conspiracies they saw looming around every corner.

The story, told from the perspective of British involvement, begins with the decision by the War Minister, Lord Kitchener, to partition the Middle East after World War I. After Lord Kitchener’s death in 1916, David Lloyd George (Chancellor of the Exchequer and later Prime Minister) and Winston Churchill (serving in several different capacities) played larger roles in the British enterprise in the Middle East. “Winston Churchill,” Fromkin writes, “above all, presides over the pages of this book: a dominating figure whose genius animated events and whose larger-than-life personality colored and enlivened them.”

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill

Fromkin vehemently argues against aspersions cast on Churchill’s reputation that arose from his policies in WWI, particularly in regard to the ill-fated action in Gallipoli. Contrary to statements of Churchill’s contemporaries (with their own reputations to protect), Fromkin’s research shows that Churchill first opposed the Gallipoli option, then tried to make it contingent on a joint army-navy operation, then tried to salvage what was left with what he was given. When disaster ensued (a suspension of the failed campaign after a quarter of a million casualties on Britain’s side and a similar amount on Turkey’s), Churchill was made the scapegoat for the ill-conceived and miscarried engagement.

Churchill’s worth was recognized by British leaders, however, and he continued to help formulate policy even after he left the government. After the war, Churchill alone recognized that Britain’s terms could not be imposed if Britain’s armies left the field; and he most forcefully argued that the Moslem character of Britain’s remaining troops in the East must be taken into account lest the army’s loyalty be compromised.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson comes off poorly in Fromkin’s telling — his insistence on attending peace negotiations upset protocol and added nothing to the process, since he came with “many general opinions but without specific proposals….” “Lacking both detailed knowledge and negotiating skills, Wilson was reduced to an obstructive role….” Naïve and ill-informed, he was manipulated by Lloyd George into furthering Britain’s imperial aims. Back home, Wilson “committed one political blunder after another, driving even potential supporters to oppose him.” Nevertheless, Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” played an influential role in the politics of Europe.

Fromkin ends his fascinating account by observing that following WWI, “administration of most of the planet was conducted in a European mode, according to European precepts, and in accordance with European concepts.” Native political structures and cultures were ignored, destroyed, and/or replaced. But legitimacy cannot be conferred by drawing lines on a map; the legacy of the dissection of the Middle East by the great powers informs our politics yet today, and thus the events discussed in this book remain highly relevant and absorbing.

Note: National Book Critics Circle Award (1989)

Rating: 5/5

Published by Henry Holt & Company, 1989

Review of “American Uprising: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt” by Daniel Rasmussen

The riveting book American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen will keep you glued to your chair from start to finish. Rasmussen tells the story of the largest slave revolt in United States history – a story that is most striking for the fact that it has been virtually eliminated from textbooks.

In January of 1811, approximately 500 slaves from plantations in the New Orleans area tried to seize power and win freedom for those who labored in the sugar cane fields. The sugar cane industry was notorious for the intense workload and high death rate among the slaves. During harvest time, slaves worked sixteen hours a day. Yet the profits were so high, planters were unaffected by the fact that less than one-third of slaves survived past the third or fourth year. Louisiana planters claimed that Africans were “uniquely matched to the hot weather and tough work.” But this claim was belied by the high death rate as well as the necessity for whips, spiked iron collars, and face masks used on the slaves. As Rasmussen observes,

These colonial plantations were as close to a death camp as one could come in the late eighteenth century.”

The author recounts the incredible story of how the slave rebellion was organized, carried out, and viciously crushed by the combined forces of the planters and the U.S. Army and Navy. He details the brutal retaliation exacted by the planters, who decapitated some one hundred slaves, putting their heads on spikes all along the levee. He also decries the fact that the names of the brave rebel leaders – Kook, Quamana, Harry Kenner, and Charles Deslondes – have been lost to history, and he tells you exactly how and why the memory of this revolt was suppressed almost immediately. And in a fascinating twist, he explains how the slave rebellion and its aftermath became a factor in the victory of Andrew Jackson at New Orleans a year later, a victory that ultimately led to his presidency. Jackson, “the nation’s most celebrated killer of Native Americans,” was only one of several presidents dedicated to the hegemony of white Americans over the vast expanse of the American continent.

Rasmussen wants us to draw at least two important lessons from this story:

Above all, this is a story about America: who we are, where we came from, and how our ideals have at times been twisted and cast aside for the sake of greed and power.”

Secondly, he mentions other black Americans who have fought against the U.S. government, such as Robert F. Williams (see my review of his story in the book by Timothy Tyson here). He observes that only those blacks who strike a conciliatory pose toward the government through peaceful resistance (such as Martin Luther King, Jr.) get written into history. The others get written out:

Robert F.Williams, like Kook and Quamana, like Charles Deslondes, took up arms against the United States of America in the name of freedom. They fought against U.S. government agents, they supported the overthrow of legally sanctioned racism, and they were exiled or executed for their actions.”

He concludes:

Coming to terms with American history means addressing the 1811 uprising and the story of Robert F.Williams – not brushing these events under the rug because they upset safe understandings about who were are as a nation.”

Evaluation: This is a fabulous book about a horrible subject. It is non-fiction but reads like a suspense novel. In addition, it contains critical information about our nation’s history, and how the government treated anyone who got in the way of the profit-maximizing and imperialist mission of the young country. I’d call it a must-read.

Rating: 5/5

Published by Harper, 2011

Author Daniel Rasmussen

Review of “Cultures of War” by John W. Dower

John Dower is one of our most respected historians, having won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his brilliant studies of the war against Japan in World War II. In Cultures of War, he again returns to Japan in WWII, this time to compare the U.S. response to the attack on Pearl Harbor and the war with Japan to the attack of 9/11 on the U.S. and subsequent war against Iraq.

Dower argues that the “clash of civilizations” argument to explain both wars is insufficient to understand why they took place, and in any event, is based on a postulate of “an imagined essentialism” about everyone in the cultures in question. It is largely invoked to contrast the alleged rational and enlightened outlook of Westerners with the irrational, nonwhite Eastern foreigner. But as Dower maintains, as often as the West exhibits “more civilized” behavior, it is also apt to exhibit “wishful thinking, delusion, and herd behavior” at top levels of government. For example, he shows how irrational notions characterized both the American attitude toward the Japanese before WWII, and toward the Islamists six decades later. As an example, he cites the Admiral of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor explaining why he ignored “war warning” messages just prior to the attack:

I never thought those little yellow sons-of-bitches could pull off such an attack, so far from Japan.”

Similarly, in spite of repeated warnings about bin Laden and Al Qaeda from the CIA and the National Security Council, the Bush Administration chose to ignore them. As Michael Scheuer, who headed the CIA’s “bin Laden unit” until 1999 reported:

The elites simply could not fathom that ‘a polyglot bunch of Arabs wearing robes, sporting scraggly beards, and squatting around campfires in Afghan deserts and mountains could pose a mortal threat the United States.’”

In other words, the U.S. was surprised both in 1941 and 2001 because of the same “racial arrogance and cultural condescension.”

Aftermath of the U.S. firebombing of Tokyo, March, 1945

Furthermore, Dower charges, it is absurd to assert that the Japanese in the 1940’s or the Islamists, Muslims and Arabs in current times, do not value human life as much as people do in the West, just because so many civilians died on 9/11. The U.S. can only make this argument by sanitizing our own history. Dower adduces plenty of evidence to show that the Allies deliberately targeted civilians in WWII with fire bombing to “break morale.” He reserves special disgust for “the ardor” with which the U.S. military reconstructed German and Japanese houses in the U.S. desert beginning in 1943, to test how thoroughly they could be incinerated. And in fact, “somewhere around one million German and Japanese noncombatants were killed in Allied bombing missions between 1943 and 1945.”

Cartoon from a Muslim publication decrying hypocrisy of the West

Moreover, Dower argues convincingly that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons was less about ending the war (and thus saving American lives) as is usually contended, but more about demonstrating our strength to the Soviets:

The decision makers opted [to use] the bomb essentially without warning in a manner that would shock and awe the Russians every bit as much as the Japanese – and, in the process, ideally deter them from their territorial ambitions in eastern Europe while simultaneously undercutting them in Asia.”

He even gives evidence of a rush to drop the bombs on Japan prior to their expected surrender, which was considered inevitable as soon as the Soviets entered the war against them. Thus the weapons were shipped out even before they were tested. Japan, according to sociologist Michael Sherry, was “viewed as little more than ‘a vast laboratory in destruction.’”

Hiroshima after the atomic bomb

Nevertheless, the U.S. Government felt it necessary to justify the bombs by harking back to the patriotic fervor drummed up after Pearl Harbor, and to the racism against the Japanese that had fueled the fighting against them thereafter.

U.S. racist propaganda poster during WWII about the Japanese

A similar process of racism, mendacity and deception characterized the war on Iraq, Dower avers. He begins with the failure of intelligence, or rather, the Administration’s refusal to acknowledge the intelligence. He then goes into the justification given to the American people and the rest of the world for the Iraq War, reasons which were later shown to have been false.

He also writes about the “rebuilding” process in Iraq after the war, and why it has been such a failure compared to the same process in Japan. Some of the most important reasons include that in Japan, McArthur went in with a lot of advanced planning in place, whereas in Iraq, planning was rejected in favor of what Dower calls “faith-based policy making” – i.e., the conviction that a new government would just emerge “somewhat by magic.” Moreover, although the U.S. State Department had prepared plans, they were rejected in large part because of bureaucratic turf wars between the Departments of Defense and State.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, left, with Emperor Hirohito during the Japanese emperor's visit to the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo in 1945. Photo: ASSOCIATED PRESS

After WWII, it was important that while the U.S. guided Japan, they made sure the Japanese themselves were part of the recovery and became self-sufficient. Laws were passed at the urging of the U.S. to provide protection from “international as well as domestic predators.” Iraq has been a different story altogether. Most reconstruction work was given over to the private sector in the U.S. (and funded by citizen tax money): much to the Iraqis’ bitter disappointment, Iraq’s “own skilled workforce was obviously deemed incapable of handling such engineering projects.” The U.S. permitted 100 percent foreign ownership of Iraqi firms and tax-free repatriation of all investment profits. Iraq became “a gold rush”; “a carpetbaggers’ free-for-all”; especially for Republican supporters. Outsourcing the rebuilding to private and largely American contractors resulted in “confusion, cronyism, non-transparency, and corruption that had no counterpart in Japan.”

One of many protest cartoons circulating about the privatization of Iraq rebuilding efforts

Like other policies imposed upon Iraq, these only served to create more resentment, and to facilitate recruiting for Arab terrorist organizations.

In sum, Dower accuses the U.S., particularly during the Bush years, of “racial arrogance and cultural blindness,” “historical cherry-picking” for propaganda purposes, “irrationality and groupthink” and “strategic imbecility.” But this is all part, he argues, of what he identifies as the concept of war culture. This meticulous scholar backs up his accusations with irrefutable facts from an enormous amount of documentation.

Evaluation: Dower is a first-rate historian who expresses a great deal of frustration over what he considers to have been ill-conceived strategies of the U.S. in responding to the 9/11 attacks; abuses of international law; and perversion of the historical record. This book is extremely illuminating for anyone seeking to understand what happened immediately preceding and after 9/11. It is neither dry nor dispassionate, and while some might maintain that Dower has a political agenda, I would identify his bias to be more one of anger over the taking of lives in service of a “war culture” no matter which side perpetrates these acts.

Rating: 4.5/5

Note: Quite a few photos are included in the book, which was a 2010 National Book Award Finalist.

Published by W. W. Norton & Company, 2011

Review of “Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story” by Ken Mochizuki for kids

If you ever doubt your faith in mankind, this true story will restore it for you.

Obon Festival in Japan

Obon Festival in Japan

Passage to Freedom tells the amazing story of Chiune Sugihara, who single-handedly saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis. His story was told by his son Hiroki to the author, based on Hiroki’s recollections. Hiroki was five in 1940 when his father, Chiune Sugihara, who was the Japanese consul in Lithuania, was begged by Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi onslaught for visas to escape. The Sugiharas were stationed in Kaunas, the temporary capital of Lithuania, situated between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Jews who came to them were from Poland. Ironically, the Lithuanian Jews were not allowed to leave, but at this time, in June, 1940, the Soviets agreed to let Polish Jews leave if they could get travel documents.

ptfcover

Chiune cabled his government for permission, but it was denied. He cabled twice more, and again his government said “absolutely not.” But he could not say no to what was right. As the Japanese proverb said, “Even a hunter cannot kill a bird that comes to him for refuge.” He gathered his family together and explained to them:

I have to do something. I may have to disobey my government, but if I don’t I will be disobeying God.”

Chiune Sugihara

Chiune Sugihara

As Ron Greene reports in a book on Chiune Sugihara:

For 29 days, from July 31 to August 28, 1940, Mr. and Mrs. Sugihara sat for endless hours writing and signing visas by hand. Hour after hour, day after day, for these three weeks, they wrote and signed visas. They wrote over 300 visas a day, which would normally be one month’s worth of work for the consul. Yukiko also helped him register these visas. At the end of the day, she would massage his fatigued hands. He did not even stop to eat. His wife supplied him with sandwiches.” (VISAS FOR LIFE: The Remarkable Story of Chiune and Yukiko Sugihara by Ron Greene.)

As Passage to Freedom ends, the family is being transferred to Berlin. Even as the train pulled out, Chiune was still signed visas, handing the permission papers out through the windows of the train. Hiroki said,

Back then, I did not fully understand what the three of them [his mother, father, and aunt] had done, or why it was so important. I do now.”

Hiroki Sugihara

Hiroki Sugihara as a child

An afterword by (the adult) Hiroki explains that following their departure, the family was imprisoned for 18 months in a Soviet internment camp, and thereafter, Chiune was asked to resign from diplomatic service. In the 1960’s, Chiune started hearing from people who called themselves “Sugihara survivors” and he received a “Righteous Among Nations” Award from the Holocaust organization in Israel. He was the first and only Asian to receive this honor.

The sepia-toned illustrations by talented Dom Lee are excellent, and seem very realistic. Resembling photographs from the 1940’s, they were created by etching on beeswax applied to paper, and then painting over the etchings.

passage3

Evaluation: I cannot stress how inspirational this story is. As Hiroki says, “It is a story that proves that one person can make a difference.” And in fact, the book is dedicated not only to Chiune Sugihara and his family, but also “to all others who place the welfare of others before themselves.” Today, two generations later, it is estimated that there may be more than 40,000 who owe their lives to the Sugiharas.

Although I recommend this book for all ages, it would make an excellent introduction to the Holocaust for children. (There is nothing explicitly frightening here; just the acknowledgment that these people would die if not helped by the Sugiharas.)

Certainly more people would know about this story if Steven Spielberg made a movie about it! (Sugihara has been called “the Japanese Schindler.”) But PBS did make a documentary. You can watch an excerpt here. Even this 6 minute clip will affect you powerfully.

Waiting to plead for visas outside the gates of the Japanese consulate

Jews waiting to plead for visas outside the gates of the Japanese consulate

Rating: 5/5

Published by Lee & Low Books, Inc., 1997

Note: The author is the son of Japanese parents who were sent to an American internment camp in Idaho during World War II.

Review of “The World Remade: America in World War I” by G. J. Meyer

G. J. Meyer writes in his introduction to The World Remade that he will tell four stories that are almost always told separately: (1) how the U.S. came to enter the First World War; (2) how America’s intervention decided the outcome; (3) how the war changed the U.S. in its very nature; and (4) how the Paris peace conference dashed the hope that the postwar settlement would justify America’s sacrifices. Meyer succeeds in covering each of these issues comprehensively and cogently and with occasional fresh insights even 100 years after the events described.

Looming over the complicated tale is the now controversial figure of Woodrow Wilson, a president elected in 1916 ostensibly because “he kept us out of the war,” but who schemed to enter the conflict on his terms. For example, Wilson insisted that America never became an “ally” of the Entente Powers, merely an “associated Power,” and never even declared war against Austria-Hungary, thus staying above the fray.

In Meyer’s telling, Wilson is almost Trumpian in his need for adulation. Despite his veneer of probity, Wilson comes off as nearly as immoral as our current president. Meyer opines that Wilson “was drawn into the war less by political pressure, or the U-boat campaign, or the greed and fear of American business, than by his own rhetoric.”

Woodrow Wilson

There are no heroes among the principal actors in this tale. Eugene V. Debs, leader of the American Socialist party may be an exception, but he was a minor player who spent most of the war in prison. John J. (“Black Jack”) Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Force, is another American icon whose reputation is tarnished in Meyer’s account.

Among the surprises in the book, Meyer is fairly sympathetic to Germany’s involvement in the war. He notes that Britain’s use of propaganda was far more effective than Germany’s, attributing America’s entry in the war on the side of the Entente as a function of Britain’s successful manipulation of how news of the war reached the United States. Early in the war, the British navy cut the only transatlantic cables coming from Europe, leaving Americans dependent on news arriving over cables from Britain.

Meyer decries the effects of the war on American civil liberties. Opponents of the war were not only castigated and ostracized, but many were imprisoned on flimsy charges.

Carl Von Clausewitz, the Prussian military historian and philosopher, defined victory in war as ending in a better arrangement than what preceded the war. Meyer concludes that despite a clear military “victory,” the arrangements following the war were at best an ambiguous improvement. In Russia, the unattractive, undemocratic tsarist regime was supplanted by the execrable communist state; the Hohenzollern regime in Germany was replaced by the weak Weimar Republic that led to the triumph of the Nazis; the Middle East, subject to manipulation by the war’s participants, became the mess it is today; and Britain and France were weakened militarily and economically so much that two decades later they were unable to put up feeble resistance to Nazi aggression.

Tsar Nicholas II of Russia with his cousin, King George V of the United Kingdom (right), in German military uniforms in Berlin before the war; 1913

Evaluation: Meyer intersperses his principal narrative with short chapters – almost asides – about specific aspects of the war such as: labor relations; buffalo soldiers; the temperance movement; the air war; Sergeant Alvin York; and the influenza epidemic. His writing is clear and his arguments are compelling. This is an excellent book.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, 2017