Review of “Germania” by Simon Winder

I enjoyed Simon Winder’s book Danubia enough to seek out his earlier combination travelogue/history, Germania – a “personal response,” as he calls it, to German history.

Screen Shot 2014-09-30 at 8.27.28 AM

Writing “German” history prior to 1871 presents a daunting task because before that date there was no country known as “Germany.” The land we think of as Germany was composed of numerous principalities, dukedoms, bishoprics, and independent city-states that popped in and out of existence owing to the vagaries of hereditary suzerainty and noble marriages. Winder notes that successive historical maps of the country resemble nothing so much as “an explosion in a jigsaw factory.” He does not undertake to present a chronological narrative; rather, he travels around the countryside and regales the reader with stories relevant to the place he is visiting, although the history still manages to be presented in roughly chronological order.

Winder is not one to make heroes of long-gone historical characters. Of Charlemagne he writes:

“As usual with such leaders, historians – who are generally rather introverted and mild individuals – tend to wish Charlemagne to be at heart keen on jewels, saints’ relics and spreading literacy, whereas an argument might be made for his core competence being the efficient piling-up of immense numbers of dead Saxons.”

Rather, the “heroes” of Winder’s story are the Free Imperial Cities such as Strasburg, Nuremberg, and the Hanseatic League that endured the middle ages as independent entities fostering trade and cosmopolitan values.

German Empire, 1871

Winder breaks off his history in 1933 with the rise of the Nazis, avoiding not only the nastiest period in German history, but also its remarkable economic recovery after World War II. But he does manage to get in a few jabs at modern Germany, as with his exploration of what it means to “be” German, spoofing the Nazi’s efforts to create a pure Aryan race. After a short summary of the shifts of various unrelated tribes over the territory for about a thousand years, he says, “In practice Germany is a chaotic ethnic lost-property office, and the last place to be looking for ‘pure blood.’” Indeed, he sees German reverence for their deep past as having a corrosive and disastrous effect:

“There can be few stronger arguments for the damage that can be done by paying too much attention to history than how Germany has understood and taught its ancient past, however aesthetically pleasurable it can be in operas.”

Winder livens up his sweep of German history with a tourist’s eye for the unique and noteworthy in his travels, describing the Christmas markets, the Ratskellers (with their massive glasses for serving beer), the ubiquitous castles, dense forests, flower-bedecked windows on half-timbered houses, marzipan in a variety of shapes (including, in one Lübeck shop, models of the Brandenburg Gate, the Eiffel Tower, and the Houses of Parliament) and “endless sausages.” He quips, “There is always a pig and a potato just around the next corner…..”

Half-timbered house in Germany

Half-timbered house in Germany

Evaluation: Germania, like Danubia, is a quirky book that could hardly be classified as serious history, although it contains a lot of factual information on an important topic. (“Germany,” the author writes, “is a place without which European culture makes no sense.”) Perhaps “travelogue with historical background” might be a more apt description. The writing is sprightly and entertaining, and the book presents an often delightful and decidedly unique guide to the region.

Rating: 3.75/5

Published in Great Britain by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, Ltd; Published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, and in paperback by Picador, 2011

Advertisements

Review of “The Somme” by Peter Hart

The combined British and French offensive in the Somme River Valley of 1916 was one of the deadliest battles in the history of warfare. It lasted from July 1 until the middle of November when winter weather compelled a relaxation of hostilities. The British suffered 419,654 casualties, with 131,000 dead; the French had 204,000 casualties; the Germans 450,000 – 600,000.

The original goal of the British was to break through the German trenches on the western front, their first objective being the village of Bapaume, which lay about 5 miles behind the first German trenches. When the breakthrough proved impossible, the offensive continued in order to relieve pressure on the French, who were engaged in a battle of similar magnitude at Verdun. In the end, the British had moved the front line forward a few hundred yards, and the German trenches remained substantially intact. The village of Bapaume remained in German hands.

Bapaume, France, during World War I, May 1917

Hart’s narrative takes us from the first day of the battle, when the British incurred 57,470 casualties and 19,240 dead, to its sanguinary climax. He covers in significant detail virtually every significant attack, and there were many. His technique is to give a general overview, and then fill in the details with extensive quotes from letters written by the participants. Looking back nearly 100 years, one has to marvel at the literacy of the British army.

The book is a treasure trove for the serious student of World War I. However, it, like the battle itself, takes its toll on the reader. There were a great many individual attacks, all with agonizingly similar results: a heavy artillery barrage was followed by a “charge” of infantry men weighed down by their battle impedimenta, and a virtual slaughter in no man’s land. Sometimes the attackers actually made it to the German trenches, but even when they succeeded in taking the trench, they were seldom able to hold it because a prompt counterattack drove them back to the original starting line.

Cheshire Regiment, British Army, in a typical trench in the Somme, 1916

During the course of several months, the British adapted their tactics slightly, but only slightly. They learned that the intensity of the artillery barrage was crucial to any success. They became more adept at the “creeping” barrage that landed just ahead of the advancing infantry. The men learned to use shell holes for cover, but usually found them already occupied, often by corpses. The first tanks were introduced by the British in this battle, but though they at first terrified the Germans, they were very slow and prone to frequent mechanical breakdown.

Hart’s criticism of the British generals, Douglas Haig in particular, is less harsh than that of most other analysts I have read. Haig believed that the Germans might have prevailed in 1914 if they had only persevered in their attacks a little longer, and he did not want to make the same mistake. Thus, the British Army dug in for the long haul, and suffered heavy casualties that it could ill afford, for insignificant tactical gain.

Field Marshal Douglas Haig

Moreover, to win the war, Haig reasoned that it would not be sufficient merely to take back the French territory lost. The German army had to be defeated. To Haig, it was a waste of manpower to engage in battles in other theaters, as the “Easterners” like David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill advocated. Hart opines that Haig and (his second in command) Robertson “may have been unimaginative, they were definitely ruthless when required, but above all they were hard, practical men and they were entirely right” in assessing how to beat the Germans in the situation they faced.

There were political as well as strategic considerations in play as well:

“Even if Haig had fully realized the depth and breadth of the losses suffered by his assaulting divisions on 1 July he could not have aborted the offensive without seriously jeopardizing the Entente Cordiale with France and Russia … They were unlikely to look on with any great sympathy if Britain tried to evade her share of the ‘butcher’s bill.’”

Evaluation: Hart’s favorable analysis of Haig is pointed and controversial. (Some of the epithets that have been applied to Haig include “The Butcher of the Somme” and “The Worst General of World War I.”) It is also very terse, taking up no more than 15 pages of a 550 page book. The remaining 530 pages support Hart’s characterization of the military leadership as “unimaginative.” I would not recommend this book to anyone who did not want to read a blow-by-blow account of a five and one-half month battle.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Pegasus, 2009

Review of “The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers” by Thomas Fleming

This overview of the lives of the Founding Fathers shifts the focus of our attention to the women who exercised the most influence over their lives.

Fleming looks at six Founders: Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison and explains:

“Knowing and understanding the women in their lives adds pathos and depth to the pubic dimensions of the founding fathers’ political journeys. … In their loves and losses, their hopes and fears, they are more like us than we have dared to imagine.”

Several of the Founders had dashed romantic hopes with other women before they found their life mates. George Washington was said to be smitten by Sally Fairfax, the wife of his neighbor. James Madison, at age thirty-one, fell in love with fifteen-year-old Kitty Floyd, but she rejected him for a younger man. Jefferson was besotted by Rebecca Burwell for five years, to no avail. Even John Adams had a love before Abigail; he was infatuated with Hannah Quincy, but she chose another.

There are lots of entertaining tidbits in this book. Perhaps the most interesting stories concern Dolley Madison, whose influence caused people to bestow on her the [new] title of “First Lady.” Dolley was determined to counterbalance her husband’s reticence, social ineptitude, and unpopularity. As Fleming notes, “by day she was a tireless visitor, leaving her calling cards all over the city.” At night, she organized lavish social events, inviting so many people the parties were known as “squeezes.” When the invading British army burned the White House in 1814, it was Dolley that stayed back despite the danger to save George Washington’s portrait and the White House copy of the Declaration of Independence. But Dolley’s influence wasn’t only of the social kind. Her husband kept her apprised of domestic and foreign affairs, and she used her visits and soirees to push positions amenable to the administration.

Dolley Madison

Dolley also expended a great deal of energy in a way similar to that of the other first ladies: supporting her husband and boosting his morale in the early, critical days of the Republic. These men were pioneers, and during their lifetimes they were often vilified, slandered, unappreciated, and subsequently dispirited. During the Revolutionary War, Washington’s spirits notably approved whenever Martha arrived in the encampments. Adams, who possibly was a manic depressive, was particularly dependent on Abigail to pick him up when his emotions laid him low. Hamilton’s wife stood by him when he was forced to admit to an affair that led him to be blackmailed for a time.

Fleming devotes the most space to Jefferson, and the Sally Hemings question. Despite his unflinching portrait of Jefferson’s shortcomings in other books, here, Fleming seems to want us to give Jefferson our sympathy. He portrays Jefferson as an airy, poetry-spouting, head-in-the-clouds kind of guy, who was totally devoted to his wife Martha. If emotionally upset, Jefferson would get stricken with a migraine that could incapacitate him for weeks. Martha had a weak constitution and constant pregnancies didn’t help. Jefferson hovered over her, nursing her himself. When Martha sank into a coma, Jefferson blacked out. She died in 1782, just ten years after they were married, when Jefferson was thirty-nine.

Thomas Jefferson

The Hemingses, a slave family, came to Monticello prior to Martha’s death, after Martha’s father died in 1773. Reportedly they were the children of her father by a half-black slave mother, Elizabeth Hemings. Thus Sally Hemings was Martha’s half-sister.

At the time of Martha’s death, Jefferson had three living daughters. He left them with a relative and went to France to help negotiate a peace treaty. Later, he returned to France, taking eldest daughter Martha with him. When Jefferson requested that his next oldest girl, Polly, come to France also, Polly’s aunt sent along Sally Hemings as Polly’s chaperon.

Eventually Sally had six children. In Jefferson’s will (he died on July 4, 1826), Jefferson freed all the Hemingses (except Sally – more on that momentarily). According to Fleming, who doesn’t accept the theory that Jefferson had a long term affair with Sally Hemings and fathered several children by her, Jefferson’s favorable treatment was a reflection of the Hemings’ relationship to his late wife Martha. He also was opposed to the slavery of third generation mulattos. Fleming does not indicate why Sally was not freed, but Virginia had a 1806 removal law requiring freed slaves to leave the state within a year. Later, Jefferson’s daughter gave Sally her “time,” which was an informal way of bestowing freedom without incurring the effects of the removal law. It has been speculated in other sources besides this book that Jefferson did not want to give fodder to rumor-mongers by freeing Sally outright; nor did he want to force her to leave the state. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation speculates that Jefferson probably made a verbal agreement with his daughter Martha before he died to adopt this strategy, but there is no evidence for it.

Fleming proffers myriad arguments that Jefferson was not the father of Sally Hemings children: (1) her children seem to have come from at least two separate fathers, going by their reported appearances [and showing that Fleming is better at understanding history than genetics]; (2) the DNA evidence only shows that someone in Jefferson’s family fathered (some of) the children; (3) Jefferson remained passionately devoted to the memory of his wife and to his living children and grandchildren; and (4) furtive sex for thirty-eight years would have been highly unlikely in a house “swarming with visitors and grandchildren” with all of the bedrooms in the same wing. [See our review of The Hemingses of Monticello providing evidence for a different view.]

Evaluation: Fleming’s dedication of this book, listing all of the women in his life, indicates that he wanted to give them a gift: an affirmation that women played an important role in the founding of the country. He does a fine job on that score. The portraits of both the Founders and their wives are a bit sketchy, since the author is covering six of them in one book, but he does a nice job in picking out the highlights of their careers. If you would like an overview of the lives of the Founding Fathers that also shows how much women contributed (to the extent they were allowed) to the country’s beginnings, this is a great place to start.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Smithsonian, 2009

Review of “Holy War” by Nigel Cliff

Nigel Cliff’s Holy War is a reinterpretation of the explorations conducted by Vasco da Gama. Specifically, he tells the story of the deeply flawed, fanatically religious, but very brave men who first sailed around the Cape of Good Hope from Portugal to India, and in the process broke up the monopoly of the spice trade that the Islamic world had exercised over Europe.

Cliff sets the stage for the main story by describing the early growth of Islam and the intolerance followers of Islam and Christianity had for one another. He observes,

“The modern concept of Europe was born not from geography alone, nor simply from a shared religion. It slowly emerged among a patchwork of fractious peoples that found common purpose in their struggle with Islam.”

To Cliff, the original motivation behind the Portuguese expansion was not so much trade and profit, as it was religion and a desire to rid the world of Islam. (Cliff’s interpretation asks the reader to choose between fanaticism and greed as motivators, not exactly a happy outcome in either event.)

To understand the remarkable events of the 15th and 16th centuries, modern readers must be aware of significant differences between current technology and our perception of the world and those of the people of that time. Navigation on the high seas was exceedingly difficult. Using Polaris, mariners could determine their latitude, but only in the Northern Hemisphere. More importantly, there was no known way of measuring longitude other than by estimating speed, direction, and time from a know starting point. The Americas remained undiscovered because sailors seldom ventured very far west from the European land mass. Indeed, the Portuguese discovered Brazil accidentally by straying farther west than they had intended while trying to find favorable winds to round Africa’s Cape of Good Hope!

Vasco da Gama, born either 1460 or 1469 and died 1524

The peoples of Europe and of the Middle East were at constant loggerheads with one another owing to religious differences. Because of the difficulties of traveling through Muslim lands, Europeans had only very infrequent contact with East Asians, and knew very little about China and India, except that they were the source of that era’s “gold” – spices. In the absence of refrigeration, food spoiled quickly and so spices (which grew in India and farther east, but not in Europe or the Islamic world) were relatively precious because they made food palatable.

In the 15th century, the Christians of Portugal and Spain were engaged in a bitter struggle with the Muslim Moors, who had conquered much of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century. In 1415, King John of Portugal initiated an aggressive campaign against the Muslims and astonished his contemporaries by conquering Ceuta, an important trading port on the African side of the Pillars of Hercules, in a single day. Cliff argues that that victory “left a legacy that would burden the ambitious young nation for centuries to come.”

King John of Portugal

The Portuguese were determined to find Prester John, a legendary king of a great Christian power to the south or east of the Muslim lands. They hoped to link up with him by sailing around Africa. In fact, there was a predominantly Christian country, Ethiopia, south of the Islamic world with which the Europeans had lost contact. However, it was nowhere near as powerful as they fancied.

The Portuguese began their southern quest in earnest in the 1440’s when their control of Ceuta proved to be a liability–the Muslims simply ignored it and traded with nearby Tangiers. Rounding Africa proved to be a daunting task: it took more than 50 years of exploring the west African coast before a small flotilla of three ships and about 160 men led by the intrepid Vasco da Gama actually made it to India in 1498. Da Gama’s mission was to win allies and wealth (including spices) that would enable Portugal to invade the Arab heartland and conquer Jerusalem. In the latter respect, he was unsuccessful, making more enemies than allies, and discovering that Islam had penetrated the African continent and even India much more than the Portuguese had believed. On the other hand, he was enormously successful in expanding European knowledge of geography and opening up a profitable trade in spices for Portugal.

The 1497 Voyage of Vasco De Gama Around the Cape of Good Hope to India

The Portuguese were fortunate in their timing because the most powerful Muslim country of that time, the Ottoman Empire, was more concerned with expanding into southeast Europe and Iran than protecting trading opportunities in India. Consequently, the Portuguese were able to build forts and establish semi-permanent trading stations in India – Goa being the most prominent. From these fortified locations, the Portuguese traded profitably with the Indians and raided Muslim shipping from the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. However, the crusader spirit petered out in the 16th century when Prester John proved nowhere to be found and the profits from the spice trade and piracy directed against Arab shipping provided a greater incentive than religious zeal.

1558 image of Prester John, a Christian patriarch and king said to rule over a Christian nation lost amidst the Muslims and pagans in the Orient

By 1600, the Portuguese monopoly of the seaway around Africa was ended as the English and the Dutch began to build strong navies and sought colonies in the East. Nevertheless, the long-term effects of the Portuguese expansion involved a significant shift of the balance of power between the Islamic world and Europe. Cliff summarizes:

“As centuries of cribbed fantasies gave way to clearly charted facts, new mental as well geographical horizons opened up. Colonies were founded, churches sprang up in unheard-of places, and Islam’s supremacy no longer seemed unassailable. Vast wealth in natural resources—bullion, manpower, and of course spices — fell under Christian control, and at long last the West had the means to hold off and eventually repel the Ottoman challenge at its gates. But for that, the fate of much of Europe, the settlement of America, and the discovery of new worlds then unknown might have taken a very different path.”

But as to the Portuguese motivation, Cliff concludes:

“In the end, the religious certainty that drove Vasco da Gama and his fellow explorer halfway around the world was also their undoing. For all their astonishing achievements, the idea of a Last Crusade — a holy war to end all holy wars — was always a crazy dream.”

Evaluation: This is a very enlightening and entertaining book. Cliff is a good raconteur, and his descriptions of the privations of the early explorers make riveting reading. Many ships were lost because of foul weather or just bad navigation, and the crews suffered horribly from scurvy. On the other hand, the Portuguese were far from sympathetic actors on the global stage; they were greedy and rapacious, often using their new-found superiority in naval artillery to slaughter Muslims or primitive Africans. Cliff asks that we understand Portuguese exploration as part of a “holy war” instead of a war for territory and land. He makes an interesting though not definitive case, but certainly provides much “spicy” food for thought.

Rating: 4/5

Published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2011

Review of “Bomb: The Race to Build – And Steal – The World’s Most Dangerous Weapon” by Steve Sheinkin

In December 1938, physicists Lise Meitner and Otto Frisch made a startling discovery: that atoms could actually be split. With the awareness that atomic fission could result in the creation of powerful bombs, three countries raced to develop that technology: Germany, the USSR, and the United States. The sense of urgency increased with the outbreak of World War II. Sheinkin summarizes the events that led to the development of America’s atomic bomb in this award-winning book for young adult readers.

The subject matter is complex, necessitating at least a brief explanation of the physics behind the bomb, but Sheinkin does a great job. He not only provides the basics in a remarkably simple way, but makes it as secondary to the story as possible. As a result, the book will not challenge readers without any background in science. In any event, most of the story reads like an action-packed spy thriller, and indeed, that is precisely how events unfolded in that era.

The U.S. effort was concentrated in Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the best scientists from around the world assembled to work on the top-secret “Manhattan Project” as it was known. But it was far from the only center of action. Sheinkin devotes a few chapters to the dramatic developments in Norway to deprive the Germans of a supply of “heavy water,” which is useful in the production of nuclear weapons. Fission bombs mainly rely on enriched uranium, which is expensive and time-consuming to make. But reactors that use heavy water not only can use unrefined uranium as a fuel, but will produce plutonium as a waste product that can also be used in weapons. (In addition to Los Alamos, where the theoretical aspects of the bomb were worked out, the U.S. also constructed secret installations in in Oak Ridge, Tennessee for uranium separation, and in Handford, Washington, for the production of plutonium.)

The endeavor by the allies to sabotage the Vemork heavy water plant in Norway is one of the most exciting stories of WWII, but Sheinkin can only provide a taste of it in this book, which is much broader in scope. (In an interview Sheinkin compared the Norway enterprise to “Indiana Jones on skis,” and that description seems quite apt. Readers who want to know more should read Assault in Norway: Sabotaging the Nazi Nuclear Program by Thomas Gallagher. Although it is non-fiction, it is one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read!)

Much of Sheinkin’s story follows the spies who endeavored to give the secrets of making the bomb to the Soviet Union. Ted Hall, for example, one of these spies, was the youngest scientist at Los Alamos. He had graduated high school at age 13, and was studying physics at Harvard in 1944 (age 18) when he was recruited to join the Manhattan Project. He feared that the U.S. would be more likely to use atomic bombs if no other country had them, and in any event, the Soviets were purportedly allies of the U.S. He contacted the Soviets on his own initiative. Other spies were recruited by the Soviets, who wanted to develop the bomb as quickly as possible; finding out the results of American efforts would greatly expedite the process.

The first atomic bomb, before the explosion

One of those the Soviets attempted to recruit, unsuccessfully, was J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was in charge of the Manhattan Project. But the very fact of the attempt, coupled with Oppenheimer’s opposition to further use of the bomb after he saw the effects of its use in Japan, led to the end of his career. In the anti-Communist paranoia of the post-war period, hawks in the government were able to have Oppenheimer’s security clearance removed. Thus this true patriot, whose contributions were considered to have been essential to the development of the bomb, was now reviled as a traitor, with his career ruined and his spirit broken. Ted Hall, by contrast, was known to the FBI but never convicted, and he moved to Britain to work in a lab at Cambridge University.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

In an epilogue, the author discusses the dangers of nuclear weapons, including the threat of their use by terrorist groups or crazy rulers. Or what if, he asks, there is a nuclear confrontation between two countries that don’t involve the U.S.? He writes:

“And if you think atomic explosions in Asia wouldn’t affect Americans, consider this. A study published in Scientific American in 2010 looked at the probable impact of a ‘small’ nuclear war, one in which India and Pakistan each dropped fifty atomic bombs. The scientists concluded that the explosions would ignite massive firestorms, sending enormous amounts of dust and smoke into the atmosphere. This would block some of the sun’s light from reaching the earth, making the planet colder an darker – for about ten years. Farming would collapse, and people all over the globe would starve to death. And that’s if only half of one percent of all the atomic bombs on earth were used.”

The first atomic bomb, .016 seconds after detonation.

Sheinkin concludes:

“In the end, this is a difficult story to sum up. The making of the atomic bomb is one of history’s most amazing examples of teamwork and genius and poise under pressure. But it’s also the story of how humans created a weapon capable of wiping our species off the planet. It’s a story with no end in sight. And, like it or not, you’re in it.”

The first atomic bomb 15 seconds after detonation

Evaluation:. Sheinkin is an excellent distiller of historical events for teens and older. With the danger now posed in the Korean Peninsula, inter alia, the story is more relevant than ever.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Flash Point, an imprint of Roaring Brook Press, a division of Holtzbrinck Publishing, 2012

Note: Literary Awards

National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature (2012)
Newbery Honor (2013)
Sibert Medal (2013)
Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Book Award Nominee (2015)
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award Nominee (2014)
YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction (2013)

Note: This book is a great place to start in reading about the development of the atomic bomb, but it is necessarily very sketchy in its coverage of a huge, multi-faceted story. For further reading on this subject, I highly recommend these books:

109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos by Jennet Conant
Assault in Norway: Sabotaging the Nazi Nuclear Program by Thomas Gallagher
American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird
The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes (a bit more technical than the others cited herein)

Review of “The War Lovers” by Evan Thomas

At the end of the 19th Century, men came of age who were too young to have fought in the Civil War, but not too young to have forgotten the excitement and bravado of the soldiers who did go. And they wanted their own war. The quest for independence from Spain by Cuban nationals provided the perfect opportunity for these “war lovers.”

This story of the Spanish American War of 1898 is told from the perspective of five men: Teddy Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, William Randolph Hearst, Thomas Brackett Reed, and William James. Teddy Roosevelt looms larger than the rest, just as he did in life.

The end of the 19th Century was a time when racial theories were all the rage in Europe and in America, and wholly subscribed to by young men like Roosevelt, who thought dark-skinned peoples were inferior, and had no business holding land that Aryan stock could populate. Furthermore, like the racial movements sweeping Germany, Roosevelt saw an inherent value in proving one’s “manliness” by conquering such people, as well as by staying in the wilderness and hunting and risking one’s life for one’s country. It all helped make the race strong. Taking charge of Cuba seemed like the perfect exercise.

Henry Cabot Lodge

Congressman, later Senator, Henry Cabot Lodge was Roosevelt’s best friend. And while he was not quite the “bull moose” that Roosevelt was, he too was an adherent of the concept of “manifest destiny,” the belief that the Anglo-Saxon race was rightfully destined to expand across America, and across the world. He wanted a war against Spain because it would help America become one of the big powers.

William Randolph Hearst was another of the “warmongers.” He longed to be the brave and tough man he perceived Roosevelt to be, but it wasn’t in him. What he could do, though, was stir up public opinion like nobody else could, and he wanted that war in Cuba. His incitement and coverage of the war would translate into thousands of subscribers, thousands of dollars, and with luck, thousands of votes for his own bids for political power.

Two players resisted the war fever. Speaker of the House Thomas Brackett Reed comes off as a lonely hero, as he, virtually alone, tried to resist pulling the United States into a war with Spain on phony, trumped up charges. He saw “manifest destiny” and “imperialism” as racist and presumptuous, but he was far too ahead of his time. Roosevelt and Lodge, once good friends, broke off with him, and other House members started treating him as anathema. He finally gave up and resigned. Disheartened and friendless, he died not long after.

House Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed

William James was a psychologist and philosopher who studied the war urge among men (criticizing it even while feeling its appeal). His inclusion in this story is a bit forced – he is not really connected to the others, and it seems that the author can’t decide what to do with him.

The first part of the book is mainly biographical. In the second part, the author goes into some detail about the fighting in Cuba of the Spanish-American War (allegedly for Cubans, although the white Americans disparaged them as fighters and eschewed contact with them as much as possible). This was the setting for Roosevelt’s self-described “crowded hour” when he charged Kettle Hill with his Rough Riders. After the short war in Cuba, the U.S. then moved to take the Philippines. (President McKinley, not really a war monger like the others but pressured into it, justified the battle in Southeast Asia as benevolently inspired by the desire to “educate the Filipinos, and uplift and Christianize them.” The Filipinos had long since been converted to Catholicism but nobody seemed much interested in that detail.) And of course, when it looked like the U.S. would win both battles against the crumbling Spanish Empire, second thoughts came rolling in as these Aryan Crusaders contemplated the possible burdens of dealing with all these dark people.

Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders in Cuba

Discussion: Thomas has two stories to tell: one is the surge of war lust and imperialist yearnings at the end of the 19th Century, and the other is a portrait of the men who were the biggest prime movers of the Era and how they supported, or strove against, the seemingly inexorable drive toward war. If your primary interest is either with Teddy Roosevelt or the Spanish-American War, you won’t be disappointed; they dominate the story. It’s a tale that’s interesting and sobering, and will give you a new perspective on who were actually the heroes and who were actually the villains at that time in American history.

Evaluation: Entertaining history.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little, Brown and Company, 2010

Review of “A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent” by Robert W. Merry

James K. Polk, the eleventh president of the United States, is one of the most successful yet least known “consequential” occupants of that office. Polk’s presidency lasted only one term (he voluntarily chose not to seek an additional term); yet he added huge territories to the United States. In addition, he put government finances on a dependable basis by establishing an independent treasury and helping to pass an important tariff bill.

James Knox Polk

Robert Merry brings the enigmatic Polk to life with his detailed biography, A Country of Vast Designs. In it, we meet other colorful politicians like the great spokesman for the institution of slavery, South Carolina’s John C. Calhoun; the great compromiser, Kentucky’s Henry Clay; former president Martin Van Buren; and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. In addition, we learn that Polk’s scheming, ambitious, inconsistent, and somewhat disloyal secretary of state, James Buchanan, often worked to thwart Polk’s policies in order to foster his own presidential aspirations. And in the background, exercising a significant influence on political discourse and Democratic Party politics even a decade after his own presidency, was Polk’s mentor Andrew Jackson.

Polk’s first major accomplishment after his presidential victory over Henry Clay was the settlement of the dispute over the Oregon Territory with Great Britain, with whom the United States had jointly administered the area since 1818. Through tough negotiation and the threat to go to war over the issue, Polk was able to settle on a boundary of 49 degrees north, ceding to Britain what is now British Columbia, but getting for the U.S. all of what is now Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and parts of Montana and Wyoming.

The Oregon Territory, established by the Oregon Treaty

Polk also spearheaded the annexation of Texas, which greatly angered Mexico and triggered the Mexican War in 1846.

[Historians today generally concur with the assessment of Abraham Lincoln, a Congressman in 1848, who maintained that Polk had deceived Americans about the cause of the war, which he said ensued after incursions by Mexico across the border into America. Lincoln said in his typical style combining fact with humor:

I carefully examined the President’s messages, to ascertain what he himself had said and proved upon the point. The result of this examination was to make the impression, that taking for true, all the President states as facts, he falls far short of proving his justification; and that the President would have gone farther with his proof, if it had not been for the small matter, that the truth would not permit him.”

Lincoln averred that in fact, it was upon Mexican soil that the U.S. commenced hostilities, rather than the reverse. But the country, driven by the idea of “Manifest Destiny” to expand the country’s borders, and avid to get the large piece of territory at stake for its own, chose to ignore the facts.]

The war continued until 1848, and became very unpopular. Nevertheless, it resulted in the conquest and incorporation into the U.S. of California, Arizona, Utah, Nevada, and New Mexico. One of the military heroes of the war, Zachary Taylor, went on to become president.

A key issue complicating the annexation of western land was the expansion of black slavery into the new territories. Polk’s position appears to have been much like Lincoln’s early opinion: he wanted first to preserve the Union at all cost.

Evaluation: Merry paints a sympathetic portrait of a remarkable president. Although well written, the book contains a great amount of detail on the maneuverings of politicians and cabinet members, which makes for thorough history but somewhat sluggish reading or listening. It is a comprehensive work for serious students of history, but may be a bit much for the casual reader.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Publisher: Simon & Schuster (November 3, 2009)