Review of “Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-1945” by Max Hastings

This is an exceptionally well-written book about the final year of the war against Japan. Hastings smoothly intermixes grand strategic analysis with poignant anecdotes from “little people” whose stories are part of the vast tale of WWII.


Hastings argues that our understanding of the events of 1939-45 would be improved by referring to World Wars II, since the only thing in common between the Europe conflict and the Pacific war was the identity of adversaries.

He points out that a Japanese attack on the Soviet rear in 1941 would have had much more consequence than Pearl Harbor, where they did not smash the American fleet, but sank only six old battleships, two of which were repaired and fought later in the war. Hitler did not even try to enlist Japanese assistance until the loss of Stalingrad in 1943, by which time the Japanese could offer very little.

It also helps our understanding of the war to realize that the Japanese did not attack independent countries in Asia. Rather, they invaded colonial outposts that Europeans had dominated for generations. Japanese treatment of the Asian people they conquered was even worse than their treatment of whites they captured.


Hastings blames the Japanese warrior ethic of bushido for the barbarous way their armed forces treated conquered people and prisoners. Their cult of honor precluded individual surrender, even requiring suicide to avoid loss of face. That attitude caused them to treat prisoners with contempt and made it exceedingly difficult for them to admit defeat. At a time when 50,000 Germans were surrendering each month, the Allies held fewer than 2,000 Japanese prisoners. Many Japanese who appeared ready to surrender were actually setting traps to kill their putative captors. Japanese sailors rescued from drowning by Americans after their own ships were sunk often tried to sabotage the rescuing vessels. After many such incidents early in the war, Americans became justifiably reluctant to take prisoners.

Hastings tells the tale of the British fighting in Burma under their very able general William Slim. Fighting was brutal and logistics were dreadful. Although the effort was heroic and competent, that theater did little or nothing to end the war.

Hastings paints incisive portraits of some of the principal characters of the drama. Stalin is calculating and ruthless, no surprise here. Truman is limited in talent, but his wisdom, honesty, and general goodness enables him to make great decisions. MacArthur is egomaniacal and not even a good general, but his behavior after the surrender was magnanimous and admirable. Nimitz and the navy did much more than MacArthur’s army to defeat the Japanese. Chiang Kai-shek was petty, ineffectual, and corrupt, much more interested in fighting Mao that the Japanese. Mao stayed out of the way of the Japanese and avoided conflict until the Japanese had been defeated and left China.

B-29s in formation near Mt. Fuji

B-29s in formation near Mt. Fuji

The story of the B-29 is particularly interesting. The development of the bomber was more expensive than the development of the atomic bomb. Moreover, the first B-29s delivered were not very reliable, and were as much a danger to their own crew as to the Japanese. The first B-29s were deployed in India and China, but the Japanese soon conquered enough Chinese territory to drive the B-29s out of range of the home islands. The later models of the plane became very formidable, and rugged enough to hold off Japanese fighter aircraft by themselves.

By August 1945, the Soviets were no longer allies of the Americans. The U.S. would have preferred for the Russians to stay out of the war, but Stalin ordered 1.5 million soldiers to invade Manchuria. The Russians took nearly the entire manufacturing infrastructure of Manchuria back with them.

The Japanese government was incapable of reacting quickly. By early summer 1945, after the loss of the Marianas, the Japanese situation was clearly hopeless with the home islands within the range of the improved B-29s. The atomic bombs and the Soviet invasion might have been avoided, but Japan could not make timely decisions that would fundamentally change their conduct of the war.


The decision to drop the atomic bombs was made before Potsdam, with Truman concurring rather than leading. The theater commanders were then given full authority to select the timing and targets.

Hastings argues that the bombs saved lives, certainly compared to the loss of life that an invasion of the home islands would have entailed. Even if it had not been necessary to invade the home islands, the bombs hastened the very slow decision making of the Japanese. Because the Japanese had no effective air defenses many more lives would have been lost through firebombing cities and the total destruction of the Japanese transportation system.

Many key governmental and military officials committed seppuku (ritual suicide) after the surrender. Those who did not feared junior officers would assassinate them. Even after surrender, Japan still had millions of soldiers stationed in China and the remaining Pacific islands, many of whom did not want to surrender.

The topic is vast, but Hastings covers it thoroughly. This review short-changes some of the elements of the story (like details of the fighting for key islands and Japan’s futile efforts to enlist the aid of the Soviet Union to mediate with the Americans) in the interest of (relative) brevity. I highly recommend this book.

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2007

Review of “Armageddon” by Max Hastings

Quick Summary:

The title Max Hastings chose for his history of the final year of World War II in Europe conveys something of the gripping drama he manages to create in this well-researched and fascinating work. In parallel to his later book Retribution about the last year of World War II against the Japanese, Armageddon focuses on the final year of World War II in Europe. His technique and style are very similar in both books. He begins each chapter with an overview of a topic (such as “the Bulge” or “Stalin’s Offensive” in Armageddon) and then supplements his summary with two categories of anecdotes: testimonies by relatively unknown “little people,” whose millions of stories compose the total history of the war, and analyses of the actions and judgments of the military and political leaders involved.


As The Washington Post pointed out in its review, “the months between September 1944 and May 1945 were among the cruelest and most destructive Europe had ever seen.” Hastings helps you get a sense of the horror of the battles, their brutality, the exhaustion of the soldiers, and the suffering of the citizenry. And all of it sounds fresh, even though you may have read these stories time and again (or watched them on the History Channel). The Washington Post review calls this book “magisterial” and it seems to be no exaggeration.

Detailed Review:

After the success of the Normandy Landing and subsequent breakout, it appeared in autumn of 1944 that the western Allies could roll into Germany with only slight opposition. That view proved to be woefully inaccurate for several reasons.

First, the allied generals had little competence in wars of rapid maneuver.

Second, allied soldiers were much more interested in surviving the war than their Nazi opponents, who man for man, proved to be much more competent soldiers. Hastings writes: “The defense of Germany against overwhelming odds reflected far more remarkable military skills than those displayed by the attackers, especially when all German operations had to be conducted under the dead hand of Hitler.”

Third, bickering among the allies exacerbated the problem, but the American General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s skill and tact overcame the biggest obstacles. The British General Bernard Montgomery comes across as very petty and egotistical, but fairly competent at a plodding strategy. Hastings says he “was a cleverer man and a far more professional soldier than [Eisenhower], but his crassness towards his peers was a fatal impediment to greatness.”

A fourth reason for the western allies’ tardiness was Hitler’s December offensive that produced the Battle of the Bulge, which came as a total surprise to the complacent allies.

Montgomery made a major strategic mistake in failing to secure the approaches to Antwerp, the largest port in Western Europe after it fell with little resistance. The port lies 50 or so miles from the sea on the River Scheldt. The Germans quickly occupied both banks of the river to prevent ships from reaching the port. It took several months of hard fighting to dislodge them from their positions, which they defended with substantial competence. The allies suffered from substantial supply shortages because the only ports available to them were the small channel ports in Normandy and Pas de Calais. Not until the approaches to Antwerp were secured in early 1945 could the allies bring to bear their enormous advantage in material and fire power.

General Montgomery

General Montgomery

The slowness of the western Allies’ progress caused great hardship among the conquered people of Nazi-occupied countries. The Dutch in particular had to suffer through their “Hongerwinter” at near starvation subsistence. Eisenhower persisted in a very cautious “wide front” approach, especially after the spectacular failure of Montgomery’s Market Garden attempt at rapid penetration of the German front. As German Field Marshal von Paulus, surveying the ruin of his country from a Soviet prison cell observed contemptuously, “If the British and Americans had not dilly-dallied so much, we could have got this whole thing over a great deal sooner.”

Hastings acknowledges the greater importance and weight of the war in the East conducted by the Soviets. He credits the Soviets with being much more competent that the western allies with maneuvering large armies, particularly in conducting encircling movements. He also emphasizes the extraordinary differences between the eastern and western “allies” in missions, behavior, discipline, suffering, willingness to accept casualties, and awareness to accomplish political as opposed to purely military goals.

Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union have we in the West had access to documentary evidence of the details of the horror of the war in the East. Hastings does not in any way exculpate the Germans, but he pulls no punches when describing the behavior of the Soviet army as it flooded into Eastern Europe and Germany. Moreover, he lays the blame for their barbaric behavior right at the top of the Soviet state.

The Soviets were particularly cruel to the Poles as well as the Germans. The Soviet army camped just outside of Warsaw and made no move to prevent the Germans from slaughtering the Polish resistance. They even refused to allow the western allies to land planes that dropped supplies to the Poles.

The Soviet army became an efficient fighting machine largely through instilling fear among its fighters. Political commissars were always just behind the front to shoot any soldiers who thought it might be safer in the rear. The Soviet front line troops feared their own officers more than the Germans. The NKVD recorded shooting 157,000 Soviet soldiers for desertion or cowardice in 1941-42 alone!

Josef Stalin, General Secretary of the Soviet Union

Josef Stalin, General Secretary of the Soviet Union

Amazingly, the Wehrmacht continued to fight effectively to the very end, even in the West, although many soldiers attempted to surrender to the British or Americans rather than to the Soviets. Hastings contrasts the Germans – who fought on bitterly even after the war clearly was lost, with the Japanese, who ultimately surrendered the home islands without firing a shot. Even in the last month of the war, the SS and the Hitler Jugend fought suicidally.

The fate of the German civilians can also be contrasted with that of the Japanese, who, once they surrendered, underwent a rather benign occupation. The Germans surrendered only after nearly all their cities had been reduced to rubble. Ironically, the first subchapter of the final chapter is entitled “Retribution,” the title of Hastings’ subsequent book about the final year of the war against Japan. Hastings details the plight of the Germans living in East Prussia near the end of the conflict. More than 2 million were “ethnically cleansed” from that area, and more than a million perished in their efforts to reach the West. The German civilians feared the Soviet army, with good reason. The Soviets systematically looted and raped wherever they went. The first Russians to enter Germany actually raped, then crucified on barn doors, the women of the first village they captured.

Hastings finds interesting, but does not criticize, Eisenhower’s decision not to race the Soviets to Berlin. The Yalta agreements had already ceded that part of Germany to the Soviets, who suffered more than 300,000 casualties in taking the German capital. The western allies had no stomach for losing that many men for purely political goals. The loss of many additional British and American lives would have accomplished nothing unless their governments were ready to repudiate their Yalta agreements so soon after making them and risk provoking a new war against the Soviets. Stalin, on the other hand, was willing to incur extraordinary losses to get what he wanted. He goaded two of his marshals, Zhukov and Konev, to vie for the honor of taking Berlin, even at the cost of many unnecessary lives. Hastings points out that for every British or American who was killed in the war, more than 30 Soviet citizens perished!

Hastings also details the plight of prisoners of both the Germans and the Soviets with many gruesome anecdotes. Less than 10% of the Germans taken prisoner at Stalingrad ever returned home. Perhaps the saddest of all fates befell Soviet soldiers captured by the Germans: those “lucky” enough to survive the war were often shot by the NKVD or sentenced to 25 years in the Gulag for “collaborating,” i.e., not fighting to their death.

The western allies were hardly blameless, conducting a strategic bombing offensive designed to destroy whole cities and being guilty in several incidents of killing of prisoners. Nevertheless, their record of atrocities pales in comparison with either the Nazis or the Soviets.

This review does not do justice to Hastings’ book because, in the interest of (relative) brevity, I cannot cite or effectively summarize its many personal anecdotes that add color, depth, and credibility to his narrative. This is a very good book; in fact, Norman Davies, in No Simple Victory, cites it as one of the best books on the war.

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2004

Book Review of “Blood and Sand: Suez, Hungary, and Eisenhower’s Campaign for Peace” by Alex Von Tunzelmann


A number of crises since 1945 have propelled the world to the brink of another global war, which is why it is so critical for a powerful nation like the United States to be led by someone of sound judgment and temperament.  One of those pivotal moments occurred on October 29, 1956, when Great Britain, France, and Israel all invaded Egypt in a concerted effort to reclaim the Suez Canal.  Simultaneously, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, both complicating the developing crisis and deflecting international attention.  Alex Von Tunzelman’s Blood and Sand is a gripping retelling of those events, which took place during the closing days of an American presidential election.

Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, November 5, 1956.

Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, November 5, 1956.

Gamal Abdel Nasser had become the president of Egypt after deposing the pro-British leadership in 1952.  He compounded the offense in Western eyes by nationalizing the British- and French-controlled Suez Canal in July of 1956 in retaliation for the failure of Britain or the United States to finance his pet project, the Aswan Dam.

At the time, Britain was the largest single shareholder in the Suez Canal Company, one of Britain’s last remaining colonial possessions.  Some 1.5 million barrels of oil a day went through the canal, of which 1.2 million were destined for Western Europe.  According to the author, the British Treasury estimated the value of its assets in the Canal Zone to be 500 million pounds.  But even aside from the profits, Britain needed the oil.  In addition, though not measurable in dollars or barrels, Britain did not want to lose “its divinely and racially ordained place at the top of the world.”


When Nassar nationalized the Suez Canal Company, all of that was threatened.  British Prime Minister Anthony Eden treated the nationalization as a direct affront to British prestige and became so incensed that (according to Von Tunzelmann ) he ordered Nasser’s assassination.

But, as the BBC History Magazine reported:

“. . . for as much as the operation [seizing the canal from Egypt] was a success in military terms, it was a disaster politically. World opinion roundly condemned the three nations for their aggression and lack of respect for Egyptian sovereignty. Fury and outrage erupted across the Islamic world at Britain’s perceived neo-colonial behaviour.  . . . “

The United States was also opposed to the violation of Egyptian sovereignty.  Both Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles, the American Secretary of State, were somewhat incapacitated with health issues.  They were, however, able to exert not only moral and financial suasion, but also the threat of potential military force against the British, French, and Israelis.  When Eisenhower was warned by politicos that checking the Israeli advance might cost him New York’s electoral college votes in the coming election, Eisenhower said he would rather be right than president.  

British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden (left), and President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles in 1956, (right).

British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden (left), and President Eisenhower and John Foster Dulles in 1956, (right).

To make matters infinitely more complicated, as Von Tunzelmann reported, “…the high point of the Suez crisis – From October 22 to November 6, 1956 – would coincide precisely with the biggest rebellion yet against Soviet power, which took place in Hungary from October 23 to November 4.”  The people of Hungary spontaneously revolted against the incompetent rule of their government, which was pretty much a puppet of the Soviet Union.  At first, the Russians tried to placate the Hungarians by installing a new set of puppets, but when that failed to quell the unrest, Khrushchev ordered a full scale invasion.  The Hungarian rebels fought bravely, but they had only small arms against tanks.

Russian tanks enter Budapest

Russian tanks enter Budapest

The author cogently summarizes the broader meaning of the crisis for the various players:

“The crisis would be intensely emotional for the nations involved.  For Hungary and Egypt, it would be about freedom.  For Israel it would be about survival.  For France, it would be about saving territory it considered integral to the republic.  For the Soviet Union, it would be about resistance to Western colonialism as well as reasserting and extending its own influence.  For the United States, it would be about decency and the trustworthiness of its allies.  And for Britain, as the then leader of the House of Commons Rab Butler admitted in his memoirs, it would be about the ‘illiberal resentment at the loss of Empire, the rise of coloured nationalism the transfer of world leadership to the United States.’”


All of these developments ratcheted up tensions among the major Cold War players, a dangerous situation given that the U.S., the Soviet Union, and Britain all held nuclear weapons.  The Americans felt powerless to aid the Hungarians militarily without starting a nuclear war.

Von Tunzelmann’s book gives a nearly hour by hour account of the actions at the highest levels of the Soviet, American, British, French, and Egyptian governments.  In the author’s account, Anthony Eden appears nearly unhinged and exceedingly unwise; Khrushchev is volatile; the Israelis are aggressive and unscrupulous; and Nasser is simply over his head.  Eisenhower is something of a hero in this tale:  his prudence and calm manage to avoid a worldwide catastrophe even though he was unable to help the Hungarians other than by leading the condemnation of the Soviets in the United Nations.

Positive Outcome:  Presidents Eisenhower and Nasser meeting in New York, 1960

Positive Outcome: Presidents Eisenhower and Nasser meeting in New York, 1960

Von Tunzelmann points out that the Cold War put the United States in an awkward position in seeking influence in the third world against the Communist powers.  Prior to the Suez Crisis, the United States had struggled to maintain a balance in world affairs in remaining allied to the French and British colonial powers while preaching liberal democracy and anti-colonialism to the rest of the world.  When push came to shove, Eisenhower upheld American ideals even though he had to chastise his closest allies and risk the wrath of Israeli’s supporters in the American electorate.  

Evaluation:  This is an even-handed, well-written account of a perilous time.  Perhaps the best lesson to come out of this history is how fortunate the world was to have an American leader who was experienced in battle, adept politically, and calm under pressure.

Rating:  4/5

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016

Book Review of “1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See,” by Bruce Chadwick


Chadwick argues that at the start of the Civil War in 1861, Abraham Lincoln, William Seward, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and William Tecumseh Sherman “were in place because of events that occurred three years earlier, in 1858…” Well, you’ve gotta have a gimmick, to borrow a line from the musical Gypsy, in order to write a new book on the Civil War. It’s not a bad book, nor is it a great book, but it does provide a different twist on the war’s causation by discussing the positions of these five men in 1858, as well as those of three others: President James Buchanan, Senator Stephen Douglas, and activist abolitionist John Brown. (You may ask, what about Ulysses S. Grant? Well yes, his name is in the title, but he really doesn’t put in much of an appearance. And these actors failing to see the war coming? Not. Someone should have reworked the title.)

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Some of Chadwick’s mini-portraits contain surprising observations. Jefferson Davis, for example, was so [comparatively] kind to his slaves that he bought them “designer” clothes, had them tutored, and even ate with them. And yet, he was the most vociferous defender of slavery in the Senate. Robert E. Lee, on the other hand, couldn’t stand the thought that his slaves might actually take breaks or be distracted in any way from constant labor, all the while professing to be *against* the institution of slavery.

President Buchanan was “a spectacular failure” who ignored the slavery controversy, and spent most of his political capital trying to defeat a fellow-party member, Stephen Douglas, against whom he held a personal vendetta. In fact, claims Chadwick, if it weren’t for Buchanan’s efforts against Douglas (which involved manipulating patronage, favors, making threats, and outright campaigning), Lincoln might never have been able to win the election.

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

William Seward, a brilliant man who added much-needed experience to Lincoln’s administration, thought that *he* would win the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. He was so sure of it, he left for Europe for an eight-month tour! Lincoln’s supporters, meanwhile, averred that Lincoln was the most electable candidate, since Seward’s stand against slavery was more radical than Lincoln’s. Seward had spoken out provocatively in October of 1858 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, declaiming:

“The slave system is not only intolerable, unjust, and inhuman towards the laborer, whom, only because he is a laborer, it loads down with chains and converts into merchandise, but is scarcely less severe upon the freedman, to whom, only because he is a laborer from necessity, it denies facilities for employment, and whom it expels from the community because it cannot enslave and convert him into merchandise also.”

And then, to the rage of Southerners, Seward added, “It [slavery] is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, and it means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slaveholding nation or entirely a free labor nation.”

William H. Seward

William H. Seward

The framework in which these biographies are presented is made up of several seminal occurrences in 1858 that ramped up the conflict between pro- and anti- slavery forces. One was the fight over the adoption of a constitution for the newly proposed state of Kansas: was it to be a slave state or a free state? A second was the election battle for senator from the state of Illinois, which resulted in seven spectacular debates between Lincoln and Douglas. And a third was a series of “rescues” of slaves by abolitionists, including a group of men in Oberlin, and a foray by John Brown and his followers.

These events and the men that played so large a role in them certainly helped precipitate the disastrous collision that left over 630,000 dead by 1865. If, like me, you enjoy reading all you can on that remarkable era in our history, this book provides an interesting set of lenses from which to view its chief protagonists.

Published by Sourcebooks, 2008

Review of “Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth” by Holger Hoock

Hoock aims to tell the story of the American Revolution by using violence as his central analytical and narrative focus. He argues that the story of the revolution has been subject to “whitewashing and selective remembering and forgetting.” Americans have chosen to portray the revolution as “an uplighting, heroic tale, as a triumph of high-minded ideas….” But as Hoock ably demonstrates from his well-researched account, the reality was much messier, marked by violence “in ways we don’t remember, and perhaps can’t even imagine, because they have been downplayed – if not written out of the conventional telling altogether.”

Why was this so? In all wars, narratives of one-sided violence (that is, violence by the “other” side) help to mobilize allegiance and support. Having a “moral” claim helps legitimize a nation both at home and abroad. And of course, with Americans averring that their primary interest was freedom, they needed a compelling message to counter the many ways their hypocrisy could be exposed – not only because of their enslavement of blacks and treatment of Natives, but because of the way the Patriots terrorized the Loyalists. Anglican churches and clergymen were singled out for even more abuse, because they prayed for the British king. Churches were smashed and priests tarred and feathered or covered with excrement. Some were killed, including one who was lynched by a mob in Charleston, South Carolina with his body subsequently burned on a bonfire. (Hoock writes that different regions in America “specialized” in different types of abuse.)

Lynching of Loyalists

Lynching of Loyalists

One of the worst places to be punished for Loyalist leanings was in Connecticut, where the accused could be taken to an underground prison located in a converted copper mine. This hell on earth (or in earth, as it was 60-80 feet underground) was dark, damp, squalid, with limited air circulation, and exceedingly unsanitary. Prisoners could not stand upright, and the political prisoners were mixed in with dangerous felons. Many of them went mad. As Hoock observes: “Psychological torment and physical violence played a far greater role in suppressing dissent during America’s first civil war than is commonly acknowledged.”

Connecticut's notorious Newgate Prison

Connecticut’s notorious Newgate Prison

There were also “political” punishments. Hoock reports on extralegal Patriot “committees of safety” that policed members of their own towns, encouraging neighbor to turn against neighbor, and not discouraging vigilante and/or mob violence. Other Patriot actions against Loyalists included enactment of treason laws, confiscation and banishment acts, test laws (to test loyalty), and the banning of Loyalists from voting, holding office, practicing their professions, trading, serving on juries, acquiring property, inheriting land, or even traveling at will.

Confiscation of property affected tens of thousands of Loyalists during the war, allowing the states to accrue assets and condemn traitors to a social death without engaging in widespread executions.

But the Patriots in general, and George Washington in particular, were well aware that “in order to win the war on the moral front, with both American and international audiences watching, [they] must out-civilize the enemy.” Thus, not only were stories of American violence suppressed, but stories of barbarity by the British, while rare – particularly at the beginning of the war, became pivotal pieces of the Patriot atrocity narrative: “In their print media, the Patriots presented such atrocities as part of a broader pattern of British excessive violence.”

George Washington during the Revolutionary War

George Washington during the Revolutionary War

The American Congress published numerous reports of any British atrocity in order to persuade the population of “Britain’s moral inferiority and the righteous urgency of America’s cause.” The most effective propaganda took the form of charges of sexual predation. As Hoock observes, “The high proportion of references to girls and teenagers being raped does not correspond to verifiable data…” But of course, as he admits, “As is the case in most wars, and in most societies, the incidence of rape in the Revolutionary War is impossible to quantify.” Rape victims were intimidated by threats, social ostracizing, and humiliation. They lacked witnesses to corroborate their stories.

Regardless, the “Americans deployed rape as a political tool to discredit the British Empire…” (Sadly, Hoock points out, narratives of rape from the period highlight the injured reputation of dishonored fathers and husbands, and were said to symbolize the violation of the body politic. The abused women themselves didn’t seem to matter as much.)

Cartoon showing metaphorical rape of colonies by British

Cartoon showing metaphorical rape of colonies by British

Hoock also devotes a considerable amount of time to the problems of prisoners of war. Observing the conventions related to prisoners created a dilemma for the British: if they called captured combatants thusly, and agreed to be bound by conventions re prisoners, they would ipso facto be recognizing the U.S. as a sovereign state. [Lincoln faced the same issue during the Civil War vis-a-vis captured Confederates.] It is estimated that between 16,500 and 19,000 American prisoners died in British captivity – roughly half of all the Patriots under arms who died in the war.

Hoock also shows the way racism fed the violence of the war, not only against blacks, but against Native Americans. America used the mobilization of the war to wage a simultaneous campaign against the Iroquois Confederation. Washington himself laid out the Continental Army’s objective in the campaign against the Six Nations to Major General John Sullivan as “the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible. It will be essential to ruin their crops now in the ground and prevent their planting more.” ….. As Hoock remarks, “Today we would consider this a form of genocide.”

Major General John Sullivan

Major General John Sullivan

Finally, Hoock reports on the period after the war was over, when treatment of former Loyalists was quite punitive. While 60,000 or so white Loyalists went into permanent exile after the war, several hundred thousand wished to stay in their homes. But animosity ran deep, and violence was often employed against them.

Alexander Hamilton realized that while the physical fighting was ended, the war for hearts and minds was not over. He urged tolerance, warning of “the diplomatic, political, economic, and moral costs of persecuting the Loyalists.”

To that end, Americans “scrubbed” their own Revolutionary war record, which they celebrated as “untarnished with a single blood-speck of inhumanity.” For their part, Loyalists remaining in the States had no choice but to hide their trauma, or there would be severe repercussions. In any event, no American publisher would spread their version of events. The Patriots controlled the history.

The Spirit of '76, originally entitled Yankee Doodle, painted by Archibald Willard in the late nineteenth century, an iconic image relating to the patriotic sentiment surrounding the American Revolutionary War

The Spirit of ’76, originally entitled Yankee Doodle, painted by Archibald Willard in the late nineteenth century, an iconic image relating to the patriotic sentiment surrounding the American Revolutionary War

Discussion: Hoock uses multiple lenses to ferret out the real story of the American Revolution without the obfuscation of socially-constructed myth. In addition to accounts of American Patriots, he examines those of American Loyalists, the British, Native Americans, Black Americans, and German mercenaries. He also illustrates the ways in which the history of of the American Revolution was interpreted – first of all to serve the social and political agendas of the combatants at the time, and second, to readjust the understanding of the conflict in light of WWI, when it became especially important to minimize the legacy of violence between “kindred Anglo-Saxon peoples…”.

Hoock’s emphasis on the historical reconstruction of the war – i.e., the deliberate formation of the collective memory of the war – is critical to an understanding of how narrative was used by America to reshape what happened into a suitable foundation story. Not only do “the victors write the history,” but they tend to do so in a way that is more self-serving than accurate.


Evaluation: This book is a much-needed corrective to the many histories of the founding of America that only show the “noble” aspects of the struggle. It contains details of many violent incidents of the war that haven’t made it into other accounts. As historian James Young famously observed, “Memory is never shaped in a vacuum; the motives of history are never pure.” As we now combat the divisions of the country after an election that emphasizes our divides rather than our commonality, we would do well to remember how easy it has been for this country to succumb to violence, discrimination, and cruelty, and then use “alternative facts” to cover it up.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of penguin Random House LLC, 2017

May 17, 1954 – Brown v. Board of Education & The Wrangling Behind the Decision: Review of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices” by Noah Feldman

Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard, Noah Feldman, has given us a thoroughly researched, well-written, solid analysis of the inner workings of the U.S. Supreme Court from the time it was dominated by four appointees of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The appointees, the “Scorpions” of the title, all began as supporters of FDR’s New Deal, and thus putative “liberals.” However, over two decades on the Court their perspectives matured and diverged, and they became rivals for intellectual leadership in constitutional scholarship. Their rivalry in some case even became personal detestation.

Feldman’s account includes short, revealing mini-biographies of each subject jurist. Felix Frankfurter was an ebullient Jew [“an interesting little man but very Jew” in the exact words of Eleanor Roosevelt] who began as America’s leading liberal intellectual, but evolved into its most famous judicial conservative. Hugo Black was a former Ku Klux Klansman who became a vigorous advocate of free speech and civil rights. Robert Jackson was a backcountry lawyer in Upstate New York who later became chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials. William O. Douglas at first sought to use his appointment to the Court as a stepping stone to the presidency, but stymied in that pursuit, expanded individual freedom “beyond what anyone before had dreamed.”

Justice Felix Frankfurter

The most pressing legal issue in FDR’s presidency was the constitutionality of various New Deal programs. Many of those programs infringed on the “liberty of contract” [such as the “liberty” to go to work at age 12 or work more than 60 hours per week in menial jobs] enunciated in the 1905 decision, Lochner v. New York. Although each individual’s “liberty” is expressly protected by the 14th Amendment, nowhere in the Constitution does the term “liberty of contract” appear. The first eight cases on the constitutionality of New Deal legislation to reach the Court resulted in 5-4 decisions against the statutes. Feldman reprises the oft-told tale of FDR’s court-packing scheme; how testimony by Robert H. Jackson, a Roosevelt confidant and future Supreme Court appointee (then Solicitor General) before Congress supported the plan; how Frankfurter opposed it; and how a change in opinion by Justice Owen Roberts obviated the scheme by providing the Court with a 5-4 majority to overrule Lochner. Ultimately, it was Frankfurter’s doctrine of “judicial restraint,” giving substantial credence to the acts of the legislature, which carried the day.

Justice Hugo LaFayette Black

Feldman deftly traces the evolution of various legal doctrines through seminal decisions rendered by the Court from the late 1930’s through the mid 1950’s. We watch a Court willing to allow the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II evolve into the champion of civil rights that outlawed racial segregation in schools in Brown v. Board of Education. Feldman’s analysis is worthy of a law review article, yet his style and diction make the material accessible to the lay man.

Non-lawyers who may not enjoy legal analysis will still be interested in Feldman’s description of the clash of personalities that produced the epic decisions:

Frustration bred contempt. From allies sipping champagne to celebrate one another’s joining the Court, Black, Frankfurter, Douglas, and Jackson had formed camps and become bitter enemies. Frankfurter despised Douglas, whom he called one of the ‘two completely evil men I have ever met….’ Frankfurter called Douglas, Black, and Murphy [another justice] ‘the Axis.’ One-upping Frankfurter, Douglas called him ‘Der Fuehrer.’ The hatred between Black and Jackson ran so deep that it threatened to ruin the reputations of both men. The friendship between Frankfurter and Jackson seemed to depend more on disdain for Douglas and Black than any closer connection. Douglas and Black voted together but were not intimate friends. For them, common ground meant revulsion for Frankfurter and Jackson.”

Justice Robert Jackson

Feldman’s account of the machinations behind making the Brown opinion unanimous is particularly compelling. When the case first came before the Court, three justices (all southerners), including Chief Justice Fred Vinson, believed that the old “separate but equal” doctrine enunciated in Plessy v. Ferguson was the correct interpretation of the Constitution. Frankfurter knew that to rule segregated public facilities were unconstitutional would effect a social revolution, and so it required as strong and forceful opinion by the Court as possible. A 6-3 decision would not project the gravitas necessary to produce willing compliance, particularly in the South. After the oral argument, he persuaded a majority of the Court to defer decision and to require a re-argument the following year. This ploy gave him time to try to convert the other justices to his views.

Justice William O. Douglas

Remarkably, before the second oral argument, Vinson died of a heart attack. Frankfurter never liked Vinson, and told a former law clerk, “[T]his is the first solid piece of evidence I’ve ever had that there really is a God.” President Eisenhower then appointed Earl Warren, a consummate politician and a strong supporter of civil rights, as Chief Justice.

Even with Warren in the camp to overturn Plessy, the battle for a unanimous opinion was far from over. Frankfurter himself had to overcome his own judicial philosophy of judicial restraint. Jackson saw nothing in the constitutional text or precedent history to make segregation unconstitutional. Accordingly, he favored frank recognition that the court was making new law despite history and precedent, a position with which none of his colleagues would agree. He, however, fell ill and finally was browbeaten by Warren to join the unanimous opinion. A combination of Frankfurter’s cogent arguments and Warren’s cajoling induced the two remaining southern judges to join the rest of the court to make the opinion unanimous. The resulting opinion, although unanimous, is something of a hodge-podge of rationales. Nevertheless, it is usually considered the most important Supreme Court case of the 20th Century.

Evaluation: There is much more to this splendid book than my review can cover in a reasonably short space. I recommend it strongly for lawyer and layman alike.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Grand Central Publishing, 2011

Review of “The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation” by Thomas Fleming

In Thomas Fleming’s retelling of the early days of the American republic, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson not only held widely disparate views of the proper role of the president, but they also grew to despise one another.


Jefferson distrusted central power—he was pretty much content to live in an autonomous Virginia, and let the other states go their own ways. However, in the early days of the republic, both Great Britain and France posed significant threats to American interests and even to the country’s very continued existence. Under such circumstances, Washington recognized the need for a relatively powerful central government with the power to tax and a strong executive to lead it. Accordingly, he was instrumental in leading the country to adopt the Constitution to replace the feckless Articles of Confederation.

Jefferson’s affection for the French nation and its bloody revolution was another issue that separated him from Washington. Washington preferred to avoid “entangling alliances,” and so he did not take sides in Britain’s long war with (first) revolutionary France and then Napoleonic France. Fleming attributes Jefferson’s favoritism toward France as an underlying cause of the War of 1812.

In Fleming’s account, Washington is clearly a wise hero who guided the young nation through perilous times, while Jefferson is a wily, unscrupulous, hypocritical pretender whose distrust of the very government he oversaw nearly left the new republic defenseless at a time when most of the world went to war. Fleming is especially critical of Jefferson’s efforts to change the public’s memory of Washington from strong leader to mere caretaker.

Evaluation: Fleming is a reliable historian and a lucid writer. This book adds to a recent spate of works diminishing the reputation of the principal author of the Declaration of Independence.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Da Capo Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group, 2015