Review of “Baseball Saved Us” by Ken Mochizuki for kids about the Japanese Internment

Throughout American history, some citizens have had more rights and privileges than others.

When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, fear and prejudice towards the Japanese reached a fever pitch. These attitudes extended to both citizens and non-citizens of Japanese descent living in the United States.

In 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Under the terms of the Order, approximately 110,000 – 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in the US (of whom 70,000 were American citizens) were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. The US justified its’ action by claiming that there was a danger of those of Japanese descent spying for the Japanese. However more than two thirds of those interned were American citizens and half of them were children. None had ever shown evidence of disloyalty.

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The internees were transported to one of ten relocation centers in California, Utah, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming for up to 4 years, without due process of law or any factual basis, in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Families were crammed into 20- by 25-foot rooms and forced to use communal bathrooms. No razors, scissors, or radios were allowed. Children attended War Relocation Authority schools.

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In 1988, the U.S. Government conceded it had been wrong. Although restitution payments were authorized to the survivors, as President Reagan admitted:

Yet no payment can make up for those lost years. So, what is most important in this bill has less to do with property than with honor. For here we admit a wrong; here we reaffirm our commitment as a nation to equal justice under the law.”

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This book tells the story of a young Japanese-American internee nicknamed Shorty, who was trying to develop his own sense of honor even though they had been sent to a “camp” in the middle of nowhere behind a barbed-wire fence.

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He was keenly aware that they were not free:

Soldiers with guns made sure we stayed there, and the man in the tower saw everything we did, no matter where we were.”

His dad organized the kids to make a baseball field, and moms used mattress covers to make the boys uniforms. Shorty wasn’t that good, but on one of the last games of the year he got motivated:

I glanced at the guardhouse behind the left field foul line and saw the man in the tower, leaning on the rail with the blinding sun glinting off his sunglasses. He was always watching, always staring. It suddenly made me mad. … I was gonna hit the ball past the guardhouse even if it killed me.”

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He succeeds, and is a hero for awhile, but when the family is released from the camp, things got bad again. Even though the war was over, no one would talk to him because he was Japanese. When baseball season came, he felt inadequate all over again, hearing people in the crowd yelling “Jap.”

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But he didn’t back down, and then, when he stepped up to the plate, he looked at the pitcher:

The sun glinted off his glasses as he stood on the mound, like the guard in the tower.”

You can guess what happens next: Shorty belts that ball with a solid whack, and once again, gains not only self-respect but the respect of others, who see that being Japanese doesn’t mean he won’t be as brave or as talented as the rest of them.

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The illustrations by Dom Lee are excellent, and were inspired in part by photographs taken by Ansel Adams at California’s Manzanar internment camp in 1943. Lee uses the bleak colors of the desert while the family is in the camp, adding color when they are finally back home.

Evaluation: This book has won a number of awards, and in my opinion, most definitely deserves them. It is important to remember that the focus of this story is on United States citizens. Thus, this is a highly recommended way to teach children critical thinking about political actions, and about the dire consequences of prejudice. Children will get a very good feel for what it means to walk in someone else’s shoes. Lee & Low provides an excellent guide for further discussion, here.

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Rating: 5/5

Winner, Parents’ Choice Award
Winner, Washington State Governor’s Writers Award
Best Multicultural Title, “Cuffies Award” – Publishers Weekly
“Editors’ Choice” – San Francisco Chronicle
“Choices,” Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC)
“Pick of the Lists,” – American Bookseller
Washington State Children’s Choice Award Finalist 

Published by Lee & Low Books Inc., 1993

Review of “50 Things You Should Know About The Vietnam War” by Chris McNab

Like the analogously named books about World War I and World War II, this small book on the Vietnam War is replete with excellent maps, great photos, fascinating fact-boxes, and reader-friendly infographics.

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As the author writes:

The Vietnam War was one of the longest conflicts in the history of the United States. America began sending small numbers of military advisors to the war in the 1950s, but by 1968 there were more than 500,000 soldiers in South Vietnam. The very last Americans did not leave there until 1975, by which time 58,286 U.S. troops were dead. But the war was far more devastating to Vietnam and its people. In total, the war may have cost up to one and a half million Vietnamese lives.”

I was pleased to see that the author included an explanation of “The Domino Theory” that was used to justify intervention in the region, although a bit more could have been said about why the U.S. found communism to be so abhorrent.

The Gulf of Tonkin incident was central to the escalation of the war, but here quite underplayed. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was enacted by Congress on August 7, 1964 in response to an alleged attack by the North Vietnamese Navy. The act gave President Lyndon Johnson authorization to do whatever he thought necessary in Vietnam. A report in 2005 admitted that no attack happened. But the big text on the page in this book makes it appear as if the provocations were genuine. It is only in a small box in the corner that we get an intimation that nothing really happened, and no indication whatsoever that Johnson knew this but disseminated the false “intelligence” in order to be able to send ground troops to fight in Vietnam.

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The use of napalm bombing is also glossed over. Napalm is liquid fire, a sort of jellied gasoline, that melts the flesh upon human contact. In Vietnam, the first televised war, viewers began to see horrific images of the civilian casualties – especially those of children – caused by napalm bombs, and these photos were brandished by students who protested the war.

To the author’s credit, there is at least a little box on the deleterious health effects of Agent Orange (herbicide defoliants sprayed by American aircraft over South and North Vietnam), but no mention of the fact that the use of Agent Orange was later determined to be in violation of the Geneva Convention.

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During the ten years (1961-1971) of aerial chemical warfare in Vietnam, US warplanes sprayed more than 20 million gallons of Agent Orange in an operation code-named Ranch Hand. By the end of the war, nearly five million Vietnamese had been exposed to Agent Orange, resulting in 400,000 deaths and disabilities and a half million children born with birth defects, according to the 2008-2009 President’s Cancer Panel Report for the National Cancer Institute. [Agent Orange manufacturer Dow Chemical Company knew as early as 1965 that the dioxin contaminant in the defoliant was “one of the most toxic materials known …” ] This information also was excluded, as was information on the effects U.S. Veterans suffered as well. (See, for example, this story from the New York Times.)

There is also a small box on the My Lai Massacre, in which between 300 to 500 mostly unarmed women, children, and elderly were massacred by U.S. soldiers on March 16, 1968. None of the victims were members of the enemy forces. Not included in the very little blurb was the fact that infants were among the victims; that some of the women were gang-raped by the Americans and their bodies mutilated; and that Lieutenant William Calley Jr., the leader of the platoon who ordered the action, was convicted but served only three and a half years under house arrest. None of the other military men initially charged were ever convicted. [For almost 16 months after the incident at My Lai, the American public remained unaware of what had happened until reporter Seymour Hersh broke the story in 30 U.S. newspapers.]

There is hardly anything about General William Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. forces during the Vietnam War from 1964 to 1968 and is regarded by many to be “The General Who Lost Vietnam.”

And in a shocking omission, there is not one word about The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a 2-acre national memorial in Washington, DC. The beautiful memorial, designed by American architect Maya Lin, receives around 3 million visitors each year.

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Nevertheless, there are lots of positives about this book. The author found many ways to include engrossing aspects of a huge subject and a lot of information on the military hardware used during the war. Importantly, given the mix of pictures, text boxes, and maps, I don’t think anyone is going to be bored by the history lessons in this book.

Evaluation:  This book does a very good job at introducing the subject of the Vietnam War to students. All the eye-popping pictures and facts will no doubt inspire further inquiries, at which time the omitted portions of the history will become clear. Great maps and infographics with plenty of photos will make the time fly as you learn the basics. A brief “who’s who” photo gallery and glossary are at the back of the book.

Rating:  3.5/5

Published in the US. by QEB Publishing, 2016

Review of History Book for Kids – “Steamboat School” by Deborah Hopkinson

This book, inspired by a true story, tells the story in free verse of the Reverend John Berry Meachum (born in 1789), through the eyes of a young boy, James, who attends the school Reverend Meachum started to educate African Americans.

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Meachum himself was a former slave. He not only worked and saved to buy his own freedom, but later bought the freedom of his wife and children. He even purchased slaves himself, only to free them and then hire them to work for him until they’d paid him back.

Meachum was ordained in 1825, and became the leader of an African American congregation in St. Louis, where he established a school in the church’s basement. In 1847, however, Missouri passed a law outlawing “the instruction of negroes or mulattoes, reading or writing, in this State.”

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Undeterred, Meachum moved his school to a steamboat in the Mississippi River, which was considered federal property.

The story ends showing James as a man, declaring:

“I’ve written it out like Mama asked,
but I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
For I’ve made up my mind to go to school
till I’m old enough to row the other
children out,
and teach the little ones to read.

I won’t forget,
because now I know that being brave
can sometimes be a small thing,
like lighting a candle, opening a book,
or dipping an oar into still, deep water.”

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The only sad part of the story is revealed in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, in which one discovers that Reverend Meachum died in 1854, too soon to see black emancipation. The author tells us that in May 1855, Meachum’s widow, Mary, was arrested for her work with the so-called Underground Railroad, helping slaves escape to the North. In 2001, the Mary Meachum Freedom Crossing became the first site in Missouri to be recognized as part of the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom.

For further exploration, some web sites and a short bibliography are also included. If you are interested, you can read about Meachum’s life in his own words, in his “Address to All the Colored Citizens of the United States” from 1846, and online here.

The illustrations are done by Ron Husband, who was the first African American animator at Walt Disney Studios. On his blog, he describes his technique, and how he employed “the philosophy of storytelling I gleaned from my years in feature animation.” He explains: “In animation you tell a story in a series of drawings, in illustration, a story is told in a single drawing with communication as the goal.” He uses a limited palette of sepia color schemes which helps convey the historic nature of the story.

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Evaluation: This is an excellent story with the message that ingenuity, dedication, and hard work can help overcome obstacles.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Disney-Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2016

Review of “The Case for Loving: The Fight for Interracial Marriage” by Selina Alko

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As the Author explains in an Afterword to this book, she is white and her husband, fellow illustrator Sean Qualls, is African-American. They fell in love and were married in 2003. Alko writes:

“I must admit, it’s difficult to imagine that just decades ago couples just like us not only faced discrimination, but were told by their governments that their love was unlawful.”

But it was only in 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court declared that anti-mixed marriage statutes were unconstitutional, in the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia. Chief Justice Earl Warren, writing for the Court, declared that statutes preventing marriage solely on the basis of racial classification violate the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

At the time of this decision, Virginia was one of sixteen states prohibiting and punishing marriages on the basis of racial classification. According to one Virginia statute, a “white person” was absolutely prohibited from marrying anyone other than another “white person.” The license-issuing official had to be satisfied that applicants’ statements as to their race were correct, and certificates of “racial composition” had to be kept by both state and local registrars.

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This book tells the story of two Virginia residents, Mildred Jeter, part African-American and part Cherokee, and Richard Loving, a fair-skinned white boy. The two fell in love, but had to travel to Washington, D.C. to get married legally, which they did in 1958. Shortly thereafter, they returned to Virginia and took up residence.

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They’d been married just a few weeks when, in the middle of the night in July, 1958, the county sheriff and two deputies, acting on an anonymous tip that the Lovings were in violation of the law, stormed into the couple’s bedroom. They informed the Lovings that their marriage license was no good in Virginia, and hauled Richard and the pregnant Mildred off to jail.

The couple eventually pleaded guilty to violating the Virginia law, which recognized citizens as “pure white” only if they could claim white lineage all the way back to 1684. The presiding judge ruled:

“Almighty God created the races white, white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.” And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

The Lovings were convicted and sentenced to one year in jail; however, the trial judge suspended the sentence for 25 years on the condition that the Lovings leave Virginia. They moved to D.C., but missed their friends and family and the Virginia countryside. In 1964, frustrated by their inability to travel together to visit their families in Virginia, Mildred Loving wrote in protest to Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. Kennedy referred the matter to the American Civil Liberties Union.

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The ACLU filed a motion on the Lovings’ behalf to vacate the judgment and set aside the sentence on the ground that the statute, the “Racial Integrity Act of 1924,” violated the Fourteenth Amendment. The Lovings also filed a class action in federal court to have the Virginia statutory scheme declared unconstitutional. This began a series of procedures and appeals that ultimately reached the Supreme Court.

Mildred and Richard Loving with their three children on the front porch of their Virginia home in the late 1960’s.

Mildred and Richard Loving with their three children on the front porch of their Virginia home in the late 1960’s.

Mildred and Richard Loving went on to have three children: Donald, Peggy and Sidney Loving. In the book, the authors aver that the Loving family, back in Virginia, lived “happily (and legally!) ever after.” But the truth is more tragic. Richard Loving died at age 41 in 1975, when a drunken driver struck their car. Mildred Loving lost her right eye in the same accident.

Mildred Loving died of pneumonia in 2008, in Milford, Virginia, at age 68. Her daughter Peggy Fortune said “I want [people] to remember her as being strong and brave yet humble — and believ[ing] in love.”

Mildred and Richard Loving in 1967

Mildred and Richard Loving in 1967

This book is a testament to that love, and also to the love between the Selina Alko and Sean Qualls. For the art work, they collaborated, using paint and collage in bold and beautiful colors. This is their first book together, but you can see in this book the influence of their previous (separate) books about mixed race relationships, such as Who Will I Be, Lord? by Vaunda Micheaux Nelson, Sean Qualls, Illustrator, and I’m Your Peanut Butter Big Brother by Selina Alko (both author and illustrator).

Evaluation: This story is told truthfully, but with the focus on the positive aspects of love, family, and the conviction that “Brand-new ideas, like equal rights for people of all colors, were replacing old, fearful ways of thinking.” One can only hope that faith continues to be justified.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic Inc., 2015

Review of “Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II” by Michael Burleigh

To some, it may seem oxymoronic to talk about morality and war in the same sentence, and yet each side in modern wars tends to think that it alone is on the side of God. Indeed, the Crusades, full of bloody cruelty, were a series of religiously sanctioned military campaigns waged by much of Roman Catholic Europe. The American Civil War, to take a more recent example, was considered – especially by Northerners- to be primarily a moral conflict. As Lincoln famously noted in his Second Inaugural address:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

World War II was called “the good war” by the Western allies, who used the language of morality to justify both the entry into the war and the manner in which it was waged. “What is our policy?” Churchill asked in 1940: “To wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.”

It seems fitting, then, that Michael Burleigh has written a history of World War II from a moral (rather than the more common operational) perspective. And in this war we can see that, as with all wars, many ethical compromises were made in the effort to eradicate perceived evil.

Burleigh describes in detail episodes that required moral judgments on the part of the participants, who had to make such judgments in the face of extraordinarily difficult and complex circumstances. He maintains that the Nazis “tried fundamentally to alter the moral understanding of humanity, in ways that differed from the moral norms of Western civilization.”

The first great moral issue faced by the Western countries was how to deal with the predator nations of Germany, Japan, and Italy. Burleigh deals sympathetically with British appeasers led by Chamberlain, who “saw themselves as realists, although their own chimerical quest for a general European peace settlement, without alliances or threats of war to strengthen their own hand, was incredibly idealistic…what Churchill would call the pursuit of ‘futile good intentions.’” What the appeasers were unable to fathom was that the dictators of Germany and Italy were not “fundamentally reasonable, decent men” like themselves.

Chamberlain and Hitler in 1938

Burleigh’s account of the “rape of Poland” details how egregiously the Nazis trampled on traditional Western notions of morality. Soviet behavior in the same area and time was not much better. The massacre of some 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn Forrest has only recently been formally acknowledged by the Soviet government.

Conditions of life under Nazi occupation varied significantly from country to country, depending how “Aryan” the population was. The occupation was [relatively] less onerous in Denmark, as the Nazis thought the Danes to be racially similar to themselves. At the other end of the spectrum, conditions for the natives in Poland or the USSR were bestial. Conditions in France were intermediate.

Nazi occupation posed two significant moral problems for the indigenous population. One moral issue was how much to “collaborate,” in particular, whether to assist the Nazis in identifying Jews or to assist the Jews in hiding or escaping, for which the punishment was death.

A second issue was faced by the “resistance,” the natives who became saboteurs. Killing Nazi soldiers or effecting significant damage to key assets invited savage reprisals, usually the execution of innocent hostages. In addition, the Germans usually replaced the Nazis assassinated with someone even more vicious than the person killed.

Sometimes politics trumped morality in the decision to assassinate. The Czech resistance killed Reinhard Heydrich knowing the German reaction would bring barbaric reprisals on the Czech people, but they feared the Germans might seek a negotiated peace resulting in the disappearance of the Czech nation all together. Edvard Beneš, the future prime minister of Czechoslovakia, on learning of the assassination said, “What the Germans are doing is horrible, but from the political point of view they gave us one certainty: under no circumstances can anyone doubt Czechoslovakia’s national integrity and her right to independence.”

Edvard Beneš - President of Czechoslovakia, 1942

Treatment of prisoners was another area in which conceptions of morality differed among the combatants. The Japanese had no tradition of surrender and thought it was dishonorable. Hence, they treated prisoners with contempt, often starving or beheading them. Toward the end of the war, the Japanese themselves were often short of rations, and were not inclined to share them with the dishonorable dogs who had surrendered to them.

The Germans and Soviets each took hundreds of thousands of each other’s prisoners; only about 10-15% survived the war. In stark contrast, the Allies perceived the Germans fighting in North Africa to be honorable opponents. In general, treatment of prisoners on the western front was far better than in the east or the Pacific.

Methods of motivating the fighting forces also raised moral issues in the different approaches used by the combatant parties. Both the Germans and the Soviets utilized fear, executing thousands of their own forces for cowardice or desertion. The Soviets executed an astounding 200,000 of their own men, 13,500 in the battle of Stalingrad alone!

Soviet Soldiers at Stalingrad (from boston.com)

Nazi immorality is nowhere evinced more clearly than in their barbarism toward the Jews. Burleigh points out that that widespread coercion of the German populace was not necessary to impose the “final solution”: “there were always enough volunteers.”

Some of the most gruesome moral decisions of the war were thrust upon the Jewish Councils of Elders that were established in the ghettos and concentration camps. They were often tasked with selecting which members of their group would be relocated to extermination camps. Many Council members simply refused to co-operate in such life-and-death decisions, either by committing suicide or being shot after registering their dissent.

Burleigh devotes an entire chapter to the issue of whether the Allies could have done more to ease the plight of the Jews. In particular, the Allies have been condemned for their failure to bomb the Auschwitz concentration camp. Jewish leaders pleaded with the Allies to sacrifice those already in the camp for the benefit of the many more who would be sent there in the future.

Burleigh seems to agree that anti-Semitism played a role in the decision-making process when he points out: (1) “the only apparent interest of the U.S. government was to block Nazi-induced Jewish immigration”; (2) “[t]here is no point in denying that British politicians like Foreign Secretary Eden were biased in favour of Arabs over Jews,” undoubtedly because of oil; and (3) “[t]he US military was also keenly sensitive to avoid anything that might suggest that Gentile soldiers were dying to save Jewish lives.”

Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden in 1943

Nevertheless, and irrespective of any implicit anti-Semitism on the part of the Western powers, Burleigh points out the problems a mission to bomb the camp entailed. “The practical difficulties and extremely remote prospect of success have been forcefully demonstrated by distinguished historians of the air war…” He concludes [untenably, some might counter] that the British and American decision not to bomb the camps “categorically had nothing to do with anti-Semitism, and everything to do with Allied priorities for winning the war.”

The decision to drop the two atomic bombs over Japan was (and still is) justified [again, quite controversially] as a means of reducing the total number of people killed by the war, particularly innocent civilians:

Those who object to the dropping of two atomic bombs might ask themselves how many Americans (and Russians) they would have preferred to see killed. Would they prefer that LeMay’s fleets continued to burn their way through cities? How many civilian Japanese would they prefer to have been slaughtered or starved to death by a tightening naval blockade that had cut all food imports, while, as in Europe, conventional bombing wrecked the entire transport infrastructure?”

The Mushroom Cloud Over Nagasaki

Evaluation: This book is a very rich and probing investigation of many difficult and often subtle moral decisions that were made and forced upon various people, famous and unknown, powerful and impotent, by the circumstances of World War II. This review covers some, but not nearly all, of the issues elaborated therein. Not everyone will agree with all of the author’s interpretations and conclusions, but the book is well-written and thoroughly researched. I highly recommend this for any student of history, as well as for any book club that includes non-fiction selections.

Rating: 4/5

Published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2010

Review of “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945” by Tony Judt

Tony Judt’s detailed monumental work (over 800 pages) is well-written and well-organized. He begins by documenting the devastation in Europe following World War II. Post-war planning for Europe was heavily influenced by the knowledge that both fascism and communism thrived on social despair; ergo “the physical and moral condition of the citizenry” became a matter of common interest for both the victors and the vanquished. Economic recovery was deemed to be essential. A brutal winter in 1947 exacerbated the urgency. U.S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall’s plan for a European Recovery program, proposed in the summer of 1947, helped avert a political crisis in Europe. It’s real benefit, however, was psychological: the infusion of money and aid helped Europeans to “break decisively with a legacy of chauvinism, depression and authoritarian solutions.”

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There was a continuing interest in Communism as a promising ideology throughout the world, although it attenuated after Krushchev’s “secret speech” in February, 1956 revealing Stalin’s crimes. Moreover, the invasion of tanks into Hungary in November, 1956 “dispelled any illusions about this new,’reformed’ Soviet model.” But as Judt observes, “enthusiasm for Communism in theory was characteristically present in inverse proportion to direct experience of it in practice.” For Eastern Europeans, however, there was no longer any choice but to accept existence within the Soviet orbit. After 1956, Judt laments, “the Communist states of Eastern Europe, like the Soviet Union itself, began their descent into a decades-long twilight of stagnation, corruption and cynicism.”

Khrushchev's "secret speech" in 1956

Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956

Judt adduces evidence to support his claim that when Communism fell in 1989 it was “Mr. Gorbachev’s revolution.” Not only did Gorbachev liberalize his own country, but he let it be known that he would not intervene in the internal politics of his colonies. Without the threat of military action from Moscow, there wasn’t much to keep them in their antiquated inefficient systems. Much of the book is devoted to a detailed explanation of how each of the Eastern European countries went through the process of liberation. [It should be noted that, contrary to the American narrative, most reputable historians give the lion’s share of credit to Mr. Gorbachev, not Mr. Reagan, for dismantling Communism.]

Mikhail Gorbachev

Mikhail Gorbachev

Another helpful section outlines the concerns of the European Union, and just what membership means for both members and non-members. In a discussion of the culture of today’s Europe, Judt speculates on the future of identity in Europe, with nationalism competing with Europeanism and now even with Islam.

His final chapter explores the nature of memory itself in Europe; in particular, how the different nations have negotiated the rocky shoals of Holocaust memory. As he emphasizes, “A nation has first to have remembered something before it can begin to forget it.” For many nations, their complicity in Fascism is something they prefer not to acknowledge. He ends by relating a popular Soviet-era joke: a listener calls up ‘Armenian Radio’ with a question: ‘Is it possible’, he asks, ‘to foretell the future?’ Answer: ‘Yes, no problem. We know exactly what the future will be. Our problem is with the past: that keeps changing.'” Therein, Judt writes, lies the challenge: “If in years to come we are to remember why it seemed so important to build a certain sort of Europe out of the crematoria of Auschwitz, only history can help us.”

Published by The Penguin Press, 2005

Note: Awards for this book include:
Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize
Winner of the Council on Foreign Relations Arthur Ross Book Award
One of the New York Times’Ten Best Books of the Year
European Book Prize (2008)
Arthur Ross Book Award for Gold Medal (2006)
Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction Nominee (2006)

Review of “Lincoln’s Lieutenants: The High Command of the Army of the Potomac” by Stephen W. Sears

In this age of twitter, I can follow the political machinations of the Trump Administration from moment to moment, from every imaginable side, and with the perspective of a variety of viewpoints. I have often wished that we could have the same level of information about historic periods.

This massive and detailed study by Civil War historian Stephen Sears makes me feel as if my wishes had been granted, at least with respect to the creation and ongoing development of the Union Army during the Civil War. By focusing on the processes by which generals and officers were selected, trained, honed, and culled, Sears catalogues the evolution of a self-taught army led by volunteers into the experienced and efficient fighting machine that was in place by the end of the struggle. His is a story of backbiting, jealousy, outright sabotage, lapses, blunders, meddling, timidity, inexperience, disjointedness, miscommunications, resentment, and paranoia. But it is also a tale of courage; personal growth of many actors, both political and military; and ultimately of triumph. Mostly though, one may think of this book as an organizational history.

To my surprise, my opinion of George McClellan actually improved from this account (although I feel a bit like Senator Al Franken on Ted Cruz, who said on CNN, ”I probably like Ted Cruz more than most of my colleagues like Ted Cruz, and I hate Ted Cruz.”). Sears demonstrates rather convincingly that McClellan, for all his faults, took on the leadership of an inadequately-sized army with few officers and helped form it into something workable.

In 1860 the U.S. Army was small – less than 15,000 present for duty, with most of the army posted west of the Mississippi River, and having just 372 line officers and five general officers. Nearly a quarter of West Pointers on active duty in 1861, and close to 37 percent of cadets at the time of the secession crisis, joined the Confederacy. The General-In-Chief was 74-year-old Winfield Scott, an erratic and quarrelsome man in bad shape and ill health who was not up to much more than broadly overseeing the course of the army.

Lieut. Gen. Winfield Scott, 1861

As Sears writes, when McClellan was called to Washington to assume command of the new Division of the Potomac in July, 1861, “Ahead of McClellan loomed an enormous task, no less than building a new army upon the ruins of an old one.” Morale was also in tatters. George McClellan may have not liked to fight, and he was certainly paranoid and delusional, but he was good at organizing, and at restoring the army’s confidence in itself. He revamped the army’s officer corps (incidentally creating a group of men fiercely loyal to him). He structured the army into divisions and set up programs for drilling recruits. Although he could not entirely evade (much to his chagrin), the popular political patronage process of the appointment of company and regimental officers, he supported examining boards for officer competency, and widened the use of courts-martial.

1861 photograph of George B. McClellan by Mathew Brady

McClellan didn’t take kindly to any second-guessing of his decisions, nor could he abide the administration’s unwillingness to respond “appropriately” to his call for massive numbers of new recruits based on his wildly inaccurate assessments of enemy strength. But ultimately, it was his stubborn reluctance to fight that led to his replacement. It was not an easy decision for Lincoln, given McClellan’s popularity with the army he had virtually created from scratch. But it was the right decision to win the war.

Ulysses S. Grant, who eventually took over as head of the army, also found that serving as the top commander did not insulate him from political pressures, especially as he was compelled to keep on less than competent and/or compliant division leaders. But Grant was there to fight a war, and he did what he could to work around political realities.

General Grant at the Battle of Cold Harbor in 1864

Typical of Grant’s military leadership vis-a-vis others that came before him was this description of Grant’s behavior at the end of the Wilderness campaign:

“May 7 marked a watershed. It did not occur to Grant that day . . . to pull back across the Rapidan, in the manner of Hooker or Burnside (or McClellan, changing his base), to lick wounds and regroup and plot some next campaign.”

Grant’s attitude, Sears notes, was not lost on the men of the Army of the Potomac.

Grant was as eager to work with other generals as McClellan had been to run every operation himself. Grant, a humble and generous man, worked well with Meade, Sherman, Sheridan, and others in a way that showed respect for these men and their talents, allowing them to blossom and thrive under his direction. He made mistakes, but for the most part owned them, and did not cast off blame on others. He welcomed Lincoln’s counsel rather than eschewing it as did McClellan, and in return received Lincoln’s utmost confidence and support.

Sears reports that “…the Potomac army that marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in spring 1865 [after the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox] was almost a completely new army, top to bottom, from the Potomac army that went to war on the Virginia Peninsula in spring 1862.” Only a handful of officers of position from those early days remained by the end. Whole army corps had come and gone…. “For all the turnover at the top,” Sears writes, “the Army of the Potomac conquered, forcing the surrender of its renowned opponent. Obscured by the extensive turnover of generals, a vital, solid core of leadership remained, survived, prevailed. It was this lesser-known half of the high command that held the Potomac army together through one battlefield hellfire after another.”

Grand Review of the Army 1865

And it is this story he tells in great detail in this valuable addition to Civil War scholarship.

The book includes blow-by-blow accounts of many battles, extensive notes and more than 150 illustrations.

Evaluation: There isn’t anything really “new” in this book, but the detail lends a feel of immediacy to the story by the author’s incorporation of extracts from journals, diaries, letters, wires, congressional post-mortems and other documents. Sears reports Stanton and Lincoln hanging onto updates by wire just as we now flock to twitter to see what is happening from moment to moment. With this book, we too are behind the scenes, privy even to more than Stanton and Lincoln, as we follow the ins and outs of the history of a great fighting machine.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017