Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power (Jon Meacham)

Thomas Jefferson 3rd President of the United States

Thomas Jefferson
3rd President of the United States

Jon Meacham‘s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power is the fourth book of his I have read.

Meacham makes history easy to read for even the most casual fan of U.S. history.  His management of theme through the issues of the day and the personality of the subject helps the reader see a broader picture of a man like Thomas Jefferson.

His approach to describing in overview the important events and critical issues; developments and solutions that evolved; giving the reader the essential insights without bogging down in a load of minutia.  Meacham’s works are thoroughly footnoted, which helps the real history junkie decide where they might like to do more in-depth reading or research.

The American Revolution, and the birth of the country which followed is a favorite subject of mine.  Of particular interest is the collection of men that came together in challenging times to take a dangerous stand against England; risking life and property for Liberty; then steering a course towards constitutional government that resulted in a Republic now over two centuries old.

These men were the wealthiest, most educated, and most successful in the American colonies.  But …

These men were not perfect.  They had their flaws.  Yet they came together and created a politically complex national union out of disparate regions and competing interests in such a way that enabled growth; promoted its survival through the tests of time; and allowed it to emerge from the crucibles of several dramatic – even catastrophic – national and international crises as an even stronger nation.

George Washington appointed Jefferson  the first U.S. Secretary of State

George Washington appointed Jefferson
the first U.S. Secretary of State

Thomas Jefferson‘s contributions to the success of The Great American Experiment in the period between George Washington‘s inaugural as our first President and Jefferson own presidency (following John Adams) were – in my opinion – the most compelling .

Citizens with a casual appreciation for American history might believe that once the U.S. Constitution was ratified as the Law of the Land, the Forefathers simply finger-skimmed the honored document whenever a question of function or politics arose.  But The Constitution was but a “blueprint” with many operational and philosophical issues undefined or at the very least open to all manner of nuance and interpretation.

Thomas Jefferson was one of those flawed individuals that rose to play a prominent role in taking that constitutional blueprint and – if I can stretch an analogy – installing the wiring and plumbing that allowed the Government to relate as best as possible to the People it would govern.  It was a herculean task that required the input and at times the nastiest of opposition between Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans to negotiate a national vision from contending philosophies of governance.

Jefferson was a study in contradictions throughout his personal life and public service.

Sally Hemings

Sally Hemings

1.  He was a man who passionately subscribed to the concept of Individual Liberty.  He made several attempts early in his public career to advance the concept of slave emancipation in the Virginia colony.  He provided insights for the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen via the Marquis de Lafayette, which became the central theme of the French Revolution; and he fought hard against John Adam’s Alien and Sedition Acts.

Yet he continued to own slaves; using one – Sally Hemings – as a concubine; and went so far as to maintain their offspring as slaves until they turned age 21 or until his death in 1826.

2.  As a member of Washington’s first American government, serving as its first Secretary of State, Jefferson fought aggressively with fellow Democratic-Republican James Madison to counter the Federalist’s efforts (Led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams.) to create a strong national government with a singularly powerful Chief Executive.  Jefferson was fearful that such a strong centralized authority, with the prospects for close ties with Great Britain, would eventually whittle away at individual liberties.

James Madison Fellow Democratic-Republican

James Madison
Fellow Democratic-Republican

However, when he served as President himself, he found a way to expand the powers of the presidency in order to take full advantage of a French proposal to effectively double the size of the United States through the Louisiana Purchase.

3.  Jefferson was an accomplished author of A Summary View of the Rights of British America (a list of grievances against King George III), The Declaration of Independence, and as contributor to the French Constitution.

But he wrote only one published book in his life, Notes on the State of Virginia.  And he was not much of a public speaker for such a renown politician and communicator!

Meacham’s primary theme emphasizes that in his quest for power, that he wanted for the good he felt he could accomplish, Jefferson was a practical politician.  He had his ideologies, his strongly held positions.  But Jefferson believed in “limited government” only to the extent that it was practicable.  If he thought a more expansive government was the better option in the best interests of the country (e.g. Jefferson’s quick actions to accept and ratify the Louisiana Purchase), he held no qualms about pushing the National Government’s reach and authority.

In the end, both the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans enjoyed a mixed success influencing the path of The Grand Experiment.  As bad as contentions grew in the early years of the Republic, it was clear both Federalists and Democratic-Republicans were advocating what they believed was best for The Country.

One can only hope the current crop in Washington, D.C. feels the same way for all the right reasons.  They certainly give you reason to question their over-arching objectives

A very cool John Adams

A very cool John Adams

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams formed the opposing poles of American political thought from 1790 to 1809, when Jefferson left the presidency.  They were close friends at one point, including Jefferson’s pleasant plutonic relationship with Abigail Adams; strong allies during the colonial confrontations with Britain; friends and co-commissioners to Europe (along with Ben Franklin) for the infant U.S.; and then nasty political opposites during those formative years of the constitutional republic.

They served as consecutive Presidents, then went to their separate corners of the country after leaving office.  They eventually renewed their friendship years later with frequent letters.  And on July 4, 1826 – coincidentally the 50th anniversary of the issuance of The Declaration of Independence - within hours of each other, first John Adams and then Thomas Jefferson shook lose their mortal coils and left the rest of the work on the grand experiment to later generations of Americans.

Other interesting aspects of Thomas Jefferson learned from Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power:

  • Jefferson received his early inspiration for public life and politics at the age of 22, when he heard Patrick Henry give his treasonous Stamp Act speech in opposition to British taxation.
  • Jefferson’s term as Governor of Virginia changed his view on the use of authority.  His oft criticized indecisiveness and timidity during the British invasion of the colony in 1780 were also valuable lessons in leadership and government.

    Patrick Henry gives his Stamp Act speech

    Patrick Henry gives his
    Stamp Act speech

  • Jefferson was derisively referred to as “the negro president” by opposing Federalists, who disliked the congressional advantage Virginia and the other southern states enjoyed due to the 3/5 clause on The Constitution.
  • It took 36 ballots in the House of Representatives to finally confirm Thomas Jefferson as the 3rd U.S. President.  (Electoral College ties, which go to the House of Representatives, were common early in the Republic.)
  • Jefferson may have been the earliest President subject to an assassination plot (December 1804), although no overt attempt was actually made.
  • He requested just three of his accomplishments be etched upon his gravestone:  The Declaration of Independence, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Liberty, and Founder of the University of Virginia.

    Memorial marker at Jefferson's Monticello gravesite

    Memorial marker at Jefferson’s
    Monticello gravesite

  • Sally Hemings accompanied Jefferson’s daughter when he summoned her to France during his ambassadorship there.  By French law, as soon as she stepped foot in France Hemings was a free person.  Jefferson convinced her to return with him to America (additional evidence of their relationship) by negotiating an agreement with her that ensured eventual freedom for their offspring.
  • Philly Connection:  Jefferson leased a house from Thomas Leiper, a merchant and politician, at 274 High Street in the east Germantown section of Philadelphia when he served in the then nation’s capital as Secretary of State under George Washington.
The real John Adams

The real John Adams

Interesting Jefferson quotes …

  • Jefferson’s oft quoted words on fertilizing the Tree of Liberty was written in a letter to John Adams in comment on British criticism of U.S. instability in the wake of Shay’s Rebellion in western Massachusetts, which erupted over early financial difficulties in the infant U.S.

” … what country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to the facts, pardon and pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

  • Jefferson’s famous position on the separation of Church and State came from a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Ceaderbrook, Connecticut as they planned to celebrate religious liberty.

“Believing as you do that religion is a matter between Man and his God, that he owes account to no one for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of the government reach actions only, and not opinions. I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

  • Jefferson loved the use of guns for hunting and sport, and recognized their importance in defending Home and Homeland.

“I am a great friend to the manly and healthy exercise of the gun.”

  • Finally, Jefferson felt that  the U.S. Constitution was a worthy effort as imperfect as the brave men who declared independence in ’76.  But he was much dismayed by the lack of a bill of rights in the original version.  Still he saw hope for the good conscience of the American people.

“If they approve the proposed Convention in all its parts, I shall concur in it cheerfully, in the hopes that they will amend it whenever they find it work wrong.”

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Consolidated B-24 Liberator

Consolidated B-24 Liberator

When it comes to book reviews, I can get a bit wordy.  (Hard to believe, I know!)  Usually this occurs because my goal is to encourage people, who might hold the same interests, to read a book I have found enjoyable or educational.

Such encouragement won’t be necessary for Unbroken, one of the few books I had to ask coworkers not to discuss in my presence so as not to spoil a highly anticipated read.  As an entry at the top of best-seller lists for quite some time, it had a rather large following long before I got around to picking it up.

Laura Hillenbrand, who also wrote the best-seller (and eventual movie) Seabiscuit, masterfully chronicles the true life and trials of Louis Zamperini.  The main character of Unbroken, Zamperini led a fascinating – and at times tragically graphic – life.

Born of Italian parents and living as a teen in Torrance, California Zamperini fought the allure of juvenile delinquency early in life through competitive running.  He developed into a record-holding high school track star, qualified for the 1936 Olympics held – appropriately enough considering the main theme of his story – in Berlin, Germany during the swelling of European Nazism and the reign of Adolph Hitler.

Zamperini tied 5000 meter world-record holder, Dan Lash, to qualify for the '36 Olympics as a high school runner

Zamperini tied 5000 meter world-record holder, Don Lash, to qualify for the ’36 Olympics as a high school runner

While still in high school, Zamperinin’s 56-second final lap performance in the 5000 meter in the 1936 Olympics was so impressive, Der Führer Adolph Hitler pointedly asked to meet him.  Legend has it Zamperini made off with one of the Führer’s personal flags before leaving Berlin.

The circle of karma to which this event belongs is but a small segment of a truly amazing story.

Zamperini, not quite ready to call 1936 the apex of his athletic career, trains hard for the 1940 Olympics, scheduled to be held – of course – in Tokyo, Japan.  But with the drums of World War II beating throughout the world, the 1940 Olympics never occur and Louis Zamperini marches off, along with millions of other young Americans, to a world-wide conflagration to beat back fascism and the Asian Pacific designs of the Japanese Empire.

Louis Zamperini becomes one of the recognizable icons representing all those who risked everything to free half the world from tyranny.   He becomes one who survives perhaps the one collective ordeal that might rival death in combat as a more favorable outcome.

Trained as a bombardier flying in B-24 Liberators in the Pacific Theatre, Zamperini survives a non-combat air crash; barely survives a 47-day ordeal floating in a raft through the Central Pacific with two fellow crewmen - one of whom does not survive the ordeal; then spends the rest of the war at the mercy of several sadistic Japanese prison camp guards.

green hornetThere is no “spoil” in laying out the major waypoints of the Zamperini saga here because you must read the details of his journey to truly appreciate the mind-numbing difficulties faced by Zamperini and the thousands of POWs and civilians held by a Japanese culture where surrender and capitulation rendered the subjugated as inferior beings unworthy of humane treatment.

The telling of this part of the Zamperini tale would normally make the events that preceded it nothing more than prelude, yet his early life challenges and his evolution into an Olympian admired throughout the world is equally interesting.  And his fame in pre-war life has its effects on his captivity at the hands of the Japanese, a scary intersection that may have saved his life while at the same time rendering his time as a prisoner-of-war barely survivable!

Mr. Zamperini still resides in Torrance, CA at the extraordinary age of 96!

Mr. Zamperini still resides in Hollywood, CA at the extraordinary age of 96!

It is – very simply – a story that must be read to be believed.

As one might expect, his life immediately after his return from imprisonment includes post-traumatic symptoms and problems in his attempts to return to a normal life.  In this regard, Zamperini’s experiences are no different in most regards to those suffered by thousands of POWs in WWII and hundreds of others in dozens of wars.

In these “book reports” I tend to share those new things I learned or the more interesting perspectives a good read can bring to light.  But to do this here would simply spoil a fascinating twist to Zamperini’s psychological and spiritual recovery.

So if you are one of the few who – like me - waited too long to pick up a fascinating book, grab Unbroken before the movie comes out!

  • In 1998, at the spry age of 81, Zamperini was afforded the opportunity to run a leg of the Olympic torch relay for the Winter games in Nagano, Japan.  While there he requested the opportunity to meet his worst POW tormentor, but was frustrated in his attempt.
  • For those of us Philadelphia Eagles fans, Mr. Zamperini continues to attend USC football games, and is purportedly a friend of recent Eagles draft pick, QB Matt Barkley!
  • Unbroken, to be directed by actress Anjolina Jolie, is slated to appear in movie theatres for Christmas 2014.

The Admirals (Walter R. Borneman)

Fleet Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, Ernest J. King and Bill Halsey

Fleet Admirals Chester W. Nimitz, Ernest J. King and Bill Halsey

I have always enjoyed reading American history, especially about both the American Civil War and World War II.  One – a domestic conflict - determined the future course of America’s development as a “united nation”; the other – a world-wide conflict – resulted in America’s emergence as a global leader.

That’s not to say I have read everything out there on either subject.  And from time-to-time I run across a book that teaches me a new thing or two.  In the case of The Admirals, I gained a new perspective on America’s military leadership during the last world war to end all world wars.

Walter R. Borneman ‘s enlightening work focuses on the four admirals, who transcended the U.S. Navy’s pre-World War II rank hierarchy, to become the first five-star admirals in American history.  This development was made necessary by the British Allies’ penchant for Fleet Admirals and Field Marshalls.  The 5-star rank was added (by Act of Congress in June 1944) to the American military ranks to place U.S. admirals and generals on equal footing with their European counterparts.

Flag of the Fleet Admiral of the U.S. Navy

Flag of the Fleet Admiral of the U.S. Navy

Five-star ranks of Fleet Admiral were bestowed on the four U.S. Navy Admirals and subjects of the book: William D. Leahy, Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, and William F. Halsey, Jr.  Fifth stars have not been issued to a Navy officer since 1945 and the conclusion of World War II.

Prior to reading The Admirals I was much more familiar with the four U.S. Army Generals, who carried the five-star rank of General of the Armies:  George C.Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Henry H. Arnold.  (Omar Bradley was added as a five-star General in 1950, the only officer in U.S. military service so honored after WWII.)

In The Admirals a new appreciation is gained for the leadership exhibited by two men often overlooked in most media presentations on the War in the Pacific.  Those men are Admirals Leahy and King.  Until I picked up The Admirals, I had no appreciation for the contributions they made in the prosecution of America’s WWII efforts.

The exploits and accomplishments of Admirals Nimitz and Halsey during the Pacific campaign are well-known and referred to relatively often.  For instance, the other night I could not resist watching part of the movie, Midway in which Nimitz and Halsey are prominent.  For that reason, the following speaks mostly of Bill Leahy and Ernest King.

____________________

Admirals King, top left and Leahy, behind FDR, at the Yalta Conference in June 1945

Admirals King, top left and Leahy, behind FDR, at the Yalta Conference (June 1945)

Bill Leahy had been age-retired and was serving as Governor of Puerto Rico when the long-anticipated conflict with Japan broke with the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  His friendship with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, cultivated during a period in his Navy career when – as a Navy captain - Leahy ferried the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy up and down the U.S. eastern coast.  Their relationship led to Leahy being named the Ambassador to Nazi-controlled Vichy, France when the Germans had overrun most of Western Europe.

Leahy’s role as ambassador was to influence the Vichy government from total subservience to the Nazi government, especially when it came to the remnants of the French fleet.  When the Vichy eventually fell in line with the Nazis through the elevation of the pro-German Pierre Laval to the head of its government, FDR kept his promise to the previously retired Admiral Leahy; brought him home from France; and recalled him to military service to help fight the war.

Leahy, left, and King, top right, in conference with Generals George C. Marshall, right, and Henry "Hap" Arnold, top left

Leahy, left, and King, top right, in conference with Generals George C. Marshall, right, and Henry “Hap” Arnold, top left

Tragedy befell Leahy as he prepared to leave the Vichy.  His wife, Louise died suddenly from medical complications of a rushed hysterectomy performed in France.

In time Leahy came to be viewed by  FDR and – almost as importantly – General George Marshall as the perfect candidate to become Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  From this position Bill Leahy would not only coordinate the military’s strategic implementations with FDR’s global considerations, he became the man The President relied upon more and more for all manner of domestic and foreign policy execution.

Admiral Leahy accompanied President Roosevelt to most of the major war conferences, being left behind once in Tunis and missing Casablanca due to a high fever.  He acted as a gatekeeper to information, communications, and personal access to FDR; coordinated execution of the both military and domestic presidential directives; and as Roosevelt’s health diminished, assumed responsibility for the daily functions of The Chief Executive.

The true testament to Admiral Bill Leahy’s effectiveness in those positions was his retention by Harry S Truman as his Chief of Staff for the entirety of his first term following FDR’s death in April 1945.

_______________

Fleet Admirals Nimitz and King with Admiral Raymond Spruance aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis

You gain keen insight from the earlier, less exciting chapters of The Admirals for the process through which the U.S. Navy ensures its officers and future leaders are well-rounded and thoroughly trained.  In the pre-World War II chapters, Borneman concentrates on the early careers of his four study subjects.  What is learned is the important role played by the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation (Bureau of Navy Personnel since 1942), an administrative position that controls the assignment and detailing of naval officers throughout the vast opportunities offered by Navy service.  Each of the World War II five-stars is exposed to the various types of boats, ships and planes.  From destroyers, to submarines, through cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers …

Although none of the four officers Borneman follows gains experience in every possible Navy assignment, the reader sees how each officer’s background developed and how those experiences contributed to their efforts, ideas and strategies during the war.

For a U.S. Navy plying the seas leading to an intriguing World War II theatre of operations in a Pacific Ocean covering tens of millions of square miles, this background provides perspective to the Navy’s evolution from a force built around the great battleships of the Great White Fleet to a fighting force oriented around the aircraft carrier and the long-distance reach of ship-borne aircraft.

It was this kind of ingenuity, an ability to take what was experienced and learned in career assignments that led to a vastly improved vision of modern ocean combat.  The kind of vision that most adequately prepared the U.S. Navy for the challenges of fighting a veteran Japanese navy in the expansive Pacific Theatre.

For this reason, Borneman’s focus remains almost exclusively on the Pacific side of the two-front war America faced during World War II.  There is little mention – aside from Admiral King’s assignment as Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet – of the Atlantic conflict that was more narrowly focused in the fight against the German U-boat.

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Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King

Fleet Admiral Ernest J. King

Ernest J. King was known as cold, career-oriented, hands-on boss with a penchant for hard-drinking, something which changed in the years just before the war broke out.  One of the most senior Navy officers, who was on the short list for mandatory retirement when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

Recalled to active fleet duty, King was initially assigned to lead the Atlantic campaign against the German U-boats.  After convincing FDR to use his flag-ship, U.S.S. Augusta in his initial meeting with Winston Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland, King began consolidating a leadership position that would eventually land him as Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Fleet (COMINCH).  From this position he would direct the overall strategy of fending off the advances of the Japanese in the Pacific even as the U.S. and its allies pursued its Germany First war strategy in Europe.

King realized that to leave the Japanese free to roam the Pacific, if the Allies became exclusively focused on Fortress Europe, would make retaking the largest ocean in the world that much harder.  Throughout the war King would beg, borrow and steal to keep the Japanese at bay, then slowly start pushing them back towards their home islands.

It was King who charged Nimitz with preserving the vital ocean links from the U.S. west coast to Hawaii and Wake Island as well as the ocean routes to Australia through New Caledonia and Saipan. A strategy that led to the early and successful battles at Coral Sea and Midway.

Admiral "Fighting Bill" Halsey on a Victory poster

Admiral “Fighting Bill” Halsey on a Victory poster

King also endorsed a plan, developed by his Operations Officer, Captain Francis “Frog” Low to bomb Tokyo with Army Air Force bombers launched from aircraft carriers known as the Doolittle Raid.  King’s global strategic vision made winning the war in the Pacific less costly than a myopic obsession with Germany First could have cost the Allies in time, lives and treasure.

As with such major world conflicts, even Allies don’t always get along.  Besides clashes with British and Soviet priorities and strategic visions, American military leaders had to deal with their own internecine struggles over power, resources, and tactical ideas.  As one would expect the U.S Army and Navy did not always see eye-to-eye on how and where the great battles should be fought.  And with personalities as large as Generals George Marshal and – more pointedly – Douglas MacArthur there were more than a few opportunities for paralyzing disagreement.

Borneman credits Admiral King for smoothing the often ruffled feathers of his Army counterparts, particularly MacArthur.  King’s relationship with General Marshall got off to a slow start; would never be particularly close; but was always of mutual respect.  King wholeheartedly endorsed Eisenhower to head the North African invasion (Operation Torch), a success that led to Ike’s leading of the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France (Operation Neptune).

MacArthur, as most who competed with or tried to control would learn, was another story.  But King was deft at keeping MacArthur from interfering too much in the Navy’s war efforts; and usually was able to keep him happy enough to remain an effective threat to the Japanese.

_________________

In an attempt to summarize this very long post, Borneman’s The Admirals forces the reader to focus on the complexities of developing properly trained, strategic-thinking naval officers; the prosecution of wide-ranging global warfare on a scale rarely seen in any generation; and the way personalities and the politics of leadership comes together in just one arm of the U.S. military.  In a war that encompassed much of the globe and no less than three major Allied powers, respective political establishments and military organizations, it is a tribute to confident and visionary Allied leadership that the effort didn’t simply collapse under the weight of its divergent personalities and priorities.

Admiral of the Fleet Chester W. Nimitz at Japanese surrender Behind him stand MacArthur, Halsey and Admiral Forrest Sherman

Admiral of the Fleet Chester W. Nimitz at Japanese surrender
Behind him stand MacArthur, Halsey and Admiral Forrest Sherman

Other random bits of knowledge picked up from reading The Admirals:

  • Vice Admiral Ernest King staged an attack on Pearl Harbor in 1938 from the U.S.S. Saratoga as part of Fleet Problem XIX manuevers.  The result was complete surprise.
  • When asked what won the war in the Pacific, Bull Halsey stated, “I would rank them in this order: submarines first, radar second, airplanes third, bulldozers fourth.”
  • By FDR’s fourth inaugural, Roosevelt was so weakened and Bill Leahy so trusted by the President that it was Leahy who rendered Roosevelt’s remarks at his fourth inaugural dinner.
  • In early December 1941 Vice Admiral Bill Halsey commands Task Force 8 on a mission to reinforce one of America’s isolated island bases.  Bad weather delays their expected return to Pearl Harbor on Saturday, December 6.
  • Ensign Chester A. Nimitz ran his very first ship command, the destroyer U.S.S. Decatur, aground on a reef near Manila Bay in 1908, an event that usually dooms a Navy officer’s career.  He also once jumped into the water to rescue an overboard sailor who could not swim.
  • Admiral Nimitz almost died in a PB2Y Coronado (flying boat) crash at
    PB2Y Catalina

    PB2Y Catalina

    NAS Alameda after the Battle of Midway.  The crash was caused by a telephone pole-sized piling allowed to drift into the landing area.  The aircraft flipped onto its back and broke apart.  Although Nimitz escaped without injury, the co-pilot, Lt. Thomas M. Roscoe of Oakland, CA, was killed.

  • Early in the war, U.S. submarines were plagued by a host of defective torpedoes.  Many exploding prematurely or, when they did hit, simply emitting a hollow thud and sinking.  The problem wasn’t solved until well after the summer of 1943.
  • In another torpedo story, as FDR - with Admiral Leahy in tow – was sailing across the Atlantic Ocean to the Teheran Conference (November 1943 with Churchill and Stalin) aboard the battleship U.S.S. Iowa, the destroyer U.S.S. W.D. Porter decided to track the Iowa in a targeting exercise.  Inexplicably, with the President on the main deck watching a gunnery exercise, someone on the Porter accidentally hit the FIRE button for one of the torpedo tubes.  The Iowa’s skipper, Captain John McCrea, was forced to take violent evasive action to prevent the accidental assassination-by-friendly-fire of much of the country’s war leadership!

As you can see, there’s a lot of good sea and war tales in this very enjoyable and informative book.  And despite the length of this post, it barely scratches the surface.  If you have a “WWII habit” like I do, you should find a few new topics in The Admirals to scratch that itch.

The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson

To be honest, I didn’t expect to get much of value out of my first foray into the world of Gonzo Journalism, a phrase coined by Hunter S. Thompson describing the journalistic technique of living a story to the point where you become part of the story itself.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the unorthodox way Thompson lived and wrote his subject matter.  It is crazy, off the rails, irreverent, pointed, and irresponsible.  But it works!

With the constant references and first-party accounts of repeated drug use, Thompson’s are not the kind of books you leave lying around for your impressionable school-age children to read.  The journalism included in The Great Shark Hunt harken back to a day when any behavior was fair game.

Thompson was a journalist at a time when society was going through a number of monumental changes.  The 1960s and ’70s were times of social upheaval wrapped in an unpopular war that ignited a new generation looking to break the molds of its predecessors.

Hunter S. Thompson was a high school dropout due – not surprisingly – to delinquency and a criminal conviction.  He joined the U.S. Air Force after his release from a 60 day sentence (31 days served) for accessory to robbery.  He never graduated high school as a result, but found his stride as a writer while in the military.

What became abundantly clear quite early in his Air Force hitch was that his interests and intellectual honesty were not well suited for a military establishment.  Eventually he splashed on the literary scene with his first Gonzo Journalism work Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, a first hand look at living and riding with one of the country’s more notorious organizations.  He became a staple of Rolling Stone magazine after they serialized Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey into the Heart of the American Dream that took a critical look at the failure and demise of the ’60s counter-cultural movement.

Thompson’s works were new to me before I picked up The Great Shark Hunt: Gonzo Papers, Volume 1.  I was all of 13 years-old in 1969, when the counter-culture hit its apex at Woodstock, just one year after the debacle of the ’68 Democratic Convention.  I was never a big reader of Rolling Stone in those days, only occasionally picking up an issue to read specific articles.

The Great Shark Hunt is a collection of Thompson’s works as they appeared in Rolling Stone, The National Observer, The Chicago Tribune, and Scanlan’s Monthly (an obscure periodical that was published in 1970-71).

What I found most enjoyable and interesting was the trip down memory lane Thompson provides to those of us old enough to remember the events and happenings from that era.  From the political upheavals in South America in the late 1960s, through the decadence on display at the early Super Bowls and in the infield at the Kentucky Derby, to the fall of the Nixon White House and the Liberal disappointments with the presidency of Jimmy Carter.  In between Thompson also writes about iconic personalities such as Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, Olympic skier Jean-Claude Killy, beatniks and the last days in the life of Ernest Hemingway.

The most enjoyable articles for me were those where I learned something new or was able to view a memorable event long remembered from a different perspective.

  • Thompson’s view of Richard Nixon’s fall as the result of the Watergate break-in and cover-up are particularly jarring.  To say he hated Nixon would be a gross understatement.
  • Under the category of Some Things Never Change, Thompson describes how his hometown – Louisville, Kentucky – went from broken down wasteland to jewel of Federal urban renewal, but with the ominous twist of economic segregation.  As the title of the 1963 piece, A Southern City with Northern Problems, might suggest, you could pick Louisville up and place it in just about any city in this day and the same conditions and results could still be found.
  • Thompson being no fan of Richard Milhouse Nixon, you might be surprised that he wasn’t all that enamored of Jimmy Carter either, at least not until he heard Carter deliver a Law Day speech at the University of Georgia in May 1974.  Thompson was so impressed by the social insight displayed in Carter’s speech that he carried a recording of the speech throughout the 1976 Presidential campaign, playing it for anyone who would sit still long enough to listen.
  • In a series of articles over a period of time Thompson provided an interesting explanation of how the beatniks of the early ’60s gave way to the radicals and hippies, who then retreated into their world of Let-it-be after the debacle of the ’68 Democratic Convention.

The only story I missed that might entice me to look for another Thompson tome was his first-person account of that conflagration in Chicago.  Those were horribly interesting times when two far different cultures clashed over politics and an unpopular war, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy cast a pall of violence.

In a way not at all surprising, Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide on February 20, 2005 with a gunshot to his head, after a prolonged bout with painful medical issues.  His suicide note to his wife, Anita, was entitled Football Season is Over:

No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax. This won’t hurt.

I guess at some point, I’ll have to pick up Dr. Thompson again.

Understanding China – John Bryan Starr

China has become one of the most important influences on U.S. foreign policy in the years since the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) dissolved into a smaller version of itself (Russia) and a collectively less prominent scattering of nation states.  The Peoples Republic of China has impressively grown beyond being Southeast Asia’s powerbroker of the 1970s and ’80s to be recognized as an international force in the world’s economy, as well as a major industrial contributor to the planet’s environmental problems.

It slowly dawned on many Americans that China was emerging as the United States chief international rival.  But the relationship between the two major superpowers developed a unique twist that was never an issue in the U.S. competition with the U.S.S.R.  China became a significant holder of American international financial debt, a situation created in part by our own credit card addict’s view of financial (mis)management, aggravated by a growing U.S.-China trade imbalance.

For these reasons I became very interested in former Ambassador to China, John Huntsman’s unsuccessful run at the Republican Presidential nomination.  Suddenly, here was someone who understood the intricacies of our relationship with the Chinese.  But I also came to realize my own “China problem”.  I knew very, very little about the Peoples Republic of China. 

This glaring blind spot led me to John Bryan Starr‘s Understanding China, an expanded 2010 study of a nation so few of us know much about, let alone understand.  This is Starr’s third revision of his original book, published in 1997.

Starr is a former U.S. Navy officer and current political science lecturer at Yale University.  Before Yale he taught Chinese politics at UC-Berkeley.  He has served as Executive Director of the Yale-China Association and as President of the China Institute in New York City.

The Great Wall

I found Understanding China to be a well-organized and enlightening look into a region of the world I have admittedly ignored over the years, at least since those heady days of fifth-grade geography and 10th grade world science.  Starr’s approach begins with a discussion of 12 critical issues facing China as it moved from being the brunt of jokes about cheap toys and flimsy consumer products to a regional military power and international economic force. 

The 12 issues range from those that most affect the Chinese people (e.g. housing and feeding a growing population, restrictions in the free flow of information) to the issues that challenge the country of China as it emerges as a developing economic power (e.g. environmental degradation, finding sufficient sources of energy, relationships with Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the United States).  This outline sets in the reader’s mind the questions that will be addressed throughout the book and serves as a useful guide for framing Starr’s discussion.

It proves difficult for me to do such in-depth studies justice in a blog post.  So many of my readers have short attention spans and prefer lawn care tips over international political science.  With those restrictions in mind, I’ll limit my discussion here to those aspects of China I found new and most interesting.  A serious study such as Understanding China is a useful tool for gaining an overview on a broad spectrum of issues; the reader can then decide which specific areas might require more in-depth research. 

Points of interest I was surprised to learn:

  • China experiences approximately 120,000 very public protests every year.  Quite the surprising statistic for such an authoritarian and – in the case of the 1989 Tiananmen uprising - downright brutal government.
  • China is just a tad larger than the United States (3.7 million square miles vs. 3.6 million).  But 75% of its population lives on just 15% of the land mass; two-thirds of which is covered by mountains akin to the U.S. Rockies.  China’s arable land for farming is limited to just 10% of the total.
  • The 2008 global financial meltdown had a relatively limited effect on the Chinese economy.  The reason was the authoritarian government’s capability to quickly and effectively inject new capital into the domestic economy.  So there does seem to be at least one advantage to not having to kowtow to a democratically elected legislature … quick action in a crises!
  • Foreign investment, channeled primarily through the Special Administrative Regions (Hong Kong, Macao), tops $1.6 trillion a year; consisting of 60,000 joint ventures; and accounting for half of all Chinese exports.
  • China’s People’s Liberation Army receives an official annual budget of only $70 billion; but experts estimate that it’s truly 3-4 times that large.  In addition, the PLA self-finances in part through the manufacture and international sale of military weapons and equipment.  And until recently ordered to divest,  military-owned and operated facilities also produced consumer goods for domestic sale that accounted for 20% of the domestic consumer market. 
  • In 2004 Morgan Stanley estimated that high quality, less expensive Chinese products saved the U.S. consumer an astounding $100 billion!    

There were several topics in which I was keenly interested, given China’s expanding global presence and impact.

Interests of local authorities and economies vs. objectives of the national government …

Despite China’s authoritarian communist rule, the countryside is relatively free of control by the central government.  Local authorities are delegated much latitude on a broad spectrum of administrative and operational issues.  This arrangement serves to contradict certain objectives like reducing pollution and feeding an expanding population. 

The crux of the problem is that local authorities at regional and village levels are incentivized (or penalized) based on production outputs and cost efficiencies, along with ensuring compliance by its citizens with social programs (e.g. one-child birth policy).  Often the extent of local compensations, power, and access to corruptive practices causes local interests to run counter to national policy.  Local leaders will overlook environmental threats, sacrifice arable land – which are already scarce in relation to farming needs – for modern industrial facilities, and coerce social compliance with the one-child policy simply as a cost reduction measure.

Mao Zedong

The environment was just one sacrificial lamb in Mao Zedong’s vision of the Chinese nation.  He portrayed Nature as an enemy to be overcome in the struggle for a powerful, independent China.  Water and energy were provided free of charge, which ensured no one questioned the economies of conservation or the use of alternate energies. China is the largest user of coal, the second largest of oil (with 60% coming from the Middle East), and home to 16 of the 20 most polluted cities on the planet. 

China’s refusal to commit to most international environmental restrictions is based on its claim as a developing industrialized power (i.e. not yet fully developed).  The claim has some merit since all developing nations, including the U.S., have histories as a major polluters as they grew into advanced industrial powers.  This standoff does not bode well for international efforts to reduce the global effects of man-made pollution.

The family responsibility system …

The Chinese are well-known for the strength of their family system; and this is illustrated nowhere better than the reliance on the family responsibility system as a glue that holds Chinese rural society together.  Due to China’s sparse infrastructure outside its urban concentrations, huge swaths of rural land especially in the north and west have limited accessibility, little in the way of government and social support structures (hospitals, schools, roads, communication, etc.), and less government control.  As a result, a loose federation of local authorities coupled with a strong family agrarian culture are left to their own devices for sustenance, industry, and social support.

The family structure is most important here.  The family system is responsible for seeing the individual through life from birth to death.  With national priorities focused on feeding the much larger urban populations, the family structure is crucial to the success of rural farms which are owned and operated primarily by family units.  Farming and limited rural industrial capacity is owned, managed, and staffed almost entirely within the family system.  For this reason the limits of the one-child policy are largely ignored in rural areas since the larger the family, the greater the output; the greater the output, the more healthy and wealthy the family.  These families find the penalties for multiple births and additional children over one-child to be well worth the investment, even a matter of pride. 

In addition, older Chinese in rural areas do not benefit from the pensions city dwellers can accumulate.  So younger generations see providing for their elderly parents and grandparents to be part of their family duty. 

One interesting spinoff from this significant urban-rural divide is that rural Chinese do not identify with the problems and shortcomings faced by those Chinese in the big cities.  As a result, rural Chinese felt little compulsion to become involved in the Tiananmen Square uprisings of 1989, which were initially caused by protests over poor education and living conditions at Chinese universities, located in its major urban centers like Beijing.      

Remaking the Chinese economy …

This post is already way too long for some of my attention-span-challenged fans, but Starr’s biggest contribution to my understanding of China’s present day status was his explanation of the remaking of the Chinese economy.  For decades China was the land of cheap toys and poorly made consumer products.  Now it’s known for cheaper priced consumer products and top-line brand-name clothing and electronics.

China’s status as The Land of American Outsourcing hits a sensitive nerve with work-a-day Americans, particularly those without good jobs and especially those who have lost jobs to cheaper overseas labor.  It’s an issue that will plague Chinese-American relations for years to come until some form of equilibrium is reached.  One cold, hard reality is that the outsource destinations did nothing other than take advantage of the high cost structure in this country, much of it the result of the high level of Government regulation and the expenses of a union-committed labor force.

China’s big chance to remake its often ridiculed economy came with the cessation of Hong Kong by Great Britain.  This handover opened the door for China’s own brand of “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”.  Hong Kong, which had long existed as a conduit for financial activity, opened the floodgates for a dramatic expansion of foreign investment. 

Deng Xiaoping

It was Deng Xiaoping who set the stage by initiating a number of reforms that eased the transition for China’s economy.  Deng’s reforms included moving industrial development from central government planing to market-driven decisions, and shrinking the state-owned industrial sector in favor of an expanded private sector.  These decisions accomplished more for China’s economy than any other outside development.  

From the socialist/communist point-of-view however, China also moved from an economy among the most equal in income distribution to one that is now one of the most unequal in terms of the differences between rich Chinese and poor Chinese.  This just goes to prove that trying to force a philosophy of income equality for all does absolutely nothing for the long-term financial and economic health of a developing country.

And that’s it, a rather long-winded but inadequate attempt to portray John Bryan Starr’s look inside the Chinese behemoth.  I certainly have skipped and skimmed a large part of Starr’s treatment.  For a real appreciation of China’s story from the age of dynasties to land of Wal*Mart you really need to pick up Understanding China.

Franklin and Winston

Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship by Jon Meacham, an accomplished author, media executive and social/political commentator, is a great read on the close, personal relationship of the primary protagonists – Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill - behind the Western Hemisphere’s defeat of German fascism and Japanese hegemony during World War II. 

I became a fan of Meacham’s approach to historical figures and concepts through my weekday habit of catching segments of MSNBC’s Morning Joe while getting dressed for work.  Meacham has always struck me as a down-to-earth commentator on political and social issues.  He won the Pulitzer Prize for his treatment of Andrew Jackson in American Lion (not reviewed here); and his book on religion’s influence on the American experiment in American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation is an excellent guide to discussions on the spiritual foundation of American governance.  

Meacham’s approach in Franklin and Winston is similar to the other works mentioned above.  He takes an overview approach to the subjects, and provides plenty of source notes and references for the serious scholar who wishes to dig deeper.  It is this approach that makes his books enjoyable reads regardless of your reasons for picking up a Meacham historical study.

In Franklin and Winston Meacham focuses on the personalities of FDR and Churchill, including their family lives and how their personal backgrounds, ambitions and political situations played into the Allied war effort and the friendship that developed between the two during the war. 

Both men were the products of rich American mothers; Churchill’s mother marrying Lord Randolph Churchill, Member of Parliament, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Leader of the House of Commons (1886).  Their parental relationships – or lack thereof - influenced both men in their very public lives.

Churchill’s parents were almost entirely absent; his father did not like him; and his upbringing and education was left to his nanny and the prescribed boarding schools for England’s power elite.  As a result, Churchill was driven to be the center of attention.  He was vigorous in all things he did, but was also impulsive and stubborn.  Churchill needed to be liked by those he highly regarded.  This would become a continuing theme in the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship, as Churchill found himself constantly chasing the more aloof, confident Roosevelt. 

FDR’s upbringing was quite the opposite.  He was doted on constantly by his mother.  Very little is mentioned of his father.  His mother’s coddling became even more prevalent when Roosevelt was diagnosed with polio in 1921 at the age of 39.  What FDR found at home as a child and even as an adult was everything Churchill’s early home life lacked.  As a result FDR did not feel compelled to seek anyone’s approval, even Churchill’s.  FDR greatly admired Churchill’s strength and leadership however, especially his skills at oratory during the dark days of 1940-41 (Battle of Britain). 

The friendship that these men forged in the year-and-a-half leading up to America’s entering the war and throughout the conflict resulted in a vision and strategy that freed Europe from the Nazis and chased the Japanese back to their home islands.  In this regard, Churchill did not have much choice but to follow the lead of Roosevelt on most matters of strategy.  Britain desperately needed the resources and manpower of the United States for their ultimate survival.  Only the thinnest of margins kept the Germans from attempting a cross-Channel invasion in 1940-41. 

Roosevelt – on the other hand – had to deal with an American electorate that for the most part wanted nothing to do with another war in Europe.  Yet he understood that the United States had to eventually enter the war or Europe would be lost to fascism.  He characterized his plight as ” … no leader should get too far ahead of his followers.”  FDR’s political strength permitted him to push such programs as Lend-Lease, which allowed for the sale of supplies and munitions to England (and eventually to all Allies) on a cash-and-carry basis.  Earlier under the Destroyers for Bases Agreement Roosevelt was able to send 50 aging destroyers to England for basing rights in the Caribbean.  Britain’s loss of those bases – though painful – provided FDR with necessary political cover, allowing the country to fulfill Roosevelt’s vision as “the arsenal of democracy”.

Despite Churchill’s standing as #2 in his relationship to FDR and to a greater extent England’s relationship to the U.S., he was a loyal and sensitive confidante to Roosevelt.  He protected FDR’s image in light of his crippling disease when the two met for the first time as world leaders at sea aboard the U.S.S. Augusta.  And he admired Roosevelt’s ability to transcend his disability and to accept the dependence on others that it required.  The description of the two leaders enjoying the view atop La Saardia in Marrakech in January 1943 is one of a caring Churchill overseeing the spiritual well-being of a cherished friend.

Like all friends, they also had their disagreements and slights that resulted in hurt feelings.  Churchill was upset when Roosevelt neglected to acknowledge Churchill’s cable of congratulations following FDR’s successful election in 1940.  And Roosevelt was miffed when Churchill sought a meeting of minds with Wendell Wilkie, FDR’s opponent in the 1944 election.  To make matter worse, Churchill ends up with Roosevelt on the phone due to a miscommunication and fails to recognize Roosevelt’s rather unique voice when the call goes through to the wrong man.  As the war winds down, Roosevelt realizes that stability in the post-war world requires greater interaction between the U.S. and Soviets as opposed to the British; and Churchill is - for a time – left out in the cold.

At the core of what would normally be an arm’s-length diplomatic relationship, the two most important men at such a critical juncture of history shared much.  Both had children serving in theatres of war.  Something not seen much these days aside from Britain’s royal family.  They leaned on each other at times of darkness, be it Dunkirk or Pearl Harbor.  They not only cooperated strategically and politically during the most trying of times, but genuinely liked each other and were lifted in spirit whenever they had the chance to get together.

And at times like those, what else are friends for?

Book Review: American Gospel by Jon Meacham

When I saw Jon Meacham‘s book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation,  I put it on my reading list.  I was looking for a book that would provide a layman’s perspective of how the relationship between God and government developed in this country.  Having read Meacham’s work on Andrew Jackson (American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House), I was hoping it would be another concise and enjoyable read. 

Meacham  is executive editor and executive vice president at Random House,  former editor of Newsweek and a Pulitzer Prize winning author.  I’m most familiar with Meacham as a guest political commentator on MSNBC’s Morning Joe (weekdays, 6-9 am), a show I usually watch while getting ready for work in the morning. 

Meacham starts off by highlighting the theme that’s consistently drawn upon throughout the book, the difference between Public religion and Private religion as the Founding Fathers had envisioned.  The concept of Public religion recognizes faith in God (in all forms in which He exists and is worshipped) as a unifying influence, one that unites “the virtue of the populace”.  In this regard, the concept and belief in God takes on whatever religious form is meaningful to an individual, be they Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. 

Private religion seems a concept that is self-explanatory.  That all people have the right to worship – or not worship – God in whatever manner they choose.  This was the antithesis of the religious atmosphere in Europe which led to the founding and colonization of America, which Meacham covers in the first chapter, God and Mammon.  The American experiment provided that no individual would be prevented from worshiping God - if so inclined – in whatever form they should choose, a direct result of what drove the early pilgrims to hazard the perilous Atlantic crossing.

From the beginning, the thinkers among the Founders recognized the importance of religion.  Although they were almost all Christian, almost all Protestant (Several deists, such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were also prominent players.), they recognized the importance of religious tolerance.  Yet they also appreciated the threat to religion that government could pose should the two become too close and become intertwined.  These principles hold true regardless of who you worship or how you worship them. 

(This is why I find The Founding period in our country’s history so fascinating!  The timelessness of The Founders wisdom and foresight is amazing.  The Founders were far from perfect.  Their failure to resolve issues such as slavery and women’s rights – among others – would complicate the road ahead; but the foundation and framework were sound and have survived multiple tests throughout our history. Despite their shortcomings, The Founders were incredibly prescient.)       

Meacham’s greatest accomplishment here is his discussion of the concept most commonly referred to as The Wall between church and state.  A common theme throughout the book, Meacham subscribes to the concept that The Wall was intended more to protect religion from the state as opposed to the other way around.  This is why he finds no contradiction in expressions of God in the public sphere, including mentions of God on our money or in the Pledge of Allegiance.   

As he explores the role of Public religion in America, Meacham takes us through many of the nation’s struggles and accomplishments where Public religion served to unite the country behind the causes that defined the nation, such as the fight for Liberty; the struggle to end slavery and Jim Crow laws; the Great Depression, and the defeat of both Nazi and Communist suppressions in Europe.  In these instances as well as others, Meacham illustrates how American Presidents, political and social leaders invoked the concept of God and the values that flowed from that belief as a compelling, uniting influence for the country.

The book reads much shorter than it looks, running only 250 pages in narrative length.  The rest of the book is a compendium of extensive source notes and bibliography, references to historical letters and documents, even excerpts of presidential inauguration speeches where religious themes were integral. 

Meacham’s effort here is not intended to be taken as an in-depth, historical essay.  He attempts only to provide a historical perspective to the questions “What part did religion play in the founding of the American experiment?” and “How has religion affected the moral development and success of the country?”  Regardless of where you stand on – or know of - the relationship of religion to the American experiment and American governance, you will enjoy Meacham’s perspective on how that relationship came to be.