Tag Archives: national security

The CIA, the mistress, and JFK’s assassination: An astonishing but true story (Part 4)

Part 2 of a review of Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

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This is Part 4 of a 4-part series on Mary’s Mosaic. Click here for Part 1. 

It’s difficult for anyone who didn’t experience that time in our history to appreciate the high stakes in politics at the top in Washington, D.C. then:

  • Early in Kennedy’s Presidency, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spearheaded by a notoriously bellicose Air Force general named Curtis LeMay, presented a plan to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the USSR in June 1963. Kennedy disgustedly rejected the plan out of hand — and thereafter was deemed “dangerous” by the Chiefs and their allies in the CIA. For its part, the CIA essentially ignored orders from the White House from that time on.
  • Ever since 1953, when Allen Dulles was named Director of the CIA, the agency had been compiling an astonishing record of illegal behavior. The agency had overthrown the governments of at least six nations, not just Iran and Guatemala (which are so well known). CIA agents and contractors had attempted to assassinate a number of world leaders in addition to Fidel Castro, and the agency had undertaken extensive surveillance of U.S. citizens within the borders of the country. All this, too, has been well documented.
  • Following the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, President Kennedy was incandescent with fury at the CIA, and they with him. Kennedy wanted to break the agency up into “a thousand little pieces” and scatter them about the government. He fired Director Allen Dulles and replaced him with an inexperienced outsider, effectively leaving the agency under the control of counterintelligence chief Jim Angleton and his inner circle, a handful of other wealthy sons of Yale, Princeton, and other Ivy League colleges who held high-ranking posts in the agency.

Given this set of facts, is it any wonder that the CIA would kill the President?

After reading Mary’s Mosaic, my mind is awash with a hundred other facts and factors, but I won’t reveal any more. Although the focus is on Mary Pinchot Meyer’s murder, the book contains extensive information, much of it revealed only within the last 12 or 13 years, about JFK’s assassination. It makes the case convincingly.

According to the book’s website, author “Peter Janney grew up in Washington, D.C. during the Cold War era of the 1950s and 1960s. His father Wistar Janney was a senior career CIA official. The Janney family was intimately involved with many of Washington’s social and political elite that included the family of Mary and Cord Meyer, as well as other high-ranking CIA officials such as Richard Helms, Jim Angleton, Tracy Barnes, Desmond FitzGerald, and William Colby.”

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The CIA, the mistress, and JFK’s assassination: An astonishing but true story (Part 3)

Part 3 of a review of Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

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This is Part 3 of a 4-part series on Mary’s Mosaic. Click here for Part 1. 

Why all the skullduggery surrounding the murder of a Washington socialite, you might ask? Well, it transpired that:

(a) Mary had been sleeping with JFK for several years, and the two were in love with each other. JFK was a sex addict and continued having sex with an untold number of other women, but Mary was special. By 1963 he was planning to divorce Jackie on leaving the White House and marrying Mary. His brother Bobby and his closest male friend, and Mary’s closest friends, all were aware of these facts.

(b) Mary came from a family of suffragists and pacifists and was unalterably opposed to war. She was also a free spirit who had sought out Timothy Leary at Harvard to experience LSD, which she introduced to the President. Under Mary’s influence and the influence of the drug, and in the wake of the nearly catastrophic Cuban Missile Crisis that came so close to incinerating the planet, JFK resolved to sidestep the Pentagon and the CIA and seek world peace in a serious way. In fact, he was already engaged in secret negotiations with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev about a test ban treaty and other confidence-building measures that, they agreed in writing, would lead to an end to the Cold War. He had also dispatched a personal envoy to Cuba who was meeting with Fidel Castro about similar measures on the day he was murdered. And, weeks before his assassination, JFK issued an executive order to bring back 1,000 troops from Vietnam in 1963 and all the rest by 1965. All this has been documented.

(c) When President Kennedy was murdered, Mary was convinced that the CIA was involved. She was close to many prominent CIA officials, including her ex-husband and Jim Angleton, who had been the godfather of their three sons. She had been making the rounds in Washington and elsewhere, asking questions about the assassination and making no secret of her suspicions. She was determined to learn the truth and make it widely known.

(d) Mary had been a life-long diarist who wrestled with her most intimate thoughts in writing. Her diary, which has never publicly surfaced, was thought by all her friends as well as the CIA to contain revelations not just about JFK’s turn toward peace but about his murder as well. The few who had seen it confirmed those suspicions.

Tomorrow: Part 4

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The CIA, the mistress, and JFK’s assassination: An astonishing but true story (Part 2)

Part 2 of a review of Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

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This is Part 2 of a 4-part series on Mary’s Mosaic. Click here for Part 1. 

The central subject of this extraordinary book is the murder of Mary Pinchot Meyer in October 1964. Mary was the niece of Gifford Pinchot, a Teddy Roosevelt confidante, the first head of the U.S. Forest Service, and a former two-term Governor of Pennsylvania. Previously a journalist, she was a practicing artist in middle age in the early 1960s and prominent in Washington social circles. She was also so striking that practically everyone who spoke about her commented on her beauty.

What the public knew at the time was merely that Washington D.C. police had arrested a terrified young African-American man whom two witnesses identified as standing over her body as it lay on the tow-path by the Potomac Canal in Georgetown. When the alleged killer finally went to trial in 1965, he was acquitted as the result of unusually skillful courtroom work by his pro bono attorney.

Later — in many cases, decades later — it became clear that the man arrested for the killing had been elaborately framed. Here are just some of the salient facts that prove Mary Pinchot Meyer was murdered by the CIA:

  • The first witness testified at the trial that the man standing over Mary’s body was stocky, between 5’8″ and 5’10” in height, and weighing approximately 185 pounds. The accused stood barely 5’3-1/2″ and weighed 130. In other words, he was a scrawny little guy. There were many other holes in the police’s case against the man, but it was this discrepancy that seemed to have won the day with the jury.
  • Mary was murdered around 12:30, her body discovered soon afterward, and declared dead at 2:05. However, her identity wasn’t known until after 6:00 pm, when her brother-in-law, Ben Bradlee (yes, the managing editor of the Washington Post), went to the morgue to confirm it was she. Meanwhile, Mary’s ex-husband, Cord Meyer, a senior officer at the CIA, received a call in New York at around 2:30 that Mary had been killed. The caller was a fellow senior CIA official who also phoned the news around the same time to James Jesus Angleton, the CIA’s head of counterintelligence. In other words, top officials at the CIA learned that Mary was dead hours before anyone else, even the police, knew who she was.
  • The night of Mary’s murder, Bradlee and Angleton entered Mary’s art studio and carried away her diary and a number of other personal papers, which Angleton kept.

Tomorrow: Part 3

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The CIA, the mistress, and JFK’s assassination: An astonishing but true story (Part 1)

Part 1 of a review of Mary’s Mosaic: The CIA Conspiracy to Murder John F. Kennedy, Mary Pinchot Meyer, and Their Vision for World Peace, by Peter Janney

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Part 1 of 4.

If, like me, you were alive and aware on November 22, 1963, you’ve never forgotten the day. It was mid-afternoon in New York, and I had just arrived for a graduate course in international relations at Columbia University, only to discover a small number of my classmates aimlessly milling around, most of them in tears, some hugging one another, as one informed me that President Kennedy had been shot. The class had been canceled, and I wandered away with a classmate to learn more from TV news at his nearby apartment. He and I remained glued to that small, black-and-white screen the rest of the day and the following. The unthinkable had happened, and it seemed that nothing would ever be the same.

In the months that followed, as Lyndon Johnson claimed the Presidency for his own, the war in Vietnam quickly heated up, and the Warren Commission hastily assembled, eventually reporting that Lee Harvey Oswald had single-handedly assassinated the President, as all the news reports had suggested. However, almost since the day of Kennedy’s murder, conspiracy theories began to swirl about, those from the Right finding connections with Fidel Castro and the KGB, those from the Left claiming the participation of the CIA, the Mafia, the Pentagon, Big Business, and sometimes Lyndon Johnson. However, like many Americans, I paid little attention to all the speculation. Leave it to the Commission, I thought. They’ll find out the truth. For years afterward the books came out, spinning elaborate tales of skullduggery in high places. I ignored them all.

Now I know better. The Warren Commission was a sham. The CIA did it. Probably not alone, but the CIA was at the center of the plot. And if you doubt those statements, I suggest you read Mary’s Mosaic, by Peter Janney. It’s not only a treasure-house of shocking revelations about recent U.S. history — many of which have come to light only in recent years — but a story far too strange for fiction.

Tomorrow: Part 2

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The 10 best mysteries and thrillers I’ve read in 2012

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1. Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

This is the story of Amy Elliott Dunne and Nick Dunne, the perfect couple in the ideal marriage. It’s a storybook tale . . . or maybe it isn’t. One day Amy goes missing, and it slowly begins to dawn on you that one (or both) of the two is a sociopath. Gone Girl is plotted almost as diabolically as Catch 22. It’s near-perfect, with jaw-dropping shocks and shivers all the way to the very last page.

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2. Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith

The third book in a trilogy, Agent 6 concludes the story of Leo Demidov, a World War II hero and later an agent in Stalin’s secret police. The book opens in 1950 with Leo in thrall to the Sovet State, a senior officer in the MGB (predecessor to the KGB and to today’s FSB) charged with training newly recruited agents. Jesse Austin, a world-famous African-American singer closely resembling Paul Robeson, is visiting Moscow, where he will perform and publicly extol the accomplishments of the Soviet regime as he sees them. Leo is detailed to help ensure that Austin is shielded from the realities of life in Moscow.

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3. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection, by Alexander McCall Smith

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection is the 13th and latest in Smith’s best-known series of novels about the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone, the capital of the small, land-locked nation of Botswana, bordering South Africa. To my mind, it’s one of the best. As always, the story revolves around the lives of Mma (“Ms.”) Precious Ramotswe, founder and proprietor of the agency, and her consistently exasperating assistant, Mma Grace Makutsi.

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4. The Midnight House, by Alex Berenson

The events that take place in 2008 in the Midnight House — a site in Poland where prisoners in the “war on terror” are interrogated and often tortured — are so explosive, and so shocking, that they lead to an upheaval in relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, end the career of a senior U.S. intelligence official, and spark a series of brutal murders. There’s nothing subtle about this gripping novel.

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5. The Silent Oligarch, by Chris Morgan Jones

This finely crafted novel revolves around an obscure Russian bureaucrat named Konstantin Malin, a lifer in the Ministry of Oil and Industry who controls a large share of his country’s oil and gas industry, the world’s largest. His front man is an English expat lawyer in Moscow, Richard Lack, whose cozy life in Moscow begins coming apart when a Greek oilman, one of the many wealthy businessmen Malin has cheated, decides to unmask Malin’s fraud and put him out of business.

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6. Mission to Paris, by Alan Furst

It is late in 1938, with Europe on the brink of war. With Chamberlain’s capitulation at Munich and the tragedy of Kristallnacht unfolding in the background, an Austrian-born Hollywood film star named Fredric Stahl has come to Paris at the behest of Jack Warner to star on loan to Paramount Pictures in a war movie. The resolutely anti-Nazi Stahl finds himself targeted by Nazi operatives intent on enmeshing him in their propaganda machine.

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7. Breakdown, by Sara Paretsky

Paretsky’s 14th V. I. Warshawski novel begins with seeming innocence with a gaggle of tweener girls dancing under the moonlight in an abandoned cemetery. Soon enough, however, we find ourselves enmeshed in the mysteries of some of Chicago’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens as well as a roomful of other indelibly drawn characters who illustrate Chicago at its best — and its worst.

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8. 36 Yalta Boulevard, by Olen Steinhauer

The third novel in Olen Steinhauer’s outstanding Central European cycle is set in 1966-67. Brano Sev, a World War II partisan fighter turned secret policeman in an unnamed Soviet satellite country, has been exiled to work in a factory as punishment for an espionage scandal that erupted after he was sent on assignment to Vienna. Without warning, his superiors temporarily reinstate him as a major in the security service, and send him off to his home village, where he is to investigate why a defector has suddenly returned to the village and what he’s planning to do. The ensuing complications threaten not just to end Brano’s career but possibly his life as well.

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9. The Ghosts of Belfast, by Stuart Neville

You may never have read a murder mystery like this one. The protagonist, Gerry Fegan, is a former hit man for the IRA responsible for the deaths of twelve people (the “ghosts” of the title), and it’s never much of a mystery when he begins killing again. The mystery lies deeper, somewhere in the vicinity of his stunted family life and the treacherous relationships among the others in his violence-prone faction. As Fegan reflects, “You can’t choose where you belong, and where you don’t. But what if the place you don’t belong is the only place you have left?”

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10. Criminal, by Karin Slaughter

In every one of Karin Slaughter’s previous novels of murder and mayhem in the Deep South, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) officer Will Trent and his boss, Amanda Wagner, GBI’s deputy commander, were characters shrouded in mystery, their actions frequently difficult to understand. In Criminal, Slaughter rips off the shrouds. This is an unusually suspenseful, affecting, and, in the end, deeply satisfying story.

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Feminism? In Arabia? Read it here first

A review of Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley

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Christopher Buckley proved to me that he’s one of the funniest writers alive today with Thank You For Smoking, They Eat Puppies, Don’t They?, and Little Green Men (the latter two of which I’ve reviewed in this blog and hyperlinked their titles to my reviews). Florence of Arabia is, like them, a satirical novel rooted in contemporary issues, but once Buckley had introduced his protagonist and set up the story that revolves around her, I found myself laughing less and less. The difference here is that the issue the novel addresses — the brutal subjugation of women in ultra-conservative Muslim societies — is simply not funny. However preposterous the characters or improbable the circumstances, the subject just isn’t laughable at all.

In other ways, however, Florence of Arabia showed off Buckley’s exceptional talent: deliciously convoluted (if not Byzantine) plotting, overblown characters that somehow still seem true to life, and thorough grounding in the facts on the ground to make the story seem dangerously close to reality. All this made the book worth reading, even though I pretty much stopped chuckling about one-third of the way through the story.

So, here’s what happens: State Department bureaucrat Florence (born Firenze) Farfaletti is driven to feminist activism when an old friend from her tour in Wasabia (read: Saudi Arabia) is beheaded at the orders of her husband, the Wasabian Ambassador to the U.S., when she contacts Florence during an attempt to escape her stifling life in the Embassy. Improbably bankrolled by a shadowy government official named “Uncle Sam” to engineer a feminist revolution in Wasabia, Florence teams up with a CIA master-spy, a totally unprincipled PR man, and her gay State Department friend, George, a brilliant linguist and political analyst. Together, the four hapless warriors translate themselves to the Emirate of Matar (pronounced “Mutter”) where they set Florence’s cockamamie scheme into motion with the support of the Emir’s wife, a former television anchor in the UK.

Mayhem ensues. What else?

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Ever wondered where those UFOs come from? Christopher Buckley has the answer

A review of Little Green Men, by Christopher Buckley

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Perhaps it requires a rarefied sense of humor to appreciate Christopher Buckley, but you wouldn’t know it from the sales figures on his books. Anyone who can write a book with endlessly eccentric characters named Sir Reginald Pigg-Vigorish, Col. Roscoe J. Murfletit, General Tunklebunker, and Deputy FBI Director Bargenberfer may be reaching the pre-adolescent in me, but he makes me laugh, dammit, and I’m not going to apologize for it, so there!

In Little Green Men, not only does Buckley make me chuckle and wheeze with immoderate glee, but he also solves the mystery of the UFOs! Could anyone possibly wish for more?

Like so many of Buckley’s satirical novels, Little Green Men tells the story of a hapless (though in this case willing) victim of the absurd circumstances surrounding him — circumstances caused in large part by a witless supporting cast with names such as those listed in the opening paragraph of this review. Buckley’s antihero here is John Oliver Banion, a pompous Sunday-morning public affairs television talk show host with a pedigree that looks just a little bit like Christopher Buckley’s (including Yale, of course!). In fact, Buckley is never better than when skewering People Like Us, and he does it with such skill that I can almost imagine him cackling in the background as he types away.

One fine day John O. Banion is slicing into the rough on his exclusive country club golf course when he is abducted and “probed” by aliens — not Little Green Men, actually, but silver ones whom UFO taxonomists call Tall Nordics. The action that radiates from this inexplicable event is far too complicated, and far too unlikely — not to mention funny — to sum up, so I’ll leave it to you when you read this beautifully crafted little book.

Little Green Men is the fourth of the nine satirical novels Christopher Buckley has published since 1986. I’ve read most of them and reviewed two in this blog. You can see my previous reviews by clicking on these titles: The White House Mess and They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? I also found Boomsday and Supreme Courtship hilarious, though I read them before starting this blog.

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A fresh and thought-provoking view of world politics and current events

A review of The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, by Robert D. Kaplan

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Geopolitics — the subject of this fascinating book — has literally been on my mind  almost throughout my life.

I had recently turned three when the Allies invaded Normandy, beginning the long, last phase of World War II in Europe. I have no active memory of the invasion, but I’ve been told that I learned to read by studying the news about the event and its aftermath. My father read the newspaper at dinner, and I sat opposite him, leaning over the table so I could see the headlines — upside down — and ask him to tell me what the words meant. I loved the maps, too, those sketches of Europe and the Pacific with broad arrows pointing this way and that to indicate the movements of troops and ships at sea. Geography was long my favorite subject in school, and it’s probably not a stretch to think that my life-long fascination with the world outside the USA began with that experience.

Through a geopolitical lens, Planet Earth, and the machinations and foibles of earthly leaders, look a lot different than they do in most history books. Stand a few feet away from a globe and squint: if the globe is properly positioned, what you’ll see is one huge, three-tentacled landmass (Asia-Africa-Europe); a second, much smaller one that consists of two parts joined by a narrow connector (North and South America); and several even smaller bits of land scattered about on the periphery (Australia, Greenland, Japan, Indonesia). That’s the world as the Joint Chiefs of Staff must view it. Has to view it.

Understanding the globe from that perspective, current events become a lot easier to understand. Take, for example, the object of American preoccupation today: the Middle East.

The true geopolitical center of the Earth lies in the Middle East, a region consisting essentially of three sections: the Iranian Plateau, running from present-day Iraq to Afghanistan and dominated by a resurgent Iran, the latest incarnation of the Persian Empire; the Anatolian landbridge (Turkey) that connects Asia and Europe, successor to the Eastern Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires; and the oil- and natural-gas-rich Arabian Peninsula, unsteadily governed by the extended Saud family and a congeries of coastal emirates. Nestled between them and extending westward along the North African Maghreb is a long line of generally flat, low-lying states that are experiencing various degrees of instability, only a handful of which have a solid historical and demographic basis for nationhood (Tunisia, Egypt, Israel). Given the geography of this region, its perennial instability is no surprise. Constant turmoil is practically guaranteed, with the dominating Iranian and Turkish highlands above, and virtually flat, featureless plains below, divided among mostly weak states with arbitrary borders inherited from British and French colonial masters. As Kaplan notes, “the supreme fact of twenty-first -century world politics is that the most geographically central area of the dry-land earth is also the most unstable.”

Of all the states in the Greater Middle East, the strongest of all, and most likely to dominate at some point in the decades ahead, is Iran, with a proud history (“Iran was the ancient world’s first superpower.”), a population of 75 million, a literacy rate of 80%, an industrial base, and an extensive network of universities. Iran is situated in an enviable position, straddling the region’s two principal oil-production areas (the Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf), not to mention its own abundant hydrocarbon reserves. Is it any wonder, then, why Iran captures headlines with such frequency?

In this fashion, geopolitics yields important insight about how the world works. To cite another example, Kaplan asks “Why is China ultimately more important than Brazil? Because of geographical location: even supposing the same level of economic growth as China and a population of equal size, Brazil does not command the main sea lines of communication connecting oceans and continents as China does; nor does it mainly lie in the temperate zone like China, with a more disease-free and invigorating climate. China fronts the Western Pacific and has depth on land reaching to oil- and natural-gas-rich Central Asia. Brazil offers less of a comparative advantage. It lies isolated in South America, geographically removed from other landmasses.”

The Revenge of Geography is crammed with thought-provoking analysis — about the influence of geography on European history, about the role of megacities in our future, about changing demographic patterns, about the impact of latitude on the fate of nations. Oh, and do you remember Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical treatment of Kazakhstan? Kaplan informs us that “Kazakhstan is truly becoming an independent power in its own right” (and proves it). Who knew?

A word of warning, though: unless you’re familiar with both world history and ancient history, you may find The Revenge of Geography to be tough sledding through the innumerable mentions of long-lost empires and forgotten kings. Kaplan grounds his analysis not just in geography but also in history, and his knowledge of both clearly runs deep.

Kaplan begins wrapping up his book with a troubling discussion about recent U.S. foreign and military policy: “while the United States was deeply focused on Afghanistan and other parts of the Greater Middle East, a massive state failure was developing right on America’s southern border, with far more profound implications for the near and distant future of America, its society, and American power than anything occurring half a world away. What have we achieved in the Middle East with all of our interventions since the 1980s? . . . Why not fix Mexico instead?”

“America faces three primary geopolitical dilemmas,” Kaplan concludes. “[A] chaotic Eurasian heartland in the Middle East, a rising and assertive Chinese superpower, and a state in deep trouble in Mexico. And the challenges we face with China and Mexico are most efficiently dealt with by wariness of further military involvement in the Middle East. This is the only way that American power can sustain itself for the decades to come.”

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A mind-boggling tale: How America rearmed to win World War II

A review of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II, by Arthur Herman

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Since I was born six months before the U.S. entry into World War II, I grew up familiar with a long list of names — little-heard now, more than half a century later — that were associated with the U.S. role in the war that seized hold of Planet Earth for a half-dozen years and set America’s course as a superpower for the balance of the 20th Century. Jimmy Doolittle, Henry Kaiser, George Marshall, Hap Arnold, Curtis LeMay, Paul Tibbetts, and a host of others — every one of whom figures in the epic story so skillfully told in Freedom’s Forge.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, Freedom’s Forge focuses on the role that America’s business community, and especially Big Business, played in the monumental effort that resulted in the unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan just months apart in 1945.  Two extraordinary men — William S. Knudsen and Henry Kaiser — are the stars of this story, business impresarios who marshaled the stupendous numbers of men and women and the unprecedented mountains of raw materials that supplied the U.S. and its Allies with the weapons of war.

Nothing since — not the Apollo moon landings, not the war in Vietnam, not even America’s protracted wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East — has come even remotely close to the magnitude of World War II. Over the five-year period from July 1940, when the U.S. began to rearm, until August 1945, when Japan surrendered, “America’s shipyards had launched 141 aircraft carriers, eight battleships, 807 cruisers, destroyers, and destroyer escorts, 203 submarines, and . . . almost 52 million tons of merchant shipping. Its factories turned out 88,410 tanks and self-propelled guns, 257,000 artillery pieces, 2.4 million trucks, 2.6 million machine guns — and 41 billion rounds of ammunition. As for aircraft, the United States had produced 324,750, averaging 170 a day since 1942.”

Can the human mind today even comprehend what must have been involved in manufacturing 300,000 airplanes and 100 aircraft carriers?

This staggering output of weapons came as a result of a profound transformation of the American economy, engineered in significant part by Bill Knudsen and Henry Kaiser. The two could hardly have been more different, and they didn’t like each other. Knudsen was a modest and unassuming Danish immigrant who worked closely with Henry Ford on the Model T and later built and ran General Motors into the world’s largest industrial corporation, dwarfing Ford’s output. Kaiser, a West Coast construction magnate who was the son of German immigrants, was flashy, outgoing, and immoderately persuasive — a model of self-promotion. Together with a host of others in and out of government, these two men led the conversion of the U.S. economy to unparalleled heights as the “arsenal of freedom.” Nonetheless, “[i]n 1945 Americans ate more meat, bought more shoes and gasoline, and used more electricity than they had before Hitler invaded France.”

Though I thoroughly enjoyed reading Freedom’s Forge, there was one discordant note. Author Arthur Herman, a free-market conservative who wrote this book as a visiting scholar at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, advanced a political message throughout. That message could be summed up as “FDR, the New Deal, labor unions — bad. Business, businessmen, military leaders — good.” He could hardly have been more blatant. But the man writes well, and he did a stellar job of telling this unimaginably complex story between the covers of a single volume.

In the conclusion, Herman quotes Josef Stalin when he first met at Tehran with Roosevelt and Churchill in 1943: he “raised his glass in a toast ‘to American production, without which this war would have been lost.'” There could be no higher praise for capitalism, coming as it did from the dictator of the Communist Soviet Union.

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Books that helped me understand the world

During the last several years — mostly after I bought my first Kindle — I’ve spent a great deal of time reading, roughly half of it fiction, the other half non. I’ve gotten through hundreds of books and have reviewed the last 200 or so in this blog. It feels like a good time to cast a backwards look and identify those books that remain vivid in my memory — books that helped me understand the way the world works. Though most of the fiction I’ve read has been simply enjoyable, a few have touched me. None, though, have really nestled deep into memory and changed the way I view life and the world. I learn mostly from nonfiction. Whatever that says about my character — so be it.

Here, then, are the 20 nonfiction books that have impressed me the most in recent years. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. Those I’ve reviewed are boldfaced and linked.

Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow. A shocking survey of the consequences of America’s so-called War on Drugs and the racism in our justice system

Banerjee, Abhijit, and Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. A rigorous and balanced view of both top-down and bottoms-up development policies in the light of field research

Clark, Gregory, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. History as I like it: painted in broad swaths across the millennia, rejecting the myth that the “West” was destined to rule the world

Diamond, Jared, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. A brilliantly original view of world history from a geographer’s perspective, ascribing variable levels of development primarily to environmental and geographical factors

Easterly, William, The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good. The case against foreign aid and top-down development, by a former World Bank economist

Elkington, John, and Pamela Hartigan, The Power of Unreasonable People: How Social Entrepreneurs Create Markets That Change the World. The liveliest and most insightful of several books on social entrepreneurs

Gladwell, Malcolm, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. The seminal book on understanding “six degrees of separation” and the way networks work

Harden, Blaine, Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West. A riveting tale of the North Korean gulag, spotlighting the reality of repression in the Kim family’s private kingdom

Hochschild, Adam, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa. One of the most troubling books I’ve ever read about the legacy of colonialism: the harrowing story of how the Belgian King destroyed the Congo and murdered millions of its people

Johnson, Chalmers, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. A scholar and former U.S. official demonstrates how the U.S. dominates the world through hundreds of military bases, undermining our nation’s reputation and robbing our society of the means to address pressing social problems

Larson, Erik, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. An eye-opening account of U.S. official anti-Semitism in FDR’s Administration that shackled our Ambassador in Berlin who witnessed the outrageous acts unfolding in Nazi Germany

Mann, Charles C., 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. A revisionist view of Native American society in both North and South America, offering proof of huge populations and sophisticated civilizations in the present-day U.S. and in the Amazon Basin

Miller, Brian, and Mike Lapham, The Self-Made Myth: And the Truth about How Government Helps Individuals and Businesses Succeed. A clear-eyed look beyond the bounds of Right-Wing ideology at the immeasurable benefits and services every “self-made man” has received from U.S. society

Mukherjee, Siddhartha, The Emperor of All Maladies. An oncologist’s brilliant history of cancer and of the medical profession’s slowly developing success in treating it

Polak, Paul, Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. How a former psychiatrist, laboring face-to-face with $1-a-day farmers in some of the world’s poorest countries, helped 17 million families escape from poverty

Priest, Dana, and William M. Arkin, Top Secret America: The Rise of the New American Security State. A Pulitzer-Award-winning Washington Post reporter and her researcher rip the cover from the enormous intelligence establishment built after 9-11

Skloot, Rebecca, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. A science reporter’s captivating ten-year search to understand the consequences of a medical crime committed in an overtly racist era before the rise of medical ethics

Ward, Vicky, The Devil’s Casino: Friendship, Betrayal, and the High Stakes Games Played Inside Lehman Brothers. The most intimate and candid account of how Wall Street played the central role in launching the Great Recession

Wrong, Michela, It’s Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower. A vivid account by a Financial Times reporter of how corruption holds sway even in one of Africa’s most developed economies 

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