BOOK REVIEW: Checkmate in Berlin

Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown that Shaped the Modern World
Giles Milton
Henry Holt and Company
Copyright 2021 by the author

In the waning days of the Second World War, the allies – Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union – were all on reasonably good terms when it came to defeating Nazi Germany. Sure, there were a few rough spots, but “the enemy of my enemy” and all that saw to it that any differences were papered over for the common cause.

Four years later, the Soviets tried – and failed – to blockade western Berlin into submission, and NATO had been founded to counter the Communist threat.

How did it all happen?

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A Close Run Thing

When thinking on the American Revolution, it’s generally a matter of national pride to see that the outcome was inevitable. A plucky militia, with Right on its side, handily defeated an Evil Empire who couldn’t be bothered to listen to the concerns of the rebels.

It’s always nice to have a happy origin story – or at least one that couldn’t have gone any other way.

Too bad that’s nowhere close to the reality of the American Revolution. It was one close call after another.

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Book Review: Then Everything Changed

Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan
Jeff Greenfield
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Copyright 2011 by the author

Greenfield, author and political analyst, adds his considerable knowledge and experience to the “alternate history” field with this surprising and insightful trio of lengthy essays. He takes great care to avoid creating words for historical personages, instead taking what they actually said (albeit in different contexts) and using that to bring his hypotheses to life.

His first essay deals with the prospects of a John Kennedy administration. The early 1960s are fertile ground for counterfactual history. Given the constitutional crisis resulting from Richard Pavlick’s assassination of Jack Kennedy before he had been confirmed as president by the Electoral College, it’s no wonder. We all know how Lyndon Johnson took the reins of power through the sheer force of his personality and guided us through that crisis. But without it, Greenfield suggests that the charisma of Kennedy would have blinded us to his utter lack of political experience and the many scandals waiting to happen just below the surface.

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The Hiroshima Decision

Every August, you start seeing essays from professional and amateur journalists on the usage of the atomic bombs to end WWII. This month marks the 75th anniversary of that occasion, so you know there are going to be plenty more. And if this year is like all others, some of those essays will contain (or will have comments that contain) much wailing and gnashing of teeth about how we didn’t have to drop the bombs.

At least some of their reasoning involves post facto arguments, in that they use information that wasn’t available at the time. Or they rehash old, tired arguments that have been acknowledged and dismissed with justification.

What if we went back to the summer of 1945, and looked at the matter using only that information which was available at the time?

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BOOK REVIEW: Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense

Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy
Dan Abrams and David Fisher
Hanover Square Press
Copyright 2019 by the authors

Even after his failed campaign to retake the White House, Theodore Roosevelt was not one to retire quietly like other former presidents. Even when age kept him from the “strenuous life” that he had long championed, he was still writing and speaking out against corruption in government.

In 1914, Roosevelt came out in support of Harvey D. Hinman, a progressive Republican, for the governorship of New York. Party boss William Barnes Jr. supported his opponent, Charles Seymour Whitman. In July, Roosevelt published a screed where he accused – in no uncertain terms – Barnes and Tammany Hall boss Charles Francis Murphy of corruption and conspiring to thwart the will of the people.

Murphy let the attack go – either he was used to such criticism, or perhaps he felt discretion was the better part of valor given his opponent. Barnes, however, took the attack seriously. He sued Roosevelt for libel.

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Book Review: Heirs of the Founders

Heirs of the Founders: The Epic Rivalry of Henry Clay, John Calhoun and Daniel Webster, the Second Generation of American Giants
by H. W. Brands
Doubleday
(c) 2018 by the author

History is not what you thought,” wrote W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman in the “Compulsory Preface” to their classic 1066 and All That. “It is what you can remember.” Those words are as true on this side of the Atlantic as they are in Great Britain, where they were written.

We tend to remember only those things that are memorable. When it comes to history, for most Americans that means wars and crises, the more recent, the more memorable. The decades between the War of 1812 and the Civil War are one big nothing. Depending on where you were raised, you might remember the Missouri Compromise, the Nullification Crisis, or Texas’ War of Independence. But for most of us? Boredom on parade – especially when the presidents of the era generally served only one term (at most) and were mediocre (at best).

Alternate History buffs: What if William Henry Harrison wore a hat and coat at his inauguration, and didn’t catch pneumonia?

In Heirs of the Founders, Brands dives into those decades with a joint political history of three of the greatest Congressmen ever to walk the halls of the Capitol. Kentucky’s Henry Clay, South Carolina’s John Calhoun, and Massachusetts’ Daniel Webster were all widely known and respected for their powers of oratory, and their abilities to get things done.

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Book Review: Inseparable

Inseparable: The Original Siamese Twins and Their Rendezvous With American History
by Yunte Huang

Liveright Publishing Corporation
Copyright 2018 by the author

I doubt there are many people who haven’t heard of Chang and Eng Bunker, the “archetype” of Siamese Twins. There have been a few biographies of the pair, but this is the first I’ve come across. They led a fascinating and complex life, that just happened to coincide with a fascinating and complex era of American history.

Huang, who previously wrote a “biography” of Charlie Chan (in which he covered the lives of Werner Oland, the actor who first portrayed the character in film, Earl Biggers, who wrote the novels, and Chang Apana, the Honolulu policeman who was the inspiration for the character), applies his considerable skills to a real person – or is it real people? He barely touches on the conundrum of whether Chang and Eng should be considered one person or two. To be fair, I don’t think that question has an answer….

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Book Review: Eighty Days

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History Making Race Around the World
Matthew Goodman
Ballantine Books, New York
(c) 2013 by the author

You may have heard (at least I hope it’s somewhere in the dustier corners of your memory) that after the publication of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, people started seriously considering the possibility of such a circumnavigation. At the offices of Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, crusading reporter Nellie Bly was put up to the task. She departed from Hoboken NJ on November 14, 1889, heading across the Atlantic.

What I did not know was that later the same day, Elizabeth Bisland, a reporter and columnist for the monthly magazine The Cosmopolitan boarded a train leaving Grand Central heading west, with the same goal in mind.

The two women were not just racing the calendar, hoping that the uncertainties of long-distance travel (weather delays, equipment failures, et al.) would be minimal, but also each other.

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Book Review: The Field of Blood

The Field of Blood: Violence in Congress and the Road to the Civil War
Joanne B. Freeman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
(c) 2018 by the author

You might recall from your American History classes in school that in the few decades before the Civil War, Congress was filled with great orators like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, and John C. Calhoun. Continuing in the fine tradition of our Founding Fathers, they and other congressmen would passionately debate the issues of the day, letting their words carry the force of their arguments….

Well, maybe in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, it was another story.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Taking of K-129

The Taking of K-129
Josh Dean
Dutton Books
Copyright 2017 by the author

Those of you old enough to have lived through Ancient History may recall hearing stuff in the early 1970s about mining manganese nodules from the ocean floor. One of Howard Hughes’ companies contracted the building of a huge ship, the Glomar Explorer, to see if these nodules could actually be scooped up in any way that could possibly be practical and profitable.

Years later, it came to light that the mining operation was actually the cover story for collecting something even more valuable and outrageous: a sunken Soviet ballistic missile submarine.

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