Thursday, August 27, 2015

Book Review: One Man Against the World - The Tragedy of Richard Nixon by Tim Weiner


You can say many things about Tim Weiner - that he is objective about Richard Nixon is not one of them. And that is a shame because Weiner - who won a Pulitzer Prize while reporting for the New York Times - obviously did a great deal of primary research on his subject in One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon.  Indeed, the book is based largely on documents declassified between 2007 and 2014. In other words, Weiner had access to research materials that other Nixon scholars - Stephen Ambrose comes to mind - did not.

Weiner certainly makes good use of what he found. And the story is most definitely a tragedy - although one could argue as to whether it was Nixon's tragedy or ours. Weiner simply can't avoid subjective - i.e. negative - commentary throughout the work. Now, God knows there's enough about Nixon to make one want to throw him out of an airplane. But that's just it - Weiner doesn't need to use the tone that he takes. Nixon's words speak for themselves.

A main theme of the book is that there were many contributing factors that led to Richard Nixon's downfall: Nixon's inherent, inbred paranoia; his narrow 1960 election defeat; the even more narrow 1968 election victory; the Vietnam War; and Watergate are all intertwined and largely explain everything about the Nixon presidency.

Nixon's paranoia was a common thread throughout his life. But it was his first two experiences in running for president - in 1960 and 1968 - that fed that paranoia to beyond dangerous levels.  Weiner touches on is the results of the 1960 election [in which John F. Kennedy barely won enough popular votes to take the election] and how it scarred Nixon.

Nixon's shenanigans began even before taking office as president. With the 1960 election fresh in his mind, and polls showing he and Vice President Hubert Humphrey [his 1968 Democratic opponent] in a virtual tie, Nixon became obsessed with the idea that President Lyndon B. Johnson would unveil an 'October surprise' - a last-minute announcement of peace in Vietnam on the eve of the election to tip the scales in Humphrey's favor on election night.

What Nixon did next was - if not treason - clearly a violation of the Logan Act [1799], which  forbids unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments having a dispute with the U.S.  On July 12, 1968, Nixon told South Vietnam's U.S. Ambassador Bui Diem that whatever peace deal the Johnson Administration was offering to South Vietnam would pale in comparison to what a Nixon Administration would do for his country.  Unknown to Nixon, LBJ quickly learned about this exchange through wiretaps [no, Nixon wasn't the first to use them]. LBJ was torn - the evidence was clear: Nixon was in contact with Saigon and trying to undermine a peace deal by the United States government. By November 2, 1968 - the Saturday before the election - LBJ had the proof in hand. He believed it was treason. The problem was twofold: first, the charge was explosive; and, second, it was obtained by secret means - could the nation handle Nixon's treason plus the fact that the U.S. was spying on its supposed ally, South Vietnam?



After much internal angst, Johnson decided to hold onto the information. Nixon won 43.4% to Humphrey's 42.7% [with Alabama Governor George Wallace receiving 13.5%]. Not since 1912 [Woodrow Wilson] had a president been elected with less of a popular mandate - even JFK's defeat of Nixon had given Kennedy a greater margin of victory.

In addition to almost no mandate, Nixon was the first president since Zachary Taylor in 1849 to enter office with both houses of Congress controlled by the opposition party. In Nixon's mind, then, he'd not only have to circumvent those "who hate me" but also the Congress itself.

One of Nixon's first acts was also illegal - the bombing of Cambodia in 1969. The secrecy surrounding this was such that it wasn't until President Bill Clinton released the information in 2000 that it became known.  The flight records for the B-52 bombers carrying out the attacks against Cambodia were falsified. Only the pilots and navigators - not the crew - knew they were flying over the Cambodian border.  Nixon gave the order March 15, 1969. From that point until August 1973, the United States dropped 2,756,727 tons of bombs on Cambodia - more than all Allied bombing in World War II including the two atomic bombs. While no one will ever know exact numbers, the estimate is that at least 150,000 civilians died.

In addition to Cambodia, though, Nixon also wanted to directly hit North Vietnam. On July 7, 1969, on the presidential yacht Sequoia, Nixon met with National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State William Rogers, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird, and Attorney General John Mitchell to go over Vietnam strategy. According to Weiner, Nixon would later recall that it was at that meeting that night on the Sequoia that he decided to "go for broke" on Vietnam if bargaining with the North would not end the war otherwise. He set a deadline of November 1, 1969: if the North didn't agree to terms, the bombing would start then.

It was also at this time, Weiner says, that Nixon first employed what I call the "Nixon is a crazy bastard/we don't know what he'll do" strategy: the idea was to convince the opponent [North Vietnam, the Soviets, Insert opponent here ______] that Nixon was a crazy man with his finger on the nuclear button; that no one could predict what he'd do; so you better agree with what he wants.  This planned November bombing would be the answer to the question, "what will this crazy man do". This time the strategy was used on the Soviets: word was conveyed to Soviet leaders that Nixon was crazy, out of his mind, and that no one knew what he would do; that it was quite possible that he would launch World War III before he allowed the U.S. to lose the Vietnam War war because he was that crazy. Unfortunately, Weiner argues, that wasn't far from the truth.

In the end, though, Nixon blinked.  While he did send a squadron of B-52 bombers carrying nuclear weapons to edge of the North Pacific between October 13-30, the largest anti-war protest in U.S. history, Weiner says, was a pivotal factor in Nixon's ultimate decision to cancel the plan of attack at the last minute. It would not be the last time in the Nixon Administration that we would come just that close to nuclear war - even if it would be 40 years before we found out about it.

Cambodia became a focus again, although this time there would be no secrecy. On April 20, 1970, Nixon received a regular military briefing from the U.S. Commander in the Pacific, John McCain [the Arizona senator's father].  McCain had disturbing news: the Joint Chiefs of Staff claimed to have located the North Vietnamese headquarters inside Cambodia - they called it the Central Office for South Vietnam [COSVN].  McCain described it as a "Communist Pentagon".  American war planners envisioned that - if you could destroy COSVN - you could cripple the enemy's capacity to command and control attacks on American forces in South Vietnam. McCain strongly recommended that the U.S. destroy COSVN and "win the damn war."


Weiner calls this a fatal turning point in the war: American boots would now be on the ground [and not just the air] in Cambodia.  According to Weiner, the plan was flawed from the beginning. He claims that COSVN was not a "place" that could be bombed.  It had no address.  Instead,  it was a small, mobile group of communist officers. Nonetheless, on April 30, 1970, Nixon was on national television telling the American people about the invasion of Cambodia

One of the stories surrounding Nixon's last days in the White House was that the strain had led to a terrible drinking problem.  But Weiner argues that Nixon's drinking problems pre-dated Watergate, and actually was quite serious as early as Election Day 1970.  Between the Vietnam miasma and Republican defeats in the 1970 mid-term elections, Nixon was in the middle of a period of heavy drinking and deep depression.

As Weiner details, though, when Nixon would emerge from one of those "spells", he'd be ferocious. Soon he was furious at pundits who opined that Nixon might not even be the nominee in 1972. He became blind with rage and determined to be "absolutely ruthless" in his pursuit - not simply of the nomination - but of overwhelming reelection in 1972.

It was in this atmosphere of frenzy that Nixon made the worst decision of his life: on February 16, 1971, he had a taping system with multiple tape recorders installed in the White House.

The Pentagon Papers didn't improve Nixon's mood. Even though they skewered Kennedy and Johnson on the failed war policies, when Nixon saw the Pentagon Papers on the front page of the New York Times on June 13, 1971, he exploded in rage.  According to Weiner, it was to find the leaker of the Pentagon Papers that Nixon agreed to create the Special Investigations Unit - the Plumbers.

One of the 'hallmarks' of Nixon's presidency was in foreign policy, specifically his trips to China and Russia. But Weiner argues that, even in foreign policy, for Nixon something like d├ętente was really only a strategy to end the Vietnam War: to warm the chill in the relationships with both Moscow and Peking in the hope that both would pressure Hanoi to settle the war.  Along those lines, Nixon first sent Kissinger to China on July 9, 1971. Less than a week later -- on July 15th -- Nixon announced that he was going to China [he would eventually go there the last week in February, 1972]. Weiner points out that, as Nixon had hoped, this announcement shocked the Soviets into proposing their own Moscow summit with Nixon for 1972 [which took place in May 1972].

Meanwhile, the Plumbers were getting ready. The leader was White House Special Counsel Charles "Chuck" Colson, who brought his college buddy, G. Gordon Liddy, in for his expertise. The two men came up with the idea of breaking into the offices of the psychiatrist of the man who had leaked the Pentagon Papers - Daniel Ellsberg. The idea was to find the file that Dr. Lewis Fielding kept on his patient, Ellsberg, and to mine that data for whatever they could.  Colson brought the plan to White House Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs, John D. Ehrlichman, for approval. Ehrlichman gave approval to the plan in writing and the break-in occurred on the evening of September 3, 1971. They trashed the office but actually found nothing on Ellsberg.

While that story is well-known, another leak was not discovered until Weiner's book. According to Weiner, on December 14,1971, columnist Jack Anderson began publishing a series of articles describing - in detail - secret White House meetings involving the India-Pakistan war.  It was clear from the articles that the source had to be someone within the White House. Indeed it was. His name was Charles Radford and he'd been placed in the White House by the Joint Chiefs of Staff because they did not trust Nixon.  Placing Radford in the White House as a spy was the decision of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas Moorer. Nixon was apoplectic when he found out. But, going after Anderson for writing the story, or Moorer for planting Radford, became even more complicated when it was learned that Radford had actually taken top secret files from the briefcases of both Kissinger and Alexander Haig [Kissinger's military assistant at the  National Security Council]. Nixon - as furious as he was - did nothing because of the possible outcome of prosecution of this high crime. Weiner severely criticizes Nixon for not exposing it.  According to Weiner, the Radford Affair amped up what was already a highly paranoid atmosphere culminating in the Watergate burglaries and the cover-ups.

The events that led to Watergate were hatched at a key meeting on February 4, 1972, between the Deputy Director of the Committee to Reelect the President [CREEP] Jeb Magruder, White House Counsel John Dean, Attorney General Mitchell [Mitchell soon resigned to lead CREEP] and Liddy [ironically, all four of them would eventually go to jail]. Looking at this meeting, Weiner writes, "Here is where Watergate was born." By the end of the meeting, plans for breaking into the offices of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Apartments included bugging/wiretaps of the offices of the Chairman of the Democratic Party, Lawrence O'Brien. After first feeling some trepidation about the scheme when Liddy first presented the plan, Mitchell signed off on it shortly after the meeting.

Weiner does an excellent job dissecting the events of the actual break-in, as well as the tortured two-plus years that followed.  According to Weiner, at 12:45 am on June 17, 1972, CREEP's Security Chief, James McCord, led a crew of four Cuban-Americans as they broke into the Watergate. They were under the command of Liddy, who with E. Howard Hunt, was stationed in a room at a Howard Johnson's across the street - with a clear view into the DNC offices. Unfortunately for them, that gave Liddy and Hunt a perfect view when, shortly after 2 am, a squad of plainclothes officers [alerted by a Watergate security guard] entered the DNC offices with guns drawn and arrested all five men inside while Liddy and Hunt fled from across the street. Because the men were caught with wiretapping gear [a federal crime], the police called in the FBI by 8 am.

Amazingly, it was two days before reaction hit those in and around the White House. On June 19th, Liddy meet with Dean to debrief him on what had happened. Because Liddy had brought in McCord, the crime was now linked to CREEP. Worse, Liddy also told Dean that two of those arrested had also participated in the Ellsberg break-in. That connected the Ellsberg break-in to Watergate and both of them to the White House.  From Dean, the news relayed to Ehrlichman who then delivered the news to both Nixon and Harry Robbins "H.R." Haldeman [White House Chief of Staff] aboard Air Force One returning to Washington from Florida.  The next day, June 20th, Nixon and Haldeman continued their Watergate conversation for 80 minutes..  Eighteen-and-a-half minutes of this conversation would eventually be deleted - intentionally, Weiner believes.

The following day, June 21st, Acting FBI Director L. Patrick Gray held his first Watergate meeting. Gray agreed to Dean's request to be present at all interviews  done by the FBI with White House personnel. That evening, though, Gray told Dean that some FBI agents believed they were looking at a CIA covert operation gone bad.  Dean shared that information with Mitchell which gave the CREEP chair an idea: promote that theory.  Make the FBI think that it was a CIA operation and - therefore - they should "back off". Haldeman shared that idea with Nixon on June 23rd, and he loved it. Nixon then ordered CIA Deputy Director Lt. General Vernon Walters to meet with Gray on June 24th. Walters told Gray to "back off".  And that's what he did.

But Mark Felt did not. Felt was the number two man at the FBI and he was convinced that, not only was there a conspiracy, but that Nixon was deeply involved in it. Frustrated by Gray's unwillingness to pursue the investigation, Felt eventually became "Deep  Throat" - the secret source to Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in their Watergate articles in the Washington Post.  The first articles appeared in the fall.

Amidst this turmoil, Nixon made good on his promise to himself to win an overwhelming victory at the polls. On November 7, 1972, he was reelected in a landslide.  Weiner points out, however, that voter turnout was one of the lowest of the 20th century - only 55% of eligible voters cast a ballot. Nearly 34 million eligible voters stayed home. Still, the results marked the second greatest margin of victory in history, with Nixon securing 60.7% to George McGovern's 37.5%.

With his final election over, Nixon immediately turned his attention to Vietnam. Frustration over peace talks with North Vietnamese leaders and driven to distraction by a lack of cooperation from South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu, Nixon decided to launch what would become the Christmas Bombings of 1972 in North Vietnam. For Nixon, doing the bombings during the Congressional Christmas recess was perfect.  The attacks began December 18, 1972, with bombings of Hanoi and the port of Haiphong. Over 12 days, 714 sorties dropped 15,000 tons of bombs killing and wounding thousands. Nixon micromanaged the attacks, selecting the targets himself. While barbaric, the attack initially had the desired effect Nixon was looking for -- the North agreed to resume peace talks on January 3, 1973.

It was not long after his second inauguration, however, that Watergate permanently replaced Vietnam as his biggest headache.  On January 30, 1973, Liddy and McCord were convicted on all counts against them. Hunt and the Cuban-Americans pleaded guilty. All were facing decades in jail. On February 3rd, U.S. Judge John Sirica called on Congress to launch an investigation of Watergate. Shortly thereafter, the Senate did just that and named Sam Ervin as chairman.

At the same time, Gray's appointment to head the FBI had been a recess appointment -- now Gray had to face confirmation hearings nine months after being appointed. Nixon worried about how Gray would perform, with the Watergate pressure building. Nixon had reason to worry.  On March 1, 1973, Gray went before the confirmation hearing and inexplicably offered to let the committee see the raw and unedited FBI Watergate files. Nixon exploded. Now, because he'd sat in on all of the FBI interviews, Dean would become part of the confirmation hearings. Indeed, on March 14th, the confirmation committee summoned Dean to testify.  This was the first time -- but certainly not the last -- that Nixon would cite executive privilege. Dean would not appear.

One of the last key dates of the conspiracy is March 21, 1973. On that day, Dean briefed Nixon on the latest news and used his famous quote, "We have a cancer within, close to the presidency." Dean laid out the facts that he (Dean), Ehrlichman, Haldeman and Mitchell by that point were all enmeshed in a series of violations of U.S. law involving a myriad of crimes -- most prominently involving the cover-up itself [conspiracy to obstruct justice] and the "hush money" activities. It was at this meeting that Nixon asked for a tally of all the "hush money" needed. Dean calculated that to cover everyone involved they'd need $1,000,000 over two years. Incredibly, Nixon immediately responded, "We could get that."

One thing that's clear in Weiner's recounting of the story: there were simply too many moving parts for Nixon to control. The "cover-up of the cover-up" meant that too many people had to be "made whole" in the form of "hush money" and just enough were willing to tell the truth anyway.  One such participant was McCord.  He wrote a sealed letter to Judge Sirica laying out the cover-up, the "hush"  money, and the pressure being applied to him by the White House to perjure himself.  When Sirica read McCord's letter out loud from the bench on March 23, 1973, the courtroom erupted. Sirica then sentenced Liddy to up to 20 years; sentenced Hunt to 35 years; and sentenced the Cuban-Americans to 40 years each. Sirica then, however, offered all of the men reduced time for cooperating. All but Liddy agreed to do so.  In the end, Liddy would serve 55 months. In return for writing his letter, Sirica sentenced McCord to only two months.

By the end of April, Ehrlichman, Haldeman and Dean had all been fired - the first two because they had become targets of Sirica's Watergate Grand Jury; Dean because by that point he had abandoned the scheme and was working with authorities on telling them everything he knew.

On May 17, 1973, Sen. Sam Ervin brought to order the Senate Watergate Committee for first time. The next day, McCord testified about efforts to get him to lie and the promises of "hush money". On May 22nd, Jack Caulfield - a former policeman that Nixon had employed for years as a private investigator [he tailed Sen. Edward Kennedy for two years at Nixon's behest] - testified that in early January 1973, he'd received a call from Dean with a message for McCord: your wife and family will be taken care of while you're in jail; there's a job waiting for you when you get out; and, "You will be rehabilitated" -- implying a pardon.

Nixon received a great shock on June 6, 1973 - Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox told new White House Counsel J. Fred Buzhardt that he wanted evidence from the White House, specifically "a tape of a conversation that [Nixon] had with Dean on the evening of Sunday, April 15." Nixon was shocked: how could Cox know a tape even existed!! There was a simple answer: two of those with knowledge of the tape -- Dean and Henry Petersen, Chief of the Criminal Division of the Justice Department - told Cox about it. Petersen recalled for Cox that Nixon at one time had let slip that he had "a tape of a conversation" with Dean that he wanted him to transcribe. With a straight face, Nixon responded to his new White House Counsel, "I have no tapes."

John Dean begged to differ. During the last week of June as many as 80 million watched at least part of Dean's testimony before the Senate Watergate Committee. It was during this questioning that Sen. Howard Baker famously said that the outcome of the investigation rests on one question, "What did the president know and when did he know it?"

Still, while people were talking about a tape, no one was talking about the taping system. The fact that there wasn't just one tape, but hundreds and hundreds of them, made by a thorough and sophisticated system throughout key areas of the White House, and that those tapes could provide all of the evidence needed to prove a conspiracy, well that was beyond anyone's imagination in June 1973. Nixon thought he might have made it through without that knowledge coming out.

Then came July 13, 1973.  On that date, two Watergate staff investigators - Scott Armstrong and Don Sanders - conducted a preliminary interview of a potential witness: Alexander Butterfield, the Deputy Assistant to the President during Nixon's first term [Nixon had since appointed him to head the Federal Aviation Administration].  As their faces dropped in shock, Butterfield told Armstrong and Sanders everything about the taping system. Of course, the true bombshell came when Butterfield publicly testified to that effect on July 16th.

With that, on July 23rd Ervin and Cox subpoenaed a handful of tapes each. For the second time, Nixon cited executive privilege and refused to do so. In response, Judge Sirica said he would issue a decision on whether Nixon had to obey the subpoena by the end of August. True to his word, on August 29, 1973, Sirica ordered that a subpoena duces tecum ("bring it with you") be served upon Nixon. Sirica demanded that Nixon turn over the nine tapes requested so he (Sirica) could listen and decide if they should be turned over to Ervin and Cox. Weiner notes that the decision was unprecedented: no criminal subpoena had ever been enforced upon a president; no court order had ever compelled a president to turn over documents. Nixon immediately responded: he said that he would appeal. But, regardless of how the appeal went [Sirica's order was upheld], Nixon said he would only abide by a "definitive" decision by the Supreme Court.

During the fall 1973, however, the world intervened on the Watergate saga. On October 6, 1973, the Yom Kippur War broke out after Syria and Egypt jointly attacked Israel. Weiner says U.S. intelligence had completely missed the signals that Israel was at risk. Weiner uncovered an amazing conversation, however, never before reported on: shortly before the war, the Saudis met with Undersecretary of State William Casey and warned him that war was coming and that the U.S. needed to reign in Israel.  Specifically, Casey was warned that if, after the war began, the U.S. was to aid Israel, the Saudis would place an oil embargo on the United States. Stunned, Casey never reported the conversation, "Nobody would have believed it," was his answer when asked later as to why he hadn't sent it up the chain of command.

As that war dragged on through October, and the war on Nixon raged along with it, Weiner says that Nixon became more and more despondent, leaving duties to Kissinger and Haig. Throughout much of the time, in fact, Weiner reported that Nixon was often drunk and incapacitated. With near fatal implications for millions, as will be seen shortly.

By mid-October, Nixon had decided that - regardless of the political fallout - he wanted to fire Archibald Cox.  So, on October 20, 1973, he had Haig order Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox. When Richardson hesitated, Haig then ordered the second-ranking man in the Justice Department, William Ruckelshaus, to fire Cox. He, too, balked. Finally, Haig turned to Solicitor General Robert Bork - third-ranking man at Justice - who did the job. At 8 pm, the White House announced that Richardson had resigned, while both Cox and Ruckelshaus had been fired. This was the famous "Saturday Night Massacre". In addition, the Special Prosecutors Office had been abolished by presidential order.

"Meanwhile, back at the Yom Kippur War..." Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev warned Nixon that the Soviets might intervene against Israel. Weiner says that data released 30 years later show that the Soviets had, indeed, shipped warheads to Egypt.

On October 24, 1973, Weiner says, Nixon was so drunk that Kissinger on his own called a meeting with Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Moorer, Haig and CIA Director Bill Colby to address the situation. Weiner says we only know about this meeting because Moorer's diary was declassified in 2007, and he left details of the discussion. According to Weiner, with no functional president, "these five men, led by Kissinger, decided to send strong signals to the Soviets to back off." They raised the global nuclear alert level to DEFCON III - one step short of war. They sent three warships to the Mediterranean and put the 82nd Airborne on full alert. Miraculously, Moscow backed off. But Weiner said this could easily have led to the start of World War III. And Nixon was nowhere in the decision-making process.

The New Year brought no respite for Nixon.  On February 6, 1974, the House voted to begin impeachment proceedings. On March 1st, Sirica's grand jury handed down indictments against Mitchell, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, and Colson. The charges included lying to the Senate, lying to the FBI, and lying to the grand jury itself. What was not announced at the time, though, was that Nixon was named as an unindicted co conspirator. The latter fact was kept secret under judicial seal at the request of newly installed Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski [Nixon had been forced to reopen the position a few days after abolishing it the previous October].

The steady drip continued on April 18, 1974 when Judge Sirica subpoenaed 64 additional tapes sought by Jaworski.  Although no one knew it at the time, among these tapes was the discussion of getting the CIA to block the FBI's initial Watergate investigation.

Nixon had to do something. What he chose to do, though, was a disaster.  On April 29, 1974, he appeared on national television for 35 minutes, alongside a 1,308 page "Blue Book" containing "tape transcripts". Nixon promised that these transcripts told the "full story" and would answer everyone's questions. One question it raised was, "Why the hell did we vote for this guy?" The transcripts were a disaster.  Even though Nixon had expunged all of the culpable text, what was left showed a foul-mouthed, bitter, conniving and disturbing man sitting in the Oval Office. These transcripts included the famous "expletive deleted" that became a running joke.



Even with the transcripts, Judge Sirica said he still wanted the tape themselves. Nixon again refused. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case on July 8, 1974. The Court ruled unanimously on July 24th against Nixon. Later that day, the House being proceeding on three articles of impeachment. Over three nights of nationally televised hearings, all three articles were passed.

The end was neigh.  On July 31, 1974, Nixon showed Haig a transcript of the "smoking gun tape": the conversation from June 23,1972, ordering the CIA to squash FBI investigation. Because of the Supreme Court decision, Nixon knew this tape would now be released. Haig told Nixon it was "fatal." Nixon agreed. The next day, Nixon told Haig he would resign within a week.

On August 8, 1974, Nixon announced he would resign the next day. Nixon's tragedy was over.  Ours was just beginning.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Book Review: Whirlwind - The American Revolution and the War That Won It, By John Ferling


I've enjoyed two other John Ferling works: Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800 [2004] and Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation [2013].  I can now add Whirlwind: The American Revolution and the War That Won It [2015] to that group. Ferling, a retired history professor from the University of West Georgia, has compiled a masterful study of the Revolutionary War. There are two main themes to the book. The first is that the colonial unrest from 1765-1775 was not one, uninterrupted natural progression leading to a 'declaration'  of independence. The second theme is to that there was nothing preordained about an American victory in the war. While most wars seem easier to predict with the hindsight of knowing who won, the Revolutionary War has been particularly susceptible to that temptation.  Because the Revolutionary War became so tied to the story of our birth as a nation we - subconsciously perhaps - simply treat it as a given that "we " were going to win.

Ferling places the blame for the war solely on Great Britain. He argues that - from the very beginning of the American protests against the Stamp Act in 1765 straight through the entreaties of redress sought by the Continental Congress ten years later - Britain's leaders never even attempted to reconsider how they governed the colonies - a refusal that Ferling aptly calls "a fatal intransigence". Britain gambled that they could keep everything the way it was by "bludgeoning" the colonists in what they felt would be a short and easy war.

Ferling maps out the pre-war history and how we got to Lexington and Concord.  The colonial anger over the Stamp Act in 1765 is often cited as the beginning of the move for independence. Ferling argues, though, that in 1765 there was no movement for independence. First, the colonies were not united and political leaders in one colony were largely unaware of the leaders in other colonies. Second, in 1765 there were no citizen militias. Finally, there was still a war-weariness among colonists after the Seven Years' War, which had concluded only two years earlier. .

Even after the Boston Massacre in 1770, Ferling argues that anti-British feeling had actually settled down.. Indeed, Sam Adams was doing all he could to find an issue that would reignite popular resistance. One such effort was the very public and solemn anniversary remembrance of the Boston Massacre that Adams orchestrated every March 5th from 1771-1775. Adams - perhaps more than any other revolutionary - realized the need to connect the city of Boston's popular revolutionary leadership with residents of the backcountry communities in New England, to create a sustained insurgency.  To do so, Adams created a critical organization, the Boston Committee of Correspondence, in 1772. British effrontery would now quickly be communicated from Boston throughout New England.

Continual bungling by the British toward the colonists - and the firing of shots at Lexington and Concord - quickened the desire for independence.  As Ferling writes, "nothing reshaped [colonial] thinking so profoundly, and so quickly, as the War" itself.

Ferling's opinion of George Washington as a general is favorable, He praises Washington's strategy of keeping the army alive to fight another day - called the Fabian strategy. The theory was that, so long as there was an army, then there was a revolution. That theory was put to the test, as for almost four years - from 1777-1781 - Washington's troops fought no battles whatsoever. Considering the high mortality rates during the war [more on that in a moment] it makes one wonder just how high those numbers might have risen had there been battles during those four years. Troops died during those years from disease, certainly; but the carnage that didn't occur from four years of battle that never happened is immeasurable.

One of the most interesting aspects of Ferling's work is his study of the British government's strategy and policymakers - an angle often overlooked by American historians studying the war.  According to Ferling, by 1778 [after British disasters at Battle Road, Trenton-Princeton. and Saratoga] the British government and most members of Parliament had concluded that Britain could not win the war as it was currently being fought.  That gave birth to a new strategy: Britain  abandoned the idea of conquering New England and the mid Atlantic. Instead British forces would concentrate on the pacification of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia. True, if the strategy was successful it could still result in an American nation. But that new nation would have been made up of only nine states and would have been surrounded by Britain to the north (Canada) south, and west.

While initially the British strategy worked, and they retook Georgia and South Carolina and made significant inroads into Virginia, the British army made several missteps.  Ferling cites as a key error a decision made by Sir Henry Clinton in South Carolina: after taking Charleston in 1780, he kept the inhabitants under military rule instead  of restoring a central civil government. The dread of military law alienated a considerable portion of a population that had Tory leanings and might have remained loyal to England had civil law been returned.

Britain's southern strategy was costly.  Lord Charles Cornwallis fought five major battles with Americans between June 1780 and March 1781 - Charleston, Camden, King's Mountain, Cowpens and Guilford Courthouse.  Between those five, Cornwallis lost 3,500 men - about half of his total force. This led to Horace Walpole's famous quote, "Lord Cornwallis has conquered...himself out of troops."

Ferling does a wonderful job of outlining the war's final months and explaining just how the war was won. By the summer of 1781, Washington was determined that he would make his stand by retaking New York City. Others argued that fighting Cornwallis in the south was the best strategy to end the war. It all hinged upon the French fleet led by Francois Joseph comte de Grasse - where would he and his troops land? If in the north, then Washington would use these reinforcements to try to retake New York City.  If de Grasse and his desperately needed troops landed closer to the south, then Washington would agree to a southern campaign.  When de Grasse and his fleet arrived at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay on August 14, 1781, the decision was made to head south.

Once Washington knew where de Grasse had landed, he created a complicated and effective illusion for the British troops around New York City, making them think that he was coming to retake the city.  In the meantime, Washington's troops began heading to Virginia and a showdown with Cornwallis.  The Battle at Yorktown began October 9, 1781. Cornwallis had 7% of his men killed or wounded and by October 17th he waved the flag of truce.

The war - for all intents and purposes - was over.

In looking back at the numbers, Ferling says that more than 100,000 men served in the Continental army; thousands more served in the navy and in state militias.  Most historians believe about 30,000 in the army died - a percentage roughly equal to the toll of regulars killed in the Civil War; but nearly ten times greater than in World War II. It's important to note, though, that nearly a third of those deaths were non-battle related and came from disease. Historian Elizabeth Fenn has estimated that another 130,000 noncombatants died just from small pox alone. On the other side, 10,000 British and 7,500 Germans died in the war, as did about.4,000 American Tories. Taken as a whole, over 50,000 who served Great Britain around the world died, as did more than 20,000 Frenchmen. Adding in Spanish dead takes the death toll close to 100,000 - and that doesn't include civilians, where accurate tallies have proven impossible to get.

Ferling concludes that the American Revolution - as outlined above in the tallies of dead - was truly a world war. There were many factors that influenced the conduct of the war. But, at it's very heart, the genesis was the idea that Americans would not allow themselves to be governed by a distant government; and that distant government simply refused to change how it governed. The ideas led to the war, but the war took those ideas to places where few if anyone could have seen when they first bubbled up in 1765 with the Stamp Act. The revolution and the war that won it are indivisible, as documented in this excellent work from John Ferling.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Book Review: Reagan - The Life, By H.W. Brands


As a history aficionado, there is something special about reading about a period of time in history during which you first learned of the events by opening the newspaper - that is, about a time in history that you lived through.  This is not possible, for instance, when reading about Lincoln and the various tragedies he dealt with during the Civil War. For those of my increasingly-advancing age, however, it is possible when reading a biography of President Ronald Reagan. The most recent such effort is from H.W. Brands, chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin.

The book is 737 pages, so bring a snack. Brands does a wonderful job of translating the enigmatic Reagan into a flesh and blood human being with strengths and flaws.  This is no easy task.  People tend to view Reagan either as a deity or, well, as the opposite of a deity. Brands makes ample use of Reagan's own diaries, which are an invaluable resource to historians.  Unfortunately, because of the onset of Alzheimer's, they also proved a resource for Reagan himself in recalling things that were slowly disappearing from his accessible memory.

Perhaps the central theme or thesis of Brands is a bit Freudian: because of his alcoholic father, Reagan spent his entire life conveying an eternal optimism [to counter the reality of what he came home to as a boy when his father had been drinking] that made him irresistible to tens of millions of Americans. Unfortunately, Brands argues, that eternal optimism led to a resistance on his part to dealing with unpleasant realities [think Iran-Contra] that nearly ended his presidency.  Indeed, it was only because enough people refused to believe that Reagan was lying about knowing that money from arms sales to Iran had been diverted to the Contras in Nicaragua that Reagan wasn't impeached.

The first 238 pages of Brands' tome deal with Reagan's life prior to his 1980 run for the White House. It's a good primer on how 'Reagan became Reagan'. One area of particular note is the presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the effect FDR had on Reagan. Those not familiar with the 40th president are often shocked to learn the reverence with which Reagan held FDR. It's important to remember, though, that for the first half of his long life, Ronald Reagan was a Democrat. And, like all Americans living through it, the Great Depression left indelible impressions on Reagan. And how FDR tackled the Depression meant a great deal to Reagan - even if he came to believe that government was the problem, not the answer.

This seemingly contradictory hero-worship of FDR is just one of the many conundrums faced by students of Reagan. While he praised FDR for his leadership and his compassion, when Lyndon Johnson sought to extend the New Deal 30 years later - just as Reagan was preparing to run for Governor of California - Reagan castigated LBJ and the Great Society. The famous line Reagan used when someone asked him why he left the Democratic party was, "I didn't leave the Democratic Party - the Democratic Party left me."

As for Reagan the president, Brands makes a strong argument for something I've believed for some time: Ronald Reagan was not an empty-headed performer repeating well-scripted lines. Certainly by the end of his presidency there were moments when that is exactly what he had become. But that was because of illness. Although Nancy Reagan cites a fall in 1989 as the beginning of Reagan's Alzheimer's, I've always believed that - in the last two years of his Presidency - Reagan was in the early stages of the disease. That, when he told various investigators, "I just don't remember" something pertaining to Iran-Contra, that he really didn't.  He was still aware enough, though, to know that he could have checked his diaries to find some of those answers - and Reagan never mentioned the diaries until after he'd left office. For his first six years in office, however, Reagan was a heavily engaged chief executive.  Certainly not the micro-manager his predecessor had been [indeed, Brands argues that had Reagan been more like President Jimmy Carter, Iran-Contra would have never happened]; but someone who was leading his Administration's policies, not merely mouthing the words.

Because I don't want to write a 700-page book review, here are a few snippets from some of the seminal events of the Reagan presidency and how Brands treats them:

1) Assassination Attempt -Here, Brands drops the ball. He does not delve into enough detail regarding the seriousness of Reagan's injuries - namely, how close to death Reagan truly came. The fact is, a delay of even five minutes in getting Reagan to the emergency room would have meant the presidency of George H.W. Bush would've begun nearly eight years earlier than it did. Brands does do a fine job of detailing Nancy Reagan's trauma and the long-term effects Reagan's brush with death had on her and how she worried about her husband. It also introduced astrologer Joan Quigley into the nation's life. From the assassination attempt to the end of his life, Nancy Reagan relied heavily on Quigley - to a level that not even President Reagan knew - in influencing Reagan's calendar of events.  This stemmed from Quigley's claim to Nancy Reagan that - had she been consulted - she could have told Reagan not to travel on March 30, 1981.

2) Air Traffic Controllers - One of the reasons why the air traffic controllers were fired is they didn't believe Reagan when - on August 3, 1981 - he told the press clearly that he would fire any controller who did not return to his/her job by August 5th. Most of the members of PATCO [Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization] thought Reagan was posturing. This was a fatal error. One of Reagan's heroes - in addition to FDR - was Calvin Coolidge. As governor of Massachusetts in 1919, Coolidge had won national acclaim for firing striking police in Boston.  Indeed, it was that action that was the largest contributor to Coolidge being named to the Republican ticket with Warren Harding one year later. Like Coolidge, Reagan did not believe the controllers had a right to strike. For Reagan - as for Coolidge 60 years earlier - there was a clear distinction between the public and private sectors when it came to strikes. Those in the latter group had a right to strike. Those in the public sector did not.

3) Gorbachev - Perhaps the two most influential men in the second half of the 20th century were Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev. Brands does an excellent job in providing a blow-by-blow account of the to two biggest summits between the two men - Geneva in 1985 and Reykjavik in 1986. While the latter was initially viewed as a colossal failure, it actually paved the way to the eventual arms treaty signed by the two men in 1987. Ultimately, the one issue the two men could not get past was Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative [SDI], skewered by critics as 'Star Wars'. Although Gorbachev came to Reykjavik with virtually every concession requested by Reagan at Geneva, Reagan would not abandon the testing of SDI, while Gorbachev insisted that any testing remain 'in the laboratory' for at least ten years.  Of course, we now know that SDI was never developed [President Bill Clinton killed it in 1993] but at the time Reagan held onto the concept of being able to shoot down incoming missiles. Although many derided Reagan at the time for the fantastic concept, Reagan argued that he wasn't interested in SDI to prevent a Soviet attack: he was worried about a 'lone mad-man' with a nuclear device. Although seemingly paranoid in 1986, in the aftermath of 9/11, one can see Reagan as being more prescient than paranoid.

4) Iran-Contra - Nothing defined Reagan's second term - not even the treaty with the Soviet Union - as much Iran-Contra did.  Brands concludes that Reagan knew well that we were trading arms for hostages; but was completely blindsided by the subsequent diversion of proceeds from those sales to the Contras in Nicaragua.  At the heart of the matter, according to Brands, was Reagan's humanity. According to numerous sources - including his own diary - a daily question Reagan asked his staff was "Any word on the hostages?" Every day. It consumed him. He had berated and belittled Carter for being unable to deliver the hostages held in Iran and here he was completely helpless to free [at one time] six Americans held in Lebanon by Hezbollah. In Reagan's mind, he constructed a framework whereby he was not really trading arms for hostages. Rather, he was making a gesture to Iran [arms, despite the fact that doing so was a violation of U.S. law] with two goals in mind: a) to begin to thaw the ice between the two countries with the long-term goal of working with Ayatollah Khomeini's successors on reestablishing relations; and, more importantly, b) so that Iran would use its influence with Hezbollah to get them to release the U.S. hostages. Brands argues that Reagan is to blame in that his free delegation of authority bred an Oliver North and John Poindexter.  Reagan also made it clear to both men that he wanted the Contras helped, to keep them together "in body and spirit" despite the Boland Amendment which prohibited aiding them. With a lack of oversight and unmistakable instructions from Reagan that he wanted "everything possible" done to help the Contras, it is little surprise that North and Poindexter made the decision to divert the Iran funds without telling Reagan.

Brands' work is strong. Although obviously very lengthy, it is an easy read and provides non-history aficionados with enough of an historical background to make those who were not alive appreciate and understand the times in which Reagan lived and led. In many ways Reagan will always remain an enigma.  The book only casually covers two of his deepest mysteries: his complicated relationship with his children from two marriages; and the fact that even those whom he considered his closest friends claim to have never really gotten close to him.

Brands' work does bring Reagan closer to us. And what we find reminds us of why we liked him in the first place.