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Selected Notes About Books Read
  Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World (2013), Evan Thomas
Read December 2013
Ike’s Bluff is an easy though informative read, but if you are insistent on reading for what Ike's Big Bluff was, you may be disappointed: this reviewer would guess that the title was an afterthought by a publisher looking for a good marketing hook. The truth is, Ike did not really bluff in foreign policy, at least not as depicted in this book. No, he kept his nuclear cards right there on the table for anyone to see. Nuclear war was a constant threat throughout his administration, largely because he was willing to make the threat, at least implicitly, every time he butted heads with Stalin, Mao, or Khruschev.

Ike's Bluff, then, is a book about Ike's foreign policy as President, and as such, name or no name, it is a Good Read. Evan Thomas portrays Ike as a vigorous, aggressive, egocentric president who was actively engaged on all fronts of his foreign policy - and when he was not active, those were the times when things were most likely to go wrong. He was subtle and nuanced, more experienced and knowledgeable than any of his appointees, and by duping the public with his genial golfing grandfather act, proved himself a far better actor than Ronald Reagan.

Students of the time period, 1953-1961, will be interested in quite a few of the specifics, such as the details of Ike's opposition to the Korean “police action” and his subsequent opposition to bailing out the French in Indochina (Vietnam) in 1954; his handling of Sen. Joe McCarthy; his handling of LBJ and the U.S. Senate; the nuclear saber rattling over the Quemoy-Matsu fiasco; and his concern that the "military-industrial complex", and the Cold War, would turn America into a garrison state. Eisenhower never supported American military action in Vietnam.

The subtext of the entire book is the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Ike's experts estimated in 1953 that a nuclear exchange would result in about 9 million Americans dead, a "small" enough number that American planners did not reject it out of hand; but by 1956 that number had risen to 27 million dead, as the Soviets got serious about its building of ICBMs. No one in Ike's administration seriously considered it as a policy option after that.

Prominent in that subtext is Ike's handling of the U-2 incident involving pilot Francis Gary Powers. For two years Eisenhower had guardedly sent U-2 flights over Russia to follow the Soviet progress in building atomic missile sites and in housing bombers that could make the flight to America. As a result he knew that in the midst of the multiple near-nuclear crises, both Stalin and Khruschev were terrified of a nuclear war with the U.S.: They had only a handful of bombers and missiles to strike with. But Ike worried that a U-2 flight over Russia was technically an act of war, so he was never willing to admit to their existence, and hence the intelligence derived from them. It was safe as long as the U-2 could fly higher than Soviet anti-aircraft weapons could reach, but eventually that reach was high enough to bag a U-2, as Ike knew they would. The much-discussed missile gap in the 1960 election was largely a result of the fact that neither Eisenhower nor Nixon dared reveal the national secret of the U-2 and its intelligence capabilities.

I am a big American history buff, but I was never terribly interested in the Cold War period. Evan Thomas managed to sucker me in painlessly, and I’m glad he pulled it off. Good job! Good read! If this subject interests you, Ike’s Bluff will be a welcome addition to your library.
 
 
Texian Iliad (1996), Stephen L. Hardin and Gary S. Zaboly

Read December 2013
This military history of the Texas Revolution is exhaustively detailed from both the Mexican and Texian perspectives. Hardin and Zaboly alternate between detailed descriptions of the outfitting of the soldiers - Mexican soldados, Texians, and tejanos - and the military maneuvering of the generals and colonels on both sides. They take us inside the minds and meetings of the Mexican leadership almost as much as they do the Texian leadership. They also discuss the complex history of Mexico that set the stage for the clash every bit as much as the independence of the American settlers.

No matter what is your prior understanding of the Texas rebellion against Santa Anna's dictatorship, and especially if that understanding is based on the two Alamo movies, you will find your eyes opened by this book.

For instance, my own understanding of the rebellion was that the Texas army/militia lost pretty much every battle until the Battle of San Jacinto. Not so: the militia, under General Stephen Austin, won most of its fights around Bexar and Gonzales in the fall of 1835. Only because of these victories did Texians, originally under Colonel J. C. Neill, hold control of the Alamo.

The problems began when Santa Anna lead an army of thousands across the Rio Grande and approached the Alamo in mid-February. Hardin/Zaboly provide intricate maps showing the movements of the major Mexican and Texian armies around the region. When the time comes to document the fate of the Alamo, their maps show in detail the movement of Mexican troops around the Alamo, and eventually, into and through it.

What has long been clear was that the Alamo was of no real strategic value: it was a target for Santa Ann because Texians were there, and not running away. Had he marched around it and headed straight for Colonel James Fannin in Goliad, and then on to capture the Independence Convention at Washington-on-the-Brazos, the rebellion would have been killed quickly and easily.

Instead, Santa Anna wanted trophies. He knew that two frontier celebrities, Jim Bowie and David Crockett, were on hand. After nine days of siege, when he announced to his generals and colonels his plans to attack the Alamo, they were horrified. They knew the Texians could be starved out in only a matter of days, but could be pushed out only through considerable human sacrifice.

In the end they were right. Santa Anna spent 600 Mexican lives "dearly" (in the words of 26-year-old William Barrett Travis) - one-third of his army - to take 185 Texians wearing rags, running out of ammunition, and nearing starvation. Those losses would cost him dearly at the Battle of San Jacinto, which ended the first phase of the war (the second phase of which was ended by U.S. General Winfield Scott in 1848).

The fates of those at the Alamo was different from the depictions of John Wayne's and Ron Howard's movies. In Wayne's, Crockett is killed while swinging away his rifle like a baseball bat. In Howard's, Crockett is capture and killed by a firing squad. Ron Howard comes closer to the mark, but still misses: the last survivors of the Alamo were indeed David Crockett and six of his men, but they were not executed by firing squad. They were pardoned by the general who captured them, but Santa Anna insisted on blood. When his top officers refused to execute such valiant fighters now unarmed - to murder them, as they felt - Santa Anna turned to lesser officers who had not participated in the fighting. Eager to please their general, they fell upon the seven survivors and hacked them to death with swords.

The largest controversy of the war is probably that of Sam Houston's generalship. Most of what we know is that he put off the fighting as long as he could, and struck finally at San Jacinto only when conditions were perfect, as he judged them. On this subject opinions certainly vary. Many of his contemporaries believed him cowardly; others hated his politician's charisma, which he used to gain consensus when he could. In the end the best argument is that Houston was the only leader in the rebellion with the self-control required to win. On more than one occasion Houston could have led his men into battle, into a battle they likely would have won - but at such a price that future victories would be impossible. Like a chess master, Houston saw beyond the next move to the inevitable consequences. He saw the end game. He had a vision, and he stuck to it. Many will argue that he was pushed by others to do the right thing, but he had the vision, will, and drive to accomplish what Austin could not.

Texian Iliad is not only relied upon by historians in the field for its marvelous detail, it is also a fast, enjoyable read. No library of Texana is complete without it.
 
 
The Crusades, Thomas Asbridge

Read March 2011
Asbridge's work is so large that it is impossible to give it its due in anything but a New York Review of Books-level book review, which I will not attempt here. The work is comprehensive and detailed, but entertaining and extraordinarily informative. I now realize I knew nothing of the Crusades before I read this book; it wiped away a lot of mistaken thinking, such as the notion that Islamic imperialism directly caused the conflicts. Some people may not enjoy the fact that Asbridge gives a lot of coverage to the actions and motivations of the Islamic leadership, but it is these very details that lend the book its weight of authority.
 
 
Mars Life, by Ben Bova

Read February 2011
Bova has been writing his books about the exploration and colonization of the solar system for 20 years now. Although the subject matter is exciting, the quality of the books is inconsistent. All too often he does a great job of showing just how boring space life can be, by writing a boring book; the Mars trilogy falls in that category. Even though he engineers a modestly climactic ending, getting there is so tedious that we're simply grateful it is done.
 
 
Obama's Wars, by Bob Woodward

Read February 2011
Without going into all the details of the book, I got this one important takeaway: President Obama is heavily involved in the details of presidential decision making, and has deep insight. The implication is that nothing is happening by accident in his administration; he is no one's dupe. While that means we must give him credit for the successes of his term, it also means all his choices, including the questionable ones, are those he has made deliberately, for a reason - though the reason may not be obvious to most of us, or it may be too odious for us to want to believe.
 
 
Seven Days in May, by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II

Read February 2011
I read this 1962 political thriller, as well as viewed the movie made two years later, about a Marine colonel who discovers the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is orchestrating a military coup. The story is clearly patterned after the power struggle between President Truman and General MacArthur in 1951, but is presciently set in 1974 - with the General in question the hero of the Iran War! They forgot to include those goodies in the movie. The book is more enjoyable than the movie, which ends with a monologue about patriotism and the Constitution that kills the dramatic effect of the aborted coup. An enjoyable but not exceptional read - relatively simple by current standards, but still suspenseful.
 
 
Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin

Read February 2011
Colvin's entire thesis, along with examples, could be explained in a relatively brief essay, which means this book is a waste of time beyond the introduction. It does not take long to get annoyed with the word play of the title, since the author's real quibble is with how talent is acquired: through purposeful training rather than natural ability. Even if you never knew this before you read this book, you could stop as soon as you got that far; the rest is filler.
 
 
Painted Ladies, by Robert B. Parker

Read January 2011
Parker began writing his Spenser novels in the 1970s; Painted Ladies is presumably the last, since he died one year ago. Nothing about the Spenser books is particular compelling, but somehow we want to keep reading a little more - perhaps because the Spenser character is often engaging, so we keep thinking the books will even show more substance than they ever do. Problem is, Parker so thoroughly feminized the tough guy detective that he stopped being believable more than a decade ago. Spenser was a guilty pleasure easily replaced.
 
 
Dead Or Alive, by Tom Clancy and Grant Blackwood

Read January 2011
This 950-page wrist-sprain of a book is further evidence that more than anything, Clancy needs an editor with the guts to toss out hundreds of pages of air that go nowhere. Long before the end we find ourselves wondering if the title is actually a challenge to readers who wonder what condition they will be in upon completion of the book. Mostly it recalls Sum of All Fears, Clancy's nuclear nightmare book that doesn't get going until the Superbowl gets nuked around page 550. The difference is, Dead or Alive never really gets going. People get killed and conspiracies are stopped, but the characters and scenarios stopped connecting long ago, about the same time that Jack Ryan stopped being a real person and became cardboard-cutout President in Clancy's own image. To make it worse, Clancy/Blackwood tease us with a subplot about former President Ryan deciding to run for President again - but allow it to drop, cold, without any completion or hint of completion. If Clancy waits another seven years to hire someone to write another book using his name, Ryan could be long retired before we read any more about the campaign. Or more likely, we will be too old and weak to read his books without a bodybuilder to hold them for us.
 
 
The Year of the Meteors

Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election That Brought on the Civil War

Read January 2011
So much historical coverage has been given to the battles of the Civil War that it is easy to take for granted the inevitability of the war itself. As Meteors demonstrates, it need not have been inevitable. Certain individuals took actions that made the war inevitable, but the actions were not inevitable. Stephen Douglas, for instance, was a well meaning man who helped cause the war through inept politics. William Yancey was a former Alabama Congressman who deliberately set out to destroy the Democratic Party first, and as a consequence the union. He was dead set for secession a decade before most people were even thinking about it; he succeeded in every goal except that of becoming President of his new slave empire, the Confederate States of America.

I took away a thought that was never expressed, explicitly or implicitly, anywhere in the book. The reality is that the Democratic Party as configured in 1828 was completely destroyed - by President Franklin Pierce (1853-57), who advocated the Kansas-Nebraska Act that destroyed the unity reached with the Missouri Compromise of 1820; by Stephen Douglas, the Act's champion; by President James Buchanan (1857-61), a Pennsylvania supporter of slavery and the South, half of whose Cabinet ended up as Confederate officers; by Buchanan's Vice President, John Breckinridge, who first ran for President in the 1860 general election as a Southern (pro-slave) Democrat, then became a Confederate general; by U.S. Senator Jefferson Davis, another presidential contender who went over to the Confederacy; and by William Yancey, the engineer of the destruction.

After 1856, only two Democrats were elected President in the subsequent 76-year period. What emerged in 1932, the party of Franklin Roosevelt, was unrecognizable from the Democratic Party of 1860. Effectively there have been two political parties that have called themselves "Democrats" (formed by Jackson/Van Buren and FDR, respectively), just as there have been two parties that have call themselves "Republicans" (formed by Jefferson and William Seward, respectively).

Here is a second takeaway thought. In the South it is commonly taught that the South was completely Democratic for a century as a reaction to the depradations of Reconstruction, which was a 12-year period of military occupation dictated by the Republican Party. So strong was their control that a negative reaction seems understandable.

However, this book makes it clear the the South was effectively one-party Democratic even before the Civil War. Formation of the Republican Party after the 1852 election quickly led to the collapse of Democratic politics in New England and the Northeast, with only a few notewaorthy exceptions. (See the film The Gangs of New York for a colorful depiction of the intersection of Tammany Hall Democratic politics and anti-black racism in the area we now call the Bronx.) The Reconstruction Republican dominance of the South was a brief aberration of a half generation, not the cause of Democrats' four generation control of the South.

Meteors is an excellent read for those who wonder how the country got to be in such a mess. Does it suggest parallels to today? No. However, if a law with the sociopolitical volatility of the Missouri Compromise was to be overturned in a similar fashion, then the lid could come off the boiling pot.
 





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