Monthly Archives: May 2013

Book Review: 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler-the Election amid the Storm

1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler-the Election amid the Storm

1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler-the Election amid the Storm by Susan Dunn is an examination of the events surrounding 1940 presidential elections and world events that helped shape the election. Susan Dunn is Professor of Literature and the History of Ideas at Williams College and Senior Scholar and the Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland. She earned her PhD from Harvard in 1973 and is also the author of several books on American history. 

The stage is set for the presidential elections of 1940. Franklin D. Roosevelt is finishing his second term as president. He had won both of his previous elections by a landslides but now his court packing plan has overwhelmingly failed and his New Deal programs are stalling. To help keep employment up FDR has begun production of war material in preparation for war. FDR’s domestic programs, increased military spending, and aid to the allies created opposition in the United States. Republicans and isolationists wanted to keep America out of the war. Charles Lindbergh was a very vocal isolationist and supported Wilkie. His support was not because he believed Willkie was great leader, but more so, because he was not FDR. In June of 1940, Hitler would be dancing a celebratory jig in Paris. The stage was set. 

Dunn does an excellent job of explaining the political process of from the Republican selection of Willke to justifying a third term for FDR. Charges of socialism were leveled at FDR and the Republicans reversed Wilson’s claim of “He kept us out of war.” to “We kept HIM out of war.” FDRs third term run for the presidency is discussed from the contemporary views of the time and the views of the the founding fathers and the Federalist Papers.

1940 covers in detail the campaign process including Roosevelt being “drafted” to run a third term. It is interesting reading that campaigns back in the 1940s were not much different from today. There were gaffs, and possible “romantic involvements” of some candidates, accusations of being a socialist, and even Ohio’s role as the barometer of the campaign. Claims of ruining the country and gutting the military could easily have been written about the last several presidential elections just as well as it was in 1940. Willkie makes the claim that the Democratic Party was kidnapped by a few people who wanted power (shades of a few hijacking a religion of the 21st century) and to upset the two-term tradition. He then followed it with quotes from Lincoln and Washington. 

The election results and the on coming involvement in Europe takes it toll on America and the politicians. Lend-Lease and England become important issues and alliances form and break. The Nazi threat to America becomes real as the USS Greer is attacked at sea (after giving a British Bomber the location of the sub). Willkie turns his support to the president. Lindbergh becomes more radical, after being call a “Copperhead”, he resigns his commission in the Reserve Air Corps. Texas passes a resolution informing Lindbergh that he was not welcome in the state. Lindbergh moves to the fringe. Willkie goes on to ally himself with the president to the point of being to progressive for the Republicans. 

An enlightening book about a very important time in American history filled with issues and events that changed America and the world. America was on the surface very black and white with the issues, but underneath, most Americans could put away their differences when the country need it. Dunn’s book is well written and supported with eighty pages of notes. 1940 presents a clear picture of American national politics in the pre-war years as well as examines the lives of the major players adding a human touch to the history. A very worthwhile read.

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Book Review: Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World,1950-1992

Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992

Tyranny of the Weak: North Korea and the World, 1950-1992 by Charles K. Armstrong is an attempt to break through the walls of secrecy that is North Korea. Armstrong is a professor of Korean studies at Columbia University. He has an impressive academic record including a Bachelors of Arts degree from Yale, a Masters from the London School of Economics, and a PhD from the University of Chicago. He has written three other books on Korean history and society.

The first part opens with the Korean War and the North’s Blitzkrieg capture of Seoul in three days. It examines the role of the United States, China, and the Soviet Union in the conflict. The destruction in both the North and South changed Korea. The South with aid moved from being a third world economy to the first world and the North which had be prosperous until 1950 began a slide into ruin. The North appears to make a quick recovery after the war, but falters. Most of the initial recovery was due to foreign aid from other communist countries particularity USSR, China, and East Germany. North Korea did not fall in line with other communist countries. It accepted aid, but went its own way, especially after Khrushchev took over the Soviet Union and denounced Stalin: a hero to Kim. North Korea seemed to search for enemies even in its friends.

North Korea played by its own rules. It took aid, but was not a grateful nation for it. Eastern European technicians were treated poorly by North Korean authorities while providing aid. The incident with the USS Pueblo, while openly supported by the USSR, was criticized behind closed doors as excessively confrontational and counterproductive. Pressure from the Chinese stopped North Korea from invading the South in 1975 after the fall of Saigon.

North Korea moved to opening to the world slightly. Moving from first world trading partners to the Third World, North Korea looked to build support in the United Nations. Korea sided with Iran after its revolution, not in any ideological way but rather to support Iran’s anti-American voice. The 1970s bring more change to Korea as its alliances shift from China (now on friendlier terms with the Untied States) to the Soviet Union. North Korea needs urgent help building its economy and help building its nuclear reactor. The late 1980s bring further frustration to North Korea. The Seoul Olympic Games are an embarrassment to North Korea who has no where the economy and standard of living of South Korea. Secondly, South Korea opened trade to communist nations and North Korea saw it closest allies one by one take advantage of the offer. With the fall of the Soviet Union and China opening relations with South Korea, North Korea stood alone.

Tyranny of the Weak covers the rule of Kim Il Sung and shows him as an ineffective leader. He may have had the support of his people, but his policies and actions as a leader did little to benefit the nation. Although Kim Il Jung would not come to power until 1994 he is mentioned in the book as the student who out performed his political economy professors and the person who ordered the kidnapping a South Korean Film director. The young Kim would quickly run up the ranks of power.

This is the best North Korean history I have read so far. Armstrong uses detailed source information including documents from the former Soviet archives. Extensively foot noted and meticulously detailed he not only writes the history but also supports what he writes. He also keeps the book centered on telling a serious historical study of the country rather than concentrating on the Kim’s cult of personality. There was more to North Korea than its leader. If you are going to read one book about North Korea or have any interesting the country, this is the book to read.

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Book Review: Farewell to Kosovo

Farewell to Kosovo

Farewell to Kosovo by Omer Ertur is a historical novel set in the Balkans in 1909 as the Serbians are driving the Turks out. Ertur was born and raised in Istanbul and educated in the United States. He was a professor of community and regional planning at Iowa State University which allowed him to work with various United Nations and various international organizations in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Work in Khartoum laid the foundation for another historical novel Bones in the Nile

Kosovo was in the news at the turn of the previous two centuries. At the end of the 20th century, most Americans will remember the war in the Balkans where ethnic Albanians fought for great autonomy and a free state state against the Serbians. Most Americans will probably remember this as a Christian/Muslim war. The cause is much deeper as some of the participants hold grudges dating back from the 14th century. The causes of the centuries long conflict are more than religious. There are also nationalistic and anti-empire. Over the centuries an intermixing of religions and nationalities added to the complexity of the situation. There has never been an easy answer and like the American Civil War many times it was friends or family fighting friends and family. 

Farewell to Kosovo is historical fiction based on the author’s family stories. His mother is portrayed in the story as well as his infant mother. His Father is an Ottoman fighting the Serbian Nationalists. The accounts of the book are his grandparent’s experiences in January 1910. The characters are well developed and complex. Burhan, for example, a Serbian Nationalist whose girl friend was raped and killed by Ottoman irregulars plays the role of a a compassionate character among the other Serbians. The Serbians are shown to be violent and cruel. Killing all the men in villages and capturing women and killing them the next morning. Executions are carried out with bayonet charges because it does not cost any bullets. Unlike other Serbians, Burhan does not kill women and children and does his best to save them. He is our eye into the Serbian camp. Lt. Arvi and his wife are our view into the Ottoman camp and are the author’s grandparents (in a fictionalized role).

The book is well worth the read and goes a long way into explaining the historical problems in the Balkans as well as the major players then and now. The aggressiveness of a Serbian nationalists will, again come to bring attention to the Balkans in 1914 and again in the 1990s. Ertur does an excellent job of putting a human face on the parties in the conflict. Although only covering a three week period, the book opens the reader to a long history.

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Book Review: State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible

State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?

State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible published by Island Press is a collection of articles from experts in their fields on sustainability. It examines what is sustainability, where we are, and what needs to be done. Sustainability has almost become a meaningless term like “green” or “eco” when referring to SUVs or “all natural” when referring to heavily processed food sweetened with HFC. 

This book is scary. Not scary in a fear mongering way, but in a way that when you read it you know its true: that certain feeling of dread. We are beyond the point of wondering if climate change is real and far beyond preventing it. We are beyond the point of slowing down production green house gases and hoping the planet will recover. The threshold has been crossed and the damage has been done and little is being done to control the damage. It took 200,000 years for human population to reach one billion; and 200 years for it to reach seven billion. Modernization of China and India and their desire to have the same standard of living as the West will create even more stress on the environment; if not cripple it. We live in a world where the wealthiest 10% of the population holds 57% of the worlds income and the top 11% of the population contribute 57% of the green house gasses. 

The West, particularly the United States, has created an economy that cannot be sustained in the United States or the world. We may feel good about recycling or buying “green” but billions of dollars in advertising are telling Americans to buy more, buy newer, buy better products continuously. Your IPhone 4 isn’t the best anymore; you need the IPhone 5. Buy, buy, buy, consume, consume, consume and Americans listen and obey. It’s the American way, but in no way sustainable. Disaster awaits us when the rest of the world tries to do the same. 

Energy and materials are a major problem for the future. A variety of renewable resources need to be developed. It will cost money, but then too our present system costs money too. U.S. tax payers spend $345 billion a year paying for pollution related illnesses from coal. Many countries are making progress with solar and wind energy. Drilling costs for oil is rising as well as costs for mining raw materials. Costs will continue to rise as raw materials become more scarce. As costs rise, even people in the developed world will feel the pinch. 

Change is needed. We need to pressure our governments for change. That is a problem in rich democracies for several reasons. In the America so much of the political system is based on interests and lobbies. Our leaders listen to who gives them the money and the worst offenders seem to have more than their share of the money. Secondly, we have become selfish; something even more than selfish. I want to drive rather than bike or take public transportation or car pool; furthermore, I want to drive in a huge vehicle that gets 18mpg. People fight against bicycle lanes and even crosswalks. Cities will even prevent public transportation because it will attract undesirables (poor people). This, I fear, will cause governments and people to ignore the problem until it becomes a disaster and then everyone will wonder how could this have happened.

The book covers many areas and covers them well. The book goes beyond the greenhouse gas problem and fossil fuel. It covers fresh water, fishing, crops, population, and politics. It is very well written and very well documented. The book makes an interesting study of Vancouver and Cuba after the Soviet Union fell. State of the World 2013 is well thought out and well worth the read. It’s an overdue wake-up call.

For the record, I am a strict vegetarian and do not drive a car.

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Book Review: The China Choice

The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power

The China Choice: Why We Should Share Power by Hugh White examines the China as a rising power. He is a professor of strategic studies at Australia’s National University and formerly a a senior official at the (Australian) Department of Defence from 1995-2000. White has an impressive background and well versed in in foreign affairs. 

Three things are needed for a nation to be considered a super power: Military strength, political strength, and economic strength. During the Cold War, the United States had all three strengths. The Soviet Union had the political and military strength; and managed to fake economic power. Americans worried about Japan’s rise as a power starting in the 1970s. Although Japan still has the third largest economy in the wold, it has no military power and limited political power. Today China rising, not as fast as it had earlier, but still rising. 

China today exhibits economic power. It is a regional military power and arguably a political power (keeping North Korea on a short leash is not working well). Previously, military power has been demonstrated by large naval fleets and aircraft carriers. China does not have the naval strength to invade Taiwan, but enough of a navy, particularly submarines, to make an on coming carrier fleet ineffective. The image of military might has changed since the Cold War. There is little doubt that the United States has the most powerful and technological military in the history of the world. But not all battles are fought head to head. The United States failed in Vietnam and the USSR failed in Afghanistan. Unless the United States can get it’s military to China, it’s military threat is ineffective. Granted the US has nuclear weapons, but what would it take to use them in Asia and risk nuclear retaliation?

United States has a long history as a power in Asia. Even during Vietnam, when things looked bad for the United States in Asia, Kissinger and Nixon opened relations with China. China gained political clout and the United States retained its role as a power in Asia. United States and China are not the only players in Asia. Japan, although a major economic power, relies on the United States for military security. In the event of conflict with China, what would Japan be able to contribute and what risk will it take for the United States to remain a regional power? South Korea has a vibrant economy and also enjoys United States’ protection, but its primary concern is North Korea either defending itself or reunification. What is Russia’s role on Asia? 

China presents a different challenge to the United States. Our economies are intertwined and as the top two economies the world, the world depends on our peaceful existence. Although China has a miserable record on human rights and repressing its population, it is not exporting revolution or communism. China wants stability and with it a growing share of influence. United States has three options: confront China, share power with China, or leave Asia. The American public may lean towards confrontation, but that is not always practical . Leaving Asia would not serve America’s economic and security interests. Sharing power may be the practical solution and the option that White supports. China’s rise will unlikely lead to the old Cold War bipolar world. Examining China’s rise in power and the effects it has on the United States presents an interesting study of how two major powers who are not enemies can go about sharing power and not create havoc in the world. An excellent read on current foreign affairs and one of the larger challenges facing the United States.

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Book Review: An Illustrated Outline of Buddhism

William Stoddart’s An Illustrated Outline of Buddhism presents a beautifully illustrated book that explains the basics of Buddhism. Stoddart was born in southern Scotland in 1925. He studied language and later earned a medical degree. He has translated many works into English and was assistant editor to the British journal Studies in Comparative Religion. Soddart is considered one of the most important writers on Perennial Philosophy. 

An Illustrated Outline of Buddhismstarts with the very basics of what is religion, what is orthodoxy, and where does Buddhism stand with the other religions of the world. Stoddart makes the comparison that Buddhism rose from Hinduism as Christianity rose from Judaism. Buddhism is a universal religion like Christianity and Islam. It willing takes converts, whereas, for the most part, Hinduism and Judaism are something that you are born into. 

A very good history of the Buddha’s life is given and the Four Nobel Truths and The Eight Fold Path, and the Five Precepts are explained. Buddha’s teachings became the Dharma or The Law. From here the book goes on to give a short biography of some early Buddhist figures. Buddhist art is also covered and there are plenty of illustrations in the chapter and throughout the book to show it. From cover to cover the illustrations are amazing. 

Basic Buddhist teaching are explained and clarified. Comparisons with other religions are made. Where most religions have a supreme being, Buddhism has a supreme state: Nirvana. Also the divisions and and historical spread of Buddhism are covered. The shortness of my review should not be considered a negative, but just the opposite. An Illustrated Outline of Buddhism is an excellent introduction to Buddhism.

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Book Review: The Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the making of America’s Vietnam

Embers Of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam

Fredrik Logevall’s The Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the making of America’s Vietnam takes Vietnam’s struggle for independence to its very beginning and carries it through the beginning of America’s “real” involvement in the war. It is clearly written and written in great detail. Logevall backs up his book with eighty-three pages of bibliography, roughly one page for every ten written.

At the Versailles Peace Conference in 1919, a young Vietnamese man in a rented morning coat comes to meet Woodrow Wilson and give him a letter. The letter is due almost entirely with Wilson, his Fourteen Points and his criticism of colonial empires. Ho Chi Minh was that man and hoped Wilson would help his country gain independence. Ho Chi Minh would leave disappointed never meeting Wilson or receiving a reply to his letter.

Jump to the end of World War II, China is the occupying country supervising the removal of the Japanese and keeping the peace. With the Japanese gone, Ho Chi Minh believes Vietnam is liberated and works to form a government. He gives speeches and quotes the Declaration of Independence. FDR as president did not support empires. He remained quiet about it to Churchill, but openly voiced how France could not support an empire. In other words France as a power was finished. However, it was Truman who was president after the war and Ho Chi Minh’s independent Vietnam was ignored by France and England. Marshall Plan dollars allowed France to start sending troops back to Vietnam. Truman even allowed French troops to be transferred on American ships.

Ho Chi Minh called for free elections and land reform; he won the elections, but it matters little. The Chinese broker a peace that requires France to recognize the Republic of Vietnam and Vietnam to allow 25,000 French troops for a five year period. The French troops were replacing the Chinese troops. Ho Chi Minh travels to France looking for support. He is seen as a simple and genuine man although he admits to being a communist he says Vietnam is not ready for communism, just independence. He gains little support in France even from the socialists.

America is not too concerned about Vietnam. It is still seen as a defeated France trying to desperately to cling to its past. Truman is more concerned with Korea and the political fallout from the war. When Eisenhower is elected France asks for support and Eisenhower demands that there be a plan before any aid is given. This is also where things begin to change. Vietnam is not about France wanting to keep its empire, its about communism. The early development of the Domino Theory begins. If Vietnam falls, Thailand then India falls to communism. Suddenly America’s opinion change. Communism changes the entire viewpoint.

Although the book primarily is about France’s handling of Vietnam, it does show the very gradual but growing U.S. involvement in the war. From denying France its empire, to aid, to Americans directly assisting the French, to support for Diem, to fighting the war. The book also shows the frustration of Ho Chi Minh. For fifty-five years from believing in Wilson, to the Declaration of Independence speeches, to having independence taken away, to wanting fair and free elections, to having his communism doubted by the USSR and China (but not the US), Ho Chi Minh never lived to see his county free. France left defeated in Vietnam only to fight another war with its colonial holding Algeria.

Embers of War is an excellent history of the Vietnam conflict before the American commitment. It is a conflict that never should have happened and had so many opportunities to be resolved without violence. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in foreign affairs or history.

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