Tuesday, May 22, 2018

My Amazon Review of Jake Tapper's "The Hellfire Club"

The Deep State

At a time when there is real paranoia about “the deep state” CNN anchor Jake Tapper lends credibility to those charges. Why is he doing it? His book is set in early 1950s Washington where Joe McCarthy reigns and a deep state exists in the form of the Hellfire Club where legislators mix with lobbyists and executive branch members. Members of the club include McCarthy, the Kennedy brothers and the Dulles brothers, truly a bipartisan cabal.

Into this mix comes Charlie Marder, an appointed Congressman a professor out of Columbia University and prior to that a war hero. He is there with his zoologist wife Margaret and we watch her dismay as Charlie’s good intentions sink into the muck of Washington D.C.  We find dead bodies, blackmail, influence peddling and McCarthy getting with his buddy Roy Cohn getting more and more out of control. Above it all stands President Eisenhower who is steering a moderate path amidst the craziness. But make no mistake, the Hellfire Club represents the deep state and it is modeled after an 18th Century British Club of the same name and purpose.

Tapper has a fine sense for detail about the era and he did his research on the wild ponies of the Maryland shore that Margaret is studying. However as much as he tried the book doesn’t quite hold together and at many time it strains credulity. It seems to me there is more fluff than substance.

Monday, May 21, 2018

My Amazon Review of David Downing's "The Dark Clouds Shining"

The Revolution Disappoints

In this final volume of the Jack McColl/Caitlin Hanley series we pick up the action in 1921, three years after they split up in Russia. McColl is sprung from jail by MI-6 (foreign intelligence) and returns to Russia to foil a MI-5 (domestic intelligence including India) plot to assassinate Gandhi. Of course he meets up with his old flame Caitlin who is working in the Women’s Bureau run by Alexandra Kollontai, a real person. Although working very hard for the revolution, Caitlin is increasingly demoralized by the course the Russian Revolution has taken. The thrill of a radically new society is turning into a police state with an omnipresent bureaucracy. This is not what she fought the revolution for.

The assassins which include McColl and Hanley’s old nemesis Aiden Brady are also disillusioned. Their goal is to kill the “Menshevik” Gandhi and with that end a Russo-British trade deal that would torpedo Lenin’s New Economic Program. Yes, the plot is a bit contorted. Along the way we meet the detective and Chekist Yuri Komarov, a well- drawn character, who is both a cynic and a supporter of the revolution. He is not a real person, but we do meet Yacov Peters, the real number two in the Cheka.

McColl and Hanley venture from Moscow to Tashkent and then on to India. In India we meet a Sherlock Holmes-like detective who adds spice to the story. At times the book is plodding, but it ends with suspense and high drama.

Friday, May 11, 2018

My Amazon Review of Paula McLain's "Love and Ruin: A Novel"

Passion Followed by a Train Wreck

Paula McLain has followed up her “The Paris Wife” a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson, with novel about his third wife, Martha Gellhorn who would become a world famous journalist.  Just as in the earlier novel she writes in voice of Hemingway’s wife. Gellhorn is the daughter of a prominent OB-Gyn father and social activist mother in Saint Louis, which is also Richardson’s hometown. Her mother has a strong connection with Eleanor Roosevelt and that will ultimately give Gellhorn access to the White House.

Gellhorn, while vacationing with her mother, meets Hemingway in a Key West bar in 1936. They become fast friends and Hemingway convinces her to go to Spain to cover the civil war. Although Hemingway is married to his second wife Pauline, Gellhorn and Hemingway soon become lovers in the hothouse of civil war Spain. For a person who was reputed not to like sex, Gellhorn sure has a lot of it in Spain and later in Hemingway’s Cuban home. They marry in 1940, but not before Gellhorn goes off to cover the Czechoslovak crisis and the Russo-Finnish War.

However things change after they are married. Hemingway is a hard person to live with and he begins to drink excessively. But that does not stop him from writing his greatest novel, “For Whom the Bells Toll.” Gellhorn also writes a novel “A Stricken Field (I previously reviewed it and it is not bad.), which hardly compares to that of her husband’s. In short they become rivals and in and in McLain’s telling they begin to separate along personal and professional lines. Simply put, Gellhorn no longer can stand to be in Hemingway’s shadow, a 1960s feminist before her time.

Although I liked “The Paris Wife” better, Paula McLain has done a pretty good job into getting into Martha Gellhorn’s head and the book offers an interesting insight into a very tempestuous relationship.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

A Quick Note on Trump Pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal

President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal today. After an intense investigation I opposed the Iran deal negotiated by the Obama Administration, but I do not see a whole lot of benefits from withdrawing from the deal today which was marginally working. Trump pulling out of it will make it much harder to improve the deal, especially with respect to Iranian ballistic missile technology and their trouble making in the region.

However there is a real lesson to be learned. The founders had it right when they required a 2/3 vote in the Senate to approve a treaty. The Obama did not have the votes so they went for an executive agreement which passed along partisan lines. Thus going forward these types of agreements, if we want them to have lasting effect, are going have to be done on a bipartisan basis. If they can't be done that way they shouldn't be done at all.

Friday, May 4, 2018

My Amazon Review of Howard Blum's "In the Enemy's House: The Secret Saga of the FBI Agent and the Code Breaker who Caught the Russian Spies"

Spy Catchers

In a time when our nation is worried about Russian influence Howard Blum brings us a page turning history of how the FBI and the forerunner to the National Security Agency ultimately tracked down the Soviet spy rings operating in America. The book reads like the best of the spy novels. His heroes are FBI agent Bob Lamphere, a hard-drinking kid from Idaho and code breaker Meredith Gardner, a nerdy language expert from Mississippi. In these two people we have a very successful integration of human intelligence with signals intelligence.

We learn that the Soviets understood the importance of an atomic bomb as early as 1940 and created Operation Enormoz to steal U.S. and British secrets with an elaborate spy network run by the KGB and staffed largely by American communists. Lamphere and Gardner get hints of this operation from coded transcripts of Soviet cables, but the single pad code system used by them was nearly impossible to break despite all of their efforts. Blum highlights that the U.S. code breaking operation was headquartered in Arlington Hall, a former girl’s finishing school in northern Virginia. It was largely staffed by female Ivy League graduates and one of them would become Gardner’s wife. Arlington Hall was the U.S. equivalent of Britain’s Bletchley Park.

Lamphere and Gardner get three major breaks. First as the German army was at the gates of Moscow, the Soviet repeat a pad, a real no no. Then in 1945 Igor Gouzenko a code clerk in the Soviet embassy in Canada defects with information suggesting a vast spy network and that was followed by Elizabeth Bentley’s defection in same year. She worked as courier for the KGB who transferred information from the spies to their KGB handlers. Further the FBI benefitted from illegal “black bag” operations and in one case seized cable transcripts from the Soviet consulate in New York.  Those transcripts became the basis of what is now known as the Venona Files. Soon Gardner was able to read the Soviet’s mail.

Thereafter the FBI learns that the Soviets had three spies at Los Alamos. The German physicist Klaus Fuchs who delivered the guts of the A-Bomb plans to his handler was arrested in Britain. Ted Hall a 19 year old “wunderkind” physicist was never arrested because the FBI couldn’t use the Venona transcripts as evidence. And last there was David Greenglass, a machinist, who delivers diagrams for the lens implosion portion of the bomb. Greenglass is Julius Rosenberg’s brother-in-law and it was Rosenberg who was running a vast spy ring designed to steal electronic and nuclear secrets. He appears throughout the transcripts under his code name, but is not discovered until 1950.

Julius Rosenberg along with his wife Ethel, become cause celebe’s among the American Left; both are convicted and sentenced to death for nuclear espionage. At the urging of both Lamphere and Gardner FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover wrote a letter to the judge to spare Ethel’s life, but to no avail. They both believed that Ethel played a small role in the espionage ring. In their disappointment both leave their agencies shortly thereafter.

Howard Blum has told a very important story in a very compelling manner. The reader gets a real sense of how hard counter-espionage work is and how important luck is. Nevertheless as baseball executive Branch Rickey taught us. “Luck is the residue of design.” I highly recommend “In the Enemy's House” for both nonfiction and fiction readers.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

My Amazon Review of Henry Lewis Gaddis' "On Grand Strategy"

Strategy Rules

 I wish I could take Yale history professor’s grand strategy course. Reading his book is the next best option. At the heart of Gaddis’ book is Isaiah Berlin’s parable of the hedgehog and the fox. Simply put a successful strategist has to have the strategic focus of a hedgehog with the tactical flexibility of a fox.  The strategist can’t view evolving events through the lens of a fixed ideological view and must be flexible enough to adapt to the changing environment. The enemies of flexibility are ego and hubris.

Gaddis teaches us that there has to be a relationship between means and ends. As the Rolling Stones taught us we can’t always get what we want. He continually invokes Carl von Clausewitz’s maxims especially that war is the extension of politics by more violent means. As such he understands Bismarck’s view the “politics is the art of the possible. So too is strategy.

Gaddis’ work here is also a paean to the liberal arts. He brings out the strategic thinking of Tolstoy, Saint Augustine and my personal hero Niccolo Machiavelli. He prefers intuitive thinkers over experts the latter of whom are more locked into rigid thinking. His favorite American strategists are Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Lincoln understands how to use his technological and manpower superiority over the South by aggressively attacking in the Mississippi Valley and Roosevelt for understanding that the axis would be defeated by the factories of Detroit and California. Gaddis goes overboard, in my opinion, in giving too much credit for Roosevelt’s 1933 diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union as a harbinger of the World War II alliance with Stalin against Germany and Japan.  

As an aside I wish Gaddis would have discussed the grand strategies of Bismarck, Lenin and Stalin. All three were masters of tactical flexibility with very strong strategic goals.

So for those of us who can’t take Gaddis’ class, read his “On Grand Strategy.”