Tag Archives: history

America’s destiny … warts included

This post is part of a history of a human rights class reading list. See more reviews under the human rights tag.

Manifest Destiny: American Expansion and the Empire of Right by Anders Stephanson is a short gast-hi-resbook (it almost doesn’t fit the page length for Cannonball Read), but don’t be deceived. It is incredibly dense. It is one of those books that to understand it fully you almost need to read it twice. Nonetheless, if you really want to know more about the origins of manifest destiny and America exceptionalism, this is a perfect starting point.

I am presenting this book to my class on Wednesday and need to work through some thoughts beforehand. So if this review seems disjointed it is because I’m still getting my head around his arguments. Basically he is examining the origins of the ideology of manifest destiny in American thought and political culture. While we can point directly to John O’Sullivan who coined the term in 1845 when he wrote that the role of the US is “to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions,” Stephanson argues that the broader idea of manifest destiny is rooted in the Puritans’ understanding of themselves as God’s chosen people.

He then looks at how this religiously rooted ideology develops over time and negotiates expanding US borders. This religious ideology then becomes intertwined with agricultural and industrial capitalism and mutates into a more secular understanding of manifest destiny, but while the national ideology takes on a new character, “the sacred-prophetic impulse never waned” (110). The interesting difference in these two ideologies is that the older religious idea of manifest destiny focused on a predestined future of God’s chosen people, while in the newer ideology will be determined by individual agency.

The most interesting chapter to me is his closing essay where he discusses President Wilson’s time up to the 1990s. He critiques President Wilson’s understanding of the United States’ role as the leader in the world and how that is still infused with a prophetic mission. This translates into a principle of universal right that believes it is always right and sees those who disagree as “inhuman or criminal” (119).

Interestingly he ends in the mid-1990s (the book was published in 1995) and maintains that the difficulty for the US is that it has lost its defining enemy with the end of the Cold War, and therefore “simple concepts super-imposed on simple divisions and simple enemies no longer suffice as basic ideological props of American geopolitics (129).” I would love to see an update to the work in light of the past decade’s events. Have we invented a new enemy in “terrorism” based on our understanding of America’s destiny?

Inventing Human Rights: A History by Lynn Hunt

I promised myself I would write at least 24 reviews for Cannonball this year and I have written exactly one. I’m reading a lot, but no time for writing it seems.  So, in the name of a snow day, here is review #2!

This semester I am taking a graduate class on the history of human rights. It has been fantastic even though snow has interrupted it twice now. One of our first books was Inventing Human Rights by Lynn Hunt. She examines the language of human rights as it emerged with the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the American Declaration of Independence. She argues that before and during that time period we see a change in thinking and a rise in empathy towards other people. This coincided with the emergence of new popular literature, the epistolary novel, as well as shifts in perceptions of torture and its purpose.

The strongest section is her chapter on Richardson’s Pamela and Rousseau’s Julie, the two big epistolary novels of that time period. She does a nice job explaining how these works could give rise to empathy for others. Of course she can’t make a causal argument, but she attempts to show how people identified strongly with the “fate” of those main characters, so much so that they begin to think they were real. (It reminds me of the Harry Potter fan base especially with Rowling’s reinterpretation of Hermione and Ron’s relationship.)

The challenge with this book is that she is trying to make a much stronger argument about empathy, and I don’t think she succeeds. In arguing for empathy she is actually arguing that it is a biological change in how we think about others–that our brains fundamentally change. It is an interesting argument, but how on earth do you prove that, especially in relation to historical events and people. Luckily she doesn’t dwell too much on this idea and the rest of the book is still fascinating and well worth a read if you are interested in human rights history.

Books! When Germany waited and a man fell from a mountain #cbr5

I tend to read books in pairs. I get restless with one so I need something different to switch my focus. I thought it might be fun to write about the two I just finished even though I can’t find much in common between them. The two from this week are dissimilar on so many levels.

I just finished In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. I enjoyed Larson’s Devil in the White City quite a bit, so I was excited to see a new book from him. I read a few negative and lukewarm reviews but considering it was Larson I thought it had to be good. He’s a great writer! Well, I was wrong.

Don’t misunderstand me, Larson’s writing is a pleasure to read. The problem is the subject matter. Larson is focusing all of his excellent writing ability on an American family that moves to Germany after the father becomes the first American ambassador in Hitler’s world. They arrive in the mid-1930s, right when things start going downhill. This is a great set up, right?! But what happens? Not a darn thing. They go to parties. They drive around. The daughter has sex with everyone and supposedly (maybe, not really) becomes a potential Russian spy (we think). The father pines for his farm and his unwritten masterpiece on the Old South. To his credit, he tries to warn the US that something is going to happen, but is ignored. The mother perseveres in the face of the stupidity around her and then dies. A cast of German (to be) killers passes in front of us looking like a bunch of clowns and buffoons for the most part. Basically it is the chronicle of when Germany waited…and waited…for something to happen.

There are moments when it becomes more exciting. The Night of the Long Knives is the most interesting part of the book. The problem is that this episode came after I had read through 2/3rds of the book. As my husband said, no one should have to wait that long before getting to something interesting. I kept with it because I like Larson. If I hadn’t read him before I might have given up like so many others. If you are really interested in Hitler’s Germany and REALLY want to know what the American ambassador was doing then (and who his daughter was doing), this is a book for you.

Sad to say, but I got so bored with this book that I kept picking up Sanctus by Simon Toyne. While I’m not a fan of religious conspiracy thrillers, I have read my share of them (cast offs from my mother and yes I will read most anything). I have to say this one is pretty good. In the story, a man throws himself off of a mountain monastery in an ancient city in Turkey and it goes live on television. Through some convoluted detective work they find his long lost sister in America who journeys to Turkey to find out what happened to her brother. She then becomes the central character in an attempt by the monastery to cover up everything (and basically kill off anyone involved). Ultimately the monks are covering up the true nature of the Sacrament inside the walls of the monastery, which if uncovered would change the world. Basically it is the set up for his next book in which the sister gains some bad-ass powers and stuff happens (haven’t read it yet).

In comparison to In the Garden, this one kept my attention. He has the Dan Brownesque style where each chapter is a ‘scene’ and drives the momentum of the reader. In contrast Toyne tends to make things up whereas Dan Brown “reinterprets” already existing reality. So, for example, the town in which all the action takes place is fictional and there are other elements created to suit his purpose. With the exception of a few groan-worthy moments (I won’t give them away), he does a pretty good job of inventing a mythology and keeping the reader invested in the action. If you like religious conspiracy action novels and are looking for a fun beach read, this is definitely one to find at your local public library.

I will leave you with this. As un-PC as this is, apparently there is a Hitler is bored video meme. I leave you with “Hitler and the bunker are really bored”. He must have read In the Garden.

Books! France’s Dirty War #cbr5

I am taking a history class on the Vietnam wars and we just recently finished two  books on the history of France in Indochina. While both are excellent, the first Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954 is less accessible. The second, Embers Of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, is a readable account of the end of the French period and sets the stage for the next war to come.

Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858-1954 by Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery is remarkable for its scope. It covers the entire range of the colonial experience from the political, economic, and cultural effects and from the beginnings of colonization to the end after France’s defeat at the battle of Dien Bein Phu.

The French authors aim to create a storyline that doesn’t take sides but shows the interaction of colonizers and colonized, and for most of the book they do this. At the same time, most of their sources are French and they end the book on a strangely sympathetic note. They write

“French colonial imperialism, in the midst of acquiring a new historical shape and a neocolonial project, finally found the political will to take on the issues concerning the development of colonized peoples. It was just then that imperial France was overtaken by Indochina by the unforeseeable: a national, communist revolution that was radically decolonizing and pregnant with another historical project (379).”

This closing commentary seems to indicate that France was going to modernize (doubtful) and that the Viet Minh emerged out of nowhere (?!?). Overall it is a wonderful piece of scholarship and worth a read if you have a strong interest in France’s relationship with Vietnam.

Embers Of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam by Frederick Logevall picks up at the beginning of the World War II and the start of France’s downfall and takes us through 1959 when two Americans are killed at an outpost near Saigon. Along the way he discusses not only France’s actions and mistakes, but also the place of Vietnam in the emerging Cold War and American anti-communist hysteria.

Logevall is a historian at Cornell University and is an excellent writer. He approaches the story from the level of the individuals involved and the choices they make along the way. In this sense it reads almost like a work of fiction because you have a strong sense of the main characters and how they interact with others. While it is a long book, it is so well-written and engaging that it is difficult to put down. I was actually late getting to work one day because I wanted to finish a chapter. If you are interested in the Vietnam War from the American perspective, you absolutely must read this book. It demonstrates nicely the beginnings of our involvement and why it later became America’s Vietnam.

Both books are worth reading, but I would recommend Logevall for casual history buffs. It is definitely a fave of 2013.

Books! Dragons eat tigers #cbr5

I’m doing pretty well with the Cannonball this year, but this week may push me behind. It might be time to break out the Dresden novels and YA. Recommendations?

This week I am moving away from the historical fiction and into the histories of Vietnam. I’m taking a class on the Vietnam wars (yes, plural) and will be reading  a few books this semester. The first Vietnam: Rising Dragon by Bill Hayton was a nice introduction to the current situation in Vietnam. Keep in mind we are simultaneously reading scholarly articles on the ancient history of Vietnam, so I think the professor wanted to give us a vision of what is to come so that we didn’t all drop the class.

Bill Hayton is a journalist who works for the BBC and was working as a reporter in Vietnam, and his book provides a clear and comprehensive picture of the issues facing the country. Each chapter covers a particular area of life from a focus on the environment, to the development of democratic institutions, to corruption, ethnic relations, and more.

After this book was published in 2010 the Vietnamese government banned Hayton from traveling to the country. You can understand why the book would cause alarm as it covers so many of the problematic areas in Vietnamese life, especially the tendency for personal interests of elites to be predominant in decision-making. He doesn’t make any broad proclamations about Vietnam’s trajectory but sees it on the cusp of either a bright future with many changes or stagnation and mismanagement (and environmental destruction). It is a shame that he was banned because it is pretty obvious throughout the book that he loves the place and wants it to be a “rising dragon.”

This is not just for the Vietnam bound or Southeast Asian fans. Read this if you are interested in international politics and the rising areas of influence in the world. Considering Vietnam is the 13th most populous country. Considering President Obama has proclaimed a Pacific Pivot. And considering the rising dragon is nestled in the armpit of China, this is a country to watch.

Books! The true story of the Congress of Vienna

Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna by Adam Zamoyski is not a book to approach lightly. It demands commitment and a willingness to wade through the numerous individuals involved in the Congress of Vienna. Ultimately though it is a great book and at times brings to life an exciting period in European history.

The book opens with the beginning of Napoleon’s downfall and his race back to France after the failed invasion of Russia. The Treaty of Paris helped to end the Napoleonic Empire and the wars, but Europe was left with many unsettled issues such as the status of Poland, who gets what territory and more. The Great Powers of Europe convened several committee meetings in Vienna that lasted for almost a year and discussed a variety of issues facing the continent. My favorite was the Statistical Committee. As Zamoyski explains, “In all the negotiations at the congress the political value of land was calculated not in acres or hectares, but in numbers of inhabitants, commonly referred to ‘souls'” (pg 386). The committee’s job was to verify the figures that the Great Powers were calculating thereby determining the value and the fair distribution of land.

The value of the book is in its retelling of the congress, especially its attention to detail. While this can become monotonous at times with dozens of unfamiliar names, Zamoyski brings out the flavor of the period by not only discussing the official proceedings but also describing the unofficial and at times debauched activities of the participants. Between balls, dalliances, hunts, and eating, it is a wonder they had any time to negotiate the future of Europe. It makes the politicians dealing with the fiscal cliff seem like a bunch of stodgy old monks.

The book also has a different take on the effects of the Congress of Vienna. In political science we tend to teach the Congress as resulting in the establishment of legitimacy of states in Europe and the beginning of stability on the continent. This is in part due to the writings of Henry Kissinger and Paul W. Schroeder. Zamoyski argues that the congress actually had negative effects because it left so many question unanswered, dreams unfulfilled, and completely ignored the rising tide of liberal thought in most of Europe. Although he doesn’t say this directly, in many ways the congress set the stage for the disasters of the next century.

While it is long and only for the determined, if you are interested in the Congress of Vienna and the late Napoleonic era, this is  a fantastic work. Very well-written and researched.

Books! A hawk and a dove walk into a bar … #cbr4

and the Cold War starts and ends and throughout they remain friends.

The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War by Nicholas Thompson is a fabulous double biography of two of the most influential thinkers during the Cold War. We see Kennan as he develops his strategy of containment as a young FSO in Moscow and then Nitze as he subverts it with NSC-68. We see Nitze becoming a forceful anti-Soviet crusader while Kennan becomes the more passive but eloquent anti-nuclear sage.

Thompson covers their lives from their early careers to their very last days while keeping the reader’s eye on the bigger story of the Cold War. Unlike Gaddis’ biography of Kennan, we aren’t immersed in the minutiae of the two men as much and Thompson does a great job setting the stage for readers who might be unfamiliar with details of the period. Even if you aren’t a Cold War history buff or a fan of these two men, the story of the Cold War is accessible as told by Thompson.

I have to mention my favorite line from Kennan, which Thompson quotes. You need to understand that Kennan was a fabulous and prolific writer in addition to being an authority on Russia. He wrote after the Cold War that “The suggestion that any Administration had the power to influence decisively the course of a tremendous domestic upheaval in another great country on another side of the globe is simply childish.” (pg 331)

I so wish Kennan were still around today …

Books! The very long life of George F. Kennan #cbr4

Sadly it looks like I won’t make my goal of 52 books this year for Cannonball Read. I might still be able to read close to that number (maybe) but I don’t know that I can force out all of the reviews I have let slide. This book, in my opinion, should count for 3 or 4 books though!

As an ex-Political Scientists I’ve read Kennan’s X article in Foreign Affairs several times. The article argues for an approach to the Soviet Union that would contain its expansive tendencies. This later became “containment” and official policy of the United States, a slight distortion as he was arguing primarily for diplomatic containment and not military.  Kennan’s ideas and writings were complex and, as John Lewis Gaddis in George F. Kennan: An American Life shows, sometimes contradictory, which tended to lead to Kennan’s own frustration when his ideas were put into policy.

Gaddis succeeds at showing us the full picture of the man through this expansive biography. He had access to all of Kennan’s writing, letters, and diaries and even the family. At times I wished for more discussion of the events of the day, but this is again a biography and not a history.

Although the work isn’t for the casual Cold War era reader, it is worth the effort if you want to know more about Kennan’s development as a public intellectual and his influence on the events of the 20th century.  Gaddis has created a biography of which Kennan could be proud.

Atoms atoms everywhere #CBR4

My seventh book in the CBR4 read was The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. I picked this up on the recommendation of a friend who figured that a librarian would want to read about a guy searching for ancient texts (they are sweet, aren’t they). I have to admit the central story didn’t grab me (I’m not big on bibliomania), but I was pulled in by Greenblatt’s attempt to connect an ancient text, On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, to the marvels of the Renaissance.

Greenblatt follows the travels of Poggio Bracciolini, a Florentine book hunter, in the early 15th century as he searches the monasteries of Europe for copies of ancient Roman texts. He finds the poem On the Nature of Things written by Lucretius who had been a follower of Epicurus. Epicurean philosophy focuses on the pursuit of pleasure rather pain, a philosophy that latter is subverted to mean hedonistic partying, but had meant a focus on the simple pleasures of living life as it is. The poem discusses the existence of atoms as the basis of life and the delusions and cruelty of organized religion. The swerve is the idea that life as it is exists because of the random movement of those atoms not because of the intentional act of a distant creator. Puggio copies the book and sends it on its journey back into the world of Renaissance Italy, in a sense creating the poem’s own swerve, where, in Greenblatt’s reading, it becomes a touchstone for many great thinkers (Machiavelli, Montaigne, and Jefferson among them).

While some of his connections may be tenuous, his prose is beautiful. It is difficult for a mere librarian like me to convey the gracefulness of his writing, so let’s let Greenblatt speak for himself:

“Of course, all Poggio could hope to find were pieces of parchment, and not even very ancient ones. But for him these were not manuscripts but human voices. What emerged from the obscurity of the library was not a link in a long chain of texts, one copied from the other, but rather the thing itself, wearing borrowed garments, or even the author himself, wrapped in gravecloths and stumbling into the light” (pg 180).

How could you not love a writer that not only describes the link between text and thought so perfectly, but also can then give a slight nod to zombies? I mean really people?!

I predict this will be one of my favorite books this year. It may not be perfect in its scholarship or history, but the basic story holds well and the language is captivating. On a side note, I was introduced to Greenblatt (the actual man) at some point in the 00’s (don’t remember the exact year as I had no idea who he was). He was giving a lecture to our English Department on Shakespeare and someone thought to say “Oh, and this is our secretary.” I don’t remember who the introducer was, but that person created their own swerve as I may not have bothered to note the name when my friend mentioned the book and may have never read it. I thank them wholeheartedly for their condescension. It has introduced me to a wonderful book!

CBR4 6: Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

I read Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman in February and needed to take some time to digest. My first encounter with Massie was Nicholas and Alexandra and I think that is true for most people.  Nicholas and Alexandra doesn’t have much new to add, but the story is told so well that it is hard to put down. You know the tragic end way before it comes and that intensity makes the story more engaging.

Catherine has the readability of N&A. Massie uses mostly secondary sources, even translations of her memoirs, and aims for a popular audience. Though it ranges over 600 pages, it doesn’t feel like you are reading a tome. Catherine becomes a real person in Massie’s writing especially in her early years which are accounted for in her memoir (apparently she didn’t get too far in her writing, probably too busy dividing Poland).

But the book lacks in not having the forward momentum that N&A has. With N&A you know the inevitable is coming, there is no escape, but Catherine just lives. And lives for a long long time. By her twelfth lover (or so) in her 60s, I have to admit I got a bit bored. I wish Massie had spent more time discussing Catherine’s foreign affairs and less attention on her lovers, but he is aiming to give a complete overview of her life. And complete it is.

I also should say that the timeline can get a bit difficult to follow. Massie doesn’t give a straight chronology based on Catherine’s life. It is more based on periods and people in her life. It can get confusing at times. Every so often I looked up random dates just to check but that may just be my issue.

Catherine the Great is a great book and well worth the read for anyone interested in this person, the time period, or how one of the greatest rulers of the 18th century came to power.