Dec 12, 2013

Founding Documents of the United States

Last night ten members of the club met in the Kensington Row Bookshop for a lively discussion of the founding documents of the USA. The members had been asked to read the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, the Constitution, and its amendments before the meeting. One of the members has also suggested The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution by Richard Beeman. Other online resources were identified including:
Who Were the Founding Fathers and What Were There Interests?

We began by discussing who the "founding fathers" were and what their interests were. They were property owners and leading members of their communities chosen to represent their colonies/states.

A number of British actions were cited by members including the Proclamation of 1763 which forbade settlers from settling past a line drawn along the Appalachian Mountains, tariffs that reduced the profits of exporters, enforcement of laws against smuggling, and the effective abolition of slavery in England in 1772.. The Quebec Act of 1774 gave rights to Quebecois to use French law for some purposes, rights to practice the Catholic Religion, and dominion over lands to the Ohio River

These we saw as threatening the economic interests of the founding fathers. After independence when the Proclamation of 1763 no longer applied, land sales would eventually make many Americans rich and would pay for government for decades; George Washington himself had nominal rights to thousands of acres in the west. Merchants would lose money under the tariffs; John Hancock, a rich merchant and probably a leading smuggler whose ships were specifically targeted by the British, was very prominent among the founding fathers. Any hint that slavery would be abolished would be perceived as threatening by many; slaves were found in all the colonies before the Revolution. Some Protestants would take any opening to Catholicism as a threat.

Thus the affluent, powerful founding fathers may well have felt that their economic and other interests were threatened, and that they could better manage their own government to protect those interests.

Why Didn't We Learn These Things In School?

The discussion of the failures of our schools to teach history adequately was rather emotional. Reference was made to the school book purchasing procedures of the large states of California and Texas, and their influence on the publishing industry to produce texts that are sufficiently conservative and uncontroversial to pass the inspection of their selection boards.

It was also noted that World Wars tend to bring demands for histories of American exceptionalism and success in military endeavors, while the Cold War brought demands for books that would stress the positive aspects of American culture and downplay the less admirable aspects such as racism.

The Continental Congress

We commented on the difference between the Declaration and Resolves of the Continental Congress in 1774 and the Declaration of Independence of 1776. The earlier document has a statement of rights and a description of how parliament has passed legislation infringing on those rights. It asks for the support of the British and American people, and states that the king will be petitioned for a redress of those rights. The Declaration of Independence, written after the delegates to the Convention had received new instructions from their state legislative bodies and after a year of war, was a frank break with Britain. It ascribed the acts causing the break to the king, not the parliament.

We discussed how the founding fathers had been of divided mind, both valuing the relationship with England and valuing their own self determination. Not only did they consider themselves British in 1770, but Britain had helped defend the colonies during the French and Indian War in their lifetime, and provided a defense from other predatory imperial powers. But the founding fathers came to support independence: they thought themselves better able to advance their interests by governing themselves. However, they were not "small d" democrats, wanting to share power widely with the people.

We noted that the two documents were written by politicians to persuade people. The Declaration was initially distributed in the States and intended to gain support for Independence and the Revolutionary War; only later was it carried to England (via British troops) and the European mainland. We did not trust the members of the Continental Congress to give the real and deeper reasons in the minds of the founding fathers for independence in these documents.

We also noted that apparently the Declaration of Independence was little known and seldom referred to in the 80 years after it was promulgated. Apparently it only began to attain its current importance after the Gettysburg Address by President Abraham Lincoln. The opening of the second paragraph is relatively newly famous:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
And that has come to be seen as an important statement of the purpose of the American government, but the founding fathers were focusing on white men, and perhaps were especially interested in creating a government to secure the rights of "substantial" men like themselves.

The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution

The founding fathers had conflicting objectives. On the one hand, they needed the colonies/states to act together militarily to protect themselves.  In fact, independence from Britain was not achieved by the Americans themselves, but only when France, Spain and the Netherlands joined the war against Britain. The people of the United States could did not have the economic power, the manpower, the military power nor the naval power to defeat Britain; each of the states alone would have fallen easy prey to more powerful states. We recalled that after the Revolutionary War ended Spain still had huge colonies in North America, Britain had Canada and would seek more territory in the War of 1812 and thereafter, and France would soon acquire the Louisiana Territory. Even the Dutch, who had had a colony in New York, were still an important and active imperial power. Thus protection of the states and their people could only be guaranteed by a central government that could coordinate an army and navy and finance the defense.

On the other hand, the founding fathers didn't want to sacrifice local governance to a distant central authority more than was necessary. The colonies had very different peoples, cultures, and colonial governments. Someone from South Carolina was unlikely to have any contact with someone from Maine or New Hampshire. The founding fathers had had a bad experience with government from afar, and were not comfortable delegating a lot of power to a central government, albeit one on the Atlantic coast of North America; The preferred to keep as much power as possible close to home in the state government.

We noted that the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union established that the union was intended to be perpetual, and that the Constitution was intended "to perfect that union". Thus the Constitution was to perfect a perpetual union, and the two documents together precluded legal secession from that union. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 was cited by members as a law passed by the Congress under the Articles of Confederation that remained in force under the Constitution.

That Northwest Ordinance was written to define the governance of territory ceded by several states to the federal government after the Revolutionary War. That territory would eventually be divided into several states, and the Northwest Ordinance set a precedent for establishment of new states from federal territories. It also includes a bill of rights for the people living in the territory, and forbade slavery in the territory.

The Articles of Confederation give the central government power to declare and prosecute war. The central government conducts international relations and the individual states are prohibited from doing so independently. The Articles allow the central government to assess funds from the states apportioning them according to the value of landed property in the states, but did not provide means for the collection of the assessed taxes. While the delegations of the states to the Congress can be of different sizes, each state would have only one vote.

It became clear that the central government did not function well under the Articles of Confederation. During the Revolutionary War, the troops were sometimes not paid. Some states did not pay their taxes to the federal government, and the bonds issued by the government lost their value. Shays Rebellion, in part brought on by a post war depression and lack of hard currency, catalyzed reform efforts.

A convention was convened to revise the Articles, but over time its function was transformed to writing a new Constitution. Led by the Virginia delegation that was especially concerned with the weakness of the government under the Articles, the delegates created the government with legislature, executive and judiciary branches, and gave it more power than had been given under the Articles. One of the differences we notices was that under the Constitution finance of the central government was to be raised from the states based on the population census. Thus taxes would be population based rather than property based as before.

Many of the founding fathers had read history and political philosophy and had knowledge relevant to their task. James Madison, perhaps the key member of the Constitutional Convention, before it began asked Thomas Jefferson, who was then representing the United States in France, to send him books that could inform his deliberations. On receiving a couple of hundred such books he spent time reading and thinking, preparing a memo for himself defining his constitutional philosophy.

Notably, Madison believed that the Roman Republic and the Swiss republics worked as long as they were small, but historical large republics had failed due to factionalism. That was a fear shared by many of the founding fathers, including George Washington, who warned against factions in his farewell address on leaving the office of President. Madison however proposed that a very large republic, which necessarily would have many factions, could remain functional; in such a republic, no faction could alone come to dominate. That view came to be accepted in the framing of the Constitution.

We noted that while the powers of the different branches were specified in the Constitution, as were their limitations, no duties were specified. Thus the Congress does not have a duty to pass legislation in a timely fashion in order to fund government operations and keep government open; there is no sanction if Congress fails to do so. We recalled times when the government shut down because the Congress failed to appropriate funds for its operation.

The 14th amendment to the Constitution states:
The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned.
However, the Constitution does not explicitly state that Congress has no duty to authorize funds to meet the payments due on the debt; were the government to default the Congress would not be held to account for that failure.

The Great Constitutional Compromises

We discussed the two great compromises in the negotiating the Constitution:
  • That necessary to include the small states, and
  • Than necessary to include the slave states of the south.
These compromises perhaps indicate the critical importance that the founding fathers attributed to finding a way to hold the union together. As Benjamin Franklin said at the signing of the Declaration of Indpendence, "we must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Large states wanted a legislature responsive to the needs of their large populations. The small state compromise resulted in a House of Representatives that had membership proportional to population and a Senate with two senators for each state. In the presidential electoral college, each state had one member for each representative in the House and one for each senator. Thus citizens of small states got more influence per capita in national politics than did citizens of populous states. We recalled from previous reading, that in the latter part of the 19th century Republicans created several states with tiny populations and Republican leanings to cement their electoral advantage in the Senate and presidential elections. This Republican advantage remains. Thus in the Bush-Gore election in 2000, Gore won the electoral vote and Bush was elected president with a majority in the electoral college.

Southern states delegations wanted protection for the continuance of the institution of slavery, and wanted power in the central government reflecting the number of slaves in their states even if those slaves were not to be citizens. The compromise with the slave states made slavery legal in the United States, called for the return of fugitive slaves across state borders, and added 3/5th of the slaves to the white population to define the number of seats in the House of Representatives, and allowed the importation of slaves for some years. It also set a $10 tariff per slave -- not enough to preclude importation of new slaves but enough to raise some significant tax income for the government -- perhaps the most specific item in the Constitution. (It would take the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement to rectify the problems created by this compromise.)

Representatives would be chosen by popular vote of adult males, Senators would be elected by state legislatures, not the people. Again, the presidential electors were to be chosen by the state, not elected. Thus control of government was not to be directly in the hands of the voters, but indirectly through the selections made by their state legislatures. The founding fathers were not too comfortable with direct democracy, rather preferring to have control in the hands of men much like themselves.

The Judiciary

There is very little about the judiciary in the Constitution. It seems that each branch of government was expected to observe the rules set forth in the Constitution; the legislature would not pass an unconstitutional bill, the executive would not sign one into law nor commit an unconstitutional act, and the judiciary would adjudicate issues in accord with the Constitution. It was not until the Supreme Court decided in Marbury vs. Madison that the Court assumed the role of judging the constitutionality of acts of the other two branches.

We took a detour to talk about the proposals to reform the Supreme Court and the Constitution coming from the extreme political right. These include having some of the Supreme Court Justices appointed by the Governors rather than by the President with the consent of the Senate. Indeed, ten new amendments to the constitution have been proposed. The role of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) was mentioned in working on the state level to promote policy changes.

We appeared to agree that some age or term limit would be appropriate for Supreme Court justices. The founding fathers did not expect individuals to live as long as we do now. While job security for the justices does promote their political independence, people in the 80's are likely to have less capacity to perform the demanding intellectual work required,  Indeed, members of Congress being carried into the chamber to vote seem inappropriate. Note that Jefferson believed that Senators should have six year terms to provide some insulation from popular pressure, but that they should return to private life after a single term. Perhaps some term limits or age limits for legislators might be considered. Even though President Wilson was incapacitated for a period of time during his presidency, it was not until the 25th amendment in the 1960s that the presidential succession was clarified.  So, constitutional reform to impose such limits may not be quick nor easy.

We also talked about "originalism" and the difficulty of discovering the original intent of the many people who drafted the Constitution; they did not agree uniformly among themselves. Is the intent of the people who ratified the Constitution critical" What did they believe that they were ratifying? (Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788 by Pauline Maier was mentioned in this context.) The Federalist Papers, in which Hamilton, Madison and Jay argued for the ratification, were written to influence public opinion, and perhaps not simply to explain the thinking of the authors much less the meaning of the articles of the Constitution. It is clear that the Supreme Court has made radical changes in its interpretation of the constitution in the past -- e.g. Plessy vs. Ferguson as compared with Brown vs. Board of Education. (Still one clearly wants the law to be known and predictable, and thus the Court to interpret it consistently until the Constitution is changed or the laws themselves changed).


During the ratification of the Constitution anti-federalists demanded that the Constitution include a Bill of Rights. Quickly after ratification the Congress passed a set of 12 amendments, and the first ten became the requested Bill of Rights.  It was suggested that the members of the Constitutional Convention rebelled against drafting a Bill of Rights; after a long summer of debates they wanted to go home.

There have only been 27 amendments since the Constitution was ratified, two being prohibition and its repeal and three implementing the changes after the civil war. The there were only 12 other amendments spread over more than two centuries. It is hard to amend the constitution.

We noted that the U.S. Constitution is not very specific, and believed that to be a deliberate decision by the founding fathers. While many Constitutions have been written and rewritten in other countries, the U.S. Constitution has lasted. It may be that it only generally lays out the structure and functions of government, leaving a great deal to be elaborated as problems are met and solved.

We cited Benjamin Franklin's wise comments recommending that the members of the Constitutional Convention unanimously sign the document, recommending its ratification.

The Discussion

Several members said that they had not read these documents before and were glad to have done so now. Generally the group felt that the topic for this meeting had been very well chosen, and that even without a common book to read we had learned a lot and had enough common information for an interesting and useful discussion. After two hours, when the bookstore was closing, we were still going strong, and members of the group had to be ushered out of the store, where they continued chatting on sidewalk in the cold.

Bonus Army: US military attacks demonstrating American War Veterans

One of the club members shared this video:

Nov 16, 2013

The Silk Road in World History

On Wednesday, November 13th, eleven members of the History Book Club met to discuss The Silk Road in World History by Xinru Liu.

We began talking about the beauty of silk, especially the long-strand silk originally found only in China. Silk has a special sheen, and its protein structure takes protein dies very well. In many ancient cultures, beautifully dyed and embroidered silk garments clearly distinguished the affluent and important from the common folk. They were expensive, but for people seeking to stand out from the crowd, the expense was justified.

The book is "big history". It shows how trade, governance, culture and technology interacted over more than a millennium from Rome to China.
  • Commercial linkages, once established, survived changes in governance.
  • Large states, including China, Persia, the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic states, and Rome all provided safety for caravans using the trade routes under their authority.
  • The technology, which changed with the development of better ships and understanding of wind patterns, and which benefited from the domestication of the Bactrian camel in the 3rd century bc.
  • Culture, including the cultural value of silk. Buddhist monasteries provided early sanctuary for traders in the subcontinent, and with the development of Buddhist practice of endowing monasteries with silks and jewels, new markets for trade goods.
The Silk Road

Source: The Geography of Transport Systems
The group felt that goods tended to move bit by bit across the silk road; a merchant would obtain trade goods in his local marketplace, carry them along the silk road (route in his location), and trade them in the marketplace in his destination. A silk garment might pass through many hands as it traveled from China to Rome, and Roman trade goods similarly might be traded in many marketplaces en route to China. Note that in each market, barter might be necessary as there was no legal tender that was good across the silk road. In the case of ship born trade, a book was eventually developed on the basis of experience describing the goods sought and sold in each of the various ports along the marine trade route.

We discussed religion, noting the importance of Buddhism for the development of the silk road, but also the expansion of Buddhism along the silk road.

One member pointed out that the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam all demand adherence to specific beliefs of their members and are evangelical, while polytheistic Asian religions are more permissive as to to individual beliefs. Buddhism notably was based on the idea that the Buddha was a human being who showed a path that could be and would be followed by many successors.

Another member was struck by a convergence. A school of Buddhism developed the theory that people could gain spiritual merit by making gifts to Buddhist monasteries. Our book for January, The Reformation: A History by Diarmaid MacCulloch, notes the theory developed by the Catholic church that people could gain spiritual merit by endowing churches and masses and purchasing indulgences.

The great set of websites identified in the back of the book was appreciated. The author, Xinru Liu, appeared to have great knowledge of Asian history, but seemed to us to have made some errors with respect to European history.

We felt that the book would have been greatly improved by the inclusion of better maps. One member mentioned that he would have preferred a more quantitative treatment of the material.

One of our members provided this blog post on the book.

A member provided a Silk Road Timeline and three maps of the silk road (map 1, map 2, map 3).

Nov 4, 2013

Possible Books for the February Meeting

According to our long term schedule, we will choose to read a book on ancient history for the February meeting. Here are some possibilities:

Oct 10, 2013

Brazil on the Rise

Last night 11 members of the Barnes and Noble History Book Club met to discuss Brazil on the Rise: The Story of a Country Transformed by Larry Rohter. The discussion, as usual, was spirited and not slavishly constrained to the content of the book.

Brazil is a fascinating country, with a land area almost as large as that of the United States and a population just over 3/5th of ours; it has an extraordinarily complex society. Larry Rohter is a professional journalist and has produced a very readable book which lacks some of the quality of professional history, such as annotation of sources. The book deals with history from the colonization by Portugal to the 20th century in very broad strokes. It then goes into more detail on modern cultural, economic and political history, with some reflections on Brazil's future. With copyrights in 2010 and 2012, it is right up to date.

Brazil has enjoyed almost two decades of sound economic policies which led to economic growth; It has combined growth with pro-poor policies which led to a broader economic base. Health indicators were notably improved. The country is blessed with huge natural resources, including still to be exploited off-shore oil deposits. Still the country is challenged by a poor infrastructure a weak educational system.

Brazil has enjoyed a virtuous cycle in those decades. Controlled inflation and liberal policies encouraged foreign investment including the development of new factories.  New lands were brought into production and agricultural exports increased. As people were brought into the work force and incomes increased, there was a large increase in demand, which in turn created more jobs.

The economy was boosted by demand for Brazilian exports, notably from China. With the slowdown of the Chinese economy, the problems of the European economy (and threats to the U.S. economy) Brazilian exports are threatened. As the graph below shows, the Brazilian economy grew by less than one percent in 2012 and the recovery in 2013 is not expected to be robust.

Source: The Economist magazine, September 28, 2013
It was noted that the economic policies introduced by Cardoso ( known by his initials: FHC) before he became president and continued during his presidency were continued by Lula da Silva; foreign investors, who had been concerned by Lula's populist background, were reassured and foreign direct investment in Brazil remained high.

During long years of inflation Brazilians got used to spending money fast before it lost value. The high levels of consumer credit that helped fuel the economic expansion during the FHC and Lula presidencies left President Dilma (Roussoff) facing a heavily indebted society, adding to the difficulties of sustaining economic growth.

We noted the importance of the family subsidies introduced by Lula which paid poor families as long as they immunized their children and kept them in school. We also noted that rich and middle class children had long enjoyed private schools which were better than the public schools, giving them a huge advantage in qualifying for free public universities. It was suggested that there is a demand for educational services as people seek ways into higher status, more lucrative jobs. Life expectancy has improved, although it is still far lower than that of developed nations.

Brazil has uniquely generous pension policies, with mid level government employees able to retire after 15 years of service on full salary, indexed at the inflation rate or higher. Moreover, widows receive the full pension until their deaths. There was some jealousy among those of us with less generous plans. There is also apparently a common phenomenon of newly retired men marrying young wives who outlive their husbands by decades, drawing pensions all the while. The pension system will burden the economy unless it is significantly revised.

A relatively small triangle formed by Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Minas Gerais has accounted for most of Brazil's economy; the development of the new capital of Brasilia is a part of and symbolic of the effort to expand development into other regions of the country. Still, Brazil remains extremely diverse. The Amazon remains relatively undeveloped, the large area called the cerrado has recently become a major global producer of soy beans, with many large, modern farms. Other areas are still being developed for agriculture and have a frontier character.

The book's discussion of race in Brazil was of special interest to members of the group. First time visitors (from the USA) note the variety of skin colors, and the book informed us that 70 percent of Brazilians have at least some African heritage. Yet there is a color gradient in the country. The slave population was very large in the north east and European immigrants more dominant in the south east and there remains a heritage from that past. Moreover, the upper classes are whiter than the lower economic classes. There is even a significant group of people of Japanese descent in Brazil, The book clarifies that race is more complex in Brasil than the casual visitor is likely to recognize.

We touched on aspects of social history -- carnival and the samba, the cult of physical beauty, beach culture, and importantly, soccer and the upcoming World Cup.

There was some discussion of the differences between Sao Paulo, a huge metropolitan city, Rio with its gorgeous natural setting and historic character, and Brasilia, a model city showing its age. We discussed the favelas, huge slums in which the government and criminal gangs have been conducting a virtual war. The cities of Brazil are not only very different, one from another, but also within themselves.

As an aside, one member mentioned a project funded by USAID in which a Brazilian scientist demonstrated that a microorganism living in the above ground parts of sugar cane could fix nitrogen and make it available to the plant. As a result, some varieties of sugar cane grown with the symbiotic organism did not need nitrogen fertilizer. While legumes have been grown without nitrogen fertilizer, the result suggested that food grains such as corn (maize) might also. It was reported that one third of Brazil's sugar cane was grown using the results of this research. Since Brazil uses gasohol in its cars (which now are engineered to work on either gasoline of alcohol), the impacts include more affordable fuel and less emission of greenhouse gases.

We also discussed in several different contexts the great differences among Brazilians. Sao Paulo has universities of international stature and major scientific accomplishments, while one can still find tribal Indians in the Amazon living much as their ancestors had in previous centuries. Brazil has very large economic divides, with some very wealthy families and many very poor ones. It has been called two countries living in one land (Benindia) for the division between its modern, affluent elite and its poor living in third world conditions.

A new member asked if the group had developed a different picture of Brazil and Brazilians as a result of reading the book. It turned out that several of us had been to Brazil, a couple of us had careers in international development and had worked in Brazil, and others had traveled considerably. The club has been meeting for a dozen years, reading a history book a month. Perhaps we had begun reading Brazil on the Rise with a better understanding of people in developing nations than might be expected of a random group of Americans. That said, it seems clear from the discussion that the members of the group did learn about Brazil from the book and emerged from the experience with a different view of that complex society.

We wondered about Brazil's future. A phrase was quoted: "Brazil is the country of the future, and always will be." Brazil has been seen as one of the BRIC emerging economies on a global scene, but it has a long history of economic busts following economic booms. We were unsure whether the economic and social progress of recent decades could be maintained, or whether lurking problems would intervene.

While one member of the group said that she didn't like the book and did not finish reading it, several liked it very much.

Click here for a review of the book posted by one of our members.

Sep 14, 2013

Eleanor of Aquitaine

On Wednesday a dozen members of the Barnes and Noble History Book Club met to discuss Eleanor of Aquitaine: A Life by Alison Weir. We had fewer members present than usual, perhaps due to the number of members who travel at this time of the year.

A Soap Opera

We began with the comment that Eleanor's life was like a prime time soap opera. Perhaps the richest heiress in Europe, she was not only Duchess of Aquitaine but also Queen of France and later Queen of England (and empress of the Angevin empire).  First married as a teenager, she had two husbands, both of whom tried to annul their marriages -- one succeeded and one failed. She had ten children (2 with hubby one and 8 with hubby two, all before the annulment attempts) and was rumored to have had many affairs. A son by her second marriage was engaged to the daughter of her first husband by his second wife. She traveled to Jerusalem on the second Crusade -- one of the great adventures of her time. She also traveled to Sicily escorting a Spanish princess who was to marry Eleanor's son, Richard the Lionhearted, then the King of England on his was to the third Crusade. She administered large territories in her own right and with delegated authority from her husband. She also spent years in (more or less comfortable captivity) while husband Henry II lived with his mistresses. She aided her sons in their revolution against her husband, and was an important adviser to her two sons who later became kings sequentially after the death of her husband, Henry II.

One member of the group commented that he found the book difficult to read because he so disliked the people. Eleanor and her husbands essentially sold off their daughters for political advantage. Sons revolted against their fathers, fathers disinherited their sons. Another member pointed out that fratricide was common in the Ottoman empire as sultans quickly killed off their brothers that might challenge for rule, and were common in other feudal monarchies. We wondered whether the custom of farming off children to other courts to be educated, but also as hostages, might have had a role. The lord placed in loco parentis might be expected to train a boy for knighthood, but also to influence him against the child's father's interests.

The High Middle Ages

A member of the group commented that the book gave her too much data on the minutia of Eleanor's life, and not enough information that would have been more important to the reader. For example, Henry II made very important reforms in the English legal system, but the reader was not informed about the content of those reforms. The book had details about expenditures for Eleanor's clothes, and mentioned that her son Richard had taxed his kingdom heavily to fund his Crusade and to ransom himself when he was kidnapped (during his return from the Crusade). However, the book did not quantify the wealth of Henry II's realm nor the income it provided to his government.

Eleanor's 80+ years spanned most of the 12th century -- a time classed as the high middle ages. She reached adulthood toward the end of a long warming period during which European agriculture had expanded. Monasteries were involved in reforms that included improvements in agricultural technology. For example, the Cistercians established their monasteries in what had been wastelands, pioneering techniques for their reclamation. Water and wind mills were increasingly in use.

The book club members had previously read The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by Maria Rosa Menocal. In that book we had read that after Toledo was recaptured by Christians from its Muslim rulers (in 1085), texts from ancient Latin and Greek sources as well as some Arabic sources were translated and began to enter Europe. The Abbey at Cluny  (founded by one of Eleanor's ancestors and rebuilt using funds provided by Henry II) had an important library including such texts; its abbot, who lived contemporaneously with Eleanor and Henry. was a famous scholar. The University of Paris was established in the middle of the 12th century. Peter Abelard, philosopher and theologian, was an ornament of the 12th century.

We suggested that the economic developments of Europe culminating in the 12th century enabled the Christian successes in the Crusades as well as the Reconquista of Spain.

Understanding Becket

One of the best known stories of Eleanor's life is that of the Thomas Becket, described in the book as well as in the film, Becket. Becket, who had been Henry II's Chancellor of England, was named by him to be Archbishop of Canterbury. We were struck by Becket's transformation from a worldly courtier supporting the king in his issues with the church, to a hair-shirted religious official fully opposing the king and defending the church, Of course the martyrdom of Becket, assassinated by Henry's barons, and Henry's later public penance for the act are among the most dramatic incidents in British history.

The group delved into the religious divisions at the time to provide some background. We noted that there was a schism with two popes. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York both claimed the primacy of England. The Cluniac abbeys, devoted to ritual with richly decorated churches and a relatively comfortable life for the monks, were competing for influence with the Cistercian abbeys, with their monks devoted in equal measure to prayer, work and study, living a spartan life; both networks included abbeys in the Angevin empire.

Knowledge in the Middle Ages

A member of the group mentioned that he found it almost impossible to understand the mind of the person in the middle ages. How could people believe in the cults of relics -- bodily parts of saints, fragments of the true cross, etc.? How could they accept the authority of such obviously unworthy clerics and aristocrats? One answer was that we have developed skepticism, which did not exist in the medieval mind; we have done so as a result of our more complex lives and our modern extensive schooling.

It was also suggested that the source of knowledge was the church, and the church had religious as well as lay authority. The local priest could claim to be ordained by God teaching material sanctioned by the Church of God. Kings ruled by divine right. Failure to accept the teachings of the church or authority could be sanctioned by serious punishment in one's lifetime, and by an eternity in hell.

We also noted that the acceptance of authority seemed very different in the upper classes than in the lower classes. The Holy Roman Emperor who appointed his own pope when he didn't approve of the one elected by the leaders of the church, or the barons who assassinated Becket were apparently not as dominated by the intellectual authority of the Church. Dukes and Counts who rebelled against their liege lords were less than impressed by the diving rights of their superiors.

Final Comments on the Book

There seemed to be wide agreement that Eleanor was an amazing woman, well worth our attention. Not only did she live in an interesting time, but she was present in some of the most interesting events of that time. In a time when women had little power, she had a great deal of influence over events. Indeed, at a time when women were not visible in the records, Alison Weir was able to find a great deal of factual information about Eleanor.

There was a question about the book's apparent willingness to accept dubious accounts of Eleanor's infidelities. The author herself states in an afterword to the book that most historians in the 20th century discounted those tales.

Finally, a member noted how much more interesting the 12th century was than he had previously believed. Before reading this book he had foolishly assumed that the middle ages were undifferentiated, while he now sees the 12th century as preparing the ground for the Renaissance. It was a time of major economic, cultural and political changes.

Here are some related posts by one of our members:

Aug 15, 2013

The Birth of Modern Politics (?)

Andrew Jackson abolished the Bank of the United States, triggering a financial crisis and recession. Lets take his face off the $10 bill.
Comment by one of our members.
Last night 15 members of our book club met at Barnes and Noble to discuss The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828 by Lynn Hudson Parsons. The book deals with the presidential elections of 1824 and 1828.

A great deal of the discussion revolved around the title itself and we concluded that the election of 1828 was not "the birth of modern politics".

It was suggested that it might rather be considered a "watershed election" in the sense that earlier trends culminated in 1828 and new trends followed that election.

Between 1776 and 1828:
  • The population had grown as had the number of states
  • The number of states using popular election of presidential electors had increased
  • Franchise had been extended to all adult white males, without property requirements
  • The exports from southern plantations had increased in magnitude and value
  • Manufactures from the north-east had increased, and the businesses in the region were demanding tariffs to protect their industries.
  • Southern planters, who dominated their states politics, increasingly opposed tariffs which increased the costs of many of their purchases and tended to decrease their export profits.
  • Urbanization had increased, especially in the northeast. 
  • The number of states had increased from the original 13 to 24, and the western states had still different priorities than did the original coastal states
  • Communications had improved
  • The number of newspapers had increased
  • A first and then a second Bank of the United States had been created, and the desirability of having a national bank had continued to be highly controversial.
It was noted that early in U.S. history many presidents had foreign policy experience and that ceased to be true after 1828. It was suggested that the threat to the nation from European powers had diminished as the United States grew stronger economically and militarily, but also that the idea of Manifest Destiny was taking hold and people's attention was increasingly directed to western expansion. Still there was and would remain for decades a significant threat to the interests of the new nation from foreign powers.

As an aside we discussed the knowledge that people might have had in the 1820s of the west. The Lewis and Clark expedition would have been known and people probably had a positive idea of the economic potential of the lands along their routes. They would have known of the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Coast and the colonies in Texas and New Mexico. They apparently overestimated the agricultural potential of the great plains, and probably did not know of the great deserts of the South West and Great Basin.

A key issue that divided the country was states rights versus a strong central government. Underlying this issue was the concern in the southern states that a strong central government dominated by northern states would eventually end slavery (damaging the prospects of the governing class),

The revolutionary generation gave great power to the legislative branch of government but the power of the executive branch was increasing.

The initial division between federalists and anti-federalists had been reduced in 1800 with the election of 1800, and after 1812 there was no effective opposition to the National Republicans -- the party of Jefferson and Madison. Indeed, in the election of 1824 (when one of the candidates was seriously ill and could not effectively participate) the two leading presidential candidates assumed the role of "mute tribune" avoiding campaigning and even the appearance of seeking the office.

John Quincy Adams
In the election of 1824, Andrew Jackson received a plurality of the electoral votes; John Quincy Adams was second and Henry Clay was third. (See the map below.) Lacking a majority, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives and John Quincy Adams emerged the president. Jackson and Jacksonians became furious when Adams appointed Clay as Secretary of State (the position of Secretary of State was seen as the stepping stone to the presidency itself). They charged a corrupt process had denied the voter's choice.

It was noted that Adams' views were very progressive, and that he called for a large number of initiatives that were later enacted. Jackson, in contrast, represented a far more conservative ideology.

Martin Van Buren of New York emerged as a key player in the election of 1828 and in the formation of the Democratic Party. Jackson's supporters were effective in Congress in opposing Adams' programs during his term in office. The Democrats held the first national nominating convention to choose a presidential candidate for the 1828 election. They organized Democratic clubs in every state and mobilized machines where they could. They used a large network of supporting newspapers and used them effectively to explain their positions and support Jackson's candidacy. Similarly they effectively used printed mailings, taking advantage of the Congressional franking privilege. In all of these ways they surpassed the efforts of the Adams camp. Jackson himself made a number of appearances, making no secret of his desire for the office, while Adams continued to play the mute tribune.

Andrew Jackson
The effort  of the Democratic Party was successful. Not only did Jackson win the south and the west, but also Pennsylvania and a part of the New York delegation. (See map below.) The interest generated in the election resulted in a much larger voter turnout than in previous presidential elections.

For the rest of the century presidential elections were conducted by political parties using both innovations from the 1828 election and techniques which had been used previously. For the rest of the century voter participation remained high.

It was noted however, that in the eight elections from 1828 to 1856 the Democrats won six and the Whigs won only twice. The second party was not fully mobilized in the immediate aftermath of the 1828 election, (and the party system was again changed in the election of 1860). Thus, the election of 1828 did not see the birth of the modern two party system.

An interesting comment was made that presidential politics today are very different than those of the 19th century. Today elections are vastly more expensive, the parties far larger and more organized, advertising and mass media much more central, with corporations and civil society organizations playing a far greater role. If one wishes to use the term "modern politics" to describe the politics following the election of 1828, then perhaps we are now seeing "post modern politics".

Considerable discussion focused on the person of Andrew Jackson himself. He was the most popular war hero in the country, indeed the victory at New Orleans in the battle of 1812 was by far the most visible win for the Americans in that war. His fame had grown from his successes in the Indian wars and in the invasion of Florida. For us modern members of the book club, Jackson's views on Indians, slavery and blacks are antediluvian and highly objectionable. As mentioned above, many of Adams' progressive policies that Jackson opposed have since been enacted and are considered fundamental to our nation.

Jackson as president greatly strengthened the presidency, managing through his personal popularity and other means often to get his policies through the Congress. It was noted that while in the Nullification Crisis he preserved the Union over the opposition of some of his supporters, in the Indian Removals he refused to enforce the orders of the Supreme Court for force a state to adhere to the terms of an Indian treaty. He had a history as a general of ignoring the instructions of the President and Congress -- a history that might have been an indication of his future efforts to strengthen the powers of the presidency when he assumed that office.

In a tangent, we discussed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas Nebraska Act -- all of which illustrate the depth of the political battle over slavery prior to the Civil War.

We differed on how much we liked the book. One member of the group quit reading it after 100 pages, while others found it succeeded in conveying a deep understanding of the time and events in a popular format. One member found the discussion through the election of 1824 to be more interesting than the second half of the book, while another thought just the opposite.

It was clearly the case that a few of the people involved in the discussion had read deeply on American history in the 19th century (and indeed one had published a history in that epoch), while others have much less specialized knowledge. We referred during the discussion to previous club readings on Andrew Jackson, the Comanches, Wounded Knee, and the Pueblo Revolt.

Election Results 1824 and 1828
Source: "The Election of  1824"
Here are a couple of blog posts by one of our members on the book:

Jul 11, 2013

Everyday Life in Stalinist Russia

Last night 16 club members met to discuss Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: Soviet Russia in the 1930s by Sheila Fitzpatrick. It is a short social history of life in the Communist USSR before World War II.

"Kafka was right!" That was the way Allen opened the meeting. Certainly the everyday life of people in the USSR in the 1930s seems Kafkaesque to us today. (Of course, it was also the world parodied in Orwell's 1984, with Big Brother watching everyone and the government practicing doublespeak.)

People in Russia were hungry -- sometimes starving. Consumer goods were in short supply for all but the core group of Communist Party officials. Housing was inadequate. Survival was achieved through blat, the USSR's version of networking and influence. All of the trust relationships seemed broken as neighbors informed on one another, as did workers and even family members; secret police could arrive in the middle of the night to arrest anyone, and people could wind up in prison or the gulag in Siberia.

Much of the discussion was going beyond the scope of the book as we tried to understand how society came to be that way. Sam summed up the thrust saying that Americans too often fail to understand how history determines current conditions. Author Fitzpatrick, keeping the book short, kept the focus on everyday life in Russia, drawing on diaries and especially The Harvard Project on the Soviet Social System for a rich if anecdotal account of everyday life, did not provide the more general background that some of our club members felt that they needed.

The USSR was trying to make a technological, social and economic transition that while different in nature was comparable in magnitude to the transitions made by England and the United States in a century of Industrial Revolution. Moreover, the country was trying to do so in a decade or two. It is not surprising that the effort failed. It is surprising that it succeeded as well as it did.

Certainly one important factor in the disappointment of Stalin's program was the chaos caused in Russia by World War I, the Russian Revolution and the subsequent Civil War between the Reds and the White forces.

Stalin's government gave very high priority to preparation for war. They felt threatened in the west by Fascists led by Nazi Germany, but also by the Democratic powers led by the British Empire. There was also a threat from the east from the Japanese empire. The predictions of war in fact came true. We noted that the USSR would not have fought the Nazis as successfully as it did in World War II if its efforts to build the military and heavy industry had not been somewhat successful.

As we saw Stalin's strategy, it was to build the Army and heavy industry very quickly. The heavy industry would be built in away from the greatest threats of invasion. To build heavy industry, it would be necessary to bring many people from the largely rural population to the cities. Investment in plant and equipment would be heavy, and would be derived by withholding consumer goods from the population, Stalin and his inner circle then believed that by restructuring farming, especially through the organization of large collective farms, USSR agriculture could still feed the country. The country could have adequate consumer goods and heavy industry by achieving high production in manufacturing via central planning. All of this would be achieved under the leadership of the Communist Party, with strong management by the apartachiks, giving power to the proletariat, recognizing outstanding achievement by naming people heroes of the Soviet Union, and maintaining strong propaganda that the sacrifices would be warranted by the better world to come.

One problem was that Stalin and his inner circle never felt secure in power. To maintain that power, the government was violently coercive. Everyone was spying on everyone else, and anyone suspected of disloyalty was killed, imprisoned or removed from a position in which he could be a threat. Unfortunately, the decay of trust was also a decay of the social capital that makes society work.

The Stalinists got rid of the old aristocracy, the religious leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, the kulaks, property owners -- indeed, anyone identified with the Czarist leadership -- and barred their children and grandchildren from opportunities for advancement. Unfortunately, this put the management of the economy too often in the hands of people unprepared to manage well.

We noted that while the pre-revolutionary class structure was broken, the tacit cultural traits brought forth a new class structure. Those in power lived better than the masses. Those with connections to powerful patrons managed through blat to live better than those without such connections. And of course, the former Orthodox priests, land owners, aristocrats and their like formed an underclass.

The reorganized rural economy did not work as the Communist leadership had hoped and believed it would. Collective farms especially did not produce well. In bad years there was hunger and famine. The housing industry was unable to produce enough housing in urban areas; most urban people lived many families to a (mislabeled) apartment and fought for space.

The central government could order the production of shoes and clothing to meet the needs of the population, and indeed the factories reported that they met the set  targets. However, they lied, They produced neither the quantity nor the quality of goods that were ordered and reported as produced. In part this was because the suppliers of leather and equipment on which they depended did not arrive; fixers who used blat to find the necessary inputs were critical to the process, but on average only partially successful in their efforts.

A key problem for the USSR was poverty. In 1930 the Russian economy was more similar to that of African developing nations today than to the economies of England or Germany. Today developing countries are facing huge problems building manufacturing industries. People migrating from rural areas to the urban slums in developing countries have huge problems finding adequate housing and obtaining food and clothing. A poor country seeking to generate large amounts of investment to improve productivity in agriculture and manufacturing has very limited opportunities to find the money it needs.

We noted that there were significant achievements for the USSR in the 1930s in addition to military preparedness and development of heavy industry. For example, education was improved and there was a significant attack on illiteracy. Some sectors of society had opportunities for advancement that their ancestors had never enjoyed; indeed, the political leadership late in the life of the USSR was drawn from the children of the proletariat given great opportunities for advancement through education and increasing responsibility in the Communist party.

The group clearly seemed to have learned quite a bit about prewar everyday life in the USSR by reading the book. There was some discussion of the anecdotal nature of the evidence provided by Fitzpatrick. In that context it was noted that:

  • In spite of the lack of freedom of expression in Stalinist Russia, a great deal of information had been made available from government files and diaries as a result of Glasnost and the Harvard Project interviews with refugees after the war. (The inherent bias in interviews with refugees from the USSR was noted,)
  • There was a total dearth of social science research in the USSR during the period in question; reliable quantitative economic data, such as might be provided by household surveys, was absent.
  • The compilation, selection, organization and interpretation of this evidence was an important contribution to scholarly understanding of Russian social history.
Overall, it would seem that the participants in the discussion would recommend this book. Understanding Russian social history would seem to be important in our effort to understand modern Russian society. Indeed, there are parallels between the experiences of Russians in the turmoil of the 1930s and the experience of people living through rapid political, economic, and social change in other times and places.

Here are a couple of blog posts by one of our members, written before the discussion:

Jul 3, 2013

Thinking About Future Readings

At the last meeting of the History Book Club, we discussed a number of possible books to read in the future and agreed on selections for July and August. We then quickly added Bismarck: The Story of a Fighter by Emil Ludwig, Eden and Cedar Paul (Translator). The discussion of the book would be for September.

We had failed to notice that the book was first published in 1926. The book is also 703 pages -- much longer than our usual choices. 635 pages are text, the rest is an index. There seem to be no notes. While Barnes and Noble is distributing a reprint on paper, the book is available in a number of electronic forms free of charge.

The person who suggested this book wrote to me saying:
I had picked up the book in Barnes and Noble, but in investigating online I find that a more recent book on Bismarck, titled " Bismarck, a life" is by Jonathan Steinberg, who was professor of modern Europian history at the University of Pennsylvania, received a good New York Times review, is easily available and about the same length. Emil Ludwig died in 1948; it is not clear to me why Barnes and Noble had it rather than the Steinberg in their biography section. I suggest we revisit the September selection at the next meeting. I  apologize for my making a hasty 
The Steirberg biography is 582 pages and was published in 2011, A second member wrote that she is currently reading the Steinberg biography and recommends it. A third member mentioned that Bookfinder allows users to search online used book providers and obtain books at lower prices, especially useful for older books.

Answer the following poll to express your preference.  (Click on the red x in the upper left hand corner if an add appears on the questionnaire.)

What Do You Want to Read Next

Please vote on your preference for a topic for the next book we choose. You can see some typical books for each category on this page of our History Book Club website. (Click on the red x in the upper left hand corner if an add appears on the questionnaire.)

Jun 13, 2013

A Biography of Henry A. Wallace

Last night more than a dozen members met to discuss American Dreamer: The Life of Henry A. Wallace by John C. Culver and John Hyde.

We began the meeting by questioning some of the rules which we had made for ourselves. We have in the past limited the books we read to some 300 pages in length, but American Dreamer was more than 500 pages and we felt it worth reading at that length. It was suggested that many good books that greatly exceeded our limit could be divided into two roughly equal sections to be read and discussed over two months.

We have also limited our readings to paperback books, but there are good books available only in hardback (and ebook format) that are as affordable as paperback books. Perhaps hardback and longer books might be brought up for consideration, with the final decision based on the individual book and taken by the people present.

The discussion of Henry Wallace began with a brief summary of his career for those who had not read the book:

  • As Secretary of Agriculture for the first two terms of the FDR administration he oversaw the transformation of the government's role in American agriculture. During the Depression the government played a key role in saving American farmers from the worst aspects of the Depression. Many of the programs have continued until today.
  • He served as Vice President in FDR's third term, making an important contribution to war mobilization.
  • He served as Secretary of Commerce in FDR's forth term, until fired by President Truman.
  • He was the point man for FDR's cabinet on the development of the atom bomb, coordinating with the scientists who led the program.
  • He ran for President in 1948 as candidate for the Progressive Party, in a campaign that failed badly/
  • He was a founder of Pioneer hi-bred, and his family eventually sold their interest in the firm for more than a billion dollars.
  • He deserves substantial credit of the introduction of hybrid corn which greatly increased corn production and came to dominate corn production in American farms. He also deserves credit for the development of improved varieties of chickens that eventually came to dominate world egg production.
  • He was a college graduate at a time when that was rare. he was one of the first people to receive a masters degree in agricultural economics, and his work in agricultural economics was influential nationally and internationally.
  • He was an influential editor of farming publications.
  • He was the scion of an important Mid Western family. His father before him had been Secretary of Agriculture. The family owned an influential agricultural periodical.
As the list above shows, he was an exceptionally talented man in many ways. He had great strength as an expert on agriculture and agricultural economics. He apparently was a strong manager, able to bring order to the USDA as it grew from 40,000 to more than 140,000 staff members. 

On the other hand, he seemed less talented in foreign affairs, and appeared to be taken in by Russian propaganda; he was perhaps too supportive of communists and leftists on the staff of the government agencies he led. 

A Republican from a Republican family, he came to oppose the Hoover administration and their farm policies, and was an important supporter of FDR in 1932 and 1936 in the Mid Western farm states. While that service to FDR earned him a cabinet appointment, he seemed to lack many of the skills needed for a successful politician. He was later elected Vice President due to the Roosevelt support. One of our members who had actually seen a Wallace stump speech had been unimpressed by the performance; we supposed he was not good at "working a room". Certainly by the time he ran for president he was hurt by his support for racial equality, his international views which were widely perceived as too liberal, his religious views which many saw as flaky, and his campaign that was poorly conducted. In light of these weaknesses, we wondered that he was allowed such freedom to deliver major speeches without White House clearance. 

Last month we discussed The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945 by Michael Beschloss. Again, this month we commented on the petty backbiting within FDR's cabinet. We noted that Roosevelt was quite sick in 1944 and until he died in 1944; diarists noted his physical and mental deterioration. We wondered in that context about his choice of Truman rather than Wallace for Vice President. Was Wallace too liberal? Were there skeletons in his closet that might emerge? Was FDR influenced by conservatives in his circle to choose more conservative Truman. (We concluded Truman came to be a better president than might have seemed likely to his contemporaries in 1944.) Perhaps it was simply that FDR had a better chance of winning the election with Truman than with Wallace as his running mate.

We speculated on Wallace's personality. One of our members disliked him for his treatment of his wife. He seldom consulted her opinion, making decisions alone that greatly affected her. (Some thought that was not untypical of the time.) One of our members who had lived for years in Iowa thought that he shared many of the characteristics of people she had known there. He was also seen as analytically inclined, deeply involved in a life of the mind, and perhaps less people oriented as a result. He was deeply attached to actual farming, and indeed farmed a victory garden as Vice President, buying and actually running a farm after he retired from government. Perhaps some of these characteristics as much as his outspoken liberalism made him unattractive as a candidate to the professional polls.

Henry Wallace knew a lot, but perhaps he didn't know what he didn't know. Perhaps he ventured too far into areas in which he was not expert.

It was commented that it is difficult now to fully identify with the thinking of the time. The people who had lived through two world wars, the Spanish flu epidemic, and the Great Depression --people who had been deeply shocked by the Holocaust, bombing of civilian populations, and the atom bomb -- were deeply concerned to avoid World War III. Europe was in ruins, threatened by famine. People lived in a world in which the great empires (British, French, Dutch, Belgian) had been deeply wounded and were dying, but were not yet dead. The USSR had taken over a broad swath of Europe, leftest movements were on the rise in Western Europe, and the Communists were soon to win the Civil War in China.

Today, more than half a century after the decisions made during and immediately after World War II, we know how things turned out. We tend to assume that the ways not chosen were not only not worthy of choice but not worthy of consideration. The people of the time did not have those advantages, and were dealing with decisions critical for the future of the world in a time of great uncertainty. Their's was a dilemma we can hardly fathom.

All who had read the book thought it was very good. The authors combined deep insight into their subject with considerable ability to tell the story well. This ranks as one of our best reads!

Here are a couple of posts written by one of our members on the book. (May 8. June 13)

May 9, 2013

Beschloss' The Conquerors: White House Decision Making on the Holocaust and Conquered Germany

Last night 14 members of the History Book Club met at Barnes and Noble Montrose Crossing to discuss The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945 by Michael Beschloss. How appropriate that the discussion took place on May 8th, Victory Day, the anniversary of the Nazi surrender to the USSR ending World War II.

Beschloss has focused this relatively short book on a narrow set of events, especially those relevant to the U.S. policy with respect to the Holocaust and with respect to treatment of Germany when conquered. To properly reflect the interactions of most interest to Beschloss in this book, club members suggested that the title and subtitle should have focused on Henry Morganthau Jr (the Secretary of the Treasury) and Roosevelt -- the principle protagonists in the book. There is a large supporting cast in the text, including Truman, Churchill, Stalin, Secretary of State Hull, and Secretary of War Stimson.

One theme of the meeting was that it was important to have an understanding of the broader situation just before, during and shortly after World War II to properly understand the content of this book. It is now hard to identify with the hardships Americans suffered in the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, and World War II. But those would seem good times compared to the suffering in England; the human suffering in Germany and Russia was much greater. We recalled that some movies made after the war showed the devastation it caused (e.g. The Third Man, Judgement at Nuremberg, Open City). Our recent reading of Embracing Defeat on the aftermath of the war in Japan was mentioned.

U.S. Army Photo: U.S. Army tanks entering Nuremberg
It was also important to understand the complexity of the situation that decision makers in Washington were facing. Treasury Secretary Morganthau had been faced with reconciling Keynesian stimulus policies with conservative federal budgetary theory during the New Deal; he had had to manage the lend lease financing; his Department had to finance World War II through the sale of War Bonds; he had to lead the Treasury in the negotiations leading to the Bretton Woods system regulating global finance after the war and the creation of the International Finance Corporation. The most secular of Jews, of German Jewish ancestry, he had to deal with the leaders of the American Jewish community who saw him as their natural representative in the Roosevelt cabinet, as well as with his increasing knowledge of the horrors of the Holocaust, and with the prejudice against him by anti-Semites in the cabinet and in the country.

President Roosevelt was simultaneously"
  • Holding together the Democratic Party which in his day included southern Conservatives, big city machines and bosses, and a range of liberals from Wilsonian Progressives to American Communists
  • Leading the Democratic Party in elections that had to be won in order to assure the support and continuation of his policies
  • Convincing the public first to prepare for war and then to fight the war, a task made difficult by isolationism, anti-war sentiment, racism, and ethnic divisions within the country
  • Providing leadership for the federal bureaucracy and the Congress to obtain and implement the legislation he needed
  • As commander in chief, leading the military in the conduct of the most complex war in history
  • Creating and leading an alliance of the most diverse and fractious nations in the conduct of the war.
Other government leaders were also dealing with hugely complex and unprecedented problems and situations.

The book in its narrow focus on a couple of the issues faced by these decision makers ran the risk of making its seem smaller and more petty than they really were.

We noted that great presidents of the United States -- Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt -- handled all of these challenges at least adequately, and some of them brilliantly.

Still some of us found Roosevelt's unwillingness to share results of the summit meetings with his cabinet to be shocking, especially since those cabinet members then had their Departmental staffs prepare to implement policies that differed significantly from those which Roosevelt chose. The failure to provide Vice President Truman with information on international agreements, government programs, and FDR's own thinking proved especially dangerous for the country when Roosevelt died and Truman was thrust into the presidency. The degree to which Roosevelt's abilities were deteriorating in the last year of his life, when his responsibilities were huge, was very unsettling.

There was some discussion of our own difficulty in seeing the uncertainty that decision makers felt at the time. We have the benefit of hindsight -- of decades of illumination from the opening of Soviet, English, and American archives, and of knowing how the options that were accepted ultimately worked out. The people with the responsibilities at the time really could not know how their decisions would work out, and indeed, we can not really know whether alternative decisions would have been better than those actually made at the time.

Former prisoners of the "little camp" in Buchenwald. (Photo courtesy USHMM)
Should the U.S. air force have bombed railroads leading to the concentration camps and the gas chambers, or was it better to continue focusing all the air power on ending the war quickly? Why didn't U.S. troops push to enter Berlin before the Russians, and would subsequent events have been better if they had? Was the lack of concern for the victims of the Holocaust simply wrong; was it simply insensitivity to civilian deaths (e.g. Stalin and the kulaks and pograms, Americans and Hiroshima and Nagasaki)?

We recognized the anti-Semitism in America in the 1040s, but were surprised by its casual expression in the highest levels of the government. We understood the book's argument that people within the State Department and War Department bureaucracy were blocking offers of sanctuary to European Jews. Still we recognized that hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved had the U.S. government acted with proper compassion; the failure to bring Jews refugees to our shores stands as a stain on the Roosevelt administration and on the United States.

We wondered why the French had been granted a zone of occupation in occupied Germany and so great a role in the post war global government. (Perhaps we fail to consider the importance of the French empire in Africa, French Indochina, and elsewhere.) While Americans (especially Wilsonian liberals imbued with support for self determination) opposed the imperial aspirations of allies, Churchill very much wanted a restoration of British imperial power, and the Soviets were establishing imperial control over what would become the Warsaw Pact nations.

We discussed the Soviet demand for reparations from the Germans, recognizing how greatly Russian industrial infrastructure had been destroyed by the German invasion. On the other hand, the Soviets also took a great deal from other countries over which they had gained control in the war, including Manchuria as well as central and eastern Europe. So too we discussed the Marshall plan and the provision of emergency aid to European allies after the war, and the decision of Stalin to forego U.S. humanitarian relief rather than accept the strings that would have been attached.

Opinion of the book was very divided: some really disliked it, others liked it very much. It was seen as relatively easy to read. There was wide agreement that the book would have benefited from stronger edition; it was commented that publishing houses are now less likely than in the past to provide that service for books, authors and readers. Michael Beschloss had obviously done a great deal of research in the preparation of the book, and it benefited from his access to foreign archives. The focus fit with his expertise as a historian of the American presidency. However, at least one member commented that he might have better integrated the individual facts he found into the narrative. A couple of members mentioned that a stronger introductory chapter might have helped, especially had it identified the thesis he was trying to advance in the rest of the book. Others seemed more content with the structure.