Jun 30, 2014

Possible Books for September, 2014

One of the possibilities that came out of the last book club meeting was to read a book on World War I in October or November, given that so many good books on the beginning of the war are available, but many of them are long. Please take a look again at the discussion of those books.

Someone suggested a biography of Catherine the Great. Given her role in the creation of the "modern" Russian state, this seems an interesting idea. 

Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie (4.4 stars, this edition 2012, 574 pages) Here is a review.
The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Peter the Great, Nicholas and Alexandra, and The Romanovs returns with another masterpiece of narrative biography, the extraordinary story of an obscure German princess who became one of the most remarkable, powerful, and captivating women in history. Born into a minor noble family, Catherine transformed herself into empress of Russia by sheer determination. For thirty-four years, the government, foreign policy, cultural development, and welfare of the Russian people were in her hands. She dealt with domestic rebellion, foreign wars, and the tidal wave of political change and violence churned up by the French Revolution. Catherine’s family, friends, ministers, generals, lovers, and enemies—all are here, vividly brought to life. History offers few stories richer than that of Catherine the Great. In this book, an eternally fascinating woman is returned to life.
Someone suggested this book:

This original, deeply researched history shows the transcontinentals to be pivotal actors in the making of modern America. But the triumphal myths of the golden spike, robber barons larger than life, and an innovative capitalism all die here. Instead we have a new vision of the Gilded Age, often darkly funny, that shows history to be rooted in failure as well as success. 8 pages of illustrations
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is being celebrated this year, and it was suggested that we might read a relevant book.

An Idea Whose Time Has Come: Two Presidents, Two Parties, and the Battle for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by Todd S. Purdum (4.5 stars, 2014, 340 pages of text). The book is available in hardback and kindle, but the paperback will not be published until 2015. Here is a review.
A top Washington journalist recounts the dramatic political battle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that created modern America, on the fiftieth anniversary of its passage
It was a turbulent time in America—a time of sit-ins, freedom rides, a March on Washington and a governor standing in the schoolhouse door—when John F. Kennedy sent Congress a bill to bar racial discrimination in employment, education, and public accommodations. Countless civil rights measures had died on Capitol Hill in the past. But this one was different because, as one influential senator put it, it was “an idea whose time has come.”
In a powerful narrative layered with revealing detail, Todd S. Purdum tells the story of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, recreating the legislative maneuvering and the larger-than-life characters who made its passage possible. From the Kennedy brothers to Lyndon Johnson, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Hubert Humphrey and Everett Dirksen, Purdum shows how these all-too-human figures managed, in just over a year, to create a bill that prompted the longest filibuster in the history of the U.S. Senate yet was ultimately adopted with overwhelming bipartisan support. He evokes the high purpose and low dealings that marked the creation of this monumental law, drawing on extensive archival research and dozens of new interviews that bring to life this signal achievement in American history.
Often hailed as the most important law of the past century, the Civil Rights Act stands as a lesson for our own troubled times about what is possible when patience, bipartisanship, and decency rule the day.
It was suggested that we might read a biography of Metternich. There is a famous one, out of print but available used at affordable prices.

A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822 by Henry A. Kissinger (4.1 stars, 1973, 354 pages) Here is the Kirkus review.
The Napoleonic Wars were followed by an almost unprecedented century of political stability. A World Restored analyses the alliances formed and treaties signed by the world's leaders during the years 1812 to 1822, focussing on the personalities of the two main negotiators: Viscount Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, and Prince von Metternich, his Austrian counterpart. Henry Kissinger explains how the turbulent relationship between these two men, the differing concerns of their respective countries and the changing nature of diplomacy all influenced the final shape of the peace. Originally published in 1957.
In 2009 we read Rites of Peace: The Fall of Napoleon and the Congress of Vienna by Adam Zamoyski which covered some of the same material.

It occurs to me that we have not read anything about U.S. foreign policy per se. A relatively new book seems interesting:

The Blood Telegram by Gary J. Bass (4.5 stars, 2014, 346 pages of text) Here is a review.
This magnificent history provides the first full account of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s secret support for Pakistan in 1971 as it committed shocking atrocities in Bangladesh—which led to war between India and Pakistan, shaped the fate of Asia, and left major strategic consequences for the world today.
Drawing on previously unheard White House tapes, recently declassified documents, and his own extensive investigative reporting, Gary Bass uncovers an astonishing unknown story of superpower brinkmanship, war, scandal, and conscience. Revelatory, authoritative, and compulsively readable, The Blood Telegram is a thrilling chronicle of a pivotal chapter in American foreign policy.
Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in General Nonfiction; Winner of the Lionel Gelber Prize for Best Foreign Affairs Book; One of the Best Books of the Year at * The Economist * Financial Times * The New Republic * The Washington Post * Kirkus Reviews * A New York Times Notable Book
This also seems an interesting book, dealing with a country we have not read about but which has some importance in the world.

Indonesia, Etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation by Elizabeth Pisani (unrated, 2013, 380 pages of text) Here is a review.
Indonesia "is the world’s fourth most populous nation and third most populous democracy. With 210 million citizens who identify as Muslim, Indonesia is also the country with the largest number of Muslims. The Indonesian capital, Jakarta, tweets more than any other city on earth, and around 64 million Indonesians (more than the population of the United Kingdom) use Facebook. It is among the world’s largest suppliers of thermal coal, palm oil, copper, tin, nickel, gold, rubber, coconuts, rice, and coffee." Los Angeles Review of Books
Previously I thought we might want to read about history related to current hot spots, especially Poland (for its relevance to the Ukrainian crisis) or Syria. I identified several relevant books. The best of these seem to be:

Poland: A History by Adam Zamoyski  (4.3 stars, 2012, 426 pages) Here is a review.
As Zamoyski set out to update The Polish Way, his bestselling first history of Poland, he realized the task required not so much re-writing as re-thinking the known facts well as the assumptions of the past. The events of the last twenty years and the growth of the independent Polish state allowed him to look at Poland's past with a fresh eye. Tracing Poland's complex development from the Middle Ages to present day, Zamoyski examines the country's political, economic, and military struggles, as well as its culture, art, and richly varied society through the ages, bringing the major events and characters in Poland's history to life.
Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East by Patrick Seale (3.9 stars, 1990, 495 pages of text) A review is here.
“This is a book in the finest tradition of investigative scholarship. The research is awesome. . . . Seale’s great strength is his ability to explain the confusing kaleidoscopic nature of Middle Eastern diplomacy. He understands the game being played and also knows the players. . . . [An] impressive book.”—Los Angeles Times Book Review
And a late addition, by one of my favorite authors:

Beyond the Hundredth Meridian: John Wesley Powell and the Second Opening of the West by Wallace Stegner (4.5 stars, 1953 reprinted edition 1992, 367 pages of text) Here is the Kirkus review.
In this book Wallace Stegner recounts the sucesses and frustrations of John Wesley Powell, the distinguished ethnologist and geologist who explored the Colorado River, the Grand Canyon, and the homeland of Indian tribes of the American Southwest. A prophet without honor who had a profound understanding of the American West, Powell warned long ago of the dangers economic exploitation would pose to the West and spent a good deal of his life overcoming Washington politics in getting his message across. Only now, we may recognize just how accurate a prophet he was.
"This book goes far beyond biography, into the nature and soul of the American West. It is Stegner at his best, assaying an entire era of our history, packing his pages with insights as shrewd as his prose." —Ivan Doig 
"Stegner’s book now ranks as one of the most influential books ever written about the West, and more than any other work its publication explains Powell’s resurrection to sainthood after World War Two." -- Donald Worster

Jun 13, 2014

The War of 1812

It was a dark and stormy night, Wednesday night last. The tornado watch had been withdrawn, but the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria forces were advancing in Iraq. Still a dozen members of the club met in the Kensington Row Bookshop. With perhaps more than the usual diversions into other subjects, we had a lively discussion of The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies by Alan Taylor. One of the members brought a copy of 1812: The War That Forged a Nation by Walter R. Borneman which she had read, and commented from that reading.

Alan Taylor's book focuses on the war along the U.S.-Canadian border (as it existed in 1812), most notably Lakes Ontario and Erie, the areas around Detroit and Niagara, and the upper St. Lawrence River Valley.

The War of 1812 doesn't seem doesn't seem to be very important in to most Americans as they think of the country's history (it is perhaps more important in Canadian thought). When we Yanks think of the war at all, we are likely to do so in terms of the national anthem (written while the British were unsuccessfully assaulting Baltimore), Dolly Madison and the burning of the White House (in British retaliation for the American burning of York in Canada), and Jackson's victory in the Battle of New Orleans (which occurred after the peace treaty had been negotiated). The northern campaign is less understood, but was more important than any of these.

The war took place while the British and French were heavily engaged in the final stage of the Napoleonic Wars. Indeed, the British had far more invested in the war against France than that against the United States, while the United States was disappointed in any hope it had of help from France in North America.

A Nation Defining War

The discussion began with a comment that the United States of America had not been consolidated as a nation state in 1812. Federalists and Republicans were seriously divided (and the Hartford Convention orientation toward disunion led to the fall of the Federalists). Northern shipping and manufacturing interests tended to oppose the war while southern plantation agricultural interests tended to favor it; indeed, the divisions between north and south, that would lead to a civil war in less than 50 years were visible. Some Americans thought that all or part of the Canadian colonies of Great Britain should be incorporated into the United States.

Some, especially in Upper Canada and England, thought that the United States would fail, and the former colonies could be returned to the British empire. Many in Europe and Canada thought that countries should be run by monarchies and aristocracies, and that democratic republics were bound to fail. Indeed, Lincoln famously said in 1863 that the United States was then (a half century after the War of 1812) engaged in a civil war to determine whether this nation or any nation so conceived could long endure. The War of 1812 has  been described as the second war of independence, ending all thought that the United States could be brought back within the British empire.

The treaty ending the War of 1812 fixed a long part of the border that to this day separates the United States and Canada. Moreover, authors Taylor and Borneman suggest, that the war brought Americans more together as a single people, helping in the formation of the United States as a modern nation state.

The Incompetence of the U.S. Government in 1812

The members of the club expressed surprise at how incompetent the government of the United States in 1812 appears in retrospect. While George Washington and the Federalists had thought to have a national government that could collect enough taxes in order to support a standing professional army and navy, the Republicans had been in power since Thomas Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1802. Their policy was to minimize the tax burden, reduce the size of the army and navy and depend on militias for defense. This Republican policy proved disastrous.

The governor of Massachusetts refused to call out that state's militia (which had been the most effective in the Revolutionary War. The southern states refused to send militias to the north where the fighting was taking place (perhaps keeping them at home to keeps slaves in check and protect against any possible British attacks in the south). While the western militias from Ohio and Tennessee fought well (for example, under Harrison at Tippecanoe and under Jackson at New Orleans), Detroit was surrendered without a shot being fired by the militia, and militias panicked in other engagements. U.S. state militias usually proved unreliable fighting Indians or fighting professional British troops.

President Madison did not order his forces in the north concentrated for a single major thrust, but rather divided them, sending one force to Detroit to attack Upper Canada from the West, one force to the Niagara River area between the lakes, and one force to the east; consequently none of the three could bring overwhelming force against the enemy. He appointed politicians to lead forces who had neither training nor experience and who often performed dismally.

American soldiers were ill equipped. The supply lines were long and supplies seldom arrived where they were needed. Corruption was rampant. Camps were unhygienic swamps, and illness a far more debilitating and lethal enemy of the American troops than the British or Canadians.

Perhaps the best strategy for the United States would have been to control the St. Lawrence River, blocking supplies to Upper Canada. Without supplies needed by the military and the settlers, Upper Canada might well have fallen quickly to the U.S. forces. However, David Parish, opposed that strategy. He was a very wealthy immigrant to the United States who had acquired 200,000 acres of land on the U.S. side of the valley and was renting to settlers. Those settlers were conducting a vibrant trade with Canada during the war, selling much needed foods to Canadian colonials and British soldiers alike, and even cannon balls to the enemy. Parish did not want military campaigns to interfere with their business nor his income. As the war progressed, the U.S. government had increasing difficulty financing it, and Parish agreed to make (what for the time was) a major investment in U.S. Government bonds, but only on the condition that President Madison agreed not to prosecute the war in the St. Lawrence Valley. Thus U.S. military strategy was in part determined by the financial interests of people trading with the enemy because of the financial weakness of the U.S. federal government.

Land Battles of the War of 1812 on the U.S.-Canadian Border

The conduct of the war on water was perhaps more successful for the United States. Club members wondered how the Americans had managed to build fleets on Lakes Eire and Ontaria, and even gain naval superiority over Lake Erie; it was suggested that the wooden ships of the lake fleets may have been relatively simple, and that there were many skilled ship builders on the Atlantic coast who might have been employed. There were successful engagements of American frigates against British frigates at sea, shocking the English who depended on naval superiority.

We also noted the relative importance of privateers in causing economic damage on both sides. More than 3,000 commercial ships were taken during the war, more than 1,500 by American privateers. A member of the club commented that there was profit in owning and operating a ship as a privateer.

The Causes of the War

One member asked for a discussion of the causes of the war. Why did the United States declare war on Great Britain in 1812?
  • An important cause was the impressment of sailors from American ships. The British in desperate need of sailors for their navy blockaded American ports, stopped American ships and impressed seamen. They ignored citizenship in the United States and papers that should have made individuals immune to such impressment, maintaining that anyone born in the British Empire could be pressed into service. It was noted that there was little chance that a British ship at sea could actually prove that someone was born in the British empire.
  • We believed that at least some of the leaders in the United States thought that territory could be conquered in Canada and added to the United States -- part of what would become known as Manifest Destiny.
  • The British had been interfering with American commerce with continental Europe.
  • (We did not mention the issue of "honor" of the nation, which some Americans of the time felt was being undermined by the British. Nor did we mention the British continued occupation of forts that were to be abandoned by the treaty ending the Revolutionary War.)
  • British military alliance with and support for Indian tribes, the raiding of settlers by Indian tribes, and the desire of U.S. settlers west of the Appalachian Mountains to remove the threats from Indians.
With regard to this last item, we noted the efforts of Tecumseh and his brother to forge an alliance of tribes over a large area to resist the incursions of the whites. We also noted that the Iroquois had once dominated an area that reached from Canada to the Carolinas. By the beginning of the 19th century, Iroquois tribal leaders had become quite sophisticated in the ways of Europeans and white Americans, but had also lost a great deal of the area that had been under their control.

We went back to the resolution of the French and Indian War (Seven Year War) which resulted in the French ceding all of the empire's North American territory. Territory to the east of the Mississippi went to the British and the Louisiana territory to Spain. The British had in the aftermath of that war prohibited white settlement to the west of the Appalachians, seeking to preserve that land for the Indians. Napoleon had installed his brother over Spain, and took possession of Louisiana. With the loss of Haiti, and in grave need of money, he began negotiations with the United States. While the U.S. had begun that negotiation in order to achieve trading rights from New Orleans, given the opportunity the negotiators agreed to pay $15 million to France in the Louisiana Purchase. U.S. funding for France did not please the British.

Ultimately, there was U.S. pressure to settle west from the original eastern colonies. Settlement was already taking place east of the Mississippi and the Louisiana territory was there to be settled. An Indian alliance to stop the economic exploitation of those lands was not to be tolerated. American victories over the Indians in the War of 1812 effectively ended the possibility of Indian tribal union against U.S. settlements between the Mississippi and the Appalachians.


We wondered about Madison's government and how it could make what seems now so foolish a decision as to declare war on the British empire in 1812. Did that government not realize how weak the U.S. army and navy were, how incompetent they would be against the experienced forces of the British empire in the final stages of winning the Napoleonic wars? Did they not realize how costly the war would be, and how poorly prepared to finance a war the government would prove to be? While the British were quite generous in the peace terms, the U.S. government could not have depended on that generosity when declaring war.

We noted that governments many times before and since had made similarly bad decisions about going to war. Perhaps it was the news of the event in Iraq, but we then went off on a tangent to discuss the Bush administration's decisions with regard to the Iraq war. "People who fail to study history are likely to repeat historical mistakes, and too few of us seem to study history."

We also wondered what would have happened had things gone differently. What would it be like now in the lower 48 had we stayed within the British empire? (Someone suggested "the hell that is Canada" as a metaphor.) Perhaps something along the lines of Canada, Australia, or New Zealand might not have been that bad.

The discussion was lively. It seemed to be strengthened by the depth of reading that some of the members had done on American history in the late 18th and early 19th century. The Kensington Row Bookshop continues to be a good host for these meetings, providing adequate space in a book filled environment with a kind hostess. 

Jun 4, 2014

Possible Books for the August 2014 Meeting

We have been reading books on the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and interest has been expressed in reading a book on the origin of World War I, thus completing the set of war commemorations currently being celebrated nationwide. There are three possible books on the causes of the war that might be considered, although each is so long as to suggest it be read over a two month period:

President Obama is currently in Poland and it was suggested in our last meeting that we read a book on Poland's history. Here are three possibilities:
Syria is also in the news, and we might consider reading a book on the recent history of that country:
Finally, our regular reading schedule would have us reading a book on economic history. Several have been listed on the club websiteCapital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty (2014, 4 stars, 696 pages) has been widely reviewed and is an exceptional best seller for a book on economics.