The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

The short paper by James Watson and Francis Crick establishing the helical structure of the DNA molecule was published in the science journal, Nature, on April 25, 1953. The blurb of this book describes it as the scientific breakthrough of the 20th century. Quite probably, although it was a busy century – the discovery of antibiotics was quite important, too, not to mention the atom bomb.

James Watson and Francis Crick with their DNA model at the Cavendish Laboratories in 1953

Anyway, what makes this first-person account of the events leading up to the discovery such fun is Watson’s prose style and mentality. He is fearless. He takes no prisoners. He is brutally honest about his own shortcomings and everyone else’s and, in doing so, sheds extraordinarily candid light on how science is actually done. He tells us that foreign conferences where nobody speaks English are often pointless. Many scientists are just plain stupid. Some colleagues are useless, some make vital contributions at just the right moment.

Watson has no hesitation in telling us that, when he arrived in Cambridge in 1951, aged just 23, he was unqualified in almost every way – although he had a degree from the University of Chicago, he had done his best to avoid learning any physics or chemistry, and as a graduate student at Indiana he had also avoided learning any chemistry. In fact the book keeps referring to his astonishing ignorance of almost all the key aspects of the field he was meant to be studying.

The one thing he did have was a determination to solve the problem which had been becoming ever-more prominent in the world of biology, what is a gene? Watson says he was inspired by Erwin Schrödinger’s 1946 book, What Is Life? which pointed out that ‘genes’ were the key component of living cells and that, to understand what life is, we must understand what genes are and how they work. The bacteriologist O.T. Avery had already shown that hereditary traits were passed from one bacterium to another by purified DNA molecules, so this much was common knowledge in the scientific community.

DNA was probably the agent of hereditary traits, but what did it look like and how did it work?

Our hero gets a U.S. government research grant to go to Copenhagen to study with biochemist Herman Kalckar, his PhD supervisor Salvador Luria hoping the Dane would teach him something but… no. Watson’s interest wasn’t sparked, partly because Kalckar was working on the structure of nucleotides, which young Jim didn’t think were immediately relevant to his quest, also because Herman was hard to understand –

At times I stood about nervously while Herman went through the motions of a biochemist, and on several days I even understood what he said. (p.34)

A situation compounded when Herman began to undergo a painful divorce and his mind wandered from his work altogether.

It was a chance encounter at a conference in Naples that motivated Watson to seek out the conducive-sounding environment of Cambridge (despite the reluctance of his funding authorities back in the States to let him go so easily). John Kendrew, the British biochemist and crystallographer, at that point studying the structure of myoglobin, helped smooth his passage to the fens.

Head of the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge where Watson now found himself was Sir Lawrence Bragg, Nobel Prize winner and one of the founders of crystallography. The unit collecting X-ray diffraction photographs of haemoglobin was headed up by the Austrian Max Perutz, and included Francis Crick, at this stage (in 1951) 35-years-old and definitely an acquired taste. Indeed the famous opening sentence of the book is:

I have never seen Francis Crick in a modest mood.

followed by the observation that:

he talked louder and faster than anybody else, and when he laughed, his location within the Cavendish was obvious.

So he had found a home of sorts and, in Francis Crick, a motormouth accomplice who was also obsessed by DNA – but there were two problems.

  1. The powers that be didn’t like Crick, who was constantly getting into trouble and nearly got thrown out when he accused the head of the lab, Bragg, of stealing one of his ideas in a research paper.
  2. Most of the work on the crystallography of DNA was being done at King’s College, London, where Maurice Wilkins had patiently been acquiring X-rays of the molecule for nearly ten years.

There was a sub-problem here which was that Wilkins was being forced to work alongside Rosalind Franklin, an expert in X-ray crystallography, who was an independent-minded 31-year-old woman (b.1920) and under the impression that she had been invited in to lead the NA project. The very young Watson and the not-very-securely-based Crick both felt daunted at having to ask to borrow and interpret Wilkins’s material, not least because he himself would have to extract it from the sometimes obstreperous Franklin.

And in fact there was a third big problem, which was that Linus Pauling, probably the world’s leading chemist and based at Cal Tech in the States, was himself becoming interested in the structure of DNA and the possibility that it was the basis of the much-vaunted hereditary material.

Pauling’s twinkling eyes and dramatic flair when making presentations is vividly described (pp.37-8). Along the same lines, Watson later gives a deliberately comical account of how he is scoffed and ignored by the eminent biochemist Erwin Chargaff after making some (typically) elementary mistakes in basic chemical bonding.

It is fascinating to read the insights scattered throughout the book about the relative reputations of the different areas of science – physics, biology, biochemistry, crystallography and so on. Typical comments are:

  • ‘the witchcraft-like techniques of the biochemist’, p.63
  • ‘In England, if not everywhere, most botanists and zoologists were a muddled lot.’ p.63

In a typical anecdote, after attending a lecture in London given by Franklin about her work, Watson goes for a Chinese meal in Soho with Maurice Wilkins who is worried that he made a mistake moving into biology, compared to the exciting and well-funded world of physics.

The physics of the time was dominated by the aftershock of the massive wartime atom bomb project, and with ongoing work to develop both the H-bomb and peacetime projects for nuclear power.

During the war Wilkins had helped to develop improved radar screens at Birmingham, then worked on isotope separation at the Manhattan Project at the University of California, Berkeley. Now he was stuck in a dingy lab in King’s College arguing with Franklin almost every day about who should use the best samples of DNA and the X-ray equipment and so on. (Later on, Watson tells us Wilkins’ and Franklin’s relationship deteriorated so badly that he (Watson) was worried about lending the London team the Cambridge team’s wire models in case Franklin strangled Wilkins with them. At one point, when Watson walks in on Franklin conducting an experiment, she becomes so angry at him he is scared she’s going to attack him. Wilkins confirms there have been occasions when he has run away in fear of her assaulting him.)

It’s in this respect – the insights into the way the lives of scientists are as plagued by uncertainty, professional rivalry, and doubts about whether they’re in the right job, or researching the right subject, gnawing envy of more glamorous, better-funded labs and so on – that the book bursts with insight and human interest.

Deoxyribonucleic acid

By about page 50 Watson has painted vivid thumbnail portraits of all the players involved in the story, the state of contemporary scientific knowledge, and the way different groups or individuals (Wilkins, Franklin, Pauling, Crick and various crystallographer associates at the Cavendish) are all throwing around ideas and speculations about the structure of DNA, on bus trips, in their freezing cold digs, or over gooseberry pie at their local pub, the Eagle in Cambridge (p.75).

For the outsider, I think the real revelation is learning how very small the final achievement of Crick and Watson seems. Avery had shown that DNA was the molecule of heredity. Chergaff had shown it contained equal parts of the four bases. Wilkins and Franklin had produced X-ray photos which strongly hinted at the structure and the famous photo 51 from their lab put it almost beyond doubt that DNA had a helix structure. Pauling, in America, had worked out the helical structure of other long proteins and had now began to speculate about DNA (although Watson conveys his and Crick’s immense relief that Pauling’s paper on the subject, published in early 1953, betrayed some surprisingly elementary mistakes in its chemistry.) But the clock was definitely ticking very loudly, rivals were closing in on the answer, and the pages leading up to the breakthrough are genuinely gripping.

In other words, the final deduction of the double helix structure doesn’t come out of the blue; the precise opposite; from Watson’s account it seems like it would have only been a matter of time before one or other of these groups had stumbled across the correct structure.

But it is very exciting when Watson comes into work one day, clears all the clutter from his desk and starts playing around with pretty basic cardboard cutouts of the four molecules which, by now, had become strongly associated with DNA, adenine and guanine, cytosine and thymine.

Suddenly, in a flash, he sees how they assemble the molecules naturally arrange themselves into pairs linked by hydrogen bonds – adenine with thymine and cytosine with guanine.

For a long time they’d been thinking the helix had one strand at the core and that the bases stuck out from it, like quills on a porcupine. Now, in a flash, Watson realises that the the base pairs, which join together so naturally, form a kind of zip, and the bands of sugar-phosphates holding the thing together run along the outside – creating a double helix shape.

The structure of the DNA double helix. The atoms in the structure are colour-coded by element and the detailed structures of two base pairs are shown in the bottom right. (Source: Wikipedia)

Conclusion

I am not qualified to summarise the impact of the discovery of DNA has had on the world. Maybe it would take books to do so adequately. I’ll quote the book’s blurb:

By elucidating the structure of DNA, the molecule underlying all life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionised biochemistry. At the time, Watson was only 24. His uncompromisingly honest account of those heady days lifts the lid on the real world of great scientists, with their very human faults and foibles, their petty rivalries and driving ambition. Above all, he captures the extraordinary excitement of their desperate efforts to beat their rivals at King’s College to the solution to one of the great enigmas of the life sciences.

The science is interesting, but has been overtaken and superseded generations ago. It’s the characters and the atmosphere of the time (the dingy English rooms with no heating, the appalling English food), the dramatic reality of scientific competition, and then the genuinely exciting pages leading up to the breakthrough which makes Watson’s book such a readable classic.

Rosalind Franklin

I marked all the places in the text where a feminist might explode with anger. Both Watson, but even more Crick, assume pretty young girls are made for their entertainment. They are referred to throughout as ‘popsies’ and Crick in particular, although married, betrays an endless interest in the pretty little secretaries and au pairs which adorn Cambridge parties.

It is through this patronising and sexist prism that the pair judged the efforts of Franklin who was, reasonably enough, a hard-working scientist not at all interested in her appearance or inclined to conform to gender stereotypes of the day. She felt marginalised and bullied at the King’s College lab, and irritated by the ignorance and superficiality of most of Watson and Crick’s ideas, untainted as they were by any genuine understanding of the difficult art of X-ray crystallography – an ignorance which Watson, to his credit, openly admits.

Eventually, Franklin found working with Wilkins so intolerable that she left to take up a position at Birkbeck College and then, tragically, discovered she had incurable cancer, although she worked right up to her death in April 1958.

Franklin has become a feminist heroine, a classic example of a woman struggling to make it in a man’s world, patronised by everyone around her. But if you forget her gender and just think of her as the scientist called Franklin, it is still a story of misunderstandings and poisonous professional relations such as I’ve encountered in numerous workplaces. Watson and Crick’s patronising tone must have exacerbated the situation, but the fundamental problem was that she was given clear written instructions that she would be in charge of the X-ray crystallography at King’s College but then discovered that Wilkins thought he had full control of the project. This was a management screw-up more than anything else.

It does seem unfair that she wasn’t cited in the Nobel Prize which was awarded to Crick, Watson and Wilkins in 1962, but then she had died in 1958, and the Swedish Academy had a simple rule of not awarding the prize to dead people.

Still, it’s not like her name has disappeared from the annals of history. Quite the reverse:

Impressive list, don’t you think?

And anyone who hasn’t read the book might be easily persuaded that she was an unjustly victimised, patronised and ignored figure. But just to set the record straight, Watson chooses to end the entire book not with swank about his and Crick’s later careers, but with a tribute to Franklin’s character and scientific achievement.

In 1958, Rosalind Franklin died at the early age of thirty-seven. Since my initial impressions of her, both scientific and personal (as recorded in the early pages of this book), were often wrong, I want to say something here about her achievements. The X-ray work she did at King’s is increasingly regarded as superb. The sorting out of the A and B forms [of DNA], by itself, would have made her reputation; even better was her 1952 demonstration, using Patterson superposition methods, that the phosphate groups must be on the outside of the DNA molecule. Later, when she moved to Bernal’s lab, she took up work on tobacco mosaic virus and quickly extended our qualitative ideas about helical construction into a precise quantitative picture, definitely establishing the essential helical parameters and locating the ribonucleic chain halfway out from the central axis.

Because I was then teaching in the States, I did not see her as often as did Francis, to whom she frequently came for advice or when she had done something very pretty, to be sure he agreed with her reasoning. By then all traces of our early bickering were forgotten, and we both came to appreciate greatly her personal honesty and generosity, realising years too late the struggles that the intelligent woman faces to be accepted by a scientific world which often regards women as mere diversions from serious thinking. Rosalind’s exemplary courage and integrity were apparent to all when, knowing she was mortally ill, she did not complain but continued working on a high level until a few weeks before her death. (p.175)

That is a fine, generous and moving tribute, don’t you think? And as candid and honest as the rest of the book in admitting his and Crick’s complete misreading of her situation and character.

In a literal sense the entire book leads up to this final page [these are the last words of the book] and this book became a surprise bestseller and the standard source to begin understanding the events surrounding the discovery. So it’s hard to claim that her achievement was suppressed or ignored when this is the climax of the best-selling account of the story.


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

  • What Is Life? How Chemistry Becomes Biology by Addy Pross (2012)
  • The Diversity of Life by Edward O. Wilson (1992)
  • Seven Clues to the Origin of Life by A.G. Cairns-Smith (1985)
  • The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Austerity Britain: Smoke in the Valley, 1948–51 by David Kynaston (2007)

David Kynaston (b.1951) has written about 16 history books on broadly three topics: cricket, the City of London, and Britain after the Second World War. His post-war histories have been published as three volumes, each of which – rather confusingly – contained two books:

This is a review, or notes on, book two of volume one, Austerity Britain: Smoke in The Valley, which covers the years 1948 to 1951 i.e. from the inauguration of the National Health Service on 5 July 1948 to Labour’s defeat in the October 1951 general election.

In 1940 Somerset Maugham published a collection of short stories titled The Mixture As BeforeSmoke in the Valley continues with the mixture exactly as before, carrying right on with exactly the same approach as its predecessor, mixing daily diary entries from the core of housewives, teachers and minor civil servants which he used in the first book, along with notes and memoirs of more senior political figures involved in the big issues of the day, and the third element is the reports and findings of ‘experts’ – the observers of Mass Observation, and reports and papers by economists and sociologists.

The book continues seamlessly on from its predecessor, with no preface or introduction, the opening paragraphs leaping straight in to describe the opening ceremony of the first Olympic Games held after the war, in London. This took place on Thursday 29 July 1948, only three weeks after the National Health Service came into operation – a celebration of health following straight on from a recognition of the nation’s massive unhealth.

The few pages about the Olympics lead onto a description of that year’s Bank Holiday weekend with trippers heading to the warm seaside, then onto the way the holiday was marked by some of the earliest race riots in England, starting in Liverpool white gangs attacked an Indian restaurant and then groups of blacks in the street. Then Kynaston describes Don Bradman playing his last Test match at the Oval on 14 August, then we’re on to Nella Last, housewife in Barrow, queueing for rationed food and grumbling, and then a consideration of that evening’s wireless programmes on the BBC Light Programme and then onto the first professional win, a few weeks later, by the 12-year-old Wunderkind jockey, Lester Piggott.

Thus the opening pages declare that it will follow A World to Build in being a social history of the period, which follows the people’s priorities i.e. sport and food, and that the dominating note is the people’s experience of austerity, dinginess and impoverishment, mental and physical. As Gladys Langford, a schoolteacher in North London, complains:

Streets are deserted, lighting is dim, people’s clothes are shabby, and their tables are bare,

But as winter 1948 turned to spring 1949 rationing, for the first time, began to ease off. All consumer goods were still expensive, but there was a ‘bonfire of restrictions,’ supervised by the young and canny Harold Wilson, President of the Board of Trade, who knew how much good that catchphrase and the public ending of some ration restrictions would do his own political career. In April 1949, after seven years, sweets came off the ration (though there was such a burst of demand, that they went back on in August).

Domestically, a major ideological struggle opened up within the Labour Party between the ‘consolidators’ who thought most of its work had been done by 1948, and the ‘continuers’, led by Nye Bevan, who thought there was much left to do, though they were a little short on the details of what.

Iron and steel nationalisation proved the last and most difficult of the nationalisations to carry out, but the book powerfully conveys the sense, even among its own activists and think tank wonks, that the Labour government had run out of steam and ideas.

I learned that the NHS almost immediately went over budget, revealing the previously unsuspected depths of poverty and ill health throughout Britain.

The Cold War deepened with the establishment, in April 1949, of NATO as an explicitly anti-Soviet alliance.

The fundamental economic weakness of Britain was exposed by the Devaluation crisis when the pound sterling was devalued from $4.03 to $2.80 in 19 September 1949. Britain had to negotiate a loan from the U.S. which we were still paying off at the beginning of this (the 21st) century.

Kynaston paints a vivid picture of how it felt to be living in Britain during these years, though – in terms of history – I could have done with a clearer explanation of why – really clearly laying out the economic fundamentals of the weakness of sterling and the need for all products to be chanelled into an export drive which left pitifully little left for domestic consumers. I deduced this from the book, but it was nowhere really explained.

The cast

As well as continuing with the well-known voices from book one such as the housewives Nella Last, Vere Hodgson, Marian Raynham, Judy Haines and the author of a regular ‘Letter to America’, Mollie Panter-Downes, we are introduced to new members of the cast, including:

  • Michael Blakemore, Australian actor
  • Stewart Dalton, grew up on a council estate in Sheffield
  • Ian Dury, catching polio in Southend open air swimming pool aged 7
  • Alec Cairncross, stern adviser to Harold Wilson
  • Valeie Gisborne, 16-year-old employee who goes on a Leicester clothing factory outing
  • Cynthia Gladwyn, diarist
  • Frankie Howerd, up and coming comedian
  • Harold Hamer, President of the Association of Headmasters, Headmistresses, and Matrons of Approved Schools
  • Evelyn S. Kerr of Gidea Park, Essex
  • John Mays, sociologist
  • Paul Vaughan, BBC science broadcaster

among many more.

Culture high and low

One of the joys of the book is the happy acceptance of low or popular culture placed right next to the Big Political Issues. Thus we learn that Noddy Goes To Toyland, the first of the Noddy stories, was published in late 1949. On the third Monday of 1950, at 1.45pm on the Light programme, Listen With Mother began.

Here’s an example of Kynaston’s strategy of interweaving high and low: He starts a section with a summary and brief analysis of the 1949 film The Blue Lamp, which helped to make young Dirk Bogarde a star – before moving on to consider the results of a number of sociological studies carried out at the time into crime rates, and the best form of policing – before naturally segueing into something that was considered then and ever since as a major brake on crime, National Service. Between 1945 and 1960 some 2.5 million men were called up. Why? To police the British Empire, although many of them, when they saw what it amounted to, i.e. repressing native movements for independence, came back as fierce critics.

This gives an idea of how the text flows fluently and easily from one topic to the next, from the ‘trivial’ to the weighty – carrying you effortlessly through brief summaries of the political, economic, social and cultural highlights and issues of the day.

However, the obvious risk is that the whole thing, immensely lengthy and stuffed with anecdote and story though it is, nonetheless comes over as superficial. As mentioned above, despite reading 650 pages of detail I don’t really understand why Britain’s economy remained so weak for so long after the war, or why rationing continued for so long.

Similarly, the little section on National Service is interesting, but there is nothing at all about the massive events of the independence of India/Pakistan (15 August 1947) or Israel (14 May 1948). I appreciate that this is a history of Britain but there must have been some domestic response, from British Jews, say, or the politicians and civil servants involved. But events from the empire are glossed over in almost complete silence.

More social sciencey

Also, having started off in the same vein as its predecessor, I think Smoke in the Valley betrays a noticable shift in content i.e. the nature of the contributors.

In this volume there felt to be more material from and about ‘experts’ than in the first book, from- for example – a steady stream of contemporary economists and, in particular, summaries of more polls and surveys – from his central and abiding source of information about attitudes, Mass-Observation, but also from new polling companies such as Gallup, or Research Services Ltd run by Mark Abrams.

Thus we hear a lot from Ferdynand Zweig, a Polish émigré sociologist, who did extensive fieldwork for a series of books whose findings Kynaston liberally quotes, namely Labour, Life and Poverty (1948), Men in the Pits (1948), The British Worker (1952) and Women’s Life and Labour.

Other sociologists and social scientists quoted and referenced include:

  • Norah M. Davis, University of London psychologist, 1946 study of 400 building workers
  • Allan Flanders, author of The System of Industrial relations in Great Britain
  • Geoffrey Thomas of The Social Survey, author of Incentives in Industry
  • Stanislas Wellisz, industrial sociologist
  • the Acton Society Trust
  • Coal is Our Life (1956) by sociologists Norman Dennis, Fernando Henriques, Clifford Slaughter
  • Hilde Himmelweit’s study of 13 and 14-year-old boys at state schools
  • K.C. Wiggans, author of a 1950 survey of life and living conditions in Wallsend, Newcastle
  • The 1948 sociological study of Coventry carried out by Birmingham University

The main point

Maybe this reflects the way that, if the period 1945-48 was about rebuilding a ruined society, 1948 to 1951 was much more about trying to rebuild a ruined economy.

If the lasting impression of A World to Build is of rationing, austerity and impoverishment, the dominant theme of this volume is the failure of planning and investment. As he introduces this theme Kynaston refers repeatedly to Correlli Barnett’s scathing indictment of the post-war government, The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation, published in 1986.

The general idea is that in every conceivable way the British government muffed the opportunity to rethink and retool Britain for her role in the post-war world. All the senior figures in the Labour Goverment agreed that Britain needed a seat at the top table, needed a nuclear capability, must cling on to her empire. This resulted in the cost of Britain fighting to repress small wars of independence around the globe (Palestine, Cyprus, Malaya, Kenya – though none of these feature in the book) and led to decades of self-delusion.

Economically, in about 1950 Britain had a window of opportunity to systematically invest in its industry and infrastructure, but catastrophically failed. While Germany and Japan rebuilt their manufacturing sector from scratch, while the French embarked on a well-funded programme to make its railways the best in Europe, the Labour government nationalised the ‘commanding heights of the economy’ and then chronically failed to invest – in manufacturing, in railways or roads, in telecommunications or higher education.

The clash between the actual strength of the economy, and politicians’ delusions as to Britain’s role in the world issue, was highlighted when the Korean War broke out.

As soon as the government heard about it, all the Labour ministers lined up as one to immediately support the USA, and what became the UN response, to Korean aggression. The Labour government saw that, in the environment of the worsening Cold War, Britain needed to show unflinching solidarity with America, but also that by leaping in to support South Korea, Britain maintained the impression that it was still a global player with global interests to protect.

But critics at the time and ever since have wondered whether the money that was then redirected into war production (the MoD budget doubled as a result of the Korean War), and for the next three years, came at exactly the wrong time and delayed or derailed the investment which was so badly needed in home infrastructure.

The problems of domestic industry are exemplified in the fascinating little section on Britain’s motor industry which – despite all the bad things I grew up hearing about it in the 1970s – back in the post-war decade was still the largest car exporter in the world. It was fascinating to read about the plants of the different motor manufacturers in Dagenham, Luton, Cowley and so on, the particular brands of cars they made, and the oddities and shortcomings of the various owners and managing directors.

These are indicative of the way the failure of government to invest in new infrastructure went hand in hand with the pitiful amateurism to be found in lots of British industry, which was led by sons or relatives of founders, or chaps who went to the right school, or were members of the right gold club, a tendency raised to a rule in the stuffy and parochial world of the City of London.

Away from the housewives and films and FA Cup Finals, at a deeper level, when he looks at the economy, government, industry and finance, Kynaston paints a grim picture of the start of the Long Decline which lasted well into the 1970s, arguably into the 1980s.

Writers

Quite a few writers were quoted in the previous volume. In this one we hear for the first time from:

  • Alan Sillitoe b.1928 – author of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
  • Hunter Davies b.1936 – author, journalist and broadcaster, grew up in Carlisle
  • Walter Greenwood b.1903 in Salford, famous for Love on the Dole
  • Norman Hunter, author of the hit play Waters of the Moon

Related links

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (4) by James M. McPherson (1987)

Slavery is the normal condition of the negro… as indispensable to his prosperity and happiness… as liberty is to the whites. (From a petition sent to Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the 56th Virginia regiment against allowing black soldiers to fight for the Confederacy, quoted on page 836)

Racism…

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were wrong if they meant to include Negroes among ‘all men’, said Alexander Graham after he had become vice president of the Confederacy.

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery… is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. (quoted on page 244)

Repeatedly, every few pages in this long book, the reader is slapped in the face by quite breathtakingly racist statements made by all classes of Americans in the 1860s. Here is the southern newspaper, the Richmond Whig, in 1865, discussing the heretical idea of arming the South’s slaves to fight for it. The idea was:

a repudiation of the opinion held by the whole South… that servitude is a divinely appointed condition for the highest good of the slave. (quoted p.834)

It is one of the characteristics of McPherson’s immensely thorough account of the American Civil War that he lards his text with quotations – from speeches by presidents, senators and congressmen, from newspaper articles and editorials, from the diaries and letters on both sides of the argument, and statements from the lowliest, barely literate, farmhands-turned-soldiers.

In other words, McPherson gives you deep insight into the minds of people at every level of society on both sides of the war.

And one of the big things that comes over is a level of anti-black racism at all levels of 1860s American society which is staggering, almost beyond words to describe.

Nowadays the word ‘racism’ is quickly applied to the slightest verbal slip or misspeak. It is eye-opening to come to understand what institutional racism really means, in the sense of a quite overt, explicit, unashamed and widely popular belief, promoted by politicians from the (Confederate) president at the top, throughout the entire (Confederate) press – that black Africans are a separate and inferior race, quite incapable of education, higher thought, or serious mental activity, a race set aside by GOD specifically to perform the most menial, humdrum, mindless activities. And a race which posed a permanent terrorising threat to all decent white folk.

As the Charleston Mercury put it, emancipation would mean:

the poor man… reduced to the level of the nigger. His wife and daughter are to be hustled on the street by black wenches, their equals. Swaggering buck niggers are to ogle them and elbow them. (p.836)

I suppose it was obvious that this would be the mindset of the southern plantation-owning class but it is still shocking to read.

But almost worse is the revelation that even in the north whose politicians were anti-slavery and who eventually turned the war into a crusade to emancipate the slaves, there was, of course, a strong abolitionist movement, particularly in snooty, Puritan New England – but there was also anti-black sentiment almost as strong as in the south, and just as profoundly racist.

Many northern soldiers, and their newspapers and congressmen, went out of their way to explain that they were fighting the war against rebels but certainly not for uppity Negroes. In the north, there were protests against the new draft introduced in July 1862, where protesters carried banners saying things like:

We won’t fight to free the nigger (p.493)

MacPherson quotes a Union soldier as writing: ‘I am not in favour of freeing the negroes and leaving them to run riot among us’. It wasn’t isolated bigots, but the state legislatures of Illinois and Indiana who called the Emancipation Proclamation ‘wicked, inhuman and unholy’. It was an Ohio newspaper editor who described it as ‘monstrous, impudent and heinous… insulting to God as to man, for it declares those “equal” whom God created unequal.’ (p.595)

In the 1863 congressional elections in the north, the remaining Democrats (a party mostly associated with southern slave-holders) campaigned as the peace party, expressing such vehement opposition to the war that one of their leaders, Clement Vallandigham, was forced to flee the country and campaigned from Canada. He wrote:

In considering terms of settlement we should look only to the welfare, peace and safety of the white race, without reference to the effect that settlement may have on the African. (quoted page 592)

The editor of New York’s leading Catholic weekly told a mass meeting that:

when the president called for them to go and carry on a war for the nigger, he would be damned if he believed they would go. (quoted p.609)

The Democrat Party in the north split into war democrats and peace-at-any-price Democrats. The most outspoken wing of the peace Democrats was given the nickname ‘copperhead’, after a particularly venomous American snake. A copperhead campaigning in the Ohio elections wrote:

Let every vote count in favour of the white man, and against the Abolition horses, who would place negro children in your schools, negro jurors in your jury boxes,  and negro votes in your ballot boxes. (quoted page 686)

Being a democratic politician means you have to listen to the people, you have to take their beliefs into account, even if you think they are ignorant and prejudiced beliefs. As Lincoln himself put it:

A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, cannot be safely disregarded. (p.128)

All of this evidence, which McPherson marshals so effectively, explains why Lincoln had to proceed slowly, retaining as many allies as he could, in the political class as well as among the broader population, in a culture awash with anti-Afro-American thoughts and prejudices.

But it’s still a shock to read the remarks he made to a group of black leaders in the White House on 14 August 1862. Slavery was:

the greatest wrong inflicted on any people.

But even if slavery were abolished, racial differences and prejudices would remain.

Your race suffer very greatly, many of them, by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence.

Blacks had little chance to achieve equality in the United States.

There is an unwillingness on the part of our people, harsh as it may be, for you free coloured people to remain among us… I do not mean to discuss this, but to propose it as a fact with which we have to deal. I cannot alter it if I could.

This fact, Lincoln thought, made it necessary for black people to emigrate to another land where they would have better opportunities. He asked the black leaders present to ask for volunteers for a government-sponsored pilot scheme to resettle black Americans in Central America. (p.508) So even the leader of the North and the proclaimer of the emancipation of the slaves thought the only real solution to the ‘Race Problem’ was to pack off the ‘other’ race to a different country. Wow.

It makes for a lot of unpleasant reading, but it also gives the reader a sense of the deep, deep, deep racist, anti-black sentiments which were central to American society, had been for decades beforehand, and would continue to be for decades afterwards. It helps you understand why profoundly racist attitudes continued in full flood well into the 1960s and beyond, and had to be combated by black movements which themselves were often radical and violent.

It makes you understand that African slavery and the racism it engendered is the Original Sin which just can’t be cleansed from the American soul.

… and constitutional law

It’s easy to overlook because it’s so much less shocking than the racism, but in among the descriptions of the economy, of banking and then – of course – of the paraphernalia of war, the recruitment, arms factories, train lines and battles – a steady hum which, once you notice it you realise makes up most of the book, is the central importance to American politics of the law.

Having read Alan Taylor’s book about the American War of Independence I now understand that the American constitution wasn’t some pristine and perfect theory of government devised by political philosophers working in a vacuum, but an extremely hard-headed set of compromises between the squabbling thirteen colonies who all had particular interests to protect, not least the southern slave states who fought to ensure that slavery was protected, even if it was nowhere explicitly mentioned.

Reading this book helps the reader to understand the uniquely complex and legalistic nature of American society, whereby each state has its own elected officials and supreme court, which may – or may not – be overridden by federal i.e. national president, congress and Supreme Court.

In other words, any two parties caught in a civil or criminal case, has at least two sets of authorities to appeal to, state and federal. When U.S. society split from top to bottom in the civil war there became in effect four sets of law. And since each state had its own traditions, made its own laws, and elected its own officials, the reality was something more like 30 squabbling states, plus two overriding federal authorities who were at war with each other.

What is fascinating is the extent to which neither side really appealed to moral or religious principles, but tried to dress up their decisions in the cloak of the Constitution. The main arguments of the civil war occurred at the where Law meets Political Theory. Both sides appealed to the Constitution, but gave their own (wildly conflicting) politico-legal interpretations of it.

Thus the most obvious thing, to us, today, about the quote from the Confederate vice-president at the top of this review, is its repellent view of race: but what’s symptomatic of its era is that it is couched not in terms of scientific theory or morality or religion – but as a theory of government.

When politicians argue in this book (and they argue all the way from page one to page 860) of course they sometimes express themselves in terms of ‘racial theory’ or religion but, when push comes to shove, they argue strongest about laws and the basis of all American laws, the Constitution.

They argue whether the Kansas-Nebraska Law of 1854 is constitutional, whether the president has powers to proclaim emancipation, they argue whether states have the right to secede under any circumstances, about what a state actually is (early in the war West Virginia seceded from Virginia – was it allowed to? who said so?).

What’s easy to forget in all the bloodshed and in the inflammatory rhetoric of racism, is that this was a highly articulate, well-educated argument taking place among sometimes blunt and rude but often very subtle and clever lawyers.

If one obvious element of Battle Cry of Freedom is to rub your face in some very unpleasant racist ideology and make you appreciate how deep and enduring anti-black racism has been in America – a less immediately obvious but just as important conclusion is the extent to which America is a country meshed in a fascinating and endlessly complicated web of state and federal laws and courts and legal powers.

Something which goes a long way to explaining why outsiders often find American politics confusing and end up with a simple-minded focus on the personality of whoever happens to be in the White House (JFK, Nixon, Barack, Donald), ignoring the complex web of political, legal and constitutional wrangling which go on continually at lower levels of American political life, and which are often more important in determining the lives and livelihoods of most Americans.

And explains Americans’ apparently ceaseless appetite for TV shows about lawyers. Are there any British TV series about solicitors? No, because their work is very boring. Whereas American law really is a) more complex, challenging and swashbuckling; b) seems to automatically offer the possibility of a career progressing into state politics and then, potentially, on into national politics.

In terms of its racial heritage, and its legal-political arrangements, this books helps the reader really come to appreciate what a very different country from our own America is.


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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (2) by James M. McPherson (1987)

In mid-19th century America there was a caste of people who were professional slave hunters. Hold that thought… People whose job it was to reclaim the lost ‘property’ of a southern slave owner.

1854 advert for a runaway slave

1854 advert for a runaway slave

In 1850 the US Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers (a short-lived political party which took part in the 1848 and 1852 presidential races with the sole aim of preventing slavery being expanded into the new western states).

The law required that all escaped slaves, upon recapture, be returned to their masters, and that the officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate with this. Many northern states opposed the law and passed personal liberty laws which used various strategies to try and to block the Fugitive Slave Act – by insisting that captured suspects get a fair trial, or by forbidding state authorities from collaborating with the federal agents tasked with recapturing runaway slaves.

Almost every case brought under the new act caused explosions of outrage on both sides of the argument. Many northern states took advantage of jury ‘nullifications’, where a jury refused to convict because they believed the entire basis of a federal law was unjust.

Northern cities set up Vigilance Committees which could mobilise lawyers to defend a captured runaway, and/or mobs to surround gaols where they were being held. On numerous occasions this resulted in fighting, often with guns, as northern mobs stormed gaols to free slaves held by Federal authorities.

Southerners believed northerners wanted to abolish the entire notion of property, which was a founding concept of American freedom (a circular definition in which freedom is defined as the ability to own property, and the ownership of property confers the independence from poverty which underlies the notion of personal freedom).

The clash between the pro-slavery Federal law and the anti-slavery strategies taken by various northern states made almost every case of a runaway slave being recaptured into a show trial.

Imagine being a freed black person, going about your business in Boston or New York, and suddenly being set upon by a gang of men and hustled along to a gaol. And then – if you’re lucky – standing in the dock while lawyers argue whether you are a human being or a piece of property!

The law had a noticeable cultural impact. For northerners, the country’s law for the first time made them accomplices in the institution of slavery – forced them at the risk of a hefty fine or possible imprisonment, to aid federal marshals in arresting, imprisoning and returning runaway slaves to the south, no matter how much they didn’t want to.

It was a flavour of slavery and the slave state, forced right into northerners’ faces. And it forced the more conscientious of them to choose between obeying an unjust law or their consciences. It created martyrs not only among the poor captured runaway blacks, but among their white supporters, especially in the church. McPherson quotes a number of clergy who wrote publicly announcing that they were prepared to go to gaol to defend the liberty of runaway slaves.

The intrusion of slave violence into the free north inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe, the ‘daughter, sister and wife of Congregational churchmen’, to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery story told with moral passion. The book was published in monthly serials in an antislavery magazine before being published in book form in 1852. It went on to become the most popular novel of the 19th century, second only to the Bible in book sales in the States and abroad. Extraordinarily, Stowe wrote it in the evenings after completing all the household chores and putting her six children to bed. I wish I had that much energy.

Implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act reinforced the importance of the so-called Underground Railway, escape routes of safe houses and sympathetic helpers who could ferry blacks north through the free states and on, ultimately, to Canada – much like the networks which shot-down Allied airmen used in Nazi-occupied Europe a century later.

An estimated three thousand blacks fled to Canada in the last three months of 1850 alone. During the 1850s the black population of Ontario doubled.

There are records of slaves committing suicide rather than be caught. McPherson quotes the story of a runaway slave mother who tried to cut the throats of her own children as the slave catchers broke in, rather than let them be taken back to a lifetime of servitude and abuse.

Leap of the Fugitive Slave

Leap of the Fugitive Slave

And yet, during the entire decade of the 1850s, some 332 slaves were returned and only 11 declared free. Odd that such a relatively small number had such a seismic cultural impact on both the north (disgusted) and the south (outraged that the north tried to steal their ‘property’), compared to the fact that there were some four million slaves in the south.

Meditating on the stories McPherson prints, it’s hard to see how anyone brought up in these communities, and in this country, could recover from the trauma. Easy to imagine the aftershock lasting down through generations and never, really, being healed…


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Embers of War by Frederik Logevall (2012)

This is a staggeringly good book. The main text is a hefty 714 pages long, with another 76 pages of endnotes, a comprehensive list of further reading, and a thorough index. It is beautifully printed on good quality paper. It is in every way an immaculate book to own and read and reread (in fact I found it so addictive I read the first 500 pages twice over).

Vietnam before the war

Most histories of the Vietnam War focus on ‘the American War’ of the mid- and late-1960s. Logevall’s epic account comes to an end in 1959, when there were still only a few hundred U.S. troops in the country, before the American war of the movies and popular legend had even started (the Gulf of Tonklin Resolution in the U.S. Congress which gave President Johnson full power to prosecute a war was passed in August 1964.)

Instead, Logevall’s focus is on everything which preceded the full-blown American involvement. It is a masterly, incredibly detailed, superbly intelligent account of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule over Indochina, which has its roots way back before the First World War, but whose major and fateful decisions were made in the years immediately after the Second World War. For the core of the book covers the twenty years between 1940 and 1960 which saw the First Indochina War of Independence and the bitter defeat of the French imperial army. Logevall’s intricate and comprehensive account for the first time makes fully comprehensible the circumstances in which the Americans would find themselves slowly dragged into the quagmire in the decade that followed.

Above all this is a political and diplomatic history of the events, with a great deal of space devoted to the personalities of the key political players – Ho Chi Minh, Viet Minh General Giap, U.S. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, French president Charles de Gaulle – along with exhaustive explanations of their differing aims and goals, and thorough analyses of the diplomatic and political negotiations which were constantly taking place between a dizzying and continually changing array of politicians, statesmen and military leaders.

The attractiveness of the book is the tremendous intelligence with which Logevall dissects and lays bare the conflicting political goals and shifting negotiating positions of all these players. Time and again he puts you in the room as Truman and his team discuss the impact of China going communist (in 1949) on the countries of the Far East, or Eisenhower and his team assessing the French forces’ chances of winning, or the debates in the Viet Minh high command about how best to proceed against the French army at Dien Bien Phu. In every one of these myriad of meetings and decision-points, Logevall recaptures the cut and thrust of argument and paints the key players so deftly and vividly that it is like reading a really immense novel, a 20th century War and Peace only far more complex and far more tragic.

Ho Chi Minh

A central thread is the remarkable story of Ho Chi Minh, who could have been a sort of Vietnamese Mahatma Gandhi, who could have led his country to peaceful independence if the French had let him – and who certainly emerges as the dominating figure of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence, from 1918 to 1975.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyễn Sinh Cung in 1889. In his long life of subterfuge and underground travel he used over 50 pseudonyms. The text skips through his education to his travels from Asia to Europe via the States (as a cook on merchant navy vessels, seeing the major American cities, establishing himself as a freelance journalist in Paris), and then the story really begins with Ho’s presence at the peace conference which followed the Great War.

Vietnam had been colonised by the French in the 1850s and their imperial grip solidified around the turn of the century. The French divided Vietnam into three units, Tonkin in the north (capital Hanoi), the narrow central strip of Annam, and Cochin China in the south (capital Saigon). Logevall eloquently evokes the atmosphere and beauty of these two cities, with their wide boulevards, French cathedrals and opera houses. The French also colonised Laos, which borders Vietnam to the central west, and Cambodia, which borders it to the south-west. These three countries were collectively known as French Indochina.

Between the wars

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson arrived at the Versailles peace conference which followed World War One brandishing his much-publicised Fourteen Points, the noble principles he hoped would underpin the peace, the fourteenth of which explicitly called for the self-determination of free peoples.

As Logevall points out, in practice the Americans were thinking about the self-determination of the peoples in Europe, whose multicultural empires had collapsed as a result of the war e.g. the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; the principle wasn’t really addressed at the inhabitants of Europe’s overseas empires.

In a typically vivid snapshot, Logevall describes how the young optimistic Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, who had already gained a reputation as a journalist advocating independence for his country, hired a morning coat and travelled to Versailles hoping to secure an interview with President Wilson to put the case for Vietnamese independence. But his requests were rebuffed, his letters went unanswered, nobody replied or took any notice. It was the start of a long sequence of tragically lost opportunities to avert war.

Instead the ‘victorious’ European empires (Britain and France) were allowed to continue untroubled by American interferences and French colonial administration of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with all its snobbery and exploitation, strode on into the fragile 1920s and troubled 1930s.

Dispirited by the complete lack of interest from the Allies at Versailles, Ho traveled to Soviet Moscow in the early 1920s, where he received training from the infant Communist International (or Comintern) before returning to Vietnam to help organise a Vietnamese nationalist and communist movement.

But according to Logevall’s account, Ho continued to have a soft spot for America – not least because it was itself a country which had thrown off colonial shackles – and continued for decades to hope for help & support in Vietnam’s bid to escape from French control. In vain. Maybe the central, tragic theme of the book is how the American government went in the space of a decade (1940 to 1950) from potential liberator of the world’s colonial subjects, to neo-imperial oppressor.

The impact of the Second World War

In the West, and particularly in Britain, we think of the Second World War as starting with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which prompted Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. But the war in the East had its own timeframes and geography, and is really marked by the step-by-step aggression of Japan through the 1930s. For the highly authoritarian, militaristic Japanese government was the rising power in the East. Japan invaded Manchuria in northern China 1931 and then, in 1937, invaded the rest of coastal China, penetrating south. China was already embroiled in a chaotic civil war between various regional warlords, the nationalist movement of Chiang Kai-Shek and the nascent communist forces of Mao Zedong, which had been raging since the late 1920s. The border between north Vietnam and China is 800 miles long and the French colonial administrators watched developments in their huge northern neighbour with growing trepidation.

Meanwhile, in faraway Europe, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime successfully intimidated the western democracies (i.e. Britain and France) into allowing him to reoccupy the Rhine (March 1936), occupy Austria (March 1938) and seize the Czech Sudetenland (September 1938). But it was the surprise Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and then Hitler’s September 1939 invasion of Poland which plunged the continent into war.

None of this affected distant Indochina until the Germans’ six-week Blitzkrieg campaign in May 1940 against France. The victorious Nazis allowed a puppet right-wing government to be created in France, under the 84-year-old Marshall Petain and based in the spa town of Vichy. As a result of their defeat, the colonial administrations around the French Empire – in West and North Africa, in the Middle East and in Indochina – found themselves obliged to choose between the ‘legitimate’ new Vichy administration, which soon began persecuting socialists, freemasons and Jews (Logevall makes the ironic point that there were only 80 Jews in all Indochina and most of them were in the army) or the initially small group of followers of the self-appointed leader of the ‘Free French’, Charles de Gaulle.

When the highly armed and aggressive Japanese continued their expansion into northern Vietnam in September 1940, the Vichy French briefly resisted and then found themselves forced to co-operate with their supposed ‘allies’ – or the allies of their Nazi masters back in Europe. The Japanese wanted to cut off supply lines to the Chinese nationalists opposing them in China and also needed the rice, rubber and other raw materials Indochina could offer. In an uneasy understanding, the Japanese allowed the Vichy officials to administer the country at a civil service level – but they were the real masters.

Pearl Harbour

By setting it in its full historical context, Logevall for the first time made clear to me the reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour (on 7 December 1941) and the central role played in this cataclysmic event by Indochina.

From 1940 U.S. President Roosevelt and his advisers were concerned about Japan’s push southwards and especially their seizure of Vietnam. If they continued, the Japs would be in a position to carry on down the Malay peninsula, taking Singapore and threatening the Philippines in the East and Burma to the West.

When, in July 1941, Japanese troopships were sighted off Cam Ranh Bay on the south coast of Vietnam, it set American alarm bells jangling and, after much discussion, the President imposed a goods blockade on Japan, including oil and rubber, insisting the Japanese withdrew from China. Negotiations with the moderate Japanese Prime Minister Konoye continued through the summer but neither side would back down and, in October 1941, Konoye was replaced by General Hideki Tojo, who represented the aggressive stance of the armed forces. His government decided the only way Japan could continue to expand was by eliminating the American threat and forcibly seizing required raw materials from an expanded Japanese empire. Hence the plan was formulated to eliminate the American Pacific fleet with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, and it was in this context that the Japanese Fleet launched the notorious attack on 7 December 1941.

Logevall describes this tortuous process and its consequences with great clarity and it is absolutely fascinating to read about. He introduces us to all the key personnel during this period, giving the main players two or three page biographies and explaining with wonderful clarity the motives of all the conflicting interests: The Vichy French reluctant to cede control to the Japanese and scared of them; the Japanese busy with conflicts elsewhere and content to rule Indochina via the compliant French; the Americans reeling from Pearl Harbour but already making long-term plans to regain Asia; and in Vietnam, alongside Ho’s communists, the activities of the other groups of Vietnamese nationalists, as well as numerous ‘native’ tribes and ethnic minorities. And far away in embattled London, the distant but adamantine wish of General de Gaulle and the ‘Free French’ to return Indochina to French rule.

Roosevelt and Truman

For most of the war the key factor for Asia was President Roosevelt, a lifelong anti-colonialist, who condemned and opposed the European empires. Admittedly, he had to tread carefully around key ally Winston Churchill, who was doggedly committed to the preservation of the British Empire, but he had no such qualms about France, which he despised for collapsing so abjectly to the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.

Roosevelt was only reluctantly persuaded to support the haughty, pompous General de Gaulle as representative of the so-called ‘Free French’ – he preferred some of the other leaders in exile – but took a particular interest in Indochina. Roosevelt gave strong indications in speeches that – after the Germans and Japanese were defeated – he would not let the French restore their empire there. Instead, the president got his State Department officials to develop the idea of awarding ‘trusteeship status’ to post-colonial countries – getting them to be administered by the United Nations while they were helped and guided towards full political and economic independence.

Alas for Vietnam and for all the Vietnamese, French and Americans who were to lose their lives there, Roosevelt died just as the Second World War drew to a close, in April 1945, and his fervent anti-imperialism died with him.

He was replaced by his unassuming Vice-President, plain-speaking Harry S. Truman from Missouri. (In the kind of telling aside which illuminates the book throughout, Logevall points out that Truman was only selected as Vice-President because he was so non-descript that when all the competing factions in the Democratic Party cancelled out each other’s nominations, Truman was the only one bland enough to be left acceptable to all parties.)

Vietnam’s first independence and partition

The atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki crystallised Japan’s defeat and she surrendered on 2 September 1945. Within days of Japan’s fall, Ho and his party were organising major celebrations of Vietnam’s independence. In a historic moment Ho spoke to a crowd of 300,000 cheering compatriots in Ba Dinh Square, central Hanoi, on 2 September 1945, formally declaring Vietnam’s independence. Logevall quotes American eye witnesses who were startled when Ho quoted extensively from the American Declaration of Independence, as part of his ongoing attempt to curry favour with the emerging world superpower.

But alas, back in Washington, unlike his predecessor Roosevelt, President Truman had little or no interest in Indochina and all talk of ‘trusteeship’ leading to eventual independence disappeared. Instead the victorious allies had to make practical arrangements to manage Indochina now Japan had surrendered. It was agreed that the north of the country would be taken over by an army of the nationalist Chinese (at this stage receiving huge aid from America) while the British Indian Army would take over temporary running of the south, in a temporary partition of the country while both forces waited for the full French forces to arrive and restore imperial rule.

Riven by political infighting and a spirit of defeatism, the French had rolled over and given up their country in 1940. Then a good number of them spent five years collaborating with the Nazis and shipping Jews off to concentration camps. Now they expected the Americans to give them huge amounts of money and military resources to help them return to their colonies, and they expected the colonial peoples to bow down to the old yoke as if nothing had happened.

General de Gaulle typified the militaristic, imperial French view that ‘metropolitan’ France was nothing without its ‘magnificent’ Empire; that France had a unique ‘civilising mission’ to bring the glories of French culture to the peoples of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia (and Algeria and Syria and Mali and so on). Of course, the Empire provided cheap raw materials and labour for France to exploit.

The tragedy is that the Rooseveltian anti-imperial America which Ho and his followers placed so much hope on, betrayed them. Why? Two main practical reasons emerge:

  1. Restoring France Almost immediately after the end of the Second World War Stalin set about consolidating his grip on the Russian-occupied nations of Eastern Europe by establishing puppet communist regimes in them. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the start of the Berlin Airlift, both in 1948, epitomise the quick collapse of the wartime alliance between Russia and America into a Cold War stand-off. In this context, the Americans thought it was vital to build up Western Europe‘s capitalist economies to provide economic and military counterweight to the Soviet threat. Hence the enormous sums of money America poured into Europe via the Marshall Plan (which came into force in June 1948). A glance at the map of post-war Europe shows that, with Germany divided, Italy in ruins, Spain neutral, and the Benelux countries small and exposed, France emerges as the central country in Western Europe. If France’s empire contributed economically (through its raw materials), militarily (through colonial soldiers) and psychologically to France’s rebuilding, then so be it. The nationalist aspirations of Algeria, Tunisia and the other African colonies, along with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were sacrificed on the altar of building up a strong France in Europe to act as a bulwark against the Soviet threat.
  2. The domino theory It was only later, after China fell to communist control in October 1949, that Cold War hawks began to see (not unjustifiably) evidence of a worldwide communist conspiracy intent on seizing more and more territory. This received further shocking confirmation when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. It is from the communist victory in China and the start of the 1950s that the Americans began to talk about a ‘domino effect’ – seeing non-communist countries as dominoes lined up in a row, so that if one fell to communism all the others would automatically follow. As the map below shows, the fear was that i) communist victory in Korea would directly threaten Japan ii) communist forces in central China would threaten the island of Formosa and the other western Pacific islands, and iii) most crucial of all – the collapse of Vietnam would allow communist forces a forward base to attack the Philippines to the east, open the way to the invasion of Thailand to the west, and threaten south down the long peninsula into Malaya and Indonesia.

Cast of characters

Logevall introduces us to a number of Americans on the ground – diplomats, analysts and journalists – who all strongly disagreed with the new American line, but were powerless to change it. Against their better judgement the Americans allowed the French to return to run Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Logevall explains the arguments among the French themselves, and accompanies his account of the next nine years (1945-1954) with a running commentary on the changing patterns of the very fractured French political system (19 governments in just 8 years), and the conflicting priorities of the French communist party, the Socialists, the centre and the Gaullist right.

In contrast to French perfidy and inconsistency, Ho emerges as very much the hero of this account for the patience and mildness of his demands. Ho was in communication with both the French and American authorities – the French ignored all requests for independence, but he had some hopes the Americans would listen. Ho guaranteed that his independent Vietnam would allow for capitalism -for private property, a market economy. He said American firms would receive preferential treatment in rebuilding the post-war economy.

All on deaf ears. The same crowds who had greeted Ho’s historic declaration of independence in September 1945, stayed away from the pathetic French re-entry into Saigon the next year. On their first night of freedom, French troops who had been interned by the Japanese were released and went on a drunken rampage, beating up Vietnamese in the streets for being collaborators. Photo journalist Germaine Krull saw Vietnamese nationalists paraded through the streets with ropes tied round their necks while French women spat on them. Krull realised, right there and then, that the French had lost all respect and deference – instead of befriending the Vietnamese and creating a genuine partnership with promises of ultimate nationhood, the French hardliners had insisted nothing must question the ‘Glory’ and ‘Honour’ and ‘Prestige’ of La Belle France.

And so the quixotic quest for gloire and grandeur and prestige condemned France to nine years of bitter war, hundreds of thousands of death and, ultimately, to crushing humiliation. It feels like a grim poetic justice for the arrogance and stupidity of the French.

Dien Bien Phu

Almost immediately armed clashes between French soldiers and small guerrilla units or individuals began in all the cities and towns. Various nationalist groups claimed responsibility for the attacks but slowly Ho Chi Minh’s communists emerged as the best disciplined and most effective insurgent forces. The communists made up the core and most effective part of the coalition of nationalist forces christened the Viet Minh. Saigon became a twitchy nervous place to be, with an irregular drumbeat of gunshots, the occasional hand grenade lobbed into a cafe, assassinations of French officials in the street.

Logevall gives a detailed narrative of the slow descent of the country into guerilla war, with the dismal attempts of successive generals to try and quell the insurgency, by creating a defensive line of forts around Hanoi in the north, or sending search and destroy missions into the remote countryside.

The diplomatic and political emphasis of the book comes to the fore in the long and incredibly detailed account of the manoeuvring which surrounded the climactic Battle of Dien Bien Phu, from the beginning of its inception in 1953.

I have just reviewed a classic account of this battle, Martin Windrow’s epic military history, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, so won’t repeat the story here. Suffice to say the French had the bright idea of creating a defensive stronghold in an isolated valley in remote north-west Vietnam which could only be supplied from the air. Why? a) They intended to use it as a base to undertake offensive actions against Viet Minh supply lines running from China past Dien Bien Phu southwards into neighbouring Laos and b) they planned to lure the Viet Minh into a set piece battle where they would be crushed by overwhelming French artillery and airborne power.

The plan failed on both counts, as the Viet Minh surrounded the fort in such numbers that ‘offensive’ missions became suicidal; and with regard to luring the Viet Minh to their destruction, the French a) badly underestimated the ability of the Viets to haul large-calibre cannon up to the heights commanding the shallow valley and b) the battle took place as the monsoon season started and so air cover was seriously hampered (and in any case the Viet Minh were masters of camouflage, who only manoeuvred at night, making them very difficult to locate from the air).

The result was that the series of strongholds which comprised the French position were surrounded and picked off one by one over the course of a gruelling and epic 56-day battle.

Logevall devotes no fewer than 168 pages to the battle (pp.378 to 546) but relatively little of this describes the actual fighting. Instead, he chronicles in dazzling detail the intensity of the political and diplomatic manoeuvring among all the interested powers, particularly the Americans, the British and the French. Each of these governments was under domestic political pressure from conflicting parties in their parliaments and congresses, and even the governments themselves were riven by debate and disagreement about how to manage the deteriorating situation. Press reports of the French Army’s ‘heroic’ stand against the surrounding forces for the first time caught the public imagination, in France and beyond and the battle began to become a symbols of the West’s resolve.

It is mind-boggling to read that the Americans repeatedly mooted the possibility of using atom bombs against the Chinese (who were by now openly supporting the Viet Minh forces) or of giving the French some atom bombs to deploy as they wanted. The generals and politicians rejected dropping atom bombs directly onto Dien Bien Phu since they would obviously wipe out the French garrison as well as the attacking forces. Extra peril was added to the international scene when the Americans detonated their first hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in March 1954, intensifying the sense of Cold War superpower rivalry.

But it is in his running account of the minute by minute, phone call by phone call, hurried meetings between ambassadors and Foreign secretaries and Prime Ministers, that Logevall conveys the extraordinary complexity of political and strategic manouevring during these key months. The central issue was: Should the Americans directly intervene in the war to help the French? The French pleaded for more, much more, American supplies and munitions; for American troops on the ground; or for a diversionary attack on mainland China; or for more, many more bombing raids over Viet Minh positions.

Republican President Eisenhower was himself a supremely experienced military leader and had come to power (in January 1953) by attacking the (Democrat) Truman administration’s ‘capitulation’ in letting China fall to communism – and then for letting the Korean War to break out on Truman’s watch.

Logevall’s account is so long because it chronicles every important meeting of Eisenhower’s cabinet, examining the minutes of the meeting and analysing the points of view of his political and military advisers. And then analysing the way decisions were discussed with other governments, especially the British Foreign secretary (Anthony Eden) and Prime Minister (an ageing Winston Churchill).

Basically, Eisenhower found himself forced into a position of issuing fiercer and fiercer threats against the growing communist threat. In a keynote speech delivered on 7 April 1954, he warned of the perils of the Domino Effect (the first time the phrase entered the public domain) but hedged his bets by insisting that America wouldn’t go to war in South-East Asia unless:

a) the decision was ratified by Congress (one of the Republican criticisms of Truman was that he took the Americans into the Korean War by Presidential Decree alone, without consulting the Congress)
b) it was a ‘United Action’ along with key allies, namely the British

The focus then moves to the British and to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Would he agree to U.S. demands to form a coalition, and thus give the Americans the fig leaf they needed to go in and help the French, whose situation at Dien Bien Phu was becoming more desperate each day.

But Logevall explains the pressure Eden was under, because he knew that any British intervention to prop up the ailing French imperial position in Indochina would be roundly criticised by India and other members of the newly-founded Commonwealth at an upcoming meeting of Commonwealth heads of state, and the British very much wanted to ensure the continuation of this legacy of their Empire.

Moreover, British government opinion was that the French were losing and that the Americans, if they intervened, would quickly find themselves being sucked into bigger and bigger commitments in Vietnam in a war which the British thought was doomed to failure. The risk would then be that the Americans would be tempted to ‘internationalise’ the conflict by directly attacking the Viet Minh’s arms supplier – China – possibly, God forbid, with atomic weapons – which would inevitably bring the Russians in on the Chinese side – and we would have World War Three!

Hence the British refusal to commit.

American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles flew to Britain several times but failed, in one-on-one meetings, to change Eden’s position. And it was this failure to secure British (and thence Australian and New Zealand) support to create a ‘United Action’ coalition which meant that Eisenhower wouldn’t be able to win round key members of Congress, which meant that – he couldn’t give the French the vital military support they were begging for – which, ultimately, meant that Dien Bien Phu was doomed.

It has been thrilling to read Martin Windrow’s bullet-by-bullet account of the battle (The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam) alongside Logevall’s meeting-by-meeting account of the diplomacy. Logevall gives you a sense of just how fraught and complex international politics can be and there is a horrible tragic inevitability about the way that, despite the French paratroopers fighting on bravely, hoping against hope that the Americans would lay on some kind of miracle, a massive air campaign, or a relief force sent overland from Laos – none of this was ever to materialise.

Instead, as the battle drew towards its grizzly end, all the parties were forced to kick the can down the road towards a five-power international conference due to start in Geneva in May 1954. This had been suggested at a meeting of the Soviets, British and Americans in Berlin late the previous year, to address a whole range of Cold War issues, from the status of West Germany and a final peace treaty with Austria, through to the unfinished aspects of the Korean War Armistice, and only partly to the ongoing Indochina crisis.

Dien Bien Phu had begun as only one among several operations carried out by General Navarre, head of French forces in Indochina, but it had steamrollered out of control and its air of a heroic last stand had caught the imagination of the French population and, indeed, people around the world, and had come to symbolise all kinds of things for different players – for the West a last ditch stand against wicked communism, but for many third-world populations, the heroic overthrow of imperial oppressors. And so the military result came to have a symbolic and political power out of all proportion to the wretched little valley’s strategic importance.

In the event, the central stronghold of Dien Bien Phu was finally overrun by the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954, the Viet Minh taking some 10,000 French and colonial troops (Algerian, West African, Vietnamese) prisoner. About two-thirds of these then died on the long marches to POW camps, and of disease and malnutrition when they got there. Only a little over 3,000 prisoners were released four months later.

The Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954)

Meanwhile, Logevall works through the geopolitical implications of this titanic military disaster with characteristic thoroughness. Briefly, these were that the French quit Indochina. News of the French defeat galvanised the Geneva Conference which proceeded to tortuously negotiate its way to an agreement that a) the French would completely quit the country; b) Vietnam would be partitioned at the 17th parallel with the North to be run by an internationally-recognised Viet Minh government, while the South would be ruled by the (ineffectual playboy) emperor Bao Dai (who owned a number of residences in the South of France and was a connoisseur of high class call girls).

The negotiations to reach this point are described with mind-boggling thoroughness in part five of the book (pages 549 to 613), which give a full explanation of the conflicting views within each national camp (Americans, Russians, French, Chinese, British, Viet Minh) and the key moments when positions shifted and new lines of discussion became possible. Maybe the key breakthrough was the election of a new French Prime Minister, the left-of-centre Pierre Mendès France, who broke the diplomatic stalemate and set himself the deadline of one month to negotiate an end to the whole wasteful, crippling war.

Why did the Viet Minh in the end accept less than total independence for their country? Because they were leant on by the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, himself carrying out the orders of his master, Mao Zedong. Mao didn’t want to give the Americans any excuse to intervene in the war, with the risk of attacks on mainland communist China. In fact the Russians and Chinese partly agreed to this temporary partition because they secured agreement from everyone that full and free elections would be held across the entire country in 1956 to decide its future.

The Americans, meanwhile, held aloof from the final agreement, didn’t sign it, and now – with the French definitively leaving – felt that the old colonial stigma was gone and so they were free to support the newly ‘independent’ nation of South Vietnam by any means necessary. When July 1956 – the date set for the elections – rolled around, the elections were never held – because the communist North had already in two years become very unpopular with its people, and because the Americans knew that, despite everything, Ho Chi Minh’s nationalists would still win. So both sides conspired to forget about elections and the partition solidified into a permanent state.

This then, forms the backdrop to the Vietnam War – explaining the long tortuous history behind the creation of a communist north Vietnam and a free capitalist South Vietnam, why the Americans came to feel that the ongoing survival of the south was so very important, but also the depth of nationalist feeling among the Vietnamese which was, eventually, twenty years later, to lead to the failure of the American war and the final unification of the country.

The volta

A high-level way of looking at the entire period is to divide it in two, with a transition phase:

  • In part one America under Roosevelt is trenchantly against European empires and in favour of independence for former colonies.
  • Under Truman there is growing anxiety about Russian intentions in Europe, which crystallise with China going red in 1949 and the North Korean attack in 1950 into paranoia about the communist threat so that –
  • In part two, America under Eisenhower (president for the key eight years from January 1953 to January 1961) reverses its strategy and now offers support to Imperial powers in combating communist insurgencies in Indochina, Malaya, Indonesia, as well as in Africa and South America.

What I found particularly rewarding and instructive was the detail on the earlier, wartime Roosevelt period, which I knew nothing about -and then Logevall’s wonderfully thorough explanation of what caused the change of attitude to the European empires, and how it was embodied in anti-communists like Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959 John Foster Dulles, and Eisenhower’s clever Vice-President, Richard Nixon.

Dien Bien Phu as symbol of French occupation of Indochina

Ngo Dinh Diem

The last hundred pages of the book cover the six and a half years from the end of the Geneva Conference (July 1954) to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as the youngest ever U.S President in January 1961.

Titled ‘Seizing the Torch 1954 – 59’, this final section deals relatively briefly with the French withdrawal from Tonkin and northern Annam i.e. from the new territory of ‘North of Vietnam’ which was now handed over to the control of Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. (There is a good description of this difficult and potentially dangerous operation in Martin Windrow’s book).

The partition triggered the flight of an estimated 900,000 Vietnamese refugees from the North to the South – shipped to the South in a fleet of American passenger ships in what was titled Operation ‘Passage to Freedom’.

And in the North, the communists began to implement a foolishly harsh and cruel regime copied direct from the communist tyrannies of Russia and China. Most disastrous was their ‘land reform’, based on the categorisation of rural dwellers into different types – landlord, rich peasant, middle peasant, poor peasant etc – made with a view to rounding up and executing, or torturing or sending to labour camps everyone arbitrarily put in the ‘rich’ categories.

All this led swiftly to the predictable collapse of rural markets and the threat – yet again – of famine. There are records of Ho himself berating his top comrades for the brutality and foolishness of this brutal policy, but he doesn’t seem to have done much to stop it: the cadres had learned it from the masters; this was how Stalin and Mao had led their ‘revolutions’.

But Logevall’s real focus, as always, is not so much on these domestic social changes but on the continuing  international diplomatic and political jockeying, now focusing on the supposedly ‘independent’ and ‘democratic’ regime in the new territory of South Vietnam. With the French withdrawing all colonial forces and administration during 1955, the path was for the first time clear for the Americans to act with a free hand. As usual Logevall explicates the complex discussions which took place in Washington of the various options, and shows how policy eventually settled on installing the peculiar figure of Ngo Dinh Diem as President, under the aegis of the docile emperor Bao Dai.

Logevall first paints a thorough picture of Diem’s personality – a devout Catholic who went into self-imposed exile in Europe at various Catholic retreats in between cultivating American opinion-formers in his perfect English -and who, upon taking power in South Vietnam, began to immediately display authoritarian traits, namely confining power to a small clique of  his own direct family, and launching harsh persecutions of suspected communists and ‘traitors’.

In parallel, Logevall shows the tremendous efforts made by the American government to justify his corrupt and inefficient rule. The fundamental problem in Vietnam, as in so many other U.S. puppet states, would turn out to be that the Americans’ candidate was wildly unpopular: everyone knew that if a genuinely democratic election were held, Ho Chi Minh would win a decisive victory, even in the capitalist south. Thus the Americans, in the name of Democracy, found themselves defending a leader who would lose a democratic vote and showed clear dictatorial behaviour.

Diem wasn’t the representative of ‘democracy’ – he was the front man for free-market capitalism. As such he was enthusiastically supported by Eisenhower, Dulles and – as Logevall shows in some fascinating passages – by the stranglehold that mid-twentieth century U.S. media had on public opinion. Logevall lists the activities of a well-connected organisation called the ‘American Friends of Vietnam’, which included all the main publications of the day, most notably Time magazine, which ran glowing tributes to Diem in every edition.

Logevall introduces us to the born-again anti-communist doctor, Tom Dooley, whose account of working as a medic among refugees from the North – Deliver Us From Evil – was filled with the most appalling atrocity stories and became a highly influential bestseller, serialised in Reader’s Digest, which had a circulation of 20 million. Only decades later was it revealed to be a preposterous fake – with none of the atrocities Dooley recorded having any basis in fact.

It was ordinary American families who consumed this barrage of pro-Diem propaganda through the press and radio and TV from the mid-1950s onwards, with kids who in eight years time (when the States escalated the war in 1965) would be old enough to be drafted to go and give their lives to support the Diem regime.

But the reality in South Vietnam was much different from this shiny propaganda. Almost none of the huge amounts of American aid, soon rising to $300 million a year, went on health or education. Over 90% went on arming and training the South Vietnam Army which, however, continued to suffer from low morale and motivation.

America’s ‘support’ ignored much-needed social reform and was incapable of controlling Diem’s regime which passed increasingly repressive laws, randomly arresting intellectuals, closing down the free press, and implementing a regime of terror in the countryside.

More and more peasants and villagers found themselves forced to resist the blackmailing corruption of the Diem’s rural administrators, and revolt arose spontaneously in numerous locations around the country. This is a historical crux – many commentators and historians insist that the communist agitation in the South was created by the North; Logevall demurs and calls in contemporary analysts as evidence and witnesses. In his opinion, revolt against Diem’s repressive regime grew spontaneously and was a natural result of its harshness.

Indeed, newly opened archives in the North now reveal that the Hanoi leadership in fact agonised about whether, and how much, to support this groundswell of opposition. In fact, they were restrained by China and, more distantly, Russia, neither of whom wanted to spark renewed confrontation with America.

Nonetheless Hanoi found itself drawn, discreetly, into supporting revolutionary activity in the South, beginning in the late 1950s to create an administrative framework and a cadre of military advisers. These were infiltrated into the South via Laos, along what would become known as the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. In response the Diem regime used a nickname for the communist forces, calling them the Viet Cong, or VC, a name which was to become horribly well-known around the world.

While the American press and President awarded Diem red carpet treatment, a tickertape parade in New York, and fawning press coverage when he visited the States in 1956, back home things were growing darker. As 1957 turned into 1958, Diem reinstituted the use of the guillotine as punishment for anyone who resisted his regime, and his roving tribunals travelling through the countryside used this threat to extort even more money from disaffected peasants. But simultaneously, the communist apparatus in the south began to take shape and to receive advice about structure and tactics from the North.

The beginning

The book ends with an at-the-time almost unnoticed event. On the evening of 8 July 1959 eight U.S. military advisers in a base 20 miles north of Saigon enjoyed a cordial dinner and then settled down to watch a movie. It was then that a squad of six Viet Cong guerrillas who had cut through the flimsy surrounding barbed wire, crept up to the staff quarters and opened fire with machine guns. Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand and Major Dale Buis died almost immediately, before armed help arrived from elsewhere in the camp to fight off the intruders. Ovnand and Buis’s names are the first of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam and whose names are all carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Conclusion

Embers of War won many prizes and it really deserves them – it sheds light not only on the long, tortured death of French imperialism in Indochina, and gives incredible detail on the way the Americans inch-by-inch found themselves being drawn deeper into the Vietnam quagmire – it also shows any attentive reader how international affairs actually work, how great ‘decisions’ are ground out by the exceedingly complex meshing of a welter of complex and ever-shifting forces – at international, national, domestic, military, political and personal levels. On every level a stunningly informative and intelligent work of history.

Related links

Nemesis by Max Hastings (2007)

This massive slab of a book (674 pages) is a long and thorough account of the final year of the war against Japan. The book contains thousands of facts, quotes, interviews, interpretations and assessments. Some of the ones which stood out for me were:

  • Hastings points out that Russia, China and Japan simply do not have the same tradition of scholarly, objective history as we in the Anglosphere (p.xxiv). Even quite famous historians from those countries tend to parrot party lines and patriotic rhetoric. Hastings says Japanese historians are rarely quoted in Western accounts because of ‘the lack of intellectual rigour which characterises even most modern Japanese accounts’ (p.xxiii).
  • Western liberals often berate European empires for their racism – but all that pales into significance compared to the inflexible Japanese belief in their innate racial superiority, which led them to treat their ‘fellow Asians’ appallingly, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (p.4). As many as 15 million Asians died in Japan’s so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, including up to ten million Chinese (Hastings says 15 million in the period 1931-45, p.12, and Chinese historians claim up to 50 million), as well as 2 million Koreans (several times Hastings makes the chastening point that all large numbers to do with the Second World War are to be treated with caution).
  • At least a million Vietnamese died in the great famine of 1944-45 caused by the Japanese overlords’ insistence that rice paddies be switched to fibre crops (p.13). Over 2 million Filipinos died in the appalling massacres during the battles to liberate the Philippines. And so on.
  • Wherever the Japanese went they enslaved large numbers of local women as sex slaves.
    • Wikipedia quotes a typical Japanese soldier saying the women ‘cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Marriage with inhabitants of any of the colonised countries – China, Korea, Burma – was forbidden, to prevent dilution of the superior Yamato race (p.38).
  • 103,000 Americans died in the war against Japan out of a total one and a quarter million who served there (p.9). The US pro rata casualty rate in the Pacific was three and a half times that in Europe, not least because of Japan’s rejection of the Geneva Convention whereby a beleaguered force could surrender. The Japanese fought to the last man again and again, forcing the Allies to suffer disproportionately large casualties.
    • ‘Until morale cracks it must be accepted that the capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed. Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture.’ (Major-General Douglas Gracey, quoted on page 11.)
  • Hastings says the idea that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering when America dropped the atom bombs in August 1945 is a ‘myth’ which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’. If the war had continued for even a few weeks longer more people would have died in the intense aerial bombing and fighting, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The great missed opportunity of the war was that Japan could/should have invaded Russia from the East to co-ordinate with Hitler’s invasion from the West in June 1941. There was a real chance that by dividing Stalin’s armies the two fascist countries could have brought Russia to its knees, forced a change of government, and begun exploiting Russia’s raw materials to fuel their war machines. But Stalin’s certainty that Japan would not invade at this crucial juncture (provided by the spy Richard Sorge), allowed him to move his Eastern divisions back to the heartland where they were crucial in stopping the German advance at Moscow, and then slowly throwing the Germans back.
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a catastrophic mistake. If the Japanese had restricted themselves to invading the European colonies in Asia largely abandoned by embattled France, Holland and Britain i.e. Burma, Malaysia etc, then President Roosevelt would have found it difficult if not impossible to persuade Congress and the American people to go to war, to sacrifice American boys, to save old European empires. Some kind of modus vivendi between Japan and America could have been possible. But the attack on Pearl Harbour, the ‘Day of Infamy’, handed the case for war to Roosevelt on a plate, effectively dooming Japan’s military government and empire. ‘By choosing to participate in a total war, [Japan] exposed itself to total defeat’. (p.5)

The ineffectiveness of militarism

History is a playground of ironies. It is difficult to know where to start in this particular theatre of ironic reversals.

Both of these two militaristic states – Japan and Germany – fetishised war and the soldier, seeing the highest role the individual could play to be a latter-day Aryan ubermensch or samurai and the state as the embodiment of the militarised will of the people. In their speeches and propaganda, Japan’s leaders dripped contempt for the liberal capitalist democracies of the degenerate West. And yet it turned out to be those degenerate democracies which mobilised most effectively for war, and indeed won.

And Hastings points out that this was due to identifiable shortcomings not only in Japan’s economy, state organisation and military infrastructure – of which there were ample – but in its culture, traditions and even language.

  • Respect for superiors meant Japanese officers never questioned orders. Never. Whereas pluralistic meritocratic free-speech democracies discovered that a certain amount of critical thought and questioning helps an army or navy function better.
  • Rather than criticise or even question orders, Japanese prefer silence. ‘Faced with embarrassment, Japanese often resort to silence – mokusatsu‘ (p.42). The opposite of freedom of thought and enquiry.
  • Because the Japanese were convinced of their racial, moral and spiritual superiority to all other nations and races, they made no attempt to understand other cultures. A contributory factor was the self-imposed isolation of the country for centuries. The Japanese had little or none of the ‘intelligence’ operations which were so important in the West, which helped us to plan logistics and strategy, and this absence severely undermined planning and strategy. All they had was the samurai will to fight which turned out not to be enough.
  • The Western democracies, being less hamstrung by traditions of obedience and respect and the military spirit and Emperor-worship, were more flexible. Concrete examples the way that in the West civilian experts were pressed into work on a) building the atom bomb and b) decrypting German and Japanese signal codes. Both these stunning successes were achieved by eccentric civilians, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking academics. Compare & contrast the Japanese army and navy which had absolutely no place for anyone who hadn’t been through their rigorous military training or shared their glorious samurai code. ‘It is hard to overstate the extent to which Anglo-American wartime achievements were made possible by the talents of amateurs in uniform’ (p.50).

Thus the Japanese mindset militated against inquiry, analysis, adaptability and free expression.

Japanese atrocities

While the Japanese army and navy bickered, while the government failed to create a coherent industrial strategy for war, while their planners completely underestimated American resources and resilience, the one thing the Japanese, like all weak and inferior armies, excelled at was brutality and atrocity, especially against unarmed civilians, especially against unarmed women.

  • The book includes quite a few personal stories from some of the 200,000 plus sex slaves abducted into ‘comfort centres’ everywhere the Japanese army went, China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma etc. Organised and state-sanctioned gang rape.
  • ‘During Japan’s war in China, the practices of conducting bayonet training on live prisoners, and of beheading them, became institutionalised.’ (p.53) The book has quite a few photos including one of a Japanese officer swinging his sword to behead a blindfolded Australian prisoner. Nowadays we are appalled to watch videos of Western hostages being beheaded by Islamic fanatics. The Japanese did the same on an industrial scale.
  • Discipline in army and navy were severe, with routine heavy beatings of new recruits and officers allowed to kick, punch and abuse any men under their command. The culture of brutality went all down the line. When a destroyer’s cutter, rescuing survivors from a sunk battleship, threatened to be overwhelmed, those in the boat drew their swords and hacked off the hands of their fellow Japanese (p.54).
  • Colonel Masanobu Tsuji was responsible for brutalities and atrocities wherever he served. The most notorious anecdote is when, in northern Burma, he dined off the liver of a captured Allied airman (p.56).
  • The Japanese launched the ‘Three Alls’ policy in China, in 1941, a scorched earth strategy designed to break the spirit of the native inhabitants and bring the occupied country under complete control. The three alls were ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’. The operation targeted for destruction ‘all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies’ and led to the deaths of over 2.7 million Chinese civilians.
  • Unit 731 was an experimental biological and chemical warfare research division, set up in occupied Manchuria which conducted experiments of unspeakable bestiality on Chinese victims. To quote Wikipedia,
    • ‘Thousands of men, women and children interred at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anaesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was feared that the decomposition process would affect the results. The infected and vivisected prisoners included men, women, children, and infants.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Allied Prisoners of War. Large numbers of memoirs, histories and movies have familiarised us with the Japanese’ merciless treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
    • a) Appalling though they obviously were, they pale in contrast to the appalling treatment Japanese meted out to their fellow Asian civilians.
    • b) Not having to prove so much on this well-discussed issue, Hastings is freed up to include stories of the small minority of Japanese who actually treated prisoners decently – though it’s noticeable that these were mostly civilians or unwilling recruits.
  • Cannibalism. On page 464 Hastings gives specific instances of Japanese cannibalism, including soldiers eating downed Allied air crew and murdered civilians. They preferred thigh meat.
    • ‘Portions of beheaded US carrier flier Marve Mershon were served to senior Japanese officers on Chichi Jima in February 1945, not because they needed the food, but to promote their own honour.’ (p.464)

The war in China

Eventually it becomes physically hard to read any more about the war in China. Japan invaded the north-east province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing their custom of mass murder and rape, associated most with the so-called ‘rape’ of Nanjing, where up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks of mayhem.

In 1937 the Japanese launched a further invasion of the entire coast of China. Mass murder, gang rape, forced labour, mass executions and germ warfare experiments on prisoners followed in their wake. Wherever they went, villages were looted, burned down, all the women gang raped, then cut open with bayonets or burned to death. Again and again and again. As throughout the book, Hastings quotes from eyewitness accounts and the stories of numerous survivors, who watched their families be bayoneted to death, heads cut off, forced into rooms into which the Japanese threw hand grenades, everywhere all the women were taken off to be gang raped, again and again, before being themselves executed.

The horror is difficult to imagine and becomes hard to read about.

More bearable, less drenched in blood, is Hasting’s fascinating high-level account of the political situation in China. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911, China fell apart into regions controlled by warlords. The most effective of these was Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, in the late 1920s, just before the Japanese took advantage of the chaos to invade Manchuria.

Chiang and his people were overt fascists, who despised the softness of liberal capitalist countries like the US and Britain. I didn’t know that the Americans poured an amazing amount of material aid, food and ammunition into Nationalist areas, hoping Chiang would create a force capable of stopping and then throwing the Japanese out. But Hastings shows how it was a stupendous waste of money due to the chronic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Chinese. It took American leaders at all levels four years to realise that the Nationalists were useless, their armed forces badly organised, barely trained, barely equipped and consistently refusing to fight the Japanese. Only slowly did fears begin to grow that the Kuomintang’s bottomless corruption and brutality were in fact paving the way for a Communist victory (which was to come in 1949).

The Philippines

More horror, compounded by American stupidity. US Generalissimo in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had lived in the Philippines before the war. US forces were driven out in 1942, after holding out in the Bataan Peninsula opposite Manila. Hence, once the tide of war turned and his forces had recaptured Papua New Guinea, MacArthur had a very personal ambition to recapture the archipelago.

Hastings is extremely critical of MacArthur’s publicity-seeking egotism, his refusal to listen to intelligence which contradicted his opinion, and above all his insistence on recapturing every single island in the Philippines, which led to thousands of unnecessary American deaths, when he could have bypassed, surrounded and starved them out with far fewer casualties.

Above all this obsession led him to fight for the capital Manila, instead of surrounding it and starving the occupying Japanese out. His predictions that it would be a pushover were proved disastrously wrong as the Japanese converted the battle for Manila into bitter, brutal street fighting comparable to Stalingrad or Berlin – with the extra twist that Japanese officers promised their troops they could enjoy their last days on earth by systematically gang raping as many Filipino women as they could get their hands on, and ordering them to massacre all civilians.

Hastings gives pages and pages of first-hand accounts of Japanese rape, butchery, beheadings, bayonetings, executions, murders and more rapes. It is quite sickening. Thus the ‘liberation’ of Manila (3 February to 3 March) resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Filipino civilians and the almost complete destruction of the historic city.

Summary

Having struggled through the descriptions of the war in China (pp.207-240) and the Battle of Manila (pp.241-266) the reader turns to the next chapter — to find it is an unforgivingly detailed account of the brutal battle for the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima…. This book really is a relentlessly grim and depressing chronicle of man’s most bestial, inhuman, grotesquely violent savage behaviour to his fellow man, and especially to vulnerable women.

Nemesis is a comprehensive, unblinking overview of the war in the Pacific, and includes revelatory chapters on often-neglected areas like Burma and the Chinese mainland. It is so long because at every point Hastings includes lots of eyewitness accounts, recorded in letters, diaries, autobiographies, official reports and so on, to give a strong feeling all the way through of individual experiences and how it seemed and felt to people at the time.

And he goes out of his way to include all nations, so there are plenty of accounts by Japanese and Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as the expected Allies. It is the civilians’ memoirs which are most harrowing, the Chinese and Filipino women’s accounts of the mass rapes of their families, villages and communities being particularly hard to read.

And the battle chapters chronicle the relentless Allied casualties which the well dug-in Japanese caused on every single island and hill and redoubt, on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all the poxy little Pacific islands the Americans had to capture on their long odyssey towards the Japanese mainland. These chapters, with their grinding destruction of human beings, builds up the sense of tension, stress and horror experienced by all the soldiers. It is a nerve-wracking book to read.

Subsequent chapters describe in harrowing detail:

  • The bloody campaign to retake Burma.
  • The genesis of the horrific American firebombing of Japanese cities. (The 9 March firebombing of Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, destroyed over 10,000 acres of buildings – a quarter of the city was razed – rendering a million people homeless amid the smoking ruins. It is difficult to read the eyewitness accounts without weeping or throwing up.)
  • The battle of Okinawa – which involved the largest amphibious landing in history, after D-Day – and where the Americans encountered Japanese dug into another almost indestructible network of caves and bunkers.
  • The genesis, rise, effectiveness and then falling-off of the kamikaze suicide-pilot movement (with its less well-known cousin, the suicide boat and torpedo squads).
  • The rise of Mao’s communists. Hastings fleshes out the idea that, although they both received massive amounts of aid from the Americans, flown in from India and Burma, neither Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army nor Mao’s Communist army was much interested in actually fighting the Japanese: neither of them had many guns, much ammunition, little or no military discipline or strategy. Both were focused on positioning themselves for the Chinese civil war they could see coming once the Americans had won. Everywhere the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalists alienated the population, whereas the communists were very careful to recruit and train the best peasants, and leave a good impression on villages they passed through. It took a long time for their American sponsors to realise that the Kuomintang was going to lose. Amusingly, American officials at the time and ever since have played down their support for Mao’s communists.
  • The Americans were really vehemently anti the European empires. Churchill fondly imagined he’d be able to restore the British Empire to the status quo ante the war, but the Americans did everything they could to spurn and undermine British efforts. Apparently, in the later part of the Pacific war a poisonous atmosphere existed between the American and British administrations in the region, as the British tried to squeeze in a contribution to the war, in order to justify their return to colonial mastery of Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc, while the Americans did everything they could to keep them out. And not just the British. A short but riveting section explains how the Americans systematically undermined the French government’s attempts to retake control of Indochina i.e. Vietnam. The Americans supported the leader of the Vietnamese nationalists, Ho Chi Minh, giving him time to establish his Viet Minh organisation and recruit widespread support for anti-colonial forces. This set off a train of events which would come back to bite America hard twenty years later, as it found itself dragged into the effort to stop Vietnam falling to communism during the 1960s – the Vietnam War – which did so much to fracture and polarise American society (and whose repercussions are still felt to this day).

One of Hasting’s most interesting points is the idea that the single most effective weapon against Japan was the naval blockade and in particular the heroic efforts of American submarines in smashing the Japanese merchant marine. Japan is made up of islands which have few natural resources; everything has to be imported; American submarines were bringing Japan to its knees, bringing war production to a grinding halt and starving its population well before the firebombing campaign began.

But wartime leaders need dramatic results, and also the air force was jockeying for position and influence against its rivals, the army and navy, and so the firebombing continued – with an undoubtedly devastating effect on the civilian population but a less decisive impact on Japan’s commitment to the war.

The atom bomb

And this accumulated sense of endless nightmare provides the full depth and horror, the correct historical context, for the American decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I read about recently in Jim Baggott’s excellent history of the atom bomb, Atomic.

You and I may reel with horror at the effect of the atom bombs but both these books make clear that millions of American soldiers, their families, the wider nation, the Allies generally, not to mention the scores of thousands of Allied and Asian prisoners of war, and all the peoples in the occupied zones of China – all felt nothing but relief and gratitude that the seemingly unending slaughter and raping and burning and torture had finally come to an end.

Hastings goes into considerable detail on the military, strategic, political and diplomatic background to the dropping of the bombs.

  • In his account, the idea that the bombs prevented the need to invade Japan in which scores of thousands of American troops would have died, is downplayed. In Hasting’s opinion, Japan was already on its knees and had been brought there by the effectiveness of the naval blockade. Its people were starving, its war industries grinding to a halt.
  • For the American military leadership the bomb didn’t (at first) represent a significantly new departure, but just a continuation of the firebombing of Japanese cities which had killed at least 200,000 people by this stage, and which was set to continue indefinitely. (It is grimly, darkly humorous to learn that Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site precisely because it had been left untouched by the firebombing campaign, and so would provide perfect experimental conditions to assess the impact of the new weapon. Similarly, it is all-too-human to learn that the general in charge of the firebombing, Curtis LeMay, was angered that the atom bombs robbed him of being able to claim that his firebombing campaign alone had won the war against Japan. Such is human nature.)
  • The second bomb was dropped because the Japanese hesitated and prevaricated even after Hiroshima, and this was due to at least two fundamental flaws in its leadership and culture:
    • Everyone was scared of the military. By now the Prime Minister and other ministers, backed up by information from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, realised they had to surrender. But the cabinet of the ‘Big Six’ included the heads of the army and navy who refused. They insisted that Japan would rise up as one man and fight to the death. In their vision, all Japanese, the entire nation, should be ready to die honourably instead of surrender. And Japan had existed in a climate of fascist fear for over a decade. Anybody who spoke out against the military leadership tended to be assassinated. They all claimed to worship Emperor Hirohito as a living god but Hirohito was incapable, partly from temperament, partly from his position, to make a decision. He, like his civilian politicians and a lot of the population, obviously realised the game was up and wanted to end the war – they just didn’t want to end it by giving up their army or navy or colonies in Asia or existing political system or bringing war criminals to trial. They wanted to surrender without actually having to surrender. Thus hopelessly conflicted, Japan’s leadership was effectively paralysed. Instead of making a swift appeal to surrender to the Americans, they carried on pettifogging about the use of the phrase ‘unconditional surrender’, and so the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. These sections are peppered with phrases like ‘delusional’, ‘in denial’, ‘gross miscalculation’
    • (As in the Jim Baggott book, Hastings reports the simple and devastating fact that the intended target, Kokura, happened to be covered in cloud when the B-29 carrying the bomb approached, so the flight crew switched to the secondary target, Nagasaki, where conditions were clear. Lucky weather for Kokura. Unlucky weather for Nagasaki. Thus the autterly random contingencies which determined life and death in the terrible twentieth century.)
  • The biggest revelation for me was the role of Russia. Russia remained neutral in the war against Japan until the last day. This allowed Japanese diplomats and politicians to pin their hopes on the Russians somehow being able to negotiate a peace with their American allies, whereby Japan could surrender and not surrender. Right up to the last minute they thought this was an option, not knowing that Stalin had asked Roosevelt if he could join the war against Japan once the war in Europe was finished and that Roosevelt had agreed (before dying in April 1945 and being succeeded by Harry Truman). Hastings chronicles the intense diplomatic manoeuvring which took place in July and early August, the Japanese with their futilely wishful thinking, Stalin calculating how much of Asia he could grab from the obviously defeated Japs, and the Americans becoming increasingly concerned that Stalin would award himself huge areas after having made next to no contribution to the war.
  • So, if you remove the motivation that dropping the bombs would save the lives of potentially 100,000 young American men who could be expected to be lost in a fiercely contested invasion of Japan’s home islands – then you are led to the conclusion that at least as important was the message they sent to the USSR: ‘America decisively won this war. To the victor the spoils. Don’t mess with us.’ The dropping of the A-bombs becomes the last act of the Second World War and simultaneously the first act of the Cold War which gripped the world for the next 44 years.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

I didn’t realise that on the same day that America dropped the Nagasaki bomb, the Russian army attacked the Japanese across a massive front into Manchuria and the Sakhalin peninsula, with over a million men. Although the Japanese had feared a Russian invasion for years and knew about the massed build-up on the borders, once again ‘evasion of unpalatable reality prevailed over rational analysis of probabilities’ (p.534). And so, on 9 August 1945, the Red Army invaded Manchuria along a massive front, taking just seven days to shatter Japan’s Kwantung Army, achieving total victory in the Far East in less than 3 weeks. They killed or wounded 674,000 Japanese troops, losing 12,031 killed and 24,425 wounded themselves (p.582).

During the defeat Japanese colonists were ordered to resist and die. This especially applied to mothers, who were expected to kill their children and then themselves. They were often helped out by obliging Japanese soldiers. The Russians were held up in some spots by the same fanatical resistance and suicide squads which made Iwo Jima and Okinawa such bloodbaths, except this was a huge area of open territory, rather than a tiny island, and the Japs had run out of arms and ammunition – and so could be easily outflanked and outgunned.

As usual with Russian soldiers, there soon emerged widespread rumours of indiscriminate rape of all surviving Japanese women and random Chinese women – ‘wholesale rape’ as Hastings puts it (p.571) – though this has been fiercely contested by Russian historians. The very last battle of the Second World War was the Russian storming of a vast network of bunkers and artillery placements at Houtou. The Japanese resisted to the last until around 2,000 defenders were dead, including women and scores of Japanese children. The Soviet soldiers addressed the local Chinese peasants telling them they had been liberated by the Red Army and then set about looting everything which could be moved, including the entire local railway line, and ‘women were raped in the usual fashion’ (p.578).

This storming campaign showed that Russia’s victories in Europe were no fluke. The Russians now had an enormous and effective war machine, the most experienced in the world, given that it had been fighting vast land battles for three years, unlike the other Allies.

Up until this moment the Japanese had been hoping against hope that Russia would somehow intervene with America to manage a conditional surrender. Now they finally lost that hope and Japan’s leaders were forced towards the unconditional surrender, which they finally signed on 2 September 1945.

The Soviet occupation of Manchuria, along with the northern portions of the Korean peninsula, allowed them to transfer these areas to communist-backed regimes. This helped the rise of communist China and communist North Korea, laying the seeds for the Korean War (1950-53) and the ongoing nuclear threat from contemporary North Korea. Thus do geopolitical acts live on long, long past the lifetimes of their protagonists.

***

When I bought the book I thought the title, Nemesis, was a bit melodramatic. Having read it, I realise now that no words can convey the intensity, the duration and the bestiality of such horror. I am ashamed to have lived in the 20th century. At times, reading this book, I was ashamed to be a human being.

Nagasaki, after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945

Nagasaki after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945


Credit

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings was published in 2007 by HarperPress. All quotes and references are to the 2016 William Collins paperback edition.

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Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming (1954)

‘So it is convenient that you should die together. That will happen, in an appropriate fashion,’ the Big Man looked at his watch, ‘in two and a half hours’ time. At six o’clock,’ he added, ‘give or take a few minutes.’
‘Let’s give those minutes,’ said Bond. ‘I enjoy my life.’ (p.225)

Luxury

He certainly does. The first hundred pages or so introduce the powerful themes of America, and of black culture in America, but what struck me all over again is the importance of sensual living and luxury in the Bond persona. In fact the opening sentence is ‘There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent’ (p.1). This is the kind of classy sensualism a whole generation of spy writers reacted against, but it is terrifically enjoyable to be in Bond’s skin. He arrives at New York airport, is whisked through Customs to ‘the best hotel in New York, the St Regis’. Here he enjoys the spaciousness of the rooms, has his characteristic sense-heightening cold shower, meets Felix Leiter his friend from CIA, and, along with their FBI contact, Dexter, eat a hearty American dinner – soft-shell crabs with tartare sauce, flat beef Hamburgers, medium-rare, french-fried potatoes, broccoli, mixed salad with thousand-island dressing, ice-cream with melted butterscotch.

(This was still the age of rationing in Britain, which got worse after the end of the Second World War and didn’t actually end until July 1954, ie after this book was published. Therefore, Bond’s luxury meals, whether in France (in Casino Royale) or New York hamburgers, as here, were objects of the wildest fantasy to all his British readers.)

Given half a chance he is always naked. In the final, holiday, section of Casino Royale there is nothing he likes better than walking down to the beach, stripping off and piling into the cold bracing water. In his luxury hotels, after a trademark cold shower, he pads around the rooms collecting stuff, opening letters, assembling his thoughts. Continually we are in the mind of a tremendously alert, alive, clever but above all sensual personality.

Sensual enjoyment

He enjoys his bracing morning cold shower – he enjoys breakfast the next morning – his usual half a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice, three scrambled eggs and strong coffee. He enjoys tapping out the first cigarette of the day and staring out the window of his luxury hotel. On page 39 there’s a fine description of Bond watching sun set over New York and the lights on the skyscrapers coming on till it looks like a ‘golden honeycomb’. The cold wind blowing outside lends his snug room ‘still more warmth and security and luxury‘. For a moment he remembers the bitter weather of London in February, the hissing gas fire at MI6 headquarters, and the crappy food advertised on boards outside his local pub. Then climbs into the fine clean sheets of his hotel and stretches ‘luxuriously‘.

Bond has escaped the narrow confines, horrible weather, the poverty and privations of Britain, and through these texts we escape with him. And sometimes, for all the supposed maturity and sophistication of his persona, Bond lets slip the enthusiasm of an overgrown schoolboy.

He loved trains and he looked forward with excitement to the rest of the journey. (p.100)

There’s a similar Brit-Yank comparison as Bond reads the romantic names on freight cars in sidings – Lacawanna, Chesapeake, Seaboard Fruit Express – and compares them with the names of home: British Railways 😦

Bond liked fast cars and he liked driving them. (p.134)

For all the bombs and shooting and torture and intimidation, these are books about a man who enjoys life.

The set-up

Valuable historic gold coins are being fenced on the New York market and FBI investigations have traced them back to a suspected hoard of treasure, which is now being distributed by an extensive network embedded in America’s black community. At the centre sits Mr Big, an extraordinarily clever, powerful, ruthless black man, who runs most of the organised crime in the black community. (Big is an acronym for Buonapart Ignace Gallia.) But this isn’t all: Big was recruited by the Soviets while on US army service in the south of France during the war. At his briefing (pp.13-18), M tells Bond that Mr Big is not just a Soviet agent, but an agent of SMERSH (a conjunction of the Russian words SMERt SHpionam, meaning Death to Spies) the very organisation we saw Bond vowing to dedicate his life to attacking and destroying at the end of Casino Royale.

Black culture

Since the book was written by an upper-class Englishman over 60 years ago, it would be amazing if it escaped accusations of racism, which probably occur on every page, starting with the way he writes ‘negro’ instead of ‘black’ or ‘African American’, or whatever is the current appropriate term. If we accept that Fleming’s text is a million miles away from our modern enlightened attitudes, the interesting thing is actually how far out of his way he goes to sympathise with black people and praise them. He has M say ‘the negro races’ are beginning to produce ‘geniuses in all the professions’ (p.18) and when Felix Leiter takes Bond on a tour of Harlem nightspots, Leiter goes out of his way to praise black creativity, and is himself a passionate devotee of jazz music.

Bond at no point despises blacks for being blacks: the opposite; he is impressed, even awed, at the cleverness and efficiency of the network of fear and control Mr Big has created (p.22) and, once he is in their clutches, at its efficiency and thoroughness. And he respects the knowledge and expertise of Quarrel, the fisherman who briefs him before his final perilous underwater swim.

The ten pages or so where Leiter takes Bond on a tour of Harlem read very much like actual research notes. It would be interesting to know how close it is to any actual visit Fleming made. Certainly the prose conveys a tremendous sense of the energy and excitement of the bars and clubs of Harlem, and the tension for a white man entering a community which is mostly polite and respectful, but not very pleased to see him.

Voodoo

But not only is Mr Big a) head of America’s black organised crime b) which he is running to aid the Russians and c) an agent of the special execution branch, SMERSH – he is also d) the head of the organised voodoo cult in the States. On pages 25 to 29 Fleming quotes liberally from the intense and vivid descriptions of voodoo rituals given in The Travellers Tree by Patrick Leigh Fermor, based on the latter’s trip round the Caribbean at the end of the 1940s. Mr Big cultivates the rumour of being ‘the Zombie or living corpse of Baron Samedi himself, the dreaded Prince of Darkness’ (p.21 and p.110).

In the 1973 movie the Voodoo is much more prominent and Bond actually witnesses Voodoo ceremonies. In the book it is mostly in the background, explained as a tool Mr Big uses to keep his underlings in thrall. There is a powerful sequence as Bond gets to know Solitaire (chapter 11) where we see into her thoughts and she despairs of ever getting this calm, confident, sensible, civilised white man to understand what it was like to be brought up in poverty, in illiterate, superstition-riddled Haiti, to be inducted into the all-pervasive cults so that no matter where you go or how adult you think you are, you can never escape your childhood terrors.

The plot

1. New York

Bond arrives in New York with a mission to track down Mr Big and shut down the gold treasure-funded Soviet operation he’s running. He liaises with Felix Leiter from the CIA and FBI man Hampton. Leiter takes him up to Harlem for a tour of bars and clubs and to soak up black culture. The pair are tracked by Mr Big’s sophisticated network of street-level informants as soon as they enter his territory, and at the final nightclub of the tour are kidnapped (by the admittedly gimmicky trick of having the table they’re sitting in disappear down through a trapdoor during a blackout in the stage act – a very sensual voodoo strip-tease).

Bond is escorted into the company of Mr Big who is an outsize, misshapen giant of a man, and a cold calculating intellect. He introduces Solitaire, ‘one of the most beautiful women Bond had ever seen’ (p.69) although, in keeping with Bond’s S&M vibe, she has ‘high cheekbones and a wide, sensual mouth which held a hint of cruelty’ (p.70).

Mr Big keeps Solitaire as a sort of slave because she has special telepathic powers and can read the Tarot cards. One day he will marry her but not yet, as sex ruins her powers – hence the name ‘Solitaire’ (her actual name is Simone Latrelle p.102). Improbably, Bond and Solitaire are instantly attracted and she a) leans forward to show him her cleavage (earning the rebuke of a flick of his whip over her shoulders from Mr Big) b) shows him the Tarot cards of the Prince and Princess kissing. A pretty blatant come-on.

As in Casino Royale, Bond is tied to a chair and tortured, in this case having the little finger of his left hand deliberately broken by a henchman named Tee-Hee. Mr Big says he is going to let him live for the simple reason that killing him would just cause tiresome botherment from the authorities. So Big tells his henchman to rough Bond up and dump him in Central Park. He is dismissed. In the corridor to the garage Bond jumps TeeHee, punching him to the ground, then kicking him in the groin before pushing him down a flight of stairs to his death. Taking TeeHee’s gun, he bursts into the garage, shooting dead the driver of the waiting car and another henchman, then makes a tyre-screeching escape.

Back at the hotel, Bond discovers that Leiter also escaped relatively unharmed by forming a bond with the black henchman instructed to seriously hurt him over a shared passion for jazz, resulting in a few punches and being dumped outside his hotel. But Mr Big is kicking up a fuss with the authorities, claiming his men have been attacked and murdered by a white intruder. Leiter will try and calm down the FBI and the cops, but it’s time to leave town.

2. On the train

So Bond catches the long distance train south to St Petersburg in Florida, as this is where FBI information says Mr Big’s cruiser – the Secatur – regularly docks on its trips over from the Caribbean. 1. Improbably, Bond gets a phone call at his hotel from Solitaire, in fear of her life and wanting to run away with him. Bond weighs the odds, decides to trust her, and gives him details of the train. She meets him there and they travel down masquerading as a married couple. 2. But Mr Big’s men have spotted them and are on their trail. The kindly black steward, Baldwin, warns Bond, who slips off the train with Solitaire at a midnight stop at a junction in the middle of nowhere. Not before time, because a few hours later the train is hijacked on a bit of deserted track, and some of Mr Big’s men a) riddle Bond’s sleeping compartment with bullets before b) throwing a hand grenade in it (killing the unfortunate Baldwin thus creating a) a sense of pathos b) emphasising that Mr B kills his own race, too.)

3. St Petersburg, Florida

When Bond and Solitaire arrive on the following train, four hours later, and rendezvous with Leiter at the hotel out on Treasure Island’, a resort outside Petersburg, Leiter is amazed and relieved to see Bond; surprised he has Solitaire with him; and fills him in on the assassination attempt and all the hysteria it’s caused with the authorities.

Leiter and Bond decide to go out to the dock where the Secatur generally puts in, owned by the Ourobouros Worm and Bait company, and encounter its harsh owner, ‘the Robber’, who shoots a pelican dead with a rifle he casually swings past Bond and Leiter’s bellies, before warning them off trespassing.

When they get back to the hotel it is to find that Solitaire has been kidnapped by Mr Big’s men. Leiter jumps into action, getting the authorities to put out an all-points bulletin etc. They go to a diner, eat rotten food and go to bed feeling bitter at having left her defenceless. When Bond wakes he has overslept and finds a hand written message from Leiter saying he’s gotten up early to go back to the Worm Company. Barely has he read it before there’s a call from a local hospital: a Mr Leiter is asking for him. Bond hurries off in a taxi only to find no record of the doctor or Leiter at the hospital. Feeling sick, he hurries back to the hotel to discover from the landlady that an ambulance has been and delivered Mr Leiter on a stretcher to his room.

Here Bond discovers Leiter’s body swathed in bloody bandages. He calls police and doctors and the CIA and then London. The doctor says Leiter has been very badly mauled, probably by a big fish, probably a shark. He’s lost one arm altogether and his left leg below the knee, and might not survive. The ambulance departs. The investigating police depart. A call comes from Leiter’s superior in the CIA saying maybe it’s time for Bond to move on to the Caribbean arm of the investigation. Bond agrees and books tickets, but…

That night Bond breaks into the Oourobouros Worm Company warehouse and confirms his suspicions. Concealed in the sand at the bottom of the aquaria holding the various exotic fishes, are the gold coins. This is how they’re smuggled into the country. No sooner has he made the discovery than the floodlights go on and shots are fired at him. There follows a spectacular shootout among the precious water tanks, which involves most of them being smashed or knocked over. Eventually, having run out of bullets, Bond feigns an injury, limps up to The Robber and, distracting him for a fraction of a second by dropping the gold coin he’d found, manages to punch and kick him to the floor. He then pushes him back towards the concealed trap door, the same one The Robber lured Felix over, which swings open and drops The Robber with a blood-curdling scream into the open water tank below, where a big bad shark is waiting to eat him alive.

Bond brushes himself down, and departs, drives down to the highway towards the airport, checks into a cheap motel, showers, cleans his teeth and gargles with mouthwash and passes out in the bed. Next day he catches a flight to Jamaica (a fascinating couple of pages of travelogue from Fleming, describing flying over the jungle of central Florida, stopping over at Nassau, the modest lights of Havana; his attitude to America is mixed, the scenes in New York had opened with much admiration for its beauty and energy, but by the end he is glad to see the back of Eldollarado, ‘a land where litter and junk are so much a part of the landscape’ (p.154), where most of the food served in most of the towns and diners, is junk).

It is also striking that, when the plane hits turbulence, Bond is afraid. There is an intense account (pp.170-172) of his thoughts as he works through what would happen to him and his fellow passengers if the engines failed or the fuselage was split open. Not all the pretty handwashes or luxury duty free would save them from plummeting 15,000 feet to create messy holes in the ground or simply disappear beneath the waves. He has to think of his destiny in the hands of imponderable stars. All of life is a risk. He’s made it this far. You must enjoy every possible minute.

You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. So take it easy. Light a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs. Your stars have already let you come quite a long way since you left your mother’s womb and whimpered at the cold air of the world. (p.171)

As the flight lands he unclenches his hands and wipes the sweat from his brow…

4. Jamaica

He’s met by Strangways, head of the Service in the Caribbean. (35, ex Lieutenant-Commander in the RNVR, black patch over one eye – p.173). Strangways fills him in on the background: rumour always had it that Captain Morgan the British pirate used the Isle of Surprise, on the south coast of Jamaica as his base. When Morgan was finally hauled off to London for trial in the 1680s he must have left a vast treasure trove but no-one ever found it. Then a few months ago a local fisherman went missing out in Shark Bay (where Surprise lies) and shortly afterwards a smart yacht appeared full of American blacks. The supposition is that the fisherman found the treasure somewhere, went to Mr Big in New York with the news, was dumped in the Hudson River in a concrete overcoat, then Mr Big used his money and international lawyer contacts to buy the island. Shortly afterwards the yacht Secatur arrived, his men created a jetty and cut steps up the side of the rock to the plateau at the top, and began carrying in glass vitrines for aquariums. They then began buying rare, exotic or poisonous fish from local fishermen and settled down into a routine of loading sand-bottomed, fish-filled vitrines into the Secatur on its regular visits, which it ferried back to the Ourbouros warehouse in Florida (the one we saw Bond shooting up a few chapters previously). Smuggling – as Bond now knows – the gold coins in the sand at the bottom of the cases.

Bond is introduced to Quarrel a Cayman Islander fisherman who is going to be his instructor and trainer. They bond instantly, forming a relationship of complete trust as between a Scottish laird and his retainer (p.181). Surprise is within sight of the mainland, but Quarrel and Bond head off to a settlement way up the coast, in Manatee Bay, where Bond can train and learn about underwater wildlife and hazards in the Caribbean. Every morning he swims a mile up the beach and runs back, then settles down to Quarrel’s instruction about local fish, especially the fearsome sharks and barracudas. Strangways tells Bond he’s sent several locals across to investigate the island but their bodies always washed up back on the mainland half-eaten by barracuda. Scary.

Bond is lean and fit when Strangways calls by to tell them Mr Big’s yacht is due in any day. They move operations back to a rented colonial house – Beau Regard – in the settlement overlooking the Isle. Bond takes delivery of a frogman’s wetsuit crafted by ‘Q’ division (p.195), a heavy limpet mine with a selection of timed fuses, a commando dagger and a harpoon gun.

Suddenly he loathed and feared the sea and everything in it. (p.199)

Bond had shown genuine fear when his plane was caught in turbulence. Now, just as vividly, he imagines the million lives of the slimy things which he will be passing among as he sets out to swim to the island. Not just the obvious sharks and barracudas, but a million tiny prickly poisonous creatures who don’t want him there, who are waiting to tear, poison, rip, sting and eat him. Strangways, Quarrel and Bond watch through binoculars as the Secatur docks and various black gang members go about their tasks before Mr Big himself appears and goes ashore.

That evening he takes a Benzedrine tablet, climbs into his wetsuit, checks the air tanks, takes harpoon and dagger and disappears into the water. The fairly short underwater journey is vividly described. The main event is his feet are suddenly gripped by an octopus hidden under a rock which starts immediately dragging him beneath it. The limpet mine attached to his chest makes it impossible to get a clear aim, till he is being pulled right into the darkness and another tentacle is gripping the harpoon gun when he fires. Immediately there is a squirt of black ink into the seawater and he is released. He presses on through the reef surrounding the island, and then into clear underwater sand where suddenly he is punched in the shoulder and horrified to see red blood in the water around him. A barracuda has bitten a chunk out of his shoulder, taking wetsuit, flesh and muscle. Panicking at the thought of the other predator fish which will be here in seconds, and of being savaged to death, Bond hurtles towards a large rock and realises there is some kind of entrance behind it.

Padding along the sloping sand he emerges into an underwater chamber to find himself surrounded by men with knives and guns, and Mr Big sitting at an accounting table in a huge cave, awaiting him. They saw the black ink from the octopus and then his trail of bubbles.

Big takes him upstairs and into a narrow corridor lined with shackles. God knows how many poor victims of Captain Morgan’s rule wasted and died here. And here he is reunited with Solitaire, dark-eyed, tearful, she’s lost weight but appears otherwise unharmed. Mr Big has his men tie Solitaire and Bond to the shackles and then explains passionlessly and scientifically how he is going to kill them in a cunning and appropriate manner: they will be tied together and then attached by rope to the paravane the yacht tows behind it: the yacht will sail through the gap in the reef by which it enters and exits the lagoon, then turn to one side so the rope pulling them is dragged across the top of the razor-sharp coral. The yacht will pick up speed and Bond and Solitaire will be hauled for yards and yards over the reef until their bodies are cut to ribbons. Once out in the open sea, their bodies will become bait for sharks and barracuda, eaten alive, then dead, till there is no evidence left, and he will sail calmly back to Florida.

He locks the door and leaves Bond to work through the terrifying scenarios and reassure Solitaire as best he can. Fleming leaves no stone unturned in his lingering on the gruesome details. Bond can only hope the limpet mine will go off after they’ve set sail – so it kills the bad guys – but before their bodies hit the coral. Otherwise, he determines to use his strength to drown Solitaire then try to drown himself. These are the kind of desperate, deadly thoughts going through his mind, when – hours later – Big’s men come to fetch him.

Bond and Solitaire are tied together and by a strong rope to the paravane, as promised and slowly lazily the yacht sets off for the gap in the reef, with the couple towed behind them. Fleming ratchets up the tension as high as possible, writing so intensely as to overcome your knowledge that Bond (obviously) survives, and instead placing you in a vividly described, intensely physical moment.

Fortunately, the limpet mine does blow up at exactly the right moment, Bond and Solitaire are lifted by the blast into the air before hitting the water again and beginning to sink. It takes all Bond’s strength to get onto his back (to keep the unconscious Solitaire out of the water) and paddle with the little movement in his hands and feet, backwards towards the reef where his feet scrabble about – lacerating feet, calves and thighs – before he finds a relatively secure position to slowly, painfully lie back, so they are both out of the water.

From this vantage point he surveys the wreck of the Secatur, which has in fact mostly disappeared, except for hunks of flesh and a carpet of dead fish floating on the surface. And then he notices Mr Big, who has somehow survived the blast, desperately swimming towards the safety of the reef, and nearly making it when – crunch! – he is bitten by a barracuda, then another, thrashing and screaming bloodily in the water until he is  finished off by a shark.

And now Quarrel is racing towards him in a canoe followed by other fishermen. In the brief last pages, Bond bathes the girl then puts her to bed, then is himself bathed in antiseptic by Strangways, before being sent off to hospital. Bandages and recovery. A telegram of congratulations from M, pragmatically ordering Strangways and Bond to claim the treasure for HM Government (and his cash-strapped department). And giving him two weeks leave in the idyllic house by the sea, for him and Solitaire to recover and then consummate their passion. Which, presumably, they do.


Bond’s biography

Bond still lives in a flat in Chelsea (as we know Fleming did from 1934 to 1945). He still works for the British Secret Service (based in ‘the big, grey building near Regents Park’ p.87), whose boss is ‘M’, whose personal secretary is ‘the desirable Miss Moneypenny’ (p.13). For the first time we hear Bond use the cover name the Service uses for agents abroad, Universal Exports (p.87).

Bond is still a Double O, meaning ‘you have had to kill a man during the course of some assignment’ (p.68). In a revealing phrase, Fleming lets Bond’s S&M mentality transfer over to his boss when he calls M from New York.

‘Yes?’ said the cold voice that Bond loved and obeyed. (p.87)

He still cherishes his 1933 4.5 litre grey Bentley convertible with the Amherst-Villiers supercharger (p.11). He has the comma of black hair hanging above his right eyebrow, the thin vertical scar down his right cheek, and grey-blue eyes with their coldness and hint of anger (p.25). Q branch has grafted skin from his forearm over the Russian letter carved into his right hand by the SMERSH operative who unintentionally saved his life towards the end of Casino Royale. (No mention is made of the intense damage to his body, especially his private parts, during that novel; all is magically healed.) Felix Leiter is still tall and thin with a ‘mop of straw-coloured hair’ (p.41), though less so after he is half-eaten by a shark. Will he reappear mauled and crippled, in later adventures?

The title is given in dialogue with the FBI agent Dexter in chapter 4:

‘And don’t go stirring up any trouble for us. This case isn’t ripe yet. Until it is, our policy with Mr Big is “live and let live”‘.
Bond looked quizzically at Captain Dexter.
‘In my job,’ he said, ‘when I come up against a man like this one, I have another motto. It’s “live and let die”.’


Credit

Live and Let Die was published in 1954 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1978 Triad Grafton paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers of 1954

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire by Niall Ferguson (2004)

The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 as a result of the 9/11 attacks. It invaded Iraq in March 2003 in response to the alleged threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

These acts prompted an unprecedented flood of articles in newspapers and magazines, TV documentaries, conferences, seminars, papers and hundreds of books speculating whether America was now, finally, at last revealed to be an ’empire’ with nakedly ‘imperial’ ambitions.

British economic historian Niall Ferguson entered the debate with a Channel 4 TV series and book on the subject – which also neatly complemented the C4 TV series and book he had published in 2003 about the British Empire.

When I bought it I thought, from its subtitle (‘The rise and fall of the American empire’), that it would be a history, maybe a chronological account of the growth of American power.

But it isn’t. Even more so than the British Empire book, this book is really an extended argument with historical examples. It is a polemical interpretation of history, written with a very strong point of view, which starts in the present day – the Preface, written in 2005 is full of references to contemporary events in Iraq, to ongoing debates in the media, policy statements by the Administration, learned articles etc – and, no matter what incidents from the past it describes, Ferguson is always emphasising their relevance to the present situation.

However, time has a way of advancing at a steady pace: it is now 12 years since the book (11 years since the preface) were published, and we have the usual benefit of hindsight, both on America’s strategic decisions, and on Ferguson’s interpretation of them.

The book can therefore be read and enjoyed on at least three levels:

  1. As a snapshot of contemporary thinking about US policy in Afghanistan/Iraq in 2003/4
  2. As an extended argument about the role of the US in global affairs, with which to agree or disagree
  3. For the illustrations of that argument which include a succession of fascinating accounts of episodes from US history which shed light on the empire thesis (and other things too)

An empire in denial

Ferguson’s thesis can be stated very simply: the US is an empire; despite all protests to the contrary, it always has been an empire; in fact it would be a good thing for the world as a whole if the leaders of America just accepted the fact and began to act more like an empire; instead of which America’s rulers have a long tradition of intervening for short periods in foreign countries, then withdrawing in a hurry and letting them revert to chaos/civil war/instability. Ferguson’s thesis is that Americans should stay in the countries they invade, and be prepared to pay the cost.

The way he puts it is that America is an ’empire in denial’. In reach and power, in its conviction of being a torch bearer of civilised values – freedom, democracy, free market capitalism etc – in the sheer fact that its armed forces outnumber the next ten or so nations’ armies put together, and that it has military bases in half the nations of the earth – America is an Empire in everything but name.

The book is – maybe intentionally – comic in the way it lines up quotes from US presidents and senators and commentators from the late 19th century onwards, all saying the US is not an empire and carrying on vowing it does not have imperial ambitions etc, through the Second World War – notably the fiercely anti-imperial Franklin Roosevelt, who played a large role in undermining the British Empire – and right up to the present day, asserting, ‘No empire, no way!’

Then follows all these denials with an account of

a) how America was created ie by killing Indians, seizing territory, fighting neighbouring countries, buying land
b) once the continental boundaries were settled, reaching out to acquire colonies in the Pacific and Caribbean, by sometimes pretty underhand dealing
c) the growing chorus of commentators who, especially after WW2, simply recognise US behaviour for what it’s been – stepping in to fill the power vacuum left by the bankruptcy of the British Empire and feeling free to intervene in conflicts anywhere in the world to influence them in the ‘right’ direction. The American direction. Korea, Suez, Iran, Vietnam, Iraq.

Not new

That America is an empire is not a new thought, in fact it is a cliché of our times. You only have to Google ‘American empire’ to be appalled at the amount of learned ink and journalistic hype which has been spilt debating the point back and forth for the past 15 years. Ferguson claims that what makes him stand out from this vast sea of discourse is that he thinks an American Empire would be a good thing, and that the Americans, alas, don’t go far enough. For Ferguson the Americans have, like it or not, become the world’s main guarantor of peace, liberty, democracy, capitalism and free trade – but are continually shooting themselves in the foot by not doing it properly.

For my money what makes Ferguson stand out from the scrum of people in this arena is that 1. very few of the political commentators have the breadth and depth of knowledge he brings to bear as a professional economic historian – and 2. not many of his fellow historians have a taste for writing such partisan and polemical pieces with such verve and confidence.

Structure

In the introduction Ferguson outlines the structure of the book in eight chapters:

  1. The imperial origins of the USA ie the way the Founding Fathers themselves (surprisingly) used the term ’empire’, and the way the young nation bought, fought and conquered its way across the continent and beyond.
  2. A fascinating account of America’s successes (Hawaii and Puerto Rico) and failures (the rest of central America and the Caribbean): drawing the conclusion that it has been most successful where it directly and permanently intervenes and governs, and repeatedly failed when it intervenes to overthrow a dictator and quickly withdraws (Panama, Nicaragua), leaving the fundamental problems of poor governance unchanged.
  3. Showing how 9/11 represented a culmination of decades of mismanagement of the Middle East and of growing Islamic terrorist organisations which the US did little to tackle.
  4. How the failure of the UN in the Yugoslav civil wars and the Rwanda genocide showed the US it could and should go it alone, proving that all decisive action in the post-Cold War world requires is a ‘coalition of the willing’; and how the disasters of small-scale US intervention in Somalia and Lebanon suggested that the US should only intervene in situations with a clear end-goal and then only with overwhelming force.
  5. Assesses the costs and benefits of America establishing a true empire, ie permanently occupying failed states.
  6. This is a detailed essay which could easily stand alone, assessing whether the US has the capacity, know-how or staying power to remain in Iraq long enough to build a viable nation state, cheekily comparing its quick-fix approach to the history of Britain’s long stay in Egypt. The British officially stated no fewer than 66 times that they would clear out of Egypt, starting within weeks of their unofficial ‘conquest’ in 1882; whereas they ended up staying for 72 years, Ferguson controversially argues, much to Egypt’s economic and legal benefit. Another element in America’s weakness is the reluctance of Americans to serve abroad. Most get postings to the Middle East for a year and are soon back home among the hamburgers and soccer moms. This makes you appreciate rather more the selflessness of lots of British administrators who devoted their entire lives to ‘serving’ in often very remote parts of the world, with little thanks at home or from the native peoples, stiffened by the ethos of service and self-sacrifice which had been drummed into them in Britain’s public schools. There is simply no equivalent in American culture.
  7. This chapter also feels like a stand-alone essay on the simple question: Is the European Union a viable new ’empire’ capable of asserting western values through unified force in a way which can challenge the United States? Well, No. Ferguson very thoroughly demolishes the idea and confirms one’s sense that the EU is a ramshackle bureaucracy dedicated to guaranteeing its employees a fabulous lifestyle and protecting French farmers, while completely failing to act decisively in any kind of emergency, from the Yugoslav civil wars to the the current Refugee Crisis via its wise and fair treatment of the defaulting Greeks.
  8. Many critics and commentators predict the American Empire will be brought low by what Paul Kennedy called ‘imperial overstretch’ and go bankrupt like the great empires before it. Ferguson brings his grasp of historical economics to bear to argue that the real threats to the US economy are in fact internal. The largest elements in the US budget are not military but the vast obligations of Social Security (pensions) and Medicare. Politically, the threat is not of over-stretch but of over-hasty withdrawal of forces form trouble zones, under pressure from domestic public opinion and ever-recurrent US isolationism. Once again, leaving the job half-done.

And this concern does seem to have been justified. As the Wikipedia article on the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq makes clear, President Bush held out against a Congress and public opinion calling for the troops to come home from 2007 onwards, signing an agreement that the last ones would leave in December 2011. Since that time the main development in the region has of course been the popular uprising in neighbouring Syria against President Bashar al-Assad, which led to a civil war, which, along with a power vacuum in northern Iraq, led to the swift emergence of a new force, Islamic State.

Whether the rise of ISIL could have been prevented by maintaining US forces in Iraq is something historians will debate forever. How many forces, exactly? And for how long?

Insights and stories

As with Empire, a lot of the basic story is familiar, especially the recaps of the disasters of the 1990s (Yugoslavia, Rwanda) and the detailed account of the diplomatic pussy-footing to get the UN resolutions and allies needed to invade Iraq. I feel like I’ve read hundreds of articles and books on the subject.

By contrast, his chapters on the early history of the American republic, and then its interventions in Latin America, the Philippines, Hawaii etc, were mostly new to me. Certainly the way they are interpreted in light of Ferguson’s thesis – ie from its earliest days the US has been imperial in ambition, and that its best interventions have been the most complete and overt ones – were new and thought-provoking.

  • The Louisiana Purchase (1803)
  • War of 1812 I hadn’t quite realised the States started this war simply to grab land, nor that the small British forces fought back so effectively that they pushed the Yanks back to Washington where – in the war’s most famous incident – they burned down the White House. Nor that the war helped create a sense of Canadian nationhood among the people that pushed back the Americans.
  • Mexican-American War (1846-48) resulting from the US annexation of Texas and leading to the acquisition of more land ie southern California and New Mexico.
  • Overthrow of Hawaii’s rulers I didn’t know how completely imperial the seizure of Hawaii was, with the overthrow of the native royal family by a small group of white businessmen. The reluctance of the authorities back in Washington to back the obvious greed and illegality of the men on the spot is like many episodes in the British Empire, where the central government was in fact more protective of native rights than the self-interested businessmen who behaved so high-handedly.
  • Spanish-American War (1898) On a trumped-up pretext the US invaded and annexed Cuba from Spain.
  • Philippine–American War (1899-1902) As part of the Spanish-American war, the US seized the Philippine Islands from Spain, on the other side of the world. Military victory was straightforward but followed by a prolonged counter-insurgency which the Americans tried to solve by driving the general population into concentration camps and shooting everyone found outside the camps without identification. Guerrilla war phase
  • Panama In the early 1900s the US supported Panama independence from Colombia so that it could instantly sign a treaty with the new ‘country’ to build, own and run the Panama Canal in perpetuity.
  • Puerto Rico is currently ‘an unincorporated US territory’. Reading the Wikipedia article about its ‘acquisition’ by the USA gives powerful evidence of the imperialist mind-set and language used by American leaders at the turn of the century.

And so on…

Is it or isn’t it?

So is America an empire? The obvious answer is, Who cares?

Well, who does care is the thousands of analysts, pundits, professors and think tank geeks, military experts and geopolitical strategists, who are paid to write and debate this kind of question ad nauseam. For them it means publication, reputation, careers to be made debating the finer points of the matter, creating subtler and subtler definitions of empire, making more and more ornate comparisons with previous empires, publishing sophisticated and thought-provoking prognostications, most of which turn out to be wildly wrong (eg Paul Kennedy’s predictions that the American Empire would soon collapse in his popular best-seller The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers of 1987).

A slightly more engaged answer would be: Since I have just read the views on the matter of some 50 people, from various Founding Fathers, through politicians and commentators in the 19th century, the Great War, the Second World War and right up to the present day, who themselves disagree wildly as to what an empire is and whether America is or isn’t one – how can I reasonably be expected to decide?

From the evidence in this book, the United States both is and isn’t an empire: it is by virtue of its military power and reach and it has a track record of annexing land (in the 19th century) and military intervention in other countries (in the 20th). BUT, as Ferguson points out, it rarely stays. It is obviously NOT in the business of seizing new colonies and permanently inhabiting them, as the Spanish, French, Dutch, Portuguese, British, Germans, Belgians or Russians did with their empires. Hence: the US is and isn’t an ’empire’.

Whether any of this ocean of interpretation makes a blind bit of difference to the actual course of events, to the working out of US geopolitical strategy, seems unlikely. American politicians are trapped in the tight cycle of elections to the Senate, Congress and Presidency, which tend to prevent any long-term thinking and favour melodramatic gestures and simple-minded sound-bites (eg Donald Trump). From one point of view it was a triumph that President George W Bush managed to keep US troops in Iraq for so long, before giving in to domestic pressure, bringing them home, and letting the country collapse into fragments and then fall prey to a murderous new movement, ISIS.

Thirty years ago I attended a seminar which featured Ian Jack of the Observer and other foreign correspondents and experts debating whether Imperialism should be revived, whether the West should intervene – mainly in Africa – to overthrow brutal dictators or help collapsing states, and run them properly. Everyone there – white, middle-class intellectuals all – agreed it was obviously the best solution for a number of pitifully poor countries. But also agreed it was impossible in practice – because of the fierce opposition there’d be from the populations of the recolonised countries, from the UN and international community, from the surrounding nations and related bodies like the Organisation of African Unity, and from the Western countries’ own populations. Faced with opposition on all fronts, the idea of recolonisation was a non-starter: the West would have to resign itself to working through the various UN agencies, the IMF or World Bank, and its armies of NGOs and aid charities to make the best of a bad job. Direct intervention to ‘save’ collapsing or dictator-led countries could never again be a long-term possibility. Failed and chaotic states are on their own and can never again expect to be taken over and helped to rebuild.

Nothing I read in Ferguson’s book contradicts those conclusions.

Criticism

The most obvious criticism of this book, as of its predecessor, Empire, is that it gives little or no place for human experience, for the psychology of colonisation and oppression. An imperial colony’s legal system may be updated, its tax regime overhauled and its GDP improved by imperial control – and Ferguson gives plenty of examples of this in a wide range of countries, run by the British or Americans – but he takes hardly any account of people’s feelings, or of the cultural impact of being ruled over – and more or less overtly patronised by – an alien elite. For this absence of feeling, of compassion maybe, Ferguson has been criticised, especially by writers who come from former colonies and who have experienced the humiliations of empire.

My view would be that this high-level, heartless approach is hardly unique to Ferguson: all economists are like that. While Britain’s state industries were shut down, while the mining communities were thrown on the scrapheap during the Thatcher years, generations of culture were trashed, alcoholism and suicide rates soared among unemployed men, the Financial Times and its ilk were full of reports by economists discussing theories of money supply, the finer aspects of ‘Monetarism’, and the balance of payments deficit as if there was no connection between the graphs and pie charts and ruined lives. Or read how the plight of Greece was described in the Financial Times.

Economics isn’t called ‘the dismal science’ for nothing. Its fundamental strategy is to drain the humanity and life out of any situation and to reduce it to bone-dry, bloodless and – quite often, it turns out, laughably unreliable – numbers.

At least, unlike most other economic historians’, Ferguson’s books are thought-provoking, crisply written and hugely entertaining.

Related links

Bibliography

1995 Paper and Iron: Hamburg Business and German Politics in the Era of Inflation, 1897–1927
1998 The Pity of War
1998 The World’s Banker: The History of the House of Rothschild
1999 Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals
2001 The Cash Nexus: Money and Power in the Modern World, 1700–2000
2003 Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
2004 Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
2005 1914
2006 The War of the World: History’s Age of Hatred
2008 The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World
2010 High Financier: The Lives and Times of Siegmund Warburg
2011 Civilization: The West and the Rest
2013 The Great Degeneration
2015 Kissinger: 1923–1968: The Idealist

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