First of all, as impressive as it is of Caro to have written these four volumes, it has to be at least one percent as impressive of me to have read them all. So let’s take a moment out from the Caro parade to send me my due portion of congratulation.
I do love these books. They are an incredible achievement. The sheer volume of detail amassed is something we never will see again. That said, they are getting with each volume progressively more frustrating to read. Part of it is that we losing some of the novelty of the first books as the story moves from obscure distant terrain - Johnson’s roots in Texas Hill Country - to the more well-travelled White House years. But it also must be said, the heavy handedness of Caro’s writing has gotten pretty frustrating to wade through. The big arc he was shooting for - that only a man as ruthless and corrupt as LBJ could have accomplished what he did - was clear volumes back so we read with a sense at this point of Johnson falling into step with a story that had been preordained by the muses of history. Caro hits his major notes over and over - “for a young man who grew up in desperate poverty” so that it gets to the point where you can recite in advance the card Caro is going to play at each turn.
But given all that, it’s still a pretty amazing book to read. The intimacy of the portrait of LBJ’s relationship with the Kennedys is an amazing picture of these ruthless driven power players locked together in a shotgun marriage. If you feel - as I do, and as you should - that RFK was one of the great demonic figures of the post-War era, the book has plenty of material to aid the drive to bring to Earth the hagiographic and largely false portrait of the saintly Bobby that still reigns today.
Presidents by and large are the most demented people to walk the planet. They all are driven by this combination of very shattered childhoods that were sublimated into insane, unquenchable ambition and need for power. That seems to apply - with some exceptions - from the founding fathers right through to the current occupant. They are people who if you met them in any other circumstance besides politics you would think them the weirdest, creepiest people you ever came across. Picture the most desperate student council member in your school who would go into hysterical tears if another candidate put their posters one centimeter outside of the official poster hanging area. Politics gives these creepy, broken people a place where they can seem normal and a language about helping the (poor, middle class, God fearing, etc) that makes their weirdness seem like it has a purpose. And then if they get to be President and they are invested with the aura of immense power and fame, all their weirdness seems in retrospect like the hand of God driving them to soar above mere mortals to their great destiny.
But if Lyndon Johnson had produced a few dozen fake votes less in his 1948 senate race, or if JFK had been caught sleeping with a Nazi spy, or if it had been rainy over Normandy Beach and the DDay landing had failed and Ike had been forced to resign - all these guys would have just been broken, creepy over-excited maniacs scaring people at their local diner. But instead they were Presidents.
For better and worse, there is probably no more Shakespearean run of Presidents than the JKF, LBJ, Richard Nixon trio. Say what you will about them, these were tortured, conflicted personalities on an epic scale. The amount of high drama to go through the White House from 1961 - 1974 is not something we’re ever likely to see again in the smallness Baby Boom era, and whatever scraps of a world they leave us. Everything a person wants to know about power and its effects could be found study those 13 years and every student of history should commit them to memory.
Stories about dictators after their fall are generally the most disappointing of stories. Having ruled the world and then lost it, we expect, we hope, they will spend their remaining years haunted by the ghosts of their victims. But thus far in my studies that is never the case. It takes a special kind of borderline psychotic personality to not only conquer a nation but then to believe so fervently in whatever justification you have for your rule - be it Marxism or restore the nation to its former glory - that you believe that anyone who is against you is just against the proletariat or the glory of the fatherland and thus has to be killed. It takes a really intense personality to think that way, and they don’t tend to just drop it because of a little thing like their entire nation turning against them. Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Bonaparte to name a few, all showed to the best of our knowledge not a shred of guilt in their post-power years, but raved about the people who had failed them. It’s romantic to think that had Hitler lived he would have been tormented by what he had done, but even if he had spent 40 years in solitary after his downfall, he would have been screaming about these fools who weren’t worthy of him.
Trotsky, despite his latter day romantic image, took advantage of his first moments in power to begin persecuting and killing as many of his enemies as he could get his hands on. Having started out as one of the leading lights in the Mensheviks movement, he saw which way the wind was blowing, switched sides and joined with Lenin and the Bolsheviks just days before the revolution. Then as soon as they took power, he took charge of persecuting and exiling those people who a couple weeks ago had been his bosom comrades and ideological soulmates.
Of course, along with Che Guevera, Trotsky somehow gets elevated above mere murdering dictator in the imaginations of many. Perhaps it’s because like Che, he looks like a dashing romantic figure, and what intellectual can resist the image of the intellectual who also rides into battle and leads troops. Perhaps because he never really fully got his hands on the levers of power himself, never rising above the number two or three slot and then got exiled and killed by the great dictator himself. Perhaps its because compared to Stalin, Trotsky seems a relatively humane figure. He argued that some artists should be allowed to live and even work, so long as they stayed far from politics and served a good purpose and a bunch of other conditions. But whenever your claims to humanity are prefaced with “compared to Stalin”, you know the game is rigged. It’s like a restaurant critic saying, compared to rancid milk pulled out of the dumpster, the meal was very edible. Or a film critic saying, compared to Saw 5, the characters were well developed and intruiging, the drama complex and fascinating. So okay, compared to Stalin, Trotsky would likely, given the chance, have murdered slightly fewer. But when given the chance, he murdered plenty. And for those who see Trotsky as some sort of anarchist, anti-state philosopher, it should be noted that right up until his death, even after every member of his family and all his comrades had been killed, he continued to profess that the Soviet Union was the most “advanced” nation on the planet, far preferable to any decadent alternative.
Anyhow, the book takes us back through the highlights of Trotsky’s career and paints a full picture of his final years in Mexican exile. Like the great dictators before him, he spent the time plotting a comeback and quarreling with everyone who came near him. Belying the claims that Trotsky was a more humane face of Marxism, even out of power his main preoccupation was obsessively combing the ranks of his followers for ideological impurity and plotting their expulsions. When a group of American Trotskyites decided that they no longer believed in the doctrine of historical inevitability - arguing that if it’s all inevitable why should they bother working for revolution - Trotsky from Mexico spent years raging against them and demanding their ouster from the movement.
Other than that, he seems to have been a completely unpleasant person. He had no actual friends at any point in his life. He betrayed and humiliated His slavish wife repeatedly. Diego Rivera risked a great deal when he used his influence to get Trotsky brought to Mexico when no other country would have him. Trotsky repaid him by sleeping with his wife and then ditching the house that Rivera had spent a fortune of his own money buying for Trotsky. His assistants and guards he abused serially. He wouldn’t let them eat any food other than potatoes and gravy in the house.
An interesting book and an interesting portrait of a grim subject at a bad time. Don’t look for inspiration positive or negative here. But fascinating reading.
It shouldn’t be sad to see tyrants stumble, but still it kind of is. As much as you know that conquering Europe is a bad thing, the rise of Bonaparte from obscure Corsican foot soldier, to head of the French army, to ruler of the whole nation, to conquerer of all the ancient crowned dynasties still ranks as a singular ascent. In European history only Joseph Stalin can claim to have come from so little to so much, not only taking over his country but leading a beaten down ramshackle country to conquer a good portion of the world. Hitler overran a lot but his conquest was only stable for the merest blink of the eye before the decline began; it was more like a rabid dog running amok than a true stable ascent.
Of course, Stalin died with his crown firmly on his head and his empire at its height, proving that not all gamblers eventually run out of luck. (It worked out okay for Mao as well). Such was not Napoleon’s fate and this book, written by his aide de camp, tells the story of when fortune suddenly desserted its most beloved child.
Napoleon up close in this book is, if you can forget about the conquering Europe thing, a pretty likable little dictator. He’s always got a kind word for his troops and can’t stand to see them punished, keeps his head up in the worst crisis. He’s not even very much of a tyrant and his generals talk back to him constantly and ignore his orders. I guess that gets to the root of what’s appealing about Napoleon, that in contrast to the old armies and nations of Europe where every inch of your career was determined by your birth, he created the first great hierarchy of the talented and the energetic in his army, with the most fluid structure ever seen in Europe, giving his commanders huge autonomy to press the battle as they saw fit. Unlike Stalin who was ruled tyrannically over small and and more democratic states, Napoleon’s enemies were no great heroes by and large and much as we can’t approve of that invading stuff, there are no tears shed for the Hapsburgs like there were for the people of occupied Poland for 40 years.
If you are a fan of disaster porn - the horrific details of a great, well laid plan gone horribly wrong this book will not disappoint with its vivid descriptions of the gruesomeness of Napoleon’s retreat and what his men when through as the greatest army Europe had ever seen was flayed to death by the cold, hunger and pillaging cossacks. Any book of history that makes illustrates how easily the fate of the world could have been different is okay by me: if Napoleon’s temper has not been quite so restless, if he had stayed put for a few more months in Poland, he might well have wrung a treaty out of the tsar. And if the empire had survived…one can easily see ripple effects all the way to the present. Germany would never have unified. Which would have meant there might not have been a Franco-Prussian war, which produced the lingering resentments on the part of the French over the Alsace which produced the First World War, which produced not only the Bolshevik revolution but the lingering resentments on the part of the Germans which led to the Second World War. Onto the Cold War. So if Napoleon had just sat tight for a few months, 200 years of peace and harmony would have been ours.
Of course, just because those wars didn’t happen, doesn’t mean other wars would have, as they surely would have. Napoleon deserves none of your tears but the collapse of such a dynamo is always, somehow poignant as Richard the Third first showed us.
I’m far behind in my book reports so here is the first of a flurry of short and poorly thought through ones that are going to come your way.
Men at Arms is the first part of Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy dealing with the British experience in the World War 2. The British experience is World War 2 is pretty much the best thing you could write a novel about, and Evelyn Waugh is, it has been well established, the apex of the classical novel writing tradition. Which would mean this is statistically the best book ever written.
Given that, it’s pretty good. The reason why the Brits in WW II is the best thing to write about is that you’ve got those very last vestiges of Victorian tradition coming into contact with a genuine threat. That had previously happened in WWI, of course, but the result there was too muddled and inconclusive to actually destroy the old world and much of it hung around to ultimately be smashed by Hitler. There is a fearsome enemy, danger - it seemed very likely that the British would lose -, comedy in all the missteps that led the way to victory and in the end heroism and triumph all around while an old world gives up the ghost. This book, the first of the trilogy focuses on the comedy and missteps while giving you a pretty good taste of the slowly mounting terror of the times. It is pretty hilarious and pretty bleak. I think you should read it.
My other favorite books and movies about the British in World War 2:
Bridge on the River Kwai (as near a perfect film as you’ll find)
BOOK REPORT: MASTER OF SPIES, THE MEMOIRS OF GENERAL MORAVEC
I picked up this long out of print book on the recommendation of my college history professor and was instantly floored, and more than that shamed that i had never heard of such an amazing figure who had one of the most stunning intelligence careers you can imagine. Moravec is one of those pivotal figures who touched upon so much, but whose name has largely been forgotten underneath to his accomplishments, like that guy who brought both the umbrella and the fork to the west.
If you wanted to teach a youngish person about the western world’s rough journey through through the 20th Century (if there was a young person left willing to learn about such a thing) you could do far than start with this book. After fighting for Czechoslovakia’s independence from Austro-Hungary, Moravec became the first head of the new nation’s secret service, starting it up from scratch, literally going to the library to check out “How to Spy” books. He built the service into a powerhouse that became Europe’s greatest source of information on the growing power of Nazi Germany and eventually from exile masterminded the assassination of Heydrich, a mitzvah of an assassination if there ever was one. Post-war, after briefly returning to his country, he once again went into exile when he was declared an enemy of the new Soviet puppet state. Thus Moravec became one of the few of the last century to take arms against not one, not two, but three empires.
There is plenty of spine-tingling espionage stuff in here. But the most poignant part for me was the tragic portrait of Czechslovakia’s pre and postwar President Dr. Benes, the stalwart intellectual who managed to be catastrophically wrong twice in his career; the first time by assuming the Nazis would never dare invade his country because England and France would stand up for them, and thus forbidding his country to prepare to defend itself as that might be seen as provocative by his erstwhile allies. I’ve read many British accounts of the Munich treaty, but never read one by someone who was on the receiving end of the sellout and it is heartbreaking. Benes’ second disaster was believing that Stalin wanted a strong independent Czechslovakia to stand as a bullwork against a future Germany, a belief which led him to shun his western allies in the face of all evidence about Stalin’s intentions.
The portrait of Dr. Benes presents a real caution for smart people everywhere. The human mind loves nothing more than solving a puzzle on its own, and once it figures out a solution, nothing can pry that idea out of its head. It is the basis of all con tricks - give people the evidence that they will put together themselves, that will lead them to a false conclusion. Benes, being the smartest guy in the nation, took a look at the evidence and figured out that he had nothing to fear from the Nazis and the Soviets and once he had reached those conclusions, his mind was able to dismiss out of hand all evidence to the contrary. What the mind often hides though in solving these puzzles is how often it will guide us to the answers that we want, that element is rarely considered.
I know this is Tumblr and we’re supposed to be posting stills of 30 Rock, but for the sake of civilization, I demand you stop what you’re doing, find a copy of this book and read it at once. It’s your duty as a citizen of the internet.