George F. Kennan

The Book of the Week is “George F. Kennan, An American Life” by John Lewis Gaddis, published in 2011. This is the biography of an emotionally troubled American diplomat, an expert in Russian– the language and mentality– who became known for his historical writings on the Cold War power struggles between the United States and the Soviet Union; the struggles arose from the the two rivals’ weaponry and opposing ideologies.

Born in February 1904 in Milwaukee, Kennan was raised by his three older sisters and other relatives after his mother died in spring 1904. His father was 52 years old.

In 1910, Milwaukee elected a Socialist mayor. The city was a melting pot of Western, Eastern and Northern European immigrants. Kennan graduated from a military school, then from Princeton University. The Foreign Service had recently become a civil service job, comprised of Northeastern elitists.

After passing its two exams, starting in 1927, Kennan was posted to Geneva, then Hamburg, then on to Estonia to learn Russian. He met his 21-year old wife in Norway. They eventually had four children. After stints in Riga in Latvia, and Prague, he spent most of the rest of his career in Berlin, Moscow, Washington, D.C. and New Jersey.

In 1944, as WWII was winding down, Kennan tried to convince President Franklin Roosevelt to sternly warn the USSR not to expand geographically. Roosevelt, in a tough position, argued that the Allies couldn’t win the war without the USSR’s military assistance, so he had to tread lightly with Stalin; Harry Truman, too. The president had to deal with one issue at a time. Those men in Los Alamos couldn’t say how soon the atomic bomb would be ready. That was the kicker.

Stalin tried a divide and conquer strategy– to drive a wedge between the United Kingdom and the United States so they would fight. Nevertheless, after the war, they became best friends.

For the second time, and it wouldn’t be the last, Kennan submitted a letter of resignation, as he perceived that his counsel and advice were being ignored. Nevertheless, he was convinced to stay on at the Foreign Service. He read the classic novels and plays of Tolstoy, Chekhov and others to understand the Soviets’ behavior.

In February 1946, Kennan sent a telegram which later became famous, urging the United States to take a hard line with the Soviets. But it was already too late. Six months later, he “…saw how Soviet ambitions, American complacency, and British weakness might combine to upset the balance of power in Europe.”

According to the author, Kennan’s input for the Marshall Plan– whose purpose was to financially aid the then-needy, war-ravaged European nations (with the true goal of warding off a Communist takeover)– was to suggest to offer such aid to the Soviets knowing Stalin would reject it. Stalin also told the Soviet satellites to reject the aid. The Americans then knew which countries needed help (in countering Communism).

In summer 1947, Kennan recommended that the sixteen countries split up the aid themselves rather than let the United States decide, so that way, the USSR couldn’t claim the United States was acting imperialistically. The recipients could spend the funds on food, arms– whatever they wanted.

Around that time, the US established the CIA. Kennan agreed that the organization should conduct covert operations to keep up with the KGB. He later regretted agreeing on that issue.

The US couldn’t afford to politically, militarily and financially help all nations vulnerable to Soviet domination, but Kennan advised President Truman on which regions were most at risk, and where America’s resources should be deployed. He told him to cease assisting Chinese Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai Shek because Stalin had already staked out strategic military locations within striking distance of China, and China posed a minor threat to the US, having a shaky economy anyway.

In short, Kennan believed in particularism– a practice of selectivity in taking action against the Soviets. The newly formed United Nations believed in universalism– all nations should share and share alike, regardless of cultures and ideologies.

In early 1948, the Soviets took over the Czechoslovakian government. In the spring, in a lesser wrong, America meddled in Italy’s election– threatening to cut off Marshall Plan aid to the government if people voted for the Communist party instead of the Social Democrats. Additionally, Italian Americans wrote lots of letters to the Vatican, which told Italian voters for whom not to vote.

In January 1957, pursuant to the Suez Canal Crisis, President Eisenhower signed legislation based on the doctrine that the United States would financially and militarily assist any Middle Eastern nations vulnerable to Communist influence.

In 1978, Kennan became a professor emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ. Due to his prolific writing and prominence, he got special treatment– continued to be treated like a full-time professor. Private donors such as the Rockefeller family, the Ford Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation and Warren Buffett funded his continued tenure.

Read the book to learn why Kennan was expelled from the US embassy in Moscow, of a proposal that would result in German reunification in the 1950’s, of one step Eisenhower took in deciding the Soviet question, of Kennan’s activities after his Foreign Service career, of America’s relationship with Yugoslavia’s leader Josip Broz Tito, and much more.

American Governor

The Book of the Week is “American Governor, Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption” by Matt Katz, published in 2016. Christie was a two-term New Jersey governor known for skillful fund-raising, telling cute stories, and verbally attacking the media, hecklers and political opponents.

In September 1962 in Newark, New Jersey, Christie was born to be a politician. He was elected to leadership roles beginning in high school. He argued for civil rights as a student-officeholder in college. But his stands on most major issues prompted him to become a Republican.

Christie entered politics after practicing law as a commercial litigator with the help of his law partner’s contacts. He started to work in politics in the early 1990’s. After 9/11, he was appointed by George W. Bush to the patronage position of U.S. Attorney (chief prosecutor) for the state of New Jersey. He lacked the criminal-law experience for it, but learned on the job.

He drained the swamp of dirty New Jersey politicians of both parties. At the same time, he was collecting goodwill by doling out multi-million dollar legal contracts to big-money political donors.

After his election to the New Jersey governorship in 2009, out of necessity, Christie was forced to work with a Democrat-controlled legislature. Otherwise, he would have gotten nothing done.

To his credit, Christie “… was a big guy who knew how to get people to sit down and shut up and compromise– just what Washington needed.” He was so good at fundraising because his staffers identified community influencers at the most local levels, and invited them to town hall meetings.

However, “The reformers, led by [Newark mayor Cory] Booker and Christie, were shockingly naive about how closing schools with little public input would upend the daily lives of Newarkers.” Christie argued or voted in favor of a series of anti-liberal policies which hurt the poor in housing, wages, heating and cooling of homes, and food stamps.

Additionally, due to the purported reason of a fiscal crisis, he “… froze almost all construction funding for the state’s poorest school districts.” (It would have killed him to raise taxes; then he wouldn’t get reelected.) This led to the cancellation of the building of a new school in the neighborhood of Lanning Square in the city of Camden. Instead of a new school, Christie’s crony would get the opportunity to construct a building for his medical school on the site, plus five privately funded schools in Camden.

Christie gave tax breaks of tens of or millions of dollars to a diverse bunch of businesses to get them to stay in his state so that they “created jobs” (and bragging rights for politicians). Over the years, those tax breaks resulted in: the creation of tens of jobs, a net dollar value of hundreds of thousands in benefits’ going to the state, and incalculable billions of dollars in lost tax revenue; showing yet again that cronyism thrived in Christie’s New Jersey.

And now, as an aside, an interesting factoid: “Christie had met Bill and Hillary Clinton in January 2005 at Donald Trump’s wedding.” And another: In January 2014, he signed the Dream Act, which (conditionally) allows children of illegal immigrants to qualify for (greatly discounted) in-state college tuition.

However, the major incident for which former Governor Christie will be remembered is “Bridgegate.” His political enemies turned out to be sufficiently aggressive to turn it into a humungous scandal.

Deliberately-created traffic congestion by a handful of people in Christie’s organization caused hours-long delays in September 2013 for five days in a row during the morning rush hour on the George Washington Bridge (GWB)– that links New Jersey and New York City. This was done for the purpose of petty, political retaliation against the mayor of a New Jersey suburb in GWB territory. That mayor had declined to endorse Christie for gubernatorial reelection.

It is a shame that Christie’s political record of unethical behavior in so many areas that ended his political career negated the one good thing he did that had long-term positive results– eliminated a significant amount of corruption in New Jersey.

The same seems to be happening with New York City mayor Bill de Blasio: the one good thing he did was institute free pre-kindergarten across the city. There is ample evidence that this is a game-changer– it helps “even the playing field” for kids of all economic and social levels. The earlier the intervention in the lives of at-risk kids, the better. Preschool is not too soon.

Research has shown that the kids who have home environments with severe deprivations, are significantly less likely become career criminals when, in very early childhood, they are provided with a safe place that provides resources to assist them in learning, and learning how to interact with other children.

However, de Blasio’s alleged wrongs in recent years in fund-raising activities and housing, both steeped in patronage (like Chris Christie’s administration) — just to name two of many issues– have earned him numerous political enemies.

Anyway, read the book to learn more about the above GWB scandal, and Christie’s fights with New Jersey’s civil service unions – especially the teachers’; how he sold out environmentally; why his approval rating soared immediately following Hurricane Sandy; his actions on a range of other issues such as drugs, abortion and gun control, and much more.

The Chief – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “The Chief, The Life and Turbulent Times of Chief Justice John Roberts” by Joan Biskupic, published in 2019. This slightly redundant biography described prominent U.S. Supreme-Court cases in detail, explaining them for laypeople. Most of the cases revolved around issues with which the United States continues to grapple, especially various kinds of discrimination.

Born in January 1955 in western New York State, Roberts and his family moved to Indiana near the Illinois border when he was about eight years old. He turned into a staunch conservative Republican.

The burning question that must be answered in any given case, that would determine whether favoritism or compensation should be given to the victims of discrimination, is whether, as a group, the victims– having been oppressed for so long– have caught up to the rest of society, with regard to the case’s area of life covered; education, housing, employment, political elections, financial dealings and other day-to-day situations.

In the applicable areas of life, whether and how much discrimination still exists is of course, extremely subjective (given the anecdotal evidence and propaganda wars from both sides). Each case needs to be decided on an individual basis because the times are continually changing. If the victims have yet to catch up, it is because one thing leads to another. If for decades, they’ve been rejected from, say, colleges based on their skin color, they’re at a disadvantage when it comes to employment opportunities, which leads to financial disadvantages and a slew of other lifestyle limitations. It’s not just a matter of compensating victims for past wrongs against them– the wrongs (if there were wrongs) held them back from being treated equally with others for decades longer.

It is impossible to require truly color-blind acceptance policies, however. And of course, there’s always that lingering uncertainty whether the college applicants were accepted more for– when compared with their peers– their potential success in furthering their education, than for their skin color.

Roberts claimed the Supreme Court was nonpartisan in handing down decisions. But– the Court has been divided 4-4 or 5-4 practically all the time in famous cases, because each of its presiding justices has consistently subscribed to a particular political persuasion in his or her opinions.

Further, appointments of Supreme Court Justices (or lack thereof) have been fiercely political in recent decades. “From the start of Obama’s presidency [Mitch] McConnell had put up hurdles to Obama’s lower Court nominations, ensuring, for instance, that not a single appointment was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit in Obama’s first term.”

Read the book to learn of the many ways Roberts made known his political beliefs through his Court pronouncements.

Where the Wind Leads/The Fox Hunt

The Books of the Week are “Where the Wind Leads, A Memoir” by Vinh Chung With Tim Downs, published in 2014; “The Fox Hunt, A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America” by Mohammed Al Samawi, published in 2018.

Both authors told suspenseful, extremely extreme, long, complicated refugee horror stories, in which they had great good luck on several occasions, and in which certain people took tremendous risks by providing the authors with invaluable assistance that saved their lives.

Born in South Vietnam in December 1975, the author of the former book helpfully, briefly described his homeland’s history three decades before his birth.

The author’s family was Chinese– neither enemies nor friends of the French, Viet Minh, or Khmer Rouge. However, in the 1940’s, the author’s father’s family’s house in the Mekong Delta had been burned to the ground twice, anyway. There was a higher risk of a Viet Minh invasion in the French territory farther north, where the family moved.

As is well known, in the mid-1950’s the French were militarily defeated by the Viet Minh– Communists– and kicked out of their colony Indochina in Southeast Asia. Thereafter, Vietnam was split into north and south. Different ethnic groups migrated toward the side where they numbered in the majority: Communists, north; Catholics and Buddhists, south.

The Khmer Rouge, comprised of Cambodians, continued to ally with the French for decades. By the late 1950’s, the author’s father had become a draft dodger, fleeing to Cambodia to avoid having to fight against the Viet Minh. In 1960, Ho Chi Minh’s militia, the National Liberation Front, was attempting to reunite North and South Vietnam. The Viet Minh was renamed Viet Cong by the United States.

Over decades, the author’s maternal grandmother began a rice-processing business that flourished. By the mid-1970’s, it had a couple of mills, a fleet of trucks, warehouses, etc. It actually benefited from America’s Vietnam War.

The family matriarch hired a matchmaker to marry off her son (the author’s father), born in 1937. He was still sowing his wild oats in his late twenties. Traditionally, both prospects’ families went on a date with the prospects. Then they saw a fortune teller.

The author’s mother was the daughter of a Chinese servant girl of a wealthy household. When she moved to her husband’s house, she had to shop daily for the fast-growing multi-generational household, because they didn’t have a refrigerator. But, since she was expected to become a baby-maker in addition to all of her other responsibilities– she was permitted to hire a teenage nanny with every additional child.

The author’s birth made five. Three more were quickly added, while the author’s father’s mistress had four. The two major philosophies of the family’s culture were filial piety and ancestor worship. Living in the South, their religion combined aspects of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. That changed when the Viet Cong attacked the Mekong Delta. The author’s family’s life was disrupted forever, as their business and real and personal property were stolen.

Due to the Vietnam government’s war against the Chinese that started in February 1979, the ever-growing Chung family became “boat people” in June. Read the book to learn of the family’s ordeal, adjustment to a brand new life, and the author’s explanation for what gave rise to his own extraordinary achievements.

Born in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen in 1986, the author of the latter book helpfully, briefly described the recent history of his homeland.

In 1987, a Sunni-Muslim group named the Muslim Brotherhood formed another group, Hamas. They were supported by Saudi Arabia, southern Yemen, Iraq and another group that formed later, Al Qaeda. Their enemies were Shia Muslims, who are the majority in Iran and northern Yemen.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the author’s Shia-Muslim family lived in a peaceful neighborhood in Sana’a in northern Yemen, where everyone got along fine. He had two older and two younger siblings. His parents were trained as medical doctors; his prominent father worked for a military hospital.

Al Samawi’s parents believed in education, but were extremely devout Muslims. So his parents were thrilled when, as an adolescent, he donated all his lunch money to the Muslim Brotherhood when the group (who were pushing pan-Arabism at the time) visited his private, well-funded grammar school.

However, the teachers preached nonstop hatred against Jews and Christians. The Quran was their authority on that. Besides, they said Hitler was a hero for killing Jews, and the Jews’ books were “dirty, amoral, sinful, impure, demonic.”

In 2000, TV propaganda in Yemen claimed that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Israel was ordering the killing of innocent Palestinians, such as a young boy (who became a poster boy to incite Yemen), for no reason. The haters ignited in most Yemenis additional hatred against the Jews and Israel’s backers, such as the United States.

Eight years later, the author thought he was falling in love at university. But his filial piety put the kibosh on that. His mother did a background check on his prospective girlfriend, and found she wasn’t good enough for her son, and given their situations, she was probably a gold digger. His father also pressured him to end the budding relationship, by offering him a car and a job if his parents could fulfill the traditional Muslim route of choosing a bride for him. He caved in to their browbeating.

However, the next chapter in the author’s life proved to be most educational. He met an inspirational British instructor at his English-language school. Surprisingly, the author’s parents were allowing their son to study English. Al Samawi and his teacher exchanged gifts (the Quran and the Bible, respectively) to try to proselytize the other one. Each dogmatically believed that his own religion was the only right one to practice, else they would go to hell upon their deaths. Then a funny thing happened.

The teacher horrified Al Samawi by telling him he’d been hoodwinked– Al Samawi had unknowingly been reading the (Jewish!) Old Testament, having started at the beginning of the book. The stories’ morals and precepts were largely similar to those in the Quran(!)

In the next several years, Al Samawi became sufficiently open-minded to try to clear up his own confusion between what he’d been taught by his parents and Yemen’s culture, and what he was learning on Facebook and from his jobs at cross-cultural peacemaking organizations and international aid organizations.

From the start of Yemen’s religious civil war in 2015, Al Samawi found himself in a life-threatening, harrowing situation for several months. In one particular instance, he wrote, “Thirty minutes later, I jumped in the back of the black sedan. I didn’t call my mom. I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t pay the hotel.”

Read the book to learn the details of how Al Samawi’s friends in high places went to extraordinary lengths to change his fate, through thrilling plot twists and turns.

Freedom At Midnight

The Book of the Week is “Freedom At Midnight” by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre, published in 1975.

In August 1946, Muslims filled the streets in Calcutta, agitating for an independent nation of their own, presumably to be named Pakistan. Six thousand people died in that one episode of unrest. Many, many more would, in the next two and a half turbulent years.

Some journalists would feature the following information more prominently than the above: “Golf was introduced in Calcutta in 1829… No golf bag was considered more elegant on those courses than one made of an elephant’s penis, provided of course, that its owner had shot the beast himself.”

Anyway, as is well known, India has had a long history of violence among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Through the decades, various place-names have triggered traumatic memories of copious arson, bombs, bloodshed and atrocities in regions including but far from limited to: Amritsar, the Punjab, Lahore, Peshawar, Kashmir, and New Delhi.

The British have had a long history of encouraging jealousies and hostilities among the different religious and ethnic groups in India so as to prevent them from forming a united nation.

The authors of this book provided horribly confusing totals of the different populations. They wrote that in 1947, India had three hundred million Hindus and one hundred million Muslims, and “… the contested state of four hundred million human beings…” In two other places, they wrote that the Punjab had two million Sikhs, and “The six million Sikhs to whom… they represented only two percent of India’s population…”

In another section,”He [Mohammed Ali Jinnah] had to tell India’s ninety million Muslims of the ‘momentous decision’ to create an Islamic state…” Still elsewhere, all of India allegedly held 275 million Hindus, fifty million Muslims, seven million Christians, six million Sikhs, one hundred thousand Parsis and 24,000 Jews.

Regardless, from the 1920’s through the 1940’s, a man named Gandhi acquired sufficient psychological power over his followers– fervent believers in their respective religions– to momentarily stop killing each other and work toward the common goal of convincing the British government that it was time to give up its colony of India.

Gandhi was able to work his magic because his incredible self-control showed him to be no hypocrite (according to his crack public relations team). He took the action of a true activist— risking his life in fasting (and seriously endangering his health) practicing what he preached (according to his crack public relations team).

Nevertheless, even Gandhi could not come up with a less acrimonious plan– to allow India to evolve as a nation via dividing the peoples who couldn’t live together– than partition. Arguably, he merely postponed the deaths, rather than saved the lives of the different tribes hellbent on eliminating their enemies. India’s caste system’s abusive hierarchy meant that, other than willful violence, the causes of hundreds of thousands of deaths included starvation, disease and severe weather.

However, giving Muslims their own state would mean allocating land in India to Pakistan (with a partition), that would need to be vacated by millions of Sikhs and Hindus, while land in the new India would need to be vacated by Muslims. Those who found themselves in hostile territory– out of fear, were compelled to migrate to where they would number among the majority in their communities.

The division of India into two sovereign states was like the vivisection of Siamese twins– vital organs would be mutilated in the process. Rice, jute, cotton, wheat, barley, corn and sugar cane were grown in one prospective country, but the means of growing, processing or transporting them for export, in the form of irrigation, railroads and highways was contained in the other prospective country.

Louis Mountbatten was the British government official appointed to oversee the process of converting India from a colony of Great Britain to two independent nations. He had a thankless, impossible job.

For, in addition to the complex religious, economic and political considerations involved, there were royal families ruled by maharajahs (of all different religions) to contend with; 565 administrations of them, to be exact. They lived high on the hog, and weren’t keen to relinquish their precious stones, elephants, private railway cars, Rolls Royces, etc. Some even had their own armies– yet another wrench in the works.

Mountbatten thought the least painful plan was to keep India and Pakistan as holdings of the United Kingdom. He decided that midnight of August 15, 1947 was to be the witching hour– when the partition would take effect. Astrologers, who were all the rage in India then, were quite shaken by that decision because by their calculations, that day was bad luck and another day should have been chosen.

On another topic, the new India and Pakistan had to have separate armies. The current Indian army was comprised of the cream of the crop of Sandhurst graduates, whose costs were low, pay was high, and who engaged in leisure pursuits of the wealthy– polo, cricket, pigsticking, shooting, hockey, hunting with hounds, and fishing. However, if a soldier who chose the Indian Army, happened to live in the future Pakistan, he was forced to either join the Pakistani army, or abandon his property and move away from his family.

The way Pakistan’s geographical borders were established was accomplished via an unbiased redistricting process, of sorts. Mountbatten appointed an attorney who knew nothing about India’s ethnic and religious groups, whose job was to pore over scads of population data and maps of the region, and indiscriminately divide it up.

Unjust division of families and real estate was bound to happen, but it was inadvertent. Curiously, “All of Punjab’s jails wound up in Pakistan. So too did its unique insane asylum.”

Read the book to learn how the major leaders warded off anarchy during the independence processes; how Gandhi quelled hostilities at least temporarily in Calcutta on Pakistan’s birthday; what transpired in connection with the Hindu (!) terrorist group who had it in for Gandhi (who was Hindu); and the details of the transposition of the “wretched refugees” (hint– 800,000 refugees in the Punjab [alone(!)] constituted “… a caravan almost mind-numbing in dimension… as though all of Boston, every man, woman and child [that’s not including animals– bullocks, buffaloes, camels, horses, ponies, sheep, etc.] in the city in 1947, had been forced by some prodigious tragedy to flee on foot to New York.”).

No Room For Small Dreams / Rabin / My Country, My Life (Very Long Post)

The First Book of the Week is “No Room for Small Dreams–Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel” by Shimon Peres, published in 2017. This is the autobiography of the late prime minister (in the mid-1980’s) of Israel.

Born in 1923, Peres spent the first decade of his life in a shtetl on the Russia/Poland border. In 1934, his (Jewish) family moved to Palestine seeking religious freedom. At fifteen years old, he put his natural leadership skills to good use at the kibbutz Ben-Shemen. The institution was like boarding school, but it emphasized the teaching of skills for agriculture and use of weaponry more than academic subjects.

In 1941, Peres moved to Kibbutz Alumot, where he herded sheep amid olive and date groves. The youths there lived in tents lacking electricity and indoor plumbing.

After WWII, when the Jews were pushing for statehood, Peres became a disciple of David Ben Gurion. He favored a partition between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land. In 1947, Ben Gurion recruited him for the Haganah, one of the intelligence services of Palestine. However, his lack of fluency in the English language was a handicap. This was remedied in June 1949, when he began to attend the New School for Social Research in New York City. Three years later, he and his family moved back to Israel, where he took a position in the Defense Ministry, and assisted with the founding of El Al Airlines.

In the early 1950’s, neither Great Britain nor the United States was in the mood to sell arms to Israel. Peres found an unexpected supplier in France. In addition, in the summer of 1957, France allegedly mentored Israel in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. In connection therewith, Peres claimed that he planned and organized the construction of a top-secret corporate village in the Negev desert near Beersheba to give the world the impression that Israel was a superpower.

In 1959, the author was elected to the Knesset and also kept a position in the Defense Ministry. In the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Egypt and Syria limited the spoils of their victory to territory they lost in the 1967 Six-Day war. According to the author, in the 1973 war, Egypt’s leader, Anwar Sadat refrained from attacking Israel’s central cities for fear it would retaliate with weapons of mass destruction. Apparently, threat of retaliation was not a deterrent to small-time terrorist groups, such as the PLO, who intermittently killed the Jewish state’s citizens, a few at a time, for decades.

Nevertheless, read the book to learn of Peres’ brilliant political career (according to him) as an economic genius and peacemaker with Jordan and the PLO. Yet, Peres admits he played the former role thanks to Israel’s cozy relationship with the United States. Yassir Arafat could not really guarantee and did not take responsibility for, violence perpetrated by the organization he headed; foolish Peres failed to take heed of the following cliche: “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

The Second Book of the Week is “Rabin, Our Life, His Legacy” by Leah Rabin, published in 1997.

Born in April 1928 in Prussia, Leah Rabin met her husband Yitzhak in Palestine’s co-ed military intelligence service– the Palmach– in the 1940’s. The group was actually a secret society because it was deemed illegal by the British authorities.

In Palestine, the author and her beloved lived in a kibbutz or a tent and did farming, herding, hiking and jogging. And firearms training, not to mention military-attack drills. In the summer of 1946, due to Leah’s sixth sense about imminent danger, she avoided getting arrested by the British, but Yitzhak was caught. However, the weaponry hidden in the women’s body cavities went undiscovered because frisking of females by the authorities was chivalrous in those days.

In 1948, after spending more than four months in jail, Yitzhak became a commander in the Harel Brigade, one of three newly formed Palmach divisions. The group became part of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF)– the Israeli military– in 1949. Ten years later, Yitzhak was chief of operations of the IDF.

David Ben-Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel (which achieved its independence in spring 1948), belonged to the Mapai (Labor) party.  Yitzhak didn’t, and therefore Ben-Gurion favored other men over him when he staffed his government and formulated military policy.

In November 1963, the Rabins made a diplomatic visit to the United States. Just after they returned to Israel, they learned that President John F. Kennedy was dead. “Yitzhak… had just completed an intensive study of state-of-the-art defense and security practices from the most powerful nation in the world, and suddenly we learned that this country’s chief executive was slain by a lone gunman.”

Shortly thereafter, Yitzhak took a break from military matters to become a social butterfly– an ambassador to the U.S., from Israel. Such a lifestyle involves having cocktails, attending parties, making small talk and gossip mongering. In 1973, Yitzhak tried his hand at elective office. He won a seat in the Knesset in the Labor party, and an appointment as Minister of Labor.

In April 1974, Golda Meir felt obligated to resign as Israel’s fifth Prime Minister due to the mishandling of the Yom Kippur war, which had occurred about six months prior. Yitzhak was voted in as her replacement. He was battered about by political contentiousness and decided after three years to resign his Prime Minister post. He remained a member of the Knesset, though. Political comebacks are not uncommon in Israel. Yitzhak staged his in the autumn of 1984. He became the Minister of Defense.

That was when the Mapai and Likud (Conservative) parties merged in order to form a major voting bloc. The new entity was called the National Unity Party. In 1985, Yitzhak helped supervise the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Jordan. He became Prime Minister again in 1992.

In the first half of the 1990’s, Yitzhak Rabin sat down at the negotiating table with Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat. Many people thought Arafat was a terrorist who led a terrorist group and would never be trustworthy, and Yitzhak was being way too nice.

Further, U.S. president Bill Clinton, the mediator of the peace talks, had a credibility problem. So– it was kind of like a diplomatic charade because sincerity wasn’t a strong suit of at least two of the three parties there. Further, regardless of the ulterior motives of the three parties involved– history had already shown grave doubts as to whether durable agreements could be reached between the two centuries-long rivals.

Israel had previously had a policy of refusing to negotiate with terrorists such as Arafat and had refused to meet with them under any circumstances. However, Rabin believed in appeasement of the Egyptians and Jordanians as well. He was willing to hear them out and sign documents that were supposed to foster peace in the Middle East. In this way, he garnered a lot of political enemies. Ironically, he was shot at a peace rally.

Read the book to learn the details of what transpired, the aftermath (especially the aftermath– through Leah’s eyes) and many more details of Israeli history and Rabin’s role in it.

The Third Book of the Week is “My Country, My Life– Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace” by Ehud Barak, published in 2018.

Born in 1942 in one of the early kibbutzim– Mishmar Hasharon– the small village north of Tel Aviv, Barak pursued a military career from the 1960’s into the 1980’s, alternating it with his education. He led special forces on secret missions. He eventually earned a degree in physics from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and a master’s degree in operations management from Stanford University.

Barak seemed a bit resentful about Israel’s dependence on the United States for its very existence; for, when describing the Yom Kippur War, he omitted the inconvenient fact that the United States sent weapons to Israel when the nation’s ability to defend itself was in serious doubt.

Barak began his political career in summer 1995 when he joined Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet. At his first vote, he abstained, holding onto his belief that Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories pursuant to the Oslo agreements was the wrong thing to do.

However, during peace talks with Syria, Barak thought the major question was whether, if Israel were to withdraw from the Golan Heights, it could still have a secure border. As a former (military) chief of staff, he argued in the affirmative.

In late winter and spring 1996 during election season, the terrorist group Hamas tried to reduce Shimon Peres’ chances of an election victory by killing tens of Israelis in terrorist attacks. It and Islamic Jihad viewed him as a traitor for conducting negotiations with Yasser Arafat. Peres was forced to retire at 73 years old.

In June 1996, Barak was elected leader of Israel’s Labor Party. It seemed Barak changed his tune and wanted to comply with the Oslo accords in the next couple of years. He got angry at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for delaying Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories. Netanyahu was desperate for power, and withdrawal was politically unpopular.

In summer 1999, Barak was elected prime minister. In May 2000, he ordered the departure of Israeli troops from Lebanon, despite the shenanigans of the PLO in its territorial / recognition / non-belligerence discussions with the Israelis. He rambled on for page after page, detailing the summer 2000 back-and-forth with Arafat, still moderated by U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Arafat turned out to be a tease for two weeks (before Barak realized he’d been played for a fool)– not budging an inch, not counter-offering any concessions while Barak bent over backwards to offer the Palestinians sovereignty over East Jerusalem, a large portion of the occupied territories and the holy sites.

Barak lost his reelection bid in 2001, so he retired. Read the book to learn more about Barak’s life, his views on various political issues, the current situation regarding the Israelis and Palestinians, and Netanyahu’s leadership.

ENDNOTE: A distracting grammatical error that is becoming more and more widespread was made repeatedly throughout the book (the word before the gerund should be possessive):

“Though I wasn’t sure about legal provisions for officers leaving the army…” [It should be officers’ leaving the army]

“What were the prospects of Arafat reining in Hamas and Islamic Jihad?” [It should be Arafat’s reining in …]

John Tyler/Benjamin Harrison

The First Book of the Week is “John Tyler, The Accidental President” by Edward P. Crapol, published in 2006. This wordy, redundant career biography described the ideology and actions of a little-known American president and his times.

Born in March 1790, Tyler was an elitist trained for leadership in his youth. The education curriculum included Shakespeare, Anglophobia and male role models, including his father, with whom he studied law. At seventeen years old, he graduated from the College of William and Mary.

In the early 1830’s, abolitionists created a national anti-slavery organization. They launched petitioning and postal campaigns which were met with verbal harassment, egg and rock throwing, and censorship of the mail. The slave owners spread the vicious rumor that the abolitionists were colluding with the British– who had decided that slavery was uncool and had set free their slaves.

In April 1841, President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia after one month in office. Tyler, 51 years old, then serving as vice president (rather than other high government officials) became President of the United States because he aggressively convinced the government that he should.

As a point of pride, Tyler was eager to geographically and populationally expand the United States. He boasted about what a great model for freedom America was in the world. To this end, he wanted to welcome European refugees onto America’s shores and promote free trade.

But Tyler was a hypocrite in various ways. He owned tens of slaves in his workforce at his home in Virginia. He used his personal slaves in the White House as butler and valet. He exploited female slaves sexually.

Able to project an image of independent thinking, or have the chameleon-like flexibility of a politician, Tyler refrained from declaring himself a member of the major political parties of the time– the Whigs, Democrats or Liberty Party. He voted against creating a national bank– defying checks and balances of power by keeping his own (executive) and the legislative branch (which was supposed to have financial oversight of government operations), together.

In the early 1840’s, Tyler unwittingly did good by appointing a Navy secretary who appointed a superintendent who believed in scientific research using the Navy’s resources.

Tyler made a diplomatic trade trip to China, arriving in February of 1844. By summer of that year, he truly completed a deal (didn’t just boast about having a deal that was still in progress) to sell to China, America’s excess goods. In the next five years, the total dollar value of goods exchanged, doubled.

Read the book to learn of Tyler’s various territorial, slavery-related, Constitutional and States’ Rights controversies– in Oregon, Hawaii, Texas, and Maine’s Canadian border– on behalf of the United States (in which the president launched a propaganda campaign funded by a secret slush fund (illegally) unbeknownst to Congress), his relationships with Britain, France, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, post-presidency hot-button issues (which he covered in speaking tours, and about which he didn’t shut up until his death), and more.


The Second Book of the Week is “Benjamin Harrison” by Charles W. Calhoun, published in 2005. This is a brief career biography of America’s 23rd president, whose grandfather William Henry Harrison, was the ninth president.

Born in August 1833 in North Bend, Ohio into a big family, Benjamin Harrison studied political science, economics and debating in college, and then studied law, graduating in June 1852. Like his mother, he was a devout Presbyterian.

At the time, the type of capitalism practiced in England involved a vicious economic cycle: robber barons, who– among other exploitative practices– paid starvation wages to workers, who, in turn, required government welfare. The government taxed the workers so that they needed additional welfare.

For the rest of the 1850’s, Harrison established his career practicing law and holding various Republican leadership positions in Indiana and at his church. In summer 1862, he volunteered to fight for the Union in the American civil war. He worked his way up to brigade commander.

The (financial) Panic of 1873 made Harrison more wealthy than ever by giving him copious legal work. But that is not why he viewed the depression as a good thing. It was good because after a time, it put a stop to America’s excesses.

For years, people had been engaging in gambling, thinking they would get rich quick. Excuse the cliche, “The only place ‘success’ comes before ‘work’ is in the dictionary.” He knew that rewards came over time through focused labor and clean living.

Beginning in 1880, Harrison was elected as a Republican senator from Indiana. He believed in equal opportunity for all, including blacks, and integrated co-education. He thought the most important political issue of the day was black enfranchisement.

In 1888, Harrison was drafted by his fellow Republicans to run for president. His opponent went on a campaign tour. “Long tradition called for a presidential nominee to discuss the issues in a formal letter of acceptance but otherwise remain at home and leave the hard campaigning to surrogates.” Harrison stayed in Indiana and representatives from his political network visited him. He made speeches which were printed in all the major newspapers within a day. That’s how he reached voters.

Harrison was super-cooperative with Congress, pushing through 531 pieces of legislation during his administration. In early 1891, he secured trade agreements with Brazil, Central American nations and Austria-Hungary. However, he pointedly avoided a deal with Canada because that country was neither going to stop importing factory products from England to purchase America’s, nor would it purchase America’s food from farms.

Read the book to learn of the hot-button political issues of Harrison’s time (hint– there were contentious arguments on various economic fronts); of why he was a one-term president; and of many more details about his professional and personal beliefs, accomplishments and incidents.



Chief Justice

The Book of the Week is “Chief Justice, A Biography of Earl Warren” by Ed Cray, published in 1997.

Born in March 1891 in Southern California, Warren was encouraged by his Scandinavian parents to pay for his education by working odd jobs all through his childhood. Only a small percentage of his contemporaries graduated college. But his father ended up paying his tuition anyway.

Warren majored in political science and law, so that when he graduated– in a class of fifteen students– he could call himself a lawyer, as there was no bar exam then in California.

In 1912, Warren became a Progressive after he saw what a robber baron his father’s employer– the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco– was. It owned the legal system.

The California government’s patronage system was threatened by the International Workers of the World (IWW or the “Wobblies”), a radical group that fought for workers but not for America in World War I. Most of its members consisted of low-level migratory laborers on farms, in mines and the logging industry who were “… womanless, voteless and jobless.” Warren had to deal with labor issues such as the above when he was a legislative aide in Northern California in the early 1920’s.

The local Alameda County government turned a blind eye to vice, which was everywhere. It was the Prohibition Era, after all. Warren joined the Republican party and worked in the District Attorney’s office, where enforcement was a joke. He wanted to change that scene someday.

Warren got his chance in January 1925. He was appointed interim Alameda County District Attorney. He launched an investigation into the cozy relationships among bail bondsmen, jailers and attorneys in the county. In 1926, he was formally elected in a landslide, as a conservative Republican. He prosecuted the sheriff, a KKK member, and an attorney for graft.

After his reelection, Warren proceeded to drain the swamp that was the Oakland Police Department. Ironically, his office was a center of white slavery, of sorts. Attorneys fresh out of law school with impeccable records labored long hours for no pay until there was a staff opening so that Warren could officially hire them.

By 1930, Warren had eliminated partisan patronage from the District Attorney’s office. In 1934, he was elected California Republican Party chairman. By summer 1939, as Attorney General of California, he sought to completely rid the state of illegal gambling in the form of betting on racing dogs and slot machines (including those on cruise ships).

Warren tended to side with liberals on the issues of civil rights and health care. Yet, during WWII, he strongly argued for rounding up all Japanese people living in coastal California who were not American citizens, and confining them in camps. But he was anti-union and his economic views favored capitalism over socialism. He hated the New Deal.

Despite his contradictory words and actions, Warren was handily reelected governor of California in 1946. One reason, though, was that he was allowed to list his name under both the Republican and Democratic parties on the ballot.

Warren attempted to provide all Californians with catastrophic health insurance via legislation. “The outpouring of [newspaper] editorials lent the appearance of massive public opposition to health insurance. That persuaded [California] legislators. Warren could not even invoke party discipline.”

On the other hand, Warren was sufficiently popular to be drafted to run for president. In May 1952, Richard Nixon made a secret deal with Republican presidential candidate Dwight Eisenhower that if Eisenhower got the nomination, Nixon would agree to become vice president.

Two months later, on the train that took Eisenhower, Nixon and Warren and their entourages to Chicago for the Republican National Convention, Nixon betrayed both of the other candidates in his party, Robert Taft and Warren, telling people that Eisenhower should get the delegates.

In June 1964, as is well known, President Lyndon Johnson bullied Warren into leading a commission that investigated the late President John F. Kennedy’s assassination (during which the panel members had to pore through about 25,400 pages of FBI reports and more). One member, then-Congressman Gerald Ford insisted that the assassination was a Communist plot instigated by Fidel Castro. No evidence of that was found. In September 1964, the report that described the results of the inquiry numbered 888 pages.

Read the book to learn more about Warren’s words and actions in connection with the landmark cases he handled as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States in the 1950’s and 1960’s; about which members of the American government are the ultimate interpreters of the United States Constitution; how due process was affected when the legal system permitted the presence of a media circus in the courtroom in a 1954 case that was about due process itself; and other hot-button issues, such as civil rights, gerrymandering, pornography, etc.


34 Days – BONUS POST

The Bonus Book of the Week is “34 Days, Israel, Hezbollah, and the War in Lebanon” by Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff, published in 2008. This book described the summer 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, during which about a thousand people died.

In 1982, Israel launched a war with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to drive it out of Lebanon. Hezbollah started to arrive there after the PLO left. President Ronald Reagan of the United States– which for years had been an intermediary truce-negotiating party to Middle Eastern unrest– put discussions about foreign troop withdrawal (Syrian, American, Israeli) from Lebanon on the back burner after that first war ended.

Hezbollah, comprised of Shiites, a sect of Islam, originally formed in Iran. It acquired power in the Lebanese government by electing Parliamentarians beginning in 1992. The group was allowed to keep its weaponry through the years, even though it was allegedly provoking border skirmishes by abducting soldiers.

The second war started in mid-July 2006, when Israel reacted with exaggerated hostility to the abduction of two soldiers by Hezbollah terrorists at the Lebanese border. The Israeli military wanted to entirely wipe out the terrorist group.

Ehud Olmert– Israeli president since 2000, and the “defense” minister he appointed, Amir Peretz, went hog-wild. They agreed with hawkish military leaders to not only take out Hezbollah’s Syrian-supplied Katyusha rockets on the ground before they could be deployed, but to blast transportation, media and energy hubs in Lebanon with sophisticated weaponry, knowing this action would kill many civilians.

Arab states nearby (but not Syria)– Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf Emirates– were silently cheering for Israel to take out Hezbollah, a move related to preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The West chastised Israel for its aggression, although it itself was at that moment continuing to violate the Geneva Convention in Iraq, etc.

Read the book to learn details of the unnecessary parting shot at the war’s end taken by Israel, which handled the war incompetently at best and evilly at worst, that caused many needless deaths (especially civilian), with, unsurprisingly, “… both sides racing to ensure their victory and to perpetuate their own narrative of the war” to the media and the public.

The Way Around

The Book of the Week is “The Way Around, Finding My Mother and Myself Among the Yanomami” by David Good, with Daniel Paisner, published in 2015.

The Yanomami is an indigenous, Amazon-rain-forest dwelling tribe in southern Venezuela near Brazil, who developed a reputation for hostility. The author dispelled that myth, while describing his unique experience, as a genetic member of the tribe.

Good’s father, an American from New Jersey, did anthropological fieldwork as a graduate student for about a decade, starting in 1975. Due to the loosely defined concept of marriage in the Yanomami culture, he had to decide whether or not to completely adopt the tribe’s lifestyle in order to continue to study them. He took the plunge. He ended up having three children, including the author, with his Yanomami wife.

However, the tribe’s ways are in an alternate universe, when compared with Americans’. Their lack of clothing alone would be considered primitive, never mind their low-tech, spare existence. The author wrote, “The women were all topless. Their faces were variously decorated with tribal markings; their noses, pierced with hii-hi sticks. The child was completely naked.”

The author’s father thought he would be able to move his immediate family away from his wife’s family in Venezuela in the late 1980’s, as he had a stronger desire to live in the United States. This created a cultural clash that led to a rather extreme consequence and psychological damage for all involved.

Read the book to learn how the author was affected by this adverse turn of events, and how he got through it.