On The Guns of August

I recently finished reading The Guns of August, the Pulitzer Prize-Winning Classic about the Outbreak of World War I, by Barbara W. Tuchman.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

Wilson, facing this group of “ignorant men,” as he called them, and accompanied by his fellow officer and future chief, Sir John French, “who knows nothing at all about the subject,” pinned up his great map of Belgium on the wall and lectured for two hours. He swept away many illusions when he explained how Germany, counting on Russia’s slow mobilization, would send the bulk of her forces against the French, achieving superiority of numbers over them. He correctly predicated the German plan of attack upon a right-wing envelopment but, schooled in the French theories, estimated the force that would come down west of the Meuse at no more than four divisions. He stated that, if all six British divisions were sent immediately upon the outbreak of war to the extreme left of the French line, the chances of stopping the Germans would be favorable.

Coming from Haldane this conclusion had a profound effect upon Liberal thinking and planning. The first result was a naval pact with France by which the British undertook at threat of war to safeguard the Channel and French coasts from enemy attack, leaving the French fleet free to concentrate in the Mediterranean. As this disposed the French fleet where it would not otherwise be, except by virtue of the agreement, it left a distinct obligation upon Britain…This curious document managed to satisfy everybody: the French because the whole British Cabinet Government had now officially acknowledged the existence of the joint plans, the antiwar group because it said England was not “committed,” and Grey because he had evolved a England was not “committed,” and Grey because he had evolved a formula that both saved the plans and quieted their opponents. To have substituted a definite alliance with France, as he was urged in some quarters, would “break up the Cabinet,” he said.

War pressed against every frontier. Suddenly dismayed, governments Struggled and twisted to fend it off. It was no use. Agents at frontiers were reporting every cavalry patrol as a deployment to beat the mobilization gun. General staffs, goaded by their relentless timetables, were pounding the table for the signal to move lest their opponents gain an hour’s head start. Appalled upon the brink, the chiefs of state who would be ultimately responsible for their country’s fate attempted to back away but the pull of military schedules dragged them forward.

How far reduced, how distant the end, no one yet knew. No one could realize that for numbers engaged and for rate and number of losses suffered over a comparable period of combat, the greatest battle of the war had already been fought. No one could yet foresee its consequences: how the ultimate occupation of all Belgium and northern France would put the Germans in possession of the industrial power of both countries, of the manufactures of Liege, the coal of the Borinage, the iron ore of Lorraine, the factories of Lille, the rivers and railroads and agriculture, and how this occupation, feeding German ambition and fastening upon France the fixed resolve to fight to the last drop of recovery and reparation, would block all later attempts at compromise peace or “peace without victory” and would prolong the war for four more years.

At the time of the disaster General Marquis de Laguiche, the French military attache came to express his condolences to the Commander • in Chief. ‘We are happy to have made such sacrifices for our Allies,” the Grand Duke replied gallantly. Equanimity in the face of catastrophe was his code, and Russians, in the knowledge of inexhaustible supplies of manpower, are accustomed to accepting gigantic fatalities with comparative calm. The Russian steam roller in which the Western Allies placed such hopes, which after their debacle on the Western Front was awaited even more anxiously, had fallen apart on the road as if it had been put together with pins. In its premature start and early demise it had been. Just as the Grand Duke said, a sacrifice for an ally. Whatever it cost the Russians, the sacrifice accomplished what the French wanted: withdrawal of German strength from the Western Front. The two corps that came too late for Tannenberg were to be absent from the Mame.

But Francois faced battle, whereas Kluck, thinking he faced only pursuit and mopping up, ignored the precaution. He believed the French incapable, after ten days of retreat, of the morale and energy required to turn around at the sound of the bugle and fight again. Nor was he worried about his flank. “The General fears nothing from the direction of Paris,” recorded an officer on September 4. “After we have destroyed the remains of the Franco-British Army he will return to Paris and give the IVth Reserve the honor of leading the entry into the French capital.”

In conclusion:

After the Marne the war grew and spread until it drew in the nations of both hemispheres and entangled them in a pattern of world conflict no peace treaty could dissolve. The Battle of the Mame was one of the decisive battles of the world not because it determined that Germany would ultimately lose or the Allies ultimately win the war but because it determined that the war would go on. There was no looking back, Joffre told the soldiers on the eve. Afterward there was no turning back. The nations were caught in a trap, a trap made during the first thirty days out of battles that failed to be decisive, a trap from which there was, and has been, no exit.

A recommended read in the areas of history and military conflicts.

On John Adams

I recently finished reading John Adams by David McCullough.

Below are key excerpts from this book that I found to be particularly insightful:

In truth, he was extremely proud of his descent from “a line of virtuous, independent New England farmers.” That virtue and independence were among the highest of mortal attainments, John Adams never doubted. The New England farmer was his own man who owned his own land, a freeholder, and thus the equal of anyone.

And liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people who have a right from the frame of their nature to knowledge, as their great Creator who does nothing in vain, has given them understandings and a desire to know. But besides this they have a right, an indisputable, unalienable, indefeasible divine right to the most dreaded and envied kind of knowledge, I mean of the characters and conduct of their rulers.

If, by supporting the rights of mankind, and of invincible truth, I shall contribute to save from the agonies of death one unfortunate victim of tyranny, or of ignorance, equally fatal, his blessings and years of transport will be sufficient consolation to me for the contempt of all mankind.

The preservation of liberty depends upon the intellectual and moral character of the people. As long as knowledge and virtue are diffused generally among the body of a nation, it is impossible they should be enslaved.

Few Americans ever achieved so much of such value and consequence to their country in so little time. Above all, with his sense of urgency anc unrelenting drive, Adams made the Declaration of Independence happen when it did. Had it come later, the course of events could have gone very differently.

Years later, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, Adams would describe the voyage on the Boston as symbolic of his whole life. The raging seas he has passed through, he seemed to be saying, were like the times they lived in, and he was at the mercy of the times no less than the seas. Possibly he saw, too, in the presence of John Quincy, how directly his determination to dare such seas affected his family and how much, with his devotion to the cause of America, he had put at risk beyond his own life. Besides, as he may also have seen, the voyage had demonstrated how better suited he was for action than for smooth sailing with little to do.

To Thomas Jefferson, Adams would one day write, “My friend, you and 1 have lived in serious times.” And of all the serious events of the exceedingly eventful eighteenth century, none compared to the arrival upon the world stage of the new, independent United States of America. Adams’s part in Holland and at Paris had been profound. As time would tell, the treaty that he, Franklin, and Jay had made was as advantageous to their country as any in history. It would be said they had won the greatest victory in the annals of American diplomacy.

The role of the executive Adams was emphatic. If there is one central truth to be collected from the history of all ages, it is this: that the people’s rights and liberties, and the democratical mixture in a constitution, can never be preserved without a Strong executive, or, in other words, without separating the executive from the legislative power. If the executive power, or any considerable part of it, is left in the hands of an aristocratical or democratical assembly, it will corrupt the legislature as necessarily as rust corrupts iron, or as arsenic poisons the human body; and when the legislature is corrupted, the people are undone.

The only way to keep us from setting up for ourselves is to disunite us,” young schoolmaster Adams had written in his percipient letter to Nathan Webb, and to Adams now, as to others, dissolution remained the greatest single threat to the American experiment. “The fate of this government,” he would write from New York to his former law clerk, William Tudor, “depends absolutely upon raising it above the state governments.’ The first line of the Constitution made the point, “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union.’

‘o Adams the outcome was proof of how potent party spirit and party organization had become, and the most prominent was Burr’s campaign in New York. Washington, in his Farewell Address, had warned against disunion, permanent alliances with other nations, and “the baneful effects of the spirit of party.” Adams could rightly claim to have held to the ideals of union and neutrality, but his unrelenting independence—his desire to be a President above party—had cost him dearly.

In turbulent, dangerous times he had held to a remarkably steady course. He had shown that a strong defense and a desire for peace were not mutually exclusive, but compatible and greatly in the national interest.

In fundamental ways each proved consistently true to his nature they were in what they wrote as they had been through life. Jefferson was far more guarded and circumspect, better organized, dispassionate, more mannered, and refused ever to argue. Adams was warm, loquacious. more personal and opinionated, often humorous and willing to poke fun at himself. When Jefferson wrote of various self-appointed seers and mystics who had taken up his time as president, Adams claimed to have lad no problem with such people. “They all assumed the character of ambassadors extraordinary from the Almighty, but as I required miracles in proof of their credentials, and they did not perform any, I never gave public audience to any of them.”

I do not believe that Mr. Jefferson ever hated me. On the contrary, I believe he always liked me: but he detested Hamilton and my whole administration. Then he wished to be President of the United States, and I stood in his way. So he did everything that he could to pull me down. But if I should quarrel with him for that, I might quarrel with every man I have had anything to do with in life. This is human nature…. I forgive all my enemies and hope they may find mercy in Heaven. Mr. Jefferson and I have grown old and retired from public life. So we are upon our ancient terms of goodwill.

On a concluding note:

That John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had died on the same day. and that it was, of all days, the Fourth of July, could not be seen as a mere coincidence: it was a “visible and palpable” manifestation of “Divine favor,” wrote John Quincy in his diary that night, expressing what was felt and would be said again and again everywhere the news spread.

A highly recommended read in the areas of history and leadership.




On The Making of the President 1972

I recently finished reading The Making of the President 1972 – A narrative of American politics in action – by Theodore H. White.

Below are key excerpts from this book that I found to be particularly insightful:

He recognized best, and spoke most clearly, for how Americans chose to live at home in their neighborhoods-or, at the very least, he persuaded an astounding majority of Americans that he understood their emotions and needs better than his rival. With his victory, he believed in all sincerity that he had been given a mandate to reorganize the American government to make it more responsive to what the voters had shown they wanted. The after-fact that this genuine mandate might be denied him by Watergate, by the frightening way he had let his own appointees use his purposes to flout law—that is a story this book will inescapably, later, come to. But the book begins with how the people saw their leaders, and how the leaders saw then: people, in America in1972, when the and how;he leaders saw then: people, in America m 1972, when the postwar world was coming to an end—and how the people chose Richard Nixon.

Roosevelt had come of the patricians and rarely soiled himself with the nitty-gritty of mechanical politics. Roosevelt campaigned in another time, almost m another country. Large of vision, buoyant of spirit, steeped in history by family and blood, the lordly Roosevelt left it to his lieutenants to deal with the wards, the townships and regional power brokers, then pasted up his electoral votes, as he did the stamps his dealers brought him, in his album. It was quite clear always to Roosevelt what he was dealing with and what he had to do—and he did it easily.

The world of the 1960’s-which the liberals had dominated m America-was changing so rapidly that by the beginning of the 1970’s America—was changing so rapidly that by the beginning of the 1970’s change had created a climate of schizophrenia in liberal thinking, almost a civil war among thinkers who came of the same tradition. Always, since the time of Washington and Jefferson, three great permanent issues have dominated American politics-foreign policy; the clash of the races; and the managing of the economy. In the 1960’s, however, a liberal administration had accepted the war in Vietnam – and its unfurling had then split liberals from top to bottom. Liberals had championed the Black Revolution—and been unable to cope with its results. Liberals had masterminded the great boom of the 1960’s—and not foreseen its effect on manners and morals.

Well, Mr. Nixon liked Andrew Jackson—Jackson took on the banks. He liked Lincoln—Lincoln took on slavery and the cause of the Union. He liked Grover Cleveland—Cleveland took on the Congress, and restored the power of the Presidency which had been lost by Andrew Johnson. And Teddy Roosevelt—he had taken on the trusts and vested interests. And Wilson—Wilson took on the Senate and the isolationists. And Franklin Roosevelt. The common denominator, said the President, was that they accepted controversy and they made things move, they wanted progress. “There’s a role in life for men like McKinley, good men,” said the President. But he. Nixon, didn’t want to be like McKinley, nor like Eisenhower. He wanted to be a leader.

Statistics had once been a clearly marked area of scholarship, where economists, sociologists and planners held intellectual squatter’s rights. Now the numbers were a new staple of journalism. The Bloody Thursday figures fitted into the middle pages of the newspapers, as did the numbers on traffic, schools and tobacco use. But the high-impact figures —unemployment, prices, crime—were front-page news everywhere, as well as natural stories for the television evening news. Slowly, one tried to explore the numbers, for they had become the fashionable way for politicians to demonstrate a grip on reality. And one learned that there are real numbers and phony numbers.

Each decade in American life has a Sacred Issue to which all politicians must pay lip service. In the 1950’s, the Sacred Issue had been Defense and Anti-Communism. In the 1970’s, it seems certain that it will be the cause of Environment. In the 1960’s, however, the Sacred Issue was Education-and the Census of 1970, reporting on youth, Issue was Education—and the Census of 1970, reporting on youth, measured the mania for education which had swept American society in the previous decade.

One could best explain the nature of this struggle in 1972 by making an imaginary diagram of the American power structure at the tum of the century and comparing it to the American power structure as the postwar world came to its end. In 1900, as William McKinley prepared for his second term, the American power structure could be described in pure Leninese. At the pinnacle of power was Wall Street-finance. Wall Street centralized American national action—it decided where mines would be opened, railways built, what immigrant labor should be imported, what tech-railways built, what immigrant labor should be imported, what technology developed. it immigrant labor should be imported, what tech-discussion. At a second level was the Congress of the United States—doing the will of the great financiers, enacting the necessary laws, repelling the raiders of prairie discontent. On a third level was the series of largely undistinguished men who until 1900 had held the figurehead office of President of the United States for thirty years; their chief power, beyond the expression of patriotic piety, was to deploy a minuscule professional army and navy against Indians and Spaniards. The American clergy exercised some moral power, best expressed in such issues of national political importance as temperance. Behind came all the other power ingredients—a decorative Supreme Court, the early labor unions, the corrupt big-city machines, the universities. Then the proprietary press—for the press was then a proprietorship, something owned by businessmen for making money. By 1972 the power structure had entirely changed. The most important fall from power had happened to finance; businessmen might get fat, as they still did in 1972, by wheedling subsidies from national or state governments, but they were now a lobby that came hat-in-hand before a legislature and executive to whom once they had dictated. Labor, big labor, had risen to almost equal political power. The clergy had declined in power even more than big business. Congress, too, was a major loser in the power game—seventy years of domination by vigorous, aggressive Presidents had reduced its self-respect and, even more critically, the respect of the public. The Supreme Court had reached a peak of control over the national agenda m the 1960’s; but its power was beginning to fade again as the seventies began. Universities were among the big gainers in the power hierarchy—universities now were among the big gainers in the power hierarchy —universities now But the two greatest gainers in the reorganized power structure were the Executive President and his adversary press, or, as one should more properly phrase it in modem America, the “press-television complex.” Both tried to operate under what they considered traditional rules, but American life had made that impossible.

The story of Watergate was only one of a number of major stories in the election of 1972. As it unraveled, it was to become a story of 1973 and would fit better, someday when all was known, into a story of the use and abuse of power in a modem state. The elections of 1972 were determined, basically, by the record Richard Nixon had written in the understanding of his people—and his chief adversary was not in the understanding of his people—and his chief adversary was not understood and spoke for the people better than he did himself. On this immediate level of contest, Richard Nixon won. The people preferred Richard Nixon.

The Watergate affair is inexplicable m terms of older forms of corruption in American history, where men broke laws for private gain or privilege. The dynamics of its irrationality are compounded further by stupidity. The men involved were involved at a moment, in 1972, when history was moving their way. They were trying to speed it by any means. history was moving their way. They were trying to speed it by any means, that, as history may record, compounds their personal felonies with national tragedy. For it would be no less than national tragedy if men came to regard the election of 1972 as fraud; or attempted to reverse the verdict of the people at the polls on the technicalities of a burglary, in a spasm of morality approaching the hysterical.

The Democratic Party, which called itself the party of the future, had become, in their eyes, the party of the past. They turned instead to Richard Nixon, affirming the change of direction he declared he was giving to government—a restraint on the power and reach of the Federal state into daily life. However his use of the power of state may be defined in the months or years to come, use of the power ot state may be defined in me months or years to come, For this time, they preferred to live their own lives privately—unplagued by moralities, or war, or riots, or violence. In the alternation of the sequences of American history, in the cycle between poetry and pragmatism, in those generational shifts of mood characteristic of the adventure in democracy certainly the ideas of the minority who voted for McGovern would come into then: time again. Those ideas still stirred in the spirit of the nation. But until those ideas had new form, new shape, new perspective, the majority of Americans would not be called out to march in their cause. Such was their mandate in 1972.

An educative read on American history and politics.

On The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt

I recently finished reading The Rise Of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris. As the title indicates this is a book that chronicles the early stages of Theodore Roosevelt from birth to his ascension to US Presidency.

Below are key excerpts from the book:

Politically, too, it has been a year of superlatives, many of them supplied, with characteristic immodesty, by the President himself. “No Congress in our time has done more good work,” he fondly told the fifty-ninth, having battered it into submission with the sheer volume of his social legislation. He calls its first session “the most substantial” in his experience of public affairs. Joseph G. Cannon, the Speaker of the House, agrees, with one reservation about the President’s methods. “Roosevelt’s all right,” says Cannon, “but he’s got no more use for the Constitution than a tomcat has for a marriage license.”

Roosevelt is used to such criticism. He has been hearing it all his life. “If a man has a very decided character, has a strongly accentuated career, it is normally the case of course that he makes ardent friends and bitter enemies.”‘Yet even impartial observers will admit there is a grain of truth in Twain’s assertions. The President certainly has an irrational love of battle. He ceaselessly praises the joys of righteous killing, most recently in his annual message to Congress: “A just war is in the long run far better for a man’s soul than the most prosperous peace.”

To say that Theodore Roosevelt made a vivid first impression upon his colleagues would hardly be an exaggeration. From the moment that he appeared in their midst, there was a chorus of incredulous and delighted comment. Memories of his entrance that night, transcribed many years later, vary as to time and place, but all share the common image of a young man bursting through a door and pausing for an instant while all eyes were upon him—an actor’s trick that quickly became habitual. This gave his audience time to absorb the full brilliancy of his Savile Row clothes and furnishings.

Like a child, said Isaac Hunt, the young Assemblyman took on new strength and new ideas. “He would leave Albany Friday afternoon, and he would come back Monday night, and you could see changes that had happened to him. Such a superabundance of animal life was hardly ever condensed in a human [being].

Although the World claimed, with possible truth, that New Yorkers were pleased to see Roosevelt go,few could deny that his record as Commissioner was impressive. “The service he has rendered to the city is second to that of none,” commented The New York Times, “and considering the conditions surrounding it, it is in our judgment unequaled.” He had proved that it was possible to enforce an unpopular law, and, by enforcing it, had taught the doctrine of respect for the law. He had given New York City its first honest election in living memory. In less than two years, Roosevelt had depoliticized and deethnicized the force, making it once more a neutral arm of government. He had broken its connections with the underworld, toughened the police-trial system, and largely eliminated corruption in the ranks. The attrition rate of venal officers had tripled during his presidency of the Board, while the hiring of new recruits had quadrupled—in spite of Roosevelt’s decisions to raise physical admission standards above those of the U.S. Army, lower the maximum-age requirement, and apply the rules of Civil Service Reform to written examinations. As a result, the average New York patrolman was now bigger, younger, and smarter. “He was also much more honest, since badges were no longer for sale. and more soldier-like (the military ideal having been a particular feature of the departing commissioner’s philosophy). Between May 1895 and April 1897, Roosevelt had added sixteen hundred such men to the force.

Well might he be happy. Theodore Roosevelt had cone home to find himself the most famous man in America—more famous even than Dewey, whose victory at Manila had been eclipsed (if temporarily) by the successive glories of Las Guasimas, San Juan, Santiago, and the round-robin which “brought our boys back home.” The news that the United States and Spain had just signed a peace initiative came as a crowning satisfaction. Intent as Roosevelt might be to parry questions about his gubernatorial ambitions—thereby strengthening rumors that he had already decided to run—his days as a soldier were numbered. It remained only to spend five days in quarantine, and a few weeks supervising the demobilization of his regiment, before returning to civilian life and claiming the superb inheritance he had earned in Cuba.

One of the first outsiders to congratulate Roosevelt was William McKinley, who sent a handwritten expression of unqualified good wishes…There comes a time in the life of a nation, as in the life of an individual, when it must face great responsibilities, whether it will or no. We have now reached that time. We cannot avoid facing the fact that we occupy a new place among the people of the world, and have entered upon a new career.. . . The guns of our warships in the tropic seas of the West and the remote East have awakened us to the knowledge of new duties. Our flag is a proud flag, and it stands for liberty and civilization. Where it has once floated, there must be no return to tyranny or savagery . . .

If not the first, Theodore Roosevelt was certainly one of the first politicians to act responsibly in view of the changing economics and class structure of late-nineteenth-century America. As such he deserves to be ranked only slightly behind Altgeld and Pingree and Jones. If his governorship, which lasted only two years (and was subject to enormous distractions in the second), was less spectacular than some, it was spectacular enough in terms of his own membership in the social and intellectual elite. One thinks of his early contempt for unions, for Henry George, for the unwashed Populists, for the rural supporters of William Jennings Bryan. Yet as Governor, Roosevelt had shown himself again and again willing to support labor against capital, and the plebeians in their struggle against his own class.

A highly recommended read in the area of politics. I look forward to reading the sequel, Theodore Rex.

On Lenin’s Tomb

I recently finished reading the Pulitzer Prize winning book: Lenin’s Tomb – The Last Days of the Soviet Empire – by David Remnick.

Below are key excerpts from this masterpiece:

In the years after Stalin’s death, the state was an old tyrant slouched in the comer with cataracts and gallstones, his muscles gone slack. He The state was nearly senile, but still dangerous enough. He still kept the key to the border gate in his pocket and ruled every function of public life. Now and then he had fits and the world trembled.

When Brezhnev shoved Khrushchev out of power, the state M had the means to squash what little freedom it had allowed. The censors went through the libraries with razor blades and slashed from the bound copies of Novy Mir Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich…The regime would rather kill its brightest children than give way.

“It is perfectly obvious that the lack of the proper level of democratization of Soviet society was precisely what made possible both the cult of personality and the violations of the law, arbitrariness, and repressions of the thirties—to be blunt, real crimes based on the abuse of power. Many thousands of members of the Party and nonmembers were subjected to mass repressions. That, comrades, is the bitter truth. Serious damage was done to the cause of socialism and the authority of the Party, and we must speak bluntly about this. This is essential for the final and irreversible assertion of Lenin’s ideal of socialism. ‘The guilt of Stalin and those close to him before the Party and the people for the mass repressions and lawlessness that were permitted are immense and unforgivable…even now we still encounter attempts to ignore sensitive questions of our history, to hush them up, to pretend that nothing special questions of our history, to hush them up, to pretend that nothing special happened. We cannot agree with this, it would be a neglect of historical truth, disrespect for the memory of those who found themselves innocent victims of lawlessness and arbitrariness.”

But Gorbachev had not finished. There was a reason for his revelation. It tied out that he had saved his confession for traditional ends. “I’ve been told more than once that it is time to stop swearing allegiance to socialism,” he was saying now. “Why should I? Socialism is my deep conviction, and I will promote it as long as I can talk and work.” By late 1990, political opinion polls showed that only a minority of Soviet people—not more than 20 percent—still shared Gorbachev’s faith in the efficacy of socialism. But attempts to turn away from the “socialist choice” were inconceivable to Gorbachev—a betrayal, a “counterrevolution on the sly.”

But things had changed. The sharp ideological divisions within the Party had now become an open secret, an open struggle, and the trick was to get the support of powerful liberals within the structure. Three old friends—Yuri Afanasyev, Nikolai Shmelyov, and Yuri Karyakin—brought to the Nineteenth Special Party Conference, in June 1988, a petition demanding Karpinsky’s rehabilitation. With the help of his old acquaintances Aleksandr Yakovlev and Boris Pugo, the tactic worked. By the next year, Len Karpinsky was in the regular rotation as a columnist at Moscow News—a golden boy, he says, “of a certain age.”

The Communist Party apparatus was the most gigantic mafia the world has ever known. It guarded its monopoly on power with a sham consensus and constitution and backed it up with the force of the KGB and the Interior Ministry police. There were also handsome profits. The Party had so obviously socked away money abroad and sold off” national resources—including the country’s vast gold reserves—that just after the collapse of the August coup, the Party’s leading financial officer took a look into the future and threw himself off” a high balcony to his death.

But Gorbachev knew that he could not conduct a genuine investigation into the Partv’s corruption. First, the Party, of which he was the head, would sooner kill him than allow it. Second, even if he could carry out such an investigation, Gorbachev would be faced with the obvious embarrassment: the depths of the Party’s rot. Instead, taking a page from Andropov’s style manual, he made a grand symbolic gesture. Yuri Churbanov, Brezhnev’s son-in-law and a deputy chief of the Interior Ministry, was indicted and tried son-in-law and a deputy chief og the Interior Ministry, was indicted and tried for accepting more than $1 million in bribes while working in Uzbekistan…But just as he could never distance himself enough from a discredited ideology, Gorbachev’s inability to jettison the Party nomenklatura and his political debts to the KGB spoiled his reputation over time in the eyes of a people who had grown more and more aware of the corruption and deceit in their midst.

At first, the Kremlin had not seemed so threatened by the Baltic republics. They were, after all, a “special case,” minuscule states absorbed into the Soviet Union more than twenty years after the Bolshevik Revolution…But the Baltic example became the model not for the revitalization of the Union, but rather for its collapse. In the three years it took to win independence, the Baits were never violent, only stubborn. It was that very temperament—Sakharov’s calm confidence on a mass scale—that characterized their revolution. None of the other republics organized quite so well or thought with such precision and cool.

The idea that the individual was of absolute value appeared in Russia only in the nineteenth century via Western influences, but it was stunted because there was no civic society. This is why human rights was never an issue. The principle was set out very clearly by Metropolitan Illarion in the eleventh century in his ‘Sermon on Law and Grace,’ in which he makes clear that grace is higher than law; you see the same thing today in our great nationalists like Prokhanov—their version of grace is higher than the law. The law is somehow inhuman, abstract. The attempts to revise this principle were defeated. The Russian Revolution was a reaction of absolute simplification. Russia found its simplistic and fanatic response and conquered its support. What we are living through now is a breakthrough. We are leaving the Middle Ages.’

“When Mikhail Sergeyevich rejected the 500 Days program he was rejecting the last chance for a civilized transition to a new order,” Aleksandr Yakovlev told me. “It was probably his worst, most dangerous mistake, because what followed was nothing less than a war.”

And just as a change in consciousness in the people had led to this incredible resistance, one could not rule out that even the conspirators had evolved beyond their ancestors. They had the same Stalinist impulses, but not the core of cruelty, the willingness to flood the city in blood, call it a victory for socialism, and then go off” to a midnight screening of Happy Guys. They could pick up the pistol, but not always shoot it. They were bullies, and bullies could be called on their bluff”.

But without Yeltsin, Gorbachev might well have dallied more than he did, the radical democrats Gorbachev might never have found a single, strong leader, the coup might have succeeded. As much as they had come to despise each other, Gorbachev and Yeltsin were linked in history.

What he hopes for now, he said, was not a new empire, not the resuscitation of a great power, but simply the development of “a normal country.” It was time to join in that process. After a life that had reflected the agonies of the old regime—a communist youth, the war, prison, the camps, the battle with the Kremlin. forced exile—now, at the age of seventy-five, he was completing the circle. He had tickets to return home. “Even at the worst tunes. I knew I would be coming home.” he said. “It was crazy. No one believed it. But I knew I would come home to die in Russia.”

A highly recommended read in the areas of history and world politics.

On Benjamin Franklin

I recently finished reading Benjamin Franklin – An American Life – by Walter Isaacson.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

But the most interesting thing that Franklin invented, and continually reinvented, was himself. Americas first great publicist, he was. in his life and in his writings, consciously trying to create a new American archetype. In the process, he carefully crafted his own persona. portrayed it in public, and polished it for posterity.

Franklin has a particular resonance in twenty-first-century America. A successful publisher and consummate networker with an inventive curiosity, he would have felt right at home in the information revolution, and his unabashed striving to be part of an upwardly mobile meritocracy made him, in social critic David Brooks’s phrase, “our founding Yuppie.” We can easily imagine having a beer with him after work, showing him how to use the latest digital device, sharing the business plan for a new venture, and discussing the most recent political scandals or policy ideas. He would laugh at the latest joke about a priest and a rabbi, or about a farmer s daughter. We would admire both his earnestness and his self-aware irony. And we would relate to the way he tried to balance, sometimes uneasily, the pursuit of reputation. wealth, earthly virtues, and spiritual values.

This appreciation of books was one of the traits shared by the Puritanism of Mather and the Enlightenment of Locke, worlds that would combine in the character of Benjamin Franklin.

The primary value of his “Dissertation” He’s in what it reveals about Franklins fitful willingness to abandon Puritan theology. As a young man, he had read John Locke, Lord Shaftesbury, Joseph Addison, and others who embraced the freethinking religion and Enlightenment philosophy of deism, which held that each individual could best discover the truth about God through reason and studying nature, rather than through blind faith in received doctrines and divine revelation.

There were four rules: 1. It is necessary for me to be extremely frugal for some time, till I have paid what I owe. 2. To endeavor to speak truth in every instance; to give nobody expectations that are not likely to be answered, but aim at sincerity in every word and action—the most amiable excellence in a rational being. 3. To apply myself industriously to whatever business I take in hand, and not divert my mind from my business by any foolish project of suddenly growing rich; for industry and patience are the surest means of plenty. 4. I resolve to speak ill of no man whatever.

The other sins on his list were, in order: seeming uninterested. speaking too much about your own life, prying for personal secrets (“an unpardonable rudeness”), telling long and pointless stories (“old folks are most subject to this error, which is one chief reason their company is so often shunned”), contradicting or disputing someone directly, ridiculing or railing against things except in small witty doses (“it’s like salt, a little of which in some cases gives relish, but if thrown on by handfuls spoils all”), and spreading scandal (though he would later write lighthearted defenses of gossip).

First he made a list of twelve virtues he thought desirable, and to each he appended a short definition: Temperance: Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation. Silence: Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation. Order: Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time. Resolution: Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve. Frugality: Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; (i.e., waste nothing). Industry: Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions. Sincerity: Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly, and, if you speak, speak accordingly. Justice: Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty. Moderation: Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve. Cleanliness: Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation. Tranquility: Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable. Chastity: Rarely use venery but for health or offspring, never to dullness, weakness, or the injury of your own or another’s peace or reputation.

This attitude, and his lack of grounding in theoretical math and physics, is why Franklin, ingenious as he was, was no Galileo or Newton. He was a practical experimenter more than a systematic theorist. As with his moral and religious philosophy, Franklin’s scientific work was distinguished less for its abstract theoretical sophistication than for its focus on finding out facts and putting them to use.

But as much as he loved his scientific pursuits, Franklin felt that they were no more worthy than endeavors in the field of public affairs. Around this time, his friend the politician and naturalist Cadwallader Colden also retired and declared his intention to devote himself full-time to “philosophical amusements,” the term used in the eighteenth century for scientific experiments. “Let not your love of philosophical amusements have more than its due weight with you,” Franklin urged in response. “Had Newton been pilot but of a single common ship, the finest of his discoveries would scarce have excused or atoned for his abandoning the helm one hour in time of danger; how much less if she had carried the fate of the Commonwealth.” So Franklin would soon apply his scientific style of reasoning— experimental, pragmatic—not only to nature but also to public affairs. These political pursuits would be enhanced by the fame he had gained as a scientist. The scientist and statesman would henceforth be interwoven, each strand reinforcing the other, until it could be said of him. in the two-part epigram that the French statesman Turgot composed, “He snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants.”

Among Franklin’s cards was his fame, and he was among a long line of statesmen, from Richelieu to Metternich to Kissinger, to realize that with celebrity came cachet, and with that came influence.

“Franklin had won,” writes Carl Van Doren, “a diplomatic campaign equal in results to Saratoga.” The Yale historian Edmund Morgan goes even further, calling it “the greatest diplomatic victory the United States has ever achieved.” With the possible exception of the creation of the NATO alliance, that assessment maybe true, though it partly points up the paucity of American successes over the years at bargaining tables, whether in Versailles after World War I or in Paris at the end of the Vietnam War. At the very least, it can be said that Franklin’s triumph permitted America the possibility of an outright victory in its war for independence while conceding no lasting entanglements that would encumber it as a new nation.

First, he was far more comfortable with democracy than most of the delegates, who tended to regard the word and concept as dangerous rather than desirable…Second, he was, by far, the most traveled of the delegates, and he knew not only the nations of Europe but the thirteen states, appreciating both what they had in common and how they differed…Third, and what would prove most important of all, he embodied a spirit of Enlightenment tolerance and pragmatic compromise.

There are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice; the love of power and the love of money Separately, each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but, when united in view of the same object, they have in many minds the most violent effects,.. And of what kind are the men that will strive for this profitable preeminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters? It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust. It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits.

At times, Adams charged, Franklin was hypocritical, a poor negotiator, and a misguided politician. But his essay also included some of the most nuanced words of appreciation written by any contemporary: Franklin had a great genius, original, sagacious and inventive, capable of discoveries in science no less than of improvement in the fine arts and the mechanical arts. He had a vast imagination … He had with at will. He had a humor that, when he pleased, was delicate and delightful. He had a satire that was good-natured or caustic, Horace or Juvenal, Swift or Rabelais, at his pleasure. He had talents for irony, allegory and fable that he could adapt with great skill to the promotion of moral and political truth. He was a master of that infantile simplicity which the French call naivete, which never fails to charm.

Franklin’s belief that he could best serve God by serving his fellow man may strike some as mundane, but it was in truth a worthy creed that he deeply believed and faithfully followed. He was remarkably versatile in this service. He devised legislatures and lightning rods, lotteries and lending libraries. He sought practical ways to make stoves less smoky and commonwealths less corrupt. He organized neighborhood constabularies and international alliances. He combined two types of lenses to create bifocals and two concepts of representation to foster the nation’s federal compromise. As his friend the French statesman Turgot said in his famous epigram, Eripuit coelo fulmen sceptrumque tyrannis, he snatched lightning from the sky and the scepter from tyrants. All of this made him the most accomplished American of his age and the most influential in inventing the type of society America would become. Indeed, the roots of much of what distinguishes the nation can be found in Franklin: its cracker-barrel humor and wisdom; its technological ingenuity; its pluralistic tolerance; its ability to weave together individualism and community cooperation; its philosophical pragmatism; its celebration of meritocratic mobility; the idealistic streak ingrained in its foreign policy; and the Main Street (or Market Street) virtues that serve as the foundation for its civic values. He was egalitarian in what became the American sense: he approved of individuals making their way to wealth through diligence and talent, but opposed giving special privileges to people based on their birth. His focus tended to be on how ordinary issues affect everyday lives, and on how ordinary people could build a better society But that did not make him an ordinary man. Nor did it reflect a shallowness. On the contrary, his vision of how to build a new type of nation was both revolutionary and profound. Although he did not embody each and every transcendent or poetic ideal, he did embody the most practical and useful ones. That was his goal, and a worthy one it was. Through it all, he trusted the hearts and minds of his fellow leather-aprons more than he did those of any inbred elite. He saw middle-class values as a source of social strength, not as something to be derided. His guiding principle was a “dislike of everything that tended to debase the spirit of the common people.” Few of his fellow founders felt this comfort with democracy so fully, and none so intuitively. From the age of 21, when he first gathered his Junto, he held true to a fundamental ideal with unwavering and at times heroic fortitude: a faith in the wisdom of the common citizen that was manifest in an appreciation for democracy and an opposition to all forms of tyranny It was a noble ideal, one that was transcendent and poetic in its own way. And it turned out to be, as history proved, a practical and useful one as well.

A highly recommended read in the areas of leadership, history, politics, and humanity at large.



JFK And The Unspeakable

I recently finished reading JFK and the Unspeakable – Why He Died and Why It Matters by James W. Douglass. As James Bradley best said it in his praise of the book: “A remarkable story that changed the way I view the World”.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

“The Unspeakable” is a term Thomas Merton coined at the heart of the sixties after JFK’s assassination—in the midst of the escalating Vietnam War, the nuclear arms race, and the further assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. In each of those soul-shaking events Merton sensed an evil w^hose depth and deceit seemed to go beyond the capacity of words to describe.

Whether or not JFK was a martyr his story could never have been told without the testimony of risk-taking witnesses to the truth. Even if their lives were not taken—and some were—they were all martyrs in the root meaning of the word, witnesses to the truth. The belief behind this book is that truth is the most powerful force on earth, what Gandhi called satyagraha, “truth-force” or “soul-force.” By his experiments in truth Gandhi turned theology on its head, saying “truth is God.” We all see a part of the truth and can seek it more deeply. Its other side is compassion, our response to suffering. The story of JFK and the Unspeakable is drawn from the suffering and compassion of many witnesses who saw the truth and spoke it. In living out the truth, we are liberated from the Unspeakable.

Two critical questions converge at Kennedy’s assassination. The first is: Why did his assassins risk exposure and a shameful downfall by covertly murdering a beloved president? The second is: Why was John Kennedy prepared to give his life for peace, when he saw death coming.? The second question may be key to the first, because there is nothing so threatening to systemic evil as those willing to stand against it regardless of the consequences. So we will try to see this story initially through the life of John Kennedy, to understand why he became so threatening to the most powerful military-economic coalition in history that its wielders of power were willing to risk everything they had in order to kill him.

To match the efficiency of a totalitarian enemy, U.S. military leaders urged legislation that would mobilize the nation to a state of constant readiness for war. Thus the National Security Act of 1947 laid the foundations of a national security state: the National Security Council (NSC), the National Security Resources Board (NSRB), the Munitions Board, the Research and Development Board, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Before the act was passed, Secretary of State George Marshall warned President Truman that it granted the new intelligence agency in particular powers that were “almost unlimited,” a criticism of the CIA that Truman would echo much too late—soon after the assassination of John Kennedy.

Castro’s comparison between Cuba and Vietnam provokes further questions about John Kennedy. If JFK had the courage to resist the CIA and the Pentagon on Cuba, as Castro recognized, how could he have allowed himself to be sucked into the war in Vietnam? Or did he finally turn around on Vietnam in a way that paralleled his changes toward the Soviet Union and Cuba? Did John Kennedy ultimately make a decision for peace in Vietnam that would become the final nail in his coffin?

As spring turned into the summer of 1963. President John F. Kennedy had decided to withdraw the U.S. military and neutralize Vietnam, just as he had done in Laos. When he said that one day to his aides Dave Powers and Kenny O’Donnell, they asked him bluntly: How could he do it? How could he carry out a military withdrawal from Vietnam without losing American prestige in Southeast Asia?

In Kennedy’s short presidency, the military-industrial complex actually increased its profits and power. JFK’s initial call to develop a military response to the Soviet Union and its allies that would be “more flexible” than the Eisenhower policy of mutual assured destruction expanded the Pentagon’s contracts with U.S. corporations. Yet in the summer of 1963, the leaders of the military-industrial complex could see storm clouds on their horizon. After JFK’s American University address and his quick signing of the Test Ban Treaty with Khrushchev, corporate power holders saw the distinct prospect in the not distant future of a settlement in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both Kennedy and Khrushchev were prepared to shift their war of conflicting ideologies to more peaceful fronts. Kennedy wanted a complete ban on the testing of nuclear weapons, then mutual steps in nuclear disarmament. He saw a willing partner in Khrushchev, who wanted to ease the huge burden of arms expenditures on the Soviet economy. In that direction of U.S.-Soviet disarmament lay the diminished power of a corporate military system that for years had controlled the United States government. In his turn toward peace, Kennedy was beginning to undermine the dominant power structure that Eisenhower had finally identified and warned against so strongly as he left the White House.

In his deepening alienation from the CIA. the Pentagon, and big business. John Kennedy was moving consciously beyond the point of no return. Kennedy knew well the complicity that existed among the Cold War’s corporate elite. Pentagon planners, and the heads of “intelligence agencies.” He was no stranger to the way systemic power worked in and behind his national security state. But he still kept acting for “the interests of the great mass of Other people”—and as his brother Robert put it, to prevent “the specter of the death of the children of this country and around the world.” That put him more and more deeply in conflict with those who controlled the system.

On September 20, 1963. two months and two days before his death. Kennedy spoke to the United Nations. He took the opportunity to return to a theme of his American University address—pursuing a strategy of peace through a step-by-step process. Peace,” he said, “is a daily, a weekly, a monthly process, gradually changing opinions, slowly eroding old barriers, quietly building new structures. And however undramatic the pursuit of peace, that pursuit must go on.”

Just as Chicago was the model for Dallas, Saigon was the backdrop for Chicago. The virtual simultaneity of the successful Saigon plot to assassinate Ngo Dinh Diem and the unsuccessful Chicago plot to assassinate John F. Kennedy strongly suggests their having been coordinated in a single, comprehensive scenario. If Kennedy had been murdered in Chicago on the day after Diem’s and Nhu’s murders in Saigon, the juxtaposition of the events would have created the perfect formula to be spoon-fed to the public: “Kennedy murdered Diem, and got what he deserved.”

How real was the threat to use President Kennedy’s assassination as the justification for an attack on Cuba and the Soviet Union? When we take off our Warren Commission blinders, we can see that the letter sent to the Soviet Embassy was designed to implicate the Soviets and Cubans in the murder of the president of the United States. That was the apparent tactic of a twofold, winner-take-all plot: a plot to assassinate the president who was prepared to negotiate an end to the Cold War, intertwined with a deeper plot to use fraudulent proof of the U.S.S.R.’s and Cuba’s responsibility for that assassination so as to justify the option of preemptive strikes on those same two Communist nations. President Kennedy encountered that kind of push for a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union from the beginning of his presidency. While such a “winning strategy” was becoming a top-secret, military priority, the pressures on Kennedy to approve it were so intense that it took a contemplative monk in the silence of his Kentucky monastery to recognize and articulate the truth.

On December 22, 1963, one month to the day after JFK’s assassination. Former President Truman published a very carefully worded article in the Washington Post warning the American people about the danger of the CIA taking over the government. He wrote: “I think it has become necessary to take another look at the purpose and Operations of our Central Intelligence Agency—CIA … “For some time I have been disturbed by the way the CIA has been diverted from its original assignment. It has become an operational and at times a policy-making arm of the Government. This has led to trouble and may have compounded our difficulties in several explosive areas. “We have grown up as a nation, respected for our free institutions and for our ability to maintain a free and open society. There is something about the way the CIA has been functioning that is casting a shadow over our historic position and I feel that we need to correct it.” Truman’s warning, with its ominous post-assassination timing, was greeted by total silence. Had it been noticed and heeded, the controversial ex-president might have been accused more justly this time of trying to abolish the CIA, since he did indeed want to abolish its covert activities. President Harry Truman had himself established the CIA in 1947, but not. he thought, to do what he saw it doing in the fall of 1963.

Then came the heart of the speech, the most eloquent statement of John F. Kennedy’s presidency: “So, let us not be blind to our differences—but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”

Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s memory of what Jacqueline Kennedy said to Mikoyan was more succinct: “My husband’s dead. Now peace is up to you.” That essence of her message is appropriate to us all. John F. Kennedy is dead. Now peace is up to us.

President Kennedy’s courageous turn from global war to a strategy of peace provides the why of his assassination. Because he turned toward peace with our enemies, the Communists, he found himself at odds with his own national security state. Peacemaking was at the top of his agenda as president. That was not the kind of leadership the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the military-industrial complex wanted in the White House. Given the Cold War dogmas that gripped those dominant powers, and given Kennedy’s turn toward peace, his assassination followed as a matter of course. The story of why John Kennedy died encircles the earth. Because JFK chose peace on earth at the height of the Cold War, he was executed. But because he turned toward peace, in spite of the consequences to himself. humanity is still alive and struggling. That is hopeful, especially if we understand what he went through and what he has given us as his vision.

A must read on leadership, politics and world affairs.


On Thomas Jefferson

I recently finished reading Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power – by Pulitzer Prize Winner Jon Meacham.

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

He had a defining vision, a compelling goal—the survival and success of popular government in America. Jefferson believed the will of m educated, enlightened majority should prevail. His opponents had less faith in the people, worrying that the broad American public might be unequal to self-government. Jefferson thought that same public was the salvation of liberty, the soul of the nation, and the hope of the republic. In pursuit of his ends, Jefferson sought, acquired, and wielded power, which is the bending of the world to one’s will, the remaking of reality in one’s own image. Our greatest leaders are neither dreamers nor dictators: They are, like Jefferson, those who articulate national aspirations yet master the mechanics of influence and know when to depart from dogma. Jefferson had a remarkable capacity to marshal ideas and to move men, to balance the inspirational and the pragmatic. To realize his vision, he compromised and improvised. The willingness to do what he needed to do in a given moment makes him an elusive historical figure. Yet in the real world, in real time, when he was charged with the safety of the country, his creative flexibility made him a transformative leader. America has always been torn between the ideal and the real, between noble goals and inevitable compromises. So was Jefferson. In his head and in his heart, as in the nation itself, the perfect warred with the good, the intellectual with the visceral. In him as in America, that conflict was, and is, a war without end. Jefferson’s story resonates not least because he embodies an eternal drama: the struggle of the leadership of the nation to achieve greatness in a difficult and confounding world. More than any of the other early presidents—more than Washington, more than Adams—Jefferson believed in the possibilities of humanity He dreamed big but understood that dreams become reality only when their champions are strong enough and wily enough to bend history to their purposes. Broadly put, philosophers think; politicians maneuver. Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously. Such is the art of power.

Like his father, he believed in the virtues of riding and of walking. holding that a vigorous body helped create a vigorous mind. “Not less than two hours a day should be devoted to exercise, and the weather should be little regarded,” Jefferson once said…Jefferson was always asking questions. With “the mechanic as well as the man of science,” a descendant recalled, Jefferson learned all he could, “whether it was the construction of a wheel or the anatomy of an extinct species of animals,” and then went home to transcribe what he had heard. He would soon be known as a “walking encyclopedia.”

Jefferson and his fellow American Revolutionaries took the positions they did—positions that led to war in 1776 and the Declaration of Independence in 1776—partly because they saw themselves as Englishmen who were being denied a full share of the benefits of the lessons of English life.

For the colonists, the decision to revolt was not solely economic, but it was surely informed by concerns over money. In Virginia the impetus to rebel came from the propertied elements of society; the middle and lower classes were slower to follow the lead of men such as Jefferson. It was a rich man’s revolution, and Jefferson was a rich man. It was a philosophical revolution, and Jefferson was a philosophical man.

He had the best of editors in private: “self-evident” was Benjamin Franklin’s, In sum, Jefferson’s draft was a political undertaking with a philosophical frame. It was produced in a particular moment by a politician to satisfy particular concerns for a particular complex of audiences: undecided Americans, soldiers in arms, and potential global allies.

Boldness and decisiveness were sometimes virtues in a leader. Having failed to be either bold or decisive during the invasions of Virginia, he gained valuable experience about the price of waiting. At the time, however, he could not have known that one day he would owe something of his presidential success to his failures of 1781.

Like poetry, politics was partly inspiration, but it was, as Izard said and Jefferson knew, a craft that required relentless practice. It was a lesson Jefferson had learned in Williamsburg, and which now served him well an ocean away.

Liberty, he was saying, requires patience, forbearance, and fortitude. Republics were not for the fainthearted. “I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” he told Madison, “and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”

For Jefferson, the images of monarchy swirled. The rhetoric of the American Revolution—Jefferson’s rhetoric, the product of his own pen—seemed fainter in the clatter of a capital that he believed was beginning to feel more like a king’s court than the seat of a republic.

He understood the country was open to—even eager for—a government that seemed less intrusive and overbearing than the one Washington and Adams had created…Jefferson had long cared about two things: American liberty and American strength. For eight years he summoned all the power he believed he required to make America more like what he thought it should be.

The America of Jefferson was neither wholly Federal nor wholly Republican. It was, rather, a marbled blend of the two, confected by a practical man of affairs. The significance of the case of Louisiana in shaping the destinies of the country and in illuminating Jefferson’s political leadership cannot be overstated. He believed, for instance, in a limited government, except when he thought the nation was best served by a more expansive one. It was a moment to savor success.

Slavery was the rare subject where Jefferson’s sense of realism kept him from marshaling his sense of hope in the service of the cause of reform. “There is nothing I would not sacrifice to a practicable plan of abolishing every vestige of this moral and political depravity,” he wrote in 1814, but that was not true. He was not willing to sacrifice his own way of life, though he characteristically left himself a rhetorical escape by introducing the subjective standard of practicability.

A Decalogue of canons for observation in practical life. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. 2. Never trouble another for what you can do yourself 3. Never spend your money before you have it. 4. Never buy what you do not want, because it is cheap; it will be dear to you. Pride costs us more than hunger, thirst, and cold. 6. We never repent of having eaten too little. 7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly. 8. How much pain have cost us the evils which have never happened. 9. Take things always by their smooth handle. 10. when angry, count ten, before you speak; if very angry, a hundred.

On a beautiful day in Boston, with President Adams in the hall, Webster painted an indelible portrait of Jefferson’s and Adam’s ascent to the American pantheon: “On our fiftieth anniversary, the great day of national jubilee, in the very hour of public rejoicing, in the midst of echoing and re-echoing voices of thanksgiving, while their own names were on all tongues, they took their flight together to the world of spirits.”

Jefferson speaks to us now because he spoke so powerfully and evocatively to us then. His circumstances were particular, yet the general issues that consumed him are constant: liberty and power, rights and responsibilities, the keeping of peace and the waging of war. He was a politician, a public man, in a nation in which politics and public life became—and remain—central. As Jefferson wrote, “Man … feels that he is a participator in the government of affairs not merely at an election, one day in the year, but every day.”

He endures because we can see in him all the varied and wondrous possibilities of the human experience—the thirst for knowledge, the capacity to create, the love of family and of friends, the hunger for accomplishment, the applause of the world, the marshaling of power, the bending of others to one’s own vision. His genius lay in his versatility; his larger political legacy in his leadership of thought and of men.

We sense his greatness because we know that perfection in politics is not possible but that Jefferson passed the fundamental test of leadership: Despite all his shortcomings and all the inevitable disappointments and mistakes and dreams deferred, he left America, and the world, in a better place than it had been when he first entered the arena of public life. Jefferson is the founding president who charms us most. George Washington inspires awe; John Adams respect. With his grace and hospitality his sense of taste and love of beautiful things—of silver and art and architecture and gardening and food and wine—Jefferson is more alive, more convivial.

A highly recommended read on a defining figure of modern history.



On Lords Of Finance

I recently finished reading the Pulitzer Prize winning, Lords of Finance – The Bankers Who Broke The World by Liaquat Ahamed. This book aim, as best described by the author is: “The collapse of the world economy from 1929 to 1933—now justly called the Great Depression—was the seminal economic event of the twentieth century. No country escaped its clutches; for more than ten years the malaise that it brought in its wake hung over the world, poisoning every aspect of social and material life and crippling the future of a whole generation. From it flowed the turmoil of Europe in the “low dishonest decade” of the 1930s, the rise of Hitler and Nazism, and the eventual slide of much of the globe into a Second World War even more terrible than the First. The story of the descent from the roaring boom of the twenties into the Great Depression can be told in many different ways. In this book, I have chosen to tell it by looking over the shoulders of the men in charge of the four principal central banks of the world: the Bank of England, the Federal Reserve System, the Reichsbank, and the Banque de France…Governments then believed matters of finance were best left to bankers; and so the task of restoring the world’s finances fell into the hands of the central banks of the four major surviving powers: Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. ”

Below are key insights from the book that I wish to share:

On Central Banks:

To understand the role of central bankers during the Great Depression, it is first necessary to understand what a central bank is and a little about low it operates. Central banks are mysterious institutions, the full details of their inner workings so arcane that very few outsiders, even economists. fully understand them. Boiled down to its essentials, a central bank is a bank that has been granted a monopoly over the issuance of currency. This power gives it the ability to regulate the price of credit—interest rates—and hence to determine how much money flows through the economy. Despite their role as national institutions determining credit policy for their entire countries, in 1914 most central banks were still privately owned.

On the start of WW1:

As the lights started to go out over Europe that fateful first week of August, every banker and finance minister seemed to be fixated not on military preparations or the movements of armies but on the size and durability of his gold reserves. The obsession was almost medieval. This was, after all, 1914, not 1814. Paper money had been in wide use for more than two centuries, and merchants and traders had developed highly sophisticated systems of credit. The idea that the scope of the war might be limited by the amount of gold on hand seems anachronistic. Nevertheless, here was the London magazine United Empire declaring that it was “the amounts of coin and bullion in the hands of the Continental Great Powders at the outbreak of hostilities” that would largely determine “the intensity and probable duration of the war.”

On the effect of the war on the US:

More important, the war had irrevocably changed the economic and financial position of the United States in relation to the rest of the world. The Fed, which barely existed in 1914, now sat on the largest reservoir of gold bullion in the world, making it potentially the dominant player if and when the international gold standard was restored.

On the impact of reparations on Germany:

Behind all the divisions that were to wreck Germany for the next few years, the one single factor that united every class and every political party—democrats and royalists, liberals and Socialists, Catholics and Protestants, northerners and southerners, Prussians, Bavarians, Saxons, and Hessians—was the injustice of the peace treaty, or as it was called the Diktat. And of all the various penalties heaped on Germany by the treaty – disarmament, dismemberment, occupation, and reparations—it was reparations that would become the single most consuming obsession of German foreign policy.

On the US monetary policy and Keynes:

The hidden irony was that every one of Keynes’s main recommendations—that the link between gold balances and the creation of credit be severed, that the automatic mechanism of the gold standard be replaced with a system of managed money, that credit policy be geared toward domestic price stability—corresponded precisely to the policies Strong had instituted in the United States.

On the expanding role of the Central Banks:

This new set of principles, somewhat cobbled together on the fly, represented a quiet, indeed carefully unheralded, revolution in monetary policy. Until then central bankers had seen their primary task as protecting the currency and confined their responsibilities to ensuring that the gold standard was given free rein, only stepping in at times of crisis or panic. The credit policy of every industrial country had been driven by one factor alone: gold reserves. The United States was, however, now so flush with gold that the solidity of its currency was assured. Led by Strong, the Fed had undertaken a totally new responsibility—that of promoting internal economic stability.

On Churchill and the return to gold standard:

Though Churchill remained chancellor until 1929, by 1927 he had come to realize that the return to gold at the old prewar exchange rate had been a misjudgment. But by then there was little he could do about it except fulminate in private about the evil effects of the gold standard. In later life, he would claim that it was “the biggest blunder in his life.” He blamed it on the bad advice he had received.

On the opposable forces facing Central Banks:

The men in charge of central banks seem to face a similar unfortunate fate—although not for eternity—of watching their successes dissolve in failure. Their goal is a strong economy and stable prices. This is, however, the very environment that breeds the sort of over-optimism and speculation that eventually ends up destabilizing the economy. In the United States during the second half of the 1920s, the destabilizing force was to be the soaring stock market. In Germany it was to be foreign borrowing.

On the blame attributed to the US and France regarding their “hoarding of gold”:

The Sunday Chronicle of September 20 carried a profile of Montagu Norman by Winston Churchill, as part of a commissioned series on contemporary figures. Since leaving office in June 1929, Churchill had quarreled with his Conservative colleagues over Indian self-rule and, now isolated and out of favor, felt free to express his disillusionment with the gold standard orthodoxy openly. The problem was not so much the standard itself, he argued, but the way it had been allowed to operate. It was the hoarding of gold by the United States and France and the resulting shortage in the rest of the world that had brought on the Depression. He had begun to sound almost like Keynes—in a speech to Parliament the week before he had described how gold “is dug up out of a hole in Africa and put down in another hole that is even more inaccessible in Europe and America.”

On the steps taken by the US Government to alleviate the great depression:

In February 1932, he pressed Congress to pass legislation that would make government securities an eligible asset to back currency. At the stroke of a pen the gold shortage was lifted, allowing the Fed to embark on a massive program of open market operations, injecting a total of $1 billion of cash into banks. The two new measures combined—the infusion of additional capital into the banking system and the injection of reserves allowed the Fed finally to pump money into the system on the scale required. But Meyer had left it too late. A similar measure in late 1930 or in 1931 might have changed the course of history. In 1932 it was like pushing n a string. Banks, shaken by the previous two years, instead of lending It the money used the capital so injected to build up their own reserves. Total bank credit kept shrinking at a rate of 20 percent a year…By Thursday, March 9, the Emergency Banking Act was ready to be submitted to Congress. Most of it was based on the original Mills proposal. Banks in the country were to be gradually reopened, starting with those known to be sound, and progressively moving to the shakier institutions, which would need government support. A whole class of insolvent banks would never be permitted to reopen. The bill also granted the Fee the right to issue additional currency backed not by gold but by bank assets. And it gave the federal government the authority to direct the Fed to provide support to banks. The legislation was supplemented by a commitment from the Treasury to the Fed that the government would indemnify it for any losses incurred in bailing out the banking system. This unprecedented package finally forced the Fed to fulfill its role as lender of last resort to the banking system. But to achieve this, the government was in effect providing an implicit blanket guarantee of the deposits of every bank allowed to reopen.

On the US coming off of the Gold standard:

Roosevelt’s decision to take the dollar off gold rocked the financial world. But in the days after the Roosevelt decision, as the dollar fell against gold, the stock market soared by 15 percent. Financial markets gave the move an overwhelming vote of confidence. Even the Morgan bankers. historically among the most staunch defenders of the gold standard, could not resist cheering. “Your action in going off gold saved the country from complete collapse,” wrote Russell Leffingwell to the president.

On the IMF:

Much of the negotiating had been done prior to the conference between the Americans and the British. At Bretton Woods, the biggest controversy was over how much money each country would be eligible to borrow from what was now being called the International Monetary Fund. The Russians, who were there in strength though very few of them spoke English, demanded that the borrowing rights reflect not simply economic power but also military strength, and insisted on equality with the British; India wanted to be on a par with China; the Bolivians wanted parity with the Chileans and the Chileans with the Cubans. The United States, as the find’s prime financier, set these quotas in a series of backroom deals orchestrated by White. On July 22, the conference came to its formal close with a great banquet. Keynes gave a final address. He reminding the participants of the economic chaos that had afflicted the world for almost a generation and paid tribute to the spirit of cooperation that had informed the discussions: “If we can so continue, this nightmare, in which most of us present have spent too much of our lives, will be over. The brotherhood of man will have become more than a phrase.” As he left the room, the delegates sang “For He’s Jolly Good Fellow.”

On a Concluding Note:

For many years people believed—even today many continue to do so—that an economic cataclysm of the magnitude of the Great Depression could only have been the result of mysterious and inexorable tectonic forces that governments were somehow powerless to resist…To the contrary, in this book I maintain that the Great Depression was not some act of God or the result of some deep-rooted contradictions of capitalism but the direct result of a series of misjudgments by economic policy makers, some made back in the 1920s, others after the first crises set in—by any measure the most dramatic sequence of collective blunders ever made by financial officials. Who then was to blame? The first culprits were the politicians who presided over the Paris Peace Conference. They burdened a world economy still trying to recover from the effects of war with a gigantic overhang of international debts…The second group to blame were the leading central bankers of the era in particular the four principal characters of this book, Montagu Norman, Benjamin Strong, Hjalmar Schacht, and Emile Moreau. Even though they, especially Schacht and Norman, spent much of the decade struggling to mitigate some of the worst political blunders behind reparations and war debts, more than anyone else they were responsible for the second fundamental error of economic policy in the 1920s: the decision to take the world back onto the gold standard…More than anything else, therefore, the Great Depression was caused by a failure of intellectual will, a lack of understanding about how the economy operated. No one struggled harder in the lead-up to the Great Depression and during it to make sense of the forces at work than Maynard Keynes. He believed that if only we could eliminate “muddled” thinking—one of his favorite expressions—in economic matters, then society could allow the management of its material welfare to take a backseat to what he thought were the central questions of existence, to the “problems of life and of human relations, of creation, behavior and religion.” That is what he meant when in a speech toward the end of his life he declared that economists are the “trustees, not of civilization, but of the possibility of civilization.” There is no greater testament of his legacy to that trusteeship than that in the sixty-odd years since he spoke those words, armed with his insights, the world has avoided an economic catastrophe such as overtook it in the years from 1929-33.

A must read for anyone seeking to gain a deeper understanding of the global financial system.

On Einstein

I recently finished reading Einstein – His Life and Universe – by Walter Isaacson. As introduced: “Looking back at a century that will be remembered for its willingness to break classical bonds, and looking ahead to an era that seeks to nurture the creativity needed for scientific innovation, one person stands out as a paramount icon of our age: the kindly refugee from oppression whose wild halo of hair, twinkling eyes, engaging humanity, and extraordinary brilliance made his face a symbol and his name a synonym for genius. Albert Einstein was a locksmith blessed with imagination and guided by a faith in the harmony of nature’s handiwork. His fascinating story, a testament to the connection between creativity and freedom, reflects the triumphs and tumults of the modern era.”

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found very perceptive:

On his approach:

His success came from questioning conventional wisdom, challenging authority, and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals. Tyranny repulsed him, and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a necessary condition for a creative society. “It is important to foster individuality,” he said, “for only the individual can produce the new ideas.”‘ This outlook made Einstein a rebel with a reverence for the harmony of nature, one who had just the right blend of imagination and wisdom to transform our understanding of the universe. These traits are just as vital for this new century of globalization, in which our success will depend on our creativity, as they were for the beginning of the twentieth century, when Einstein helped usher in the modern age.

On using suspicion successfully:

Throughout the six decades of his scientific career, whether leading the quantum revolution or later resisting it, this attitude helped shape Einstein’s work. “His early suspicion of authority, which never wholly left him, was to prove of decisive importance,” said Banesh Hoffmann, who was a collaborator of Einstein’s in his later years. “Without it he would not have been able to develop the powerful independence of mind that gave him the courage to challenge established scientific beliefs and thereby revolutionize physics.”

On Einstein’s ability to pursue several ideas at once:

A Strength of Einstein’s mind was that it could juggle a variety of ideas simultaneously. Even as he was pondering dancing particles in a liquid, he had been wrestling with a different theory that involved moving bodies and the speed of light. A day or so after sending in his Brownian motion paper, he was talking to his friend Michele Besso when a new brainstorm struck. It would produce, as he wrote Habicht in his famous letter of that month, “a modification of the theory of space and time.”

On his background:

“A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way,” Einstein once said. “But,” he hastened to add, “intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.” Einstein’s discovery of special relativity involved an intuition based on a decade of intellectual as well as personal experiences. The most important and obvious, I think, was his deep understanding and knowledge of theoretical physics. He was also helped by his ability to visualize thought experiments, which had been encouraged by his education in Aarau. Also, there was his grounding in philosophy: from Hume and Mach he had developed a skepticism about things that could not be observed. And this skepticism was enhanced by his innate rebellious tendency to question authority.

On his dual approach to his research:

In it Einstein pursued a two-fisted approach. On the one hand, he engaged in what was called a “physical strategy,” in which he tried to build the correct equations from a set of requirements dictated by his feel for the physics. At the same time, he pursued a “mathematical Strategy,” in which he tried to deduce the correct equations from the more formal math requirements using the tensor analysis that Grossmann and others recommended…Einstein’s “physical strategy” began with his mission to generalize the principle of relativity so that it applied to observers who were accelerating or moving in an arbitrary manner. Any gravitational field equation he devised would have to meet the following physical requirements: It must revert to Newtonian theory in the special case of weak and static gravitational fields. In other words, under certain normal conditions, his theory would describe Newton’s familiar laws of gravitation and motion. It should preserve the laws of classical physics, most notably the conservation of energy and momentum. It should satisfy the principle of equivalence, which holds that observations made by an observer who is uniformly accelerating would be equivalent to those made by an observer standing in a comparable gravitational field.

His peer’s on his discoveries:

Its equivalence to acceleration, and, Einstein asserted, the general relativity of all forms of motion. In the opinion of Paul Dirac, the Nobel laureate pioneer of quantum mechanics, it was “probably the greatest scientific discovery ever made.” Another of the great giants of twentieth-century physics. Max Born, called it “the greatest feat of human thinking about nature, the most amazing combination of philosophical penetration, physical intuition and mathematical skill The entire process had exhausted Einstein but left him elated. His marriage had collapsed and war was ravaging Europe, but Einstein was as happy as he would ever be. “My boldest dreams have now come true,” he exulted to Besso. ”General covariance. Mercury’s perihelion motion wonderfully precise.” He signed himself “contented but kaput.”

On his reaction to his discovery:

Einstein’s decision reflected a major transformation in his life. Until the completion and confirmation of his general theory of relativity, he had dedicated himself almost totally to science, to the exclusion even of his personal, familial, and societal relationships. But his time in Berlin had made him increasingly aware of his identity as a Jew. His reaction to the pervasive anti-Semitism was to feel even more connected— indeed, inextricably connected—to the culture and community of his people.

On his view about education:

The Times called it “the ever-present Edison questionnaire controversy,” and of course Einstein ran into it. A reporter asked him a question from the test. “What is the speed of sound?” If anyone understood the propagation of sound waves, it was Einstein. But he admitted that he did not “carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books” Then he made a larger point designed to disparage Edison’s view of education. “The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think,” he said.

On challenging authority:

This wariness of authority reflected the most fundamental of all of Einstein’s moral principles: Freedom and individualism are necessary for creativity and imagination to flourish. He had demonstrated this as an impertinent young thinker, and he proclaimed the principle clearly in 1931. “I believe that the most important mission of the state is to protect the individual and to make it possible for him to develop into a creative personality,” he said.

On morality:

The foundation of that morality, he believed, was rising above the “merely personal” to five in a way that benefited humanity. There were times when he could be callous to those closest to him, which shows that, like the rest of us humans, he had flaws. Yet more than most people, he dedicated himself honestly and sometimes courageously to actions that he felt transcended selfish desires in order to encourage human progress and the preservation of individual freedoms. He was generally kind, good-natured, gentle, and unpretentious. When he and Elsa left for Japan in 1922, he offered her daughters some advice on how to lead a moral fife. “Use for yourself little,” he said, “but give to others much.”

On realism:

Einstein’s concept of realism had three main components: 1. His belief that a reality exists independent of our ability to observe it. As he put it in his autobiographical notes: “Physics is an attempt conceptually to grasp reality as it is thought independently of its being observed. In this sense one speaks of physical reality.’ ” 2. His belief in separability and locality. In other words, objects are located at certain points in spacetime, and this separability is part of what defines them. “If one abandons the assumption that what exists in different parts of space has its own independent, real existence, then I simply cannot see what it is that physics is supposed to describe,” he declared to Max Born. 3. His belief in strict causality, which implies certainty and classical determinism. The idea that probabilities play a role in reality was as disconcerting to him as the idea that our observations might play a role in collapsing those probabilities. “Some physicists. among them myself, cannot believe,” he said, “that we must accept the view that events in nature are analogous to a game of chance.”

On his final moments:

The aneurysm, like a big blister, had burst, and Einstein died at age 76. At his bedside lay the draft of his undelivered speech for Israel Independence Day. “I speak to you today not as an American citizen and not as a Jew. but as a human being,” it began. Also by his bed were twelve pages of tightly written equations, littered with cross-outs and corrections. To the very end, he struggled to find his elusive unified field theory. And the final thing he wrote, before he went to sleep for the last time, was one more line of symbols and numbers that he hoped might get him, and the rest of us, just a little step closer to the spirit manifest in the laws of the universe.

His eulogy:

“No Other man contributed so much to the vast expansion of 20th century knowledge,” President Eisenhower declared. “Yet no other man was more modest in the possession of the power that is knowledge, more sure that power without wisdom is deadly.” The New York Times ran nine stories plus an editorial about his death the next day: “Man stands on this diminutive earth, gazes at the myriad stars and upon billowing oceans and tossing trees—and wonders. What does it all mean? How did it come about? The most thoughtful wonderer who appeared among us in three centuries has passed on in the person of Albert Einstein.”‘

On curiosity:

A tenet of Einstein’s faith was that nature was not cluttered with extraneous attributes. Thus, there must be a purpose to curiosity. For Einstein, it existed because it created minds that question, which produced an appreciation for the universe that he equated with religious feelings. “Curiosity has its own reason for existing,” he once explained. “One cannot help but be in awe when one contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality.”

On freedom:

Einstein’s fundamental creed was that freedom was the lifeblood of creativity. “The development of science and of the creative activities of the spirit,” he said, “requires a freedom that consists in the independence of thought from the restrictions of authoritarian and social prejudice.” Nurturing that should be the fundamental role of government. he felt, and the mission of education.

On religion:

Einstein considered this feeling of reverence, this cosmic religion, to be the wellspring of all true art and science. It was what guided him. “When I am judging a theory,” he said, “I ask myself whether, if I were God, I would have arranged the world in such a way.” It is also what graced him with his beautiful mix of confidence and awe. He was a loner with an intimate bond to humanity, a rebel who was suffused with reverence. And thus it was that an imaginative, impertinent patent clerk became the mind reader of the creator of the cosmos. the locksmith of the mysteries of the atom and the universe.

A must read for all.