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Archive for the ‘Book Review’ Category

Book Review – “Sin in the Second City”

Monday, June 16th, 2014


Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul by Karen Abbott

First allow me to begin by saying this book is overall a fun, light, enjoyable history of a particularly challenging topic in American history, as it touches upon political graft, prostitution, the policy of “containment of vice”, Chicago politics, and sexual exhibitionism and fetishes, all from the early 20th century.   This book focuses upon a high-points approach to the Everleigh sisters, two women with semi-mysterious pasts who ended up in Chicago and started one of the most prestigious houses of prostitution in the country.  Using their story as a narrative structure the book then examines, in sew-saw fashion, the efforts of reformers to undermine prostitution, and the Everleigh sisters in particular, in contrast to the overall success of the Everleigh sisters for most of their eleven year run in business.

The book dots its story with thrilling tales of the sexual hijinks of some of the Everleighs most notable clients, which adds amusing color to the story and further humanizes it.  However one disturbing aspect of the book is its approach to “white slavery” – the illicit trade in young women for houses of prostitution, including the actual kidnapping and placement of women into houses of prostitution through force and trickery.  Ms. Abbott touches upon this theme as it was one of the major drives by reformers to shut down prostitution, however she only touches at brief points upon the trade to basically confirm it was real and also express how horrifying it was.  Yet Ms. Abbott also seems to turn a fairly neutral eye upon the fact that the reality of this trade makes the efforts of the reformers, even if conducted in humorous manners, at its heart highly valuable.

Finally the book is very light in its in-text footnotes and documenting of sourcing, however such is to be expected of a book dealing with a topic that, by definition, usually relies upon verbal evidence.

Book Review – “Imperial Cruise” by James Bradley

Saturday, April 5th, 2014


It’s been a while since I’ve included one of these and I’ve been meaning to write a review about this particular book, The Imperial Cruise by James Bradley, a book which seeks to prove in several hundred pages that a semi-secret diplomatic mission planned by President Theodore Roosevelt, sending his Vice President William Howard Taft as negotiator, laid the seeds of Japanese policy in Asia and resulted in the outbreak of World War II, as well as other future conflicts.  At its kindest this book is useful in providing the casual reader with some interesting historical points many histories of the United States leave out, such as the extensive military campaign of the U.S. in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century.  It is also a very rough introduction to early Japanese policy in the Far East, specifically in regards to Russia, the Russo-Japanese War, and Japanese expansion into Korea.

Unfortunately it is also a very poor history, beyond issues with writing and tone, due to the fact that its attempts to paint the entire history of the rising conflict between Japan and the United States in the Pacific and Asia as stemming from a promise made by Roosevelt to the Japanese leadership that they would be given a free hand to pursue their own “Monroe Doctrine” in Asia.  Unfortunately drawing a link between Japan of 1902 and Japan of 1932 is a fairly pointless exercise, the odds that Japanese policy in Asia was still being shaped by a promise made thirty years earlier is a weak premise at best.  Japan by the 1930s was following a very different, highly militant course in Asia, China in particular, and the U.S. was following its own new policies in the region.  (Although under a Roosevelt again.)

Overall the book is a light read and provides some useful history but I cannot recommend it to understand the complexities of diplomacy in this region during the early 20th century and beyond.  As well the entire course of the story dealing with Alice Roosevelt is a human-interest distraction to my eye.

Book Review – “The Forgotten Man”

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

Full Title: The Forgotten Man, A New History of the Great Depression, by Amity Shlaes

Printed in 2007 The Forgotten Man already shows a bit of age even only four years later, at several points within it Shlaes speaks of the improvements to the capital market, in particular in the mortgages industry, thanks to the bundling of mortgages lowering the risk to individual lending institutions to provide capital.  Leaving aside this interesting note, the book overall presents an overview of the Great Depression and the policies of Presidents Hoover and Roosevelt, at its heart it contends that these policies failed to alleviate the Great Depression and both administrations, by intervening in the economy in a poor manner/at all, at best lengthened the time period it took the United States to recover from the Great Depression and at worst aggravated the problems of the depression with their policies/economic tinkering.

First allow me to say that in one aspect Shlaes is correct, the policies of both administrations did harm to the economic recovery of the United States, if you narrowly define “recovery”, as Shlaes did, to the goal of returning industrial and agricultural productivity to pre-1929 levels.  That is the mark which Shlaes holds the policies of both Hoover and Roosevelt to in her analysis and in that she is correct, US production levels in all major economic measures remained lower during the 1930s than the heights they reached in the 1920s.  The problem that I had with Shlaes work however stems from her treatment of the 1920s, in her examination of this decade Shlaes paints a picture that is inaccurate through a sin of careful omission of certain facts.  For example she speaks warmly of the Ford Corporation and Henry Ford’s work to spread consumer goods, specifically automobiles, to the mass of the consuming American public, but omits to mention his $5/day revolutionary pay scale for his workers, a fact directly linked by many historians to his workers being able to buy his products.  Similarly Shlaes speaks often of the higher value consumer goods owned by more individual families in the 1920s and omits to mention how many of them achieved this material prosperity on borrowed capital, taking advantage of the same loose borrowing regulations used by stock-speculators to leverage small amounts of capital into large borrowed loans for playing the stock market.  Leveraging a small nest egg or a weekly paycheck to play the stock market on borrowed money is not that different from borrowing heavily against that same paycheck to buy a new refrigerator.

Which brings me to my major problem with Shlaes work, it is history with a lesson, a political lesson, it is history to teach those reading it of the magical corrective power of the markets.  Shlaes argues throughout her book that the New Deal policies of Roosevelt, in particular, were so damaging to the US economy because they kept labor prices high.  (Hoover gets less face time in the book but is blamed for the same actions, using moral force to pressure business into keeping wages high and therefore lowering employment.)  Shlaes argues that by government moral, and later legal force, wages were kept high and companies had to reduce their staffing to avoid an impact on their profits, because no company would ever consider taking lower profits.  (Not my argument by the way, that is directly from Shlaes.)  She argues throughout the book that if wages had been allowed to fall, as the market dictated, eventually they would have fallen to a point that labor was cheap enough employers would hire again, driving up production, and in turn by putting more buying power in more hands, pushing up demand.

The question raised by this though is demand for what, the very production Shlaes seeks to have boosted by the government taking a “hands off” approach to the markets was production in moderate to expensive cost consumer goods, the very items workers would need significant amounts of income to purchase.  A worker who once could have afforded such goods on debt, finding their paycheck cut by a third, would be less inclined to make such purchases until their original income levels were restored.  A pot of money for labor spread out too thin would not have ended the depression any more than concentrating more buying power in fewer hands ended the depression, Shlaes defeats her own points.  What is worse is that to teach her lesson about leaving markets to sort out issues on their own she makes no effort to document any positive effects from New Deal relief programs.  Shlaes focuses on how they hurt peoples dignity, created a class of individuals willing to support Roosevelt to keep their support payments coming in, but she never discusses how for many that government income stream allowed them to hold off starvation or complete collapse of demand.

This book is a valid one and one I would personally recommend people read, it does offer a valuable perspective on the New Deal that avoids the fawning outlook many historians have for that period of time.  However it should be read only in combination with at least one other, left leaning, history of the New Deal.  On its own this work, in my opinion, has too much of an agenda to provide a usefully neutral view of the Great Depression and the policies of that period.

United States – Civil War – States Rights

Friday, July 22nd, 2011

From a book that I just finished on the period in the history of the United States between Fort Sumter and Bull Run, Dissonance:

“In essence, slavery i snot simply enslavement.  Any monster can enslave another person, chaining him or her to a radiator or a piano leg (of, if one chooses to be cynical, to a variety of social arrangements based on threats).  But for a system of slavery to exist in a society, it must be enforceable by law – like the ownership of any possession – a horse, for example.  Once the necessary laws are in place, a police force is involved: the executive branch of government.

As soon as America had even a single state without slavery (that is, with laws prohibiting the institution), the subject – from a legal point of view – grew unstable.  If a runaway escaped from a slave state to a state without slave laws, did that person become free?  Were law-abiding citizens of a free state obligated to return this human being to his or her “owner” far away – much as they might return a stolen carriage (especially since the out-of-state “owner” could not legally own anyone in a free state)?”

The author goes on from there and describes how the framers of the Constitution argued that indeed, free states had to return runaway slaves, and how the United States government until the 1860s followed a policy of enforcing the return of runaway slaves.  But the analysis provided above blew my mind, for years I’ve wrestled with how to frame a response to people who argue states-rights was the cause of the United States Civil War over slavery – a foolish position but one I’ve had difficulty properly expounding upon in the past.  But this argument does it for me neatly because it takes the argument “it was over states rights – the right to own slaves” to a higher level and actually links it all together for me intellectually.  The issue is the right of the states – in how they interact with each other and with the federal government.  The slave holding states versus the free states were divided fundamentally prior to the United States Civil War and that divide tore across the entire fabric of the nation – for one part of the population a right to property they held, under their law, was simply denied to them in another state.  In turn, for those in free states, they were being asked to uphold in many cases the right of a state other than their own, a right contrary to their own legal code.

An issue that touches on similar legal ground today is the controversy over allowing homosexual couples to marry – traditionally states recognize each others acts of marriage – that is why a married couple who were legally wed in one state can move to another state and do not have to marry each other, nor does changing states negate the standing marriage.  Homosexual marriages challenge that convention, some US states have banned it, others permit it, so what happens when a homosexual couple in a state that permits their marriage then relocates to one that either doesn’t grant such marriages or, worse, banned them.  Take that same controversy today and whip the emotional load associated with the issue up to a fever pitch.  Slavery ignited passions on both sides of the ideological divide to fanatical levels in the early to mid 19th century, as honestly it should have.  For slave holders in the United States anti-slavery sentiments became an attack on their property, culture, way of life, and value code.  For abolitionists in the United States slavery became a barbaric, vile, ancient custom that had no place in the culture or society of the United States and, for the most extreme, was a legal institution so vile those who benefited from it should receive no recourse or compensation when their “property” was freed.

It is an issue that literally tore the country in twain in 1861 and prior to that in the 1850s threaten to cleave the nation several times.  (By the way for those of you who feel passionate when the Supreme Court makes a ruling you disagree with sharply, read up on the Dred Scott decision sometime, took place in 1857.  In it the Supreme Court, in a ruling probably with more politics than law in it, not only ruled slaves could never be taken away from their owners but also: slavery could not be prohibited by Congress in the federal territories, African-Americans had no right to sue in the courts, and African-Americans who were slaves or descendents of slaves could never be US citizens.  Put simply – the Supreme Court took a bundle of political compromises that had held the nation together for decades on this issue, set them on fire, and told half the nation “Screw you bitches, slavery is in, American, and cannot be contained!”  In reaction emotions were quite heated.)

Book Review PortionDissonance: The Turbulent Days Between Fort Sumter and Bull Run by David Detzer, 2006.  Fabulous book, very human, an incredibly skilled way of telling the story of these days with a human face upon them.  I’ll be reading more of Mr. Detzer’s work and I highly recommend his book, even if you are not a history buff.  This is a toe-grit history at its finest, it uses the personalities and stories of the people involved as an engine to tell the broader historical narrative.

Book Review: Occupation, The Ordeal of France, 1940 – 1944

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Book Review: Occupation, the Ordeal of France, 1940 – 1944, Ian Ousby
Ian Ousby is a non-professional historian who has grappled, successfully, with a highly charged and complicated topic, the period from the fall of France in 1940 to a military assault by Germany through its internal political upheavals following the lost war and the subsequent change in government known as the Vichy period.  Ousby provides an excellent overview of the major political events that occurred prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, the actual military campaign of 1940, and the immediate fall/usurpation of the Third Republic of France into the Vichy government structure under Petan.  (The legality of such this change is one of the issues debated by historians and people in 1944 in France and Ousby provides a brief summary of aspects of this controversy in the period in his final chapter.)  Overall the book is strong in its initial examination of the events under the Vichy period but the heart of the book is a series of chapters examining the cultural and social impacts of the Vichy regime upon France and its citizens, a useful exercise in historical review but also one that skims on chronically the actual events of the Vichy period in detail.  Generally social histories can be forgiven such shortfalls but Ousby is attempting to write a general history that can allow someone who knows very little of the events in France from 1940 to 1944 to better understand the period, by omitting details of the political actions of the Vichy government Ousby leaves the reader with a feeling about the oppressive nature of the Vichy regime but less information about what that regime did politically to rule France.

As well Ousby does very little work on the impact politically that Germany had upon conquered France, Ousby touches upon some of the economic impacts and the minimal headway the Vichy regime was able to make in lowering the impact of paying the Occupation costs to Germany, but Ousby goes no further.  He provides no information on what those economic impacts were on France in the form of goods moved, lightly touches upon the demand for French goods and arms by Germany, and also only lightly describes the structures of government and political action in both Occupied France and Free/Unoccupied France.  In doing so his work leaves the reader swimming a bit when discussing the years from 1940 to 1944 in a soup of impressions, emotions, and reactions with minimal moorings of what the actions where that people were reacting to during that period.  That said though this is an excellent introductory history on the subject and is highly recommended for any general readers interested in the Occupation of France or French history from 1940 through 1944.

Book Review: The Man Who Sold The World

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Title: The Man Who Sold The World: Ronald Reagan and the Betrayal of Main Street America

Author: William Kleinknecht

Publisher: Nation Books

I read this book about a month ago and I’ve been meaning to post a brief review of it, I purchased it a year ago because it promised to examine the legacy of Ronald Reagan and the actions of his administration and how Reagan’s actions as President of the United States undermined the culture, economy, and political system of the United States.  The author attempts to prove nothing less then Ronald Reagan, or at least those he put in power, deliberately engaged in a series of policies that were intentionally designed to transfer wealth into a smaller pool of hands within the United States, destroy the environment of the United States, and undermine economic organizations and regulations that protected small businesses, small towns, and individual consumers within the United States.  One of the major central arguments the author puts forward is that culturally Reagan undermined the idea of government competence with any sphere of society in the United States and also undermined the idea of community as a guiding force within the United States culturally.  Specifically Kleinknecht argues that Ronald Reagan, in his campaign for the Presidency as well as his administration, emphasized the ideal of the individual over the community, personal gain over societal gain, “me ahead of you” to put it crudely.

The problem however is that Kleinknecht in his book dabbles more in politics and in crafting an opinion then in actually reporting the history of the domestic policies of the Ronald Reagan administration, more critically he misses the target of his subject and instead drifts over a wide range of accusations against various conservative forces that took a leading role in the federal government while Reagan was in office.  Kleinknecht though does not limit his proof to that period, instead he draws upon events that happened while Reagan was in office, George W. Bush Sr. was in office, and William Clinton was in office, attempting to use all of these to prove a more broad hypothesis that conservative elements in the United States, since 1981, have engaged in a constant series of policies that have undermined what Kleinknecht argues are core values of the United States.  Specifically Kleinknecht argues in favor of federal regulation of markets and business, federal control and limitations on the economy, and returning the United States politically towards a system of federal control closer to that of the 1960s and 1970s then the system the United States currently operates under.

All valid outlooks to hold and argue but not matters of history – they are matters of policy and politics.  The line may seem a fine one to draw but Kleinknecht avoids dealing with the history of the Reagan administration directly and instead grapples with the ideology of the Reagan years, but even that task is not attempted in a neutral tone.  Kleinknecht has a point to argue, that Reagan and those Reagan brought into power undermined Kleinknecht’s ideal vision of the society of the United States.  If you are looking for a book documenting the history of the United States in the 1980s and the massive cultural revolution it underwent, a topic of considerable complexity and breadth, this is not a book I can recommend as a starting point.

Book Review: King Leopold’s Ghost

Friday, February 19th, 2010

Recently I finished reading an incredibly well written book titled King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa written by Adam Hochschild, this book is focused upon the acquisition by Belgium of an African colony in the Congo region and the subsequent economic, social, and political exploitation and terror of that region by various different forces within the region.  In summary Hochschild argues that Belgium’s acquisition of a large colony in the Congo was due mainly to the territorial ambitions of its king at the time, King Leopold II, and Leopold gained that territory through a clever campaign of subterfuge, misdirection, diplomacy, intrigue, and lobbying both directly by King Leopold and by a web of his personal agents.  Hochschild then proceeds to examine the actual policies and actions of the various organizations and companies that ran Leopold’s newly acquired Congo colony.  Hochschild spends considerable time skillfully showing how Leopold ruled the Congo directly and treated it as a personal fiefdom, those agents acting within the territory did so at his personal approval and the funds raised from the various raw materials gathering efforts in the Congo went directly into Leopold’s personal fortune.

Probably the cornerstone value of this work is how Hochschild focuses attention upon both the atrocities conducted in the Congo by the agents of Leopold throughout his personal control of the colony, the extreme focus upon extracting the highest return of resources possible from the Congo during this period (specifically ivory and subsequently rubber), and the pioneering efforts by various concerned individual missionaries and reformers to bring about an end to Leopold’s abuses in the Congo.  Abuses is a highly appropriate word as evidence from various sources cited by Hochschild provide convincing evidence that during the roughly thirty years that Leopold personally ruled the Congo colony approximately fifty percent of the total indigenous population, or between 8 to 10 million people, died from both direct violence and indirect suffering at the hands of Leopold’s Congo policies and agents.  In addition to the high death count many survivors of this period lost their right hand to violence, a policy in the Congo was that it was expected for every round of ammunition fired an indigenous individual was to be killed.  Local soldiers who used their weapons to hunt would often take the right hand of a person still alive to even out their count.

As well Hochschild also does an incredible job of detailing the link between the novel Heart of Darkness and its authors real time spent in the Congo region.  Hochschild details how many of the events depicted in Heart of Darkness are directly drawn from Conrad’s own time in the Congo during this period.  The only complaint I would have for this book is, honestly, the title, it seems to imply a focus upon the post-Leopold II time in the Congo and the impact that ruler had on the region after his demise.  However this topic is only lightly covered in the final chapter of the book itself, most of the focus is on Leopold II and those who directly opposed him.  But beyond that minor complaint, this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in either the colonial era in Africa, Belgian politics in the Congo, or a good very character focused history.