Category Archives: Book Review

Reviews of recent and upcoming foreign policy and maritime books of merit.

John Quincy Adams — The Grand Strategist

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Charles N. Edel. Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic. Harvard University Press.  392pp. $29.95.

Who knew that John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was so interesting? Or that he was probably the most sleep deprived and crankiest U.S. President ever to live in the White House?  Or that he wrote in a journal  every day — totaling some 17,000 pages and 51 volumes — since he was twelve until the day he died on the floor of Congress in 1848?

The word “fascinating” doesn’t begin to describe this man. But unfortunately for John Quincy Adams, his father has seemed to eclipse him in many ways.  David McCullough’s wonderful biography of John Adams, which was turned into a popular HBO series, cemented the founding father’s stature in the collective American conscience.  Thus, many of us only know John Quincy as a sequel, a trivial pursuit question: “Which eighteenth-century U.S. President had a son who also became a U.S. President?”  It is always, it seems, this way with sequels.  They never quite measure up in our minds and in our hearts.

Yet recently, it looks like John Quincy is getting his due.  In May of last year, Fred Kaplan released his biography of the sixth President of the United States, titled, John Quincy Adams: American Visionary, to a warm reception.  And just this past January, Phyllis Lee Levin’s book, The Remarkable Education of John Quincy Adams, hit the shelves.  Call it a John Quincy revival.  Still, there is always room on the bookshelf for another well-written book on this overlooked and under-appreciated president.  Enter historian and U.S. Naval War College professor Charles Edel’s excellent new book, Nation Builder: John Quincy Adams and the Grand Strategy of the Republic.

Edel’s book is not a biography per se, and nor is it a book about John Quincy’s character, his life and times, or a detailed discussion of his policies. Rather, Edel sets out and argues, and quite convincingly I might add, that John Quincy was a grand strategist — maybe America’s first. That is, he not only defined clear objectives for the United States, but he was also, as Edel says, able to leverage all the instruments of national power — military, economic, diplomatic, and moral — to ensure the future security and prosperity of the American people.

Edel begins his book with John Quincy’s formative years, traveling with his father (crossing the Atlantic during the Revolutionary War and barely evading capture by the British), dining with Jefferson, reading (his father insisted on Thucydides), writing, and learning languages — French, German, and Dutch, to name just a few —  that he would eventually use as a teenage diplomat in Europe.  It is in those early years where we see that John Quincy, through diligent study and the puritan ethic of public service before personal happiness, made himself.

The book is then divided into chapters that trace the highlights of his extraordinary career: his challenges with depression and seeking purpose in the late 1790s; his involvement in American diplomacy and his rise in politics in the early 1800s; his ideas and debates on territorial expansion and the Monroe Doctrine, and finally, the “slavery question.”  Throughout all of this, though, John Quincy retains his priorities and his national objectives.  Adams, Edel tells us, understands that for the U.S. to become a strong nation, we must expand our territory, increase our national resources, remain neutral in European affairs, and build up our defense forces to ensure that other countries — notably France and Britain — did not try to fracture American solidarity.  These principles, these objectives, would remain in the forefront of Adams’s mind throughout his life.

As secretary of state under President James Monroe, Adams was responsible for negotiating the Adams-Onís treaty, thus giving Florida to the United States — in return the U.S. settled a border dispute  with Spain along what is today areas of the Sabine river in Texas.  Adams also wrote the Monroe Doctrine  — a seminal document in American history that, in simple language, told all European powers (and others) stay out of our business.

Interestingly, John Quincy would be most remembered in his twilight years.  The first (and only) U.S. President to be elected to the House of Representatives after leaving office.  He famously argued a case in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, United States v. Libellants and Claimants of the Schooner Amistad.  He won the case, successfully arguing that the Africans aboard that ship should  be set free.  But while Edel reminds us that John Quincy detested slavery,  John Quincy was averse to critiquing slavery publicly, in fear of tearing the nation apart. While he would always, it seems, nip at the edges.  For example, trying to find ingenious ways to get around the “gag rule” that barred discussions of slavery on the floor of Congress.

John Quincy’s path to American prosperity and security was not without stumbles.  Edel says that, “Adams grand strategy included a clear vision of where the country needed to go and a detailed policy road map for how to get there.  But in many instances he lacked the ability to convert that vision into political reality.”  For instance, Adams tried, but failed to get enough votes for the creation of a U.S. Naval Academy.  Legislators thought that it would cost too much, and “critics…argued that federal appointments to such an academy would become ‘a vast source of promotion and patronage’ which would invariably lead to ‘degeneracy and corruption of the public morality.'”

John Quincy was an impressive diplomat and intellectual giant, but he was also a conflicted man, a contrarian, and, in all honesty, not someone who you would want at your dinner table.  As Edel says, “Adams was certainly most comfortable when he stood in opposition to something or someone.  Intellectual and industrious, rigid in his beliefs, and with a propensity to see issues and people in stark terms, in many ways Adams was an odd fit for politics.”  The Sage of Concord, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Edel quotes, also had a few choice words for John Quincy, saying:

He’s no literary old gentleman, but a bruiser and loves the melee…[he] must have sulfuric acid in his tea.”

Adams, then, did not suffer fools.

This is probably most easily seen in what is believed to be the first photograph ever taken of a living U.S. President.  In 1843 Phillip Haas took a picture of the former president, who was then 76 years old.  He is seen sitting, legs crossed, hands clasped, and head slightly down.  His lips are pursed and he has an expression of impatience or frustration.

 

John Quincy Adams. Copy of 1843 Daguerreotype by Philip Haas.
John Quincy Adams. Copy of 1843 Daguerreotype by Philip Haas.

 

In a recent interview with Edel, I asked him this question: “Do you think he was ever satisfied with is life?”

Edel said:

“…[A]t many points in his life he refers to himself as a Job like figure. In many ways, he sees his job as one of persistence and endurance. If he thinks about his policies, how his plans have gone awry, how others have distorted his policies, then he is rather less pleased with the result. But he’s not really someone who is satisfied – ever.”

There is only one small quibble I have with the book.  At one or two points Edel repeats an idea within a chapter, or uses the same quote twice, making you pause for a moment in a sense of déjà vu, wondering if you had or had not just seen the same words pages prior.  But again, this is a minor point.  Overall, this is an excellent book. And whether you are new to John Quincy Adams or if you’ve read most of the current literature on this man and his presidency, I promise you’ll learn something new and interesting in these pages.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a career intelligence officer and recent graduate of the U.S.  Naval War College and the Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI.  LCDR Nelson is also CIMSEC’s book review editor and is looking for readers interested in reviewing books for CIMSEC.  You can contact him at cimsecbooks@gmail.com.  The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.

The Sinking of the Lusitania — One Hundred Years Later

Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Crown. 448pp. $28.00

(This review is an edited and expanded version, originally posted on Foreign Policy’s “Best Defense.”)

UnknownIn grade school, I remember watching an old movie about the sinking of the Titanic.  It might have been Roy Ward Baker’s A Night To Remember. But whatever it was, the sinking of the Titanic was always in the front of my mind when someone mentioned the loss of a large passenger vessel.  The attack on the Lusitania, however, was a footnote in our history books; maybe it made half the page — if that.  Now, 100 years later, the First World War is almost ignored by Americans.  David Frum, over at The Atlantic magazine, has a great article about the lack of US interest in the war.  Frum says that “The United States lost some 115,000 soldiers in the First World War, more than in Vietnam, Korea, and all other post-1945 conflicts combined. Yet the war’s impress on the American mind — once seemingly so deep and indelible — has faded. The war men once called ‘the Great’ has receded almost beyond memory in this country that did so much to win it.”

He’s probably right.

Fortunately, there are still writers out there willing to tell fascinating stories about WWI, reminding us of its importance.  The sinking of the Lusitania is one of those great stories. Erik Larson, in his new book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, tells a gripping account of that passenger ship’s last voyage and its unfortunate demise in cold waters off the coast of Ireland on 7 May 1915.

 

If you’ve read some of his other stuff — In the Garden of Beasts or The Devil in the White City — you know that Larson is great at writing narrative nonfiction.  In a recent interview in The New York Times, Larson credits writers John McPhee and David McCullough as some of the best writers in narrative nonfiction working today. Larson’s Dead Wake, however, is on par with McCullough’s Mornings on Horseback or McPhee’s Pieces of the Frame or Coming Into the Country.  Larson’s strength lies in the fact that we all know how the story ends, but he still makes you want to turn the pages, and turn them quickly.

 

Kapitänleutnant Schwieger, Walther (gefallen Sept. 1917)
Kapitänleutnant Schwieger, Walther (gefallen Sept. 1917)

What makes the story so compelling, is that Larson takes a few main characters — the Lusitania’s Captain William Thomas Turner, President Woodrow Wilson, U-boat Captain Walther Schweiger, Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, architect Theodate Pope, and a few minor ones — and weaves them together towards the inevitable and tragic conclusion.  This style of narrative pacing — shifting perspectives and characters — has an attractive cinematic quality that works quite well here.

And then there’s his research. The number of details and anecdotes that he has managed to cobble together are fascinating in themselves.  Here is just a few of the more interesting ones:

  • Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat was carrying Charles Dickens’s personal copy of A Christmas Carol and over 100 drawings done by William Makepeace Thackeray.
  • There were published warnings from the German embassy prior to the Lusitania setting sail that the “Lusitania is doomed…do not sail her.” Only two passengers cancelled their trip due to the warning.
  • Elbert Hubbard, author of A Message to Garcia, was on board for the crossing. And the most famous passenger, Alfred Vanderbilt, son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, paid just over $1000.00 for two rooms: one for his valet and one for himself.  Or “equivalent to over $22,000 in today’s dollars.”
  • Larson has a great chapter on the life aboard German U-boats in WWI.  From descriptions of the putrid smell inside the boats to problems with the single toilet, and finally to German torpedoes which, he says, failed 60% of the time.
  • U-20 had one dog onboard; Larson says that they had up to six at one point, four of which were puppies.
  • American first class passengers that had died and whose bodies were recovered were embalmed on behalf of the U.S. government. The others…sealed inside lead coffins to “…be returned to America whenever desired.”

 

Another interesting thing is neither Churchill nor Wilson come off well here.  Wilson, recently having lost his wife from kidney failure, comes across as love sick, pining for Edith Galt (who would end up running the White House after Wilson’s stroke in 1919). Wilson’s recovery from depression following his wife’s death and then his courtship of Galt seemed to consume him entirely.  Meanwhile, almost daily, the massive armies in Europe reached new levels of death and suffering.  Saying that Wilson was distracted would probably be a supreme understatement.

 

lusitania_co
Captain Turner

As for Churchill, well, he tries to lay the blame for the Lusitania’s sinking at the feet of Captain Turner.  Yet Churchill and eight other senior British government officials, Larson says, had access to captured radio transmissions between German naval headquarters and underway U-boats.  They knew U-20 was operating in waters that the Lusitania had to cross to get to Liverpool.  Churchill knew that Turner was not responsible for the loss of the Lusitania, for there was little that Turner could do.  British code breaking was so good, that a number of messages that were intercepted by “Room 40” — the secret listening station in London — even gave British leadership a good understanding of the personalities of individual U-boat captains.

 

This spring it will be 100 years since Cunard’s great ocean liner — and briefly the largest in the world — went down, killing over 1,000 passengers, 128 of them Americans. America wouldn’t join the war until two years later — in 1917 — after the infamous Zimmerman telegram was uncovered by British cryptographers.  Still, the sinking of the Lusitania is, for many of us, an image in our minds of the first dead Americans of that Great War.  And in some ways the sinking of that ship was the beginning of the inevitable: the US would join the war effort, it was simply a matter of time.

 

lusitania_newsYou’ll have to pick up the book and see for yourself what happens to Captain Turner, Captain Schweiger, Vanderbilt, and many others.  Or if Charles Lauriat was able to save the Dickens book and Thackeray drawings.  It’s worth finding out.

 

LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN, is a career intelligence officer and recent graduate of the US  Naval War College and the Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI.