Andrew Cockburn. Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins. Henry Holt Publishers. 307pp. $28.00.
It’s not often that a book review coincides with current events. Books, particularly nonfiction, are usually written and published months, if not years after an event has occurred. That’s because good nonfiction is written in retrospect: writers have spent some time absorbing their subject, researching and analyzing the facts; authors are hesitant to be rash in judgment or thought.
However, there are exceptions. Some pieces of nonfiction, particularly journalists’ works, are appropriate now — not later. Andrew Cockburn’s new book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, is one of them. Cockburn’s book is timely. In just the past few weeks there has been a flood of reporting from media outlets stating that a drone strike killed an American and an Italian hostage when targeting a group of Al-Qaeda members operating near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
Suddenly, questions about drone strikes, the debate about targeted killing, and the transparency of the drone program are on the front page of print and online news media worldwide.
Yes, timely indeed.
Although Cockburn’s book cover is plastered with silhouettes of unmanned aerial vehicles — with what appears to be the X-47B, Predator, Global Hawk, and Fire Scout, among others — he is making a larger argument. Cockburn it seems, is arguing that all technology is suspect. It’s not simply unmanned aerial vehicles, but it’s the idea that human beings are continuously so bold as to come up with technological solutions that will win our wars. History, however, tells us a much different story.
Cockburn, then, starts his book with an interesting tale.
In 1966 the Vietnam War was not going well. Secretary McNamara, a man who was fond of scientific solutions to difficult problems, turned his attention to “The Jasons.” The Jasons, Cockburn says, were a small group of scientists and scholars, many of whom would go on to become Nobel Prize winners. These were also some of the same men — Carl Kaysen, Richard Garwin, George Kistiakowski — that were part of the Manhattan Project some twenty years earlier.
The Jasons tried to do what Rolling Thunder could not — they tried to figure out a way to defeat North Vietnam’s ability to use the Ho Chi Minh trail — to cut off their supply routes. They ended up deploying small sensors along the trail that could, presumably, pick up the noise, vibration, and in some cases, the ammonia of someone urinating, all in an attempt to locate men and machines moving goods to the South. Then, if they could hear them and find them, U.S. commanders could task air strikes against the communists on the trail. It didn’t take long, Cockburn says, for the North Vietnamese to find a work-around. How long? It took one week. Cockburn notes that all the North Vietnamese had to do was to use cows and trucks, often running over an area of the trail multiple times to create a diversion while the real logistical effort was moved elsewhere. So simple and so effective — and relatively inexpensive. However, Cockburn says the cost of the electronic barrier for the U.S. was around six billion dollars.
This formula is repeated throughout the rest of the book. That is 1) There is a military problem 2) Someone always tries to find a technological solution, and then 3) Spends a lot of money only to find out the U.S. has made the problem worse.
Now fast forward almost sixty-years to the age of drones, and Cockburn introduces us to Rex Rivolo, an analyst at the Institute of Defense Analysis. It’s 2007 and improvised explosive devices are a major problem; they are killing and maiming hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq. Asked to analyze the networks behind the IEDs, Rivolo, Cockburn says, discovers that targeted killings of these networks lead to more attacks, not fewer. This is because someone more aggressive fills the place of the leader who was recently killed. Rivolo would return to D.C., even getting the ear of the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, telling him that attacking high- value targets was not the right strategy — the IED networks and individuals setting them off were more autonomous then was initially thought. Going after the senior guy, Rivolo noted, was not the answer. But, as Cockburn says, nothing changed. Now people simply refer to the continous cycle of targeting and killing high-value targets as “mowing the grass.”
The idea of killing senior leaders or HVTs is not new, it’s been around for a long time (think Caesar). Cockburn, then, brings up one of the more interesting “what if’s” that military officers — or any student of military history — likes to debate. That is, what if someone had killed Hitler before the end of the war? Would the war have ended? Or would he have become a martyr and someone worse or someone better have taken his place? Cockburn tells us about British Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thornley, who argued during WWII that, no, the Fuhrer should not be killed. Thornley noted, that if Hitler was killed, his death would likely make him a martyr for national socialism. And that Hitler was often a man that “override completely the soundest military appreciation and thereby helped the Allied cause tremendously.” Therefore, the thinking went, we should let Hitler live and dig his own grave.
However, the problem with this debate is that context matters. Was it Germany in 1933? 1938? Or 1944? It matters because while Cockburn does not differentiate between the killing of a leader of a state and the leader of a terrorist network, they are indeed different systems that have different levers of power and legitimacy.
He is on firmer ground when he rightly notes how difficult it is for anyone to predict systemic effects when targeting a network. He reiterates these difficulties throughout the book. The most historical compelling case is WWII and the strategic bombing campaign. All one has to do is pick up the WWII U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey and read the fine work done by John K. Galbraith, Paul Nitze, and others. Disrupting or destroying networks from the air — in this case, Germany’s economy — was incredibly difficult. In many cases, assumptions of German capabilities or weaknesses were far from correct. And as Cockburn notes, the term “effects based operations,” namely, operations that are military and nonmilitary that can disrupt complex systems while minimizing risk, was a term that was outlawed in 2008 by General Mattis while the head of Joint Forces Command.
Ultimately, the debate over drones — who should control them, what should they be used for, should the U.S. target particular individuals — will continue. It’s an important topic. There are, however, a few shortcomings in this book. One of the biggest questions that goes unanswered is this: If the U.S. should not strike identified enemies or high-value targets…then what? Do nothing? Allow a Hitler to simply remain in power? Is this not a form of moral ignorance?
The questions military planners and policy makers should ask is this: Do we understand the character of this war? And are these the right tools we should use to win this war? We should not blame a drone — or any other type of tech for that matter — for bad strategies, poor operational planning, and gooned up tactics.
Drones are the future. But we should read Cockburn’s book as a cautionary tale. We should disabuse ourselves of the illusion that future technologies will be our savior. And finally, we should not let those illusions crowd out the very difficult task of understanding our adversaries and the enduring nature of war.
Andrew Cockburn’s book is worth reading. But have your pencil ready — you’ll want to argue with him in the margins.
Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a naval 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 email@example.com. The views above are the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the US Navy or the US Department of Defense.
Back in March, I had the opportunity to listen to a panel at Brown University on civilian-military relations, titled, “In and Out of Uniform: Civilian Military Relations Reconsidered.” The panel was born from the provocative piece by James Fallows in The Atlantic magazine, titled, “The Tragedy of the American Military.” It was an interesting discussion. One of the highlights that day, at least for me, was walking away with a book. I happened to sit next to journalist and author Stephen Kinzer during a lunch that preceded the panel. We got to talking, and eventually he brought up his book The Brothers: John Foster Dulles, Allen Dulles, and their Secret World War. Later that day he gave me a copy. A few weeks later I read it. It was a fascinating book on two men that, unknown to me, had a big impact on American foreign policy during the Cold War. Recently I had the chance to chat with Stephen about the Dulles brothers and their legacy in U.S. foreign affairs.
Stephen Kinzer, welcome. I enjoyed the opening anecdote of your book about the naming of the Dulles airport and how you “found” the bust of John Foster Dulles. How did that come about?
This is a fascinating story and there is actually a footnote that you probably don’t know. So as you say, I do start out my book with this anecdote about Dulles airport. So of course, John Foster Dulles was the secretary of state during the 1950s when his brother Allen was head of the CIA. The new airport being built outside of Washington D.C. was being named after John Foster Dulles. In 1962 there was a big ceremony at the airport. I watched a video on YouTube which showed when the airport was inaugurated. President Kennedy was there, former President Eisenhower was there, Allen Dulles was there. And a curtain was pulled back to reveal a bust of John Foster Dulles. The bust was placed in the center of the airport.
While I was writing this book I decided I want to go to the airport and find the bust. I wanted to commune with it in a sense; I wanted to see what it looked like. But I couldn’t find it. I asked around and nobody knew where the bust was. It’s a long story, but ultimately I found it in a closed conference room. And I used this story as a kind of a nice metaphor for how much we have forgotten John Foster Dulles. I repeated that story during my book tour. I probably gave 100 talks about this book over the last year or two and that was often the way it would start out. This story about how this guy was so famous and now how you can’t even find his bust. So that’s the story, but here’s the footnote.
Not long ago I got a phone call from one of my friends who said, “You are not going to believe this. I’m calling you from Dulles airport. The bust is back.” And sure enough, they’ve taken the bust out of the private conference room and put it back on public display. So first I wondered if this had something to do with the fact that I had pointed out what had happened with the bust. I thought I had achieved something great that showed the massive power of the press. But now I realize that it’s not so good because I have brought him out of the obscurity which into it had fallen, but without any context, so he is essentially being portrayed as a heroic figure. I am wondering whether I couldn’t set up a little booth next to the bust and sell copies of my book so people could understand who he really was.
Why the Dulles brothers? What interested you about them to write a book on those two men?
I am interested in the question of American intervention overseas. One thing I often ask myself is Why are Americans like this? Why do we do this? Why are we so eager to intervene in the affairs of other countries? I concluded that the story of the Dulles brothers and what they did in the 1950s would help explain some of that. The forces that created the Dulles brothers are the forces that created America. If you can understand those sources you can understand a good deal about this country. And they left us some important lessons that are still relevant. So I am presenting a biography here: this is the story of these two immensely powerful brothers who helped shape the world in the 1950s. But in the larger sense I am using the framework of biography to ask larger questions about the way the United States behaves in the world.
It seems like John Foster Dulles, and Allen Dulles to a certain extent, were very religious. And as I read your book, it appeared that their religious background colored their world view. Did it not?
They were brought up in a particular Calvinist religious tradition and came from a long line of clergymen and missionaries. They were taught, first of all, that the world was divided between good and evil and that there was one true religion, that all the other religions were wrong and evil. If you believe that about religions, it is a very short step to believing the same thing about world politics — that there is one political system that’s the right and good system for people to live under rather than all the other systems which are wrong and evil. In addition, they grew up with a strong admiration for the missionary idea, which tells you that a good Christian should not simply stay home and hope that good triumphs over evil, but now he has to go out and wage the fight on behalf of good. This is another religious precept that is easily transferable to the political realm. You begin to believe that it isn’t enough for us to enjoy the blessings of freedom at home. We need to go out into the world and liberate others who are not enjoying what we consider the blessings that they deserve.
While the brothers do share similar traits, they did have different temperaments. Is that correct?
It is quite a remarkable feature, their personalities. Politically and professionally they were identical. They saw the world the same way. They had grown up intimately, shared a worldview and hardly ever disagreed about anything. That was one reason it was so dangerous to the United States to have the two of them in power. They never felt the need to consult any experts other than the two
of them. So politically they were peas in a pod. In their private lives however, in their personalities, they were direct opposites. Foster Dulles was dour and gruff and socially inept. I have a whole page in my book about all the awkward things he would do. Even his friends didn’t like him. Allen Dulles, the CIA director, was just the opposite. He was a sparkling personality with an endless supply of stories. He had a wine cellar; he was a tennis player; he had a 100 mistresses; he was a wonderful addition to the Washington dinner scene.
Allen Dulles, as you say in your book, was intrigued with Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Do you think this paved the way for him to become a spy. Is this something that he was incredibly intrigued with?
I think there was a kind of romantic fascination on the part of Allen Dulles in the idea of covert action. He read Kim when he was a young man and he kept it with him his whole life. It was on his bed table when he died. I would go on to another equally romanticized version of the espionage trade that Allen Dulles came to appreciate later in life. That was the novels of James Bond. Those novels have nothing to do with real life intelligence work. They show that the work of a single intrepid agent can change the course of history and that there are never any long term effects as soon as the bad people are done away with. This is a very dangerous mindset for intelligence agents to get into because the real world is not like that. At some point Allen Dulles even asked his tech division at the CIA to duplicate some of the gadgets that James Bond used. He was told that those were not realistic. It shows a little bit of the danger of mixing reality and fiction. I think Allen Dulles fell into that sometimes.
The Dulles family, specifically their grandfather and their uncle, had a lot to do with their path in life. I thought it was fascinating that John Watson Foster, their grandfather, is responsible for the concept of defense attachés in our embassies. Could you expound on that?
I mentioned a moment ago that one of the factors that shaped the Dulles brothers was their religious background. A second factor is the family background to which you refer. Their uncle was secretary of state — Robert Lansing — but their grandfather, John Watson, was also secretary of state. So as kids they grew up with these two remarkable relatives. John Watson Foster was a remarkable paragon of the American experience during the age of Manifest Destiny. He grew up on the frontier and made a business for himself, ingratiated himself to powerful men, rose through politics and became an ambassador, and then became secretary of state. Doing among other things, he modernized the state department and began the practice of systemic research into
foreign embassies and advances in foreign weaponry military tactics. He sent messages to all American legations asking them to send people to libraries and bookstores to look for anything new that was being developed in these fields. John Watson Foster was also the secretary of state who presided over the first American overthrow of a foreign government — that was Hawaii — in 1893. He would have later understood the role John Foster Dulles played, almost half a century later in overthrowing governments in Iran, Guatemala, and other places. I began to wonder if there wasn’t some genetic predisposition to regime change in the Dulles family.
The Dulles brothers seemed to jump back and forth between public service and the private sector — particularly back to the law firm Sullivan & Cromwell. Was this a trend throughout their lives?
Now you are putting your finger on what I think is the third most important factor in shaping the Dulles brothers. Religious belief was one, family and class background was the second, and certainly the third was the decades that the brothers spent working for the remarkable law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell in New York. This was not a law firm like any other. It had its speciality. Its speciality was helping big American companies pressure foreign governments into doing what they wanted. Virtually every large American multi-national corporation retained Sullivan & Cromwell. Every time those companies had trouble in some other country they would turn to Sullivan & Cromwell. Sullivan & Cromwell found ways to make offers to those countries that they couldn’t refuse. It means that the Dulles brothers understood the world from the perspective of their Wall Street clients. It also means that at an early age they became experienced in the technique of pressuring foreign governments. The skills that they learned at Sullivan & Cromwell would serve them well when they came into power in the 1950s.
Both men went to law school. Was the law just a stepping stone for those men in that age?
John Foster Dulles was the highest paid lawyer in America during the peak of his career. He was a masterful servant of the plutocracy, although he was not a plutocrat himself. I think their service in that world gave them a certain perspective about what should motivate American foreign policy. They saw a world in which a great force was arrayed against the United States. And they took this back to the experiences they had at the law firm and they felt that foreign governments were always seeking to use pressure on American companies as a way to pressure the United States. It was not possible for them to imagine that foreign governments would take steps that would be harmful to American companies. This was strictly out of reasons that came from domestic politics; not because they had been ordered to do so by the Kremlin or that it was some part of a broader geopolitical plot. So they came to office with a narrow vision that I do think came from their legal work.
Something that surprised me to learn was that John Foster Dulles was supportive of National Socialism in the early thirties.
John Foster Dulles was quite sympathetic to the Nazi party in the 1930s. He spent a lot of time in Germany. He was an admirer of Hitler in the 1930s. John Foster Dulles became the principal broker in the United States for German bonds that supported the municipalities and corporations. He also weaved the Krupp iron works company into an international nickel cartel that gave the Nazis access to nickel, which of course is important in warfare. He continued to visit Germany all the during the 1930s. His law firm closed its office in Germany but he was against it. So Foster Dulles did have a history of sympathy for the Nazis. I think part of the reason for that was he saw them as a bulwark against the Communists.
What is happening during the brothers during the 30s? When did they figure out that they would have to fight the Nazis? Did John Foster change his thinking?
In the mid-1930s Sullivan & Cromwell took a vote to close their Berlin office. As I said, Foster Dulles opposed that. But once the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 it became impossible to paint them as peace lovers. And certainly after the American declaration of war everything became quite clear. It was after that declaration that Allen Dulles was named head of the OSS station out of Bern,
Switzerland. It was a very important post because it was one of the last remaining neutral outposts in Europe. Allen had a quite an adventure getting into Bern. He had a lot of fun times in Switzerland. It was his second tour there, he had been an intelligence officer in Bern during the First World War.
Let’s fast forward a little bit to the 1940s and 1950s. Tell us what operation Ajax was and please, if you could, tell us about Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles roles in that operation.
When the Dulles brothers came into office in the early 1950s, Iran was establishing its democracy and had propelled this interesting leader — Mohammed Mossadegh — to the prime ministers job. Mossadegh had persuaded the Iranian parliament to vote for the nationalization of the Iranian oil industry. This industry had been previously owned by one British company which was in turn owned principally by the British government. So the nationalization of Iranian oil was quite the topic at the time the Dulles brothers came into power. And they had relations with Iran in the years before that. The Dulles brothers, when in Sullivan & Cromwell, represented the bank for the British oil company that operated in Iran, and that bank lost its interest. So the Dulles brothers came into office with a grudge against Mossadegh. Mossadegh had also helped kill a big development for American engineering firms that Allen Dulles had helped broker. His threats to the international oil cartel was thought of as dangerous, not just to oil but to all international and multinational businesses because they challenged the concept that rich countries are entitled to resources from poor countries at the price that they want to pay. So once in power, the Dulles brothers began immediately plotting against Mossadegh, and he was overthrown eight months later and Iran never recovered from it.
Communism was also a driving concern for the Dulles brothers at this time as well, correct?
Certainly the way the Dulles brothers saw the world was a great confrontation between Communism and capitalism. That would have been the way most Americans saw the world. Most of our major institutions saw the world through that prism. The Dulles brothers believed that everything that happened in the world was in some way related to this conflict. People in other parts of the world saw the global situation differently. In much of Asia and Africa and Latin America the world looked like it was divided in a different way. It seemed to be divided between dozens of new nations that were trying to find their place in a turbulent world on the one hand. And then there were the old traditional ruling powers that were trying to keep them back and prevent their nationalism from flowering into projects of development at home and neutralism abroad. So the world looked very clear to the Dulles brothers, and everything that happened in it seemed to be part of the Cold War struggle. That’s why they found so many enemies in the world; they were loose in their interpretation what constituted an enemy or hostile activity.
They didn’t necessarily agree with some of the other big names back then that also didn’t like Communism — John Foster Dulles was not a big fan of George Kennan, was he?
No, as a matter of fact it was Dulles who forced George Kennan out of the state department. Kennan didn’t see the world in as clear black and white terms as Dulles did. And I think the state department was not big enough for both of them. It was clear that Dulles could not run the state department listening to Kennan. And Kennan didn’t want to be there giving advice to someone who saw the world so differently.
The famous theologian and philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr also disagreed with Dulles, didn’t he?
Niebuhr warned against nations becoming too arrogant. He felt if the United States was faced with extinction as a country it wouldn’t be from a foreign threat; it would be from our own hubris and self-destructive impulses. That was not the way John Foster Dulles saw the world. So they were critics of each others visions.
Is it true that the birth of the U2 program started at a dinner party?
Allen Dulles was having a dinner with some scientists and they spoke about some advances in high-altitude photography. This led him to call a few people into his office and ultimately produced what became the U2 project. That was particularly important in those days. One reason the Cold War became so intense was our absolute ignorance on what was going on inside the Soviet Union. Because we were allies during WWII we hadn’t really concentrated on building intelligence networks inside the Soviet Union. So when the war was over we were really shut out; it was a denied area to Americans. One of the very first flights that the U2 took brought back information that we had greatly overestimated the number of fighter jets that the Soviets had. This kind of information came back repeatedly from U2 flights. That did play a role, I think, in calming some overblown fears.
Let me close with one more question. What do you think the Dulles brothers biggest effect was on US foreign policy? What is their legacy look like today?
The Dulles brothers approach to the world did not work out well for the United States. Rather than confront that fact and see what lessons we can draw from that experience, we find it easier to forget about them and move on. That’s one reason why these brothers who were so famous in the 1950s are now effectively forgotten. They did however leave some very important legacies. One is that they were strongly opposed to negotiation with our enemies. John Foster Dulles always opposed summit meetings between the U.S. President and leaders of the Soviet Union or Communist China. Nations should first show some sympathy toward us or be friendly toward us or we should not negotiate with them. That tendency is still strong in the United States today.
A second tendency that they felt was an absolute lack of understanding of the nature of Third World nationalism. They saw every assertion of nationalism by countries in other parts of the world as defiant to the United States. They wanted countries to be subservient to the United States. They couldn’t understand the desire for countries to make their own choices, even if they were not good ones.
The finally legacy they left us is that they had no idea of what today we would call “blowback.” It never occurred to them that their operations would have such long term consequences. Perhaps, like James Bond, they kept this idea that you go out in the world and you violently intervene in the political process of another country and then everything will go back to normal, with no serious effect. It never occurred to them that by destroying democracy in Iran it would send that country into a spiral of dictatorship and religious rule that would last for generations. When they overthrew the democratic government of Guatemala that a genocidal civil war would break out in which hundreds of thousands of people would be killed. When they decided to pursue Ho Chi Minh after the British and French decided he could not be defeated, it never occurred to them that it could trigger a war that cost so much pain and horror for Vietnam and the United States. That’s a good lesson for us to learn from them — I think all three of those are. Never negotiate with your enemies. Don’t recognize the nationalist sentiments of people of other countries. And delude yourself into believing that there will never be any long term effects to foreign intervention. Those would be the three lessons from the Dulles brothers that we would be wise to learn from.
Thank you very much Stephen, what’s next for you?
I am working on a book about the period when the United States first became involved in taking overseas territories, which was around 1898. Maybe we can get together for another chat then.
That sounds great. Thank you Stephen Kinzer, it was a pleasure talking with you.
Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent whose articles and books have led the Washington Post to place him “among the best in popular foreign policy storytelling.” Kinzer spent more than 20 years working for the New York Times, most of it as a foreign correspondent. He was the Times bureau chief in Nicaragua during the 1980s, and in Germany during the early 1990s. In 1996 he was named chief of the newly opened Times bureau in Istanbul. Later he was appointed national culture correspondent, based in Chicago.Since leaving the Times, Kinzer has taught journalism, political science, and international relations at Northwestern University and Boston University. He has written books about Central America, Rwanda, Turkey, and Iran, as well as others that trace the history of American foreign policy. He contributes to the New York Review of Books and writes a world affairs column for the Boston Globe. Currently, he is a Fellow at the Watson Institute of International Studies at Brown University.
Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a naval intelligence officer and the book review editor for the Center for International Maritime Security. He is a recent graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI. Those interested in reviewing books for CIMSEC can contact LCDR Nelson at firstname.lastname@example.org The views expressed in this paper are those of only the authors and do not express the official views of the US Navy, the DoD or any agency of the US Government.
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.
In a recent interview with Edel, I asked him this question: “Do you think he was ever satisfied with is life?”
“…[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 email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.
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.”)
In 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 TheNew 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.
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.
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.
You’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.