Legacy of Ashes
by Tim Weiner
This book is horrifying and painful to read. It's an impressive history: the author has been covering the CIA for the NY Times for 20+ years; he interviewed just about all of the living men who have served as Director of Central Intelligence, and hundreds of the other key players, including ex-presidents. I knew the CIA had been involved in some very bad policies and decisions, but I didn't know the extent to which the CIA had controlled U.S. foreign policy, and how fatefully wrong that policy, and the intelligence it was based on, has been. From the WWII OSS to the overthrow of Mossadegh (seed of Iran's hatred of us), to the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, on down to Afghanistan and Iraq (the CIA assured President Bush2 they were sure of Saddam's WMD on the basis of *one* dubious informant). Presidents from Nixon on tended to ignore the CIA's advice, as well they might. The one time the president (Clinton) should have listened was to several opportunities to take out OBL before 9/11.
One does wonder whom Weiner was protecting (besides himself?) when he skimmed over the JFK assassination in a few paragraphs. He never mentions the multitudinous accusations of CIA involvement, or Kennedy's threat that after his re-election he would "shatter the CIA into a thousand pieces and blow them to the four winds."
A very sad and shameful addition to modern American history.
The Social Conquest of Earth
by Edward O. Wilson
The title describes a natural topic for a scientist who began with a boyhood fascination with ants, and who is now one of the world's foremost experts on ants. He points out that the social insects (ants, termites, bees, some wasps), i.e., those that form societies with a division of labor, or superorganisms, are by far the most successful invertebrates. Among the vertebrates, only a couple of species of naked mole rats, and our own species, have evolved to form such superorganisms.
He sums up the balance for Homo sapiens in this passage from p. 243: "... an iron rule exists in genetic social evolution. It is that selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, while groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. The victory can never be complete; the balance of selection pressures cannot move to either extreme. If individual selection were to dominate, societies would dissolve. If group selection were to dominate, human groups would come to resemble ant colonies."
The first part of the book explains what Wilson means by "eusociality," or the formation of successful societies. He describes the rise of the social insects, why their way of life is successful, and what they have in common with human societies. The penultimate section, titled "What Are We?", describes the differences: what makes us human? Here Wilson explains his views on human nature, the evolution of culture, language, cultural variation, morality and honor, religion, and creative arts.
He sees religion in eternal, irrevocable conflict with science. The more we learn about evolution, he says, the more we are forced to discard traditional creation myths and other supernatural beliefs. He bolsters this argument with statistics: "We then come to the ultimate question, which it seems to me theologians over the centuries have always complicated unnecessarily. Does God exist? If He does exist, is he a personal God, one to whom we may pray with the expectation of receiving an answer? And if that much is true, might we expect to be immortal, living, say, the next trillions of trillion years (just for a start) in peace and comfort?
"On these basic questions a division widened during the twentieth century between religious believers and secular scientists. In 1910 a survey of 'greater' (starred) scientists listed in _American Men of Science_ revealed that a still sizable 32 percent believed in a personal God, and 37 percent believed in immortality. When the survey was repeated in 1933, believers in God had fallen to 13 percent and those in immortality to 15 percent. The trend continues. By 1998, members of the United States National Academy of Sciences, an elite elected group sponsored by the federal government, were approaching complete atheism. Only 10 percent testified to a belief in either God or immortality. Among them were a scant 2 percent of the biologists."
Wilson the philosopher always looks at the big picture. His theme is a painting of Gauguin's that asks, "Where did we come from? Who Are We? Where are we going?" He is hopeful that we can stop ruining our planet in time to preserve our species.
The Good German
by Joseph Kanon
Great story, beautifully told. It presents a very sophisticated and nuanced view of German war guilt and the things people did to survive under the Nazis. The descriptions of Berlin in the summer of 1945 are so atmospheric it's like being there. They made me nostalgic: I was there in the summer of 1958 when there was still a lot of war damage. It's probably the most exciting city I've ever been in, maybe because it was still quite dangerous then, with soldiers pointing rifles at anyone who approached the center of the street that marked the border between East and West Berlin where The Wall was built a couple of years later. We exchanged marks on the black market, spending them on cameras, art books, and theaters. Our head professor and poli-sci professor escorted a group of us 63 American college students and got a bunch of new gray hairs. They showed us the city including a massive war memorial to the Russian soldier (in the Russian sector of course), the Brandenburg gate and Checkpoint Charlie, a refugee camp, the Voice of America studio, the Free University, etc. We went to a night club called The Eggshell in a basement. We could ride the train into East Berlin (one girl got turned around and had a very hard, scary time getting back), where we saw the 15-or-so-story buildings, one room thick, with weed-filled vacant lots behind, and only two or three big black limos on the street. In the American sector, construction was going on 24/7 and the streets were packed with vehicles.
Anyway, this book brought it all back and then some; most of the time while reading it I could have thought it was fact, not fiction. Plenty of plot twists and a very satisfying ending.
The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Vol. 4, The Passage of Power
by Robert Caro
Robert Caro is a fine writer who has taken on a monumental biography of LBJ, from his childhood of poverty and humiliation through his learning how to acquire power by reading people to discover their fears and what they wanted most, and then using flattery, charm, bribery, threats, and crime to acquire the wealth and power he wanted. The first three volumes of the saga of LBJ's life and times make him look like a nasty, evil person, with only a few virtues, which included a genuine sympathy for the poor, especially blacks and Hispanics.
Now in this volume 4, covering the events that led up to his becoming president and the first few months of his presidency, while LBJ hardly seems a paragon, he appears to be quite a different person from the Johnson of the first three volumes. I can't help suspecting that Caro was either paid off or threatened to soften the character of his subject. Some of my reasons: Caro brings up the Bobby Baker scandal, but never mentions that LBJ himself was likely to be indicted and perhaps sent to prison for his involvement in the same scheme around the time JFK was killed. Life Magazine pulled its cover story about the scandal surrounding LBJ in order to cover the assassination and forestall national chaos. The few copies of the LBJ issue that had been printed were carefully rounded up and destroyed.
Johnson decided when he was a small boy that he was going to be president of the U.S. (His grandmother predicted he would end up in prison.) Caro says that he decided not to run against JFK in 1960 because he didn't want to enter the primaries and risk the humiliation of defeat. Caro admits that LBJ took the vice presidency, giving up his enormous power as Senate Majority Leader, because he thought it was his best chance to become president. He never explores the question of whether LBJ was involved in the conspiracy, or even whether there was a conspiracy at all. Caro mentions in passing that J. Edgar Hoover was Johnson's "ally," but not that the two were neighbors and close friends who shared the political dirt they collected, which was used for threats that seldom needed to be carried out. Could LBJ have used dirt on the Kennedys to become VP? Caro never mentions the possibility. Nor does he mention that Oswald was a CIA agent or that Ruby was a Mafia soldier.
Caro does describe Johnson's hand-picking of the members of the Warren Commission, including two strong-minded men who were determined not to sit on it: Chief Justice Earl Warren and Senator Richard Russell, an old bachelor who was close to LBJ's whole family. "Your country needs you," was his way of persuading them. "The Johnson treatment" was how people who knew him well described it; in a one-on-one session, no one ever said no to him.
Except Bobby Kennedy, of course. RFK and LBJ hated each other passionately. After becoming president, LBJ made a few gestures toward mending fences, but RFK snubbed him and did everything he could to thwart Johnson. RFK was a moralist, and regarded LBJ as a pathological liar. Caro does not speculate as to whether he suspected him of complicity in his brother's murder.
Caro admits that LBJ's purpose in establishing the Warren Commission was not to find the truth, but to reassure the nation and keep controversy under control. This was the main reason he wanted Russell on the Commission; he knew Russell would keep him informed of what was going on there.
I recently read _LBJ: Mastermind of the JFK Assassination_ by Philip F. Nelson, and of course it was interesting to compare these two long, well-documented books. Naturally, Nelson cites many sources that support his view; Caro ignores most of them, including LBJ's mistress of 20 years, Madeleine Brown. Both books present history so well they are quite the page-turners.