1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder by Arthur Herman

Save me from the exceptional…

😐 😐

In 1917, the USA finally entered World War I after years of pusillanimous dithering, and Russia threw its revolution after years of poverty and imperialist wars. In this book, Herman looks at the two men who led those events, Woodrow Wilson and Vladimir Lenin, and suggests that out of their respective philosophies of power grew the 20th century and all of its horrors.

Normally, when reviewing a major history book, I find that even though I might not like the style or may feel the author hasn’t entirely convinced me with his or her arguments, I still feel at the end that I have gained enough from reading it to have made it worthwhile. Sadly, this is the exception. I have thoroughly enjoyed each of Arthur Herman’s books which I’ve read to date, so fully anticipated that this would be a great book to finish my Reading the Russian Revolution challenge. Herman is often biased, but usually openly, so that I feel the reader can allow for his bias in forming her own judgements. Here, however, his bias seeps into every analysis he makes and it seems as if he’s perhaps not even aware of it. American capitalism is good, Russian communism is bad. Wilson is an idealist, Lenin is a cynic. America is a shining beacon on the hill, the USSR is a blot on the escutcheon of history. I realise these are standard viewpoints on the other side of the Atlantic, and some parts of them would be accepted over here too, though perhaps less so after the last couple of years. But a history book with this level of bias teaches nothing, except perhaps that history should never be written by those with a dogmatic belief in the superiority of one particular nation or form of government.

It’s not that Herman is uncritical of Wilson and America – in fact, sometimes he’s almost sneeringly contemptuous of Wilson. It’s more in the language he uses. Some of his statements are simplistic and unnuanced in the extreme, and his facts are carefully selected to support his basic argument that both Wilson and Lenin were more interested in forcing their worldview on the rest of the world than in acting in their own nations’ self-interest. He speaks of “American exceptionalism” with a straight face, clearly believing the propaganda which has done so much damage in convincing so many Americans (but not many other people) that they are somehow intrinsically superior to other races, nations, etc. And yet this is exactly the kind of propaganda he condemns in his despised USSR. His conclusion, broadly summarised, is that everything bad in the 20th century comes from Russia, while America could have done better in the world, but did pretty well. An arguable stance, and I’d have appreciated an argument about it rather than it being presented as if it were an indisputable statement of fact.

Please don’t think I’m an apologist for the extreme communism of the USSR, nor the horrors carried out in its name. But nor am I an apologist for the extreme capitalism of the USA, complete with its own murky history of horrors. Unfortunately Mr Herman is, and appears to believe that America must stay engaged with the world to save it by exporting its form of capitalism to the rest of us. Personally, I think the world needs to be saved from all nations who think they have the right to force their views on other people and from all extremists who believe they are “exceptional” in any way. I find it difficult to recommend this one – the overwhelming weight of bias prevents it from adding any real insight into the subject.

PS Yes, I’m aware my own biases show here, but I’m not writing a history book. Nor am I advocating that the world should submit to the exceptional superiority of Scotland.

Douglas MacArthur: American Warrior by Arthur Herman

Duty, Honor, Country…

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douglas macarthurIn his preface, Herman discusses previous biographies of General Douglas MacArthur, some sycophantic in their admiration, others dismissing him as everything from vain to incompetent. His hope is that by the end of the book the reader will be able to decide which description is the true one. Herman has ranged widely in his search for accurate source material, including China, Japan and Russia; and has also had access to newly opened archives within the US.

I start by saying that, prior to reading this book, I knew absolutely nothing about Douglas MacArthur and very little about the events in which he was involved. I am, therefore, in no position to judge the accuracy of either the history or the portrait Herman paints of this clearly divisive American hero. I decided to read it because I have greatly enjoyed several other of Herman’s books, finding him a great storyteller who brings history vividly to life. And from the prologue of this one, where he gives a dramatic description of the events at Inchon and then leaves those of us who don’t know our history on a cliffhanger, foreshadowing MacArthur’s future downfall, I knew he was going to achieve the remarkable, I might even have said impossible, feat of making me enjoy over 800 pages of the history of a soldier fighting the various American wars of the first half of the twentieth century.

douglas macarthur pipe

In his conclusion, Herman suggests there are three main aspects that are crucial to understanding Douglas MacArthur – the degree to which he was influenced by his father’s life; the relationships with the various women in his life, his mother and his second wife Jean in particular; and his “brilliance as a grand strategist – perhaps the most incisive the American military has ever produced.” This serves as a fair summary of how Herman approaches his subject throughout the book.

To explain how influential Arthur MacArthur was on his son’s life, Herman gives the reader a mini-biography of the elder man – his early career as a Unionist hero of the Civil War, and his later fascination with the East, becoming convinced that the Pacific rim would be of more importance to the future America than its old attachments to Europe. So interesting does Herman make this story that I was left hoping that perhaps his next task will be to do a full biography of Arthur, a man whose life sounds as eventful and interesting as his son’s.

Arthur MacArthur - commissioned as an officer in the Union army at age 17, he won the Medal of Honor for his actions the following year at Missionary Ridge. Douglas would strive for years to equal his father's achievement, and was eventually granted his own Medal of Honor, making them the first father and son to achieve this.
Arthur MacArthur – commissioned as an officer in the Union army at age 17, he won the Medal of Honor for his actions the following year at Missionary Ridge. Douglas would strive for years to equal his father’s achievement, and was eventually granted his own Medal of Honor, making them the first father and son to achieve this.

Herman goes into Douglas MacArthur’s relationship with his mother in some depth, suggesting that she was something of a driving force behind her son’s career not just in his youth but right through till his late thirties and forties. A late bloomer in the romance stakes, MacArthur’s first marriage failed quite quickly. His second marriage to Jean, however, brought him the kind of support his mother had provided and Herman shows how important this domestic stability was to MacArthur when dealing with the various military crises of his life.

Douglas and Jean MacArthur
Douglas and Jean MacArthur

While talking about MacArthur’s career between the two world wars, Herman praises MacArthur’s achievements both as head of the US Olympic committee and for forcing the Army to face up to the need to modernise the training of its young officers while he was in charge of West Point. He also discusses in depth the apparently infamous breaking up of the Bonus Army camps, when MacArthur used troops to drive out army veterans who were protesting over the government’s refusal to bring forward payment of their promised bonuses. Since this was an episode I had never heard of, I was totally reliant on Herman’s version. It seemed to me that he very much took MacArthur’s side, perhaps too much so, almost absolving him of all responsibility for the matter.

Soldiers in gas masks advance on World War I veterans in the Bonus March protest in Washington in July 1932.
Soldiers in gas masks advance on World War I veterans in the Bonus March protest in Washington in July 1932.

However, he also put the opposite case clearly enough for me to consider the question of bias at all, and that’s one of the main reasons I like Herman. In the past, I have always found him to be sympathetic to his subjects, and so he is in this one. But although he can come across as biased in his conclusions, it seems to me he always presents the other side of the argument, leaving the reader to follow his bias or argue against it. Since it is a rare author indeed who can write without bias, my preference is for open bias of the Herman kind, rather than the kind where only one story is told with no indication that there may be another version.

MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines - a picture his detractors claim he staged.
MacArthur striding ashore at the amphibious landing at Leyte, Philippines – a picture his detractors claim he staged.

But the real meat of the book is, as it should be, MacArthur’s military career. So involved was MacArthur in most of the important events of the time, so well told are the various episodes, so clearly does Herman lay out the background and consequences of each, that the book is as much history as biography. From MacArthur’s leadership of the Rainbow Division in WW1, through the often horrific story of the Philippines, Japan and the Pacific arena in WW2, and on to MacArthur’s successes and failures in Korea, Herman thoroughly explains the politics, domestic and foreign, that impacted on each campaign, and provides clear and often very moving stories of the military battles, showing how narrow is the dividing line between heroic success and tragic failure. Herman also delves into the period after WW2 when MacArthur spent some years as the ‘American Shogun’ ruling almost monarchically over a defeated Japan, and paints him as someone who chose not to exact revenge, but rather to try to change the culture and structure of the society to prevent future wars. Herman in fact gives MacArthur credit for sowing the seeds of the Japanese economic miracle of the latter part of the century.

General MacArthur, in behalf of the Allies, accepting the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945
General MacArthur, on behalf of the Allies, accepting the Japanese surrender on September 2, 1945

Throughout all this, Herman doesn’t shy away from criticising MacArthur’s decisions on occasion, but always puts his mistakes into context. The picture that emerges is of a true military hero, a man of great personal courage, with a huge ego and a desire for public recognition and even glory, but with a driving ambition to see his nation provide a shining example to the rest of the world. A flawed hero perhaps, but I sometimes think we as a society expect a level of perfection that our heroes cannot possibly achieve, and in general I prefer sympathetic biographies that recognise and allow for human fallibility. So from my perspective, this is another great biography from Herman, thoroughly researched and immensely readable. I shall leave it to the MacArthur buffs on both sides to argue over its bias or otherwise.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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Gandhi & Churchill by Arthur Herman

gandhi and churchillCometh the hour, cometh the men…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Two of the most iconic figures of the 20th century, Gandhi and Churchill met only once, but spent much of their lives locked in a battle over the future of India, a battle that would have repercussions far beyond the borders of that nation and long after both men had quit the political stage.

The scope of this book is huge. Herman gives us parallel biographies of both men from birth to death, a full political history of India under the Raj, and a wider look at the impact the battle for control of India had on the British Empire in the East and on the course of the bloody history of Europe and, indeed, the world in the first half of the century. He handles it superbly, remaining even-handed throughout, showing both men’s failures and weaknesses as well as their strengths, and how the intransigence of each grew out of their personal histories. There’s no sycophancy here, but neither is there an attempt to vilify either man – Herman suggests that neither deserves the reputation for unalloyed greatness that they tend to have been given in the popular mind in their respective nations, but both worked hard all their lives to achieve what they genuinely believed was for the best, for both nations.

Born just five years apart in the middle of the 19th century, both men grew up with the Victorian attitude to Empire. Churchill’s father had been Secretary of State for India and been instrumental in annexing Upper Burma, and Herman suggests that Churchill’s lifelong desire to live up to the expectations of the father he lost in his youth affected Churchill’s attitude to maintaining the Empire throughout his life. Gandhi, like most high-caste and educated Indians of the time, was a supporter of the Empire in his youth, and indeed for much of his political career, fighting for equality for the races within the Empire rather than independence from it, until quite a late stage in his life.

Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel...
Gandhi with his beloved spinning wheel…

Equality for the Indian races, that is – both men were fundamentally racist, as was pretty much the norm at the time. Churchill believed in the innate superiority of the white races, happy to give self-ruling Dominion status to the white colonies populated by good Anglo-Saxon stock, but believing in a more direct form of rule of the other colonies, since he believed they were not capable of governing themselves. The British attitude was to differentiate even between those other races, in India seeing the Muslims as a fighting people who were the backbone of the Indian Army, while Hindus were seen as having weaker, less manly attributes. Gandhi believed that Indians, or rather Hindus, were spiritually superior to other races; and his racism is further shown during the period he spent in South Africa, fighting for equality of the educated Indians in the country, but appalled at being expected to use the same doors as Africans. At this time Gandhi’s desire for equality didn’t include the low-caste Indians in South Africa either.

Herman clearly shows the parallels between the class and race attitudes of the Britons and of the Indians – the idea that the British Empire was in some way exclusively racist is shown as a too simplistic belief. Indeed, one of Churchill’s motivations in denying Indian independence for so long was his somewhat prophetic belief that the withdrawal of the Raj would lead to appalling consequences for the minorities or politically weak groupings in Indian society – specifically the Muslims and the Untouchables.

Churchill with his beloved cigar...
Churchill with his beloved cigar…

Herman draws other parallels. Both men knew what it was to fail – Churchill in the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in WW1, Gandhi in his various satyagraha (non-violent resistance) campaigns which rarely achieved any real gains and frequently descended into violence and riots. Both men lost the trust of their colleagues and were politically sidelined, to be later recalled at moments of crisis. Both men knew how it felt to ask other men to give up their lives for a cause. Both men could be brutal in pursuit of their aims – Gandhi refusing to compromise on full independence, even as violence, massacres and mass movements of refugees devastated the nation; Churchill allowing vast numbers of people to starve in the famine of 1943, unwilling to divert resources from the war effort elsewhere.

And Herman concludes that, despite successes along the way, in terms of their hopes for India both men ultimately failed. The partitioned India that finally achieved independence was not the one Gandhi had dreamed of and worked for, neither politically nor spiritually. And Churchill lived long enough to see the dismantling of his beloved Empire, which he had hoped that victory in WW2 would preserve, and the diminishing of Britain as a global force. But after death, both men would become almost mythic in their native lands – Churchill as the great war leader who stood alone against the Nazi threat, and Gandhi as the great spiritual leader of his nation – two formidable forces who influenced the world, though not always perhaps in the ways they intended.

Arthur Herman Photo credit: Beth Herman
Arthur Herman
Photo credit: Beth Herman

The book covers so much it’s impossible to give even a real flavour of it in a review. In short, it is a stunning achievement. Herman writes brilliantly, making even the most complex subject clear. He has the gift of knowing what to put in and what to leave out, so that the reader feels fully informed without ever becoming bogged down by a lot of irrelevant details. Even on the bits of history that he mentions more or less in passing – the background to the Suez crisis, for example, or Kashmir – his short explanations give a clarity often missed in more detailed accounts. And his writing flows – the book is as readable as a fine literary novel, a great, sweeping saga covering a hundred years or more of history, populated by characters we come to know and understand. Quite possibly the best biographical history I have ever read, and one that gets my highest recommendation.

NB This book was provided for review by Santa. Thanks, Santa!

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The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots’ Invention of the Modern World by Arthur Herman

‘A man’s a man for a’ that’

 

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the scottish enlightenmentAlthough there are a few chapters in this book dedicated to explaining the ideas of the philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, the bulk of the book is an examination of how those ideas spread and changed not just Scotland or the UK but, in Herman’s view, the Western world. As with Herman’s more recent book, The Cave and the Light, this is a hugely readable and enjoyable history – Herman writes in a way that makes his books very accessible to non-academic readers.

Starting in the century or so before the Enlightenment period, Herman explains the various factors that led to the Union of 1707. He shows the stranglehold that the Kirk had on Scottish society, but that out of this grew the idea of man as a free individual – that monarchs were not absolute and that tyrannies could and should be challenged. He gives the Kirk the credit for the idea that education should be for all, making Scotland one of the most literate societies in the world, with an appetite for books other than the Bible. And he explains very clearly the impact of the Darien scheme on both the financial state of Scotland and on its self-confidence as a nation. In Herman’s view, the Union was a resoundingly positive development for Scotland, despite its unpopularity amongst ordinary people, since it opened up opportunities and access to the rest of the world via the rapidly developing British Empire, hence revolutionising Scotland both economically and culturally.

Francis Hutcheson
Francis Hutcheson

In the next couple of chapters, Herman deals in some depth with two of the earliest and most influential figures of the Scottish Enlightenment, Hutcheson and Kames, showing how their ideas developed, where they contrasted and overlapped, and the influence that each had on those thinkers who followed them. He highlights Hutcheson as the altruist, the first liberal, who developed the idea of the ‘pursuit of happiness’ with man as a free individual choosing to work together for the common good. Kames is portrayed more as a hard-nosed realist (cynic?) believing that societies come together primarily to provide protection for their property from external threats. In these chapters, Herman also shows the beginnings of what we would now call the ‘social sciences’ – the scientific study of human society and social relationships.

Lord Kames
Lord Kames

The rest of the first section of the book is taken up with a wide-ranging history of eighteenth century Scotland. Herman discusses the reasons behind the Jacobite rebellions, showing that the divide was much more complex than the simplistic picture of Scotland v England, so beloved of nationalists and film-makers alike. He discusses the clan culture of the Highlands in some depth, stripping away much of the romanticism that has built up over it in the intervening years. He shows how Lowland Scotland, what we would now think of as the Central Belt, was much more in tune with its English partners, particularly as the two main cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh began to reap major economic benefits from access to the Empire. Throughout these chapters, he continues to show how Enlightenment thinking was developing via such huge figures as Hume and Smith, and influencing not just Scottish society, but attracting students from the UK and Europe to study at Scottish universities.

Adam Smith & David Hume
Adam Smith & David Hume

The second half of the book is largely devoted to showing how the Scottish Diaspora, forced and voluntary, meant that Scottish ideas were disseminated throughout the Empire, particularly to the white English-speaking Dominions. From educators to scientists and engineers, Herman’s position is that Scots were responsible for the birth of what we would now think of as ‘modernity’. Being an American, Herman lays particular emphasis on what he sees as the huge contribution Scots and Scottish ideas made to the founding and Constitution of the US, physically, politically and intellectually. He shows how, in his opinion, the inbuilt ‘gridlock’ of the American political system rose specifically out of Scottish Enlightenment ideas, to provide protection for individuals and communities from the power of an overweening government. He explains the huge influence that Scots had in creating and developing the early American system of education and universities such as Princeton. And, of course, he credits the great Scottish economists with the creation of the capitalist system he so clearly admires.

Arthur Herman
Arthur Herman

While I found this a most informative and enjoyable read (who doesn’t enjoy having their national ego stroked?), I did feel that at points, particularly in the latter half of the book, Herman was stretching his argument a bit. I would be the last person to belittle the huge contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers; or of the Scottish engineers, scientists, writers, religious leaders and statesmen who spread the Enlightenment ideas throughout the colonies and dominions of the Empire. But sometimes Herman gives the distinct impression that the Scots are really the only people who have ever done anything – the rest of the world seems to have rather passively sat back and let the Scots get on with it. (And frankly I’m not sure if I want to be held responsible for America!) If a man of another nationality is credited with something, Herman trawls his background to give him a Scottish connection – he studied at a Scottish University or his grandfather came from just over the English border so was nearly Scottish or his grandmother once ate haggis. (OK, I might have exaggerated that last one a little.)

But with that small reservation aside, I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who wants a clearer understanding of the history of this period, both as it affected Scotland and the wider world. And, in this year of the Scottish Independence referendum, a useful reminder of the reasons behind the Union and the early economic benefits of it, providing food for thought for either camp as to whether those reasons and benefits are still relevant today.

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The Cave and the Light by Arthur Herman

the cave and the lightEnquire Within About Everything…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In this comprehensive view of the last 2,500 years, Arthur Herman sets out to prove his contention that the history of Western civilisation has been influenced and affected through the centuries by the tension between the worldviews of the two greatest of the Greek philosophers, Plato and Aristotle. And for this reader at least, his argument is a convincing one.

The book covers so much in terms of both philosophy and history that a full review would run to thousands of words. Happily that’s not going to happen here, dear reader. I will simply say that, from knowing virtually nothing about philosophy, I now feel as well informed as if I had done an undergraduate level course in the subject.

Plato
Plato

Herman starts way back at Socrates and brings us right up to the philosophers of the late twentieth century. He begins by giving a fairly in-depth analysis of the chief insights of both Plato and his former pupil Aristotle, using Plato’s metaphor of the cave and the light to show how their views diverged. He shows Plato as the mystic and idealist, believer in the divinity of Pythagorean geometry, advocate of the philosopher king, believing that the route to the light of wisdom is available only to some through contemplation and speculation and that these few should set rules for the rest to follow. Aristotle is shown as the man of science and common sense, believing that there is much to be learned from an examination of life in the cave itself and advocating that all men (sorry, women, you’ll have to wait a couple of millennia) should be involved in government with the family at the heart of society.

Herman takes these rival viewpoints (which I have grossly oversimplified and can only hope that I’ve got the basics approximately right) and shows how each has achieved ascendancy at different points in history. And what a journey he takes us on! The fall of Greek civilisation, the Roman Empire, the birth and rise of Christianity, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Reformation, Enlightenment, Revolution and on past the rise of totalitarianism to the end of the Cold War. Phew! At each step along the way, he discusses the leading philosophers of the time, linking the chain of development of the various schools of thought back in a continuous line to one or other of Plato and Aristotle – occasionally both – and showing how the thinkers of the time affected the politics of nations. To my personal delight, he pays considerable attention to the Scottish contribution to the Enlightenment.

Raphael's The School of Athens (wikipaintings.org)
Raphael’s The School of Athens
(wikipaintings.org)

This is not just a history of philosophy and philosophers though – like philosophy itself, it covers just about every area of human interaction. The book provides the clearest overview I have ever read of the rise and development of Christianity, the divisions and schisms, the beliefs of the various factions. Herman leads us through from the Old Testament, St Paul, St Thomas Aquinas, Abelard, Erasmus – well, you name them, they’re here. He tells us about the people as individuals as well as their beliefs, so we learn about their backgrounds, where they were educated, whom they were influenced by and whom they in turn influenced.

On politics, amongst many other things, Herman writes in depth about the philosophers of the French Revolution, the founding of the American constitution and the rise of Nazism and fascism. He convincingly argues that the twentieth century history of the parallel rise of democracy and totalitarianism was seeded in the divide between Aristotle and Plato over two millennia earlier. Again the links in the chain are carefully connected – from Plato to Karl Marx, from Aristotle to Karl Popper.

Aristotle
Aristotle

The third main strand is science, and again Herman leads us through the ages, showing the close interconnection between the development of science and philosophy, together with the influence of scientific advancement on religion and politics – and vice versa.

Herman’s writing style is amazingly accessible considering the breadth and depth of the information that he conveys. He doesn’t over-simplify, but explains clearly enough for the non-academic to follow his arguments. My review suggests that he treats each of the strands separately, but in fact he tells the story in a linear fashion, weaving all the strands together, so that a very clear picture is given of the different stages of development of each at a given point in time. At points where it might all get too confusing, he takes the time to repeat the basics to put them into the context of the period he’s discussing, meaning that this poor befuddled reader didn’t have to keep flicking back to remind herself of who believed what.

There is so much in the book that I found this review particularly difficult to write. If I have given any idea of how impressive I found it, then the review has worked. That’s not to say I didn’t disagree with Herman from time to time. On occasion I felt he was stretching his argument a bit too far, perhaps, and once or twice he would make a sweeping statement completely dismissing conventionally held views in favour of his own. And towards the end I felt he was perhaps allowing his own political viewpoint to show through a little too much, in favour of ‘Aristotelian’ capitalism as opposed to ‘Platonic’ socialism for instance (though he pulled that back a little in his conclusion). But the very fact that, by the end of the book, I occasionally felt in a position to question his stance showed me how much I had gained from reading it. Not the lightest read in the world, but for anyone who wants to understand the fundamentals and history of Western philosophy, highly recommended.

Photo credit: Beth Herman
Photo credit: Beth Herman

Arthur Herman has been a Professor of History at various universities in the US and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2008 for his book Gandhi and Churchill.

(Phew! Made it in less than 1000 words – just! Apologies!)

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House.

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