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Who was the great villain of the 20th century—the person most to blame for the evils of those decades? The stock answer is the person whose name is an anagram of “HEIL! OLD FART.” I disagree. It seems to me the title properly belongs to Lenin, the guy who really got the totalitarian ball rolling.... Read More
I have been reading Paul Johnson’s new short biography of Dwight Eisenhower. This fulfills a long-standing intention of the feebler kind—a velleity, Bill Buckley would have said. Thus: In his 1983 book Modern Times, Paul Johnson made a point of talking up U.S. presidents then regarded by orthodox historians as second-rate or worse: Harding, Coolidge,... Read More
Hard Road Home, by Ye Fu
Taking humanity at large, perhaps the greatest service any person of our time could perform for future generations would be to bring rational, consensual government to China. That such a populous nation, with such high general levels of industriousness and intelligence, and with such a glittering cultural legacy, should be ruled by a clique of... Read More
Gettysburg: The Last Invasion, by Allen C. Guelzo
To write a book about the Battle of Gettysburg is as audacious an enterprise as Robert E. Lee's Pennsylvania campaign itself. Allen Guelzo, in this book's Acknowledgments, tells us that the 2004 edition of a standard bibliography lists 6,193 "books, articles, chapters, and pamphlets on the battle," along with a 128-page magazine, published twice yearly... Read More
The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election, by Garland S. Tucker III
The 1924 presidential election was, on the face of it, a snoozer. The major-party candidates were Calvin Coolidge (Republican) and John W. Davis (Democrat). Both were conservative — sensationally so by today's standards. As Garland Tucker notes in this enjoyable and informative book: "There were … very few philosophical differences between Davis and Coolidge." Both... Read More
Out of Mao's Shadow, by Philip P. Pan
Reading Philip Pan's fine book — somewhat late: it came out in June last year: I am sorry — I was reminded of one of those caustic jokes that used to circulate in Brezhnev's U.S.S.R. Coming up to its 60th birthday, Communist China has not actually run out of bullets, any more than the U.S.S.R.... Read More
The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes
May 7 this year marked the fiftieth anniversary of C.P. Snow's "Two Cultures" speech in Cambridge, England. There were some scattered commemorations. Roger Kimball, writing in the February 1994 issue of The New Criterion, had already noted the naïvety and incoherence of Snow's arguments, yet allowed that there was a grain of truth in them:... Read More
Kipling Sahib: India and the Making of Rudyard Kipling, 1865-1900, by Charles Allen
There are three stories to be told about Rudyard Kipling. First there is the straightforward biography, telling us what the man did and what happened to him. There have been many of these, Andrew Lycett's 1999 Rudyard Kipling being the most highly regarded of recent efforts — justly, in my opinion. For a much slighter... Read More
Watching the Door, by Kevin Myers
The recent killings in Northern Ireland have everybody over there wondering whether this is a dying sputter of republican terrorism, or the beginning of a new round of "Troubles." Two British soldiers were killed on the evening of March 7, when they went to the gate of their compound to accept an ordered-in pizza delivery.... Read More
The Poems of Mao Zedong, edited and translated by William Barnstone
The Belgian sinologist Pierre Ryckmans (pen-name "Simon Leys") was once asked for his opinion of Mao Tse-tung's poetry. He replied: "Well, if poetry were painting, I would say that Mao was better than Hitler … but not as good as Churchill." Ryckmans' quip[*] suggests the moral dilemma in confronting Mao's poetry. Imagine yourself at an... Read More
Olympic Dreams, by Xu Guoqi
A favorite piece of expat lore among foreigners in early 20th-century China concerned the Chinese government official who called on some Western friends one hot day just as they were starting a game of tennis. They invited him to watch, so he took a seat in the shade, had a servant bring him some green... Read More
The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In, by Hugh Kennedy...
Here are two very different history books covering some of the same territory: the early conquests of Islam. Hugh Kennedy's book is the more comprehensive and scholarly, with detailed accounts of all the Arab advances into Africa, Asia, and Europe up to the fall of the Umayyad dynasty in A.D. 750. David Levering Lewis writes... Read More
The Raj Quartet, by Paul Scott
In the early weeks of 1984, for an hour each Tuesday and Sunday evening, a strange silence fell over England, or at any rate over the bourgeois precincts thereof. Streets were deserted; bartenders and waiters dozed idle at their stations; theaters and cinemas played to half-empty houses; telephones and doorbells went unanswered. The English middle... Read More
The Dragon and the Foreign Devils: China and the World, 1100 B.C. to the Present, by Harry G. Gelber
Ocean to the east, mountains to the west, steppe to the north, jungle to the south: no wonder the ancient Chinese felt themselves to be in the middle of everything. At the dawn of Chinese history proper, around 800 B.C., the land regions just outside the borders of the Chinese culture zone were known to... Read More
Calvin Coolidge, by David Greenberg
While Calvin Coolidge will probably never make the top ten in those rankings of our presidents that emerge periodically from academic surveys, his reputation has been considerably rehabilitated over the past 40 years from the depths to which the New Deal historians consigned it. His strengths as chief executive are now appreciated, and the immense... Read More
Osman's Dream, by Caroline Finkel
How much space does the Ottoman Empire occupy in the mind of an average well-educated Westerner of today? I called a representative specimen of such and asked him to free-associate on the phrase "Ottoman Empire." He: "Um, Manzikert … fall of Constantinople … Lepanto … gates of Vienna … sick man of Europe … Armenian... Read More
Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters, by Robert C. Davis
Presented with the word "slavery," what comes to your mind? If you are an American, it is surely the race slavery that was a feature of life here for 250 years, that continued through the early decades of the Republic in some states, and that caused divisions that led to the Civil War, the bloodiest... Read More
La Belle France: A Short History, by Alistair Horne
As a true-born Englishman, I took Francophobia in with my mother's milk — or, at any rate, with my mother's reflex response, when anyone mentioned our neighbors across the Channel, that "they let us down in the War." This settled in my infant mind as a sort of Homeric epithet: the French who-let-us-down-in-the-War. My father... Read More
Henry R. Luce, Time, and the American Crusade in Asia, by Robert E. Herzstein
I am not sure that the United States can claim full credit for having invented the weekly newsmagazine, but certainly that staple of modern middlebrow world culture was brought to full maturity by two Americans, Henry R. Luce and Briton Hadden, co-founders of Time magazine, the first issue of which they produced in March 1923.... Read More
The Edwardians, by Roy Hattersley
I am not sure how much the title of this book means to an American reader, or what connotations the word "Edwardian" has over here. Edward VII, eldest son of Queen Victoria, ruled Britain and her empire from 1901 to 1910. In the common usage of British people, though, the Edwardian age is always taken... Read More
Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, by Philip Short
"I have lived 78 years without hearing of bloody places like Cambodia," Winston Churchill was once heard to remark. Now, of course, we have all heard of Cambodia. It was there, in the 1970s, that one of the most drastic programs of social engineering in all of history was carried out. The Khmer Rouge, a... Read More
http://www.johnderbyshire.com/Reviews/Considerations/duggan.html
————————— It is no use making any large claims for historical fiction. As is the case with with science fiction, the historical genre certainly has its masterpieces; but with very few exceptions — Henry Esmond, perhaps, War and Peace, and one or two others — even these masterpieces are understood to dwell in a realm... Read More
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, by Bradley K. Martin
When the North Korean dictator Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and his son Kim Jong-il took over leadership of the country, I thought, in common with most observers, that the communist regime was done for. Kim Sr., though he had originally been installed by Stalin as a tool of Soviet policy, had had a genuine... Read More
How did I hate Hero, the newest box-office-bustin' Chinese sword'n'skyhook movie? Let me count the ways. ————————— • I hated the endless swordfight scenes. To call them "swordfight scenes" is in fact a stretch, as they bear as much relation to actual swordfights as The Flintstones does to family life in the Upper Paleolithic. The... Read More
Cole Porter
As the 20th century recedes into some kind of perspective, I think we are beginning to understand that it was, from the point of view of creative achievement, pretty much a waste of time. I was not at all surprised to see that Charles Murray's recent book Human Accomplishment offers statistical confirmation of this melancholy... Read More
A Bitter Revolution: China's Struggle With the Modern World, by Rana Mitter
Until very recently Chinese intellectual life had a peculiar frozen-in-time quality. Intellectual fads that, in the West, had come and gone in the early or middle years of the twentieth century, were regarded as exciting and new. I can recall, around 1982-3, being eagerly quizzed by Chinese acquaintances about topics like existentialism, Esperanto, and psychoanalysis.... Read More
An African in Greenland, by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
Our dinner guest a few weeks ago got to talking about the thing we always get to talking about with dinner guests, The State of The Culture. He must have been drinking from the well of Evolutionary Biology, because that is the angle he came at it from. There are (he claimed) tropical cultures and... Read More
Europe's Last Summer: Who Started the Great War in 1914?, by David Fromkin
The First World War — "the war that was called Great," as the poet Vernon Scannell said — was the most tremendous event of the modern age, a jagged gaping fault line right across Western history. Even at a distance of ninety years it overwhelms the imagination. Sixty-two million men were mobilized; eight million of... Read More
Chiang Kai Shek, by Jonathan Fenby
I think Chiang Kai Shek's career is well known, at least in outline. The last Chinese emperor abdicated in 1912. China fell into utter chaos until, in 1926, Chiang marched an army northward and achieved a semblance of national unification. From 1928 China was under Chiang's dictatorship, with Nanking as the capital. However, Japan seized... Read More
Before Mao, by Patrick Lescot
One of the photographs collected at the center of this book has a great deal to tell us about Communism. Dated March 29, 1980, the photograph shows the late Chinese despot Deng Xiaoping face to face with an elderly European woman. Deng is seen in profile. He is wearing a Mao suit with some kind... Read More
To Begin the World Anew, by Bernard Bailyn
There are three color plates in this book, the central one, spread across two pages, a reproduction of Ralph Earl's 1792 portrait of Oliver Ellsworth and his wife. Ellsworth was a jurist and politician with an estate in Windsor, Connecticut. He was an important figure at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The federal court system... Read More
A Short History of the World, by Geoffrey Blainey
One of the attractions of historical writing is that it is, to use a term of art from software development, "scalable." It is possible to write a very good history book covering the events of less than a week, as John Lukacs did with Five Days in London, May 1940. A single year can offer... Read More
[Note: Several readers pointed out that since Tennessee and West Virginia are not contiguous states, my opening sentence is wrong. Yeah, yeah, everybody's a critic …] Hank Williams died in either 1952 or 1953, in either Tennessee or West Virginia. The confusions arise from the fact that he was in the back seat of a... Read More
Before the Deluge, by Dierdre Chetham
Fifty years ago the sinologist, political scientist and recovering Marxist Karl Wittfogel gave us his theory of "hydraulic despotism." Surveying the great imperial systems of the pre-industrial world, Wittfogel argued that their centralized, bureaucratic nature was a consequence of their having to organize great masses of manpower for water-management projects — dams, dikes, canals, and... Read More
Four Sisters of Hofei,by Annping Chin
The 20th century was an "interesting time" in China, and almost any Chinese person who lived through much of it, especially the earlier part of it, has a story worth telling. I have sat with quite ordinary people, in pleasant apartments in Peking or Taipei, and heard them tell of the most astounding adventures —... Read More
1916: The Easter Rising, by Tim Pat Coogan
The Easter Rising of 1916 is the central event in 20th-century Irish history. At noon on April 24 of that year, Easter Monday, a small group of violent separatists seized some key points in the city of Dublin and proclaimed a Republic independent of Britain. After a week of bitter fighting the insurrection was put... Read More
The Dawn of Universal History, by Raymond Aron
Raymond Aron is probably known in this country mainly as the one important French intellectual of the last half-century who was not anti-American. This is not a bad starting-point from which to approach the man's writings. Born in 1905, he was a member of that "witness generation" well-placed to observe the entire astonishing spectacle of... Read More
At the End of an Age, by John Lukacs
Historian John Lukacs has a bee in his bonnet. He believes we are living at the end of an age. When I first encountered this particular bee, in Lukacs's peculiar 1998 not-novel A Thread of Years, I put it down to the sympathetic fallacy (Lukacs was born in 1924) and to what the author himself... Read More
Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire, by David Cannadine
What on earth was the British Empire all about? It was a money racket, thought Orwell. No, it was an exercise in racial self-aggrandisement, said Edward Said. Part of a divine plan, thought James/Jan Morris, part of "that infinitely slow and spasmodic movement towards the unity of mankind" Teilhard de Chardin wrote about. The most... Read More
A Life of James Boswell, by Peter Martin
Boswell's Presumptuous Task, by Adam Sisman
Published in 1791, the Life of Samuel Johnson became famous at once, but left everyone baffled that such a tremendous masterpiece could have been produced by James Boswell. The biographer was regarded by those who knew him as a talentless buffoon, and by others as something even less. Macaulay, most famously, pronounced Boswell "… one... Read More
Many years ago I was living in MongGok, a working-class district of Hong Kong, surviving as best I could by giving English lessons while in between times trying to master the Chinese language. Browsing in a small bookstore late one evening on my way home from a class, I came upon a cheap, locally-published volume... Read More
Berlin in Lights: The Diaries of Harry Kessler, edited and translated by Charles Kessler
Germany, let's face it, did not have a good century. To start one war and lose it might be misfortune: to do the same thing twice looks very much like carelessness. And wars aside, there is the dreadful, indelible blot of the Holocaust. It needs some effort of imagination to see how surprising all this... Read More
Ho Chi Minh, by William J. Duiker
One of the great moving forces of the world in the early twentieth century was the resentment felt by Asians towards those European powers that had seized their territories. Intelligent young people from these old, proud countries seethed with rage at the effrontery of the white men. The other side of this anger was shame... Read More
The Isles, by Norman Davies
Forty years ago the English comic-song duo of Michael Flanders and Donald Swann produced their "Song of Patriotic Prejudice," a sort of spoof English — as opposed to British — national anthem. After an introductory verse to set the theme ("The rottenest bits of these islands of ours / We've left in the hands of... Read More
Voices from S-21, by David Chandler
Pol Pot and his communists took control of Cambodia in April 1975 and proceeded to impose on that country doctrines they had picked up when students in 1950s Paris. Their regime lasted until January 1979, when a Vietnamese army occupied the nation's capital after a brief war. The forty-five months that elapsed between these two... Read More
Colors of the Mountain, by Da Chen
Another memoir about growing up in Communist China? There are enough of these now to form a well-established genre, from Tung Chi-ping's The Thought Revolution (1967) and Ken Ling's Red Guard (1972) through Liang Heng's Son of the Revolution (1983) to Jung Chang's Wild Swans (1991) with many, many others in between and since. Surely... Read More
A survey of some books on U.S. history
On the weekend of the Fourth one's thoughts turn naturally to the history of these United States, and to one's own lamentable failure to read as much history as a good citizen (or, in my case, intending citizen) should. But quality is a fair substitute for quantity, so here are some of the best from... Read More
A Thread of Years, by John Lukacs
"I was advised to write an introduction to this book." Thus the first sentence of A Thread of Years . While not quite as arresting as the opening words of Francis Toye's life of Rossini ("To the best of my belief there is no demand whatever for a life of Rossini in English"), they give... Read More
Hungry Ghosts, by Jasper Becker
The greatest human calamity of our century — greater than the Holocaust, greater than World War Two itself — was the famine that swept China in the "three bad years" 1959-61. At least thirty million died. For a long time the Chinese authorities and their shills in the West denied that there had been a... Read More
Shanghai, by Harriet Sergeant
Just how naughty was old Shanghai? All of us have, mouldering away somewhere in that recess of the imagination labelled POST-COLONIAL GUILT, some picture of infant prostitutes dying in gutters while slitty-eyed gangsters swill champagne with European nobs. Was it really like that? Or did the Commies make it all up? Harriet Sergeant has looked... Read More
Category Classics
The major media overlooked Communist spies and Madoff’s fraud. What are they missing today?
The “war hero” candidate buried information about POWs left behind in Vietnam.
What Was John McCain's True Wartime Record in Vietnam?
The evidence is clear — but often ignored
Confederate Flag Day, State Capitol, Raleigh, N.C. -- March 3, 2007