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January 30, 2009

Washington’s Spies

The Story of America’s First Spy Ring
Alexander Rose – ISBN – 978055383294

Rose begins with the much fabled tale of Nathan Hale, then quickly moves on to the serious endeavor of spying. Hale was bright, well educated and patriotic, but a dismal agent executed as a result of his being captured whilst botching his first mission.

Not until after Trenton and Princeton did Washington have time to address the comprehensive acquisition of intelligence. Nathaniel Sackett, along with his friend Benjamin Tallmadge (who was also a good friend and college mate of Nathan Hale), were amongst the first agents. Sackett developed a number of “advanced techniques”, but disappeared from history not long thereafter. Tallmadge became a founding and important member of America’s first spy ring: the Culper. The name Culper was manufactured—a CABAL of sorts—to protect the members. All were from Setauket, NY (on Long Island, near the north coast opposite Stamford, CT.) “Culpers” dealt only within the group, and trusted no one else, which likely explains their effectiveness.

Abraham Woodhull became what one might call their first field agent. He infiltrated New York under cover of his personal business as a trader and merchant (read smuggler), and reported to Lt. Caleb Brewster, who protected his identity.

Rose discusses battles, relevant intelligence and in the early chapters of the book the economic hardships of New York City. Because of the occupation by the British rents rose 400% and foodstuffs by 800%. Of no benefit to supporters, the U.S. congress authorized the printing of script, which was of comparable worth to Confederate dollars 90 years later.

As well he discusses the 500 privateers authorized by the congress, and their estimated 1000 British counterparts. The amount of booty captured was enormous. E.g.: in the 30 month period from ’76-’79 the value of the 165 “prizes" brought in was worth some 600,000 British Pounds. He does not give a present day value to this figure, but it has to be hundreds of millions of dollars.

Amongst other factoids, he discusses varieties of cryptography, including “inks” developed. The most ingenious was introduced by a brother of John Jay (a man loyal to George III), which Jay called “sympathetic ink;” a product ultimately used by both sides. He wasn’t that loyal to George!

The plans conceived by the Culpers, Washington and others were quite remarkable. Rose allows that even Rev. Weems (the great fabricator of Washington legends) “could not imagine” their cleverness . . . “rather like the characters of a le Carre novel.” Such was the real life side of Washington’s spy networks.

One event he discusses in considerable detail is the Benedict Arnold/John Andre episode. Revealed by accident, it nearly bagged Arnold, as most will recall. He also emphasizes that the men who stumbled into the discovery were little more than brigands themselves, searching for something of value. They capitalized upon it for years . . . not really heroes, but riff-raff. They were brazen enough to apply for government pensions long after the revolution, but were exposed by Tallmadge.

Of great interest is that none of the Culpers ever revealed what they had done, which made research for this work more than a little difficult--and it was clearly exhaustive. For me, at least, it is also exhausting to read. While it is informative, a careful read would seem to be most compatible with the interests of such men as play with Civil War dioramas of battles, down to the placement of men and cannons, the number of shots fired and casualties therefrom.

Still, it is a worthwhile read, even if you skim thru the laborious parts.

Posted by respeto at 4:00 PM

January 23, 2009

Dancing Under the Red Star

The Extraordinary Story of the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin's Gulag
Karl Tobien - ISBN - 9781400070787

This book is riveting as it simultaneously damns, appalls, inspires and enlightens one of the darker periods in U.S. and world history, exposing a chapter which is hardly known to us common folk. But, then, neither Ford nor the U.S. government really wants to discuss it. Tobien's book demonstrates why.

Margaret Werner (Tobein) went with her parents to Russia 1932. Her father Carl, a master mechanic and employee of the Ford Motor Company, was encouraged by Ford to move there, along with 450 others, to implement production in a factory sold to Stalin to produce automobiles. Carl, a true (if only transient) believer in communism, left America in the midst of the Depression to move his reluctant family to the USSR, believing he was entering the new, new world.

That it was a mistake was immediately apparent, but he could not admit it. The families were promptly disenfranchised and assigned to live in their own bleak American compound (read ghetto.) Carl labored under the dismal conditions with a reluctant Russian workforce, criticism of which was unacceptable. Stalin's five year plan proceeded despite dismal quality control and incompetent workmanship, about which Carl complained bitterly. This resulted in his arrest and incarceration as an "enemy of the state." He died in prison within a few years, unbeknownst to his wife and daughter. For those several years, and many following, his family was kept within their compound with little upon which to depend, and no knowledge of the disposition of Carl, though they had their suspicions. Their search for information was constant and unrewarding.

Margaret was a good athlete, bright student, and committed American who was nevertheless "invited" into the Communist Youth Organization, a requirement of which was to renounce her father for his "treason." This she vehemently refused to do. This was not the acceptable, and she was thereafter barred and ostracized. Her name, no doubt, was recorded in a little black book. Had she known that her father was dead her course of action might have been very different.

After WW II her "crime" was resurrected. She was framed, convicted and sent to a labor camp for ten years. Her mother was left alone in this strange and bitter land. By then most of the American labor force had simply disappeared. Mom survived doing menial labor, keeping in contact with her daughter as best she could. There were often years between visits, and she sometimes traveled hundreds of miles by primitive rail just to glimpse Margaret. They once met in a foul latrine in order not to be seen on what was a clandestine visit. Mom had to stay there for hours before and afterward, to avoid capture.

For part of her incarceration Margaret was invited to become a part of a camp dance troupe, which was led by a Russian ballerina, also a prisoner. The dancers entertained their captors, their families and sometimes the prisoners (and offered the title of the book.)

Upon her release she married a recently released German prisoner who fathered their son, Karl. In 1958, thru stealth and trickery, at enormous risk, she was able to escape to West Germany along with her husband, their son and her mother. There her husband abandoned them, and they were again trapped, this time in the West.

The horror of her experience notwithstanding, the American Embassy would not assist her in returning to the U.S. because she was now, against her wishes and express intent, a "citizen of the USSR." Thus she was "ineligible" to return to her homeland; likewise her mother and her son, born to a German in Russia. (Jeez, it makes one proud of our country's bureaucrats!)

Finally she made it, after waiting in West Germany for three long years--thirty years after the beginning of this ordeal. She made a new life in her native land, and survived there as she had in the Gulag, by personal integrity, grit, determination, and an unfailing faith in God.

Even more abysmal than the actions of our State Department was that of the Ford Motor Company. Ford denied the entire series of events. Neither it, nor Washington, ever made an attempt to assist these people, or even to admit complicity. Few made it back to the U.S., though it is doubtful that it was for lack of trying. One man who did make it attempted to obtain compensation from Ford and was denied. Ford would not--and was not compelled to--acknowledge its role in these events. It is difficult to imagine a time when such events could be swept away, discarded and kept from the public.

Margaret and her mother were amongst the very few Americans who ever made it back. Margaret was the only American woman imprisoned in the Gulag who lived to tell about it. And she didn't really do that; her son wrote the book some years after her death as a testament to his mother and grandmother, not incidentally indicting the American Government and the Ford Motor Company.

The book is well written. The story is compelling. The treachery, deceit and abandonment of those unfortunate people was a universe removed from being merely despicable. It is a triumphant and moving story--damning as well--and it needed to be told.

I have not read anything as gripping in a very long time. Read it and weep! I did.

Posted by respeto at 11:20 AM

January 17, 2009

The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin

Gordon S. Wood – ISBN – 9780143035282

This is a dazzling review of the portion of Franklin’s life surrounding the American Revolution. It details how this brilliant, loyal citizen of the British Empire became a committed American. The Crown demonized and humiliated him, thereby driving him to become a formidable opponent and devoted revolutionary who was easily as important as George Washington.

As with most such works it begins with an outline of his bio as a younger man, tracing the development of attributes he exemplified throughout life. Amongst them were his (and the era’s) attitude that a gentleman was free only when liberated from the necessity of labor. According to British custom labor was a demeaning necessity for the poor, while gentlemanly status was provided by inheritance or by past labor. Americans were amongst the worldly few offered opportunity to earn the status, yet those born to it still looked askance at those who had earned it. Many workmen became wealthy, but few made it to gentleman. Franklin, of course, was born to poverty, earned his “gentlemanly” status by age 42, and began the struggle to be accepted by “his betters.” He was confident that he was brighter and more successful, but the peers and nobility were reluctant to accept him as an equal, never mind their better.

He was a genius of the age--or any age! He contributed more than most, commonly eschewing authorship of his ideas and inventions. He was responsible for creating many societally important venues: volunteer firefighters, public libraries, scientific forums . . . along with the lightening rod and the Franklin stove. Where applicable he always declined patents which would have commanded royalty payments. He was, in fact, the quintessential American success. By the time he was in his sixties he was one of the most famous people in the world. Oh, did I mention his study of electricity?

While negotiating in England over the Stamp Act it was clear that the English didn’t consider the colonists their equal. Indeed, they used the term “American” as a pejorative. Himself a celebrity and recipient of British honorary degrees, he reacted with humor, reason, and grace . . . or at least colorful satire. Ultimately he experienced a sense of protective outrage. He posited that the colonists were prospering as providers of important exports to Britain, and were likewise an important market for British products. Equal, perhaps?

Parliament was insistent that it was in charge. Grumbling about the king might be acceptable, but challenging them was unconscionable. They wouldn’t accept that the colonists were as much freeborn Englishmen as were those in London. Americans were offended by this treatment. They understood that this relationship was beneficial bilaterally, and were not unwilling to tax themselves for the benefit of the English Crown, yet they were offended by Parliament’s imposition of “taxation without representation.” Parliament disagreed, mostly as a power play.

There were important men in Parliament who agreed with Franklin that “men of good will” might head off this crisis, but prevailing attitudes militated against that outcome. There had been varietal other “matters” which had riled the colonists (all are covered in detail), but the Stamp Act was a bridge too far.

Franklin held diplomatic status for several of the colonies for years whilst he lived in England, and he interacted with the French before he became the negotiator for the financing of the Revolution. When he was dressed down for hours by the Parliament it proved to be the last straw. Humiliated, he returned home and became an ardent supporter of the Revolution.

Despite American’s basic antipathy to the French, Franklin managed to avoid any hint of distrust. It helped that the French and English had no love for one another. Franklin was able to convince them to assist the colonies make war upon England, knowing that it was in French interests to weaken Britain. Without doubt the Revolution would not have succeeded absent French involvement and support. Thus was Franklin as important to the success of the Revolution as Washington.

No one better exemplified the uniqueness of Americans than Benjamin Franklin. Tocqueville later observed that Americans celebrated work as “the necessary, natural, and honest condition of all men.” He was astonished that Americans thought not only that work itself was “honorable” but that “work specifically to gain money” was also “honorable.” Europe, at the time, was still dominated by a contrite, settled (I’d add, lazy) aristocracy which saw labor as demeaning, and wholly scorned work for profit.

Generations after the Revolution he was recognized as the American who lit the way for thousands of admirers. History is at last resurrecting Ben as one of the most important Americans; an honor justly earned. “Franklin was symbolic of the bumptious capitalism of the early republic—the man who personifies the American dream—[and it is that] image which stays with us.” That and his masterful efforts in serving the new United States.

Posted by respeto at 3:52 PM

January 14, 2009

look me in the eye

my life with asperger's
John Elder Robinson - ISBN - 9780307396181

This well written memoir is, in my seldom humble opinion, better than several others on the subject in recent times. It better opens one's eyes to the difficulty in living with Asperger's Syndrome, a now recognized mild variant of Autism. It is also testament to the fact that one can learn around the difficulty in order to behave more like a "normal" person. Normal, as was observed by an ancient sage, is little more than "the average number of idiosyncrasies." We are all peculiar, just some more than others; and, perhaps, we can all improve our deportment by learning around our own individual peculiarities.

As well, though he doesn't ever mention it specifically, it exhibits the importance of individual resilience when dealing with adversity, encouraging the rest of us with less significant difficulties to strive until we overcome. He did it. Whazzimatter with me?

Best, I believe, is the clear way in which he explores details of himself from early youth until mature adulthood. Not only does the reader begin to understand and sympathize with the writer and others with this disability, but if honestly read, there is cause to explore one's own depths to better understand one's personal, unusual characteristics. One also ought to be able to project this insight into an understanding of the difficulties of other kinds in other people, the better to encourage charity and acceptance in lieu of pith and intolerance.

When John was young . . . indeed until he became much older . . . it was assumed that he was a sociopath. He was expected at some time in later years to commit any of a number of detestable crimes. Instead he has become a sophisticated engineer of some renown-- an autodidact at that. He now owns his own company with 20+ employees and specializes in the repair of expensive, sophisticated automobiles no one else will touch.

It ought to be mentioned that he is the brother of Augustine Burroughs, author of Running with Scissors¸ amongst other tracts, who encouraged and perhaps helped in the preparation of this quite revealing book.

It is an absorbing life story about overcoming adversity, and is told in a straight-forward, often self deprecating manner with a singular absence of emotion: "Just the facts, ma'am," as Joe Friday might have said.

When I picked the book up I was just looking for something unusual to read. It is that. And it is very much worth the indulgence. I highly recommend it.

Posted by respeto at 12:09 PM

January 12, 2009


Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony
Lee Miller – ISBN – 9780142002285

How long have many of us—including scholars--wondered about the first American colony? Roanoke Island was laid out in 1585 as a military base on a well hidden island within the outer banks of the Carolinas. It was settled in 1587 and promptly vanished. No evidence exists but the remains of the primitive fort. Everything brought by the settlers disappeared, as did the settlers themselves. Not a temporary shelter, a shipping crate, not even a nail was found on later explorations, let alone graves or skeletal remains. Why? How? Whom? Where?

Miller undertakes an exhaustive review of the known facts and the implicit chicanery involving the sponsor, Sir Walter Raleigh, his enemies in high places, and the colonists--who were pawns in planned disaster followed by a gigantic cover-up. She uncovers the CABAL responsible. The colonists were intentionally abandoned. Subsequent attempts at rescue were prevented by powers within the English government.

She begins with a narrative about the disappearance, and promptly shifts to the mystery, writing the book as a murder investigation. She discovered the fact that investigations had been blocked or prevented. She found that members of the contemporary government knew. They’d planned the whole thing. The period and its actors are revealed in detail, and the plot identified. Raleigh, the handsome, brilliant “upstart” within the court of Queen Elizabeth I, and her most favored acolyte, was much loathed by people who had worked for years to gain her attention. He became a confidant, lover, and person of incredible influence—attended by wealth—much to the chagrin of others. Only four men could have sabotaged his endeavor. Which one, and why?

One at a time she explains how and why each of the four might have been involved, ultimately eliminating three, leaving one of the most powerful and devious men in the Elizabethan realm. He was the guilty party, and with his influence intimidated others to participate and/or cover it up. She studies it, exposes it, and leaves the reader with no doubt, noting that many years after the death of the prime conspirator, Raleigh was executed in the Tower of London after the death of Elizabeth, his prime protector.

There is an almost seamless segue from scene to scene. The story is electrifying as she exposes what never was a mystery, though it had been masked for 400 years by the plotting of those involved. Centuries were involved because no one ever took a hard look. Miller did.

She concludes--and proves--that the colonials did not simply disappear; most actually survived. She accounts for them. For those who like history and mystery, this is a fascinating book. Her endeavor exposes the corruption and venality of those involved, and the incredible misfortune of the victims who had been promised a colony in the Chesapeake Bay. They never arrived there, having been deposited—on purpose—on an island on which they were expected to perish.

(Incidentally, she provides the simplest explanation of the Puritan Revolution which I have ever read.)

Posted by respeto at 11:40 AM