Review: The Splendid and the Vile

The Splendid and the Vile, Erik Larson. New York: Crown, 2020.

Summary: A day to day narrative of the first year as prime minister of Winston Churchill, focusing on the circle around him as well as how he inspired a nation fighting alone under the Blitz.

There are a number of biographies of Winston Churchill and studies of his leadership as prime minister during World War 2. What distinguishes this one is that Larson takes us into the intimate circle around Churchill, bringing the great man to life out of the pages of history. We become observers on the edge of an intimate circle rather than removed readers of history from eighty years ago during Churchill’s first year as prime minister.

We are with Churchill as he speaks in parliament or over radio broadcasts, not so much giving the people courage as helping them summon the courage and resolve that was in them. They would need it. Almost at once the bombings began, taking a frightful toll. We walk with Churchill among the ruins as people try to recover and go about their lives.

We get to know Churchill with his closest leadership, particularly the asthmatic but effective Max Beaverbrook who takes over aircraft production and doubles it. Beaverbrook had a genius for cutting through red tape and making enemies, but he got things done–between his resignations, which Churchill refused. The wisdom of Churchill was having someone so close who never told Churchill what he wanted to hear, but only the unvarnished truth, with no reverence for any institutions.

Larson takes us into the family circle: the reserved and opinionated Clementine, the dissolute Randolph, constantly mired in debt and affairs, to the distress of young Pamela, wife and mother, and Mary, the spirited youngest daughter discovering the world, love, and living with courage amid the restraints of her parents. She ends up heading up an anti-aircraft battery and recognizing her parents wisdom in rejecting her first love. John Colville rounds out the circle as Churchill’s secretary. His “intended” doesn’t return his affection, he wants to enter the air corps, but apart from a few sorties, serves with Churchill, in the process keeping a diary that is a treasure trove for historians like Larson.

We are acquainted with the ever-present dangers of the bombing, almost always at night, rendering the RAF ineffective, except in its own nighttime bombing of Germany. We learn of underground shelters for 10 Downing Street, the special hideaway of Churchill at Ditchley, rather than Checquers on the nights around the full moon. We glimpse the tragedy of the bombing of a nightclub that would have been Mary’s next stop on a night out. And we walk with and observe with Churchill, oblivious to dangers to his own person.

Another theme is Churchill’s clear perception of the vital importance the United States would play, and his vital role in maintaining the spirits and fight of the nation until it became politically possible for the U.S. to fully join the fight. As a career politician, he grasped Roosevelt’s challenges, working incrementally through the exchange of bases for materials and the passage of Lend-Lease. Of great fortune was the recall of Joseph Kennedy and the presence of Harry Hopkins and later Averill Harriman, both of whom Churchill welcomed into his inner circle and who became Churchill’s advocates with Roosevelt in consequence. It would cost Randolph’s marriage, already on the rocks, when Harriman and Pamela take up an affair.

Through it all is Churchill himself. I don’t think it is possible to write a bad book about Churchill because he is so interesting, even if sometimes exasperating! Larson gives us the man in full, from his demand to bathe twice daily wherever he went, dictating letters in bath and bed, to his prodigious alcohol consumption, the cigar which made him incomprehensible to his inspiring speeches and presence that made it clear to both his own country and Germany, that unlike the countries of the European mainland, there would be no surrender. This, too, was critical to the hoped for alliance with America.

What Larson has done is not just given us another biography or war history. He has helped us imagine being with Churchill during this first year from May 1940 to May 1941. Perhaps this is a good book for our time, when we are fighting a different, but it appears, no less protracted, combat. When life cannot be normal, we see what it is to live with day to day courage, resolve, and determination without losing heart.

Review: Frozen in Time

Frozen in Time, Mitchell Zuckoff. New York: HarperCollins, 2014.

Summary: An account of rescue efforts in 1942-43 and a retrieval effort in 2012 to recover several lost heroes, all occurring on the Greenland icecap.

In November of 1942, a C-53 cargo plane took off from Iceland to an airfield on the west side of Greenland. For unknown reasons it crashed inland from the eastern coast of Greenland. A B-17 diverted from transport to England joined the search with a crew of nine, captained by Armand Monteverde. Unsuccessful, they ran into a bad snowstorm that was like “flying in milk.” They also crashed, the plane splitting into two pieces. All nine survived the crash and much of the narrative in this book describes their efforts to survive in subzero temperatures, avoiding life-ending crevasses and fighting frostbite and keeping up hope as months went by with little more contact than overflights by another B-17, piloted by “Pappy” Turner, dropping supplies and communicating with the survivors.

Part of the 1942-43 story concerned the efforts to rescue these men either by plane or motor- or dogsled. Sadly, rescuers, both by plane and motorsled died, as did one of the B-17 crash survivors. Three of those who died were on a Coast Guard plane called “The Flying Duck” piloted by John Pritchard and Benjamin Bottoms. They rescued two crash survivors, one who was most severely affected by frostbite. Coming back, they picked up another survivor. Loren Howarth, who had repaired a radio on the crashed B-17. They, too, encountered a fast approaching storm and went down with no survivors.

Here enters the other part of this story. Lou Sapienza, who had participated in previous recovery missions learned the story about the lost men from the Flying Duck. On a preliminary survey in 2010, they identified possible crash sites. Now, he wants to go back. He needs the help of the Coast Guard and a lot of money the Pentagon doesn’t have. He enlists the author to chronicle (and help bankroll) the effort. Offsetting a reluctant bureaucracy is Coast Guard Commander Jim Blow, whose passion is not to leave those missing in action behind. Somehow, they come up with enough for a week on the Greenland ice cap.

So much of what sustains interest in this narrative, which goes back and forth between the rescue and recovery missions, is the uncertainty that they will find a way to rescue the B-17 survivors or recover the Flying Duck and her crew. The big challenge is Greenland itself. There are so many ways it can kill you from crevasses to polar bears to cold. For the surviving crew, the challenge was crash injuries, advancing frostbite, and morale. One is impressed in all the ways this crew improvised shelter, jury-rigged radios, and used what they had on hand. The recovery mission led by Jim and Lou had its own challenges. Faulty GPS coordinates, moving heavy equipment across crevasses, and conflict within the expedition pose challenges, even as they scramble to locate the Flying Duck as another of Greenland’s storms approach, necessitating evacuation.

Zuckoff’s eyewitness narrative coupled with careful historical research makes for a riveting account of the effort to “bring them home” that is a heartbeat of the services. The efforts to survive, to rescue, and to recover are all heroic. In a day when so many public figures disappoint, a narrative about heroes, who have their own struggles, but transcend and work and risk for noble ends, is a welcome gift.

Review: Six Months in 1945

Six Months in 1945: From World War to Cold War, Michael Dobbs. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

Summary: An account of the six months from Yalta to Hiroshima and how the decisions and events of those months shaped the post-war world.

Michael Dobbs contends that the six months from February to August of 1945 profoundly shaped the post-war world dashing the hopes for world peace, replacing it with a “cold” war between the two major superpowers to emerge from the world. How did Allies against Germany become adversaries?

The account begins with the conference at Yalta in the Crimea. Planned to accommodate Stalin, it represented an arduous journey via ship, air, rail, and auto for a dying president and a recently ill prime minister. Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill arrived at the top of their game. What they found at the conference was a Stalin who was. Given that his country had borne the brunt of the war against Germany (and the casualties), he came with terms on which he would not yield about the borders and government of Poland and his influence in Eastern Europe. Dobbs shows how Roosevelt and Churchill, sometimes with vagueness of wording, tried to reach agreements about the shape of the post-war world that preserved self-autonomy for these countries and preservation of the unity of Germany. Roosevelt described their efforts as “the best I could do.” For Churchill, the handwriting was on the wall for his influence and the British empire. He recognized that he now was junior to the two great powers.

The second part traces the conclusion of the war, the race for Berlin, the death of Roosevelt, the linkup and the zones of occupation. The new president, Harry Truman almost immediately had to stand up to Molotov on the matter of Poland and honoring the agreements of Yalta. But as the old saying goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law, and the Russians were in possession of most of what they wanted. Amid all this, Dobbs captures the momentary joy of the meet-up of forces.

Part Three covers the conference in Potsdam, the tenuous balance of standing up to Stalin as an “iron curtain” descends on Eastern Europe and Poland’s government is dominated by pro-Communist leaders., even while Stalin’s help is still sought to deal with Japan. During the conference, Churchill learns that the elections he called turned him out of office. And Truman learned that the test of atomic weapons was devastatingly successful. Japan would be warned, resist, be bombed twice, at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and capitulate, even as Russia was turning back forces in Manchuria but was still short of all the prizes sought in the East.

A foreign service officer from the U.S. in Russia sent his famous “long telegram” with his analysis of Russian intent and recommendation of an American policy of containment, which became our foreign policy until 1989 (and may be once more). Reading this made me wonder if the combination of weariness and perhaps naivete of Roosevelt, and the divorce of military strategy and geopolitical assessment led to this outcome. Churchill saw this coming. But he was also the one so cautious about a cross-channel invasion. Great Britain and America’s late engagement, after the Russians’ years of fighting and dying and turning back the German threat left them in a place where all they could do was say “pretty please” to a country who held most of the cards.

For those whose knowledge of this history is a few vaguely remembered paragraphs in a history book, this is a detailed plunge into these six defining months exploring the personalities, the changing power dynamics, the events and the geopolitics that shaped the post-war world. The account balances depth and pace in a way that always fascinates and never plods. It demonstrates that nothing may be so dangerous as a charming vision of world peace between ideological and geopolitical adversaries. Yalta was the wake-up call, and Potsdam the effort to contain the damages. But the amity of a wartime alliance would be no more.

Review: When Books Went to War

When Books Went to War

When Books Went to WarMolly Guptill Manning. New York: Mariner Books, 2014.

Summary: This history of efforts to supply American servicemen in World War 2 with books.

The war against Adolph Hitler’s Nazi Germany was not just a war of bullets and armies. It was a war of ideas and books. In 1933, in Berlin’s Bebelplatz, thousands of books were burned. Books by Jews. Books by foreigners. Books that dissented from the views of Mein Kampf. As Nazi armies marched through Europe, they destroyed libraries, and millions of books.

As the United States slowly edged toward war, and then rapidly mobilized after Pearl Harbor, American leaders quickly came to realize that soldiers needed more than barracks and weapons, training and strategy. They needed ideas, and in the many idle hours between intense battles, they needed diversions. They needed books.

President Roosevelt put it well:

People die, but books never die. No man and no force can put thought in a concentration camp forever. No man and no force can take from the world the books that embody man’s eternal fight against tyranny. In this war, we know books are weapons.

Molly Guptill Manning recounts the massive mobilization effort that put over 140 million books into the hands of Americans in the services, and the powerful impact those books had on those who received them.

While libraries existed on posts, those deployed often lacked greatly. The first response was the National Defense Book Campaign, organized by the American Library Association under the leadership of Althea Warren, director of the Los Angeles Public Library. She launched a national book donation drive with a goal of 10 million books. Eventually 18 million were collected in what became the Victory Book Campaign. However, not all the books were suitable for soldiers and most were heavy hardcovers, not idea for someone’s pack or duffle.

Eventually this effort gave way to the American Services Editions, payed for by the military. Cost constraints combined with an effort of mass production of a number of editions led to adopting a paperback format, produced for roughly five cents a book. Each months, sets were sent out to all the service units. They consisted of classics, how to books, modern fiction, history, biography, sports. They were selected with an eye to soldiers interests. They fit in a soldiers pocket and were so popular that they were traded around until they fell apart

Manning recounts how deeply these were appreciated. Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was the all-time favorite, reminding so many soldiers of home. Soldiers could be found reading them on transports and in fox holes, wherever they could find a moments respite. Books weren’t censored for points of view. Some were controversial, like Strange Fruit, an account of interracial marriage, or steamylike Forever Amber. All of these kept soldiers morale up and reminded them for what they were fighting. Eventually, more books were produced than the Germans destroyed, some by those banned authors. In the end, books not only went to war, they won.

Most fascinating to me was how Manning connects this massive book effort with the massive influx of GIs into colleges after the war, and their seriousness about learning. She raises the question of whether the steady diet of good reading the soldiers experienced during the war (which may not have been true of them before) whet their appetites for serious study that “wrecked the curve” for other undergraduates.

I write this review during “stay at home” orders during a pandemic. This is a very different war. We act collectively by isolating. It will be interesting to see the role books play during this war, when so many other forms of entertainment are available on all our devices. Yet books have a power to form ideas, to capture imagination, to re-fashion our world as we enter that of a book. The stories evoked in my minds eye are always richer than the rendering of another. I know the importance of the idea of relief to those on the edge, but I wonder if for some, the chance to have a collection of new titles delivered each month would be a welcome gift. Should there be an equivalent to Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library for adults? Will our “time out” be long enough to foster a lifelong love for this literature?

Perhaps someday, someone will write a book of this time titled When Books Sustained a Nation. One an only hope.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Women Workers During World War 2

rosie the riveter

J. Howard Miller, Public Domain

The woman who was the inspiration for the iconic “We Can Do It!” poster, often nicknamed as “Rosie the Riveter,” died this week at the age of 96. Naomi Parker Fraley was the subject of a photograph that inspired Westinghouse artist J. Howard Miller’s inspirational poster, originally designed to boost morale in Westinghouse plants during World War 2. There was actually some controversy about the identity of “Rosie” and this Time article summarizes how they figured out who the real “Rosie” was. The poster went viral, and has come to be an icon for the empowerment of women in the workplace.

Youngstown was one of the “arsenals of democracy” supporting the war effort during World War 2 and there were a number of “Rosies” who contributed to that effort. My mother-in-law was one of them. She often spoke of her work during the war as an inspector with one of the aircraft part suppliers in Youngstown. She wasn’t a riveter, but rather inspected the riveting work of other workers, many of them women. She talked of getting people angry when she’d send an assembly back because of improper rivets. Her attitude was that the boys “over there” depended on them getting it right.

From what I’ve been able to learn, two of the places where aircraft parts were manufactured were General Fireproofing and Steel Door. At Steel Door, they manufactured fuel tanks for the aircraft. I also found this Mashable site with a color photo spread of real life “Rosies” in aircraft manufacturing during World War 2. Unfortunately, there were none from Youngstown.

Women filled the spaces in the workforce opened up by men who went away to serve. The steel mills in Youngstown ran three shifts and prospered during this time and there were a number of positions filled by women. Women filled between 8 and 16 percent of the production positions, particularly in rolling mills, fabrication, finishing, and shop maintenance.

Helena Auguston was one of the contributors to Youngstown State’s Oral History Program. During World War 2 she worked for a year at the Ravenna Arsenal making detonator caps for artillery shells. Then she worked for the remainder of the war at Republic and Copperweld, mostly as a crane operator. Here is a portion of her interview with William M. Kish of her experience:

OH1236 pdf

Screen capture from Helena Auguston interview with William M. Kish

Some, like Helena, returned to homemaking after the war. But many did not. They joined unions and advocated for women’s rights in the workplace. It clearly changed perceptions of what women were capable of doing and began to break down the divisions of work into “men’s work” and “women’s work.” This also began to change relations between husbands and wives as women no longer depended on a male wage earner, and how children were raised.

These women are some of the “unsung heroes” of World War 2. Youngstown played a huge role in the war effort, and women played a significant part in that effort, one that it seems appropriate to remember with the passing of the original “Rosie the Riveter.”

I’d love to hear some of your stories of women in your family who worked in Youngstown area factories during World War 2.

Review: Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and After


Eleanor Roosevelt, Volume 3: The War Years and AfterBlanche Wiesen Cook. New York: Viking, 2016.

Summary: The third and final volume in this biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, covering her advocacy, friendships, and relationship with Franklin during the war years, and briefly, her accomplishments after his death.

I had often heard that Eleanor Roosevelt did as much to redefine the role of First Lady as her husband did the Presidency, perhaps more. This work, volume three of a biography of Eleanor Roosevelt (who the author usually refers to as “ER”) helped me understand that she did far more than that, in the war years and after.

She was a prodigious writer and her daily columns often and weekly broadcasts sometimes had more influence than her husband’s speeches. She represented her husband not only at various domestic functions but in a number of overseas trips including extensive journeys in the southwest Pacific (at some personal risk) and Latin America. And she hosted countless functions at the White House, and their Hyde Park residence, including a visit from the royal family. Her address to the 1940 Democratic Convention may have saved the day for Roosevelt in that election.

Perhaps what stood out most was her advocacy–progressive even by today’s standards. Most striking was her tireless advocacy for Jewish refugees before, during, and after the war. She was among the earliest to recognize the impending holocaust and struggled against a resistant State Department as well as foreign governments to rescue refugees attempting to flee the Nazi threat. And sadly, as in so many instances since, including the genocide in Aleppo, the U.S. as well as other powers turned away from the most vulnerable. Yet there were many who owed their lives to her.

Cook chronicles her efforts to end the oppression against blacks, including her support for the Tuskegee airmen, trained but sitting at a U.S. air base.  She fought for voting rights against the poll taxes, and even late in life, was one of the foremost voices urging college youth to go south in the early sixties to support voting registration. She argued for social and economic assistance for those in Depression-era poverty, including a basic level of nutrition, housing, and health care, recognizing that deficiencies in these area hampered employment, as well as the fitness of young men to serve in the approaching conflict. Later on, she would propose support for college education, incorporated into the G.I. Bill.

Because she fought so many progressive causes, she often was criticized (and even monitored by the FBI) for ties with Communists. She was actually vociferously anti-Communist in her statements but her support for groups like the American Youth Congress made her suspect. Her visibility made her a target for attacks on her husband’s policies.

The book does a good job exploring her complex relationship with Franklin. She knew of his affairs, including that with Lucy Mercer Rutherford (who was with him when he died), and came to terms with this. He both valued her principled advocacy and was annoyed by it, and sometimes set limits on what she could do for political reasons. She constantly pushed her ideas, and pushed him, and Cook sees some of her language and ideas in his best speeches. Some of the complexity relates as well with the intimate friendships ER had with Lorena Hickock, and the circle of women who were close friends, several including Hickock known to be lesbian . How intimate is not clear here (I appreciated the biographer’s restraint), but plainly her closeness to Hickock, Tommy (her secretary) and others sustained her in the times when for personal or political reasons Franklin was distant.

The bulk of the book (540 pages) concern the war years up to the death of Franklin. Only the last 30 pages discuss the last seventeen years of her life, although not her death. Most of this is focused around her role in the first U.S. delegation to the newly formed United Nations, and to her lead role in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that may be as significant as the Magna Carta and the Declaration of Independence in enunciating basic human freedoms. Articles 1 to 22 in this declaration concern personal and political freedoms that were finally ratified in Congress in 1992. The social and economic freedoms of Articles 23 to 30 never have been. Even today, then, the document stands as a challenge to all governments, including that of the United States, of the high ideals of human freedom, rarely attained in any of our countries.

Perhaps it goes without saying, but Eleanor Roosevelt broke new paths for women, not only in the White House, but in politics, in journalism, in the military, and industry. Her example and advocacy, as well as her stubborn persistence (described well in her work with an all-male U.N. delegation), won her the respect of the men with whom she worked and opened doors for other women.

Reading the final volume made me want to go back to the first two. In volume three, we see who Eleanor Roosevelt had become and at the top of her influence. One almost can’t help but want to trace the influences and decisions that formed a woman like this. Perhaps the publishers will release the biography as a set, now that it is complete. Welcomed or not, it might make a good gift to the incoming First Lady.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher . I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.



April 2014: The Month in Reviews

Another month and another pile of books read! This past month I read of pilgrimages fictional and real, and collections of essays on the future of reading, of politics and religion in the past, and the present relevance of a martyred saint. I read books on big questions, worthy dreams and good and beautiful lives. I explored Winston Churchill’s leadership during World War 2, and a text promoting an alternative to the war around ‘origins’. In case you missed any of the reviews, here is the list with links to my review posts.

1. The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read in the Digital Age ed. Paul Socken. This collection of essays is an exploration of the future of reading and the promotion of reading of great literature by those who love to read and love great literature. It is also thoughtful about the impact of digitization on reading.

2. In Search of Deep Faith by Jim Belcher. Belcher recounts a sabbatical journey with his family through England and Europe exploring the lives, and visiting the sites where those lives were lived out, of his heroes of faith–C. S. Lewis, William Wilberforce, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer among them. His vignettes of these people and his “keeping real” the ups and downs of family life on ‘pilgrimage’ made this a great read.

3. Big Questions, Worthy Dreams by Sharon Daloz Parks. This is an oft referenced work on the spiritual longings of young adults and the role mentors may play in faith and values development.

Untitled-6deep faithbig questions


4. Politics and Religion in Enlightenment Europe, James E Bradley and Dale Van Kley, eds. This collection of papers chronicles the relationship between various religious reform movements and the political structures in their host countries during 18th century Europe–an interesting exploration of the almost unavoidable relationship of religion and politics in another setting.

5. The Good and Beautiful Life by James Bryan Smith. This is the second volume in his Apprentice series and explores how the Sermon on the Mount represents the core of Jesus’ teaching on how one indeed can live a sustainable good life. The book includes “Soul-Training’ exercises and is useful for both individuals and group discussions.

6. The Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis. This is Lewis’s first work following his conversion and reflects something of his own spiritual journey. As an early work,  it may not be his best but read it if you love Lewis and you are curious about “why regress?”.

regressbeautiful lifeenlightenment

7. Mapping the Origins Debate by Gerald Rau. Rau’s purpose in this work is to delineate the six (not two!) models of origins of the cosmos and life held by different people and how each of these addresses the evidence around the origin of the cosmos, of life, of the species, and of human beings. His does not advocate for a particular view but shows how philosophical presuppositions and one’s definition of “science” shape one’s interpretation of the evidence and which of these models one is most at home with.

8. Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945 by Max Hastings. This is neither strict biography nor war history but a look at Churchill’s leadership as Prime Minister of Great Britain during World War 2. It gives a balanced treatment of Churchill’s indispensable ability to rally his people and woo American support, and the flaws in his relationships with his war commanders and his perception of Britain’s post-war future.

9. Bonhoeffer, Christ, and Culture, Keith L Johnson and Timothy Larsen, eds. This book contains the papers give at the 2012 Wheaton Theology Conference, which focused on Bonhoeffer, and sheds valuable light on his Christ and Word-centered theology, the transforming influence of the Harlem Renaissance in his life, and Bonhoeffer’s decision to participate in resistance against Hitler and how he reconciled this ethically.



That’s the month in reviews. Look for reviews in the next month on a collection of Manhatten Project materials, faith and science in Antebellum America, a new biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a landmark work on genocide and American foreign policy and more! Thanks for reading!

Review: Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945

Winston's War: Churchill, 1940-1945
Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945 by Max Hastings
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“What, another Churchill book?” This was my wife’s comment when she saw me reading this book. I’ve read Churchill’s own account of World War 2 as well as several other biographies. So, beyond my admiration for Churchill, what possible reason was there to pick up this book?

What Hastings does is focus particularly on Churchill’s leadership of England from his ascent to Prime Minister in 1940 during England’s darkest days, to his ignominious departure from office in July of 1945, shortly after Allied victory in Europe. What Hastings gives us is neither a hagiography nor a hatchet job. Rather I found this a balanced treatment that justly celebrates the qualities of character that made Churchill the “indispensable man”, at least up to 1943, as well as delineating the less seemly aspects of his leadership.

Among the latter was his conservatism, which he had to overcome in dealings with Stalin, and resulted in his lack of connection with the domestic concerns of his own people, particularly in post-war life, which accounted for his unceremonious turning out from office. He was also an infuriating dabbler in military strategy, particularly with the British Army, whose leadership frustrated him. He avoided the castastrophic errors such as invading the Dardenelles that brought him down in World War 1 but was often thwarted in diverting forces from the D-Day invasions by the Americans who had to put up with repeated proposals for actions other theaters. He also could not see, as did Roosevelt, the end of Britain’s colonial empire.

All of this, and other flaws, pale in the light of the fact that Churchill was a warrior, more than most of the war-weary military leadership in England. He recognized that Nazi tyranny could never be compromised with, and from early 1940 until America’s entry in the war in late 1941, led Britain in standing alone in the face of possible invasion threats and the air Battle of Britain that convinced Hitler to turn eastward in the fatal decision to invade Russia. Hastings, more than others I’ve read, recognizes that while Churchill and Roosevelt were not nearly as close as often stated, Churchill’s major success was in bringing the US into the European War when it would have been easier to focus our attention in the Pacific. He also argued persuasively for the importance of Allied action in 1943, so that Russia might not be seen as fighting Germany all alone.

One of the things Hastings book explores more thoughtfully than most is this dilemma of allowing Russia to bear the brunt of fighting Germany, arguably a military necessity in light of the weakness of British military forces and the necessary buildup of American forces. Churchill perhaps agonized more than most at the postwar consequences this would have in Eastern Europe, accentuated by his inability to awaken the Americans to these concerns. Consequently, apart from rescuing Greece from communist forces, there was little he could do but protest incursions and broken agreements.

What Hastings book points up for me are the differences between peace time statecraft and warcraft. It seems these may require different kinds of leadership, and that the same person may not always be able to do both. Perhaps that was the distinction between Churchill and Roosevelt. What is clear is that when war comes, nations need leaders who can lead with courage and resolution to “see the thing through” and can impart that courage to their people, something Chamberlain could not do and both Churchill and Roosevelt did.

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Why I Am Praying for Putin–and Obama

I am a history buff. I’ve read a fair degree of European history and military history–probably just enough to be dangerous! As I’ve followed the events in the Ukraine these past weeks, it has dawned on me that this is something not to be taken lightly. The Crimea is not simply some place far off in Eastern Europe. It represents a number of places in Eastern Europe that were both once part of the Soviet empire and that have Russian populations. And what is trickier is that many of these countries, including Ukraine now are engaged in NATO alliances, which at least theoretically involve obligations to intervene militarily if they are attacked. And of course, the US continues to have significant NATO obligations.

Vladimir Putin Attribution:

Vladimir Putin

I suspect there are some who are better historians who can tell me how this is different from the conditions that led to the folly of World War 1, when a flashpoint assassination activated a series of military alliances that led to a full scale European war that drained the life blood of a generation. Then, as now, everyone seemed to think that in the end, diplomacy would save the day, until it was overwhelmed by the momentum of events.

Barack Obama Attribution: By Pete Souza, The Obama-Biden Transition Project [CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Barack Obama
Attribution: By Pete Souza, The Obama-Biden Transition Project [CC-BY-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m also troubled by the reality of a great nation, Russia, humbled by the crumbling of the former Soviet Union, stripped of what they perceived as their western buffer, devastated economically, now experience something of a resurgence of its power, at least regionally under a strong leader. While the formal humiliation was not, perhaps, as severe as that of Versailles, it occurs to me that the same similar dynamics could be at work in this situation.

It is almost 70 years since the end of World War 2 and many of us grew up thinking that another European conflict, particularly under the threat of nuclear weapons, was unthinkable. Sadly, the story of what Barbara Tuchman once called “The March of Folly” is that people and societies will do the unthinkable and irrational–all very rationally to appearances.

And so I found myself praying today for both Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, and the decisions each will make in the days ahead. They could make the difference between peril and peace, and it seems that wisdom from on high wouldn’t hurt.

[BTW, I welcome comments but I won’t approve/host those which are simply partisan rants!]