Tag Archives: Biography

New Releases: Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace series

For those headed to Arlington this week for the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) annual meeting, swing by our booth; say hello to our representative, Melissa Hammer; and browse a few of these great new titles!

Click here to view all titles in the Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace series.

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Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow
Confidential Diplomacy and Détente
Richard A. Moss
Foreword by Admiral James Stavridis, USN (Ret.)

“Nixon’s Back Channel to Moscow will become an instant classic. For all of the books that mention the back channels—Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger’s most important foreign policy tools—this is the first to exhaustively mine the archives to explain their origin, how they were used, and to what end. Lucidly written and superbly researched, future works on Nixon foreign policy will have no choice but to consult this essential work. It is a must read to understand the era.”—Luke Nichter, author of Richard Nixon and Europe: The Reshaping of the Postwar Atlantic World

Most Americans consider détente to be among the Nixon administration’s most significant foreign policy successes. The diplomatic back channel that national security advisor Henry Kissinger established with Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin became the most important method of achieving this thaw in the Cold War. Kissinger praised back channels for preventing leaks and streamlining communications. These methods, however, were widely criticized by State Department officials and by an American press and public weary of executive branch prevarication and secrecy.

Richard A. Moss’s penetrating study documents and analyzes US-Soviet back channels from Nixon’s inauguration through what has widely been heralded as the apex of détente, the May 1972 Moscow Summit. He traces the evolution of confidential-channel diplomacy and examines major flashpoints, including the 1970 crisis over Cienfuegos, Cuba, the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks (SALT), US dealings with China, deescalating tensions in Berlin, and the Vietnam War.

Employing newly declassified documents, the complete record of the Kissinger-Dobrynin channel—jointly compiled, translated, annotated, and published by the US State Department and the Russian Foreign Ministry— as well as the Nixon tapes, Moss reveals the behind-the-scenes deliberations of Nixon, his advisers, and their Soviet counterparts. Although much has been written about détente, this is the first scholarly study that comprehensively assesses the central role of confidential diplomacy in shaping America’s foreign policy during this critical era.


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Foreign Policy at the Periphery
The Shifting Margins of US International Relations since World War II
Edited by Bevan Sewell and Maria Ryan

“Even after the United States became a global superpower, some regions of the world remained peripheral to American interests. What set these areas apart? And why did the U.S. eventually become drawn into their affairs? In this smart collection of original essays, an all-star lineup of historians answers these questions, and more, and uncovers the powerful dynamics that have shaped America’s rise to globalism.”—Andrew Preston, Cambridge University

As American interests assumed global proportions after 1945, policy makers were faced with the challenge of prioritizing various regions and determining the extent to which the United States was prepared to defend and support them. Superpowers and developing nations soon became inextricably linked, and the decolonization of states such as Vietnam, India, and Egypt assumed a central role in the ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. As the twentieth century came to an end, many of the challenges of the Cold War became even more complex as the Soviet Union collapsed and new threats arose.

Featuring original essays by leading scholars, Foreign Policy at the Periphery examines relationships among new nations and the United States from the end of the Second World War through the global war on terror. Rather than reassessing familiar flashpoints of US foreign policy, the contributors explore neglected but significant developments such as the efforts of evangelical missionaries in the Congo, the 1958 stabilization agreement with Argentina, Henry Kissinger’s policies toward Latin America during the 1970s, and the financing of terrorism in Libya via petrodollars. Blending new, internationalist approaches to diplomatic history with newly released archival materials, this book brings together diverse strands of scholarship to address compelling issues in modern world history.


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Reagan and the World
Leadership and National Security, 1981-1989
Edited by Bradley Lynn Coleman and Kyle Longley
Foreword by Jack Matlock Jr.

“Coleman and Longley have assembled a terrific line-up of contributors, and both are accomplished scholars whose reputations and skills enhance this valuable contribution to understanding a contested presidency.”—Richard H. Immerman, author of Empire for Liberty: A History of American Imperialism from Benjamin Franklin to Paul Wolfowitz

Throughout his presidency, Ronald Reagan sought “peace through strength” during an era of historic change. In the decades since, pundits and scholars have argued over the president’s legacy: some consider Reagan a charismatic and consummate leader who renewed American strength and defeated communism. To others he was an ambitious and dangerous warmonger whose presidency was plagued with mismanagement, misconduct, and foreign policy failures. The recent declassification of Reagan administration records and the availability of new Soviet documents has created an opportunity for more nuanced, complex, and compelling analyses of this pivotal period in international affairs.

In Reagan and the World, leading scholars and national security professionals offer fresh interpretations of the fortieth president’s influence on American foreign policy. This collection addresses Reagan’s management of the US national security establishment as well as the influence of Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger and others in the administration and Congress. The contributors present in-depth explorations of US-Soviet relations and American policy toward Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East. This balanced and sophisticated examination reveals the complexity of Reagan’s foreign policy, clarifies the importance of other international actors of the period, and provides new perspectives on the final decade of the Cold War.


9780813169057US Presidential Elections
Candidates, Campaigns, and Global Politics from FDR to Bill Clinton
Edited by Andrew Johnstone and Andrew Priest

“This book is part of an important trend in examining the connection between domestic policies and foreign policy. Its chapters will have enduring relevance.”—Elizabeth N. Saunders, author of Leaders at War: How Presidents Shape Military Interventions

While domestic issues loom large in voters’ minds during American presidential elections, matters of foreign policy have consistently shaped candidates and their campaigns. From the start of World War II through the collapse of the Soviet Union, presidential hopefuls needed to be perceived as credible global leaders in order to win elections—regardless of the situation at home—and voter behavior depended heavily on whether the nation was at war or peace. Yet there is little written about the importance of foreign policy in US presidential elections or the impact of electoral issues on the formation of foreign policy.

In US Presidential Elections and Foreign Policy, a team of international scholars examines how the relationship between foreign policy and electoral politics evolved through the latter half of the twentieth century. Covering all presidential elections from 1940 to 1992—from debates over American entry into World War II to the aftermath of the Cold War—the contributors correct the conventional wisdom that domestic issues and the economy are always definitive. Together they demonstrate that, while international concerns were more important in some campaigns than others, foreign policy always matters and is often decisive. This illuminating commentary fills a significant gap in the literature on presidential and electoral politics, emphasizing that candidates’ positions on global issues have a palpable impact on American foreign policy.


Other great books in the series:

6 Reads to Celebrate Lincoln’s Legacy

This Sunday marks the 208th birthday of Abraham Lincoln–the only president born in Kentucky! To celebrate, we’re sharing a few of our favorite books about Honest Abe.


morel.final.inddLincoln and Liberty: Wisdom for the Ages

Since Abraham Lincoln’s death, generations of Americans have studied his life, presidency, and leadership, often remaking him into a figure suited to the needs and interests of their own time. This illuminating volume takes a different approach to his political thought and practice. Here, a distinguished group of contributors argue that Lincoln’s relevance today is best expressed by rendering an accurate portrait of him in his own era. They seek to understand Lincoln as he understood himself and as he attempted to make his ideas clear to his contemporaries. What emerges is a portrait of a prudent leader who is driven to return the country to its original principles in order to conserve it.

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9780813192413Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President

As one might expect with a revered national icon, nearly every facet of Abraham Lincoln’s life has been subject to mythmaking as well as academic inquiry of widely varying quality and accuracy. In Lincoln Legends, noted historian and Lincoln expert Edward Steers Jr. carefully scrutinizes some of the most notorious tall tales and distorted ideas about America’s sixteenth President. Did Abraham Lincoln write his greatest speech on the back of an envelope on the way to Gettysburg? Did he appear before a congressional committee to defend his wife against charges of treason? Was Lincoln an illegitimate child? Was he gay? Edward Steers weighs the evidence in these and other heated debates about the Great Emancipator. Steers’s conclusions will satisfy some and disappoint others, and he just might settle some of these enduring questions once and for all.

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canavan.final.inddLincoln’s Final Hours: Conspiracy, Terror, and the Assassination of America’s Greatest President

In Lincoln’s Final Hours, author Kathryn Canavan takes a magnifying glass to the last moments of the president’s life and to the impact his assassination had on a country still reeling from a bloody civil war. With vivid, thoroughly researched prose and a reporter’s eye for detail, this fast-paced account not only furnishes a glimpse into John Wilkes Booth’s personal and political motivations but also illuminates the stories of ordinary people whose lives were changed forever by the assassination. Through her careful narration of the twists of fate that placed the president in harm’s way, of the plotting conversations Booth had with his accomplices, and of the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Canavan illustrates how the experiences of a single night changed the course of history.

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9780813136530Abraham Lincoln, Esq.: The Legal Career of America’s Greatest President

As our nation’s most beloved and recognizable president, Abraham Lincoln is best known for the Emancipation Proclamation and for guiding our country through the Civil War. But before he took the oath of office, Lincoln practiced law for nearly twenty-five years in the Illinois courts. Editors Roger Billings and Frank J. Williams, along with a notable list of contributors, examine Lincoln’s career as a general-practice attorney, looking both at his work in Illinois and at the time he spent in Washington. Each chapter offers an expansive look at Lincoln’s legal mind and covers diverse topics such as Lincoln’s legal writing, ethics, the Constitution, and international law. Abraham Lincoln, Esq. emphasizes this often overlooked period in Lincoln’s career and sheds light on Lincoln’s life before he became our sixteenth president.

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9780813109718With Charity for All: Lincoln and the Restoration of the Union

William C. Harris maintains that Lincoln held a fundamentally conservative position on the process of reintegrating the South, one that permitted a large measure of self-reconstruction, and that he did not modify his position late in the war. In With Charity for All he examines the reasoning and ideology behind Lincoln’s policies, describes what happened when military and civil agents tried to implement them at the local level, and evaluates Lincoln’s successes and failures in bringing his restoration efforts to closure.

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9780813190624Lincoln on Lincoln

Though Abraham Lincoln has been the subject of numerous biographies, his personality remains an enigma. During his lifetime, Lincoln prepared two sketches of his life for the 1860 presidential race. These brief campaign portraits serve as the core around which Paul Zall weaves extracts from correspondence, speeches, and interviews to produce an in-depth biography. Lincoln on Lincoln shows a man struggling to reconcile personal ambition and civic virtue, conscience and Constitution, and ultimately the will of God and the will of the people. Zall frames Lincoln’s words with his own illuminating commentary, providing a continuous, compelling narrative. Beginning with Lincoln’s thoughts on his parents, the story moves though his youth and early successes and failures in law and politics, and culminates in his clashes and conflicts–internal as well as external–as president of a divided country. Through his writings, Lincoln said much more about himself than is commonly recognized, and Zall uses this material to create a unique portrait of this pivotal figure.

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To explore more titles about Lincoln and the American Civil War, visit our website.

Sixty Years of ‘High Society’

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High Society promotional poster (1956). Source: Wikipedia.

On July 17, 1956, the musical comedy High Society premiered, featuring a “power house” cast of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, and Grace Kelly. The film was based on The Philadelphia Story, starring Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, and was directed and choreographed by Charles Walters who staged the iconic musical sequences of Hollywood’s golden age.

 

In honor of the 60th anniversary of the film’s release, here are excerpts from Charles Walters: The Director Who Made Hollywood Dance. Author Brent Phillips chronicles the artist’s successful film career, how he navigated the movie industry as an openly gay man, and the revealing backstory about his work on one of his most beloved musicals, High Society:


 

[. . .] In [Grace] Kelly, Walters had an undeniably lovely leading lady, but her gracious appeal was entirely dissimilar to the individuality of Katharine Hepburn. He spent considerable time helping Grace tap into the defenseless interior of Barry’s icy socialite. The actress acknowledged, “I tried to find the point where [Tracy’s] haughtiness was a cover for insecurity, and for the pain she felt over her father’s thoughtless behavior.” [. . .] As Alain Masson would later articulate, the key difference between Hepburn  and Kelly “lies in the fact that Hepburn— though she may lose her composed image— always seems to master the game, at least   intellectually, [whereas] Kelly sometimes is really at a loss.”

Her male co-stars, nonetheless, didn’t bother to analyze; they patently adored her. A doting Sinatra called her “Gracie” and poured on the charm, leading Chuck to privately refer to them as “Beauty and the Beast.” Crosby, victorious beau in the High Society love triangle, called Grace “kind, considerate, and friendly with everyone.”

[. . .]

 

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Walters demonstrates playful posturing for an amused Grace Kelly, High Society (1956). Photograph in author’s collection.

High Society’s biggest hit, however, came in the Crosby-Kelly ballad “True Love.” Practically a lullaby, the song required simple direction, and critic Douglas McVay later praised Walters’s “talent for musical naturalism,” adding, “This sequence (significantly not present in The Philadelphia Story), in which the newly-married couple quietly and blissfully duet . . . on board their yacht of that name, invests the love between Tracy and her former husband with a sense of physical truth, and thus makes their movements towards reconciliation in the rest of the film equally credible. . . . [The duet] emerges as one of the most persuasive illustrations of the power of song (or dance) to convey sexual passion and affection more intensely than any exchange of spoken words or fervent embraces can do.”

 

Holm recalled: “[Grace] had a very dear contralto— lovely and totally appropriate. She

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Sinatra and Grace Kelly are guided through a High Society dance rehearsal (1956). Courtesy the Cinema-Television Library, USC.

made no effort to sound like a professional singer.  On the day she was to [record] with Bing, we all hung about to hear them.” After receiving his disc from the session, Porter wrote to Metro conductor Johnny Green, “I can’t tell you how surprised I am at the singing of Miss Grace Kelly.” The public was in agreement, and sales of the “True Love” single earned Kelly her first and only gold record. “My brother,” she later said, “once made a very unbrotherly remark by saying that he thought my voice on a golden record was one of the ‘modern miracles.’ But I was very delighted about it.”  “True Love” later won a Best Song Oscar nomination, and MGM joined with Porter’s press agent to lobby hard for a win. When Doris Day’s chart-topping “Que Sera, Sera” took home the prize, the agent received a succinct cable of defeat from Porter that read: “Whatever will be, will be.”

 

Dreaming up staging possibilities for “Jazz,” “Millionaire,” and “True Love” proved unproblematic, yet Chuck ran adrift with “You’re Sensational,” a seduction song for Sinatra to woo Kelly. “I couldn’t think what to do,” he admitted. “[Then] I woke up in the middle of the night and thought, ‘Just a minute. [Frank and Grace are] getting an awful lot of money, individually and collectively. I’m going to make them do the work.’ ” The next day he showed up for rehearsal with a simple directive: “Go with it, dears.” When his stars became too artificial in their actions, he offered one final piece of advice: “Play it like a scene.” With that, the performers acted— and aced— the Porter lyric, with Sinatra, lustful and lost, melded to Kelly’s mute response. Her radiant mix of yearning and uncertainty enchanted Walters, who said, “I thought she was marvelous.”

[. . .]

“[Grace] invited me to lunch,” she begins, along with the royals [Prince Rainier III and his father, the Duke of Valentinois], Schary, and Chuck, “who had a tendency to be enchantingly obscene.” The luncheon was given in the paneled executive dining room, which at MGM was considered a bit of a joke; it only seated eight. “So we were all sitting at the table, and I can’t imagine who would have been dumb enough to have said, ‘How big is Monaco?’ But somebody did. Well, there was a pause, and I think the Prince gave him the area in feet. Dore laughed and said, ‘Why, that’s not even as big as our back lot.’ Now that was just bad manners!” An awkward, uncomfortable silence came over the luncheon, until Holm smartly stuck a fork in her steak and propelled it across the table. “While everybody was busy getting straightened out over that,” she concludes, “I changed the subject. Nobody knew that I’d done that on purpose.”

[. . .]

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Chatting with Louis Armstrong, High Society (1956). Courtesy the Cinema-Television Library, USC.

[High Society would be Kelly’s last film performance before she became Princess consort of Monaco.]

Kelly became Her Serene Highness the Princess of Monaco on April 19, impeccably gowned by High Society designer Helen Rose. The press dubbed the event “The Wedding of the Century.” Even MGM couldn’t buy such publicity, although the August 1 world premiere at the RKO Pantages Theater in Los Angeles was carefully orchestrated pandemonium. Shouting street crowds were showered by flower petals, and the floral display was a convenient distraction from the fact that none of the film’s stars were in attendance. (Crosby was relaxing at his ranch, Sinatra and Holm were in New York, and Kelly was away playing princess.) To compensate, George Murphy presented Porter with a civic citation, Bob Hope kidded Crosby’s no-show, and Walters’s former stars Ann Miller and Debbie Reynolds represented the home studio. Ever recalcitrant, Chuck later admitted, “I wasn’t going to go to the premiere either, [until] my dear friend Earl Blackwell of Celebrity Service phoned Ginger Rogers and told her to call me. She told me to get my tuxedo out of mothballs, get a limousine, and come pick her up. And I enjoyed it. I was like a kid in a bathtub: it was hell to get me in, but once you did, I didn’t want to get out.”

Wheeler’s ‘Jacob L. Devers’ Honored by Army Historical Foundation

Jacob L Devers WheelerThe Army Historical Foundation recently recognized outstanding contributions to U.S. Army history that were published in 2015. Among those select works honored by the Foundation was Jacob L. Devers: A General’s Life by James Scott Wheeler which won in the category of biography.

General Jacob L. “Jake” Devers (1897–1979) was one of only two officers—the other was Omar C. Bradley—to command an army group during the decisive campaigns of 1944–1945 that liberated Europe and ended the war with Nazi Germany. After the war, Devers led the Army Ground Forces in the United States and eventually retired in 1949 after forty years of service. Despite incredible successes on the battlefield, General George C. Marshall’s “dependable man” remains one of the most underrated and overlooked figures of his generation.

In this definitive biography, Wheeler delivers a groundbreaking reassessment of the American commander whose contributions to victory in Europe are topped only by those of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Wheeler’s exhaustively researched chronicle of Devers’s life and career reveals a leader who demonstrated an extraordinary ability to cut through red tape and solve complex problems. Nevertheless, Eisenhower disliked Devers—a fact laid bare when he ordered Devers’s Sixth Army Group to halt at the Rhine. After the war, Eisenhower’s and Bradley’s accounts of the generals’ disagreements over strategy and tactics became received wisdom, to the detriment of Devers’s reputation.

Bacevich Read Wheeler'seditorial on theV-E Day thatMight Have BeenThis exceptional work of military history was recognized at an annual awards program on June 16, at the Nineteenth Annual Members’ Meeting at the AUSA Building in Arlington, VA. The finalists were judged by a select awards committee of distinguished military historians and writers against a set of criteria, including significance to U.S. Army history, historical accuracy, and quality of writing. The win marks the ninth time a University Press of Kentucky title has won an award from the AHF. UPK’s previous winners in the category of biography are Beetle: The Life of Walter Bedell Smith by D. K. R. Crosswell, Exposing the Third Reich: Colonel Truman Smith in Hitler’s Germany by Henry G. Gole, and Alvin York: A New Biography of the Hero of the Argonne by Douglas V. Mastriano.

The Army Historical Foundation is a member-based, nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the history and heritage of the American soldier. Established in 1983, the Foundation funds projects such as educational programs, research, publication of relevant historical materials, and the acquisition and preservation of Army artifacts.

New Releases: Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace series

For those lucky enough to be in balmy San Diego this week for the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) annual meeting, swing by our booth, say hello to Mack, and browse a few of these great, new titles!

Click here to view all titles in the Studies in Conflict, Diplomacy, and Peace series.

Aid Under Fire ElkindAid Under Fire
Nation Building and the Vietnam War
Jessica Elkind

“How US nation building morphed into American military intervention is a cautionary example for US policy makers today, and Elkind’s superbly documented conclusions underscore the contribution that professional historical scholarship, if heeded, can make to the creation of sound foreign policy.”—David L. Anderson, editor of The Columbia History of the Vietnam War

In Aid Under Fire, Jessica Elkind examines US nation-building efforts in the fledgling South Vietnamese state during the decade preceding the full-scale ground war. Based on American and Vietnamese archival sources as well as on interviews with numerous aid workers, this study vividly demonstrates how civilians from the official US aid agency as well as several nongovernmental organizations implemented nearly every component of nonmilitary assistance given to South Vietnam during this period, including public and police administration, agricultural development, education, and public health. However, despite the sincerity of American efforts, most Vietnamese citizens understood US-sponsored programs to be little more than a continuation of previous attempts by foreign powers to dominate their homeland.

Elkind convincingly argues that, instead of reexamining their core assumptions or altering their approach as the violence in the region escalated, US policymakers and aid workers only strengthened their commitment to nation building, increasingly modifying their development goals to support counterinsurgency efforts. Aid Under Fire highlights the important role played by nonstate actors in advancing US policies and reveals in stark terms the limits of American power and influence during the period widely considered to be the apex of US supremacy in the world.


Eisenhower and Cambodia Rust Eisenhower and Cambodia
Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War
William J. Rust

“Rust’s brilliant account of the Eisenhower and Kennedy administration’s attempt to leverage a recalcitrant Cambodian leader into a Cold War alliance reveals much about American diplomacy then and now. Extensively researched and exceptionally readable, this groundbreaking book discloses the often shadowy realities of what occurs when government officials from dissimilar cultures endeavor to bend each other to their will.”—Walter E. Kretchik, author of U.S. Army Doctrine: From the American Revolution to the War on Terror

Although most Americans paid little attention to Cambodia during Dwight D. Eisenhower’s presidency, the nation’s proximity to China and the global ideological struggle with the Soviet Union guaranteed US vigilance throughout Southeast Asia. Cambodia’s leader, Norodom Sihanouk, refused to take sides in the Cold War, a policy that disturbed US officials. From 1953 to 1961, his government avoided the political and military crises of neighboring Laos and South Vietnam. However, relations between Cambodia and the United States suffered a blow in 1959 when Sihanouk discovered CIA involvement in a plot to overthrow him. The coup, supported by South Vietnam and Thailand, was a failure that succeeded only in increasing Sihanouk’s power and prestige, presenting new foreign policy challenges in the region.

In Eisenhower and Cambodia, William J. Rust examines the United States’ efforts to lure Cambodia from neutrality to alliance. He conclusively demonstrates that, as with Laos in 1958 and 1960, covert intervention in the internal political affairs of neutral Cambodia proved to be a counterproductive tactic for advancing the United States’ anticommunist goals. Drawing on recently declassified sources, Rust skillfully traces the impact of “plausible deniability” on the formulation and execution of foreign policy. His meticulous study not only reveals a neglected chapter in Cold War history but also illuminates the intellectual and political origins of US strategy in Vietnam and the often-hidden influence of intelligence operations in foreign affairs.

Also by William J. Rust:


9780813166407 Enemies to Allies
Cold War Germany and American Memory
Brian C. Etheridge

“This book addresses a compelling and fascinating feature of the Cold War Era, namely the rapid reversal of America’s alliance relationships after World War II. It is an excellent account of this change, highly readable and clear in its exploration of a complex subject.”—Thomas A. Schwartz, coeditor of The Strained Alliance: US-European Relations from Nixon to Carter

At the close of World War II, the United States went from being allied with the Soviet Union against Germany to alignment with the Germans against the Soviet Union—almost overnight. While many Americans came to perceive the German people as democrats standing firm with their Western allies on the front lines of the Cold War, others were wary of a renewed Third Reich and viewed all Germans as nascent Nazis bent on world domination. These adversarial perspectives added measurably to the atmosphere of fear and distrust that defined the Cold War.

From the Holocaust to the Berlin Wall, Enemies to Allies explores the contingent nature of some of the most potent moral symbols and images of the second half of the twentieth century. This groundbreaking study draws from theories of public memory and public diplomacy to demonstrate how conflicting US accounts of German history serve as a window for understanding not only American identity, but international relations and state power.


Other great books in the series:

John Morrissey: Rogue, U.S. Representative, Racing Icon

Though there won’t be another historic Triple Crown win at Belmont Park this year, racing history looms large in New York state. Just north of Elmont—where the Belmont Stakes are run—is Saratoga Springs, home of the National Racing Museum and Hall of Fame and Saratoga Race Course.

sm_MorrisseyThe third oldest racetrack in the United States, Saratoga Springs saw its first thoroughbred race card on August 3, 1863, organized by John Morrissey, who was at the time operating a  gambling house in the resort town. An Irish immigrant, an enforcer for Tamany Hall, a professional boxer, and a prodigious gambler, John Morrissey was—if nothing else—an unlikely candidate to become one of the most important figures in the history of Thoroughbred racing. But despite being the kind of man who made a fortune in the Gold Rush, won fame as a prizefighter, found political success through Boss Tweed’s machine, and challenged William Poole (better known as “Bill the Butcher”), Morrissey’s name has escaped many history books.

Nicholson_FinalNow, James C. Nicholson (author of The Kentucky Derby and Never Say Die), finally does justice to this rags-to-riches story in The Notorious John Morrissey: How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course. Nicholson traces Morrissey’s remarkable life while also shedding light on fascinating issues of the era, such as the underground prizefighting economy, the rancorous debate over immigration, and labor laws that protected owners more than workers. He digs most deeply, however, into the business of Thoroughbred racing and Morrissey’s role as the founder of Saratoga Race Course.

In advance of this year’s Belmont Stakes, and the start of Saratoga’s racing schedule, we spoke with Nicholson about Morrissey’s improbable life and why Saratoga and its founder are instrumental to understanding of horse racing’s history.

How did you first get introduced to Saratoga Race Course and John Morrissey’s story?

I worked at the horse auctions in Saratoga for a few summers during college and grad school. Unglamorously, my most important duty was helping remove horse manure from the facility. After work, some of my fellow “muck crew” members and I would often trot over to the nearby racetrack to catch a race or two. I was fascinated by the little pieces of folklore and anecdotes about “the old days” that were casually passed around by racegoers, but it was difficult to know if someone was talking about 150 years ago or fifteen years ago. Some of those stories included vague allusions to John Morrissey, who, I learned, had operated the casino at the center of town and had been responsible for bringing Thoroughbred racing to Saratoga. He sounded like an intriguing character, and, in doing research for my first two books, I was surprised to learn that relatively little had been written about him in over a century.

What led Morrissey to begin his career as a political enforcer and his involvement with gang violence?

Morrissey came to the United States from Ireland as a small child, and he grew up quite poor in the lively little town of Troy, New York, on the eastern terminus of the Erie Canal, with seven sisters, an alcoholic mother, and an unskilled father. He was an ambitious young man and realized early on that his ability to endure a beating was perhaps his greatest personal asset. In addition to jobs in factories as a preteen, Morrissey was a bouncer in a tavern and worked on riverboats as a deckhand. He was surrounded by rough crowds throughout his adolescence, when fighting was both entertainment and a means of survival for many young men in upstate New York. After moving to New York City in his late teens, Morrissey’s toughness continued to serve him well. He worked as a political enforcer for the Tammany Hall political machine and as an immigrant runner, meeting new arrivals on the docks and helping to find them work and shelter in exchange for political allegiance to Tammany.

Morrissey had several encounters with William Poole, who was portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis in the film The Gangs of New York. Can you describe their relationship?

Poole was a butcher by trade, and he led a New York City gang called the Bowery Boys. Leonardo DiCaprio played the rival of Daniel Day-Lewis’s character. DiCaprio’s character contains elements of John Morrissey. Morrissey, an Irish-Catholic Democrat, and Poole, a “native” American Protestant Know-Nothing, were bitter rivals within the ethnically and politically charged environment of mid-nineteenth-century Manhattan. The two men had tense encounters within the saloon and sporting circles in which they operated, and Poole beat Morrissey nearly to death in a well publicized encounter months before Poole was killed by Morrissey’s associates in a Broadway tavern.

It would be a stretch to call the film historically accurate, but it does capture some of the spirit of that era. The film does a good job conveying the notion that New York’s Five Points district was a hotbed of violence, poverty, and corruption, and it effectively depicts the deadly hostility between nativists and immigrants, as well as the political power of Tammany Hall. But the film plays rather loose with historical events and historical figures. Perhaps the most glaring creative liberty taken is the fact that Poole was actually murdered in 1855 following a barroom dispute with Morrissey, while, in the film, the Poole character is killed in the New York City draft riots of 1863. But Gangs of New York does accurately portray Poole as a virulent nativist who wielded serious local power.

sm_Morrissey boxingMorrissey turned from criminal to prizefighter, eventually becoming national champion. Today boxing has various sanctioning organizations and clearly defined weight classes. That wasn’t the case in Morrissey’s time, can you elaborate on the differences?

When Morrissey entered the American boxing scene, fights were governed by the London Prize Ring rules, which were far more permissive than the Marquess of Queensbury rules (published in 1867) that modern boxing fans would recognize. In Morrissey’s era, fights were conducted without gloves (“bareknuckle”), and the rules permitted grasping and throwing, but not gouging, biting, or low blows. A round was completed when one fighter was knocked to the ground, and there were no limits as to the length of a fight—some lasted well over 100 rounds. There were no official weight classes, and prizefights had to be conducted in semi-clandestine fashion, as the sport was outlawed nearly everywhere in the United States.

There were also no formal boxing federations like the ones that would emerge in the twentieth century. Championships were largely determined by public acclaim and recognition by the sporting press. That process was less unwieldy than it might sound, however, as the sports community was relatively small and insular by modern standards, and a large percentage of the major figures in American boxing could be found in one of a handful of New York saloons that catered to the sporting crowd. In 1849, Tom Hyer was universally acknowledged as the finest fighter in the nation, earning the informal title of Champion of America following his victory over Yankee Sullivan. When Hyer retired in the early 1850s, Sullivan staked a dubious claim to Hyer’s title by virtue of having been the last fighter to lose to the champion. When Morrissey beat Sullivan, he took the title. Morrissey’s defeat of Hyer’s hand-picked challenger, John C. Heenan, in 1858, cemented his claim to the American championship, as well as his place of honor in the annals of boxing history.

How much of Morrissey’s past was brought up in his campaign, did this have a large effect on his chances? Was it unusual to have that kind of background as a politician in that era?

No one had ever seen someone with Morrissey’s checkered past and deep involvement with boxing and gambling rise so quickly in American politics. Journalists were highly critical of his candidacy for Congress, but, much like what we have recently seen with Donald Trump, the attention that newspapers paid to Morrissey only added to his status as a celebrity and ultimately helped him to appeal to voters.

Describe Morrissey’s connections to Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall? Without their backing do you think it would have been possible for him to win?

Tammany Hall was the major power broker in New York City Democratic politics from the 1850s well into the twentieth century. Morrissey had ingratiated himself to Tammany leadership by providing muscle in local elections. Those relationships facilitated his subsequent election to U.S. Congress. Morrissey eventually had a falling out with Boss Tweed and the Tammany Democrats, and he led an insurrection that contributed to Tweed’s downfall. But without Tammany’s early support there would have been no way a man with Morrissey’s past could be a congressman.

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What makes Saratoga such an important facet in the American Thoroughbred industry?

One of the most appealing aspects of horseracing, in addition to the wide variety of participants and enthusiasts it attracts, is its connection to the past. Nowhere is that connection more tangible than in Saratoga. Generations of racing fans have made Saratoga an annual destination, and the well-preserved Victorian architecture there provides a tangible link to a bygone era. The presence of the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame right across the street from the racetrack serves as a reminder of the deep history of racing at Saratoga, which, for over 150 years, has attracted wealthy industrialists and financiers, itinerate gamblers, vacationing families, and vagabond horsemen. This hodgepodge of humanity was an integral part of the festive atmosphere at Saratoga race meets 150 years ago, and it remains so today.

James C. Nicholson is the author of The Kentucky Derby: How the Run for the Roses Became America’s Premier Sporting Event and Never Say Die: A Kentucky Colt, the Epsom Derby, and the Rise of the Modern Thoroughbred Industry. His newest book, The Notorious John Morrissey: How a Bare-Knuckle Brawler Became a Congressman and Founded Saratoga Race Course is available now.

A Conversation with Robert S. Birchard (1950–2016)

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via Cinecon.org

We were saddened to learn that historian, preservationist, writer, and film/television editor Robert S. Birchard passed away this past weekend in Burbank, California. Many remember Birchard as the president of Cinecon and editor of the American Film Institute’s Feature Film Catalog, as well as for his work as a film editor in the 1980s and 90s, where he edited animated television shows like  Ducktales and Rainbow Brite, and movies such as The Return of Jafar. We remember him as the author of the seminal history, Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood. In honor of his life and work, we’d like to share a conversation with Birchard prior to the publication of Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood:9780813123240

“Far and away the best film book published so far this year.”—National Board of Review, 2004

Q: To What do you attribute Cecil B. DeMille’s enduring popularity, both among film enthusiasts and the general public?

A: Cecil B. DeMille produced a number of films that have had enduring audience appeal: The Ten Commandments (1956), The King of Kings (1927), The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), Cleopatra (1934), and Samson and Delilah (1949). These films were major box office hits on their original release and they remain popular through repeated screenings on TV, and availability in home video formats. But, in many ways, Cecil B. DeMille’s personality has proven to be his most enduring creation. The strutting director in Jodhpurs and leather puttees, commanding great armies of extras and demanding perfection, was a creation just as much as any of his films. He worked at creating and sustaining that image throughout his career. The persona made DeMille a well-known figure, but it many ways it obscured his real accomplishments as a director. Cecil B. DeMille’s Hollywood is an effort to go beyond anecdote and reminiscence to create a portrait of DeMille the filmmaker. It is based in large part on original documents that erase the blur of nostalgia and preserve the immediacy of a time when Cecil B. DeMille helped create the art of motion pictures.

Q: You discuss your first encounters with DeMille’s body of work in the introduction. After writing program notes for a retrospective Of DeMille’s films, what inspired you to continue your engagement with DeMille and his art?

A: DeMille never threw anything away. Letters, telegrams, contracts, memos—even requests from actors looking for work—he kept it all, from the beginning of his career to the end. Although several biographers had gone through the DeMille archives, no one had really made a comprehensive effort to document the making of DeMille’s films and his relationship with the rest of the motion picture industry. DeMille’s story, I felt, would answer many questions about how and why Hollywood developed the way it did and offer a vivid look at how movies were really made in Hollywood’s golden age.

Q: How do you see DeMille fitting into the film industry in today’s Hollywood? If the DeMille that you have studied were a young filmmaker in 2004, would you speculate that he would have more or less difficulty reaching the heights that he achieved?

A:. DeMille brought great energy, enthusiasm, and determination to his work as a filmmaker—but, contrary to his popular image, he also had a realistic sense of the studio system and was willing to blend his vision with the demands of the marketplace. He was an independent producer working within the studio system long before this became common, and in this sense he would feel right at home in the Hollywood of today.

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via rsbirchard.com

Q: What are DeMille’s lasting legacies, either from creative or from business/industry standpoints?

A: To a large extent it was Cecil B. DeMille who set the working model for Hollywood movie making, and that legacy survives to this day. Early filmmakers often went out and shot “off the cuff” with the barest of outlines. DeMille always worked from a detailed script with meticulous pre-planning, and he pioneered the use of production sketches and story boards to determine the look of his films.

Q: Can you elaborate on DeMille’s strengths as a man and/or as a filmmaker? His weaknesses?

The most surprising thing is that for all of DeMile’s reputation as a stern, demanding director on the set, he had a real love for the people who helped bring his vision to the screen, and he went out of his way to offer work to many actors who were having trouble finding work in their later years.

If he had a weakness it was in his adherence tothe Victorian idea that art must be instructive and uplifting—a notion that is out of favor today, and in some ways this makes his work “old fashioned.” But he also had a bold sense of movie storytelling,creating compelling images that remain in one’s memory long after the light of the projector has faded from the screen—and for this reason his films retain their power to entertain.