Still reeling from the pandemic, the world was rocked to its core on February 24, 2022, when Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, an act of unprovoked aggression not seen in Europe since World War II that conjured up distressing historical parallels. If there were voices that previously denied the echo of Hitler’s Austrian Anschluss to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, as well as German adventurism in Sudetenland with Russian-sponsored separatism in the Donbas, there was no mistaking the similarity to the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939. But it was Vladimir Putin’s challenge to the very legitimacy of Kiev’s sovereignty—a shout out to the Kremlin’s rising chorus of irredentism that declares Ukraine a wayward chunk of the “near abroad” that is rightly integral to Russia—that compels us to look much further back in history.
Putin’s claim, however dubious, begs a larger question: by what right can any nation claim self-determination? Is Ukraine really just a modern construct, an opportunistic product of the collapse of the USSR that because it was historically a part of Russia should be once again? Or, perhaps counter-intuitively, should western Russia instead be incorporated into Ukraine? Or—let’s stretch it a bit further—should much of modern Germany rightly belong to France? Or vice versa? From a contemporary vantage point, these are tantalizing musings that challenge the notions of shifting boundaries, the formation of nation states, fact-based if sometimes uncomfortable chronicles of history, the clash of ethnicities, and, most critically, actualities on the ground. Naturally, such speculation abruptly shifts from the purely academic to a stark reality at the barrel of a gun, as the history of Europe has grimly demonstrated over centuries past.
To learn more, I turned to the recently updated edition of The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine, by historian and Harvard professor Serhii Plokhy, a dense, well-researched, deep dive into the past that at once fully establishes Ukraine’s right to exist, while expertly placing it into the context of Europe’s past and present. For those like myself largely unacquainted with the layers of complexity and overlapping hegemonies that have long dominated the region, it turns out that there is much to cover. At the same time, the wealth of material that strikes as unfamiliar places a strong and discouraging underscore to the western European bias in the classroom—which at least partially explains why it is that even those Americans capable of locating Ukraine on a map prior to the invasion knew almost nothing of its history.
Survey courses in my high school covered Charlamagne’s 9th century empire that encompassed much of Europe to the west, including what is today France and Germany, but never mentioned Kievan Rus’—the cultural ancestor of modern Ukraine, Belarus and Russia—that was in the 10th and 11th centuries the largest and by far the most powerful state on the continent, until it fragmented and then fell to Mongol invaders! To its east, the Grand Principality of Moscow, a 13th century Rus’ vassal state of the Mongols, formed the core of the later Russian Empire. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was in its heyday among the largest and most populous on the continent, but both Poland and Lithuania were to fall to partition by Russia, Prussia, and Austria, and effectively ceased to exist for more than a century. Also missing from maps, of course, were Italy and Germany, which did not even achieve statehood until the later 19th century. And the many nations of today’s southeastern Europe were then provinces of the Ottoman Empire. That is European history, complicated and nuanced, as history tends to be.
Plokhy’s erudite study restores from obscurity Ukraine’s past and reveals a people who while enduring occupation and a series of partitions never abandoned an aspiration to sovereignty that was not to be realized until the late 20th century. Once a dominant power, Ukraine was to be overrun by the Mongols, preyed upon for slave labor by the Crimean Khanate, and throughout the centuries sliced up into a variety of enclaves ruled by the Golden Horde, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austrian Empire, the Tsardom of Russia, and finally the Soviet Union.
That long history was written with much blood and suffering inflicted by its various occupiers. Just in the last hundred years that included Soviet campaigns of terror, ethnic cleansing, and deportations, as well as the catastrophic Great Famine of 1932–33—known as the “Holodomor”—a product of Stalin’s forced collectivization that led to the starvation deaths of nearly four million Ukrainians. Then there was World War II, which claimed another four million lives, including about a million Jews. The immediate postwar period was marked by more tumult and bloodshed. Stability and a somewhat better quality of life emerged under Nikita Khrushchev, who himself spent many years of residence in Ukraine. It was Khrushchev who transferred title of the Crimea to Ukraine in 1954. The final years under Soviet domination saw the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
The structure of the USSR was manifested in political units known as Soviet Socialist Republics, which asserted a fictional autonomy subject to central control. Somewhat ironically, as time passed this enabled and strengthened nationalism within each of the respective SSR’s. Ukraine (like Belarus) even held its own United Nations seat, although its UN votes were rubber-stamped by Moscow. Still, this further reinforced a sense of statehood, which was realized in the unexpected dissolution of the Soviet Union and Ukraine’s independence in 1991. In the years that followed, as Ukraine aspired to closer ties with the West, that statehood increasingly came under attack by Putin, who spoke in earnest of a “Greater Russia” that by all rights included Ukraine. Election meddling became common, but with the spectacular fall of the Russian-backed president in 2014, Putin annexed Crimea and fomented rebellion that sought to create breakaway “republics” in the Donbas of eastern Ukraine. This only intensified the desire of Kiev for integration with the European Union and for NATO membership.
A vast country of forest and steppe, marked by fertile plains crisscrossed by rivers, Ukraine has long served as a strategic gateway between the east and west, as emphasized in the book’s title. Elements of western, central, and eastern Europe all in some ways give definition to Ukrainian life and culture, and as such Ukraine remains inextricably as much a part of the west as the east. While Russia has left a huge imprint upon the nation’s DNA, it hardly informs the entirety of its national character. The Russian language continues to be widely spoken, and at least prior to the invasion many Ukrainians had Russian sympathies—if never a desire for annexation! For Ukrainians, stateless for too long, their own national identity ever remained unquestioned. The Russian invasion has, rather than threatened that, only bolstered it.
Today, Ukraine is the second largest European nation, after Russia. Far too often overlooked by both statesmen and talking heads, Ukraine would also be the world’s third largest nuclear power—and would have little to fear from the tanks of its former overlord—had it not given up its stockpile of nukes in a deal brokered by the United States, an important reminder to those who question America’s obligation to defend Ukraine.
As this review goes to press, Russia’s war—which Putin euphemistically terms a “special military operation”—is going very poorly, and despite energy supply shortages and threats of nuclear brinksmanship, the West stands firmly with Ukraine, which in the course of the conflict has been subjected to horrific war crimes by Russian invaders. However, as months pass, and both Europe and the United States endure the economic pain of inflation and rising fuel prices, as well as the ever-increasing odds of rightwing politicians gaining political power on both sides of the Atlantic, it remains to be seen if this alliance will hold steady. As battlefield defeats mount, and men and materiel run short, Putin seems to be running out the clock in anticipation of that outcome. We can only hope it does not come to that.
While I learned a great deal from The Gates of Europe, and I would offer much acclaim to its scholarship, there are portions that can prove to be a slog for a nonacademic audience. Too much of the author’s chronicle reads like a textbook—pregnant with names and dates and events—and thus lacks the sweep of a grand thematic narrative inspiring to the reader and so deserving of the Ukrainian people he treats. At the same time, that does not diminish Plokhy’s achievement in turning out what is certainly the authoritative history of Ukraine. With their right to exist under assault once more, this volume serves as a powerful defense—the weapon of history—against any who might challenge Ukraine’s sovereignty. If you believe, as I do, that facts must triumph over propaganda and polemic, then I highly recommend that you turn to Plokhy to best refute Putin.
I often suffer pangs of guilt when a volume received through an early reviewer program languishes on the shelf unread for an extended period. Such was the case with the “Advanced Reader’s Edition” of After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in the World Transformed, by Andrew Bacevich, that arrived in August 2021 and sat forsaken for an entire year until it finally fell off the top of my TBR (To-Be-Read) list and onto my lap. While hardly deliberate, my delay was no doubt neglectful. But sometimes neglect can foster unexpected opportunities for evaluation. More on that later.
First, a little about Andrew Bacevich. A West Point graduate and platoon leader in Vietnam 1970-71, he went on to an army career that spanned twenty-three years, including the Gulf War, retiring with the rank of Colonel. (It is said his early retirement was due to being passed over for promotion after taking responsibility for an accidental explosion at a camp he commanded in Kuwait.) He later became an academic, Professor Emeritus of International Relations and History at Boston University, and one-time director of its Center for International Relations (1998-2005). He is now president and co-founder of the bipartisan think-tank, the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Deeply influenced by the theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, Bacevich was once tagged as a conservative Catholic historian, but he defies simple categorization, most often serving as an unlikely voice in the wilderness decrying America’s “endless wars.” He has been a vocal, longtime critic of George W. Bush’s doctrine of preventative war, most prominently manifested in the Iraqi conflict, which he has rightly termed a “catastrophic failure.” He has also denounced the conceit of “American Exceptionalism,” and chillingly notes that the reliance on an all-volunteer military force translates into the ongoing, almost anonymous sacrifice of our men and women for a nation that largely has no skin in the game. His own son, a young army lieutenant, was killed in Iraq in 2007. I have previously read three other Bacevich works. As I noted in a review of one of these, his resumé attaches to Bacevich either enormous credibility or an axe to grind, or perhaps both. Still, as a scholar and gifted writer, he tends to be well worth the read.
The “apocalypse” central to the title of this book takes aim at the chaos that engulfed 2020, spawned by the sum total of the “toxic and divisive” Trump presidency, the increasing death toll of the pandemic, an economy in free fall, mass demonstrations by Black Lives Matter proponents seeking long-denied social justice, and rapidly spreading wildfires that dramatically underscored the looming catastrophe of global climate change. [p.1-3] Bacevich takes this armload of calamities as a flashing red signal that the country is not only headed in the wrong direction, but likely off a kind of cliff if we do not immediately take stock and change course. He draws odd parallels with the 1940 collapse of the French army under the Nazi onslaught, which—echoing French historian Marc Bloch—he lays to “utter incompetence” and “a failure of leadership” at the very top. [p.xiv] This then serves as a head-scratching segue into a long-winded polemic on national security and foreign policy that recycles familiar Bacevich themes but offers little in the way of fresh analysis. This trajectory strikes as especially incongruent given that the specific litany of woes besetting the nation that populate his opening narrative have—rarely indeed for the United States—almost nothing to do with the military or foreign affairs.
If ever history was to manufacture an example of a failure of leadership, of course, it would be hard-pressed to come up with a better model than Donald Trump, who drowned out the noise of a series of mounting crises with a deafening roar of self-serving, hateful rhetoric directed at enemies real and imaginary, deliberately ignoring the threat of both coronavirus and climate change, while stoking racial tensions. Bacevich gives him his due, noting that his “ascent to the White House exposed gaping flaws in the American political system, his manifest contempt for the Constitution and the rule of law placing in jeopardy our democratic traditions.” [p.2] But while he hardly masks his contempt for Trump, Bacevich makes plain that there’s plenty of blame to go around for political elites in both parties, and he takes no prisoners, landing a series of blows on George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and a host of other members of the Washington establishment that he holds accountable for fostering and maintaining the global post-Cold War “American Empire” responsible for the “endless wars” that he has long condemned. He credits Trump for urging a retreat from alliances and engagements, but faults the selfish motives of an “America First” predicated on isolationism. Bacevich instead envisions a more positive role for the United States in the international arena—one with its sword permanently sheathed.
All this is heady stuff, and regardless of your politics many readers will find themselves nodding their heads as Bacevich makes his case, outlining the many wrongheaded policy endeavors championed by Republicans and Democrats alike for a wobbly superpower clinging to an outdated and increasingly irrelevant sense of national identity that fails to align with the global realities of the twenty-first century. But then, as Bacevich looks to the future for alternatives, as he seeks to map out on paper the next new world order, he stumbles, and stumbles badly, something only truly evident in retrospect when viewing his point of view through the prism of the events that followed the release of After the Apocalypse in June 2021.
Bacevich has little to add here to his longstanding condemnation of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, which after two long decades of failed attempts at nation-building came to an end with our messy withdrawal in August 2021, just shortly after this book’s publication. President Biden was pilloried for the chaotic retreat, but while his administration could rightly be held to account for a failure to prepare for the worst, the elephant in that room in the Kabul airport where the ISIS-K suicide bomber blew himself up was certainly former president Trump, who brokered the deal to return Afghanistan to Taliban control. Biden, who plummeted in the polls due to outcomes he could do little to control, was disparaged much the same way Obama once was when he was held to blame for the subsequent turmoil in Iraq after effecting the withdrawal of U.S. forces agreed to by his predecessor, G.W. Bush. Once again, history rhymes. But the more salient point for those of us who share, as I do, Bacevich’s anti-imperialism, is that getting out is ever more difficult than going in.
But Bacevich has a great deal to say in After the Apocalypse about NATO, an alliance rooted in a past-tense Cold War stand-off that he pronounces counterproductive and obsolete. Bacevich disputes the long-held mythology of the so-called “West,” an artificial “sentiment” that has the United States and European nations bound together with common values of liberty, human rights, and democracy. Like Trump—who likely would have acted upon this had he been reelected—Bacevich calls for an end to US involvement with NATO. The United States and Europe have embarked on “divergent paths,” he argues, and that is as it should be. The Cold War is over. Relations with Russia and China are frosty, but entanglement in an alliance like NATO only fosters acrimony and fails to appropriately adapt our nation to the realities of the new millennium.
It is an interesting if academic argument that was abruptly crushed under the weight of the treads of Russian tanks in the premeditated invasion of Ukraine February 24, 2022. If some denied the echo of Hitler’s 1938 Austrian Anschluss to Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, there was no mistaking the similarity of unprovoked attacks on Kiev and sister cities to the Nazi war machine’s march on Poland in 1939. And yes, when Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron stood together to unite that so-called West against Russian belligerence, the memory of France’s 1940 defeat was hardly out of mind. All of a sudden, NATO became less a theoretical construct and somewhat more of a safe haven against brutal militarism, wanton aggression, and the unapologetic war crimes that livestream on twenty-first century social media of streets littered with the bodies of civilians, many of them children. All of a sudden, NATO is pretty goddamned relevant.
In all this, you could rightly argue against the wrong turns made after the dissolution of the USSR, of the failure of the West to allocate appropriate economic support for the heirs of the former Soviet Union, of how a pattern of NATO expansion both isolated and antagonized Russia. But there remains no legitimate defense for Putin’s attempt to invade, besiege, and absorb a weaker neighbor—or at least a neighbor he perceived to be weaker, a misstep that could lead to his own undoing. Either way, the institution we call NATO turned out to be something to celebrate rather than deprecate. The fact that it is working exactly the way it was designed to work could turn out to be the real road map to the new world order that emerges in the aftermath of this crisis. We can only imagine the horrific alternatives had Trump won re-election: the U.S. out of NATO, Europe divided, Ukraine overrun and annexed, and perhaps even Putin feted at a White House dinner. So far, without firing a shot, NATO has not only saved Ukraine; arguably, it has saved the world as we know it, a world that extends well beyond whatever we might want to consider the “West.”
As much as I respect Bacevich and admire his scholarship, his informed appraisal of our current foreign policy realities has turned out to be entirely incorrect. Yes, the United States should rein in the American Empire. Yes, we should turn away from imperialist tendencies. Yes, we should focus our defense budget solely on defense, not aggression, resisting the urge to try to remake the world in our own image for either altruism or advantage. But at the same time, we must be mindful—like other empires in the past—that retreat can create vacuums, and we must be ever vigilant of what kinds of powers may fill those vacuums. Because we can grow and evolve into a better nation, a better people, but that evolution may not be contagious to our adversaries. Because getting out remains ever more difficult than going in.
Finally, a word about the use of the term “apocalypse,” a characterization that is bandied about a bit too frequently these days. 2020 was a pretty bad year, indeed, but it was hardly apocalyptic. Not even close. Despite the twin horrors of Trump and the pandemic, we have had other years that were far worse. Think 1812, when the British burned Washington and sent the president fleeing for his life. And 1862, with tens of thousands already lying dead on Civil War battlefields as the Union army suffered a series of reverses. And 1942, still in the throes of economic depression, with Germany and Japan lined up against us. And 1968, marked by riots and assassinations, when it truly seemed that the nation was unraveling from within. Going forward, climate change may certainly breed apocalypse. So might a cornered Putin, equipped with an arsenal of nuclear weapons and diminishing options as Russian forces in the field teeter on collapse. But 2020 is already in the rear-view mirror. It will no doubt leave a mark upon us, but as we move on, it spins ever faster into our past. At the same time, predicting the future, even when armed with the best data, is fraught with unanticipated obstacles, and grand strategies almost always lead to failure. It remains our duty to study our history while we engage with our present. Apocalyptic or not, it’s all we’ve got …
I have reviewed other Bacevich books here:
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union sent geopolitical shock waves across the planet with the launch of Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite. Sputnik was only twenty-three inches in diameter, transmitted radio signals for a mere twenty-one days, then burned up on reentry just three months after first achieving orbit, but it literally changed everything. Not only were the dynamics of the Cold War permanently altered by what came to be dubbed the “Space Race,” but the success of Sputnik ushered in a dramatic new era for developments in science and technology. I was not quite six months old.
America was to later win that race to the moon, but despite its fearsome specter as a diabolical power bent on world domination, the USSR turned out to be a kind of vast Potemkin Village that almost noiselessly went out of business at the close 1991. The United States had pretty much lost interest in space travel by then, but that was just about the time that the next critical phase in the emerging digital age—widespread public access to personal computers and the internet—first wrought the enormous changes upon the landscape of American life that today might have Gen Z “zoomers” considering 1957 as something like a date out of ancient times.
And now, as this review goes to press—in yet still one more recycle of Mark Twain’s bon mot “History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, but It Often Rhymes”—NASA temporarily scrubbed the much anticipated blastoff of lunar-bound Artemis I, but a real space race is again fiercely underway, although this time the rivals include not only Russia, but China and a whole host of billionaires, at least one of whom could potentially fit a template for a “James Bond” style villain. And while all this is going on, I recently registered for Medicare.
Sixty-five years later, there’s a lot to look back on. In 1957: The Year That Launched the American Future (2020), a fascinating, fast-paced chronicle manifested by articulately rendered, thought-provocative chapter-length essays, author and journalist Eric Burns reminds us of what a pivotal year that proved to be, not only by kindling that first contest to dominate space, but in multiple other arenas of the social, political, and cultural, much that is only apparent in retrospect.
That year, while Sputnik stoked alarms that nuclear-armed Russians would annihilate the United States with bombs dropped from outer space, tabloid journalism reached what was then new levels of the outrageous exploiting “The Mad Bomber of New York,” who turned out to be a pathetic little fellow whose series of explosives actually claimed not a single fatality. In another example of history’s unintended consequences, a congressional committee investigating illegal labor activities helped facilitate Jimmy Hoffa’s takeover of the Teamsters. A cloak of mystery was partially lifted from organized crime activities with a very public police raid at Apalachin that rounded up Mafia bosses by the score. The iconic ’57 Chevy ruled the road and cruised on newly constructed interstate highways that would revolutionize travel as well as wreak havoc on cityscapes. African Americans remained second-class citizens but struggles for equality ignited a series of flashpoints. In September 1957, President Eisenhower federalized the Arkansas National Guard and sent Army troops to Little Rock to enforce desegregation. That same month, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, watered-down yet still landmark legislation that paved the way for more substantial action ahead. Published that year were Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. Michael Landon starred in I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Little Richard, who claimed to see Sputnik while performing in concert and took it as a message from God, abruptly walked off stage and abandoned rock music to preach the word of the Lord. But the nation’s number one hit was Elvis Presley’s All Shook Up; rock n’ roll was here to stay.
Burns’ commentary on all this and more is engaging and generally a delight to read, but 1957 is by no means a comprehensive history of that year. In fact, it is a stretch to term this book a history at all except in the sense that the events it describes occurred in the past. Instead, it is rather a subjective collection of somewhat loosely linked commentaries that spotlight specific events and emerging trends that the author identifies as formative for the nation we would become in decades that followed. As such, the book succeeds due to Burn’s keen sense of how both key episodes as well as more subtle cultural waves influenced a country in transition from the conventional, consensus-driven postwar years to the radicalized, tumultuous times that lay just ahead.
His insight is most apparent in his cogent analysis of how Civil Rights advanced not only through lunch-counter sit-ins and a reaction that was marked by violent repression, but by cultural shifts among white Americans—and that rock n’ roll had at least some role in this evolution of outlooks. At the same time, his conservative roots are exposed in his treatment of On the Road and the rise of the “Beat generation;” Burns genuinely seems as baffled by their emergence as he is amazed that anyone could praise Kerouac’s literary talents. But, to his credit, he recognizes the impact the novel has upon a national audience that no longer could confidently boast of a certainty in its destiny. And it is Burns’ talent with a pen that captivates a markedly different audience, some sixty-five years later.
In the end, the author leaves us yearning for more. After all, other than references that border on the parenthetical to Richard Nixon, Robert F. Kennedy, and Dag Hammarskjöld, there is almost no discussion of national politics or international relations, essential elements in any study of a nation at what the author insists is at a critical juncture. Even more problematic, very conspicuous in its absence is the missing chapter that should have been devoted to television. In 1950, 3.9 million TV sets were in less than ten percent of American homes. By 1957, that number increased roughly tenfold to 38.9 million TVs in the homes of nearly eighty percent of the population! That year, I Love Lucy aired its final half-hour episode, but in addition to network news, families were glued to their black-and-white consoles watching Gunsmoke, Alfred Hitchcock, Lassie, You Bet Your Life, and Red Skelton. For the World War II generation, technology that brought motion pictures into their living rooms was something like miraculous. Nothing was more central to the identity of the life of the average American in 1957 than television, but Burns inexplicably ignores it.
Other than Sputnik, which clearly marked a turning-point for science and exploration, it is a matter of some debate whether 1957 should be singled out for demarcation as the start of a new era. One could perhaps argue instead for the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, or with even greater conviction, for the date of his assassination in 1963, as a true crossroads of sorts for the past and future United States. Still, if for no other reason than the conceit that this was my birth year, I am willing to embrace Burns’ thesis that 1957 represented a collective critical moment for us all. Either way, his book promises an impressive tour of a time that seems increasingly more distant with the passing of each and every day.
Early in 2022, I saw Casablanca on the big screen for the first time, the 80th anniversary of its premiere. Although over the years I have watched it in excess of two dozen times, this was a stunning, even mesmerizing experience for me, not least because I consider Casablanca the finest film of Old Hollywood—this over the objections of some of my film-geek friends who would lobby for Citizen Kane in its stead. Even so, most would concur with me that its star, Humphrey Bogart, was indeed the greatest actor of that era.
Attendance was sparse, diminished by a resurgence of COVID, but I sat transfixed in that nearly empty theater as Bogie’s distraught, drunken Rick Blaine famously raged that “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine!” He is, of course, lamenting his earlier unexpected encounter with old flame Ilsa Lund, splendidly portrayed with a sadness indelibly etched upon her beautiful countenance by Ingrid Bergman, who with Bogart led the credits of a magnificent ensemble cast that also included Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre. But Bogie remains the central object of that universe; the plot and the players in orbit about him. There’s no doubt that without Bogart, there could never have been a Casablanca as we know it. Such a movie might have been made, but it could hardly have achieved a greatness on this order of magnitude.
Bogie never actually uttered the signature line “Play it again, Sam,” so closely identified with the production (and later whimsically poached by Woody Allen for the title of his iconic 1972 comedy peppered with clips from Casablanca). And although the film won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, as well as in almost every other major category, Bogart was nominated but missed out on the Oscar, which instead went to Paul Lukas—does anyone still remember Paul Lukas?—for his role in Watch on the Rhine. This turns out to be a familiar story for Bogart, who struggled with a lifelong frustration at typecasting, miscasting, studio manipulation, lousy roles, inadequate compensation, missed opportunities, and repeated snubs—public recognition of his talent and star-quality came only late in life and even still frequently eluded him, as on that Oscar night. He didn’t really expect to win, but we can yet only wonder at what Bogart must have been thinking . . . He was already forty-four years old on that disappointing evening when the Academy passed him over. There was no way he could have known that most of his greatest performances would lie ahead, that after multiple failed marriages (one still unraveling that very night) a young starlet he had only just met would come to be the love of his life and mother of his children, and that he would at last achieve not only the rare brand of stardom reserved for just a tiny slice of the top tier in his profession, but that he would go on become a legend in his own lifetime and well beyond it: the epitome of the cool, tough, cynical guy who wears a thin veneer of apathy over an incorruptible moral center, women swooning over him as he stares down villains, an unlikely hero that every real man would seek to emulate.
My appreciation of Casablanca and its star in this grand cinema setting was enhanced by the fact that I was at the time reading Bogart (1997), by A.M. Sperber & Eric Lax, which is certainly the definitive biography of his life. I was also engaged in a self-appointed effort to watch as many key Bogie films in roughly chronological order as I could while reading the bio, which eventually turned out to be a total of twenty movies, from his first big break in The Petrified Forest (1936) to The Harder They Fall (1956), his final role prior to his tragic, untimely death at fifty-seven from esophageal cancer.
Bogie’s story is told brilliantly in this unusual collaboration by two authors who had never actually met. Ann Sperber, who wrote a celebrated biography of journalist Edward R. Murrow, spent seven years researching Bogart’s life and conducted nearly two hundred interviews with those who knew him most intimately before her sudden death in 1994. Biographer Eric Lax stepped in and shaped her draft manuscript into a coherent finished product that reads seamlessly like a single voice. I frequently read biographies of American presidents not only to study the figure that is profiled, but because the very best ones serve double duty as chronicles of United States history, the respective president as the focal point. I looked to the Bogart book for something similar, in this case a study of Old Hollywood with Bogie in the starring role. I was not to be disappointed.
Humphrey DeForest Bogart was born on Christmas Day 1899 in New York City to wealth and privilege, with a father who was a cardiopulmonary surgeon and a mother who was a commercial illustrator. Both parents were distant and unaffectionate. They had an apartment on the Upper West side and a vast estate on Canandaigua Lake in upstate New York, where Bogie began his lifelong love affair with boating. Indifferent to higher education, he eventually flunked out of boarding school and joined the navy. There seems nothing noteworthy about his early life.
His acting career began almost accidentally, and he spent several years on the stage before making his first full-length feature in 1930, Up the River, with his drinking buddy Spencer Tracy, who called him “Bogie.” He was already thirty years old. What followed were largely lackluster roles on both coasts, alternating between Broadway theaters and Hollywood studios. He was frequently broke, drank heavily, and his second marriage was crumbling. Then he won rave reviews as escaped murderer Duke Mantee in The Petrified Forest, playing opposite Leslie Howard on the stage. The studio bought the rights, but characteristically for Bogie, they did not want to cast him to reprise his role, looking instead for an established actor, with Edward G. Robinson at the top of the list. Then Howard, who had production rights, stepped in to demand Bogart get the part. The 1936 film adaptation of the play, which also featured a young Bette Davis, channeled Bogart’s dark and chillingly realistic portrayal of a psychopathic killer—in an era when gangsters like Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd dominated the headlines—and made Bogie a star.
But again he faced a series of let-downs. This was the era of the studio system, with actors used and abused by big shots like Jack Warner, who locked Bogart into a low-paid contract that tightly controlled his professional life, casting him repeatedly in virtually interchangeable gangster roles in a string of B-movies. It wasn’t until 1941, when he played Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon—quintessential film noir as well as John Huston’s directorial debut—that Bogie joined the ranks of undisputed A-list stars and began the process of taking revenge on the studio system by commanding greater compensation and demanding greater control of his screen destiny. But in those days, despite his celebrity, that remained an uphill battle.
I began watching his films while reading the bio as a lark, but it turned out to be an essential assignment: you can’t read about Bogie without watching him. Many of the twenty that I screened I had seen before, some multiple times, but others were new to me. I was raised by my grandparents in the 1960s with a little help from a console TV in the livingroom and all of seven channels delivered via rooftop antenna. When cartoons, soaps, and prime time westerns and sitcoms weren’t broadcasting, the remaining airtime was devoted to movies. All kinds of movies, from the dreadful to the superlative and everything in-between, often on repeat. Much of it was classic Hollywood and Bogart made the rounds. One of my grandfather’s favorite flicks was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and I can recall as a boy watching it with him multiple times. In general, he was a lousy parent, but I am grateful for that gift; it remains among my top Bogie films. We tend to most often think of Bogart as Rick Blaine or Philip Marlowe, but it is as Fred C. Dobbs in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Charlie Allnutt in The African Queen and Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny that the full range of his talent is revealed.
It was hardly his finest role or his finest film, but it was while starring as Harry Morgan in To Have and Have Not (1944) that Bogie met and fell for his co-star, the gorgeous, statuesque, nineteen-year-old Lauren Bacall—twenty-five years younger than him—spawning one of Hollywood’s greatest on-screen, off-screen romances. They would be soulmates for the remainder of his life, and it was she who brought out the very best of him. Despite his tough guy screen persona, the real-life Bogie tended to be a brooding intellectual who played chess, was well-read, and had a deeply analytical mind. An expert sailor, he preferred boating on the open sea to carousing in bars, although he managed to do plenty of both. During crackdowns on alleged communist influence in Hollywood, Bogart and Bacall together took controversial and sometimes courageous stands against emerging blacklists and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). But he also had his flaws. He could be cheap. He could be a mean drunk. He sometimes wore a chip on his shoulder carved out of years of frustration at what was after all a very slow rise to the top of his profession. But warts and all, far more of his peers loved him than not.
Bogart is a massive tome, and the first section is rather slow-going because Bogie’s early life was just so unremarkable. But it holds the reader’s interest because it is extremely well-written, and it goes on to succeed masterfully in spotlighting Bogart’s life against the rich fabric that forms the backdrop of that distant era of Old Hollywood before the curtains fell for all time. If you are curious about either, I highly recommend this book. If you are too busy for that, at the very least carve out some hours of screen time and watch Bogie’s films. You will not regret the time spent. Although his name never gets dropped in the lyrics by Ray Davies for the familiar Kinks tune, if there were indeed Celluloid Heroes, the greatest among them was certainly Humphrey Bogart.
NOTE: These are Bogart films I screened while reading this book:
The Petrified Forest (1936)
Dead End (1937)
High Sierra (1941)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Across the Pacific (1942)
Passage to Marseille (1944)
To Have and Have Not (1944)
The Big Sleep (1946)
Dark Passage (1947)
Dead Reckoning (1947)
Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)
Key Largo (1948)
In a Lonely Place (1950)
The African Queen (1951)
Beat the Devil (1953)
The Caine Mutiny (1954)
The Desperate Hours (1955)
The Harder They Fall (1956)
Historians consistently rank him at the top, tied with Washington for first place or simply declared America’s greatest president. His tenure was almost precisely synchronous with the nation’s most critical existential threat: his very election sparked secession, first shots fired at Sumter a month after his inauguration, the cannon stilled at Appomattox a week before his murder. There were still armies in the field, but he was gone, replaced by one of the most sinister men to ever take the oath of office, leaving generations of his countrymen to wonder what might have transpired with all the nation’s painful unfinished business had he survived, to the trampled hopes for equality for African Americans to the promise of a truly “New South” that never emerged. A full century ago, decades after his death, he was reimagined as an enormous, seated marble man with the soulful gaze of fixed purpose, the central icon in his monument that provokes tears for so many visitors that stand in awe before him. When people think of Abraham Lincoln, that’s the image that usually springs to mind.
The seated figure rises to a height of nineteen feet; somebody calculated that if it stood up it would be some twenty-eight feet tall. The Lincoln that once walked the earth was not nearly that gargantuan, but he was nevertheless a giant in his time: physically, intellectually—and far too frequently overlooked—politically! He sometimes defies characterization because he was such a character, in so very many ways.
An autodidact gifted with a brilliant analytical mind, he was also a creature of great integrity loyal to a firm sense of a moral center that ever evolved when polished by new experiences and touched by unfamiliar ideas. A savvy politician, he understood how the world worked. He had unshakeable convictions, but he was tolerant of competing views. He had a pronounced sense of empathy for others, even and most especially his enemies. In company, he was a raconteur with a great sense of humor given to anecdotes often laced with self-deprecatory wit. (Lincoln, thought to be homely, when accused in debate of being two-faced, self-mockingly replied: “I leave it to my audience. If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?”) But despite his many admirable qualities, he was hardly flawless. He suffered with self-doubt, struggled with depression, stumbled through missteps, burned with ambition, and was capable of hosting a mean streak that loomed even as it was generally suppressed. More than anything else he had an outsize personality.
And Lincoln likewise left an outsize record of his life and times! So why has he generally posed such a challenge for biographers? Remarkably, some 15,000 books have been written about him—second, it is said, only to Jesus Christ—but yet in this vast literature, the essence of Lincoln again and again somehow seems out of reach to his chroniclers. We know what he did and how he did it all too well, but portraying what the living Lincoln must have been like has remained frustratingly elusive in all too many narratives. For instance, David Herbert Donald’s highly acclaimed bio—considered by many the best single volume treatment of his life—is indeed impressive scholarship but yet leaves us with a Lincoln who is curiously dull and lifeless. Known for his uproarious banter, the guy who joked about being ugly for political advantage is glaringly absent in most works outside of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, which superbly captures him but remains, alas, a novel not a history.
All that changed with A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln Vol. I, 1809–1849, by Sidney Blumenthal (2016), an epic, ambitious, magnificent contribution to the historiography that demonstrates not only that despite the thousands of pages written about him there still remains much to say about the man and his times, but even more significantly that it is possible to brilliantly recreate for readers what it must have been like to engage with the flesh and blood Lincoln. This is the first in a projected four-volume study (two subsequent volumes have been published to date) that—as the subtitle underscores—emphasize the “political life” of Lincoln, another welcome contribution to a rapidly expanding genre focused upon politics and power, as showcased in such works as Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Robert Dallek’s Franklin D. Roosevelt: A Political Life, and George Washington: The Political Rise of America’s Founding Father, by David O. Stewart.
At first glance, this tactic might strike as surprising, since prior to his election as president in 1860 Lincoln could boast of little in the realm of public office beyond service in the Illinois state legislature and a single term in the US House of Representatives in the late 1840s. But, as Blumenthal’s deeply researched and well-written account reveals, politics defined Lincoln to his very core, inextricably manifested in his life and character from his youth onward, something too often disregarded by biographers of his early days. It turns out that Lincoln was every bit a political animal, and there is a trace of that in nearly every job he ever took, every personal relationship he ever formed, and every goal he ever chased.
This approach triggers a surprising epiphany for the student of Lincoln. It is as if an entirely new dimension of the man has been exposed for the first time that lends new meaning to words and actions previously treated superficially or—worse—misunderstood by other biographers. Early on, Blumenthal argues that Donald and others have frequently been misled by Lincoln’s politically crafted utterances that cast him as marked by passivity, too often taking him at his word when a careful eye on the circumstances demonstrates the exact opposite. In contrast, Lincoln, ever maneuvering, if quietly, could hardly be branded as passive [p9]. Given this perspective, the life and times of young Abe is transformed into something far richer and more colorful than the usual accounts of his law practice and domestic pursuits. In another context, I once snarkily exclaimed “God save us from The Prairie Years” because I found Lincoln’s formative period—and not just Sandburg’s version of it—so uninteresting and unrelated to his later rise. Blumenthal has proved me wrong, and that sentiment deeply misplaced.
But Blumenthal not only succeeds in fleshing out a far more nuanced portrait of Lincoln—an impressive accomplishment on its own—but in the process boldly sets out to do nothing less than scrupulously detail the political history of the United States in the antebellum years from the Jackson-Calhoun nullification crisis onward. Ambitious is hardly an adequate descriptive for the elaborate narrative that results, a product of both prodigious research and a very talented pen. Scores of pages—indeed whole chapters—occur with literally no mention of Lincoln at all, a striking technique that is surprisingly successful; while Lincoln may appear conspicuous in his absence, he is nevertheless present, like the reader a studious observer of these tumultuous times even when he is not directly engaged, only making an appearance when the appropriate moment beckons. As such, A Self-Made Man is every bit as much a book of history as it is biography, a key element to the unstated author’s thesis: that it is impossible to truly get to know Lincoln—especially the political Lincoln—except in the context and complexity of his times, a critical emphasis not afforded in other studies.
And there is much to chronicle in these times. Some of this material is well known, even if until recently subject to faulty analysis. The conventional view of the widespread division that characterized the antebellum period centered on a sometimes-paranoid south on the defensive, jealous of its privileges, in fear of a north encroaching upon its rights. But in keeping with the latest historiography, Blumenthal deftly highlights how it was that, in contrast, the slave south—which already wielded a disproportionate share of national political power due to the Constitution’s three-fifths clause that inflated its representation—not only stifled debate on slavery but aggressively lobbied for its expansion. And just as a distinctly southern political ideology evolved its notion of the peculiar institution from the “wolf by the ear” necessary evil of Jefferson’s time to a vaunted hallmark of civilization that boasted benefit to master and servant, so too did it come to view the threat of separation less in dread than anticipation. The roots of all that an older Lincoln would witness severing the ancient “bonds of affection” of the then no longer united states were planted in these, his early years.
Other material is less familiar. Who knew how integral to Illinois politics—for a time—was the cunning Joseph Smith and his Mormon sect? Or that Smith’s path was once entangled with the budding career of Stephen A. Douglas? Meanwhile, the author sheds new light on the long rivalry between Lincoln and Douglas, which had deep roots that went back to the 1830s, decades before their celebrated clash on the national stage brought Lincoln to a prominence that finally eclipsed Douglas’s star.
Blumenthal’s insight also adeptly connects the present to the past, affording a greater relevance for today’s reader. He suggests that the causes of the financial crisis of 2008 were not all that dissimilar to those that drove the Panic of 1837, but rather than mortgage-backed securities and a housing bubble, it was the monetization of human beings as slave property that leveraged enormous fortunes that vanished overnight when an oversupply of cotton sent market prices plummeting, which triggered British banks to call in loans on American debtors—a cotton bubble that burst spectacularly (p158-59). This point can hardly be overstated, since slavery was not only integral to the south’s economy, but by the eve of secession human property was to represent the largest single form of wealth in the nation, exceeding the combined value of all American railroads, banks, and factories. A cruel system that assigned values to men, women, and children like cattle had deep ramifications not only for masters who acted as “breeders” in the Chesapeake and markets in the deep south, but also for insurance companies in Hartford, textile mills in Lowell, and banks in London.
Although Blumenthal does not himself make this point, I could detect eerie if imperfect parallels to the elections of 2016 and 1844, with Lincoln seething as the perfect somehow became the enemy of the good. In that contest, Whig Henry Clay was up against Democrat James K. Polk. Both were slaveowners, but Clay opposed the expansion of slavery while Polk championed it. Antislavery purists in New York rejected Clay for the tiny Liberty Party, which by a slender margin tipped the election to Polk, who then boosted the slave power with Texas annexation, and served as principal author of the Mexican War that added vast territories to the nation, setting forces in motion that later spawned secession and Civil War. Lincoln was often prescient, but of course he could not know all that was to follow when, a year after Clay’s defeat, he bitterly denounced the “moral absolutism” that led to the “unintended tragic consequences” of Polk’s elevation to the White House (p303). To my mind, there was an echo of this in the 2016 disaster that saw Donald Trump prevail, a victory at least partially driven by those unwilling to support Hillary Clinton who—despite the stakes—threw away their votes on Jill Stein and Gary Johnson.
No review could properly summarize the wealth of the material contained here, nor overstate the quality of the presentation, which also suggests much promise for the volumes that follow. I must admit that at the outset I was reluctant to read yet another book about Lincoln, but A Self-Made Man was recommended to me by no less than historian Rick Perlstein, (author of Nixonland), and like Perlstein, Blumenthal’s style is distinguished by animated prose bundled with a kind of uncontained energy that frequently delivers paragraphs given to an almost breathless exhale of ideas and people and events that expertly locates the reader at the very center of concepts and consequences. The result is something exceedingly rare for books of history or biography: a page-turner! Whether new to studies of Lincoln or a long-time devotee, this book should be required reading.
NOTE: A review of one of Rick Perlstein’s books is here: