Here's the latest. It's light stuff, a little different. Go ahead...read it. I dare you.
In other news, all else is miserable.
The CIA is a powerful espionage unit whose covert operations have led to the overthrow of dangerous governments. The CIA’s intelligence analysts have helped prevent countless deaths. The CIA knows everything that’s going on in any given place around the world. The CIA is watching you. The CIA has spent billions of dollars to stage coups and save democracy. The CIA has sometimes put the wrong people in place and led to the end of democracy. The CIA has missed numerous attacks and military actions despite evidence literally at their doorsteps. The CIA has constantly been compromised by double agents and internal moles. The CIA’s history is one of incompetence, idiocy, and blindingly foolish mistakes.
The perception of the Central Intelligence Agency has long been different than the reality. The company line has been that their failures are publicized, while their successes have been by necessity classified. Actually, the reverse is closer to the truth. The agency built its reputation on a few small successes, while its many failures were buried. In Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, Tim Weiner does his best to dig those disasters up and present them in all their unglory.
A history of the agency from its inception to the present (quite literally the present—Weiner references books that were published almost the same time as his), the book is filled with details that in many cases, were previously unknown. Weiner had access to thousands of pages of recently declassified documents and interviewed many of the major players, thus giving both a formal and personal tone to the events recounted here. There are more than one hundred fifty pages of notes here, making it almost impossible to question the veracity of any incident, no matter how improbable or idiotic it may appear.
And oh, the improbable and idiotic are frequent. Born from the remnants of World War II’s OSS, the CIA struggled from the beginning to clarify its mission. It was originally intended to just provide a daily digest of intelligence for the president. Instead, swept up in the communist paranoia of the 1950s, it quickly became bogged down in increasingly complex and unlikely attempts to control foreign governments everywhere from the Middle East to South America.
Communism was the most destructive force of the 20th century. When I say that, I don’t mean that communist itself was a force against democracy and personal freedom—I mean that the fear and perception of it led the US to do an incredible number of wrong and deadly things. Without even getting into the Red Scare in the America and the lives and careers ruined there, the US has historically overestimated the power of communism over people and governments. The US saw communist governments as part of a Soviet monolith, in thrall to the Kremlin and part of a plan to take over the world. For many countries, though, the rise of a communist party was more an expression of nationalism; communism just happened to be the ideology that most appealed to these often small, poor, recently de-colonized nations. The US failed to understand, for example, that the North Vietnamese were fighting for Vietnam, not the Soviet Union. Communism, for many of these nations, was a framework that like many religions, would have been reshaped and modified to fit their cultures and resources. Maybe a communist government would have lasted, maybe it would have eventually failed. Maybe it never would even have come to power. But once the CIA got wind of a communist party or communist candidate in an election, they began to meddle, with the result of often putting dictators and fascists in charge, sometimes even followed by the communist government they’d tried to keep out in the first place. In any event, it seems unlikely that letting a communist candidate get elected in Guatemala or Indonesia would have led to the end of the free world.
I know, hindsight is 20/20. The problem, though, is that these fears about the power of communism arose because of our incredible ineptitude when it came to spying on the Soviet Union. From the end of the World War II to the end of the Soviet union, the US had almost no reliable intelligence. The CIA couldn’t get any spies into useful positions early on. A tunnel was dug from West Berlin into East Berlin to set up telecommunications intercepts. Information flowed fast and furious, but it was all false; a Soviet mole working in British intelligence had tipped off the operation before the first shovel hit the ground (the information would have been semi-useless even if it had been genuine—then, as now, the CIA struggled to recruit, train, and employ linguists). In later years, US agents in the Soviet union began to disappear or be killed. The CIA desperately tried to uncover the cause, refusing to recognize the possibility of a mole within the agency itself; to admit that would be to admit a horrible lapse of security and internal checks. By the time Aldrich Ames, a long-time CIA analyst living in suburban Virginia was arrested, numerous agents had been killed due to information he had passed on to the Soviets.
The US was unaware of the scope of armaments of the Soviet Union. They had no feel for the Soviet economy or how committed the people were to communism, how they felt about it and its strength or future. The CIA remained convinced that the Soviets were more powerful than they really were, and worse, that they had hopelessly infiltrated the US with their own spies. While they certainly had their share of agents, wiretapping, and communications intercepts going on, they were hardly the terrifying giant infestation the agency believed. Much of this perception was due to the longtime presence of James Angleton, chief of counterintelligence. A heavy drinker whose closest friend and confidante in Washington, was of all people, Kim Philby, Angleton was paranoid beyond all measure. He had a picture of the power and abilities of the Soviets and their spy service and if he was given truthful information, dismissed it, waiting until something that fit his ideas came along. CIA policy was shaped around the largely false fears he instilled in the agency and the government. The only seemingly successful operation executed by the US in the Soviet Union took place in the 1980s, thanks to a tip from French president Mitterand that their agents had discovered that the Soviets were stealing US technology. This allowed the US to start feeding faulty blueprints and schemes to Soviet buyers, which in turn caused them unwelcome economic stress when things began to fail. But again—this all took place because the French intelligence had successfully infiltrated the Soviet Union while the CIA seemingly never could on any useful level.
The history of the CIA is littered with examples of ignoring the truth in favor of the hoped for truth. In 1950, the agency reported that China was not going to enter Korea even as hundreds of thousands of troops massed on the border. They didn’t believe that the Soviets would invade Afghanistan until they were in there. In 1989, the CIA’s chief of the Soviet division of the clandestine service learned about the Berlin Wall coming down via CNN; part of this surprise, of course, was related to the fact that the CIA had so little idea that people, well, weren’t happy under communist rule). In 1990, the CIA insisted that an Iraq invasion of Kuwait was unlikely until twenty hours before it actually happened—and that was probably one of their better predictions. They weren’t aware of nuclear bombs being tested in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and India in the late ‘90s until the bombs were actually exploded. And of course, there is the most recent case of relying on shaky to nonexistent to unconfirmed intelligence (oh, that word…) to launch another war in Iraq.
The CIA conducted clandestine operations designed to overthrow or assassinate other world leaders. It spied on Americans. It got involved in illicit arms deals. These are just two of the many things the agency got involved in that were far beyond the original mandate. The agency got bigger and bigger and more and more complicated and more and more money was thrown around. Morale ebbed and rose; some directors of Central Intelligence were competent but thwarted at every move to get the agency under control. Others were out of their league and unable to check the increasingly difficult to track and understand bureaucracy. Some presidents were interested in the CIA and used it as much as possible—often to illegal ends. Some weren’t and ignored it. Neither tack was helpful.
Recruiting good people has always been a problem for the CIA. The original ideal of the Ivy-educated white young man, leftover from the OSS days, took too long to break. The agency is insular and distrusts outsiders at its own peril; the always woeful lack of linguists has been due to a reluctance to bring in people from foreign backgrounds, no matter how well they check out. Family has always been one of the more common ways to recruit spies—Ames’ father had worked for the agency, and look how he turned out…oh, never mind. And so, in turn, the ability to bring in diverse people with a varied body of knowledge has led to misinterpretation of cultures, and incorrect predictions.
All of this seems incredible to the people who believed in the power of the CIA. Just as the CIA overestimated the strength and reach of the Soviet government, the CIA’s reputation outstripped its actual accomplishments. In 1979, when the shah of Iran was overthrown and the US embassy seized, one CIA analyst was taken captive and interrogated for days. They told him that they knew that he was the head of the CIA operations in the Middle East, he was planning the ayatollah’s assassination, and trying to destroy their government. Unfortunately, the analyst had only been employed by the CIA for nine months. He knew little about Iranian culture and barely spoke the language. This actually angered the hostage-takers even more—they took it as an insult that the US had sent such an inexperienced and uninformed officer to their country. They thought the CIA was all powerful and all knowing and that they had captured quite a prize; instead they had a virtual amateur, and he was far from the only one out there.
A useful national intelligence force is still more of a goal than a reality. It’s been organized and reorganized and its effectiveness remains a question. That’s part of the problem with spy agencies: no one really knows what’s going on until afterwards, but if we knew what was going on in advance, so would those being spied upon. It’s an entity trying to operate in the dark in a society that prefers openness in its government and it’s a difficult balancing act. It’s hard not to wonder why Britain, for example, has been so successful at managing its espionage units. Then again, I haven’t read a complete history of MI5 and MI6, and if I did (yes, I’ll look), maybe I would find a similar number of debacles. But it seems unlikely.
Weiner’s book is a valuable addition to spy literature. Again, the research is impeccable and fascinating in itself—read the footnotes if you have the time. I recommend it to any fans of espionage history in general or those who might have had any romantic ideas about the CIA and need to be relieved of those illusions (btw, don’t even get me started about romantic ideas and needing to shatter some illusions. I am truly an idiot.). The book’s litany of catastrophic failures could lead one to be depressed about the state of affairs and afraid for the future of our country, if not the world. Optimistic as always, I’ll look at it this way—if we could survive the last sixty years of these agency follies, well, we must be pretty strong. Or maybe just lucky. Yeah. Maybe just lucky.
The name of the book in question is A Fierce Discontent, which could also be a description of the way I feel, though I suppose a more precise phrase in my case would be “a ravening, tearing, savage discontent.” And I suppose that’s all I should say about that.
But on to the book. I don’t have a lot to say about this one (no, really). Michael McGerr’s survey of the progressive movement in America from, as the subtitle says, 1870 to 1920 is fine in its own way. It’s informative. It does cover a lot of ground. It’s an important period that demands study. I don’t regret reading it and I would not advise against reading it. However, I wasn’t enthralled.
McGerr starts out well, with an interesting approach to the subject. Usually when people look at the turn of the 20th century they focus on any one of these familiar topics: the horrific lives of the poor immigrant factory workers; the robber barons and those who made the age gilded; anarchists and socialists; Theodore Roosevelt. All of these are important aspects of what became known as the Progressive movement but what McGerr does look at the engine that pushed for Progressive reforms: the burgeoning, middle-class that arose in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. Although not Astor-Morgan-Carnegie wealthy, this group of professionals, shopkeepers, and managers now had enough money to have leisure time, vacations, and to accumulate material things. They also had enough time to think about the world and its problems. Appalled by the poverty below them and the excessive consumption above them, the middle-class do-gooders were compelled to try to reform the upper and lower classes, to mold them to fit their own model.
The poor were squalid and slatternly, the rich were idle and amoral. The middle class reformers tried to bring the good things to one group and tried to make the other behave better. For the poor, there were settlement houses, and health groups, and calls for limiting child labor. There were education laws and cleaning up of tenements, with playgrounds, pools, and parks to follow. For the rich, there were attempts to restrain their wealth, with taxes and legislation and inheritance laws that would force the children of the extravagantly to work rather than play in such scandalous ways.
The downfall of the progressives can be seen in two ways. One is that as much as they wanted to help the immigrants and the lower classes, they (in general) didn’t particularly understand them or even like them. When it came to forming unions that could help improve work life for everyone, the more typically native-born craft workers brought about their own downfall with their excusion of African-Americans, women, and unskilled (mostly) immigrant laborers. They had trouble seeing how difficult it was for the very poor to improve their lives. In one story in the book, an immigrant factory worker tells how a middle-class woman at a settlement house explains that refinement and culture come from generations of living in a world where there are beautiful pictures, houses, and music, and people are taken care of and eat well and have good clothes. The young girl wonders why, if her father works all day making coats, he shouldn’t be entitled to good food, a beautiful home, beautiful music, even one of the good coats he makes. Why should her mother work all day scrubbing floors and know nothing better her whole life? The settlement workers and improvers who came to the tenements could put in laws about keeping hallways and basements clean and open and could give children medical care, and they could take children to visit farms upstate for the fresh air and have them attend lectures to them but they didn’t see how impossible it still was for these children’s lives to be much better than their parents miserable days. In the end, the settlement house workers returned to their beautiful homes in one part of town and the children still went to work in the factories, having seen a glimpse of a world that seemed as far away and unattainable as the Emerald City.
The progressives’ other major problem was that they had a tendency to always go a little bit too far. They did not just build playgrounds, they had supervisors telling the children how to play in the most beneficial way. They felt that dance halls and amusement parks were a threat to young people and tried to crack down on them too hard. They had a hard time recognizing that people need to have some fun and freedom. And if you create too many rules and too much structure, people will turn on you and rebel. In the end, you can change the world around people, but it’s hard to change human nature (as the communists also found).
McGerr’s look at this time period suffers from his painting with too broad a brush. All rich are “individualists,” because they lived for themselves and did their own things. The poor are “mutualists” because they are dependent on each other. Farmers are a mix of individualist and mutualist. The middle-class, meanwhile, believed in doing things by “association.” But these strictures don’t always make sense—the rich may have seemed to have been living individual lives, certainly living for themselves, but they were just as insular and interdependent on each other as any ethnic-specific corner of a city, with their own specific rules. And the different poor immigrant groups were just as disdainful of each other as the very rich were of them. McGerr also doesn’t touch on the differences in the regions of the country. Surely the lives of the Asians in San Francisco were different than the Eastern European factory workers in Chicago.
There’s a lack of variety in this book that makes it too general. McGerr relies solely on the memoirs of one Lower East Side Jewish girl for his look at the immigrant lower classes, and one farm family for his look at agrarian life. He doesn’t include any primary source accounts of the wealthy and I found that troubling—why not hear their perspective? When it comes to the reformers, most of the material seems to come from Jane Addams, but a lot has already been said about Jane Addams. I’m not saying she isn’t a worthy source, but it would be interesting to hear from another voice in the movement—one of the foot soldiers rather than the leader.
Looking at the index, it’s notable that the last mention of the Lower East Side factory girl is on page 135, and the book is about 319 pages. What happens is that midway through all the specific discussion about progressive action disappears and the book wanders off into a long recitation of technology and modernity in the 20th century. We hear about movies, phonographs, automobiles, airplanes, and sports. There is modern art and modern literature, fracturing a previously standard sense of time and place. Psychology and analysis make an appearance.
All of these things are important and they did have an effect on people’s values and behavior but the problem is that it reminded me of nothing more than a world history social studies text book I worked on (yes, world history for high school students—from sticks and stones to the World Trade Center attacks, all in one school year). Somewhere between the American Civil War and World War I we had a chapter that (blew through all these devices and innovations in a breathless paragraph to paragraph style (“then there was the telephone…then there was the automobile…then there was the wireless…then there was Stein, Proust, Joyce, and Picasso and Matisse…”). This book’s account of these subjects is very much the same and while I thought it actually was a very good textbook, considering the school year restraints, and was proud of our work on it, I don’t think a book dealing with a specific subject such as the progressive movement should devolve into this kind of survey course.
That is fitting in a way, though, because there was something overall about this book that made me feel like I was reading an expanded dissertation. There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but in a book I expect something more. I thought there were some good ideas in here. The information was fine. It probably is a decent introduction to someone who isn’t familiar with the period (well, maybe). I just thought it lacked depth and wanted something more. Indeed, I would say I was left discontent.
I have always had trouble sleeping. Even when I was like four or five years old I remember lying in bed at night, watching the lights of the cars passing by outside, watching the colors of the sky change, listening to the birds telling me that morning was almost here. So during those long nights I had many ways of occupying my time. One was planning an escape route in case of fire. I had this plan for how I could get around my room as fast as possible, collect all my stuffed animals quickly to get them out the window, and then of course, my own exit out the window that would allow me to drop onto grass, not walkway (notice that my plan included saving my stuffed animals, not alerting any other family members—look, I was the youngest. I think I thought everyone else should know how to take care of themselves). I thought about how I would jump and how best to land. I knew I wouldn’t be scared to jump, because, after all, I was planning on being a trapeze artist. And to be honest, it wasn’t that high from our windows to the ground, only about fourteen feet (I know because of course I asked Dad—he had built the place and could reel off all the specs along with a reason for each aspect of design). I knew I could make it with a few bruises and potential breaks (note to self: should have aimed to land on stuffed animals).
When it’s the middle of the night, and you can’t sleep, you think about things that you fear, and I feared being trapped in a fire. So do most people, I would think. And so that’s why, even though I’m usually very interested in reading and learning about early 20th century history, I had avoided reading David Von Drehle’s Triangle: The Fire That Changed America. I admit that I just didn’t want to read a blow-by-blow account of a fire (and oh, I know that there’s a book about the Connecticut circus fire that I’ll never read; my first grade teacher terrified me enough with that story). This book, however, is very worthwhile, and the description of the fire, while graphic, is manageable. I guess. If there’s anyway to manage such a thing.
Von Drehle’s goal is to put the fire in the context of the labor struggles of the time period. The first part deals mainly with a major strike of garment workers that took place about two years before the fire. The strike garnered quite a bit of notice, not just because of the unfamiliar sight of thousands of women marching and picketing (and in some cases, being scandalously handled by police and hauled off to jail), but because of the attention it got from a group of young, educated, politically active, and wealthy young women. Daughters of the Gilded Age, led by Anne Morgan of the House of Morgan, graduates of schools like Smith (!), Vassar, and Barnard, they stepped onto the picket lines. Now police had to think twice about pushing down a striker—the girl on the ground might be one an heiress. They raised money and brought in speakers, and gave their own impassioned speeches.
At first, the upper-class support helped. It gave the strikers a veneer of respectability and brought positive attention to their fight for less hours, better pay, and unionization. But as the strike dragged on, problems grew—some women workers resented the wealthy young women, feeling they were grabbing all the attention and headlines and their cause was getting lost in the shuffle. Striking workers who were brought to tell their heartbreaking tales of woe at fundraisers attended by heiresses dressed in silk and furs were scorned by some as circus animals on parade. Worst of all, where there was a strike, the socialists soon followed. When leaders of the socialist movement began to show up at events supporting the strike, giving speeches advocating the overthrow of the system, the upper-class women suddenly felt uncomfortable, if not angry. They had signed up to help poor, sympathetic mistreated young factory girls; they didn’t want to be connected with what they perceived as anarchists.
The strike eventually ended, not because of the work of the wealthy young ladies, or the fiery speeches of the anarchists; the busy season for the shirtwaist factories (shirtwaist, by the way, being essentially a blouse—think Gibson Girl and you’ll know what I mean) was coming and the factory owners realized it made sense to resolve it. The strikers, meanwhile, were running low on money and support. They took a package that they had previously turned down and came back to work. They got more money and less hours, but didn’t get a closed-union shop. They also did not ask for, and therefore did not receive additional safety measures.
A little more than a year later, on Saturday, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. It was most likely started by a carelessly tossed cigarette or match, and in an atmosphere filled with bins of light, thin fabric, it went from a small flame to a blazing inferno in minutes; survivors, when later recounting their ordeal, often estimated their escape as taking about twenty minutes, when most of the action took place in less than ten.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory took up several floors of the Asch Building, located in the West Village, in an area mostly taken up now by NYU buildings. The fire began on the 8th floor. A receptionist got word to management on the 10th floor, but there was no way to notify the 9th floor workers until they heard the panic, and saw the flames and smoke.
The fire broke out at about 4:45, the end of the workday. All the doors in the factory were locked at the end of the day, except for one exit. As each girl passed through that door, she had to open her purse and empty her pockets to show she hadn’t stolen anything. As the fire spread on the eight floor, a supervisor with a key managed to push through the crowd of girls rushing at a locked door, unlocked it, and those workers made their way out. Some girls went out on a fire escape, but it was rickety and poorly constructed. They forced their way into the windows of a lower floor of the building. Someone heard them pounding on the locked door there, opened it, and got them out. On the tenth floor, workers, along with the factory owners and the visiting young daughters of one owner, made their way to the roof. NYU law students attending a lecture in an adjacent building heard the panic and saw the people grouped on the roof of the burning building. The roof of their building was about thirteen feet higher than the Asch Building, but they got ladders and rescued people that way.
The elevator operators made several trips to the top floors of the factory, carrying down cars packed with double the normal occupancy. Some girls threw themselves into the shafts and onto the descending cars. Some slid down the elevator cables.
Those that survived, as Von Drehle put it, were those who happened to be in the right place at the right time—near a door that was unlocked, away from a wall of flame, unencumbered by the need to look for family members. Survivors were also those who made quick decisions—to run to the roof without hesitation, to go to a door, who decided to jump onto the elevator.
In all, about 146 survived—it’s still hard to get a final number, because no one knew exactly how many people were working that day, and there is no surety that all bodies were recovered. Some died in the building. Others, as is well-known, jumped to their deaths, choosing to be crushed rather than burn.
The aftermath of the fire is important, according to Von Drehle, not just because of what it meant in terms of factory safety reforms, but what it meant to the entire progressive movement. In the wake of the fire, a woman named Frances Perkins went to Albany as a lobbyist on behalf of the Consumer League. She was named to a Committee on Safety, and with the aid of two young politicians named Al Smith and Robert Wagner, began to agitate for factory reform. Smith and Wagner were in office via the support of Tammany Hall. The Tammany Boss, Charles Murphy was all for making it look like he supported factory workers and factory reform, in order to win the votes of the many workers in downtown New York. But he also depended on the financial support of many factory owners, so he instructed his legislators to appear to agree with bills on factory reform, but in the end to vote against it. Yet Perkins, along with Smith and Wagner, persuaded other Tammany men to support safety reforms and a reduction in hours. Later Murphy would tell Perkins that he had opposed the 54 hour work week bill that she had lobbied for successfully, but that he recognized that “the bill made us many votes.” And with that, Tammany Hall, the epitome of corruption, began to support a progressive agenda. The careers of progressives such as Smith and Wagner were built on the ashes of the fire.
The DA, in the end, decided to charge the factory owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, for the death of one particular worker as a result of a specific door being locked (charging the men with one death this way seemed a safer bet than trying to prove the deaths of many, and in the end, the penalty wouldn’t be much different). It was illegal for the doors of a factory to be locked, and the DA seemed to have a good case—testimony of survivors about the door being locked every day, on that day in particular, and the lock itself, recovered from the building. But the judge’s instructions left the jurors in a difficult position. They had to decide whether the owners knew, on that day, that that particular door was locked at that moment, and in the end, they couldn’t find that the evidence had proved that. The owners were acquitted.
Von Drehle does a good job drawing a portrait of not just the fire, but of the time—the lives of the workers and how and why they ended up there, the lives of those in the tenements, and the labor circumstances of the time. It’s a fast-paced, page-turner type book. The fire isn’t exactly a fun topic, but it’s a dramatic one. I recommend this particularly for anyone who’s interested in early 20th century history or labor history.
I still have trouble sleeping, and in the middle of the night, when I have run out of other things to think about, I still find myself lying there, planning ways to escape if a fire broke out in my building. But it’s much harder to find those now so instead I just hope.
Here's the latest , and it is actually short. Seriously. The topic wasn't my idea, but was suggested to me, so I just ran with it as best as I could.
Never fear, though--I have not mended my ways. I'm working on something realllly long...
(This is dreadfully written. And long. If you can make it to the end of this, you deserve candy.)
On September 30, 1938, Neville Chamberlain’s plane landed at an airport that, despite heavy rain, was packed with ecstatic citizens, there to greet him as a conquering hero. In Munich, he had come to terms with Hitler over the Sudetenland crisis; Germany effectively gained control of Czechoslovakia, but France and Britain believed that this would keep them out of war.
Most of Britain believed this, too, and Chamberlain’s homecoming speech about having won, “peace with honor…peace in our time” sealed the triumph. In the following days Chamberlain souvenirs were everywhere: Chamberlain dolls, candy in the shape of the umbrella he always carried, framed photos. The prime minister received congratulatory telegrams and businesses took out ads in newspapers, offering their thanks. Everyone, it seemed, was thrilled by Chamberlain.
Almost everyone, that is—a small group of members of parliament were horrified by Chamberlain’s appeasement policy. Fellow Tories, they were supposed to be on the prime minister's side; by breaking with him, they were seen as traitors to their party and their government. And within the small world of British politics, where everyone had gone to the same small group of schools, regularly attended the same parties, belonged to the same clubs, and married within the same circle, they were traitors to their class.
These “Tory Rebels” are the subject of Lynne Olson’s excellent book, Troublesome Young Men. Frustrated by Chamberlain’s inaction, and fearing for the fate of Britain, in fact all of Europe, they defied their leadership and worked behind the scenes to bring about a vote on Chamberlain’s government that led to his resignation and the rise of Winston Churchill.
The Tory rebels (Olson calls them this, so I guess I better, too) were at the beginning of their careers. They were in office courtesy of the party machine and were obliged to its will. The whips ruled with an iron fist and anyone who stepped out of line was punished by the loss first of a position on a committee or some other little prestige. They were ostracized, cut off and ignored, not spoken to; that was how they had punished each other in school, and the treatment was still effective. Most couldn’t take the psychological abuse and stepped back into line. And anyone who tried to act in secret was doomed to fail—the whips spied on suspect MPs, and tapped their phones. Anyone who still didn’t get the message could be replaced and the campaigns run by the party to elect a more tractable replacement were scathing and effective.
Katherine Atholl, one of the few women in Parliament, began to speak out against Chamberlain and his appeasement policies. She had read the German version of Mein Kampf and was shocked by how bluntly Hitler laid out his plans (as in, “going to take over the world, also exterminate one segment of the population”). The English-language version omitted many of the more inflammatory passages, leaving, Atholl felt, most of England still unaware of the looming danger. A fact-finding mission to Spain left her equally appalled at Britain’s neglect of the Republican fight against fascism. When she came back she spoke out against Chamberlain’s lack of support. Angered by her outspokenness, the party put up another candidate to run against Atholl. She decided to run as an independent.
Atholl was an easy target during the campaign—her support for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, aligned her in the eyes of some with the communists. Mysterious telegrams were sent to her from “Stalin,” offering “greetings from Moscow.” Tenants whose landlords supported Atholl’s opponent were suddenly offered rent reductions, accompanied by suggestions to vote against her. She was denounced as a warmonger who would send their sons to war.
The Tory rebels may have agreed with Atholl, but even they feared being associated with her and being equally smeared. No one campaigned for her. She was handily defeated.
I go on about this just to give an example of how the ruling party in Parliament worked. One American observer compared it to Tammany Hall and thought the British operation was easily more ruthless and adept at keeping the troops in line.
Olson has a fascinating cast of characters to work with, and of course their case is helped by the fact that they were of a class and a time when documenting your life was not uncommon; they were all diligent letter writers and memoirists, and when they didn’t record an incident themselves, a friend in their circle (such as the redoubtable, always involved, knows everyone and what they’re doing, Violet Bonham Carter; one of Olson’s rebels, Leo Amery, glumly observed that if he had her gifts of oratory, he would have been Prime Minister long ago).
The rebel group included Harold Nicolson, who abandoned a diplomatic path to write a society column, the better to support the career of his wife, the always controversial Vita Sackville-West, before becoming a member of Parliament; Duff Cooper, who along with his wife, the beautiful Lady Diana, formed one of London’s most glamorous couples; Eden, handsome and admired by the public, but in the end, timid and hesitant; Bobbety Cranborne (if your adult friends and colleagues are the same people you knew when you were five years old, you’re going to be called by the same nickname they gave you when you were five), a member of the legendary Cecil family, whose father Lord Salisbury, gave Churchill support at a key moment.
Macmillan, the head of the publishing company and future prime minister was shy and diffident, but a true believer in the cause. His role as a leader, though, was complicated by Robert Boothby, another young party force. Boothby had been Macmillan’s friend, but then fell in love with his wife. Dorothy Macmillan and Boothby conducted an affair that lasted for the rest of their lives, much to Macmillan’s humiliation. Divorce wasn’t considered a viable option for people in their position; Dorothy remained a dutiful and helpful political wife, but Macmillan was inwardly miserable, and working with Boothby, even on an issue that they both passionately believed in, was horribly uncomfortable.
Ronald Cartland, the youngest of the group, is presented by Olson as the romantic hero of the group (yes, his sister Barbara was the novelist famous for dreadful romances and big pink hats, but in those days she was a Bright Young Thing who partied with the Smart Set). Cartland was a passionate fighter for justice, who was horrified by the rise of fascism, and disgusted by Chamberlain’s appeasement and weakness. Always willing to speak out, his career was constantly at risk, but he didn’t seem to care. Still, his fearlessness and brilliance made him one of the rising stars of the party. When volunteer units began to form and prepare for war, he joined up without hesitation, taking leave at key moments to come back and vote (and if you’re wondering why, if he was so wonderful, you’ve never heard of him, well, take your own guess).
Then of course there was Churchill. Now his role in World War II is so celebrated, that it’s hard to believe there was a time when he was considered persona non grata by the political leaders of Britain. Churchill had garnered contempt for switching parties several times and took the unpopular stance of advocating vehemently against home rule for India. He was thought of as a bit of a gadfly—unreliable, romantic, and a drinker. But he was one of the few well-known, established figures in Parliament who was absolutely anti-appeasement. His willingness to speak out precisely and forcefully gave the group some heft, but matters became complicated when Chamberlain made him lord of the admiralty; at that point, Churchill felt it was not his place to be publicly against the government, and he laid back while the others did the work to turn the tide against Chamberlain. When he did become Prime Minister, Churchill also didn’t do the group any favors by appointing them to influential positions. He kept many members of Chamberlain’s circle around, feeling that that was the best way to restore party unity. He gave Boothby only a tiny post at the Ministry of Food, apparently resentful at the way his former secretary had written to him when trying to push Churchill into action against Chamberlain. Macmillan was banished to Algiers, seemingly an inconsequential post, but he made a good impression there, particularly with the US army leaders, and came back much more polished, outspoken and forceful. Churchill comes off as a complicated man, and one who justifiably earned his reputation at the time. He was not politically reliable; he chose the wrong moments to step back; he didn’t always choose to side with the right people (he backed Chamberlain out of gratitude when Chamberlain would have tossed him to the side as soon as possible). But when he believed in something, and was clear about it, no one could make a better case, and no one could lead better. In World War II, he found himself the right man in the right place at the right time, and saved a reputation that would otherwise have been deservedly forgotten.
Well, I won’t tell you the story of how the group finally overthrew Chamberlain because Olson does it so much better and you really should read the book (if anyone has stuck around this long; I am a miserable rambler). She writes with a great deal of energy and clarity. I don’t know, unfortunately, how to define “writing with energy,” which is shameful and lazy on my part, but it’s just something you sense. I guess maybe the best way to put it is that I whipped through this book in record time. It’s well-structured, and all the information is integrated easily, and, as previously noted, the main players are bright lights.
As I have said many times before, I am not a student of World War II (I always fancy myself a WW I kind of girl), and while I love many things about the 1930s, goings on in the British Parliament has not been one of my subjects, which means most of this was new to me. I had known that there was some support in the British upper-class for Hitler and the Nazi regime, but I had no idea how deep and how widespread it was. I understand that no one wanted to get involved in a war, but there were members of the upper-class who were practically cheerleading for Germany. And I understand that the entire country didn’t want another war, but it’s amazing how people turned a blind eye to the menace rising around them. It’s not like Hitler was subtle—he was practically jumping up and down shouting, “I am bad! I am planning bad things! I have contempt for you and your people! I am going to take over the world and crush anyone who gets in my way!” Yet there were so many who thought they could work with him. It’s amazing what people don’t see when they don’t want to see something.