Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, by Robert Caro

Summary: the extraordinary first volume of Caro’s planned five volume biography of LBJ

The Path to Power is volume one of Robert Caro’s celebrated, multi-volume biography of

Lyndon Johnson – four volumes have already been published with a fifth planned. This one covers Johnson’s career from birth to the outbreak of the Second World War, including his election to Congress and his first, failed, Senate run.

Nevertheless in spite of its mammoth size this is not a book that I would ever describe as “sprawling”. For all its numerous, fascinating, digressions – into Texas social history or politics, for example, or concise biographies of Sam Johnson, Lyndon’s father, or Sam Rayburn, the powerful Speaker of the US House of Representatives and sometime patron of Lyndon – Caro never once loses sight of the central purpose of his work, which is to try to explain Lyndon Johnson. Hence any digressions that he makes are provided to establish a context from which better understanding can be derived.

Johnson was not a very nice man. But he was a fascinating one with an extraordinary impulse for power, an awesome appetite for hard work, and a fundamental grasp of political campaigning, both for himself and, as described in this book, as a leader of Democratic national election campaigning. (It’s a pity that some of the clowns leading Labour’s disastrous December 2019 election campaign did not spend some time studying this book to learn some of the basics of winning elections.)

In the course of his career he did much good and some extraordinary evil. But he never for a moment seems to have been motivated by anything other than a desire for self promotion. Despite coming from a Texas Liberal tradition – both his father and Rayburn were unequivocal men of the Left, Johnson was not by any means wedded to these ideals. Over the course of his career he shifted from Left to Right and back again depending on the prevailing political winds and which alliances he felt would most probably advance his self interest.

Such calculation was not restricted to his professional life. His marriage to Lady Bird seemed to have been wholly functional, its purpose to obtain for him a rich wife whose family might help bankroll his political campaigns. All of his relationships, with one exception, seem to have been developed with the sole consideration of how they would advance his political career.

The sole exception was his affair with Alice Glass, the wife of one of his most important political backers. Johnson simply could not resist Alice in spite of the damage that it would have caused him had Alice’s husband discovered the true nature of their relationship. Lady Bird had, of course, to live with the humiliating knowledge of the affair, conducted with no concern whatsoever for her feelings.

Alice, in fact, seems to have been the only woman Johnson ever loved. So there is a sort of Karmic justice that towards the end of her life Alice had wanted to destroy all her correspondence with Johnson. She was afraid that her children would discover not that she had an affair, but that she had one with the man most responsible for the US’s murderous involvement in Vietnam.

The Path to Power is a gripping book, elegantly written and displaying an extraordinary depth of research. It is a matter of unspeakable pleasure to know that I have at least three more volumes of this work to read.

The Greek Myths, by Robert Graves

Summary: myth as a prophesy of war

In the Greek Myths, Robert Graves provides a sprawling and comprehensive survey of these stories from creation to the return of Odysseus to Ithaca. The approach is mostly “chronological” though some portions, such as Agamemnon’s return and the vengeance of Orestes, are placed in the narrative before temporally subsequent ones, such as the sack of Troy.

Many of these stories are now perhaps best known from classical literature such as Homer, Virgil, Aeschylus or Sophocles. But here Graves tries to be true to their oral origins, acknowledging that there are a variety of versions of the stories, including differences in some of the reported names of the characters and indeed in some of the stories’ conclusions: Some say that Theseus felt bad about abandoning Ariadne, for example; or some say that Iphigenia was rescued by the goddess Artemis, not trussed up and slaughtered like a goat by her own father.

These stories have been cleaned up over the years, often for children, by the likes of Charles Kingsley or Roger Lancelyn Green. But here the “heroes” are as they were – an array of bloody men, and a few bloody women, from an era when the only balm from trauma was the facade of martial glory.

Hence it is difficult to see the story of Theseus as anything other than the story of an idealistic young man descending into increased horror and cruelty as a result of a career of killing that he enters in the hope of fame and glory. Heracles comes across as little more than a psychopath: extraordinary that someone should decide to make a Disney cartoon out of that one. Odysseus is clever and brave, but also venial, untrustworthy and brutal, breaking his word to those Trojans to whom he promised protection, and personally murdering Hector’s infant son, amongst other vile and treacherous deeds in his career of war and wandering,

Perhaps this volume makes better sense as a work of reference than an a work of narrative. But, taken in total, these stories give a shockingly stark portrayal of the effects of violence and warfare on both the victims and the perpetrators. Perhaps this was part of their appeal to Graves, himself a veteran of the carnage of the First World War.

Neither the Trojan War nor the wars of the Twentieth Century seem to have done much to dispel the attraction to war for a certain class of human. So in telling these stories, as well as his own war experiences elsewhere, Graves may have realised that he was also heir to Cassandra, the princess of Troy, gifted with the power of perfect prophesy and cursed with the knowledge that even her most desperate warnings would never to be heeded no matter how menacing the approaching “smell of blood”.

To Kill the Truth, by Sam Bourne

Summary: a twisty Washington thriller for our troubled times

Maggie Costello, Sam Bourne’s recurrent trouble-shooting hero, is taking some time out as a student following the events of her previous outing in To Kill The President. But she is called back into political service by a friend – the new governor of Virginia, concerned now about the murder of a Civil War historian coinciding with a trial initiated by a charlatan intent on denying that slavery ever actually existed in the United States.

It quickly transpires that these events are just the tip of a conspiratorial iceberg as a shadowy Right-Wing organisation begins attacking the great libraries of the world, intent on destroying the pesky facts that tend to undermine their Brexit-level crazy views of the world.

Bourne, otherwise known as the Guardian’s former Washington correspondent Jonathan Freedland, is highly adept at crafting a satisfying, twisty thriller. But To Kill the Truth is more than that. It is an engaging meditation on the uses and abuses of history, the tension in conflicted societies between justice and peace, and how facts no longer “mark out the public square for honest debate” but are themselves the subject of partisan dispute. These are timely topics given how buffoons like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump wear their contempt for the truth as a badge of pride.

With Maggie Costello, Bourne has created an engaging hero for these troubled times – not just a woman of action, but a woman of principle too and an intellectual who thinks her way through problems when others are in thrall to emotion. She’s a reminder of what the world could be, if passions were more often tamed by reason, and humanity prized more than prejudice.

The History of Money, by Jack Weatherford

The History of Money covers similiar territory to David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years. But it is a much less sprawling volume and hence, perhaps, a better introduction to this most vital and elusive of things.

Weatherford focuses in particular on four paradigm shifts in the history of money: From the development of coinage in Lydia around 600 BCE to the establishment of banking in the Middle Ages, to the development of paper money, notably in the American revolution, to the evolution of money into what it principally is today – electronic information.

If this sounds dull it is not. The History of Money is essentially the story of the development of human society and a roll call of some of the blackest episodes arising from our perverse relationship with money.

Weatherford argues convincingly that it was the shift to coinages of precious metal away from local credit systems or commodity money, such as cattle or slave girls, that allowed international trade to develop. From this societies evolved from “honour” or ritual based societies such as Homeric Greece, into market-oriented ones.

Furthermore in assigning coinage values to everything from a goat to a sexual act with a goat, the development of coinage forced humans to develop our capacities for abstract thought. The international trade enabled by coinage prompted the adoption of a common lingua Franca – Greek – across the Mediterranean basin. This in turn allowed for the exchange of new ideas – from those of Socrates to those of Jesus – that the evolution of abstract thought facilitated.

But, as well as identifying how money catalysed these positive evolutions of human society, Weatherford also charts how the love of money is a particularly tenacious root of human evil. He argues that it was a financial crisis in the Roman state in the Third Century, rather than any profound intolerance of beliefs, that prompted first Diocletian’s bloody persecution of the Christians, and then Constantine’s persecution of the pagans: Declaring whole sections of society treasonous allowed the emperors to expropriate their property and replenish the coffers that had grown bare once the Romans had run out of foreign peoples to plunder.

It was avariciousness also that led to the brutal suppression of the Knights Templar: Their often vicious international crusading operations had led to the development of Europe’s first international banking system and an amassing of vast quantities of cash. King Philip of France decided that this money would be better in his hands than that of the Templars. Hence to justify his looting of their loot he concocted a spectacularly lurid set of allegations against them, from Satanism to necrophilia, that continue to fascinate and inspire salacious conspiracy theorists to this day.

Love of silver and gold inspired the Conquistadors to visit genocide and slavery upon the entire indigenous population of South America, and England’s murderous and shameful pillaging of South Asia. It inspires still the global “bad boys” who to this day plunder the planet and devastate the lives of ordinary people to further enhance their personal wealth.

The evolution of paper money brought with it new problems, or perhaps simply old problems in new guises: The debasement of the coinage that Roman emperors undertook in the Third Century, has been replicated in more recent times in the recurrent practice of financially incompetent rulers simply printing more money to pay their bills. From that spiralling inflation results, which disproportionately impoverishes the poor. The continued growth of electronic money is likely to bring new challenges.

In the end of the day money is trust. And, as always, when trust is broken or abused it can wreak devastation.

Jerusalem, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Summary: an elegant and compelling account of the long bloody history of perhaps the most contentious and contended city in the world

Jerusalem is where Solomon built the Jewish Temple, where Jesus was crucified for teaching that people should love one another, and where Mohammed ended his mystical Night Journey. Hence it is a place that is sacred to three of the world’s great religions. And it is a place where all three of these religions have consistently and horrifically disgraced themselves for the much of the city’s history.

The Crusaders, for example, deciding to misinterpret Jesus’ teachings as meaning that you only have to love other Christians, claimed to have waded through blood up to the bridles of their horses from the massacre they instituted when they first took the city.

To be fair, they were following a long sanguinary tradition. When the future Roman emperor Titus took the city from Jewish rebels in 70 AD he butchered not just the rebels but the civilian population that the rebels had oppressed, and tortured other survivors to death for the entertainment of his troops and the citizens of Rome.

After the Romans and the Franks the Ottoman Empire also conquered the city before losing it to the British in the First World War. The French, Russians and Americans also intrigued over the place, before it was ceded to Jordan and then captured by the Israelis in 1967. Of course that has not settled anything: any peace settlement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict must include some way to share the city between these two peoples with equally legitimate claims on it.

Many of the stories recounted in this book – of David and Solomon, of the Maccabees, of Jesus, of Titus and Josephus, of the Crusades and the great Kurdish leader Saladin, of Lawrence of Arabia, of Rabin and Dayan – will be familiar to the general reader. But by placing them in chronological order and in their international context Sebag Montefiore shows how the city has been at the centre of so many world changing political convulsions over the centuries, right up to the present day.

In Luke’s gospel there is the story of how the Devil led Jesus to a high place and “in an instant showed him all the kingdoms of the world.” In this history of Jerusalem Simon Sebag Montefiore manages a trick similar to the Devil’s: illuminating the history of the world from the perspective of the Temple Mount.

The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman

Summary: exquisitely written and utterly gripping account of the first weeks of the First World War

My friend Caitlin, a state-level chess champion in her US high school days, once gave me the best tip ever for playing the game: “Remember,” she said, “it’s not just about what you are planning to do, but what your opponent is planning to do as well.”

As with so many things about chess, Caitlin’s tip is important more generally in life. And Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August shows how it is, perhaps, most vital of all in war.

In the decades before the outbreak of the First World War many brilliant generals across Europe developed many different plans that would grant them decisive victory. Unfortunately these plans tended to rely on opponents behaving in a way that would conform most helpfully with planners’ ambitions.

For example, the German High Command did not anticipate that King Albert of Belgium would actively resist Germany’s brutal invasion of his country. Nor did they expect Tsar Nicholas to uphold his treaty obligations to his Western Allies by mobilising Russian forces. And, as the fighting of the first weeks of the war unfolded, they did not expect the garrison of Paris to sally from the city to attack their flanks and initiate battle on the Marne.

As these things happened, quite contrary to the expectations of the shinny Schlieffen plan that had for so long promised swift victory to Germany over France, the Western offensive of the Germans crumpled into the muddy, bloody stalemate of the trenches.

Much of the focus of The Guns of August is on the machinations of the various high commands as their hopes collide with the realities of European politics on the battlefield. But Tuchman also gives human faces to the warlords who led their countries.

The book has its heroes, notably King Albert who, of all his royal contemporaries, was the only one, Tuchman notes, who achieved personal greatness. Of the other generals it is perhaps Sir John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, who comes out of Tuchman’s account worst, as a remarkably hesitant and ineffectual commander.

When they finally met in London in 1922 Michael Collins found French, who he had once tried to kill, a charming and engaging man. It is a sobering thought that it may well be humans’ finest qualities that render them of least utility in war. In other words, as Chaucer realised, the myth of the “perfect, gentle knight” is just that: a myth.

The Guns of August quickly established itself as a modern classic shortly after its publication in 1962. It is a deserved reputation. The book is an elegantly written, gripping, and enormously erudite account of the first weeks of the First World War, ending abruptly, in an echo of Thucydides, on the eve of the critical Battle of the Marne.

Perhaps it is also a book that helped to save the world. Jack Kennedy read it shortly after its publication and, himself a veteran of confused battles and command bungling, was impressed by a key theme of the book – the miscalculations and errors that led to war and battlefield disaster. So, a few months later, during the desperate days of the Cuban Missiles Crisis, Kennedy made very sure to constantly wonder about what his opponents – in Washington, Moscow and Havana – were planning to do.

Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe

Summary: a devastatingly powerful account of the impact of murder on its victims and perpetrators. One of the finest books ever about the Troubles in the North of Ireland.

In 1972 the IRA kidnapped Jean McConville, a widowed mother of ten. She was never seen alive by her family again. In 2013, following storms, her remains were discovered where they had been buried on Shelling Hill beach in County Louth. She had been killed by a single gunshot to the head.

Jean McConville’s murder by the IRA, on the trumped up excuse that she was informing to the British, was hardly out of the ordinary. Others were also disappeared. Hundreds of innocent non-combatants were killed by the IRA, sometimes by accident, sometimes deliberately. Hundreds more were killed by British Crown Forces and Loyalist paramilitaries. But the IRA’s decision to adopt the tactics of a South American dictatorship and disappear Jean, telling her children that she had abandoned them and that she was a tout, has made Jean’s tragedy one of the most notorious incidents of the Troubles.

It is saying something about the richness and quality of this book that Radden Keefe’s final uncovering of the truth of Jean’s last hours and the name of the person who fired the fatal shot is not necessarily the book’s most important aspect.

Say Nothing draws in part on the “Belfast Project” of Boston College – an attempt at an oral history project on the Troubles so botched that it was easily portrayed, with some justice, as an effort by critics of Gerry Adams to give other critics an opportunity to give vent to their spleen towards him for his imagined betrayal of them by his involvement in the Peace Process. When it was finally subpoenaed by the police it provided them with a rich source of intelligence on historical crimes.

Carefully triangulating the Belfast Project material with his own research and interviews, Radden Keefe focuses on the lives of three of those involved in Jean’s death – IRA members Brendan Hughes, Dolours Price and Gerry Adams – and on the dreadful consequences of the killing on Jean’s children. The result is a devastatingly powerful account of the impact of the squalid, intimate war known on the Troubles on the lives of both its combatants and victims.

Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes were in many ways hugely impressive people: idealistic, extraordinarily brave and self-sacrificing – both endured time on hunger strike, Dolours being tortured through force feeding over a protracted period. But this book details how even these most admirable of human virtues can be twisted in war to enable savagely evil acts.

Both Price and Hughes ended their lives embittered opponents of the Irish Peace Process. They believed that what they had done in war could not be justified by the peace deal that their former commanding officer, Gerry Adams, had signed up to. While they were wrong about the Peace Process they were both probably right that many of their actions could never be justified, not least because so much of their armed struggle was pointless.

On the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998 Seamus Mallon, Deputy Leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), described that agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners.” It’s a line that rankles the Provos to this day. Mallon was referring to a power-sharing agreement in 1974 that had similar constitutional provisions to the GFA, but which Sinn Fein and the IRA, along with the far-Right Democratic Unionist Party, had opposed. This led, in part, to the bloody continuance of war for another two decades until we ended up in more or less the same place.

Jean and some of her children

Peace has been good to Gerry Adams – the man who, as an IRA commander, according to Price and Hughes, ordered the death and disappearance of Jean. He is now something of an elder statesman, basking in the glow of the Peace Process and apparently untroubled by his bloody IRA past. Of course he always denies having been a member of the IRA, a barefaced lie that stoked the fury and deepened the embitterment of both Price and Hughes, subordinates who had only been following his orders.

Both Price and Hughes went to early graves consumed by the guilt and trauma of what they had done to Jean and others like her. Doubtless when they died they were still trying to convince themselves of the rightness of their actions. Doubtless also they tried not to think of the consequences of their actions on Jean’s children: Her lonely murder at night on the shores of the Irish Sea led to the break up of the family, the institutionalisation of several of her children, and the devastation of the lives of that next generation.

Say Nothing is a remarkable work of journalism and history. It is one of the finest books ever written on the Troubles. It is vital reading for anyone glib about the value of the Peace Process or with any romantic illusions about revolutionary war.