Very Short Reviews

Grant as the American Ulysses

Ronald C. White, American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant (New York: Random House, 2016).

Scholars have recently sought to rehabilitate Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation. This reputation had suffered from attacks both during and after Grant’s lifetime. His military genius was underestimated and seemed to pale in comparison with the imaginative Sherman and the wily Lee. At worst, the story went, he was a butcher, at best he was a practitioner of attrition, that most repulsive of strategies. There were the stories and rumors about his drinking that seemed to dog him through much of his career. Then there was the widespread corruption associated with his presidency. In the last few years, though, a number of historians have dwelled on his military and political strengths. White’s book is the culmination of these latter efforts.

The best part of White’s biography traces Grant’s pre-war path. The reader encounters some old chestnuts (Grant was an excellent rider) and some new stories (Grant was a voracious reader of novels at West Point—particularly those of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, he of “dark and stormy night” fame). What White seeks to do in this part of the book is show what Grant learned in these years and what this period did to prepare him for what was to come. It is in this part of the biography that the idea of Grant as a 19th-century American Odysseus is most patent—he traveled, witnessed a great deal, and grew as a person. For instance, during the Mexican War, as a regimental quartermaster, he learned about the significance of logistics, and having served under both Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott during the conflict, he made a close study of their leadership styles (Grant preferred Taylor). The biography has an intimate feel here that it loses once Grant becomes a historical figure through the captures of Forts Henry and Donelson during the Civil War. To name several examples where this intimacy is most evident, Grant’s relationship to his father and his courtship of Julia Dent are both interesting, not only for what they reveal about these people and the period, but also because of what they show about his character.

White’s coverage of the Civil War years is adequate but it does not always clarify Grant’s special contribution to Union victory. White seems better at describing Grant’s direction of operations (e.g. the Overland campaign and the Siege of Petersburg) than analyzing Grant’s conception of strategy (e.g. his vision of the best route to Union victory, which included, eventually, making war on the Southern nation). It is in this part of the book that T. J. Stiles’ criticism—that White “details mistakes, but not flaws”—becomes particularly apposite.

That problem continues with White’s recounting of Grant’s time as president, especially since he does always provide the necessary context for understanding politics during the late 1860s and early 1870s. Grant is portrayed as a man of good intentions—particularly in relation to Native Americans and African Americans—but White does not always explain how these intentions, particularly in the former case, manifested themselves in policy (although he is quite clear about how Democrats and centrist Republicans held Grant back on Reconstruction policy). In other cases, White is not always clear about the paradoxes of Grant’s policy, particularly in regard to the annexation of Santo Domingo or his attitude toward the gold standard and inflation. According to White, if Grant had flaws, they were tragic ones; for example, as an honorable and decent man, he had difficulty recognizing the possibility that those around him could be dishonorable and indecent (see his relations with Orville Babcock or Ferdinand Ward). Of course, many of Grant’s finest qualities were on display as he lay dying of cancer and wrote what is widely considered a great American autobiography.

A main asset of this book is its recognition that Grant was an extraordinary man who resembled an ordinary one. What White tries to convey to the reader is that Grant’s strength was not merely a matter of intelligence. It was a moral strength that was founded on his honesty, modesty, justness, and moderation (as well as an often overlooked religiosity). This power, often, but not always, allowed him to take the true measure of the world and what it ought to have been far better than many of his contemporaries. If White does not always provide the necessary background or explain all the details, he is nonetheless on the mark when it comes to understanding the subject of his biography.

Hugh Dubrulle

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.


How the Western Allies Won World War II

Phillips Payson O’Brien, How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Phillips Payson O’Brien opens How the War was Won with a provocative statement: “There were no decisive battles in World War II” (2). What he means by this assertion is that World War II was not won at so-called “decisive” battles like El Alamein, Kursk, or Midway. Rather, what really proved decisive was the attrition waged on what he terms “super-battlefields” (e.g. the Atlantic Ocean or the skies of Germany) in which each side employed primarily air and sea power to destroy enemy equipment in pre-production, production, and deployment (5). This book is not a history of World War II; it looks at one very important aspect of the war, the production and destruction of military equipment, and draws significant conclusions regarding strategy and the way the Western Allies won the war. As the subtitle suggests, massive investments in air and sea power yielded enormous dividends and played a huge role in destroying the Axis powers. As O’Brien puts it,

The struggle throughout the air-sea super-battlefield determined the outcome of every land battle in the war. In the first case it determined the vast majority of World War II munitions production. It then, limited, in some cases most severely, the types of each weapon that could be built, and just as important, the amount of built equipment that was able to reach the fighting area. Finally, when it came to the land battles, the ability to control or deny control of the air space over the fighting almost always proved decisive (6).

Before the war, although most powers had only the haziest notion of how they would use air and sea power, they instinctively understood that that they had to manufacture large numbers of aircraft and naval vessels. In the United States, this commitment to air and sea power was also driven by interservice rivalry. The machinations of Admiral Ernest King, commander-in-chief of the US fleet and chief of naval operations, proved decisive in obtaining an enormous amount of material for his branch of the service (and not only making a mockery of the so-called “Germany first” strategy but also ensuring that the US Navy would be able to mount its own drive in the central Pacific independent of the army’s offensive in the southern Pacific). By 1944, the US Navy’s air arm was slightly larger than the Luftwaffe and only smaller than the RAF and the USAAF. In any event, among all the belligerents, according to O’Brien, the proportion of productive capacity devoted particularly to air forces is staggering. For example, after surveying the statistics, he judges that in July 1944, the month that German munitions production reached its zenith, well over half of armaments and ammunition output went to the Luftwaffe and over two-thirds was devoured by the German air force and navy combined (27). If anything, the proportions for Great Britain, the United States, and Japan were even higher. Indeed, the United States devoted so much industrial might to air and sea forces that these commitments were a primary consideration in limiting the army to 100 divisions.

This investment in air and sea power, O’Brien argues, was warranted. For sure, enemy weaponry could be wrecked on the battlefield. However, aircraft and naval vessels could deny to the enemy the resources necessary to build this weaponry; wreck the facilities where this weaponry was constructed; and smash this weaponry as it traveled to the battlefield. This is exactly what the British and the Americans sought to do with increasing success as the war dragged on. Germany and Japan could have coped with their battlefield losses of tanks, artillery, and so on. To cite just one statistic (the book is full of startling figures), between July and August 1943, that is, during the Battle of Kursk, widely considered an especially destructive battle, the Germans lost 1,331 armored fighting vehicles on the entire Eastern Front; such a figure only represented about 11% of such vehicles produced by Germany that year. Far more serious were the losses of weaponry (particularly aircraft) and fighting strength lost off the traditional battlefield

O’Brien focuses on three strategic initiatives: the Battle of the Atlantic, the Anglo-American Combined Bombing Offensive (CBO) against Germany, and the US Navy’s drive against the Mariana archipelago. Each required an enormous amount of equipment, and each, he argues, proved decisive. As O’Brien puts it, “any discussion of the air-sea victory of the United States and the United Kingdom must start with control of the movement of supplies and raw materials across the Atlantic Ocean” (232). The stakes were high for both sides. While the Arsenal of Democracy was not vulnerable to German bombing (unlike German industry which was susceptible to Allied air attack), its products were exposed to German assault as they passed across the Atlantic to Britain. If the Germans could have prevented enough supplies from crossing the ocean, they could have prevented the build up of Anglo-American force in Britain, turned on the Soviets (whose productive power was inferior), and won the war in Europe. As O’Brien argues (and this type of argument appears throughout the book), even if the Germans had no hope of winning the Battle of the Atlantic, their substantial investment in U-boats made a great deal of sense. First, it allowed them to destroy an enormous amount of American equipment before it ever reached Europe. O’Brien calculates that by sinking over 20% of the bauxite (the ore used to make aluminum) that the United States attempted to ship to Britain in 1942, the Germany navy destroyed more Allied aircraft in pre-production than the Luftwaffe shot down in combat between 1942 and 1943. At the same time, U-boats also destroyed more American army equipment in transit than the Germany army did on the battlefield in 1942. Second, the U-boat offensive compelled the British and the Americans to spend billions of dollars on merchants and escort vessels—money could have been devoted to something else. Third, it led to the diversion of Allied strategic air power (in 1943, half of the bombs dropped by American strategic forces and one-fifth of those dropped by the British were placed on German submarine targets). In this battle of material and technology, however, the Allies had the advantage. As O’Brien argues, “Victory for the Allies was made possible by the British pushing the boundaries of modern warfare fully. It required technological superiority, for example with radar and sonar, superb operational analysis of the science of convoy speed and size, great shipbuilding resources, excellent training, and, eventually, a significant air component” (230). Allied victory on “superbattlefield” of the Atlantic “marked the end of any possibility for Germany to win the war” (230).

Many readers may not be particularly surprised by O’Brien’s narrative of the Battle of the Atlantic (although his quantification of the Allied effort certainly does put matters in perspective), but his attempt to rehabilitate the CBO will probably prove much more controversial. A number of prominent historians have characterized the Allied strategic bombing of Germany as ineffective and immoral (for an especially prominent example, see the review of Richard Overy’s Bombing War). O’Brien starts from the premise that the RAF’s strategy of laying entire German cities to waste was unproductive but that the USAAF’s targeting of key industries exerted a much greater impact (other scholars, and Overy again is a good example, do not see much of a distinction between the two air forces in practice). O’Brien concedes that the Allied strategic bombing campaign of 1943 was a failure. However, he argues that as the air forces of the Western Allies adjustrf (particularly the United States) and brought more force to bear on Germany, they eventually made an enormous contribution in 1944 and 1945 to the collapse of Nazi military power.

O’Brien argues that American bombing, which targeted aircraft manufacturing (particularly fighters), hydrogenation plans, ball-bearing production, and eventually transportation networks, had far-reaching consequences for Germany. Such bombing destroyed a number of aircraft before they ever became operational and compelled the Germans to disperse their aircraft industry, leading to greater inefficiency and lower quality manufacturing. The bombings also effected momentous changes to the allocation of resources (that is, when resources could still be allocated, for the bombing of the transportation network eventually brought the German economy to a standstill when factories could no longer obtain coal or raw materials). A large amount of German labor was shifted from manufacturing (especially in the aircraft industry) to the repair of various facilities. The Germans also had to produce enormous quantities of concrete to construct flak towers, shelters, and other structures necessitated by the bombing. The V-2 program, the most expensive weapons program the Germans developed during the war, was accelerated in response to the bombing as well. Fighter aircraft, as well as flak and anti-aircraft ammunition, became top priorities (the production of bombers virtually ceased by 1943). Finally, the Nazi regime had to redistribute existing forces (aircraft and flak) from the Eastern and the Mediterranean fronts to Germany. That meant that German ground forces increasingly had to operate without any air cover whatsoever. All of these changes availed the Germans nothing. The Luftwaffe entered a death spiral. Allied fighters escorting bombers over Germany shot down large numbers of enemy fighters. The pressure to produce new pilots (along with the decreasing supply of high-octane fuel) meant that the Luftwaffe spent less time on training than ever before. Badly prepared pilots flying poorly manufactured aircraft were not only shot down in ever larger numbers but also experienced huge non-operational losses. Meanwhile, the tactical and operational mobility of the German army was reduced (due to lack of fuel and the absence of air cover), and Germany suffered huge losses of armored fighting vehicles to Allied aircraft. O’Brien calculates that in 1943, the Germans lost a greater proportion of their military equipment in the air war over Germany than on the Eastern Front (314). Of course, in 1944, matters only grew worse for the Germans due to Allied strategic, operational, and tactical air superiority. Strategic bombing really began to undermine the German economy in the second half of the year. At the same time, the Germans lost more equipment during the Normandy campaign (at the fighting at the Falaise pocket) than they did during Operation Bagration in Russia (which was roughly concurrent), largely because Anglo-American bombers and fighters ruled the skies over France. O’Brien, then, produces much evidence to support the view that the Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign was truly the equivalent of a second front and then some.

The story is somewhat similar when O’Brien describes the US Navy’s offensive through the central Pacific toward the Mariana islands and the demise of Japanese fighting power. O’Brien rates Japanese industrial might rather highly; according to his figures, Japan produced about as much weaponry as the Soviet Union did in 1942 and 1943 (fewer tanks but many more ships). King might have lied to get the United States to devote more production to the Pacific theater, but it is clear that Japan was a very significant threat that made it very difficult for the Americans to hew to a “Germany first” strategy. Indeed, the United States eventually committed enormous amounts of air and sea power to the Pacific.  The United States did manage, however, to deal a number of heavy blows to the Japanese even before American industry hit its stride and covered the sea with ships and the sky with planes. The Battle of Midway was a great blow to the Japanese because they lost four aircraft carriers. O’Brien, argues, though, that the fight at Guadalcanal did more to undermine Japanese power because of the heavy losses inflicted on the navy’s air arm. This grinding, attritional battle led to the combat deaths of many experienced pilots who were compelled to operate from distant bases that were themselves at the end of a very long logistical tether. Non-operational deaths were also extremely high. Although the Japanese proved extremely good at replacing aircraft (and then some) up until the second half of 1944, the loss of pilots proved catastrophic. The pressure to produce pilots as well as shortages of high octane fuel (due to the success of American submarines in sinking Japanese tankers who brought oil from the Dutch East Indies) led to reduced training and poor pilot performance. American superiority in the air supported what became a huge superiority at sea. O’Brien points out that the American naval assets devoted to the capture of the Marianas (which he sees as the decisive victory of the Pacific theater) were absolutely huge. Spruance’s 5th Fleet included 7 aircraft carriers, 8 light aircraft carriers, 7 battleships, 8 cruisers, 12 light cruisers, and 67 destroyers—ships worth a total of $2,500,000,000 in 1944 dollars (the equivalent of America’s spending on ground forces for all of 1942). The 15 aircraft carriers were armed with almost a thousand planes. A total of 46 tankers supported the fleet, carrying 4,500,000 barrels of oil, 8,000,000 gallons of aviation fuel, and 275,000 barrels of diesel. On the American side, the Pacific war had become capital-intensive, and the number of troops employed was actually quite small (although casualties were very high among the soldiers or Marines who saw combat). O’Brien argues that once the Marianas were captured, “the war was over strategically” (422). China, the Philippines, and just about any other island in the Pacific became irrelevant. The Americans could use aircraft based on the Marianas to bomb Japan as well as to interdict trade between Japan and its imperial possessions. Japan entered a terminal decline as its imports were sunk and factories were destroyed.

The implications of O’Brien’s arguments for the historiography of World War II are great. First, he elevates the significance of naval and especially air power over armies. Second, as his opening line suggests, he stresses attrition on the air-sea “super-battlefield” at the expense of traditional land battles. Third, he emphasizes the contributions of Britain and the United States to Axis defeat and, by implication, downgrades the Soviet Union’s efforts. Fourth, he underscores the degree to which the Allies won because they destroyed Axis mobility at the strategic, operational, and tactical levels. O’Brien suggests that two very different types of forces waged World War II. On the one hand, armies required a great deal of manpower but proved relatively cheap to put in the field. On the other, navies and air forces proved far more capital-intensive and technologically sophisticated in relation to the amount of manpower employed. The former looked somewhat to the past while the latter pointed to the future.

Elements of O’Brien’s argument may seem familiar, but they are buttressed with batteries of statistics that are presented in such a way as to make the reader look at matters in a new light (e.g. the development and production of the V-2 “cost Germany in relative terms as much as the Manhattan Project cost the United States” [340]). Since so much rides on statistics in this book, the question becomes, of course, are these statistics correct? This reviewer is not qualified to dispute O’Brien’s numbers, but it is worth pointing out that elements of the author’s arguments do rest on calculations and speculations of different sorts that other historians expert in the field might dispute. Other scholars are sure to take issue with the absence of the Soviet Union from most of this book. While O’Brien’s purpose consists of explaining the contribution of Anglo-American air and sea power to Allied victory, the title of his work suggests that this power was preponderant in defeating the Germans. Without investigating the Soviet Union to the same extent as the Western Allies, it is hard for the reader to know for sure. Finally, the stress on material factors (i.e. the production and destruction of munitions) tends to provide a lopsided view of the war. While O’Brien’s account does analyze strategy, it does not consider the significance of operations and tactics to the outcome of the war. For example, had the Japanese concentrated their carrier forces in the first half of 1942 instead of dispersing them in a series of fruitless raids and operations, the Americans very well could have been the ones to lose all of their carriers at Midway—and that would certainly have exerted a huge influence on the course of the war.

These quibbles aside, O’Brien’s work is an important reconsideration of the war if for no other reason that it reassesses the relative contributions of the Big Three to the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Hugh Dubrulle

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Review: Robert Gildea’s Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance

Robert Gildea, Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2015).

For a work that is not a history of memory, Robert Gildea’s Fighters in the Shadows is still very much conscious of the way the French remember the Resistance movement of World War II. The introduction of this book is concerned almost exclusively with the emergence of the “central myth” of Resistance that was perpetuated by Charles de Gaulle and how it later succumbed to competing narratives. De Gaulle’s nationalist myth claimed that 1) the story of the Resistance could be traced in a straight line from the point when de Gaulle made his famous 1940 BBC radio address (where he called upon the French to continue resisting after their armies had been defeated) to the liberation of Paris and his famous march down the Champs-Élysées in 1944; 2) the vast majority of the French had supported the brave few who had taken up arms (and pens) against the German occupation; and 3) while the Anglo-Americans had provided valuable assistance, France had liberated itself and thus “restored national honour, confidence and unity” (3). While this myth persisted for some time, others grew alongside it or eventually supplanted it. The Communists, who had played an important role in the Resistance, always had their own myth that stressed their significance, the terrible suffering they had undergone during the occupation, and the kind of world that they had fought for. After de Gaulle’s death, another narrative emerged that emphasized the importance to the Resistance of foreign anti-fascists and especially foreign Jews (6). Other narratives that saw light of day in these years included those that highlighted the degree to which most Frenchmen had been “time-servers and cowards if not traitors” (5) or those that depicted Jews in France as victims rather than resisters. Most recently, one of the more influential fables has portrayed the French as a people moved by the Enlightenment, the rights of man, and humanistic values to support the small minority who rescued Jews from persecution. At the end of the introduction, Gildea clearly expresses a desire to right the balance of memory so that it more accurately reflects the past:

The dominant narrative of resistance today is a humanitarian and universal myth of the struggle for the rights of man, which allows a greater role for women and rescuers of Jews, and a lesser role for freedom fighters with Sten guns. The memories of resisters of dissident communist, foreign and Jewish origin survived as group memories but not as dominant narratives. One of the aims of this study is to bring these back into the mainstream. (19)

For these reasons, Gildea is far more interested in the politics and experience of the Resistance than he is in the Resistance’s military effectiveness or contribution to Allied victory. Fighters in the Shadows, then, speaks more to French history than the history of World War II. At the same time, the main themes of this work revolve around the diversity, divisions, and difficulties that characterized the Resistance throughout the war. What Gildea seems to indicate is that one should not be surprised by the bitterly contested leadership battles, the arguments over military strategy, the disputes over the movement’s political direction, and the overall lack of military effectiveness. Rather, what is truly astonishing is that the Resistance accomplished as much as it did, de Gaulle made an almost seamless transition to power in 1944, and France was able to contain civil discord as much as it did in the aftermath of the liberation.

Gildea is at his best in describing the experience of resisters—the motives that inspired them to join the Resistance, the institutions that served as the foundations for their organizations (“trade unions and businesses, universities and museums, churches and refugee groups”), the various forms of resistance they engaged in, the political objectives they sought to attain, and the means by which they sought to achieve these objectives. Chapter 7 (“In and Out of the Shadows”) is especially interesting in probing the ambiguity of Resistance, where there was always a “tension between appearance and reality, trust and treachery, and the absence of laws apart from those dictated by circumstance” (179). This theme meshes well with the confusion and conflict that characterized the Resistance from the beginning. Many of those who were appalled by German victory and determined to resist the occupation were perplexed about what to do. Those on the right stayed their hand for the moment because they thought (or hoped) that Petain was playing a deep game against the Germans and would eventually find a way to eject the occupiers from the country. Those on the left, especially Communists, did not wish to take up arms against a state that was an ally of the Soviet Union. Even after it became clear that Petain was incapable of using his power as a shield to protect the French people (as he had promised) and even after Germany invaded the Soviet Union (June 1941), the Resistance was plagued by divisions rooted in its miscellaneous composition. Aside from their important ideological disagreements, resisters came to the movement from diverse backgrounds (e.g. conservative army officers, leftist veterans of the Spanish Civil War—foreign and native, women seeking to stretch gender norms, and Jews, many of whom were foreign nationals). These people displayed variegated temperaments and expressed divergent aspirations. They also performed a wide variety of duties—collecting intelligence, leading protests, producing propaganda, conducting attacks, sabotaging industry, rescuing Jews, and smuggling downed Allied airmen. Gildea notes that the different circumstances in the Occupied Zone (nominally ruled by the Vichy government but run by the Germans) and the Free Zone (administered by Vichy alone until November 1942, when the Germans occupied the rest of the country) produced movements that applied themselves to contrasting tasks (in the former, the Resistance undertook “practical” jobs like collecting intelligence, while in the latter, it was more involved in propaganda). Not surprisingly, the various Resistance groups were divided over strategy, organization, and leadership. Broadly speaking, Communists aimed at sparking a national insurrection when the time was right so that they could eject the Germans from France and install a leftist regime. Many to the right of the Communists objected to this plan because they saw such a move as suicidal (the Germans were much better armed than any Resistance group) and had no wish to further the Communists’ objectives. Arguments about strategy (which were heavily influenced by politics) often intersected with those about leadership. Many Resistance groups understood the advantages of coordinating their efforts through some sort of national association. However, they were reluctant to lose their autonomy and expose themselves to extensive German infiltration. Those who led the larger movements had leadership ambitions of their own. Even resisters who had no such ambition felt trepidations about serving any overseas master, including de Gaulle. Some feared that he was a stooge of the British while others worried about what kind of plans a conservative, Catholic general might have for France’s future.

The story of the Resistance, of course, is inextricably tied to that of de Gaulle and the Free French. Gildea also covers De Gaulle’s story which is nothing short of remarkable. In June 1940, he was a mere brigadier general and former junior minister in the Reynaud Cabinet—without friends or following in Britain. In August 1944, he marched through Paris, the uncontested leader of the French nation. De Gaulle had to overcome a number of opponents and obstacles to achieve this goal. Although they recognized him as the leader of the Free French very early (in late June 1940), de Gaulle’s relationship with the British was always strained, and Churchill often wondered if the Frenchman was worth supporting. The Americans, who always seemed inclined to make a deal with Vichy authorities rather than replace them (particularly in North Africa), expressed much hostility toward de Gaulle. Meanwhile, at least in the early years, de Gaulle struggled to attract soldiers to his Free French force which was always smaller in number than Vichy’s armies (i.e. the Armistice army and the Army of Africa). Once the Allies conquered North Africa (Operation Torch, November 1942), and the Free French were merged with the Army of Africa, de Gaulle faced competition from General Henri Giraud for overall leadership of the Resistance. Finally, de Gaulle’s efforts to subordinate the Resistance to the Free French enjoyed a brief success before suffering a calamitous reverse in June 1943 when his intermediaries with the Resistance, Jean Moulin and Charles Delestraint were captured by the Germans (shortly thereafter, Moulin was either tortured to death or committed suicide after undergoing a terrible ordeal, while Delestraint was held in captivity until he was executed at Dachau in April 1945). De Gaulle’s links to the Resistance never recovered from this disaster.

The only partial reestablishment of ties between the two accounts for the behavior of the Resistance during the Normandy invasion—all groups more or less “went their own way” with only some obeying orders from the Free French (378). The results were often catastrophic as poorly trained and badly armed maquisards were shot to pieces by battle-hardened German troops. In spite of these problems, de Gaulle proved a masterful politician who outmaneuvered his opponents and manipulated the Allies. Most important of all, he fashioned a myth about his relationship to the metropolitan Resistance that had just enough of an air of verisimilitude to convince both the French and the “Anglo-Saxons” of his indispensability. It is this myth, which formed the basis of a post-war consensus in France, that Gildea seeks to counter by stressing the claims of others to pre-eminence, namely those “resisters of dissident communist, foreign and Jewish origin.”

At times, Gildea’s discussion of obscure figures (or those not widely known in the United States), particularly in Chapter 1 (“Awakenings”), can be both exhaustive and exhausting. This kind of detail, however, is obviously a product of his intense interest in the topic. Moreover, it helps convey the diversity of backgrounds and motives that characterized the Resistance throughout its short existence. In investigating both the low (the experiences of individual Resistance members) and the high (the machinations of de Gaulle along with those of his allies and competitors) as well as describing the links between the two, Gildea has done a great service. Surveys of the French Resistance written for an English-speaking audience are far and few between (the only recent work that comes to mind is Olivier Wieviorka’s The French Resistance, which originally appeared in French back in 2013 before being translated and published in the United States in 2016). Americans hoping to learn about the Resistance may find Fighters in the Shadows challenging because of its extensive cast of characters (and the lengths to which Gildea goes to represent their thoughts and experiences). However, Gildea carefully keeps the reader on track, especially in the conclusion of each chapter where he summarizes his arguments. Those who read to the end will be rewarded with a nuanced understanding of the French Resistance in both history and myth.

Hugh Dubrulle

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Review: Richard Overy’s The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945

Richard Overy, The Bombing War: Europe 1939-1945 (London: Penguin, 2013).  

Richard Overy is one of the leading historians of World War II alive today, and while he has written on a number of topics associated with that conflict, the fighting in the air is his area of special expertise. While The Bombing War is not as comprehensive as some of his other works, such as the The Air War, 1939-1945 (1980), it is one of his most powerful books. For those interested in the topic of strategic bombing during World War II, The Bombing War is indispensable. It balances the meticulous research and broad vision that only an expert of Overy’s caliber can produce.

One of Overy’s purposes in writing The Bombing War is to provide “the first full narrative history of the bombing war in Europe” (xxiv). This narrative, he argues, is more complete than previous efforts because a) it covers all of Europe, b) it integrates bombing into the “broad strategic picture” (xxiv), and c) it links the narratives of those who did the bombing with those who were bombed. Overy’s other main objective consists of “re-examining the established narratives on the bombing war” which have been shaped, especially in the British and American cases, by official histories (xxv-xxvi). (The United States The Army Air Forces in World War II, which consisted of seven volumes, was published between 1948 and 1958, while Britain’s four-volume equivalent, The Strategic Air Offensive against Germany, appeared in 1961). Overy has conducted this re-examination by studying the “private papers of individuals and institutions” as well as parts of the official record that “were originally closed to public scrutiny because they raised awkward questions” (xxvi). At 642 pages of small, densely printed text, The Bombing War is long (maybe overlong), but it never loses sight of two related theses. First, strategic bombing during the war never lived up to the hype of its proponents; there was a big discrepancy between promise and achievement. Second, strategic bombing, as practiced during the conflict, was a bludgeon that did not achieve enough to justify the enormous collateral damage that it inflicted on both lives and property.

Overy’s story begins with a discussion of World War I and the interwar period. Here, he focuses on two major developments that helped make strategic bombing possible during World War II. The massive mobilization of World War I as well as the rhetoric that followed afterwards led everyone to assume that the next war would be “total” and that civilians would naturally be targets in this conflict. This discourse meshed well with assumptions among airmen and statesmen that urban conurbations of the modern era were particularly susceptible to dislocation from aerial bombing. Based on little evidence, those who contemplated the course of air war in the future believed that industry was vulnerable to destruction and that civilians living in big cities would panic easily. These attitudes, however, did not make strategic bombing during World War II inevitable; Overy argues that it was only events during the war that made such a thing possible.

Among the many limits that prevented airmen from immediately and deliberately dropping bombs indiscriminately on civilians in 1939 was the fact that many air forces believed that their primary mission consisted of supporting the army in a ground-attack role. And indeed, Overy argues that two incidents widely seen as initiating “terror” bombing during the war—the Luftwaffe’s bombardments of Warsaw and Rotterdam—were not that at all. In both cases, he claims that German aircraft sought out enemy ground forces that happened to be ensconced in or near urban areas. These two attacks resulted in large numbers of civilians being killed. The air assault against Rotterdam proved especially tragic since German and Dutch forces were then negotiating the surrender of the city but could not get word to the Luftwaffe fast enough to halt the air attack.

The first real strategic bombing campaign took place over the skies of Britain between 1940 and 1941. Overall German strategy was muddled from the start, constantly shifting from one objective to the next. On the eve of the Battle of Britain, Hitler could not decide whether to encourage the British to enter negotiations, invade southern England and dictate a settlement, or use ships, submarines, and aircraft to impose a blockade on British ports. As Overy puts it, “Hitler opted for all three possibilities, and achieved none of them” (68). Whatever the case, all three required the Luftwaffe to play an important role and demanded a heavy commitment from Hitler’s airmen. Forces, however, were frittered away as “the German offensive hovered between trying to gain air superiority against the RAF, preparation for invasion, contributing to the blockade by sea of British trade, degrading Britain’s industrial war potential and vague expectations of a crisis afflicting the enemy’s morale” (611). The failure to fix on an appropriate target and destroy it (along with the inability to match ends with means) accounted in large part for the frustration of German aims. This frustration occurred in spite of Britain’s weaknesses in civil defense (which were not made good until the latter part of 1941) and huge deficiencies in the RAF’s night-fighting capacity.

Although, as Overy points out, each strategic bombing campaign of the war differed in a number of ways, the German attack on Britain was emblematic in that it was planned and launched on the fly; almost no research or preparation for such an effort had been performed during the pre-war period (which accounts for the strategic confusion). This problem would also plague Allied campaigns throughout the conflict. The German campaign was also important in that it stretched notions of what was considered permissible during the war. The British in particular subjected the German campaign to very close scrutiny. In some cases, RAF’s Bomber Command learned important lessons (e.g. dense concentrations of incendiaries mixed with high explosive bombs were particularly useful in destroying large parts of towns). In others, the British misconstrued with the Luftwaffe had been up to (e.g. they assumed Germans were engaged in mere terror bombing). In still others, the RAF totally missed the boat (e.g. the British ramped up their bombing of German cities in the hope of demoralizing civilians and dislocating the economy without pausing to think that the Germans had failed to do the very same thing in the very same way).

With these observations in mind, it should come as no surprise that Overy is extremely critical of Bomber Command’s own effort against Germany and occupied Europe. Initially, the RAF’s campaign was too piecemeal, light, inaccurate, and scattered to have much effect. Starting in late 1941, however, the British more or less decided on the area bombing of German cities in an attempt to demoralize, dehouse, and decimate German civilians (which is what they thought the Germans had attempted to do to them). Although Britain’s political and military leadership always felt ambivalent about this decision, the appointment of Sir Arthur Harris as the head of Bomber Command in February 1942 gave the force an aggressive and intractable advocate who was fully committed to the air war against German civilians to the exclusion of all else. Nonetheless, progress was stymied by a number of shortcomings. There was a lack of appropriate, heavy four-engined bombers (as late as 1942, the number of Avro Lancasters was limited). The British were also plagued by “the slow development of target-finding and marking, [and] the dilatory development of effective electronic aids, marker bombs and bombsights.”  And then there was “the inability to relate means and ends more rationally to maximize effectiveness and cope with enemy defenses”—a problem that had also hampered the Germans (300). Despite its ineffectiveness, Bomber Command was allowed to persist in its campaign which swallowed a very large proportion of available British resources (about 7% of total British man-hours during the conflict)—no small victory for Harris and his subordinates who sought to safeguard their bailiwick.

The entry of the United States into the war did not change the British situation a great deal. The Americans made clear that they would not divert bombers from their factories to supply the British. Not surprisingly, considering the many demands placed on the United States, it took the Americans some time to organize, equip, and train a large bomber force that could exercise any influence in the European theater. The Allies made much fuss about a “combined offensive” and “round-the-clock” bombing (Americans during the day, British at night), which seemed to suggest that their bombers acted in concert. The truth of the matter was that their campaigns operated merely in parallel and did not reinforce each other at all. The Americans did not think much of bombing cities for the sake of depressing German morale. They were more interested in employing daytime precision attacks and destroying specific targets that would slow down German production (although Overy admits that when visibility was limited, American blind bombing was just as indiscriminate as anything Bomber Command did). Overy intimates that although American forces experienced difficulty in finding the bottlenecks that could bring the German economy to a halt, they expressed a much more thoughtful and sophisticated approach to bombing than Harris ever did. Bomber Command continued its nocturnal attempt to destroy city after city in the hope that the cumulative destruction would eventually end the war somehow.

In the end, Overy argues, Allied strategic bombing did not end the war, but it did influence the manner in which Germany was defeated. In early 1944, American forces finally made a commitment to using the bombing campaign as a means of destroying the Luftwaffe in the skies over Germany. The delay in reaching this decision was not determined by technology; it was also a matter of placing commanders in the European theater who shared that vision. By that date, Carl Spaatz (commander of US strategic air forces), Jimmy Doolittle (Eighth Air Force), and William Kepner (VIII Fighter Command) occupied the key American positions in Europe and agreed that it was necessary to combine “the indirect assault on air force production and supplies through bombing with the calculated attrition of the German fighter force through air-to-air combat and fighter sweeps over German soil” (361). Initially spearheaded by P-47s with drop tanks (the P-51s came later), fighter loosely accompanying American bombers sought out German aircraft, leading to huge air battles with massive casualties on both sides. It was a campaign of attrition for which the Germans were ill-suited. Two major developments occurred as a result. First, the Germans redistributed resources—personnel, fighter aircraft, and anti-aircraft guns—to the homeland on a large scale to counter this threat. These were resources that could not be deployed on other fronts to support German ground forces (including anti-aircraft weapons which could double as anti-tank guns). Second, having forced the Germans to concentrate their aircraft in Germany, the Americans proceeded to destroy the Luftwaffe, shooting down enormous numbers of planes and killing their pilots. By mid-year, the Americans had achieved air supremacy over France and Germany. And then strategic bombing lurched forward on a much larger scale than ever before; three-quarters of the total tonnage of bombs dropped on Germany fell between September 1944 and May 1945. The Allies persisted in heavy bombing largely because they were worried that the Germans might suddenly produce new weapons that could turn the tide (the V-weapons as well as the Messerschmidt Me 262 jet fighter certainly gave them reason to think this way). They also hoped that more bombing could bring the war to a swifter end—the British thinking that obliterating more cities would tip Germany over the edge while the Americans believed that the destruction of oil and transportation targets would undermine the German war effort. Still, German productivity reached its height in the last three months of 1944, when bombing was extraordinarily heavy. Allied victory eventually came at an extremely high cost to victor and vanquished, but the impact of bombing was only one of several factors that defeated the Axis powers.

Many readers familiar with the topic will have seen parts of this narrative before, but Overy presents a version of the story that is very much his own in which a number of key arguments, great and small, are modified. Overy’s book is particularly interesting when it comes to discussing civil defense and the impact of the war on civilians, something that most histories of strategic bombing do not study in a systematic way. The Bombing War stresses the degree to which different circumstances obtained in different countries. For instance, civil defense in Britain was characterized by friction between the voluntarist tradition of a free society and the centralizing tendency of the state. In Germany and the Soviet Union, however, the party saw civil defense mainly as a means of political and social mobilization. Whatever the case, the experience of civil defense was similar to that of the bomber forces in that its preparations were incomplete upon the war’s outbreak; capacity and sophistication generally grew as the war continued. It is hard to make generalizations about bombing’s impact on the various peoples of Europe, though, as every country was different. Overy points out that a good case could be made that bombing helped topple Mussolini in 1943, but he proceeds to argue that the collapse of the Fascist regime had more to do with its overall inability to cope with the various stresses of modern war. In cases where the state or party was more or less equal to the challenges of fulfilling civilians’ needs (e.g. Britain and Germany), heavy bombing generally did not enhance or undermine the population’s will to resist. If anything, it made civilians more reliant on the authorities which reduced the potential for dissent. The picture Overy paints of civilian populations under sustained air attacks is one of anxiety, exhaustion, and deprivation. Moreover, these populations were highly mobile as they left destroyed urban areas in search of shelter, food, and working utilities. It is not surprising that people in such a position would turn to the state for succor.

Conquered territories, particularly in western Europe, found themselves in a unique position. Generally hostile to the German occupation, they initially supported the Allied bombing of military targets. The RAF hoped that a campaign in these regions would damage German military installations (e.g. submarine pens) and slow down production in factories that had worked on German contracts. Later, in preparation for the cross-Channel invasion, the Allies sought to destroy most of northern France’s transportation infrastructure (and once troops had landed in Normandy, heavy bombers were used for ground support). In these regions, the British always saw bombing as a propaganda act that could demoralize collaborators and give resistance a boost. Unfortunately, once the RAF began bombing France and the Low Countries without restriction in February 1942, opinion in these countries turned against the British initiative. Just as they were in Germany, Allied bombings tended to be inaccurate and destructive, resulting in many civilian casualties (almost 60,000 French civilians were killed by Allied bombs). In the conclusion of his chapter on the bombing of occupied Europe, Overy notes, “Bombing was a blunt instrument as the Allies knew full well, but is bluntness was more evident and more awkward when the bombs fell outside Germany” (606).

Not surprisingly, Overy concludes that strategic bombing as practiced during World War II was a crude, wasteful, and illegal strategy. Moreover, it was a failure on its own terms. It sought to win the war singlehandedly by destroying the enemy economy, demoralizing the enemy population, and deracinating the enemy’s political system. In all of these areas, the impact of bombing was limited. Strategic bombing’s main contribution to Allied victory—the destruction of the Luftwaffe—was almost incidental. The obsession with the “weight and scale” of attacks, rather than accuracy, paved the way for post-war nuclear arsenals that sought to do the same thing but on a much larger scale. This approach to strategic bombing would prove a dead-end; precision-guided munitions, Overy argues, were the “way forward” (613). We can be thankful, then, that “profound changes in available weapons, the transformation of geopolitical reality and post-war ethical sensibilities have all combined to make the bombing war between 1939 and 1945 a unique phenomenon in modern European history, not possible earlier and not reproducible since” (633).

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Hugh Dubrulle

NOTE: This essay reviews the Penguin UK version of Overy’s book, not the Penguin USA edition (entitled The Bombers and the Bombed: Allied Air War over Europe 1940-1945). The latter was heavily edited and is much shorter than the former. The reviewer recommends that you purchase the British version.

Review: Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton


One Thing after Another finds the ten-sentence limit for Very Short Reviews too constricting and has surrendered to the lures of a much longer format. Today’s review of Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton is our first of what promises to be reviews of normal (or abnormal) length.

Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Books, 2014).

Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History is about the “rise and fall of the European-dominated empire of cotton” (xi). Beckert is particularly interested in this story because no other industry erected such a large, ubiquitous “global production complex.” By tracing the fortunes of this large and ever-changing empire, Beckert claims that he has provided a useful—perhaps even the best—example of “capitalism in action” (xv). Along the way, Beckert emphasizes several themes: states were absolutely integral to creating the empire of cotton; this empire relied on large doses of armed force and other illiberal types of coercion; cotton was global like no other product (which explains why a study of the empire must look not just at Manchester or Britain, but at the entire world); and production of the fiber constantly adapted to changing circumstances by engaging in revolutionary transformations.

Before the empire of cotton was created, cotton was largely consumed where it was produced—in a band that encircled the globe between 32 to 35 degrees south latitude and 37 degrees north. This band included Central America, West Africa, the Nile River valley, the Near East, Central Asia, and China. That Europe would come to dominate the production, financing, and processing of cotton when it was incapable of growing the plant is one of the central marvels of Beckert’s story.

This story proceeds by stages. In the late-medieval period, Europeans (particularly in northern Italy—and then later in Germany) began buying cotton from Mediterranean sources such as Anatolia, Syria, and Egypt. But European textiles were not particularly competitive on the world market (such as it was) because the quality of there products was inferior to what was woven in India. What eventually made Europe a player in the market for cotton was its success in forging a “complex commercial web” that linked India, West Africa, North America, and Europe. As Beckert puts it, “the products of Indian weavers paid for slaves in Africa to work on the plantations in the Americas to produce agricultural commodities for European consumers” (36). Europeans (primarily the British at this point) inserted themselves into existing networks and created ever more extensive ones through the use of force. Although the state would come to play a major role in the empire of cotton, at this point, most of the force involved in this process was in private hands—“heavily armed privateering capitalists” as Beckert describes them. The exercise of coercion became the first step in the creation of “war capitalism” (Beckert’s term). Becket never really defines what “war capitalism” was so much as he describes what it did, supported, or allowed: “imperial domination, the expropriation of vast territories, decimation of indigenous peoples theft of their resources, enslavement, and the domination of vast tracts of land by private capitalists with little effective oversight by distant European states” (38).

As time went on, the British increasingly aimed at creating an overseas market for their own textiles—instead of merely peddling superior Indian products. The main problem for Britain, however, was that wages were much higher there than in India; for that reason, British textiles could not compete on the basis of price. This problem inspired a concerted effort to increase the productivity of British labor. The answer consisted of making advances in spinning and weaving technology—which we associate with the Industrial Revolution. It also required the mass mobilization of labor in the metropole—usually drawn from vulnerable groups like children and women. War capitalism, Beckert argues, created propitious circumstances for the industrialization of Europe by providing access to markets, technology, labor, and raw materials. It also created a great deal of capital and fostered the development of various financial instruments. These important changes allowed the British to sell their goods in overseas markets. None of these achievements would have been possible without the activities of a strong, interventionist state. The state, according to Beckert, “was capable of forging and protecting global markets, policing its borders, regulating industry, creating and then enforcing private property rights in land, enforcing contracts over large geographical distances, forging fiscal tools to tax populations, and building a social, economic, and legal environment that made the mobilization of labor through wage payments possible” (76). This array of capacities was associated with “industrial capitalism” which was initially fostered and sustained by war capitalism.

A major way in which war capitalism assisted industrial capitalism was in securing huge territories and enormous pools of labor to supply the raw materials necessary to keep up with Britain’s enhanced industrial productivity. Beckert views the emergence of the American South as perhaps the most significant accomplishment of late war capitalism. In this part of the world, the empire of cotton did not have to compromise with existing socio-economic relations as it did in, say, India. Instead, indigenous inhabitants were removed wholesale, and a completely new labor regime (slavery), ideally suited to the cultivation of cotton, was implemented. It is no coincidence, as Beckert points out, that Baring Brothers & Co., which later became the most important British merchant bank involved in the cotton business, underwrote the Louisiana Purchase which allowed the United States take hold of an enormous territory on which cotton could be grown.

Although industrial capitalism required war capitalism to get started, Beckert points out that significant tensions persisted between the two. While war capitalism was particularly useful in securing the means for growing enormous volumes of cotton, it was totally ill-suited for the processing of the fiber or the manufacturing of textiles. Frictions between war and industrial capitalism were not impossible to reconcile so long as, say, war capitalism remained something that took place overseas (or “outside” as Beckert puts it) while industrial capitalism was something that happened at home (“inside”). However, in the United States, the two systems existed side by side, their interests were incompatible, and the American Civil War occurred as a result.

The Civil War was a major turning point in the history of the empire of cotton, and perhaps the greatest crisis it ever surmounted. Southern planters, who were the last politically powerful group of cotton growers in the world, were utterly destroyed as a force. The war capitalism with which they were intimately associated also came to an end. Most important of all, the war and the Federal blockade completely disrupted the flow of cotton to Europe. Manufacturers now had a huge incentive to reduce their dependence on American cotton and diversify their sources of the fiber—especially as it became clear to them that even the American South could not meet the enormous future demand for cheap, raw cotton. Looking to alternate sources also meant recasting the socio-economic relations of various regions and changing the way that cotton was produced, financed, and transported. The empire of cotton was compelled to penetrate the interiors of India, Egypt, Brazil, Africa, Central Asia, and American South. The empire built railroads to facilitate the transportation of cotton from remote parts of the world. It also took over the financing of cotton production, shouldering aside local traditional lenders. It employed scientific agricultural reform to enhance productivity. And it imposed new labor arrangements, mainly sharecropping, that eventually led to wage labor. In parts of India, for example, the countryside was deindustrialized as weavers were reduced to peasant status. Moreover, these peasants were no longer the traditional subsistence farmers who grew cotton on the side; they now exclusively produced cotton for the market. This kind of monoculture led to food insecurity and eventually periodic famines. The intensification of imperialism in the latter part of the 19th century (what most textbooks refer to as “New Imperialism”) only provided the empire of cotton with additional political tools to pursue the same ends.

Since then, the locus of textile production has changed: the manufacturing of cotton textiles has moved to the “global South.” Beckert focuses on two major reasons for this change. First, as the global South adopted increasingly advanced manufacturing techniques, its low wages allowed it to produce textiles at much lower prices than the First World. Second, with the advent of decolonization, the global South obtained states that acted according to their perceived national interests and implemented policies (often statist) that sought to protect domestic production. States and manufacturers in these regions, however, do not dominate the contemporary empire of cotton. Instead, according to Beckert, immense corporations are in charge. They no longer have to integrate new regions of the world into the market economy; that work has already been completed by various states. They no longer depend on any particular state; they “can easily shift all forms of production around the globe” (438). They no longer focus on “raw cotton, yarn, and cloth;” their interest is in the “apparel business” (437). From Beckert’s perspective, then, “the empire of cotton has continued to facilitate a giant race to the bottom, limited only by the spatial constraints of the planet” (440).

This reviewer cannot vouch for the economic history that lies at the heart of this work (because he is not an economic historian), but Empire of Cotton is a fascinating, thought-provoking, pioneering book that required great powers of synthesis to produce. Beckert’s decision to conduct a truly global history of cotton is justified by the results. Beckert does a wonderful job of showing the complex web of business links that stretched from Liverpool and Manchester all the way to, say, Bombay and Berar during the heyday of this empire. As the author details the doings of various figures who served this empire, the reader invariably feels as if he has removed the housing from a great machine and obtained a rare opportunity to see all the cogs, levers, and flywheels working in perfect order. Beckert’s model has great explanatory force, and as he describes it, each step taken by the empire of cotton seemed to lead ineluctably to the next.

At times, though, the activities of this empire sometimes seem too inevitable. Beckert’s depiction of the machine is a bit too elegant, smooth, and unproblematic. In his telling, the empire of cotton becomes an irresistible, revolutionary capitalist force that relentlessly adapted to changing circumstances while conforming to unimpeachable economic logic. Although Beckert describes the activities of numerous individuals caught up in this empire, they merely serve it; there is very little room for human agency here either. In other words, everything seems overdetermined. Conflict and ambivalence within the heart of this empire are simply ignored. For example, the abolitionist movement in Britain, which strenuously opposed slavery, receives no mention at all (Beckert merely states that “Britain in 1834 outlawed slavery within its empire”) (122). At the same time, certain facts are shoe-horned to fit Beckert’s interpretation. Beckert argues, for instance, that Britain’s Reform Act of 1832 allowed “many textile entrepreneurs to move into the House of Commons, where they strenuously lobbied for the (global) interests of their industry, from the Corn Laws to British colonial expansion” (77). Most British historians would argue that such a statement paints with an extremely broad (and somewhat inaccurate) brush (i.e. “many” entrepreneurs did not enter the Commons until much later, their efforts did not precipitate repeal of the Corn Laws, and many were ambivalent about colonial expansion).

These problems are probably a function of studying an enormous topic whose every single detail is somewhat beyond the powers of a single historian to master. Yet they are also partly due to the nature of economic history which does not always perceive problems in the round. As we have seen, Beckert depicts the American Civil War as a clash between elements of war capitalism and industrial capitalism—an old-fashioned interpretation that smells a bit like Charles and Mary Beard. It might seem unfair to criticize an economic history for being, well, an economic history. But if Beckert had matched the global scope of his study with a wide-ranging approach that incorporated more subfields of history (for sure, a herculean task), he would have avoided some of the mistakes and blind spots that crop up in his work.

At the same time, for all the details concerning the growing, financing, transportation, processing, and selling of cotton, Beckert is somewhat less precise when it comes to defining his most important terms. He never explains, for example, what the phrase “empire of cotton” actually means. While the reader obtains a fairly good idea of what Beckert signifies, a more explicit description would provide a better analytical tool. The problem here has to do with the use of the word “empire” which is not exactly a self-evident word. The same goes for words like “war capitalism” which is something of a novelty—at least in the way that Beckert uses it.

Finally, Beckert closes his work by referring to the two faces of capitalism that were presented by the empire of cotton: “domination and exploitation” on the one hand, and “liberation and creativity” on the other (442). The balance of the work certainly seems to stress the former at the expense of the latter. This tendency seems a strange foundation for his closing statement that the story of cotton should “give us hope . . .  that our unprecedented domination over nature will allow us the wisdom, the power, and the strength to create a society that serves the needs of all the world’s people.”

Despite these criticisms (and the amount of space they have consumed in this review), Beckert’s book is a terrific and worthwhile read. Present-day entrepreneurs like to pretend that they are the first to have made the world anew, but Empire of Cotton does a valuable service by reminding contemporary readers that visionary entrepreneurs in the past have made the world anew many, many times before.

Hugh Dubrulle

Very Short Reviews: Mary Beard’s SPQR


Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, serves as the Times Literary Supplement’s classics editor, and regularly contributes to the New York Review of Books. Due to her frequent appearances on television, radio, and social media, she is, without question, the most publicly prominent classicist in Britain. Just last year, she published SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, an overview of Roman history that represents a lifetime of thinking about the topic. In this past, One Thing after Another has read books so you don’t have to. In this case, the blog has read this book and exhorts you to do the same—SPQR is an excellent work of “popular history” in the best sense of the term.

Mary Beard, A History of Ancient Rome (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015).

  1. As a classicist, Beard is, of course, interested in Romans, but she thinks the rest of us could profit from studying the experiences of these ancient people; as she puts it, while we cannot “learn directly from the Romans,” we “have an enormous amount to learn . . . by engaging with the history of the Romans” because “our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans.”
  2. In some ways, the questions that Beard asks which drive the analysis and narrative forward are traditional ones that have occupied the attention of scholars for centuries: How was Rome founded? How did it grow to overmaster the other city-states of Italy and dominate the Mediterranean world? How did the republic eventually collapse? How did the empire work?
  3. It is her approach to these traditional questions that is novel and stimulating—for example, she returns repeatedly to questions of identity (e.g. How does one define a Roman, and how did the Romans define themselves?) that have resonance today.
  4. For example, once Rome became a power on the Italian peninsula, Romans had to reconceive who they were, what their role in the world was, forge new relationships with their defeated enemies (which often included a grant of citizenship), and deal with the consequent strain on their political institutions/culture.
  5. Once Rome had destroyed its most dangerous rivals in the Mediterranean, its “relatively small-scale political institutions” were hardly capable of “controlling and policing a vast empire,” and “Rome relied more and more on the efforts and talents of individuals whose power, profits, and rivalries threatened the very principles on which the Republic was based.”
  6. In other words, the empire created the emperors (not the other way around), which necessitated another reconsideration of what Rome was and who Romans were.
  7. Just as important and interesting (if not more so) as her approach to traditional questions is the way Beard patiently sifts through the existing archaeological and literary evidence to explain what we know about Romans and how we know it (much is a matter of educated guesswork that includes a great deal of reading between the lines).
  8. In other words, SPQR is not a plain, old narrative history in which one damn things happens after another in an inevitable chain (although one will get a good sense of the main periods of Roman history and how they are linked together); it is an extended and thoughtful meditation on Roman history.
  9. Surviving documents in Roman history are skewed heavily toward wealthy and powerful men, but Beard makes an enormous effort to represent the lives of slaves, women, the poor, peasants, provincials, frontier peoples, and others who have not figured prominently in most narratives; although these folks possessed multiple identities and often clashed with the powerful, she argues that they also participated in a vital, popular Roman culture that united them with their betters.
  10. This extremely accessible work reads like an engaging after-dinner lecture by an erudite person who knows not only how to entertain but also how to convey some thought-provoking ideas to an audience of non-specialists (this would be a very interesting work to use with undergraduates).

Interesting Fact: SPQR is the Roman acronym for Senatus PopulusQue Romanus which means “The Senate and People of Rome.” The phrase appeared on Roman coins, Roman documents, and the standards of the Roman army.

Very Short Reviews: Dominic Sandbrook’s _Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979_

Over the course of a decade, Dominic Sandbrook has written a series of works detailing the history of contemporary Britain: Never Had It So Good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (2005), White Heat: A History of Britain in the Swinging Sixties (2007), State of Emergency: The Way We Were—Britain, 1970-1974, and Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (2013). Sandbrook is apparently at work on the next book in the series which will cover the period from 1979 to 1984 and is provisionally entitled Who Dares Wins.

But back to Seasons in the Sun. Why read an 811-page book that covers only five years of British history? First and most important, the years between 1974 and 1979 (which included Harold Wilson’s second ministry and Jim Callaghan’s stint as prime minister) are widely perceived as a major tipping point in contemporary British history. Second, it was an eventful period, not just in politics, but socially, economically, and culturally. Third, Sandbrook is a wonderful narrator with an eye for symbolic anecdotes.

Dominic Sandbrook, Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979 (London: Penguin Books, 2013).

  1. Although historians have generally represented this period as one of wrenching change, from politics to punk rock (to name just two examples), Sandbrook stresses the continuities in British life during this period; Callaghan’s government anticipated some of Margaret Thatcher’s moves (e.g. making a priority of fighting inflation rather than unemployment) while art colleges, which had long influenced British popular music, continued to play a vitally important role in in the punk movement.
  2. If the period was not characterized by wrenching change, it was no doubt wrenched: high inflation, rising unemployment, a falling pound sterling, anemic rises in productivity, declining competitiveness, a mortifying IMF bailout, massive strikes, and the drop in real wages created a profound sense among almost all Britons that their country had entered an irreversible decline—something that was reflected in literature and music throughout this period.
  3. Yet Wilson’s Labour administration was paralyzed largely because the Cabinet was terrified of crossing the unions, while Wilson himself was exhausted, bankrupt of ideas, involved in petty quarrels, and consumed by conspiracy theories.
  4. After Wilson retired in 1976, however, Jim Callaghan, the new Labour prime minister, along with Denis Healey, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, brought inflation below 10% by explicitly abandoning Keynesian economics (see below), cutting government spending, and limiting wage hikes.
  5. This achievement was fragile because Labour did not command a majority in the Commons (it relied on support from Liberals), and wages could only be held down for so long when inflation was still above 8%.
  6. Sandbrook argues that the problem with keeping wages down was not that the unions were leftist and wanted to continue building a “New Jerusalem;” rather, years of affluence under the welfare state had eroded class solidarity, contributed to greater individualism among blue collar workers, raised expectations, and led to competition between unions to obtain ever greater pay hikes.
  7. At the same time, the great union bosses who oversaw the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which was the backbone of the Labour Party, belonged to an older generation that had lost touch with the shop stewards on the factory floor; in other words, the connection between the Labour Party and the union rank and file had begun to dissolve in such a way that the party could not control union members or appeal to their loyalty.
  8. When Callaghan sought to keep wage from climbing higher than 5%, the result was the infamous “Winter of Discontent” (1978-1979), when a massive series of strikes (coupled with terribly cold weather) practically paralyzed the country before the Labour government had to climb down in humiliating fashion; the stage was now set for the Conservative victory in the General Election of 1979—although Sandbrook emphasizes Thatcher’s weaknesses and the extent to which her positions on the issues in that particular contest were not all that different from those of Callaghan.
  9. The Labour government’s vain attempt to stay in power and fix Britain’s economic problems is at the heart of Sandbrook’s story, but this book is about so much more: the Troubles in Northern Ireland (which spread to England), the public debate on the emergence of comprehensive schools (and new, experimental pedagogy), the rise and fall of punk rock (according to Sandbrook, Elton John was the real soundtrack of the 1970s), the 1975 referendum on EEC membership, the Notting Hill riots of 1976, the Queen’s Silver Jubilee (1977), Scotland’s improbable (and disastrous) run at World Cup glory in 1978, the 1979 devolution referenda in Scotland and Wale, the rise of leftist student organizations, strikes too innumerable to mention, the Yorkshire Ripper’s rampage around Leeds, attempts at police reform, the terrible sex-attempted murder scandal that brought down Jeremy Thorpe (the Liberal Party leader), the varying fortunes of the National Front, the discovery of North Sea oil, and more!
  10. The stress on continuities, the marginalization of certain movements (e.g. Sandbrook claims student radicals were not particularly representative of students as a whole), and the evident respect for leaders of the Labour Party’s moderate wing (Sandbrook obviously appreciates the work of Callaghan and Healey while Tony Benn comes off as a worm) marks this out as conservative history, but a fine history it is.

Ironic Fact: The EEC referendum of 1975 was curiously the reverse of the EU referendum of 2016. In the former, Labour’s Harold Wilson, who was prime minister, sought to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s entry before the vote. He himself was very lukewarm on the EEC, and his party was divided on the issue. The Conservatives—both the parliamentary party and the voters–led by Margaret Thatcher no less, wholeheartedly supported entry into the EEC. But in 2016, it was David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, who renegotiated the terms of Britain’s membership before the referendum. And this time, it was the Conservative Party that was divided on the issue, but Labour was generally pro-Europe.

And Finally: What makes this book so fascinating is that many key moments that Sandbrook describes appear on YouTube. Here’s “Sunny Jim” Callaghan not being so sunny, as he drops some truth on the Labour Party Conference of 1976 and abandons Keynesian economics.

Or how about Scotland’s run at the World Cup in 1978? Many thought the Scots had a shot at the title. However, they lost 3-1 against Peru and tied Iran 1-1. According to the rules as they then stood, Scotland needed a three-goal victory over the Netherlands to advance. The Dutch had come in second in 1974 and would finish as runners-up in 1978, so Scotland had a tall order. The Scots did not get their three-goal victory, but look at what they managed against the second-best team in the world.

Hugh Dubrulle