The Battle of Midway

Today we commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Midway, the decisive naval engagement in the Pacific which turned the tide of war.

It was, in fact, the most decisive naval engagement since Nelson’s brilliant Trafalgar more than a century before. In eight short minutes, three of Japan’s four fleet carriers were mortally wounded and sinking, with the fourth to follow later in the day. It was, as Churchill expressed in a slightly different context, ‘not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.’ Japan persevered for more than three years, but the high tide of its invading forces was already past. Never again would it assume the strategic offensive.

There are a number of interesting and excellent books concerning the Battle of Midway from both the Japanese and the American perspective. Now, as part of an excellent series of works on historical contingencies by the Oxford University Press, Craig L. Symonds, Professor of American Naval History at the United States Naval Academy, has produced a superb volume on this important battle.

As Symonds describes it in his introductory remarks, “there are few moments in American history in which the course of events tipped so suddenly and dramatically as it did on June 4, 1942. At ten o’clock that morning the Axis powers were winning the Second World War. Though the Red Army had counterattacked the Wehrmacht outside Moscow in December, the German Army remained deep inside the Soviet Union, and one element of it was marching toward the oil fields of the Caucasus. In the Atlantic, German U-boats ravaged Allied shipping and threatened to cut the supply line between the United States and Great Britain. In the Pacific, Japan had just completed a triumphant six-month rampage, attacking and wrecking Allied bases from the Indian Ocean to the mid-Pacific following the crippling of the US battle fleet at Pearl Harbor. Japan’s mobile striking force (the Kido Butai) was at that moment on the verge of consolidating command of the Pacific by eliminating what the strike at Pearl Harbor had missed: America’s aircraft carriers. The outcome of the war balanced on a knife-edge, but clearly leaned toward the Axis powers.

“An hour later, the balance had shifted the other way. By 11:00 a.m., three Japanese carriers were on fir and sinking. A fourth was launchibng a counterstrike, yet before the day was over, it too would be located and mortally wounded. The Japanese thrust was turned back.”

In this excellent book, Symonds’ explores the context, circumstance and course of the Battle of Midway with crisp prose, outstanding scholarship, cogent analysis, and a keen sense of timing. I strongly recommend Symonds’ The Battle of Midway for anyone interested in the Second World War, naval history and strategy, intelligence operations or any of a host of allied topics.

Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga, sunk at Midway

Published in: on June 4, 2012 at 4:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bismarck — A Life

It’s a bit jarring at first to see former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger – long-time admirer of Metternich — reviewing a biography of Germany’s Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. But Kissinger’s review of Jonathan Steinberg’s new Bismarck – A Life for the New York Times Review of Books is well worth reading:

“Bismarck,” Kissinger writes, “is often cited as the quintessential realist, relying on power at the expense of ideals. He was, in fact, far more complicated.” And so, indeed, he was . . .

Published in: on April 7, 2011 at 8:31 am  Leave a Comment  

Tough Without A Gun

“Physically he was an unlikely star in any era. Balding, short, afflicted with a lisp and a lined face from drink, Humphrey DeForrest Bogart (1899-1957) has nevertheless proved to be the most enduring of Old Hollywood stars.”

Writing for the Weekly Standard, Ron Capshaw briefly reviews Stefan Kanfer’s new biography Tough Without a Gun: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of Humphrey Bogart in An Adult for Our Times.

Published in: on February 2, 2011 at 4:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Why the West Rules — For Now

Since well before the days of Oswald Spengler, speculations on the decline and fall of Western Civilization, and proclamations of gloom and doom for the American experiment, have proved extraordinarily popular.

The last century has witnessed dozens of candidates for the role of global gravedigger. Nikita Khrushchev’s proclamation that “we will bury you” has hardly been an isolated belief.

The most recent attempt to describe the ascent and descent of civilizations on a global scale and to discern the root causes of rise and fall – to understand “the patterns of history and what they reveal about the future” — is Why the West Rules – For Now, by archaeologist Ian Morris.

Writing for Foreign Affairs in West Is Best?, Timur Kuran appraises Morris’ work with a skeptical eye.

Published in: on January 19, 2011 at 12:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Abacus and the Cross

Writing in the New Scientist CultureLab blog, James Hannam briefly but tantalizingly reviews Nancy Marie Brown’s The Abacus and the Cross in The Scientist Pope Who Lit Up the Dark Ages.

Published in: on December 29, 2010 at 12:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

English as a Global Language

Nicholas Ostler analyzes the role of the numerous languages that have served as a lingua franca at various times throughout history, and argues that the global role of English in the contemporary world is evanescent. The Economist, in English As She Was Spoke, reviews Ostler’s The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel.

Published in: on December 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

How Hot Can It Be?

With the rising controversy and increased politicization surrounding the question of global warming, few books could be more timely than Paul N. Edwards’ A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data and the Politics of Global Warming.

Edward’s work is largely an exposition of the history of meteorology and climatology – “the almost heroic efforts made over the past century or so by tens of thousands of people worldwide to render weather and climate intelligible” — and an assessment of the current state of these allied sciences.

Writing for American Scientist, Noel Castree (Professor of Geography at Manchester University) quite favorably reviews A Vast Machine in How We Make Knowledge About Climate Change. He sums up his appraisal by indicating that “I recommend this book with considerable enthusiasm. Although it’s a term reviewers have made into a cliché, I think A Vast Machine is nothing less than a tour de force. It is the most complete and balanced description we have of two sciences whose results and recommendations will, in the years ahead, be ever more intertwined with the decisions of political leaders and the fate of the human species.”

Published in: on September 15, 2010 at 2:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Empire of Dreams

“From the moment he put Hollywood and himself on the map in 1914 with the silent western ‘The Squaw Man’ until he took his final curtain in 1956 with ‘The Ten Commandments,’ which was his greatest success of all, in the American film industry there was Cecil B. DeMille, then there was everyone else. It was DeMille who, more than anyone, fashioned the international image of the Hollywood director as a tyrant with the high boots, riding crop and bullhorn to shout orders to thousands of extras.”

In Monarch of the Movie Set, Todd McCarthy reviews Scott Eyman’s new biography of legendary film director Cecil B. DeMille, Empire of Dreams.

Published in: on September 14, 2010 at 2:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Campaign 2008

Nearly fifty years ago, Theodore H. White revolutionized the political reporting of presidential campaigns with The Making of the President 1960. While by no means a complete narrative history, and largely reflective of the Kennedy campaign perspective, it remains a classic of the genre.

White followed that work with The Making of the President 1964 and The Making of the President 1968, and many subsequent campaigns have yielded a similar post mortem (for example, Jules Witcover’s Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976).

Among the most interesting aspects of this genre of political campaign reporting is the degree to which changing technology, trends in media and message, and the evolving political context have altered the American presidential campaign over the course of the intervening five decades.

In The Way It Really Works in the New Republic, Thomas Edsall reviews the latest, yet very different, addition to this tradition: Kate Kenski, Bruce W. Hardy and Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s The Obama Victory: How Media, Money, and Message Shaped the 2008 Election.

As Edsall explains, the book draws heavily upon voter data available from the National Annenberg Election Survey and interviews with key advisors to each campaign, with an eye toward illuminating how media, money, and messages shaped the course of the 2008 election.

Published in: on July 27, 2010 at 12:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Progress On Wheels

“It is always exciting when a book challenges basic assumptions and makes us look again at issues we thought we had fully grasped. Daniel Ben-Ami’s new book does just that. With Ferraris for All, Ben-Ami has identified a very important new trend: widespread questioning of whether economic growth benefits society. Indeed, many now conclude that the pursuit of growth and prosperity is on balance detrimental, and therefore should be tightly constrained. If Ben-Ami is right – and I believe he is – then current debates over economic development and social progress need to re-evaluated.”

Sean Collins reviews Daniel Ben-Ami’s Ferraris For All: In Defense of Economic Progress (due to be released on July 14th) in Why More Really Is More in the Spiked Review of Books.

Published in: on July 11, 2010 at 9:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

This Time Is Different

While not so much a book review as the story behind the book, in a perceptive and enlightening essay Catherine Rampell discusses Carmen M. Reinhart and Kenneth S. Rogoff’s This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly. See They Did Their Homework (800 Years of It) in the New York Times.

Published in: on July 10, 2010 at 1:15 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bottoms Up

“After the first few years, alcohol consumption dropped only 30 percent. Soon smugglers were outrunning the Coast Guard ships in advanced speedboats, and courts inundated by violations of Prohibition began to resort to plea bargains to speed ‘enforcement’ of laws so unenforceable that Detroit became known as the City on a Still.

“Prohibition agents cherished $1,800 jobs because of the bribes that came with them. Fiorello La Guardia taunted the government that it would need another ‘150,000 agents to watch the first 150,000.’ Exemptions from Prohibition for church wine and medicinal alcohol became ludicrously large — and lucrative — loopholes.

“After 13 years, Prohibition, by then reduced to an alliance between evangelical Christians and criminals, was washed away by ‘social nullification’ — a tide of alcohol — and by the exertions of wealthy people, such as Pierre S. du Pont, who hoped that the return of liquor taxes would be accompanied by lower income taxes. (They were.)

“Ex-bootleggers found new business opportunities in the southern Nevada desert. And in the Second World War, draft boards exempted brewery workers as essential to the war effort.”

America’s thirteen-year experiment with alcohol prohibition was abandoned more than three-quarters of a century ago, yet its legacy of organized crime remains to this day.

The Washington Post’s George Will reviews Daniel Okrent’s Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition in Another Round of Prohibition, Anyone?

Published in: on July 8, 2010 at 4:00 pm  Comments (1)