Book Review: “Six Frigates” by Ian W. Toll

Living in the year 2023 AD, it’s hard to believe that, once upon a time, the American military was the laughingstock of the world. There was a time when the United States couldn’t even defend their own coastline, let alone project military power to another region of the world.

It was the turn of the 19th century. The 1700’s were coming to a close and a new nation entered the 1800’s with nothing but hope for the future. The mighty Atlantic Ocean kept America safe from Napoleon’s bloodthirsty wars of expansion, wars that in turn put goods from the neutral Americans in high demand. Money from its lucrative trade deals flowed into the infant nation and the good times rolled.

But war with Europe was on the horizon, and Moroccan pirates patrolled the Mediterranean, plundering American ships without fear of reprisal. Though many Americans objected, a certain few statesmen realized a basic truth: to survive, the United States needed a Navy.

Six Frigates is a fantastic historic account of the beginnings of the United States Navy, a force that began with six unique frigates, one of which is still in service today. These frigates were bigger than their European equivalents, but faster and more maneuverable, too. They carried more cannons and were made with some of the strongest wood in the world. This wood came from the Southern Live Oak, a species of tree that grows only in the Deep South of America and contributed to one of the six frigates, the USS Constitution earning the nickname ‘Old Ironsides’.

As a matter of fact, the United States Navy to this day maintains its own forest of these trees so as to be able to continuously repair the USS Constitution with its original wood.

The other five of the original frigates were named the Chesapeake, President, United States, Congress, and Constellation. These names were chosen off a list of ten names presented to then-president George Washington. However, his interest in a Navy was minimal, so his method of selecting the names was picking the first six on the list.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and its historical account of the origins of the United States Navy. The author pumped it full of good information and also included some sardonic humor here and there, such as the below passage:

As Rodgers came up over the side to take possession of the captured ship, he was privately thrilled by the sight of the carnage the enemy had suffered. “Although I would not have you think me bloody minded,” the bloody-minded lieutenant wrote Stoddert, “yet I must confess the most gratifying sight my eyes ever held.”

I highly recommend this one to those of you with an interest in US history, and it’s available for free on the Internet Archive!


Book Review: “Eisenhower: Soldier and President” by Stephen E. Ambrose

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for a long time, always meaning to read it but always finding a new book to take precedence. This past month I finally decided that I was going to read and learn more about Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Mr. Ambrose personally interviewed Eisenhower at least a few times in preparation for writing this book, how many times depends on who you ask. Ambrose himself insists he had a close friendship with the former president, but a study of Eisenhower’s personal correspondence and records suggests that theirs was a short-term, working relationship.

Regardless, this work was eye-opening, and sadly not in a very good way. I used to hold Eisenhower in very high esteem, but now possessed of a greater knowledge about his personal life, I’ve come away greatly soured on him, as a soldier, as a president, as a husband, even as a man.

As a soldier, it would seem that he simply was not a very good commanding officer. His campaigns across North Africa were disastrous, rife with the kind of hesitation and waiting for perfect conditions that plagued so many failed generals in the Union Army during the Civil War. His invasions of Sicily and Italy were ill-timed and generally bungled at all levels. Instead of marching on Berlin, he chose to chase the German army in the field, allowing the Soviet Red Army to reach the city, losing a chance to possibly prevent the Cold War and the split-Germany from ever happening.

Even his crowning achievement, Operation Overlord (aka, the invasion of Normandy), is hardly due to any great skill or strategy from Eisenhower. He was merely the director, the ‘regional manager’ if you will, that oversaw planning and training.

To his credit, he made some good decisions. When he was advised against giving the order for the Normandy invasion, he chose to go forward anyway and achieved smashing success. At the Battle of the Bulge, he was the only flag officer to recognize it as a massive German counterattack and act accordingly. But the fact is that most of the campaigns in which me was the major decision-maker failed or succeeded in ugly conditions, and he spent so much time trying to please each and every subordinate commander that, in the end, no one at all was pleased.

And this continued to plague him as President, when his eagerness to make everyone happy led to no one at all being happy. Rather than confront great problems head on, he preferred to simply wait them out and hope they died on their own. When it came to McCarthyism and ‘Red Panic’, this tactic only just barely worked, but the embarrassing affair dragged on for years before McCarthy devoured himself. But when it came to civil rights, Eisenhower’s dithering directly led to much of the violent clashes that marked that era.

(Sadly, the reason he hesitated to make any decisions when it came to civil rights was likely due to a racist worldview. It was very disappointing to discover the depths of his prejudice.)

As a husband, Eisenhower constantly toed the line between improper relations with other women and full-blown cheating. As a general and as President, he always had one assistant who worked closely with him, spending many hours a day behind closed doors with him, for years, and both times it was a pretty young woman who nearly worshipped him. While Ambrose insists that Eisenhower never had a physical affair with either woman, it’s clear that there was an emotional affair going on. Despite widespread criticism of these two improper relationships and speculation that he was cheating, despite his wife clearly being unhappy with how familiar he was with these women, Eisenhower continued to spend large amounts of his private time with these women.

Simply put, my ideal image of Dwight D. Eisenhower failed to live up to reality. He did some good things, of course. He put down Adolf Hitler and the Nazi empire, he got us out of the Korean War, he refused to escalate the Cold War, but his personal failings leave me unable to admire him any longer.

This was a long book, but it is still an excellent biography! If you wish to learn more about ‘Ike’, go no further than Ambrose’s book!

Book Review: “Decision Points” by George W. Bush

After reading Ulysses Grant’s Memoirs, I’ve decided to read more of the books written by past US Presidents. I think it’s a fascinating way to get inside their heads, to see how they portray their lives, their upbringing, and their presidency.

The construction of Bush’s memoires was interesting. He laid out his life story from birth to the presidency in a linear manner, but then once he gets to his presidency, each chapter focuses on the major issues of his time and carries them through to the end of his administration in 2008. First, as you could probably guess, he spoke about the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and how he used the government intelligence agencies for the next 7 years. He then spoke about Afghanistan from 2001-2008, then Iraq from 2001-2008, then his education polices from start to end, and so on.

And that makes the book title make sense: Decision Points. Bush’s book is a book about major decisions he made and how he justifies them.

I always felt a little bad for Bush. By his own admission, he wanted to be a reform president who was known for his education and financial policies. Instead, 19 Saudi hijackers forced him to become a wartime president.

It was interesting to see how much the attacks on 9/11 tinted the lenses on his presidency for the remaining seven years in almost every arena. He approved broad, and what some might call unconstitutional powers to intelligence agencies and the military because he did not want a second 9/11. He invaded Iraq because he feared they would develop nukes, that these nukes would end up in the hands of terrorists, and then there would be a nuclear 9/11. Ditto for North Korea, he feared dissemination of rogue nuclear devices that would trigger a nuclear 9/11.

The parallels to Eisenhower’s administration are unmistakable. The Japanese surprise attack at Pearl Harbor deeply wounded the psyche of that generation of Americans, and with the advent of atomic weapons the fear of a surprise attack that annihilated an area the size of New York City created full-on hysteria. While Eisenhower made admirable steps to rid the world of nukes by offering the Soviets chances to work together to decommission their weapons, when these attempts failed he leaned hard into the production of more and bigger nuclear weapons for the US arsenal.

Why? Because he feared an atomic repeat of a surprise attack that had scarred a nation.

Obviously, what you make of Bush’s book will largely depend on whether you support him. I grew up a Bush-supporter because that’s how my parents voted. I may have voted for Bush in 2000 had I been old enough, but certainly not in 2004. I think now I have a better understanding of why he made the decisions he did, and I think I came away with my view of Bush slightly elevated, since the book reminded me of some of the good he did in areas that had nothing to do with war or terrorism.

I do think that, in decades to come, Bush will receive more favorable reviews than he’s had thus far, but I would still peg him pretty far down the list of my favorite presidents.

I also recommend this book to anyone interested in modern American history! George W. Bush was, for better or worse, an extremely consequential president, and it might provide you some valuable insight if you choose to read it. Right now I’m going through an audiobook version of Barack Obama’s Promised Land, so I’ll have a review of that ready when I’m done.

Book Review: “Battle Cry of Freedom” by James McPherson

I finished reading this thick, historical tome last week, and it immediately became one of my favorite books about the American Civil War. James McPherson has long been considered a leading authority on this time and place in history, and he casts an all-encompassing light on a lot dark history.

The first one hundred pages doesn’t even get to the Civil War itself. This first section is all about the state of affairs in the United States in the twenty years leading up to the war. Everyone knows that the Northern states were economic and industrial powerhouses while the South remained agrarian, but McPherson actually shows you why that was.

McPherson also relentlessly attacks the ‘Lost Cause’ narrative that the Southern states seceded merely because they wanted to be left alone. Instead, he shows how the future Confederate states went to great, expensive, often bloody lengths to expand the reach of slavery into the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Then there was the Fugitive Slave Act, which forced every state to partake in their ‘peculiar institution’ of slavery.

Finally, it is refreshing that there appears to be no agenda behind McPherson’s work except for the telling of the truth. No one is placed on a pedestal, not even the Union heroes Abraham Lincoln or Ulysses Grant, as they receive their share of criticism within these pages.

As aforementioned, this is my new favorite book on the American Civil War. I personally give it a 10/10, but the casual reader of history may not enjoy it. It’s nearly 900 pages and can make for pretty dry reading at times.