Lenin on the Train

Title:                      Lenin on the Train

Author:                 Catherine Merridale

Merridale, Catherine (2017). Lenin on the Train. New York, New York: Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt and Company

LCCN:    2016043803

DK254.L443 M37 2017

Scope and content

  • “A gripping, meticulously researched account of Lenin’s fateful rail journey from Zurich to Petrograd, where he ignited the Russian Revolution and forever changed the world. In April 1917, as the Russian Tsar Nicholas II’s abdication sent shockwaves across war-torn Europe, the future leader of the Bolshevik revolution Vladimir Lenin was far away, exiled in Zurich. When the news reached him, Lenin immediately resolved to return to Petrograd and lead the revolt. But to get there, he would have to cross Germany, which meant accepting help from the deadliest of Russia’s adversaries. Germany saw an opportunity to further destabilize Russia by allowing Lenin and his small group of revolutionaries to return. Now, drawing on a dazzling array of sources and never-before-seen archival material, renowned historian Catherine Merridale provides a riveting, nuanced account of this enormously consequential journey–the train ride that changed the world–as well as the underground conspiracy and subterfuge that went into making it happen. Writing with the same insight and formidable intelligence that distinguished her earlier works, she brings to life a world of counter-espionage and intrigue, wartime desperation, illicit finance, and misguided utopianism. This was the moment when the Russian Revolution became Soviet, the genesis of a system of tyranny and faith that changed the course of Russia’s history forever and transformed the international political climate”– Provided by publisher.

Contents

  • Dark Forces — Black Markets — Red Lake — Scarlet Ribbons — Maps and Plans — The Sealed Train — Leaderless — Lenin in Lapland — From the Finland Station — Gold — Fellow Travellers.

LC Subjects

Other Subjects

  • HISTORY / Europe / Russia & the Former Soviet Union.
  • BIOGRAPHY & AUTOBIOGRAPHY / Political.

Notes

  • “Published simultaneously in the UK by Allen Lane, London”–Title page verso.

Date Posted:      August 31, 2017

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

Lenin on the Train is reviewed along with The Russian Revolution[2] in this article.

In the spring of1917, the German spy service sensed a sure-fire means of persuading Russia to make a separate peace and exit The Great War. Czar Nicholas II had abdicated in the face of mass protests that swept the streets of Petrograd, the then-capital, and signs of war-weariness were increasingly evident.

German eyes fell upon Vladimir Lenin, an aspiring Communist leader in exile for decades. He was considered to be a man of extraordinary ruthlessness—a “one-man demolition crew” who would wreck Russia’s war effort, in contrast with the moderates then in the vanguard of revolution.

But Lenin was in exile in Switzerland, and the only feasible route back to Russia was through Germany and territories which it controlled. Lenin was so desperate to return that he considered posing as a deaf-mute Swede (until his wife reminded him of his habit of talking in his sleep—in Russian).

But the spy chiefs found a solution: Lenin and selected followers would transit Germany in a sealed train that would be declared “an extraterritorial entity.” Once in Finland, smugglers would take them across to Petrograd.

The remarkable story of Lenin’s odyssey—and the bloody chaos he would inflict on the world—are told in striking works by Catherine Merridale, a noted historian on the human consequences of the Soviet era; and the academic Sean McMeekin [see Ref 2, below]. They offer a richly documented look at the Russian Revolution, now marking its centennial year.

Oddly, the two historians present differing accounts of Lenin’s 2,000 mile train ride into history. They agree that his 32 member party was crammed into two cheap-seat cars (with a single toilet) for the two-week journey, and that there was much wrangling over smoking. Merridale portrays a non-stop journey. McMeekin, conversely, has the group changing trains while in Germany, and making several stops, one to permit Lenin to address Russians soldiers held in a prison camp. No matter; the train ride was an audacious stunt.

A minor glitch arose at the border. Although a British intelligence estimate had written off Lenin and friends as “fanatical and narrow minded,” and of no particular danger, a British agent at the border argued against letting them continue. Finnish authorities insisted that a country had the right to admit its own citizens, so Lenin passed in Russia.

Within an hour of his arrival, Lenin gave a fiery two-hour speech denouncing the “piratical imperialist war” and the moderates who were forming an interim government. His program was so extreme that Pravda, the party organ, refused to print it. No matter; his oratory provided the expected spark.

Further, Lenin’s pockets sagged with German gold. He spent millions of dollars on propaganda aimed at convincing Russian troops to stop fighting. (The energetic McMeekin unearthed long-hidden files on secret German financing that escaped destruction.) London’s spies spent their own fortune on propaganda; intelligence buffs should enjoy accounts of this covert warfare.

Lies have long shelf lives: a million Russian rubles went to leftist writer John Reed for his acclaimed 1919 book Ten Days That Shook the World[3], which in 1981 was the basis for Warren Beatty’s historically-laughable movie Reds.

In short order, Lenin added a new ingredient to what had begun, more or less, as a grass-roots revolution. His contribution was terror—directed first at the relatively moderate leadership he replaced but rapidly expanded to include anyone who objected to his harshness. Lenin opted for terror to cleave away opponents—and he continued that course long after the government he established was on a secure footing. (The secret police organization that morphed into the KGB was his creation.) Further, his determination to overthrow western democracies put the Soviet Union at odds with much of the world through the end of the Cold War.

Was Germany’s decision to return Lenin to Russia a valid strategy? Winston Churchill gave back-handed approval in acknowledging “the desperate stakes” facing Germany. But he added, “Nevertheless it was the most grisly of all weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia.”

In the end, the totalitarian state which Lenin created carries responsibility for uncountable millions of deaths—many of them his own people who he perceived as enemies. And indeed, Lenin made an early—and costly—peace with Germany in early 1918, surrendering Ukraine, portions of Poland, Finland and various other territories—in all, one-fourth the territory of the old tsarist empire. Fortunately, an exhausted Germany collapsed after a 1918 final campaign.

Two superb reads, and in the end, tragic ones: of how a demagogue shaped world history for the worst for almost a century.

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, pp. 105-106). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted in the Intelligencer by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[2] McMeekin, Sean (2017). The Russian Revolution: A New History. New York, NY: Basic Books

[3] Reed, John (1919). Ten Days That Shook The World. New York, Boni and Liveright

Posted in Russian Revolution | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Ten Days that Shook the World

Title:                      Ten Days that Shook the World

Author:                  John Reed

Reed, John (1919). Ten Days that Shook the World. New York, Boni and Liveright

LCCN:    19005341

DK265 .R38

Date Updated:  Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The October Revolution in Russia caught westerners by surprise. It caught also the Russian military command, the Tsar, and even Lenin by surprise. John Reed was there, and this book is his reporting on what now is poorly understood even to this day. Most people think that the portrayal in Dr. Zhivago is the true story, and sometimes truth is stranger that fiction. Or the other way around. Here is a review of Reed’s book by Mick Hume[1] that I find outstanding (published Friday 26 October 2007).

On the ninetieth anniversary, American journalist John Reed’s pulsating first-hand account of the October Revolution remains a powerful antidote to our historical amnesia about what happened in Russia in 1917.

It is 90 years since the 1917 October Revolution that brought the Bolsheviks to power in Russia and changed the world. It is almost impossible in today’s atmosphere of political sleepwalking to imagine what it might have been like to find ourselves in the midst of such revolutionary ferment. In the absence of a time machine, I recommend reading Ten Days that Shook the World.

This most famous first-hand account of those tumultuous times was written by John Reed, a radical American journalist reporting from Russia for the socialist paper The Masses. Reed, as the English historian AJP Taylor later put it, “though not engaged physically in the Bolshevik revolution, was engaged morally. This was his revolution, not an obscure event in a foreign country.” Ten Days… was published in 1919 with a one-paragraph introduction signed “Nikolai Lenin (Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov)”, who wrote: “Unreservedly do I recommend it to the workers of the world.”

Ninety years on, we appear to be suffering a powerful historical amnesia in relation to the Russian Revolution. Reading history backwards, most commentators now discuss it only as the prelude to Stalin’s Soviet gulags or even Hitler’s Holocaust. On the other side, a minority still hold a romanticized view of the revolutionary ideal—see the Hollywood liberals’ take in the 1982 Oscar-winning epic Reds, in which Reed is played by, err, Warren Beatty.

To an old libertarian Marxist like me[2], however, neither of these ahistorical views will do. The October Revolution can only be understood by placing it in the context of the real unresolved crisis facing Russian society at the time. Those who wish to make sense of these events need to view them in what we used to call their historical specificity, rather than somehow trying to rediscover ourselves in a fantasy version of the past.

Reed’s book hums with historical specificities of the short period when the provisional government, which had come to power after the fall of the Tsarist regime in February 1917, was overthrown and replaced by a revolutionary government led by those whom he calls “the Bolsheviki”. A reader unfamiliar with the history might find bewildering the copious references to long-forgotten individuals, newspapers and political parties: the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks – both former wings of the Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party – the Menshevik Internationalists, Socialist Revolutionaries, Left Socialist Revolutionaries, etc etc. But this is no Monty Python’s Life of Brian-style caricature of leftish splits and factions. The delegates and party members packed into all-day-and-night sessions are fiercely debating practical questions about launching an insurrection, dealing with their enemies, and organising a new society.

Reed’s historical narrative is a far cry from the widely-accepted version of the October Revolution as a sort of coup staged by an unrepresentative handful of Bolsheviks. By contrast, the story that unfolds here is of the Russian masses, driven to the edge by the hardships of hunger and the Great War, often finding themselves further along the revolutionary curve than the left (with the notable exception of Lenin). While the Bolsheviks were fighting for the acceptance of their slogan “Bread, Peace and Land”, Reed shows that the soldiers, sailors, workers and peasants were already putting it into practice, opposing the war and taking over the factories and the farms. As the revolutionary ferment rose, so did support for the Bolsheviks, who were swept to victory in elections to powerful new bodies such as the second all-Russia congress of Soviets.

Reed portrays the revolution as a product not of any plot but of deep social tensions waiting to explode, describing the capital Petrograd on the eve of revolution as “the great throbbing city under grey skies rushing faster and faster towards – what?” He paints a picture of a city where waiters began to refuse tips because they were not serfs and a red flag fluttered from the statue of Catherine the Great; where hungry militants stockpiled guns while all-night gambling clubs served champagne and high-class prostitutes wore furs.

When the moment came, the events known as the storming of the Winter Palace hardly lived up to that dramatic image. Reed gives a first-hand account of how the Military Revolutionary Committee more or less walked in and took over the reins of government, issuing orders that nobody was to loot the treasures that now belonged to “the people”. But that was only the beginning. A bitter and often bloody struggle ensued against the opponents of the Bolshevik revolution, and Reed is not blind to the setbacks and tragedies, such as the “wine pogroms” when Red Guards fired on drunk and rioting soldiers who had raided the vintage cellars of the rich.

Yet Reed’s account returns time and again to the theme that it was the support of the masses, desperate for an end to the war and the famine and for freedom, which pushed the revolution forward through all barriers. He writes with impassioned admiration of how the people of Petrograd answered the new government’s call to defend the city from the threat of attack by counter-revolutionary Cossack forces:

“As we came out into the dark and gloomy day, all around the grey horizon factory whistles were blowing, a hoarse and nervous sound, full of foreboding. By tens of thousands the working people poured out, men and women; by tens of thousands the humming slums belched out their dun and miserable hordes. Red Petrograd was in danger! Cossacks! South and south-west they poured through the shabby streets towards the Moskovsky Gate, men, women and children, with rifles, picks, spades, rolls of wires, cartridge belts over their working clothes…. Such an immense, spontaneous outpouring of a city was never seen! They rolled along torrent-like, companies of soldiers borne with them, guns, motor-trucks, wagons – the revolutionary proletariat defending with its breast the capital of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Republic!”

Later, on a trip to Moscow, Reed describes the Red Square funeral of 500 workers and peasants who had died in the fighting there, as thousands came from across the city with “a river of red banners” to bury their dead heroes where tsars lay, against the Kremlin walls, in a huge grave dug overnight by volunteers. The powerful Orthodox church would have nothing to do with such a ceremony, of course – but, observes Reed, the supposedly priest-ridden Russians had created a solemn and meaningful ritual of their own: “I suddenly realised that the devout Russian people no longer needed priests to pray them into heaven. On earth they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer, and for which it was a glory to die…”

Towards the end of Ten Days…, Reed concludes quite soberly that the Bolsheviks had not come to power by compromise with the ancien régime, or by “the organised violence of a small clique. If the masses all over Russia had not been ready for insurrection it must have failed”: “The only reason for Bolshevik success lay in their accomplishing the vast and simple desires of the most profound strata of the people, calling them to the work of tearing down and destroying the old, and afterwards, in the smoke of falling ruins, cooperating with them to erect the framework of the new.”

After helping to found the Communist Party of the USA, Reed returned to Soviet Russia but died of typhus there in 1920. He was buried in Red Square, in the Heroes’ Grave. So he never lived to see that “Bolshevik success” turn into the defeats and horrors of the Stalinist era. The disjuncture between the revolutionary movement he describes and what it became is made unwittingly clear in Ten Days…, where Reed mentions Stalin only once, briefly, while Trotsky is ever to the fore. This later led to the book being banned by the Soviet regime; it would be hard to think of a higher recommendation for any work than that Stalin did not want you to read it.

There is no space here to go into the many factors, domestic and international, that meant the October Revolution ultimately failed to realise the “vast and simple desires” of the people, never mind build a better world. But should that mean that we must, with the genius of hindsight, judge Reed wrong to have become so caught up in the revolutionary spirit of Russia’s October? I hope not. All experiments and innovations run the risk that things will go wrong, far more so when they take place in society rather than in a laboratory. Does it follow that we must simply give up on the idea of a political struggle for social change? Or should we instead reflect on how better to go about building a new society?

In the movie Reds, I recall one rather cheesy post-revolution scene where “Reed” wants to go back to America to visit his wife. The Bolshevik apparatchik Zinoviev tells him, “You can go and see your wife anytime. But you can never come back to this moment in history.” And neither can we, even if we wanted to. But it still might be worth seeking lessons for our world in the story told in Ten Days….

For example, one lesson for today might be about our attitude to youth culture. We live in an age when there is endless worry and breast-beating over the risks allegedly facing young people, and how they need more help and protection from adult life. Ninety years ago, however, most of those playing the most active part at the forefront of the revolution were teenagers. Reed describes the Red Guards as boys. Yet when it mattered, they proved old enough and tough enough to assume responsibility for taking over and changing their country.

Perhaps we might also reflect on the broader importance of revolutions that “shook the world” and shaped history, for better and for worse. As the English revolution of the 1640s helped inspire political developments into the eighteenth century, and the American and French revolutions of the late eighteenth century proved the motor for much change in the nineteenth, so did the Russian Revolution of October 1917 influence the reforms and reactions that dominated the twentieth century. What force will shake our world and take it forward in the twenty-first century? There is no sign of any social revolutions as yet, unless one counts the “green revolution” that in some ways seems to want to turn the clock back. We shall have to see.

In the meantime, to paraphrase that earlier and more succinct reviewer of Reed’s book, unreservedly do I recommend it to the readers of the world.

[1] Reprinted from: http://www.spiked-online.com/site/reviewofbooks_article/4000/

[2] This is Mike Hume writing, certainly I am no Marxist.

Posted in Russian Revolution | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

The Russian Revolution

Title:                      The Russian Revolution

Author:                 Sean McMeekin

McMeekin, Sean (2017). The Russian Revolution: A New History. New York, NY: Basic Books

LCCN:    2016058361

DK265 .M3745 2017

Summary

  • “In The Russian Revolution, historian Sean McMeekin traces the origins and events of the Russian Revolution, which ended Romanov rule, ushered the Bolsheviks into power, and changed the course of world history. Between 1900 and 1920, Russia underwent a complete and irreversible transformation: by the end of these two decades, a new regime was in place, the economy had collapsed, and over 20 million Russians had died during the revolution and what followed. Still, Bolshevik power remained intact due to a remarkable combination of military prowess, violent terror tactics, and the failures of their opposition. And as McMeekin shows, Russia’s revolutionaries were aided at nearly every step by countries like Germany and Sweden who sought to benefit-politically and economically-from the chaotic changes overtaking the country. The first comprehensive history of these momentous events in a decade, The Russian Revolution combines cutting-edge scholarship and a fast-paced narrative to shed new light on a great turning point of the twentieth century”– Provided by publisher.
  • “In The Russian Revolution, historian Sean McMeekin traces the origins and events of the Russian Revolution, which brought an end to Romanov rule and ushered the Bolsheviks into power. Between the dawn of the 20th century and 1920, Russia underwent a complete and irreversible transformation, the effects of which would reverberate throughout the world for decades to come. At the turn of the century, the Russian economy, which still trailed behind Britain, France, Germany, and the U.S., was growing by about 10% annually, and its population had reached 150 million. But by 1920, a new regime was in place, the country was in desperate financial straits, and between 20 and 25 million Russians had died during the Revolution and the Civil War, the Red Terror, and the economic collapse that followed. Still, Bolshevik power remained intact through a remarkable combination of military prowess, violent terror tactics, and the bumbling failures of their opposition. And as McMeekin shows, they were aided at nearly every step by countries like Germany, Sweden, and Switzerland who sought to benefit–politically and economically–from the chaotic changes overtaking the country”– Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Other Subjects

  • HISTORY / Europe / Russia & the Former Soviet Union.
  • HISTORY / Europe / Former Soviet Republics.
  • HISTORY / Revolutionary.

Date Updated:  September 6, 2017

Reviewed with Lenin on the Train by Joseph C. Goulden[1]

This book is reviewed .

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, pp. 105106). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted in the Intelligencer by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

 

[1] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (23, 1 Summer 2017, pp. 105106). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editions of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted in the Intelligencer by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

Posted in Russia | Tagged | Leave a comment

Hacking ISIS

Title:                     Hacking ISIS

Author:                Malcolm Nance

Nance, Malcolm W. (2017) and Chris Sampson; foreword by Ali H. Soufan. Hacking ISIS: How to Destroy The Cyber Jihad. New York, NY : Skyhorse Publishing

LCCN:    2017015409

HV6433.I722 N36 2017

Summary

  • Hacking ISIS will explain and illustrate in graphic detail how ISIS produces religious cultism, recruits vulnerable young people of all religions and nationalities and disseminates their brutal social media to the world. More, the book will map out the cyberspace level tactics on how ISIS spreads its terrifying content, how it distributes tens of thousands of pieces of propaganda daily and is winning the battle in Cyberspace and how to stop it in its tracks. Hacking ISIS is uniquely positioned to give an insider’s view into how this group spreads its ideology and brainwashes tens of thousands of followers to join the cult that is the Islamic State and how average computer users can engage in the removal of ISIS from the internet — Publisher’s website.

Contents

  • The keys to the cyber caliphate — Understanding the cyber battlespace — History of the cyber jihad — The ISIS cyber hierarchy — The ISIS cyber fighters — Software of the global jihad — Jihadi cyber warfare units — The hackers, wannabees & fembots — Jihadi murder & cyber media — ISIS digital and strategic communications tool kit — All is great in the caliphate — The anti-ISIS cyber army — Tracking ISIS in cyberspace — The ghost caliphate — Appendix A. ISIS magazine issues — Appendix B. Al-Hayat video database.

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      August 16, 2017

Reviewed in The Intelligencer[1]

Malcolm Nance, NBC News/ MSNBC terrorism analyst and author, and Christopher Sampson, cyber-terrorist expert have spent years collecting and exploiting terrorism media. For two years, their Terror Asymmetries Project has been attacking and exploiting intelligence found on ISIS Dark Web operations.

Hacking ISIS explains how ISIS produces religious cultism, recruits vulnerable young people of all religions and nationalities, and disseminates their brutal social media to the world. The book maps out the cyberspace-level tactics on how ISIS spreads its appealing content, how it distributes tens of thousands of pieces of propaganda daily, and is winning the battle in cyberspace and how to stop it in its tracks.

[1] Reviewed in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3, Winter 2016-17, pp. 140-141).

Posted in Cybersecurity | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Enemies Known and Unknown

Title:                     Enemies Known and Unknown

Author: Jack McDonald

McDonald, Jack (2017). Enemies Known and Unknown: Targeted Killings in America’s Transnational Wars. London: C. Hurst & Co.

OCLC:                   987984365

KZ6373.2 .M33 2017

Subjects

Date Posted:      July 5, 2017

Reviewed in The Intelligencer[1]

President Obama was elected on an anti-war platform, yet targeted killings increased under his command of the “War on Terror.” The US sees itself as upholding the rule of international law and spreading democracy, yet such targeted killings have been widely decried as extra-judicial violations of human rights. This book examines these paradoxes, arguing that they are partially explained by the application of existing legal standards to trans-national wars.

Critics argue that the kind of war the US claims to be waging—transnational armed conflict—doesn’t actually exist. McDonald analyzes the concept of transnational war and the legal interpretations that underpin it, and argues that the Obama administration’s adherence to the rule of law produces a status quo of violence that is in some ways more disturbing than the excesses of the Bush administration.

America’s interpretations of sovereignty and international law shape and constitute war itself, with lethal consequences for the named and anonymous persons that it unilaterally defines as participants. McDonald’s analysis helps us understand the social and legal construction of legitimate violence in warfare, and the relationship between legal opinions formed in US government departments and acts of violence half a world away.

[1] Reviewed in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 3, Winter 2016-17, pp. 139=140).

Posted in Counterterrorism, transnational war | Tagged | Leave a comment

Destined For War

Title:                      Destined For War

Author:                Graham Allison

Allison, Graham T. (2017). Destined For War: Can America And China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

LCCN:    2017005351

JZ6385 .A45 2017

Summary

  • “CHINA AND THE UNITED STATES ARE HEADING TOWARD A WAR NEITHER WANTS. The reason is Thucydides’s Trap, a deadly pattern of structural stress that results when a rising power challenges a ruling one. This phenomenon is as old as history itself. About the Peloponnesian War that devastated ancient Greece, the historian Thucydides explained: “It was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Over the past 500 years, these conditions have occurred sixteen times. War broke out in twelve of them. Today, as an unstoppable China approaches an immovable America and both Xi Jinping and Donald Trump promise to make their countries “great again,” the seventeenth case looks grim. Unless China is willing to scale back its ambitions or Washington can accept becoming number two in the Pacific, a trade conflict, cyberattack, or accident at sea could soon escalate into all-out war. In Destined for War, the eminent Harvard scholar Graham Allison explains why Thucydides’s Trap is the best lens for understanding U.S.-China relations in the twenty-first century. Through uncanny historical parallels and war scenarios, he shows how close we are to the unthinkable. Yet, stressing that war is not inevitable, Allison also reveals how clashing powers have kept the peace in the past — and what painful steps the United States and China must take to avoid disaster today”– Provided by publisher.

LC Subjects

Other Subjects

  • POLITICAL SCIENCE / History & Theory.
  • HISTORY / Military / General.
  • POLITICAL SCIENCE / International Relations / General.
  • HISTORY / Asia / China.

Date Posted:      June 22, 2017

Judith Shapiro[1]

Two books are reviewed in this article: French, Howard W. Everything Under the Heavens[2], and Allison, Graham, Destined for War.

The Chinese superpower has arrived. Could America’s failure to grasp this reality pull the United States and China into war? Here are two books that warn of that serious possibility. Howard W. French’s Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power does so through a deep historical and cultural study of the meaning of China’s rise from the point of view of the Chinese themselves. Graham Allison’s Destined for War: Can American and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? makes his arguments through historical case studies that illuminate the pressure toward military confrontation when a rising power challenges a dominant one. Both books urge us to be ready for a radically different world order, one in which China presides over Asia, even as Chinese politicians tell a public story about “peaceful rise.” The books argue persuasively that adjusting to this global power shift will require great skill on both sides if conflagration is to be avoided.

French says in his exhaustively researched and fascinating account of geopolitics, China style, that the Chinese era is upon us. But, he asks, “How will the coming China-driven world look?” To what extent will China support the international order that emerged when it was suffering humiliation at the hands of foreign powers? What are the drivers and motivations for the new ways China projects its power? How best should its neighbors and its rival North American superpower respond?

French, a former reporter for The Washington Post and The New York Times, argues that China’s historical and cultural legacy governs its conduct of international relations, a legacy that sits uncomfortably with the Western notions of equality and noninterference among states. China’s relations with its neighbors in Japan and Southeast Asia were for millenniums governed by the concept of tian xia, which held that everything “under the heavens” belonged to the empire. A superior civilization demanded deference and tribute from vassal neighbors and did not hesitate to use military force. China’s testy relationship with Vietnam became fraught whenever a Vietnamese leader dared to demand equal footing with a Chinese emperor; the Japanese claim to divine origins was unacceptable.

When China lost its regional dominance at the hands of colonial powers and invading armies, it saw the situation as temporary. The struggle in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands claimed by Japan since 1895, for example, has long been a sore point in Sino-Japanese relations. But the reform-era strongman Deng Xiaoping advised China to “hide our capacities and bide our time” on this and many other issues. Hostility between China and Japan simmers in disputes over hierarchy, wartime apology and historical narrative, with the two “in a situation resembling galaxies locked in each other’s gravitational fields, destined to collide repeatedly only to sail past each other after wreaking their damage.” French shows convincingly that China’s goal is now to displace the American barbarians and correct historic humiliations imposed by those who dethroned China from its rightful position at the center of the world.

China’s recent spectacular land grab in the South China Sea is a fait accompli, given China’s superior power in the area and its assertion that the region is a core national interest. Arbitrators for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea issued a 500-plus-page decision against China and in favor of the Philippines in a dispute over the definitions of islands versus rock formations; they concluded that Chinese arguments had no legal basis. But as French explains in sobering detail, China has unilaterally determined to claim much of the sea as its own. The country rejected the arbitration tribunal, knowing that its growing surface naval power and nuclear submarine capability support a highly uneven contest. Oil rigs have been established in contested waters, while artificial “islands” constructed from coral reefs are serving as military bases just miles from the Southeast Asian coastline. Similarly, China’s projection of economic might through the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and One Belt, One Road initiative, which intends to bind a huge swath of Asia to China economically via new land infrastructure and consolidated control of the seas, generates “a kind of fatalism or resignation about the futility of trying to defy it.”

Everything Under the Heavens is splendidly elucidated by a series of maps that show the world from China’s perspective; the South China Sea is compared to a cow’s tongue or “enormous blue banner” that can be drawn as a logical continuation of China’s southeastern coastline. French’s book was written before President Trump’s repudiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, but clearly the resulting power vacuum is nothing short of a gift to an empire bent on restoring its tributary realm.

Graham Allison’s Destined for War, also helpfully illustrated with maps and charts, reinforces French’s arguments with wide-ranging, erudite case studies that span human history. The book asks why, when a new superpower threatens to displace a ruling power, the clash of hubris and paranoia often (but not always) results in war. Allison’s examples include the Sparta-Athens conflict of the famous “Thucydides trap,” when both sides labored strenuously to avoid war but were seemingly driven to it by forces beyond their control, as well as Germany’s challenge to the dominance of its neighbors at the start of the 20th century, which led to two world wars. Allison’s 16 cases also include four examples of power shifts in which war was avoided, as when Britain adjusted to the rise of the United States in the Great Rapprochement of the turn of the last century, choosing forbearance and eventually reaping great rewards through the countries’ “special relationship.”

Allison, the director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, resurrects the Samuel Huntington thesis of a coming clash of civilizations to explain that China thinks in longer time frames and with a greater sense of hierarchy than the United States. In order to avoid the Thucydides trap, he writes, American policy makers must reject the tendency to think that China is like us and that it will respond as we would to identical provocations. Numerous situations could spark military conflict between the United States and China despite efforts on both sides to maintain peace, from accidental collisions at sea to misunderstandings caused by cyberattacks to actions taken by third parties like North Korea or Taiwan. “Will it be more difficult for the Chinese to rationalize a cosmology in which there are two ‘suns,’ or for the U.S. to accept that it must live with another, and possibly superior superpower?” Allison asks in a discussion of the need for both sides to bring their brightest minds to the challenge ahead.

Both of these fine books show that China intends to evict the United States from Asia in order to restore its dominance over what it considers its historic spheres of influence. Unfortunately, Washington is poorly prepared to deal with a China that strategizes in terms of the symbolic undercurrents and sensitivities illuminated so dramatically by both French and Allison. Whether the resurgence of China will mean tragedy in the form of armed conflict will depend on how China, China’s neighbors and the United States understand and manage the deeper motivations and structural forces in play.

[1] Judith Shapiro, “America’s Collision Course With China,” New York Times (June 15, 2017). Judith Shapiro is the author of China’s Environmental Challenges and Mao’s War Against Nature. A version of this review appears in print on June 18, 2017, on Page BR1 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “China’s World.”

[2] French, Howard W. (2017). Everything Under The Heavens: How The Past Helps Shape China’s Push For Global Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

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Everything Under The Heavens

Title:                      Everything Under The Heavens

Author:                Howard W. French

French, Howard W. (2017). Everything Under The Heavens: How The Past Helps Shape China’s Push For Global Power. New York: Alfred A. Knopf

LCCN:    2016021957

JZ1734 .F74 2017

LC Subjects

Date Posted:      June 22, 2017

This book is reviewed along with Destined for War at the page for Destined for War[1].

[1] Allison, Graham T. (2017). Destined For War: Can America And China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

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