Civilization in Asia and Africa is ancient, but the current political map of those continents is strikingly modern: It was largely drawn in the decade or two after World War II. Those were the years when new nations were forged. Burma, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Malaya, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Israel, Kuwait, Qatar, Ghana, Mali, Uganda, Nigeria, Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and on and on — the list is a long one. Meanwhile, existing nations from Egypt to China saw changes of regime whose consequences continue to reverberate.
These revolutions had profound consequences for the West. The traditional great powers, Britain and France, lost much of their power and prestige, the loss of India (for Britain) and Algeria (for France) proving particularly traumatic. The United States and the Soviet Union sought to fill the vacuum in ways that embroiled them in brushfire wars — conflicts that proved particularly costly for the United States in the case of Vietnam and Korea and for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
There is a great story to be told here, and Michael Burleigh, a veteran British historian who is best known for his writing on the Third Reich, captures some of the excitement and tumult of those heady years in this book. He sets out to tell “the story of the eclipse” of the European empires, “of the birth of some of the nation-states that replaced them, and of how the U.S. (and the Soviet Union) reacted to those developments.” His narrative begins with the Japanese conquest of Singapore in 1942, which showed that the white man no longer reigned supreme in Asia, and ends with the U.S. war in Vietnam, which confirmed the same lesson. In between, Burleigh provides short accounts of subjects as far afield as the birth of Israel, the origins of the containment doctrine, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Korean War, the Malayan Emergency, the Mau-Mau uprising in Kenya, and the Suez Crisis.
This is an enjoyable, breezy read — perfect for a lazy afternoon at the beach — and it is full of nicely evocative descriptions, such as this summary of post-war rationing in Britain: “Pallid, putty-faced people patiently and resentfully waited in line for hours for . . . basic foodstuffs.” Burleigh has a particularly good eye for the telling detail, for instance noting that two Communist conspirators in Malaya “met in the back row of a dingy cinema showing a Tarzan movie.”
But the book suffers from a glaring defect: It is riddled with errors.
Some of Burleigh’s mistakes are small and harmless. He attributes a quotation to “Vice Admiral Lawton Collins” when he means Vice Admiral Arthur C. Davis; J. Lawton Collins was a general known as “Lightning Joe” and he is correctly cited a few pages later. In the acknowledgments, Burleigh pays tribute to the work of “Professor Walter McDougall of Penn State.” Actually McDougall teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. This is the kind of niggling error that any author can commit and I would not bother mentioning it, were this book not filled with many more significant mistakes that will lead the unwary reader astray.
Burleigh writes casually of the American “attempt to foist the supposedly safe (because U.S.-educated) Ahmed Chalabi on Iraq in 2003.” If the Bush administration was attempting to foist Chalabi on the people of Iraq, as is widely believed in anti-war circles, it did a pretty poor job of it, because Chalabi was never appointed to the top job during the period of American occupation. (The post of transitional prime minister went instead to his rival, Ayad Allawi.)
Near the end of the book, Burleigh commits an even bigger mistake. In describing Fidel Castro’s career, he writes: “In 1949 he was offered a contract by the New York Giants. He turned them down.” If Burleigh had bothered to consult Snopes.com, a prominent website devoted to debunking urban myths, he would have learned that this is a tall tale (and that the team that supposedly offered Fidel a contract is usually identified as the Washington Senators). Trying to figure out how Burleigh could have retailed this shopworn canard, I turned to the endnotes and was surprised to find that he does not list any of the standard Castro biographies, by Tad Szulc, Robert Quirk, or Georgie Ann Geyer. (Similarly, he writes about Che Guevara without citing Jon Lee Anderson’s magisterial biography or Che’s own voluminous writings.) Instead the source is listed as the young British writer Alexandra von Tunzelmann’s 2011 book Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder, and the Cold War in the Caribbean, which was criticized in the New York Times Book Review for its “scolding” (read: anti-American) tone and its “exaggerations.”
#page#Tunzelmann is also the source of Burleigh’s dubious implication that the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo was assassinated with the CIA’s aid as a “balancing act so that Latin sympathies would not be so outraged when the CIA organized the death of Fidel Castro.” In fact, while the CIA did consider overthrowing Trujillo — primarily because the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations feared that he was a destabilizing influence in Latin America and that his repressive rule would give rise to another Castro-style revolution — in the end JFK called off the plot before it was carried out. Trujillo was done in by disgruntled military officers who may or may not have had access to a few rifles provided by the U.S. (the evidence is ambiguous).
This Trujillo implication, alas, is typical of Burleigh’s habit of repeating rumor and innuendo as fact. He labels Ngo Dinh Nhu, brother of South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, “an opium addict,” whereas a recent academic monograph (Misalliance, by Dartmouth historian Edward Miller) describes Nhu’s supposed drug habit as a “palace rumor” that was believed “by some State Department officials”; it was later denied by one of the generals who overthrew and killed the Diem brothers. In a similar vein, Burleigh passes along as fact — rather than legend — the widely rumored but undocumented claim that mobster Johnny Roselli “pressured Hollywood film producer Harry Cohn to cast Frank Sinatra in From Here to Eternity.” In fact, Sinatra biographers write that he got the role because director Fred Zinnemann wanted him, and because Sinatra’s wife, Ava Gardner, lobbied to overcome Cohn’s resistance.
At least these assertions are plausible; they could easily have been mentioned if qualified with some doubts about their veracity. Some of Burleigh’s other pronouncements are hard to repeat with a straight face. He writes that during the Indochina war “a third of the French posts that fell were betrayed from within by Viet Minh Trojan whores.” A clever line, to be sure, and no doubt this happened occasionally, but can it really be the case that fully a third of all French outposts fell because of treachery by prostitutes–cum–Communist agents?
It is equally hard to believe that President Lyndon Johnson “insisted on being briefed on military operations in real time as well as concerning each U.S. combat death.” If this were the case, considering the loss of more than 36,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam during his five years in office and the time difference between Washington and Saigon, the president would have had little time to do anything else — even sleep.
Just as fantastic is Burleigh’s claim that Vietnam, which since 1945 has been one of the most militarized societies on earth (it has more troops than Britain and Germany combined), is a “predominantly pacifist” country.
Along with dubious “facts” come dubious interpretations and analyses. Burleigh writes that “hearts-and-minds campaigns only worked once kinetic force — a euphemism for killing people — had achieved population and spatial control, as such contemporary adepts as General David Petraeus do not readily acknowledge in their apparent unawareness that the Japanese also pioneered this style of warfare.” In reality, Petraeus was fully aware of the need to use force in Iraq and Afghanistan — the number of Iraqis killed and detained went up dramatically during the “surge” — but he also realized that military operations had to be scrupulously targeted and carefully calibrated to avoid alienating the population, as the Japanese did with their brutal and indiscriminate attacks on civilians.
Later, Burleigh claims that in 1948 veteran diplomat Loy Henderson “had been eased out of the Near Eastern and African Affairs Department at State because of his refusal to subordinate U.S. policy in the Middle East to the vocal Zionist lobby.” A more objective way to put it is that Henderson was “eased out” — to become U.S. ambassador to India — because of his refusal to subordinate his own anti-Israel animus to President Truman’s support for the Jewish state.
A final example: Burleigh cites maverick Marine major general Smedley Butler’s claim that he had been “a high-class thug for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers” as the last word on the early-20th-century Banana Wars. He doesn’t mention that Butler wrote those words after being passed over for Marine Corps commandant, a post he had earned by seniority, or that, in his enforced retirement, Butler became a pacifist, an America Firster, and a follower of populist firebrand Huey Long. In other words, he is not the most objective source to cite on Washington’s tangled history of relations with Latin America.
It is a shame that Burleigh and his editors — he credits one in London and another in New York — were not more careful in policing the many errors that dot Small Wars, Faraway Places like IEDs along a guerrilla-controlled road. He is a distinguished historian with a reader-friendly writing style and a great subject matter, as well as conservative (if non-interventionist) views that would be congenial to most readers of National Review. With a little more care and attention, he could have produced a much better book.
– Mr. Boot is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.