Christopher Clark (2013) The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914.

It’s been over 100 years since the war to end all wars. An impoverished and tubercular Gavrilo Princip, who carried all his possessions in a suitcase and had nowhere to stay when he arrived in Belgrade, firing the bullets in Sarajevo that killed Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este and  the heir to the Habsburg throne for the cause of Serbian nationalism. Shots that rang around the world. Sophie Chotek, the Czech noblewomen, a love match and marriage that the Emperor and therefore the Habsburg royal family did not approve,  also died, but is mostly forgotten, like the estimated 40 million dead in the first world war. Because this is a story of great men locked into a feudal way of thinking and acting.

If you look at the cover picture, Franz Ferdinand’s car with whitewall tyres and a flag, surrounded by men on horseback. Tens of millions of men called up, but also millions of horses and mules. Yet, it all feels strangely familiar. 100 000 Russian troops mustered near Ukraine’s border. False flag operations such as ‘Operation Himmler’, which Hitler used as a pretext for the invasion of Poland. Or the weapons of mass destruction George W Bush (junior) claimed Saddam Hussein had developed before the second Gulf War. But there was no cypher attack on critical infrastructure because we’ve moved on.

Brinkmanship.  

British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey in the last days of peace, was perplexed and unnerved by an understanding he himself had a large part in constructing and articulating—Triple Entente with France and Russia—had somehow come to this juncture:

‘that a remote quarrel in south-eastern Europe could be a trigger for a continental war, even though none of the three Entente powers were under attack or threat of attack’.

Sir Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Fleet, had already mobilised the navy. The Tory Press had quickly come on board. The more liberal press to follow. Talk of Irish Home Rule and sending the British Expeditionary Force to Ireland was shunted into a siding.

Kaiser Wilhelm II symbolised the continued role of the aristocracy in decision making at the highest government levels. His dithering about whether a partial or full mobilisation of German troops was needed made the Chief of the General Staff, Helmuth von Moltke weep and edge towards a mental breakdown. Troops were already on their way by train towards Luxemburg. But Wilhelm II was assured, he believed, by King George V that Britain would maintain its neutrality. They were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. Tsar Nicholas II’s wife, Alexandra, was Queen Victoria’s daughter. King Edward VII can be seen dressed in a colonel’s uniform of the Austrian 11th Hussars. Britain wasn’t anti-German. Neither was Germany anti-British.

Both, for different reasons, were fearful of the Russian bear. German fears were existential. The German High Command called for a defensive war that had to be fought sooner rather than later. Russia was a backward and feudal nation, with the Ukraine its breadbasket. But it was industrialising fast. Soon it would become the America of the East. Already troop numbers were projected to exceed the numbers of German soldiers. French finance also poured into Russia and doubled the number of railway tracks laid near the borders, allowing the rapid deployment of troops and supplies that had been so successful a tactic during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.  

The Anglo-French naval agreement tied Britain into controlling the North Sea. The French agreeing to limit its activites to the Mediterranean. Russia’s Far East naval fleet had been destroyed by Japan’s in the war of 1905. Britain courted Japan as an ally in containing Russia. In particular, the Russian imperial threat in Persia and, the jewel in the crown, India.

The Entente agreement appeased Russia, but also sought to contain a Germany that was modernising and overtaking Britain as the workshop of the world that exported most goods and services. The empire on which the sun never sets controlled around a quarter of the world’s population and land mass. It had more dreadnoughts than any other nation, and it continued to control the oceans and seas. But the First World War would bankrupt the country. The beneficiaries would be largely America and Japan.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea and China, the new workshop of the world, creating facts on the ground by creating islands of seabed and subsoil could be the way we sleepwalk into the next and last war, which will be Armageddon. Taiwan, where American backed, Chiang Kai-Shek and his defeated Kuomintang army fled over the Taiwan Straits to be protected by American troops remains a Chinese rallying call.

Christopher Clark shows the ways in which the pre-1914 world was divided into countries and hegemonic influences that changed. But perhaps we’re best looking sideways at W.H.Auden (1907-1973) who also captured the zeitgeist, again in familiar ways.

When statesmen gravely say ‘We must be realistic’,

The chances are they are weak and therefore, pacifistic,

But when they speak of Principles, look out: perhaps

Their generals are already poring over the maps.    

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/jan/14/us-russia-false-flag-ukraine-attack-claim

Robert A.Caro (2012) The Years of Lyndon Johnson, volume 4, The Passage of Power.

We’re all aware that with great power comes great responsibility, after all these were the lines mouthed by Batman with the pointy ears before he jumped off a tall building. The moron’s moron, who anybody with any sense would like to see jumping from a tall building, reaches new lows in grasping one and abdicating the other. But that’s another story unless the moron’s moron stumbles into an Armageddon strategy to remain power, a historical aside.  Cato charts for the reader the Cuban Missile Crisis and Armageddon obverted.  

Here we have two heavyweights Lyndon B Johnson (LBJ) and John F Kennedy (JFK) (chants of let’s make America great again would be met with a snort of derision). The United States was at its peak and entering a ten-year period of post-war prosperity. The Soviet Union was in decline and to feed its citizens having to purchase wheat at lock-bottom prices from the American surplus. The plan to place Chiang Kai-shek a sympathetic and Congress backed Protestant-Christian nationalist ruler in China had backfired, but the largely agricultural country was experiencing famine and lockdown under Chairman Mao (with the odd breakout of one million soldiers to challenge American might in Korea in the early 1950s).   America was the only game in town and the most powerful man on the planet was by some way, the American President. Robert A.Caro goes with the maxim, power corrupts, but twists it a little, in adding, power also reveals.

Here in the penultimate volume is  he sets out of show what it reveals about LBJ,  (seven years later we’re still waiting on the final volume and I’ll guess we’ll hear more about Vietnam) but also the American dream before it turned sour in South East Asia and in the flower-powered sixties.  The Passage of Power had me thinking of John Irivine’s classic A Prayer for Owen Meany in the way that when the call came LBJ, despite all his faults, many of which he shared with the golden boy of American politics, JFK,  the Vice President was ready. He’d been ready all his life to be American President. He’d gambled that he was only a heartbeat away from the top job as Vice President and that gunshot put him in the seat of power. Kamala Harris odds are a lot less than the four of five to one that LBJ gambled on.  

Johnson VS Kennedy 1960. Both are running for President. When it becomes clear that LBJ doesn’t have the numbers for the Democratic Nomination to run for the Presidency and JFK does, they cut a deal in which LBJ agrees to become his running mate and when they win the election, they’ll be number one and two. President and Vice President of the—then—greatest nation on earth.

Coming second, unless it’s the Second Coming, means coming nowhere. Vice President is an honorary position with as much (or as little) power as the President’s wife.

Caro begin where he left off with Master of the Senate. LBJ is running the world from his Senate office. Eisenhower is relinquishing power and his Vice President, the young Richard Nixon, is the Republican Candidate for the top job. LBJ has two strategies that he tries to implement to retain power in the Senate (where if a President proposed a Bill, LBJ had the power of Caesar to give it a thumbs up or down) and to change the roles of President and Vice President to more of a job share. LBJ’s plots were simply brushed aside.

Here we have LBJ’s low period, when the Master of the Senate is no longer courted but avoided by Senators and a bit of a joke figure—nicknamed Rufus Cornpone, because of his flailing arms and long-winded stories—in  JFK’s new Camelot. ‘Power is Where Power Goes’ declares Caro and there were few Presidents as popular as the youthful JFK. LBJ is Vice President, but hears about the Bay of Pigs fiasco from the media. He’s so out of the picture he reverts to what worked before for him with older, more powerful men, and becomes a sycophantic arse-licker and sends JFK one—unwanted gift—after another. JFK instructs his cabinet to deal with the Vice President with the greatest courtesy.

JFK’s brother Robert Fitzgerald Kennedy (RFK), the Attorney General and former committee member and supporter of J. Edgar Hoover’s Committee on UnAmerican Activites, but as Caro shows, also JFK’s alter-ego and real number two, hates LBJ. It’s one of the great American no-holds barred feuds. Before and after the fall. Both men never forget or forgive and hold a grudge longer than Satan.

When JFK is President, Rufus Cornpone is regularly savaged by RFK. With another election on the horizon JFK assured LBJ that he’ll still be on the ticket as Vice President, but that seems doubtful, as LBJ does not seem to be in positon to deliver the Southern States in the Electoral College that gave JFK the 1960 Presidency. JFK is an idealist, but he’s also a pragmatist.

In October 1963, LBJ’s protégé and bagman Bobby Baker was involved in a sex and cash scandal that mirrored the Profumo affair in London. The media had begun investigating ‘Lyndon’s money’ and made a direct link between the tens of million dollars he’s made in his Texas radio and television empire, which he purchased for peanuts, and his political office, where he sold ad space for political influence. Quid pro quo, something for something. Oil men like Brown & Root, for example, pledged millions and bought Congress, then Senate and then the Presidency.    

LBJ did something remarkable after President Kennedy’s death, he united the American nation in a way not seen since President Roosevelt, perhaps even more so. But he did something even more remarkable, he faced down Senators from the South who’d formed a coalition to stop people of colour integrating and committing what they saw as the sin of miscegenation. Roosevelt, Trauman, Eisenhower and Kennedy were unable to pass civil-rights legislation because of the way the Southern senators used arcane rule, filibustered and top-loaded influential committees with their supporters and held hostage the passage of other bills in the legislative chamber to bend the will of their rivals and force them to retreat. LBJ had been a key player in this cabal led by the Georgian senator Richard Russell, who like many opposed the desegregation of the army and believed men of colour lacked natural courage and moral leadership. LBJ had in the previous volume helped fund Russell’s run for the Presidency. LBJ was the ultimate insider. As President who’d stolen his seat in the Senate, nevertheless he flipped the Southern Senators and passed civil-rights legislation, created Medicaid and a nascent welfare state in America.  Power is as power does asserts Cato. LBJ stands tall among his Presidential peers.

Robert Kennedy’s assertion that JFK would have got around to achieving those great legislative peaks shows the Attorney General’s loyalty but also his political naivety. Only one President, supreme master of politics, LBJ, could have achieved what he did. His time had come, but at the peak of his power—it was gone. He won the election by one of the biggest landslides in American history, but we know what comes next, or at least we will know when Caro finishes his final volume. If you want to know about how we came to be where we are, read his history of LBJ. The old hates never went away, they remain, and are in the White House now with the moron’s moron as President. God bless America, indeed, and God help the rest of us.