Okay, I’ve had a chance to read a lot of good books over the past few months. Here are two which made a strong impression on me. I recommend them to you –
“Generalissimo,” by Jay Taylor is the history of Chiang Kai-Shek, the father of modern China. Think you know Kai-Shek as the aristocratic lightweight who was eventually overthrown by the more disciplined Communists? Think again. In actuality, Kai-Shek was a shrewd young Army officer who rose from humble beginnings to unite China in the Twenties for the first time in generations through his Kuomintang “Nationalist” party. In the Thirties, Japan invaded Manchuria and touched off an all-consuming war which would last for the next fourteen years.
This was when Kai-Shek burned brightest. Against all odds, he managed to keep an army in the field and fighting the Japanese, who invested millions of men in trying to pacify China. Ironically, his efforts (and those of his troops) were downplayed by condescending U.S. Army officers, who undermined him to advance their own careers, and an American press, which chose to lionize the Chinese Communist insurgents — even though they had far fewer men and largely avoided the Japanese. (Kai-Shek had a legitimate beef against “liberal bias,” especially from the NY Times).
After Japan surrendered, Kai-Shek expected to be treated as one of the winning comanders and given a share of the spoils. He was sorely mistaken. Instead, he was left to fend for himself while Stalin massively reinforced the Chinese Communists, who promptly overran Manchuria and then the rest of China. Kai-Shek and his loyal core escaped to Formosa which became the “free world” country of Taiwan. Today, it is a thriving democracy.
Kai-Shek was not perfect. He could be arrogant and supercilious. He also made a ton of mistakes as a military commander, including fighting the Communists in Manchuria when he was hundreds of miles from his supplies. But he was loyal to the United States and a stalwart opponent of Communism, which he recognized as an inhumane system. He deserved a lot better treatment than he has received from historians.
The second book I recommend is “Isaac’s Army” by Matthew Brzezinski. (ed. note: I went to Williams College in the Eighties with sister Mika, who does a great job on “Morning Joe”).
This riveting tale traces the lives of a half-dozen young people who were mostly teenagers when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. As ethnic Jews, they were rounded up and forced into the Warsaw ghetto, which gave them a front row seat as the atrocity of the Holocaust played out. These young people fought back, forming the Jewish Defense Force or “ZOB” which started the Warsaw ghetto uprising of 1943. While nearly all those participants were killed, these young heroes stayed alive by crawing through the fetid sewers to freedom in the “Gentile” section of Warsaw.
That respite was short-lived. A year later, the national Polish resistance launched a massive uprising on the Nazi occupiers, who were in full retreat across Eastern Europe. The handful of surviving Jewish fighers joined in that revolt. Sadly, the focused evil of the Nazis (and their fascist allies) and the studied indifference of the Soviets caused that rebellion to be crushed also after three months of brutal hand-to-hand fighting. Warsaw was totally destroyed, per the direct orders of Hitler.
Ironically, the surviving Jewish fighters managed to live through German captivity over the last few months, if only because the Nazis assumed that all Jews had been liquidated in the ghetto. When the war ended and the Soviets occupied Poland, the Jewish fighters went their separate directions: very few stayed in Poland, most emigrated to Israel, and a few immigrated to the U.S. or Canada. (America previously had a shameful policy of denying immigration visas during during the war, even for refugees facing certain death).
Writer Brzezinski, whose dad was one of the great Cold War strategists, writes a story based on individual interviews. It is a story with lots of heroes and lots of villains. But, in the end, it’s a story of triumph over uncontained evil.
By the way, I got these books at the Barnes & Noble in Fair Lakes. If anyone wants to use this thread to give a shout-out to an independent bookstore where you can still buy good history – please do so!