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Jefferson’s America

jeffereson_americaJulie Fenster’s new book Jefferson’s America fills very interesting niche in early American history. Everyone with even a smattering of American history education knows of the Louisiana Purchase and the exploits of Lewis & Clark.

What Fenster does in her book, is to fill in this era with details largely lost in a typical American history survey course. For example, with the first mention of the Louisiana Purchase there is usually a map shown of the geography of the Purchase. However, when Jefferson paid $15M he and no one else knew the extent of the purchase. There simply was no knowledge or established boundaries. The establishment of the boundary between America and Spanish claims is the result of diplomatic maneuvers and gifted foresight of Jefferson to avoid a shooting war with Spain. The foresight that Jefferson had was to see a path for establishing American claims not by occupation with armed troops but rather through exploration. Fenster does an excellent job of illuminating this vision.
It would have been easy to go over the well traveled ground of the Lewis & Clark expedition to excess. But, in Jefferson’s America the Lewis & Clark expedition is described in just enough detail to illustrate its position in the context of Jefferson’s vision and diplomatic efforts.
In addition, however, we also learn about several other expeditions equally as important but much lesser known. For example there is the expedition of William Dunbar and Dr. George Hunter up the Ouachita River. This less expansive and lesser known, never the less, provided Americans with their first scientific data and interaction with Native Americans in the territory.
Jefferson also commissioned Lt. Zebulon Pike to explore the head waters of the Mississippi River (remember Lewis & Clark explored the Missouri River). During the same 3 year period, he also commissioned Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis to navigate the Red River with the expected direct confrontation with armed Spanish troops. The result of Freeman’s trip was the establishment of the Red River as the boundary with Spanish territory.
Swirling in the background of these expeditions of Jefferson is the intrigues of another character lesser known to most, General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson becomes a player because of his intrigues as a paid confident of the Spanish government at the same time as an American government official. ‘Jefferson’s America’ doesn’t do just to the complex Gen. Wilkinson. The reader is directed to the biography, An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson by Andro Linklater.

Overall Jefferson’s America is an excellent book to fill in a short but important period in our history.

The Great Influenza

great_influenzaThe Great Influenza is definitely a book that has some surprises for the reader. Certainly the book provides a detailed history of the world’s worst pandemic. It clearly describes the spread of the disease worldwide including its multiple waves. There is a concise clinical description of the virus and an excellent discussion of its unique characteristics that make it so lethal. The surprise is the contextual information that explains why the virus spread so rapidly. The misnomer Spanish influenza occurred at nearly the “perfect storm” of several factors.

First factor (described in great detail) was the sorry state of American medicine and practitioners at the beginning of the 20th century. In itself, this section of the book is worth the read as a history of the development of American medical practice.

The second factor was the draconian information practices put in place by the Wilson administration for WWI. The news media was prohibited from printing any negative information (even though truthful) under severe penalties. Thus, any reporting of a pandemic was reported as “ordinary flu” or not reported at all.

Finally, the rapid mobilization and movement of troops provided a near perfect environment for the virus to spread. Over crowded barracks of soldiers from across the country with poor sanitation promoted the spread of the flu. Despite dire warnings from the Army Surgeon General, Army leadership prioritized military needs over the disease risks.

Overall, The Great Influenza is an excellent reference for an important time in our history.

A REALLY Dark Territory!!!

dark territoyDark Territory is a very readable non-technical account of the history cyber warfare, attacks (both on the US and by the US) and the political machinations of the past 20+ years. Though Kaplan presents a straight forward history of our cyber environment, the implications are down right frightening. In much of Dark Territory there is a discussion of the political state of cyber warfare.
For example, our current state of affairs in cyber warfare is likened to the very early days of the nuclear era right after WWII. At that time political leaders grappled with issues such as what circumstances would justify a nuclear strike. Over decades, there evolved policies by all nuclear nations that have precluded a nuclear confrontation.
The leaders of nearly every government are in a similar state for cyber warfare. However, unlike a nuclear attack there maybe no immediately known perpetrator. Nearly, all attacks are intended to disguise their source. Another significant difference is that cyber warfare can be waged by almost any nation-state and even non-state actors.
Even a simple question as to what constitutes cyber war is difficult to answer.
For example, was the physical destruction of thousands of Iranian nuclear centrifuges by the Stuxnet computer virus an act of war? What was appropriate for an Iranian response?
In the case of the North Korean hacks of the Sony Corporation, what is an appropriate response to an attack designed to influence the behavior of a corporation?
Of course, no matter the answer to these kinds of questions; there is always the risk of an escalating response and counter-response with ever increasing severity of consequences.
Dark Territory is mostly a history. Kaplan does an excellent job of recounting several cyber attacks on the US with code names like eligible Receiver, and Moonlight Maze, As well as our cyber attack, Olympic Games, on the Iranian nuclear centrifuges.
In general, Kaplan does not pull any punches. He names names and attribution of motives across the US security organizations. It is clear that Kaplan has had the advantage of non-attribution interviews of the key individuals in this history.
The overall conclusion that the reader will draw from this book is that there have been some visionaries that see the dangers of our cyber environment. However, in nearly every case these visionaries have been ineffective in getting our government, military or commercial institutions from taking the threats seriously. This despite examples of actual attacks. Dark Territory should be a belated wake up to cyber world we live in.