review of three history books:

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

Nation-building is a curious euphemism, a way of sanitizing the brutality and suffering associated with externally-coerced regime change by implying that something better will be left in its wake.  America's current efforts in Iraq are not the first attempts at nation-building, though they may be the most transparent, as this kind of "Great Game" was conducted behind closed doors by competing Great Power intelligence agencies in bygone eras.  Can anything be learned from the relevant nation-building episodes of the past seventy years, to which our president has compared our recent Iraqi incursion?

Nation-building, or course, is the victor's terminology.  I would not be too surprised if Hitler used a similar phrase in defending his Vichy government after he overran France. Others have coined alternative terms for this phenomenon, including the hot button words of colonialism and imperialism.  The three books in this review purport to be examinations of three
celebrated instances of nation-building, Western variety: making the world safe for democracy.  THE CONQUERORS describes the fierce competition and subtle geopolitical chess games played by the Allies in their relentless attacks on Nazi Germany, personalizing the story through the interacting characters of Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt (Truman).  THE MAIN ENEMY concerns the last decade of the CIA/KGB rivalry and the USSR's attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan, a quixotic Soviet gesture that was followed close on by the collapse of the USSR and the dissipation of the communist threat.  ALL THE SHAH'S MEN tells the story of the American-inspired coup against Prime Minister Mossadegh in Iran in 1953, and examines how that early effort in nation-building (driven by fear of communism's spread) still reverberates in the oil-rich Muslim states of Southwest Asia.

Beschloss, the telegenic presidential historian, uses THE CONQUERORS to demonstrate by the sheer volume of correspondence how intense were the debates and posturings that each world leader took in their attempts at Yalta, Potsdam, and in between, to come to agreement on what the post-war political geography would be.  FDR and Churchill tolerated Stalin but senses he would be the next big enemy, so they also worked on their own, doing everything possible to prevent the USSR from occupying all of Germany during the Third Reich's last days, when the Allies were all sprinting to Berlin.

Bearden, primary author of THE MAIN ENEMY, comes at his subject from a different perspective.  A retired CIA counterintelligence officer, Bearden spent a large portion of his career playing invisible chess against his KGB counterparts with flesh-and-blood men as the moving pieces.  This culminated with Bearden directing the CIA's mujihadeen support activities in
Afghanistan in opposition to the puppet Soviet government.  His unit was the first to unleash the scabrous power of Osama bin Laden and effectively arm his mercenary band of nomads as they took on the Soviet enemy.

Kinzer hones in on one of the CIA's first triumphs, the ousting of Mossadegh after he had nationalized Iranian oil.  Because this could not be perceived as a colonial operation, the CIA's stalking horse was the Shah of Iran, who was installed as a local replacement for the rule of Mossadegh.  The Shah's lust for American arms and fighter planes at the expense of his constituents
led to the first Islamic upheaval, the Khomeini Revolution that, in weakened form, still holds sway in Iran today.

If these three very different stories have one common theme, it is that the law of unintended consequences is a sneaky critter whose vagaries cannot be adequately predicted beforehand.  Could the massive expense of the Cold War have been avoided is the clashing forces of two world systems, capitalism and communism, been better reconciled right after World War II, when both allies against Nazism?  Would the CIA have committed hundreds of millions to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan if the USA had known that the very guerilla forces that the CIA funded would turn their enmity our way? Would the triumph over Mossadegh have become the prototypical covert operational success story had Iranian analysts been able to foresee the resurrection of the Ayatollahs?  What unintended consequence lies ahead for the USA as it force-feeds democracy to Iraq?  Let us hope that historians like these authors are taking careful and detailed notes about George W. Bush's current efforts to make "them" more like "us."

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

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